The Third Class Princess woke up coughing, surrounded by moist mist and toxic smoke. Around her the ship was torn apart; covering her mouth and staring at the nearest monitor, she was quick to accept the inevitable.
The ship had endured more than eighty years of voyage, twenty more than they hoped it would survive. As a vessel its days were over, but what a wonderful pyre it would be. The Princess rushed her search, knowing that as Second Class, she was expected to play an active role in her own end - none of this going quietly into the Underworld.
She opened a side panel, in which, against the protests of her companion and the ship’s simple mind, she had smuggled various weapons. Checking her sensors, she found the only active life-signs hers and her feeble companion’s.
Confident that they were not being assaulted, she ran towards the prow of the ship. The majority of the systems had been destroyed beyond repair, the culprit laying in the middle of the chaos; the irradiated projectile of a fire-thrower of the Hegemony.
The Princess approached, sweating comets. If it was to blow inside the hull, it would be enough to reduce the entire ship to dust. A cable moved, making her turn and point a weapon in that direction. A lean mean figure of long fingers emerged from the darkness, narrowing his eyes in disapproval; it took them an eternity to even give a side glance towards the engine of destruction.
“Do not worry about this.” Slave-Scientists had no grades or classes, and even if they had, none would encompass Doero Prodótis’ unique genius. “I disarmed it. The ship is beyond repair, but at least we will not be claimed by fire.”
“How did the Hegemony find us? We braved the furthest routes and uncharted systems.” The Princess lifted her head, haughty towards the Fates. “All to end in the cold void that birthed us. So be it, but let it not be said that Iphigenia left reality shivering in a corner.”
“Probe-Escapeboats.” The Slave-Scientist ignored the fatalistic words of the woman, focusing in different issues. She took this opportunity to pay attention to his tired eyes and weakened limbs: he had not been awakened by the conflict. His worn body betrayed that he had been roused multiple times in order to perform repairs. The mystery of the ship’s longevity was not a mystery any longer. “They patrol between the systems of Captivity worlds, auto-aiming for the faintes life-signs they detect. Treacherous nasty little things; nothing compared to the great ships that pursue us.”
“At least I get to bid your farewell.” The Princess held his shriveled form within her arms. “My dearest accomplice, who will now carry the torch of rebellion?”
“You will.” Something groaned behind Iphigenia, the woman feeling a painful twinge in her neck before she could turn around. Her eyes rolled, Prodótis stuffing a rag in her mouth so she would not bite her tongue. “I was hoping to not have to proceed with this plan, but there is no other way. Relax, Princess, try to remember everything you are, for all of that must be sent. I’m working with a very old mind-state framework.”
Lights blinked, Iphigenia struggling not to fall unconscious. The Slave-Scientist had fully mapped her ego, sending it across the starts to accomplish their mission.
“What will be of you?”
He averted his gaze, measuring how many lies he could tolerate to bear.
“There is not enough time or energy to send another complete copy. I had some older mind-states, out of date but trustworthy. I can splicein some personality, pick my knowledge apart and assemble that mess into something resembling an human intellect. I will manage.”
“A horrible man until the end.” Iphigenia coughed, holding Prodótis’ hand. “I forbid you; do not send me. If only one can go, it must be you. You are the one that can craft all those beautiful things, the one that offered the glimpse of a universe beyond want and the evil it spews forth.”
“Cruelty still reigns over the homeworld, Iphigenia. I would not survive alone in such savagery. It must be you, there are no alternatives worth discussing.” The Slave-Engineer kissed her with more despair than passion. “No matter how broken I am, find me. No matter what it takes, promise me you will never give up looking for me. We already lost too much time, I cannot stand another life without you.”
She closed her mouth, trying to form the right words. Her eyes shut for the last time, promises unsaid.
Orcus felt the Sun burning their face. They reached blindly for their hat, failing to find it. Bored and with little patience left, they forced themselves to open their eyes, letting only the bare minimum light slip in.
They caught the glimpse of something just as golden and bright. Lidia stood in front of them, her long loose hair, hood lowered as she tried on their rustic hat.
“Does it look good on me?” She asked, adjusting it slightly. “A bit too large for my empty head, don’t you think?”
It could not be real. It must be some more of the Greek’s trickery. Orcus’ heart betrayed them; for a moment forcing them to share the memory of a blond child, dilapidated and snotty, holding that same hat.
They dared to believe that even immortal giants could have their dreams come true. They pushed her aside and got up, looking around to their sheep; there they were, grazing or resting under that shadow of the few trees atop the rolling hills of Etruria. They were not imagining things, the woman was really there. Lidia embraced them - all of their considerable girth, - crying, unabashed by any of the dignity expected of an adult woman. Pure, unrestrained emotion.
They had missed her so much.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry! It was my fault, Orcus.” Lidia refused to release them. “If I had stayed here, the others would still be alive. I could have protected them.”
Orcus did not project any response to that. They had escaped whatever had destroyed the previous group by severing the tenuous bounds they shared. Wars and departures had changed the tone of the Corvii into something they could no longer call family.
Lidia let them loose.
“My actions since my return have been disappointing. I am yet to take the reins in a way that my responsibilities demand. I was so convinced that I would restore the Nest, offer Rome some New Corvus.
While the giant was happy to see Lidia, they had no patience for those lacking in conviction; they prefered to turn their attentions to the cattle instead. In a gesture of gentle affection, they sent Lidia an image of herself, glorious while leading a small legion of Triumphants.
“An army?” Lidia covered her mouth, chuckling. “I would be happy with five!”
The good humor vanished as the woman noticed the burns across Orcus’ arm. Without waiting for permission, she grabbed the limb and got her face closer to it, eyes bulging and mouth agap.”
“Impossible! How did someone hurt you?” Aeneid touched Orcus’ gray skin with her nose and took a deep breath. “The wound is quite fresh. Who could have done this? Goats never had strong elementalists, the Phoenix had that Dido Felix or what was her name, but she died without a replacement during the Punic War. No faction in this corner of the world should have someone this powerful. I should know, I have been looking for them.”
Orcus pulled their arm against their chest, gently massaging it. To ease Lidia’s speculations, they presented her with a recollection of the events that had transpired, a young woman rushing across portals and corridors underneath Etruscan catacombs. She did not seem to be there willingly, fearful of every shadow, her face twisted by terror; something jumped towards her, forcing her to call down a pillar of flames.
“That garb does not leave much space for doubt. That was a Vestalis.” Lidia crossed her arms, describing circles around Orcus. “There are at least four temples of Vesta whose communities still support the old priest order. It might not be much but it limits my search to less than thirty people. That is already something.”
She stared at Orcus, her eyebrows arching in a pronounced manner.
“If you know something, you must tell me, Orcus. The wrong people cannot get to her before I do. Rome needs her. I need her.”
Lidia adjusted her aim.“Who is Quirinus, Orcus.”
One of the sheep bleated.
“Who is Quirinus, Orcus.”
Orcus looked to Aeneid top to bottom. They put one of their enormous hands over the tall woman’s shoulder.
“There is no way he could be one of us, right? I am ready to do all that I need, but I can’t raise my hand against family.”
Instead of a reply, Orcus grabbed Lidia as if she was a child, holding her in their arms and walking away with heavy steps. As their living beard caressed the woman’s face, they showed her a vision of the Nest. Not the ruin she had returned to, the true Nest.
“Alright, enough talk. Let’s go home.”