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.

***

Updates every Friday.

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12. Mutata Fatum

The Revelation was beautiful from its perfectly-polished floors to its inexplicably high cathedral ceilings, which was precisely what Athena didn’t like about it.

 

First of all, it was made with taxpayer money, like everything else Acidalia owned. So, in a way, the Revelation should be Athena’s and everyone else’s—its cost had come out of their paychecks, after all, and from what Athena could see, it was probably not cheap. It had top-notch shielding and cloaking systems, and way too many onboard weapons for a luxury spacecruiser, but even that wasn’t really the problem. The problem came with the frills around the edges—the completely unnecessary, inane decorations that turned every piece of the ship into a shiny, sharp work of art.

 

It was maddening, really, the thousands of credits that had gone into designing this thing. It had floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out into a starry nothingness, bisected occasionally by the laser-light glow of another distant starship. It had glitteringly clean floors polished by a staff of needlessly adorable white robots that skittered around the place like dinner plate-sized mice. It had art, mood lighting, chandeliers, centerpieces at every table, gourmet food, feather-stuffed pillows, stocks of makeup and inordinately fancy dresses, and a collection of shoes that probably could have made Athena a multi-millionaire if she had the courage to steal and pawn them. Honestly, she could probably make a killing easily by selling all of the Imperatrix’s junk on the black market—Acidalia was rich enough not to notice.

“How much do you think this costs?” she asked Carina absentmindedly, balancing a silver-colored decorative hair comb between her fingers. It had about two dozen little pearls, but she had no idea if they were genuine or not. But would someone as important as Acidalia even own fake pearls?

 

“Stop it,” Carina said. “She lost her brother less than an hour ago. Now is not the appropriate time to steal her things.”

“She’s a multiquadrillionaire, it’s always an appropriate time to steal her stuff. Eat the rich, right?”

 

“That’s mean.”

 

“You don’t understand my desire to be edgily controversial at absolutely all times,” Athena replied, pocketing the comb anyway. Even if Acidalia eventually emerged from the massive, overly elaborate museum-with-a-bed she called a bedroom to come collect her belongings, she wouldn’t care that Athena had taken one small thing. Not if she was at all unlike her mother, at least. From the corner of the room, Carina shot Athena a death glare.

 

“This is my ship, sorta,” Athena said defensively. “It all comes from taypayer credits, you know that?”

“That isn’t how taxpayer supported things work,” Carina retorted.

 

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I just know that stealing is impolite.”

“The Imperial family stole my money.”

“Taxes aren’t stealing.”

“They are when they benefit rich individuals instead of society as a whole.”

Carina groaned. “Where did you even learn about politics? I asked you who the Proregina of the Lunar Colonies was last week and you couldn’t even give me an answer, but now all of the sudden you know about taxes?”

“I’ve always known about taxes. Or, more specifically, how to commit tax fraud.”

“That is astoundingly illegal and stupid.”

Athena gasped in mock offense. “Don’t speak to me like that in front of my 27 dependents!”

 

Carina didn’t even bother to dignify that with a response. She turned away, rolling her eyes, while Athena giggled just out of her view. She didn’t feel that bad about stealing from Acidalia—the staggering income inequality on Eleutheria was enough to displace any feelings of guilt she may have ever held. Dead brother or living brother, money was money, and Athena going on an impromptu vacation to wherever this resort-with-an-engine starship was heading would almost definitely cost her a job. She didn’t particularly feel like being strapped for cash again—especially not while surrounded by some of the most excessive luxury she’d ever seen in her life.

 

Actually, no, scratch that. The most excessive luxury anyone could ever see in their lives, period. Acidalia was rich beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. The amount of money she had was too large for human minds to even comprehend. Quadrillions of credits. Quadrillions. She had more credits to her name than there were stars in the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy combined. This was fuck-you money of the highest order, and most of it came from citizens like Athena—citizens who stressed about rent and affording necessities and paying off bribes and medical debt. Why should Acidalia get to have fancy pearl-encrusted hair combs while ordinary Eleutherians grasped at straws to afford basic cybernetic implants? That was bullshit, Athena thought. So it really didn’t matter if she stole stuff from Imperial cruisers or committed tax fraud every single Aperire; her crimes were all victimless.

 

***

Two hours later, Athena was dressed in an incredibly fancy dressing gown that looked like exactly the type of thing the Imperatrix would wear to bed. It itched—a lot—and she never would have thought to put it on if there wasn’t such an abundance of hidden pockets beneath the fluff and diamonds. (Who sleeps in diamonds?! she thought.) Her plan was to pretend she was cold, and hopefully Acidalia would let her borrow the stupid bathrobe and never question the fact that all of the beauty products and jewels were missing from her vanity. Honestly, judging by the thin layer of dust that sat over everything not clearly accessible to the cleaning robots, Athena assumed Acidalia hadn’t used this ship in a while, and would thus be unfamiliar with where things were stored. And, even if by some misfortune she took notice of all the mysteriously vanished valuables, Athena could just blame it on ‘staff.’ The Imperatrix had to have staff, right?

“Do you think this place has maids?” Athena asked absentmindledly. “Or butlers?” Briefly, she pictured rows upon rows of frozen maids packed into storage like Han Solo in carbonite, just waiting to be woken up. The royal family seemed like the type of institution that only gave people human rights when it was convenient for them.

 

Carina looked up from the magazine she was reading—some sort of science-y looking journal on biology. “No,” she said. “Acidalia doesn’t like them.”

“She doesn’t like… servants?”

“She likes robot servants because they’re more private. I kind of understand—having actual humans hovering everywhere and watching you constantly could get kind of annoying after a while, I guess. But Aleskynn used to make fun of her for it all the time—normally they don’t really view the help as ‘people,’ so to speak, so she doesn’t understand why anyone would be disconcerted by the constant presence of Ministratoras.”

 

“That’s kinda messed up,” Athena said.

 

“A lot of things in Aleskynn’s life were kind of messed up.” Carina thumbed through another page, looking bored. The magazine was marked 4045, so all of the articles were probably outdated already. Part of Athena wondered why someone as wealthy as Acidalia Cipher would still use print media, but the other part of her already knew the answer: aesthetic and pretentiousness.

 

Another few minutes ticked by, punctuated only by the sound of Carina lazily turning pages. The rest of the ship was suspiciously, worryingly silent, and if Athena didn’t know better, she would have assumed that she and Carina were the only two people aboard. Maybe it was because the Revelation had some kind of fancy noise-cancelling technology, or maybe Acidalia’s injuries were worse than they seemed and she was either incapable of moving, or worse. Athena didn’t know how she felt about that possibility.


She opened another drawer of a dresser that stood in the hallway. There was a crown in it, an elaborate headpiece too large to fit in a dressing gown pocket. Athena picked it up and appraised it in the light, wondering if she could pry any gemstones or shiny platinum pieces off and hold onto those instead. Then, with disappointment, she noticed that the jewels were brown instead of blisteringly white. They held diamond fire, but they were so discolored it was hard to believe they had any sort of value beyond industrial applications. Athena wondered why Acidalia would have a tiara like that, then she noticed the handwritten note attached to the brim with a curled-up white ribbon—I thought this would match your eyes. <3 Aleskynn. The metaphor was clear.

 

Bitch, Athena thought, and slammed the drawer shut. She had half a mind to send the spoiled princess a vial of cyanotoxins with the caption “I thought this would match your eyes.” It wasn’t even the fact that she’d insulted Acidalia that bothered Athena—it was the gossipy, too-cowardly-to-say-it-to-her-face passive-aggressiveness. Though, to be fair, she didn’t know why she expected anything more from Alestra’s daughter.

 

There was nothing much left in any of the other drawers—there were books, but none that looked valuable or even interesting to read. They were mostly indecipherable ancient texts and classics that nobody but Acidalia would even want, and though they had gilded edges and artfully decorated covers, Athena didn’t dare risk stealing them—they were all embossed with A.P.C. on the first blank page, and that made them traceable. Kalyn had taught her years ago that you couldn’t take anything if the police could trace it back to someone, and these books certainly weren’t worth that risk. Then there were piles upon piles of notebooks, all made of leather and filled to the brim with what looked like the ramblings of a madwoman—the same sentences and song lyrics, repeated over and over again—until Athena noticed that the penmanship improved between the first and last pages and realized they’d probably been used to practice Acidalia’s immaculate, looping calligraphy. Under those were datadrives, which Athena very clearly didn’t have the genome to open—they all had tiny iris scanners at the end, so only the Imperatrix would be able to view them. And, just when Athena was beginning to think this entire thing was worthless, her hand brushed against food packaging—which turned out to be concealing a small collection of healthy snacks that no person in their right mind would willingly consume.

 

“Look at this,” she said to Carina, holding up a shrink-wrapped package of very crumbly, grainy-looking pastries. “They took cookies, and made them healthy. Who does that?”

 

“People who want to cater to rich women who constantly think they need to lose weight.”

 

“Lose weight? Acidalia has the tiniest waist I’ve ever seen.”

 

“It’s the corsetry,” Carina said.

 

“Still, Jesus. Out of every person I’ve ever met in my life, Acidalia is the one who should be concerned about her body image the least. All of the uppercrusts are genetically-modified mutants with abnormal metabolisms; why would they of all people be concerned about dieting?”

 

“Aleskynn was seventy-four pounds when I met her,” Carina shrugged. “Being raised by Alestra gives people weird views of themselves. Besides, how do you know they even taste bad?”

 

Athena tore open the package and took a tiny bite from one cookie. She wrinkled her nose. It tasted exactly like—no, worse than—straw. “Just take my word for it,” she said.

 

As she looked around for a garbage can, the sound of tiny, delicate footsteps echoed down the corridor, and she realized with irritation that they must belong to Acidalia. Carina instantly stiffened, standing up like a statue and brushing her hair behind her back so it looked neater than it was. As if Acidalia—Acidalia the high queen, Acidalia the almighty—would pause for a second to notice how tidy and organized Carina Stellara, random scientist with no clout, looked. She was so far above such things that even trying to make an effort felt worthless.

 

Still, for reasons she didn’t entirely know how to explain, Athena stood up at attention anyway. She stared at the door with strange fascination, wondering why her heart was pounding so quickly, waiting for something, anything to happen. And then, with an extremely anticlimactic swoosh, the door moved sideways, and the Imperatrix Ceasarina entered in all her glory.

 

If Athena was told that this was the same woman who’d barreled past her into this ship a few hours ago, bearing news of a dead brother and a murder attempt, she wouldn’t have believed it. This Acidalia looked astoundingly different from post-assassination-attempt Acidalia, yet so inexplicably like her at the same time, and it put a bad taste in Athena’s mouth. She bore such a strong resemblance to her late brother that their relationship should have been obvious in hindsight, but her face was utterly, completely neutral—almost relaxed—and she did not seem at all like someone who had just lost the closest family member they’d ever known. Judging by T’s impassioned reaction to his sister’s imminent demise, Athena had assumed they were very close; apparently, that assumption was wrong, because Acidalia clearly hadn’t shed a single tear. She looked every bit the put-together dictator the media liked to portray her mother as—the only thing missing was the scary blue eyes.

 

“We’re about two away from the Mare Acidalium Quadrangle,” Acidalia said softly, yet briskly. “The cloaking seems to have held up for this long, but I know that there are probably dozens of ships lagging just a few hours behind us. I will let you decide what you want to do when we land, but I want you to know that I cannot stay, and you will be targets if anyone ever finds out that you spoke to me.” Her posh, lilted accent and calm tone didn’t match her words at all,  which was almost more frightening than if they had.

 

“What do you mean, targets?” Athena asked. “Nobody saw us, we made sure of that.” She actually hadn’t made sure of that, but she’d taken the liberty to assume that nobody would question two young women dressed in gray wandering around a hangar at night. They were both wearing standard grays, common enough for them to be mistaken for practically any caste, and neither had any key distinctive features for anyone to remember them by—she hadn’t worried about their identities being revealed at all.

 

“Alestra sees everything,” Acidalia said, “and there is a very real possibility that you will be hunted down and imprisoned, killed, or imprisoned, then killed.”

“What, no torture first?” Athena joked. Carina shot her a death glare, and she muttered a sheepish “sorry.”

“If that’s a genuine question, then yes, they absolutely will torture you first,” Acidalia replied, utterly nonplussed. “I know you both came here to warn me, and that is an honorable thing to do, but it is incredibly risky, and now that you are here, you have my mother’s attention—or, at the very least, you will very soon. My plan is to rendezvous with David Seren—you wouldn’t know of him; he’s a reasonably high-ranking authority on Mars—and return to Eleutheria, hopefully with the Martians backing me and David and his family on their way to safety. I don’t know where you would like to proceed from there, but you need to understand that after what you’ve done today, there can be no return to normalcy for either of you.”

“Yeah,” Athena said, ignoring Carina’s petrified look, “I kind of assumed that when I snuck out in the middle of the night to tell my best friend’s mom about my other best friend’s friend’s mother trying to commit—is it filicide or regicide? Sorry, I’m not too up to date on my murder terms.”

“Stop trying to be funny, this is serious,” Carina hissed. Acidalia gave a humorless smile.

 

“So what you’re saying is we’re totally screwed,” Athena continued.

 

“No, not at all,” Acidalia replied, equally as casually. “Many people have committed acts of treason and lived.”

“That’s not how the media makes it look,” Carina said shakily,

 

Acidalia sighed. “Always question the media. I don’t want you to think you don’t have options. You do—many of them. I just want you to know the gravity of your situation, and how impossible a return to what you might call ‘normal’ society will now be for you. I can give you a list of paths to choose right now if you’d like, but being regular caste Scientias again is not on it.”

 

“What if we don’t want to be regular Scientias anymore?” Athena asked.

 

A spark flared suddenly in Acidalia’s brown eyes. “Then you’re in a better situation than I predicted.”

 

Athena could already see where this conversation was headed. “This is going to end with an elevator speech recruitment pitch type thing, isn’t it?”

“Do you want it to?” Acidalia asked.

 

Athena hesitated. Was this it? she asked herself. Was she really joining an anti-Alestra revolution? Two days ago, she’d been laughing at the excessive glamour of the Ciphers, who were nothing but glittering silhouettes in a far-away place on a television screen, and now she was standing right in front of one and speaking to her like this was all normal. A week ago, she was laughing in the break room about how much it must suck to be forced into the ridiculous life of ceremony and politics the ruling class set up for themselves, and now she was genuinely considering entangling herself in the complicated games they were playing. This was, in every sense of the word, completely insane.

 

But Eleutheria being torn in half was insane. Ciphers killing Ciphers was insane. Acidalia’s very existence as an Imperial dauphine and a traitorous bastard and a rebel leader was insane. Everything else in the world had lost its mind and any sense of sanity it might have, at one point, held, so maybe Athena could afford to go a little nuts, too.

 

“Yes,” she said, and with that, she could almost feel Morta raise her scissors. But, strangely, she didn’t much care.

 

***

A/N: Sorry for the missed week! I had stomach flu :( I was going to try and get a chapter up anyway,  but editing is like the last thing you feel like doing when you're throwing up, so I would up not getting much of anything done. Thankfully, I seem to be over it, so updates from here on out should continue as normal! Thanks for putting up with my absence. -Wren

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