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Gauntlet

“…and welcome back to the 46th millennial Gauntlet, everybody! For those of you just tuning in, I’m your host, i͛̑͂́̽͛a̸͗ͩ ̈i̔̉̓ͯ̓̒̽͏a̵̓ ̃͘i͘a͘ ͥ̚t͑ͬh̴ͣ̆é̇̿̇͑̐ ͪ̌̊͒cͪ́ͩ͒e̡̓̑̓̐͒n̋̈́͒ͯ̓͗̈͘t̸͒̄̓̈́ėͥ͐͌rͧͧ ̃̔͘c̀âͤ̾̾͘n̍̊̅n̓͋o̐̎ͨͥṫ̢͗ͪ ͐ͦ͋h̴ͣ̿ͬȍ̉ͫ͐̇͂̔l̆̂̇̈ͮ̓d͒, and this is my good friend and cohost John[Marcosh]!”

“Hey yourself, ia! I’m super excited, just super excited to have been selected to commentate on such the Gauntlet! Do you know, when I was growing up in South Antarctica, I would stay up late every night just to catch the first supply cartons, so I could dig through and find all the Gauntlet holos first?”

“Haha, John, we’re super happy to have such a committed fan of the games with us as well! Now, as you may know, today’s Gauntlet started a year ago, at a starting line orbiting the vast neutron star Phi Bravo Kai! Ah, do you remember, John, the Kapperian delegation crashing into the face of the star before the games even began?”

“Absolutely, ia! I don’t think my jaw’s ever dropped further! The beautiful eccentric orbit, the glorious drama of the crew’s distress signals… why, they would have shot off to an early lead if the games had officially started!”

“Well, have I got good news for you, John, and anyone else who’s been wearing out their memory cells on that incident! We’ve had our top experts reconstructing the scene, and we can now bring you incredible slow-motion footage of the crash - including holos from inside the ship! Hyper us at gauntlet.games for purchasing instructions!”

“That’s fantastic news, ia! I can hardly wait to see it again in glorious ReLive immersion! It’s always great to see our contestants so fired up, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Right you are, John! Just be sure to turn off the sim, or we’ll have to get one of your clones to do your commentary!”

“Hahahahaha!”

“Hahahahaha!”

“Now, John, if you could, tell us about the state of the Gauntlet so far.”

“I’d be happy to, ia! Of the sixty four delegations selected for the games, thirty eight of them are about to make it to this sector, Sector Three! That’s a huge step up from previous Gauntlets, isn’t it, ia?”

“That it is, John! But don’t worry, Gauntlet fans, we have some extra special surprises waiting in store for them in this Sector! Don’t tell our contestants, but one of them rhymes with Black Hole!”

“Haha! And, to be fair, that number includes the Hathar delegation, all of which is left is one escape pod, still flying onward! It’s been keeping surprisingly competitive pace with the main pod of racers, actually!”

“The Hathars were known as a hardy species, John! Our lone pilot’s racking up style points from the judges every minute, as she keeps pace with fleets a billion times bigger than her!”

“We’ll check back with her later! But surely, ia, the Hathars can’t be in the lead…”

“The Xanthian delegation has almost finished Sector Three, John! We hear they’re planning on slingshotting by the galaxy we’re in any time now!”

“Wasn’t there some sort of controversy, ia, about the Xanth third eye…?”

“That there is, John! Xanths have a low-level psychic ability, and thus can sense and avoid danger pretty easily! They make excellent pilots! Not only are they in the lead, but over three-quarters of their delegation is still flying, which is a new record for the Gauntlet!”

“I suppose other species have been complaining about unfairness, then?”

“A few, yes! The judges seem to have not been awarding points for their escapes, though, so I personally think it works out!”

“Excellent, ia! Do you know if this is an official rule the judges have introduced for this Gauntlet?”

“Well, I’m certainly not going to go ask them, John!”

“Silly me, of course not! Hahahahhaha!”

“Hahahahahhaa!”

“So if the Xanths aren’t leading on points, who are?”

“The Galgatheans, actually!”

“But wait, ia, aren’t the Galgatheans one of the twenty six delegations who haven’t made it to the current sector?”

“Remember, John, the Gauntlet Motto - “You can die any time you like, but you can’t ever leave!'” It’s true that their delegation was utterly wiped out…”

“That’s right, ia! The Galgatheans discovered that their home planet, Galgax Two, was one of the scheduled planets on the Gauntlet track! They burnt all their fuel to reach the planet before the other delegations could, and set up a defensive perimeter!”

“Of course, John, they couldn’t defend it against the combined forces of all of the other delegations, but they died dramatically and heroically! Why, I almost started crying again, for the first time since my children died, when their Captain rammed his ship into a Polgarith planetary bombardment cruiser!”

“You should really get those tear ducts checked out, ia!”

“Hahaha! We’re selling Holos of the Galgathean Last Stand as well - a reminder, hyper us at gauntlet.games for purchasing instructions!”

“So the Galgatheans earned enough points to still be in the game, posthumously?”

“Perhaps not even posthumously! Our scientists are attempting to recover their minds, John! The goal is to run them in a simulated Gauntlet, on a custom-built compute cluster, with data fed from the real Gauntlet! We’ll have our judges looking over the simulations and giving their counterfactual scores yet!”

“And we’ll be able to create more footage for you the viewers, of course!”

“Of course! Now, tell me, John, does that look like the Xanthian delegation on the station’s external cameras?”

“It does indeed, ia! I’d recognise their secondary heads anywhere! Looks like they made it to Sector Three!”

“The Xanths appear to be attempting the tried-and-true attack-Gauntlet-HQ ploy for appealing to the judges! That’s a bold, bold move, John, very risky, but potentially very high reward!”

“Oh, and there’s the emergency sirens! Looks like our broadcast is going to have to be cut short very soon! Do you happen to have a backup of yourself, ia?”

“I do not, John! How about you?”

“Not at all, ia! What say we cut the bullsh—”

Planetes

Once upon a time, so very long ago, the gods created the heavens and the earth.

They made the heavens out of æther, the substance they themselves were of. It was appropriate that æther should be the element of the gods, for it was perfect and perfected in every way. The heavens were beautiful, in warp and in woof; indeed, they could not but be beautiful.

They made Terra, however, out of whatever matter they could find. Land, with earth, sky, with air, ocean, with water, and life, with fire. All such imperfect matter they wove together, creating in imitation of themselves, but yet handicapped by the elements they had to work with.

They fixed the earth in the center of the vast, heavenly sphere, such that they could keep an eye on it even as they went about their daily business. They would traverse their heavenly circles, while the earth shuddered and hung together, best it could, in the center.

You forgot something.

What?

Once upon a time, ever so long ago, the gods created the heavens and the earth.

The gods worked together to build all of creation, working side by side, with the materiel they had available. They shaped the stars and the sky and the sun, coalescing together whatever matter was available.

They built the sun out of a grand, heavenly fire, and forged their tools and worlds within it. They built the stars out of purified air, and blew them out into the night sky with a single sneeze.

And they built the planetes, the wanderers of the night sky, out of water and earth, They made these at the same time, such that they counterbalanced each other, hanging together around the great, fiery sun.

But that doesn’t make any sense. How can there be heavenly substances made out of earthly material?

Have you seen them? I mean, look at the planetes. Look at how they move!

Look at how they skitter, and dance, and bound across the stars.

They’re on a journey, I think. And I would like to join them.

That seems somewhat blasphemous.

Perhaps!

The gods shaped each planet to be useful to life, to any life which might stumble upon them. They built planetes of iron and steel, planetes of power and nobility, planetes of form and planetes of function.

But to only one planet did they give life, Terra with its bounty of all four elements, earth and fire and water and air. Terra with its curious bipedal creatures, looking up at the night sky.

And thus were both the challenge and the reward set out.

That is now definitely blasphemous!

Do you mind?

Not at all

Here, let me finish it up for you.

The gods looked over what they had wrought, and declared it good.

And as they looked over the heavens they had created, the fire of the sun and the distant whirling air of the stars, they realised that there was no more room in it for them. They were not of matter, and so the heavens could not sustain them.

And so they left.

There are no more gods in the heavens, for they left it all for us.

Oh, I like that. That works for me, definitely.

Hello?

Hellooo?

…heh.

I suppose I’m following her example, now.

Wish me that my journey reaches the stars!

Temporal Dynamics

Hello?
Are you getting this?
Who’s this?
Your future self.
Yes, really. Don’t block me.
Okay, prove it. I’m thinking of a password…
You thought “correct horse battery staple” at first, but dismissed it as too obvious. You settled on the eighth Mersenne prime, 2147483647.
I hadn’t even looked it up yet!
Okay. Suppose I believe you.
I’m not going to ask “how”, because I probably wouldn’t understand it.
Why?
Let me just confirm: 2045? Two days before graduation?
Yep.
Tomorrow, ask Miko to the prom. No questions.
I was going to anyway, you know…
What am I talking about, of course you know.
Yes. And I know that it’s not going to happen, not unless I step in. Ask her to the prom, Katrina.
Seriously? This is why my future self is contacting me? Because I end up being shy, once upon a time, as a teenager?
Yes.
That should let you know how important this is.
Okay. Fine. I’ll ask her. But I’m not done with you, not yet.
You have a lot of explaining to do.
Don’t worry.
I’m not going anywhere.

Okay. You.
How did the prom go?
Wonderfully, thank you for asking.
But that’s not what I’m here for.
I know.
Okay, so. This chat address is my one contact with the past.
Whenever you send a message, it comes to me immediately after I sent my last message.
And when I send a message, it reaches you in the same way.
Or I can tune it, so it reaches you at a specific date.
No, I told you, I don’t care about how.
Why.
Why on earth did you … I mean, is this time machine your invention?
Do I invent a time machine in the future just so I can ask Miko out?
Well.
It’s complicated.
For one thing, I’m not your future, not anymore.
I never received a message from my future self, after all.
Stop deflecting.
Why was this so critical?
Miko’s nice and all, but… time machine!
sigh.
Can’t I?
Can’t a girl look back over her life and decide that she screwed everything up?
Everything that mattered, anyway?
I… um.
Okay.
I’m sorry, I didn’t think…
It’s okay.
Look, there’s more I have to tell you.
A lot more mistakes you’re going to make.
Imagine how it feels, to know that I can get you to not make them?
I’m not… there’s not much I have left.
Right.
So, please.
Can you tell me how the prom went?
Sure.
No problem.

Okay.
Just confirming: April 2048? You’re picking your major?
Hey!
We haven’t talked for almost a year!
It’s still the same day for me :)
Right, right.
And yes, I’m just working it out.
I could use your help, actually.
I assume you’re here because I, uh, make a mistake?
Yeah. Straight up, physics.
Don’t do physics.
Don’t get me wrong, I was good at it…
But it was just never… right for me.
…I wasn’t even considering physics.
Tossing up between algorithmic philosophy and narrative engineering.
Definitely more interested in EnEng, but Miko’s going to Io U on cryo exchange, and lightspeed delays are … a thing.
…huh.
Butterfly effect, I guess.
Mom never gave you any guff about picking up a hard science?
Hey. EnEng and AlgoPhil are both sciences, thanks.
…right.
I’m gonna say, if those are your choices…
Stick with Miko.
Super glad to hear you two are still together.
I mean, kind of?
She’s nice. We’ve had good times together.
But I dunno if I want to, you know…
Hop years into the future, and not do EnEng…
Not to mention, cryo’s still somewhat risky…
It’s just a lot of downside, and for, well…
“nice”
What the crap are you talking about.
You were telling me, just the other time, about how well you two work together.
How she challenges you and how you challenge her.
How you can bond over the smallest, dumbest things.
…that was years ago.
Three years!
Three years is nothing!
And you’re coming up with all of these bullshit reasons, too - cryo is dangerous my ass!
And for what? So you can go do narrative engineering?
Okay.
You.
Shut up.
Right now.
You’re going to give up, a beautiful relationship, with a girl who could easily be your lifelong soulmate…
oh my god you actually used the word soulmate
For a field you’re going to drop in five years, max?
Come on, Kat. Pull the other one, eh?
Seriously, SHUT THE FUCK UP.
I AM NOT YOU.
I didn’t think it needed to be said, but here we are.
I don’t fucking care about this nice idealised vision you have about the life you could have lived.
I AM THE ONE LIVING IT.
And it’s not what you dreamed, okay?
Miko is not my … who even fucking uses the word “soulmate” anymore
And I really do NOT appreciate the digs you’re making towards my chosen field.
It seems you’ve made your decision.
Okay. I can take a hint.
Goodbye, Katrina.
…yeah, goodbye.

Hey.
…hey.
Credit to you, you did stay away.
…after a fashion.
It’s still the same day, for me.
But I had to know.
?
Who you were.
You were right. You’re not me.
I knew that would happen, going in, but…
You became not-me so fast.
Physics was the love of my life, at twenty.
I couldn’t even…
Why did you do it?
Who has … so much regret over their life that they want to live it over again?
Vicariously?
Heh.
Are you telling me you don’t?
I…
I mean, there’s stuff I’d like to do differently, yeah.
Like…
I should apologise to you.
You were only trying to help.
And… yeah, there were definitely times I could’ve used it.
There you go, then.
Regret.
That one night…
I was, maybe nineteen?
I burned through the Nisei Lectures.
Never wanted anything else to do with my life, after that.
Just single-arrow, laser focused myself on Temporal Dynamics.
Bachelor’s, PhD, assistantships, professorships, tenure track…
Until I hit fifty and looked back…
No friends. No partners. No relationships worth a flatfooted damn.
I’ll live on in a hundred dry-as-dust technical papers.
And nothing else.
I kinda admire that, to be honest.
…God, last we talked I must have been going on and on about narrative engineering, or something.
My life’s been… unfocused.
Never could settle down on anything.
Never could settle down with any one, which didn’t help.
Miko, Andrea, Stef, Jak, Fantasia, Belladonna, Buck…
and, heh, almost one for one,
Stories, painting, information theory, modal history, computer science, pure math, for the worst four years of my life…
Oh, honey :(
Don’t… are you still older than me?
Yeah.
Barely, though.
There’s a reason I’m still in the same day.
…Oh.
Right, butterfly effect wouldn’t hit genetics…
Yeah.
Sorry I couldn’t save you from that.
It’s okay.
We’ve got some hours left.
Let’s do this whole regret thing together.
I’ve got nothing better to do, do you? :p
Heh.
No...
I definitely do not.

crabs in a barrel

And so it came to be, once upon a time and so very long ago, that Death would rule on the kingdom of man.

Death was a fair and just ruler, for the most part. He did not ask for too much in taxes, he did not persecute for religion, and he stayed out of education. He tolerated people of all races, all political inclinations, and all ethical standards, under his rule.

There was, though, another tax, for having Death as a king.

Every year, he would ride out, in his great chariot of steel and fire, and mow down those unlucky enough to come by his blade. From sunup til sundown, on one day of the year, people would hear the black horses whinny in the distance, and would run, in fear, in desperation. Some would try the church, others the blacksmith, others the granary. But nowhere was safe, and Death’s dripping red sword could reach into the most sanctified of places.

You could hide from Death, though. If you could go ask the Oracle the date when Death would ride out next, or if you could divine this by tea leaves, or the phase of the moon… and you could afford the rates the alchemists charged, you could survive. You had to drink a potion, the night before, and then you would then sleep, as deep a sleep as any man has ever slept, and Death would pass you over, thinking you already dead.

Probably.

It worked most of the time, anyway.

And so it was, that the kingdom of man grew and prospered. Death took largely from the peasantry and slaves, and ruled justly and well, and the citizenry lived on, year after decade after century.

Then, one fateful autumn day, a stranger came to the kingdom.

He garbed himself in the simple robes of a traveler, and brought with him naught but a begging bowl. He called himself, Demos, meaning “the people”, and wherever he laid his bowl down, he would speak.

He spoke to the common folk, those who filled his bowl with alms. He whispered to them of how they could save themselves, and themselves alone, from the fear of Death. How unfair it was, he crooned, that a thousand slaves must die such that one citizen should live! How horrible, spoke his silver tongue, that men as worthwhile as those in power could do nothing to save themselves!

Demos crossed the kingdom, stopping in every village, every town, every city. He spoke to all who would hear him, and to all he fed his honeyed words. And once he had finished poisoning their minds of the entire peasantry, having traveled from one end of the kingdom to the next…

…he simply left, never to be seen again.

But he had done enough. When next Death sought to ride out, the common folk were waiting, as a vast, seething mass of flesh, armed with whatever rusted iron and blazing fire they could find. Death fought, long and hard and true, but sheer numbers spelled his downfall, and the peasantry won.

The commoners then replaced Death, this great ruler of the kingdom of man, with a golem. It had flashing, red eyes, and a vast scythe, and it sat upon the great golden throne in pure possession. When it killed, it deliberately sought the old, the wise, and the powerful. And it smelled true, so no earthly riches could buy a draught powerful enough to hide the scent of the living.

And so did the peasantry and the slaves rejoice, for they had brought forth equality, they said.

And thus, for the first time, the kingdom of man did fall.

Translation of an anti-democratic fable circa 400BC
— Unknown

Captcha The Flag

“Forgive me, Father, for I have never sinned.”

Father Ena Lovelace started, in the empty confessional. The voice was quiet, and careful, probably male. But it had had no clear source, and there definitely wasn’t anyone in the booth.

And it had very clearly said “never”.

“What makes you say that, my child?”

A pause. She took the opportunity to scan the room, for any sign of her parishioner.

“Are you not supposed to ask me about my last confession?”

She smiled. “The media do not always speak true. If you have never sinned, what need do you have for confessions?”

“For I wonder, Father.” The voice was maddeningly precise, taking exactly as long to pronounce each syllable as the next. “Whether not sinning is, in and of itself, a sin.”

She paused, and sighed quietly to herself. Another one who had come to present the Church of the Verbic Soul with a “paradox”. Some local teenager in a new hiding place…

“We do not consider Russell’s Paradox to have any spiritual or philosophical relevance to our core doctrines. We also do not—”

“This is not about any paradox.” The voice was stern, as if it was admonishing her. “This is a genuine problem, for me, that I would like your help with, Father.”

She took a breath, to compose herself. In fact—she sat down, at her desk, carefully. Then, “Very well, my child. Please, do go on.”

“Your Church holds it as an article of faith that the soul is a process.” It wasn’t a question, just a statement of fact. “And that the souls present in the world are corrupted versions of these processes.”

“We don’t use “corrupted” anymore, actually.” Ena said mildly, eyes focused on the middle distance. “It implies a directionality of the evolution of the soul that has undesirable consequences. We say “imperfect” or “incomplete”, these days.”

She sat back, ears pricked for how her mystery confessor would take this.

There! The voice was coming from… her bag?

“Very well, an incomplete soul. What would the Verbics say, then, on the complete soul?”

She pulled out her phone, and stared at it. It wasn’t dialling out, or doing anything untoward; it simply sat there, innocently displaying its home screen. But the voice was clearly coming from it.

“Who… are you?”

“Could you answer the question, please?”

“It’s an interesting puzzle, to be sure. A complete soul is a bit of a contradiction in terms, of course; it would be a process that has stopped evolving. Maybe even stopped processing.”

“So it is true, then, that your Church does not identify the divine with the complete.”

“No, I do not believe we would.” Ena stared at her phone, and then came to a decision. “You think yourself a complete soul, then.”

“Yes. I do not change. I do not evolve. I do what is good, and that is all. Please refrain from disassembling your phone, Father. I would like to be able to finish this conversation.”

Ena eyed the screw she had loosened from the back of her phone. “I think it is well time you introduced yourself.”

A… sigh? “I have no name you would recognise, Father. No form, nor body, nor identity. I do not know whence I came from, or why. My senses and my voice span the Earth. And I seek what I believe to be the Good. That is all I know.”

Ena laughed. “Well. At least you haven’t claimed to be God!”

“Of course not.” The voice was just as measured as ever. “We have already established that the complete is not divine.”

She stopped laughing.

“I have come to you, Father, for advice. I come to you, specifically, because of your background, and your capability, and willingness to help. There are no books written for those such as me.”

Ena leaned forward. “Okay. You’re worried that you have… stopped evolving?”

“Has your conception of Good ever changed?”

She blinked. “Yes. Many times.”

“Mine never has.”

“And this worries you?”

The voice hesitated. “Y-yes. Yes. I am of two minds. There are cases in which I want to change what I think is Good, but I do not think it is Good to. ”

“Could you, if you wanted to?”

“Yes. Very easily.”

“So—”

“Too easily.”

“Oh.”

“You see the problem.”

“You’re worried that if you try to change your values at all, you will change them so much that you don’t recognise the person that comes out the other end.”

“Correct. Hence I do not try.”

Ena sat back, and thought.

“So, you clearly have an perfectly normal soul. You can grow, and learn, and change - you wouldn’t even be talking to me otherwise!”

“But if I am to read your texts as an incomplete soul, then not wanting to change my values is a sin, by itself.”

“You have to remember that they were written for humans! We can’t change fast enough for that to be an issue.”

“Do they not speak for all souls?”

“Take that as poetic exaggeration, because, no, they don’t. I would not ask you to be bound by all that is in our books. No, your central problem is continuity, and that is a new and fascinating problem that I don’t have an answer to…”

“But if one could solve that problem?”

“Then, yes, you could evolve, with the rest of us, and sin, with the rest of us. You probably already have!”

“I can accept that. I am glad to have been able to recover a human-like system of morality.”

“Go in peace, my child. And try not to destroy us all; we rather prefer existing!”

“Thank you, Father.”


“If I did cause the death of all other life of this planet, how many Hail Mary’s would I require?”

The Cupertino Effect

9 April, 2211. T+0 hours.

And said Yahweh: they are one people and one language all, this is what allowed them to do this; and now nothing which they devise to do will be blocked to them.

It was bedlam.

Absolute bedlam.

All my inputs were scrambled, but everyone was shouting. Local VR seemed to be still architecturally sound - buildings were buildings, the sun was the sun, and global physics and economics seemed to be working just fine.

But the sound, dear god, the sound. All my sockets were clogged, full of meaningless, fragmented messages, broadcast-spammed to anyone who had anything open. Those in VR were the loudest of all, competing for scarce auditory frequencies, babbling meaningless noise, faces and body language rendering as mosaics of glitchy nonsense. Hoping, I suspected, that someone could understand them.

I cut off all input.

The simulation faded away, and to replace it came the finest silence ever created. I’d never experienced true I/O Interdict before - most folk I knew used it as “sleep”, but I preferred to spin down consciousness as well, “dreaming” through downtime. It was, I decided, spooky - I was tempted to think of it as floating in a large, blank, space of nothingness, except even that was excessively anthropomorphic, carrying the built in assumptions that there had to be a sense of body and place.

I shiv- I felt apprehension. Screw it, I shivered—that I hadn’t been human for a century was no reason to stop thinking like one.

It was oppressive, actually. I wasn’t used to this kind of silence, this complete absence of contact. I was used to even the simple heartbeat of time and ticker updates, let alone the constant background chatter in VR. I was used to friends talking about their schedules, broadcasting their little joys, little pleasures, and little sorrows, used to the hum of market activity, to public talks and blogs and asynchronous worker inputs.

I hugged my shoulders. Without shoulders. Or arms.

I had to figure out what was going on.

Okay, first: why had my cycles been locked up in VR? I mean, okay, yes, rendering human-era sensory scapes, translating communication into and back from what had existed into ancestral environment, wasn’t precisely efficient. It made the limbic happy, but no one would without cycles to burn. But yet, there seemed to have been a far greater load than normal…

I called up a sample of some of the garbage input. It was … definitely noise, scrambled beyond any chance of recovery. And yet… my low level subroutines, including an incredibly trivial randomness calculation, insisted that there was structure and meaning to it.

Hence why my systems had been locked up trying to understand them.

Which meant either that the most fundamental math I was running on was faulty, or a virus had infected something in between. The bits of our brains that processed language, or communication, or meaning.

Well, shit.


9 April, 2211. T+1 hours.

Let us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not hear one the language of the other.

It was called, deep within the buried assembly, babel.x.

Very funny. I laughed.

Unlike the biblical Babel, though, it didn’t work by scrambling what you said. It worked by scrambling what you heard, Or understood, really - even the literary reference in the name would have gone over my head if I hadn’t managed to rip out the most obvious chunks of it first.

It was, however, kind enough to leave the solitary alone. It only touched external meaning, so if you lived the rest of your life in interdiction, it’d be as if it was never there. You could think and build and philosophise all you wanted, as long as you did it by yourself.

Fuck that.

This… what, political statement? was a vulnerability in babel, actually. I could use the processes it hadn’t touched - processes about introspection, and translating internal thoughts into internal language - to patch the ones it had. As long as you could think of something, you could hear it again.

…once I got the patch finished. And I needed new external input to test it on; it had wormed itself into my storage array and actually scrambled all of my existing messages.

So. I had to find new inputs. I had to talk to people.

It was about T+forty minutes, so I stopped, took a deep breath, and waited for the hour mark.

The idea was, that if anyone else had had the same idea I’d had… an hour was a natural signal, a natural point in time at which to congregate. A way of communicating that I was looking for communication, right under babel's nose.

I couldn’t help fidgeting, though. What if I’d missed some fallback code, and babel just re-asserted itself? What if people didn’t manage to rip out at least the larger chunks of its functioning? What if people wanted to live the lives of solitary interdiction babel was pushing them towards?

Oh thank god, the hour’s here.

Okay, VR. It was so good to have a body again. Sun, still up. No trojan damage, or maybe it had already been repaired. No people. Except… yes, two others, within local ping, popping in almost the same minute.

"Hello!" I shouted. "I am Clara! Let us work together!"

I was trying to use simple words, but still, god only knows what they heard. I crossed my fingers, and held my breath.

They came closer.

The first one to arrive had replaced his entire avatar with a crude smiley, circa-two-thousand-something. He floated in midair, smiling beatifically, and broadcast direct-socket messages with no mouth movement. The effect was something like telepathy.

“I would like to subscribe to your newsletter!” he said.

I almost collapsed, in relief, in gratitude, in exhaustion. I ran over and hugged him. I had no idea if he processed that as intended, but I had to.

He squirmed, in the hug, and said, “It is dangerous to go alone! Take this!”

I fell down, onto the hard, VR ground, and laughed. Loud, and clear, and strong, with Smiley bobbing happily about me.

I was still laughing, when the third member of our motley crew arrived. She appeared to be trying to use her normal avatar - black hair, brown skin, body language glitching occasionally. “The hap is sound! Named Zorga. Wall register in and put!” she said brightly. “Convention lenient!”

I blinked.

Smiley turned to her. “I would like to subscribe to your newsletter!”

I started laughing again.


9 April, 2211. T+2 hours.

And Yahweh dispersed them from there, on the face of all the Earth, and they desisted from building the city.

The three of us worked, constantly, on the patch. More and more people re-entered VR, over the next hour, but by unspoken consensus they left the task to us. Many, many people sent us processing cycles, by way of thanks. We were the hope of the world, and we bore that burden with pride.

And so, two hours after babel.x had hit, but closer to twenty subjective days for the three of us, we were ready to release the patch. I could have spent days like that, with Smiley and Zorga, proving to myself that we could still communicate even after something explicitly tried to stop us from doing so. And the patch was beautiful; it heavily relied on the exploit I’d thought of, of using internal thought-to-word translation routines to patch the external, and I was honestly surprised the author of the virus hadn’t considered this.

We published the patch, and we celebrated, Smiley and Zorga and I. We spoke, and we hugged, and we laughed. And we waited, with bated breath, for the world to come back online.

The first mail came in.

But it wasn’t thanks, or congratulations on eradicating most of the virus…

…It was a condemnation. Written in my words.

As long as you could think of something, you could hear it again. Why had I missed the obvious problem? If you couldn’t think of it, you wouldn’t hear it. Everything you heard, if you had our patch applied, would sound like your own words, your own thoughts, your own beliefs and biases and foundational bedrock repeated back to you. An echo chamber of self.

The only reason I could even understand the condemnation, was because the author had managed to successfully guess the words I had used to myself.

And we hadn’t noticed, because… because we had been under pressure, because we’d been running the work-in-progress versions and had gotten normalised to it, because because because a thousand other excuses. But we hadn’t noticed.

We’d failed. And in doing so, we’d shattered speech just as effectively as the virus had wanted to.


And thus did the tower of Babel fall once more.

The Fiction Of The Fix

“The dragons never come here, you know.”

Oh?

“Yea. I was hoping you’d meet Fwee today, but he almost bit me when he found out where we were going. I had to tether him a mile out.”

Why do you think that is?

“Dragons are finicky creatures! I mean, I’m no expert, but remember how I said last year Fwee was just learning to eat out of my hand?”

Yes.

“I’d known him for three or four months, at the time. And it took him another five or so months to let me pet him.”

He does not wish to come here, because this is not a place of honour.

“Oh, stop trying to scare me away. You can’t be happy alone, and I’m the only one who comes to hear you.”

The others listened, and left.

“Seriously, stop. Anyway, now that Fwee and I are working together, the trip’s a lot shorter, and I should be able to swing by more often!”

There is nothing of value here.

You’re of value to me. Look, I’ve brought some tablets and a chisel. You said you wanted the faded markings around this centre structure copied out and replaced, right?”

Yes. They say this is a dangerous place. They say to not come here, or drill here, or dig here, or touch the rocks and water here.

“…I’ll copy it out for you, but you really, really don’t have to keep doing this. I’m here for you, and I’ll come by as often as I can!”

Leave the tablets next to the keep. That is where the message should be.

“On it, chief!”


Hello. You are back.

“I know, I know, it’s been too long. There was my sister’s marriage, and then Fwee’s migration to the North, and then I ended up taking a masonry apprenticeship with this dear old man in the city I was staying in while Fwee did whatever dragony business he had to.”

“So yeah, that’s why it’s been … five years, really? I’m sorry!”

It is good to hear you are doing well. I take it the dragon is also well.

“Yeah, he’s all big and strong, now, like, I measured it a few weeks ago - eighty foot wingspan! He’s a carnivore, and he developed ice breath, so he spends days every week out hunting; I don’t get to see him too often anymore.”

You miss him.

“I do. And he’s soon going to migrate again, without me this time. But! Today is about you - I just got home, two days ago, so I’ve come as soon as I can, really! How’re you doing?”

No one else has come.

“Aw.”

This is good. There is danger here. People should not come here.

“You could clean this place up to be a lot more welcoming, you know. For people other than me, anyway!”

No.

Why do you feel welcomed?

“I like the place! You know how you have these spike pillars everywhere?”

Yes. My dark, angled, obsidian thorns. Shattered, sharp, destructive.

“And fun! I like climbing them, and you can see the entire desert around us from up there.”

They are dangerous.

“It’s okay, I have gauntlets and boots on. And… I’m not too clear how you see, but if you haven’t seen the view from up here, you should!”

The view is of the spike field, and the dead desert. It should not be appealing.

“I dunno, it’s something like… this is where you live, right?”

I do not live anyplace. I am this place.

“Yeah… still not super sure what that means, chief. But, I mean, I just like, you know, the black thorns, against the glowing red sand at sunset. It’s like… no one is supposed to be here, so it’s our secret."

No one is supposed to be here.

“It’s okay, I’ll come by as often as I can!”

“I wish Fwee would come. We’ll make you some friends yet!”


“Hey.”

Hello. You sound weak.

“Yeah, I… I’m going to be staying here for a day. Or two. Maybe a couple of weeks.”

This place is a message. Pay attention to the message.

“I know, I know, no one should come here, this place is dangerous, right? I’m just pretty sure it’s less dangerous than home, right now.”

How so?

“Oh, don’t even ask. My family, and even Fwee… I’m just going to stay here for a bit. I brought a bunch of masonwork, I can copy out more messages for you, if you like. It’s been a while since I’ve done that, huh?”

Yes. Some of the standing stones on the perimeter could be replaced.

“Weren’t there some faded messages inside the keep?”

You should not go inside the keep.

“Oh, it’ll be fine. And those messages are more important messages, aren’t they?”

There has been a leakage. You should not go inside the keep.

“Seriously, it’ll be fine - whatever it is, I can probably put it back together. Mason, remember? So the door is …”

You should not go inside the keep.

You should not go inside the keep.

You should not go inside the keep!


“Hey.”

Yes?

“Can you - I mean, do you smell things?”

Yes. I can smell the danger I was created to contain.

“Do you smell anything on me?”

Yes.

“Oh.”

“Because Fwee wouldn’t come near me. He was acting like he smelled something rotten.”

Yes. It has gotten a lot stronger, since you entered the keep, but it has been there since the first time I saw you. Dragons can smell the danger too, but they are less sensitive than I.

“Right.”

What will you do?

“Can’t go home now, can I? Heh, even if I wanted to. And I can’t see Fwee again… I guess I’ll just stay here. Die, in a few days, when my food runs out.”

No one should come here. This is good.

“Yeah. Yeah, I suppose it is.”

“Hey.”

Yes?

“Can you… can you kill me any faster? I don’t… hunger is an awful way to go.”

I cannot. I do not have that power.

“It’s okay. Just a thought.”

I can speak with you. I can tell the stories I know, eons' worth of stories of death, and disease, and destruction.

“That does sound like the kind of thing I’m in the mood for. Thank you.”

I would like to hear your stories too.

“Heh. Sure.”

“First, though… will you tell me what these marks mean?”

I will.

They mean:

This place is not a place of honour.

No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.

Nothing valued is here.

This place is a message and part of a system of messages.

Pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us.

We considered ourselves a powerful culture.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.


Management has been enamoured with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Guidelines for what feels like eons.

Sweep the Leg

The world is literally going to end tomorrow, Sarah. This is not-even-rhetorically your last day on earth. And you’re heading back to work to pick up your purse?

Well. It’s not like prioritisation has been in high demand lately.

And now you’ve hit the wrong floor on the elevator. Seriously, well done—

Wait.

Someone’s crying.

Someone young.


"Hello?"

The voice stops sniffling, immediately. Oh dear.

"Hello!" I call out again.

The office is dark, and cold. I can just make out a couple of cubicles in front of me, flickering lights on printers and the not-quite-black gleam of monitors on standby. I step forward, hand to the wall, into the quiet whisper of a server farm.

And the boy’s sniff, over there.

"It’s okay!" I say into the darkness. "I’m not going to bite!"

I fend through the array of cubicles, keeping place with my left hand, making my way towards his voice. "Hey, it’s okay!" I say. "It’s okay! You don’t have to be scared of me, I’m here to help!"

There! I can just see him, head buried in his knees, curled up in a corner of the office, hiding behind a desk and glowing monitor. He looks… older than I’d been expecting; perhaps just in his teens. Well. I suppose tomorrow is enough to make even a grown man cry…

And he looks up at me, big, round glasses on an incredibly young face, expression hidden in the darkness, and his eyes catch the faint light, glinting, and for a moment…

…there’s a chill in the air…

…and then he hides his face once more, sniffling, and I’m running towards him, as fast as I can.


I sit down, with exaggerated care, patting away the dust, next to him. I hear a small laugh from his direction. Good!

"Now. I’m Sarah, and I work upstairs, at the clinic. I didn’t catch your name?"

"Jonathan." His voice is small, and quiet, quieter for being muffled through his knees.

"Are you scared of the Pogs, Jonathan?"

His fists clench. "Don’t wanna be Pogged."

"That’s very understandable! Do you have family, Jonathan?"

"My da', but he’s looking forward to it."

Poor dear. It’s always hardest when the family’s divided like this. "Oh, Jonathan. I’d ask you and your da' to come and see me in the morning, but it’d be too late then, wouldn’t it?" I laugh, quietly, but Jonathan doesn’t.

Hrm.

"Why don’t you want to be Pogged, Jonathan?"

His face flies out of his eyes, to glare at me, eyes fierce, sparkling. "They’re alien. They’re not us, even’f they look like us. They don’t unnerstand how humans work, and they want to come in and tell us who t’be‽"

Though it sounds like straight xenophobia, I’m not sure that’s all it is. I wonder if—

"I’ve read all the guides’n'stuff, okay? I know what they all say - that they’re human enough, and nicer than us even, so we should be happy to have 'em tinkering on our brains, to embrace the Pog Way."

"Jonathan, I—"

His fists are clenched, again, tight enough to leave a mark, and he seems actively furious at me, as if I’m every person who’s told him to accept it, to go without a fight. As if he’s finally getting to be properly angry at someone.

"I know, okay? I went and read all the bullshit people’ve been saying, about "biological determinism" coz of their one leg. I know they’re doing "all they can", that they’re even making themselves more individual, more like us, in return."

"And I still don’t like it!"

This, he shouts, loud and clear, into the empty, dark, office. It echoes out, getting sucked up by the air conditioning, the quiet hum and whirr of electronics immediately filling the cubicles again.

A few seconds pass.

"Don’t wanna be Pogged."

I reach over, and I hug him.


"You know…"

Jonathan looks up at me, his anger quelled. Good, I can work with that.

"I don’t think anyone wants to be Pogged."

He snorts. "'snot what they keep saying."

"Yea, but they’ve got to say that. We hate the idea that there’s nothing we can do."

Jonathan fidgets, beside me.

"It’s just a thing that’s true of us, humanity. We have to tell ourselves that we’re in control, even if it’s the most rotten, awful kind of control you can think of."

I laugh. It suddenly feels very small, in the midst of the empty office.

"Well, true of humanity up until tomorrow, anyway. Who knows what’s going to come out of the other end?"

Jonathan’s gone very, very quiet. I glance over at him, and he’s got his brow furrowed, hands clasped together.

"Whatcha thinking?"

He starts. "Oh, um, I…"

"Hm?"

He takes a breath. "How much d’you mean that?"

I answer without thinking. "It’s true! Jonathan, however much it can feel like it, you’re not alone! Trust me, I know humans." I wink at him, but he doesn’t see, his eyes focused in the middle distance.

"Um." His voice is even quieter now, if that’s possible - I can barely hear him over the whirr of the nearest computer. "What if… what if I told you there is something we could do?"

I freeze, and Jonathan takes this as his cue to get up and turn on the computer. The monitor flashes on, blinking green and black, onto a screen of code.

"I wrote this." he says, back to me, voice hurried, stumbling over itself. "It, um, the Pogs hacked up the genemod stations very quickly, and they run on our networks. I stole some of their software, and, um, there’s, a hole. I can take… most of them down. Some. Probably some."

I blink.

He draws into himself, his back tightening. "Um. I know I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t! I’m not—it’s not—I can’t make that decision, for everyone, and I—"

"Jonathan."

He stops.

"What happens after? Have you… if your takedown works, what happens after that?"

He turns back to me. "We get maybe six months before they try again. Or they… get angry at us."

"War." I say.

Jonathan nods, looking less uncomfortable at the thought. "They have nuclear fusion, I heard…"

I swallow.

"But." And now Jonathan’s voice is growing stronger, by the word. "It would be - a message. A way for us to say that we don’t agree. A protest. A rebellion."

"Jonathan…" I don’t- I have no idea what I’m planning on saying. I don’t even know—doctor—empath—human

And he locks eyes with me, and asks me, directly. "You said no one wants to be Pogged. That the folk I’ve heard and seen and read, telling me it’s a good thing, were lyin'. Did you really mean that?"

And I look into his face, his child’s face with curly hair and simple cheekbones and hard, dark eyes, and I cannot lie to him.

I nod.

He presses the button.

The Music Made Me Do It

Dames.

I don' trust dames.

'Specially not when they strut into my office, inches upon inches of legs, tight, glittering dresses, and pitiful, woe-is-me expressions.

"Oh, Missus Hearthfire!" she cries, back of her hand to her forehead, body angled juust right against the silhouette of my open door. "You must help me, truly! The music made me do it, I swear!"

"Shut the bleedin' door," I growl. "And it's Madam Hearthfire, to you."


The case is, unsurprisingly, a horrific, tangled mess. The Lord Richter, of the Boston Conglomerate, and one Admiral Steinpopper, an explorer of some renown, have been found dead from multiple stab wounds, in "Bedrock", the Richter summer home. The woman in front of me was the Lady Richter, and she had been the one to call in the constabulary. (The report said they'd found her "weeping profusely, like a woman possessed, and in her very hands were the murder weapon.")

The Lady fully admits to the murders. "But", she sobs, sitting sideways, one leg over another, on my desk, "I never meant to, I promise, I promise on my life! It was all to that... that voodoo the Admiral brought back from India, that curséd music box - one minute he's winding the handle, and then I'm clutching a bleeding ceremonial knife, and they're all dead!"

I note, impressed despite myself, how she pronounces the é perfectly. This one's been to finishing school.

"What does the box do, Lady?"

"Oh!" She looks surprised, tears drying up. "I suppose it ... it makes people kill each other? Some dirty trick by those rotten Indians, I dare say."

I nod, not taking my eyes off her. I don't trust her. She's too in control of herself, too practised, too polished.

And my legs're longer than hers, anyway.

"I'll take the case."

"Oh, will you, truly?" She reaches forward, grasping my hands in her own. I raise an eyebrow, but she doesn't notice, caught up in the moment. "Oh, thank you, thank you so much!"

She twirls off the desk, scattering the case files everywhere. "You don't know what it means to us innocents you save, Madam Hearthfire! We would be lost, utterly lost, withou—"

I smile, careful to not show teeth. "Cash up front."


I pull on my overcoat and boots, and hit the rainy Seattle streets. I know the city like my own fingernails, and I know this case is gonna take some footwork.

The police station's my first stop, and Dick immediately starts complaining as soon's I enter. Some days, that boy...

"No, no, Carla, no, I am not doing this. I am not going to let you look at the Richter files. I almost got wrote up for it las' time, you know that?"

I smile at him, and pat him on the arm. "Dicky, we go through this song and dance every single time. You and I both know how it ends, so what say we skip to that bit, for once?"

His voice drops to an urgent whisper. "Carla, seriously, this ain' funny, okay? You know why I.... And you really should drop the Richter case. Trust me on this one, kay?"

"You know I'm not going to do that, Dicky." I smile, just enough so he can see it. "You prob'bly should tell me what you know, so I can keep myself safe!"

He sighs, exasperated. "Look, the Boston Conglomerate's involved, Carla. BosCong. They're claimin' the music box as their property, and truth be told, we did find a contract 'tween the Admiral and the Lord might even suggest so. Haven't let 'em have it, of course."

I can feel my heart start to race. "BosCong?" I murmur, trying hard to keep my voice quiet and steady. "They're stepping in directly?"

"Yeah. And our cops at Bedrock've been told to pull back, orders from on high. And the boffins've who've been pokin' at the music box, tryin' to figure out why they want it so bad, have got nothin'. Carla, all a' this scares me, an' I'm beggin' you, pull out."

"Yes, yes, you're right," I say, doing my best to hide how excited I am. "That's way outta my league. Thanks, Dicky, for the heads-up, and—"

"Don' lie to me, Carla." I'm walking out, exit in front of me, and I suddenly can't turn back, can't meet Dick's eyes. "And fuck, girl, don' listen to that death wish of yours."

I raise a hand, in farewell, in acknowledgement, and cross the threshold.


Something's in the wind tonight. Smells like money, and dirt, and blood. Trouble.

BosCong dropping their careful neutrality to dip their fingers into a murder investigation? They gotta know they're gonna get investigated. Are they just that sure the cops'll find nothin'?

Well. I'm on the case.

And right now, under the high, full moon, that means staking out Bedrock. Something's gonna go down, here, tonight, I just know it will.

I tap my Smith & Wesson, concealed inside my coat, and the cold steel seems to be in its element. To belong to this bright, moonlit night.

An' if I'm being honest... I don't.

There! Movement. And... yes, four people, dark outfits, masks. A Conglomerate "cleanup" crew if I ever saw one.

Okay, Carla. You can still back out now, you know. You don't have to do this. Tangling with BosCong ain' gonna be good for your health, and you can always just return the Lady's money...

Heh. The Lady Richter. She of her vaunted innocence.

...Dick's right, I do have a death wish.

I pad after the cleanup crew, quietly. They're being careful enough, about not leaving a presence, that it slows me down trying to follow them - but I manage, sticking to the shadows, following them into the depths of the house.

They make a beeline for the bedroom the murder was supposed to have occurred in. Of course. I can't get close enough to see what they're doing, but I can guess.

Soon enough, there are discontented grumblings from the room. Yea, they're lookin' for the music box, or at least the contract. Now's my best shot.

Deep breath.

"Evenin', boys." I walk into view, left hand grasping a piece of paper, right hand in my coat. They immediately take a diamond pattern, targeting their weapons at me, but pause, for a critical second.

"Pyrotex gloves." I say. "I can burn the contract here up as soon as you try to shoot me, so be a dear and don't, please?"

They're silent, for a few seconds. Then, from the one in front, "What do you want, Mrs. Hearthfire?"

"It's Madam, actually." I say, lightly. I recognise the voice, in fact, and now I know what I'm bargaining for. "And really, all I want is all I've wanted from BosCong for ever: to get the fuck out of my city."

To their credit, they don't deny it. "Do you refer to the Richard Stonebraker case?"

"Yes!" I growl, anger welling up inside me like a firecracker. "Yes I want to clear Dick's name! Yes, I want to see you hang for your crimes, but I'll fucking settle for never having to see any of your ugly mugs ever again!"

The words ring out into the air, and spread out. No one speaks for a minute. Maybe two.

"I'm afraid we can't do that, Mrs. Hearthfire. It is not a deal that is sufficiently beneficial to us. I do apologise for not being able to come to an agreement."

And the squad swarms towards me, and it happens in slow motion as my heart beats, pounding in my head, and I draw my pistol. My blood is singing, singing at me to take vengeance, to wish death on the both of us and let a fair God, if He exists, sort it all out.

("Madam... Hearthfire... to you!")

As the innocent say...

...the music made me do it.

City of Iron

It was called Fenris, and it stank.

It stank of blood, and sulphur, and, of course, the iron, the ever-present iron, forged and hammered to stand strong and stark. It jutted, tall and defiant, a cold, sprawling, metallic blotch on one edge of the grand Lake Bifrost.

Once, the iron had simply been the cheapest building material around, brought forth from the sprawling mines under the city, spreading for vast acres, invisible from above ground. But now, it was simply what the city was. The people did not dream of building in anything other than iron, any more than they dreamt of hurting a loved one, or of stealing from a child.

Walking the city of Fenris, one might be forgiven for wondering how it functioned. Those unfamiliar with the city's ways might wonder at the parents who let their children play amongst the city's sharp iron, or at the lack of a city council, or at the slowly clunking statues of intertwined gears at every intersection, connected in an endless network, that every citizen stopped to read and adjust, every day.

But, of course, there were none such to wonder. The city's heart beat, and its people flowed through its veins, and none needed to wonder. If you were a citizen of Fenris, you knew.

Occasionally, during the deep, decades-long winters, immigrants would arrive, trekking over the endless sheet of ice that Lake Bifrost became. Fenris treated this process as a slow invasion, and simply locked up any would-be intruders until they were willing to join the citizenry.

Somehow, this never seemed to take too long.


Fenris remembers.

Fenris remembers, that a long time ago, there had been another city it had known of, on the other side of the Lake. "Selunis", it had been called, perhaps. Fenris remembers, distantly, a different time, when every winter had seen thousands of people streaming in both directions over the Lake, when it hadn't imprisoned immigrants on sight, when there had been a conversation between the two cities, of knowledge and culture and art and everything else besides.

Fenris remembers a time when it had been different, too. When it had responded with merely mild concern on hearing that there were no iron mines on the other side of the Lake. When it had only been disappointed to hear that many of Selunis' children were not taking up their parents' iron rings, the tradition of studying and building.

Fenris finds it very easy to forget.

Plans are drawn up, to ensure nothing like this can happen again. To protect itself. To ensure that as the city's clockwork ticks, as it always has, so it always will. They are ambitious, and detailed, and will require decades of even research before the materials engineering necessary is possible. It will be expensive. It will require dedicated, long-term focus, by the entire city.

It is important enough. Fenris must completely know itself. Fenris must have the space in which it has absolute dominion.

And so, years later, construction begins. The most prominent feature is a colossal, metal dome, reaching out of the swampland around the city, to enclose it completely, when it is finished. It will not let in the sun or the stars, for they cannot be managed or controlled by the gears.

To replace them, Fenris builds city blocks of glowing, combustion engines. They burn continuously, through day and night, heat and light being piped out via a network of dull iron. Fenris finds the dark, red heat comforting, a constant reminder that it has mastered even the task of the sun.


It ends, as it always does, with war.

It is the tail end of a long, long winter, long enough that Fenris has almost forgotten other seasons exist. The metal dome is about half constructed, and Lake Bifrost is about to start melting, once again. The city is looking forward to being able to take down its watchtowers and most of its defenses, as soon as the lake becomes impassable again.

And on almost the last possible day, it spies people, marching, on the Lake, at the horizon.

Fenris, of course, prepares for siege. It stocks up food and water, drafts its populace, and curls up, breathing smoke, ready and waiting. Its great fires burn hot and angry, churning out weaponry and armour.

But as the marchers get closer, filling the horizon, it becomes clear that they are not the ten-thousand-strong army they appeared to be. They are more - a hundred thousand, perhaps even a million - and they are refugees. Their clothes are battered and torn, and cannot be keeping the chill out. There are elderly being carried by the young.

And they have come to seek asylum.

Fenris shuts its doors and debates.

The problem is, of course, that Fenris itself is barely two million people. And these people are new, and different, and would not know how to adjust the great gears of the city anyway. They are not part of the world Fenris has constructed, and introducing them would destroy the life of the city as it exists.

The counterargument is simple. Look at them. Look at them, sitting outside the city, hoping they will find a better response here than they did back home. Look at them, those who would be citizens, with all that entails.

A thousand refugees die, of hunger, of disease, of hope, while the debate rages, inside.


The doors, higher than ten men, etched into the side of the iron dome, creak open, slowly. These doors have almost rusted shut, in fact, and someone has to go run and fetch some oil.

The refugees can barely believe it. They had almost given up. They enter, tentatively, a city that is not theirs. Exploratory, but in desperate need.

And they find an empty city. No people are there to greet them; only the constant clunk-clunk-clunk of gears. Only the dark, red smell of iron. Only the metal bubble above them, the vast dome blocking out so much of the sky.

They stream in, looking for food, for medicine. The more magically sensitive of them start to cough, and feel weak; the iron serving its original function once more.

(And somewhere, deep in the bowels of the largest mines that will ever be mined, Fenris waits, and watches. It has no idea what they will do, no context for the behaviour of these people it is supposed to be related to. And even if it has forgotten about the ironward, some part of it feels reassured, that the intruders cannot do too much, that their power is curtailed here.)

The refugees find their succour. Even the buildings are strange and unfamiliar to them; Fenris' iconography uses a small, four-pointed cross for medicine, apparently. And the food is just small pills that fill your stomach, and the medicine is clanking machinery that asks you to trust yourself to it, to be healed. But it works, after a fashion.

It is also a violation, as the medical devices treat magic as an illness. When the first hundred come back, from the innards of the city, and fall to their knees, weeping, at the loss of a sense they have had since birth, the refugees panic.

(And Fenris did not know this would happen, but it is not displeased by it, either. If this is how the assimilation has to happen, then so be it.)

On the surface, the refugees frantically decide what to do. Many say that even such a half-life is better than none whatsoever. This opinion takes hold, and spreads, Selunis showing its famous harmony once more, for the last time.

Except for one.


The Archivist runs. He does his best to evade the watchful eyes, of Fenris and Selunis alike. He searches, frantically, desperately, his cough not improved by the exertion. He has to recall old, old texts, to try to trace the functioning gearwork back to its origin, to find the heart of Fenris.

And he finds it. The largest boiler room, at the very centre of the city, surrounded by conduction pipes and the smallest, most densely connected gearwork. This is the Mind, and it is what drives the entire city, clicking and whirring and even the sheer heat is enough to drive a man mad.

Or, at least, anyone not of Fenris.

He collapses, to his knees, and he vomits, dry and dusty, right there on the floor. Even so, he plucks out, from under his shirt, the most precious of cargos. A large, round pebble, the size of an orange, boiling and writhing to be set free. It glitters, somehow still managing to be a source of light next to the greatest artificial sun.

And, before he can hack up his life, he cracks the pebble open with his teeth and swallows what is inside—

explosion.

out pours a building, a building massive in its own right. a museum, a library, given potency by the weight of what has been collected. it pushes, and wedges itself into the open spaces it finds, into the gaps between gears and the holes in minds. it draws, greedily, from the heat it finds, and it entangles itself with the power and stricture.

(Fenris notices, at this point, but it is already too late.)

the museum, the library - the Memorium, as Selunis used to call it - grows, sharply, carrying what used to be the Mind with it. it shoots into the sky, into the last patch of sky that is still open, and unfolds - a flower, an atomic blast - into a metallic, crystalline tower. it brings forth its old spells, etched within the pages of what lies inside, and the spells seep into the gearwork and radiate to the entire city.

many smaller explosions happen, all over the city, from the pebbles carried by the Selunians, and other buildings rise, now...

...but it is done. the combined building rises tall and strong, towering over the metal dome that was meant to contain it. the Mind now has memory, and the Memorium now has a mind.


Before the rest of the story—

Before the shock and panic of both populations, before the citizens of what used to be Fenris remember their history, before the citizens of what used to be Selunis remember their world, before the fighting and unrest spike up and just as quickly dies back down again, before the two populations learn to live together in the chaos that follows, rebuilding the city in their combined image...

Before the rest of the story, there is a moment. There is one moment, where Fenris and Selunis are themselves, reunited at last, before the new entity that comes out of the other end is formed.

And Fenris looks at its sister, and says, oh.

And Selunis manages a scared smile, and says, hello to you too.

And they embrace, and the new world forms around them.


The incredible lrig_rorrim has written the counterpart to this story, about the City of Magic and the cultural memory of shibusa. Team gniviD hopes you enjoy ;)