On The Edge of Eureka Redux

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Eleutheria is pulsing with potential energy, hovering over a precipice. Tension hangs in the air, citizens whisper fearfully in the dark, and people ask questions they aren't supposed to. The entire city is a chemical reaction waiting to happen.

And Imperatrix Acidalia Cipher is a catalyst.

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9. Nam Amor Patria

Acidalia’s reflection stared back at her, unblinking.

 

She looked horrible. Her skin was pale and washed-out, a sickly shade of orange more reminiscent of a bad spray tan than natural Martian carotenes, and the bags under her eyes were about the size of the Americae Septentrionalis continent. An oozing, red gash went down from her shoulder to her forearm, leeching blood into the bathwater and turning it a sickly brown. Ace didn’t wish Acidalia any harm, but he certainly hadn’t been gentle, either, and one of his pins had driven itself into her flesh and just ripped, went down her skin like scissors cutting wrapping paper, leaving a nasty avulsion behind. She though she’d stopped the bleeding, but it returned with a vengeance the minute she moved her arm.

 

Vae,” she muttered to nobody but herself, watching the wound open again. She’d put butterfly bandages on it in lieu of stitches, but they weren’t waterproof, and they kept coming off and taking more skin with them. Now her whole arm was raw and red, scarlet from the blood and stinging from soap and antiseptic. She reached for another bandage, but her elbow brushed against the corner of the box a little too hard, knocking the entire thing into the water.

 

Acidalia sighed. Reasoning that any attempt to improve her situation was futile, she leant back against the solium and shut her eyes. It wasn’t good for her skin to be sitting in such a hot bath for so long, but at this point she’d most likely be dead before she turned 21, so the long-term health of her integumentary system was not her main concern. How soon will it be? she wondered, sitting up slightly to glance at the door. Would Alestra come in now, gun in hand, and shoot her in the bath, leaving her floating like Gatsby in a pool of her own mistakes? Or would it be tomorrow at dinner, with ricin-laced wine? Maybe she’d be lucky and it would happen tonight, and she’d die just like she fell asleep, painlessly and unaware.

 

That was a stupid thought. Alestra would never be that merciful.

 

Part of Acidalia almost wished they’d kill her soon—at least then she’d be dead and she wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. The other part of her was terrified. Existential dread swelled up deep inside of her, making her heart beat at the speed of an FTL starship. She didn’t want to die. She’d prepared herself for her inevitable demise, thought about it over and over in her head, but she still didn’t want to die. She thought she’d be able to treat this whole situation with more grace, but she seriously doubted her ability to retain any kind of dignity or eloquence while facing her doom. Nobody looked elegant strapped to a gurney with pentobarbital in their arm. No one was graceful in front of a firing squad.

 

Maybe she’d drown herself before they could get to her, Acidalia mused. Then she’d have the last word. But she wouldn’t, not really—she’d be dead either way, then T would be left without a sister and the Revolution would be left without a Cipher. Besides, she didn’t think she could really force herself to do that, to sink under the water and just breathe until her lungs were full and useless. She could hardly inject herself with hypodermic needles; there was no way she could seriously harm herself without giving up.

 

Faex. This was a no win situation.

 

Irritated by her inability to change her predicament, Acidalia decided to ditch the idea of a hot bath altogether. It was supposed to relax her, but she couldn’t get the image of her own bloodied corpse floating, facedown, out of her mind. It was late at night, or maybe early morning—Acidalia was a night owl; all of the interesting things in Eleutheria happened after dark—but she dressed in her favorite evening gown anyway, couple with the Imperial crown. She might as well die while making a statement. Soon enough, she wouldn’t have to hear anybody’s judgement anymore.

 

She hadn’t realized, before, that her impending doom would affect her so much. She knew that this was a hard game to win, and oftentimes victory and death were synonymous; war was like chess, and sometimes pawns have to be sacrificed in order to save the king. The odds of Acidalia making it past twenty were already low before she joined the Revolution, and she thought she’d come to terms with that. Still, standing here, wondering which breath would be her last, was heart-wrenching. There were so many things she would never get to do, so many sights she would never see, so many dreams left unfulfilled. And then there was T.

 

Oh, god, T. Acidalia felt selfish, suddenly, for musing on all of her life’s shortcomings when T would be the real victim of her murder. Once Acidalia was dead, that was it; there would be no more pain or heartache for her. T, though… T would still be alive. T would have to watch them desecrate her corpse, see the propaganda with her face on it, deal with the remnants of her legacy. Meanwhile, the Revolution would flounder. Acidalia was their secret weapon—without her, they’d be at a horrible disadvantage.

 

“This is just wonderful, isn’t it?” Acidalia murmured sadly to nobody in particular. She felt trapped like a prisoner on death row, counting her time in hours instead of years. What would her last words be? She hadn’t ever thought to write such things down.

 

There were escapes, of course; there were always escapes. She could flee to Mars and abandon all hope of freeing Eleutheria from Alestra’s brutal grasp. It would be easy; she’d blend in with the crowd far more than any other Terran girl, and it wouldn’t be difficult to doctor her documents and adopt a new identity. She could settle down and marry someone and find a mediocre job, and the entirety of the empire she once led would be subject to the cruel and unjust laws her mother passed. Acidalia would survive, but T would be crushed, and she’d be abandoning everything and everyone she loved for the sake of leading an unfulfilling life.

 

It wasn’t worth it. Acidalia didn’t want to die, but she’d rather go out fighting than live as a coward.

 

And that left… what, exactly? Even if she managed to escape the palace walls, where would she go? If she went to a Revolutionary base, they’d try to tail her, and the risk of being found was much larger than the benefit of a slightly higher chance of survival. She could steal one of the royal family’s stealth ships and hover in orbit, praying that the cloaking tech held up, but there was such a high chance that they’d find her. She’d only be staving off the inevitable. Who would offer her asylum when Alestra wanted her dead? Alestra stopped at nothing to get what she wanted. She’d happily murder anyone who gave aid to Acidalia.

 

So Acidalia would die. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do other than pen her last will and testament. What would it even say? “I leave all my wealth to my bastard brother, who you’ll kill if you find out he exists?” And her corpse would be shown on every television in Eleutheria, and her mother, the ever-brilliant orator, would make a rousing speech about pruning family trees, and she’d smile poisonously into the camera and say that it’s a shame, really, to have to spill so much Cipher blood, but Acidalia was never much of a Cipher to begin with. And somewhere beneath the waters of the Atlantic T would cry and try to hide it, and Andromeda would pace, and it’d be hours—minutes, maybe—until she had her armies fighting in alleyways and people rioting in the streets. Then Alestra’s icy grip would come down upon them with the strength of a hypernova, and they’d bleed, they’d bleed until the streets were slick with blood and viscera, and there would be nobody left to stop it, nobody left to—

 

Oh, Deus, Acidalia thought, I’m such an idiot. She should have gotten out of here years ago. If only she had the forethought to realize the lengths Alestra would go, if only she’d seen just how little worth the court placed on her life…

 

But there was no use in such hypotheticals.

 

Okay. Either I die, or I don’t. It’s time to start thinking about this logically. Acidalia sat down at the desk in her study and stared at the plain white countertop as if she had documents to look through. There were two options: Alestra killed her, or she lived.

 

In scenario one, Acidalia would die prematurely, T would have a meltdown, and Acidalia’s extremely unique and specific skillset would no longer be available to the Revolution, leaving them at a firm disadvantage. The initial deaths would be minimal, but it would be days at most before war and rioting decimated the planet, killing untold amounts of people in the process—especially with no Cipher to counter Alestra. Any weapon produced by a Cipher could easily leave half the population or more dead or incapacitated, though Acidalia doubted her mother would go that scorched-earth—she wanted an empire to rule, after all. Alestra would most likely only target a small percentage—ten, perhaps, or maybe fifteen. That was slightly over two billion citizens. Initial deaths, one; resultant deaths, 2,000,000,000. And that was being generous.

 

In scenario two, Acidalia somehow managed to survive the next few weeks, and she’d be there to serve the Revolution when the time came. If she were to live, she’d have to find help from other people, most of whom Alestra would kill. She considered again the option of seeking asylum on Mars. If Alestra could find hints as to where she’d gone—and she would find hints—she’d murder everyone who had ever interacted with Acidalia, probably after torturing them for information. That’d probably be somewhere in the realm of 200 people. And then there’d be rioting anyway, because Acidalia was well-liked amongst certain castes, and tensions would rise to dangerous levels. But Acidalia would be there to help, and two billion people would not die.

 

So Acidalia had to survive. It was basic math. The damage Alestra could do in her absence outstripped any issues her survival could possibly cause. Two hundred people dying painfully was horrible, but two billion people bleeding to death in the streets and begging for help from long-dead Katherine was much, much worse.

 

***

 

An hour later, Acidalia left her bedroom with a designer purse stuffed full of illegal documents and guns concealed in holsters beneath her skirts. She’d formulated the most basic of plans involving a faked suicide and a disguise. It sounded like something out of a terrible B-movie she and T would make fun of together on one of their rare outings, and it wouldn’t be enough to convince Alestra of anything, but it might keep her busy for a while. All Acidalia really needed was time.

 

As she walked through the palace hallways, the servants gave her a wide berth. They’d all seen the events at the coronation, and they knew how much of a target Acidalia was—none of them wanted to be caught in the crossfire. Acidalia didn’t blame them. She’d stopped using human servants years ago once her mother made it clear that just being around her put their lives at risk. Still, Alestra and Aleskynn liked the dopamine rush that came with ordering people around, so the humans stayed in the palace, tiptoeing around the hallways and whispering to one another in vulgar Latin.

 

Acidalia tried to appear calm and causal, so as not to ring any alarm bells. There were very few noblewomen awake at this hour, but she could hear her sister giggling in the distance, and even little Aleskynn could be dangerous when she wanted to be. Alestra was nowhere to be seen, and the Imperial Guard was strangely absent. The silence made Acidalia’s skin crawl.

 

I have every right to be here, she told herself. I am the Imperatrix Ceasarina, and I can go wherever I’d like. But her internal monologue’s attempts to convince her conscious mind that everything was fine did not change the reality of her conundrum whatsoever, and she could feel her anxiety increase tenfold with every step she took. She brushed her fingers against her thigh holster, checking to see if it was still there.

 

As she crept closer to the hangar where her personal ships were stored, the corridors grew more silent, and throngs of servants dissipated into tiny clusters of robots hovering a few feet off the ground. Aleskynn’s laughter faded into nothingness, leaving only the haunting hum of air conditioning and eerie electronic chimes behind. The air felt stale, suddenly, and less perfumed than it had been before. More tension hung in the atmosphere, and every one of Acidalia’s footsteps felt as loud as a nuclear blast. Still, she moved forward, trying desperately to control her fear, pushing it underneath layers of determination. If it came down to it, she’d fight her way out of here. She had to. Otherwise, the consequences would be immeasurable.

 

She was almost there, now, almost to the hangar, and the silhouette of the Revelation loomed in the distance. Acidalia hurried her pace, wishing she’d had the foresight to wear flats instead of these ridiculous heels. But she could change later when she was safe and sound someplace else; every one of her ships was stocked with enough clothing and accessories that she could live in orbit for years and never repeat an outfit. The Cipher family was materialistic that way, and when Acidalia’s grandmother had this shipyard built, she probably wasn’t considering the possibility of her little girl turning murderous and starting another civil war. Poor Harmonia, Acidalia thought bitterly. Being Alestra’s daughter was bad enough. She couldn’t imagine what raising her must have been like.

 

Then again, Harmonia had died young, probably at Alestra’s hands. So maybe Acidalia could imagine. Not for the first time, she shuddered, and tried to pass it off as a response to the ice-cold air of the hangar.

 

She was so close, so close she could see her target’s shadow flickering in the false candlelight. She wouldn’t be like Harmonia—she wasn’t half as spineless or as shallow. She had a plan and an escape and a means to get away and a revolution behind her and a brother who loved her and a thousand other resources that the stars never graced Harmonia with. She’d survive this. She’d survive, even if it meant fighting Thanatus off herself. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to.

 

Suppressing nervousness with arrogance, Acidalia made her way across the hangar, well aware that she was a sitting duck for any sniper. There was nothing to hide behind, and her heat signature was probably painfully obvious, a splotch of red paint against a backdrop of cool blue. At least a bullet in her skull would be a quick death, she reasoned. Only a few more paces, only a few more steps, and—

 

There was a person sitting on the Revelation’s steps, gazing up at the sky.

Acidalia’s heart skipped a beat before resuming its pulse faster than ever before. The woman seemed to sense her presence, and she turned, smirking. Her smile was scarily perfect: two rows of impeccably straight teeth surrounded by candy-coated, sparkly, blood-colored lips.

 

Salve, Cassiopeia,” Acidalia said breezily, though she was forcing the words out of her mouth. Every instinct in her body screamed at her to run, but there was no escaping now; there’d be a fight this evening, whether with bullets or clever wordplay.

 

Ave, Acidalia,” Cassiopeia replied, her voice icy. “What’s a girl like you doing out this time of night?”

 

Shoot her, Acidalia’s subconscious screamed. Shoot her! But Cassiopeia wasn’t dumb enough to do this alone—impetuous, maybe, but not dumb. She’d have reinforcements, and murdering their leader was bound to incite even more violence.

 

“I’m going on a short excursion to Mars. I have meeting with President Arlen Tycho regarding the quality of the latest Utopian warships.” It was a plausible lie; Cassiopeia had no way of knowing who on Mars was responsible for what, and there had been issues with Utopian warships in the past, though they had more to do with Revolutionary sabotage than oversights in Utopia Planitia. Still, something told Acidalia that Cassiopeia wasn’t here to listen to her stories about Martian shipyards.

 

“That’s interesting.” Cassiopeia’s voice was gentle, but there was something dangerous in her eyes, electric green and burning like Greek fire.

 

“I must ask what your purpose here is,” Acidalia added, well aware that any wrong move could cause this woman to snap. She had always been about as stable as a decaying radioactive isotope, and just as deadly, too.

 

“I think you already know that.” And with that, Cassiopeia’s voice shifted; she lost the saccharine awe most people took on while interacting with the Imperatrix and replaced it instead with an angry roughness.

 

“I’m afraid I do not.” Sometimes playing dumb was the best option. Acidalia reached into her dress for her pistol.

 

“Isn’t it obvious, Cipher? I’ve come to finish what I’ve started.”

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