The strange feeling came over the tigress Penumbra once again. Her paws tingled, her charcoal hair rose as if electrified, and her body felt faintly as if it were being constricted by the air around her. She flicked her ears in irritation, but she was too used to the phenomenon to express actual alarm. She didn't even bother to raise her head off of her single broad foreleg. The sensation would pass, as it always did, and she paid little mind to it.
It was the water leaking from the rusted pipe above her head that caught her interest, though. She had been absent-mindedly watching the pure water fall, drop by drop, from the peripherals of her vision. Now the rhythmic, predictable dripping slowed until it stopped. Then, in defiance of every law of fluid dynamics that Penumbra knew, the drops of water began to rise from the floor and slip back into the pipe. Penumbra stiffened and swivelled her head to watch.
The pace of the reverse drips slowed before stopping all together. Water resumed leaking from the pipe in adherence to the traditional laws of physics, and the odd, tingling sensation in Penumbra's extremities went away. For long moments, she refused to tear her eyes away from the pipe. When she did, reluctantly, it was only to observe the Barbarian mechanics on the decks below her. She had watched the animated monkeys from the catwalks all morning and was intimately familiar with their mannerisms and routines. Nothing seemed amiss. They went about logging salinity readings, monitoring electrical panels, and banging on reticent gauges with wrenches as usual.
Of course, it was natural that Penumbra would be the only one who noticed the phenomenon. She was, after all, a god. And it was in the realm of the gods to notice things, to see what was hidden from the mortals.
Snorting, Penumbra scrambled to her feet and slunk down the catwalk. She had to speak with another god.
The golden tiger was not a god, but he carried himself like one. Physically, he was not a man to be trifled with. His iron-hard paws, each tipped with deadly talons, were wider than most other tiger's heads and could rain strikes more powerful than the blow of a hammer. His yellow teeth were wide and as sharp as awls. He regarded the white and grey rat before him with disinterest that was teetering on the verge of either mild annoyance or amusement. The rat, sensing her tenuous position, fidgeted for a moment before speaking.
"I have a private correspondence for a rogue tiger by the name of Silence. Is that you?" Her voice was high-pitched and her spoken syllables ended abruptly in a staccato rhythm, but her eloquence and fluency in his language piqued the tiger's interest.
He was, despite himself, impressed. "You speak Tiger very well, rat. I'm curious where you learned?"
"We couriers are known to breach the species boundary from time to time. Now, if you will, sir, are you Silence?" the rat insisted.
The golden tiger yawned, deliberately, exposing two rows of yellowed teeth. The rat shrunk back, almost imperceptibly except to the ever observant cat. "Yes, that's me. Speak quickly. I'm not a patient man."
"And I am not a patient rat," she countered. "I bring an offer from my employer who wishes to procure your, ah, services."
Silence's emerald eyes widened and flashed like polished jewels. "Oh?"
"A game is being held twenty cycles from now in the Telom District, ninety-eight frames due outboard of Machinery Twelve Lower Level. There is a man who will be competing in this game. At any cost, he must not win."
Silence listened intently as his intended mark was described. He chuckled. "My services are very expensive, rat. A quarterling tiger could handle this."
The rat sniffed. "My employer warned me that you would say that. He also instructed me to tell you this: do not take this man lightly, under threat of your life. Now let me tell you what your target is truly capable of."
As the rat described the target's talents, Silence took notice. What had at first seemed like a laughably simple and routine request for his services had suddenly taken on a more dark and questionable undertone. For the first time in his relatively long and experienced life, Silence felt the sting of uncertainty. As faint as it was, it was so foreign to his existence that its presence could not be ignored. A growl rumbled in his chest, rolling like boiling water. "This is more complicated. I'm going to need help, and it won't come cheaply."
"My employer has anticipated this as well," the rat said. "Go to the compartment numbered '14-758-8-E.' It is an alleyway for the condensate system for the 090 plant, and it is almost never occupied. You will find a locked box beneath the main condenser. It can only be opened by spoken password, and that password is your name. It contains a generous down payment as a show of good faith. If you find the amount acceptable, leave your mark behind. The rest of your payment will be held in trust in another location, and you may collect it once the job has been completed." The rat paused and frowned. "This is all of the information that I have been given. If there is anything else that you require, be it information, assistance, or equipment, you must procure it on your own."
Silence rumbled and committed the information to memory. "Very well. I will see your
down payment before I decide."
The little white and grey rat nodded assent and, barely containing her excitement at the prospect of leaving the company of the great cat, scrambled up a nearby conduit and disappeared into a ventilation duct. Silence watched her leave, her wire-thin tan tail slipping through the duct grating. For a long time he continued to simply stare into the darkness, contemplating.
The Vesper Facility was born innocuously enough as the pet project of a brilliant mechanical engineer and physicist who was convinced of the applications for nuclear power generation in maritime vessels. A hybrid of aircraft recovery unit and battleship, The Vesper was designed to be the largest seaworthy vessel in the world, capable of patrolling the oceans for decades without ever tasting pierside waters. In the intervening years between its conception and completion, however, the shipyard bay where The Vesper was dry-docked fell into a state of disrepair. Dredging was halted and lighthouses were shut down. On her maiden voyage, The Vesper ran aground on a sandbar and, with her electrical and mechanical systems irreparably fouled with mud and detritus and blooming Pfiesteria, was towed back into dry-dock. Her captain resigned in disgrace, and her inconsolable designer killed himself. The Vesper was relegated to a shameful, derelict corner of her shipyard, tied permanently to her berthing pier.
The Vesper lay in disrepair for many years. Her pipes rusted and her reactor plant systems slowly cooled until they neared the point of brittle fracture. It was this very neglect, though, that made her the perfect candidate as a test facility for the newly founded Council for Emergent Technologies. The Council appropriated the ship as part of a funded research venture into exploring nuclear technologies, and began to busily restore her into operative condition.
Over the course of many long decades, The Vesper was overhauled, refitted, renovated, and added on to so frequently and zealously that she ceased to be a ship at all. Finally unable, physically, to even raise her keel above the silt line, she became the land-based, seaside Vesper Facility. Industrial corporations, eager for easy access to rare and expensive machinery and power-generating plants, began to bid for contracts to build annexes onto the existing structure. Private individuals and research organizations vied for permission to use its laboratories and equipment. When the Council of War and Defense became involved, though, the budget allotted for the Vesper Facility's operation and expansion became near limitless.
Thus the Vesper Facility grew, almost organic, until it sprawled across an immeasurable swath of coastal area like a great black blot.
Penumbra had only seen a minute fraction of the immense facility, and her home territory was even smaller still. Although the Vesper housed many different types of areas, from cramped seawater bilges to cathedral-like ammunition magazines to lush greenhouses, Penumbra preferred to roam the lower level mechanical spaces of Plant 056. The simian Barbarians under her care dutifully maintained the equipment that kept their spaces cool and ventilated, and they often brought Penumbra treats of meat or chicken eggs or algae. In return, Penumbra aggressively defended them against invaders, both other Barbarian divisions and other tigers that were more interested in a meal of simian flesh than in overseeing a labour force. Although she felt uncomfortable leaving her own little realm without her protection, she couldn't shake the suspicion that the alarming reversal of what she believed to be immutable laws of physics was an omen of something. She was certain that powerful forces were at work, but whether they were benevolent or malignant remained to be seen.
The grey tigress moved slowly but confidently across the catwalks that spanned the entirety of her territory, her movements mechanical and practiced. Despite missing her left foreleg just above the elbow and her tail at the base, she ducked beneath low hanging pipes and valves with ease. Even the ladders that stretched up into the higher levels of the facility were no match for her will and the power of her spring. Penumbra's mother had told her long ago that she had been born without a leg and tail to challenge her evolving powers as a god, but Penumbra's earliest childhood recollections held faint, strange traces of the smell of blood, the cracking of bone, and the feelings of immense pain. These memories had all of the hazy, illusory qualities of a fading dream, though, and she could never quite grasp the details.
Penumbra did not dwell long on the extra hardship that she faced. If anything, it had forced her to be more cunning and opportunistic than her tailed, four-legged brethren until she developed the power and dexterity to physically compensate for her missing limbs. Her rivals always underestimated her, to their imminent demise. More than one interloper in her territory had been patiently, determinedly shadowed until they lay down to sleep. They never woke up. In calm, quiet moments, Penumbra recalled these killings with a pang of guilt, but the world around her held no margins for error, no room for weakness. Where resources were scarce, competition was brutal. Besides, she had her Barbarians to protect.
Despite the constant, vicious territorial disputes that waged in the machinery spaces, Sunder peaceably allowed Penumbra's territory to overlap his own. Penumbra knew that this was because he held out hope that she would one day acquiesce to being his mate, even though she had told him in no uncertain terms that she had no intention of ever doing so. The thought of birthing and raising a family, although not particularly repulsive, was not interesting to her, either. When she imagined intimacy with Sunder or nursing potential offspring, it had the same emotional sterility to her as envisioning watching the needles of gauges twitch or dust motes spiral into the air. She felt a greater sense of duty toward and a desire to protect her Barbarian mechanics.
Even though they were on friendly terms, Penumbra stopped just outside of the portion of the Auxiliary Machinery Rooms where Sunder held his territory, uncomfortable with the thought of crossing his border without permission. She raised her lips in the semblance of a snarl and breathed in, allowing the surrounding air to flow over the olfactory organ in the roof of her mouth. Sunder's smell was thick and musky between her teeth, and she could sense that he had patrolled this section of his territory recently to renew his scent markings. Penumbra had heard once that many generations ago, tigers had marked their territorial boundaries by spraying urine or feces along the borders, and the thought of this made her lift her lips again in revulsion. The more modern, civilized gods simply rubbed the scent glands on their faces along surfaces in their territories, thus preventing rust, contamination, and other unhygienic effects of flinging bodily waste across their small home ranges.
Penumbra paced momentarily to work up the courage to advertise her presence on Sunder's borders before filling her lungs with a great expanse of air. She released it again, allowing the air to vibrate against her larynx. "AH-UHNNNN. AH-UHNNNN." Her roar echoed, bouncing across the metallic surfaces and rolling across the deckplates. The ultrasonic tones vibrated the pipes over her head, dislodging rust flakes that had built up over time. Dust from the shaking ductwork fell around her in a cloud, and unseen small creatures both above and below her dashed away in panic.
Emboldened by her own vocal display, Penumbra crossed over into Sunder's territory. She allowed her footsteps to fall heavily on the metal deck grates beneath her paws, and it echoed like the steady pounding of fluid hammer against the steam pipes overhead. She did not want to catch Sunder by surprise and thus inadvertently provoke him to aggression. Although Sunder's realm housed a number of Barbarians that owed to allegiance to both him and Penumbra, the majority of the denizens were beautiful golden tamarins, and they swore fealty to Sunder alone. The tamarins did not descend from the pipes and vents overhead, but Penumbra could feel their presence keenly. Their suspicious gaze burned holes into her psyche as keenly as acid on skin. Although she could hear only faint whispering and scratching from above, she knew that they were spreading word of her arrival from one to another. It was no surprise then that Sunder appeared within what seemed like mere moments of her passage into his borders. Information travelled quickly in his territory.
Sunder leaped languidly atop a pump casing at the other end of the machinery room, just in Penumbra's field of vision. He was not much taller than her, although his build was slightly heavier, and he had a flap of pudgy flesh that hung down in a fold over his abdomen. His stripes were a rich grease black set against the bright rust colour of his coat. Penumbra always felt a faint twinge of jealousy when she saw him; he was the quintessential tiger. His strong build and vibrant colouration were a stark contrast to her slim build, missing appendages, and drab grey pelt.
Penumbra called to Sunder in friendly greeting, blowing air from her nasal cavity out in a rolling puff. It was the softest sound that she could manage, a gentle "chuff." Sunder responded in kind, his chuff emanating from deeper in his throat and rumbling like vibrating metal. He gleefully raised his tail in a handsome arc, and Penumbra bounded across the room to meet him. They nuzzled, and Penumbra ran her head along his shoulders to his flank.
As they turned to face one another, Sunder spoke first. His words were ritual, the traditional greeting between two tigers known to one another. "The god in me honours the god in you."
The tigress dipped her head low and replied, "And that honour will return to you."
"This is a pleasant surprise, Umbra," Sunder said. His voice was dark and rich, dripping from his lips like oil.
Penumbra rocked back on her haunches and frowned. "It's Penumbra."
"Of course, Penumbra." He emphasized the first syllable, and the grey tigress flicked her ears in annoyance at his teasing. "I wasn't expecting to see you again until later in the quarter. Are you having problems with the second shift mechanics supervisor again? Or is there a lack of chickens this quarter? You are always welcome to hunt here." For a price, he left unspoken.
Penumbra shook her head. "No, no, it's not that. It's just
" she faltered for a moment. "It's probably nothing, but there's been this weird thing that keeps happening."
The tigress hesitated slightly. She felt awkward admitting that there was something troubling her that did not have a name or tangible form. For the first time, it occurred to her that she might be imagining everything, and the thought of that frightened her. But she was already standing before Sunder, another god in the same image as her, and it was too late to turn back now. She bowed her head and explained everything as best she could manage, from the unusual physical sensations to the mystery of the rising water droplets. Sunder's ears pricked forward in interest as she described the water that dripped up into the pipe. His upright tail lowered and began to slowly wave from side to side.
"Interesting," Sunder said. He was quiet for a long while. Penumbra felt discomfited by his vague response and stretched her right forepaw out to groom it. "Have any of your Barbarian's noticed this? Have they mentioned that anything seemed awry?"
"No," Penumbra replied. "The third shift supervisor seemed surprised that I was leaving the auxiliary machinery room, actually. And I haven't heard any odd gossip or anything like that
I think it's probably safe to assume that I'm the only one that is seeing this stuff." She shifted on her good foreleg and stared morosely at her foot. "I was pretty certain that I was the only one to notice this because I'm a god
but now I'm not so sure. Is there something wrong with me?"
Sunder's expression was unreadable, and neither his body language nor his scent gave Penumbra any indication of what he was thinking. When he spoke again, his words were more subdued and measured. "I don't think it's just you. I have heard of this sort of thing before. It sounds like someone is altering the flow of time."
Penumbra's eyes widened. "That can't even be possible!"
Sunder grunted and twitched his ears, a godly version of a shrug. "I'm not entirely certain that it is. At least not normally. But I am certain that you are just as healthy and sane as I am. This isn't in your head, and if there is another explanation besides time manipulation, I don't know what it could be."
"Should I be worried? Is it dangerous?"
"I can honestly say that this is a bit outside my area of expertise," Sunder admitted. "The uakaris and tamarins over in Memoria are probably our closest contact for information. They have a sizable library and several experts in the realm of the gossamer arts. It's been years since I last visited, but maybe I can convince them to let us inside their hive. It's just on the border of my territory through the portside turbine room. Do you want to come with me?"
Penumbra shook her head. "No. If you don't think that it's anything worth panicking over, I would prefer to head back to the machinery room. I left my Barbarians without much of an explanation, and I don't want to worry them. I would still be interested to hear what you find out, though. If you do go and manage to get some information from Memoria, would you mind sending one of your men to let me know?"
"Of course. Although I do admit that I'm a little disappointed that you are leaving so soon."
Tension, as subtle but perceptible as static electricity, hung between the two gods. Penumbra spoke finally. "Tell you what. I'm going to check on my Barbarians, and, if everything is running all right and there are no upcoming evolutions, I will try to catch up with you on your way to Memoria."
"I'll hold you to that, Umbra," Sunder said, purring.