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starlight in my veins

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Diomika is young, the first time she sees an Aegis uniform. Not a serum-touched youth, but true childhood, glancing around her mother’s skirts in awe at the straight-backed stranger, before Bera takes her away, carrying Diomika to her rooms with whispered chiding. Over the splice’s shoulder, the man gives her a small smile and a ripple of fingers to wave goodbye, before turning his attention away.

“Who is he?” She waits to ask, waits until the sky darkens and the moons rise, all three full and glimmering. Waits until Bera is tucking the covers under Diomika’s chin with an indulgent smile that disappears with the question.

“Shhh,” she grumbles, glancing aside as her round ears twitch. “Aegis, come on business. Nothing for you to mind, little thing, not yet.”

“I know,” Diomika responds, pushing at the heavy coverings despite the biting breeze through the open window (always open, always, whatever the season; she likes to see the stars, breathe the air, a strange and secret wildness she already knows better than to show). “I know.” Mother had said it, in that softly cutting way she had, the unfamiliar word catching her daughter’s attention. Aegis. Like it was something rotten that she was too polite to scrape off her tongue. “What are they?”

Bera refuses to answer, shutting the window in silent retaliation. Diomika sleeps poorly.

She’s older, much older, when the Aegis enters the sphere of her perception again. Eighty that feels like it's going on ten-thousand, desperately learning a business she’d never been allowed to touch, watching her mother age and shrivel and die because even now, there are some things RegeneX won’t cure. The Aegis comes, a ship she permits entry with absent-minded carelessness as she sifts through documents and listens to her mother’s favorite splice who hovers nearby, chattering nervously. Or perhaps it’s only the woman’s fragile air that makes her seem so, her too-wide eyes; Ptaria Tsing had long been fond of bird splices, breeding an astonishing variety that at the moment was mostly fuel to Diomika’s continuing frustration.

A successful breeder makes one thing, and makes it well. Her mother had made a thousand, and there was money to be found in custom work, but it all seemed to have gone back into new ideas and experiments, a convoluted tangle of obsession that explained a great deal about the echoing emptiness of her childhood.

Eccentricity is expected. Indulged. Even praised. This... was something else entirely.

So Diomika is perhaps not at her best when the Aegis soldiers stroll into her office, a gray-haired woman flanked by two men, a bear splice (shoddy work, half of her mind notes, ignoring a flutter of nostalgia for a long-forgotten nurse) and another human, all in a somber blue likely meant to convey authority. It washes out the woman, makes her seem gray from head to toe. Gold, Diomika thinks absentmindedly, she needs orange and gold.

“Thank you for your time, madame,” the Aegis officer says, offering the words like apology. Her eyes are soft, kind, sympathetic; Diomika smiles sweetly in return and tries to ignore the sudden leaden feeling in her stomach. “My name is Nila Feravin…”

After a while it all begins to blur. An uncle she never knew she had; laws, arcane and unwieldy, that she’d never had cause to know; her mother declared unfit, and Diomika? Diomkia without a business, without a home, somehow without even the four planets of her inheritance.

“You’ll be permitted to take whatever you like from here,” Nila adds, not unkindly; perhaps she recognizes the horror and confusion buried beneath Diomika’s carefully neutral mask. “Personal items, things of sentimental value, and up to three splices. No breeders,” she quickly adds. “Nothing of company stock. The Aegis will escort you to any system, station, or planet you have legal right to visit or reside on.”

They’re quite alone, she and the Aegis officers. The bird splice-- Diomika can’t remember her name, has never been able to-- rushed off in the first moments of explanation. To tell a woman who’s no longer capable of of understanding, of caring, of doing anything about any of it.

Diomika finds herself on her feet, her smile tinted at the edges with hysteria. “No,” she says, voice stronger than the trembling hand she holds out. “No. Let him have it. I-” She laughs, the sound bubbling up before she can stop it, even if she wanted to; but no, it’s better than the tears that sting her eyes. “I don’t know where I’d go.”

“With us,” the man says, the human. His companions turn with startled glances, but he offers Diomika a smile, as welcoming as his dark eyes. “You could. The Aegis bars no one, if you can pass the exams and physical.”

“...oh,” is all she can think to say, and because there’s little enough choice left to her, she does.

It’s like being a child again. Everything she’d ever known, ever done, was wrong wrong wrong. The wrong words, the wrong movements, wrong thoughts. She replaces sumptuous skirts with stiff blue uniforms. Learns to aim a weapon, shoot a weapon, to cut someone down with anything at hand, and if there’s nothing, with her hands. Studies the laws she’s now to uphold, that might have saved her if she’d known anything about them before. Learns to see splices as equals. Easily thought, easily said, but it takes her years. She’s a lieutenant on a minor courier ship when it finally sticks; when she walks away laughing from a smart-mouthed, too-clever cadet and realizes she never once glanced at his flicking ears or twitching tail and thought thief.

It’s two years later that that same ship takes her to a small, too-dry, too-cold planet that becomes a yawning divide between the portions of her life. Just as there was Diomika the Entitled and there is Lt. Tsing the Aegis officer, there is Diomika before Abukesh, and Diomika after.

The battle begins with minor Entitled warring for resources. Ignored at first, even by the Aegis, until it becomes clear that both are clients to more powerful men and women, and this conflict a proxy for a much wider dispute. By the time the Aegis arrive, fleet brimming with soldiers and bristling with arms, it’s escalated to true war. The Aegis call for ceasefire, once, twice, and then for surrender; neither side budges, afraid the other will destroy them the moment they stop fighting. Or, in Diomika’s unspoken opinion, afraid of what their patrons will do to them.

So Abukesh becomes a three-way battle. Troops are shipped to the surface, more than she’s ever seen in one place. Diomika’s ship, fast and small, plays medic to the foot-soldiers, until it’s shot down over a beautiful river valley three weeks in.

Abukesh is a harsh war, and the Aegis, late to battle and unprepared for the savagery they encountered, suffer most. Those who stand their ground are slaughtered. Those who run, too, until retreat means stumbling over the bodies dead and dying. Some hide, and the Aegis commanders deal harshly with them. Later. Much later.

Diomika does not stand, run, hide. She struggles, broken-armed and bloody, from the wreck of the ship, and rallies the survivors. She’s not surprised, somehow, when it becomes clear that she’s the highest-ranking among them. They are whole, the survivors, for the most part; the wounds sustained in the crash easily healed with small injections of RegeneX.

(Diomika does not, does not, does not think of how it felt to bathe in it, smooth against her skin; does not think of the wrinkles at the corner of her mouth, the scar below her eye that is still faintly visible in the right light.)

She arms her troops from the wreckage and turns them towards the sound of battle, the cold wind in her face and the stars glinting bright in the moonless sky.

If she's going to die, she’ll do it with purpose.

(She lives, every time she comes to Abukesh; she lives and she comes away with accolades, medals that she will never look at again, even when the war becomes something she can joke about. Some things don’t deserve to be remembered.)

(She lives, and when a Recurrence stands bold on the deck of her ship years later, it feels like she’s looking at herself. The Aegis uphold the law, and only that… but when the packless splice asks for time, Diomika holds her ship too long in the storm of a gas giant and turns her face to the wind.)