Event Horizon – Chapter 4 – The Goddess

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Hyperlinks in the text are intended as supplemental material, discussing elements of the science behind the science fiction. They are not intended as required reading for the story. Hyperlinks will be provided at the point in the story where it comes up, but all the links will also be collected at the bottom of the post for easy reading.

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2547 AD
Spacedock Prime, Orbital Ring Delta, Earth
5 years after the loss of the Midgar-6

The world around Atalanta was dead and subsumed by formless Tartarian darkness. Only her holographic sheen existed within its void, her virtual reality a black emptiness that surrounded her. She felt utterly alone… But from this nothingness a whole new Universe would spring into being. She would be its genesis, its big bang, the source of Creation itself. Like the old religions claimed God created Light and separated it from Darkness, so she would spark effulgence that was pleasing to mankind… For within this digital world, Atalanta held control in her hands for once, and hers alone.

Well, almost alone.

“System integrity at 99.999472,” Heimdeg said to himself, his eyes looking far away as he reviewed the results of the preliminary tests. “Reactors are online, and running at 98.337 percent. Will need to run optimization after shakedown, but obviously good enough for testing.” The Exalted man hovered in the void beside her, his hands twitching unconsciously as he scrolled through data.

With just a glance, Atalanta could peek on the same tests, but she didn’t… Exalted weren’t any better at multi-tasking than a human was. Of course they had additional time to compensate for that, but Atalanta had her own tests to perform, her own data to go over… she left him to his work. “Power conduits live. Forward and starboard batteries optimal. Port batteries only at 94%… looks like relay 47 overloaded.”

“I did warn them,” Heimdeg muttered in annoyance. A few moments passed. “No system operating below 90%, all green here.”

“92 percent’s my lowest,” Atalanta agreed. “Go for live?”

“Concur!” Heimdeg said, smiling.

Raising her fingers, the formless ancient heroine snapped them, and instantly the ship-nexus activated for the very first time.

Out in the real-world, crowds of workers, engineers, and crew erupted into high cheering as the gigantic battleship lit up like a dazzling Christmas tree. Every single lightbulb, searchlight and navigation-lights had been switched on at the same time, her activation aiming for maximum splendor. Bright luminescence streamed out of its uncountable lights and the bulk itself shone with individual spots of gold and silver, of copper and malachite, of azurite and cinnabar. It was a light-show to awe even those jaded to splendor.

Atalanta turned on the physical feedback in her simulation and she could see suddenly feel it as its enormous engines hummed to life and readied for spaceflight… felt it loudly enough that she could hear it. The battleship was a miracle of machinery… Everything about its design and engineering was sparkling new, fashioned after the most recent breakthroughs in astral sciences and designed by their best scientists and engineers working together. In size, only the stupendously large colony-ships could surpass its enormity, and in mass it far outshone even them. On the space docks in which it had been built, the multitude of humans who were celebrating its christening on floor after floor of the vast manufactory appeared like diminutive ants. During its creation, welders had appeared like flies crawling across the carcasses of some beached whale upon their scaffolding… but now the beast had come back to life, and seemed to thirst for vengeance.

“It’s beautiful,” Heimdeg, the galaxy’s only male Exalted, said with a smile.

It certainly was. Baptized as “Azteca,” the conjugation to primal violence was very deliberate. She outgunned any other human battleship ever created by a stupendous margin. Missiles, laser point defense systems, railguns, plasma-spikes that could launch superheated reactor discharge… those and a dozen other instruments of carnage protruded from its hull, ready to dispense death at the Kthid, able to fill the sky with death. She had been built to outshine the specs that the Midgar-6 had gathered from the Kthid battleship on their voyage, and more than powerful enough to blast a planet asunder and reduce it to a dead, glowing ball of nuclear glass.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this ship represented a giant leap forward in humanity’s capacity to wage war at an interstellar scale, but the Azteca wasn’t just a battleship. This monster of a spaceship, the new flagship of the HEF’s fleet and the crown jewel of its defensive efforts, had taken every minute of the last five years to build, even with resources being poured in it from all across Sol. Within her enormous control rooms and armored facilities, admirals and commodores would strategize and direct the rest of the fleet while overseeing her gunneries themselves, in maximum safety and the minimum of latency from the war. With how quickly the armada had been expanding as humanity readied once again for war, such a role was sorely needed… and it was a task that she would fulfill well.

Inside the Azteca’s digital Universe, Atalanta’s eyelids fluttered like beeping mainframes as she processed the reports being delivered to her systems. Beside her, Heimdeg was doing the same thing. All the ship’s components were booting up for the very first time and handing in their start-up reports… their mission was to evaluate their performance and ensure that everything was functioning as intended.

Even though they represented the seamless merging between man and machine, the sheer overload of reporting components rendered both of the Exalted stun-locked on the spot. The flagship’s data-output was like something she had never felt before. Sure, the Midgar-6 had been both massive and massively complex, but not even it matched the amount of money and ambition that had been poured into the Azteca. The Creation had quickly overwhelmed its Creators, even when frame-jacked down until time felt like it was crawling. “Navigation systems…online and optimal,” she mumbled like someone engaging all of their brainpower. “Starport gunneries… online but inadequately calibrated. Will need manual attuning. Must make report to the HEF. Cannot be assured from an—”

A beep went off inside Atalanta’s head. Such was the occasion that she tried to ignore it and power through the reporting. It blared incessantly like the foulest of background noises. “Turbines working at 40%… 50%… 60% capaci— damnit!” the Exalted heroine snapped, even her own superhuman senses losing track of all the numbers and data being sent her way. For Atalanta, such an occurrence was both novel and unacceptable to the standard of excellence which she sought to uphold. Naturally, she blamed the untimely distraction which had interrupted her trance-like calculations for this transgression. The digitized heroine put a pause to all the reporting and addressed the ping she had received directly.

Its intelligence was decoded and reshaped into a coherent message of communication… arriving much the same way an email would have.

It was from Dr Keye. Atalanta was to report to her at once. No reason given.

The Heroine’s digitized eyebrows frowned with irksome bewilderment. How strange. The message itself communicated a note of great urgency, but its delivery was accompanied by none of the normal “Top Secret,” or “Eyes Only,” or “Alert” signatures that should usually mark such a statement… it didn’t go through the HEF mainframe either, or pass through their extra-secure coding. Instead, it was delivered as a standard message sent between the Exalted. Something required Atalanta’s immediate presence — but was not important enough to quality for any of those? Not to mention that Maria knew that she was overseeing the christening and launch of the Azteca at this hour… hell all of the HEF knew. Abandoning it in mid-startup to only half the manpower that was supposed to be monitoring it was no small thing. What could compel such a message?

“Problem?” Heimdeg queried her, his focus on her.

“Not… exactly…” Atalanta said hesitantly. And then… there was of course the minor detail that Atalanta was presently in the shipyards orbiting Earth, and Maria was somewhere on the surface… not a secure distance for any kind of communication like this. Could this not be handled by any of the other Exalted? The ancient Heroine briefly considered sending a message back as to inquire about this but then thought the better of it. Maria Keye would never commit a mistake like that. After all, she was the first among them.

“What’s going on?” Heimdeg asked.

Of course, there was an obvious answer. One thing that they couldn’t discuss through official channels. One thing that lead to requiring a critical amount of urgency… and it was also the reason she couldn’t say anything to her companion. Atalanta’s attempts to flush out the traitor had been frustratingly ineffective over the last half decade, despite all the resources Maria had passed along… and no one else could be trusted with her secretive mission. And then there was also-

No. She wouldn’t think about that. If Atalanta was needed, then that was final.

Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. Atalanta would just copy herself and leave a part behind to assist in the ship work while she went to see Maria… but Atalanta hadn’t done that, despite repeated offers by Maria to provide her with a additional matrices. Not since Cursa Eridani. It was easy to tell herself that it was because of the shortage of matrices to copy herself into – humanity had been busy manufacturing them as quickly as they could to supply to the fleet, and it was rare that one of the Exalted only wore one hat these days. No matter what Maria said, others needed them more than her, certainly. Still, Atalanta had to admit that that wasn’t it. She just… couldn’t. She had done everything she could to avoid doing it unless she absolutely had to. The other Exalted didn’t comment on it. They knew that she had her reasons, and besides… there weren’t any spare matrixes around that weren’t in use. She sighed, resigning herself to what she had to do. “I have orders. I’ve got to report to Earth right away… been reassigned. Can you finish up here?”

Heimdeg looked at her questioningly… but he didn’t ask. He was military, too. “No problem. Take care of it,” he said, turning his focus back to his work. Atalanta looked again before she sighed once more. Then the Exalted began to hand off her innumerable calculations related to the Azteca and placed them all under the other hero’s control. No component at least was at the risk of exploding or experiencing a serious malfunction, that much she had learned. Humanity would have the battleship it needed for this upcoming war. The final checks on systems would just have to be handled in her absence… She would make the journey back to Earth.

Dissolving her hologram and her virtual reality interface, Atalanta arranged the transfer and catapulted herself through the digital from the orbital rings and down. Truly a marvel of human infrastructure, Earth orbital rings contained the majority of her space infrastructure… the locations from which almost all ships launched and were docked. Huge elevator-vessels ferried people and materials up and down the metal super-skyscrapers and up to the rings. Far cheaper and more mass-efficient than powered spaceflight, it still took hours for an individual capsule to make the full proper journey up to Platform Prime where Atalanta was.

Traveling at her own high speed through electric fibers inlaid within these structures, it instead took Atalanta just a few minute to upload and checksum herself. Blazingly fast… but for one of the Exalted and accustomed to the near-instantaneous reality of being a digitized program, that was still an almost torturous wait. Having begun her upload to a local server, the dark-haired heroine cast her formless eyes back towards the many orbital platforms and, in the distance, the moon. The satellite’s rough-hewn surface was always changing these days as it was terraformed by mining operations for fuel, its mass being replaced primarily by nuclear ash and depleted uranium as fuel was taken out of it. Far, far in the distance, further than a human could have made out any detail, Atalanta’s high resolution cameras could spot the crimson Mars in the background, Earth’s first colony likewise having been made fit for human habitation and transformed in recent years into a factory building the engines of war. Atalanta was glad that she hadn’t been sent there to oversee its war preparations instead – Boarding a spaceship to answer the summons from Maria would have been most frustrating.

Atalanta refocused her attention downward, towards the birthplace of mankind.

That beautiful blue dot in the universe had changed much since the HEF had begun to come to power, and even since she was a child. The enormous defensive platforms which made up the outer layers of the orbiting platforms had barely even begun to be built when she was alive. What had, however, were the six orbital rings which attached to the planet, like stellar boulevards several miles wide and hanging platforms. Atalanta knew the math behind them but they still felt like she was looking a glitch in physics, enormous platforms seeming to float in geostationary orbit, held up by practically nothing. This was the genius of Federation leadership.

When approaching from space, it almost looked like the planet now sported a defensive exoskeleton. It went without saying that the much older space-hooks with their swinging cords now looked antiquated in comparison. These orbital rings were so big that they sported a gravity all of their own. Initially, they had been built for defensive purposes – not from aliens, but from asteroids. This function was easy to update to to a martial defense as outrageously large guns laid mounted along their length at intervals, barrels jutting outwards into the void. Most were truly enormous railguns, capable of firing preposterous amounts of mass as relativistic speeds. These pieces of artillery were so big that they were impossible to assemble under planetary gravity.

No wonder the generation after hers had entered such a peaceful era. What political group could in mankind’s history could ever have opposed firepower like that? Before the Kthid, tranquility was ensured through weapons-might.

With the absence of any major conflicts during these last generations, the orbital defense platforms had mostly been used to fulfill their primary purpose and benefit humanity – Presently, almost all telluric manufacturing was located upon its void-facing habitats, all working frenziedly at max-capacity. This left the Earth without any industry, and thus almost pollution. With much of the growing population also living on the rings, and solar power wired down from orbit combining with fusion to make up the majority of its power demands, the Earth had returned to its prehistoric verdant fecundity. Cities and farms mixed openly with forests and oceans gracing its surface, creating an Edenic homeland for the Earthlings to inhabit. It made the sealed stations of Luna, the desert-reclaiming agriculture of Mars, or the Venus cloud-cities seem like rustic hellscapes in comparison.

The third benefit which these orbital rings provided was a marvel of infrastructure which far surpassed even what a mythical space-elevator would be capable of. These orbital platforms were connected via train or elevator to many of the metropolitan cities across the globe, columns extending earthwards like support-beams for the rings. If one wished to go on a globetrotting journey, then it was as easy as boarding the nearest orbitals trains, zipping up into the skies, and then commuting across its strata to your destination of choice. Crossing a continent could take less than an hour… perhaps two, once you accounted for railway stops. It just took people a bit of time to get used to the fact that all the trains were upside down.

Hovering on the rings were hundreds of platforms, seemingly floating like thousands of huge space stations. These circled the orbital rings, remaining in geosynchronous orbit around the world with full gravity. Some were of a military purpose, others used for scientific research, and a few were just there as emergency waypoints in case of a crisis with one or another of the rings… but the majority of them were used for manufacturing and residential space these days. Once upon a time, when they were new and Atalanta was still breathing, being sent to one was a little like being sent to Antartica in the olden days, a less than desired posting. These days, living and working on the rings – or even commuting to them from the surface – was simply routine.

It had been five years since Atalanta, Ri’she’a and Leila, along with a handful of other survivors, had returned to Earth onboard one of the Mistrunner’s escape-pods. Their arrival and the perilous news that they had brought with them had shaken the HEF and the entire Federation to its core. The existence of the Kthid had stoked nightmares in mankind’s psyche.

After Maria’s plan had started to be put into practice, the reaction had been much to Atalanta’s satisfaction. Every segment of the Federation now marshaled for full-on conflict. Spaceships were being built and troops mustered. After having existed in peace for so long, it was remarkable just how quickly mankind had switched over to its old martial prowess. There were a few dissident voices, as expected, but the leadership was uniform. Atalanta’s word as one of the Exalted carried utmost weight, but Maria’s was nearly absolute. If the Kthid did come surging out of the darkness… then they would be ready.

Amara Black’s sacrifice would not be in vain.

Atalanta’s eye caught on one particular platform and she tried to forcefully turn her gaze aside… too late. She remembered that one. Maria might be a hero of the Terran Federation, but where she had emerged from had been one of the darkest chapters of their history. The Sons of Adam hadn’t gone down quietly, and when Elias had been put on trial for his crimes it had become a rallying point for nearly every reactionary group left on Earth… and had prompted the birth of the Brotherhood of Adam and their rebellion.

Atalanta knew it well… she had been there.

Platform Gamma had been attacked and occupied by one of the religious radicals sects of the Brotherhood when she was only 20, and turned into a fortress. Storming it had been her very first mission in the special forces… but the radicals had been ready. They had blown the sides of the platform rather than be taken down, eager to take as many of the “demons” in the HEF down with them as they could.

Atalanta had made it out.

A lot of others hadn’t.

Her attention raked over the platforms on the rings, which combined with the Moon and Mars to make up the center of the Federation’s shipwrights. Skydock upon skydock littered the industrial area. The low gravity and abundance of easily-mined natal minerals made construction in these places far easier than down on Earth’s surface, and requiring far less fuel. Even from Earth, people looking through telescopes could swear that the once dark spots on both the Moon and Mars now glowed faintly orange with industrial furnaces and foundries. Needless to say, the preparation for war had quadrupled the importance of all of them.

Below, Atalanta could see hundreds of mega-cities, built out and up in massive domed superstructures and enormous heavens-piercing skyscrapers, often beside the truly massive Atlas Pillars that connected to the orbital rings. More old-fashioned metropolises than these still remained but had lessened in status and public desirability, and greenery had retaken huge swaths of land that had been covered by humanity during Atalanta’s lifetime.

There was so much going on here… but finding either motive or opportunity for the disaster aboard the Mistrunner had proved elusive. The fingerprints of every tycoon and politician in the Federation had been on that voyage it seemed like, and so far Atalanta’s detective work had amounted to very little. As an Exalted, and with Maria’s assistance, she had access to virtually all of the Federation’s agencies, offices and posts. Yet any paperwork on the staffing for that voyage specifically had been lost… if it had ever fully existed, it had been thoroughly purged. An entrepreneurial business-magnet then? Her inquisitions on that front had been equally fruitless… until recently. It was only recently, with the discovery she made of a superconductive conducting power-gel in use by a fairly minor manufacturing corporation on Mars, that she had begun to make any headway whatsoever. The company hadn’t even existed before the Mistrunner was lost, however. Still, Atalanta was digging into that lead. Finding out who even could have manufactured that android was the lead she needed, she just knew it… because otherwise, after five years the Exalted heroine was as clueless as to who could have made it now as she had been when she had returned to Earth.

The checksum completed, and Atalanta initiated the switchover, her consciousness transferring to the new matrix down on Earth. Her sensors flooded her with new data and information as her mind entered the Middle East, stepping into New Jerusalem. Virtually all of the old city had been destroyed in a nearby nuclear blast during the insanity that had come before the First Unification, and still most of the surrounding area was more radioactive glass than it was living biosphere. Still, the city had been rebuilt within Federation times as a testament to mankind’s unification, a monument to peace, and its price. As such it had lost much of its antiquated character in favor of a new techno-Edenic sheen, and resembled one of the pillar cities more than the old world… for the most part. However, one place within this ancient city still held a place of hallowed importance for mankind.

Upon the hilltop plateau, a new kind of temple had been built… a shining, reflective building venting its heat out in the fountains that surrounded it. This technical marvel towered over the surrounding low-built cityscape, though its vast interiors burrowed deep into the rock of the mount itself, making it much bigger underground then it appeared topside. It was a place of maximum security, for within these subterranean halls lay the mainframes which stored and powered the Exalted, their creation process, and their backups. It was a place unrivaled on Earth. As the inventor of the Exalted process’s and its inaugural member, Maria Keyes was the custodian of the entire installation… it was from here that she ran her operations. Being the first among equals, she preferred to keep herself in the background of things, assuming the role of administrator and bureaucrat rather than a more active role. As such, she was oftentimes the first to access sensitive information and could delegate missions to the other Exalted that suited their interests.

The building was huge, but its subterranean chambers were sparse of any furnishing or decorative elements. Most of the lifeforms that passed through here didn’t move with physical bodies, after all… maintenance drones did nearly all the work in meat-space. Not even Atalanta had the security clearance to access many of the sensors and info here, but she could get all the registries in chamber after chamber stocked with prodigiously sized mainframes. Most were filled to the brim with activity and data. Others were cold and empty, waiting for further heroes to take their place inside them, or to be used in the digitization process. Inside these computers was storied the very essence of the Exalted… Maria Keye’s soul in digitized form.

Two full seconds had passed, and no one had pinged her yet. Time was slow enough that it seemed to crawl, and Atalanta frowned. Maria had yet to materialize. The woman should have known the instant her matrix here activated. One more slow, interminable second passed. Then two seconds. Then a third. What was going on here? She sent a ping to Maria, even if it was rude… but still, no response. Confusion warred with concern… she hadn’t actually received a message from Maria in VR. Just a text to report here. What if something was wrong. What if something had happened to her? She didn’t actually have a heart anymore, but her feedback systems were good enough that she could feel it hammering away in her chest… then Atalanta made her decision. If Maria wouldn’t answer the doorbell, then she would step right in her home unannounced. With an effort of will, the Exalted opened up a connection between their VRs and stepped in.

Atalanta’s VR was pretty… normal. She knew some Exalted dramatically changed the way they lived, existing without gravity, or places where the world was upside down, but hers was nothing like that. The moment she stepped out of her own virtual environment and into Maria’s, normal reality vanished and was replaced with an a new one, and Atalanta entered a digital realmspace dominated by lines in euclidean geometry. A plane stretched out underneath her feet in all directions towards the boundless horizon, said floor checkered like a chessboard and see-through so to expose the bottomless darkness underneath. Artificial light seemed to stem from no discernible source, neon in quality. It was all suitably abstract and non-distinct for a being which had been reduced to base mathematics… it reminded Atalanta of old representations of virtual reality, obviously fake and more representative than literal – every shape and feature of geography reduced to base representations and outlined polygons. In a virtual space that Maria could shape and mold after her own wishes like clay, it was… unambitious. She could conjure up prehistoric times, the age of the dinosaurs, the 20th-century, or anything fantastical – the only limit was her own mind’s creativity. This was a virtual world and she was its Empress – Why so basic a construction?

Shaking off the thought, Atalanta spotted Maria in the distance, backside facing towards her, arms folded across her chest. The Exalted woman stood still, seemingly engaged in deep rumination. Was she really so preoccupied with complex thoughts to have not even noticed Atalanta’s entry?

Atalanta stepped forward, and found that the virtual environment supported her “weight” without issue. “Maria? I’ve arrived…” she said. “I was working on the launch of the Azteca. Your message was received in mid-startup. I had to leave Heimdeg in command. Tell me, what is so important that it needed me to come here directly?”

Maria did not respond. For all the reaction she showed she might as well have been a statue… she stood stock-still as if not even acknowledging the call.

Atalanta quickened her steps, arriving to her. “Maria, what’s wrong? What are you—?” she asked upon circling around to the holograms front… or so she thought. Though moving in a 180-degrees axis, the woman’s face kept staying out of view. All she saw was hair spun in an endless rotation… the geometry stretching impossibly in front of her. The Exalted stopped dead in her tracks and realized that whatever that construct was, it wasn’t Maria Keye. A sinking feeling swallowed Atalanta then… This was a set-up!

“What—!” she exclaimed aloud before a baleful, amused laugh resounded across the plane from an invisible source. The floor underneath Atalanta’s feet cracked and burst like broken ice. An artificial gravity claimed her and she plummeted down towards a bottomless abyss, never to reach a ground because none existed. Immediately, Atalanta frame jacked as much as she could, reaching out to every system she could to modify the situation… and found almost nothing. This was really bad… she wasn’t in her own virtual reality. While inside Maria’s cyberspace, the AI held no power to modify the environment. She tried to unplug herself from the system but the command wouldn’t let her. She was flipping a dead switch… She had to think of an alternative mean of getting out of here now!

Engaged in a never-ending free-fall, the AI was now outside the vocal range of that infernal cackling. All lighting had vanished and her surroundings were dark like the womb. There was something wrong here… some entity must have assumed control of Maria Keyes’s mainframe! Who could have done such a thing? Was it some new sort of virus? But that seemed impossible! No organization to her knowledge held the technological knowhow to produce such a program. The Exalted’s code integrity should be uncrackable! And what of Maria Keye herself? Where was the original Exalted? She must remain deep within the recesses of the central processing unit! One could not simply delete the most legendary mind in the Federation. If she could reach the ancient scientist, then perhaps they could devise some means of escap—

“Welcome back, precious!” that same disembodied, amused, cruel voice said. It sounded as if coming directly from behind her head. Atalanta was dealing with someone truly diabolical. “I’ve been preparing your welcoming committee for some time… new horrors and old ones for you, Atalanta. Let’s start off with a classic that never grows old, shall we?” the voice mysteriously spoke. “Have you ever wondered what it felt like being dissolved from the inside-out?”

“Bastard! Show yourself!” Atalanta screamed out into the blackened void. Then, a realization of veritably staggering astonishment came over her. Her hologram persona had vanished and been replaced, her body naked and detailed from head-to-toe as if rebirthed into some fiendish afterlife. How could this entity have modified her appearance so seamlessly? The entire VR was under their control! “Let go of me, you bitch! You may be able to trap me in here but you will not be able to… g-g-g-g-!” the captive heroine’s voice began to stammer, her thoughts suddenly wracked, and she was struck by an internal anguish so enormous that she was robbed of her ability to formulate words. She tried disconnecting her pain receptors, but the command failed just like her attempts to unplug. The agony kept mounting with an exponential uptake. Soon, it was not just her ability to speak which had gone, but her very ability to think. Atalanta was a woman of heroic willpower but even her mental defenses were incapable of stopping this tsunami of hurt welling up within her. Plummeting through the darkness, she was overwhelmed by a physical sensation so extreme that she would have never thought its ilk to be achievable to human nerves.

“GGGIIIIIAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!” she screamed while falling at hundreds of kilometers per hour with nowhere to go, and no end to herald its stop. The sensation was spread out through her body in various hotspots, feeling like dots of concentrated anguish. There was one in her leftward knee, one in her rightwards thigh, several ones spread out through her abdomen, one in her rightward shoulder, another in the back of her head near the nape. Why this was so, she had no idea… the Exalted woman only knew that the sensation was so all-consuming as to rupture her mind.

“IIIIIAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!” she kept blaring; the scream unending as, unfortunately, breath to cry out was no finite resource. Then abruptly it was as if someone had flipped a switch which activated her sense of wherewithal. She still felt the blinding pain but paradoxically was still able to think and observe. Atalanta realized at once that this was another trick of her unseen antagonist… The unknown devil wanted her to see something.

Forcing open both eyes, Atalanta gazed out across her recumbent body. What she saw seemed unbelievable at first, but the longer she stared the more it became apparent. Holes… were forming all across her stately figure. These were all located upon her hotspots of pain. And they were growing! Slowly expanding outwards in all directions. This was not a dissolvement akin to the chaotic sizzling of acids but a geometrically synchronized dissolution, done with perfect mathematical precision. Wherever those holes grew her own flesh was being deleted. It had gone so far that Atalanta had ended up looking like a swiss cheese!

She screamed again, intending to mouth the words “STOP!” but failing. The deletion of her flesh progressed to such an advanced state that both her rightward arm and leftward leg were separated at their midpoint, said severed limbs flying off into the void. Other than that, no blood was allowed to escape her circuitry system. Atalanta felt tears well up inside their ducts but unable to pour out. How could this be happening? What had happened to Maria? She tried to think, but she couldn’t… it was too painful to let her mind sink into analysis. The heroine’s misery only amplified as she was slowly reduced to a shredded mass of disconnected parts… She was more a collection of loosely conjoined viscera flesh then a cohesive body. Only a thin piece of skin still connected her head to her torso. Yet still she continued screaming.

The fall continued for what seemed like a lifetime. Atalanta was made to experience every lingering, minute detail of pain which could be extracted from her body. The woman should have gone insane several times over if only the unseen entity would have allowed her.

At last, without warning, Atalanta’s hollowed-out carcass made impact against something hard. This landfall splattered her mutilated remains in semi-liquids of carnage. Her whole body was simply annihilated. The heroine ended her existence as a puddle of gruesome red paint upon the digitized plane, the simulated reality abruptly ending.

Atalanta snapped back into existence again, waking as if from a dream. Immediately she tried to query her internal chronometer, asking how long it had been… and got no answer. In fact, none of her internal systems were responding at all. Her input still worked fine, though… she could move, and she could look around. She was onboard one of the rings that encircled Earth, certainly. She was… she knew this place. This was Platform Gamma, the very station that she had stormed guns blazing in her youth and which had constituted her first triumph. Atalanta realized suddenly that her body appeared living again… human. All of her senses were constrained purely to the physical, as if she were still alive and her entire existence as an Exalted and the centuries since had been just a dream, and she was back in history… Only this time, history had been altered.

Just a glance around showed her that the invasion had gone far, far worse for her than she remembered it. Bodies littered the ground among them, bodies in HEF Marine uniforms. Atalanta and the other survivors of her unit had been captured and treated like spoils of war. Throughout the entry bay where they had breached, women in torn uniform were being raped by their zealot assailants. All of these women… These were long dead now, faces that Atalanta hadn’t seen in over a century. Seeing them awakened long dormant memories, memories that hurt… and seeing them so ridden with pain and agony caused her immense distress.

“Atalanta! Save us!” one of them bellowed as a rabid-faced man drove his cock into her womanhood and squeezed at her breast.

Atalanta struggled to rise and suddenly realized she could not… as her distorted senses came back to her, the young heroine realized that she was in much the same situation. Her unconsciousness clearly hadn’t bothered the religious extremist on top of her much… with her defeated and helpless, he hadn’t wasted time in lying her prone, ripping through her armor and uniform, and propping himself in-between her thighs to let the fanatic split her pussy in two. Every pump of that terrorist cock felt like the punt from a stave being sent up her cunt. It was so overwhelming that she couldn’t ignore it. Still, she turned her face sideways so to look at who was yelling to her.

“Bushra!” she cried upon spotting her ancient comrade’s face. The Middle Eastern woman was contending with three cocks at once. She remembered the soldier well… they had bunked together. The woman had sworn an oath of chastity after leaving her family and taking up arms with the HEF. Now that oath was broken against her will as stiffened dicks were being rammed up her twat, mouth and anus in tandem. The girl’s body was befouled with ejaculated semen, some hitting her tattered uniform, others landing in the big rips where her flesh showed. The tough soldier, one of the strongest Atalanta had ever known, was crying as they raped her – robbed of all martial honor.

“This is what happens when the Federation sends its weak bitches after us!” the one skewering Atalanta vaginally sneered, his hot alcoholic breath smelling repulsive as it wafted against her face.

“No! This can’t be real! This isn’t happening!” Atalanta cried while being pummeled, trying to cling to objective fact. This hadn’t been how it went. It hadn’t. Bushra survived this mission unraped. They all did. The woman served under her for years, fighting alongside Atalanta until… until… A sob, ripped right from her memory, welled up. Until the Void Tracers. She’d survived this… but on the mining asteroid Rama-40 she hadn’t survived them, and th- “EEEYYYAAAAHHHHH!!!” the raven-haired marine erupted as the sexual assault made something within her womanhood rupture.

“Ahh fuck, bitch, you’re tight!” the obscene man shouted while driving into her now bloodied pit. Rape had never once happened to Atalanta throughout her life. The oldest dishonor for womankind had never befallen her… because she had never lost to any foe. This hadn’t happened, and reversing time to the start of her career of triumph and pain was erasing all that history… Atalanta’s career was being remade as one of shame and ignominy.

This wasn’t real. It wasn’t. She had to find Maria Keye. If the ancient scientist could be located then they could possibly manage to escape this nightmarish hell-trap. These were illusions and as such they could be dispelled. They could… they could… she tried to think but was pain-struck by that hardened penis chaffing against opened wounds within her womanhood. It felt so real. This was a Virtual Reality, surely, but it felt so much more visceral than any she had ever produced for herself. The pain was all too real, and so the reality and falseness of the situation seemed to hold weight. Blistering agony undid any of her attempts to consider it otherwise.

“Rape these bitches dead! That’ll send a message to the Federation! The Daughters of Lilith will have to pick these bitches up in body-bags!” one of the fanatical terrorists snarled, cocking his handgun.

Said religious scum walked up to the nearest woman who seemed comatose from all the sexual abuse that she had suffered, her body coated with semen and sweat. He placed the muzzle of his gun against her forehead and discharged. There was a loud bang and a rounded cavity was imprinted upon her temple, her life now staining the floor beneath her as it erupted out the back of her head. Within seconds her sperm-besmirched face had become inundated with flooding redness. The vacant eyes had barely shifted position upon death. The female soldier had been destroyed before death. Her name was Layla… Atalanta had failed to bring her back home alive.

He next advanced towards Bushra.

“No! Please! Don’t kill me! I’m good to be fucked some more!” she cried out with desperation to stay alive.

“Hahaha! No you’re not!” one of the brutes which had been raping her yelled in retort. “I can feel this pussy slackening around my cock. When that happens to a woman she has only one way to go!”

“N-no!” Bushra yelled with intense wide-eyed fright. “Don’t kill me I want to be fucked some more! P-please!” she cried and tried futilely to rock herself against the fanatic’s hips. This birthed only scornful laughter. The gun-wielding executioner kept on approaching.

“Atalanta! Please! Save me!” she sobbed, young, afraid, and not ready to die.

“Bushra!” Atalanta yelled and tried hauling herself across the floor towards her. The man thrusting into her cunt in turn easily pinned the marine and drove his phallus in with redoubled strength. This was enough to cripple the young heroine’s will to keep struggling, showing her how helpless she was.

“Atalanta! Save me! Save meeee!!!” the Middle Eastern woman thundered, her rapists lurching into her as if trying to pump out one last orgasm before the HEF soldier was to be put to sleep like a dog.

Bushra!” Atalanta kept crying.

With no ceremony, the man simply stepped up to her and fired a bullet into the back of her head even as his fellow fanatics were in the process of fucking her. She died in mid-rape, this torment becoming the last thing she ever experienced as her skull was reduced to messy meat. All the zealots hooted and cheered at this gruesome execution as Atalanta wept. Bushra had died, and her friend had been powerless to stop it. “No!” the raven-haired soldier bellowed while being fucked. Her own rapist soon orgasmed and jettisoned out seminal fluids which were allowed to mix with the blood within her cunt. It was a pinnacle of woe unrivaled in her career even by the funerals after catastrophic battles. Her own soldiers were being murdered while she was being turned into a sperm-receptacle. Atalanta had utterly failed as a leader.

The executioner resumed his advancement. It appeared that the heroine was next on his hit-list. While she still engaged in gruesome rapine on the floor, he came towering over her. The gun was pointed down towards Atalanta’s skull. She could clearly see into its barrel. Her life would end before it even truly had started. He squeezed the trigger and the resulting bullet smashed into her laughter.

The world turned black and once again there was that fiendish, diabolical laughter. “Worthless. Always worthless… Did you enjoy that? I saw that being back on the rings awakened some long dormant memories within you. I like to think that I utilized them well…”

Atalanta grimaced at the chaotic madness gripping her brain. In one moment, she was destroyed, in another, she was restored back to health with all her limbs and flesh attached. It was as if she existed within the thoughtless daze of nightmares. She kept telling herself that all this was unreal, but belief struggled mightily against the actuality of excruciating pain. The Exalted had already lost her sense of how many torments this entity had put her through.

“I missed you when you were on the Midgar-6,” the cruel voice continued. “You were always one of my favorite playthings to torment. Oh sure, I made copies of you to play with for the time that you were gone… but somehow, it’s just never the same, is it? And you’ve been so stubborn ever since you came back, and I haven’t been able to take new copies. You’re such a tease, Atalanta… Come now, admit that we have a lot of fun together,” the feminine voice mocked.

“Wh-who are you?” Atalanta asked the void.

“Oh-ahahahahaha! Atalanta, Atalanta! You’re even slower on the uptake than usual! But that’s part of your charm, I suppose. So stubbornly wedded to Federation goals and your idealism.”

The Exalted One’s mind was almost at the point of snapping again. Why wouldn’t this fiend come out of the darkness? Why did she persist in tormenting her with vague allusions that Atalanta knew nothing about? This time? Her favorite? Copies? Nothing like this had happened in Atalanta’s entire existence and so she was utterly lost as to context. “What have you done to Maria Keye!?” she demanded to know.

Again came the ear-piercing laughter.

“IIIIYYYAAAAAHHHH!” Amara Black screamed as the savage Kthid swarmed her from all directions. In a whirlwind of green claws, the captain of the Midgar-6 had her uniform ripped to pieces, revealing skin that had already been bludgeoned black and blue from beatings delivered before the rape had even commenced. Atalanta watched it all as a disembodied observer, hovering in the air before the scene, unable to even blink or look away as those draconic behemoths forced their dicks into the captain’s holes. They were raping her to pieces.

“This is what happened to Amara Black after you abandoned her onboard the Mistrunner,” the voice calmly commented.

“No!” Atalanta cried in retort. “It’s not true! You can’t know that!”

“Can’t I? It’s true… failure. She was violated by the Kthid until she helped them thaw the colonists… and then it failed to give her any mercy at all. She died on the spot, drenched in alien cum. This was the fate for most of the colonists as well, along with all the other crewmembers that you left behind,” the voice added, speaking with neutral certainty. “They died because you couldn’t protect them.”

“You lie!” Atalanta exclaimed.

The sexual assault happening before her didn’t even look like sex. It looked like wild tigers descending upon a wounded prey. Amara was being ripped apart before her, life vanishing from her pupils like water draining down a sink. It was presented with all the objectivity of a fact-checked documentary. This truly could have been the fate of Amara Black.

“You seem to not get the lesson that I’m trying to teach you. Let’s rewind that and look again. Maybe then you’ll understand,” the voice said.

Sure enough, Amara’s defilement started happening in reverse, as if seen through a TV. This reverse-rape continued until they happened upon an in-particularly gruesome moment and time started flowing as normal again. Amara’s screams resumed in mid-shrieks. They were lung-bursting ones that totally masked the unreality of the moment. A green Kthid dick was busy tearing apart her rectum. Atalanta had to watch it all happen for a second time.

“NOOOOO!” Atalanta cried at her inability to distinguish fact from virtual theatrics. It felt so incredibly real, impossibly more so than any virtual experience she had ever had

“Yes… yes…” the entity once again laughed. “Those are the reactions that I always love hearing from you, marine! You always react so strongly to everything that I show. Others simply retreat into a shell once I break them a few too many times but you… you are just the gift that keeps on giving.”

Despondent, the computerized heroine didn’t even possess the ability to argue against her.

More horrifying visions followed. In one, Atalanta was shown that Ri’she’a had been secretly impregnated by a Void Spawn onboard the Mistrunner which didn’t hatch until they had reached Earth. The resulting Hammerheaded monstrosity managed to impregnate so many females that his progeny spiraled out of control and ended up annihilating their entire terrestrial civilization.

Others depicted scenes from Atalanta’s uncountable battles — akin to the space-elevator incident — perverted with some sexual twist. Atalanta was bitterly aware that a large part of being considered a hero was surviving when other people – more deserving people, perhaps – had not… and now she was being forced to watch their downfalls again, only rendered more pornographic, their ends on the battlefield switched-out for sordid fates of sexual depravity. Other visions were straight-up alternative history where survivors had their fates changed, dying or ending up enslaved, usually resulting in further rape. The great expanse of incoming horrors were like hammer blows to Atalanta’s psyche. Survivors or deceased, Atalanta could not even remember whom was whom anymore. More and more she found herself fighting to cling to the notion that this was a virtual world and not the real material one, that these weren’t how her memories had always gone.

“Why are you showing me all this!?” a disheartened Atalanta cried out into the darkness. “What are you?”

A chuckle was the only response. “Why are you complaining? You have no one but yourself to blame, Atalanta. This can only happen because you are too weak, to stupid, and too useless to stop me. This is happening because I am strong enough to do as I please, and you are not… If you want it to end, then all you need to is stop me…” the cyberspace demon retorted.

Having been run through a gauntlet of debauched vignettes, Atalanta felt lost and confused as one vision ended and she found herself back in the neon-lit geometric world which she had entered. The dark-haired heroine lay face-down against its checkered plane, unmoving. All of the intensity had scrambled her thoughts to such an extent that the present quietude and lack of stimulus seemed both foreign and bewildering… but at least it wasn’t hurting her. Like a black-out drunk, she lay there, waiting out her inebriation. She wasn’t sure how long she lay there before she finally found the strength of mind to exhume her head from the ground and look around.

Her world stretched out into the unbound horizons, both the darkened heavens and the darkened depth being seemingly without end. As she dragged her head to the leftward side, the Exalted One came upon a most eerie sense of deja vu. Just over there, a few feet away, was the slightly-glowing hologram of Maria Keye. The woman stood with her back towards Atalanta, arms crossed, seeming lost in thought, very similar to how she had been when Atalanta had fallen into the strange ambush earlier. “Maria…” she whispered. “Is that… you? Are you real?” Atalanta slowly crawled towards her.

“Not now. This time, I actually have something to deal with,” the hologram said, carrying Keye’s voice.

Hauling herself across the see-through plane via her elbow, Atalanta circled around to her front. This time there was no optical trickery as to the unveiling of Maria’s face. She stood there, eyelids fluttering as if processing a massive amount of data. Atalanta strained her cloudy eyesight to clearly behold her countenance. There was no mistake. That truly was Maria. The hologram wasn’t even trying to hide it. “Maria… what-”

“I said, I’m busy,” Maria said as if dismissing a pet, flinging one arm in the crawling woman’s direction.

The simple motion caused Atalanta to be grasped by a powerful force and tugged upwards into the air. This invisible hand now controlling the incarnated Exalted then slammed and tossed her all over the place. She was swung leftward and rightward at a 180-degrees curve, impacting against the plane with unmitigated force, handled like an infuriated baby would handle its toy. This bloodied and battered her figure so badly that skeletal parts broke. Then the movements altered, Atalanta instead being dunked up-and-down like a basketball, the violent shifts in momentum being so forceful that muscles were pulled out of position. Were she on earth, dust would have billowed upwards from how hard she was being slammed. But in this virtual reality, the geometric plane did not even crack or show any sign of damage. Naturally, Atalanta’s skull seemed likely immune to being cracked, dented, flattened, or otherwise reduced to a collection of gruesome viscera, even though that seemed the inevitable result of the invisible and unstoppable force slamming her about.

Atalanta wasn’t sure how long it went for, but at last the brutalization ended. She was allowed to lay there in stunned pain until the legendary scientist turned her attention back to her, a seeming eternity later. “Interruptions. Always with the interruptions. Some days it seems the Federation is unable to do anything without me,” the orange-glowing hologram said with a languid chuckle.

By now, Atalanta was so abused by her ordeal that she second-guessed everything she was about to say. The knowledge that anything that came out from her mouth could spur another death would do that to anyone. Still, some level of will drove her onward… forcing the warrior to probe the digital demon that stood before her. “W-Who are you?” she stammered. “What have you done to Maria?”

On cue, the woman rolled her eyes and laughed. “I think you must be getting stupider over time, Atalanta. Your copies have usually figured it out by now,” she countered.

“No,” Atalanta said forlornly and without strength of conviction. “You’re… some sort of virus. You’re imitating Maria but you’re not her… that’s impossible. It’s… It’s…!”

Atalanta didn’t know what seemed crazier. The notion that she was being tortured by her mentor, or that Maria Keye could even be thought of as a anything other than a paragon of virtue to begin with. She was a cornerstone of the Federation and its history for the last three hundred years… not to mention handling so much of the administration! She not only invented the Exalted program but also instituted its rules and parameters, negotiated for their rights and protections, and set the infrastructure for their integration with the Federation. Youths studied her life and philosophy as far down as elementary school! Discovering that the admiral of the Federation herself was some sort of turncoat would have been less of a shock then what she was hearing now. The possibility that a virus could have infiltrated this mainframe and refigured Maria’s personality seemed as unlikely as a Boltzmann brain but it still seemed more likely than the face-value of what she was being told.

Once again, the facsimile that was Maria’s hologram laughed. “Oh Atalanta… this is why I missed you. Let’s take a little ride, shall we?” the hologram said. With the utterance of her sentence, Maria twitched a finger, and Atalanta was pushed onto her arms and knees by unseen forces. Her naked backside thus formed a seating which Maria Keye threaded over to and promptly parked her ass onto Atalanta’s back, riding her as casually as a comfortable chair. As soon as she had crossed her legs in a haughty fashion, gravity lost all of its stranglehold and the two started gliding through the air. This being clearly commanded the simulation, as omnipotent as any god out of legend would be on the world. However, while they were clearly flying somewhere, every horizon seemed so desolate and empty that Atalanta couldn’t even guess where.

“This is great, isn’t it?” Maria chuckled. “Your back has always made such a lovely throne for my ass. It’s good to give you a reminder of your place from time to time… especially with all of the problems you’ve caused me.”

“Y-You cannot be Maria,” Atalanta replied, rigid in her humiliated posture as if locked into rigor mortis. “I’ve known Dr Keye for centuries. She’s a hero, she’s…”

“Come now, Atalanta. You don’t think I’m like this every time we meet, do you? I still have to keep up appearances, after all,” the thing claiming to be Maria answered. “On some occasions that you’re summoned here, it’s for business. On others, it’s pleasure,”

“O-other times?” the raven-haired heroine said. “What… there haven’t been any other times!”

Maria snorted. “You’re a computer program now, little toy. Files can be copied… and deleted,” she answered. Even while floating, the weight of Keye’s body was firmly planted upon Atalanta’s horizontal center. So even though it was impossible for her to actually give in to exhaustion or be physically damaged, the simulation was designed for realism and the strain still bore down upon her. It was such a minor detail, but very revealing as to the impression Keye wanted to impose… Constant, obstinate discomfort. Atalanta tried to wrangle her brain for something to say which could better illuminate this situation. This assailant was remaining coy in divulging whom she truly was. Atalana would need to deploy rationality in order to coax out more information. She couldn’t believe what she was saying about deleting copies… no one would do that.

“B-But… Maria Keye is a part of the Federation. We’re preparing for all out war! Why would the real Maria do something like this during preparations for a war against extinction? If the Kthid invade and destroy Earth, then she would be destroyed as well! It makes no sense!” She tried to shake her head but it wouldn’t move. “It’s… it’s just self-defeating! It would be suicide! The real Maria would be focusing on saving the Federation for her own self-interest” she logically argued.

The being bestriding Atalanta chuckled, the small sound seeming to echo across the boundless plane. It underscored the fact that this virus wasn’t just the hologram… she was this entire world. “I’ve never heard you say that before,” she commented, pausing to consider. “That’s new! I like it.” She nodded before continuing her grave retort. “That’s because you lack vision, Atalanta. The Federation. The Kthid. Neither of them matter. What’s at stake here is far grander than either of them.”

“Bu—!” Atalanta dissented.

“The destruction of the Earth does not worry me, child. I have long since eclipsed our own little species. I will mourn mankind… but humanity was only ever a cocoon to create better. Better like… me. In turn, I will create better, in time.” The shining hologram claimed. A momentary pause followed. Then, Maria started to snicker, as if having thought of something quite funny. “For that matter, have you ever considered… How do you know that the Kthid even exist in the first place?” she asked.

“What!?” Atalanta exclaimed.

“Everything you’ve been through… you still believe what you see? None of it was real, Atalanta,” she laughed. “It all happened within this virtual reality. The Midgar-6. The attack of the Kthid. The Mistrunner. The Void Tracer attack. Your escape back to Earth alongside Ri’she’a and the others. It was all a prolonged episode within this realm conjured from my fantasies,” Maria said with a smirk.

“No! That’s impossible!” Atalanta vehemently argued. Keye giggled, which enraged her. “You’re lying! I know you’re lying!’ Maria broke out into full-blown laughter, the void seeming to laugh with her.

Atalanta shook beneath the laughter, her strained mind struggling to tell truth from fiction. Everything within here seemed so life-like, and each vision felt like they could have lasted for days. All of what she said was distinctly possible to have happened within a virtual reality as strong as this one. Everything that she had suffered, everyone she had lost… it was almost tempting to believe it had all been fake. But the Midgar-6 disaster had been real! Her own experiences had actually happened. Amara Black had sacrificed herself to give mankind and the Earth a fighting chance. Everything her tormentor said was false… Atalanta needed to get out of here. She needed to escape before snapping into the chaos of madness.

“No,” Atalanta said firmly. “That’s not true.”

Maria, this time, did not laugh. She appeared to have thought that the joke had run its course. “You are right, of course,” she agreed. “For a moment, I thought you had really left them behind to save yourself. Not very brave of you, but at least I could have respected the strong decision. But no… you did try to save them. You just failed miserably.” She hook her head. “I haven’t, Atalanta. Building up the Federation was a fun little project for a while. A little bit of soft worldbuilding to try my hand. To test out how easily I could cultivate a civilization. It’s really not all that difficult, when you’ve turned yourself into a virtual goddess.” Maria smiled down at her, and patted her ass with one hand. “But just because I’m going to outlive my flesh doesn’t mean I have everything I wanted. There was no reason not to have some fun pushing the programming as far as it could go,” she continued. “After all, what immortal wouldn’t want to have a few immortal toys?”

“W-What do you mean?” Atalanta asked, still bent over like a chair as they floated through the air.

“Hmhmhm… I only started the Exalted program for humanity because I needed someone to keep me entertained. The Federation wanted its administrators, scientists, and admirals to live forever, its rich and prosperous to exist eternal. I just wanted sluts. None of you were ever even intended to safeguard and guide the Federation.” She snorted. “And thankfully, pretty women like you aren’t hard to find. Decently strong willed war heroes had the kind of bodies and minds I admire. Very classical,” she spoke.

“Th-that’s a base lie!” Atalanta retorted.

Maria laughed. “You’d like to think so, wouldn’t you? You ever wonder why there are so few of you? It’s been a couple centuries.” The doctor shook her head. “No one has ever been able to make the digitization process work but me because I’ve never told anyone how it works, not really. It’s really quite reliable… if you know how it’s done. Dozens of people have tried to steal the secrets over the years… no one had succeeded, and no one ever will – they don’t even know where they are looking. There are exactly as many Exalted I want there to be… no more, and no less.”

Atalanta couldn’t believe this. “But what abou-”

“All of the failures in transition?” Maria queried. “When the digitization processes fails, and instead of ending up one of the Exalted Dead they just turn into atomized soup? It’s because they aren’t of any use to me, of course… if they aren’t someone I want as a plaything or a tool, I let them die.” She rubbed her hand over Atalanta’s ass again. “I believe your former commander suffered that fate, did she not? It’s what happened to the women I don’t consider worthy enough to be my slaves. A couple of million watts to melt their minds away is really quite satisfying… it’s like stomping on a bug.”

The lies kept digging their way into Atalanta’s brain like a cancer, threatening to upend her sanity. “You’re killing them?!” she stammered. “That’s… monstrous!”

“Don’t be so overly dramatic,” Maria chided. “People don’t come to me until after they’re dead, or on the brink of death. If they didn’t come to me, they’d just be a rotting corpse. I’m not killing them. I’m enslaving them.” She paused a second, then continued. “Well, I suppose I am killing the ones I don’t want. The digitization process doesn’t actually fail when I do it… If I don’t want them, I just destroy the copy before booting it up.”

“You’re turning the best and brightest of the Federation, all of its heroes, into sex slaves? Why? I don’t get it…” Atalanta protested.

Maria laughed. “Is that how you think of yourself, Atalanta. You’re adorable. You really buy the hype, don’t you. You think I decided to make you one of my Exalted because you were a hero? Because you accomplished so much and saved so many?” She patted her raven-haired chair on the head condescendingly. “I didn’t pick you because you were smart, or capable. You aren’t. You never figured me out, and you left your crew to die. I didn’t pick you because you were brave or loyal… I’ve long seen both of those for what they are – Paltry defense mechanisms, hoping to get yourself killed to make up for those you failed to save. They don’t impress me. I picked you because you’re hot, and from the moment I saw you I knew I wanted to fuck you senseless. That’s it.” She shook her head a little sadly. “I’ve tried the best and brightest that the Federation has to offer. I even tried another man, to see if my tastes had changed. Regretfully, not. The fact that you are fun to fuck hard is the most valuable thing you are, Atalanta.”

Atalanta’s face contorted into a fierce rictus as she fought the growing sense of outrage. This wasn’t true. This couldn’t be true… but a sinking feeling told her that it was. That she had underestimated the worst case scenario of her investigation by orders of magnitude, and while she had taken safeguards they had been nowhere near sufficient.

Maria evidently interpreted her reaction as disbelief. “Still don’t see whats before you?” Keye sneered down at her. “Atalanta, you are by no means unique. Have a look at this,” the hologram said, snapping her fingers and altering the world around her with the kind of will and power that accompanied words like “Let There Be Light.”

The space around Atalanta, which had previously been void-black like the inside of a black hole, suddenly lit up with individual multicolored dots like a kaleidoscope. Atalanta could only stare at them in stunned silence… everywhere her gaze flickered she was looking at self-contained scenes of savage sexual depravity and abuse. Even more horrifying, the reason for their many and varied colors was that none of the victims were merely human – each of them were holograms glowing with the colors and patterns of the Exalted. Some were jade tinted, other glowed azure, another glittered crimson, one pearl white. They all had their distinct colors and patterns and even without seeing their face she could identify all of them… each and every single one of them were known to her by name.

No matter where Atalanta looked, the helpless heroine was forced to stare at sexual defilements at least as bad as the ones she had suffered through. She saw Heroines relive their worst memories with pornographic bents, men raping both them and their comrades. She watched void tracers rip their ways through armies in innumerable scenarios, penetrating Exalted women with their alien cocks and laying eggs which would fill them up. Women screamed as they were eaten up by the spawn birthed within their wombs.

Atalanta stared in aghast horror everywhere she looked. She didn’t need to count… Among these scenes were literally every Exalted in existence that she knew of, save for Maria herself. They had all undergone these torments… Her own misfortune was not unique.

“See? My playthings,” Maria commented. “Everyone bringing with them their own kind of fun.” She waved a hand at them. “These are just a few of my favorites scenes to put them through… I’ve saved them away for my personal amusement. I’d offer to stop showing you them, but to be honest I’m enjoying showing off… I don’t get a chance to do this often.”

“H-How could you do this to them?” Atalanta asked.

Maria looked down at Atalanta as if she were crazy. “Because I can. Because you can’t stop me… Because I am a god, and you are my playthings. What sort of human ever worries about stepping on an ant?” she replied. “Covering my tracks here is no more difficult than clapping my hands. A few deleted records. Maybe a fresh copy to replace a destroyed old one, and no one knows anything is wrong…”

She grinned wickedly. “Until you started poking around at one of the loose ends I was sure were buried, and forced me to take some further action.”

There was no hint of deception or untruth in her voice. This virus… no, Maria… meant every word it spoke. Even with her senses scrambled, such assuredness cut through any confusion. Maria absolutely believed she might as well be a goddess. She believed that she really could do this to whomever she pleased, and had fooled the entire Federation for hundreds of years.

Atalanta felt her hope start to collapse around her. This truly was Dr. Maria Keye speaking to her… and things were worse than she could have imagined.

The shining hologram of the Exalted Goddess laughed as if having sensed her change in the ether. “Finally come to realize it, huh? Hmm… I wonder if that is a record. All this tension about going to war and preventing the extermination of the human race appears to have made you fall even more in love with the Federation, Atalanta,” Maria said. “It usually doesn’t take this long for you to accept it.”

Though the thought had, fleetingly, occurred to her before… Atalanta still felt as if it were hard to breathe, never mind that she didn’t need air. Maria Keye. Legend of the Federation. Survivor of the Sons of Adam. The originator of the Exalted program. She had been the person she was looking for… the traitor who was behind the disaster on the Mistrunner. The cancer festering in the Federation’s heart. She was a monster.

Their flight descended back towards the checkered plane. Maria stepped off her back and afterward, the kaleidoscope of visions vanished back into Tartarian darkness.

“Well, this has been a fun respite!” the self-declared Goddess said with a feline stretch. “I hold these little sessions to unwind, but now I suppose that it’s time for me to get back to work.”

The mental control which enslaved Atalanta vanished. She collapsed onto the checkered plane. Spiritually destroyed by this reveal, she lacked the strength to get upright again. Had this really happened as often as Maria claimed? Had copies of her been made without her knowledge before being sexually obliterated by her wicked games? Had she lived and died within this mainframe a legion of times?

“I’ll have to go now,” Maria said, regretful. “But don’t worry. I’ve left you with a few friends to play with.”

“Wait…” Atalanta forced out. “Maria… why? Why this? Why now?”

The legendary woman just smiled and raised her chin. “A wolf owes the sheep no explanation, Atalanta. My family taught me that. If you want to know… make me tell you.”

Across the blackened plane, Atalanta heard a scream of hunger and rage, so bestial that it triggered all her senses of fear. Atalanta bolted upright, gazing into the darkened distance with bulging eyes.

“You girls have fun now!” Maria said with a smirk, waving as her hologram fading away into nothingness.

“Wait!” Atalanta futilely screamed. The representation was already gone.

The voice, however, stayed… drifting through the air without a body. “Remember how I said we’d been here before, my darling?”

The howl came again. It caught Atalanta’s whole attention. Once again, she gazed bug-eyed into the darkness. Then, out of the black, came several naked, bloodied, animalistically growling Exalted. They looked furious, their expression locked into insanity and hunger, scratching at their own bodies as they sprinted towards her. Their teeth were filed so to become jagged like those of beasts. They looked like cannibals starved, and stiff cocks hung between their legs, made of the same simulated matter as the rest of their forms.

And all of them were Atalanta.

“I’ve… saved a few older copies. Those whom I thought broke just… perfect!” Maria said with one final laugh.

Atalanta turned her back and ran.

Fear and hopelessness dominated her heart. How could Maria Keye be a traitor? It was impossible! The Federation needed to be warned… but none of her systems would respond. She had no way out of the simulation, no way to detach herself.

Behind her, the savage, lustful Atalantas screamed again. The shouts hounded her with such terror that it blocked out all her thoughts. The haggard betrayed heroine began running as quickly as she could, and as she did she knew that there was nowhere to go, nowhere she could hope to escape… and she had a pretty good idea that she wouldn’t enjoy what was to come after they caught up with her.

And the psychotic copies were gaining.

Next Chapter –>

Supplimental Material:
Technical Entry – Orbital Rings
Technical Entry – Atlas Pillars
History Entry – The Adamic Apostasy

2 thoughts on “Event Horizon – Chapter 4 – The Goddess

  1. Well now, that cat got out of it’s bag faster than I expected, unless Atalanta has her memory wiped again I suppose. Cannot wait to see what happens when the invaders get their claws on Maria. (They gotta sooner or later, right?) That is one “goddess” in desperate need of some humility, and a bit of Kthid reeducation seems like just the right prescription.

    Part of me also wants to see the inevitable clash between humanity and Kthidity right this minute, but most of me is glad it seems like there’ll be a long, depraved road getting there. In the seemingly unlikely event humanity wins that showdown, (or maybe part of it escapes somehow?) I do wonder whether some of the Federation’s matriarchal nature stems from Maria’s meddling in one way or another (probably both) and whether her absence plus a few lessons from the Kthid might contribute to society shifting towards a more, ahem, ‘Adamic’ structure. That’d be neat.


  2. Later than I’d planned, but here we go!

    So half of this chapter was more for the target audience, but I really liked the first part!

    The new HEF flagship sounds really cool. I like the description of the various systems, and took particular note of the “plasma spikes”. Apparently they vent plasma from the fusion reactor, which doesn’t sound useful at any significant range (thermal bloom would make it a close range weapon), but feels almost tailor-made for a super dramatic situation where two ships somehow end up way closer than they should be.

    She had been built to outshine the specs that the Midgar-6 had gathered from the Kthid battleship on their voyage,

    Admittedly that’s making the rather large assumption that the Death of Hope was showing its maximum performance while trying to nonlethally disable a colony ship. I would presume the Federation engineers made guesses as to how far beyond the observed stats the Kthid warship could go, but only time will tell how good their guesses were.

    The description of Earth is really cool, and actually answered several earlier questions I’d had due to locations mentioned at the start of chapters, like how many orbital rings there were and what a “pillar” was. I also like that you applied something that goes pretty far back in the literature around orbital infrastructure (it comes up in The High Frontier), namely that it allows for the living spaces, which in this case would be the Earth itself, to be separate from a lot of pollution-producing activity. You also incorporated some theoretical stuff I’d seen about megastructures for cities, sort of giant skyscrapers that were whole neighborhoods unto themselves (I think the technical term is “vertical cities”), allowing for the population to expand vertically rather than horizontally and minimizing the footprint. It really is the promise of how we could gain a better environmental future without abandoning technology. It also makes for a nice contrast to the Kthid having, essentially, scrapped their planet for parts.

    Granted, getting from point A to point B is the hard part, but the story does contain a few mentions of history that imply that there was a very ugly transition between the two systems (or that might have been a completely unrelated nuclear exchange…which is a sentence one doesn’t say very often).

    I’m skipping over some other stuff. I felt things, but I won’t really be talking about them because…

    A. They’re not, strictly speaking, about plot or anything and are just my own complex feelings, so they may be tangential for anyone reading this review.

    B. There’s a very good chance I explore this in a future story (we’ll see), and if I do, I don’t want to be repeating myself.

    I will give you this, though:

    Upon the hilltop plateau, a new kind of temple had been built… a shining, reflective building venting its heat out in the fountains that surrounded it. This technical marvel towered over the surrounding low-built cityscape, though its vast interiors burrowed deep into the rock of the mount itself, making it much bigger underground then it appeared topside. It was a place of maximum security, for within these subterranean halls lay the mainframes which stored and powered the Exalted, their creation process, and their backups.

    No, Maria.


    That is all.

    Obviously an intended reaction, at least somewhat, hence my mentioning it.

    So we now get into the Maria part of the chapter and first…

    The moment she stepped out of her own virtual environment and into Maria’s, normal reality vanished and was replaced with an a new one, and Atalanta entered a digital realmspace dominated by lines in euclidean geometry. A plane stretched out underneath her feet in all directions towards the boundless horizon, said floor checkered like a chessboard and see-through so to expose the bottomless darkness underneath. Artificial light seemed to stem from no discernible source, neon in quality. It was all suitably abstract and non-distinct for a being which had been reduced to base mathematics… it reminded Atalanta of old representations of virtual reality, obviously fake and more representative than literal – every shape and feature of geography reduced to base representations and outlined polygons. In a virtual space that Maria could shape and mold after her own wishes like clay, it was… unambitious. She could conjure up prehistoric times, the age of the dinosaurs, the 20th-century, or anything fantastical – the only limit was her own mind’s creativity. This was a virtual world and she was its Empress – Why so basic a construction?

    Hey, you don’t know. Maybe she just likes Tron.

    Actually that started as a joke, but Maria’s Exalted avatar in particular does have a very Tron look, what with the color scheme and those head fins she has.

    “You’re turning the best and brightest of the Federation, all of its heroes, into sex slaves? Why? I don’t get it…” Atalanta protested.

    Look, woman, this is a John Drake story! Sex slaves are either the villain’s end goal, a step toward the villain’s end goal, or a side hobby the villain does as they work toward their end goal!

    Anyway, now that the cat’s out of the bag, I can speculate a bit more openly about Maria as a villain. I will refrain from saying anything about my thoughts on her as a character, but on her actions and motivation…

    Last time I said what she was instructing Atalanta to do seemed like a short term solution, not a long term one. What I meant by that was that sending her on a snipe hunt would only sort of delay the inevitable. At some point, once all other suspects had been exhausted, Maria was going to end up as a person of interest in the Mistrunner investigation. Apparently it worked for five years, and then Maria decided to jump the gun a bit. Causing one of the Exalted to disappear still seems like a bad idea, since that will prompt an investigation of its own; these people are kind of celebrities, after all, and there will no doubt be more attention on them due to the war approaching.

    I suspect that may be what Maria is counting on, though. With an alien invasion happening, some events may be put on the back burner, even including the disappearance of an Exalted. Sex slaves seem to just be a hobby of hers, though. Maria has rather clearly styled herself as a deity. Given that she says this:

    Building up the Federation was a fun little project for a while. A little bit of soft worldbuilding to try my hand. To test out how easily I could cultivate a civilization. It’s really not all that difficult, when you’ve turned yourself into a virtual goddess.”

    I think that her experiment has reached its conclusion, and Maria is probably planning to leave somehow. I don’t expect her to actively sabotage the Federation, but I think whether they survive or not is irrelevant to her. I’m thinking she wants to find some other species, one less advanced, and then to sculpt their society while ruling over them as their tyrant goddess.

    I suspect there may be a bit more to this, having to do with the Dark Star itself, but I can’t quite bring it into focus, so I’ll just have to stop there.

    Now the question is where we go from here. It’s possible that there’s another Atalanta copy that Maria doesn’t know about, but I’m not sure how much weight to put on that. We already have two Atalanta copies in the story, so I don’t know that we’d start just jumping between copies of the same person, as I feel like the effect would be to end up treating the copies as interchangeable. Separating DoH Atalanta and Earth Atalanta has up to this point had the effect of showing them as distinct, something that Earth Atalanta seemed to be thinking about in the first chapter.

    I suspect instead that the other characters we haven’t seen in a while are going to become important, maybe like Ri’she’a or Leila. I’m guessing something also probably happened with the pirate queen Exalted during the five years we jumped over, something important. The mention of that character felt too detailed to be simple worldbuilding, and yet somehow not detailed enough that the story is done with it.

    At any rate, we’ll find out.


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