In a very dark and silent room, sounded a shutter, its report as loud as a gun.
On the middle of the far wall a circle of white light shone suddenly.
With the shadows just barely parted, five ascending rows of ten seats each became visible.
There was nobody alive sitting down in them; but every other seat was occupied by a stuffed animal.
Some were proud collectibles and limited editions in pristine conditions; others were patched up with much love and attention, having seen many hugs and absorbed many tears in their best days. It was these stuffies that gave off a tiny wisp of colors from their bodies, green and blue and the tiniest hint of black. It was these stuffies that could almost feel human in their aged dignity, in the visible scars of experience.
Below that circle of light on far wall, there was a small stage.
Footsteps; a woman climbed up on stage and briefly stood in the light to wave at the audience.
Of course, none of the stuffies waved back.
“Hello, hello!” She greeted. “My name is Polaris, super cute girl and genius wunderkind of the Shooting Stars! I need little introduction right? I joined the United Research Department of the Aer Federation at 13 years old! I’m a well-known prodigy who has written many papers!”
Polaris certainly no longer looked 13 years old.
She was a grown woman, pale, with her brown hair tied up in a ponytail. She wore a white coat which was full of custom-printed pins, each of which gave off the same feeling of humanity as the stuffies in attendance. The aura wafting from her pins curled over her left shoulder like a fleetingly visible rainbow half-cape. Her turtleneck and skirt had tiny coffee stains and were going slightly ratty. She had a flushed and girlish countenance; a slight roundness to her cheeks and nose.
She was still young– but worn. Her eyes had deep bags under them, and the fingers with which she operated the projector’s clicker and her laser pointed were bruised black and purple and red.
Her voice trembled very slightly as the audience of stuffed animals gave no response, and she resumed:
“Today, we are going to learn about the Aer Federation’s Threat Classification System. This simple system was designed as a way to categorize threats to public order in a way that their OS, the Aerscape system, can parse, assess and respond to– in theory, delivering contingency plans directly to STEM-equipped personnel in the form of detailed tactical, strategic and logistical info within minutes.”
Polaris fiddled nervously with the laser pointed in her fingers.
“Of course, that was– is, the theory. The implementation was flawed.” She mumbled to herself. “I think it will help illustrate the situation that the Aer Federation was– is–” she paused, “the situation it is in.”
There was another loud report from the shutter on the projector– an image appeared in the white light.
That image was a young man with a hoodie, hands in his pockets, avoiding eye contact.
“Contagio Civilis.” Polaris said. “Social plague’– but these titles were more than their literal meaning.”
A crowd of people all wearing the same t-shirt. Seemingly nothing else out of the ordinary.
“For the Aer Federation, this was also ‘civil contact.’ To watch for any organizing or group thought. It was– it is– currently– before–” Polaris paused and raised a hand over her mouth briefly then smiled and continued speaking. “It is a model called ‘zero trust society.'”
There were a few more reports of the shutter.
Images of thieves, graffiti artists on hoverboards, doomsayers on the street–
–a shadowy, tall man surreptitiously in an alleyway on a dark night,
a misshapen shadow in a suburban backyard, looming over a child with eldritch violence,
a woman putting up flyers,
She waved the laser pointed at each of the images.
“These were individual threats to highly localized areas. Next set of slides please.”
There were images of tornadoes, monsoon winds, black bloc anarchists, labor unions on strike,
a shadowy figure of flesh in a dark forest, maw studded with teeth, legs as thick as an adult’s torso–
a single bolt of purple lightning and a half-charred corpse disfigured with hexagonal missing flesh,
A map of a coastal region appeared, red overlayed on a long strip of land containing many cities.
“I added that one slide– the purple stuff. But– that sort of thing was never officially acknowledged by the Aer Federation. Anyway. This is one level of threat over. Clades Regionem. It can be read as both ‘localized disaster’ and ‘regional conflict’. Clades Regionem were threats that affected a particular locale in the Federation. At first, national disasters were the main focus of this category, but over time, they came to encompass political movements and organizing efforts at city and state levels. Clades Regionem were threats that called for suppression, but response stopped short of total elimination. Next slides.”
Loud shutter report;
Dark computer monitors with white sigil text that read “Q – The Question.”
People staring at those monitors in rapt attention while a countdown played beneath the Q sigil.
Young men and women with small arms, dressed in old-school Ayvartan communist uniforms.
MRAP vehicles opening fire with machine guns and wire-guided missiles on a colossal, gangly red creature in a forested area, its long snout closing over a similar vehicle which was being crushed in its jaw and eaten. Under its shadow, pale human figures gathered. When the slide turned, it was a similar picture, except coast guard boats firing autocannons and torpedoes at a massive, serpentine beast out at sea.
Polaris looked upon the flashing images with what seemed like a growing sorrow.
“Continere Ruina. To the Aer Federation it means ‘continental devastation’ but it can also be taken to mean ‘contains ruin’ or ‘contains calamity.’ The obvious thing to draw from it, is that it’s a scale of threat that can affect an entire continent. But there were other interpretations: ideas that ‘contain ruin’ such as, in the Aer Federation’s eyes, ‘authoritarian communism’ were labeled as Continere Ruina level threats. This is because it’s an idea that can spread far and cause unrest. Even something like the ‘Question Conspiracy’, climbed in threat level as it spread across the internet and caused civil unrest globally. Threats of this nature were often required long-term, clandestine methods in order to oppose them. They had to be destroyed, but the level of damage also had to be hidden from the public as much as possible.”
Polaris’ laser pointed hovered over an image of an enormous, armored, snake-like being emerging from a cave, black exhaust seeping from jets along its side– clearly taken by someone’s trembling hand.
There was another shutter slide, another slide; a group of nine individuals, one of whom was Polaris.
There were Shimii, Loup, Nochtish, Nobilean, and Ayvartan members, all together in one place.
The Shooting Stars.
“Continere Ruina level threats were the first threats that called for elimination to be strongly considered over suppression. Elimination entailed hunting down the organization, or the organization’s assets, all equipment involved, and so on, with the goal of not just suppressing individual actors, but permanently uprooting all elements. These purges were expensive and time consuming. So, as the Federation weakened, it became possible to continue operations when marked at this level– if you were careful. Or if you were connected– the Federation was also– is also– notoriously corrupt and nepotistic.”
Polaris’ eyes lingered on the faces of the group in the picture. Her eyes watered just a little.
She grit her teeth and ran her arm over her face. “Next slides please.”
There was a picture of what looked like an advertisement.
A dog-like figure and a human-like figure; x-rays of them showed bizarre internal anatomies.
BIOMECHANICS ARE A THREAT TO HUMANITY. BIOMECHANICS ARE AGAINST THE LAW.
“Excorium Humanitas. Literally ‘to peel the skin off a person.'” Polaris said. “Excorium Humanitas level threats could harm people and society globally. Threats to ‘all humans’ such as the Great Ravages– pandemics that caused billions in loss of life taken together, and trillions in economic damages. Global Climate Change– but only the part where the planet was warming, not– all the other things–“
Polaris’ hands shook.
Her laser pointed briefly flitted across a picture of a massive purple storm cloud.
“But it was also understood to include, ‘threats that can change the nature of humanity itself.'”
New slides. A short, pale girl standing at the edge of a rural road at night, with a passing car stopping to offer her help; and then a slide of the inhabitants slaughtered, the girl eating them. A symbol of an eclipsed sun; a city under a barrage of purple lightning, tearing through buildings and streets, while at the edge of the storm a horde of dark, animalistic, monstrous figures were tearing into a crowd of riot police.
“Biomechanics conglomerates exploited the tensions between the Federation’s constituent states to gain funding from all sides to pour into dangerous projects. After a series of high-profile incidents, and the spread of hostile biomechanoids, the Federation responded sharply. After being declared Excorium Humanitas, it became impossible to buy even a clone of your deceased dog or a vita-stitched cleaning servitor. Even cybernetics started becoming Excorium Humanitas bit by bit. Alternatives to STEM-integrated implants or STEM-capable cybernetic augmentation controllers, particularly in the latter-day Federation, became targets. Even things like stitcher machines and biomedical organ growing began to be curtailed due to this ongoing backlash. There was even a move in conservative parts of the Federation to label ‘transgender ideology’ as Excorium Humanitas, but these were not successful, thankfully.”
On the screen, a picture of herself, on a poster. Polaris. Margery Balyaeva. Nationality, age, gender, sex.
“No attempt to fully eliminate biomechanoids and biomechanics was ever successful. I strongly believe the Aer Federation’s ongoing– collapse– troubles– they’re not a result of just biomechanics in itself.”
It was visibly difficult for her to speak of this.
That sorrowful looking photograph of hers was surrounded by a circle of repeating text,
and below the picture,
ALL MEASURES VALID. PROTECTING THE FEDERATION IS A CIVIC DUTY.
That said it all. Margery Balyaeva or “Polaris” no longer had rights as a subject of the Aer Federation.
“This is for my– I guess you could say, my current actions. Not that it means anything anymore.”
Polaris smiled at the audience suddenly. She pointed at herself glibly, digging fingers into her cheeks.
“Polaris, Excorium Humanitas, speaking. But it’s okay; you won’t have to pursue this evil villain to safeguard your falling world any longer. I’m sorry I can’t continue to provide a distraction.”
An involuntary sob; she sucked in air and steadied herself. “Next slide. Please.”
A woman huddling on a bed, flesh glistening as if fluid, pustules that seemed to writhe covering her skin.
“Raphtha, the plague of burning. The last and most horrific of the Three Great Ravages. Upgraded first to Continere Ruina, then Excorium Humanitas, and finally Aerae Nullius, when it caused the total collapse of Hispalis and Brittania.” Polaris said. “If only they would have responded strongly from the start.”
A wide shot of an island landscape and port infrastructure, a dark sky overhead, waves of people panicking and fleeing. A colossal serpentine monstrosity, nine eyes along its snout focusing seemingly on the picture camera with a cruel intellect. Gunfire seemed to fly at the islanders from protrusions along its length. From its mouth, an enormous gust of annihilating purple breath cut apart the land itself.
“The Horror of Dys, a biomechanoid that destroyed the Aer Federation’s man-made continent in the central Imbrium, ending their ambition to relocate their headquarters to ‘the center of the world.’ It is still at large, somewhere in the depths of the ocean. Hell– I might end up meeting it soon if I’m unlucky.”
A woman, her orange eyes hidden behind dark glasses, wearing a turtleneck and pants with her hands inside of a long coat. Her purple eyeshadow and lipstick added a splash of color to her monochromatic aesthetics. Long dark hair, and a regal expression, made her appear mature and queen-like in nature.
“Zabik, fellow Shooting Star. A major figure in STEM technology; and avid defender of biomechanics. I did my very best to protect her. But– Hmm. Actually I think she would say ‘I’m still here.’ I think she would.”
Polaris’ eyes lingered on the picture of this woman. She reached out as if to touch her– then drew back.
“We’ll still be here in our STEM data. We’ll be in the aether– and Zabik, you’ll always be with me.”
She pulled herself away from the woman’s picture and back to the task which she had given herself.
A bloodlessly pale red headed woman with a horn, dressed in a robe that almost seemed like a pair of demonic wings folded over herself, a spiked tail swinging behind her. Lit by a bolt of purple lightning, she laughed raucously with furiously red eyes. An image like– the last thing the camera ever saw–
In the distant horizon, the thick, raging sky blocked the sun like a total eclipse–
“All of these images represent the same thing.”
A picture of an Aer Federation flag, the globe surrounded by six hexagons in a hexagon pattern.
And a bloody X scrawled over that flag.
“Aerae Nullius. A threat rating that is rarely acknowledged. We can draw from the name that these were threats to ‘Aer.’ But how is that different from Excorium Humanitas? In truth, these were threats that could bring about the fall of the Aer Federation specifically, not to the planet Aer. For example, and this one is so perversely horrid: the Shimii and their religious conflicts were ultimately labeled Aerae Nullius.”
Polaris pointed her laser at a picture of a group of cat-eared and cat-tailed militants in hoods.
“None of us will ever know the degree of effort that went into preserving the Aer Federation. How many trillions of Ecos were spent in asserting Aerean sovereignty in the face of growing social conflicts? In controlling a planet ravaged by climate instability and historical pandemics? All of it while trillion eco conglomerates reaped vast profits!” Polaris’ fingers clutched her laser pointer more sharply than before.
“Excorium Humanitas.” She mumbled to herself. “All I wanted– was to preserve humanity. To save us.”
Her eyes glistened. She began to weep, to sob, her shoulders shaking. Ugly noises escaped her lips.
“Zabik– I’m– I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I failed; I failed everyone. Now– now there’s no going back–“
Throughout this display of pathos all of the audience was silent– including–
Frozen with her eyes wide, shaking, taking the place of a stuffed toy in the higher seats.
And at her side–
Red hair, a horn, a pale, grinning face, a tail so long it lounged over several rows of seats,
“Interesting. So this is where she fled to. Well– good riddance. Just another hypocritical hominin. You belong in this underwater prison. You deserve even worse. For what you did to us– to me–“
Arbitrator II suddenly lifted her hand to Gertrude’s face, covering her eyes,
and caused her body to burst like a smashed watermelon, ejecting colors from hundreds of wounds–
“Master? Are you with me? Hold my hand.”
Gertrude felt a warm touch, fingers gently squeezing the palm of her hand.
A wall of colors parted before her eyes to reveal a world that felt more substantial–
yet still airy around the edges.
Dim sights through fatigued eyes, half awake and half in dream.
She was standing in the middle of the Island-3 entrance, with that damnable STEM-locked door.
At her side stood–
Gertrude was immediately stricken by her bewitching beauty, and the otherworldly presence she felt from the woman. She felt like these dreams felt, like the silver trees felt (what trees?), like the horned woman felt (horned woman?). She felt like the promise of sublimity that Gertrude only found in her delusions.
Pale and long-limbed with deep, dark orange eyes mottled with yellow, cybernetic perhaps.
For someone who called her ‘master’ so frequently, she looked strikingly regal, purple lips subtly smiling, her purple-shadowed eyes delivering a penetrating gaze. Her dress and half-cape, hugging her slender but curved figure, made her out akin to a noblewoman, lustrous silver hair fastidiously kept. Atop her head, she had two black animal-like ears, thin and tall and fuzzy. Was she a Shimii or a Loup?
“Master, how do you feel?” She asked.
Gertrude spoke perhaps the most honest words she had allowed herself to say in this entire expedition.
“I feel like I don’t know what is real and what isn’t.”
Azazil An-Nur smiled at her.
“What would be different, if this was a mere delusion? How would that change your position?”
Gertrude’s jaw trembled.
“I’m– I’m staking my future here–“
“Can a future not be built on emotions? Are emotions not real?”
“Emotions are not material.” Gertrude said. “I feel– I feel insane. I need to know this is real.”
Azazil turned to face the STEM-locked door to Island-3’s spire once more.
“Human emotions have left a mark on this place. I am merely helping you to experience these emotions. Perhaps the mechanism can be likened to a dream; but the feelings are true. They were felt here.”
In the next instant, shadows became visible all around the entrance to Island-3. These shadows were like negatives of a person, visible as the person-shaped empty space that stood between shimmering colors, blue and green, yellow and red, purple, black. These shadows moved naturally, gestured to each other, maybe even spoke, though not in a way Gertrude could understand. They never acknowledged her.
Tall and short, male and female (or at least, gertrude’s interpretation of gender markers).
They examined the door– one even burnt their hand exactly the same way as Gertrude.
Then– they cut out the panel and began to examine the interior of the wall.
“You can see it.” Azazil said. “Their feelings, traveling the path they wore through the aether.”
Gertrude recalled the feeling left in the tunnel. Norn’s world-scarring fury.
“Who are you?” Gertrude asked.
“I am a humble servant who was created to take care of humans.” Azazil replied.
“You have power. Like Norn.” Gertrude said.
Everything felt so dream-like that it took a lot of effort just to speak.
Her thoughts felt so airy that she had to seize a firm hold of them to prevent herself from wandering aimlessly between all the different things she felt and wanted to say. Speaking itself was almost an act of rebellion, as deliberate and kinetic as throwing a punch. Speaking asserted a specific place, a point in time, an anchor in the middle of the maelstrom. That was how muddled and difficult her surroundings and her mind had become. Azazil felt like the only concrete thing, another lighthouse in this sea of fog.
“You have it too. You have a wandering heart, carried by the currents, longing to connect.” Azazil said.
Island-3’s main entryway disappeared around them, its colors blending back into fog.
Gertrude was startled, and took a few steps back.
Then she found a wall had appeared behind her. She was now in the interior of Island-3.
Around her the surroundings filled in like a sudden splash of paint on a canvas.
Shadows crossed the lobby and toyed with the finery and furniture that had been left there.
They climbed farther up into the living quarters, their experienced engineers methodically weaving a path through the ancient station. They brought their own crates of supplies, but found a gigantic, existing supply of food with the markings of a polity they did not know. They were surprised to discover the food in these crates was still good if rehydrated. They could hole up inside this place for a while– Gertrude began to understand these feelings the shadows had as concrete desires elucidating on their situation.
Then, Gertrude spotted a few of the shadows bringing up someone into the habitat.
Escorting her through the halls, showing her their findings as a worker would to a superior.
Unlike the shadows, this figure was distinctly a person, with the fullness of her shape. She was dressed richly, in a purple dress embroidered with gold and a silver tiara resembling a laurel wreath with gemstones ensnared in the branches. Her gaze was distant, confused, hazy. She was short and small, skinny even, with a long tail that trailed behind her. She was a child, grey-skinned and pale-haired.
Even in this clearly distressed state, there was still an air of regal dignity that Gertrude recognized.
“They’re Katarrans?” Gertrude said. Her eyes drew wide. “That– That’s Norn? Is it really?”
Her aura, even at this point in her life, when she must’ve been a child– it was so remarkably similar.
It felt like Norn felt, and the band of red that slithered weakly along its edge, it felt familiar.
Like a prelude to the fury that would characterize the grown woman this larva would become.
“There is a figure who is not just a shadow in the aether?” Azazil said. “Then it is as I suspected. I felt you had a deep emotional connection to this aura. Unlike you, I can’t see anything but shadows.”
“Norn was Katarran royalty?” Gertrude said. She could hardly hear Azazil now, her focus too narrow.
She wanted to see more, to understand more, and the aetheric visions seemed to oblige her.
Drawing her further into the station, and out of it– into the tunnel.
Shadows excavated the tunnel, created security measures–
“The Vizier wants Her Majesty to be safe here.”
“No harm will come to her here. She will be able to return someday.”
“Someday she will return the glory of House Palaiologos.”
“Someday. We will all return someday. She will take us back to Katarre.”
Not speech, but the thoughts contained in the feelings representing these shadows.
They worked hard and diligently to create what was almost assuredly a prison.
All the while saying to themselves that it was for Norn’s benefit.
But also for their own. That this little creature they were bricking up would return their glory.
Gertrude’s heart began to pound with growing dread.
She watched as they left her at the very end of the paths they had cut. Oxygen-pumping equipment and air purifiers and moisteners were affixed on the walls which were noisy and eerie but would keep her alive. Hers was the filthy room at the very end, that Gertrude had seen, where she had found Azazil trapped. It accumulated wrappers and food containers and other such things that nobody picked up, becoming like a nest of trash. In the middle of it, the little girl was fed once a day, only rarely seeing light.
At first she was fed the rations that the Katarrans brought with them, as well as rations from Island-3, like packaged freeze-dried goods of the defunct Aer Federation that somehow survived to this day, as well as algae and fungus from the aquaculture farms. However, this would change as the Katarrans began to forage, and Norn began to fed instead mostly on fresh-caught abyssal worms and bony yet gelatinous deep trench fish. Her meals had already been largely tasteless, but now they became actively disgusting.
Despite this, she was at the mercy of her retainers, so she kept her head down, ate, and waited.
Waited– but for what? Years passed without change.
In those conditions, her aura became– grey. A dismal fog that barely clung to her clammy skin.
Azazil’s fingers squeezed into a fist.
“They stripped her of all humanity. She forgot, for some time, what it was like to feel emotions.”
Gertrude watched the girl, growing into puberty and maturity and beyond, within this hole.
Slumped against a pile of plastic containers, her once beautiful dress now rags.
Her tail grown longer than her body, her hair overlong, lacking the energy to do anything.
Receiving only enough care to retain the shape of a human, but no more.
“Why? Why would they do this to her? She was important to them, wasn’t she?” Gertrude cried out.
Her eyes filled with tears. Her heart thrashed in her chest. She couldn’t understand it. She wanted to know everything, but the fullness of the situation was not making itself clear to her. She could only extract the stultified emotions of the little Norn wasting away in this hole. When another shadow would wonder in to feed her, it, too, had no emotions and could not be read or understood. Gertrude hands started shaking.
“They must have lost their own humanity as well.” Azazil said gravely.
“You were in the same room!” Gertrude shouted at her. “You must know why this happened!”
Azazil shook her head calmly.
“These events happened before my stay here. You can see more than I ever could.”
Gertrude turned from Azazil back to Norn and felt a heartache so strong it stifled her breathing.
“Norn– What did you want me to see here? Was it this? Did you know I would see this?”
Her voice began to tremble.
She tried to wipe her eyes but the tears would resume whenever she laid eyes on the little creature.
For how long had Norn suffered in this place? Why had she been confined here?
“Was it the end of the Katarran golden age? But then Norn would be over a hundred years old.”
Could Norn truly have been the remains of the house of the Palaiologoi in the old Katarran Kingdom?
Gertrude’s state of mind was still difficult to get a hold of. It helped to ask herself questions.
Anything she said felt more concrete than any of her surroundings. It grounded her in reality.
She felt like she was convincing herself of a narrative she could believe–
Then, suddenly– Norn locked eyes with her. For an instant, Gertrude felt fear like she never had before.
Can she see me? Can she tell I’m watching? Can she tell I squandered the power she gave me?
Far behind Gertrude and Azazil, the doors into the tunnel opened again. Someone walked into the tunnel.
Norn was not looking at the two observers. She was in her own time, staring at the intruder coming in.
“Oh, this is awful– but I suppose it’s safe, at least.”
Light shone in from the open door into Norn’s tiny quarters.
Gertrude had expected a shadow, but the woman facing Norn was rendered in the recollection as faithfully as Norn herself. Norn was a grown woman during this encounter, but her expression was as bewildered as a child confronted with something grander and vaster than they had ever seen. Drawn-wide eyes, tearing up from the light, fell upon the brown-haired woman at the entrance to the chamber.
She had professor-like presence that reminded Gertrude of Nile. Turtleneck sweater, white lab coat, and a pair of rugged pants that hugged her mature figure. Like Nile, she was quite comely; an inquisitive face with a gentle nose, red lips curled in a sad and worried smile, a pair of red glasses with thick frames perched in front of dark eyes. Her slightly wavy hair was worn long, her gait confident and casual.
“Greetings, little one. You can call me Ganges. I came from very far away. I wanted to see you.” She said. “I think you are very special indeed, aren’t you? Are you truly Astra Palaiologos?”
Norn blinked at her. She was no longer so little a thing as before. Gertrude could see the beginnings of that lean and strong body she had grown to fear, long-limbed and almost elegant, but in this moment, she was ill proportioned due to her mistreatment. Curled almost into a ball in her dark room.
She was a woman, but a woman with the mind of an abandoned child.
She spoke as if any word might rip her throat open.
Norn barely squeaked out a little sound. It was an affirmation, in High Katarran, sounding like “nee.”
Her jaw trembled, teeth chattering. She could form only one more word.
Shaking fingers pointed at herself. Astra.
In response, Ganges reached into her coat and produced a plastic-wrapped object.
Norn drew back in fear, but then rebounded toward Ganges upon seeing the offering, suddenly curious.
Kneeling to Norn’s level, Ganges handed Norn the item, partially unwrapping to reveal a piece of bread.
“For you, your majesty.”
Norn snatched it from Ganges’ fingers and began taking tiny nibbles of the bread.
As if she did not want it to be gone so soon– but she still relished the taste.
While she ate, Ganges patted her head softly.
This was not done purely out of casual kindness. Gertrude could see colors drifting from her fingers.
Norn’s aura was growing redder and redder. The more she ate, the angrier she seemed to become.
Tears welled up in her eyes. She was so helpless, and so angry, so incredibly angry.
She had rediscovered emotion seemingly so she could hate the world.
And through the hand she was using to comfort her, Ganges could feel the shift.
Ganges sighed as she watched her. “I’m in a real bind. I think I did find our Apostle– and she’s in terrible conditions. But she’s safe and unmolested by the outside world. Ugh. Maybe this was all a mistake.”
Gertrude held a hand up to her chest, gritting her teeth.
“God damn it. I can’t even ask myself what Euphrates would do.” Ganges said. “I know too well.”
“Take her away from there. Don’t leave her.” Gertrude mumbled to herself, lips trembling.
“Was that what happened, Master? Is this figure freeing her?” Azazil asked her.
But Gertrude felt in that moment, that this wasn’t the case. That it wouldn’t be.
All of the emotions confined in this room told her a different story.
Ganges would ultimately leave Norn in her captivity for several more years.
Before the currents of tragedy and war would drag the world back to the cage of Astra Palaiologos.
Gertrude turned her head from the sight of the skinny, abused Norn eating the bread.
She couldn’t take it– she couldn’t imagine being subjected to that kind of pain.
Growing up a child incarcerated and made to disappear by all of the adults meant to protect her.
Those were her retainers, weren’t they? She was royalty– but more than that, she was just a child.
If they saved her from the collapse of the Katarran Kingdom, why did this have to happen to her?
Why did they hate her so much to do this to her? Why didn’t they just kill her then?
They could have left her to be killed by the burgeoning Warlords and it’d have been a kinder fate!
And why– why was Gertrude seeing something this horrible–
“Why did this happen to you? Why did they do this to you?” Gertrude set her jaw, closed her fists.
She had no answer to this; no answer was forthcoming.
It was just one of those unthought-of evils of the world. Children could know suffering too.
“God damn it. God damn it! GOD DAMN IT!”
Gertrude screamed her lungs out and struck the wall, her fist taking on the evil red color too.
Around her and Azazil, the colors twisted and turned once again, bringing them to a new scene.
Gertrude’s tears fell like yellow and green and black color into the floor below.
When next the aperture into Norn’s prison opened, Gertrude’s head snapped toward it.
She briefly saw red on the walls in the interior of Island-3, but it was not aura.
Blood and spatters of bodies had smeared over the pristine steel.
An enormous figure walked through the open door. Tall, burly, with a confident gait.
Covered head to toe in power armor, of legendary Katarran make.
Save for his helmet, which bore two cat-like ears– it was made for a Shimii.
It was the biggest Shimii Gertrude had ever seen, taking step by thundering step toward Norn.
As soon as Norn first saw the intruder and her tired eyes adjusted to the light, she scurried back.
Crawling on the floor– but stopping at the wall formed by the trash behind her.
As if some part of her knew it was filth, not to be touched by someone– she still had– dignity–
Gertrude covered her own mouth, her chest pounding and shaking.
Norn’s fear overcame her anger and the room suddenly became greener and darker.
Her overwhelming aura infected Gertrude with the monumental fear of death that Norn had felt.
Even Azazil’s hands began to shake– she linked them behind her back to hide it.
“Astra Palaiologos.” said the man, approaching. He was so large. Norn was like a larva next to him.
Suddenly, the man knelt, keeping his head raised but his knees bent like a knight before a liege.
“Your majesty. Blessings of the Prophet who is most worthy, and the Caliph who is the appointed successor of his excellence, be upon you. I am called, by His Excellency, Radu the Magnificent.”
His voice was soft and sonorous. He was still enormous. Still casting a deep shadow over the girl curled up in the corner. She stared up at him with eyes rendered large and cloudy from the fear that overcame her. She did not understand his overtures. But whenever the man spoke, he was so immensely obsequious, his voice so beautiful and his cadence so poetic. These elements made her feel something.
“Your majesty; I sought you like a pearl in the sand of humanity’s streaming aether, and I am overjoyed that my divinations finally bore fruit. The Imam of Imams himself, our Caliph, his excellency Mehmed the Great, wishes to extend to you an invitation. He greatly desires to meet you. You shall be treated as an honored sister, and protected from your enemies; taken from this heinous captivity and given the respect which is your birthright. You have a God-given power, Astra Palaiologos, which will sweep away all that has wronged you, and Mehmed the Great will lead you, hand in hand, to its utmost realization.”
Astra shuddered, as the armored man reached out his thick, gloved hand, its digits extended.
That metal claw could have ripped her skinny arms right out of their sockets.
She was like a little doll made of rags compared to the titan that had come to seek her.
And she didn’t understand; she didn’t understand almost anything he meant.
Just the mere fact of hearing words, so many words, difficult words; it terrified her utterly.
His voice was beautiful but everything he was saying was ugly, so ugly, in her mind.
All she could do when faced with that hand was shake and shut her eyes and grit her teeth.
“Princess; your condition is truly evil. But all of your oppressors have paid in blood. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will judge them now. They will never hurt you again. Come with me, Astra Palaiologos.”
She understood the sentiment behind those words. She must have seen it in his aura.
He had killed all of her retainers. Even the briefest thought of such violence drove her to tears.
He waited patiently with his hand outstretched, while Norn shrank from him in terror.
“Can’t you see you’re terrifying her, you bloated fool?”
Radu’s head snapped over his shoulder and he stood quickly, Norn crawling back in his shadow.
He faced the aperture from where he had come and found Ganges standing there.
Unchanged by the years.
She had a companion; wavy blue hair to her shoulders, wearing a jacket, vest, shirt and tie, long pants.
A young-looking face with a sharp gaze that seemed to have a presence beyond her years too.
This woman briefly surveyed the room and Gertrude could sense her disgust with what she saw.
“This is horrific.” said Euphrates, Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.
Gertrude was certain that was her name– Norn’s emotions in this room coalesced powerfully around her.
“Well.” Ganges added. “I know what you would have said about it at the time.”
“No, you don’t. But we’ll talk about this later.” Euphrates glared at Radu.
In return, Radu reached over his shoulder.
The handle of a weapon snapped from his back to his hand. He drew it in front of him, and it unfolded into a polearm with an axe-like bladed head which began to gently buzz with microscopic vibrations.
Euphrates crossed her arms. “I don’t care what Mehmed is intent on calling himself now. This woman’s life is not his to toy with. I won’t let her become another tool for his schemes. Understood, Radu Yilmaz?”
Radu scoffed through this mask upon hearing his name spoken so casually.
“I should like to see how you intend to take her from me.” He replied simply.
Ganges sighed. “I guess I’m up, huh?”
“You’re responsible, aren’t you?” Euphrates replied calmly.
“Oh, so that’s what we’re doing? Fine then. You’re impossible.”
Ganges took two steps in front of Euphrates and put her fists up.
Radu stared at her. His face was unreadable due to the rigid snout-like shape of the mask.
There was something like a low chuckle coming through his respirator.
Ganges grinned at him. “I’m afraid that difficult bitch back there never fights her own battles, so you won’t get the satisfaction of beating her to a pulp and watching her pathetically demand more.”
Euphrates grumbled. “Ganges, this is nothing but slander–“
“Whichever of you gets cut in half first, it changes nothing.” Radu said, cutting Euphrates’ response off.
“Enough talking? Okay then. Madam Astra, please stand back from the bad man.”
Norn was now fearful enough to crawl back so far she wedged into cover amid the trash.
Gertrude almost wanted to run to her aid– but none of this was real– it couldn’t be real–
“Master, these emotions are real.” Azazil said. “Steady yourself and see it through to the end.”
Azazil reached out and held Gertrude’s hand. Holding it, Gertrude’s panic quelled.
She fixed her eyes on the combatants–
In time to watch Radu raised his halberd up with both hands.
Swirling black miasma crawling up his arms and along the length of the shaft, concentrating on the blade.
Spiraling around it until the halberd was engulfed in what looked like black heat-less flames.
Radu towered over Ganges like a demon and swung his weapon in a brutal overhead smash.
In response, the Immortal charged him with a grin on her face.
Rushing headlong, Ganges raised her fist over her head to collide with the immense axe blow.
Cutting head met bare knuckles, furious black aura colliding with that lazy candle-flicker of blue–
“Got you.” She shouted.
As the blade crossed the hazy blue color the blow softened to the point it slid across Ganges’ skin.
“What?” Radu cried out.
Ganges turned away the cutting edge and Radu’s arms pushed back as if his attack had bounced—
Leaving his chest open and exposed to Ganges’ fist.
Her knuckles connected with his armor and a pulse of red expanded out from the impact.
Radu staggered back as if hit by a battering ram, smashing into the wall behind him.
Ganges reared back up to a full stand from her striking stance.
One fist glowing blue and the other red, in the same way as Radu’s weapon had been colored black.
Beneath the aura of both fists, however, was a rushing rivulet of dark red blood.
Ganges winced, still grinning, but clearly in pain.
“Damn. What do they make that armor out of?” She said, shutting one eye.
Euphrates frowned. “We’re not used to having enemies near our level.”
From the wall, Radu stood back up. His armor had a banged-in dent on the chest.
His arms steadied around his weapon once more.
“Near? You underestimate me at your peril, old engineers. I am a disciple of Mehmed the Great!”
Radu leaped forward, his halberd slicing the air in a brutal swing tracing a trail of black and red–
“She said near.”
Ganges’ fists both turned blue and collided with the blade.
Between the combatants, red and black and blue colors burst like sparks.
Ganges swinging her fists and meeting the vibro-halberd as if her hands were made of steel.
Radu swinging overhand, horizontally, diagonally, raining furious sequential hacking blows.
Then, from a horizontal slice, Radu pulled back his blade, threw his weight forward and lunged.
Thrusting the vibrating spike atop the halberd head toward Ganges’ torso with all his might.
Saint’s Skin: Vestment!
In the instant between Radu drawing back and charging forward, Ganges was engulfed in blue aura.
Closing her eyes, she stepped forward into Radu’s swing,
turned her chest aside, as if a dance move,
and with an open palm, turned away the blade from its flat.
“You’re no Mehmed the Great.”
Ganges opened her eyes, stepped, as Radu fell forward, unbalanced.
With her free hand she seemed to twirl his aura out of his person like ribbons.
And with the same open palm that struck away his blade, she struck his face.
Delivering her aura and his own back to him in a blow that despite its apparent physical softness–
–rang out like a cannon.
King’s Gaze: Dominion.
Radu was bodily lifted from the ground and thrown on his back, his weapon falling at Ganges’ feet.
All of this happened as slowly as a droplet falling from a high ceiling.
And as fast as a bolt of electricity.
Gertrude watched the brawl unfold in disbelief.
“What the hell is that hand-to-hand technique?” Gertrude muttered to herself.
“I said near for a reason.” Euphrates replied. “You have a lot of aura to throw around and mastered some complicated concepts, but you are just using it to butcher people. We’re more advanced than that.”
Ganges scoffed, standing in the some position she was left after the blow.
Breathing heavily, blood dribbling down her hands– and some out of one eye.
“I’d like to see you pull off what I just did, Euphrates.” Ganges complained.
“Part of good management is delegation.” Euphrates replied.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Ganges’ eyes narrowed, and Euphrates’ shot back to the cave wall.
Slowly, but surely, Radu was standing back up to his feet.
Part of his mask had been broken by the force of Ganges’ strike.
Revealing an eye and a bit of boyish cheek, hinting at a young countenance.
Short messy hair, and a single exposed Shimii ear with hex-shaped scarring.
His shoulders were shaking under his armor. He was having trouble standing at full height.
Despite this and his heavy breathing, he recalled his weapon from Ganges’ feet.
Catching the handle in one hand, spinning the weapon partially, and catching it in the other.
He held the weapon in front of him, grit his face and screamed.
His roar pushed black aura across the room in overwhelming amounts.
“Be quiet. Don’t speak as if you’ve felled me, you worm-begotten whores. I will never fail my Caliph. I am his fortress and his sentinel; your fancy footwork can topple me a thousand times and I shall rise a thousand times. This blade will taste all the blood it needs to realize His ideals! Don’t mock me!”
His endurance surprised the two Immortals, and his growing determination was fearsome to behold.
Then, just as Ganges and Euphrates made ready to withstand a renewed assault–
Across the room, a wave of red suddenly overwhelmed the black aura that Radu had spread.
Euphrates and Ganges both turned their heads in surprise.
At the fourth person in the room whom they had all forgotten.
Even Gertrude had lost track of her while observing the battle.
At the back of the room, standing out of the trash in her discolored, ragged dress.
Norn walked forward, completely wreathed in the deepest, darkest red Gertrude had ever seen.
She shouted with such force that Radu began to shake.
Red trails flew from Norn’s body like arrowheads on snaking bodies.
Aiming directly for Radu and piercing his body in a dozen places. Leaving no blood, no wounds.
Nevertheless communicating as much rage and hatred as a hundred of Radu’s strokes.
Subject to such power, Radu’s exposed eye went dark, his body slumped.
Radu the Magnificent dropped his weapon, fell to his knees, and collapsed with a sudden finality.
Norn started to collapse as well, but Ganges rushed forward and caught her in her arms.
Euphrates finally moved from the entrance, quickly examining Norn.
And further examining the mess all around them.
“He’s not dead.” She said of Radu.
“Pity.” Ganges replied. “Well, he’s lucky I’m not as kill-crazy as he is. We need to go.”
Euphrates sighed. “Mehmed will keep coming after her. Violently. This is a mess.”
“There’s seven of us and one of him. Well– there’s six of us willing to do anything.”
Ganges cracked a grin. Euphrates put a hand over her own face.
“Please quit it. I– I’ll convene a discussion about Mehmed. Okay? But we need more information.”
“Fine. But what this one needs is to see Nile. Right away.”
“Agreed. Even under Nile’s care it will be a while before she recovers. Poor girl.”
Euphrates and Ganges both looked at the utterly exhausted Norn with great pity.
“She’s so light.” Ganges said. “This is too terrible. Damn it. I should’ve just taken her before.”
They carried her out and the colors swept after them, while Gertrude and Azazil watched.
Gertrude awoke with a start, lifting her head suddenly from Azazil’s lap.
Her breathing was heavy, and the world was spinning. She felt vomit rising to her throat.
She hugged herself, sweating, skin clammy under her armor.
Scanning her surroundings in desperation she found herself in the tunnel, in Norn’s old prison.
Gertrude recalled when she first ran into this place it felt like an endless maze.
Now there was only the large room, and a short hallway to the entry door.
It was dim and still filthy with plastic trash, but it didn’t feel so oppressive now.
Slowly, Gertrude’s breathing relaxed.
Behind her, Azazil gently wrapped her arms around Gertrude’s shoulders.
She could feel the warmth and softness of Azazil’s chest pressing behind her.
It titillated her just a little bit, and she did not want to acknowledge that fact.
“Master, do you understand better now?”
On the walls and floor, Gertrude could plainly see the damage from Ganges’ fight with Radu.
It was real. So she came to understand, or at least, she had a narrative in her head.
Norn had been a princess of the Palaiologoi, rulers of the old Katarran Kingdom in the Golden Age.
To escape the Warlords, she must have been taken here. They were lucky to find Island-3’s spire.
Then Norn was betrayed by her retainers, by the entire world she knew. Isolated for endless decades.
Terrorized and dragged out into the world during Mehmed’s Jihad, and ending up with a grudge against the Sunlight Foundation. She would ultimately become the Norn von Fueller that Gertrude knew.
Host to an incredible, world-consuming wrath; and an immeasurable pain.
Gertrude started to weep.
“What was the point of seeing that? If I can’t change it? If I can’t ever help her?”
Azazil clung more tightly to the back of the fallen night.
“Master, the emotions left in this place were entrusted to you.” She said into Gertrude’s ear.
Gertrude threw her shoulder forward to shake off Azazil’s embrace.
That ever-polite stranger behind her made no comment on this brutish reaction.
“Who the hell are you? What are you?” Gertrude asked brusquely.
“I’m Azazil An-Nur.” She said calmly. “I was created to take care of humans.”
“You keep saying that. Are you a human?”
Azazil smiled pleasantly, purple lipstick glistening in the dim light of the instruments around the room.
“That question is the subject of much debate.” She said easily.
“What? Debate by whom?”
Gertrude shook her head. She felt insane. Everything was completely insane and nonsensical.
“Forget it. Don’t answer that. How did you end up here? You arrived after Norn already left, right?”
“Correct. I never met the woman whose emotions marked this place. I had a purpose to come here.” Azazil said. “Unfortunately, the spire’s mainframe captured me by registering my STEM as a servitor and rewrote my purpose, so I have been tidying up here for a long time. I was forced to rid myself of my transport by the system in order to leave room for guests to arrive, so I became trapped in here.”
Gertrude looked over her shoulder and stared at her.
How did a computer capture a person? How did they– rewrite– a person?
But when Gertrude first saw her– she was in grave distress and asking for help.
And there was all that buzzing in her brain about– STEM reformatting.
It was a horrific thought, that she had become enslaved here. By a computer that could do such a thing.
Could she really have been telling the truth?
“Is that why I found you the way I did?” Gertrude asked.
Azazil nodded. “This Island-3 module is suffering system malfunctions after it was visited by a group of biomechanoids. As one of its servitors I began to malfunction as well. When I sensed the presence of guests, I called out in the hopes that I could reformat my command authorizations to become subordinate to you instead of to Island-3’s service fleet. As you can see, I was successful.”
“What the hell?” Gertrude cried out in frustration. “Are you or are you not a human being?”
“That question is the subject of much debate.” She replied again, still smiling gently.
“Are you a machine?”
“I am completely biological.” She reached out a hand. “I am soft and warm, aren’t I?”
She was– Gertrude knew that better than anyone now. Azazil felt like a woman.
“Then what the hell are command authorizations? How does a computer capture you?”
Azazil continued to speak easily and with frightening clarity.
“Via STEM, which was installed in me when I was created.”
“How? Explain how. What the hell even is STEM? The door had it– and you do too?”
“System for Token Execution and Management.” Azazil said.
“More than that! God damn it!” Gertrude choked down a desire to yell.
“STEM is a DNA-based storage and execution layer that hosts data Blocks as well as nanobiological instruction sets called Tokens. It is depicted as a helical chain of blocks in computationally important hierarchies called a stemchain.” Azazil said, still looking rather tranquil.
Gertrude felt a knot in her stomach. “That’s– that’s insane. DNA? So that was how– how you were–?”
Azazil continued. “To explain my situation further, the station installed a token at the top of my stemchain to control me. However, humans hold special permissions over my body as a safety measure, overriding any Autonomous Device. So you are the Master of this body now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”
“How–” She wasn’t going to even touch the body stuff. “How do you know my name?”
“I learned it at the time you became registered as my Master.” Azazil said, smiling.
That made no sense– or perhaps Gertrude didn’t want to make sense of it.
“Who– who did this to you? Who created you?”
Gertrude was just barraging her with aimless questions now.
She knew it was all useless, but she was angry and lost and increasingly hopeless.
In response Azazil furrowed her brows. Her eyes narrowed. Her gaze wandered.
“Not gonna answer that one, huh?” Gertrude said in a petulant voice.
“One moment Master. I am resolving blocks deep into my chain.” Azazil said.
Her tone of voice was completely unperturbed despite repeated questioning.
“It just looks like you’re stalling!” Gertrude shouted. “This is all made-up isn’t it?”
In the next instant, Azazil smiled again.
“I was designed by Margery Balyaeva.” She said.
Gertrude’s eyes drew wide.
She had heard that name– she had seen it–
in a dream.
Those words rang out in her head again. Had that– had all of that been real?
Then– had that horned woman really eviscerated her body–?
Gertrude felt like throwing up as she was flooded by reminiscence.
Nothing made sense. She was torn between so many different visions and worlds.
“Master? Are you unwell? There are still medicines in Island-3 I can access.”
None of that was going to help her. She needed something concrete to focus on.
She needed the next link in her own long and tormented chain of experiences.
“No.” Gertrude grunted and forced herself to a stand. “Forget it. I’ll be fine. We need to find–“
What this one needs is to see Nile—
Her emotions were all over the place, but one thing came to mind that felt certain.
Nile must have known something she wasn’t saying.
Azazil claimed her stay in Island-3 did not coincide with Norn’s. But Nile had met Norn.
It was time to ask her about this whole situation, and the mysterious Sunlight Foundation.
That would be her next step– find Nile, make her own up, even if it took brute force–
Then, Gertrude felt something stirring in a pocket of her clothes that distracted her again.
She reached into it and produced the trinket Nile had given her.
Stirring gently in her hand, vibrating with an otherworldly presence.
On its surface, the fluids formed a blue hexagon, its lines scratchy and irregular with vibration.
Gertrude thought she heard noises coming from it.
Brief bursts of garbled choppy audio that began to coalesce into brief gasping, wailing, moaning.
Suddenly, Azazil rushed to stand in front of her.
“Master, stay behind me. They mean you harm.” She said.
From her upper back, hidden under her cape, she withdrew an extendible riot baton.
She wielded it in one hand while extending her arm to cover Gertrude behind her.
“They?” Gertrude’s voice trembled. The room felt suddenly, bitingly cold.
And her vision swam, through a wave of fatigue worse than any she had previously felt.
For a moment, she thought she would collapse, but steadied herself on Azazil’s back.
And saw, over the woman’s shoulder, a figure moving in from the door.
From the door that had never once opened to admit anyone inside since Gertrude awakened.
“What is that– please– no– oh no– oh god–“
One of the most primal fears was the fear of conception in itself.
An ability to view an object with an inability to place its context within reality.
Shadows peering around corners only enough to be noticed. Distant, distorted figures coming into view. Person-shapes before the instant of recognition. Amorphousness, miscibility into the background. To allow for an instant, the existence of something before the mind could place it in the natural order of things. There was nothing there; the lens resolution was too low; the blob becomes a person in time.
In the instant before acknowledgment, there existed the possibility of the unknown.
When something was peered at by human for long enough without producing understanding.
Such a thing was called a monster. Excorium Humanitas.
Such a thing now stood in front of them. And even in full focus, it was impossible to believe.
“Master, I will protect you. Please leave these aberrations to me.”
Facing Azazil and slowly approaching, was a creature that was tall and seemingly thin, covered head to invisible feet in a long, raggedy blue robe or hood. Its face was covered by a mask, leaving no gap between the hole in the hood and the white of the mask. On that mask, moving like facial features but also etched as if cut right into the material, were two eyes like thick black lines and a jagged smile like the silhouette cut by a pumpkin with a candle inside. Its strange expression looked like a sleepy smile.
One arm was fully covered by blue cloth save for long bony claws specked with mold.
Mold also grew in patches around its worn robe and gave off bright blue spores.
Behind itself, the creature dragged an elongated, swollen arm with papery blue-black flesh growing even more mold. This arm and much of the creature’s body was tied in chains that seemed to fix its robes in place, but did not impede its movement, which itself was bizarre. It twitched from position to position, its motion blurring, its body elongating and shortening and sometimes even splitting in half or twisting into a knot as if Gertrude was viewing mismatched frames of animation rather than a real creature.
The same wailing, choppy noises that came from the aetherometer issued from the creatures as if they were living outputs for some deranged radio station. They didn’t have to visibly move to make noise.
Then like a static-torn message from a radio at the edge of its distance, Gertrude heard words.
This…first stone…my church…
There was a voice, a human voice, a
“M-Monika?” Gertrude said. Suddenly piecing together the speaker. “Monika’s voice? Why?”
One of the creatures, of which there were several, then made it close enough–
To lift its claw and swing with violence, its sleepy carved expression unchanging.
Blue color shone from its sharp white digits as it brought them to bear on Azazil.
Without hesitation, she swung her baton in return, purple color collecting around the shaft.
A sound like bone snapping– she battered away the claw as if it weighed nothing.
Instantly the creature in front of her disappeared in a cloud of spreading blue aura.
“Keep hold of yourself Master. Steel your emotions and do not fall asleep.” Azazil said.
Two more creatures slowly twitched into view, coming closer.
They clicked their silhouetted mouths, making impossible noises as they neared.
“I won’t let them touch you.” Azazil said. She looked briefly back at Gertrude.
Her orange eyes had bright red rings around the iris. Her aura thickened and flared.
Gertrude huddled behind her, speechless, eyes watering, feeling tired down to her bones.
For all she knew, she was already asleep. Because so far, nothing resembled reality.
Just as she got used to having her feet on land, she was suspended again in an instant of lunacy.
Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)