Just a thing I rambled out last night. Posted with the usual caveats about the lack of copy editing. 

 

As a small child, I never understood why my mother hated the ocean so much. It made no sense to be angry at something that was always there. But she snarled at any shells I tried to show her, and railed at sand on the hearth, and pulled the curtains tight when the moon was full.

For me, the shore was an endless source of wonder; shells and seaweed, little crabs and anemones in shimmering pools when the tide was out, rolls of thundering waves, flying foam and crashing spray when the tide was high. It wasn’t until I was old enough to start helping with the shore nets myself, that Auntie Cora told me about Seth.

Seth, she said, was your older brother, gone the night you were born. He’d been a true child of the sea- getting wet as soon as he was able to walk, sailing as soon as he could manage the tiller, and away on fishing boats just as soon as he’d finished school. He had a bright smile and flashing eyes and a way with him that made you excuse the occasional spots of mischief he could manage.

His shipmates and crews held him to be their good luck charm- their nets were always a bit fuller, damage from storms always a bit less. He was fair with his men, both for reward and punishment, and not a soul ever regretted sailing with him. On land he was just as well-loved, and he’d caught the eye and the heart of Melissa, from the next town over. Before it…happened… he had gone ring shopping with his best friend Will.

Everything looked clear skies and fair winds for Seth, until the night he decided to take his singlehander out under the full moon for a jaunt up the coast. It was a trip he’d done many times before with no bother, it “cleared his head”, he claimed. But this night, when he returned, pulled his boat up on the beach and moored it down, he didn’t have a word of greeting for any of the others there. People afterwards said his eyes looked to be staring right through them, and his whole body seemed to be bowed down with a weight.

For weeks, he wandered around like a ghost, speaking to no one, ignoring the fishing, most often wandering up and down the beach like he was looking for something. Neither your parents, nor his sweetheart, could uncover the source of his melancholy.  He didn’t take to drink, like many young men in the grip of a mood would, he just seemed to shrink in on himself. Then when the moon was new and a storm was lashing the shore, your mother deep in labor with you, he slipped unnoticed from the house. When the storm passed, both Seth, and his boat, were gone.

Like most sea-folk, your parents knew that after a time, there was no hope… especially when a few days later the crushed hull of the dinghy washed ashore. They had fish to catch, and a you to care for, so they moved on. But your mother, she nodded solemnly, has never forgiven the ocean for breaking his heart and taking him away.

I was angry, that my parents had kept this brother from me, but Auntie calmed me some, and talked about how much it hurt my mother to think of him. So I did my best, after that, not to plague my mother with sea-related excitement after that, nor ask my father questions about the brother I didn’t remember. The sea, however… now that I knew, the waves seemed to listen to my questions like a patient teacher.

I’d made myself a hidey-hole in a cove at the north end town -too rocky to be good for fishing or foraging, but a small cave midway up was accessible even at high tide. Kitted out with some old rugs, and a few boxes, it made a nice, private lair, indeed.  Sitting at the entrance, my legs dangled over the side, I’d talk to the ebb and flow of the waves about my brother. What had he looked like? Where did he find the best fish? Why had the sea made him so sad? With each brush of spray across my toes, I’d imagine a new answer to my questions.

It was soon after that, that I noticed a change in my beachcombing spoils. I was always scanning the tidal edge for new bits and bobs of shell or glass or rock to add to my growing collection, and my finds were much like everyone else’s… until the afternoon a wave licked at my toes, and a shiny glint caught my eye.

It was a button, brassy and bold, with a fish enameled on it in bright blue. It showed no damage or age, so I assumed that it must belong to one of the men at the docks. I scampered up that way, and tugged at my father’s coat to show him. He smiled indulgently at the thought of my latest find, but when I opened my hand, his face blanched whiter than foam, and he snatched the button from my hand. I tried to explain, but he shoved the button in his pocket, and told me to go help mother with dinner. All through dinner I felt his eyes on me, all evening he kept slipping his hand into his pocket. Long after I’d been sent to bed, I heard my mother weeping.

Over the summer, two more buttons washed up at my feet, and a bosun’s whistle. Whole unbroken shells, barnacle free, and shining coins from other lands. A piece of gilt chain, a tiny amphorae, a cluster of crystals untumbled by the surf. Things no other child was finding. They were gifts just for me, from the ocean who kept me company.

Mindful of the reaction to the button, most of these treasures lived in little boxes in my cave. One of the buttons I strung onto a cord, and wore close to me.  The more natural ones that I could explain away as storm-wrack I shared with my age mates as we compared our piles of treasure that no adult would understand. Each of us had our own simple hoard- Maisy had a collection of sea glass, all soft edges and diffuse light. Gil collected bits of bone and shell, proudly educating the rest of us as to their animal of origin. Bryan was the expert on the shore birds, and brought feathers and eggshell. My favorite to share was polished rocks pushed onto the shore.

As I grew older, it was to my mother’s relief that I didn’t take to the fishing boats. For all I loved where sea met land, out on the ocean was a bane to my stomach, and more often than not breakfast went to feed fish more than me. The shore nets and crab pots though, those I loved- the heft and swing of flying them out over the waves in the early morning, followed by a lazy afternoon scouring the beach for wood and kelp for the fires, then the groaning haul of the catch as the sun made its way down towards the water. Each catch I took care to return the things we did not need to the sea, instead of leaving them to gasp to death on the docks as some might have done.  If anyone noticed that nets I’d helped throw were a little bit fuller, or the pots I’d baited held crab and lobster just a bit bigger, no one mentioned it. Perhaps they were afraid I was sea-blessed like my brother, and feared to make me aware of it. Perhaps they didn’t want to say anything that might skew the luck. I noticed, and after every harvest I went down to my cove and gave thanks.

My cave had long since grown too small for me, but this was still my personal haven. To replace the cave, I’d built a small shelter just back from the edge, and I would spend my evenings sitting on the edge, conversing with the ocean. Sometimes I’d speak about the day’s harvest, sometimes about family, sometimes about my plans for the future. I don’t remember when I started talking to the sea like it was Seth, it just rolled in like a tide – talking about how our mother had gone up to the mill, or how our father had broken his arm and was surly as a tangled line about it, or the sorrow when Auntie Cora passed.  The sea always listened, and it gave. Sometimes, when I mentioned the fishing was slim or that someone in the town was ill, would come trinkets of value; things I could sell at the next town over for a small bit of money to smooth someone’s path. Never enough to draw attention to me or our town, but enough to keep suffering at bay.

And then came the storm from nowhere. Out of season and billowing up so quickly that even Old Llyn, with his uncanny weather sense, had not seen it in the clear blue sky of morning. We rallied quickly, pulling up boats and nets, shuttering up windows and lashing down gear, but a gnawing fear was growing in all of us -three of the fishing boats, including my father’s, were out in the gale.

Huddled inside the community hall with the rest, all I could feel was anger. I knew that it was the new moon. I knew the storm that had claimed my brother had come unawares. I knew, and I felt betrayed. When no one was looking, I slipped out of the hall, and made my way to the beach.

The rain whipped about me from all sides, spray and storm surge drenched me to the bone before I’d made it to the stone seawall. Wind tossed me this way and that like giant hands tossing a ball, but I bent myself down and pushed forward until I felt sand beneath my feet.

I raised my face to the storming sea and screamed back at the howling winds. “I trusted you! You were my friend! I loved you! You were the brother you took from us! How DARE you take father now, too! How DARE you do this to our mother again!”

I reached into my drenched clothes, pulled out my button on a cord, and tore it from me. Shaking my fist at the waves, I used all of the strength born of years of hauling nets and tossing pots to fling the button into the traitorous sea.

Back inside the hall, they all made fuss over me -I used the excuse that I’d thought I’d heard a loose sheep, and had dragged it back to the barn to explain my dripping, drenched state. My mother had simply pressed one hand to my cheek, seen the sorrow in my eyes, and nodded softly.

We sheltered there for hours. Time of day meant little in the darkness of the storm, and we slept in fitful clusters, trying to shut out the wind that sounded like a host of dying things. When they died down and a measure of silence came we still huddled fearing to believe it was over. Then in small groups, we went outside to see the damage.

Devastation. Few houses that had been made all of wood were standing. Trees were uprooted, fences tangled messes up against hedgerows, streets were washed away. The pier, and much of the fishing gear, was gone. None of us were well-resourced people, rebuilding would be a long and expensive process.

All heads turned at a wail of horror from the direction of the beach -one voice, and then another, as we ran to see. There on the sand, lay the shattered remains of at least one of the fishing boats…and bodies. So many bodies. Yet, as people rushed to find their loved ones among the fallen…one began to move. And then another, and another, until instead of sobs of loss, we were hearing sobs of joy. Every last crew from those three ships, lay washed up on the beach -waterlogged, battered, but alive. My father among them.

My mother reached him first, tears streaming down her face. She helped him to sit up, he was clinging to a wooden chest with the most…bewildered and awestruck look on his face I had ever seen. He handed the box to mother, and she made a moaning gasp. There, on the lid, was the same blue-enamel fish pattern as the buttons.

Quietly, we led father away to the remains of our house. The walls had held fast, but the roof had been blown across the landscape like chaff. For a wonder, the old table and chairs were still there, and only needed wiped of mud and righted. We sat, and set the chest on the table between us, none of us quite willing to be the first to open it. Finally, with a huff of impatience and fear, I turned the latch.

Inside was a treasure worthy of the name. Enough coins and gems to repair the whole town, and then some. Nestled amid the shining wealth was another small box, sealed with wax. It, too, held the blue fish design, worked out in gemstones and gold. I held it out to my father to open. They gazed at the contents, my father’s mouth working as he read something quietly. When he finished they looked at each other, leaned into each other’s arms and began uncharacteristically sobbing.  Confused, and more than a bit afraid, I slipped the box from my father’s hand.

There was a letter, unfolded so that it could be read as soon as the box was open:

My beloved parents and darling sister,

It pains me more than you can know that I have not been able to reach out to you and let you know I live. I have wrestled with the guilt these many years- and the harshness of the decision I had to make when Ahrissiah bade me be her groom. Only at the new moon would the transformation hold, and yet I could not tell you where I was called to go.

I have watched over my little sister all these years, listened to her as she shares the life that I left behind. It has kept you all as a shining beacon in my heart. She had grown into a remarkable woman, a friend of the sea and it’s creatures. It is her care that has led the People to trust enough to return your people to you, and let me contact you this one last time.  Pray think of me with love and joy, not with sorrow, for I am happy in the life I lead. The sea will always provide.

Your son,

Seth- called now Sesshai of the Air, Warden of the People.

Under the letter, a painting. A dark haired man, with laughing eyes and a ready smile, his arm wrapped around the waist of a beautiful woman with hair like coral Between them a child of perhaps ten with the mother’s hair and the father’s eyes…and all of them with sinuous, glimmering tails where their legs should be.

 

Letters is a short story written by me in 2015. I did send this one off to a magazine once. They didn’t want it. Oh well!

Having won past Guardians, spells, locks and a multitude of overly-clever traps to reach the Inner Library of the Keep, the next step was merely to open the door- and I found myself facing that step with trepidation. Once overcome, and the door opened, I thought to myself that trepidation had been the appropriate feeling.

For one, the place was huge, much larger than you’d expect for a room hidden deep inside a ruined mountain. For another it was filthy. Absolutely everything was covered in a layer of dust and cobwebs from several hundred centuries worth of spiders and neglect. I could already feel my nose starting to itch and my eyes to water, and I’d barely disturbed anything by opening the great door. Any Archivist worth their salt would be in hysterics about the mess.

Fortunately (for both my quest, and my allergies), I had come prepared. Pulling my pouch of Stones from my belt, I rummaged through until I found the first I needed- a gleaming, pristine white pebble that carried the faint scent of fresh air and blowing clean linens. Holding it in the palm of my hand, I whispered the Words at it. There was a flurry of air, and a fluttering, and I was surrounded by a veritable cloud of Dust Moths.

One landed delicately on the tip of my nose, and I tried to not stare cross-eyed as I told it “This place could really use your help.”

I could feel a shiver of excitement through the eclipse of Moths as they rose up and darted into the Library. The cloud doubled, and then doubled again in size, until you could barely see the shelves themselves for the waves of Moths flying about. Even for the perfectionist Dust Moths, this was going to be a task, so I slumped myself against a pillar, and dozed.

I awoke to another Moth on my nose, gently signalling that they were done with their task. I spoke the Words of Thanks at them, and they vanished in a small puff of dust, leaving behind a glittery, glistening scene. The Library was pristine- probably cleaner than it had been even when the Great Ones were in residence. If nothing else it was no longer a threat to my sinuses, and I could go onward.

As had been suspected, from what little records the Archive held about the Inner Library, there was no catalogue, no index, and Mother only knows what their organizational system had been. I could spend months wandering around looking for the book I needed, and never find it. Given that I knew only part of the title, it could fall off the shelf and land on my head, and I might not realize it was the right one.

Thus the need for another Stone. This one, one of my favorites to use, looked like a simple river pebble, shot through with lines of reddish quartz, like a map. Whispering the Words across its surface,the lines began to glow softly, stretch upward from the surface of the stone, and resolve themselves into a Seeker Fae- who made a small squeak of glee, and flew a few laps around my head.

“Hello to you too, Sial,” I chuckled as she settled back in my hand.

“Hello, hello, hellooooo!” she sang back. “What are we looking for today?”

I walked over to a nearby desk and pulled my notes out of my pack. (Not that I really needed them, this was important enough that the few facts I had were seared into my brain, but it helped to lend a sense of normalcy to the proceedings.) “I need a book, and it is somewhere in here.” She looked around and gave a musical “Oooooh” of appreciation at the size of the place.

I made a show of looking at my notes. “I need the book by Detheli Ahmdi with ‘Letters’ in the title”. I expected her to go darting off, but she just stood there, looking at me.

“Sial?”

She cocked her head to one side and looked very bewildered at me. “ALL books have letters in the title, that’s what makes them titles!”

I cocked my head back, feeling just as bewildered, until I parsed through what I’d said. “OH! No, no. I need the book by Detheli Ahmdi with the wordLetters‘ in the title!”

“Ohhhhhh!” She did a little twirl in the air. “Then why didn’t you say so, silly!”

She gave my nose a tiny tweak, and rose into the air. As she did so, she grew brighter, and brighter, until she was a bright ball that fractured into a dozen or so pieces, and each ball zipped off down a different aisle of tomes. Like the Moths, this could take a while, but now I was too nervous to rest.

Months and months of research, wary eyes on the great Burning Star in the sky, councils of War at the Shining Palace, a long and treacherous journey through surreal lands, all to reach this Library and find the answer to a single question. How had Lekelrah, and the Council of Great Ones, ended the Ethkenni War, millennia ago?

The legend held that, when the Burning Star appeared in the sky, the Ethkenni had come to our world, spreading “war and destruction untold” upon the land, overwhelming all the armies of all the Kingdoms, until Lekelrah and the Council had faced them; “And he stood before them, and spoke Great Words, and they withdrew to their Burning Star; yet they left with ominous warning, that they would return, heralded by the Burning Star.”

But nowhere in the Archives or Histories did it record what those Great Words were. Everyone agreed it must be some Summoning or Spell that brought the Ethkenni to their knees, but what? The only clue we had was an account from a historian a few hundred years later that “Lekelrah kept in Correspondence for many more years with his dear friend Detheli, speaking of the War, its Conclusion, and Aftermath, and upon the Greatest of Great Ones’ Death Detheli compiled those Letters into a complete tome, and had them enshrined in the Inner Library of the Keep of the Great Ones”.

Of course (much to the consternation of the Archivists, who prided themselves on maintaining informational continuity- but what do you expect after 10,000 years have past?), the location of the Keep had been lost. No one knew if it was still even standing, given natural upheaval and all. But they banked on the Great Ones having preservation spells, and the strongest of the Seeker Fae being able to get a general location, and then they asked for volunteers to go find the book.

Archivists are not, by their nature, particularly adventuresome types. Needless to say there was a dearth of volunteers to leave their cosy, stable Archives and venture out into unknown territory, through weather and monsters and who knows what else. Even if it was to find the greatest Library ever known.

So it fell to me, who was a lowly Apprentice Archivist, because I am the adventuresome type, and the elderly Apprentice Keepers were well and truly tired of hauling me out of trouble, and finding punishments for me. I have to admit, I was thrilled to the bone by the prospect; the sword training given by the Royal Guard had been delightful, as had the survival training from the Royal Woodsmen. And certainly the presentation to the Royal Majesties of a dozen Kingdoms as “The Hope of our People” was both gratifying and intimidating… but given everything that happened between then and now, I’d found new respect and merit for the idea of just staying home in a cozy Archive.

A melodic shriek of gleeful triumph echoed through the shelving, and a beam of light appeared in front of me, leading me deep into the library, where Sial danced happily before a podium holding a large book. It took me a few moments to read the cover (Thank The Mother that Ancient Languages is one of the first classes Apprentice Archivists have to wade through!), but there it was: Letters of Correspondence from the Great One Lekelrah, 1270-1339, collected by Detheli Amdi on the Occasion of the Great One’s Passing.

Pulling the book carefully off the podium (it was surprisingly well preserved for 10 millennia old, but one can never be too gentle with books), I sat at another nearby desk and began to read…and as I read, my eyes grew wider, and wider…

~~~

By the time I returned to the Shining Palace (the trip home being much easier than the trip out, thanks to a Travel Fae), the Ethkenni armies had arrived, and were massed on the northern edge of the Land. They had vast camps, many more soldiers than we had, and it already looked bleak. Our armies were mobilized, and they had been waiting anxiously for the signal to proceed. Had I taken any longer to return, they would have attacked without the knowledge I held.

I used the Travel Fae to race to the front lines, placed myself between the two armies and yelled as loud as I could at the the massed Ethkenni. As one they gave a roar back, and turned away from the battlefield.

~~~

Standing in the Hall of the High Council, before the gathered Royals and their Generals, I was privileged to see every single one of them sporting an expression not normally seen on a single person of high breeding, let alone a dozen or so of them. Utter and complete jaw-dropping disbelief.

Queen Maiella of Kendst was the first to recover enough to speak. “That… THAT is what the Great Ones did to stop the most devastating War the Land has ever seen?”

I nodded solemnly; although I deeply, deeply wanted to laugh at their incredulity, knowing that I’d gone through the same range of expressions and emotions while I’d been reading.

King Fredek spoke up. “And the entirety of the War, all the destruction, could have been prevented if they’d done this first?”

I nodded again, just letting them process what I’d told them- that I’d stood before the massed alien army in all its deadly splendor and yelled, essentially, “Time Out!”

Head Archivist Theand, ancient as some trees, began to chuckle under his breath, and then to guffaw, his whole body shaking until he was almost sliding off his chair. Some of the Council glared at him for this breach of decorum. I was just glad it was him and not me.

“Explain it to us again, slowly.” Queen Gedda bade me.

“You see, honored Council, when the Ethkenni appeared on this world, fully armed for battle, our ancestors responded in kind, gathering up their armies, and making a pre-emptive strike on the alien forces. What no one realized at the time was that their species sees combat as a ritualized physical event -a Great Game- that can happen at any time. Because of this, the Ethkenni always dress like they are ready for battle. When we attacked, we basically said “Game on!” to them, and they took our actions as the opening play. When we kept throwing armies at them, they kept ‘playing’; not understanding why we kept going, even though we were losing.”

“All this time, Lekelrah was working on their language, and was finally able to understand that, at the beginning of every battle, they’d been saying not a battle cry, but basically “We don’t want to play any more!”. We’d been breaking their rules of engagement by continuing to attack them. So Lekelrah went out to the largest Ethkenni camp and said, in their language “Please stop killing us!”. So they did. There’s more details of his conversations with the Ethkenni leaders, learning the rules of their Game, and how they helped the Great Ones clean up the mess, but that’s the basics of it.”

Theand had stopped laughing enough to listen, and he leaned forward at me “But why, then, did the Ethkenni warn of their return, if they were truly no threat to us?”

“The Burning Star is their home world, and it travels around the sun, just as our world does. But it takes their world much much longer to make a full orbit; 10,000 years, give or take. And when it gets close to the sun, the surface becomes volatile, so they either shelter deep underground, or they visit some place nearby. We happen to be nearby. The orbit before that, people didn’t exist here. They weren’t warning us that they were a danger, they were telling us that they’d be back around, and to remember them, so the misunderstanding wouldn’t happen again.”

General Amder shuddered. “It almost did. By The Mother, it almost did. But why didn’t this knowledge get passed on?”

Archivist Theand tapped the tome I’d returned with. “It sounds like, bluntly, the Kings of the time were too embarrassed to let it be known that all the death and misery was a massive diplomatic error on their part. So they instructed Lekelrah to restrict the information to the Great Ones, and it never went any further.”

The General grunted in general disapproval of this historical behavior, and then glared at Theand. “How do we keep it from happening again? Who’s going to deal with diplomacy and making treaties and keeping us out of their Game, if none of us speak their language?”

Theand’s eyes twinkled as he pointed a bony finger at me. “I think that is a perfect task for our newly minted Head Archivist of Ethkenni Lore!”

Wonderful. Another adventure.

Echo.  Ahh, Echo. Echo Caoimhe McKenzie was an unofficial NPC who explored the D’ni caverns during the Gametap era of  Myst Online: Uru Live. Echo was mysterious, sassy, thoughtful- and one of those characters who will yank conscious control from you and go off in their own direction. I love Echo. Echo still comes out to play, sometimes.  Myst Online still exists as a free to play MMO, over at mystonline.com  , and you can explore Echo’s own blog at echomck.wordpress.com

This story appears in modified form in the RPG I co-authored- Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of Myst & Beyond

Echo was, in general, one of the mellowest, ‘zen’ people you could ever meet. Even people who didn’t believe in her visions of D’ni, and thought she was deluded or crazy or both agreed that she was pretty relaxed.  Sure, she had her moments, like any human being does- but even when she was upset, it was this sort of quiet intensity.

Today was different.  She’d been over by the Great Library, painting something only she could see.  A few of us were watching her, like an underground Bob Ross. Not just because it was fun to watch her paint (I’d once mentioned Bob Ross to her, and she’d promptly painted a “Happy Little Great Tree” into what she was working on.), but because you never knew when she’d start talking about what she was “seeing”- and her stories (true or not) were fascinating.

She seemed on the verge of saying something, when there was a series of incoming links behind us. Normally the vwooom noise was ignorable, but this was a dozen or so in close succession.  It was a cluster of new explorers, the largest group of newbies I’d seen in a while, all chattering animatedly about discovering D’ni and being in various stages of Yeesha’s Journey.

One of them, obviously further along in the Journey than the others, started lecturing about the Pride of D’ni, and how the poor Bahro suffered- the usual Yeeshaist party line. They were still going on about it as the group walked off, and we all went back to watching Echo- but she’d stopped painting, and was stating after the group with something like loathing crossing her features.

Echo tried to go back to painting, but you could tell she was agitated. She was tapping her brush on her hand and fidgeting with the paints. Her whole body was restless, and she kept looking back the direction the group of newbs had gone.

Finally she set her things down, squared her shoulders, and strode off towards the cluster of people now gathered in the circular landing between the library and the bridge. There were still on the same subject matter when Echo walked up to them and announced loudly “Yeesha was wrong.”

The conversation screeched to a halt, as they all turned to face this random redhead who has interrupted them.  The one who’d been talking, irritated at having his monologue cut off, glared at her and asked “Who the hell are you?”

The more experienced explorer went to kick the guy’s shin, but Echo held up her hand, forestalling him. “I’m Echo McKenzie.  And Yeesha was wrong.”

A hush fell. Even the newest of them had heard about Echo.  The leader cleared her throat, and started to speak- “Well, I’m sure you would agree that…”

Echo whipped her head around to glare at her. “I wouldn’t agree to anything.”

“Yeesha!” She snarled scornfully. “Yeesha lectures us on the Pride of D’ni.  “D’ni grew proud…” she says, “… and then it died.” But what does Yeesha really tell us? The stories of few Kings who were horrible.  A single Age that was supposedly a hub for a slave trade.”

“She tells us that the Bahro were enslaved to the D’ni. That D’ni was “Built on the backs of the Least.” But when did that slave trade start? How did the Bahro -obviously an intelligent species- with powers that eclipsed, in some ways, the D’ni’s own, how did they become slaves? What about the Tablet gave the D’ni control?”

“And was it all of the Bahro, the entire species, or just some of them? How did they become trapped here when there was no D’ni in control? Are we freeing them because they were slaves then, or because they were somehow stuck now?” Why do we do this strange ritual for beings we know nothing about on the say so of a hundred year old hologram? Especially given that the result seems to be a violent war that could come crashing down on our heads at any time?!”

Her voice had risen to near yelling, and the sound had attracted a crowd-people being urged “Down in front!” so the people in the back could see, others sending KI messages out to their friends, “Check this out,  Echo is on a tear!”

As if the press of people was a physical weight against her, she turned to the railing and leaned against it heavily, taking deep, long breaths in an attempt to calm herself. No one said a word, we just waited. Finally, she turned back to her audience, calmer, but still firm.

“Freeing the Bahro is a noble and worthy task. No matter how they became stuck, they need to be unstuck. But Yeesha ties the enslavement of the Bahro into the Fall of D’ni. She blames the sin of Pride for D’ni’s destruction.  And she is wrong. “

“A few bad Kings, no matter how bad, over 10,000 years, does not a ‘prideful’ society make.  A hidden slave economy, known to only a limited few, does not a ‘prideful’ society make.  What is pride, anyhow? Was the whole of D’ni really overrun by a cultural sense of hubris and importance that caused their society to crumble under its own weight?”

“No. Not at all. D’ni ended because of hate. The hate of a single man. A man so vile, so determined to revenge himself on the society he thought had wronged him, that he manipulated and twisted the feeling and weaknesses of others to his own ends. A man so evil that he was willing to murder every single man, woman and child, just to feel superior, and to become a God. “

Echo opened her arms to encompass the cavern in a vast gesture. “How many people do you think lived here, at the end? Thousands? Millions?  You could drop the whole population of Manhattan Island in here, and we’d be ok. “

“How many of those millions even knew about the Bahro? Maybe a dozen? Maybe more? How many of those millions did anything but go through their day-to-day lives, just like every person on the surface.“

She pointed at the person who’d first raised her ire.  “The D’ni were just like you.  They had jobs, they had families, they had lives and loves and dreams and just were.

“Pride didn’t kill those people. An engineered biological weapon did.  A domestic terrorist did.  They were slaughtered in the streets, and hunted down in the Ages where they took refuge. They died in fear and chaos and confusion. How many of them deserved to die because of ‘pride’?”

“Remember that, when you hear Yeesha talking. Remember that she has her own past, her own scars, and her own agenda. She her own idea of right and wrong, her own assumed burden of guilt for her family’s role in the Fall.”

“Remember, when you start feeling superior to the “prideful” D’ni culture- that millions died in a single day.  An entire culture wiped out because of one man’s evil.”

She looked up as a group of explorers wearing wing suits, some with smoke bombs attached, dove off the newly installed platform on the Arch of Kerath- spiraling down in patterns to suddenly disappear off into their Reltos.

“Explorers have forgotten what D’ni was- a thriving, ancient culture, that ended in sudden tragedy. To some, D’ni is just a cool place to be.”

“Can you imagine holding a dance party or skydiving among the plaster casts of Pompeii? Can you visualize the scandal and outrage if people started just moving in to Pompeii’s old buildings? People visit, people explore, people even picnic and listen to music and enjoy the area, but always with a sense of reverence. Pompeii was buried in 79 AD… D’ni fell nearly 1700 years after that… and yet here we are, reclaiming this mass grave for our homes and commerce and entertainment.”

She lifted a hand to her eyes, like she was in pain, or all the talking had drained the life out of her.

“Bringing new life to D’ni and the Ages is the dream we all shared when we felt called here, but we should never, ever forget what the cost was, for us to have all these wonders to explore.”

She let her hand drop to her side, flipped open her Relto book, and vanished.  We all just sat there, stunned, and considered how nothing in D’ni is really what it seems.

I wrote this way back in 2010, and discovered it when I was migrating my old LJ posts. Polished it up, and here it is. 

It was one of those Assholes In a Big Truck that finally did it for me. He’d cut me off, swerving into the Applebee’s parking lot (nearly smacking my poor little beater car in the process.), flipping me off when I honked. Jerk. And his truck sported a dangling rubber ballsack.

Bad enough these idiots were driving jacked up 4WD trucks in places where 4WD was never needed. Bad enough these trucks were always pristine and shiny, never having seen a day of real truck work in their lives… did they have to advertise “COMPENSATION FOR SMALL PENIS” so obviously? I mean, plastic testicles hanging off the hitch of your truck? Really?

The spirit of Eris Discordia, and every cheesy vigilante comic book I’d ever read, descended on me in that moment. I swear I heard a choir of decidedly demented angels singing, and I had an Idea.

I ducked into the Goodwill around the block and grabbed some dark clothes, a wig, and some platform shoes, cause I’m noticeably short. Purchased bright clothes and some useful knick-knacks, so as not to look suspicious. Went across the street to the Freddies, and got some garden shears and a few squeeze bottles of ketchup. Drove back around to the Applebee’s, parked in a corner, got dressed, and waited.

When the coast was clear, I walked over to the testicle-enhanced truck, and snipped the orangey-red (WTF orangey-red??) abominations off with the shears, and squirted ketchup on the severed ends, and dropped the balls in a pool of ketchup on the ground. Resisting the urge to wait and see what happened, I ducked back into my car and drove off.

Hoo, boy, what a rush. I fantasized the driver and male friends coming out and seeing the carnage. I could see them all clutching their crotches in sympathy.

“NOOOOOOO!” …he would wail in a bad Anakin Skywalker imitation, sinking to his knees with one fist raised to the sky and one hand tucked between his legs… “My truck has been unmanned!”.

I giggled helplessly for blocks. The lady at the drive-through looked at me funny when I couldn’t stop giggling while I ordered a celebratory milkshake. Had to park while I choked because giggling and milkshakes don’t mix well; whipped cream came out my nose, and that just made me laugh harder.

When I could breathe again I mentally patted myself on the back, and headed home.

And then, out of the darkness, another testiculated truck- parked on the far side of the Safeway parking lot. I swung in and parked in the open spot right next to them, pulled out slightly so his tail end was blocked from major view. My sense of mischief escalated, and I grabbed a pair of gloves from the first aid kit.

Again with the snip, and tomatoey gore dripping from the tailgate, but this time, I walked around the front, poured ketchup on the balls in my hand, and splatted them against the windshield. I had to keep from busting a gut as they slid down, leaving a trail of red slime.

The Gods were with me that night. Everywhere I went, there was another truck with balls. 26 of them in all, that I snipped with the precision and skill of a veterinarian. One set had a hole in them, so I hung the dripping carcass off the antenna. Another truck was so gaudily pimped out, that I wrote “SORRY ABOUT YOUR PENIS” in ketchup across the hood. Then there was the Jeep with a pair hanging under the back _and_ front plates. Dropped both of those on the windshield and wrote “CONFUSED MUCH?”

Never once did I get close to being caught, and there wasn’t a surveillance camera in sight. By the time midnight rolled around, I’d gone through 3 bottles of ketchup, and cut off 27 sets of balls. I went home feeling like I’d really accomplished something beautiful.

It was all over the news the next day; how truck owners in the area had come out to find their rubber balls ‘removed’ from their vehicles. The interviews with the victims were hilarious, because to a man, they all stumbled over the “Why did you have them on your truck anyhow?” question. A couple news stations even investigated the origin of the balls-on-truck product, and those were filled with thinly veiled mockery. Police had no evidence, no leads, and since there had been no actual property damage beyond the loss of balls, police weren’t inclined to spend much effort on it.

Now, on my bookshelf, is a small, nondescript scrapbook. The cover is decorated with cutesy little tomatoes and gardening implements. Inside are screencaps from news shows, quotes from ranting truck owners, and printouts of news stories with headlines like:

AREA TRUCKS ‘NEUTERED’ IN THE NIGHT!

KETCHUP COVERED CASTRATION CAUSES CONFUSION!!

VIGILANTE TAKES ON TRUCK TESTICLES!

The gear I keep in a box in my closet. Mostly for the amusing memory…maybe someday I’ll pull it out and tell my grand kids about being a masked crusader for justice, or at least against blatant dicksizing. Then again, some company just came out with a ‘heart shaped’ light for bikes…that hang upside down under the seat and…does not look like a heart.

The city might need me again, soon.

In the last days of the Exodus, they were pulling ships out of whatever mothballs they could find, and pardoning nearly any crime to give those ships pilots. One such pairing was the Aerohosp ship Iridia and her new pilot Kirt Champen.

The Iridia had been a find, languishing in the ruins of an old Separatist compound; as a long-range medical transport, she came already equipped with a full complement of cryocells. Once those were updated and she was retrofit with Pulse drives scavenged from smaller, redundant ships, she was ready to fly.

Kirt was, himself, somewhat of a find, although less of an unexpected one. 15 years prior he’d been a thorn in the side of Alliance Security, with his profitable pirating scheme and an ability to pull physics-defying maneuvers out from his hat that earned him grudging respect from AlSec force pilots. One of those maneuvers had finally been too much, leaving Kirt to cool his heels in an off-planet incarceration facility.

They’d offered him a full amnesty and pardon in exchange for piloting an Exodus ship- assuming that he’d jump at the chance, knowing that those left behind (and there would be those left behind, there were far more people than ships) faced a death sentence. He surprised them by insisting on some conditions; that he alone chose his crew- and they also get full pardons; that no less than 40% of the cryocells be filled with children; and when they reached the new planet, he be granted land to settle on and cultivate, and never be called on to pilot a ship again.

Given the one-way nature of the Exodus, the Alliance found it easy to agree. Now he sat on the edge of the solar system, a crew of the best and brightest who had ever served him (and were still living) again at his side, in a ship filled with sleeping people, a full 53% of whom were children he’d personally tucked into their cells.

He rolled the data rod in his hand back and forth, a nervous habit from way back, waiting for the signal to proceed. Once loaded into the ship’s navigation system, it would guide them to one of several undisclosed locations. The decision had been made, in the upper echelons of the Alliance, that Exodus was best served by scattering the ships to different locations, with no one but a select few knowing where they were all going. It was “Just in case.”, they said. Just in case they were pursued, just in case they were betrayed, just in case of a dozen other potential mysterious disasters. To ensure survival they must, as one Elder put it, “Not put all their eggs in one basket.”

Kirt did know, at least, that the trip would take at least four Pulse jumps, and that even with those, the final destination was about a decade away.

The All Hail chime made him jump, and he (and everyone else on the bridge) held their breath. The voice that came over the speakers sounded as tense and edgy as he felt.

“All ships, proceed as directed, I repeat, you may proceed as directed.” There was a pause, and the voice came again, softer “And may all our Gods be with you.”

Comm shut off with a low ‘bong’, and Kirt exhaled loudly. Outside, he could see an increasing number of flashes, as the other ships left in their first Pulse.

“Get settled, people- let’s do this then.” He slid the rod into place, and the ship came alive with blinks and beeps. The Nav system piped up with “Pulse in 5….4…3…2…” and the world dissolved into a brilliant blue light.

~~~~

Douglas, an all around rascal, but the best navigator since Magellan, poked his head into the Mess where Kirt was trying to enjoy some synthesised soup.

“Nav says we’re about 15 from the next Pulse, cap.”

Kirt muttered around something that was almost a biscuit. “Be up in a few, thanks”. He washed the dry, doughy thing down with some water, and set to de-tangling his braid from the chair bolts. Again.

Six years into their trip, his hair had finally reached the knee-brushing length he’d favored before his stint in prison- it might get him some jokes about being ‘pretty’ from his crew, but he thought it looked dashing- and that just might be a bonus with the ladies when they arrived at the new planet. He felt almost his old self again, and he did admit that piloting a ship that wasn’t actively trying to hide, or avoid being shot out of the sky, was a vast improvement.

There were half hearted salutes as he walked onto the bridge and took his chair, which he discovered was warm- he gave a mock glare around the room, wondering which one of them had recently vacated his spot.

“Status?”

“Coming up on automated Pulse number 3, system will start the 5 minute countdown in…Mark.”

“Good. Any signs of the other Exodus ships?”

“Negative, cap. And no hails or comm traffic, either.”

Kirt let out a noncommittal grunt. No comm traffic wasn’t unusual, they’d been advised to keep radio silence unless it was an emergency. But to not have visual on any of the other ships, or some sensor indication of other Pulses? That was odd, given that a chunk of them were all, supposedly, headed to the same destination. Not for the first time he wondered how much of the Exodus solution had been population control, as well.

His brooding was interrupted by the Nav chirping “Pulse in 5…4…3…2…”

As the normally blue flash of Pulse became shot through with sickly green streaks, and a noise that moved straight down into his bones overwhelmed his senses, Kirt knew something had gone very, very wrong.

~~~

Darkness. That was all Kirt was first aware of, and it suited him just fine. Anything to avoid the green lightning flashes that had seared themselves onto his retinas. It was quiet, too. Also fine, because his bones were still vibrating from that indescribable noise. As other senses began to return, he could feel a heavy weight on his legs, and the iron-salt tang of blood in his mouth. Where were the others?

“Report!” he tried to shout, but it came out a strained croak. He coughed a few times, swallowed, and hollered again. “Report, dammit! Where are you people?!”

The weight lifted from his legs as someone move the panel he was stuck under, and the dim emergency lighting hit his eyes. Blinking he saw Cellen kneeling over him.

“Take it easy, boss.” she cautioned him, as he pulled himself up. “Your face is pretty banged up- the side view panel gave way and tried to flatten you.” She dabbed his face with some med cream, then pulled on his bottom lip and doctored a cut along the inside of his mouth.

“What’s our status? Who’s still standing?” He eased himself into his chair, which was still standing, if canted a bit sideways. He could see other crew members digging out or bent over instruments. Douglas stood up from his console and grimaced.

“No crew casualties. We might have lost a bank of cells. Not,” he held up a hand to forestall Kirt’s question “Not  any of the kids. Jules is headed down to check. Margo went to look at the engines as soon as she could move.”

Kirt nodded, and winced as that stretched a cut on his neck. “Any idea what happened? Where are we?”

Douglas glared at his Nav console before answering “I have no clue where we are. Nothing I’m seeing shows up on the charts, and the automated Pulse left no data behind as to where it was aiming. So I can’t even tell you if we’re anywhere close to where we were supposed to be.”

“As for what happened, the best I can parse out is that one of the drives was out of sync with the others, and it threw off the whole Pulse. But pre-Pulse diagnostics should have caught that, even for an automated run.”

“We’re on the ground, that much we can tell.” Cellen piped up, waving one arm at the bridge window, the view from which was clearly blocked by grey, rocky, debris. “And we’ve got basic life support running, with no major hull breaches, but internal comm is shot.”

“Well, that’s something, at least. We’ll know more once Margo gets back on the bridge. You keep bandaging people up, Cel. I’m going to suit up and take a peek outside.”

Making his way carefully to the port airlock, he found it sealed with all the alarm lights blinking frantically. Damaged then, and vacuum on the outside. Starboard seemed intact, so he peeled on his suit, locked down his helmet, and cycled himself outside.

Grey. Light grey, dark grey, almost black in places, almost white in others, but generally a lifeless, empty grey. Not featureless- there were craters all over the place, but so very, very lifeless.  As he stepped away from the ship, his gut roiled at just how close they’d come to being a smear of rubble.

The ship was resting-nose and part of the port side wedged deep into the ground- on the very rim of a vast, deep crater. Even enhancing his helmet vision, Kirt couldn’t see the other side.  A few to the left, and they would have gone over and in, instead of driving like a stake into the ground beside the edge. He walked his way around the ship, not seeing any external damage, other than the crumpled and buried nose. Taking a few pictures for reference, he headed back inside.

Margo and Jules were back on the bridge, and they both looked like someone had kicked them in the gut. Kirt frowned. “Tell me we didn’t lose any of the kids.”

Jules shook his head, while Margo looked at her hands.

“No, the cells are all intact. The crumpling didn’t reach that far inward. Took out a bunch of cargo… but…”

“But” Margo took over “The Pulse drives are dead. Seriously and completely dead. I couldn’t even get them back up if I was in the best Alliance shipyard with all the shiny new toys.”

Kirts frown deepened “So, that means…what?”

“It means that even if we can figure out digging the nose of the ship out enough to fly, we’re not flying far. It’d  be barely doable for inner system close flight, we’d never manage anything extrasolar.”

“Ok, so we’re stuck local. Doug, you happen to have any habitable spots in range?”

“Nothing yet, boss. And I’m trying.”

“So we keep looking, and hang tight for a while while we…”

“Boss, “ Jules interrupted, “It gets worse. Some of the primary systems were fried right along side the Pulses… We’re on backup power and life support, and those aren’t meant for long term use.”

Kirt tried to rub out the crease that was threatening to cement itself across his brow. “How long do we have?”

Cellen punched in some numbers to her portable “Well, if we keep systems to minimal, and only use specific..”

“How. Long?”

She shrank into herself against the weight of his anger. “Maintaining support for crew and cryocells… about 3 days.”

“And if we turn the cells off?”

“About two weeks.”

~~~

     All those pretty stars and planets out there, and not a damn one we can use. Kirt snarled to himself, sitting in his suit on a rock outside the ship.

He knew everyone was waiting inside for him to make a decision, even though he’d told them to all get some sleep, they’d talk about it later. He almost wished he could just pop open his helmet and let someone else have to make the hard choices. Turn off the cells, and give Doug more time to find a habitable planet they could get to- but what would be the point if all the refugees were dead. Or leave them on, and have only 3 days until they were all dead anyhow.

     Star-cursed Exodus. How many of them made that third Pulse without trouble? All of them? A Few? Did it really matter? These were the refugees he’d been in charge of, the kids he’d tucked into their cells, promising them they’d have a new home when they woke up. These are the ones he cared about…and now they were going to die, and so was he. He didn’t mind himself dying, it was the innocents that made him so angry. Like his sisters…

     “Damn you! Stupid, absent, miserable Gods! I didn’t believe in you then, and I still don’t, but what kind of monsters let a ship full of sleeping kids die! I HATE you!”

He grabbed a rock off the ground and flung it into space, heedless of inertia pushing him off his perch onto the ground. The rock flew up higher, higher, until it seemed to blend with a bright blue-white star…and then he realize the star was growing larger. It came closer and closer, until it was a bright glowing globe over his head, then it split into five independent pieces that elongated into beams, almost twice as tall as he, surrounding him.

     What are you? What are you? Why are you?  The words seemed to explode into his brain, and he gasped in pain. “Stop…hurts…stop…” he whimpered.

     Ahhh. The voices said We understand. You are in pain. You are afraid. Let us see. 

He started to answer them, but felt a soft brush against his forehead, like someone gently pushing his hair away from his face, and a warmth spread through him. Everything about the wreck, the Exodus, even prison and pirating seemed to be pulled through his thoughts and drained away. Further back, to school, and the accident, and his mother brushing his hair from his face in just that same way.

     Sleep. Sleep, you who are called human. And we will make it whole.

Kirt didn’t understand. Tried to explain that he needed to be in the ship to sleep, but a lassitude spread across his limbs faster than he could speak, and he drifted off.

He dreamed. He was on his family’s farm- picket fence and all, long before he became a pilot and a pirate. He was content to run around in fields, fish in the river, and settle down at home. He spent his summer days fixing machinery with his father, or baking pies with his mother, and tormenting his two twins sisters who had braids down to their knees. The sunlight was a golden glow, the air a shimmery blue that only happened in summer evenings. That sun grew, and grew, until it engulfed him and he knew nothing but that warm embrace.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Brightness. It seemed dim after the golden light he’d been swimming in, but it seeped under his eyelids until he opened them, to see the five beams of light hovering around him still.

     Come, human.

He stood up, expecting the bulk of his suit, and open space- instead he cracked his bare head on the interior of the crumpled port airlock.

“What the…?”

     Come, human. 

The light-beings floated in a line through the open airlock door, and down into darkness. He gaped at the door, spacer instincts screaming at him that without his suit he’d be dead any…second…now… But he was breathing, he was fine, not boiling in vacuum, so it must be alright.

Cautiously, he followed, finding himself in a tunnel sloping downward, seemingly made of the same grey rock as outside, but the walls were smooth, almost polished. The Lights floated along ahead of him, giving him just enough light to see by, but staying out of reach. Several times he tried to talk to them, with no answer.

How long they’d been in this tunnel, he couldn’t say. He felt like he’d been walking steadily downward for quite a distance, but he was strangely not worn out. He was about to start another round of questions, on the off chance that this time they might answer, when the light ahead grew brighter. Not the cold blue glow of the lights, either, but a warm, natural light. Kirt rushed ahead, and stepped out of the tunnel into a wonder.

A glade on the edge of a forest, trees reaching overhead to a brilliant blue sky, leaves whispering in a soft breeze. Too confused for words, he walked forward into the grass, then turned to look behind him.

There, floating quietly near the tunnel entrance, hovered the Lights, softly illuminating the stark, nearly vertical wall of the grey crater. They floated upwards, and his eyes were drawn to follow, up along the wall, up to the rim where his battered ship would be, up along the curve of a domed sky lit with a sun he knew couldn’t be there, and then back down, to float in front of him once more.

“How… how did you DO this? Why?”

     Life is a rare thing here in this particular universe. It should not be ended by mistake or malice. You have the will and the strength to carry forward, so you should.

Kirt felt the responsibility of this lay on his shoulders, and yet it wasn’t an uncomfortable weight, just one to be adjusted to. Maybe he’d always been ready for this.  He turned to start the climb back up through the tunnel.

“My crew, I need to go get them, there’s so much we’ll need to do.”

     No need, human. All is made ready

The Lights gathered around him, lifting him gently in arms he couldn’t see. They flew through the air, towards what must be the center of the crater. From this high up, he could see the whole of the forest, and rolling hills, vast grassy plains and a deep blue river tumbling over multicolored rocks. In the distance, he could see dryer, arid land with towering mesas, and a snow-capped mountain- places that brushed against memories of family trips as a child. A whole ecosystem was spread out before him, and he seemed to know it all by heart already.

Their flight slowed, and Kirt saw they were approaching what looked to be a small town. Almost painfully familiar, he saw buildings ready for for housing, and simple businesses. All the equipment for basic farming was already lined up beside silos and barns. The only unusual feature was a long building to one side, and a spire of many-faceted crystal in the middle of the town.

Setting him down by this spire, the Lights arrayed themselves around it.

     Your people await in there. 

One of the Lights glinted in the direction of the long building. Entering through the wide double door that was standing ajar, Kirt saw they were telling the truth. Rows of beds along the walls held sleeping men, women and children. A set of beds closer to the doors held his crew- Cellen snoring away, Jules with one leg sprawled out of the blanket, the rest tucked in snug like they’d been sleeping for hours.

There were long rows of tables down the middle of the hall, and he could see through a half wall into an kitchen. The arrangement made perfect sense, dormitory and mess while they sorted out who would live where, communal hall once things settled down. It was exactly the way he would have done it.

Stepping back outside, he wandered around exploring, his mind occupied with making plans, organizing in his head how the colony would work the best.

     Huh. Colony. He thought to himself. I guess we really are one now, aren’t we? 

The sun was starting to set (he paused a moment to wonder how it was doing that, when there wasn’t actually a star out there…) so he walked reverently back over to the spire where the Lights waited. Now that he looked closely at it, the base of stone seemed to rise straight from the ground, and what he thought was a single crystal, was five delicate ones, intertwined. It glinted and sparkled in the fading light, giving him a chill of awe that he’d never really experienced before.

“Are you… are you the Gods?”

    No, we are not what your kind think of as such. We are Guardians. We heard your voice, and took you into our care.

The five beams seemed to shimmer, and started to draw back together. Kirt threw out his hands in dismay.

“Wait! How do I wake them up? Are they all alright? What if we need you again?”

The Lights grew into the glowing blue star that Kirt first saw, shivering and glinting, almost as if it was laughing.

     When your Sun next rises, they will awake whole and well. If you remember us, and truly need us, we will hear. 

The star of Light scintillated and glistened, drawing itself into the crystal spire until it refracted rainbows throughout the town; and then it shot up in a brilliant beam through the surface of the dome, and out of sight.

Kirt was left alone in his new town, on his new world, sitting on a bench under a familiar, impossible moon- waiting for the new day to begin.

A bit of D’nific. This also appeared in modified form in Unwritten. 

Jen Cavanaugh perched herself on her favorite rock in Takotah Alley, tucked her knees up under her chin, and gazed around the Cavern at the people coming and going. People watching was one of her favorite activities, and it never ceased to amaze her at how mundane life seemed down here, until you really looked and listened closely.

That cluster of people looked like any other gathered at a street corner, but they were carrying spelunking equipment, and going over maps for someplace that didn’t exist on Earth. Over there a crowd had gathered around Echo McKenzie, listening to her tell either an elaborate fantasy story, or having a vision of a lost civilization, depending on who you believed. Another group of people near the Museum were arguing over the finer points of grammar for a language that until now, had only ever had one full-blooded human speaker.

She could hear live music from unusual instruments wafting up from one of the restored ‘pubs’. Every so often a strange blue beam swept through the orange-ish ambient light ,and no one noticed. Under it all was the hum of giant fans, and the occasional ‘WoooOOMMmmm‘ sound of someone Linking in or out; teleporting in the blink of an eye.

The last was the one that really got to her. She could wrap her brain around the ancient underground cavern, that had once been home to millions of people before the plow was invented. She could even (because she’d once dated a physics major) comprehend the idea that there were thousands of possible worlds out there.

However she had yet to really adjust to the idea that those worlds were accessible, just by writing it down, and then using that book to teleport there. It sounded like a librarian’s ultimate dream- “Books take you places!”. And yet every day down here, people casually put their hands on pictures in these books, and poof, off they went. Like it was no big deal, as normal as grabbing a venti double shot latte from Starbucks in Seattle.

Resting her head on her knees she gave a little sigh. Seattle seemed a million miles from here, even though logistically it wasn’t much further than the flight from SeaTac to Albuquerque had been. She couldn’t have known that trying to find out what had happened to her mother would result in something so surreal as a hidden underground civilization. Sometimes she still thought she was dreaming.

Her mother had disappeared late in 2003, when she was 12. For weeks she’d been acting strangely; distracted, preoccupied. Then suddenly she’d packed up some things, pulled cash out of the savings account, and drove off in the middle of the night. The car had been found abandoned in a campground at Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, with no signs of foul play, no activity on her credit cards, and a completely cold trail. The police eventually decided she’d just taken off, and the case was closed.

Jenny’s dad had started drinking soon after, withdrawing into himself, and a very lost Jen was left mostly to her own devices, slogging her way through her teenage years and the first few years of college without support. When her dad passed away earlier this year, she’d figured she would sell off most of the stuff, sell the house, finish college, and move on.

While up in the attic, she’d been sorting through boxes when she’d tripped, and smacked her shoulder into an old wardrobe that had been stored up there for years, jarring it enough to dislodge a ton of dust…and an envelope that had been sitting on top of it. An envelope with her name on it, in her mother’s handwriting.

Her eyes watering, not just from the dust, she’d sat on a box and pulled out the letter inside.

Dear JenJen,
I don’t know when you will see this letter- I’ve tried to put it where a curious young girl might find it eventually, but hidden enough that it won’t cause people to come after me. I don’t know how to explain why I’m doing this, picking up and leaving everything I have in the dead of night… but it is important that you know that I am not leaving because of you, or your father.
Something is calling to me. Something is drawing me to a new place, a new experience. I can’t describe it, really, just a deep feeling that I need to *
be* somewhere.
Maybe it is a bit like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, this Knowing I have. Hopefully I won’t be creating any sculptures out of mashed potatoes, but like him, I know where I need to go- and yet I don’t know where I am going.
I love you, my JenJen, and I am sorry I won’t be there to see you grow up. Be well, be strong. Maybe someday we’ll meet again.
Love, Mama.

In the envelope with the letter had been a printed out map of the southern portion of New Mexico, with a few forest service roads marked off, and a seemingly random area of wilderness circled.

Jen had agonized over what to do about the letter for weeks, dealing with all the feelings of abandonment and anger and grief it brought back up. In the end, though, deep in her gut she knew she would follow- so she’d taken a leave of absence from school, told everyone she was going on a retreat, and flown down to New Mexico.

She latched onto a tour group headed down to Carlsbad Caverns, hung around with them for a while, just to look normal. From Carlsbad she’d hitched rides and hiked until she was as close as she could get on roads to the area on her mother’s map.

Feeling more than a little crazy, but determined, she’d trekked across the New Mexico desert; following the crude map and the gps coordinates she’d managed to approximate from Google Earth. On the second day, coming up over a rise, she’d found the caldera, and the Airstream parked out in the middle of nowhere.

No one had answered her knock, so she’d kept exploring, finding the strange skeleton, the rusty old silo-looking thing. Down in the cleft she’d poked and prodded at strange contraptions, nearly jumping out of her skin when a small tapestry of a hand print glowed when she touched it.

Finally she’d figured out how to turn the power on,- and when the hologram appeared and the woman spoke, saying “Have you heard of the Deep City, the ancient Uru?” she’d fallen to her knees and stared in wonder.

That had been months ago, her leave of absence long since over. She’d completed Yeesha’s Journey, discovered D’ni, and had her eyes opened to more than she’d ever imagined. She’d not found her mother, but she’d learned where she’d gone- part of a group of colonists who decided to start new lives in a new Age. Jen hadn’t worked up the courage yet to go visit, but she would, eventually. For now, she was content to know she was part of a vast and wonderful secret.

Smiling to herself, she stretched her legs out, and considered going over to hear what Echo was saying (real or not, her stories were usually interesting), when she heard someone calling her name. Coming down the stairs from the Hall of Kings was David, one of the cavern ‘oldtimers’, and one of the people who did unofficial welcome wagon duty when new people arrived, most of them looking just as bewildered as she had.

“Jen! The Maintainers just cleared a recreational Age- it’s got this great heated lake, and these awesome bouncy fungi growing on the shore that extend out like diving boards, wanna come?”

“Sure, Wolfie! Lemme just hop back to my Relto and grab a swimsuit. I’ll meet you in the Maintainer’s Bevin!”

Standing, she flipped open the Relto book on her hip, and squinted her eyes shut in anticipation of the unsettling pull from ‘here’ to ‘there’. Nope, she thought to herself as she arrived on her personal island, still not used to Linking.

Jenny was a relative newcomer to D’ni, still overwhelmed and awed and thrilled by it all. She wondered if she’d ever feel as jaded and blasé as some of the people who had been down here for years acted. Grabbing her swimsuit out of her Relto closet she let a huge grin spread across her face. I hope not… there’s too much out there to discover. 

I lived and worked in a town where ‘horse sense’ was still a commonly used and understood phrase. People still sat out in front of a store that was still called Nelson’s Mercantile, “Ayup” was an accepted answer, and most discussion about town residents involved a short genealogy report along with the news.

It suited me fine. After the ugly and well publicized divorce (You’ve not truly felt like a slug until you’ve heard Nancy Grace sneer your name…), the fiasco that was the Jonsenberg case, and the equally publicized drunken soiree though Macy’s, I wanted nothing to do with cities, or anything remotely resembling them. So I’d sold off everything, packed my bags, and relocated (eventually) to Monville, KY. While it was named after the founder of the nearby sawmill, one Willhelm Mondowski, I liked to spell it “MONville” in my head, for Middle Of Nowhere-ville.

Monville sported the aforementioned mercantile, an honest-to-God one room schoolhouse, a joint doctor and dentist office, three churches of indeterminate denomination, a small beauty parlour (“Marleen’s Hair n’ Nails”) attached to Dylan’s Auto Body, and the town newspaper, where I held sway.

Like I said, it suited me.

I’d stumbled across the “Newspaper Business For Sale” advertisement in the regional paper while driving aimlessly cross country trying to escape. I’d pulled over at the next pay phone (having tossed my phone into the Hudson), and bought it on the spot. Now I lived in the apartments upstairs, and printed out a small weekly newspaper on the ancient printing press in the back room. Nothing too fancy; birth and deaths and weddings as they happened, news from the few other towns in the area, a smattering of sporting events, and the ever popular gossip and advice column, written by the mysterious ‘Ms. X’.

Mostly Ms. X’s bits were gleaned from the latest chatter from outside Nelson’s, or from a cordial discussion with Marleen while her husband Dylan was occupied fixing some beater. The usual small town gossip; ‘So-and-so had been seen talking with that person.’, ‘Unnamed someone had special ordered fancy French perfume from New York.’, ‘Young man & girl spotted holding hands.’. Nothing shocking, although I occasionally had the urge to inflict full NYC style society page drivel on my readers.

My usual routine involved walking out in the afternoon, making a slow circuit around town, down one of the dusty lanes a ways, then back into town where I’d filter through the chatter for next Sunday’s column over a bottle of soda. Same old, but comforting. I’d developed the routine of making up little stories about the scenery I passed- That gnarled old oak by the Henson place was really a portal to the underworld, and that’s why Mr. Henson was such a cranky bastard…The boarded up Jones’ place was a secret mob hideout… That big brown stallion over off of Main wanted to eat me (I could tell by the way he looked at me.)…

I’d been out for my usual walk, pondering the mystery of ‘shoes hanging on the power line’-Why is there always some hanging off the wires, no matter where you go? Urban wisdom was that they marked the location of drug houses, but out here that was unlikely. Maybe there was a story in there somewhere…, when it came to me that there was a lot more noise in town than usual. Coming out of my budding novelist fog, I hurried over to Nelson’s, where a respectable sized crowd had gathered around a breathlessly hysterical Maureen.

“I’m telling you, he’s gone!” Maureen was screeching “And if he’s not over at that…that… blonde hussy’s house, then where is he?!”

‘That blonde hussy’ was Annabelle Taylor, Maureen’s arch rival. They’d been in competition for darn near everything since they both flounced into kindergarten- from who got to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, to who was class president, to homecoming queen, coming to a head in the five years they were eligible for the Miss Monroe County crown, which Annabelle won 3 years, and Maureen 2. Maureen had her revenge by romancing Dylan right out from Annabelle’s nose. Local scuttlebutt had it that Dylan had never quite taken to married life, and dallied with Annabelle on a regular basis, although no one had ever been able to prove it, really.

Miss Annabelle, for her part, was sitting over on a chair someone had pulled out of Nelson’s, sobbing denials, and holding a rag to the nasty nail scratches down her face. A small gaggle of supporters were clustered around her, glaring at Maureen.

Maureen had paused in her diatribe, and blew her nose noisily into a hankie as I approached. I followed up her honk with a throat clearing of my own, and everyone turned to look at me.

“I hesitate to bring it up, but I did do some investigative work before I arrived here. Perhaps if someone could bring me up to speed, we could figure out what’s happened?”

I waited a bit, while the assembled translated city talk into local, and Maureen waved the hankie at me in distress.

“Dylan, well, he’s been comin’ home late all week long. Says he’s been working on Bobby’s roadster, but everyone knows he runs off to be with her, right under my nose, I don’t know why I put up with it!” she started to sob again, and I had to prompt her to keep going.

“Well, last night we finally had words about it, yellin’ back and forth. He grabbed his keys, and I said if he walked out that door to go soothe hisself on that woman’s shoulder, he might as well forget ever coming back in that door! He stomped out anyhow, and I heard him rev his truck engine and take off down the road! And now no one can find him!”

I turned to Joe Roy, the closest thing town had for a sheriff. He shrugged “Maureen called me this morning; she’d marched over to Annabelle’s to demand her husband back, but they weren’t there. She she figured they were in town, so when she got to Nelson’s and Annabelle was there, they got into a cat fight. But Annabelle says she doesn’t know where Dylan is, either. And his truck isn’t in town. As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably just gone for a long drive to get over being hen-pecked.” He gave Maureen a Look. Joe’s always been in the Annabelle camp.

I patted Maureen awkwardly on the shoulder. “He probably did go for a drive to cool down some, Maureen. You know how men get sometimes, we need our space.”

She snorted loudly into her hankie and nodded. Figuring the whole thing was settled, but the work day pretty much shot, I grabbed a beer from Nelson’s and decided I needed some space, myself.

So I set off down Crabapple Lane, figuring that I’d walk by Dylan & Maureen’s place; and if I took that route, and maybe I’d see Dylan driving back. It was a nice walk, scenic in that way that only random country lanes can be. There was even a pair of sneakers hanging off the wires, a worn pair with a big logo on the side, so I could get back to my wondering about the phenomenon. About ten minutes later, the penny dropped and I stopped in the middle of the road, trying to parse the detail my brain had just noticed.

Confused, I jogged back to where the shoes dangled off the middle of the power line, and just stared at them. Sure enough, they were a pair of standard issue high-top sneakers, nothing special. What was different, was the logo patch on the side of one of the shoes. Not the shoe brand, but a custom patch reading “DYLAN’S AUTO BODY-MONVILLE”.

What the hell were Dylan’s shoes doing hanging off of a power line? And if his shoes where there, where was Dylan? He didn’t seem the type to go driving an old truck barefoot.

The question dogged me all the way back to town, and was still bugging me when I saw Joe outside Nelson’s. This gave me an idea.

“Hey Joe?” I called at him.

He waved, and started towards me. “Ayup?”

“Do you know how they get shoes off the power line around here?”

He skritched his beard while thinking about it. “Well, over by the city, they get one of the power trucks out to do it. But ‘round here, I’m thinking Manny does it with his cherry picker. Manny’s a bit of an odd duck, hmm?”

“MMhmm. Thanks, Joe”

Manny was an odd duck, about as odd as this city boy out in the middle of farmland, but he made me look fairly normal. Reclusive, skittish, lots of odd deliveries. I suspected some sort of PTSD. Something was making my Spidey Sense twitch, though- so I was off to talk to him.

Manny’s place was about a mile outta town, and I was walked out for the day, so I hopped in my car and headed over. Despite him being a recluse, you couldn’t miss the place if you tried. He’d managed to get broadband cable wired out this far, and he had a couple satellite dishes in the yard. Add in a few HAM radio antennae, and the place looked more like a bunker than a farmhouse. Then again, if it was PTSD, that might not be far off.

I parked just outside the gate, got out of the car, and hollered. “Hellooo the house! Hey Manny!”

A balding guy with glasses poked his head out of the door, looking startled at having a visitor. At least he wasn’t aiming a gun at me. That could happen out here, if you didn’t introduce yourself to homeowners properly.

“Oh! Hi! Come on in!” Manny chirped, and his head disappeared back inside. Figuring that was as much welcome as I was going to get, I slipped passed the gate, and into the house.

It was not what I was expecting. The front room seemed normal enough- sofa, coffee table, tv, a couple of lamps; but Manny hollered “I’m in here!” from another room, and that room was…different. It looked like a scene from The X-Files. You know, the episode with the Lone Gunmen, and the charts on the wall and all? Yeah, like that. There were maps of the area with pins, and string from those to newspaper clippings, and file folders stacked on everything. Manny was hunched over a computer, typitytyping away at the keyboard. He completely ignored me for a minute, until he hit ‘ENTER’ with a decisive click, and turned to face me.

“Sorry about that, I really needed to get the scope configured for the night, otherwise I’ll get all distracted and the data will be full of holes.” He lead me back out to the living room as he spoke, and flopped in a chair, sending up a small cloud of dust. “Now, what can I do for you?”

I sat more gingerly in my chair, not wanting to send up my own cloud, and noting that this room really didn’t get used much.

“Joe said you’re the one who collects shoes from the power lines around here. You work for the power company or something?”

Manny cocked his head to one side, looking like a bald puppy. “No, nothing like that. I just…think things look nicer without them hanging there.” He narrowed his eyes, now looking like a slightly suspicious bald puppy. “Why, did you find some?”

I nodded “As a matter of fact, I did. Just over on Crabapple.”

He jumped from his seat, all out of proportion to an announcement about lost shoes

“Crabapple?! Crabapple! Really?”

He raced back to his…operations… room. By the time I got there he was frantically ruffling through papers.

“There was a spike in the gravity field last night, but I couldn’t localize it! Crabapple! Why, that means it might have happened right in front of me, and I wasn’t watching!” He let out a dismayed groan, and spun around to look at me. “I have to get those shoes!”

He dashed back past me, and out a side door, grabbing a set of keys on the way. I went out the front door to my own car, and when I saw the old cherry picker pull out of a side driveway, I pulled in front of it, and drove to where I’d seen the shoes.

Pulling over to the side of the road, I watched as he parked the picker, pulled on what looked like a hazmat suit of all things, and loaded a wooden, rubber tipped pole into the basket. The with the remote in one hand, and the pole in the other, he raised the basket to the level of the shoes- and carefully, slowly, lifted the shoes from the high-voltage wire. I resisted the urge to shot “Be careful!” at him. He’d obviously done this before, even if it would make any real lineman scream in horror.

The basket lowered, and he hopped out. Lowering the hood of his suit, he stared at me accusingly. “These are Dylan’s shoes!”, like he was sure I’d put them up there myself.

“Yeah, they are. And he’s missing.”

“You’d better come back to the house and tell me everything.”

~~~

Over a pot of very nice pu erh tea we chatted. I filled him in on the drama of the morning, he filled me in on the purpose of all his equipment. Or, well, he tried to fill me in- he quickly got far too technical for me; but what I gathered was that he was a UFO hunter (he did glare at me when I’d gone “What? Like the X-Files?”), and he’d been trying to prove a connection between electromagnetic disturbances and UFO sightings and/or abductions.

“So where…”I asked around a sip of tea “…do the shoes come in?”

He pulled up a map on his laptop. “I don’t know, actually. Dylan’s shoes are the first time I’ve been able to prove a pair of shoes, found at the sight of a geomagnetic fluctuation, also belong to someone that’s gone missing.” He turned the screen towards me “But here’s where, in this county alone, there’s been pairs of shoes found near the site of unusual activity.”

I peered at the screen, there were ten bright red pins on the map. “All these had shoes hanging off the power lines?”

He shook his head and jabbed his finger at the screen. “Only these four. The other six the shoe, or shoes, were just laying on the ground.” His fingers typed out a rapid tattoo of commands, and another set of pins appeared on the map, some of these with bright blue arrows pointing to the red pins. “And here’s disappearances, and their distance to shoe-and-anomaly locations of the same gender.”

I pondered this new set of data. As weird as it all sounded, there were several shoes and missing person pairings. “Have you ever talked to the authorities about this?”

Suddenly, his cup of tea was very interesting, and he stared at it. I waited patiently until he looked up and said “Once. I did once. When a pair of shoes showed up right around the time that girl from Lee Junior High went missing. The shoes were hers, her parents ID’ed them. I said I’d found them on the wires.  But then she showed up dead, all those weird marks on her body, and suddenly everyone really wanted to know where I’d really found the shoes, and no one believed me that I was just watching for anomalies…” he grew very silent again “…they couldn’t prove anything, so they let me go. I don’t ask for help from the police, anymore.”

Well, I suppose being a UFO hunter and being accused of murder would make one a recluse, so the mystery of Manny was solved, but not the mystery of Dylan. Wracking my brain for possibilities, I lit on something that might be useful. “Manny, you said you couldn’t prove a connection between the shoes and the disappearances, right?”

“That’s right.”

“And you can’t go asking for help identifying the shoe owners, because that would be risking police involvement?”

“Ayup. I’d rather not sit in a cell for weeks on end again, thank you very much.”

“No doubt. But Manny, do you still have those shoes?”

He did, and they were all carefully ziplocked individually with dates, times and GPS coordinates on them. After much persuading, he let me take the box home with me- where I photographed each bag for continuity, rebagged them with generic ID numbers, and packed them carefully for shipment to NYC.

Three weeks later, my buddy George called… “Maaannn, I do not know where you got those shoes, but I ran DNA on all of them like you asked- get this, all but two of them are from people in Kentucky who went missing. Three of those people have never been found, but five of them? Those five people all were found, anywhere from days to months later, and all of them claim to have been abducted by aliens. What the heck are you sitting on, dude?”

“Hang tight George, and you’ll see.” I chuckled as I hung up the phone.

Now… Manny is famous. Seems an anonymous story went out on the wire about the mysterious connection between found shoes, and stories of alien abduction, and the fearless researcher who pursued the Truth, even in the face of false accusations of murder. TV crews came out, interviews were done, even that Ancient Aliens guy with the Babylon 5 Centauri haircut got in on the act. All sorts of weird theories are going around about why abductees lose their shoes as they are beamed up into the spaceship- my favorite has to do with rubber’s natural affinity for Mother Earth and thus it has spiritual resistance to the force of the beam. Or some such BS.

Oh, and the mystery of Dylan? Not abducted by aliens, more’s the pity. He’d gone and pulled his sneakers off in a fit of pique and chucked them at the sky, because they’d been a present from Maureen- only to be unable to find them on the ground, because they never made it there. Not the brightest crayon, our Dylan.

He actually had driven barefoot over to Hamston, gotten rip-roaring drunk, tried to drive home but ended up in a ditch. He was too damn embarrassed to walk barefoot all the way home, so he’d just passed out there in the field and slept for 18 hours. Joe Roy found him and dragged his sorry ass back to town.

George sent me a bottle of 20 year old whisky and begged me to come back to New York. I told him no way in hell, life was much more interesting in the Middle of Nowhere.

This is a thing… it wants to be a whole thing, and my brain is mushing up backstory and such, but it hasn’t quite figured out what all if going on, and why.

I pushed the stroller through the aisles of the Barnes & Noble; the baby was dozing, so I was glad that for once I didn’t have to pay attention to small hands trying to grab at any paperback in reach- if I missed an acquisition, it meant paying for a gummed on, tattered volume of dubious authorship. At 9 months old “taste in books” involves a lot more saliva, and less literary discernment.

Pausing in the SF/F section, I started browsing the newest Urban Fantasy selections. The fact that there were so many to choose from amused me; I was old enough to remember when there was only one, maybe two of the genre, and wannabe-mages on Usenet complaining that those working in secret to protect humanity were being ‘outed’. How little they knew.

As I was bending to eye a lower shelf (Hey, look, there’s a new Toby Daye book…), I felt a slight wash of cold air up my back, like standing close to a marble wall, and the faint scent of myrrh hung in the air.  I stood and turned, wary. I was past sunset, so the presence of a vampire wasn’t entirely unexpected; the location was.

Julian stood there, his hands clasped behind his back, his dark eyes gazing down at Sophia in her stroller. She gazed back at him with eyes as dark as his own. Somehow, she always woke when he was near, and it unnerved me. He nodded his head respectfully at her, then turned that unnerving gaze at me, his eyes flicking to the book I held in my hand.

“Sizing up your competition, my dear?” His smooth voice made a grey-haired woman the next aisle over give him an appraising look. He glanced sideways at her and quirked an eyebrow, she blushed like a schoolgirl and hurried off. I let out a snorting laugh at that, and again at his comment.

“According to these, I should be tall, athletic, and have an in with the local authorities. Competence with auto mechanics a plus, but not required, however a kick ass trench coat is almost de rigueur.

“Athleticism and height are not requirements for the power you wield, and why would you need an auto mechanic when we have Hugo available, hmm? However…” He gave my five-foot-three-inch, 215 pound frame the sort of visual inspection one expects from the high-end fashion designer he once was. “I think a trench coat would be most appropriate and attractive.”

“Julian, I don’t need…” I trailed off knowing it was futile. Once Julian got a design in his head there was no arguing. By next week I would have at least one trench coat that could make the court of Louis XV weep. It was his revenge for my usual mom jeans and tshirts.

I sobered. “You didn’t come to talk about my taste in reading material, or my need for long coats.”

He sighed, a soft, cold sound that raised the hairs on my arms, and probably the arms of anyone within 15 feet. He clicked his heels formally together, and held his hands out, palms down, in a formal gesture. “Your presence is requested, Arbiter.”

I placed my hands, palm up, under his. “Your request is heard and answered, Child of Shame.” I hated saying that, but proper forms must be followed. A sensation like water rushing between our palms, and then he nodded and withdrew his hands.

“Let me finish here, and get Sophi home and settled.” I grabbed another couple books off the shelf, making token protest as Julian pushed the stroller towards the checkout.

“I will bring the car at 8 then.” he informed me. I was going to argue that I could drive, but the Arbiter bond had finally clued me into something I hadn’t noticed- Julian was…scared.

“Julian, what’s so important that you found me here, instead of waiting until I was at home?”

“There has been…an incident. A murder.”

Shit.

This is, fundamentally, a fanfic of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid stories- specifically the Aeslin Mice.  If you don’t know the Mice, hie theyself over to your favorite book source and get the InCryptid books. Go on, this will wait…

This story, however, doesn’t take place in the established InCryptid world; these are not the same mice, not the Prices…this is, I guess, an alternate universe, where another colony of mice thrives with their own deities. The High Priest walked serenely through the halls of his upstairs closet village, basking in the hum of activity all around him. Here, a group of Acolytes were learning the Catechism of the Wet Dog and Can of Paint, another group was gleefully digging through a bag of scrap fabrics and sequins- an excursion had been made to the Garbage of the Costume Lady. He gave them a pleased nod, new additions to their robes and regalia were always a reason for joy.

He paused when a cluster of playing children spotted him, and all ran over to oooh and ahh at him. One of them tugged at his robe “Did you really bite the God on his nose??” the little squeaked. Oh, they’d been telling that story in the Nursery, had they? He chuckled and patted the child on the head. “I did, for lo, even as the Gods protect and shelter us, sometimes we are called upon to provide assistance to them. Had I not bit His nose, he would have missed the Hairy Predator With Many Teeth that was trying to sneak up upon Him in His repose.” The littles all gave a fascinated “Oooohhhhh”, and then scampered back to their play when he made shooing motions at them.

All was well in their domain, if a bit quieter than was usual. The God of Axle Grease and Assorted Lubricants and His son, the God Of Unpleasant Pocket Surprises were out in the field doing Great Works. The occasion of their leaving several days earlier (on the Feast of There Will Be Waffles!) had engendered an Argument with the hugely pregnant High Priestess of Unfinished Projects- said Argument resulting in several new Pronouncements including “You Can’t Be Stealthy In The Woods When You Are Waddling And As Big As A Whale” and “Did You Just Call Me A Whale, Don’t You Dare Come Back Here Without A Whale Load Of Chocolate”.

Fortunately for the congregation, Her mood had improved greatly after the Gods had left, even to an unexpected Celebration of Cheese and Cake *and* Cookies, because She had decided she needed to do some baking.

He stopped at that thought, and twitched his whiskers in suspicion. Baking was not, normally, one of the Priestess’ skills, and was usually reserved for special occasions like Birthdays. Even then She was not often the one doing the baking.  The suspicion growing deeper, he waved a paw to one of the nearby Acolytes, sending him on an errand, while he made his way downstairs.

He skittered down a pipe into the living room, made his way across the floor into the kitchen and sat upon the counter watching his Priestess at work. There were already several dozen cookies sitting out to cool, and his nose quavered in delight at the scent of oatmeal scotchies. He cleared his small throat. Loudly. Twice.

The Priestess turned (To be fair, he thought, She is rather ungainly now…), one hand pressed against the small of Her back. “One step ahead of you, your holiness” she grinned, pointing to a plate on the counter heaped with smaller cookies, and a saucer of milk next to it.

Giving out a quiet, but enthusiastic “HAIL!”, he came over and took a cookie in each hand. He felt a momentary twinge of guilt at not alerting his acolytes right away, but getting first dibs at a warm cookie was one of the perks of being the High Priest, was it not?

It also gave him an excuse to watch his High Priestess unobtrusively. She would stir batter, pause, stir again…sometimes the pause would come with a soft groan, or both hands in the small of Her back. He was certain it was close to Her time, and She wasn’t aware of it, yet. While he wrestled with the theological implications of bringing it to Her attention (nibbling on a third cookie for insight), he heard a watery sound, followed by a very loud curse from the Priestess.

“GOD DAMMIT! NOW? NOW?!?”

Well, that solved that theological question.

She had moved from the kitchen and was now sitting on the edge of the sofa, jabbing irritatedly at Her cel phone. He finished his cookie, and drank the milk (it wouldn’t do to leave an offering half-finished, after all), and made his way over to Her, and placed one small paw on the hand that was clutching the upholstery.

“Are the Gods on their way home to you?”

“No, dammit. They’re out of cel range. They’ve got the Jeep, and an ambulance would take over an hour to get here…and raise questions. Fuunnnngggghhhhhhhh!” She trailed off as her closing epithet became a groan.

Stroking Her hand with his paw, he waited until the pain had passed. “Do not fear. You are our Priestess, and we will care for You.” Before She could ask what in the world he meant, he patted Her hand, and climbed as fast as he could back up to the colony.

The acolyte he had entrusted with duty earlier waited, with work teams sorted and waiting for assignments. The High Priest beamed with pride.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Joan had a vague sense of intense activity around her. The mice were bustling around and part of her brain really, truly wanted to ask what the hell they were up to…but that part of her brain was shunted into the background in favor of the rest of her brain trying to remember to breathe while her midsection tied itself into a giant knot.

As the contraction eased, she opened her eyes to find that the mice had…rearranged? There were older blankets and pillows on the floor in front of the sofa. There was water boiling on the stove, and two mice were using a pulley system to ladle hot water into a mug. They’d managed to stoke the fire and lay out towels, a bowl, string, and two different knives near the sofa.

Four mice hurried forward carrying a paper cup with a straw. One carefully angled the straw near her lips, and she reflexively took a drink. Ice cold apple juice hydrated her just in time for another contraction to take over her body.

It went on like this for hours. Sips of juice or tea, nibbles of crackers, small voices encouraging, soothing. Small paws carefully pushing cool washcloths across her face and along the back of her neck. There was even a group of mice on the back of the sofa with drums and rattles keeping time with her breathing- it was surprisingly helpful, for being little tiny drums. The mice walked when she walked, rested when she rested, sang to her when she cried out. They were not afraid and somehow, neither was she.

And then she was on the ground, curled over her belly as she strained, pushed, guided a small, slippery body out into the world and lifted it to her chest. She leaned back against the sofa and panted with the sudden lack of effort. Her legs shook involuntarily, and her whole body felt like half-solidified gelatin. But the baby was here. She’d done it. She, and the mice.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Priestess of Unfinished Projects was resting, Her newborn God wrapped snuggly in her arms. She was in good spirits, even after Her many hours of birthing. Most of the colony was upstairs celebrating with cookies and milk, and a growing pile of offerings decorated the end table.

The High Priest watched the scene from his perch on Her shoulder.  Several acolytes were bustling about the room, doing their best to clean up the bloodied towels. Two were preparing more tea. A team of mice were moving the bowl of discarded placenta to someplace out of the way.

He had expressed some concern that the Priestess did not intend to consume any of the placenta, given that it was full of nutrients, and that’s what the colony mothers did… but She’d just raised an eyebrow at him and said “No. Just…ugh…no. I’ll burn it later.” Well, sometimes the divine was inscrutable.

His eye was caught by one of the acolytes pausing in their work. They wrung their paws together, as if agonizing over something…then they squared their shoulders, and scampered up the side of the sofa. He expected them to come ask some urgent (to the acolyte, at least) theological conundrum. Instead, the small mouse crept up the baby blanket, and peered at the little face intently.

Tiny whiskers quivvered. Small beady dark eyes met rounded grey ones. A chubby fist uncurled, and a finger brushed soft brown fur. A tiny paw curled around the fingertip.

“Hail!” the acolyte breathed in awe “Hail the God of Gentlest Greetings!”

The Priestess chuckled as the newly anointed High Priest sat on his God’s blanket, and started reciting important catechisms. “Start ‘em early, huh?”

The elder High Priest nodded with a contented sigh. A new God had chosen a High Priest, there were cookies, and all was right in the universe. Hail.

This is part of a much larger story that’s slowly jelling in my brain.

——
Set recording, 127.893 Chela-Sei Karden, on my mark… 

Mark. 

We were betrayed from within. 

In the end, it matters little that we never discovered who, or how, or even truly why- other than the usual reasons for war; fear, jealousy and greed. What matters is that in one moment our people were going about the daily tasks of hearth and hive, and in the next there was fire and death and terror. 

They knew it must be betrayal, even as they scrambled to find system failures, even before they heard the first shots and screams.  How else would defense systems be overridden, weaponry fail, even the boundaries to the hive chambers fall throughout the colony, all at once? 

Karden was lucky, if you can call it that. While the other hives were being slaughtered, we had warning, and time to prepare. Our hive was new enough that we’d not been integrated into the full security database- we still ran independent, and our location wasn’t widely known.  So we had a chance to reconfigure shields and change codes, a chance to take in a few terrified refugees and fleeing battalions through the transfer chamber before we went into lockdown.  

They would find us soon enough, we knew…and from the few reports getting through to us, we knew we were now the last of the Alai-sehar and our two Queens and their eggs, the hope of the species…
——
Despite being deep within the mountain, the Transfer Center rocked with the force of the bombardment above. A lone figure bent over a console, fingers in frenetic motion over the controls, watching data fly over the floor-to-ceiling panels in front of him. Over and over the panels displayed start charts, a cursor identifying and then rejecting hundreds of potential planets in seconds. He muttered curses and imprecations each time there was a flash of red, and finally rested his head in his hands.

He may have dozed for a moment, exhaustion finally winning out over vigilance, when the console started chiming insistently. He jerked awake, the wings that had hung limply over his shoulders snapping upright and buzzing irritatedly

“Right, right, sorry, didn’t meant to startle you.”

The wings settled across his back, as he slapped a button on the console to stop the chiming. Then he stared at the screen, his tired brain not really comprehending what he was seeing- There, in the upper left of the current chart, the cursor flashed green.  He blinked, stared, and then gave a gasping inhale as his mind grasped the implications of that small green beacon.  A few taps brought up statistics, details, probabilities… He stared again, and then spun around in his chair and let out a whoop that set his wings to buzzing again.

“We did it! By the silk we did it! Tell Chela-Sei! Get them down here fast!”

When the door opened to let someone in, he realized the sounds of the battle were much closer, much more immediate than he’d assumed from the rumbles in the stone above, and he watched his hive partner, Chela, stagger through the door and slump against the wall. Hearing angry voices in the distance, he scrambled to shut the door and engage the emergency security protocol. Then he knelt by her side and took her hand.

She was battered and bloody, her breath coming in short gasps. As he brushed her hair from her face, he saw that one wing was ripped in two, the usual iridescent stained with blue ichor. She opened her eyes and irritatedly waved his hand away.  “I’m fine, Denet. Just tired. And there’s more of their blood than mine.” She let out a weak laugh that became a cough, blood trickling from her mouth putting the lie to her being ‘fine’.

“You’re not fine, and neither is Sei. Hold on, I’ve got some jelar here somewhere.”  Denet went into a side room to rummage around, when he came back, she was standing at the console, staring at the screen.

“Would you sit down? Torn silk you are stubborn.” He shoved a flask into her hand “Drink this.”

Chela drank, coughed, drank again, smirked at him. “Medical grade jelar. You’ve been raiding Hawla’s infirmary again, haven’t you?”

He sat next to her, angling so that his wings could caress her tattered ones. “I grabbed it from the supplies in the transfer chamber. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some on hand before we left.”

She pointed at the blinking green icon on the screen. “You found us something. You finally found something.”

“I did! Now we just need to get the team in here, and we can start the transfers- the system’s already identified an appropriate hive chamber, and we can…”

Her hand rested on his shoulder, and his excited ramble trailed off. “There’s no team, Denet.” She struggled to meet his blank stare. “They hit the Great Hall with a plasma charge. They’re all gone. The Counselors, the Queens, the control teams. You’re the only systems tech left.”

Denet’s mouth opened to argue, tried to deny what he was hearing, but no sound came out. He sat in aching silence and then said “Why didn’t you tell me? You could have had Sei send to Buw, at least.”

“You were working. You were focused. The cocoons had already been moved, the supplies already loaded. You were the last chance we had…and you found it.”

“But without a team…how…” His brow furrowed and one wing started to twitch. “How much time do we have?”

Chela caressed one tattered wing, listening.  “Elloet-Alv says that they can hold them of for an hour, maybe a bit more. Not two.”

A brusque nod, and he turned back to the console. “What are you…” she started to ask, but he cut her off “Shh, let me work…no, wait, go grab a couple of beacons from storage, and slot them in one and two…”

Bemused, she did what he asked. Between the effects of the jelar, and watching him in one of his so very normal working moods, she could almost forget that she was broken inside, and that her Alai was dying.

As Denet plugged in calculations and coordinates, fiddled with statistics and settings, he explained the plan to her.

“Like I said, there’s a stable cavern we can form into a hatching chamber and core of a hive- that’s where you’ll be. I have to go and deal with the one hitch in the plan.”

“What’s that?”

“The orbital period of this planet is much faster than ours, so the lifespans of the sentients there are adapted to that. To them, it’ll be generations before the cocoons are ready to open. ”

“So you’ll need to prepare them for the process.”

“Right. I’ve identified a population center I can use as a base. My lifespan will seem functionally immortal to them. Hopefully I can keep them from making me a deity. That’s always so inconvenient when some group tries to worship us.”

Chela came up beside him and put a hand on his arm. “There’s another hitch, Denet…I’m…”

He took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes. “Dying. I know. Buw could tell.” He gathered her up in his arms and held her. “You can do this, I know you can. You know enough to set the beacon, and activate the chamber sequence. The automated systems will do everything else. Record me a message, so when I bring the candidates, I can see you one last time. You and Sei can rest with the cocoons.”

A quiet sob shook her shoulders, but she smiled at him and nodded. “You’ll go through after me, then?”

“Mmmhmmm… I’ll reset the coordinates, and activate a dest…”

An explosion outside the room buckled the door, and sent down a shower of debris from the ceiling.

“No more time! You’ve got to go!” Denet pushed her towards the door of the transfer chamber and she settled in among the boxes of gear, and the carefully wrapped Alai cocoons that were their future. Denet gave her a solemn salute, and activated the transfer. As the air around her thickened and glowed she saw the door start to give way, and a bolt of fire take Denet square in the shoulder. She cried out, tried to reach for him as he slumped forward- but she couldn’t see through the brightness, and then there was nothing.