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Fan Fiction

Rhea by Mr Bill Jr V

Rhea (Part 1)
Date: 12 September 2005, 6:20 pm

      The eyes are not here
      There are no eyes here
      In this valley of dying stars
      In this hollow valley
      This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms


      Watching the waves rise and fall, back to the closing day. Orange light sifting yellow sand pale. Pronged clouds lay above, deep hues darkened about blue stars beyond. Moment of center time. Stretch out and reach, plying beyond everything as it falls back. And still there will be nothing. So why wonder? Why search when the answer has already been seen, and seen from that teeming point of time. Looking up as the darkness swoons around and paints the sky black. As the clouds of billow puff and sigh, spreading themselves thin. Every point a moment in the sky, every moment a star. So wonderful in that indolence. Sound of waves rolling, sweet air falling from cooled heights and the cries of emptiness… Do you know this truth, or do you deny it? Why do you live in your lies, soothing your fears with futile hope? One amongst the endless billions. Like a single star dropped as pebble amongst the stone-garden. It will burn then and vanish and never burn again. That moment of light within the darkness and then, nothing. Godless nothing. Learn and worship, live and die… These questions must we ask ourselves, but why?
      Oh, such clarity. When things were honestly that clean and pure- that black and white. But that had been so long ago. So long before, when one could afford such thoughts; could consider them without interruption or fear. Things now were jarred always. Jaded by the voice and words working away at the back of space. Like a candle burning under water, blurred. The haze of the mind, shifting from brightness of darkness, always hovering grey. Utter stark neutrality. No fire, no passions. No hate, no love no wonder. No fears, no anger, utterly nothing at all. Dreams only memories.

      I'm afraid of her. The others, no; only her. I'm afraid of her. We broke them all, and those who survived- no matter. But I knew, all along, I knew it was wrong. The others, yes, there had been fear and apprehension. Some showed hate, others that drive of the game. But really, they didn't care- these were simple things and they embraced them like the simple people they were. And that's exactly what they were- simple. It amazed me, how little one can care. How little one can question oneself when the task finally falls upon your heads- as we all knew it would… Except Rhea. From the moment I first saw her, I knew she was watching me just as we were watching her. That's a horrifying thought, if you consider it for a moment: how easily the situation could have been reversed. I wish it were, from a certain perspective. We robbed this women, this brilliant women, of a future she deserved.
      Year after year she would grow aside us, listening but not answering. Aware of the changes. She knew what we were doing, yet she never complained, never stood back and spoke her mind- simply watched and waited. She was pushed, but never pushed back. I'm ahead of myself, I know.
      I wasn't on the Phase One crew, so I never actually met Rhea prior to the operations phase of the project. But that didn't matter- we all had dossiers, and I'd read hers just like everyone else's. There had been seventy or so- I can't remember. It didn't matter, the exact numbers are totally irrelevant. They were nothing to us, and so we distanced ourselves from what we were doing- justification comes in many forms. I'm not apologizing. We did what we had to do, and I don't want to hear any more of it.
      It's a lie. We were never building warriors. We were building killers. When the project had opened, as I learned later, they'd approached us with that exact directive: they wanted humans without morals. So, in that way, they never really wanted humans at all- they wanted machines. All along that was our operating standard, our goal. We were removing the human mind from the human body. I'm sure someone's done some psychological research into that very subject. We had several psychologists on the team itself, in fact. But, again, it was never about research. I never did any research- I never saw anyone else do any. Things were very vague. I preferred it that way.
      Operations began in the third year, so she was sixteen. It was complex, you have to understand. Anyway, I was an engineer and so that was how we met. The circumstances could have been better. When the preparations people brought her in, it had been after a few weeks of near lethal drug induction, so to say she was cognitive in the slightest would be quite an overstatement. I was amazed that she could still breath. This is what I remember: her hair, eyes and lips were all red, and of the same shade. Her skin was white, her body formed without flaw. She was slender yet small. She was beautiful in so many manners of the term, it's hard to describe. I felt sorry for her, after seeing her like this. It was unfair. I was the last person to see her as the women she had been born. So much we were simply throwing away; she who had so clearly been born for love…
      We shaved her head. We replaced her eyes. We reconstructed her jaws. We built her new bones and muscles. We melted her skin and redesigned it. We took her unborn children. We took her future and we could easily have taken her life. Everything was vague. The theory was all new and we were inexperienced. There were no tests, there were no hypothesis- everything was happening in real-time. There were mistakes. People died. Rhea was lucky.
      She woke after three weeks of constant reconstruction. She was supposed to wake after four. No one had ever woken that early before. If we had replaced her vocal cords she would have screamed. Someone held her down. An artery ruptured. Her blood ran down my jumpsuit. Her eye sockets rolled about impossibly. You can't understand. I don't want to talk about it anymore.

      Her sister crouched, dirtying her fingers in the wet clay. This day or that day, the day still ending in timeless solitude. Ten years ago… To be there again. To run when they came, to feel that mere chance of escape in the face of impossible fate. To save her humanity from their tortures and trials. But it could not be. Her sister suddenly gone, the sky turned night. That women, herself, fell back against the warm sand, waves washing over her feet, then her legs, then floating her body in a pool of perfect radiance. Thirteen years of heartbeats and thirteen years of simple memory- what of this life so far? One of so many among the sky, she closed her eyes. She may have been drowning, may have been dreaming, may have been all someone else. But no, it was her. All along, trying to forget it was her.
      They took her eyes. They had been red, brilliant ruby pearls. When she woke, they were gone. Ten years. Her hair once flowed bright red, great masses of it, turned dirty and blonde, washed away like her spilt blood. Who would she have become, and what beauty would she have embraced had they let her live? In the soft cloth and bright velvet of a lady she might have looked innocently upon her family and smiled. She could imagine the light against her skin, and the life she yearned for now stolen. Poems of her beauty would have been written, her lips as roses and cheeks as lilies. But never to be, so much love and life never to be.
      Fantasy, that of a mind not allowed to dream. How else, left with nothing but stark, can her mind wonder? Her hair still red, but cropped short now, bleached horribly brighter. Everything burned so into her memory, dates and numbers and times all so meaningless. Never to be a person now, only this machine. Do their bidding, and answer their questions. A slave in service to those, her masters. No escape, no salvation. That memory so beyond description, beyond thought. No longer a memory but a dream. Had it happened? Had they made her forget? Could she ever touch the reality? Was there a way to escape?
      Let the lies be told. Let the words be spoken in human clarity. Shout them to the sky, and yearn, pray yearn for hope. Time slipping away, as our life bleeds out, running like an empty river. Drying away so slowly, can you feel it? Can you feel yourself dieing?
      Her eyes fell to the water below, sight cast down in horrid vision. Rain streamed through the darkness, running down her hair. It fell in soft patter over her emerald body, framed in that massive silhouette.
      It was real. The wires brushed up against her neck, she could feel where they opened in her skin and ran into her arteries. Her heart beat, and her armor- that horrible green flesh that encased her- rose and fell in time. The air was freezing, Rhea felt it against her cheek, yet her body remained impossibly neutral. Should she dare but move, her artificial skin would click and hum away, breathing back into her that power, her ruin. Could they call her a women still?
      The memories came again, the dreams of where she had once been, and where she had once lived. The wind would push the tree blossoms back, and the rain never fall but in taunt. Always, there lay choice and thought. All beyond her reach now. Rhea watched the water fall away, retreating to the ocean. That vital notion still lay beyond her grasp. Always beyond that invisible hill, yet another mountain in her path. She could struggle beyond, again and again and always retreat to the past. Time and again. There lay no escape from the prison of her mind. All these things she could conceive with thought, frame them and consider them. Yet, come the moment of decision… yet again the truth dawned: she could never escape. Her own thoughts- poison.
      And so the night grew to young morn, the dawn flowing in at ocean's cusp. Rain beckoned an end to the darkness. They had built her this way, the women inside the machine. They had tortured her this way, her body and soul trapped. They had murdered her this way, her life in slavery. She could only dream of the past so forgotten.

      It was all through the darkness. Like the mirror each morning. Everything seeped away back into it. Glimpses of how things had been and how things became.
      Her mother ran the brush through her hair. The velvet lengths of red fell in perfect form. Her vision seemed aged, like the wooden floors and banister curves. They were edges, burned softer and softer then blurring out. Her ruby dress had always been the favorite- she crossed her hands at her lap. Her legs could have swung, but she refrained. In the mirror she looked back upon herself. Her hair, her eyes, her lips. Red. Had it really happened? Had that been her, all those years ago? Her mother stopped and sat the brush down. Rhea's reflection showed no change. Her lips glowed all the brighter, but her expression stayed blank. Soon she was alone, only the mirror's vision casting impossible light. The darkness returned, edges and fade. Had it been real?

      The darkness swallowed her, all around it rushed in from the sides. Like a sonic wind it washed over her body, her eyes squinting closed against its onslaught. Faster and faster, the wind pitch rose, swelling higher until it was unbearable. Her mind shook, her body racked by the storm-waves of energy. And then everything was clear. She floated effortless, in paradise. Nothing. The sun was warm against he skin. Her lungs flooded in the emptiness and it was bliss. A dream? She opened her eyes.

      It was a lie.

      The stars resolved in their infinity. Eyes blinked, deep breaths filling shortened lungs. The blankets had not helped, the air was too cold and judging by the rasping in his throat, likely un-breathable. He waited while the oxygen buffers recycled, their low hum rising and falling in pitch. The cycle finished, and he pushed himself out of his cot. Reinforced beams ran overhead, lining the interior of his cabin. A light flickered on, casting pale illumination through the room. Water dripped from a leaking coolant vent. He stretched, taking a moment to yawn before crossing the cabin. Computer terminals clicked and whirred. The air smelled of rust. He had left his glasses leaning against one of the computer monitors. His shirt lay over the back of a chair. He had slept in his fatigues otherwise. One of the screens flickered to life.
      He reached for the glasses, cleared his eyes, and sat down next to the active monitor. There was an audio-feed coming through. He keyed up the connection.
      "Glantz, you awake?" crackled a distorted voice over the imbedded speakers.
      Eric Glantz reached over his shoulder and retrieved his shirt. "Yah, I'm here, Paul. Just got up."
      "Good," the speaker continued, "anyone else up yet?"
      Eric leaned back, rolling his chair slightly away from the terminal. A quick glance across another monitor showed that only the ship's captain was awake. "Just the captain, why?"
      The screen blinked out for a moment, a data-feed scrolling in. "Are you receiving that?"
      "Yah, I see it right here," Eric replied, "what's going on?"
      "Make a hard copy," returned the speaker, "and read it over. It's your call, but I figure you'll like it." The audio crackled again and died. Eric shook his head in mock disdain, then flipped open the terminal's printer-port. He keyed the corresponding access code, and was rewarded by the chatter of ink-cartridges. After a few moments the terminal's archaic dot-matrix printer clattered to life.
      Eric hated surprises. They always got the better of him. The printer continued its task, line by line and horribly slowly. Eric leaned back into his chair and listened to the dripping water and churning pages.
      Something must have moved. Eric sat bolt upright, eyes wide. His hand fell to his thigh, where his sidearm would have been. Water was still dripping. The printer had stopped. "Right…" he whispered to himself, "you need a vacation." He let out a long breath. Had he dosed off?
      "It doesn't matter," Eric reminded himself. He looked to his solitary window- a rounded porthole. The stars faded away in the distance. "Right," he repeated, "nothing here."
      Eric piled the printed pages together and stapled them. He keyed the bridge through his intercom, "I'm coming up."
      Taking the pages in hand, Eric left his cabin, taking care to lock the door behind him. Perhaps it was simple paranoia, that which had been building over the past weeks- that of anticipation. Whatever the cause, Eric could not help scanning the room with his eyes. He was skeptical, but not stupid. A mistake would hardly do, now.

      Michael E. Clark watched the stars grow and fade through the three inches of reinforced quartz which separated him and the vacuum. The third moon would be rising in about forty minutes, he reminded himself. His uniform felt too tight, but his thoughts hardly ever fell that low, and certainly not now. After a moment of reflection, watching his image fade-in with the stars through the window, Clark turned his attention to the matter at hand.
      "So what's the operation, Eric?"
      The older man standing at the door came forward. "Eight days travel, I'm guessing, assuming we break orbit now," Eric paused, crossing his arms.
      "And?" prompted Clark, "I doubt you're going to leave me with that."
      Eric smiled, "I'm just thinking, that's all."
      "You've had plenty of time to do that, Glantz. Just look at how long we've been floating around this rock," Michael reminded him, gesturing to the starboard of the bridge- the direction from which their moon would be rising shortly.
      "Right," Eric continued, "well as I was saying, we're in-system in eight days."
      "Ok," prompted Michael, "and?"
      "And then we just have to find the target."
      Michael sighed. "And how exactly do you suggest we do that?"
      "Well, Paul gave us a pretty definitive rundown here, if you ask me. Shouldn't be too hard to find someone matching the description."
      "That's weak as hell, Glantz," Michael retorted, "especially considering the planet."
      Clark felt like lecturing, so he indulged himself. "You remember a few years back, Operation Canes?"
      Eric nodded, and Clark continued. "You remember the point-man, guy who kept getting in your way?"
      Eric looked blank for a moment, but recognition quickly dawned. Nevertheless, Clark continued. "About three-hundred pounds, grey shirt, thought you worked for Naval? Ring any bells?"
      "Yah, I know the guy- I remember," Eric replied impatiently.
      "Well he's the god-damned head of the Energy Bureau on Vega Prime…"
      "-Exactly," Michael concluded.
      "Well I guess that does change things."
      Michael smiled. "You're damn right it does," he paused, reveling in the moment of superiority. "So, now, what do you think?"
      "Four man team," Eric began. "No primaries, only backups. Discrete. In and out, but subtle."
      "Yes," Michael nodded in affirmation. "We'll need confirmation, according to that brief…"
      "-They'll want more then-
      "-They wanted skin, or hair or some-"
      "-You sure they'll have pre-recorded DNA samples?"
      Eric nodded. "Anything this high-level will have DNA."
      Michael turned away again, watching the red craters and barren soil of a Choronian moon rise below them. Saturn herself glowed bright in the distance now. "There's just one thing I don't get, Glantz. If this is as high-level as I think, why the hell did they contact your man, Paul, and why the hell did he recommend us?"
      "I was thinking about that one myself, Mike," replied Eric, "and I'll bet ten-to-one this is a counter-espionage operation."
      Michael gasped. "Jesus… that'd be about the biggest thing since Tycho- and you remember how that ended up."
      "That's about the size of it."
      Michael kept his eyes on the moon's terminator, now clearly visible in the growing sunlight. "I hate the Office," he spoke after a moment. "They're always so petty- and always at the worst times."
      "You've got that right, Mike, but they do pay you're bills."
      "Only when they're the one's on the other side of the terminal feed."
      Eric uncrossed his arms. He knew how business went better then anyone else onboard. Everything was his operation. Everything was his call. He hated internal intricacies and conspiracy as much as the next man. But now was hardly the time for that routine
      "Let's get out of here before traffic starts up."
      Clark checked his watched, comparing it to the ship's time-display. Eric was right, they should break orbit and be out-system before things started to get complicated; as they did everyday around Saturn. Incoming and outgoing traffic were all on preset times- one could not simply jump into local Earth space. Titan was the incoming port, and the red moon around which they orbited now the outgoing. Once you were in, there were the lines and delays and so on. Eventually they would have you Earth bound, that trip itself taking another few hours; and that is all assuming one has their own space-craft. Passengers might end up changing ships a dozen times and spend weeks inbound. Things were always busy.
      There were exceptions. The big naval ships needed no such clearance, nor wait times. Clark had toyed with the idea of forging a naval identification tag for that purpose. He had even talked to a friend onboard one of the newly built frigates they had orbiting Mars, but in the end decided against it. It was all too expensive and high profile. Things were always better discrete. Besides, they hardly had any rush….
      Michael punched up the ship's throttle, feeling the first brief burst of acceleration which always escaped the inertial dampers. A moment of engine burn and they reached escape velocity. The red moon fell away behind them, Saturn and her bow-shock waiting ahead. Another velocity increase, and the solar-wind swept past them, curving over the gas giant's massive electro-magnetic field. A satellite fell away, twirling away in its Choronian orbit. Another followed shortly. Jupiter was faintly visible in the distance, crossing the Sun in an eclipse. Rays of light shot off its circumference and glittered through fragmented ice-crystals.
      A pair of corvettes passed by shortly afterward. A bulk-freighter made its lumbering way into Titan's gravity and swung wide around, bound for one of the Johovian moons, likely Calypso. As their distance from Saturn grew, their acceleration increased. After an hour they passed a long-range transmission station, unmanned. Their velocity grew further still. Saturn was a faint glitter in the distance, Jupiter all but invisible now. The Sun burned brighter, her solar winds crisper in the open vacuum- uncluttered by planetary boundaries and gravities. Things started to warp away, like a photograph shot out of lens.
      They hit the heliosphere at near the speed of light, and shot across the inter-stellar medium. The stars bent and their light became brighter then everything all at once. Points in time folded to points in space and the galaxy itself fell flat. In a moment, their ship became neither a point of space, nor a point of existence. It vanished, totally impossible.
      Vega lay a week distant, further away then comprehension itself….

      The sun shown down across the desert plain, brilliance in the late afternoon. Warm water and warmer days yet still lay ahead, while cloudless skies always predominated. Solar panels bent and turned, ever so slowly, in rhythm to the sun's own movements. Vega, that warm bulb of ever iridescent blue, burned on and on. Her light fell across the desert, scattered but re-collected here. Light welled up and refracted, caught in giant mirrors and cast skyward again- if only for a moment. Their combined efforts, all those thousands of panels, burning together and boiling over. High above the mirrors, contained in a great steel beaker, countless volumes of chemically modified water boiled and steamed, pouring back down through hundreds of pipes and conduits. That great cycle, powered ever by that single burning star led on in the countless afternoon. Heavy-water rose up, boiled and tumbled back down. Turbines spun, and human light grew brighter in the coming darkness. This was the endless operation of the Vegan sun, her ever duty- to pursue and burn and thus fuel that human life so far below.
      On the hour, more steam pouring forth in the coming evening, did the turbines continue to burn. Shifts were about to change, as day turns to night and night to that brilliant moment before the next day. The panels curved about and caught the sun's rays again, power flowing untapped from the endless glow. Billions of conceivable units of energy fled ever outwards, through deeply insulated cable and transducer, flowing into distant cities and expanding industry. These were the outer workings of a system more important then the life of the planet itself- these were the workings of men.
      As the night rose, and distant city lights came to life, the panels traced the last curve of Vega as she fell over the horizon and vanished.

      Hands fell and cards slid through activation slots. A thousand bodies swarmed away and underground, almost in motion with the rising darkness and night sky. Illumination and bright iridescent lights shown off pale tile walls. Static hummed and churned as air vents pulsed in fresh oxygen. People walked, an endless stream, deeper and deeper yet. Departures and arrivals, trains coming and going- near soundless as they slid on magnetic rails. The Underground station dropped deeper, then opened into twisting tunnels of painted white. Hundreds followed, hands on guide rails, coming and going. Fluidity. A train arrived, humming as it slowed. Entrance and exit, more artificial air billowing about as automated car doors slid open. Bodies moved and flowed, light in the grey showing no shadow, despite the endless flux of motion. Once aboard, a chime alerted the train's departure and its doors slid closed. There was a brief pressure change, and then instant acceleration. Men and women pressed together paid each other no attention. The train slid on, in its quite hum. Yet there was focus in the picture. There was a point upon which all eyes dared not fix, that single crux of discontent. But it was impossible to see, lest one ignore all other aspects- all those millions of details and divots of change. For, as the car slid on in its indifference, Rhea stood and watched.

      She fumbled for her key-card. Her door opened. She stumbled inside, through the sprawl of everything. She felt nauseated, like everyday, but this time it was worse. She pushed the bathroom door open and lulled about, feeling for the light-switch. The quasi-neon flickered to life, the halogen glow casting false shadows about the room. Rhea looked herself in the mirror, breath coming in heavy sighs.
      She pulled off her barrette, her blonde hair falling down in tattered lengths. The red still formed near her scalp. She dropped her sunglasses on the counter-top. Instantly her eyes resolved and refocused- the sunglasses shaded nothing, they simply hid the obvious: She had no eyes. The two pointed diamond-refracting crystal eye pieces hummed inhumanely as they cycled about, focusing and adjusting in the mock darkness. They had been shaped perfectly, yet so imperfect a counter fit- no one could possibly mistake them for real. It was all she could do to keep them from moving during the day; the only way to hide the sound.
      Rhea removed her clothes, stripped down to the waste. Beneath her clothing her body shimmered. Thousands of holes of scar-tissue and exposed computer-interface ports… She could still identify where she had torn the armor away at the seams; where her skin had come off with it. Her shoulders up to her collar bone had simply never grown back, only bare metal protruded there now. She felt along her arms, tracing where they had cut her apart and rebuilt the armored interior that composed her body. A billion multi-fractures and a billion more insertions and cutaways. She watched herself move, jaw clicking and lidless eyes refracting in the dark illumination of her bathroom. Lastly- always lastly- she pulled the gloves from her hands. Off all the parts of her body changed and of all the adaptations this was the hardest to bare. The flesh and blood of her organic body ended at the wrists, then began a grafted matrix of reinforced metallic sheen, false blood and fake skin. She opened and the closed the duel metal components, feeling nothing yet hearing; listening to their bone structure as it expanded and contracted in micro-increments. Her old hands, as she now knew, had been too human.
      Her body had simply been that of a women, and for that she had paid her due price. Here she was, displayed in all her broken glory. Like a skeleton built of jade, there was nothing left to reduce. They had stripped her to the bones and then cut away even at those. At a guess- and she had tried to figure as much countless times- there was less then a tenth of her original organic body still with her. Her mind reacted to that, as it always had, trying to pull away with horror: but she never could. Instantly the drone in the back of her mind returned and shook her. Her senses revolted for a moment- they always did- against the artificiality once she had awakened it with the thought… but then returned to their ever limbo, forced back by the voice that never was.
      She knew the false flesh of her body- that which covered her hands entirely- had been built for their redundancy and resistance. Normal skin required too much oxygen and vitamins. They had rebuilt her taking that fact into consideration. Yes, she had hands. Yes she had eyes, and yes it was her body- but all no more then by their direct connection to her mind. Were they hers as she had been born? Were they that which rightfully belonged to her? And thus, without a body of her own, how could they even consider her alive?

Rhea (Part 2)
Date: 12 September 2005, 6:21 pm

      She reached for the knife, scattering a bottle of pills across the sink. She grasped the blade in both hands, feeling the edge cut and dig, grating with bone that was never there. She slipped it down, carving across her arms. She reached for her veins, cutting deeper and deeper….

      The voice came quickly, dragging her mind away, back to its silence.

      They would have asked, as it had become, years later, how she had arrived at her present state of insanity. When questioned, she would have returned to the same beginning: it had never happened at once. The story brought to her imagination, however, remained the same, and she would have launched into it with that strange neutral tone of hers, ever aware that it displaced all common logic.

      She awoke in the corn fields, lying under the meter high stalks of golden autumn. She stood with care, brushing the stalks aside so as not to break their fragile roots. Thick husks pulled and heaved as the wind blew, swaying the stalks from side to side. The sun burned, heating Rhea's ever bright skin. Miles and miles left empty yet burning. It was wonderful, the light on her skin. She felt it melt in, seeping closer and closer to her bones. Through and through. A bird whistled somewhere amongst the stalks, its voice carried on the wind. A silent metaphor found itself and was lost again, Rhea dared not speak it.
      Perfume and incense burned up from the ziggurat, then fell and rolled like fog over the gold leafed steps. High above, glowing in the bright of the day, a pale faced moon shown, her surface afire in blue wash- that of a cloudless day. This was truly her temple of light. A voice called down from the pyramid's steps, called down and begged her rise. That she did, indifference and lightness in her steps. High she climbed, a hundred steps ascend. Feverish and twirling, light mist of incense wrapped around her body, warm tones coloring her skin and shading her eyes. She breathed it deeply, waiting for the moment of realization to follow- as it surely would. In the light the sky folded dark and yet burned with greater intensity. Stars shown in the daylight and the sun glowed in the warm night, yet never did the two collide. It was a harmony in time.
      Atop the ziggurat, scraping the ceiling of the heavens, there stood but a single man. His form was indescribable, held in a perfection near impossible- as his stance and figure equaled. His skin vanished, shining green; like his red painted face. Or was it truly his skull that burned beneath? He motioned her forward, his hands outstretched yet concealed within his contracted form. Rhea stepped forward. She felt compelled, yet held in the soft grace of those knowing what better things lie above. Indeed, in that moment, everything lay above- all the answers and all the wisdom in the world. She stepped again. The painted feathers opened and bloomed.
      The choc mol grinned his deathly grin, hands begging yet offering. It was there, standing amongst the pillars and columns of painted stone, that Rhea knew: nothing was real.
      The choc mol laughed his deadly laugh, and drew her forward. She pulled back, but to no avail. The ziggurat grew higher, impossibly, and the perfume grew stronger. Still, the choc mol smiled, waiting for the inevitable. Rhea pushed back, futile as it were. The voice spoke again, whispering inside her mind. It spoke of death. The choc mol raised his palms. They were bathed in blood, her blood. Rhea screamed, heart pulsing.
      The clouds formed and rain fell. The feathered serpent swept her away.

      "Vega Command, requesting pattern," spoke Michael Clark. The ship's interplanetary radio crackled as each message came and went, coded and decoded at the speed of light.
      "Confirm, this is Command," returned the already heavily distorted voice of a computer agent, "request on who's authority?"
      Clark thought for a moment, buying time in what would now be the telling point of this operation. Could the lie become reality? He took a breath, then replied with as great indifference as he could muster. "Authority on Kay Roberts, Vegan Energy Bureau."
      The computer went silent, static coming across the connection. Michael wondered why a collection of silicon components somewhere on that ball of earth a hundred kilometers below was allowed to decide the fate of his ship and crew. Of course, and this was what Michael appreciated, the computer would deny their request. However, due to its simple and inescapably pointless manner, the computer would allow them to land nevertheless. Hence the beautiful nature of power. As he thought this, Michael knew, the computer was no doubt sending a forwarding request to Robert's office, somewhere down below on the Vegan landscape. Once the computer there had found no local request form- since none existed of course- the landing control computer would report back to Michael with as much information.
      That happened now.
      "Request denied by the office of Kay Roberts, Energy Bureau," spoke the computer. Following this announcement came Mr. Robert's office address. Michael killed the connection. Behind him, the ship's engineer, nursing a cup of coffee, smiled.
      "They're beautifully stupid, eh?"
      "For sure, Jeff," replied Michael, beckoning for the coffee, which he promptly received. Address recorded, it took only a minute for the powerful ship-board computer to locate the Vegan Bureau of Energy and Service Utilities. Michael acknowledged the approach vectors their computer had calculated and, taking a sip from the coffee cup, waited.
      "That's it," he spoke to the engineer, "tell Eric to get his team together."
      "I guess he's got a date with Mr. Kay Roberts, then?" inquired the man.
      Clark smiled, "Not a chance, Jeff. This is where we get to do the hard work."
      Jeffery, the ship's engineer, opened his mouth to respond, but instead just crooked a grin. You better believe it, he thought to himself as a shudder ran through the bridge; the ship's engines firing. It took a few moments for the ship to position itself in the correct orbit over Vega Prime, however this was accomplished without great difficulty. In-system traffic was even superbly light, as Michael was pleased to notice.
      Jeff stepped down in-front of Michael, standing over a console. He keyed up Eric's room, waiting for the green light indicator to flash.
      Somewhere below, in his quarters, Eric hit the response button on his bridge-quarters communicator, and the green light appeared.
      Jeffery turned back to Clark and gave him a thumbs up.
      "All right," replied Michael, "go get the landing ship prepped, I'll call your crew from here."
      "Right," replied the engineer, hurrying off the bridge.
      From where he stood it took Clark less then a minute to awaken the rest of the ship's crew, and then only a few words over the ship's loudspeaker before they were headed to the docking bay, no doubt with the rest of Eric's team.
      Now came the clever part. Clark switched seats from the captain's chair to the observation officer's station. "You know what's just as good a crew, but pays cheaper?" Michael spoke to himself as he walked across the bridge. "No crew at all."
      He spun the station's chair forward and took a seat. The monitor in front of him was already displaying the ship's atmospheric co-ordinates, some hundred kilometers above the darkened Vegan continental land-mass- and, naturally, directly overhead of the Vegan Bureau of Energy building. The office, Clark noted, was located in the downtown central core of the Vegan capital.
      Looking out through the quartz viewscreen in-front of him, Michael could just glimpse the lights and glow of what could only be deep city sprawl on the planet's dark surface. Over the horizon, nothing showed- in fact, the horizon itself seemed to simply vanish, absorbed by the stars and distance of space spread before him. He estimated a few solid hours before there would be any signs of sunlight.
      His attention returned to the console. He had the building's orbital location- the location of his ship, now in geostationary orbit- and the building's planetary address, as provided by the planet's landing computer. Those two pieces of information gave him the ability, through the use of his ship's artificial intelligence, to determine nearly anything he need determine. And in this case, he was looking for personnel files.

      A passive data stream forked out, waiting for the moment to worm in. Someone's computer, a hundred kilometers below and under a dozen meters of cement, was still active. The probe waited, and the computer refreshed, its satellite modem feed reconnecting. The stream linked in, quickly overriding the system's safeties. A moment later, the probe was active and in the system's hard line, instantly connecting the entire building with Clark's terminal. The ship's captain smiled, and ran a search function, a copy of Paul's earlier briefing in hand.

      Eric Glantz ran the zipper up his flak-jacket. He cleaned his glasses with a cloth from the one of the jacket's pockets. The meshed Kevlar may have been old, but with this sort of thing, age really made no difference. Replacing his glasses, Eric reached for his restraining harness, clicking the crossed belts together over his chest. He leaned back into the transport's leather seats and let out a slow breath. The four men around him did the same, one taking a moment to light a cigarette from a hand-designed case and lighter. The refined industrial tobacco smelled horrible, Eric noted.
      As they waited, the landing-ship was undergoing her final preparations before departing. One crewmen had just finished with the fuel-line, and was going over the windshield with spray and cleaner now. The transport's pilot and co-pilot where already harnessed in and running through a checklist. Eric sighed, awaiting the inevitable launch order from the docking-bay. No doubt Michael, back in the bridge, would have the final lift-off say, of course that was merely a formality. It was his ship after all.
      Eric ran a finger over his side-arm, concealed against his thigh, just above his jackboots. It was always reassuring. For the life of him, he could not remember how many had died under the bullets of that weapon, slipped so inconspicuously at his side. Was he the killer, or was it really that piece of metal and polymer?
      His sub-machine-gun was strapped up behind him, pressed into a foam storage block. Several magazines of sub-sonic ammunition were lined up beside it. Eric noticed it all, filed it away and waited.
      The pilot moved his hand over the transport's dash, and a rewarding engine hum growled into earshot, quickly rising in pitch. "Come on, Mike," Eric thought to himself, "either you know where the target is by now, or you don't."
His thoughts manifested themselves into the form of a response from the ship's captain. Eric's headset crackled to life, and Michael's voice chimed in. "All right, I just forwarded you and your team the target's address. You're on."
      Eric pumped his fist, indicating his readiness to his team, and the docking bay crew. "Good to go, roger," shouted one of the ship's crewmen. He nodded to another crewmen, who Eric noted was the ship's engineer. The man pressed a panel held in his hand, and the transport's rear door began to swing closed.
      A cigarette burned one last time before being tossed out onto the flight deck, a moment before the transport's rear door slid shut.
      Engines whined. Air cycled. Eric closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

      The azure glow of the planet below them grew brighter. No details found themselves. Total darkness dominated. But, even then, as the transport fell through the planet's atmosphere, lights began to shine. Out of the thermal radiance of re-entry came the echoes of planet-side life: first the brief outlines of distant highways and towns found themselves in view. Then great waterways and ships at sea, their wakes luminous in the darkness, trailing away behind them. Then cities bloomed into life, entire networks of roads and buildings for a thousand kilometers in every direction.
      The transport seemed to hover, totally motionless, despite the constant freefall she was enduring, as a mute witness to the open and vast storm of radiance appearing below her. Looking above, back into the night sky, stars were almost totally washed out by the city's light below. One could still, however, make out the distinct shape of their ship, orbiting, above, yet dimming constantly as the transport fell closer and closer to her goal. Aircraft and electric surface trains moved in the darkness, running lights and headlights cutting distinct acres of brightness. The desert, so foreboding and empty during the sunlit hours now seemed teaming with life and motion, almost spilling over into chaos.
      Closer now still, the orange glow of street lights and parking lots shone through portholes. Car-light and building top rose up toward them alike. For a moment, Eric could hardly see how their transport would find its way to a suitable landing spot, so dense was the cityscape below them. Building spires were rising deadly closer, within reaching distance it seemed. The great thousand story high skyscrapers of the Vegan capital grew pointed and singular- then plumed out stretched into infinity, rising and falling with the transport's decent. Individual office lights and residence apartments cast further light into the torrent of brilliance. Cars and trains fell past on vertical highways and airborne magnetic rails.
      Eric opened his eyes as the transport touched down, her landing struts extending with an audible vibration. The pilot was counting off figures, finishing with an altitude countdown.
      "Two, one, down," he spoke aloud. "Pressure cycle and open," he continued, flipping a pair of switches. The transport's rear door de-bolted and blew wide, lowering with a swift gust of atmospheric wind. Eric waited for his restraining harnesses to give way, which it promptly did. He stood, and in a controlled and practiced manner, turned for his gun and ammunition. He had equipped himself in under half a minute, spare magazines pocketed about his person and sub-machine-gun slung over his shoulder.
      "All right," he spoke over his team's communicator channel, "everyone out!"
      Eric followed his men out and onto the landing platform below. The wind was intense, as was Eric's immediate vertigo response. The platform itself was slung underneath a copula connecting two buildings together, at what must have been well over the three-hundredth floor. Above Eric, the towers, and countless other buildings, continued and rose higher still. Below him, the ground was invisible, vanishing into the darkness. The city itself stretched out all around him, a maze of lights and motion.
      "We're out of here," spoke the voice of the transport's pilot, "we're drawing way to much attention."
      "Roger," replied Eric. He knew the transport would be back on the hour for their pickup. In the meantime, there was the task at hand.

      There was no question, it was the right apartment. The place was a mess, water dripping from overhead pipes, clothes and paper scattered everywhere. Getting in had been easy, and it only took a moment to sweep the apartment's entrance. No one was there. Eric shouldered his machine-gun, clicking the weapon's safety back on. In frustration, he kicked a fallen lampshade across the room, the broken light fixture clattering across a wall in response.
      "There's no one here, sir," spoke one of Eric's men.
      Eric shot him a relentless glare. "No shit!" He paused, sweeping his eyes around the room again, looking for anything that could have been missed- any reason why their target had not been here.
      "I don't like it," Eric began, then, a shout came from across the room: "Wait!"
      Eric turned to another man, one just emerging from a search of the apartment's bathroom.
      Eric nodded in his direction. "What?"
      "You should take a look at this."
      Eric shuddered. He hated surprises.
      The bathroom was covered in blood. The sink's mirror had been smashed, the room's lighting torn out, and seemingly painted in blood. The light still flickered, casting a red glow over the room. A knife lay in the sink, glass and broken tiles mixed with it. Worst of all, what haunted Eric immediately, was the blood itself. It was visibly too bright, far too bright for dried blood- and too bright still for human blood.
      "What happened here?" he thought to himself, an eerie sensation crawling up his spine. And rightly so.

      Rhea woke outside, the dream still fading. Her cheek was numb, laying against the concrete floor. Bass ripples pounded through the cement, coming with dizzying ringing. Her body shook as she tried to stand, her pants were covered in blood, and her chest likewise. Had she tried to kill herself again? She shook her head, almost in self pity. It never worked, and probably never would. They had thought of that.
      Yes, she had tried again. Her forearm was cut deep to the veins. She held her arm in front of her, sighing at the pointlessness of her own efforts. She pressed a finger into the wound, feeling where the vein, encased in a layer of titanium fiber, had proved totally resilient to her earliest attempts. The damage was all on the surface, to her false skin and muscle- soon repaired. Her eyes lit the darkness and she walked forward, trying to realize her surroundings.
      Her mind flashed for a moment, and she stood still. Her body racked, her brain's inhibitors clicking back into place, and a swarm of forgotten memories returning. Suddenly she remembered, the dream already forgotten. She remembered trying to knife away at her own face, her eyes and lips, tongue and throat. She remembered the voice catching her at each attempt and stalling her efforts. She fell against the mirror, cutting it apart along with he arm. She must have blacked out, or, more accurately, her body had blacked out. There was a darkness there for a moment, then she saw herself walking, stumbling outside onto the pavement. She had collapsed next to a steam vent.
      The nightclub a few floors below was in full swing, bass and tone vibration coasting up the pipes and through the floor. The air was stale, piped in like the water and steam itself. It was still night, Rhea knew the time instantly, her mind a clock within itself.
      Someone was coming. Rhea slipped away, watching through the shadow.

      Eric stopped at the bathroom door. He pulled out his communicator, turning to leave the apartment, looking for a single.
      He knew what he was seeing, but it was impossible. His mind lost control, functioning without common reason.

      Rhea's hand fell across his mouth, silencing him- pulling him close, her back against the apartment's outside wall. Slowly she backed away, turning to face him. Her grip was light, yet unshakable, Eric knew that immediately.
      She stood and faced him, eyes glowing. "Why did they send you?"
      "What?" began Eric, horror boiling over imagination as his focus returned, the women before him becoming whole.
      "Do you know who I am?" she asked in her rasping voice, metallic and cold.
      Eric could not answer, so he repeated the obvious. "No… I was sent here to kill you."
      Rhea's eyes resolved, seemingly growing larger. "And?"
      "And nothing!" spat Eric, instantly in regret. Rhea had only to lean her arm against his neck to make him reconsider.
      Eric coughed, trying to answer against the weight on his throat. "We needed a DNA sample…"
      Blood flowed behind Rhea's eyes, burning them brighter still. They seemed to disappear into two red divots, as bright as the moon which bore her name. "What did you want; what did you come for?" Rhea screamed.
      "I don't know, I don't know!" he tried to repeat, but only a garbled phrase fell out. Rhea's eyes seemed to vanish in that moment, consumed in the glow of her own spirit.
      She broke his glasses, shredding them with her fist. "Yes you do! What did they want?" Glass and blood mixed on Eric's face, some running from his mouth. He spat away, trying to clear his mind.
      Rhea's screams carried through the hallway, and back inside her apartment. One of Eric's men shouted something inside. Someone was coming to the doorway.
      "…I was going to take some of your hair, to prove we killed you," Eric managed.
      Her hair. God, her hair.

      There was a scream. Eric felt like he was falling. He knew, before he even had to look, he knew what had happened. He was too tired, too lost… mistakes. The room lights, dark already, died.
      "Where the fuck did that come from!" shouted someone, outside the bathroom.
      Eric tried to close his eyes, tried to forget the memory dawning.
      "I didn't see shit!" came a reply, "you guys are all in the fucking bathroom!"
      Eric dropped his machine-gun, leaning back against the apartment's outer wall, his eyes clenched shut. He no longer wanted to hear, no longer wanted to see.
      Blood drained out the doorway, around his boots.

      Everything was wrong.

      She was looking right at him. His eyes in the darkness. She had killed the first man, his body crumpled to the floor. She could only imagine his thoughts upon that moment of death.

      She moved away, stepping with inhumane deftness past his gaze and through the room in fog like dark. There was another man somewhere in the room, and another two in the bathroom. Her eyes flicked over to heat sensitive, and caught them instantly. One was in the kitchen. Rhea came up behind him.

      There was another scream. Someone panicked. He fired into the wall, quieted muzzle flash and bullet impact skipping over the walls in a burst of light. Shell casings hit the floor, splashing across the pools of blood. The man saw a shape, drifting in front of his vision, totally immune to his fire. She, for it was clearly the silhouette of a women, came closer and closer still- his gun fire blind and useless.

      Outside, Eric heard the screams come again.

      Rhea stepped down upon the first's knee-cap, feeling it break backwards in half. He started to fall, so horribly slowly, and Rhea killed him with a punch to the head. His gun flew from his hands, high into the air. With one hand, beyond comparable speed, she swung up, warping her fingers around the machine-gun. She stepped around his body, pushing it aside with the other hand; it still falling, and decapitated the second man with a burst of gun fire- the sub-sonic bullets chewing away at his face. He did not have time to scream. Her eyes clicked back to normal, view refracting.

      Eric knew then, knew in that moment why he was still alive. He cleared his eyes, swept away the blood and glass from his shattered glasses. He pulled his back-up pistol, and headed back inside.

      "Bastards!" She cried, over and over again.
      "Stop!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, "please stop!"
      Rhea turned to face the man standing before her, blood covering her hands, arms and face. The room was painted in it, mixed with her own dried blood. Shades of red ran across walls, over the sink and down the mirror with no seeming end. A pair of bodies lay on the floor, ruined beyond recognition.
      Eric breathed heavily, tears of nothing welling at his eyes. He leveled the pistol at that women, watching her watching him.
      "Who are you?" he asked.
      "Spartan Seven-Seven-Four, Rhea," she replied, speaking the words she had not spoken for half a decade.
      Eric reached forward, pulling back the pistol's action, slowly- deliberately. His hand reached the open breach, feeling the weapon's grip over his gloved fingers. He pulled back, the air shimmering under the glint of the chambering bullet. He let go, the slide falling forward and closing around the loaded round.
      "I could kill you," spoke Rhea, eyes dimming.
      "Then why don't you?" asked Eric, hand and finger over the gun's trigger.
      She looked to the floor, hands falling to her side. "I want you to promise me something," she spoke.
      "What?" asked Eric, totally deliberate.
      "There's nothing left to take… Don't take my hair."
      "I don't intend to," replied Eric.
      He shot her.

      Eric Glantz walked down onto the ship's deck, as the transport powered down behind him. Michael Clark met him halfway across the docking bay.
      "I'm not going to ask, so don't think I'm wasting your time," he began. "I just want to know one thing."
      Eric nodded, motioning for the man to continue.
      "Who was she?"
      Eric unzipped his flak-jacket, then stopped. "She was never meant to live," he spoke to Clark. "You understand?"
      Michael Clark did indeed. Eric reached to his thigh, un-holstering his back-up pistol, one round short of a full magazine. "Take it, Mike," he said, deadpan.
      "You've got it, Eric," replied the ship's captain. "You look awful," he added. Eric knew it, and said nothing.
      "Are you ok," prompted Clark.
      Eric stopped for a moment, turning to face the ship's captain. "You remember on Tycho," he began but trailed off.
      "What?" asked Clark.
      Eric continued. "You remember on Tycho how we didn't know who we were helping?"
      "Everyone who was on that mission does, Eric."
      "Well, this time, I'm the only one."
      Michael Clark nodded. "Its your burden then," he paused. "You really do need a vacation. We'll be back on Earth in less then two weeks," the captain concluded.
      "…Another job well done," finished the mercenary.

      The last image Rhea ever saw was of herself.
      Her mother ran the brush through her hair. The velvet lengths of red fell in perfect form. Her vision was perfect, clear. There was nothing but the reality- the truth. Her ruby dress had always been her favorite- she crossed her hands at her lap. Her legs could have swung, but she refrained. In the mirror she looked back upon herself. Her hair, her eyes, her lips. Red. It was her.
      Her mother stopped and sat the brush down. Rhea's reflection showed no change. Her lips glowed all the brighter, but her expression stayed blank. Soon she was alone, only the mirror's vision casting impossible light.
      The darkness never came. This time, the darkness never came.
      The sun was burning endlessly, bright and perfect. Its warmth washed over her mind, as the child herself. The choc-mol, his voice, was gone, the air glistening like water like light and like peace. She stood on the edge of the celestial plane, where so many billions had stood before her.
      She looked behind, the darkness burning away under the endless light. Her mind opening as she had never known. Her dreams clearer, her voice awake and her beauty teeming. Her dress billowed as clouds, her lips swam in the warmth…
      She looked forward, off to the new world before her- and stepped away. A child no more.