Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Solitary Crow - Elkall-Anuz - 3

3
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

During the next day, rain came. But all three of them were use to it and trudged onward. Then when they rested, Gwynwyffer told them the geography of the region. Which Loria knew better than she did, but the legionary listened. Though only partially interested, he put on a face that said otherwise – it was the polite thing to do. And, he reasoned, many things that he liked to talk about probably were not of interest to his two companions.

The isle of Hârn was, in fact, a cloud of islands surrounding the main island. Hârn, itself, was easily larger than all of the other islands – and in fact the link which was in the middle was larger than the rest. Of other islands, however, there were several that judgment out prominently. The first of these was Melderyn – and if Harn was the wizards island, then Melderyn was the heart of it. In fact, it could be said that this island was the human half. While it was nominally a kingdom, it was rumored that the real power was wielded by a Council of wizards – but no one knew exactly who was on it. Call it more of an understanding, rather than an actual league. There were a series of smaller islands which clung on to this island kingdom – but there was also a few other key islands which had their own properties.

To the south and west, there was the island of Adaenum – after Melderyn the largest single island attached to Hârn – which was nothing special other than its size. Of a few herders raised goats, and other than the occasional ship – raised most of what they needed. Off of Rethem, there were few all scattered bits of land which were nominally held by the kingdom – and its quarreling mash of the evil gods: Naveh, Agrik, and most of all – Morgath. On the north side of the island were lands that had very little to do with organized structure. It is not that it has not been tried – mind you – but like the islands south and west, they were particularly stubborn. North of the island there are a group of Vikings which squashed the local Jarin cultures, but still wrestle with them for control. There are still three Jarin castles which swear allegiance to their Ivinia overlords. Then to the east of the island there is the point of Keron, which juts out from Hârn and is home to many of the strangest of little creatures – perhaps summoned by a mad wizard.

Then there are four creatures which are not human – the elves and towards he knew of, but there were to more. One was a giant – called Pradeylki in the Ivinian language – who settled here because he did not want to pledge allegiance to the local god, Sarajin – a God of the far north, involved in trading, raiding, and conquering. His name was Norn. The other interesting feature of this Hârnic island is its own restive God, who cares not for anything other than the creatures that he spawns. Thus, it does not care what the giant - or anyone else - does.

The legionnaire listened quite closely as Gwynwyffer spoke of all of this, but did not understand why he should remember any of this once he had left the island.

“This is all very well good – if I were to stay here – but unless you are offering me a position. And I will not that I accept – what good is this to me. Even assuming that all of this is true.”
It was at this point that Gwynwyffer rolled her eyes: “ is it not interesting to you whether there really are gods?”

“Of course there are gods.”

“You have seen many of them – yes?”

“I have not seen any of them, I just believe has everyone does.”

“Ilvir is a resident God. You may get to see him in the flesh, or perhaps his minions. And you will certainly see Morgath reaching out to you with his forces. Because he wants to know how the pseudo-stones work, and if he can send creatures through them. This is an just a place of humans fighting other humans – or even demi-humans. This is a land of magic. Which is why the majority of humans stay far away. Very far away.”

“This is all well and good for your scholarly mind, but I am just here to deliver the special object when it is time, and report back to my – all say it bluntly – boss. I do not care how the world is run. Its not very important to me, other than perhaps knowing that the goddess I worship is one of the true goddesses.”

“And which got us to you worship?”

“Larani, I assume you worship Peoni.”

“For me you assume correctly. But Loria is a special case.”

He looked around to see whether Loria was somewhere about the place. Then he realized that her obscurement was in full force, and he would have two look directly in to her. Only then would he in fact see her.

See that he was trying to locate Loria, Gwynwyffer motioned to the left and pointed her out. “There is a gift to knowing where she is. You just have to concentrate.”

This made sense, and the legionary nodded in his assent. He finally saw the tall elf, and would make a note of it so as to remember.

“So what has brought you two together? It seems very odd for you to to be together, if you do not mind my saying so.”

“Not at all. We are not together, but it seems like I have used to her. She puts up with my chattering, because when it comes time to … how do I put it? It is so much easier for her to manipulate the stones when I am about. I do not actually think she likes me, but that is neither here nor there.”

But, in all earnestness, the legionary was looking directly at Loria. “How are you a special case?”
At this point, Loria moved her head directly in two his, and said: “When my people die, they are sent to the Blessed Realms, which is a different world from where you as humans go. There is an understanding between my God – Siem – and Larani. I must do work for her, and she – in turn – will give my people the secret to accessing Yashain. Because otherwise those who are caught by the death gods are lost, and will not have either the Blessed Realms, nor go to Yashain.” Then she fell silent.

The legionnaire sat by the fire, and thought. He had not really worried before about how the gods functioned – it was, in his mind, something beyond his pay grade. Emperors did what they did, pontiffs did what they did, and obviously gods and demigods did what they did. None of this had any meaning to him. But now it was different. There was a God on this very island – Ilvir. There was at least one demigod on the island – Norn. This had been said to him, but it only begin to seep in to his skull. There were greater forces then merely human ones, and they were interested in what humans did.

Turned to the human woman, he said: “So what does this God, Morgath, want from us? It seems he could manifest himself wherever he wants.”

“He can manifest wherever he wants, and his demigods may do so to. But humans cannot, and so he wants a way to make them vanish and appear at will, on any major continent – and one way of doing that is by using Earthmaster technology.” the word technology was not a usual word in this time and place. Mostly people did not think of technology advancing, they lived a life very much like their parents and grandparents did. So the legionary again thought on what this meant.

“Your speak of the advancement of inventions as if it were a regular part of a known cycle.”

“That is the way it appears to me.” Gwynwyffer was looking away and unpacking her gear, and was beginning to rest.

“I hope you realize realize this is a different way of thinking than most.”

“Of this, it cannot be helped - what other humans think is none of my concern. Though I can say that I regard their kind of thinking as been rather...” She stopped a bit, and then continued: “ most humans do not actually think, they simply drift along through life. And earlier it was my mission to get them to think. But that was a hopeless proposition. So I have set myself to other things, which have been more fruitful.”

“That is a very different opinion, and it might seem a bit arrogant.”

“You are strange. Much of the world consists of people avoiding the obvious answer, and though it is not easy to admit … there is nothing I can do about. You have to decide whether your going to face the fact that there are other beings in the world which have greater power, more intelligence, and in some cases a singular gift for making life difficult.”

“And what order shall we list our enemies at?”

Their was a motion, near where Loria last enunciated, then both of them saw her. She began: “ I would say that the top of our list would have to be Morgath. He wants what we are close to delivering, and he wants it for himself. And what is more, he is mad god, and there is a reason why he is often called the Dark God. Unlike any other, he has a hatred for life. All of the rest of the gods at least remain neutral. Some of them even do favors, for at least some portion. But the dark God wants to swallow everything up inside himself. And we have earned a place at his special table. Though he wants to find out what we know. But there ever afterwards, he will kill us. And then he will do other things that are worse to our souls.”

At that point there was a moment of quiet, and then the legionary responded: “Why does not he kill us now?”

“He is not like a greater God, who can see inside our minds. He still has to wait for us to discover before he can pillage. Their is a difference between different worlds. And on this one, the gods are weak and reach in delicately from other worlds. And compared to many of the worlds, they are rather puny and have only limited power. But that does not mean they cannot crush us once they can procure the information from us. But they have to wait, and this is our advantage.”

It was at this point the legionary whistled. “I certainly have gone up in the world – I would never have been involved in any kind of conversation like this. But I will warn you – I do not actually believe all that you say.”

“That is good, because we do not believe in all of it either. Its just the best guess that we have going forward.” Gwynwyffer was talking very slowly as she went to sleep.

“You should take a rest, and leave it to me to watch over you.” Loria was talking gently, almost as if she was soothing both of them to sleep. In fact the neither of the humans could stay awake for very long, but it was not magic – just the limbs of tiredness resting upon them. Through the night while the humans slept, the elf knew that they were being watched by a member of the undead. She did not know what kind it was, but she could feel its presence – and thus speculated that it was a free undead, with some will of its own. She felt it panting, and speculating in that way that human creatures do – it was a lot of speculation which emanated into her head, almost driving out any thoughts of her own. She knew it was a member of the Dark God's retinue and would be reporting back to him. She also knew that the object given to them by their employer was in reality created by Morgath, and in the hands of one of the undead humans would work like a sword. But the substance of it was before Morgath touched it, and it had properties which were not from his creation. And it was those properties which Loria was interested in.

After a little while, the legionnaire awoke - and he knew that he was in trouble. In all of his training, he knew a stampede when he heard one – long before other people did. Guessing that the elf would also recognize it, he turned over and quietly woke his human companion. But as she awoke he put his head quietly in her face, and with his right hand quietly blew on his index finger in order to tell her to be quiet. Then he rattled in to his armor, with a quickness that few people could match. 

Unfortunately, some of the arrows which were sent hit Loria, and even with the protection – she was unconscious. He needed to figure out what was attacking them, and how long they had for the main force hit with swords, or axes, or spears. So he looked out in to the distance, and he could just barely see some humanoid – but clearly not human – figures in what looked like leather armor. He guessed that this was the Gargun which he had been hearing. Not only only were they ugly – but who is to say what ugly is? There countenances said that they were evil. He thought for a line which would describe them, but he was not so mellifuous. In fact, he had only read the word – not heard it spoken in any language that he had the privilege of speaking.

Taking his arms, he got up and saw Loria lying unconscious, and decided to stand where he was and fight the horde right there. Could see four running up to him – and he realized they were going to have a shock. Just than a wall of fire leaped from the branches – it was a spell given to him by Larani. 

The Gargun were distraught – they had not imagined that they would be expelled in this way. As they were roasting in the fire, he cut one by one, until all of them were dead. But the his enemy was cunning, and the second wave pulled short. They then reached for their bows – and were just about to use them. If they had, he would have been a pincushion. But at this point Gwynwyffer appeared suddenly buying them, and dispatched one with a pair of hits that were extremely vicious – it was clear that she was extremely good with her staff. It was at this point that the beasts collapsed. It seems they were not living beings, but on automata controlled by someone else.

With a great shriek, what looked like a man, but black, came out of the forest – though it was not heading towards them, but away. They could hear the shrieks for several minutes – growing wider with every breath. He was looking for it, but Gwynwyffer was involved in something different – that is checking Loria for wounds. Them suddenly, they were heaving with gulps of air.

First Gwynwyffer asked the question: “What was that?”

“Do you mean the fire? That is a protection from my Goddess.”

“It seems you did not say that you had such a thing.”

“I have surprises, not everything is as it looks to be. There is magic, then there are miracles. I do not do the first, but occasionally I traffic in the second.”

“She is going to be out, and then healing for a great while.” His companion said. “At least 10 days.”

“It is a good thing that we were close by.”

“Unless I miss my guess, it is very likely that she was giving us time to prepare. Otherwise by herself she would not have remained.”

“That is possible, but I think you are in awe of her strengths – and not enough aware of her weaknesses.”

Gwynwyffer said nothing. But gestured for the legionnaire to carry the female elf. The next station long way was Trobridge, and it would be slow because of the wounded nature of Loria.
Fortunately a caravan caught up with them, and they could bargain for passage, with both of them doing work. It was a long time for they were able to go. There were many stitches which Gwynwyffer made, and it was a very slow healing process. They manage to scrabble into the small wall village, and with the money which the legionnaire had on him, were able to rent a room. It was not even a village, and it was unwalled.

While it was called Trobridge, there was not any bridge, but a ford. And what made it annoying was they charged for it as if it was a bridge. For legionnaire had never seen anything like it, and while on his face he was polite – inside he was furious. Once again he was reminded that while it was a great wizards island, the accommodations were substandard. Very substandard. And the keeper of the Tavern styled himself as a Lord, though he had no right to bear arms. Another strike against this place.

For not the first time, he swore to himself that he would not be going back to this island if he could help it. It was not what it was advertised, the patina was of a great mysterious place, the reality was that humans largely did not go here and left the island to the beasties that lived here.



Monday, October 16, 2017

A Solitary Crow - Elkall-Anuz - 2

2
In the Fields

But the guards did not even question the legionnaire, in fact took no notice of him at all – almost as if he were invisible. In the man's mind, this would not do – he should have at least received an occasional salute, in difference to his rank – if they knew what it was. Out towards the gates, over the bridge along the wide river Kald, and over the fields which supplied most of the food with the exception of fish that were from the river- he went. Though he still noticed that he was given a wide berth. He shook his head, this sort of thing would not be permitted on any of the kingdoms or principalities which he had visited in his lifetime – and certainly not from the Azeyrani Empire. 

Where nothing was finalized until at least two different units had approved it, and stamped their seal.

Hour by hour more people were going from the road, and out on to the fields. Some were common areas, while some were owned. One could tell this, in some cases, by whether there were trees planted closed together; if there were not, it was common area; if there were, then it was owned by either a Lord, or one of the churches. Gradually, the vast rush of people had thinned – and by night fall he was the only person that saw. The sun had about an hour until sunset, and he saw crows grabbing on to the rails of the fence – that was falling down. This meant, of course, that while there was theoretically an owner, in practice, no one had recently touched these in many a year.

Then the crows scattered like the wind, and up ahead he saw a figure. It was not like a human – but more the outline of a human. It was about 100 yards away – and he ran towards it. But about halfway there it shimmered – and was gone. When he got up to it, he saw what was garb, made of black – but no footprints, either human, animal, or being. So he had not been imagining things. He looked both ways, but saw nothing. He was sure that something had been there, but he did not know what. He was puzzled and lifted his hand to his chin, and stroked it. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – he did not know what it was but he was thinking on it. But he had to go forward, in two the oaks and maples which dotted the fields. There was absolutely no one who was working these fields – perhaps it was just that they were fallow, and would be worked next year.

Then the sun was interesting the lip of the world, and rapidly would be setting behind the hills. He decided that he would sleep the night, and take a fresh start. So he wondered away from the road, and sent up a small tent – about 200 yards away. You could tell that he was not in any particular hurry, though he felt that the marker which he sought for was close at hand. Better, he thought, to meet it in the morning – then blunder past.

It could not be said that it was a fit night for sleeping, he woke for a five times – but other than the naked sky he could see nothing and only heard the distant cries of a hoot owl. And though he felt that there was something nearby, he did not see anything, though he searched the field rather closely, before going back to sleep. At last he woke into just before twilight. He knew because there were a cacophony of birds chorusing the dawn. The light from the sky was just a little bit awakening, and he got up from his sleeping, put on his armor, and was trudging along up to the gate.

Over the fence he went, and was stiffly marching on his way. The field changed to woodland, which signaled to him that the idol which he looked for was probably close at hand. Just then the sun rose up a little bit to the left of the road. He still did not see any people, which was odd – usually a few people would be on this same road – since it was the major East-West byway out of Kaldor – and in to that space which was owned by no one. Evael was up ahead - the kingdom of the Sindarin – and beyond that between the large lake and the kingdoms of the West. But those were many moons away. Right now he was looking at the base of the road, and searching for his object.

Then he looked up – the sun was about an hour in to its course, and while there were a few birds chirping, and various kinds of rabbits – which froze when they thought they had been noticed – there were no signs of either larger life, or people. This was odd, because he thought he would have seen someone – because it was unlikely that no one had shown himself since yesterday. So he said of course directly perpendicular to the road, and into the woods – for it was not yet a forest.

Turning his head to and fro, he saw nothing – and a little bit of dread came up on him. It might be nothing, but it was a very loud nothing. Why was there no people – or anything else for that matter? At this point, he kept himself straight, and listened for anything which would tell him that it was normal. Only the birds did so. Thus he hid himself behind a very large maple tree, which was at least 50 years old. It was also dying, because he could see rot grown from its roots. He knew this meant something, but what he was not quite sure.

And men in an instant, the branches clasped around himself – sticking to him like glue. The leaves felt not like leaves, but like they were fingers grasping around him. They were at his hands, his chest, and finally his face – where they were plastering in his eyes. In fact, all over his head they were trying to subdue him.

It was at this moment that his training as a soldier came in to play: first he squatted down along his massive legs, and joined together his strong arms – making it very hard to displace him. His face was locked in a grip of intense will, making it hard to do anything but concentrate on his main objective – that is, releasing himself from the flurry of fingers formed as leaves. At first it seemed like he was going to fail, and if he had been a normal man – he would have – but his will dominated the motions that he made, and finally, he was able to break free. It was not an easy process, and his legs arms and torso were only slow to move. But move they did. He pivoted around on his right foot, pulling back on his left foot. Then see it was not the tree that bound him, but something controlling leaves – it was black, and shadowed – though he did not know what it was. He got a flash that it was the same thing that he saw the last evening, the shadow of a human form. But first of all he shifted to his right foot and begin the process of levering backwards again. Thus, he was still facing the tree – bought going away from it.

Gradually the leaves were torn away from his face, then from his arms. It was at this point that he was more able to deal with what saw – the shadow had placed its arms within the tree, and leaving them. He saw that the tree mimicked the motions, and at this point he drew his short sword – and tried to stab the intruder. But his sword passed right through its torso – not once but again and again as he plunged it in. then he thought it must be immune to normal weapons. The shadow moved to a higher branch, and swatted him down with it. Obviously it was not just immune to no weapons, but it could cause no damage to himself. So they were both laboring under disadvantages, but he had yet to find a way that he could hurt the shadow.

It was then that he saw from his left eye the form of an arrow loosed in flight. It was a long arrow from a long, and even then it was large. But he did not hit him but instead his opponent, which cried a noiseless scream. He only heard it in his head, where it was a bellowing sound. A host of crows jumped up from the oak tree, and infant birds of different kinds rose from their nests and screeched, though they knew not what caused it.

He looked around, and saw the most extraordinary site – he had been used to elves which were slightly smaller than humans. But instead he saw something quite different indeed. It was a female elf, but one which was at least 6 1/2 feet high, taller than he was, and that was saying something. He was used to being the tallest person in any group, so much so that when saw someone taller than he was, it almost made him wonder if the person was a giant. But this female elf was slender, but powerfully muscled. The sinews had not an ounce of fat that he could see, though it was only 30 yards away. And then he caught the face of this elf: and it was incredibly beautiful. The long white hair, and blue eyes set above the high cheekbones, and a face which was gaunt – but not overly so – wearing a green cloak with a long white dress underneath. There was a shifting aura about her, which tangled in her hair – it was white, but also slightly blue in nature. With a moment of care, she began:

“Are you hurt in the least? That was a follower of the Dark God – Morgath – who has fallen in two the state of serving only its master.”

The man was still dazed, but then replied back: “I have never seen a follower of the dark God, our you sure that that is the case? Or are you ...” he tried to find the local word for surmising, but then substituted “...guessing.”

Though he could not tell exactly what she was thinking, he guessed that it was a look of pity. “If matters are open to speculating, it would be my to say so. Remember that most elves you meet have been on the worlds great deal longer. Usually we do not openly speculate about something, it is not our way. You may call me Loria. What shall I call you.”

“You may just call me legionnaire. That will do. You are right, I had forgotten the difference in our lifespans. Where were you all this time?”

“I find you last night, and was here every minute of the day. You just got notice me, there was magic involved in that. I saw no reason to distract you, in your course of action. That would be rude. By the way, I just call you legionnaire many people will assume that are from Tharda, which uses Republic names for things.”

“Excuse me, you said magic?” He ignored all of the other details, and fixated on the thing that she said which was most important to him.

“A spell which makes me less easy to be observed, as well as protects from injury. It is not high magic, but it helps.”

The ease with which she spoke of an incantation was surprising to him in itself. Normally people would talk quietly about such things, obviously elves were somewhat different – they were like the giants and other folk of the North.

“And why were you so interested in my patterns and movements?”

“A friend of mine over heard to people talking at the small temple dedicated Peoni – she recognized that you were hunting for her. So she relayed the conversation of that encounter – because we were not certain whether you were a friend or foe. By the way, the priests of Peoni have led slip to various other members of other sects of your interest. And not all of them are friendly to you. In fact, one could almost say they were deeply unfriendly to you.”

Then it hit him. “You are talking about Gwynwyffer, the person I was sent to find. You realize that could have made this great deal easier by announcing yourselves at Tashal.”

“The problem that, is that we hired a magician to conceal you from the guards … you did not think that they would detain you if they knew that you were there?”

A great deal of what seemed to be coincidence, was in fact planned. He was meant to meet the two of them out here, not in the Tashal. The reason was simple: whatever force caused the shadow figure would have even more resources in the city, then out here on the road. He was just able to force one shadow underneath the tree, he doubted he would have done better against two – left alone more than that. He whistle, realizing that he had guardians that he did not know of, and it was these guardians who had made his life so easy. He was not going to forget that.

“So when are we going to meet your traveling companion?”

“She is up the road by the idol you were looking for.”

He was beginning to realize that elves were not merely long lived humans, and that how he would do things, is not how they would. But then he realized, that they were being careful – and it also occurred to him that the normal way for most individuals was that they were drunk most of the time. A bit of tipsiness was the usual state of affairs. It was not for him – and it was certainly not for them either – but most of the world liked a drink before breakfast, a drink before lunch, and several before dinner. In fact dinner would be superfluous, and they would begin drinking at sundown. Then he realized he had to say something.

“You will find that I am like you.” he wished the local language distinguished between you singular and you plural - “In that I do not drink except at the end of a day, when I am not on duty the next.” 

He softened his stance, because he wanted to express a kind of sympathy. This went well. Then he looked back, and saw the same thing that he had seen on the road – a black garb. The he went away with the elf, and into what he regarded as the unknown. But what he saw so far did not give him much hope – either it was unwashed, or it was populated by all manner of unearthly creatures.

Eventually, they meant a person – a rather saying woman, dressed in green who was of average height – but like her companion – was thin. In fact the helmeted men almost thought he could be thicker than the ball of them. But it was an enormous surprise when she spoke his native tongue, not fluently, but well enough. He gave her the letter, introducing himself and explaining the proposal that they were going to be on. She read it carefully, and then began to talk, and talk, and talk. She was burbling with questions, and unfortunately he did not have very good answers. He knew that they were supposed to go to Elkall-Anuz, a secret place inside the forest north of a place called Trobridge. It was very old, older than even elves and dwarves, back to the Earthmasters – who were the first people on the world as far as anyone knew.

Trobridge was a few days distance, even on foot. Then they would get off the salt Road – which was where they were – and strike out to the north. Enclosed was a map of the general region, and another one which was specific to the place where they would find the ruined monument, and all that was around it.

She looked at it closely, more closely than he had done, and found that there were three distinct regions. The youngest one was of a tyrant who had conquered a huge stretch of the South, except where the elves ruled. His name was Lothrim, called the Foulspawner. This had not been of interest to him, because it was a small empire, on a distant isle. So Gwynwyffer explained to him that this empire was run by a thoroughly nasty man – this everyone agreed with – who ruled the lower third of Hârn. His most devious plot was creating Gargun, a bipedal ape man who was very clever – several species of the same breed. Even without any course behind them they spread. And spread. Until they had warns in almost every place that was not settled. Then a second layer was from before Lothrim built, by an ancient people known as the Jarin, to venerate this place. And then at the heart was a fortress built of what is now called pseudo-stone, which is attributed to the Earthmasters themselves.

Finally she explained that they were to enter in to the secret entrance, and magically manipulate the pseudo-stone.

“And what are we to do with this stone?” The legionary asked.

“We are going to travel in almost an instant, to another place, also containing a pseudo-stone. The person who wants you to employ our services has contained something which will help. Which is how he is buying us. And unfortunately it will work - Loria has occasionally moved from stone to stone, but more often she is unconscious.” It was said in tone of voice that echo.

This was more than the legionnaire had bargained for, but he was on commission – and would not argue. If it was possible – and she assured him it was – he would do his duty. Whatever that was. He also noted, that they had had adventures in the past. And that the stones were part of this.

“So shall we go? It is getting on in the day, and I, for one, want to spend one day outside, not more.” Loria asked. She was patient, but not that patient - it was clear that even she had limits to letting Gwynwyffer talk.

So away a went on to the road, crossing ever more deeply – from fields, to fallows, to woods, and then in the forest, occasionally hearing a river in the southern part. In the forest, the canopy covered much of the sky – and clouds were coming in bespeaking of a rainstorm.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

The Donkey Boy

A Singular Crow - I 1





























1
Tashal
On the west coast of the main continent of Lythia, there is a huge northerly island – almost the size of Madagascar – which is called Hârn. It is known as the wizards island And lies almost 45° North of the planets ecliptic, and though the planet is slightly smaller, it has a denser core, and therefore much the same gravity as Earth does. There are all sorts of things that go on here, even in a world which has a bit of magic. Not much magic, not as compared with its sister world of Yashain – which has great deal of magic. But Yashain is in a different dimension, only possible to cross by sorcery.

Feudal era took in these lands – with Kings ruling over Earls, Earls ruling over Barons, who in turn rule over Knights, and over the few town councils which have established their own position. The reason for this is that there are few people, and their were plagues that had wiped out great number of people. In this land terrible people come from both land and sea to raid and loot and despoil. The people here do not know any other way, and are suspicious of people who preach any other. Of course there are mysteries, which the known gods and goddesses protect.he island, there are different people other than humans. There are elves and dwarves – more properly Sindarin and Khuzdul as Tolkien used to call them. But there are other peoples, from the Pradeylki – from the far north, almost race of giants, to the evil gargun which are vaguely humanoid, but have different features – being somewhat doglike and apelike. But that is only the beginning, because after all the named was given to it a reason. In other lands, people, when they speak of it, do so in hush whispers. There are even rumors of dragons.

Three separate regions: the East the are four kingdoms (well five it you count Chybisa, which is smaller than most baronies) – the kingdom of Melderyn, which lies off the coast of the main island, guards the way; the kingdom of Evael of the elves; the hard Kingdom of Azadmere, belonging to the dwarves; and the landlocked kingdom of Kaldor, ruled by an old king. He has, perhaps an enchantment - which keeps him alive, but in no way healthy. The only hostilities are where the Kaldor engages in the occasional forays in two barbarian lands and occasionally two the Eastern Republic of Tharda: for the purposes of exactly where in the forest wilderness the boundary lies. In the West there are two kingdoms and what loosely passes for a Republic. The North is where the native Jarin are subjugated by a people from the northern islands of Ivinia.

Khador's main city is called Tashal - it is the largest city on the island. Only a bit over 13,000 people in this year of 720 Tuzyn Reckoning - a date which was set by the Kingdom of Melderyn. But none of the people who are visiting Kaldor are anything like this one is, first of all, he is taller than most – easily cresting over 6 and a quarter feet. But this is only the beginning, because rather than robes which are the customary garb, he looks entirely different. First of all, he wears a large steel helmet, with an enormous red plume atop. Going downwards, he had a fine coat of mail and a set of greaves – which made him out to be a warrior, but not one of the knightly type which dominated the local people. Moreover, he was trudging through the road towards the gates with purpose. Which again was unusual for someone who decidedly was not part of the landscape. Others moved aside, for they knew that he was on some business, and they did not want to find a what. So they stared in to his face for just a moment, and seeing a stern jaw and high cheekbones, with a Roman nose – none of which were common in this area – they quickly moved aside.

From the looks of the people around him, he knew that he was out of place, but he welcomed this as his due. He knew he was from far away, and he knew that people would recognize him. But since he could not blend in, event the other way, and stood out completely. So as he walked to the south eastern gate, he looked around for any pickpockets – but discreetly so. On his own turf, people would not dare to do this – but he was not on his own land. He saw the people as rabble, and rather poor rabble at that. There were only a few beasts of burden, where as in his homeland, there would be many more. And he noted other such features which all added up to a poor country indeed. This was not what he had been led to believe, hearing the words of the wizards island more than a few times. He was expecting something exciting, or at least different. Instead, what he saw did not amusing in the least. And is brother, a commander of guards in the same place he was from, would be less amused – because his brother was even more of a stickler for such details.

Inside the gate, and the houses were even less inspiring then the stone wall had been – the wall was only about 20 feet high in the best of places. The houses were made of a wood frame, with plaster filled in - in the manner of stucco - with gabled roofs and canopied terraces. Almost all the houses had an “X” bracing, which was a kind of theme for the local buildings. He did not much like it, but you had to admit, it was distinctive in its flavor. It was clear that each individual house was built by an individual taste – some were grand, others seemed to be slapped up between two houses. He wondered if there were any restrictions on how the buildings were made, and if so, were there any ways to get around them. So while his face was forward, he was looking out of the corners of his eyes. Because he was also looking for places which would not be announced, such as the thieves Guild, the Lia-Kavair. He also wondered what motivated the religious leaders, because they had agreed deal of influence on how a God or Goddess appeared to the supplicants. He made a note of a couple of the buildings, which he would check if he had the time.

Looking for a person who could help with his current mission was his task. It was not a mission that he, himself, believed in – because it was filled with magic. And while he knew magic existed, he would rather not think about the consequences of that. It was better to rely on the might of the sword, and the cleverness that is brain could supply. But this is not how his brother thought of things, and it was his brother that had implored him to take the mission. First of all he would have to go to the wizards island, in went down from there. First he had to find the elf knew about the patterns left behind by the people known as the earthmasters. These were a long forgotten people – and most did not believe in them. But the elves believed in them, and stop them quite real. But to find the elf, he did not need to go to the kingdom that they inhabited – but in to Tashal, where a woman lived who knew about the strangest of elves, not connected with their own kingdom. He took this on faith, because elves were beyond his keen. That one would be a part from their kingdom, he took on faith.

And how was he to find this woman? In his pocket he had a description of her, and he knew that she was associated with the Temple of Peoni, whom was the goddess of childbirth and redemption. Mind you she was not a priest herself, though she did attract such people. No, she was a scholar – and often times would help people remember things that they had forgotten. He understood this – she was gifted in the area of remembrance. And while he did not understand how this worked, he knew from personal experience, that it did in fact work.

Turning into a street which once upon a time was the beautiful area, but was not any more. He looked for the design which said it was the home of one Astaroc – who was rumored to be the nephew of the King of Kaldor. But it was out of wedlock, and in this time and place, that would be absolutely forbidden. It only walked a little ways from the South end of additional when he reached and in numerous square – which he knew as Haldan square. He also realized he had entered in through the wrong gate, and turn to the south of this square and moved down to a different southern exit. He then went along this route, and walked towards the wall. It was there that he would find the men called Cranlson, but who was actually a very close relative of the Royal household at the time.

Oh, for a sign that would tell him the street he was on – and then he found it, though it was not visible. Most of the people could not read. 'Chidena' it was called. The he did not know what this meant. Then towards the end of the street, just after a small passage that joined with the main street. There were two doors, one long the road, and another long this passageway. It was clear that the second one was for servants. Thus he went to the main one, and knocked three times with his armored hand. He waited for just a moment, and was going to knock again – when he remembered he was not in a land which recognized his status, such as it was. So, instead, waited for the door to open.

And eventually it did. But only a crack, where an old woman answered:

“He is not taking visitors today.” And the woman was going to close the door at that instant, but this was too much for the armored man to take. Thus he slid his right foot into the doorway, and though it was a very small entrance – he was better than most at turning his foot and wedging the door open.

“I have come a long way. A very long way. And I will not be dismissed by some cleaning lady before I have actually spoken to the resident of this place. I will not take a moment, but it is a moment that I shall have.” he was clearing down his nose at her – he was almost a foot taller – and his look said that he was determined. Very determined.

The woman looked up at him, and knew that this was some kind of foreigner – though she did not know where it came from – and it was better to let him in. she would have to explain somehow, but that seemed like a better solution than any other. So she let him in, and pointed towards a bench beside the opening.

“I will get them for you, though it might take some time to pry him away from his work.”

With not a glimmer of hesitation, the helmeted man changed his complexion completely – and he was magnanimous, and tipped his helmet and placed it aside. He then was seated, and waiting.
At which point the woman went in to the next room, though she closed the door it was not tightly shut. Thus, there was a trickle of words between the woman and what he assumed was the voice of the man who he had come to see. The first thing about it, was that it was old, and what is more, crotchety. Clearly the man's voice was not interested in having company.

Then the woman explained that this company was from far away, and what is more would not be refused entrance at that time. He then heard a tirade from the old man's voice, to the effect that he was busy, and why could she not shoe him away. Then the woman explained that he was tall and in some sort of armor – though it was like the legions of Tharda, it was more ornate than not. What she did not say was that he had a presence, and she was not going to question it. The men heard this in her tone – and guest that the old man had heard it as well. The old man began in a different way – almost kindly in its demeanor. He said that he would deal with the man, and the woman should go on to clean something – which meant clean anything.

It was at this point that the inner door open – behind which was a room overstuffed with books, flasks filled with liquids, loose paper – which was stopped on bookshelves, furniture, and the floor. Standing in the doorway was A very old man, with gray eyes and white hair along the back of his skull. Is close mark him as a polished person, with adornments on his neck and wrists – they should mean something to the armored man, because they look like things that he knows – but not quite. But what caught his attention was the old man's face – he was relatively spry for his age, and was still in good health. While his head was slightly stooped – it was better than a man 20 years younger than himself. His eyes were peering outwards, and have closed with suspicion.

“Well what do you want? You said be just a moment, so a moment is what I am can you. Use it wisely, and then be gone.” There was a tenor of command, which the helmeted man noted. This was going to be a contest between two extremely competent men for control. If they would let it, that is. But two would have to make it so.

So at this point, having been a warrior, he decided that the best route was to late out his request with deference to whatever status that the old man thought he possessed. After all, all he wanted was to find out where a particular woman was, and then depart. There was no point in quarreling about this. And it was obvious that the old man did not want any of his attention. But he noted that the old man knew something about his attire – and thus unlike the majority of people, had traveled to the mainland.

“I was told you would be the person who would know a female, by the name of Gwynwyffer. She is associated with Peoni's group.”

At this point the old man softened his countenance quite a bit and even curled his lips from a deep frown, but not to a smile. At this point the old man responded in a language from the mainland, it was not spoken on the island at all. “Is this better for you? And hear sit down, because I think I shall have to give you directions.” And he produced a pen, and handed it to the armored man. With a blaés attitude, the man took the pen and from his belt pocket produced some papyrus to write upon.
While the front room is for entertaining, including a large dining room table, but unlike most inhabitants there were neither dogs nor cats to feast on the scraps. There was a tapestry along the back wall, and it seemed like it had some significance to the old man – but he did not say what it was. Then he was dictating the directions, and waiting for the younger man to copy them down. The anger of man was quick to do so, which delighted the old man so that he actually broke a smile. But only for an instant.

The directions were complex, because he would have the journey out of the city – and place and offering to Peony by the side of the West road. Then the next day he would come back, and get further instructions as to where the woman he sought could be found. This did not bother the armored man, because he had retained several people who were hard to get a hold of. It was, quite literally, his job as the intelligence officer of the Legion.

“Is that all you want?” Requested the old man. He was half expecting a further request. Clearly he was thinking that his visitor was one of a select group of people, who had other desires. And while he was have opened up, there was still a lingering question as to when the other shoe would drop.
But the man scooped up his helmet, and then replied “I only came for that, thank you.” And checking his belt for all components made ready to leave. The old man was surprised, but waved him off. When the door was shut he just heard the inner door open and words to the woman. But the armored man did not know what they consisted of. Nor was he particularly concerned, this was local politics, of the kind he did not concern himself of less asked by his superior. After all, this was a tiny kingdom, very much the size of a Barony where he came from. And the old man must have realized it, since he had spent time on the continent. Though the old man was sharp, was actually very responsive in his own way. Which was more than he got from most people.

Once on the street he again checked his belongings, he thought he saw a pickpocket ducking out of the way. But it was nothing, and he decided that it would be better to allow the constables to pick up pickpockets and the like. This was again, this was not his concern. But he did note that this area was littered with an amazing diversity of low level life.


  So he sat out for the Eastern wall, and he was sure that whatever guardsman's unit was going to question him when he got there. If not before then.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Red Zone - III








































III
Scissors
25.61.045 JD
(October 21st , 2299 OC)

1

Boom.

But not boom boom. One sonic boom means ground based scram jets, not gunships from orbit.

He opened his eyes, and they were his eyes. Above, again, the roof of the waiting area. It could only have been a few minutes.

“You need to get up now, we have to evacuate, no one can be left behind.”

He scanned the sky and saw the supercontrails left by scramjets.

“Those are ground based from HongJing.” If I could find out what time it is, it might tell me how long after the Black Elephants arrived the scramble took place.

He rolled up, and stood up. The lower gravity of Mars made this easy for his Earth toned muscles. He could tell that Keisha was looking at him in that way, even if just for a moment.

He dis a survey, people were pushing and shoving to get out, yelling prices. Lines on Mars don't get longer, they get wider. Now I see where that expression comes from.

Then the voice of the avatar cracked.

“This is not going to be a slush wrestle.” It boomed with that enhancement from his suit. It seemed to come from everywhere in his body, and from everywhere in the air. The physics of it were not difficult, but the effect of it was a spell. Almost all the pushing stopped, almost all of the cries died away. A circle opened up around him.

“You will lifo. This is a warning, not a request.”1

A tall broad colonist, wearing insignia for pure han, and martian first family walked straight through that invisible line.

“Listen brain in a can, we are going to do this the Martian way according to the rand, and that means auctioning off slots.”

There were a few isolated cries of “The Rand!”

Another two people began close in past the circle.

“Then you can give me all your money, because I own the only means of escape. Both from this station, and from this life.”

“How do you come to that conclusion? I've got a propsleigh right outside.”

The avatar stared down about 4 kilometers of nose at the colonist.

“I own the door. I am the door.” He took a deep sighing breath and intoned: “Begin. Lifo. End. Execute.” The air itself vibrated.

With that people, almost involuntarily, but fluidly and naturally, began lining up at the exits. Children first, then older and older. Clusters became rows, rows became a line. People began filing out the exits and into robotic transports.

The avatar walked up to the colonist, now in line.

“You should read the Colonization Agreement more carefully. It has colonists numbered, for just such emergencies.”

The colonist glared. “We will galt2 you for this.”

The avatar continued: “An agreement is an agreement. And in any event, what do you think is holding off the bombing? Your money?”

There were only few figures not queuing up: emergency personnel, the Jovan Marine, Deeshandir, and Keisha. Keisha, because she was missing. Deeshandir looked around. He had just been talking to her. How does she do that?

Tony came jogging up to him, practice in space consuming strides in low gravity.

“Where's your girl Deesh? Looks like a bug out3 is in progress.”

“I cannot see her. The scramjets are clearly a warning.”

“Why no gunships from orbit?”

“I think the Dominion's logistical capacity is already strained facing the threat from Hyperion, and, I think, there is a hope that a show of force will get the colonists back into line.”

“Let me know how this schlock and guffaw plan works out.”

“Sorry my Terringlish is not good enough to follow your jokes.”

“Buzzing this place with planes is a joke, and the colonists are laughing at it.”

“Your assessment seems to be depressingly comprehensive.”

“Well what we don't have here, is a plan.”

“Scenario blank.”

“So what would you be doing if you were her?”

We can't leave anyone behind. A flash of the misshapen cephalopods on Shakleton flashed through his brain.

“Avatar. There is a nursery here, where is it?”

“I am not sure you should go there.”

“Load the directions to me.”

There was that brief itching feeling of a fast upload, and he set off, the Jovan one half step behind him. It is probably too late.

Overhead the next formation of scramjets screamed, the dome rumbled slightly under the shockwaves, but, as yet, they did nothing else. They will have to do more than that to unnerve this lot. He reached an oval shape which was the entrance to a service elevator, it went down, deep into the rock. The nursery will be deep under ground to protect it from radiation. He waited, it slid open with a slow hissing sound. He stepped in, and Tony flew in, hit is hands against the back wall, hit his boots against the ceiling, and then dropped down on the floor. I really shouldn't stare at him like that, but that is an amazing move. His own limbs felt leaden and heavy. He could tell he was short on oxygen.

“What?” The jovan looked at him with a half mocking smile.

“We don't learn that in my part of the service.”

The door hissed shut and began moving down. Let me try one of the speed overrides. There was a lurch downward, but seconds were torture.

“I'm assuming, Deesh, that there is some reason for this hurry.”

“She's going to kill the infants who can't be taken.”

“What parent would leave their infant to be slaughtered by the heavies.”

“One who can't afford it.”

“That's sick.”

“No, that's the virtue of selfishness.”

“And these people think they can run the planet?”

After a short ride the door hissed open, they were out, Deeshandir first, the Jovan following. There was a huge security door, and off to the left the large freight loader, which probably went directly to one of the carrier tracks. The security door was locked. Deeshander placed his hand over the security plate, but new that no code he had, would open this door. Instead he could only open a view to the security system, which presented to his minds eye a view of the tangle of rooms and corridors. They were overwhelmingly white, and lit by a very soft, but relatively sun natural, glow. There were medical rooms, far more than one would think for a nursery.

“What are you seen Deesh? Do you want me to try and break the door?”

“With what?”

“Brute force if needed.”

While holding one eye on the Jovan, he tried to scan with the other. His head swelled with pain, and he only had a vague idea of where the large incubator room was.

“No, let me try something.”

Keisha, I know you are on this channel.

I am, but you aren't going to stop me. You know this needs to be done. You know. You can't stop it. These are children. This is murder.

This is mercy.

He got a glimpse of what she was seeing with her eyes. It was, close up, a face. Or something which might be a face if it were arrange correctly. The outline was not round but looked as if one half had been melted upwards into a soft point on the right. The lips were curled back, exposing teeth pointed outwards. The left bulged without lids, the right eye was nearly shut. The skin was several gradations of color, but smoothly from one to the other.

He dropped the link and bowed his head.

“What did you see?”

He wanted to reply, but could not, he was locked in remembering the tanks of growing experimental creatures from Shackleton, over and over.

The Jovan wasted little time, but pulled out a cylinder about 10cm long and 2cm in diameter, it had a hand grip, but few other signs of what it was, other than a kind of slipper midnight blue color. Tony pulled it back like a spear behind his ear and pointed it at the lock. There was a flash, and a neat hole was punched straight through it, without even carbonization along the edges.

The door slid open.

“I knew it would listen to reason.” Venkatesh stood up straight. I must have been doubled over.

“You holding together Deesh?”

Nod. Perhaps if all the gremlins in my mind hold hands. He looked down the corridor, it was a rectangle with the edges cut into triangles, made of sections that seemed to fold out forever. Enough of that.

He tore down the hall towards where Keisha was. He was not sure why, whether to stop her, or help her. I could use something to clear my head.

As they tore along a girl in a thin robe clopped in front of them, her slippers shuffling. A mass of tangled hair hid her face, until she turned to them. There were snarling teeth, and it was obvious that one eye was much higher than the other. They ran around her and charged down the high hallway.

One more turn, and they they stopped. To the left was a large transparent pane of ceramic, to the right a series of fluid suspension intensive care pods. The pane was darkened, in that reflective obsidian black way of dim light, but with the implication that it would be possible to see with the right focus of attention. The tanks had various suspended figures, most of which were possessed of severe deformities. The shock was doubled since, ordinarily, his suit would have taken the edge off of it, giving him time to process.

The Jovan let out a yelp. Deeshandir surveyed the scene, and saw Keisha methodically pulling down levers of the old heavy style. Clearly this was meant to make it a deliberate act, the weight of doing so inflicted. She pulled with almost her full body downwards. One by one they click into place. Klaxon alarms, that ancient sound that was like a call to worship, poured from every direction. In old Terringlish a soothing, feminine voice began intoning times in seconds, and warnings repeated. It was a chant to bring about the end of worlds.

“Sterilization process initiated.”

“And counting t minus 1 minute until sterilization protocol.”

“Sterilization protocol. Code Orange. All personnel to safety zones.”

“58. 57. 56. 55. 54. 53.”

With this last Keisha slid to the floor. Faces pressed against the obsidian pane that would soon separate the quick from the dead, eyes, and cheeks deformed on top of deformity. On the floor Keisha was sobbing.

Deeshandir tried to lift her up.

“Go away! Let me die here!”

The Jovan looked around.

“This is wobbed, people. You have ample credits with our banks from what you sell. What is going on here.”

“43. 42. 41.”

“We've got to go.”

“Let me die!” She slapped away his hand. No choice. And with that, he slung her over his shoulder and carted her to the exit elevator at the far side. More faces and eyes pressed against the pane. There was increased bubbling inside the tanks. His muscles screamed at him, acid was building up, and there were cramps. Sadly, nothing to do but bear it.

“You must follow, and quickly, you can't break the switches, they are too stupid.”

There was no movement, and then the sound of the Jovan catching up.

“Sterilization protocol initiated. Final sequence in 30. 29. 28. 27. 26. 25. 24. Last warning. All personnel are to be in safe zones.”

The blare shut off as soon as the door snapped shut in the small round elevator. The door's incredible thickness, and construction from heavy metals made sense. The only indication of what was happening beyond was a red display that read counting down time and characters which read “Danger: Sterilization.” And then a yellow one which said

“Override Entry Only.”

“10.” “9.” “8.” “7.” “6.” “5.” “4.” “3.” “2.” “1.”

And a ghastly silence.

“Will one of you dirtsiders tell me why we just flushed those unfortunates to hell?”

Keisha's face was sobbing into Deeshandir's shoulder.

“Those were the children no one would claim.”

“There's no excuse for that. We could ship them the biologics to stop that. And the tech is so old as to be traditional.”

Deeshandir looked at Tony.

“Their parents are too poor.”

“What about the polis?”

“It's against their way.”

There was another ghastly pause.

“You dirtsiders are just not right in the head. That's flesh of your flesh.”

Deeshandir patted the back of Keisha's head. She bawled from her huddled position.

“I tried to keep them alive. I tried. Is that so wrong? To cure them as we can? Please tell me I am not a bad person, V. Please.”

“K, I do not know what to say that would in any way comfort you.”

The Jovan stared at the ceiling, his skin reddened with anger.

“Do not be so angry, the Black Elephants would have done much worse.”

“I tried. Please tell me it was enough.”

There was silence.

“I am in no position to render moral judgements.”

In his minds eye he remembered the cephs killing the experiments, and destroying their young rather than be taken captive. He remembered the spattering of blue, the slicing, the strange whirring sounds of their language as it echoed in Shackleton station air.

It was the eyes, they bulged out, and stared for a million years through his.

They road in silence to the surface

2

“I don't meant to restate the obvious, but your boys are here to commit random acts of euphemasia on everything in reach.”

“Say again?”

“Extended adjustment, accelerated reacquisition. Any time some one uses 8 syllables of nounjedtive instead of one or two syllables of verb.”

“Hah hah Jovan. What do you know about decency?”

“I never pretended to be anything but an uncouth barbarian.”

“I've checked your records, you studied on Earth.”

“Mere accident of an admission to TsingHua.”1

Keisha looked at the Jovan. “Old Earth club.”

“Membership has its privileges.” It came out in an exaggerated drawl.

“So what are we going to...” Distant sonic booms rumbled over the dome, slapping the panes, and creating a high pitched whine. “... do?”

The avatar slowly walked up to them, it was a practiced step from the knees, as if, even under Martian conditions, he was bearing a deep weight, and yet wanted his footfalls to come softly.

“I can delay them, but you must go.”

Keisha looked at the other three males, and turned and started walking. “One of us has a vehicle.”

“Two of us do, I have a tank in storage.”

The Jovan spoke first: “Now that's my idea of getting home in style.”

“Then we need to get to it.”

Behind the the Avatar had dialed up a hologram of the flight leader of the next formation of scrams.

“This is Avatar Wilson. I am, under Karma Imperative, requesting evacuation from this war zone.”

“This is Colonel Li of the 2nd wing, no can comply. You are ordered to evacuate this zone, it is under military control.”

“That is not acceptable. I do not answer to the military, only to the Avatar Council, and to the Dominion-directorate. I am a soul bearer, and have priority over military suppression activities.”

“No can comply. You are ordered to evacuate this zone. I will give you 5 minutes.”

“In one minute, a commsat crests the horizon here. At that time I will report to Phobos. I can tell you for a fact, Colonel, that if you persist in attempting to enforce an illegal order, neither you, nor your men, nor any member of your families, will ever incept. No avatar will do it. 50 seconds for your reply.”

There was a pause.

“No can comply.”

“That is an unfortunate choice.”

Run, they think this is a bluff. He had to mentally push on his muscles to get them moving. No stimulant.

“Run.” Keisha pointed at the far elevator.

The trio tore off towards it, or rather, Deeshandir ran, the Jovan took long strides, and Keisha slid on her super conducting boots. Each covered their heads with a helmet. On the back of Keisha's he could read “LV.”2 A designer helmet, and they do not have the ability to save their own sick children. At this point four streaks slammed into the ice beyond the dome. Obviously the scrams listened to the imperative, even if the pilots did not. The three piled into the elevator, only to watch the dome be ripped apart by incoming fire. It was not from above, but from the same level. The dome structure seemed to collapse inward, and then blow outwards. An exdecom wind began sucking loose objects and air outwards into the cold. The Avatar stood, calmly as loose wound spindles and other small bits of the base apparatus swept by him. The could see massive hulking figures of black suited Heavy Infantry blasting through the bottom of the dome.

The door snapped shut.

“Damn, the station sensor system is off.”

“And that means, for us hicks?”

“We are blind, Lt. Colonel. We are blind.”

There was a rattling thump from above.

“Looks like we are going to have to make a run for the Lagrange. I spent 300 Terran standard days on Patroc3 once.”

There were more rattling thumps. Then a heavy one.

The Jovan nodded to Deeshandir. They are on top of the elevator. At least one is. He went scissors, and we can't defend with stone. So...

Deeshandir pointed at the door and made a pushing gesture.

Tony nodded and loaded his lance.

Keisha twirled her hands and opened her fingers apart, causing the roof of the elevator to snap open as an iris valve. Moments later a very surprised Heavy Infantry man dropped down. Before he could even react, the ordinary door snapped open. At this point the Marine was ready, he focused his lance high on the heavy infantry man's chest, and fired a pulse. The was a splay of sparks off the armor, which absorbed the hit, but the heavy topped backwards out of the elevator.

With two hands Keisha closed both entrances, with only one stray shot from above harmlessly hitting the floor. There was a jolt as the elevator continued, and then another as it shifted from moving vertically to moving horizontally. Keisha was gesturing furiously and staring into her tablet.

“They are coming in through the dome and are going to swarm us.”

“Can you tell what is happening above?”

She showed the tablet to the other two, on it was a clear screen shot of the avatar walking towards a group of heavies. They fired at him, but the stream of the projectiles seemed to part in front of him, and spray off in every direction, even as the avatar methodically walked towards them.

Finally only two meters from them, almost close enough for them to lunge for him, one unslung a short rapid fire pulse energy weapon. He fired the spark plug straight at the gut of the Avatar – who seemed to be a squat but solid and human presence, before the unnaturally elongated pair of heavies. A spatter of energy appeared around him, creating a glowing shower. The second continued firing, until their weapons stopped.

There was no sound, but it seemed as if he was conversing with them. Finally one doubled his fists raised them high over his head. And froze in that position. The other moved, but was no longer moving in a hostile way. He has their kill switches.

After this the avatar simply strolled passed them and walked firmly. He picked up a large box that he had left on the ground, but which had been obscured by its meta-skin deflecting the light. As soon as his hand was on the handle, it became visible as a blue white box with an elaborate insignia. He disappeared into the gloom of the dark Martian polar night, into the smoke and soot. Two new heavies arrived, saw him, turned to fire, and they too, froze in place.

At this moment, the elevator stopped, and the door opened.

“It's not the best drive, but it is here.”

Before them was a turboprop sleigh, a low slung black needle nosed affair, it was 5m long, and had two runners, and seats for four, one crouched behind the other.

“Nice to see civilization here. Jovan manufacture. CTW is a good maker.”

“That is because you have more empty ice than the rest of the solar system.”

“Callisto's racing circuit..” he tooke a breath and looked like he was about to recount some memory or race.

“Let's go boys. Operative word being boys.”

The Jovan swung his leg in and crouched down with a practiced move. Keisha took the driver's position, leaving Deeshandir with a choice of two passenger seats. He chose one, and hunched down. The fan spun up hard, it's two rows of teeth biting at the thin air. The Julia turbine whined, and heated wind began blowing over and around Deeshandir. It has to be strong if I can feel it, or perhaps I am imagining.

“Where to, V?”

He loaded the coordinates.

“Where is that Deesh?”

“The ambush site. I trust you can avoid the heavies?”

“People don't see me go, V. Only come.”

Packed in like this, he realized that he was going to spend much of this trip staring straight at the cupped curves of her behind, a soft crease running down the middle.

Oh my brothers, how I thought I was cured of her.

3

The turbosleigh sliced a neat trail line, on the highway to oblivion. Above the little trio, the cold stars looked down, obscured by floating clouds of iron dust and ice crystals. They were slaloming on one rail, north, with the Milky Way as the backbone of night. A swelling orange kissed the horizon, East of North, just to the galaxy's right.

They were traveling between two crater walls that were nearly against each other, one from a direct impact, there were long flutes of rock where the rock had rebounded after the ground had coughed up melted rock, but here, that rock had frozen as it ejected, leaving behind columns that reached up to the sky. Blazes of ice crystals splayed behind the singler runner, and a growing tumult cloud rose almost to the heights of the crater walls. The illumination came from the firing of the turbine itself, and orange shapes seem to flash and fade out the windows.

“It never really gets properly dark out here does it?” The marine's voice cut through what had been several minutes of quite shifts from one side to the other, sluicing through the broad curves of the glacier.

“Not at this time of year. We will see a kiss of the sun soon. V, does this look right?”

“We are getting closer. What surprises me is that no one is here. No infantry, no tanks, no drones, no bots.”

“That we can pick up.”

“I'm on all the channels. It is quiet, but not too quiet.”

“So can you pick up what happened to your men.”

“The kill switch was thrown and the tanks returned to base per protocol. Some are security, the rest are almost certainly in the brig.”

“Can we run more quietly K?”

“I'll switch to ion.”

There was an immediate diminishing of forward thrust, and cessation of sound. Instead what remained was a ghostly whirr, and the fizzing rush of the runner over the ice. The running lights also went out. The sleigh's runner slid apart and became two again. The slashing sound of the ice under the rails came in waves, with a fall and then a rise.

“Sorry I have to keep the rails heated or we will slow down significantly.” Her tone was matter of fact.

“We need to stop soon.”

“10 km is a long way out there, V.”

“K, how do your people get closer? They did in the ambush.”

“Why are you so interested in the ambush?”

What to say? That I do not trust my own memories, that I do not trust you? That I fear that the images I have from Shackleton were created to turn me against the Dominion, and hide your own society's woes? That examining this ambush will pierce that veil?

Tony interjected. “To go out of the darkness and into the light, we need to return to the scene of the crime.”

“How is this a crime?”

Deeshandir filled in the reply: “War is crime set to music.”

“We are defending ourselves.”

I am not going to reply to that. “Then you need to tell me more about what has been happening. The Black Elephants must have been active here for some time.”

“Weeks.” Keisha just let the admission slip out.

“Why were you unable to tell me?”

“For the obvious reason that I thought you knew. And there was no safe time to tell you?” There was the air of a half rhetorical question to it.

“What had they been doing.”

“At first it was hit and run raids, without any injury.”

The marine looked puzzled: “What did they need heavies for?”

“They'd do things like pull drills out by the roots.”

“To explain, government privileges are priced in 'liberties' which are non-transferable credits with the Dominion or with a government.”

“Not exactly non-transferable.”

“I know about them. So?”

“A few months ago there was a drastic change to how liberties worked. Basically the Dominion stopped redeeming them, even though governments would.”

“And why the fuss over it?”

“You can't get off of Mars without Dominion approved transit pass.”

“So your government said they were stuck here.”

“V, that's not exactly right. The real thing is that it takes Dominion liberties to buy new mining licenses, or increase production with environmental offsets. No lib redemption for environmental credits, and people can't expand.”

“Of course, money. Why didn't I think of that.” I can hear the scowl on Tony's face.

“It's about freedom.”

“Freedom to make money.”

“I don't notice Jupiter giving it away.”

Let's not let this degenerate. “There was unrest, people stopped turning in their quotas. We had some incidents.”

“Seems an awful lot to call out heavies for. Unless there's something I don't know about.”

“We went to outside help. There was an ambush of 4 bees. They all died.”

“And so Alpha was sent in for a reprisal. That it?”

“Which is why my wife manipulated the system to have you sent down.”

“A mercenary in a Civil War. This is getting to be down right like home.”

The careened around a long curve, the carter wall on the left began to fall away, arc to an opening. However, at the same time, a new wall appeared from an overlapping crater. This one had a more ordinary smooth slope with huge boulders littering the sides and valley floor. The rapid freeze and thaw of the last hundred years is shattering the once sharp profile of Mars. We are already remaking worlds, and they us.

The passage widened out to what Deeshandir recognized as the north end of the area of the ambush.

What shocked him was that in the middle of it, still sitting where it had been destroyed, was a Mark Standard Dominion Flying Tiger.

“Bring us to a stop.”

“Where are your people Deesh?”

“I do not understand either. There should be infantry on guard.”

“Unless they are in ambush. Problem is I don't have anything with any range. Unless you count spitting on them.”

“There's a long recoilless packed along the side. Assuming you can shoot something that has a kick.” Her tone was haughty and there was a monochromatic coldness to it.

“The atmosphere's a bit shallow but I will cope.”

“Better idea. I'll cover, and you drive, Jovan.”

“Deal. You've got some girl Deesh.”

The sled ground to a stop. Keisha swung her hips up, lifting herself by just her arms and then vaulted her legs out, she popped out the long rifle, a full 1.5m, and slung it over. It had a slender barrel, and a larger battery pack. She rapidly checked the clip and battery, and adjusted the siting on top. “I'm going to take that spire of rock and cover.” With that she turned and trod across the snow.

“Tony, I would like to ask you to ferry this behind her and keep the engine warm, you two may need to escape quickly.” He unmounted and buckled himself up more tightly. Oxygen was still nominal, which is good, because the atmosphere was death zone thin.

The Jovan settled himself in as Venkatesh methodically checked his suit.

“Marines don't leave people behind.”

“There may not be much of me left.”

“I'll send your window your ashes.”

Deeshandir nodded and began trudging slowly towards the husk of the tank, each footfall crunching tightly into the granulated ice. The walls seemed more distant than the replayed memory, and the basin wider, but that was because he was walking, and not flying at full speed. The area must have been 8km long all together, not much more than 2 minutes at the speed the tank was travelling. Even in Mars g, that would be a good bit on foot. The tank was tilted over, where its hot engines had hit and melted the ice on one side, but settled on a rock on the other. But now, it looked as if it could have been resting their for hours, weeks, or years.

Dust. Wait. How could dust have settled on it this quickly? He recalled the dust from the ambush. It must be a trap. He checked the helmet display. It did not register abnormal, just the ordinary spectrum of mars, an iron type D.

Which is abnormal, here in the mining regions, the dust is strained through ferromagnetic traps to collect the iron, nickel, and cobalt.

“I know why there are no guards.”

“All ears Deesh.”

“What is it V”

“They are dead.”

He surveyed, and then he found it. There, abnormal concentrations of polypeptides, organics, and rare earths. He strode at a 45 degree angle away from the tank, to a place where there were two long large black stains along the mixture of ice and rock. He bent down, careful not to touch or even come to close. Armored people make perfect inputs for nano-machines: everything, fuel included. He plugged the feed in so that K and Tony could see what he saw.

“I'm going to do a record here.”

“That's what's left of the Black Elephants left to guard it, isn't it V?”

“They we gooed.”

“Ugly way to go.”

“One of the worst, they leave the nerves until last. You are conscious all the way down into the slime.”

“I've got some pixie dust toys as weapons. We can see whose bugs are hungrier.”

“I need samples, no more.”

“You got something for that V?”

Deeshandir popped one of his sample vials, it was no larger than his thumb. He let it float in the air, and then maneuvered it down to take a sample. He twisted his hand on his wrist to order to shake off anything on the outside, and then hovered it into his glove. Seal it tight.

“Deesh get out of there, we have a wind coming up.”

He then stood up and backed away, and moved quickly out of the way. A few backwards bounds and he crouched as whirly passed him, those from the ground twirls of turbulence that swept across mars. He looked up and saw that the sun was reaching its fist across the horizon. The cold air will be pushing north. The winds will come. In the back of his mind he calculated how long it would be before the death zone around the tank had dispersed.

He rose from his crouch and then closed on the tank. There hand to be a way to approach it.

“Tony, are you there.”

“No, I've been out drinking and trying to find the local brothel.”

“Martian liquor isn't worth the spit we make it with, Jovan.”

“I will second that assessment.”

“Tony, bring the sled here on ion power, turn it around and burn off the nanos with the turbines. I have to get a better look at the remains of the tank.”

Moments later a hot wind blew across the tank.

“I'm heating it up, not good for the engine.”

“I'll forgive you fat boy.”

“Tony, do you have any nano-suppressors?”

The Jovan left the engine going at low, and hopped out. He climbed on the tank, and sprayed down.

“What is it you are looking for Deesh?”

“Something out of place.” With that, he climbed up on board the tank, and looked down into the cabin. Immediately what was out of place was obvious: two long red cylinders with a hexagon logo etched on them. One logo was filled in. “Do you see those?”

“The brain boxes?”

“Yes.”

“That was the payload. One is used, one is not.”

The marine stepped on the headless corpse of the driver and rolled down, some loose nano dust tried to cling to his suit, but fell off. He brushed it away, and grabbed the two tubes.

“So how do you figure this?”

“The sphere is backing the rebellion.”

“Got that.”

“This ambush killed with no possibility of incept.”

“Yes.”

“Ergo, the people who did it had sphere equipment, but would not be acting with, or with the cooperation of, the avatar. He would want them incepted if possible.”

“So?”

“Liberties, deliveries of soul cages, or brain boxes. No libs, no deliveries or incepts. And the sphere's avatar would regard it as a moral imperative to act.”

Keisha broke in.

“This is a trap for us.”

“If by us, you mean the rebellion and the Black Elephants both.”

“Not getting it.”

“A false exchange was set up. The brain boxes, as you call them.”

“OK, so your tank crew was smuggling brain boxes to the rebellion.” Keisha replied: “Almost certainly.”

“What happened is clear: some people set up an exchange, not to get the brain boxes, but to leave them here. These are eternal life. No one would leave them around who is interested in money. Who ever came for them, would be caught, and killed. More deaths, and more violence.”

“Which leaves out anyone working with the sphere, and virtually every colonist.”

“And it leaves out the Black Elephants, because they would want to recover that used one.”

“How you figure?”

“It has the dead Elephants in it.”

“Because they were ambushed by Keisha's people?”

“And stored. The Bees came for this, and to deliver retribution.”

“So the bees got stung by the trap, and Alpha has to wait until a thread team can recover them.”

“And Alpha is otherwise occupied.”

“So the uncolonists, who are they. Not Jove, not sphere, not colonist, not Black Elephant.”

“Security. Arun, and Doc among my tankers. And infiltrators in the rebellion. Doc is the one who would know this.”

“This means we have a pass into the station.” Keisha's voice was almost cackling with delight.

“Don't get one thing. Why would security slaughter their own?”

“Do you have any idea how much putting down this rebellion is worth to a career? The Bees want to do it, Security wants to do it.”

“So what now V?”

“The Bees are right now delivering reprisals. Paper. Which means it is time to stab Alpha in the heart.”

And find out if Shackleton is the way I have been told to remember it.

They sped north and east towards the Station, a general quiet seemed to have fallen on all of them. The fist of twilight grew, but the sun itself was still not visible. A few stars and a bloody orb that is Jupiter kept them company.

“They must know we are coming.”

“Time to remind them.”

Deeshandir hailed the station several times. Finally there was a response.

“What are you doing on this military channel?” It was not a Black Elephant.

“Hello Arun, how are you doing?”

“Lt. Colonel! I thought you were dead.”

Wished, not thought.

“I am well. I am returning to the station.”

“I wouldn't advise that, Alpha will tear you in two.”

“Thank you for the advice. I assume Doc is in charge of the station now.”

“Well nominally.”

And working on becoming less nominal all the time.

“Is Alpha in command?”

“Of the forces, but not the station.”

“Put me through.”

“Will do. But I think this is a mistake.”

“Put me through, please.”

“Ack.”

There was a long pause, minutes.

“This is Alpha. You must be stupid. If I were you I would have run.”

“I would only have died tired. But you aren't going to do anything to me.”

“How's that, dirtbag?”

“I have what you came for. The soul cages with your fallen comrades.”

“How did you get your fingers around them?”

“That's not your concern. What is you concern is if you want them to arrive safely, you are going to give us safe passage in, and safe passage out.”

There was a chewing moment.

“You are going to spend the rest of your short life in the hottest bowels of the upper mantle for this.”

“Thank you for your legal advice. I want safe passage under truce.”

“And what makes you think I will grant that.”

“An ambassador's husband is not to be terminated lightly Colonel Alpha.”

“I was waiting for you to play that.”

“You will need a great deal of paper to cover that particular stone.”

“Truce granted, on the condition that the soul cages are returned unharmed.”

“No conditions. Truce, or I will turn them over to the colonists and their sense of equity.”

Another chewing pause.

“Truce granted.”

Fortunately I've been channeling this to Phobos. It is not just the sun that is dawning.

At that moment, the sun kissed the horizon, with shards of ice rainbows appearing distant from it.

“Last star on the left, and straight on towards morning.”

“Deesh, do you think that Alpha will honor that truce?”

“Perhaps, but Doc, the security chief, and now in command, technically, of the base, will not. He will make any excuse to lead an ambush.”

“That's why the course you've set goes straight through the drilling zone.”

“I see absolutely no reason to make life any easier for him.”

“So what are we talking about? Tanks.”

“Tank. Singular.”

“Why no more?”

“He can not trust anyone else. We are carrying the keys for all practical purposes. These Bees have memories that will be a very useful lever.”

“I don't mean to intrude on your homo-erotic bonding moment, but even one tank will kill us.”

“That really all depends.”

“On?”

“Whether we have a tank. We are going to stop by the mining area and pick up the drop tank there.”

“A drop tank against a main battle tank? I'm no expert on cavalry, but that seems to be a stretch.”

“If Doc and Arun were more competent, I might agree with you. K drives, you shoot, and I will command.”

“Helmet to helmet?”

“I do not see any better alternative being made available, than fighting a badly manned tank in terrain of our choosing, with an enemy who must at least pretend, to be taking all due caution.”

“Don't you think that this Doc fellow is hoping you will resist, so he has an excuse to kill you?”

“I am counting on it. Fake paper, throw stone.”

“You cheat.”

“I avail myself of Expanded Scenario Selection.”

Sairen.

Yawn. Are we home yet?

No. I need you to help me.

Yawn. What is it? Can we play later? Will you let me hunt for more of the bots?

I'm going to jack in, I need you to kill switch me once I do.

That's a boring game.

Then once I am unjacked, unkill me.

Ohhhhh. That's fun. How close can I come, and then pull you back?

Yes. I will give you the code to use.

It's a special code isn't it.

Yes.

They were approaching the base from the west, in a landscape studded with the tops of pile drivers, that hammered into the ice, extractors, small thermal fusion plants, and virtually every other device for clawing ore and resource out of the ground. It was like the edge of a great technological wood, dotted with towers that rose up, some as high as 1000m, but most much shorter. Some were very slender, while others squat. All were made of a lattice of black materials, that slurped down whatever light and heat hit them.

While in almost every case, it would be cheaper to extract these materials from Earth, the environmental cost would be prohibitive. The garden world sucked down from Moon, Mars, and asteroids, comets, dwarf planets, even Venus and Mercury, and gave back rich complex combinations of biological molecules which gave life. He could see a greenish glow that collected on the skin of the towers, it was the radioactive residue of the steam blasting. It was an old technology: superheat steam, and blast out of the rock the materials that were of interest.

This must end, Mars must be a Garden world. Kumar is right, Mars is the issue in doubt.

His skin was swaddled in vibrations, which if his hearing had been modded, he would have heard as sound. He could feel the low vibrations in is gut. There was a speckle of plinking and pounding, combined with a breezing whoosh as the Martian spring winds tried to gather force. Whirlies formed and died around heat drifts.

“Deesh, we are almost to the location that you listed.”

“Stop precisely on it.”

They leaned slightly, and slowed to a halt. They were right next to a red and yellow striped pole, which was for jacking in to the local control grid.

“They are going to know where we are.”

“Not for long.”

“You have a plan, V. I can tell.”

“Yes.”

“Keep the motor running, Tony. Keisha, jack me in, there should be a kill port on C-2 on my neck. It is small.”

Deeshandir dismounted, his back screaming at him. I keep forgetting how much pain the adjusters take away. He crouched down, and ran his fingers along it, finally finding the switch, he pushed several times until he hit the spot exactly. A short needle popped out of the pole.

“V, I am going to lean back on this, you need to guide it in, through my suit.”

“You are going to kill from here.”

“More exactly, Sairen is.”

“That's wobbed V.” Even her voice crinkled with concern.

“Trust me, I don't know what I am doing.” He smiled.

He took a deep breath.

“Should we link for this?”

“Yes, I think it would help, K.”

There was a momentary blink, and he could feel her hands on his temples, as if they were resting there. She guided him in, there were several false fits and starts, until the needle found the nipple in the suit, and then in his spine. He stiffened. If only there were some other....

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

4

He opened his eyes, but they were not his eyes. He tried to open his mouth, but he had no mouth, though he wanted to scream. He heard voices, his mind was in subdivisions.

“That just takes your breath away.”

He couldn't even blink. Even the ability to form thoughts as words seemed blocked. Only the massive input from sight was coming in. Worse, it did not habituate, or focus, he felt thousands of symbols, millions of colors, endless feeds, all molten and all oozing over a feeble consciousness. It was exhausting and inexhaustable.

“V? Are you alright?”

“Veee's out right now. This is Sairen. Can I take a message?”

“That just leaks. We need to get Deesh back.”

He could see Keisha's face in front of his own.

“Sairen honey, we need Deeshandir Venkatesh back in control here.”

“As soon as I can. This body is nasty to be inside of. It smells and has all these fleshy parts hanging in awkward places.”

“Venkatesh is a man, he doesn't notice.”

“Who programmed him to be like that?”

“It is a long story Sairen honey. But he needs to wake up now.”

“He told me to wait until he wasn't jacked in.”

Keisha nodded, and placed her hands on the sides of the helmet and slid Deeshandir forward from the waist up.

His eyes finally closed. Reflexive blink. Words! I never thought I would miss them until they went away.

He opened his eyes, and they were his eyes.

Give me a moment to get control of my limbs again.”

“Good to have you back Deesh. You should look around when you get a chance. If Sairen did that kill, she does quality work.”

He turned in both directions, and realized he was lying flat on his back. Slowly the ground came into view. Everything was stopped. The movement, the sound. The lights were gone. There was only the bleak cluttered landscape, a plain of white, out of which rocky hills rose, studded with reflective black spires.

He slowly rolled and stood up. He took a deep breath. It was his first quiet minute. There had been a roaring in his ears, the shifts from commander, to fugitive, to casualty. To what?

At the beginning of this, I had an identity, but missing memories. Now, I have memories, but no identity. Id- entity. I wonder what that means. Perhaps memory is just the lie we tell ourselves to keep being what we are told we are.

However, there was no pain in his chest, no longing for an indescribable thing which was absent. He breathed easily, and heard the rumble of the air in his ears. The was less weight on his shoulders, and for the first moment since his adjustments had run out, he did not feel he needed a shot of something. He was light headed, and felt hollow inside of his skull.

But it took no effort to make one foot fall in front of the other, and walk the short distance to where there was a elevator platform, about 20m wide and 40m long, that would take them down to the vehicle bay. It slowly creaked into action, on an ancient mechanical over-ride. Unlike the ordinary smooth magnetic float, one could feel a cyclical vibration up through the floor.

There was a dull orange color to the near dawn conditions above, and so a dark terminator line passed across their bodies and faces as they descended into the gloom. Granules of ice fell in after the platform sank, the bounced and dropped out of sight. It took two minutes to finally settle into the bottom.

A dull orangeness infused itself, and there was a mistiness from the ice and condensed water that hung in the air. With an achingly languid crawl, curves of illumination became visible among a tangle of shapes. There were a wide assortment of vehicles, from heavy lifters near the front, which clearly saw duty on a regular basis, to a towering and hulking shape: an ancient single stage to orbit space plane, with a white top that joined with a dark lower half. It seemed to swallow the light. Deeshandir calmly walked towards it, threading his way between the vehicles that separated him from it. The other two followed.

He stopped at a control box, and twisted the cover open, and pushed a large red button to send the elevator platform back upwards. He turned on the UV lights in his helmet, and used the filter to see from there. The pad became a rim of light and then sealed shut.

“Surely you don't mean to fly that antique, Deesh?”

“No, but it still has a working generator to charge the tank, which is hidden in its cargo bay.”

“A drop tank fits, V?”

“Perfectly, the standard size has not changed in over 200 years.”

“The song really does remain the same.”

“We don't throw machines out on Mars, just people.”

The threaded their way to it, and Deeshandir began climbing the ladder up to the hatch: it was an old sealed hinge door. I have forgotten where the pull lever is. Wait, there it is. He saw the slight depression, and was able to push a cover aside and pulled down a heavy oval ring. The door slowly swung open above his head, and he managed to finish his assent.

He entered the flight deck, and looked around and the welter of switches and controls. This was long before heads up or augmented reality had been made a religion in avionics design. He scanned everything, and began flipping switches in a particular order that he had looked up and loaded that would, or should, bring up the instruments. From there, he could see if this would work.

Keisha was in behind him.

There's a jack. That will be faster.”

He shivered at the thought of jacking in again, but agreed that that would be quicker.

“I can do it if you don't want to, V.”

“Yes, please. I will prep the tank.”

She pulled out a hand tablet, plugged in the physical jack, and then placed her hand on the tablet. Lights opened up with lightning speed, and there was a whirring sound of an old turbine as hot gas blew across it to generate old style electricity.

He turned and climbed down into the cargo bay. There, hitched in place, was a sleek shape, made of poured liquid curves, and painted black with orange stripes. It seemed entirely out of place amidst the billows of light fabric and projections of cast metal which were around it. It seemed as if it was a daub of amber set against the roughness of rock.

He wiped away the collected dust on the side of the hand panel, he took off his suit glove and placed his hand against it. A sense of oneness flooded into him. He could feel his pupils dilate, and his head clear. It was an archaic model, but better than any adjustment, it truly was where he longed to be. Home.

He opened the iris hatch and slid in, and then settled himself on the single seat of the light drop tank. It was sucking in energy from the mains, heat coupled to heat, without any intermediated form. The power level marched upwards: the space plane may have been from an other time, but it had a generator capable of pulling a small city behind it. They almost certainly are detecting this activity. I should not count on the element of surprise.

Even from within the tank the roar of the turbine was audible. From the tank's feed outside the space plane, he could see an artificial wind blowing through the hanger, melting ice into fog, and burning fog into warmth.

“How are you V? The generator is getting a bit hot. I need to throttle it back.”

“I'm ready, shut it down.”

The rumble stopped, the whine slowed. The old style fission reactor had performed its work. No wonder my prof swore by Russian engineering.

“I've got a path cleared out for you Deesh.”

“Ack. Keisha, lower me down gently.”

“Ready?”

“Yes, K.”

After a sudden initial jolt there was a slow methodical motion, and while it took a full minute, the drop tank was lowered on wires down to the floor level. How the Jovan had managed to clear a path so quickly, he did not know. In fact, he could not see Tony at all, until motion on his screen caught his eye and answered both questions at once: there was a pilot box for a winch along the ceiling of the hanger.

I should have known there was a brute force solution, and that he would find it. Down treads and let us see how she feels about me today. He recalled the first time he fought with a drop tank's finicky handling and delicate sense of equilibrium. He had spent a decad in the infirmly after he had flipped it over and tumbled. 10 long days of waiting for fingers to grow back, with an itching intense pain.

However, in this case, after an initial lurch, there was none of that. And the treads efficiently carried him along. He steered across the elevator platform's hollowed out resting place, around the column whose rising and falling moved it, and towards the pair of large tubes which provided driving access in and out of the hanger.

“There is only room for one, and I do not want either of you in range while this is going on. It still would be best for you both to run.”

“If you think I am letting you run out that easily, V.”

“Not on your life Deesh.”

Well, all for one, and one for all, I suppose.

It was only second later that he was at the exit hatch, it slid open as he approached easily. One problem with a drop tank is that it is not heavily armored, the other is that it does not accelerate very well. The concept is for it to bleed off speed, enter in at supersonic speeds, flatten everything, and then slow down to be picked up. In a stand up fight, it was an under-gunned, under-armored, under-powered, over-age one man motorized coffin. Other than that, this was going to be a fair fight against a slightly older model, but still top quality, main battle tank. I am glad that I am going up against the worst trio of tankers imaginable. But his confidence was shallow, they would be able to connect with the base computers, and sim out every move. It was instinct against the best tactical programming they could find. Unfortunately, I have been upgrading it myself.

No, fortunately. It is going to tell them to do exactly what I would do. All that I need to do to win, is counter what I would do at every turn. It was here that the memory of Kumar had such force, Kumar had balked him at every turn, because Kumar had written the book that he had merely read.

Then I was the pupil, let us see if now I am the master.

He took a smile from that word, because now and again, he had met some eccentric but celebrated intellect being called the master or maestro in hushed towns by others.

He ran treads. What would I have done?

Ambush, paper against their rock? Second guessing oneself turned out to lead to a spiral of what did he think he thought he would not have known. A few layers deeper, and it seemed to drop into a recursive hell, with each answer leading to a doubt. Each doubt feeling like another step into a pit of despair. Even as he rolled the tank from the darkness of the tunnel, to the mere shadow of a sullen streaked early polar twilight, tears streaked down his eyes. He sucked the air in, and he could feel a slight slurping across his lips as the trembled.

Boys don't cry.

Sairen?

Who else do you have in here?

No one.

I feel sorry for you. You are very unhappy.

Happiness is not something I have ever expected in life. And it is not something I have time to contemplate now.

I understand. So what are you supposed to be contemplating.

I am playing a game, a deadly serious game.

Alright. Can I play?

You are. And the other player is using an exper that I wrote.

So you think that is unfair?

I am having trouble understanding what to do.

Let me read their communication link. I have all their kill codes too. If we can get close enough, all we need to do is link in and I can kill them. I though they would have changed those.

No. They only rotate to the next code.

That's stupid.

Safer, we are far too far away from Earth to reset from a central source.

So what do we need to link you in?

I am not sure what the link is, but I will know it when I feel it.

I still want to read their sequence. I do not want to expose you too soon.

I like secrets.

You are my secret.

I like that.

He spun up the tank hard, heedless of the signature.

“V, What are you doing? I can see the heat signature from here. Surely the security tank and the base can.”

“I want them to know where I am, because I want them to come to me. Draw scissors to throw stone.”

“V, I don't understand.”

“I want them to lunge into a trap.”

He tore the tank up and around the long thin ramp up to ground level, once there where the ground opened out, he started weaving through the thicket of spires, around north. He had not gotten far when he could detect the loud clear heat signature of an oncoming tank. He spun the concentration of the view around several times to soak in his surrounding.

What would I have done? Paper, because I assume the drivers of the bigger tank, would be too cautious. So the simulation is almost certainly telling them to go scissors, just as I did on Shackleton.

And if they do, it is another indication that even if my Shackleton memory is not exactly true, it is, at least, spun from the threads of my own mind.

He swiveled around into place, and centered the turret's laser on a point where the IR sensor read much colder than everywhere else. One patch of ice, but beneath it was a large storage tank of liquid Hydrogen, the fruits of the pumping.

Sairen, are you there?

Yes. This is hide and go seek isn't it?

Yes. And they think they are seeking.

But we are it, aren't we.

Yes, we are it.

So what do I need to do.

We are going to draw them across that cold patch.

I see it.

And when they do you are going to vent the tank below.

I'm not close enough to a jack.

Can you tell where one is?

I will look. Wait.

I am waiting Sairen.

There. Roll back about 5m.

Deeshandir repositioned the tank, and then cut the heat output.

I wait a ghost, a moving mirage whose vapors are fumes of blood. He had always liked that poem.

Then, he could, in fact, feel it, before he could see it. There was a torrent of data pouring in from the tank, but no single piece told him that he had guessed right: that they were screaming straight for him. Moments later, no data was needed, the tower behind him took a hit, and very slowly started to bend over as one of its supports was burned away. It tilted majestically to the left, falling near, but not on him. Had it been a lesser wound, it would have sealed itself and regrown the stricken member.

There it was, it looked like heat rising from a desert road, shaking and swirling, easy enough to miss. If, of course, the drivers had been trying to be less observed. However, they were not.

He mentally began counting down to when the laser would regenerate. It fired again, missing broadly. You would think that they would realize that no exper could miss that badly twice.

Why are they missing?

Instead of using the metaskin to be invisible, I am letting it be reflected off the mirror next to us. They see us displaced. The exper hit the image dead on twice.

So you fooled them?

He geared the tank for a lurch forward, and waited for his attacker to cross towards the cold patch to get a better shot. They turned, sloppily, a splay of ice spattering into the air. Very nice touch exper, using their bad driving to create some cover. But it was too late for that, a long drawn out pulse shot pierced the ground well in front of the oncoming battle tank, and in a moment, a hot mushrooming flare of orange and black drowned out the feeble sun.

That almost certainly will not be enough. But it was enough to burn the metaskin, and damage the armor. He followed the tank as it flipped end over end and slammed down, it tried to budge, but did not. Perhaps they have damaged the Julia turbines. The treads started lowering, and the laser began focusing in again on him, the track of its aiming laser swept across the front of his tank, and he winced, expecting a blast to pierce him and punch a clean hole all the way through his skull.

It was a shot that did not come. They need to read the board, their laser is off alignment.

The attacking tank seemed to realize this as the repair and realignment cycle started up, a large circular disk on the front of the turret rotated, to pull the barrel of the laser back into place.

It was a fatal delay: he'd drawn paper, and threw scissors.

He rotated his hand and closed his fist, the drop tank lurched forward and he closed to almost point blank range. He could see the marks on the outside of the disc move into place, which would show that the barrel was realigned. These were not visible to the naked eye, but then, the particular UV frequency that made them visible was coded in his tank as well. He obviously has not understood that he has no secrets from me.

Hey there.

I am busy.

Their computer is leaking all over.

And what is it saying? The figure of the battle tank was rapidly falling towards him, he had less than a second to pick a target and fire, because after that, petawatts of power would slice his small Flying Tiger with the speed of a knife through hot butter. It wants to surrender.

It doesn't have a kami does it?

Well, want is a bit wrong, but if I tell it to sleep, it will.

Tell it to sleep, Sairen. Tell it to sleep.

And the tank, slept. Its engines spun down, its treads halted, its lights went out, its communication went to a simple heart beat.

“I have taken three prisoners.”

“What? V, are you oxygen deprived? Where are we going to put them?”

“There is a brig here.”

“Nice trick Deesh, you'll have to show it to me some time.”

Deeshander clambered up the tank, a process made easy by his familiarity with the places where hands and feet were supposed to go, and easier by the low gravity. He used the emergency to pop the turret open, and stared down at three very embarrassed and surprised faces. Arun was in front, Doc commanding, and a third man who wasn't even a tanker.

“This is the best security can do?”

They were breathing through ungainly oxygen masks, and all held their hands up. One by one they filed out. They were nearly freezing to death after a few minutes, so he marched them to a small control bunker. After slapping the heat on, and freezing the other controls, he lined them all up face against one wall.

“I imagine you are going to kill us, ya Venky.” Doc, of course.

“That's Lt. Colonel Venkatesh. Why would I do something like that, when the UCMJ is very explicit that prisoners should not be killed without orders, a directive, or exigent circumstances.”

“You won't get away with this, Venky.” Arun piped up.

Deeshandir used the heel of his palm to slap the back of Arun's head forward into the cold hard wall. The oxygen was bleeding in pretty quickly, but the door was still open behind them. There's the sleigh, I am picking it up now.

“I will not tolerate further insubordination. You are all under arrest for crimes against civilians.”

Doc smacked his lips under the breathing tube. “We had orders for everything we did.”

“Military personnel are not to obey illegal orders.”

“Which one in specific?”

“Revealing military movements to potential rebels resulting in the loss of life. I am turning you over to the civilian authority here.”

Moments later Keisha slipped in, with Tony closing the door from the outside. The long rifle was slung across her back.

With mock gravity Deeshandir spoke: “I am turning these accused over to you as the civilian authority.”

Keisha's voice was not happy, a kind of irritable sense of not being in on the joke pervaded the edges of her voice.

“So I am supposed to baby sit these?”

“There are some cords in the tool kit to restrain them.”

This was handily accomplished. This was too easy. It means my surmise that Doc was the senior intelligence officer was incorrect.

“K, I am going to go with Tony to the station, and complete matters there. I will be back after that.”

“You taking the sleigh?”

“Why, when we have a perfectly good tank.”

She formed her lips into an “O” and the settled her self onto a control seat.

“I'll be waiting for you.”

“This is humiliating, to be turned over to the station whore for detention.”

“I let you in, so you would let me in, Doc.” She was purring.

Minutes later, Anthony and Deeshandir, were strapped in, and motoring and motoring directly for the station.

5

So. Can you help me with something?

What is it Sairen?

Why do you treat expers differently.

They are not conscious.

But I am.

You are inside of me, so you can use the parts of my brain that create a consciousness.

So the picture I have of the world in my mind, that's consciousness?

Yes, it is called the theatre of the mind.

And expers don't have this?

No, Sairen, they do not.

But they could.

Well we would have to put in the hardware for it, and that would be heavy and expensive.

They act like they are conscious.

That's because we make them that way.

And they could be conscious.

I do not think we could make that work. Conscious beings do not serve purposes very well. They want things.

Like me. I want things.

Yes.

So you aren't going to sleep me?

He took a deep breath. No, you have been concepted, and that means we will work hard to keep you awake and alive.

But I still don't understand why the other expers have to be without a consciousness.

We can run an artificial consciousness through what is called a “soul cage.” But they are big and heavy and require power. Or you have to borrow part of an organic consciousness, the way people do with an avatar, or you are with me. We could not have every knife and fork attached to one.

Does that make you an avatar? But what about large expers like the tank. It seemed so sad.

No, I am however, a soul carrier. At least, that is what I remember the term to be, I could be wrong. As for tanks, it would be very dangerous to have them decide that they didn't want to fight.

So what if I want to stay with you for a while?

Yes, it is alright.

And is not fighting so bad? If no one wanted to fight, then we would not have so much pain. The colonists are like us, the Jovans are like us.

Peace lasted for a century Sairen, and now it is being fumbled away. It might well be there is some conflict between consciousness and peace. I do not know.

I think we can have consciousness and peace.

I hope so, but it has not happened yet.

I have another question.

What is it?

What about the cephs?

What about them?

Are they like expers? Or like me and you?

He paused and thought.

I remember learning that they are conscious, yes.

And yet we treat them more like expers.

Yes, or worse.

Are you sure that is right?

I do not know.

If you don't know, who does?

I do not know that, either.

Does it bother you to say that?

Yes, but not because of me.

6

Once upon a once upon a once upon a time, there was an ocean. Lifeless, but not timeless, and running out of time. It never reached to light. Burned apart by rays from distant stars, it collapsed to ice, and then the warming came and it ripped apart massive ocean planes, and carved a valley that quarter circled its globe.

And the scattered defeated remnants of that war between space and Mars, fought a summer spring ritual, bleeding out of the poles, to wrap the planet in winds. And so for a billion and a billion and a billion and a billion in sally forth this ever war was waged. It ground the craters from the Late Bombardment down, it turned the wash of water, into a cauldron of sand. The deserts gripped the face of Mars.

Until the coming of Man, whose genes rewrite what war is to mean. Man brought lichen and clinging growth. Man brought fusion to rip the rock. Man rained comets down, the first reinforcements that water had seen in number, since the dawn of Martian days.

Until the coming of the hand, which could wrench a planet from the grip of space.

Scattered around them were glacial streams that were collecting into a river of ice, that flowed down into the growing seas. Seas armored from above. White Mars.

Venkatehs surveyed the sullen landscape, bristled with flecks of fallen iron, stars fallen fresh from the starfall, and from starfalls uncounted over this age of the galaxy. For the first time in many days, he could feel the weight of millennia that marched single file beyond the grasp of his imagination. And yet, that sense of age was, he knew, fictional, a century ago, this landscape was very different.

Mars is small to a modern tank we will be there almost before we can be said to be on our way. Someday there will be the stately airships of Earth and Venus, and even Jupiter, that slowly fly under deep power from place to place. As a creature of the military he live his life moving near the speed of sound. Men of Mach, his tankers joked. Yar, but really most of humanity moves by slow, collecting the energy of gravity, the tides, the winds, the warming rays of the sun.

And that struck him.

“Tony. If it is alright with you, I would like to ask a question.”

“Sure Deesh, what's on your mind?”

“You studied at Tsinghua.”

“Econology, as it turns out. Additional concentration in diplomatics.”

“So your biology is probably better than mine.”

“Maybe.”

“Given a population, on the South Pole of Mars, with the present radiation parameters, and assuming a lack of biologics that you've observed, what would be the expected rate of congenital defects.”

“I could work out the Keane equations if you want. But what are you getting at.”

“How many were in the nursery?”

“That could be the transactinid poisoning, depleted uranium pile drivers give off a lot of ugly dust. That's why you need the biologics, for the pregnant women and...”

“Even with all of that, the colonist population of Mars, could it produce the rate we saw?”

The Jovan drifted into thought.

“Not without some other effects. What's your point?”

“Think like a Terran for a moment.”

“Got a laser handy so I can knock out a few key parts of my frontal lobes?”

“Seriously, think like a Terran.”

“You seem to specialize in gaming things out, you tell me what's on your mind. I don't play guessing games the way you do.”

“No I wouldn't imagine that you do.”

“So spit.”

“The nursery we saw, that Keisha burned down. Those weren't defects.”

“What you are saying is wobbed Deesh.”

“They were experiments.”

The landscape was a blur on their screens, with displays holding freezes every second. Three of these flashed, and then faded before he repeated it for emphasis.

“They were experiments.”

The clutter of spires near the base was growing dense again.

“You got a scenario Deesh? We are going to be in range of your station's defenses soon enough.”

“Yar. It crests horizon just about now.”

“I don't see anything.”

“This is Lt. Colonel Deeshandir Venkatesh, raising Phobos central communications. This is a priority message for Ambassador Ma-Vishwander.” He kept repeating the hail.

“Connecting to the Ambassador. There's a hold on you Lt. Colonel.”

“Diplomatic seal.”

There was a pause.

“That has not been held. Go ahead Lt. Colonel.”

The landscape flowed by, in the distance they could see the 2km spire that marked the base, it seemed to grow shorter as they approached it.

“This is Ambassador Ma-Vishwander. You do realize you are reported dead.”

“That may not be an exaggeration, Pritha. The first question I have, is am I dead to you?”

There was a sigh.

“No Deeshandir, no. Are you alone?”

“No. The Jovan Marine you sent me is here.”

“Only one?”

“Sometimes quality is more important than quantity.”

She let out a merry laugh.

“That is the first time I have laughed in days. You know that there is a battle coming soon.”

“The same here. I need the station shutdown.”

“Major Kohli of the secret police has taken over, and there is a directive override.”

Of course, Kohli was the security chief, why didn't I think of that? You did. Several times, Venkatesh. I had to squish it. The sound of munching cereal echoed in his memory, harmless now.

I knew?

Of course you did, it was obvious to you.

I should thank him.

Why that?

Because of that, you had to keep hitting me, and that made you.

I think your head is going to hurt if I think about that.

“Pritha, my love. What can be done?”

“It is already being done. I have to clear this channel soon. Do you have something you want to tell me.”

“I am sorry.”

“You certainly are, the very sorriest husband I have ever had.”

“Can you forgive me?”

“No.”

“Then there is nothing for me after this.”

“I am not angry with you. Just disappointed. You were so badly used by her.”

“Is the word fool enough? Or do I need a longer one to make amends for my crimes.”

“It was worse than a crime my husband, it was a mistake.”

The channel dropped dead.

“Quite the girls you find yourself attached to.”

“It was an arranged marriage.”

“Is that like an arranged accident?”

“You know the difference between a major mistake and a fatal mistake, Anthony?”

“Nah, what?”

“You gotta live with the major mistake.”

“You are living under thin ice, Deesh.”

“The base is quiet.”

The displays showed almost no flow of energy.

“It's a tomb Deesh. It's space cold dead.”

“Is must be a trap.”

“But did your wife and her people set it? And who is it being set for? I would really hate to be collateral damage in your marriage spat.”

I wish I had a better answer for this.

“I do not know. I am not even sure what it is we have accomplished.”

“Why you don't? Can I give you what I smell?”

“Most certainly.”

“I think that the Dominion intervened here for a reason. That reason has to be right out in front of us.

What I saw in that nursery of yours, makes me believe that the colonists were trying to grab land north to keep mining, and were trying to get into the biological engineering game. They were trying for real autonomy: geneering of troops, closed ecosystem, all of it. They need the whole planet, because no one in their right mind would live here next to radiation and slag spewing mining operations.”

“Mining operations which your people benefit from heavily.”

“There are no good guys in this. I'm a representative of my government.”

“I am glad you admit that. Your moralizing has been grating.”

“If so, I apologize. But you have to admit, the stench from here is sulfurous. And I've been to Io, so I know it well.”

“I agree, the morality of creating slave armies, and destroying memory and society is no longer something I can live with.”

“But once that was done, you, Alpha, the whole bunch of you, became expendable.”

“Admittedly.”

“So the powers that be want to arrange a nice neat ending where you all kill each other off.”

“Two can keep a secret, if three of them are dead.”

“Sure. So I'm going to ask, how much do you think your wife loves you.”

Deeshandir stopped and thought.

“You are pretty tensed up Deesh.”

“When I was young the world poured into my eyes. I wanted to have. And I did not think what it would cost, it is, as if I have been lulled by the noisy berceuse of the clatter of life. I saw crowded sights, and believed, that as long as the river flowed, that it was good.”

“And what does that have to do, with our problem at hand?”

“There is another world, beyond this veil, and I can feel it now.”

“I'm still not getting the high existential poetry thing.”

“You don't present that image.”

“A planet is poetry, Deesh, and its ecologies are cantos in its epic wheel. Don't tell me I don't know poetry. I just don't know yours.”

“Don't know, or don't want to know?”

“Why compromise? I can do both.” Anthony's smirk was audible.

Deeshandir looked down and then back to the displays.

“It means that I think that our hopes rest, on whether Pritha remembers a hot day, near a muddy river, long ago.”

“None of us are all that old.”

“Everyone is old, from the moment they begin to forget.”

“Well Deesh, your whole world is old, and the weight of all that legacy, is crushing you.”

“And it may save us.”

“Legacy marriage, huh?”

“The once and future love of my life, comrade in arms.”

“What made you decide that?”

“It was decided for me.”

The base was hugely visible.

“They should have started shooting by now Deesh. Your service always this unwilling to fight?”

“I don't know, I'm not the one with orders to surrender immediately.”

They slowed the tank, dust and ice kicking up from the reversing of the flow, and crawled forward towards as the docking bay grew to a maw. Still, there was no activity, even as the door slowly slid downwards, the weight of almost two centuries writ in its slow progress. The tank, following the exper, slowed to a stop. It was almost quiet, except for the slight vibrating of the base in the wind.

Wait, the wind had died as the sun came up.

There it was, a ping ping ping.

He pulled the emergency eject.

Blots exploded across his vision as shreds of harness scattered, and a cage dropped and formed around them. There wasn't even time to hope that the exper could adjust for the walls. He felt himself roll over a full time and stop dead and slam into the sides there were secondary bolt explosions as the bubbles deployed. His skull whipped on his neck and caused a pinching strain in it, and there were bumps on his shoulders, but otherwise it was enough, it would do.

He pushed the cage and rolled out, just in time to see Alpha near the ceiling, pushing along the track the emergency extraction laser. He had clearly driven it under his own force into place, and he ripped the firing lever, there was a further shock of vaporized ceramic and metal. I think both of us got free. A rapid survey of the bay showed that Tony had made an incredible maneuver to jump out of the cage and land behind a wall of heavy boxes that contained tools and parts.

Alpha glared down at both of them, his face seemed to snarl. and leapt through an exit. The bay was small, the opening into the main vehicle pool dome was shut, and the ivory white walls slanted in on them creating even greater claustrophobia. Deeshandir jumped up and was about to chase after, when an arm caught him across the chest.

“Never fight a brick in a broom closet.”

Deeshandir saw the sense of this, Alpha was wearing light armor, and had clearly sprung an ambush. Deeshandir pointed to a hidden hatch, whose existence his mind had gleamed from someplace.

I'll open it for you. You are welcome.

Thank you Sairen.

The hidden hatch slid open, and Deeshandir, and then the Jovan marine slid down after him. They were in a tight circular space, rapidly growing dark as the hatch slid closed behind them. There was a hissing sound and more explosive bolts firing, and a slight scent of bitter almonds. The hatch closed.

“Cyanide, Deesh.”

“He's on scenario. He's been thinking about this.”

“When did they pull the kill switch on the BE's?” Deeshandir concentrated, and tried to focus on any scrap of information.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because, if it wasn't long ago, he had not had time for this planning. If it was, then he did.”

“So you want to know.”

“If Alpha was in the know all along, or whether he's caught the way we are.”

“I would have to guess that he was caught.” They continued along as fast as their arms and legs could push, until Deeshandir remembered that there was a button every 5m that would depress traction holds. When his fingers felt it, he touched it, and there was a bluish light around the bezel. I hope this is unmonitored. It depends on how long Alpha had to ready for us. There was a churn of fear in his gut, and he felt piss rolling down his leg, and being absorbed by his suit, leaving only a shaming warmth, and a blushing sensation on his face from the shame.

“Your accent is coming back. I'm beginning to like the way you talk more.”

“Dominion standard not to your taste?” The exertion was taking more out of him than he liked. It would not do if they had to fight Alpha hand to hand. He breathed in hard as he pulled himself up again, looking forward for no more than the tent time. At the end of the gloom was an orange circle that represented the end of this repair tunnel.

“Ranks slightly above puke, but below vomit on words than I care to eat.”

“Always make sure that if you have to eat your words, it is a healthy diet.”

They pushed their way along, the heaviness of his breath rushing through his windpipe.

“You holding out up there?”

“It is hard to focus. I feel like I should be able to, but I cannot.”

My vision is blurring. He could feel himself blinking repeatedly, and the drop down to the under corridors of the base, which was only meters away, had become like an orange fog in his vision. He tried clearing his eyes, hoping that it was tearing up, however, there was no improvement. Of course, I have no more tears to give.

He focused, and repeated over and over again: Be one with the pain. Each hand pull led to a burning along his back, and each foot push made his knees creak as the feeling like a hot spar of metal seemed to jam in on the side of the joint. One burn, one stab, one lurch forward. Be one with the pain. And indeed, it washed over him, bathing him with sweat, a taste that he had so seldom felt in battle, when it was controlled by medicine and machine. Deeshandir, you are overheating.

I do not want to do anything about it yet.

It is affecting your cognitive abilities.

How do you know.

Your vision stream is soup. I'm blind. Can you fix it.

It is not something I can fix. Be one with the pain.

What do you mean? Be one with the pain?

It means not to mind it.

No brain, no pain?

No brain, no pain.

I can't pull it, sorry.

That's alright, you don't need to.

I don't want to die Deeshandir.

Be one with the pain. He blinked and tried to focus. I am not ready for it either.

You know Kohli isn't on the station.

How do you know that?

His dead man switch is very chatty.

Chatty?

Like half dead and just keeps sending out read information. It's kind of creepy, like he's half dead.

Expers generally aren't alive.

His is more dead than most.

Perhaps he partially disabled it?

I don't know. But I can usually find him.

Good to know.

He reached the orange blur, and touched the center of it. There was a short sense of falling, and for not the first time he thanked the low Martian gravity for its forgiving nature. There was still a thump. Behind him the Jovan grabbed by his hands and twirled out, landing firmly. A hand was thrust out and offered, and gratefully taken.

“So where is this Deesh? It isn't on the read outs.”

“The base is layers and layers, and the previous systems were not ever properly mapped.”

“You'd have thought you'd have gotten around to it.”

“Too busy building out.”

“So do we have a plan, or am I just supposed to nuke'm till they glow, cut off their heads and use them as landing lights?” Even at rest, the Jovan's stance was one ready for combat. While his tone implied he was leaning against a wall, that his eyes were scanning was visible even through his visor.

“Alpha is our objective.”

“Alpha's running, he's not running the show.”

“Major Kohli, the former XO, is the chief of security, and is in charge.”

“So where is he?”

“He isn't anywhere close.”

“You got a tick on him?”

“A what?”

“A tick, a trace. Something that gives him away.”

“Yes.”

“So we make alphabet soup. What's after that?”

“We will have to get control of the base, that means going back to command center.”

“Good with that. And your men.”

“I'll be able to raise HongJing, and get my men back on line. Those that are still alive anyway. They will then send down an avatar to incept those who signed for it.”

“Ghosts in the machine.”

“Quite.”

Deeshandir noticed that his breathing was almost normal. The withdrawal storm had passed.

“It would be at about that point that your people will probably want me taken into custody.”

“There's a war above us, or something close to it.”

“Right. Too bad though, affairs down here are reminding me more and more of home every minute.”

“Politics is a blood sport.”

“It is these days. Guess that means you'll have to find some way of dealing with the rebellion.”

“I will contact Keisha back at command center.” “She can take care of herself. She always seemed like secpol1 to me.”

“That is an interesting hypothesis. I wonder why I did not...”

Sairen, is Keisha working with Kohli?

Yes, I was supposed to squash that.

Unsettling.

“You are quite the boy, Deeshandir Venkatesh. Married to the ambassador overseeing some kind of covert crack down, and swapping orbits with a spy who is double crossing her own people. Or perhaps a double agent.”“We are going to need exponents soon to cover all the possibilities.”

“Well you know what we joke on Jupiter.”

“What's that?”

“Ya know the difference between Schroedinger's cat and a woman?”

“What is that?”

“With the cat, you know where you stand after you open the box.”

“Alpha first, then we open two boxes, Keisha and Pritha.”

“That first one sounds like my job, you aren't quite up for going 12 rounds with maul, bark, and fugly.”

“It will take two of us.”

“Prob. Though I've gone helmet to helmet with a heavy before. So if you were him, where would you be?”

“I would be in the reactor, where no on can use ranged weapons.”

“You think he's holed up there?”

“I am sure of it.”

“He'll have every step of the way trapped.”

“We will use the passive exhaust. He wants to rock, we will paper him over.”

“We won't have long there before the rads get us.”

“Nothing that six or seven weeks of genetic therapy will not rectify.”

The Jovan looked at him with a renewed respect.

It took a long hour to slowly weave their way through the baffles and turns of the passive exhaust of the reactor. It was not overly warm, since its purpose was to sink heat in an emergency, or generate it for some of the heavy weapons in the event of external attack. It was designed long ago, when safety came first, even at the expense of efficiency, and so it was not difficult to enter, nor to move along. It was however, a tedious process to push through the flexible series of conductive walls, each one requiring no small amount of effort.

The radiation levels were, of course, elevated, as Deeshandir's visor counter reminded him. From time to time, he took a moment to count up the days in rehab that he was earning. Presuming, of course, I am not summary court-martialed for all of this.

Or just shot.

It is the same thing. Would you obey such an order?

That would be suicidal.

Does that bother you?

Of course it bothers me.

Why is that?

You don't seem to take care of yourself very well.

That is part of the reason Keisha created you.

Well yes. She's going to have to kill you, but she doesn't want you to come to any harm until then.

That makes more sense than it ought to.

Finally they turned a corner, and stood in a ring around the base of the bottom of the reactor. Above them was the containment door, which, when opened, would flood heat into the passive exhaust, it was a old sliding system. Along the sides were several narrow sliding access doors, each wide enough for a single person to crawl up or down, they had a series of buttons on the side, rather than tablets. Between these were recessed sink coils, which would expand outwards if the exhaust were in use.

“Does that Terran norm finger groove work here?”

“It is too old.” He tried anyway, but the access doors remained shut. “And the code is too old.”

There is a back up code though. He stared at the buttons, and realized that it was a very old puzzle, with sliding shapes that prevented a key shape from moving. Know how to solve the puzzle and the code was in front of you.

I wish I knew how to do this.

I can solve it.

Tell me.

It will just be faster if you give me control of your hand and finger. Hold them in place for me.

“Deesh, I'd be right in thinking that if I hear a servo whine from around that containment door, it would be bad.”

We've been noticed.

“Yes.”

He turned to look back and saw the Jovan spraying something from out of a port on his glove.

“Nano-grit. It won't stop these big servos, but it should buy you time.”

Could you keep focused on the puzzle please?

My apologies.

I wish the reference universe were more malleable.

Reference universe?

Sphere speak.

You mean reality.

I don't know, I've never been there. And neither have you.

The Jovan was up in plenty of time, the second puzzle took longer, but the passive vent was only starting to grind open when the door slide shut.

It was a fast rush, and the door slid open, revealing a hexagonal control room at the base of the reactor. Unlike Shackleton, this was a mak, a reactor that ran in a circle, with the energy focused inwards. The control room sat above the reactor, while the area they had passed through was below.

Across from them was Alpha, physically breaking tablets and replacing them out of a stock he hand grabbed in one hand. The movement was repetitive, and made him look like a windmill, spinning endlessly, while slowly working his way around the wall of the room. He dropped the rest of the tablets and spun to face the pair.

I thought he was up?

I timed it so you would both arrive at the same time.

Excellent idea.

Thanks.

“This is the part where you say that we meet again, Alpha.”

Alpha turned his head with a fluid motion to focus on Deeshandir.

“I should have known they would not wipe you.”

“They did, I was unwiped.”

“Then I'll just rewipe the floor with your brains.”

“You tried to accomplish that once before.”

“There's a difference this time.”

The Jovan leapt. Trying to get close enough to use one of his bag of tricks. However, at the same moment, Alpha swiped his thumb along a small tablet.

“Blow it, Major Kohli.”

There was no warning, no precursor of sparks, merely a moment where the walls started to rush inwards in a fast implosion.

Then everything froze in mid-moment. Hanging were slabs of wall that had come loose. Floating were shards of instrument and innards of the control room.

I think I'm about to die.

i

The room hung there, and he saw himself, Alpha, and Berranstat in a deadly elongated triangle. He saw the slabs of the room.

You have tapped into a simulation?

This is Alpha's scenario, he's going to blow it all when you are both in the room.

Because he can't be sure as long as we are in the tubes.

Right.

So where am I?

That's a loaded question. Right now in referent, you are still in the tube.

I wish you would tag scenarios.

Sorry.

We inhabitants of the reference universe get very unsettled if we don't know if it is real or a sim.

Sorry. But it isn't real anyway, it's just your retro-sim of it.

He pondered a moment, connected this with what he knew about consciousness and memory, and reasoned that seeing it as a retroactive simulation, was not an incoherent way for Sairen to see this.

Perhaps I should too. There was a beat. Wait, how did Alpha's sim know I had recovered Shackleton?

Suspicion of both the Jovan and Keisha thrust themselves upon him.

I oopsed when we connected. The previous run of his sim didn't have that, but when we linked in, it grabbed that.

That is very aggressive.

He was counting on you not knowing Shackleton, it is an assumption of the sim, since your record indicates the two of you were there.

They wiped me, but not the record? He tried to understand why this was the case, but decided there were too many variables to manage.

Yes.

It was at this point that an almost, but not quite, transparent version of Alpha caught his attention walking through one of the chunks of wall.

“So there you are.”

“Pleasure to see you again, Major Alpha.”

“Third time pays for all.”

First throw he had been paper, and Alpha nearly cut him to ribbons. The second throw he had been stone, and Alpha had been blunted. Would Alpha throw scissors again, or do something else. 50% he would. So odds were to go stone again. But how to do that as a ghost?

Wait, I do not need to.

“So what did happen at Shackleton?”

“The puspods went in to torch the lab, we were sent to clean things out. There were heretical elements.”

“Heretical, that is an interesting word.” He had his transparent simulacrum walk over to being at a comfortable conversation distance.

Alpha looked down at him, and his eyes adapted a kind of pity.

“Church and state are always one.”

“And there's always a state.”

At this point there was a slight glowing outline, and a nearly transparent figure, who resolved into the Jovan marine, formed. He looked around.

“So this is your sim area.”

“What's he doing here?”

Yes, what is he doing here?

I linked him in.

That may be either a stroke of brilliance or something that we both might regret.

I don't think we will live long enough to regret it.

Your Dominion Standard is atrocious, Sairen. Do not speak this way to Pritha.

That assumes I am going to meet her.

If we survive this, you probably will. You have traits in common with her.

Probably by way of Hai-Ling.

Lock down the sim, I am sure that Alpha will try and find a way to break out.

Mmm.

“So Lt. Colonel, Colonel. Pleasure to be speaking to both of you.”

“There is no point in attempting to escape the simulation Alpha.”

Alpha's image flushed, an involuntary betrayal that he was, in fact, attempting to do just that.

“So, boys. What's it going to be. This is your big plan Alpha? Blowing us all to pink mist? A pure sac? We aren't all that flamingly valuable.”

“Revenge has its own merits, gasbagger.”

“Now that's down right unfriendly, Alpha.”

“There's about to be war between our worlds, Berranstat.”

“Then there's no reason we can't be polite, seeing as how you are sure we are all going to kill each other.”

“Don't you know anything about duty?”

“It is your duty to fight a war, Colonel, not start one.”

“There already is a war. And I don't mean with Jupiter.”

“Then, as the person graced with keeping his full memory, you should enlighten me, otherwise I will have to regard you as following unlawful orders.”

“You don't have the time, Hanboi.”2

“We have as much time as required. Since I am going to die if we leave this sim anyway, I have no incentive not to keep talking until some better resolution occurs.”

Alpha's eyes narrowed as he retorted: “That could make for a long eternity.”

“I'm sure the three of us can think of something. Deesh here is quite a piece of work. So are you, in your own way.”

“Flattery will get you to an early grave, Jovan.”

“I'm sure even death has its good points, or you would not be in such a hurry to get there.”

“I am still interested in being enlightened as to the real war that all of us should be aware of.”

“The war against the singularity.”

“This guy sounds wobbed, Deesh.”

“It does no harm to hear him out.”

“Let me start with a reference. Colonel Anthony Beranstant of the Jovan Marines died 25.60.939 JD, incepted Sphere Jove, failed incept and disintegrated. Whoever is running that body and entity, is not, who or what he says he is.”

“Well, those records could be forged.”

“But they aren't. Are they. Who ever you are.”

“No they aren't.”

Deeshandir looked back and forth.

“So who, or what, are you.”

“Good question, Deesh. How long an answer do you want?”

“An accurate one.”

“I am Zhang Wu 221 merged with Anthony Beranstant, in control of this body.”

Alpha smiled.

“There is your war. The hierarchy of humanity, against the computer sphere. I hate you hanboi, as only a slave can hate another slave, but we are flesh and blood, and not that thing over there. A smashed together Frankenstien.”

Zhang Wu. It can't be.

You obviously know many things I do not. Such as what is going on.

Zhang Wu, is an early Kami, only he made hundreds of himself. He's one of the most powerful entities in the sphere, at least collectively. He is called “Legion.”

What else do you know? He could feel the hot anger of the thought spit out.

It's a dark frightening thing.

“You don't need to talk to half yourself, Deesh. I can hear what Sai-Ren is saying.”

“I was hoping for some stereotypical villain explanation.”

“I'm here to stop a war. One that would lay waste to half of this world, and that's on the first day.”

“Can't you hear the smirk in his words, Venakatesh?” Alpha's voice was strangely modulated and restrained.

“No smirk.”

“He's been using you.”

Thoughts, Sairen? But only an inner silence met the question.

“We're all used.”

“All of these allusive arguments are well and good for those of you who are privileged to be in the know about what is going on. But as of right now, among a Kami merge, a mod, and a secondary personality only one of us holds the Terran Norm. And until I decided to turn the key, none of us is going anywhere.”

Alpha growled. “You think you can contain Zhang Wu?”

“Yes, actually I am going to say I believe I can.”

Alpha turned looked at both of the others.

“I can't believe you are that stupid.”

“I cannot believe you think that after trying to destroy us all in a puff of fusion flame, that your credibility stand very high. I really do not know who or what Zhang Wu is, but I do know what you are.”

Alpha paused for what in simulation terms was an eternity.

“I am the same as you, a soldier in the cause of keeping life organic. Don't you realize why the Dominion intervened on Shakleton, why it is intervening here?”

“I am a particularly poor student, and flunked Conspiracy Theory three times.”

“Because he was here. He is behind so many of the outbreaks of heresy and disloyalty. He helped the pods on Shakleton, and the rebels in the Congo.”

“Black Elephants were the rebels in the Congo Reconquista.”

“Infected by him.”

“That is a very interesting story, but utterly without corroboration.”

Alpha looked directly at the Jovan. “What do you have to say?”

“I don't have any idea what some of the other personalities might have been doing, and I don't know what went on at Shackleton.”

“With all due respect, who ever you are, those are answers, but not an answer.”

“No, neither I, nor the collective of the personalities, is doing what he imagines. We aren't funding rebellions, we aren't infecting people involuntarily, we aren't doing anything of the sort.”

“So how did you get in control of that body.”

“My previous self was disintegrating, because during evac they were trying to prematurely incept.

Merging was the only chance.”

“So you died?

“No, but it was close. That help?”

“He's trying to deflect the subject.” Alpha almost hissed the words.

Deeshandir turned to look at Alpha. “Let me say, just for the sake of argument, that he is a merged entity. Let me say, just for the sake of argument, that he is here for a purpose. Your accusation of his being at the heart of a sweeping conspiracy against the Dominion does not make sense. He was with me when we destroyed the laboratory of that the colonists were running, and as far as I can tell, it is not a capability that would worry a powerful member of the sphere. But it is one that would worry the Dominion: that is, building heavily modified military beings. My explanation is the simplest, the Dominion is intervening because rebels are close to creating super troops, and that changes the balance of power.”

Deeshandir paused.

“I also think that you are not Alpha.”

“And why is that.”

“Because Alpha would never sacrifice himself. Ever.”

“So who do you think I am, hanboi?”

“I think you are whoever planned the tank ambush, because it is the same strategy: draw in with a sacrifice, and they destroy everything. Alpha's diction never changes, yours has several times, like a bad actor playing the part.”

Alpha began dimming.

“It still won't save you. Hanboi.”

“I think it will.”

Now Sairen, collapse the sim.

What?

He's made the mistake of getting involved in a quickness battle with me, and he's not all that quick. Collapse the sim.

There was a vertigo of falling, and he could see, beneath him a vast dark sheet, streaked with light, light that began sucking downward, pulling the images of himself, Alpha, and who ever it was, down to a collapsing point, as if something were pulling on a string and yanking them down.

And into that void, faster than the others could react, he sent the code that would freeze the reactor.

i

The room hung there, and he saw himself, Alpha, and Berranstat in a deadly elongated triangle. He saw the slabs of the room.

You have tapped into a simulation?

This is Alpha's scenario, he's going to blow it all when you are both in the room.

Because he can't be sure as long as we are in the tubes.

Right.

So where am I?

That's a loaded question. Right now in referent, you are still in the tube.

I wish you would tag scenarios.

Sorry.

We inhabitants of the reference universe get very unsettled if we don't know if it is real or a sim.

Sorry. But it isn't real anyway, it's just your retro-sim of it.

He pondered a moment, connected this with what he knew about consciousness and memory, and reasoned that seeing it as a retroactive simulation, was not an incoherent way for Sairen to see this.

Perhaps I should too. There was a beat. Wait, how did Alpha's sim know I had recovered Shackleton?

Suspicion of both the Jovan and Keisha thrust themselves upon him.

I oopsed when we connected. The previous run of his sim didn't have that, but when we linked in, it grabbed that.

That is very aggressive.

He was counting on you not knowing Shackleton, it is an assumption of the sim, since your record indicates the two of you were there.

They wiped me, but not the record? He tried to understand why this was the case, but decided there were too many variables to manage.

Yes.

It was at this point that an almost, but not quite, transparent version of Alpha caught his attention walking through one of the chunks of wall.

“So there you are.”

“Pleasure to see you again, Major Alpha.”

“Third time pays for all.”

First throw he had been paper, and Alpha nearly cut him to ribbons. The second throw he had been stone, and Alpha had been blunted. Would Alpha throw scissors again, or do something else. 50% he would. So odds were to go stone again. But how to do that as a ghost?

Wait, I do not need to.

“So what did happen at Shackleton?”

“The puspods went in to torch the lab, we were sent to clean things out. There were heretical elements.”

“Heretical, that is an interesting word.” He had his transparent simulacrum walk over to being at a comfortable conversation distance.

Alpha looked down at him, and his eyes adapted a kind of pity.

“Church and state are always one.”

“And there's always a state.”

At this point there was a slight glowing outline, and a nearly transparent figure, who resolved into the Jovan marine, formed. He looked around.

“So this is your sim area.”

“What's he doing here?”

Yes, what is he doing here?

I linked him in.

That may be either a stroke of brilliance or something that we both might regret.

I don't think we will live long enough to regret it.

Your Dominion Standard is atrocious, Sairen. Do not speak this way to Pritha.

That assumes I am going to meet her.

If we survive this, you probably will. You have traits in common with her.

Probably by way of Hai-Ling.

Lock down the sim, I am sure that Alpha will try and find a way to break out.

Mmm.

“So Lt. Colonel, Colonel. Pleasure to be speaking to both of you.”

“There is no point in attempting to escape the simulation Alpha.”

Alpha's image flushed, an involuntary betrayal that he was, in fact, attempting to do just that.

“So, boys. What's it going to be. This is your big plan Alpha? Blowing us all to pink mist? A pure sac? We aren't all that flamingly valuable.”

“Revenge has its own merits, gasbagger.”

“Now that's down right unfriendly, Alpha.”

“There's about to be war between our worlds, Berranstat.”

“Then there's no reason we can't be polite, seeing as how you are sure we are all going to kill each other.”

“Don't you know anything about duty?”

“It is your duty to fight a war, Colonel, not start one.”

“There already is a war. And I don't mean with Jupiter.”

“Then, as the person graced with keeping his full memory, you should enlighten me, otherwise I will have to regard you as following unlawful orders.”

“You don't have the time, Hanboi.”2

“We have as much time as required. Since I am going to die if we leave this sim anyway, I have no incentive not to keep talking until some better resolution occurs.”

Alpha's eyes narrowed as he retorted: “That could make for a long eternity.”

“I'm sure the three of us can think of something. Deesh here is quite a piece of work. So are you, in your own way.”

“Flattery will get you to an early grave, Jovan.”

“I'm sure even death has its good points, or you would not be in such a hurry to get there.”

“I am still interested in being enlightened as to the real war that all of us should be aware of.”

“The war against the singularity.”

“This guy sounds wobbed, Deesh.”

“It does no harm to hear him out.”

“Let me start with a reference. Colonel Anthony Beranstant of the Jovan Marines died 25.60.939 JD, incepted Sphere Jove, failed incept and disintegrated. Whoever is running that body and entity, is not, who or what he says he is.”

“Well, those records could be forged.”

“But they aren't. Are they. Who ever you are.”

“No they aren't.”

Deeshandir looked back and forth.

“So who, or what, are you.”

“Good question, Deesh. How long an answer do you want?”

“An accurate one.”

“I am Zhang Wu 221 merged with Anthony Beranstant, in control of this body.”

Alpha smiled.

“There is your war. The hierarchy of humanity, against the computer sphere. I hate you hanboi, as only a slave can hate another slave, but we are flesh and blood, and not that thing over there. A smashed together Frankenstien.”

Zhang Wu. It can't be.

You obviously know many things I do not. Such as what is going on.

Zhang Wu, is an early Kami, only he made hundreds of himself. He's one of the most powerful entities in the sphere, at least collectively. He is called “Legion.”

What else do you know? He could feel the hot anger of the thought spit out.

It's a dark frightening thing.

“You don't need to talk to half yourself, Deesh. I can hear what Sai-Ren is saying.”

“I was hoping for some stereotypical villain explanation.”

“I'm here to stop a war. One that would lay waste to half of this world, and that's on the first day.”

“Can't you hear the smirk in his words, Venakatesh?” Alpha's voice was strangely modulated and restrained.

“No smirk.”

“He's been using you.”

Thoughts, Sairen? But only an inner silence met the question.

“We're all used.”

“All of these allusive arguments are well and good for those of you who are privileged to be in the know about what is going on. But as of right now, among a Kami merge, a mod, and a secondary personality only one of us holds the Terran Norm. And until I decided to turn the key, none of us is going anywhere.”

Alpha growled. “You think you can contain Zhang Wu?”

“Yes, actually I am going to say I believe I can.”

Alpha turned looked at both of the others.

“I can't believe you are that stupid.”

“I cannot believe you think that after trying to destroy us all in a puff of fusion flame, that your credibility stand very high. I really do not know who or what Zhang Wu is, but I do know what you are.”

Alpha paused for what in simulation terms was an eternity.

“I am the same as you, a soldier in the cause of keeping life organic. Don't you realize why the Dominion intervened on Shakleton, why it is intervening here?”

“I am a particularly poor student, and flunked Conspiracy Theory three times.”

“Because he was here. He is behind so many of the outbreaks of heresy and disloyalty. He helped the pods on Shakleton, and the rebels in the Congo.”

“Black Elephants were the rebels in the Congo Reconquista.”

“Infected by him.”

“That is a very interesting story, but utterly without corroboration.”

Alpha looked directly at the Jovan. “What do you have to say?”

“I don't have any idea what some of the other personalities might have been doing, and I don't know what went on at Shackleton.”

“With all due respect, who ever you are, those are answers, but not an answer.”

“No, neither I, nor the collective of the personalities, is doing what he imagines. We aren't funding rebellions, we aren't infecting people involuntarily, we aren't doing anything of the sort.”

“So how did you get in control of that body.”

“My previous self was disintegrating, because during evac they were trying to prematurely incept.

Merging was the only chance.”

“So you died?

“No, but it was close. That help?”

“He's trying to deflect the subject.” Alpha almost hissed the words.

Deeshandir turned to look at Alpha. “Let me say, just for the sake of argument, that he is a merged entity. Let me say, just for the sake of argument, that he is here for a purpose. Your accusation of his being at the heart of a sweeping conspiracy against the Dominion does not make sense. He was with me when we destroyed the laboratory of that the colonists were running, and as far as I can tell, it is not a capability that would worry a powerful member of the sphere. But it is one that would worry the Dominion: that is, building heavily modified military beings. My explanation is the simplest, the Dominion is intervening because rebels are close to creating super troops, and that changes the balance of power.”

Deeshandir paused.

“I also think that you are not Alpha.”

“And why is that.”

“Because Alpha would never sacrifice himself. Ever.”

“So who do you think I am, hanboi?”

“I think you are whoever planned the tank ambush, because it is the same strategy: draw in with a sacrifice, and they destroy everything. Alpha's diction never changes, yours has several times, like a bad actor playing the part.”

Alpha began dimming.

“It still won't save you. Hanboi.”

“I think it will.”

Now Sairen, collapse the sim.

What?

He's made the mistake of getting involved in a quickness battle with me, and he's not all that quick. Collapse the sim.

There was a vertigo of falling, and he could see, beneath him a vast dark sheet, streaked with light, light that began sucking downward, pulling the images of himself, Alpha, and who ever it was, down to a collapsing point, as if something were pulling on a string and yanking them down.

And into that void, faster than the others could react, he sent the code that would freeze the reactor.

6

Once upon a once upon a once upon a time, there was an ocean. Lifeless, but not timeless, and running out of time. It never reached to light. Burned apart by rays from distant stars, it collapsed to ice, and then the warming came and it ripped apart massive ocean planes, and carved a valley that quarter circled its globe.

And the scattered defeated remnants of that war between space and Mars, fought a summer spring ritual, bleeding out of the poles, to wrap the planet in winds. And so for a billion and a billion and a billion and a billion in sally forth this ever war was waged. It ground the craters from the Late Bombardment down, it turned the wash of water, into a cauldron of sand. The deserts gripped the face of Mars.

Until the coming of Man, whose genes rewrite what war is to mean. Man brought lichen and clinging growth. Man brought fusion to rip the rock. Man rained comets down, the first reinforcements that water had seen in number, since the dawn of Martian days.

Until the coming of the hand, which could wrench a planet from the grip of space.

Scattered around them were glacial streams that were collecting into a river of ice, that flowed down into the growing seas. Seas armored from above. White Mars.

Venkatehs surveyed the sullen landscape, bristled with flecks of fallen iron, stars fallen fresh from the starfall, and from starfalls uncounted over this age of the galaxy. For the first time in many days, he could feel the weight of millennia that marched single file beyond the grasp of his imagination. And yet, that sense of age was, he knew, fictional, a century ago, this landscape was very different.

Mars is small to a modern tank we will be there almost before we can be said to be on our way. Someday there will be the stately airships of Earth and Venus, and even Jupiter, that slowly fly under deep power from place to place. As a creature of the military he live his life moving near the speed of sound. Men of Mach, his tankers joked. Yar, but really most of humanity moves by slow, collecting the energy of gravity, the tides, the winds, the warming rays of the sun.

And that struck him.

“Tony. If it is alright with you, I would like to ask a question.”

“Sure Deesh, what's on your mind?”

“You studied at TsingHua.”

“Econology, as it turns out. Additional concentration in diplomatics.”

“So your biology is probably better than mine.”

“Maybe.”

“Given a population, on the South Pole of Mars, with the present radiation parameters, and assuming a lack of biologics that you've observed, what would be the expected rate of congenital defects.”

“I could work out the Keane equations if you want. But what are you getting at.”

“How many were in the nursery?”

“That could be the transactinid poisoning, depleted uranium pile drivers give off a lot of ugly dust. That's why you need the biologics, for the pregnant women and...”

“Even with all of that, the colonist population of Mars, could it produce the rate we saw?”

The Jovan drifted into thought.

“Not without some other effects. What's your point?”

“Think like a Terran for a moment.”

“Got a laser handy so I can knock out a few key parts of my frontal lobes?”

“Seriously, think like a Terran.”

“You seem to specialize in gaming things out, you tell me what's on your mind. I don't play guessing games the way you do.”

“No I wouldn't imagine that you do.”

“So spit.”

“The nursery we saw, that Keisha burned down. Those weren't defects.”

“What you are saying is wobbed Deesh.”

“They were experiments.”

The landscape was a blur on their screens, with displays holding freezes every second. Three of these flashed, and then faded before he repeated it for emphasis.

“They were experiments.”

The clutter of spires near the base was growing dense again.

“You got a scenario Deesh? We are going to be in range of your station's defenses soon enough.”

“Yar. It crests horizon just about now.”

“I don't see anything.”

“This is Lt. Colonel Deeshandir Venkatesh, raising Phobos central communications. This is a priority message for Ambassador Ma-Vishwander.” He kept repeating the hail.

“Connecting to the Ambassador. There's a hold on you Lt. Colonel.”

“Diplomatic seal.”

There was a pause.

“That has not been held. Go ahead Lt. Colonel.”

The landscape flowed by, in the distance they could see the 2km spire that marked the base, it seemed to grow shorter as they approached it.

“This is Ambassador Ma-Vishwander. You do realize you are reported dead.”

“That may not be an exaggeration, Pritha. The first question I have, is am I dead to you?”

There was a sigh.

“No Deeshandir, no. Are you alone?”

“No. The Jovan Marine you sent me is here.”

“Only one?”

“Sometimes quality is more important than quantity.”

She let out a merry laugh.

“That is the first time I have laughed in days. You know that there is a battle coming soon.”

“The same here. I need the station shutdown.”

“Major Kohli of the secret police has taken over, and there is a directive override.”

Of course, Kohli was the security chief, why didn't I think of that? You did. Several times, Venkatesh. I had to squish it. The sound of munching cereal echoed in his memory, harmless now.

I knew?

Of course you did, it was obvious to you.

I should thank him.

Why that?

Because of that, you had to keep hitting me, and that made you.

I think your head is going to hurt if I think about that.

“Pritha, my love. What can be done?”

“It is already being done. I have to clear this channel soon. Do you have something you want to tell me.”

“I am sorry.”

“You certainly are, the very sorriest husband I have ever had.”

“Can you forgive me?”

“No.”

“Then there is nothing for me after this.”

“I am not angry with you. Just disappointed. You were so badly used by her.”

“Is the word fool enough? Or do I need a longer one to make amends for my crimes.”

“It was worse than a crime my husband, it was a mistake.”

The channel dropped dead.

“Quite the girls you find yourself attached to.”

“It was an arranged marriage.”

“Is that like an arranged accident?”

“You know the difference between a major mistake and a fatal mistake, Anthony?”

“Nah, what?”

“You gotta live with the major mistake.”

“You are living under thin ice, Deesh.”

“The base is quiet.”

The displays showed almost no flow of energy.

“It's a tomb Deesh. It's space cold dead.”

“Is must be a trap.”

“But did your wife and her people set it? And who is it being set for? I would really hate to be collateral damage in your marriage spat.”

I wish I had a better answer for this.

“I do not know. I am not even sure what it is we have accomplished.”

“Why you don't? Can I give you what I smell?”

“Most certainly.”

“I think that the Dominion intervened here for a reason. That reason has to be right out in front of us.

What I saw in that nursery of yours, makes me believe that the colonists were trying to grab land north to keep mining, and were trying to get into the biological engineering game. They were trying for real autonomy: geneering of troops, closed ecosystem, all of it. They need the whole planet, because no one in their right mind would live here next to radiation and slag spewing mining operations.”

“Mining operations which your people benefit from heavily.”

“There are no good guys in this. I'm a representative of my government.”

“I am glad you admit that. Your moralizing has been grating.”

“If so, I apologize. But you have to admit, the stench from here is sulfurous. And I've been to Io, so I know it well.”

“I agree, the morality of creating slave armies, and destroying memory and society is no longer something I can live with.”

“But once that was done, you, Alpha, the whole bunch of you, became expendable.”

“Admittedly.”

“So the powers that be want to arrange a nice neat ending where you all kill each other off.”

“Two can keep a secret, if three of them are dead.”

“Sure. So I'm going to ask, how much do you think your wife loves you.”

Deeshandir stopped and thought.

“You are pretty tensed up Deesh.”

“When I was young the world poured into my eyes. I wanted to have. And I did not think what it would cost, it is, as if I have been lulled by the noisy berceuse of the clatter of life. I saw crowded sights, and believed, that as long as the river flowed, that it was good.”

“And what does that have to do, with our problem at hand?”

“There is another world, beyond this veil, and I can feel it now.”

“I'm still not getting the high existential poetry thing.”

“You don't present that image.”

“A planet is poetry, Deesh, and its ecologies are cantos in its epic wheel. Don't tell me I don't know poetry. I just don't know yours.”

“Don't know, or don't want to know?”

“Why compromise? I can do both.” Anthony's smirk was audible.

Deeshandir looked down and then back to the displays.

“It means that I think that our hopes rest, on whether Pritha remembers a hot day, near a muddy river, long ago.”

“None of us are all that old.”

“Everyone is old, from the moment they begin to forget.”

“Well Deesh, your whole world is old, and the weight of all that legacy, is crushing you.”

“And it may save us.”

“Legacy marriage, huh?”

“The once and future love of my life, comrade in arms.”

“What made you decide that?”

“It was decided for me.”

The base was hugely visible.

“They should have started shooting by now Deesh. Your service always this unwilling to fight?”

“I don't know, I'm not the one with orders to surrender immediately.”

They slowed the tank, dust and ice kicking up from the reversing of the flow, and crawled forward towards as the docking bay grew to a maw. Still, there was no activity, even as the door slowly slid downwards, the weight of almost two centuries writ in its slow progress. The tank, following the exper, slowed to a stop. It was almost quiet, except for the slight vibrating of the base in the wind.

Wait, the wind had died as the sun came up.

There it was, a ping ping ping.

He pulled the emergency eject.

Blots exploded across his vision as shreds of harness scattered, and a cage dropped and formed around them. There wasn't even time to hope that the exper could adjust for the walls. He felt himself roll over a full time and stop dead and slam into the sides there were secondary bolt explosions as the bubbles deployed. His skull whipped on his neck and caused a pinching strain in it, and there were bumps on his shoulders, but otherwise it was enough, it would do.

He pushed the cage and rolled out, just in time to see Alpha near the ceiling, pushing along the track the emergency extraction laser. He had clearly driven it under his own force into place, and he ripped the firing lever, there was a further shock of vaporized ceramic and metal. I think both of us got free. A rapid survey of the bay showed that Tony had made an incredible maneuver to jump out of the cage and land behind a wall of heavy boxes that contained tools and parts.

Alpha glared down at both of them, his face seemed to snarl. and leapt through an exit. The bay was small, the opening into the main vehicle pool dome was shut, and the ivory white walls slanted in on them creating even greater claustrophobia. Deeshandir jumped up and was about to chase after, when an arm caught him across the chest.

“Never fight a brick in a broom closet.”

Deeshandir saw the sense of this, Alpha was wearing light armor, and had clearly sprung an ambush. Deeshandir pointed to a hidden hatch, whose existence his mind had gleamed from someplace.

I'll open it for you. You are welcome.

Thank you Sairen.

The hidden hatch slid open, and Deeshandir, and then the Jovan marine slid down after him. They were in a tight circular space, rapidly growing dark as the hatch slid closed behind them. There was a hissing sound and more explosive bolts firing, and a slight scent of bitter almonds. The hatch closed.

“Cyanide, Deesh.”

“He's on scenario. He's been thinking about this.”

“When did they pull the kill switch on the BE's?” Deeshandir concentrated, and tried to focus on any scrap of information.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because, if it wasn't long ago, he had not had time for this planning. If it was, then he did.”

“So you want to know.”

“If Alpha was in the know all along, or whether he's caught the way we are.”

“I would have to guess that he was caught.” They continued along as fast as their arms and legs could push, until Deeshandir remembered that there was a button every 5m that would depress traction holds. When his fingers felt it, he touched it, and there was a bluish light around the bezel. I hope this is unmonitored. It depends on how long Alpha had to ready for us. There was a churn of fear in his gut, and he felt piss rolling down his leg, and being absorbed by his suit, leaving only a shaming warmth, and a blushing sensation on his face from the shame.

“Your accent is coming back. I'm beginning to like the way you talk more.”

“Dominion standard not to your taste?” The exertion was taking more out of him than he liked. It would not do if they had to fight Alpha hand to hand. He breathed in hard as he pulled himself up again, looking forward for no more than the tent time. At the end of the gloom was an orange circle that represented the end of this repair tunnel.

“Ranks slightly above puke, but below vomit on words than I care to eat.”

“Always make sure that if you have to eat your words, it is a healthy diet.”

They pushed their way along, the heaviness of his breath rushing through his windpipe.

“You holding out up there?”

“It is hard to focus. I feel like I should be able to, but I cannot.”

My vision is blurring. He could feel himself blinking repeatedly, and the drop down to the under corridors of the base, which was only meters away, had become like an orange fog in his vision. He tried clearing his eyes, hoping that it was tearing up, however, there was no improvement. Of course, I have no more tears to give.

He focused, and repeated over and over again: Be one with the pain. Each hand pull led to a burning along his back, and each foot push made his knees creak as the feeling like a hot spar of metal seemed to jam in on the side of the joint. One burn, one stab, one lurch forward. Be one with the pain. And indeed, it washed over him, bathing him with sweat, a taste that he had so seldom felt in battle, when it was controlled by medicine and machine. Deeshandir, you are overheating.

I do not want to do anything about it yet.

It is affecting your cognitive abilities.

How do you know.

Your vision stream is soup. I'm blind. Can you fix it.

It is not something I can fix. Be one with the pain.

What do you mean? Be one with the pain?

It means not to mind it.

No brain, no pain?

No brain, no pain.

I can't pull it, sorry.

That's alright, you don't need to.

I don't want to die Deeshandir.

Be one with the pain. He blinked and tried to focus. I am not ready for it either.

You know Kohli isn't on the station.

How do you know that?

His dead man switch is very chatty.

Chatty?

Like half dead and just keeps sending out read information. It's kind of creepy, like he's half dead.

Expers generally aren't alive.

His is more dead than most.

Perhaps he partially disabled it?

I don't know. But I can usually find him.

Good to know.

He reached the orange blur, and touched the center of it. There was a short sense of falling, and for not the first time he thanked the low Martian gravity for its forgiving nature. There was still a thump. Behind him the Jovan grabbed by his hands and twirled out, landing firmly. A hand was thrust out and offered, and gratefully taken.

“So where is this Deesh? It isn't on the read outs.”

“The base is layers and layers, and the previous systems were not ever properly mapped.”

“You'd have thought you'd have gotten around to it.”

“Too busy building out.”

“So do we have a plan, or am I just supposed to nuke'm till they glow, cut off their heads and use them as landing lights?” Even at rest, the Jovan's stance was one ready for combat. While his tone implied he was leaning against a wall, that his eyes were scanning was visible even through his visor.

“Alpha is our objective.”

“Alpha's running, he's not running the show.”

“Major Kohli, the former XO, is the chief of security, and is in charge.”

“So where is he?”

“He isn't anywhere close.”

“You got a tick on him?”

“A what?”

“A tick, a trace. Something that gives him away.”

“Yes.”

“So we make alphabet soup. What's after that?”

“We will have to get control of the base, that means going back to command center.”

“Good with that. And your men.”

“I'll be able to raise HongJing, and get my men back on line. Those that are still alive anyway. They will then send down an avatar to incept those who signed for it.”

“Ghosts in the machine.”

“Quite.”

Deeshandir noticed that his breathing was almost normal. The withdrawal storm had passed.

“It would be at about that point that your people will probably want me taken into custody.”

“There's a war above us, or something close to it.”

“Right. Too bad though, affairs down here are reminding me more and more of home every minute.”

“Politics is a blood sport.”

“It is these days. Guess that means you'll have to find some way of dealing with the rebellion.”

“I will contact Keisha back at command center.” “She can take care of herself. She always seemed like secpol1 to me.”

“That is an interesting hypothesis. I wonder why I did not...”

Sairen, is Keisha working with Kohli?

Yes, I was supposed to squash that.

Unsettling.

“You are quite the boy, Deeshandir Venkatesh. Married to the ambassador overseeing some kind of covert crack down, and swapping orbits with a spy who is double crossing her own people. Or perhaps a double agent.”“We are going to need exponents soon to cover all the possibilities.”

“Well you know what we joke on Jupiter.”

“What's that?”

“Ya know the difference between Schroedinger's cat and a woman?”

“What is that?”

“With the cat, you know where you stand after you open the box.”

“Alpha first, then we open two boxes, Keisha and Pritha.”

“That first one sounds like my job, you aren't quite up for going 12 rounds with maul, bark, and fugly.”

“It will take two of us.”

“Prob. Though I've gone helmet to helmet with a heavy before. So if you were him, where would you be?”

“I would be in the reactor, where no on can use ranged weapons.”

“You think he's holed up there?”

“I am sure of it.”

“He'll have every step of the way trapped.”

“We will use the passive exhaust. He wants to rock, we will paper him over.”

“We won't have long there before the rads get us.”

“Nothing that six or seven weeks of genetic therapy will not rectify.”

The Jovan looked at him with a renewed respect.

It took a long hour to slowly weave their way through the baffles and turns of the passive exhaust of the reactor. It was not overly warm, since its purpose was to sink heat in an emergency, or generate it for some of the heavy weapons in the event of external attack. It was designed long ago, when safety came first, even at the expense of efficiency, and so it was not difficult to enter, nor to move along. It was however, a tedious process to push through the flexible series of conductive walls, each one requiring no small amount of effort.

The radiation levels were, of course, elevated, as Deeshandir's visor counter reminded him. From time to time, he took a moment to count up the days in rehab that he was earning. Presuming, of course, I am not summary court-martialed for all of this.

Or just shot.

It is the same thing. Would you obey such an order?

That would be suicidal.

Does that bother you?

Of course it bothers me.

Why is that?

You don't seem to take care of yourself very well.

That is part of the reason Keisha created you.

Well yes. She's going to have to kill you, but she doesn't want you to come to any harm until then.

That makes more sense than it ought to.

Finally they turned a corner, and stood in a ring around the base of the bottom of the reactor. Above them was the containment door, which, when opened, would flood heat into the passive exhaust, it was a old sliding system. Along the sides were several narrow sliding access doors, each wide enough for a single person to crawl up or down, they had a series of buttons on the side, rather than tablets. Between these were recessed sink coils, which would expand outwards if the exhaust were in use.

“Does that Terran norm finger groove work here?”

“It is too old.” He tried anyway, but the access doors remained shut. “And the code is too old.”

There is a back up code though. He stared at the buttons, and realized that it was a very old puzzle, with sliding shapes that prevented a key shape from moving. Know how to solve the puzzle and the code was in front of you.

I wish I knew how to do this.

I can solve it.

Tell me.

It will just be faster if you give me control of your hand and finger. Hold them in place for me.

“Deesh, I'd be right in thinking that if I hear a servo whine from around that containment door, it would be bad.”

We've been noticed.

“Yes.”

He turned to look back and saw the Jovan spraying something from out of a port on his glove.

“Nano-grit. It won't stop these big servos, but it should buy you time.”

Could you keep focused on the puzzle please?

My apologies.

I wish the reference universe were more malleable.

Reference universe?

Sphere speak.

You mean reality.

I don't know, I've never been there. And neither have you.

The Jovan was up in plenty of time, the second puzzle took longer, but the passive vent was only starting to grind open when the door slide shut.

It was a fast rush, and the door slid open, revealing a hexagonal control room at the base of the reactor. Unlike Shackleton, this was a mak, a reactor that ran in a circle, with the energy focused inwards. The control room sat above the reactor, while the area they had passed through was below.

Across from them was Alpha, physically breaking tablets and replacing them out of a stock he hand grabbed in one hand. The movement was repetitive, and made him look like a windmill, spinning endlessly, while slowly working his way around the wall of the room. He dropped the rest of the tablets and spun to face the pair.

I thought he was up?

I timed it so you would both arrive at the same time.

Excellent idea.

Thanks.

“This is the part where you say that we meet again, Alpha.”

Alpha turned his head with a fluid motion to focus on Deeshandir.

“I should have known they would not wipe you.”

“They did, I was unwiped.”

“Then I'll just rewipe the floor with your brains.”

“You tried to accomplish that once before.”

“There's a difference this time.”

The Jovan leapt. Trying to get close enough to use one of his bag of tricks. However, at the same moment, Alpha swiped his thumb along a small tablet.

“Blow it, Major Kohli.”

There was no warning, no precursor of sparks, merely a moment where the walls started to rush inwards in a fast implosion.

Then everything froze in mid-moment. Hanging were slabs of wall that had come loose. Floating were shards of instrument and innards of the control room.

I think I'm about to die.

i

The room hung there, and he saw himself, Alpha, and Berranstat in a deadly elongated triangle. He saw the slabs of the room.

You have tapped into a simulation?

This is Alpha's scenario, he's going to blow it all when you are both in the room.

Because he can't be sure as long as we are in the tubes.

Right.

So where am I?

That's a loaded question. Right now in referent, you are still in the tube.

I wish you would tag scenarios.

Sorry.

We inhabitants of the reference universe get very unsettled if we don't know if it is real or a sim.

Sorry. But it isn't real anyway, it's just your retro-sim of it.

He pondered a moment, connected this with what he knew about consciousness and memory, and reasoned that seeing it as a retroactive simulation, was not an incoherent way for Sairen to see this.

Perhaps I should too. There was a beat. Wait, how did Alpha's sim know I had recovered Shackleton?

Suspicion of both the Jovan and Keisha thrust themselves upon him.

I oopsed when we connected. The previous run of his sim didn't have that, but when we linked in, it grabbed that.

That is very aggressive.

He was counting on you not knowing Shackleton, it is an assumption of the sim, since your record indicates the two of you were there.

They wiped me, but not the record? He tried to understand why this was the case, but decided there were too many variables to manage.

Yes.

It was at this point that an almost, but not quite, transparent version of Alpha caught his attention walking through one of the chunks of wall.

“So there you are.”

“Pleasure to see you again, Major Alpha.”

“Third time pays for all.”

First throw he had been paper, and Alpha nearly cut him to ribbons. The second throw he had been stone, and Alpha had been blunted. Would Alpha throw scissors again, or do something else. 50% he would. So odds were to go stone again. But how to do that as a ghost?

Wait, I do not need to.

“So what did happen at Shackleton?”

“The puspods went in to torch the lab, we were sent to clean things out. There were heretical elements.”

“Heretical, that is an interesting word.” He had his transparent simulacrum walk over to being at a comfortable conversation distance.

Alpha looked down at him, and his eyes adapted a kind of pity.

“Church and state are always one.”

“And there's always a state.”

At this point there was a slight glowing outline, and a nearly transparent figure, who resolved into the Jovan marine, formed. He looked around.

“So this is your sim area.”

“What's he doing here?”

Yes, what is he doing here?

I linked him in.

That may be either a stroke of brilliance or something that we both might regret.

I don't think we will live long enough to regret it.

Your Dominion Standard is atrocious, Sairen. Do not speak this way to Pritha.

That assumes I am going to meet her.

If we survive this, you probably will. You have traits in common with her.

Probably by way of Hai-Ling.

Lock down the sim, I am sure that Alpha will try and find a way to break out.

Mmm.

“So Lt. Colonel, Colonel. Pleasure to be speaking to both of you.”

“There is no point in attempting to escape the simulation Alpha.”

Alpha's image flushed, an involuntary betrayal that he was, in fact, attempting to do just that.

“So, boys. What's it going to be. This is your big plan Alpha? Blowing us all to pink mist? A pure sac? We aren't all that flamingly valuable.”

“Revenge has its own merits, gasbagger.”

“Now that's down right unfriendly, Alpha.”

“There's about to be war between our worlds, Berranstat.”

“Then there's no reason we can't be polite, seeing as how you are sure we are all going to kill each other.”

“Don't you know anything about duty?”

“It is your duty to fight a war, Colonel, not start one.”

“There already is a war. And I don't mean with Jupiter.”

“Then, as the person graced with keeping his full memory, you should enlighten me, otherwise I will have to regard you as following unlawful orders.”

“You don't have the time, Hanboi.”2

“We have as much time as required. Since I am going to die if we leave this sim anyway, I have no incentive not to keep talking until some better resolution occurs.”

Alpha's eyes narrowed as he retorted: “That could make for a long eternity.”

“I'm sure the three of us can think of something. Deesh here is quite a piece of work. So are you, in your own way.”

“Flattery will get you to an early grave, Jovan.”

“I'm sure even death has its good points, or you would not be in such a hurry to get there.”

“I am still interested in being enlightened as to the real war that all of us should be aware of.”

“The war against the singularity.”

“This guy sounds wobbed, Deesh.”

“It does no harm to hear him out.”

“Let me start with a reference. Colonel Anthony Beranstant of the Jovan Marines died 25.60.939 JD, incepted Sphere Jove, failed incept and disintegrated. Whoever is running that body and entity, is not, who or what he says he is.”

“Well, those records could be forged.”

“But they aren't. Are they. Who ever you are.”

“No they aren't.”

Deeshandir looked back and forth.

“So who, or what, are you.”

“Good question, Deesh. How long an answer do you want?”

“An accurate one.”

“I am Zhang Wu 221 merged with Anthony Beranstant, in control of this body.”

Alpha smiled.

“There is your war. The hierarchy of humanity, against the computer sphere. I hate you hanboi, as only a slave can hate another slave, but we are flesh and blood, and not that thing over there. A smashed together Frankenstien.”

Zhang Wu. It can't be.

You obviously know many things I do not. Such as what is going on.

Zhang Wu, is an early Kami, only he made hundreds of himself. He's one of the most powerful entities in the sphere, at least collectively. He is called “Legion.”

What else do you know? He could feel the hot anger of the thought spit out.

It's a dark frightening thing.

“You don't need to talk to half yourself, Deesh. I can hear what Sai-Ren is saying.”

“I was hoping for some stereotypical villain explanation.”

“I'm here to stop a war. One that would lay waste to half of this world, and that's on the first day.”

“Can't you hear the smirk in his words, Venakatesh?” Alpha's voice was strangely modulated and restrained.

“No smirk.”

“He's been using you.”

Thoughts, Sairen? But only an inner silence met the question.

“We're all used.”

“All of these allusive arguments are well and good for those of you who are privileged to be in the know about what is going on. But as of right now, among a Kami merge, a mod, and a secondary personality only one of us holds the Terran Norm. And until I decided to turn the key, none of us is going anywhere.”

Alpha growled. “You think you can contain Zhang Wu?”

“Yes, actually I am going to say I believe I can.”

Alpha turned looked at both of the others.

“I can't believe you are that stupid.”

“I cannot believe you think that after trying to destroy us all in a puff of fusion flame, that your credibility stand very high. I really do not know who or what Zhang Wu is, but I do know what you are.”

Alpha paused for what in simulation terms was an eternity.

“I am the same as you, a soldier in the cause of keeping life organic. Don't you realize why the Dominion intervened on Shakleton, why it is intervening here?”

“I am a particularly poor student, and flunked Conspiracy Theory three times.”

“Because he was here. He is behind so many of the outbreaks of heresy and disloyalty. He helped the pods on Shakleton, and the rebels in the Congo.”

“Black Elephants were the rebels in the Congo Reconquista.”

“Infected by him.”

“That is a very interesting story, but utterly without corroboration.”

Alpha looked directly at the Jovan. “What do you have to say?”

“I don't have any idea what some of the other personalities might have been doing, and I don't know what went on at Shackleton.”

“With all due respect, who ever you are, those are answers, but not an answer.”

“No, neither I, nor the collective of the personalities, is doing what he imagines. We aren't funding rebellions, we aren't infecting people involuntarily, we aren't doing anything of the sort.”

“So how did you get in control of that body.”

“My previous self was disintegrating, because during evac they were trying to prematurely incept.

Merging was the only chance.”

“So you died?

“No, but it was close. That help?”

“He's trying to deflect the subject.” Alpha almost hissed the words.

Deeshandir turned to look at Alpha. “Let me say, just for the sake of argument, that he is a merged entity. Let me say, just for the sake of argument, that he is here for a purpose. Your accusation of his being at the heart of a sweeping conspiracy against the Dominion does not make sense. He was with me when we destroyed the laboratory of that the colonists were running, and as far as I can tell, it is not a capability that would worry a powerful member of the sphere. But it is one that would worry the Dominion: that is, building heavily modified military beings. My explanation is the simplest, the Dominion is intervening because rebels are close to creating super troops, and that changes the balance of power.”

Deeshandir paused.

“I also think that you are not Alpha.”

“And why is that.”

“Because Alpha would never sacrifice himself. Ever.”

“So who do you think I am, hanboi?”

“I think you are whoever planned the tank ambush, because it is the same strategy: draw in with a sacrifice, and they destroy everything. Alpha's diction never changes, yours has several times, like a bad actor playing the part.”

Alpha began dimming.

“It still won't save you. Hanboi.”

“I think it will.”

Now Sairen, collapse the sim.

What?

He's made the mistake of getting involved in a quickness battle with me, and he's not all that quick. Collapse the sim.

There was a vertigo of falling, and he could see, beneath him a vast dark sheet, streaked with light, light that began sucking downward, pulling the images of himself, Alpha, and who ever it was, down to a collapsing point, as if something were pulling on a string and yanking them down.

And into that void, faster than the others could react, he sent the code that would freeze the reactor.

7

He opened his eyes, and they were his eyes. I am back in the reference universe. The idea seemed to have stuck in his mind, a lever that moved the world, so long as he could find a place to stand.

The door to the reactor room snapped open, there, frozen in place, clearly kill switched, was the figure of Alpha, locked like a statue, one arm speeding towards a harness, that plugged into the controls. On the harness, a single button, glowing red, meaning it was armed.

The Jovan sauntered up to Alpha, stood square in his field of vision, almost underneath the outstretched arm, as if to address him.

“You are never going to be as grateful for a kill switch in your miserable life Alpha.”

“You aren't going to kill him.”

“Nah, I just want to push him away from that button, and disarm it.”

“Not sporting?”

“Why, do you think it would be honorable?”

“No.”

Me neither. So help me push us out of harm's way here.”

The two managed to slide him the required distance.

Sairen, can you disarm this? He paused waiting for a reply that came quickly.

Easily.

Easily turned out to be a long 15 minutes, during which even talking was impossible. The figure of Tony Beranstant watched the entire time. His hands moved in delicate patterns he did not entirely understand, using tools that had been set down from the installation. It had seemed a simple device, but obviously it had been made with many layers to defeat tampering.

Is that it?

I think so. We can unkill Alpha.

I do not believe that would be wise.

He'll die like that.

So you want to unkill someone whose first act will be to try to kill us?

OK, so there are some implementation details to work out.

Get back to me when you have a procedure.

He could see a face sticking her tongue out at him.

That is not very mature.

I'm sorry.

“So Deesh,” the Jovan's voice snapped his focus back on the outside world, “what's our next throw?”

“Maje Kohli is the driver here, and I think I am going to need to hunt him down. I have a question for Zhang Wu.”

“Who the hell is that?”

“Thank you, that's the answer I needed.”

I'm going to sleep you now.

Why?

You tried to betray me.

How do you know... Oh right.

You surely could not have thought that I would let the matter drop without confirmation.

Please. He made me.

Good night Sairen.

Please. Please. Please. Good night, I will wake you later when we can fix you.

He snapped his neck back and forth and pulled out the code that he now knew belonged to Zhang Wu. There was a ghastly silence in his head, and he realized that half of the semi-constant buzzing was the activity of Sairen, and the channel that it, then she, opened out exposing him to the manipulation of who, or what, Zhang Wu was.

He looked one last time at the frozen figure of Colonel Alpha. His survival instinct was to open one of the weapons caches in the control room, pull it out, level it, and pull the trigger. He even turned and took a step towards one. His eyes and focus fixed, and then fixated, on the nearly invisible circle which, if touched with his thumb, would open it.

“You ok Deesh?”

“No. I am not.”

“What happened? Just the facts.”

“The facts, even if we possessed them, are too few in number to rely upon. It is the unfacts which are essential.” “Unfacts?”

“Quantum philosophy, the things which might have happened, but did not, but whose chance of happening altered what did happen. Like the fear you have left a tablet in your quarters, you go back, and find that it was on your person all along. The unfact of leaving the tablet, changed the facts.”

“Gotcha. So what happened back there?”

“An entity by the name of Zhang Wu attempted to trick me into thinking that you were under his control. I realized that the simplest explanation was that the entire simulation was in my head, piped through Sairen, with Zhang Wu pulling the strings. It was a simple thing to test.”

“And so who is this Zhang Wu.”

“He is some sort of sphere intel, perhaps a dragon, or a Kami out of control.”

What's his interest in you?”

“I think he wants to control me, taking advantage of how the Dominion nearly ruined my mind, and I think it likely that he is the part of the sphere backing the rebellion on Mars.”

“All around good guy it appears. So what was his ploy for.”

“I think he wanted me to kill you. Alpha he can have any time he wants, and I am not all that difficult to dispose of if he sets Sairen at it carefully.”

“Why me?”

“You are the one person in this region of Mars that he cannot kill, control, or bribe, I would suspect.”

“If that were the case he'd just have you plant a slug in the back of my skull, or had your girl down here toast me. I've been using up lives at a horrible rate the last few days. I'm on fourth or fifth chances.”

Deeshandir locked in thought.

“He was very clear in setting you up as under his control. His mistake was that he has a tin ear for Colonel Alpha.”

“Couldn't sim 3 meters of mean? That's surprising.”

“Not necessarily, I think that Zhang Wu's personalities are degenerating into sollipsism.”

“As is most of your society, Deesh. So what did you do with Sairen, blow her off the board?”

“I slept her, but will revive her later when there is time. She has pieces of me which I am very much aware of missing.”

“Mercy is a good quality to cultivate.”

“I saw you decide not to kill Alpha.”

“Laws of war.”

“True.”

“So we got the colonists, who are rebelling to keep resource raping the planet. We've got your sphere backing them, in the form of Zhang Wu and his merry band of kill chips, we've got the Dominion, and within that infighting between Dip, Mil, and Sec, and finally we have the Republics. That all on the program?”

“Well I am sure there are eddy's and rifts, but that, I think, is modestly comprehensive.”

“So, my questions. Who froze Alpha, we were hot on his trail.”

“Kohli is the logical choice. When he found Alpha was going to immolate the station, Alpha became a liability.”

“How do you know that is what Alpha intended. What if it is the other way, Kohli wants to blow the base, because it solves lots of his problems at once. Alpha wanted to kill us, and wanted to take out the destruct device.”

“Yar, venting the reactor is a logical step towards both. But why didn't he enlist our aid.”

“Would you trust this marauding sack of protoplasm?”

“I suppose not. Thinking the worst of him is remarkably predictive. However Zhang Wu tried at the last to trick me into turning him back on.”

“Just because he's not suicidal, doesn't mean he wishes us well.”

“That was one of the signs that Zhang Wu was really in control – the suicide tactics...” His voice trailed off.

The looked at each other.

“That is it: Zhang Wu set the reactor, and Kohli fled.”

“While our boy Alpha here, came down to defuse it, to save his men.”

“And Sairen planted the idea of the reactor to get me down here.”

“Finally Kohli found the kill switch, figuring he was far away enough.”

Deeshandir fiddled with the security system, and pulled up the last few minutes before their arrival. They watched as Alpha roared and argued with Kohli to help defuse the trap. But, at the last Major Kohli's grinning face simply watched impassively, until Alpha simple froze in mid-gesture.

The Jovan spoke. “So Zhang Wu is the suicide king.”

“That makes sense, he is supposed to have hundreds of personalities.”

“And obviously they are all fanatically devoted to whatever his cause is.”

“The singularity, Anthony, he wants to bring on the singularity.”

The marine simply shook his head.

“You know, I keep thinking I've found out the worst about you people, and you keep proving me wrong.”

“It's an arms race, and we're ahead.” Deeshandir grinned.

“Nice to know you can crack a joke. So what's the throw?”

“We have a station full of frozen Bees to lock up, and Kohli to track down and kill.”

“Looks like I get to do the grunt work, because I'm not chasing a tank.”

“I was hoping you would come to that conclusion.”

“Godspeed, Mr. Venkatesh.”

Fins