An arc of pain shot up through Acidalia's shoulder. She couldn't tell whether it was from the burn she'd given herself before or the manhandling of the soldier who had his hands on her now; either way, it was quickly becoming borderline intolerable. Even though there were so many more important things she should have been doing, she found herself focusing on blinking back tears, trying to preserve the dignity she had left.
Dignity. Alestra Cipher was the pinnacle of dignity.
Throughout her entire life, Acidalia had never met a single human being as regal, as perfect, as terrifyingly untouchable as Alestra Cipher. She'd never had anything but a rocky relationship with her mother, and before last week, that's just what it was—simply rocky. Abusive, but usually not lethally so; unhappy, but not tragically sad. But then the planet went to war with itself and it felt like all of spacetime had turned upside down, and suddenly "rocky" became "homicidally violent."
Alestra was still wearing her favorite shade of lipstick and her elaborate white robes, adorned with lace and lead glass and diamonds even here in the middle of this nightmare. Acidalia didn't know why, but she almost expected it to change like everything else had.
Then again, nothing had really changed for Alestra. She hasn't switched affiliations; she'd been with the Nova since day one. She didn't lose a son or a brother; T was as important to her as any other soldier boy who fought for the wrong side. All Alestra had lost was a daughter—a daughter she'd never considered a real daughter in the first place.
Another jolt of pain shot up Acidalia's arm and into her neck. She leaned her head sideways in order to reduce the ache, but the soldier holding her noticed immediately—he knocked her head back to an upright position, probably leaving another bruise on her face. Acidalia gritted her teeth.
Alestra didn't say much. She reacted to Acidalia's suffering the same way she always had—with icy contempt. She circled the pair, the Imperatrix and the soldier, like a vulture eyeing its prey. Her blue eyes glimmered, spots of lapis electrum in the cold white lab. She looked like the people in the halls of the Terminal, the rulers and scientists of old, her ancestors. She had impeccable posture, she was graceful to the extreme, she was everything Acidalia always wanted to be and representative of every ideology Acidalia hated. She was utterly terrifying.
Lyra was next to her, slack in some other soldier's arms; she hasn't been injured too severely, but she wasn't putting up any sort of fight. She seemed strangely calm to Acidalia, like she'd been in this type of situation before. Of course, that was absurd; how could a Cantator have been involved in any sort of political dealing? Then Acidalia realized that, while official politics were far above the realm of the Underworld, mobs and gangs and mafias practically were governments down there, and it was quite likely that Lyra had learned what to do in cases like these.
Acidalia's biggest concern was Alpha-24, who she'd been reluctant to bring with her in the first place. He barely even seemed alarmed; rather than fight anyone, he stood in place, staring at the ceiling tiles with a dazed, but vaguely happy, expression. She supposed it was in his nature; nobody would program a robot to exhibit sadness or shock or fear. Alpha-24 was the calmest person—thing? No, person—she'd ever seen.
Meanwhile, her own heart pounded with every shallow breath she took. She suddenly had a horrible flashback to Cassiopeia pulling at the crown on her head while holding her against the wall, brandishing a gun.
Alestra would never brandish a gun at Acidalia. She would never get her hands bloody unless she had to. But there were a million and one ways she could hurt Acidalia that didn't involve death, each more terrifying than the last. Images of Room 101 flashed through her mind, and she suddenly found herself paralyzed with fear.
I will not be Winston Smith. They will never break me, she reminded herself. I will never let them into my mind. But truthfully, she didn't know how long she could block them out for, how much the human body could withstand.
Alestra looked at her intently, and her eyes seemed to cut through all of Acidalia's fear and insecurity like a knife, just like they always had before. Those goddamn eyes were the same eyes that had glared at Acidalia when she tripped and fell and staggered around the dance floor on broken ankles, and those flawless white hands were the same hands that had slapped her into the next decade for having the nerve to ask a question. Acidalia had hid from those eyes and that marble-like, statuesque visage like they belonged to a monster. Memories of cowering under blankets and begging to gods she didn't believe in flashed through her mind, as if she was seven years old again, as if she was still that awkward child hiding bruises under concealer that didn't match her Martian skin.
I have to calm down. Acidalia had withstood this type of pressure before. If she could face Alestra as a 7-year-old learning cursive for the first time, or a 10-year-old dancing on broken feet, she could do the same now as a 20-year-old revolutionary. Sometimes pressure turned coal into diamonds, and maybe a lifetime of horror and self-loathing could transform a frightened princess into a badass revolutionary.
Or lead to crippling PTSD and a desperate need for therapy she couldn't have, but that was neither here nor there.
There was a long moment of silence. Alestra inspected her daughter closely, possessively. Acidalia held her head as high as she physically could, saying nothing. I'm done being scared of you, she silently screamed, praying to every deity that she could think of that her life would be spared.
Eventually, Alestra broke the quietude with laugher, an elegant chortle that wouldn't have sounded out of place at a state dinner. "You look ridiculous," she said haughtily, her tone mocking—as mocking as it had been when Acidalia stuttered in the middle of her first-ever speech. She couldn't get the words out of her mouth—they stuck there like hard candy on her teeth, trapped, and she'd faltered, panicked. Acidalia couldn't even remember what had happened next. She didn't want to.
Her throat closed up. But she wouldn't let Alestra win again—she couldn't.
"I'm not the one wearing a ballgown on a battlefield," Acidalia snapped. It wasn't her best retort, but God, what else was she supposed to do, what else could she possibly say, when those demon eyes were staring right into her very soul?
"My daughter," Alestra replied, "you shouldn't be on a battlefield at all." She stroked Acidalia's chin in what should have been a motherly gesture, but her perfectly manicured nails were sharp enough to leave deep lacerations. Acidalia's blood trickled down the sleeve of her white dress, and it settled there oddly nicely, like it was planned.
"Look at you," Alestra continued. "What are you doing? You have abandoned your post and your status to run around the Underground with a servant and a whore, fighting a war you can never truly hope to understand. Do you honestly think you'd outsmart me? I hoped that I had raised a more intelligent daughter, but I don't know what I expected from the likes of you."
I don't know what else I expected. Alestra had said those words when Acidalia was eight and she was screamingbloody murder because she'd broken a plate and her mother had hit her for that and her fragile, traitorous Martian bones had snapped under Alestra's hand, collapsed into millions of shards just like the plate. Weakling.
Acidalia scoffed, trying to hide the horror in her voice. "Abandoning my post? I am no princess, I am the Imperatrix. It is my duty to protect the people I govern. If that means fighting a war, so be it."
Alestra sighed, turning away in obviously false, sarcastic heartbreak. "Acidalia, don't you understand what you have done? You have ruined the possibility of ascension to the throne. You have killed thousands with this ridiculous little rebellion. What are you hoping to accomplish? You fail to realize the forces that you are up against, and it has led to your capture again and again."
Acidalia laughed, trying to echo her mother's twisted chortle. "With all due respect, you seem woefully misinformed about just how much I know."
"Like what?" Alestra snapped. "Listen to me. This is insane. You are nothing but a Martian bastard child leading a pointless fight against an eternal and genetically perfect empire. In doing so, you have sealed your fate."
Martian bastard child. Acidalia could never hope to be anything other than a half-bred bastard no matter how hard she tried, no matter how much eloquence and dignity she tried to drum up. She'd never satisfy Alestra. But she no longer wanted to.
She'd never been prouder of not being a real Cipher. If being a half-bred bastard meant she was further away from this woman, she'd gladly accept it.
"Fine," Acidalia said. She wished she could have crossed her arms, but since the soldier was holding her from behind, she merely lifted her chin. "If my fate is sealed, kill me. I'm not fighting for myself or for my legacy. I've already served my purpose."
"And that purpose is what, exactly?" Alestra challenged, her scarily blue eyes sparkling.
"You will know when the time comes." Acidalia smiled softly, trying to appear as calm and composed as possible. She was sure the soldier could feel her pulse pounding at a thousand beats a minute, but her mother didn't have to know that.
Alestra suddenly adopted a different expression, one more stony than those of the marble statues. "We can do this the easy way, my child, or we can do this the difficult way. You do not understand the extent that I will go to break your mind."
Acidalia shrugged. "By the time you break me, it will be too late."
"Then you will suffer the consequences."
"Okay." Acidalia looked her right in the eye. "Torture me. Kill me. I don't care." She was sweating so profusely that her hair was dipping wet, and so angry she could kill, but she had to retain this calm, dignified tone, or her mother would win this conversation.
"No, do not do that," came a soft, metallic voice. Alpha-24 addressed Alestra with the same passive tone he always spoke in. "Killing other people is wrong."
"Will somebody power that thing off?" Alestra asked, glaring at him cooly.
"I would not advise doing that, either." Alpha smiled cheerfully.
Alestra looked at him, then at Acidalia. "Where did you find this android?" she demanded. "What can he do?"
"You know what robots are capable of." It was a non-answer, but Acidalia didn't exactly want to admit that she had no idea what Alpha-24 would do or if he could even go against human commands.
"I am capable of many things," Alpha said. "And I urge you to not harm Acidalia or Lyra, for your own safety."
"Lyra?" Alestra turned to look at the Cantator. "Is that what she calls herself? That's nice. Will somebody power down that android and kill this courtesan already?"
Lyra's eyes went wide. "You don't have to do that," she said, half-pleading.
"Oh, it's no trouble whatsoever," Alestra replied, gesturing for another soldier to come forward.
"This doesn't have to be painful," he said. "Turn around and face the wall." Acidalia wanted to turn away, but she found it impossible to avert her eyes. It would have been cruel and irresponsible anyway; Lyra looked rightfully terrified. Acidalia tried to appear reassuring. If they were saved by some miracle, Lyra would know that Acidalia had her back, and if they weren't… well, it would matter anyway.
But Lyra didn't move.
The soldier repeated his instructions, his voice sounding almost strained this time. "Turn around and face the wall, now."
"No," Lyra replied simply.
"I said to turn around and face the wall!" The soldier was procrastinating. He didn't want to kill Lyra any more than she wanted to die.
"If you're going to shoot me, you're going to have to look into my eyes while you do it," Lyra said. Though her voice was shaky and there were tears streaming down her face, Acidalia had to admire her bravery and her skill.
It struck Acidalia suddenly how smart Lyra was being. She was appealing to the soldier's humanity, proving that she had a face and a name, and she was doing an excellent job of it. The tears, the fear, the tousled hair and young face and pitifully skinny limbs, were useful for evoking sympathy from anyone but a mindless killing machine. As much as Acidalia wanted to pretend that the men she shot were as soulless as her mother, she knew that the majority of the military consisted of normal people, people who wouldn't ordinarily murder an innocent teenage girl—and Lyra knew that, too.
The soldier did not raise his gun, nor did he look at Lyra again. He merely stood there, frozen in time. He wore a mask, but Acidalia guessed that if his face hadn't been obscured, he would have looked just as afraid as Lyra.
"Fine," Alestra snapped. "I'll do it myself." Unlike her human men, Alestra was a soulless killing machine, at least in Acidalia's eyes. Her stomach dropped. There was no way Alestra would be moved by Lyra's wet eyes and starvation-thin frame; she was part of the reason Lyra was that small and sickly to begin with.
Five seconds seemed to stretch on for an eternity as Alestra retrieved her gun from an invisible pocket in her dress. She placed it on Lyra's temple. Acidalia's heart rate spiked, and—
There was the sound of a laser firing, and then nothing.
And Lyra was still standing.
"Touch the gun again and you die!" Andromeda demanded from some unseen corner of the room.
A strange expression crossed Alestra's features. She glanced at the room for a nanosecond, and her brow briefly knitted in confusion when she couldn't see her adversary.
"Drop the weapon." Andromeda's voice rang out in the chamber again. "Now." Alestra lowered her firearm, but said nothing. Lyra quietly slipped away, taking advantage of the momentary lapse in her attention.
"I am going to count to three," Andromeda said, "before we open fire. One..."
The Nova soldiers did the exact opposite; they stood suddenly at attention, glancing around the room, looking for entry points.
"Two..." Alestra turned to kill Lyra, but she was gone.
"Three." A moment of silence, then an explosion of noise. Acidalia felt herself thrown against the wall as whoever was holding her jumped in front of Alestra, who stood, staring, a silent statue of quartz and marble, like she was above the battle. Her blonde curls moved in the breeze generated by the soldiers as they burst forth through doors she couldn't see. Alestra almost waltzed away, unbothered by the hail of fire, protected by men who would sacrifice anything for a shred of praise from her blood-red lips.
With considerable effort, Acidalia stood again. Everything smelled like a strange mixture of burnt hair, charred flesh, death, and blood, the unmistakable scent of a battlefield. It suddenly reminded her of T, of his face when he died, of how he looked so peaceful but his chest wasn't moving and he was gone by the time she even sat down and how she couldn't even give him a proper burial and what if she died like he did and—
"Move, you idiot!" Andromeda was on top of her, pulling her away. "You're going to get shot!"
"Where's Lyra?" Acidalia asked, fearing the worst.
"Outside, she's fine—what is wrong with you?! Are you suicidal? You were just standing there gaping—"
Acidalia's cheeks suddenly flushed red. Jesus Christ, what is wrong with me? Have I lost my mind? She tried to erase the images from her head as she let Andromeda lead her, trying to focus on any other stimulus. She couldn't afford to do this, couldn't afford to grieve, now or ever, because if Alestra knew just how bad her daughter's mental state was, she'd win.
They collapsed in some dimly-lit, gray place that reeked of blood. To Acidalia's surprise, Carina and Athena were there, cowering behind a vat filled with unidentifiable, translucent gel. Lyra sat beside them, speaking in rapid vulgar Latin, sounding terrified.
"You're alive," Acidalia said. "Thank God." "I thought I was dead!" Lyra exclaimed, her voice shaking. "I thought you were dead, I was just waiting for the bullet—Alestra, she's—I—I don't know—" She started to inhale rapidly, taking deep, jagged breaths.
"It's okay," Acidalia said. "You're hyperventilating. You're okay." "I'm sorry, I just—"
"Don't be sorry. You're just scared. It's okay, I was terrified too." Somehow, watching Lyra panic made Acidalia less panicky, like the urge to make her feel better had overridden her own fear.
"We don't have time for this, get up," Andromeda snapped, pulling Acidalia to her feet.
"All right, Jesus," Acidalia sighed, wincing. The battle raged on behind them while Andromeda took off running, the others trailing behind her, exhausted. The footprints on the floor suggested that this was the way the soldiers had come in. They'd left overturned vials and empty canisters of God-knows-what in their wake, creating a path slick with various fluids and powders.
"Where are we?" Lyra asked, breathless.
"A blood pharm," Carina replied.
That only seemed to make Lyra more confused, but Acidalia understood immediately. She wrinkled her nose, recognizing abruptly that she was stepping through plasma and proteins, the components of various extremely unsanitary bodily fluids. Some of the liquid on the floor was her own blood, pooling in footprint-shaped puddles of scarlet. She wondered just how much of it she'd lost, then decided it probably wouldn't be constructive to even think about.
"In here!' Athena shouted. "Hold on one second, let me—" She fished around in her pocket for something, but Andromeda rolled her eyes and shot a laser bolt at the lock on the door. Acidalia ducked as it shattered into countless little pieces, pulling Lyra to the side so she wouldn't get a face full of glass shards.
"I thought these labs were supposed to have safety glass, the kind that all pops out at once instead of explodes outward," Carina said.
Athena shrugged. "Budget cuts."
"I hate this planet," Carina grumbled.
Andromeda burst from the building in a shower of glittering glass particles and bloody debris, and the others followed considerably less theatrically. Acidalia tried her hardest to remain graceful and dignified, but that was becoming harder by the minute. Her heart beat in her throat, sharp and jagged and painfully fast.
"What do we do now?" Athena asked, sweating profusely. "Where'd the Revelation go?" "Cloaking technology, dumbass." Andromeda scanned the sky, using her hand as a shield against the sun. "Gods, it's freezing. Is it just me, or is it colder than usual?"
"It is currently 42 degrees Fahrenheit, or approximately 5.5 degrees Celsius," Alpha-24 said. "That is down from an average temperature of 76 degrees Fahrenheit, 24.4 degrees Celsius."
"It's everyone," Acidalia said, teeth chattering. "The weather control systems must be out of service. It's mid-November; it'd be roughly the beginning of the winter season without climate controlling forcefields."
Andromeda groaned. "Great. Just wait until it starts snowing and I electrocute myself with my own cybernetics and die."
"That's a little melodramatic." She was right, though; it was dangerous for cyborgs to be out when it was precipitating. The combination of water and poorly-made electronics did not bode well for human life.
The Revelation suddenly flickered into existence, a sparkling quicksilver mass someplace in the upper atmosphere. Acidalia wondered who was piloting it as it descended roughly, knocking down a balcony on somebody's apartment. Clearly, they were inexperienced. She cringed, thinking of how much that would cost to replace and how angry the inhabitants would be, then realized that the entire apartment was on fire anyway. Whoever lived inside was likely already dead.
The ship's ladder dropped from a hatch in the lower deck's floor, fluttering aimlessly in the wind. Never before had Acidalia seen gusts of that magnitude—she was so used to the recycled, stale air and gentle weather of Eleutheria's computerized atmosphere that it was difficult to believe the breeze was natural. Andromeda launched herself at the ladder and scaled it almost immediately despite it being a moving target, vanishing into the Revelation's white mass.
Acidalia should have been relieved, but instead, a sense of failure crept up the back of her neck. The mission had been a success, but something about the amount of people she'd just killed in a rather horrible way made the victory bittersweet.
They were soldiers, she reminded herself. They were legitimate military targets. They signed up for this.
But what if some of them didn't? What if there were other people on the Nova's base, drinking their water, exposing themselves to Acidalia's dangerous mutagens? Was the loss of a few lives worth it when their sacrifice could save a city of millions? How many people were being forced to take one for a team they didn't play on?
And even the soldiers were human beings. Acidalia thought of the man who couldn't shoot Lyra, who was clearly no older than she was, who was fighting for a cause he didn't fully understand. It was so easy for a teenager seeking belonging and a family to fall into the trap of radicalism. Of course, the choices he made were his alone, and he should be treated accordingly; he had willingly given up his chance to be spared by joining the Nova. No longer was he an innocent civilian to be sheltered from the chaos, he was a tool of war. But Eleutheria's military fostered violence—the lack of identity, the early exposure to death and gore, the aggressive control, the caste stratification. The Nova, a group that promised to make a change, a group that offered up the lower castes as a convenient scapegoat, was appealing to a soldier.
And how many men would be in the Nova's army willingly from this point on? Their movement had previously been composed of a decently-sized group of fanatic radicals and the people they converted into their political cult, but civil war had broken out. Even if the Revolution kept them out of Appalachia, they'd gain ground fast. How many people would be forced into fighting for a group they didn't support? How many children would be put on the front lines?
And, fundamentally, it didn't even matter if Acidalia was targeting soldiers or innocent people. She had committed a war crime either way. DNA modification was a type of germ warfare; the changes had to be implanted into virus vectors, which would traverse the waterways and attach themselves to their hosts' cells to alter their genomes, to reproduce and burst cells and kill them. And biological weapons were weapons of mass destruction, which were blatantly against the Geneva Conventions. Acidalia could be imprisoned for this. She could be sentenced to death.
I can't think about this now, she reminded herself. That was rule number one of war: do not think of the enemy as human, or you might be dissuaded from trying to kill them. Sympathy was dangerous, empathy even worse. If she hadn't just released her bioweapon, the Nova could have taken Appalachia City and killed untold amounts of people.
Acidalia shook her head in a futile attempt to clear it. She'd ruminate on the cost of war and the necessity of these deaths later; for now, she had a mission to complete. The Revelation was waiting. She ascended up the ladder, climbing out of a hell she'd just created, wondering if any of it was worth it.