Episode Nine

18 Years Ago
Eastern Raxuda`Acarol

“Do you know what it’s like to be disposable?”

Caro examined his altered face in the mirror.

“That’s an inane question,” said Riba Wygz.

“I’ve held countless women under my sway,” Caro spoke to his reflection in the mirror. “I lure them in with one question. Are you human? I ask them this and hope they ask the same of the men who abuse them.”

The polished Hizak cared nothing for his words.

“Gender politics is unknown to me,”

“That is a sad truth, Doctor Wygz,” Caro said. Femarctic females knew nothing of the struggle for general consideration; the privilege of being the default blinded them to such injustices. “Tell me, dear Doctor, am I Femmar?”

The surgeon didn’t answer.

“Not anymore,” Caro answered for her and sensed with her a mix of fatigue, anger, and disgust.

Riba peered out one of the narrow yacht windows.

“Time is short, Caro,”

“Your position awards you plenty of time, Doctor,” Caro said

Riba’s mood shifted to frustration.

“Our agreement, Caro-”

“—a deal is a deal,” Caro marveled at the strange face staring back at him.

Pale human skin replaced his milky white hide and blue-gray streaks. The black of his eyes were just small dots within circles of brown set upon white.

“My mako would ask, Caro, is that you?” he combed his fingers through the short strands of russet and lamented the loss of his lush, long black hair. “She wouldn’t know me if I stood before her now,”

Doctor Wygz stepped up behind him; the range of emotions slipped through an insincere display of passive concern.

“You must recline for a week to ten days,” she said. “Avoid the sun for a month, and be delicate when bathing for the first year,”

“It’s so fragile,” Caro pressed the skin beneath his eye.

“The purpose of these protein patches was to repair hide damage,” Riba said. “My younger colleagues built upon my original matrix to enable this full-body graft,”

Caro grinned, “Has this test been successful, Doctor?”

“We’ve always been able to emulate the helovx dermis,” Riba’s swollen sense of accomplishment saturated Caro’s emotions.

“No doubt the First Office’s precious Sorority of Defense will utilize this brilliant camouflage,” Caro eyed Riba’s reflection in the mirror.

“Previous attempts at grafting helovx skin upon a Femarctic host had often ended in failure,” Riba’s humored countenance became dark. “We had only one other success in Orta’s divisional Holistics Lab,”

“What makes me and this other, so special?” Caro asked.

“Your gender,” Riba said. “After many failures, I utilized some initial formulations cultivated while overseeing the retraining of-”

Caro snapped, “—let’s not revisit your past, Doctor Wygz,”

Riba stepped up behind him, “We have an arrangement,”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Caro purred. “I must warn you that any attempt to hold something over Woxdag’s head could cost you, yours,”

“I shan’t be ignored by that idiotic Bizak,” Riba’s sense of entitlement flooded Caro with resentment. “I’m destined for the Primaryship of the Prime Lab. I’m a direct descendant of Uymras,”

“That’s nothing to brag about, Doctor,” Caro smirked. “So is Ryouym,”

“I’ve altered you as asked,” Riba grabbed his arm. “Reveal what I seek,”

“Careful,” Caro said sweetly, “I bruise easily now,”

Riba released him, “I’ve aided you at great risk to my standing,”

“You certainly have, the Primary’s marixidoe is always an inch away,” Caro expressed concern just to see what it looked like on his new human face.

“You should’ve been collected and terminated years ago,” Riba frowned. “Tiba deserved better,”

“I deserved better!” Caro cried.

Riba’s fury assaulted Caro’s senses.

“Tiba lost everything for you,”

“I gave Tiba Sizix all the love that I had,” Caro said, tears welling up in his strange human eyes. “I believed her a noble soul, but I was so very wrong,”

Riba narrowed her eyes.

“I advised her to discard you,”

“You think you’re the first Hizak to consider me a throwaway?” Caro asked, having learned early in life that he meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.

At age ten, his birthing maker had abandoned him at a caste-center. He lived there three months before an Hizak caregiver named Riga Cristi took him home.

The esteemed Riga routinely molested Caro until he matured physically. After his growing body soured Riga’s donataphilic interests, fifteen-year-old Caro was sold to the Tiskilo Bluzsh in West Toxis.

Surrounded by Zaxiri, some of them male, Caro lived a blissful life and found an intimate connection with a belly named Uzu Axa.

During Orta Attack, the night when all the Ninth-Gen’s bruisers held sway throughout the citbluz circuit, three broods assaulted Uzu. On the way to the local RHC, the soft-spoken belly had bled out in his arms.

Caro approached the detectives investigating Uzu’s attack. He wished to testify against the three Marixi responsible; he was the only one willing to talk about what occurred. Caro had been robbed of his chance to speak after a young defense Advocate, the now mighty Ryouym, disqualified his testimony for being male.

Afterward, Caro was officially Collected. He spent his twentieth-year at a Retraining-Center in Toxis Prime, and while there he met a sanitation engineer named Pikal Gos.

When the Bizak smuggled Caro out the center and took him home, one his Subaki partners protested and threatened to reveal the situation to the local Guardia.

Pikal deposited Caro on a Vanda street with a cred-card.

After draining the card, Caro found himself alone for the first time in his life. He sought refuge from the noisy metro by hiding behind the waterfalls in Vandosh Park.

Desperate for food and affection, Caro accosted a couple of Bizak waitstaff out back of a bistro; the pair of Sixth-Gen elders had rudely insisted on dousing Caro in return for some scraps from the kitchen.

The impromptu tryst had attracted the attention of a well-dressed citizen named Tiba Sizix.

An Hizak with a taste for watching males being degraded, Tiba spied joyfully from the shadows. Hide still wet with juice, Caro had been nibbling on his meager meal when Tiba emerged and offered him a place to bathe.

Tiba’s high-rise in Vanda was the most luxurious place Caro ever knew.

He developed an instant report with Tiba’s two housed Zaxir males and discovered his new benefactor was an elite accountant. A top graduate of the Mynu Credit Conservatory, Tiba was employed by the firm assigned to House Kul.

Caro had readily agreed to entertain Tiba’s specific desires, and though it was difficult for him not to think of his dear Uzu when being roughly handled by foul-mouthed bruisers, Caro endured because anything was better than collection.

The production of the Tenth was a terrible time for housed Zaxir males. Caro’s overwhelming need to impregnate hadn’t made him foolish enough to venture to the citbluz unattended like his house-mates.

The two other males in Tiba’s stable had been careless, and after their collection, Tiba and Caro sensibly relocated to Utama, where Tiba’s importance increased after the ascension of the Ninth.

Males were in short supply due to the Balanced Citizenry Act. Any citizen managing to own a contraband male found herself invited to the best gatherings.

Tiba had never offered up Caro because she’d surmised that the death of his dear Uzu might’ve been perpetrated by her new Primary.

One night, Tee Banto organized a celebration commemorating the triumphant return of the Veldag III from Tharso.

A glutton for the promise of an abused male, an invited Tiba eagerly attended.

After the next day turned to night, Caro grew concerned. He left the high-rise and took a transport to the Kul estate.

Entering through the kitchens, he encountered a young marixidoe standing beside an hizakidoe with a hauntingly familiar face.

During his first year with Tiba, when Tiba was tending to Primary Ixo Kul’s private accounts, Caro met the chilly male, Fitaxkul. Hiding in the skin himself, the male Hizak turned a blind eye to Tiba’s housed male-bellies.

Caro greeted the donats, but the hizakidoe had just stared at him before whispering in the ear of the little bruiser.

You don’t belong here, the marixidoe looked and sounded like his dead maker, Fee Banto. You want to live, you need to leave.

Footsteps on the stairs caught Caro’s attention, and the donats vanished the moment Caro looked away.

Descending the stairs was Gid Ikat, one of the three bruisers who’d murdered Uzu. Recognizing Caro, Gid had wasted no time attacking. Beaten unconscious, Caro woke naked on the floor, with Fusa Kul standing over him.

A robed Tiba sat tied to a chair with her hair up in a turban and Ryo Uym holding her face steady so she wouldn’t miss a thing.

Fusa’s rape of Caro had been so brutal that he passed out through the worst of it, but upon waking, he found himself in a medical bed with injuries so severe he required reconstructive surgery to salvage his face.

Riba Wygz had performed that surgery.

“Tiba’s refusal to give you to the Primary,” said Riba. “Cost her everything,”

Caro thought Tiba’s sacrifice had been for love, and for a time Tiba might’ve felt the same.

After the attack, however, Tiba had developed a taste for seeing Caro raped.

Exiled to Antarctica City, Tiba had been unable to procure any other bellies to join them, leaving Caro to bear the brunt of her devolving hiziburx.

Tiba had compelled Caro to lure Marixi back to their small residence where she would remain hidden while Caro revealed his gender and then refused to engage in the agreed upon sex.

Ninth-Gen bruisers carried short fuses, and Caro had willingly lit them just to please his Hizak.

Left alone during the day while Tiba was at work, Caro had soon discovered human women.

The human sector of the AC was filled with women of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Their physical affections had brought joy to a suddenly dismal life.

Ignoring the Doctor’s malice, Caro continued to examine his body.

“You’re certain that this new skin will camouflage me from Doctor Dag’s new weapon?” Caro asked, running a hand over his newfound penis.

“New weapon?” Riba said, snide. “That Shell will languish in development,

“Its scope is greater than you know,” said Caro, pulling on some clothes.

“If by some stroke of luck that bizakidoe of Uym’s manages to achieve its realization, it’s only as clever as the host controlling it,” Riba said.

Fusadakul isn’t just some ramxkul in boots,” Caro warned. “That bruise has the brain of a hizzah,”

“Komad Kul experiences bouts of brilliance far to infrequently to deserve such reputation,” Riba said.

“Project Femitokon,” Caro said, grinning at Riba’s sullen face at its mention. “That’s why Doctor Dag promoted Ryo Uym’s bizakidoe over you at the Prime Lab?”

“My career isn’t your concern,” Riba said.

Caro teased, “Bizaki do cling together,”

“Our arrangement, Caro,” Riba said. “I’ve entertained your presence long enough!”

“You want to know what Tiba knew,” Caro pointed. “What’s Rasajyr done to you?”

“Tiba learned something about Rasa,” Riba said. “Something salacious enough to compel Wox Dag to award her Secondary of Accounts in the Prime Lab. What did she know?”

One night, Tiba had returned home jovial.

Armed with information about a committee member, Tiba had made plans to use what she knew to secure a position back on the mainland; Caro couldn’t allow it, it hadn’t been right.

“That citizen,” Caro’s chest tightened. “Doesn’t deserve such ugliness,”

Riba stepped toward him, hands behind her back.

“All I need do is notify the first Axyrn I see back at Nazca,” she said. “That should bring Terminal Sabotage right to you.”

The Hizak flinched at the sound of the pistol cocked behind her ear.

“Easy my love,” Caro said in the woman’s native Hamgyong. “Our dear Doctor will survive this with her head intact,

The pregnant Jungwanian woman slowly moved away.

“Doctor Wygz, this is May, and she’s carrying my baby,” Caro said, proud. “Human women are fiercely loyal creatures, and this one loves me with everything that she is,”

“You sicken me,” Riba whispered.

“Your feelings are my feelings when I look at you, Doctor,” Caro cautiously took the gun from May. “For what it’s worth, you should know that Tiba had no intention of taking me back to Toxis with her, not after all the trouble I’d caused.”

Riba asked, “You poisoned her out of spite?”

“I didn’t kill Tiba because she was leaving me,” Caro shook his head. “I couldn’t allow her to hurt him, not after everything he did for me, and for Tiba.”

“Who do you speak of?” Riba demanded, and then shook her head. “Wox Banto’s no hider, I’ve seen her naked in the citbluz,”

“When we males sleep, Doctor, we live in a shared world that no female can ever touch,” Caro took the bullets from the gun before putting it back into May’s hand. “I’m leaving now with no intention of ever outing him to you,”

“Tell me his name,” Riba whispered.

Caro shook his head, “I killed Tiba to protect him,”

“Those grafts require surgical maintenance for the first few months,” said Riba.

May, go start the boat,” Caro whispered to the woman before stepping to Riba. “Doctor Wygz, the woman I just stopped from shooting you, is a plastic surgeon.”

“A human capable of surgery?” Riba laughed.

“She tends to birth-defects experienced by her people’s elite,” said Caro. “She watched you operate on me. Women can learn things so fast,”

“You won’t get away with this!” Riba yelled as Caro exited the room.

Topside on the yacht’s deck, the ocean breeze tickled his new skin.

Hearing the motorboat idle up alongside, he boarded it with the help of their two attending wives. Taking her pregnant figure into his arms, Caro kissed her and held her tight.

“My name is Carl, Carl Crystal.”


8 Hours Ago
Antonio Falls Cavern

The underground village and its modest population thrived beneath the desolate surface. Their manicured sidewalks and starry night sky were a testament to how far humanity had come in the two-hundred years since its near-extinction.

Organized life was not welcomed in the Badlands.

No tracks existed for the diesel trains from Midlands, and no landing docks were erected for Appalachia’s massive zeppelins.

Locals survived in tiny settlements along highways long ripped apart by a century of tornadic storms.

No one ventured out at night because darkness belonged only to the those whose humanity was lost in the quest to survive.

Utahraptor Sil caught the scent of harmony from his position on the ridge.

Upon discovering a buried air-duct, he’d led his pack for many sunsets until they found its destination. When burrowing under the rocks revealed a laddered entry, Utah led his horde down the concrete stairwell.

Pushing past the first set of doors, Utah savored the abject fear in the eyes of the men and women there. Swinging hatchets and machetes, he and his horde polluted the room with piss, shit, and blood. Drunk with violence, Utah took a moment to clear his head, and that’s when he found the town.

Looking down upon it from a windowed room, Utah ignored its many buttons, switches, and controls. Chaos demanded that he baptize the circular maze of tree-lined streets with the blood of the innocent.

A hand found his hand and squeezed.

Utah’s precious Eli Red admired the string lights twinkling upon the gutters of every household. His dark, soulful eyes, hidden behind thick round spectacles, saw farther and better than anyone.

Eli whispered of bulb-covered triangular trees, and he sang of standing street lamps adorned with grassy wreathes; the time of the nativity was upon them, but Utah never understood the interlopers’ odd celebrations.

When Eli figured out how to use the ambient and environmental controls, he turned off the crickets as ordered and cranked up the wind.

Utah wanted no rain to come and wash away the flood of blood he planned to unleash.

From his pocket, he pulled out a vintage disk recorder. Setting it next to the microphone, he activated the speaker system and filled the town below with a pre-impact song about a girl named Robin.

A flick of Utah’s wrist detracted the sharp claws upon his hand, and this allowed his nimble fingers to better access the lighting controls.

It wasn’t long before the sheep emerged from their homes. Clad in their robes and pajamas, they crowded into the streets as someone unknown assaulted their world by ramping the tubing output to create a continuous strobe.

Utah led his horde from the control room and down dozens of metal stairs. Swift predators, they scurried over the hill of rocks and set upon the first of the sheep.

-and in the bottom of a concrete basement, Robin flies again.

The music and blinking lights confused the inhabitants, and when their screaming began, the rest of the flock became too frightened to run.

Claws sliced through skin and warm blood sprayed his face and neck.

Robin flies again.

His bloodlust incited with each new flicker of the strobe, he tore into them, ravenous, and fed on the cries of the frightened sheep as they writhed on the ground stained red with blood.

Robin flies again.

Utamx Paxicol Center
Soktulo District, Utama
0600 Hours – 1 Yulitat 2228

Fuzo opened her eyes the aroma of the Subak from her dream.

Sleeping often brought flashes of the braided beauty. Those pleasures the night of Orta Attack had been Fuzo’s first sexual experience outside herself.

Fuzo’s unit was third up from the ground, and she could hear the harmonic whine of a kyrs-b’do strumming from somewhere outside.

Bare feet thumping against ladder rungs made the overhead storage pocket holding her Filmark and communicator pin, tremble.

Fuzo didn’t think it would be possible for her to sleep the full twenty-two days after being laid up for so long on the Orcinus. During the final week of Buxol, however, her body began winding down, and concentration became difficult.

Kul retrieved her just in time, and Fuzo had been too fatigued to ask why they were hibernating in Utama.

Upon their arrival at check-in, subhive Koltrix reminded Kul that she owned a private paxicol outside the city center; the Komad downplayed this by thanking the bodyless voice before ordering two sleepers in the World Oceans wing.

Fuzo found the bruiser’s wing of Utamx Paxi no different than the one in Pikalit until she saw the civilian’s checking in to sleep there. She passed countless Hizaki on the way to the bruiser’s wing and hadn’t realized Ramaxia contained so many brainers.

Mind on Hizaki, Fuzo wondered if the Komad slept short like a Marixi, or did she go the full forty like an Hizak?

Outside the compartment window, someone complained about the size of the filotax pools. A punch on her door came with a shout. Tired laughter erupted after someone ordered Fuzo out of her capsule; they then punctuated the command by passing gas.

Sitting up made Fuzo lightheaded. Fingers found the scar on her brow and traced its delicate lines.

A tap to the hatch-button popped her door, ushering in the faint smell of Col-Tan; every surface was still damp with the stuff as Fuzo made her way down the ladder.

In the gapirx-room, the sound of hard falling water greeted her along with dozens of naked Marixi, some of whom she’d known for years.

Straddling the gape, Fuzo urinated for several minutes.

Elsewhere in the building, bellies and brainers were also waking up, but Zaxiri didn’t gather around to leak in front of each other, and Hizaki weren’t breaking wind in the middle of conversations about Orta.

“What are you doing here, Fuzodox?”

Fusat Holix straddled the gape opposite her.

Holix had been eighth standing during their Final Trial, not that Fuzo had been awake to see her fall to Vyx and Acari.

“Waking up,” Fuzo replied.

“This bit of World Oceans real estate is for Utamaxi,” Holix groused. “You weren’t born in Utama.”

“My Komad brought me here,” Fuzo said.

“Kul?” Holix asked. “Why didn’t she take you to her pod’s paxicol? The dressing room in that thing is the size of my kerma’s entire house,”

“You been there, have you?” Fuzo asked.

An Eleventh-Gen bruiser named Wuzi passed behind her, “Holix goes to the Kul Paxi when the Primary needs her gash munched on,”

Fuzo and Holix laughed.

“I’m her favorite eater outer,” Holix bragged. “What’s your rank now, Dox?”

“I just made Dokomad,”

“What happened to your face?”

“I got shot,”

“You going to get it fixed?”

“Thinking about it,”

“Don’t get it fixed,” Holix stood as her gape flushed. “Scars are badass,”

Fuzo tapped her foot against the base of the gape to flush it and rose to her feet after a blast of warm water rinsed her gurx.

The crowd in the changing room had thinned enough for Fuzo to locate her locker. Pressing her palm against its narrow door prompted Koltrix to greet her.

Inside was her new uniform, now beige like Kul’s; her sadness at Ilo’s demise hindered Fuzo’s willingness to take pride in it. She dropped her Filmark into her boots and fixed the communicator pin to her uniform’s neck.

The only difference from the Komad’s uniform was the metallic gray on Fuzo’s collar and hip lapels, and the ranking emblem stitched on the arm.

The hot filotax pools were located under a sign that read Marixi-Only.

Back in Pikalit, civilians often bathed in pools meant for the bruiser’s, but there weren’t many Zaxiri sleeping in the Triad. Utama was loaded with bellies, and since that caste was overtly amorous after waking, it was best they were segregated.

Catching her reflection in the water, Fuzo studied her scarred forehead. It resembled a leafless tree with a stunted trunk; the longest branch reached down onto the bridge of her nose.

Fuzo’s recovery on the Orcinus had been swift.

Connie, the lifeform whose brain cells repaired Fuzo’s, would often whisper in her thoughts without prompt. The first noticeable change in Fuzo was her diminished sense of smell. There were other subtle changes; most discerning was the increase in her monogamist feelings.

Doctor Uym, who’d barely spoken two words to Fuzo since the surgery, had assured her that Connie’s cells only jump-started regrowth; none of the lifeform’s brain existed inside her head.

Fuzo swam laps and reclined on the rocks of the wind room before venturing back to the lockers.

Pulling on her OA’s, she noticed the few ranking Marixi suiting-up for muster.

At the end of the bench was Hibat Kil.

Wearing the gray uniform of a Donmat, her armband indicated she served aboard the TCS Chironex. A Sword Pod Operator, the red and white-hided Kil had little contact with Fuzo’s donational mentor, Promad Yuxi.

Bakidon Kirgo Su was still suited up for the Axyrn.

Despite Su’s ribbing of Fuzo during the Bumo mission, the orange and black striped bruise delivered a friendly nod before stepping away and revealing a bruiser Fuzo wished to avoid.

Styba Balru broke eye contact to examine Fuzo’s arm, “Dokomad Dox,”

Fuzo returned the gesture, “Dokomad Balru.”

“I didn’t know you were born in Utama,” Kil said.

Balru grinned, “Dox hails from Pikalit,”

“What are you doing here?” Su asked.

Kil grimaced, eyeing Fuzo’s head.

“What the fuck happened?” Su laughed. “Kul finally get tired of your swell and palm your head?”

“A Slav unloaded a gun in my face,” Fuzo said, silencing Su and Kil.

“You were the Donmat that protected Ilocux?” Balru asked, and when Fuzo nodded, she said, “That’s why she’s now a Dokomad,”

Kil smirked at Balru, “What did you do to make Dokomad?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Balru said, stonily.

Su and Kil chuckled while Fuzo wondered who Balru killed to make rank.

“You need to get that fixed, Dox,” said Su.

Pulling her uniform from her locker, Fuzo closed the door to find Balru standing there. Rather than startle, Fuzo stood her ground and faced her.

Balru’s left hand palmed Fuzo’s head as her right firmly took hold of Fuzo’s chin. Balru hadn’t put her hands on Fuzo in many years

“That’s a badass wound Dokomad,” she studied it.

“Zaxy’s love scars. Gets them icy,” Kil added. “You should keep it,”

“You can let go of me now, Dokomad,” Fuzo demanded politely.

Balru released her, but before Fuzo could get her arm up, Balru landed a punch to the side of her head.

The pain was inconsequential; Balru only intended to knock Fuzo off balance and into the clutches of Su and Kil.

“This is an Utamaxi paxicol,” Balru led the way as Su and Kil hauled a struggling Fuzo out of the locker room. “Since this is your first-time hibernating with us, it’s no surprise that you’re unfamiliar with our Utamaxi traditions,”

They slammed Fuzo against the balcony grate. Peering over its edge, Fuzo saw that the three-story drop led to a crowded civilian pool.

“Let me go!” she shouted.

“Stop struggling brooder,” Balru said before barking the word, up.

Su and Kil lifted Fuzo off her feet and raised her over the railing.

Balru retook Fuzo’s chin.

“You have a nice swim Dox,” she said, close enough for Fuzo to feel her breath. Su and Kil tossed her over as Balru called out, “Try not to get any scars on the way down!”

Fuzo tumbled, passing decks of concerned onlookers. Splashing head first into the hot shallows, she curled up to avoid smacking the bottom; the last thing she needed was more brain damage.

Standing up, Fuzo’s soaked OA’s and steaming hide brought joy to the faces of the many Zaxiri lounging on the pool stairs.

“Balru!” shouted a turbaned young Hizak. Pointing angrily up from where Fuzo fell, she didn’t seem to mind that her little fronts were exposed. “What’s wrong with you!”

Balru appeared over the railing, “You want me to come and dry off those thick cheeks, Banto?”

“Your amateurish flirtations fail!” the Hizak yelled back.

“Give me a chance, Banto!” Balru yelled, and with that, she disappeared.

The Hizak turned, “Is this your Utama hibernation debut, brooder?”

Fuzo nodded and then ducked into the water.

Resurfacing, she found the white-hided Hizak now standing poolside; her robe parted for the benefit of the bellies watching.

“Let’s return you to dry clothes,” offering her a towel, the Hizak’s drawl was shrill, yet mildly lyrical.

Following her out of the pools, Fuzo noticed her large girsuzsch.

Hizzahs didn’t around her in the slightest, but she couldn’t ignore that the size of that backswell bouncing beneath the robe. The garment’s brown veneer brought out the green in those light stripes that slithered along her neck.

She’d seen the Komad naked dozens of times, so Kul no longer possessed that air of mystery that followed around most Hizaki. The challenge was to get them in front of you without their hair styled or their thick backside’s stuffed into some cloying pantsuit.

Fuzo stopped, “Look, I don’t know you-”

“—Obiz,” she said, at the door to the Orta wing.

Obizbanto?” Fuzo then saw the resemblance to representative Eppis Banto.

“Pull on a dry uniform,” she smiled. “We’ll reconvene here,”

“I met your kerma,” Fuzo blurted, stopping Banto in her tracks.

“Reminding me of her is unnecessary,” Banto forced a smile. “We’ll reconvene here,”

After Fuzo peeled off her wet undersuit and changed into a dry uniform, she waited outside the locker room for the Hizak. Ten minutes passed waiting before Fuzo ventured down to the dressing rooms to seek Banto out.

Subaki took less time twisting each strand of their hair into braided crowns than it took one Hizak to decide on a pair of shoes.

“You tired of awaiting my return,” Banto emerged with her head wrapped in a turban and her bottom-heavy figure clad in a dull walking suit.

No doubt, the hizzah planned to visit a style-sit.

“What do you do in there if you’re not getting dressed for the day?” Fuzo demanded.

Banto grinned, “We socialize with elder acquaintances,”

“Isn’t that’s what hizix bars are for?”

“Those establishments are tribal,” Banto said, opening the door to the stairwell. “When we wake, we take time to visit those who aren’t our everyday peers,”

“I know what acquaintance means,” Fuzo said.

“Serving with the former Doctor Sofita Kul hone your insight?” Banto asked, leading her down the stairs. “Before you inquire, I watched the report of Kul’s involvement in Uralskey and the death of Ilocux,”

“The Slavs killed Ilo, not Kul,”

“I agree,” Banto spoke over her shoulder. “I feel her facilitation of Wram’s deadly course of action was warranted,”

“How do you know so much about what happened?” Fuzo asked.

“The interHive shows all,” Banto said. “There’s helovx sailing the oceans who are now aware of what transpired with the Slavs at Uralskey,”

“Why aren’t we taking the verticals?” Fuzo demanded.

“Less chance of encountering Styba,” she said.

Fuzo stopped on the stairs, “What do you got planned, Banto?”

“Nothing complicated,” she promised. “You’re not frightened of Balru, are you?”

“Why are you sleeping in Utama?” Fuzo continued to follow.

“I’m from Vanda, it’s true,” she nodded. “I acquired a paxicol here in anticipation of a career change,”

“What job are you going for?” Fuzo asked.

“I successfully carried out an election drive for a Utama candidate,” Banto bragged. “My intent is now to strike for a Cloister-Aid position in her office,”

“An election?” Fuzo said. “What happened to Ryl Jyr?”

“CR Jyr stepped down citing a disenchantment with politics,” said Banto. “I joined the Wram campaign to encourage Utama born Hizak employed in Vanda, to cast their vote today before going back to work.”

“I know Velto Wram,” Fuzo said, following her into the corridor.

Banto eyed Fuzo forehead, “Under less than desirable circumstances,”

Near the verticals, Banto accosted a Bizak maintenance worker and asked her to unlock the utility closet.

The Bizak explained there was nothing in the closet but floor-buffers. Banto politely asked her again to open it, and the ornery gleam in the Bizak’s eye reminded Fuzo of that pervert bizzy doctor that had accosted her on the surface.

Opening the door, the Bizak left them.

Fuzo snapped, “If you got me here to rub you off-”

“—I don’t engage Marixi,” Banto said, curling her lip.

Fuzo followed her inside.

“What are we doing in here?”

Banto put her hand up for silence.

“She’s getting off the vertical,” Banto stepped out and pulled the door near closed, “I’ll begin a conversation, and then you pull her in,”

Fuzo waited until she heard Balru’s arrogant voice before following.

“You still crying, Banto?”

“I shed no tears for you, Styba,” Banto replied as Fuzo moved in behind Balru.

Balru caught Banto’s eyes shift to something behind her.

Fuzo landed a fist to Balru’s cheek when she turned. Taking hold of her thick arm, Fuzo lugged her off her feet as Banto pushed her into the closet.

Shoving Balru to the floor, Fuzo hopped over her before she could recover and slipped out just before Banto slammed the door shut.

Balru’s muffled voice came from the other side of the door.

“I’m going to end you, Dox,”

“Balru,” Banto scolded. “That’s conduct unbecoming,”

Balru remained calm, “Banto, you’re going to pay this,”

Fleeing the scene, a joyous Fuzo held up her pinky, and Banto returned the sentiment by raising her own.


Sofita jumped off the rounder as it slowed in Cloister Square.

On the digicast-screen out front of the Bizakask building was a recent headshot of Velto Wram; the Bizaki of Utama were supporting one of their own despite candidate Wram’s being a native Toxican.

Sofita jogged to the nearest polling center and as local Utamaxi, eagerly cast her vote for Wram. Afterward, she crossed the eastern quad on her way to the Utamx Canal District.

The torrent of glacial rapids snaked through downtown, and upon its northern banks sat the estates of those wealthy enough to afford the view of Utama metro.

The ruling House of Kul had been part of Utama since its founding, and Sofita still retained a residence on the Canal. Back when she cared to chronicle such things, she’d written about the lives of her ancestors Femitokon and Fusofitakil, and their tragic lives here.

 House Kul’s legacy may have been to create Ramaxia’s first Primary and Sernatae, but Utama owed its existence to an intelligent Marix named Balrusok.

Balrusok had been part of the exploratory crew sent down the massive Utaru River by Fusofitakil. Upon arriving on the shores of Lake Utamx, the Marix had decided to set up a high-elevation base camp.

Utam’s layout came from drawings made by Yirukel, the Hizak responsible for designing the first hydro station.

Instructions in hand, hundreds of Bizaki construction workers set about paving Utam’s roads. One of the project leaders was a polar-concrete mixer named Dukjyr, whose descendants would go on to establish Line Jyr.

Jyr and her teams blasted out the rockface that created the first residences; these shoreline cavern-homes became occupied by the Subaki partners of the Bizak subjects assigned to future exploratory missions.

The original subjects responsible for Utam’s development and growth would never know the City of Utama, but their ancestors made sure to attach their names to various streets and districts throughout the dome.

While settling Utam, Balrusok had fallen in love with an engineer named Pikalto. The Bizak was also a lover of Fusofitakil, but she’d chosen to bond and produce with Balrusok. After her death during the construction of Utama’s dome, Balrusok had to raise their Hizak donation.

After Femitokon accidentally killed Balrusok during a physical altercation, Femitokon took that hizakidoe into her home; those descendants would go on to create the wealthy Line Sok.

Balrusok’s second bond was a Bizak named Velixateel. She’d been raising the Marix donation she’d created with Balrusok, until her death during the doming of Utama; her marixidoe would establish Clan Balru.

Walking the pedestrian path beneath a transport bridge bearing Pikalto’s name, Sofita made her way to the Utamx Foodat.

Sandwiched between the hourly Zag Goztan, and a new helovx dry-goods market called Helvfood-Ulitat, the old ‘tamx hadn’t changed in the decades since Sofita last strolled its aisles.

Off the front entry were neatly stacked cubes filled with freshly wrapped fish, meat, and poultry. Grains and nuts sat in open face bins beneath layers of shelved beverages lined with a variety of shapely glass bottles.

Sofita scoured the brands for something fruity before hearing a familiar voice. Following it back to the produce section, Sofita found the Bizak standing at a waist-high tank of floating fruit.

Elbows deep into its dark water, the Bizak was rummaging around for just the right gabishol. Polar-apples were similar in color and taste to a North American red-delicious, but they were the size of an helovx cantaloupe.

Bottled drink in hand, Sofita stepped up to the tank.

“I eat my weight in these, once a week,” she volunteered.

“That’s not saying much, Komad,” the Bizak looked her over. “For a Marix, you’re a little small in certain places,”

“A little-small?” Sofita asked. “Is that different than a lot of small?”

“In your case,” the Bizak’s eyes fell to Sofita’s girsuzsch. “No,”

Sofita said, “Some bruisers maintain a sedate build,”

“When I think of the word, sedate,” the Bizak ran her wet hands over her chef’s jacket. “I think of sleeping,”

“I just woke up,” Sofita said.

The Bizak sounded bored, “You sound famished,”

“I could eat,” Sofita said.

“You should eat more,” the Bizak nodded. “It builds mass,”

“Not all soldiers need to chop ice,” Sofita said.

Her eyes brightened, “Can you chop?”

Sofita stepped around the tank and stood before the Bizak’s cart.

“Are you trying to recruit me, Citizen?”

“I can always use the help in my shop,” the Bizak said.

Sofita reached into the cart and tapped the gabishol.

“How do you know which ones to purchase?”

“It’s not easy figuring out which one to take home,” the Bizak lifted the gabishol from her cart with both hands and then took a bite before tossing it to Sofita. “It’s all about rind flexibility. Like a well-worn uniform, you want one that strips easily.”

The Bizak pushed the cart onward and left Sofita holding the bitten gabishol.

Departing the grocery, Sofita crossed Cloister Square again, determined to make it to the Balrudos building.

A historical landmark, the three-story structure was surrounded by high-rises that housed Utama’s most upscale style-sits. Its first floor contained the Balrupaxo, a deli-restaurant that had been serving employees of the Cloister since its founding; like most of Utama, the deli closed when the Hizaki went to sleep.

The Bizak from the market was around back, climbing the stained marble stairs while carrying two bags of groceries. Struggling to procure a keycard from her pocket, one of the bags toppled, and Sofita appeared to catch a dislodged palux.

“I suppose I owe you something for that save?” the Bizak said, entering the residence and leaving the door open.

“I told you then, and I’m telling you now,” Sofita closed the door behind her. “You owe me nothing.”

Shoving the bags onto the counter, the Bizak rushed into Sofita’s arms.

Lips pressed together tight, Sofita’s hands slid under the Bizak’s smock.

“My couch is on the third floor now,” said the Bizak, between kisses.

Gathering him up in her arms, she climbed the stairs.

Sofita spent many months hiding from the world here while her pregnancy had progressed. Her only intellectual company had been fellow-deviant Ergal Jakix, an old acquaintance from Mynu who became Sofita’s closest ally.

Peeling off her uniform, she watched the Bizak undress.

The undershirt lifted, two mounds of faux-flesh dropped to the floor.

Gently kicking them aside, Sofita fell to her knees. Determined hands yanked down his trousers, and when his clasper bobbed up to greet her, she eagerly took it into her mouth.

On his couch, her body remembered their dance.

His head back and his eyes closed, the Bizak was as beautiful as the first time she watched him rocking beneath her. Her mind recalled the many nights she’d pleasured herself watching him penetrate Ergal with the same passionate intensity.

Sofita wanted to prolong their tryst, but her time was short.

Her gash swollen and weeping, she moved over him and demanded he put himself inside of her. Smiling, he did as she asked, and each gentle push was an ecstasy she desired to savor slowly.

When he latched onto her arms, Sofita began slamming down on him hard and fast until a biting cold seized up her insides. Her guzshlix sucked him in, and the intensity of it was enough to lift his backside off the couch.

The chill faded, replaced by intense heat.

Her body released him, and slick with her juice, he grabbed hold and manipulated his flesh with the skill only a male could know. Arching his back, he cried out, and when his open legs quaked under her arms, her eyes fixed on the bulging flesh between his fingers.

Like oil seeping through silk, his juice bled from every pore. A claspers climactic collapse never lost its allure.

“Kinbalru,” she whispered, lying spent beside him. “I have missed you.”

Kin pressed his lips to her hair, “You missed it, not me.”

“Tell me again,” Sofita said. “What color is your hide?”

“It wouldn’t matter if I told you, would it?” Kin replied.

“No,” Sofita closed her eyes and tried to sync her breathing to the rise and fall of his chest. “But I wish to hear your voice,”

“I’m dark blue,” he said. “With black stripes.”

“You have streaks, not stripes,” said Sofita.

Kin laughed, “What’s the difference, hizzah?”

“Stripes are solid, streaks are not,” Sofita replied.

Kin’s fingers traced Sofita’s hairline.

“You don’t have streaks or stripes, do you Sofitakul?”

Sofita sat up, “Did you ever purchase a tub?”

“No, and I never will,” Kin said. “I do not stew in my own filth,”

Sofita said, “Bathing is not stewing,”

“I’m sorry I touched you just then,” Kin said as Sofita rose from the couch. “You’re not one to be touched unless it’s sexual,”

Sofita turned to him, “I got up because I need to bathe,”

“You got up because you felt something,” Kin sighed before rolling over and presenting his streaked back.

“I’m getting a shower,” Sofita said.

“I can think of no better place to retreat,” Kin mumbled.

Fusada would often complain that Bizaki were too touchy-feely.

It was an observation born solely from watching Orestes continually reaching for Sofita’s hand and fussing over her hair; Fusada never experienced such affection during her short time with Fyla and had even voiced her displeasure of its absence with Velto.

The reality was that Femarctic-males were profoundly affectionate and like Subaki, no amount of abuse heaped upon them was enough to alter their doting ways.

Sofita observed this truth firsthand at the retraining center in Toxis; sadly, Fusada had never come to appreciate it in the arms of the Hizak male, Jalbos.

The washroom was as tiny as Sofita remembered.

Kin’s voice invaded from the other side of the door, “I’m going downstairs, ‘Fita.”

Thick towels were stuffed neatly into a waist-high tower of shelves. On top of the tower sat a thick round basin filled with warm churning water and above that was a mirror with excellent lighting.

A shower lined with smooth polar stone took up most of the space. In it, water fell from a wide-angle spout and splashed noisily into a foot-pool on the floor.

Standing beneath its rain, Sofita adjusted the touch controls to make it hot. On the flat panel was a tiny graphic of a gapirx; pushing it would’ve brought a toilet up from the floor.

Bizaki often pointed out that washing in standing water was unhygienic, yet these same citizens had no qualms about having a toilet in their shower.

A square niche in the stone held a row of hooks and dangling from each was a koxtax.

Sofita retrieved the largest of the curved blades, but before scraping her hide, she examined it. Finding a faint residue on its surface, she opted not to use it. She stepped from the shower and scanned the room for a hide-drying unit.

Finding none, she cursed Ziw Balru; the Balrudos was indeed old, but easily amendable for the inclusion of modern amenities. Clan Balru were proponents of the simple life, and Ziw took pride in her decision to refrain from modernization.

Such simplicity had enabled Kin to survive life in the Retred.

When officials had arrived to collect the bodies of Ziw’s suicided elders, Kin, knowing he was about to be found out, had come down the stairs and greeted the group of Marix questioning Ziw.

Claiming he was a neighbor coming to check in on the Balru’s, he’d wanted to thank Ziw for having been kind enough to employ him as a housekeeper. The ruse had its merit; Ziw’s makers had bred with others and Kin was a freeborn who’s birther was long dead.

Unfortunately, one of the guards knew a male when she saw one. Kin had been immediately apprehended by Terminal Sabotage, by officers wearing the uniforms of a division called, Femitokon.

When the two operatives arrived to remove Kin from the premises, Ziw had demanded to know how they knew he was a male. Playing into Kin’s story, Ziw assured them that she’d known Kin since they were donats—it wasn’t possible he was a male.

The hardest thing Ziw Balru ever did had been to watch members of the Femitokon Division strip Kin down to prove their point. The second hardest thing for Ziw was to deny their relation; Kin had been housed since birth, and there was no record of his donational registration.

Kin’s incarcerating had been the catalyst for Sofita’s transition from Marixi-Administration to the Prime Lab.

Finding the name Balru on a rooming manifest, Sofita was confident she’d found the donation of Bilo Balru.

Kin had been in custody two months before Sofita’s arrival.

At the mercy of a Ninth-Gen Hizak, Kin had been hanging by his feet, bound and gagged, when Sofita first met him. The Doctor had wished to determine how much stimulation was required for a male to achieve burxol while suspended.

Unable to curb her physicality, Sofita suggested that such an experiment would yield no useful results; taking hold of the elder’s hair, she slammed her head into the desk.

Sofita took a dazed Kin back to his room. No words passed between them, not even when Sofita had been confronted outside Kin’s door by the facility supervisor, Doctor Riba Wygz.

The arrogant Ninth-Gen had a catalog of essential friends, but there was nothing she could do about Sofita’s obtuse behavior; back then Sofita enjoyed a wide behavioral latitude not because she was Fifth Office Dag’s relation or the Primary’s donat.

Despite Sofita’s decision to leave Marixi Administration, Ryo Uym had remained her social sponsor. This allowed her the freedom to step upon anyone she pleased because no Hizak would risk crossing the First Office of the Committee.

“Kin are you there?” she asked, returning to the room.

Sitting on the couch, she pulled on her uniform pants and spotted the casti-frame on Kin’s bureau. On its screen ran a slide-show of private images featuring Clan Balru throughout the years.

A young Ziw stood in uniform beside her kerma outside the Balrupaxo.

Kos Balru had been a Ninth-Gen Bizak with little interest in running a deli; she’d maintained it only so her bond-partner Yax Furat could socialize with Hizaki. Yax, a Ninth-Gen Zaxir, died bearing Kin just hours after baby Ziw had been brought home.

The next image was of a thick-backed Hizak named Ruta Sok.

The stylish foodaxi processing manager stood beside a pregnant Zaxir; inside that belly was Ruta and Kos’ donux, a marixidoe named Ziw who would realign the splintered bloodline of Balrusok.

Ruta and Kos had been far enough apart in relation that Oligax allowed their patches to be combined. First came Ziw, and then a Subak sib raised by Ruta and named Bulaz.

After the Suicides, Ziw became a prominent member of Utama’s civic community and Bulaz, one its wealthiest citizens.

Kin’s image appeared next.

A male hiding in the skin, he was just another Bizak citizen standing proudly beside sib Ziw. Kin held up a glowing plaque that signified his certification in Business Operations from the Mynu School of Restaurant Management.

Kin acquired placement in the prestigious organization after Ergal Jakix, with Ziw’s blessing, had a degree forged for him from the Pikalit School of Culinary Arts.

Sofita had been furious; it was dangerous enough hiding in the skin, but now Kin wanted to attend classes alongside dozens of post-graduate Bizaki. She held little sway in how Kin ran his life after liberating him, and Ziw’s willingness to allow Kin everything he asked for no matter how unreasonable, stemmed purely from her own guilt.

As for Ergal, the Hizak had fallen deeply in love.

A fellow male-admirer, energist Ergal had been there when Sofita walked a disguised Kin out of the RETRED facility during that final collection of males on its closing day. Ergal then drove to a conduit-coil testing shack on the surface and had stayed with Kin while Sofita informed Ziw of the situation.

After Kin had resurfaced as a new citizen, Ergal continued to check in daily. She’d facilitated his higher education and oversaw his upgrading of the Balrupaxo.

During all of this, the Hizak had developed an unexpected friendship with Ziw who eagerly dismissed Sofita for abandoning Kin.

The next image on the screen found Kin sitting on the marble stairs out back, clad in a kitchen uniform, he held a smiling marixidoe in his arms.

The scar running parallel to Sofita’s gash tightened.

During that first production year, Sofita’s plan to free Orestes from Ryo had backfired. Fusada was too caught up with her own life to notice how low Sofita had fallen after Ryo’s social embargo.

Ixogizul and Ergal had bucked the tribal-rules to ignore Sofita professionally and socially; Ixo promised to publish Sofita’s writings while Ergal insisted she cohabitate with her at the Balrudos.

Ergal and Kin lived on the top floor that had belonged to Ziw and Kin’s dead elders.

During this time Kin expressed his desire for a donation often enough that Ergal had considered finding a way to patch up with him; Sofita and Ziw had talked her out of it.

“You done?” Kin’s voice called out.

Carrying her boots, Sofita made her way down into the aroma of something delicious. Clad in a traditional male’s robe, Kin moved about the kitchen with his hair tail dangling down the middle of his back.

“You walk around exposed?” Sofita asked.

Kin aimed his thumb at the darkened windows.

“My shades are on, and no devices are watching me in here,”

Sofita sat and put her boots beside the chair.

“I reheated some pikat-bean soup,” Kin plunked down in the opposite seat after putting a steaming bowl in front of her. “It’s Ziw’s favorite,”

Modest hunks of skinned patotok floated between long broth-soaked pikat beans and salty strings of pulled zatolixa. Sofita split a softened patotok in half with her spoon and said, “Ziw came to see me, back in Yubol,”

“I heard you weren’t very receptive,” Kin said.

“I was asked to stay away, and I did,” said Sofita.

“If Ergal were here,” Kin then whispered.

“I’m sorry, Kin,” Sofita said.

Kin smiled, “I never would’ve known her if you hadn’t brought her into my life,”

“Did Ziw tell you why she came to me?” Sofita asked.

“Whatever it was she’s moved on,” Kin said between bites. “Ziw’s caught up with some Pure Gen subbie who says someone’s trying to kill her,”

“Is someone trying to kill her?” Sofita asked.

“Who knows?” Kin shrugged. “Young Subaki manufacture drama,”

“Is she a friend?” Sofita asked, hoping that Ziw had the sense to keep anything related to young Tavo away from Kin.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Kin said. “Ziw never brings work home,”

Sofita returned to her soup.

“Her donation got in touch with her last year,” Kin said.

“Did they meet?” Sofita asked.

“Oh yes,” Kin grinned. “A snooty librarian that was more interested in our name than in Ziw.”

“Now that Clan Balru and Line Sok are one again,” Sofita said. “Who tends to the finances?”

“Bulaz made it very clear that Line Sok and our Clan are to remain separate,” Kin said, shaking his head. “Ziw and I have the Balrudos, and that’s it,”

“Kin,” Sofita exclaimed.

“It’s how Ziw wants it,” Kin’s said softly. “Less attention on us,”

Sofita glanced the sitting room.

“Does the little one come back?”

“She’s no longer little,” Kin smiled. “Don’t act like you never saw her in Orta, Ziw told me what happened when she was twelve,”

“Kin,” Sofita said. “I haven’t seen her since her Final,”

“I saw you there,” Kin said. “I didn’t come over because there was so much going on with her being the last one standing, and that other one, waking up like that,”

“It was a hectic day,” Sofita said.

“She’s due back tonight,” Kin said. “She used to come home after every hibernation, but since her promotion last month-”

“—Promoted to Dokomad?” Sofita asked.

“She’s TermSabo,” Kin frowned. “That means she killed someone,”

“Advancement is good for her, Kin,” Sofita said. “When she makes Promad she can transfer to any Division she wants,”

“I lost one love to the SOD,” Kin whispered. “I don’t want to lose another,”

Sofita put her spoon down, “I’ve apologized for my choices,”

“We’re not talking about what could have been between us, or what didn’t happen,” Kin declared. “That whale has floated to the surface and been taken by the tide.”

Sofita stared at him.

“You saved my life,” Kin said flatly. “I owed you, and I repaid the favor.”

“Ziw told you I said this?” Sofita asked.

“Of course,” Kin said, kissing her.

Sofita tasted the soup on his lips.

“Ziw takes any opportunity she can to serve you up in a bad light,” Kin added.

Sofita entertained explaining that her curt words were merely an effort to be rid of Ziw, but instead she asked, “Did you vote?”

“I sure did!” Kin boasted. “We need a bizzy back in the Cloister.”

“You think Wram will win?”

Kin smiled, “I do, even though Tee Banto’s not fighting fair,”

“I take it there was bad media coverage?”

“That Cloister hearing got leaked to the press,” said Kin.

“Special Cloister Sessions are never publicized,”

“This one was, key parts of it anyway,” Kin faced her. “Why did you do it?”

“Do what?” Sofita asked.

“Testimony said that you entered your gen-code into the system so that Velto could use Sky Sister to destroy the Slavs,” Kin said, hands on hips. “Why would you do that knowing what that would mean to the Committee?”

“Ilo’s dead because of me,” Sofita said. “I owed rod’ntil,”

Kin turned his attention back to his dishes.

“Velto asked for that, years ago when you killed Zixas,”

“I remember, Kin, I was there,” Sofita said. “You know why I had to kill Zixas, and if you have something to say, then say it.”

Kin kept his back to her.

“You told me that joining Orta had nothing to do with bringing the Primary down,” his voice wavered. “I keep reading all these articles saying that your role as our incoming Primary is now official,”

Sofita felt a dull pain in her head.

“Tell me you’re not ascending,” he demanded.

Sofita whispered, “Things have changed, Kin,”

“You said we’d never be in danger,” Kin turned with rage in his eyes. “You said me and Styba would be safe because those gurxholes across the street think you don’t care about Primaryship.”

Sofita winced as the pain in her head intensified.

“Kin, I need you to relax,”

“I don’t care what you need!” Kin grabbed a towel and dried his hands. “You’re going to take on Fusa in a couple years, right?”

Sofita fought through the pain, “Do not project your anger at me!”

“I’m so sorry,” Kin tossed the towel to the floor. “Doesn’t that thing in your bones protect you from my emotional outbursts?”

“No, Kin!” Sofita cradled her head. “It does not,”

The pain began to subside as Kin approached her.

“I don’t know what I expected you to say,” Kin said.

“Kin please,” Sofita looked up to find his eyes wet.

“I thought when I brought it up, you would say to me that they’re all crazy and you’d never be dumb enough to risk your life and ours,” he said. “Things have changed is not what I wanted to hear, Sofita,”

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” said Sofita.

“Ha!” Kin laughed. “Tell that shit to Orestes Uym,”

When Sofita stood up, Kin stepped back.

“I’d never hurt you, Kinbalru,”

“You say that so convincingly,” Kin sighed and hugged himself. “I wish you hadn’t come here today,”

His projected emotional state brought Sofita overwhelming sadness.

“If ascension is your goal,” Kin moved into her space and then kicked her boots. “You stay out of my life!”

Left alone in the kitchen, Sofita pulled on her boots.

Isolation Unit 69
Vosk`atak, Ramaxia
1430 Hours – 1 Yulitat 2228

Sofita had intended to steer clear of Jalbos, but the Shell believed itself Fusada and acting on its love for the male, Sofita sought sporadic interaction.

Sending her presence, Jal asked, “What’s his name?”

Sofita glanced up from the package by her boots.

“Whose name?”

“The male you engaged today?” he asked.

“Your imagination, Jal,” Sofita laughed. “Is it your only entertainment?”

“You smell of him,” he said, smiling. “The aroma of a clasper is undeniable,”

 “Have you spoken to him in the Void?”

Jal cocked his head, grinning.

“It doesn’t work that way, Komad,”

Sofita asked, “Do you sense him when you sleep?”

“Only when I sleep,” he said. “You didn’t terminate him, did you?”

“No Jal,” Sofita said. “He’s still alive.”

“Hiding in the skin,” he said. “I suppose you’ve hunted down your share of hiders?”

Sofita said, “I do not hunt males,”

Jal turned toward her voice, “Where were you, Komad, when Doctor Dag demanded the termination of every male in the Prime Lab’s retraining program?”

“I was employed at a Retraining Center, in Toxis,” Sofita replied.

“I didn’t want to believe that story,” Jal shivered. “Fusada mentioned you transitioning to Retred. It upset her greatly but who was she to judge?”

“Jal, you will cease mentioning Fusada in my presence,” Sofita said, and when he became quiet, she added, “I was employed there for less than a year,”

“Caste-offs were spared termination,” Jal said. “Purged years later from Orta after an incident at an interim Final Trial.”

“It was after my Final Trial,” said Sofita.

Jal asked, “Did you terminate your prisoners at the Retred?”

“Prisoners?” Sofita said.

“I’ll stop mentioning Fusada,” he said. “If you stop pretending my gender was ever collected for retraining,”

“If you must know,” Sofita said. “I resigned my position after our victims were terminated.”

“Did you feel that by terminating them,” said Jal. “You set them free?”

“I did liberate one,” Sofita said. “But you know that,”

“The hiding Utamaxi,” Jal laughed. “You delight me. Did you refrain from washing for my benefit?”

“I showered, but I didn’t scrape,” Sofita said. “I’m particular about my koxtax,”

“I’m cleaned with radiated light,” Jal lifted his scarred eyes upward. “Last time you were here, we conversed about the resurgence of commercial science and chemistry, in Yazhou. What do you wish to speak about today?”

Sofita stared at the back of his head.

Jal somehow managed to tie his long hair tastefully to one side; Sofita found comfort that Jal had tried to do something with his hair. It had to be an impossible task without gel, ties, or even eyes.

Sofita said, “I want to talk about, Carocristi,”

“Caro Cristi?” Jal appeared puzzled. “Is he still breathing?”

“You know he’s still alive, Jal,” Sofita said.

“I know nothing of him other then what I used to,” Jal declared.

“You know more than what Fusada’s files revealed,” Sofita said.

Jal frowned, “Fusada’s files?”

“Caro Cristi poisoned his Hizak partner in their Antarctica City residence and then tried to flee the AC by hiding in the skin. He might’ve evaded capture had he not attempted to board an helovx ship.

No confession had been documented because Cristi’s status as a male made him a non-citizen. Division records note that at the time of his escape, Cristi shared a cell with two other Femarctic males scheduled for death.”

Jal turned to her, “You possess Fusada’s mission logs?”

“Her primary issue with that version of events was that if Cristi fled while being transported to Termination Processing, there should’ve been physical evidence in the only tunnel leading to and from the Cavern of Death.”

Jal nodded, “That’s why Fusada re-opened the case,”

“There’d been five males in custody that week, and all five vanished from their holding cells following a visit from a SOD agent named Tuxtol,” said Sofita.

“She’d said that Tol was a peer of the Primary’s,” Jal said. “She traced Fusa’s travel routes for that week, she compared them to Tol’s assigned transport log.”

“Fusada found that just hours after Tol visited Termination Processing, her path intersected with Fusa’s at a cabin on Ortosk Bay,” Sofita eyed Jal. “Fusada surmised that Cristi freed himself at the cabin and swam the canal to make the sea.”

Jal started, “You possess Fusada’s private logs,”

“That’s correct, Jal,” Sofita said. “Five males were taken from the cells, but only three were seen between the poles. I think the violence in that cabin was methodical. While Cristi and the two remaining males on deck to be brutalized listened to their brothers being raped in the next room, they acquired the courage to free themselves,”

“Your theoretical deductions are astounding,” Jal whispered.

“Let’s jump forward,” Sofita moved toward him. “I know for a fact that you were at Caro’s side when the Femitokon’s found the other two males between the poles,”

Jal laughed, “That’s a leap,”

“There was a witness,” Sofita watched as Jal hardened. “She’s since returned to the California’s, a raving helovx who made little sense. It was easy to ingratiate yourself to Caro because you’d planned to execute such a plan with Fusada.”

“After the Shell was conquered,” Jal said softly. “I would seek out and infiltrate,”

Sofita studied his scarred face, “She wished you to gather information from him on how he managed to escape SOD custody?”

Jal nodded, “I was also to determine what he looked like,”

“He did seemingly disappear,” Sofita said.

“Fusada believed he’d just changed his appearance,” Jal nodded.

“I want to know about your last days with Caro Cristi,”

“There’s nothing to tell,”

“That’s an untruth, Jal,”

“There’s nothing to tell-”

“—Talk to me of your last days with him,” Sofita said. “Begin with your escape,”

Jal relented, “I escaped from my guard by jumping into the Vosk’tulak,”

“How did you survive that?”

“I wore many layers of clothes and held my breath,” Jal replied. “It was by no means an easy task, I nearly died,”

“You surfaced and got free of the water?”

“Barely,” Jal nodded. “I fled through the caverns and climbed up that borehole to the surface,”

“You made it to the coast?”

“I swam for Brasilia,” Jal said.

“You didn’t find Brasilia,”

“Those statues!” Jal scowled. “The pain rendered me unconscious,”

“When you woke?”

“I was in the middle of nowhere,” said Jal. “I washed up on the Kalahari Coast,”

“That’s where Caro found you?”

“Not Caro, but Polvax,” Jal soured. “He brought me to the tanker where Caro and a male Ninth named Aurix, had convinced a gaggle of helovx they were angels of God.”

“Having read Caro’s files, you ingratiated yourself?”

“Aurix disliked me from the start,” Jal said. “That bizzy lost Caro’s affections when they’d joined the helovx.”

“Aurix was designated Subak,”

“Aurix could make a weapon from a long pipe, a rubber band, and broken seashells,” Jal laughed. “It took him a few tries, but he finally got that thing to unload in some man’s face. It was hilarious.”

“Why attack, the men?”

“This man had it coming,” Jal explained. “He’d come below decks and found Caro and Aurix fellating each other. Religious helovx display hatred for any form of sexual expression that doesn’t create children.”

“Did Caro punish Aurix?”

“Caro enacting punishment,” Jal sighed. “That never occurred to Aurix,”

“He used you, to punish Aurix?”

“We Tenth can drive a brain’s electrical current. Forcing it to cluster in a specific area causes pain,” Jal said. “Most times it’s unintentional on our part, but when we concentrate on manipulating that current, it takes its toll.”

“Did you see Ryx Kul while with them?”

“The Bizak that Fusada claimed they took hostage?” Jal asked.

The fate of Ryx Kul, the cabin’s caretaker, might’ve proved Fusada and Sofita’s theory that Fusa had inadvertently facilitated Caro’s escape.

The only Bizak of House Kul, Ryx as one of the few Seventh-Gen that hadn’t committed Suicide with her peers. Whatever her reasons, she’d remained silent in the face of Fusa’s nasty doings and was awarded the isolated cabin.

Reviewing Fusada’s mission notes, Sofita found that her sib had pulled the credit-disbursement history on the Ryx’ vocational gen-code; the Bizak had been missing since Cristi’s escape.

“I never saw an elder with them,” said Jal. “Polvax kept a corpse hidden on our boat. I caught a glimpse of it once walking past the room where he hibernated.”

“Polvax was Subak?”

“Strange that one,” Jal shivered. “He kept a mummified body in his room, the hide around its gash was torn,”

“The Bizak gave birth?”

“Ryx was before my time,” Jal nodded. “Fusada had often spoken of her ideas, and I was able to surmise many things,”

“What insight you must’ve had, Jal,”

“Caro told me that Aurix developed a strong desire for Ryx,” Jal said. “Polvax protected the Bizak for helping them. She was off-limits,”

Ryxkul wasn’t their prisoner?”

“The Bizak’s story was never explained beyond Aurix raping her sometime after they encountered the helovx,” Jal said. “Caro would only say that Aurix was damaged and Polvax too attached,”

“Caro didn’t like such ugliness?”

Jal shook his head, “Caro forbid talk of it,”

“What brought up the discussion?”

“Polvax displayed an unrelenting sadness,” said Jal.


“It was most severe after the birth of a child,” Jal said.

“Ryx did bear a donation!”

“I never saw it, but Polvix seemed to mourn it,” Jal said, his voice hushed. “I couldn’t inquire because after Caro made my position clear, Polvax ceased being friendly.”

“You were Caro’s weapon,”

“Had I anticipated being used,” Jal laughed softly. “I’d have fled them sooner,”

“How did your empathic stand-off affect the helovx?”

“Many became depressed, some slept for days,” Jal said. “A few jumped the ship, allowing themselves to sink. Others engaged in self-destructive behavior,”

“The women turned to Caro?”

“Caro was Zaxir,” said Jal. “All was fixed with intercourse,”

“Did you and him-?”

“—Caro tried, but I wasn’t interested,” Jal said. “I wanted to search for Fusada and Bo,”

“Bo Kilvx?”

Jal nodded, “I was told that Fusada had bonded with Bo-”

“—who told you they were bonded?”

“Tib Jyr,” said Jal.

“Is that why you killed her?”

“She’s dead because she attempted to rape me,” Jal said, flatly.

“Why did you kill Aurix?”

“He-” Jal started. “—who said I killed Aurix?”

“When Aurix was collected,” Sofita said. “An autopsy on his brain found it to be, scorched.”

“My last days with Caro weren’t pleasant.” Jal moved closer to one of the canals in the floor. “Why do you need to know these things,”

“Because I want to know,”

“I don’t want to tell you!” Jal cried.

“You will tell me,”

“Or what?” Jal shouted. “There’s nothing left to take from me!”

“I can take your hands and your tongue,”

Jal’s face reflected sadness, but his anger made Sofita’s head throb.

“It was a mistake to trust you,” Jal mumbled. “I shall tell you all, Komad Kul, and then I demand you never return.”

Sofita stood as Jal began speaking.

“The night we were apprehended, hours before the Femitokon’s found us, Polvax and I,” Jal took a breath. “Aurix physically attacked me,”

“You’d been beaten before by other caste-offs,” Sofita said. “What was different about your confrontation with Aurix?”

“I was different,” Jal hesitated. “Fusada was dead and-”

“—why did Aurix assault you?”

“There’s nothing,” Jal hardened. “Nothing more obscene than a hybrid girl.”

“How many females were born to Caro?”

“Caro loved his sons,” Jal whispered. “He even loved Aurix’ free-born,”

“The donation by Ryx Kul,”

Jal wouldn’t answer that, “Polvax, the good little subbie, cared for each of Caro’s progeny,”

“How many female hybrids were there?”

“The girls ignited my fears,” Jal said. “The last thing an helovx female needs is Femarctic DNA,”

“What did you do, Jal?”

“I used to tell myself my intentions were pure, but that’s a lie,” Jal said. “I smothered them. I eliminated a dozen or so of those infants before Polvax caught on to me.”

Jal’s sorrow drowned Sofita’s senses.

“Helovx babies are so fragile,” Jal said, softly. “I held them tight to my chest until their tiny bones broke against me.”

She took a knee beside him.

“There’s crying at first, oh yes,” Jal began to nod. “Pushing that soft spot on their head until your fingers leave dents, that’s when the crying ceases.”

Sofita swallowed, “Did Polvax witness this?”

“He ran to Aurix,” a single tear fell down Jal’s cheek. “They confronted Caro and told him who killed his baby girls. The look on Caro’s face when he finally accepted it. He was distraught, he begged me to tell him why.”

Jal wiped the tear from his eye, and his sudden anger was palpable.

“When Aurix struck me without provocation, I focused all my energy on burning a hole into the back of his brain,” Jal said. “His skinny legs gave out, and when he fell at my feet, I picked a pipe up from the floor and-”

“—Did you suffer side-effects?”

“It damaged me to exert so much thought into killing him,” Jal nodded. “I’ve yet to regain full control of my ability.”

“What followed upon bludgeoning Aurix?”

“Polvax started screaming,” Jal said. “Caro tried to silence him, he didn’t want the helovx to see us in turmoil. It was too late. The helovx had found us, and when they saw the dead baby and Aurix’ lifeless body at my feet, Polvax told them I was a demon. I jumped ship before they could get hold of me.”

Sofita touched his face.

“You’re not Fusada,” Jal recoiled. “No matter how much you feel like her!”

“Would you have killed your own donation, Jal,” Sofita asked. “The one you created with Fusada?”

“Why would you ask me that knowing Styba’s dead?” Jal shouted.

Sofita stood, “What did you say?”

“Your games bore me Doctor Kul!” Jal cried. “Fusada joined our patches, and even though it sickened me, I played along when she joyfully nagged me to name it! I gave her the name of my dead birther, Styba,”

Jal aimed his scarred eyes in her direction.

“Fusada’s gone,” he cried. “And Fusa murdered our Styba!”

At the door, Sofita kicked the wrapped package at him.

“Fusada left that in our paxicol,” she whispered. “The day she died,”

Jal’s hands roamed the floor until they found it. Tearing apart the paper, he brought the freed undershirt to his nose and inhaled deeply.

“Go away from me!” Jal sobbed. “Go away and do not return,”

Bulaxo Gazteneezo
Utama, Ramaxia
1930 Hours – 1 Yulitat 2228

Obiz Banto stood apart from the others, unable to shake the feeling that she didn’t belong. Upon deciding to attend Campaign Wram’s election-watch party, Obiz took her Bizak sibling’s advice and refrained from wearing an upscale suit.

Leaving the style-sit in a bland outfit wasn’t easy; her concerned stylish insisted on rolling her hair into two neat tubes on each side of her head, with a clean part down the middle for contrast.

Arriving fashionably late, Obiz found scores of notable faces.

Elite politicians like Cruzo Tegal and Qul Grik, caroused the room adorned in front-window styles that Obiz couldn’t afford in any lifetime.

Obiz’ intense feeling of sartorial inadequacy faded the moment Ryljyr walked into the room.

The elder Hizak sported an unadorned pantsuit with no jacket, and her hair was surprisingly dull given her reputation as one of Utama’s most stylish denizens. Citizen Jyr’s decision to downplay her look only endeared her further to Obiz.

Obiz had applied to every Cloister-Aid prospect in Ramaxia when the esteemed Jyr struck up a conversation with her at the offices of the Sernatae Second. Inquiring of Obiz’ internship for Ixo Gizul, Jyr casually revealed her intention to retire.

Sharing with Obiz her plan to support Velto Wram’s bid to succeed her, the elder had suggested Obiz oversee Wram’s campaign drive among native-born Utamaxi now residing in Vanda for work.

Obiz had seized the opportunity, anticipating an easy task given the current collective pity surrounding the grieving Wram. Unfortunately, even her generation of Hizaki were notoriously unmotivated without some form of gainful benefit.

Retrieving a message from the Citizen’s Bluzsh Owners Guild expressing interest in providing funds to Wram’s campaign, Obiz ventured to West Toxis. She proposed that the owners offer a free locker to post-hibernation Utamaxi with proof they voted.

“Citizen Banto!” Ryl Jyr called to her, and freeing her arms from her Zaxiri companions, opened them wide for Obiz.

“Citizen Jyr,” Obiz walked into her embrace.

“Being termed a citizen again is proverbial music to my ears,” Ryl then turned to her lovely companions. “This young Vandosh is responsible for Velto’s success among our displaced Utama-born Hizaki,”

“Vanda is where all our brainers go if they aren’t interested in politics,” the tall belly said as her eyes lingered on Obiz’ backswell.

“It’s where I should’ve gone,” Ryl mumbled.

When Obiz smiled at this, the shorter Zaxir gently ran the back of her hand over Obiz’s cheek.

“You are the prettiest Hizak I’ve ever seen,” she cooed.

The tall Zaxir laughed, “Her kerma’s Eppisbanto,”

“You definitely got her face,” the short one added.

“Among other things,” the tall one patted Obiz’ girsuzsch.

“Cease this instant, we’re not in the citbluz,” Ryl scolded them playfully. Taking Obiz’ arm, Ryl walked her from the affectionate beauties. “I took the liberty of informing Laxum of your stratagem, and she returned today to take advantage,”

Obiz started, “The Prime of Kuril Base, is here?”

“Was,” Ryl frowned. “Unable to remain,”

Obiz said, “I’d rather hoped to meet her,”

“Dressed like that?” the shorter Zaxir snuck up on them.

“Pay her no mind,” Ryl pulled the chubby belly into her arms. “You’re suitably attired for the likes of Velto,”

“The design is definitely a little tired,” said the tall one. “But the color does bring out the green in your hide,”

Obiz stepped to the tall one and flashed a flirtatious grin, “Perhaps you can show me where else I might be green?”

“It seems our Laxum is here, in spirit,” Ryl said, making the Zaxiri laugh.

The pressure fled from her bones; being compared to the likes of Laxumjyr in any form was an honor to Obiz.

On the large Beb-screen in the center of the room, coverage played from the Cloister Prime Polling Center. A young Zaxir newscaster named Fer Holix was reporting on the scene, surrounded by throngs of boisterous Utamaxi voters.

Obiz envied her generational sisters; Utama’s election was her gen’s inaugural participation in the process, and naturally, they behaved like raucous donats.

The polls had closed twenty minutes ago, with votes currently being tallied from locals living off-world, and between the poles.

Suddenly, Ryl’s escorts each took an arm and pulled the elder Hizak into the crowd gathering around the broadcast.

Obiz climbed the spiral stairs leading to the open loft above. Finding the table of sweets and non-alcoholic beverages untouched, she sampled some of its wares.

“Okay, Ilo, it’s go time,” Velto Wram emerged from the hall, tugging at the collar of her designer pantsuit and bristling inside its embroidered jacket.

The Bizal pushed her hairtail from her shoulder and whisked past Obiz. Walking to the loft’s railing, she spotted a familiar face below and waved.

Koba Julo, sitting contented between two Tenth Gen Zaxir, waved back at Velto before making her way to the spiral staircase; the media mogul was instrumental in designing Wram’s campaign.

Channel Ramx had broadcast a steady stream of glowing endorsements for Wram from famous representatives like Pel Jyr and Quil Grik. The Bizak even got Ryl Jyr to speak of Velto as if she were a successor and not a candidate.

Citizen Julo bolted past Obiz without noticing her and took hold of Velto’s outstretched hand.

Velto pointed to the Beb-screen, “That’s the Fer Holix you’re riding?”

“Indeed, it is,” Koba grinned.

Velto scowled, eyeing Obiz, “What’s the matter with you, she’s Pure Gen,”

“She’s anything but pure,” Koba laughed and then winked at Obiz. “The gash wants what the gash wants, right kid?”

Obiz nodded knowingly. Prepared to introduce herself, Obiz was forced to step aside as Koba grabbed a sweet roll from the table.

“Eat,” Koba said, handing it to Velto. “You look like shit,”

Velto took a bite, made an unpleasant face, and then returned to eating it.

Having tasted the rolls earlier and finding them dry, Obiz retrieved a cold bottle of milk for Velto, but Koba took it out of her hand and gave it to Velto.

“You realize,” Velto said. “If I win, you’ll no longer have a job,”

Koba shrugged, “Channel Ramx pays my bills,”

“I take it Eppis made back her investment?” Velto asked.

“Two years ago, last month,” Koba said. “It was her idea to air exclusively on the interHive,”

Obiz had no idea of her kerma’s financial involvement with Channel Ramx.

On the screen below, the election’s final tally appeared, broken down by caste.

“Eighty-three percent of the Hizaki vote,” Koba laughed. “That hizakidoe Ryl hired really came through!”

Obiz straightened her back and took a breath.

“You know it’s mostly Pure-Gen brainers that don’t give a shit about Cloister politics,” said Velto. “Why’d they bother voting?”

“Get this,” Koba glanced around before lowering her voice. “Ryl says this hizakidoe got the Citbluz Guild to offer up free suit-lockers for all the Utamaxi hizzah’s voting today,”

“That’s fucking brilliant,” Velto said, downing her milk.

“I know,” Koba laughed. “I’m glad I’m from Utama,”

Koba took Velto’s empty bottle and handed it to Obiz.

“Where’d this hizakidoe come from?” Velto asked.

Obiz cleared her throat.

Velto and Koba’s attention was drawn again to the broadcast when a flattering image of Velto’s opponent, a Ninth-Gen named Z’pol Utat, appeared beside an older picture of Velto.

“I sent them a current image,” Koba groused.

“You didn’t expect Tee Banto to actually use it, did you,” Velto huffed. “She hates me as much as Eppis does,”

“I’m pretty sure Eppis hates you more,” Koba nodded.

Velto mumbled, “Fuck the Banto’s,”

Obiz stepped away, deflated.

The screen below flashed Fer Holix standing before a crowd of rowdy supporters.

“I cannot believe the way those doe-doe’s are acting,” Velto said.

“It’s our virgin vote,” Obiz said aloud.

Koba turned to Obiz but then laughed at Velto.

“Velts,” she said. “Do you remember our first vote?”

“Rux Acari, a citbluz owner with no Cloister experience!” Velto grinned at Obiz. “Our elders thought we were insane,”

Koba winked, “West Toxis was wild back in our day,”

The final count is in,” on screen, the crowd around Fer Holix suddenly fell silent. “Z’pol Utat clocks in at 1,975 votes, while Velto Wram has pulled in 3,475!” the crowd cheered riotously, forcing the Zaxir to shout, “Velto’s our new Citizenry-Representative, Utama!

The room erupted in applause as many of the Tenth hugged one another, and their younger counterparts cheered.

Velto Wram is the victor tonight, despite earlier polling predictions released by the Fourth Office. I don’t know who’s doing the counting over there, but I think CM Banto should fire them.

A few ill-spent words about her elder-kerma were uttered amongst the guests.

Onscreen, Fer Holix tempered her tone as she drifted from the crowd.

“I should note that the late afternoon tally was vastly affected by a huge turnout of young Hizaki born in Utama. Once they hit the poles, it was smooth sailing for Velto Wram!

Suddenly, every young Hizaki in the room ascended the stairs bound for Velto. Hand out, the Tent-Gen was clearly anxious when most insisted on embracing her.

“Pardon us, but Citizen Wram needs a moment to decompress,” Obiz stepped in front of Julo and Velto. “Her success is our success!”

Her words brought a hearty cheer. Familiar with many of the young faces, she took the time to embrace each Hizak before turning to find Koba and Velto absent.

After cordially fending off some citbluz invites, Obiz followed the sound of their conversation to an open door at the end of the hall.

“I got some bellies lined up for us,” Koba’s voice carried. “Let’s end this night right.”

Velto’s voice snapped, “Koba, I’m not ready for that,”

“I understand,” Koba said softly.

“I’m also tired of having to explain that I’m not ready,” said Velto. “I just hate being reminded that she’s gone,”

Obiz stepped over the door’s threshold and found Velto seated on the desk, pulling at her collar. The Bizak’s short legs didn’t extend far enough to touch the floor.

“I want to meet this hizakidoe,” said Velto, legs swinging. “She’s the reason I won,”

“It would be nice to thank her,” Koba agreed.

“I need a Cloister-Aid,” Velto said. “I’ve got no time to be interviewing a bunch of hizzahs I don’t know,”

Koba pulled out her handheld, “Ryl said our booster in Vanda applied,”

“You got her application on there?” Velto reached for it.

“Excuse me,” Obiz knocked on the door.

“What is it now?” Velto demanded.

“I’m the applicant, and your booster in Vanda,” Obiz stepped in and extended a hand. “I will answer to hizakidoe if that’s required,”

“Get in here,” a smiling Koba shook Obiz’ hand vigorously. “Should’ve known it was you by the way you handled that crowd out there,”

“You have Cloister Experience?” Velto asked, extending her hand.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Citizen Wram,” Obiz said, shaking it. “I’ve no session time logged, but I’ve legislative proposal experience and have physically worked in the Cloister for over a year,”

“Sounds good to me, uh,” Velto glanced the application for a name and finding it, her eyes went wide. “—Obiz Banto?”

“Wait, what?” Koba said.

Obiz remained calm, “CR Banto has nothing to do with me-”

“—You’re rebelling,” Velto tossed the handheld to the floor. “Is that it?”

“Rebelling?” Obiz said. “I was tasked with getting you elected, Citizen Wram. I took on that task without question not because it paid well but because I respected everything you accomplished when in the West Toxis seat,”

Velto pointed at the door.

“You need to get back to Vanda,”

“Whatever tribal conflict exists between you and my kerma,” Obiz said. “It has nothing to do with me,”

“It’s not tribal because I’m no hizzah,” Velto snapped.

“Listen, Obiz is it?” Koba tried to ease the tension, but Obiz just stepped around her and got close to the shorter Bizak.

“I may have her pretty face and her fat ass,” Obiz declared. “But I assure you, I’m not Eppis fucking Banto,”

Koba sucked in her lips and stepped away.

“Forgive my outburst, Citizen Wram, but my relationship with CR Banto has no place in this conversation,” Obiz struggled to keep her hands in view. “Citizen Wram, I haven’t resided under my kerma’s roof in years-”

“—Wait,” Koba gasped. “Are you old enough to be on your own?”

“Shut up, Koba,” Velto said.

“Despite our differences, I respect my kerma enough never to speak ill of her,” Obiz looked Velto in the eyes. “I’m also not the sort to game my makers’ emotions by acting out.”

“Your maker is Ozbi right?” Koba tried to lighten the mood, “What’s Fostis up to these days?”

“Sailing the oceans, Citizen Julo,” Obiz said, eyes still on Velto.

“Why do you want Cloister work?” Velto asked. “And don’t tell me what you think I should hear. Why do you want to be in Cloister, Obizbanto?”

“It is my vocational goal to follow Laxum Jyr’s example,” Obiz said. “Ambassador Jyr was enacting brilliant policy at an age when most Hizak like me are still muddling through career choices.”

Velto asked, “You want my Utama seat?”

“When you ascend,” Obiz nodded. “Yes, I wish to have it,”

Koba’s eyes widened.

“Is this your first application outside of Vanda?” asked Velto.

Obiz sighed, “I’ve applied to every office outside of Vanda,”

“What’s the problem?” Koba asked.

“None of them will employ me for fear that my kerma might make things difficult for them in the Cloister,” Obiz said, hands behind her back.

Velto glanced at Koba on her way to the bar.

“That wasn’t intended, apologies,” Obiz quickly added. “My mak wanted me to apply to the Utama office first, knowing my career aspirations. When I finally got around to following her advice, Ryl Jyr announced her retirement.”

“How is Ozbi?” Velto asked, filling two shot glasses with bozkul.

“She’s excellent these days,” Obiz took the tiny glass handed to her. “She returned to nursing this year, administrative for the moment. She anticipates our production year and wishes to establish career roots in Toxis,”

“You drink boz?” Velto tilted her head back and downed the shot.

“I do,” Obiz emptied the glass; she kept steady despite the liquor burning on its way down.

“You’re not like most Hizaki,” Velto said. “Is that your maks doing?”

“Where’d you learn to shoot boz?” Koba asked, handing Obiz another glass.

“I’m close to my sib, she’s a Bizak,” Obiz said, draining the second glass quickly. “She’s in sanitation, they hold the best bizaraks,”

Koba smiled, “What’s her name?”

“Fezil,” Obiz watched the corner of Velto’s lips curl up. “I’m unaware of its meaning, my kerma named her,”

Koba asked, “Feeling less nervous now?”

“Tremendously,” Obiz said, her throat warm from the bozkul. “I tend to misspeak, Citizen Julo. I spend more time struggling to correct misconceptions obtained from my ill-spoken words than I do coming up with new ones,”

“How does a hizzah struggle with what to say?” Velto asked.

“It’s a mystery, Citizen Wram,” Obiz said, downing another shot of bozkul. “Considering the Banto’s skillful mastery at verbal intercourse, I’d doubt my own genetics if my maker weren’t the honorable sort,”

Koba smiled at Velto, “She speaks her mind when she shouldn’t,”

“It all just comes right out,” said Velto.

Koba murmured, “Reminds me of somebody else,”

“Alright Obizbanto,” Velto exclaimed. “You’re my Cloister-Aid.”

“Wait, what?” Koba demanded.

“CR Wram!” Obiz fought the hysterics. “Thank you, I won’t let you down!”

“Obiz,” the short Bizak looked up into her eyes. “If you do anything to make me think you’re in my office to sabotage me, you’ll never work in the Cloister again.”

Feeling a bit tipsy, Obiz feigned shock.

“What makes you think I’d do that?”

“Your kerma,” said Koba. “She’d do that,”

“I’m not her,” Obiz frowned.

The inebriated cry of Yegi Das invaded the room.

“Welcome back to the Cloister!” arms stretched out, Yegi stumbled in with a young Subak trailing behind her.

“How drunk are you?” Velto laughed, stepping into her embrace.

“We’re pleased with your victory, Velto,” a sober Cruzo Tegal appeared and presented Velto with a fresh bottle of tirgol.

“Second Generation tirg?” Velto scanned the bottle’s label before handing it to Obiz. “Where’d you get this, ‘Croos?”

Peljyr acquired it from an helovx trader in the AC,” Cruzo said.

Obiz stepped back as Yegi moved between her and Velto; the shapely Subak stepped away and cast a sympathetic gaze. The Subak wore a stylish three-piece suit intended for an Hizak.

“Our esteemed Pel,” said Yegi. “Has procured a floor for our amusement at the Rixitat Bluzsh,”

When Velto’s eyes fell to the floor, Obiz put herself into their circle.

“CR Wram,” she said. “Our victory speech needs reviewing mainly portions regarding Citizen Cux. It’s important Ilo be mentioned to your constituents, and we need to ensure it’s in your words,”

“I apologize Veltowram,” Yegi said. “Pel and I hadn’t considered-”

“—it’s fine,” said Velto. “Take Koba in my place,”

“I know you,” Cruzo raised a finger to Obiz. “You’re Prime Clerk for the Sernatae-Second,”

Velto turned to Obiz, “You work for Ixogizul?”

“My internship ended before hibernation,” Obiz said, smiling. “Sernatae-Second Gizul kindly allowed me the work-study required to obtain my Governance Degree.”

“I did the same for Kil, here,” Yegi put an arm around the Subak.

“Who gave a subbie a Governance Degree?” Velto smirked.

The Subak lost her smile, “The same moron that gave one to a Bizak,”

Eying Obiz, Cruzo whispered to Velto.

“You’re aware of this one’s pedigree?”

“Very,” said Velto.

Everyone was laughing, except Obiz and the Subak.

“I got a speech to review,” Velto snapped, “Get out of here,”

Obizbanto,” Koba then cuffed the back of Obiz’ neck. “You’ve earned your keep this night and shall be rewarded for it,”

“I appreciate the invite, but,” Obiz lowered her voice. “I haven’t the funds for the Rixitat,”

“Put it on my tab, Koba,” Velto mumbled.

Obiz tried to protest, but Koba pulled her along with the group.

Out in the hall, she trailed behind with the Subak.

“I’m Obizbanto,” she said.

“I know,” said the Subak, walking ahead of her.

Koba slowed, “I hope you riding game improves before we hit the Rixi,”

The Subak shoulders tensed.

“I was speaking with a colleague, not attempting to engage,” Obiz then lowered her voice. “On that subject, the Rixitat is a Tenth-Generation establishment. They’re not going to allow me entry,”

“You’re arriving with two Citizenry Representatives,” the Subak spoke over her shoulder. “You’ll have no trouble with entry,”

Stepping into the vertical, Yegi put an arm around Koba before noticing the Subak hadn’t joined them, “Kil, you’re not attending?”

“I’m tired, CR Das,” she said, smiling. “It was nice meeting you, Aid Banto,”

The door closed before Obiz could respond.

“Trouble on the couch?” Cruzo teased.

“How many times must I reiterate,” said Yegi. “I’ve no sexual relationship with young Wex,”

Obiz knew of Kilwex; she wasn’t the first Subak to ever enroll in Governance, but she was the first to ever apply for a position with the Cloister.

“I’ll accompany you to the citbluz on one condition,” Obiz lifted a finger at Koba. “You’ll refrain from inquiring anything about my kerma,”

“Not one question?” Koba asked, hurt.

“Nothing,” said Obiz.

Koba waved her arms in frustration, “Well then you can’t go,”

Yegi and Cruzo laughed heartily.

Calgary Correctional
Plantation #3, Foxe Sea Island
0800 Hours – 2 Yulitat 2228

In a time where humanity struggled to rebuild its numbers, the taking of a life was unforgivable. Murderers of women and children were put to death, while those killing all others were placed in Calgary Correctional.

The third of North America’s ten penal plantations, Foxe Island contained a highly productive mushroom farm staffed entirely by inmates.

The SOD estimated that these farms would be obsolete in the coming years, thanks in part to conservative reforms instituted by a newly elected Congressional Speaker named Jeannette Dubois.

Dubois’ mother hailed from the African Trisect, where the theocracy made a public spectacle of criminal executions.

A shrewd propagandist, Dubois filled the radio waves with frivolous entertainment on par with what existed pre-impact. Broadcasting criminal trials kept the North American populace from ruminating on why the citizens of Brasilia in the south, enjoyed a better quality of life.

When Orny descended from the clouds, two helicopters appeared and flanked his position. Sofita closed her mission briefing with a blink before moving to the front of the cabin.

“Twentieth-century choppers,” Dox observed. “They’re so noisy,”

“They’ve employed refurbished Sea Hawks since the Dark Years,” Sofita said. “Ornith, scan for Hellfire’s,”

Komad, neither flier carries an inventory of torpedoes or missiles.

The minimal stores of ammunition they possess will be ineffective against my phasic shielding. Also, there is no detectable operative programming for connection to established armament subsystems.

“They can make faces at us through their windows,” Dox said with a grin. “Let’s not be bullies, Orny. Find their communication band and request escort.”

The request is acknowledged, Dokomad. I’m being asked to follow.

The choppers set them down on the helipad of a windowless five-story building.

Orny landed between them, inspiring the small crowd in the shadow of the building’s rooftop entry, to emerge. Most were clerical employees curious to see a farc-officer, a few were geared-up pilots eager for a view of an Ornithocheirus.

“Wait in here,” Sofita said.

“Affirmative, Komad,” Dox said.

Orny was perched with his head up, and his belly presented. Upon his middle, the hatch appeared, and when Sofita emerged from it, some of the onlookers were startled. Walking past their whispers, she stopped before the sentry at the door.

“I need to see identification, please,” he said.

Sofita pulled out an ID badge; it was a crude way to identify, but Nauists were averse to any technology they didn’t invent.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.

“Komad,” Sofita corrected.

The sentry stared at her, “Ma’am?”

“I’m not a madam, miss, or misses,” Sofita said. “I’m what you’d call a Commander, and you’ll address me as such.”

“Yes, Commander,” he said, coming to attention without saluting.

Sofita followed the sentry down to the intake hall, passing light concrete walls that contained doors that were painted slightly darker. Tucked in the corner of the highest vestibule was a closed-circuit camera.

An open service panel revealed soundproofing on the pipes to prevent communication between the inmates. Through the barred doors, they passed offices containing desks that held candle-lamps and paper fed typewriters.

Powering the deadly gate outside were solar panels, and Orny’s scans indicated their connection to a standard-grade tracking converter. Electricity was a scarce commodity, and centuries-old tech was made operable with primitive applications.

The Nauists were cavemen cooking with fire in the hollowed-out shell of an unplugged microwave.

At the intake office, a dark-skinned guard watched her through a glass partition. Sofita was asked to step to a faded ‘stand here’ mark where she stared at the circle fronting the accordion camera until its flashbulb exploded.

“Can you sign in please,” the guard shoved a clipboard through the open space between the panel and the countertop.

Sofita eyed the pen while pulling on her gloves.

“Your tech is so limited that you still use ink pens?”

“We have optical scanners,” he bragged. “But you farcs ain’t got eyes,”

Sofita printed her name on the paper.

“You haven’t shaved in two days,” she pushed the clipboard back through the slot. “You forgot to clean your ears this morning, and you have acne budding in the corner of your mouth. I have eyes, and they work.”

“Forgive me, Commander,” a gray-haired woman with a rotund figure idled up to the window. “Jameson go sit down.”

The woman was a darker shade than Jameson, but lighter than that whore Terry from Port Yukon.

“I’m Sergeant Givens,” she said to Sofita. “May I ask who you’re visiting today, Commander?”

“Inmate by the name of Carl Crystal,” Sofita replied.

“Mr. Crystal’s been here a long time, never known him to have visitors other than those crazy women of his,” Givens took the paper Sofita signed from the clipboard, “May I ask what your business is with inmate 586? It’s a standard question we ask all visitors, Commander.”

“I’m here to sell Carl some mushrooms,” Sofita said, smiling.

Givens grinned, “I’ll have to report your visit you know, Commander,”

“That’s fine by me, Sergeant,” Sofita said. “I prefer dealing with you, you’re certainly better looking than Jameson,”

The man cast an annoyed glance at Sofita as Givens’ shook her gray head and padded to the door.

“Don’t you aim none of that lesbian sass at me, Commander,” she said. “I’m a Christian woman.”

“You follow the Christ Jesus?” Sofita asked. “The Jewish prophet who revolutionized his follower’s connection to their unseen God during a time of oppression by a government of polytheists.”

Jameson stared at her.

“After claiming to be the unseen God’s son, he acquired a following sizable enough that he was eliminated by the governing faction,” Sofita eyed Jameson. “Jesus became deified as Christ when his followers created the myth of his resurrection while spreading his philosophies throughout the globe,”

Jameson frowned.

“I can read with these eyes,” said Sofita.

Givens laughed, “I didn’t know your kind care about religion,”

The Sixth Tenant of the Ramaxi L’uxial stated that no higher being existed that created, controlled, or destroyed, the Femmar.

During the Second Gen’s first visit to Brasilia, they repaired damage to a stone statue called, ‘the Redeemer.’ Then just a young Promad, Pitana Kul witnessed humanities reverence of the figure. This played a part in her decision to build the Caryatids when she became Primary.

“I’ll need a clearance sheet from Banff,” Givens said.

Sofita handed her a slip of paper.

“I need to call this in,” Givens said. “Please wait here, Commander,”

Sofita noticed the group of men and women gathering outside the intake room, and when Givens returned, so did she. After apologizing for their attention, Givens led Sofita out of the central office.

In the open-air courtyard, Givens commented on the colder winters and how they affected their growing season; like the bartender at Port Yukon, she asked if the Femmar were the cause of the sudden chill.

Sofita polluted the subject by noting that no amount of cold seemed to affect the smell.

Non-polar mushrooms were grown in feces, just like the subglacial ugix, a microfungal prized in Ramaxia for its ability to tenderize meat.

Givens led her into another structure where the doors were solid metal and the walls a light polyurethane. Stopping at the third door on the right, Givens pushed the intercom button on the wall panel beside it and asked for Carl Crystal.

“How long have you worked here, Sergeant?” Sofita asked.

“Since I was fifteen,” Givens replied.

“You do a good job,” Sofita said.

“I think it’s nice what y’all do with those whale-ships,” Givens said. “Coming ashore and releasing all that fresh water,”

The waste-disposal system of a TCS wasn’t designed to be a humanitarian achievement.

Fleet lifeforms leached saline from the salt water imbibed to lubricate their cybernetic parts. After this reverse-osmosis, the lifeform would beach itself on a shoreline to be purged.

Bizaki filtration handlers often decided where to make landfall and then cooped up Fleeters were sent ashore to dig the massive pits.

When a buzzer sounded, Givens opened the door.

“Please wait here, Commander,”

Through the door’s narrow opening, Sofita caught Givens’ dark fingers attaching handcuffs to a metallic ring fused to the table’s surface.

“You got a visitor today, Prisoner 586,” said Givens.

“Is it someone I know?” Cristi’s accent held a touch of old-world Britain, an English native to helovx living in the northwestern region of the African Trisect.

“I don’t think so,” Givens said.

Cristi spoke quietly, “You have a blessed day, Cecile,”

“You also, brother Carl,” Givens whispered before opening the door fully and addressing Sofita. “You have twenty minutes, Commander,”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Sofita moved aside as Givens waddled out.

Staring at the back of him, she recalled the first time she ever saw Caro Cristi; the chubby male had somehow snuck into the estate for reasons that young Sofita and Fusada couldn’t fathom.

Fusada tried warning him; no males lasted long there.

Later, Sofita followed the sounds of pain to one of her kerma’s downstairs rooms. She watched Caro twisting to free his long hair from Fusa’s firm grasp, and there’d been no one to stop her from tearing off his clothes.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he turned to face her.

A well-manicured Caucasian with bright eyes, youthful skin, and delicate aquiline features, Carl’s eyes flashed with hatred before dulling in defeat.

“You’re not her,” he whispered as Sofita sat in the chair across from him. “You’re the other one,”

Fusada’s original report stated Carl’s hair was now brown and his eyes blue; sadly, Sofita had no means to verify such details.

“You look so much like him, it’s uncanny,” his helovx eyes roamed the ceiling. “I loved a hizzah once, but she didn’t love me,”

Sofita remained silent.

“Forgive my unsettlement. You’re not what I expected,” Carl’s face relaxed. “I’ve imagined meeting the Femitokon so many times, but I thought the owner of the Shell was Fusa and Fee’s marixidoe,”

Sofita put her hands on the table.

“Utahraptor Sil,”

“Every time you murder one of my boys I feel it in the pit of my stomach,” Carl’s eyes narrowed in anger. “That silver thing in your blood has a powerful resonance, enough to reach out and punch me in the gut when you murder my bone.”

“Utahraptor Sil.”

“I sense such anger beneath that gray Kul hide,” Carl straightened his back with an elegance that transcended his masculine disguise. “I see him in your face, hear him in your voice. There’s no denying your sire, Fitax Kul.”

“Utahraptor Sil.”

“He used to laugh at Fusa because he never feared her,” Carl displayed his perfect teeth. “He cared deeply for Fee. It bothered him greatly when she bonded to Fusa. Oh, but you don’t care about Fee, do you? You did kill her after all,”

“Utahraptor Sil.”

Why should I tell you anything?” he demanded in Ramaxi. “You’re the worst form of predator, one that takes orders from the wombs in the shadows, those same gashes that would kill you to remain in power!

“Utahraptor Sil.”

What a lovely beast you are, Sofitakul!” he laughed. “The product of a male’s seed, you’re the freeborn epitome of our caste designations utter failure,”

“Utahraptor Sil.”

When you stepped into the room, I thought I felt the other one. Tell me, did you kill that one too?” Carl smiled. “There it is! Even the toughest hides have a tender spot,”

“Utahraptor Sil.”

Carl nodded, “I’ll let you take your chances with my youngest.

Sofita remained stoic.

“Be careful, Komad, he’s not had a proper upbringing like my other boys,” Carl sighed before returning to their native tongue. “My boy is in the wasteland, between the Austin coast and the southern waters of the Utah Bay,”

Sofita rose from the chair.

Now that you’ve paid me a visit,” he said. “They’ll take me from here and scan every inch of me. They’ll discover what I really am. They’ll cut me apart in hopes of making one of their own.”

Sofita stepped behind him and put her lips next to his ear.

You must’ve been excited finding Jal out there,” Sofita whispered. “I wonder why, after everything Jal went through before crossing paths with you, he didn’t kill your wives, along with your daughters,

Carl’s hands balled into fists so tight his knuckles were white.

There it is,” Sofita whispered, joining Givens in the hall.

Out the corner of her eye, she saw Caro’s hand come down upon the ink pen she left on the table.


Two Hours Later
Foxe Sea Island, Plantation #3
December 2, 2228


Tara Whitley’s fragile state had remained hidden until a colleague walked into the barracks and found her about to eat her gun.

Last summer, she’d buried her brother Terry at Christfaith Cemetery in Holy Cross and by autumn had suffered a complete mental break.

Tara had been stripped of her rank and ordered to surrender her credentials and firearm.

While on mental-health leave, she reconnected with nature. Hiking the Rockies, she found that complete isolation suited her in between visiting the occasional village.

Returning to duty, Tara had found herself ostracized by her contemporaries; the sin of suicide far outweighed the recklessness of getting her brother killed. Chained to a desk, Tara resented being recalled until she was given orders to return to the field.

Unfortunately, it meant serving alongside Colonel Adam Pierce.

Pierce was rumored to have been in one uniform or another since his teens.

On paper, he was a rugged, burly operative with a manly beard and the body of a T-Rex. Rumor had it that he pounded down dairy as if allergic to everything else and understood the farcs well enough that they often mistook him for one of their own.

Unfortunately, the legend far exceeded the man.

Narrow and muscular, Pierce wore a smooth hairless face marred by an awkward thin-lipped smile. His brown hair was obsessively trimmed short and dark eyes were intense enough to anyone they fixed upon, uncomfortable.

A brooding white man in military boots, Pierce’s shady career as Commissioner Perry’s ghost came with a long list of dead partners.

Closing the folder on the prison, Tara caught the end of the news on the radio. The top story centered on the resurrection of the Space Surveillance Network.

The NAU, along with the Orthodoxy in Africa, had spent decades trying to salvage satellites unseen in orbit. Last Tuesday, their efforts to reconnect with a lone American pre-impact weather satellite had failed.

“You think our sats all fell during the Dark Years?” Tara asked.

“The Second Gen picked our territories dry of sustenance, animals, and tech,” said Pierce, his eyes on the road. “What makes you think that they didn’t do the same thing when they got into space?”

“Who says they’re in space?” Tara asked.

“The farcs have a cannon in orbit, Ensign,” Pierce said. “They’ve got space stations,”

“When I first made rank, I accompanied a flyover of the AWI. I got to see those large geothermal stations that those original kids built,” Tara said. “All that shit’s just sitting on the coast, not being used.”

“They’ve got cold fusion while we’re still fracking, drilling, and mining for barely enough shit to run our vehicles,” Pierce turned off the main road and toward the gate on the horizon. “Compared to them, we’re prehistoric.”

“They didn’t have an impact event,” Tara said. “Those kids hit the ground running,”

“The same meteor that fucked us also screwed them, but twenty-first-century humanity left us nothing to recover,” said Pierce. “They consumed everything because to them, the future was disposable,”

“My grandmother said the farcs came with the asteroid,” Tara said.

Pierce sucked his tongue.

“You don’t believe they’re aliens?” Tara asked.

“Farcs need air to survive long-term, there’s no way they’re from a fucking hunk of lifeless rock,” Pierce said. “I thought you were smarter than that, Ensign.”

“My mother believes it wasn’t a rock, it was a ship,” said Tara.

“Have you read Balantin’s work?” asked Pierce, “The Russian’s freed them from Vostok after the volcanoes on this planet started shitting themselves.”

“The Slavs are as dead as Balantin, now,” Tara sighed.

Pierce slowed when they neared the first checkpoint.

“So is that spaceship theory,” he cracked. “VK was a PHO for years before it slammed into Eros.”

“I do not deny we were hit,” Tara smiled.

“The Coptis’ have been digging iron and nickel from the shallow sea over Arabia, for years,” Pierce held up his credentials, and when the guard looked at Tara, she did the same. “That shit wasn’t there when the peninsula was above the water. It wasn’t a ship, Ensign, it was a rock,”

The gate opened too slowly, and Pierce nearly hit it driving through.

“What bothers me is that just one of those farc hydro-stations could power all the NAU,” said Tara. “It’s just sitting there, doing nothing.”

“You agree with Gideon’s kid?” Pierce asked. “You think we should ask for help?”

“I’m a Dubois follower,” Tara declared. “Humanity needs to unite and take out those Antarctican fuckers,”

“There aren’t enough of us to unite and do anything,” Pierce said. “Even if we did combine our weaponry, the farcs have those air-to-land scorchers that can burn entire continents from sea to shining sea.”

Tara glared at Pierce’s profile, “We should all just kill ourselves?”

“I don’t disagree with your sentiments,” he said, apologetic. “I’m tired of waking up every day on the losing team, Ensign. We’re eating the dirt while they’re landing ships on Mars.”

“You think they’re on Mars?” Tara asked, but Pierce said nothing more as he parked the jeep. “Is that what you were doing in Australia?” Tara asked, following Pierce around to the building’s Guard-Entry.

“That’s classified,” said Pierce.

Tara asked, “Did you find anything?”

“Classified,” Pierce repeated.

When the door buzzed, they entered and silently passed two-armed sentry’s standing watch. Flashing their identification to a third, they took the elevator up.

The attending guard in central stared long at Tara.

“I take it they don’t get to see women in their line of work?” Tara mumbled.

“There are women here,” said Pierce. “The civilian shift ended half-hour ago,”

Tara whispered, “Why did a farc Commander come here, Colonel?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” said Pierce.

The first person they questioned was Sergeant Cecile Givens.

The woman was old enough to be her grandmother, and her polite mannerisms reminded Tara of the elitist matriarchy she grew up with, in Holy Cross.

“So, a farc officer shows up,” Tara snapped. “And you just let her in?”

“The Commander had the proper paperwork,” Givens said.

“Scanned documents, Sergeant?” Tara countered. “Did you forget we don’t honor digital-orders?”

“It was paperwork,” Givens pointed to the folder in Pierce’s hands. “It had all the proper signatures, and I called it in,”

“Did you get a verification code,” Tara asked.

“I did, Ensign Whitley,” said Givens.

Tara demanded, “What was the name of the officer you spoke to?”

“A nice young man named Terry,” Givens looked at Pierce. “He said he was from Holy Cross and said he had a sister that was an Ensign in the military,”

Tara felt her face burn as Pierce put himself between her and Givens.

“The code given was valid Banff issue, slated for use next week,” Pierce said softly. “Sergeant, who did she visit when she was here?”

Givens said, “Carl Crystal.”

“Did she say why she wished to speak to prisoner 586?” Pierce asked.

“She dodged it,” Givens frowned. “Hit on me,”

“Was their interview recorded?” Pierce asked.

Givens replied, “All interviews are recorded, Colonel,”

Pierce dismissed Givens, and when alone, he and Tara reviewed a playback of the interview. Tara combed through Carl Crystal’s intake files as Pierce sat glued to the television.

When the farc officer walked into frame, Tara’s heart jumped; it was the Komad that had murdered her brother at Port Yukon.

Tara asked, “Who’s that?”

“That’s Sofita Kul,” Pierce said, touching the television screen, his finger lingered on the farc as she sat opposite of Crystal.

Tara was overcome with anger until she heard Kul say a name.

“Utahraptor!” Tara exclaimed. “That psycho from the Badlands?”

Pierce whispered, “Why are you talking to Crystal about Eustace Sylvania?”

Tara paged through Crystal’s files looking for any connection to the Badlands in his women or his crimes.

 “You’re not going to believe this,” Tara said. “Carl Crystal was transferred here immediately after sentencing in Calgary but was never given an intake exam.”

“That’s impossible,” Pierce faced her. “He went into a coma his first year here.”

“The Correctional-Caution Mandate went into effect his first year here,” Tara sighed in disgust. “No medical care is given to lifers,”

“He slipped through the cracks,” Pierce said. “Are there any observations on his coma?”

“Subject has continued to lapse into a comatose state that lasts no more than forty days. It occurs the same time every calendar year,” Tara read back the notes verbatim. “Have requested permission to perform MRI in Banff, but requests have been denied.”

Pierce returned to the playback when Crystal began speaking Ramaxi.

“What we’re thinking,” said Tara. “It’s not possible, is it?”

“Crystal was legally married to Mai-Li Zhang,” Pierce grabbed the files from her. “Zhang was a trained plastic surgeon, and when she was apprehended by Jungwa they found Femarctic surgical instruments on her person,”

“Zhang fixed noses and made fake tits,” Tara said. “The skill to turn a farc into one of us? No human has that!”

“Think with me, here, Ensign,” Pierce tossed the file onto the table and grabbing the cassette recorders remote, rewound the playback. “There’s no physical exam of him on record, anywhere, and here, he speaks Ramaxi.”

On the television, Crystal was snapped at the Komad.

“Why should I tell you anything?” Pierce translated as Crystal spoke. “You’re the worst form of predator, one that takes orders from the wombs in the shadows, those same gashes that would kill you to remain in power.”

“I didn’t know you spoke farc,” Tara said, unnerved by his skill.

“Ramaxian politics,” Pierce said quietly. “The Ninth-Gen staged a coup back in eighty-five. I bet they’ll do anything to stay in power.”

“I thought they have limited terms to counter that shit,” Tara said.

“I don’t think anyone limits Fusa Kul,” said Pierce. “Do you?”

“None of this makes sense,” Tara said. “They don’t have males, so why did she choose to be a man?”

“What if they do have men?” Pierce went back to translating out loud, “You’re the product of a male’s seed. The freeborn epitome of the caste designations utter failure.”

“Freeborn?” Tara demanded. “I thought they had kids on schedules?”

“We don’t know shit about them, we just think we do,” Pierce rewound the tape to the very beginning. “What is he saying here?”

Pierce turned it up because Crystal was whispering.

“You’re the other one,” Tara read his lips, “I loved a hizzah once,” Tara then began pacing. “If they have males then they breed when they feel like it!”

Pierce said, “If they’re breeding without caste designations-”

“—there’s no way to predict their behavior anymore!” Tara flung the file across the room and stared at Pierce as its pages rained down between them.

“That’s what threw me off about Kul in Tasmania,” Pierce said.

“She was a soldier, but she’s got hair,” Tara added. “I thought she was a thinker, but they’re not that ripped.”

“What if they no longer have castes?” Pierce said before slamming his hand against the communication button on the wall. “I want Carl Crystal brought to me immediately, and prep a chopper for prisoner pick up,” Pierce turned to her, “We’re taking him back to Banff, but before they find out what he is he’s going to answer my questions.”

Sirens began wailing outside followed by the sound of clanging barred doors and boots on the ground.

Pierce pushed out of the office with Tara on his heels, and outside they found dozens of armed guards lining up in the courtyard.

Tara grabbed one of them.

“Private, what’s going on?”

“There’s been a break, Alpha Wing,” he said, joining the others.

“Prisoners A through D!” Pierce growled, running for the entry.

Tara followed, shouting to Pierce that the light tower was flashing green; the signal dampers here rendered lithium engines like the one in their jeep, useless.

Hearing her, Pierce jogged past the jeep and toward the guards at the gate. All eight men were firing upon anyone in an orange jumpsuit.

Electrocuted men dangled from the crackling fence, their bodies twitched as current coursed through their flesh.

Pierce avoided the deadly charge by climbing over the dead, but at the barbed wire curled on its crown, he fell back to avoid being shot.

Jogging back to the parking lot, Pierce yanked an armed guard off his cycle and mounted it. Revving up the motor, he drove around the circumference of the pavement and sailed past the fallen guard.

When the dazed man jumped to his feet and aimed his weapon, Tara pulled her pistol and shot him in the leg.

Pierce veered the cycle toward the loading ramp against the prison’s north wall.

Riding up the slope, he gained just enough air that his wheels barely cleared the barbed wire atop the gate. He came down on the other side with enough force that he nearly lost control of the cycle.

“Why’d you shoot me!” the guard demanded of Tara.

“You took a shot at a Nausis agent,” Tara cried. “If you’d hit him, do you have any idea what they would’ve done to you and your family?”

The guard nodded knowingly.

Hearing shouts to watch out, Tara turned to find a pick-up truck barreling toward her. Tara latched onto the door as it passed and inside found Sargent Givens at the wheel.

“Mister Carl will run for the water!” she slowed to let Tara into the passenger seat. “Where he goes, they’ll follow. There’s a fishing pier about two miles east.”

Tara demanded, “What makes you think Crystal knows that?”

“You can see it from the windows of the interview room,” Givens declared.

Speeding past the empty guard shack, Givens went off the paved road and down a stony path that ran through the woods. In the trees around them, dozens of orange-suited prisoners were sprinting in all directions.

Up ahead Tara spotted Pierce.

Pulling a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment, she watched as Pierce’s cycle slowed. He was aiming his pistol, and when he fired, the prisoner fell to the ground upon hearing it; the man jumped up unscathed and fled.

Pierce’s cycle lost its footing, and when the bike went down, his feet effortlessly found the road. Arms pumping fast, he picked up the pace when the dockyard’s gate began lowering in the distance.

Tara leaned out and took aim, her bullets struck the plating as the prisoner slid under it as it closed.

Pierce missed his chance to slip under with him and narrowly avoided colliding with it as electric sparks snapped along the gate’s metallic threshold.

Givens slowed the van when they came upon Pierce.

“What’s beyond this perimeter?” he asked calmly; should’ve been winded or at least agitated by the charged gate.

 Givens replied, “It’s the only jetty on the bay-”

“—Get out, I need the truck,” he said.

“I need this van intact, and we need to get to the nearby town,” Givens said. “All of those men are killers!”

“Drive us to the water first,” Tara said, seeing that Givens was determined. “You can leave us there!”

Givens nodded, “Fine, get on!”

Pierce grabbed the riding side-bar as the Sergeant punched the gas and crashed through the gate. Sparks of electricity rained around them as Pierce took shots at the prisoners already clamoring for some boats.

Givens stepped on the break, “He can’t kill them!”

“Keep driving, Sergeant,” Tara yelled. “They’re not dead, just wounded!”

Pierce jumped from the truck and took off after Carl Crystal. The prisoner got to the end of the pier and turned to find Pierce approaching. Gun aimed, Carl spoke a few words, and then Pierce lowered his weapon.

Tara jumped from the truck as a hoverbike sailed overhead.

Piloted by a heavily tattooed man with a farc plasma rifle slung over his shoulder, the hover closed in on the jetty. Like a ballerina striking a pose, the smiling Crystal lifted his arm so that the pilot could snatch him up.

“Tuk Pongia!” Pierce shouted. “What are you doing in this hemisphere?”

Tara climbed out of the van as the hover sailed off toward the horizon.

“We need to get to town!” Givens yelled, stepping out of the van. “Those men are going to hurt people, innocent people,”

Tara watched Pierce approach them over Givens’ shoulder.

“What did he say to you?”

Without answering, Pierce lifted his pistol and fired a shot into the back of Givens’ head. When the old woman fell, he fired another round into her chest.

Tara screamed, “Colonel Pierce!”

“Don’t shout at me Ensign,” Pierce said, calm. “I’m right next to you,”

Tara said, “She’s a civilian-”

“—Killed in the line of duty,” said Pierce, taking the keys from her hand.

“We need to acquire Utahraptor Sil before the farc Commander does.”

“-and Crystal?” Tara asked.

Pierce walked to the driver’s side door.

“We find Utah, we find Carocristi,”

“Who’s Caro Cristi?” Tara demanded.

Pierce aimed his gun at her, “Get in the van, Ensign.”

“Are you going to shoot me,” Tara asked. “Like you did this civilian?”

“If you continue to question my authority on this mission,” Pierce remained still. “Yes, Ensign, I will shoot you.”

“You’re fucking psychotic,” Tara put her hands up. “How have you kept your behavior disguised from Perry for so long?”

“Perry knows what I am, just as I knew what you are,” Pierce said. “You’re a fuck-up, Whitley. You risked your brother’s life to gain intel, and then you got him killed,”

“Fuck you,” Tara said, holstering her gun.

“That’s not the compensation I require for getting you reinstated,” Pierce said. “Your hatred for Commander Kul will help me eliminate her. If not, you will return to Holy Cross as a civilian.”

“Ensign,” Pierce moved into the passenger seat. “Get in the fucking truck and drive.”