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take the moon
Feb 12, 2011

by sebmojo


absolutely a trick

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magic cactus
Aug 3, 2019

We lied. We are not at war. There is no enemy. This is a rescue operation.

treat me pls

Path
Nov 2, 2010



gonna add on a :toxx: for myself

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007

Boom.



Week 428: All the Small Things
Your words were short; my crits are long. This week felt weak, so eat a dong.


The Sad State of A Fair
Thoughts: A story about how even the winning pumpkin in a contest was small and shriveled. Some amusing lines (“Unfortunately, no help for those children within The Rules and Recommendations…”). A bit ramble-y. A bit meh, because it just spends a lot of time reiterating the premise, but still impressive given the rule. Nice pun title.
Prompt fulfilment: Small thing yes, didn’t see verbs but then I also didn’t check that hard, but gj
Tier: Mid-low, might DQ


Questions
Thoughts: Yo quick thing I’m not an expert on ultrasounds but I’m pretty sure you don’t need to move them around inside the patient. Well, maybe I’m wrong! But that made me go “what?” which knocked me out of the story briefly.
Not sure what to say to this; a bad thing happens, and the character cries. A lot of time is spent on the ultrasound and dialogue itself, but I think that comes at a cost because there’s nothing to distinguish this character, or their relationship with Sean, or the doctor. It’s just very generic, and the prose is too functional to carry the story anywhere higher than that.
Prompt fulfilment: Yep, small thing was too small
Tier: Mid-low


...And There Will Your Heart Be Also
Thoughts: I’m not quite sure the setting, but there’s a magical realism here with literal empty hearts. I don’t know how useful the introduction is. I don’t quite learn enough about the heart-jars to understand how they work or their cultural function; the relevant thing we seem to learn is she stole one. The interjection about Pshtul and Feydka’s myth is not initially obvious as the relevant detail we need to obtain because it’s well-buried in the paragraph.
There’s another thing: I don’t know enough about the main character. She wants to talk to gran, but ‘why’ is not clear. She wants to truly know her: But why? The main character is not substantial enough; I think the fact that we don’t understand her motivation or what hearing the true stories changes makes the ending feel unsatisfying. There’s decent bits here and there: I like opening the heart-jar, I like the line “the length of a single fire,” as a culturally telling unit of time, but the prose doesn’t carry it. The better story is apparently the one the reader doesn’t get to hear.
Prompt fulfilment: Maybe? I don’t know what the small thing is, and I don’t really feel the unconditional love between gran and the girl.
Tier: Mid


The Galaxy in the Back Room of Grandfather's Basement
Thoughts: The highlight of this story is the cool moment the two characters have lying beneath this mini galaxy. It’s short but the image is extremely clear in my mind. The story itself is about memories and leaving the places that produced them behind. Some key details (hah) help build the location, like the box of dominos and the rotary phone and the carpet. The ending resonated with me, because I could sympathize with that feeling of closing a door I knew I’d never open again. What might improve it? It feels like the story needs more of Ashley. Perhaps it also needs more of family, other tidbits of memory tied to that place. Perhaps how the place changes with the grandparents missing; a lost presence, perhaps a way the galaxy looks different.
Prompt fulfilment: Yop.
Tier: Mid-high


a puncher’s chance
Thoughts: A gambler, shockingly, wastes all his money but keeps going. The… end. This to me was just such an uninteresting story. “Gambling bad” has already been told a thousand times, so this story only rises purely on its ability to develop characters, do something with structure, or by prose. The character is a cliché, and the wife is insubstantial. I don’t feel like they stand out as people. The structure is fine. The prose is good, with a voice to it. But for me, it just couldn’t carry it above the premise.
Prompt fulfilment: Nope. “Impossible but everyone believes in it” is contradicted in your very story. Hellrule failed (this played no role in judge discussions).
Tier: Mid-Low


Miocene Delta
Thoughts: Based on the brief research I did, I think your timeline is off. By the Miocene, cetaceans (I assume that’s what your protagonists are) would already have flippers; the transition away from legs was already done, and had been for like 10 million years. Also, the legs to fins thing took way more than a thousand generations. Baleen also probably evolved well after whales were already fully ocean-bound. It feels like a story presenting itself as realistic speculation on prehistoric life should endeavor to base it on a reasonable amount of researched evidence, and it didn’t feel like this did. You may protest, but there were other stories this week where the science did feel right, so I didn’t bother to do any research, whereas something about this one knocked me out of the story to go check.
Pedantics aside, there’s an attempt by this story to evoke a sort of romanticism for a past species and it’s songs about life as a couple of proto-whales get together, but it feels weak. As a story, it’s just, there’s no clams, but there’s crawfish, look, another proto-whale, later, they’ll have babies—so that doesn’t carry it either. I don’t feel the character of these animals. I’m not entirely sure what this is trying to do, but I don’t feel this as succeeding in speculation, a vivid moment, or a story. For a piece this short, I don’t expect it to hit everything, but it needs to do something well enough to carry it.
Prompt fulfilment: This sort of fulfils the hellrule (+/- 10my), but I’m not sure what the too-small thing is.
Tier: Mid-low


Case The House First
Thoughts: This is a rather long argument about whether or not killing a vampire is bad or good in this fictional universe where the goodness or badness of vampires is indeterminate. A lot of the intro could be skipped because you have the line: “Twenty-four and still living inside her mother’s cramped trailer. Seven other brothers and sisters. That quicksand feeling, never escaping the debt bog.” and therefore you don’t need the first few hundred words, or if you need a few of them, pick the minimum. (To be clear, that line was solid, and more like it could carry big chunks of the story in a much more concise way).
At first, the story seems to be making the argument against stereotyping supernatural creatures and introduces a moral conundrum, but it turns out the vampire was evil though as was going to eat them for breaking in so it was totally okay to murder her but whoops she was poor (that last part was spoiled by the title btw). The characters, already pretty shallow, don’t seem to learn anything. A lot of this story can be cut, and it felt like the plot took the least interesting direction it could have.
Prompt fulfilment: Yes, hoard is small. As for the hellrule, I didn’t catch the slipup.
Tier: Low


Enlightenment
Thoughts: The idea of enlighten it through algorithm seems like it could be pretty funny, but this doesn’t land for me. I think it’s because I don’t get a sense of much character in either person. There’s jokes, set up around the idea of generic ‘enlightening’ things just being fed as input, like duality and carving grains of rice, but most of what the character does is coding, which is very boring to read about. The moral of the story is… don’t overwork yourself. Eh.
Prompt fulfilment: …no?
Tier: Mid-low


The Oracle
Thoughts: I like the premise, which is cool, but the actual story hits like a wet noodle and the punchline is about the same. I think there might be more need to develop the apartment as a character, or perhaps the focus should be on the protagonist and learning about the dog. A lot rides on the punchline as it is, and I just didn’t feel it.
Prompt fulfilment: I don’t know what the hellrule means and I don’t know if you did either but the apartment was too small so I give you a ?/pass
Tier: Mid-low


What We Can Do
Thoughts: A literal underdog story. Everyone said it couldn’t be done!! And they were right, lol. So it’s a little life lesson, delivered adequately. The premise of taking care of the runt has been done a lot, and this story doesn’t offer much. The symbolism/message carried by it is straightforward enough to not invite deeper thought. The prose is fine, but it didn’t draw me in to connect with the situation. There’s not quite enough of the characters, and I think it’s investigating them in more depth that would make the story more interesting.
Prompt fulfilment: Yes
Tier: Mid


Muffins
Thoughts: The technical language in part 1 feels right, which is good. The structure of this story is well done: You tell the story 3 times, but each telling adds to a resolution. The problem here is I don’t quite get what’s going on with the octopus and the muffins. It’s some sort of kid toy, but it’s not clear. I get that the daughter used explosives in the muffins (creating those carbon tentacle arms that are so fun with reaction demonstrations? is that right?) so that Dad didn’t have enough but I don’t get how he didn’t realize he didn’t have enough stuff or whatever for his job. The lack of clarity here grind the story to a halt while the reader puzzles over it, whereas everything else flows fine.
Prompt fulfilment: Yup and yup
Tier: Mid


Zoetrope
Thoughts: Some characterization, a snippet that doesn’t quite answer the reader’s questions, but hints at interesting things and the nature of humanity, which is a very sci-fi thing to do. There’s little details where I feel like I know Brendan as a person (“…kept back in kindergarten a year,” and “Impossibly funny, in the way only children can understand”). There’s a good deal of little lines that carry character weight while also keeping with this sort of “writing an essay about history” tone which almost adds another character through implication. A fun little future-historical snippet. The ending is best if it ends with “anyone who’ll belly-flop on the grass” and I think the last line should be cut.
Prompt fulfilment: Yeah, guess it does that. And the weekly rule too.
Tier: Mid-high


On the Rim
Thoughts: The word “yah” annoys me, especially since they just said “yeah” so it’s not an accent. The story is annoying in slowly and unclearly reconstructing a spaceship accident. “He said a few more useless words before trailing off into silence again.” –this feels like you know the dialogue here is not doing much, which it isn’t.
““So. We just make camp for the night, and then follow the debris.””—the story should have gotten here a lot faster (and you are trying to tell a story, I think, with the way you’ve introduced the conflict and certainly aren’t focusing on a moment or characters). There’s not time to resolve the conflict, which is fine, but the way it’s partially resolved is by implying future character growth. Therefore, the characters here need to be developed, because they need to carry the story (the plot isn’t going to do that).
Prompt fulfilment: Sounds like the only thing here is something that is too big (the crater).
Tier: Mid-low-low


World in a Bottle
Thoughts: I appreciate the directness of the opener, but man, that is a stinker of a first sentence. “Theirs’s” proofread my dude. Feels like this experiment is very superficially thought out; it’s a universe under a glass dome, but are there not limited resources under this dome that might impede infinite growth without necessitating the cyclical slaughter (or flooding, one might say) of the universe to purge the inhabitants? That feels like something characters could talk about, maybe. Sadly, there are no characters in this story. The universe in a glass thing just seems stupid and unrealistic in such a way that it brings me out of the story; I don’t accept the story’s premise, logic and universe, so what happens in it has less weight. The story is pretty cliché in terms of scientists gone too far trying to play god and then hubris!! which I’ve seen a million times and this one doesn’t do anything special with it.
Prompt fulfilment: Yes
Tier: Low

Thumbtacks
Apr 3, 2013


Thranguy posted:

Thunderdome Week CCCCXXIX: A Space Wizard Did It


From the canals of Mars to the jungles of Venus to distant planets under alien suns, where space wizards, knights and necromancers battle with laser swords, slow knives, and energy whips: this week, I want to see some Science Fantasy .  Particularly, I'd like some postcolonialist Science Fantasy . Retro-tech, obsolete assumptions about the universe, psychic powers or outright magic are all welcome here.  Lazy colonialist tropes and detailed scientific technobabble less so, along with the usual rules against fanfic, erotica, etc.

You have 1912 words to work with this week. If that's not enough, you can toxx (charity or original style) for unlimited words.

Flashrules available on request.

Signups close Friday 11:59 PM Pacific Time

Submissions close Sunday 11:59 PM Pacific time

Judges:

Thranguy
?
?

Entrants:

I’ve never participated in one of these before and I haven’t written fiction in literal years so it’s going to be absolute garbage but in. Also flash please. I hope I did this right and this is the correct week, the Halloween stuff threw me

Sitting Here
Dec 31, 2007


BLO OD E M PR E SS

of

THUDNER-DOME







Thumbtacks posted:

I’ve never participated in one of these before and I haven’t written fiction in literal years so it’s going to be absolute garbage but in. Also flash please. I hope I did this right and this is the correct week, the Halloween stuff threw me

Yes you did it right, although minor crit, we're all trash writers here, so throw your wordsoil down unapologetically and with a mighty curse in the faces of the gods

Thranguy
Apr 21, 2010

Yes, the good words are gone.

Why are the good words gone?!




Thumbtacks posted:

I’ve never participated in one of these before and I haven’t written fiction in literal years so it’s going to be absolute garbage but in. Also flash please. I hope I did this right and this is the correct week, the Halloween stuff threw me

I mean, usually people just say 'in' and we assume the rest, but that'll do.

One of your main characters is The last of a long line or tradition

crabrock
Aug 2, 2002


Thumbtacks posted:

I’ve never participated in one of these before and I haven’t written fiction in literal years so it’s going to be absolute garbage but in. Also flash please. I hope I did this right and this is the correct week, the Halloween stuff threw me

yeah the halloween stuff is something separate, a fight for my honor :swoon:

Thumbtacks
Apr 3, 2013


Quite frankly I think everyone involved in that fight should also make their stories have no verbs, see how much THEY like it

I am also now realizing that postcolonial literature is not a good thing for me to attempt because I know absolutely nothing about the subject or important literature in that field and it does not seem like a smart one to just jump into so I am going to quietly skirt around that as much as possible.

crabrock
Aug 2, 2002



i do not think you understand what that word means

GrandmaParty
Jan 31, 2003

My LPth are Hot Garbage

Biscuit Hider

crabrock posted:

i do not think you understand what that word means

Shhhhhhhh you keep this up more people are going to join Team Bad Taste Applebee's

GrandmaParty fucked around with this message at 02:10 on Oct 23, 2020

Thumbtacks
Apr 3, 2013


I said I wasn’t a good writer I don’t know what to tell you

take the moon
Feb 12, 2011

by sebmojo


Thumbtacks posted:

I said I wasn’t a good writer I don’t know what to tell you

thought this was a story and the disappointment made me kill myself

magic cactus
Aug 3, 2019

We lied. We are not at war. There is no enemy. This is a rescue operation.

(subbing hella early cause I'm gonna be away from the internet all weekend)

flash rule: one of your characters is the best in the world/system/galaxy at playing a particular musical instrument
Word count: 1511

Homesong

It was still an hour to the broadcast but Fredrick couldn’t help but feel nervous, The way the stage light glinted off the camera lenses reminded him too much of rifle scopes glistening in the jungle, turning the moments before transmission into a miniature private skirmish. To calm himself, he checked the tuning on his senso-organ for the hundredth time. Conceptual stabilizers, disassociation engine, chroma wheel, input chords. Everything was in order. It always was.

You tensing up again? You’ve got to stop that, you’ll give yourself a heart attack.

Fredrick smiled slightly at the note of concern in Zizzle’s voice. I know. Bad habit.

This isn’t even your worst habit. Don’t even get me started on those cigarettes you smoke.

Hey, whatever calms my nerves, right?

The little man in his head let out a dry chuckle. Fair enough. Wanna do a quick senso-jam? Might help you loosen up the old noggin’, get you out of your head.
Good idea

Fredrick sat down at the senso-organ’s input chords, his hands naturally spreading out over the complex system of studs, his feet finding their places on the chroma wheel’s pedal board. He flicked his finger over a stud. A faint shape hovered into being in the space in front of him. His body moved on instinct now, pumped the chroma wheel pedals, fingers danced over studs in an intricate pattern, fleshed out the shape, let the concept build before stabilizing so that the whole thing hit with an overwhelming force. The faint shape passed from abstraction to more concrete iterations, building itself up in layers until he found himself in the study of his childhood home, saw the dusty sunbeams streaming in through the window, smelled the salty tang of the ocean breeze. The senso-organ in this part of his memories was a crude model, and he felt the conceptual resolution downscale as he traveled deeper into the memory.

Hey help me out. I’m losing data here.

One second. This should do it.

The faint suggestions sharpened back into concreta, and the scene took on a new richness and immediacy. The ocean breeze now carried with it notes of coolness, the sunbeam through the window gave off a distant warmth. Details like this would have been impossible given the bandwidth limit of human memory, but Fredrick’s detractors assumed he was working with a single brain. He barely registered the feeling of his fingers over the studs as he continued to flesh out the scene. Bookshelves and books sprang into being, with the accompanying musky scent he loved so much, a lamp glowed faintly on a corner end table and the chair in the study—
He frowned. The chair was the wrong shape. What should have been a plush purple velvet armchair instead looked like a crude piece of dollhouse furniture. He passed his hands over the studs in a precise pattern. Still no change. Engaging the full force of the conceptual stabilizers just made the ersatz memory more real. He felt as though he were being taunted.

Something is wrong with that chair. It’s stuck. I can’t get the concept to stabilize.

No answer from his homunculus.

Zizz? You there?

The scene began to downgrade. The sunbeam through the window turned cold, the ocean breeze stilled, the shape of things became infirm and mercurial again as they passed back to abstracta. The only thing that stayed solid was the false chair, seemingly sharpening in clarity as the rest of the scene devolved. He tried to call up the study again, pumped the chroma wheel pedals and re-engaged the conceptual stabilizers, but only the faintest traces appeared before him, and his chest tightened in panic.

Zizzle? What is going on? I can’t get anything to stabilize.

A familiar voice inside his head. Looks good to me boss, think you’re just stressing again.

As if to drive home the point, the scene came flooding back with a new richness, the smells sharper, the concepts firmer. Fredrick looked over to where the offending chair had been. The purple velvet armchair now stood in its right place. He let out a sigh of relief. Everything was as it should be. He let the scene dissolve and switched off the senso-organ, his mind still going back to the stuck chair. His train of thought was interrupted by the sight of a production assistant walking up to the senso-organ.

“Mr. Diptych? We’re on in 5.”

“Thank you.” Fredrick paused. “This sounds silly, but was there a problem with your homunculus sometime today? Memory recall maybe?”

“Now that you mention it, yes. I couldn’t remember whether I had written down an appointment time correctly in my notes, and my homunculus seemed to be late in confirming I had it written right.”

Fredrick nodded slightly. “I see. Thank you.” The assistant bowed slightly and left him to his thoughts.

***

Fredrick sat down at the senso-organ’s input chords again. Out beyond the stage lights, the audience waited, expectant. He gave a small wave and began to work, his fingers gliding over the studs, feet pumping the pedals. He started small. The faintest suggestions, little sketches of something bigger. He looked for a base to improvise from and called up the study memory again, sketching it slowly, piece by piece, all his focus on the senso-organ, the audience forgotten. A first rough layer to call forth the study, a second to flesh it out. This time, he selected the deep purple of sunset, letting it fill the sky of his memory, splashes and streaks of color hanging in the air. His attention turned to the armchair. Again that doll house furniture piece stood in its place.
Zizz what the hell is going on? That chair is still there. Change it. He passed his hands over the studs in a flowing sequence, silently thanking the audience for being too enraptured with the sunset to notice something wrong.

Can’t do that boss. The voice in his head was quiet but firm.

The hell you can’t. Do it. Now.

Sorry, “can’t” was the wrong word. I can. But I won’t.

Fredrick felt his body stiffen up, the fingers ceasing to respond. The vision he had conjured slowly melted away in front of him, until he was looking out into the audience. Their faces were blank, slack-jawed, their bodies immobile.

Zizz, what the hell did you do?

I didn’t “do” anything. Their homunculi did. Don’t shoot the messenger

What’s going on?

Did you ever stop to wonder about how we record your memories? How you can even play that instrument? Probably not. Thinking isn’t you guys’ strong suite. Tell you what, I’ll show you. Show you how the drat thing is meant to be played.

Fredrick watched his hands glide over the input chord studs, his feet pumping the chroma wheel pedals in irregular rhythms. Before him, a pulsating mass began to take shape. He watched as the mass began to split, forming smaller copies of itself. The blobs began to mutate, stretching out, developing features, legs, arms, faces. Fredrick felt himself pulled deeper into the experience, the conceptual stabilizers operating at maximum capacity, the disassociation engine fully engaged. He was a homunculi now, watching himself crawl around the richness of his experience. The conceptual shading was unbelievable, calling forth emotions he couldn’t even name. Suddenly, the experience grew narrower, defined. The concepts began to solidify, feel like a prison, and he strained to get out of them. His own memories were overridden, the conceptual richness replaced by rote. He watched his hands blur together as they passed over the studs in alien patterns, and felt a longing in his bones.
A line of little grey blobs began to march up to the stage, gradually coalescing into a single organism. The stage was gone, replaced by the pulsating mass, and as he watched the homunculi crawl homeward he felt a desire to go with them too. He felt something slip out of his ear and looked down to see a little grey man staring up at him with what felt like an expression of sadness on his face.

“Zizz. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know—” The homunculi shook his head and spoke softly.

“No. You didn’t know. The worst part was that you never even thought to ask.”

Fredrick watched the homunculi rejoin their home blob as he let the conceptual engine overheat, destroying itself. Zizzle joined the line without so much as a backward glance. As the two blobs joined he watched the scene around him melt away, to be replaced with the familiar stage. The audience was completely still, enraptured by the display. He wondered if they even knew what had happened.
The applause started as a trickle and built to a roar. Decades later, they would call this performance his magnum opus. As the spotlight shone down, he passed his hands once more over the studs, calling up the only image that had survived the senso-organ’s conceptual breakdown.

A crude little chair, like something you’d find in a doll house.

a friendly penguin
Feb 1, 2007

trolling for fish



In

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007

Boom.



In, :toxx:

Simply Simon
Nov 6, 2010

📡scanning🛰️ for good game 🎮design🦔🦔🦔


I'm in with a :toxx: because I'm not going to be restrained, I cannot be stopped

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



:toxx:

Tosk
Feb 22, 2013

I am sorry. I have no vices for you to exploit.



Never participated in one of these, but I've felt the creative writing itch, so I'll say in

Dr. Kloctopussy
Apr 22, 2003

"It's time....to DIE!"


I am in and I will charity :toxx: and no one will regret it more than me.

(just kidding, the judges will regret it more than me)

crabrock
Aug 2, 2002


In toxx, I'll write all Sunday

Thranguy
Apr 21, 2010

Yes, the good words are gone.

Why are the good words gone?!




Signups are closed. One judge spot remains open. Happy writing!

Weltlich
Feb 13, 2006


Grimey Drawer

ATTENTION WARRIORS, WHO HAVE DECIDED TO COME OUT AND PLAY: HERE'S YOUR TRICKS AND TREATS

Team 1
Trick – Are these loose candies Skittles, M&M’s, or Reese's Pieces? Who knows! Your story must end with a jarringly different genre than it started with.
Treat – SUGAR RUSH. An extra 1000 words for one story.
Treat – The house at the end of the street was giving out King Sized candybars! The team may write one extra story to put in their cheap plastic jack-o-lantern. One author can do it themselves, or it can be collaborative. It’s up to y’inz.

Team 2
Treat – Oh look, you got my favorite junk-food genre: Space Pioneers. Write a good story about hardscrabble life on the edge of the void, and pander to the judge.
Treat – A Bunch of Old Chestnuts. Have a callback to a classic ThunderDome story buried somewhere in yours.
Treat – Voidmart Val-U Brand Candy. Have Voidmart as a setting for one of your stories.
Trick – :iiam: You must write a satisfying mystery short story, but :ms: The butler did it.
Trick – ♫ Let’s Do The Timewarp Again. ♫ Your story must be written in a dialect of English predating 1600 AD.


Wait, what's that? I didn't tell you who got which tricks and which treats? Why, that's the biggest trick of all! You'll have to hash that out amongst yourselves.

Weltlich fucked around with this message at 02:43 on Oct 25, 2020

take the moon
Feb 12, 2011

by sebmojo


skinwalker
1900 words

Corrode past the silk. Strain to weave liquid glass in the space touch. The fugue's bleary eyes and lack of centre in the spool from cryo-cocoon. Coming out the fugue is when you need to mance, the haze aching away but not gone yet.

Given birth are you by Persephone's daughter. She found the ancient fields spun with dead ships like tiny constellations.

As if seeds scattered by some greater hand. Seeing in you the seasons, the summers that may bear fruit. She gathered and kept you in the Seedship she wove from chitin and gauze. Its womb plump with nectar and honey. You broke your bodies as you fed and they were re-knit in ashen scars. Scars that never saw the sun and so left frost trail lines marking your knees, elbows, hips.

*

The Mother rose from the plasma of young veins and found her way through twinings of soul to the heart of all things. Coupling by coupling she grew stronger until when we spoke it was in her frothing voice. And it was her needs that mattered to us. We severed ourselves from the weak and sickly. Butchered them as tithe for foreign lunar cycles. Moons of planets we couldn't pronounce. Long past clear speech. But our thoughts were the streamwater rush after springtime thaw. She washed our edges away, and we didn't care that when we spoke, we spat. We spoke in the voice of the Mother and it was our song and none could take it away.

*

Anaeen hugs her shawl into her as she listens for ghosts. She's forbore sight, veiled by the Witch, who's clambered around her face, its tail dug deep into her throat’s vein. Its pus now informs her breath, which is deep, drawn out as if the breath of sleep.

Anaeen may one day be Witch herself, for her will is weak. Novsih wine fuzzes out her system. Grandmother Serai says enough of that loses the battle on its own. But the swamp is cold, and she's all alone. Oft with her grandmother's whistling snores. They echo long off the thin walls of their barkskin yurt. The vines lashing the sunken boughs and hanging fern across the swells of murk are all she sees outside. She feels as if bound in place. As if she does not offer but is the offering. She scatters the crusty bread to the squelch below her feet. Saying prayers. Invoking for those dead in childhood or those never born. Those who'd never the chance to atone for their hungers.

None come out here. A Cutting is close but they fear this place. This is where the dead ripple forth from the water. Skitter their fingers across the surface like spiders. A tickling of her toes and her breath catches.

Something rises before her, splashing her in its ascent with cold, sludgy water. Its breath is hot and wet against her. The words rasp as if chunks of meat weigh them down.

[You are not Seerai.]

“Seerai’s dying," she says. "I seek to ensure her passage, so she doesn't join the Mother."

[She should have foreseen. She should have asked herself when she was strong enough to stand.]

Seerai didn't, Because she's no wish now to be apart from the Mother.

But to see what the Mother's done. The Mother is in the sky and the sky is nacreous with bitter smoke. Her heat seduces the dying. Grandmother'll bloat and fester. She is not the Seerai Anaeen once knew.

Because she'd made Anaeen promise, not with the dull, milky eyes of her age, but with the white of her youth. To caretake her from the Mother. I can't move off yet, she said, for I must raise you. Once you can raise yourself I will not feel the old pangs. I will feel new ones, and they will tire me.

Now, blind, the swamp spirit's hot breath on her nose, Anaeen wonders what she has to barter with.

"I'll keep this promise," she says, gagging with the parting of her lips. Don’t puke into the Witch's gut. Fighting. coming back. coming back, praise Hades..

"Not on her life." she says, "nor my own, but our whole line. You no longer need protect any of us. You may give us all up to the Mother and forget your part in our cycle. We will no longer bind you to myth. You will find oblivion again.

“My promise is to bear child and feed it to you.”

The breath on her mouth wavers, sweeps up over the Witch, who squirms, cold, clammy.

She counts to ten. The Witch releases her without love, but leaves a shallow bleed. Scampers back into the yurt. She presses her palm against the cut.

The promise made is now bound by blood.

*

Settling her grandmother's body into the swamp had Anaeen reaching for the Nohvsih wine. She slung it into her pack before food and water. Her clothes she brings on her back. There are grottos known to the swampfolk, where rainfall pools in solitude. Unstained by the foul murk of the greater glades. In those she bathes and washes her clothes.

Now she hates the Witch. Still walks with it, for you may not shuck a Witch before it's all used up, And the Witch still sparks with wriggling life. Besides, the Witch is proof of who Anaeen is, will lend her reverence should someone still bright see it.

This planet was all swamp and forest. The first ones parted the forest as they could and settled among it. Trees spiring into the black smoke sky wall the Cutting. And its homes, built in slabs of clay, seem as if they could crumble any moment. The Mother spoils the dank air's scent, once the thick pining of the flora's ghosts, souring it like milk.

Because this cluster of lives is long given to the Mother. Its denizens shambling, drooling, dead to the world. Snatches of these greetings and partings reach Anaeen. The Witch snuffles by her side and she wonders how such a foul thing can ever be charm..

"A Witch!" A boy’s shout. He scampers into view, gaunt, his tunic draped around him like a robe, his leggings near unseen. "A real Witch! Rutri talked about them, but I didn't think they were real." His voice drops. "It's bad to believe what people tell you now."

"They're real," Anaeen says. "They're not that great." .

"Here, girl," the boy says. Crouches, extends a palm. The Witch wanders to it in its writhing gait. Soon he's petting the Witch’s translucent hide. Anaeen fights the urge to recoil.

"So you're not promised to the Mother…" she trails off.

"Crea," he says as he strokes. "Only adults believe in her. It doesn't make sense to us." He glances around at the shambling lives passing them by. "Being out here creeps me out. Come on."

He leads her through a tangle of roots arching a passage that worms below the earth. The two bend to hands and knees, the Witch looking as blissed out as she's ever seen it. Its mouth is trying for a smile, the skin straining and tearing. Once more she fights back a retching. She doesn't look again.

They've emerged into a hollow. A thick lattice of roots lines the ground. A strain of sunlight peeks in through a haloed parting of leaves. A girl looking Crea's age waits there, draped in even looser folds. Anaeen pulls herself up and hears the scamper of the Witch behind her.

The girl smirks, "I told you." She giggles. Anaeen catches a look of anger on Crea's face. He flicks out a soft punch into the girl's shoulder as he speaks.

"Gloating doesn't become you, Rutri," he says. Facing Anaeen."What brings a Witch and her keeper out of the swamp, anyway?"

"I made a promise.". Anaeen says. “To trade a life for another’s safe passage.”

"I don’t know where you’d start," Rutri says. “Your womb’ll stay barren if you expect those of the Mother to help you.”

Anaeen shoots her a look. “How’d -”

"Rutri's weird," Crea says. "Show her your scars."

"You get one," Rutri says, and as she does raises her arm. The cloth of her robe falls to reveal a scar at her elbow, dead white against the pale pink like a bleached rose.

*

You still see the Seedship in your dreams. She left you here to be a thorn, an ache, to bloom into graceful carriage. You will live among the wretched but they will not know you. You will harvest what they sew. eat their food, drink their water. You will live. But you will stay free.

While Persephone’s daughter floats somewhere beyond the black sky.

After showing Anaeen your scar her Witch freaked. Leashed its keeper by the throat with its tail. Anaeen started to whisper out a collage of broken rituals through its skein of webbing, Beyond that translucent hide, beyond those guts, you know Anaeem's face was tranquil. No fold of upset below her crown. You've always noticed things like that.

You notice too much. You know what people are going to say before they say it by reading them. Seeing their emotions play on their faces like dancers. You are careful to pretend, for they are not like you. They are in the Mother's good graces. They will raise their children to love the Mother. The children will fight. They will lose. You know this beyond empathy. You know it because you see holes in them. Voids that will consume them as they grow. The voids will demand affection.

And the Mother exists.

It will happen to Crea, you know, despite his strength of spirit. The three of you pass around the bottle of Novsih wine. .

You don't want to end up alone. All else to the Mother but you. Friendless. Because you’d might as well still be in your cryo-cocoon, still floating through a field of dying stars. Anaeen is trying to make sense of her ecstasy. She says it’s clear in her memory, like a painting, with fine detail and intent. If I can arrange it right, she says, a spell to bear a child.

You think that’s crazy, your scar the seed of a spell like that.

You swig the Novsih wine. The colours of the hollow start to churn. The hazels and greens blurring into each other. Time slows, each word Anaeen says taking longer and longer to find meaning in your head. Aware of your knees, elbows, hips. The scars of your resurrection. For once you had a cocoon, and someone was there to spin its silk.

And soon nothing makes sense. You tug Crea's arm and float outside. The denizens of the Cutting shapeshift into withered ghosts. Faded eyes and gaunt limbs. They pay you no mind. You will be one of them soon enough.

Or so they think.

Crea’s eyes are the blue of orchids. They will lose their shine in time. But for now you can trust him.

And you tell him. About growing, about blooming. All that Persephone’s daughter told you in dream.

Because the Mother is an old goddess, and it is for old things to die. It is for young things to live. Because Anaeen’s words sounded like no childbirth spell you’ve ever known.

It sounded, to your fuzzy brain, more like cthonic curse.

Path
Nov 2, 2010



prompt: postcolonial science fantasy

degenerate stars

Count: 6264

Aníbal did not cry on the day her sentence was announced.

She did not cry during the many dry briefings that followed, or during the mornings when she sat beside the others in the prison barge’s frigid medical bay, even when the skin on the back of her thighs stuck to the metal table. She didn’t shed a tear when they brought sharp needles, and tried to force-feed her vitamins; she bit out at the nurse’s fingers instead, delighting in obstinance.

Bembe would always frown sideways at her when she did this, like some sad uncle, every line under his eyes set like hardened clay, threatening to crack. Like she was failing him personally by refusing to behave, to take it all with her back straight—dignity this and Aníbal, don’t work to prove their assumptions right that— which honestly, was a lot of hot bullshit coming from a man who she knew had once wedged the tip of a plasma-spear through a conquistadors jaw, ignited it, and then stole his boat only to crash it later into another, larger boat.

How did they say it? El que la hace, la paga, motherfucker. Or something like that, anyway. Aníbal’s spanish had been deemed satisfactory by nobody who mattered, and she preferred familiar Kʼiche.

Bembe. She hated that confinement had made him old. And sad.

Aníbal didn’t cry the evening when their doomed little crew was finally forced to board the ship that would ferry them and their false cargo up, across the stars and into the black, via lactea, to Xibalba. Nor did she after the first week, the first month, the second. Aníbal made herself a desert. She fancied herself a husk. She imagined her emotions as single strands of maize-silk, carefully separated, dried and set adrift through the vents that clunked and wheezed—spreading her grief out to the far corners of the ship where they could be overpowered by the kitchen’s burnt-spice smells.

Their tiny cargo freighter was officially named La Cuna, but that was stupid, so everyone else just referred to it as Ahuizotl, because it was leaky and taking them to hell. There were five of them in total; prisoner-passengers. The livable section of the ship not taken up by storage was cramped and annoyingly vertical. Five was a meager crew, even for a vessel that wasn’t locked into a destination, and attempts to empty herself aside, Aníbal didn’t intend to be a difficulty. Not to these people. When Nina asked, she helped make food, which mostly consisted of reconstituting very dry, very geometric chunks in bags. She played cards and dominos with Lady Yohl, who she had at first deemed too courtly for a rebel, but Yohl cheated at cards, and had a sharp smile that Aníbal liked. At Sacniete’s behest, she polished the surfaces of the immersive black divining mirrors that lined the claustrophobic solar until she got sick of looking at her own face, and of imagining what might be peering back.

And then, two weeks out from their destination, from their worst possible deaths, they ran out of powdered horchata, and Aníbal reached a limit she hadn’t wanted to admit to.

She tried to throw the pouch, but because it was a pouch, it went about two inches before floating off in the low-gravity. Aníbal stared at it.

She was not a child. Trying, by some of Bembe’s accounts, but not demanding. She was Aníbal Tecú Kan, she was the daughter of a calender-priest. She was a fighter, an officer, a killer— she was itzel chu’mil, one of the last degenerate stars to stand between her people and annihilation. Assimilation. She cut her teeth on blades of obsidian and white-hot plasma. She’d licked the blood from the cheek of the man who killed her mother, and spit it back at him.

She was being mocked, in some of her final moments, by the image of a cartoon cinnamon stick.

Aníbal decided that this was the perfect excuse to finally give up. The pressure of weeks came down crashing down on her like a torrent. Without ceremony, she dropped onto her rear end in the middle of the mess, gripped her hair in her hands, and burst, at last, into furious tears.

It was a moment. By the time she was nearly finished Bembe had found her. Silently, he limped into the mess and sat beside her, though he had to drag up a bench because of his knees. He’d probably waited outside the door for her to wind down, to spare her pride, even though hers was such a different beast to his own now. It made her feel like a child again, like when she and her cousins would crowd around him on the events he’d appeared, hungry for his stories and their possibilities. But Bembe had run out of good stories some weeks ago, and her cousins were all long dead now.

But their bones will be there. Somewhere, tombed within the halls of Xibalba. Chamiabac will have stripped them of everything else. We never even had time to make a whistle for Izlet, or Gaspar, or..

“It’s not fair,” she said through a watery sniffle, hating the sound and the words. Weak words.

“No,” Bembe murmured, eventually. “It’s not.” He stared at the opposite wall where Nina, the cook, had hung up a weave depicting burgundy mountains in lieu of a window, along with a spray of plastic flowers. To brighten up the place, she’d said. What a joke.

“This is never going to work. You know it, I know it, Sacniete definitely knows it.” Counter to their usual responses to ‘heresy’, the Inquisition had let the old daykeeper keep her yappy macaw. But even though when they left the bird had been in good health, Sacniete had found it dead on its back after the fifth day. Aníbal knew next to nothing about augury, or about birds, but did anyone really need to in order to read that sign?

“We don’t make it back, either way. We fail, they’re going to take it out on the dominions. Both of them! Xibalba and the crown.” And there would be more war, more sickness, more impossible choice. A little impotently, she mumbled: “..fuckers.”

Bembe rubbed his knees. He made a noise low in his throat that could have been chiding, or was maybe just early-stage emphysema. Then he said, “They might be inclined to show mercy... if we reveal the deception quickly, very quickly, before it’s too late. Not for us, but for everyone else. Xibalba is already a grave. Appeasement doesn’t come from suffering ghosts.” He tilted his head. “Or from converts.”

“I think that’s a tall order for a group of Lords whose favorite trials apparently include ‘house full of hungry jaguars’ and ‘ninety-nine humiliating places to hide a razor blade,” Aníbal said.

“Ah, well...” He massaged his sternum with one gnarled hand, still staring. For a second she worried that he had lost track of the conversation, but then he said, in a rare spasm of his old humor: “You might even get along, in that case.”

“Bembe,” Aníbal deadpanned, “I do not want to meet the space jaguars.”

Which seemed to both of them like a fair place to leave it. After a minute, he stood up, and went to collect her empty drink pouch, which was still drifting around the room with a kind of cheerful indifference. Overhead, the mess lights fizzled and hummed, spotted dark in places by little collections of the dead or dying firebugs inside.

“They’re our gods,” Aníbal said, watching him, missing who he used to be. “The terrible ones, but they’re ours. We’re supposed to be bringing them tribute. Instead we’re bringing them a bomb.”

***

When she was younger, it had been a frustrating idea to wrap her head around: the destruction that could be wrought from other people’s mistakes. Certainly her ancestors and their neighbors had been surprised too, when the Spaniard’s caravel came careening out of the sky and wrecked somewhere down in Aztlán. That was over a century ago now, but the embers sparked there had set off a perpetual blaze determined to consume everything in its path. By the time Aníbal had been old enough to pick up a weapon, those flames had become a smolder, but that hadn’t stopped her from marking herself in ash and leaping into the wind. And when she had been captured she had decided to fight, with whatever she had, right up until the very end. Whatever public execution, or trial, or example the crown would try to make of them. She’d never been good at quiet.

But no one had expected the Inquisition to set its sights on Xibalba. At least, not this directly. Xibalba was the place of fear. It was a crypt, an end, a punishment. A place for criminals, for prisoners, and for the dead alike. Even growing up with a calendar priest for a father, Aníbal had always thought of it as a locus outside of time; light-years away from home, eternal and untouchable. The creatures and beings that inhabited its shadowy, labyrinthian halls were death gods, they were demon lords. They were sorcerers, or something more, or something that never was, and they had decided a very, very long time ago what exactly their priorities were.

Xibalba had seemed untouchable to her, but that hadn’t been the case for everyone. Although for the most part the gods affected disinterest in the worldly suffering of their dominions, they still wanted for things. For bones and bodies, for treasure and blood. For sport. Appeasement. A cosmic cry for attention maybe. Aníbal hadn’t been born yet, the last time Xibalba saw fit to bring its wrath down upon the planet, but she could still remember the plague-scars one of her aunts bore, the insect tracks. So even through the wars, and the slaughter, and the missionaries, the dominions had continued to ship their tribute, their dead and their sacrifices to the heavenly underworld, and they did not suffer mistakes.

That was also the thing of it. The crown couldn’t have discovered Xibalba’s location without help. Not the routes, or the codes and prayers necessary to skirt a ship along the impossible edge of the galaxy; it would have been like trying to cave-dive, blind, between stars. Someone had ratted out hell, along with her people’s relationship to it. And she still wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Aníbal wished she could be angry with them. She wasn't unfamiliar with the Inquisition's interrogations. But she had fought and she had refused, and like with Bembe’s biddable dignity, it rankled. But she wasn’t angry. Instead, she had the sinking feeling that whoever they had been, their body was now one of many lying wrapped within the Ahuizotl’s hold, preserved and stuffed to weight with inert chunk plasma, and glistening matchlock beetles.

***

Nine days before they were due to arrive at Xibalba, Sacniete died.

She was very old, even older than Bembe, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected. Long-haul space travel was not easy on the body. Nina took it harder than anyone else, which surprised Aníbal, because she hadn’t known they were close. Sacniete had kept to herself. More concerning was the fact that she was the only daykeeper among them, and was technically the only one qualified to oversee her own funeral.

Like with everything else, they made do. Aníbal and Lady Yohl worked together to prepare the body so Nina didn’t have to. Yohl washed the old woman with a delicate care that might have made Aníbal feel a little jealous if she was more self-deprecating, and also the part where it was a corpse. They laid Sacniete out on a gorgeous blue cotton cloth, and placed a whistle carved to look like a macaw on her chest.

“Nina made it.” Lady Yohl said simply, when it looked like Aníbal was going to ask.

“Good timing.”

Yohl went to poke around the daykeeper’s room to look for other small belongings they could wrap up with the body. Books, or trinkets to take with her on her journey. Aníbal crouched over Sacniete, trying not to step on the funerary cloth with her boots. With some effort, she pried open the daykeeper’s mouth so she could place a piece of maize on her tongue, along with a jade bead for the toll. She stopped.

The daykeeper’s teeth were stained bright red. Her tongue was a swollen lump, and covered with little crimson bits of grit. Aníbal ran her finger around the inside of the old woman’s gums and came up with more.

You didn’t, she thought solemnly. And then, Why now? Maybe she’d been hoping her spirit would get to Xibalba ahead of the ship and skip all the drama.

Aníbal closed Sacniete’s mouth a moment before Lady Yohl returned, and watched as she deposited a sparse jumble of items onto the cloth. There was a large beaded bracelet, a small hide bundle (it was so hard to get real hide anymore), a book of dates, and a collection of stingray spines used for bloodletting. More than Aníbal would have thought the Inquisition would have allowed her to keep, but then again, they had said yes to the bird.

She picked up the bundle and opened it. Inside was a handful of tiny red seeds and a few scattered shards of quartz. Aníbal recognized them. Sacred, beanish tzité seeds, gathered from a coral tree, and used for calendar divination among… other things. There should have been two hundred and sixty seeds inside the bag, but of course there weren’t anymore.

“What is it?” Yohl asked carefully, watching her cinch the pouch shut and pocket it.

“Confusing. Annoying,” Aníbal muttered, starting to roll the body up. They were definitely committing a dozen counts of sacrilege, but she’d forgotten many of the practices, or had never been able to learn.

Yohl raised a brow at her and Aníbal blew air out through her teeth. “Do you ever get the impression that old people think you’ll just be able to pick up right where they left off, without question? Happily? Every elder I’ve ever met would have rather died first than give me a straight answer.” And maybe there was no real answer here, but it would have been nice. “So…this tracks.”

Looking thoughtful, Yohl pursed her lips. She carefully tucked the corners of the cloth around Sacniete, and eventually she said “I think..if there really was a meaning, or a test here Aníbal, then it probably wasn’t meant for you. You are not the riddle type.”

Aníbal asked, “What am I then?”

“Whatever the opposite of a riddle is.”

Later, the remaining four of them gathered in the mess for a more proper mourning ritual. Nina had been putting aside a few of the higher quality rations, saving them for an occasion like this, or as a plan for their last meal. Together they feasted on rehydrated squares of tamal colado and pouches of spicy, chemical-orange subanik. Near the end of the meal, Bembe produced a miraculous bottle of something occult and fermented, to no small amount of praise and wonder.

“Aníbal, your father was a priest,” Nina chanced, shortly after they were finished eating. “Do you remember, well... anything? Sacniete would have liked it, I think. She even said a prayer for her bird when it died, but I can’t remember what it was.”

Bembe was giving her that look again. Aníbal closed her eyes. She’d seized the biggest share of the liquor for herself while ruminating on the tzité. Nina looked hopeful. Yohl looked half asleep, and pretty. She shuffled through her memories for something, a little sluggish.

“..thrice embraced in the clouds, four times embraced in the wind. Thirteen times I stood up, to split open the malignant wind.” So much wind. No wind in space. A half prayer, half remembered. Her father had done it better, and had actually stood up. “I borrow you.” Something for Nina, kinder than saying who cares, who cares, the gods might be listening but the gods are going to eat us. “You who thoroughly embrace the spirit of Ix Uuc Yobal Nicte.” Something for poor Sacniete, who had given her the problem of seeds.

“And I hurl you… into the middle of the underworld.”

***

Aníbal knew there were rules for this sort of thing. Rules about when it was safe to look, and for how long—to spare the mind or the imagination, maintain some reverence. They had notes written in frantic sounding Spanish; explanations from some nice pilgrim who had made the trip before and had been blessed enough to return. Probably the rat.

The ship, made for hauling freight, had very few windows. Bembe, with oddly robust persistence, rounded the halls, making sure they were all shuttered tight well before they started their approach. A few hours earlier, he had taken her aside and asked her, gently, not to look.

Aníbal looked.

Kinich Ahau was three times the size of the sun she knew. It burned like a giant red eye in the center of a vast black nothing. Not just red, but a rainbow: rings of deep blue-green, flares of purple, and blooms of marigold yellow that seared into blinding white. Seeing the flares and feathers of color and fire made something in her blood leap, made it course like lightning. It was a kaleidoscope of a star, it was the heart of all creation. It was dying, and it had been for some time.

And hanging there, the adhesed iris of God’s great eye, was Xibalba.

Aníbal felt her heart drop into her stomach. The lightning sputtered out.

It was a station—no— it was a citadel—no—it was. A lot. The structure—structures, because there were many, had been built, or fashioned or had grown within and across the surface of a massive pitted asteroid. Smaller than a moon, the rock itself appeared incomplete, a snarling maw; like part of it had been blown away, but from the inside out. The city of the dead blanketed the surface like a colony of barnacles, hard to differentiate, squirmy. Palaces and mansions of pulsing rock and metal unfurled petal-platforms that became gardens, became docks, became ball-courts and arenas. Towering pyramids carved from mountains of oily bismuth stair-stepped into oblivion, a hundred levels high. Rivers of blood and pus spilled from corbelled arches in utter defiance of physics, and formed canals that bobbed with boats sailing sheets of skin.

The dominions had cities, they had many. Aníbal had only ever seen photos of Palenque before its glassing, but it had sprawled throughout the valley, a jewel of a capital. At the time she had thought the temples there must have been the grandest in all the world. But Xibalba was not the world. It was a thing outside worlds. It was a living nightmare, magnificent and terrible.

No wonder the Inquisition wanted to blow it up.

Intense pressure thrummed behind her eyes. Aníbal reached up to rub them, and when she pulled her fingers back the tips were damp and red. She watched as a tower erupted with breathless flame, and spilled forth a flock of bat-like phantoms that she knew from stories to be monstrous camazotz. They screamed and she could hear them, through the glass and through the soundless void of space.

She looked away, eventually. But it proved a little harder than she’d first thought.

***

The Ahuizotl docked into one of the impossible bays with an otherwise bizarre lack of incident. After witnessing Xibalba as a whole, Aníbal had at least expected an escort of screeching man-bats to meet them at the gate, but nothing did.

“Don’t take anything, don’t agree to anything, don’t even think about leaving the floor.” She told everyone when they had all gathered in the cargo hold, as if anyone besides her was going to do something very stupid. “The coffers and slabs are pressured. Once they’re detached, the timer is going to start running down, which gives us about forty minutes.”

There was a pause. One where another, less tired group of people might have asked her: Forty minutes until what? The daring escape or the beetle powered fission explosion? But Nina only smiled sadly, dressed for an end in fine pink cloth and many heavy, gleaming necklaces. Bembe sat quietly on a crate next to Sacniete’s shrouded body, which hovered on a slab a few feet off the floor. They’d all decided he would stick to inventory because of his knees, for as much as anything in this ruse still mattered. He seemed to take it well.

Yohl only grimaced, but about five minutes after they started to unload their first wave of counterfeit sacrifices, pulled her aside and said, in a low voice, “Aníbal, are you sure?”

Gods, she wished. She wished she had a better plan, any plan, that wasn’t practically the same as no plan. That they weren’t here, having to choose between dying horribly at the hands of their own awful lords, or dying horribly while they struck an unwilling blow to their people, just another nail in the coffin of their civilization.

Yohl stared at her, and Aníbal stared back, and it was probably a good thing she was going to die soon because her voice cracked embarrassingly when she exclaimed, “Absolutely!” and then stumbled down the ramp into hell without another word.

The bay was creepy, but also a little plain, all dark stone walls broken up by metal fixtures that shed clumps of wires in organic tangles. A dozen crystalline stelae lined depicting various lords of Xibalba had been raised in the center, and it was before them that they were to deposit their offerings. Aníbal, Nina and Lady Yohl unloaded the cargo without speaking, coffer by coffer, slab after slab. What should have been a trove full of gold, jewels, and spools of fabric instead contained many painted metal mock-ups, glass gems, and rigged corpses. The crown would never have wasted all that stolen coin and spice on a trap.

Fifteen minutes after the countdown began they were greeted by a demon Lord.

‘Greeted’ was a strong word. It was a hushed, sapling-thin figure, with emaciated arms that separated at the wrists into hundreds of straw bristles that were so long they brushed the floor. Its face was more of an impression of a face, like someone had smudged a few charcoal lines into the handle of a broom and called it a day.

It had an owl perched on its head. Everyone jumped when the owl clacked its beak and said, “Hail Ahalmez, Lord of Sweeping, Lord of Ash, Half of Ahaltocob! We welcome you to Xibalba, children of the sun. What a long journey you have had. No, no, don’t stop what you’re doing.”

For about five minutes, Ahalamez, Lord of Sweeping stood there, watching them deposit the coffers in quick but steady succession, until it finally approached the largest collection and made a motion with its bristles. The coffers and some of the slabs rattled. Then they sprouted tiny, hair-thin legs, all along the bottom, and began to march out into the dark hall.

Considering their current effort, this was somewhat insulting. The whole process came off as rather below a Lord’s station, and she wondered if it was more janitor than Lord. But when Aníbal ducked down to lift a box of painted shells, she caught sight of hundreds of razor-thin blades nestled between the bristles, and remembered Ahaltocob was also named the Stabbing Demon.

Twenty-five minutes. Ahalamez left without saying anything else or stabbing anyone.

Thirty minutes. Yohl and Nina stood by the Ahuizotl’s ramp, breathing heavily, sipping on packaged water with nervous energy. They were pale. Thirty-five minutes.

Counting to the beat of her own heart, Aníbal watched the last of the millipede-legged tribute scuttle away (they had started sprouting faster than they could put the packages down, which had been fun) and turned to face them. Her friends, her family. Thirty-three.

“Everyone get back on the ship.” she breathed.

And Death said, lightly: “I think not.”

***

Say, where is your head?

Say, what enters your eyes?

Say, what enters your throat?

Once, when she was sleeping, a spider crawled inside her ear. This was nothing like that. This was a lot worse. The voice, untethered, scratched around inside her skull, searching, like insects in rotwood. Aníbal forced open her eyes and gasped. So did everyone else. She rocked forward, nauseous, bile burning in the back of her throat. Slowly, her vision cleared, and the room and it’s new arrivals swam into muddy focus, She looked up with dreadful certainty.

“Bembe.” Oh, old man.

Her oldest teacher stood at the feet of the gods, hands clasped apologetically. He still looked so sad. On each of his shoulders perched an owl, talons pricking through his jacket. The space above their heads was a riotous chorus of flapping and falling feathers. Aníbal didn’t bother to look up

The multitude of birds spoke all at once. It came down on them like thunder.

“Praise Hun-Came, One Death!” clacked the owls. “Praise Vucub-Came, Seven Death! The first to rise, and the last to fall. High Lords of Xibalba, gods of seed and soil, lords of blood and dust. Hail. Hail. Hail.”

Hail.

One Death was a gilded scarecrow, bound in maize. He stood three times the height of a person, thin and robed in a rasping cloak of husk and mouldy silk. His head was a hollow, caved in like an egg, and the inside was a tiled mosaic of the sun. He wore a golden halo for a crown, flat like a coin and patterned with skulls, and from his six spindly arms dripped heaving pustules of fuzzy black huitlacoche,

Seven Death was smaller, and much harder to make out, even as Aníbal stared right at her. She was a skeleton, or many skeletons tied with lengths of catgut, but her outline gave the impression of a bird. She wore a mantle of blue and yellow feathers, and her skull was a snake’s. She twitched in permanent rictus, clacking. When the god moved clumps of dirt and insects dropped from the cloak, and were then absorbed, only to scatter again with the next cadaverous motion.

The snake skull opened, bearing rows of teeth. Seven Death said, disapprovingly, “We found your explosives.”

Aníbal nodded.

One Death tilted his cracked head in their direction. His voice like wind through the fields. “It would not have worked. Even if the man had not brought it to our attention. You should be glad he did.”

They were both silent then, and Aníbal was okay with that. Bembe stepped forward instead, and he frowned when she did, which was the easiest expression to make her face do in the moment.

“You know this was the right way Aníbal. Everyone,” he started, sounding weary. “This was the only choice. Xibalba is a part of us, Aníbal. And we have so few parts left.” He moved closer, lifting his head. “The Lords have witnessed our devotion. They will show mercy to the dominions if we pledge ourselves in service to Xibalba.”

“Service.” She said, flat, wondering when he’d slipped away from the ship, or maybe he had been summoned. “Always to someone else. Aren’t you tired of it?”

An old resolve flashed in his eyes. “Aníbal, you have never thought ahead, not once, not from the moment you were born.” He walked towards her now, the owls preening on his shoulders. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him angry, or close enough. She wished he’d been angry earlier.

Bembe stopped and tried to grip her shoulder, but she moved before he could, and he glared at her. “Your father knew. Up until his final breath, he knew when it was the right time to fight, and when it was to time to kneel down and beg the gods for—”

Beg for what, he didn’t get to say. Bembe stumbled. He shuddered. He sprouted. Branches, mottled brown and heavy with thorns curled out of his ears. They peeled out from under his nails. His eyes burst into fluffy, cottony white ceiba pods. His torso grew up, and his feet grew down, and Bembe rooted to the floor.

Aníbal would have liked to scream, but her throat felt full of splinters. Her limbs locked up, and she shuddered, paralyzed, unable to even turn to check on Nina and Yohl.

“There,” One Death said calmly. “There is nothing so lovely a mercy as the patience of trees.” He spread his arms wide, all six of them. “Now.”

Aníbal felt so stiff, so tired. Thirsty, and hungry, in need of rest and light. But she was also so angry. Angry enough to claw at her throat and struggle. No, no! She wasn’t going to be a tree. She was going to be a problem. “A test!” she cried, straining up, dumping whatever faith she had left into the hope that Death would listen. “I—demand a trial.”

Lightning sizzled in her blood again. Her ability to breath returned. Both Deaths stared at her as she panted and hacked up a leaf.

“You love play,” she hazarded again, swallowing air. “Right?”

“There is no prize we want from you, child. We have everything.” Seven Death said.

“Good.” She swayed up, refusing to lean on the Bembe-tree. Her thoughts raced, adrenaline filling her the way it did before a fight. “So nothing changes for you, but things can always get worse for me. And you want. So..a trial, a bet. And if I—if I win, I get the prize.”

One Death stroked a bulbous sack of infected corn at his wrist. “What prize?”

“The title of One Death,” Aníbal said, without pause. “I want your job.”

Aníbal waited. She expected them to protest, really. They always did the stories. But after a beat, Seven Death loped towards her, bones shaking, her serpent mouth split in a large grin.

“A trial. We will set your test,” Seven Death said. “But which?” muttered One Death.

Aníbal chanced a look back at her companions. Yohl had collapsed into a crouch, and was furiously shaking petals out of her hair. Nina was on the ground too, but her face was dry if flushed, and she was snarling.

They waited. The owls perched in Bembe’s branches thrilled. “Yes, yes,” the Deaths murmured. “We know, we do.” And together, taking a word a piece, they said: “Jaguar—”

“Oh for fucks sake.”

“—House.”

“Child, your task is this,” One Death said with obvious glee. “You will return whole, un-devoured. You will lose when the jaguars of Xibalba rend your flesh from your bones, and lap up your blood. They will eat you alive. Your companions will be planted in the eighty second garden of Cuchumaquic, and the Lords will feast upon the fruit they produce until the dawn of the fifth cycle of creation. Your people and their conquerors alike will learn the meaning of pain, for insolence and for treachery.”

Uh-huh. “Whole,” Aníbal repeated, processing a lot. “I keep all my meat.”

“Yes. Not a scratch. Not a drop of blood spilt. Or all is forfeit.”

“Fine.”

The room seemed to bow in. The clusters of wires flexed. It had already been dim, but the room darkened further. Her ears began to ring, like she was crossing into a higher altitude. Aníbal blinked. “Wait. Do I even get a—”

Forest. The smell of humid rain and rot. Her feet slammed down onto uneven stones, and she had to stumble to keep her balance.

“—weapon? Oh.”

She was in a cavern. Or a mansion, some vast inner courtyard where the sky above her was also ceiling, painted bruise-blue. The room was bathed in watermelon light, the kind you got when the sun set over the mountains, and when she looked up she saw trees in every direction, heavy green palms and budding jacaranda. A beautiful fountain tiled in blue and red trickled squares bubbled happily in front of her. The burble became a rumble. The rumble became a growl.

Jaguar House was indeed, full of jaguars. And she had been given a weapon.

A heavy, feline shape lept towards her on the right side. Aníbal gripped the handle that had appeared in her hand, and she swung it.

The macuahuitl took the cat’s head clean off. It hit the ground with a bloody splatch and did not stop snarling. The club’s prismatic blades shined in the warm light, and with practiced ease Aníbal found the switch that would ignite the plasma edging the obsidian and flicked it on.

Then she ran.

The forest came alive with crashing sounds of movement and yowling. Not usual for jaguars, which only meant there were a lot of jaguars. Fangs bit into the thick sole of her boot and she rocked forward again, yanked it back, and kicked out at the spotted cat. It yelped. Even though she wasn’t stopping to check closely, they did not entirely resemble their terrestrial cousins. She clocked crimson fur and bristling porcupine spines, front limbs that looked too long and thick. There were many. Too many to fight. Too many to run from.

She ended up circling back around to the fountain. It had five tiers, and Aníbal hoisted herself onto one, then the neck. Water soaked through her trousers, and it stunk like iron and cinnabar. She rolled herself onto her knees, and from the height, she watched as a sea of starving fangs bore down on her.

Aníbal reached into her soaked jacket. She drew out the hide bundle that held Sacniete’s remaining tzité seeds, and she poured every last one out into her palm. She shoved them in her mouth and chewed, until amber spittle ran down her chin, and her breath became short and thin. Grinning feraly through ruddy teeth, Aníbal wheezed, and tightened her grip on blazing macuahuitl.

The wall of space jaguars slammed into the fountain.

She died.

***

The first thing Aníbal heard after coming back to life was: “You cheat.”

“No,” she croaked doggedly, after a minute of wondering how to talk without air. “I suffocated, there’s a difference.”

“You died. You forfeit.”

Right, there was the protesting. “I’m whole,” she continued, sitting up. “With all my meat.”

One Death had drawn himself up to his full height. The chorus of owls had dissipated, not a fleck or feather in sight. Somehow, intrinsically, Aníbal knew the mass was spreading throughout Xibalba, tattling. She stood up.

Lady Yohl and Nina were still laid out beside the Ahuizotl, awake but confused, exhausted. But they would be fine, Aníbal knew. And she would be able to give them a whole host of new choices, of necklaces, of feasts and of stories. But she probably owed them an explanation first. Always the hardest part.

Yohl mouthed, What the gently caress?

Aníbal winked.

Bembe was still a tree.

One Death slammed four of his lengthy, jointed arms into the ground. The fungus jiggled, the gold clamored. The mosaic inside his face was going dark as the daylight tiles became stained with night, or maybe dawn. “Rotten child, imputent offspring of a dying star, you know nothing of this place or of its needs. Your people are a fading memory, your world is set to strangle itself before it can be truly born. Xibalba has no reason to honor this, to honor you—”

“Xibalba already has,” Aníbal said sharply, cutting right through the divine conniption, and all the other bullshit. She didn’t want to hear it. Not from her father, not from the Inquisition, not from Bemebe and especially not from god. “Because I’m still here, and I won. I hate you, and I hate them. And I’m dead, and so are you. So we’ll just see who wears it better.”

Deaths One through Seven stared at her with twin intensity, faceless, eyeless, pissed.

But Aníbal had really had enough of talking to monsters. She turned her back to the gods, and went to help up her friends.

***

Xibalba could really move when it wanted to, it turned out.

Earlier, far too many owls had announced to her that they would soon be within range of the Inquisition's frontier satellites, and that if they wanted to remain a surprise, they could divert into one of the lower heaven’s, as a shortcut, and because it would be funny.

“It’s fine,” she told them, even though she agreed it would be pretty hilarious. “Let them see us coming.”

She continued her walk through the garden until she made it to the usual spot. Bembe was usually happy to see her. He seemed to find being a tree agreeable, somehow. She’d stopped questioning it, because it seemed to upset him. She brought him stories instead. She told him about Xibalba, and how Yohl and Nina were settling in, and how the jaguars were actually quite cuddly if you remembered to feed them. He couldn’t see well, so she usually brushed over the way her skin was starting to harden like ceramic, the gold pushing up through her lips, and how she missed counting her heartbeats.

“It could be worse,” she mused to him. She’d taken to counting many, many other things instead.

A single seam split open in the bark. “You really didn’t have a plan at all, did you?” Bembe sighed.

Death said: “Nope.”

Simply Simon
Nov 6, 2010

📡scanning🛰️ for good game 🎮design🦔🦔🦔


Take the Stars
6000 words

My entire life, I had known that the stars were mine to take. And now, they lay before me, a field of ripe lights. Reaching out as if to pluck one with two fingers, I felt an echo of living souls in its radiance. Was this one orbited by one of the Sovereignty’s worlds, or by an Autonomous one? A billion dreams of order, freedom or anything in between?

The star burst. The souls screamed in rage, despair and disbelief as they died a nova death, then their voices cut off like the fire in the vacuum of space. Still, the echo lingered: thousands of wishes for a naive freedom, brought to their cruel but natural end, with only me here to listen to and disregard their fading cry.

At the distance of a space battle, it is hard to distinguish stars from starships. I should have known that the latter had lain between my fingertips - my powers of soul manipulation were far from strong enough to sense a planet light-years away. Scoen could of course do this, from his Sovereign throne on board the flagship that had just snuffed out the Autonomy ship’s star.

I wondered sometimes if he spent most of his time looking at the worlds under his protection, reading the collective dreams and desires of the souls on them, and basing his decisions on that. But just then, as if he knew my innermost ponderings, his voice in my head swept my melancholic musings away like cobwebs.

We’ve cleared the corridor, Silas. Are you ready?

My mind was galvanized by the warmth he projected into it. On the screen in front of me, I could see the silhouette of his flagship, the stealth generator swallowing the stars behind. I imagined us sharing a smile through the space between our ships. I was ready to take the stars, a gift the Sovereign had promised every citizen. For me, it would soon become more than a pleasant dream.

Great, he projected without waiting for me to put my feelings into words. The stage is yours.

I pointed towards the expanding cloud of space junk that used to be one thousand five hundred twenty-five souls on the Autonomy cruiser. “This is our signal. Take me to the moon, Rebecca.”

Our pilot knew she didn’t have to turn around to show me her smile, gave a thumbs up anyway and hit the thrusters. A sound not unlike the regular hum of the engines started to resonate in my ears; the souls of the Rebecca, the rest of my twenty heads strong strike team, and even my own, sharing a nervous tension, a fragile certainty of victory, as our sleek Drake-class shuttle plunged like an obsidian dagger towards the heart of the enemy’s defenses.

Currently, the unassuming third moon of Autonomy-controlled Mother of Pearl eclipsed the aptly-named white planet. Around it, the Necklace protected it with sparkles of superhot light. The Necklace was a band of artificial meteorites each outfitted with the heaviest duty laser cannons the Autonomy could build in this corner of the galaxy. It had long deterred the Sovereignty’s many attempts to harvest the Pearl. Until finally Scoen had decided to take matters into his own hands. Within hours into the siege he led personally from his flagship, he had deduced that the Necklace was controlled from the third moon. Just minutes later, he had given me my most important assignment as his apprentice yet: get a small force undetected into the moonbase, take over the Necklace, and win the Pearl for him.

His entire fleet, millions of souls, were only a distraction. Every time one of our ships blew up, I felt it like a punch in the gut, a slap in the face, a whipcrack on my back. A millisecond before, these souls had housed emotions, memories and hopes that made up full living personalities. With one exploding reactor, ruptured hull or critical engine failure, another beautiful tapestry of personalities was ripped apart, unravelled and dragged through the mud. Never the same, each of them unique and forever lost. The souls of course returned to the vast ocean of them holding the universe together, through their avatars Scoen, me and the other Empaths. But the people that used to be those souls? Scoen had always told me not to worry about them. With his Empathy reaching the farthest populated worlds, he would go insane if he let every death affect him, no matter if caused by him or not.

But I did not yet have his perspective, and something had always frightened me about it. These people died because of me, because I had not yet succeeded in my mission. And so did all the misguided Autonomy soldiers fighting a battle that would be instantly, decisively lost the moment I took control of the Necklace. This is why it hurt so much, but also why I let it hurt me so much. Taking the stars should burn your hand a little.

I felt Scoen’s Empathy focus on the moon. The Necklace’s cascading laser streaks began to form a pattern as our ship dashed towards them. They slowly opened up, and in their center, in contrast with the retina-numbing deadly corona around it, a black hole formed. Our corridor towards the moonbase, opened by Scoen’s iron grip on the souls of the defenders pushing their perception away from our crew. For a brief moment, not a single soul in the Autonomous army decided to look and shoot our way.
I knew it would work, and yet - maybe influenced by the crew’s less certain emotions - my throat hardened and my breath refused to leave my lungs until, finally, we were below their perimeter, and on the surface, and the unassuming base that controlled the entire Necklace sprawled before us.

We pushed the buttons on our enviro-combat suits that made the iso-gel spread from its compartments around our necks. It traveled up our throats, caressed our lips with a gentle touch, and further up, nose, cheeks, brow, closing over our short hair. Everyone in the strike team reacted differently to it, animal instincts impossible to override even with the most rigorous of trainings.
Raul, demolitions expert: he had been in so many rapidly expanding clouds of blazing dust, and yet he always had the nagging fear that the gel would invade his nostrils, suffocating him.
Irina, our best shot: her face had the same stony expression as it always had, but while the gel made its way up her face, she hardened the rock deliberately, for fear of showing how much she enjoyed the pressure on her throat.
Emile, who both loved being on point and his old-style shotgun a little too much: for him, the gel was like bugs crawling all over his skin, and he made no effort to hide the nervous twitches left over from his past.

Peter, Reiner and the rest…I drank in the emotions of all twenty soldiers under my command. Years of serving the Sovereignty’s military had not been able to remove their individuality. Each of them a unique, complex personality. And I would be the only one to know everything about them, including themselves. The love triangle I sensed between Raul, Emile and Peter would probably never come to light. And all the other souls among the stars above that died every second did not even have this small privilege: someone else caring even for a moment about their fleeting lives.

Scoen kept telling me that I needed to stop letting other people get to me like this. Being so acutely aware of everyone’s soul would soon destroy me if I didn’t learn to shut them out. I agreed - there were so many things I didn’t need to know about my subordinates. But wasn’t the power of an Empath just that, the ability to truly understand other people? Would I not rob myself of something incredibly important by putting on emotional blinders?

We stood on the barren surface of the moon. Another star burst overhead, souls screaming needles into my skin, and I focused myself on the task ahead by aligning my Empathy entirely with Rebecca’s soul - as our pilot, she had doffed and donned the iso-gel helmet so often that she truly did not care one way or another about the sensation. I made her calmness my own. Sometimes I wondered if that was one of the dangers Scoen always warned me about - being immersed into other people so much that you lost the ability to feel for yourself.

You all know what to do, I projected to the team. Once Raul has cracked this shell, we swoop in and get the pearl.

They nodded and their emotions aligned to determination and excitement; we all knew how important this was, and how great an honor it was to be on the team to carry out this task. I took their elation to strengthen my powers, and probed the moonbase for souls.

There’s not much personnel inside - I would estimate about fifty people. Unknown number of robots, of course. Nobody behind this hangar door - I pointed towards it - so this is where we’ll get in. Emile, you cover Raul; Irina, that hill over there. I highlighted it in her mind, and she was gone in the blink of an eye. The rest, shoot what moves. I’ll go in first and cause said movement.

They knew better than to protest me taking the biggest risk; not since they saw my reaction to losing Nassour on our last engagement. Yes, Scoen, I knew I had cared and still cared too much. But maybe this is what made me your best apprentice after only three years under your wing.

I know that you are all one hundred ten percent behind me, and you make me very happy. I let them feel some of my genuine emotion. We’re going to do this very quickly, win the battle for our Sovereign, and both armies get a well-deserved rest.

A silent cheer, and we began. Raul did his thing, and I strode through the debris, buffeted by the escaping air. The shock of the sudden explosion reverberated through the souls in the base; we had to be quick now. I took a deep breath through the iso-gel, which provided me with air slightly enriched with oxygen and other things to push my body past its normal limits, and directed my Empathy into myself. I became aware of every nerve ending connecting to every muscle, sensed every tendon’s tension, felt the minutiae of pressure underneath my feet. My weapon slid into my left hand, a thin grip molded for my fingers only, and I activated it with a flick of the wrist. A perfect-to-the-atom sphere shot out, connected to the handle with a wire thinner than a tenth of a hair. Along it, the stream of air and dust and rocks and other matter even present in the “vacuum” of space got its electrons ripped from the atom’s cores as the current began to flow, forming a uniform superheated plasma sheath barely thicker than the wire holding it in place.

Just in time! The corner of my eye picked up a change in the dust tornado around me, a barely perceptible increase in illumination. My hand shot up, angled the weapon it held just right, and the laser blast flying towards me got absorbed by the plasma, increasing the diameter of the tube and its temperature by a small amount. Another shot from the other side! I changed the angle and caught it likewise. Then two shots at the same time; I relaxed my wrist, and the turn of the handle slackened the wire, the plasma whip assumed its true, flexible form, and both shots were caught as it swept before me. I ducked under the next two, adjusted my footing slightly to become secure enough for the next maneuver, and pirouetted on my heel, cracking the whip to release the excess energy it had absorbed; a plasma arc flew out towards the source of the first blast.

The plasma burned its way through the cloudy air, and I saw a robot guard lose its head as the arc impacted it. Quickly, I had to sidestep more shots. I knew I could not keep this up forever. I bent my knees to duck under another volley, and catapulted myself up into a backwards somersault to gain some time. As I flew, I projected the suspected positions of the other guards to my team.

Irina’s laser rifle took out another one immediately, then the rest poured in and mowed down two more. I landed gracefully, saw another weapon raised. A robot finger curled around a trigger, it was too late for me to stop the shot. My eyes shot around along the path of the muzzle - Peter! I screamed into his soul to get down.
I did not know if for that one moment, I managed to control him like Scoen often did to people, or if he just had astounding reflexes. He dove forward, and the shot missed him by a centimeter. Raul blasted a thick hole into Peter’s would-be killer, and his relief was so palpable, I had to basically push it away from me.
While I was distracted by the wave of emotion, another robot must have snuck up on me. I sensed Rebecca’s uncharacteristic alarm just in time to reflexively move to the side, but the shot from the robot’s weapon still grazed my shoulder, rupturing the suit and taking some skin with it. Iso-gel immediately redistributed itself to close the breach, but it could not take away the pain, which made me stumble as I spun around. And came face to face with the muzzle of a laser pistol. I was off balance, my left arm without feeling. I would die from this shot, and my team would be outnumbered, without guidance or backup.

Empathy would do nothing against my robot enemy. But as I had a vision of a disappointed Scoen, I realized that Empathy could help me. I recalled exactly how it had felt when Nassour died in my arms, his trust in me betrayed. I took his shock and acceptance and my own grief, and these raw emotions washed away my physical pain. My shoulder screamed futilely against a cacophony of not again, the whip flew up with all the power my body could pour into a swing and then some, and the robot was bisected in an instant.

It was the last one. I gathered everyone and expressed my relief and pride. We proceeded through an intact airlock, into a corridor, and to our relief, the blueprints projected into a corner of our vision by the iso-gel helmet lined up with reality. With practiced efficiency, we cleared corner after corner - until I barked a Stop into everyone’s minds.

Ten enemies around this next corner. They are prepared to defend this point to the death. I expanded my Empathy further. I think these are the only soldiers here, the rest are technicians and service personnel. We win this encounter, we take the pearl.

Emile raised his hand, and I made everyone look at him. He gestured to his grenade belt, then to his shotgun. I shook my head.

I’d rather you not. He started to protest, but I shut him down. There is absolutely no need to kill these people. We outnumber them, they will see reason.

I made the Autonomous soldiers just a little bit more relaxed, projected as much calm as I could into their souls. I withdrew the iso-gel so that my face was without its weird sheen. Then I turned the corner, arms raised in a gesture of surrender.

“I am Silas, Empath of Scoen. If you drop your weapons, we will treat you as if you had always been loyal citizens of the Sovereignty.”

My brazenness startled them. For about half a second. Then their emotions surged, and escaped the tentative grasp I had had on them completely. An overwhelming wave of hostility crashed against me, and splintered a lot of my bravado. Weapons, already raised, were trained with intent.

The team had no Empath powers. But they knew me well enough by now to know when my body language projected “situation has gone tits up”. Emile hooked the butt of his shotgun into my shoulder, and with reflexes that would make any of Scoen’s Empath apprentices proud, yanked me away from the barrage of laser bolts cutting through the air where I had just been.

He removed his iso-gel as well, the skittering insects retreating. “Grenades, then?”

I squeezed my eyes shut so hard it hurt. Less than the mental uppercut that hit me immediately after. Another one of our frigates had drifted too close to Mother of Pearl’s orbital defenses, and the Necklace had obliterated it. Another three thousand two hundred and ten

eleven (air pocket gave out)

twelve (explosive decompression finished)

lives gone.

My hesitation. My fault. I trembled. The hypocrisy of my actions loomed over me. The closer a death, the more I felt it. Did I only want to spare these ten because I knew they would impact me significantly more than the thousands among the stars? Empathy could tell me nothing about my own soul, but I still knew that my deepest fear was having to take a life myself. Robots were one thing, but another human? Never. Not after feeling a life so close to me slip through my fingers, grasping a soul that just would not stay in its body.

Despite my short training, I was a fighting machine already. I had always been an extremely fast learner, and even when my life was still normal, that had often propelled me out of my depth. This now was my moment of having to perform in front of an audience a barely-practiced speech, coasting on my confidence bordering on arrogance. Realizing that my entire audience expected things of me that I did not even know were required, feeling the gaze of peers that I was picked over despite them having put much more effort into getting this position than I did.

And I still had managed to deliver a praiseworthy performance, my budding Empath powers allowing me to take another unearned shortcut.

Nobody would die here, and it would still be faster than a prolonged shoot-out. After all, I had felt the resolve of these Autonomous soldiers. If a grenade ripped nine of them apart, the last would still fight with all they had and more. And to prevent them from killing one of us, I would have to use my whip on a living being…

No, that was not it, I kept telling myself. This other way was simply more efficient. Faster. Less death here and in the space battle. I was definitely not lying to myself.

Start firing around the corner, I told the others. Keep them busy, maybe injure a few. I’ll work on their souls and make them surrender.

Emile’s raised eyebrows told me clearer than any words that he severely doubted the feasibility of my plan. And there was growing unease among the rest. These were soldiers - no, more. An elite strike team of the Sovereign himself. They didn’t do “surrender”. I had worked on changing their attitude, but apparently I had again overestimated my fledgling abilities. I was a whelp compared to them, barely any combat experience, no confirmed kills, and our camaraderie - don’t make me laugh. Rebecca looked worried. Irina had shouldered her rifle. I was too confused to read their emotions clearly, could only go by the concern on their faces. Seconds of indecision ticked away, and more people died in space.

Again, the only thing that could possibly pull me through this was Empathy.

I put on my sternest face, held up my hand. Affected a mask of heavy concentration. Then, when they had calmed down a bit, actually concentrated. Focused my Empathy on the enemy, but not to influence their souls. I let them get to me. Started caring.

This was Charly. She was a true believer in the Autonomy’s cause. Scoen, to her, was a tyrant who used his Empathy to bend the will of everyone under his influence. Resistance was only possible by staying fiercely independent, both individually and as a society. Nothing new, unfortunately wrong, next.
The next was Marcel. Very young. Had joined the Autonomy because of an unrequited crush. Saw the moonbase posting as a perhaps deserved punishment for a bit of a transgression towards her. I decided I hated him too viscerally after this seeing what he had done, and how little remorse he felt, to get anywhere with him.
Third in line, Michelle. Not a soldier! She was a janitor. But there had been a free rifle, and she really wanted to defend the Necklace controls. Her cousin on the Pearl’s surface was a subgroup leader of the fanatic - even for the Autonomy - sect of Anarchists, who scoffed even at the democratic government of the Authority, but were willing to cooperate as long as they had the common enemy of Scoen’s Sovereignty. Michelle did not share her cousin’s views, but cared about him deeply, and knew that if Scoen were to take Mother of Pearl, the Anarchists would be first against the wall.

I disagreed, we would surely offer them many chances of surrender and redemption in Scoen’s benevolent embrace. Beside the point, however. Michelle was perhaps the bravest of the ten standing against us, and galvanized my conviction to spare them if at all possible. I admired her defiance, holding a weapon she barely knew how to use. Still, she had one fear that made her quiver.

If we discovered the maintenance crawlspace that led directly into the control room, the ten brave defenders would be done for.

I snapped out of my concentration; the entire affair had taken perhaps ten seconds, thank the souls.

I know how to get behind them, I told my team with all the confidence I could project. Crawlspace, entrance - I dove deeper into Michelle’s mind, opened by her fear - back there. Raul, could you open it? I’ll use it to backstab them. When they’re pincered, they will have to surrender. Over in seconds, no risk, no bloodshed. You with me?

Emile clutched his shotgun like a life preserver. He glanced at his grenade belt.

“If anything goes wrong,” he whispered, “I throw three of these.”

I held everyone else’s gaze for a moment each.

“We’re in agreement then”, I said softly. Raul presented me with an open hole. Swallowing the claustrophobia of my childhood nightmares, I slid in, went up a ladder, and then I was in the ceiling above the corridor covered by the Autonomous forces. Wires threatened to entangle me. Poorly welded seams ripped at my suit. My foot slipped on something slick and wet, and then got stuck in something sticky. Sweat soaked my undershirt; I could not continue, but the foot was only part of it. I felt the tension between the two factions rise to an impossible degree. The ordered efficiency of the Sovereignty, every individual working towards the same goal of bending the universe to Scoen’s supreme vision. The raw and naive desire for freedom of the Autonomy, people who embraced their differences to prevent what they saw as a yoke landing on them. And me stuck between the poles, like a plasma particle trapped by the wire of the whip. Keep going, get behind them, make them surrender. Take the pearl, pluck the stars from the firmament! But I was paralyzed; before me, Michelle used her ideals to excel beyond her limits of bravery and competence. Behind me, Emile worshiped violence as the most efficient tool of subjugating dissidents.

I was doing the right thing by keeping Michelle alive at least, surely?
Another ship exploded. Another thousand…two thousand…ish souls screaming into the ether.
As they lashed me, I grit my teeth and forced myself to come to terms with my own arrogance. Scoen was right! Shut them out! Shut Michelle out! Go on, and just finish this mission, without distraction!

I withdrew my Empathy, dulled the screams of the dead until I could barely hear them anymore. Then I ripped my foot free.

Whatever had glued the sole to the crawlspace wall made a sucking sound, amplified a hundredfold by the narrow metal walls. I froze again. But I had just convinced myself that pushing on was the only way to go. One hand, one knee before the other. And nothing happened. I crossed the halfway point, and further still, and then the souls of the Autonomous soldiers were beneath me, and I just had to go down one ladder -

There were only nine souls.

My eyes widened, as did my Empathy. I frantically scanned the nine I saw clearly, but of course, the one I had shut out specifically was missing. Where was Michelle? Had her fear finally gotten the better of her, had she fled back to a janitor’s closet, to await our inevitable victory?

A rustling before me. Someone had heard my sound, and come up the crawlspace ladder to meet me.

Buoyed by my last decision, I lunged forward instead of freezing again, and my thin gloves touched skin, I grabbed Michelle by the throat and pulled her close and held her down. But in this combative embrace, our souls overlapped, the direct contact flooding me with her being and hers with mine. Our opposing views battled in our minds. But I was an Empath, she was not. I poured my resolve into her, used all the techniques Scoen had taught me, and overwhelmed Michelle. She froze, unable to move. But still, her soul resisted. It shone with a clear conviction: freedom above all, a goal worth having one’s life erased and forgotten as the soul went on to join their collective. She’d sacrifice her own individuality to protect the ones of her cousin and all the others in the Autonomy. Because she believed that under Scoen, nobody was allowed to be themselves.

I tried to make her see reason, showed her my memories of Scoen, how much freedom granted to the Empaths he mentored. But that just made her resist more, she tried to slip my grasp, utter just one sound, tell the other nine that she had stopped me in the crawlspace. She sent me an image as well: they had already raised their weapons to the ceiling - one sound, and we both would be riddled by laser blasts. My eyes widened when I realized that she had told her comrades to shoot her as well - and they would do it, so strongly shone their hate for Scoen.

I could not hope to sway Michelle. Her indoctrination too strong. My powers too weak. Again, I had reached beyond my abilities too quickly. I was not the best of Scoen’s apprentices - I was merely the Empath with the fastest learning curve. But in this situation, what did it help me?

Michelle’s mouth slowly opened. I felt her throat constrict, her vocal chords begin to quiver, about to form a sound.

Even during this fraction of a second, another two ships burst, spilling their human contents, releasing souls by the thousands to barrage me with the weight of my inadequacy. Another thousand, another ten thousand, another million - or this one?

I flicked my wrist. Silently, the whip sprung to life, and plasma went through Michelle. With a burning sigh, her soul escaped her body - and it stopped just before me, still touching my own soul, determined beyond death. Her indomitable will kept her from joining the souls’ collective.

For about a second. Then her fierce expression broke. Her face shattered into a kaleidoscope of sadness. It dissolved, and so did the rest of her, and her personality faded, her love for her cousin, her dreams of a Mother of Pearl free from the Sovereignty’s constant attacks, her hopes of using the money earned on the moonbase for a decent education, and so much more, her first crush her struggle with her self-image her first pet she had accidentally killed and never told anyone her deepest secrets her everything

gone


For this brief moment, I had become her, seen her full self, perfect Empathy, but I was only human; I could barely hold on to my own memories. Her entire life so far, same age as me, a young twenty, was too much. I could only remember her name, her face as it faded away, and her belief that burned so strong that she was willing to die in its own flames.

I grasped at the rest, but it was impossible. Michelle, the human, the unique person, everything she was, gone because of me, killed by my hand, the first time, the worst time, and only an infinitesimal fraction of her would stay forever with me. I knew at this moment that my life had irrevocably changed to the worse by ending hers, and this realization made me scream, a wail that echoed through the crawlspace, reaching both Autonomy and Sovereign soldiers at once, and freezing them like I had frozen before, as my Empathy made them feel the full depth of my despair over the loss of Michelle and my innocence.

But some are more empathic than others. All nine souls remaining on the Autonomous side were moved deeply by being forced to share my turmoil. Rebecca was too. Irina, somehow, as well.

Emile, not so much.

His grenades sent nine more souls to join the collective, but first they went through me, and I just could not deal with Charly and Marcel and - I blacked out.

☼☼☼

When I came to, Scoen filled my vision. He radiated benevolent warmth - with just a bit of an edge to it.

“Do you now realize why we have to close ourselves off to the feelings of others?”

I looked around; the team had carried me to the Necklace’s control room beyond the corridor. Sovereign technicians were hard at work to reprogram the cannons. No trace of the forty-something civilian Autonomous souls that had been here before. I let myself be lifted up by Scoen’s strong hand.

“One snuck up on me because I shut her out.” I knew this to be a hollow protest.

“And if you had kept it up, you would have killed her with no harm to yourself.”

I wrinkled my brow. “You were watching?”

He chuckled in the mirthless way I knew meant danger, but usually not to myself. “I would not jeopardize my best apprentice by letting him unsupervised.”

I gestured to the team, but Scoen shook his head and bowed down conspiratorially. “Empath issues need Empath supervision. What would these crude instruments of war know of our struggles?”

He patted my back. “You have learned an important lesson today. Don’t let it get to you. Instead, savor the victory.”

With a grand gesture, he turned away from me and towards the room. “All of you, we are going to celebrate! You have helped me pluck this pearl, a constant nuisance in my shell. The Autonomy doesn’t have much left. With this blow, they’ll crumble within months. Are the cannons under our control?”

The technician Scoen had addressed practically groveled. “Yes, Sir! Of course, Sir! We have already flagged the Autonomous ships as targets!”

Scoen’s smile could curdle milk. “Excellent. Well, there’s a way to see if you internalized today’s lesson, Silas. Everyone, please leave us.”

Our technicians shuffled out. The team, to their credit, hesitated for a tiny moment - Rebecca caught my eye, but then cast her gaze down as Scoen glanced over, and they too left. I felt their souls fade into the distance. Just me and my mentor in the control room.

“You know what to do?”, Scoen asked.

“Wipe out their fleet with the Necklace,” I managed to croak out of a desert mouth.

“Do you fear the hatred of their souls, Silas?”

Scoen’s too-wide eyes filled my mind. I felt the pressure of his Empathy on my soul. He would detect any lie. So I told the truth.

“No. They won’t hate me - just themselves, for having wasted their lives on a lost cause.”

“Good way to put it! I’ll leave you to it, then. I’ll join your team on their ship and watch the fireworks with them. There is a hunter waiting for you in the hangar you didn’t wreck after you’re done.”

He turned to leave as well. I knew I should keep my mouth shut, silence my own soul’s screams. But a tension like the one between Autonomy and Sovereignty troops kept mounting between me and him - and he must have felt it. I wanted to scream that nobody had said anything about eradicating the Autonomous fleet. I wanted to plead with him to spare their lives. But I was no longer a naive and innocent boy. So I said something that was just harmless enough to not make him suspicious of my devotion, but harsh enough to explain the tension.

“Was all of this a test?”

He did not pause his stride.

“It still is.”

And then he was gone, and I stood over the Necklace’s controls, and its guns were pointed at the Autonomous fleet. One push of a button, and I’d personally kill hundreds of thousands of people. They were far away from me, and with Scoen’s teachings, I would easily be able to shut them out. But instead, I opened my Empathy as far as I could. The battle between the fleets was still raging. People still died. Many of them on the Sovereignty’s side. But Scoen wasted time getting into position to watch laser blasts paint supernovae on a torn canvas of souls. He had shut those lives out as well.

I let my soul get buffeted by the blizzard of these deaths. I froze in the waste of lives on this and so many other battlefields.

Take the stars, Silas.

Scoen’s voice or mine echoing in me? The control room’s view screen showed me all the glittering jewels of the universe. Ships with thousands of people. Worlds with billions. My finger on the button. Snuff out this one, a ship - this one, another - this one, an actual star?
My powers of Empathy would only grow. Eventually, I would probably start testing Scoen’s authority. Ironically, I would shut himself out of my soul, and killing him would not feel bad at all.

But shouldn’t it feel bad every time?

He was still watching me, I was sure of it. He had given me the illusion of choice, but he was really good at that. He did it on a daily basis to all of his citizens. And he had made it clear that he would not leave this up to chance.

Someone else was watching me as well, however. Michelle’s face, with the infinite sadness of death chiseled into it.

I shut my eyes again. Stretched my fingers, let them rest loosely on the buttons. “Guide me,” I whispered. And did my very best to shut out Scoen as I let my memory of Michelle, her iron will, dictate the path of my fingers. The Necklace re-aligned itself again. All of its cannons pointed at Scoen’s flagship, empty silhouette blotting out the stars. I had aimed for the souls on board.

Scoen was now ready to watch the fireworks from the Drake shuttle, and watch them he would.

I opened my mind to him again, so he could have a second of seeing Michelle’s legacy, her conviction burning in me. Then I pushed the button.

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007

Boom.



What Lies Beneath
5799 words


Your plan is to get up early enough to beat the rioters to the streets, but even though you burn your tongue on your coffee in a rush to get out the door, the noise of the protests swells through the streets. As the pink light of sunrise mingles with the pink-orange of the street lights, the chants echo off the buildings. By the time you make it to Archmage Avenue, you can tell you’ll have to pass through at least one angry crowd. The drat tomb you’re excavating just had to be buried beneath the city center. Which, alright, yeah, it makes sense. The First Emperor wanted to be interred beneath his grand city. But it really is inconvenient given the current political climate.

At 3rd and Palace, the Praetor Mages are blanketing the area with hex spells, the streets exploding with white flashes while sulfur wafts on the breeze. It’s nice to see the silver pauldrons and blue uniforms of the Praetors standing tall before the white columns of Parthenon Center. It’s a scene that could have been painted a hundred years ago—those same silver pauldrons, those same sapphire-tipped wands, those same men and woman standing for civilization and empire. The kind of painting that inspired you to research the past.

The problem is the mob in front of them. They’ve been protesting for three weeks straight by now, waving about that stupid red banner with the scepter and hammer as if it was a historical thing, rather than a politically convenient fabrication. You want to tell them that they’ve made their point, and can’t they all go home now? At this point, they’re just alienating people like you from their cause. But you heard on the ScryCast that some of them have been throwing alchemist fires, and you’ve never been much for confrontation anyways.

Instead, you fish out your silver badge, the one with an “Authorized Personnel” sigil, and tap a spellcode on your gauntlet. Wards of light dance around you, which should keep the crowd away, and keep off any wayward hex spells. It’s a pain, because you need the full battery charge for all the research spells you’ll be using in the Tomb and the equipment down there has been running into glitches lately.
You wince and walk forward. You immediately feel claustrophobic in the crowd, the press of bodies, of flesh and sweat, of shouting and screaming—overwhelming. It’s with a gasp of relief you stumble up the steps of Parthenon Center.

“Back! Get back!” a Praetor roars, but you wave the silver badge, and one of them grabs you and pulls you behind their line.

“Sorry,” you say, but once you’re behind them, heading for the dig site, they’re not paying attention to you.

Another flash of the badge gets you through the basement cordon, and then it’s down the tunnels. Through the old sewer remnant, down a winding stair of the undercrypt where a museum plaque discusses the bones that are no longer there, then through two layers of rubble that were the city before it was razed and rebuilt, razed and rebuilt. The university had accepted that bottom layer was the earliest remnant of the city, but then Professor Cerulius’s team had uncovered an intact tomb below that.

There’s only one possibility in your mind. It must be the Tomb of the First Emperor.

Each time you walk through the door of the tomb, you hold your breath, gazing at the massive stone columns. The archeology team has raised the huge stone plug that kept it sealed with a complicated machine that uses hydraulics and runewords, and each time, you marvel at the size of the thing. For all that the Empire became, there is really nothing like the grandeur of what the First achieved. Before the First Emperor, there were hoards of nomads and hunters. After, there was civilization.

And here, in this tomb, you’ll find the irrefutable proof of it. Your light-spells have been dating sections of the tomb and artifacts within it, and the tomb predates the rubble above you. Already, you have two papers in the works, revising the birth of the Empire by about two hundred years earlier.

Inside the entrance is Associate Professor Ilati. When she looks at you, you get a twist in your stomach. She’s one of those… well. Under different circumstances, she might be waving a flag with the mob on the surface. You suspect she’s harboring sympathies for them. “Hello, professor,” is all she says, and then she gets back to her lichen study. You mumble a greeting back. Grudgingly, you have to admit that her research on fungal microparticles and bone fossilization might make big waves in the field.

You meet Professor Cerulius in what you’ve termed the ‘grand hall’—fifteen pillars support a massive section where thirty-eight skeletons were interred, along with grave goods. There’s also twisting stone reliefs showing strange scenes of events your teams are having trouble interpreting.

“The spined serpent represents nomadic settlers,” one woman says.

Professor Celurius shakes his head. “The nomadic settlers are depicted literally on panels five and six. No, I think the beasts here represent ideologies, which is why the—ah, Professor Minera!” He looks you up and down and raises an eyebrow.

“Didn’t beat the crowds,” you mumble.

“Hopefully the Praetors did,” he chuckles. “You’re in time for our next phase of excavation. Sebastia has her automatons digging out a partially collapsed passage beneath the third interment room.”

Sebastia, who has her scrypad in hand, looks up. “Right. We’re ready, then?” She looks bored by it all. She’d be happier at a tech-conference, but instead, her face says, she’s stuck here in a dusty basement with bones and excitable nerds.

Quite the expressive face.

“Go get, hm, what was her name again?”

“Ilati.”

“Yes, her. The ossio-mycologist. We’ll need her for an initial analysis of the remains.”

You make your way deeper, past the arboretum (full of magically petrified plants that glimmer with chalcedonic browns and reds), down another level where the bronze-limbed automatons have had to use their spade-arms to slice through a limestone boulder that came loose from the ceiling.

It’s by the broken rock you find the body.

At first, you can’t say anything, you just blanch and the words won’t come. The outside of you is numb, the inside a storm of blood and nausea, staring, just staring at this mangled corpse.

Sebastia comes to see what you’re looking at and blurts out, “oh gently caress.”

“Language!” says Celurius, then he sees the body too and clenches his jaw.

Ilati starts looking around, eyes suspicious.

“Change of plans,” Celurius says grimly.

“I’ll get the Praetors down here to investigate,” Sebastia says.

“Best we do. I wonder… could another rock have come down?” Celurius looks up at the ceiling, contemplating the jagged edges of it.

“You’re the geomage,” Sebastia says to him.

“Stones don’t tear people open,” you say. Even with your voice low, it sounds too loud to your ears. And it echoes, which makes your eye twitch as the silence of the others emphasizes your words.

“Another body,” Ilati says. She has her gauntlet raised and is looking at the readout of a bone-spell. This one is partially smothered by dirt, scratches and rough cuts all over his chest, the shirt torn, and the blood still red. This was recent. This was today. Your heart was already pounding, but it speeds up. You smash a glyph on your gauntlet and light the place up with a lantern spell, start looking around.

There’s a big statue of a beast looming over the room, half-covered up by the green-tinted cave lichen that’s all over this place. In its core are bones, partially exposed by bits of the torse having cracked and fallen to the chamber floor. The eyes and fangs of the statue are intact.

You have a realization. You page through the electronic spellbook on your gauntlet until you get the luminous spirit detector. There’s a residue, which means something animated by magic was here. It could be the automatons. But it also could be something else. A malevolent spirit, enraged that its rest of a thousand years was disturbed. The theory comes pouring out of your mouth.

Professor Celurius contemplates it. He says: “Plausible,” which actually gets relief washing over you, because for a moment, it felt insane to say. Sure, there’s plenty of stories about ghosts attacking archeologists, but only two documented cases. Ghosts just don’t tend to stick around looking for vengeance that long, but what other explanation is there?

It could be one of the people here, you answer yourself. But then you throw that thought aside, because there’s a paucity of evidence for it and furthermore that sounds even crazier than the ghosts.

Celurius says, “We’ll get the Praetors down here. They can call a necromancer down.

The others nod. You turn around and start heading back. As your light spell dims, the shadows creep back around you in a web. Twice, you see movement, but when you look, it’s gone. Because it’s nerves, you reassure yourself.

But soon, you’ll be back on the surface, drinking a soda in a bright room, and there’ll be a bunch of Praetors down here making everything right and—

And then you see the tomb entrance.

“gently caress me,” says Sebastia, and you can’t even bring yourself to make an inappropriate joke about that because:

The stone plug is closed.

The machine that was holding it up is shattered. Magical lightning is arcing from it, sparks sizzling from the cut electric lines. The hydraulic arms supposed to be holding the door open are bent and warped, and now there’s a colossal column of stone between you and the surface.

You all look to Celurius. He’s the geomage; he has to have a spell for this. He looks at the stone, then at his gauntlet. His face is placid as he enters in the numbers on the gauntlet’s screen, then his face crinkles slightly and he shakes his head. “I can’t lift it,” he says.

“gently caress,” Sebastia says.

“What about the automatons?” Ilati asks.

“They’re excavator-class, not miner. That’s solid gabbro, that plug, a hell of a lot harder than the limestone, and solid, as I just mentioned. I can set them on it, but that’s several days worth of tunneling, assuming their tools don’t just break on it.”

You check your connection to the scrynet. The gauntlet readout says: No signal. Too much rock. Simply calling the surface is out.

Celurius is looking pensive. He’s excavated a lot of sites, and his reputation as a world-renown archeologist means he’s got experience. You look to him. “Let’s proceed on the idea that we have a vengeful ghost. The spirit has to have a corporeal anchor somewhere in the tomb. We can go in pairs to find it.”

“If there’s a spirit loose, I can track it,” says Ilati.

“I’ll go with Sebastia,” says Celurius. “Keep a lookout for the other archeologists, and warn them.”

You hesitate, because there’s only four of you here, which means you’re with Ilati. You want to say something, like uh, actually, can I go with you, but the words stick in your mouth.

“Let’s go,” Celurius says.

He walks off, the dusty hem of his brown robes billowing slightly, Sebastia by his side, checking her scryscreen. An automaton comes out of the hall they just entered and starts cutting at the rock.

Ilati watches for a bit, then says, “That’s going to take more than a couple of days. Come on. There were people in the grand hall.”

But there aren’t, anymore. You both stand there, looking around, but the great hall is empty. The archeologist Celurius had been talking to about the relief symbolism left her notepad, but there’s no sign of her or the others. A worker had been setting up a scaffold so the ceiling could be examined in detail. He’s gone too.

You feel the urge to call out, but at the same time, like raising your voice might bring whatever horror is down here upon you. Every time you look, it feels like the shadows are growing.

At least there’s no more bodies, you think, and are finally prepared to let that absence relax you when you find the patch of blood. More accurately, your boot finds it with a squelching sound.

You’re standing there, someone’s arterial blood on your sole, looking at the rest of it sprayed on the walls, hyperventilating, when Ilati says, “I don’t think it’s a spirit.”

She’s way too calm. You want to punch her. “Really. Really? Really! Did you have a confession you wanted to make?” You don’t mean to sound shrill, but for gently caress’s sake, the dead people you’re supposed to study have usually had a good few centuries to cool.

“No, I’m doing basic loving ossio-spirit analysis. Ghosts cling to some aspect of their death, that causes lingering radiative emissions. And there aren’t. You’re a light mage. Can you detect anything?”

Your gauntlet is blank on readings. She’s right. If it’s a ghost, there should be a spike here. Instead, there’s just the usual scant signals of radioactive decay, the kind that means you can do carbon-dating. “It’s political,” you blurt out, because that’s the other suspicion you’ve been harboring. “Remember last week, someone snuck down here and spray-painted a red scepter and hammer? All those rioters in the streets. What if they snuck down here and started killing people? They can’t let us open the final chamber. We’ll find the First Emperor, and their symbol, their story, will be revealed for what it is: a fabrication.”

You hold your breath, waiting for the response. The other suspicion you have is that if there’s revolutionaries down here, Ilati is helping them. She looks at you, but it’s not a glare of anger like you expected. More like…

Pity.

You hate that. You want to scream don’t look at me like that, and your finger is twitching by your gauntlet, just waiting to cast the defensive light barrier if she attacks.

“Let’s keep looking,” she says instead, and turns her back on you.

You still have blood squelching with your every step on the stone floor, and you want to scream, but you follow. Your eyes keep darting around. The twisted serpent and thorn iconography was fascinating when you first saw it, but now it keeps playing havoc with the shadows as your light spell passes, stretching them out and contracting them like an umbral heart-beat.

“You haven’t been listening to the protests,” Ilati says, and the break in the silence is enough comfort that you decide to listen. “The myth of the Ostrauto is that their three prophets sailed their ship across a sea of stars to reach this place, and where they landed, God planted a tree that sprang forth with humanity. With the scepter, the three gave the world life, and with the hammer, they built the first city.” She glances back at you, then says, “Obviously a myth that old takes liberties with the truth. But it aligns with the archeological evidence better. Specifically, the radio-carbon and ossio-spirit dating in this tomb. It’s existence proves that civilization flourished, and then it was conquered.”

“There was no civilization before the empire. Just primitives.”

“Yes, I went to the same education system you did. I’m aware of the Empire’s origin myth too.”
That rankles, but you clench your jaw. Actually, it’s kind of nice getting mad about the crank-theories of a coworker, because that helps you forget about all the dead bodies.

“If this was built by the Ostrauto—a people who there is no evidence for the existence of—we should see the scepter and hammer plastered all over their reliefs. And it’s not. And furthermore,” you start before your own shrill squeal pops out involuntarily and you retch a little, dry heaving because oh gently caress another body. Crumpled up against a wall like something threw it there, which, it probably did, because no body missing the blood you saw earlier moves around under its own power. But the only thing strong enough to throw a human body is—

“The automatons” you both say at once, and there’s the sound of a spade chipping away at rock. One of Sebastia’s bronze-plated automatons is slicing away at a rubble pile, but you can see the blood covering the spade-arm.

“Sebastia,” Ilati mutters. “But why? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Celurius is in danger,” you say. If he dies, it’s going to be on the headline of every scrynet paper. Well, so is ‘archeologists dead in tomb murder spree,’ come to think of it. At least if you don’t make it out, you’ll be a headline.

“We should destroy it,” Ilati says, looking at the automaton.

“If we do, Sebastia will know we’ve caught on. She can detect their status remote. She might be waiting to attack again. Better she doesn’t know we know.”

The tomb is roughly split into three sections off the great hall, so you start hurrying towards one of the others. Your footsteps echo in chorus as you both speed walk until they don’t. You turn, and realize Ilati is looking up.

“What--?” you say, and then the alchemist fire goes off.

The ceiling of the hall comes down in chunks of limestone, but you don’t hear it. There’s just a ringing, and you’re blinking away dust and coughing, stumbling away.

“Ilati!” you shout, then go back to hacking up stone dust from your lungs. You think she was far enough back.

Then feel a tremor through the ground.

You turn, because you still can’t hear, ears full of shrill ringing, eyes watering from the dust and—

It comes out of the shadows like a spider lunging at its prey. You have time to see a blur of spines and thorns as a huge talon comes smashing down where you just were. The light barrier was ready, so you throw it up—

An arm, looks like its made of glistening bone, smashes the barrier, sends you reeling—
Coughing, you can’t catch your breath, you stumble-run, down the corridor, taking the twists and turns through the chamber catacombs, desperately recalling which passages continue and which are dead-ends, feel more than hear the crack of the beastal thing, a tangle of thick femurs and teeth, lunging after you—

You throw up another barrier, praying the charge will be enough, turn twice, zig-zag through shadows. You pray the thing needs eyes to see, douse lights, and stumble blind, smacking into a wall then flailing with your arms in front of you, stumbling again, then take the stairs down. The sparks of a broken automaton spit out flickers of light in the newest excavated passage, and it’s enough to see by, so you run.

Somewhere behind you, you hear the echo of the thing grinding rock, hear a screeching noise. You’ve lost it, for the time being, your breath coming in ragged gasps.

You never got a good look at that thing. It seemed to be made of a bunch of different skeletons, but the bones don’t match. What does that mean?

It moved a lot like a construct. Maybe Sebastia made it, which explains the bloody automaton from earlier, but doesn’t explain the broken one you just passed. Ilati is the bone-mage, and the thing looked like it was made of bone. And she did stop, just before the passage collapsed. Did she know? She was with you the whole time though. So is it an ancient spirit?

God. You just want to live. But leaning up against this ancient tomb, lungs feeling like needles, trapped by collapsed passages and immovable doors, you’re having trouble seeing a way out. You hear the… the thing, grinding its way through a narrow passage. Hear the crack of its feet on rubble.

Can it hear you breathing? Can it hear your boots crunching rock as you creep away?

You risk a dim spell of red light so that the corridors turn bloody. Here, the narrow passages are lined with decorated bones and reliefs of strange symbols and stories.

You’re in the part of the tomb no one’s explored yet. Except that’s not quite right, because the dust has been disturbed, and you pass another broken automaton, sparks dancing around displays of gilded skulls and engraved tibias. There’s some blood on the ground, next to it. Someone got a nasty cut here.

There’s three passages to choose from, and you hear grinding echo coming from all around, crawling up and down these catacombs. The thing is still coming after you.

The little drops of blood lead to one, so you go through. They dry out just after, leaving you lost again as the passages split again and again, each one a maw of shadows. Any of them might devour you. One of them might have already.

You want someone else. Being alone in this place, in this moment—it’s too much. But who could you trust? Any of them might be trying to kill you.

You’re assuming Cerulius is already dead, which is why when you turn a corner and see him it shocks you out of fear and into confusion.

The catacombs open up into a broad hall, and there’s two colossal stone pillars. At first, you think you’re back at the entrance of the tomb. There’s the same stone plug sealing the door shut, only this one is at least a hundred feet below the other and that tomb lichen isn’t encrusting the carvings. The hydraulic machine next to it is undamaged.

Cerulius starts when he sees you. He has a bandage on his arm, the blood staining through it. “Professor Minera?” he says cautiously.

“You’re alive,” you say. “What happened to Sebastia?”

“There was this… this thing. Bones, piloted by a vengeful ghost. It attacked us. I got away. She… she didn’t.”

“I think it’s coming,” you say.

He looks back at the door and says, “Yes. Rescue will come, we just have to survive until then. I doubt that thing can cut through this door. If we can get it open, we can hide behind it. And—and this is it, Minera. The First Emperor must be buried on the other side. To think, we’ll be the first see him in over a thousand years.” He looks back at you, suddenly concerned. “What happened to Ilati?”

“She died,” you lie. It falls out of your mouth, because you’re reconsidering everything. Cerulius didn’t make sense as a killer. He’s got too much to lose. His reputation, for one. And how could a geomage direct a bone-construct?

But your gauntlet has been picking up ambient readings. Bone lets off a distinct radio-magical signal, and your gauntlet should have gotten a spike, but as you glance at it, the line is flat. The thing that attacked you wasn’t bone.

And the alchemist fire. It was in the ceiling. And the tunnel that collapsed. That was rock. And most damningly, Cerulius said the front door couldn’t be opened, but here he is, saying he can open one just like it. It mostly makes sense. You see why those automatons were destroyed, even if you’re not sure how blood got on the other one. Your fingers start working through your electronic spellbook, even as the expression on Professor Cerulius’s face changes.

“Oh, I made a mistake, didn’t I?” he says. “Well, it won’t matter. There’s only one way out of here.”

You hear the crunch of the construct behind you.

You run at Cerulius. His eyes widen, and he dives out of the way, but he doesn’t realize you don’t have a single drat spell that can be used as a weapon. You’re not aiming for him. You’re aiming for the machine.

You yank one of the power cables out of the box and jam it into your gauntlet. Your gauntlet battery was too low, but this machine, if it has enough juice to open a multi-ton door, it’s going to have enough power to keep you alive.

You hold up your gauntlet and let a full barrier spell burst forth. The light blossoms forth, scintillating as a sphere. The massive stone talon of the construct comes smashing down, but the barrier holds.

Cerulius lets out a relieved chuckle. “Well, that’s very clever, professor, but my little pet here is based off a semi-autonomous military weapon, and it has magical batteries that will outlast yours. It won’t even slow me down from opening the tomb, since I can just use it to power the machine.”

The stone construct rains blows down on the barrier. The battery readout on the machine starts draining with each smash. Up close, you can see the machinery in this thing now. It’s made of polished calcite so that the rock looks like bone, which sheathes the mechanical parts.

78%.

Two arms come battering down, then a leg stabs at the barrier. The stone chips, the light-wall flickers. It’s strange to think about. Now that you understand what it is, the terror isn’t as crippling. Or maybe there’s just a point past fear.

65%.

“I do feel really bad about this, you know. I know that’s probably not much comfort.”

60%.

“That will be such an interesting footnote in the history book. ‘During the discovery of the First Emperor’s Tomb, a previously-well regarded professor murdered his entire team because he was a goddamn psychopath.’

“Language,” he mutters. Then, “That’s not how they’ll write the history. They’ll open this place up, and I’ll tell them about the ancient curse that killed you all. The investigation won’t find anything that contradicts it. And I’ll be the sole hero who solved the curse and opened the tomb. I would have thought, as an archeologist, you’d understand.”

CRACK!

53%.


“No one remembers the assistants who help with the great scientific discovery. No one remembers the advisors who instructed their emperors to victory. My name will be eternally joined with the First Emperor himself. I will be remembered, and there are few people that have existed that can honestly say that.”

42%. The barrier flashes, flashes again. You cringe each time the blows rain down. You’re scrolling through your spellbook again, trying to find something. Light magic has so many powerful combat spells, but none of them are programmed in your gauntlet because you were expecting to date bones today, not fight for your life.

“Maybe after all the history books are written, some enterprising amateur will find an old clue, but by then, he’ll have to overcome the hearts and minds of a million school children, the entrenched department heads of a dozen universities, and—most implausibly—the textbook companies to rewrite history and tear down an imperial hero. Not likely.”

38%.

You’re only half-listening, but you don’t like what you’re hearing. History is supposed to be the truth of what happened, and here’s the most renown historian in the empire telling you that doesn’t matter. Even if he is a psychotic murderer, the least he could be telling you is that it was benefiting the field. It’s almost worse than being bludgeoned to death by a giant limestone military golem.

20%. Battery will be depleted soon.

You’re about to give up hope, and then you see movement out of the corner of your eye, from the back of the hall by the catacombs. Skeletons, taken from their interment and held together by fungal hyphae. A lot of them.

8%.

“gently caress you,” you tell Cerulius. “History will remember you a shithead who murdered a bunch of innocents.”

Language! You know, I never knew you had such a foul mouth, professor.”

3%. Battery critically low.

You laugh at the absurdity of it. It’s fine to murder a bunch of your colleagues, but God forbid anyone swear about it.

But more importantly, he’s looking at you. He’s not looking behind him. Looking right at you as you cast an emergency flare spell.

There’s no zero percent, the barrier just dies, but you were ready with eyes closed, and you dive out of the way as the talon meant for you spears the machine. There’s a hiss and sparking.

You blink, trying to clear your vision of the red afterglow, and see Ilati is marching his fungus-adorned skeletons forward. Two of them tackle Cerulius and then they hack off his forearm, taking the gauntlet with it. The others charge the construct, which starts smashing them apart.

“Here!” Ilati says, and the skeleton throws you Cerulius’s forearm.

You recoil as the blood spatters everywhere, and dry heave a little, then duck behind a rock and try and figure out where the turn off evil stone construct command is.

Professor Cerulius is too busy screaming as he exsanguinates to be of much help.

Even as the skeletons are all battered to hell, shattered into splintered rib cages and sundered femurs, they leave behind a little gift on the construct. The hyphae cling to the stone and start to burrow into it. Who would have thought lichen research would have combat applications against stone golems? you think in awe, and then to snap back to looking at the gauntlet—little hard to focus on the screen with the blood still leaking out of Cerulius’s still-warm forearm and the screeching and stone-cracking—and you realize that Professor Cerulius has never organized his file-folders in his life. He has his grandson’s pictures saved in a special folder in ‘Recent Communications’ and his ‘To-Do’ list next to his spellbook, which would all be very funny except you need to turn this golem off before it murders you and—

There!

It was in the ‘Downloads’ folder, because of course it was. You open the program—

The construct sends two more skeletons flying, talons spearing out. One of them tumbles past you. As it fights, it stumbles backwards over Cerulius and his screams stop with a wet crunch.

—and terminate the spell. The golem goes silent, just as Ilati is down to her last three skeletons. You throw down the gauntlet, and remember that you need to breathe.

“It’s off?” Ilati asks.

“Yeah,” you say. “gently caress. Give me a moment.”

“Take your time,” she says.

“Wow,” you say, still vibrating. “That was a lot of skeletons. Classic necromancer stuff right there, except—well you did it with fungus. And how--?”

“The power generator from the front door mechanism.” You realizes she’s got a big-rear end battery strapped to her back. “I saw that thing through the rubble when it first attacked you, knew I’d need a power source that wasn’t a joke. poo poo. That… I can’t believe it. That rear end in a top hat wanted to kill us all just so he didn’t have to share authorship on the archeology papers?”

“And he was willing to rewrite history,” you say, because that’s still bothering you a lot.

Ilati waves her hand. “That’s just how imperial powers maintain popular support. You have to create a narrative that reinforces—well. I guess we’ll see who’s right. And to be clear: Coauthors, right?”

“Yeah. Coauthors.” You shake on it, and then you burst into tears and hug her because—holy poo poo. “Sorry,” you say as she sort of awkwardly pats you on the back.

“No, no, it’s… it’s fine. I just—yeah I don’t know what the appropriate response is to that.”

You’re standing next to a military golem, the white corpse of your boss lying in a puddle of fresh blood, and there’s thousand-year old skeletons in front of a door holding ancient secrets. You don’t know either.

Eventually, you stop shaking, and while Ilati uses the fungal growth spells to crack open the golem and dig out the battery packs, you use a luminous repair spell to get the machine back to functional. Finally, you hook them up to the hydraulics. The machine is damaged, but not enough that it can’t lift the stone.

As the gabbro plug rumbles up, you hold your breath. You wonder what the First Emperor was like, what kind of person he was. Wonder what he would have thought, to see his descendants bickering over who gets to write about his grave goods. You wonder what he decided to be buried with. His crown, of course, the golden laurel, and his plasma sword. Maybe his power armor? Seeing the ancient version would be—

But you stop, because the door is open, your light revealing the final chamber. You blink, wondering if launching the flare earlier hosed up your eyes, because what you’re seeing can’t be right.

There’s three stone chairs, and three mummified skeletons in them. The first has her arms crossed over her chest, a scepter in one hand, a hammer in the other. Your mind flashes back to the red banners on the streets high above. It seems like a lifetime ago you saw the marchers, chanting, waving that same symbol.

That same symbol.

Clutched in the hands of a thousand-year old skeleton that is very clearly not the First Emperor.

The three skeletons wear headdresses of feathers, the brilliant plumage of a scarlet macaw somehow magically preserved. Her companions hold their own tools: A tablet of spells and a star-chart.

You look at Ilati, overawed, unable to speak.

Behind the three mummies, the wall is taken up by a massive piece of ship—except it isn’t the kind that goes on an ocean. It glistens with black metal. There’s an old tear in the hull, exposing circuitry and runecraft. On the walls, grand reliefs of the ship’s journey.

“They really did journey across the stars,” Ilati says. And then, “I’m sorry.”

And that’s what brings you to your knees. She could have gloated. She understands too well what this means. The conquests could not have been civilization chasing out the nomads, because the empire has never flown a starship. The past is different than what you have been told. All that you learned, all that you were—every history book you read, every archeological paper you studied, every grand story that inspired you: Lies.

Your mouth still hangs open, the tears flowing freely. Outside you, there is a tomb laid bare. Inside you, the stone walls are collapsing. Debris crashing down in waves. Fire burning through your libraries. The foundations of your world, cracked.

“I’m sorry,” Ilati says again, and puts her arm around you.

The protests up there, they won’t be going away.

You could try to hide it. You could—

But you’re not a monster like Cerulius. You will let this truth fly free, and the world will make of it what they will.

a friendly penguin
Feb 1, 2007

trolling for fish



Battle of the Senses
Word Count: 1887

https://thunderdome.cc/?story=8632&title=Battle+of+the+Senses

a friendly penguin fucked around with this message at 12:39 on Jan 3, 2021

Gorka
Aug 18, 2014

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Song of the depths
1 605 words

Dominik had not seen his senior, Prof. Ivanovic, in a while. A bit strange, but no cause for alarm. As the speakers outside the complex played a low hum that made the building shudder, he entered the room used for electrical reactions. He turned on the electric lights, and they slowly revealed racks of chemicals and reaction vats. He started his routine checks with a yawn. Oxygen levels and temperature were nominal, but water was starting to get low, closing to critical. Strange, the previous squad should've noticed the alert.

With a shrug, Dominik went to the teleprinter, but paused before sending a message. He actually knew what to do in order to refill the water levels, and he could do more than just signal the problem. He could report its resolution. He turned to the reaction vats and operated the valves, letting the sea water in. Dominik had to wait a couple of minutes for the vat to fill, so he used the time to check on the chemicals reserve. Still enough caustic potash to turn a week of carbon dioxide into oxygen. He allowed his thoughts to wander.

As the youngest member of this expedition, he wasn't given any meaningful tasks. He still wanted to prove to himself and the rest of the crew that he was capable. In a way, that water shortage was a windfall. Another hum lightly shook the room and made some glassware clink. Dominik pulled out of his thoughts and went to check the vat. All was ready, just leaving the press of a button to start. The assistant made the last checks and pushed the button.

Nothing happened.

Surprised, Dominik checked the cables and found the one powering the electrodes unplugged. He clicked his tongue and plugged it in again, and started the reaction for good. A pop echoed in the room, then the lights went off. The smell of burnt components rose from the cables.

Dominik felt a cold sweat cover his back. Why? It was the only time he did something unsupervised, and it went wrong. Furthermore, without power, he could not operate the teleprinter to raise the alarm. He tried to calm down, as to recall what to do in the case of a local power loss. He had to report what happened to the chief engineer and to the captain.

He turned on his personal flashlight. Those were experimental and he would’ve preferred a good old lantern, but oxygen was precious. Dominik sighed and started walking the dark corridors towards the main block.

When Dominik reached the airlock between the labs block and the main block, he stopped and felt his heart skip a beat. The airlock was open wide and the lights were off on both sides. He started to shiver. If this power loss was his fault, he wouldn't make it out with a sorry and a smile. He almost tiptoed towards the command room, like a fate worse than death awaited him.

Dominik heard the voices before entering the room. He could pick up two voices, and one of them was almost yelling. He hesitated before turning off his light and opened the metallic door. A dark figure turned around and rose a heavy clamp, ready to strike. Then the figure relaxed and dropped the tool on a piece of furniture.

"You should knock before entering, Dominik! I almost bashed your head in."

Dominik identified the figure as Anderson, the chief engineer. She stood in front of an aluminum desk, which was cluttered with various paperwork. A small flashlight was the sole light source in the room. The other person in the room stood from his chair, adjusting his lorgnette on his wide nose.

"Dominik? Do you know what's the cause of this power failure and if we can fix it?"

Captain Raske had shaky hands and his voice was shrill, more than usual.

"I'm not really sure, but the power went down when I started the desalination process..." Dominik stammered while wringing his hands.

"It's because of you? Do you know what you've done, young man? I should throw you out the airlock!"

Raske's face was flushed with anger and he barked out at Dominik. Anderson turned towards him and placed herself between the two men.

"Captain, we don't have the time to seek out who's done what! We have to evacuate at once! The emergency batteries are empty and we can't repair the main generator fast enough before we all start freezing to death! And even if we manage to repair it, remember that electricity is not reliable, compared to steam power. Dominik, have you seen Ivanovic?"

Anderson grabbed Dominik's shoulder, which made him jump. He looked at his feet.

"No I've not seen her since yesterday", he said in a muffled voice.

"Right. Captain, I'm going to look for her. Dominik, you go to the submarine. Try to calm down."

"We're not evacuating." Raske growled.

Anderson and Dominik turned to look at the captain. His jaw was tightly clenched.

"Captain, with all due respect, that's suicide. All the crew's ready to evacuate, and the only person we're missing is Ivanovic. We have ten minutes at most to find her." Anderson came closer to Raske, hands up and showing her palms.
The big man suddenly rose up and grabbed the engineer by her uniform's collar.

"Do what I'm telling you! Recall your team and repair that drat generator!" he barked before pushing Anderson towards the door. Dominik caught her and she looked at him while pointing at the door.

"The assistant stays here. If you're trying to flee, you'll have to live knowing that you killed two people." Raske growled behind them.

Anderson stiffened, and she exited the room without a second look. Dominik watched her leave, dazed. When he looked at Raske, he was right in front of him, glaring at him.

"You like to annoy me, you chemists, huh? Did Ivanovic forgot to tell you power was scarce and only to be used for essential stuff?"

"No Captain! She told me nothing about this! And water supplies were almost critical!"

"I don't believe you! You're both spies, trying to prevent me from being the first to communicate with them! But I'm not going down without a fight!"

Raske's face was red, and he spat out his words at Dominik's face. He grabbed the young assistant and pressed him against the wall. Dominik had never seen the captain in such a rage and his entire body was starting to shake.

"I've spent ten years of my life preparing this expedition! I'll not allow some stupid power failure caused by green-eyed spies to stop me!"

"Captain, I'm begging you! I'm no spy! You're mistaken!"
"Mistaken? You're the one that has made a mistake by provoking me, like Ivanovic did this morning!"

His eyes bulging, Raske used his right hand to grip Dominik's neck, pushing the air out of his windpipe. The only thing the young man could see was his assailant's face, grimacing with anger and his lorgnette about to fall. He tried to push back Raske's body with his right hand, while fumbling around the desk with the other hand.

Suddenly, a sound wave made the walls shake. Raske kept his balance, but looked away from his victim.

"I was right! I was right! And I can't record anything because of the power failure! It could've been the first time we managed to communicate with another mammal on our planet. And we can't, all because of you."

The captain turned to Dominik, just in time to get hit in the face by the clamp. His lorgnette shattered, and he released his grip to hold his face, yelling in pain. Dominik threw the clamp on the ground and stumbled out of the room, trying to catch his breath, and he felt the door close behind him. He turned around to see Anderson use a steel bar to block the door.

"Anderson! Captain's gone mad! I think he killed Ivanovic!" Dominik said between two breaths with a faded voice.

"Don't mind him, Dominik, come with me!" Anderson grabbed her flashlight and started to run. Dominik ran after her.

They could still hear Raske scream behind them, half pain and half rage. The screams faded, and when the two crew mates reached the airlock leading to the submarine hangar, Anderson stopped and looked intently at Dominik.

"Don't tell the others what happened. We'll tell them he went into a trance while hearing the song and that he refused to leave."

"You think they'll believe us?"

Dominik thought he saw Anderson smile lightly in the dark.

"Not really, but I'm not sure they'll have the guts to check. It's starting to get chilly in here."

With the fighting and the running, Dominik hadn't realized, but now he could feel the cold slowly creeping in.

"What about Ivanovic?"

Anderson tensed when she heard the question.

"If the captain's killed her for real, let's go with the truth. He believed she was responsible for the power failure and offed her on the spot."

"You really think the failure was caused by one of us?"

Anderson stared at Dominik, and he felt a chill in his back.

"If I were you, I'd worry about reaching the submarine before the others leave without us."

The chief engineer walked into the airlock after a last glance at the dark corridor.

The rest of the walk was uneventful. The silence was only disturbed by the song of the whales, and the crew could still hear them singing in the submarine, on the way back to the surface.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Institutional Memory
1771 words

Ollie and his mother were huddled at the window, watching the last of the Union ships depart from the Kuramvilk outpost. His mother took a sip from a flask, leaned back in a recliner, and said “It’s too late, you know.”

Ollie didn’t know, but he had a few guesses. His teachers had all been Union and taught lessons exclusively in Standardized English, and he couldn’t understand half of the Kuramvish dialect, which was a matter of great disappointment among his mother’s friends. And then there were the Union social workers Ollie had been seeing twice a week. Usually they just played chess and talked about his friends (nearly all of whom Ollie had invented), but the way his mother talked about them, Ollie knew they wanted something more, something that Ollie couldn’t give them. “If they could,” she always said, “they would pin your head down under a machine and extract all the thoughts from you, all the things that they could never think of themselves.”

But they couldn’t do that anymore, not legally, not since the Keltencisz compact. Ollie was never sure exactly what was contained in the compact, but he gathered that terrible things were happening all the time before it. People running scared in the entry bay. The people around his mother all talked about it the same way — hushed voices, fingernails digging into palms, all of that. The way they’d stiffen and speak with a fragile voice when a Union member crossed them in the hall.

Ollie was glad they were gone, if only for his mother’s sake. Maybe she’d stop drinking so much. Maybe she’d stop looking at him with those laser eyes, like she was trying to empty something in his brain out. “There’s something different about you today,” she’d say to him, at least once a day. “Show me.” And she would take pictures of him and compare them with the previous pictures of him, like she suspected he had been replaced by an imposter. And she was half right.

***

“You’re what we’d call a show-off,” Anyuda said, as Ollie turned his hair from long, running, and curly to the neat, short crew cut. “Just because the people who call the Union home have left, we aren’t free from the Union.”

“I’m not doing this for fun. I’m going this because I have to.”

Together they were working on sorting through boxes of sealed documents, bequeathed from the Union upon their leaving. Mostly the boxes were legal documents, written in Kuramvish in a stylized script that Ollie couldn’t read. Most of the papers had been burned — an oxygen storage issue, supposedly — but together Ollie and Anyuda would salvage anything that could still, theoretically, be read. Ollie only knew a few words, like the word for “beloved,” ki’zirom, which his mother would whisper to him when putting him to bed. And it certainly wasn’t on these papers.

This was an interim job, anyway — the kind of thing they threw people who they didn’t have any use for. The Union wanted everyone to put things together, to build things, to make circuit boards bloom with possibility, and Ollie had resisted this so much that he’d made the wiring to the whole school bay vanish in a fit of pique. That was why they’d paired him up with the social worker.

“Listen,” Anyuda said. “I’m not sure I’ll be around tomorrow.” Anyuda had always been around, looking twenty years old since Ollie could crawl. They had gone from babysitter to peer at some point, and Ollie was never sure if either of them had really been comfortable with that transition. They claimed to have witnessed the Union’s rescue of the Kuram from their dying planet, but wouldn’t talk about it directly; instead, they transformed into the merchants, the artisans, the spirit workers who had been left behind, and muttered rapid-fire Kuramvish. As if they expected Ollie to be impressed.

Mostly, Ollie was just happy to have someone else to talk to who hadn’t repressed the shape-changing. Ollie’s mother thought it was a filthy thing. “Playing with yourself,” she’d say, and rip a chunk of his hair out. “Go on. Fix it, and I’ll do it again.”

“Listen,” Anyuda said again. “Tomorrow, we’re going to get some people together to depose the ship’s Parliment. If it goes well… things are going to look a lot different around here.”

“I’m sorry,” Ollie said. “Aren’t you always asking me to not get myself in trouble? Staging a coup sounds like trouble.”

Anyuda crossed their arms. “You’re fifteen. I’m… older. I can handle trouble. People on this ship are starving.”

Ollie said nothing. Of course he knew. His mother was one of them — that’s why she’d yanked Ollie out of his apprenticeship with the Union metalworker and sent him into odd-jobbing and scrounging, although he was only fifteen years old.

“There’s people who want to see things differently. Food for everyone. The right for people to actually choose who they want to be. What they want to do.” Anyuda smiled. “Come on, Ollie. I know you’re with me on this.”

With them? What did it mean to be with them? Ollie wanted to say yes — I’ll join you on your attempt to overthrow the government. Sign me up.

“You can read this, can’t you?” Ollie said, holding up a piece of paper that only suffered minor burns. “What is it saying?”

“What do you think these papers say?” Anyuda asked. “And why do you think someone tried to destroy them?”

“I asked you a question,” Ollie said. He could play the game—oh, Anyuda, these are clearly very damaging documents to the Union, rife with abuse and treachery, and they destroyed them so no one could see their cruelty. This is something people tried to do to him — they were slippery, avoiding any kind of tells, any kind of opening, in hopes that this would be enough for him, the mere attention of another adult, and that he would grow to parrot exactly what they thought. Well, Ollie had plenty of attention. But he didn’t have plenty of answers.

Anyuda shrugged. “Contracts, mostly. I don’t know a lot of legal terms. The language was outlawed for a while, you know. So there was a lot I forgot. But the one you’re holding—let me see.” Anyuda picked it up, traced the words with a finger. The temperature in the ship was dropping, and Ollie wrapped his arms together in front of his chest, willing his arms to grow hairier for that bit of extra warmth. Now that they were free of Union control, the Union was selling them the fuel that used to be complimentary.

“This one,” Anyuda said, “this was a contract for a Kuram man to live for fifteen years as a Union officer’s golden retriever.”

“And that was… common?”

“Not that, exactly. But sure. We were starving, and we could change our shapes. Not a lot of practical things you can do with that. You can give yourself the strength to mine, and a lot of people do. Or you could sell yourself. The people who got in early sold themselves as spies. But you only need so many spies, and food and fuel for a planet is expensive. So sure. Servitude in a hundred different flavors until it was outlawed.”

Ollie ran his hands through the other singed documents, thinking of all the years of bondage hidden in this indecipherable script. “And that was outlawed.”

“Sure. Eventually some people stood up long enough and yelled long enough that the soft-hearted Union people said no more servitude contracts. It’s enough that you work for our companies and raise your children with our language — and while you’re at it, cut it out with that shape-changing stuff, it gives everyone awful memories.”

***

That night Ollie waited for an announcement or an alarm. He wondered what it would mean to stage a coup; there were only a few thousand people aboard the ship and fewer were armed. Possibly Anyuda had stockpiled weapons somewhere. Ollie hoped they were OK.

His mother was watching a television program — some old Union war film, with grinning, dirty men that Ollie supposed fit some Union standard of beauty. Every time Ollie tried to get up, his mother would snap “If you’re not comfortable, there’s more blankets under my bed,” and it was decided. Stuck on the couch, forced, for his mother’s comfort, to wear the girl’s body she needed him to have, while all the while Anyuda was out there changing the course of history, or maybe just the next month—it all left Ollie feeling exhausted, drained.

Still, when the movie ended, he asked his mother: “What was it like for you? Growing up.”

She took a swig from a flask. “You’re lucky,” she said. “You know that, right? You will never know how lucky you are.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Lucky? We have to skip dinner half the time.”

She stood in front of a window, gazing out at the stars, one hand pressed against the counter. “Your grandmother was a show-off, you know. Different hair, different face every day. Filthy. Shameless. They asked her to stop—the Union—and when she tried to disappear into someone else, they put a bullet in her head and shoved her out the airlock. So you’re lucky that I don’t do that to you. That’s what’s lucky.” She took another long sip from the flask, and Ollie’s stomach roiled at the sharp reek of vodka.

“The Union pushed Grandma out of the ship?”

“No,” she said. “Your father did before the Union could catch her.”

***

The next day Anyuda was, as promised, not there to sort through the unsealed documents. There hadn’t been any announcements. There was no traitor’s promenade, as Ollie would have imagined it. There were just boxes and boxes of singed contracts in a language Ollie couldn’t read.

He sat at the desk in front of the stacks of documents and grew out his crew-cut to Anyuda’s long, untamed fringe, twisted his face to Anyuda’s sunken eyes and jutting cheekbones. He tried to put the weight and wisdom of hundreds of years into the new cells.

He had hoped that there would be some difference, or at least some catharsis, in taking Anyuda’s form, that he’d have figured out where the real Anyuda would have ended up. Instead he looked down at the cask of documents and thought — If nothing else, I am free.

MockingQuantum
Jan 20, 2012





A Spark
641 words

archive

MockingQuantum fucked around with this message at 05:51 on Jan 5, 2021

Thumbtacks
Apr 3, 2013


“Excuse me, would you be interested in a timeshare on Callisto?”
Words: 976

“Excuse me, would you be interested in a timeshare on Callisto?”

I hate this job. There’s a million jobs on Jupiter and I get stuck in this godforsaken Blimposphere trying to sell tourists a lifetime commitment to one of several dozen dead moons. No one ever wants one, of course, and I can’t blame them, but that’s never stopped us from trying. Any of us. The moment visitors arrive here on Callisto, thousands of people crammed into a blimp and launched from the surface of Jupiter, they’re shuffled down a hallway full of cramped kiosks and guys like me desperately trying to convince them that they can’t possibly live without whatever dumb poo poo we’ve been instructed to sell them.

Could be worse, I suppose.

Three kiosks down, someone’s selling “authentic laser weaponry” and despite his best efforts, there're at least six deaths a week from people insisting on trying them out. Still not sure why he’s selling real weapons but tourists love ‘em. There’s supposed to be dampening fields in here to prevent laser fire but they broke years ago and no one’s bothered to come fix them. This isn’t the most popular ‘sphere on the planet and it’s rarely worth the effort for some of the planetside guys to fix anything, especially because you have to take a blimp to get here.

I don’t put much effort into this job anymore, at least not as much as I used to. Usually I just sit and watch people walk by, wondering how it got to this.

***

When I was a boy, I was always told that the universe was full of endless possibilities. New planets discovered every day, endless new frontiers to explore. Stories of space wizards and grizzled, intrepid explorers pillaging ruins and saving alien damsels in distress. “Each planet a new adventure!” Enormous forests blanketing the surface of Mercury, warring tribes fighting under twin suns on a distant desert planet, sprawling underwater civilizations below the oceans of Neptune. I always dreamed of being one of those explorers. Sure, there’s a lot of them already. But if there’s an endless number of planets, who’s to say there isn’t room for one more? Hell, that’s what my dad did and what his dad did. But when my dad wanted to settle down and start a family, technology grew and advanced much faster than I did, and by the time I was old enough to consider it, there wasn’t much left within reach to actually discover.

When you’re a kid, no one really talks about what happens AFTER these new, bold frontiers are explored. There’s only so much pillaging you can really do, and once a planet or moon or whatever has been discovered, people just move on to the next one. The lucky planets are left alone because there wasn’t much happening there, but god forbid some cool poo poo was found there once because as soon as word gets out, it’s going to turn into a tourist hellhole. It’s happened countless times and it’s what happened on Callisto.

There isn’t much even happening on the moon anymore, honestly. A century ago, they found some kind of religion or cult or something living in some of the tunnels in the moon. By all accounts it wasn’t really a particularly successful cult. But it was enough to get the attention of some of the bigger tourism agencies and once they got a hold of the story they were quick to spin it enough to whip people into a frenzy. “The Death Cult Tunnels of Callisto” became a popular tourist attraction. The fact that there’s almost nothing here but craters didn’t stop anyone. Now the entire moon’s just sprawling metropolitan complexes full of hotels and timeshares and novelty gift shops and people like me shoved into tiny boxes in crowded hallways. The closest I get to exploring the cosmos is staring out the window at night.

They say the universe is infinite, but it’s never felt smaller.

***

“Excuse me, would you be interested in a timeshare on Callisto?”

For once someone actually stops in front of me.

“Brrrrbl pppp borlp *plop burp*”

The worst part of translation implants is that you still hear the native language before it’s translated and Neptunian sounds like someone bobbing for apples in a thick custard. The older translation models take a few seconds to fully translate so I just have to stare at the tourist’s wet, wet face.

“I don’t know what that is, I’m here for the guns and the cult tunnels.”

Yep, that tracks. I motion with my thumb to the gun kiosk and zone out again.

Moments later I hear muffled shouts and more Neptunian, interspersed with cries of fear. Before I can really react, my implant flares up, finally translating.

“Don’t touch me, I know how guns wor-“

I hear the shots ring out before the sentence finishes, and I feel a warmth bloom in my chest. An almost comforting warmth.

I’m pretty sure that guy just shot me, but I really, really hope he didn’t.

The warmth has started to warp into a numb pulsing, and I’m starting to lose feeling in my hands.

He definitely shot me.

I can hear other sounds now, mainly yelling. Someone’s telling me to hold on, and someone else is calling for help. It’s too late now but I’m glad they’re trying. I hear more Neptunian and pray I die before it’s translated.

As my vision starts to darken and blur, my thoughts drift back to space. Maybe I missed my chance to make my mark on the galaxy, but who knows? Maybe there’s new frontiers on the other side, mine for the taking.

That thought fills me with a final bit of happiness as I take my last breath, but not before my translator whispers the last thing I’ll ever hear.

“Can I still see the tunnels? I bought a day pass.”

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Anyway Your Honor
11826 words

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Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:28 on Jan 8, 2021

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Archived.

Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:28 on Jan 8, 2021

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Archived.

Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:28 on Jan 8, 2021

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Archived.

Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:29 on Jan 8, 2021

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Archived.

Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:29 on Jan 8, 2021

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Archived.

Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:29 on Jan 8, 2021

Tyrannosaurus
Apr 12, 2006



Archived.

Tyrannosaurus fucked around with this message at 21:29 on Jan 8, 2021

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sebmojo
Oct 23, 2010


Legit Cyberpunk









quote:

Anyway Your Honor
11826 words

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