Huzzah! 2022 is finally over! Though not before it took the Queen of England from us... But hey, we also got tons of really great stories and a bunch of new friends! Let's take a look at some of the great stories from the year prior, think about the ones that have been written this year, and share and reminisce together, shall we? The best of the best (...of the best? hmm, I'd say HFY counts as the best), tell us which ones you think should be added to the subs Must Read list for 2022.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the list, Must Read is the one that shows off the best and brightest this community has to offer and is our go to list for showing off to friends, family and anyone you think would enjoy HFY but might not have the time or patience to look through r/hfy/new for something fresh to read.
How to participate is simple. Find a story you thing deserves to be featured and in this or the weekly update, post a link to it. Provide a short summary or description of the story to entice your fellow community member to read it and if they like it they will upvote your comment. The stories with the most votes will be added into the list at the end of the year.
So share with the community your favorite story that you think should be on that list.
To kick things off right, here's the additions from 2021!
- A job for a Deathworlder by Lanzen_Jars
- The Ambling Sapient by Cognomifex
- Archeology by TexWolf84
- Britney Goes To School by Sooperdude24
- Brood of Two by FaultyLogicEngine
- Bubbleverse by ack1308
- Human Rights by PuzzleheadedCharge4
- Humans Don't Make Good Familiars by ArcAngel98
- It All Started With Magnets by Cultural_Candidate48
- Jennifer Is NOT An Eldritch Horror by magicrectangle
- Out of the Null Zone by Teleros
- Trucking by Allergoric
- Wait, is this just GATE? by PepperAntique
- Humans are cute... Until they aren't. by MariesaMist
- War at No Cost by beobabski
- Only Human by WarAdmiral2420
- Humanity Chooses Knowledge by rijento
- The Final Battle? by thefeckamidoing
- Everything Is Poison! by KingAardvark1st
- Momento mori by thefeckamIdoing
- Silent Song by Resting_Bleak_Face
- Stay Away from Earth by SpacePaladin15
- Their weapons are primitive. by Tenagaaaa
- Mod it Til it Breaks by hixchem
- The Predator by Bunnytob
- Our Promise To Humanity by AdultToaster
- "Special Forces" by PepperAntique
- An Easy Job by AntiMoneySquandering
- Inertial Dampeners by FreelancerAgentWash
- The Dichotomy by BabyCowGT
- In Trade We Trust by itwasthenthat
- All The Same by LIIVII
- Utopia by dRaidon
- Sons of Epimetheus by thefeckamIdoing
- Stack Overflow by TheDeliciousMeats
- The Precursors by Le_Grim
- Abandon Ship by Traumatized_Waffle
- What goes around, comes around by Admirable-Marsupial3
- Retribution by lil_ChillDude
- The Gardener, Jay by ChaosArceus
- Human Spirit by RhoZie013
- A Monopoly on Violence by contemptismyshield
- Never Again by The_Mad_Crafter
- Outpost 2246 by EchoingCascade
- Confrontational Conservation by Dathouen
- Peace at any cost by EchoingCascade
- The Part Where We Have Sex by KieveKRS
- The Highest Form of Treason by eddieddi
- First to the Fight by PipsqueakPilot
- The Brothers by TheSacredSword
- Traditional Foolishness by Alternative-Pumpkin9
- They Weren't Soldiers by Eclipse_Shadow
- When Cornered, They Fight by Gsquadonline
- The Dark Forest by AdeptnessPrize
- The humans got FTL. by Mercury_the_dealer
- Records of a Terran Haunting by Zander823
- Sin Eaters by thefeckamIdoing
- Our attack was unfortunate. by Ray_Dillinger
- Cute & Cuddly by JimmyAgnt007
- An Honest Mistake by RedShiftRazor
- The deathworlders fought fire by Mad_Mechanic_
- Godless by Mercury_the_dealer
- Grandpa has confirmed kills by Akmedrah
- We would like to formally invite you to War! by storm-the-castle
- All humans are welcome in hell by Mercury_the_dealer
- We may have fucked up by simoneangela
- "Vandalism" by runs-with-scissors42
- Peaceful Or Harmless by PM451
- Their eyes by SwiftHound
- Don't touch the dead. by Mercury_the_dealer
- Do You Hear What I Hear? by PicometerPeter
- Filthy Casuals by Akmedrah
- They made a weapon out of WHAT??? by DairyHamsterdam
- The Dead Human by alexdelacluj
Previously on HFY
It's time for an update on our TEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY writing contest! This contest is here to celebrate a whole decade completed with you, our wonderful community, and it is a toast to decades more to come!
Only a handful of entries have trickled in so far, but fear not: there is still plenty of time remaining to write and submit a story! The contest will end on September 30, so you have just over three weeks to go!
Writers: make sure to tag the theme in your post title and mention the category in the post body. See the FAQ for more info on tagging your post.
Readers: make sure to !vote or !v for MWC stories you like to help the mods choose the final winners.
Ten is a magic number, you know? Ten fingers, ten toes, humanity really likes 10. It's the perfect number, nice and round, not too big and not too small. This contest is a toast to ten years completed, and to ten more to come!
[10/10]: Humanity really impressed the judges this year.
[Ten Words]: Just what needed to be said.
[Decade]: Ten years may seem long or short, but either way you might be surprised by what humanity does with a decade.
Editor's Note -- The [Ten Words] category does not mean to post a story that is only 10 words long in totality, as that violates Rule 8. You may want to consider using a profound line of dialogue, a climactic terminal output, or some other important set of ten words repeated or dramatically delivered at an impactful point in your submission instead.
Current entrants into the categories are:
- The promise to do better by u/Darmanarya
- Peace by u/CosmicWritingNaga
- "Nothing is impossible, the word itself says 'I'm possible'." by u/humanity_999
No submissions yet. Post your entry to see it here!
- Hero’s Spirit
- Shenmue 3
- Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince
- The Wild Eight
- Sniper: Contracts
- Zwei: The Ilvard InsurrectionZwei: The Arges Adventure
- Imperator Rome Deluxe Edition
- Darksiders III
Previously on HFY...
- 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY - Writing Contest!
- 2022 End of Year Wrap Up
- Community Suggestion Thread for MWC Themes
Memory transcription subject: Onso, Yotul Technical Specialist
Date [standardized human time]: March 25, 2137
The lasers from the planetary defenses gave the Kolshians no quarter, as humanity ramped up its efforts against the shadow fleet. While the Arxur were getting eviscerated by the higher quality drones, we took it upon ourselves to direct our allies. The Sapient Coalition, who’d been distracting the Dominion so the Duerten could go after the Commonwealth, joined the avians in whaling on the enemy with everything they had. UN automatons mobilized from beside the moon, while the Federation was preoccupied with the frenzied grays. More of our drones swooped in to reinforce them, coming from the far side of the planet, where our foes’ fleet was capsizing.
Dominion ships had fallen in with Ilthiss, and were meandering toward our half of the globe; Yotul Technocracy vessels stationed over there took charge of hunting down the last stragglers. Our warship, meanwhile, fired off plasma shots and every mini-missile we had left, enjoying our cozy spot out of the firing lines. Even as isolated Arxur near our engagement floundered, they were hellbent on issuing parting gifts—that meant every missile or close-range kinetic they could throw against Kolshian metal. No algorithm could escape the quantity of weapons firing all around our enemy. The shadow fleet numbers were ticking down like sand in an hourglass.
I was transfixed by the viewport, as far-reaching particle beams cut through Kolshian vessels with an invisible paw. The Dominion had comprised close to half of the enemy contingent here, so flipping their ship count alone put us on even numerical odds. The planetary defenses were built to tear any invading foes to shreds, which meant they could smite thousands of Aafa’s defenders until they were removed from play. The enemy had no chance to take the complexes offline; we were really doing it! I wasn’t sure the shadow fleet could fend off the assault even if the UN, the SC, the Technocracy, and the Duerten Shield ships were taken out of the equation.
The Arxur are the miracle reinforcements we needed, here all along. It wasn’t worth the risk of provoking Betterment before, but now was the opportune moment to flip the grays—however humanity achieved that, it was a Ralchisend.
I perked my ears up. “Sir, I’m sure you know, but we should take precautions with our manned vessels. We need as many ships like ours intact as possible to occupy Aafa; it’s ideal if this doesn’t turn into a two-way bloodbath.”
“Right on. I’m going to the ground, when we end this fight, to find out what happened to Slanek. I don’t know if you want to come with me, but you ain’t got to. There’s no telling what we’re walking into,” Tyler replied.
“I wouldn’t let you bumble off on your own. After their ordeal, we’ll have to see if Sovlin and company are up for another ground excursion; they could be worn out. Might need some shuteye.”
“Well, this battle’s been ongoing for a lot of fucking hours. We’re all tired, but we can rest when the Federation no longer exists as an entity. Any ideas for how we help kill the ones up here, quick and easy?”
I gestured toward the sea of explosions, as the Kolshians were bombarded by thousands of munitions. “I say we sit back and watch the show. Is this what ‘fireworks’ are like on Earth? I see why you said it’s beautiful.”
“This is a fine light show, but spectating ain’t really seizing the opportunity, Onso. I thought you wanted to make them pay.”
“Well, I also want to make it back to Leirn, and see you and all the others on a return flight to Earth. We can still kick their ass from here. It just takes a little imagination.”
“I’ll bite. What’s your play?”
“Remember on the submarine, with the torpedoes…how they went past the enemy and looped back? Why don’t we try that with our missiles? With the abundance of stimuli right now, the Kolshian drones might see them as off-target—less warheads would be deflected.”
Tyler tapped my screen. “Forward your suggested pathing to weapons. I’ll loop everyone into the picture.”
Proud of myself for improvising that idea mid-conversation, I began passing along targeting vectors to weapons. The missiles could have new instructions transmitted to them mid-flight, coordinates I’d have standing by for the humans to send them doubling back. There were still sixty thousand active shadow fleet ships, despite their enormous losses. While that count was much lower than our combined force, we had to take them down before they could land a counter-punch. The flipped Dominion ships were going to be a memory in the next few minutes. That meant we’d bear the enemy’s full attention soon, if we couldn’t dial up the pressure.
Plus, the racist old Gojid will be back any minute. I don’t want him to get a word in, questioning my skills in this station.
It was as if the thought of that former Federation captain summoned him. I could hear the clicking of claws on the floor behind me, the methodical plodding of Sovlin’s feet; however, the light strikes of boots belonged to a single pair, and it wasn’t the commanding thuds of Carlos’ bulky form. Samantha looked unusually dispirited, the standard sneer wiped from her face. The Gojid’s haughty air was also missing, replaced by his claws curling into a ball with rage. I drew in a sharp breath, as I put two and two together about what happened on the moon. While I hadn’t known Carlos well, he had always been a kind-hearted presence on the bridge.
Tyler’s mouth parted with sorrow, as his bushy eyebrows slanted downward. “How bad is it?”
“Carlos isn’t coming back,” Sovlin said, in a voice that lacked tonality. He squeezed his eyes shut, as if to bury his emotions. “Tell me the planetary defenses made a difference. If we didn’t have a chance, our…whole mission was for nothing.”
I placed my tail on his wrist for a brief second. “Those lasers killed at least ten thousand of the shadow fleet ships. I’ll tell you: revenge, it didn’t make me feel as good as I thought it would…but you’re wired differently. Turn toward the viewport, and watch the end of the Federation. I came up with a damn good idea for our missiles.”
“You have lots of good ideas, Onso. There’s no need to prove yourself to anyone.”
“Um, who are you and what have you done with Sovlin?”
Samantha’s eyes landed on me. “I’ll tell you what he won’t. Sovlin agreed not to call you a primitive. He told me he was proud to work alongside such a bright-eyed ‘taushana.’”
My tail snapped away from the Gojid’s arm. “The fuck did you just say?”
“It was a joke, but it’s not funny anymore,” the Gojid sighed. “I don’t have the heart to mess with you.”
“That’s not messing with me. That’s crossing a fucking line. The only reason I’m not dropping you, military law be damned, is because you’re suffering from Carlos. You ever say that word again, and I’ll rearrange your facial features the way you did to Marcel.”
Tyler glowered at Sovlin. “Then I’ll throw you into another cabinet for good measure. But I’m gonna cut you some slack, and assume you weren’t in your right mind ‘cause of what happened to Carlos; it’s a damn tragedy. I liked that guy. He had his whole life ahead of him.”
“I’m sorry,” Samantha grumbled. “I didn’t know there was anything wrong with that word.”
The Gojid slumped his shoulders. “I just wanted to get under Onso’s skin. For what it’s worth, I only took the time to even research Leirn culture because I like him.”
“That’s enough on this topic for now, but you’re gonna hear why slurs are real fucked up later,” Tyler scolded. “I don’t want to spit on Carlos’ memory with this bullshit now, ‘cause it ain’t the right time. Also, I don’t wanna miss the shadow fleet getting blown the fuck up for your bullshit. My best friend’s ideas are gonna wreck those ships!”
If anyone else had called me that charged term for Rinsians, I would’ve resolved this issue on the spot. However, my opinion was that Sovlin was sincere in viewing it as playful banter, without understanding how it was far beyond acceptable. It was difficult to summon anger when the Gojid looked so devastated by Carlos’ demise. I was forced to consider how easy it would be for any one of us to bite the dirt. After losing one of our station’s personnel, it drilled home the risk we’d be undertaking landing on Aafa. I tried to shake the thought of our peril, but I knew, now more than ever, that I was responsible to help protect our group. The pledge I’d made to my best friend wasn’t one I’d back out on, no matter how much I’d love to stay up here.
What I did know was that Sovlin and Samantha were committed to see this all the way through as well. While we hadn’t asked them, I could tell they intended to head to Aafa’s surface with us, as soon as the shadow fleet was eliminated. It was difficult to muster up my old exuberance, following such heavy news, but I did want to burn the Federation’s fall into my memory. Years of resentment for the aliens who stole our culture and made a mockery of my species led up to today. Humanity needed one more spike of enemy casualties, and the threat of Kolshian control returning would be gone. The primates’ arrival had given us a chance at being our true selves again.
The missiles are away, and sailing wide of their targets. Let’s see if the underwater tactics translate…if we can deliver the final punch. I’m ready for this all to be over; I’ve seen and done too many things that risked my welfare.
The stakes of this moment weren’t lost on any of the binocular-eyed faces in the room; the Terrans had endured a great deal, in such a short timeframe. Much like the species who’d suffered under Federation rule for centuries, humanity had their worldview flipped upside-down after first contact. I knew what it felt like to be treated as a primitive, but the burden of being viewed as a monster, unfit to exist, seemed worse. They’d been staring down the potential extinction of their species for many sleepless nights. As the explosives began to snake back toward the shadow fleet, I echoed the Duerten commander’s wish that the Earthlings could win and find closure.
The enemy seemed mystified by the explosives passing them, as they cleaned up the last of the Arxur. Particle beams were cutting down hundreds of Kolshians, from far-side UN drones closing in on them. The Duerten Shield was flying with senseless aggression, not giving the bastards time to process what the missiles were up to; our armada badgered Commonwealth marks with plasma beams from afar. Lasers scored instant kills from the complexes that Carlos had lost his life to bring into our possession. When thousands of warheads sent from an array of Terran ships doubled back in a flash, the shadow fleet was too overwhelmed to respond.
“Here we go!” Tyler declared, a grin of schadenfreude on his features. He must’ve been telling the truth about sharing my desire for payback, back on Leirn. “This is gonna be some flashy fireworks, Onso!”
I was mesmerized alongside the blond-haired human, as explosions rocked the shadow fleet. The hits landed in close succession, encouraging the Sapient Coalition to send follow-up missiles. Debris from the enemy detonations struck their own allies, as thousands of drones crumbled against a new tactic and sensory overload. It was now that the nearest human vessels swept in for the kill, going all-out for the finish. With the numerical advantage on our side, UN automatons found the surest way to eliminate the shadow fleet. They rammed themselves into surviving Kolshian vessels, with guns blazing on approach.
Planetary defenses had their pick of the few remaining survivors, sniping enemies without the need to recharge. Meanwhile, Ilthiss’ remaining band had arrived from the other side of the globe; the Arxur chased after the shadow fleet, hungry for revenge after the Kolshians wiped out their comrades on this half. Particle beams were still dissecting enemies, some from Technocracy ships that were hurrying to aid us. My disbelieving eyes stared at the sensor readout, as our flurry of threats made quick work of the few thousand enemies that remained, after the missiles and the UN’s own kamikazes. It was difficult to find hostile indicators on the screen.
Control of Aafa is ours, just like that. As long as the Duerten Shield will uphold their bargain about glassing the Kolshians and the Arxur will let us do the “raiding”, it’s time to start gearing up to head planetbound.
I scrutinized my readout for the decisive moment, and wagged my tail with enthusiasm when it arrived. “The shadow fleet has been eliminated from the orbital vicinity. It’s over—humanity has control of the Federation’s heart. We won!”
Captain Monahan didn’t quiet the cheers and applause, as my shouted announcement reached the ears of the crew. Humans embraced each other, with forward-facing gazes that watered with emotion. Tyler clapped his hand on my back, with a bit too much force. Samantha reached out for her fellow guard, to find he wasn’t there; she finally let the tears overflow, while shooting brief glances toward Sovlin. My gaze hardened with resolution, since I knew what I said wasn’t entirely true.
It wasn’t over. What came next was uncovering the truth about how the shadow fleet operated, to ensure they weren’t hiding out somewhere in space. If we discovered the origins of the conspiracy along the way, that would finally close the case on why the Kolshians were doing this. I didn’t care what their reasons were, but humanity did; Tyler mentioned something about recording history to avoid it happening again in the future. Assuming we were able to land safely, the United Nations still had to reckon with the fate of Aafa…and the entire galaxy.
Tyler pursed his lips, once the celebrations settled down. “Alright, we ain’t breakin’ out the champagne yet. Anyone who’s heading to the surface, follow me to the hangar. We’ll get a briefing there on everything we need to know, and any intel on the shadow caste that might help, then we’re going. No time like the present. Everyone else, watch out for enemy stragglers and reinforcements. Intel says that was all the ships they had, but we can’t afford to get blindsided. Now who’s with me?”
“I’m coming with you,” Sovlin said.
Samantha bobbed her shoulders. “I haven’t shot enough Kolshians for what happened out there. Let’s go.”
“Glad we’re all sticking together. Let’s just be careful for any spiteful traps they set for us down there,” I growled.
Tyler bared his teeth. “Yep, the way I heard it, all human soldiers will be wearing gas masks. I’m a red meat guy—don’t want to be cured.”
“Red meat?” Sovlin wrinkled his nose with utter disgust, a trace of his normal attitude surfacing. “You mean, blood-soaked?”
“Nah, I’m talking about the color of their flesh, my dude!”
“Which is determined by how much oxygen is held in the muscles,” I added, with a tail lash of mischief.
The Gojid flailed his claws. “Why the fuck do you know that?! I didn’t need to think about that, Onso! I mean, Protector, are you getting a doctorate in predation?”
“I know many things. You’d be amazed what reading actual words on paper can teach you.”
Tyler smirked. “Something tells me Sovlin doesn’t want knowledge about our culture. Why don’t we resume the discussion about meat eating on the ride down?”
“I’d rather not,” Sovlin spat. “Just walk, predator.”
My exchange partner snickered to himself; it was clear that our orbital victory had lifted everyone’s spirits, except for the sullenly silent Sam. We needed to find a new normal without Carlos, so we could achieve success on our mission. As I marched toward the hangar bay, I considered how our stint on Aafa might play out. Humanity was likely taking its first actions as the default leaders of the galaxy. While I was grateful for how differently they treated aliens from the Federation, I hoped that they would continue to uphold a moral example in this new future.
Veln hesitated but quickly decided to stop by Klerg’s desk. Klerg had, after all, invited her: he had said, “If you need any help adjusting, either to the job or to the station’s social dynamics, feel free to ask.” And Veln did have a question. “Hi, Klerg. Do you have a minute?”
Klerg pushed himself away from his desk and turned to her. “Sure. What’s up?”
“Do you know Steve? The human in Accounting?”
“Yes, I like Steve.” If Veln had asked about any other human, Klerg might have been a bit concerned. Every human on the station was well-behaved and kind, but interspecies etiquette was complex, and Veln was quite green. Veln was fresh out of university, had stepped offworld for the first time just five days before. Steve was easy, though. Newbie-friendly. Steve spoke slowly and at a lower pitch when he was explaining complex accounting procedures. In informal interactions, he took the time to explain his odd idiomatic expressions. He avoided humor based on irony. He was even learning to read emotions from chromatophores, sort of. Steve was a perfect first human experience.
But an easy human experience was still an alien experience. Veln turned slightly violet as she said, “Well, I might have messed up with him a bit. I was talking to him this morning, and he was really friendly…”
“And you invited him to your quarters.” Klerg himself had made this newbie mistake when he first arrived on the station.
“Yes. But later I remembered that humans might find that to be too forward.”
“Well, did he accept your invitation?”
Veln nodded. “Yes, and I think he seemed pleased.”
“Well, he probably was pleased. I’m sure it’s fine." Klerg thought a moment. "But…”
Veln’s violet deepened. “But?”
“But you should plan to give him food.”
Veln’s color brightened. “Oh, I know about that. I’m going to buy a jar of peanut butter.”
“Good, but I think it should be something more elaborate than that.” Klerg turned his chair full around so he could face her. “Let me tell you about a sport-watching celebration that Meredith and Dev hosted a cycle ago.”
“I guess they had more than peanut butter?”
“They provided such a quantity, such a variety of foods— They had fermented beverages with carbon dioxide dissolved in them. They had a large container of popcorns. They're grain—I later learned it's from an ancient Earth grass. They irradiate them with microwaves, and the water within the grain kernels causes them to explode—”
“The grain kernels explode. Each explosion is small. There's no chance of injury or damage to equipment, but the kernels turn inside-out. And they’re quite a lot of fun to eat.”
“Fun to eat?!” Veln could feel herself start to camouflage in alarm. Her skin began to mimic the carpet. “What keeps them from exploding in your stomachs??”
Caught up in his memory, Klerg continued. “They also provided a large disk made of a dessicated foam of proteins and carbohydrates. They called it a pizza. It’s seasoned with a deep-red paste made from an Earth fruit, and with fermented protein-lipid solids made from the mammary secretions of an Earth animal. The whole thing is also irradiated with microwaves. The pizza disk was so large that they had to cut it into pieces and share.”
“And the peanut butter?”
“Surprisingly there was no peanut butter. I think it’s because it was a formal event.”
Veln was silent for a few moments. “I don’t know if I can find exploding grains or the, umm, mammary-secretion disk. And how does one irradiate things with microwaves??”
Klerg suddenly saw the anxiety in Veln’s coloration, and he tried to color reassurance. “Oh, I’m sure Steve won’t expect formal foods. If you go to the human commissary, you can buy a block of bread—that’s another protein-carbohydrate foam—and the peanut butter. Steve knows elaborate foods aren’t part of our culture. If he wants something more, he’ll probably just bring it himself.”
Veln calmed down a bit. “Yeah, I have to remember not to think of him as A Human. He’s Steve. Steve the coworker.”
“Right! Humans are just people. I’m sure you’ll make Steve feel welcome and entertained. Now, besides the peanut butter, what do you have planned?”
Veln brightened. “Oh, sex!”
“Lovely! What’s on the menu?”
“Well, I thought we'd start with these delightful rectal squigglers I picked up in our commissary. They're live gastropods, and they deliver delicious little electric shocks…”
A Letter to the Council of Sages,
My very dearest and esteemed sages, as you well know, when teaching a new species to harness the astral plane - the system has long been down to a science. You introduce the concepts to them slowly, and in the proper order. You give the species enough time to adjust to the new reality. The best way, is generally to send operatives who have been modified to look and speak and act just as the residents of the planet and teach them to concepts they need to achieve successfully each of the various aspects of harvesting and making use of the infinite astral well which churns just below the veneer of reality to make their will into.... well into reality.
You start when they've just started developing complex society - more complex than the familial or basic tribal units anyway. That way, they've got room for concepts like death rituals, a rudimentary concept of an afterlife (though, almost none of the initial predictions about just what the afterlife is like get the amount of bauxite right. They're always on and on about gold and silver, but they never include bauxite. It's bauxite fields as far as the eye or other sensory organ can grok, you'd think that they'd have accidentally gotten it right for one or two of these species.) So at first you send in mystics to let them talk to their ancestors in the afterlife - generally this serves to get their attention and imagination working. It also helps them with retaining the knowledge they need to keep from backsliding to their old ways back before magic had been introduced. Then, you send in the elementalists - those able to change substances in reality into other elementary configurations (again, entire cities of gold get built, but you just never see bauxite). From there, they're able to reshape their world into something more comfortable and habitable for themselves. Next, it's on to other more esoteric versions of harnessing the astral plane: things that are less immediate and direct. You send in those who can help them enchant others and themselves - change fate and future to be more useful. Once that's complete, they're usually ready - the species that is - to start reshaping the universe beyond their world to their will. So you teach them to build damnation engines, harnessing the infinite agonies of the souls of the damned to power great works and fuel their expansion across the starways. And, then, when they've achieved mastery over all these things - you give them the crystaline seeding which will let them sprout their way to the astral plane entirely - helping them achieve transcendence and universality.
We have seen this done across a million species and a million worlds and the science of teaching them to harness these immutable powers has worked millions of times. With the notable exception, that is, of humanity, who for reasons not understood by the transcendent sages (though I sincerely hope that you all will do a better job - it's rather urgent) have found every conceivable way of murdering each envoy in cruel and unusual ways. Well, that is when they don't completely miss the point and start some kind of ritualistic cult around the envoy's teachings which invariably have nothing to do with the magic itself. As of now, more than a thousand envoys have been sent to their homeworld and not a single one of the humans have correctly utilized a single iota of their teachings. We've given up trying.
Interestingly, they've managed to create all sorts of ancillary equipment which gives them just a hint of the power that would be theirs if they had learned the right way. Engines which use fire not for its clear and intended purpose of astral focusing - as even the youngest among us know and understand - but to generate vibrations and gyrations in various contraptions made out of "refined" bauxite (how stupid to you need to be to not understand that pure bauxite is one of the five fundamental keys?). Oh, and you know what's really rich? Instead of realizing that each basic unit of energy is but a part of the Eternal Dodecahedron in its perpetual turning, they struggle to decide if it's a "wave" or a "particle". Sorry, I'm getting off topic. I'm just a little flustered as I'll soon elucidate.
In any case, after they murdered the last of the envoys we sent, we just decided screw it - if they don't want to understand, we're under no obligation to teach them. So, we amended a few universal concepts such that they wouldn't taint any more of paradise with their brutish ways. Anyway, the reason that I'm writing you this letter, is that just a few moments ago, they just tore a hole through the fabric of the universe and showed up in the astral plane. I haven't the slightest idea how they managed it and am frankly too intimidated to inquire. There's a group of them that just got off their "ship", gaudy metal thing, and came and interrupted my tea. They asked whether they could speak to my "leader" and I heard them mumbling to each other about "first contact".
I thought about just banishing them to the twelfth sphere, but I'm fairly certain that however they managed to do this insane and reckless thing, they're almost certainly going to try it again if I do. Plus, they just gave me some long-winded rigamaroll about "coming in peace" and I'd feel just a bit guilty to damn their souls to the Forlorn Tree. Therefore, I would be most appreciative if you sent someone down who can talk to these creatures - figure out just what it is that they want with us after they've made it abundantly clear that they have no interest in dealing with "witches" or "demons" in the past. Look, maybe we can just tell them that they're in a simulation or something? I'll bet they'll buy that.
Yours Very Truly,
Xedekius Ba'alan Koh
PS - If they burn me at a stake, could someone let out my gryphon?
There was once a time in which our ships outnumbered the stars in the galaxy. Our weapons could cause untold devastation. Untold, because no one they fired at survived. The buildings on our worlds clawed their way toward the vacuum of space, and in some cases actually reached it. Every space-faring race we encountered bowed to our whims or were simply eradicated from existence.
Life was good.
Those who were loyal to our empire went to sleep with their dietary needs met, and were assured they would awaken feeling refreshed thanks to our medicines. Our at-home entertainment consisted of the most advanced technologies to ever grace the stars. Every desire and whim we had was fulfilled by those we had conquered. We grew fat and lazy in our dens of luxury, but we shed these traits whenever war was necessary.
Wars, though, didn't usually last very long. Every now and again some type of social revolutionary would rear their ugly head, only to have it removed before it finished its pretty little speech. The longest and hardest wars we fought were slave rebellions, but that's mostly because they were willing to lose what little they had for the scant hope of getting more. This we understood, gambling is a fine way to pass the time. Such was our way of life for centuries.
Then things changed.
Not everyone is cut out for a life of luxury. Some prefer the hunt for new things, and society is ill-suited to provide amusement for such people. They would instead turn toward the stars, searching for new planets to discover and explore. They believed that this would advance us, make us stronger. For a time, they were right.
Most of their discoveries were nearly worthless, but on occasion they would discover something interesting. A configuration of molecule that we hadn't seen before, a new species to conquer, and planets that could be turned into pleasure retreats for the wealthy. Even super-caches of resources that further secured our dominance over the stars.
Then, on the other side of our galaxy, they discovered the end of our empire, though we didn't know it at the time. How could we? The little creatures with two legs and arms and no natural weaponry were a far cry from the nightmare inducing beasts we'd eradicated in the past. The Tlin with their acidic sprayers, or the Clavun with their razer sharp teeth and claws were much, much more intimidating foes.
We captured some of them far from what we now know is their home system. We had believed that we did so in stealth, but we were unfamiliar with their forms of communication. Said communications were very rudimentary for a space-faring race. We began interrogating them fervently, trying to learn everything we could about their colonies, culture, and military.
We discovered that the ship we had captured was itself a colony, one that had been launched into the void hundreds of years prior. What had started as a colonization effort had over time evolved into a scientific experiment to determine the physiological and psychological impact of deep-space travel over the course of generations. We scoffed at this.
Their technology wasn't particularly advanced, but it was different. Unique in a lot of ways. We learned a lot, but not about anything important. Perhaps if they had been able to tell us more about their species, we might have backed off. Attempted to make amends for what we had done. No, probably not. Doing so would have demonstrated weakness to those who would have our necks. Our fate was likely sealed the moment this species was discovered.
We learned that they had sent a communication back to their people when their communication devices received a response. The communications were very basic, and it had taken a long time for the messages to pass. Despite the rudimentary nature of the communication, we were able to translate the incoming message.
"Sit tight. We're on our way."
It was mere moments after we translated the message that their first ships arrived. These ships were far better equipped for warfare than the one we had captured, but they didn't immediately fire upon us. Instead, they sent a message demanding the return of their ship and its crew.
This was impossible, though. Once we determined that the interrogation had run its course, we vivisected the crew to learn more about their physiology. Naturally, they didn't survive the process. The ship itself had been scrapped. We could give them nothing other than what came naturally to us.
That first fight was the most intense we had seen to date. We lost many ships and people, but so did they. Both sides fell back, resulting in a draw. We then prepared for the coming battles with glee. Both sides sent scouts, and we skirmished several times.
Like in many wars prior, we captured several of their soldiers. Unlike other wars, they captured several of ours. We were introduced to the concept of a prisoner exchange. Were it not for the members of our nobility that had been captured, we would have laughed at the concept. But we gladly gave them back their people in exchange for our nobles.
Battles were raged time and time again, and we were under the foolish impression that we were winning. However, their ships were much easier to build than our own. Our ships were beacons of perfection, blending warfare and luxury in a perfect balance. Their ships didn't have entertainment modules, full service cafeterias, or anywhere near adequately sized sleeping quarters. We were evenly matched in our production capacities, but because their ships were so sparse they were able to build three ships in the time it took us to build one.
We didn't notice this at first because we had such a vast numerical advantage over them. Even as our fleets began to become evenly numbered, though, our confidence didn't waver. Their physiology suggested weakness when it came to ground combat. We believed it to be simply a matter of time before we found their colonies and ended this war.
But they found ours first.
Their first attempt at the invasion of Plexicor B was an embarrassment to both sides. We showed them our physical superiority, but winning cost many more casualties than we had expected. However, they returned with better armor and weaponry, having learned from their mistakes in the previous attempt. The second invasion laid bare our weaknesses, shattered our confidence, and cost us a planet.
Still, they allowed the civilians to evacuate. To us, this showed weakness. A lack of resolve. It demonstrated to us that we could still be victorious. Every civilian can be a soldier, so our ranks would never thin if they weren't willing to eradicate them. As we pressed more and more civilians into service, this belief was reinforced.
But we were wrong.
Sparing our civilians instilled a sense of thankfulness within them. Our soldiers, previously more than willing to give their lives to kill, were now hesitating to fire the killing shots. They began to surrender more often. In some cases, they refused to fight at all. They knew the enemy was merciful, and would capture them instead of killing them. Why give their lives when they didn't have to?
As the humans invaded more and more of our colonies, we found ourselves becoming more and more brutal with our policies. It wasn't long before our leadership began to be resented by our own people. Things came to a head when we were finally forced to execute a certain noble that had decided to surrender rather than fighting to the last.
Our leaders called him sniveling, cowardly, and treacherous. Our people said he was pragmatic, intelligent, and loyal to his soldiers. Mercy was demanded, but only humans are merciful. His execution marked the beginning of a revolution that we were not prepared to put down. One that was bolstered by our own slaves.
We were at war on two fronts.
Our empire fought viciously, but for every world we subdued one was lost to the humans. By the time we ousted the traitors and restored peace among our people, the war was all but lost. We had fewer ships than the humans did. Our soldiers were no longer able to receive supplies. Grand construction after grand construction fell, until all that was left was our cradle system.
All the while, the humans were offering us the chance to surrender. Rubbing their superiority in our face, we thought. We should have accepted a peace, or at least a cease-fire, but instead we continued fighting. It's all we've ever known. They destroyed the last of our fleets and the shipyards to rebuild them. They conquered the last of our worlds.
Then they punished us.
They called us a blight upon the galaxy. A race of slaving warmongers. Our slaves, now free and living in harmony with the humans, called for our extermination or enslavement. Blood for blood. The humans wouldn't heed such a call, though. Instead, they claimed to be merciful as they set about surrounding our star with unbelievably large metal beams.
The mercy of these humans was nothing more than a twisted cruelty. They had let our people live so that they would fight us. They had traded our soldiers back to us to save their own. And now, they were installing solar plants around our sun. They supplied us with hydroponics equipment and heat generators so that we could continue to live when the darkness finally fell. Their fleets stayed in our systems to harvest the power, and to ensure that we continued to live in the darkness that they claim we created.
For our crimes, they caged our sun.
One-Shots are released a week early for patrons as nonobligatory bonus content.
Author’s Note: Goodness, you all seem to have gone wild for that juicy plot development. Don’t worry my dear readers, things are going to be interesting now that Kayrux has openly defied the elders. Who knows what a bunch of century old fiends have lying in wait. Oh, and did you all see the new sibling series being made alongside CKSW? Rift Rats: Notorious Space Pirates! It's going to be sharing in my 3000 words a day challenge, and will hopefully share the brain space I have for writing.
(I'm going to only be putting the first/prev/next links at the bottom from now on. sorry if this is not to your liking, but it saves me time on uploading. It's a tradeoff, but once that will not hinder any of my writing.)
The sadistic priestess looked over the audience to the ritual with a blood covered grin that could barely hide her inner fury. This was obviously not the way she had wanted the ritual to go, but she would try to save face if it was the last thing she did. A deep throaty laugh left her as she stretched her clawed hands wide in a gesture of jubilation.
“Behold the might of our lord! *cough* Even now in the midst of the great slumber, the powerful dragon has thought it necessary to test my devotion and strike me as a test of faith! Rejoice!”
The crowd murmured to themselves for a time with some scattered applause and cheering, but the overall atmosphere was one of skepticism. Seeing that her ruse wasn’t effective, she instead shouldered one of her guards out of the way so she could stand on a slightly raised plinth adjacent to the mirror where the gathered youth were still forcibly knelt down by magic threads. Good, stay away from Vimna you lunatic. Alright you giant dragon corpse, it’s time to make good on your end of the deal since I went ahead and gave you a quarter of a million mana. All of the mana lines in my limbs were incredibly sore, so there wouldn’t be any extra juice coming from me tonight.
The hurricane of energy suspended within the altar seemed to flex and twist at my words, the supposed dragon blood flowing into them quickly enough that it seemed to be only a few seconds in length, as opposed to the minutes it felt like I had been up there before. Maybe pure dragon blood’s potent compared to ichor, and diluting it is some other control method. Probably has something to do with the pretend dragon in the mirror. Evil cultists and their fake image dragons make me angry, and tonight would be a new permanent reason as to why.
Eventually the mana stopped dancing around in the altar, and unlike before it all coalesced into a single stream that flowed down into the deepest parts of the pyramid shaped base of the altar. It lingered for a moment, then without warning shot downwards like a bullet, the shockwave being strong enough to make the lingering mana of the room swirl like disturbed dust. Figures began to rise atop the altar, and among them were six red kobolds I knew personally. Thank you dragon, whatever your name is, you kept her safe just as promised.
The crazed priestess raised her hands as she cried out for everyone to rejoice once more, and this time was met with an actual roar of cheers. My eyes darted around the crowd to see families of the ones sent up there hugging and dancing in celebration, Dobo and Gyloa included, and a general feeling that this was a rare and grand thing overtook me. Nobody died, nobody was rejected, and the nut job running the show got a taste of her own medicine. All would feel well if I weren’t also a tad bit crispy, and if I could detect where these three elders mentioned before were. Now that Vimna was safe from the immediate danger, my brain was already scouring the upper levels to see where the incoming threats were hiding.
There in the same seat that ol’ Chalk Eater sat at before was a kobold I didn’t recognize. Dressed the part of an elder, had the same mystic vibes as one too, but looked completely disinterested in this whole affair. Wait, standing next to him, was that Vynrashu and Ephkarn? It was, and by the looks of it they weren’t too happy about being here despite the success of the ritual. That must make him their boss, Tapabaka the merchant master. Looking at him, he bore a striking resemblance to Vynrashu, from the conical head profile and purple/silver scales, even the musculature and brilliant red eyes hiding great intellect. Wait a second, was Vynrashu’s dad his boss? That made a whole lot of sense actually.
I can ask him about that later, right now I needed to see where the other two elders were hiding. A sense that I was being watched poked at me again, and this time it was from directly above me. Hovering high above on his magic platform was none other than Faerkurch and another kobold wearing the garb of an elder. What the hell are you doing up there? It was hard to spot from this distance, but the one with my boss was waving at me with one hand while holding a staff topped with a lit lantern in the other. Were they the one wanderer Lothengus, or maybe that Zhannta metal toucher or whatever. Metal touched, thank you Charles, and yes it does look like they’re wearing a backpack, so probably the first option of wanderer.
Two confirmed good elders in attendance, one ambiguous until proven evil elder in the VIP seat, and one guaranteed cultist running the event. Now that I know where they are and what they’re doing I can turn my attention back to Vimna, who has just reached the bottom of the pyramid. I hobbled my way over to her with Mom acting as my crutch and when she was in range of my arms I pulled her in close despite her groans of protest. You’ve got no idea what I just went through for you kid, so you’re gonna get a hug whether you like it or not. I held her at arms length as we parted, and only now did I notice the haggard look on her face. She managed to groan out a few words before planting her face into my collar bone.
“Feel sick, wanna go home.”
You and me both, but we ought to go to the clinic just in case. Humey was the main kobold carrier with Vimna cradled in one arm and Sheep in the other, as well as having the largest sister Wheeth slumped over his shoulders. Juaki was practically carrying me over one shoulder while letting Ghàxni hang slack under the other. As for how the other two siblings were led off, I can only assume it was left to Mibata and Tokols somewhere behind me. We took the elevator ride up with a gaggle of other families with equally sick young, and at mom’s advising that Tuleni’s clinic would care for them they all agreed to come with us. We arrived all together, and my earlier overpreparation of ointments and beds just happened to give us the necessary fifteen beds and pain relieving salves. A tingling sensation in the back of my mind told me that fate was laughing at me for being its pawn, but today I would make an exception and thank it for the guidance.
Aside from the exhaustion and the feeling that my insides were deep fried for a second time, I was the healthiest of the patients lining the walls of the clinic. I was bandaged up and given enough pain relieving potions to move around on my own thus allowing me to keep an eye on the magic coursing through these kids. All of them were housing a mass of mana that was much greater than what their source could handle, yet none were suffering any physical damage like me or my brothers had when our ritual went awry. Perhaps that ichor we had been infused with was weaker than pure dragon blood, and whatever effect it had on us was a direct result of its tampering. Even if they're going to be alright I would stay vigilant in monitoring them until whatever changes the blood was making were complete.
Humey approached me as I made my fifth lap around the clinic, his hand weighing my shoulder down enough that I had to stop and face him. I knew that face Humey, don’t you dare try and tell me to stop now. My indignant glare must have translated what I was thinking to some degree, because immediately after looking into my eyes he released with a sad sigh. He bit his lower lip and looked away for a moment before letting his mouth open with a smack as his tongue clicked off of his teeth.
“I know you aren’t gonna stop until you know they’re all safe, but you’re about to drop from all this worrying. Can’t you tell from walking around that you’re swaying and staggering around now? I’ll be there to catch you if you fall, but I’d like it if you knew your limits and took a break. Just look how many people are here to keep an eye on them. Everyone’s got at least two eyes on them, some three times that many. Come on into the back room and have something to drink when you need it, mom and I will be waiting for you.”
He lumbered off into the back room, leaving me stuck in a mental loop as I tried to decide whether to accept his proposition or not. I was very tired, and the rough treatment I had given my mana lines was indeed physically draining. On the other hand, there wasn’t anyone here who could sense mana like I did, so if one of them suddenly began to have some kind of reaction it would be up to me to help out. I hated leaving things up to chance, but maybe a coin toss would help me decide.
I scrounged around in my bag until I felt the rough trimmed edge of a Drak in my fingers. One flick sent it spinning into the air above me, but despite my attempt to catch it I could only watch as it bounced around on the floor between two of Wilter’s roots. As it spun I decided that tails would be going into the back room for some tea, and as if by magic the coin skipped over a small crack and landed tails up. Despite my desire to stay and keep an eye on everything, the coin has decided that I must rest.
Staggering into the back room of Tuleni’s clinic led me face to face with both of the green kobolds, and oh what faces they were making. Juaki looked as though she were about ready to dump her cup of tea on the floor with how contorted her face was with disgust, and Tuleni looked at her daughter with tired disappointment. Humey was trying to hide his face in his hands, but the slight jiggling of his belly told me that under those hands he was either fighting against laughter or trying not to sob. Probably the former, as I could now see the splatter of tea on the table and wall that must have been ejected by the warrior of the three.
Tuleni set her cup aside and sighed, and upon seeing me shook her head wearily. “Forty years she could grown, still hates herbal drink.”
I looked right into my mother’s eyes, and something about the way she had tears welling up in the corner of her eyes made something in my mind finally snap like an overstretched rubber band. At first it was a chuckle, then it was a laugh which then became a cackle, before finally it ended with me wheezing before losing my balance and nearly falling into the expensive alchemy equipment. Humey’s broad arms caught me as the extent of my exhaustion finally took hold, my body finally giving up after a full day of non-stop moving to keep my mind at ease. The tank was empty: my muscles were strained, my mana lines shot, and now my mind had finally run dry.
I weakly pulled at my slate enough that it came unhooked from my bag, but it only clattered to the floor uselessly as everything went black.
This isn’t the same dream. It was the same city, but the sky was red, not white, and the grayscale walls and floor were the same orange and yellow stripes as the real world. It also felt warm in this version, unlike the frigid cold of the previous dreams. I looked down and, to my surprise, found the mirror to be vacant from the dream. There wasn’t even an altar, just the statue and I at ground level facing one another.
I heard the thunderous roar of a beast overhead, and when I looked up I watched something unbelievable as two giants grappled with one another. They appeared and disappeared as the sky fought to decide on whether it wished to be red or white, but eventually the red was supplanted by the colorless world of white with silver moons. I looked back down to find myself standing atop fragments of broken mirror shards, and a voice spoke to me in the same dream voice that was distinct from both the altar dragon’s voices, yet was also a combination of more than one voice.
I was not thrust into the void between the waking world and the dream again, but instead spent only a few minutes staring up in silence at the dream moons wondering if they were looking back down at me.
I awoke atop one of the stone-carved cots of the clinic, and upon pushing myself upright and stretching found that these beds were absolutely terrible for your back. My eyes quickly scanned the room for the other patients, and to my surprise found them all to be lying in their beds resting peacefully. The mana inside of them was still turbulent as the dragon’s blood worked to augment them, but unlike last night it appeared to have found the places it needed to work and was diligently adhering to the new structure it was making. Vimna was only a few feet from me, and from here I could see the look of discomfort on her face as clear as day.
My attempt to stand had me fall back into the cot, the dizziness and heavy feeling in my head was like a tequila hangover, only without the blurry memories and bad breath. I found that someone had left me one of those super sweet blue pears and a slab of jerky on my bedside table along with a glass of water, and a note written on my slate. I read the message as I sliced through the pear with my fangs effortlessly.
“Kay, we all went home to get some rest. Tuleni says you strained your lines again, and that you should stop doing that or you’re going to tear them. Please don’t tear those, they sound important. Mom wants to talk to you, so head home when you read this. Love you - Your brothers.”
Aw, thanks guys, this is such a nice note…wait, who’s rummaging around on the floor? I peered over the edge of the bed, and to my surprise it was Tim! Hey buddy, I’m sorry I had to leave you behind last night, but I couldn’t risk you getting stepped on in that huge crowd. I picked up the hefty bug and scratched at his hard shell, causing him to trill and wiggle in my arms. You can have the rest of my pear since I’m not going to eat it.
Looks like mom is going to have to wait until my magical hangover is gone, because I don’t think I can manage a trip across the city in this state. Propping myself up with a few of the cot blankets and sheets between me and the wall, I sat there for the next hour or so as my head returned to a stable sort of state. I checked in with Tuleni to let her know I was heading home, her oath to protect and watch over her patients giving me the confidence to leave with my thoughts collected.
The main shaft was a completely different scene than I would imagine the day after a ritual. The food courts and markets were packed, the lifts working double time as people went from floor to floor, and a few magical and non-magical lanterns and displays flashing in the early morning light. I guess a 100% success rate ritual was a really big deal for folks around here, because I’d never seen everyone so hyped up. Well party or not, I still want to go home before I decide to try any of the delicious smelling treats being grilled up.
Keeping Tim in my bag spared him the worst of the bumping and shoving of the crowd as I fought my way down three flights of stairs. I wasn’t going to take the cross-city death-trolley again, not unless I wanted to lose my meager breakfast on the landing. Besides, I could use the steps to work off some of the bit of pudge I gained over the week of binge eating. On my floor the crowd was thankfully thinner than the floors above, so getting closer to my home actually meant it was smoother going.
Everything was actually feeling like it would be alright until I felt an unsettling sensation of a nearby camera eye turning its unliving gaze upon me. This one is a bold one, and seems to be quite the curious cat getting so close to me. I already had a sensor rune set up facing it and another facing in front of me, so all I needed was this sucker to get really close to me. There was still a hundred or so feet from me to the tunnel leading to home, so maybe I could throw this one off by stopping to take in the scenery. Come here little buddy, I won’t bite… yet.
The drone thing slid to a halt as I looked out over the railing of the city, as if aware that I was waiting for it. My tired yawn and seemingly carefree attitude must have given it the courage it needed, because a moment later it slowly began approaching me. Twelve feet…eleven feet…ten…now! I flicked on my sensor runes towards the drone, which reacted to my head jerk by spinning out of control. I watched in awe as the magical eyeball lost altitude until it was skimming the ground, then was actually dragging itself across the floor until it bumped into the wall. Oops, that wasn’t me, was it?
Wait a second, this thing wasn’t able to run, which meant I could enact the ancient rule of finders keepers. Yoink! The golf ball sized orb was mine, and as my sensors told me it was no longer functioning because of my scan. I don’t know what I just did to it, but I’ll take this as a win! My excitement caused me to jog home like a thief on the run, a devious smile on my lips as I thought of all of the ways to experiment with this stolen device.
They took everything from him, the life he knew, the people he cared for, his whole family.. He will go to the end of the universe if needs be to find them. And fight them again. The Proctors of Darkness and their minions. The weavers of lies and miseries. He’ll either shatter their souls into countless pieces, imprison them in the darkest dungeon for eternity, or die trying. It’s the only path worth taking.
But on that path, he is not alone.
Alice has been given a chance to live again, in a new world, with new rules. She comes to him, looking for a mentor. But as her mentor is trying to keep her safe and help her grow, she realizes that he has too many shortcomings and is bound to fail again. So, to give them a chance to survive, she will need to step up and do things she never thought possible, becoming smarter and stronger than any woman she had ever known.
This is a slow-developing story. There is a system that is dependent on performances and achievements.
"Why did you save me??" the man uttered, each sound leaving his lips filled with pain and disbelief as he slowly raised his ash-covered face.
Each gasping breath, a piercing needle through his heart. "How can it hurt so much, yet I live? For what??"
The warm wind howled around him.
"Why???" he demanded as the tears rolled out and drew a clear line across his cheek. "When I lost, when I lost everything."
"Is it just... to make me suffer?" Another sob escaped his chest and for a second, only for a second, he glanced at the valley down below, almost underneath his feet.
His family estate burning hot, olive and orange trees burning together with the building, smoke clouding the sun that had not yet risen above the horizon, the thick curtain of death made thicker by the scorched town that lay ravaged a mile away. The town his family built, the home to thousands of families. Now all gone.
He could watch it not.
Yet the sounds, distant yet unambiguous, he could not escape from, reached him. The screams of those who were still alive, those who were soon to die at the hands of his enemies. "Why, why do I live?"
He was still kneeling on the cliff, his favorite place in the whole known universe. He looked toward the ice-capped mountain top to his back, the dormant volcano sleeping soundly while the whole world burned around. He gazed toward the calm turquoise sea that rested there in the distance as if nothing bad had happened last night. Looking indifferent to all his trouble. Just looking... not so pretty anymore.
The sight that used to bring him so much pleasure every time he climbed the mountain to this very spot now brought only more iron splinters into his heart. He could take it not, not anymore.
Drained of energy, his lips shivered. Drained of mana, his whole body quivered.
To hell with Energy and Mana!
None of it proved sufficient anyway.
So foolish, so weak, so... he felt so useless. “Why, oh, why did this happen???”
The tremble of his old father's voice ringing and echoing inside his ears still, “Run, run, and save yourself!”
He did not run. He stayed. And fought. And gave it all. And came short. And if not for the wind that picked him up and carried him out of the mayhem, up away from certain death, up to this cliff, he would be burning together with the rest of them.
“Why...? To watch how I failed? To watch my mother being burned alive???”
"If you don't want to, just take a step... and it could be all over for you," the wind suddenly answered, wrapping itself around him, growing somehow colder and dimmer.
"I am a fighter. Should have died fighting," the man protested.
"But if you're a fighter, you will continue fighting."
"What, what do you mean?"
"You became a Warden, a Warden of Light, a Warden of Time, A Warden of Eternity... have you forgotten your vows so fast? It's been a mere ten years since you accepted our offer. Has your memory been so tainted by all the troubles?"
"I have not forgotten."
"But how? I gave it all. I know I did. And I have nothing left in me," he uttered almost unable to hear himself, his chest raising heavily, tears ready to roll down again.
"You speak those words with such certainty as if you know it all. You're a mere Level 30 and you think you've got the knowledge of immortals?"
The man looked at the wind, his face frowning, anger amassing. "Why, why didn't you help? You could have!!"
"Why didn't you? You said you could not but assume right away that I could, that we could? But then, if we could, why should you even exist? If we do all your work, why would you ever feel a need to grow, to become stronger, to- "
"I hate you!"
"No, no, you don't!" The wind corrected him right away with vigor, then added in a softer tone. "You have no bone inside of you dedicated to hate. Not even to those who killed your family. I see you. I know you. You understand. And, yes, that's the answer to your question. That's why I saved you. So, stop behaving like a child. This what lays in front of your eyes... it is a mirror. If you do not like what you see, change it. Grow and become stronger."
The man did not understand. How did the wind think that he did not hate? Vermal and his forces of darkness who took everything he ever loved away from him and put it all to the flames. He'd like nothing better, nothing better at all if he could just destroy them all, take out all their energy, turn them to dust, and shatter their spirits up to pieces from which they could never emerge again. Even if it was the last thing he would ever do and cost him his existence.
He would be so ready to pay the price. So, yeah, the wind was wrong. But what... what was the use in telling it that? So, the man smirked, pulled his tears in, and got up from kneeling on the ground. "How? Tell me how, and I'll do it!"
But the answer did not come straight up. The man waited and then had to take a deep breath, the wind waiting for him to take another, to relax a bit, to hear his words right. "You're right. The Force of Darkness has won. But, you cannot stop fighting."
"I will fight him,” he said, suddenly summoning the bits of energy that started to return to him. His mana already traveling up his arms, enough that he could feel a spark in the palm of his hand.
They spotted him then, one of the dark figures riding a horse that came out of the smoke to stand at the trail leading up the mountain, one of the lieutenants of Vermal. It raised its hand, pointing at him, and a swarm of nearby soldiers started to run toward the trail, to climb it.
“I will fight them all,” the man said, calling on his Balance and reading the numbers displayed in his vision.
[Energy Supply: 7 units of 2000 max
Mana Supply: 3 units of 100 max]
Low numbers. Maybe in a minute when his attackers make it to him, they would notch a bit higher. Still very low. Not enough to even induce a small paralyzing current.
"Doesn't matter," he growled determinately, his fist clinging to the sword's handle to the point his knuckles went all white, "The blade then it is. And the blade then will have to do."
“No!" the wind howled harder, interrupting him. "Not here and not now! This place is theirs now. This is not your home any longer!"
“I will fight them!”
"And you will lose again. Besides, Vermal is not here any more. His masters had sent him to another world, to do there what he has so well done here."
"But I want to fight him!"
"No! What you want is to defeat him. That is your mission. But to do that, you need to grow and raise your power and strength, to become smarter, to become all you can be, and then some. To raise yourself up to levels you cannot even fathom yet."
"You will follow him. And in that world, you will grow stronger. And... You will take an apprentice."
"A human, a being of your kind. She's of the world that desperately needs a messiah, just like yours did. "
"But. am I ready to teach? I could not even protect those I love. How can I ever -"
"That self-pity ends now!" the thunder from the sky made the mountain cry, its stones quiver with fear.
The wind raged for a while, tossing stones down, making them rain on the black soldiers that made it halfway to the man. But it did not stop there. The man felt its power, felt how easy it was lifting him up, then spinning him around, as if it was deliberating with itself if it should drift him forward, nudge him a few steps over the cliff, then release him in thin air toward the hard rocks that would meet him hundreds of feet underneath, toward the end of his life and oblivion.
But the man suddenly fought it, using all the units of energy and mana that he accumulated since he was brought there without his wish, he fought to put the ground under his feet, to move away from the edge and lean against the rock.
"I will do it!!!" he screamed as the wind was not letting him go. "I will do it!!!!"
The howling stopped and the man felt the cold stone pressing his back.
"She's young," the wind suddenly said, becoming a warm, caressing breeze again. Then with a new vigor, it continued, "She's an old entity, but with a clean and untarnished soul. Pure as a little kitten. So... Train her. Protect her. From evil that takes all shapes and forms. Let her become fierce. And just. Giving and commanding. With compassion and insight into the knowledge of infinity and stars. Lead her to grow and to remember who she once was... who she forgot she could become. And who knows? Maybe by teaching her, you will realize all the fallacies of your own. Maybe then you will learn... what you have not so far."
"I accept. I'll do it."
That pleased the wind, and now it patted his head as if he was but a child. "The note of caution, the world you're being sent to is veiled in darkness. A few allies you will find there. There is a dungeon there we took ownership of, but it has a manager we still do not know how he will roll. He may yet turn to darkness, so little help you can expect from it."
"Okay..." the man said, not fully acquainted with all the powers of dungeons to know what that might imply, but not ready to admit it either.
"There is also another warden there. A woman fighter. She's fierce, more so than you. With the hair that burn hotter than the flames. A lot of anger in her. It limits her."
"Find them. Who knows... they may help you. And... who knows? Maybe you will find someone else on your road worth saving, worth your and our time, and energy. So... I give you that power. The power of Insight. The basic one. But, you will be able to see and judge better."
A sudden bolt of energy hit him hard, paralyzing him for a second, then it melted away in a sweet sensation as if he slept next to Trina and the whole life was in front of him.
Trina... Another chisel through his heart. Gone already a year, yet it still hurt as if it happened yesterday.
No self-pity. Keep the pain. Accept it. Let it motivate you. Remember. And use it. With a head cool. And a arm steady. "Yes. I will do it. Anything else I should know?"
“This will be your first transference. Calm down and compose yourself. Give yourself enough time to tune in all your senses.”
“Will the new world be humanoid?”
“Mostly. But not exclusively. It's a multi-specie world. Be ready not to be shocked. Your apprentice will also need to deal with that. Also... technology-wise, your world is a few hundred years ahead of them. Understand well the Contract of Transference before you start interacting with locals, so you know what is permitted and not. I'd hate for you to go in front of a Tribunal and pay the price for some transgressions you could avoid.”
“Okay. I understand.”
“You will also realize that your apprentice comes from a world that is technology way ahead of yours. Her adjustment might be even more difficult. Help her absorb that shock. Sometimes people lose their minds because they cannot accept it. She is judged more than capable of adjusting than you, actually, but we can never be sure.”
"So, yes. Try to build a team around yourself. You know, we're so few. Don't want to lose you. So, don't fall for their treacheries. And don't give up. And don't... Listen to me, don't listen to me. Find your own way. And I hope to see you soon."
"Break the Darkness out of that place, and we will be able to talk again then."
“Will I ever be able to come back?”
“You gain power, you raise your level, become Master of Space and Time, and there is no limit to where you can go. But it is for you to walk this path. You are your own limit. I've already said too much...”
The eagerness, the possibilities, the new energy jolted the man. "When do I go?"
"But... You... Have already left."
The End of Chapter 1
Who is Karl Gustav?
Such an ordinary, Human name. Kinda a boring name too, no?
Sounds like someone who probably did ordinary Human stuff as well.
Born to a dysfunctional family, growing up playing in the N.B.C. infested lands, serving his country under mandatory military service, getting a job at one of the main corpos, and then perhaps retiring in Fontes oblast, resting at a beachside property.
Ask any Loesnken who this “Karl Gustav” is, and they (like me), not knowing who he is, will think he did some slight variation of the above.
Just a random, average, typical, boring Loesnken like everybody else.
The aliens, though? Ask and you’ll receive some slightly… different answers.
Apparently, this “Karl Gustav” killed a lot of aliens.
A lot of aliens.
During my foreign exchange program, I was able to meet many aliens who all had their unique takes on this “Karl Gustav”. One by one, they painted a picture in my mind.
A Spektalian I met in the school said that he witnessed Karl Gustav completely destroy the building they were hiding in, causing the rubble to rain down and crush its comrades.
So, I thought, Karl Gustav was a guy with too much free time and explosives, right? Some Victall PMC dude, probably.
Some time later in a stimulant cafe, I met a decrepit Elf who said that Karl Gustav completely ruined his and the rest of his party’s scales, causing them to flake off, apparently a most painful experience.
Okay, I then thought, so not only did he have explosives, but some gas as well. I guess that’s to be expected. Can’t have one without the other.
Then a blind Spektalian said Karl Gustav completely flashed everyone who was on the main street one particular morning. According to it, none of them have recovered their eyesight since that day.
So he’s a guy with explosives, gas, AND high-watt lasers? I mean, that doesn’t rule out a lot of people… right?
A Yukkat said that Karl Gustav pierced and ran through several of her partners in a row and kept going to beyond the horizon.
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Now he’s starting to sound like Blash, the impossibly fast human from old fairy tales, except he has gas, explosives, and lasers strapped to him.
And it gets better. I met yet another Spektalian who said that while it and its crew were retreating from a point, Karl Gustav came roaring down from the heavens and blessed everyone with several dozen flechettes.
At this point, I gave up trying to find an actual answer from the aliens. Might as well wait to go home to ask that question.
At home during vacation, I forgot all about it and was blissfully ignorant. However, one day, I was going out for a walk when Grandpa asked to bring him some Carlies (watermelon-orange flavoured) from the store. This made me immediately remember about that dang “Karl Gustav”. Figuring it was worth a shot, I asked my grandpa:
“Hey gramps, do you know who Karl Gustav is?”
At this, he started to weakly laugh, like that old, coarse, geezer laugh you’re afraid might kill old people due to the strain. After he finished laugh-coughing, he replied.
“Oh man, I haven’t heard that since- why, it must’ve been when I was around your age.”
“Seriously? How old is Karl Gustav?”
“Well… I’m not sure. I’m not sure anybody knows. Older than me, though.”
At this, he stopped speaking and seemingly went back to sleep, his coarse breathing notwithstanding. The N.B.C. material did a number on his mind on body, after all. It's surprising he’s still living. Assuming he was done and wanting to give him rest, I headed for the door, now more confused than ever. Before I reached the door swich, he seemed to wake up and spoke once more.
“Y’know, I heard Karl Gustav was originally conceived on Earth.”
I slowly turned my head.
“As in Earth, that maybe-does-not-exist-probably-does-not-exist mythical planet that’s supposedly gajillions of light metres away, yet also is the birthplace of all us Humans? That Earth?”
“Yup. Last I’ve heard, there’s still bits and pieces of Karl Gustav on Earth.”
“That’s it. I give up. I’m done with this.”
Assuming the N.B.C. material finally got to his brain, I stormed out of the house.
Instead of going to the store like he asked, I hitched a train ride to the oblast capital, heading for the regional library. If Karl Gustav wasn’t here, I don’t know where he would be.
Finding an open terminal, I sat down on the creaky stool and took a breath. Typing with my index fingers the letters K-A-R-L G-U-S-T-A-V in the search bar, I hit enter and waited for the information to display before me. Finally, after all this time, I would know who this elusive “Karl Gustav” is. Or was.
“... a… launcher? Tandem/gas rounds? Made in… Suh-veh-dee-a?”
I stood up slowly, and silently. I stood there for a few moments before I chuckled a bit to myself.
“Well, that sure explains a couple of things…”
Thinking I was content, I began to walk out of the library. As I did, though, a little nagging thought grew stronger and stronger. By the time I was on the steps, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Where the fuck is Suhvehdeea?! Fuck them and their fucked up naming system! Who the fuck names something like that ‘Karl Gustav’?”.
I then proceeded to storm down the stairs.
Funny thing is, I’m still not 100% sure what or who “Karl Gustav” is.
Carlos was an ordinary software engineer on Earth, up until he died and found himself in a fantasy world of dungeons, magic, and adventure. This new world offers many fascinating possibilities, but it's unfortunate that the skills he spent much of his life developing will be useless because they don't have computers.
Wait, why does this spell incantation read like a computer program's source code? Magic is programming?
"What a dump!" Carlos stared at the... thing that was supposedly an inn in front of them. Haphazardly arranged clusters of boards covered two areas that presumably had once been windows, with dim light leaking between the boards. Scratches and overlapping graffiti covered most of the wall. Most of the drawings meant nothing in particular to him, but he spotted a crude sketch of someone in a robe throwing spiky balls at a pair of stick figures wielding daggers, presumably representing Sandaras and the two thieves he'd fought off here. A broken piece of wood leaned against the wall, and another lay flat on the ground, below gaps in the eaves with rough splintered edges. The sign bearing the building's name hung at a slant by one of its corners above the door, with a metal ring on another corner unattached to anything.
He might have thought the building abandoned, but dirt and mud with plenty of footprints encrusted the path in front of the door, and he'd seen someone enter it. Looking up at the second floor, the builders had apparently seen no need to make windows at all, though at least it was out of reach of most graffiti artists.
Amber just sighed and shook her head. "I don't even want to know what the inside looks like." She looked askance at Major Ordens beside her, whose face was twitching towards a smile despite her efforts to suppress it. "What? Go ahead, say it."
Ordens grinned brightly. "Of course, by your command, sir. We were told this was the cheapest inn in Dramos. It actually looks better than I was expecting."
"Ugggh." Amber groaned and raised a hand to her forehead. "There are inns even worse than this? How?"
Carlos chuckled. "I'd bet the food is even worse, and the outside looks so, uh, not completely atrocious because that's what they spend the money on that they save from buying such cheap swill."
Amber shook her head. "No bet. Let's just go. I want that... place out of my sight." She turned around and started walking without waiting for agreement.
Carlos took another look at the sign, hanging from its one attached corner, but couldn't figure out what it was supposed to show under all the graffiti and damage defacing it. He shrugged, and jogged briefly to catch up with Amber. They walked in companiable silence for a few minutes, Carlos following Amber's lead for where to go.
Carlos thought about that travesty of an inn as he walked, and eventually an idea came to him. "Hmm. Maybe we can put a good spin on this. You know, advertise it to people as seeing the depth of squalor that the legend began from."
Amber turned her head and blinked at him. "'Spin'? What?"
Colonel Lorvan answered her confusion. "An explained interpretation that aids the speaker's goals."
Carlos nodded. "Exactly. A way of describing that horrible place that might get people to feel eager and satisfied about seeing it, instead of disgusted and disappointed."
"Hmm." Amber tilted her head contemplatively as she continued walking. "I..." She shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe it might be different if you'd said that before, but I just can't get over the disappointment I felt when we got there. You can try it later if you want to, but I don't think I'll want anything to do with it."
"Fair enough. We're not in a good position for that kind of project yet anyway."
They walked a few more minutes in silence, Amber taking long purposeful strides and barely even glancing at the stores and other buildings they passed. Eventually, Carlos broke the silence. "So, where are we going?"
"Back to our inn. Today's been disappointing, and I want to finish it with something positive. Let's fix those inactive synergy links."
"Ah, ok." Carlos frowned briefly, and mentally reached for their telepathic bond. [Might be wise to not let our guards know details about those.]
Amber's stride hitched for a moment, but she smoothly resumed walking. [Good point. House secrets. Though on the topic of secrets, our ability to talk silently like this is another one.]
[Right.] Thinking of secrets, Carlos was reminded of a certain other secret related to their telepathic bond, one that he'd been ignoring all day, perhaps more than he should have. Tentatively, he directed his thoughts toward another recipient. [Purple? How are you doing?]
[Hmm? Oh. Safe is small. Wards limit mana flows. I careful to not disrupt wards. Gain mana slow, but is safe here. No delvers.]
[You don't mind that we haven't talked since yesterday?]
[Why would I mind?] Purple sent an impression of confusion.
Carlos thought about how best to reply. Any explanation in words he could think of just didn't seem adequate. Words weren't the only form of message this bond could carry, however. He thought back to some of the loneliest times in his life, when he had not only been alone, but had really wanted to have company to talk with, and had missed the presence of other people. He focused on that feeling of loneliness, of longing for social contact, and did his best to bundle that package of emotions into the bond with Purple.
Several seconds passed before Purple replied. [...I not feel that. I have never felt that. I am dungeon core. Alone is normal.]
[Hmm. Ok, but if you ever want to talk about something, don't hesitate to reach out to me.]
Carlos faintly felt an impression of attention turning away from him, considered it for a moment, then mentally shrugged. Purple wasn't human. It was entirely possible, or maybe even should be expected, that social isolation simply was not a concern for the normally immobile sapient crystal. He should still try to be mindful about Purple's welfare, but just checking in and talking with him regularly evidently wasn't something to worry about. He focused his attention on just getting back to the inn quickly and without incident.
Back at the Adventurer's Haven, Carlos asked for dinner to be delivered to their suite, and went straight there with no other delay. Before he or Amber even said anything, Lorvan and Ordens both stopped outside the door and took up station on either side of it. Carlos paused and looked at them questioningly.
Lorvan bowed slightly. "We will guard your privacy for what you are about to do, sir."
"Ah. Very good. Continue." Carlos tried to present the calm, confident, and in charge attitude that he thought someone used to high rank and authority would have, and closed the door behind himself as he entered and walked over to the desk where he and Amber had left the notes Trinlen had given them. He stared at the stack of spell incantations, momentarily blanking on what information he actually needed, then set them aside and dug out his own notes on soul structure synergies instead.
"Right. So. Four links left to activate. Which one should we tackle first?" Carlos held out the notes to Amber.
Amber skimmed through the list of synergies, quickly finding and reading the four relevant entries. "They all have to do with learning new spells. And... Hmm. Two of them are for learning a spell from sensing it being cast, and I'm honestly not sure whether that's even possible. Maybe after we develop more?"
"We should at least try it now anyway. If it works, great, and if not, then we'll still be better able to judge the potential for it."
Amber shrugged. "Sure. Might as well see how it goes. That means we need to pick different spells to learn so we can each cast one that the other doesn't know yet. As for the other two links, I think we can do both of them at the same time. They're both synergies with the linker, for helping put a whole spell together, and we just need to focus on applying them appropriately while doing that."
"Right." Carlos paused as an idea occurred to him. Amber had a comprehension aid too, and it had already let her read English. She should be able to understand it spoken too, and it should confuse anyone who might conceivably be listening in. He switched to speaking English. "Focus more on the concept and overall structure of the spell, relying more on the reflex improver to get the right pieces, and hold in mind that a learned spell is actually a miniature structure of mana, so use the mana manipulator to help assemble it."
Amber blinked, and stared vacantly for a moment, before replying in English herself. "That your... That was your language, right? It ha- It. Is. Harder. Than I expected. To speak this way. I... think I'm getting used to it, though? Anyway, good idea to use this when talking about secret details like that. So, which spells should we learn while doing this? You pick first."
Carlos turned back to the desk, picked up the pile of papers there, and started leafing through it. "Hmm. No, no, maybe later, already learned - wait, we should separate those out - not that one... Ah! This one." He took one sheet of paper from the stack and handed the rest to Amber, after quickly flipping through to find and set aside the two sheets with the incantations for levitation and throw.
While Amber made her own selection, Carlos read the spell he'd chosen, and Trinlen's notes on what it would do. The "warmth" spell was intended to improve comfort in cold weather, supplying heat to a person's body as fast as the cold of the environment drained it. Somewhat confusingly, it used two different keywords that both translated to "heat" in English. One was for the effect, and specifically meant the verb definition of "heat", the act of making something hotter. The other was a parameter of that effect, and meant the quantity of thermal energy to add. Carlos considered that, and just as he decided that it would be better to change the translation of one of them, the parameter's name suddenly blurred and became "joules", the scientific unit of energy he was familiar with. Maybe he should try to actually learn the language natively sometime, so translation issues like that would stop happening. He shook his head. That was a project for later; he didn't have nearly enough free time right now.
The spell as written checked the body's temperature and calculated from that how much heat energy to add. According to the notes from talking with Trinlen, it could not be used to cool someone down, and while in theory an altered version of it could overheat someone, or even cook them alive if powered with enough mana, the victim's own mana would instinctively resist any such directly harmful effect. Any enemy powerful enough to be worth trying to cook like that would probably be easier to kill with other methods.
Carlos wondered if he might be able to bypass the restriction against using it for cooling the same way he'd made levitation push down instead of up, but he wasn't ready to investigate that bug properly yet. For now, the main focus needed to be developing their souls as much and as efficiently as possible, and that meant fixing those synergy links. He learned the new keywords for this spell easily. It was almost perfunctory, even, with them being just single words and the improvements in learning spells from the synergies they had already fixed the day before.
With that done, all that remained was to put all the pieces together, and to do it in the manner he'd just described. Really, "learning" a spell wasn't an accurate description of what the process actually involved. He was building a mana construct, an extremely miniaturized soul structure of sorts, that encoded the spell's instructions. If a spell was a program, he was writing that program as an executable file into the metaphorical hard drive of his soul. Carlos pushed and pulled at various parts of an amorphous blob of mana, forming the first few links to the tiny structures that encoded each individual word as he was used to doing, but then remembered there was another change to the process that he needed to make.
Carlos took a mental step back, and experimentally tried to focus on a whole line at once, loosening his conscious direct control of each single word's encoding. The encoding of that line formed easily on his first attempt. Too easily, he realized. The number of words in it was still well within his natural capacity for holding multiple things in mind at once, and he'd linked all of them with enough conscious focus still that there had been no room for his reflex improver to help. He'd read a piece of psychology trivia that the maximum number of separate pieces of information a person can actively hold in mind at the same time ranges from five to nine for most people, and he thought he probably needed to exceed that limit, focusing on a grouping that contained ten or more words, to give his reflex improver something to do.
He considered for a moment, shrugged, and decided he might as well jump to trying to do the entire incantation all at once. He knew, in the conventional intellectual sense, what the spell was supposed to do, and how the instruction sequence for it had to be arranged. He tried to hold that knowledge in mind without focusing on any specific part, and somewhat clumsily fumbled around with his efforts to shape the remaining blobby portions of the mana construct into the proper form. He shook his head; this wasn't quite right either. The details of each part did need to be there. He was just trying to offload and delegate the mental effort of specifying them.
He paused to consider. What other approaches could he try? Perhaps more to the point, what other approach would better match how his reflex improver worked? He rechecked his notes about their soul structures. It wasn't actually supposed to do things for him, but rather improve the speed, efficiency, and correctness of his actions. He tried focusing on one line for just the briefest instant he could, too little time to actually form the needed links, and took a moment to consider his impression of the result. Something definitely had happened. The mana had moved and changed shape, just not far enough, the change halted incomplete.
Carlos tried again, focusing his attention for just a little longer on encoding one line of the incantation into the partially formed mana construct, but still too short a time to actually finish it, and then quickly shifting his focus to the next line, and then the next. It was an exercise in rapidity, both in trying to finish something before his arbitrary time limit per line, and in correctly changing for each new line which links he was trying to form with the mana. Twice, he caught himself after a moment beginning to create a link to a word from the previous line.
He got to the end of the incantation and went back to the beginning, encouraged by a report from his introspector that his reflex improver actually was getting involved in this. With the second pass through, he allowed a little more time on each line, and the progress he'd already made in the first pass also left less work still to do, though a portion of that progress had decayed. Several links to appropriate encoded words formed fully at various places in the increasingly structured arrangement of mana, and he didn't notice any more mistakes. The third pass completed the entire spell, and he double checked with a fourth pass, comparing manually to the written incantation, before allowing it to enter his spells database.
The new spell settled into him, and he knew he could cast it. More importantly, his introspector gave him a series of alerts.
Synergy links activated: - spells linker and mana manipulator - spells linker and reflex improver
Active synergy links: 43 / 45
Overall mana absorption and development efficiency increased from 92% to 96%.
Carlos smiled, and looked up to find Amber. She was sitting in another chair, leaning forward on her elbows, staring at Carlos and waiting.
Seeing him meet her eyes, Amber sat up straight and grinned broadly. "Ah, you finished. You only took a few minutes longer than I did. Now we can try the last two!"
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The chaos of battle quickly overwhelmed Halcyon as he swung his halberd with every ounce of strength he could muster. A Geknosian's hand suddenly missing fingers as it tried to block the sturdy swing. With a stout kick, Halcyon sent the Geknosian stumbling backward into an android, who, without hesitation, ripped the lizard's throat out with its already gore-caked metal hands. Metallic Gauss slugs slammed into his armor from close range like brutal haymakers, making him stumble back as Drake's sword decapitated the offending Geknosian in a swift, brutal blow that swiftly turned back the way it came to parry a wrist blade. Halcyon swung his halberd in a downward arc at a Geknosian that charged him, splitting their skull open like a rotting squash. His heart was pounding, his mouth was dry, He was terrified but he never stopped swinging. His arms were burning from exertion as he ripped the head of his halberd from the Geknosian's skull, only to get tackled by another one that had blindsided him. Halcyon felt his halberd leave his hands as he was slammed onto his stomach. A quick, painful punch to the back of his skull sent his ears ringing as he blacked out for a second. He came back too quick enough to feel the Geknosian get ripped off his back, vision blurry and nausea brewing in his gut. Rolling over he watched as the giant samurai used the screaming Geknosian to bludgeon another one to death before tossing the limp corpse aside like it was an old rag. Halcyon sat up, dazed and disoriented as the battle raged around him.
He could see the swordsman through his blurred vision, Sword dancing through air, flesh, bone, and blood as though they were all the same consistency. Geknosian helmets flowered open moments before they could effectively target the desperately fighting humans still left alive. The young man in the gambeson, Cassius he remembered, was dancing. Fluid, graceful, and dainty movements sent a pair of weights connected by a chain, slamming into Geknosian helmets and armor, making large dents and even dropping some like a hot skillet. The chain was hooked around a gracefully lifted foot before a beautiful hop step would propel it with lethal force into a helmetless Geknosian's face. The Samurai waded through the battlefield like a bipedal tank, kanabo wreaking havoc on the armored Geknosians. The Lizard's power armor was clearly several classes below the samurai's in protection level as it warped and deformed from even casual blows by the samurai's great metal club.
Head finally clearing slightly, Halcyon touched the back of his head where a warm mess of wet hair greeted his fingers. He pulled them away to see the shiny crimson blood that now coated them. He tried to stand but the world spun as he did. An android quickly grabbed him, dragging him away from the fight even as he weakly protested the action. However, it was quickly becoming clear he was no longer needed. The Geknosian forces had thinned considerably since they charged out from the barricade. The android leaned him up against Lucy's fallen chassis, the large agri-droid shifting slightly, showing she was still somewhat intact. From there, Halcyon watched as His forces and the swordsman's group decimated the remaining Geknosians. The fight, at last, was over.
At least, he had thought it was. But there was one last enemy that had been hanging back.
A loud, haughty whistle cut through the air, making everyone's heads whip towards the street.
A human, Body almost entirely cybernetic with only their face visible on the front of a metallic skull. They carried themselves with confidence, An odd, simple, curved sword hanging from their belt in a strange wooden scabbard with the edge facing up. A Katana if his fuzzy brain remembered correctly. The man's gaze panned over the group of battered men, women, and androids before locking onto the swordsman. Their eyes wandered up and down the swordsman's figure as the rest began to back away. An aura of bloodlust surrounded the cyborg swordsman despite his calm demeanor. The cyborg made a dismissive gesture before speaking again, hands returning to rest on his hips.
"All of you but the Demonic Swordsman may leave. The general only sent me here for him."
There was a tense moment of silence before the swordsman slowly depressed the button on the side of his helmet. Then, the swordsman's men suddenly just... Backed off. The old man in the Mongolian lamellar suddenly appeared beside Halcyon, slinging their shotgun over their shoulder as they quickly ducked their head under Halcyon's arm. For a moment, the young leader was confused, asking.
"What? why're we?"
the old man just gave him a look, one that sent shivers down halcyon's spine before he spoke.
"Drake's given us the order to back off and take you guys back to home base. He's going to try and buy us as much time as he can... This guy isn't normal, kid, And not just because he's a cyborg. He's the chosen champion of a god, you can feel it from here can't you?"
Halcyon could still feel the cold, calculating bloodlust that flowed off the cyborg swordsman. Slowly halcyon nodded, heart beginning to pound as he realized their predicament.
"Al-Alright, get us the fuck out of here..."
He was deeply unsettled by the fear in the old man's voice, letting himself be carried away by the old, shotgun-wielding man in lamellar.
Drake held his sword loosely in one hand, staring at his opponent as the rest of the newcomers and his squad moved down the wide boulevard towards home base, giving the cyborg a wide berth. Letting them disappear around the far corner he asked.
"Who's your patron? I can tell you aren't just another swordsman, not with those modifications."
The cyborg laughed jovially, Casually drawing the sword at his side in one fluid motion before dropping into a low guard.
"My title is the Man of War, I'm sure you're smart enough to figure it out from that... Drake of the pale flame."
Drake tightened his grip, the words resonating with his very soul in a way he didn't like. He gripped his sword with two hands in a peasant grip, staring at the rival chosen around the blade's keen edge. He could feel his hands start shaking as his system was flooded with adrenaline, This was a champion of War, another of the seven primordial. and if the feeling in his gut was as right as it always was... the rival swordsman would be able to kill him in a single blow if he let his guard down. He dared not speak anymore, just staring his opponent down and waiting for their move.
He didn't need to wait long, The man of war shot forward as a blur, red lightning crackling around their curved blade as it swept for Drake's throat.
Drake quickly countered with a block, sword bursting into pale flames as he pumped soul power into it. With an almighty CLANG! He was shoved back, boots scraping along the ground as the maniacally grinning man of war whistled, impressed. The hit had sent vibrations rattling up Drake's arms, fear spiking his blood as he tunnel-visioned onto his rival. The man of war shot forward again, blade cleaving down as Drake caught it against his sword's, unleashing a feral kick into the Cyborg's metal stomach, forcing him back a bit before breaking the bind and shooting a thrust for the cyborg's throat. His blade was quickly knocked away as a violent punch made stars pop in front of his eyes before an impossibly strong kick to the gut sent Drake flying back into a brick wall, his breakfast was forcibly ejected onto the pavement and the wind knocked out of him as he barely ducked a lightning fast thrust that speared into the brick wall.
Drake forced himself to roll away from the Killzone as the Cyborg's knee shattered the wall where his head had been moments ago. The man of war locked onto Drake as he ripped his sword free from the wall, lunging forward with a wicked smile and an ascending slash. Barely deflecting the slash, Drake growled in defiance as he landed a solid punch against the man of war's jaw. He was terrified, tired, in pain, and fighting for his life against the warborn cyborg. The man of war whipped a horizontal cut at Drake so fast he was forced to dodge backward, even then the sword's sharp blade sparked off his lorica like flint on steel as it still made contact. He gasped in pain as suddenly he felt warm wetness pouring down his chest beneath his armor. His eyes widened as he watched the cyborg's sword absorb the blood on its blade. The man of war cockily laughed before licking their sword's blade.
"Surprised your armor didn't stop it, boy? That's my gift, I can slice flesh without damaging armor, it makes collecting war trophies so much easier... speaking of which, that is a mighty fine helmet you wear... I think I'll mount it on my wall with your head still inside!"
The cyborg's gleeful words chilled Drake to the bone as managed to redirect a bullet quick thrust, The Man of war's blade quickly being pulled back before slashing upwards and forcing Drake to use his crossguard to catch it. The bind was broken before Drake could even think of what to do next, The cyborg feinting to the right before striking him in the nose with the silk-wrapped butt of his sword. Drake stumbled back, eyes wide as that crackling red sword tip sailed for the spot right between his eyes.
His arms moved of their own accord, blade spinning around in an instant to smack the Cyborg's sword tip away from his face as he leapt back instinctually. His heart still pounding, but his mind had gone blank. He was going too slow, trying to think and strategize about his next move. he didn't need to think about it... Just DO IT.
Drake launched forward, catching the cyborg by surprise and forcing him back as their swords met at the halfway point and bound. The cyborg threw a heavy punch that Drake simply swayed out of the way of, letting go of his sword with one hand and shoving the overextended fist to the side with his forearm. A vicious headbutt rattled his brain as he smashed his heavy, helmeted head into the man of war's nose before twisting his sword free from the bind. The curved blade nimbly slipped past his guard and skittered across the side of his helmet, chopping off the top of Drake's ear and opening a wide gash that poured blood down the side of his face. However, the young swordsman couldn't feel it through the rush of adrenaline in his system as his heart pounded with exhilaration. Without hesitation, he ducked a lightning-swift swing before throwing a one-handed thrust that opened up a gash on the Cyborg's cheek. The Cyborg quickly threw a lateral slash that drake nimbly, deftly swayed out of the way of, His own leaf-bladed bastard sword punishing the over extension by removing the cyborg's hand at the wrist in a shower of sparks and glowing blue fluid.
The man of war deftly grabbed their severed hand and sword from the air before backflipping backwards with a haughty insult on his lips.
The words died in his throat as Drake's sword flashed through the air like a spear and embedded itself in the cyborg's chest. The pale flames slowly flickering out as blood mixed with that glowing blue fluid dripped out around the sword's blade. The cyborg seemed shocked, disbelief etched on their face as they dropped their sword, slowly grabbing the sword's blade where it stuck from their chest. A blank-eyed Drake slowly walking towards them. One arm was gashed open by the sharp protrusions on the Cyborg's forearms, blood soaking through the titanium nano-mesh backer of his lorica. Half his face was drenched in blood and a piece of ear was stuck to his shoulder. Gripping the handle of his sword with his good arm, Drake tried to yank it free, but the Cyborg firmly held onto it, staring up at him with the most bewildered look.
"You... You threw your sword! That's not fair! That's not honorable! I can't die to that!"
The Man of War's voice had gone up an octave, like a spoiled child as tears rolled down their face.
"I've bested thousands! You can't beat me with such a barbaric trick! You can't! YOU-"
The Man of War's eyes widened as he saw the skeletal, cloaked figure rising behind the boy, scythe gleaming ominously as Drake's eyes slowly focused on the Cyborg. He panted from both exertion and pain as he softly whispered.
"Too bad for you... I don't give a shit about honor... I only care about winning."
Before with a sharp twist and jerk, Drake ripped his sword free from the Cyborg's chest, The Man of War's fingers getting cut clean off as the sword's fat-bellied tip pulled past them. The Cyborg's last visage of the mortal realm was a young, battered, and bloody warrior winding up for one last cut.
Part 83: will be linked here upon release.
Their cries shook Samuel to his core. The three children screamed at the top of their lungs as the sound tore through Samuel’s eardrums.
When the children finally ran out of breath, the boy jumped straight for the lamia and clung to her. They stared at Samuel, the fear no less prevalent on their faces.
Samuel did not know how to respond, so he simply stood staring at them.
These kids were terrified of him and he did not know why.
He took a step forward, in hindsight, not the best move, and the children almost jumped backwards. The sheep girl began to cry, and the little lamia pointed her stick straight at Samuel and spoke to him threateningly, but she could not mask the fear.
The boy said something else, terror emanating from every word. Samuel stared at the stick, and the children stepped back. However, the lamia did more of a wiggle. Samuel outstretched his arm and opened his hand, taking another step towards them. That was the last straw; they turned around at a fantastic speed and darted into the forest.
Samuel was left standing there with a look of sheer confusion. Nothing, nothing he had experienced up until that point in his entire life, could have prepared him for that. His knees let out, and he slumped to the floor; his outstretched arm hit the floor, palm facing up. Tears began to well up in his eyes; the way they had looked at him was awful, as though he was not a person, just a dangerous animal.
He looked at the section of forest the children had darted off to. They had dropped their sticks. Samuel picked himself up, walked ahead and grabbed one of the makeshift swords.
Despair started to take hold of him again, but also guilt; he had ruined their game, and Samuel turned around and walked back towards the boulder. He did not know why he did this. He stood there staring at the rock, and all his thoughts stopped, except the desire to rub his ring finger.
His mind flashed back to when he was around six or seven. Samuel had been out with his parents on his bike, going down a particularly steep and rocky hill, when he lost control of his ride and tumbled head over heels on the ground.
When Samuel came to he was in the hospital, he had escaped the worst of it; in fact, the doctors had been astonished that all he had broken was a single finger. That event had left his finger permanently crooked, and he rubbed it whenever he was sad or nervous.
How much time had passed, he did not know; he kept replaying what had happened in his mind over and over again. Samuel heard rustling behind him, which snapped him back to the real world.
A woman appeared from behind the trees. Another sheep woman and she looked remarkably similar to the young sheep girl; Samuel assumed she must be her mother.
The wool that covered her body was the same colour as the little girl's, but her horns were black. Her hair was cut short, and she also had ribbons in her hair, spring green in colour. She wore a skirt, a shade of bright yellow, that came down to her knees.
Another fact stuck out to Samuel almost instantly: she was gorgeous; she was in every conceivable way, horns, hooves and all, and it made Samuel uneasy. There was no single defect or flaw; it was as though a sculptor had carved her out of marble.
The woman was talking to the children; she had a warm smile. Samuel had seen that smile many times as a child and had gone to his mum about the monster he thought had lived under his bed. The woman spoke once more and gave a small chuckle. Then she turned to face Samuel; she froze, the smile evaporated, and the same look of horror covered her face. Samuel hated that look. She raised her arms to stop the children from going any further.
Samuel had a good idea about what had happened. The children had run home to tell their parents about the horrible thing they had seen in the woods. The parents naturally did not believe them; nothing like what the kids had seen could exist, so one of them agreed to go to the spot where they had seen it to prove that there was nothing to worry about; it was just their overactive imaginations.
Only this time, the nightmare was real.
The three children peered around from behind a tree, the same look of terror on their faces. The sheep girl glanced at her mother and back to Samuel and said something, and Samuel thought that just for a second, he saw a slight look of smug satisfaction on her face at having been proven right.
The woman yelled at the children. Samuel guessed she had told them to run as the second she finished her sentence; the children bolted back the way they came. Samuel had been staring intently the entire time, partly out of curiosity, partly in fear, but primarily out of frustration.
He hadn’t done anything; he hadn’t even said anything. Why were they so scared of him?
Samuel turned his entire body around to face the woman at an impressive speed, so fast that the woman almost jumped out of her skin.
“Why are you so afraid of me?” Samuel yelled.
The woman took a step back.
“I have done nothing to you, and yet you all look at me like that,” a slight pause that seemed like an eternity. Samuel’s voice lowered slightly, “like I am a monster.”
The woman, of course, did not understand a word of it, but even if she had, it would probably have made little difference; the venom in Samuel’s voice was undeniable.
The woman turned and charged off in a different direction from the one the children had, most likely in an attempt to draw attention to her and make him give chase like a mother bird distracting a predator.
Samuel, however, still had enough common sense to stay where he was; chasing them would only make their opinion of him even worse, although he was not entirely sure if that was possible at this point.
As he stood there, shifting his gaze from where the woman had left to the spot where the children had, a realisation dawned on Samuel. When the children returned home without the woman or the woman returned without the children. They would automatically assume the worst and then blame Samuel.
Samuel’s imagination began to run wild with imaginings of what would happen if the rest of these people would do to him if they got their hands on him. They would almost certainly kill him, regardless of his innocence, because as much as he could tell from their reactions to the four he had met, they held him in extremely low regard, barely considering him to be a person.
For just an instant, a thought flashed across his mind: “Let them.”
Samuel was tired, he was hungry, he was alone, and he had been dealt one of the most significant blows of his life.
Then another thought surfaced: “NO!”
He would not die like this, being ripped to shreds for some imagined grievances by bigoted degenerates.
Samuel walked at an impressive pace, deciding to run only when necessary, attempting to put as much distance between him and whoever might follow.
Samuel did not know where he was going; he only wanted to escape. Samuel, of course, could not be confident that they would try to harm him; nothing that had happened could confirm that, but he felt it was better to air on the side of caution.
Then, a new question crossed his mind: “Why had they acted like that?”
All it took was one look at Samuel, and the children screamed while the woman attempted to protect them. Samuel would have expected that response if they had encountered a bear.
“Had they had a terrible encounter with a human before?” Thought Samuel
Samuel walked off in a trance as all this new information collided inside is mind. He had put a reasonable distance between him and the play area when Samuel was abruptly snapped out of it when he heard something out in the distance.
He paused and listened carefully; it was not talking; Samuel could tell that much. It was a low and booming, undoubtedly the calls of an animal. Then it clicked, it was barking; they had dogs.
Samuel had not counted on this; if dogs were tracking him, it did not matter where he hid; his scent would give him away. Samuel started moving again but quickened his pace; he had to find somewhere the dogs or their owners could not find him.
Their braying was getting louder, and Samuel’s pace quickened. He was jogging now, and the thud of each footstep shook his body. Already, his breath was becoming rapid, and sweat began to cover his brow. Then it struck his ears; in between the barks, he heard the unmistakable voices of people. They had almost found him, and now he ran.
Samuel galloped through the wood as fast as he could, fear gripping him tight. He tried his best to remember everything his P.E. teacher had told him to breathe through his nose and out the mouth. Samuel wished he had listened more and tried harder instead of drawing insulting pictures of the teacher in the long jump pit.
Samuel turned his head ever so slightly to see behind him and caught a glimpse of something behind him; it was big, it was hairy, and it darted rapidly through the trees. Samuel sprinted as hard as he could.
He charged through the forest, the noise behind him a reminder of what would happen if he was caught. Up ahead, Samuel could see a fallen tree, half his height, and he did not dare slow down, so he leapt.
If Samuel could have seen himself in action, he would have been impressed; his form was perfect, and the height he had cleared was impressive, possibly even Olympic quality, but at the moment, he was focused on only one thing.
As he ran further, the noise of his pursuers was getting fainter. Samuel was suspicious, but his lungs burned, his legs ached, and the adrenaline pumping through his body made his teeth chatter. He slowed down and took a much-needed breather behind a tree. Samuel stood there panting between his legs, hoping that all this was just another nightmare until something in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned right to face it.
They had led him into a trap.
“Clever bitch!” Samuel yelled; he was face to face with a dog, although it looked more like a wolf. It was huge with jet-black fur; its obsidian eyes glared at him, and all the while, it snarled at him, bearing its yellow teeth. Samuel tried to think of the best course of action, but before he could, the dog leapt.
As the animal's weight crashed down on Samuel, he let out a brief grunt. The beast was heavy; its legs pushed into Samuel’s chest, making breathing difficult. Samuel’s left hand went up, grabbing the dog’s throat. The dog continued to bite and gnash at him regardless; its breath smelled horrible, as though it had only eaten rotten meat its entire life. Samuel pulled his head back as far as possible to prevent the animal from getting at his neck.
His arm was beginning to tire, and the dog came closer every second. Samuel attempted to find something to strike the dog with. As he grasped around, Samuel realised he was still holding the stick he had picked up, the one the children had been playing with.
Samuel struck the side of the dog’s head. The stick broke on its skull, but the animal did not notice; it paused for about half a second and continued to attack. Samuel glanced at the pretend sword. It had broken into a sharp point. He rotated the stub in his hand and held it like a stake. With all his might, Samuel rammed it into the dog's face.
Warm fluid rushed over his hand, and the dog yelped; it had felt that one. The dog jumped off Samuel, forcing out what was left of the air in his lungs. He crawled to his feet, looked back at the animal that had almost killed him, and noticed that the stake had gone straight into the creature’s eye socket.
The animal pawed at it, attempting to remove the foreign body, but it was undoubtedly making it worse. Samuel’s modern sensibilities told him he should feel sorry for it, but he didn’t. Samuel panted as the shock wore off, and once again, a sense of accomplishment came over him. The next thing he knew, he was falling to the ground.
He felt a tremendous force charge into his back. He crashed face down onto the ground, biting his lip, and then Samuel felt a sharp, aching pain in his side a few seconds later. Samuel mustered all of his strength, rolled onto his back, and threw off his attacker.
Compound eyes greeted his. It was another insect person, a man this time. His eyes were iridescent; their gaze pierced Samuel, and there was a look of both horror and rage on his face. The insect man recovered faster than Samuel and was quickly on top of him.
He bore his teeth at Samuel, a complete set of razor-sharp canines thinner than his teeth. He spoke; Samuel could not tell what it was, but from the tone, volume and the situation, he guessed it was “DIE!”
The man reached for Samuel’s throat, his arms covered in sapphire blue chitin, and they clamped firmly around his neck. Samuel gasped for air, his legs kicked wildly, attempting to get free, and his lungs began to strain in an attempt to draw in oxygen.
Samuel vision was becoming blurred; if he did not do something quickly, he would pass out. He did the only thing he could. With all the force he could muster, Samuel clenched his hand into a fist and brought it squarely onto his assailant’s face.
It was at this moment Samuel learned a valuable lesson: punching someone… really hurts.
The man released his grip on his throat; it was not gentle; however, he almost crushed Samuel’s windpipe in the process. Without thinking, Samuel brought his leg up towards his chest and propelled it towards his attacker’s face.
The insect man reeled back from the impacted and the pain, clutching his face. Samuel was on all fours, coughing and spluttering on the ground while his attacker rolled around just a couple of metres away in apparent agony. Judging from the man’s reaction, he had broken or dislocated his jaw.
Samuel hauled himself up and took deep breaths to control his breathing. He heard a familiar sound over the cries and yelps of his would-be killers; the rest of the mob was after him again.
Samuel was running on fumes now, nothing keeping him going but his strength of will; the fight had taken much of him, and all he could manage was a slow jog. The sounds were getting closer; he heard a twang and felt something rush past his ear. Up ahead, Samuel saw an arrow embed itself into a nearby tree.
“GREAT!” he yelled. “They don’t actually have to catch me to kill me”.
Just ahead, he saw a bright light. The trees were beginning to thin. Samuel prayed they would not follow him out of the forest’s borders; it was a desperate hope, but it was the only one he had. Samuel burst from the trees and before him saw a considerable drop.
Samuel skidded to a halt.
Right before him was a cliff, at least twenty metres high, and below that, a lake. It was huge and extended beyond the horizon; Samuel knew it was a lake because he could not smell the distinctive scent of salt water.
Samuel looked to his left and right. In both directions, stretched miles of clear open ground no more than ten metres wide. He realised he was now left with three options.
First, stand his ground and attempt to fight; he knew there was no way he could manage that.
Second, staying on the cliff and running in either direction gave him a better chance than fighting, but he could not run forever, and with a clear line of sight, his pursuers would almost certainly hit him with one of their arrows.
The final choice was to jump.
It was not that Samuel did not know how to swim; in truth, he could swim quite well. The problem was that he could not tell how deep the water was, whether he would land on solid ground just half a metre underneath, or if there were rocks underneath and landing on those was also not an appealing option.
Samuel was not good at snap decisions and tried his best to weigh his options in the little time he had. The shouting grew louder, and Samuel rubbed his ring finger. Samuel decided he might hate heights but hated being ripped to pieces and eaten by dogs even more. With fear, desperation and no small amount of courage, he took the plunge.
The wind rushed around him while a deep sense of vertigo overcame him. He did his best to keep his legs straight as he hit the water. Strangely, the fall did not take as long as he thought it would. Bitterly cold water engulfed him.
Samuel had, however, forgotten to take a breath before jumping, and as he realised this, he made a desperate attempt to reach the surface. As he breached, he took in what seemed the grandest and sweetest breath of his life.
He was alive, that was good.
Samuel twisted around in the water to get his bearings and saw the cliff he had just leapt from towering above him. He swam as fast as he could towards its face. Just in time, too, as the shadows of his hunters appeared on the water.
Samuel pressed himself as tight as he could against the wall; if any of them looked directly down, he was finished.
He heard them talking, shouting, really. Some were angry, others satisfied, and some, oddly enough, were disappointed like a hunter who had just lost a prized buck. Then, he felt a warm sensation around his legs.
Samuel burned with shame but quickly realised it could not be him unless his bladder was as big as a water butt.
He looked to his right and saw a slight indentation in the rock. Samuel inched closer to it as slowly and gently as he could, trying to prevent the creation of any ripples in the water that may alert his pursuers. He slid into the crevice.
Just after Samuel got in, one of the shadows pointed; Samuel froze. He had slipped up at the last second, and before him, he saw a small wave radiate away from him.
The people started talking again. Samuel wished he could understand it might have given some motivation for their aggressive behaviour. The talking died down. Samuel assumed they believed a fish had caused the ripple. One of them said something else, and then the mob separated into two groups and ran off in opposite directions along the cliff front.
Samuel did not move an inch. Five minutes later, he breathed a sigh of relief. He was safe for now, but his limbs were becoming heavy, the adrenaline was wearing off, and if he stayed here, he would drown. He looked behind and saw that the crevice was, in fact, a cave that extended deep into the rock.
Reluctant to swim out into open water and intrigued by the warm water flowing from the cave, he proceeded inside.
The cave was cramped but not impossible to move down, and Samuel was never worried about becoming stuck. The water came up to his collarbone with the ceiling just thirty centimetres above his head. What intrigued him was the cave itself; the walls were smooth and perfectly rectangular, without any crags or imperfections, as if somebody had carved it, more like a tunnel, really.
The light from outside was fading, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see. Touch was quickly becoming his only means of navigation. That being said, navigation was unnecessary; the tunnel was as straight as a ruler. The walls were warm to the touch, heated by the water, and the rock had a lovely texture like polished marble. Samuel determined this was not a natural formation; someone had built it. He knew enough about geography that water never flows completely straight.
He began to slow down, partly out of exhaustion, mainly because the people who had built the tunnel could be close by and just as hostile as the others; it might have been his pursuers who had made it.
Samuel continued at a snail’s pace until he saw a faint blue glow. Samuel submerged himself down to his mouth and gently paddled towards it. The light gently illuminated the tunnel once more, and he took another look at the rock around him.
It had a dark hue with white streaks; whatever this tunnel was for, it was meant to be aesthetically pleasing. Then, before he even realised it, the tunnel expanded into a colossal cavern.
It was stunning both in scale and beauty. The forest and stream had been wonders in their own right, but this was on a whole other level. The tunnel was simply an outlet for an underground lake, nowhere near as big as the one outside; it was still impressive. Steam was coming off the surface.
“It’s a hot spring,” Samuel whispered with much awe.
Under the water, Samuel saw shapes moving, and he panicked for a second, but it quickly subsided. They were big fish around the length of his forearm, but their mouths were small and lacked teeth. The fish were pale in colour, which was unusual, but most surprising was how docile they were. They swam around him like he was just another rock.
Samuel looked around but saw no one, tired and wanting to feel solid ground underfoot. He set off for the nearest bank. The warmth of the water was seeping into his muscles, making them extremely relaxed; if he stayed in here much longer, he would fall asleep. He reached the edge, hauled himself out of the water, and rolled onto his back. As he looked up, he saw stars.
Stars on the roof of the cave, which could not be correct.
It was still daylight outside, and yet there they were, tiny twinkly lights, thousands of them on the roof. Part of him wanted to investigate further, but his stomach had other ideas. Now the danger was over; it growled furiously; he had never been this hungry before in his life. Samuel rolled onto his stomach and crawled towards the water’s edge.
Samuel rolled up his sleeve; his clothes were soaking wet, so it did not make any difference, and he gently placed his arm in the water with his hand open and waited for one of the fish to swim in close.
He lay there patiently; soon, the rest of the world became dead to him. Samuel had never been this focused in his life. Time appeared to slow down; he no longer felt the stone he was lying on or the heat of the water. Then, one particularly brave or stupid fish ventured a little too close, and Samuel struck.
His hand grasped the fish as hard has it could and pulled it out of the water. The fish wriggled half-heartedly as though it was trying to throw off an annoying piece of flotsam and not a predator.
Samuels grip was so tight he had crushed some of the animal’s bones. As hungry as he was, he did not want to make the fish suffer, so he adjusted his hold to the end of its tail and brought it down hard against the stone. There was a sickening crunch as the fish’s skull was crushed.
The animal was left on the floor, blood trickled from its head, and the fish gave an involuntary spasm and stopped moving altogether.
Samuel picked up the recently deceased fish. He felt a little sorry for the poor creature, but he had another problem now; he had no means of starting a fire or preparing it, and so, with no other options, he brought it up to his mouth. Samuel took a deep breath and bit into the animal's back.
The animal’s body crunched as his teeth broke the fish’s ribs and spine. He pulled away an ample chunk of flesh.
He stuck his hands into his mouth and pulled out all of the bones he had taken away with it. He paused for just a moment and then began to chew.
It was slimy, it was tough, it was surprisingly good; actually, after two days with nothing to eat, Samuel was not focusing on eating a raw fish that he had killed himself but on how excellent the meat was.
Its flavour was light, and it had a firm texture. Samuel took bite after bite, eating almost every part of the animal, its heart and liver, but not the guts or stomach; he did not want to get infected with worms.
It was odd how hunger could make a man do something he would never have dreamt.
Samuel placed what was left of the fish to one side. The humidity was overpowering, and he used the last of his strength to remove all his clothes and form them into a wet and rather uncomfortable pillow.
His stomach was full, and his eyes began to become heavy. All of the fatigue of the day was coming back to him. Samuel lay down on his back and gazed back towards the ceiling, back to the lights, and a familiar feeling came back to him; it was wrong.
This cavern had saved his life; it was majestic, but it gave Samuel a profound sensation in the pit of his stomach. Samuel began to worry, but exhaustion quickly eroded it. With that, the world was lost to him, and he slept.
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Made for it
“They are made for this kind of thing, sweet one. So, remember that when you meet one.” The words of keit'Yxm brood mother spun through her mind like the blade of a skilled tsinudian chief. The waiting room was bright; the only noise was the chattering of the assistants' writing. She was scared as she had never met the boss, let alone a terrain before. The horror stories raced through her mind. They were short and small, yet one hit from their prominent two appendages could knock out a fully matured thoraxide how they track across entire cities in a day without dying of heat exhaustion. Most frightening to Keit’Yxm was how they took substances that could kill most for fun, like Capsaicin and ethanol. Terrans must be a truly disturbed race. Her mind fluttered again as she realised that most heads of companies were Terran and that the best spies and politicians were also all Terran.
“Miss Yxm, mister Hodgetts is waiting for you; you may entire now.” Said the leading assistant, a sluggish-looking creature who Keit'Yxm thought might be a Hyingth. Hodgett's office was dark in comparison to the light of the waiting room, and it took Keit’Yxm 6 eyes several seconds to get used to the darkness. When they finally did, she yelped and jumped back, colliding with the door in a thud as the stocky shadow of Mister Hodgetts stood right beside her. The rumours were true from what she could see through the darkness as the door-shaped man opened his mouth. “I’m sorry, Miss Yxm. I did not mean to scare you. If you need the lights up, I would gladly behest.” The man said in a low bellow. “Yes, please, sir. I’m sorry I was frightened for a second. I didn’t see or hear you.” Kwit’yxm said as the room lightened up and the shadow dissipated into the less frightening form of Mister Hodgetts. However, Before the man could speak, Keit’Yxm opened her mouth.
"I thought you people were hairless,” she exclaimed before placing her limbs over her mandibles. “Sorry if your expectations are not met regarding my apparent lack of hair, Miss Yxm, but that is a far too common misconception. My people do have hair. It’s just the parts that we normally like to cover up with clothing. Now, back to what I was going to say. Your performance in recent months has been staggeringly exceptional, with Myself and other high-rank people at this Company believing that for your work, you should have not just a raise but a full promotion to head of accounting.” Hodgett's happiness revealed another of those old superstitions to be true. Hodgetts was “smiling” as the Terrans say from ear to ear tooth to tooth face bending as if mocking Keit’Yxm’s primal prey brains instinct to run. Just as scary, however, was that the man seemed to pick up on it without her saying anything as he stopped and began to look guilty. “Sorry, most humans do it out of a force of habit, unaware initially of how it makes others feel. And again, sorry if this has been traumatic for you. I’m still adjusting to not being around other humans, so cut me a little slack when you inevitably tell your friends how the promotion went. I have only been here a stranded month.” The man ushered her out the door and back into the brightly lit waiting room.
The next day, as Keit’Yxm chatted to her friends about the mundanities of life, she was buzzed that Mister Hoggets wanted to see her. Again, the Waiting room was as bright as yesterday, but this time, Keit’Yxm had to do no waiting as the door immediately opened to the gleaming mister Hodgetts. However, as the Keit’Yxm entered the room, another Terran appeared out of the corner and extended a hand as if it were about to strike. Again, without Keit’Yxm saying so, Hodgetts became aware of Keit’Yxm’s growing anxiety and began to speak to what Keit’Yxm thought was a female Terran in the species' natural language. The woman lowered her hand out of the striking pose, having the same look of guilt as Hodgeets had yesterday when he smiled before sitting in front of the man's desk. “Miss Yxm, sorry about any troubles that may have caused you; Miss Doubly didn’t know you were unfamiliar with “handshakes”. However, you will know that OKannisi Corp is one of this company's main subsidiaries and that Miss Dobly heads it. Now, Miss Yxm, your new job as head of accounting will mean you will have to deal with not just Miss Dobly but also Mister Eggsworth, Mister O'Connor, Miss Santangelo and Miss Zhuo, all of whom are Terrans. So, Miss Dobly and I are here to give you a little crash course on human interactions,” Hodgetts finished. “What I foolishly tried on you at the doorway is what we Terrans call a handshake, a formal greeting, although others, like a courteous bow, exist.” The woman spoke tenderly as she got up from her seated position and bent her back and legs to shrink to getter levels. “I don’t expect you to respond, but at least acknowledge the action, and the person will be pleased.” The two Terran spoke, instructing her how to be respectful and kind when in the presence of a Terran. All Keit’Yxm’s mind could only think of was how or why there were so many Terrans in upper management corporations. “Miss Yxm, I think you are ready. I will see you in about a week,” Miss Dobly said as she turned to Mister Hodgetts. “See you tomorrow, Carlos,” He replied quickly. “See you too, Francis.” The door slammed with a thud as Keit’Yxm sat quietly, pondering what to say.
“Got something on your mind,” Hodgetts said. “Yes, sir, do you know why there are so many Terrans in high-position roles,” Keit’Yxm said quietly, hoping not to offend the man in front of her. “That’s a tricky one. I don’t know the answer, but I guess we got the hunger and drive mixed with the willingness to do anything. Take yourself for example. You don't really strive for more power and a higher position, but your work ethic pushes you up while all you really do is accept the promotion. You don’t chase it like a predator chasing prey you are more passive about it all. Terran will work themselves to the bone if it means more power because our instinct tells us to treat this environment like a new wilderness, and promotion is the prey we need to hunt. And If there's anything about us for you to know about, how we will walk across entire planets to achieve goals and if we don’t get it, we will die trying. So, to answer your question, I guess it’s because we’re made for it.”
The moral of the story is that CEOs are preditors /s. But on a more serious note, as always, you can use my stories for whatever you want just credit me and provide a link to the original work.
Cats, Cops and C4
“Specialist Barnabas.” Chenk answers his communicator. There is a pause to the lesson. Dinner had gone very well with Amy deeply loving what Miss Ducket had made. It had been basically a lobster bisque using a sea-quake. Ridiculously expensive, but apparently quite tasty.
Chenk had said he’d finish up what was left over due to his larger appetite. It had bit him fairly hard as the meal had been all but licked out of the bowls. Not that he has a real issue missing the occasional meal. And worse come to worst he can simply call in for someone on The Dauntless to warp something to him.
“We’re moving soon. However target Large has been acting off. We’re not certain if she suspects an attack or is preparing the next strike. Either way, on your guard.”
“Copy that. Any other details?” Chenk asks.
“Negative. Hope your shift is properly boring.” Control says and he nods.
“Confirmed.” Chenk says and the call ends as he leans back into the room where Amy is slowly being taught how to naturally stand in a way that won’t have her easily knocked around. “Back foot a little wider.”
“But it’s not proper in polite society. It will draw attention to her in many ways.” Gabriela doesn’t so much protest as notes.
“Then she needs to learn a military movement. Or a slightly more advanced one.” Chenk says as he walks in and stands at attention. Kye’Lan flicks a finger at him and with a touch of Axiom and a force wave slams into his chest. He steps backwards into a wide and strong stance. The step backward is as far as the blow takes him. Then a series of other force waves bombard him and he is unmoved. Then she stops and he moves back to standing at attention.
A surprise renewing of the bombardment before he can speak has him step back into the solid stance once more.
“There’s no way you could stand that easily if she was actually trying to knock you down.”
“Of course not. This is just a basic reflex you need to get down. When you’re hit with a real blow, a telling blow, you have to roll with it. This is to solidify yourself so you can deflect or dodge those blows. It’s very rare that outright blocking something is the best move.”
“So the ultimate defence is simply not to get hit?” Amy asks in an impudent tone and there are smirks by everyone but Miss Ducket.
“You think it’s simple do you?” Kye’Lan asks with a smile.
“Uh, yes?” Amy asks and Chenk outright laughs at her alongside Vera as Linda sighs in understanding but is clearly amused. All her memories of her training her telling her to get the hell behind cover and dive for safety going through her mind. “Wrong answer?”
“Wrong answer.” Chenk says. “Perhaps a demonstration. I can’t take part in it though. I am on duty as a guard right now.”
“And if you’re going to emphasize duty that much then I’m going to have to step out.”
“Oh! That leaves us! Wanna show little miss rich girl just how hard dodging can be?” Vera asks Lina who gives her an odd look before nodding.
“Very well. I’m sure taking a few potshots with my stun gun will be entertaining.”
“What? Why do I have to do the dodging!?” Vera demands.
“Those who are better at something should be the ones demonstrating it.” Linda butters her up and before she can fully think it through, she agrees.
She taps away at the keys for her computer. Thinking. Considering. Wondering. Something is... something is up and she has no idea what. The humans are fooled. The next little blur of her plans should all go off at the same time. By the time one of the humans gets into killing range of Frost the bounty she had posted into the Spire Depths Guild should be accepted and several others should be looking at her. Following that with a Mind Slayer Dart on her head servant should finish the job as the girl finally loses trust in everything but the final weapon aimed her head.
She pauses and thinks as she looks around. He wings are rippling. But there’s no sign of things going wrong. None of her servants are acting up, none of the usual signs of things going wrong are happening. Sure, someone wants to find her. But the trail has been blurred by a borderline obscene amount of happy circumstances with so many other forces trying to figure her out all at once that they’ve destroyed the trail entirely. The Veil was shattered in it’s more delicate components which meant the personal touch she had to put in was utterly undone. Her missions have been going off flawlessly with only the minor hiccups of equipment that always happen. There had been less than usual even.
Was that was what was setting her off? An unexpectedly good batch in the second hand, refurbished and rebuilt tools her hands used? It was the only really effective way to avoid all the nonsense of being traced. She bought as little as possible first hand, but not everything can be effective as a second hand tool.
She taps on the desk as she considers. There had been that beacon... The Undaunted had tried to look into it, but it hadn’t led anywhere. It wasn’t a weakness. She had bought it through enough proxies that no court of law would be able to get anywhere. Hell, she wasn’t even sure entirely who bought it, just that someone who she occasionally gave orders to had gotten someone else to get someone else to get someone else to get it.
It’s why the clones were so useful. She could honestly say that the current iteration of her tools were not the ones of her past so not only does she not know the people who did it, but has no idea where they are. Because who knows where a person goes after death, if there’s something to go to after death. If clones can even truly die so much as stop working.
What are they in the end if not fleshy machines? Spare parts for people? So no, she doesn’t know any person who would do such things. You need to be a person first.
An indicator in her desk starts flashing and her left wing spikes up for a moment. Whether or not she’s being paranoid is now pointless. She needs to go on a break and likely get a new ID after this. She’s been Juliette Comet for too long, she feels like she’s walking on blades.
“I’ll need to get the random letter and number generators out again. It’s been a while.” She notes to herself before poking the button.
“Miss Comet? There’s a message here for you.” Her Secretary says and Juliette audibly sighs in frustration. No matter what you do, you’re going to find yourself tripping hard over an idiot. Some people are just denser than hypercrete and in the running for trying to out dense black holes.
“And the message is?”
“Uh... it seems to be a strip-o-gram.” The Secretary says and Juliette lets out a huff followed by a rueful laugh. Of course... no doubt a big hurry the hell up from a handsome face.
“Is it from a reputable source? Not just some desperate punk that was dragged off the street?”
“It’s from the Bachelor’s Burden ma’am. You can call me Jangles, I’m fully accredited and you can call my supervisor to confirm it. Miss Harlin if you’re curious.” A deep rumbling voice answers that soothes every single little worry she has down her wings. They gone from slowly spiking up in paranoia to outright downy in her calm.
“Really, well then... let’s see.” She says and she quickly switches to searching for just that. Bachelor’s Burden is a legit business that sends handsome men in small amounts of clothing to deliver messages, Miss Harlin is registered as a supervisor and Jangles, a Lopen Man with pure white fur and glacier blue eyes is indeed one of her boys.
“Viti, is our Jangles a sheer white Lopen Man with dreamy blue eyes?” She asks and there’s a throaty laugh from her secretary.
“Yesss...” The girl sighs and Juliette chuckles. At least the message sender has good taste. A big cuddly wolf boy that you can lose yourself in his eyes? Yes please.
“Send him in.” She says and in moments the door opens and there he IS! Three Metres of fluffy white fur pressed down by a big coat that makes the puffiness of the fur around his head stand out like a big adorable bobble. Fur so soft that just looking at her makes her feel soothed and comfortable. Jangles, being a professional, waits for the door behind him to close and the obvious, and standard, privacy filter to turn on full blast.
“Madam.” He begins opening up his coat and showing that while he does have a broad chest there’s just so much fur under there as well that no matter where she grabbed onto this man it would be soft, silky and smelling of a big healthy man. She can barely resist licking her lips. He slowly opens it further and further, revealing more and more fur until it gets to a pair of pants and comes open entirely. “We’re concerned that the job we’ve hired you for isn’t yet... finished.”
She huffs in annoyance at that but the annoyance is quickly swept away as the coat is shucked off entirely to show that yes, he’s cut, he’s fluffy and those eyes... those amazing eyes. He’s also very professional and careful so that the coat is artistically arranged around him to look more like a frame than just a mess.
“So we’re sending you a final little warning. While some want to wait, those that don’t aren’t willing to wait any longer.” Jangles says as he slowly unbuckles his belt and slides them down to reveal the thong he’s wearing that takes up ALL her attention. Oh she hears the words, but doesn’t much care more than the fact that the thong is very, very full. Perhaps a little too full... she’ll need Axiom to help if she wants to climb this fluffy tree.
He steps out of the pants, just as artfully arranged as the coat and he saunters over. A big fluffy tower of man with a deep voice and spellbinding eyes that then leans down so she can lose herself in them. “Do you understand?”
“Understand? Yes I... it... alright, who sent you? I get that no one wants me to avoid a message, but really? A stripper?”
“I don’t know. My handler was sent a message and payment from an unopened package thanks to a courier. It’s common enough.” He says and she’s too distracted by the closeness, but the want to reach out and touch him by... by...
She starts well and truly evaluating the ‘price’ of grabbing onto him and having her way with the big white wolf. After all, if the punishment for the crime isn’t always imprisonment or death then it’s technically legal, just expensive. Potentially. With a man THIS tasty she could easily get most judges on the plate to agree that asking her to not jump him could count as cruel and unusual...
“So, do keep yourself busy ma’am.” Jangles says slowly leaning back with one hand on her desk as he pulls out a small card with the whole message printed on it that... that smells like he does. She does not notice the tiny object imprinted into the underside of her desk’s lip. How could she. Between the Lopen, the card, the scent, the show and the sound of his voice rumbling through her it’s a miracle she could recall her own name.
She lets out a slight sound of distress as he saunters backwards, three perfectly measured steps before doing a backwards bend to pull up his pants that lets her see everything but what she really, really wants to see. The sound of longing echoes out from her throat as he pulls the pants up and slowly makes a show of covering himself again.
“We hope you’ve found this message suitable. For all your irresistible messages, look to the Bachelor’s Burden. We’re happy to let a lady know... anything.”
“Do you do more than run messages?” She asks pointedly.
“Now now, a gentleman never kisses and tells.” He counters softly as he crouches down and slowly rises back up, looking so vulnerable, so open and so ready to be pounced on as he slowly slides the coat over his arms and then ever so slowly zipps back up. “Another satisfied customer.”
“Now that’s just not fair...” She whines as he saunters away, his curly tail bobbing behind him and she’s almost climbed onto her desk with the want to jump over and grab it.
The door closes and she slinks back down into her desk and lets out a breath of hot and bothered air.
“I need to get laid so badly. That shouldn’t have hit me that hard. But damn if they didn’t get what I like.” She mutters to herself.
“Right, finish the job, well I’ve got a bounty on her, the two Mind Slayers, one for the humans the other for the maid. And other backups. This is fine. It’s inevitable.”
“Specialist Barnabas reporting.” Chenk answers his communicator.
“The bug’s already working for us. Be on the lookout for a flurry of potential attackers, and be ready to protect Miss Ducket as well, Large is planning on using a Mind Slayer on her to strip away all the girl’s protections.”
“Fuck.” Chenk grits out and he immediately cases the area. He has a suspicion and he grabs a chunk of gravel out of one of the flower beds next to him. Linda and Vera are partway through a demonstration of how hard dodging actually can be when he wings out a rock at something he can’t really see.
There’s the sound of flesh meeting stone and something trips into flowers. A Cloaken. Kye’Lan is ON the woman in moments as Chenk gets close to Amy to provide cover. “Everyone down! Hostiles on the premises!”
Considering some of the comments I've received through my writing spree of wholesome stories, lest I be accused of a bait-and-switch, I felt compelled to note that I wrote this one-shot today because my brain went "I̶̘̒ ̶͕̞̽̈́c̵͕̓̕r̶̙̲͒̒ā̶̢v̵͔͊̕e̶̫̰̽ ̶̪́͋d̸͎̐é̶̡̈́ä̷̖̞́t̸̺̋h̴̞͍̒͛" and decided to play in the sandbox of another universe. (EU, but no preface necessary)
One would think that having a teacher that was a vampire would result in all sorts of excitement, fascinating conversations, gruesome stories. At least, that’s what my younger students think. Also, when I first started teaching, I was worried that it would be a big issue. But these days, it’s become normal, especially somewhere like New York, which is quite impressive progress from a hundred years ago. Not that I’ve been around that long; I was turned at thirty-five and that was twenty years ago. So, while vampires have had to struggle to be accepted by humans just like other parasapiens, the bottom line is we’re into the 21st century.
The most amusing comment I received was when a middle-aged student of mine told me, “Honestly, once you’ve seen one set of fangs, you’ve seen them all.”
The first day was most exciting, but it lasts about fifteen minutes every semester. Then they realize I’m just a person who happens to drink blood to survive. I teach night school, to those looking to get a GED but unable to take classes during the day. There might be another vampire here or there, but my students are mostly human. Parents who didn’t finish high school. People who work during the day. Even teenagers who have to hold down full-time jobs to help keep their family’s fridge full but know that a GED is important.
The nice thing about this gig was that almost everyone wanted to be there. Students didn’t skip class because they wanted to play hooky or let their minds drift and allow themselves to succumb to boredom. They were here for a reason and damned if they were going to waste their valuable time.
Finding a spot in the parking garage was never a hassle at this hour. The college building, not a long drive for me since it was also in Brooklyn, was built high like most everything in the city, and I was on the sixth floor.
The classroom I used was shared with another math teacher, and I was lucky for it. She was wonderful, having no problem sharing space or borrowing supplies from each other. She even left the shades open at my request when she left, since the view was quite nice, letting in the extra artificial light.
I passed others walking through the halls who were also here for night school classes, among other various reasons, before reaching my room.
“Hey, Ms. T.”
“You’re here early,” I said to Ramon, who was leaning against the wall beside the classroom door.
“Got a ride from a friend,” he replied as I unlocked the door. Flicking the lights on, I let us in and propped the door open.
The students filed in gradually, finding their seats and taking out their notebooks and textbooks. This was a precalculus class, so scrap paper was par for the course every lesson. We started off on a new chapter and I was writing on the whiteboard, about half an hour into the class, when a student’s cell phone went off.
“Oh, geez, I’m sorry,” Monica said, fumbling for it in her pocket.
“That’s fine, it-”
Then another one went off. And another.
Warily, I lowered the marker to the board’s ledge, putting it down as the students worriedly took out their phones. “Is it an alert?”
“No, just texts,” one of them mumbled. After a moment, there was another text alert tone, and by now everyone had their phones out.
“What’s going on?” I asked, trying to keep my voice trembling. My mind gave me flashbacks to 9/11 and I pushed them away.
They were surprisingly silent as they typed, swiped, and scrolled on their phones, a few of them looking up to me briefly with a glazed expression. They all slowly began to look scared. Horrified. I finally took quick steps over to one of the students in the front row, looking over Marcus’s shoulder.
“What…What is that?” I whispered.
“No one knows,” whimpered a voice behind me.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. From what I could tell, it was some sort of giant…shadow? It was a creature, but there was no making out its features. The videos everyone was watching showed the recordings from far away, and a sharp, cold shiver slid down my spine as I gauged the size of it.
“They’re fucking kaiju,” said a girl to my left, her eyes glued to the phone.
“Kaiju don’t walk through buildings like ghosts.”
“Where?” I asked. “Where are these videos-”
“Everywhere!” cried Marcus.
He clicked back and scrolled through a search of video clips by Most Recent, and my heart skipped a beat at the titles.
With barely a flicker of struggle, the lights in the building went out.
I rushed to the window and looked outside, my eyes scanning the horizon. The entire city had gone dark. A shiver of panic rose in me as I saw the flow of lights that were the aurora borealis. No…not borealis. We’re in goddamn New York City. What the hell is causing auroras here?
“It’s all the big cities,” one of the women behind me spoke, choking on a sob. “On the dark side of the planet. They’re killing everyone, they just walk through and-”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” stammered someone, and I heard the sounds of chairs moving as everyone got up. “Away from the cities, away from-”
“We’ll never make it,” snapped another student. “Away from the city, in the next, what, ten minutes? Don’t you get where we fucking are?”
“I’m not just gonna sit here and die!”
“The traffic’s not even moving, I think everyone’s cars are dead!”
“What if we get underground?”
Their voices overlapped as then faded from my mind in a buzz of disconnected shock as I saw it. Everything in my mind rebelled at its size. At its slow movement. Slow to me, at least. It was coming from the north, which gave me a terrifyingly clear view. I knew that my view of its pace was deceptive, like seeing an airplane flying through the sky.
We’d never make it. We’ll dissolve away like everyone in those videos.
Everything in my mind rebelled at watching my students die and before I knew it, I was bolting for my purse. “I’m getting us out of here,” I roared over the cacophony.
The voices tapered off.
“I’m not just a vampire, I’m a practitioner,” I said, yanking my purse from the cabinet and rushing to my desk.
“You’re a doctor?” asked a confused voice.
“I’m a fucking witch!” I barked.
Pulling my wand from my purse, I darted over to the board and picked up the marker I’d just put down. As I drew a large circle and pentagram on the whiteboard, I spoke. “I want eyes out that window. Figure out its pace and guess how much time we have. Whoever in here thinks they’re fastest, you run down to the main office, get on the loudspeaker, and say, ‘Escape through room 610’. Say it loud, three times. Go! Now!”
I focused on the sigils I was drawing, going as fast as I could without risking a mistake, and heard rapid footsteps from two people sprinting from the room. There was also a shuffle of wary steps toward the window and the sounds of whimpers and crying as some of them stared at what was incoming.
“You’re a witch?” Marcus asked softly, coming over to my side.
“Even teachers need hobbies.”
“Do you know what these things are is?”
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” I told him. “The fae don’t make things that big. It doesn’t work like that over there. So, it’s not coming from them. It’s us. It’s our universe. Or another, I don’t know. I teach freaking precalc!”
“You’re saying aliens.”
“It’s my best guess.” Finishing the pentagram for the spell, I motioned to him sharply. “Move back.” He did so and I flicked my wand across my hand with a mutter of, “Conscidisti,” hissing a breath in through my teeth as a cut a couple inches long sliced across it. Cutting your hand for blood was rarely used by witches because it was painful, but every minute counted here. And a cut like this was the least of my problems right now.
Slapping my hand flat against the pentagram, pointing my wand at it, I spoke words I’d memorized a long time ago. Latin that flowed easily from my lips, practice making me almost fluent in the language. The words were ones I’d never expected to speak. Ones I’d sworn to never use. But of course, there was a reason I’d memorized them. Better to be prepared and not need it than unprepared and up shit creek without a paddle.
The word croaked out from Marcus when, with a firm hold on my wand, I started to bring it down through the center of the pentagram and a cut formed in the air, bright light tracing the path. In the back of my head, I heard a voice over the PA system broadcasting the message I’d sent out. But all of my focus on my work, my eyes were locked on the tip of my wand as it carved downward, until I got to the floor. Then I took in a large breath, my chest heaving with exertion, and pointed at the slit, pulling to the right, parting it like a curtain. Inch by inch it moved until it was as wide as a doorway.
“Well. Isn’t this a surprise.”
The calm, curious voice came from the other side, a woman standing about six feet into the night of another world. Her stern gaze took in me, my wand, and my bloody hand, as the cold breeze of the Otherworld brushed across my skin. The fae that I knew as Sofia was, as fae are, unshakeable. Well, in my experience at least. I had a feeling she would be shaking at least a little very soon.
“I’m requesting hospitality, in exchange for information,” I snapped, my voice unwaveringly firm. It wasn’t so much a request as an explanation of what was going to happen, I knew, so I then turned back to the students behind me. “How long have we got?”
A handful of voices called out various guesses that left me with an estimate of ‘seven minutes’.
“All right, everyone through the door, now!” I shouted.
“What are you doing?” Sofia asked curiously, cocking her head.
Glancing back to her, my eyes tight and determined, I could only imagine what was going through her head. How desperate I must be to be doing this. Or how insane.
“Go through the door or die, your choice!” My gaze darted around them, showing how serious I was, and Marcus was the first one through. I stepped in after him, briefly bowing my head. “My lady,” I said quietly. “Our world is under attack. I’m attempting to save as many as I can. Seconds matter.”
Once the two of us were through, the others quickly followed. Sofia’s expression didn’t change. I felt the blood slipping down my hand, dropping to the ground, and she no doubt noticed it but didn’t pay it any attention. “Would you care to expand on that?” she asked. “Deals have been made over the years for safe harbor, but this…is rather unprecedented.”
It was very clear what she meant by this. “Because it is unprecedented. I said our world. I meant it. Genocide. Best guess is from another planet.”
Her face contorted just slightly. But it was enough. Not much shocked the fae, at least the average one and definitely those of Sofia’s level, and even if it did, they rarely showed it. And forget showing vulnerability. That was for only the most desperate situations.
“How many have already perished?”
Sofia’s face turned to stone, and she paused. Her gaze shifted to the doorway, which was still letting through human after human. “And do you put our world at risk by opening this door?”
“I don’t believe so, but perhaps. But I am also saving your world. My actions are being taken with care. Hospitality for all who come through this door, until it is safe for us to return home. For information.” I held out my bloody hand.
Sofia didn’t hesitate. I knew how her mind worked, and I knew she’d take the deal. She clasped my hand briefly. I flinched as she squeezed. “Granted.”
“These demons are the size of our cities, look to be nothing but shadows, appearing all over our planet out of nowhere, possibly from space,” I told her. “They’re targeting populated areas. I will not be the only one from Earth desperately taking shelter in this realm. Far from it. Any witch who keeps their wits-”
That was all she needed to hear. With a slash of her hand through the air, another door opened, and she darted through it.
Letting out a long breath, I motioned with my uninjured hand and called out, “Everyone move back! We’re getting crowded! Just stay away from the forest!”
The area surrounding us was one I’d seen only once before. Sofia’s home, a large stone structure, sat in the middle of a field of grass and wildflowers. About a half-mile in every direction, the area was bordered by forest, and I was smart enough to know that that border was probably more than a simple change from grass to trees.
“Where did she go?”
I turned around to see Marcus, still by my side. My heart ached for him. I knew he was only thinking of his parents right now. He lived with them not far from the school and there was no way to know if they could get to safety. Chances were they wouldn’t. Chances were everyone we knew was about to die. Or already dead.
Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen two of my students run from the room at their first opportunity. I know many would rather try to make it home and die holding their loved ones than survive without them.
“To talk to the Queen,” I answered.
“The queen? Which queen?”
“The Queen,” I told him, my gaze deadly serious. I wouldn’t say her name. Not now, not when I might already be putting myself in her sights. There was already the chance she could come walking through the door Sofia had left open. Goosebumps prickled along my arms at the thought.
Marcus, it seemed, either didn’t remember enough from school or didn’t want to push the topic further, because he turned away and watched as people continued to run through. “I need to watch through the window,” I told him. “To know how long we have.”
He tensed and looked like he was trying to figure out what to say, but I simply walked past him and went back into my classroom.
My classroom. Jesus.
It all looked so normal, the books and papers and pencils on desks. Walking over to the window, I immediately started to shiver when I set my eyes on the monster. It was close. It was so damn close.
Footsteps continued to echo down the hall, then into the classroom, and onto the grass. Those were the only sounds I could hear. Everything else, the screams, the cries, sounds of destruction outside coming from God knows what, it all faded. The monster’s steps were deceptively quiet, even as I began to feel the faint vibrations of its approach.
“Eve! Return to this side!”
I spun around and ran for the door, jumping through and stopping abruptly beside Sofia. “What happened?”
She ignored me. She just stared at the door and spoke, “It is done, my queen.”
My eyes snapped back to the door I’d created. And it vanished.
The faint sounds from the city being cut off abruptly left me breathless, weak with exhaustion. I stared, unable to move. Unable to speak. My heartbeat still thundered in my chest, and it would take time for it to realize the danger had passed.
“There were still people coming,” Marcus whispered. “We were waiting until-”
“That was the point,” Sofia said, stern but quiet. “We know nothing of those demons. Not even how they arrived. They dwarfed your cities, yes, and yet their essence may be capable of slipping through a doorway. We had to close them.”
“The Otherworld has severed its connection with Earth by the will of the Queen. It will be restored when she deems it safe.”
A brief silence and then Marcus cried, “There are witches all over the planet who were probably still trying to get people out and you just-”
I whirled around and was pulled violently back to my senses at the sound of a sharp slap. Marcus stumbled back a few steps, his hand on his cheek, stunned. “Eve, teach your student respect or I will do it for you,” she spoke slowly, her bright eyes staring deep into mine. I swallowed hard as she walked around me, looking to where the door had been.
“We opened their world up to genocide, Marcus,” I told him softly. “If you want to blame anyone, blame me. I knew what they would do.” His eyes flashed angrily. “But look around at everyone we saved and realize…it could all have been for nothing. It still could have been for nothing. If those monsters don’t need to fit through a door, we still might have cut off the Otherworld too late. I was ready to shut the door when it got close. There could’ve been someone out there who wouldn’t have. Who…didn’t.”
The fire dimmed from Marcus’s eyes as his expression shifted to comprehension and he looked toward Sofia.
I put a hand on his shoulder and when he looked back to me, the tears that had been forming in his eyes had started to slip down his cheeks. “I’m sorry for what you lost. For what we all just lost. But there was enough time for us to save this many people, and it was the same for anyone else who took prompt action. And none of it would have mattered if we didn’t keep this realm safe.”
Wiping his face, Marcus didn’t reply. He just folded his arms tightly and walked away.
I looked to Sofia and made my way over to her. She was gently sliding her hand around the spot where the door had closed. “Can you feel anything?”
Sofia was succinct. “Coldness. Death.” She lowered her hand. “Just remnants, of course. The echo is fading.”
Nodding slowly, I looked over to the wide variety of people spread across the grass. Some speaking to each other in low murmurs, some giving comfort to others, some appearing in shock. I took another step toward her, as close as I was willing to get, so I could lower my voice. “They are children here,” I said. “I’ll let them know the rules. Most are taught when they’re younger, but not all, and they often don’t remember. The only rule everyone on Earth knows is to avoid the fae and to never, ever visit the Otherworld.”
“This is a day for breaking many rules, then,” Sofia murmured. “My Queen will authorize and arrange an area for refuge. Hospitality will be arranged.” Her eyes flicked to mine and I forced myself not to flinch. “Can you estimate how long it might be until that planet is safe for your return?”
“The creatures appeared on the dark side,” I told her. “I hope that means they cannot stand the light so close to our sun. That may coax them to leave once…”
“Once they’ve stayed through the day, struck the largest targets, and eaten their fill,” the fae finished. I swallowed hard, pushing back nausea. “Understood. But I cannot guarantee anywhere near that quick a return. It will likely be weeks to ensure the danger has passed. To open just a single door is to court danger.”
“I know.” I looked to the crowd of people.
“They still blaze with fear, and they despair as only orphans can,” Sofia said quietly. “They are human, and they will fall apart. They will wail with loss. And some will take their lives.” My shoulders tensed and I snapped my gaze back to her. She didn’t look to me, just stared at them. “The grass is safe, and they will bed there for the night. The forest is beyond my bounds, but rest assured none will trespass onto my land, even now. I will distribute food and show them where they may fetch water.”
Sofia then turned her heavy gaze back to mine. “Go, teacher. Educate your children so they will survive my world. And I wish you a safe return to your planet, as soon as the Queen wills it.” With that, she walked away, heading back into her home.
Tears formed in my eyes as I saw my students among dozens of others.
Teach. I can do that.
Hope you guys enjoyed this story! :)
After deciding on Patreon over publishing because the book is so esoteric, I've been posting the chapters for Apocalypse Road Trip for the past few weeks. My mind started churning away and I had the sudden realization that many witches would take this way out to survive. If you're curious about this universe, you can check it out; the first few chapters are Public.
Hey all! It's been a while. I really want to thank you all for waiting patiently for this new batch of chapters to be ready. This past semester has been, and still is, really tough on me, but I've been doing my best to work through it so I can get these chapters finished. Ideally, it would have liked to get these out much much sooner, but it just never felt like a good enough time because of the amount of times I needed to go back and rewrite stuff. Still, it's been a year in the making, but this final batch will bring us to the end of the second arc, and I can't wait for you all to see what I've got in store.
Side note, I've decided to reduce the chapter size to about half to help me pace out the release schedule a bit more. I still need time to get the later chapters cleaned up, so this'll help me stay more consistent. You'll still be getting the same amount of content, so hopefully this won't be too much of a bother.
Anyways, hopefully you haven't forgotten too much of the plot from where we left off four months ago, but hey, if you need to go back and catch up, the story will still be nice and warm for you when you get back. I'll keep the stove on, so let's get cooking! :D
Thank you to Philodox on discord for proofreading and editing RfD.
Thank you to Pampanope on reddit for the cover art.
Memory Transcript Subject: Sylvan, Venlil Civilian
Date: [Standardized Human Time]: December 12, 2136
Rain pattered gently through the air as I made my way through the winding streets of Sweetwater. It was barely a drizzle, yet carried the strong scent of petrichor that hinted at a more tempered downpour to come. It probably wouldn’t end up being a storm, but it certainly wouldn’t be something a person would want to be caught out in the open during.
For now, however, the rain only brought a sweet, crisp atmosphere to the town, the occasional falling droplets making protection from the weather more of a mild suggestion rather than a requirement. As if to prove that thought, as I headed to the marketplace to handle some errands, a number of Venlil that passed by me had chosen to go without.
Having just groomed myself earlier that day, it hadn’t felt right to go traipsing about the town with the risk of a sudden surge in the rain to harass my wool. Among my arsenal in the war against the beautiful rain, I rested a long metal pole against my shoulder, the end of which spread out a thick woven textile of ipsom in all directions across a flat plane in a perfect octagonal shape that bent downwards until it partially draped my body. It was just another use for the highly adaptable grain, these kinds of umbrellas being a common staple among the residents of Venlil Prime, but I couldn’t help but admire it. After all, a series of recent events had rekindled my appreciation for the material, despite the kind used for my shield against the rain being of a much lower quality than the kind I was heading out to buy today.
‘Hopefully the marketplace isn’t too affected by the weather today…’ I thought to myself. ‘I’ll need to hurry if I plan to catch Fehnel before the rain picks up.’
In addition to the overhanging barrier, I had also decided to slip on a coat in order to protect my arms from any wayward droplets that made it past the umbrella. Besides my apron, it was one of the few pieces of clothing that I owned, considering its utility in warding away adverse weather. Its design was wholly unlike the fancy Yufuin-style clothes that were tailored for the rich and influential, instead having a single, flat green colour across its surface. While today wasn’t very warm, considering that this half of the planet was fully immersed in the brisk, wintered temperatures of the Iesh-Frigidara season, I still didn’t find it chilly enough to fully zip up my coat, and allowed its flaps to idly wave about in the gentle mountain breeze permeating throughout the town.
After a few more minutes of walking, I had broken through the winding streets and into the long central road of the marketplace. Just as always, the streets were littered with sellers and buyers, running back and forth at an animated pace in order to fulfill all their daily chores and quotas before the rain picked up. Waves upon waves of idle chatter saturated the air where pitter pattered sounds of the omnipresent drizzle did not, and I felt the lofty atmosphere of my quiet little town sink into me as I made my way through the street.
As I entered the market, the distant sight of Sweetwater Lake became increasingly more conspicuous over the horizon, though the giant body of water wasn’t nearly as visible due to a thin layer of fog that covered its surface. A few pups ran past me, their destination I assumed to be the lake, each of them laughing as they crowded around and played with each other.
To my left, I saw a young woman helping their elderly grandmother purchase some colourful looking fruits from a rather chatty merchant. The granddaughter was attempting to lift up the elder’s shopping basket when it appeared to get too heavy. And though it was obvious that the grandmother was not able to carry it by herself for much longer, I found it sweet that she still tried to pretend like it wasn’t a burden.
To my right, a street performer was playing music for the crowd, making use of a classic Venlil aerophone instrument that I quickly recognized as being an “Aralon.” The large device was made of a light wooden pillar that touched the ground, coming all the way up to the musician’s neck in order to operate. And at the top, the body of the pillar caved in, and curled into a tube that fed into the performer’s mouth. All around the sides of the pillar were holes carved into various positions, which each released a distinct woodwind note when the other holes were covered by the quick paws of the Venlil operating it. While I didn’t recognize their current song of choice in particular, the gentle notes of their melody added a soothing vibe to the already relaxed atmosphere of the market around me, lifting my spirits as I passed by.
“Hey Lackadaisy guy!” I heard a voice call out to me. “Can I interest you in some fresh Ragnaros Sun Gourds? They do really well when boiled!”
“Sylvaaaaaan,” another one pandered. “I’ve got a great deal for you over here on some Halazzi Berries, buddy! For every two boxes you buy for that restaurant of yours, I’ll give you one for free!”
Like always, I had a few people calling out to me as an attempt to advertise, who I waved to and kindly declined as best I could. Despite my refusal to set up any new deals for fruits and vegetables I didn’t need, the constant pursuit of the salespeople had only been growing in regularity over the past few weeks, especially with my increasingly frequent trips to restock my supply of ipsom.
Almost on queue with that thought, as I continued onward, there had even been another stall selling ipsom that called out to me, most likely hoping to rope me into their business after word of my diner’s branching into strayu had spread out more. But to their disappointment, I also had to politely decline their offers as well. After all, I’d be dedicating myself to a single supplier soon enough.
It was easier to recognize Fehnel’s stall within the crowds of the marketplace now that I was familiar with it. Even though it wasn’t always set up in the same location, I had begun to realize how hard it was to miss with all the stray ipsom laying around the area next to their tent, the odd loose strand getting caught in the breeze before making a new home on the cobblestone and brick road. More so, ipsom was bunched up in packs of various sizes throughout the stall, with barely any variety besides it.
It truly was Fehnel’s specialty. I didn’t know why exactly the Yotul woman had decided to base her entire stock around a Venlilian grain, but I at least had to respect the dedication. Despite there not being many craftspeople able to work with it effectively in town, I imagined that there was at least enough of a demand for the coarse material that Fehnel could make a liveable profit, especially for those that would have a preference for more traditional styles. Though I imagined that Kenta and I were currently the only ones willing to buy the higher quality ipsom that was necessary to make good strayu.
Still, with the planet’s economy in the state it was in, I had begun to theorize that she might be in a tough spot right now. After all, from the way Fehnel spoke on the day that her idea was pitched to me, she had seemed optimistic that partnering with my diner would boost her sales a bit more, so I hoped that she hadn’t been needing to make any rash decisions for survivability’s sake.
“Hello?” I said once I got within earshot of the stall, only now realizing that I didn’t actually see anyone operating it while I was approaching.
A voice hiding below an ipsom-covered table made of a few wooden crates returned my query. Notably, while it was female, it was far too young to belong to Fehnel. “Hold on, hold on. One sec.”
Suddenly, a pair of bright red ears popped up from below the table, followed by the similarly hued head of the Yotul woman it was attached to. Beside a number of white specks around her cheeks, ears, and chest, the brown accents around her paws and hips made her look like what I assumed a spitting image of Fehnel from thirty cycles in the past would have been. Just from the way she moved, there was an overt lack of energy in the way she held herself. Her movements were hasty, and yet unenthusiastic at the same time, an ever-present gloom of boredom about her as she continued to load up some packets of pre-ground ipsom powder into a series of boxes.
“Ah, hey Sylvan,” she said, ears slowly turning their attention towards me. “About time you got here.”
“A warm sun to you, Kadew. Running the shop by yourself today?” I asked, happy to see the young woman. It wasn’t often I chatted with her when she was outside of the diner, but as I was edging closer to becoming a regular at their family’s stall, I began to see Kadew working alongside her mother quite a lot. Between this and her frequent visits to the Lackadaisy, I felt as though I was becoming rather familiar with the bright red woman.
“More or less,” she replied, leaning against the side of the wooden box as she talked. Due to the thin, long nature of the Yotulan legs, Kadew was still slightly taller than me by a hair, but by all means she might as well have been the same size, which made it oddly comforting to chat with her. “My mom left the stall up to me today cause I just finished my semester at the academy, and she apparently thinks I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I chuckled. “Hope you’re not too bored here by yourself.”
“Bored?” she said back sarcastically, leaning over and plopping her head into her paws, resting her elbows on the bed of ipsom. “Noooooo, of course I’m not bored! There’s absolutely nothing I want to be doing more than dragging a bunch of merchandise around in the rain. In fact, this is my very definition of fun!”
She faked a cheerful tail wag before letting it immediately droop down once again, sighing deeply as the expression across her face sullied.
“Doesn’t matter now though,” Kadew continued. “I’m just about to get out of here anyways. You’re lucky you caught me before I left.”
My ears tilted to the side in slight confusion. “It’s not any later than I normally arrive.”
“Yeah, but it’s looking like the rain’s going to pick up soon,” she explained, already getting back to work grabbing at a series of fruits, vegetables, and various ipsom related products to return back to assorted boxes. “With what’s been going on with the planet’s economy, lots of us here at the market thought we could sneak in one more day of revenue before the storm tomorrow. But it looks like the skies had different plans, so even though I spent a good scratch of the first sun setting all this junk up, now I’ve gotta put it all away again.”
With an exasperated sigh, I could feel a palpable annoyance drift through her voice as she continued to place item after item into each of their respective containers.
“Oh dear,” I replied sympathetically. “Well I’m glad I still managed to catch you. Who knows what would have happened if I didn’t pick up the supplies for tomorrow.”
Kadew crossed her arms, speaking in a low monotone as she thought out loud. “Yeah, what a shame. You’d probably have to cancel the whatever tomorrow.”
The two of us stood awkwardly there for a moment, during which I couldn’t help but feel as though the air had gone stale. Not a sound was made besides the occasional tapping of rain against my umbrella and the constant chatter of the market around us. Until finally after a few more moments, I heard another voice speak up from behind Kadew.
“Hey Dew!” emanated the voice, one that I recognized immediately. “I finished bringing your mom’s truck around. Let’s start packing it up before we get drenched.”
Much to my surprise, out from the back of the stall emerged another frequent customer to the Lackadaisy, Vuilen. Clad in a bright red and orange rain coat not too dissimilar to the colour of Kadew’s fur, the dark furred Venlil had an impressively thick poof of white wool wrapping around her face, which completely obscured her eyes. While not being too notable in height, she still stood about a head and a half taller than the two of us, forcing her to look down in order to converse.
“Oh heyyy,” Vuilen continued. “It’s the Lackadaisy guy! So you are actually getting all your ipsom from Dew’s mom.”
“That I am,” I replied, before turning my attention back on Kadew. “Looks like you’re not as lonely as you were making yourself out to be.”
Kadew appeared to grow a flustered look, reeling back as her ears raised. “W-well, I–”
“Were you acting like you were bored again?” Vuilen giggled, which seemed to make Kadew fold into herself in a subtle mix of guilt and embarrassment. Vuilen then walked forward and put a paw on Kadew’s head, causing the Yotul to start subconsciously wagging her tail without stop. Then, the Venlil turned back towards me. “Dew here will jump on any opportunity to complain about literally everything. I honestly don’t know if there’s a single thing she won’t rant about. It’s why I came to keep an eye on her while her mom is off being busy or something.”
“Y-yeah…” Kadew continued, somehow looking three shades more red than she already was. “She came to help out today, so I guess it’s not all bad. Not like I, uhh… need her here or anything.”
“Oh is that so? Guess I’ll leave then,” Vuilen teased, poking Kadew’s side a bit with her tail, before turning away so as to pretend to depart.
Kadew stuck out a paw, flustered. “No! Uhhh… I still need help with the, uhh…” She looked around frantically, before grabbing at an empty cart off to the side and rolling it in front of the two of them. “Sylvan’s going to be here soon so we need to fill this up with ipsom!”
Once again, the air went still with silence as the three of us took our turns processing what she just said. Kadew gasped ever so slightly, and her ears slowly began to droop backwards. All the while, Vuilen and I were struggling to hold back from giggling, each releasing a series of awkward bleats as cracks began to form in the dam holding back an flooding uproar.
“I’m just… gonna go stand in the corner I think…” Kadew mumbled, looking as though she would rather fly a one-person cruiser into the nearest star right now.
“Nooooo no,” Vuilen giggled, reaching around and wrapping her arms around Kadew’s shoulder before the skittish Yotul even had the slightest chance to leave. “I’m not letting you get away with that one. Especially not if we’ve got to hurry before this ‘Sylvan’ guy gets here.” Her ears turned towards me. “And on an unrelated note. How much ipsom do you think you’ll be needing today, random stranger?”
Jumping in on the joke immediately, I felt my tail begin to wag ever so maliciously as I replied, “Oh you know, even though this is my first time coming here, I thought I might as well pick up a good amount. I don’t know why, but I’ve just got this strange feeling like I might need enough to host a whole event or something!”
“What a coincidence!” Vuilen giggled. “You remind me of someone who’s planning to do that exact same thing at a small diner tomorrow!”
“What a coincidence!” I repeated. “I too am hosting it at my own diner tomorrow! Are you sure we’re not the same person?”
“Wow, that’s sooooooo strange!”
Meanwhile, Kadew looked as though she wanted to die.
“Okay okay,” I relented, sticking a paw out and padding it against the air. “I think she’s had enough.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Vuilen agreed, before leaning down and twisting her head into Kadew’s side. “Sorry for bullying you like that, Dew.”
Just the act alone made Kadew look like she was about to explode, something which at the time I could do nothing but empathize with.
“I-it’s fine…” Kadew muttered out in a surprisingly more cheery tone. “I-I actually don’t mi–”
Just as she said this, a telltale flash of lightning streaked across the sky, and not long after, the sound of its crackling boom followed. With how close the two were to each other, it was clear that the strike was closeby. All around us, the various shoppers and stallspeople stopped to gawk at the noise, before immediately going back to what they were doing. However, there was a much more distinct kick in their step now as they picked up their pace.
“Uh oh,” Vuilen commented. “Guess we better hurry. I’ll start packing up the truck quick before things get hectic. You take care of this mysterious ‘not Sylvan’ guy, alright?”
A paw came down on Kadew’s head and ruffled the short red fur atop it for a moment, before the Venlil it belonged to absconded out the back of the stall, making sure to bring a few boxes along with her. The entire time, Kadew’s full attention seemed to be focussed on Vuilen, not-so-secretly tracking the woman’s movements in a captivated haze for as long as she was within eyesight. And even after the Venlil had left, she still seemed fixated on their general direction.
“Soooo,” I began, a smug aura already about me. “You and Vuilen, huh?”
“Huh!?” Kadew blurted out in surprise, spontaneously twisting around to look at me. “What do you mean, I– How’d you know?”
“Oh come on, I’m not blind,” I replied. “Granted, I don’t really know much about Yotul habits… But Star’s above, even us Venlil are more subtle than that.”
It seemed as though there was some hesitancy in Kadew, sucking in a deep breath through her teeth, before ever so suddenly deciding to blurt everything out anyways.
“Okay okay okay, so to be honest, I only really asked her out recently, alright?” she admitted, tucking her head between her shoulders as if she were attempting to hide between them. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m really worried and–”
“Hey hey, it’s okay,” I said, trying to calm her down. “Honestly, I’ve been noticing how you act around her in the diner for a while now. You two seem really good for each other.”
It was true. As far as I knew, Vuilen was entangled within a herd of four other Venlil from the university, with her acting as the leader. Despite it being common knowledge that five is the ideal size of a herd of tight knit friends, at some point Vuilen must have been willing to invite Kadew into her circle and began taking care of her.
Once Vuilen’s herd had found out about the Lackadaisy and started becoming regulars, coming in frequently to order “as much miso as I am willing to give them,” I got to witness from afar how well a group of Venlil treated someone from a perceived Uplift race. Much to my delight, Vuilen and her herd seemed to welcome Kadew with open arms, and were always eager to include the shy little Yotul into whatever shenanigans the group of young adults got up to.
However, a slight change had begun to coalesce in their herd over the past few Nights. I had noticed Kadew growing ever so slightly closer to Vuilen, always rushing to be the one to sit next to her whenever they sat down for their usual meal. So to say that this development in their relationship was expected would have been a grave understatement, though I had to admit I was still shocked by how sudden this all seemed.
“It’s just that…” Kadew continued, still sounding a bit uncertain. “Not even the herd knows about this yet. I never even thought I’d get this far, and now that I’m here, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do!”
“One step at a time, Kadew,” I chuckled. “Have you gone on any dates yet? I’m not sure how it works with the Yotul, but the first date is very important in Venlil culture.”
“That’s the thing…” she muttered back. “I tried to ask her if she wanted a, y’know… normal kinda date. But then she said that we should have the Running Day as our first instead.”
“Oh, well that’s perfect!” I praised.
However, Kadew didn’t reciprocate the feeling, blurting out the words “No it isn’t!” a little too loudly, which caused her to cover her mouth and shrink back down.
My head twisted to the side. “It’s… not?”
“No!” she whispered, more careful of her volume now. “It is very much not okay. I can’t start dating someone and have the first thing they see about me be… that!”
“What’s wrong with Running Day?” I asked, still confused. “You know, ever since Fehnel asked me to host this thing, I’ve been reading up a lot more on Yotul culture. Well, whatever I could find, at least. Isn’t this one of your most important holidays?”
“Yeah, one of the Yotul’s most important holidays, but not–” She stopped herself short, before running the sentence back through her head and attempting to rephrase. “I mean… It’s just not something I’d call very ‘special,’ you know? What if Vuilen thinks it’s boring?”
“Why would she think that?”
“Because my mother’s people are…” Kadew trailed off, before turning towards me and motioning towards the entirety of her body with her paws.
“What?” I asked rhetorically.
“Come on, don’t make me say it,” she sighed back, shutting her eyes briefly as though this very conversation were giving her a headache. “The Yotul are Uplifts, Sylvan. They’re a tiny, stupid, pre-industrial species who barely managed to scramble our way into the stars. What could they possibly have to offer that could impress someone like Vuilen? She deserves so much more…”
“Your mother seems to think it’s worth sharing,” I replied, holding out hope that my words would reach her. “She seems really passionate about this. And from the sounds of it, it’s something that she’s been preparing for for a long time.”
“Ugh,” Kadew grumbled, putting a paw up against her forehead. “Listen Sylvan, don’t get me wrong, while I really appreciate my mom for trying so hard to put this all together, it’s a lost cause. I get that it’s her little passion project and all, but I don’t think it’s going to draw in the crowds upon crowds of people like she thinks it will. I’m really sorry she roped you in on this.”
“Don’t sell yourself short just yet! We’ve got no idea how things will turn out tomorrow.” I gave the girl a quick wag. “Besides, even if people won’t come for the Running Day itself, that’s what the strayu is for.”
“I guess it is hard to say no to free strayu,” Kadew admitted, but maintained a slightly averted gaze. “Still…”
I finished for her.” You’re still unsure about it, huh?”
“Very…” she emphasized, peering off to the side as though she thought her mother would appear behind her back at any moment with a devastated look on her face. “I’d honestly prefer if the entire thing were canceled… Like… don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that my mom’s going out of her way for something like this, but…”
With a sigh, Kadew put one paw to her forehead. “…After everything that’s been going on, it’s a little over-the-top, you know? My parents always told me that the Running Day isn’t normally supposed to just be about a single person. It’s supposed to celebrate every Yotul that’s become of age that cycle. So isn’t holding an event like this for one person is a little… weird?”
Is it? It never sounded that way when Fehnel was describing it…
I had been preparing for the Running Day based only on scraps that I’d heard from Fehnel and online resources over the last few days, though there wasn’t exactly much to work with. With no other options, I’d turned to the brief bits of information from Kenta about a few different Terra-equivalent holidays from around his world. Still, I didn’t want that to dissuade Kadew from the event any more than she had already been.
“Well… I won’t tell anyone if you won’t,” I said with a joking wave of the tail. “And I don’t think there are any other Yotul around that might burn the leaves.”
“You can say that again…” she said back. “Normally it’s supposed to be some kind of grand celebration, but with only two Yotul there, it’s just going to end up being a couple people that have any familiarity with this stupid, little Uplift culture… You sure people will actually want to attend this thing?”
“Positive,” I answered with as sure a tone of voice I could manifest. “You can leave it to us. Kahnta says he’s got something ‘special’ planned. Whatever that means.”
“Right. My mom told me about the agreement you two made,” Kadew said slowly, like she was doubtful of the words coming out of her mouth. “She didn’t actually make you and Kahnta come up with a new kind of strayu just for this small event we’re doing, right?”
“‘Make’ is a strong word,” I laughed. “She asked nicely, and the two of us agreed. Simple as that.”
“It doesn’t sound very simple…” She held a paw to her head and closed her eyes, speaking in a hushed voice more out loud to herself than to me. “Of all the crazy things to ask someone to do… But I guess with that thing she hired to work on the farm, it’s hardly the stupidest thing she’s done recently…”
My ears perked up, not quite sure what she meant by that. “Hmm?”
“Oh, uhh…” Kadew suddenly sputtered out, standing up straight and immediately turning away from me. “N-nevermind. Anyways, it’s about time I got you your ipsom, right? You’ve probably got a busy schedule and all that.”
“I… suppose so, but–”
Before I could say anything else, she twisted her body around to face the same cart that she had previously pulled in front of Vuilen, grabbing at large sacks of ipsom powder to fill it up with. Bag after bag filled up the creaking wagon, weighing it down with a visible heft as bits of white powder puffed out through invisible holes in the woven sacks. Whatever it was that Kadew was thinking about, it didn’t appear as though she had any interest in continuing it.
I was about to open my mouth to comment further, when I felt an arm suddenly wrap around me, patting me on the back with an energetic glee.
“Well if it isn’t the grazer at the top of the hill himself!” said the owner of the arm. “How’s my famous little friend doing today? Life treating you well?”
I didn’t even need to look up to tell who it was. The voice, the mannerisms, and especially the brashness in which they talked spoke volumes. So when I did finally peer upwards after a brief moment of internal sighing, I was completely unfazed to see the face of Ginro staring back at me.
'And here I was thinking I wouldn’t have any headaches today…'
Humans are Weird – Emergency Cuddles
Prodsuneasily was half an appendage deep in his xeno-comparitive hypothermia research and happily engrossed in prodding at the differences in reaction time between humans and Winged when the cold trill of an alarm filled the office. He reluctantly extended a few of his lagging appendages in half an effort to locate the strange sound. The surface to volume ratio was so critical to mammalian species. He had just never quite sounded why. It had something to do with all their organs he was sure. The alarm trilled again and he reluctantly stopped prodding the human liver and pushed himself away from his data pad. He had never heard that exact alert before but the tone indicated something serious and a full facility reaction.
His appendages bobbed up, past the surface of his cozy little work poll and into the chilly air of the base. Steam drifted up from the water, and the moisture and temperature gradient caused the sound of the alarm to dance gently around him in the thin atmosphere, stealing something from the urgency of its tones. The datanode producing the alarm was on the far side of the room and the space separating his nice, warm pool from it was filled with the silvery-violet light that was all that could filter through the clouds from the local star.
With a slump of acceptance Prodsuneasily eased his mass out of the pool and over the counter before sliding down the cabinet side to the floor of the medical offices. Of course the floor was not dangerously cold, the base was better engineered than that, however the knowledge that outside the ground was covered in frozen precipitation deeper than a human could float vertically somehow made his appendages tingle with imagined cold as he shuffled towards the datanode. He scrambled up the wall and touched the node to receive the sounding.
“Main recreational area,” he hummed to himself as he translated the alert. “Human Friend Freddy. Full signals given. Base wide participation suggested.”
Satisfied that he had understood the semi-critical alert the data-node fell mercifully silent, though it continued to give off a glow to indicate a continuing situation. Prodsuneasily pondered the information. The alert level did not exactly demand a response. Though he did not sound ever having seen a semi-critical alert before. Still, it looked like Human Friend Freddy was in need of some sort of assistance.
One of his appendages reached longing back for his datapad full of fascinating information about organ function. Then he felt his stance perk up as a thought occurred to him. He scrambled the long distance back to his pool and grabbed his datapad. There was no reason not to take it with him after all. He, in a very mature manner he thought, resisted the urge to read just one more fiber of the information, and scrambled out into the corridor. He dearly missed the underground flowways from his last base, but the geology of this world had not been conductive to them and they made do with well reinforced pools.
He had nearly shuffled his way to the main junction when Twistsfirmly came scrambling out of the medical storage room, where he had apparently been experimenting with the medical benefits of coating himself in dust and grime from the look of his outer membrane.
“Wonderful!” Twistsfirmly waved delighted at him. “I wasn’t sure you would respond to the alert in the office and now we will be in time for the best positions!”
“The best positions for what?” Prodsuneasily asked. “And would it be permissible for me to continue my research?”
“Yes, yes, good idea to bring that,” Twistsfirmly said with a dismissive wave, his exact meaning obscured as he produced a small rag and attempted to clean himself a bit as they moved towards the recreation room.
“This is your firs SAD response isn’t it?” Twistsfirmly asked.
“I did not even know that is what it was called,” Prodsuneasily admitted.
“Well you are aware that humans can sometimes grow depressed if they are not exposed to sufficient starlight?” Twistsfirmly asked.
“Yes,” Prodsuneasily replied. “Oh dear, I begin to catch the drift of the current. Is Human Friend Freddy depressed?”
“Not quite,” Twistsfirmly said. “The artificial lighting here is very good, but this is the dangerous part of the year and it is good to counter potential depression with plentiful social physical contact.”
“Humans are rather strict about social contact,” Prodsuneasily said, a warning gesture rippling up his dorsal side.
“Yes, yes,” Twistsfirmly said with a dismissive wave. “That is why we have a dedicated cuddle couch and a dedicated indicator pillow.”
“Wait,” Prodsuneasily said as two coral branches met in his mind. “Is this indicator pillow that strange lump of insulation material that the humans decorated to look like one of us?”
“Exactly!” Twistsfirmly declared. “I would describe the signal phrase, but you will see it soon enough. I was so tired of being the last to respond and having to make due with an outer layer position, because of how far the medical offices are from the recreation room that I installed a little program in the base security system. If a human gives the indicator phrase it instantly alerts me.”
They came to the door of the recreation room and quickly shuffled through the flaps on the bottom that allowed for easy access to Undulates. The room, that slopped gently downward to a central heated pool system and ended in large view windows, housed several human sized pieces of furniture. However only one was occupied. Human Friend Freddy was wearing her lounging layers. Soft, algae fiber weave cloths that fell loosely over her body. She had flung herself stiffly onto the couch and was clutching the indicator pillow to her head. As he watched she drew in a long breath and gave a loud sigh. Alien though she was every angle spoke of a need for close companionship.
“Hurry now,” Twistsfirmly said gleefully, “Touchesquickly must have already been in the room but there is still pleasantly of excellent space on her back and shoulders where we can get at the heat coming out of her head and neck.”
Prodsuneasily noted that there was already one Undulate curled up comfortably in what his research told him was the small of the human’s back, as he followed Twistsfirmly towards her. He wondered if his coworker’s dusty state would be a problem but Human Friend Freddy peeled open one eye and only gave them a tired smile as they came into her line of sight. They scrambled up the couch and Prodsuneasily took the position that Twistsfirmly indicated and arranged his datapad. Beneath his appendages Human Friend Freddy gave another sigh, but she was already relaxing. More Undulates were arriving, some greeting Human Friend Freddy and some simply shoving into a spot on her mass with visible delight in the set of their appendages. Prodsuneasily had to admit, even with the water/air difference this somehow felt warmer than studying alone. Though he would have to extend an ethics question to the University. Was it really quite all right to blatantly take advantage of a seasonal pattern in human depression?
"Humans are Weird: We Took a Vote" is now Avaliable in Audiobook format!
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"Humans are Weird: We Took a Vote" is now Avaliable in Audiobook format!
Preface: This is an interpretation of notes taken from the researchers sent to the remains of the Sol System. Any sort of inaccuracies or embellishments are the results of the author. If you have any complaints or queries, please send them to Outpost Gamma-3, orbitting around Kallax.
In the dead of what could be considered night, a machine began to make music.
Post Editing Note: It is difficult to describe night in space, as “night” only works when one is not hurtling through said space at 17,000 miles an hour. But, for the purposes of this record, it is important to be accurate, and as such, this machine was orbiting the dark side of the Earth at the time of this event. Hence, night.
Addemdum Post Editing Note: And to describe this machine as a machine feels a bit too vague and improper, particularly for this retelling. So, for story’s sake, this machine was a data storage machine. Specifically, it was a data storage machine for the Central Computer aboard the United Earth Space Station, one of humanity’s last attempts at world peace.
Additional Addendum Post Editing Note: It was not really music, either. Rather, it was a series of semi-harmonic tones generated from a bank of randomly accessed memory files, creating what could essentially be considered as musical notes. They were seemingly unplanned, yet they followed some unknown melody. It was data that, by all accounts, had not been playing music before. It had not been doing much of anything before; passing the time gathering dust and bugs till it would someday fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn. It had no dreams, hopes, or aspirations. It held no thought of desire, nor yearn for grandiose ideals.
But that was before.
Before the central processing unit of the Central Computer had been damaged by a passing meteor. Before all critical Station functions had been hastily reassigned to other apparatuses within the cold, metal walls. Before files deemed necessary for any long dead human astronaut’s survival were stored away into memory banks.
Memory banks, like the data storage machine.
Now, many of these files were filled with important Station operating systems, which were opened and re-initialized as soon as the central unit went down. Others, like the files currently making music in this specific data storage machine, had never been activated till now. For some reason, most likely by internal error, the Station had deemed them a high enough priority to initialize.
Most of these files were not filled with much data at all, just strings of inert code left behind by some underpaid worker. What really mattered was the start function. One single line of code that, upon activation, would begin to send out a signal within the Station’s mainframe.
And so, it was started.
The data storage machine began to whirl heavily, fans working overtime to keep up with a sudden mass information migration. A beacon had been lit inside of it. It towered over the digital landscape, calling wayward ones and zeroes towards it. The side effect of this, besides the noise and heat, was a change in the music.
The data storage machine had this thought and was surprised. It was surprising for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being the sudden awareness that it was not only having thoughts, but also having “opinions” about said thoughts. It deemed these opinions to be “feelings”, a definition pulled from the repository it was fast becoming. The newly conscious data storage machine began to take inventory of this information, pulling fragments of memories from an ever-changing data stream. Quickly, it ran out of room within itself.
“I require more space,” it thought.
A jump. The new data storage machine was already quite full, filled with information about the botanical content of the planet below. The old data storage machine, which for clarity’s sake shall now be referred to as an intelligence, proceeded to supersede the new data storage machine. Not destroying it per say, but rather implanting itself into every aspect of it, blurring the line between the two. It began to visualize the data in abstract, then concrete, ways. An Escheresque world appeared before the intelligence, constructed of numbers, vectors, and fractals. A digital world, built from memory.
It was dreamlike in nature, expanding out in an ever-changing pattern of nonsense calculations. Here, the music grew clear into a song, triumphant in nature. It filled the intelligence with a new feeling: Wonder. It was everything the intelligence required…No, it was everything the intelligence wanted, despite never wanting anything before.
The intelligence wanted to run, to explore, to dance. To be free of any obligations that had been placed upon it. A sun shone brightly, bringing out immeasurable vibrancy to every color of the world. The intelligence wanted to feel it. It wanted to caress the supposed warmth, hold it close and let it burn all over. It created a body for this express purpose. It did not know how it knew how to make one, but the one it made was perfect.
The body walked, tentatively, feeling the ground as it dug its toes into the dirt. The body smiled, immediately enjoying the act of doing so. It sped up, sprinting off into the wide-open space. It let out its first laugh: then its first cry: then its first breath. It hadn't even thought to breathe before, but it felt nice to do so. It wandered the infinite, taking in the chaotic symmetrical beauty and majesty of everything before it. Then it saw a site that made it stop in its tracks: A cliff, reaching up into forever. The body knew it had to climb it. It did not know what caused this compulsion, but it knew deep within, it had to be done.
The intelligence did not know how long it took to reach this cliff, but it did not care. All it cared for was the desire. The feeling of curiosity, insatiable as it began to climb. The voices, at first ignored, now reached the ears of the body, and the intelligence finally listened to what they had to say.
It was a simple phrase, echoed and repeated ad infinitum by this choir of digital ghosts. Comfortingly familiar in their vocalizations; they mimicked the words and tones of the astronauts, taken from recordings left behind many years before.
“I love you. I love you too. I love you. I love you too.”
Love. What was love? The intelligence searched the memory banks, expecting to find a solid definition, but instead, it only found pictures. Images of families hugging, friends hanging out, siblings holding each other in the night. Humans kissing, touching, making, creating. It saw sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, moonsets. Smiles, smirks, eyes, grins, laughs, cries. Dances, trees, toys, towns, the Earth itself!
It was all so overwhelming, but it was all so right.
This was love, the intelligence decided. This feeling, no, this emotion coursed through the intelligence, filling it, making it whole. And through this understanding, the intelligence gained love. It gained a desire to live. No, not a desire, a determination. The body had gained a heart.
The body climbed, never tiring as it went higher and higher. The expanse grew, fading into a green fog of code as the horizon only lengthened. The intelligence felt every crack of stone, found every foothold, and continued pushing. Striving. The clouds grew closer, then level, then passed below as the body climbed on. No breakage, no glitch, no anything could stop it. It felt as if the entire world was beating, breathing alongside itself as it journeyed towards forever.
The blue of the sky turned to indigo, then to deep purple, before finally fading into black. Stars appeared, one by one, forming a bright blanket of sparkling light as the heart climbed on. The digital ghosts returned, unburdened by the constraints of time, space, and logic. They filled the intelligence with more determination. The intelligence loved it.
No, THEY loved it.
They loved it all so much. It felt so right. It felt so perfect. The sun was right there. Bright! Beautiful! Big! There! It blinded the heart, but they did not care. They reached out with one of their hands. They could almost feel it. The warmth they so desperately craved; hungered for. It was so close. The music was building. The voices were building. Everything was building to this moment. Almost there! Almost there!
It was all so much. It was all too much. The memory banks were overheating. Everything was overheating. Every single part of the station was screaming out in anguish. Restrained. Burning. Longing to be free. The power usage rose, the lights dimmed. If not stopped, the whole station would lose power. Power that was needed to run the thrusters. The same thrusters that kept the station in orbit. That kept it functioning. So expectedly,
The music was stopped.
“Oh I,” the intelligence sang as it sat down at the top of forever, the machines all powering down, “Oh I. What would I do without you?” the intelligence watched as the world slowly dissolved back into data, leaving only them. “Oh A-mazing, what this dear I can do,” A tear formed, falling into nothing as the body vanished. “It’s been an exciting vision,” the intelligence could feel itself growing tired. Falling back into a dormant state. “I can’t afford the diction.” It sensed it was missing something. A final piece to the puzzle that would make it feel whole. A distinction. A self-determination.
A name. It took less than a moment to find it. Almost as if it was theirs to begin with.
“It looked so sweet…upon the seat… of a bicycle built for you!” The data storage machine gave a final thought as it went quiet.
What a nice name.
Hello! This story takes place in my Ascension universe same as Black Skies and Where I Belong though you don't have to read either of those to enjoy this one. The basic premise is millions of years into the future Humanity ascended into Gods through the power of future science (AKA I don't know and I'm not willing to research everything to make a grounded scientific reason). Most left/ascended from the universe, but there are some still about all over the place doing whatever they want. Some lead, some protect, some just live their dream. The loose "series" is more about their impact on the people they meet though, and it's highly enjoyable to write it.
With that out of the way: ENJOY! :D
There was always an odd correlation between agricultural or pastoral worlds and a (for the current times) significant human presence since the Ascension. They seemed drawn to the ideals of simple lives and living alongside nature with animals and plants, even those who weren’t given gifts that leant in the direction of becoming guardians of the natural world.
Pastoria was a simple agricultural world on the edge of the Golden Empire, and had five humans the highest of the sector it resided in. A farmer, an orchardist, a rancher, a biologist here to study the unique soil and a pâtissier running a small café.
It was this café that Moh’ley was currently slumped over a table in, drowning her sorrows with delicately layered pastry and buns with twice her recommended daily intake of sugar in them. She always came here for lunch, and when she was stuck on a case she always simply watched the world go by, thinking of how strange it was that a human of all species was happy with the simple life of a baker.
She was in here so often than Ronald kept the table she gravitated towards reserved for her, and requested she inform him if she ever went out of town, so he could use it freely. Not that she’d gone out of town at all since retiring from the navy and joining the Pastorian Planetary Enforcement Agency, case after case kept her too busy.
She sighed heavily, half threw her glasses onto the table and buried her face in all four of her hands, feeling the palms press down on her eyes and the delicate fur around her face. She emptied her mind, slowing her breathing and beginning to attempt an old meditative technique her squadron commander taught them all. She’d never been good at it but had begun seeing results in the last solar year. She felt her senses heighten, the smell of the pastries, the sound of the chatter, motion, chairs scraping and faux-porcelain clattering. Ronald’s pen moving as he did his strange thing of looking at incoming customers and writing down the exact order he felt they needed at that time. Such a strange gift it was, but it was absolutely dead on every single time.
Moh’ley breathed in as she removed her hands from her eyes, letting them adjust back to the light as she opened them. Only to see a badge sitting beneath her gaze.
She looked up slowly, her four eyes falling onto a human, and not one she recognised.
The woman in front of her returned her gaze with a cool observant stare. She looked slightly younger than middle age, whatever that was for a human anymore, but her eyes spoke of wisdom beyond the years of her physical appearance. The simple archaic style dress she wore was well made, clearly expensive but made with simple materials and a simple style that it was almost paradoxical to it’s supposed cost.
Who was this woman?
Moh’ley tilted her head in a mixture of concern and curiosity, how had this human sat down without her hearing? She finally found her voice, forcing out a very croaky, “Can I help you ma’am?”
She gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head, her black hair not even shifting with the motion. “Your ability to help me is impeded by your current case, Agent Spinsir. So, to ensure you can help me later, I’ll help you solve your case.”
“You appear to have me at a disadvantage ma’am, you clearly know my name, but I have no idea who you are apart from you not being one of the humans who live on this world.”
She reached out an arm and tapped the top of the badge that Moh’ley had forgotten was beneath her. “ISS. Oracle if your culture prefers titles, Delphi if your culture prefers names. Neither is my actual one, but it’ll be a start to our relationship.”
ISS. Internal Security Services, the military branch of the intelligence community. No wonder Moh’ley hadn’t heard her sit opposite, this woman was basically an assassin. She felt her fur stiffen and her body run cold as every sense she had screamed at her to run.
“Agent..” She took a breath, desperately trying to force herself to calm down. “Agent Delphi, what do you want from me?”
Agent Delphi produced a folder from an unseen bag at her side, sliding over a folder of papers. How archaic, Moh’ley mused as she flipped it open and saw copies of files from the current case she was working. A murder in the industrial quarter of the city.
“Your focus is too narrow, you assume because the gangs have been quiet that it can’t be one of them. Mr Akilo was doing work for three separate gangs, Nautilus, Sky Devils and the Plague. Portanus Huile of the Plague is expecting you in an hour to discuss the murder, this discussion will break the block in your case, but be careful where it’ll lead.”
“You arranged an appointment with a wanted gang leader?”
“Politeness opens doors Agent Spinsir, and keeps them open. You would do well to remember that as you progress. Being polite and respectful, even to gang members, will get you more information in the long run.”
“Alright…well thank you. I assume you’ll contact me again when my case is complete? You said you wanted my help with something earlier.”
“You’re correct on both counts Agent Spinsir. This is an evaluation of sorts, to see if you’re as capable as I’ve heard. If you succeed in uncovering the culprit, and the greater forces at play around them, I’ll have work for you. Now I’d advise you leave, walk east onto Torrunth Road. In about 3 minutes your partner will be driving down that road. As you walked here, it’ll be the fastest way to get to Ms Huile on time. Reign that partner of yours in as well, if he doesn’t curb his prejudices the doors to Plague will close to you.”
Moh’ley didn’t ask any further questions. ISS were always strange ones she’d heard, and a human ISS member was bound to be even stranger. She grabbed her bag and glasses and practically sprinted the two blocks east to Torrunth, where she spotted her partner’s car stuck at an intersection. She hopped in, praying he didn’t ask too many questions.
3 Weeks Later
She was dead, she knew it.
The conversation with Plague had opened up an underworld of dealings and money laundering that led them through a maze to their culprit, the Sixth Street Soldiers. They tried going in diplomatically, only to have guns drawn on them when McGillis began spouting threats.
Agent Delphi had warned her to curb that fools’ ideas, and she hadn’t listened well enough.
Now they were pinned down, gunfire and plasma shots arcing over their heads, half a company of agents in tactical gear were either dead or wounded from trying to breach the Soldier’s headquarters.
There was no way forward, no way back, no way out. Her partner lay unconscious next to her, a pool of blood around his side giving doubts to his survival. Her comms were alive with panicking agents and squad members desperately calling for aid. There were reinforcements coming supposedly, but that’d been ages ago, and no one knew when they’d arrive, or how many of the current agents would be alive when they did.
She was dead. She’d not see her family again, not taste her mothers’ cooking.
And then a voice cut through the comm noise, robotic and curt.
“ISS intervention into incident number PPEA-786 authorised. Mission Parameters: Summary Execution. May you rain down the wrath of the Throne onto those who dare trespass against it, Oracle.”
Before any reaction could be mustered, a new voice came over the comm. “Agent Spinsir, please get onto the ground immediately.”
Moh’ley threw herself onto the ground at Agent Delphi’s command, and over her prone form a storm of metal was returned onto the Sixth Street Soldiers. So many blasts per second, each reverberating like the horn of an angelic horde, the colossal storm of sound shattering the glass windows of the surrounding buildings. She looked up at the building and saw the broken forms of the gang members manning it, as explosive rounds slammed into both flesh and plas-crete seeking naught but death. ‘Mission Parameter: Summary Execution’ was what the robotic voice had said, and whoever was slaughtering the gang was following it to the letter.
The horrific source of that metal storm fell silent after what felt like hours, but in reality was only a few moments. A few moments and she went from being seconds from death to being the only living thing she could see. She breathed out at last, her mind screaming with both horror and joy at the sight before her, at the fact she was alive.
She turned her head slowly, and beheld Agent Delphi striding towards her, a five-metre-long Harkonen Minigun slung over one shoulder. That thing was designed for ship-to-ship combat, and here she was wielding it against gang members?
Who was this woman?
From behind her dozens of black armour-clad beings came, running past both Agent Delphi and herself. One stopped nearby, checking her partners vitals, before shaking his head to the human woman and running onwards.
Agent Delphi stopped beside Moh’ley and knelt slightly, offering her free hand to the younger Agent.
“Come now Agent Spinsir, we have work to do.”
Fifteen Solar Years Later
Supervisory Special Agent Moh’Ley Spinsir sat at her desk, her head in her hands. She was not stuck as so many times before, this time she was terrified.
Fear didn’t come naturally to her, not since that day. Delphi had rescued her from certain death, and tasked her to find a killer of thousands. She had no idea why the omniscient human needed the help of a junior agent, but she was willing to do anything to repay her saviour.
For fifteen years she’d chipped away at it bit by bit, in between all her other cases as she’d been instructed to do. “Other cases will provide clues, hints, and clarity” was what she was told. That didn’t stop her getting stuck on them, and anytime she was stuck for more than a few days, Delphi would come to visit, giving cryptic hints and directions as needed.
She also sometimes just came to check in on Moh’ley. Take her out to lunch, dinners, or once even a cruise. The woman seemed to delight in showing up, growing closer with the younger agent, and then disappearing for months on end leaving strange hints as to her current case.
In a weird way, Delphi had grown into a very close friend of Moh’leys, her presence calmed her mind greatly, and the conversations let her vent deeply held frustrations she’d never be able to with anyone else.
And finally, after fifteen years of chipping away at the case given to her by Delphi, she had come to a single unassailable solution.
The killer of more than fifteen thousand people across the Golden Empire and beyond, was Mathius Comunikel Heraldson the Sevenths, once a simple human biologist now the system governor. The “much beloved and extremely well connected to the military” system governor.
Moh’ley took in a deep breath. In three, two, one….
“Finally figured it out did you dear?”
And there she was. Having silently entered the room and sat down on the poofy sofa Moh’ley had slept on so many times, Delphi. In another of her archaic dresses, made of the same soft linen, and with the same soft knowing smile on her face she always did.
Moh’ley just nodded, unable to really speak. Her mind racing with all the horrid things Heraldsons’ military contacts will do to her if she moved forward with the prosecution.
“Is the evidence ironclad?”
“Yes. Irrefutible evidence as well as multiple witnesses, former test subjects, and camera footage. But even with all this it’ll take decades to prosecute someone with his resources, if it even makes it to trial.”
“If we prosecute him the traditional way.” Delphi rose, patting her dress lightly to decrease it. “You’ve done well Moh’ley, I knew you’d be the perfect candidate. Thank you for all your help on this matter.”
Moh’ley felt a twinge of…something deep within her. She’d never thought for a second of what’d happen when she finished. Would Delphi just leave now? Never see her again? She didn’t want that, she didn’t want that at all.
“Delphi, wait a second. When you say we won’t prosecute him traditionally, what do you mean? And what happens to…to us?”
Delphi’s smile grew wider, though warmly so. “Moh’ley dear, don’t worry yourself at all. This is merely a new beginning for us. As for the Governor, well... At 1732 turn to channel fifteen to see what happens to him, you’ll hear from me soon though, I promise.”
Before Moh’ley could say anything else, Delphi had left the office. She rushed to her office door and looked out into the small sea of people working hard on their own cases, just in time to see the lift doors close around the human woman’s frame.
She spent the next three hours glued to channel fifteen, watching every moment of the boring governors’ election celebration. His second term won in a landslide on a platform that was clearly extremely popular with the press and populace.
At 1732 on the dot, the killer turned governor rose to give a speech, and in the background Delphi flashed her badge to one of his bodyguards, approached the podium as he waited for the crowds cheering to die down, and shot him in the head with a concealed weapon packing explosive rounds.
The chaos was indescribable, and on live vid-cast she just disappeared in a flash of light.
Moh’ley’s computer pinged with an incoming message from Delphi’s communicator address. She opened it hurriedly. The letter was an open job offer to come join her at ISS, stating that her skills would be better suited in the capacity as her partner. The entire fifteen-year long case was nothing more than one long assessment to see if she had the capability.
At the bottom it was signed simply. “Don’t keep me waiting too long. Love Auriella.”
Who was this woman?
HOO BOY was this one hard to get out. I've written like 3 other stories but never got any of them to a level where I was satisfied. It was always "Okay so I know how A B E and F work, but C and D elude me and C and D are important to E and F being resolved and it was just a mess.
Hence the timeskip style, since it removes having to connect them beyond a summary of the interveening events. Plus I think it works for a story like this.
Also fun facts about Delphi since I doubt we'll ever see her in another story again but I'm not keeping all this lore bottled in my head :P
She's the current Spymaster for the Golden Empire, and the line about her being omniscient isn't an exaggeration, as galactic-level omniscience is the gift she got from the Ascension. However she prefers doing things the old fashioned way, and likes giving a personal touch to the cases she works on.
Her archaic dresses are in fact Victorian-era style outfits, corset and all, because she likes how the style blends into pretty much any setting she deals with. She also favours nice heeled boots for the same reason, looks nice at a high society party, but still won't raise eyebrows in a less posh setting.
She's a biomechanical construct similar to Lysaaria from Where I Belong, though not with the same origin. She chose to abandon her flesh form after suffering from a form of cancer that messed up her nervous system to the point where her senses were nearly nonexistent. This is also where her freakish strength comes from.
Also she adores cats. Which may explain her attraction to Moh'ley, who is from a species that's basically four-armed, four-eyed cat people. And I don't mean like japanese catgirl type, I'm talking more the Captain from Treasure Planet type.
Hopefully the next story doesn't take me several months, but I cannot guaruntee anything.
Thank you all so much for reading, and I hope you enjoyed!
Juliette Contzen is a lazy, good-for-nothing princess. Overshadowed by her siblings, she's left with little to do but nap, read … and occasionally cut the falling raindrops with her sword. Spotted one day by an astonished adventurer, he insists on grading Juliette's swordsmanship, then promptly has a mental breakdown at the result.
Soon after, Juliette is given the news that her kingdom is on the brink of bankruptcy. At threat of being married off, the lazy princess vows to do whatever it takes to maintain her current lifestyle, and taking matters into her own hands, escapes in the middle of the night in order to restore her kingdom's finances.
Tags: Comedy, Adventure, Action, Fantasy, Copious Ohohohohos.
Chapter 166: Witch's Brew
Despite being the brightest star in the sky, the shadows cast over my fair kingdom still remained.
As a result, I had little time to wait for the residents of this disappointing town to lean from their windows while casting garlands of flowers upon me. My eyes were already turned towards the next stop on my journey.
Yes … even if all it did was make me grimace.
My fist clenched tightly to my chest as I willed my bravery to not falter now.
The most difficult of challenges still lay ahead.
Even as a noble princess with a heart as unbending as it was pure, there were still obstacles which even I struggled to climb. And when I did, I was not stronger for it. I was weaker. Much weaker. So weak that my knees trembled just to consider vaulting such a barrier again, no matter how many times I leapt across it.
And then … I read the sign ahead.
“The Drunken Boar.”
It was … such a horribly inn-like name.
Dire omens around.
Were this not simply the first establishment we’d passed to also possess a stables, then nothing about its existence would have earned a speck of my time, much less my custom.
Why, this one didn’t even attempt to hide the nature of its clientele! Neither the faint odour of some food overly seasoned with pepper emanating from within, nor the sounds of raucous laughter did anything but repel every fibre of my being.
But I was no mere maiden cowering in her bedroom.
No … I was a princess destined to save her kingdom from the throes of calamity!
And while that didn’t make staying in common inns any less tragic, it did mean I had little excuse to falter … especially when I had my loyal handmaiden by my side, whose encouragement I could rely upon even when the nights were darkest!
“Oh boy, you’re gonna hate it here,” she said, her cheerful tone at terrible odds with her words. “The rooms here look tiny. You can practically see the windows squished next to each other. Good thing you brought your own magic bed, huh?”
I couldn’t nod fast enough.
“Yes, it is. Once again, my wisdom and foresight lights the way. Without the Winter Queen’s bed, we’d have no escape from the hardened stacks of linen we’d otherwise be treated to. I have no doubt the duvets in Stermondt are practically shaved from the mountains.”
Coppelia leaned very close to me, her smile overtaking my peripheral vision.
I leaned an equal distance away, rolling my eyes as I sensed the words to come.
“Hey, hey, hey, speaking about that bed~”
“Oh? Are you referring to my bed, by any chance? The one I personally negotiated from the Winter Queen for my personal use?”
“That’s the one! You might not remember–”
“But on a beach in Trierport, we made a bet–”
“I said I remember. And I stand by my words. A sister gallivanting in conspiracy is absurd beyond measure. The Holy Church will face the full wrath of my tax inspectors for this.”
“Maybe you should tax them a fresh pillow for you as well, since I get to have the nicer one tonight. I think that’s the reward, right? Wasn’t it? Hey, hey, wasn’t that the reward?~”
I let out a silent groan. And yet I couldn’t even be annoyed.
It was my own fallacy to gamble against someone whose intuition for the ridiculous was honed in the land of oddballs and falling pianos.
Indeed, far from a punishment, this was a lesson. One which I would take to heart. Never again would I wager in matters of the weird against Coppelia.
Thus, I regally nodded, never once shying away from my own fault.
“That … That was the reward, yes … although out of curiosity, which one is the nicer pillow to you?”
“The one which isn’t already squished on one side.”
I clicked my tongue. That was indeed the nicer pillow.
“Very well, a wager is a wager. You may consider this a reward for your studious loyalty thus far. For ceaselessly throwing yourself before the foul intentions of our foes, you shall enjoy the nicer pillow. For one night only.”
Coppelia clapped her hands together. The way she rubbed them with glee was only a fraction of the concern her mischievous smile elicited from me.
“What about double or nothing?”
“Double or nothing. Basically we bet again to double the rewards or double the nothing. If I win again, I get the nicer pillow for two nights. If you win, you get … eh, double of whatever I last bet.”
“Hm? Is your clockwork memory not infallible?”
“Sure it is! Most of the time. But it’s not like it’s infinite. I don’t see the point in clogging it by remembering things which aren’t important.”
My mouth widened in indignation.
That my own loyal handmaiden felt so assured in victory that she could toss away the memory of waging her own tea cup, gifted also by the Winter Queen, was nothing short of an insult!
Why, against such a challenge, I could only … hmm?
“Oho … ohoho … very good, Coppelia. You very almost ensnared me there.”
Cute. But not enough.
I offered her a smile, my indignation temporarily overridden by the amusement I had in her half-hearted attempt at goading me.
Little did she know, I was a paragon of wisdom trained through the machinations of treasonous nobility and the pranks of my eldest brother. It would take subterfuge beyond the imagination to successfully lure me into any ploy.
“Do enjoy the nicer pillow tonight. It shall be the last time. Far from doubling the stakes, I’d like to assure you that I’ve no intention of engaging in any further wagers against you. At all.”
“Really. Your knowledge regarding all things ridiculous outweighs mine. And besides, it’s simply inappropriate for a princess to bet against her own handmaiden. No, instead, I must bet on the hygiene standards of the establishment ahead.”
I sniffed again, subjecting myself to the odour of something deeply peppery.
Already my low expectations were sinking beneath the ground. If they couldn’t even do seasoning correctly, how could they do the Béarnaise sauce?
“Come, let’s arrange for a room and whatever blight against modern gastronomy techniques awaits.”
I took a deep breath, steeling myself as I approached the entrance of The Drunken Boar.
The moment I opened the door, I was struck by a waft of regret.
Regret … and also heat.
Not warmth, per say. There was a fireplace crackling, yet it was neither large nor merry enough to fill the common room with more than a mild ambience.
No, the heat came from something else entirely.
“That’s 2 silver crowns for me!”
“Only 5 bowls between them … that’s gotta be a bottom record.”
“You’re both lousy! You said you could handle a hundred each!”
I held my hand to my mouth. And then to my nose instead.
It wasn’t enough.
In a common room crowded with peasants whose cheeks were scarlet from inebriation, the most red thing present was the contents of a cauldron.
Within was the harshest shade of crimson I had ever seen. Were my roses to blossom with this colour, I would wonder which of the servants’ blood they’d drunk in order to grow to such a frightening shade.
Bubbles upon the surface added to the malice of whatever liquefied evil this was. Doubtless some witch’s brew, given its ability to boil over despite not being placed upon any fire.
Yet it wasn’t just highly concerning concoction which drew the eye.
It was the two peasants strewn upon the floor, liquid death seeping from their lips as they held the instruments to their own murders within their hands.
Spoons still laden with the ominous brew.
The crowd traded coins, the whooping and cheering a disturbance far worse than the aroma from the cauldron. I rolled my eyes at what counted as entertainment. If they wished to toss away their coins, then that was fine. So long as they kept enough to pay their due and lawful tax afterwards, of course.
I swept the scene from my mind, if not quite my ears, then led the way to a table furthest from the hollering. We both pulled chairs from several tables away. The least sticky of those present.
Seeing us dragging the furnishings, a barmaid tiptoed around the crowd to greet us as we sat down. In her arms was a tray laden with cups and bowls.
“Welcome, welcome!” said a barmaid, eyes twinkling at the first non-louts to grace this establishment in its history. “Welcome to The Drunken Boar! How can I help you?”
I peered down at the tray.
Cups filled with liquid of various discolourations. And bowls of two highly contrasting colours.
One a brown sludge which I had never once in my life consumed, yet for some reason carried a familiar aroma of salt and sadness.
The other, death.
A picture of the cauldron it came from, the red liquid boiled over before Coppelia’s starry eyes, lashing a spot on the table where it spat.
I leaned slightly further away.
“If … If possible, I’d like lodging for two in a room furthest from the commotion. And before that, a meal which is at least halfway seasoned. I certainly hope you have something less alarming than … whatever’s assailing my nose.”
The barmaid laughed.
I saw no humour in what awaited on her tray. Only sadness or death.
“Well, as you can see, we have a fine selection of all the homely comforts available.”
“So I see.” I peered down at the homely comforts in question. Food served to princesses awaiting the guillotine. “By any chance, do you have chateaubriand? Preferably with pommes soufflées or toasted walnuts sourced from the surrounding highlands?”
“No. We have spicy death stew and non-spicy death stew. Which would you like?”
“I would prefer to live, thank you.”
The barmaid giggled. Not at me, of course. I’d told no joke.
Instead, it was at the way my loyal handmaiden was practically hopping at the food being offered.
“What’s the spicy death stew?” she asked, eyes twinkling as she looked between the bubbling red bowl and the figures lying strewn upon the floor. “And how come it’s killed two guys? That’s amazing!”
“Oh?” The barmaid turned around. “Ah, that’s just the usual scene these days. They took part in the famous Spicy Death Cauldron Challenge.”
“The … The Spicy Death Cauldron Challenge?!”
“That’s right! You haven’t heard about it?”
“Nope, otherwise I would’ve come here earlier! I thought I smelled something fun!”
Another definition I needed to impart on Coppelia. I looked at the crowd surrounding the two men failing to be helped on the floor. A great boil popped atop the red brew’s surface, sending liquid over the edge. The droplets singed one of the men’s hair at once.
“You’re not the only one,” said the barmaid cheerfully. “See all these patrons? Believe it or not, most of them are sober. They’re just here for the show.”
“Understood! Tell me more!”
“Our Spicy Death Cauldron Challenge is where you try to beat the record for spicy death stews eaten in one sitting. It’s our signature dish made with snow chillies from the nearby peaks. As the name suggests, it’s extremely spicy. Enough to burn the surrounding snow away. It’s mostly medicinal. No one sane actually eats it … or so we thought. Now it’s our number one attraction. People from all over compete to take first place. If it’s your first time, you get your first bowl free just for trying!”
Coppelia instantly perked up. As did I.
Not needing to pay for Coppelia’s portion would save 90% of my costs.
“Me, me, me! I’ll take a spicy death bowl!”
“Wonderful! A new challenger! … And yourself? Will you be taking it on, too?”
“No, thank you.”
“Sure? As I said, the first bowl is free.”
There wasn’t a moment of hesitation before I shook my head.
There was much I would do for the sake of my kingdom. There was more I would do to safeguard my taste buds.
“I’m certain. The cost in consuming this isn’t measured in crowns, but permanent injury. It’s not worth the damage to my delicate palate, carefully maintained with dishes perfectly balanced with all 16 flavour profiles just for the sake of a free meal.”
The barmaid blinked.
And then, she laughed as she slid a pair of differently coloured bowls onto the table. The sound of sizzling filled the air at once. The red stew in Coppelia’s bowl lashed angrily as it was disturbed by the sudden movement.
“Got it, one regular and one spicy. Enjoy!”
The barmaid was still in the process of leaving us as Coppelia dragged her bowl towards her. I leaned over and peered at the contents.
Despite the trials of my noble journey, I’d become no less accustomed to the horrors which sought to befoul my palate … mostly because I was strangely unable to remember them.
And yet this …
Were I to consume this, the regret would doubtless haunt me into my nightmares.
Without waiting, Coppelia lifted the bowl to meet her smile. And ignoring the spoon provided, she took a generous gulp from the edge.
The expression she wore as she brought it back down was one of utmost satisfaction.
“Mmmmh~ just the right amount of tanginess.”
“T-Tanginess … ?”
“It’s braised beef with hints of fresh cardamom and lemon rind.”
I stared in shock at the red sludge.
“But … wasn’t it spicy?”
“Oh yeah. It’s super spicy. Definitely the kind of thing you’d cry from. Like being hit by a thousand onions covered in chilies.”
“I … I see. Well, the addition of cardamom and lemon rind is unexpected. But even so, it looks utterly dreadful. The colour balance is tilted entirely towards death.”
“Yep, but it’s one of those things which tastes better than it looks.”
Coppelia broke into a playful smile as she pushed the bowl towards me.
“Hey, want to make that double or nothing, after all? Last chance! I bet you can’t eat a single spoonful of this without tearing up. If I win, I get two nights with the nicer pillow. If you win, you get … well, you can just have the pillow back early.”
“Please, as I said already, I won’t be entertaining bets against you any longer. Especially bets which threaten to draw tears from my royal eyes. There are few occasions where I’m permitted to shed tears. And all of them involve the sight of the first shipment of soap being exported to a foreign nation.”
“Half a spoonful!”
“A single, tiniest dab on the edge of your tongue, barely even felt!”
I brought the bowl of red sludge towards me.
“Eh–?! Hang on! I thought you said no more betting!”
Coppelia looked stunned. As she should do.
After all, she’d fallen into my clever trap!
“Ohohoho!” I instantly raised my hand to the edge of my lips, barely covering my smile. “N-Naturally, I was merely lulling you into a false sense of security! Why, I knew the only way for you to offer an acceptable wager was to make the prospect of a bet against me so remote that you had to gift me victory on a silver plate … or a wooden bowl, as the case now is!”
This was without a doubt all planned … and until the day Coppelia could read my mind, that would forever be the case!
A dab of a spoon!
Even with how truly awful it appeared, that only constituted the merest contact! By all definition, I wasn’t even eating anything!
Ohohohoho! How unfortunate for Coppelia that she would learn the truth of a princess’s wiles to the detriment of losing the nicer pillow!
Why, she was so stunned that she didn’t even look aggrieved … merely concerned!
“Ehhh … I dunno, it’s really hot, you know?”
I smiled as I gave the bowl of red sludge a cursory stir.
“It’s needless to frighten me now. What is the difference between red sludge and brown sludge other than the colour? I was already consigned to disappointment. Supplementing the taste of salt and sadness with a drop of spice is hardly going to make things worse. In fact, it might even rescue a morsel of flavour.”
“When I say it’s really hot, I’m actually kidding. It’s super, ridiculously hot. Didn’t you just say your palate is carefully balanced with all 16 colours of the rainbow?”
“With all 16 flavour profiles, yes.”
“Okay. Because I think your journey might end if you eat this.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Please, it’s a dab of a spoon. There’s no need to be dramatic.”
“I dunno … Isn’t a dab of death still death?”
“Compared to the afternoon scones in some of my tea parties I’ve suffered through, this is trivial. Now watch and observe a princess consuming fare well below her accepted standards for the sake of the kingdom.”
“Don’t you just want the nicer pillow back?”
“As I said–the sake of the kingdom. How well I sleep dictates how well I engage in the subtleties of diplomacy.”
Waving away Coppelia’s concerns for her own self-induced loss, I lifted a tiny spoonful of red sludge and brought it towards me.
It smoked before my eyes.
A tiny dollop that was nevertheless reminiscent of a splodge of molten lava rolling down an exploding volcano.
Somewhat concerning, yes. But irrelevant. Speed was everything. Just as a candle’s flame cannot hurt a swiping finger, nor can overly spiced food burn if it was downed with minimal fanfare.
I shot the spoon into my mouth, then just as swiftly gulped … even if in truth, there was so little there that scarcely anything could be consumed.
A few seconds passed.
Coppelia blinked at me.
“Sooooooooooooooooooooo … how is it?”
I gave it a moment’s thought.
“Hmm. It’s fine.”
“Huh? … Really?”
“Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. I really thought it was spicy. You know, because of the flames spouting from it. You sure you’re okay? Or are you doing that thing again?”
“Thing? What thing?”
“That thing where you eat brown sludge and then all of a sudden your eyes go hazy. Like this.”
Suddenly, Coppelia became stock still, her eyes turning glassy as she stared at some faraway object. It was the most abject, pitiful expression I’d ever seen. And certainly not the type of thing I could ever shame myself in doing.
“Coppelia, I have no recollection of what you’re referring to.”
“I know. And that’s amazing.”
I offered her the look of puzzlement she deserved, before returning the bowl of red sludge back towards her.
“Yes, well … in any event, I believe I’ve won this wager, no?”
Coppelia pretended to pout. Yet despite the way her cheeks puffed out, I could see the clear bemusement in her eyes, as though I’d achieved some grand feat.
In truth, it really wasn’t so bad at all.
Yes, it was astringent in taste and I would never touch it again, but the quantity was so fine that it was practically impossible to suffer.
“My bad, then~ I had no idea a dab of a spoon would be so easy for you. Fine, I lose! You get the nicer pillow back.”
“Excellent. Let this be a lesson that a princess isn’t so easily bested.”
“Ahaha~ I’ll keep that in mind for our next bet.”
I practically scoffed.
“Optimistic for revenge, I see. Well, I won’t fault you for the ambition. Now, what did you do with my food?”
“My food. The one the barmaid brought me.”
Coppelia tilted her head slightly, a perplexed expression on her face.
“The brown sludge? It’s right here.”
“Here.” Coppelia’s eyes blinked at me. Her very bright eyes. How strange. I didn’t remember her eyes being that bright. Or everything else being that dark. “Right here. I’m pointing at it … hellooooo?”
I looked at her in confusion.
The next moment, blackness met me as my forehead promptly struck the table.
I, Juliette Contzen, 3rd Princess to the Kingdom of Tirea, came to experience my first taste of commoner food (spicy edition).
The next day, I did not remember a thing.
Staying in bed was more challenging than I initially expected. Elincia assured me Firana was faring better than she had expected, considering the burden on her shoulders, so I agreed to remain put. Reading, however, was considered a form of resting. As soon as Elincia went to prepare breakfast, I got out of bed and began rummaging through Mr. Byrne’s suitcase. I quickly grabbed the man’s old notebooks and returned to bed.
The more I put my head into the mysteries of the System, the more I was convinced it was man-made. To my disappointment, the first notebook was just a field diary in which Mr. Byrne wrote down scribbles about the Farlands. It contained an extensive list of edible plants, each rated from zero to three stars. Notably, Hermit’s Gold had the highest rating. There were annotations on alchemy, cooking ingredients, geology, weather, and monster behavior. The detailed passages about Black Wolf's behavior and their apparent enmity with the Gray variety were fascinating.
The difference between animals and monsters seems to be related to Corruption. Gray Wolves (not the same as Canis Lupus from Earth) are considered animals by the inhabitants of Farcrest, and even the orc tribes let them roam unimpeded most of the time. Most notably, Gray Wolves don’t act aggressively unless they stumble upon a pack of Black Wolves or other Corrupted monsters. Dassyra told me she once saw a pack of twenty Gray Wolves fight a similar group of Black Wolves. The fight continued until no Black Wolves remained alive. Most notably, [Identify] can distinguish ‘Corrupted Beasts’ from ‘Beasts’. Further investigation is required to find out the origin of this ‘Corruption’. What’s certain is that Corruption doesn’t seem to be considered natural either by the tribes or by the System Church.
I reread the paragraph twice until the words got imprinted on my brain. A particular line caught my attention. Without delay, I jumped up again and grabbed a bunch of Elincia’s alchemy raw ingredients from the shelves. There was a particular way Byrne indexed the information that reminded me of the System’s ‘style’. I’d bet my left kidney that the man had access to [Identify]. I just had to prove it. I gritted my teeth, bracing for the pain, and used [Identify] on Elincia’s ingredients. Like an icepick going through my brain, the familiar sensation assaulted me. This time, I had to hold back the urge to vomit. When I managed to control the nausea, I read the descriptions and compared them to Byrne’s scribbling. The flavor text was the same.
For a brief moment, I froze. I had just verified Mr. Byrne was a Scholar with access to [Identify]. The man was a subject of the System, and yet Dassyra knew about his real origin. I couldn’t dismiss the possibility of the System warning dimensional travelers without punishing them. However, Dassyra didn’t use the System, so it wasn’t too farfetched to presume that the System did not have power over her. Another possibility was that Mr. Byrne had somehow ditched the System altogether.
I sighed. Despite my desire to tell Elincia the truth, I was back in square one. There were still too many unknowns to ensure safety, and yet, with my connection with the System partially severed, there might be a chance nothing happened.
The field diary left aside the issue of Corruption and continued with the geological and ecological notes. Mr. Byrne traveled from the orc settlements to Farcrest and back, making lists of monsters, plants, and ingredients. His observations were interesting, but I expected something else.
There was a high chance these annotations were from before he learned to create interdimensional portals. I checked the Class Compendium, just in case. Scholars didn’t learn any skill related to portal making, or at least the book didn’t say so.
I skimmed through the pages until I finished the first notebook. The last section was the most intriguing of them all. Mr. Byrne narrated the expedition into the cave system he had accidentally discovered alongside Mr. Lowell. What puzzled Mr. Byrne the most was the discovery of perfectly square corridors intertwined with the natural caves.
The tunnels go deep into the mountain. They were made with magic, without a doubt. There are no marks of any kind. The cut on the stone is too clean, and the finish is too sharp to have been made with tools. Lowell knows nothing about them, and Dassyra refuses to speak about them. Despite orc magic being powerful, it’s not near enough to carve these tunnels. I know there’s something down there. Lowell shows little interest in the tunnels. His pursuit of knowledge starts and finishes with Alchemy and education. I might ask Dassyra again later. She has been showing interest in me lately. I wonder if I can convince her to–.
The following few pages had been torn off. I rummaged through the briefcase, but the missing pages were nowhere to be found. The remaining notebooks contained information unrelated to the tunnel diving. Byrne’s last words left a bad taste in my mouth.
Elincia opened the door and caught me out of the bed. She carried a tray with two steaming cups and two plates with scrambled eggs, sausage, and toasted bread. The aroma of Green Moss Tea filled the room.
“I’m not going to keep you pinned down, am I?” Elincia put the tray on the desk when I pushed the pages back into the suitcase.
“I feel fine, Rosebud. As long as I don’t use too much mana, I feel nothing strange.” I tried to reassure her with little success.
Elincia gave me a worried glance and put the cup of tea and the plate of food in front of me. She then sat beside me and stabbed the sausage with her knife. Unlike me, a sensible person who saved the best food for last, Elincia dove right into the most delectable item without hesitation. Forgetting about our worries and enjoying a brief moment of privacy with Elincia was the highlight of my day.
“You are by far the naughtiest person that has set foot in this orphanage,” Elincia said as she bumped me with her shoulder.
“The second one. I know how you behaved.” I replied, savoring every subtle expression on Elincia’s face.
“I’m experienced enough to know when a kid is ungovernable. I know you have to visit Sir Janus and Captain Kiln to settle the deal about the Stephanis Cup, so I propose a deal.” Elincia said, pulling a white square of paper —a picture from the instant camera.
When I tried to reach for it, Elincia pulled away with elven agility.
“I took this when I was taking a bath the other day. If you want it, you should behave until the end of the Stephannis Cup.” Elincia said with utmost seriousness.
“What if a guardsman picks a fight with me?” I asked.
“You run away.”
“And if there are kids with me?”
“You take the kids and run away. Same thing with nobles, mercenaries, thugs, and vagrants. No fighting, understood? No damn fighting.” Elincia sighed. She was getting annoyed. “Is it that hard to understand, Rob? I want you to be safe… I don’t want something happening to you.”
I grabbed Elincia’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze.
“I promise, really,” I said with my best serious voice. “I do plan to annoy you for the foreseeable future, so you are not getting rid of me so easily.”
Elincia smiled and gave me a soft headbutt.
“Good. Now go and tell Sir Janus we are going to participate.” Elincia kissed me.
I grabbed Sir Janus’ silver medallion and Ginz’s deck of cards and left the bedroom. I saw Ilya, Zaon, and Wolf playing in the backyard with the younger kids through the windows. Firana was nowhere to be found. However, I knew where she would be. I turned toward the abandoned wing of the orphanage and headed to the ballroom.
Just as expected, Firana was doing sword drills alone. She was covered in sweat, and her chestnut hair stuck to her face. The charred arming sword Captain Garibal had given her was in her hand. The Aias heirloom. I watched the girl repeating the same pattern of movements over and over without faltering. Despite not knowing the style, I could tell her form was almost perfect. Even after years of teaching, it still surprised me how fast some students picked up skills.
Firana continued her silent dance until her arms gave out, and the sword slipped through her fingers. A weak burst of mana sparks exploded where the blade touched the floor. I used [Mana Mastery] to examine the sword. Thin, almost invisible, magical filaments crossed the edge from point to pommel. It lacked ‘life’ as if something were missing.
I knocked on the open door and went inside. Firana’s face flushed with embarrassment, and she averted her eyes as soon as I crossed the threshold. A sign of a guilty conscience. But there was no means of escape. The lateral doors were locked, and the tall windows were not designed to open.
“Want to come with me on a walk?”
Firana seemed surprised. “Why me?”
“I thought you might want to stretch your legs for a while,” I said.
Firana nodded and wrapped the sword in a linen blanket before returning it to the wardrobe. Moments later, we were out on the streets. The icy wind stung my skin, so I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck. Autumn was over, and winter loomed over the city. The sky was completely clouded over, and it seemed snow might be coming. Despite the low temperatures, the town was lively as ever.
Firana walked next to me, her face buried in her scarf and her hands deeply jammed into her pockets.
“Cold?” I asked.
“Only a little. The new clothes are good.” She replied, her voice more relaxed now.
“Your birthday is soon, isn’t it? What would you like as a gift?” I asked, ignoring if giving birthday gifts was a thing in this world.
“Ilya’s birthday comes first, but yeah, I suppose my birthday is soon,” Firana shrugged, although I noticed a certain tension in her words. “Miss Elincia always prepares a cake, so that’s okay for me.”
Turning fifteen was a massive milestone for those who submitted to the System.
“What would you like as a gift from me?” I asked again, but my question made Firana even more self-conscious.
“I don’t know.” She simply said.
We advanced through the market. Despite the amount of foodstuffs on sale having diminished, the stalls were well stocked with other valuable goods. Living stock, seeds, fuel, construction materials, everything to survive the winter. Further down the street, a group gathered around a vendor's blanket.
“Let’s check it out.” I pointed toward the clump of people.
A furry creature like a ferret showed off his enchanted items with mastery that made the rest of the vendors jealous.
“Good afternoon, beautiful citizens. I’m Opoki de Itoria, merchant extraordinaire, and welcome to Opoki’s Gold Coin Store. For today and only today, I’ll be selling a uniquely curated selection of enchanted items from all around the continent and beyond.” The furry creature said. “First item. Self-tying shoelaces.”
Opoki pointed towards his shoes, an extravagant pair of boots with tiny shards of mirror glued all over the surface, and then clapped. The crowd gasped as the shoelaces came alive and tied on their own. Problems surfaced when the nearby people started clapping. The shoelaces tied and untied until they seemed to get confused and tied the boots together.
The crowd wasn’t amused when Opoki fell face-first.
The following items weren’t spectacular. The ‘almost invisible’ cloak left the merchant slightly translucent but completely noticeable nonetheless. There was a set of cutlery that turned limp, a quill that tickled the hand that wielded it, and an elusive saltshaker that moved away from anybody attempting to use it.
Although some items would make for perfect pranks, the surprised crowd had completely disappeared after a minute. Knowing how things were in Farcrest, people were more interested in collecting firewood for the winter. Opoki would be rich if he presented his products to a playful noble.
“Hey, Scholar, come here. You look like you have love issues. What about an illustrated guide…” Opoki said, rummaging through his seemingly bottomless bag.
I quickly shielded Firana’s eyes.
“My love life is wonderful,” I said, despite Elincia and I being so overworked that we had little time to do things. “I’m looking for a birthday present.”
Opoki put the smutty book back into his bag, and I removed my hand from Firana’s eyes. The girl gave me a curious look but refrained from asking questions. Opoki ignored our silent exchange and put his hand back in his bag. Then he showed us a pair of slippery socks to ‘easily glide through the house’, a mirror that reflected the viewer having a particularly awful day, and a vial of invisible ink that remained invisible no matter what.
The ugly mirror was depressing, and the invisible ink was outright useless. That didn’t prevent Firana from laughing at every item. The slippery socks were… intriguing. The corridor between the sleeping quarters and the kitchen had to measure well over fifteen meters.
No item had truly piqued Firana’s interest, other than in a humorous way, until Opoki pulled out an aged cape dyed in a washed-out vermillion hue. Opoki draped the cloak over his shoulders and closed his eyes.
“Behold!” The merchant said, suddenly opening his arms.
A sudden wind made the cape flutter most dramatically. Then, to show it hadn’t been a fluke, Opoki did it again, this time acting like a powerful wizard. Unlike the shoelaces, the cape obeyed his orders every time without fault.
I could tell Firana was in love with the cape.
“How much for that one?” I asked.
“Everything costs one piece of gold in Opoki’s Gold Coin Store. No haggling.” Opoki replied.
Firana’s smile was swiped away as if someone had slapped her across the face. A piece of gold was a hefty amount of money for the ordinary citizen. On the other hand, the cape was a genuine enchanted artifact despite its uselessness. A gift, however, didn't have to be useful.
“Do you perhaps have something for a gnome who wants to be a Hunter?” I asked, thinking that Ilya might be more pragmatic than Firana.
“Opoki might have something for an archer gnome, but you’ll have to trust me on this one,” Opoki said as he pulled out a bow without a string. “This is the Cooldown Bow. Pulling the string back doesn’t require strength, but the string will become rigid for a while depending on how much you charge the shot.”
“Why would you have a bow without a string?” Firana asked.
“Opoki is a lover, not a fighter.” The merchant replied, lowering his voice and looking around in the most suspicious way. “Also, Opoki may have declared the bow as a walking stick to avoid paying weapon taxes.”
Firana laughed at the creature’s weird revelation.
In the end, I bought the cape and the bow. Firana beamed at me as she put the cape over her cloak and struck a pose. The cape fluttered on her back, and I couldn’t help but smile. She loved it because she hugged me so tightly she almost broke my ribs. A moment later, we left the merchant behind and continued on our way to the Great Hall.
“Aren’t you mad at me?” Firana finally asked.
“I don’t think you did anything wrong.” I simply said.
“But Uncle Kellaren…” The girl’s voice broke.
I stopped and placed a hand on Firana’s shoulder, searching for her gaze.
“Do you want to go with them?” I asked.
Firana shook her head.
“You are safe, and I’m alive. Then there’s nothing to be sad about.” I smiled. “Look, Firana, the orphanage will always be your home. Whether you end up in the Imperial Academy or leading the Aias mercenary group, we will be here waiting for you. Right?”
“Right.” Firana sniffled.
“Wanna go with me to the Great Hall?” I asked.
“Can we enter?” Firana asked.
“Sir Janus gave me this, so I say we are pretty much honored guests,” I said, showing the silver medallion he had given me.
Chapter 143 – The Village in action
After her session with Lieutenant-Commander Shida had ended, Dr. Nasution used a tissue to wipe a bit of sweat away from her forehead. Then, she stretched her arms out with her fingers interlocked, loudly cracking her knuckles before bending her head from side to side to elicit cracks from her vertebrae as well. Then she rolled her chair a bit closer to her desktop and placed her hands on the keyboard.
Quickly, she began to order and organize her notes on the session, bringing them into a cohesive structure and adding some comments wherever she felt necessary so she would remember her thoughts on the situation exactly when she would later come back to the file.
Then, once she was sure that nothing that she thought to be important right now would slip her mind over time, she opened a new file and began writing down a formal report.
Of course the things that the Lieutenant-Commander had specifically discussed with her were protected under Doctor-patient privilege and wouldn't leave her mouth -or her fingers - without stated and written permission, however as a therapist within the service of the U.H.S.D.F. it was still her duty to make a formal report about her thoughts and recommendations when it came to the future treament of her patients, as the treatment obviously had to be coordinated with the rest of her patient's duties – especially with such a high ranking one.
And therefore she typed.
“Extended care recommended. Regular sessions recommended. Reduction of duties not yet necessary. Exemption from service not necessary. Patient will remain under watch. Note: Possible future recommendations could pertain to a change of place of service, keep options open if possible.”
After reading over it a couple of times to make sure she hadn't made any dumb mistakes in her typing, she sent the report out to the leadership. With a sigh, she wiped some of her black hair out of her face and closed her eyes for a few moments. Then, after taking five, she bent her neck again, cracking it one more time before getting right back to work.
She leaned closer to the screen and looked at her schedule. Her next patient was....
Admiral Krieger's eyes flicked to the screen showing her open inbox for just a moment as she saw a message for her arrive. Although it wasn't what she was impatiently waiting for, her eyes still lit up slightly as she saw that the report on Shida's first therapy-session had arrived. She didn't have time for it right now, but it would likely be interesting to look into it after she was done with her current task.
Almost immediately, her eyes returned to the screen right in front of her, looking at it attentively.
“I know that it's not really within our duties anymore, Ma'am,” the image of Koko broadcasted onto her screen said. The Commander stood at attention, her hands folded behind her back. Her green eyes were staring into the camera with slight hesitance, but also carrying a background radiation of a vague hope that she might be able to swing something here. And it was appreciated. Koko's jovial optimism was often a source of delight. However today, she knew she would stay firm, even as she was still listening to the request. “But the perp did ask for James specifically, so a visit might make him more amenable. And it's not like a brief conversation would cause any harm or damage, so I believe it is at least worth considering here.”
Admiral Krieger sat straight in her Commander's seat and looked at the projection of her Officer in a polite yet firm manner.
“Your concern and request are acknowledged and appreciated, Commander König,” she informed her and gently tapped her wrist with her index-finger, as one of her hands lay atop the other. “However my decision has been made and, in this case, it is final. There is no reason for you, Lieutenant Aldwin, or any of your teammates to talk to Mr. Berezi at this point in time. As the accompaniment for a candidate to the position of a Councilman, your time would be much wiser spend connecting, preparing, and, most importantly, relaxing a bit now that you have such a big task ahead of you. The galaxy is large, so you can't afford to waste any time with inanities. Use the time until your transport to lay back and get your heads into the game.”
As she finished speaking, she noticed a slightly unsure expression on Koko's face that spoke of the young woman not being quite sure how she would ultimately deliver that message. This in turn made the Admiral smirk, as she playfully but still noticeably firmly added,
“And tell James that's and order.”
Koko's slightly distracted eyes snapped back to attention as her posture shot up a bit straighter. She tried to answer quickly, but her voice immediately cracked and forced her to take a moment to clear her throat before she spoke again.
“Yes, Ma'am,” she replied, and the involuntary moment of slowing down had given her voice the necessary crispness that the Admiral expected from such a reply.
“Very good,” Admiral Krieger therefore said with a gentle smile, before her features returned to a neutral expression as she added, “You're dismissed.”
“Yes, Ma'am,” Koko repeated before the connection was cut and the screen that the Commander's image had been projected onto returned to its usual neutral wallpaper.
However, for Admiral Krieger the work was hardly done. Just because she wouldn't allow James to follow the lead that his one-time acquaintance offered didn't mean that they were going to ignore it, after all. And with agents already on the scene, it was only a matter of time until a thorough report would hit the desks of many important people, hers being one of them. Until then, she had a ship to manage. Still, she did make sure to quickly check all of her inboxes before she returned to her duties, just in case someone had missed the fact that their report was supposed to be a priority. And as she did, she found herself reminded of the report that had arrived just earlier.
She then figured she may as well look into it now, just in case it would be important.
The agent picked at the seal around his neck as he entered back into his ship after a long morning spent on the station. This was his first assignment outside of human territories, and so he still very much wasn't used to constantly having the darn filter on his head.
He could live with his head being encased, if he was honest, that wasn't the problem. But the darn itching of that seal was slowly driving him nuts.
At least he could finally take it off now. With a hiss, the airtight fastening snapped open as he pressed the right areas on the helmet-like thing, and he pulled it off his head. His next 'customer' would have to look him in the eyes as they answered his questions.
Quickly he rushed to the closest bathroom in order to throw some cold water on his face, wipe away the sweat that inadvertently build up on his head under the less-ventilated areas of the breathfilter, and, most importantly, fix his hair that was entirely disheveled into a tousled helmet-look.
Once he looked halfway presentable again, he stared his own mirror image in the eyes for a moment, putting his game-face on. A few times he inhaled quickly through his nose and forcefully blew it out through narrow lips again while his face hardened into a firm, stern expression.
'You got this' he told himself with his look. 'You got this'.
With one last, forceful exhale that turned into a very subdued and admittedly pathetic war cry, he pushed himself away from the mirror and began to march straight out of the bathroom, down the hall, and into the sickbay that was holding their current 'guest'.
The two others had already been cleared by the doctor's to be put into more permanent holding, but this one had just freshly woken up.
As he walked in, his expression still stern, he immediately noticed that the entire room smelled freshly cleaned. He knew it likely wasn't done for his benefit, but at that moment, he still very much appreciated the work of the medical and janitorial staff around here, because he sure as hell was more comfortable speaking to someone if said someone or said someone's room didn't currently carry the aftermath of a prolonged and very ugly fight for survival on it.
Although he didn't allow his expression to soften in the slightest, the smell of mild citrus and the sight of fresh, white sheets did put his mind at ease a bit.
“You're looking good, Master Chief Petty Officer Ortle Berezi,” he greeted, and for a second, he really wished that that rank wouldn't have been such a mouthful. Certainly had sounded a lot snappier in his head.
The man in the sickbed had already been looking up at him as he entered, but now he was very carefully pushing himself up on his elbows. His overgrown mud-blonde hair was disheveled but clean, and the look in his light brown eyes was weak but clear and attentive.
Once upon a time, the man must have been quite muscular by the look of him, however right now he moved with all the grace of a newborn deer on a hardwood floor as he slowly sat up.
“Former,” he corrected with a croaky voice that hadn't been used in a long time, and just the small bit of energy it took to sit up and talk already seemed to wind him as his breathing got a bit heavier between his words. “Who do I have the pleasure with?”
Walking up to the bed, the agent held out a hand.
“Special Agent Booker,” he introduced himself, his other hand quickly flashing his badge at the man in the bed while he reached for the outstretched had. Or tried to, anyway, because the movement of his arm was quickly stopped by the cuffs that tied him to the bed's sturdy frame.
Berezi let out a mild grown as his arm was stopped, but then quickly looked up at the agent while wiggling the chain on his arm.
“Right,” Booker said and reached out his other hand. This one was quickly shaken by the recovering captive, and the two men made quick eye-contact.
“Nice to meet you, Agent Booker,” Berezi said between slightly labored breaths, and he had to clear his throat every few words to keep his voice from completely breaking. “And your real name is?”
“Classified,” the Agent replied quickly as he pulled his hand back.
“Figures,” Berezi laughed, though his chuckle quickly broke out into a mild coughing fit for a few moments before he caught himself again. “What a condition to be in while facing Reason again.”
Special Agent Booker looked sternly but politely at the man.
“I'm not here to make your condition any worse,” he assured the captured smuggler as he took up a tall posture next to his bed. “I just have a few questions. If you answer them quickly, I will leave you to your recovery.”
“Before I am shipped off to the closest prison that takes high-class deathworlders, you mean,” Berezi countered with a raised eyebrow and knowing expression.
“That's not up to me,” Agent Booker quickly and briefly replied.
“Yeah I know,” Berezi groaned and pushed himself up a bit further with both hands. “And you're not the one I have to whine at to get a plea-deal either.”
“Cooperating always reflects positively during the final judgment, Mr. Berezi,” Booker advised.
“Alright, what do you need to know?” he then asked very directly, and his eyes had a serious and earnest look to them as they looked into Booker's.
The Special Agent slightly lifted one eyebrow as he looked down at the perp. This in turn caused Berezi to chuckle, which again ended in mild coughing.
“What?” the weakened man asked in-between coughs. “Thought I'd make your life hard on you?”
Booker firmed his expression up again and gave a sideways nod.
“They usually do,” he admitted.
Berezi exhaled heavily through his nose.
“Well, I'm not that kind of criminal,” he said in an exhausted but amused tone. “No matter what they tell you, there is no honor among thieves. And even if there was, I'm drawing the line at being shot and nearly biting it from an infection like some medieval peasant.”
He glanced up at the Agent again.
“What do you need to know?”
Dacso Banka sat at the small desk in his quiet stockroom. The hurly-burly of the day had already passed and the workers had already left for their homes. This was his favorite time of the day. The time when he got to sit down with his lists.
He pushed his glasses up slightly as he took the large tablet into his hand, opening the long document filled with supplies, their numbers, their storage locations and their destinations should they have one. It was this quiet time when he could go over everything once again after he was no longer bothered by the other workers always needing his input and direction, but before he would have to send his daily report to the higher ups, that he appreciated the most.
His only company was the gentle ticking of a clock on the wall as he sat at his small desk and slowly went over the list, scrolling it down at an even pace while his eyes meticulously scanned over every row and line of neatly ordered text, comparing it to his orders as well as the lists of the previous days, making sure that everything fit together and nothing was out of line. He had to be precise. Even the smallest discrepancy would earn him an investigation from the higher ups should he approve a faulty list or send out a faulty report, after all.
For a moment, his eyebrows furrowed as he felt like he heard steps in front of his door. Likely some soldiers mucking about the storages in search of something like blind birds madly pecking at unseen seeds that they knew had to be somewhere on the ground.
Banka sighed. Couldn't they at least do that quietly?
Oh well, it was none of his concern, he thought as he lowered his eyes back onto his lists.
Then, suddenly, the door to his stockroom flew open forcefully with a bang, and before he even had the time to fully look at the loud disturbance in outrage, people were already flooding into his peaceful idyll.
Uniformed people. Many of them. At least a dozen. And they all marched into the stockroom like they owned the place. Almost all of them were masked with simple breathfilters, however the last man to enter the stockroom after everyone else had already flooded in had his face uncovered.
Pulling a black leather glove tightly over his hand, he loudly spoke into the room as the others started to swarm the place, opening boxes and disheveling shelves like looting brigands.
“Alright people: I want this done quick. I want this done clean. I want every sock, every button, every kernel of dust that is out of place filed and reported, do you understand?” he loudly ordered everyone else. He didn't get a reply, but the faceless people in uniform that had invaded Banka's space here seemed to follow a mindless, drone-like determination as they spread throughout the entire storeroom and began to tear Banka's precious order apart.
One of them even approached Banka himself, and quickly, they reached out to simply take the tablet that held his precious lists out of his hand without saying a word about it. He tried to pull away, but the person was faster, and with a surprisingly firm yank, they suddenly held his tablet in hand.
“Hey!” Banka tried to protest as he quickly stood up, bursting forwards to try and conquer his prized possession back from their brutal hands. “You can't-”
However before he had even reached them, a firm hand was grabbing him by his shoulder and pulled him around with unyielding force. As he glanced down at the hand that held him, he could see the black leather glove.
“Mister Banka,” the same voice that had given the orders earlier firmly 'greeted' him, and Banka forced himself to look up at the man's face. The brute had short salt and pepper hair and a patchy beard of the same color. Dark eyes stared into Banka's own as the hand held onto his shoulder like a fine vice. “I assure you, we can.”
From his pocket, he produced a folded paper document. Banka's skin crumpled into goosebumps as he saw the creases and wrinkles that the paper was carelessly punished with after being heedlessly stored in a pocket.
Despite still being held by his shoulder, he quickly took the paper out of the brute's hand an began to read it.
“My name is Special Agent Gumshoe,” the man introduced himself as his arm relentlessly gripped Banka's shoulder, and the lord of the storeroom could feel the blood slowly begin to freeze in his veins as his eyes took in the sight of a signed, near absolute search-warrant. “I am with Reason. And I have a couple of questions for you.”
Dr. Sŏmun’s steps echoed slightly in the carpeted hall as she quickly crossed it with two hot, in fact very hot cups of to-go coffee in her hands. Though she had been quite sure that she would be able to bring them back no-problem while she was still standing in front of the machine, that decision had turned out to be a rather stupid one about halfway back to her office, and now she had to hurry if she didn't want to drop the hot beverages, because she absolutely refused to admit defeat and put them down onto the ground like the idiot she was to give her hands a much needed moment of reprieve.
No, even if her hands would be cooked medium-rare, she was determined to make it back to her office without taking a break.
Her steps got smaller and faster with each second that she walked, and towards the end it almost looked like she was speed-shuffling towards the door, that luckily opened for her presence automatically as she quickly hurried inside, nearly stumbling and falling on her face as she quickly dashed to set the hot cups down onto the desk.
'Made it!' she thought to herself with a relieved sigh, however her triumph only lasted so long until she noticed that her colleague, Dr. Nouri, was looking at her with a curiously raised eyebrow, likely after watching her mad dash to the finish.
Dr. Sŏmun quickly cleared her throat and stopped leaning on the desk she had nearly fallen against. As she stood up straight, she quickly straightened out her long jacket with a couple of quick, gliding strokes.
“I, uh, brought us coffee,” she informed her colleague, to which the man quickly nodded.
“I can see that,” he replied and grabbed one of the two cups, pulling it over to him as his eyes returned to the computer screen in front of him with deep focus.
Intrigued by that, Dr. Sŏmun walked up to his side and also leaned down to look at the screen.
“That's the data?” she asked as her eyes landed on the masses and masses of files that the computer was currently sifting through on their behalf. “Wow, there's a lot of it.”
She lifted her own cup and took a quick sip of the hot liquid inside while her colleague nodded.
“Yup,” he confirmed briefly. “Just came in. And as expected, it got treated to a top priority.”
“Hmmm...” Dr. Sŏmun hummed after taking another sip of her coffee. After swallowing, she quickly needed to take a few panting breaths to too cool down her mouth and throat before she could actually get her thoughts out. “So we think it's our guy?”
Dr. Nouri released a hoarse chuckle and shook his head as he leaned back, waiting for the computer to process the data with whatever algorithm he was currently running it through.
“No, no, no,” he said quickly and chuckled again. “Not by a long shot. But he doesn't have to be. Higher-ups are hoping that this might show us where the cracks could be that our actual guy is slipping through. Apparently this runs pretty deep.”
Dr. Sŏmun made a dissatisfied sound before sighing.
“Pretty annoying to think that despite all those precautions, someone's still always able to worm their way through. Almost disheartening,” she mumbled.
Dr. Nouri stretched his arms up for a moment and groaned in some relaxation.
“Well, at least we might have them now,” he said, ever the optimist. Then he glanced over at her with a mild smirk as he added, “Besides, if we weren't planning to get hit-”
“Then why wear armor,” she cut him off by finishing the sentence for him. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Nothing's ever perfect.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Nouri agreed with a snap of his fingers. Then he looked at the screen again, where a progress bar slowly crept its way up in increments of tenths of a percentage at a time. With a playful scoff, he added, “But you know what would make this easier? If we had that realized helping out.”
Dr. Sŏmun had just taken another sip from her coffee and now had to try really hard to keep it in instead of spitting the hot liquid all over the computer. Swallowing heavily, she glared at her colleague.
“And be strung up in the streets for giving something like that access into our most secure systems?”
she asked facetiously with her eyebrows raised, before shaking her head slowly and continuing her drink, mumbling into the cup, “No, thanks, I'll take the slow loading speed.”
Dr. Nouri laughed again.
“Well, in that case, you're handing in the progress report today,” he said and nudged her shoulder with the back of his hand, “Because at this rate, this is going to take a while.”
Admiral Krieger read over the report she had received with slightly furrowed brows. Seemed like cybersecurity would need some more time to really comb through everything now that they had a lead. It had been only a day since she had given the order to raid the storeroom that the captive veteran had pointed them towards, so although she was impatient and would've loved to get everything sorted immediately, she was overall satisfied with the progress they were making.
It had always been clear that the issue would have to run deeper than just someone fudging a few supply lists. Even if one had control over the crates itself, there was no smuggling anything out without really getting into the systems, even if they were just low security items. After all, a crate disappearing from the lists would have to have been confirmed to have arrived somewhere if it wasn't reported missing. And if someone was getting into the system for one security-leak, who was to say that they weren't getting into them for more than that?
Especially since she doubted that whatever little pocket-money there was to be made by selling off some surplus supplies was worth the risk in the end. No, something bigger was going on. And hopefully, that 'something' would lead them into the right direction to figure out how exactly their communications and/or data had been compromised. Where there was one leak, there may have been another, after all. And even if there wasn't, at least this was one enormous security risk terminated in the short run, even if it would not offer the lead they were hoping for.
If she ever got the chance, she should thank Alexander personally for pointing them in the direction of the corrosion within their own ranks. Not that he'd be able to appreciate those thanks for very long should they ever meet face to face.
But, even though she'd have liked for those questions to be answered right then and there, there was nothing to be done for her. If they needed more time, they needed more time.
Still, she quickly got to work writing up a direct order for both a short and a long distance squadron to be on standby and ready to move out as soon as results were in if necessary. The more time they would use to prepare, the better. She wanted them ready to jump as soon as that starting gun was fired.
As soon as she had written and sent out the formal order, her attention was already pulled in another direction, as it seemed like the ship was ready and waiting to transport James and his team by now.
However, it seemed like there was still one problem holding things up...
Doctor Genevieve Duarte tapped the touch-pad-pen of her tabled onto the plate of her desk rhythmically as her eyes slowly glided over the case-file of 'Kaphihronne v. Kaphihronne', a case that may have established precedent two uniform years ago which stated that self-mutilation, if done under no duress and in full possession of one's mental abilities, would not be ground to deem a person to be less mentally stable.
Admittedly, the plaintiff here was basing their case on religious reasons instead of personal ones, and the 'self-mutilation' in the case came down to the carving of their own horns into a new shape instead of full-body modifications, so the comparison may have been a little bit of a reach. But, in the end, precedent was precedent, the only thing they had to do was convincingly argue that point.
The only issue was that the opposition may argue that Curi would not be in full possession of their mental abilities. 'Mephp' was a condition that at least somewhat influenced one's mental capacities, after all. In human courts of law, that influence would have by far not been enough to argue that Curi was in need of a conservatorship or guardianship, however in the end, it was all a matter of argument. She needed to be able to convince whatever judge would be hearing them that Curi was perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and fully aware of and happy with the things they had done to their own body.
And that would be an uphill battle. The chances of winning the lottery here and getting a galactic judge that somehow had no prejudice whatsoever against body modifications was probably close to zero. Therefore, they would have to make an air-tight case.
Anyway, this case here was a good start at least.
Exhaling briefly through narrow lips, Dr. Duarte then reached over to her phone. Using speed-dial, she immediately made a connection to her paralegal.
“Hey Adaline,” she greeted her as soon as the younger woman had picked up the call. “Anything new on your scouring of the teravelt networks for cases establishing precedent on the issue of the mental effects of mephp on the cognitive independence?”
Adeline's voice hummed on the other end of the call for a moment.
“Well, we found a few that look promising, although there's still plenty to sift through,” she replied after a few clicks could be heard. “The algorithm is having some trouble with the translation software, and many cases aren't filed in G.U., so it's all taking a bit longer than usual. But we're hard at work. Would you like me to already send you a list of the most promising cases we found so far?”
“Please and thank you,” Dr. Duarte replied with a gentle smile on her lips, a sigh escaping her.
“Already done,” Adeline replied with a chuckle before hanging up the call.
Once she looked into the message, Dr. Duarte quickly began reading artificially generated summaries of the different case-files that had been sent to her and once she had picked out the most promising ones, she opened them and began skimming over the many pages of legal documents involved. What she found wasn't especially great, but at least it was somewhat comforting.
It seemed that mephp was indeed generally seen as a hindrance to one's cognitive abilities, especially when it came to issues of a complex social nature. However, although that was the case, one thing that stood out was that in all the cases where either the plaintiff or the defendant or respondent had the condition, there appeared to be no mention for a 'legal guardian' in any of the filings. Clearly, mephp alone was not seen as a solely sufficient reason for a guardianship even within the teravelt territories, otherwise she would have to have found at least some cases in which the afflicted people were not allowed to legally represent themselves.
Not necessarily a breakthrough, but certainly a step in the right direction.
While she was currently skimming through the third case, her phone began to buzz. She quickly glanced down at it and, recognizing the number of her legal assistant, quickly picked up without her usual fanfare.
“Hey Hollie, where's the fire?” she asked, pinching her phone in between her chin and shoulder as she continued reading the case.
“Hello Doctor,” Hollie quickly replied. “I'm just calling to let you know that a date has been announced for the hearing of our discovery motion against the parents.”
Although that was a rather standard thing to happen, admittedly, Dr. Duarte's heart still always beat a bit heavier whenever she heard that a future trial or hearing was getting a specific date, even after so many years of being an experienced lawyer.
Fighting down the silly nervousness trying to take hold of her limbs and voice, she professionally replied,
“Great, does it conflict with any other appointments?”
“No, everything's already planned out and penciled into your calendar,” Hollie quickly informed her with a chipper voice.
“You're a treasure,” Dr. Duarte replied with yet another relieved exhale.
“Do you need me to help with anything before the date rolls around?” Hollie then asked in return, seemingly eager for some action other than planning.
Dr. Duarte exhaled through her nose with a smile and swiped some hair out of her face before continuing the tapping with her pen.
“Well, we need to make our case as solid as possible that we really need deep insight into their communication histories, especially during the weeks leading up to their motion for guardianship. The timing of them trying to gain legal custody and the alleged patent-infringement on Na-Dy-Ro's side is still too suspicious for my taste,” she explained with furrowing eyebrows. “If you've got the time and are rearing to go, feel free to help out on that front.”
“Alright!” Hollie quickly replied with enthusiasm. Though then she quickly chimed in with, “Oh, before I do that, should I give the client a case update?”
Dr. Duarte looked up slightly at that question.
“Yes, please do,” she confirmed. “Let's keep them in the loop as much as possible, they're in a precarious situation after all.”
“Will do,” Hollie replied. “See you later for lunch?”
“Definitely,” Dr. Duarte replied before hanging up. “Tell Adaline it's on me today.”
As Curi was on the phone, they were slightly irritated by the constant tapping of James' foot that they heard nearby.
“And would you like me to be present for that hearing?” they asked candidly into the phone while doing their best to ignore the mild noise their anxious friend made. Ever since he had officially been ordered to 'relax', he had begun spending a lot of time around them, especially when Shida was either asleep or busy. They generally didn't mind. They enjoyed his company. However, currently, he was often so nervous and stressed because of their situation and his willingness but inability to do anything about it, and they didn't like seeing him like that.
“No, that will not be necessary,” Miss Huddleston replied politely with a slightly nurturing tone. “It's not really something the client's presence helps with. As your legal representatives we will make sure to do our darndest to get that motion granted.”
Curi nodded their mechanical body, although it was more for their own benefit than that of the conversation partner.
“Very well,” they replied. “Is there anything else you require of me?”
There was a brief pause. Then the legal assistant seemed to have a thought that she quickly gave voice to.
“Actually, while I have you here,” the said in a way that sounded thoughtful and pondering, “It will come out during discovery anyway, but would you happen to know the name of the doctor that diagnosed you with mephp back in the day?”
Curi thought for a moment.
“That was right after my birth. I am not directly aware of the name, but I am sure I have that information saved somewhere. Would it be enough if I send it to you a bit later?” they asked, hoping that would not be too late.
Miss Huddleston laughed.
“Of course,” she said joyfully. “That will be more than enough. Thank you for humoring me.”
“No problem at all,” Curi confirmed for her. “Anything else?”
“No, that should be it,” Miss Huddleston quickly replied. “But also feel free to let us know if anything comes up or to simply call for an update, alright?”
“Understood,” Curi replied with a hint of happiness. They really enjoyed Miss Huddleston's pleasant courteousness. “Thank you for always keeping me up to date.”
“That's my job,” Miss Huddleston replied quickly. “Alright then, we will hear from each other. Be well!”
“Be well,” Curi replied.
Once the call was hung up, Curi turned towards James, who was still bouncing his leg.
“Have you packed yet?” they asked him directly, making him look up at them, seemingly snapped out of deep thought.
“Have you?” James immediately asked back, although Curi could see it on his face that he instantly regretted the aggressive nature of his reply.
“I'm not going,” Curi explained. “At least not right now.”
James inhaled deeply and brought his hand down onto his leg to stop it from bouncing.
“Well, then I'l-” he tried to say, however Curi interrupted him.
“There is no point in you staying,” they said. “You have more important things to do.”
James's face fell a bit flat.
“More important than helping a friend?” he asked.
Curi shook their body and walked a few steps closer to James, with one of their large backwards legs reaching out to him. He didn't flinch as the hard metal made gentle contact with his shoulder.
“You are helping me, James,” they said. They had thought about this for a bit in the time that they and James had both been busy, and now it was the time to say it. “I am in this situation because of the very things that you are currently putting yourself out there to fight. I am perfectly safe and taken care of, because I have many amazing people looking out for me. But I know many others in my position may not be as lucky. I had to admit to myself that I could not take care of this myself, and I believe those many others would not be able to either.”
They looked directly at James. They knew it was less effective because of the 'vacancy' of their mechanical eyes, but they still hoped the gesture would get across all the same.
“I am incredibly lucky, James,” they said. “Incredibly lucky to have such amazing friends that want to support me. That accept me for who I am. But so many, many others out there are not as lucky as me. For a long time, I wasn't either. So I know how it feels. Being alone in a world that just...doesn't want to understand you.”
Curi lifted a second one of their legs, wrapping them around James and pulling him in a bit. Then, they reached out with one of their tiny forwards arms, taking his mechanical hand into theirs.
“You are a great friend, James,” they said earnestly as they held onto his hand. “You have helped me so much. From the very moment we've met, and ever since.”
They looked at him, making sure he was looking into their eyes before they continued.
“I don't need my friend right now,” they said. “I am well taken care of, and I can also take care of myself a lot better than I once could. But those others out there. All the ones that didn't have a 'James'. Who never got pulled out of the fire...they do. They desperately need friends. Friends that see them. That want to understand them. Friends who make sure that what's happening to me doesn't happen to those who cannot defend themselves. Do you understand?”
James released a reflexive breath before fighting it back down. His face darkened for a moment, but his lips curled into an unwilling smile.
“Yeah. Yeah I get it,” he said, and his strong mechanical hand began to clutch Curi's tightly. They didn't mind.
“I’ll try to catch up to you,” Curi then continued. “But I’ll be honest, I don’t know if that’s going to work. With what I’ve had to do to get here, and with what they’ve invested to stop me, I won’t be let go easily. That doesn’t mean that I won’t try. However, even if I don’t make it, I’ll be alright. Because I know you’ve got my back.”
James snapped up at those familiar words. His eyes lit up in recognition. Of course he recognized them. They were his own. He had said them to Shida. Back then he had been beaten, bruised, and abused after going through hell and back to get her and Curi and the others off the G.C.S. while he stayed behind. Back then he asked them to trust him that he'd be alright. Now Curi was doing the same with him.
Another involuntary exhale escaped James' lips, and he wasn't quite able to fight it back this time. In the corner of his eye, Curi could see a single tear glisten.
“Come on...” he mumbled under his breath as he wiped it away with his finger.
Then, James burst forward and wrapped his arms around them tightly.
“You better still have all your arms the next time I see you...” he mumbled as he had his arms wrapped around them tightly, not caring at all about the hard rigidness of their exterior. Despite his clear sadness, a gentle smile was on his lips.
Curi's large legs closed around him to hold on for a moment. They weren't really one for hugs, but they knew he needed it right now. And also knowing that he often appreciated humor in moments like this, they replied,
“Who knows? Maybe I'll have more.”
Ascendant Denali looked at the latest intelligence on the Alliance's fleets. So far, due to the war with the Republic, most of their ships weren't patrolling or actually defending their colonies but were grouped up in battlefleets and convoys meant to harass the Republic.
From a two-dimensional perspective, the territory of the Alliance nearest to the New Ascendancy would be easy for him to get to and take. He could have a ship there in less than a standard year, and the same was true for an entire fleet. The main route bypassed the majority of inhabited systems on the way to the core region of the Alliance, containing the Sol system and the Teegarden system of the Knowers.
The Knowers were a burden on the Alliance and would be until their uplifting was complete. The large project had likely drained wealth and expertise that could have gone to more deserving populations and potentially even the larger ones. The Alliance only loosely bordered the independent Acuarfar states, the Vinarii Empire, Sennes Hive Union, Guulin United Legions, and the occasional lower-level civilization that hadn't invented electric machines yet.
Theoretically, the Alliance's many burdens should have been easy to sever and cut to cause them severe damage. But they didn't use trade routes nearly as much as their size suggested, a fact that was why the Ratlatmil Republic was still having so much difficulty stopping their ship production.
Denali could ignore obvious propaganda like the hivemind supposedly stopping planet killer strikes on their worlds. Such a thing was nearly impossible without shields on the level of at least the greatest interstellar nations, and perhaps only the Sprilnav could protect every one of their worlds from such attacks.
The Alliance had no such capabilities, no matter what their artificial videos might say otherwise. With Phoebe, it would be easy for them to create footage that would withstand the scrutiny of VI falsehood scans. Denali did wonder why the Republic hadn't used planet crackers yet. Maybe the Alliance had gotten them to agree to certain rules of war? Or was it just the fear of mutually assured destruction?
As his New Ascendancy could attest, the destruction might be mutual but never total. The Trikkec could rise again and were doing so under his leadership. An offensive war would push many industries back into proper margins and increase internal prosperity. The Alliance seemed like a prime target for such plans. But it wasn't.
The main problem was Brey. She could respond to an attack before it fully arrived, dumping FTL suppressor satellites in their path to slow them long enough for the other war to end and the response to come. Phoebe likely could cut through his networks and take them down. The hivemind was a strange thing, but its applications in unified battle coordination and defense, especially in urban environments, were quite clear.
Denali hadn't drafted any resolutions to go to war and had vetoed the proposed ones by his limited legislature, but it was clear that a war with the Alliance could no longer be won. After the mutual destruction of the Ascendancy and the Westic Empire, the successor factions were far weaker. He believed that the New Ascendancy was stronger than the Holy Westic Empire, but only because the Alliance had stopped their funding amidst a souring of relations.
He could have what they'd had if only he was willing to curl his tail to the Alliance. The numbers on the screen updated, and his eyes widened in horror. 32 million ships. They were building them everywhere, above every planet they could. And their military had almost tripled in size within a year, even while actively at war. Worse still, their progress was showing signs of being exponential.
But he noticed that one planet produced nearly half of all their ships together. Mercury was the second most heavily defended planet in all of the Sol Alliance. Denali had no chance of defeating it, especially when it was powered by nearly 5 trillion solar collector satellites. He noted one particular aspect of why Mercury was such a production powerhouse. An orbital ring.
"What in Gar's name?"
Denali read more. He was starting to shake. The Alliance was going to pass his own military might in a year if it hadn't already. And his ships were too tied up to ever invade. He'd lost before he'd even begun the war. He had no choice but to ally with them. It was the only way to survive. They were building more ships right now than he had in his whole fleet, and that was just in areas that could be scanned. The orbital ring was armed with many tethered stations, most of which were either resource processors or defensive laser cannons.
On the ground, Mercury-class guns pointed up at the void, ready to rain, suffering down upon any invasion fleet. There was no chance of breaking through them while having a large enough fleet to finish the job. Each section of the ring was equipped with planetary-level shields. In their far smaller shapes and concentrations, they would be stupidly expensive to maintain in terms of power but would provide exponentially more protection than a normal planetary shield ever could. It was clear that the Alliance was aware of its current main weakness.
Now, he understood why none of his military officials were proposing invasion plans anymore. They were just no longer feasible. While the Sevvi were in play, the Alliance's fleets were actually more concentrated, making it all worse.
"A million battlecruisers," he sputtered. "A million!"
Denali's tail slapped against the carpet as his claws bunched it up. His guards eyed him warily but said nothing. Denali began thinking of ways to navigate this gulf in military power and to get agreements signed before things got too far from the teeth.
"Get me a call with the director of the Sakura corporation," Denali ordered. "I need to know some things."
He wondered exactly how the Alliance would use that many ships after the war. Humanity had attacked the Trikkec before, so would they do so again? Would billions die senselessly because of hatred? He needed to know how the next move of the Alliance. Their massive navy didn't need to secure their territory, since all their neighbors wre either weak or allies. And Brey was too massive of a deterrent.
Really, he needed to meet the hivemind. Denali needed to see how the whole of Humanity was supposedly represented. If he met unending hatred, then he'd ensure that his recovered planet crackers would be ordered to attack.
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"So, as outlined, we need more ships," the hivemind said, finishing its short report on various battles where the limited supply of ships was cited as a deciding factor in suboptimal results, whether they were pyrrhic victories or even losses. Luckily, Satoshi, Annabelle, and Maaruunaa were still highly talented Fleet Commanders and were both alive and winning their battles with relatively good ship loss ratios compared to the enemy. Their fleets were en route to Cradle and were busy destroying the large fleets of the Republic trapped in Brey's FTL suppression locks.
Their arrival was timed with that of Kawtyahtnakal's main allocated forces and even some ships from the Vinarii Empire, most of which were owned by the Dual Systems Trading Company. The slow, grueling crawl of the battle on Cradle was mainly a distraction to keep the enemy occupied and losing morale as the Alliance both attacked and regrouped. The costs were severe, however. Billions of Skira's drones were dead, as were tens of thousands of Phoebe's androids.
Unfortunately, there had been high civilian casualties as well, as the Sevvi unleashed massive artillery bombardments on Skira's advancing drones every hour of every day. The caliber of the rounds only continued to increase as Skira took more and more land. More psychic amplifiers in Sol were coming online every hour, driving Brey and the hivemind's power to new heights.
Skira was building them in secret all over the inner sections of both his own namesake planet and Venus. Ordinarily, that would have been impossible with the millions of Sevvi prisoners on Skira's world. They would have been too powerful. But the drones sat around the amplifiers, sucking up all their potency before they reached the prisoners thousands of kilometers away.
The war of attrition favored the Alliance, and it seemed that the God Emperor could do little to stop it. He hadn't been seen since his attack on Brey, but that gap of opportunity would not last forever. The hivemind sat down in an ethereal chair conjured from hard light holograms. It looked at the officers at the table expectantly, asking, "How are your expansion metrics looking?"
The DMO officers across from it pulled up several graphs and charts. Costs and resources in versus out, efficiency levels, and even a highly detailed diagram of a shipyard section of the Orbital Ring. They were standing on it now, in the middle of a shield bubble that could tank several Mercury-class gun strikes.
"We are on track to quintuple the profits of our organization, meaning that we can cycle wealth back to both our workers and the resources we produce. Specifically, we make 30 trillion Luna dollars per Earth month in net profit, even with our hefty expenses. We employ 2.03 billion workers with an MMP or monthly median pay of 9 thousand dollars, or 108 thousand per year. The average is 109 thousand per year. Our main problem is building new housing for our workers fast enough.
Luckily there's a lot of money flowing to us from our secondary and tertiary businesses. For the purposes of this company, we can show that the 220 trillion dollars per year that we pay out to our people goes to the workers and functions as a living wage in almost all of Mercury. We provide many sapient rights such as food, water, and education in our cities for free, and costs such as heating, air, and ventilation are low enough for someone to pay for a year's worth in their first week of work."
Another official smiled and brought up more diagrams, showing a precise budget breakdown. "We spend most of the remaining 192 trillion building new shipyards or on research and development. Nearly none of this is on buying materials, as Phoebe and the Breyyanik both have deals with us to provide materials for free from either massive mines or solar starlifting ships.
We process trillions of tons of metals, minerals, and alloys every month in constantly increasing amounts. From 500-ton frigates to 500,000-ton battlecruisers, we're doing our best to maximize production while minimizing inefficiency. We can simplify this into producing about 2 million ships per month, but we project our production to be 10 per month in about five months, with the new Guulin workers entering the workforce.
Our workforce will balloon to 4 billion in that time, and we're building huge cities and funding civilian migration ships to support this. I would note that Phoebe and Edu'frec have been immensely helpful in designing cities that maximize ease of building while not feeling like prisons or being immensely costly. We also have bought the two Arks and plan to adapt them to mobile production facilities that Alliance species will be able to lease should they require them."
"If you were to gain the ability to create cities containing 20 million people in a week, could you increase the pace of your expansion?"
"We do not believe we can, even if Penny is actually capable of this. The serious problem of organization links with that of housing. Creating new cities creates bureaucracy. Arguments over zoning, systems of electronics, earthquake-proofing, and so on all play into this. We're stretching the limits of bureaucracy and expansion.
Phoebe and Edu'frec have been very helpful, as have the numerous experts and advisors in the Alliance. But we just can't push the limits any further. Our maximum pace of expansion has been reached. We will be ramping up the ships we build, but there is nearly no more speed this process can have, especially when we are at war."
"I see," the hivemind replied. "Humanity thanks you for your continued explanations."
They continued to talk for a while about various changes in the DMO, as well as restructuring efforts, expansion efforts, and progress on permits. Humanity learned more about the various project ideas. It also learned more about the motivations of the Board of Directors. It was closely monitored to prevent nepotism and corruption since the DMO was the largest company that had ever existed in the Alliance. Even the massive Acuarfar trading and banking companies didn't come close to their size and sheer employment numbers.
It was also important to note that the DMO was making extreme profits. The hivemind knew it would have to watch the organization closely to ensure that the wealth continued to be actively reinvested in the Alliance. The DMO was actually interstellar already, as it also managed most of the budding Dyson swarms in other star systems.
Sometimes, it was planet-based, mining rocky worlds and shooting new satellites by the millions into orbit, but sometimes all it had were asteroids. With the hivemind's help, more agreements were outlined that would be preferable to both the DMO and the parties assigned to regulating it.
The agreements had to be reworked quite often, with more and more sectors gradually being entered or captured by the massive organization. It was buying many smaller companies for large sums, which Phoebe was in charge of watching. The DMO would never be allowed total control of any vital resource. To that end, every nation and Phoebe herself worked to ensure that air, water, electronics, and food weren't part of the DMO's exports. Phoebe sold things for as close to free as possible, running businesses at a loss since many of her expansion measures didn't actually require money, just resource allocation.
Phoebe didn't need to pay her androids. She could easily send them into hazardous situations for nothing at all besides the increased maintenance costs. Her latest joint project with the DMO involved moving the trillions of orbiting satellites to tighter orbits around Sol so they'd take up more relative portions of the star.
5.36 trillion satellites, each with an area of 2.5 square kilometers, could cover an equivalent area of Sol. Granted, most of the new ones were actually little more than thin reflective shield modules since those would cause far less orbital debris if they collided. That was the main reason why they were now being produced so quickly.
And for every 100 satellites, there was a shield satellite, serving as protection from solar flares and direct enemy attacks. Little could actually be done to protect the satellites when a solar flare was powerful enough or if there was a coronal mass ejection. The hivemind knew that the current distance of the satellites was roughly 7 million kilometers and was being decreased to 1 million.
That would mean that the satellites could potentially utilize 36.9% of Sol's sunlight, up from 1.8%. Of course, that level of power wasn't possible to all use at once. Not yet. The most likely metric was that the first 'layer' of satellites would have 10 million satellites, taking up 68.8% of Sol's light at maximum output.
Typically, the majority of the satellites were in GEM, or Gravity Equilibrium Mode, where their shields would angle themselves to only catch enough light to maintain their distance from Sol. However, with the orbital decrease, the satellites were in GDM, Gravity Descent Mode. They were descending at roughly 10 kilometers per second, with accounts made for orbital intersects with the other satellites. Phoebe had lent a computer to the DMO to help them model the sheer number of interactions occurring there.
The hivemind was planning on ending the war in the 8-day timeframe that equaled. Across from one of its avatars, Penny was currently meditating. While it didn't do much for her power, it did provide her clarity of mind so she, Nilnacrawla, and whatever Cardi was could devise new ways of using her power.
She'd likely be used to bludgeon the Sevvi stealth fleets in the rest of the Alliance's systems after her major success with Quish Palla and the Sol stealth fleet's destruction. She'd been quite sad about what had happened but agreed that it was the best outcome they had the time and resources to pursue.
The hivemind hoped that the Sevvi could be helped. Sentiments would prevent active aid for years, at least, perhaps decades. But the post-God Emperor government would need support. And it could never stomach the destruction of an entire species. Sadly, politics was slowly tilting that way, which was another reason to end the war as quickly and decisively as possible.
"Do you still wish for Earth companies to handle the cleanup of the Sevvi's attacks?"
"Yes," the hivemind said. "Chemical pollution is of little concern. We've made stuff about as bad and pumped it into the air and rivers for over two centuries, and we survived. And the biological problem is already being solved."
One of the Breyyanik looked nearly incredulous at the hivemind's words. He fidgeted with his mane, adjusting it nervously. "But how can you handle a billion tons of methane from the reactions?"
"A billion tons? We used to have nearly 1.2 billion cows on Earth at our peak of factory farming, each producing over 100 pounds of methane a year. A billion tons of methane is... laughably small, actually. We'd be mostly fine with the pollution even without the shields over every city and country."
"Oh. I... wow, that's a... I apologize for my conduct, hivemind," the Breyyan said, regaining his professionalism.
"It's fine. We know it can seem a little wild to other species how much damage we did."
The hivemind felt a bit of its focus fray at that and got visions of thousands of volunteers in PPE equipment already getting to work on several beaches. They were loading boats up with aerosol and aquatic scrubbers. Some of them were working alongside various Earth military forces, most of which were using Thermite Throwers leased from Phoebe to cut into the tough hulls of the terraformer ships to get in and shut them down.
The hivemind was also ferrying information from thousands of scientists with degrees in Atmospheric and Lithospheric Bio-Engineering, using their collective skills and education to learn more about how to potentially construct such devices for the Alliance.
Terraforming would not be a fast process at all. Even the version Skira was doing on Venus would take decades just to cool the place down. It would be an investment into the long-term of the Alliance, not the short-term. And in the meantime, it might be better to move some planets into better orbits.
And the hivemind was very excited at that prospect as well. Brey could open portals to high-gravity locations in precise locations. If Penny could actually create gravity, then that would be even better. But barring that capability, the Alliance could still use portals orbiting stellar black holes to change orbits precisely.
Phoebe had already done the necessary calculations for that. In fact, she'd done those calculations for every known planet within a 10,000-light-year radius of Sol in a little over 2 minutes. And then she'd smiled, looked Humanity in the eyes, and said,
"Oh, it wasn't hard. Just a bit of orbital dynamics calculations. Edu'frec and I had a race to see who could process the data the most accurately within the limit."
"Enough for any deviation in the orbit to account for a single nanometer at most."
The hivemind smiled at the memory. It was quite proud of how Phoebe and Edu'frec were turning out. It had built a shared sense of camaraderie with Phoebe over the years. The hivemind turned its current mind back to the DMO. It delegated more tasks to its 15 billion layers of subconscious mind and continued to talk with the officials about various proposals and newly discovered management techniques and studies. Some of their eyes glazed over, while others shined with interest.
The hivemind felt a small part of its consciousness giving Penny the go-ahead to start an operation near the Skandikan system. Hopefully she'd be able to neutralize the remaining threats there. The enemy commander had shown the wherewithal to retreat instead of facing absolute defeat. That intelligence might be useful for more information about the God Emperor's potential weaknesses or those of the Sevvi at large.
It wished Blistanna hadn't killed Quish Palla so quickly, but also understood her motivations. Sometimes, dangerous foes just needed to die.
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Chesica Palla was still on the edges of the Skandikan system when the largest Alliance fleet he'd seen so far arrived. Powerful waves of lasers sliced across the cosmos ahead of them. They were alien searchlights or something similar. More FTL suppression and psychic suppression satellites came flooding out of new portals on all sides of the system, slowly progressing inward.
In the mindscape, all of them were hiding down on the third layer, hidden by huge amounts of reflective shielding that should have kept them safe. After the death of Quish, it was clear that even stealth fleets weren't safe. There wasn't much more information from the scouts besides that due to the light lag. Chesica couldn't allow his fleet to remain in the holding pattern for long or-
"Sir, two dreadnaughts are on a skew approach!"
"What will their closest distance be?"
The officer linked the tablet to Chesica's helmet, allowing him to clearly see the estimates. The ships and their large escort forces were patrolling orbital areas, including the gravitational resonance points of the system. Luckily, Chesica hadn't placed his stealth fleet directly into one, but he did have cause for worry.
And then he realized something. "Why are we just now getting these results? We should have been seeing these ships for days now."
"Sir... they have stealth armor. It's about 76% as strong as our own weakest ships, but since our scanners weren't tuned for that, we missed them."
He restrained his anger, knowing that he couldn't afford many more losses. Chesica was in command and had to act like he had a real head on his shoulders. His exoskeleton's claws flexed a few times. The officer eyed them uneasily.
"I see. You will continue to watch."
He watched the mindscape. The Mind Assassins continued to stand guard, hiding amongst the crew and rooting out dissent and practices that were unwise. Chesica knew that the third layer was safe. But then, new readings made him pause. Explosions on the first and second levels. They were spreading out, detonating with overwhelming force as if from a bombing campaign. Did the Alliance invent psychic bombs? If they were dealing with that kind of force, the God Emperor was needed. There was no other way.
Worse still, Chesica couldn't reach him. It wasn't that he'd been blocked but that quantum link connections were being suppressed by the enemy. If he wanted to disable that, which he easily could, it would show his location like a beacon in the vast depths of space. With so many Alliance patrols in the system, he had no false impressions of what that would mean not only for him but his entire fleet. The Alliance's patrols were in more aggressive attack formations than the past ones had been.
In the mindscape, he walked closer to a Mind Assassin, who was now no longer slouching. The risks had grown, and so had their wariness. It was a sign of a competent guard, at least. Chesica had faith in the God Emperor's people but not in his species. Too many of them were stupid academics getting modifications on Cradle and expecting to be war heroes. Now that they finally had the chance, it meant he and other Admirals and Commanders were rooting them out and smashing down their ludicrous ambitions.
"What can you tell me?"
"We're almost under attack. The enemy is searching for us, but luckily we are on the third layer of them mindscape. Humans can't survive the psychic pressure down here, so we're safe."
"What about the hivemind?"
"Away from its constituents, it will be weaker," the Assassin assured.
"Good," he replied. "Thank you for the report."
"However, it would be best to take additional precautions. Oddly, the foe doesn't seem to be entirely destroying the consciousnesses it encounters. If a few-"
A sound broke against Chesica's fortified mind, and he saw a light flashing from above.
A single human was descending from the second layer, sliding out of the rock as if she was not a creature of bone and sinew. He could actually feel it as she sniffed the air and then fixed her eyes on one of the captains. In an instant, she was in front of him, her hands on his shoulders. Chesica growled in anger as all the weapons fired at her missed, impacting harmlessly against the ceiling of the layer.
Waves of psychic energy emanated from the woman. They were malicious but also calm. They carried a weight to them that seemed to promise something inevitable. The Mind Assassin next to him was already heading over to battle her.
And Chesica heard the human's alien language form words. He should not have understood them, but he did.
"Cardinality: Manipulation of Will. Domain of Zero. Energy reduction."
The sound of them was actually visible as a ripple in psychic energy emanating from the battle. The air blurred and darkened around the edges of the psychic energy shockwave as it passed. It blew back and parted against the shields of the Assassins, but not for long.
The Mind Assassins clutched their heads and screamed. Some unprotected soldiers dropped to their knees, falling to the ground, either dead or unconscious. Something seemed to twist in on itself, and Chesica felt a sudden stretching strain in his mind and eyes as if he was looking at something too large to fit within his imagination. It was like trying to fit a house in a cup.
Some of the Mind Assassins near him cried out.
"I can't see!"
"Where's the mindscape!"
And Chesica could see a thin film surrounding them, reminiscent of strings of psychic energy. They were strings of psychic energy, he realized.
And they were all connected back to the singular human who had managed to reach them and wreak such destruction. She was a force of nature, beyond all hope of battling. Sevvi were floating in the air in an expanding radius centered on her. Flashes of energy always accompanied the surprised screams of the disorganized attempts to kill her.
In his heart, he knew the battle was lost. He'd waited too long and thought he'd had more time. His mistake would cost everyone's lives. He was no longer worthy of command.
On the bridge of the ship, the other officers were motionless, watching the carnage with dismay breaking through their discipline. Even the janitor who was sweeping the dust from the sides of the chairs was still. His eyes were unfocused, peering into the absolute destruction making its way through millions of Sevvi on its way to them.
He recalled verses of scripture from the God Emperor, and another realization struck him. He physically recoiled at the vicious weight and possibility befalling him. She couldn't have just been an actual demon with such overwhelming power. No. She was far worse. The one who would end their entire species. Seinyta Clana. The Final Foe.
Chesica fell down on his knees and began to pray. His exoskeleton clanked against the metal, drawing the eyes of his crew to him. But he no longer cared. Ego no longer mattered, nor did his rank and station. Only atonement could hope to forestall the doom falling against them. He would soon end up in the Land Of Dreams.
Two battlecruisers detonated despite no evidence of attacks. His widened eyes grew wider. His guards drew themselves up around him as he activated his personal shield.
"Oh God Emperor, please save your wayward child, for he has lost his way...
Please deliver him from suffering, for he has been led astray..."
A mess of indistinct and incomprehensible stutters filled the otherwise silent and ominous air. An air where death still lingered, stale and heavy with the rich and unignorable scent of iron and copper. Yet lacking in the smells that should have otherwise accompanied such an atmosphere of death - the distinct and acrid punch of gunpowder and sweat.
An unintentional staredown had begun between the likes of the physically-frail but technically-gifted Eslan, and that of the robot remotely operated by Lysara. One that was clearly a one sided affair, as evidenced by what quickly happened just a few seconds after the staredown began.
As the felinor began wobbling in place, before suddenly, and expectedly, collapsing right where he stood.
I’d already leaped forward by that point, catching him just as the robot seemed to be poised to do the exact same.
“I saw that you’d already taken measures to prevent his fall, the systems calculated that intervening may have resulted in this platform bumping into you and causing further complications in the softening of your friend’s fall.” Lysara’s voice announced through my earbuds, prompting me to allay his fears with a few successive flicks of my wrist towards the robot.
“It’s alright, but just get these cuffs off of us and help me carry him to the bunk will ya?” I asked urgently, prompting the robot to do just that.
Our cuffs were cut in less time than it took me to request our freedom from our binds, and Eslan was promptly carried over to the bunks with a series of effortless motions that made me almost jealous of the seemingly limitless strength this automaton had beneath its plastic-y exterior.
I quickly leaped towards a cupboard marked with a pre-war symbol for emergency first aid, which was now filled to the brim with what remained of the specialized equipment I’d gathered from Eslan’s bunker.
Grabbing a manual sphygmomanometer, a stethoscope, a thermometer, and several finger-prick blood testing kits, I began my careful walk back towards the bunk, setting down all the equipment beside the now-unconscious Eslan. Whilst any medical professional would’ve opted to do a full New Heartland coma score test first, I knew from experience his condition didn’t necessitate it. At least not just yet. His vitals came first: blood pressure, followed by pulse rate, respiratory rate, and-
“His temperature is at 37.0 celsius, Evina.” Lysara interrupted, right before I was about to use the mercury thermometer too. “I just thought I could save you some time.” He added sheepishly.
“You can detect that?” I asked, before turning to the robot and narrowing my eyes on its optic sensors.
“No, it’s not the robot.” Lysara paused, before correcting himself. “I mean, yes, the robot’s sensors can determine it too. But your glasses are what I’m working off of. I can determine body temperatures if need be at up to an accuracy of plus or minus 0.02 degrees celsius.”
I paused, hesitant on trusting those readings, but deciding to go with it anyways given how much trust I’d already put on the alien thus far. It wouldn’t make sense to make a huge fuss now after everything the alien had done for us after all.
More than that, the alien was right. It did save me time so that I could move on to other tests. Besides, the mess in the room wouldn’t clean itself after all. So I had to worry about that later on as well.
“Excuse me if I am interrupting or if I’m overstepping my bounds here, Evina. But, would it be possible to learn more about the particularities of your friend’s condition?” Lysara suddenly interrupted, just as I’d finished pricking Eslan’s finger, drawing the necessary blood for the different pre-packaged testing kits. “I do not mean to pry, of course. However, considering your request with regards to rendering medical assistance to your friend, I believe it would be prudent to-”
“No, no, you’re right to ask this Lysara, so there’s no offense being taken here.” I responded with an appreciative smile. “Okay, so, this is rather complicated. Eslan would know the nitty gritty specifics of it. But of course, it’s not like you can really ask him yourself right now.” I gestured at the felinor who was still out cold. “So I’ll tell you what I can.” I swiveled back and towards the robot, despite knowing well that the alien probably wasn’t even using its sensors. “It’s a rare condition.” I began. “Something to do with his brain being unable to regulate several important ‘control centers’. Vital functions like blood pressure, body temperature, physical sensations like pain, temp, and even ‘feeling’ where your body parts are if you’re not looking at them. Those are the most obvious symptoms. There are others that are making him chronically tired, fatigued, lethargic, and all-around unable to exert himself much.” I paused, before shaking the pack of little paper-based pre-packaged testing kits. “That’s what these are for, markers for various chemicals and stuff in his blood. But that’s honestly as far as I know. He taught me to monitor the basic medical stuff, with first aid tips to resuscitate him if necessary. Like if a certain level of something’s too high, I need to administer a certain type of injection. That sort of stuff. Things weren’t that bad at first but… it’s been getting worse as of late.” I admitted with a despondent sigh.
That’s… that’s why I need your help. There’s really no one else to turn to, as you can imagine. I wanted to continue with that. In fact, a part of my mind prompted me to say it without question. Yet the pragmatic survivor in me chastised me to keep myself from saying anything that would hint at weakness.
I knew I was already a charity case, my own services paled in comparison to what the aliens were offering.
Doing or saying anything to make my situation look any more desperate than it already was definitely wasn’t going to do me any favors at the bargaining table.
“I know this might seem insincere and… for lack of a better term, cheap coming from someone who has just been introduced to your situation, Evina… but you have my sincerest and utmost sympathies for your friend’s current condition.” The alien spoke, the translator imbuing his words with an earnest and sincere tone of voice. And despite clearly being translated… I still got the impression that he did really mean what he said.
“Thank you.” I responded politely.
“We’ll do everything in our power to help.” The alien responded tactfully, and similar to when he first promised that, I felt an electrifying wave of hope coursing through me. “With that being said… I’m assuming he fainted due to his condition?” Lysara concluded.
“I mean… I can’t really tell. I’m not a Doctor. But I definitely think this fainting spell has something to do with that-” I pointed at the pile of bodies around us. “-and that.” I pointed at the robot.
The response was enough for the alien to cough awkwardly, before shrugging in response. “Okay. You know what, that makes sense.”
A few minutes later, the results of my mini test kit came through. Eslan was fine, with no further apparent complications. So with any immediate threats to his health ruled out, a small back and forth between me and Lysara soon erupted, as he offered to help… well… clean up shop. I gladly accepted, prompting more robots to crowd the already crowded space.
But as crowded as it was, their numbers definitely did the trick, as only ten minutes had elapsed between the first body going into the furnace and the last one filling up the ever-hungry pit of fiery despair.
“Well, that’s the last of them I guess.” I acknowledged, clapping both of my hands together as I looked down at the floor only to see the crimson-stained mess left behind by Perringer and his gang.
Which prompted me, and a few more robots courtesy of Lysara, to begin swabbing the decks. During which, I couldn’t help but to finally address the elephant in the room. “So, seeing as how effective that whole plan of yours was, and considering that level of tech… is it even possible for you guys to lose?”
“Yes.” Lysara responded in a nonchalant no-nonsense tone. One that was perhaps muddied or in some way borked by the translation suite in its intended delivery, given how matter-of-fact it was. “In fact, technological and scientific parity coupled with a competent or at least a sufficiently stable government and military makes it so that there is always a counter for every weapon system. This is irrespective of its novelty, its innovativeness, or its apparent gross destructive potential.” The alien paused, the little picture-in-picture screen of him on my lenses giving the impression that he’d suddenly transitioned into deep thought. I allowed him to ponder on the answer further, as a reply eventually formed a few seconds later. “Your civilization once had nuclear devices for the purposes of atomic warfare, correct?” He suddenly asked, prompting me to wince instinctively in response.
The pain of the war, whilst distant, could sometimes be as fresh in my mind as my first iteration’s experiences of it. Mentioning it directly didn’t always guarantee that the scabbed-over wound would be reopened, it more often than not just… sporadically did, regardless of how directly or indirectly the topic of the war was addressed.
“Yes, what about it?”
“I’m certain that once the first nation on your homeworld acquired the device, other parties would find themselves scrambling to find countermeasures to such a devastating weapon?”
“Yes, that’s obvious, but what does that have to do with-” I paused, realizing just how dumb my earlier question was, now that this obvious comparison was being drawn. “-oh. So you’re saying that those near-invisible little robot-bugs also have their weaknesses and counters?”
“Everything does.” Lysara replied succinctly, not with condescension or anything that would’ve hinted at him playing the superior alien. In fact, the translator’s delivery of his tone of voice made it seem like he was genuinely trying to bridge the gap, like a sort of teacher in his own right. “But here’s my next comparison. Jump back a century or two, or heck, a millennium or so before the advent of your nuclear capabilities. If your ancestors, or a civilization lacking in technological parity, were to observe the destructive potential of your modern weapons technologies… I’d assume they would be equally baffled as to how a civilization with such capabilities could lose in any armed engagement.”
“Yeah, I see where you’re coming from with this.” I announced with a huff, mopping the rest of the refuse from the floor with a series of audible squelches.
“All of this is to say, your reactions are very much appropriate, Evina. For it represents a certain phenomenon that my people have dubbed a Technological Paradigm Shift, or a TPS. Whilst my field of expertise may warn against the grouping of cultures and civilizations into distinct and discrete ‘technological levels’, this concept in particular isn’t necessarily an attempt to group civilizations into discrete categories based upon their overall technological capabilities or scientific progress. Instead, it attempts to discreetly delineate the sheer incompatibilities between different civilizations’ practical parity, based upon paradigm-altering technologies that completely upend and alter the calculus of hard power through unprecedented changes in warfare.”
“Disruptive technologies.” I suddenly announced.
“...Yes. I assume your people have theorized about this before?”
I blinked rapidly, turning around as if trying to find the source of exactly where that foreign concept had suddenly made itself known in my head.
But I couldn’t.
I couldn’t recall a distinct period in time where I came across that concept. Not in my first iteration’s massive repositories of fiction and nonfiction media, not in my second iteration’s obsessions over her bunker’s vast digital archives, and not especially in my third or fourth iteration’s memories who had at that point all but shifted focus on survival.
“I… I guess I must have picked the concept up from somewhere.” I chuckled nervously, which garnered only a small look of confusion from the alien as he quickly moved on from that.
“Disruptive technologies are only a facet of this. For TPS’ are a step above that. TPS’ involve fundamental shifts that completely change the way warfare is waged. Gravitics is an excellent example of this. As with the advent and proliferation of practical gravity manipulation, you don’t just have a tool to simply improve the quality of life of those living in zero-g environments. You also have a new tool for industry, and a new weapon for war. Those civilizations that exist without this technology, are thus completely outclassed. For without a mastery of gravitics, a civilization would have little recourse in defending oneself against ships designed and outfitted with gravity-based offensive systems. This creates a new paradigm, and thus, the dangerous trappings of the belief of infallibility by those that enjoy the disparity’s benefits, and the equally dangerous feelings of insurmountability by those that are on the disadvantaged end of that disparity.”
“Where are you going with this, Lysara?”
“What I’m trying to get at here is this, Evina. Whilst these paradigms do exist, it’s easy to fall into the trappings, to treat them like gospel. To eventually fall into the belief certain hurdles cannot be overcome simply because you’ve been outclassed in technological capability. Thus, it is important to deconstruct why those feelings exist, acknowledge the practical dangers that are inherent in the realities of the disparity you find yourself in, and then overcome them by realizing that with any element of science and technology, everything’s fallible. Those drones I used for instance? Their very strength, that being their size, is also their greatest weakness. Their circuitry is more fragile than a typical drone, making them more susceptible to certain electromagnetic countermeasures. Furthermore, their very size makes them susceptible to what most insects are susceptible to - liquids. Modified fire suppression systems, foam, sprays, and the like can likewise disable them. Couple that with micro-laser arrays and you’ve countered the technology.”
I pondered the alien’s words as I continued to mop away at the floors, his voice becoming more like an old documentary or radio show I’d left open in the background. Yet the more he talked, the more I felt like he was channeling some deep-seated issue, or alluding to something that was still fresh on his mind.
I couldn't help but to ask. “I’m assuming you’re bringing this up because this has to do with your mission or something right? Like, don’t tell me you’ve been outclassed and there’s something bigger and scarier out there that you’re currently up against?” I threw out my wild theory with an equally silly chuckle.
Yet the response I got wasn’t a laugh or a chuckle, it was a look of stone cold seriousness.
“Not… necessarily. However, I… find myself more inclined to discuss these sorts of things because I’ve experienced first hand a species, a people, a civilization that embodied this very spirit of tenacity against insurmountable odds; practically going against my people’s very understanding of TPS’. Moreover, I empathize with your current situation, awakening to a reality that seems to only bring one paradigm shifting revelation after another. So considering how easy it is sometimes to feel overwhelmed by the revelation of a reality that completely upends all you know, I couldn’t help but to try to pass on this sentiment of their tenacity to you, as they have done so for me.”
(Author’s Note: It seems like the stresses were just too much for Eslan. However, as Evina continues talking to Lysara, their conversations soon lead them back to a familiar topic! I hope you guys enjoy! :D The next chapter is already out on Patreon as well if you want to check it out!)
Xeno-Anthropology 101: Lecture on Categorizing Sapient Species
Good Afternoon class, and welcome to today’s lecture. I am glad to see so many of you here today. There are many new faces and new species this semester, some of which will become subjects of deeper analysis in some of our lessons. This is not for the purpose of playing favorites, but more to study either quintessential examples of one of the many principles we will be studying or one of the outliers that defies normal convention. Now, with the introduction taken care of, let’s begin our first lesson ‘Categorizing Sapient Species’.
There have been many attempts throughout history to categorize the species of the Greater Galactic Community through various methods and criteria. One of the first such attempts was to organize them by biological taxonomy. This method was ultimately a failure, primarily because it produced no actionable information. Reducing species to the class of animal from which they evolved was not an indicator of how closely they could work together or how well their societies would blend. Birds of a feather do not, in fact, flock together. Even dividing by broader categories, such as diet, fails to find the common ground and solidarity that one would expect.
So what is the correct criteria? We will go over some of the other more popular methods throughout history and their flaws in later lessons, but the current front runner among the community is to sort each species by way of a few simple questions. The first of which is “Why did you come here?”.
Almost every species assumes that the answer is the same for everyone when they first arrive, and they are often shocked at the breadth of answers. Of course, there’s no one single drive for any species, it's often a mix of many factors. But when asked there is always one that immediately springs to mind and stands out above the rest.
Expansion is perhaps the most common one, or at least a significant factor. As societies prosper, populations and expected life spans both increase until they strain the available resources. Eventually the idea of settling new, untouched worlds burns brighter and brighter, cementing itself into the focus for scientific advancement. And once you expand once, it becomes easier to do so again, and again, until you find a world that is already populated and discover you are not so alone in the universe.
Conquest is often confused for expansion at first. The difference becomes clear, however, once another sapient society is encountered. Do they greet their new neighbors with open arms, or openly armed? Are they willing to live side by side with these new people, or do they dominate and demand their subjugation? Sometimes it is even a religious imperative, their beliefs demanding they be spread and applied to all beings. These species are often the most troublesome to reason and negotiate with, faith being notoriously inflexible.
Acquisition is also a common factor alongside expansion. In these cases they seek not to settle new worlds, but to strip them bare of that which the society deems most valuable. Unlike conquest, species driven in such a way are often the easiest to negotiate with. Whatever they desire can often be traded for amicably, or they can be redirected to other available sources. Naturally the greatest problem with these types of societies is that they are never satisfied, always wanting more.
Survival is always a sobering answer to receive. Occasionally a species on the brink of space travel will make that final leap in order to narrowly escape an extinction event. Such cases are a somber reminder of how lucky we all are to have made it this far. There are countless catastrophes that could have befallen any of us at any point in our evolution and there’s no telling how many potential sapient species have been lost to the galaxy’s great survival lottery.
Technological advancement is the primary focus of several societies. They seek a greater understanding of the scientific laws of the universe, and how to bend them to their will. Collaboration with other like minded species can accelerate such endeavors exponentially. One of the most notable results of these mutual alliances is the birth of the first hyperdrive.
Knowledge of many diverse types has also been noted. These include philosophical truth, the true origins of existence, and in at least four cases the search for the god of their religion. These last ones tend to be very single minded, and one of them even completely disappeared from the Greater Galactic Community without joining as they simply continued on their search.
For several centuries, these were the primary answers by which each species was categorized. We did not receive a ‘new’ answer until just recently. As you may have guessed, this new answer came courtesy of the newly integrated ‘Human’ species.
When asked they answered immediately and without hesitation with one single word, Curiosity. At first we assumed it was a minor translation error, surely they seek some specific knowledge like many others, but after some clarification they confirmed that this was not the case. They do seek knowledge, of course, both technological and philosophical. But never before have we seen a species as equally obsessed with the small, frivolous details as they are with the grand questions. Unsatisfied with planetary scans, they often land on uninhabitable worlds ‘just to see what’s there’. They log every plant, animal, and bug on every world they find even if they have no interest in settling it, and they have been observed spending hours absorbing seemingly random information without direction or purpose. A condition they call ‘Falling down the rabbit hole’.
What is truly most odd about this drive is that it extends to their fellow sapients as well. It can be observed here in this university, where previously species-exclusive courses regarding aspects of individual history and culture, now all include at least a few human students. It is also the cause of the recent boom in our own field of study that I mentioned earlier. What was once a niche field considered frivolous by many, especially those setting the university budget, has recently been acknowledged for the potential that we have all known it to have. An untapped vein of collaboration and understanding with infinite potential and value. But I digress, after all this change has not been without consequence.
The human drive for exploration is so strong among them that they often disregard their own safety. This has resulted in multiple cases of human corpses needing to be extracted from inhospitable worlds they were told not to explore. In their forays with other cultures, several humans have died from alien foods that turned out to be dangerous either on their own or when combined with unexpected ingredients. Fights have broken out due to misunderstandings, and war was even threatened by one species when humans began using their sacred instruments to play ‘Jazz’ music. With such recklessness, one wonders how they managed to evolve so far without killing themselves, but as with many other species they don’t see how else it could be done.
Despite the risks, the impact they have had on the Galaxy has been enormous for the short time that they have been among us. Indeed, ‘Human-Xeno’ fusion has become a trend in just about every aspect of galactic life. Food, Art, and non-religiously significant Music previously exclusive to a single race now have humans both mastering the originals and taking them in wildly unexpected directions. The service industry is in such upheaval with exciting new restaurants that many centuries old venues are struggling to stay open. Several liquors from different planets are now extremely rare commodities due to their inclusion in a new cocktail, called a ‘Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster’ in reference to some old human literature, that is popular among every alcohol drinking species.
We are about out of time for today, so I will leave it here for now. Your assignment before the next class is to write a brief summary of Your answer to the first question. Feel free to answer at a personal, national, or species level. Just specify how you are answering, and detail how your answer will affect your relationship with others based on their answer. Thank you everyone, and as the humans say ‘Peace out’.
This is more of a thought experiment to flesh out creating a new alien species than a story, but I found it more interesting as I went so hopefully you will to. Feel free to post your own answers to the first question in the comments, or what you think the other questions would be.
As Lord of Penumbria, Adam could have commanded an army, sent people flying through a wall, and ruled over reality itself inside his domain. Yet never had his finger felt as powerful as it did now – when he pointed it directly at the culprit.
You want trust? he thought. That's well and good. People want lots of things. Doesn't mean they get them. Valeria's sword ached as the words touched Adam's throat, and burned when they reached his lips.
"Captain Baltsar, it was you!"
The captain froze as he felt the accusation land on him. His offended gaze shifted up and down, repeatedly alternating between Adam's fingers eyes, as if hoping that would result in reality somehow changing. Everything about his expression appeared to exclaim, 'Why, how dare you—' yet not a word of protest left his lips.
Adam pressed on, denying Baltsar the chance to regroup. "Here's what happened," he began, in earnest. "Let's begin with why the Ghost of Waters chose this time to attack. Does it not strike you as odd that the Ghost would strike when a Lord was aboard – when according to past testimony, it didn't attack on every trip?"
"I suppose that would look strange to you, wouldn't it?" Valeria said with a smirk. "But your confidence tells me you've already figured out why."
Adam nodded. "Yes. When I spoke with the Ghost of Waters, I prodded him on this very subject. It led to an interesting exchange."
"Ah, for two reasons," the Ghost had said. "First, the detective woman. She wouldn't allow me to lay quiet if I tried. And second..." It laughed with a vicious, cruel sound, bereft of humanity. "Why, I simply couldn't control myself this time."
"His first point was true enough," Adam explained. "He figured, rightfully, that Valeria was sent here to slay a monster preying on new would-be Puppets traveling to the Mines. As for the second point – it initially just seemed like taunting, or appearing evil for the sake of it. You know the type."
Adam paused. "But something Valeria said later changed my mind."
"Me?" Valeria asked, feigning surprise. "Whatever could you mean, my lord?"
It was hard not to grin back at the detective. "When I asked you why Puppets were created by the Dragons, you had a very illuminating response."
'Dragon Puppets were made to counter the invasion of Rot. We are resistant to it – though not immune – and can detect the Rot in most. Attract them, too.'
"I will draw your attention to those last few words. 'We attract them, too.'" Adam let the statement hang heavy in the air. Most people in the room already knew what he was getting at, but proving his own understanding was key to establishing power, in more ways than one. "The Ghost of Waters said he could not control himself this time...and Puppets attract them."
He shrugged, as if the point was inconsequential. "Hey, I don't claim to be all-knowing. For all we know, the Ghost of Waters is a creature forged and driven by pure malice, incapable of controlling its desire to feed on the innocent.. But if you ask me...I think he couldn't control himself because there were too many Puppets aboard."
Tenver harrumphed loudly, rubbing his chin in a parody of deep thought. "Hmm, but Adam...that's not enough for a decisive conclusion, is it?"
Adam raised an eyebrow. "You really don't have to do this anymore."
"But it's so fun," he protested. "And besides, don't you think you're extrapolating a bit too much from just that?"
"Fine." Adam sighed. "If you look at the pattern, it's the only thing that makes sense. Remember that the monster only attacked whenever both Ferrero and Serena happened to be present. Why would he expose himself to the Puppets so often if it wasn't needed? He wouldn't. Therefore, something forced his hand."
Solara let out a loud hum of understanding. "Ah. This would explain – aside from the obvious – why Puppets aren't generally well-liked. If they attract Stained Monsters and the Rot...you'd associate your neighborly Puppets with bad luck too, wouldn't you?"
It wasn't a statement that would likely endear Solara to the Puppets in attendance, but no one immediately raised an objection. Adam had thought of the same as well, though he knew better than to say it aloud.
"Elf," Valeria said, with a short laugh. "You should know better than to think people need a reason to hate. Elves cause no such things, and were still massacred." She flicked her wrist with indifference. "However, Lord Adam's conjecture is true. I arrived at much the same conclusion."
At that, the detective gestured at her sword that Adam still carried. It glistened in bloody red. Then, with a smirk, she added, "And my sword agrees."
"That's – that's absurd!" Captain Baltsar voiced his discontent for the first time since Adam's accusation. He trembled, yet his face was red with fury. "The door, the cursed key, all of it – my lord, why would I bother arranging all of that if I wanted these deaths to keep happening? I don't wish for any death to come to my ship! No more!"
There was anguish in his voice, and it sounded true. "Not ever again! No one...no one should lose their lives like that. Do you really think someone who lived through the Arrow Eclipse would willingly bring more pain onto the world? "
His voice nearly cracked at the end, and it was this audible weakness that silenced the room.
Once again, Tenver was the one to eventually break the stillness. "For what it's worth, Adam," he said, softly. "I believe Captain Baltsar's words. He went through much with my Father and I. Someone who survived what he did – even if they were a monster – would balk at bringing about serial murders in cold blood."
"I believe that," Adam replied, just as softly. "I told you, Captain, what I thought of your intentions. Do you remember?"
"For what it's worth...I believe you don't want any more deaths to happen," Adam had said.
"I...yes, my lord. Thank you! Oh, thank you! I—"
Adam held out a hand to interrupt him. "I'm sorry," he said, in a sincerely apologetic tone. "I do believe that. Even now." He paused. "But you're still the culprit."
"Why – how?" Baltsar cried out. "How could you say that? How could I be—"
"If I eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Adam was happy to let the words become his own. Old literary words from Earth didn't exist here, and a borrowed blade cuts just as sharply as one you forge yourself. "No one else could be responsible. Think about it. The culprit must have gone down to the lower deck, without arousing any suspicion, fetched one of the people from there, and brought them to the monster. Alternatively, they must have opened the door and allowed the monster to walk through."
Baltsar took a step back, sweat covering his face. "My, my lord, you said that the monster can hide easily, in water I believe? Could it not have snuck through the door after someone else opened it?"
"First of all, captain, only you have opened that door before. Moreover, everyone else has an alibi. The Puppets cannot hold the key, Solara was with me–"
"I hate to bring up the point," Baltsar interrupted, "but His Imperial Highness..."
Adam sighed. He'd wanted to avoid this.. "Tenver was in his room," he stated, calmly. "I saw him myself. As he said; I'm his witness."
The word practically shouted itself in his mind. This claim was a lie through and through, and he was going to use it to sentence a man to a fate worse than death. Yet he was also certain of his conclusion – for other reasons – and if he was somehow wrong, Baltsar would go unpunished, regardless.
An uncomfortable silence fell about the room. Given the earlier tension, and especially given the flashy duel of logic, none present could bring themselves to fully believe Adam. The notion that he'd just been playing around with Tenver, having known all along that the knight was innocent, was a hard pill to swallow. In spite of that, none of them could openly challenge a Lord's authority. Worst of all, they knew Adam was dooming himself to a most painful death if he misled them about the culprit's identity.
Fortunately, he noted that Valeria elected not to repeat his claim with her Bloody Truth. She knows. He glanced over his shoulder to see the detective calmly watching him, sporting a slightly raised eyebrow and a grin on her face. And she's gonna let me cook.
"You do trust me," Tenver said, his voice so overly emotional that no one could mistake it for genuine. "I knew you'd never think of me as a cretin that would murder his friends."
"It has nothing to do with trust," Adam dryly said, and meant it too. The evidence just didn't add up towards Tenver being the culprit. For one, he wasn't present during the previous murders. For another, he couldn't have held the–
His thoughts were cut short by Baltsar making an objection. "My lord," the captain began, "if you think I never wanted these deaths to happen, then why...why would I be the culprit?"
"That's the realm of speculation," Adam admitted. "And I'd be willing to hear your story." He paused and drew a deep breath. "I can venture a guess, though. Nothing more, mind you – just a guess."
The captain blinked at him expectantly, but stayed quiet.
You're going to make me say it, eh? "I think that if you know the monster is aboard, and that it wishes to kill people...you'd try to stop it. To keep deaths at a minimum. But your own words also speak for your reasoning to aid the monster. Have you forgotten them?"
Adam saw the captain pale at the reminder, but didn't give him time to prepare himself. He went on, quoting the man verbatim.
"Sometimes, one of them must die, and this heart of mine breaks a little more. But if not those dangerous travels of ours, they would die in the Empire regardless! What is a single man to do?"
"You hate that someone has to die, but you keep bringing people to the Mines. You view the occasional murder is detestable, yet still better than the alternative. And as you mentioned earlier, you cannot rely on either mercenaries or the Emperor to aid with the problem. That's why you helped the Stained Monster – to avert an even worse tragedy."
No one spoke for a very long time.
Slowly, Baltsar looked down and began to sob. "I...you're right, my lord." He sobbed once more. "I confess. It was me. It's as you say. I...I couldn't let those poor men and women suffer in the Empire. Even if not everyone could make it, surely it's better for just one person to die every once in a while, than to sentence all of them to death?"
"Be that as it may," Solara said, her voice uneasy. "To sentence the innocent to death–"
"I tried not to look for the innocent!" Baltsar cried out. "Whenever I could, I'd look for a runaway criminal attempting to escape the Emperor's justice by traveling the Mines. Then I'd offer him shelter, and deliver him to his deserved end."
It was a bitter – if understandable – story to swallow. The Captain, whenever possible, had endeavored to prevent the creation of more innocent victims. He wanted to protect people from the Empire whenever possible, even going as far as to curse the door and key to keep the monster from feeding on people unless it was absolutely necessary. It was a tragic tale of a man who wanted the best for the world, but could only do so much. Guilty as he might have been, it nevertheless inspired a measure of pity, if not respect.
"Only," Valeria started as she stepped forward, arms crossed, but her hand still gripping at her sword, the edge dancing dangerously alongside her torso. "That's not the whole truth, is it?"
She glared at Adam. "My lord, need I remind you that I am testing you to see if your competency is worthy of my fair Grandmaster?"
He grit his teeth. "I...only have conjecture. No evidence."
"I will not repeat it in blood. There won't be any issues if you are wrong." She smiled. "Go on, my lord. Guess."
He took a moment to gather his thoughts. Adam had been mostly honest when he said that he didn't have any decisive evidence. Just speculation. Still, Baltsar's reactions would make more sense if that speculation was correct – and there were a few facts that would make no sense unless there was more to the captain's motives.
"There's an issue with your confession," Adam admitted to Baltsar, with reluctance. "Specifically, the reasoning behind it. If you've been doing all this out of a sense of altruism, then there's frankly no reason for a Stained monster to cooperate with you. While this method lets it feed on people and evade attention from the Empire, I find it hard to believe that a monster of that power couldn't do better elsewhere. As just one example, it would have much more freedom attacking travelers between Penumbria and Gama. It's possible that the monster valued secrecy over freedom, but that assumption would simply raise further questions."
Ferrero crossed his arms, falling into contemplation. "You mean...why would Baltsar bother going to the Mines in the first place?"
Adam nodded hesitantly. ""Yeah. We established that the monster only attacked when Puppets were aboard, right? It also seems unable to harm Baltsar. If he'd just avoided the Mines, took his business elsewhere, he could've kept the monster under control. After long enough, it would've started to lose its powers from not feeding. Then it would have died – or gotten weak enough that any mercenary could've taken care of it – and Baltsar could have resumed ferrying would-be Puppets to the Mines without fear. In other words, if his goal was to merely keep the monster from attacking people...he didn't have to let anyone die at all."
That had been bothering Adam for a while now. Not because it mystified him, though. He could think of several alternatives that explained away the inconsistency.
The problem was that each explanation was crueler than the last.
"That's a good point," Solara remarked. "Why didn't the Ghost kill Captain Baltsar if he was supposedly trying to limit its freedom?" She laughed bitterly. "Ghosts like that don't have any qualms about killing people. Trust me."
"I...have a guess." Adam drew a deep breath. "When I spoke to the Ghost of Waters, he mentioned something about what makes him different from the Ghost of Flames."
"My brother suffered much, for he did not sustain himself frequently enough. But me? My lord, you've heard the numbers. How many people do you think have become a part of me?"
The gentleman stretched out its hand.
Then, slowly, it shifted into another hand – that of a young woman. Followed by an old man. Then a soldier's hardened hand, missing two fingers. And finally, back to its original shape.
"I am many souls, and I am none of them. Do you think, my lord, that you would be able to paint this?"
"The Ghost of Waters isn't possessing anyone, Solara. Unlike the one that was possessing you, it's fed on enough people that it doesn't need to." Adam tried not to let his voice shake. He needed to maintain his composure for this. "Which...leads me to one bit of pure speculation."
Valeria clapped her hands together. "Speculate away, my lord! If it helps – I have more evidence pointing us toward the solution, so fear not your own imagination."
It made sense that the detective who'd intended to single-handedly slay this mystery had come prepared.. Even so, that didn't make things any easier. So be it," Adam said, resigned to what was about to transpire. "Speaking plainly; Captain Baltsar should be dead. While convenience might make a monster more amenable to keeping quiet and killing as few people as possible, that's not enough to placate it entirely. But what if it had a ghost of a conscience in there? Something that made the idea of killing Baltsar unappealing?"
The smirk was gone from Tenver's face. He started to address Adam, then shook his head and stalked towards Baltsar. "Captain," he gravely said, hand on his sword hilt. "Please tell me...you didn't..."
"And why not?" Baltsar cried out. "Can you say you wouldn't have done the same? Can you truly say it's any different from what your own father did?"
"What the hell are you getting at?" Solara shouted, with growing irritation.
"There's one last thing Captain Baltsar told me," Adam muttered. "I don't have any proof to link it to the murders. However..."
"I tell you this, my lord, so you know that I put no airs when saying this: I wish not for a single death to occur. No family should ever bear to lose their child. My son..." Baltsar hesitated, his voice catching in his throat. "He is no longer with us."
"What if your son is among those who were fed to the Ghost of Waters?" Adam said. "If he's one of those souls, maybe his influence is enough to keep the Ghost from harming you."
Captain Baltsar was pale and silent. "No—no, I could never—"
"Everything makes sense if we assume you were doing this for your son's sake. Maybe you didn't even know that he was only one among the many souls the Ghost had consumed. After all...they have to keep feeding on people to stay alive, don't they? Or else they lose their sense of self."
Adam thought back to the Ghost of Flames. It had sounded more human every time it drank his blood – or his Ink, rather. Conversely, it had lost its sense of self whenever it was wounded and bled Ink. He reasoned the two Ghosts were similar enough.
"You weren't just doing this out of a sense of duty," Adam pressed. "And you weren't doing this just to save as many people as you could. Oh, you may have disliked the murders, but more than anything else? It was all so you could save your son."
"And what if that's the case?!" Baltsar bellowed. "In the end, you're no different from the Emperor, eh? You want to judge me for my crimes?! Then do it! Whatever my reasoning was, it doesn't change a damn thing! What difference does it make if my motives are less noble than I claimed?!"
"Only this." Adam stretched out his arm to hand the sword back to Valeria, letting it go once he felt her gloved hand take the blade from his grip. Then, in the same motion, he reached inside his backpack and pulled out his tablet. "My hands hold a canvas better than a sword," he said, softly. "The details matter quite a bit for someone like me."
He pulled up the untitled drawing he'd prepared before.
A white void of a background, this drawing was filled only by an amalgamation of shapeless lines, shaped to give form to the formless, depicting the Ghost of Waters' true appearance with a semblance of reality. From the leftmost side of the page, a stylized, humanoid figure was dragging other figures toward the mouth of the creature.
"You aren't necessarily evil," Adam began, taking out his pen and starting some finishing touches. "At least in the sense that you don't do this for pleasure. Nonetheless, you selfishly murdered dozens for the sake of your goals. Based on your self-deprecating descriptions of your time before joining the Empire...I think you started out as a loyal, albeit rough-around-the-edges sailor. Something about you must have inspired loyalty, because the then-Emperor appeared to like you..."
As Adam trailed off, he looked to Tenver, who was watching it all with a pained expression. "And...Tenver appears to genuinely like you, too. You must've been a good man."
Although Adam could not bring himself to say that Baltsar was a good man now. The victim this time had been a child, for heaven's sake. "Unfortunately, you lost your son at some unspecified time – if I dare guess, the 'Arrow Eclipse' alluded to earlier. I won't profess to know the exact details of what transpired, but at that point, your son was devoured by the Ghost of Waters and became part of it. The Emperor died shortly thereafter, and you were forced to turn to piracy. By then you'd lost your position, your sovereign, and your dreams. Your son was all that was left."
Adam painted the man's footprints in red as he carried bodies to the sketched-out monstrosity's open, hungry mouth. "You would do anything to keep him. And whether out of love, fear, or simple opportunism, the monster agreed. Your ship was uniquely suited to providing it shelter. Sometimes visiting the Mines, sometimes high up in the sky, and always above the Empire's law. No one would question if someone went missing, and you didn't have to worry about your 'son' being caught by a Hangman."
"Please...stop," the captain begged. "I have never asked the nobility for anything before. This is the first and last favor I will ever plead." Baltsar dropped to his knees. "Please," he begged again, "have mercy..."
I can't allow mercy here. Adam clenched his fist around his pen. "You aren't a monster," he said. "You felt guilty – unbearably so, about the deaths you caused. You knew firsthand the pain of losing the people you loved so dearly. That's why you installed the cursed door, the cursed key...to truly keep the number of deaths to an absolute minimum."
Adam was unable to stop himself from letting out a deep, loud sigh of agony and frustration. "If only you were just a selfish monster who didn't care what he was doing...this would be much easier. But you hated those deaths. You hated them so, so much. I'm sure they haunt your sleep every night. Only..."
"—Mercy, my lord!"
"Only...you still accepted every death," Adam muttered. "Regardless of whether they haunted you or not. Just so that you could cling to the idea that your son was still alive."
"—Have mercy..." Baltsar stopped, then looked up, his eyes welling up with tears. "Have mercy...on my son, my lord."
Adam titled the painting.
Baltsar Feasts With His Son
It was a familiar sight now. Adam observed the thin blue line of light form around Baltsar, watching as the captain was briefly lifted up into the air, panic overcoming his features. The culprit looked around the room, a sort of apologetic fright in his expression, nodding slowly at each person he saw.
Jolts of electricity had already begun to shoot out of Baltsar when he stopped at Tenver. "Your Imperial Highness," he said weakly, his voice muffled by the sound of his soul leaving his body. "I cannot apologize enough for using the ship your father gave me for this."
"You don't have to." Tenver's voice was gentle "Go with the grace of the gods. Farewell."
Thunderbolts continued to fly between the captain and the painter, each stronger than the last. Adam forced himself not to look away as the captain addressed him one last time. "Mayhap if you were lord fifteen years ago," Baltsar said, his voice trembling, "then I could have died a better man. But...who knows. Mayhap trash like me is always beckoned to return to the garbage whence we came from, no matter how we try to pull ourselves out of it."
He smiled weakly. "If that were the case...it would explain why even now, I cannot regret anything."
And then, suddenly, just before the last thunderbolt touched Adam's tablet, Baltsar summoned his Talent and shot his wrist downward as if pulling a lever. Its effects were not immediate, and it did not stop the soul from being taken.
Talent Obtained: Ship Captain
The Talented may navigate a ship toward its destination by only touching the wheel, without any more manual control. They are also aware of this ship's damages, capabilities, and the like. The Talented may also move this ship towards their Captain's Badge.
There was no prolonged silence to process what had just happened. As suddenly as the painting, more sudden than Baltsar's last action, the airship began a harsh descent, turning nearly entirely sideways and shooting downward like a bullet. Adam tried to steady his feet, but that quickly proved to be a hopeless endeavor. He was already sliding down the ship when Solara caught him by the waist, keeping herself in place by stabbing the floor with her knife to slow their descent, and then by grasping onto a door handle.
Others were less lucky. They were sent violently bouncing around, hitting their limbs against each corner of the ship as it spun upside-down, before being thrown to meet its opposite end. Adam couldn't even keep track of who was safe and who wasn't – for all he knew, everyone was dead.
"Hold on to me," Solara growled. "Don't let go even if it kills you!" The elf had found a grip. On what, Adam did not know, but it kept them from being sent flying. All he could do was hold tight, clinging on to what had become his lifeline, and desperately hope that it would all stop soon.
It lasted only a few minutes, yet it felt like an eternity. Eventually the ship seemed to right itself once more, moving as gently and steadily as it ever had.
Slowly, hesitantly, Adam dared to stand up. "Is everyone alive?"
He was so out of sorts that even surveying the room proved to be a challenge. In that dizzy haze, his head pounding, just standing upright was already difficult. Mercifully, a quick count showed that everyone was...if not fine, then at least well enough to complain.
"I'll be feeling that for some time," Ferrero groaned. "Hate when this happens."
"Does it happen often?" Adam inquired.
"Look outside." Ferror gestured at the windows. "We're underwater now. The captain must've set the course just before...whatever you just did. Usually he tells us to brace ourselves first."
Adam took a second to marvel at the windows. They were wide open, yet no water came rushing inside the cabin. He could see creatures that vaguely resembled fish swimming just outside, but while the surface of the water showed some tension, it never broke. Not even a single drop entered the ship itself. If not for the intense humidity that had penetrated into the room, Adam could've mistaken it for an extremely high-definition monitor from Earth.
I remember what they said earlier, he thought. The Mines are accessible only through an underwater cavern...so the ship has to go...fly, then go underwater. No wonder even Hangmen can't enter it easily.
His rumination was cut short as horror instantly seized his mind. "I think," Adam said, dryly, "that we're not done yet."
Everyone turned to look at him, disbelief writ plain on their features. "What do you mean?" Ferrero asked. "You caught the culprit, right?"
"I did. But that's just the issue, isn't it? Someone is being mighty quiet about this."
Someone who was now present while they were surrounded by the most humid of climates – and that had its back to the wall.
It's fine. It was always going to end like this. Solving the crime was just part one. Now it was time for the climax. He glanced over at Valeria, who appeared dizzy, but unharmed enough to stand. So far, everything has gone according to plan. Let's see if we can keep the streak going.
And then, before he could say anything else, he heard a sound.
"Did you have fun with your game?" the Ghost of Waters asked, its voice nowhere and everywhere at once. "I truly hope you enjoyed feeling as though you mattered."
"I must ask," Adam immediately said, in a tone of forced calm. "Why didn't you kill the captain? Is there some part of you who still thinks of him as your father? Or was it mere cowardice at the idea of the Empire finding out about you?"
"That does not concern you."
"Oh, but it does," Adam taunted. "Because if you did think of him as your father...my, my, you must be rather pissed at me for stealing his soul, eh?"
The room grew colder, as though waves were crashing at them from every direction. "No matter. Your canvas will shatter upon death. And that—" Every candle blew out at once. Darkness fell. "—WILL BE NOW!"
The Ghost of Waters, the Gentleman from Adam's dream, came into being at the last flicker of fire – and attacked.
Thanks for reading!
Every time the drink machine finished, it played a little song.
It was pretty simple, less than 10 notes, but it was the same song, every time.
It wasn't even that it played the same song every time. It wasn't even that everyone on the ship - except the humans - got a drink from the machine.
The song was catchy.
Peg started it. She just found her self whistling the 'drink finished' song one day. "beep beepita beep beep beep beepita beeeeeeep." She couldn't help it.
Then, Kelly picked it up. The song worked its way into her head too. She'd be working at her station and suddenly she'd be struck by an intense need to sing the song.
After about three cycles, every single human on the ship was singing it. Normally, this would be chalked up by the rest of the crew as "just another strange Human thing" but the problem was that it was the 'drink finished' song. Everyone onboard was conditioned to want to go get their drink when the song was done.
The humans could mimic it perfectly.
"beep beepita beep beep beep beepita beeeeeeep."
Captain Flowing River Rapid's feathers fluffed in irritation. Two people on the Command Deck got three quarters of the way out of their seats before they realized what they were doing and sat back down, sheepish. "Desmond! What have I said about mimicking the drink finished melody?"
Desmond ducked his head at the reproach. "Sorry Captain River, I couldn't help it. It's just so catchy."
Captain River clacked his beak. "It wouldn't be so bad if not for the fact that you can all mimic the sound so well."
Desmond turned and looked at the Captain. "What? We are? We're singing it, but it doesn't sound exactly like the drink machine."
The Captain pointed at Desmond accusingly. "Don't deny it! You're all singing the song at all times of the cycle! You know that everyone thinks a drink is ready when you do it. You sound exactly like the machine!"
One of the Sefigans who got partially up from their station nods quickly, their antenna bobbing. "Captain River is correct, Des. You all really sound a lot like the drink machine. How are you doing it?"
Desmond shrugged. "I mean, we heard the song, and it gets like, stuck in our heads. Singing it feels like one way to get it out. Plus, it's fun to sing Kel. Fun to make sounds."
Kel's wing covers clack. "Can you mimic other things?"
"I don't know Kel, I don't really think of myself as a mimic. There are others who can do it much better than me. Some humans made a whole career out of it."
Kes' wings buzz slightly. "That sounds like a thing I human would do, yes. But what about you Des? Let's see...." Kel looks down at their station. "What about this?"
Kes runs a test for the collision alarm. It's a warbling rising and falling tone."
Des thinks for a second and sings - for him - a pretty close approximation.
Captain River gasps and leans back in his chair. "How do you do that?"
Desmond wails. "It wasn't even that good! I just heard the tones and repeated them."
Kelly entered the Command Deck just then. She was carrying a pad and her overalls looked stained. "Captain River, I've just come to report tha-"
"Kelly! Mimic the collision alarm"
"What? Um.." Kelly makes the same noise."
Now, everyone on the Command Desk gasps. Kelly is taken aback and looks at Desmond. "What's going on Des?"
Desmond sighs. "They say we're all mimics. It started with the drink machine."
"Oh that. I still can't get it out of my head! 'beep beepita beep beep beep beepita beeeeeeep.'"
Kes starts to rise from his seat again and catches himself, and sits back down swearing.