Xenosaga fic, chapter 3, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you serious?”

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

“Then why are we bothering?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There, you see? Told you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hell. The Fleet Church.”

“Precisely,” said HANA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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