Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour's Spouse, (or Sister)

-----

The sound of a throaty groan filled the room as ▀etaMantis awoke after a four hour's sleep. Of all the thoughts whizzing through his head as he casted off his slumbering state, the one saying "I'm still here." was prevalent. Less than one week remained until he had been within Circle of the Shadows for eighteen months. Even now, after this long, it still felt somewhat surreal. Who would have thought that there was this world within a world within a world here.

"Good God, I've got a killer headache," ▀etaMantis moaned out as if expecting the air itself to answer.

Whenever anything remotely uncomfortable happened, ▀etaMantis was instructed to go see Whyte, as it may be a development in his unsolicited mutation, much time ago. The somewhat new officer shook his head, not daring to put false hope on the fact he might change today. He used to have headaches all the time, especially right after the mutation. It is beyond difficult to see through compound eyes after just over twenty-two years of otherwise. He always had headaches from trying to focus his eyes all day before he wore glasses, prior to his mutation. Not like that information was important anymore.

His unnatural sigh broke the silence of his brooding. He should go to see Whyte, and he knew it. It was like going to a doctor as a child with a complete lack of understanding of anatomy. What a joy it would be to a semi-normal human kid again, without a care in the world that went beyond who got the last slice of cake, or who got the white bowl in which all cereal just tasted BETTER in the morning. There you go, B.J., brooding again you incomprehensible moron!, ▀etaMantis reprimanded himself, What your father would do if he saw you like this! His own thoughts turned sad at the mention of his father. Your father . . .

As the wave of feelings of isolation just begins to lap at him, the metallic door to his quarters opened, a shaft of flourescent light bravely invades the room cast in darkness aside. The shock of the contrast of light was enough to hold his thoughts for a moment in curiousity of who intruded upon his impending.

"Gah, who is it?", wondered ▀etaMantis aloud, checking his watch on his upper left arm, he notes it's barely six. Night shifts are such a pain in the tail.

Before the man had a chance to answer, the name Whyte came from ▀etaMantis' mandibles. The white labcoat-clothed chief engineer nods as he walks in, without invitation, as he always did if something important was amiss and ▀etaMantis had to know about it. Fortunately, it didn't happen as often as ▀etaMantis feared, but never rarely enough as he would like.

"She doubled in size not too long ago. I wanted to give you some sleep before you were informed. You may need it."

-----

Night shifts suck large amounts of ass. So does being this goddamned stupid affliction turning me into a cartoon girl, of all things. Will Canada get anything weirder? The guard sighs as she takes another inhalation of the lit cigarette. A light cough comes from her throat, mixing with the London early morning air. She stood in front of a complex, obviously quite Canadian. Then she saw the movement in the darkness.

"W-Who's there!?", came her craven question, even though she wanted it to sound gruff. Damnit, Robert, why can't you sound like the guard you're supposed to be!?

"No one." The oddness of a male voice, much less one scratchy and deep at that, shocked Robert much more than it would have if she were normal. What shocked her more were the four inhuman hands on her, each felt as hard as steel, yet warm to the touch. She gasped, and before she could make so much as a comment, she was sailing through the air, slamming into the wall a few yards from where she stood.

▀etaMantis absently hoped it wasn't that easy to overcome an Anime girl for someone who was a threat.

-----

Fjorxc Daystar decided to sleep by her identical twin sister in hopes it would console her, and help her not feel isolated from her world, no matter how futile it seemed. As they both slept, ▀etaMantis regarded the two with compound eyes that were not naturally his own, in the safety of the rather large hangar's rafters. Everyone isn't unlike me anymore. They all have been mutated. Fortunately, mine makes me stronger physically. Most of the others' mutations aren't so good. For a moment he felt pity for them, although no one looking at him would know any different. He was used to concealing emotions, doing it since he was a teenager. Detachment and indifference are the keys to self-control.

Knowing full well what he had to do, he scaled most of the way down from the amazingly high ceiling. At about fifty feet off the ground he released the wall, landing near soundlessly on his two feet and three of his arms. Falling was so much more a rush when you weren't worried about losing organs. He steathily crept up to Freerunner's now immense arm, not far from where the bizarrely female Fjorxc lay. He withdrew a small needle from his belt and pricked Freerunner's arm.

For the love of God, don't move.

Luckily, being thirty-two times your usual size, made you an thirty-second less likely to even feel a needle prick. As ▀etaMantis made his way for an escape, he passed the softly sleeping Fjorxc, or what he knew to once have been Fjorxc, anyway. He DOES look like her. Amazing. If it turned Fjorxc into a human female. . . could it do the same to me? Being female wouldn't be such a cost if I could at least be human. I grow so tired of being stuck in this shell. The novelty wore off well after a few months. How would I get the mutagen from her? ▀etaMantis stared in awe at Fjorxc at a moment at the possibilty. He reluctantly withdrew the thought, replacing it with the sense of duty his father always taught him. He quietly scuttled to the door and eased it closed.

-----

"This is Captain ▀etaMantis requesting clearance to land, code Bravo Juliet one, six, niner."

"Roger that, this is Circle of the Shadows Command Cell Headquarters. We copy. Processing code.", a voice came over the headset, trying to sound cheerful, but the tone of boredom of a day's work could easily be heard.

▀etaMantis leaned back in the chair of his minisub as the traffic controllers did their work. His thoughts returned to Fjorxc. The mere thought of being human again brightened his otherwise somewhat dreary day. One thing he learned from his prior life was to go with the flow. No matter what life dealt you, you could always be worse. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to make it better, but never despair that life has gotten to its worst. What he would give to be in Fjorxc's shoes. Not only to be human, but to even have a twin sister to boot. Not sure if the world could handle two of m --

"Sir, prepare for bio-chemical scan."

▀etaMantis leaned forward, pushing the headphones over his head to hear clearly. He turned the microphone out in front of his mandibles and commented, "I think that isn't necessary. I am a walking factory of the stuff."

"Sir, no one can enter without being checked for the recent mutagen, you know that. Initiating bio-scan."

The ever familiar humming of the biological scan began. Having heard it a million times doing the very same job to his own security personnel, it was tuned out without a first thought, much less a second. The speakers in his headset crackled to life one more."

"I'm sorry sir, we have a problem. I can't let you enter headquarters."

"Problem? What is it this time? Is my blood sugar too high?", ▀etaMantis joked with a small laugh. Any sound he made sounded like a growl to him. He hated it. I wish I had my own laugh back, as much grief as it caused me. I'd rather be insulting for laughing funny than always growling.

"No. We've found mutagen in your system."

"That's odd, she shouldn't have had any in her. I have a sample of her blood . . ."

"I don't think you understand me sir," the indifferent voice continued, "There is a high concentration of it in you."

-----




Be Careful What You Wish For

--------------------

▀etaMantis sat in the seat of the minisub, which would be uncomfortable to everyone but him, in shock of what he just heard. How was it possible he had contracted the mutagen? He never touched any of it! Was it possible it was airborne? A lot of people in that building were infected. Everyone but Freerunner, in fact. He also touched the one guard. The rest he snuck by. Was it possible the mutating agent was exuded through pores? The controller said high concentration before. There wasn't prolonged contact.

It couldn't be, could it?

During this brief handful of seconds of thought, he blinked in confusion and composed himself. Might as well be certain I heard what I thought I had. "This is ▀etaMantis to Headquarters, did I hear what I thought I did?"

The headset, still over his head and turned up high, allowed the sound to vibrate through his very small head so he heard through his antennae, which still baffled him. His senses were so screwed up for the first few days of his mutation. After that, he could get his bearings. It's a good thing it took Magni so long to give him his decision to enter COTS. Sight now through compound eyes, hearing and smelling through antennae . . . he still marvelled about it. And that he somehow knew to speak right after mutating, but couldn't really sense what was going on. It was a lot of fun to eat though, for the first week or two. Didn't even need to use hands, as he could manipulate food well enough with his mandibles.

"If what you thought was that you can't enter the base because of the high-quantity of the anime mutagen in your system.", came the dry, exhausted response from the traffic controller.

Had ▀etaMantis been in a normal mood, his growl-like laugh would've been echoing of the minisub's inner duranium hull. But even that had been petering off. His unfailible humour had been doing exactly as something unfailible should not have been doing. Failing.

"I have an important sample to give Chief Engineer Whyte."

Don't give me a hard time. I'm inhuman, and can't really go get a hotel to wait you out. If you do not let me in, I am going to possibly get angry. That was another thing he had been doing lately. Getting angry. He had always prided himself on self-control and feigning a lack of emotion, to the point he nearly kept them hidden from himself. His relative isolation had done weird things to him. Sure, he was a member of an organisation, but had he any true friends anymore? No.

"Protocol is protocol, Captain. You are denied admittance to the base. That sample as well as the entirety of the inside of your miniature submarine may be completely filled with the mutagen"

"If I have the mutagen in me in such high quantities, why am I still the way I am?", the angered insectoid flared back, raising his voice. He raised his upper right hand to his face, placing the thumb on his right temple, and the fore and middle fingers on his left and rotated them, forcing pressure on his skull. It worked the few times his tolerance didn't before his mutation, and sometimes did after.

"I'm a traffic controller, not a scientist."

"Thank you for reminding me. I probably would've forgotten otherwise. Get me a scientist.", snapped ▀etaMantis, noticeably less angry, but still not wanting to deal with this right now. Not now. He was almost having a good day too. He clicked his mandibles together impatiently, as though he attempted to purse his lips. "Please.", he tacked on, hoping that would at least smooth the edge he just created with this person.

"Yes sir.", the speaker crackled off, and ▀etaMantis could vow he heard cursing as the volume gave way to silence.

Leaning back into the chair of near perfect uncomfort, his mutated sigh filled the recirculating air of the sub. His thoughts once again kept him busy while he awaited a scientist. This had better not be another goddamned training exercise. I should've taken the chance with Fjorxc. Damn my indecision. What the hell am I going to do now? I hate this chitin, I can barely feel anything through it. Each of his hands clenched into four digit fists, until he could feel the tendons up his forearms go tight. He growled purposefully as he glared at his arms. At least that sounds right. I know they aren't going to let me in. Not with this mutagen in me. I wonder what happens when two mutating agents are affecting me at once? And why does my head ache and swim more and more often as the day starts? Ugh.

--------------------

No one, eh?

The guard outside the London complex which housed the monolithic Freerunner rubbed her minorly bruised scalp, cursing in some unmannerly way best left not to print. It was a beautifully murderous Friday summer morning. Humid and muggy, just the way she didn't like it. It was definitely past sunrise, probably around eight, she thought. She was unconscious for two hours. And only a few minor bruises to talk about it. Why couldn't I get a concussion? Then I could get time off and deal with this cartoon farce. No sooner did Robert start to rise then did the guard on the next shift come out to replace her, and looked much the same.

"Sleeping on the job again, Robert?", mused a like feminine voice from the replacement. "You'd better get in or Vice-Empress Fjorxc Daystar will have you wishing you slept more during the day."

She glared at her counterpart, wondering what happened to her, only remembering the words no one in that odd voice and the feel of the warm yet unyielding hands on her wrists and forearms, and then sailing through the air, then nothing.

In the same fearful, timid voice she didn't want earlier, Robert said, "No! I was thrown by someone, with four arms. They were warm, and as solid as iron . . ."

"Those weren't hands.", the guard otherwise uncharacteristically giggles, "I can't believe you've already started thinking like a woman, Robert."

"WHAT!?", she yelled into the breezy air, red-faced in indignation, "Who do you think you are!?"

The new guard folded her arms in front of her chest and smiled a self-satisfied smirk. Her eyes gleamed with that "I got you." look. Robert glared at her with much more intensity the second time. She was almost fuming visibly. "Maybe I will talk to the Vice-Empress!", shouted the embarrassed Anime girl who was Robert.

Not for something as irritating as you though. There's an intruder, and I'll be damned if I tell you about it.

She opened the front door, and strode to the hangar.

--------------------

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

The sound of ▀etaMantis' sharp claws on the ends of the fingers of his lower left hand striking the console continued as he waited for the scientist to hurry up. He groaned in impatience and slight pain. If they didn't hurry up he might have to ask for more air. His headphones, after a good hour of no sound, started emitting the definite sound of static. He straightened, awaiting someone to make themselves known to him. The pain in his head intensified quickly, as if someone accidently placed his brain in a blender and turned it on frappÚ. The tapping ceased as he grimaced in an attempt to block out the pain in his head. Gripping his small head easily in one of his upper hands, he grunted in barely contained agony. He slid out of the chair falling to his knees on the small amount of floor space. He was blinded by pain, it felt as if a hundred intravenous needles were plunged into every pore of his body and liquid steel were injected into his body. He clenched his eyes shut, and tried to tighten every muscle in his body in an effort to block it out. It was no use, he was now a slave to the pain, doing whatever he could to appease it. It only took more of his strength. He doubled over, sprawling on the floor contorted beyond imagination. There was only one other time he remembered this brand of pain, but it didn't take nearly this long.

Then the pain subsided as fast as it came on. The sensory information he got overwhelmed him. He could feel everywhere, and he tried to breathe through his mouth, and realised his mouth was closed. He felt cold sweat all across his carapace. "What the hell is h-happening to me!?", came a voice from his vocal chords.

It was definitely human, and definitely female. It was then he remembered he didn't sweat and didn't have lips to seal his mouth. ▀etaMantis knew happiness once again at that precise moment, keeping his eyes clenched shut, as if protectively guarding a dream that he may wake from. It has to be true. It doesn't matter what amount of pain I went through, or what gender I am, the reward of outward humanity is more than enough.

Amazingly loud over the headset still about his head, came a hurried voice, "Beta? It's Whyte here, I heard."

"Oh, did you now?"

With that, ▀etaMantis grinned for the first time in one and a half years, eyes still held tightly shut, upon hands and knees on the floor.

Two hands, and two knees, just as it should be.

--------------------




Breaching Lives

--------------------

Fjorxc sat up from her night's rest against Freerunner's arm, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, ready to spend another day as Empress of Canada. She loved doing what she wanted to and not having her authority questioned. She slept next to her one hundred and ninety-two feet tall big sister. So much better than the lonely quarters anyway. She sighed contently. Even now the transition between genders seemed surreal. She felt as if she had always been a woman, it seemed so right. Fjorxc yawned contently as she stood.

Freerunner shifted her weight, which was obvious now because Fjorxc could feel her bones vibrate in reaction. Freerunner was not getting up right away. The door to the hangar opened, and one of many anime women in the base, wearing a Canadian Dominion uniform and a contrastingly real-looking energy rifle at her left hip, rushed into the room, rubbing the top of her head. She saluted as she approached Fjorxc, trying to remain quiet so as not to wake Freerunner.

"Empress," said the guard rigidly, a bit of unease detectable in her voice.

"At ease, Corporal," came Fjorxc's reply, as she glanced at the guard's insignia.

The guard fidgetted a little before deciding to speak. "Ma'am, we've had an intruder within these walls early this morning."

Fjorxc was nearly livid. An intruder!? How was it possible? This is in the heart of the Canadian Dominion! Who could it be? "Intruder!? Who? What did they take? I want every speck of dust in here accounted for!"

Freerunner shifted again in her sleep, in response to her sister's sudden yelling, both women in the room knowing it.

"The search has already been done. Nothing was taken, no casualities or wounded.", the guard blurted out with growing reluctance trying to calm her current leader down.

"No losses at all? Have you checked for surveillence equipment, and scanned for biochemical agents?"

"We found really odd footprints, and a DNA sample from my wrist.", put the guard with an air of embarassment. How often does one get guards telling their leaders that they have the DNA sample of an intruder on her wrist? The acting Empress of Canada boggled at that concept a moment. "How did you find DNA samples of an intruder on your wrist?"

"Whoever he was threw me, holding onto my wrists and forearms, ma'am." The guard blushed, her face turning into an inward scowl within a few brief moments.

"Let's go to the lab then. I want this a high priority. I want to know what was here, and why it was.", commanded Fjorxc.

"Aye, ma'am."

--------------------

On her hands and knees, the woman who was ▀etaMantis kept her eyes shut, and dared not move. Having been in a vastly different physiological makeup was going to completely inhibit all coordination, and she knew she could count on incredibly little, physically, right now. Her eyes were no longer the compound ones she once had, nor the four arms. The only thing she could hope to do was walk, as she had the same number of legs. Still, the moment of happiness caused by the prospect of being able to be seen lasted a lot longer than a moment, and would have, had Whyte's response not been so bizarre.

"You aren't ▀etaMantis, Lieutenant. First you emulate his old voice, now his new one? God, we've been waiting for him for hours! Why are you completely surrounded by that mutating agent? You are still human, right? Over." Whyte said both angrily and hopefully.

Had she not already been dazed and confused, ▀etaMantis would be now. Who did Whyte think he was talking to? It didn't matter, she had to play the part, and figure out what she could. The question that floated through her mind, including a plethora of others was simply: "What do I ask!?"

She heard her voice before she thought of anything, sounding both regretful and confident. "I'm sorry for mimicking his voice, sir. I sound human, don't I? As for the mutating agent, I am not totally sure. I was helping him get through to the London complex. I managed to filch the sample of Freerunner Daystar's blood from him when he wasn't paying attention. Unfortunately, I can't get it to you, unless I was to jettison it in a quarantined container. I suspect the mutating agent to be sent through contact. He has contracted it, but he hasn't been affected yet. Though, he as well won't be able to get in headquarters. I will keep an eye on him for you. Over."

"Don't feign apologies. You are damned right you will keep an eye on him. He isn't exactly in a good position right now. His mutated form is more useful to us than you know, even your partial one isn't enough. Your strength is great, but he still has the exoskeleton. You only have the reinforced endoskeleton. That still was impressive work that you stole it from Lab Coat Guy. Blizzard got dealt another blow on that project, again.", Whyte pauses for a moment, partway through his debriefing spiel.

What!? Mutated Endoskeleton like mine!? I knew I had both. What the hell is going on!? Say my name, you bastard! I can't very well know who you're talking about without . . . wait a minute. Who else could possibly sound like me?

"Either way, you were sent to make sure he didn't come in contact with anyone in the complex, I know that's the way it's passed. Anyone who has been transmuted exudes a little of it. If they don't scrub it off, they could get ludicrous amounts on their skin. I was certain it wouldn't affect you though, seeing as you have the more advanced mutation. You shouldn't have been so impatient, Lieutenant. Over."

I understand. How could I be so naive!? Dear God, how could I be so stupid and unobservant? It all makes so much sense now, I know who he thinks I am. Ugh, I can't berate myself enough for this oversight! If they want a charade, that's what they'll get. "Aye, sir. I will be more patient in the future. Over."

"Sure you will. As always, make sure he doesn't know. He isn't finished his training yet. I don't care what cell you controlled over in the other dimension, he is not ready. Over.", Whyte urgently put.

"He doesn't suspect a thing, sir, and won't.", added ▀etaMantis with an easily coming laugh. "Over."

"Let it remain that way. Chief Engineer Whyte over and out.", spat the headphone speakers at ▀etaMantis.

"Roger that."

▀etaMantis carefully and staggeringly stood to her new feet, her eyes remaining closed. The room swam even though she wouldn't see, and nausea threatened to overwhelm her. Swallowing and ignoring it, she near instinctively told her lower arms to reach out and touch the chair she knew to be there. When only her triceps responded she sighed in irritation. Right, I have two arms now, with more, smaller muscles. I have to control these as though I were controlling the two before in tandem. She concentrated as well as she could, and she managed to brush the chair of near-ultimate discomfort with the backs of her shaky and uncoordinated fingers. Her mind, focused on keeping her weak balance and trying to grasp the seat, kept off her situation, which was only getting more and more dangerous every time she learned anything. Closing her right hand about its armrest, she put her weight on that arm. She found she has curled three toes in her right foot as well, seemingly against her will. Three fingers and a thumb in each of my old hands and two toes, of course! I still had twenty digits and all the bones and muscles, just completely rearranged! Now to figure out which is which. She closed her left hand about the armrest without curling her toes of her left foot, let self-satisfied smirk display itself on her face, and noticed her breathing was heavy and ragged. Maybe I shall get out of this sometime this week. This will certainly take getting used to. I have a good four hours of air left, and it takes thirty minutes to surface. I hope I can depend on my intelligence and spontaneity for once. She stood there, exasperated with sweat upon her brow, clutching onto the armrest as if it was the route to her only hope. In a way, it was.

--------------------




Resurfacing

--------------------

She opened her eyes to small slits.

The effects were so disorienting, ▀etaMantis could barely remain standing. She hung onto the armrest, convinced she could at least move her arms and hands half-decently now, and support her near insignificant weight with the chair's aid. She opened her eyes wider, letting the light pain her eyes a little more intensely. Oh right, my eyes adjust to light slowly. I nearly forgot that. What else about my natural, well, almost natural, body have I forgotten?

The room shifted and rotated in her view as she slowly made progress towards her full sight. She somehow coordinated herself to sit in the chair, which felt almost better to sit in, despite its discomfort from earlier. A sigh escaped her lungs. It didn't have the usual growling quality she had almost grown accustomed to. It did have a wheezing quality, and the she noticed the difficulty in breathing. Asthma. It was back, and a year and a half of pulmonary clarity only helped it display its contrast vividly. Any moment now she may twitch as she used to, or her joints will crack if she remains seated a while. All those fun little quirks her human body had were about to haunt her. But it didn't matter in the least.

It was then the thought asserted itself. I may be able to go home. Her mood and burdens lifted at the thought of that. After eighteen months, the prospect of going home soon, let alone at all, was beyond exciting. She giggled for a moment in unrestrained glee. Realising she did in fact giggle, she scowled inwardly. Now, all she had to think about was how to pilot this thing effectively, and where she was going to go. She looked down in thought and noted nonchalantly for a moment that she wasn't wearing anything other than a belt.

"AUGH!" she cried out in surprise.

For the first time in a while, she felt ashamed of wearing only a belt and blushed in embarrassment, even though not a single soul was within a kilometre.

"AUGH! Why am I blushing!?"

Maybe this mutagen has more effects than just changing my gender matter-of-factly. I think it changes a few of my behavioural patterns in the process. Like my hormones and emotions. Just what I need is another batch to suppress. Geh. Well, it could always be worse. She blinked and stood shakily from the seat looking for something to wear. She saw a metallic locker not far from the pilot's seat she was just seated in. She strode wobbly over to the There was a black trenchcoat in the locker, along with what appeared to be olive drab cargo pants and a white shirt. She nodded her satisfaction and took the garments out of the locker, shutting it with the heel of her other hand. She has a pretty hard time trying to get it all on, seeing as it was the first time in over five hundred days that she actually clothed herself.

Slightly too large about the waist and the shirt's a little too long, I think, but when did any clothing ever truly fit me? When did I know clothing? Heck, I probably wouldn't know if it did fit me she thought as she slipped into the fabric, however clumsily, she left the trenchcoat behind, noting she felt at perfect room temperature with what she was wearing. Her balance, as passable as it once was when she was last human, was coming back to her, the room was beginning to even out and her stomach wasn't even twisting as much. As if in response, her head ached a little more. She sighed. Sighing without growling was one thing she was liking more with every passing moment, even though she was still trembling all over as her muscles vented excess energy as they used to.

"Who to go to . . . Whyte will have her after me whenever she returns . . . I am sure that Whyte will figure out what's going on once she does. Then I am in trouble. Since she works for COTS, apparently both COTS and Blizzard know who I am and what I look like. There's only one person I know who may help me in my situation. The only one who is both in the same situation, and has been in COTS HQ before. Well, the old one anyway," she reasoned with herself aloud as she walked with a little more confidence and proper stride than the last bit, "So, I will go to Fjorxc Daystar. Hopefully, whatever fun they have in store for me will not be so easy to entertain me with inside the Canadian Dominion, as long as they do nothing drastic. I still must find HER though, but I bet she'll find me first."

She plopped down in the seat, enjoying the feeling of something for a change. Chitin didn't have many nerves in it as skin did. Or pores. Or softness. Or heat, for that matter. The only time she really felt anything was when she was injured the few times to the point her chitin cracked. It hadn't happened often, more in the training room than actual combat. When that happened, did ▀etaMantis know true pain. She gripped the depth lever in her right hand, with a relatively much weaker grip, and slid it up so that she would still remain undetectable visually from the surface. This would allow the vessel glide as close as she could to the London shores and evade detection, just as she came in earlier. She then took the speed lever in her right and pushed it up to a good five knots. It was a good thing I am already here. These underwater bases are actually quite handy, especially considering most of them are submerged in not only water but the body of water's bed as well so they are less prone to detection.

After about twenty minutes of guiding the submarine, she noted her lungs were getting clogged by mucous, and fumbled for her inhaler. She found it, shook it as vigourously as possible, placed it to her mouth and pressed the button atop it. A very brief puff sound happened as a little of the pressurised drug burst forth from the canister. Too little to be a full dose. She frowned as she realised it was empty. Looking through her belt, she also found her old glasses, kept in fine condition from inside the confines of her belt. The brushed gold frame fit her head perfectly when she put them on and that made her feel better.

She forced her breathing to even out. She had done it a hundred million times before when she had asthma, and exerted control over it now. It took effort, but wasn't too hard, other than the fact it actually required a little energy to breathe. She forced a long and rather loud wheeze to force phlegm from her lungs, and swallowed it.

"Ew!" She made a face of disgust to match her exclamation. Note to self: Don't do that ever again. Always spit the lung butter out.

She pushed up the depth lever a little more, causing the miniature submarine to rise with the Great Lake's bed. Just a few minutes more, and she'd be on the shores of Lake Erie, though walking to the complex outside London would prove wearisome, now that she was human and had to walk, instead of leap the entire way.

How could she be working for COTS!? was what pervaded her mind. She mulled this thought in her head over and over, trying to make sense of it. One of two things were true. COTS had aligned itself with someone evil, or someone evil had aligned itself with COTS. She had to warn COTS, somehow. First, she had to see Fjorxc and get somewhere to stay. She had no money with her. Who needed it when you were an insectoid? Who would be deranged enough to sell things to you? Fjorxc was her only hope.

Maybe if she told the truth. The Acting Empress has seen COTS before. She knows what we're about, maybe more so than I do.

--------------------




Suspicions Abound

--------------------

The northeastern shores of Lake Erie were only a few kilometres ahead and above the sleek and unblemished duranium hull of the Circle of the Shadows miniature submarine. ▀etaMantis, clumsy in her new form, managed to steer it a little above the bottom of the Great Lake. She looked down at the instrument panel, squinting as her slight double vision disoriented her. In the absence of the imminent danger in her situation, she started thinking of her plan of action. The thoughts of what COTS had probably allied itself with before, and not ever had her learn of it was baffling. Do they have any idea who he . . . she is!? How did she fool me into thinking she was a he? What is she? How can I be a part of something that has . . . that? Most importantly, when did she join? How? The mere number of thoughts cascading through her mind was enough to confuse her, let alone their meaning. After a moment of mental incoherency, disciplined resolve shone through the chaotic disorder that was her mind. She was a member of COTS. She couldn't tell. She hardened the expression on her face, forcing herself to get in control of her utter lack of understanding. It doesn't matter what happens, she couldn't tell anyone, not a soul. Detachment and indifference are the keys to self-control.

"I cannot tell Empress Daystar the truth, not the whole of it. I need her for now. She can be told more if I stay. All I need, is a place to stay until I figure out what is wrong with COTS. She's the only one close."

She pulled back on the lever, aside the mark stating "Full Stop". She stood, and noted with confidence that standing came almost easily. There were things she had to do before she could consider leaving. The belt she wore had much inside and was the same colour as her carapace was; a sandy-tan colour. Some of the contents could give clues that she was of COTS and the secrets within were too important to allow anyone to have it within their grasp. If she was going to see the Canadian Dominion, she could not let anyone see what she had. She withdrew her asthma inhalers, even though the blue one of the stimulant Ventolin was empty, a pencil and eraser, her old identification, everything she used to wear in her pockets before her original mutation at the hands of Blizzard. Maybe she could pass as a student, or new intern. She then remembered she didn't have any military documents and sighed. Improvisation was going to have to be used. She knew there was a homing beacon sewn into the inside of one of the multitude of pouches of the neutral coloured, flame retardant fabric, one of many safety precautions against someone ignorant using it. She activated it by pushing the miniscule button on the inside of the third pocket from the left, and slid it under the locker. COTS would find her belt, and this sub, and recover it.

She took a small waterproofed bag and slid a pair of black running shoes and white socks within the container. Sprinting about barefoot would not be a good idea. She walked over to the row of lockers she got her previous clothing on, and opened it. Inside hung a few blue wet suits with air tanks. She removed one, and slowly dressed in the suit, over her current clothes, placing the tanks over her back. They felt excruciatingly heavy on her back, and she remembered she had a fraction of the strength she used to. She ambled to the airlock, praying silently to God that her muscles would allow her to swim to the surface, at least a good kilometre above her. She opened it and crawled in, feeling more alone than she ever had in her entire life. She had to go. There was nowhere else she could, and Fjorxc would understand. She had to.

There was no other way and ▀etaMantis knew it.

--------------------

Whyte leaned back in the chair in his temporary quarters in the Erie base. He couldn't believe his lab got completely destroyed again. First by internet demons, now anime monkeys, what could possibly be more weird for the next time? It didn't matter, the lab would be fine. The conversation he just had with her seemed really odd. So, she was ▀etaMantis' extradimensional twin, he should expect similarities. It makes so much sense now. Of course, she'd sound like him to get through. Not even all the command cell knew of her. Use his codes, then talk to someone she can trust. Clever. She never called for me before. Always Deamon, but I never noticed.

It still didn't feel right. He kept getting the feeling he missed something in the conversation. She acted her normal mockingly arrogant tone, and trivialised it like she always did. He had to talk to Deamon.

--------------------

It was a hot day, as it had been since the morning. The sun shone overhead with amazing intensity, and the moisture in the air was nearly tangible, only making it feel warmer. Lake Erie was still, and shimmering as daylight ricocheted off its surface. The beach was gently accepting the waves from the lake. It was serene, and not a person was in sight. The water several metres out from the shore broke, a blue rubber headpiece slowly emerging from it, it turned quickly and alertly, skimming for anything.

▀etaMantis slowly removed the headgear, reveling in the feel of the air and the sun upon her face. She smiled as though she hadn't ever taken the time to just experience the feeling of a humid day. In truth, that was probably quite right. Then thoughts of her purpose rudely interrupted her moment of enjoyment.

She swam slowly and inexpertly to the shore, under the water as she always had before. Her breaststroke almost took her to places slower than her treading water would. She was thankful it was day. She remembered once, seeming so long ago, when she was a he, and left a lake on a summer night. His lips were blue and he was shivering uncontrollably. She sighed. She was not a he anymore.

She followed a rolling wave into the shore, and slowly removed her wet suit, shivering in the sweltering air as the water evaporated off of her face, arms and feet. The wet suits were rather good, however, as her clothing was still dry. She tossed on the running shoes and socks she had tossed in the bag earlier once she allowed to her feet to lose some of their moisture, and realised how odd it felt to wear something on them.

One of the Elgin county roads weren't too far from here. She could easily hitchhike up to London. Filling the waterproofed bag with the rubber wetsuit, she hid them both under the shallow water. She sighed in contemplation and chewed her lip for a moment before making the commitment mentally to going.

And she started walking up the road, intent upon what she had to do.

--------------------




Intertwining Loose Ends

--------------------

She huffed. Walking was such an annoyance when you used to be able to scale things and leap effortlessly. Being forced back into her original form was terrible in more ways than one. The mere effort of shambling about was giving her pain, much less the blisters she was getting on her compatively sensitive feet after travelling for what felt like a good couple of hours. The complex was still a good ten kilometres away. Hitchhiking was completely ineffective, even though she only had a handful of oppourtunities. At least the people of Elgin county knew safety.

▀etaMantis wiped some of the sweat (which she had already exuded ludicrous amounts of) from her brow. The thin white shirt she was wearing was sticking to her skin by help of the sweat that nearly poured out of her pores. The shoes and socks were causing near unbearable pain in her uncalloused and soft feet. She kept ambling on though. The complex wasn't about to start moving towards her, and every delay would make her that much weaker.

She felt weak. After eighteen months of having four limbs, biological armour for skin, uncanny strength and inhuman speed, going back to anything human, much less her own form, was such a devastating drop. She knew she couldn't possibly combat anything in this situation. Only force of will kept her moving against the oppressive heat and humidity. Her lungs racked with her asthma, as her inhaler was conveniently empty after she tried to use it in the sub, not long ago.

It seemed an eternity.

Having asthma for a good twenty-odd years of your life tends to make you adept at dealing with it. But, as fate would have it, humidity happened to trigger her asthma, and she knew it; feared it, even. Every couple of minutes she had to stop to force some of the bronchiole-constricting mucous from her lungs.

This was only dehydrating her faster, but allowed to her to breathe, so she made the tradeoff happily. Even in this state, she somehow mantained the outward guise of general indifference. Inside, she was pained, hyperthermic, exhausted and parched, but that didn't matter. What people saw she was and what she was were two entirely different things, as they had been her whole life.

During these hours she had had much time to think about what she was doing, why she was doing it. Her life had always been relatively spontaneous. Rather than make decisions she would remain content that she could confidently deal with whatever poor hand the dealer of life dealt her from the deck of playing cards that was the world she lived in. Take the path of least resistance. Go the easy route. Now, faced with a dilemma she couldn't begin to understand, and without wish to, flees to whoever she thinks will help her the most.

It was then she felt the point of cold metal at the hollow of her neck and the hand clamp over her mouth. Her eyes widened as she gasped in surprise, realising she had not been paying attention at all to her surroundings. The metal was refreshing for an instant after the shock discontinued, and then it's sharpness became all the more apparent. She glanced around quickly and saw nothing. Panic settled in her, and she started to shiver despite the hazy climate. Her breath came ragged, desperate through her nose. Had she been in a better position she would've cursed herself for being negligent in observance, but tears rolled down her cheeks instead. She wasn't supposed to cry. What was she supposed to do instead? Run?

"If you scream, or even so much as make a decibel of sound other than when I ask, I will kill you where you stand, insect. Do not doubt that.", the tone of the feminine voice of ▀etaMantis' twin brightened from its seriousness, "You're playing the part of a defenseless young woman well. Weeping already?"

The woman sounded just like her, she knew it was her double. That was why Whyte mistook her for her twin. The utter hopelessness of her situation despaired her. There was no escape, no fight, nothing. She had used her willpower to keep her walking, and even if she was confident she could, she had no energy to physically combat her extradimensional duplicate. ▀etaMantis was at the complete mercy of this undead creature. Absolute fear gripped her for the first time in a year - the last time she was at this monster's mercy. No one would save her this time. She nodded submissively, trying to blink away the tears she couldn't control, trembling.

--------------------

The security on the Canadian Dominion complex outside London was stepped up, and sentries were sent out much more actively. Three intruders was ridiculous. Two tapefiends in one day and one which remained unidentified early this morning. Fjorxc was just not having a good start. In the heart of the Canadian Dominion no less! If one can't be safe there, where is safety found? She stared at the wall in her quarters, recently cleaned, even the spot of resin Phasmus left behind by the ventilation ducts. She glanced uneasily at them, half-expecting the primary tapefiend to burst out as she looked.

She sighed after a few minutes of silence.

There had been intruders in the capital of the Canadian Dominion. This could not be tolerated. Ever. It was ridiculous. Canada was one of, if not the, most technologically advanced country on the face of the Earth. To have it's capital's security compromised not once but thrice was just not acceptable.

In response, Fjorxc had ordered a small detachment of some of the Canadian Dominion's most elite force, the Cattle Prod Guard to the complex. It only made sense to leave the Gold Guard at Castle Cattle Prod and the surrounding area as they always were. So, she received some of Silver Guard earlier that morning. It took all of twenty minutes from notification to arrival. That was rather impressive.

And now, they guard their leader. Even if not, Fjorxc was a General and the commanding officer of the Capital District, the smallest of the four by a long shot but also most populated, and that was also very important. Even if the true Empress, Fron, was off chasing an Ex-Protoss drunkard. Sure, Colonel Moffatt didn't like having some of his amazingly trained men and women away from their duty to Fron, but they had a duty to her too. Thankfully, much of the standing army wasn't affected by the anime mutagen, and the entire Eagle and Cattle Prod guards remained untouched.

Not again will an intruder set foot within the complex if she had anything to say about it, not Phasmus, not his tapefiends, or whoever came in that morning. Not as long as she was Empress.

She was learning what it was to rule.

--------------------

▀etaMantis' extradimensional twin pulls the duranium-reinforced level with dual spring-loaded icepicks from her double's throat and her left hand from over her mouth. She smirked a self-satisfied smile as the icepicks retracted with a near inaudible swish.

"You are pathetic, you know." she mused as her grin grew.

▀etaMantis turned about and stood, shaking still as the icy fear still flowing through her circulatory system, staring wide-eyed at the other woman. The other woman was almost an exact replica of her, uncannily thin and somewhat slightly taller than the average woman. Wearing a t-shirt and pants of a colour not unlike the green of the trees about. She had the long level metallic level she used before, slung over her back in a leather sheath of some sort akin to the way a sword would be placed along one's back. A second level, half the length of the other, but was white and appeared to be plastic. That was highly unlikely. It was sheathed at her left hip in another like sheath. She stood straightly, rigidly, with the discipline of a military officer, and somehow managed an air of arrogance with her raised chin and the grin upon her face. A lengthly silence stood between them as they appraised each other with grey-hazel eyes.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Brad, if that IS your real name, speak." she sighed out as if time was important to her.

▀etaMantis opened her mouth to speak and failed to. The shock of her knowing her name threw her off for a moment. She blinked as she mouthed words, but no voice came behind them. "That shocked? Remember, we're the same person. I am your second sister, and definitely the better looking one too." came her twin's reply.

"W-Who are you?" stammered ▀etaMantis fearfully.

"You." came her vague reply.

"No, I mean -- "

"I KNOW what you mean, and I am surprised you don't know, Captain." her double grinned that satisfied yet somehow deprecating grin that ▀etaMantis herself has done before this past year and a half, and continued, "Tsk, Tsk, ▀etaMantis, at least you could have exacted information from Whyte when you inadvertantly tricked him. You're lucky I covered for us both. They still think yo --"

"COVERED FOR ME!?", yelled ▀etaMantis, suddenly enraged that this person was supposedly helping her, charged without thought. She was beyond enraged. Just as ▀etaMantis came within punching range, her double's hand shot out of nowhere, grabbed her wrist and twisted it brutally three-quarters of a rotation, just shy of enough to snap her arm. ▀etaMantis winced in pain for a moment and twisted to the side to slow herself down, but made no other reaction, staring into the other's eyes, hot anger burning there.

"My goodness, aren't we the feisty one? I guess I was a lot more naive before I was told as well." she chuckles.

The burning flame of anger immediately extinguished. ▀etaMantis felt as though she were being dragged through a plot and was too busy seeing the grass blades for the field. When her double noticed, she smirked. "Good, you are easy to calm. I am going to tell you what I must, and no more."

▀etaMantis nodded almost not of her own will, as her twin started, "I am reminded of the lyrics of a parody by Weird Al Yankovic. Surely you know the song, I listened to it too much. Everything you know is wrong is its title. Remember the chorus?"

The woman produced headphones from one of her pockets and tossed them at ▀etaMantis, who catches them and places the set upon her own head.

Everything you know is wrong.
Black is white, up is down and short is long.
And everything you used to think was so important doesn't really matter anymore because the simple fact remains that:
Everything you know is wrong.
Just forget the words that sing along.
All you need to understand is:
Everything you know is wrong!

A quick yank on the wire pulled the headphones off of ▀etaMantis' ears as her double smirked. "The name's Lieutenant Aleph of Black Operations, ▀etaMantis. It's been a pleasure. I have a lot of explaining to do. But not now. Half the Silver Guard will be out in force and you MUST get away from here. I don't care what you think, or what you know. Do not stay here."

▀etaMantis turned to look about, as if half-expecting one of London's elite military force to fall upon her at any moment. As she turned back, Aleph, her mysterious twin, was gone, vanished from sight.

--------------------




The Cost of Chosen Ignorance

--------------------

Aleph chuckled quietly to herself from within a tree, hidden by the plant's leaves. She a good hundred yards away from ▀etaMantis, her lesser twin, marvelling at how naive and incapable she was. There was much work to be done on the "Captain". The marvellously inept girl was actually frightened for her pitiful, even if important, life. Aleph smirked silently. It was too amusing. Ignorance is bliss. The most grave kind of mistake was assumption, and ▀etaMantis was so guilty of it, it was amazing she couldn't see it for herself.

What you don't know, you cannot perceive to harm you. Aleph smirked again as she looked wistfully and proudly at her two-foot white level as it spun in her hand effortlessly. In all truth, that much less swift twin couldn't have possibly have thought of it. She had no true reason. ▀etaMantis had been led along as the plan had been for a year. What a poor, misled child. Aleph would've hoped she'd learn faster if she were ▀etaMantis, and was certain she would, naturally. Not all one's extradimensional twins can be swift. How fortunate of her to be stuck with this one.

That stupid girl in training thought she was undead, evil and probably aligned with Diablo. How narrow-minded of her. Couldn't even her own twin, with her supposed understanding of mathematics, have known how bad making unsaid assumptions were? It was nearly disgusting how bad ▀etaMantis' thinking was. Of course, to change that was the idea of this exercise . . .

Aleph could only allow herself a few moments of amusement, so then she resumed watching over ▀etaMantis. She turned back, with a hint of entertainment in her some cross between grey and hazel eyes, to face her twin from the tree and watched ▀etaMantis intently.

She was certain Deamon knew already of what was going on.

--------------------

▀etaMantis shivered in the still sweltering summer air, confused. The exhaustion from all the walking, coping with her new form, even the futile struggle with Aleph, had quite drained her. She didn't feel like clambering on any more. She was incredibly warm, tired and her lungs were only becoming more and more difficult to coerce air into. Her mind was tumbling in chaos, for every answer she had, she had ten questions.

What am I to do to now? I am so lost. Who is she? What is she? Was she actually trying to help me? What am I anymore? Does all this even matter? Should I listen to her, trust her and leave as fast as I can? To where? Or do as I intended, trust myself, and continue to London? Who do I trust more? Me or myself? I will trust my personal thoughts before hers. I must go on. I have to. I can not stop now. She ambled onwards, looking clumsy, but it was only due to her exhaustion now, she was rather confident she could at least walk correctly after some time of it.

It was just not a day for asthmatics with triggers of some pollens and humidity. ▀etaMantis coughed up a little more phlegm from her lungs, trying to keep her lungs free enough to breathe. She was getting a headache from getting barely enough oxygen into her blood. She knew what was happening to her respiratory system, but she forced herself onward. She had to get close. She had to. Her breaths became more shallow with every step she took.

She cursed herself mentally for not stocking up on her medication as she pushed some of the sweat . Ventolin by some, Albuterol by others, and Salbutamol to a third group, the drug forced the mucous from the small tubes (known as bronchioles) which built up from asthma. Still, a half-decent asthmatic was in trouble if they didn't have the medication and were near a trigger. As ▀etaMantis was. And as it had happened several times to her before, she felt it coming.

An hour or two passes, it's hard to tell when exhausted to the extent ▀etaMantis was.

Not more than five kilometres away now. No more cars came along the county road. The sound coming from her lungs with each gasping breath would probably startle most people rather easily now. The wheezing audible to anyone in earshot. She knew she could do nothing to stop it. To stop moving onward now would only slow it, not stop it. She was going to suffer from an asthma attack, in the middle of nowhere, with no one looking out for her. Panic already had thrust itself into the crack in her already frail emotional shield. She fell to the ground, knowing and dreading what was coming, too exhausted to stop it, too overwhelmed to go on, using all her energy to breathe. How did she get so weak?

--------------------

Aleph leapt easily through the trees, making about as much sound as a squirrel, keeping an eye on ▀etaMantis as her stride slowed and eventually stopped. She scanned ahead, her eyesight much exceeding what her glasses identical to ▀etaMantis' would suggest.

She saw a squad of the Silver Guard coming in ▀etaMantis' direction from the trees. She cursed verbally, but kept following, not wishing to interfere again. Too much was at stake.

Some time passed, the distance between both groups shrinking quick. It was only a matter of time now. As soon as Aleph saw her collapse, she swore mentally. The Canadian Dominion would have ▀etaMantis. Well, now to see what she was truly made of. They would check the DNA, and hers with her previous set will be blantantly obvious as the same being, or eerily related, even if different species entirely. Her other form had the same number of chromosomes, and looked the same.

They will interrogate her. She must not break. If she does, I will have to kill her before she can say too much. Aleph patted a small gun strapped to her right leg. It would be a pity, but an inescapable truth.

If Aleph did not stop ▀etaMantis from talking if she did, the Canadian Dominion would know as much about the Circle of the Shadows as ▀etaMantis did. And NO good could come of that. COTS must remain secretive. At all costs. It didn't matter how important they thought she was, and Aleph knew it. Even if her own (dense) twin sister of sorts had to be terminated. I told her not to go that way, but would she listen? Nooooooo. Idiot girl. Why is she as stubborn as I am?

--------------------




Welcome Back to Canada

--------------------

▀etaMantis regained consciousness. How long after collapsing near London, she didn't know.

She didn't open her eyes, but didn't clench them closed either, and tried to keep her breathing slow. Wherever she was, she could use precious moments to gain some sort of understanding where she was. She just focussed on feigning sleep, as she used to when younger to throw off friends and siblings, just to see what they would do to her when her guard appeared down. Once involved tying her up in sheets and nearly tossing her outside. Her friends from high school always denied that she was awake when she told them. Not like her friends mattered anymore, anyway. The world was far too cruel to allow her to return to that.

She took another slow breath, and noted how deep she could breathe. Wherever she was, the people here saved her from her own genetic defect of asthma. For a moment, she wondered how they knew, but anyone with any knowledge of asthma could tell that was what afflicted her in that lightly wooded area near London. She was in the fetal position, curled up with her hands near her face, the now somewhat dirty clothing still upon her. There was a hard, sheeted mattress beneath her. Her glasses and watch were not there. She could feel their absence by the cool, dry air that touched her wrist, the bridge of her nose, and the parts of her ear behind the lobes. That seemed very peculiar to ▀etaMantis.

She also felt something cold and hard encircling her wrists, which were not a foot from her head. The things about her incredibly small wrists were tight and smooth, metallic possibly. Of everything she felt upon awaking, those alarmed her the most. But before she could think on it more, something blunt was poked hard into her ribs. The shock of it opened her eyes, but she shut out the minor pain.

The room she was in was small and barely lit at all. Her eyes focused in dark quickly, and she saw that a man stood over her with what appeared to be the blunt weapon. She assumed that was what she was prodded with. He was wearing a neutral grey outfit, with a small blotch of bright red sewn into the breast. At least, it was presumably sewn. The red was even visible in this low light. But the shape of the patch was hard to make out, partially due to the fact ▀etaMantis was so used to focusing with her previously compound eyes. She felt the metal rings about her wrists pull forcefully on her. She looked down at her wrists and saw the handcuffs, and the man's gloved hand around the chain between the metal loops. A second, stronger yank brings her to her knees on the bed. Where the hell was she?

"Get up. You have questions to answer.", the man gruffly ordered. ▀etaMantis only blinked as she sat on the back of her heels on the bed she awoke on, confused about what he meant by 'questions'. Then she noted she was in a cell, and saw the heavy metallic door. She stared at it for a moment in bewilderment, trying to get her thoughts in order. When ▀etaMantis didn't move fast enough the man, put a gloved hand on her shoulder and yanked the featherlight woman to her feet. She cried out briefly in surprise at being forced to stand all of a sudden. Despair at how powerless she was to do anything to contact anyone or so much as help herself started clawing at her stomach, churning it, nauseating her.

"Come on, we haven't got all day, girl.", he said as he tugged ▀etaMantis from the dimly lit room and into a hallway. The doubly mutated terran didn't make a point of contesting the rather rude tone of his voice. She reprimanded herself silently for even thinking of rudeness when she was obviously a prisoner. She watched the seamless and featureless metallic walls go by as she tried to walk to keep up with the man, but was more or less dragged the whole way there. ▀etaMantis' thoughts tumbled incoherently to her, she couldn't make sense of anything. There was no way out of this.

"W-Where are you taking me?", she blurted out nervously as that was the first thing she could think of and focus her mind on long enough to say. ▀etaMantis couldn't see the end of the hall, and couldn't focus on it. Her minor myopia preventing her from focusing on far objects. She sighed in frustration as the man didn't seem to plan on answering her. Just as ▀etaMantis was about to ask again the man stopped suddenly, jerking his prisoner to a halt. Before she could look around, her captor grabbed her by the shoulders and roughly shoved her into another dark room on their right. As she stumbled and fell with a grunt as she was pushed in. It was so dark, she couldn't see anything, not even her arms as she braced them against the cool oddly metallic floor to stand.

"Where am I!?", she shouted desperately, hoping someone would at least tell her what had happened while she was unconscious, or why she was locked up. Minutes passed in silence as she heard nothing but her own panicked breathing and racing heartbeat. She stood in a dark room, alone, with her hands cuffed in front of her and had no idea where she was or why she was here. Terror had her in it's grip for the eighteenth time in a few days.

"It's about time we found you. We ask the questions here, Ms. Vankoughnett."

▀etaMantis started at sudden sound, and wheeled to face the voice. She couldn't make out the man to whom the unfamiliar voice belonged, or even if he was a man. The voice did sound masculine enough, though. Her shoulders shook quickly back and forth as a shiver ran through her. Then the thought came to her. She was being interrogated.

"I will tell you one thing, you are in a Canadian Dominion military installation in London, Ontario, not ten kilometres from where you were found, suffering from a severe asthma attack." the voice continued.

Stuck in the complex I was just in not long ago and the one that got me into this mess! How blatantly perfect. I am caught, locked up and now being interrogated by my own country! The red path on the guard's uniform must've been the maple leaf. "Then why am I here?", she demanded, despite her obvious inability to really back it up.

"Now, now." he admonished, "We ask questions. You answer. You will answer until we are content with your answers. Know that answers we are not content with may result in punishment."

Then she was blinded. Or at least clenched her eyes shut and shielded her eyes with her bound hands after bright light surrounded her. The afterimages caused by the light danced in her vision. Even though her eyes did adjust to darkness quickly, light was close to causing her pain. Her irises just didn't expand fast enough, she had always guessed. She squinted in an attempt to allow herself to open her eyes. She was basically in a spotlight now, and her host was still not visible. Classic interrogation style. Great. She blinked as her eyes finally adjusted to the concentrated yellow light that bathed her. The man must've noticed as he decided to continue. "First question, Miss. What is your birthdate?"

She shivered again in her own peculiar way. Her entire body nearly trembled with it, but most prominently at the shoulders. Tell them the truth. Anything not involving Circle of the Shadows was safe. "November seventeenth, nineteen seventy-eight, thirteen weeks before term.", she heard herself say.

"And your name?"

▀etaMantis hesitated. Internally, panicked would have made more sense, but she managed to hide most of it. God, what should I say? Should I make up one? Should I say the truth? She swallowed the lump in her throat and made a decision. "My name was B.J. Vankoughnett. I was affected by that mutating stuff that seems to have affected a great many people, like the Emperor. Though, only enough to change me into a woman ever touched me, and not enough to fully change me.", she said.

"So your name is B.J. Vankoughnett?"

▀etaMantis nodded submissively in response, shivering again at the tone of the voice that made it very clear not to cross its owner.

"That explains the fact your driver's lisence states male for gender. Do you realise that you have been reported missing for about eighteen months, disappearing on one - ", the voice stops for a moment as the distinct sound of papers moving can be heard, " - January second, two thousand, and have only been heard of just now?" came the man's voice again, relentlessly snapping out questions.

My family . . . reported me missing all this time . . . She almost felt as though she could cry right there. She slouched forward for a moment in sudden emotion, but other than that, the shock appeared to go ineffectually. Eighteen months she had forced her family though anguish. It was beyond painful to be away from her family, and to cause them that. She was doing this for them, in a way. She reprimanded herself to stand straight. "It was unknown to me that I was reported missing, sir.", she answered sadly.

"And where have you been over this year and a half?", came the stern voice of her Canadian inquisitor.

The moment of truth.

Now I must lie. There is no other course. But how? she thought. Looking down and away to accentuate how much it hurt to say what she planned to, she grinned mentally.

The best way to lie is to actually not lie in the first place.

She thought of her family and how much she missed them, all of them, her parents, each of her siblings, no matter how annoying they got. She loved them, needed them. She needed their comforting presence. To tell her everything was alright. The tears came freely then. She missed them desperately. Her shoulders shook with sobs as she looked up, her wet grey-hazel eyes searching for the location of the interrogator's voice. Only then was she sure he would buy her partial truth. "I was captured by Blizzard Entertainment, and they ran all sorts of horrible g-genetic tests on me. It was so terrifying. I came this way after I had escaped. I l-lost my way. I knew I was in Canada, but not where."

Thank God someone convinced me to take drama in high school. I miss them so much. She had to keep her mind focused on her family to complete the image. ▀etaMantis collapsed to her knees, sitting on the backs of her legs, sobbing uncontrollably, though for a reason other than the one obvious. The chain on her handcuffs jingled as she buried her face in her hands and cried openly. Her whole frail body trembled in unrestrained sadness. "Please, you've got to help me! I've been hiding the truth for so long. I could work for the Canadian military here, whatever you need. Just please, I cannot have Blizzard after me or my family. They already are monitoring my family closely. I can't put them in danger. You've got to understand!", she cried out.

"I understand. Thank you for your time, Ms. Vankoughnett."

The sound of fabric rustling could be heard as the man raised his voice to shout "Guard!". The summoned guard, after several moments, opened the heavy door and walked stiffly into the room, giving the weeping form of ▀etaMantis, the only thing illuminated in the room, an odd look that went unnoticed. "Take her here back to her holding cell for now. The Empress will see her later. There is still one more matter to discuss, why she was here earlier."

Before ▀etaMantis had regained her composure at the sudden, though purposeful, onslaught of emotion, she was back in the small room she awoke in, and the door on her cell closed and locked. She sighed desperately at her situation, though allowed a self-satisfied smirk that they bought her ruse. They had no idea she was affiliated with Circle of the Shadows. She had the trump card. She pulled the rough, thin blankets of what was apparently her new bed up to her neck. She couldn't sleep, strangely enough. The mattress was perfectly hard for her to sleep on, and yet she couldn't. So she stared at the ceiling for what seemed to be forever. A captive of her own country. Her mind was filled with thoughts of what they were planning to do to her. The last sentence said by the interrogator echoed in her mind:

There is still one more matter to discuss, why she was here earlier.

She could only surmise punishment for what appeared to be treason . . .

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Editor's note: Both TD's Smoke Out Of The Bottle and Fjorxc's Out to the Horizon happen here.

Triangulation

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Brooke, also autoaliased as ▀etaMantis, awoke and sat up immediately in her new place of residence; a Canadian Dominion cell in a military complex south of London. She had drifted off to sleep for the third time, and no one seemed to have any reason to wake her. Otherwise they would have. At least she felt caught up in sleep and well-rested. She started uneasily to her sneaker-covered feet and a small clicking sound is heard as her knees pop in an audible protest to sudden movement. Just another of her oddities. Her joints cracked after not moving for a while. Knees, fingers, toes and ankles most commonly, but even her waist or neck at times, and her elbows did once a long time ago. She smirked slightly at remembering that sound, then finally stood completely, still not totally comfortable with her human form.

When she thought of form, her mind involuntarily slid to her reflection in the mirror case Fjorxc had given her. Her face seemed alien yet familiar to her. She had not truly seen her own human face for a while, and now, to see one strikingly familiar yet not was disorienting. She ran her hand over the closed wooden case within her cargo pants pocket, sighing at how easy it actually was to get her mind onto her much better form since she was given the ability to see it. First a guy, then an insect, now a beautiful woman . . . what was next? Then she gasped audibly as she sat in her bed.

Was she originally a human male?

She shook her head to dispel the thought of such incomprehensible things. It didn't matter right now. What mattered now was what was going on. What she assumed was the day before was not even close to what she expected. As a matter of fact, it was a lot better. The Empress of Canada had something up her sleeve, some use for her. Why would she keep an intruder here?

How would she explain her actual breaking and entering?

Why did she break and enter? Why did Whyte want the growth serum and not the anime? Didn't he know what would happen to her? Who the hell is that twin of hers and why is she in Circle of the Shadows? How did Fjorxc know about this Dark Nexus that ▀etaMantis had heard of, but never met? How did Fjorxc know of Dark Nexus' organisation? Allegedly, one person has been in the previous headquarters that wasn't personnel. Could it be her? If so, should I tell her what I am? Doesn't she have a right to know what and who I am, even if it means betraying her confidence after just meeting her? Maybe she'll try to get information out of me if I tell her. And if that happens . . . COTS is in trouble . . . I can't let that happen. Even if they have that evil woman that was as I was at some point.

Why doesn't anything make sense!?

Why isn't life fair!?

She sighed to herself mentally to stop her mounting panic. This surge in hormones in her system from changing from a near hormoneless insectoid to a young terran woman was making it hard to supress emotion. She tried to think of something other than her predicament. She felt how hungry she was, having not eaten in quite some time. She felt voracious. Like she could eat an entire pizza and ask for more. That was normal.

She stared at her thin left arm. She wished Fjorxc gave her back her watch too. They were probably checking it for supposed Blizzard beacons, weapons or something. She had no idea what day it was anymore. It could have been a few hours since she lost consciousness near the road, or days. The date and time didn't really matter right now anyway.

At least she had her glasses. Looking around her cell this long without them would've certainly given her severe headaches. It took her years to figure that out when younger, when she originally got glasses. These were exactly the same pair she got about seven years earlier. The lenses were nearly straight, not strong at all. The lenses were slightly tinted, but barely noticeable, it prevented some UV from affecting the eyes of the wearer. The frame itself was a light gold colour. It seemed odd, yet normal, to wear glasses again and look through complex eyes instead of simple compound.

Again she heard footsteps come closer, right by the door. The fine hair on the back of her neck stood to attention. She shivered as her mind forced this mental image of the next person coming in to forcefully drag her out to do whatever tests on her that Fjorxc had suggested. Her muscles tensed just in case she had to somehow fight her way out. She even shielded her eyes with her arm in preparation for the door opening.

The footsteps receeded away, and she breathed what felt the fortieth sigh of relief since Fjorxc left. She notices she still stood, muscles tensed, leaning on her back leg. Then she thought of something to do with all her free time. What she used to do with her free time, not days ago. Practise hand-to-hand combat. She mentally blocked herself from using old training. She knew it would do no good to let it take over her mind, as she would stumble and be face first on the floor before she knew it. First by walking about the cell, adding in the odd short leap to the side, she practised movement. This made her feel much better, at peace, even. If she could even walk confidently, that'd be a start to not being hopelessly defenseless.

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▀etaMantis' double, Aleph, walked casually through the hallways of the London complex. It wasn't convenient to have to get a Canadian Dominion uniform and fake identification, even for a private. The silver guard being here didn't make life any easier. They weren't called nearly the best trained troops in Canadian Dominion for no reason. A few of the veterans may have came close to rivalling her talent, ability and skill, and walking into enough of them might prove disastrous.

She felt naked without her weapons. There was no way to sneak either into this heavily-guarded complex, and she knew it. But, she had held them nearby herself for over a year. They were all she had of her past, and she used them as a memorial to her family, not to defile it as the ignorant ▀etaMantis would think. She would have to resort to her hand-to-hand combat and martial arts training if needs came to it, or possibly this incredibly boring impact pistol.

▀etaMantis was in this complex, unless they recalled her out, as not transport vehicles of prisoners had left the building in the day and a half since the dimwit was captured. And Aleph was rather sure they didn't recall prisoners for transportation. The targets weren't worth it. And her idiot sister's new physiology screwed up the COTS beacon implanted in her. Deamon was not happy to learn they had no complete assurance on her location, or even her condition. Aleph gave him her confidence that ▀etaMantis was alive. That was obvious, painfully so. The Canadian Dominion didn't execute people, even guilty of treason, which is about as high as they could get if the current Empress wanted. And the fact no encrypted transmissions were on the airwaves suggested she hadn't talked. Deamon seemed satisfied yesterday afternoon with that report. Now it was dusk.

So, shortly after her thick twin had been captured, Aleph decided extrication was the next course of action. It took her a full day of careful observation on the guards to figure out how to get in. Impressive defenses, but not impenetrable. Nothing was. It took another half to figure out how to get about once in. She broke in and out a few times just to make sure she could do it seamlessly. Besides, ▀etaMantis had to be given time to sweat and know terror.

This would teach her how to ignore both.

She patrolled the cell blocks repeatedly, focusing on cell with prisoner number 66324 everytime she passed, without moving her eyes as she did, so anyone watching via camera would think nothing was unusual. She breathed a small sigh everytime she passed, in both anticpation and impatience, but would easily be interpreted as boredom. The featureless walls of the cell block corridors were boring. Incredibly so.

She passed it for the ninth time, and approached the control panel, her hand hovering inches from it. She saw Fjorxc type it in. She knew what it was. Still she hesitated. The guards were still patrolling, and the changing didn't happen just yet. She growled mentally at being forced to stay her hand when she wanted to do it now. She knew to lack patience here would involve her own capture, and endanger both of her and the prisoner on the other side of the door and Circle of the Shadows itself. And COTS was everything.

Not until she and everyone were ready to commit.

She backed her hand off and continued her 'patrol' about the cell blocks, waiting for the oppourtune time, when the guards were changing in a half-hour. A full thirty minutes to wait. Waiting really did add to the tension, but it required you to wait. She sighed again. It was almost time for some fun.

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Officer-In-Training

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She slumped down into the bed, tired from even the relatively little exertion she had mustered while attempting to become at least somewhat not inept with her new body. And the fact however long she had been lying down beforehand contrasted greatly with that exercise. A desperate yet happy sigh escaped her lungs as she tried to catch her breath. Her strength left so much to be wanted. Getting used to be near pathetic in physical strength was so much harder when she hadn't been that way all her life. She still felt great though, able to not think about the convoluted situation she was in.

Or the handcuffs. Brooke never knew they came in this small a size. Usually she could get her hands out of handcuffs with some difficulty, but not too much, due to how thin she was. But these were almost designed for someone of her wrist size. They were getting rather uncomfortable too. She had already chaffed her wrists enough in trying to get out of them. It wouldn't have done much good anyway. Unfortunately, her mind had already wandered back to her situation. She was still stuck in this cell until the Dominion decided she was screened for whatever Blizzard put in their captives, which she only surmised COTS had removed long ago if they were indeed ever in there. The thought of people having surgically inserted and removed technological devices into and out of her physiology felt wrong, almost like a violation. She shivered at the thought, her shoulders moving what appeared to be violently, as she always shook when shivering.

The Canadian prisoner hoped that the Dominion was starving her out of negligence and not malicious intent. She felt so hungry she thought she could eat four pounds of food and ask for sevenths. Her stomach growled its own brand of insistence at her as if making sure it had her attention - just in the unlikely case the hunger pains didn't. It only served to make her more irritated at her stomach. She wished that once, just once, her metabolism would think about her for a change instead of itself. Maybe the guards were worried she'd chew on their hands or something equally horrifying, as she was sure most guards about knew of the fact that Blizzard had captured her a long eighteen months ago. And assumed she was stuck there for the last year and a half. She winced ever so slightly as the hunger pains came back yet again as she sat up. If they waited much longer, she might chew on their hands in desperation. Fjorxc had entered her cell, why wouldn't anyone else to give her some much needed food?

It was then that her stomach vocally protested it's void interior for the fourteenth time in the past half hour. She pressed her left hand into her abdomen, rotating it firmly in an attempt to silence it - at least for the moment. It always worked for a time before to do so to any painful part of her body to apply pressure to it. Releasing her hand, she noted triumphantly her stomach had stopped temporarily, presumably amused by the stimuli. She was almost to a half-decent comfort level with her new body, but she still needed time with it. She stood up, having caught most of her breath.

She froze.

She heard something.

Something other than the very low hum that seemed to resonate from the door and walls, other than her breathing. Other than her frantic heartbeat.

Footsteps. Coming close again for the eleventh time.

She sighed and wondered why she readied herself for it, stiffening most of her muscles and leaning on her left leg in a defensive position even though she was all but certain nothing she could do would be useful. She relaxed, resolving the futility to herself. She heard a keypad not far from her door being pressed eight times, causing her to tense once more, knowing it was hers. The metallic clank of the locks disengaging on her door ricocheted off the walls and into her ears. Her breathing came short and as quiet as possible as the first shaft of flourescent light from the halls started to bathe the cell.

She blinked and looked away from the door, shielding her eyes with her forearm as they slowly adjusted to light once more. A guard, similar to the last one who dragged her to her brief interrogation strode into the cell in a confident, almost arrogant, manner. Even though the guard had a small chest, it was obvious the guard was female, or a thin man on one load of estrogen. She was wearing the typical neutral grey uniform with what could probably be assumed to be the Canadian Dominion logo, despite the fact it only appeared a red dash on the chest as Brooke still hadn't focused, and a matching beret.

It didn't take her the five seconds it took for the visitor to close the door, reimmersing the room in dimness, to figure out who the guard was once she saw her eyes. She breathed all the words she could manage to due to surprise.

"Aleph . . . "

"Ah excellent, the insect can recognise people it has met," mused the guard. Brooke scowled at her twin in response, to which she only received a broad grin. "Are you done with this hating me charade and wish to think now? It has been a year I have waited for you to start. And as I know you know, waiting for people to make sense is such an unentertaining method to use time. Subtly mocking the unthinking is so much more satisfying."

"Not like you don't have enough of eternity to sacrifice some of it to boredom," she spitted back, her voice almost oozing visibly with resentment and hatred. She straightened, because both that her mind was orderly enough to speak with some thought behind it and that Aleph decided to respond through soft laughter. "Don't insult me!" flared Brooke indignantly.

"I have no need to insult you, as you do such a fine job of it alone. I did not come here for a battle of wits with an unarmed woman," Aleph smirked as she crossed her arms.

"Do what you will, it's not as though I can stop you now that I am like this, lieutenant."

"Are you pulling rank, bug?" Aleph's amusement was written all over her face still, while Brooke kept her surprise to herself.

"Yes," came the emotion-masked, commanding yet requesting reply.

The nerve-grating sound of what could only be construed as mocking giggling filled Brooke's ears, which brought another scowl to her face. Her twin was like a form of her but instead of noting where to stab people to cause emotional pain, she slowly twisted the knife into one's metaphorical flesh until the pain was completely unbearable and one's self-esteem was destroyed. "It is ever so unfortunate your rank is below mine, trainee."

"I am a cap -- " started Brooke, startled.

"Of course you are. That's why I have been subtlely training you for over a year," came the mocking remark, followed by a disappointed sigh, "To think, I have to deal with the least observant of all people, and it is only worse and more insulting that you are supposed to be me, or I you, it really doesn't matter."

Brooke blinked in confusion and looked back, shouting, "Training me!? You've tried to kill me and win a war for HELL!"

"How unfortunate you are especially now guilty of the worst of all mistakes."

That caused Brooke to hesitate. The worst of all mistakes were unsaid assumptions. Did that mean she didn't fight for the Burning Hells? Brooke grasped her head in her left hand and shook her head, trying to sort out the wave of thought that tried to force themselves into her conscious mind, effectively drowning her mentally. It felt to her as though the anchor of her understanding of everything just was disintegrated and she was sinking through nothingness.

And then, swift realisation came. It made too much sense. All the times Brooke had encountered her twin, all the lost combats, all the acidic and angry comments, all those annoying grins were for one reason. To affect her emotionally. To test her. To see if she could handle all of this. She looked up slowly to look into Aleph's eyes, incredibly similar - even identical - to her own.

"Assuming you are correct, you have been training me for how long?", came a much quieter and calmer question from Brooke.

"Nearly a year. The emotional aspect of training officers is usually the longest." The usual acidic tone was lost, and instead replaced by a teacherly one.

"The emotional aspect." Brooke repeated, more to attempt to convince herself.

"Yes, it is certainly the most long and secretive. There are truly three parts to training an officer in COTS, ▀etaMantis: Mental, Emotional and Physical." Again came the strangely instructional tone of Aleph.

Brooke shifted slightly at the mention of her alias. "Have I passed the emotional? Have I done any of the others?"

"Not yet on both counts. I must say I've been slightly impressed, but we can talk of this later, ▀etaMantis. I need to perform some extrication."

The prisoner straightened, and on that last word a hopeful look spread itself across her face.

"Not of you. To do that would endanger relations we can not endanger. I need information from you. Specifically, what you told them."

Brooke nodded, feeling downtrodden, but not showing it yet. She proceeded to tell her duplicate of how she told her inquisitor that she was held captive by Blizzard Entertainment, and all sorts of tests were run on her, her conversation with Fjorxc, everything, without leaving one insignificant detail out.

"That's everything. Everything from when Whyte woke me up that morning, which was at least two or three days ago now." Only after did she start to wonder why she told this woman, of all people, who merely nodded curtly with a smile, seemingly satisfied and turned to leave. Her trainee took a step forward, creasing her brow worriedly. "You are going to leave me here too?"

A chuckle came as her initial response. "I have all I need from you. You refused to listen to me in the first place. You will find a way out of this. Consider this . . . a test."

"You expect me to trust just anyone who shows up in my life!?" protested Brooke as she could imagine the grin on Aleph's face even though she was walking to the door.

"No, I expect you to trust yourself, ▀etaMantis. Remember what I have told you."

With that, the mechanical door to the cell shut, the woman was gone and Brooke was alone once more with her voracious appetite.
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