Din-Bidor's Sandbox
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Fable

Once I met a stranger in a tavern, an old man of gnarly hands and sunken eyes, his hair damp and greasy, his words foul and his breath even fouler. Over drinks, he inquired of my profession, and I told him I was a wandering scholar, a pilgrim looking for illumination. I spoke of my quests, of my venturing into dark dungeons full of traps, into desolate cities felled by the scourge of gods and time. As I regaled him with my tales, I could tell he was bored, as if my adventures had been nothing but the retelling of a story a thousand times spoken.

In my anger, drunk with pride as I was with ale, I challenged him to tell a better story than mine, something unheard to me, who had seen every ruin and labyrinth across Creation, who had read the words of long-dead poets and kings.

"A story I have for you," he said with coarse voice, "a tale for your delight. Illumination it may indeed bring you, but for it you must pay a price."

Arrogantly, I told the old man to name his toll, be it coin or ale, but he shook his head heavily, and his eyes shone as if lit by candlelight.

"All knowledge is remembrance, all novelty oblivion. And for this, my tale I gift, I shall take one of yours in turn, that I may know it, but you'll forget it."

he said in coarse voice. "And it is in oblivion that one may find truth. Have you ever heard the story of Tevak of the Red Sands, the great forgotten city of the Uhmar?"

Never had I heard of such place, and though I looked at the old man with scorn, my still eyes gleamed with intrigue, and my tongue begged of his to speak. And so, the old man grinned his blackened teeth, and told me the tale of Tevak, the City Thrice Lost.


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Machinations

The penthouse atop Kuiper Tower had one of the best views on Blue Central, New Gomorrah's largest corporate district. From up there, any man could believe himself a sentinel: located just at the district's edge, the building loomed over the rest like a panopticon, allowing anyone staying at its crown to gaze at the wonders and landmarks that made up this part of the hemisphere.

There was The Lithium Flower, the most popular nightclub this part of New Gomorrah, its neon signs advertising everything from live (and virtual) nude dancers to exotic cocktails, guaranteed to take you to higher planes of consciousness.

Further away stood the great I/O Cathedral, crystalline and pyramidal, projecting its great beam of light towards the heavens, beckoning the followers of WAN to worship.

Opposite to it, the Blood Pit, its revelers forever lusting after the spectacle of bioengineered monsters and augmented warriors tearing each other apart for fortune and glory.

There was more still, unseen beyond the horizon: the vast expanse of streets and buildings sprawled in every direction, covering every inch of the planet, a kingdom of metal and concrete, silicon and neon, pulsing and growing and partying and dying under the purple never-night sky.

And who sat on this kingdom's throne? Why, the man over whose head the sun never set.

That was something easily said on New Gomorrah: the planet was warmed by a sun, Nebuchadnezzar, that never really penetrated its unique atmospheric conditions, trapping the sky in an everlasting, violet dusk.

But the man who was king, the sentinel who oversaw the expanse of his dusky, purple-tinged kingdom from the top of Kuiper Tower, had not gained his throne by staring pensively at the sprawl: to build an empire, one had to fight, to conquer… and to crush anyone who stood in one's way.

Desmond Knight, Chairman of Prometheus Consolidated's board of directors, had spent most of his career building an empire. For the last two decades, his every waking second had been spent reviewing proposals, authorizing projects, negotiating contracts, crushing the competition– in short, keeping Prometheus on the black. With an agenda like his, there was never enough time to rest and admire his conquests; it would always be another who looked on his works and despaired.

Today, however, Desmond had a rare chance to be alone with his thoughts, a brief instant to contemplate his life, his work, his legacy… and the events that threatened to bring it all crashing down.

News of last night's events had blown up in the network, despite Gibborim Bio-Innovations' best attempts to keep things quiet: six men dead, a secret facility robbed and set on fire, perps still on the loose… all in Blue Central, all in Prometheus' turf.

Desmond knew he sould be no stranger to this kind of news. New Gomorrah was not and would never be a safe environment for business: hackers and cyberterrorists lurked in dark corners of the network, and aggressive competitors and gangs prowled in wait for a chance to strike. Some corporate espionage was to be expected, some financial losses were to be coped with. and some merchandise being stolen and trafficked into the black market was to be tolerated.

But this… this was something different, an attack on the very heart of New Gomorrah's corporate elite. Whoever had hit Gibborim had done it in front of every corporation's noses, and gotten away with it. The message was clear: to the ecumenopolis' criminal element, corporations were no longer untouchable.

That was exactly why today Desmond sat waiting, reclined on the comfortable armchair that served as his throne: last night's incident could not go unaddressed, and emergencies like this one called for council amongst kings.

A small menu popped up before his eyes, his cyber-brain reminding him that less than a minute remained before the meeting started. He sipped what was left of his whisky, then plugged a cable into one the neural ports that lined his nape. A necessary precaution; wireless was just not as safe as it used to be.

Establishing secure connection in 3.

A stream of ones and zeroes flashed before Desmond's eyes as his vision went dark, numbers moving so fast that he barely had time to register them, quickly turning into a swirling maelstrom of light.

2.

Reality compiled itself at lightspeed, shapes erecting themselves from a mass of pixels, gaining depth and substance, emerging from the formless ocean of data that was cyberspace. From the chaos, a room materialized, a simulspace sanctum for a meeting of minds.

1.

Furniture and decoration popped into view, simulspace stimulating Desmond's cyber-brain with the illusion of tangibility, the smell of incense and the faint crackling of a fireplace reaching his senses, indistinguishable from the material world. From the window next to him, the glow of the ever-shifting virtual reality known at Zeitgeist supplanted the view he had gazed upon from the penthouse.

Secure connection established.

"Mister Knight," a smooth voice greeted. "A pleasure seeing your face again."

"Mister Anderson," replied Desmond. He couldn't be less pleased with the face he was seeing.

Lounging in the chair in front of him, fingers tapping on the armrests, sat a pale silhouette in the shape of a human male, a figure clad in a wine-red vest and black dress shirt. That, however, was were the similarities stopped: the being's skin was marble-white, coursed by circuitry from the tip of his slender hands to the crown of his hairless head. He had no no eyebrows or ears, lips or eyelids, his green optics staring unblinkingly, unnaturally.

Vincent Anderson, head and founder of Anderson Robotics, had not had a body for centuries untold, his natural form having expired in an age where the Foundation still ran the show. But even now, as a fully digital lifeform capable of downloading itself into any body of his choosing, his avatar refused a visage different from the one he had possessed at the time of his death. Was it ego? Trauma kept unchecked for millennia? Desmond did not know, but he was glad his business rival chose a comprehensible shape to present himself among the non-transcended. There were some things whose true forms were best left unseen.

"What's wrong, Desmond?" Anderson's avatar voiced. "Rough night?"

"It would have been for you as well, if you still had the need to sleep," Desmond answered, his augments doing their best to block the headache of a night spent poring over forensic analysis and police reports. "I'm guessing the news have reached you already."

"Yeah. Nice, um, heist we got in our hands. Masterfully orchestrated and executed."

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you're actually rooting for the thieves, Vincent."

The avatar tilted its head slightly. Green optics stared at Desmond with intrigue.

"You surprise me, Desmond. I thought you, of all people, would be glad that Gibborim's been deprived of its toys. Aren't they your biggest competitor in the biotech market? To think their little, uh, war-beasts almost kicked you out of the bio-warfare business…"

Desmond frowned. It was true: Gibborim's expansion from a mere farmaceutical company into a true titan in the bioweapons industry had once threatened Prometheus' very survival. Only recently had Prometheus gained the upper hand, with Gibborim always at their heels.

That was, until last night, when Gibborim had become a victim of their own hubris. Whatever had been stolen from them was anybody's guess, but it had been big enough for them to pull the plug on most big projects and focus entirely on damage control and asset recovery. In a single night, Prometheus strongest rival had been brought to its knees. Still, the issue remained: a corporation had been attacked in their own turf, a dangerous precedent that had undoubtedly not gone unnoticed.

"I have no time to celebrate when we could be next," Desmond said. "I wouldn't be surprised if every crime syndicate on New Gomorrah has been taking notes. We are exposed in our own fortress; we must prepare to act before they strike again. We need to work together."

"Let me get this straight, Desmond. Your biggest rival gets hit by some random thieves, and your first thought is to come to me for help?" Anderson laughed. "I must say I'm honored: the proud Desmond Knight asking for my help… it really must be the end times."

Desmond could not disagree with that assessment. For the last century, Anderson Robotics and Prometheus Consolidated had tried to outdo each other by any means necessary. While Gibborim had been a powerful rival in the field of biotechnology, it was Anderson's robots, prosthetics and other cyberware that challenged Prometheus at every turn of the robotics market. Competition had been fierce, mutual sabotage abundant, and now… here were their head honchos, discussing a truce. The irony was not lost to either of them.

"I am a pragmatist, Vincent. Our companies might be rivals, but we both know that the present threat is far more immediate than anything either of us can cook up to undermine each other. Prometheus Consolidated is willing to put aside its grievances… if Anderson Robotics will do the same for us."

Anderson's laughter turned scornful.

"And what makes you think I'm willing to join your little crusade? Why should I not just let them take you out like they did with Gibborim? Maybe once your numbers are on the red, I can buy you out, take your R&D department for myself and make a quick buck out of your little chemistry sets."

"Because, my old friend, you know exactly what it means to have your company, your assets, your way of life, threatened by a group of shadowy people. You know what it is like to have everything you've worked so hard for taken away, and I'm sure you wish not to go back into the woods."

The old cyborg's avatar stopped laughing at the mention of his defeat, his exile into the misty limbo of his own creation. A grim expression draped his pale face as he straightened his back, collecting his thoughts before answering.

"Oh, it's just too good to be true. An alliance born of fear… Wonderful, just wonderful…"

Anderson stood from his chair and extended his marble-white hand.

"Alright, in the spirit of survival, I accept your peace offering. For now."

Desmond stretched Anderson's virtual hand, cold and stiff like a corpse's.

"Good to see you are still a reasonable man, Vincent. Now let's get to work."

Desmond took one last look at Zeitgeist, the great expanse of code and virtual infrastructure that lied beyond the window. He wondered if out there, on some shady corner of the network, the minds that had assaulted Gibborim had begun planning their next heist. Perhaps even here, in the luminous surface of cyberspace, he and Anderson had become vulnerable, their pedestals broken, waiting to be ransacked by the masses.

He did not get much time to ponder.

Anderson snapped his fingers, and reality shifted from the comfortable, well-lit room in which they sat into a sterile, white expanse of nothingness.

Desmond sighed.

Time to work, indeed.


"Let's start at the beginning, shall we?" Anderson said. "What do we know?"

"Last night, at 23:00 hours, Eighth Quadrant time, an unknown group of assailants attacked and robbed one of Gibborim Bio-Innovations vaults, here in Blue Central," Desmond responded, transmitting data from his memory banks.

The image of the smoking building and its dead guards popped into view, floating between the two avatars like an exibit at a museum. Six corpses littered the ground, blood splattered over the walls and ceiling. It was not a pretty picture.

"The assailants killed six guards, burnt through a layer of war-bugs and made their getaway on an unknown vehicle. The nature of the stolen asset is also unknown at this moment, but thanks to its theft, Gibborim has ceased all research and developement operations, instead focusing on search and recovery."


Ghastly news, but are you surprised they got away with it? I mean, carnivorous bugs, really? We're in the ninetieth century; we're expected to have better security than that."

"Gibborim's failures are their own; if anything, I would suggest we exploit whatever edge we now have before they rectify their error. That I'd suggest were it not for where and how the theft happened. Did you have time to review the documents I sent you?"

"Those, and more."

Anderson's projection motioned and a screen appeared before Desmond's eyes. Displayed on it, news reports, forensic analysis and detailed schematics painted the grim results of last night's attack.

"I do believe the appropiate term here is shitshow," said Anderson, pointing at some of the crime scene photos. "Whoever struck Gibborim did not hold back. See those, uh, wet spots there? Brain tissue. Crispy fried and splattered all over the place."

"I know of a few guns that can do this kind of harm," Desmond observed. "Most are in Prometheus' catalog; I wouldn't be surprised if it's one of our… clients behind this."

"A good theory, Desmond, but unfortunately for your R&D department, there weren't any bullet or beam marks anywhere in the crime scene. I'm afraid your little tinkerers can't take the credit for this one."

"No guns?" said Desmond, ignoring Anderson's poking. "Then how…?"

"The guards' heads exploded, Desmond," the pale cyborg replied as a forensic picture popped in front of the others. "Their neural implants straight up overheated and blew up like firecrackers. Nasty way to go."

The picture showed a headless corpse lying in a morgue, the charred remains of a neuro-spinal augment protruding from the mutilated neck. A terrible way to die, indeed.

"How is this possible? Whose weapons can do this? Avalos? Orion Corp?"

"Hey, don't ask me, I just make robots," joked Anderson. "No, this isn't one of our own, this… this is someone else, something else. My guess is whatever weapon they used was custom-made, probably a sort of, uh… data transfer, like a virus transmitted directly into the victims' neural implants. Once their drives recognize it, they overheat and explode. And it doesn't even end there."

A new screen flashed and displayed a different forensic report. A body, charred and melted beyond recognition, laid in a black body bag, its mouth still echoing screams of pain and horror.

"I read about this on the files I sent you," Desmond winced slightly. "Burnt from the inside out. Entrails completely melted in seconds. Even the optical recorders were incinerated. We won't be getting any new intel from him."

"Not unless you have a necromancer on your payroll, no," conceded Anderson. "I could do it myself, but why bother with a séance? I do believe the dead have… other ways of talking. The team's commander, for example…"

The screen showed another corpse, a shrivelled, dissecated shell, dried-out eyes fixed forever in the moment of his death.

"See, this one is the, um… team commander, and the other guy's exact opposite. He wasn't burned by having an energy beam shoved down his throat: he was drained. His biochemical energy… poof! Gone. Bet you half my Raptors that the same energy was used to fry his poor colleague's guts."

"Drained?" Desmond voiced back, his mind quickly connecting the dots. "Of course… the generator! It too was drained, the energy redirected to incinerate the war-bugs!"

"Exactly," said Anderson. "See, there are a lot of people out there with certain augments that grant them, uh, special skills. But whoever did this, they… well, they're quite unique, if I say so. A thief who can absorb and weaponize at least two different energy types… wonder what else they can do."

Desmond did not answer immediately. Something in his brain had clicked, an answer so obvious that it should have been the first thing to come to mind. Memories of past sins came rushing, the shock of realization drowning Anderson's words.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd say we're dealing with some sort of energy vampi–"

"Not a vampire," Desmond cut him off. "A leecher."

A tense silence followed, both he and Anderson pausing to assimilate the gravity of the former's words.


"But I– I thought they were extinct," protested the cyborg. His tone, usually bordering carefreeness, was now charged with lingering dread.


emitted by the facility's death ray generator… a generator that burnt up along with the rest of the site's defenses."

The ruined generator's image popped before Desmond's eyes. He recognized the model immediately: one of Prometheus' own design.

"That thing could generate enough juice to power a small space-station," he gasped. "How…?"

"Drained, Desmond. Drained and redirected towards the war-bugs. I figured

"You mean that the

"If they're capable of hacking and blowing up personnel with minimal wetware augments, then we can't send a regular Prometheus Hunt Party on their trail; they all communicate via neuro-transmitters," mused Desmond. "And I doubt a squad of your androids would fare any better against them. You'd be knee-deep in fried positronic brains."

"Hey, the Raptor series has come a long way from my youth's products."

"We have a crisis, Vincent," Desmond ignored him. "."

"You think that's bad? Wait until I tell you the news."

Another screen flashed and displayed a different fo

"Let me, um… let me tell you something about our thieves, Desmond," said Anderson, collecting his thoughts. "You recall what the forensic report you sent me said about the, uh, the other guards? The ones who did not get their heads exploded?"

"Incinerated from the inside out by some sort of energy-projecting weapon. Probably a modified prosthetic."

"Well, yes, most of

People like them

"Your point, Vincent?"

"My point is that for every sucker out there buying into our shit, two more are aching to bring us down. It doesn't matter who they are, the Zahn Society, Red Faction, some wanna-be starving artist… all they need is a martyr, a symbol to rally behind. And by hunting down these thieves, these daring rebels who robbed one of us in our own district, we'd be giving them just that."


"Not quite," Anderson said, collecting his thoughts. "

Ever since I escaped the forest, I've learned a thing or two about

"How? You mean putting out a reward?" Desmond asked. "Half the bounty hunters and mercenaries on this planet are already in our employ. Sending one after the thieves would be as damaging as hunting them down ourselves."

"Not a reward, no… just


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Astodan

This journal, now in possesion of the Real Academia de Ciencias Teológicas, was found in a bog close to San Mateo de Durut, a place His Majesty has declared no man is to venture beyond. Though most of its contents were illegible due to damage by the elements, what little remains has been enough for the Church to declare it heretical, and it is to be read only by those authorized by the Crown and the Holy See. May Our Lord shield our Faith and Empire from the horrors here transcribed.

– Valentín de Gomera, Bishop of Durut.

December 27th, 4212:

The blizzard has grown harsher; continuing our ascent is impossible in these conditions.

We have been forced to take refuge in a cave on the mountain's side, its mouth barely wide enough for our horses to fit through. Though we are not short in food and supplies, I fear the wrath of the elements has begun to erode my men's spirits, and I cannot blame them.

The wind howls like a hound from hell, and we've spent an entire week travelling through nothing but desolate steppes and deadly bogs; no wonder the natives consider this place to be haunted. Though I am reluctant to agree with superstitious savages, there is something… wrong with the land, something ungodly: petrified trees with branches full of thorns; unnaturally thick mists that swallow men and horses whole; strange creatures that we can hear but are never more than shadows in the corner of our eyes… were we not all men of His Majesty and God, I have no doubt the fear of ghosts and demons lurking in the darkness would have overcome us by now.

Fray Fernando has been praying for almost three hours now, and many of the men have joined him, silently bowing their heads around the fire. I will join them soon enough.

May God hear and protect us; may He guide our path in our mission to spread His Word and the King's authority through this heathen land.

December 28th, 4212:

The men have been exploring the cavern; it is much deeper than we could have guessed, a tunnel leading deep into the earth. If we kept going long enough, would we reach Regia Hispania and our King's court?

Our kerosene lamps have proven a great asset in this trying time. Not only do they provide us light and warmth; they have been key to a new discovery. Some walls in this cave are adorned with strange, primitive glyphs and obscene drawings, the work of the savages that roam this land, no doubt. I am tempted to say that this place might have once served as both a refuge and a place of worship for false idols, but other than the paintings, there are no signs of it ever being inhabited. Perhaps they are nomads, taking their livelihood with them, leaving behind nothing but their strange cave paintings, their images of war and demon-worship.

The friar and I have spent the last couple of hours discussing the meaning of these images; though I am convinced that they are nothing but an expression of these peoples' barbarity, he insists that there might be more meaning to them, a way to understand them and facilitate their conversion to the True Faith. For their sake, he better be right; His Majesty's policy on savages is clear: convert or die. Maybe if they choose the latter, my theory will be proven correct.

December 29th, 4212:

The Lord has anwered our prayers: not only has the storm died down, but one of the men, a young soldier named Alonso Coronado, has discovered that the cavern, which we now know to be a tunnel, has its exit on the other side of the mountain. Our quest has been graced by a shortcut!

I've inspected this exit myself, and am pleased to write that we are indeed across the perilous mountain range that we so have struggled to cross. A thick mist hides the valley below, but the sky above us is clear as if untouched by the blizzard. I find it strange, but perhaps the mountains are taller than we thought; perhaps they shield this place from the inclemency of the wind.

Tomorrow we will begin our descent. Whatever riches to claim or peoples to conquer lie beneath us, they will submit to the might of Hispania.

One thing has made me uneasy, however. Just above the tunnel's exit, a strange figure watches over us. It is not one of the primitive paintings that line the walls, but a face carved from the stone itself… the face of a woman. She watches us with her polished eyes, the ghost of a smile forming on her lips; I cannot help but feel like there is something evil dripping from that stone visage, as if the idol's orbits could peer into our futures, as if we saw the face of the Adversary himself… If this is what omens look like, then I hope it is not one of doom.

Enough.

It is not like myself to think like this, like a scared, superstitious peasant. Perhaps the last days have affected my judgement. Heathen idols should be the last thing in my mind when we are so close to victory. Onwards we shall go, into fame and fortune, for God and King.

Glory to Hispania.


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Vel, Second Rotation, 5099

Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Vel, Second Rotation, 5099

Today at dusk, Lord Mortis summoned had me summoned to a s


Moving Mountains

RUMBLING.


It echoes through the plain of stone and dust, deep into the land's cracks and fissures, the gaping scars of a thousand battles.


RUMBLING.


It echoes high up in the air, thunderstrike on a cloudless day, a dark shadow creeping from beyond the horizon.


RUMBLING.


The shadow is colossal, threatening to swallow the horizon. It marches on, a blind force of nature, a living hurricane. Ceaseless. Restless. Unstoppable.


RUMBLING.


Empty. Barren. Dead. The plain is still save for the rumbling. No green has grown here for centuries, no creature has treaded these plains for as long as anyone can remember. They have all stepped into shadow, the shadow of this world's new owners, they who make the earth shake and rumble: the moving mountains.


RUMBLING.


The shadow grows ever closer, its sheer size almost eclipsing the dying star that warms this dead world. A cloud of dust rises as it advances, shifting like waves on a furious sea, propelled by an unnatural wind: the steps of a giant.


RUMBLING.


RUMBL–


The shadow steps out of the sun as the dust slowly settles down, and stands under the sky in all its glory: six powerful legs hold up its massive weight, their shins adorned with bone plating reminiscent of an arthropod's exoskeleton. Throughout the entirety of its upright torso, a thick carapace of bone blends in with patches of exposed, hardened muscle tissue, thick veins and arteries pumping black blood. Three mouths, located on different places throughout its body, expose their sharp, conical teeth as it draws breath, as its mighty lungs prepare to make the stars shudder with fear. Its primitive brain, protected under a deformed crown of bone protrusions, is restless, expectant, anxious to fulfill its sole purpose: to annihilate anything that lives.

At last, the moving mountain of flesh and teeth lifts its grotesque head… and roars.

It is a deafening cry that heralds desolation, an earth-shaking declaration of war against the Universe. Every second of its life, every instant since its creation, has been in preparation for this moment: its final trial. The being has been brought here, to this spot, by a force it does not comprehend, a primordial drive lodged deep within its brain since before it was hatched, a command issued by masters alien to it.

All it knows is that it has been summoned.

All it knows is that it will be tested.

All it knows is that it must kill.


Far above the dead planet's surface, a lone space station slowly descends to lower orbit, locking itself onto the creature's coordinates. All eyes fix on the data screens lining the observation deck, all hands await the command to begin testing.

The Inspector's lower body trembles, tentacles curling with anticipation; it is the closest thing to an emotion that a Hegemon can experience. Decades of planning and engineering, of resources invested, of trial and error, will finally pay their due.

A member of the Xevion breed, the Inspector's exposed green brain emits a faint bioluminescence, pulsing softly as data is fed directly into it: an unbreakable neural link has been established, all minds in the Emerald Hegemony observing what transpires in the world below through its black, beady eyes.

It.

Not him. Not they. Not xer. It.

The Inspector is not an individual, its title simply a formality for non-Hegemon lifeforms to address it by. How could it be any different? The Emerald Hegemony is the utmost expression of a group mind, its members possessing less individuality than a hive of insects. They are legion, an army uncountable, every single cell devoted to its own single purpose in service of the Hegemon gestalt: supremacy at any and all costs. Today, that supremacy will finally be achieved, and all who stand in the Hegemony's way shall tremble.


RUMBLING.


The vibrations are heard through the screens as the surveyance drones' live feed focuses on the great beast, on the moving mountain that stands hundreds of kilometers below, screaming its monstrous war cry. It bellows for a challenge, for something to fight and kill, its deformed shape violently thrashing against the empty expanse. It might soon get its wish… and more.

A command surges through the hive mind, coursing from the Inspector to the other Hegemons around it. In an instant, it reaches the spindly, hunchback members of the Yhranc breed, the Emerald Hegemony's pilots and engineers. Their froglike skulls light up as the message is received, as they jump onto their gunner stations and wait for the next order to arrive, fingers ready on the trigger. Test Phase One is about to begin.

With a hiss of heavy machinery, Hegemony Space Station G98-A turns its most powerful weapon towards the planet, towards the great roaring beast below– and opens fire.

A great beam of light rains from the sky, so strong, so bright, that it would put a neutrino bomb to shame. It tears through the grey landscape, shockwaves shattering mountains and carving new scars onto the barren surface. It strikes the creature with the force of a solar flare.

Direct hit.

A colossal cloud of dust and vaporized rock eclipses the sun, obscuring the bleak landscape. The world is silent, the rumbling and the roaring extinguished under the blighting force of the beam weapon. It seems the Hegemony has overestimated how resistant these new creatures are. Unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected: what manner of creature could hope to survive a direct hit from a death ray? If only–



RUMBLING.


It lives… It lives!

The smoke and dust slowly clear as the creature screams its lungs out, defiant even as the heavens rain down their fury upon it. Impressive, the Hegemon hive mind pulses, taking note of the creature's injuries: hideously scorched, blackened and blistering, what little flesh still clings to its face is an unrecognizable mess of mangled flesh and pus. Its throats are full of glassed earth and stone, bleeding profusely. Muscle has been seared from its bones. One of its eyes has been burnt shut, while another leaks putrid fluid. And still… it lives, its bloodthirst now fueled by grueling pain, driven to a state nearing berserker rage. A most satisfactory result.

Test Phase One successfully completed. Begin Phase Two.



Around the Inspector's command seat, a dozen Uthraan toil and run calculations faster than supercomputers, their single eye-stalks parsing through an incalculable amount of data, anticipating every possible test outcome. Their small, polyp-like bodies glow faintly as they inform the Hegemony of their

are mostly encompassed by a mouth for feeding and a brain for thinking.

The Inspector and its kind felt nothing resembling emotion, but if they did, this moment would be filled with intrigue. Few war beasts were able to withstand a direct hit from a death ray, but those that did were deemed impervious to anything short of a ray designed to cause planetary core collapse. It seemed that, with this beast, the Hegemony had made an excellent investment.

The Uthraan communicated their analysis of phase one's results, and a new order travelled through the mind-link, instructing the beginning of phase two. The Hegemony's anticipation had turned into something resembling vested interest.

A silver cylinder no larger than a hovercraft struck the ground besides the creature, forming an insignificant crater on the stone plain. No sooner had it hit, its shell opened like a blooming flower on the dead ground and it released its payload, a thick green mist rose from the canister, enveloping the creature's head, filling its nostrils, corroding its lungs.

The creature roared once more, its bellows mixing with the wind's howling. It clawed and stomped and tried to attack, to kill its nearly-invisible enemy. The gas held in the canister was designed to kill everything it touched; not even bacterial life was able to survive once it had been released. The open use of an illegal weapon like this would signify heavy sanctions and retaliation from the rest of the Galactic Triumvirate, and thus, the Emerald Hegemony saw only one use for it: being utilized to test even deadlier weapons.

Anticipation pulsed in the Hegemony's brains as the creature continued thrashing and roaring in pain, vomiting bloodied chunks of flesh as the gas corroded its lungs and digestive tract. Still, it refused to go down, it refused to die. New fissures formed on the ground, the shockwaves of its throes strong enough to create a tectonic shift, but not even the gas' deadly touch could kill the moving mountain.

A great torrent of data emanated from the Uthraan and reached the Inspector's brain. Phase two had been completed with great results. The creature was capable of surviving even in the most toxic of environments; its rampage could now extend to every imaginable world in the Universe, no matter how hostile to life they were. Now… now it could conquer the stars.

Still, one more test phase remained, one that would define the creature's true aptitude and might. The Inspector turned its mind to the Mkeun soldier breed, a number of which remained stationed below the planet's surface, guarding the final trial. Strongest of their ilk, the Mkeun rushed to action, panting through their wide, fanged maws as machinery began grinding, toiling under the stress of pushing the payload from deep beneath the earth.

And it began again.

Rumbling.

A great door opened on the ground next to the creature, large enough for an entire stellar cruiser to fit through it. As the hidden metal panel receded, something else, a dark, ominous form, rose from the guts of the earth.

Rumbling.

It was a container, forged from the strongest alloys known to civilization, strong enough to sustain a direct hit from an orbital bombardment, resistant enough to keep the thing within locked, kept in suspended animation until its time came, until the kill order was given.

Rumbling.

That time was now, and the kill order reached the colossal metal box as the great beast, having finally found a tangible target, rushed to tear it apart with its claws and fangs. The front side of the box opened, letting out the cold vapor of thawing cryonics as the final trial clawed its way from its cradle, its prison.

A flash of reflected light and a shrill battle shriek was all the bellowing, burnt creature was able to see before its blood soaked the ground, before it was forced on its knees by the sheer impact force of the new arrival's attack. A confused cry exited its lungs as another strike sank claws deep into its flesh, cutting through it like it was butter. Another hit, and it toppled, screaming an agonized roar as the shadow descended on it once again.

Had the Hegemons possessed the ability to feel emotion, they would have reacted to the scene they saw through the Inspector's eyes with pride. The Emerald Hegemony's bioweapons were beyond the wildest dreams of even the Immortal Empire, and this creature was the culmination of a century of research and bioengineering. Built as an apex predator, impervious to beam weapons, resistant to even the strongest of toxins, surprisingly fast for its size, there was no creature as lethal in the Universe, not even amongst its kind. Of all the war beast breeds the Hegemony had gestated over the years, this could well be the most destructive of all, a beast capable of outmatching even the Immortal Empire's war mechanoids.

And still, the Hegemony did not think it was enough.

Ever since first contact, the Emerald Hegemony had remained wary of the Immortal Empire, of its power, of its magic. Magic was widespread through the Empire, practiced in some form or another by much of its population, put to use with devastating effect by the Imperial military. Its very presence shaped society, culture and life in the Empire, and represented its greatest tactical advantage in a Universe full of would-be conquerors.

The Emerald Hegemony did not understand magic, not even when presented in its more scientific form, thaumaturgy. What little comprehension it had was a vulgar approximation, an incomplete picture that did not reveal the secrets of bending reality to one's will; no Hegemon had ever been able to harness this mystical force. Still, the Hegemony understood enough to know that the unknown posed a danger to its supremacy, and had sought to find a way of getting the upper hand, to counter the threat of magic; how ironic that it would be this same force that the Hegemony would eventually turn to.

In their search for a counterforce, the Hegemony had come across an unexpected solution: amongst the ruins of a conquered world, the Emerald Hegemony had found the temple of a strange religion, a cult based around the alteration and utilization of flesh. This… flesh-crafting, this Nälkä, while still tainted with the stench of magic, proved to be the answer the Hegemony sought. For what kind of magic could be better suited for the Hegemony than one meant to create monsters?

From decaying scrolls made of skin, the Hegemony learned the secrets of flesh magic, the ways of old Adytum. It could not care less for the affair's religious aspects, a concept as contemptible and irrational as emotion, but the actual magical practice… it all made sense. Flesh-crafting's principles were similar to bioengineering, its objective in line with the Hegemony's: to create creatures so strong and mighty that no force, magic or mundane, could stand in their path. There it was, the key to Hegemon triumph: a kind of magic they understood. If they could understand it, they could harness it, and if they could harness it…

Early trials were unsuccessful. The creatures born from the ancient rituals and gruesome sacrifices were unstable, little more than shivering masses of bloodied flesh that expired moments after being created, their very existence an unbearable torment. The Hegemony began thinking it had overestimated its comprehension of carnomancy: splicing genes and gestating an embryo was easy with the right tools, but this? Carnomancy was something far stranger, requiring a connection with the flesh, an understanding of its religious significance, devotion to the Nälkä faith; without these, dominion of the craft was defficient, lacking. Sculpting flesh and bone with an incantation, mutating creatures to grotesque extremes by way of sacrifice… it all required an emotional investment, and the Hegemony found itself no closer to harnessing magic than it had been at the beginning of its search.

Still, the Hegemony persisted. Trial after trial was implemented, rituals enacted day after day. The Hegemony may not know emotion, but it knew self-preservation. In this Universe, any civilization that aimed to survive must be able to subjugate others, to conquer and oppress, and in this line of thought, the Hegemony found the investment it needed.

As trials advanced, more and more flesh grew and was given shape by the words and bloodletting of the Hegemons, imbued with the fuel that would allow them to finally gain control over magic: the drive to survive, the drive to dominate. The Hegemony would not see the sun set on its empire, it would not go quietly into the night; it would continue fighting for its survival, for its supremacy. With this drive, this craving, the key of carnomancy was finally understood, and a creature was born. It was a flesh-crafted monster of terrible power, a beast carved from the nightmares of the ancient Nälkä cultists, a being that proved that the Hegemony had done the impossible: mastering a branch of the knowledge they'd once been barred from understanding, a knowledge that gave them an edge against the Immortal Empire and its magic.

But now, that promising creature laid bleeding on the battlefield, unable to overcome its final trial.

The ground shook as the colossal mass of flesh came crashing down, further fragmenting the ground. The cracks and fissures filled with the blood of the fallen fighter, drinking up every drop of the thick black liquid. This planet, devastated by uncountable battles like this, seemed eager to claim one more 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, seven thousand tons of muscle, 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. Once an alpha predator, 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. Light 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 between the two fighters was thick. The felled flesh-crafted creature remained a threat, still mighty enough to crush bones and rip through even the strongest of shells. 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 like 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 landscape 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 heeding it. 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 building, voraciously gulping them down.

The Uthraan transmited the data to the Inspector's brain and began running a final analysis. The combat had been fast, much faster than anticipated, and all variables had to be accounted for. Had the Inspector been able to feel any emotion, it would have felt disappointment. Several years of research and development had culminated in failure, the creature born of twisted magic inferior to what the Hegemony had already created. It seemed that, after all, the Empire still had the upper hand; the Hegemony's power still periled.

On the ground, the victorious creature still fed, 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 erupted 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 steel 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 ground and its rival with gore and golden blood, the ichor of a fallen god.

The true victor, the dying, disemboweled product of flesh-crafting, 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. The battle had finally come to an end, and all was silent.

A vague sensation resembling surprise coursed through the Hegemony's hivemind, from the Uthraan and the Inspector to the Hegemon Supreme. For an instant, the entire superorganism that was the Emerald Hegemony hesitated before returning to form. Emotion was a weakness, and the Emerald Hegemony could be anything but weak.

Results were excellent, to say the least. The creature had resisted the worst of punishments, strived through unsurmountable obstacles, fought until it achieved victory… even after it had been torn asunder by a more experienced adversary. What more could be asked of it? Even in death, it aimed to survive: analysis indicated that its cells, fueled by the strange properties of Nälkä, still lived, still multiplied, the corpse a thriving cancer that had already began enveloping its rival's remains. It couldn't be possible, it shouldn't be possible, but it was; magic still animated the creature's mangled form, still impulsed it forward, to seek out more targets to crush and devour.

The Inspector's– no, the Hegemony's eyes fixed on the dead flesh-crafted creature, the hallmark of its newfound understanding of magic. A being like this, a creature capable of fighting harder than possible, of being victorious even in its death throes, embodied everything the Hegemony sought through its study of carnomancy: survival, supremacy.

With this new development, the door had opened for a whole new age, an age where the Emerald Hegemony would no longer be ignorant of magic, but master it. If the principles that had allowed for this creature's birth could be replicated, applied to other branches of magic, then, for the first time since the Krolovar Invasion, the Emerald Hegemony would have the upper hand, and all worlds would tremble before it.

There would be, of course, other tests to run, other variables to consider. These trials had solely tested the creature's physical might; there was still the question of whether it would emerge victorious when pitted against magic like the one that had shaped it, or if it could be taught to harness its own mystical nature. Until then, trials would continue, and stronger, deadlier creatures would be bred and sent to die at each other's hands.

Still, the promise of supremacy remained, the promise of a future where the Emerald Hegemony reigned unchallenged. How could even the Immortal Empire stand against the might of war beasts like this one, beasts born from dark magic, from arcane knowledge?

Perhaps, the thought coursed through the hivemind and reached the Inspector's brain, these results opened the possibility for a further development, for the creation of a new kind of flesh-crafted creature, one whose brain could be augmented, one whose intelligence proved enough to join the pulsing noosphere that was the Hegemony's hivemind. Perhaps, through this mind link, the Hegemony would gain the insight it needed to fully comprehend and master magic, the blueprint for supremacy.

Perhaps this was the next step of Hegemon evolution, the birth of a new breed… a breed of moving mountains.


[[tabview]]

[[tab Astodan]]

Astodan


rating: 0+x

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.


rating: 0+x

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?



rating: 0+x

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.



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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