The Fall of Pride (original)

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GrandMasterTerwynn
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The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by GrandMasterTerwynn » 2016-02-29 01:25pm

Some of you may remember a story that I completed nearly a year ago. For some damnfool reason, I've decided to start a sequel of sorts.

Fall of Pride
Author’s note: The following takes places approximately thirty-five years after the events of The Orrery …

***

Upon taking the throne in Landing Year 2328, King Alfred IV directed the Royal Navy to focus its attention on an extremely sensitive secret project. Its details were only known to a few, as was the fallout …

Willowy.

That was always the term others used to refer to Cristiana. They called her that when she was a gawky pre-teen who was all arms and legs. They called her that in Basic, when she was a lanky young woman who had the hardest time with the obstacle course. They called her that when she graduated from Analyst School as a coltish but poised Crown Intelligence analyst. She was that, even now, as she stood inside a glass-walled chamber, studying her own reflection.

“Did you catch all that, Captain Hawthorne?”

“Uh … sir. Yes sir,” Cristiana replied. Her dark skin hid blushes fairly well, but it wasn’t good to be caught out like that.

“Good,” her superior, Colonel Sir Anthony Rabinowitz, the Viscount of Cabochon Rock, replied. His swarthy face bore no obvious sign that he’d caught his analyst’s misstep. “This is an important task we’re undertaking, and I’d hate to be caught out unawares.”

“Yes sir,” Cristiana replied. She stared at her reflection again. A willowy woman, with her red-brown hair tied back in a simple bun, stared back at her. How did I get here? She asked her reflection, turning around, and watching her pale blue hospital gown swirl around her.

She couldn’t really say she volunteered. Not for a job like this. Images flashed through her mind. Of hypnotic blue walls. Of the scarred hulk of a once-proud starship. Of a charnel-house of flayed corpses.

“The protocol will be simple,” a voice said from the ceiling. “We will begin introducing the unfiltered air sample at a rate of ten liters per minute until a fifty-fifty ratio is achieved. You will then breathe this mixture for half an hour, while we monitor your vitals.”

“I understand,’ Cristiana replied, backing away from the glass walls. Willowy. Like the Old Earth tree. Something which could bend, without breaking. Something which could spring back. She could be like that. She had to be like that. Still, her eyes were drawn to the little black oval at the top of her chamber … the one connected to the sample they were about to expose her to.

“His Majesty appreciates your service, Captain Hawthorne,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz said, backing away from the test chamber. Suddenly, Cristiana wanted to scream at him. How did she get volunteered for this?

Another image flashed through her mind. One of a dead starship, her once-gleaming white hull discolored and blackened. Her hull plates were torn away, her inside spaces exposed to the unforgiving vacuum of space. Scoured and flecked paint proudly bore the ghost of a single word, Audacious.

There was a sound, and Cristiana looked up to see that Colonel Sir Rabinowitz was gone. She was alone now.

“We will start the test protocol now, Captain Hawthorne. How are you feeling?”

“I don’t feel well,” Cristiana replied.

“Your exam was thorough,” the voice in the ceiling replied. “Your symptoms are psychosomatic. The sample has been preserved at the temperature we collected it at. The temperature in the test chamber will rise as we administer the sample.”

That didn’t make her feel any better. This was madness … why did they need live subjects at all? They’d all seen the logs from the dead ship. They knew could happen.

Hiss!

Warm air tousled her hair, and Cristiana froze, holding her breath.

“Breathe, Captain.”

She didn’t want to breathe. She’d seen the micrographs, the ‘pollen grains’ that air contained.

“You came to us highly-recommended, Captain Hawthorne. Do not disappoint us.”

Her cheeks burned. Was that so? If so, why were they running the risk? She was an analyst for Crown Intelligence, but she wasn’t seeing the pattern. She was missing something … something important.

“We are now sixty seconds in. Sample administration is proceeding nominally.”

She was studying the data they’d collected; it was just another assignment. Another assignment … until they instructed her to report to the medical laboratory.

“Breathe, Captain Hawthorne. You knew what you were getting into.”

I didn’t! Cristiana wanted to yell. She’d been ushered through the briefings and paperwork signings at a rate she didn’t believe was even possible. Never given time to grasp all the pieces. Never even given enough time to object.

“Two minutes have passed. Sample administration is proceeding normally. We are now starting the mixing process.”

A cold wind raced up her gown, forcing her to push it down. It was an uncomfortable, dry, thing. Still, she held her breath, her heart starting to race.

“Subject vitals are accelerating. Pulse and blood pressure at high-end of normal. Blood oxygenation level declining rapidly.”

“You’re going to have to breathe, Captain Hawthorne. Don’t make this harder on yourself.”

Her lungs burned, but Cristiana held on as tightly as she could. She was a citizen of the Commonwealth. She had rights!

“Three minutes have passed. Sample administration is proceeding normally. Sample mixing is proceeding normally. Subject vitals are generating monitoring alarms now. Pulse and blood pressure are at dangerous levels. Blood oxygenation level is approaching the threshold of … “

No!

Gray started to close in around Cristiana’s vision, as her hearing receded into numb silence.

This fragrance! What is this fragrance?

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Re: The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by Borgholio » 2016-02-29 01:51pm

It lives! I eagerly await more.
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Re: The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by GrandMasterTerwynn » 2016-03-01 08:19am

… The investigation of the wreck of the HMS Audacious caused considerable consternation among those present, including the future King Alfred IV. We sorely wished the installation on the surface of the planet was still intact, as we could’ve gotten the answers we were looking for there! As it was, the Imperials, for reasons known only to them, crashed an entire starship into the facility. Of it, the only remnants are a global pall of dust our scientists state will take decades to settle out. It’s a good thing the planet was already dead to begin with! As no further answers were to be had there, we had to go further afield …

“You are awake now, Captain Hawthorne,” the voice said. It was a statement. Cristiana slowly lifted her head, her eyes focusing on a pleasant-looking man in sterile white clothing. Blue eyes stared deeply into hers.

“I … ugh … yes,” she finally managed. She glanced around her room. It was brightly-lit, with the walls and ceiling bearing the same sterile white color as her bed sheets, her blanket, and the clothes of the man with her.

Cristiana sat up with a start.

“T-they locked me in a chamber with … but … how did I … “

“Calm down, Captain Hawthorne,” the man said. “I am assured that the sample introduction was a success.”

“I didn’t want to be there! They made sure I didn’t really know what I was signing up for!”

“You have been transported to a secure observation ward,” the man continued, ignoring her outburst. His pleasant expression never changed. “The next part of the experiment has already started.”

“Experiment,” Cristiana echoed, forcing herself to breathe. They’d deliberately exposed her to an air sample likely to contain weaponized nanotech. She’d seen the footage of what it could do to those exposed to it … and now she probably had it in her system.

“I want to throw up,” she said, clutching her blanket.

“Do you believe that this is a result of your exposure?”

Cristiana glared angrily at the man with the pleasant face.

Cristiana, I’m afraid you’re not going to remember this for a while, Colonel Sir Rabinowitz’s voice echoed faintly in her head. But, you and I both know this is going to be the only way Crown Intelligence is going to get any visibility into Project K322 …

What? Where was she remembering that from? She rubbed her temples, trying to tease out more of the memory, but the details weren’t forthcoming.

“Captain Hawthorne?”

“I,” Cristiana started to say, before shaking her head vigorously. “No … no it isn’t.”

“A curious thing, then,” the man replied. “You were specifically denied food or water for eight hours prior to the start of the experiment.”

“It’s … stress,” Cristiana said. “I … I didn’t want to be there.”

Was that really the case?

“You knew what you were signing up for, Captain Hawthorne,” the man replied. “I have your release forms on file.”

Cristiana wanted to hit the man, but his antiseptic white clothes seemed to conceal a trim frame packed with hard muscles. That, combined with his ever-pleasant expression, suggested that she’d attack him at her own peril.

“I’m sick of being told that,” she replied. She looked to her side. There was a round table made up of soft-touch plastic and well-rounded edges. Clear plastic pouches topped with soft rubber bite valves were filled with water. There was nothing that a person could hurt themselves on, nor was there anything could they use to hurt anyone else.

Why am I thinking about that? No … it made sense to think about that, didn’t it? She was an officer of the Royal Navy, and an officer of Crown Intelligence. His Majesty’s government paid well for her to receive the very best in survival and resistance training.

“Understood,” the man replied. Cristiana was finding his casual disregard for her to be infuriating. “I am here to ask you some questions. You are awake and coherent. Thus, I shall surmise that you are in adequate shape to answer them.”

“Fine,” Cristiana said, pinching the bridge of her nose. She was trapped, with no way out. A noise interrupted her train of thought. Was that a sniffle she just heard? She didn’t feel like she had a runny nose.

“Do you recall any sensations during the introduction of the sample?”

“I passed out during the introduction.”

“We are aware,” the man replied. “Please think back, to before your loss of consciousness.”

Cristiana groaned, closing her eyes.

This fragrance! What is this fragrance?

“There was a … fragrance … a pleasant fragrance.”

I wish I could smell it some more …

“I,” she started to say, catching herself. What was she about to say? And what good would it do … wait! Why did she want to experience that fragrance again? Did that mean that …

“Did you say that there was a fragrance associated with the sample?”

“Ugh … yeah … yes I did,” Cristiana replied, staring down at her blanket. Whatever was in that sample … it’d taken hold, hadn’t it?

“I see,” the man said, his blue eyes briefly twitching. “We do not believe that further repetition of the sample introduction experiment will be necessary.”

They were planning to expose her again if she didn’t get infected? What sort of operation was this?

It wasn’t so bad the first time, was it? It would’ve been nice to experience that fragrance again.

No!

Convulsively, she reached out, taking the man’s hand in hers. She didn’t want this! She didn’t want to be like the young man that’d been brought aboard the Audacious!

She recoiled, feeling how … cold the man’s hand was in hers.

“Y-you’re not human, are you?”

“No, Captain Hawthorne, I am not,” the man replied. “I am an IL-616 medical isolation android. I will respond to the name Lucas, if that makes you more comfortable.”

“I … I’m alone,” Cristiana said, dropping the man’s hand. “I’m going to go through this … whatever this is … alone, aren’t I?”

“That is not necessarily the case,” the man replied, his expression unchanging. “You are under continuous, multi-spectral, surveillance. Colonel Sir Rabinowitz, and the others, are watching you constantly.”

Somehow, that failed to make Cristiana feel any better.

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Re: The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by LadyTevar » 2016-03-01 07:16pm

More, please
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Re: The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by SpottedKitty » 2016-03-02 10:26am

I've just read The Orrery. Is anyone not expecting a character or three in an upcoming chapter to get a late night call and be told "there's a fire"...? :wink:

Looking forward to the next thrilling instalment.
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Re: The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by GrandMasterTerwynn » 2016-03-02 09:04pm

… the aim of Project K322 was simple: Locate another Ancient installation like the one that had been under the management of the Royal Science Academy. It was approved by King Surah’s Board of Regents, but she expressly forbade allocating it any money. This was a situation that persisted until her death and the end of her Interregnum. King Alfred IV made it one of his top priorities. Still, it took fifteen years of dedicated searching to turn up the first candidates. Both of them were in no better shape than the ruins previously excavated by civilian researchers. It took another fifteen before we discovered the one on NAT5K1433-201, a planetary system eleven weeks transit time away from an especially uninteresting terminus of the gate hub at Taesonor. Good thing, then, that Alfred’s son was as dedicated to Project K322 as his father; as Alfred IV’s reign lasted a mere twenty-seven years, and we didn’t find NAT5K1433-201 until three years after he died …

Cristiana gasped as she hauled her body up through her hundredth sit-up of the morning. She never remembered being this out of breath during her daily exercises before. At least she’d finally stopped hearing sniffling noises. A small part of her knew that she had to be the one making them, since there was no reason for the androids to do it … still, she never felt congested?

The headaches were harder to ignore. They’d started behind her sinuses, and when she got her first one, she did throw up. Until the headache, a tiny part of her believed that, somehow, she’d be different. Somehow, the contagion wouldn’t take. That the cravings for that indescribable fragrance were some signal that she hadn’t been exposed long enough.

Curiously, the cravings disappeared with the onset of the headaches. There was a pattern there … and all the associations told Cristiana that she was, truly, infected.

You are having a cyber-reinforced memory block put in place, Captain Hawthorne. Colonel Sir Rabinowitz’s voice echoed in her head, as she closed her eyes. The Royal Navy has not been forthcoming with developments regarding Project K322, and Crown Intelligence would like to know why. Thus, your cover has to be perfect … we have to get you deep inside the operation before the block can be allowed to wear off.

Cristiana groaned. What did that mean? No, she knew what it meant … what were missing were the details. Captain Cristiana Hawthorne was an obvious plant. Who she really was, she couldn’t remember.

“Why,” she whispered, falling back onto the floor, staring up at the pristine white ceiling. The bright lights made her head throb, and her eyes fluttered closed. She was definitely deep inside now, wasn’t she? So why couldn’t she remember?

“Why!”

Was the thing that they’d infected her with … was it already interfering with her thinking? Was that why she couldn’t shake off the effects of whatever had been done to her to put her in this position?

Why did they put her into this position? Why did they allow her to be infected?

“Captain Hawthorne,” a voice said. The glow outside her eyelids vanished, and she opened her eyes.

“What do you want,” she said, staring into the blue eyes of the man with the pleasant expression.

“You seemed troubled,” the man replied. “I came to ask if you have experienced new symptoms.”

“My head hurts,” Cristiana said. Her heart leapt into her throat, as a primeval part of her realized that the man was standing over her … a position of dominance and strength over someone weak … over someone vulnerable.

Suddenly, she was on her feet, backing away from the man in white.

“You stay away from me!”

“Captain Hawthorne, I fail to understand your agitation.”

“You would,” she replied, her voice a deep growl.

What am I doing?

“I am not attempting to provoke the type of response I am observing from you, Captain Hawthorne. You must calm down,” the man said, his expression not changing.

Where is this coming from? Is it me?

Cristiana glared at the man, her heart racing, and her head pounding.

“I … ugh … oh my god, I’m sorry,” she said, urgently lifting her fingertips to her temples. “I-I don’t know where that came from. You were standing over me … and … I don’t know why, I just,” she said, exhaling sharply.

“The progression of your symptoms is within one sigma of the median,” the man replied. Part of Cristiana’s mind sat up with sharp surprise. Sigma? Median? Those were statistical terms, and statistics were a part of any intelligence analyst’s job. Why did the man, no, the android just say that?

“It is important that you calm down, Captain Hawthorne,” the man continued. “I do have something that may help you,” he said, gesturing toward an empty patch of white wall … except it wasn’t empty anymore. It had turned into a deep black rectangle. That rectangle transformed into an image of a corridor of polished stone floors and plastic walls. A corridor lit in soft, welcoming, blue.

“W—what is this,” Cristiana managed, after some time.

“I am surprised that you do not recognize this, Captain Hawthorne. This was part of the data download from the HMS Audacious.

“Audacious … the installation,” Cristiana said, her head whipping away from the display. She did remember. The video footage of the installation and its beautiful, haunting, blue lighting.

No!

It wasn’t that compelling when she first saw it … was it? She had to not look at it … but why? It was right to want to look at it, it took the pain away.

The pain?

She could feel her headache, slowly crawling out from behind her sinuses, squeezing its claws into her brain.

“Captain Hawthorne,” the man said. “The automatic survey team recorded footage from the inside of the facility at NAT5K1433-201. They would like for you to compare it with the recovered data from HMS Audacious.

“I,” Cristiana replied, her mind scrambling for something, anything, to keep her from giving in to her desire. “My superior is … is Colonel Sir Rabinowitz. I … need his approval.”

“You need to remain calm, Captain Hawthorne,” the man said. “And the best thing that will keep you calm, is to engage your mind in work.”

Cristiana stumbled back to her bed, sitting down, while rubbing her temples. Their request wasn’t unreasonable, was it? And the isolation ward was … antiseptic, uninteresting, boring.

The part of her the forced her to hold her breath on that first day fought back. There was something about the lighting. Something soothing … no! Something comforting … no! Something … something …

“Colonel Sir Rabinowitz,” she repeated.

“Colonel Sir Rabinowitz is engaged in other duties,” the man replied.

That can’t be right.

“You are mistaken, Captain Hawthorne. You are both officers of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.”

She’d spoken that aloud? Was her self-control slipping that badly?

None of this is right!

Cristiana’s eyes flicked open, as she heard a sound. The man with the pleasant expression was gone, his exit so stealthy that she didn’t know how he’d gotten out of the room.

There was something flickering at the corner of her vision. Instinctively, her head turned, and it was some time before she realized that the footage of the installation was still playing.

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Re: The Fall of Pride (original)

Post by GrandMasterTerwynn » 2016-03-04 07:53pm

… We were determined to do it differently … I mean, to explore the installation on NAT5K1433-201. No civvies, no politics, and no Empire. We’d studied the courier data, and teased enough from the wreckage of HMS Audacious to know that the Ancient installation was a trap of some sort. A trap filled with some sort of mind-control bug … Everything would be done with androids and remotes. All Royal Navy personnel would stay safe aboard their ships. So, naturally, our new installation didn’t want to play along when we first drilled into it. It took a lot of work to custom-spin an android that would trick the installation into thinking someone had wandered into its trap. Still, there was something missing …

Christiana hauled herself up through her hundredth sit-up of the morning, forcing herself through the gnawing pain that chewed at the inside of her skull. She grunted loudly at the apex, lowering herself to the floor. Her abs burned, and it took her mind off the pain in her head.

The pain is less if you watch.

“No,” Cristiana snarled, forcing herself through more sit-ups.

It takes the pain away.

“I said no,” Cristiana said, dropping back, her eyes staring up through the ceiling. She felt the world slowly spin around her, the pain in her head pulsating in time with her vertigo.

It isn’t wrong to watch. It isn’t wrong to watch. It takes the pain away.

“I will not give in,” Cristiana whispered.

“I will not give in,” she repeated, gritting her teeth. The motion sent fresh waves of pain through her skull.

It is wrong to be ignorant.

“I will not give in,” she repeated again, clutching at the floor with her fingers. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!”

Cristiana rolled, pushing herself up to her knees.

Why do I fight this?

“I won’t give in,” she said, through shuddering breaths. She tried to rise to her feet, but her legs failed her, and she sank to her knees.

“Hallowed ancestors, lend me strength,” she whimpered, closing her eyes. “For I am simple and I am weak.” Her hands gently clutched at the sides of her head, squeezing her temples … anything to stave off the pain.

“I know not the paths that you have traveled. I know not the sights you have seen,” she whispered, her mind tracing the words she’d learned as a young child. “I only know that I am lost and weak. Hallowed ancestors, please, lend me strength.”

There was a flash of blue, the same blue that she’d watched before. It was a flash that seemed to penetrate her very soul.

They lied to you.

There was a harsh, primal, scream that filled the room.

***

”Captain Hawthorne,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz said, rising from behind his desk to take Cristiana’s hand.

“Sir,” Cristiana replied, firmly returning the handshake.

“Before we start talking … Have you completed the marker drug protocol?”

“Yes sir,” Cristiana replied, taking care not to let the sudden butterflies in her stomach show. She was told that the nano-tech markers would block off everything she wasn’t going to remember come this time next week. “Last night, in fact. Doctor Stratton told me everything would be ready after a night’s sleep.”

“Good,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz said. “I assume that you’ve done as I’ve asked, and have been studying this room?”

“Yes sir,” she replied, nodding once. Everything looked familiar, the knotty deep-gray of the Colonel’s highland pseudo-pine desk, the picture of his auburn-haired wife and daughters on the shelf behind him, and even the deep-blue carpeting of his office.

“Good,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz repeated. “That’ll make the techs’ job of lining up the false memories easier.”

Cristiana licked her lips. “May I please ask a question, sir?”

“Yes, Captain,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz replied. “Now is the right time for questions.”

Cristiana nodded. “Why all the secrecy? I’ve never had an assignment quite like this one before.”

Colonel Sir Rabinowitz smiled grimly.

“That’s because the circumstances of this assignment are extraordinary. You are being prepared to infiltrate the Royal Navy’s Project K322,” he said, briefly holding her gaze. “It’s a Crown Secret of the highest order; until about four hours ago, you lacked the clearance to know about it, so your expression is wholly understandable.”

Cristiana felt her cheeks warm, when it became clear that her puzzlement was showing. She then frowned, something wasn’t lining up right.

“Infiltrate, sir?”

Colonel Sir Rabinowitz nodded. “Infiltrate,” he repeated. With a gesture, the lights of the room began to flicker. He cleared his throat, staring into her eyes.

“You are having a cyber-reinforced memory block put in place, Captain Hawthorne. The Royal Navy has not been forthcoming with developments regarding Project K322, and Crown Intelligence would like to know why. Thus, your cover has to be
perfect … we have to get you deep inside the operation before the block can be allowed to wear off.”

With another gesture, the flickering stopped. “That should be the first thing you remember.”

Cristiana nodded, wanting to pinch the bridge of her nose. Her head was starting to hurt.

“May I assume that they were before?” She asked. The question would give her more time to think.

“Yes, Captain,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz replied. “However, updates from the project all but stopped several months ago; as had most of the activity we could trace. Lately, though, personnel known to be connected with the project have approached several RN command staffs, seeking personnel for temporary assignment.”

“I see,” Cristiana said, starting to get a feel of where the conversation was going. “And I’m it?”

“We both are, Captain,” Colonel Sir Rabinowitz replied. “There will be forthcoming orders from Brigadier Sir Reginald Meisner volunteering us out of our current official duties.”

Cristiana felt the butterflies again. She’d been inside Crown Intelligence long enough to realize that Sir Anthony Rabinowitz enjoyed far greater seniority than his Royal Navy rank would suggest. He was certainly too senior for field-work. For him to be doing it … Crown Intelligence had to be very worried about this ‘K322’ project indeed …


***

“ … Hawthorne?”

Cristiana moaned. It took her a few moments to realize she was looking up into the face of the man with the pleasant expression.

“Captain Hawthorne,” the man repeated. Something primal surged up from the pit of Cristiana’s stomach, and she rolled away from him, springing to her feet. Reflexively, her body adopted a low, wide fighting stance.

“What are you doing here?” She said, her voice nearly a snarl. A tiny part of her mind wondered where she had been before she saw the man standing over her.

“I am pleased to see that you have recovered, Captain Hawthorne,” the man replied. “However, I have done nothing to elicit the reaction I am presently observing.”

“What are you doing here? How did you get here?”

“I am here because a medical intervention was required,” the man replied. Cristiana blinked. “You were behaving erratically, and then you suffered an apparent loss of consciousness.”

“Consciousness,” Cristiana echoed. She racked her brain, trying to remember what had happened to her. There was … that memory she had, but before that …

Pain.

She grit her teeth, hoping the man wouldn’t see the sudden weakness in her stance. Before that was pain. Pain that could only be removed by watching the lights.

No!

She’d been fighting the lights … but why? She didn’t want to watch them, but that made no sense. They took away the pain.

“Captain Hawthorne, you are behaving erratically again. Is there something that you are speaking to?”

Cristiana’s mouth snapped shut. Had she been talking to herself the whole time? That was going to be extremely dangerous. Extremely dangerous …

“I … ugh … I’m sorry,” she forced herself to say. “I’ve been suffering headaches, and I blacked out … my mind’s a little scrambled right now,” she said, slowly backing away from the man.”

“Interesting,” the man replied. “The progression of your symptoms continues to be within one sigma of the median.”

“You were expecting this?” Cristiana’s hands clenched into fists.

“I am a medical isolation android. I harbor no expectations. I merely offer observations.”

“How … long?” Cristiana asked, glaring at the man. “What’s going to happen to me?” The feelings of terror were being tinged by something else. She could taste faint rage in the back of her mind.

“I am afraid I have no observations to offer, with regards to your questions,” the man replied.

“Hallowed ancestors,” Cristiana mouthed, forcing herself to take a deep breath. “Lend me your strength,” she whispered, feeling like she had to drag herself back from the precipice. There were ways to break … to destroy … an android using only her bare hands.

“For I am simple, and I am weak,” she mouthed. She had to fight that impulse! That thing they’d infected her with … it was causing this, and she had to fight it. Colonel Sir Rabinowitz, and Crown Intelligence, were relying on her.

“Hallowed ancestors, please lend me your strength,” she said. The pain was starting to return, seeming to slowly seep into her skull from behind her eyes.

They lied to you.

Her eyes snapped open … she wasn’t even aware she’d closed them. More alarming, the man with the pleasant expression had disappeared, once again leaving her alone.

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