Usa District – Uralskey Island
8 Bamx 2228 - 2045 Hours
Miles passed within minutes as treeless terrain gave way to white-tipped peaks. Along the snowy fascia curled a paved road. Four diesel trucks inched up the steep grade before disappearing into a tunnel. High above the mountain, Sofita spotted a valley where grassy patches bordered a glacier cirque.
A cobblestone peninsula cut through the meltwaters, anchored by a cinderblock building with the words ‘Usa Water’ stenciled across its mortared brow.
Velto’s voice rang out in her head.
“That’s not a water treatment plant.”
Sofita thought back, “Are you sure?”
“What kind of water treatment needs a hydro-turbine?”
Bizaki always noticed the working parts.
“I can hear your thoughts,” Velto droned. “Instead of waxing poetic about my caste, why don’t you just scan that place.”
Sofita blinked, enabling the Shell’s scanners to reveal the absence of any subterranean aqueducts or flow pipes.
“If they’re doing what we think they are,” Velto added. “There’ll be a wastewater drainage pool.”
Hovering to the back of the facility, she discovered a large square puddle.
“This doesn’t smell like wastewater, Velto.”
“It’s a seepage pit for toxic by-product,” said the bizak. “The finishing program leaches out the impurities.”
The odor grew stronger on approach.
“Watch it,” her voice warned. “It’ll be ripe enough to gag a penguin, ‘Fita.”
Without warning, the scent of sex invaded her senses, and the world around her became a starless polar night. Tundra winds hardened the sensitive line that ran between her fronts—not her fronts, but those of a marix. On the snow between her bare feet lay a bizak’s sinewy body, stretched over the hump of a zaxir’s dimpled stomach.
“Velts?” the Shell’s thoughts spoke through Sofita. “Remember that night on the surface? The penguin watch center?”
“I remember everything about the first time me and Ilo rode Fusada,” Velto said, then sounded agitated. “I cannot believe she told you about that, ‘Fita.”
Sofita growled, her eyes shut tight.
The bizak’s voice echoed. “What’s going on?”
Sofita imagined Fusada’s memories as piles of boots. Some lay in tatters, others remained stylish, yet many sat too worn for wear. Packing each pair into a deep tharspin box, she lugged that box over to an ice hole and dropped it inside.
The intrusive sensations faded as the box splashed down.
“What’s wrong?” Velto’s voice boomed. “Answer me.”
Her senses regained, Sofita hovered closer to the structure.
“I’m going in,” she thought. “I need to terminate our auditory connection. I can’t risk it getting picked up by a low-level frequency radio.”
“Keep your head, Komad.”
“Keeping my head is what I do best.”
Sofita powered down upon landing, then knelt beside a vent in the building’s center. Popping its casing, she tore free the protective netting before eyeballing the duct’s depth. She slipped her legs in first before barreling down the shaft, her large girsuzsch supplying enough resistance to slow her descent.
Exiting the chute, she twisted around and caught its curled frame with her fingertips. Surrounded by a world of aluminum-coated ductwork, Sofita released the shaft’s frame and landed upon a checkered grate. Somewhere below, distant voices whispered. Poking her fingers into the grate’s lattice, she freed it from the pane and dipped her head through the square.
A thick water pipe greeted her, coupled every few feet by fat-bolted mating rings. Lowering her upper body out of the opening, she fixed her palms onto the pipe and walked her hands along its cold surface. Stretched as far as she could get, Sofita wrapped her arms around its circumference and dislodged her backside from the vent’s opening.
Quickly freed, she tucked her knees and brought her boots down with a clap. Crouched tight, Sofita waited for the voices to fall silent, but when they continued without pause, she straightened up and pivoted on her boot heels. Walking the pipe, she noticed a narrow tube running alongside that stank of natural gas. The metal tube was bracketed every few feet with dangling couplers that secured burner heads along its belly.
The line of flame shed light over dozens of arranged cots. Each housed a pregnant woman, some young and some mature, all heavy in their final trimester. Nurses shuttled among them, ants bustling within the grooves of a tree.
Footfalls ushered in four balding women in lab coats. Stricken with inherited autophagy, the women huddled close, their facial scars dancing as they whispered amongst themselves.
The gaggle moved together onto an erected stage, and when one of them tapped the microphone, the nurses stopped.
A blemished woman addressed the room.
“Sanok District,” she said in Sladdish.
Young nurses swarmed around the last rows, rousing the chosen women with comforting words and charitable smiles.
Sofita continued along the pipe and found it ran into the bedrock. Hoisting herself onto a ledge, she discovered an open area of rooms topped with bracketed steel joists. She tipped forward, landing upon one of the rafters with her hands. Curling out of her handstand, she straddled the beam, swung her legs forward, and twisted into a standing position.
Beneath her was a labyrinth of walled-in exam rooms, some containing beds with stirrups. Fresh sheets covered each bed, all stained in various degrees of trauma. Faceless cabinets housed chloroform bottles, and wire mesh bins packed with cloth-banded rolls of gauze.
Noisy goings-on beckoned in the shadows.
Sofita came upon a darkened room where four white-jacketed men in swivel chairs sat at a control board. One tapped his keyboard and brought up data written in Ramaxi. After a noticeable hiccup, the same data returned to his glass screen, written in the Hebrew infused Ruso-Polish he spoke.
Moving over them unnoticed, she came to a stretch of metal roofing and tested its weight before venturing toward the porthole at its center. Behind the porthole-hatch ran a skinny duct that bent at a ninety-degree angle. It connected to the belly of a bulbous overhead tank with the Ramaxi letters H Z B painted upon it.
An engineered caustic devised from the stomach acids of sea predators, Hlzbol dissolved bone and softened cartridge; this tank proved that the Slavs had built themselves an SR-Prime.
“Enable CVM,” she whispered, and when the patch materialized on her temple, she panned around to record the area.
Sofita knelt and popped the hatch, steeling her senses against the powerful stench that wafted out. Holding her breath, she dropped her upper body through the hole and poked a finger into the gelatinous mix below. Sample obtained, she raised her back and began wobbling out.
Without warning, her hips rolled past the opening lip. She curled up as her thighs slipped past the edge and got hold of the hatch’s collar. Then, the hatch lid tipped forward. Sofita managed to let go before it could slam her fingers, but she came down hard on the sticky pulp, breathing through her mouth to deaden the fetid air.
Vomit rushed her mouth and sprayed upon the fleshy morass. One her hands and knees, she trudged, legs sinking into the jelly of tiny limbs, umbilical cords, and undeveloped torsos.
Forced upright, she felt the sludge at her chest when her boots reached the tank’s bottom. Stomach empty and throat ravaged, she spotted two notches along the wall that could serve as steps.
Sofita pushed through the thick, expurgated muck until, suddenly, air shot out from the morass’s center. The ground underfoot trembled as the mass began to stir, and a circular spigot descended from the ceiling. She pressed her upper body flush to the wall, desperate to avoid the deadly rain that would melt her flesh.
Then, a siphoning hole opened in the floor and began pulling on the mix. Dragged from the wall, Sofita burrowed into the fetid stew, destructive juices sizzling on contact with her back.
Heat cooked her from within as the Shell roared to life. Putrid ooze pooled around her teeth as the energy purged the sludge from her esophagus.
Above the mass with her palms charged, Sofita blasted at the jellied horror below, sending dislodged gobs in all directions. A single shot struck the tank’s lining, burning a sizable hole that regurgitated Sofita into a vestibule, along with the aborted flesh and bone.
Taking a breath, she unleashed a volley of blasts. Emergency alarms blared as her balls of energy singed through everyone standing in her way.
“They’ve got energy weapons, Komad!”
An incoming bolt of plasma sailed past her, and as she flew up to avoid it, she blasted the heads from each uniformed man armed with a Ramaxian-Pulser.
Ilo couldn’t help but see Crixal Dox in young Fuzo.
Patch designers assured potential makers that no biological connection existed between their precious donations and the zaxir birthing them. Yet, the coal-hided Crixal had seeped into this marixidoe like ink from a naughty squid.
“When a zaxir looks at me like you are right now,” Fuzo said with a smirk, “that’s how I know she wants to bounce.”
“I was thinking about your birther,” Ilo scolded.
Fuzo grinned. “She still out there, kicking up ice?”
“Nope,” said Ilo. “She’s been chained.”
Concern flashed in Fuzo’s eyes.
“Is she in an abusive relationship?”
“It’s nothing she can’t handle, doe,” said Ilo, though sometimes she wondered.
After patch collections began, old Lekada Wram had forbidden her Tenth-Gen bride to birth a donation. The hizzah eel thought she had the feisty zaxir underfoot until she found out that Crix got implanted.
“You sure she’s okay?” Fuzo pressed.
“We’re stronger than you know,” Ilo said. “It’s like ‘Fita says, zaxiri are just fatter marixi.”
Contented, Fuzo smiled. “How’d you meet her?”
“Sofita Kul?” Ilo rolled her eyes. “I first met her in Mynu.”
“Not the Komad.” Fuzo laughed. “My birther.”
“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you a little bit about her,” Ilo said. “But her name’s her business.”
Fuzo shrugged. “I could go to the Cit Cat,”
“Then you do that,” Ilo egged.
“Come on,” Fuzo pleaded. “I spent years thinking my birther died.”
“Why’d you think that?”
“I’m a caste center doe,”
“Doesn’t mean your birther’s dead,”
“I was the only donat in my group who never got a wellness visit from a zaxir.” Fuzo looked adorable when pouting. “Everyone’s birther showed up at least once before they left for caste training. Mine never did.”
“I’m sorry, Fuzo, but I can’t reveal her name.”
“Okay, no names,” the marix said, helping her pack. “How’d you meet?”
“It was right after hibernation in 2199. I had my first sitting with this casti-taker in Toxis, some Ninth Gen who specialized in dark-hided bellies. Anyway, that hizzah sold my freezes but never passed the creds on to me.”
“How long did you model for her?”
“My first month sitting for her was my last,” she said. “Your birther came in that day with this young brooder,”
Fuzo smiled. “How’d she smuggle a brooder out of Orta?”
“You took classes outside of Orta, right?”
“In Mynu, yeah,” said Fuzo. “I never went to Toxis. That’s bold.”
“Bold is one way to describe Zixas.” Ilo grinned. “She was from Toxis, and her kerma being the Second Office gave her a wide latitude.”
Fuzo’s eyes went wide.
“You met the Ambassador’s sib before you met the Ambassador?”
“Something like that,” she confessed. “So, your birther comes in and tells Zix that the hizzah rode her, took freezes of her during, and then sold them without her permission.”
Fuzo’s mouth fell open. “Was it true?”
“I don’t know,” she raised her arms. “This hizzah was a real scum merchant. Long story short, Zix wailed on that old brainer.”
Fuzo laughed. “You and my birther were smooth ice after that?”
“She took me out and about,” she said. “Scored me a great doctor at a ZHC that I couldn’t afford until I made Prime Citizen.”
“There was a Dox in that competition,” Fuzo said.
“Was there?” Ilo asked.
“That Dox came in second place,” Fuzo stood with her hands on her hips. “She’s bonded to the Ambassador’s kerma.”
“Crixal didn’t bond to Lekada Wram,” Ilo corrected her. “She was forced into that.”
Fuzo stepped up, curious. “Is my birther related to her?”
“Do you know how many bellies are named Dox?”
The marix sighed. “Does this Crixal friend of yours know my birther?”
“Crix and I weren’t friends,” Ilo’s smile faded. “I got jealous over Velto and never let her hang with us,”
Fuzo hesitated. “Ambassador Wram knew about you, right?”
“Of course,” said Ilo. “I told her right away,”
“Was it hard, telling her?”
“When you’re a monogamist, you have to admit it to yourself first,” Ilo scratched playfully at Fuzo’s bald head. “After that, telling a lover is easy.”
“When did you tell Fusada Kul?”
“I didn’t,” she said with a frown. “That was Sofita.”
Fuzo huffed. “The Komad?”
“The Komad was quite the social octopus in her day. If there was shit worth knowing, Sofita Kul knew it. That big girz warned Fusada about my problematic orientation.”
“Problematic orientation?” Fuzo balked. “The citizenry loves you,”
“The citizenry loved me,” said Ilo, “until I came out.”
“Well, my opinion of you never changed,” Fuzo declared.
“No one cares what you think, toob-shit,” Ilo teased, tossing one of her scarfs at the Donmat’s head. “You should skip the Cit-Cat.”
“I don’t have time, anyway.” Fuzo began shoving Ilo’s dress pile into the carry-all. “Every time I make appointments, the Komad shows up with a mission.”
Ilo marveled at Sofita’s resourcefulness.
Fuzo stared at her. “Can I ask you something?”
Ilo raised a finger. “No more questions about your birther.”
“Not about her,” Fuzo assured. “How did CM Wram score a Prime Citizen candidate?”
“Lekada was always on the prowl for the most beautiful things,” Ilo spoke, unwilling to retell the whole sordid tale. “She tried sharking on me once, but I shut that mess down.”
“She must’ve felt like a tool when Velto brought you home,”
“Yeah,” she giggled. “It was a shit sandwich that I enjoyed watching her eat.”
“If you’re a, you know,” asked Fuzo, “why’d you bond to Kul?”
“Fusada was my friend. Met her the day I met Velto.” Ilo jumped to her feet and saw Fuzo trying to work things out in her head. “Yeah, we’re all a bunch of close-knit weirdoes.”
The marix looked her in the eye. “Komad says that Kul didn’t kill herself because of you.”
“That was Lekada’s shitty take on things,” Ilo said, nodding. “I cared for ‘Foos, even though she infuriated me sometimes.”
After Lekada had ordered Crixal’s makodux removed, Ilo visited Orta with the sole purpose of procuring a blaster. When Fusada had found Ilo rifling through her barracks stall, Ilo confessed her plan to kill the old hizzah.
Lucky for her, Fusada’s cooler head had prevailed.
“Are you sure I can’t take all my things, Fuzo?”
“We can’t appear to be extracting you,”
Ilo pouted. “I’ve got so much I want to take.”
Fuzo held up a bottle of something green.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Ilo shook her head. “Can’t remember where I got that.”
“Then it can stay,” she said firmly.
“Look at you, getting all Sofita on me,” Ilo teased. “You must be fun at the citbluz.”
“I stick to the genbluz,” she said.
Ilo gasped. “You’re too good-looking for those smart bellies.”
“I got suspended from the genbluz,” she said with a sigh.
“Wait, what?” Ilo pulled the bruiser down to sit beside her. “Talk to me. I’m mak-mak Ilo.”
Fuzo folded her arms over her chest.
“I don’t like grouping up. I prefer one-on-one,” the marix spoke while staring at her boots. “When I see or think about a lover with someone else, it weirds me out.”
Ilo touched her bald head.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I’m not like you,” she balked. “I’m not comfortable with myself.”
“No waxamist ever fully accepts herself.” Ilo tried to comfort the young marix. “If they do, you need to get yourself one of those and never let her go.”
Fuzo mumbled, “I’m going to get help.”
“Wait, why?” Ilo bumped herself into the bruiser.
“A part of me feels like I don’t need help,” she whispered. “Another part of me likes subaki. A lot. And they’re not into monogamy.”
“Don’t be so sure about that.” Ilo reached into her dress and, lifting her right frontal, retrieved a handheld. “I’m sending you the address of a counselor that specializes in monogamists. Her support group has a few subbies,”
“What’re you doing with a Filmark?” Fuzo demanded.
Before Ilo could confess to smuggling the device past the OHA by slipping it into her guzshlix, a knock came at the door.
Fuzo raised a hand for silence.
“Does the Ambassador knock?”
“Velto never knocks,” said Ilo.
Fuzo stepped to the door and peeked through the spy hole. “Do the helovx ever visit in large numbers?”
Ilo shook her head.
“No, it’s always just our escort.”
Fuzo took her arm. “It’s time to leave,”
“What’s wrong?” Ilo asked, pulled along.
“Miss Ilo,” a girl’s voice called out in Sladdish. “I need you to open the door and let me in.”
Dox’s hand went instinctively to her hip and her missing palm-blaster.
“Where’s your digger?” Ilo whispered.
“Komad says the Slavs don’t have the weaponry to hurt us.” She drew Ilo to the window and opened it. “We’re going out here and up the fire stairs.”
“Fire stairs, why?”
Fuzo smiled, though anxiety tightened her scalp.
“Please, Citizen Wram, let’s go.”
Ilo stepped through the large window and onto an iron staircase.
“Aren’t you going to fight them?” she asked.
“I can’t confront armed helovx with you this close,” the young marix nudged her up the stairs. “Once you’re secured, I’ll confront them.”
“We should talk to them,” said Ilo.
On the roof, she peered over its edge while Fuzo surveyed the building beside them. She spotted a head poke out of the window below, followed by a man emerging with a gun in his hand.
Ilo rushed to the marix. “They’re coming.”
“Relax,” Fuzo took hold of her arms. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“You promise,” she tried to laugh, but it sounded pathetic.
Fuzo nodded, stalking the roof’s perimeter.
“We’re jumping to this building back here,” she said, scooping Ilo up and hoisting her over a shoulder.
After a couple of jarring steps, they were airborne, the alley below flashing past before they landed hard. Back on her feet, Ilo grabbed the Donmat’s hand and raced with her to the roof access door.
Four men appeared on the opposite roof, each brandishing a gun.
“I think they want to kill us,” Ilo whispered.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” said Fuzo, a little harried as she yanked the door open and then pulled Ilo into the stairwell.
They jogged down four flights, pushing through a door that led to an empty clock shop. The marix groaned. “Mold, blood, shit, and urine,”
“Breathe through your mouth, bear snout,” Ilo said, panting. “Can they kill us with those gun things?”
Fuzo spoke as she walked to the front windows. “Ilo, tell me about Brasilia,”
“Did you know that they don’t use clocks?” Ilo blurted.
“They don’t?” Fuzo rubbed a spot clean in the window’s dirty glass.
“Brasiliaras don’t keep track of hourly time,” she said, her heart pounding.
Fuzo forced a laugh. “They must be a very relaxed culture.”
“They are very relaxed.” Her dread grew as footsteps echoed in the stairwell. “I’m going there when we get out of here.”
“You and the Ambassador will love it,” Fuzo seized her hand as dozens of shadows appeared in the shop’s front window glass. The marix stomped on the floor with her boot before finding a hollow spot. Kneeling, she pulled up a trap door.
“Should we be going down?” Ilo asked as Fuzo pulled her into a small opening
“I need to reduce the open space around us,” said the muscular Donmat. “Close quarters will let me engage them one at a time—”
“-Why don’t you have your digger?” Ilo groaned.
“I don’t need it, Ilo.” Fuzo took hold of her face, and that confidence kept Ilo steady as they stumbled into the darkness below.
Gas hissed overhead before light devoured the dark.
Feverish, Ilo’s hide went wet, and her head throbbed as men clopped down the stairs and filed into the empty stone basement. Fuzo put herself in front, pushing Ilo to the farthest wall.
“Take the zaxir,” barked Yuri Kotko.
Two men rushed them, but the marix elbowed one in the throat before thumping the other on the sternum with her fist. The moment they fell, two more jumped into the fray, while Ilo, unaccustomed to such violence, whined each time a fist struck flesh.
After besting his men, Fuzo grabbed Yuri by the throat.
Suddenly, a blast of blue-white energy cracked the floor near her boot. Dropping Yuri, the marix took a position, shielding Ilo.
“That’s enough!” Boris Kotko stood on the loft; a Ramaxian Pulser strapped to his arm.
Yuri jumped from the floor. “They killed the emperor.”
“Kasi’s dead?” Ilo asked, voice shaking.
“Quiet, Ilo,” whispered Fuzo.
“Don’t pretend ignorance,” Yuri snarled.
Boris called out, “You’ve murdered my son,”
“That’s not true, Duke Kotko,” Ilo yelled. “This one’s been with me for hours. We never saw Kasimir.”
“Quiet, Ilo,” Fuzo hissed.
“You did it, didn’t you, Yuri?” Ilo raged over the Donmat’s shoulder. “You hated him for being a boy.”
“Shut up, farc bitch,” Yuri lunged.
Fuzo’s right hook sent him to the floor.
Light flashed, and then the marix howled out in pain.
Wetness found Ilo’s foot as dark blue fell from the smoking hole in Fuzo’s thigh. She wrapped her arms around the young bruiser, determined to keep her standing.
Yuri jumped to his feet.
“Get down on your knees, farc!”
“Not going to happen,” Fuzo growled through the pain.
Yuri bared his sharp teeth and fixed the tip of his gun to Fuzo’s forehead.
“Step aside, farc,” Boris barked from above.
“Not going to happen,” Fuzo repeated through her teeth.
A pop rang out.
Warm wet blue sprayed Ilo’s chest as young Fuzo fell back onto her. Too heavy for Ilo to manage, the marix slipped from her embrace. Ilo brought her hands up and revealed her palms.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she sobbed.
Yuri moved behind his men. “Take her,”
The unarmed men hesitated, unwilling to approach.
“She’s a breeder,” Boris yelled down. “She can’t hurt you.”
Two stepped into her space.
Enraged and afraid, Ilo boxed each man’s ear and brought their heads together, crushing their skulls. A third almost got her by the hair until she palmed his face and drove him into the wall. Yuri brought up his pistol, and as she quickly slapped it from his hands, a blinding light came between them.
Searing pain punched her gut, and agony spread through her stomach, forcing her against the wall. Ilo’s knees folded, and when she hit the floor, she came face to face with the fallen marix. Dark blue surrounded the gaping hole in Fuzo’s forehead, but Ilo smiled when she noticed the bruiser’s chest rising and falling.
Shouts erupted, and lights flashed.
Within moments, the air stank of helovx blood.
Velto pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ornithocheirus, get me the Office of Helovx Advocacy.”
A glowing yellow pulse appeared on the communications panel.
“I have made contact,” Orny announced.
Then, the panel screen went black.
“What’s wrong?” Velto asked.
“Communication rerouted by order of subhive Toligon,” said Orny.
The black cabin floor morphed into white tiles covered by a pattern of canals. The noise of rushing water filled the room as everything transformed into a replica of Lekada Wram’s office. Hair styled high, the colorfully suited hizak sat behind her gray marble desk, the pink patches on her face darker than usual.
“Ambassador Wram,” she said without looking up. “You were expected back in Ramaxia.”
“My extraction is imminent.” Velto stood. “We must sever diplomacy,”
“She’s a male, yes?” Lekada sounded bored.
Velto cleared her throat. “They have violated Law Five.”
Lekada raised her head. “Have they dined on Ilo?”
“No, CM Wram,” Velto softened her tone. “They’re feeding on themselves.”
“They’re animals, Ambassador,” said the gaunt hizak. “They’ve not farmed in decades, and as such, we expected cannibalism.”
Anger coursed through Velto. “You were aware that no sustainable life existed here when supplying them with an SR-I?”
Lekada studied her well-manicured nails.
“Seize your technology and return home.”
“CR Wram,” Velto returned to her seat. “They have replicated an SR-Prime.”
“I’m sorry, Ambassador,” said Lekada. “But that’s a non-issue.”
“A non-issue?” she cried. “Kerma!”
Lekada’s eyes went wide. “Proper etiquette, Ambassador!”
Velto struggled to remain calm.
“Once you’ve finished your tantrum,” Lekada scolded. “I’m certain Ambassador Prime Dag will be interested in any suggestions you have for dealing with—”
“-We can take them out,” she sputtered. “I’ve access to an Ornith—”
“-Orta must send troops!”
“You’re irate, Ambassador,” Lekada observed calmly. “They’ve corrupted your precious invention, and now you’re a rampaging bear.”
Velto felt like a youth again, listening to Lekada complain to some fat-backed professor in Mynu about her aggressive nature. Such meetings always found the hizak insisting her bizakidoe return to Pikalit with her caste.
“CM Wram,” she said. “We must exterminate—”
“-Exterminate?” Lekada said with a huff. “Who do you think you are? The Primary?”
“Then convene with CM Uym—”
“-Who do you think allowed them access to your technology?” Lekada’s eyes burned with amusement. “The First Office was aware that the Slavs lacked proper protein sources.”
“May I ask the purpose of her decision, CM Wram?” Velto demanded. “I’m sure the Second Gen got enough behavioral analysis during the Mormon Incident.”
When the Fifth Gen was young, two helovx cruise ships ran out of fuel off the northern coast of Ramaxia. After the Primary barred them from making landfall, the hizaki elite took the opportunity to study their species’ breakdown; after a year of violence and cannibalism, starvation finally destroyed them.
“Tell me,” Lekada folded her hands in her lap. “Have you dined with them?”
“I’ve not had one bite of their food,” said Velto.
“How is Ilo feeling these days?” the hizak needled. “No doubt, she’s dined plenty.”
Velto’s stomach turned at the thought.
“Komad Kul is extracting us within the hour.”
Lekada narrowed her eyes. “I’m uncertain how Sofita Kul acquired assignment to this extraction but do put that anger of yours to good use. If she fails you in any way, you must demand Rod’ntil.”
“I’m sorry, CM Wram,” said Velto. “Recompense for the death of your donation is a non-issue.”
“Velto.” Lekada glared. “This is no time for your stubborn posturing,”
“Maintain etiquette, CM Wram,” she advised. “Or I’ll be forced to cease this conversation.”
Lekada’s hands began tremoring. “How dare you—”
“-You’re irate, CM Wram,” she lectured, her mood much improved. “You’re a raging bear angry at Sofita Kul for taking away your precious Primary candidate.”
Lekada came out from behind her desk.
“Close channel, Ornithocheirus,” said Velto.
Instantly, the Ornith’s cabin returned.
“Ornithocheirus,” she asked. “Do you have a kerma?”
“I do not, Ambassador Wram.”
“Then you’re the luckiest lifeform in this conversation.”
Velto swiveled around and examined the cabin.
There was no place for Ilo to rest her legs; if that belly couldn’t elevate her feet, she’d complain about it the entire trip. Without haste, Velto took down a storage trunk from the overhead shelf and, setting it beside the cushioned bench, fashioned a makeshift recliner for Ilo.
“Ornithocheirus, lower temperature by eight degrees.”
“Temperature adjusted, Ambassador.”
Velto thought for a moment before speaking. “I want you to send a playback of my correspondence with CM Wram to Ambassador Prime Dag.”
“All communications from the Second Office are coded Cloister Confidential.”
“Did you record our conversation?”
“Then, send your recording of that correspondence to Ambassador Prime Dag.”
Suddenly, the Ornith’s emergency lights flashed.
The cabin floor swallowed her arranged seating and brought up a concaved enamel floor. When two medical beds descended from the ceiling, Velto demanded to know what was wrong.
Words appeared on the forward array: Apologies Ambassador, I cannot verbally communicate during Emergency Triage Protocol.
The hatch flew open, and with it came the stink of charred fat and blood. Sofita stumbled in with the Donmat’s lanky body under one arm, and Ilo’s bulk over her shoulder.
“What happened?” Velto cried.
“Triage protocol engaged! Level severe!” Sofita dropped Dox before laying Ilo onto the medical bed, the craterous blue wound in the zaxir’s stomach still fresh.
Ilo’s eyes fluttered as she began coughing up blood. Velto took a towel from the bedside tray and wiped her face clean.
“Connect port-side to Mainland-Terminus,” Sofita said.
“Toxis Central Unit RHC number Fourteen,” Velto added.
Holographic monitors blinked to life as a blanket of light materialized over Ilo’s wound.
Words flashed upon Orny’s array screen.
Maximum signal strength…
Connecting to Mainland Terminus…
The airy voice of hive Oligax filled the cabin.
“Initiating remote-triage, level severe.”
Velto moved aside as scanning beams crisscrossed her bond’s torn midsection. When the screen over Ilo’s body displayed her vital signs, Velto turned to find Sofita trying to apply a manual intravenous patch to Dox’s wounded leg.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. “Connect her to MT,”
“No,” the hizak shook her head, nicking the marix’s inner thigh with a kyrs-blade. When blood spilled from the cut, she slapped the blue patch down upon it. It doubled in size before slowing and beating in time with the Donmat’s heart.
“Sofita,” she pressed. “We need to connect her—”
“-Negative.” Sofita pulled a clear bottle of rixpurn disinfectant out from under the triage bed, broke its cap with her teeth, and then poured it over the Donmat’s head wound; the blackened purple hole above the bridge of her nose only promised to get worse.
“Mainland Terminus can fix—”
“-She’s mine too, Velto!”
Velto stepped back, mouth ajar.
“You did patch up with Zix—” Velto then came to her senses. “You’re going to get her killed!”
“Not today,” Sofita promised through her teeth.
Velto seethed softly. “There’s no denying your eligibility now.”
The monitor displaying Ilo’s vitals began beeping wildly as the illuminated cloud over her wound faded.
“Disengaging,” said Oligax. “Patient too damaged to proceed.”
Velto rushed to her bedside. “What’s happening?”
Mainland Terminus has disconnected, the words flashed upon Orny’s forward array. Patient Ilo Cux is too damaged to proceed.
Sofita appeared beside Velto.
“Force reconnect, override code—”
“-No, ‘Fita,” Velto grabbed her shoulder. “You use your inheritor code to override a hive-decision, and they’ll parse it.”
“Not a concern, Velto!”
She put herself between Sofita and Ilo. “If your code gets parsed, Femtrux recognizes you as next in line to rule. All this hands-on shit you’re doing to save Fuzo right now? It will be for nothing!”
Sofita stared at her. “You can’t do this to Ilo,”
“I did this to Ilo the day I bonded to Fusada.”
The zaxir coughed, spattering blackened blue over her chin and chest. Her eyes opened wide, and upon seeing Velto, she exposed her blue-stained teeth in a smile.
Velto took her hand. “I’m right here, doe,”
“Velts,” she choked.
Velto pressed her lips to Ilo’s and tasted blood.
“I love you, Ilocux,”
“Waxami,” the zaxir whispered, eyelids falling.
Ilo’s chest then stopped moving.
“Ilo?” she whispered. “Wake up,”
Sofita sank to the floor with her head in her hands.
“Wake up, please.” Velto used her thumb to pry open one of Ilo’s eyelids. Once full of rich black life, her orbs were now clouded in white.
“I didn’t get there in time,” the hizak sobbed.
“She knows that ‘Fita,” Velto said softly, using her sleeve to wipe the blood from her dead bond’s chin. “What hizzah ever shows up on time, right Ilo?”
Visions of their first encounter appeared, an avalanche of fleeting moments; shouts, burps, farts, laughs, sighs, and orgasms; all inconsequential until gathered in moments of final recall.
“Veltowram, for the harm that I have caused you and yours,” Sofita stood beside her now, proffering Rod’ntil. “I offer my life to you, though I know it will never be enough to replace the life that you have lost because of my actions.”
Velto didn’t want to face the hizak; facing her meant accepting the current reality. It was now or never, and with Ilo gone, Velto had nothing more to lose.
“I will ask something of you, Sofitakul,” she cared little for ceremonial words. “Does this Ornith connect to Sky Sister?”
Sofita spoke, unsure. “It’s capable of remote connection.”
Velto walked to the command panel.
“Time to use your special inheritor code.”
Sofita growled, “Why wouldn’t you let me use it to save her?”
“Oligax disconnected because Ilo was too far gone,” she snapped. “You think entering your code and ordering Oligax back here would make her do a better job?”
Sofita’s shoulders fell in defeat.
“You’re not Fusada,” she said. “Be smarter, not harder.”
“That’s right, I’m not Fusada,” said the hizak. “Initiating ascension again, trying to step into her boots, this was a mistake from the—”
“-Fusada’s dead! Fusa’s still in her chair because Femtrux knows you’re the legitimate heir,” Velto cried. “It’s high time that fucking prime-hive tells the rest of the Tenth.”
Sofita dragged the back of her hand over her head, marking it blue.
“Uvi Tol died at Igitat, making my secondary inheritor code, the first.” Velto stepped around and confronted the taller hizak. “I can exercise remote primada access to Sky Sister.”
“To what end?”
“I’m going to make Sky Sister wipe these fuckers off the face of Ramaxicon,” she stabbed a finger to the hizak’s chest. “I need your code as my incoming Primary to make that happen.”
“You do this, and they’ll put you in ISO.”
A steady chime brought words to Orny’s com panel. Komad Kul, there are fourteen armed helovx closing in on our location.
“Move us out over the Mediterranean Ocean. Take us forty-one degrees north to the fifty-fourth line, and twelve degrees east to the twenty-ninth.”
Yes, Komad Kul.
The hizak kept her eyes trained on Velto’s.
“Initiate remote connection to Sky Sister.”
Yes, Komad Kul.
The words ‘Connecting Sky Sister’ flashed on Orny’s forward array before it went black, replaced by the blinking term, ‘Clearance Required.’
Velto moved to the com-panel and typed:
‘OHA Emergency Band 5. Veltowram CM1041.’
Connection to Sky Sister initiating.
Connection to Sky Sister established.
The cabin transformed into a darkened room.
A large screen took the place of Orny’s forward, surrounding them with a floating waist-high keyboard that flashed as it came online. Velto moved her hands over it, conjuring up a new set of interface symbols.
I AM SKY SISTER, appeared on the screen. PLEASE ENTER YOUR CLEARANCE BAND, ALONG WITH YOUR NAME AND GENERATIONAL CODE.
Velto typed: ‘OHA Emergency Band 5. Veltowram CM1041.’ Red lights flashed around them, followed by the voice of a donat.
“Inheritor CM1004 is detected on the Recycle Docket for the unproduced Generation Twelve.”
Sky Sister had parsed the DNA of Uvi Tol, the deceased hizak once designated as the Third Office of the Tenth.
“CM1041 serves as an active member of Surface Operational under the authority of the Office of Helovx Advocacy.”
Velto whispered, “No shit.”
“Identity confirmed with access granted, Veltowram.”
A floating screen displayed a bulleted list of operational headers, and when Velto went to touch the words Energy Cannon Interface, Sofita tapped Global Strategic. The sphere of Ramaxicon appeared with its continents and oceans outlined; every inhabited settlement between the poles pulsed as a potential mark.
Sofita typed: ‘Initiate Command Menu.’
A long list of commands filled the screen.
Velto typed ‘Chemotaxic Phagocytosistation’, and then moved her finger over Uralskey Island. Tapping it twice highlighted all four quadrants within the wall.
“This radius exceeds standard parameters,” said Sky Sister.
Sofita persisted, typing: ‘Display maximum radius, Chemotaxic Phagocytosistation.’
The globe unfolded into a flat map displaying how Uralskey Island far exceeded the program’s maximum coverage area. Velto swiped out of the Global Strategic screen, returning them to the Full Commands list.
“What’s Horizon Annihilation?” she asked, finger pointed.
“That’s under the Tharso header.” Sofita shook her head. “You can’t make her aim a beam toward Ramaxicon meant to wipe out mountains on Tharso.”
“I can make her burn a wart off my gurz if I want to,” Velto said, keying in Uralskey Island’s coordinates.
“Horizon Annihilation protocol activated.”
‘Initiate Full Soil Burn,’ she typed. ‘Veltowram, inheritor code CM1041.’
“Full environmental burn is a command exclusive to Tharso and requires a controlled environment clear of all life forms.” Sky Sister said. “Engaging this procedure in the designated coordinates will destroy one-thousand eight hundred twenty-three helovx lifeforms.”
Velto typed the request again.
“Veltowram, inheritor code CM1041,” said Sky Sister. “Are these current parameters, correct?”
Velto typed her affirmation.
“Veltowram, inheritor code CM1041, please verbally engage.”
Velto cleared her throat. “Initiate full soil burn.”
A moment of silence followed. “Veltowram, inheritor code CM1041, you are not authorized to engage this command. Primada level authorization is required.”
Sofita stepped in and typed: ‘Primada Identifier PRY1001B, Sorority of Defense. Engage Horizon Annihilation. Initiate Full Soil Burn.’
“Inheritor PRY1001A is detected on the Recycle Docket for the unproduced Generation Twelve.”
Sky Sister had parsed the DNA of Fusada Kul and would now count the next in line.
“PRY1011 is detected on the Recycle Docket for the unproduced Generation Twelve.”
After parsing the DNA of Zixas Wram, the program addressed Sofita.
“PRY1001B serves as an operational member of Ramaxian World Oceans under the authority of the Sorority of Defense.”
Velto closed her eyes and imagined the target she’d just painted on Sofita’s back.
‘INITIATING PEER CONNECTION…’
‘PENGON TRANSFERRING TO PENTOX…’
‘PENTOX ELEVATING TO FEMTRUX…’
Velto and Sofita exchanged soulful looks.
“Sofitakul, you are now PRY1001,” said Sky Sister. “Please re-enter your new Inheritor Code to carry out the current command.”
Sofita typed as ordered, leaving off the letter B.
“That’s it?” said Velto. “One letter?”
“For me, yes,” Sofita murmured. “For Sky Sister, no.”
The red lights went black, followed by text.
‘CONNECTION TO ORTA PRIME.’
‘AWAITING COMMAND CLEARANCE…’
“Clearance?” Velto exclaimed.
“We’re asking her to commit a serious ethical breach by taking helovx lives,” said Sofita. “Add on the issue of generational politics, and she’s got no choice but to play it smart and request clearance from a Prime Chair.”
“These hives are like hizzah’s, they love taking hostages,” Velto cracked. “What’s the point of having your inheritor-code if you can’t use it?”
“I’m a Komad, not a Primepromad,” Sofita explained. “I can’t use my code without authorization from a Prime Chair or the Primary.”
Velto’s jaw tensed. “Anti-coup maneuvers?”
“Against the Sixth, Fusa used Pentox to take control of Orta, and Ryo used Tolitat to seize the Cloister. Femtrux won’t let that happen again,” the uniformed hizak nodded. “We’ve got one advantage, the Prime Chair in Orta will get this request before Uym or the Primary.”
Velto howled in frustration.
“You do realize,” Sofita whispered, “we’ve now engaged in this enterprise longer than the time allotted for an irrational emotional response defense?”
“I’m a Wram,” said Velto. “My irrational emotional response is everlasting.”