With their faces uncovered and neither toting weapons, Kyora and Virn walked in-between two Aurora guards in full, white SIRAC armor. Kyora was wearing her usual phantom configuration: covering only her breasts and upper torso, upper arms, and shoulders with most of her dark gray polyalloy bodysuit visible—at least, when she wasn’t shrouded. Virn wore just as much armor as the guards, minus the helmet. The guards nodded to the both of them as they passed, and just beyond them was the door to the penthouse. After the door slid open, the two officers who had walked down the duralithic corridors of the lower building found themselves stepping into a verdant garden. Now removed from the duralithic walls, the two were flanked by soft grass, shrubs, bushes, and well-kept trees. Despite this only being the second time Kyora had ever entered this luxurious penthouse, it was once again under the darkness of night. The mansion across from the duo towered spectacularly over the dark garden while simultaneously blending into it. Lights from lumionics shining through the trees were reflected by the mild perturbations in the crystal blue pool that flashed overhead. Well above Kyora and Virn was the vast array of OPELs topping the building, and even farther above that was the blanket of high-altitude clouds catching the light of the sprawling city and bouncing it back down.
Kyora—an Elestan with a neutral gray face, short but voluminous white hair and silver eyes—remembered this place well, and she distinctly remembered blowing it up with remote charges she fabricated with her Accellus suit. Yet here it was, appearing completely untouched. It was about that time that her instincts kicked in. It didn’t matter how many guards stood outside. She fabricated a heavy pistol in her left hand—either hand was fine since she was proficient with both—and continued to step around the pool. Virn—an Exan with verdant green skin, long black hair that ran straight and tan eyes—knew Kyora, and she knew that if her friend was fabricating a weapon in a place that the other Auroras adamantly insisted was secure, something was indeed up. Virn trusted Kyora’s sense of danger that much.
Kyora and Virn were here to find anything they could pertaining to the whereabouts of that devious director of Domina, Deminesse; the one who shared Kyora’s face and demanded to be called Eclipse. As far as Eclipse was concerned, Deminesse was dead; consumed by Mirida’s eternal darkness.
“Kyora?” Virn thought to her partner over their shared Q-comms link.
“I’m going to head in and see what I can find,” Kyora thought back.
Virn could always trust Kyora to handle herself. The Elestan phantom walked between the columns separating the pool area from the mansion’s interior, and as she descended the steps down to the recessed living space, she enveloped herself in shroud and disappeared. Virn wasn’t far behind, but not even she could see Kyora when the phantom’s shrouding was active. The armored Exan stayed within the living area and stopped in front of one of the couches. Her eyes followed the warm, golden-hued walls upward toward the ceiling until they rested upon a white stone statue of a nude, anatomically-accurate, female angel with eagle’s wings spread wide, body tilted forward, and hands arcing toward the balcony above. Had it been off its pedestal, it would have still been taller than she was. Virn smiled as her eyes traced its form. If only they knew, she thought to herself.
Just then, there came a noise from down the corridors like a clang that reverberated for several seconds. “Did you find something?” Virn asked as she looked off in the direction of the dark hall, but she heard no response. Perhaps Kyora had found something but wanted to reveal it in person. The Exan didn’t like to pry. She backed away from the angel statue and looked down the dark corridor, crossing her arms. This was Kyora’s mission and Kyora’s domain, and the phantom knew what she was looking for. The seconds became minutes, and Virn found herself staring at the shimmering surface of the pool from the recessed dining area. The water was up to her chest as she stood next to the grand table.
Finally, a figure emerged on the balcony within her peripheral vision. Quickly turning, she found Kyora up there who said, “I found a clue.” The phantom vaulted over the railing and descended gently using her gravitics, narrowly avoiding the angel statue.
As she approached, Virn asked, “Why didn’t you answer me?”
“On Q-comms?” Kyora replied. “I apologize. I must have gotten caught up in the moment.”
“Well? What did you find?”
Kyora said, “Just a lume with two names and an address floating in one of the bedrooms. I captured it.” She produced it for Virn, saying, “Careless bitch. It’s like she wants us to chase her.”
“Darva… Darlok?” Virn read off the lume. “Totality? Do you recognize any of this?”
Kyora queried the Subnet for the name and address combination, and she read the hit that was returned. “Looks like a Doctor Darva Darlok, but that address… that’s on the ground beneath the towers.”
“Is that bad?”
“That’s the Understory.”
“You’ve mentioned that before.”
“That is the fetid filth upon which these glistening towers stand. You don’t go down there unless you have a very good reason to.”
“Then why would this doctor be living there?”
“Maybe they’re a physician. I don’t know.”
“Then maybe this is some kind of trap.”
“It’s the only lead we have.”
“A very convenient lead,” Virn sighed. “If we went in with some Auroras…”
“I don’t want to scare her off, Virn,” Kyora told her. “Just the two of us. If it is a trap, at least we’re prepared.”
The duo left the penthouse and traveled down toward the vehicle bay of the occupied Domina headquarters. Instead of Domina gravidynes, the bay was filled with white Navy ALATs. As ranking officers, the two had the authority to embark any one of them, and they took off over the city. There was no low-level haze, so the Understory was clearly visible. Despite its name and connotations, the urban sprawl beneath the skyrises glittered a multitude of colors as their ALAT passed overhead. Kyora guided the vehicle down between the high-rises well below the colossal towers—hundreds of meters tall in their own right—but rather than being pillars of beauty and authority like those imposing arcologies, these structures of the Understory were like their roots; tendrils; feces. The Understory was a jungle. Its vines were lumigraphic—a tangled mass of lumionic advertisements blinking and flashing from building to building all pining for attention. Giant lumigraphs of naked men and women danced, enticing onlookers with the promise of sexual pleasure in exchange for money. Various controlled substances in the Federation were being advertised here like candy.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Kyora said. Her tone almost sounded genuine.
“You’re the last person I thought I would hear that from,” Virn replied.
Kyora told her, “It’s a beautiful decay, to watch a purely capitalist system implode upon itself. But then again, that’s what Mirida is, isn’t it?”
“Nature strives for a balance,” Kyora continued, piloting the craft with her neural interface. “A balance between intake and expenditure, between predator and prey, light and dark, liberty and authority. But here, it’s a land of extremes. Extreme wealth, extreme poverty, extreme darkness. It’s conditions like this that allow people like Eclipse to exist. We’re getting close.”
Kyora raised the craft out of the trenches between the buildings and guided it toward the landing area at the top of one of the taller high-rises, a bit removed from the detritus farther below. When the roof and sides retracted and the two of them emerged, a man in a dark coat and lime green lumionic vest approached them.
“Are you authorized to park here?” the man shouted at them.
“Virn, if you wouldn’t mind,” Kyora said.
Virn approached the parking attendant, produced a lumigraph with her identification on it, and showed it to the man. He grabbed it, looked at it, and taken aback, said, “Wew, alright. You ladies have a good night.” It was actually closer to 1100 standard, but with humanity living on a myriad of planets spread across thousands of lightyears, none of them were ever in sync with standard time except for most of the Sister Worlds.
The duo left the parking attendant and their parked ALAT and walked toward a lift that would take them down into the building. Going on just what was on the Subnet, Virn was surprised at Kyora’s directional intuition. She led the both of them right to a door that matched what was available online. After pressing a finger to a lumigraphic button on the door frame, the Elestan waited. And waited. She pressed the button again, and then she heard a female voice within.
“Doctor Darlok?” Kyora asked. “It’s Eclipse.” The phantom glanced at her partner and winked, erasing the Federation Triangles and other markings from her armor and changing its color to black. Virn followed suit, changing her armor to match.
“W-what are you doing here?” came the voice. It grew louder as the person approached the door from the other side. Finally, the door slid open, but just enough to see a feminine Exan face completely devoid of hair. Her green scalp was bald and smooth, shining in the light of the outside corridor. She had no eyebrows, and no evidence that she ever had them. She saw Kyora’s face, and she said, “A-am I in trouble?”
“You will be if you don’t open this door,” Kyora told her. The bald Exan complied, and the door slid away to reveal her dark suite. The Auroras noticed that Darlok was only wearing a white lab coat, and it wasn’t completely fastened, so her bare genitals flashed depending on how she moved her body. Darlok moved away from the door, allowing the Auroras to enter behind her.
“Pardon the mess,” she told them as she slinked away. To say that the suite was a mess was a gross understatement. Kyora and Virn kicked away the plastic and paper trash littering the floor that Darlok simply stepped over with her bare feet. Furniture emerged from the filth like statues carved out of mountains, and on every elevated surface sat a menagerie of every kind of container or packaging or paperwork under the stars. The only light came from beyond the door that just closed behind them, the dim light streaming out from an open doorway deep within the suite, the now red lights emanating from their suits that had been orange, and the lumigraphs representing scribbles and figures that covered the walls from floor to ceiling like neon blue cave graffiti.
“Can you get the lights?” Kyora asked. Virn turned around, saw a lumigraphic interface, and adjusted the lighting in the room until it was at a level that they could truly see the grotesque filth.
Darlok reappeared from around the corner and, covering her face with her arm, said, “A-ah! Please! It burns!” The eccentric Exan moved back behind the wall, shielding herself from the light.
“Darlok,” Kyora said, sounding annoyed.
“Why do you trouble me?!”
“It burns to live!” Darlok cried as if in mortal distress.
Kyora sighed and said, “Do as she says.” Virn lowered the lights again, and Darlok reemerged from behind the corner.
“T-thank you.” After pausing to collect herself, she asked, “You mentioned… Totality?”
Kyora said, “I did. Mind explaining it for me?”
“But you are the mastermind!” Darlok said. “Totality is your brainchild.”
“Darlok,” Kyora said, “I need you to explain it to Dusk.”
“A-are you Dusk?” Darlok asked Virn as the two Exans locked gazes.
“Yes,” Virn replied, playing along.
Darlok said, “I don’t know why you waste my time, but if it serves you, so be it. Where to start, where to start… ah! The Mistress Eclipse sought me out, because I could do something for her no one else could. You see, she is the last of her, u-uh, so-called batchmates. Isn’t that right, Eclipse?”
Kyora simply nodded, and she hoped that Darlok could see it in the dim light.
“Eclipse wants to recreate her sisters in her image. Cloning is too slow. Very, very too slow. She wants to raise an army in her likeness quickly—as quickly as one can create coffee on a fabricator.” Darlok pointed to the fabricator nearby; one of the only surfaces left clean as it was likely Darlok’s only means of sustenance. “With that, she can keep her grip on power with an army of powerful Elestan warriors like herself. That is Totality. Fitting name for an overlord like Eclipse. Y-you may need to seek new employment if I am successful. I-I have an opening for an assistant.”
“But,” Virn started, “no one has been able to ever produce a living person from a REMASS system.”
“No, not yet,” Darlok noted in a conniving tone. “I will be the first!” she screamed. “This world will tremble at the powers of a living goddess of life and death!”
Virn winced, but then she asked, “How are you going to accomplish this?”
There was a pause, and then Darlok said, “Mutating genetic algorithm.”
“It’s just that simple?” Virn asked. “You’ll keep fabricating bodies until one works?”
“All I need is for it to work once,” Darlok explained. In a whisper, the crazed scientist said, “The algorithm is ready for you.” She summoned a lumigraphic packet of information and flicked it toward Kyora. “Take this with you when you go. Everything else is ready for you in the old Unit headquarters.”
“Thank you,” Kyora said as she took the packet.
“Please take me with you,” Darlok pleaded. “I want to see my creation firsthand.” The bald Exan retreated, and a minute later she returned wearing what looked like civilian REMASS boots and a cloak that covered her from her head to her knees. Her head was beneath a hood, and her eyes were obscured by dark lumigraphic shades. “I am ready.”
Kyora and Virn looked at each other, and then Kyora said, “Let’s go.” She led the group back up to the top of the building. As they walked, Virn could smell the hint of something fresh and clean. She turned back and saw Darlok right behind her, but she couldn’t believe it was that insane woman who couldn’t even be bothered to maintain a clean abode. The three of them emerged on the roof, walked by the parking attendant, and as they stepped toward the parked ALAT, Virn hastily changed its exterior to match their black Accellus suits. Virn hoped that Darlok hadn’t seen anything with those shades being worn in the dead of Mirida’s night. After they all climbed aboard, Kyora once again piloted the craft using her NI and they took off above the bright, lumigraphic sea of the Understory.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Virn thought to Kyora. Kyora continued to pilot the craft as if she didn’t hear it, so the Exan tapped her friend’s leg.
“What is it?” Kyora whispered.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Virn asked in a whisper.
“Of course,” Kyora said. “How could I ever forget a place like that?”
The ALAT cruised high above the city. The lumionics faded the further from the city’s center they traveled. Darlok was curled up on the seats in the back of the craft, taking advantage of the completely smooth ride—a feeling provided by cabingrav. Kyora could have braked the craft hard, and not one of them would have felt it because of cabingrav maintaining a constant one g in the direction of the gravidyne’s floor.
After about what felt like an hour of travel, the ALAT approached what looked like another bright population center. However, as they descended, the two of them could see a tall, dark mass looming over the otherwise lit surroundings.
“That’s it,” Kyora whispered to Virn, trying not to wake the eccentric.
“This?” Virn asked. “It looks so ominous.”
Kyora explained, “It’s been abandoned since Domina rose up and vanquished Unit a century ago.”
“You almost sound proud of that,” Virn noted.
“The reason this building still stands today is because Unit built it like a fortress.”
Kyora piloted the craft into what the OPELs that formed the ALAT’s forward windscreen showed to them was a dark, empty vehicle bay, tall enough and wide enough to house a pair of small starships. As a matter of fact, one was still there, hovering in place as if its ODECs were still working. Virn watched it as they slowly passed it, realizing that it was actually a Domina vessel.
“Looks like Domina is here,” Virn warned.
“I wouldn’t have expected any less,” Kyora said. “You’re fine as long as you’re with me.”
Kyora set the craft down on the dusty floor of the hangar bay, waited for the top and sides to be recalled, and she swung around the open craft to stand before the sleeping Exan.
“Time to wake up,” Kyora said, pushing Darlok’s head. Darlok swatted her hand away, and then, realizing where they were, shot up from the back seats and sprang out of the vehicle. Virn’s corneal lumes revealed the presence of a handful of Domina soldiers clustered near the parked Domina frigate over a hundred meters away, but they seemed to be wholly disinterested in the ALAT.
The three ventured forth into the bowels of that old fortress, guided only by their Accellus’ corneal lumes and subtle radar and lidar for guidance. Darlok felt for Virn’s hand and grasped it. Virn reluctantly held it as she walked with Kyora through those dark halls. Their footsteps splashed into puddles of water as they ventured forth. Drips sprinkled from the ceiling in spots, plopping into the standing pools below. Despite the superior construction of the tower, it had a tendency to collect and retain moisture from the outside. Duralithics were resistant to this perpetual hydration—able to stand for countless millennia through nature’s ceaseless onslaught.
Once again, Virn was at a loss for Kyora’s navigational skills. She asked her friend how she knew her way so keenly, and Kyora responded by saying that though it had been ages, this was her home. Eventually, they found light streaming from an open archway down a wide corridor. Turning the corner, the group arrived at a large room which could have been anything back then. Now, lumionics shined toward an array of large machines all connected by thick hoses and cables, and in the middle unit was a naked woman who looked exactly like Kyora appearing frozen in stasis.
Darlok emerged from behind Virn and, removing her lumigraphic shades, said, “Wait. Who is that?”
“That?” Kyora said, pointing.
“I thought you were going to put yourself through the process,” Darlok insisted. “Did you find another of your batchmates? Would have been wise, since the scanning process rips you to shreds.”
“I actually did,” Kyora explained, “and I thought she was dead, but then she reappeared like a phantom, prancing around my penthouse suite, so I took her.” Virn slowly turned to Kyora. “That’s right,” she continued. “The one you’ve been with since earlier has been Eclipse in the flesh.” Eclipse turned back toward the Kyora in stasis and said. “I’m so fortunate that she is so infatuated with me. I had to seize on that, don’t you understand? I cannot afford to die.”
“Why, you,” Virn growled. As she fabricated her weapon, Eclipse spoke.
“I wouldn’t if I were you. A single thought of mine starts this experiment.” Eclipse didn’t hesitate. She triggered the scanner, and the machine began disintegrating Kyora’s scalp. “Oops. Too late.”
“Damn you,” Virn said, pointing an assault driver at Eclipse’s head. “You stop this abomination right now!”
“Too late!” Eclipse repeated as she tilted her head toward the chamber. Half of Kyora’s head was gone. Darlok watched in awe as the scan progressed.
“High throughput scanning,” Darlok stated. “Must destroy original to capture its information in its entirety. She lives in the digital realm now.” Still pointing her weapon at Eclipse, Virn’s eyes teared up as the Kyora’s head disappeared. Forced to watch her friend’s body be ripped apart, atom for atom, she slowly collapsed to the dank floor of the dim room, slamming her knees onto the wet duralithic floor. Virn’s sobs couldn’t cut through the noise of the loud scanner. The weapon fell out of her hands, and she clasped her face with her bodysuited hands. In a minute or two, Kyora ceased to exist. All of her material scattered to the wind.
“Now,” Eclipse said, “we get to see if this mutating algorithm of yours works.” Eclipse recreated the packet and plugged it into the software represented as another lumigraph hovering before her. She commanded the REMASS units to engage, and all of them sprang to life in a moment. Immediately, they began fabricating replicates of Kyora’s body, holding the materialized parts of the body in place with lumionics while the rest took form, working from the feet up to the head.
“You know,” Eclipse spoke loudly over sound of the machines, “I don’t appreciate your captain lying to me about Kyora’s death. I actually did believe her, only for the fact that Kyora would have rather died than be reunited with me. I’m not blind to the truth. I am the truth. I know how Kyora feels about me. But now, she will be mine forever.”
The first series completed fabrication. The lumionics disengaged, and the lifeless bodies, all resembling Kyora, collapsed on that cold, hard, duralithic floor.
“Stop this!” Virn cried at the top of her lungs.
“If you want to have any chance of seeing your friend alive again,” Eclipse shouted, “you’d best wait for these machines to find that elusive Spark of Life.” Eclipse turned to Darlok, still admiring the perpetual churning of meat, and said, “This better damn well work.”
“O-oh, it will,” Darlok said.
Series three collapsed out of the fabricators, falling upon the bodies of the two others just before it. Twenty-one copies now rested at the feet of the seven fabricators, dead on arrival. Series four came, and this time, two of the bodies stumbled forward a bit, and then slid off the growing pile of Elestan flesh. For Virn, it was the torture of watching her friend be recreated and die over and over and over.
Series six. One of the bodies crawled over the corpses, looked Virn in the eyes, and gasped. Then it succumbed to the same fate. Virn growled as a pair of bright, white, geometric, incorporeal wings spread out from behind her back. The REMASS units continued to fabricate as Virn stood up. Her SIRAC and polyalloy melted off of her skin that changed to a light metallic gold, and her hair to a darker gold. Virn flashed her eyes at Eclipse—those eyes erupting with an undeniable radiance—and Eclipse shuddered.
Backing away from the transformed Aurora, she asked, “What the fuck are you?” Virn took one step toward her, and then another, with one foot placed right in front of the other.
“I am Veris, archanima,” Veris thought with a distraught tone to both Eclipse and Darlok. Darlok screamed and took off down the dark corridor, and noticing this, Veris froze the eccentric Exan in time, stopping her in her tracks. As for Eclipse, she continued to approach. “I am the light that scatters the darkness. No shadow can hide from Her Radiance.” Veris wrapped her exposed, metallic body in light that lit every part of the tower in a glow far more intense than the sun. Eclipse tried to block out the blinding light with her hands clasped over her face, but it was no use. All shadows were kept at bay by the light of Alassura.
“Stay away from me!” Eclipse cried.
Veris thought, “Your wickedness ends here!” and she began to rip Eclipse apart from the outside. The Elestan’s skin burned away as she collapsed to the ground, and even those Domina guards within the building, and the frozen Darlok, found themselves succumbing to the same fate. “It is not the place of mortal beings to exercise power over the sanctity of life and death! Those that do deserve judgement by that same Fire of Creation that they seek to enthrall!”
“No! Please!” Eclipse cried as her muscles were exposed to the air, a sensation of pain far exceeding anything a person should ever be allowed to feel. Eclipse evaporated into nothingness, scattered into the air like Kyora just before.
Then, the fabricators stopped. Six of the seven bodies collapsed like the others, but one stumbled forth blindly, tripping over the bodies that it could not see in Veris’ radiant light. Kyora crawled across the floor, her naked skin dragging through the puddles of water. After Veris’ light faded, she saw the archanima standing there in all her glory, and she asked, “Am I dead?”
Veris ran toward her coughing friend and said, “Far from it!” The archanima shed a glowing tear from her burning eyes as she pulled the helpless Elestan up from the ground and embraced her. Veris’ body was warm and comforting to Kyora’s cold skin.
The Federation had a longstanding moratorium on the fabrication of life by remote material synthesis or any other omnium-reliant, matter manipulation system. The impact on Civilized Space would be so great, and the danger so unimaginable, that they had even convinced the Republic and Alliance, all rivals at the time that the moratorium was brought into effect, not to pursue it. Far older scientific literature, especially those that survived the collapse of the ancient Miridan Empire, hinted at the existence of a “Spark of Life,” a hidden ingredient to make the replication or fabrication of living, complex metazoans possible. Plants and animals were the subjects of obsessed scientists for millennia, caking the path to a societal revolution in blood. The most ethically depraved among them sought the Holy Grail of reproductive technology: the simplicity of printing out living people as effortlessly one prints pictures on a page or creates starships from industrial REMASS. Somehow, that Doctor Darlok had climbed over her own mountain of corpses, and with a bit of luck, emerged to a realization that finally worked—bred out of a mind rife with illness—, and here was the result, wrapped in Veris’ arms. Had Veris not hesitated and destroyed this kind of blasphemous technology that she had been called to do, Kyora would have vanished forever—another body in the pile of progress toward the goal shared by those with the ambitions manifesting from a god-complex.
Veris knelt down with Kyora, pushed Kyora’s face into her chest, and wrapped the entire building in light. In a flash outside of time, the entire Unit fortress disappeared, and she and Kyora were nowhere to be seen.
“How are you doing?” Virn asked. Kyora opened her eyes which were pierced by the lumionic lighting overhead. The Elestan closed them and reopened them, trying to readjust to the light.
“Where am I?” Kyora asked, tilting her head toward the Exan sitting over her, stroking her white hair.
“We’re on a Federation carrier above Mirida,” Virn explained. “I carried you back here.”
“What happened?” Kyora tilted her head back to where it had rested and closed her eyes.
“We found Eclipse.”
“Did I kill her?” she asked, clearing her throat.
“It was a battle for the ages,” Virn smiled.
“Well damn,” Kyora said. “I wish I could remember it.” After breathing deeply, she said, “I’m glad we got her.”
“I am too,” Virn said. A tear streamed down her face. “I am too.”