Two untitled, probably unrelated fragments I recently posted on Facebook

Karolle glanced up when the stewardling started to speak, but it was just the standard preflight safety briefing. Zie sighed and returned to hir book, but snippets of the familiar monologue penetrated anyway.
“–Flight 277143 to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Our trip time is approximately fourteen subjective hours–”
Damn, zie’d lost the thread again. Start again with the beginning of the paragraph and shut that damn stewardling out.

“–return to your seat immediately when the captain announces impending transition through liminal space, as–”
Why did they even bother with these things, anyway? It’s not like anyone listened. Everybody who’d ever flown before knew the rules.
“–any long-lost loved ones, deceased pets, or beloved characters of story and song, it is vitally important that you ignore–”
Maybe they should take aside the first-time flyers and give them the lecture, let everyone else have some peace. It was hard enough to find once the flight actually got going!
“–not liable should you become lost in a nightmare world derived from the darkest memories of the human species in general and your own worst experiences in particular. Thank you and have a safe and pleasant flight!”
FINALLY.

“An ancient sage, both skillful and wise, spoke of a city of bliss unparalleled. But even there, that bliss was built upon the horrific suffering of one,” said the darkness at the end of time. “Some accepted this. Others could not bear it, and fled into the wilderness.”
“How is that any different?” demanded Salome. “They know of the suffering, accept it, and go on with their lives. Those in the wilderness are no different from those in the city!” For zie had been everywhere and seen everything, and in all the futures and pasts, all the alternatives and dreams, there was no world whose joy outweighed its suffering. There were worlds where the suffering of a few enabled the joy of many, ones where the suffering of many created joy for a few, ones where future joy was dangled as a reward for present suffering and ones where present joy was bought with future suffering, but in every one without exception humanity’s suffering was vast and towering, eternal and inescapable, while joy was as small and fragile, as corruptible and temporary, as a child.

“There is no difference,” said the darkness. “Those who walk away or those who stay, they are all the same, because they all abandon the child. There is no leaving the city, because wherever humans are, there too is the city.”
“But what alternative is there to the city? Can the child be saved?”
“No,” said the darkness, not unkindly. “It bears the suffering of a nation, a world. It is broken beyond healing.”
To hir surprise, Salome found that zie was weeping. “There has to be some other way! There has to be some way to leave the city!”
“There is not.”
“Then what is the alternative? What is there beyond acceptance and surrender? How can I make a place where there is no city? Please, I have to know, I can’t bear this anymore!”
The darkness spoke so softly that at first Salome wondered if zie had imagined it. But it really had spoken, a single word, a single syllable:
“Fire.”

Considering Ending Fiction Friday

I’m strongly considering ending Fiction Friday. It’s a lot of work–only the Sunday posts take more time–for effectively no result: they consistently get no comments, single-digit traffic on the post itself, and Fridays are consistently low-traffic days. From this I draw that conclusion that most of you just aren’t interested–which is fine! Like I said, they’re work. I’m happy to do it if people are enjoying it, but I’d also be quite happy to focus those energies on other things if people aren’t.

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?

Fiction Friday: Faultless, Part 2

Continuing on from where we left off… wow, was it really a month ago? Bit of a short one, but this feels like a natural break point.

Content Warning: Child abuse/neglect

It wasn’t her first time outdoors, of course. She’d been in the garden many times, to pull oranges and avocados off the trees or smell the flowers or just feel the sun on her skin. It was hot out there, beyond the faint blue glow of the cooling spells at every door and window, and sometimes she just needed to be hot. She would stand out there and hug herself tightly and just let the sun wash over, beating at, imagine it squeezing its way through her skin and deep down inside. Sometimes for hours, if nobody came out–she had a vague notion that she was not supposed to go outside, but fortunately there were a great many doors between garden and house, and she could always get back inside without being seen.

But this wasn’t like going out into the garden. You couldn’t see anything but house from there–you could hear the noises of the city, and sometimes smell its smells, but not see it. Ghost found that these days she very much wanted to. Maybe it was from being in the cellar so long, but she had developed a powerful yearning to actually see the place in which she was, supposedly, growing up.

Of course, she’d watched people coming in and out of the house for years. She knew that you dressed differently for outside than in. She wasn’t entirely clear on why, but she could see what–going out meant shoes, and frills, and hats. Fortunately there was the ragpile in the corner of the laundry, where all the clothes that couldn’t be mended or cleaned went. Ghost had gotten her smock there, and the one before it. Before that she was fairly sure she’d been dressed by the servants, but it was long enough ago and she’d been small enough that it was only a vague, fuzzy notion. A lot of the past seemed to dissolve into those, sometimes very quickly.

From the ragpile she procured her secret treasure, her going-outfit as she thought of it, a broad-brimmed hat that had once been white, with a chunk missing from the brim, a pair of shoes that were only a little too big for her, and which she stuffed with torn and crumpled paper stolen from her father’s study, and a light, loose white dress with a broken strap, but she was able to tie the two halves together. The result was a little lopsided and too big for her, falling well past her knees, plus it was supposed to be belted at the waist and she couldn’t find a belt, but it would do well enough.

She slipped out the servants’ and traders’ entrance when no one was looking, and found herself on a sort of ribbon made of a strange rock, gray and pitted with other rocks–all smooth and rounded and in a variety of colors–sort of half-buried in it. Up the hill and to the left the ribbon split off a side-branch which ran under the house’s main gate–Ghost thrilled to finally see it from the other side–while the main trunk of it continued up the hill. Some ways beyond that, at least ten times as far as Ghost had ever walked in a straight line, was another house.

To the right, the ribbon–which, Ghost realized, could only be a road–descended to the base of of the hill, where it grew suddenly wider. From up here she could see buildings of all descriptions lining it, and dirt ribbons–roads, she corrected herself, or maybe alleys?–running away from it through more buildings, spreading out as far as she could see. And rising up from it came a blurred hubbub of noises, voices, sounds Ghost couldn’t identify, sharp cracks and creaks and a sort of rumbling undercurrent to it all where the sounds just gave up and dissolved together, and smells! Good smells, bad smells, cooking meat and baking bread and garbage and something not unlike what Ghost’s cellar had smelled like by the time she was let out of it. It was enticing and horrifying, inviting and lurking–but within all those things it was exciting, and Ghost was determined to experience it at least once.

She set off down the hill.

Dragons of Industry Minifesto

Warning! Spoilers ahead! No major plot twists, but lots of setting and thematic details.

So, since one or two people have asked about it, here’s an infodump on The Dragons of Industry.

Themes

There are certain themes I want to keep in mind throughout the writing of this series:

  • Diversity: A continent is a big place, with room for lots of different kinds of people. Racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity; gender diversity–not just men and women, but genderfluid, third gender, trans, and agender–diverse sexualities, diverse religions, diverse ages, diverse politics. Most of all, I just want lots of diverse points of view, because fantasy has been historically really bad at that. Which is why each story in the series will use a third person limited perspective with a different point-of-view character, even though they cover overlapping events and characters.
  • Power: It comes in many forms, and each of them will try to bend you to itself. It distorts, disrupts, destroys. To wield it is to be wielded by it. And yet the only thing that can oppose power is power… though not necessarily the same kind of power.
  • Apocalypse and Revolution: This is another reason I want multiple POVs, because of course these are both just words for “massive, rapid change on a large scale.”
  • Defying the “Great Man” Theory: Science fiction and fantasy are rampant with singular heroic men (and, occasionally but not often, women) who alter the course of history by ingenuity, pluck, power, and will. This is bullshit. I don’t want any Chosen Ones; just people, making choices, some of which turn out how they’d hoped and some don’t; it is the aggregate of thousands upon thousands of such choices, not any one heroic individual, that shapes the course of history.
  • No Hegemonic Masculinity: Since I want to talk about power and a multiplicity of perspectives, I decided to imagine what it would be like if no culture had ever associated power with one gender. So, there is no hegemonic masculinity in Dorn; different cultures construct gender differently, but none have a hierarchical notion that men are strong, women weak, or that showing weakness is unmasculine, or that shows of power are inherently masculine.

Magic

The original ideas for this setting involved something more fantasy-with-rivets, which is to say a system of magic that was reliable, dependable, and obeyed clear, precise rules. Meh.

I’ve revised that fairly heavily, so that magic feels more alive, more integrated into the world instead of the video game-like thing it tends to be in fantasy-with-rivets. There are two forms of magic, innate and constructed.

Innate magic is instinctive and physical, an inborn connection with one of the elements, which you can use to sense and manipulate that element; it can be trained to build skill and power, but this training is often quite physical and always more about developing reflex and technique than learning theory. Both element and capacity vary from person to person, with some people having such a low capacity that their element can’t be determined. 
By contrast, constructed magic is symbolic and cerebral; it involves channeling magical energy through runes or symbols representing concepts–both the elements themselves and the “verbs” and “adjectives” describing the intended effects–to create effects. Key here is that te sequence of symbols IS the effect, It just needs magic to being it to life. Still, you can’t just plop down symbols and push magic into them; it takes skill and power both, and since each person’s magic is innately tied to one element, certain symbols will he easier or harder for that person.

The elements are the traditional earth, water, fire, air, plus lightning, darkness/light (there is some scholarly disagreement over which of the two the element actually is, or if there’s even a difference), pattern, form, life, mind, time, and magic itself. Each also has associated concepts and personalities, though it’s not true that people with a particular innate element always have the same personality. 
Dragons and Familiars
Despite the name, dragons are not remotely like the familiar creatures of legend and fantasy. Well, not collectively anyway. Some of them…
Anyway, there are twelve dragons, one for each element. Dragons are the absolute paragons of innate magic, casting no spells, but each able to manipulate their chosen element with near-perfect skill drawing on millennia of experience, and they are also effectively immortal so long as they can bond to a human. The bonding is a process by which the minds and lives of human and dragon are linked; it only works with a human who shares the dragon’s innate element, and the result is that they can both tap into the combined power of both, though it is a rare human indeed that can make any significant difference to a dragon’s power. When a dragon’s human dies, or more rarely when a dragon is “killed,” the dragon reverts to a stone-like dormant state in which it is unconscious, sessile, and effectively indestructible until the next time a human of the appropriate element whom the dragon deems worthy touches it, at which point the dragon revives and bonds to the human.

Dragons are also the only ones capable of creating familiars, also called elementals, lesser spirits that bond to a human similarly. The familiar shares the innate element of its dragon and can only bond to humans of that element, and like dragons shares in the power of the human; the main difference is that elementals are generally in the mid-to-high range of human power, while no human has ever lived who could come close to a dragon’s power in innate magic, and only one or two master mages who, if extremely well-prepared, could do it with constructed magic.

The Setting

The primary setting of the series is the continent of Dorn, a large continent, with diverse biomes and climates. The far south is mostly frozen tundra, while the center of the continent is dominated by tall mountains and dark forests. West of the mountains is a great desert, and beyond that wide rolling fields dotted with the occasional forest. North of that is the Altavari Sea, and west and north of that is the huge, mountainous, volcanic, hot Northern Peninsula. Meanwhile, north of the mountains, southeast of the mouth of the Altavari Sea, are the rain forests of the north-central coast, fading into swamps in the east. South and inland from the swamps, east of the central mountains, are more plains, though less well-watered than the western plains.

North of the continent, forming a sort of blobby chain curving east and north away from the Northern Peninsula, are the Karaian Islands, volcanic and tropical. Beyond that are vast wastes of trackless ocean, growing steadily hotter and more storm-prone as one goes north, until at last one reaches a hot region of constant mist and storm where the wind blows and current flows only south. Those few intrepid explorers who have fought their way still further north tell grim tales of the Boiling Ocean, where sudden gouts of steam, invisible in the thick hot mist, can boil a sailor’s flesh from their bones, and ceaseless storms slash with wind and lightning at the hapless ships toiling forward into the unknown.

History

For most of human history, the most ancient of laws held: one dragon, one nation. To be bonded to a dragon was to be so overwhelmingly powerful that one almost couldn’t help but conquer everything until you hit the next dragon, not to mention being able to supply an army with familiars; as such, while there’s been some fluctuation of who rules what, there have effectively always been twelve nations in Dorn, corresponding to the twelve elements. Citizens of a given nation are no more likely to have a particular innate element than in any other nation, but since dragons and familiars must match their bondlings’ elements, and for most of human history the ruling class was defined by possessing dragons and familiars, their leaders have traditionally possessed a particular element, and this has impacted the culture and character of each nation.

In addition, there have been for centuries twelve international Guilds, each of which specializes in a professional associated with a particular element and with the study and exploration of that element’s magic, such as the Mages’ Guild for magic, the Healers’ Guild for Life, or the Sailors’ Guild for Water. Again, one does not have to possess the element in question to join or work for the guild, but they do tend to be one of the places for someone who has that element to work.

As said, this was the pattern for most of human history. Three major events have disrupted it, the first about 2200 years ago, when the Great Alliance of eleven nations banded together to destroy the Unnamable Realm, transforming it into the Glass Desert in a single night and annihilating its people. No one remembers any longer what it was called or who lived there, though some believe the scattered nomads who now roam the desert are descendants of its people; other scholars believe they are simply a mix of Tornik and Hologi who wandered into the desert or fled their from justice or persecution, and built lives. Regardless, it is known that once the Nation of Time was there, and as punishment for its crimes–whatever they might have been–it was destroyed and its people and cities annihilated. The Dragon of Time, Melkeledh, has never been seen by reliable witnesses since; legend has transformed him into a sort of dark trickster figure, a tempter who offers power for service, but always ends up demanding more than he gives. He is frequently referred to as the Dark One, as some believe saying his name can attract his attention. In addition, time-innates are now extremely rare–some say as a divine punishment, others as a result of some great magical working by the leaders and dragons of the Alliance, and still others that it was always so–and nascent wielders of its power usually whisked off to their nation’s capital to be trained in prescience and history-reading. They are in particular strictly forbidden to learn any constructed magic, for fear of what they might be able to do–or undo, as the case may be.

The second great disruption began about 1100 years ago, when the Alterian Empire began a campaign of conquest after its mages developed the first complete, workable system of constructed magic. The only realm actually ruled by a dragon, namely Empress, the Dragon of Magic, it expanded for centuries until at last all of Dorn except the Wannet lands of the far east, some of the Karaian Islands, and part of the southern tundra remained free. By 500 years ago, however, enough people in the conquered realms knew enough magic, and the dragons grew restless enough, to tear the Empire apart, so that eventually there were eleven nations once more, though many with quite different borders and ethnic makeup than before the Empire.

The third disruption occurred about 300 years ago, and has yet to settle down, when two events happened quite close to each other in time. First, Pryderys, traditionally the realm of Fire, developed the Firestone, an enchanted stone that released heat, either as a comforting gradual warmth or as an explosive burst, depending on the construction of the spells. Second, the Mage Guild announced the development of the first new rune in centuries, the Combine rune, a simple to learn and use rune which allowed one spell to be woven into another–an act which previously had required a complex spell of the Magic element, one of the hardest to master. The difficulty and power needed for a spell had always grown swiftly with its effectiveness and complexity, but the Combine rune circumvented this, allowing one to build a spell by stacking simpler spells atop one another. The result: clever members of the Guild of Sappers and Pyrotechnics invented the first magical assembly line and began mass-producing Firestones.

Even the most destructive Firestone came nowhere close to the power of a familiar, let alone a dragon, but they could be made in great quantities, wielded by people with neither strong innate talent nor long years of training nor a familiar, and used anywhere and everywhere. Suddenly, even though a dragon-bonded ruler could conquer basically anyone who didn’t have equivalent defense of their own, said ruler couldn’t protect them once conquered. A century of widespread chaos, war, and civil war followed, until eventually the eleven nations reached their modern forms.

Nations and Ethnicities

The twelve realms are:

The Unnameable Realm: Associated with the element and dragon of time, the realm was destroyed over 2,000 years ago, turning it into the great desert in south-central Dorn. It is still pocked here and there with great glass-lined craters where, it is said, the dragons did battle.

Alteria: Once an empire stretching across the continent, this realm still commands a healthy portion of northwest Dorn. Fertile fields and one of the most defensible capitals in the world, which also houses the headquarters of the Mage’s Guild, make Alteria still a military, economic, and cultural force to be reckoned with. The majority of Alterians are ethnic Alterians, generally brown-skinned, with narrow faces and longish noses, usually dark (but occasionally red) curly hair and dark eyes. The Alterian language is the most widely spoken in the world, being still the language of culture, trade, and diplomacy throughout the former Empire, and the Alterian faith is likewise the most widespread, teaching that the Dragons formed from the raw elements themselves at the dawn of the world, and created and shaped mankind to be their partners. However, people of nearly every ethnicity live in the capital and throughout the country, and there is a sizable Keiokarnan minority in the northeast and Tornik minority in the south–indeed, the Ackerbucht region along the border with Toftor is almost all ethnically Tornik. Realm of Magic.

Pryderys: Occupies the southeastern part of the Northern Peninsula, a hilly, volcanic region known for glass, olives, wine, and the mass production of weapons. Ruled by a Tarnic minority who conquered the native Keiokarnan majority (often referred to as “Keo,” because the Tarnic speakers who conquered them could not pronounce the “ei” sound and considered the long name unwieldy; today, many Pryderian Keiokarnans us the term for themselves, though the more rebellious, and any Keiokarnans elsewhere in the world, consider the term a slur) some 400 years ago following a war with Caertarn that went very badly, then declared independence just a decade later. Ironically given it is where Firestones were originally invented and mass produced, it is the only realm still ruled under traditional, post-imperial draconic feudalism, which is to say the member of the royal family selected by the dragon Lazukoazu is the King or Queen, with familiars issued to members of loyal noble houses. All of these families are, of course, strictly Tarnic. Realm of Fire.

Karaia: Occupies the Karaian Archipelago that stretches east and north from Pryderys. It is populated mostly by Keiokarnan people, who tend to be short, broad, and dark, with flat noses, wide faces, dark eyes, and coarse, curly hair black hair. Its people are considered to be unquestionably the greatest navigators and explorers in the world, and are among the wealthiest and happiest thanks to a massive trade empire built mostly on the luxury foodstuffs, textiles, and exotic herbs (both spice and medicinal) they ship around the world. Realm of Water.

Toftor: Occupies the southwestern portion of Dorn, the most fertile land in the world and largest nation in area. Toftor is inhabited mostly by Tornic people [I may change this or Tarnik, as they’re a bit too similar], who tend to be a similar brown to Alterians, but taller and with straight hair, ranging from brown to black (never red, unless there is Alterian ancestry somewhere in the line). There is also a small Holodni minority in the southeast of the nation. Toftor is ruled by a series of hierarchically arranged council; the landowners of each village form a council, which selects one of their number to serve on a county council, which in turn elects one of their number to serve on a regional council, which in turn elects one of their number to serve on the Grand Council. These councils act as both legislature and judiciary, while the executive function (which is mostly law enforcement, military, and tax collection) is handled by a professional, career civil service/military–each member has both a civilian peacetime role and a military wartime role. Nation of Earth.

Avaris: Occupies the western part of the Northern Peninsula, down to the isthmus where it borders with Alteria. The last part of the Empire to break away from Alteria, the Tarnic majority are still ruled over by a militaristic faction of Alterians. One of the poorest and most brutal nations, a place of sharp peaks and narrow valleys. Home base for the Guild of Airmen, the newest guild, which is still working on expanding its airship routes across the continent. Realm of Air.

Caertarn: The northeastern part of the Northern Peninsula, similar in climate to Pryderys but less fertile and more mineral-rich. A place of mines and machineries, which has taken to industrializing like no other nation. Caertarn is the original homeland of the Tarnic people, and still inhabited almost exclusively by them, although there are Alterian and Keiokarnan minorities scattered about; Tarnic people tend to be dark-skinned, tall, and lean, with dark eyes and straight dark hair. Realm of Lightning.

Tamryl: A quiet, neutral realm on the southern slopes and foothills of the Central Mountains, shrouded in dark forests. The Tamri people tend to be small, slender, very dark, and straight-haired; the beauty of their art is renowned throughout Dorn, especially their fashion and jewelry. Since they keep mostly to themselves, there is a tendency for other cultures to view them as “exotic,” “mysterious,” “alluring,” in ways that can be quite problematic. They worship the celestial bodies of Sun, Moon, and Stars. Realm of Darkness/Light.

Holog: The isolated and isolationist “barbarian” tribes of the far southern tundra, mountains, and highlands. Though the Holodni have no coherent nation, their realm is held together by a shared language, culture, and faith, the last of which is maintained by The Order of the Divine Crystal, who believe that in the beginning of things the universe existed in a state of near-perfect order, but one tiny bit of discord grew and grew until it shattered everything into chaos; the purpose of humans and dragons alike is to reorder the universe so that this time there is no disharmony at all. The Holodni are tall and pale, with hair ranging from white through yellow to light brown, straight or wavy, and blue or light brown eyes. Realm of Pattern.

Wannet: The great realm of the east, second-largest in the continent. The Wannet have possibly the most different culture in Dorn, mostly due to having never been part of the Empire. For example, they regard gender as a verb, and consider anyone who stays the same gender their whole life to be a bit eccentric, rather like deciding you love a certain outfit so much you’ll just buy five identical outfits and never wear anything else again. They also have a unique religion, not entirely dissimilar from the Holodni faith, but pantheistic, teaching that all things are part of All, and in particular humans are the Hands of All, tasked with the never-ending, always-in-progress task of endlessly shaping and reshaping the universe into more pleasing forms. Their storytellers, known as Shapers, are highly trained and highly respected. Like Holog, Wannet has no central government, but exists as scattered, independent settlements linked by wandering Shapers. Nonetheless, as the occasional Holodni or Tamri raiding party has found, when threatened the Wannet are capable of banding together and fielding a formidable fighting force with surprising speed and organization. Realm of Form.

Keioloaia: Located along the north-central shores of Dorn, south of Karaia, with which it has strong cultural, ethnic, and political ties. Keioloaia is a rather harsher environment that Karaia, being a little less hot but a lot less fertile, being mostly full of either rainforest or swamp. However, those forests and swamps contain many of the exotic herbs and spices which Karaia sells to the world, and the rough terrain make the country near-impossible to invade; even the Empire never conquered Keioloaia by force of arms, but instead by egging them on in a series of disastrous wars against their neighbors over the course of which they progressed from ally, to protectorate, to vassal. The country is mostly Keiokarnan, with small but significant Chennelish and Tamri minorities in the south. Realm of Life.

Chennelea: Located in more or less the center of the continent, in the high pine forests and mountains of the center part of the Central Mountains, with Keioloaia to the north, Tamryl to the south, Toftor and Alteria to the wast and Wannet to the east. A study in contrasts, it is metal rich and full of mines, nearly as industrialized as Caertarn, but also renowned for producing far more than its share of scholars, mystics, and teachers. The University of Chenm is considered the greatest institution of learning in the world, except possibly for magical theory, where it is at least rivaled by the school of the Mage’s Guild headquarters in Alteria. Chennelea is traditionally neutral in all conflicts involving its neighbors. Its people tend to be olive-skinned, with pale or brown, loosely curly hair and prominent noses. Realm of Mind.

Fiction Friday: Untitled

The Princess sat by the tower’s one window, chin in hand. Today was the day, it seemed–today she came of age. Which meant that today was the day her three years of imprisonment in the tower ended, to be replaced by something even worse: marriage.

It was not that the Princess was inherently opposed to marriage. She was sure it probably worked out quite well for some people, if they were suited to it and to each other. It was just that she was quite sure it was not for her, and definitely not with the Regent, who had locked her in the tower in the first place, precisely to ensure that he could wait until this day, then marry her and be crowned king.

After which, well, she wouldn’t expect much in the way of life expectancy, to judge from history. Which the Princess could, better than most, because although she was locked in the tower, she was permitted books, and over the course of three years she’d read every single one the quite extensive castle library had to offer.

The door opened. She stood, brushed down her dress, and faced the Regent. If nothing else, she had her dignity.

“Well, Princess,” said the Regent, smiling the same way he did everything, smarmily. He was, the Princess had come rather quickly to realize, more or less made of smarm. To wit: He didn’t so much walk across the small chamber toward her as ooze. “I trust you are excited for this day as much as I?”

She gave a small smile and inclined her head. “Indeed, my lord.”

He looked surprised. “Really? Well, that is good news. I’m glad you’ve come around and realized marrying me is the best thing for our nation.”

She laughed, a bright, crystal sound echoing in the dingy room. “No,” she said.

“What?”

“No. I will not be marrying you today. Instead, I will be removing you from power, eliminating the cronies and mercenaries with which you have imposed your cruel reign on the kingdom’s people, and either banishing you or having you executed, I haven’t decided yet.”

It was the Regent’s turn to laugh, though if anything, his made the room even dingier. “Oh?” he said. “You and what army?”

The princess turned and looked out the window. He stepped forward to stand beside her, creating a study in contrast: him tall, thin, and pallid as a dead fish; her short and dark. Three years of imprisonment with effectively no opportunity to exercise and little to do besides eating and reading had left her quite fat, but it had also carried her past the gangly, clumsy, spotty phase of late adolescence and left her with clear, smooth black skin and a body that fit precisely, while all that study had done wonders for an already keen and curious intellect. She had matured, quite simply, into the most beautiful and wisest princess in the land, and she knew the Regent quite hated her for it. Not as much as he was about to hate her for what came next, though.

He followed her gaze, past the city spreading out below the castle, past the high walls and shining gates that girded it, to the wide and fruitful plains beyond. And there they were, filling those fields, stretching out into the distance until they faded to the horizon.

“How?” he asked.

“I escaped,” she said. “Every day. Multiple times, some days. And I went out, and I made friends, and I asked them to come help me on this day.”

“Escaped..?” he said weakly, paling from merely dead fish to vampire victim fish. “But… it’s impossible! There is no escape from this tower!”

“I had everything I needed right here,” she said, picking up a book. “Over and over again, I escaped into these stories, so full of wonderful people.” She gestured out the window. “And in some of those stories I found other books, and tales, and narrative forms you have never dreamt of, and I went to all of them I could, shared in their lives, and gave them of myself to make them live. And now, they are here at last.”

The two of them looked out the window at them all, brave knights and noble rebels, rogues with hearts of gold and friendly witches, people armed with sword and spear and whip and hammer, gun and blaster and disruptor, angry revolutionaries and disappointed idealists, elves and fairies and dwarves and trolls and goblins and aliens and ghosts and vampires and humans and werewolves, rockbiters and Gorons, all the serried ranks of the armies of Fantastica and Emelan and Terabithia and the Republic of Heaven, martial artists and martial artists with power over the elements and martial artists with magic and martial artists with alchemy and ninjas and samurai and princesses! Princesses with bows and magic bows and crossbows, princesses with wands and glowing staves and magical lacrosse sticks, a small young red-haired princess leading an army of wild animals and Fair Folk, and a tall dark-haired one leading an army of elves and dragons.

“But,” the Regent protested, “they’re only stories! They’re not real, they can’t come here!”

A skinny redheaded teenager incanted something and blew a massive hole in the city wall. The army came charging through, while from the skies above–well, they were as full as the sky, full of schoolchildren on brooms and angels with fiery swords and efreeti with fiery everything and fighter planes and bombers and starships and starfighters and battlestars and starfuries…

“You poor, pathetic, silly man,” the Princess said, the contempt in her voice tempered with just a trace of pity. “You’re an evil Regent who kept a wise and beautiful Princess locked in a tower for years so that you could marry her and cement your tyrannical rule over a once-peaceful and prosperous kingdom. This is a story. We’re no realer than they are, so if I can go to them, of course they can come to me! So you see, I rather think the answer to your original question is, well, this one.”

And then the army of everyone who never existed swept over the city, and in less time than it takes to read this sentence, it was done, because of course this is the kind of battle that moves faster for faster readers.

The regent was exiled, of course, the Princess having wisely decided that starting a new, better realm with a murder was probably not the best precedent. His exile was her first decree as Queen, and her second was to abolish the kingdom and establish an interim government to oversee the reconstruction and ease the transition into a less authoritarian form of government, and so there would never be a third decree because she wasn’t Queen anymore, and of course having been a Queen she couldn’t go back to being a Princess.

After that, as she mused to the new chairman of the interim council, “I suppose there’s not much left for me to do here. It’s time I was moving on for good.”

“Really?” he asked. “But we only just got you back!”

“Well, yes,” she said, “but there’s in infinity of stories out there and only all of eternity to see them all. I really must be getting started.” She paused. “I rather think I won’t need the books anymore–I’ve had a lot of practice, and I believe I’ve developed a knack for it. Farewell!”

And then, with a wheezing, groaning sound, the woman without a title stepped out of this story and into another.

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.