People were strange. That was probably why they were a dying species. But, just sometimes, they were…interesting.

Several of Vardy’s monitor units slid from the wall behind her suspended chair so that they could congregate at her eye-level. Since more guests had arrived yesterday, she hadn’t had much time to herself–something that, as a woman more used to being submerged in tech than practicing social graces, had been a challenge.

However, even the heavily augmented among her little army still required sleep and some time to recharge, and after arguing about the plan for long and, often, quite loud hours, they had all retired to smaller chambers within the underground fortress that was the Rose Flats. At last, Vardy had some peace.

She had run several hundred new lines of experimental code as she prepared to send the little band of heroes off into Einz, but now she found her mind wandering.

“Gah!” She caught herself, fingers poised but not actually keying anything.  This was most disagreeable. Something had to be done. And that was when her little habit started.

“Chamber Two,” she told the swarm of monitors. A surge of connection and then the near instantaneous buzz of a live feed. Technically, Vardy didn’t need to watch when she could perceive everything through her many sensors, but the still human part of her liked to use its eyes. It was so very antiquated and charming.

“That augment freak is going to get us all killed,” Sahara griped, sitting down on her makeshift cot. They’d all brought things from their ship. The germ count was absolutely terrifying and Vardy had been secretly fumigating everything when they weren’t in their chambers, but there was only so much she could do without just incinerating the lot.

The bear like man–Ursera Von Klark of the elite Einz Shadows, she’d discovered after more digging–seemed to be Sahara’s choice of mate. He sat on a cot opposite her in the hollow of the curved, terracotta stone wall, chewing on a ration bar.

“You think she’s got the goods?” he rumbled. He scratched at himself with long fingernails tangling his thick chest hair. Vardy could count every follicle falling away, every mote of skin that like shrapnel spun into the ether to wound her. And what if he had lice? Of course to say that to a mutate was taboo. You were supposed to be quiet about their physical condition. But, really!

“Well…” Sahara reached up and touched several exact spots around her eye-augment. A keycode. A keycode now logged. When the sequence was complete, the augment gave a click and the plate of it lifted, allowing Sahara to carefully unscrew the lens and turn off the sight. She lay both attachments down on the bed at her side. With her protective cover gone, her eye augment was the exact opposite of Ursera’s eyes, so white as to be almost untrue. “She’s on file. Oh boy is she. Says when she worked for the Einz there was no one who could touch her. But her brother, he apparently came a close second.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Dead apparently. Defected to Trine and then got shot. That’s apparently what made her switch sides. She disappeared after that. There were always rumours she experimented on herself, but I don’t think anyone thought she’d go this far.”

Vardy ended the transmission. It was good they believed such things, but it was hurtful to hear about her brother. She had deleted memories of him, but the synapses in her human brain were not gone. They could still be kindled. She was on the verge of having more than an acceptable level of emotion.

Coding. She began coding again. That’s what she had always done when the world threatened to intrude upon her. She returned to the complex language of life, the hidden power that moved them all.

Vardy’s brother, Jomei, he had been able to cope with people. That’s probably why he’d had a family. Why he had been so keen on cultivating Trine. She hadn’t cared much either way–not until the Einz told her to stop her projects in order to work on more weapons. Always weapons. And then she found room to disagree. The killing of her brother–with one of her own engineered weapons no less–had been the final blow.

So now she was coding. Coding away from being reminded. Away from being weak.

After another half hour though, Vardy became restless again. Absently, she clicked through her camera feeds and found Captain Flynn having some very personal time in the deep springs she used to cool her massive processing units. She would need to thoroughly sterilize those waters, then. Thankfully, his comrades were all in their cots, sleeping.

She found Jack and Lee’s room last. They were awake, sat at opposite sides of one cot.

“It attacked his augments, then it changed his white cells. I’d never seen it before, couldn’t get ahead of it in time. I thought if I tried hard enough I could figure it out, that I could save him.”

“That’s a heavy weight to put on yourself,” Jack answered.

Lee shook his head. “It was an Einz weapon, I think. Seb died in so much pain because it resisted all nerve blockers, any medication. We tried to knock him out a bunch of times but his system would fight it, would process the drugs too quickly. He was screaming, and screaming, but his body wouldn’t die.”

Lee leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “So I had to do something.”

Jack proffered a hand. It hovered between them, almost touching but not quite.

“I killed him,” Lee admitted. “I circumvented his systems by wiring him directly to my neural link. And then I flooded his mind with so much data. So many good memories. Did you know that love can break someone? Because it did. I used it as a weapon and I broke his mind apart piece by piece and I held him under the water of all of that, night after night, until he drifted. Until he sank.”

“That’s not killing. That’s mercy,” Jack said, and now he did touch. His big hand ran down Lee’s back, and in the half light of the chamber, Vardy witnessed the two men become part of a moment bigger than they. Lee looked up at Jack, tears brimming but not falling, and then he surged forward, seizing the other man’s careworn face. He claimed a brutal, bruising kiss. That liplock went on for long, heavy seconds, and then Jack broke them apart. “You sure?”

It was a moment that could go either way. And so it did. Lee brought their lips together again, softer now. “I’m just tired of being alone.”

“You’re not,” Jack said, stroking the hair from Lee’s face. “Not anymore.”

And then–

Vardy turned off the screens. She had no interest in sex. It was an inefficient means of connection and, what was worse, it was so very…unseemly.

People were strange. And now they were being strange in close proximity to her. It was most unsettling. But then, for every war there had to be sacrifices. Her brother had taught her that lesson best of all.

She brought up Jack and Lee’s room again, this time only in code. To be precise, she read only the data from Lee’s augments and studied the massive amounts of information they were constantly gathering, processing, and storing.

“How did you do it, Jomei?”

DAY 12>>>