Haloed Bane

Prenez-moi comme cela

1

Masaryk looked at the hour: thirteen and nine. He resumed his steps and walked to the very end of the station, thinking of how to kill the last two-time. The station's aspect was typical for a vital crossroads in a war-ravaged land: massive and as thoroughly integrated into the satellite grids as you would expect for its importance, yet poorly maintained and on the verge of collapse, just as you would expect from what had transpired here and would likely continue occurring well into the future. It was shaped like the triangular barrel of a vespertine, with walls a vomit green, though the soot tempered the hue somewhat, as if the sick man responsible was close to death and surely glad of it.

Fourteen or fifteen citizens were waiting for the transport along with him and his cargo. It seemed they all knew each other and were part of a large, cohesive, yet oddly scattered group. As he walked, he noticed that they clustered in groups of three or four, but that each succeeding group smiled or laughed at the jokes of the previous one. The station echoed with the sounds of relayed laughter, but he was no part of it. An old lady, with wrinkled eyes frowned in a wild and penetrating stare, held on to a large walking stick with so much force her knuckles seemed about to burst. If Masaryk had been paranoid, he’d have thought they were all conspiring against him. The odds were that they weren’t now, but that soon enough they would be, even if they never learned who he was. It was a matter of time. He promised himself once again that he'd leave the continent after this job.

Down to one-time for the transport to Denis. The courier peered through one of the windows and thought he could detect the transport on the horizon, hugging the river’s bend before the last turn left. Maybe he was imagining the blot. At any rate, he was sure he could smell the machine racing to them.

He looked back to his cargo, sitting on the bench, and in that sweep of the head he caught a familiar sight. It was an S.A.1, perched on one of the beams just beneath the ceiling. Then again, familiar sight might have been stretching it. Masaryk was well acquainted with S.A.’s, was in fact trained to recognize them, but he had never come across one that looked like this. It was a large exotic vulture, not from these parts. How crass of Demguo2 to use such beasts for that purpose – here in Mitteleuropa! But of course it was a show of confidence, or force. And nobody in the crowd seemed to mind.

black vulture

All S.A.'s made him uncomfortable, but he had no time to dwell on this particularly grotesque iteration of one, as two guards suddenly materialized at the platform. They surveyed the scene with expressions almost indescribable. Not of sympathy, or hate, or mockery either. Something like a guarded indifference -empty eyes, clenched teeth- before folks they knew would stab them at the very first opportunity. A trained attitude, not innate. Without thinking, Masaryk placed his hand on his chest. One of the guards smiled and the Sign of Demguo on his hat seemed to sparkle.

“How joyful, work!” he said, tapping his colleague's arm. He then turned to Masaryk and said, “Guest, we should arrest you for following Ban3 customs.”

The other guard burst into laughter. Masaryk attempted to smile, maybe even muttered something, but not even he himself heard or knew what it was that his mouth intended to say.

“Stand still, guest.”

Being scanned is always unpleasant. Knowing that everyone in the place else is taking the opportunity to scan you as well compounds the unpleasantness. But he endured, and they found what he and his employers wanted them to find.

“Excuse us, friend, and thank you.” The second guard said the words nervously, and then glared at his partner, accusing him of rashness. Neither of them were laughing now.

The citizens witnessed the change in the guards’ behavior and modified theirs accordingly. They were as oblivious to the results of the scan as the courier himself, but he was as relieved as they were (probably) disappointed at there not being an arrest. And all the while, nobody paid attention to the cargo, who had sat staring at the same two pages of a book for three or four-time now. The transport arrived and the two of them began their ascent toward it. No hassles or stares. Masaryk couldn't help but look behind at the vulture one more time -that stupid, horrible thing. The last time he had engaged an S.A. he had squeezed the life out of it, and then had spent four long months paying for the luxury in a hospital in Yangzhou4, which had only recently fallen. He did what he did for the good life and nothing else, but he had no love for Demguo. He had known for forever what the meaning of their Sign truly was -the world's population all trapped in a box- but he had only recently understood how many vultures circled that trap, and it warmed his guts to know that he was helping a few of them tear the entire thing to shreds. And the blood-guilt for all the innocents caught in the crossfire would be Demguo's. He had no doubts on that point.

2

His employers were hiding in a cellar beneath a handmade-food shop in the northern outskirts of the city. Masaryk had to take his cargo by the hand to keep it from falling on the holey streets that led to the location, but once they arrived at the shop, it darted down the stairs as if it was home. The scene below was not unlike what he expected: a meeting space had been hastily arranged by clearing all the merchandise out of one of the chambers and sealing its walls with propogen lattices to prevent sodar detection. The only two remarkable features in this light-starved rathole were the four marble thrones arranged around an oval table, whose screen, whenever idle, flashed the words: Death to Demguo in various languages, most of them banned and/or extinct; and the figures sitting on those thrones.

The first to meet his gaze, seated right across from him at the foot of the table, whose length ran perpendicular to the entrance, was a woman of about a century and a third, dressed in a nondescript brown belle siècle piece and sporting a Medusan mess of raven haired curls. Masaryk didn't recognize the face, but she wore the purple armband of a free consul, and he had no reason to believe she wasn't what she claimed to be. She looked on impassively as he made his appearance.

Standing at the head of the table was the renowned Marksmarshal Phaisal. Masaryk had been more or less told by the middlemen that he was the main employer, but he didn't reckon on the man being here himself. Maybe it was a double, but Masaryk closed his eyes reverently anyway.

He remembered Phaisal from the news broadcasts a year earlier, when he had assembled the Hounds of Achala5 in Chiang Saen Mai -all 900,000 of them- and given a rousing speech to the roaring waves of men that eroded more and more Demguo's sovereign shores.

Phaisal was a full two meters tall, third-enhanced (23% alpha, 8% beta)6, with the high cheekbones and fierce eyes of a Thai conqueror, except for the pale blue skin that covered his body and the iron beta-talons that supported it. He had been a hero of epic proportions on that day, fresh from a smashing victory in the Tera York campaign and the liberation of Puritanica from her nightmares. Demguo's arsenal in the north had been completely statombed7 and the anti-Demguo forces had at last gained a foothold in Double America. There was much expectation back then that collaborationist governments down the Conticut and even across the Central Strait would begin to defect once they felt the wind's direction.

statomb

An unmarked naval statomb begins its descent to the ocean floor.

Masaryk grew tired of waiting and carelessly opened his eyes, somewhat drunk on his own recollections, but soon realized that the soldier hadn't even registered him, as his eyes were set on the cargo, who had climbed on top of the table and sat down kneeling kiza style, with eyes half closed. Truth be told, Phaisan didn't look as powerful as a year ago. What he had gained in America and Sichuan, he had lost in Europe, and dissension had arisen. On this day he was, however, rather stylishly dressed -almost inappropriately so, though Masaryk- with a crimson Mandarin-collared Chakrabongse jacket, a smoggray cape, and a black skirt with red Khom lettering running down both sides. In other words, he was dressed like one of his puppets in the Greater Thai Administration, with the only concession to his true nature being that the jacket was a couple of sizes too small and the buttons groaned under the strain of his hard physique, whereas the GTA politicians would special-order their Chakrabongses to be as loose-fitting and comfortable as possible.

The Marksmarshal finally looked Masaryk's way and said, "Sit there, if you will." A young Frenchman had brought a barrel from outside, and he placed it between the free consul and a second Thai man who sat on the shorter side of the table to Phaisal's right. Masaryk took his seat and closed his eyes abruptly once he realized this fellow was none other than Antonian the Archangel, the Marksmarshal's brother.

"Ah," said Antonian, acknowledging the courier's reverence. Masaryk's opened eyes dwelled on the Archangel's white robe, almost as famous as the man himself, and how it clashed with his large-nosed blue face. His presence at the meeting didn't surprise Masaryk, though he did wonder what would be of world history if someone bombed that particular shop in Denis just now. It was whispered that Antonian was far too fond of the old ways, that he had questioned the curtailing of liberty in the matter of enhancements: the Hounds were all for them, but under guidelines dictated by the leadership, whereas Antonian argued humanity would be stuck in a rut if individuals weren't allowed to pursue their own paths, even if many of them fell and had to be put down for it. The brothers disagreed on this and other matters, particularly the proposed abolition of money. There was to be a worldwide call to thought and debate on the issues, and that was the reason Masaryk had brought the cargo in today. That much he knew.

Marksmarshal Phaisal flashed a broad smiled and said, "I'm sure you're familiar with my brother and myself. I'd like you to meet the others." He gestured to the woman at the foot of the table, seated next to Masaryk. "This is Klara, one of the few Free Consuls left in Europe."

"How do you do?" Masaryk said without closing his eyes, knowing that one of the core features of a free consul was that absolutely nobody in the planet had to stand to attention or observe any rule of conduct around them whatsoever. All were allowed and encouraged to interact with them freely -belligerently, even- so as to further the aims of diplomacy.

"How do you do?" she replied, her voice attempting with considerable success to sound decades younger than she was. Klara. Masaryk vaguely remembered the name from the history books. He suspected she belonged to the troupe that had visited all the capitals of Europe at the start of the Ban insurrection, relaying the young nation's pleas for alliance. If he was right about the identification, then she was even older than he thought, and almost as great a personage as Phaisal and Antonian.

"And over here," Phaisal motioned to his left, "we have Telekairos, from the NOSP8."

Masaryk had caught sight of the young short-haired lady in the red cheongsam & kneehighs combination earlier and assumed she was the Marksmarshal's lover. But it was very unlikely the Achala boss would find a mate in the NOSP. In any case, he didn't have time to ponder whether to close his eyes, as the woman raised her glass to Phaisal first, and then to him, saying:

"Well done! The jig was almost up at one point though, no?"

"You were watching me," Masaryk said, turning to Phaisal.

"Yes," he said. "Their watcher shouldn't have worried you. Whatever is theirs, is ours...or will be soon, thanks to everyone." The Marksmarshal raised his glass toward each guest, even to the Free Consul, who of course was not slighted by the presumption that she was there as a less than neutral participant. Again, it was her job not to be slighted, even by insinuations that she was not doing her job properly.

"But how?" Masaryk wondered audibly, thinking of how difficult it was to "hack" a biological asset. Then his eyes landed on the one figure in the room that hadn't been introduced to him yet, sitting on a barrel to Phaisal's left. The gentleman was dressed in weekend trip clothes (blue shirt, brown knee-to-waist pants, sliders instead of shoes), but he was obviously a permanent hire, gov/admin.

Masaryk didn't say it out loud, but smiles all around proved to him that he had understood aright: this was their inside man, a Demguo traitor. Likely a relatively high-placed one too. That was how they got to the bird.

Phaisal clapped his hands. "Well, it's time we started. I reckon our courier has earned a seat at the theater of history. Any objections?"

All around the table smiled or shook their heads, except for Antonian, who simply grunted. Masaryk couldn't understand why they would let him stay, but he didn't feel it was safe to leave either. And so he was stuck.

"Dusty," said Phaisal, staring at the cargo intently. The boy immediately came out of his reverie at the mention of his name. Not that he was himself now -that wouldn't do at all- rather it was all eyes and ears, that is, only those organs that were needed of him.

The Marksmarshal stood up and placed his arms behind his back. After a solemn clearing of the throat, he began to speak:

"I'll start from the beginning. About three and a half centuries aho, this continent was at the forefront of genetic experimentation. And the spearhead of the forefront was Lapland. They say a combination of eternal winters and mass suicides spurred them on to this -I guess we can call it- escape. Eventually, people there started injecting themselves with wolf genes, and one day a band of wolfmen began to ravage the land. They were tentatively stopped at Malmo, the city itself destroyed, and Europe began exterminating them. All of these men were wild, but not all of them were stupid, so they took the case to the world tribunal and won. Their drive to prey on their fellow humans was natural, it was declared, and not malicious. And since no law had proscribed their creation, then there was no law that could retroactively erase their right to kill and to feed. Ah, but at the same time the courts upheld the rights of the unlupined to protect themselves, even shoot the wolfmen on sight. Not at all on the grounds of self-defense (as when a man ends the life of another man only to prevent him from taking his), but by reason of the wolfman's fundamentally different nature. In short, this place right here -the birthplace of fraternity and equality- became the first zone on Earth to ordain -reordain, I should say- unequal treatment for different intelligent beings. Now, these wolves..."

Masaryk's mind drifted. He felt out of place, and he didn't like the sensation. His eyes wandered around the room until Telekairos caught his attention. For a while she had been sitting cross-legged on the throne, but now she had lifted one knee so it could serve as an armrest. Clearly, the throne was too large for her, but the lack of decorum was still shocking. Then she saw him looking at her, smiled, extended her arm and pointed down in front of her, then followed that with a grasping motion.

He saw out of the corner of his eye that the Free Consul was looking her. Somewhat embarrassed, he leaned toward her. She immediately followed suit, and once they were close enough to each other, he asked in as soft a whisper as he could muster:

"Does he have to be so longwinded? Can't he just give him the instructions?"

"No, no," she replied, with a smile. "It's good practice. The child needs as much context as possible within the time constraints. It has to be verbally given so it will not be scanned, otherwise he would simply pour a zettabyte into him and presto. I know of a case during the Fire Wars. A milkmaid from Primavera was sent to support an uprising in a border camp. Her handlers were far too nervous, so they gave her as little intelligence as possible. She entered the camp and managed to get the ear of the pertinent soldiers. The next day they killed their commissary, took over the camp, and were promptly suppressed. It turned out the commissary was known to be sympathize with the conspiracy, but was still undecided. The handlers had instructed the woman to tell the conspirators to push the leader for a decision. Instead, she called for them to putsch him. They asked for confirmation but she went mute after that, and so they went ahead with it.

What's a "putsch"?

"A failed attempt at seizing power. Maybe she could see the future!"

Klara's voice was loud enough to elicit a grunt from Antonian which was noted by the Marksmarshal with a pause. Klara and Masaryk sat straight and Phaisal continued.

"...so the GenEras came into being: alpha freezes, periods of time in which the blood lines couldn't be enhanced, to wait and see what the consequences would be. Demguo standardized them in..."

Masaryk's eyes fell on Telekairos again. An immature lad might have mistaken her moves earlier for a rude invitation, but Masaryk was anything but immature. He understood her indication to mean that they meant to take it, this land, Europe. Phaisal's words were no idle threat. It made sense that all of these important people were gathered together. A major strike was imminent. But this meant that Telekairos must be an important someone in the NOSP. She looked at her for a brief second, a smile on her lips, a dare to guess who she was perhaps. And then it hit him: "Telekairos" was not a nobody, because nobody was "Telekairos". The one before him was none other than Eka Luzin, recognized leader of the NOSP.

Telekairos

He had always assumed Eka Luzin was obese and an entelech (genderless), but the NOSP never released graphs of their leaders, so the only chance to see Luzin was as a half-length silhouette in the broadcasts where he promised -in heavily distorted tones- to rain down hellfire on all and sundry for opposing the Program, as they called it. His Ban name was Joketime9, because he was reckoned to be everybody's weakness. But the he was a she, it turned out. Eka Luzin was the only person in the NOSP who would dare to act like that in front of the Hounds, and the only one the Hounds wouldn't strike down for doing so. Masaryk felt a strong urge to further ponder the possibilities of these forces gathering together, but he restrained himself and tried to listen again to the Marksmarshal.

Phaisal's tirade against Demguo was dying down, and he seemed to be finally getting to the point. The cargo looked like he could listen to the man forever, and Phaisal could talk forever, but every minute they were there increased the danger of discovery. So the Marksmarshal wiped the sweat off his blue brow and continued the speech.

"And if Empress Maia10 is truly gone, then have faith that we will avenge her. But for that, I say again that we need unity. Therefore I ask that each and every one of you ponder the Four Questions. Our enemies say that out of a million hounds, I consider only a hundred thousand useful. That out of those hundred thousand only ten thousand are unexpendable. That I plan for only a thousand out of those ten to enjoy the fruit of their labors. They dare say that only a hundred of them," he paused and raised a hand for effect, "have any share in decision-making, and that a mere ten -myself included- are locked in a struggle over the vision of the future that will doom our efforts. With this upcoming vote, we can prove our enemies wrong. I know that every single one of you think well and choose rightly, and together we shall triumph. The battle is won, let us see to it that the folks in Minjing become fully aware of the fact!"

Telekairos and the traitor both clapped. Antonian stared straight head, lost in thought. Masaryk thought it was a good speech, though there wasn't a hint of Europe in it. Why then go through all this rigmarole here of all places?

"What about advice for the journey?" Eka Luzin asked, her eyes resting on Antonian, though it was his brother who answered.

"Courier, you're taking him all the way to Calvados, correct?"

Ah, yes." Masaryk rose as he addressed the Marksmarshal, feeling ill at ease doing so seated on a barrel. "As far as Ousterham. He's been trained on what to do once he's on telssel. In case of attack, stick to the rich, not the strongmen."

The Free Consul interjected, "Oh?"

"Right," said Phaisal. "It's a common mistake to hide behind the strongmen in such cases, but their job is to protect the rich, and they'll be difficult to keep up with if a brawl ensues. It's always safest with the rich." He turned to Masaryk. "Courier, before you go..."

"Yes?"

"You've not introduced yourself, but I hear you yourself have some lineage."

Masaryk felt a rush of pride, commingled with malaise, as he knew that exposing himself was a sin against the profession. But he owed it to his ancestors. And inshallah it was these people -with all their frailties and barbarisms- who would lift the continent from the morass it was mired in. It couldn't get any worse, he knew.

"I myself am unimportant. But I do descend from an ancient family in the heart of Europe, one which struggled for centuries to free it from many tyrannies. They were no butchers and had little success on the battlefield, but their words and deeds still germinate today."

He stopped. The Marksmarshal smiled, but it was Eka Luzin who surprised him. The chief of the NOSP seemed...moved. She had put the glass down for the first time since he had arrived, and was looking straight into his eyes. Her shoulders were raised and her lips quivered, as if she was trying to contain the ferment his words had brought about. Finally, she spoke:

"J’ai entendu dire que le plus haut degré de célébrité est de laisser après soi des exemples de vertu. L'immortalité, c'est l'incorruptibilité. Thus the Chothoan, in the tongue of these parts."

"The Zuozhan? Hm," said Phaisal. "Your students preach hatred of the Chinese classics and here you are quoting them. Isn't that a contradiction?"

"All processes begin and end, and transform themseives into their opposites. The processes are relative, their mutability is what is absolute. That's another classic for you."

Klara asked, "Where is that from?"

"On Contradiction, by Mao Zedong."

The answer came from the traitor. Everyone became quiet, though Masaryk's elation remained unabated. Still standing, he looked straight into Marksmarshal Phaisal's eyes and added, "And I -in my own small way- will contribute today to this eternal struggle against tyranny."

Phaisal wai greeting

Phaisal nodded and closed his eyes, then stretched out his open hand toward Eka, who looked ready to start clapping again. With one practiced flourish, he reached for the back of his neck, untied his cape and tossed it over the cargo. Next he smiled at everyone, waied his brother, and proceeded to shoot each individual in rapid succession.

Masaryk didn't have a chance to see the weapon, but the first zap -the one aimed at the killer's brother- did register in his brain as an L-Beretta 60. The next thing he knew he was on the floor, looking up at Klara's horrified face. The Free Consul woud likely be spared. Near him fell a white lump drenched in red. Antonian the Austrian, he thought somewhat incoherently. As he felt his strength leave him, he hoped that Phaisal would also kill the Demguo man. At the same time, he vaguely understood that it did not matter, that Phaisal's use of a local firearm meant he was to be blamed for it all. The incipient agony of realizing he would go down in history as a traitor to the anti-Demguo cause was replaced by terror, as he saw that cursed vulture swoop down from god knows where to finally take him away.

3

Marjuin stopped the record, turned off the screen, and turned to Sandalion, who was standing alongside her pet mesa, eyes fixed on the floor. Without looking up, she deadpanned:

"You should keep it going for a while, if only to see what they do to my corpse. Here's a preview: it involves quartering (niatresanglar)."

Marjuin wasn't interested. "No need. I've read the report, and I just saw enough of the...uhmm..."

"The massacre," Sandalion said.

"That, yes. So tell me: what were you trying to do here?"

Sandalion finally looked at Marjuin. Her raven-haired interrogator (though honestly, thought Sandalion, she would protest at being called an interrogator and wouldn't know a raven from a crow, though she might have memorized the scientific name for both) wore the dark blue dress, light blue tabard and white gauntlets and boots of the CSD-A. She was sitting with her hands folded and squeezing one another. Sandalion could tell she didn't like her standing, so she slapped her mesa. The creature rearranged itself into a seat about a span lower than Marjuin's, as per Sandalion's instructions. The youth felt bad about the mess just witnessed, and this was one way she atoned for it, with humility. Even if the question was so insulting.

"I ran this simulation taking into account the fias- I mean, the results...of the C.A.S.B.A. competition. What would happen with that victor rising, and if we just tweaked this and that rather than ordering a full-scale invasion. Giving certain elements a push. Like the courier, for example. I groomed his line like my very own pack of wolfdogs (kamakuhonis) and he was destined for great things. But he came out too Kafka. I had to keep myself from laughing when he claimed his family weren't butchers. That's what his name means!"

Marjuin remarked, "This was a fiasco."

"Why yes, yes it was." Sandalion couldn't avoid venting some sarcasm. "I actually planned to betray the Hounds after the uprising in Europe. But I'm learning all along."

"It's all too specific, though, San. You realize that."

"No! I mean, yes, figuring out how to betray a hypothetical Thai master of the universe before he gets to betray you is rather specific, but the point is that the lessons have a wide range of applications. I learn racial traits, world historical contours, the works. I see hints beneath the veil, so to speak."

"And all without us stepping in..openly. Still, humans kill themselves aplenty in your scenarios."

"But it's..better that way. It's a series of perfectly legitimate possible futures for them, and we just tease out the one we are happiest with. A future, let me stress, where humans fear artificial intelligence like the plague and where they would slaughter any creature popping up with even the faintest resemblance to a wolf. So we wouldn't have to worry about robots or Upas. They would take care of that themselves!"

Marjuin sighed. "You know," she started, and at those two words Sandalion shuddered, "a dispassionate observer might conclude that you are too passionate about the humans, and that it's affecting your work."

"How cliché," replied Sandalion, frustrated. If Marjuin didn't get her, who would? "I’m convinced that this is the kind of manipulation the Dolens aimed for -more or less successfully- back in the day. And I wouldn't accuse of them of caring much for their subjects."

Marjuin leaned forward. "Have you read Ermanion the Slow?"

"Who? Ah, no."

"You should. She was one of Gilmain's biggest influences. According to her, the Dolens were still manipulating us. Even our defeat of them was part of their plan."

"Not a bad theory."

"Of course, she was speaking poetically. Nobody in their right minds would seriously believe that Dolentis ordered its own annihilation."

"Well, I'll make sure to read her. Look, I know you don’t have access to those jerks yet, and I reckon I never will, but just let the Commander know it’d be good to prod them on this. I bet she’d know if I’m right. She probably already knows, since she hasn’t stopped me from pursuing this sort of project."

Marjuin smiled, and Sandalion suddenly realized Eka Luzin -the most speculative and future-forwarded of her Earth personas- was being axed.

"Now let's talk about Madison."

Oh, no, no way. They're not taking Madison too, are they? Did someone slash Durgaun's budget?! Sadalion tried to calm down, and determined herself to defend this persona with all her might.

"OK, let's talk about Madison." Sandalion's mesa slid all the way to the her desk. She keyed in a code and the screen turned on. It showed an image of a strangely-dressed fellow about to take a fall. Sandalion had inserted a caption that read Home sweet home in English.

French astronomer

Sandalion's mesa slid back to its previous location as she pointed to the screen, controller in hand.

"France is the abyss, as far as Earth matters are concerned. We've talked about Sinduin and how she shows some affinities for that nation. Remember that author you tried to dissuade me from studying?"

"I do," Marjuin grunted, knowing perfectly well how unlikely it was that her advice had been taken.

"Well, I have to admit I persisted a bit. You said that sort of literature was riddled with dead ends (feltes varakins). In fact, it's filled with lively ones (rintes mans). This abyss is the current driving force of mankind. This Highborn had his ear to the ground, and he wrote of the virtuous of the modern age, that such a one has no way out quant tout ce qui l’environne sème des fleurs sur l’abîme, et l’invite à s’y précipiter. But that -there- is France, see? Look at this next image."

She pressed the controller and the screen showed a blue escutcheon with what looked to Marjuin like several little yellow swords.

coat of arms

"It's the ancient symbol for France. Described, and this is an exact quote, as 'a fleurs de lis semé'." Sandalion giggled. "No points guessing what those flowers actually stand for. Remember what happened with Sinduin the first time she went to Earth, her first report?"

"The painting, yes. The spaceships that weren't."

"Magritte's Flowers in the Abyss. What are the odds of that? She's a genius and no doubt senses these things somehow, but even if she weren't, she'd gravitate toward it." She pointed again at the screen. "You just saw it in the simulation. I -Eka Luzin, I mean- ended up in France (varahara u Flans). That was Phaisal's suggestion, not mine, and that's the-"

Marjuin interrupted her. "Ended up as a dead end (varahara beth feltes vara)." She smiled.

Sandalion didn't find it funny. "Point. And the flower of all this is the United States. Thus, with one foot on the root, Madison Justine Loisel hails from Louisiana. Quod erat defensum."

Marjuin tapped her ear. "One benefit of having a word with you is I get to test how the translator is coming along. Latin, huh. Here's the deal, Sandalion. You are to do no more future sims."

"Oh. So I can redefine Eka Luzin and-"

"No, Eka Luzin is out altogether." The way Marjuin said it, without cracking so much as a condescending smile, made it seem as if there was more bad news.

Sandalion asked, "Maddie J. is out too, I take it?"

"No. In the words of Sinduin -I just spoke to her before coming to Bubble- 'your shinkuroritsu with Madison is through the roof (chiak anselins). You’ve spent so much time on her I’m afraid we’d have to keep her even if we didn’t want her. Focus on her, dump the others."

Sandalion stuck her tongue out in disgust. "It's from a cartoon. She watches far too many of those." She paused, then cried "What do you mean 'Dump the others'?" All 35 of them?!

"Yes. Concentrate on Madison. And...start getting ready for deployment. It might be happening sooner rather than later."

Marjuin felt a slight twinge of joy at seeing Sandalion so out of sorts, but pity soon took over. At the youth, for what she had to undergo, and at herself, for so many things, but first and foremost, for having to explain why this was all happening right now. She knew Sandalion wouldn't let her go without a coherent, detailed explanation. She relaxed in her seat, knowing that any sudden move would be interpreted as the beginning of an escape.

Sandalion was utterly confused. She still had Maddie, she could cope with losing the others, but what on Earth -literally, she supposed- could have prompted Supreme Commander Durgaun to even consider moving up her deployment by ten plus years? What had happened in C.A.S.B.A. couldn't account for it, surely?

"Sandalion, did you hear what happened in Kuspain yesterday?"

"Ah, duchess almost killed. An assassination attempt of some sort."

"Right. And of course you've been keeping up with the insurrections in Maratania and Ikrilath, no?"

"Of course," Sandalion said. Her synapses fired in all directions, but she couldn't fathom any connection whatsoever, unless it meant that things in Incudea were generally speaking so riled up that CSD-A's budget was stretched super thin and the Supreme Commander had decided to send Sandalion to Earth earlier than expected as a cost-cutting measure.

"I guess actual Ho Hos are substantially cheaper than simulated ones, huh."

"What?"

"Sorry. I was just thinking out loud."

Marjuin laughed...out of nerves, not mirth. She had come to conceive of Sinduin as the sort of perfect being you fear, because their intentions are shrouded from you and maybe less than perfect. And even if they turn out to be perfect, who are the imperfect beings to presume these intentions will mean them well? Still, right now, pity was the dominant feeling. She began to explain the present political situation in Incudea as well as she could:

"It's funny that you mentioned quartering earlier..."


1. S.A. stands for surveillance animal, successor to the service animal of prior centuries, as most human disabilities have been made curable by this version of the 25th century, and those who cannot afford to undergo the necessary cures will not have enough with which to purchase and maintain any kind of animal, even a simple pet. (They are extremely scarce.) Generally speaking, S.A.'s serve as eyes and ears of the state apparatus. Usually highly mobile, inconspicuous creatures such as mass-produced birdlings and rodents are employed.
2. Earth's foremost state power for the last three hundred years. in Chinese. The capital city is Minjing (民京).
3. A reference to Ban Devi (閩帝位), the second most powerful state in the planet, after a meteoric rise in the half-century preceding the events in question. It was originally part of Demguo. The capital city is Thitenggian (天頂京).
4. By the subsequent Treaty of Yangzhou (揚州), Demguo recognized the existence of Ban Devi, its first ever recognition of a non-allied state. Demguo did not, however, accept the de facto Ban borders.
5. The Hounds of Achala (สุนัขอจละ) are a Southeast Asian paramilitary force which currently rules that region in all but name. Building on a history of comparatively successful struggle against the northerners, and combining with it a bold adoption of the transhuman philosophies and policies of the pre-Demguo Leng () Dynasty, they have under Phaisal's command steadfastly pursued the dream of a long, strong Mark to contain Demguo forces worldwide.
6. Alpha enhancements are genetic, while beta enhancements are cybernetic. Blue skin is a side effect of alpha work. There are any number of remedies for the ailment, but the Hounds forgo them as a badge of pride.
7. Statombing refers to the cordoning off of an area by deployment of weapons known as stasis tombs. The effects of these weapons match their name.
8. NOSP is short for Neo-Olivianist Student Phobocracy, a powerful non-state actor second only to the Hounds of Achala in physical violence, and far ahead of them in the psychological kind. It can best be described as a mixture of late 21st century Olivianism (an anti-explotationist mass movement based on O. Cockburn's political manuscripts, discovered in 2060) and the concept of a permanent revolution in the vein of Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety or Mao's Red Guards. The NOSP started from the premise that out of the three traditional sources of revolutionary humanpower (workers, peasants, students) only the students still posed a threat to the current world order. If French students in 1968 had declared that “the proletariat is either revolutionary or nothing,” then subsequent history had proved that it was and would always be nothing. As for peasants, they had simply ceased to exist by the 2220 or so. Next, speaking in terms of pure potential, the left-wing student will always be stronger than the right-wing student. This is because the conservative is defending something that is not his own (the past) whereas the progressive is creating by means of the struggle his own (the future). At this point the NOSP points to a conundrum. On the one hand, progressivism usually supports egalitarianism, but student power is rooted, raised and nourished on inequality (maximal education of the entire citizenry had failed miserably in all nations that had attempted it in the 21st and 22nd century), so the meaning of this progress comes into question. Even worse, students will be forced to either lie about their programs to obtain wider support or be honest and at war with everyone. Secondly, following the theories and track records of revolutions throughout history, the student movement is bound to follow the principles of vanguardism and a strong leadership. But the stronger the leaders become, and the longer they stay in power, the more they become consumed by the defense of their own (i.e. conservatism), and the more dangerous they become to the cause. One solution -an old one- was for the leadership to remain anonymous. This stratagem fell short, however, and eventually it was employed in the service of the final form of the student movement -termed phobocracy- whereby the leadership is in a constant state of violent flux only fleetingly perceived by the masses. Thus, the names of NOSP personnel were conceptual signifiers and nobody in the organization could have told you what the aim of the revolution was, only that it would never end. In terms of policy, Neo-Olivianists tended to fight authority in all its forms, so that sometimes they would fight and vanquish an oppressive regional warlord, only to soon thereafter turn around and attack the same communities they had liberated before they could organize new -likely hierarchical- structures. One wonders what Cockburn would have thought of this group and their program "to replace every exploitation with an explosion."
9. 弱點.
10. The disappearance of the Ban Empress Maia ( 妹夜) was on everyone's lips at the time. next