Chapter 3: Jolie Rouge

Already seconds ahead, anticipating what’s going to happen next, small beams radiate from the suit, the Exo utters, “how the fuck…”

Eysin leaps back up, her mask of a face looks angry and focused at the prick. For a short moment – she appears to be growling. Deeply annoyed, but not at all hurt by the punch. Her suit flashes and blink – she’s fast, back at his face, and the prick doesn’t even know what’s going on anymore. She manages to get out three incredibly strong punches before Daegan and the sparring Exo pull them apart.

“You’re out, buddy,” the Exo says and lets the prick run.

While all this was happening, the rest of the prick’s team was getting swiped out by the ladies.

Daegan had to hold her still until she stopped struggling.

The beams stopped, she was coming off it. “We’ll finish the match,” the Exo says, “best take her to the pool.”

“Going to be a hell of a hangover, I imagine.”

 

The last group had been hiding somewhere, and they were only too relieved to hear that the match is over – but since they had not collected any flags, they weren’t winning anything, either. Unless you consider titles a prize – because they got dubbed the Coward Club.

* * *

Daegan took Eysin back to the temple room with the orb and the pool. Just when they enter the room – as if reacting to their arrival – the lights change and the air turns red.

Nearing the pool Daegan placed his hand on her face – a very specific spot between the ear and the eye and mumbles some gibberish. That little trick removed the visor and revealed her whole face. She looked lost, confused, and elsewhere.

“How the fuck do you go from not getting a suit on straight to trance…” He supported her walk, “are you coming to…”
She heard the voice but couldn’t understand the words. She couldn’t make sense of what was happening, what had happened… She looked at him and recognized him, and tried to say something, but all that came out was a doubtful, “aww…”

“We’ll sit here until it wears off, okay…”

She only sat because she saw Daegan taking a seat – with his feet in the pool. He gently pusher her into the water, and she complies. She could hear all the sounds that he made but realized she still couldn’t make sense of any of the words – and realizing that – a kind of panic started hitting her. She’s lost her mind, she realized, now, in the water, retreated herself close to the edge of the pool, planning to come out – but since the water was calming her body, she didn’t want to lose that one last good feeling, either.

“One, two, three, four, can you understand me now…”
It felt like a hypnotizing song. 20 minutes straight, he asked once a minute, perhaps. But instead of starting to understand, it lulled her to a strange sort of sleep – dreaming but awake and aware that she should remain alert, as she was hanging out in the water and could easily drown if she forgot about it.

But in that dream – she was not there in the Temple at all. In a non-place, and then back at her Reval bunk, at Andre’s workshop… The basement where they met with friends, years ago. Waking up with a man she hadn’t seen or heard of in years. Assessing her life conditions, and as thought kept travelling, she noticed that darkness loomed over her – reminding her she’d lost the path and made many wrong choices. She’d drifted so far off from where she had always thought she’d end up, and repairing all that has become an impossible challenge.

Lost in life, and felt like a plaything for others. Others, who may have been equally lost, but found comfort in bullying others. Her view of her own life terrified her, depressed her. Until at one point she indeed did hear, “one, two, three, four…”

“What the fuck?” She could speak again and immediately started crying. Not moving from the water.

“I don’t know how, but you just experienced a battle trance…” He didn’t seem to worry about the crying – the emotions around coming off the zerk, and the trance are all normal. Her entering the trance was not. The only thing he wondered about. He also knew it would take a good few other minutes before he was going to be able to have a conversation with her at all.

“No, worms.” She said as if she had to protest against something Daegan had said. ”Everything is worms. Little worms, big worms – it’s disgusting!” She’s talking nonsense, but has to start somewhere – the words are coming out again, and it’s a relief! “I really would love to have some pancakes!” She suddenly says very cheerfully. “I love the colour red. They serve pancakes at the bar on the weekends – strawberry ice cream. Oh god, I hate what’s happening.”

Daegan had people behave this way before, so, all the nonsense didn’t confuse him. He also knew better than to not try to make any sense of it.

She covered her face with her hands, rubbed her face, took some deep breaths, didn’t speak for a couple of minutes, then walked back to the edge of the pool, near where Daegan was sitting. “A battle trance…” Sounded as if she was stating, but was asking.

“Yeah… It’s unusual for someone on your stage. Normally you’d be better prepared – we’d be better prepared. Anyway, I’ll go get you a robe – you’re going to notice that the high you get from shifting from normal to zerked has its equal counterpart, too. Coming off, after you have been in it for hours, getting used to the physics – your own body will seem kinda lame.” He stood up and headed towards the stairs, “best I can tell you now – don’t get too surprised by it.”

That’s why you rarely see any Exos taking off their masks – it is less about the anonymity – and more about the discomfort regarding switching from one view to another – of course, everyone prefers to remain nimble, lightweight, and crazy strong – and retain the possibility to see all around… Personally, Daegan just had a different attitude – enabled to the fact that he had gotten unusually comfortable with the highs and the lows. Most never do. There might be only a few Exos who are like that, and they prefer to not show off.

He disappears for a few minutes and returns with a ritual robe. Eysin had seen those before, she had once stuffed the washing machines with hundreds of them.

“Coming off should be even worse if you have experienced the trance… So, best you take it slow – remain in the water through the whole thing, okay?”

“Did I fuck up bad?”

Daegan turns himself around, but doesn’t go too far from the pool, sits on the floor, and starts smoking something. “I think you will have a difficult time with yourself… And you will take a week off.”

“Why, am I being punished?”

“No… You will just want some time off.”

* * *

He was right. Eysin returned to the dorms that afternoon and felt tired, slow, heavy. And when she lay down on her little bed, a weight familiar from the dream-like state from earlier reappeared and started weighing on her soul. All alone in the world, disconnected from absolutely everything she had once been attached to, nurtured, developed, built…

Ejected and rejected.

Even though she had physically come quite a long way – a few months of training already had made her so much stronger and more endurable. She could run for longer, and climb over obstacles, and not get immediately worn out by it all. But she discarded all that and compared it to how she felt and could move with the suit – normally, she was a weak, useless maggot. So easily crushed.

And She dreamt, dramatized how everything she had built, nurtured – had turned out to be so fragile – and had turned out to be so exploitable, or for someone else. She’d been a fool, and sometimes even a very dangerous one, at that.

“Come on, I’m not back here, am I?” She says to herself, eyes closed. Did I screw up because I did something I wasn’t supposed to? Poked around sensitive places that aren’t meant to be poked around with? A puny, bad, rotten force in the world, exists only to irritate someone else’s progress… Come on, I’m not back here. I have decided it before – my death would not improve a thing… I just have to stop myself… Oh who the fuck am I to stop anything?

For the next week – she slept 15 hours almost every night.

During the day she wouldn’t do much, either. Denea had recognized what is going on with her, though. She didn’t know anything about the trance but remembered that the first time, after a more exerting match with the zerk – coming off it had made her rather depressed, too. She was out for a whole week, too. And the way she had a bit of support from her roommate back then, she offered to Eysin, too.

“We’ll go take a long walk around the island, smell some tree bark and crumple some dry leaves. Throw rocks into the water and scare birds. Then you can come back here and sleep all you want, okay?”

They never talked much, but that one day at the sea, Denea thought it might help her know, “most people are not ready to wear it, you know… The weight of real life – it’s too soon. But I have seen from myself – and others – as we mature… We learn to accept the heavy stuff… Like lifting weights – we become accustomed to it – and can start lifting more.”

“The problem isn’t the weight of the world – but my relative weakness in it.”

“Hey, none of us is meant to take on the weight of the world… And I don’t think we humans were meant to take on the weight of our lives alone, either – we were, by design, meant to share it…”

“What do you do… When you shared it with all the wrong people… All in…” Eysin loses her thoughts.

Denea thinks of an answer. “Oh… Well, before coming here – I was in Reval, too. But you might not know – I wasn’t a local, not even from this country. I was trafficked here.”
Eysin knew something about trafficking. Hearing she’d been trapped in it in any form made her cringe. But she didn’t want to comment.

Denea continues, “I am an EESO rescue… They set us free and let us join here… So, unlike you – I didn’t come here and start out alone…”

“Who’d you come with, then?”

“Another rescue like me – my best friend… She’s specializing as a medic here.”

“How come you’re not roommates with her?”

“Ah…” It didn’t look like Denea wanted to get into that. “If you come alone here, though, it shouldn’t matter – I made friends here, too. And they are good… Way better than I could dream to be… I was very competitive and defensive, when I think about it now – I hate how I used to behave… But they accepted me anyway… And in time I started behaving more like them. And I think you will get to enjoy the same.”

* * *

Before the next week started – on a Sunday evening – Eysin went back to the temple for a little bit, looked at a “fun” match by some older gladiators, and then went back to the hall with the Orb. She hoped to see Daegan around.

She stopped at the edge of the pool and stared right across – the large orb. She recalled that the whole room had turned red at that time – but right now it was orange and blue. “You can heal us, huh?”

And as she said that – the room turned red again. And a few moments after, Daegan appeared and saw that she was there – kneeling near the pool, trying to see what caused all the redness. The glowing marbles at the bottom of the pool.
“Are you coming back?” He yelled from the platform above.
Eysin looks up, “I’ve come with some questions.”

* * *

“Battle Trance is a specific configuration for very high stakes situations, it takes years for us to develop one… So, it surprised us all that you’d knock it out of the park here like that…”

“You call that a Trance? I lost my mind!”

“You sacrifice a lot of your normal senses to focus on one thing – surviving the situation – full adrenaline. If the instinct is to kill, you will have no use for words – so, that’s why you were experiencing aphasia.”

It wasn’t just the loss of meanings of words to Eysin that had made her feel uncomfortable – it made her experience the sensation one does at absolute defeat.

“Defeat? Well, don’t we all have some unresolved issues… Look, it takes a while to get used to this, and in time, the aphasic effect will also reduce – or at least you’ll get out from it quicker – or… You simply won’t be surprised by it anymore. Everyone who experiences it for the first time – even when they have heard what I just told you – absolutely everyone gets freaked out… But usually, we’re more prepared… We wouldn’t have anyone experience it during a match… There are rituals and all that…”

“Well, you shouldn’t let unhappy people wear these…”

“I’d say I healed my unhappiness with her help!” He pats his chest and then changed his tone. “But how you could figure out how to go to trance within the first day of wearing the thing – now that is a mystery…”

“It’s not a mystery to me…”

“I’d guess as much.”

“Hey, tell me, why is it glowing red now? I’ve not seen this before?” Eysin looks at the water and sees some pink marbles were bleeding red light.

“Well, the orb always knows what’s going on – so, the assumption is – it’s trying to help you recover. Recovery seems to happen faster in red light.”

Eysin reaches into the water and picks up one of the glowing marbles.

“Hey, I’m not sure you’re supposed to be doing that…”

“It’s fine…” And it’s warm. And it does make her skin feel different. Any ache and stress that was – is now removed.

“Hey, you ever carry these just around and have this happen?”

“Yeah, the medics have little devices that can achieve the same effect. But they are very… Intricate devices – difficult to use… They get special trance-like states like we do, too – but they use it to diagnose…”

The Crisis Mode.

“I’ll have you meet one the next week if you like – they can teach you a self-healing trick.”

“I have another ask… Can you show me what happens to trigger a trance? I want to know so I can avoid it – turn it off if possible… For the time being.”

“We all build our own – your logic may be very different from mine, so I would have to take a look at your zerk and the framework.” He readies his Kaestus for reading. “But I recall one of the Exos was interested in teaching you – and he knows everything about control.”

“You recall? And how did you find out?”

“We talk. He was asking about you, starting the lessons, I guess.”

She felt a little reluctant to learn under that Exo – afraid that her small misdeed of copying his framework might somehow come up. Would it be considered as theft? Will I get kicked from the guild?

Daegan takes her hand, ready to explore her framework. The logic and shortcuts I see are usual for… A very experienced close-quarters specialist… And I have seen such a configuration before.

“Can you show me how to control it or not,” she gets impatient, fearing that he’s figuring out that the framework

wasn’t built by her.

“You’ll never have use for such an extensive arsenal… That’s damn rare stuff here, how the hell do you even have it? I know this can not from Andre.” Andre wasn’t a combatant… But Daegan was already guessing where it’s from – the arsenal looked familiar. There was only one man on the island who collected all these weapons’ blueprints.
“You would never be able to pull off these moves – these are not appropriate for your body – use these programs and you’ll simply pull yourself to pieces… How do you have another Exos settings, Eysin?”

She slowly takes her hand back, and lowers her head.

“Should I even ask if you’re any good at keeping secrets?”

“I want to know, but not so eager to broadcast it.”

“I copied this Exo’s framework configuration and adjusted it to myself… I thought I had seen all that there was, and I noticed there were a lot of missing slots – but this one – the trance thing – I had missed…” And she had no idea what all the fuss about an arsenal was.

“What do you mean you copied it?”

“Back at the Temple Guild… I figured out how to make copies of blueprints – mostly to get done with the temple building blocks faster.”

Copies were used in other contexts, he had heard of it before – even the very guy who collected the weapons – many of the blueprints he had owned had been copies. But he knew only that blueprints – the plans for something could be copied – not a live zerk, or a temple building block… Unless she has really figured out a way how to make a blueprint of a live thing…

“I use my Kaestus for it – learn the code, the signature – and press it onto a blank – one of those pink ones – but you’d also have to account for counters… So, they’ll be two blueprints to even out the intricacies someone’s personal, genetic signature would cause… With temple blocks, there was no such problem, and the process was faster… With the framework – I needed his framework and his signature…”

“Oh, that is curious, indeed… You could copy an Exo’s framework – and he has been developing it for many years…” Daegan thinks, stares at the ceiling for a while. “The possibility to do such a thing has dangerous implications… You may have uncovered a serious security threat…” He falls silent, sights set towards the ceiling, but you could see from his eyes, he’s elsewhere.

“Am I in trouble?”

“On the contrary, you’ve discovered something important.”

“He didn’t know that I took it…” She almost as if protest against him telling about it to anybody.

“He won’t have to find out, just between you, me – and Vinu, for now. And take up on that Exo’s offer – he’ll teach you some neat stuff that will take you on another level.”

* * *

Not knowing what Vinu Laos would do about her discovery made her nervous. She was afraid for the worst – that she’ll have to return to the Temple guild – do more boring Kaestus-related work. She could remember in her gut the feeling she felt each time Leon turned down each of her new ideas.

“I have an idea about the swarm,” before even knowing anything about the Gladiator guild – she had gone to Leon with another idea to keep her stay in the guild fresh and challenging.

“The Frenchies had a lot of ideas about the swarm, and they spent a lot of money on it already – already 100 years before you were born, pretty. I doubt you’ll have anything to add. There’s some fascinating literature on it, though, but you must promise me you keep it to yourself.”

Eysin had accepted the documents and learned a few interesting facts about the swarm and its drones. They were likely invented by the Americans, and they are connected to the start of the new era count – meaning, they have been flying around, filling up the sky for some 300 years now.
It had likely been a United Nations project to prevent missiles from taking the air – and sadly, later, to also to enforce worldwide lockdowns. To prevent pandemics, riots, uprisings… Which, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. Nowadays, people have gotten very used to the two-week lockdowns twice every year – it’s just a natural part of life…

Every time, just before the lockdowns – magazine sales went up – and Eysin remembered having capitalized on that very well.

But back in history – the swarm had gotten out of hand when one party started using the drones for other types of control. The zero-year world war… Ended up with The United Nations getting dissolved, all the operators of the swarm – killed – and the swarm remained masterless, hanging in the air even now, 300 years later.

Soon after, the Americans rejected all Eesian technology – preferring their production – full control and knowledge over it – and all the worms had either escaped to South America or here. Whatever it used to be before – the U.S.A. or something – now is unknown to the rest of the world – walled itself off, and is guessed to be an isolated, over-technologized society.

The author of the study didn’t seem to mind, though, ending the story with commentary along the lines, “at least they are not intervening in the matters of the rest of the world, anymore. Unless… They secretly are behind the drones, still.”

The Frenchies had spent a lot of resources trying to clear the sky and study the drones. It’s also partly why their knowledge about Eesian technology is so extensive now. But the Clear Sky project had been a big failure. Somehow they had managed to build drones of their own – ones that could take air and get close to the swarms – hoping to wipe them out with a remote-controlled robot sky-war – but seeing just how many there were – billions and billions of swarm drones, refreshing every week… They simply had to scrap the project – the swarm outran their budget, and humans’ dreams of flying a plane or sending a rocket out remained just dreams or a thing of the past.

But how could the Frenchie drones get to the sky? Why didn’t the swarm take them down as soon as they were high enough… She needed to know more – if there were any of those drones still in existence, if there was any information about those drones at all…

She’d gotten in touch with one of her more neutral friends from the past and accessed the large, messy internet. It was filled with all sorts of fantastic stories about the drones – conspiracies, fairy tales and the like – but one story stood out to her, most.

Behind the swarm had been just one man – who also was one among the first to have donned Eesian gear. Folk accounts had it he had been a cunning bastard. Tall, handsome, extremely educated. And the swarm had been his idea to stop flight pollution, space missiles and hastened spreads of various viral diseases. For what it’s worth – he nailed the effects – after the collapse of the old world – those problems no longer existed. Now we can busy ourselves solving these worm problems.

She returned to teacher Leon the next week and asked him a couple of questions, but he had chuckled in annoyingly once again, admitting that he had never read too much about the projects and had no idea. “If people smarter than us,” Leon protested, “didn’t pick up on anything, why would you and I imagine, we could?”

“They didn’t drop it because they didn’t find anything,” she protested, “they ran out of money.”

“That settles it even quicker, then. If the French can’t fund it, how can we?”

“The point is to try to find a cheaper way to do it. Worth looking into, no?”

“Look peas, if you want to save the world, you’ve come to the wrong guild. I don’t have the funds, you don’t have the funds – and someone needs to clean 300 robes – and since you’re the rookiest of us all – it’ll be your turn all day every day for the rest of the week.”

It wasn’t the cleaning that had turned her off about the Temple guild, the hundreds of robes put into washing machines for the rest of the week. She liked the robes, the machines were hypnotizing, and the smell of the cleaner was pleasant. But she got turned off because she had, to her mind, found a good solution to the problem everyone had been focusing on in the guild now – making copies of the blocks quicker… We could take on any other project in the world! Why is he doing this? And Leon simply hid it under the rug.

That evening she had seen an offer for a position back in RESO – and guessing that the Nords that were chasing after her had all gotten caught and eliminated, she assumed it would be safe to return, and actually applied for it.

A position with good pay and a good title – the very one she dreamed of when she still was in Reval. And oh, even though her arms were in full raw pain from lifting clothes in and out of washing machines that day, she still would have had it in her to raise one arm for one more thing – to show the middle finger to Leon.

She didn’t hope to get any response to the application at all, but they responded within the same hour – signed by a familiar name – Kamile. But the response was only half good news. The plan got cancelled by budget and they will get back to her in a year – to check if she’ll still be interested.
She snapped out of it and figured that getting out from EESO wouldn’t be so easy anyway – the contract had been pretty strict, she’d have someone from Brotherhood hanging around all the time, she couldn’t even talk about or use anything she had learned here – no, that’d be difficult.

Too difficult – besides, she’d rather just figure out how to get to work on a tad more interesting projects right there.

Not wanting to let go, she did manage to find more information about the French Drones from parts of the web not many knew how to look at. And there had been an artifact – one of those silver-white bracelets – that would hold the blueprint of the drone – but where was it now, nobody knew. Lost when the creator of the swarm allegedly got murdered and hidden.

A bracelet, just like that, huh. She recollected the images she had seen on the web – and was playing with the three she had on her own. She’d not yet worked on decrypting them – and she was about to attempt it, but Denea entered the room and asked if she’d like to join a party. At that very party, Raynar asked her to join the Gladiators.

After getting reminded of those bracelets before she jumped into trance – by that lady – she got right back to it – she had no problem finding those bracelets now – but she found that the way they were encrypted, would take a bit of time to figure out. Still too much of a rookie.

* * *

“Hey, can we discuss the spot in Titan…” Daegan pops his head in.

“I was hoping you’d leave that spot for Seals for when she returns.” Without moving from his table, but visibly getting distracted by the visitor, Vinu now looks at the man slowly walking in. He remembered now, indeed, they had planned to meet and discuss something about the Titans and some novice.

“I barely have enough funds for one… I can’t afford her.”

“She’ll be for free, and you’ll continue to be exempt from having to pay anything for using the Garage.”

Daegan had reached out to Vinu, to have him approve Eysin into his guild. Things seemed to be going her way for once – she’d have access to more sensitive information, stranger projects, and technology.

In retrospect, this matter didn’t get enough attention, Vinu had gotten too busy – he had kept himself more in-tune with the people who lived on Oeselia, but ever since Theogenes announced he now has better hobbies to attend to than the whole EESO business and all the land they had accumulated – Vinu had stopped having all the free time had used to enjoy.

Vinu and Daegan had become close over time, and it all started at a social event – where Daegan had joined as a novice Eesian, and Vinu hung out just because he loved to take time for such events.

He used to know everyone in the guild, personally. But those times now were over – the guild had gotten bigger than he could handle – and there were no other old men like Vinu around.

It was not possible to prevent the novices from using the drugs, or playing dangerous tournaments – occasionally, people died because of either. And when Theo had once suggested banning this or that, Vinu admitted that it would not help, “our fault lies in not being there anymore. Brother, it has fallen out of our hands where the guild goes – so we must seek ourselves a liability partner. And I propose them to be the Brotherhood.”

Theogenes ignored everything he had said and said what he was itching to say, instead, “Vinu, I’m thinking of going exploring again. Siberia is calling, the news about the site…”

“But they will hold the vote tomorrow!”

“I remember, Vinu, and I know…” Theo knew that he’d get voted as the next king. Theogenes was not too pleased about it, he wanted to move away from this place. A series of losses had finished him with a harder blow – he lost his son to a yellow marble overdose.

The king-to-be’s heart was broken, and he didn’t think he’ll bounce back from that again… Until he heard of the finds in Siberia. Something amazing had been found, something unheard of – a sunken city, thousands of years old – fully, Eesian technology.

He was invited to come and take charge – as he was the most experienced Eesian technology- and culture specialist in the whole known world. Theo knew that would help him move past what had happened to his family. A new purpose – away from where he had built a home, a house – and where it all had fallen apart.

“I don’t think you and Bratka will manage it, either.” He did hear what Vinu had said, though, and he finally responded – but only to convince Vinu that what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go, was the best way forward, “you are absolutely right, we have lost them – EESO is no longer ours – the young ones are taking over – and I think we should let it go in whatever direction it must… Besides, Dux August wants to buy.”

“He took your son’s bride and now he wants your life’s work, too? He smells like a crook, and you know it.”

“I have already promoted their ambassador as the head of Temple Guild for a show of good faith.” Theogenes lights a blunt, looks out of the window – knows very well this conversation will last for a while, and simply embraces it – and Vinu, as they come.

“And I wondered what the whole fuss about Leon was. You already made the deal? Without talking to me first? What the fuck am I here for?”

“You are the wisest advisor in the whole realm, my friend! Look, I sold him a small part of the land, and they own humble 10% of the temple now. I mean… August wanted in so badly, I just couldn’t stop wondering why… If a man is this curious to get in – why not let him have a look.”

“The land you confiscated from the boys? You didn’t do it for the money – and you don’t have any great feelings about August – so you made a really stupid decision just to get back at your only, last son and their friends? You focus on this petty shit, what’s wrong with you?”

“I do realize it’s my fault…”

A long pause follows, Vinu has no idea what faults Theo is currently admitting to.

“I mean, we let it grow too big. No longer as nice and warm and tight-knit as it was. And it was my idea – to bring them here from Reval, the orphans, the refugees, lost followers, and soon enough whoever the fuck wanted.”

“We have many skilled people, and the strongest force in the region, your decision made sense. You will be made king because of your decisions.”

“Oh fuck that! I thought it was the right thing to do – to have people like us make the school, the guild, teach our ways, our fathers’ ways… So this region would be safe – from the raiders, from the Black Sea… Or whoever the fuck else might come. We were getting ready – and it was a good start – but it got out of hand. We should have kept it small, like Black Rain… You can see it – RESO is most likely suffering from the same problems we are – if not worse.” Being in the city, access to the underworld – as direct as it can get. “Ours are defended by the trees and the sea, no underworld here… Well, that’s not true anymore, is it.” There now is an underworld on their land – they were not in control of it, “before we know it, Vinu, it will push us off from our little thrones. We are no longer in control of this.”

“I can’t leave this ship, I won’t. I need to find a way to be here for it in a better way – in the current form and size that it is – what is the best way I can keep EESO on its original tracks – to prepare… And not go to war… I’ll stay and make sure no one in this guild will rise to power only to abuse it.”

Looking defeated, Theo lights another blunt, smokes it for a while, and then turns to Vinu again, “You and I are not alive to try to hold the whole world from falling apart, Vinu – who were we to take such ideas in our heads in the first place…”

“Well then, explain to me – what is the idea behind going to Siberia? What are you hoping to do, what are you hoping to find?”

“Peace… For me.” He smiles, but in a shy way.

“And you’re willing to hang an axe above the whole world just to achieve what – inner piece?” Vinu was getting bitter.

And to Theogenes – he had not crossed a single line – to another man he might have responded with something cruel – but because he knew Vinu had been through the same – just before him – he must have been right.

“What about that, then, friend – if you still find the world so precious – I say I won’t go to help the Japanese. I will go for us – we’ll keep the territory to ourselves – we have the means to control it – they won’t attack us – you make sure I will have people to come, man the site, and I will make sure that of any new information we get – EESO will be the first, and hopefully the only ones to know.”

“I don’t want EESO to know – what I want you to guarantee to me – when you go – and find something… World-breaking – you find a way to eliminate it – and not a single soul will know that such things are even possible. You remember, if it’s all just an accident – and our access to these weapons, purposed for whatever they could be – is accidental… If it turns out that they were not meant for us – you’ll find a way to turn it all off.”

Theogenes agreed with that and then had turned around to ask what could be the most ridiculous clothes they could wear to the election the next evening.

He basically showed up like a very old and fancy time royal person – and as a result of the act he pulled at the event, he had hoped – the other houses would see him as if he had lost his mind, and hoped they would vote for someone else – like Dux August – but still, even after embarrassing himself – most houses trusted his position and power – and honorability – to take the place of the now-dead king.

* * *

The moment Daegan had stepped into Vinu’s office, he had sensed this was a poor time for a longer conversation – by the way Vinu sat, arranged things on his desk, looked outside the window, and checked the time – it was obvious that he needed or wanted to be somewhere else.

It irritated him, but he understood – in a sense, even better than Vinu and the not-king – what was going on. He took his time to slowly pace himself to Vinu’s bar cupboard, poured himself a drink, looked at the window, and noticed that a caterpillar had recently turned into a cocoon, hanging from the curtains.

“Hey, would you look at that,” Daegan raised his glass towards the cocoon and directed Vinu’s attention to it. Vinu stood up and went closer to see.

They stand still and observe it in silence for a moment.

Nature. “Nice, but we better get back to it,” Vinu mumbles, returns to his desk, and looks, impatiently, at Daegan.

And this makes Daegan want to slow down even more. “Did you know… That caterpillars keep growing in size – but their lungs always remain the same size?”

“Did you come to discuss biology?” He got a little irritated!

“They keep growing in size, but their lungs don’t catch up… Which means – at one point – they suffocate on their size – they run out of air.” He raises the glass towards the cocoon, again. “Their lungs do not meet the requirements of their fully grown bodies anymore – and that’s when the molting starts.”

Vinu listened, and it made him tilt his head, “huh,” he mumbled.

“You’ve been hard to come by lately. Busy with the preparations for the expedition?” Daegan sat down at the table now and finished the glass.

“Yeah, I’ll go to Novograd, make sure enough people are allowed to pass…”

“Anyone signed up yet?”

“Nah, I’ll have the assistant make some posters, we’ll put them up so the people coming to the Pits this year might see it. Would be nice to have some of the Brotherhood or Black Rain guys tag along.”

“What’s the pay?”

“No pay for you, Daegan, you’re not coming.”

“So, you’re leaving me to babysit?”

“I’ll be away just a few months, everything is arranged. And no, I’m not leaving you to babysit, Theo just doesn’t want you there.”

“So, the Grand Ass’s still pinning his death on me…”

“That’s the would-be king you’re speaking of, do not put me in this position…”

“But you like it when I’m honest,” Daegan smiles to himself. Vinu had always believed his story and still seemed to fully trust him – that he couldn’t convince the would-be-king in it – didn’t worry him so much. Of course, being on the right side of Theogenes would never hurt, but he was going through it rough – and there was no real use in trying to make their perspectives on reality seem more accurate than Theo’s.

“Hey, who was it you wanted to discuss anyway?”

“The one you told me to pay attention to. Ravana.”

“Ah, Eysin… How’s she handling?”

“She’s resourceful. Not much of a team player yet, but resilient – with a bit of help. A little dark-minded, but surprisingly sober…”

“Not surprising.”

“Isn’t it? For a young person like that, not to get her head hit with the power…”

“She’s had power, before.”

“Oh… Well, that’s what I’m here for – if you had any information on her… What else can I know about her – who is she, where did she come from? She knew Andre, that much I know…”

“The battery and the glove this woman has – were Andre’s. Now, what’s curious to me – how did Andre manage to scrub himself off the marbles to the point that someone else could install them…”

“How did Andre even find her? Some romance thing?”

“Doubt it. He mentioned he had taken in a stray, and before the shit hit the fan, he’d asked us to come and see that she gets back to Perona, safe. Apparently, he had no idea who she was.”

Vinu chuckled a bit, going back to the moment and trying to make sense of what was happening. He had gone near Reval with the Brotherhood, and the brothers had gone in, to extract some people. Soon, Koi Jr. and Eysin appeared at his camp, she looked sickly – and he knew what had been going on. She had ingested the marbles Andre wanted to be taken out from Reval.

They had been Andre’s marbles – and they contained sensitive information about the current head of RESO. Vinu smiled, he was pleased that this problem had now been solved. But not so please that it was Dux August who had taken the place of the traitor. Dux August will possibly fail to do any better.

“It’s Andre’s framework and his computer that she carries.”
In a way, Andre’s coming back home… “So, what is her experience of power?”

“Completely unrelated to Andre or us. Have you heard of The Red Flag Group?”

“The communist magazine?” He couldn’t help, Daegan snorted a laugh. “The Communist Magazine in which everyone used to be named Jolie Rouge!” Daegan recalled a picture he had seen reported in some old paper – a photograph of some 3 young people, all with hair painted red and had angry expressions on their faces. Except for the one with big tits and big, curly red hair. That one was smiling – very memorable – absolutely for the smile.

“Yes, the one… Many years back – the kids involved with that took down the biggest business abusers of the Reval system – through exposing them, spying on them – so, basically, they were a random bunch of hackers, journalists, infiltrators…”

“And she was one of them?”

“She was the original Jolie Rouge. The whole project was her thing, started and led by.” Vinu said this with a surprised smile.

“So, Eysin is a little communist?”

“I don’t know about that.” He shrugs and takes a moment to think if politics ever came up with her, he couldn’t recall.

“The paper was different back then… What I take from her story,” that he had read in another magazine, ”however – she can be very resourceful, and she can take down a bad guy. I was going to take her in here one way or another – Andre seemed to have liked her, so, I trust that… But when I started looking into her – to make sure she’s not going to get us in some kind of trouble – I found that she’d been involved in that. She started that movement – and it changed the face of the city – for the better. An impressive force – and that’s why I wanted you to pay attention to her.”

“She seems quite humble now. She should be well known, yeah?”

“She has had her Humiliation Round, too… After taking down the Traffick Corp – the biggest impact one could dream to have against the human trafficking in these parts – they gained a whole lot of popularity all over the region. She wanted to remain anonymous, and the other Rouge, the one with the big melons – she wanted to get all the credit for the hard work they had done – see, they were all pretty broke, and none of them liked to work for a living – and guilds didn’t take in people outside their networks just yet.
Eysin had later shared this in another magazine – why she got out from The Red Flag Group – and how it all went down. She had announced that The Red Flag is over – they had completed their mission and it was time to pack the bags – and would have had printed this announcement the next day – but Erika, her partner at the time – the one with the big melons – stopped the press of that issue and continued to do without her.
But they started writing about something else – they had accumulated a large audience and started using that paper to broadcast Erika’s… Whatever – communist philosophy… Eysin managed to convince the printer to stop working for the fake Red Flag, but Erika retaliated.
The remaining Red Flag started terrorizing that old printer but left him alone as soon as they built their own. For the next issue Erika made public the face and name of Eysin Ravana – the original Jolie Rouge – with all the accurate credit – but only to hurt Eysin – because she knew – no company would hire Eysin – and she’ll wither and die without Erika’s support in Reval…
Andre told me he had found her wandering on the streets, she had planned to return to Perona. He offered her an alternative.”
Where she met Andre, and now she’s here. “I’m asking her for my guild because she’s started an interesting personal project.”

“This to do with her interest in Clear Sky?”

“What? No, nothing of the sort. She has figured out a way to make copies of… Not blueprints – but frameworks, and more alarmingly – people’s signatures. She copied one of the Exo’s framework – without him even noticing it – and said she’d done it back at the temple guild, too…”

“Curious… A copy… And it works? You’ve seen proof?”

“It worked on her suit. Her suit didn’t activate at all – maybe because she was trying to run it on a completely scrubbed framework – but then she, how did she put it – copied another person’s framework settings… Cleaned it up and used it on her own.”

“This connected to that sudden trance case I heard about?”

“Yeah…”

“God, I’d love to have the time to talk to her myself. Fucking Theo with his fucking expedition… So, for now – take care of that situation… And please, keep Seals busy – and make it look like a punishment, okay?”

“I think what she can do could be a help to recovering the Titans.”

Vinu falls quiet and thinks for a bit. “Okay, you can involve Eysin with the Titan Project – everything she needs to know – but you MUST keep a close eye on her – and these techniques of hers absolutely cannot leak.”

They discussed a few more things about access and resources, and when exactly he will be back, and then their time was up. Vinu’s comm started beeping a lot and that meant it’s time to go.

“Vinu, one more thing – why do you think Leon would keep such a thing from us? Eysin had shown him that she can do this… Surely he must have noticed the potential of that technique… Or is he going dim?”

“He may have known, but kept it to himself.” Vinu stands and they shake hands. “Keep this copy-ordeal under wraps until we’ve had time to think it over. Under no circumstances is she to reveal this to anyone. You’ll be responsible for it if she does, get me?”

“Sir. What do we do about Leon?”

“I’ll have Bartel check it up when he returns – you stay busy with the guild…” He looks at Daegan as he reached the door, and before he manages to open it, Vinu adds one more thing. “About your biology lesson, Daegan…”

Daegan had hoped he’d bite through the analogy, it made him smile.

The analogy had been simple. When the body of EESO had still been small, Vinu had a reach to anybody – and no matter how much he wished he still could, and it could grow endlessly – that phase was done – and if Vinu wanted to remain a part of this… Organism – he’d have to find himself a new purpose. But just because he loved to have the occasional snappy last word:

“I’m not a fucking butterfly lung.”

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