Chapter One

Requiem for a Dream

"It has been just a little over two years since the Seraphim were defeated on Earth. The combined forces of the Illuminate, Cybran Nation, and the UEF – notwithstanding the betrayal of General-Brigadier Fletcher – were responsible for the victory. The two key factors to remember before the start of the war are these," continued Sarah. "First: The Trifaction Pact forced the alliance between the three factions after the Black Sun Omnicide. Second: The influence of Princess Burke, nominal leader of the Illuminate against the traitor faction siding with the Seraphim, was decisive. Not only did it rally a large force but she personally shut the Rift on Earth through means unknown." A bell rang, inside the college. The large white lecture theatre now had an atmosphere of expectant, impatient annoyance.

"In the next lecture, we will discuss the issues from the Black Sun Genocide and its' consequences. Now go on, go." The students didn't need telling twice-they were out faster than a UEF at a war crimes trial. Sarah made no secret of her utter loathing of the UEF, not only for what they had done to the Cybrans when the Infinite War still raged, but their shocking methods of bringing it to an end-not to mention some of the disgusting behaviour in those Cybran Nodes which remained, ruled by UEF governors. Still, peace was better than war at any rate-and more importantly, it was impossible for the Cybrans to win a conflict with the UEF without an alliance with the Aeon, and that was less than likely-almost impossible. Blowing a strand of brown hair from her red eyes, Sarah sunk into the chair at the front of the lecture theatre, letting the black leather envelop her as she called up her HUD.

The red interlacing and yellow lights all merged together, out from the back of her vision to the front where it replaced all those things before her. They were still visible, and in focus, but distant somehow, further away-and they mattered less. Only a disinterested arm exploring her computer for an uplink port roused her from her otherwise blissful machine-existence. Her right leg sung in a harmony of gears, whirring in a high pitch as her limbs dangled around the seat. Pulling back the fringe from the front of her head, Sarah fumbled with the uplink lead to find the port on her head, sinking a wire in slowly, letting the change come over her smoothly. Packet after packet of data, net-mails and events flowed like a river into her mind, the dance of electrons around her body lighting up bright, almost crimson wire-thin lines across her body, some on the left side of her head near the uplink port, others along her arms and some hidden by a white shirt and black tie, tight-fitting black jeans hiding her legs. The right leg, to be exact, was not covered but rather completely open to the elements, Sarah feeling no need to protect metal from the elements.

She did not feel cold when the wind blew against it, but negative feedback reports, and the sun did not warm it but trigger a photovoltaic power report. It was an elegantly designed piece, with metal scales pointing upwards in a tear-shape covering the naturally-shaped limb, hiding the thin grey pipes that were shaped, simulating realistic muscle with the added benefit of being far, far better than and human muscular fibres. The foot was like a bird's, three pointed prongs elevating exactly four point seven centimetres from the ground, and frankly Sarah was proud of it. Much like the red lines that marked half her face, or the various plugs and sockets leaking from her skin, or the tattoo on front of her left shoulder showing in black the three-pronged triangle of the Nation. They marked her out, and when it came each month for the UEF patrols to come into her allocated home and search her allocated things for anything untoward, she would make no attempt to hide anything. She was a Cybran, good and proud, and had no shame in showing it to her 'elected superiors'.

The hypocrisy of the UEF would have been funny if she were not trapped in the totalitarian scheme. Most Cybrans were employed as slave computers by the UEF military, and those outside of the military were usually enslaved. Sarah was still technically bonded to the Dean, but as Mr. Daniels ensured that his staff and students all had access to what little liberty remained in the new world order, she considered herself as free as the next man. What was it we fought for? What did they all die for? How could they lie to the Doctor in the negotiation chamber all this time? When the negotiation after the war had finished, the UEF immediately cancelled the agreement and sent the armed forces to destroy any remaining illusions of liberty. They had used their allies to take the brunt of the Seraphim, and then placed themselves handily at the head of the galaxy, with unelected rulers taxing without representation and showing that no matter how bad the omnicidal Seraphim could ever be, mankind could always go at least one better.

The little computer built into her desk sung as Sarah reached with her thoughts, seeking out the net mails for the day, some from inside the college and some from further away, quieter but in no way harder to hear. It puzzled her how people could just read data on a screen, watch numbers tick by without being one with them, having no impression of what they sounded or felt like, no intuition of their warmth or idea of the taste, sound, smell, texture of the messages they received. Perhaps they were better off in one way-Sarah had seen the awful effect of biometric malware. When a node on Hellespont had rebelled, the UEF sent in a wave of programs to destroy the minds of the occupants.

Sent in as one of the cleaners, Sarah had wiped away bodies and seen large men reduced to bundles of twitching flesh, begging for the end if they were still sane and rocking back and forth, dribbling or singing songs to themselves if their minds had totally broken. One memory in particular stuck out, a harsh reminder of the monstrous regime she lived under. Sarah had been sent into a house to check for any occupants while the UEF infantry executed the survivors, and found, locked away in a wooden cupboard, a small child, no older than six. His parents, she assumed, had put him in there to keep him away from the machines and themselves as they deteriorated into mindlessness. The bright-eyed child had looked at Sarah as a saviour, and she had cried as she picked up the child and held him in her arms, down the stairs and onto the street. He had smiled at her with thick lips and an unsuspecting look as the infantry had lined him up, and even after they had splattered his brains over a wall, something about his face said to Sarah, 'Hello. You just killed me.' She would never forgive herself-or them.

As her mind ticked over the past, a net-mail from the present popped up with impertinent authority. The subject line was Tonight. Opening the file without a movement, the red HUD filling her vision, she read. Sarah, are we still up tonight? The whole humanities faculty is going so far, and I needn't remind you that if you come it'll be the biggest unofficial get-together the college has had. Besides, eventually you'll have to get along with these people-you can't stay alone in that lecture theatre for your whole life.

-Richard

Richard was a nice man, tall, dark-skinned, short curly hair topping his head-quite Sarah's opposite. While she was brooding and dark, he was a constant source of fun and laughs, and had so far been the only person bar the dean she had properly got along with or even spoke to. Moving planet had been hard, leaving her node and the minds of everyone else to live in a planet dominated by an Aeon population. The total population of Nibelheim was seven point six billion, and forty seven percent of those were Aeon. Another forty five percent were UEF, and the remaining eight percent were Cybran, mostly in slave labour. There were only five Cybrans in a class of over two hundred for Sarah, and that was one class in a day filled with six of them. No, it had not been easy at all.

Searching everything new had taken only three minutes, and after reading a little on Operation: Mopup Sarah checked her internal timer. It was a few minutes past three in the afternoon, and Richard would be wondering where she was soon. Standing up from the chair, she spoke a silent goodbye to all the packets of data as she removed the uplink cable, winding it back into it's self-contained case and popping the little black oblong into her back pocket. Her metal leg whistled as she stepped out of the hall, up the stairs with a leather jacket in hand. Swinging it over herself and onto her arms, Sarah lowered the tie a little, to look at least a bit casual. Richard being such a strange combination of both UEF and nice was a difficult concept and Sarah had calculated that there was a distinct positive correlation between 'casual' and 'agreeable'. The loose jacket held her tightly as she flicked off the lights by the door, stepping into the corridor and towards the trans-park. She was a few halls away, or so she thought, when behind a door appeared Richard, almost a full two feet above her at six feet eight. His ever-present smile was a sort of beacon as she looked down a little, an unconcious reaction.

"Sarah, you've been wandering around for about ten minutes. I saw you leave the lecture theatre on the shared-CCTV, if you're wondering. Come on, if I leave you here we'll never get down to Solace." He held open the door with a large hand as she moved past him, keeping pace and following his instructions. His big strides were hard to keep up with, and her small legs could only do so much. By the time they arrived in the near-empty trans-park, sun beaming down a cool twenty-three point four degree heat, she was more than glad of the small blue hover car, round edges and gull-wing doors speaking to her as a machine in a way that she suspected Richard just couldn't grasp. Stepping into the cream coloured synthetic-leather interior, Sarah had to remind herself not to try and interface with the vehicle. Frankly, it was a surprise she was in this-no Cybrans were allowed vehicles outside supervision, and everyone from her quarter was forced onto buses to the various districts by armed guards every morning. Travelling around the jungle of tall, spire-like buildings, so ordinary and square with almost no corners at all was a new experience, and the first time she had been forced onto the bus the flying vehicles managed to get her to lose her lunch over the side, down onto the unlit planet surface where she assumed nobody lived.

The traffic was thin, and before long, in a wordless journey made no more agreeable by her casual tie, the car arrived at a small balcony attached to a skyscraper covered in neon lights. Stepping out as the hissing gull doors opened, Sarah had only so much as put her bird-foot leg onto the ground when a police officer blew his whistle, transmitting an aggressive program that gave a sharp negative feedback loop into the hearing centre of the brain. Sarah fell out altogether, clapping her hands to the side of her head, still unused to the pain after a year and a half of hearing it. Richard stepped out as well, his deckshoes coming down with some force, grey t-shirt with a neat collar and a pair of jeans holding him. He wore an expression of malice as the officer put the whistle away, grabbing Sarah by the arms and pulling her up. As he patted her down with his hands, thin digits feeling her clothes for any sign of something untoward, the deep-voiced geologist spoke. "Excuse me, officer, but is there any problem?" His partner, a thoroughly average man with blue eyes, responded.

"The problem, sir, is that you have brought a Cybran into a restricted area and as such we have to search it." His partner nodded to him. "Very well, you two have access, but you are responsible for any actions this Cybran takes against the law. Enjoy your night." He turned and the pair returned to a small shed, watching for any more vehicles.

Sarah brushed herself down, stepping around the vehicle and following Richard into a bar, at the head of which was a large, pink-neon sign saying 'Solace'. "Sorry," said Richard, breaking the ice. "I should have expected something like that. The least they could of done was said 'she'."

"Really, Richard, I'm quite used to it," lied Sarah. Being manhandled and occasionally having a policeman grab a breast was never a thing she would get used to.

"It shouldn't happen, you're with me. Anyway, come in. Time to get rather drunk." Sarah smiled as she stepped into the bar, filled with music and laughter, a hand coming up to greet them from a group of seats arranged in a three-quarters circle into the wall and around a table, the rest of the humanities faculty at Oxbridge College greeting Richard and the newcomer. She wasn't bothered that it was physically impossible for her to get drunk-for the first time in twenty-eight years, she was about to have fun with friends in a bar.

A first time for everything, Sarah, a first time for everything.