Posted by: lordkyler | April 14, 2017

Apocalypse Anthology – Fifth Stanza

Shards of Envy

The Staff of Sages: Right of Wisdom,

The Power of the Earth is felt.

The world shall crack, the skies turn black,

And mountains themselves shall melt.


Blood dripped from the corner of my lip into the pool below me, sending crimson swirls through the cloudy water and making the scavenger fish dart madly in search of its source. I was trembling, as much from anger as from the cold, and I hugged myself close, closing myself off from the world. My reflection in the murky water showed red, sullen eyes and wild dark hair that only half-covered the bruises and scratches across my face.

This should have been the greatest day of my life. The completion of my third full journey around the world. A day of celebration, a rare reprieve from our eternal quest to stay ahead of the relentless and merciless sea. The day I received the Animar I had been dreaming about for the past six months.

The tiny kit approached, nuzzling up against my leg to give comfort, but I shoved it away rudely, nearly sending it tumbling into the pool. Stupid thing. Mother knew I wanted the wolf pup, and yet she had chosen this tiny fluffball. No matter what element I bonded it to, it would never be truly useful for scouting or fighting. I wanted more than mere companionship.

To make matters worse, Skiff the navigator’s son – my arch-nemesis – had received the wolf pup. It was too much to bear. Even now, hours later, my heart still carried a trace of the heat that had surged through it. My hands knotted themselves into fists of their own accord, and my eyes glared back at me in my reflection. I could still hear the echoes of the roaring in my ears, like the rush of waves surging to drown me.

There was another memory lingering there as well, something quickly fading but never fully forgotten. A silent song. A strange sense of yearning. A subtle whispering…

The ring of metal hooves on stone distracted me from the thought, and I felt the dread that anger had held at bay come flooding in. The chieftain was coming, and for all her noble qualities, she was not known for her mercy. Even as her daughter, I was not immune from the administration of justice. Quite the contrary, in fact, as I would suffer the consequences both in public and in private. And this was the worst thing I’d ever done.

I considered running away, but I knew that was futile. I couldn’t survive on my own, and fleeing my fate would only make matters worse when I returned. Best to do as Father would have done, and tackle the matter head-on.

Scooping up the dumb kitten anyway, I tried to stand tall and proud, but it was hard not to shrink as Adamant, my mother’s bull Animar, came striding through the omnipresent mists. He was a brazen beast in both attitude and form, gleaming bronze from horn to hoof, filled with power and surety. My mother, sitting on his back, seemed every inch his equal, despite her short and slender frame. She seemed calm, but I knew that her calm was more dangerous than a thunderstorm.

Adamant huffed, making the fog swirl, and the kitten in my arms mewed back meekly. Our newly forged soul-bond let me draw a bit of courage from the tiny thing, giving me enough strength to look in my mother’s eyes. She met them without malice, and easily slid off Adamant’s back,  We studied each other in silence for a moment.

Sighing, my mother walked straight past me and sat down at the edge of the pool, dipping her toes in the water. She patted the stone beside her, inviting me to sit next to her. Wary of this unfamiliar tactic, I sat down, tucking my legs underneath me. I didn’t like getting wet when I could help it, and they weren’t long enough to reach the pool in any case.

Mother stared into the fog, as though her eyes could somehow pierce the Cloud Sea. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s my fault,” she said. “Half his size and you still dropped him.”

“What?” I was confused. “You didn’t do anything. I known I shouldn’t a hit him, it just-”

“Hush, child.” With effort, I bit off the torrent of words pouring from my mouth. She turned to face me, and I could see that she was cloud-lost, her mind elsewhere. It was an expression I almost didn’t recognize on her.

“Your father used to be the leader of the tribe,” she said distantly. “He was suited for it. He was a man that could truly lead people. Make them cautious without being fearful. Make them work without resenting him. He’d make you love him…”

A single drop of water rolled down her cheek, but that must have been the rain starting early. I listened intently, as Mother rarely spoke about Father. I knew very little about him, only that he had been well-liked by the tribe and died trying to save a lost boy during a tempest. I’d often imagined the sort of hero he was, but I had always suspected the truth didn’t truly align with my daydreams. Now I wasn’t so sure.

“I was his second,” Mother continued, “so I took the job, but I’ve never been good at it. Not like he was. He’d make you want to do something, I’d want to make you do it. And those first few months were rough. Dark-to-dark marches with little more than boiled seaweed and algae broth. Five times I had to fight – really fight – just to keep control. To keep us together. Didn’t know I was carrying you until later.”

All thought of punishment forgotten, I was hooked like a flounder. This was like hearing some old legend of when the sea was flat and men feared to see the sun, something strange and wonderful and frightening.

“Y’think that’s how come I fight so much?” I asked eagerly. My mother regained her predator focus at the sound of my voice, and I regretted speaking instantly.

“Maybe,” she said sternly. “But I think you’d be a fighter either way. You take too much after me, and I haven’t taken the time to teach you temperance.”

“I thought my temper was the problem!” I blurted.

“Temperance, child. That means you master your temper. There’s a time to fight and a time to make peace. Sometimes you have to cuss somebody raw, and other times you have to swallow it. But you have to learn which is which, or you’ll end up riding the tide.”

I stared at the pool beneath my feet, watching the little creatures dart about, trying to scrape together a living from the ocean’s leavings. Just like us.

“How d’you know when to fight and when to take a lickin’?” I asked.

My mother wrapped an arm around me. I almost shied away from the unfamiliar touch, but after a second, I returned the gesture half-heartedly. “I wish I could give you a simple answer, my dear, but I can’t. You’ll just have to figure it out like the rest of us.” She paused. “Why did you fight Skiff?”

I was suddenly reminded of the stupid kit in my lap. It lay curled into a tiny ball, purring softly. I tried to hate it and found I couldn’t. “He got the pup I wanted.” You gave it to him, I almost said, but thought better of it at the last moment.

“That’s life, my girl. We’re only a little better than the worms, forced to wander and too weak to claim a better place. There’s a lot to envy in this world, and I won’t blame you for it.”

Not exactly the encouragement I needed. I let go of Mother and started to stand, willing to accept my punishment at the nightly meeting. I took one step before my mother caught my arm and dragged me back. She caught my face between her iron-firm hands, holding me captive and forcing me to meet her eyes. The force of her intensity hit me like a tidal wave, and her eyes blazed with the passion of the sun, branding her message into my heart.

“Listen carefully, child.” she demanded. “Envy can destroy you if you let it. It is a poison that leaves your soul weak and your mind warped with jealousy and fear. But if you master it – if you master yourself – envy will be your greatest ally.”

I found myself suddenly short of breath, my heart racing with inexplicable thrill. “How?” I whispered.

She pulled me to her, so close that our noses touched, her fingers digging into my skin. Even though she whispered her answer, her conviction was strong enough to defy the gods. “When they look down on you, rise above them. When they think you are weak, prove them wrong. Make yourself mighty, Kaea, and when you want something?”

She gave me a predator’s grin, the last smile of her life. “You take it.”

•••

The time had come at long last. Back at the beginning of things, standing before the Spire. The faint, rippling glow of the little creatures within the water lanterns reflected on the twisted black stone in strange, alien ways, almost as if it were alive. To think that I’d spent so much time searching for ultimate power, and it had been hiding here all along.

I had come so far since I last stood here. It was harder to think of what I’d lost.

I laid my hand on the twisted stone, reaching for its soul. Solid stone parted before my fingers like water, sliding aside and rippling at my touch. As I pressed deeper, the stone began to resist my efforts, growing thicker, like tar, rebelling against the touch of my soul. I pressed on, bringing all my will to bear, forcing it to yield before my strength until it cracked and crumbled and fell away like so much sand, revealing a green glow so bright it threatened to blind me.

My fingers closed around the handle of a staff. 

•••

The barge rocked under my weight, wet timbers sounding with a hollow thud as I raced by on bare feet. Midnight – my Animar, now the size of a housecat – raced behind me, obsidian claws gouging into the slick wood for better grip. Rain pounded around us, beating the mirror surface of the shallow sea into hammered silver, and thunder growled ominously in the distance. It was fitting weather for a duel.

From the heavy thumps behind me, I knew that Skiff was not far behind, making his way up the chained barges with worrying speed. His Animar Crusher had grown as well, a gangly but dangerous wolfling. It was bonded with bone, a stark, skeletal white easily visible through the gray curtains of rain. I glanced back to see it snarling at me, gaunt face leering like a skull, fur bristling like a coat of ivory needles. They were both angry and both injured, Skiff’s face a mottled mess of bruises and cuts, Crusher marred by chipped flesh and swathes of shattered fur.

They were still faring better than we were. Midnight’s ear and tail were cracked badly, and aside from my own bruises and cuts, I thought I might have a broken rib. Every breath felt like a knife in the side.

I fought to stay focused. Couldn’t think of Mother’s passing. Had to focus on the consequences. Skiff had challenged me for leadership, but he would surely lead us to ruin. I had to win. I had to win, but I had underestimated Skiff.

Injured as I was, my best chance at victory lay in finding the right battlefield. And so, teeth clenched against the agony, and eyes squinting against the rain, I ran. But not fast enough.

Skiff’s foot caught me in the back of the knee at just the wrong moment, making my leg buckle. I nearly dashed my face into the corner of a crate, but I managed to twist aside at the last second. I took the blow on my side instead, which turned out to be far more painful. My broken rib erupted in agony, and my vision flashed white with the pain. I landed hard on my back, head swimming, but some fighter’s instinct surfaced through the pain and made me kick out. My heels crunched painfully against the bony stomach of the wolf, stopping the snapping fangs only inches from my exposed throat.

The Animar crumpled, laying in a heap on the deck. Even with the protection of the bonded material, it was possible to get the wind knocked out of you. I felt as though I’d been tumbled through a rockslide, muscles battered and bones bruised. I wasn’t going to make it.

Through teary eyes, I could see Skiff closing in, wielding an old wagon spoke like a club. He was seething with anger, his face as red as a boiled crab. I was faster and better-trained, but he had the advantage of height, weight, and male musculature, and the bastard knew how to use them. My advantages were neutralized.

I was going to die. To Skiff.

Something trembled and sang within me, like the plucked string of a harp, some invisible connection leading… somewhere else. It was a thing of contradictions, soft and hard, near and far, cold and hot. Vast. Incomprehensible. Then, just as quickly, the indescribable sensation vanished, leaving me gasping from awe and pity, empty and full at the same time.

Just before Skiff could crack my skull against the timbers, Midnight launched herself from the crate I’d landed on, glass-razor claws extended. Skiff ducked to one side, but Midnight managed to catch his shirt and drag him to his knees. The club fell, rolling overboard with a small splash. By then, I had risen to a crouch, driven by some force I could not fathom, and I threw myself into the fray.

For a wild and breathless moment, we were a tangle of thrashing limbs and grasping fingers, fighting for position like a pair of battling tomcats. Skiff was stronger, but with newfound fire, I managed to claw my way to a superior position, robbing him of his strength with strategic holds, slippery maneuvering, and underhanded tricks.

With Midnight’s help, I finally managed to pin Skiff’s arm with hand and knee. My right hand found its way to his throat and began to squeeze, applying pressure to both arteries and windpipe, just like my mother had taught me. Skiff bucked and fought to no avail, eyes bulging from exertion and blinking madly against the rain as he struggled against the weakness beginning to consume him.

It was a strangely intimate moment. The world shrank around us, centered around the touch of flesh on flesh, the claiming of a life. Everything else faded in importance – the pain in my ribs, the hair in my face, the leaping wolf…

By pure reflex, I thrust out my left hand, catching the bone-wolf on the snout. Startled, the wolfling snapped at me, catching my hand between its cruel teeth. I don’t remember if I screamed, but I know that my grip on Skiff’s throat stayed firm, even as his Animar savaged my flesh, thrashing his head back and forth madly.

Skiff fought back while I was distracted, but Midnight was a storm of black glass, a fury of shards tearing his flesh to ribbons. As painful as the injuries must have been, Skiff paid no heed to them, instead straining his whole body to push my fingers back a single precious inch. He succeeded, drawing a thin breath, but it was enough to renew his vigor. His eyes were wild with anger and panic, and I could feel the strength returning to his struggles. I had to regain control quickly.

Ignoring every instinct, I thrust my hand deeper into the wolf’s maw, until my mangled hand was practically crawling down its throat, until it gagged and choked on my blood. Skiff looked at his companion in horror, feeling the animal’s panic through their link. I used his distress to reassert my grip. I would lose the hand for certain, but I would win this tribe. A small enough price.

The wolf soon collapsed, too loyal to let go and too weak to go on. Skiff spluttered something, his lips moving soundlessly. I wasn’t interested, but I made the mistake of looking into his eyes. After a moment much shorter than it felt, I relented, just enough to allow a faint whisper. I wouldn’t deny a man his dying words.

“I–” he coughed feebly. “I surrender. Quit. Forfeit. Just don’t… just don’t kill Crusher?”

I looked from Skiff to his dying Animar, and then to my ruined hand. I could feel the weight of the tribe members watching from a safe distance, but I spared no glance for them. Instead, I looked at Midnight, poised to strike. Her little chest heaved with earnest exertion and her eyes shone with life – elegance and passion and pride drawn in every line of her. I’d hated her once, but now…

Wincing at the pain, I withdrew my hand from Crusher’s throat, not daring to look at the mess. After a half-second of consideration, I released Skiff as well, working the cramp from my shaking fingers. I was dizzy as a drunk, but I somehow managed to rise to my feet, using the crate for support.

The deck swayed beneath my feet, and for the first time in several minutes, I noticed the rain and the wind, and for once I found them refreshing rather than oppressive. The tribe members were standing in silent witness on the surrounding barges. I met each of their eyes in turn, gauging – no, demanding their acceptance. Their obedience. Some gave it more readily than others, but I found no true defiance among them.

“I am your chieftain,” I croaked. “I do not have my father’s gift. I do not have my mother’s wisdom. But I promise you this: give me your unquestioning loyalty, and I will take you farther than they ever did.”

Nobody stepped forward to pledge their allegiance. But nobody spoke against me, either. It would do, for now. Somehow, in that moment, I could see it so clearly, like a vision just beyond the clouds. They all saw a bloodied and ferocious woman, practically still a girl, but in that moment, I saw myself as I truly was. A conqueror. They would see it too, in time.

I checked on Skiff and saw that he and his Animar were both still breathing. Seeing them so broken suddenly reminded me of my own wounds, and all thoughts of glory were swept aside by a wave of pain. I sat down on the crate suddenly, pressing my bloody hand to my side, only to reignite the fire in my ribs. But there was one command I had to give first, even if I couldn’t fully understand it myself.

“I claim Skiff as my husband,” I declared through gritted teeth. “Mine and mine alone. Got that, Skiff?” He lay still, but when I kicked at him, he nodded slightly. “Good. Now somebody get me the ungod-damned healer.”

•••

Power.

That’s what the Staff was: pure, unbridled power. I could feel it just beneath my fingertips, tingling like lightning, quaking like thunder, burning like ice. Power beyond anything I had ever imagined, past anything I could comprehend. Infinity bounded within the grasp of my hand. 

It was everything I’d sacrificed for.

All that I’d dreamed of.

It scared me.

Here, on the brink of Godhood, I was afraid of getting wet feet. I could have laughed, but I felt as though my laughter could shatter the ground on which I stood. It was far, far too late to turn back now. I was master of the dry earth, and queen of all that lived, but I was not the maker of my own fate. I could see it clearly now. I’d never truly had a choice.

I heard laughter, a voice in my head that was not my own.

Are you so sure?

•••

My warriors leapt into action, surging forward as one mass, a wave flowing uphill. Those with the strength to bond stone and metal took the lead, followed by weaker soldiers and lesser beasts to shore up the gaps left by the dead. The Mooneater tribesmen held their ground, presenting a hedge of bristling spears and waving clubs. A small group of men armed with swords and fierce Animari swooped down to protect their injured Chieftain, but they did not have time to retreat to safety. The battle was joined.

Skiff stepped to my side, and we spent a brief moment surveying the battlefield, ensuring everyone was in their proper place. The Mooneater highlands were carved into a series of terraces, connected by a serpentine stair. After conquering our way to the prime position among the wandering tribes, we were finally ready to take one of the peaks. The opening negotiations had been less than polite.

Once I was satisfied with the state of the battle, Skiff and I locked eyes for a moment, saying everything that need to be said without having to speak. He had grown much in the past two years, both in stature and in wisdom, but he knew his place and kept it. I could leave command of the battle in his hands.

I took off at a dead sprint, racing for the flagging eastward flank. Crusher and Midnight fell in on either side, keeping pace easily. Crusher had grown large – and then kept growing – until it was clear he had some direwolf heritage in his line. His bone form had been augmented with black iron, arranged to protect his most vulnerable parts and enhance his already deadly natural weapons. Skiff had arranged the melding so that Crusher looked like some skeletal specter, but he had a fearsome amount of muscle hidden beneath his exterior. Many warriors had surrendered at the mere sight of him.

As for Midnight…

I’d once despised my mother for giving me a cat instead of a fighting beast. Only after she died did I realize she had given me both. Midnight was more than a mouser or even a wildcat.

She was a tiger, a creature of infinite grace and deadly elegance. The glass-like delicacy of her obsidian form had been reinforced with bands of cruel black iron that mimicked her natural stripes, affording protection from hammers without hampering her uncanny agility. Crusher was a thing of nightmares, but Midnight was the monster that kept you awake at night.

She was still a harmless kit compared to what I had become.

I ran for the retreating chieftain and his guards. Their Animari rushed out to block our path – a drake, some sort of large lizard, a pair of dogs, and a proud stag with gleaming metal antlers. We split up with a mere thought; Crusher taking the dogs, Midnight cutting off the drake and the reptile.

The stag came for me, spear-point horns lowered and ready. One of the guards let out a war cry even as they retreated, confident that his large Animar would easily impale me. A few years ago, he would have been right, but I had learned some things since my first fight with Skiff.

I took a deep breath and reached.

All at once, the knots of worry in my mind untangled and snapped taut, like guy-lines in a storm, singing with the strain of power and bringing me perfect clarity. Those same lines extended outward, connecting me to the great web of life and death that bound all things. Over the course of many battles, I had learned to decipher the complex weaving of souls and fates as they twined together and apart, until I could catch glimpses of the pattern even as it was forming. As far as I was concerned, I had already won this fight.

The stag was charging at full speed,but that meant nothing when I knew where every hoof would land. The thrill of battle consumed me, heightening my senses and slowing my sense of time. I could hear every tone in Midnight’s scream of war. I could see the faint silvery glimmer playing over the stag’s spearpoint antlers. I could smell the mingled scents of clean grass and sharp blood.

Strongest of all was the sense of touch. I could feel the roughness of the stone beneath my bare, callused feet, and the pulse of blood pounding in my veins. I felt a sense of glory and power so strong that it could not be contained.

I felt… alive.

When the stag was only a single stride away, I reached again – inward this time – and touched my soul to one of the bands around my arm, binding us. In the space of a heartbeat, liquid lead rippled across my flesh, a suit of living armor and a source of inhuman strength.

Metal screeched against metal as we collided. Although I was much smaller than the stag, we were now nearly equal in weight – my lead against the stag’s nickel or tin.

The proud Animar was unprepared for my sudden transformation, and it staggered drunkenly to one side before tripping over a root and tumbling down the hillside, out of the fight. I had already turned my attention elsewhere.

Midnight was moving like water, effortlessly graceful. The drake was already down, its complex form of interwoven vines and branches now little more than a heap of kindling. The lizard was made of tougher stuff – rough jade, from the looks of it – but my tiger had it by the tail, and swung her head to bash the thing against the rocks, cracking it open. Both of Crusher’s opponents were still standing, but they were badly hurt, overwhelmed by the direwolf’s sheer power.

I left them to their work. I had spotted an opening, and I intended to take it. The broken hillside was home to a dozen skirmishes, like a game of stones being played on an giant board without turns, each player racing to seize key positions and pieces. It was my goal to win the game, and that meant taking the Mooneater chieftain quickly.

I sprinted up the stairs, passing by a dozen battles with barely a glance and destroying anyone foolish enough to get in my way. Animari tried to block my path, but I could slip past the largest ones and dispatch any others. Warriors attacked me with swords and clubs, but I bonded iron just long enough to shield myself and resumed my chase, leaving them behind.

The Mooneater chief was hampered by the fighting as well – our young and elderly were filling the air with a hail of slingstones from a distance– but it wasn’t enough. He had already gained too much ground, and more men were falling into position, defending the stairs with enough men that even I could not fight my way through in time. It was time to try something desperate.

Screaming defiance, I pulled the strands of my soul so tightly they threatened to snap, wrapping them around my mind like a cocoon. My heart danced within my chest, and my senses grew so acute that I could have written a manuscript about the details I perceived in each unfolding second.

There was another connection as well, something deeper than water and stronger than storms. It flowed through me in a rush of power as brilliant as the sun, until I thought pure energy would begin to burst from my pores. Almost dizzy from the rush, I made the fateful gamble.

I bonded with the wind.

It was a feat that only a few throughout history had survived. In soul-binding, the flesh took on the attributes of the material, and the material took on the life and form of the host. Normally this caused little trouble, although many had difficulty reversing the bond, but elements like air and water were formless and fluid. In such cases, only the strongest souls could keep from drifting apart like a passing wind, and even then only for a moment.

Although I had never done it before, I knew from other feats that I was strong enough to hold myself together. But nothing could have prepared me for what it felt like. One second, I was a part of the world, fettered by gravity to the stone beneath my feet, bound together by the blood of my beating heart, tangled in the air spinning through my lungs.

And then I wasn’t.

I was a ghost, a pale shadow of my former self. My heartbeat was scarcely more than a butterfly flutter in my chest, and I felt breathless, my lungs unsatisfied. Even gravity felt like little more than a suggestion. I looked down at my hands and found myself invisible. No, not quite invisible – I could see a subtle stirring in the air where my fingers would be – but enough that nobody would notice unless they were looking.

I had done it. I had tapped a power known only in legends. I was ethereal, unseen, untouchable, with the power of the wind at my command. It was a power that most men could only dream of.

I was terrified.

I severed the bonding at once. My body reappeared, more slowly this time, bleeding back into existence as I fell to my knees. The chieftain was getting away, but for the moment, I didn’t care.

I’d never realized how badly I needed the anchors of self. My body, my people, my surroundings… they grounded me, giving me something to grasp, a place to stand and know myself. Being without that, even for a moment, felt less like bonding my soul and more like losing it. It was a torture I wouldn’t inflict on my worst enemies.

A club struck me in the back, snapping me back to the present. I cursed as I rolled out of my attacker’s reach, ending up facing the man. I bonded bone, leapt to my feet, and tore out his throat with my fingers. Crimson slicked across my ivory hand, sticky and hot. It reminded me of the day I’d lost the original to Crusher’s jaws.

I had sacrificed myself before. I could do it again.

The moment I remade the binding, time seemed to vanished, swallowed by the emptiness of the void. I only remember holding to myself with the desperation of the drowning, surrounded by the silent scream, lost in a maelstrom of nothingness.

When I returned to myself – what felt like a thousand years later – I collapsed at once, hugging the ground and weeping. I wrapped my arms around myself, eager to feel again, grateful even for the pain. It took a long minute for me to recover – savoring the the cool air and the solid thump of my heart. I wormed myself into the mud merely for the joy of the sensation.

My rejoicing was soon interrupted by the sound of booted footsteps, and a curious rasping hiss. I looked up to see the Mooneater chieftain, followed by his guards and his Animar, a massive slate-bonded serpent. As they came in view of me, they faltered and stopped in apparent consternation.

A feral joy filled my heart. Few feelings could compare with the satisfaction of the perfect ambush. I rose to my feet, rejoicing in the simple ecstasy of movement. I was plastered with mud and grass, but I felt like Maeris reborn from the depths.

To their credit, the Mooneaters recovered quickly. “Finish her,” the chieftain ordered, stepping back and drawing his sword. His guards stepped forward, leveling their spears at my heart. I noticed the chieftain’s Animar moving discreetly into the brush, but before I could figure out where it was going, the battle was joined.

The lead soldier lunged, thrusting his long-bladed spear toward my face. A mere twitch of my neck kept it from skewering my skull, and for an eyeblink, I could see my wild eyes reflected in the polished bronze of the blade. They were glowing.

I laughed, unsure of why I felt the urge but unable to resist. Then I went to work.

My good right hand shot up to catch the spear by the haft, and a flick of my arm sent my surrogate stone hand flying free, directly into the face of the soldier trying to flank me. Turning on my toes like a dancer, I plucked the spear free and broke off the shaft against another soldiers’s knee. I twirled past him as he stumbled, coming so close it almost seemed like we had practiced it. I slid the stolen spearpoint across his throat as I drifted by, as gently as a caress. He did not rise again.

The other soldiers fell quickly. I mounted the bronze blade to my shortened arm and cut through them like a scythe through seaweed, impervious to their attacks. I moved like the wind and struck with the power of the sea, a storm of violence. Within the span of ten breaths, I stood alone against the Mooneater Chieftain.

His slate serpent tried to ambush me from behind as he spoke, but I caught it with my blade arm and crushed its head beneath my heel. The chieftain gaped.

“What are you?” he demanded, outraged. “This is impossible!”

Strangely, I knew he was right. Nobody else could soul-bind like I could. Soul-melding was a subtle art, as tricky as catching eels. Most people had to meditate for hours before attempting even a single binding. Some, like Skiff, could do it every few hours. A true master with years of experience could enter a trance that allowed him to change between his most practiced bindings every few minutes.

I could do it continuously.

With a thought, I shaped the bronze of my arm-blade into a proper hand, then charged, armoring myself in bronze at the last moment. The Mooneater chieftain bonded himself to the flagstones, hoping to weather my attack, but I was unstoppable. The stone of his torso cracked beneath the point of my shoulder, and I thrust my hand in like a wedge, changing the shape of my false hand to pry the opening wider, until I could see the living stone of his beating heart. This time I did not hesitate. By the time I finished, only gravel remained.

“How?” the chieftain croaked, and then the life faded from his form, leaving only a still, lifeless statue.

I felt a surge of triumph. The victory was ours. I could hear cheers and howls coming from my people as they gained the upper hand in the battle. We had come farther than my mother could have ever dreamed, and we still had more conquests ahead.

But in the midst of my exultations, I felt a brief moment of worry as I thought of the answer to the dying chieftain’s question. Other souls were like the breeze I had tried to bond, constantly in motion, changing in response to desire, circumstance, and experience.

Mine was not. Like the mountain peaks, it stood firm and unyielding, changing only slightly as the years wore on. Where others fought to understand themselves, I simply knew. I relied on that certitude.

I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. It was time to celebrate our new homeland. Was I suddenly supposed to doubt the very source of my strength and ambition?

Perhaps I should have.

•••

The voice was everywhere and nowhere, within my head and filling the vast and starry void. Infinite and intimate at the same time. 

It was… familiar.

With the curse of understanding, fate and free will are not so different. You were chosen for this, but you chose this in turn.

The power was all around me now, but some impossibly thin barrier separated us, like a scrap of parchment keeping the ocean at bay. I strained to breach that barrier, but it danced just beyond my reach, teasingly. 

I dug in and fought, straining myself to the limit, but it was only a poor imitation of the wild forces bound to the staff. I roared silently, demanding answers from whatever beings were in my head. If you chose me for this, then what are you waiting for?

Hatred burning claimed a crown, Sorrow won the sword. Only purest jealousy will grant you this reward.

Screaming would have shattered me, so I contented myself with rage. I had subdued the earth, and now, on the verge of holding the very powers that had forged it, I was expected to solve riddles?

You are wiser than you know, worldbreaker. You understood my touch long ago. You know what is required.

Envy. A fire that never died, a hunger that was never satisfied. I’d used it drive myself until the world fell at my feet, but now… what lay beyond this? Was I doomed to an eternity of dissatisfaction? Did I still want to take this power?

Did I have a choice?

Accept your destiny, Kaea. Let go. Jealousy suffers no rivals. 

Let go of my people? My family? Midnight? 

Not for all the power of the gods.

And yet, if I refused…

In one hand I held the world I had forged, and in the other, I held the earth itself, but to have one meant letting go of the other, and the wrong choice could lose me both.

I opened my eyes – my real eyes – and found my people gathered around the pitiless black tower of the Spire, illuminated in the glow of my own brilliance. I’d told them to leave. Why hadn’t they left?

In that moment, I understood.

I looked at those I loved for the final time, and whispered my last words.

“Forgive me.”

•••

My first fight was accompanied by gentle rain and a lullaby zephyr. So much had changed in the years since that fateful day. Skiff had become a wise and obedient leader, our Animari had grown into monsters and maneaters, and our lowly tribe had risen up and swallowed half the dry earth, victors of a hundred consecutive conquests. It seemed fitting that my final battle would take place in the storm of storms.

We stood in the midst of the maelstrom, only able to endure its wrath by virtue of our bondings – strong metal and heavy stone. To the east, I could vaguely make out the world-wave, like a mountain chain of raging water creeping inexorably closer. It was a display of unfathomable power, majestic and terrible. Kolbryn: Lord of the Sea, Slayer of the Sun, a mortal man consumed by the ungodly power of Despair. Even the might of the maelstrom was a mere harbinger of his coming.

I’d spent my entire life fleeing from tide and tempest, the pitiless power of Despair. I would run no longer.

But now I knew why we had.

The wind was a vengeful spirit, constantly trying to drag us from our feet or tear away our possessions, filling the air with a blank howl loud enough to drown the sound of trumpets. The rain fell in torrents, striking as hard as hailstones, pinging against the metal of our skin and weapons, running in sheets across the ground. Every few moments, like a slow heartbeat, the roar of the rain was broken by a crack of thunder, a shock of ungodly sound that struck you to the bone. Streaks of lightning chased each other across the black churning of the sky like dolphins, flickering playfully through the clouds before breaching the surface with a brilliant flash. The light was unsteady, but it came often enough to give us gray-veiled glimpses of the army arrayed on the opposing bluff.

Like us, the Drylanders were bonded with strong materials that would grant them protection from both the elements and their enemies. As we were nearly matched in strength, this would be a battle decided by tactics and endurance.

The battlefield between us was a broad, barren plain, forming a large channel that separated the mainland from its smaller sister during high tide. It was best known as the Wash, though some called it Kolbryn’s Pass, believing that the being himself passed through in his eternal pilgrimage. Looking at the twisted and tortured stone beneath us, I could believe it.

At times when the tide was high –as now – the Wash was wild, a mess of sloshing ponds and rogue waves, cut through with swift currents and snarled with whirlpools. Fountain sprays burst from the churning waters at unusual angles and irregular timing, the result of waves being forced through the maze of caverns beneath the surface.

And yet the waters were still shallow, leaving islands of various sizes and occasional passage between them, but no place was truly safe, and it would only grow more dangerous as the tide rose. There was no guarantee of victory. One mistake could leave us all at the mercy of the sea, our wars and worries meaningless before its magnificence.

One more battle, I told myself. After this, I will reign, supreme and secure. No more need of ambition or envy. Free to raise my child in peace. 

I nodded to Skiff, and he raised the banner to advance. Lesser chieftains acknowledged the order and led their clans down the stairs into the Wash – Mossfolk, Mooneaters, and Hornbreakers on the left, Eels and Sunskinned to the right, and the former wandering tribes down the center.

I began, leading the charge, shaking the earth with my strides. Then I stopped. raising a hand to halt the rest of the horde. Skiff passed on the signal without question. I knew the other chieftains must be wondering why I would give such a strange order, but the sight that had prompted it was stranger still.

A man stood in the center of the Wash, surrounded on all sides by leaping waves and crashing surf, but completely untouched. Not a single drop reached his person. He was unbonded, in his natural form, but all the fierceness of the wind scarcely ruffled his hair.

As though he had felt my attention, the stranger looked up and met my gaze. He smiled, and then began to glow, drawing every eye to him. His robes brightened from white linen to pure sunshine, and a corona shimmered in the air about him, as though refracting the light of an unseen sun.

“He’s walking on the water!” Skiff cried, shading his eyes against the blinding light.  And the man was – rising and falling with the churning of the waves without causing so much as a splash or a ripple.

For half a second, I quavered. I had never seen powers like this before. How could we fight such a being?

But then I felt the kick of the unborn child within me and took courage. Whoever this was, whatever he could do, he was not the sea, and so he could be slain. We were all mortals yet.

I descended, but did not give the signal for the others to follow. If anybody stood a chance of defeating the stranger, I did. If anyone was to fall by his hand… well, that was my right and my duty. I did not shirk the responsibilities of the station I had claimed. Sometimes I told myself that it made a difference.

I stopped at the edge of the water and drew my cleaver, a length of hardened bronze as tall as I had been at the start of this campaign. I kept the point low behind me, ready but not threatening.

The stranger likewise made no signs of aggression, his hands open and empty at his side. His light faded and died as he approached, but he remained aloof from the annoyances of wind and rain. Now that he had grown closer, I could see how they bent around him, as though he was surrounded by a sphere of perfect glass. Could I breach it? I shifted my grip on the cleaver, ready to swing at the slightest provocation.

The stranger halted just outside the reach of the blade, looking into my eyes without fear, as though we were merchants discussing a deal in some town hall, rather than enemy warriors facing one another on a storm-wracked field. He was an older man, tall, with wise and weary eyes to match his graying hair. From the jut of his proud chin and the easy nobility of his stance, I knew that this could only be the Drylander’s king, Sandring Skyreader.

Seeing the recognition in my eyes, Sandring nodded slightly, as though confirming my realization. Then, without ceasing eye contact, he carefully drew his weapon, a long-handled warhammer with a head that glowed fireshell red, as though it had just emerged from the furnace.

I didn’t attack. Not yet, not rashly, not with so much unknown. My people – my child – needed me. I would not start a fight unless it was necessary. I would finish the fight if it was.

“Kaea the Conqueror,” Sandring murmured, his deep voice somehow cutting through the tumult of the storm. “You must know you stand no chance. You are outnumbered, fighting on foreign lands, and facing forces you have never known. Our people have been entrusted with the secrets of the ages, hidden truths you can scarcely comprehend, things of gods and prophecy.”

He paused, as though awaiting a response. My only answer was to raise my sword in challenge. Sandring looked toward the stygian heavens and heaved an inscrutable sigh.

“Those very prophecies are what bring me here today. I surrender.”

With that, he dismissed his protective spells and knelt in the seething surf, proffering his weapon with his head bowed low. I stared for a long moment, suspecting some trickery, but the man showed no sign of deception or duplicity.

“Why?” I grunted.

The King remained in his place, his clothing growing sodden and filthy, his thin hair pounded flat by the rain, the picture of humility. “To fight fate is folly, great conqueror. You are the one foretold. All that I have is yours – the whole world is yours – but your destiny transcends that of tribes and tribute. One last battle, one last foe.”

It was a confirmation of every dark suspicion and terrible thought I’d ever pushed away, the culmination of my greatest fear and my grandest dream, a fate beyond fathom or fear. I’d conquered the world trying to avoid it, distracting myself with an endless succession of wars and petty jealousies. The knowledge was the opening of an abyss within my soul, consuming me from the inside.

Even though I knew the answer, I had to ask.

“Who?”

Sandring tilted his head, looking out over the madness of the Wash, past the drowning lesser peaks, through the haze and fury of the eternal Storm – looking to the wave that had drowned the world, and the being that held its reins.

“Him.”

•••

It belonged to me, and I to it. There is no distinction between us, for we are one, bonded and bound, the infinite and the infinitesimal in perfect harmony, total union. 

The shards are no longer words from Sandring’s dusty tomes, and more than some prophecy made by gods long dead or a faded hope at the end of a long journey. We are of one body and one soul, indivisible. We breathe together. We see together. And we act together.

I can feel the whole of the earth, every inch of soil and stone bound to me, their slow song ringing through my soul like a bell. The power is instant, immediate, effortless. I could make mountains or rend continents like lesser beings would raise heaps or dig furrows. Even now, at an idle whim, I was raising the earth beneath my feet, forming a pedestal, a monument, a temple to our might. But no edifice would ever be sufficient, for I had discovered the secret. This power came at a terrible price.

I felt the yearning to unleash my might and tear the world asunder, to grind the pillars of the earth together until the whole world shook and churned itself to sand. But I did not. There was some subtlety within the shards beyond my fathom, the smallest of quirks that kept them in check, forming a delicate balance, albeit an uneven one. My people would survive, and adapt, and grow strong. They must, for that was the terrible curse and the great blessing. 

But there was one being that would feel the full force of my powers. Kolbryn’s reign was at an end. One tyrant to replace another, as the gods decreed, and none of us the wiser. 

For all this, I did not hesitate, for the Shards were within my thoughts as well, and I had surrendered myself to fate the moment I set my path for the Spire. Kolbryn and his shards were my greatest foe, and Envy’s shards would suffer no rivals. Despair must be shattered, and Kolbryn slain. 

Once I would have thought that it would be devastating, losing such great power. 

Now that I understood, I envied his release. 

Spurred to new urgency by this pique of jealousy, I reached into the very fibers of the earth, wresting control of sand and stone, claiming mastery over the earth just as I had its people. Half the globe was in my immediate grasp, from its tallest peaks all the way down to the secret fires of its molten heart.

Stone shuddered and then erupted around my human vessel, spears and columns thrusting me forward, rippling the earth in my wake like water. Rivers of red-hot rock burst from the ground like ungodly worms, slithering at my side and swelling with every passing second. Grains of sand came to life at my call, taking flight like a swarm of insects, a sandstorm to match Kolbryn’s hurricane. Through them, I could feel the changes in the air that signaled his approach. 

For the first time in a thousand years, he had changed his course. He came prepared for battle.

And for the first time, I was prepared to give it to him. 

And yet, as we rushed toward each other –  two gods armed and armored with the very powers of the earth – I felt neither the triumph of conquest or the thrill of battle, for even as the shards and I were one, so was my ascension and my damnation. 

I would forever live in envy of the life I had forsaken. 

With a roar to end the earth, we collided. 

Posted by: lordkyler | April 12, 2017

Deeds Most Foul – Short Story Week 2017

In the days when men first began to dream, two shadows met in the dry and dusty air. They were wicked things, known to none but recognized by all, the stuff of sin, misery and malice. They watched the people of the village and saw how they tilled the soil, how they built their huts, and how they grew stronger and happier with every passing day.

This would not do.

The first shadow spoke with a voice like the growl of a wolf. “These humans live most contentedly, cousin. It pains me to see them thus. They are small, and we are weak, but we shall grow stronger from their sorrow, shall we not?”

“We shall,” said the second, with a voice like the skittering of spiders. “Perhaps we may make a contest of it, kinsman. You may torment the people of this village, and I shall afflict the ones that live across the way, and we shall meet in a year to see which of us has caused the most suffering.”

And so it was agreed, and the shadows parted to work their wickedness.

•••

In the days when men slept little and watched for more than wolves, two shadows met in the mists of evening, swelling with new strength and mischief. They saw how men had sharpened their staffs, and women counted their children and the dwindling of days.

There was still much to be done.

The first shadow rasped like a millstone. “I have done well, brother. I have stolen and hidden and whispered, and the people grew to mistrust the chieftain and his family. His daughter was captured by another tribe, and none would help him, so now he rules them harshly and earns their hatred.”

“Well managed,” the second shadow whispered like a knife. “I too, have turned my people against their chieftain, but they have thrown him down, and now the people rule themselves.”

“Ah!” cried the first. “But does this not accomplish more good than harm? For when every man is king, each is free, and the people may prosper.”

“No, friend, this is not so. For now every soul must bear the total conscience of their crown, but none shall have its full power, and they shall turn against their brethren and become their own oppressors. And so this freedom is a finer evil, in the end. Let us meet back when ten years have passed, and see what we have accomplished.”

And so it was agreed, and the shadows left to wreak their wrongdoing.

•••

In the days when men made rivers of dirt through the wilderness and built mountains stone by stone around their villages, two shadows rode the winds, gleeful and glorying. They saw the face of the land, covered in fields and farmsteads all stitched together with brown threads, and how the people labored from darkness to darkness, and found no joy in their toil.

They had come far, and yet it was only the beginning. They were mighty now.

The first shadow rumbled with a voice of thunder, dark speech echoing from hill to hill. “Do you see how they slave away, my fellow tormentor? I have withered their crops, smitten their cattle, and scattered their treasures to the farthest corners of the earth. They exist on the brink of death, spending their sweat on barren ground, subsisting from day to day with no promise of prosperity. Are they not the most miserable souls upon the face of the earth?”

The second answered as the wind, surrounding them with his soft and sinister words. “A wretched circumstance, to be certain, comrade, but they are not yet a miserable people. Look more closely, and you will see that their troubles have united them. Former foes have become allies, families find strength in one another, and faith abounds for the harvest.

“Wealth is a better torment by far, for given the chance of wealth, they afflict themselves in its pursuit. I have granted them gold, commerce, and currency, and see? None may enjoy their abundance for fear they will lose it or grow poorer than their neighbors. Families and friendships are torn apart by the lure of riches, and they worship the god of gold, mistaking true worth for its idolatrous avatar. Come, we have grown stronger – let us divide this land between us, and see what works we might manage in a century.”

It was agreed, and the shadows departed to sow their sorrows to the far shores.

•••

In the days when men beat the bones of the earth into blades and split blood as oft as water, two shadows danced in their midst. They sang their sinful sermons to devoted disciples, and reveled in their terrible power.

The first laughed, and was echoed in the screams of the people. “My people run riot, and ravage the earth. I have brought them to such depths of depravity that they turn on their own kin. They slay orphans, widows, and cripples with impunity, acting on their basest and most vile impulses. Can there be a greater evil?”

The second spirit chuckled, and men from shore to shore shivered at the sound. “Evil indeed, but remember evil is not our final aim. We sow suffering and sorrow to reap strength. You have turned your people inward, purging them of their most miserable. I have turned them outward, urging them to war. Your people eliminate the orphaned, widowed, and crippled: mine make them.”

Roused and ready to test their newfound strength, the shadows parted to new lands and made a pact to reunite at the turning of the new age.

•••

In the days when men sailed the seas and turned their eyes to the secret workings of the world, two great shadows rode the edge of night and surveyed the horrors they had wrought.

The first screamed triumph in the tongue of chaos. “Ahh, brother, who may surpass my magnificence? My people spread suffering wherever they wander, they seek out knowledge to invent new and wondrous torments, and I have raised a warlord that shall spread death and destruction for decades!”

Sweet as the thorny rose, the second sang his reply. “Magnificent indeed, my rival, but short-sighted yet. Your warrior is a fearsome champion, but in time he shall perish, and his legacy shall fade into obscurity. I have a raised a faith and a figure that shall live on eternally, ever changing yet ever consistent. Men shall learn to despise themselves, to judge others and justify their own wickedness, to resist peace at times of war and create division in times of peace.

“Once more, my kinsman. We shall meet in a millennia, and conclude our contest.”

Thus they parted, and began their great and final effort.

•••

In the first and final days, when men began to dream once more, two shadows made real stood on a world remade from ashes, watching the survivors begin anew. They were silent for some time, considering all that they had done and the lessons they had learned.

The first spoke, subdued, in a voice that could be felt but not heard. “I do not understand so well as I once thought. I inflicted horrors of every sort, I maimed and slaughtered, and in the end I was left with nothing. My subjects simply… ceased. I was left bereft. And yet your slaves persist, enduring every deprivation and atrocity with seeming infinite patience, even spreading the misery of their own existence of their own volition. How?”

The second did not speak, for it no longer had the need. Stars dimmed, storms churned, and all of nature communicated the meaning to his conquered kinsman. Simplicity itself, little one. In the midst of my monstrosities, I gave them the cruelest curse of all. 

I gave them HOPE.

•••

In days long gone, two shadows once were near and nameless. But now they are far distant, living only in human thought, and they are known and cursed by all that are wise. I wonder, can you tell me their names?

Posted by: lordkyler | April 10, 2017

Proxy – Short Story Week 2017

I woke up to the scream of sirens and the panic of falling, startled from my bunk by the sudden noise. By luck and automatic reflex, I managed to catch the bedrail at the last instant, wrenching my arm instead of cracking my head open.

Cursing, I found my feet and cradled my shoulder, banishing all nuro notices until I could get my head in order. The darkness of my apartment was revealed as optic enhancements were suspended – the only light came from the slow pulse of my sleeping console and the muted neon flicker of the city that found its way past the foil-lined bedsheets I was using as makeshift security curtains. It was actually nice, in a way. In the dim lighting, I could pretend all the mess was the technological detritus of a young scientific prodigy instead of the dirty laundry and unrecycled garbage of an inveterate slob. It was actually almost impressive that I’d managed to create so much clutter in such a small space, but then again, I could have gotten by with less. As long as I had a bed, a bathroom, and my console, I could happily live in the Saturnine colonies. I would miss take-out Thai, though.

Right, the endless, earsplitting alarm. A nuro alert, but one that refused to go away until I acknowledged it. Emergency orders from Skyfleet. Shit. Cracking my neck and flexing my muscles, I nuroxed a hit of løgin and set the modafine on slow drip. If they were broadcasting an Apex-level alert, I needed to be at my sharpest.

Then I read the notice, and pure, old-fashioned adrenaline hit me so hard I had to order a stabilizer instead.

UTV EULER IN DISTRESS. REPORT FOR MANDATORY DUTY.

My heart fluttered in my chest like a dying bird, and for a moment, not even nuro implants could work fast enough to keep pace with my thoughts.

Power-console password:$K43L#I9M1A9 establish-fleet-link ID483396-E/X/L full-display request-status… the nuro network interpreted my half-formed thoughts into workable commands, firing up all systems – hardware and software, brightware and dark. Not even bothering to get dressed, I stumbled toward the console in my underwear, tripping over my own bare feet.

The console door slid open with a soft hiss, flooding the room with the soft glow the interior, only half-loaded. Bloated goddam military programs. My console cost more than  my aboveground apartment, and it still took ages to authenticate a connection to the fleet. Even with the stringent anti-hijacking protocols, a properly implemented system should have taken an eyeblink. Other times I’d joked about how faster-than-light communication could take so long to get going, but delays at times like this were no laughing matter.

I threw myself into the seat and began hooking myself into the system, fumbling movements that were normally automatic. Where was that damn stabilizer? I upped the dosage and forced myself to take a breath. I’d do more harm than good if I couldn’t keep a clear headspace. Only a second.

Still trembling slightly, I placed my hands inside the haptic rig and confirmed the connection by the glow of my false nails. Other lights blinked on in response, calibrating my position, followed immediately by my standard diagnostic windows. A thought changed them to a predefined configuration, all intuitive graphical displays and multi-sensory inputs, not far distant from the typical immersive shooter systems I’d grown up playing, if a little less combat-oriented. Finally, a long five seconds after stepping into the console, the familiar weight of the yoke settled onto my shoulders. I closed my eyes as the electrodes pressed against my temples with a static pop, and I was instantly far, far away from the cramped confines of my apartment in Kolkata.

My proxy lurched into life on the cramped corridors of the Euler, joining a stream of other robotic bodies as they swarmed to their stations. Here, too, the alarm was blaring, but the sound seemed distant, overwhelmed by the whirring of servomotors and the flood of commands and communication. The second I was grounded in space, I opened my physical eyes, using them as a supplement for my second sight through the proxy. It was one of the talents that had earned me a place on the Euler’s maiden voyage, and I could only hope it would help me save it.

The fleet’s AI sorted through the mountains of critical data being generated and spat out informations relevant to my duties, relaying a virtual path to my nuro, in case I had spontaneously become an idiot. As it stood, I knew my way around the ship better than the AI did. Fingers dancing, I took manual control of my proxy, as though it were a marionette under my control. Leaping above the crowd, I kicked off a reinforcement panel and swung from one of the support beams and around a corner, more monkey than machine, pushing the proxy to its full capacity.

Other proxies were working desperately at terminals and burrowing into the belly of the ship to tinker with damaged systems. From what I could tell, the damage had been borderline catastrophic, but the fleet hadn’t designated a cause. With technology so far out on the bleeding edge, they might not even know what had happened.

Sliding into a deserted access corridor, I sprinted for my station at full speed, well beyond human capacity, able to squeeze through spaces too restrictive for human anatomy and operate endlessly without tiring. It was almost criminal that they weren’t yet standard equipment. Interplanetary war might require compulsory military service, but my experience was vastly different than the poor grunts serving in person, and I knew it. I’d been good enough in school and lucky enough in life to scrounge up the exorbitant cost of sending a proxy in my place, allowing me to fulfill my service duties remotely.

And I’d proved myself, as young as I was, using my hard-won knowledge of theoretical physics and total lack of social life to earn my spot on the Euler.  It was an experimental craft under the command of Doctor – Captain – Adelaide Zeller, a pioneer in spatial distortion and my idol since the age of twelve. She was one of the few meat-bots actually onboard, placing her own life on the line. Being on the bottommost rung of the proverbial ladder, I’d only caught glimpses of her, but I’d spent hours studying her work, watching her lectures, even crafting a passable simulacrum in order to talk with her, in a sense. Fine, I’d had a crush, but any adoration on my end was well deserved. I could only imagine how she must be feeling right now, with her prize project in jeopardy. Everything I was feeling, squared and cubed and tesseracted.

I needed to reach my post, though I wasn’t sure what good I could really do. My speciality was in metaspatial communication, the same technology that allowed me real-time access of a bot nearly 250 light-minutes away. I knew every maddening quirk of the military’s metacom system intimately, but somehow I doubted that operating a glorified telephone was going to save the Euler from… whatever the problem might be.

Sliding past a viewport, I caught a glimpse of the black beyond and the asteroids of the Kuiper belt tumbling through it. Mountains of matter that drifted toward us with deceptive laziness.

The ship shuddered, and the alarms acquired a more urgent tone, lights flashing. Before the ship had even stopped shaking, my docket cleared completely, replaced by a single overriding command: DAMAGE CRITICAL. ABANDON SHIP.

I gasped, so shocked I slipped out of my second sight, and for a moment I felt like a kid again, retreating to my console after learning my mother had died. I was supposed to be safe inside these walls, like a chick inside an egg, but now that sanctuary had been cracked from the inside, leaving me exposed, vulnerable. The Euler had been everything – the focus of all my attentions, the platform of my future career, possibly the salvation of the war. And now it was dying, just like my mom had, but this time I understood that when the situation was this far gone, the only thing I could save was myself.

I tapped back into my second sight and shot down the corridors, headed for the escape compartments. By law, proxies were considered no different from actual flesh-and-blood humans, with all the same rights and privileges, though in practice things got fuzzy.

I’d never put my proxy’s survival ahead of a real person, of course. But the high command had recently decreed that the destruction of a proxy would no longer be considered a combat death. I would still be expected to complete my term, and I couldn’t afford another bot. Not as bad as death, but a real risk, nonetheless. When I thought of the poor luds they shipped off to Venus and Titan, stuffed into exoskeletal uniforms and shipped in stasis like so many packs of frozen nutrient bars, surrounded by the infinite blackness of space and knowing that you’ll never see what kills you coming…

It made me shiver, the involuntary motion nearly tripping up the proxy. I steadied it with a flick of my wrist, the motion as instinctual as keeping my own balance. Though I wasn’t the one actually running, I still found myself short of breath. Another dose of stabilizers, delivered directly to my panicked nervous system. I needed to stay calm and think rationally, but I couldn’t lean too heavily on the drugs. These were military prescription, potent enough to leave me dull and drooling for days if needed or abused.

Think. Between my father’s lessons on Buddhist meditation and my mother’s Scandinavian doggedness, I knew how to shut out distractions, but it took effort, and my brain was still closer to a stimulant soup than a functioning computer. Okay. Priorities. I needed to reach my assigned evacuation station. For once, I didn’t feel the urge to make a jingle out of the phrase.

A little more clumsily, I reversed direction, barely paying attention to the proxy’s movement as I tried to gauge the extent of the damage. Could the ship be salvaged? Was there anything I could do to help?

The ship’s roster showed no fatalities, no proxies out of commission, not even any structural damage to the ship, despite the asteroid impact. And yet we were evacuating. It had to be a problem with the metaspatial drive, then, some potential catastrophe of warped space and twisted time that even I could scarcely comprehend. We might very well find ourselves shunted outside of spacetime itself, lost to the strange, hyper-dimensional realm that the Euler was designed to traverse. One by one, names on the roster flashed and turned gray as members of the crew found their stations. By the time I reached the end of the hallway, a few blocks disappeared entirely as their compartments were filled and ejected, hurled into space at the highest speed their occupants could tolerate. I caught sight of one burning through the black, drawing a bright, clear line between the drifting dots of the asteroid field.

Soon, only a handful of names remained – names I recognized, mostly senior engineers who had been deep in the ship’s innards. Their proxies were racing for safety now, holding up the launch of my compartment. I reached my station, but paused before stepping in. One name remained on the list, unmoving and alone on the bridge, soon to be alone on the ship. Captain Zeller.

The captain goes down with the ship. The phrase came to me automatically, like a text message from my subconscious. An adage from ancient times, when men sailed the seas instead of the solar system. Nearly every aspect of philosophy, science, and society had changed since those days, but some things never changed. Captain Zeller had a steady and stalwart soul. She would fight to the firing of the last neuron, and she would die a martyr, a symbol of nobility, bravery and sacrifice in the line of duty.

She would die alone.

I froze, slipping out of my second sight once more. The console windows were flashing red, indicating a dozen different warnings, but they were of a place far away. My egg – my safe space – had been cracked. Or maybe it was time to hatch and spread my wings.

I turned and ran for the bridge.

Feeling an all-natural rush of energy and emotion, I ordered my nuro to clear all drugs from my system. This was a purely human decision, and I wanted to be 100% myself while I made it. Aside from my robotic surrogate, of course.

The ship shuddered again, but I set the bot to automatic for a moment. It would take a little longer to reach the bridge, but if I didn’t jimmy a few systems, I wouldn’t be able to do any good when I got there.

Focusing on my real-world console, I flashed through the metacom system at the speed of thought, finding my way through a maze of back doors and weaving complex webs of loopholes to arrange what I needed. Using a simulacrum program and an exploit in the roster program, I made it look as though I’d signed into my evacuation station, allowing the others to launch when they arrived. I then rearranged metacom channels to establish a second, secret link to my proxy, in case the fleet decided to sever communications.

Legally, even the most ardent optimist would be hard-pressed to call this anything less than treason. In a technical sense. But I knew how to work in the AI’s blind spots, and amid all the chaos, I doubted any flesh-and-blood techs were going to notice a little slippery business in the background. Whether the ship survived or not, I was pretty sure I could alter the records as required. Even if I couldn’t, I didn’t really care. Adelaide Zeller, of all people, did not deserve to die alone. She was worth the sacrifice.

Dubious deeds complete, I reentered my proxy just as it reached the bulkhead of the bridge. It was sealed off, but a moment’s work with the AI tricked it into opening just enough to vent off the toxic gas leak I’d invented, allowing me to work mechanical fingers into the joint and pry open a space just large enough for my robotic counterpart to snake its way through.

Captain Adelaide Zeller stood in the center of the bridge, surrounded by dozens of virtual screens, each one filled with flickering graphs and red-lined gauges, the innermost workings of the ship naked before her. She stood like a captain, firm and steady, but her hands worked like a the conductor of an orchestra, summoning and adjusting holographic controls with such speed that a viewer without nuro sight might have thought she was suffering from a bizarrely rhythmic stroke. Her eyes…

They were an enigma, a paradox of perfection, the one part of the simulacrum I’d never been able to truly capture. On her official fleet profile, they were listed as gray, but the word was too dull, too reductive to capture their true range of colors. They could be harder than a titanium alloy, fierce as an acid raincloud, or as soft and warm as my simufleece sheets. When she turned and looked at my features projected on the proxy’s face, they were all three at once.

“Ensign Khanna?” She said my name without a hint of hesitation, and for a second I could pretend the name hadn’t just popped up on her nuro. She showed no confusion, merely waited, working ceaselessly on the screens that had followed her, fixing those fathomless gray eyes on me.

“I- I wanted to, well…” I took a sharp, steadying breath. “I wanted to help.”

Damn, did it sound stupid when I said it out loud. I saluted, hoping it might make me seem like less of an idiot. I held that pose as a half-dozen alerts sounded, monitors flashing, and Captain Zeller’s eyes unfocused for a moment, taking in the panoply all at once, mind and hands working almost independently to get the problem under control. The last evacuation compartment jettisoned from the ship, and the display faded away from my vision, leaving my nurox field idle, nearly blank. For a moment, I felt strangely exposed, as though I was actually standing in front of the captain as my underwear-clad self, and I had to take my hands off the controls to keep from flinching.

All at once, the common sense that had apparently been buffering in the background suddenly caught up with me. What was I doing here? Abandoning my sole salvation and committing court-martial offenses so that I could offer some pitiful semblance of comfort to this woman? It was hero-worship gone awry, a moment of weakness at a key junction. There were still emergency pods, yes, but even if I could reach one, there would be no denying my actions afterward. I had just thrown away my life on a crush, a whim. Could she see the burning in my digitally-projected cheeks? Some genius I turned out–

“You can take the communications consoles,” Captain Zeller said. Her voice was so calm I almost missed the fact that she’d spoken at all, only catching her words a second later as my heart soared within my chest, filling me with warmth. I gave a quick, only half-ironic prayer of thanks to my personal pantheon – an amalgamation of Hindu, Norse, and scientific holy figures – and begged for the skill and intelligence to do this one thing well. Then I flexed my fingers and went to work.

Captain Zeller shunted about a quarter of her screen array over to me with a flick of the wrist, the vacant spaces filling with new screens almost instantly. I hastily copied them into my real-world console’s workspace. No sense in using an unnecessary middleman.

The ship was producing an astounding amount of data every moment – automated logs, measurements, metadata – all of which had to be collated, encrypted, and transmitted as close to real time as possible. I was reminded of the city during monsoon season, working non-stop to clear the inevitable blockages in a drainage system that was barely adequate at the best of times, knowing that every moment’s delay was another inch lost.

It took me several precious moments to get the situation sorted in my head, even with the help of nuro-assisted comprehension. All systems were running in default settings, choking on the influx of chaotic influences and essentially ignored in the face of greater problems. Priorities needed to be established.

Emulating Captain Zeller, I used my hands to sort the windows into a more efficient configuration while sorting through the feeds with my nuro-sense, pruning away non-essential or redundant programs. Personnel position tracking, HV/AC monitoring, crewman assistants waiting in standby – all were pointless on an empty ship, eating up valuable bandwidth and AI attention. I set the newly-liberated AI resources on monitoring fleet communications instead, automatically evaluating and answering the demands of ten thousand concerned bureaucrats and officers. I even added my own console’s meager assets to the pool, searching to alert me of troubling trends before they became a problem.

It still wasn’t enough. The backlog was building, and most of it was essential scientific data I couldn’t afford to cull. The Euler was the first of its kind, a metaspatial voyager that could slip into higher dimensions the way a submarine could slip beneath the waves. Requiring only a single molecule as an anchor in real space, it was the perfect stealth craft, and the precursor to true faster-than-light travel – a desperately-needed advantage over the separatist Venusian colonies and the radical Jovian factions. Even if the experiment was a failure, every point of data was a vital clue in crafting a successful replacement.

Desperate times. With only a heartbeat’s hesitation, I isolated and severed the connection of every proxy save my own, then reduced each evacuation compartment to only the bare essentials of communication – position, basic messaging, and life support monitoring on compartments with living human passengers – hijacking the rest. They would be inconvenienced, but I was sure anybody serving on the Euler would understand.

I was rewarded with a modest boost increase in bandwidth, enough to start draining the metaphorical pool. Now that I had a little breathing room, I could start fine-tuning the algorithms and responding to messages flagged by the AI, but I stole another glance at Captain Zeller first.

She had turned away, standing perfectly still in front of the mechanical gauges, almost statuesque with her hands clasped primly behind her back. I could tell she was comparing measurements between digital and analog sources in an attempt to determine the degree of spatial distortion, working multidimensional logarithms in her head faster than I could manage basic arithmetic.

On the monitors, I could see space bending, the stars contracting toward a single infinite point. The ship had been stabilized, but was still making the transition to metaspace. I was witnessing history – the first foray into higher space, and snatched from the jaws of catastrophe, no less.

Or… was it? What were the odds that a single woman, however much of a genius she might be, could reverse a evacuation-level crisis within minutes? Admittedly, it wasn’t impossible some simple oversight had led to a total breakdown, but if the crisis was averted, where was the all-clear signal? Why were the ship’s systems still reporting imminent distress? And why hadn’t Captain Zeller said a word about it since giving me my assignment?

I left communications to the AI and took a tentative step forward with the proxy. After the chaos and confusion of the last few moments, the silence of the ship was ringing in my ears, and I had the strange sensation that if I spoke, I would disrupt some delicate equilibrium and send the ship spiraling toward catastrophe once more. But now, the same curiosity that lead me to become a scientist drove me to speak up.

“Doc– Captain Zeller?” She didn’t respond, and I realized I hadn’t pushed the vox button. Swearing, I tried again, injecting a bit more confidence in my voice this time around. “Captain Zeller. With all due… ma’am, what the hell is going on here?”

Too much confidence. Captain Zeller turned and fixed me with a titanium stare, and I felt my heart stutter a bit, to see her so close, cool and commanding like some heroic archetype brought to life. She arched one eyebrow, Spock-like, and that simple expression put more knots in my belly than any amount of bad curry or manual military service could hope to match.

“What the hell indeed,” she said. How did she manage to imply such scathing rebuke without the slightest inflection in her voice? “You overstep your limits, Ensign Khanna… But then, I suppose you’ve gone beyond the bounds of duty as well.”

She studied me more closely, as if she could peer through my proxy and see my true form hiding beneath the robotic veil. I blushed, but refused to look away. Doubtless she was scanning my file in more depth, trying to determine who I was and what I could be trusted with. Had I stumbled into some secret plot or machination? The Venusian intelligence network was far-reaching and deeply-rooted, with spies suspected in the highest levels of the Fleet, and if the ambush at Io was any indication, the Jovian factions had access to at least some of our network systems.

“You can trust me,” I blurted out, sounding totally innocent and not at all like a dirty spy. Sometimes my status as a communications expert seemed painfully ironic. “Honestly. I’m just here to help. I’ve been following your work since I was twelve, and-”

I couldn’t say exactly how her expression changed, but I could see it nonetheless – a flash of understanding and what I desperately hoped wasn’t pity. Damn, was I that obvious? Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Hundreds of students must have been equally infatuated with her… and far more polite.

She sighed, and I suddenly realized how tired she must be. Human after all. “Ensign Khanna… Annika. I suppose we can afford to be candid, here and now. Just promise you’ll show me the same respect and hear me out. Can I trust you will keep this matter confidential?”

“I’d sooner die,” I said fervently. The Captain looked at me quizzically, and I realized I’d misspoken. “I would die before I betrayed your trust, I mean.”

“I should have few worries, it seems, if even your willing confession can be so easily misinterpreted.” The burning in my cheeks rekindled, but I deserved the barb. Clarity of communication was vital, especially in the military, extra-specially in the Fleet, and extra-damn-specially in front of authorities like Adelaide Zeller.

Striding the length of the bridge as though delivering a lecture at the Academy, Captain Zeller lofted one hand above her head, gesturing to the kaleidoscope of screens that followed her every movement. “Have you ever felt despair, Annika? I don’t mean the nervousness of finals week or anxiety over the environment. I mean immediate, omnipresent, all-consuming dread. The certainty that everything you know is utterly, irrevocably doomed, and you cannot – and never will be – able to stop it.”

I thought of my mother, and the false comfort of my cocoon.

“I think I have,” I said, almost whispering.

“This is my fear for humanity,” she said, and her expression softened as she slowed her pace. “As a race, we are still in our adolescence – growing too quickly too keep pace with our maturity. We are still prone to selfish, stupid impulses and violent outbursts, but we now our fits and tantrums have consequences we are ill-equipped to even comprehend, much less correct.”

“You’re talking about the metaspatial drive?”

“Among other things. Our capacity for catastrophe has increased exponentially, Annika. In the days of prehistory, we had no more impact on the universe than any other  ape. Then we began to change the course of species, alter entire ecosystems, shape the land itself. We entered the atomic age and gained the power to end all life on the planet. Now we’ve spread across the solar system, and our mass drivers could destroy planets if we so desired.

“That’s a candle next to the sun, Annika. Metaspatial technology is the engine of infinity, the back door to the greatest riches of the galaxy. It could make us gods… or it could spell the doom of reality itself.”

Another electric shiver crackled down my spine, but this time I couldn’t suppress it. “Well, we haven’t totally destroyed the earth,” I coughed, trying to loosen the constriction in my throat. “And we haven’t blown up the planets yet. I mean, would anyone really…”

I trailed off, and Captain Zeller gave me a pitying stare. “My dear, we’re standing on the deck of the first metaspatial craft, and it’s a damned warship. Take a look at Nagasaki or Ceres and then ask yourself if anyone would really. One madman, one accident, one innocent mistake. That’s all it would take cause permanent damage to the entire space-time continuum.”

The idea was too big for me to truly grok it, but I could tell from the captain’s expression that she did, and her concern was enough to make the matter my highest priority. The fate of the galaxy would always have my first allegiance.

“I’m yours,” I said. “Whatever’s going on, I’ll help. You have my hands, my head, and my whole heart.”

I regretted the last part of the pledge the second I said it. Was there something to the idea of Freudian slips, or had I just finished the phrase out of habit? I felt like I was about to implode from embarrassment.

Then, to my surprise, Captain Zeller smiled, even as she sighed and shook her head, and I nearly exploded instead. “It will take more than flattery to win me over, Ensign Khanna,” she said, sounding almost charmed. “Though I’ll admit such genuine enthusiasm is a strong start. A scientist can’t reach my position without a certain amount of ego. But I’m afraid I won’t be needing your help for very long.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“There are over a hundred potentially habitable planets that we know of, a thousand wonders and a wealth of scientific information now within our grasp. Should we squander such limitless potential on squabbles with a few rogue settlements? Leave such powers to bureaucracy and the highest bidder? You’re a clever kid, Annika. You’ve seen the mess they make of metacom systems, the misappropriation of precious resources, their petty politics and Schrodinger’s cat ethics. Should the Fleet have access to metaspace?”

If it’s that dangerous, I thought, should anyone? But that question was pointless. If it could be done, someone would do it. Better to have someone trustworthy in control than to leave it alone.

“So what are you doing?” I asked for the third time. Judging by the signals between the Euler and the Fleet – both real and falsified – important people were beginning to ask pointed questions, and the ship could only maintain the charade for so long without drawing suspicion.

Adelaide sighed. “I’m committing treason, Ensign. A captain committing mutiny against her own crew.”

“So you did fake the failures,” I said, neither condemning nor condoning. “To sabotage further research?”

“To further research and sabotage the folly of the Fleet,” she responded, raising her chin proudly. “The Euler is equipped for interstellar travel. I will visit the stars, Annika, and find a way to protect them.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of what else to say. The idea was radical, but there was a certain thrill to it – the romance of the rebel, the explorer, maybe even the martyr. Success would grant her a prominent place in every account of human history to the end of time, and failure would still see her among the ranks of Tesla and Archimedes, minds beyond their time and place.

In fact, as I thought about it, I realized the objections that came to mind had nothing to do with danger or treason. They were about losing her, knowing that she would travel the stars in solitude, one of mankind’s greatest minds lost to us. To me.

But it didn’t have to be that way.

“Let me come with you,” I blurted out.

“What?” Adelaide raised an eyebrow again, but this time her confusion was genuine. “Don’t think the offer is unappreciated, my dear, but…”

“No, don’t you see? It’s perfect! I can help run the ship, give you news, keep you company… Anything you want. I know how to hide the signals, and I can–”

Adelaide reached out, taking my proxy’s hands in her own, and I swear I could feel their touch, cool and gentle on my fevered skin. “I can’t ask you to take that risk, Annika. I don’t doubt your ability to hide our metacoms, but if they did find something… well, I’m outside of space itself, but you’re back on Earth.” She gave me a sad little smirk, another side of her rarely seen in public.  “A rare case of proxy service proving more dangerous than the real thing.”

“I don’t care about the danger, ma’am,” I said, straightening both robotic and biological backs, squaring our shoulders. “I can make it work. I can get a second proxy somehow – indenture myself, maybe, or downgrade my console – and I can get by without much sleep. I’ve done it before, for far less important reasons. Let me do it for this. For you.”

Adelaide sighed, pulling her hands away to cradle her chin instead, eyes peering within me once more. This time, determination trumped modesty, and I stood firm, revealed rather than exposed, proud of what I was within.

A moment passed, time stretched by the gravity of the situation, orbiting a black hole of portent and possibility. Screens flashed in warning colors, fiery pulses of red and orange amid an ocean of blue, their light playing across the angles of the Captain’s face as she weighed her decision.

I felt as though I could read the thoughts flashing through her head as clearly as I could the data and dialogue flickering over the walls of my console, filled with a thousand variations on the same dilemma. Keeping a link between us invited danger, not only to myself, but to our mission. No matter how good I was, or claimed to be, there was always a chance I’d be caught, and her secrecy compromised. On the other side of the equation, even the most intrepid spirits could be daunted by the prospect of extended isolation – months or years spent with only an unimaginative AI for company, under the strictest form of house arrest in the universe.

She wanted me with her – I just knew it – but as we stared at each other, some extra sense told me she was going to decline, and I would lose the proxy for nothing. Worse yet, I would lose her, and I wouldn’t even have the closure of mourning her death. She was opening her mouth to say the words when half the screens in her array lit up all in the same instant, and the constant keening of the alarm redoubled in frequency and volume, forcing itself back into my awareness.

My own alarms joined the chorus, and my nuro began administering calmative drugs to deal with the sudden spike in my stress levels. I tried to curtail the doping, but with my emotions so elevated, I was only given limited autonomy over the dosage. Breathing deeply, I dragged myself kicking and screaming back to the Euler’s diagnostics. This time, the distress warnings lined up with the reality of the situation, backlogs piling up again. Adelaide’s deception had required walking a delicate balance between systems, and I’d distracted her long enough for the manufactured crisis to devolve into a real one. More than one critical function had drifted dangerously off-kilter.

The captain swore vehemently, then turned and began working furiously to correct the problems, using mind, mouth and motion to work on three tasks simultaneously. I was forgotten completely in the chaos, and I was painfully reminded how small I was in the midst of all this. For a moment, speaking with the captain so intimately, I’d felt like I was at the center of the universe, a person of real consequence. Now I remembered I was little more than a kid sitting in her socks and underwear in a crappy apartment millions of miles from the action. I had one useful skill, I controlled a solitary little robot, and I’d already caused my biggest hero more problems than I’d solved. Why the hell should she care about me?

And yet… I think she did care. She’d taken the time to talk, rather than just issuing orders or disconnecting me. She’d called me by my first name. Hadn’t she actually called me darling at some point? I couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said, but I would never forget how she’d said it.

I attacked the communication backlog with ferocity, using the work to distract myself from the doubts and questions buzzing around me like a mass-message attack on my nuro. If I could prove myself here, could I change her mind? Or was I only being selfish? I couldn’t afford to think about it.

There wasn’t much left that I could safely steal from other systems without robbing Adelaide, and with my newfound knowledge of our secret mission, I had to be careful with the data we shared. I did a quick pass to make sure my resources were optimally distributed, adjusted the timing of certain less-vital data clusters, and then began sorting through the high-priority messages, freeing up the AI to work on more suitable tasks than high-level language parsing,

With the help of my nuro and a few bio-spec mods from the grey-matter grey market, I was able to access, parse and respond to messages as quickly as I could think, flashes of knowledge flickering through my thoughts like impressions from a dream. Few people had the dedication and intelligence to exploit themselves so fully, to use their own brains as a biological computer, a perfect blending of a machine’s mechanics and memory with the intuition and imagination of the human mind. I was one. Doctor Zeller was another, but I could tell she was working at peak capacity, a masterful conductor of the electric symphony that was her mind, a thousand little thoughts working in perfect concert, assembling a glorious, cohesive whole from the aether. Bit by bit, she was somehow bringing the ship back under control, wresting reality with the force of her will.

But it would take precious time, and important people with a small galaxy of stars and a dictionary of scary initials next to their names were demanding personal answers, even going so far as to attempt overrides into her system. With Adelaide so short on time and attention, they might as well have been trying to scuttle the ship themselves. I intercepted their attempt, rerouting it to my console with enough encryption to hide my existence onboard the ship. Hopefully.

In the last second before the connection was established, I realized I was about to appear on the screens of the Fleet’s highest authorities in all my sloven, undressed glory, and desperately scrambled to cover up, crudely cutting Captain Zeller’s voice and body from my old simulacrum and pasting it onto myself like some sort of digital body-snatcher. For the first and probably last time, I was glad it took a small eternity to connect with the Fleet. The extra encryption load even gave me time to add a touch of age and exhaustion to the model, while also giving me plenty of time to contemplate the full scope of the treasonous acts I was about to commit. If anyone saw through my little masquerade, I’d probably end up wishing the Fleet still practiced capital punishment.

Everything around me – physical, virtual, and remote – fell away in the next instant, leaving me standing alone on the bridge of a virtual Euler, cloaked in a disguise I couldn’t see. I felt like the Emperor from that old story, except I was fully aware how exposed I truly was, too smart to believe my own lies.

Or perhaps not smart enough. I had spend years infatuated with her every eyeblink, and I had the help of a complex simulator based on decades of data buzzing in the back of my skull, but if I didn’t act like her, if I didn’t believe I could become Adelaide goddamned Zeller, I wouldn’t be able to fool a bargain-bin refrigerator AI.

I slipped into her mindset the same way I’d worn my father’s shoes as a kid; knowing I’d never truly fill them, but exultant in the experience, the strange sense of connection, comfort, and strength. As if I’d been born to it, I raised my chin proudly and ignited that trademark nuclear fire in my own eyes, annoyance and anger focused to laser intensity.

Then the figures of the Fleet – no, a single figure – fritzed into view across from me, image distorted by both a poor connection and deliberate scrambling, little more than a human-shaped cloud of spasmodic visual glitches and fractal metacom feedback. The voice that came through was equally garbled, set against a backdrop of synths and strange whistles, the words shifting wildly in tone, timing, and timbre, as though stitched together from a dozen computer voices fighting for control of one speaker, making it impossible to identity the caller by audio analysis. But for all that, there was no mistaking the person on the other end.

Daniel Yuen. Defector from the Fleet and mastermind of the radical Jovian factions. An extremist, psychopathic warlord, responsible for the deaths of more than a million innocent colonists. On a direct, shadowed, private line with the revered doctor Adelaide Zeller, decorated captain of the soon-to-be-late ship Euler.

Only my headlong momentum kept me from stopping dead and dumbfounded. “What do you want?” I snapped. The anger came all too easily, as did the fear around its edges.

“You’re behind schedule,” Yuen said, and though the words stuttered and shifted, the coldness in his voice could have been measured in single-digit Kelvin. “I dearly hope you aren’t foolish enough to break from our arrangement.”

Arrangement. A word like uranium, heavy with devastating potential. Even the idea of it was toxic, twisting my guts and leaving me light-headed.

It was easier to play along than think about what it meant. “You should be more careful, Yuen. The observatories on Earth might be able to detect hypocrisy of that magnitude. You should not have contacted me.”

“You’re behind schedule,” he repeated, stressing the first word. “Need I remind you how important this is?”

I paused, stealing another glance at the captain as I considered what he’d said. I could understand why Adelaide might defy the Fleet and run away to the stars. But what did the Devil of Deimos have to do with it?

“Maybe you should,” I said, doing some logical leapfrog. The captain might be up to some shenanigans with Yuen, but the sun would be cold and dark long before she trusted him.

It worked. The mass of malfunctions cloaking him buzzed angrily, as if their encryption patterns were tied to his moods. Maybe they were. “Extortion? Now? I expected better from you.”

I stayed silent, not willing to risk revealing my ignorance or my emotions. Yuen’s shroud bristled, a digital thunderstorm. I let the nuro take control of my own avatar, crafting a poker face to compensate for my own lack of composure.

Yuen growled and swore, employing the most colorful curses that Martian-dialect Mandarin had to offer. The simulacrum didn’t even blink, though in my console I was beginning to shake uncontrollably, but I refused to dull it with more drugs. This was my love, my pain, and I would own them if it killed me.

As the standoff continued, I felt as though every passing second would break me in a different way. I nearly caved in and spoke to Yuen. I almost forgot to monitor the metacom system. I wanted to step out of this false face and demand answers from the real Doctor Zeller. I thought about revealing my deception and telling the Fleet everything. I almost threw off my gear and stepped out of the console altogether.

For one brief, bottomless second, I thought about just dying. Exploiting the hacks in my modified nuro and shutting off my brain as easily as switching off a light. Easier not to deal with it all.

Some people think there’s a link between metaspace and free will, some tiny, invisible link between ourselves and the infinitesimal eternity of the higher planes. They may be right. I’m not a philosopher.

But it wasn’t fear of non-existence or eternity that gave me the courage to keep my courage through the micro- nano- picoseconds of dismay. It wasn’t hope that Adelaide would be vindicated, or the idea that I might be able to stop this mess and save the war. I held on because my mother used to tell me to be strong, and good, and true, and because her death had forced me to learn those lessons early.

In the revival of religious interest following the discover of metaspace, many newly-converted metatheists tried to tell me that some higher intelligence in the realm beyond reality was watching us. Some told me that everything was part of a mysterious, vaguely benevolent plan, right down to my mother’s accidental death.

I still think that’s bullshit. But after what I found in that brief, black moment, I wouldn’t be able to ridicule it anymore.

“Alright, dammit,” Yuen spat. “You’ll get your kingdom, Zeller. Twenty trillion in hard assets and command of the Callisto colony.”

It was as bad as I could have imagined. Worse, even. Captain Zeller lied to me. A fortune in supplies and an entire moon to herself? She wasn’t embarking on some altruistic odyssey. Maybe she did mean to visit the stars someday, but it would be as a major player in interplanetary politics, an empress in the making. And all it would cost her was the Euler, the embodiment of her life’s work. Her soul.

Yuen was still talking, a profanity-ridden tirade I’m sure our intelligence network would have given one of our moons to hear. I cut him off, closing the communication. He immediately tried to break in again, but with a passing thought, I unleashed a few government-concocted programs, sending them toward his private systems, forcing him to close all channels or risk infection from malicious AI with names like Mephistopheles and Robber Baron. It was the work of a millisecond, possibly a historic blow against the Jovians, and I’d already forgotten him.

Only the Captain mattered. As always.

My proxy leapt into motion, crossing the bridge in a matter of seconds. The motion drew Adelaide’s attention, and for one fleeting moment, as our eyes met, I felt as though we had our own metaspatial link. There was no distance between us, no layers, no masks, just a brief and terrible moment of mutual understanding. We knew each other then. We knew what we had to do.

I moved forward as she raised a pistol and shot me, a supersonic slug that breached my exterior and unleashed a lethal electric shock, shorting every circuit in the proxy. But the emergency pneumatics had already fired, throwing the bot across the room, and the bullet punched through it too cleanly to arrest its momentum. It crashed into the Captain with enough force to send them both flying into a control station, embracing her in a tangle of loose limbs and exposed wires, bleeding smoke and sparks and fluids.

It wasn’t enough to kill the Captain, who doubtless had the latest in surgical combat enhancements, but it kept her occupied long enough for me to take control of the Euler’s systems. So close to the brink of catastrophic failure, it was easy to give them one final push, even with Adelaide fighting me. Too easy, maybe.

The ship shuddered, and my connection faltered. Systems began stalling and shutting down entirely as space warped around them, and the cameras gave out, leaving me suddenly in my console, with only blank white walls and a few statistics for company. My hair and underclothes were damp, soaked with sweat, and I realized I was short of breath. I clung to my hard, lifeless seat, wet skin squeaking on the smooth plastic, but I found no comfort there. I needed to get out, to do something, hold someone, but I was riveted in place, unable to move until I knew for sure it was all over.

The bridge of the Euler was reinforced, one of the last place to be affected by overloaded metaspatial drive. I could tell from the input I was receiving that the Captain had fought her way free and was trying anything to escape the imminent implosion, but it was far too late. I couldn’t see her, but I could still hear her panting, muttering under her breath, desperate.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” I croaked.

She paused in her work, and when she spoke, her voice was soft and broken. “Why, Annika? To save a corrupt Fleet? To prolong the war? Or simply because I wasn’t what you wanted me to be?”

“Because…” I searched for the word that would explain it all, that could convey my outrage, my heartbreak, my dreams. But none of that was the real reason. “Because…”

The last screens disappeared.

“Because I had to,” I whispered. ‘Because of her.”

Slowly, I disengaged from the console, putting everything away for the last time. Letting out a long breath, I issued a last order to my nuro, telling it to scrub the system and power everything down in order.

Everything.

Falling to the floor, I finally accepted a full dose of medication, letting all my troubles melt away in a haze of delirium. The console went dead, and in the darkness I felt someone embrace me, somehow… somehow making it all okay. A sweet, familiar voice whispered in my ear, so soft and far away I could barely hear it.

“Don’t worry, Annika, it’s all over. You did well. You made it.”

And then I woke up.

Posted by: lordkyler | April 9, 2017

Short Story Week 2017

Another year is here, and as is tradition, I’ll be releasing some short stories during the week of my birthday, Unlike previous years, I won’t be able to release a story every day of the week, despite my best intentions, as I’ve been too busy with work and college. I will be releasing at least two and hopefully three stories over the course of the week. If for some reason that’s not enough for you, feel free to look over other recent releases and past year’s entries.

Enjoy!

Posted by: lordkyler | March 4, 2017

NaNoWriMo “2016” – Finished*

It’s finally finished,* everybody. I started the challenge in November, as is tradition, though I did so on a whim, with nothing in particular planned. Instead of one master project, I instead chose to tackle a bunch of back-burner stories instead, and while it may have taken four months instead of one, I just hit the 50k goal! At last, it is over.

…kind of.

To me, the ultimate goal of NaNoWriMo this year was to write an award-winning novella that would make me rich enough to retire and write full-time, but failing that, it was simply to write every day. And in that regard, it was successful. Not the retirement thing. The daily writing, which is almost as good, I guess.

I’m not about to stop writing daily now that I’m in the groove, though I may not keep track of it so closely. I’ve still got lots of stories to go, including the upcoming Short Story Week, so keep your refresh button handy, folks. I’m not going anywhere, for better or for best.

Posted by: lordkyler | February 18, 2017

A Sampling of Sketches

I’ve posted drawings on here many times before, but my drawing has often been inconsistent, with long dry spells between bursts of activity. Recently, however, I bought a sketchbook and have been drawing on a much more regular basis. I’ve been quite pleased with the results. It’s been a great way to keep my skills sharp and illustrate my invented worlds.

The following are imperfect scans of some of my favorite sketches for your enjoyment.

Weeeee watched the suuuunset...

Castle on a Hill (Not the Ed Sheeran version). I started with the castle and a bit of the ridgeline, and I knid of wish I’d stopped there, but I didn’t. This is one of the first drawings in the book.

Send help...

Isolation. The scanner botched up the left side of the image, but you can see what’s going on. These images are a bit darker than they are in real life for clarity’s sake.

They'll peck your eyes out

A knight with an apparent affinity for birds and towers. I’m not perfect at drawing people, but I’ve improved quite a lot.

Cut off one head, and too bad for this hydra

A rare mutant hydra with only a single head. Note the tiny winged babbies swimming about

Eat your heart out, Hogwarts

One of those fanciful flying castles you hear about on the news. Sometimes I draw more realistically, with shading and such, and other times I’ll do something like this

I also drew many of them in more everyday settings, rather than simply making them warriors (though they totally could be)

An assortment of Crossbred from the Legend of Lithra. I realized I hadn’t really illustrated any females of the breed, so i set about to fix that.

Posted by: lordkyler | February 4, 2017

Cassandra’s Child – Short Story

Sequel to He Who Speaks With Birds


I wanted to get back on the bus about three seconds after I got off.

It was a perfect day, as far as the weather was concerned: not too hot, not too cold, not a cloud in the sky. As far as I was concerned, that was a problem. No clouds meant no information, on a day when I desperately needed it – like cramming for a final exam with a blank textbook.

Luckily, I wasn’t completely blind. A playful breeze wrote messages in the way it moved litter around the parking lot, gave me glimpses of things beyond sight as it made the flags and pennants of the stadium dance. There were plenty of birds as well, mostly seagulls and crows come to scavenge from the aftermath of picnics, tailgate parties, and countless concessions.

I still wished I had clouds. Birds and breezes were useful, but they spoke to me in different ways; about different things. Miss Green had left me a letter explaining the basics of divination. There were dozens of forms, she said, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and specialities. They could divine people, relationships, or events; peer into past, future or present; see near or far, deep or broad.

She had also urged me not to pursue this path. The gift and the curse were inextricably linked, and attempts to convince the ungifted always ended in disaster. She had provided several pages of historical examples, which I had only skimmed. I couldn’t afford to have that kind of baggage in my brain. It didn’t matter how many people had tried and failed in the past. I’ve seen the clouds – apocalypse literally looming overhead – and I cannot stay silent. I will find a way, because people need to know.

But that meant getting to people who had power to actually do something at national and international levels. That meant a trip to Washington D.C., and that meant money for a bus ticket, food and shelter. Money I didn’t have. Yet. Read More…

Posted by: lordkyler | January 29, 2017

NaNo “2016” Update – January

Well, folks, we’re almost at the end of January, and a great deal has changed in the world, but my efforts to write each and every day have continued unabated. Still nowhere near previous years, but steady nonetheless.

So it is with a small degree of pride that I can announce that I have just recently passed 38k words, about 75% of the total goal. At this rate, it looks like I’ll be “done” by the end of next month, and if I keep up an equivalent pace throughout the year, I could produce a total of 150k words in 2017.

That’s good, but I think I can do better, as I have in the past. In light of that, I’m going to examine my writing habits and see if I can increase my efficiency. From my time writing 2k+ words per day on Lithra IV, I know that taking steps to limit distractions and setting aside a solid block of time to write can both help tremendously, and I plan to research other helps as well.

In related news, I may technically qualify as a professional author, and as Futurama taught us, technical correctness is the best kind of correct. A little while ago, I received from Lulu (the company I use to print and distribute the Legend of Lithra) a check amounting to the grand sum of  twenty-eight dollars and change. Some of that may come from me buying my own books, but not all of it, which means that I have sold something I wrote to at least one other person. Move over, Stephen, there’s a new King in town.

In seriousness, I know that’s not a lot, but it’s not nothing, either, and I feel I’m beginning to make real progress in my skill and output. It’s good. Thanks for sticking with me, and I’ll see you again when I hit 50k.

Posted by: lordkyler | January 21, 2017

Icebound – Short Story

Sequel to Frostbite


Josh stumbled once more, landing nose-down in a drift. Cursing violently to himself, he began shucking off his gear, throwing it into a pile beside him. The bullet wound in his leg was only getting worse. The shell hadn’t lodged in the flesh, and he’d fashioned a makeshift bandage for it, but he’d lost a lot of blood after the crash, enough to make him light-headed, and the exertion of his march had left the muscle stiff and cramped.

The arctic cold wasn’t helping either.

“Pissing Americans,” he muttered to himself as he dropped his pants. They were stiff as cardboard from the frost and wind. The chill began eating into his long-johns immediately, but he’d rather get this done quickly than cut a hole in his clothes. He still had a few heating packs left – he’d use one to warm back up.

He couldn’t keep going like this. He’d covered barely a kilometer out of the ten he needed to go, and his leg was already going out on him. If he didn’t do something about this, he’d never make it to the Seed Vault, much less defend it against the Yanks.

So that left him with only one option, distasteful as it was. He pulled out a small spray can from his kit. The one with the biohazard AND radiation symbols. Read More…

Posted by: lordkyler | January 7, 2017

The Writer – Short Story

I took a writing class this year, and for our final session, we were asked to bring a short, humorous piece, just for fun. This is the result. It should be noted that the instructor’s name is Peter.


The writer blinked and rubbed his eyes, unsure of where he was or how he’d gotten here. He was accustomed to taking in his surroundings with an author’s eye, picking out details or concocting colorful descriptions for later use – but there was nothing here to see. Not a blank room or an empty landscape, but a void, without shape, form or substance. Not blackness, but a total lack of sensation.

Well, that was interesting all in itself. It was troubling, but not painful, and it gave him a chance to think. How had he gotten here? The last thing he could remember was puzzling over a problem in his new novel as he drove to…

Oh. Right. He hadn’t noticed the stop sign at the blind corner, or the truck barreling through behind it. Was this shock? A coma? Or something else altogether? It wasn’t too bad – he had enough ideas to keep him occupied for quite a while – but the thought of languishing in this oblivion for an extended period was terrifying. He needed people to talk to, things to do, a way to write down the stories in his soul.

Ah, there. Thank heavens. Something was emerging from the nothingness – a pale tendril of mist that curled lazily into existence. More tendrils appeared, like leaks in a breaking dam, until all at once he found himself standing on an endless plain of clouds, radiant in the light of an eternal sun. Startled, the writer looked down at himself. He was still here, thirty years younger and wearing a simple white robe. More importantly, he had his manuscript with him, clutched tightly in both arms. Read More…

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