Two untitled, probably unrelated fragments I recently posted on Facebook

Karolle glanced up when the stewardling started to speak, but it was just the standard preflight safety briefing. Zie sighed and returned to hir book, but snippets of the familiar monologue penetrated anyway.

“–Flight 277143 to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Our trip time is approximately fourteen subjective hours–”

Damn, zie’d lost the thread again. Start again with the beginning of the paragraph and shut that damn stewardling out.

“–return to your seat immediately when the captain announces impending transition through liminal space, as–”

Why did they even bother with these things, anyway? It’s not like anyone listened. Everybody who’d ever flown before knew the rules.

“–any long-lost loved ones, deceased pets, or beloved characters of story and song, it is vitally important that you ignore–”

Maybe they should take aside the first-time flyers and give them the lecture, let everyone else have some peace. It was hard enough to find once the flight actually got going!

“–not liable should you become lost in a nightmare world derived from the darkest memories of the human species in general and your own worst experiences in particular. Thank you and have a safe and pleasant flight!”

FINALLY.


“An ancient sage, both skillful and wise, spoke of a city of bliss unparalleled. But even there, that bliss was built upon the horrific suffering of one,” said the darkness at the end of time. “Some accepted this. Others could not bear it, and fled into the wilderness.”

“How is that any different?” demanded Salome. “They know of the suffering, accept it, and go on with their lives. Those in the wilderness are no different from those in the city!” For zie had been everywhere and seen everything, and in all the futures and pasts, all the alternatives and dreams, there was no world whose joy outweighed its suffering. There were worlds where the suffering of a few enabled the joy of many, ones where the suffering of many created joy for a few, ones where future joy was dangled as a reward for present suffering and ones where present joy was bought with future suffering, but in every one without exception humanity’s suffering was vast and towering, eternal and inescapable, while joy was as small and fragile, as corruptible and temporary, as a child.

“There is no difference,” said the darkness. “Those who walk away or those who stay, they are all the same, because they all abandon the child. There is no leaving the city, because wherever humans are, there too is the city.”

“But what alternative is there to the city? Can the child be saved?”

“No,” said the darkness, not unkindly. “It bears the suffering of a nation, a world. It is broken beyond healing.”

To hir surprise, Salome found that zie was weeping. “There has to be some other way! There has to be some way to leave the city!”

“There is not.”

“Then what is the alternative? What is there beyond acceptance and surrender? How can I make a place where there is no city? Please, I have to know, I can’t bear this anymore!”

The darkness spoke so softly that at first Salome wondered if zie had imagined it. But it really had spoken, a single word, a single syllable:

“Fire.”

Considering Ending Fiction Friday

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

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 4, part 1

Chapter Four begins with some politics.

Bishop Stein looked around the landscape. These hills were quite nice, grassy and tree-lined, with a lovely view of distant mountains. The sun was high and bright, but a cool, refreshing breeze rustled his thinning hair. It wouldn’t be a bad place at all for a summer cabin. Unfortunately, the urgency of his visit precluded investigating such possibilities.

He shoved a rock with his foot. He stared after it as it went clattering down into the crater where the Ur Scientia Affiliate had once stood. “This is all that remains?”

“Yes, Your Excellency. It is the clear work of a single, medium-yield Hilbert bomb. Total annihilation of all matter in the blast radius, leaving only slight traces of residual H-type fermions.” Dean Hobart’s face twitched periodically, the only sign of his internal difficulty in deciding whether making a public show of his sorrow at the disaster or his delight at the Bishop’s visit would be more advantageous.

“The Hilbert Atrophy is a fiendish weapon. It violates every law, physical and moral, handed down by our Creator. It should never be used.”

“Yes, Excellency,” said Hobart.

“No!” snapped Stein. “We use it to destroy and contain Divs. When there is no other way to stop a great evil except committing a lesser one, we must act. That is what forgiveness is for.”

Hobart bowed his head. “I apologize, Excellency. You are of course correct.”

Stein continued to gaze away from his companion, out over the crater, allowing him to roll his eyes without being seen. Did the little toady think uncritical agreement would curry Stein’s favor? “And yet the Federation dares claim that we would do this?”

“Um…” said Hobart.

“Speak, Deacon.”

Hobart shuffled uncomfortably. “That is not precisely the case, Excellency. They have claimed only that we provided the weapons and training to the terrorists who made the attack.”

“Fah!” spat Stein. “Utter nonsense.”

“Well, we have given Hilbert weapons to local groups of believers, in case of Div attacks. One of them may have–”

“No,” said Stein. “The Federation did this. They are framing us because they fear an Ur government founded on faith will turn against their godlessness.”

He turned back toward the waiting hopper. “Release a statement saying that the Church condemns such violence and offering all support to the investigation. Say also that our prayers are with the families of all the victims, and of all victims of violence everywhere.”

“At once, Excellency.” Hobart bowed deeply, and then began waddling down to his own groundcar.

Hobart settled into the hopper’s seat. “You are certain he knows nothing?” he asked as the hopper took off.

“Yes, Excellency,” said the pilot, one Odutola Odunaga, ostensibly a novitiate of the Sisters of the Merciful Hand. “He has not looked at a list of the dead. He has no idea the Ur government cleared its loyal citizens out in advance of the attack.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” asked Stein. “If we’d just waited a little longer, the Federation would have killed its own people for us.”

“Our Lord is known for his mysterious ways.”

“Indeed,” said Stein. “This could work for us, Inquisitor.”

“How so, Excellency?”

“Think about it. Any investigation will reveal that we had no connection to the bombing, because we didn’t. At the same time, it’s erased all evidence that we removed the Original.”

“Hmm,” said Odunaga. A light on her board began to blink. “Personal message for you, Excellency. Very large file — it’s from Cardinal Passerina!”

“I’ll take it on the back screen,” Stein said, and changed seats. It would not do for a mere presbyter to hear such high matters as Passerina no doubt wished to discuss. Besides, Odunaga was an Inquisitor. Her order was answerable only to the highest levels of the Church, not the local bishop. He must never make the mistake of trusting her, no matter how helpful her information and assistance might be.

He pulled on headphones and began the playback. It was a video file, surprisingly. In full three dimensions, no less! The time needed to push a large file through the low-bandwidth EPR wavelengths, and the corresponding expense, meant that virtually all faster-than-light communication was either by text or carried on a ship. Even a Cardinal of the Fleet would not take on such expenses lightly; it must be of immense importance.

Her image appeared, flickering slightly: a small, dark woman with quick, precise movements and a penetrating gaze, robed in red. “Charges for transmission of this message have been billed to you, Bishop. The Exchequer has been instructed not to reimburse you under any circumstances. Perhaps that will impress upon you the importance of the task you have been given, and the magnitude of your failure.”

Stein stared, slack-jawed.

“We have received word that the exorcist squad on Bethel has not only failed to recover the Original, but have been massacred nearly to the last man! Meanwhile, the pirate Mikra is preparing to deliver it to Scientia.” Passerina’s jaw was set and her voice cold. Stein did not know her well — he was hardly prominent enough in the Church to rate regular communication with the woman responsible for the entire Lesser Spiral — but he knew she was furious.

“Do you know how Scientia persuaded him to do it, Stein?” she continued. “They paid him. He offered the Original for sale, and they bought it. Did that strategy occur to you, Stein? Did you consider it, then reject it because there was insufficient opportunity for failure? Do you enjoy wasting the lives of the faithful?”

Stein sank into his seat, very glad that Odunaga was busy flying and couldn’t see him or hear the message.

“You have one final chance, Stein. I will be on Fifth Jerusalem later this month to meet with whoever heads the new government. Bring the Original to me there, and without Scientia or anyone else learning of our involvement. Fail, and I will personally see to it that you are hailed as a martyr within the week.”

Stein closed his eyes. Mikra was doubtless going to rendezvous with the Dammerung, but how could Stein learn where the Dammerung was going to be? And without knowing that, how could he possibly intercept them? His mind whirled, building and discarding plans.

“Odutola, a change of plans. Take me directly to the spaceport; I must return home.” Yes, that much was clear. To keep the Church’s hands clean, he’d need the resources of the Empire. Artaxerxes, not the Church, would be performing the theft.

***

“Have you seen the polls?” Prime Minister Norris asked the moment Koi walked into the room.

“Afraid so, sir.”

“Do they have no gratitude at all? We gave them the vote, and this is how they repay us?”

“Apparently, sir,” said Koi. The latest internal numbers showed bad news for the Manifest Destiny party. The party had pushed through new laws giving Realian soldiers and veterans the vote, expecting them to respond to the party’s advocacy for increased defense spending and a tougher foreign policy. Instead, hardly any were supporting Manifest Destiny, being instead mostly split between the Unionists and Neo-libs. It gave the Unionists enough votes to build and dominate a coalition of their own, and reduce MD to an opposition party. “It seems to mostly be a values and religion thing. Only fourteen percent of enfranchised Realians say the party shares their values, and eighty-three percent perceive us as anti-religious.”

“Religion? Since when do those walking mannequins have religion?”

Koi bristled at the racism, but he managed to keep his anger out of his voice. “Saoshism has been quite popular among Realians for over a century, sir.”

“Saoshism,” the Prime Minister scoffed. “Still, that’s why I called you here, Koi. You’ve always supported Realian suffrage. You understand them. I’m going to need your help on this. How do we get the Realian vote?”

Koi hesitated. “I’m honored, sir, but –”

“There’ll be a Junior Ministership in this for you after we win.”

“I’ll get on it right away,” said Koi.

“Good man. Put a preliminary report together — initial ideas, what support you’ll need, the usual — and have it on my desk tomorrow.” He gestured for Koi to leave.

“Of course, sir. Thank you.” Koi turned to go.

“Oh, and Senator? Don’t rule anything out.”

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 6

Final part of Chapter 3.

Seth jumped over the narrow alleyway and continued across the rooftops. He could only hope that Nadeshiko was alive and creating a sufficient distraction. As he jumped the next, slightly wider street, he was finally able to see the Isolde‘s pad and the six AMWS surrounding it. He was trying to guess the AMWS’ armaments from their configurations when he reached an unexpectedly broad jump and nearly missed it. His hand brushed against the wall, and then he was slipping down it, curving away, falling so very slowly but inevitably.

The fire escape swung suddenly out from its slot in the wall, and Seth struck with a resounding crash that practically vibrated his fillings out. “Ow,” he moaned as he sat up, touching his nose gingerly to make sure it wasn’t broken. He looked around at the providential fire escape, but it offered no explanation as to its timely emergence. “Must have hit a trigger or something scrabbling at the wall,” Seth surmised. There wasn’t any time to wait and ponder; he had to get to the Isolde.

He pulled himself up to the roof and surveyed the spaceport. It looked fairly deserted, except for the soldiers. “Izzy, you have a fix on my location?”

“Gotcha, boss. Catapult?”

“Give me a second, first.” Seth carefully sighted with the zoom scope on his gun. He didn’t recognize two of the models offhand, but one of the AMWS was definitely on the Hyams pattern, a PG-460, it looked like. Not surprising; the Hyams design was cheap and sturdy, and its one major flaw almost never showed up. How often did people use snipers against mecha, anyway?

There it was: the break in the armor under the left arm, necessary for the hinge mechanism, that exposed the fire control. Seth squeezed off a shot; his luck held.

The AMWS began firing in erratic sprays of shells, and the other AMWS moved immediately to a defensive ring facing out, uncertain where the attack was coming from. As soon as their attention was away from the Isolde, Izzy fired Seth’s AMWS from the catapult, straight toward him. Under her control, it fired its maneuvering jets and came to a hover, directly below the roof he was on. Its cockpit slid open, and he jumped in.

The radio crackled to life. “Are you Captain Seth Mikra of the salvager Isolde?” asked a clipped, resonant voice.

“Yeah,” said Seth. “Who are you?”

“I am Father Comry, Dean of the Holy Church of the Fleet Invisible on Bethel. You are in possession of stolen Church property and have attacked Church exorcists in their sacred duty. However, we believe in forgiveness, divine and human. Return what is ours and you and your crew will be permitted to depart this planet peacefully.”

“Hey, I know my rights,” answered Seth. “That ship had no living crewmembers aboard. Salvage laws in these parts say that means everything on her belongs to the first person that finds her–me. Besides, that box isn’t mine to give. I’ve already sold it. If you want it, take it up with Scientia.” Seth grinned, though Comry couldn’t see him. That ought to give them pause. The Church might be able to cow a little planetary government like Bethel into letting them play vigilante, but even they’d think twice about taking on Scientia.

“The Church recognizes a higher law, Mr. Mikra. I am most sorry, but if you do not agree to hand over the box immediately I will have no choice but to order my men to attack.”

“Funny,” said Seth. “I thought exorcists were supposed to fight Divs, not humans.” He fired at the nearest enemy AMWS as he kicked his own sharply upwards, then spun over and fired again before swooping down low. The Church AMWS scattered and returned fire, but Seth was able to dodge. He kept one eye on his thruster fuel; with his AMWS’ legs still out, he needed to be able to stay airborn.

All but one of the AMWS was between him and the Isolde, trying to block him from getting back to her and taking off. Of course he and the ship could go off separately and meet up elsewhere, but that was risky. Without AMWS cover and with its maneuverability restrained by the gravity well, the Isolde‘d be a sitting duck.

Of course, that assumed she’d be without AMWS cover.

“Now!” Seth ordered, and the other two AMWS erupted from the Isolde‘s hangar. The battle was ready to begin in earnest.

“They’re mostly sticking to the ground,” Izzy said. “Typical planet-bound thinking.”

“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, we can’t actually take this many guys in a fair fight, so let’s not make this fair. You two stick to the ground, save your fuel in case we need to escort the Isolde out of the well. I can’t really land anyway, so I’ll stay high and hit anybody that tries to get out of your reach. Go!”

Explosions rippled through the air as missiles swarmed up after Seth. On the ground, his crew had problems of their own, as the exorcists were apparently over their reluctance to get close, and giving the slower, jury-rigged mecha a pounding with short-range weapons intended to wear down armor.

But from his high vantage point Seth could see something the others couldn’t: foot soldiers, working their way from one patch of cover to the next, trying to reach the AMWS battle. That didn’t make any sense. One stray shot and they were dead. Were they suicidal? Sure, they volunteered to fight Divs, but — crap.

“Guys! Get off the ground, now!”

Seth had to hand it to his crew; they both took off instantly, and only then Wehj asked, “What is it?”

“Ooh, good call, boss. Yeah, I’m scanning, and those bayonets are ceramic composites, all right.”

“Huh?” said Vix, dodging a spray of bullets. “Crap!” she shouted as a missile burst a little too close. “Cap’n, our mechs are too slow up here. At least on the ground we have cover!”

“No, he’s right,” said Wehj. “Those are Hilbert Atrophy blades. They’ll cut right through our armor like it isn’t there!”

“Shit,” said Vix. “What do we do?”

“Izzy, where’s our passenger?”

“There’s a human woman behind a shipping container two hundred meters east of you.”

“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, Wehj, I want you to land. Fake thruster trouble. Vix, cover him.”

“But, Captain–” protested Wehj.

“Just do it!”

Wehj spun his mech horizontally, cutting his thrust at the worst possible moment. He fell tumbling to the ground, firing his thruster once more, just in time to land upright. Seth immediately began peppering the ground with laser fire, tearing through the small group of twenty or so ground troops, while Vix intercepted the AMWS trying to catch their wounded prey.

“Wehj, grab her and head for the ship! Izzy, launch as soon as they’re aboard, Vix and I’ll handle escort.”

With the men on the ground dead or forced into hiding, Seth swooped down to join Vix in covering Wehj. Shells thudded against his armor, but it was holding for now. Unfortunately, outnumbered three-to-one as they were, he and Vix could not get into a position to do any significant damage in return.

Nadeshiko, watching the battle from behind her crate, could not take her eyes off the burnt, twitching corpses of the ground soldiers. She saw, in her mind’s eye, the refugee camp’s children, burning and twitching as that strange green AMWS destroyed them. She felt dizzy and sick from exhaustion or horror or both. Keeping her eyes open was getting harder and harder, and her entire body ached. And, to add insult to injury, she’d figured out what she’d torn at the beginning of her fight with the exorcists: the seat of her pants was split wide open.

Wehj’s mech clanked around the crate and then knelt, dropping its hand for Nadeshiko to climb on. Shakily, she clambered aboard and clung. She was aching and embarrassed, and, as the hand swung jerkily through the air as Wehj sprinted back toward the Isolde, she desperately wished she could throw up. She dry-heaved a couple of times, but there was nothing in her stomach.

Seth and Vix attacked furiously, trying to keep a column open for Wehj and Nadeshiko. Unfortunately, that left them fully exposed. Seth took a bad hit to his secondary coolant line that came within a hair of setting off a fuel explosion, and Vix was knocked clean over by a punch when she got too close to one of the enemy.

“You all right?” Seth asked.

Vix’s mech rolled back to its feet and barely avoided a plasma burst. “Yeah. Nasty bump on my head, but I don’t think it’s bleeding.”

“Hurry up, Wehj,” Seth said. “We’re getting hammered!”

“I’m trying, Captain!” Wehj shouted.

“They’ve got my AMWS bay door covered,” said Izzy. “I’m not opening and letting them shoot up my insides!”

“Damn!” Seth considered for a moment, dodging and weaving and trying to get off a clear shot at the AMWS watching the door, but he had three on his tail to shake off first. “There has to be something we can do to get out of here!”

He spun to fire at the AMWS behind him. There was a flicker of green, and the leading of the three craft exploded. A second flicker, and a hole appeared, punched through the torso of one of the other two. It exploded as well.

“What the hell?” said Seth.

In a matter of seconds, five of the enemy AMWS exploded. The last, which had been covering the Isolde, spasmed as a green spike slammed through its torso from behind. It lifted into the air as the tall, insectile green mech to which the spike belonged raised its arm above its head and began rising slowly.

Seth stared, wide-eyed, his knuckles whitening on his controls. “All of you get back into the ship. Now.” His voice was strangled, strained.

“Boss –” Izzy started.

“No,” he said. “Everyone get on board. Izzy, launch immediately. I’ll catch up.”

“But Cap’n –” protested Vix.

“No buts. He’s too fast for your AMWS or the Isolde.” Seth’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t worry. There’s no way I’ll lose this fight.”

His AMWS’ computer beeped. There was a video signal coming in on a public channel. Seth acknowledged.

“Seth Mikra,” said Aser. “I wanted you to see the face of your executioner.” The Hod flung the AMWS it had impaled to the ground, where it exploded. “It is time for you to pay for what you’ve done!”

“What I’ve done?” asked Seth. “What I’ve done? You son of a bitch!” He opened fire, but his target was gone. “What the hell? Nothing can move that fast!”

“My U.R. Hod can,” said Aser, and slashed Seth’s AMWS from behind.

“Shit!” yelped Seth, but fortunately the blows damaged only his armor. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Aser,” he said. “I am the Chosen of God.” He laughed as the Hod teleported all around Seth’s AMWS, slashing and stabbing, carefully avoiding critical systems. Seth tried to take evasive actions, to fire whenever the Hod appeared, but no matter how he bobbed and weaved and spun, every one of the Hod’s blows struck, and none of his own.

“Dammit, he’s just playing with me!” shouted Seth over the private channel. “Hurry up and get out of here!”

“No, boss,” said Izzy. “The sweep time on my scanners is faster than yours, I can get a lock before he disappears again!”

“And do what with it? You can’t bring your guns to bear fast enough!”

“No, but you can. I can feed you the sensor data.”

“You have any idea how long it would take to slave my AMWS to you? It wasn’t built for it!” Seth swerved again, firing more or less at random, but Aser flicked back and forth rapidly even between attacks, making him practically impossible to hit.

“So don’t slave it! You’ll know his position a few microseconds earlier; use it to catch him!”

Seth’s armor was taking a major pounding. It was only a matter of time before Aser got bored and went for the final blow. “All right,” he said. “Do it!”

Meanwhile, on the Cygnus, Dasra fed her vision of the battle to Nasatya and Mia.

“Aw, crudnuggets,” said Nasatya. “You’re sure there’s not even an itty-bitty resonance?”

Nothing beyond normal levels.

“Poopy. It’s not going to happen. Aser’s pro’lly gonna kill him.”

Despite orders?

Nasatya began chewing her hair. “It’s, like, seventy percent or so.”

Or so?

“Calvie gets mad when I’m too precise and all. Seventy-four point eight one three one nine percent and rising.”

Seth focused on the sensor scans Izzy was streaming to him, trying to ignore the flickers of green outside, the continual screeching of tortured metal every time Aser sliced off a bit more armor. He pushed his AMWS’ cannon power past all safety limits, ignoring the warnings; he had to take the Hod out with the first shot, or Aser would switch to killing blows immediately after.

He bit his lip, waiting for the precisely right moment — there! He pulled the trigger; a column of lethal red light — air superheated by the laser’s passage — erupted from the barrel of his gun straight for Aser’s current position.

Except that Aser was no longer there.

Seth spun to see the Hod hovering beside him, its spiked arm drawn back to strike the killing blow. “Well, hell,” he said.

Aser, no!

Aser shook his head. “Go away, Dasra. He’s useless to us — he can’t even defend himself! I’m exterminating a pest.”

I’m sorry, Aser. We have our orders. Stop.

“Never!” screamed Aser. “I’ve waited too long to find him again. He dies–” His screaming turned incoherent as Mia’s power poured into his head, channeled there by Dasra. Pain erupted through him, until not even his hate of Seth could carry him through it.

For his own part, Seth had no idea what was happening. U.R. Hod was just hanging there, ready to kill, but not moving. He looked down at his fire control: no missiles, and the rifle was in emergency cool-down after that last blast.

“Boss, come on! Let’s get out of here!” Izzy was half-frantic.

“Right,” said Seth. He shook his head. “Right! Launch, already! I’ll fly escort until we’re well out of this hole.”

The Isolde fled into the sky, flanked by Seth and Vix’s AMWS.

This is the end of Chapter 3, which means it’s time for music!

I’m actually holding back Nadeshiko’s theme, because the right moment for it is rather later.

The Bethel spaceport definitely has a theme, though, one of my favorite tracks from the Xenogears soundtrack.

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

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

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 6

Sorry about having two weeks in a row of this story. I just can’t fiction this week. Also, TW, use of ableist slurs by a character.

Seth coughed and massaged his neck. “Holy shit, you’re fast,” he said.

“Yes. Besides, I’m not the only one who’s unarmed.”

“Actually, you are.” Seth reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew a small blaster pistol.

“That’s hardly going to do much against a soldier with body armor, let alone an AMWS,” said Nadeshiko.

Seth looked down at the blaster in mock shock. “You’re right! Well, guess we’d better give up, then.”

“All right, what’s the secret?”

Seth smiled and began pulling more things out of his jacket’s seemingly endless supply of pockets — a stock with built-in powerpack, a collapsible barrel, a scope — and several very fast and highly illegal modular modifications to the pistol later, he’d assembled them into a rifle.

“Neat trick,” said Nadeshiko.

Seth shrugged. “Made it years ago. Figured I’d need it sooner or later. Anyway, no matter how fast you can move, you’re still not going to be able to do anything through body armor.”

“No, but I can give you a distraction so you can slip by them. Or were you planning to fight your way through a squad of trained soldiers and multiple AMWS?”

“Well… yes. If necessary.”

“Just hang back until the panic starts, all right?”

Seth sighed. “All right. Just don’t get killed, okay?”

Nadeshiko started to smile. Was Captain Jerk actually concerned about her?

“I mean, I don’t get paid if you’re dead.”

“Right,” she said. She should have known. “Let’s go.”

***

Nadeshiko walked with every appearance of calm right through the middle of a group of men with bayoneted rifles.

“Stop!” one of them called. “This area is off-limits.”

She blinked at him. “But, I’m supposed to be leaving today!”

“No one in or out until we get our man.”

“You’re not police, though. Who are you? What right do you have to stop me?”

The man regarded Nadeshiko with the caliber of open, dismissive contempt only an armed bully is capable of displaying. “Turn back.”

“Get out of my way!” she snapped, and tried to push past him. He shoved her back with his rifle, and another of the men grabbed her arms, pinning them behind her.

The man who had spoken, apparently their leader, raised his rifle. “You can turn around and leave the way you came, or you can not leave at all. Your choice.”

Nadeshiko sighed and relaxed. The man holding her, unfortunately, didn’t. That meant she’d have to do this the hard way. And when she was already tired, too!

She jackknifed forward, slamming the man holding her arms into the man in front of her. As she did, she heard something in her arms crack sickeningly, but she had all pain blocked. She slithered out of his grip and straightened, both arms flopping uselessly at her sides, broken.

“God help us, she’s mad!” shouted the leader, struggle to disentangle himself from his inverted compatriot.

Nadeshiko rolled her shoulders and snapped her no-longer broken arms into a defensive stance. She could almost hear old Master Rajeesh repeating the maxims of self-defense: Never fight when you can run. Never provoke when you can avoid. Control your own will, and you need never impose it on another. Control your own will, and none can impose theirs. “Sorry, Master,” she thought. “I have to do something.”

“Not mad!” shouted the leader, finally getting to his feet. “Mizrahi! Don’t let her get close, just shoot her!”

Time slowed as Nadeshiko squeezed her adrenal glands. Nearly dry; Viri had been right about her needing time off. She wouldn’t be able to keep up peak performance for more than a couple of minutes in her current state.

She’d never fought people who seriously wanted to hurt her before. But no matter; simply run down the list. First, eliminate the distractions. Nadeshiko ran herself through the biofeedback routines that years of training had made as natural as walking. An army of nanomachines spread through all the tissues of her body responded catalyzing some reactions and inhibiting others, suppressing a brain sector or accelerating reuptake of a neurotransmitter. Pain, physical and emotional, vanished. Hunger, thirst, tiredness; all were eliminated. Her very self submerged; there remained only objectives, capabilities, and analysis.

Masters of the Mizrahi Arts were often called fighting machines. This was not inaccurate. The error was in placing the emphasis on machines. Every human is already a machine. Nadeshiko simply knew how to turn off the parts unrelated to fighting.

Time was still moving glacially. One or two of the other men hesitantly raised their rifles, but they were obviously not prepared to shoot. Good. That meant if she took out the leader, she was almost certain to survive. Side kick, round kick — tearing noise. Had she injured something? Everything still seemed to work, so she lunged forward for a rapid one-two punch and down the leader went. Low-profile armor was great against beam weapons and bullets, but it couldn’t handle being struck by a broad surface like a foot. And all the armor in the world couldn’t protect against a punch to the face without a helmet.

She heard someone stepping up behind her, and lashed out with a backward punch. It impacted hard, right in his face. She’d had to tear every tendon in her elbow wide open, but no matter. Toss the arm forward, into more or less the right position, and the nanomachines repaired the injury.

She dodged, kicked, and punched, taking the half-dozen men down one at a time, letting them get in each other’s way. Her strength and speed were perfectly within the normal range for a young woman of her build and admittedly extensive physical training, but her rapid healing and the flexibility it gave her made her almost impossible to predict.

Even a Mizrahi Master might have been hard pressed to defeat six trained warriors at once, but the men Nadeshiko was fighting had trained to fight Divs. Monsters and demons in hideous forms they could handle, but a pretty young woman whose limbs kept bending the wrong way, who could move like a graceful dancer or a corpse on strings, who kept breaking her own bones and didn’t care? That was beyond their experience. Scientia did not go to war, and the students of the Mizrahi Arts learned self-control and avoiding conflict long before they learned to use their abilities to fight. There was neither opportunity nor demand to learn to fight Mizrahi, and so these men were utterly unable to respond.

The last man standing dropped his gun and ran. Nadeshiko took three steps after him, then stopped. Exhaustion was pulling at her body. She’d pushed herself too far; the deep ache in her muscles meant both that the nanomachines were no longer blocking her pain sensations and that they were too busy to repair the smaller tears. By this point, they were probably consuming the muscle to keep themselves alive. She needed water, rest, and food, very soon and in that order, or she was going to pass out.

But there was something else to do first. Quickly she checked the half-dozen men she’d knocked out. No contusions or signs of concussion; good. They were all breathing, and their pulses were steady. Now to get away from here before somebody less squeamish shot her from a distance. The fleeing man had run away from the spaceport, so that was the direction from which his friends were most likely to come. That meant her best bet was to head toward the spaceport.

So… yeah. I’ll get more into it later in the story, but Nadeshiko is a member of a very small ethnic group within the nation-state of Scientia, the Mizrahi, who share a common ancestor about 500 years ago and are born with curative nanomachines–a technology which was fairly commonplace in the original games and used to justify having healing “spells” in an SF setting–swarming through their bodies, continually repairing them. This has a number of advantages, obviously, such as resistance to disease, incredibly rapid recovery from injury, and vastly extended lifespans. The downside is that their metabolisms are through the roof, and if they don’t get enough rest or food, they start suffering fast. The Mizrahi have their own martial art which is based on the surprising things you can do when you don’t particularly care about things like ripped tendons and broken bones, and which also involves using biofeedback techniques to “trick” the nanomachines into doing things like increasing or decreasing the outputs of particular glands, thus theoretically allowing a degree of emotional control impossible for other people. Which is what I meant by saying that I thought later sections would solve what looked initially like standard “calm boy, emotional girl” garbage–it really is just that Nadeshiko is introduced on a terrible day, normally she’s got a great deal of awareness of and control over her emotional states and moods. While Seth… very much does not, since he’s got a bit of Hot Blooded Shonen Protagonist in his DNA.

Next part is the last of this chapter.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 5

The My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter is at 781! We have four days to raise $219 more! Any help–backing of course, but also spreading the link around–is massively appreciated!

Dean Comry was not a theologian. Oh, he had his training, certainly, but as the head of the Fleet Church on Bethel he was not much called to ponder the great questions. Mostly, he just served as priest of the large church in the capital, signed forms his secretary gave him, met the occasional new priest, or performed some ceremony or other that required his presence. He could rattle off the differences in doctrine and practice that led the Church to divide in two during the Dark Ages, but could not explain the arguments or the logic, could not say why the Fleet Church was right and the Ormus Church wrong. He simply knew that that was so. Explaining the deeper, core truths of the faith in clear, powerful, easy to understand language; that was his gift. He was known for his excellent sermons, for his charity work, for his piety.

He was most certainly not a warrior. Oh, he trained once a month with an exorcist team, a group of soldiers and AMWS pilots who wielded their weapons and their faith against attacks by the demonic Divs, but Bethel had not seen such an attack in his lifetime, and hopefully never would.

As neither a warrior nor a theologian, he was thus a terrible pick for what Bishop Stein wanted him to do. He read the message again, hoping that he might have misread it before, but it was clear: “Salvager Isolde has put up for sale a sealed container of stolen Church property. The contents are of great temporal value, but their spiritual import is greater still. Lead your exorcists to reclaim it, and hold it for my arrival. Use any means necessary to acquire it. Do not attempt to open it.”

There was nothing for it; he would have to do it. It took him a few moments to remember how to summon his exorcists at other than scheduled time, but soon enough the signal was out. He only hoped that there would be a way to settle it without anyone getting hurt.

***

Seth was busy wolfing down his lunch — flavorless, but blessedly containing neither beans nor cultured yeast — when his communicator buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket, continuing to shovel mystery meat in thin sauce and rice into his mouth as he read the message.

As he continued to read, his eating slowed and a smile spread across his face. The contents of his box were valuable, all right. If the message Izzy had just forwarded to him was legit, Scientia was willing to pay more than ten times his asking price, enough to fully restock the Isolde, pay off all the back pay he owed the crew, and wipe out half his debt in one fell swoop. Not only that, but they were offering the best bonus he’d ever seen for delivering it himself and on time: a complete servicing and refit of the Isolde, free!

He permitted himself to daydream for a moment of what he might be able to do with Scientia-built parts. A Z.R. Engine to replace the hundred-year-old tokomak, and he’d never need fuel again. Real, high-end armaments for his AMWS. Maybe even a faster core for Izzy, if he could figure out a way to get it without their techs noticing her. Yes, this was as good a deal as he could hope for. Somebody else might offer more money, but it wasn’t worth waiting for if it meant missing out on the refit.

Seth checked the contract attached to the message. It was all pretty standard stuff, the usual sale, delivery, and nondisclosure agreements. They had one weird clause, that they wanted him to bring along an observer as a passenger to guarantee the safety of the cargo. He supposed that made sense if they were willing to pay this much for it, and though normally he’d refuse to risk someone he didn’t trust discovering Izzy, he’d take that chance for a deal like this. For the money they were offering, he’d stuff his hold with them.

They had a specific observer in mind, of course. A woman named Kodesh. They had some identifying information attached — he stopped and his smile vanished when he saw Nadeshiko’s picture.

“That’s it,” he said. “I give up. The universe hates me.”

“Hates olive us,” hiccupped the drunk at the next table. “Yer notso spessul.”

***

Nadeshiko lay back on her bed and flicked the remote for her holo. She set it to project two-dee on the ceiling, not wanting to immerse in much of anything right now, and began flipping through the channels.

There was, of course, nothing on. Children’s programs, several religious stations (one each for the two big churches and several for denominations unique to Bethel), fourteen soap operas, and some sort of a sport that appeared to involve an enormous number of mecha trying to destroy each other while attempting to roll a heavily armed, but apparently immobile, mech through a constantly moving goal. Judging by the scoreboard, there were more than a dozen teams. If that was a scoreboard — the Edgetown Zebrankies appeared to have some sort of a waterfowl listed next to their name, in lieu of a number.

She gave up trying to understand the sport, and flipped to another channel. “…police have no suspects at this time,” said the news announcer. “Returning to our top story this afternoon, we have new information regarding the destruction of the Great Desert refugee camp.”

Nadeshiko bolted upright and switched the display to the wall.

“Military sources are reporting that the camp was destroyed by a rogue AMWS of unknown origin. After a brief but fierce firefight, the attacker was destroyed.”

Nadeshiko stared in horror as grainy footage of U.R. Hod vanishing in the explosion of a military AMWS played. She barely saw the mecha; underneath them, the camp was burning, ruined. Large portions of it were simply gone, glassy craters marking where military-caliber AMWS reactors had been destroyed.

“Rescue teams continue to search for survivors, but it is believe highly unlikely that anyone survived the attack.”

All day, Nadeshiko had been trying not to cry. No longer. The sobs that came ripping up through her seemed to want to claw out her chest on the way up. No tears flowed, but she fell back onto her bed, curled up and bawled. She had known, known, that lives would be lost if she left the camp. She’d let Viri argue her down, and now he was dead.

The holo was buzzing and the urgent message warning was blinking across the bottom. She had to get a grip on herself. She had to be strong. Was this how a master of the Mizrahi Arts behaved? Weeping and being irrational when there was work to be done? She took a moment and concentrated, dissolving her pain at the chemical level. It took longer than it should have; she really was running herself down, her system having to work much harder than usual just to keep her moving and conscious. There just weren’t enough nanites to completely transform the neurotransmitters filling her brain with loss into normal, functional, energetic activity. The best she seemed to be able to achieve was numb. But she could work while numb; it would do.

She played the message. It was brief: an official request from the Office of the Director-Captain for her to tag along with some untrustworthy deliveryman named Mikra to make sure he didn’t try to open his cargo. Well, why not? There was nothing for her here on Bethel anymore.

She began to pack. If he accepted the delivery, Mikra would have to leave almost immediately. Fortunately, she didn’t own much; a view changes of clothes, a few million books and vids in a plastic-coated card, a second card with a detailed medical library, and the reader for the cards half-filled a small knapsack, leaving ample room for first aid kit and her folding exercise mat. Everything else in her apartment, the furniture and bedding and dishes, had come with the place. Whoever next came here from Scientia would take it over and make it theirs.

An incoming call buzzed for her attention, and she opened it.

“Hi,” said the jerk who’d (barely) driven her back from the refugee camp. “You ready?”

She stared. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re Mikra?”

“The very same,” Seth said, with a mocking little half bow. “Looks like I’m going to have a new career of giving you rides.”

“Wonderful.”

“So, you ready?” Seth asked.

“Let’s get this over with,” she said.

“Wow, better contain some of that enthusiasm, doc,” said Seth. “Any friendlier, and I might freeze to death.”

Nadeshiko closed her eyes and sighed. “You have no idea what I’ve been through today,” she managed to squeeze out through her teeth. “I have nothing left for being friendly, and even less for being annoyed. So let’s do the job in front of us with as little talking as possible, okay? Peace?”

“Hey, I’m perfectly fine with a stony silence,” said Seth. “Don’t go doing me any favors.” He walked out the door.

Nadeshiko stifled a cry of frustration and stalked out after him. Peace offer rescinded: he really was just a jerk.

Seth shoved his hands in his pockets and walked toward the spaceport, glancing back only once to make sure Nadeshiko was following. This wasn’t going to be a fun trip at all, but maybe that was a good thing. The more she disliked him, the easier it would be to keep her from poking around the ship. He was starting to regret being so hasty in taking this deal; no matter how good the money was, the risk of somebody discovering Izzy was going to keep him on edge until the Dammerung was far behind them.

His communicator buzzed. “Yeah?”

“Boss, it’s me,” said Izzy. “There’re AMWS units in the spaceport, surrounding me, and foot soldiers guarding the approaches to the landing pads. I don’t know who they are, but nobody’s shooting at them, so they’re either government or have a really good excuse. They’re demanding we hand over your box.”

“Shit,” said Seth, stopping in his tracks. “Okay, get the crew to their AMWS and ready to launch on a moment’s notice. I’ll be there as fast as I can. In the meantime, if anybody starts shooting, you hit space as fast as you can, got it? We’ll find a way to meet you out by the fifth planet.”

“Got it, boss. Good luck.”

“You too.”

Nadeshiko came up behind Seth. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Listen, go back to your apartment. I’ll be back for you in a little bit.”

“What’s going on?” she repeated.

“Just a bit of a hassle,” Seth answered. “Go back and wait, all right?”

“I’m supposed to be observing you. How do I know you’re not trying to pull a bait-and-switch on us?”

Seth sighed. “All right, you really want to know? Somebody’s surrounded my ship with AMWS and infantry, and I’m going to try to get past them and onto my own AMWS.”

“Wow,” said Nadeshiko. “That’s incredibly, suicidally stupid.”

“Thanks,” said Seth. “Now, since you’re not suicidally stupid, you’re going back to your apartment, right?”

“Nope. The stupid part is trying to get rid of half your fighting force.”

“Okay, seriously, doc. You’re unarmed and –” Before Seth could finish the next syllable, the world spun crazily. He was suddenly facing the other way, with his arm twisted painfully behind him and Nadeshiko’s arm wrapped around his neck, slowly choking off his air. A moment later, she spun him free.

“You enjoyed that!” he wheezed, blinking dark spots out of his vision.

“Yes. Yes I did.”

Sigh. You have no idea how much worse the Seth-Nadeshiko dynamic was before I revised. And while I like Nadeshiko kicking Seth’s ass at the end there, and it’s important for setting up the next sequence, there are shades of Strong Independent Woman ™ to it. I think the next bit helps with that.

Also there’s this whole thing of Nadeshiko struggling to control her emotions that’s easily readable as a nasty misogynistic stereotype of women being irrational and emotional. All I can say is (1) she’s actually controlling her emotions too much here, and is going to pay for it later, and (2) she’s really, really not the character for whom self-control and emotional outbursts are going to be an issue.

But mostly… yeah, there’s some stuff here that if I could go back and redo everything from scratch, I’d change dramatically, but it’s too much, and I like some of the directions all this is eventually going enough that I’m going to try to work through the problematic bits, fix them up as much as I can, and acknowledge them down here in comments.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 4

The My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter is hanging at $491! The person who bumps it over $500 gets special bonus acknowledgment on the blog and in the book!

Huh, he wonders. Why hasn’t today’s post shown up on Tumblr yet? Oh–because I utterly failed to actually queue anything.

Sorry all!


Finally, after entire tens of minutes of sweltering heat crawling across the bumpy desert roads, Seth reached the refugee camp. As he pulled up to the gate, he saw someone standing by it, silhouetted in the sun, a tall, slender woman in a long, open coat. He slowed as he approached the gate, and a young soldier waved him through.

Seth pulled up next to the woman, reached across the seat and opened the door facing her. “I’m here to deliver medical supplies?” he said.

Nadeshiko climbed into the truck’s cab and pointed down a dirt path that wound between concrete buildings and tents. “Right down there,” she said. “Wish you’d gotten here earlier.”

“Contract said today,” Seth answered, as he drove slowly down the narrow, twisty path.

“I know. It’s not your fault, I’ve just had a bad day. We could have used some of those nanomachines.”

“Something going around the camp?” he asked.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re not at risk, unless you’ve got an immune disorder you haven’t mentioned.”

Seth shook his head. He looked at the rows and rows of tents extending out from the road in both directions. Here and there someone sat outside, watching impassively as he drove past, but most of the refugees and workers must have been inside. There were tents for thousands. “What are all these people refugees from, anyway?”

Nadeshiko’s big brown eyes widened. “You don’t know about the war?”

“What war?”

“What war. The Federation-Artaxerxes War!”

“Of course,” said Seth. “But that was almost five years ago. Shouldn’t they have found somewhere to go by now?”

Nadeshiko stared at Seth. “They’re refugees from the second Federation-Artaxerxes War, not the third.”

“Fifteen years? Why haven’t they gone anywhere?”

“They’re not allowed to,” Nadeshiko said quietly. “The government is afraid of the health risks, so they keep them separate. This is as much a prison as a refugee camp.”

Seth pulled up outside the low concrete storage shed. He walked around to the back of the truck and pulled out the dolly. He unfolded its handle and left it hovering next to the truck as he climbed up and lifted out the first canister.

“It’s not fair!” said Nadeshiko suddenly. “They’re human beings. They don’t deserve to be treated like this!”

“Most of the time,” Seth answered, loading the canister onto the dolly, “what you deserve and what happens don’t have much to do with each other.”

“That damn Federation ship that crashed leaked coolant into their water supply. They’ve all got immune damage. The Bethel government keeps them here because they’re an epidemic risk, and what happens? They get epidemics!”

“Where’s this go?” asked Seth.

“Over there, in the back corner,” she said, pointing. “There were eleven thousand of them when they first came here. Now there’s only three hundred. They could resettle each family in a different town, no serious epidemic risk at all. But nobody cares enough to spend the money.”

Seth followed her directions, keeping quiet while she ranted.

“And the Federation? It’s their fault everyone’s sick, but do they come in and help? No!”

“Didn’t they send these supplies?” Sometimes Seth hated the pedantic streak that made him say things like that, but he supposed her rant would continue until she was done whether he said something or not.

“Oh, sure,” said Nadeshiko. “Stopgap measures. Reparative nanomachines and generalized drugs for the diseases they catch are cheaper than the scanners and self-replicating nanomachines we’d need to tailor a permanent cure to each person. Nobody wants that money coming out of their budget this year; they’d rather spend three times that amount over fifteen years.” She was working up a good, solid mad, like she hadn’t in years. Screw hormonal control and neurotransmitter manipulation. She wanted to scream, so she was going to scream.

“So we have to sit here while people die all around us, helpless to do anything about it, waiting for your tiny little Federation handouts so that we can keep one or two of them alive a few more days, and nobody else cares!”

She went on ranting while Seth unloaded the supplies. She railed at the Bethel government for ignoring its weakest citizens, at the Ormus and Fleet churches for helping with food but no money or medical equipment, at the Federation for ignoring its responsibility, and at the universe for not caring.

Finally, Seth was done. Wordlessly, he handed over the work order for her to sign. Once she was done, he got back into the truck and started it up.

The passenger-side door opened, and Nadeshiko got in.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Seth.

“Coming with you. You’re headed back to town, right?”

“Uh-uh,” said Seth. “I’m no taxi. Find your own ride.”

“My boss said to ride back with you,” said Nadeshiko. “So, I’m riding back with you.”

“I never agreed to this!”

“Look, it’s not like going back is going to be any more difficult with me along. It doesn’t cost you anything.”

“It costs me my precious alone time.”

Nadeshiko sighed. “Look, I know I’ve been talking at you for the last twenty minutes. I’m sorry. I had a really bad day, like I said, and you were handy. But hitching across the desert is really dangerous. I could really use the help.”

Seth rolled his eyes. “Fine, but you’re paying half the truck rental.”

“Thank you,” said Nadeshiko.

Seth drove the truck back to the gate, where the same guard searched carefully to make sure no refugees were hiding in the truck. Soon, they were back out on the road.

***

Aser laughed and laughed as he dodged the attacks of the military AMWS surrounding him. “Sting, sting, my little bees!” he crowed. “You cannot touch me. All you have one is your death.” The U.R. Hod flickered back and forth rapidly in the air above the refugee camp, until it appeared there were dozens of insectile green AMWS surrounding the four military mecha, instead of the other way around.

Growing bored with his playthings, Aser returned to strafing the ground, smashing tents and buildings, picking up the sick and injured and tossing them hundreds of feet into the air like so much screaming, squirming confetti.

Below, Dr. Viri lay pinned beneath the wreckage of the collapsed main infirmary. He screamed at the sky, at the world gone mad. “Damn you, why? Who are you? What do you want?” he shrieked.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Aser taunted through the Hod’s external speaker. “You remember me, don’t you?” His jovial tone shifted, thinned to reveal the acid underneath. “I remember you. Now come out! Or do these people mean so little to you?” He pounced suddenly on one of the military mecha from behind and tore its limbs off, then smashed the torso into the ground. He teleported upward as its explosion tore through the remains of the camp. “Aw. It seems you really aren’t here. Or I killed you too quickly. Either way, it looks like time to wrap up my game.” He giggled as he tore through another AMWS as if it was made of foil.

Aser! What are you doing?

“Playing,” he told Dasra. “What do you want?”

You’re killing innocents! Why?

Aser shrugged. “They fly higher than hardened criminals when you toss them?” He punctuated his claim by snatching up a handful of refugees and throwing them into the path of a pursuing AMWS.

Stop this at once!

“That’s not a very good joke. You need to work on your delivery.”

Aser. You must return immediately. Dasra fed him a location a couple of lightyears away in the direction of Artaxerxes.

“Oh, all right,” Aser sighed.

A fraction of a second later, the U.R. Hod was in space, six light-hours from Bethel’s sun. Aser paused to get his bearings, fixing the location he needed firmly in his mind. A moment later, he was at the rendezvous point.

It was only a matter of seconds before the Cygnus sailed into view. It was a majestic ship, long and sleek and shining silver. The great tree-and-cross of Ormus ran half its length, picked out in shining green and gold; from the base of the cross at the rear of the ship, two wing-like fins rose, one on either side. It was not the Dammerung by any means, but nonetheless served as home for over a hundred people and the heart of the Orthodox Ormus Church of the Messiah, one of the two great faiths of modern mankind.

Aser hated going home. His family, such as they were, didn’t like it much better, especially his idiot brother. But if he didn’t come, Dasra would nag and nag until he did.

He flicked himself into AMWS Bay Three, where the U.R.s were kept. He scanned the room quickly, trying to see who was already here. Dasra and Nasatya, of course; they rarely left. Calvin, unfortunately, but likewise unsurprisingly; ever since he took over command of the Knights, he’d spent most of his time behind the scenes. And–

Searing pain and pleasure tore through him, hateful love and ecstatic agony. Every nerve in his body shrieked and sang as he jerked and thrashed, groaning wordlessly.

As quickly as it began, it stopped. “Hey, handsome,” said Mia over U.R. Hod‘s radio.

“Mia,” Aser gasped. “Remind me why I haven’t killed you yet?”

“Aw, you know you love me, baby.”

Enough, you two. Calvin and the Primus will be here soon. They want the three of us to remain in our U.R. units, as they have tasks for us immediately following the meeting.

The door to the ship opened, and a small, skinny, brown-skinned teenaged girl with her hair dyed in elaborate, multicolored streaks and swirls entered. Like the other monks and nuns of the Knights of the Swan, she wore a form-fitting uniform decorated with the winged Tree of Life symbol topped by a crossed pair of swords. As one of the elite, she had no rank insignia, and the uniform was in her personal colors instead of the usual black with green and gold trim. In Nasatya’s case, that meant a vivid, eye-searing hot pink.

“Hi, everybody!” she effused. “What’s up?”

“I’d like to know that myself,” said Aser.

“I know why I’m here,” Mia said smugly. “Can’t speak for the rest of you.”

“Eww,” said Nasatya.

The doors opened again, and Calvin entered. Immediately behind him came a tall, broad man. His face was heavily lined and his beard and hair were white, but his back was straight and his eyes were sharp. He moved slowly but confidently, with the air of a man who had no need of hurry, and wished to give any potential obstacles time to flee before he arrived.

He wore ornate white robes with green and gold trim and a white skullcap. His short cloak was decorated with golden discs bearing the Ormus cross, connected by golden links in the shape of three intertwining wings. Tradition held that the design of the Primus’ vestments dated back to the days of Lost Jerusalem, though no records survived of humanity’s birthplace. The records were unnecessary; the Primus believed they were that ancient, and wore them with the conviction that they symbolized his succession in an unbroken chain of leaders back to the earliest dawn era, when God walked among men and gave them His treasures.

“Your Holiness,” said Calvin, bowing, “the Knights you requested are here.”

“Indeed, hegumen,” said the Primus. “You may instruct them.”

Calvin nodded. “His Holiness has revealed to me my error in sending you unprepared, Aser. He has learned of your actions on Bethel through Dasra, but you are not to be punished. It is my own fault in sending you without making absolutely clear that you understood: Seth Mikra is to be tested, not killed.”

“Not killed yet,” said Aser.

“Not killed at all,” said the Primus. “Not until and unless I and I alone give the order. We need him. He is the only candidate we have ever found.”

“Finding another’ll be hard,” said Nasatya. “There’ll only be, like, one in a hojillion.”

The Primus and Calvin turned to stare at her.

“What? Each of us is, whatev, one of the n-state roots of a twelve-dimensional beta-type personality manifold projected onto a nine-dimensional space. There’s, dunno, a bazillion years of psychometrics that says the combination for the last one is gonna be almost impossible to find.”

They continued to stare.

You’ve worked out a formula for predicting the Chosen?

“Uh, yeah, sis. Only, like, four years ago. What, I thought it was totally obvious! You mean you guys didn’t know about it?”

After another long pause, the Primus cleared his throat. “We shall discuss this… manifold of yours later, Nasatya. Aser, you are to test Mikra. Go.”

“I shall be most testy, Your Emptiness.” Aser vanished.

The Primus glanced around the room. “Nasatya, Dasra, Mia. You know what to do.”

Yes, Your Holiness, said Dasra.

The Primus exited the room and Calvin let out a long breath. He sank to his knees and bowed his head. “Let us pray. Mia, if you would assist me.”

“Gladly, sweetie,” she answered.

“Eww, again,” said Nasatya. She clambered up the leg of her U.R. unit and into the cockpit. Sealing it around her, she cranked up the music and blanked the external views. She closed her eyes and cast forward, trying to see where Aser was going and what he was going to do.

“I am sorry, Lord,” whispered Calvin as searing pain washed through him. “I wished in my heart for this unbeliever to die. Better that then he sully the Lost Road with legs that have never knelt to You. I know now I was wrong, because the Primus has said I was wrong.” He paused a moment, struggling to keep his breathing under control, not let the agony in his filthy, heavy, weak body touch the light of his soul. “But, Lord, I am finding it hard to believe. Please, help me trust in the one You have chosen as Primus in Your perfect wisdom.”

Mia hardly noticed Calvin as she pushed the pain into him. Her eyes were wide and unfocused, her face flushed, and she was panting hard as she exerted her power, streaming energy from the mysterious power source at the heart of her U.R. unit through her own body and into Calvin’s. She was quite sure that Calvin knew what using her power did to her. She liked to think it made him feel dirtier. That was what he wanted, after all, to feel like a sinner and be punished for it, so that he could be free to do what was necessary.