The Third Class Princess woke up coughing, surrounded by wet mist and toxic smoke. Around her the ship crumbled to pieces; 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 expected it to survive. As a transport vessel its days were over, but what a wonderful pyre it would be. The Princess speed in her search, knowing that to die as Second Class she would have to play an active role in her own end.
She opened a side panel, in which against the protests of her companion she had smuggled various weapons, as well as additional internal sensors that answered only to her. The only active life-signs were hers and the shaky movements of another being.
Confident that an assault would not be an immediate risk, she ran towards the prow of the ship. The majority of the systems she found destroyed beyond repair, the culprit laying down in the middle of the chaos, the resting projectile of a fire-thrower of the Hegemony.
The Princess approached, sweating comets. If one of these were to blow inside the hull would be enough to reduce the entire ship to dust. A cable moved, making her turn and point a weapon in that direction. The figure of a lean mean figure of long fingers emerged from the darkness, narrowing his eyes in disapproval, finally giving 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, not a single category could encompass all of Prodótis unique genius. “I disarmed it. The damage has been done but at least we will not be claimed by fire.”
“There is still time for that to change. How did the Hegemony find us? So many years traveling, through the furthest routes and uncharted systems to avoid interception.” The Princess lifted her head, haughty towards 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 choose to ignore the more fatalistic words of the woman, focusing in different levels of the issue at hand than those that worried the Princess. She was paying attention to his tired eyes and weakened limbs; he had not been roused by the conflict, clearly wandering for a long-time before performing repairs. The mystery of the integrity of the ship was not a mystery any longer. “They patrol between the systems of captivity worlds, aiming for even the weakest life-signs they detect, all to prevent any escape. Treacherous nasty things but 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 carry the torch of rebellion now?”
“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 her mouth with a torn rag just in case she would bite her own tongue. “I was hoping to not have to proceed with this plan, unfortunately there is no other way. Relax, Princess, try to remember everything you are, for all of that must be sent.”
Lights blinked, Iphigenia almost falling unconscious. The Slave-Scientist had fully mapped her ego, all in order to send her 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 backups, out of date but trustworthy. I can slice some personality of, pick my knowledge apart and assemble it into something somehow resembling intellect.
“A horrible man until the end.” Iphigenia coughed, holding Prodótis’ hand. “I forbid you from send me. If only one can go, it must be you. You are the one that can craft all those beautiful things that offered the glimpse of a universe beyond want and the evil it spews forth.”
“Cruelty still reigns over the world that is your destination, 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, rising his hand to protect their large eyes. He felt 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 between their fingers.
They caught the glimpse of something just as golden and bright.
Lidia stood on top of them, her long loose hair, hood lowered as she tried on their rustic hat.
“Does it fit me as well as it fits you?” She asked, adjusting it slightly. “A bit too large for my empty head.”
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 blonde child, dilapidated and snotty, also holding their hat.
Them 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, grazing or resting under that shadow of the few trees atop the rolling hills of Etruria. They were not imagining things, that 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.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry! All that happened has been 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 ties they shared with them. Wars and departures had changed the tone of the Corvii into something they could no longer call family.
Finally, Lidia let them loose.
“My actions since my return let much to be desired. I am yet to take the reins in a way that my responsibilities demand. I was so convicted that I would restore the Nest, offer New Corvus to Rome.
While the giant was happy to once again see Lidia, they had no patience for those weak of confidence and lacking in conviction, preferring to turn their attentions to the cattle instead. In a gesture of gentle affection, they send to 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 quickly vanished once the woman finally noticed the burns across Orcus’ arm. Without waiting for permission, she grabbed the limb and got her face closer to it, eyes bulging and gaping mouth.
“Impossible, how did someone manage to hurt you?” Aeneid touched Orcus’ gray skin with her nose and took a deep breath. “You have not been bathing in the Styx, not that would change much for you. And the wound is a quite fresh one. Who could have done this? Goats never had strong elementarists, Phoenix had that Dido Felix or what was her name, and she died without a replacement during the Punic War. No faction in this corner of the world should have someone this powerful.”
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 one of us.
Instead of a reply, Orcus grabbed Lidia as if she was not heavier than 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, the true nest.
“Alright, enough talk. Let’s go home.”