Outworld/Repurposed Peoples Collective X37F

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The Centre Of Operations

Author: Axle, after Iteration I

The Centre of Operations on Repurposed People's Collective X37F is an imposing building. Bright, colourful propaganda vids are projected onto the large front facade, accompanied by cheery marching tunes, blaring out from large speakers. Posters adorn the remaining available space, showing heros of the Combine, and covered with slogans espousing “THE GLORY OF UNITY” and reminding people that “TOGETHER WE THRIVE”. One of the posters, showing Axle, and advertising the Volcorps, has been defaced, red painted words advising the citizens to “FUCK THE COMBINE”. It will be replaced soon. Other signs of dissidence are everywhere, if you know where to look. Industrioclast symbols have been scratched into metal street signs. Hurried glances and secret signs are shared between shuffling citizens. Coded messages hide on seemingly innocuous pamphlets.

Inside the Centre, hundreds of Revcorps bustle. Organising propaganda, and events. Marking more and more citizens down for re-education. Sending orders to Volcorps extraction teams, arranging programs and vids and Libcorps parades. Anything to stave off the surge of industrioclasts.

If you are looking for Axle, you will be directed to an unobtrusive side door, near to the back of the main hall. Going through the door, you will find a small, plainly decorated office. A desk, two chairs, a large propaganda poster on the wall, and another door, leading to her quarters, nothing more.

If you go into her quarters, you will find only a bedroom, and a small washroom. The bedroom, again, is very sparse. A single bed, with a thin mattress, an almost ragged blanket, and a pillow like a stone, take up most of the space. She could have shaped herself anything, but if anyone cares to ask, she tells them that this feels like home, that anything nicer would not be suitable for a Volcorps soldier. A small table near the bed hosts a little light, and a little manual counter, almost like something you would use to show the date, except all it has are numbers, no days or months. The number it currently displays is 3. It is resting on a small, typed note, which reads. “I will be visiting soon. Remember comrade, your current goal is 40. Find your strength among your comrades. - Valve.” Next to the counter is a simple, shining golden medal, the only thing in this room which looks cared for, and a cloth for polishing it. Axle is leading an extraction team today, you don’t take items of value on those missions.

The walls of the bedroom are covered in posters and photographs. Largely promotional material for the Symphony of Purpose and the RATA, or advertisements for the Volcorps. There are signed photographs of Valve, Crankshaft and Barrage, and a couple of less staged photographs as well, of crew birthdays, and awards ceremonies. A lot of the posters and photographs are faded, and peeling slightly off the walls. A newer poster, a promotional shot of the Victory through Persistence, has been placed in the centre of one wall. Gatling has been carefully scribbled out, with red pen, and written underneath, in a messy, uncertain hand, are the words “My New Friends.”

Getting Separated

Authors: Axle & Dynamics, after Iteration I

Axle pointed at the screen, the grainy video of the mock battle playing back to the recruits.

“Can anyone tell me where Comrade Drivechain’s team went wrong?” she addressed the hall of Volunteers, stood in their regimented lines, their backs straight and faces serious. This was the first time the Shaper had come to help with training at this particular academy. A young woman raised her hand.

“Yes Comrade?”

“They got separated after the main charge, Comrade Axle.”

Axle slammed her hand down onto the lectern, causing a number of the slightly less alert Volunteers to jump slightly. “She’s right. She’s exactly right. You do that against a Monarch in Shadow, you won’t even last to half way through the fight, and what good is that to anyone? The Combine operates as a team, people!” She slammed the lectern again at the word ‘team’. She relaxed slightly, and removed her ragged jacket, revealing arms criss crossed with scars, and mismatched, grafted on skin. She noticed the shock on the faces of the newest recruits and closed her eyes, a little weary.

“War is hard, Comrades, and we are the front lines. We get damaged, if we’re lucky, we get dragged out and patched up, and we get sent back out again. But we are lucky, Comrades. We have been given a second chance, to help form the Society That Must Be. But we aren’t going to form it like that,” she gestured at the screen. “Can anyone tell me the two other major mistakes that team made?”

A small amount of uncertain murmuring occurred, before a voice barked up from the back of the hall, “They wasted half their rounds firing from a distance they couldn’t possibly hit a target from, and in doing so completely missed the advance flanking them to the east: isn’t that right, Comrade?”

Heads all turned, and whispering rippled across the hall, familiarity with a voice heard cheering and shouting “For the Glory of the Combine!” on holovids, and recognition of a face plastered on propaganda posters across the facility set in as Dynamics stepped out and toward the front of the hall, with eyes tracking his every movement as he reached the front, putting a gloved hand into his pocket to withdraw a piece of paper which he handed to Axle.

“So I hear you have a Valtarian problem,” he grinned, light glancing off the mismatched goggles on his forehead.

Axle attempted, but totally failed, to give him an admonishing look. “Right now, I apparently have a problem with FacCorps interrupting my strategy briefings.” She gave him a grin, before turning back to the hall of Volunteers, who were straining to keep themselves ordered whilst simultaneously gossiping about the new arrival. “Comrade Dynamics is quite correct, although he failed to mention the lack of battle awareness which in his case led to what we shall from now on be referring to as the Grenade Incident. Meet back here tomorrow, and we’ll discuss what the other side did wrong, before going back out there again. Dismissed.” The Volunteers traipsed out of the hall, casting curious looks back at Dynamics as they went.

The Liberator, defaulting to a standard LibCorps stance of posing, returned the curiosity with smiles, salutes, and the occasional “I’ll tell you about the Grenade Incident another time,” as the recruits finally dripped out. He checked the last ones had properly left, before breathing a sigh of relief and leaning on the lectern, looking slightly wearier but nonetheless wearing a smile, “FacCorps presents its humblest apologies for interrupting your strategy briefings.”

Thrown by the overly polite apology, Axle went a little red, and found a scab on her arms to pick at. “I… I wasn't being serious, we were nearly done anyway. Don't worry about it.” She looked up again, “And thanks for coming, I kinda thought you'd be too busy… Facilitating stuff or whatever it is you do.”

“I ran out Facilitating to do after we opened the railway,” Dynamics shrugged, “And I’m quite glad of an excuse to get out of my own head - quite literally - and, well, you know, slaying Valtarian scum is exactly the sort of break I could do with.”

“Well, in that case, happy to help!” Axle grabbed her jacket, made an unsubtle attempt to use it to cover the worst of the ugly scarring on her arm, and headed for the door. “We have some planning to do, you coming?”

Dynamics froze, giving Axle a look like someone had told him the engines were going down on his ship, “You didn’t tell me there’d be planning!”

Axle gave a big, genuine grin. “Do they teach anything other than posing and hitting things at the LibCorps academies? Fine, I’ll think of a plan, and tell you. That sound better?”

Dynamics grinned,“Much better.” With a swish, he made to grab his coat for a dramatic exit, before realising he was already wearing it. Before Axle could laugh (or, indeed, not looking to see if she had), he also made for the exit, calling “I meant to do that!” as he did.

~

They lept behind the remains of what used to be a store cupboard, now resting on its side, under a rain of arrows. The air was thick with shouting and gunfire, and the acrid smell of whatever chemicals used to be stored in the plant. Axle pumped at the Cannon, recharging it, and then screamed, “NOW”. The pair of them lept up. Axle fired in a wide arc, followed by the smooth motion of Dynamics laser sword swinging above her head. They fell back down behind the makeshift defences.

“So, how’s Violet?” Shouted Axle above the din.

Dynamics nearly dropped his sword, but recovered with the skill of a Liberator in time to plunge it through the neck of an advancing Valtarian. “She’s, er, she’s fine. I think. I haven’t actually seen her since the Nexus, come to think of it.” He swung his sword round behind him, cutting through several trying to climb over the cupboard, the blade still glowing hot. “Didn’t think you liked her enough to - duck! - ask.”

“Right, enough hiding!” Axle pushed with all her strength at the top of the cupboard, and it crashed to the floor, sending the clambering Valtarians flying. She jumped over its remains, and swung at one of the knights with the butt of the Cannon, causing their jaw to break with a sickening crunch. Dynamics hardly needed to jump to reach her side, and soon his sword was swinging as she fired. “I thought she’d be over to your realm as soon as possible!” She grunted as a particularly heavy energy blast took out three advancing knights. “Figured she’d want to see that statue in all of its glory.”

“Well, I mean, she might have been,” Dynamics swung to the left, knocking the sword out of the hand of a knight flanking from the side, “But if she has, I must have been out,” he swung to the right, cleaving the gauntlets off the same knight, “Shaping the realm, or something,” he swung once more, from top to bottom, ripping open the knight’s helmet, “I mean, she might not have been at all. She’s probably more busy doing, er, whatever it is she does,” he gave the wobbling knight a kick, causing to fall over in a clanking of useless metal armour.

“Have you considered?” Axle ducked to avoid an arrow, then leapt back up and fired at the offending archer, “That maybe she’s waiting for you to invite her to visit?”

Dynamics stood stock still, momentarily forgetting the battle. “Um…” At that moment, the Valtarian archer took another opportunity to fire, this time at him, not at Axle. Without thinking, Axle shoulder-barged him to the ground, attempting, and failing, to block the arrow from piercing her side with her gun. With a grimace, she snapped the end off of the arrow shaft, swung her Cannon onto her back, and resumed shooting with a one handed pistol, so she could clasp one hand over the wound, and try to stop the bleeding. The archer was soon no more.

The Liberator snapped back to reality, his eyes drawn to the blood, and then to the advancing Valtarians on the other side of the remains of the cupboard. Enraged, he put a thumb to the button on the top of the sword and with one foot on the debris swung, a red shockwave flying out of the end and slicing through the approaching knights. “TAKE THAT!” the Liberator shouted, before ducking down as fire was returned, and turning to Axle, ripping off a red scarf and passing it over for a bandage. “Here, quick.”

Axle looked confused for a second, and then realised what he meant. Grabbing the scarf gratefully, she tied it tightly around her stomach, pushing the arrowhead in further, but stemming the blood. She thanked him, through gritted teeth, then swung the Cannon back round, and surveyed the few remaining members of the Valtarian strike team they’d been ambushing. “We’ve got them now. Just keep firing.” It was hard to say whether she was saying that to herself, or to Dynamics.

Dynamics nodded, and kicking debris out of the way shouted, “Come on Comrade: FOR THE COMBINE!”. The Cannon flared with the pulses of energy beams, and the pair advanced, with the Liberator charging sword-first into the quavering line of Valtarian knights, covered by bright shots of light from the Volunteer. Their morale broke, and the Valtarian invaders began to turn to flee. Dynamics grinned, turning back round sword held high and blood splattered across his goggles though his smile faltered at the sight of the injured Axle.

“You holding up?” he asked. Axle let the Cannon clatter to the floor, and staggered to a wall, her face pale. “I’m just, gonna….. Sit here for a little while, and do something about this stupid arrow.”

“Here, let me help,” he said, scooping up the Cannon and placing it more gently down along with his sword, “Sorry, this was entirely my fault.” Axle shrugged it off, untying the bandage and pulling up layers of leather and cotton to reveal a heavily scarred stomach, with one fresh new gash, oozing sticky dark red. She swore, and began poking at the wound. Then she reached into one of her pockets, and withdrew a well sharpened switchblade.

Dynamics crouched down to take a closer look, “It looks fairly clean,” he muttered, examining the wound, “Shouldn’t be too bad.” He held his hand out for the blade, “And no, I hadn’t considered inviting her.”

Axle handed over the blade. “Use the… use the Cannon to heat the blade. Lower setting. Then it cauterizes as you… agh… cut the arrow out.” She shifted position slightly, causing more blood to spill forth. “That way, no hospital.” She paused for a moment, talking clearly a strain, “And maybe you should… agh… invite her.”

“I mean, I suppose I could… should, even,” he applied the knife to the heat, letting it get hot for a few seconds. “Is that too forward? Is it not forward enough? I mean, I’m only just around to the idea that any sort of forwardness is - hold still a second,” he applied the hot knife to the wound, working with the speed of someone who’s had to do this too many times, “- necessary at all.”

Axle let out a long string of unrepeatable expletives as the hot knife went in. “DYNAMICS!” She shouted through gritted teeth, eyes wide with the effort of not screaming as her skin burned. “Arrow first! Love-life later!”

“Oh come on, don’t be such a Liberator about it,” Dynamics teased, though did duly shut up and focus on what he was doing, getting the arrow out and sealing off the flow of blood with the heat of the knife. “There, almost got it. Got a bandage, or something?”

Axle fished around in her pockets, and eventually produced a slightly grimy strip of cloth that could pass for a bandage. She threw it weakly at his head. “Fucking Liberators,” she shook her head and smiled weakly. “Sorry about your scarf, not sure all that blood’ll come out.”

Dynamics shrugged as he bandaged up the wound, mentally noting to request cleaner supplies for VolCorps next time, “The scarf was red to start with, if it stains it stains. Not like Gatl- er, anyone, is going to bring me up on it any more.” He tied the makeshift bandage securely, “That should do you.”

“Thanks, I… usually end up doing that myself, it’s nice to have help.” Axle began to attempt to stand up, using her gun as a wobbly crutch.

“Combine work as a team,” Dynamics said, simply, offering an arm to steady herself on, while scanning the terrain for any remaining Valtarians. She took the arm gratefully, and had Dynamics not been sensibly searching for enemies, he might have noticed a sad little smile cross her face. “Dynamics, if you want to see her, invite her over. It’s not actually that complicated you know?”

Glancing back to Axle, catching a brief glimpse of the smile, Dynamics’s smile faltered, “Opportunity are different though. They’ve got… weird ideas about, well, er,” his hand waved a bit as he tried to find the words he wanted, “weird ideas about life and, um, other people. As far as I can tell, you wouldn’t… well you wouldn’t catch an Opportunist taking an arrow for their, er, Comrade unless it directly benefitted them.” He sighed. “What if… what if she comes to visit and decides she can’t deal with the World That Must Be?”

Axle’s hand went to her wound, almost absentmindedly. “Valve used to be Opportunity, you know? And I reckon he’d take an arrow for any of us. Maybe she can’t deal with the World that Must Be, but, who knows… maybe she can?” Axle swung the Cannon onto her back. “You certainly aren’t going to find out by not doing anything. And hey,” she gave him a gentle push, “I bet she’d look well good in Liberator get-up.”

The Facilitator paused for a fraction of a second too long to pretend he wasn’t visualising something, but noticing the look creeping onto Axle’s face, he quickly spoke, “I don’t think she’s got the right mindset to be a Liberator though - however good she’d look dressed up as one. Have you ever thought about it though?”

“What, Violet dressed up in LibCorps gear? Nah, not really my type…”

“Ha, so what is your type?” Dynamics smiled, before realising quite what he’d said and quickly backpedalling, “Um, ah, sorry, that was, um, quite…” he awkwardly looked everywhere and anywhere but Axle, (who had, in an unusual display of clumsiness, dropped her gun on the floor) before trying to recover. “Ah, um, no, sorry, I, um, what I meant was more: becoming a Liberator? You know, some day?”

Having finished scrabbling around for her gun, Axle stood up, more than a little red-faced. She gave an unconvincing laugh, and gestured at her worn out clothes “And give up these glad rags for that shit you're wearing? No thanks!”

“I bet there’s a way you could spin it,” Dynamics began to muse, picking up his sword, “Wear something shiny underneath and talk about ‘The Spirit Within’, or something RevCorps would come up with, but to each their own.” Taking one last look over the battlefield he removed his goggles, “Ready to head back to base?”

“If by ‘base’ you mean “somewhere with booze”, then yes. Very much yes.”

~

“The Great Railway of Liberty,” Dynamics said, grandly, pointing at the mighty locomotive in the distance, “You won’t believe how difficult it was coming up with the name.”

“No, I certainly won’t.” Axle was a little out of breath, having to take about two steps for each of Dynamics’ strides. The train looked out of place in The Repurposed People's Collective X37F, all new and shiny, contrasting wildly with the run down VolCorps accommodation, and the grey, foreboding academies.

Either the disparity between the world and the railway hadn’t quite made it through into Dynamics’ head, or he was just incredibly pleased with himself, as he kept going, “I mean, airships would have been more efficient, but you can’t rely on them to steer themselves. This was a stroke of genius - Valve’s, wasn’t it?”

“Most genius ideas are. It’s certainly very… impressive.”

Dynamics turned around, though upon realising he was several steps ahead slowed down, “You should try it at some point,” he smiled. “Maybe come and see the statues? You can always help me work out what the hell I’m meant to do with the Violet one.”

Axle gave a flippant grin. “Break it down for parts? I'm sure the Combine could use an entirely purple academy!”

He smirked, “I’m not sure that having the word ‘Vynamics’ plastered over the walls would be good for the productivity of any of the Corps.” He paused for a moment, “But really, is it normal to flirt by building giant statues of each other?”

Axle frowned. “I honestly have no idea, I’m not really a “flirting” sort of person… Maybe it’s an Opportunity thing?”

“Could be. I’m not a ‘flirting’ person either, so I’ve really no idea…” he drifted off slightly as the train started to make its final approach round to the side of the People’s Collective, before turning back to Axle. “So you reckon I should just ask her? Straight out ask her?”

Axle smiled, although it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Of course you should. It’s pretty obvious you want to, so stop procrastinating.” She looked down for a moment, and then continued, a little more hesitant. “Were you serious about me coming to visit? I won’t come if I’m going to be in the way or anything…”

“Absolutely,” Dynamics said, smiling with a simple smile that did show in his eyes, putting a hand on his Comrade’s shoulder, “Axle, you are always welcome in my ridiculous territory. Your presence would make it considerably more tolerable as well.”

Axle’s smile turned shy and awkward, and her eyes fell to the floor. “I’ll um… try to find the time to do that then.” She looked back at him and grinned, a little uncertain. “Thanks again for coming, by the way. It was… um… It was nice.”

“Yeah, it was,” Dynamics smiled, accidentally leaving a pause for just long enough for it to be incredibly awkward before quickly tacking on, “We, should, er, we should do it again, some time. I mean the Valtarians. I mean killing them. Because, you know, they’re probably not going anywhere fast. I mean, not that we didn’t… oh look, the train!”

“You should probably get on that.” Axle gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder, or rather, the upper arm, due to the difference in height. “See you soon I guess?”

“Yes,” Dynamics nodded, “I’m not hard to find: just look for the giant statue of me.”

“Ummm” Axle’s face went red, “do you, um… want an ideologically reassuring hug?” She blurted the sentence out without taking a breath, and then fixed her eyes to the floor.

Without even hesitating, Dynamics replied, arms wide, “I would always like an ideologically reassuring hug.”

The pair embraced, and a few moments later (although a moment or so after the point that had anyone been passing by they would have noticed the Facilitator looking wildly around for some sort of guidance) they let go. Dynamics once again seemed to be looking everywhere except Axle.

Axle pretended not to notice. “Get on your train.” She smiled, “It would be a bit embarrassing if you missed it.”

“Ah, yes,” he agreed, turning round to open the door to the carriage, “See you soon, Volunteer,” he smiled, giving a salute.

“Catch ya later, Facilitator.” Axle returned the salute. She watched the train speeding off until it was no more than a dot in the distance, and then walked slowly back to her rooms, wrapping the memory of the stolen hug around herself like a comforting blanket, a little half-smile on her face.

On the train, Dynamics settled into one of the functionally designed seats, a smile on his face that didn’t necessarily represent his mind. Running over the events of the last days in his mind, he eventually sighed, and sat up, swinging a terminal in front of him as he began to type: “+++ COMMUNICATION FROM SELF-PORTRAIT TO THE AMETHYST TOWER +++”


Fame And Fortune

Author: Axle, after Iteration I

Axle was just about getting used to fame. She'd actually come up with an autograph to use on her photographs, and although she still got very flustered talking to her Comrades as a “Hero of the combine” she was no longer sneaking out for food in the evenings to avoid other people. Some things, however, still caught her off guard.

“Comrade Axle?”

Axle turned around to see a nervous young rhetanomic engineer in training, beautiful golden curls framing a pixie-like face, that accompanied a delicate, pixie like figure. She was the picture of innocence.

“How can I be of assistance Comrade?” Axle tried to give an encouraging smile.

The girl blushed. “Is…. Is it true you're friends with Liberator Dynamics?”

“Well, actually it's Facilitator now, technically,” Axle smiled, “but yeah, we're… good friends.”

She thrust a letter into axles hand. “Could you, um, give this to him, from me?” The poor girl had gone almost scarlet, and with a puzzled look, Axle nodded. The girl fled before Axle could enquire further, so she took the mysterious envelope back to her quarters, to write some kind of accompaniment.

-

The girl had clearly been in a rush. The envelope was meant to be licked and sealed, but it hadn't been done well, and it was laying open, temptingly, on Axle’s desk.

“I shouldn't open it. I should just send it off.” Axle looked to Bearing, the rat, for guidance. He squeaked.

“You're right. It might be industrioclast propaganda. I…. I should check. It's not like anyone will know…”

She looked around, just incase, and then pulled out the letter, and opened it up. A photo slipped out, and Axle went scarlet as she saw the same young lady from earlier, looking far less innocent, in a corset and stockings. She shoved the letter and the photo back in the envelope like she'd been burned, and stared at it in awe for a moment, before starting a letter of her own.

“Dear Dynamics,

A nice young lady in RevCorps asked me to send this to you. The envelope was open, and I may have caught a glimpse of the contents, which is … interesting, does this happen to you often?

Well enjoy it anyway, I didn't catch her name but I guess it's in the letter,

See you soon I hope,

Your friend,

Axle”


Anger Management

Authors: Axle & Valve, after Iteration I

Valve was uneasy as he stepped from the transport towards the front entrance of Axle’s Centre of Operations. It was a fine enough building, of itself, appropriately imposing and suitably plastered in pleasing propaganda, but it was not unmarred. The anti-Combine slogans painted onto posters, one of which was being replaced in front of Valve’s eyes, were not unexpected, Valve supposed, but were indicative of the work still left to do. Work left too late. He looked up at the apex of the construction, imagining the woman who dwelt there plotting operations from her vantage point, commanding legions, swaying hearts and minds with charisma and terrifying competence. He looked back at the defaced poster, rolled up and carried away for the furnace. He shuddered.

The volunteers guarding the door let him pass without incident, he expected they knew his face already. Valve found what looked to be the main staircase, and began to climb the multitude of stairs to the top.

“Where,” he asked a passing volunteer as he breathily ascended the final step. “Are Axle’s offices, if you please?”

“Oh,” the young man replied, looking suddenly frightened, then reassured, then concerned. “Er, she’s back down on the second level, in corridor sixteen, side-section B. I, er, can show you if you like?”

“No no,” Valve answered, sighing at the thought of more stairs. “I ought to have realised. She doesn’t live up at the top. I’ll find my own way.”

A few minutes later, a rapping was heard at Axle’s actual door.

Axle was reading a report on industrioclast activity that the revCorps had prepared for her. They had gotten used to her by now, and the report was brief, with a number of suggested solutions clearly labelled at the bottom. “Come in” she said, eyes not moving from the suggestions, still working out strategies in her head.

Valve entered, eyes doing a well-trained spot check of the volunteer inside. No changes except…

Injury to the right hand. Inquire about origin. Also, new affectation, pendant in shape of arrowhead. Inquire about symbolism.

“Good day Comrade,” he began, in his customary manner. “How are matters in your Realm?”

Axle looked up. “Oh, Hello Valve!” She smiled brightly, moving the paperwork to one side. “Would you like some um, tea? Or water? I can have some brought in? The realm is… “ she faltered slightly. “There are a lot of problems, but nothing the Combine can’t handle.”

“The Combine can handle anything,” Valve replied curtly as he sat. “But the practicalities of how, and at what cost, are always pertinent. Belief is paramount, but no replacement for strategy. Water would be nice, thank you. May I ask… did you hurt yourself Comrade?”

Axle pushed a small button on her desk. “Comrade Bolt, could you bring two cups of water into my office? Thanks”, she turned back to Valve, and then looked down at her hand, fiddling with the bandage.

“Yeah, there was an… incident. Sorry, probably should have let you know. It’s not serious, just a couple of cuts…”

“On a shaper’s hand. I’m less concerned about the nature of the confrontation, more on the state of mind that allowed you to react to the incident with somatic injuries. What happened?”

Axle looked up, and attempted nonchalance that came out a little too defensive. “I got angry at another volunteer and punched them in the face.” Then she looked embarrassed, but gave a sheepish half smile, as she continued. “Apparently I forgot I was holding a glass at the time. I recon he came out of it worse than I did though.”

“I’ve no doubt he did,” Valve replied with a single raised eyebrow. “Remember, Comrade, you are a shaper. Your physical well-being is no longer a concern, most of the time. How, might I ask, did a fellow Comrade raise your ire so greatly?”

Axle looked past Valve, sulking at having to make the confession. “He was being rude about Dynamics. People shouldn’t be rude about the Facilitator, it’s bad for Morale.”

...Ah, Valve thought to himself.

“Indeed it is, but so is the sight of shapers losing control and exercising their immense powers on the rest of the populace, is it not so, Comrade?”

Axle looked down, shame flooding her face. “Sorry Valve, I’m not… I forget that I’m a shaper, I don’t, I’m not….” she trailed off, failing to find the words to express that being a shaper didn’t make her feel any different, that she was still only a Volunteer in her own eyes. Instead, she settled on something she could put into words. “He just made me so angry, mouthing off about Dynamics, and being so wrong about everything.”

The water arrived, brought in by a short and smiling individual, and Valve sat back thoughtfully in his chair as he took a sip.

“To be… what we are,” he began carefully. “For one of the Combine, it is a sacrifice. A capitalist or a Valtarian Monarch exalts in being raised greater and ‘better’ than their fellows. It confirms both what they believe about themselves, and what they believe about the world. But for us… we have great power that we can use to the benefit of the Combine, this is good. But we sacrifice our… sameness. Our equal footing with our Comrades. And for both of us two, it is an especially dangerous thing.”

Axle frowned. “It’s… hard. Sorry I messed up.” She fiddled with the bandage again, ignoring her own glass of water.

“It is dangerous,” Valve went on. “For me, because it can tempt me back to my old way of being. And to you… because it might confuse your psychological development.” Valve shook his head. “Do not be sorry, bringing yourself down will not help the cognitive dissonance here. You need to… to be cognisant of the power you possess, not think yourself weak, I think. Moreover, you need to develop more conscious self-control, not give into anger. It doesn’t help that…” Valve thought for a moment before proceeding. “How much, Axle, of your life is given over to fighting, the military, conflict of various kinds?”

Axle was on firmer ground here. She brightened. “Well, there’s planning for Assaults at the Nexus, training up new volunteers here, running extraction missions, dealing with the Valtarian problem, recruitment, and weapons testing… so that takes up nearly all of my time I guess.”

“I suspect…” Valve did some swift theorising internally. “That your mind, being more suggestible than most, is internalising the focus of your daily activities. Simply put, you spend your life on the subject of conflict, so you react to situations using conflict. Conflict is important, but so are more creative impulses. I think… you should devote some of your time, daily, to a creative endeavour. Make something, nothing big, and not something that contributes to the Combine war machine. Knitting or something, how does that sound?”

Axle raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “... you think I should take up knitting? It doesn’t seem very… useful.”

“As opposed,” Valve retorted. “To the highly useful activity of punching your Comrades?”

She grinned at that. “Ok good point. Knitting though? What would I even make?”

“Something, anything. Make something for a Comrade, a gift. Make something, then let me know if you experience any changed feelings… oh, before I forget, where is that arrowhead from?”

Axle looked thoughtful, mention of the arrow reminding her of how kind, and caring Dynamics had been when it had struck her. Perhaps she could try and make him something, to say thank you. He’d appreciate that, wouldn’t he? SHe considered asking Valve’s opinion, but decided against it. She didn’t want to talk about that. She shook her head, and returned to the conversation at hand.

“Oh, I took an arrow to the stomach from a Valtarian. But then I shot him, and now he’s dead, so I’m wearing it as a talisman,” she said breezily, carefully avoiding why exactly she had taken that arrow.

Valve raised an eyebrow.

“So it symbolises… resilience?”

Axle fiddled with the arrowhead, remembering Dynamics offering her his arm to lean on as they left the battlefield. She gave a little smile. “Yeah I guess, It’s sort of, a reminder that the pain is worth it?”

Almost imperceptibly, Valve froze momentarily at that last remark.

“It is,” he said, with sudden firmness. “It… yes, it accentuates our… resolve. A worthwhile talisman. Come,” he then said, reaching for a change of topic. “Let me see some of those reports, let’s see what’s been going on in this corner of the Outworld…”


Code 376

Author: Axle, after Iteration II

Axle sat at her desk, thumbing over the morning's reports. The faster she got this done, the faster she could get back to the important job of weeding out insurgency, and the faster she could maybe take a break.

She found the one she was looking for. General review of the Liberated Skies. Mana production… Normal. Supplies… Normal. Dissonance…

Axle frowned. She flicked through for the more detailed reports. Something wasn't right. She read on, panic mounting in her throat. Reports were coming in of an increased level of Dissonance stemming from Self Portrait. Horrible stories, farms producing rotten food, dangerous weather events, people disintegrating into dust.

Axle pinched her forehead, trying, as she often did when she felt the panic rise, to focus on her kinship tether. If she was connected to Dynamics, she was connected to the combine. She was whole, and the horrible memories wouldn't come.

The tether wasn't there. Axle's eyes widened, her breathing spiralling. In one panicked movement she slammed her hand down onto the intercom.

“I need… a Hege…monic engineer… in here… Code 376…”

She collapsed onto the floor, an all too familiar burning filling her lungs.

Punching Industrioclasts In the Face

Authors: Crankshaft, Dynamics and Axle

As soon as they got off the train, Axle knew that something was wrong. The usually quiet and organised platform was bustling with people, almost scrabbling for the supplies. All the way to the Centre of Operations she could see armed VolCorp guards protecting distribution centres. People were everywhere, and the minute they saw Axle and the Liberator, there was shouting and clamouring for their attention. They sped up their walk, and on arrival, Axle nearly slammed the door of the Centre behind them. Almost immediately, she was beset by aides, chief among them Oil, her nervous looking personal secretary, a VolCorp with jet black hair and round rimmed glasses.

“Comrade Axle, there’s been a development with the 3B operation. I need to brief you immediately.”

Axle turned to Dynamics, her face pale. “Dy, go and find Crankshaft in the main briefing room upstairs, I may be late, I suspect the plans for our mission may be... altered somewhat.” She turned around, not waiting for an answer, and was immediately launched into quiet and conspiratorial conversation with Oil.

Dynamics didn’t delay. The usual bounce of the Liberator was immediately replaced by a purposeful stride most commonly seen heading with urgency toward the Geomantic Tables in the Nexus as he moved directly to the main briefing room, the swish of the long red coat telling the Volunteers and Engineers in his path to get out of the way as he rounded the corner and entered the room.

Crankshaft turned around, grinning, as they heard someone rush into the room. “AXL… Oh. Dynamics. What are you doing here?” The gleaming smile on their face disappeared for a moment before returning, shabbier and in need of a clean.

Either missing or electing to ignore the change on Crankshaft’s face, Dynamics spoke bluntly, “I’m helping Comrade Axle and yourself with the Industrioclast problem. Things appear to have escalated. Were you not expecting me?” an eyebrow raised.

“No. Last I heard you were dealing with dissonance problems of your own. Something about a change in motives?” Crankshaft looked the Liberator up and down, trying to see if there was any visible difference. “Sooo... What’s going on?”

“The Dissonance is under control - has been for a while now,” the Liberator’s face remained resolute, “the entire territory seems to be on high alert from what I can tell. We had to wade through people to get here, and Comrade Oil is just briefing Comrade Axle on exactly what's going on. She should be here… shortly. Sounds like it's going to get more dangerous though.”

As if on cue, at that moment, Axle barged through the door and walked with some purpose over to the raised dais in the front of the room. She had discarded her usual oversized and ragged coat, replacing it with a tight fitting black leather jacket, instead of the cannon two wicked looking knives glistened at her hips, and her hair had been quickly drawn up into a messy ponytail. She was followed by two serious looking volunteers, who went and sat down towards the back of the room.

“So,” Axle announced, “There’s been a change of plans.” Crankshaft’s gaze had been following Axle as she strode across the room, the wide, bright smile returning to their face. “More problems than expected, I hear?”

“That’s an understatement.” Axle pinched her forehead, trying to figure out how to explain the situation succinctly. “RPC doesn’t have any natural water storage, lakes etc. Therefore we mostly collect rainwater in underground tanks, the largest being in sector 3B. As you all know, the recent…” She paused to pull a disgusted face, “ ‘party’ that has arrived in RPC has been distributing potions that remove pain, which have been very damaging to the Volunteers, for obvious reasons.” The two Volunteers nodded, their faces pale, “Industrioclasts in sector 3B have been stockpiling said potions for a while now, this mission was originally to go and find, and destroy their stockpile, but it seems they’ve already made their move. It turns out that someone working security for the underground tank was working for the other side. They’ve contaminated the entire tank with their “cure” and barricaded themselves in the chamber. We believe they have enough cure, and supplies, to keep this going for at least a month, and we’ve no idea which tanks distribute water to which locations, due to the… problems we’ve had mapping the area. Needless to say, incidents are up, supplies of bottled water are becoming a scarcity, and generally the whole thing is a colossal mess.”

“So we go in, break down their pathetic barricade and handle them systematically one by one until the tanks are secure?” Dynamics asked bluntly, his hands finding a grip on the handle of the sword by his side, and the lenses of his goggles already tinting black.

Axle smiled grimly. “You’re used to dealing with people who care about staying alive Dy. These people… they’re terrorists and they’re reckless and unpredictable. If we go in through the door, they’ll likely blow the entire tank, causing Unity knows how much chaos. No, we’re going to have to be more subtle than that.” Axle kicked a projector that was sitting on the floor, and it rattled into life, displaying a flickering map on the screen. “This is what we have of 3B so far. The water tank is here,” she pointed, “but here, there is a point of access to the pipes, and the pipes are still wide enough for a person to swim down. My Volunteers can’t do this, because the potion would cause them to incident, but” Axle flashed a significant glance at Dynamics, “We’ve already determined that potions don’t affect shapers, so we can swim up the pipe, into the tank and take them by surprise. You can both swim, right?”

Crankshaft nodded, their smile having slowly been replaced by a look of grim determination throughout Axle’s explanation. “Is the pipe access in Industrioclast held land as well? If need be, we can probably make our own entry to the pipe a bit further away.”

The Liberator shook his head, “It won't work. Like you say, they've got nothing to lose so they'll have a trigger set up to blow the place the moment we show - possibly even a dead person’s switch - and the same thing will happen, and possibly with us in the pipe,” he moved closer to the plans that had been laid out in the room to survey them, “we need some way to stop them blowing it at all, or to limit the damage it will cause. Either we need to infiltrate and disable the trigger, or…”

“Infiltration isn’t going to work. They know Axle, and given the posters that were around the Nexus, it’s likely they know both of our faces as well Dynamics. Even if they don’t they’re unlikely to let ‘new recruits’ join the barricade, not if they have not reason to trust us. No, I’m with Axle. The pipe is the best access route, and there are options we can take once in the room itself without needing to show ourselves. Depending on how the charges are set up, might even be able to disable them before they know we’re there. If they’re going for maximum destructive power, they’re likely to have placed them in these locations,” Crankshaft indicated some sections of the tank with a laser, “and those are easily accessible before heading to the dryer section of the barricaded area.”

Axle’s radio sprang into life, and she brought it to her ear. “Yes?.... Fantastic… Definitely her?... No, I want her there… Thank you Comrade. Over and Out.” She put the radio down, a satisfied look on her face. “I think we’ve just gotten a way to cause enough… infighting amongst the Industrioclasts that they may be blind to our arrival. One of them,” she clicked a button and a face appeared on the screen, a youthful looking woman smiling out at them, “is ‘romantically’ involved with another Industrioclast, who we have just successfully extracted from her sleeping quarters. Cog and Ratchet here,” she gestured to the two Volunteers, “Will take a team and bring her to the entrance of the barricaded area, and taunt the Industrioclasts a little bit, maybe maim her, threaten to kill her, you know the drill. Should cause more than a little argument amongst their rag-tag band.”

Dynamics checked the plans again, particularly noting where Crankshaft had pointed, “That does sound like it could cause enough of a distraction to let Crankshaft in through the pipes to disarm the explosives but…” he turned to Axle, “that brings the risk of half of the Industrioclasts deciding to blow the tank on their own. They,” he gestured to Cog and Ratchet, “need to be in position to cause the distraction when Crankshaft is already by the tank.”

“I wasn’t suggesting I go through the pipes alone Comrade. More hands dismantling the devices means less chance of them blowing before we finish. Axle, do you have any unexploded captured ordinance? If not, I’ll need to show you what to do on the first one, and we can go from there.”

“Yeah, all three of us will have to go through the pipes, partly cause,” Axle flashed a grin at Crankshaft, “Crank here is only ProCorp, someone needs to actually fight the damn Industrioclasts once everything’s been defused. I don’t have anything I haven’t exploded, I guess we’ll have to wing it.”

Dynamics still shook his head, “They know there are three Shapers in the territory - if they didn’t hear about Crankshaft arriving they certainly would have heard about us: if they’ve got ears in the Centre, odds are they’re probably still communicating with someone. They’ll know we’re causing a distraction if it doesn’t have one of us holding a knife to the Industrioclast’s neck,” he said grimly, “which will probably have to be me.”

Axle raised an eyebrow. “.... Why you? Don’t want to mess up your hair in the water? They don’t really know what you or Crank are capable of, if we want the element of surprise, it should probably be me…”

“We need you inside, you’re better placed taking them down from within,” Dynamics glanced at her knives, “And anyway, the Victory Through Persistence has always been better at making a loud noise and smashing down the front door.”

Axle pressed her lips together, studying Dynamics. “You have a point but…. Can I trust you to be… cruel enough if you need to be?”

“I wouldn’t be standing here if I couldn’t,” he replied, bluntly, his eyes meeting Axle’s sincerely.

“Sounds like we’ve got a plan then. Do you want to lead the way Axle?”


The five of them left the Centre of Operations by a small back door, and Axle lead them through what felt like a maze of alleyways, side streets and tunnels. They saw the occasional Volunteer hard at work, but mostly this area was quiet. Eventually they came to a wider street, and Axle stopped in front of an unmarked manhole. She opened her bag, and threw a black face-mask to Crankshaft. “These should give us about an hour of air. I’ve no idea what happens if a shaper doesn’t have Oxygen, let's not take the opportunity to find out. We can also communicate with each other through these, and Dynamics can contact us, but we won’t be able to speak with him via radio whilst we’re underwater.”

Catching the mask, Crankshaft examined it, turning it over in their hands. “Excellent. The hour should be more than enough. Give us half an hour or so to get into position before starting the distraction Dynamics?” Before an answer was given, they turned, and started inspecting the manhole cover, peering at every mark on it, feeling its weight with slight movements.

Dy nodded, and turned to Axle, “Good luck, Comrade,” he said, with a resolute look, before turning to head off with Cog and Ratchet, the crackle of Axle’s radio telling them he’d turned his on and ready.

Axle looked like she had been about to say something else to Dynamics, but she closed her mouth awkwardly as he walked away. Turning to Crankshaft she faked a smile. “So, let’s do this, shall we?”

“No time like the present,” Crankshaft replied, a genuine grin growing across their face as Dynamics retreated into the distance, “So it doesn’t look like the Industrioclasts have made it this far along the system, can’t see any traps that’ll be set off if we move this thing.”

“Well then,” Axle grabbed the manhole cover and heaved it upwards. “Let’s go find a pipe to swim down!”

Taking the lead, Crankshaft dropped into the manhole, sliding down the sides of the ladder to the bottom of the tunnel. Waiting for Axle to follow suit, they looked at the 4 exits leading off into the darkness, before pulling their goggles over their eyes.

Axle jumped down, landing by Crankshaft’s side. She grinned at them, a real grin this time. “This is the vents on that opportunity ship all over again!” She nudged them, “I promise I won’t get stuck this time, come on, the pipe is this way.” She strode off down the middle exit, almost swallowed by the darkness.


Cog & Ratchet led the way to collect the prisoner. As they neared the holding cell, sounds of a room being wrecked got louder and louder.

As they entered the room, a slight young woman in the baggy grey T-shirt she'd clearly been wearing when they dragged her out of bed, stopped pounding on the walls and turned to look at them. On seeing Dynamics, her red-raw eyes filled up with hope.

“Liberator Dynamics?” She tried to run towards him, but the Volunteers blocked her way. She continued trying regardless, her voice desperate as she spoke, “Please, Dynamics, You're so smart, and good, I know you are, you must be able to see there's been some mistake!”’

The Liberator paused and gave the woman a quizzical look, “Mistake? Comrade, I’m sure you must have seen this coming,” he advanced, slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on the person in front of him, “the only mistake that’s been made was by you. An Industrioclast in the heart of Axle’s operation… you really thought you wouldn’t get caught?”

She sobbed, reaching past the Volunteers and grabbing onto his coat. “I’m not… I’m not an Industrioclast! I love the Combine! Please, I didn’t know she was… one of them until this morning!”

Dynamics considered for a moment, and then a graver look arrived on his face, “Whether or not that is true, Comrade, your utility is going to be the same.”

She wailed as the Volunteers dragged her from the room, her face wet with tears. “Please…. Dynamics… I’ve only ever tried to be a good citizen….”

Shoulders clad in red shrugged, as the Liberator followed “If that is true, then you’ll be serving an excellent purpose and should be proud, Comrade. If it is not…” he left the sentence hanging, as a bag was thrown over the woman’s head and they headed out.


Back in the tunnels, Axle and Crankshaft scurried towards the water pipe access point. Hearing quiet conversation from around a nearby bend, they came to a halt, a shared look and a couple of gestures all they needed to formulate a plan.

As they crept towards the corner, weapons at the ready, a loud voice squawked through the silence. “We’ve got the package in position and are ready to move to the facility when you’re ready. Just give us the word.”

Axle froze, silently mouthing a string of expletives, and then pressed the reply button on the radio, and spoke loudly whilst gesturing at Crankshaft to remain quiet and prepare for combat.

“This is Maintenance crew 17. We're not actually at the pipe yet, we've received instructions to investigate a blockage, give us an extra… 15 minutes please. Over.”

“Understood. Let us know when you’ve finished down there. Out.”

The conversation from around the corner had very much ceased, and the sound of weapons being cocked echoed through the tunnel. “Check it out,” came one of the voices, and footsteps approached.

A gunslinging no-good dirty-rotten Industrioclast rounded the corner, rifle held in front of his face as he spotted the two Shapers in the tunnel. A look of panic overcame his face as his finger slipped on the trigger of his weapon. Axle ducked as the shots rang out, throwing a knife with terrifying precision, not at the enemy, but at his radio, slicing it clean in-half before he could alert anyone else to their arrival.

The gunshots themselves were enough to alert the other person round the corner, however, and they called out, “Horace?!”

Before they could answer, Crankshaft swung their Spanner, connecting with the side of the Industrioclast’s face, and causing them to bounce into the wall of the tunnel, their eyes glazing over in pain. They staggered back, trying to raise their gun to fire, but upon opening their eyes locked onto Axle, and in panic fired wildly, with shots ricocheting off the walls of the narrow tunnel. Axle swore as a bullet grazed her shoulder, and flung her other knife into the man’s gut.

There was a brief “Oh” from the man before he collapsed on the ground, passing out from the pain. Axle ran towards him, gesturing to Crankshaft to investigate whoever had called out. She took a pair of handcuffs and a strip of bandage from her bag, handcuffed the industrioclast to a nearby pipe, and then retrieved her knife and roughly bandaged his wound.

Crankshaft paused to pull a few smaller wrenches out of their toolbag, before flinging them blindly around the corner, before falling into a roll to take themself out of the line of fire as they rounded the bend. There was the satisfying “plonk” of another Industrioclast falling to the ground as they were hit square on the head with a wrench, and the tunnel promptly became quiet.

Axle checked the breathing of the first industrioclast and rounded the corner. “Not bad for a ProCorp.” She flashed a cheeky grin at Crankshaft as she went to check on the fallen woman. She felt for a pulse, then swore, and pushed a button on her radio.

“Hey, Dynamics? Can you let an extraction team know there is one candidate for re-education down here, and one corpse, can they be extracted as soon as possible, the candidate has some serious injuries. Over”

The radio crackled, “Roger that, Comrade, Extraction have been informed. How close are you to the target position? Over.”

“Just reaching the pipes now Comrade. Give us another twenty minutes by my count. Everything ok up there? Over.”

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” the radio replied. There was a sound of quiet wailing in the background. “Package is currently behaving as expected. Over.”

Crankshaft turned to Axle, “How far until we reach the pipe?”

Axle gestured down the tunnel. “It’s literally at the end of this tunnel, you were right, we’re gonna need to cut our way in.”

“No problem. Don’t want to use explosives unless we have to, would probably give our plan away. Fortunately, I’ve got this.” Reaching into their bag, they pulled out an angle grinder as a gleam appeared in their eyes.

Axle rolled her eyes and grinned as the pair walked towards the pipe. On arrival, she prepared as Crankshaft got to work, fishing the masks, and a pile of handcuffs from her bag. “Grab some of these when you’re done,” She called to them, “For when we need to incapacitate the Industrioclasts.”

“Will do. Before I start though, we might want to take care of that shoulder of yours. You said this stuff doesn’t affect shapers, but you haven’t tested it against an open wound I assume, and who knows what else they’ve put in the water.”

Axle craned her neck, to observe the graze running down the back of her shoulder. “Aww fuck,” she pulled a face, “ I like this jacket.” She peeled the leathers off, her tank top giving easier access to the wound, and dug around in her bag for a grubby plaster. “Seal me up would you?” She tossed the plaster at Crankshaft.

Catching the plaster, Crankshaft looked it over, “You sure this is waterproof? I’ve got gunpowder and flame if needed.” Axle confirmed with a nod. Moving over to stand behind her, Crankshaft swept her hair around and out of the way, taking care to gently clean the graze and surrounding area, before finally applying the plaster.

Stepping back to the pipe, Crankshaft picked up the angle-grinder and ,after climbing on top of the pipe, carefully started carving an opening large enough for a person. Feeling the strain of the pipe against the flowing water, they stopped and stepped back, using the reach of their wrench to break the hole free of the remaining pipe, and not immediately collapse into the opening.“Radio through to Dynamics. We’re going in.”

Axle finished zipping up her jacket, and radioed, whilst swinging herself onto the pipe. “Oy Comrade Weasel. T-15 till showtime. Over”


The Industrioclast with a sack over her head was marched forward. She didn’t need to be told at this point that she was at both gun and sword point as the Volunteers and Dynamics moved into position. The barricaded doors were just around the corner, and were covered at this point from a few angles by teams of ProCorps and RevCorps (the Liberator had elected to not use Volunteers beyond Cog and Ratchet in case of release of the chemical). Having checked his pockets thoroughly for holes, he filled them with grenades, ready to break down the door as soon as things kicked off.

Dynamics checked his watch, “One minute before we kick off,” he said to the Volunteers, before radioing quietly, “Axlotl this is Weasel. I make it one minute. Over.”


Crankshaft and Axle entered the tank, swimming away from the outlet pipe they had entered through to avoid having to struggle against the current unnecessarily. Looking around in the gloom, Crankshaft noticed bombs in at least a few of the predicted placements, and after pointing them out to Axle, set about starting to disarm and dismantle one.

A buzz came through Crankshaft’s mask “Oy Crank, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing remember? Get over here and show me?”

Crankshaft finished disarming the bomb they were working on, and swam over to Axle. “Sorry, forgot.” They maneuvered together over to another bomb. “So, the first thing to look for is the trigger mechanism...” Floating behind Axle, Crankshaft slowly walked her through how to disarm the bomb, giving advice and guiding her hands with their own when required. “Think you’ve got it?”

Axle gave a final twist of a wire, and the flashing lights on the device flickered out. “Yeah, this is a lark. Move upwards? ...I hope Dy is getting started.”


“Industrioclast scum!” shouted the Liberator, to the barricaded doors of the occupied facility. Stood behind him were two armed Volunteers, with weapons pointed squarely at the back of the kneeling figure in a bag next to him, “The glorious might of the People’s Combine has come to deliver you justice! Open the doors and surrender yourselves!”

Inside the facility, one of the Industrioclasts flicked a switch, and a flickering video of Dynamics and his retinue came to life. The one who’d flicked the switch pressed a button, and a booming voice echoed outside of the doors.

“Come one step closer, shaper, and we’ll blow the place sky high.”

Dynamics blinked once in surprise at the volume coming out, but shrugged, “I was worried you’d say something like that, but perhaps you don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” he nodded to the kneeling figure, “This is one of yours. Surrender or bad things might start happening to them.”

There was a pause, then the speakers crackled again, with the same voice. “One industrioclast for the freedom of thousands of “volunteers”. A fair trade, Liberator. That's if you even have an Industrioclast under that bag.”

Dynamics sighed and nodded to the Volunteers, “Believe me, we certainly have an Industrioclast under this bag,” he said, as Cog walked forward and removed the sack revealing the tear-stained red face of the woman they had dragged from her bunk, “I don’t suppose any of you recognise her?”

There was a long silence, and then a new voice rang out, calm with an undercurrent of fear, causing the kneeling woman to let out a pained sob. “Liberator Dynamics. That woman is nothing to do with this. She is innocent of everything except falling for the wrong person, and who hasn't done that? Have pity on her and,” at that point the voice cut out.

The corner of Dynamics’s mouth twitched upward at the voice cutting out, “Sorry, did you say I should have ‘pity’ for an Industrioclast spy in our midst?”

There was static and thumps from the loudspeaker as some kind of scuffle broke out behind the doors.

The second voice again, calm and gentle. “Switch? Love? I’m so sorry. I'm going to get you out of here, I promise, just,”

Another voice cut in, angry and rough. “We don't give a fuck what you do with the girl, Liberator. We're not moving.”

The Liberator briefly hissed to Cog, “Is her name Switch!?” to which the Volunteer nodded. The Liberator turned his attention back to the door, though his voice cracked slightly as he shouted, “Sounds like you’ve got a bit of dissent back there. Could do with some Consensus perhaps? I’d be happy to help!”

Another pause, and then the first voice returned. “OK, new offer. Let the girl go, or we’ll blow the place sky high.”

The Liberator rolled his eyes, “Blow the place sky high and I kill the girl. Come on, you must know how this works.”

The calm, pleading voice again, more panicked now. “You won’t harm her. You’re the great and good Dynamics, and she’s one of you, an innocent member of the Combine. She has your poster above her bed for fuck’s sake,” static returned to the loudspeaker.

Dynamics sighed, and kicked Switch to the ground, “Working with Industrioclasts is not an innocent act, Comrade,” he shouted, before lowering his voice and speaking to Switch, “What’s their name?”

She managed to blurt out “Tank” in between sobs.

“Tank!” he shouted toward the door, “Would you like to know what the ‘good’ Liberator Dynamics did to Industrioclasts we found on the Shattered Front? When we were countless miles away from the nearest Combine outpost, and we found a traitor in our numbers?” his hand was now holding a knife that very well may not have been there before.

There was a heavy silence, broken only by Switch’s terrified sobs.

“He’d remove increasingly large parts of their body until they told us who else was attempting to sabotage the ship,” he said, and grabbed Switch’s arm, holding the knife to her hand, “Still want to keep that door closed, Tank?”

The argument behind the door grew so loud the loudspeaker wasn’t needed to hear the Industrioclasts. From what Dynamics could hear, Tank was trying to convince the others to surrender, but they were having none of it. Cog leant down to the liberator’s ear

“Two more minutes comrade.” He whispered.

“Such a shame, Tank, isn’t it?” he said, pressing the knife into the skin of Switch’s hand, despite her cries of pain, “That those who offered you the opportunity to be with someone you… ‘love’, are the very ones keeping you from your dearest right now.”

There was a crash against the door, but it remained firmly shut, as Axle and Crankshaft, still concealed beneath the water of the tank, disarmed the final bombs.

Dynamics continued to press the knife into the flesh of Switch’s hand, ignoring the scream that accompanied it, and sighed, loudly saying, “Well, Switch, I guess what we’ve really proven here is that Tank never really did love you. Pity.”

At that moment, the dripping forms of Crankshaft and Axle silently rose from the tank. Axle swung herself up onto a ledge, and crouched low, gesturing for Crankshaft to follow. She surveyed the scene. 4 Guards on the tank, two arguing over the loudspeaker system, and one lying prone to one side. And a flickering video of Dynamics, the hostage held firmly in his grip. She positioned herself ready to jump, and then spoke into her radio, her voice echoing around the facility.

“Aww, we're late to the party! Hey Dy, cut me a off a trophy for the collection would you?” And with that, she lept onto the back of a startled Industrioclast.

Crankshaft wasted no time following Axle, leaping out of the water and over the ledge in one fell swoop, delivering a kick to a hapless Industrioclast standing by the tank. The blow knocked the Industrioclast over and Crankshaft landed standing over them. “Who’s next then?”

The other Industrioclasts by the tank turned around upon hearing the shouts of their allies, and weapons drawn began firing on the two who had exited the tank, bullets ricocheting off the metal of the tank, drawing the attention of one of the soldiers by the loudspeaker system.

“Intruders!” they shouted, “Blow the tank!”

Axle laughed wildly as she finished strangling the Industrioclast into unconsciousness. “Just you fucking try it!” She shouted.

Relinquishing control of the speaker system, the Industrioclast pulled a device from his pocket, held it high in the air and shouted “DIE, COMBINE TYRANTS!” and pulled the trigger.

The Industrioclasts braced as there was a boom, but bewilderment followed as they realised it came not from the tank but from the door, which was now very much not a door any more, with two heavily armed Volunteers standing at the newly blown aperture.

The Industrioclast with the trigger swore as he realised his bombs had been disarmed. “ONTO PLAN B” He screamed, and the two remaining guards turned, and fired their Bazookas at the tank. Meanwhile, Tank grabbed the loudspeaker, and shouted over the chaos.

“Please, I'm begging you. Let her go, you don't need her anymore!”

Crankshaft turned at the sound of the bazookas firing, whipping their shield off their back and jumping into the path of one of the projectiles, curling into a ball as the blast tossed them backwards against the far wall.

The other projectile hit the tank with a thunderous crash, as axle tackled the firing industrioclast to the ground seconds too late. Water started crashing out of the newly made hole in a roaring wave.

From outside, the Liberator’s eyes widened at the rushing flood of water heading toward the Volunteers. “Cog, Ratchet, high ground, now!” he barked, before grabbing the crying Switch and putting the traitor on his shoulders as he ran into the facility, sword first as the Volunteers ran for a balcony out of the way of the water. Surveying the scene, and the two remaining Industrioclasts, Dynamics shouted, “See, I said something like this would happen!”

Axle, who had just finished handcuffing the Industrioclast to a rail, ignored him, busy pushing back against the water, trying to reach the unconscious enemies and stop them from drowning.

Tank ran towards Dynamics, crying out for Switch. Dynamics shot Tank a look, followed by a shot from the end of his sword which grazed over their shoulder and hit the Industrioclast behind her in the shoulder, sending them spinning toward the ground, “Now is not the time, Tank!”

Axle reached the prone figure she'd strangled earlier, but as she went to haul them from the slowly increasing flood, they whipped around, gasping, and tore at her arm with a knife. Gasping in pain, she dropped them to the ground, and leapt on them, punching them back into unconsciousness with her uninjured arm.

Crankshaft stood up, slightly dazed from behind their shield. Surveying the battlegrounds, they shook their head, slinging their shield over their back again. Running around the tank to the damaged section, they started pulling tools out of their belt and bags, throwing those they would not need towards the Industrioclasts to distract and injure them until they had a welding torch and few metal sheets in hand. Starting at the top of the damaged section, they began to weld the plates over the hole, reducing the waterflow little by little.

Axle dragged the two prone figures from the water, grunting with the strain, and ducking to avoid a gunshot from the final guard, who was firing blindly in all directions, whilst attempting to reload her bazooka. She tied them roughly to a pipe and then turned her attention to the guard, who had the rocket launcher loaded and pointed directly at the weak point on the other side of the tank to Crankshaft.

“Good try, Liar, but not good enough,” she said, and pulled the trigger.

Axle swore, and threw a knife at the Industrioclasts neck. She collapsed almost instantly in a pool of blood as Axle ran to the secondary hole and pressed herself against it, holding in the water with all her strength.

“Stop. Blowing. Holes. In. My. Water Tank.” She screamed at the dying guard, before switching on her radio. “Crank, your gonna have to hurry I can't keep all this water in for long and we can't let it reach the Volunteers. Dy, can you finish up the liberation?”

Dynamics nodded, and tossed Switch with force into Tank, promptly causing the Industrioclast to fall over into the water. He ran over and grabbed the bleeding Industrioclast, and applying pressure to the wound with one hand tied her hands with the other, kicking her weaponry away, “How much longer do you think that tank’s going to hold?!”

“That….” Axle strained against the water pushing at her back, and streaming around her, her teeth clenched with the effort, “...is a question for our engineer…”

“Be right with you,” Crankshaft shouted over the torrent of water, “Just got to finish up... this... weld. There. Done.” Crankshaft checked the welded panels for cracks before climbing the tank, diving into the water and swimming down to the damage, where Axle was struggling against the water.

Unstrapping their shield, they pushed Axle out of the way, allowing the torrent of water to pull them through the hole, dragging their shield behind them, allowing the pressure to hold it in place over the damage, reducing the water escaping to a trickle. Crankshaft reached down, offering the skin-soaked Axle a hand up. “Sorry about that, the shield should hold the water until we’re able to repair the damage.”

Axle gratefully took Crankshaft’s hand, the effort of holding in the water having turned her entire body into jelly. “Right,” she said weakly, looking around. “Let’s… get these traitors all in the same place so I can have a little chat with them. Might need you two to move them though…”

“Maybe give these two a moment?” Dynamics gestured, with a slight smirk of amusement at the tightly embraced Tank and Switch.

Axle rolled her eyes, and stormed, albeit slowly, towards the couple. She tore Switch from Tank’s arms, silently grateful that she wasn't a muscled LibCorp.

“Tank, isn't it?” She glowered at the industrioclast at her feet, who nodded, terrified.

“Do you want to Volunteer, Comrade Tank?”

Tank shook her head, a tiny spark of defiance remaining. “I'd rather die.”

Axle shook her head. “You know, they all say that. It's so fucking boring. I'm sure I said it once too. But that's not the choice I'm presenting you with, Comrade. Volunteer, or I will wrap your hand around my knife, and you can kill your girlfriend yourself.” Switch let out a sob, and Tank stared at her, horror and hatred in her eyes.

“I'll ask you again, Comrade. Do you volunteer?” Tank nodded, defeated, and Axle dropped switch, took a small syringe from a pocket, and put the industrioclast into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Dynamics, with a notably more serious look on his face, knelt down by Switch, facing away from Axle. Ignoring what he assumed would be a look of disgust on Axle’s face, he spoke quietly, “You’re not out of the woods yet, Comrade, but let’s see to that hand,” he said, gesturing for her hand while he reached into his coat for a bandage.

“Dy, what are you doing?” Axle’s voice was soft and tired, and her face wasn't disgusted, just confused, and strangely pained.

“She helped us, albeit without a choice,” Dynamics said simply, holding the Engineer’s hand as he tightly wrapped a bandage round, his eyes watching Switch’s as she winced from the pain, “and though she messed up with who she chose to associate with…” he tied the bandage off, and let go of her hand, “I don’t think Switch is one of them.”

Axle frowned. “Well we'll have to take her in for questioning to be sure. But… if you think she's ok….” Axle looked around and shook her head, leaning gently on the tank for support. “Fuck it. Someone else can deal with clean up.” She looked up to Cog and Ratchet. “Did my bike get brought to site?” Ratchet nodded. Axle turned to Crankshaft and Dynamics. “Shall we leave this to extraction? I'm sure they’ll bring your shield back when they're done.”

Dynamics nodded, standing up and offering Switch a hand to her feet, quietly noting, “Come find me when you make it through the system,” before turning back to the sodden Crankshaft and Axle.

Axle heaved herself off the wall and headed to what used to be the door, assuming the others would follow. On the way, she took motioned to cog, who came to meet them. Axle looked back at switch, still standing motionless, staring at Tank, and then at Dynamics.

“Cog, would you call extraction please. Tell them 7 potential industrioclasts for processing. Comrade Tank has already Volunteered. Comrade Switch… is only for questioning, no re-education. Tell them to be gentle with her, I'll be checking up. And dispatch someone to bring back Crankshaft’s shield once the tank is fixed.” With that, she walked out the door.

Dynamics stared out the door, and then turned to Crankshaft with a look of bewilderment, “Is she intending to ride a bike across the entire territory in that condition?!”

“Well, it probably wouldn’t be the worst condition she’s driven a vehicle in, or indeed the most dangerous thing she’s done in such a state. However, her arm probably does need patching up before she goes anywhere.” Crankshaft turned to the two Volunteers, “Please ensure the repairs are done quickly. I’d quite like my shield back as soon as possible.” Rummaging around inside their bags for a bandage, Crankshaft chased after Axle through the doors.

Outside, they found Axle sitting astride a large, dirty looking hoverbike, all red paint and brass fittings, covered in a substantial layer of grime, but clearly well maintained. She was clenching the fingers on her right hand around the handlebars experimentally, and grimacing. On seeing the pair of shapers, she grinned, trying to suppress a yawn, and spoke cheerily “Hop on Comrades! It might be a bit wobbly, I appear to have lost some movement in my hand. Nothing I can't balance out though!”

“I think that might have something to do with this?” Crankshaft gently took Axle’s arm and showed her the damage. “Might be an idea to get that bandaged up and working before you do any more driving?”

Axle prodded the engineer with her working hand. “You're not my doctor, that's Vector.” She wobbled slightly and looked at the gash. “Maybe it does need a bandage though. Ugh. I liked this jacket!”

“It is a good jacket, fits you well. Make yourself an identical one? And Vector’s not here, someone’s got to make sure you’re fighting fit,” Crankshaft offered Axle the bandage in their hand. “Need any help wrapping it?”

Dynamics’s attention was somewhat more preoccupied with the hoverbike, “Can I drive it if you’re not in one piece?” he said, with a very natural smile.

Axle took the bandage from Crankshaft and did a shoddy job of wrapping it around her wound, then turned to glare at Dynamics. “I am perfectly capable of driving this bike.” She said, her words slightly slurred. “Anyway you're too tall you'll unbalance it or something. Science. Isn't that right, Crank?”

“Stand up straight for one whole minute and I’ll believe you,” Dynamics replied, simply, before his eyes turned back to the hoverbike.

“Axle is right about the science when it comes to you driving this bike I’m afraid Dynamics,” Crankshaft turned to Axle, “However, Dynamics is also right about you not being all in one piece. There’s nothing for it. I’m going to have to drive the blasted thing.”

Dynamics looked like a child who had their spanner taken away from them, “But…” he began, but gave up, “Okay... I guess Axle and I will hang on on the back.”

Axle pouted, and slid herself off the front of the bike. She very almost continued sliding right onto the floor, but the Liberator’s lightning reflexes kicked in, and she found herself being held up by Dynamics.

“Hmm, actually, weight distribution wise it might make more sense for you to drive after all Dynamics. Your height might make the vehicle slightly more unstable than normal, but nothing you shouldn’t be able to control, I’m sure.”

“No, no, Crank,” the Liberator smiled, holding onto Axle to stop her falling to the floor, “I don’t want to get between you and the hoverbike,” he said, stepping a little away from the bike, and turning his eyes to check the Volunteer was maintaining consciousness.

Axle smiled up at Dynamics, finding her feet and swaying gently. “You caught me?” She sounded surprised. “S… bad practice… catching Volunteers.”

Crankshaft grimaced. “Hop on then, Dynamics, and hold on tight. Let’s get Axle home and to a medic who can take care of that injury better than we can.” Crankshaft climbed aboard the Hoverbike and revved the engine impatiently.

Axle’s suddenly looked up at Dynamics with fear, shaking her head wildly. “No. No hospitals. No medics. Please Dy.” Her breathing began to quicken and her hands began to shake.

“Hey,” Dynamics said, putting the hand that wasn’t currently supporting her on Axle’s arm, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I know, no hospitals,” he said, his voice significantly softer than it had been, “we’ll get back to the centre, back to your room, sort you out, call Vector in if we need to, but I know, no hospitals, no doctors. Okay?” he asked the question, looking directly into her eyes.

Axle nodded, still shaking slightly. “Ummm.. Can you help me onto the bike please?”

The Liberator nodded, and gave Axle a hand up onto the bike in the middle, so she could hang onto Crankshaft with him behind and holding onto Axle and the bike itself in case the Volunteer’s grip slipped.

Crankshaft stopped revving, and gently helped Axle circle her arms around their waist. “Hold on tight you two, this might be a rough ride.” Kicking the ignition, they set off, aiming for the Centre of Operations.


The bike screeched to a halt in front of a side door to the centre, where Comrade Oil was waiting nervously, waiting for a mission debrief. On seeing Axle, slumped asleep on Crankshafts back, one arm hanging limply to one side, she rushed forward.

“Is Comrade Axle Ok?”

Dynamics hopped off the hoverbike, “She’s mostly in one piece, just passed out from exhaustion and blood loss,” he explained, “she needs to go to her quarters and rest.” He glanced back round expecting her to wake up as Crankshaft finished parking up the bike.

Axle’s eyes did indeed flicker open, and she almost slid off the bike, having to stand still for a few moments to regain her balance. “Oil,” she said, struggling to maintain composure. “Mission success. Cog and Ratchet will have the details. Tank still needs clearing, water should be back on in a couple of days. Increase in Industrioclast awareness training needed in sectors 1 through 4.” She staggered towards the door, and tried to open it with the hand on her injured arm, looking surprised and confused when it didn’t work.

A red cloak swished and the door was pushed open by the Liberator’s hand, with the other arm offered out to the swaying Volunteer, “Come on, you,” he said, with a softer look, “just focus on the standing and moving forward, I’ve got you.”

Crankshaft caught up to the two of them, and gently propped Axle up from behind as she threatened to topple over. “You're doing great Axle. Come one, not far now.” The three of them continued in this manner, with Axle’s movements becoming more unbalanced, until they reached the door to her office. She leaned her body weight against Dynamics to get his attention. “Open the door please, I can’t.”

Crankshaft delicately pulled Axle off of Dynamics, taking her weight themself. “Here, lean against me, should let him open the door easier.” Axle rested her head on their shoulder, her eyes flickering shut. “You smell like home,” she said, sleepily.

Dynamics sounded like he was about to make a noise to the tune of “I can open a door and hold someone,” but didn't, opening the door to the office and holding it as the others went in.

Axle staggered in, collapsing into her chair. She fumbled with a drawer in her desk, retrieving a battered tin box and a bottle of colourless liquid. She opened the box, pulled out a couple of pill bottles, a needle and thread, and then looked up, remembering she wasn't alone.

“Thanks for getting me back,” she slurred. “You're not gonna want to stay to watch this though.” She opened one of the bottles and shook out three small pills, struggling with her nonfunctional hand.

Dynamics walked over to lend a hand, “You know I've seen worse, though Crank may want to leave,” he said briefly regarding the Engineer before crouching down beside the chair, “tell me what you need me to do.”

Ignoring Dynamics, Crankshaft knelt down next to Axle, rummaging through their bags once again. Soon Axle had a bottle of water, a clean medical kit, and even some ration and snack bars piled next to her on the desk. “Here you go Axle. Might be worth having steadier hands do the sewing?” They rested their hands next to Axles, silently offering to help with the task ahead.

Axle grabbed the bottle, and gulped down the three small pills. She closed her eyes briefly, waiting for the chemicals to have their affect, and when she opened them again, her words were no longer slurred. “Right. I have about half an hour of adrenaline before the heavy painkillers kick in. When they kick in I’m probably gonna start spouting nonsense and being embarrassing, so I want the both of you out by then, I still have some pride. If you’re going to insist on helping, which I am certain I don't need, but am very grateful for, then Crank, I need you to hold down my arms, both of them, while Dy pours alcohol into the wound to clean it. I’ll try not to headbutt you.”

Dynamics opened the bottle of alcohol as he waited for Crankshaft to restrain the Volunteer. Shifting to kneel in front of Axle, Crankshaft moved Axles hands to rest on the arms of the seat, before placing their own hands on top of them, applying pressure to keep them in place.

“Right, now Axle, on the count of 3 I’m going to pour, ready?” Dynamics said, holding the bottle. Axle clenched her teeth and her hands as he spoke, “Okay, 1,” and immediately poured the liquid. Axle jerked in pain, straining against Crankshafts hands, as the liquid stung at the open wound. She let out a stream of expletives, and then sank into her chair as she adjusted to the pain.

“Fuck you Dynamics.” Axle glared at him, but her heart wasn’t really in it. “Ok, next,” she looked over to inspect the damage, “Wow, yeah they got me good. Think I can see bone! Ok, someone needs to sew that up.”

Crankshaft let go of Axles hands, and opened the medkit still sitting on the table. After pulling out the necessary components for the grisly task ahead, they set about sterilising the needle. “Right, I’m going to sit on you so you can’t move about to much whilst I’m doing this, and Dynamics, I’m going to need you to hold her arm down. You need something to bite on?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” said Dynamics, giving Axle a quick grin as he took over holding her arms. Axle rolled her eyes. “As will I,” she said, “If I want to get some relief from the pain I’ll just kick Dynamics.” With no warning, Crankshaft plunged the needle into Axles flesh, threading the still warm needle in and out of her torn muscles and skin.

“You know,” remarked Dynamics, “medicine is so much easier on non-Shapers. You just, you know, shape them back to normal.”

“Well,” said Axle, straining with the pain of the needle, “I’m sorry to be such an inconvenience. Could have done this myself you know.”

“Yes, but helping comrades is all part of a day’s work. No trouble, at least from my perspective.” Crankshaft stood up, the wound neatly closed. They placed the needle and thread in a bag, before returning them to a pocket of the medkit. “Just need to bandage it up now, so you don’t tear those stitches too quickly.”

Axle stopped in the middle of moving her arm around experimentally, which was, of course, straining the stitches. “Dunno what you mean, I never tear stitches.” Crankshaft tilted their head slightly. “I’m sure. However, I’m certain Vector would recommend it, better than needing to restitch it all again later, and having you out of commission longer than needed.” Axle rolled her eyes and extended her arm in Crankshaft’s direction. “Fine, fine. Wrap me up, but don’t take hours over it.”

Multiple clean bandages appeared from numerous pockets as Crankshaft worked, until Axle’s arm was neatly wrapped and slung in front of them. “There, that should do. Might want to check in with Vector as to how long you should leave it like that.” Packing away the rest of their supplies, they turned to Dynamics. “We’re probably done here Dynamics, we should leave, let Axle get some rest, before the adrenaline wears off.”

Axle smiled up at the pair of them lazily, the painkillers already beginning to take affect. “Thanks, comrades. For helping with the mission, and getting me back, and fixing me. It was… fun and stuff.” She tried to get up to get the door, and promptly sat back down as the room started spinning. “You can see yourselves out?”

Dynamics, noting just how tired Axle looked, gave a little smile, nodded, stood up and headed for the door, asking, “Do you want me to tell that Volunteer to check on you in a bit?”

“S’probably wise. Don’t forget your shield Crank, you don’t wanna have to make another long trip out here just to come fetch it.”

Smirking slightly, Crankshaft nodded as they headed to the door. Pausing in the doorway, they turned back to look at Axle, “The trip isn’t that awful Axle. Also, it’s odd not seeing the crew of the Relentless Advance on the Tyranny of Authority or Symphony of Purpose all the time. Will make sure to collect it if they’re done with it though.”

Axle watched as the pair walked through the door, smiling to herself, and then slowly made her way into her bedroom. Regardless of her throbbing arm, it had been a very good day.

A Visit to RPC

Author: Axle, Carrion Queen

Axle had been planning. From the moment she'd known when Vermilion was going to arrive she'd been making arrangements. She'd sent out an official broadcast to the comrades of RPC, informing them of the visit, and making it clear that Vermilion was there as a guest, and potential future comrade, and should be treated as such. She'd also then spread a rumour that referring to the monarch in shadow as comrade at all times would be hilarious, and bring a certain volunteer shaper much joy. She'd clamped down on industrioclast activity in the areas she planned to take her guest, and removed the graffitied posters of her face that were peeling off the centre of operations. Again. It was only on the day of the planned visit that Axle realised she had no idea how Vermilion was travelling, but she decided to deal with that when it happened, told Comrade Oil to be ready for the Monarch’s arrival, and went to busy herself in paperwork until her arrival.

Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop.

It was not entirely clear whether the horses proceeding at a sombre pace down the street, red-draped cart rolling behind them, were metal constructs of a particularly macabre design, or actual gilded skeletons. Certainly the flickers of crimson sorcery that showed around their joints as they moved could have animated either.

Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop.

Lounging idly on the cart, red silk robes falling about her in an artful display of decadence, the Carrion-Queen absently tapped her riding crop against her boot. Now, if she’d followed the directions the last individual she’d hailed on the road had given her, she should be almost there.

(She’d only gotten lost twice so far. Blasted Combine town planning was confusing. So many buildings everywhere. So many people. How was anyone supposed to tell where they were going? And it wasn’t as if she’d been able to bring a driver. The Wyrdwood’s people were too tied to the ley-lines to leave.)

Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop.

Eventually, she rounded a corner, and came across a large, grey, imposing building, flickering images of propaganda projected onto it’s large facade, and cheery, tinny band music blaring out from loudspeakers. Space that wasn’t taken up by the projected images was covered in posters, displaying a range of familiar faces, including Axle’s. As she got closer, a busy looking Procorp nodded at her, “Morning Comrade!”, he grinned, before disappearing down a side street. That had been happening a lot on her way in… then someone else was rushing towards her, a small, nervous looking volunteer with black hair, and wide rimmed glasses.

“Ah, um, Vermillion? Comrade Axle told me that was your name but my understanding is that Monarchs prefer titles? I’d hate to cause insult to a visitor…” she trailed off awkwardly, “I’m, um, Comrade Oil, I assist Axle with the shaping management of the territory. Do you need somewhere to put your… horses?”

“Oh, anywhere out of the way, they’re very docile creatures.” Vermilion smiled. One of the horses lightly pawed at the ground, performing a silent echo of a whinny. “Though I’m not sure if this will be the right place for the cart… Axle said you don’t get much in the way of fresh fruit in these parts, and that’s something we’re never short of in the Wyrdwood, so I brought some along – I know she doesn’t want gifts from me, but, well…” she fidgeted slightly, considering her words. I wanted to do something nice for her anyway didn’t exactly fit the image she was wearing like armour in this strange place. “I can be stubborn.”

“Right, Ok.” Oil fished out a radio. “Comrade Oil speaking, can I get 3 Procorp to the front of the Centre of Operations to deal with a food delivery?... No, not Dynamics…. Yes, thank you, that would be great. Over.” She then pressed another button, and lifted the radio again. “Comrade Axle. Comrade Axle… Oh for Unity’s sake.” She smiled apologetically at Vermillion. “I’m sorry, Axle appears to have, um… forgotten to switch her radio on.” There was a pause as Oil managed to stop herself from saying again. She gestured towards the doors. “If you would like to follow me, I can take you to her offices.”

“Lead on!” Vermilion smiled, pulling a red leather travelling bag out of the cart and jumping down. “The horses will obey anyone holding this…” she gestured with the riding crop vaguely before setting it on the seat. Oil decided that the riding crop and the horses were now definitely someone else's problem, and opened the doors, gesturing Vermillion inside. The place was bustling with people, most of whom stopped to look at the new, interesting visitor as the door opened, before grinning, murmuring “Morning Comrade,” and moving on. The entrance hall was largely taken up by a huge reception desk manned by Volunteers, and behind that, a wide staircase leading to the upper levels. However, Oil wound around the crowds to the back of the hall, to a small, unobtrusive door, and pressed down on the intercom. “Axle, you switched off your radio again.”

A familiar voice came back through the little speaker grill. “Sorry Oil, you know I’ve gotta concentrate on these reports. Maybe if you summarised them for me…”

“Not gonna happen Comrade. Anyway, you have a visitor. Which you’d have known if you had kept your radio on…” There was a shuffling noise from inside the room, and the door opened, revealing Axle, scruffy as ever, holding a radio in one hand. She switched it on, pulling a sulky face at her assistant, then turned to give Vermillion a wide grin. “You made it! Come in!”

“Thank you.” Vermilion nodded to Oil, with her best attempt at a warm smile, before turning to Axle. “It is good to see you again. Have you been well?” Stepping into the office, she glanced around, curiously; failing to control her evident shock at how small and sparse the place was for a Shaper’s seat of power. A simple desk, loaded with paperwork; two chairs, unnervingly plain; no heraldry or decoration beyond a single poster. She was fairly sure her bed was larger than this room.

Aware her face had already betrayed her, she allowed her brow to furrow in confusion as she turned back to Axle. “So… is this a deliberate display of modesty to throw me off balance, or do you actually live like this?”

Axle frowned, confused by the question. “I don’t live here, this is just my office. I work here, I sleep in my bedroom, through there,” she gestured to the door behind her, “and I eat in the mess hall with the others. But yeah, the bedroom isn’t much bigger than this. I don’t need anything bigger, really.” She shrugged, nonplussed. “We had to create some sleeping quarters specially for you, we don’t usually have overnight visitors in RPC, they’re upstairs, I’m afraid they will be more… modest than you’re used to as well.” Axle looked a little nervous of this prospect, concern evident on her face.

“If it isn’t an actual dungeon, I guarantee I’ve slept in worse.” Vermilion grinned and shrugged. “All part of the game-which-is-no-game.” She tilted her head and looked at Axle curiously. “You could have shaped yourself anything, and you chose… this?” A confused headshake. “You really think of this as… normal, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but you think sleeping in dungeons is normal so…” Axle smirked, then shrugged again. “This feels comfortable to me, anything more grand would just feel… wasteful. And anything bigger would just be empty.” She gestured back out into the hall, “Shall I show you where you’re sleeping? And then I thought I could show you around the territory a bit before we head to the show?” Again, there was that little look towards Vermilion, a wide eyed hope for approval.

“Lead on,” Vermilion smiled wryly. “And I wouldn’t say sleeping in dungeons is normal, exactly, just… it happens? They tend to be quite interesting, you can learn a lot about someone’s character by how they treat an enemy at their mercy…” her voice trailed off, and for a moment she looked almost embarrassed. “I’m certainly interested to see your territory, yes. From what I saw on the way in, you have a lot more people in a lot less space than I’m used to. We wouldn’t be rubbing up against each other like this in the Wyrdwood unless we’d called the entire population into the citadel to endure an attack, but then I suppose you’re always on a wartime footing…”

Axle led Vermilion up the wide staircase, past a number of RevCorp and VolCorp, each of whom greeted the pair with a cheery, “good morning comrades” as they went by. Axle smiled. “It's not that, Dynamics’ territory has people pretty spread out, I guess I like being surrounded by my friends, that's all. Ah, here we are. She gestured to a plain looking door to the left of the staircase.

Vermilion shot a baffled look back at the last VolCorp they’d passed. “...you really don’t get a lot of visitors here, do you?” She looked down at her robes, brow furrowed in confusion. “Wouldn’t have thought anyone could mistake me for their comrade in this outfit…” Shaking her head, she reached for the door.

Axle tried, and failed, to hide the cheeky grin that had swept across her face. “They know who you are Vermilion… oh I should mention, I shaped the bed, thought you'd want something softer than our usual bedding…” The bed took up most of the very sparse room, a hideous mixture of combine and Valtarian designs, very red, and gold, with badly shaped skulls wearing goggles on each bedpost. It did, at least, look comfortable. The walls were decorated with posters, including one of Axle, pronouncing that “Anyone can be a hero” and there was a small station for making tea and coffee.

“They do?” Vermilion caught Axle’s grin and sighed slightly, expression wavering between irritation and chagrined amusement before settling into a wry smile. “Insufferable optimist,” she muttered fondly, shaking her head. Turning to look into the room, her eyebrows rose at the sight of the bed, smile widening into a broad grin. “Oh, that’s perfect. Home away from home.” She stepped forward and gently dropped her bag onto it, with a soft clink of metal from within. Turning away, she caught sight of the poster, and paused, frowning, glancing between it and its original. “Interesting choice of slogan. Didn’t think you entirely agreed with that one.”

“Yeah… RevCorp decided which posters to put up.” Axle pulled a face. “I'm getting used to that one, but no, it's not my favourite.” She turned back to look at Vermilion, next to the bed, and grinned broadly again. “I'm glad you like the bed, wasn't sure I got it right… and um… “ the grin faltered a bit as pink rose to her cheeks. “I liked the poem. No one's written poetry to me before.” She shuffled her feet, awkwardly.

Vermilion blushed herself, suddenly looking anywhere except at Axle. “I’m, ah, glad you liked it. I don’t write poetry that often these days…” Her eyes stray back to the poster. “Well, slogan notwithstanding, I can’t say I object to seeing your face... “ A slight pause, considering. “Your people make decisions that you wouldn’t, then. And they trust you to let them. I… I’m impressed.” A slight sigh. “I didn’t choose to walk in the shadows without knowing I wouldn’t be trusted, of course, but… it does make it hard to get them ready to stand on their own feet when they’re constantly second-guessing whether I’m about to start throwing fireballs at them or something.”

Axle rolled her eyes, looking amused, but a little baffled. “Well obviously… A stable society is built on trust and friendship, not fear.” She resisted the sudden urge to take Vermillion’s hand, and instead, gave her a smile and said, “Come on, let’s go sightseeing!”

“And yet, without fear, how could they learn courage?” Vermilion smiled sadly. “The light requires the darkness to shine in, after all; one simply has to take the bitter with the sweet…” She sighed, then shook herself out of the melancholy reverie. “Yes, show me your lands, this world you have shaped to reflect you.” Her smile was bright and fierce; almost enough to hide the sadness that still lingered in her eyes.

The bright, fake smile was one Axle knew well, and she knew better than to question it. She led Vermillion back down the stairs, and through the front doors of the Centre of Operations, where Oil had left the hoverbike, ready for the day’s excursion. Axle jumped on, then turned to grin at Vermilion. “You know the drill by now, but if you want to preserve your image, I’ll let you bypass the goggles, but if you get flies in your eyes don’t blame me…”

Vermilion sighed and held out her hand for the goggles. “If I didn’t die of embarrassment from having my own people see me wearing them, I’m sure I can handle being seen by yours.” There was, nonetheless, a brief moment of hesitation before she pulled them on. “No photographs, though.” From the faint red glitter of sorcery in the air around her, she was taking no chances on the matter.

She swung herself up behind Axle, robes fluttering around her; evidently she’d been thinking ahead this time, as the skirts of them were sufficiently slit to allow her to do so without taking a knife to her outfit. “Show me your world,” she murmured, sliding forward to take hold of Axle’s waist.

Axle revved the engine unnecessarily loudly, and they sped off down the busy streets. Many of the citizens waved as they passed by, although Vermilion did notice that a lot of them got well out of the way of Axle’s bike before doing so, as it veered inexpertly around corners and through crowds. Axle knew the busy streets well, although, as she explained in shouts over the roar of the engine, they still hadn’t mapped out all of the non central areas, that was one of the major projects she was supervising.

Vermilion clung to her tightly; she’d stopped twitching after the first few apparent near-misses and decided this was clearly normal, but evidently saw no need to relax her grip where she’d instinctively tightened it. A true smile hovered on her lips from the thrill of the ride as she stared around at the unfamiliar buildings and people with evident interest.

Axle rounded the corner past a large factory that was producing, from the smell of it, soap, and slammed on the brakes. She jumped off and graciously offered Vermillion a hand to get down. She gestured to where she had brought them, a large open square, with blossoming trees lining the edges, and a fountain in the middle, cleverly constructed from recycled engine parts, turned to glorious copper rust by the flowing water. The square was busy, but not crowded, small groups of citizens sitting and eating their lunches, and playing cards. There was a large group playing some kind of catch based ball game. The air was full of gentle conversation and laughter. “This is the first thing I really wanted to show you. It’s the people that make my territory, really.”

“Of course.” Vermilion nodded calmly. “They are the future, after all.” She tilted her head, watching the scene a moment. “This is what the Combine looks like at peace, then?”

Axle smiled. “See we’re not all about-” She was cut off as a loud explosion filled the air, smoke and flames erupting from the central fountain, and the sounds of the citizens screaming in panic. Before they’d even had a chance to react, a loudspeaker cut through the chaos.

“Citizen’s of the Combine You have been Lied To. The Shapers are Not Your Equals. Rise Above Mediocrity. Individualism is The Future.” There was a pause, and then “I see we have some special guests with us. Comrade Axle. Come and Find Us. We have Demands and Now? We have Hostages.” Axle swore loudly at the last sentence, a small laser pistol already extracted from her belt and her radio in her left hand. She looked at Vermilion, her face deadly serious. “This isn’t your fight. You can leave, if you want, but I have to go and find my people.”

“Leave?” Vermilion sounded surprised. “And miss all the fu-” she caught sight of Axle’s face and caught herself. “-the excitement?” Casually, she extended one hand towards the fountain and whistled. The flames leapt upwards, whirled into elaborate spirals as they streamed towards her, and coalesced into an incandescent ball in her palm, leaving sparks and smoking embers behind. “Seems someone thinks they have enough of the stuff of heroes in them to pick a fight with a Shaper. It would be a shame to leave without seeing their mettle tested.”

“Thanks, be easier to deal with this without all that smoke.” Axle smiled gratefully at Vermillion, then flicked a switch on the radio. “Code ZZ682 Priority Axle, Zone 2B.” When she next spoke, it was out of the various loudspeakers situated around the square, and the surrounding area, her voice echoing across the territory. “Comrades of Zone 2B, this is Comrade Axle speaking. There has been an industrioclast attack at Unity Square. Please return to your accommodation and do not leave until the all clear has been sounded, unless you are tending to an injured comrade. Those who fight in shadow against the glory of the combine will be found, and liberated, do not fear. Over.” She then flicked a different switch. “This is Axle, I need a team of medics, and an extraction team in 2B, I’ll deal with the industrioclasts myself. Over.” Finally, she faced Vermillion, and gestured to the bike. “Shall we? I think whoever planted that device had to have come from that entrance opposite, over there. Oh, and try to avoid fatalities, if you can?”

“Oh, I’m sure that won’t be a problem. I very seldom kill anyone I didn’t mean to, and it’s amazing how much you can do to someone without-” and again, she cut herself short, wincing at the look in Axle’s eyes. “Fine, I’ll be gentle… Let’s go, then. Would be a shame to keep them waiting.” Grinning fiercely, she swung herself back up onto the bike, newly-acquired fireball still burning in her hand.

Axle joined her, flicked down her goggles, and careered the bike through the square towards the street she had pointed out earlier. As they reached it, they saw a flash of a coat as someone turned a corner, and Axle raced towards that turning. Sadly it was too small for a hoverbike to get down, and Axle jumped off, briefly forgetting she had a passenger.

With a startled oath, Vermilion grabbed for the handlebars, yanking the bike skywards; fireball tossed unceremoniously downwards to explode in a blast of energy almost like the thrusters the bike was more used to. Rapidly accelerating upwards, she clung on for dear life, frantically trying to estimate the height of the buildings around them as compared to, say, the treeline of the Wyrdwood.

“Shit, Fuck!” Axle stared as the bike rose higher, wracking her brains for what she could do to help from the ground. “Point the front downwards!” She shouted, hopeful that Vermilion had remembered some of her lessons from the Wyrdwood.

High above, there was a peal of mad laughter as the bike cleared the rooftops. Vermilion twisted the handlebars vaguely in the right direction to follow the path of the narrow street beneath, seemingly unconcerned that she was somewhere between ‘sideways’ and ‘upside down’.

Axle rolled her eyes, wondering if she was ever going to get her bike back, and ran down the street after both Vermilion, and, she hoped, the Industrioclasts.

Reluctantly, Vermilion slowed the bike to keep an eye out down below; where tiny, scurrying figures, some of them dragging struggling figures with them, darted from cover to cover through the streets. Clearly there was no way she’d be able to take a clear shot at them while maintaining control of the bike, even if Axle hadn’t requested no fatalities; but since they appeared to be trying to use the confusion of the streets to gain distance, she could at least make herself useful…

A deep breath, left hand tightening on the bike, holding it steady as much by force of will as muscle, and her right hand darted downwards, leaving a sparkle of crimson witchfire to mark their trail. Again, and again, as they twisted and turned through the narrow alleyways, until at last it became obvious where they were headed. Given their fondness for fire, the burnt shell of a building with the scaffolding of reconstruction taking shape around it had to be the chosen dramatic backdrop for the narrative they were constructing. She smiled, and drove the bike forwards and - at last - downwards, circling to the far side of the building, looking for a safe place to land it out of sight.

Axle followed the witchfire with a grin, delighted by this new addition to her fighting arsenal. As she came to the building, she slowed down, making a purposeful march towards the door and slamming it open, laser pistol poised. “Come on out then?” She shouted into the echoey shell of concrete and plasterwork. “Let's hear your pathetic 'demands’?”. From behind a crumbling wall, six figures appeared, four industrioclasts, two hostages, being roughly held by two of the Industrioclasts, knives to their throats and fear in their eyes. Volunteers, by the look of their clothes. The tallest industrioclast, whose knife was pressed to one of the hostages’ throat, broke the silence.

“We want the research you've done on the potions that remove pain. Have someone bring it here, all of it, and give it to our scientist,” he gestured to one of the other industrioclasts. “Then we'll let your puppets go.”

Vermilion paused, focussed on the echoing sound of voices, and picked up her pace, scrambling over debris as she made her way inwards from the back of the building.

Axle raised an eyebrow, assessing the situation. “See, you can't kill me, and those two are Volunteers, who would be more than happy to die to protect this information from scum like you. So what are you relying on here? The fact that I care more about the fate of these two comrades than I do the fate of every volunteer you could hurt with those potions? Dangerous gamble…” she idly twisted the laser pistol round in her hand, subtly flipping the switch on the side to “stun” as she did so, and shot one of the hostages in the chest.

A shot, followed by sounds of surprise and consternation; Vermilion’s lips had already formed themselves into a smile by the time she rounded the corner and realised who had been the target. The rich, dark laughter of a Monarch-in-Shadow rolled out into the echoing space behind the startled industrioclasts.

“And here I thought you might have spirit,” she murmured, voice carrying despite it’s soft volume. “I thought that you might have an actual plan… You fear pain, little rebel?” That laugh, again. “You do not know what fear is; you do not know what pain is. But please, hold still, and let me teach you…” Crimson lightning crackled about her, sending ominous shadows dancing about the walls. Caught between her and Axle, the industrioclasts shot frantic glances at each other, not daring to give either Shaper their full attention.

Ignoring them, she fixed her eyes on Axle, and smiled. She’d promised to be ‘gentle’, which set entirely too many limitations on her; but these were Axle’s people, both the rebels and the loyal, and it was only mete that they should live or die by Axle’s will, not by her guest’s. But she could be one hell of a distraction, even so.

The scientist turned to Vermilion, in some confusion, whilst the others still continued to stare at Axle, Vermillion and what appeared to be a corpse of a volunteer, in shock. “Why are you helping her? We don’t want the potions for ourselves, we want to potions so we can free the volunteers from the Combine’s grip. If we can free them from their pain they might remember-” She was cut short, by Axle casually shooting the other Volunteer, and then aiming a laser pistol at her head.

“Volunteers are free, Industrioclast. Giving them that potion will cause confusion, and chaos and long term psychological damage. But that is irrelevant. You have no hostages, and now, you are going to Volunteer.” Axle’s voice had grown cold, and angry.

“You expect me to explain myself to you?” Vermilion still sounded, more than anything, distinctly amused. “You had it right the first time, or your friend did… Shapers are not your equals. I have done things you cannot imagine, twisted reality in ways you could never comprehend, committed atrocities you could never forgive. And the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.” She stepped forwards, flinging her arms wide; the crimson lightning sheathing her body roiled outwards, curving into a circle that encompassed the group and sealed behind her as she stepped inwards, cutting off any potential for escape.

Axle fired a blast at one of the Industrioclasts, knocking them to the ground, but as she turned to fire on the others, they collapsed to the ground of their own accord, strange blue foam seeping from their lips. “No!” Axle shouted, running towards them, emitting a strangled scream of frustration as she reached them and confirmed that they were, indeed, dead.

“How disappointing.” Vermilion glared at the nearest corpse. “You could at least have had the spirit to go out fighting, if you were determined to die free…” She sighed, shrugged, and looked to Axle. “If you need to interrogate them, I can probably call them back long enough for that. Not the outcome you wanted, I know, but if it will help… well, necromancer, standing right here.” She directed another withering glare towards the blue-lipped corpses.

Axle frowned, looking tired. “No, we've got that one,” she gestured at the stunned industrioclast. She sighed. “Sorry you had to see this. Not the finest of sights in my territory.”

“Perhaps not. You, however, were magnificent.” Vermilion hesitated, taking a moment to dismiss the now-superfluous circle of magic. “Axle - why do they think giving volunteers painkillers will undo their conditioning?” She frowned in concern, stepping closer. “Are you in pain?”

Axle smiled at her. “No. It's a weird walker potion, it like, digs up old pain and gets rid of that too, and re-education can be painful. We've already had a number of volunteer incidents because of it.” She bent down, reaching for some discarded rope, and tied the industrioclast to a nearby beam. “You were quite something yourself, you know? Although I think it’s the least… you that I’ve ever seen you.”

Vermilion chuckled dryly. “In some senses perhaps; in others, quite the opposite. Sometimes I forget we never encountered each other on the battlefields of Homeworld. If we had… well, that was positively restrained, by those standards. I didn’t earn the title of Carrion-Queen without embracing the role I was sculpted for fully, after all.”

“It’s probably a good thing we never met before…” Axle smiled ruefully, before taking out her radio. “This is comrade Axle. Can we have an extraction team down at the building site in 2B…. One for re-education, three for the science labs. I want a full report on the poison they ingested and where they are getting it from. There will also be two Volunteers awake and unharmed, please ensure they get home safely. Over and Out.” Axle shook her head. “I hate it when we lose them. And I hate that awful rhetoric as well,” She turned to Vermilion, bitter and sad. “Do I look like a mindless puppet to you?”

“You’re not, no.” Vermilion shook her head, took a moment to choose her words. “You… clearly chose to embrace what you are, what you’ve become. It’s not just something that’s been done to you, it’s a choice you make, over and over, every day.” Briefly, her eyes went distant. “That’s… something I understand. Something I respect.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and she took a deep breath, before continuing, sympathy in her eyes as she pressed on. “But… is that really true of all of your people, Axle? There’s a reason ‘re-education’ terrifies people. Why those of us outside the Combine call it brainwashing and spit when we speak of it.” She nodded towards the unconscious industrioclast. “Will she even be recognisable as who she was, when you are through with her? Her friends chose death, rather than face what you are about to do… if freedom is what you value, do you not accept they had the right to make that choice?”

Towards the end of Vermilion’s words, Axle had begun to pale, and back away, pain and confusion and anger flickering across her face as she tried to control her thoughts, and her breathing. “She will… be given a second chance.” Axle could feel her hands balling into fists, fingernails digging into skin as she fought to regain control. “And not all Volunteers may embrace that chance as passionately as I do but they all embrace it. Perhaps the person I was would have rather died, but I am very happy to be alive.” She fought back tears as she stared Vermilion down, determined to fight off the incident she could feel bubbling beneath her skin.

Vermilion spread her hands, meeting Axle’s gaze. “I am in no moral position to throw stones here. I aided my liege in performing his form of brainwashing, numerous times - it amused him no end to have those of us who’d been through it assist. And while I have not used the procedure since I left his service, it is not unknown for me to slit the throats of those who refused to serve me living, then reanimate their corpses to serve in death, as a useful object lesson to their fellows…”

“I am not about to stand in judgment. I am not going to try to stop you. I simply do not understand. Where you draw the line. How you reconcile your noble ideals of freedom with the reality of forcing this on the unwilling.” Her voice was calm, and even; her gaze intent and focussed as she waited for the answer.

Axle massaged her forehead, looking down, her hands shaking as she tried for form words, “There are those who will never be free the way they are because they are lost and it is better for them to… have a chance… at freedom.” her lip trembled, and she looked up, her eyes wide with fear and confusion. “Why are you doing this to me?” she whispered, still struggling for breath.

Vermilion blinked, in surprise and confusion. “I-” don’t understand how you can believe in freedom, without it including the freedom to define for yourself what freedom means.

“I-” worry what it says about you, that these people Shaped as echoes of your own subconscious rebel, over and over, and you put them through what was done to you, over and over, in the hopes that this time it will stick a little better than it did with you. As if your own mind will be at rest if you can only nail all theirs into place, scattered fragments of your own doubts as they are.

“I-” want you to acknowledge that we are not so different, that your world has its necessary evils as does mine.

Lost, sad eyes. The memory of arms around her in the darkness. I promise, I won’t let anyone do that to you again.

“I - oh, damn it all!” And suddenly she tore the crown from her head and hurled it out into the ruins, glaring after it until the metallic clank and tinkle of its falling faded. “Damnit, damnit, damnit…”

She turned back to Axle, eyes wide and almost frightened. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’ll stop, I promise, just - breathe…”

Axle looked at her like a wounded animal, but she got a grip on her breathing, and moved forwards a little. “I’m… sorry…” she whispered faintly.

“You’ve got nothing to apologise for,” Vermilion shook her head. “It’s me, I went full-blown Carrion-Queen on you there, it’s hard to turn her off, but she’s not who you wanted here, I’m just not used to remembering I can be anyone else, well, other than the Enchantress-Supreme, but she’s just a mask on a mask…” she let her voice trail off, aware that she was babbling.

Axle gave a weak smile. “Combine procedure for this sort of situation is usually an ideologically comforting hug. Not sure we can manage the first bit between us, but maybe the second bit?” She walked unsteadily towards Vermilion, and opened her arms awkwardly.

Vermilion mustered a ragged chuckle as she reached out towards her. “Not sure I’d know ‘ideologically comforting’ if it bit me, but yeah…” and then her voice trailed off again as suddenly she was clinging to Axle, uncertain when exactly her hands had started shaking.

For once, Axle didn’t fire back with, “you will.” but instead sank into the hug, not really sure when she had started crying, but no longer trying to stop herself. For the first time since the industrioclasts had set the bomb, she relaxed.

Suddenly, there was a noise from behind them, and Axle swore, untangling herself from the hug, and rushing over to the groggy, awakening Volunteers.

She gently passed the first of them a flask of water from her belt, speaking softly and calmly. “Here, drink this. You’ve just been stunned, might feel a bit of bruising in the chest for a while but you should be fine. Be sure to check in with your hegemonic engineer regardless, this is a scary thing to have gone through, and you’ve been very brave. What are your names, Comrades?”

The slowly awakening Volunteers took the water, and one of them answered for the pair. “I’m Nail and this is Ratchett. Thank you for coming to get us.”

Axle smiled and gently squeezed Nail’s arm. “That’s what Unity’s all about, isn’t it? I’ll let revCorp know how brave you both were, and come see me when you’ve recovered, I’d like to make sure you’re OK personally. There will be an extraction team in shortly, they’ll make sure you get home safe, OK?”

Vermilion found herself a reasonably intact section of wall to lean against, still shaking slightly, and watched Axle in fascination. The steel-eyed warrior willing to fire on her own people to save them. The fragile woman with the wounded mind. And now this, this… gentle shepherd tending to her flock. One woman, many faces. Another thing they had in common.

Axle stood up and walked towards her, seemingly calmer for having calmed the Volunteers. “We should probably head off, this has rather taken up our sightseeing time and if we are late for the show I think Oil might actually find a way to kill a shaper, it was hard enough to convince her to get me tickets in the first place.” She offered an arm to Vermillion, then paused. “Oh, do you um… want to retrieve your crown-thingy before we go?”

Vermilion laughed, a little shakily, “Oh, leave it - I have plenty more, and heaven knows where it landed, let’s not waste the time.” She managed a grin. “I think I remember where I left the bike…”

Axle raised her eyebrows as she let Vermilion lead them out the back door. “If there is so much of a scratch on it, I will hex you…”

The bike was, as it happened, not visibly more damaged than when last seen.

It was also not the right way up. Scraps of red silk clinging to the debris around it suggested Vermilion had had to wriggle her way free of it on landing in a rather undignified manner. She certainly looked somewhat embarrassed at the positioning.

“Hrmm, I’ll let you off.” Axle grinned, and swung herself on, quietly looking forward to being back in the safety of Vermilion’s arms after the earlier blip.

“Much obliged,” Vermilion answered dryly, pulling the goggles back on as she remounted behind Axle. “Shall we, then?”

They sped off, winding through more side streets and plazas than Vermilion could count, as the city got darker and the glow of orange Street lights began to flicker. Eventually, Axle brought the bike slowly, and safely to a stop outside a small theatre, plastered with brightly coloured posters for the show, and checked a small watch on her belt. “We're a tiny bit early, want a traditional Combine meal before we head in?”

“Why not?” Vermilion smiled, pulling off the goggles with some relief, even if she did seem a little reluctant to climb down from the bike (or, possibly, to relinquish her grip on Axle’s waist). “Did they actually get the food about right in the Nexus, last Grand Cycle?”

Axle grinned as she leaned against the bike and pulled two plain looking bars from a side satchel on the bike. “Maybe for people who aren't living in air ships, but these are proper soldiers rations here.” She threw one of the bars to Vermilion. “Enough nutrients in that for a whole day. Apparently these are 'fruit flavoured’.”

“Any particular kind of fruit, or…” Vermilion sighed, looking dubiously at the bar, and tried a cautious nibble. “Hmm… Tastes… pink.” Still staring at it in befuddlement, she took another bite. “Definitely pink.”

“If you say so.” Axle was chewing on her bar quite happily, enjoying watching Vermilion discovering something new. “Personally I prefer fresh fruit and veg, but these are good in a pinch.”

“Certainly… interesting.” Vermilion took another bite, eyeing it with a confused expression; she still hadn’t managed to make up her mind if she liked it or not. “And clearly a practical solution.”

“They grow on you. It’s by and large what we live of here, although Dynamics sends along fresh veg pretty regularly now, so we’ve been distributing that.” Axle’s face went a little pink as she said this, but she continued eating her bar as though nothing had happened.

“I can see how you’d want a little variety, yes.” Vermilion said mildly, noting the interesting reaction for future consideration and trying not to look too smug - she didn’t want to spoil the surprise of Axle finding out what she’d brought, especially since she’d evidently made a reasonable call on that one. “Oh - I think people are starting to go in, should we-?”

“Yes let's!” Axle swallowed the last bite of her bar, and practically dragged Vermilion towards the small queue outside the theatre, fishing out two battered tickets from her jacket pocket. “I hope Oil got us good seats, it's meant to be such a good show!” Axle buzzed with excitement as the queue slowly moved forward.

“Musical theatre, you said?” Vermilion found herself smiling, caught up in Axle’s infectious enthusiasm; even the latest round of good evening, Comrades, as they joined the queue, could barely dent her mood. “I must say, I’m rather looking forwards to it.”

It turned out Oil had got them excellent seats, a wonderful view of the stage, and far back enough that the whole theatre wouldn’t be watching their Shaper and her strange companion. Axle balanced the pile of biscuits she had collected from the biscuit rats on the way in, on the arm of her seat, and leant across to talk to Vermilion. “It’s only an Amateur production, but the reviews have been fantastic. It’s an absolute classic show, the music is brilliant!”

Vermilion smiled at her, taken with her enthusiasm, and tried to ignore the vague claustrophobia she was starting to feel at how crowded the place was becoming as it filled up. Of course this was never going to be the kind of theatre with private boxes, she scolded herself silently. Stupid to think otherwise.

As the lights in the theatre dimmed, Axle was was practically bouncing up and down in her chair with excitement. “Oil hasn’t actually told me who she is playing,” Axle whispered. “I hope it’s someone important! Ooooo did I tell you the main character is a weird nerd who spends all his time reading and not enough time having fun? I think you’ll empathise” Axle flashed Vermilion a cheeky grin as the Orchestra started tuning.

“But… reading is fun…” Vermilion pouted half-heartedly at her, before shrugging, sighing, and settling back to watch the show. (It wasn’t exactly that she was shuffling closer to Axle as she shifted in her seat, of course. Not exactly. Just a case of avoiding touching the nervous-looking hoi polloi crammed in all around them.)

Axle tried not to notice Vermilion’s closeness as the curtain rose on the Liberator who was clearly the star of the show, singing a cheery opening number about the joys of studying strategy as a Combine Liberator. Vermilion could see, even in the darkness of the theatre, that Axle was mouthing along to every word, entranced by the spectacle.

Vermilion found herself spending as much time watching Axle’s face as the show; it was a simple enough plot to follow, and the songs were, as was to be expected, the best part. And then it became apparent that the enemy were about to come on stage, and she found herself leaning forwards in fascination to see how the Combine depicted their villains.

Two figures came onto the stage, clearly dressed as Opportunists, one in the over-the-top garb of a heartisan, the other dressed all in black, seemingly a margin-driver. Depicted as cacklingly evil and devilishly clever, they opened with a fast paced patter song about the money they would make from the wreckage of the combine ships. “Maybe we should take Violet to see this…” Axle whispered quietly, laughter in her voice.

“Maybe you should,” Vermilion chuckled. “I’d be intrigued to see how your people play Valtaria in this sort of thing, I’ll admit… Vector certainly did a good enough job in that montage.” Interesting that your villains have the song that requires the most technical skill, I suppose you don’t want it to be too easy to sing along to…

When Oil finally came on, as an opportunist pilot the hero's talked into joining them after fixing her injured leg, Axle gave a rather loud cheer, causing the pair to be given a few odd glances, and causing Oil herself to go slightly red beneath the stage lights.

“Ah, a willing convert?” Vermilion murmured softly, leaning in towards Axle and shooting her an amused look. “No wonder you wanted me to see this… let me guess, it’s an infectiously catchy song?”

Axle went red. “I'd actually forgotten about this bit… but yes, yes it is.” They carried on watching in companionable silence, as the liberator and his new friends overcame various obstacles to foil the Opportunists plans, until it was the final fight scene, and Axle, who'd clearly seen the show before, nevertheless sat forward on her seat, biting her lip, and staring intently at the stage.

Vermilion leant forwards also, clearly drawn into the drama despite herself, grinning in anticipation as the drumbeats began to pick up. Axle looked over at her and grinned, delighted that she appeared to be getting into it. And then jumped slightly as a loud theatrical gunshot brought her back to the fighting.

Vermilion found herself grinning and clapping along with the crowd as the outrageous heartisan threw herself into a song that could almost have been a monarch-in-shadow’s monologue, making one last desperate ploy before inevitably succumbing to the combined efforts - and rousing choral backing - of her adversaries. Brow furrowed, she leaned over to Axle. “So, ah - where’s the other one hiding?”

“That'd be telling!” Axle grinned smugly, and minutes later the margin driver indeed reappeared in an ambush, only to be cleverly put down by the teamwork of the hero's. As the final song drew to a close, with much applause and cheering from the audience, Axle nudged Vermilion gently, her eyes sparkling with a rarely seen uninhibited joy. “What did you think?”

“All right, I’ll admit, that was fun.” Vermilion smiled back. “And the special effects on that last part were really quite something. Your friend Oil did wonderfully, didn’t she? I’m going to be humming that one all evening-” she broke off, groaning slightly. “...well played…”

Axle clapped her hands in delight, then grabbed Vermilions hand, and dragged her out of her seat and through the bustling crowds. “Come on, this way. If we are quick we can get round the back and congratulate Oil as she heads out!”

Vermilion clung to Axle’s hand, suspecting that if she let go she would lose her entirely in the throng of entirely-too-many-people. “Do you know any of the others?” A thought struck her. “Have you ever joined in one of these productions?”

Axle looked back at her and laughed, continuing to wind through the crowds. “Unity no! I'd be terrible at it! And I only know Oil, but I plan to congratulate them all anyway!” She got to a door at the front of the theatre and pulled Vermilion through it, into a tiny side passage.

Vermilion noticeably relaxed once out of the main crowd, though her hand still lingered in Axle’s. “If you say so - you seem to know most of the words already though, surely that’s the hard part?” She grinned impudently. “Okay, so maybe I was hoping someday I’d get to see you dressed up like one of ours and monologuing dramatically… a girl can dream, right?” She glanced around, trying to get her bearings. “So, where are we going?”

“You wish!” Axle snorted, but she had gone a little pink at what she had decided must have been a compliment. “It’s this way, I think”, she led Vermilion down the passage and round a corner, gently releasing her hand as they came across a crowd of Combine Actors. “Oil!” Axle shouted, and a short, dark haired figure turned around.

Vermilion gave her best attempt at a non-threatening smile from behind Axle, and waved in greeting. Oil smiled, and Axle ran towards her, enveloping her in a massive hug. “You were fantastic!” Axle released her, and Oil looked both pleased and embarrassed in equal measure. “Vermilion thought so too,” she turned to look at the Monarch, “right Comrade?”

“Right-” her ears caught up an instant too late, and she sighed and shot Axle a look of amused despair, before turning back to Oil. “You have a magnificent voice. And that was one hell of a good show.”

“Thanks”, said Oil, looking awkward, “It’s been a real team effort to get it up and running in time.” At this point, Axle was pulled away by one of the younger cast members, desperate for a chance to talk to the infamous shaper, and quickly lost in the crowd of actors. Oil looked up at Vermilion, frowned, and tilted her head. “You know, I know Axle pretty well by now, better than most people I suspect. I spend almost every day with her, when she’s not at self portrait.” Oil paused, clearly building herself up to continue. “It’s clear that she cares an awful lot about you. If you care about her don't… just don’t make her any promises you don’t intend on keeping, OK?”

Vermilion stared at her briefly, eyebrows rising. “I assure you, young lady, I am if nothing else a monster of my word.” Her voice came out dry and cold. Her head tilted curiously to one side, watching, waiting, to see if this show of courage, the mortal trying to protect her Shaper, would continue or fade into nothingness. Intriguing, most intriguing, to find the first sparks of that defiance here that she so hoped for in her own…

Oil shrugged, it was hard to tell if she was actually unperturbed by Vermilion’s coldness, or simply acting. “Well, that’s a slight reassurance, I guess. But you can get someone’s hopes up without using words. I may not be able to get to you myself if you do that, but the thing about the combine is if you upset one of us, you upset all of us.”

Vermilion watched her a moment longer, inspecting her for signs of weakness that never came, then slowly nodded in respect, letting her face break into a slight smile. “Oh, give it time, my dear, we won’t be Shapers forever, after all…” She sighed, and shrugged. “Seriously, though… I’m not trying to set her up for a fall. I’m not used to… caring about people. Even less used to them caring about me. I have no idea if there’s any way for... whatever the hell this is... to end which isn’t in tears, or flames. But that, genuinely, isn’t my intention.” She spread her hands. “All that I’ve promised her is my willingness to listen and to learn. And that much I can give her.”

Oil’s eyes bore into Vermilion, but she nodded. “Well, thanks for coming to the show anyway.” She stood in awkward silence until Axle bounced back towards them, full of enthusiasm.

“Sorry about that! You two getting along alright?”

“Fabulously,” Vermilion said, smiling brightly. “I like her. Best be careful that I don’t end up trying to steal her…” she tried to keep her tone light enough to be clear as a joke.

Axle rolled her eyes. “You can’t steal people Vermilion. But if you joined the Combine you could visit her all the time…” Axle grinned mischievously.

Vermilion sighed and shook her head. “You, Axle, are an incorrigible optimist. On both counts.” Her eyes flicked to Oil unconsciously. This is what you’re worried about, isn’t it?

Axle stuck her tongue out at Vermilion. “I prefer the term realist. Oil, we’re gonna have to head off before Vermilion tries to fireball me in front of all these people. See you in the morning!” She strode off in what was probably the direction of the bike, assuming Vermilion would follow.

“...she never gives up, does she?” Vermilion wasn’t entirely sure if she was talking to Oil or to herself. Shaking her head, she hurried after Axle, before she could lose track of her in the unfamiliar bustle of the Combine.

Eventually, they located the bike, and settled into their usual seats. Axle drove the long way back to the centre of operations, winding slowly through back alleys and quiet streets. “It looks lovely in the dark, I think. It’s not quite the Wyrdwood but it’s… it’s home.”

“It’s very different to what I’m used to. But yes, it’s quite lovely in its own way. All those welcoming lights and happy people…” Vermilion sighed happily and leant into Axle, resting her head on her shoulder. Axle smiled to herself and happily hummed show tunes all the way back to the Centre, careful to avoid the song of the pilot, in case Vermilion thought she was playing games.

At the centre, Axle stopped the bike gently, and swung herself off, turning awkwardly to Vermilion. “Well, it's pretty late. You know where your rooms are, and your intercom connects directly to mine if you need me for anything…” Axle trailed off.

“Want to come up for a nightcap? I brought along a bottle of that stuff we had at mine…” Vermilion tried not to sound too hopeful.

Axle grinned widely. “Ooh, yes. That stuff was delicious. Although I'll be monitoring your intake, lightweight!” Axle opened the door for Vermilion, still grinning.

“At least this time it’s stairs before drinking…” Vermilion smiled ruefully.

Axle looked around a little before heading up the stairs, but to her relief, the main hall was deserted. The only person who’d know if she didn't end up in her own bed tonight would be Oil and Oil… never asked questions like that. She headed up to Vermilions room and turned on the lights, rolling her eyes at the poster of herself and plonking herself on the bed, having forgotten to provide the room with chairs.

Vermilion pulled open her bag and began rooting through it, scattering the contents across the bed. A miniature wardrobe, all of six inches high; a four-poster bed on the same scale, skulls on the posts as small as beads; an elaborately sculpted tent, canvas and ropes alike crafted in gleaming gold; a palm-sized chest that rattled cheerfully; some kind of magic wand-

“Ah-ha!”

-and a familiar looking bottle of red alcohol, wrapped in cloth to keep it safe in transit. Handing it to Axle, Vermilion began gathering up the rest of her possessions and returning them to the bag.

Axle stared in fascination at this process, then tried very hard to look like miniature magical wardrobes were something she saw every day. “Didn't think I'd provide you with a suitable bed?” She commented, opening the alcohol and taking a large swig.

Vermilion shrugged. “Took me a few days in the forest before I got clear of the Crucible. If I have to go camping, I like to be comfortable.” She grinned, reaching for the bottle. “Of course, the problem with a tent big enough to fit a proper bed in, is finding a clearing big enough for the tent… still, I managed.”

“What you need is an airship.” Axle grinned, and then she looked at Vermilion curiously, trying to sound casual as she asked, “So. You've met my comrades. Do you still believe people need to overcome a tyrant to be courageous?”

“An outright tyrant, maybe not, but you’ve still wound up with villains. Conflict driving the narrative.” Vermilion frowned, and shot Axle a concerned glance. “Except… your villains seem to be under the impression that they are the heroes of the piece, and you are the tyrant. At least with our way of doing things, everyone agrees who the bad guys are.”

Axle tilted her head to one side. “Interesting. I’d have said the most courageous people we met today were actually the people who got up on stage and sang in front of all those people. That, to me, takes far more courage than being taken hostage…”

“With an audience that supportive?” Vermilion looked surprised and confused. “How could the prospect of sharing something beautiful with people who will appreciate it require more courage than facing death?”

“Because you don’t know the audience are gonna like it until you’ve done it! Opening night must be terrifying!” Axle shuddered as she imagined it. “And what if you forgot your lines or something?”

“What if you did?” Vermilion shrugged. “Your people don’t strike me as the type to throw fruit, much less knives… it would be briefly embarrassing, someone off stage would remind you, you’d move on. I mean - you wouldn’t hold that kind of thing against someone, would you?” She looked at Axle in fascination. “You really do fear disappointing people, or people not liking you, more than dying, don’t you?”

Axle frowned. “We might not throw fruit but I've seen some pretty harsh theatrical reviews in my time… and I'm a Volunteer, I don't expected to be liked, or adored, but yeah, disappointing people sucks.” Axle took another swig of drink, and removed her boots and jacket so she could sit more comfortably on the bed. Doing this revealed that all the veins on the inside of her right arm were glowing an odd blue colour, which didn't seem to faze her whatsoever.

“I suppose I have a different perspective on things. Hatred and contempt come with the territory; one gets used to it. In time.” Vermilion sighed. “Oh, that’s pretty-” she reached out towards Axle, finger tracing through the air over the lines of her glowing veins. “What is that?”

Axle looked at her arm in mild confusion, and then realised. “Oh that? It’s awesome isn’t it! An industrioclast stuck a knife in my arm, and Vector decided to fix it with some ‘experimental medicine’. No idea how long it’s gonna last, I’m basically a walking night-light now.” Axle frowned. “I think it’s a shame you think people ought to hate you. Especially because of how you’re secretly very nice and friendly.”

Vermilion blushed, tugging at her hair and glaring at it to make sure it was still her own familiar red. “Don’t go saying things like that, I didn’t pack a deuced thing in my sister-self’s green… besides, I have a reputation to maintain.” Taking a swig of the drink, she shot Axle a thoughtful look. “...one of them actually managed to injure you?”

Axle, who had been giggling gently at having made Vermilion blush, shrugged, unconcerned. “Valve says it’s because I get too emotionally invested in stuff or something. It’s something to do with force of will, or belief or something, I don’t really get it.” And every time you’ve been injured it’s somehow been connected to a certain Liberator… Axle pulled a face at Vermilion. “Please don’t turn into your ‘sister-self’, if you’re gonna reform, do it properly and become a Liberator!”

“Well, yes, our territories are literally reflections of our own souls, it shouldn’t be possible for anything within them to hurt us unless on some level we want to be hurt - which is exactly what I’m aiming for and not getting, and you’ve managed it without even trying?” Vermilion shook her head ruefully. “I’m oddly jealous. I mean, I actively want my people to rebel against me, to take up arms and shed my blood, and literally the only confirmation so far that that’s even metaphysically possible here are your Industrioclasts.”

A brief pause, an expression somewhere between ‘amused’ and ‘horrified’. “You really don’t give up, do you? And really - me, a Liberator? Really? I’d look ridiculous.”

“Yes. Liberator. Definitely.” Axle took another large swig from the bottle. “And no, I’m not ever giving up on you. I like you too much to let you go down this ridiculous path of trying to get yourself destroyed by your own people.” Axle swung herself off the bed and walked slightly unsteadily towards the poster of herself. “You would look brilliant as a Liberator. Look!” And Axle pulled a strange, concentrating face, her tongue sticking out of her mouth rather comedically, and the poster blurred, and reshaped itself to be a picture of Vermilion, in goggles and a jaunty hat, above the same declaration, that ‘Anyone can be a Hero’.

Vermilion dissolved into giggles, burying her face in her hands. “...ridiculous…”

Axle shrugged, climbing back onto the bed, and nudging the giggling monarch gently. “I think it looks… dashing. If not LibCorp, then what?”

Vermilion’s eyebrows rose as she reached for the bottle. “I haven’t exactly been planning a career for myself in the Combine! That’s like… picking out shoes for an outfit you’re not planning on wearing.” She shook her head absently. “Besides, don’t most of those not born and raised to it end up in the VolCorps?”

“No that’s only those who…” Axle looked down, “Won’t walk willingly into the light?” She nudged Vermilion again. “Come on, humour me. ProCorp, LibCorp or RevCorp?”

“Well, definitely not RevCorp.” Vermilion shivered. “They’re the ones who handle the actual re-education thing, aren’t they? Too many… issues, there. Old memories that... wouldn’t stay quiet.” Her eyes went distant again, staring into the past as she reached for the bottle.

“Only the Hegamonic engineers, the Rhetanomic engineers are more about making videos and posters and putting them up in people’s rooms without consulting me… Honestly I do think you’d make a wonderful Liberator.” Axle gently reached for Vermilion’s hand, and squeezed it softly. “Surely that would be better than being hated and feared?”

“Would it?” Vermilion shrugged. “My… sister-self… Viridian… she isn’t hated, isn’t feared, but… she isn’t happy, either. She’s… hollow. At least I’m real, when I’m, well, me. I know how to be a villain. I don’t know how to be a hero, not in any way more real than those characters on stage. I can play the role, but it’s no more than that, not for me…”

Axle waved her hand dismissively. “That's because monarch victors are fake as fuck. All 'look at me I'm so noble’ whilst they still put themselves above their people like they are better. At least” she gestured at Vermilion, “you’re honest. But you could be liked and still be you. I mean, I like you for starters.”

“Which confuses the hell out of me.” Vermilion reached for the bottle again. “I understand being hated, feared, despised. I understand being respected, admired, even loved. But for someone to actually like me, as a person…” She took a deep drink. “I don’t understand… whatever this is… at all.”

Axle was quiet for a minute, bewildered by Vermilion’s confusion. How can you not understand being liked. She squeezed the monarch’s hand again, uncertain whether the gesture was enough. “But do you… like whatever this is?” she asked quietly.

“Yes,” Vermilion said softly, squeezing her hand back. “I like it a lot. I like you a lot. I just… I’m lost.”

“Well, this is what we in the Combine like to call friendship. It's remarkably common in these parts.” Axles voice was gently mocking, and she watched Vermilion carefully for a response, wondering yet again how close she was to crossing some sort of line here.

Vermilion gave a rueful laugh. Raising the bottle again, she looked at it, hesitated, and then very carefully handed it back to Axle. “...I was going to tell you why I don’t try to make friends with my petitioners, wasn’t I?”

Axle unthinkingly took another swig. “It's going to be some brain bendingly weird monarch reason isn't it. Like… 'they might actually notice I'm funny and generous and nice and I will die of shame’” Axle stopped doing her terrible Vermilion impression, and grinned.

Vermilion tried to look offended at the impression, but was rather undermined by the way her lips kept twitching. “...do you know what Companions are, in Valtarian society?” Briefly, her eyes went distant again. “That’s… what I was, before…”

“Not a clue. Spend most of my time pre…” she gestured at the room, “this, fighting capitalists. So most of what I know about Valtaria is what the Combine have been doing there.”

“Right. So-” she gestured vaguely. “We’re… they’re... the people closest to a Monarch. Amongst our own kind, monarchs can have allies, lovers, spouses… but the games of power never stop. You can never let your guard down. So instead, it’s common for a Monarch to surround themselves with mortals. They’re honour guards - insofar as that has any meaning, mortals guarding one of us - and confidantes, and... and pretty decorations for the palace. Some Monarchs even take them to their bed; my liege at least had more taste than that, he didn’t start paying court till long after I’d become a Shaper, when I’d shaken off enough of the conditioning to betray him, and I still took pleasure in denying him for years…” Her lips twisted into a bitter smile, remembering.

“Point is - in many ways, they’re the closest thing a Monarch has to having friends. Some Monarchs, I think, truly believe they are. My liege… he truly cared about us, in his way. But… it wasn’t friendship, it never could be. I remember laughing at his jokes, even when the punchline was that he was torturing one of my fellows for some failure or other; putting the sympathy and the relief it wasn’t me this time away for the moment to take my cues from his mood. I remember listening to his worries and his irritations and his plans, offering what comfort and support I could, treasuring the moments I was privileged to speak to him as almost an equal, but always watching for his mood to shift, because that privilege could and would be withdrawn in an instant, and woe betide any of us who presumed too far…”

Her grip tightened instinctively on Axle’s hand, staring blankly into memory. “He made us love him. But he never did a thing to stop us hating him. He didn’t care if we liked him. Because we weren’t friends, no matter how much he liked to play at it. We were pets.”

The cheery expression had melted from Axle's face as she listened, following Vermilions every word. She gently released her hand, and instead wrapped it around Vermilions shoulder, softly stroking her arm. “I'm so sorry Vermilion. That’s just… awful.”

“The thing is, though…” Vermilion leant into her, still staring into space. “I am what he made me. And my people are reflections of me, my mind, my soul. Even if I could trust myself to do better - and I honestly don’t know if I can - they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dare to tell me ‘no’, any more than I’d have dared to deny him back then, but they’d perpetually be waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I remember what that was like back then… I can’t do that to them, I won’t.” Angrily, she dashed away tears, hating herself for the weakness.

Axle put the bottle down, and reached up to Vermilion’s face, gently tilting it so that they were looking directly into each other's eyes. “Vermilion, if there’s one thing the Combine do well it’s helping people to trust one another. Our entire society is based on it. If you want your people to trust you, whether you eventually join the Combine or not, I will do my best to make that happen. No Volunteering required,” Her eyes were intense, almost desperate with their need to help.

“Axle, I-” and suddenly Vermilion was clinging to her, in a fierce, desperate hug, a soft whisper of “thank you” barely audible before her face was buried in Axle’s shoulder, body wracked with silent, heaving sobs.

“Hey, hey, I’ve got you, don’t worry,” Axle stroked Vermilions back, not really sure if the stream of platitudes she was garbling were of any use, but saying them anyway. I need a hegamonic engineer for this sort of thing…

“Sorry, sorry…” Slowly, reluctantly, Vermilion pulled back. “Fuck, look at me, I’m pathetic. I never talk about this stuff…”

“Hey, I saw all that weird badass magic you did earlier, you're certainly not pathetic. A little tipsy perhaps… and probably tired, but not pathetic.”

“Ever the optimist…” Vermilion chuckled ruefully.

“That's me!” Axle grinned, then yawned. “Right, I think we've both had enough booze, and it's getting pretty late…” Axle lent down to put the lid back on the bottle.

“Axle, um…” Vermilion fidgeted awkwardly, blushing. “Would you, ah.... would you mind… can you stay with me tonight?” The words came out in a rush, blush deepening. “I… really don’t often go digging through old memories like this…” She looked down at her hands, sure her face must by now be as red as her hair.

Axle’s face went quickly from grinning to concern. “Do you think you might have bad dreams again?” she asked.

“I… don’t know.” Vermilion admitted. “I… I’m afraid I might. Thrones and stars, I’m a mess.”

“Then of course I’ll stay. I’d be a bit of a terrible host if I caused you to have nightmares and then did nothing to comfort you!” Axle removed her belt, fishing a strip of bandage from it, which she used to wind around her arm, dimming the glowing veins slightly.

“It’s not your fault.” Vermilion smiled sadly. “None of this is your fault. But… thank you.” She slipped out of her outer robes, revealing a simple tunic and hose beneath, perfectly colour-co-ordinated.

Axle crawled beneath the covers, wriggling about to get comfortable, bizarrely reminiscent of the rats that roamed the RPC. “Ugh this bed feels weird. Ah well, never mind. Ideologically comforting hugs, comrade to be?”

“Comforting is… good…” Vermilion smiled despite herself, too tired - if she was honest with herself, too needy - to argue, as she snuggled up to Axle.

Axle slipped her arms around the monarch in shadow, and drifted into a far-too-dream-filled sleep.