Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 4, part 1

Chapter Four begins with some politics.
Bishop Stein looked around the landscape. These hills were quite nice, grassy and tree-lined, with a lovely view of distant mountains. The sun was high and bright, but a cool, refreshing breeze rustled his thinning hair. It wouldn’t be a bad place at all for a summer cabin. Unfortunately, the urgency of his visit precluded investigating such possibilities.
He shoved a rock with his foot. He stared after it as it went clattering down into the crater where the Ur Scientia Affiliate had once stood. “This is all that remains?”
“Yes, Your Excellency. It is the clear work of a single, medium-yield Hilbert bomb. Total annihilation of all matter in the blast radius, leaving only slight traces of residual H-type fermions.” Dean Hobart’s face twitched periodically, the only sign of his internal difficulty in deciding whether making a public show of his sorrow at the disaster or his delight at the Bishop’s visit would be more advantageous.
“The Hilbert Atrophy is a fiendish weapon. It violates every law, physical and moral, handed down by our Creator. It should never be used.”
“Yes, Excellency,” said Hobart.
“No!” snapped Stein. “We use it to destroy and contain Divs. When there is no other way to stop a great evil except committing a lesser one, we must act. That is what forgiveness is for.”
Hobart bowed his head. “I apologize, Excellency. You are of course correct.”
Stein continued to gaze away from his companion, out over the crater, allowing him to roll his eyes without being seen. Did the little toady think uncritical agreement would curry Stein’s favor? “And yet the Federation dares claim that we would do this?”
“Um…” said Hobart.
“Speak, Deacon.”
Hobart shuffled uncomfortably. “That is not precisely the case, Excellency. They have claimed only that we provided the weapons and training to the terrorists who made the attack.”
“Fah!” spat Stein. “Utter nonsense.”
“Well, we have given Hilbert weapons to local groups of believers, in case of Div attacks. One of them may have–”
“No,” said Stein. “The Federation did this. They are framing us because they fear an Ur government founded on faith will turn against their godlessness.”
He turned back toward the waiting hopper. “Release a statement saying that the Church condemns such violence and offering all support to the investigation. Say also that our prayers are with the families of all the victims, and of all victims of violence everywhere.”
“At once, Excellency.” Hobart bowed deeply, and then began waddling down to his own groundcar.
Hobart settled into the hopper’s seat. “You are certain he knows nothing?” he asked as the hopper took off.
“Yes, Excellency,” said the pilot, one Odutola Odunaga, ostensibly a novitiate of the Sisters of the Merciful Hand. “He has not looked at a list of the dead. He has no idea the Ur government cleared its loyal citizens out in advance of the attack.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” asked Stein. “If we’d just waited a little longer, the Federation would have killed its own people for us.”
“Our Lord is known for his mysterious ways.”
“Indeed,” said Stein. “This could work for us, Inquisitor.”
“How so, Excellency?”
“Think about it. Any investigation will reveal that we had no connection to the bombing, because we didn’t. At the same time, it’s erased all evidence that we removed the Original.”
“Hmm,” said Odunaga. A light on her board began to blink. “Personal message for you, Excellency. Very large file — it’s from Cardinal Passerina!”
“I’ll take it on the back screen,” Stein said, and changed seats. It would not do for a mere presbyter to hear such high matters as Passerina no doubt wished to discuss. Besides, Odunaga was an Inquisitor. Her order was answerable only to the highest levels of the Church, not the local bishop. He must never make the mistake of trusting her, no matter how helpful her information and assistance might be.
He pulled on headphones and began the playback. It was a video file, surprisingly. In full three dimensions, no less! The time needed to push a large file through the low-bandwidth EPR wavelengths, and the corresponding expense, meant that virtually all faster-than-light communication was either by text or carried on a ship. Even a Cardinal of the Fleet would not take on such expenses lightly; it must be of immense importance.
Her image appeared, flickering slightly: a small, dark woman with quick, precise movements and a penetrating gaze, robed in red. “Charges for transmission of this message have been billed to you, Bishop. The Exchequer has been instructed not to reimburse you under any circumstances. Perhaps that will impress upon you the importance of the task you have been given, and the magnitude of your failure.”
Stein stared, slack-jawed.
“We have received word that the exorcist squad on Bethel has not only failed to recover the Original, but have been massacred nearly to the last man! Meanwhile, the pirate Mikra is preparing to deliver it to Scientia.” Passerina’s jaw was set and her voice cold. Stein did not know her well — he was hardly prominent enough in the Church to rate regular communication with the woman responsible for the entire Lesser Spiral — but he knew she was furious.
“Do you know how Scientia persuaded him to do it, Stein?” she continued. “They paid him. He offered the Original for sale, and they bought it. Did that strategy occur to you, Stein? Did you consider it, then reject it because there was insufficient opportunity for failure? Do you enjoy wasting the lives of the faithful?”
Stein sank into his seat, very glad that Odunaga was busy flying and couldn’t see him or hear the message.
“You have one final chance, Stein. I will be on Fifth Jerusalem later this month to meet with whoever heads the new government. Bring the Original to me there, and without Scientia or anyone else learning of our involvement. Fail, and I will personally see to it that you are hailed as a martyr within the week.”
Stein closed his eyes. Mikra was doubtless going to rendezvous with the Dammerung, but how could Stein learn where the Dammerung was going to be? And without knowing that, how could he possibly intercept them? His mind whirled, building and discarding plans.
“Odutola, a change of plans. Take me directly to the spaceport; I must return home.” Yes, that much was clear. To keep the Church’s hands clean, he’d need the resources of the Empire. Artaxerxes, not the Church, would be performing the theft.
***
“Have you seen the polls?” Prime Minister Norris asked the moment Koi walked into the room.
“Afraid so, sir.”
“Do they have no gratitude at all? We gave them the vote, and this is how they repay us?”
“Apparently, sir,” said Koi. The latest internal numbers showed bad news for the Manifest Destiny party. The party had pushed through new laws giving Realian soldiers and veterans the vote, expecting them to respond to the party’s advocacy for increased defense spending and a tougher foreign policy. Instead, hardly any were supporting Manifest Destiny, being instead mostly split between the Unionists and Neo-libs. It gave the Unionists enough votes to build and dominate a coalition of their own, and reduce MD to an opposition party. “It seems to mostly be a values and religion thing. Only fourteen percent of enfranchised Realians say the party shares their values, and eighty-three percent perceive us as anti-religious.”
“Religion? Since when do those walking mannequins have religion?”
Koi bristled at the racism, but he managed to keep his anger out of his voice. “Saoshism has been quite popular among Realians for over a century, sir.”
“Saoshism,” the Prime Minister scoffed. “Still, that’s why I called you here, Koi. You’ve always supported Realian suffrage. You understand them. I’m going to need your help on this. How do we get the Realian vote?”
Koi hesitated. “I’m honored, sir, but –”
“There’ll be a Junior Ministership in this for you after we win.”
“I’ll get on it right away,” said Koi.
“Good man. Put a preliminary report together — initial ideas, what support you’ll need, the usual — and have it on my desk tomorrow.” He gestured for Koi to leave.
“Of course, sir. Thank you.” Koi turned to go.
“Oh, and Senator? Don’t rule anything out.”

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 6

Final part of Chapter 3.
Seth jumped over the narrow alleyway and continued across the rooftops. He could only hope that Nadeshiko was alive and creating a sufficient distraction. As he jumped the next, slightly wider street, he was finally able to see the Isolde‘s pad and the six AMWS surrounding it. He was trying to guess the AMWS’ armaments from their configurations when he reached an unexpectedly broad jump and nearly missed it. His hand brushed against the wall, and then he was slipping down it, curving away, falling so very slowly but inevitably.
The fire escape swung suddenly out from its slot in the wall, and Seth struck with a resounding crash that practically vibrated his fillings out. “Ow,” he moaned as he sat up, touching his nose gingerly to make sure it wasn’t broken. He looked around at the providential fire escape, but it offered no explanation as to its timely emergence. “Must have hit a trigger or something scrabbling at the wall,” Seth surmised. There wasn’t any time to wait and ponder; he had to get to the Isolde.
He pulled himself up to the roof and surveyed the spaceport. It looked fairly deserted, except for the soldiers. “Izzy, you have a fix on my location?”
“Gotcha, boss. Catapult?”
“Give me a second, first.” Seth carefully sighted with the zoom scope on his gun. He didn’t recognize two of the models offhand, but one of the AMWS was definitely on the Hyams pattern, a PG-460, it looked like. Not surprising; the Hyams design was cheap and sturdy, and its one major flaw almost never showed up. How often did people use snipers against mecha, anyway?
There it was: the break in the armor under the left arm, necessary for the hinge mechanism, that exposed the fire control. Seth squeezed off a shot; his luck held.
The AMWS began firing in erratic sprays of shells, and the other AMWS moved immediately to a defensive ring facing out, uncertain where the attack was coming from. As soon as their attention was away from the Isolde, Izzy fired Seth’s AMWS from the catapult, straight toward him. Under her control, it fired its maneuvering jets and came to a hover, directly below the roof he was on. Its cockpit slid open, and he jumped in.
The radio crackled to life. “Are you Captain Seth Mikra of the salvager Isolde?” asked a clipped, resonant voice.
“Yeah,” said Seth. “Who are you?”
“I am Father Comry, Dean of the Holy Church of the Fleet Invisible on Bethel. You are in possession of stolen Church property and have attacked Church exorcists in their sacred duty. However, we believe in forgiveness, divine and human. Return what is ours and you and your crew will be permitted to depart this planet peacefully.”
“Hey, I know my rights,” answered Seth. “That ship had no living crewmembers aboard. Salvage laws in these parts say that means everything on her belongs to the first person that finds her–me. Besides, that box isn’t mine to give. I’ve already sold it. If you want it, take it up with Scientia.” Seth grinned, though Comry couldn’t see him. That ought to give them pause. The Church might be able to cow a little planetary government like Bethel into letting them play vigilante, but even they’d think twice about taking on Scientia.
“The Church recognizes a higher law, Mr. Mikra. I am most sorry, but if you do not agree to hand over the box immediately I will have no choice but to order my men to attack.”
“Funny,” said Seth. “I thought exorcists were supposed to fight Divs, not humans.” He fired at the nearest enemy AMWS as he kicked his own sharply upwards, then spun over and fired again before swooping down low. The Church AMWS scattered and returned fire, but Seth was able to dodge. He kept one eye on his thruster fuel; with his AMWS’ legs still out, he needed to be able to stay airborn.
All but one of the AMWS was between him and the Isolde, trying to block him from getting back to her and taking off. Of course he and the ship could go off separately and meet up elsewhere, but that was risky. Without AMWS cover and with its maneuverability restrained by the gravity well, the Isolde‘d be a sitting duck.
Of course, that assumed she’d be without AMWS cover.
“Now!” Seth ordered, and the other two AMWS erupted from the Isolde‘s hangar. The battle was ready to begin in earnest.
“They’re mostly sticking to the ground,” Izzy said. “Typical planet-bound thinking.”
“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, we can’t actually take this many guys in a fair fight, so let’s not make this fair. You two stick to the ground, save your fuel in case we need to escort the Isolde out of the well. I can’t really land anyway, so I’ll stay high and hit anybody that tries to get out of your reach. Go!”
Explosions rippled through the air as missiles swarmed up after Seth. On the ground, his crew had problems of their own, as the exorcists were apparently over their reluctance to get close, and giving the slower, jury-rigged mecha a pounding with short-range weapons intended to wear down armor.
But from his high vantage point Seth could see something the others couldn’t: foot soldiers, working their way from one patch of cover to the next, trying to reach the AMWS battle. That didn’t make any sense. One stray shot and they were dead. Were they suicidal? Sure, they volunteered to fight Divs, but — crap.
“Guys! Get off the ground, now!”
Seth had to hand it to his crew; they both took off instantly, and only then Wehj asked, “What is it?”
“Ooh, good call, boss. Yeah, I’m scanning, and those bayonets are ceramic composites, all right.”
“Huh?” said Vix, dodging a spray of bullets. “Crap!” she shouted as a missile burst a little too close. “Cap’n, our mechs are too slow up here. At least on the ground we have cover!”
“No, he’s right,” said Wehj. “Those are Hilbert Atrophy blades. They’ll cut right through our armor like it isn’t there!”
“Shit,” said Vix. “What do we do?”
“Izzy, where’s our passenger?”
“There’s a human woman behind a shipping container two hundred meters east of you.”
“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, Wehj, I want you to land. Fake thruster trouble. Vix, cover him.”
“But, Captain–” protested Wehj.
“Just do it!”
Wehj spun his mech horizontally, cutting his thrust at the worst possible moment. He fell tumbling to the ground, firing his thruster once more, just in time to land upright. Seth immediately began peppering the ground with laser fire, tearing through the small group of twenty or so ground troops, while Vix intercepted the AMWS trying to catch their wounded prey.
“Wehj, grab her and head for the ship! Izzy, launch as soon as they’re aboard, Vix and I’ll handle escort.”
With the men on the ground dead or forced into hiding, Seth swooped down to join Vix in covering Wehj. Shells thudded against his armor, but it was holding for now. Unfortunately, outnumbered three-to-one as they were, he and Vix could not get into a position to do any significant damage in return.
Nadeshiko, watching the battle from behind her crate, could not take her eyes off the burnt, twitching corpses of the ground soldiers. She saw, in her mind’s eye, the refugee camp’s children, burning and twitching as that strange green AMWS destroyed them. She felt dizzy and sick from exhaustion or horror or both. Keeping her eyes open was getting harder and harder, and her entire body ached. And, to add insult to injury, she’d figured out what she’d torn at the beginning of her fight with the exorcists: the seat of her pants was split wide open.
Wehj’s mech clanked around the crate and then knelt, dropping its hand for Nadeshiko to climb on. Shakily, she clambered aboard and clung. She was aching and embarrassed, and, as the hand swung jerkily through the air as Wehj sprinted back toward the Isolde, she desperately wished she could throw up. She dry-heaved a couple of times, but there was nothing in her stomach.
Seth and Vix attacked furiously, trying to keep a column open for Wehj and Nadeshiko. Unfortunately, that left them fully exposed. Seth took a bad hit to his secondary coolant line that came within a hair of setting off a fuel explosion, and Vix was knocked clean over by a punch when she got too close to one of the enemy.
“You all right?” Seth asked.
Vix’s mech rolled back to its feet and barely avoided a plasma burst. “Yeah. Nasty bump on my head, but I don’t think it’s bleeding.”
“Hurry up, Wehj,” Seth said. “We’re getting hammered!”
“I’m trying, Captain!” Wehj shouted.
“They’ve got my AMWS bay door covered,” said Izzy. “I’m not opening and letting them shoot up my insides!”
“Damn!” Seth considered for a moment, dodging and weaving and trying to get off a clear shot at the AMWS watching the door, but he had three on his tail to shake off first. “There has to be something we can do to get out of here!”
He spun to fire at the AMWS behind him. There was a flicker of green, and the leading of the three craft exploded. A second flicker, and a hole appeared, punched through the torso of one of the other two. It exploded as well.
“What the hell?” said Seth.
In a matter of seconds, five of the enemy AMWS exploded. The last, which had been covering the Isolde, spasmed as a green spike slammed through its torso from behind. It lifted into the air as the tall, insectile green mech to which the spike belonged raised its arm above its head and began rising slowly.
Seth stared, wide-eyed, his knuckles whitening on his controls. “All of you get back into the ship. Now.” His voice was strangled, strained.
“Boss –” Izzy started.
“No,” he said. “Everyone get on board. Izzy, launch immediately. I’ll catch up.”
“But Cap’n –” protested Vix.
“No buts. He’s too fast for your AMWS or the Isolde.” Seth’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t worry. There’s no way I’ll lose this fight.”
His AMWS’ computer beeped. There was a video signal coming in on a public channel. Seth acknowledged.
“Seth Mikra,” said Aser. “I wanted you to see the face of your executioner.” The Hod flung the AMWS it had impaled to the ground, where it exploded. “It is time for you to pay for what you’ve done!”
“What I’ve done?” asked Seth. “What I’ve done? You son of a bitch!” He opened fire, but his target was gone. “What the hell? Nothing can move that fast!”
“My U.R. Hod can,” said Aser, and slashed Seth’s AMWS from behind.
“Shit!” yelped Seth, but fortunately the blows damaged only his armor. “Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Aser,” he said. “I am the Chosen of God.” He laughed as the Hod teleported all around Seth’s AMWS, slashing and stabbing, carefully avoiding critical systems. Seth tried to take evasive actions, to fire whenever the Hod appeared, but no matter how he bobbed and weaved and spun, every one of the Hod’s blows struck, and none of his own.
“Dammit, he’s just playing with me!” shouted Seth over the private channel. “Hurry up and get out of here!”
“No, boss,” said Izzy. “The sweep time on my scanners is faster than yours, I can get a lock before he disappears again!”
“And do what with it? You can’t bring your guns to bear fast enough!”
“No, but you can. I can feed you the sensor data.”
“You have any idea how long it would take to slave my AMWS to you? It wasn’t built for it!” Seth swerved again, firing more or less at random, but Aser flicked back and forth rapidly even between attacks, making him practically impossible to hit.
“So don’t slave it! You’ll know his position a few microseconds earlier; use it to catch him!”
Seth’s armor was taking a major pounding. It was only a matter of time before Aser got bored and went for the final blow. “All right,” he said. “Do it!”
Meanwhile, on the Cygnus, Dasra fed her vision of the battle to Nasatya and Mia.
“Aw, crudnuggets,” said Nasatya. “You’re sure there’s not even an itty-bitty resonance?”
Nothing beyond normal levels.
“Poopy. It’s not going to happen. Aser’s pro’lly gonna kill him.”
Despite orders?
Nasatya began chewing her hair. “It’s, like, seventy percent or so.”
Or so?
“Calvie gets mad when I’m too precise and all. Seventy-four point eight one three one nine percent and rising.”
Seth focused on the sensor scans Izzy was streaming to him, trying to ignore the flickers of green outside, the continual screeching of tortured metal every time Aser sliced off a bit more armor. He pushed his AMWS’ cannon power past all safety limits, ignoring the warnings; he had to take the Hod out with the first shot, or Aser would switch to killing blows immediately after.
He bit his lip, waiting for the precisely right moment — there! He pulled the trigger; a column of lethal red light — air superheated by the laser’s passage — erupted from the barrel of his gun straight for Aser’s current position.
Except that Aser was no longer there.
Seth spun to see the Hod hovering beside him, its spiked arm drawn back to strike the killing blow. “Well, hell,” he said.
Aser, no!
Aser shook his head. “Go away, Dasra. He’s useless to us — he can’t even defend himself! I’m exterminating a pest.”
I’m sorry, Aser. We have our orders. Stop.
“Never!” screamed Aser. “I’ve waited too long to find him again. He dies–” His screaming turned incoherent as Mia’s power poured into his head, channeled there by Dasra. Pain erupted through him, until not even his hate of Seth could carry him through it.
For his own part, Seth had no idea what was happening. U.R. Hod was just hanging there, ready to kill, but not moving. He looked down at his fire control: no missiles, and the rifle was in emergency cool-down after that last blast.
“Boss, come on! Let’s get out of here!” Izzy was half-frantic.
“Right,” said Seth. He shook his head. “Right! Launch, already! I’ll fly escort until we’re well out of this hole.”
The Isolde fled into the sky, flanked by Seth and Vix’s AMWS.

This is the end of Chapter 3, which means it’s time for music!
I’m actually holding back Nadeshiko’s theme, because the right moment for it is rather later.
The Bethel spaceport definitely has a theme, though, one of my favorite tracks from the Xenogears soundtrack.

And then once it becomes a more hostile place due to the Church showing up, that gets a slightly harder version.

And lastly we get the music for the fight between Seth and Aser. It’s stylistically jarring, violent, discordant, fast-paced, and bizarre, yet also a hymn. It’s Aser through and through, and one of the first character themes I picked way back when I first started thinking about this a decade ago.

Xenosaga fic, chapter 3, part 3

I wanted to get more of Ghost’s story done, but yesterday didn’t at all work as planned. I meant to finish the next Near-Apocalypse article, the final My Little Po-Mo, and today’s post. Instead I got more and more distractible and tired as the day wore on, so it got to be 8 p.m. and I was still only 80% through the MLP, struggling to force my way through, and I just couldn’t. So I gave up and played STO the rest of the evening, so you get another chunk of the Xenosaga. Click the “der wanderer…” tag if you forgot where we left off. (Tumblr users and possibly people on feeds, you’ll have to click through to the blog first.)

“Daaaaasraaaa,” called Aser. “Ohhh Daaasraaa. Dasra!” Damn it, that girl was never around when he needed her. He’d made it to the benighted little planet his prey was on in five hops. One more had taken him to the large desert that was the one part of the planet flat enough to build a spaceport in. Somewhere in this ridiculous capital, his quarry was trying to sell the Primus’ shiny new toy–and Dasra wasn’t around to tell Aser where!

“Ah well,” he said. “I suppose I’ll just have to check the usual places for spacers to spend their time.” He flew the UR Hod overland to the spaceport, looking for somewhere to dock it.

Just outside the spaceport, Seth’s crew finally managed to find an open bar. It was local mid-morning, so most places were closed; fortunately, this close to the spaceport, there were enough offworlders running on different clocks to fill one bar.

“I’m not sure I like the looks of this place,” said Wehj.

Vix looked around. The dim, smoky interior of the bar was half-filled with a mix of spacers in a wide variety of dress and local alcoholics getting an early start. The locals, just like everybody she’d seen on the streets outside, seemed to dress in nothing but loose brown and rust, with scarves and hoods they had to pull aside in order to drink. The bar was extremely bare — unpadded seats, exposed pipes in the ceiling, everything made of some dark, hard stone. Nothing was clean. “It looks perfect,” she said.

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” said Vix. “Weren’t you looking around outside? We passed four different churches on the way here. Bethelians are clearly a spiritual people, which means their booze is going to suck.”

“Then why are we bothering?”

“Poor, naïve, foolish boy,” Vix teased, “don’t you get it? On a planet with good booze, you find the best in the best bars. On a planet with bad booze, you find the least bad in the worst bars. It’s just how it works.”

“If you say so…” said Wehj. They sat at a table and a surly-looking waitress silently brought them dirty mugs full of pale-brown liquid. “Um…” said Wehj.

“What, were you expecting a wine list?” asked Vix. “Drink it. It’s been long enough.”

Wehj sighed and took a sip. “Gah!” he said. “You could strip paint with this.”

“Bye-bye, brain cells!” said Vix, and downed half her mug at a gulp. “Ah,” she sighed. “Blessed boozehol. Mommy missed you.”

Wehj took another sip. “Okay, it’s a little strong, but it’s not bad.”

“There, you see? Told you.”

About twenty minutes later, a man entered the bar. “Hey, check it out,” said Wehj. “He doesn’t look like a local.”

Vix half-turned to look at the entrance. The man was tall and gangly, with prominent elbows. He was blonde and pale, and wore a form-fitting green jumpsuit that left his arms bare. A large symbol on the jumpsuit’s chest, an inverted cross topped by a spreading tree and flanked by stylized wings, marked him as an Ormus monk. A pair of crossed swords above the tree might have indicated his order, but Vix wasn’t sure. “A monk,” she said. “Not the kind of guy you expect to come into a bar like this.”

“I don’t like the looks of him,” Wehj whispered.

Vix had to agree. There was a strange look in his eyes, like he was laughing at a private joke at everyone else’s expense. He moved wrong, too. He was unnaturally still, mostly, and when he did move, it was suddenly, swiftly, and precisely, almost mechanical. She considered the possibility that he might be some kind of Realian, then discarded it. He wasn’t pretty enough to be artificial.

“I’m looking for the crew of the Isolde,” he said. “They have something I wish to buy.”

Wehj shook his head at Vix, but she ignored him. “I’m the pilot of the Isolde. Pull up a chair.”

He walked over to them with swift small steps. “I prefer to stand.” The corner of his mouth twitched as if he were struggling to keep from laughing, and Wehj shivered.

“We can’t sell you anything ourselves, but the captain should be back from his delivery in an hour or two. You can talk to him then.”

“The captain…” said Aser, rolling the words in his mouth, tasting them. “Where has he gone?”

“None of your business, is it?” Vix appeared utterly nonchalant, but alarm bells were ringing in her head. Something told her that she was speaking to a killer.

Anger flashed briefly across Aser’s face, to be replaced by a broad smile that didn’t touch his eyes.

“Of course, of course! The legendary privacy and independence of free traders. Mustn’t tread on that.” He laughed a little too long. “Well, if you could inform your captain that a potential buyer wishes to speak with him, I will return in the afternoon.” He turned on his heel and walked out of the bar.

Vix looked down at her cup. “I’ve lost my taste for booze,” she said. “Come on, let’s go find some lunch, then go back to the ship and wait for the captain. Soon as he gets back from the refugee camp, we should leave. Go to Ur-Chaldis or something, wait for buyers there.”

“Yeah,” said Wehj. “I don’t want to be on the same planet when this guy comes looking for us.”

The two walked out of the bar. As soon as they turned the corner, Aser stepped out of the alleyway and reentered the bar.

“Now!” he said. “Who wants to tell me what they said after I left?”

A few pairs of eyes looked up at him, then returned to their drinks.

“I said,” he giggled, “who wants to tell me what they said?”

“What’s in it for us?” slurred a local, blinking over his twelfth cup.

Aser moved across the room with blinding speed, upending the local’s chair and slamming him into the floor. “Survival,” Aser said, grinning, his hand tightening around the man’s throat.

A dozen chairs creaked or fell as their occupants jumped to their feet. Several ran for the door, only to be brought up short when the half-choked man Aser had been holding crashed into it and slid to the ground, moaning.

Two spacers came at Aser with knives. He laughed as he killed them with a single blow each.

***

A city in space, a world unto itself, the Dammerung floated in space. More than five hundred years ago, it had been the headquarters of the mighty Vector Corporation, a neutral power on par with the Immigrant Fleet and the Federation. After the Gnosis War, when the Dark Ages began, Vector collapsed, and Scientia took the city-ship over and devoted it entirely to research, to preserving and extending the knowledge of mankind.

For the Dammerung was no longer merely a ship the size of a city or a city built into a ship. It was a university the size of a city, built into a ship. Like any university, it had a plethora of committees and subcommittees, departments and colleges. One stood above all the others, however: the Council of Deans.

Here they met to discuss the important matters that affected all Scientia, the plans and policies, budgets and projects. Each of them represented the interests of one great College. Some were academic leaders, such as the Dean of Cosmology and Physics; others were concerned with more temporal affairs, such as the Quartermaster. Still others stood entirely alone, their position on the Council guaranteed by tradition, but the reasoning forgotten by all (excepting always HANA, of course, who would explain if asked, but no one ever did).

No matter the reason for their presence, each of these men and women was considered equal. Each possessed one and only one vote in their deliberations. No one could claim precedence over the others, and for this reason they were arrayed on either long side of the table.

Except one. The Director-Captain of the Dammerung sat alone at the head of the table. She alone could force a debate to close without a vote. She alone could demand an immediate vote on any issue she chose. She decided who sat on what subcommittee, and her approval was required for any budget. In times of crisis, she could even claim sole control of the ship for the duration, in her capacity as its captain.

She was reputed to be the most powerful person in the cluster. Her power was checked only by the Council itself, which could vote to replace her; in practice, however, deft political maneuvering could ensure that there were always more Deans who gained by her position as Director-Captain than gained by replacing her. Few Director-Captains had ever left office by means other than retirement or natural death in the five centuries since the legendary Momo Mizrahi had assumed and combined the positions formerly held by her equally legendary parents.

The current Director-Captain was the twenty-second to hold that title. Kara Mizrahi-Dirdan was a slim, tall, regal-looking woman with iron-gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. She radiated an aura of confidence and power, unsurprising in the woman who had held the title of “most powerful person in the cluster” for nineteen years.

All that power, unfortunately, was not enough to escape committee meetings.

“And so it appears necessary that, in order to minimize inefficiencies, we must vertically integrate the departments providing ship functions,” droned the Provost, and insufferably tweedy old man who’d served three Director-Captains with precise, fussy, mind-numbing distinction.

Enough was enough; he’d been talking for nearly half an hour without sitting down. That wasn’t unheard of, but with the Provost, half an hour could seem like an eternity. “Summary conclusion to discussion,” Mizrahi-Dirdan said. “All in favor?”

The Provost’s own hand waved pathetically in the air.

“All opposed?” Mizrahi-Dirdan’s own hand was joined by two others. The other forty eyes in the room were still completely glazed over. “HANA, record one in favor, three opposed, twenty abstentions. Motion defeated. Next item?” The Provost sat down, looking disgruntled. Doubtless he’d bring up the same scheme next time he found a patsy willing to second the motion, but hopefully that would be a while.

The Secretary glanced at his tablet. By tradition that had the force of law, he was neither a professor nor an officer, but a Hydroponics, Security, or Maintenance worker selected at random once each year. Besides keeping track of the agenda and reading the minutes (both provided to him, of course, by HANA), he had the same single vote of any other member, though he nearly always abstained. “Report by SDI Chief on destruction of Affiliate on Ur.”

Mizrahi-Dirden nodded to the Chief of Security, Defense, and Intelligence, who stood. “Madame Captain,” he acknowledged. He tapped his own tablet, and a hologram projector in the center of the table lit up, displaying a map of the Lesser Spiral Galaxy with the Fifth Jerusalem Sector marked. As he spoke, it zoomed in to display the region, showing the tiny Ur system in the neutral area between the two powers — the Fifth Jerusalem Federation and the Empire of Artaxerxes — that dominated the region. “As most of you by now know, a matter of hours ago, the Gate Station in the Ur system picked up a burst of radiation consistent with catastrophic asymmetry from the southwest quadrisphere of Ur itself. Repeated attempts to contact our Affiliate in that area have since failed.”

“Is it the disappearance phenomenon?” asked the Dean of Humanities fearfully.

The SDI Chief shook his head. “The burst was consistent with a Hilbert Atrophy bomb. We’ve monitored coded transmissions among Ur’s investigators. Apparently, they believe it’s a terrorist attack, backed by either a militant Fleet Church splinter group or a pro-FJF faction trying to look like the Fleet Church, it’s not clear.”

“Damn,” said the Dean of Social Sciences. “Either way, it’s going to destabilize the region still further, and possibly push Ur into joining one side or the other. I believe we’ll soon see a fourth Federation-Artaxerxes War over the matter.”

“And that, coupled with the internal instability of both empires…” said Humanities. She looked thoughtful. “It could seriously delay the renaissance we expect the completion of the IS Gate system to bring. You all know that the Fifth Jerusalem Sector is one of the likeliest places for it to begin.”

“There’s a more immediate concern,” said the Dean of Engineering. “The Original was being kept there. Its loss represents a serious setback for several projects.”

“Engineering projects,” scoffed the Dean of Physics. “Need I remind you that the completion of the IS Gate System, though a matter deserving of celebration, is not the final stage of Project Tetragrammaton? That remains, as it has always been, our highest priority.”

“I’d like to see you finish Tetragrammaton without engineers,” countered Engineering.

“What about trade?” asked the Quartermaster. “We’ve been getting a lot of our luxury foods and textiles from that area for the past decade. Should I be looking for another source?”

“Madame Director-Captain,” interrupted HANA. “There is an urgent matter requiring your attention.”

Everyone in the room stared at the ceiling, the usual source of HANA’s voice. She never spoke in Council meetings, or indeed in any meeting, unless asked a direct question. For her to interrupt was unthinkable.

“I’ll take it in the anteroom,” Mizrahi-Dirdan said, getting up.

It was popular, in Scientian poetry, to compare the Dammerung to a body. Its power cores and generators were a multitude of hearts; the bridge its nerve center; the Council of Deans its will. If that were true, reflected Mizrahi-Dirdan, then HANA was its soul.

HANA was the computer of the Dammerung. It was said that, centuries ago, she was a person, a Scientia researcher in the first two or three generations after the Fall. In the Golden Age, legend said, it had been a trivial matter to transmit a mind back and forth between body and machine, but with the loss of the UMN–whatever that was, if there ever really was such a thing, thought Mizrahi-Dirdan–it had become nigh-impossibly difficult. HANA was the one true success, a living mind copied into the Dammerung’s computers, vastened far beyond the capabilities of a mere human or Realian.

HANA watched, and listened, and advised. When you ate an exotic food for the fourth time in your life, and you got sick three days later, just as you had the last three times, HANA would notice even if you didn’t, and she would warn you to get tested for allergies. When you needed someone to talk to, someone who would never judge, HANA was there. HANA already knew.

It was HANA, Mizrahi-Dirdan suspected, and HANA alone that had kept Scientia from straying from its mission over the centuries. When the Dammerung was the only ship capable of traveling faster than light, it must have been tempting to come as conquerors rather than teachers, to set up puppet states instead of research Affiliates that were as much about helping the locals as helping Scientia. Seventy years ago, when the first IS Gates were built, it must have been tempting to use Scientia’s control over them to establish an empire, rather than remain strictly neutral and allow everyone who paid the fee to pass, from peaceful traders to enormous warfleets. Or to use the fees to become as rich as Vector had once been, able to buy anything they wanted and impose their will through economic force, instead of charging just barely enough to keep the gates running. That was the one Mizrahi-Dirden tended to fantasize about.

Hardly a week went by that HANA didn’t gently remind Mizrahi-Dirdan herself of some responsibility she was neglecting or some principle that a policy she was considering backing violated. Sometimes, Mizrahi-Dirdan wondered about her predecessor, retiring into obscurity at the peak of her career. HANA knew everything, after all. Every bit of knowledge Scientia gleaned, every Affiliate report, and everything said or done anywhere on the Dammerung, all went into HANA’s capacious memory banks. No one could reach the heights of the Director-Captainship without a few skeletons in their closet. Had, perhaps, HANA encouraged the old battle-axe to retire?

Sometimes Mizrahi-Dirdan wondered who the real leader of Scientia was.

No matter. HANA had interrupted the Council; it must be important. “What is it, HANA?” she asked.

A small text ad appeared, floating in the middle of the anteroom. “A small-scale independent trader uploaded this to our marketplace about an hour ago. Anything strike you as interesting?”

“That’s it?” asked Mizrahi-Dirdan. “I don’t understand.”

“The container is appropriately sized to contain the Original and support apparatus.”

“Huh,” said Mizrahi-Dirdan. “That’s an interesting coincidence, but there’s no evidence to connect it to the destruction of the Affiliate.”

“No?” asked HANA. “How about if I told you the Ahura was outward bound from Ur?”

“Okay, now that’s a little more interesting. But why don’t you get to the point?”

“It wasn’t called the Ahura when it left Ur. It was the Pellegri. Both ships are registered to dummy corporations, owned by –“

“Oh, hell. The Fleet Church.”

“Precisely,” said HANA.

“So, the Church staged a terrorist attack as a cover to steal the Original from us, probably with the collaboration of the Ur government. Then somebody else, also after the Original, attacked them off Bethel. The two groups mutually annihilated, and then this salvager picked up the Original. That’s the scenario you’ve mapped?”

“Very nearly,” said HANA. “The timing is slightly off. The Original must have left Ur no later than two days ago, assuming they traveled directly to Bethel. As it is in precisely the opposite direction from their most likely destination, Artaxerxes, I suspect it was indeed their first stop and that the Original was therefore on board the Pellegri when it left, rather than transferred from another ship in Imaginary Space.”

Mizrahi-Dirdan sat down and pinched her nose. She could feel a major headache coming on. “So whoever attacked the Ahura destroyed the Affiliate? No, that doesn’t make any sense. If they knew it was on the Ahura, why attack the Affiliate?” She groaned. “We’re dealing with at least three parties. The Fleet Church stole the Original and shipped it to Bethel. Somebody else learned about this and attacked the Ahura, trying to steal the Original. And the third party, unaware the Original was already gone, staged a terrorist attack on the Affiliate as cover for their own attempt to steal the Original. Yeesh.”

“That accords with my own analysis. I would append the possibility that the trader himself is a front for the second party, who seized the Original for purposes of selling it back to us.”

“Or the FJF, or the Church, or anybody else who might have the cash on hand. Do we have anyone nearby we can trust? I’ll have to use the discretionary fund for this; there’s too much politics involved to let the Council know. By the time they agreed to buy it, somebody else would have beaten us to it.”

“Agreed,” said HANA. “We do not have an Affiliate on Bethel, but there may be someone on the planet or in the IS Gate staff. An additional coincidence to note: the ship which made the salvage is the Isolde.”

Mizrahi-Dirdan blinked. “Why is that name familiar?” Her jaw dropped. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, the universe doesn’t work that way. It can’t be the same ship.”

“I have located someone I believe known to you personally who can ensure we are not cheated. Will this individual suffice?”

Mizrahi-Dirdan needed only to glance at the dossier HANA called up before she began laughing. “Perfect,” she said. “Set up a call with the trader.”
Aser is a bit of a struggle as a character, because there’s three competing things going on with him. First, I wanted an Albedo-like villain, because Albedo is one of the all-time great, effective villains. That’s easily done. Second, I wanted him to be distinct from Albedo. Also relatively easy–do some research, give him a real disorder instead of generic “crazy” villainy. Third, that’s still ableist as fuck, which is where the challenge is. I think I have an idea of how I can retain the unpredictability and viciousness of the archetype while not supporting stereotypes about the mentally ill, but it will take a little bit to unfold and will look quite a bit like those stereotypes in the early stages.

So, basically: sorry, I’m aware of the problem, and I’m working through it?

A brief Fullmetal Alchemist fanfic

Sorry, I was hoping to have more Faultless but my week has been kind of shitty and it just never happened. So here’s a brief Fullmetal Alchemist fanfic I wrote last year, pretty much because the Mark Watches community dared me to. It could conceivably be the beginning of a longer fic, but I have no particular intention of ever extending it, and I think it works well enough on its own.

Sergeant Lem hesitated in front of the door, checking as she always did to confirm her uniform was buttoned correctly and her hair properly up in a regulation twist. Not in front of every door, of course, but this was the door of the Director of Military Intelligence’s office, her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. It was a big deal to be called in here.

Proper attire confirmed, she knocked. “Come in, Sergeant!” came the voice of Colonel Focker.

She entered the room and saluted, but he waved at her to close the door and sit. “At ease, Sergeant,” he said. He laid a folder he’d been reading from on the table. “I’ve been looking over Cryptography’s initial reports on the documents from the Drachman embassy. Looks like they do have a spy in Briggs, and Cryptography thinks there might be enough information there to figure out who. Well done–if this pans out fully there’s probably a medal in it for you, maybe even a promotion!”

“Thank you, sir!” she answered.

“However, it’s going to take them a couple of weeks to fully decrypt everything and compare it to who knows what at Briggs, so we need a short-term assignment for you.” He laid a hand on an envelope on the desk. It was sealed and marked Top Secret. “I have something for you, but it’s highly sensitive, and I can’t tell you much without you accepting the assignment first.”

She smiled wryly. “More sensitive than working in an enemy country’s embassy’s mail room so that I make copies of all the documents I handle?”

Focker sighed. “Honestly? Yes. This could be two weeks of sitting around in a manor garden reading books–or if it goes south, it could get you killed. Either way, there’s a case to be made that taking part will make you an accessory to any of a dozen crimes, from invasion of privacy on up to public endangerment and possibly treason.”

“You had me at ‘reading,’ sir!” Sciezka Lem smiled. “What can you tell me?”

“Well, how do you feel about working with children..?”

Four days later, Sciezka found herself sitting in a chair in the garden of the Bradley manor, enjoying the bright late-spring sun and listening to a small boy playing with tin soldiers. A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. “Hello, Ma’am,” she said politely, and the middle-aged woman above her smiled.

“Hello, dear,” said Mrs. Bradley. “Selim behaving himself?”

“Always,” Sciezka answered. “He’s been a delight.” This was true. Selim was a cheerful, quiet, and easygoing child, happy to play with his toys or have Sciezka read to him. Sciezka had never been around children much, but he seemed more mature than she had expected. She quite liked Mrs. Bradley, too–she felt bad about deceiving them both by pretending to be a substitute tutor, replacing the regular live-in tutor while she “visited her mother,” actually a cover for the biennial training and recertification everyone in Military Intelligence had to do.

Guilty as she felt, however, she understood why it was necessary. She’d read the case file, and therefore she remembered every word of it: the autopsies on the Briggs soldiers murdered by the being known as Pride, the report by Hawkeye on her confrontation with Pride, by Mustang on being forced through the Gate, by Ed Elric on how he’d fought Pride and reduced him to a fetal state. She didn’t quite understand the alchemy of it all, but as far as she could gather, Ed had reduced Pride from many souls to one, turning him into effectively a normal human and erasing his memories, after which Mrs. Bradley had adopted him.

However, the other known single-souled homunculus–briefly, Sciezka wondered who that might be–had possessed frightening powers of the sort typical of homunculi, but aged normally. There was reason to believe Pride’s powers might manifest within Selim–and if they did, Sciezka was to report it immediately.

“Well, I don’t know about always,” Mrs. Bradley answered. “Selim, dear, can you come here for a second?”

“Yes, mother?” he asked, standing and walking over to the two of them. “What’s wrong?”

“One of the maids found this in a fireplace,” she said, holding out the mangled remnants of a toy soldier. “Care to tell me what happened to it?”

Selim grinned proudly as he answered.

The moment she heard his response, Sciezka’s blood froze. She stared in horror as Mrs. Bradley snatched up her son and clutched him tightly to her chest.

“Mother!” Selim laughed, squirming. “No, I’m too big for that.”

“Please,” said Mrs. Bradley. “It wasn’t… it was just a child’s prattling. Don’t, don’t tell…”

“You know,” said Sciezka. She could barely breathe. She could see the tears in Mrs. Bradley’s eyes, refusing to fall. “You know who I am.”

“Your face,” said Mrs. Bradley. “When he… you know, and if you know, that means you’re one of Focker’s…”

“Is something wrong, mother?” asked Selim, stopping his struggles. “Did I do something bad?”

Mrs. Bradley clutched her child even harder. “No, Selim,” she said firmly, glaring at Sciezka. “You haven’t done anything.”

“I’m sorry…” Sciezka said. “I’m sorry. I have to.”

“Do what you have to do.” The bitterness in Mrs. Bradley’s voice cut Sciezka to the core, but she really didn’t have any choice.

Three days after that, Sciezka slouched despondently in a corner of a meeting room deep inside Central Command. This is not how I wanted to meet the Fuhrer! she thought despondently. Even if she hadn’t been miserable, she would have been deeply uncomfortable in such a high-powered meeting. Besides her and Mrs. Bradley, who sat alone on one side of the room’s long conference table, straight-backed and expressionless, there were Fuhrer Grumman himself, Colonel Focker, Lieutenant General Mustang, his aide Major Hawkeye, and Lieutenant General Armstrong with her aid, Captain Falman.

That was the reason it had taken three days to have the meeting–in the Fuhrer’s words, when Focker had dragged her into his office three days ago, “It sounds like he’s starting small and not fully aware of what’s going on, so we don’t have to move immediately. I want to bring in Armstrong and Mustang, since they’re the only others outside of military intelligence aware of the Selim situation, so we can decide precisely how to proceed.”

Wait they had, while the telegraph went to Armstrong in Briggs and Mustang in Ishval, and then a longer wait while the two traveled to Central. The meeting had finally begun three hours ago… but to Sciezka, it felt like weeks as she sat in the corner, imagining huge black clouds hovering over her head.

“I fail to see why we’re still discussing this,” said Armstrong. “Kill him and be done.”

“No!” snapped Mustang. “He’s a child who has harmed no one–”

“He’s a mass murderer with tremendous alchemical powers, nearly impossible to contain,” countered Armstrong. “If he learns to use them effectively–”

“That was a previous life!” countered Mustang. “He has never shown any signs of violent tendencies until now.”

“Oh, a previous life of slaughter,” said Armstrong, nodding sagely. “I suppose you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Hero of Ishbal?”

Mustang was half out of his chair, his face contorted with rage, before Hawkeye’s hand on his shoulder gently but firmly pushed him back down. “She has a point, sir,” Hawkeye said. “Selim is a potentially very serious threat to national security, and we have to take that into account.”

“So we’re back to slaughtering children in the name of national security?” asked Mustang bitterly.

“Child,” corrected Armstrong, “and not even that. He’s a homunculus, a created thing, not a child.”

“He is a child,” said a quiet voice. It was the first words Mrs. Bradley had spoken since the meeting began. She drew her shawl around her shoulders, looking very small and very old. “He’s my little boy.”

Armstrong tsked. “With all due respect, Madame Bradley, every man I’ve killed was someone’s little boy. It’s a soldier’s duty to protect this nation from those who would harm it.”

Grumman nodded. “I take it your opinion is that we should kill him, then. Yours as well, Focker?”

Focker nodded.

“And you, Mustang?”

Mustang ground his teeth. “We should watch him more,” said Hawkeye. “Keep forces ready to attack if he makes a move, but until then, do nothing.”

Mustang nodded.

“Hmm,” said Grumman. Sciezka sank a little lower in her chair, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, especially Mrs. Bradley. She knew what was about to happen, and wished fervently the earth would open up and swallow her before it did.

That was when the shouts started outside, followed by the thuds.

Sciezka couldn’t even see the three of them move, let alone which one was first, but somewhere between one blink and the next Armstrong, Mustang, and Hawkeye were on their feet, Armstrong’s sword and Hawkeye’s pistol drawn, while Mustang’s hand was outstretched and ready to snap.

Their came a ringing crash, metal slamming into the metal door of the room, and it dented slightly. Another crash, and then another, and the door burst open, the automail foot that had been ramming it slamming into the ground.

A tall, blonde man in his early 20s stormed into the room. “And just what the hell do you think you’re doing!?” he demanded.

“Fullmetal–” Mustang began, but Ed cut him off.

“That’s not my title anymore!” he snapped.

“Who told you about this meeting?” demanded Focker.

“That’s for me to know!” shouted Ed. “Who told YOU you had the right to sit here and debate killing a kid like it’s a zoning petition?”

“I told him,” Sciezka said quietly. “I sent a telegram before I went to you, Colonel Focker.”

“Sorry I took so long,” he said. “It’s a long trip from Rush Valley.”

She shook her head. “You made it in time, though.”

“This is a violation of the Official Secrets Act,” said Focker, his face drawn and expression full of cold fury. “Maybe treason.”

“That would make you and Mrs. Bradley the only people in this room not guilty of treason,” answered Riza, smiling slightly.

“Put your weapons down,” said Grumman. “Fullmet–I mean, Professor Rockbell, if you leave now we won’t press charges.”

“I kept him alive for a reason,” said Ed. “Mrs. Bradley deserves a chance to raise her son, and it sounds like she’s doing a good job. I won’t let you kill him.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Bradley said quietly. “Both of you…”

Sciezka stood. “Ex-exactly! We won’t let you!”

“Sit down, Sergeant!” snapped Focker.

Sciezka dropped back into her chair, again sinking low. I am in SO much trouble…

“So, what happened?” asked Ed. The telegram had been very short, just a travel itinerary, with the first letter of each town spelling out the words “SELIM IS PRIDE. COME TO CENTRAL.” Sciezka had remembered Ed’s own notebook, and used a similar code. “Selim’s shadow sprout teeth?”

Mrs. Bradley shuddered.

“No,” said Mustang. “He blew up a toy with a firecracker.”

Ed scoffed. “I did worse than that when I was five.”

“Then he said it was his imaginary friend’s idea,” Mustang continued.

Ed shrugged. “Urey has an imaginary friend, too, and tries to pin things on him sometimes. It’s pretty normal, Trish will probably do the same thing in a couple of years.”

“Yes, but Urey’s imaginary friend isn’t named Solf Jackson Kimblee,” said Armstrong.

“Oh.”

Xenosaga Fic: Chapter 3, Part Two

Continuing from where we left off a couple weeks ago…

In the absolute emptiness of intergalactic space a green AMWS drifted impossibly. It was tall and narrow and insectile, with an angular head much like a mantis’ and long, jointed limbs. Spikes curved cruelly from its knees, elbows, and shoulders, and a pair of long blades extended from its wrists and along the backs of its hands. There was nothing to suggest that it was remarkable–except for its location, hundreds of thousands of light-years from the nearest IS Gate.

Even the Dammerung, Scientia’s vast flagship and capital, which could create temporary Gates of its own, would have taken years to reach this distant spot. Any other ship would have had to have set out when stone tools and fire represented the cutting edge of australopithecine science.

And yet, here it was. The entire cluster lay beneath its feet, two great whorls of multi-colored light surrounded by a scattering of smaller balls and knots of stars. The Virgo Cluster gleamed over its shoulder, a tiny gathering of yellow and blue lights, impossibly distant. And beyond that…

Beyond that, spread out in every direction, was the universe. Great filaments of red and yellow, like rivers of jewels, curved and arced across the sky, marking the borders of vast bubbles of void. It was at once vibrant and serene, cold and beautiful, wonderful and terrifying.

Aser was the only human being to have ever seen it. Oh, astronomers had reconstructed it millennia ago, painstakingly mapping distant objects detectable only in radio through the thick dust and gas that surrounded every star, but Aser had seen it. He knew what no other human knew, would never know. He knew where God lived.

He gazed out in silence, at the infinite majesty of the universe, and pitied the poor fools who believed God cared about them. They ruled a cluster of a dozen galaxies, a paltry few billion stars, and believed themselves masters of the Universe. Aser knew better. One day, he would go out there, to the place no one else could ever reach, and touch the face of God.

He, and he alone, could do it. Those idiots, Calvin and the Primus, believed they led a cadre of Chosen, but Aser knew the truth. He was the only one could reach God, the only one truly Chosen.
He just had one piece of business to attend to first.

Aser, came a familiar voice drifting into his mind.

“Dasra,” he said. “What does our fearless leader wish of me today? Shall I bring him rare fruits, perhaps, from the gardens of Magella Minora? Or perhaps something sweeter? A young virgin from the flesh-markets of Orleans 3, mayhap?” He giggled. “Ah, how silly of me to forget. Our fearless leader does not partake of the pleasures of the flesh. He –” Aser could hardly finish the sentence from laughing. “He believes they’d take him farther from God!”

Aser, you know you shouldn’t speak of Calvin like that. In her own AMWS, countless quintillions of kilometers away, she sighed. Touching Aser’s mind was never pleasant at the best of times, but when he was out in the deeps, it could be downright disturbing. Once, she had made the mistake of going deeper into his thoughts than the level of intentional words.

She had seen many terrible things in the minds of the Chosen. She had no illusions on that front. She had seen herself and her sister, performing lewd acts in van der Kaum’s imagination. She knew how Mia felt every time she used her power. She knew what secret Calvin hid so deeply even he did not know it.

None of that had prepared her for Aser’s mind. In Aser she found a whirlwind of crystal fragments, countless broken pieces of thoughts and memories caught up in an endless torrent of feeling, never quiet, never still. In Aser there were depths of joy and heights of despair beyond anything she had ever felt or imagined. There was nothing there she could follow or understand, just terrible, black, howling wind and the occasional flash of a half-formed idea or one tiny piece of a perception.

What little she did see was, however, enough. She knew who Aser was, better perhaps than he did. She knew what he thought of himself, and what he thought of others. She had sworn then two things: first, that she would never again go deeper into his mind than she absolutely had to, and second, that she would never allow him to be alone with herself or her sister.

He just asked me to show you something I picked up. He doesn’t have any orders. Dasra fed Aser her memories of the attack on their freighter off Bethel, and the intervention of the Isolde.

“It is him?” said Aser. “You know his name?”

The only survivor is now her captain. It is him. His name is Seth Mikra.
“YES!” crowed Aser, and Dasra flinched at the burning-hot acid of his emotion pouring through every crack in her defenses. “Finally, finally! Oh, yes, I’m coming for you, old friend. I’ll burn you, cut you, crush you…” He laughed.

He must not be killed. You know that, Aser.“Oh, no, no, no. I won’t kill him. Of course I won’t.” Aser paused. “Can I maybe kill him a little?”

Aser.

“Mia would have laughed.” He pouted, but could only maintain it a moment before he began laughing again. “I’m going now.”

Please, Aser, don’t kill him. We need him. I’ll be watching.
Aser’s laughter faded to wonderment as he felt Dasra withdraw. He truly was closer to God out here. How else to explain that the one task he had left before he could fulfill his destiny was simply handed to him as soon as he began thinking about it?

“My slate will be wiped clean,” he hissed, filling with rage at the memory of what that man had done to him. “Seth Mikra will pay, if I have to tear apart the entire cluster and all the Chosen to get to him.” He looked out one last time at the universe. “I’ll be back, God.”

And then empty space was empty once more.

***

Nadeshiko put the lab report away with a sigh and looked down at her patient, a small and sallow man, balding and bearded. “Patient Ortir Kormas, age… approximately thirty-five,” she said for the recorders. “Found unconscious behind the single men’s barracks. Bloodwork indicates extreme hypoglycemia typical of late-stage Horviss-Greln disease.” She sighed. “Intravenous feeding has proven inadequate to counter symptoms. Supplies of Isoprate are low, so I will commence treatment with Korana–“

“Stop!”

Nadeshiko looked up to see her boss, Dr. Viri, standing at the entrance to the medium-risk ward. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Viri’s pale, pudgy face was flushed, and his eyes, overlarge and the best of times, were bulging. “Koranafil! Do you want to kill him?”

“I– oh shit.”

Propanofil, Dr. Kodesh. Propanofil is the treatment of second choice for H-G. Koranafil is for renal failure.”

Nadeshiko hung her head. “I know that, doctor. You know I know that!”

“Yes, I do.” His flush was gone now; his face was stony as he walked over to the medication cooler and withdrew a bottle of Propanofil. “Normally. When did you last sleep, Nadeshiko?”

“I woke up half an hour ago,” she countered. “Are you trying to accuse me of something?”

“That depends. How long did you sleep?”

She looked away. “Three hours.”

“That’s what I thought. You need to sleep! Better no doctor at all than one who can’t keep her drugs straight.”

Nadeshiko winced. “Mizrahi–“

“Aren’t gods. You may need less sleep, but you still need sleep.”

“And I’m getting enough!” she insisted. “Now get out of my way and let me treat my patient.”

“No.” Viri attached the Propanofil to a nozzle on the patient’s IV, and watched a moment to make sure it was dripping properly into the stream. “There are two possibilities here, doctor. Either you’re entirely incompetent, which we both know isn’t true, or you’re slipping because of tiredness. Which do you prefer?”

“I made a mistake,” she said. “People make mistakes. Don’t tell me you’re not tired, too.”

“I am,” he said. “But I know I’ll save more lives on a good night’s sleep than I could by working myself into exhaustion. You seem to be having a hard time learning that.”

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll try to sleep more. Now I have to check up on patients.”

Viri shook his head. “No, Nadeshiko. You’re taking the week off, starting now. The supplies should be here today, so I won’t really need you for a few days. You can go back to town with the deliveryman, sleep in your own bed for a couple of nights, come back fresh when we start running low on nanomachines.”

“You can’t make me do that.”

Viri sighed. “Yes, I can. Go to the gate and see if the deliveryman’s here yet. If I hear of you touching a patient, you’re fired.”

For the second time that morning, Nadeshiko fought to deactivate her tear ducts. It was getting harder. Exhaustion pulled at every cell in her body, despite all her best efforts to fight it down. She wanted to scream at Viri, to tear him apart. Didn’t he understand that people were dying? What if somebody she could have saved died while she was gone?

“Fine,” she said, and slumped. “I’ll go. I’ll be back Saturday.”

“Good,” he said. “Get some sleep, and some exercise, and eat something fresh.”

“Yeah,” she said. She left the building, little more than a shack, and walked out into the harsh mid-morning sunlight. Finally alone, she shrieked her frustration at the sky.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She came to Bethel full of hope and pride. She’d seen herself, Scientia-trained, amazing the other doctors with her ability to heal these poor patients. She would save lives, heal the sick, and by the time her two-year stint was up, the refugee camp would be empty, everybody healed and home.

What a little idiot she’d been.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fic: Chapter Three Begins

Sorry for the lateness on this. Been having computer issues. 

Dr. Nadeshiko Kodesh was not having a good morning. “Three people,” she muttered into her coffee. “Three more dead, doctor. So much for talent.”

She drained the cup, staring blankly at the wall of her small, bare quarters. She had an apartment in the city, paid for by the Bethel Fund, but she hadn’t slept there in a week. Hadn’t left the camp in six days. With Berrol sick, she had no choice; it was just her and Dr. Viri caring for nearly three hundred refugees.
Most of the refugees were sick most of the time. The doctors took great pains to isolate themselves from infection, but with hundreds of people crammed together, most of them with damaged immune systems, there was simply no way to be completely safe. In her two years here, even Nadeshiko had been too sick to work twice. Hardly a month went by that Viri or Berrol didn’t miss a day or two, and Berrol had now been throwing up virtually everything for six days. They had him in a hospital in the city now. Apparently, the city hospitals did have beds they weren’t using, as long as you weren’t from Midbar.
Nadeshiko slammed her cup down. Her eyes hurt, and frustrated, angry tears threatened to fall. Instinctively, she switched off her tear ducts until the feeling passed. She couldn’t really blame the city. They could easily have filled every hospital bed with refugees, at the cost of leaving nothing for their own citizens; they chose, instead, to admit all the refugees under the age of twenty, and supplied food to the remainder. It was more than a lot of other places did.
No, she had only herself to blame for losing three more patients. Death had beaten her again. Next time, she’d fight harder.
Time to work. Closing her eyes, she concentrated, dissolving the fatigue toxins in her system, slowing the absorption rate of the caffeine and enhancing its effects, so that one cup of coffee would keep her up for several hours without making her hyper. The slight shaking in her hands subsided as she forced her biochemistry to accede to her will.
Feeling fully refreshed, albeit frustrated and a little slow, she stepped out into the bright desert sun and got to work.
***
Seth made the last finishing touches to his ad and sat back. “What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” said Izzy. “Just like the last three versions.”
“I want it to be better than fine! I’ve got a good feeling about this find. Somebody out there’s going to pay through the nose for this thing.” Seth looked down at his ad. 

“Salvage for sale,” it read. “Sealed, armored container recovered from wreck of tramp freighter Ahura off Bethel. 1.4 tonnes, 18m x 8m x 2m. No identifying markings, content listing, or danger warnings. Sold as is, unopened. C25,000 OBO.”

His asking price was five times the worth of the container empty. Unfortunately, not even he and Izzy together had been able to crack its lock codes, and its armor was too heavy to be pierced by anything less than the Isolde’s bow cannon, which ran too much risk of damaging the contents. All they knew about its contents was that they weighed about half a tonne, based on their best estimate of the weight of the container, so Seth pretty much had to guess how much they’d have to be worth to warrant that level of protection.
“Okay,” he said finally. “As soon as we land, get us some time on the spaceport’s EPR and upload that to, uh,” he ticked off markets on his fingers, “let’s say the local market, Ur, the Federation, and Artaxerxes. Oh, and Scientia and the Church, of course.”
“Gotcha, boss,” said Izzy. Something about the way she said it made Seth feel she wanted to say more. “You ever think about how great it must have been in the old days, boss? Back when you could just upload this sort of thing to the UMN when you felt like it, with color and video, and talk to buyers in realtime?”
“Yes, in the wonderful golden age of our wise and benevolent ancestors,” Seth answered sarcastically. “I don’t know where you pick up these things. You know I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“You’re a salvager, boss. You of all people know how much technology we lost in the Dark Ages. You really think we’ve gotten it all back?”
“I think legend has exaggerated what the ancients could do. If there really had once been a giant super-fast network spanning the whole cluster, don’t you think Scientia would be at least working on recreating it now? Next you’re going to tell me you believe there really was a Saoshi who magically visited a thousand planets a hundred and fifty years before IS Gates.”
“Ah, boss, you don’t have to make fun of me.” There was a clear pout in Izzy’s voice. “Anyway, we’ve got clearance to land. We hit atmosphere in five minutes.”
“Gotcha,” said Seth. “Let the guys know. I’ll meet them at the bridge.”
***
“Well, hell,” said Wally. “Now what do we do?”
“First priority is to get out of here,” said Sardula. “Judging by those cages, there’s at least four more Divs in the building, and more to the point there’ll be soldiers coming to pacify them as soon as they’re confident everyone in the building is dead. After that, we watch their communications and try to figure out if the Original is still here, or if they’ve moved it offplanet.”
“How exactly do you plan on getting out?” asked Wally.
Sardula pointed to the far end of the room, where an open shaft led up. “That must be how they got the objective out without anyone noticing; it’s probably for bringing equipment and personnel in and out of the lab without having to pass through lower-security areas. The other end is no doubt concealed somewhere in the hills behind the facility.”
“Sure,” said Wally, “and it’s probably covered by a squad of AMWS and a couple of missile batteries, too. They obviously aren’t kidding around about securing the Original.”
“At least one squad,” Sardula agreed.
“So, what, you want to just crawl up the shaft and ask them politely to let us go through?”
“As much fun as that might be, I have a better plan.” Sardula looked up the shaft. “Yes, the other end must be about six hundred meters south-by-southwest of the facility.”
“That’s really great to know,” said Wally. “I don’t suppose you’ve been transmitting all this to a small army of friends who are now going to fight their way down the shaft and pick us up, have you?”
“Not exactly,” Sardula answered. For the first time, she gave a small, secretive smile. If Wally hadn’t just seen her go toe-to-toe with two Divs and win, he’d have said it made her look pixie-ish. “Ah, it should just about be here.”
“What?” asked Wally. “I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly,” said Sardula, as a small black AMWS materialized at the bottom of the shaft, hovering in near-total silence.
“Oh, wow,” said Wally. “Is that a Fuyutsuki & Ogilvy Stealth AMWS? I’ve heard of them, but this has a different profile. Is it a new model? I thought F&O cancelled the ZX series!”
“As far as anyone else is concerned, they did.” The cockpit opened, and Sardula climbed nimbly up into the pilot’s chair. “Coming?”
“Right, right!” said Wally, scrambling up into the copilot’s seat, underneath the pilot’s and slightly farther forward. The cockpit closed around them, and Wally felt the brief, quivering disorientation of an artificial gravity system kicking in. Then they were off, rocketing up the shaft at dizzying speed.
“Wait!” shouted Wally. “Shouldn’t you turn the stealth back on? We’ll be seen!”

“That’s the plan,” replied Sardula. “Hang on!”
Wally craned his neck, trying to look up the shaft to see what guards were waiting for them. As a result, he didn’t notice something small and red and shining drop from the AMWS. Then the first missiles came spiraling down the shaft, and he couldn’t bear to look any longer.
***
“So, how long are we stopping, Captain?” asked Vix. She shaded her eyes as she studied the town on the other side of the spaceport. She had to admit, from here it looked pretty — long, low buildings of white stone, mostly, their domes shining in the desert sun.
“Couple of days at least,” Seth answered. He’d discarded his jacket, and looked even younger than he was in his red t-shirt and black jeans. “Gotta give buyers time to notice us. I want our next stop to be delivering that box to its owner.”
“Ahh,” sighed Wehj, stretching as he stepped out onto the ramp. “Feel that sunlight!”
“All right,” said Seth, “I’m going to make our delivery. You two try not to get into too much trouble, all right? I’m not covering bail this time, Vix.”
“Hey, that guy had it coming! Just out of the blue, stops me on the street and starts yelling about something, tells me there’s gonna be a reckoning? He’s lucky I just decked ‘im!”
“He was a street preacher!” Wehj protested.
“Whatever,” said Vix. “I’m going to go find out what the locals drink. You coming?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Wehj. “But you’re paying for your own drinks this time!”
Seth shook his head as the two walked off across the landing pad, actually nothing more than a ring of lights on a flat stretch of packed-down red sand. “Any luck finding us a hopper, Izzy?” he asked.

“Sorry, boss,” she answered through his earpiece. “Looks like it’s going to have to be a truck. Hoppers are pricy around here.”
“Ah, hell, I hate riding things with wheels. How expensive are we talking?”
“You want to eat this week?”
“Ow.” Seth grimaced. “Fine, make it a truck. Where do I pick it up?”
Seth accepted the directions from Izzy, then went to get the truck, a battered old thing that didn’t even have autopilot. “At least it’s not internal combustion,” he muttered to himself as he drove it back to the Isolde. “I guess I should be grateful for that.”
Fifteen minutes later, he was bouncing and jolting his way across a badly-maintained desert road, practically crawling at 175 kph. The climate control was broken and the windows didn’t open, so he was pouring sweat, envying the medicines in their nice, heavy refrigeration units, and hating the universe. “Next time, I’m sending Vix.” A particularly skull-rattling bump spawned a stream of curses, giving Seth time to reconsider. “No, she’d murder me when she got back. I’ll send Wehj.”
A distance marker shot past. Forty kilometers still to go. “I hate planets,” said Seth. “I don’t know why anybody stays on them.”

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fic, End of Chapter 2

The woman from the Federation — a spy? A soldier? Special Forces? — moved swiftly and silently down the hall, a small moving patch of darkness in the murk. Wally followed, head reeling at the absurdity of it all. Here he was, a pudgy, balding scientist, clutching a rifle to his chest like a child’s doll, following a spectacularly lethal, beautiful woman half his age through a dark hallway in a building infested with murderous alien monsters, the closest thing he had to a close friend lying dead behind him, and all he could think of was that he didn’t know the name of any of the people protecting him.

The woman paused at a corner and gestured for Wally to get behind her. She peered carefully around the corner. “It looks clear to the emergency stairs,” she whispered. “We’ll take those down to the lowest level and grab the other objective. We’ll use the cargo lift to get back to the surface quickly.”

“It won’t work without power,” he whispered.

“Leave that to me,” she said. “Your job is to confirm the target and make sure it’s in good condition. Ready?”

“What’s your name?” he blurted.

She looked at him quickly, startled, then turned away to watch the corridor again. Her face returned to impassivity as he watched. “Diesieger,” she said. “Sardula Diesieger.”

“Ready,” Wally said.

Sardula ran for the stairway door while Wally covered her. One of her knives dropped from her sleeve into her hand, and almost immediately began to glow. Wally watched, fascinated. He’d heard of the Hilbert Atrophy before, but never seen it in action. Sardula’s knife sliced through the door like butter, and in a matter of moments it collapsed to the floor. She motioned to him, and he ran quickly to the stairs.

Even going down, twenty-two floors was a long way, and Wally was heaving and puffing when they finally reached bottom. “Rest a moment,” Sardula said, not even breathing hard.

Wally leaned against a wall and sucked in a few deep breaths. Sardula kept looking around, scanning for any sign of danger. Her eyes, Wally noticed suddenly, were amber, not the light brown he’d thought they were earlier. She was a Realian, of course. It made sense; almost all of the Federation’s frontline troops were, and it explained how such a tiny person could kick hard enough to make a Div stumble.

Sardula sliced through the door and rolled into the hall, springing to her feet with both blades drawn. “Clear,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Wally followed as quickly as he could. Sardula clearly knew exactly where she was going–she probably had a map of the facility in her brain. They were headed right for the high-security lab where the Original was kept. Unfortunately, he knew how the lowest level was laid out, a series of increasingly secure areas nested inside one another. “You realize we’re going to have to go through Div containment to get to the Original, right?”

“Divs are drawn to sentient prey,” Sardula answered. “I’m hoping they’ve run out of people to kill down here and all moved to the higher levels.”

Wally winced, not sure whether it was the concept or the matter-of-fact tone with which she stated it that bothered him more.

They reached the mangled remains of the reinforced double doors that led to Div containment without incident, but Sardula held up a hand as they approached it. “Careful,” she said. “Hope isn’t a battle plan. Keep your eyes peeled; this is a great place for an ambush.”

She dove through the wreckage in the doorway, blades drawn and glowing as she sprang to her feet on the far side. Wally followed, keeping his distance and sweeping the room with his gun as he’d seen soldiers do in movies. Sardula led the way slowly, primed to leap in any direction if needed.
The very large room was crisscrossed by the remnants of transparent cubicle walls, shattered and broken by hammer-blow Div fists. Most of the chambers had been filled with medical or biological research equipment, oversized operating tables, scanning devices, or computers for genetic sequencing and chemical analysis. They were in a disarray of smashed metal and stains Wally desperately hoped were the residue of chemicals or samples, not researchers. In the center of the room was a cluster of now-defunct forcefield cages, each large enough to hold a Div and give it limited room to move around.

“There’s the door to the top-security lab,” Wally said, pointing to an intact double door at the far end of the room. “Let’s hurry.”

There was a crash and a roar from above them and Sardula rolled to the side as a Div dropped down. Another tore in through the side wall near Wally; he fell back with a yelp of surprise, losing his grip on his gun.

Sardula leaped high as the Div swung at her, slashing its wrist as it passed. Its hand fell to the ground and the Div roared in pain, staggering back. The hand dissolved before it touched the ground, as did the fat, viscous drops of black blood oozing much too slowly from the stump of the Div’s arm. The Div screamed and backed toward the cages, Sardula pursuing it but keeping her distance warily, waiting for an opening.

Wally scrambled after his gun, but the Div stomped between him and it. He rolled aside, barely avoiding its kick, and scrambled hastily to his feet. He ran for the nearest cubicle. Slow, heavy footsteps resounded right behind him, but he didn’t dare look back.

The Div Sardula was chasing reached the cages. Its hand was now partially grown back, a lump of red flesh without fingers or skin. Without turning, it tore a half-ton forcefield generator free of the bolts holding it in place and flung it at Sardula. She dove underneath the attack and charged the Div. She leaped for the kill, but had forgotten to take its injured arm into account; a sweeping blow flung her with a crash into a torn-apart cubicle.

The Div stomped after her as the lump of flesh on the end of its wrist separated into fingers with a wet rip. Its healing was accelerating as the effects of the Hilbert Atrophy wore off; scabrous skin grew rapidly to cover it, then hair and claws began rapidly to grow.

Sardula lay amidst a pile of smashed computer equipment, momentarily stunned. As her senses returned, she realized the Div was approaching rapidly, and leaped to her feet. She shook her head to clear it, and realized her hands were empty. She scanned the room quickly, and spotted one of her knives lying on the floor, near where she had been struck by the Div. Its glow was already fading rapidly, and she had no time to search for the other, as the Div was upon her.

It grabbed for her, but she was able to duck out of the way and try to sweep its legs out from under it, to no avail. The Div’s other arm came ponderously about, but Sardula was too far inside its reach for it to have much effect. She slid between its legs, kicking it in the crotch, but there was nothing there to kick but leathery armor.

She rolled to her feet grabbed the nearest weapon she could improvise, a broken-off length of glass tubing, about an inch across and three feet long. As the Div turned to attack her again, she jumped and stabbed, burying the tube deep in its eye.

The Div screamed and clawed at the makeshift spear, trying to pull it out, but its large claws were too clumsy to get a good grip. Sardula took advantage of its distraction to sprint for her knife. She reactivated the Hilbert emitters in her wrist as she grabbed it off the floor, then spun, scanning the room swiftly.

Wally scrambled desperately from hiding place to hiding place as each one was destroyed by the Div relentlessly pursuing him. He rolled under an operating table only to have the Div rip it out of the floor. In the time it took the Div to do that, he fled over the smashed cubicle wall and behind a metal table, which the Div pounded flat with a single blow of its fist.

Wally’s chest was aching and his head swimming with exhaustion, but he was past noticing. All that mattered was making sure there was always one more obstacle between himself and the pursuing Div. He could barely see from the sweat pouring into his eyes, but he knew the red, moving blur was the Div, and all the other blurs were non-Divs. That was all he needed.

Indefatigable, the Div followed, destroying one obstacle after another, never hesitating. It was inevitable that it would eventually catch up to him. Wally dove behind a pile of several large pieces of equipment — protein extrapolators and gene sequencers, he vaguely noted) — through a gap too small for the Div to reach through. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and realized he’d backed himself into a corner. Through the transparent cubicle walls he could see the other Div snap off the glass tube buried in its eye. A moment later, the portion buried in its eye popped out as the eye reformed as if no damage had been done. Of Sardula there was no sign, and Wally realized that, in his mad scramble, he must have gotten between her and her Div.

A deafening roar echoed a few feet from him, and the Div chasing him swept the top half of the pile to the ground. Wally backed against the corner, but to no avail. The Div wrapped its enormous claw around his torso, pinning his arms to his sides, and lifted him. Wally screamed and kicked at the air as he rose into the air toward its hideous face. Its skin was hot, much hotter than a human’s if not actually painful, and its stinking breath poured over him in waves.

Its claw was tightening, and Wally knew that it could crush him like an egg. Would, in a second. He wanted to scream and rage, but his arms were completely pinned and there was no way to scream louder than he already was.

To Wally’s astonishment, the Div dropped him suddenly, screaming in rage and pain and clawing at the knife Sardula had thrown into its shoulder. It turned to face her as she charged, but she leaped lightly over the blow it swung at her with its good arm and vaulted over its shoulder, pulling out the knife and landing on its other side.

Sardula reached into the pile of equipment Wally had hidden behind and pulled her second knife from where it had embedded itself in the white plastic casing of a computer, then turned to face the two angry Divs converging on her and Wally.

She crouched low, knives held so that the blades pointed back along her arms. “Saoshi!” she screamed, and leapt for the farther of the two Divs. She landed on its shoulder and immediately backflipped off, slashing it with both her blades. She kicked off from the other Div, and attacked again, spinning and dodging tirelessly, never touching the ground, never touching a Div for more than a fraction of a second.

Wally stared a moment, flabbergasted, but then returned to his senses. “Gun,” he said to himself, peering around the room. He soon spotted it, and ran, crouching low, desperately hoping neither Div would notice him. He stumbled as he reached the gun, tumbling to the floor, but managed to keep his grip on it.

As he scrambled to his feet and turned toward the Divs, he saw one manage to clip Sardula as she spun past. Even the glancing blow was sufficient to throw off her aim, and she barely managed to get her feet under herself before she hit the ground. The nearer Div swung for her, and she dove too slow out of the way–

A hail of bullets brought it up short with a roar, and Sardula gasped in relief. Then she returned her attention to attacking the two Divs. Wally’s bullets, lacking the Hilbert Atrophy channeled along Sardula’s knives, could not injure the Divs, but they were highly successful at annoying them and keeping them off balance. Together, they made short work of the Divs.

After the last one collapsed with a guttural, mournful cry, Sardula sheathed her knives and began checking herself for injuries. “You all right?” she asked Wally.

He felt suddenly, intensely cold and sick, and noticed for the first time the dull ache in his chest and the cuts and bruises all over him. “Nothing serious,” he said. “You?”

“A little internal damage to my left arm,” she answered. “Nothing my autorepair can’t handle.” She walked over to the doors to the maximum-security lab.

“You’re a follower of Saoshi?” Wally asked.

Sardula darkened, barely perceptibly. It took Wally a moment to realize she was blushing. “There doesn’t seem to be any way to open the door without power,” she said. “I’m going to have to cut it open.”

“I’m sorry, I was just curious, since you saved me and all. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” Sardula said. “However, I’m here to accomplish a mission, not to make social engagements.”

It was Wally’s turn to blush. “You think I’m–no no no! I know what they say about cyberneticists, but I really honestly was just curious. I’ve never met one of Saoshi’s followers before.”
Sardula grunted noncommittally as she carved an opening in the doorway for them. “It was an exclamation under the stress of combat,” she said. “It’s not worth dwelling on.”

“All right,” Wally said. “It’s obviously a sore subject. I’m sorry.” Mentally, he cursed the popular conception of Realian designers and cyberneticists as clankers. Okay, so yes, pretty much all Realians were designed to be aesthetically pleasing–why not? So were most children. Parents weren’t under constant suspicion of being perverts, were they? Maybe they were. Wally didn’t actually know any parents.

Sardula finished cutting through the door and pulled herself through the opening. She helped Wally through, and then turned into the room. “So, where is it?” she asked.

“Huh? It should be right in–” Wally stared, then cursed and punched the wall.

The Original was already gone.

End of Chapter Two. Next weekend I’ll have some more original fic up, and then Chapter Three starts after that. What do people think so far? I really struggled with this chapter–there were a lot of problematic descriptions of Sardula in the original, and I really struggled with removing those while also making clear that the same kind of blend of cultural standards, objectification, and sexism that influences the design of (for example) female superheroes and video game characters in our culture was at work on her. I also struggled with Ritzi, because she, Jensen, and the security guard all exist solely to die. I tried to avoid most of the fridge clichés as best I could, and in particular tried to make it clear that throughout Wally is driven by his own fear, not some kind of macho revenge BS, but I don’t know how well I succeeded.

Soundtrack! Only a couple of tracks for this chapter, including the first from a non-Xenosaga source, ar Tonelico:

Div Attack

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyLVN0FyiP0]

Sardula’s Theme

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSN2lPjxd-Q]

What do people think of this “chapter soundtrack” idea? Does it do anything for you?

Fiction Fridays: Xenosaga Fic, Chapter 2, Part 3

Super late, I know, but it looks like I’ll be caught up by the time of the pony post. 

Onwards with Chapter 2, where there be monsters.

The three scientists stood in shock, staring at the guard.

“Hide!” she shouted. “Now!”

Snapping to his senses, Wally shoved Jensen, who looked at him reproachfully for a moment, then shook his head and dove under his desk. Ritzi seemed to be falling rapidly into a world of her own, so Wally had to half-drag her behind the counter on which the giant mechanical arm he’d been working on was laid out in pieces.

“We’re going to die,” she whimpered. “They’re coming back.”

“No,” said Wally. “We’ll be fine. They won’t come here. It’ll be okay.”

“No, no,” she said. “I’ve been here before. Mitsuda Street.”

“Oh,” said Wally, and hugged her. Mitsuda Street was in the Overlook Square neighborhood. Thirty years ago, Overlook Square had been one of the nicest places for a lower-middle-class family to live in the Fifth Jerusalem capital, right up until a Div attack had appeared out of nowhere one evening. It was far and away the worst of the twenty or so attacks the Federation had seen in the centuries since the creatures first appeared, with thousands dead, many of them children.

“I was seven,” Ritzi whimpered. “It, it tore our wall off. It was big and horrible and I was so scared. Daddy was twisted all wrong, and Mommy told me to run. She had the knife she used for cake. I ran out the back door and kept running until I couldn’t breathe. I was sure it was behind me.”

“Shh,” said Wally. “It’ll be okay.” His brain didn’t seem to be working right. Ritzi was older than him after all, and that was hilarious, but he didn’t dare laugh.

“No!” she cried. “It won’t! It’s never going to stop following me!” She tore out of Wally’s grasp and ran out from behind the counter.

“Ritzi, no!” he called.

“What the hell?” shouted the security guard. “You idiot, get away from there!”

Ritzi scrabbled clumsily at the door, trying to force it open. “I have to get away from here!” she shrieked. “It’s coming for me, I have to run!”

Wally watched in horror as the door suddenly dimpled inward under a forceful blow. Ritzi stumbled back away from it, stunned. Something roared, Ritzi and tearing metal both shrieked, and then something enormous forced its way into the room. An enormous three-clawed, scaly hand shot out and wrapped itself around Ritzi’s head. It swung her sharply against the wall, and her screaming stopped.

The security guard was screaming in incoherent rage, firing continuously at the Div, but the bullets just bounced from its chest. Wally felt strangely calm, able to dispassionately observe everything as it happened. He was dimly aware that he, too, was screaming, but it was simply another fact to be noted.

The Div was enormous, half again as tall as a man and twice as wide. Its torso was bulbous, almost spherical, supported on thick, short legs, and its arms were long and muscular. It had three claws on its hands, one shorter and opposed to the others, like a thumb. Its feet had three claws as well, two in front and one behind, like a dinosaur from a holo. Its eyes were small and dark in a bat-like head, with large ears. A narrow crest of thick, course yellow-brown hair ran from between its eyes, over its scalp and down the back of its neck. Its skin was a deep, dark red and scaly, and its chest and back were covered in thick yellow calluses, almost like armor.

It was horrible, a nightmare creature, a childhood ogre, and Ritzi was dead and bullets couldn’t hurt it. From far outside himself, he saw death approaching from one direction and panic from another.
Slowly, the reality of it all was settling in. He was going to die.

The security guard shrieked in frustration and stood, still firing. Her arc of fire traced across its chest and struck it in the face, and the creature roared as bullets chewed its head apart. As fast as the wounds formed, however, they closed again, healing as if they had never been.

It threw Ritzi at the security guard. There was a sickening snap as she struck the floor. Bullets sprayed across the ceiling for a moment as she clenched the trigger in her death throes, but then the gun dropped beside her, quiet and still.

The creature roared again, and Wally shrieked and ran for the closet. He pulled the door shut behind him, piled everything he could find against it, and then cowered against the back wall, trembling and sick, his arms over his head. They couldn’t shut out the sound, however, of the thing roaring, of Jensen screaming, of the wet crunch that ended the screaming.

“Go away,” he whispered. “Go away go away go away.” But slow, inexorable, heavy footprints approached the closet.

Wally yelped as the Div struck the door, its claws penetrating clean through. He stared helplessly as it tore the door off and flung it aside, then brought its face down to look at him through the doorway. It screamed high and loud and reptilian, and Wally screamed back, his hands covering his ears.

The Div straightened. It reached for him. And a dark figure dropped from above, something bright and red slashing across the Div’s face. It howled and reared back. The dark figure landed in a crouch and immediately launched herself again, striking the Div in the face with a spinning kick and knocking it farther off balance.

Slowly, incredulously, Wally stood as the figure lightly and nimbly leaped back and forth, kicking and slashing with shining red blades, driving the Div away from him. The Div tried to strike back, but she jumped onto its arm with incredible speed and launched from there at its head. Unlike the security guard’s bullets, the figure’s attacks didn’t seem to heal, and soon the Div gave a last mournful cry and collapsed heavily, shaking the entire lab with the force of its impact.

She turned to face Wally, who could only stare. She was no more than half his age, and tiny; the straight black hair hanging to her waist probably weighed half as much as the rest of her. She wore a navy blue, formfitting jumpsuit covered in pockets, and carried a pair of long knives, fading now from their previous cherry-red glow.

“Um… thank you,” he said.

“Dr. Wallace Alexander Petrovich?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” he managed. “How–?”

“Your ID,” she said, pointing at the card dangling from his belt loop. “Also, I was given your description.”

“The Federation sent you.” He sagged against the wall. “Did — did you do this?”

“No,” she said. “I believe the Ur government has staged this incident to wipe out all facility staff not loyal to them. You were right to contact us.”

She walked over to the broken tangle of limbs from which the room’s only light shone. Wally followed hesitantly and knelt next to the bodies. They didn’t look like people. They looked like store dummy parts mixed at random. But there was too much blood for store dummies, an overwhelming smell of meat that made him retch, and an ID card protruding from the mass. The picture was obscured by blood, but the name clearly read “Adelaide Ritsuki”. He felt dry and hollow.

“We should find the other card,” Wally said as the woman from the Federation reached into the tangle. “I should at least know her name.”

The woman pulled the flashlight free, shook it to get rid of what blood she could, and held it out. She was saying something, but Wally couldn’t follow it. She shook the flashlight at him again.

“It’s hers,” Wally said. “I can’t.”

“Take it. She doesn’t need it. You do.” The woman allowed the briefest look of exasperation to cross her face, and clipped the flashlight to his jacket herself. “Can you fire a gun?”

“What?” Wally stared at her. “Sort of,” he said. “I mean, it’s been–“

“Here,” she said, and handed him the assault rifle. “Follow me.” She started to stand, but Wally didn’t move.

“We should say something,” he said. “For Ritzi, I mean. She- she was scared. It wasn’t her fault.” He looked up helplessly. “We should say something.”

The woman gazed back at him dispassionately. “Were you friends?”

“Lovers,” Wally said. It wasn’t precisely true, but he didn’t feel up to explaining.

“All right,” she said. “But then we have to move. There are other Divs where that came from, and we might have to tangle with security, too.” She knelt beside Ritzi and the security guard and bowed her head. “Almighty Lord, take your servants into your bosom. Guide them and guard them with your wisdom and your power. Though they fell in battle, may they find peace beyond reach of any weapon.” She opened her eyes and stood. “Ready?”

“No,” he said, and stood. “But I’ll come.”

Xenosaga Fic: Chapter 2, Part 2

Wally nodded to the guards as he entered the research center. “Stan not in today?” he asked as he presented his access card for inspection.

“Nah, he’s out sick,” said one of the guards, a woman unfamiliar to Wally.

“Something must be going around,” said the other guard, known to Wally as Yon, though he didn’t know if that was a nickname. “Place is quiet today.”

“Huh,” said Wally. “Well, good morning, anyway.”

Yon nodded. “Mornin’.”

Wally took the elevator down to the third floor. Most buildings on Ur had only one or two floors above ground, and the rest extending down. Building space was at a premium, and the early colonists had taken pains not to disrupt Ur’s complex and unique aerial ecology. The great floating gardens and sailfloats were now mostly restricted to the outlying islands, but the tradition remained.

He emerged into a quiet hallway, lined with thick carpet, faux-wood paneling, and holopaintings by both staff and famous Ur artists. Wally had grown up on Fifth Jerusalem, with its noise and bustle and crowds, its brushed steel and reinforced concrete, right angles and primary colors, order and propriety. Life on Ur was a matter of curves and quiet, warm lighting, browns and greens. It had taken some getting used to, but he found he rather liked it.

The main cybernetics lab was a different matter. No matter where you went in the universe, it seemed, all labs were pretty much the same: wires dangling from the ceiling, piles of equipment, nearly all of it jury-rigged or modified, blackboards covered in arcane scrawls, cartoons and joke printouts and toys marking each researcher’s personal territory.

“Morning, Wally,” said Ritzi, waving. “Have a good weekend?” She was another Federation researcher, an expert in sensor design and implementation, a couple of years younger than Wally’s thirty-four, though she refused to reveal her precise age.

“Morning. Not bad, you?” Wally returned Ritzi’s enigmatic smile, her usual response to inquiries about her life outside work. He rather liked Ritzi, in a relaxed, uninvolved sort of way. The two of them dated for a week or two every couple of years, whenever they both found themselves single and bored. They had fun, but knew nothing deeper could come of it. Such behavior would of course have been utterly scandalous on Fifth Jerusalem, but didn’t raise an eyebrow on Ur. “Jansen in?”

Ritzi pointed at a computer in the corner. A pair of legs in neatly pressed trousers were visible under the table.

“Ah,” said Wally and walked over to his supervisor. “Hello, sir. Had a chance to look at my proposal?”

“Eh?” asked Jansen. He pushed his glasses — something else one never saw in the Federation, but then biotech was still Ur’s weakest science — up on his nose and blinked at Wally. “Ah, Petrovich. No, I’m afraid not. I’ve run into rather a bit of bureaucratic nonsense with my own project; it seems our superiors have decided our work on the Original requires excessive resources that could be better spent elsewhere. They denied my request for access last week to run an activation attempt.”

“That’s too bad,” said Wally.

“I am not normally one for politics, but I’m afraid this new government seems somewhat unfriendly to our work here.”

Wally chuckled. Jansen started at least thirty sentences a day with “I’m not normally one for politics, but…” He was known throughout the office for bending the ear of anyone he could find with his complaints about the government in that very fake Scientian accent of his, and the volume and frequency of complaints had only increased since the Fleetists took over. “I’ve gotten that impression, yeah,” he said. “Well, I’m sure you guys will swing back the other way after a couple of years.”

“Indeed, one must hope such,” Jansen answered.

“Well, I guess I’ll get to work,” said Wally. He sat at his own computer and checked his mail.

Ritzi leaned over conspiratorially. “Everybody’s out today,” she said. “You notice? All the Ur people, none of the Federation or Scientia researchers.”

“What about Dr. Jensen? Or the security guards?”

“Okay, a couple of Ur people, but I think everybody from the Federation is here today. I stopped by Keely’s office — you know her, in Requisitions? — on the way in to ask if my neutrino detector’s come in, and she still had that awful cold. Said they told her she had to come in anyway for a meeting, then cancelled the meeting.”

“Huh,” said Wally. “Hang on, let me check something.” He opened his calendar and began setting up a meeting to last the entire day. In the attendees field, he entered “All”, then sorted by division.

“Weird,” said Ritzi. “Looks like practically all of security is here, but almost no one in admin or support. A lot of the researchers are out, too — here, let me try that. Remember when they sent out that mail about absentee ballots for the Federation elections? I think there’s a group address for that.”

On her own computer, she set up a similar meeting, with “All Federation Citizens” and “All Scientia Citizens” as attendees. “Yep,” she said, “and it looks like they’ve got one for Scientia, too.”

“Will you look at that?” said Wally. “Almost everybody from the Federation and Scientia is in today. The only ones who aren’t are marked as off-planet — everybody in town came in to work.”

“Wow, how often do you think that happens?” asked Ritzi.

“It’s pretty strange,” Wally agreed, but before he could say more, the room was plunged into darkness and the ever-present hum of computer fans and air vents ceased. Ritzi let out a long and extremely colorful series of curses regarding her computer’s parentage and the likelihood that its autosave had worked as advertised.

“A power outage?” Wally could barely make Jensen out in the darkness, but the puzzlement in his voice was evident. “That’s odd. The backup generators should preclude the possibility.”

A light gleamed, revealing Ritzi’s round face and curly hair. “I’ve got a light on my phone,” she said.

Wally drew his phone and flicked it to active. Its produced a surprisingly bright light in the dark, allowing him to see around fairly well. “I think there’s an emergency kit in the supply closet. There might be flashlights in there.”

“Good,” said Jensen. “See what you can find.”

Wally played the light from his phone over the floor, carefully picking his way across the room to the closet. “Big day for unlikely things to happen, isn’t it,” he heard Ritzi say behind him. He didn’t listen as she explained her meaning to Jensen. The back of his neck was prickling. This was all very wrong, much too much of a coincidence. Something was happening, and he hated not knowing what.

Jensen and Ritzi fell quiet. There was no sound beyond that of three people breathing and Wally’s scrabbles in the closet. He let his hands fall to his sides and listened. There was a sound in the distance, something he couldn’t quite place. A deep vibration as much felt as heard, and something else, higher-pitched.

“Gunfire?” asked Ritzi, alarmed. “Is somebody shooting?”

All three jumped as the door slid slightly in its frame. Pink-painted nails appeared around the edges, and then pulled the door open wide enough to admit the security guard Wally had seen at the entrance. An assault rifle was slung over her back and a flashlight clipped to her jacket.

“Come on,” she said. “We’re moving everybody to the ground floor cafeteria.”

“What’s going on?” demanded Jansen.

The guard licked her lips uneasily. “Power outage. We don’t know what caused it or why the backup generators aren’t running.”

“Power outages don’t involve guns,” said Wally.

“Yeah,” she said. “Listen, uh, you’re not really supposed to know about this, but–“

“The Divs!” Ritzi and Jensen jumped as Wally shouted in surprised realization. The fear came a moment behind. “Without power, there’s nothing holding the Divs in, is there?”

“Divs?” asked Ritzi, an edge of panic coming into her voice. “There are Divs here?”

“You’re not supposed to know about that,” said the guard. “Only security and the people working directly with them are supposed to know.”

“I was working late the night they brought them in,” said Wally. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Divs,” said Jensen, stunned. “We’ve been working a few floors from Divs–for how long?”

“Look, it doesn’t matter,” said the guard. “We need to move. We can’t protect you if you’re spread all over the facility. We’re trying to reach Norken’s Island now, but until troops from there arrive, we’re stuck here.”

“Stuck? What do you mean, stuck?” Ritzi was beginning to breathe fast and shallow. Wally walked up next to her and tried putting an arm around her, but she threw him off.

“Looks like a lockdown triggered just before the outage, ma’am. We don’t know what set it off, but all the security doors are closed. We can’t open them without power.”

“Let’s go,” said Jensen. Wally hardly recognized his voice; the Scientian accent was gone, and a rural Ur accent in its place. “We have to get out of here, now!”

“Please, try to stay calm,” the security guard said. “We–” There was a sound of metal tearing, shouts and gunfire, and then a rapidly approaching series of deep thuds. “Okay!” she said. “Change of plans. Everybody get in the room and under cover. Move it!” She pulled the door shut, then tipped over a table covered in prototyping equipment and shoved it against the door. Throwing over another table, she crouched behind it, her rifle trained on the door.

Back to Xenosaga fanfic: Chapter 2 begins

When last we left our heroes… well, actually, that’s irrelevant, because we’re starting this chapter somewhere else with some new characters. This is, for the record, probably the chapter that needs the most rewriting to get rid of sexist narrative elements. Younger me really sucked.

The Chair of the Subcommittee on Special Projects of the Federation Senate Committee on Science and Technology was tired. He had been up all night looking through agents’ dossiers with the apparently inexhaustible Minister of Intelligence, trying to guess which skillset would be most useful in the mission they had to assign. Minister Niklaus had picked his brain for every detail of the research facility, even though he doubtless knew more than the Chair did.

He rubbed his eyes and gazed blearily down at the dossier before him. He had no doubt that Niklaus was doing it on purpose, to punish him. Everyone knew that their two parties were going to break their coalition after the coming election. Prime Minister Norris was popular, and the Realian Voting Rights Act was going to create a massive new block of voters who would doubtless back the Manifest Destiny party all the way.

Any day now, the Prime Minister would call for elections, and the MDs simply wouldn’t need to put up with the embarrassing religiosity of their coalition partners any longer. The Unionists would get the shaft, and Niklaus would lose his cabinet post.

The Chair’s phone buzzed. “Your seven o’clock is here, sir.”

“Send her in,” he said, stifling a yawn, and stood as the door opened.

The young woman who entered looked to be in her late teens or early twenties, short and slim and dark, with a soft-featured, round face and very long, thick black hair. Only her amber eyes and crisp uniform revealed her true nature: a combat Realian, an artificial lifeform constructed for a specific purpose on the battlefield. Her features marked her age as closer to two or three years, the time since the Semito-Dravidian fad in Realian design–more recent models tended to vibrant pinks and greens for skin and hair, and tall, angular frames. “Lieutenant Sardula Diesieger, Special Forces, reporting as ordered, sirs!” she said, and saluted.

“At ease, lieutenant,” said Niklaus. “You know Chairman Koi?”

Sardula continued to stand ramrod-straight, but put her hands behind her back. “I have seen him on the news, sir.”

“Hm,” said Koi. “We have an assignment for you, lieutenant, as I imagine you’ve guessed. Shall we?” He gestured at a chair.

Sardula glanced briefly at Niklaus, much to Koi’s annoyance. All three were soon seated at a conference table, and Niklaus triggered the holodisplay in the center. A planet appeared, rotating — a mottled blue-and-white ball, as any habitable world must be.

“Ur,” said Koi. “What do you know about them?”

Sardula paused for a moment. Data streamed across her eyes, too fast to read. Koi often wondered why so many Realians were designed to do that when running a memory search; perhaps it was intended simply as a reminder, like the eye color itself, that they were not human. “An independent world with economic ties both to us and to Artaxerxes,” she finally said. “After the Collapse, they had no Realian repair or construction facilities intact, despite being a populous and industrialized world. They therefore developed cybernetics and robotics to an unusually high degree. There is a major Scientia research facility just outside the capital, originally devoted to cybernetics but since generalized.”

Koi nodded. “For the past three years, a joint project involving the Federation, Scientia, and the Ur government has been underway at that facility. Recently, however, a new faction has gained control of the Ur government.”

“Citizen dissatisfaction was high with the aggressive secularity of the previous government,” Niklaus explained. “The new party they have elected has strong ties to the Fleet Church and Artaxerxes, and is not as friendly to the Federation or Scientia. One of our researchers at the facility has contacted us. He has provided solid evidence that the government intends to seize sole control of the facility, and in particular our project.”

“The research subject is Federation property, and of vital national security importance,” said Koi. “It must be retrieved.”

“In addition, the extraction of the scientist is a primary objective,” Niklaus said, stroking his thin, neat mustache. “Secondarily, you are to misdirect any investigations as to your purpose, origins, and loyalties.”

Koi’s pudgy face pinked slightly, and he shifted uncomfortably. “We have created a cover identity for you as a member of an extremist religious group opposed to Scientia. You are to leave evidence that this was a random terrorist attack.” He took a sip of coffee from the mug at his elbow.

“If you accept the mission, further data will be provided to you. You would leave immediately.”

“If I accept?” asked Sardula.

Koi nodded. “This is a dangerous mission,” he said. “You have the option of refusing. No disciplinary action will be taken, and no record of this meeting exists.”

“I am a soldier, Senator Koi,” Sardula said. “I am prepared to die.”

“Admirable,” said Niklaus. “Understand, however, that if you are killed or captured it will be as a terrorist, not a Federation soldier. Sardula Diesieger will be erased from history.”

“Soldier or no, you are a free individual, lieutenant. You may choose to take this mission or not.”
No expression crossed Sardula’s face, but she found herself feeling vaguely sorry for the two humans before her. Unlike them, she knew the purpose for which she was created. Her body, abilities, and personality were crafted to excel at destroying the Federation’s enemies. Two years ago she emerged from a prototyping plant full-grown and educated, ready to begin service, and she had served since. The legal fictions with which they comforted themselves, filled the void of not knowing why they were made, had no meaning for her. “I will take the mission,” she said.

The two men glanced at each other. “Good,” said Niklaus. “We will transmit the full mission details to you within the hour.”

“Good luck,” said Koi. “I’ll try to find a cover story to give you a medal when you return.”

“Thank you, senator,” Sardula said. He didn’t understand. Few even among the Realians did, let alone humans.