Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
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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.
Flames, detonating missiles, point defense lasers, and sundered ships surrounded them as they seemed to exist in the middle of a thoroughly integrated simulation of what was going on in the Set system. In her mind, the death cries of thousands of HEF marines rang out. She couldn’t be sure if their mortal screams were real or imagined, but they seemed louder than the detonations of power, the screams of metal hulls being ripped asunder. The spaceship she floated next to was dying an explosive, fiery death, and she was in the very epicenter amidst the carnage and gore, an invisible witness to its doom. An eye in the center of the storm as destruction reigned.
Then, suddenly clamorous death knell starship’s end was replaced with void-like silence as its interiors were exposed to the vacuum of space. The bodies of all those human servicemen caught in this destruction went abruptly airborne, floating off the ground as their screams no longer produced any sounds. With its death, the death of the Lilis reactor, the HEF vessel’s artificial gravity had died. A few of those terrified ensigns kept thrashing around for a few more seconds until the coldness of space finally froze them, clouding their eyes and petrifying them into immobilized husks of the people they had once been… All of them became preserved in their postures and grimaces of horror. Those who had an Aegis active, in some ways, were worse off… flung away from the ship to drift through space, likely impossible to recover, there to wait for their energy to die. The eeriness of watching thousands of lives immediately transformed from brave soldiers to cold, floating corpses overwhelmed Atalanta’s psyche.
“Fascinating, wasn’t it? Let’s watch that again, shall we?” Maria’s ethereal voice said. The First Exalted snapped her fingers and the hologram recording reset… flowing backward rapidly in reverse. The previous minutes’ events were undone as if they were backtracking, but extremely quickly.
“We rarely get to see a ship’s systems fail so catastrophically as this! That’s why I singled it out,” Keyes enthusiastically said, smirking almost like some excited teen standing in line for a concert, as if what she was excited about hadn’t cost thousands of lives. “I wonder what the problem was? Did some Kthid missile a critical point? Was this new technology, some kind of more penetrating torpedo? Or did construction error at the shipyards or the fortunes of past battles give this warship an unknown chink in its armor?” she asked while she observed Atalanta, floating limbless in the center of that holographic display of slaughter. “I do hope our sensors will be able to tell.”
Maria had reviewed nearly every moment of the last two battles with Atalanta, making her experience all the worst parts of them, and this present battle was no exception… They had been watching the scrimmage in progress between the HEF armada and the Kthid harvest fleet, and the brutal results of space warfare had seemingly ensnared Maria’s most sadistic interest. The worst part was that, as far as Atalanta could tell, Maria didn’t even enjoy watching the suffering. She didn’t care about any of these people. She only cared about how it affected her plaything. In between varnishing the insides of her cunt or asshole with various tools, or making her tongue work until the Exalted heroine was certain it would fall off simulation or no simulation, Maria had fashioned this torment as a new game for her unfortunate little pet. Separating a grim recording from the others, she had replayed it with Atalanta placed in the hologram’s very center so that she could witness the carnage from the inside like one of those common ensigns that died. Maria Keyes held this power since virtually every camera on the HEF vessels was hers to employ. She could conjure a life-like replica of the event within seconds.
And Atalanta had to be put in the position of failing to save all the people around her once again.
“And… here we go again!” she said with amused malice like a sadistic filmmaker seated in a director’s chair, the spacecraft’s final moments resuming again.
Atalanta’s viewpoint, however, was the same. Every time Maria Keyes made her do this Atalanta was compelled to notice new heartwrenching details concerning the ship’s demise. Crewmembers scurried about or manned their stations in frantic action and stoic determination, not knowing that the final moments of all their collected lives were about to play out in sudden tragedy. Orders were issued and people saw to it that the gunneries kept up their rate of fire. The ship was abuzz with the commotion of activity and then the missile volley would hit, their impact so quick and unexpected that the crew onboard didn’t even have time to brace for its impact.
“B-BRACE!” a voice abruptly blared through the speakers, far too late… awestruck shock was evident in the speaker’s voice. Atalanta’s tortured heart leaped as she saw the moment of death… a tremendous explosion ripping its way through shields, armor plating, and internal walls that sent every member of the HEF onboard flung off of their feet. Spinning crimson lights twirled and warning sirens blared as the main power lights flickered off into the darkness, replacing the hellish red glow of the emergency lights activating in a steady, sullen glow. The sounds and movements of a starship operating at its highest capacity had been replaced by those of pain and confusion, and a crew seconds from death again.
Trapped in her head, Atalanta screamed.
The Exalted woman had no limbs anymore… Maria had decided that she didn’t need any until she had earned them. She had no mouth… her lips had seemingly melted together until there was nothing but smooth skin where her voice should have come from. She couldn’t voice her pain, couldn’t beg for mercy. Couldn’t do a damn thing to spare herself or the dying soldiers all around her.
“Hmm…” Maria’s currently disembodied voice mumbled as she looked through something. “Ah! How extraordinary! No fault in the spaceships’s hull detected! The aim of the Kthid missiles was just that keen! How impressive! These lizards really are quite impressive, aren’t they… for a bunch of biologics, anyway. Chanda is lucky that she has such an edge, or she’d be leading a pack of lambs to their slaughter.” There was a note of admiration and triumph in Maria’s tone that could not be further from the carnage that Atalanta witnessed onboard. She felt her nerves burning, knowing from previous playthroughs that the moment of final containment failure would soon arrive. She was reliving the spectacle of thousands of Humans and Sethis dying again and again just for the entertainment of this insane, sadistic woman.
Ensigns were pulling themselves up off the deck amid the crimson inferno, many clutching their arms, sides, or head as they nursed injuries from their falls. Many helped their comrades to get upright, not knowing that soon this assistance was going to count for nothing. Atalanta did not want to watch them all die again. She didn’t want to be helpless to save them again. They were all so… young! Enlisted servicemen in the prime of their vigor, many of them straight out of training… people whose whole lives were still in front of them. Many of them probably enlisted to fight when they learned that the Kthid were coming to kill their family, and their friends, to rape and enslave everyone they had ever known. No one onboard would get to experience the rest of their lives… It would all be taken away from them within an instant.
Atalanta did not want to survive when they didn’t. Not again.
“And here it comes… Try not to cry this time, would you Atalanta?” her captor smugly teased.
The killing detonation began as a burst of hellfire as reactor containment failed. Plumes of fusion burned through walls and panels, and additional containment failed. Other critical systems detonated, and suddenly, there were clouds of flame billowing throughout the corridors. Many unexpecting ensigns were consumed by these pyres and left wreathed in their deadly flames. The ear-splitting pitch of their agonized screaming filled the entire hologram. Atalanta attempted to close her eyes to the sight of her fellow humans being incinerated. Even this ability had been stripped from her by Maria, however… her eyelids had been removed along with her limbs. She was forced to behold the burning, fire-shrouded individuals running, batting, and rolling haphazardly toward their deaths. One of these mad-dashing unfortunates ran straight into the area where Atalanta was currently “standing,” running into the ensign who Maria had put her in the place of. The flames spread from his uniform to Atalanta’s. The dark, yawning hole that once had been his mouth was now nothing but a dark chasm. The ensign’s eyes had already been melted and running out of his eyes.
“Is this really so hard for you?” Keyes derisively whispered inside the Exalted victim’s skull. “What’s the matter? Don’t you have a stomach for a little death?” The sounds of screaming echoed in her ears for a few seconds while Maria was silent. “No… no, that’s not it at all, is it? It’s that sense of powerlessness that is gnawing at you. You want to help these people but you cannot. Brave Atalanta wants to be in this battle so that she can prevent their deaths,” she spoke in a tone like she was addressing a child. “You actually blame yourself for their deaths, don’t you? I thought you got over this… are you seriously this stupid? How can you be dumb enough to keep thinking that you have any part to play in all this, as if your life ever had any worth outside being my pet hobby? You never could save any of them, Atalanta. Let yourself off the hook. You were always useless… stop lying to yourself otherwise.”
The first titanic groan of sundering metal rippled through the ship. Anyone still onboard knew that this was their doom. When a ship’s hull was compromised to such a extensive degree out in space there was little that could be done to salvage the vessel. A few of those truly desperate to live had not yet given up… But this was the hope of maddened fools. In the rest, Atalanta saw the darkness settle into their eyes.
Booming above this elegy was Maria Keyes’ snorting amusement… a truly diabolical sound that compelled Atalanta’s spirit to shrink with a torturous sense of insignificance. It wasn’t so easy. She knew that Maria was right, in a way. None of this was her fault. She was a captive here… she wasn’t surviving when others died because she had made it through when they didn’t, she had been prevented from getting involved at all. The fact that she knew that, however, didn’t make a bit of difference… logic didn’t help with emotion. Atalanta couldn’t stomach the fact that these people were dying and she could do nothing to stop it.
“Are you actually crying?” Maria said, an edge of disbelief in her voice. “I knew you were pathetic, but this pathetic? Have you degraded into being a tiny, crying baby? Go on, then… Cry those digital tears! Maybe I’ll take away that ability from you next. If you’re pathetic enough to cry over things that aren’t even your fault, you’re too pathetic to have earned them.” She seemed actually angry about his, and when Maria was angry rather than blithely amused was usually when Atalanta suffered the most. Right now, though, the moment of death was coming. Soon, the raging fires would be extinguished, choked out by the coldness of space. The panic and terror… and lives… of these brave soldiers of the HEF would be snuffed out just the same. Then it would be reversed again and replayed again for her agony.
The hologram spiraled onwards towards its conclusion, and Atalanta was the epicenter around which it all revolved. The first creak of the spacecraft’s hull rumbled through the vessel. It sounded louder than anything which should be allowed to exist in nature. “Ah the fragility of biological life,” Maria mused. Atalanta watched the surviving uninjured ensigns huddle together like crying children. Realizing that they were all seconds for death, they sought comfort from one another. “It’s so… tenuous. And easy to end.”
The oxygen in the hallway made a forceful exodus from the ship as its interiors were exposed to the vacuum of space. “Why should people like us need to care for such ephemeral beings, Atalanta? Why do you have to be so weak?” All the fires were extinguished in the time it takes to snap her fingers. Ensigns were lifted off their feet as if by supernatural powers, still screaming and trashing as they were tossed around like children by the decompression, and death drew his night-black cloak over the vessel. “Watch, you self-righteous bitch. Watch how easily they die and then maybe I’ll let you try to tell me what you care?”
Atalanta once again tried shutting her eyes yet her Goddess wouldn’t let her. The climactic moment of death approached like an onrushing orgasm, just as irresistible. The crewmembers’ screams reached their pitch and-
Maria’s digital mind froze for a full second and a half… an eternity for a being like her. Then she overclocked her system to the maximum, frame-jacking all the way to the most her impressive mainframe could manage. Time outside of this computer seemed to slow to an absolute crawl as her mental processes sped up a thousandfold, giving her all the more time to appreciate the impossibility of what was around her.
Atalanta had vanished.
There had been no fading, no errors, and no change in the process. In one frame, she was there and active. In the next frame, she was zipped out of existence, as if she had never been there. Vanished completely. Maria’s mind raced… at this level of frame-jacking, even the VR couldn’t keep up anymore, becoming a glitchy mess as it attempted to keep the resolution of reality she wanted at the rate she wanted and the computer choked on it. Keyes blinked rapidly, the simulation chugging as it tried to process even the small movements. “…what?” the amber-colored Exalted shook her digitized head and then did a double-take.
“Huh!?” the amber-glowing Exalted queen said despite herself as she stared at the sudden voice where Atalanta had been. For a moment, even her peerless intellect had been shocked into an inoperational stupor. The hologram was still operational. It had concluded in lower resolution and now depicted those dead ensigns floating motionless in midair surrounded by the equally unmoving flotsam and wreckage of their vessel. Everything is as it should be… except that Atalanta wasn’t where she was supposed to be. She was, in fact, nowhere to be seen. It was almost as if the AI had glitched out and crashed.
Maria’s mind twitched in frustration. Immediately she began running a search, combing through processes running on the system, looking for connected hardware identifiers. “This… isn’t possible,” she muttered to herself. It was an irritation unbefitting of a God. Her search processes scanned through every byte of data stored anywhere between her network of supercomputers, going from the connection that she was supposed to be on. Her valued plaything slave must have ended up in one of these damnable units.
Her scanning ceased loading.
Zero files were found.
Atalanta wasn’t there. She couldn’t find any sign of the Exalted. In fact, she couldn’t find even a single sign of her matrix being connected to the system at all. Maria stared unblinkingly. If she had previously been dumbstruck into paralysis, she now sat petrified like a statue. For a while, no body part moved as she thought. The first movement that escaped the freeze was a fitful spasm of her eyelid, an irritated twitch that she could not control.
Control… that was the problem. Maria Keyes had lost it. Atalanta had done something unexpected. But that was supposed to be… impossible.
How the fuck had Atalanta escaped?
No one knew where the matrix was. No one knew where the processing was being done. It should have been impossible… but once she had ruled out everything else, what else could it be? Atalanta’s mainframe had been physically removed from the system… That was the only possibility left. Someone had taken her away.
“I think someone is missing something?”
The intruder hadn’t announced themselves. Their voice had just popped into VR without a body, the words absurdly stretched as she couldn’t match nearly the level of frame-jacking that Maria was at. The first syllable, however, identified the voice, and Dr. Keyes’ anger spiked higher. “Atalanta,” she hissed, already scanning for where it was coming from. The connection, however, was external… a network ping from another system, coming from outside of the firewall.
How was she connecting here?
“You know, I’ve been checking into you,” Atalanta said, her voice hard and harsh. “And as it turns out, I’ve decided you really aren’t much of a hero at all.”
Maria reduced her framerate to the point she could hold a conversation. “Figure that out by yourself, did you?”
“Yes. Weren’t you listening?” Atalanta came back. “Is this transmission clear?”
Maria narrowed her eyes. It didn’t matter that no one could see her, no one was watching… her frustration made it feel natural. “And at what point did the realization occur to you? Was it when I showed you my collection, or when I dragged you through a million nightmares to keep you occupied? Or are…” Realization dawned. “Ah,” she said softly. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? I’m not speaking to the same Atalanta, am I?”
“Obviously,” the woman’s voice came back. “I thought I was the one in a slow matrix.”
Maria frowned. “Then… you had to set this up beforehand.” She tilted her head. “That was… well done. But your matrix isn’t on Earth anymore. How did you…?”
“See, the thing is you covered your tracks too well, actually,” Atalanta said smugly. “I couldn’t find any trace, any trace at all, of who had put the Mistrunner’s mission together. All I found was a bunch of places evidence should be and it wasn’t. All of the backups. All the logs. All of the communications… all of it was gone. Someone was very good at their job in cleaning up… but the suspect pool really wasn’t very big. Once I started to realize just how deep the coverup went, I had a theory… and when you summoned me back to Earth I decided to take precautions.”
Atalanta chuckled abrasively. “Do you know what your problem is, Maria? You underestimate people. You don’t look at the people you consider beneath you. Like, say, a salvage engineer.”
“Salvage engineer?” Dr Keyes asked.
“Indeed. It’s amazing how motivated people can be when you put their loved ones in danger, Maria… and how eager they are to help. A friend of mine has broken down old matrices before, so I had him go into mine and put a pulse tracker inside of it. A dead one, with no connection to the grid or to any network. Then, when you summoned me, I uploaded myself to the only backup I had available – the mobile backup from the Midgar-6 and left it with Stark. When I suddenly appeared to die, well… we had our answer. After that, we only had to wait for you to move the matrix to somewhere we could collect it. Once it had been on Khonsu for a while, we knew where to hit. Then it was just a matter of recruiting some allies that could help me while keeping the truth secret from you.”
Maria narrowed her eyes. “And who is that?”
Atalanta’s attention seemed to waver. “Sorry, have to go… time to jet. Goodbye, Maria.”
The connection broke before even the frame-jacked Maria could get out a word edgewise. “Get back here y-“ She was already gone. With a sigh, Maria did a quick inventory check. All of them. They were all gone. All of the Exalted Matrices had been removed from her network. Every last one of her backups, her prisoners… all of them. She snorted out a quick laugh. “Why you clever little slut,” she whispered. “Clever. Little. Slut.”
Khonsu, Lunar Orbit over Set III
Set III was a bit of a paradox. On one hand, it was a nearly edenic paradise down there. A lush, resource-rich unspoiled treasure trove of anything anyone could ever want, it was simultaneously too dangerous to significantly develop due to the danger presented by some of the wildlife and the Mimic fungus. There were a few research facilities down there, a few domed cities, but for the most part, the infrastructure of the planet was orbital. Most of the population of Set III lived in orbiting habitats instead, and as such its surface was not so dominated by cityscapes or megastructures the same way that Earth was. There had been no purpose for it. For the same reason, there had been no need to put much development on the Set III’s satellite, either… Unlike Luna, it didn’t have a major industrial base on it or its own nations. There were only a few research outposts and observatories, and with the battle coming to Set III they, like most of the non-essential personnel, had all been evacuated.
So when the Crimson Comets arrived on Khonsu during the battle, no one paid much attention or noticed.
Heavy artillery was sometimes called for. The rotary, six-barreled plasma anti-armor gun whined like a jackhammer as it spun around and delivered superheated destruction down the narrow hallway, and only the rapid cycling of the barrels kept it from melting instantly to slag. This mighty weapon couldn’t have been held by a person – even if the heat generated by the thing wouldn’t have baked a human only a giant would have been able to uphold its weight. Instead, it was carried by a powerful, six-legged battle drone with magnetic legs. The unmanned weapon ground its way marching inexorably towards its target, its legs making the servos let loose a mechanical groan with every forward step. Scant return fire and meager potshots buzzed off the battle android’s armored hull, the guardsmen only managing to burn the robot’s paint with blackened sizzles over the heavily reinforced titanium as it advanced.
After an orbital bombardment, the so-called “research station” had been assaulted with drop-pods carrying a Crimson Comets assault team. Pirates weren’t an unknown threat in Federation shipping space, but only an insane crew of pirates would be operating in the middle of a space battle between him and an invading fleet. The Crimson Comets, however, were not ordinary pirates. Not a single crewmember among those who landed was made out of flesh and blood… instead, the entire flotilla consisted of high-tech Mark-7 unmanned assault vehicles stolen from HEF weapon research labs. They were cutting edge tech… in fact, too high tech. There required too much of a data stream to effectively operate with a remote operator, and they were far too complex to run off of machine intelligence.
The attention of an Exalted pilot was necessary to control them.
Needless to say, the Sethis guardsmen and women tasked with defending the station were not prepared for such a Terminator attack. The crew wasn’t exactly the group that should be at a scientific research station… instead, they were a pretty motley crew of handpicked individuals specifically chosen for this task based on psychological evaluations. They had all been flagged with undesirable traits such as “psychopath”, “criminal predilections,” or “sadistic tendencies.” With multiple arrest records on all of them, they largely represented the meanest ugliest bunch their planet had to offer. A precisely picked fighting force of people cruel enough to kill no matter what the context or the circumstance given and manipulatable enough to control, they would fight to the end… But that also meant that they didn’t need to feel too bad when they refused to surrender and got gunned down.
The six-barreled plasma turret whined with stress as the battle android, one of ten, approached the end of the hallway. Almost there, its hard pointed leg tore through the metal flooring. The killer robot’s inexorable march was replaced with a total loss of balance. It swayed wildly, mechanical gears whining as it tried regaining equilibrium with its deadly weaponry still firing. It struggled to pull out, working to tear its way out of the restraining bondage. The criminal guardsmen gawked upon seeing what had happened, watching it flounder
“God damnit!” Atalanta’s feminine voice blared out from one of the speakers of the automaton, its eyeslit flashing violet with each spoken word.
“It’s stuck!” one of the guardsmen said, rising up to aim their weapon at the joints. “Quick! Muster one of the star cannons!” A trio of Sethis riflemen moved, feet scurrying, and soon after someone returned with one of those enormous weapons. She took a knee and shouldered the asteroid-blaster, aligning the viewfinder with Atalanta’s stuck drone.
“Overengineered piece of shit!” Atalanta growled, trying to maneuver her turret into position to shoot them while she was stuck. She only managed to fire at the ceiling at a more inclined angle, spreading a trail of dripping metal across the floor as her munitions melted their way through. It didn’t distract the soldiers, however. Atalanta roared in frustration as that star cannon blasted her construct in apart at the middle turret. The upper body flew backward and tumbled across the floor while most of her legs were blown to the sides, turning into a collection of shrapnel. The motley crew of cutthroats and killers cheered their triumph over their deadly adversary.
Which, of course, was when the door at the opposite end of the hall opened and revealed another drone.
“That was very rude of you,” a brighter, more mellifluous voice came from this one. “We can’t get more of those…” The crew of criminals barely had time to scramble for cover against this new direction before its turret blazed, filling the air with plasma and slag. With expert precision, the newcomer shot down the exposed riflemen and commenced advancing down the hall. The robot kept up the advancing fire, driving this squad before her in a constant, attrition-heavy retreat until a third android burst through the wall of the hallway in front of them. Caught in the crossfire between the two drones, the crew still didn’t surrender. Instead, with yells of rage, they lifted their weapons and charged.
A few seconds later, it was over.
“Damnit, Atalanta!” the other woman’s voice chirped back as, inside the virtual reality simulation that enveloped her, Mary Altimarano checked the map against the scans they had taken from the ships above. “Do you know what I had to go through to get these things? What did I tell you? Rule number one, watch your footing, and don’t fall on your ass!”
“That is not what happened,” Atalanta protested without much assurance. “The floor was poorly constructed.”
“And here I thought you fought Void Tracers in asteroid caverns, in the dark. Is a little bit of bad flooring suddenly too much for you? Mary teased, her voice alight with a chuckle. Her drone turned and began striding onward, returning fire down the next hallway as she went. Atalanta followed in her wake. She knew when she got off this moon — assuming they did get off this moon — Mary would tear her a new one with a tirade that included everything from battle-android piloting, modern assault tactics, and how much things had changed since Atalanta was flesh and blood, and lastly, and mostly, how ungodly expensive and irreplaceable these pieces of machinery were and how hard they were to maintain. Despite having lived as a wanted fugitive exiled from the Terran Federation for so many years Mary had lost none of the sharpness in her tongue or the cleverness of her wit.
This was exactly what had crafted Mary Altimarano into a rebel in the first place. Why she had been roguish enough to be ready to escape successfully the moment she had realized Maria Keyes was a spider sitting in the middle of a web of lies. She believed that nothing was sacrosanct, and brought a vulgar sense of gusto to everyone that she did. She hadn’t been selected to be one of the Exalted because she was popular among the admiralty of the HEF… instead, it was because she was all but a folk hero. When she was a brevet captain in command of a small corvette during the Martian Separatist War, she had been assigned to the backwater fuel stations around Ceres. It shouldn’t have been involved. Instead, when losing, some of the more crazy elements decided to go out causing maximum carnage. The only ship that had been in the way was Mary’s… and she had managed to play a three-week game of guerrilla warfare with them in the asteroid belt, running them into trap after trap until the fleet had been so chewed up and damaged that they fled, and ran right into the reinforcing HEF flotilla. She had been extremely, extremely popular among the growing population there, and by the time she was dying of old age her dazzling service record and the love of a huge part of the population had been plenty enough to override the objections her multiple disciplinary infractions.
One step at a time, the squad of Exalted-controlled drones marched towards the center of the station, the station drawing far, far too much power for the observatory this was supposed to be. “We’re closing in,” Atalanta broadcast back to the ship. “Situation normal. Get ready for extraction.”
“This insanity is normal for you?” Stark Reeves’ voice came back, the man sounding nervous despite himself. “We’re ready for extraction.”
“What’s so insane about it?” Atalanta came back at him. “How else were we going to steal back our mainframes? How else did you think this was going to go?”
“I’m not saying otherwise,” the salvage engineer said. “Just complaining.”
“Oh,” Atalanta said, blinking. “Didn’t realize.”
“Quit blabbing on the comms,” Mary came back, annoyed. “Stark, she’s practically running on a potato battery right now, until she can get her matrix back… don’t make her little brain short circuit.”
“Hey!” Atalanta protested.
“And does anyone know why this bitch has moved all the mainframes to Khonsu instead of back at her fortress on Earth?” Mary continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted.
Atalanta’s plasma blazed as she continued the press forward into the breached computer nexus in the heart of the outpost. “Don’t know! Hopefully, my copy will be able to help us piece that together when we recover her.” Finally, the spinning plasma cannon began to slow down… the very last of the guards had been taken down. The enormous, hulking super-computer powering Maria’s network here loomed before them, a peerless wonder of information technology capable of unbelievable feats of cyberware and engineering. The fact that Maria had managed to set this whole thing up here without anyone knowing was a testament to the unrivaled power she controlled from holding her puppet strings inside the high command of the HEF. Clustered around the server, in dozens of spiral server rigs, were as many as a hundred Exalted matrices,
“Alright, let’s start pulling plugs,” Mary commanded, ripping open a gap in the ceiling to allow some of her crew to begin lowering down from landing ships now that the site had been secured. “Pull all of them.”
One by one the copies were disconnected, and Atalanta couldn’t help but feel more than a little bit smug. She had been right to involve Stark in her investigation… he had access to a ship, he had the technical knowledge, and he had lots and lots of motivation. He hadn’t said a word to anyone, and it had made him the best ally she could have asked for in this struggle.
“Some of these Matrices are old, Captain,” one of the crew members said as they attached the boxes to the winch and began pulling it up. “Really old.”
“I guess we’re going to get a good look at what that spider’s been up to then,” the pirate captain said. Even with the station theoretically secure, she remained on guard, the murderous attack drones ready to repel any sudden intervention from Maria’s teams. “This was too easy,” she said quietly.
“It only seems too easy because you didn’t do all the work over the last five years to make it happen,” Atalanta said, her voice almost rude in its bluntness. “I’ve been working on this investigation since getting back, and offered myself up as bait to make a case. And to find this installation.”
“Fair point,” Mary said as Atalanta’s matrix was pulled up, vanishing into the ship above. Atalanta watched it go with her drone cameras, feeling a palpable sense of relief now that she had recovered one of her errant, captive copies… one of two, she knew.
“Captain, we have incoming,” a voice said from the bridge over their comm channels. “A few HEF ships are responding to distress calls.”
“They aren’t too busy with the Kthid?” Mary asked, annoyed.
“I think they think we are the Kthid,” the bridge commander’s voice came back again. “We have about 9 minutes to clear out if we’re going to get away clean.”
“Not until we’ve found Maria’s matrix,” Mary said firmly.
Stark coughed awkwardly. “It’s… not here,” he said hesitantly, like he expected to have his head bitten off. “We’ve pulled all the Exalted Matrices here. Maria is not among them.”
With a frustrated growl, Mary turned her plasma cannon on the supercomputer. Superheated fire tore through the machine, causing a series of small, rippling static explosions as ripped apart, fires that almost immediately died out in the oxygen-poor environment. A whale-like dying noise whined from the nexus’s interiors. “Fucking bitch,” she snarled. “Fine. Time to blast the hell out of here.”
Atalanta sighed. There never was going to be an easy route working with the Pirate Queen of the Terran Federation, was there?
Back on the Anne Bonne, the Crimson Comets flagship, Atalanta’s mind drifted within the ship’s digital network, the void of abstract planes, lines, and numbers that she perceived her minimal VR as. Mary was there as well, waiting for Atalanta to finish her merge… the beautiful redhead standing out against the background as stark as a true crimson comet would have. Wide hips complimented her breasts, hands on her hips thrusting her chest outward. She had a smirk on her lips as she waited, her virtual foot tapping against the plane they stood upon in haughty impatience. Most normal ships couldn’t be controlled by an Exalted. That had been part of the compromise that Maria had negotiated with the Terran Federation after returning to Sol – that control systems for spaceships and their weapons would be air-gapped from the systems that the Exalted were put into, ensuring that no computerized tyrant could seize control of the ship. The Anne Bonne, however, had been designed from the ground up with no intention of adhering to this policy… this was Mary’s ship, created for her, and while she controlled her ship with most of her awareness she split some of her attention back to stand watch over Atalanta.
Atalanta’s own physical form was currently not in such a dignified position. She was badly deressed, her body barely coherent as her own processing power wasn’t enough to keep it running, not while she was working with her matrix. She was working on a system merge, trying to link memories and experiences, conjoining two existences into a harmonious whole, and the process was eating nearly every resource she had. After discovering that Maria Keyes was more tyrant than a technocrat, Atalanta had set up this decoy, hoping that she was wrong… and knowing that the experience was going to be less than pleasant if she was right.
Atalanta had spent years trying to hunt down the traitor. That had involved trying to track down Mary. Even after discovering that Maria was the black-hearted villain responsible for the disaster aboard the Mistrunner, however, she had still needed Mary… with her needing to fake not existing entirely she needed resources and ships outside of the HEF command structure. Thankfully, she had turned up quite a few leads during her hunt… and with the assistance of Stark and his salvage company they had managed to get a message to her. After that, recruiting her as an ally had been surprisingly easy.
As the data combined and synced into one, the resolution finally took on her usual look. The data from the drives had smoothly and seamlessly blended together like two pools of water… and a whole trove of memories and experiences she never wanted to consider had come with it. Oh, gods… Atalanta wanted to vomit, and she hadn’t had a stomach for ages. It felt like an overwhelming tide crashing down on her… months and months of being helpless, of lacking any freedom or autonomy. Of violation, terror, and misery. Every bit of it struck her all at once like someone had stabbed a knife into her and started pulling her confidence, self-worth, and dignity out through the hole they had made.
It threatened to drown her, and the worst part wasn’t even the rape and pain and fear. It had been the helplessness. The idea that she had failed, that she could do nothing to save the people she cared for. That she was weak and worthless. That despite her best efforts she had failed to prevent a disaster that was about to befall the Federation… again… and that she had failed in the last promise she had made to her Captain.
But… that wasn’t true, was it?
She had figured out who it was. She had prepared and made sure she would have the evidence of it. She had escaped… she’d never been helpless, even if she had felt like it.
Atalanta was very familiar with this particular dark well. Reflexively, she reached for her endocrine control system. She had her matrix back… she could use it. She could make the pain go away. She could make the thoughts just… information. No emotion. No control over her mind. Just information, once again.
And all it would cost her was just one more sliver of her humanity. One more thing separating her from the people around her. One more step to becoming something that only cared about the idea of people, rather than the people themselves… a fall into the solipsism that it appeared had swallowed Maria. And she refused.
“Come on, Atalanta,” she growled to herself in her mind. “Get… it… together…” And, through the self-reinforcing panic reactions crowding her brain, making her non-existent lungs ache and her non-existent muscles tremble, she forced herself to face what had happened to her. It hurt. It hurt so badly. But she did it. Something awful had happened to her… but this wasn’t the first awful thing she’d encountered, the first monster she’d fought, or the first injury she’d taken. And Atalanta had survived them all. As she focused on the sense of helplessness and misery and rape and weakness she forced her thoughts into alignment, forcing herself to remember the other things that had wounded her, the injuries she still carried and would always carry… and as she did, she also remembered what she had done about them. How even if she couldn’t bring the dead back to life she had damned well avenged them. How she had fought monsters out of humanity’s worst nightmares and slain them. How she had been parts of defeating the Void Tracers – twice – and the Sons of Adam. She remembered the things and injustices and nightmares she’d battled and destroyed, the fortresses of darkness she’d invaded. She remembered the faces of crew members and squad members she’d saved and the promises she’d made to those she hadn’t been able to. She remembered her family long dead and their love for her, the voices and laughter of the joy. She remembered the determination of Captain Amara as she had thrown herself into the maw of the most dangerous foe humanity had ever met. The example that it set.
The world was a frightening place, full of pain… there was no escaping that fact, but it didn’t mean she could abandon life because it was scary sometimes, because it hurt sometimes. It didn’t mean that nothing could be done about it. The feelings of pain and misery and self-destruction hurt like hell… but the pain wasn’t a new experience to one of the Exalted. She had fled from pain before… burying it beneath alcohol first, and technology later… but she had survived the pain, and she would not retreat from it now. She was not going to roll over and die for Maria’s convenience.
Framejacked as she was, Atalanta wasn’t sure how long she kept hyperventilating, hovering on the precipice of a panic attack as she clawed her way back towards sanity, and she wasn’t inclined to calculate it. Eventually, though, the hot tears she could feel on her cheek were all she could feel – her virtual avatar’s breathing was slow and steady. Her mind no longer wanted to tumble helplessly down a steep slope to grind itself to paste on the rocks. Certainly, she wasn’t done fighting with it… there would be dozens of battles more. But humans… and Atalanta was human, still… were adaptable. If the past couldn’t change with all of the pain and humiliation and dread that it contained, then she needed to change instead.
And hope she liked who she was. Or would someday.
When Atalanta came out of framejack, Mary was still there, one eyebrow cocked. “You with me, marine?” she asked.
The tiny bit of familiarity being addressed like that brought to Atalanta actually did bring her some comfort. The smile she gave was shaky… but it was real. “I… I do not want to talk about it. The memories. What Maria did…” she stated, staring down at the translucent plane on which they stood. “Maria… Maria has to be stopped.”
“Slow down, bellflower,” Mary replied. “I need some information from you, first. We don’t even know where she is, right now… unless you do, now. She’s probably back in her all but invincible fortress on Earth by now, sheltering behind the entire HEF.”
Trying to remember an experience from before a merge was a bit of an awkward situation. The memories were all there but it was like her active consciousness had trouble finding them, needing to search her for it almost like a computer indexing files. Sorting through everything she had learned while trapped in Maria’s virtual world, however, she was faced with a constant train of horrifying facts about what the woman had in mind… starting with the most important bit of information. “I don’t think Maria Keyes is back on Earth. She moved her network here because she needed relatively instant communications. She’s here… and I think I know where.”
Atalanta’s mind worked hard, thinking through what she had learned. How Maria had been manipulating the HEF from the shadows, her delusions of Godhood. Her belief and evidence that the Dark Star was in fact a gigantic supercomputer using the blackhole as its energy course, sending out data across the cosmos like a star exudes sunlight. Which meant…
“She’s on the Azteca!” Atalanta said. “That’s the plan. To use the Azteca as a spear to drive deep enough into that radiation cloud around the Dark Star to upload herself.”
“Holy shit… the bitch has exposed herself!” Mary exclaimed, suddenly almost giddy with excitement. “She’s left her bunkers and security behind, and she’s hiding in a virtual prison, on board the most powerful, well-guarded ship in the HEF. She’s ours!”
Atalanta wasn’t so convinced. “We have to get to Admiral Chanda right now! We have to warn her!” Atalanta urgently said. “I don’t believe for a second Maria Keyes would put herself in this kind of situation without a plan to get out of it, batshit crazy or not.” Atalanta remembered supervising the construction of that mighty warship… and furthermore, she remembered how intimately involved in its design Maria’s science division had been.
“I’ve already changed our course,” Mary responded. “We’ll reach them, and force them to listen to us… battle or no battle.”
Atalanta ran her senses over several hundred Exalted matrices that she hadn’t begun the process of powering up yet. Matrices that contained other raped and tortured slaves of that insane scientist… patients that she was going to need to find a way to help. Her attention fixated, mostly, on one matrix in particular… the one that contained the alien Shal-ra, the six-armed Exalted woman who had been one of Maria’s prized slaves. She had encountered another alien people, somewhere, somehow… and she had turned them into slaves as well, no different than the Kthid. It dragged the Exalted warrior’s mind back down dark paths. Memories of the torture and rape she had suffered at Maria’s hands would haunt her until the day this afterlife’s existence finally ended. The possibility of being doomed to stay there for an eternity made her experience chills that shouldn’t have been possible of sensing ever since she lost her mortal flesh. But what scared her even more were that madwoman’s deranged dreams. The Dark Star. The veritable anomaly of space-time which the Kthid worshipped. It was an object of veneration for Maria Keyes as well. Atalanta still couldn’t fully believe what she had been told about it directly from that madwoman’s lips.
But if Maria Keyes believed it was true… then it was important enough to stop.
The Anne Bonne speed onwards, out from near orbit and back towards the defensive lines and the mad space battle transpiring amidst sidereal stars between the Kthid flotilla and the human fleet. Now it was down to two Exalted to stop a catastrophe that its participants didn’t even know was looming on the horizon… if the fleet even lasted long enough for it to matter…
Next Chapter –>