Episode Ten

North Shore Landing
Round Rock Harbor – NAU
1430 Hours – 2 Yulitat 2228

Four days after the Eros Impact, the state of Texas broke from the United States. The succession had come after millions of displaced refugees from the swelling Mississippi River had been foisted upon the landlocked capital of Austin.

The Congressional government and the Presidential office had been operating out of the Appalachian Mountains, out of touch with the humanitarian crisis unfolding int he Austin-San Antonio corridor.

When millions of climate refugees from Central America had entered Mexico bound for the Rocky Mountains, the state government in Texas declared their borders closed. A congressional rebuke from Appalachia followed, with threats of troop deployments to the state to protect those seeking shelter in the Rockies.

In the hours that followed the impact in the Arabian Sea, local soldiers stationed throughout in Texas seized national power grids, closed the airports, and commandeered the highways.

A standalone territory, they heeded geologists that warned of an impending eruption of the caldera at Yellowstone. The preservation of humanity was paramount enough for the Texan Territory to forcibly collect survivors deemed most essential.

Thousands had been taken from their families and put into underground shelters; these would be the regions sole survivors after the Valentine’s Day Eruption.

Their grandchildren would emerge during the Dark Years to find a landscape much changed. The eastern coastal plains were covered by a Mississippi Bay, while a giant body of water covered what was once the Southwest.

Several battleships from a museum in the drowned city of Galveston had washed ashore. Here a port was erected along the white beaches of what was once hilled valley called West Lake.

Port Austin became a hub of wealth after the Texan Territory was made part of the North American Union; the discovery of the Ramaxian’s in the Puerto Rican Trench had drastically changed that demographic.

The military moved in slowly, and what remained of its navy after the Australian Genocide had become a permanent fixture at the mouth of the Mississippi Bay. The NAU screened all maritime traffic bound for bay ports in the Midlands and had forbidden any foreign traffic making landfall.

These defenses were absurd because the Union as unable to extend such protection beyond a five-mile radius.

If one needed to make landfall in eastern Texas one did so via the treacherous lagoons of North Shore. There was no military presence in North Shore and no fancy boardwalk along a promenade of tall houses.

The shoreline was mud-laden here, with bug infested reeds. Despite being naturally inhospitable, the lagoons of North Shore were a salvagers paradise; beneath her garbage-laden shallows sat thousands of water-logged residences loaded with pre-impact luxuries.

 “Farky!” a young girl jumped from a tower of gutted tires. Clad in a dirty t-shirt and ripped up dungaree shorts, she ran into Sofita’s path. “Cómo te llamas?”

“Me llamo Sofita,” she replied.

The other children hid in the high grass, watching their exchange.

We need your help!” the girl playfully tapped Sofita’s hand before running ahead.

The other children joined them at the stack of wrecked vehicles. Visible under their decaying metal bones was the distinct bubbled top of an airstream trailer.

We can’t get these damn cars off it, Farky!” the girl whined.

Step aside kid,” as Sofita lifted her palm the children scattered.

A bolt of energy sailed at the tower of wrecks, colliding with the flattened cars on the ground and knocking them clear of the lot. The second shot caught the collapsing top of piled wrecks, sending them skyward.

Silver roof exposed the girl smiled.

Gracias Sofita,” she said as her friends greedily descended upon the hatch. “Puedo darte un beso?”

Sofita got down on one knee for the girl, who put her hands on Sofita’s shoulders and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

Afterward, Sofita walked the settlement’s worn-down main street, while the Shell marveled at how many pre-impact modular homes survived with their frames intact, despite decades of ground shakes and gale.

The aroma of fried food led her to Consuela’s Trattoria.

A Dokomad’s presence inside was indicated by the prostitutes lingering out front. Some older men loitered nearby, working up the courage to enter. Stepping through the beaded curtain entrance, she spotted her sitting alone at an outdoor table.

Stacked around Dox were dirty clay plates and a couple empty glass pitchers. The three teen boys sitting at the bar trying to look tough exited when she walked past them on her way to Dox.

“How did you convince the owner to serve you?”

“Her name is Consuela, Komad,” Dox inserted an entire chicken leg into her mouth and then pulled it out, bone bare. “And she’s happy to serve me.”

“You had to put your gold on the table, didn’t you?”

“The scar is scary,” Dox nodded. “It makes them think I’m trouble.”

The smell of the aging proprietor found them; a heavy scented gardenia mixed with the tart odor of wet cornmeal.

An overweight beauty with ample arms and a full figure, the corset wound tight around her torso was superior in quality to the ratty blouse and skirt beneath it. Wearing her dark hair up in a fashion reminiscent of her species’ Victorian age, her lips displayed a glossy sheen that complimented her smooth skin.

Lieutenant Fox,” said Consuela, her English poor. “Is this your Commander?

“I corrected her on my name,” Dox said to Sofita before smiling up at the old woman. “Oui Consuela, c’est le Commandant Kul.”

Ella es feo, eh?” Consuela smiled to the woman at the bar. “Con el pelo demasiado,”

The Shell’s laughter rang out in Sofita’s head; not born with attractive features, Sofita wasn’t even considered handsome by Hizak standards.

Cuál es el plato del día?” Sofita said.

Hablas español?” Consuela asked, eyes aglow.

Soy capaz de hablar español-,” Sofita shifted her eyes to Dox and in English said, “Why are you speaking French?

Dox gulped her beer and belched.

I never learned Spanish-”

“—Defensive Language Center mandates five helovx languages,” Sofita countered.

I’m not a linguist,” said Dox. “Did you see those chicken pens outside?

The empty ones?” Sofita asked.

Dox opened her arms over the plates.

I’ve tried chicken alfredo and chicken fajitas,” she said. “This was roasted chicken, but I prefer the fried chicken. The crunchy coating is amazing,

Consuela brought a new pitcher of beer.

Lieutenant Fox, veux-tu quelque chose à boire?

Bonjour, Madame,” Dox said.

Oh! You’re such a handsome Fox!” Consuela said in English, rubbing rubbed Dox’s head.

Una cerveza, por favor,” Sofita said.

“Sí- sí!” Consuela smiled and filled her glass.

As Consuela bounded back to the bar, the song playing on the radio was interrupted by news out of Banff.

The election between the Quebecois conservative Janette Dubois, and incumbent, Jason Gideon, son of former President Colin Gideon, was reaching its zenith.

Dox asked in French, “What’ll happen if Dubois becomes president?”

She’s not an immediate problem,”

But she’s considered a problem?”

Orta believes she’ll attempt unification,”

Her platform is separation, she’s an isolationist,”

Sofita took a piece of chicken from Dox’s plate, “Dubois advocates separating humanity from its dependence on Ramaxia,”

The Nauists get nothing from us,” said Dox.

 “Jungwa, Aotearoa, and Brasilia do,” Sofita said, and tasting the fried chicken she agreed that it was delicious. “Dubois convinced the northern cities of the Trisect to reduce freshwater imports from Greenland,”

Where does she propose they get their water?” Dox laughed.

Dubois brokered a deal with the copti’s for a Nauist company to build reservoirs throughout the Skeleton Gate,” Sofita wiped her fingers on a napkin while Dox used her uniform pants. “Dubois maintains clout among the copti’s because of her Moroccan mother.”

Why stop at the water?” Dox said. “Why not also wean them off the energy they import from Greenland?

“The northern pole is freezing again, access to the oil at Holy Cross will become near impossible when the permafrost-”

Sofita paused upon noticing the patrons in the eatery were listening.

“If I’m right,” Sofita continued in Ramaxi. “Dubois will seek to unify all helovx nations and then make a move against us.”

Dox stared at her, “Why aren’t we speaking English?

“We’ve ears, Dokomad,” Sofita explained.

Dox glanced the room, “Jungwa will never come under Nauist rule,”

“Brasilia and Jungwa will be the holdouts,” Sofita said. “Those sympathetic to Dubois are already in control of the Karnak parliament.”

“Her Moroccan mommy was important?” Dox asked.

Sofita sat back, “Her ancestors led the northern cities to victory against the Nigerians back when Euro and Turkish refugees wanted control of the Trisect,”

“The Maori tribes would never have followed what they consider former colonials until we took out their bridge,” Dox said.

Sofita asked, “Who says we took out that bridge?”

“No one would answer me when I woke up and asked where you were, Komad,” Dox said. “Connie told me about your assignment,”

“The Queen’s counsel in Aotearoa will hear Dubois out because she’s a woman of color,” Sofita finished her chicken. “To get their support, she’ll need to remove the white clerics and priests that hold power in the Trisect.”

“Helovx tribalism working in our favor,” Dox sighed. “Not that our Primary will give a shit if they unite. It’ll just give her a larger target to aim her palm at,”

She’s changed since the brain surgery.

“What’s wrong, Komad?” Dox asked.

“You promised not to stare at me like that,” Dox said. “You know it freaks me out,”

“Jungwa will follow if the Maori decide to align themselves with Dubois,” Sofita said. “That leaves Brasilia vulnerable,”

“She’s bullied the Brasiliaras in the past,” Dox said, finishing her beer. “They hate her,”

“None of her maneuverings will matter, Sofita said. “Your previous assessment stands true, our Primary will lose her temper and end up wiping them all out,”

“Term Sabo hides its true function by claiming it aids the helovx in fucking each other over,” Dox said. “How is it they haven’t doubled up on empowering terrorists to bomb frak sites and blow up dams?”

“The only way Dubois can take Jungwa is with a nuclear war,” Sofita said. “Her limited arsenal of twenty-first-century missiles can’t launch without the proper tech,”

“Jungwa has the tech,” Dox shrugged.

“If they combined their efforts tomorrow and hurled a missile at us, we’d send out a Striker and lead it right back to them,” Sofita said.

“They can do what they want,” said Dox.

“Nuclear fallout kills them,” Sofita countered.

“But it makes us stronger,” Dox said.

Don’t let it hurt your brain, ‘Fita.

“When did you develop this cynicism?” Sofita asked.

“They keep trying to kill us,” Dox said. “Even though we have nothing to do with their daily lives,”

“We’re more involved than you know,” Sofita said.

“When the Robust Gen tried to help them,” Dox said, finger up. “They acted like entitled little bitches because it wasn’t the exact kind of help they wanted.”

She’s gotten smarter, ‘Fita.

“Who is they?” Sofita asked. “Anyone specific?”

Dox countered, “Must there be?”

“You cannot judge an entire species based on the behavior of a fraction,” Sofita sucked a piece of meat from her teeth and spat it out. “There’s arsenic in the chicken,”

Dox looked at her plate, “That’s poison, right?”

“A chemical that occurs in sulfur and few other metals,” Sofita said. “It’s toxic to helovx, and why Consuela’s daughter thinks it might be lethal to us.”

Dox tilted her head back for a better view behind the bar.

“It leaves an aftertaste,” Sofita added. “My suspicions were confirmed by her giving everyone else’s scraps to the children, but not ours,”

“Dubois is a moral conservative,” Dox pushed her plate away. “I’ll be surprised if she’s elected given her history of legislating by her religious beliefs.”

“You’ve studied Nauist politics but not their language?” Sofita said.

“I brushed up on their state of affairs when we were at Port Yukon,” said Dox.

“Theocratic habits never die, Dokomad,” Sofita said.

Dox softened, “You respect her,”

“She concerns me,” Sofita said. “Dubois is the sort that Fusa loves to make an example of and if she’s voted in as President-”

“—That’s like shaking a bottle of soda water,” Dox said.

Your language is so strange to my ears,” Consuela returned with a smile and speaking English. “I can’t understand a word of it! You want another bucket of chicken, Foxy?

No Miss Consuela,” Dox looked past the old woman and at her daughter, who promptly disappeared into the kitchen.

Why you have no hair, Foxy?” Consuela asked Dox.

I wasn’t born with any,” Dox said with pride. “I’m a soldier,”

Consuela glanced at Sofita, “Why you have hair, Commander?

I was born,” Sofita said, “A different sort of soldier,”

You are this, I can tell,” Consuela said. “Puedes pagarme ahora, por favor?

Sofita pulled out two gold squares but held them tight.

I’ll give you both of these if you eat some of this chicken.”

“Komad!” Dox snapped, but Sofita put up a hand.

Laughing, Consuela thought nothing of Sofita’s request. Drumstick in hand, she brought the meat to her lips.

The daughter appeared beside her with a knife in her hand, and before her mother could take a bite, the woman slapped it from her mother’s fingers.

Consuela’s eyes shifted from her daughter to the chicken. Bowing her head in shame, she turned from the table and walked to the bar.

Sofita walked over to her and set the gold down beside her.

I will not take this,” said Consuela in English. “I’m sorry, Commander.”

Gracias, Consuela,” Sofita gently took the old woman’s hand and placed the gold in her palm. “I do not judge you on the actions of your family.

Outside, Dox walked alongside her in silence.

A nearby radio broke the election coverage to report on an overnight attack at a police-station twenty miles west of North Shore.

The violent gang believed responsible was also being sought by authorities in connection with attacks on Badlands locals.

“He’s getting bold,” Dox said. “What could’ve triggered him?”

“He’s been violent all his life,” Sofita said.

“He’s ramped it up recently,” Dox argued. “You think he senses us?”

Sofita shook her head, “He’s not a full-blooded male,”

“There are no Eleventh-Gen males, right?” Dox asked.

“He likely senses his daddy,” Sofita said.

Dox became tense, “You spoke to Cristi, that’s all?”

“Why ask me what you already know?” Sofita said.

Dox pointed, “If you facilitated his escape-”

“—it’s time for Cristi to come home,” Sofita declared.

Dox walked past her, “Did the Shell decide that?”

Route 80 Gate-Point
Texan Territory – North American Union
December 2, 2228 – 4:30 PM

There was too much of Holy Cross still left inside Angie Thomas.

“I’m too fat for ninety-degree weather,” she declared, long microphone aimed at the cinder block wall.

A large metal sign bolted into it read in English, French, and Spanish: No Entry to Anyone Beyond this Point. Entering Beyond this Point Makes You No Longer the Responsibility of the North American Union.

Disgusted by the message and the grit, Angie peeled a dirty glove off her hand and slapped it against the back of her production assistant’s bomber jacket.

The skinny man whined at the abuse and pulled it off.

“This better come out,” he groused; a lifetime resident of Port Austin, Mickey Dorsett had no taste for the Badlands.

“I’m getting static on this feed,” Angie called out, and when Mickey jogged back to her, she grabbed his sleeve and pulled him close, “Have you ever seen those two?”

He clandestinely glanced the slender white man and his dark-skinned companion, “Nope, but I ain’t never been outside of Texas.”

“There’s something weird about them,” Angie whispered. “I went to school in the Mids, and I never heard tell of this guy or listened to his news show,”

The handsome white reporter they collected in Port Austin introduced himself as Kyle Southern. He presented his dark-skinned partner, a Holy-Cross local named Brigit Simmons, as his producer of nine years.

“The Mids gets new people on the radio, every day,” Mickey shrugged.

“What did Olson say when she told you to pick them up?” Angie asked.

Mickey’s narrow eyes widened as he enacted a realistic impression of their boss, Nadine, “They’re covering something important in the Badlands, just pick them up, drop them off, and don’t ask questions,”

“We’re a passenger service, now?” Angie put her hands on her hips. “What kind of shit is that?”

Mickey shrugged, “The kind of shit that gives me a paycheck every week,”

Laughing, Angie dug one of her battered fingernails into the exposed scalp between her braids, “I’m never going to get this gravel out of my hair!”

“Miss Brigit with one T cut all her hair off,” Mickey said. “Why don’t you?”

Angie glared at him, “Mister Kyle has round eyes, why don’t you?”

“His ancestors weren’t Japanese?” Mickey furrowed his brow. “If Holy Cross hair ain’t something I can casually comment on, just say so,”

“We’ve known each other too long for that shit,” Angie said, grabbing his arm, apologetic. “I’m bitchy right now, don’t hold it against me, okay?”

“The heat and the sun are a total bummer,” Mickey said.

“That’s not why I’m bitchy,” Angie eyed the strangers.

She didn’t judge a woman by her hair or what shade of brown her parents were, but Angie knew bullshit-behavior when she saw it.  Kyle might’ve been a reporter, but this so-called producer, Brigit, knew nothing about running assignments in the field.

“How’s it going, Thomas?” Brigit walked up on Angie and Mickey.

“My name’s Angela,” she said, facing her. “You can call me Angie,”

“She’s right Brigit,” Kyle flashed his toothy white-boy grin. “We’re not in the military,”

“Sorry,” Brigit said to Angie. “My mom was military,”

Tall, dark, and boney, the flat-chested woman wore a dank green maxi dress with buttoned patch pockets. Tucked into one of the wide belt cinches at her waist was a walnut-handled pepperbox pistol.

Angie pulled a glass bottle from Mickey’s jacket pocket and stared down at the heavy rubber soles on Brigit’s boots, “Was your momma stationed in Oiltown?”

“All my life,” said Brigit. “What about you?”

“My mom worked Hole Fifty,” Angie was unwilling to reveal that her mother owned that coal mine. “My pop raised my sisters and me in the Cross,”

“I know we didn’t have time to touch base with you in Port Austin,” said Brigit. “And I know Nadine told you not to ask us any questions-”

“—Don’t worry, we’re guild personnel,” Angie offered her a sip of water from her yellow glass bottle. “We will record your golden boy as he reports the news,”

“We should tell them,” Kyle came between them and took a sip of the water from the bottle Angie offered Brigit. “There shouldn’t be any bullshit between us, we’re all out here risking our lives.”

“That’s an understatement,” Mickey mumbled.

Brigit nodded, “You know about the murders out here?”

“Our home station sent a reporter out here two weeks ago,” Angie said. “Him and his crew never came back.”

“These aren’t random attacks,” Kyle stood close, giving Mickey another chance to revel in his scented cologne. “Rumor says that an entire town was slaughtered out here,”

“We heard-,” Mickey said; when Angie shushed him, he stepped away.

“What’ve you heard?” Kyle asked.

Angie wasn’t keen on elaborating.

“Please,” Kyle moved in close enough that his breath touched her face. “We need to find it before our government cleans it up.”

“The people have a right to know,” Brigit added behind him.

“We got no solid source,” Angie said. “What we do have says the town was underground and some blood cult found it,”

“Farcs!” Mickey stumbled back, out of breath. “I saw them, they saw me, now they’re coming.”

Angie spotted a tall figure approaching through the haze on the horizon, “What the hell’s an Antarctican doing in the Badlands?”

Kyle and Brigit pulled their pistols and took positions in front of the van.

“What are you two doing?” Angie demanded. “She doesn’t have her palm up!”

“We have to protect ourselves,” Mickey exclaimed, tumbling out of the van with a shotgun in his hand.

“What’re you doing?” Angie grabbed the barrel. “It’s got no bullets!”

“I can’t get fisted,” Mickey whispered, frantic. “I know I’m queer, but I’ve never had anal sex.”

The lanky farc was close enough for Angie to see that her seal-like hide was gray like a thundercloud. The pale uniform she wore was wicked tight and covered her muscular figure from neck to knee-high boots.

“Put it away Mickey,” Kyle hissed without turning to face them.

Brigit added, “There’s no need for things to escalate.”

“Then you two need to holster your guns, now,” Angie countered. “Hey Mick, I thought you said there were two of them,”

“I saw two,” Mickey nodded. “I know I did.

Brigit stepped in front of him with her pistol still up.

“You plan on shooting someone, soldier?” Angie said to her.

Kyle lowered his gun and nodded for Brigit to do the same.

“I swear I saw two of them!” Mickey said.

Angie frowned, “The heat rising off the ground fucked with your view,”

“Can they be here as hot as it is?” Mickey asked.

Angie walked out ahead of them, “I’ll ask her,”

“Stay put,” Kyle whispered urgently.

Angie turned on him, “One, don’t snap at me. Two, they don’t attack at the first sign of a weapon,” she glared at Brigit, “You grew up in the Cross, you should know this.”

“She’s right Kyle,” Brigit said. “If we relax, they relax,”

“Hello! We’re menfolk,” Mickey came up beside Kyle. “Farcs do things to us that are rather painful,”

“They’re right, Mick,” Kyle shoved his pistol into the back of his waistband and snatched the rifle from him. “We all need to relax,”

Stopping a few feet from Angie with her bare palms up, the muscular Antarctican set her dark, friendly eyes upon them.

“My name is Lieutenant Dox,” she extended her hand when Angie’s eyes found the jagged scar on her forehead. “I’m here on behalf of your government superiors in Banff.”

“You can stop talking like we don’t know our own language,” Angie mocked the soldiers slow and deliberate speech; relief washed over her when the bald cutie smiled.

“We got our own soldiers,” Brigit spoke up. “They can keep us out,”

“Most of your soldiers are assigned to the perimeter,” the Lieutenant pointed east. “Protecting the population at Austin is a top priority,”

“How do we know you haven’t invaded?” Mickey blurted.

Angie rolled her eyes, “With an army of one, Mick?”

“You say Banff set you?” Kyle asked, smiling.

“I’m assigned to the Office of Helovx Advocacy,” said the Lieutenant. “The current administration asked us to assist in this situation because of our immunity to the toxins involved,”

Angie saw her reflection in the Antarctican’s dark eyes.

“You need to come up with a more plausible story,” said Angie. “Banff doesn’t give two shits about polluting civilians outside of Banff,”

Kyle smiled, “She’s right,”

The Lieutenant softened her expression, “Some zeppelin went down in the Badlands, and I’ve been asked to re-con with a clean-up assessment.”

“You know a lot more words than most bullheads,” Angie said.

“Begging your pardon,” the Lieutenant said. “Why are we called bullheads? We don’t have horns growing out of our heads,”

Angie smiled, “You’d be called devils, then,”

“That’s a religious reference,” the Lieutenant grinned. “Christian, correct?”

“Most Christians are never correct,” Angie said.

Brigit came up beside them, “Clean-up assessment?”

“In return for what?” Kyle joined them.

“My superiors don’t disclose those details,” the Lieutenant said.

“Lieutenant Fox,” she said. “My name is Angela Thomas, and no matter what’s going down in Banff, there’s nothing banning anyone from entering the Badlands,”

“No matter how dangerous,” Mickey added, pulling his jacket tight.

“You can relax, sir,” said the Lieutenant. “I’ve never sexually assaulted a helovx and I never will,”

“Calm the hell down, Mick,” Angie scolded.

“Angie’s right,” Kyle said, “The NAU lets its citizens do as they please,”

“I don’t think farcs understand personal freedoms,” Brigit said.

The Lieutenants face hardened and moving swiftly, she snatched the pistol from Brigit’s waist cinch.

“I don’t like the word farc,” said the Lieutenant, pulling the metal from the wood and dropping both parts of the gun at Brigit’s feet. “Any more than you, or Miss Thomas, would like the word, tarface.”

Kyle had his hand on the stunted barrel of his own pistol, but hadn’t drawn it; Mickey stood behind him, anxious.

“Let’s not use that word anymore, please,” said the Lieutenant, politely.

“You can call me Angie,” she said, forcing her heft between them. “I promise you, no one is going to use their guns here, Lieutenant Fox, or call you that nasty name.”

“We’re just chasing down our story,” Mickey added/

“Story?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Some people were killed,” Kyle said. “We just want to know how and why,”

Mickey relaxed enough to tap the soldier on the arm, “You got reporters in Antarctica, right?”

“Yes, we do,” said the Lieutenant.

“If there’s been some sort of poisonous spill and you’re here to assess its clean-up, then your tech is being used by our government,” Kyle stepped to the Lieutenant. “Our public has the right to know about that, too,”

The Lieutenant crossed her arms over her chest.

“I was told to clear civilians of this area,”

“There’s no spill, Lieutenant,” Angie said.

Mickey nodded, “Your superiors are lying to you,”

“There’s a gang of violent drifters roaming these parts,” Kyle said. “We’re here to document their crimes,”

The Lieutenant mulled something over a moment before motioning them to come closer.

“I’m sorry, it’s me who’s lying,” she confessed. “You’re right, there’s no chemical spill. A dozen men escaped the penal plantation at Foxe Island,”

“What!” Kyle looked at Brigit, excited.

“No one gets out of Calgary,” Angie said.

“These convicts have family following a gang led by Eustis Sylvania,” the Lieutenant said. “They’re likely here already,”

“Oh my God,” Mickey said.

“Are you sure about this?” Kyle asked.

“We’ve apprehended most of the escapees,” she replied. “I’m here to collect any stragglers before any more folks are killed,”

“Why would our government ask Orta to collect our criminals?” Brigit asked.

“What’s Orta?” Mickey said.

“It’s where World Oceans keeps all their butch bitches,” Angie said, provoking another smile from the attractive Lieutenant.

“There’s a story here,” Kyle followed the Lieutenant toward their van. “What’s Orta’s connection to the fugitives?”

“Your government will issue a statement,” the Lieutenant said. “When they feel you need all the facts,”

“Lieutenant,” said Angie. “Governments don’t deal in facts,”

“I trust my government,” the Lieutenant professed.

“If you trust that bitch Rio Yoom,” Angie laughed. “Then you’re not as smart as I thought you were,”

“Which one is she?” Mickey asked.

“First Officer of the Committee,” said Kyle. “The administrative Primary of Ramaxia,”

“She’s the one that beat up on that hair-tail wife of hers,” Angie said. “Beat her up so bad, she jumped off a building to get away from her,”

“You’re remarkably well-informed,” the Lieutenant said, wide-eyed.

“You bullheads love to talk about home when they’re drunk,” Angie said. “Port Yukon is full of stories about your fucked-up Committee,”

“I thought Gideon was weird for marrying his cousin,” Kyle laughed. “Compared to Fusa Kul, he’s downright ordinary,”

The Lieutenant feigned seriousness.

“That’s my Primary you’re all talking about,”

“We aren’t the only ones talking,” Mickey laughed.

“May ask how old you are, Angie?” the Lieutenant said.

“Twenty-four,” Angie said. “What about you?”

“Nineteen in January,” she replied.

“Damn!” Angie gasped. “You’re big for a baby,”

“A nineteen-year-old Dokomad,” Brigit said. “What’d you do to earn that?”

Kyle glared at Brigit while the Lieutenant examined her own arm insignia. Lifting her eyes to answer, a howl in the distance brought them new troubles.

A group of motorbikes came toward them, kicking up a thick trail of dust as their riders bayed loudly with machetes held high.

Lieutenant Fox got down on one knee and slid a stringy blaster over her hand. “Get inside the van, please,” she said, raising her palm.

Angie got behind the Lieutenant instead.

Between the Antarctican’s long fingers she saw the leading rider advance. A mud-covered man in army fatigues, he waved a machete over his head and his fixed his eyes on the Antarctican.

A white burst of energy flew from her hand, blasting the lead bike out from under its rider. Two more orbs of light soared, each slamming into the chests of the remaining attackers.

The downed leader rolled away from his cycle and jumping to his feet, charged at them with a machete raised.

When Kyle took the howling fiend down with a shot to the head, the Lieutenant stared at him.

Angie whispered, “He says he’s a reporter,”

“You train your news people well,” the Lieutenant said.

Angie pursed her lips and shook her head, “No, we don’t.”

The Lieutenant cast a knowing glance.

“I never got your name, sir,” she said to Kyle. “But I’m going to ask that you put that gun away,”

Kyle shoved the pistol into the back of his pants as the Lieutenant passed him on the way to the man’s downed bike.

“What are you doing Lieutenant?” Kyle asked.

“This one’s full,” she said, tapping the gas tank. “The nearest gas station is days from here,”

“Nope,” said Angie. “There’s a local joint about twenty minutes from here.”

“A joint?” the Lieutenant brought her index finger and thumb together and motioned toward her mouth. “As in a wrapped cigarette?”

“No!” Kyle laughed. “As in a specific place,”

“Like an eating joint,” Angie said. “Or a gas joint,”

Nodding, the Lieutenant smiled, “Every day is a lesson,”

“We mapped out all the local gas joints when we got here,” Mickey showed the Lieutenant a page from his leather-bound travel diary. “The locals here are rough, I can’t imagine them giving these freaks, gas.”

“Maybe they didn’t have a choice,” the Lieutenant eyed the landscape. “Your troops moved people out of here last night. Perhaps there are a few hold-outs.”

“We can take you to the gas station, Lieutenant,” Angie said.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said.

“I’ve only got two bullets left,” Kyle said. “I’d feel safer if you tagged along,”

Watching Brigit collect the pieces of her gun, the Lieutenant pointed at the scar on her forehead, “I don’t like guns,”

“We’ll stow the guns,” Kyle said, “Right Brigit?”

When Brigit said nothing, Mickey spoke up.

“Just come with us,” he said.

“Maybe I will,” the Lieutenant smiled at Angie. “It’s a long walk.”

Kyle followed the soldier toward the van, “Can’t you fly?”

“What?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Like a power suit,” said Kyle.

“Or those glider boots?” Mickey added.

“These boots have no isurus beam inside,” said the Lieutenant.

“I’d heard that some of you could fly,” Kyle said.

The Lieutenant shook her head, “I don’t know of any soldier that can fly.”

“I’m not comfortable having a farc in the van,” Brigit snapped.

Aggravated, Angie stepped into the taller woman.

“She said she doesn’t like that word, tarface,”

Mickey rushed to put himself between them.

“No offense but the van belongs to Angie and me,” he said politely to Brigit. “Technically, you’re not part of news-team-eight.”

“We’ve got no time for this bullshit,” Kyle frowned at Brigit. “If the residents at the gas station have been hurt, we need to tend to them, and get their story.”

“I’ll tell you what,” the Lieutenant approached Brigit with her hands up. “I’ll sit in the back with Angie and Mickey, you ride in front with Kyle-”

“—or she can walk her narrow ass back to Austin,” said Angie.


The blood on his skin was ripe.

Nail-studded bat in hand, he came at Sofita like a crazed predator with no set plan of attack.

Feet planted firm, she cracked him in the cheek with a single punch and sent him howling over the ledge. She walked to the precipice and peering over its edge she found nothing but disturbed mud.

The fall didn’t kill him, Komad.

“Sturdy for a troglodyte,”

A cycle revved in the distance.

Sofita followed the noise to a stretch of torn up highway. The man sped off as she approached, a torn sleeve tied around his head to secure his broken jaw.

Revitalized by the excessive heat, she jogged after him, tracking the odor of his spent gasoline. A few miles down the road she found the cycle discarded, its back wheel still spinning.

An abandoned amusement park sat in the distance. Overgrown with dry weeds and brush, its perimeter fence was smeared with blood where the man had climbed to enter.

Sofita tracked the body-odor to a beaten-up concession stand, and spying him through the cracks, she found him cowering on the floor.

“I see you,” she sang.

The man jumped up and crashed through the back window. He sprinted for the ruins of a massive roller coaster. Tumbling onto its service platform, he labored to push a four-group of cars down the track.

Sofita soon caught up.

My roller coaster physics is shaky, Komad.

“I’m certain there’s some pressurized air remaining in its veins,” Sofita aimed her palm at the control box under the platform and sent a pulse of low-level energy.

The track hummed to life and sent the man’s four-group of cars out ahead of him. Stumbling over the tracks, he caught up and jumped inside.

Sofita a hopped a second set idling up to the platform and on the slow crawl up the first incline, she waved at him when he turned to face her.

Grinning insanely, the man howled out on the descent.

The cars fell fast, and without a safety belt to secure him, the man struggled to stay put. The sharp bend in the track nearly shook him loose before leveling out toward another incline. Confident he was safe, he climbed to the first car.

Sofita walked the top of her cars and jumped onto the last of his four-group. Seeing her there, the man pulled a dagger from his pants and lashed out before she could move closer. Desperate, he tossed the knife and missed when she backflipped out of the cars.

Landing on the track below, Sofita hopped up and climbed the coaster’s latticework until she gained a high position above him.

The man sat front and center in his four-group, confident that on his descent, he’d plow into her on the tracks below. Over the hump, the cars rocked and jerked as they fell at top speed.

She wasn’t there.

Frantic, he searched the ground for her body, and his triumph turned to fear when he spotted a break in the track, a missing piece long rotted away. The man clamored to climb free of the cars, but it was too late.

The four-group spilled off the track, and the man floated free of the cars. Hitting the lower rail with his back, he caught hold of it before he could fall further.

Sofita came toward him, surfing upon another four-group.

Aiming at the control box below, she emitted a blast of destructive energy that sapped the air-compressor, sapping the coaster of its power.

The cars slowed to a stop just inches from the man’s fingers.

Sofita stepped from the cars and taking hold of his wrists, hauled him up and slammed him onto the tracks.

“He sid yood-cuh,” the man spoke through a broken jaw.

“Who said we’d come?” Sofita asked, pushing his jawbone upwards.

“Eli d’Red,” he began choking on his own blood. “B’lungs to Uta,”

“Where’s Utahraptor Sil?” Sofita asked.

“I fay’d him,” the man began to cry.

Frustrated, she kicked him off the tracks.

The man fell silently to his death below.

She climbed the coaster’s skeleton back down and stood over his broken body.

“I’m going to assume you’re able to interface with the hive without my needing to fully ignite,” she said aloud.

Never assume, Komad.

“If you can speak to me outside of active-mode,” she shoved her index finger into his mouth. “You can interface with the hive just as I can,”

Enact your service-badge and call me.

Sofita tapped the communication pin on her lapel.

A holographic screen appeared over her eyes, the same manual-interface that Fyla employed to interact with the Shell’s network.

“Biomatter scan,” Sofita ordered.

A panel of light appeared in front of her. Dragging her bloodied finger across its screen caused a series of pop-up screen, all filled with test results.

“Connect me to OHA medical,”

Why not Toligon?

“Please do as I ask,”

The spheres within her trembled before the high-pitched voice of subhive Targon entered her thoughts.

How are you today, Femitokon Prime?

Sofita thought back her reply, ‘I’m fine, Targon.’

How may I assist you, today?

‘Please connect me to the genetic database of the Office of Helovx Advocacy.’

You are now connected to the Helovx Center of Genetic Collection.

‘Please test the following sample against all known criminal databases,’

Processing bio-sample.

An image of the man appeared on the main screen.

Testing complete. Arthur Doley was born in the city of Constantina, Paracenn Island in the African Trisect. Mister Doley is notable for being-

“—thank you, Targon,” Sofita said aloud, and then spoke to the man’s corpse. “The only man their newly reintroduced electric chair couldn’t kill.”

Mister Doley’s survival is a result of consistent and intensive shock treatments administered throughout the various stages of brain development.

“Mister Doley’s brain developed a tumor to collect the electricity,” Sofita said, then shook her head. “They removed the tumor and rescheduled his execution,”

That is correct, Femitokon Prime.

Advocates against the death penalty in the Eurislam Orthodoxy lobbied successfully to transition his sentence to life imprisonment.

“What’re you doing here?” Sofita asked the body.

You summoned me, Femitokon Prime.

‘I was speaking to Mister Doley,’ Sofita said in her thoughts.

Forgive me, Femitokon Prime.

I am unaccustomed to conversing with Divisional assets in the field. The blood sample indicates that Mister Doley is expired. Your attempts to speak with him are problematic.

Do you need to schedule a mental-health appointment, Femitokon Prime?

‘I do not, Targon, thank you,’

On a related note, Mister Doley’s records ceased being updated by Korfu Custodial in 2224.

“He escaped the Trisect,” Sofita whispered.

It would seem so, Femitokon Prime.

“Thank you, Targon,” Sofita said.

Vandox Estates
North Vanda – Ramaxia
2 Yulitat, 2228 – 1800 hours

Obiz Banto was forced to return to her donational home last year, after being unable to procure a vocation that afforded her financial independence.

“You still live here,” asked the transport driver.

Obiz glanced over her Filmark at the Bizak.

“I’m relocating as you speak,”

The transport slowed to a stop before a biomorphic monstrosity that everyone insisted was a work of art. Its interior design catered to the needs of a Subak, but the prismatic glass windows along its face, large enough to be seen by the metro high-rises in Northern Vanda, boasted an Hizak ego.

 “I partied here two years ago,” the driver said. “Fezil still here?”

“Despite inciting many an epic gathering without the consent of our makers, yes, Fezil remains,” stepping out onto the pavement, Obiz moved her cred-card over the door reader and made sure to key in a proper tip for the driver.

“Tell Fezil that Wusat says hello,” said the Bizak, before leaving.

Obiz smiled cordially.

Climbing the walking path to the back door, she touched the entry pad alongside it with her finger until it popped open. Hand against its polar-stone veneer, she pushed it gently enough to minimize its creak.

Inside with the door closed quietly behind her, she slipped off her heeled boots.

Back when she was too young to appreciate that noise carried, Obiz had greedily accepted her maker’s gift of hard-soled shoes; the footwear was a clever tactic against an hizakidoe fond of plucking the flowers from her maker’s many standing pots.

Obiz would flee when caught in the act, her new shoes clacking over the dark stone floor. Her mako simply followed the noise to find Obiz standing behind one of her kerma’s many hanging tapestries.

Many things had changed since Obiz was eight.

Though every door mimicked a frozen wave, there’d been no coldness in here except for the granite floors; growing up there’d been laughter and love within these walls.

Webs of light danced on the ceiling, shadowy reflections of the water within the floor canals.  Leafy plants, some larger than her kerma, applauded as she whiskey past. Up the nautilus staircase, Obiz paused upon the first circular landing.

Fezil’s private room door was opened; nothing remained inside except a stripped sitting couch and a noisy fountain. Obiz shifted her eyes to the door directly across and listened to the rhythmic strum of a b’do on the other side.

Obiz called out, “Are you dressed Fezil?”

“Not really,” said her voice.

Fezil was an avowed ‘Sixer, a subculture of citizens that celebrated the daily nudity incorporated by the originals during their first days in the world.

“I appreciate your willingness to put on pants,” Obiz barged and found Fezil grinning, the stringed instrument hiding her naked chest.

To their mak’s disdain, Fezil continued to front a band she’d formed in art school. Hard rockers, the Vanda Scourge were notable for having a Bizak singer who didn’t engage in free-forming pikavel.

The creative Bizak was also fond of staining her hide. Body covered with intricate designs, Fezil supplemented her income by staining others.

“Where’s the suit bag I placed on this rack?” Obiz asked after seeing dozens of hair ties and bap-laces dangling on her closet’s peg-hangers.

“I put it on the chair,” Fezil said.

“My belongings remain in this room,” the closet she once called her own was now packed with Vanda Sanitation uniforms. “That fact indicates this space is mine until I’ve vacated it!”

“Take the last of your crap, already,” Fezil groused playfully.

Obiz snatched the suit bag up and hung it on a peg near the door. Tearing at its tharspin snaps, she did a quick inventory of her jackets.

“This room has great acoustics,” said Fezil.

Obiz turned to her, “How did you determine that?”

“All those bellies you brought home when the makerms were out at the same time,” Fezil said. “They make a lot of noise.”

“A Bizak named Wusat sends her greetings,” she said, gathering what remained of her axico from her desk drawer.

“Wooz!” Fezil smiled. “She’s a subbie magnet,”

“Reestablished an interest in Subaki?” Obiz asked, setting the axico neatly into the bottom of the suit bag.

Fezil strummed the b’do, “I’m trying,”

“I don’t think mak will mind if you opt out of the traditional subiz relationship,” Obiz said refastening the front of the suit bag.

“She doesn’t mind,” said Fezil.

“I believe my desire for her caste is stout enough to cover expectations for us both,” Obiz added.

“How can you ride subbies?” Fezil stared up at her. “I can’t even see one of them naked without thinking about mak. It’s gross,”

“My disassociation game is strong,” Obiz bragged.

“There’s a bizarak tomorrow night after the tric-harvest,” Fezil laughed. “Plenty of subbies will be there, you should come,”

“I thought the trictan harvest occurred at the start of the year,” Obiz said.

“Fields started flooding early, soon as we woke up,” Fezil said. “There’s a shit ton of krill on those crops already, it’s going to be wicked crazy when they open those bay-doors,”

Obiz sat down beside her.

“Are Bizaki required to attend the trictan harvest?”

“No,” Fezil shrugged. “It’s traditional,”

“Tradition is why you go back every year?” Obiz asked.

“After that first hibernation away from home at the Academy, it was weird,” Fezil said. “When the new year started, they rounded us all up and took us out to harvest. That was the first time I saw how many Bizaki there were,”

“You found them as lonely as yourself?” Obiz asked.

“Talking to them, working with them,” Fezil nodded. “It made me feel like I was part of something. I didn’t think about home much after that,”

“I understand,” Obiz said. “Though I can’t imagine my caste performing in something so chaotic and strenuous,”

“CR Tegal comes out with us every year,” Fezil laughed. “She’s not just on the shocking line, she’s in the water with the netting crews, gathering bloom-shells and getting the shit kicked out of her by sea-lions,”

“Fezil,” Obiz asked. “Do they allow anyone to take part?”

“If you’re a bizzy, its automatic,” Fezil said. “Everyone else has to register with the Farming Division Office in Pikalit,”

“That’s rather exclusionary,” Obiz said.

“It’s the Jewelry Consortium,” said Fezil. “They screen citizens because the subbie shell-harvesters dive naked in the Discard-Ponds,”

Obiz stood in excitement, “I have an idea,”

“Your ideas about subbies are the reason they screen citizens,” Fezil said.

Obiz shook her head, “My thoughts pertain to CR Wram,”

“Obiz,” Fezil became serious. “It would be epic if you could get Veltowram to take part in the tric-harvest,”

“Epic indeed,” Obiz slung the bag over her shoulder.

“Mak thinks your new place is the size of kerma’s closet,” Fezil added.

“That’s generous,” Obiz said. “Kerma’s closet is one of the largest in Ramaxia,”

“Hey Obiz,” Fezil set down her b’do, “Have you told kerma?”

Obiz paused at the door, “Told kerma what?”

Fezil shook her head, “That’s what I thought,”

“It’s unlikely she’ll notice my absence,” Obiz said.

Fezil cried, “You can’t go out like that, Obiz!”

“Kerma’s given me little choice,” Obiz countered.

Fezil stood, “You can’t leave it to mak to tell her,”

“Mak’s way with kerma far exceeds mine,” Obiz said.

“Where have you been all year?” Fezil demanded. “They’re constantly at each other’s throats, kerms barely lives here anymore.”

“I thought they overcame their issues,” said Obiz. “I know kerma’s been spending more time in Utama-”

“—She’s got a place there,” said Fezil. “Most of her clothes are there now,”

“When did this erosion begin?” Obiz asked, but before Fezil could answer, the voice of their mako rang out from below.

Obizbanto, are you up there?”

Fezil smiled, “You left your shoes by the back door,”

“Accompany me,” Obiz said.

“She called you, not me,” Fezil said.

“We’re all to dine together,” said Obiz.

“Mak invited kerms,” Fezil shook her head. “I’m not going to be in the blast radius when you drop your job bomb,”

Obiz eyed the stringed instrument in Fezil’s grasp.

“I thought pain inspired you,” she said.

“I get enough pain from my own life,” said Fezil. “I don’t need yours,”

Obiz snapped, “Coward,”

“Damn right,” Fezil countered.

Trudging down the stairs, she entered the kitchen.

She’d spent most of her donational life counting how many narrow strips of glazed-oak covered each cabinet door; her kerma had procured the light wood from Brasilia after her mako fell in love with it.

Obiz glanced the boxes of food on the white-stone countertop.

“I picked up some fish on my way home,” Ozbi greeted Obiz with a kiss on the cheek. “Did you pay a transport to bring you out here?”

“I’m able to afford such things now,” Obiz said.

Ozbi frowned, “I told you I’d pick you up,”

 Rummaging through a box with her name scribbled on it, Obiz found hide soap, a pair of erotic couch-linens, and a jumbo box of filters for a standard water wall.

“Mak, I require only one filter,” she said. “I have a single wall of water.”

“Filters need to be replaced, weekly,” Ozbi said, pulling bottles of the expensive ale her kerma imbibed from the box and putting them into one of the cold-drawers.

Most of the cabinets in this kitchen were cold-drawers because her mak didn’t like food-replicators.

Noting a large amount of ale, Obiz glanced at the pocket shelves on the far wall. Each contained standing plates and hanging glasses, and only one of each was taken down.

Obiz said, “That’s not Ibur’s choice of ale,”

“Your kerma’s dining alone,” Ozbi said flatly and pushed the ropes of her suzuk over her shoulders. “I set up a daily flower account for you,”

“Mak!” Obiz said. “I can’t afford foliage-service,”

“I can cover it,” Ozbi said. “Fresh flowers every day is good for the mind,”

Obiz walked over and gently took her by the arm.

“I appreciate all of this, but mak, I can procure my own amenities,”

“You have no linens on any of your couches,” Ozbi argued.

“I just obtained my residence, yesterday,” Obiz declared.

“You’ve got no canopy for those windows,” Ozbi said. “Anyone can see through your front glass if they’re flying by on a transport.”

“My unit overlooks the Cloister,” Obiz said. “I’ve no intention of blacking out that view,”

“You have a good credit-line now,” Ozbi argued. “And you’re wasting half of it on a place that’s too small,”

“It’s space-efficient,” Obiz defended her choice. “I have a sitting room, a private room, and a shower that doubles as a hide drier,”

Ozbi rested her hands on her hips.

“Where am I’m supposed to relax when I visit?” she demanded, then laughed. “Where’s Fezil?”

“My room, I mean, her room,” Obiz replied.

“Tell me she’s dressed,” said Ozbi, grabbing another plate from the wall. “I won’t call her to dinner if she’s not wearing clothes today.”

A salmon sat in the sink.

“What’re we consuming tonight?” Obiz asked.

“You, me, kerma-Ibur, and mak-Acari are eating out,” Ozbi said. “Then we’re going to get some suits.”

“A new wardrobe?” Eppis appeared in the doorway; fresh from Utama, she hadn’t removed her heeled shoes.

Ozbi flashed Obiz an encouraging smile.

“Obiz is moving out,” she said to Eppis.

Eppis said, “I wasn’t informed of this,”

“It’s happening so fast,” Ozbi grinned. “She got a Cloister job, in Utama,”

“Utama?” Eppis unbuttoned her suit jacket while walking to the cold-drawer where Ozbi had put the bottles of ale.

Offering no embrace to Obiz, Eppis touched the line of bottles until finding the coldest. She retrieved one, twisted off its cap, and tossed it flippantly onto the counter.

“I wasn’t aware of any openings in the Vanda Prime offices at Cloister,” Eppis said.

“She applied for a better position with better credit,” Ozbi stepped to Obiz and patted her on the shoulder. “I’m very proud of you.”

Eppis filled her glass to the rim, “I didn’t see your application in the system, Obiz,”

Obiz focused on the trim of her mak’s nursing pants.

“There’s nothing for me in Vanda,” she said.

Eppis sipped her ale, “Whose office has chosen to employ you?”

Obiz replied, “One you have no influence over,”

Ozbi stopped unloading her groceries.

“What does that mean, Obiz?”

“Ask her,” Obiz replied, eyeing Eppis.

Ozbi turned, “Did you interfere with her efforts to get a job?”

“Remove yourself from this conversation,” Eppis snapped.

“I will not!” Ozbi said. “You told me she hadn’t applied anywhere, you said that she said, she wasn’t ready.”

“What?” Obiz demanded.

Ozbi got in Eppis’ face and whispered, “You’re not going to do to Obiz what Tee did to you,”

“Tee ordered me to bond,” Eppis glared at Ozbi. “That edict worked in your favor,”

Ozbi turned her back on Eppis and stepped to the sink.

“That was for you, Eppis,” she snatched up the ale’s cap for the garbage chute. “Just like everything else I’ve done in my life,”

Ozbi dropped the salmon in a cold-drawer and left the kitchen.

“You want a Cloister position, fine,” Eppis spoke loud enough for Ozbi to hear. “Come to my office tomorrow. You’ll have one,”

“I refuse to benefit from your station,” Obiz said.

Eppis stared at her strangely.

“What will you accomplish, Obiz,” she said then. “Employed as a low-level clerk in Utama?”

Obiz cleared her throat, “I’m not a low-level clerk,”

“You’re qualified for little else,” said Eppis.

“I’m a Cloister Aid, kerma,” Obiz declared.

Eppis blinked, “You’ve logged no legislative time,”

“That’s incorrect,” said Obiz, grabbing one of her kerma’s ales from the cold drawer. “While languishing in Vanda’s clerical center, I carried out my vocational study with Sernatae-Second Gizul, in Utama.”

“Prime Gizul never told me this,” Epis said.

Obiz twisted off the cap and drank from the bottle, “Why would she, kerma, it’s my life.”

“The only Cloister-Aid position vacant at this time is-” Eppis deflated. “You’re aiding for Velto Wram?”

Ozbi returned and stepped between them.

“Isn’t that convenient,” Eppis said to Ozbi. “You must be elated,”

“Stop it,” Ozbi was forced aside as Eppis pushed past her. “I encouraged Obiz to approach Ryl Jyr.”

Eppis walked from the kitchen with her head high.

Obiz found her kerma sitting in her favorite chair; a wide seated thing with a dark, narrow back made of synthetic whalebone.

“I realize there are tribal issues between you,” said Obiz.

“There’s nothing tribal between us, Obiz. She’s not Hizak and never will be,” Eppis’ eyes were cold. “You’d appreciate the intricacies of such things had you bothered to cultivate a tribe, or even join one,”

“Another opportunity to express what an absolute disappointment I am, kerma?” Obiz felt her head begin to ache. “I cannot fathom the shame you endure being unable to brag of my average academic performance or my unwillingness to join the cliques essential to the hizzah experience,”

Shocked, Eppis stared at her.

“We don’t use that word in this house, Obiz,” Ozbi scolded.

“I’ve reclaimed it,” Obiz said. “While we’re speaking on the subject of acquired ideals, I’m anticipating my first day in Cloister.”

“You’ll learn all sorts of derogatory terms for our caste,” said Eppis. “In Veltowram’s employ,”

“I support Wram’s policies as they’re identical to elder Jyr’s,” Obiz said. “I find my new position a perfect fit for my skill set,”

Eppis stared at Ozbi, “Does she have you to thank for her hiring?”

“I haven’t spoken to anyone in Utama in years,” Ozbi snapped.

Obiz stepped into Eppis’ line of vision.

“My performance for Wram’s campaign is why-”

“—You’re the Hizak responsible for organizing the Utamaxi employed in Vanda,” Eppis set down her ale. “Is that where you’ve been since waking up?”

The front door opened, ushering in Obiz’ secondary makers.

Eppis crossed one leg over the other and raised two fingers, ending the discussion. The pod dynamic decreed that what went on between the four of them wasn’t to be shared with outsiders; for whatever reason, this included Obiz’ secondary makers.

Ibur opened her arms, “Moving up in the world,”

“One could say this,” Obiz said, embracing the Hizak.

One of the wealthiest citizens in Vanda, Ibur Grik, was a bluzerie designer whose pieces were wildly popular among Ninth-Gen bellies.

Acari Tol bounded in behind her.

Kissing and hugging Ozbi, the boisterous Zaxir whisked passed Obiz, strands of her lustrous mane floated and stuck to the shoulder of her suit jacket.

“Where’s my Fez?” she called out.

“Knock first,” Ozbi yelled. “She’s probably naked.”

“I’ve seen everyone in this house naked,” Acari said, her shapely flesh bouncing as she climbed the stairs.

Obiz joined Ozbi in the kitchen, “Why did you invite them?”

“Obiz, you sound like your kerma,” Ozbi scolded. “Acari gave birth to you. This position in Utama is a milestone in your life, she should be here.”

Back in the sitting room, Ibur and Eppis sat across from one another without speaking.

“How are you today, Eppis?” asked Ibur, knees together tight but arms set boldly upon the side rests of Ozbi’s favorite chair.

“It’s another day, Ibur,” Eppis kept her legs crossed. “Yourself?”

The coldness between them often confused Obiz; bonded for almost twenty years, they’d shared two breeders between them sexually, surely such familiarity would’ve warranted an intimate friendship.

“My joy with life increases with each new day,” Ibur said, as Acari jumbled back down the stairs.

The hefty Zaxir fell onto the couch, jarring it from its set position.

“I hate furniture with legs,” she griped.

“I imagine the feeling is mutual at this moment,” said Eppis.

“How’s the Cloister these days?” Acari flashed defiant eyes. “I hear you’re practically living there,”

Ibur smiled wide.

“You know more about what transpires there than I,” Eppis finished her ale. “Surely my kerma continues to discuss everyone’s business but her own,”

Ibur’s expression soured, “I’ve not seen Tee in months,”

“I wasn’t speaking to you,” Eppis said. “Tell me Acari, does my kerma still burn her bellies before herself?”

Ozbi looked up from what remained of her boxed groceries.

The notion that her birther and her elder were sexually involved disturbed Obiz. Acari took hold of her hand and spoke as if reading her thoughts.

“I made one mistake,” she whispered. “Over twenty years ago,”

Eppis rose to take her empty glass into the kitchen.

“No, I made the mistake,” she said.

Acari took a breath and then smiled at Obiz.

“Are you excited,” she beamed. “You’re going to be sitting behind your kerma, looking all advocate-like!”

Obiz swallowed hard, again.

“Ozbi?” Acari said, eyeing Obiz up and down “Where’s she getting dressed?”

“I don’t know yet,” Ozbi came in with a tray of drinks. “Obiz will be joining us tonight in Utama, she can shop then,”

“Surely Eppis can spare the time to hunt a fashion house,” said Ibur. “Since reviving her residence there-”

“—I shan’t be returning to Utama tonight,” Eppis returned with a newly filled glass of ale. “Another thing you’re unaware of it seems is that Obiz won’t be sitting behind me,”

“Excuse me?” Ibur asked.

Acari turned to Obiz, “What’s going on?”

“Tell them whose office you now serve, Obiz,” Eppis said, sitting.

Obiz cleared her throat, “I’m aiding the CR of Utama,”

“Utama?” Ibur started. “Velto Wram?”

Eppis raised her glass, smiling.

“Such rebellion,” Ibur exclaimed.

“Calm down, Ibur,” Ozbi said.

Acari added, “Ibur that’s enough!”

Ibur glared at Obiz, “Are you aware of her disdain for your kerma?”

“Velto doesn’t hate Eppis,” Ozbi said.

“Not the way Tee does,” Eppis said.

“Good luck sweetie,” Acari leaned to and gave Obiz a big hug and then narrowed her eyes at Eppis. “I told you not to be so controlling,”

“We should be going,” Ozbi said. “Some of the design houses are open late,”

“Yes, the expensive ones,” Ibur added.

“Let’s get you dressed,” Acari smiled, joining them.

Eppis spoke up, “Not with my credit,”

“I’ll cover her first wardrobe,” Acari held up her hand when Ibur made to protest. “I don’t want to hear it, she’s my doe, and I’ll buy her what I want,”

Acari took Ozbi by the arm and leading her out, whispered to her that Ibur and Eppis were colossal gurxholes.

Later, outside the window of Acari’s plush transport, the glittering North Vanda skyline gave way to the stark white of the Utari Tunnel. For the entirety of the journey, it was ice above and rock below until the transport exited into the carrier-channel.

Compared to the dark waters of the Vand`takal, the glacial-melt of Lake Utamx seemed like liquid glass. Across the lakebed lay the citizenry-transit tube. The veins lining its outer casing pulsed as a SLID barreled past on its way to Terminal Tiskol.

When the transport moved out of the carrier-channel and into the open air of the dome, Obiz tore her attention away from the bustling city outside as Acari insisted on dining at the expensive Yolixudat.

Noting they weren’t local, the Bizak hostess sat them at a table on an outdoor balcony. Nothing grand by a Vandosh’s standards, the three-tier restaurant relied on its location providing excellent sights and scenes for its patrons.

Beneath their feet roared the Utamx Canal, and along its shore lay the slithering caverns of a hidden village called, Utam.

While developing the inbound and outbound transit tubes at Terminal Tiskol, engineers of the Fifth-Gen had drained and leveled a part of the lakebed south-east of the canal.

After using a third of the land, Utama had been left with a deep pocket of tiered space that no one wished to reside upon.

At that time, geologists quarrying along the Utamx Ridge discovered a slot canyon full of winding sandstone caverns.

Contained within the tornadic curves were hollowed-out dwellings, abandoned by the original-subjects after the sealing the dome. The carved-out spaces had been excavated and reconstructed upon the flats.

Obiz couldn’t wait to visit Utam Village, three-city blocks of narrow winding passageways that contained hizix bars, hive-cafes, and square gardens.

After ordering their meal, Acari handed Obiz a card.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“You can read, can’t you?” Acari teased.

Obiz flipped it over to find the logo of Hizrutaki, a fashion house whose clientele included select members of the Committee.

“I cannot afford this place,” she said, setting the card face down onto the table. “On that note, I would like the pair of you to cease inadvertently reminding me that my credit threshold is nowhere near your own,”

Ozbi touched her hand, “If I made you feel that way, I’m sorry,”

“Obiz,” said Acari. “When you were a donat, and we took you out and about, you never demanded we not buy you lunch because you couldn’t afford it yet,”

“My makers helped me,” said Ozbi.

“You cannot show up at Cloister dressed like the manager of a gazten,” Acari said. “Talk to her please, she’s acting like Eppis,”

“You should’ve chosen an establishment suited for my current standing,” Obiz said. “When this runs dry, I’ll be forced to downgrade,”

“Obiz,” Ozbi lowered her voice. “I chose this one because your kerma’s never been there,”

Obiz eyed the card, “I suppose I can adjust my budget,”

“Do you want us to come with you?” Ozbi asked.

“She’s not a donat,” Acari said.

“You’re right,” Ozbi picked up the card and set it into Obiz’ hand.

The Filmark in her jacket pocket dinged.

“Excuse me,” Obiz said to her makers before retrieving it.

It was a message from her kerma.

Hoping for an apology, Obiz opened it.

When you walk into whatever fashion house your mako has chosen for you, there will be three or four stylists at the ready. Ignoring newcomers is the routine, so it’s imperative you announce your vocation.

 Obiz looked up at her makers and smiled.

Once you’ve established your worth verbally, all of them will inquire about your needs and wants. You’ll be getting measured while they do this.

Obiz typed with her thumb, Do I need that many tailors?

It’s not a literal measuring, Obiz.

They’re gaging your overall fashion sense and determining if you’re worth their time. As the bizritux do this, you must do the same.

Find the one that listens to you or says things of interest to you. This is critical because your stylist is one of the few people you’ll see daily that isn’t related to you or working alongside you.

Remember Obiz, it’s all about you.

You may appreciate what they suggest, but make sure they understand what you wish to project.

Obiz eyed the small screen.

Thank you, kerma, she typed.

“Obiz,” Ozbi whispered, “It’s rude to be on your Filmark,”

“You’re right, mak, apologies,” Obiz said, closing out her screen without bidding Eppis a goodbye. “I suggest we consider another establishment,”

“No!” Acari said. “You’re a Banto born of a Tol, not some no-name admin with a governance license,”

Discomfort flashed across Ozbi’s face.

“Mak-Acari,” Obiz frowned. “Refrain from speaking of my pod affiliation as if such a thing is all that matters. I wasn’t put on this planet to represent any house or line,”

“Spoken like a Cloister-Aid,” Ozbi laughed. “There’s a considerable credit amount on that card, Obiz, you can splurge,”

“That’s right, your first twenty-five suits are on me,” Acari said. “I don’t want you owing Eppis anything,”

“Eppis loves Obiz,” Ozbi protested.

Obiz pulled her Filmark out and typed her thanks to Eppis, along with a friendly goodbye.

After parting ways with her makers at the Yolixudat, Obiz walked five blocks toward Cloister Square.

The Hizrutaki took up three floors in a triangular building that also housed an exclusive style-sit on the top floor.

Inside were rows of formed-hair displays, and shelf-models of suited mannequins. Stacked symmetrically along the high walls were hundreds of reams, textured fabrics with colors that alluded Obiz.

A few elder bizritux loitered behind the counter, ignoring Obiz as she walked through their showroom. A well-dressed Bizak stepped through the front door with a box of take-out under her arm.

“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.

Obiz smiled, “I’m here for a new wardrobe,”

The young Bizak grimaced before casting a wary glance at the bizritux ignoring Obiz, “We don’t typically take walk-ins, and we’re not opened to new clients at this time,”

Obiz held up the card, “I assumed an established relationship,”

“Are you Obiz Banto?” the Bizak asked, smiling.

“That depends,” Obiz said, “Did you hear my name at a citbluz, or at the Cloister?”

“You’re the new Cloister-Aid for Utama,” said the Bizak, loudly, and her sister stylists sprang to life with newfound enthusiasm.

Before long, Obiz was standing naked on a pedestal with the elder Bizak taking digital measurements of her legs, arms, waist, and girsuzsch.

“What sort of expression are you going for, Citizen Banto?”

“I’m undecided,” Obiz replied.

“Your first position? That’s exciting,” said the second Bizak, a Tenth-Gen. “I’m thinking dark colors for you, with curved patterns that accentuate your lovely face.”

Obiz had inherited her kerma’s subakesque beauty; it wasn’t something she wished to highlight.

“Do you want your swell displayed?” the Tenth-Gen asked. “Your kerma isn’t fond of such things,”

Obiz frowned, “I’d do best to show it off,”

The youngest Bizak stepped forward, sketching something on her handheld while her eyes roamed Obiz’ body.

“Do any of you have thoughts on Velto Wram?” Obiz asked.

“I voted for her,” said the Tenth.

“What of you?” Obiz asked the Eleventh-Gen. “What are your thoughts?”

“A position in Cloister is necessary if she wishes to ascend,” she replied.

Obiz nodded, “It’s the smart move,”

“Indeed,” the young Bizak walked to the elder and studied the readings on her measuring device.

“Does that application reveal my flaws?” Obiz asked.

“It reveals all,” the Tenth-Gen said, smiling.

“Does CR Wram have a signature look, yet?” the young one asked.

Obiz shook her head, “I’m unaware,”

“Do you wish to compliment her look,” the young one asked. “Or stand apart?”

“I desire to complement Utama,” said Obiz.

“Five basic suits to start would be best,” the young one said.

The elder agreed, “Of course,”

“Once Wram chooses her line,” the young one spoke to Obiz. “We can complete you,”

Obiz asked, “What’s popular right now?”

“Red and Orange are popular this year,” said the Tenth. “Your kerma’s wearing it,”

“Popular isn’t the goal,” the young one said. “You want something that says Utama when you walk into a room,”

Obiz turned to her, “Exactly.”

“Remember that story about Laxum Jyr?” the young one said to the Tenth-Gen Bizak. “She used to get styled at the old Hizrodux in Toxis, a Him Gen place that closed down after the Suicides,”

“She came in here,” the Tenth added with a nod.

“She started chatting up one of our top designers at the time,” said the young one. “She spoke of how helovx saw more shades of green than any other species between the poles.”

“Is this claim true?” Obiz asked.

“Don’t know,” the Tenth replied. “Yet after talking about it, her designer, no longer with us, decided to dress her in nothing but green.”

“That limits the ability to stand out,” the elder said.

“No one stood out more than Laxum Jyr,” Obiz said.

“Exactly,” the young one declared. “Jyr’s style defined Utama.”

“Is it possible to emulate Jyr, without replicating?” Obiz asked.

“It’s possible,” said the young one. “We can incorporate colors made popular by Jyr with a design that compliments Wram.”

Obiz turned to the elder Bizak and the Tenth.

“Thank you both,” she said, dismissing them.

“There are over a hundred shades of green,” the young one said. “I recommend staying simple for the first five outfits you’ll be getting today.”

“I never asked your name,” said Obiz.


“Of the Filmark Ukel’s?” Obiz asked.

“One and the same,”

“You’ve chosen this profession because?” said Obiz.

“I own this place,” said Bam.

Obiz smiled when the Bizak shook her head, laughing

“I don’t own the Hizrutaki,” she confessed. “My kerma supported my creative streak so long as it was tied to a work ethic.”

“You’re not cursed with overbearing elders?” Obiz asked.

“Oh, my elder is impossible at times,” said Bam. “My kerma is a Marix, stationed in the Ramaxatae. She warned that being a Bizak of wealth might disconnect me from my caste. I listened but adjusted my life to best suit me,”

“I appreciate your kerma’s sentiment,” Obiz said. “No one compelled my sib to scrub domes, she does so because being wealthy isn’t simpatico with her worldview. My elder despises her choices,”

“My elder expected me to follow in my mak’s snow dents,” said Bam. “Learn code, invent things, carry on the pod tradition of innovation through technology,”

“Fashion design proved an epic disappointment?” Obiz asked.

“My kerma is proud of me,” said Bam. “Honestly though, I hate being from a pod that’s made a mark on history. There are expectations, and most of them are unreasonable,”

“Despite choosing politics,” Obiz said to Bam’s reflection in the mirror. “I’m far removed from my kerma’s sphere,”

“Aiding for Velto Wram makes that very clear,” Bam brought out a swatch of fabric, “This is what helovx call, olive green.”

“What’s an olive?” Obiz asked.

“It’s a tiny little fruit from a tree out of the Africa’s. It comes in many shades, but this green is considered traditional,” Bam said. “We can use linen for the vest and legs, and on the arms, a cashmere,”

Bam brought out a ream of it for Obiz to touch.

“That’s soft,” Obiz said, petting it.

“Yes, and the greens contrast evenly,” Bam explained. “You’ll be working for a Bizak, so I suggest a more utilitarian wardrobe,”

“I appreciate your suggestion,” Obiz said. “But I must tell you, I cannot consider wearing overalls.”

“Relax, Obiz,” Bam laughed while sketching on the biv screen with her stylus. “I wouldn’t suit you up to clean the Cloister,”

Onscreen she sketched out a form-fitting suit with a right chest pocket and uniform buttons that lined the side.

“Will this accentuate my girsuzsch,” Obiz asked, noticing the looseness of the midsection.

“Your backside is big enough without cinching in the waist,” said Bam.

“I’m aware of its size,” Obiz said. “I want others aware of it as well,”

“Wram’s vertically challenged,” Bam countered.

Obiz nodded, “I’ll be standing out enough,”

Laxumjyr was once quoted as saying, be known for your work,” said Bam. “Not your backswell,”

“That sounds refreshingly adequate,” Obiz said.

“This here is called mint green,” Bam brought up an earlier sketch and began coloring it with the stylus. “Black stripes over the thighs of a long shirt, no backswell tail required because the overcoat’s long, light and removable.”

“Put a thin line down the front,” Obiz said.

“The legs being black,” Bam did as Obiz requested. “I can put a thin middle stripe down the front, also black,”

“That’s ideal, thank you,” Obiz said.

“How’s Fezil?” Bam asked.

“You’re acquainted with Fezil?” Obiz said.

“Is she still a ‘Sixer?” Bam asked. “Staining bellies and writing music?”

“She’s had to limit some of her life activity since transitioning to a new vocational assignment in Hive Maintenance,” Obiz said, then smiled. “Honestly? I believe she’s just buffing the floors of the Pek Azi,”

Bam smiled, “She did always have a way with Hizaki,”

“As do you,” said Obiz. “I vaguely recall seeing you in Mynu,”

“I went to the School of Design,” Bam said. “Made an honorary member of a tribe, though they never actually sought me out to socialize. I think the Ukel name was more important than my actually being present,”

“Superficial as ever,” said Obiz. “It’s why I refrained from partaking,”

“You were never part of a tribe?” Bam asked. “I thought it was Hizak nature to group together for a common cause,”

“Tribal warfare is the poorest of causes,” Obiz pulled on her undershirt. “My maker raised me better than to verbally abuse and taunt others,”

“My kerma said that Pitana Kul built Orta to give bruisers a place to socially kick the shit out of each other,” said Bam. “I wonder if the First Gen built Mynu to give brainers a place to do the same.”

“There’s a sad truth to that,” Obiz stepped into her pants. “Would you like to know why I forwent tribal affiliation?”

“I admit I’m curious,” Bam said.

“In the course of my Level-Two years, there was an Hizak whose bruiser elder was collected for assaulting a string of Garden Club hostesses,” Obiz buttoned up her trousers and stepped into her shoes. “No one spoke to her after that, in fact, the group I socialized with went so far as to abandon any area she ventured into,”

“That’s harsh,” said Bam.

“I refused to flee. I continued to speak with her and remain cordial. My peers pressured me of course, to the point that I asked to speak with my kerma.”

Obiz thought of Eppis and realized that her mak’s defense of her during dinner was valid; despite her kerma’s disdain for Wram, she would always respect and love her.

“My kerma reminded me that we’re not responsible for the actions of our elders, be they good or bad.”

“You continued to befriend her?” Bam asked.

“I’m a Banto, and thus unaffected by the opinions of those considered inferior to my genetic line,” Obiz nodded. “I must add that I believe this notion genetic hierarchy is puerile nonsense. We’re all the same bone. No one is better than another.”

“Fezil always hated that elitist crap too,” Bam said.

“After Third-Level began, she and I were on opposite ends of the educational spectrum,” Obiz said, saddened by the memory. “The tribes were becoming more realized by that time, and after three months of being shunned and shamed, she jumped to her death from the T`ldulak spire,”

“I remember that day,” Bam whispered. “I was in a textiles class when the medics came running across the gathering yard,”

“We were all present in the yard that day, I suspect that was the purpose of her timing,” Obiz pulled on her suit jacket. “I’ll never partake in any collective behavior that harms a citizen verbally, physically, or emotionally.”

“Here’s your invoice,” Bam handed Obiz a data-plug. “There’s more design choices on it, and my contact information. Find out Wram’s designer so I can look up her style palette,”

Obiz took the drive and handed Bam the card.

“You agree to be my stylist, Citizen Ukel?”

“I look forward to it,” Bam said, extending her hand.

Obiz shook it, “May I retrieve these suits tomorrow?”

“Day after,” Bam pulled a fresh box from a high shelf. “This ensemble runs close to your measurements, though I recommend a higher-heeled shoe due to the length of the pants,”

“Thank you,” Obiz said. “Apologies if my tale soured your mood,”

“Hardly,” Bam said. “I take comfort in knowing not all Hizaki are the heartless uymtik they’re made out to be. I never knew my makers, they’re deceased. I’d like to think the best of them when I can,”

“I’d never dare suggest what I’m about to say, to anyone else,” Obiz took a breath and lowered her voice. “Bamukel, be thankful that your kerma isn’t Hizak,”

“Will CR Wram be partaking in the morning bizarix?” Bam asked, walking Obiz to the door. “I take part in the communal group in the mornings at the Arixi Yard beside the Cloister,”

“I imagine she will,” Obiz made a mental note to suggest this to Wram. “Will you be partaking in the trictan-harvest.”

“I haven’t gone to harvest in years,” Bam said. “Once I transferred to Mynu, there was little room in my schedule for it,”

“Perhaps you can join CR Wram and I,” Obiz said.

“You’re taking part?” Bam laughed.

“It sounds exciting,” said Obiz.

Bam lowered her eyes, “All it takes is one sea-lion to notice you,”

“I’ve heard they’re quite aggressive,” Obiz said.

“Aggressive is an understatement,” said Bam. “The line of citizens with shock-prods are there for a reason. The first one you shock is going to knock the shit out of you,”

“You think they’ll put me on the shocking-line?” Obiz laughed.

“It’s where they put all the newcomers,” Bam said. “I will join you if you like,”

“Not at all,” said Obiz. “Fezil will be there,”

Bam cast a wavering glance.

“Second thoughts?” Obiz said, standing outside.

“I’ll attend,” Bam said, “I’ll see you next morning,”

“For what?” Obiz asked.

“The Dararix,” Bam smiled.

Obiz laughed, “I don’t think I’m suited for such things,”

“If you convince Wram to attend,” Bam said. “You’ll be doing it with her,”

“I don’t anticipate her requiring it of me,” Obiz said, shaking Bam’s hand.

Bam grinned as if in on some joke that Obiz knew nothing about.

“I’ll tailor you some proper fitting tights for your session,”

Lackland Flats
The Badlands – North America
December 2, 2228 – 6:30 PM

The day had gone dark while driving, but the absence of lamps along the highway didn’t affect Adam’s ability to see clearly beyond the dash.

Immersed in the role of Kyle Southern, he almost forgot that Brigit Simmons wasn’t real. He forced himself to look at her on occasion, to remind him of their cover story.

Unfortunately, Whitley was prone to slipping out of character.

Intolerant of weak links, he’d warned her when boarding the van to get her shit together before she ended up like many of his former partners; dumbasses fragged for failing to perform to Adam Pierce’s standards.

Sitting in the back of the van was a skinny Asian boy called Mickey, and a fat ass from Holy Cross named Angie.

The Dokomad who’d approached them at the border wall sat between them with long legs folded and her back to the exit doors; from this position, the farc could keep her eyes on everyone.

“Is it summer for you guys right now?” Mickey asked.

“It’s summer for every landmass in the southern hemisphere,” Dox said.

Adam noticed the farcs bald head was just inches from the cab’s ceiling.

“Your summer is March through September,” said Angie. “Brasilia’s summer is like, October November December,”

Dox smiled at her, “Have you been to Brasilia?”

“My mom knows people there,” Angie said.

Mickey asked, “Does it get dark around five like it does here?”

“The sun’s been shining on the surface for over a month,” Dox said. “We live under the ice. Our days are cycled by an atmospheric program, and it gets dark around six,”

Angie slid closer to her, “You live under the glaciers, right?”

“Subglacial is a misleading word,” said Dox. “Glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, so you can’t build anything under them. Our domed cities are benthic, on the bay and lake floors around the continent,”

“No one lives on the surface?” Angie said.

“Some citizen’s do because there’s wildlife,” Dox said. “Wolves, bears, and penguins, they need rangers to watch and take care of them. There are also soldiers that have surface duty. They’re up on the ice a year on and a year off,”

“How do they prepare for that if they’re meant to be underground?” Angie asked.

“Do you have surface duties?” Mickey added.

“I’m an officer, so no surface duty for me,” Dox explained. “We’re conditioned for life on the surface from an early age. When I got to Orta at age eight, my room was in the surface ice. I lived there until I was eleven,”

“No daily sunsets,” Mickey laughed. “That’s a bummer,”

“Your caste is the only one that does that though, right?” Angie asked.

“Marixi, like me, and Bizaki, our labor-caste, they get to experience surface life when young,” Dox said.

“There’s no men in Antarctica,” Mickey said, “You’re all lesbians, right?”

“Heterosexuality is an ideal exclusive to humanity,” Dox said. “We’ve no word for what you’d call a lesbian,”

“How do you have kids, without men?” Mickey asked.

“Science,” Angie said. “They make their sperm in a lab dish, and then put it inside their breeder-women.”

“That’s hilarious,” Dox smiled. “And wrong,”

“I read that’s what you did,” said Angie.

Dox asked, “Did you read this in a Femarctic book?”

Angie shook her head, “No, the only Femarctic books we have are celebrity stuff, and theoretical stuff, nothing about what really goes on in your world.”

“How do you make, sperm, without men?” Mickey asked.

“To put it in terms you’ll both understand, the sperm, as you call it, is made from the genetic material of a citizen like me who has a kermadux gland,” Dox explained. “The material isn’t called sperm, it’s called a kermadonic patch.”

“The breeder girls can’t make kerma patches?” Angie asked.

“No,” Dox said. “They have a makodux, as do Bizaki and Hizaki, and from that organ, genetic material is taken to make a makodonic patch.”

“What we would call an egg, right?” Angie asked. “Can you make a makodonic patch?”

“I don’t have a makodux,” Dox shook her head. “What you would call a uterus,”

“You go through these exams, and who knows what else, just to make these patches that are fused to make babies,” Angie said. “That’s too complicated.”

“We don’t do it every day,” Dox smiled.

“You make a generation of babies at a time,” Mickey said.

“When we’re about twenty-five,” Dox nodded. “We all donate our DNA to make the patches.”

“Can you meet someone and join patches?” Angie asked.

“Most times patches are combined blindly,” said Dox. “Sometimes, citizens living together in what you would call a marriage, combine their patches.”

“You get married?” Mickey gasped.

“Citizen’s bond all the time,” Dox said.

“Do the breeders get implanted with the patches?” Angie asked.

“No,” Dox said. “The sperm patch, as you call it, fertilizes the egg patch. It’s not implanted into a birther until it begins developing on its own.”

“Does the birther have to be married?” Adam asked, as Kyle.

“The pod, or family involved with a birther, chooses which donux, the fertilized egg, they want her to carry,” said Dox. “Some Zaxiri carry their own donux,”

“What about the other breeder women?” Angie asked.

“They don’t carry and deliver,” Dox said. “They raise the children,”

“None of the birther goes into the egg?” Adam ignored Tara’s side-eye. “She just carries it?”

“Our birthers also donate patches during a production season,” Dox explained. “Sometimes they opt to carry their own patch-made donux, but most times they choose to carry one of no relation. They don’t raise them so, they don’t care,”

“They give birth but don’t stick around?” Angie said.

“Zaxiri dislike newborns,” Dox said.

Mickey blurted, “You all do have sex, right?”

“Boy, really?” Angie smiled bright and smacked him.

“All the time,” Dox shrugged with a grin. “But sex has nothing to do with producing a child.”

“It does for us!” said Angie.

Mickey smiled, “That’s the craziest shit I ever heard,”

Adam said, “Sounds like paradise.”

“Sexing it up without getting pregnant,” Angie shook her head. “Give me that life,”

“You live in the cold, right?” Mickey offered Dox a piece of his peanut brittle, “Is it uncomfortable for you to be here in this heat?”

“We thrive in extreme conditions,” Dox politely shook her head at the brittle. “Texas isn’t that extreme,”

“It’s worse than the ‘Ska,” Angie glanced at Tara.

“I was just in Holy Cross,” Dox said. “A few months back.”

Now Tara was listening.

“I haven’t been there in ten years,” said Angie, “I graduated high school and never looked back.”

“Did you continue your education?” Dox asked.

“We call it college, or university, and yes, I went to Montreal Midlands before moving down here,” Angie took some brittle and covered her mouth with her hand to speak while eating. “I like the sun and the sand here, it’s better than the gaslights and pavement of Midlands.”

“If you thrive in extreme conditions,” said Tara. “Why not live on the surface?”

“The surface of Eastern Ramaxia is tundra, Miss Simmons, I suppose we could’ve built our domes on the surface, but that’s strategically unsound,” said Dox.

Adam glanced at her in the rearview.

“I read that the Femati lived on Snowball Earth,”

“Snowball what?” asked Mickey.

“Long time ago, Mick,” Angie teased. “Way before you were a bad thought in your daddy’s mind,”

“The Femati lived during the Cryogenian,” Dox laughed at Angie. “Their genes live on, through us, and in all of you-”

Tara turned around in her seat, “—Excuse me?”

“It’s true,” Angie said. “I read this book from Brasilia, translated from Ramaxi, that says when the Cryogenian Period ended, glacial recession exposed oceans to the sun.”

“I know that one,” Adam added. “The oceans rose, swallowing up Femati cities along with their dead bodies.”

“One of my first assignments was with this reporter who covered the work of some Mynu big-brain named, Doctor Kul,” Angie said. “This Kul says that the remains of the Femati got absorbed by the swollen seas, and this led to the first forms of multicellular life,”

Adam’s heart jumped at the mention of Sofita Kul.

The idea that the Commander he sparred with in Tasmania might be the famous theoretician out of Mynu sent chills down his spine.

“That’s one hell of a theory,” Tara said. “Does she have proof?”

“Do you have proof that it started with Adam and Eve?” Mickey asked.

“I don’t trust theories,” Tara said.

“Theories in general, or just Femarctic-theories?” Dox asked.

“Both,” Tara replied.

“This Kul chick cited a shit-ton of human research,” said Angie. “Pre-impact work that’s since been burned by those Coptislamic nut-bars in Africa,”

“Oh, the copti’s,” Adam said. “Thou shalt have no reality in thy life stay for what we tell you,”

Mickey started laughing.

“Those people are crazy,” said Angie, pointing at nothing. “That’s why I didn’t vote for Dubois.”

Tara turned, “You’d vote for Gideon again?”

“In an Appalachian minute,” Angie countered.

Adam eyed Tara, “I have one rule, no political arguments,”

Dox laughed to herself.

“What’s so funny, Lieutenant?” Adam asked.

“Among Hizaki, discourse is conversation,” she replied.

Angie frowned, “Do they argue all the time?”

“They verbally spar,” Dox said. “It’s what humans call, conversational one-upmanship.”

“I was so wrong about you soldier types,” Angie punched Dox on the arm. “I heard you all couldn’t read or write, and you’re sitting here dropping big words on us, like discourse and intercourse!”

“Some of us read and write,” Dox said before fixing her eyes on the back of Tara’s head. “We even wipe ourselves after we go to the toilet,”

“I didn’t say I heard you were that bad!” Angie laughed.

“Lieutenant,” Tara shifted in her seat. “Is it true your Primary has twins?”

“We don’t have daughters, we have donations, Miss Simmons,” Dox said. “Primary Kul’s bond partner bore her two donations, and yes, they’re considered twins.”

Angie brought out her water and took a swig before offering some to Dox, “My uncle Rosco was a twin, but he didn’t look like my momma.”

“How were they twins?” Dox handed the water to Mickey without drinking.

“They came out of the same woman, at the same time!” said Angie, “Now that’s the stupid bullhead I heard about.”

Dox smiled as Mickey took a sip and handed the bottle back.

“Twinning doesn’t occur among Femmar,” said Dox, taking a swig before holding it up over her head. “You want a drink, Miss Simmons?”

“Uh-uh,” Angie snatched the bottle. “I don’t know where she’s been,”

Tara aimed her middle finger to the back.

“How did the Primary have twins?” Mickey asked.

“The Primary is a Marix, like me,” said Dox. “Her birther bond-partner died delivering her twins because twins aren’t natural among femmar,”

“When I worked on that story about Doctor Kul, we questioned Fleeters and Ambassadors about an image we had of the Primary standing with her kids,” Angie said. “No one told us anything because they don’t like talking to us,”

“What would you like to know?” Dox asked.

“One of the Ambassador’s said that the Primary’s heir had recycled,” Angie said. “That means dead, right?”

Dox nodded, “Fusada Kul died in 2212,”

Adam kept the van steady.

“So, your kids are considered donations?” Mickey asked.

“Aren’t we all?” said Dox.

“My mom didn’t donate me to anything,” said Angie, laughing.

“I don’t know who my makers are,” said Dox. “I was raised in a Caste-Center,”

Mickey nodded, “I was raised in an orphanage, too.”

“Forgive this question,” Dox said. “An orphanage is a place for children that are abandoned?”

“My mom was killed in a flood,” Mickey nodded. “Dad dropped my brother and me off in Austin and headed north.”

“In a Caste-Center, we’re not considered abandoned because no one claimed in the first place,” said Dox. “I suppose when I think about it, I guess unclaimed is very much like being, abandoned.”

“What about those ‘zoobie women,” Tara said. “Do they give birth?”

“Subaki do not give birth,” Dox said. “They raise donations,”

“No ‘zoobie came to get you?” Angie asked. “That’s not right,”

“I’m Marixi,” Dox shrugged. “Most subbies don’t want bruiser donats, we’re a handful and quite aggressive when young.”

“No one came to collect me either,” said Mickey. “After my brother got adopted, it got really lonely,”

“I was surrounded by caregivers that loved me,” said Dox, frowning. “And other donations. I was never alone.”

“I got a lot of probs from growing up in the shithole,” Mickey added.

Angie put her hand on Dox’s leg and smiled at Mick.

“For a couple of orphans, you and Mickey turned out all right!”

Mickey and Dox laughed, but Angie seemed to hold something back and this made for a brief silence.

Dox tapped her arm, “Do you have a donation?”

“I do,” Angie pulled a large wallet out from her back pocket. Opening it, she thrust it at Dox. “She’s going to be two in January.”

“This man with her,” Dox studied the picture. “Is he her kerma?”

Angie laughed, “Yeah, he’s a kerma,”

“Do you love him?” Dox asked.

“I’ve known him for years,” Angie said. “Met him in Holy Cross when I was young.”

“What’s his vocation?” Dox said.

“You hear that Brigit?” Angie huffed. “She wants to know what my man from Holy Cross, does for a living.”

Adam revved the gas, prompting Tara to lift her head.

“Holy Cross boys,” Angie said matter of fact. “Take care of babies, clean houses, cook all the food, and love their ladies.”

“He takes care of you on a sexual and emotional level,” Dox said.

“I can pay the bills,” Angie said. “I need him to be there, for Ruby and me.”

“Ruby?” Dox said. “That’s a pretty name,”

“Thanks,” Angie said. “I didn’t name her after anybody,”

“What’s your name, it’s not Lieutenant,” Mickey asked.

“You can call me Fuzo,” said Dox.

Foo-so, I like that,” Angie said.

“Where’d you get that name?” Mickey said.

“The attendant caring for my clutch, her maker’s name was U’zo,” Dox said. “She had what you’d call a crush on our Primary, Fusa, so she combined the two.”

“Can blind patch parents look for their kids?” Angie asked. “Years later, if they change their mind and want to know them?”

“No,” Dox said, “A Citizen can look for her parents, but not her children.”

“You’re polyandrous, correct?” Adam asked.

“Spousal bonds are between four to five citizens,” said Dox. “Sometimes there’s just three, but that’s more common in older Gens.”

“There’s never two?” Angie asked.

“Rarely,” Dox glanced her boots. “Monogamy is considered abnormal,”

Angie said, “I couldn’t share my man, no.”

“We don’t have men,” Dox reminded her.

“That’s why you’re all having orgies,” Mickey said.

“Boy, really?” Angie didn’t laugh this time.

“Most spousal bonds are formed by what you’d call, very moral citizens,” Dox said. “Casual sex isn’t something they engage in or are comfortable with, which is why they bond and have sex only with each other.”

“We’re here!” said Tara, as Adam drove them through an opened cattle-gate.

Painted upon a wind-beaten sign were letters that spelled out: Our Lackland.

The makeshift sentry stations along the gate were empty, and there were no armed residents walking perimeter between the decaying doublewides.

A center bonfire pit hadn’t been lit for the night, and this was unusual; these sort of tiny towns locked up after dark and then buzzed with activity into the night.

“Where the hell is everyone?” Angie whispered.

Dox exited out the back when the van stopped. Stretching, she walked around the encampment, “You think they were ordered to leave?”

“Maybe,” Adam replied. “These folks are what we call, way off the grid.”

“Not that far off the grid,” Dox sniffed the air. “I smell fresh water. They must’ve brought it in from the LaGrange water line.”

“There could be wells here,” Tara as Brigit, said.

“All subterranean water in these parts was polluted with saline during the Dark Years,” Dox said.

Adam nodded, “Way back when the hurricanes were colossal enough to make landfall this far inland,”

“That’s why nothing grows here, not even grass,” Angie said.

“I can smell the salt water,” Dox added.

“You can smell underground water?” Angie said.

“I can smell everything,” Dox looked at her.

“Thank goodness I wore my deo,” Angie teased.

“The vaginal cleanser you use,” Dox whispered and then winked, “Its apple scented,”

Angie laughed, “You can smell my apple-vinegar douche?”

“It’s making me hungry,” said Dox.

Tara glared at Adam, sickened by their amity.

Dox walked to a manhole surrounded by a circular railing. On one of the rails was a sign that read: The Drink Hole.

Adam joined her and slammed his boot down on the cover twice.

“This isn’t the entry,” Dox said. “It’s that building, there.”

The battered portable’s windows were covered with aluminum siding, and its lone door was made of sheet metal. Spotting a light flickering beneath the structure’s metal lattice trim, Angie moved toward it, pausing when Tara ran ahead of her.

Tara knocked on the door only to ump away when the barrel of a shotgun appeared through the crack.

“We’re not open, and everyone’s gone,” said a craggy voice in the dark.

“Howdy ma’am,” Mickey called out. “Have you seen anyone pass through here? Undesirables taking some gas?”

The barrel came out further, “I ain’t seen shit since the Unionists came through here and forced everybody out,”

“Those fuckers,” Mickey snapped.

“No shit!” said the gun’s owner, an old woman in a burlap dress. The kerosene lamp in her other hand brought out every line in her scowling face. “We ain’t open, now git!”

Dox gently moved Mickey aside and then stepped into the old woman’s light.

“Farky!” her craggy mouth spread to reveal two rows of toothless gums. Rifle lowered, the aging woman trod over to the tall Antarctican. “We got beer, fried fish, music, you come and take a load off!”

Dox put an arm around the shaggy-haired crone’s shoulders and pulled two thick pieces of gold out from her pocket.

“I got some shiny if you’re willing to take us all in,”

“I got everything you want Farky!” she corralled them into the steel door.

Dox led them down some stairs in the dark, and Adam turned to find the old woman giving one last look at the night before pulling the door to and securing its wooden barricades.

Bandera Ridge
Badlands – North American Union
December 2, 2228 – 8:50 PM

Utahraptor Sil sat atop a throne of human bones.

Named Eustis by some bitch in a uniform, he was now a lanky hairless man with two severely dilated pupils set within rings of dark brown. He’d spent years filing his teeth into points and adorned his body with tattoos of his fiercest victims dying moments.

His monstrous soul belonged to the beauty beside him.

Long black hair braided tight, Eli Red kept his eyes hidden behind wraparound sunglasses. His oddly thick skin remained coated in white ochre so that no one could see the puffy lines of flesh that ran down his chest.

The hulking woman to Eli’s right was Gin Fizz, named for her curly and unkempt red hair. Next to Fizz was a petite girl known as Ten Ounce, whose bright blue eyes and blond hair were considered attractive by Union standards.

Across the fire lay Soylent and Green.

Attack dogs, the hulking men hunted interlopers. Bald and beefy and dressed in rags, they too had chiseled their teeth into points and painted their faces to resemble the storybook demons of their childhood.

The sheep that clung to their pack lay clustered in camps beneath the rockface canopy of Utah’s throne. Living for his abuse, they emerged only when their master came to the precipice to deliver one of his sermons.

The master often spoke of blood and death, flesh and food, and his latest obsession with driving out all interlopers; their raid on the police station this morning managed to contain their master’s bloodlust.

“What is left?” Utah demanded.

“There’s enough to eat for five days,” Gin replied, staring at the hole in the rocks.

Three women and a boy were all that remained from the underground city. They’d been dropped into a crag so deep that climbing out was impossible.

Suddenly, Eli clutched his heart.

Catching him before he could fall, Utah held Eli tight while he twitched.

“What is it my love,” Utah whispered when the seizure passed.

Eli gasped, “The Artful Dolomite is dead,”

“No!” Gin Fizz cried.

“Are you sure?” Utah demanded.

Eli pulled off his sunglasses and exposed his black eyes, “I felt his soul die, Utah,”

Utah wiped a tear from Eli’s smooth cheek.

His hand down Eli’s soft chest, toward his waist where hips fanned out beneath a loosely corseted midriff. Beneath those hips dangled Eli’s strange appendage, one that Utah dreamed of when alone.

“The polar beast you dreamed about?” he demanded. “Is she here?”

“No, the tamed beast is here,” Eli sat up Utah’s arms. “She’s brought a Silver Demon with her. So very powerful! She comes for you!”

Utah tore himself from Eli and walked to the edge of the rock.

“Come to me, believers!” he shouted as his congregation gathered and began their incessant howling.

His female followers often fell to their knees before him in maniacal adoration, and he allowed them to keep breathing because they were willing to wrap their lips around anything he thrust in their faces.

 “The Artful Dolomite has been taken from us!” he screamed. “You will bring me these murderous trespassers!”

Soylent and Green charged toward their cycles.

“We’re going to hit Lack,” Gin Fizz yanked Ten Ounce to her feet. “It’s time for a little payback!”

“No, Gin,” Eli pulled his glasses back on. “The locals didn’t kill Artful Dolomite, it was the demon in silver. She hides in the body of a polar shark,”

Utah pointed into the night, “Go Gin! Go forth and bleed them!”

“The tamed beast comes for me, but she knows not why!” Eli cried.

“Bring me the silver shark, Fizz,” Utah said, taking Eli into his arms. “Alive,”

Gin said, “What if I can’t?”

“Then you die trying,” Utah said, baring his teeth.


The stone and sand glowed in the moonlight.

A blink dismissed the perimeter grid and revealed an old water tower on the horizon. Filters engaged again the water tower disappeared. Failing to detect what her eyes could see it meant that the optical-arrays weren’t a portion of the Shell she could utilize without powering up.

Sofita closed her eyes and balled her hands into fists.

You told me that joining Orta had nothing to do with bringing the Primary down.

Teeth ground together, she concentrated on the pain.

Tell me you’re not ascending! If ascension is your goal, you stay out of my life!

Sofita screamed as a white ribbon coiled up her body, leaving a silver skin in its path. When the power enveloped her head, she stood up straight.

Boots charged, she blasted off toward the horizon.

Lined up along old route-10 were dozens of men, dead and impaled on decaying utility poles. Setting down on the road, she studied the dangling corpses; fresh blood stained their uniforms, their flesh had gone hard in the parching sun.

Dirty laundry hanging out to dry.

“I have a question,” Sofita said, aloud. “When Kin Balru expressed his anger at me, why no colorful commentary?”

I detached when you pursued him.

“Is that so?” Sofita asked.

If I hadn’t, Komad, he’d be in a holding cell right now.

“If you ever commandeer me to collect a hider,” Sofita said. “I’ll not only have the spheres removed, but I’ll also destroy them,”

Getting no further response from the Shell, Sofita took to the air. Landing before the water tower, she walked right through its projection and found a metallic door in the rock face.

Locked from the inside, she placed her palm against it and vibrated it until the securing bolts loosened and fell to the ground. Descending the metal stairs, she moved through the black, the light glow of her skin illuminated the rockface.

A mile down she encountered a second door. Through it she emerged onto a grand viewing deck that overlooked a cavernous expanse; in the room below sat a familiar dome.

Looks like the Nauists had a use for that infrastructure tech they didn’t want from Jungwa.

It houses no atmospheric shell, Komad. It’s all lights, steel, and glass.

Sofita vaulted the platform rail and dropped down to the dome’s level. Hands up, she blasted the glass near its base, creating a boom that echoed in the expanse.

She hovered up to the hole and saw that the debris fell inward, against the bottom of a large dirt mound. Over the hill was a large curtain of concrete. Blasting through it revealed a moderately sized neighborhood.

Circular streets were curtained by large sidewalks and manicured lawns. Each yard contained a house, and around each house was a tree and some shrubs.

“A slice of pre-impact suburbia,” Sofita said.

There’s a high-definition audio net in the walls. There’s an air-guidance turbine, mid-circumference.

“That’s as close to an atmospheric-shell as they can get,” Sofita said. “Is the tech operational?”

Nothing reads inoperable.

“Where’s the ambient sound?” Sofita asked. “Get a lock on the control center,”

Where is everyone? the Shell asked as a schematic of the cavern and the dome’s infrastructure appeared in Sofita’s line of vision.

“Bio signs?” Sofita asked, walking south on Waterfall Boulevard.

All around you, Komad.

“I can smell them now,” Sofita said, powering down.

Water thick with blood raced along the gutter and spilled into a storm drain. Scattered limbs formed a trail along the pavement. Blood and pieces of clothing were scattered over the lawns.

Sofita followed the bloodiest side-streets to a medical center, one designed to care for over fifty families. A charred smell in the air led her to a burned-out dumpster; the fires within had burned hot enough to warp its sides.

A blast tore free the lid and inside was half-cooked bits of ovarian tissue, uteri, and breast fat.

Behind the dumpster, a stack of butchered torsos towered before a pair of exit doors. A boot pushed them aside and made the exit doors burst open; the tightly packed corpses inside spilled out in a rectangular mold that came undone at her feet.

The dead ranged in age from infancy to pre-teen; these victims hadn’t been mutilated or stripped of their clothing.

Broken necks, quick death.

“Empathy,” Sofita whispered.

They still had to pay for their parents’ sins.

“Don’t we all,” Sofita mumbled.

Back in front of the medical center, she sat on a landscaping boulder beside a pile of severed hands and feet.

“You realize the water towers a fake,” said Sofita. “You found the door but didn’t tear through because there might be guards, with guns,”

Guns you don’t have.

Sofita nodded, “You have fire, knives, and violence.”

A mountain lion appeared across the street.

Sofita kept her head averted and remained perfectly still while it surveyed her cautiously. Sniffing the air told her that Sofita was no statue. The lioness growled as it paced back and forth, closing the distance between them.

Sofita turned only her head and made eye contact with it. When she blinked, the beast relaxed, but there was still too much blood in the air.

“Go your own way lady, and leave me alone,” she said.

The lioness growled low before trotting gingerly past.

“You protected the bodies of the children,”

The lioness emerged with a child’s arm in her mouth.

“Protected them from other predators,”

The lioness eyed Sofita warily before jogging off down the street.

The nimble feline traversed a park before trotting over a scalable hill and slipping through a crack in the dome.

Up the endless flight of service stairs, the beast led Sofita to an extended platform. The railing was coated in dried blood and strands of loose hair.

Dark splotches blotted the walls of the control room. Rounding the corner, Sofita found a wall with a large window. Loose teeth were scattered across the floor. Thin ribbon from a smashed pre-impact cassette tape was strewn over the workstation, hanging from the head of a dead man in his chair.

Sofita pushed the hacked-up corpse from his seat and tapped at the blood encrusted keyboard at his workstation. The monitor came to life with a screensaver collage of the man and his family; it reminded her of Kin.

Touching the space bar made the lights outside the control room flicker.

The keyboard allowed her to navigate the archaic interface and found information on the dome; Texas One was a community of biofuel research scientists.

The helovx once held the means to create energy from geologically recent carbon fixation, but they’d lost this technology during the Dark Years.

Sofita accessed the firmware via a BIOS menu and discovered items relating to research overseen by Nauist intelligence.

“What else were you doing here?” Sofita tapped her arm and brought up a screen of light. “Force pair and collect data,”

The computer monitor went black while the free screen above her arm flashed with multiple lines of code.

Outside the control-center, she found the air duct used by the lioness to get inside.

Bloodied footprints revealed that the assailants had come through the same ribbed tunnel. Crawling inside she climbed its length to another cavern. A bloodied path lay before her that smelled of urine and sour sweat.

Moonlight from a hole above cast a spotlight on a child’s discarded shoe.

The screen over her arm reappeared; the database was fully downloaded.

“Sync with Ornithocheirus Five,” said Sofita, studying the sealed ventilation grate above; the webbing was mangled enough to allow unhindered passage.

The wind outside carried the aroma of decaying blood, perspiration, and fecal matter.

Now’s a good a time as any to become a prisoner.

Jumping high, she grasped hold of the grate. She managed to get herself up by her arms but struggled to squeeze her backside through the torn opening.

Once free, Sofita walked to the edge of the flats and heard multiple footsteps advance on her position. One foot hooked behind the other, she posed as if crucified with her arms raised and her chin to her chest.

Outer Lackland
Badlands, North American Union
December 9, 2228 – 10:50 PM

Music played from a pre-impact jukebox loaded with compact disks.

Hattie McCord, the wrinkled owner of the establishment, served them, along with five middle-aged men playing cards, with mason jars of a homemade whiskey she called her Badlands Brew.

The card players were quick to explain that their kind, homosexuals, weren’t safe on the coast; Mickey, a friendly man that looked Jungwanian, spoke extensively with these men, confiding his own life in whispers and allusions and unfinished sentences.

Fuzo sat beside the dark-skinned Angie, a plump girl with a bright smile and hair braided in rows that Fuzo found alluring. The skinny black woman who called herself Brigit got up and followed the man named Kyle to the restroom.

Fuzo excused herself and followed; standing outside the door, she listened in on their conversation.

“I’m going up through that manhole to find the other farc,” Kyle said.

“Are you sure there’s another one?” Brigit asked.

“That Dokomad is assigned to Komad Kul,” Kyle snapped.

“She’s not wearing a Divisional patch,” Brigit argued. “She’s too open about her culture to be SOD,”

“We know what Crystal is and we know that the last person to see him was Kul,” Kyle snapped. “She is most certainly Division, right? You think two new bullheads just happened to be hanging around in the Northern Hemisphere today?”

“Our goal is to acquire Crystal,” Brigit said.

“Mickey saw two farcs,” Kyle sounded labored.

“I think it’s a bad idea to go looking for Kul,” Brigit said.

“I can handle myself,” Kyle’s voice became distant. “You better start getting into character, Whitley. Not only does that young farc sense you’re full of shit, so does Angie.”

Fuzo walked back to the bar, where Mickey and Angie were listening to old Hattie cursing up a storm about the Nauists.

“Them assholes came through on their trucks with their guns aimed at us,” Hattie spat on the ground. “They want us out, so they can clean up their shit without anybody knowing what they’re up too,”

Brigit returned without Kyle and sat near the door.

“What are they up too?” Fuzo joined them.

“Everyone knows they got a town in the Sonora caves,” Hattie said. “They want to get them bodies out without anyone knowing they got a town in those caves,”

Angie looked around, “Wait, Kyle should hear this shit-”

“—Kyle’s still in the restroom,” Fuzo said. “He’s going to be awhile,”

Brigit looked hard at Fuzo.

“All they did was roust those freaks in Bandera,” one of the men said. “Those monsters never gave us no trouble.”

Another man set down his cards, “They broke in and killed all the dogs,”

“Everyone left after that,” Hattie added. “Easy when the Union rolled in with their big trucks offering to move us out.”

“Why’d you stay, Hattie?” Fuzo asked.

Hattie lifted her chin in pride.

“I got solar power, and a saline filter,”

“Whoa-ho-ho!” Angie raised her mason jar and clanged it against Hattie’s.

“My great-Grammy traded a fleeter for it,” Hattie boasted. “In return for twenty vats of beer,”

The center of attention, Angie sat beside Fuzo, drinking, laughing, and keeping an eye on Mickey whose head began to dip due to the late hour. The more Hattie and the men drank, the friendlier they became.

A proper dance floor was made by pushing the chairs and table against the wall. Fuzo joined them on the dance floor, donning a cowboy hat given to her by Hattie, she learned the two-step, a line-dance performed to a synth-heavy song called, Who Needs Love Like That.

Afterward, Fuzo and Angie consumed the last of Hattie’s brew.

Angie dominated the conversation with the resolve of an Hizak. Her size and mannerisms reminded Fuzo of the Suxir; bellies working or living outside a citbluz. She’d seen these beauties in the Orta civilian dome, often hanging on the arms of high-ranking bruisers.

“I’m going to do right by him,” Angie declared of her significant other. “I’ll marry him when I get back, but we’re still in that love-groove, you know?”

Fuzo smiled, “Love groove?”

“You know how it is when you first meet somebody,” Angie said. “Everything they say sounds cool, nothing they do grosses you out or makes you mad, you’re still having sex with the lights on,”

Fuzo laughed.

“You got kids, Fox?” Angie asked.

Fuzo shook her head, “My gen hasn’t produced yet.”

“It changes you,” Angie said. “You got your work and your life and your lover, and everything is all about you. Then your little girl comes along. It’s not all about you anymore.”

“I don’t plan on bonding, but,” said Fuzo, “I’ll donate my patch when its time,”

“You got to raise your kids, Fox. You’d make a great kerma, or whatever you call it,” Angie touched her arm. “I can tell that about you,”

“I’m career division,” Fuzo finished the last of her warm beer and eyed Brigit. “I don’t have time for a pod, but you’ve got me thinking about it.”

“You can make a kid and still be in her life,” said Angie.

“What’s some little thinker going to want with a kerma like me?” Fuzo asked.

“You can’t devalue yourself. Ever,” Angie said. “That’s fatal!”

“You sound like my toob-instructor,” Fuzo said.

“I mean it,” Angie began chewing on a toothpick. “You say you all marry more than one person. Who says you’re going to have one kid? What if you end up with a little bullhead like you?”

Fuzo never entertained having a marixidoe.

“You said blind patched soldier-girls end up in the orphanage because most parents can’t handle it,” Angie tapped her leg. “So, you be the parent that handles it.”

Fuzo poured Angie another drink while watching Brigit; the cagey woman rose from her seat at the bar and moved again toward the bathrooms.

“Where’s Colonel Pierce?” Fuzo asked, standing.

Mickey and the men on the floor stopped dancing.

“Ensign Whitley is it?” Fuzo said. “Where did your commanding officer go?”

Angie and old Hattie shifted their eyes to the woman.

“I have no idea what you’re asking me?” Brigit said.

“You ain’t a producer,” Mickey blurted.

Angie added, “You got that shit right,”

“You’re drunk,” Brigit snapped at Angie. “And this farcs got you in love with yourself.”

Angie jumped up, “You disrespectful-”

Fuzo put a hand on Angie’s shoulder, gently pushing her back down.

“I just want to know where Pierce went,” said Fuzo.

Brigit pulled the pistol from her belt and aimed it at Fuzo.

“Step the fuck back,” she cried. “Take another step, and I’ll add a new scar to that face!”

Fuzo put her hands up while Mickey and the men scurried over behind the bar.

“You need to put that shit away!” Angie cried.

Hattie pulled out her shotgun, “I don’t want no Banff flunkies in my place!”

“Lower your weapon, Ensign,” Fuzo said, “Before you hurt someone,”

“Farcs know all about hurting people!” she shouted.

“Ensign Whitley, I’m sorry for what happened to your brother in Holy Cross,” Fuzo spoke calmly. “He was a spy, and there are risks involved with being a spy.”

“Your farc thinker raped and killed him!” she screamed.

“He wasn’t raped the night he died,” said Fuzo.

“Were you there?” she demanded.

“He fucked Fleeters to acquire information,” Fuzo stepped closer. “Terry knew the risks, and so did you.”

Whitley cocked her pistol and aimed it at Fuzo.

“You don’t get to say his name!”

When the lights went out, Whitley pulled the trigger. Motorbikes roared outside, their headlights flashing through the wall’s visible cracks.

Fuzo cut through the darkness. Wrenching the pistol from Whitley’s grasp, she snatched the woman up by the neck and tossed her across the room.

“There’s five of them,” Fuzo said, as they called for the farc to come out and play. “Hattie, it’s important that you get everyone to the safest place in here, can you do that for me?”

Hattie was no longer interested in shooting Whitley. She took hold of one of the men and dragged him to a trap door under the bar.

Mickey and the other men followed, but Angie remained as Fuzo pulled on her blaster.

“I want all of you to stay in here,” Fuzo said. “There’s a shaft in the bathroom that leads to the manhole outside,”

A sharp pain stung her neck.

“She got you!” Angie cried.

Fuzo’s hand found the small dart and pulled it out; Whitley held a long-nosed pistol and aiming it, took three more shots. Whitley kicked at the wall, exposing a thin wood panel. Splintering it with her boots, she squeezed her slim figure through its torn opening.

“It’s a tranquilizer of some kind,” Fuzo struggled to remain on her feet as the room around her began to spin. “I need you to get below with the others,”

Angie held Fuzo steady.

“You’re going light-headed, you need to hide with us!”

“It’s not going to put me to sleep,” Fuzo said.

“Come on you two!” Hattie shouted.

A shrieking man charged through the busted wall. Hurling his hatchet, he hit old Hattie in the head, splitting her skull.

Fuzo reached for him, and with a tug on his chin, snapped his neck.

Pushing through the broken wall, she held the dead man up like a shield. Outside, colors exploded all around her. Lights flashed from too many directions before the sound of her heartbeat drowned out the chaos.

Underwater now, she released the man and sucked in her breath. Moray eels circled just out of arms reach, their bodies ribboning and their crinkled maws smiling.

Fuzo lifted her hand to find her blaster gone.

The first of them slithered into her space, its thin pointed teeth snapping at her flesh. She grabbed hold of its head and squeezed, forcing its flesh to explode between her fingers.

Something’s wrong with the farc,” a large moray with a reddish streak down the length of its body moved from her striking distance. “Watch it—she’s still got her eyes open, if a farc can see you, it can kill you.”

Fuzo pulled a dagger from her boot as another eel moved in fast. Dodging it, she got hold of its tail and whipped its body at the others. Each eel she struck floated lifeless, and when in range, she hacked at them with her blade.

There was too much blood in the water.

Blinded, Fuzo struck out, unaware of how many eels remained. One of them hit her from behind. Fuzo whirled around and saw a flash of a leg, an arm, and the wheel of a motorbike.

A tug at her arm brought her blade to the fore. Slicing its flesh, Fuzo was blinded by the blood in the water, blood that tasted of apples and ale.

Clarity struck as Angie stumbled toward her. The ocean faded away until there was only the girl, gasping for air with arms flailing in confusion.

Blood gushed from under her unintended victim’s chin. Catching her before she fell to the ground, Fuzo pressed her hand into the wound and watched helplessly as Angie’s dying eyes lost focus.

Screaming into the night, a blow to the head ended Fuzo’s pain.