Din-Bidor's Sandbox
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Misotheism: Part One

It's very early in the morning, so early that Apollo and Helios have yet to decide whose turn it is to drag the sun from beyond the horizon. Most of the crew's still sleeping, save for the Engineer, who has yet to stop working on the bomb. ORIA really should have kept tabs on this one; his entire worldview crumbles, yet here he is, working overtime just for the sake of the mission.

I'd like to say I admire his devotion, but I know better. It's not like he's doing this to reconcile his faith with the new world order. At this point, he's just being spiteful. I bid him a one-sided good morning, then go on my way.

The beach's sand is coarse, rough; the kind one would expect from a place filled with rocky cliffs and promontories. Not that I care much for it. My feet are calloused from years of barefoot running up the jagged mountains and across the sun-scorched steppes of my homeland. Bet I could walk across fire with the skill of a fakir.

At least the sea is the perfect shade of blue. I take in the cool breeze, the welcoming smell of salt and sand. For an instant, I am only another tourist, off to enjoy the blessings of the sea.

It's almost sad that I must spoil everyone's fun.


There are two things to consider when shooting a god.

The first one is that, regardless of what you throw at them, gods cannot die. You can stab them with a divine sword, drown them in magic rivers, strike them with ancient spells… hell, even nuking them won't work. Whatever you can think of, the Foundation and the GOC tried it and failed. Serves them well, for all I care.

Oh, sure, you can "kill" a god if you do enough harm to its physical form, or if you drain them of their godly energies, or if you destroy all they stand for, but these are only temporary measures. It might take a few millennia, but they will return and, with enough faith and devotion from their followers, they'll soon manifest another avatar to make your bloodline's lives miserable.

Second thing you should have in mind is that shooting a person gets you in trouble with the law; shooting a god gets you in trouble with its whole pantheon. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the last time I ever set foot near the Mediterranean: Olympus casts quite a large shadow around these parts, and I'd like to postpone my date with Hades for as long as possible.

With all this in mind, most might ask themselves what's the point of even trying. Well, there's no right answer: trying to pull off something like this implies that you're either crazy or got nothing to lose… which pretty much fits the profile of all involved in this mission. Well, most of them.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how little I have in common with the Engineer, the Paladin and, thankfully, the Fanatic. They're all here for revenge, to satisfy whatever personal grievances they might have against the gods and the Empire. At the bottom of their hearts, they don't care if they make it out alive or not: it's all about making a point. They got nothing to lose, so they might as well go down fighting the power, killing the god… or its followers, at the very least.

Good for them, but I'm still planning on cashing in that paycheck. How ironic that Frank the Savant, that bumbling little man, seems to be the only one whose motivation's the same as mine: cold hard cash. Does that make our involvement here better or worse? Devil may care. Can't speak for Frank, but as long as I don't catch Aconitum or a thunderbolt, I'm all set.

Still, part of me wonders if I haven't gone crazy. I'm risking Zeus blasting me into Tartarus, where I can't spend my money, so my objectives might be rendered moot. Guess I'll find out tomorrow, when the deed is actually done.

Let's hope one bullet is enough.


Finding a spot from where to shoot the god of the sea proves more challenging than the actual shooting. The entire area surrounding the temple is either flat or crawling with security and tourists. Can't really be inconspicuous if I'm positioning a sniper rifle in the middle of a party. Fuck the Fanatic for choosing this place to make his mess. And fuck me for my lack of foresight.

At last, I settle for checking in at a neaby hotel, courtesy of my sticky fingers and the Paladin's ill-hidden cash. She should know better than hoping for honor among thieves.

I like this place: It's close enough to the temple not to lose sight of my target and far enough from it to avoid detection. With everyone joining tomorrow's celebration, I'm trusting this place will be practically empty; it better be if I want to make it out alive.

I hide my gear behind a maintenance cabinet on the hotel's rooftop, so old and rusted that it's unlikely to be touched by anyone anytime soon. Tomorrow, I will return before the celebration begins, get into position… and wait for my prey to arrive.

In the meantime, however, a bit of sunbathing won't do me any harm. There's still plenty of time before I'm needed back at our hideout. Might as well enjoy the Mediterranean and its calm while it lasts.


By the time I return to base, the sun has begun sinking beyond the sea, Selene and Artemis pushing a full moon towards the twilight sky. A small electric stove cooks a meal of halal meat and hummus, around which sit my partners. Their reactions to my arrival vary: an irritated look from the Paladin, a nervous stare from the Savant, sheer indifference from the Engineer. The Fanatic, however, welcomes me with a grotesque smile and open arms. He does not bat an eye when I tell him where I'll be spending the night, his regard for secrecy almost gone. Better for me, I guess.

Though I only mean to report my position and run any last details with the crew, the Fanatic is adamant that I stay for dinner. I raise my eyebrows at the invitation, not in surprise, but in distrust. People should be above pretending to like each other, and judging by most of the crew's reaction, they share my opinion. The Fanatic, however, insists with his hoarse voice, and I'm not about to discuss with a Fifthist sorcerer-priest; it's seldom wise to upset a cultist.

I sit next to the Paladin, who, much to my amusement, has yet to realize she's missing a few Imperial credits. Better keep that to myself. She passes me a plate of food, and I dig in.

We eat as the Fanatic begins one of his rants, or sermons, whatever he wishes to call them. He talks about the great feat we are to accomplish tomorrow, about how the stars shall reward us with something far more valuable than money: unity with the Great Cosmic Starfish. He speaks wide-eyed and hopeful, like any good priest, preaching his faith to us simple unbelievers, blessing us in the name of his god.

What a bunch of horseshit.

In a certain way, I pity men like him: a member of a fringe cult, excluded even in the wake of the old gods returning, marginalized even as the anomalous became the new normal, shunned even as the Veil fell. The world may have come to accept and join together with the strange and the mystical, but his ilk still remain unwanted, banished to the outskirsts of society, anomalous or otherwise. With his beliefs mocked and his faith sidelined, it's no wonder the Fanatic's become so vengeful against the followers of other gods. I just hope he doesn't try to convert us. Reality's already shitty enough without some asshole rewriting it for a giant starfish.

The Engineer serves us seconds, and I can't help but notice that he's in a good mood. All his initial nervousness seems to have evaporated, replaced by a confident gaze and a strong grip. I'm guessing he was never anxious to begin with– impatient's more like it.

From what I've heard, ORIA was never a normalcy org like the Foundation or the UIU. They never cared for faith or religion; their objective was not maintaining the secrecy of the anomalous world; all they wanted was the safety of the Islamic world. With the advent of the Immortal Empire, that goal has been all but achieved. Why then, I initially wondered, would a man like the Engineer seek to destroy those who have not harmed his people?

I guessed the answer pretty quickly: dissatisfaction. The world has changed too much. ORIA and its fellow orgs are nothing but vestiges of a time long gone, reduced to vulgar peacekeeping for the communities they once censored with an iron fist. Little men who once held power are once again reduced to nothing, clinging desperately to their supposedly glorious past, aching for meaning in the face of change. The Engineer is among these little men; all this is just him lashing out at the world, thrashing in the agony of his emasculation.

Pathetic.

I cannot fathom something more pitiful than being mad because your org is no longer top dog. If you're gonna be angry, at least be like the Paladin: she's not mad because the GOC was downsized and reformed, she's mad because half her kin is dead… and maybe because she just realized her wallet's empty. Tough luck, big girl.


We finish our meal and set out to make final preparations. I head back to my luxurious lookout, not before taking one last look at the crew. The Engineer, the Paladin and the Savant are getting dressed as security, readying themselves to install the bomb beneath the altar.

The Savant looks surprisingly inconspicuous in his guard uniform, the ultimate everyman, which is like saying the ultimate nobody. Were it not because he's in this mission, I would pass him by without blinking an eye. Something tells me this is why the Fanatic hired him, not his psychic skills.

Who are you, Frank? I ask myself as it dawns upon me how little I know about this plain, nervous little man who embarrassed himself the first time I met him. It's curious how he's the only crewmember whose name I know, yet the only one whose background is almost entirely shrouded by mystery.

Meh, a riddle for the ages, and better that way for all I care. I turn around and start walking, not bothering to wave them goodbye before my form disappears into the night, away from the crew's inner turmoils and Frank's unknown past.

I've yet much to think as I walk along the beachline, caressed by the full moon. Deep within me, something stirs and, however much I'd prefer to focus on tomorrow's mission, I can't help but reminisce.


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Vel, Second Rotation, 5099

Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Vel, Second Rotation, 5099


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Misotheism: Part Two

It's very early in the morning, and the sun has just begun its ascent towards the heavens, its blazing might slowly pulled by Helios and Apollo. If there’s something beautiful about Sounion, it’s definitely its sunrises.

Not like my teammates have time to appreciate them, anyway. Deadlines like this tend to make everyone not appreciate the pretty subtleties of life. The Paladin and the Savant are off planting the bomb at the temple's altar, while the Engineer and the Fanatic are passed out after nearly seven hours of programming the Red Death. I guess they've earned their rest.

Even I’m heading for today’s assignment: finding a spot from where I can shoot at my target. So much for taking a nice stroll on the beach.

In typical assassin fashion, I've taken my rifle with me, cleverly disguised as within a false surfboard. It doesn’t get more inconspicuous than this. I walk slowly, convincingly, a normal young woman looking for waves on an empty beach. No one would bat an eye if they saw me…

That is, until I make sure no one's around… and make a run for it.

My ascent towards the cliff is fast, graceful, my stance and speed acquired both from training and from the ancient blessings of my people. Running barefoot on mountain ranges and steppes is a staple of my culture, a proof of strength and stamina that every child must pass. Now, sprinting up a jagged cliff, my back holding the weight of my rifle, I can’t help but reminisce back to the time when my targets were much humbler than gods.


When I was a child, my abuela told me a story every night before I went to sleep. Of all the legends and folklore our people had, my favorite tale was about how we the Rarámuri, the men and women from the Mother Mountains, came to receive our name.

Sculpted by Onoruame and Iyeruame, Father Sun and Mother Moon, the Rarámuri were the chosen children of the mountain gods, the consummate hunters and trackers of the Sierra Madre. Our name, “those who run fast,” was bestowed upon us to guide our destiny: to forever roam our mountainous domains, to hunt by running faster, longer, and harder than our prey. The gods would watch over us, their people, and run with us through our travels.

Such a beautiful tale, for such an unfortunate people.


I make it to the top of the cliff in a matter of minutes, despite my heavy rifle weighing me down. Can't say it's a world record, but I most definitely still am a Rarámuri. Grandma would be proud.

Not that she never saw me kill before; I got plenty of experience on that field back at home: I've ran stags to death with my own two legs, their bodies collapsing to exhaustion as I relentlessly pursue them. I've outrun birds of prey and even the wolves know they cannot keep up with me. In all senses, my speed and stamina make me a natural hunter, a predator able to compete with nature's deadliest.

In recent times, though, I've had the help of bullets, something not even my people can outrun. Clean, light, powerful: the perfect instrument for a perfect kill. Let's just hope I have not become too reliant on them. I got only one magic bullet; if something goes wrong tomorrow, I might have to outrun the Furies themselves.

I unpack and assemble my rifle, then search for my spot. Wind and light and even your own vibrations all play into hitting your target from this distance. A single miscalculation… and pop goes the weasel. Good thing I made my peace some time ago.

When I signed on this mission and agreed to shoot a god in the face, a part of me screamed that the chances of making it out alive were slim. After all, one does not just unload a thaumically-enhanced bullet on one of the Universe’s makers and walk away scot-free: there are always consequences in this line of work, and shooting a god… well, that might have more than just a few side-effects.

There are two things one must have in mind when shooting a god.

The first one is that, regardless of what you throw at them, gods cannot die. You can stab them with a divine sword, drown them in magic rivers, tear them limb from limb, strike them with ancient spells, hell, even nuke them into oblivion, and the bastards will still bounce back. What's your tiny little magic bullet gonna do to them? Give them a really bad headache?

Oh, sure, you can “kill” a god if you do enough harm to its physical form, or if you drain them of their godly energies, but this is only a temporary measure. It might take a few millennia, but they will return and, with enough faith and devotion from their followers, they'll soon manifest another avatar to make your descendant's lives miserable.

Which brings me to my second point.

Shooting a person gets you in trouble with the law. Shooting a god gets you in trouble with its whole fucking pantheon, not to mention that all your bloodline might suffer the consequences of your actions, because gods are petty like that.

Good thing I'm not planning on having children anytime soon, though I might just suffer enough on my own to make up for it: not to be overly dramatic, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was the last time I ever set foot on the Mediterranean. Olympus casts quite a large shadow, and I'd like to postpone my date with Hades for as long as possible.

On the other hand, being able to shoot a god and get away with it can give you quite the reputation in the Galactic Underworld, which is exactly what I'm aiming at here. If you're crazy enough to put your soul on the line for a job, then you're just the type the Guild of Assassins is looking for. Better put on a good show tomorrow; something tells me the Guild will be watching… and waiting.

In any case, I'm not planning on killing any gods at all.

I find my spot between two large rock formations, their shadow enough to protect me from the gaze of those below me. With any luck, there will be little wind tomorrow, and I'll make a quick, clean job.

My attention then turns to the single bullet I keep on my pocket, a charming, silvery thing inscribed with Fifthist runes and prayers. The magic with which it's been filled is strange… confusing.

It's only appropriate, I believe.

Soaked with water from the Lethe River, this bullet's sole purpose is to momentarily incapacitate the Earthshaker and wipe any memory of us from his mind. Guess there may yet be a chance for me to visit the Parthenon some time.

In the meantime, however, I'll enjoy the sight of the rising sun. Just because I'm about to shoot a god don't mean I can't appreciate another's work. It's not like I have something personal against them: beings like these are not worth my hatred.


My grandmother had not been born yet, and would not be for another five centuries, but there was a time when our people suffered. Thrice risen against the Spanish conquerors, the Rarámuri had suffered the fate of all the other First Nations of Mesoamérica: to be crushed and humiliated, enslaved and robbed of our culture and identity. Even after the Spanish left and a new country was born from their blood mixing with ours, the once proud First were akin to lepers, excluded from society and reduced to servants and beggars.

For centuries, the Otomí and the Nahua, the Maya and the Rarámuri, the Purhépecha and the Yaqui, and all the other native peoples of America, suffered under famine and plague, under sickness and war. The conquerors might be gone, but other oppressors arose: the oligarchs and the sons of colonizers proved to be as cruel and greedy as their forebearers. They locked us in reserves, stripped us of what little we had left, then forgot about us. To them, our history became a tourist attraction, our culture a fashion trend, our lands… well, we can't even call them ours any longer.

And the gods? Whatever became of the gods who demanded sacrifice in exchange of protection? What happened to the makers and destroyers who ruled the cosmos and our peoples?

They watched… and did nothing.

The gods did nothing as their children were slaughtered. They ignored the cries of the oppressed and the conquered. They shrugged as their temples and idols were torn down and burned, as they were replaced by the False One the colonizers brought with them.

The gods did nothing… and then…

Then, one day, the gods returned.

And when they did, the world changed forever.


When I return to base, my teammates are all huddled around a small stove like children around campfire. How cute! Even the Fanatic looks less repulsive when he's having a good time.

The Paladin has saved me a seat next to her; I'd rather decline the offer, but it's not wise to offend a woman who looks like she breaks arms for a hobby, so I oblige. I’m starting to like her, despite all her bigotry and posturing. Her passion for her work almost makes me forget that she, more than anyone, has a bone to pick with gods and non-humans.

Not that I approve, of course, but I can understand; must be hard to coexist with the living reminders of your own family's demise. All things considered, though, maybe think twice before joining a group known to others as “Bookburners.” Might just save you a lot of trouble when the books end up ruling the world.

Today's breakfast is baked beans and meat. Guess we're going full western, then.

As I scoop my food, trying not to think about the flavor, I turn my eyes to the rest of the crew. Years of hunting animals and people alike have taught me to be watch and learn, so even without Frank the Savant's psychic powers I can tell what the others are thinking.

Of course, the Engineer and the Paladin are excited to go out and kill non-humans, that's all what their gist is about, but I can't help noticing the… unpreparedness of both the Fanatic and the Savant. They're quite the fish-out-of-water in this place, no offense meant to the merpeople we'll slaughter tomorrow.

Frank the Savant, as I've taken to call him, much to his chagrin, is quite out of his element. He has never killed a person before, and his entire business here is making him jumpy, which is why the Paladin is constantly observing and intimidating him into following through with the mission: can't have the guy meant to erase everyone's memory of us jump ship at the last moment.

I honestly believe it to be unnecessary, though. Men as cowardly as Frank won't betray anyone they know can break their neck with little effort. And besides, Frank is here for the money, which he desperately needs. Why else would someone as weak and insecure as him sign up for a mission with three trained killers and a religious zealot? And to shoot a god, no less!

Hell, if I didn't know Frank's a telepath, I'd be tempted to bully him as well; might get him to stop skimming about his story and give clear answers for once. How could his past be any worse than any of ours? I won't be caught dead admitting it, but I'm beginning to think there's much more to Frank the Savant than meets the eye.

In the meantime, I'll just tease him a little bit. It's funny seeing this goofy little man waddling in circles, trying to ready his mind for tomorrow's display of psionic power. Not that I'll ask around, but I still can't explain why the Fanatic thought it was a good idea to enlist this guy for a telepath. If these idiots were not all a bunch of xenophobes, I'd suggest we hire a Martian for a change.


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Peace for Our Time

Star Date 12.86.45

My Emperor,

I lament to inform that peace negotiations have failed. The Krolovar Imperium has refused any offerings made by the League of Ten Kingdoms. War is imminent.

Though our Empire has stood as a proud bastion of peace and diplomacy for most of its existence, I implore you to begin war preparations as soon as possible. Our army must be ready; countless lives are at stake.

The League is in disarray. The few who still insist on appeasing the Krolovar with more offerings block a formal declaration of war, and we simply cannot wait for them to come to their senses. The Emerald Hegemony has already stated its intention to abandon the alliance and begin a preemptive counterstrike if the League does not declare war. I suggest we join them in this decision.

I will remain on Mih and try to convince the rest of the League to stand together and declare war. Should I fail, I beg you to contact the Emerald Hegemony; though their army is powerful, they know little of the magic the Krolovar wield in battle. They cannot win this war alone, and neither can we. An alliance with them may be our only hope to survive.

May the gods grant us victory.

- Hrko-Somet



THE HOLLOW EARTH

Vol. MMCCIII

FATA MORGANA PRICE ONE IMPERIAL CREDIT

WAR

DECLARED BY EMPEROR MORTIS

by Algernon of the Wormwood


Today at first dawn, Emperor Mortis announced that the Immortal Empire has formally declared war against the Krolovar Imperium, after Krolovar forces glassed the neutral planet of Mih. The devastating attack ended nearly five million lives, including that of Imperial Ambassador Hrko-Somet. The entire planet has been rendered uninhabitable.
During this morning's speech, the Emperor blamed Mih's destruction on the League of Ten Kingdoms inability to either reach a peaceful agreement with the Krolovar or prepare its defenses against military aggression.
"The loss of Ambassador Hrko-Somet will stand as a testimony of our failure to find an effective diplomatic solution. Our only hope now is to stand together with the rest of the League, a common front against a merciless, unrelenting enemy," said Emperor Mortis.
At the time of this publication, the Imperial Parliament has granted Emperor Mortis full war powers, with a formal announcement soon to follow.
"Though the Immortal Empire has vied for peace and diplomacy amongst the peoples of the Universe, the advent of war has forced us to adapt; if we are to be guardians of peace, we must be ready to defend it no matter the cost," said War Minister Tarre Khust.
As the Empire begins war preparations, large portions of the Imperial Army have been mobilized to protect the Empire's frontiers. Draft notices are currently being delivered to the citizens of the Immortal Empire, and it is expected that nearly every planet under Imperial authority will deploy their own local troops to patrol their star systems in case the Krolovar breach into Imperial territory.
Following the Emperor's declaration of war, Queens Titania and Mab have announced they will deploy troops to aid the Imperial war effort; ten thousand faeries and five thousand elves are already enroute to begin weaving magical defenses against the invaders.



Star Date 18.86.45

My beloved Onara,

I hope you will forgive me writing down these words so soon after my departure, but I am far too excited to wait. We are to be married, you and I, and I could not be happier.

My lineage is a humble one, made of grunt workers and bacteria farmers, while you are descended from noble blood, a daughter of the great sages and scholars of Klenura. How our families ever agreed to see us joined in marriage can only be a blessing of Nazruma himself.

Know that I have loved you since we were but hatchlings, that I have adored every kind word that has ever exited your mouths, that I have long dreamed of embracing your carapace in the sacred bond of Oneness.

Through famine and plague I have loved you. Through crisis after crisis I have held together hope that we may one day be together. Know that I am convinced this is the last challenge I must tackle before I can join you, before I we can finally be One.

The tides of destiny have seen it fit to test us one final time, my love. War looms on the horizon, and our Empire demands that we serve it, that we protect those weaker than us from the Invaders and that we bring glory to our homes. I know that you see war as a foolish endeavor, but I beg one day you’ll understand my reasons for enlisting.

The Immortal Empire has been nothing but magnanimous to our people. They saved us from the brink of extinction, appeased our warring clans and restored our world to the lush, fertile planet it was before our folly devastated the land. It is only fair that we, its citizens, defend it against those who would see it extinguished.

I will return to your embrace as soon as the war is over, my love. Our Empire is proud and mighty, and I am sure we will make short work of the Invaders. Know that I will be thinking of you every waking moment, and that my dreams will be filled with the promise of our Oneness.

Yours,

– Tomur


“To approach the Emerald Hegemony is to delve into a realm of cold, ruthless logic.”

Emperor Mortis’ voice echoed through the chamber, his dark form elegantly pacing like a shadow cast against the room’s bare walls. Dark were his thoughts and bitter his tone as he imparted knowledge upon the figure sitting at the center of the chamber, her delicate, graceful figure a sharp contrast against the Emperor’s gaunt visage.

Poised like a nymph in the dreams of Homer, the creature stared at the hologram projector before her, two bright, verdant eyes unblinking at information displayed by the glowing screen. Despite her apparent concentration, the rigidity of her posture and the heaviness of her breath betrayed the weariness of one who has been thrust into a situation that far exceeds one’s skills. After all, how could a child bear the weight of a task like this?

Princess Meliora, heir to the Immortal Empire, fought a losing battle against anxiousness and fatigue, her mind and body slowly giving in to the overwhelming gravity of the situation: war had come to the Twelve Galaxies.

It is not like peace could hope to be everlasting, she thought despondently.

The Princess was anything but a novice in the field of politics. From the moment she could read, the Emperor had surrounded her with books and tutors on every conceivable subject, from arts and sciences to history and philosophy and, most importantly, power and diplomacy. Still, no amount of education can prepare one for true action, and the Princess could not help but feel unready for the sudden and precipitous nature of the crisis that threatened both the Empire and the known Universe.

In her eighteen years of life, Princess Meliora had prayed never to witness to the horrors of war… at least, not until she had ascended to the throne. Of course, with Emperor Mortis being an immortal entity that had ruled the Empire for nearly five eons, the day of her own coronation seemed like an impossibly distant day, a perpetually postponed date with destiny. Now, destiny had arrived, and the full, crushing burden of responsibility had come with it.

“Emotion is, by definition, irrational, and the Hegemony cares not for that which it does not deem rational,” the Emperor continued. “For this reason, you must be in complete control of your emotions: the more you suppress your own irrationality, the more you will be a competent leader in the eyes of the Hegemon Supreme.”

He stared at the Princess, his burning green eyes glowing behind his silver mask. Meliora barely managed to raise her hand to ask a question, only to be ignored by the Emperor as he continued the lesson.

“The Hegemony only exhibits a semblance of emotion, of goodwill, when they approach those from whom they have need. But these are not true feelings, not true camaraderie, or fraternity; these are calculated moves, keen and sly machinations in the guise of diplomacy, and–”

“Will the Hegemony flaunt this… lack of emotion, father?” Princess Meliora asked, her interruption a bold move in the face of her own maker.

Emperor Mortis became dreadfully silent, as if offended by his daughter’s interruption. For a moment, he seemed to consider whether to scold or simply ignore her, then began pacing around the table, caressing it with a single, skeletal finger.

“Highly unlikely, child,” he answered at last, his voice betraying no sign of irritation. “Diplomacy is a useful tool when you cannot immediately dominate your adversary, a fact the Hegemony knows all too well. They will observe protocol and sometimes even the customs of their counterparts, but do not think for an instant that they care about such formalities. If they had their way, they would simply take that which they need from others and be done with it. Remember: The Hegemony evaluates risk very carefully, and they consider that not offending the… sensibilities of others is far more prudent than alienating their potential allies.”

“But they will… make a point of it, will they not?” Meliora insisted. “They will view me as inferior because I am a child, because I am emotional and…”

“Enough,” the Emperor said, before Meliora’s anxiousness could devolve into pure fear. “My child, it is in times like this that you must remember all which you have been taught.

"You are no mere mortal, Meliora. In the eyes of the Empire, you are akin to a god. I grew you from my own flesh, carefully molded you into my likeness. I gifted with the same immortality, the same power that has made me who I am.”


"Illogical," the words sounded oddly robotic for the organic creature whose hologram stood before Emperor Mortis, though given the nature of the speaker, one would have had more luck extracting emotion from a stone.

Emperor Mortis stared at his counterpart, whose green, pulsing brain glowed ever brighter as it processed a thousand thoughts per instant. Negotiations were not going as smoothly as he had hoped for.

"Hegemon Supreme," said Mortis, "The Immortal Empire has stood by the Emerald Hegemony through this time of war. We have sacrificed countless lives and resources to keep the Krolovar at bay, but we can no longer both send troops to the front and protect our borders. That is, unless you are willing to cooperate with us…"

"The Immortal Empire has done nothing but protect itself and its interests," the Hegemon Supreme interrupted, its black, beady eyes unchanging. "You were reluctant to join the Hegemony when we first sought to destroy the Krolovar Imperium. Only when you saw your own territory threatened did you act."

"


Birdwatchers

Upon entering Doctor Summerlee's lab, I notice that the old man is not alone. Deep in thought alongside the doctor, two other researchers inspect a holographic diagram depicting different Terran geological eras; it seems they have already started without me. I clear my throat to make myself noticed, and Summerlee's trademark smile welcomes me into his private sanctum.

"Sarah!" he warmly exclaims, running towards me with the vitality of a teenager. He hugs me like I'm his daughter, then gently guides me into the room.

"I am so glad you could join us, Sarah," the doctor continues. "You must be quite busy now that you're training an entire generation of new researchers."

"They're not that much trouble, James," I say, my tongue struggling to call him by his first name; even after all these years, I still see him as a sort of knight in shining armor. "But I still appreciate the opportunity to work on some actual research. Office hours can suck the life right out of you… So tell me, what is it about? Last I heard, you were about to reintroduce two hundred new white rhinos to Kenya…"

"Oh, it's nothing like that, my friend," he answers. "Yes, we've been quite successful on keeping Sudan's legacy alive through his progeny, but this is a more… personal project of mine. Now, I do believe you may have heard of my colleagues…"

The man next to Summerlee is tall, blonde and muscular, his olive skin glistening with what I can tell is some special form of moisture. His regal clothes, better suited for a noble than for a scientist, do little to conceal the set of gills that line his neck. I'm looking at Doctor Arion Keto, one of Atlantis' most brilliant biologists.

"A pleasure to meet you, Doctor Burns," he says in Atlantean, a language I studied during my time at college.

"The pleasure is mine, Doctor Keto," I respond, hoping that my grasp on the language has not slipped too much. "Doctor Summerlee has told me much about you. He even showed me pictures of the Kraken juveniles you raised together."

"Ah, yes! Those were some cute sea monsters, by Poseidon!" he laughs, this time in Imperial Common. "James almost cried when we set them free on the Bermuda Triangle. Guess anyone can grow attached to five-hundred-meter cephalopods given enough time."

I look at Doctor Summerlee, who simply shrugs and grins at us. His and Keto's friendship stretches a long way back into the past: they first met at an Imperial Parliament hearing to determine whether or not Atlantis should be allowed to add mosasaurs and megalodon to its defense forces. Despite their opposing views on the militarization of sea creatures, the two struck an almost brotherly relationship, bonding over their love of extinct wildlife.

After getting acquainted with Doctor Keto, I turn towards the other scientist. His body is a hulking, imposing mass of muscle and fur, his white custom-tailored lab coat contrasting against his dark pelt. For any stranger, this three-meter tall individual might seem scary; for me, he's just an old friend and colleague. He Who Fells the Sequoia, son of the Children of the Night, greets me with a powerful hug that somehow does not crush my spine.

"Hello, Doctor Sarah of the Burns clan," he says in a deep, cavernous voice, his thick accent coloring his otherwise impeccable Imperial Common. "A long time without seeing each other. May Titania be with you in all your endeavors."

"Likewise, friend," I say, still buried in his mighty embrace.

Despite the fearsome reputation of his people, He Who Fells the Sequoia is a renowned botanist and bioengineer, his work often making it to the front page of every scientific magazine worth its salt. He, with the help of his people's biotech, has been crucial in repopulating dozens of endangered plant species, including the one whose name he bears.

"Ehem…" Doctor Summerlee coughs to regain our attention. "Well, I do appreciate an endearing scene like anyone else, but I'm afraid we're on a tight schedule. We'll have to hurry if we want to be there by the time they hatch. I just wish she too had come to… Ah! There you are, Scarlet River!"

We turn around to greet the newly arrived researcher, whose feet seem to glide as she enters the lab. Tall, lean, and proud, Scarlet River gracefully bows her blonde head, her hair shifting to reveal pointed ears. A smile forms on the elf's lips as she greets each one of us.

"Hello again, dear friends. I am so glad that James managed to snatch all of you for our little party… including you, Doctor Burns," she says melodiously. "The team is complete!"

"It is now," says Doctor Summerlee, his eyes drifting through his colleagues. "Everyone ready, ladies and gentlemen? Good! Let's go make some science!"

Cheesy, I know, but Summerlee's enthusiasm has its charm. Despite being a senior citizen, he continues to exude a childlike wonder, a fact that almost distracts me from the wrinkles on his hands and face. To see him this excited takes me back to when I first watched his exploits on holo-vid, long before I even considered applying for a job at Panspermia. For a moment, I'm back at my parents' home, a little girl watching her hero making dragons.

"Sarah, dear," calls the doctor, pointing at a big red button in the farthest corner of his lab, "would you like to do the honors?"

He need not ask twice. Like in the days of old, I jump at the chance of being the first to gaze at something wonderful.

My heart beats loudly as I press the big red button, and the twin metal doors next to it open with a hiss. Doctor Summerlee politely beckons us to enter, and we oblige.

Within is a miracle.


A clear sky casts light upon a rocky, green pasture, ending abruptly on a jagged cliff. Beyond it, I can see a sparkling blue sea, extending as far as my sight can reach. I wonder where the actual water ends and where the holographic simulations begin. Small bushes and foliage are spread throughout the landscape, with only a few trees in sight.

If I did not know that I am hundreds of thousands of lightyears away from Earth, floating in the void of space, I'd swear I'm standing on Stephens Island, or Takapourewa, as the Maori people call it. Warm memories from a childhood vacation pop up in my mind, the sounds of the sea and the wind almost convincing me that I'm back to being a toddler, my parents holding my hands as we stroll through New Zealand's pastures on a pleasant evening.

I walk in astounded silence, occasionally glancing at He Who Fells the Sequoia, who I suspect to be the engineer behind this artificial habitat. The Yeren coyly winks at me, then goes back to feigning ignorance. I roll my eyes: If I were him, I'd openly pride myself in my craftsmanship; everything in this place is dreamlike, paradisiacal.

"By the gods, James…" I say, breathless. "When did you…?"

"Install a temporary module next to my lab?" he smiles as he walks besides me. "Oh, some years ago. You've been spending too much time in your office, Sarah. Maybe come join us once in a while?"

I silently nod, my mind struggling to process everything my senses take in. It's one thing to see a prehistoric habitat that disappeared eons before you were born; seeing a perfect replica of one of your most cherished childhood experiences… well, that's another story.

"Something told me you'd like the view," Doctor Summerlee continues. "Ever been to New Zealand?"

"Only once, when I was little…" I manage to gasp, my sight glued to the magnificent landscape before me. After seeing this, I'm definitely talking to my parents about taking a shuttle there on our next vacation.

"Well, in that case, I do hope you can come with us once we start the relocation phase."

"Relocation?" I ask, ripping my eyes from the sea.

"Why, yes!" laughs Summerlee. "Come, I better show you."

Doctor Summerlee guides me towards a large bush, around which crouch Doctor Keto and Scarlet River, while He Who Fells the Sequoia takes notes on the island's soil. The elf druid lifts some of the bush's branches, just enough so that I can peek at what lies beneath.

Surrounded by small pieces of bark and debris, a cluster of tiny white eggs glisten under the artificial sun's soft light. Next to them, a pair of minuscule brown birds chirp enthusiastically, fearlessly jumping on Scarlet River's open palm as she coos in an Elven dialect I cannot comprehend. By the shape of their legs and talons, I can tell that they are a flightless species, a theory that is proven right as soon as they flap their small, weak wings.

XenicusLongipesBuller.jpg

Xenicus longipes

"What are they?" I ask, fascinated at their lack of fear in our presence.

"Bushwrens," says Doctor Keto. "Xenicus longipes, flightless birds native to New Zealand. They went extinct in 1972, and stayed that way until two years ago, when we kickstarted this project."

I look at Scarlet River, whose melodious cooing seems to soothe the birds as we inspect their unborn progeny. Elves and Fair Folk have a special connection with nature, but I have never before seen it in action.

"Arion and I wanted to resurrect smaller, humbler species for a change," explains Summerlee. "We started working on the extinct and endangered species of New Zealand and, well, this is the fruit of our labor. This… and the other little fellows you'll find scattered through this habitat."

"We have He Who Fells the Sequoia to thank for much of this," continues Keto, confirming my earlier suspicions. "He managed to replicate the Stephen Island ecosystem for us to… test the new species. Hopefully, we'll be able to resettle all twenty birds and amphibians on their New Zealand habitats within the year."

“And as for Scarlet River, well… I guess you've already seen why we enlisted her help,” quips Summerlee.

"I'm impressed!" I laugh. "And here was I thinking that you'd grow less productive with age, James! Why do you even need my help? You seem to be doing rather good on your own."

Summerlee smiles, but a shade of concern darkens his expression as he speaks, his words borderline bitter.

"Thank you, Sarah," he says. "Though I'm afraid not everything is going according to plan."

"Why? James, what's wrong?"

Doctor Summerlee sighs tiredly and motions Keto. The Atlantean scientist pulls out a holo-pad from his robes and begins browsing through its contents. The images of dozens of plants and animals flash through the screen, all of them species I reckon to have once been either endangered or extinct; it's almost like a checklist of species to be resurrected by modern science and magic, and most of it has already been completed.

"See, Doctor Burns," says Doctor Keto, searching through the device, "we've been successful in restoring nearly all of New Zealand's extinct species… except for one."

The screen freezes on the image of another miniature bird, its soft, brown plumage and yellow belly spotted with tiny traces of black and amber. Its little beady eyes stare at us with a mixture of curiosity and caution; short wings and long digits tell me that I'm staring at another flightless species. I almost feel tempted to call it "adorable."

XenicusInsularisKeulemans.jpg

Traversia lyalli

Under the bird's image, a label reads "Lyall's wren (Traversia lyalli). Status: Extinct."

I raise my eyebrows, barely concealing my disbelief; knowing Doctor Summerlee, I almost swear he's pulling my leg. Through ten years of friendship I have seen James resurrect one species after another. How could such a tiny bird pose a challenge to Earth's most renowned cloning expert?

"A bird? James, you single-handedly resurrected an entire clade of dinosaurs, and you're telling me you haven't been able to resurrect a bird?" I ask, nearly laughing with incredulity, though my tone changes as soon as I notice James' grim expression.

"Things have taken an… unexpected turn," he sighs, defeated. "Two years, nearly five hundred embryos… and no results. All stillborn. All wasted."

I stare at James, not knowing what to say. To see him this way, defeated, resigned… it's like seeing time catch up with him. For an instant, it seems like my friend, my teacher, has been crushed under the weight of his own age, his wrinkles and baggy eyelids making him look utterly tired. For a prodigy like Doctor James Summerlee, the Dragon-Maker, this setback must feel like a dent on his armor, a chip on his trusted sword.

"James, how can this be?" I finally choke out. "We have the technology, the resources… how can all the embryos become non-viable?"

"I don't know, Sarah," he mutters. "I don't know. Maybe I'm losing my edge, maybe I'm doing something wrong… Either way, I can’t figure out how to resurrect these damn birds!"

James almost seems angry as he speaks, though I can tell his anger is not directed at anyone but himself. I want to comfort him, but never before have I seen my mentor like this.

"We've tried everything," growls He Who Fells the Sequoia, approaching us and handing Doctor Summerlee the results from his analysis. "Adjusting the cloning tanks, adding special nutrients… Nothing seems to stick, as you humans say. The only thing we have not tried… is magic."

"And that, dear Sarah, is where you come in," Summerlee says, looking at me intently.

"Me? How?" I ask, managing not to choke like a novice intern faced with an overwhelming task, though even now my task seems quite obvious.

"You're our best necrozoologist, our best animal medium. If anyone can solve this problem, that's you, Sarah."

"You mean…?" words struggle to leave my throat as Doctor Summerlee smiles and stands up, but in the end I can only manage to gasp as Doctor Summerlee gets on his feet

“Doctor Burns," says Summerlee with the dramatic intent of a man who is about to propose marriage, "I want you to take over this project for me."

At that moment, Scarlet River lets out a joyful cry as a tiny beak emerges from one of the bushwren eggs, piercing its niveous shell with all the force it is capable of. It pecks and chirps frenziedly, almost desperate to break free from the ovum. The eggs' parents chirp with excitement, and we coo and cheer as the tiny creature pushes on, as the cracks on the egg grow larger, until, at last, the shell is broken… and a new life bursts forward.

I, however, am a thousand miles away from the scene. In my mind, Summerlee's congratulatory words and the chirping of the birds are swept away by a torrent of concern: it has been quite a long time since I undertook a task so important, and I fear that I am not up for the challenge. Channeling the spirit of an individual animal is one thing; summoning the souls of an entire species, well… that is a completely different story.

"Do you see it, Sarah?" Doctor Summerlee interrupts my thoughts. "This is what it looks like: the struggle for life… and the beauty of its triumph. This is what I aimed for when I first started this project. And now… you are our only hope. Will you help us?"

"I… I will," at last I answer, despite my concern. "I cannot promise you I'll succeed, but I'll give it my all."

"Of course you will," he smiles. "That's why I asked for your help. You never give up, Sarah, and that's good enough for me."

We watch the newborn birds struggle in their new surroundings. Blind and frail as they are, it will be some time before they no longer rely on their parents' help to survive.

I can't help but relate to them. I, too, am about to set sail for uncharted waters. All that is left is to hope that the winds blow in my favor… and that James' faith in me is enough to keep me going.

Besides, I tell myself, trying not to think of James' setbacks, how hard can it be to summon a bird?

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Habi's Soup

In the realm of Phu, out on the green hills and pastures of Nimu, lies the tiny, quaint village of Onna. At first glance, few things about this place are of note. The houses, their walls painted white and their roofs covered by red tiles, are built in a style common amongst the inhabitants of the Nimu pastures; the people, humble farmers and shepherds, have little ambitions beyond living out a tranquil life roaming the hills and valleys of their land. In short, nothing about this village would manage to raise an eyebrow from even the most inexperienced of Wanderers.

Yet here we are, dedicating valuable time and ink to writing about Onna and its people. To why we write about this place, the answer is simple: First impressions, as every Wanderer must know, can be deceiving, and no truly ordinary place could ever attract as many curious visitors as Onna does to this day.

The second thing one will notice after arriving at the village will be that the people are surprisingly kind and hospitalary. Regardless of how alien one's visage may be, no matter how rich or poor, how cultured or uneducated the traveler is, the villagers of Onna will be welcoming all the same.

Food and lodging are cheap, so much that even the most downtrodden of Wanderers can pay for them by performing small favors for their hosts.



Portraits

In stormy nights like this, when cold and darkness make my cell their own, I cannot help but remember that fatal night that was the end of my friend, Helmut Bierce. In these, my last moments of sanity, I try writing. I try and fail. I try and from me emanate, like a traumatic birth, unconnected, shattered words. I try, and at long last I escape.

This is way I die, fighting against my diseased mind’s oppression.

I ask the darkness what the true face of madness looks like. Is it the face of some unnamable god from a bygone age? Is it the face of the man who, in his arrogance, falls from grace, transformed into little more than an animal? Or is it the face of a patient like me, abandoned to his fate in the stony embrace of an asylum?

No. I know the Truth. I know it like I know the cold walls of my confinement, like I know the monstrous moon that casts its light upon my wretched form. My questions to the abyss serve only to preserve what little sanity I have left. I know the face. I have seen it. Its expression twisted and cruel. Its features eternally burnt on my mind. The true face of madness is the one that observed me from the black mouth of a masterpiece painted by a man who was once the greatest mind of his generation. Helmut Bierce. Soldier. Hero. Artist. Erudite. Dead.

His father an Englishman, his mother a German aristocrat, Helmut Bierce sailed from Europe in 1917, fleeing from an absurd war, a clash between the two halves of his identity. He drifted for a year, conflicted and alone, until, as if an unknown force beckoned him, he entered the country. Instead of the peace he sought, he ended up entangled in a conflict that was nearly as bloody as the one that raged in his homeland. Bierce was left with no option but join the first guerrilla that found him, lest he be executed. From that point on, he had to fight for his life.

With his aristocratic background and profession as a painter, Bierce should have died in some unnamed skirmish, his corpse forgotten in no man’s land. Instead, not only did he survive, but he saved the life of his superior officer, a man by the name of Álvaro Obregón. Bierce, who up until that point had been a lost kraut, a stranger in a strange land, became a sort of local legend, who was admired and respected by his superiors and peers, myself included.

When the war ended and violence turned into political repression, Bierce and I found ourselves in a relatively favorable situation. It did not seem our newly anointed republic would recall the men that had bled for her any time soon, despite our new leader’s patriotic speeches. Bierce and I, however, were not particularly worried. The war in Europe had also come to an end. Bierce soon had access to a massive inheritance left entirely to his name by his older brother who, trapped in Europe, had expired in the fields of Verdun wearing the colors of the German Empire.

I, on the other hand, invested what little moment I had in the quickly reforming train industry. My bet gave its fruits, and soon, Bierce and I, battle-forged friends, retired into a life of comfort.

In order to avoid hedonistic boredom, Helmut and I surrounded ourselves with a resurgent intellectual caste. Though I was not a sophisticated man, I soon found myself enjoying the company of our country’s most illustrious thinkers. My new friends and I founded numerous libraries, financed museums and held heated debates on classic literature.

Helmut, always the loner, went back to his artistic profession. War had changed him.

Before leaving Europe, both his demeanor and his art were kind, soft, romantic. Now, having gone through the horrors of the battlefield, his character had turned nervous, fearful. At night, his soul found no rest, and he stayed awake until very late. Loud noises, like a horse’s trotting or an automobile’s rumbling, awoke dark visions in his mind. The canons’ roar, the screams of the dying and the grief of the widows and orphans followed him wherever he went.

His work changed too, deeply affected by his experiences. His vivid landscapes were replaced by violent paintings full of horror, cruelty and misery. War spoke through his hands. The dead came back to life with each brush stroke, condemned to an eternity of agony in those infernal portraits. Helmut’s paintings reflected man’s worst atrocities. They were the portrait of a man’s shattered psyche, the soul of a good man who had been thrown into the jaws of Hades.

Despite its monstrous new themes, Helmut’s art was well-received by all in our small circle of intellectuals. His talent and the perfection of his technique were undeniable: the paintings looked alive, tangible, as if one could throw himself against the canvas and become part of the scene.

Many figures of great renown offered to organize art shows and galleries where Helmut’s works could be admired by all, yet Helmut showed little interest in becoming popular or admired. Despite allowing us to parade his works as if he were a modern Da Vinci, he never showed himself in public. Never did he allow himself to be interviewed, never did he pride himself on his newly found recognition. He preferred to be left alone in his home, locked away with only his instruments and his disturbed mind.

The canvases began piling up. Soon, half of Helmut’s mansion was filled to the brim with his macabre paintings, transformed into a museum of wartime horrors.

At this point, we decided it had been enough. We took those macabre yet magnificent paintings and stored them in a bodega.

Helmut did not oppose us. In his eyes there was a sort of silent relief, as if he had been trying to scream for help without anyone ever hearing him. After our sacking of his paintings, he began talking more, to leave his home more often and even to visit the libraries and museums that had been funded with his money. In truth, it was almost as if we had exorcized Ares from the mind and soul of Helmut Bierce.

Content with our rescue of Helmut’s sanity, we turned to the issue of what to do with his paintings. We could not store them forever, so we decided to auction them. This we did not only to get them away from Helmut and ourselves, but to finance our new project: a theater that would rival those in the European continent.

Thus, weeks after removing the paintings from Helmut’s home, we organized a large, pompous auction, hosted at one of the first museums we had financed. We contacted all art brokers we knew of; we invited every artistic personality in the city and promoted the event on each and every newspaper and magazine.

Our auction was a success: Helmut’s art sold like bread. In a few hours, we had enough money to start building our new theatre.

Helmut himself made an appearance before the public, to deafening applause. Art critics and collectors alike praised him as a genius, a mastermind that had, until that point, remained undiscovered and foreign to the world. For them, his new willingness to share his vision was a blessing from heaven itself.

Drunk with our success, we decided to take a small tour through the museum. Helmut seemed almost elated at this idea; never had I seen him smile so widely, laugh so heartily. Whenever he spoke, his eyes glistened with excitement, a living portrait of his vivacious youth, long gone in the midst of his traumatic experiences.

My joy, however, did not last long. So focused were we on congratulating ourselves for both the auction and our museum, that we did not notice when Helmut slipped from our group. I could have sworn we had just looked away for an instant, but when I turned my head, Helmut had disappeared, like swallowed by the very ground on which we walked.

At first, we did not think much about it. Perhaps, we told ourselves, our friend was simply a bit overwhelmed by his newly found success and wanted some time for himself. Helmut was, after all, a man recovering from trauma; fame and fortune may feel tiresome for someone with his condition.

Two hours went by and Helmut failed to return. We became worried something might have happened to our friend and we dispersed through the museum, searching the disappeared artist.

It was I who found him.

After searching the streets closer to the museum, I returned to the building, tired of walking. No sooner had I crossed the vestibule into the main gallery, I heard a muffled, joyful cry, the kind men let out when holding a newly born son. There, his eyes transfixed, as if petrified by a basilisk, stood Helmut. He stood before a painting, his back rigid, his feet firm on the ground. He looked almost like a sculpture, were it not from the tears that dripped from his eyes, forming silvery rivers down his face.


On the Joy of Writing

You write.

Badly.

Your penmanship is the only thing that surpasses your writing in its lack of quality.

You scribble.

You try not to think, to let ideas flow naturally. Brainstorming.

It’s cold, yet you manage to feel hot. The heat… it’s on your back, on your forehead, on your ears.

The quill scrapes the paper and you… you try to imagine something else… anything else.

Writer’s block. It’s a–

The word you seek is not available. Someone must have taken it without your permission. Probably the same someone who stole your pride and your desire to keep writing.

Doubt. You do not know whether to continue writing. What for? You’ve been trying to produce something interesting for months now. All ideas start ambitiously and little by little they start fall apart and decay, like food abandoned for weeks at the bottom of the fridge.

You’re frustrated. Evidently, you did not think this through before sitting down to write.

Deadlines, obligations, fatigue, and frustration. Rage. Disappointment. Now you understand how it all feels. This is hell. Or maybe, maybe that word is too –Word not available, please try again later… error– Great? Glorious? Hell would be glorious compared to this purgatory in which you lie, screwed.

Blank page and more second-rate writing (a term you are not accustomed to using, yet now employ because you’re trying to spice things up).

You stand up and look on your works. At least, you imagine you stand up.

You’ve thought about this before sitting down to write: “Faust sold his soul for talent and glory. I’d sell it in exchange for writing something moderately decent so that I can go to sleep.”

But not even Mephistopheles will present himself to claim your soul. You have already stared intently at your own reflection on the mirror, an archaic way of summoning demons, and you’ve only managed to cross your eyes for ten minutes. Some ritual.

Your back cracks. You’re fed up. Something tells you that nothing you ever create will give you satisfaction.

It’s cold and your back cracks again.

Now you lament having started on the first place.

You straighten your posture and continue, round and round.

Your wrist hurts, but you have not ceased writing.


Log of the ISS Ithaca

Captain's Logbook


When I was young, my mother read me stories about the sea. Entranced, wide-eyed and dreamy, I listened to her every word about the ocean and its denizens, from the humble schools of fish and crustaceans that prowl the coral reefs and kelp forests to the mighty predators and titans that stalk the darkest, most oppressive depths of their watery home.

It was also thanks to my mother that I learned about the exploits of the men and women, both real and fictional, who sought to conquer this magical, untamable kingdom of endless blue. From fierce pirate lord Sandokan to intrepid diver Jacques Cousteau, from vengeful Captain Nemo to fearless Leif Erikson, my mind was filled with tales of adventure and discovery beyond my little landlocked home. Day and night, I wished only to be spirited away by the ancient gods of the sea, off to live as a humble subject of their kingdom, to have my name whispered by the waves like those of the heroes whose legends I so adored.

With age came the time of emancipation, when even the great albatross must leave the nest of infancy and venture into the great unknown. My steps took me far away from home, towards the sea I had never seen yet had dreamed of every night since I was a child. Imbibed at the realization of my childhood dream, I forgot my absolute ignorance of the true toils of sea life and jumped on the first ship willing to give me a job, even if I was reduced to srubbing floors and making meals for drunken sailors, painfully aware of my condition as a woman at sea. Never again would I wish for dry land under my feet. If only my mother could see me now…

Years and years have passed, and life has changed, much like the ships and oceans I sail on. Still, my love for the great blue remained unchanged, even as I left my home world for alien seas. Through storm and mutiny I have prevailed, through maelstrom and shipwreck I have stood my ground, ever loving and defiant of the endless waters that I have long called home.

And now, here I stand, before the fruit of my labors. My ship, the ISS Ithaca, waits in orbit over a heavenly sphere of the purest blue, its surface unmarred by the presence of land: Cetus, a pristine ocean world orbiting a young yellow star. The planet looms before us, inviting… no, beckoning us to explore its mysteries. Ocean worlds there are many, uncountable through the black sea of stars that is the Universe, but none may claim to be as unexplored as Cetus. This I know to be true, for it is I who has discovered and named it. This is my destiny; this is my time.

My name is captain Amelia Corso, and I lay claim to this world in the name of science and discovery, for the glory of my Empire and the benefit of all who’ll come after me. In this captain’s log, I shall document and report any and all scientific findings I and my crew make during our stay on Cetus.

May the waves be ever calm and the winds always at our backs.


On New Gomorrah

Ever since the Krolovar Invasion, which resulted in the dissolution of the League of Ten Kingdoms, the Galactic Triumvirate has maintained peace and stability throughout the known Universe. The Immortal Empire, the Emerald Hegemony and the Solar Dominion have become the undisputed rulers of the Seven Galaxies. Through their territories, they have sought to preserve order by any means necessary, from gallant diplomacy to brutal repression. Historians in Midgard have reached the consensus that the rise of the Triumvirate has indeed ushered an age of peace and prosperity in the Seven Galaxies: a Pax Galactica.1

The zenith of lawlessness, however, is not a planet in Triumvirate-controlled territory. Though many worlds in the Triumvirate are virtually governed in their entirety by crime syndicates, none can compete with the planet known as New Gomorrah, whose purple skies watch over a planet-spanning city, an ever-churning machine that grinds and tears and makes whole again.

The following is a brief summary of New Gomorrah, a recollection of its history and demographics, an attempt to understand its position in the Galactic Community.


New Gomorrah: An Introduction

There are few planets in the Universe as infamous as New Gomorrah, world-city of eternal dusk. Most citizens of the Galactic Triumvirate regard it as the largest haven for chaos and anarchy in Midgard, a blot in the face of civilization. It is only sought after by two kinds of beings. On one side, those who have nowhere else to go: fugitives, exiles, political enemies and other undesirables. On the other side, those who would exploit the planet’s lawlessness for their own purposes: Pirates, hitmen, smugglers, gangsters, hackers, religious fanatics and terrorists all mingle with each other in the neon streets of New Gomorrah, world-city of eternal dusk.

Thus, it is not unreasonable that New Gomorrah is seen as home to the worst lowlifes of the known Universe. Known mostly for its perpetually purple skies, its highly corrosive rain and its rampant technology, this planet is the largest hub of criminal activity in the known Universe, far surpassing the criminal underworld of any star system under Triumvirate jurisdiction. Often nicknamed “The Great Sprawl,” the planet is dominated in its entirety by an immense, polluted urban landscape inhabited by nearly thirty billion beings from across the Universe. This figure overshadows even Idhai and Numera, the capitals of the Immortal Empire and the Emerald Hegemony, respectively.

With such a large population, it is not unexpected that New Gomorrah’s crime rate is the highest of any registered planet. Be it murder, rape, thievery, organ and drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, hacking or biohacking, New Gomorrah hosts it all, and almost seems to relish in it. The deeper one descends into the Sprawl’s foundations, into that neon underworld made of metal and concrete, the more disturbing amusements one will find. Crime syndicates like the Zahn Society and the Black Nebula turn any conceivable illegal activity into a lucrative business, while mega-corporations dictate the only semblance of law and order amidst the chaos.


Because it was founded by humans and this species is still the most numerous on the planet, understanding the history of New Gomorrah’s history means reminiscing back to the integration of the planet Earth into the Immortal Empire, the Imperial year 2109 (Sol year 3042). The centuries prior to the Earth’s and Mars’ induction into the Empire was marked by a series of phenomena that radically altered the planet’s social, political, cultural and religious aspects.


Morbid Diversions

The ground shook as the colossal mass of flesh and metal came crashing down, further fragmenting the already cracked concrete floor. The cracks and dents filled with the blood of the fallen fighter, drinking up every drop of the thick blue liquid, made to shine under the arena’s bright neon lights. The Death Pit, the Tournament of Blood and Oil, was about to claim a new victim.

The beast writhed in agony, its six legs squirming and trying to push back, trying to get up and keep on fighting, keep on tearing and clawing and killing. Its powerful form, twenty tons of muscle and cybernetics, tried to lift itself, and failed. It was almost as if it were glued to the ground, vulnerable and frail. Its three mouths, filled to the brim with serrated teeth, let out a pained roar as its organs further ruptured from the effort. Five consecutive wins, five consecutive kills. It had come in as a hotshot, ripe with potential, quickly rising to be a prospective favorite for the season. Engineered to be a natural predator, its arsenal had been further enhanced by mechanical implants and circuitry. The perfect fighting beast. Now, it was about to become prey.

Its rival stood over the creature’s mangled form, a towering figure of primal rage and hunger. It moved in an arrogant, nearly elegant fashion, more like a trained martial artist than a brutish beast of war. It was almost a mockery of a man, standing on its firm hind legs and clenching its clawed forelegs, still dripping with its enemy’s blood. The neon lights reflected off its shiny polymer skin, off its plated, armored spine. Beneath it, powerful muscles, enhanced with the latest batch of nanorobotic implants, tensed with the anticipation of the kill. Its tail, nearly a third of its body’s length, curved and poised itself to strike, a cruel, twin-bladed implement emerging from its tip.

Tension was thick. The felled creature still posed a threat, still mighty enough to crush bones and rip metal from flesh. Good thing it had shattered its shoulder cannons as it fell. The other monster, its silver skin stained with fresh blood, would need to strike fast. Once it had completely disabled its opponent, then it would have its fun, slowly killing its prey, feasting on its still-living body.

Seconds felt as an eternity while the creatures watched each other, anticipating the inevitable. The cries of the fallen beast were deafening. And suddenly, with a sharp whistling that heralded the hit, the silver monster struck. The sharp blades at the end of its tail slashed its rival’s chest, ripping and tearing. It slashed and slashed, painting the arena’s floor and walls blue. It did not stop until its victim’s cries were silenced, until colorful intestines flowed out of the ruined abdomen, until it was heel-deep in gore.

And then, it began to feed. No glorious victory, no higher purpose. Merely animalistic, instinctive hunger. Its victim wailed in agony as the victor fed, but its screams faded and died without the other creature paying it any heed. It was too busy feeding to even care if its prey was still alive. Its teeth sank deep into the mutilated flesh. It tore out chunks as large as a small hovercraft, voraciously gulping them down. A feast worthy of a champion. Its thin, angular skull almost disappeared as it feasted on the cadaver, like a worm burrowing on wet soil. So focused it was on its prize, that it nearly did not notice when the other started moving again.

It was as quick as lighting. In an instant, two appendages as thick as columns emerged from the fallen monster’s bloodied torso. They wrapped themselves around the victor’s slender form, brutally strangling and pulling it towards the repugnant mass of dying flesh. One of the fallen creature’s mouths opened and let out a harrowing cry, an agonized sound that filled the air with horror. It gaped wide open, awaiting its victim. The victorious creature, now trapped between its enemy’s barbed and muscled tentacles, tried to resist. It slashed and bit and writhed. Its skin secreted an acidic substance powerful enough to melt iron in a few seconds. Its hands grew metal talons so sharp that they could tear through a spaceship’s hull. All in vain.

The fallen creature pulled its enemy towards it and pressed. Its central mouth clamped on its prey’s head, trapping it and piercing its flesh. It tasted blood, and felt its tongue and gums melt and dissolve from its rival’s acid secretions. It pressed on, crushing the supposed victor between its tentacles and its mangled body. It kept going, ignoring the pain, until bones cracked, organs ruptured, and metal splintered. With a disgusting, wet pop, the silver creature burst like a ripe grape, its innards thrown in all directions, soaking the arena and its rival with gore and golden blood, the ichor of a fallen god.

The true victor, the dying, disemboweled beast, let out a final cry, and fell silent, rigor mortis finally overtaking what remained of its body. It laid there heavily, still clasping its enemy’s remains, and moved no more. For a moment, all was silent.

Then the storm came down.

The sound of a million voices, mad with extasy, pierced the air, cheering and booing and laughing at the carnage that had taken place before them. It was as if the barbarity of ages long past, a time when man and beast were indistinguishable, had returned in all its gruesome glory. The multitude was as a cruel, mad god that thirsted blood and oil and sparks. It made bets, exchanged secrets, swore and cursed and counted the night´s profits.

For outsiders, the Death Pit was an oddity in a Universe where most gladiatorial combat was prohibited, a morbid diversion for the ever-decaying society of the world known as New Gomorrah. But for the inhabitants of the Great Sprawl, it was the highest form of entertainment. Here, under the purple skies of New Gomorrah, deathmatches appealed to everyone from the richest of oligarchs to the lowest filth of the Great Sprawl. Everyone enjoyed watching blood spilling, guts tearing and the occasional twist of fate. “Everyone” included the man quietly observing the bloodbath from his seat high above the arena, a saucer-shaped craft with the circumference of a Ferris wheel, floating nearly hidden by the noxious clouds that rained acid over the entire city-world.

His name was Khalid Nam, and his night was not going as planned. He could almost see a million credits going down the shitter as the cleaning robots scrapped his champion’s remains off the arena’s floor. That’s what he got for not betting on the underdog. He lit another cigarette. He exhaled and let the smoke trail off, dissipating almost as quickly as his hopes of making back his lost money. The worst part was he had no one else to blame. That way, he might at least have had the satisfaction of firing someone.

He turned his head around. Empty seats met his gaze. He grunted. It seemed he was the only attendant watching the show. Better that way, he thought. Maybe like this no one would ask him how his bets had turned out. The last thing he needed right now were the snide remarks of some rich asshole or snobbish “kaiju connoisseur.” He extinguished his cigar, only half-smoked, and got up from his seat. Time to count his losses. Time to check his chances at another shot tonight.

As he walked towards the crowd gathered near the center of the room, his mind wandered off towards a happier, more comfortable place. He imagined himself back at his penthouse, with no other company than a good bottle of wyvern whisky, away from the blood-soaked arena, and from his peers. He glanced around, trying to identify some known face amongst the indistinct sea of expensive suits and revealing dresses. There was Kynae Nu, CEO of Sarnath Bioengineering, getting his face stuffed with exotic meats. Justine Gillian, retired assassin and former supermodel, courted a woman forty years younger than herself. And Nym Zonder, the mastermind behind Zonder Cybernetics, used his cybernetic nose to voraciously inhale a pile of narcotics laid before him, his eyes emerald green after years of usage.

These were the people who Khalid was forced to interact with in order to preserve his social standing. These slobs. These tasteless, grotesque men and women. Obscenely rich, obnoxiously snobbish. They would gather around, cawing like carrion birds, flapping their mouths in order to bring attention to themselves, seeking nothing but expensive pleasures made cheap by their tastelessness. They thought themselves sophisticated and cultured, but most of them could barely call themselves educated. Their abilities as businesspersons were undoubted, but they lacked any other salvageable trait. Insensitive to art, ignorant of their own uncultured nature, misguidedly proud of their lifestyles. An oligarchic class made up of adult-sized children. Capricious. Whimsical. Philistine.

It extended even to their sense of decoration. To say the room Khalid was lounging in was ugly would be an understatement. Red velvet and tasteless gold ornaments decorated every wall, giving the room the appearance of a bad attempt at an aristocratic setting. Large marble statues depicting famous people from across the stars paid homage to the guests’ bloated egos. Tables with the length an Olympic pool displayed the most varied and exotic foods in the Universe, piles so large that food waste was inevitable. Chairs and cushions of every shape and size, made from the finest materials, hosted a multitude of drunken or otherwise intoxicated guests, their every need and whim dutifully attended by scantly clad men and women. With such diversions, in single moment the entire room could erupt into an impromptu orgy.

To Khalid, who had always been a minimalist, these excesses were borderline obscene. Compared to what his fellow guests were getting up to, the violence of the Death Pit seemed nearly artistic. He would have complained more if not for the one perk he was getting. Hovering platforms and podiums were reserved for the superrich for various reasons. For one, they kept their immaculate little clothes and cybernetics away from the filthy mob that filled the Pit’s grades. For another, they were far safer than the actual Pit. Accidents involving felled beasts crushing multitudes into pulp or going rogue and eating someone were not uncommon. The better the seats at the arena, the more the risk of getting flattened or covered in some noxious secretion. That was a problem the hover-plats circumvented by transmitting the fights in the highest definition possible through screens, windows and holograms spread throughout them. It was practically the same as watching them in person, only less odorous.

Finally, the reason Khalid had yet to cease his rides on these lavish platforms: the immense central window displayed not only a close, high-resolution view of the combats below, but beast statistics, popularity numbers, right ownerships, money invested and betted. This was data vital to someone like Khalid, privileged information displayed only for those who could truly invest in the beast combat business. Here, investors and sponsors could choose what monster to support, what newcomer team was worth their time and money. Betting trends flashed before the spectators, market value of the creatures was estimated, and lucrative offers were made for the sponsoring and merchandising of every triumphant beast. This was Khalid’s world, the world he had thrived in, the world he now owned.

Khalid would not speak of it unless asked, but he was both a founder and a member of Goliath Group’s board of directors, the biggest name in the world of blood sports. Their notoriety came from the brutal efficiency their creatures displayed in New Gomorrah’s arenas. No other biotech firm could replicate the lethality Goliath’s beasts demonstrated. No other company had managed to so seamlessly integrate biological and mechanical components into a giant combat monster. Goliath had gone from being a small team with a mediocre monster to completely dominating the blood sport market. Every company in New Gomorrah wanted their brand emblazoned in the Goliath’s breeding tanks. Every sponsor and investor wanted a bite out of the juicy steak that was Goliath. Khalid could not be more pleased with his and his team’s efforts.

In New Gomorrah, at the cover of the planet’s eternal dusk, life and death were only as valuable as the audience deemed them. Tickets to events displaying a Goliath beast sold out almost instantaneously. The revenue Goliath got from advertisement alone was enough to buy a solar system. The beasts were treated like celebrities, like popular athletes. They received media attention, had merchandise mass-produced in their likeness. Once used to wage war and decimate entire populations, the bio-engineered creatures were now the stars in the galactic underworld’s most popular form of entertainment.

The business was not risk-free, however. One single war beast took billions of credits to engineer, and millions more to promote. A creature dying on the Death Pit meant a nearly complete loss of time and money, even though the genetic material was still useful, and the body parts could be sold as souvenirs, raw materials and even food. The real profits came from bets, sponsorships and advertisements, and no one ever bet on dead meat. Every victory filled Goliath’s vaults and represented opportunity for further moneymaking. Every defeat meant a loss of trust from sponsors and investors. Like any other sportsmen, the beasts played to win. Only here playing meant tearing an opponent apart in front of a cheering, bloodthirsty audience.


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