First of Fastings
Contents 1 A Small Flat Eternity
2 Exigencies and Omissions
3 Unfamiliar Ground
4 White Devils
The first sign of disaster was losing main power. Ship's Boat 72 drew
primary power directly from FSS Outward Vision by virtue
of a quantum conduit. The only way to shut that off involved
a penetrating hit on the aft impeller core of the Vision.
Not an easy task, penetrating a super-fortress class attack carrier to
the meaty, energized center. The entire ship was likely gone.
Not that the crew of 72 really had more than a half heartbeat to
consider it. Full thrust ascent cut out, instantly transforming a three
gravity push to orbit into a free-fall sub-orbital insertion. The last
of the charge in the power receiver diverted itself into the solid-fuel
system, converting the first layers of polymer substrate into a gel that
immediately began soaking into the emergency fuel-cells.
There was no way for the solid-fuel system to generate enough current
to keep the Rho field hot, but there was enough electricity to bring the
avionics back on line, and the secondary volatiles, simple leftovers from
the high-current fuel cell reaction, were feeding themselves to chemical
rocket systems nestled behind breakaway panels in the hull. Electricity
was diverted to try to bring all the power suits and survival gear from
standby to full charge, and everything else went to defensive systems.
Orbital bombardment be damned, number 72 was going back in.
* * *
Commander Spencer Furgisson snapped his face-shield shut, grabbed for
the control yoke and counted to twenty. The twenty-five man complement
on the ship scrambled for a few moments, emergency drills briefly
forgotten, as the faint burning-plastic stench of the solid-fuel system
began penetrating the cabin. Spencer didn't have time to deal with them,
they were good men and would pull themselves together soon enough. The
boat needed his full attention. They were only a minute or so above
their recovery attitude power curve.
Sergeant Yevette Camier got herself into the second-seat at about the
count of eighteen and had her first belt closed by twenty.
Spencer promptly nosed over, hoping the emergency system had deployed
the glide wings. There was a moment or two of unresponsiveness, then
several of the maneuvering jets began to fire, rolling the nose down
until the wings came out of stall and began to fly.
The individual avionics packages were hot, and Yevette began flipping
her displays between terrain, atmospheric, and tactical systems looking
for her first clue to a good direction.
She spoke automatically, "Systematic enemy bombardment is proceeding
against the ruins in temperate regions. If they keep to pattern,
incoming fire should proceed towards the poles. I'd say the equator is
our best bet."
Spencer nodded his head and began a right-bank towards the billowing
wall of lava-hot debris to the north. It would be hit-or-miss passing
through the line of bombard itself, but the higher their altitude when
they passed, the easier it would be to avoid being struck.
The first sign of the returning flight CI was a distinct reluctance to
the turn. Safety systems were coming back on line with the implacable
certainty of gravity, and the Coded Intelligence in the heart of the
ship didn't at all like the chop and heat caused by building sized
chunks of rock hurtling down through the atmosphere at many times the
speed of sound. Spencer showed his instance at the controls and the ship
turned against its will.
"Who's got the package?" he asked through his clenched jaw.
There was a brief surge upward and a four-count free-fall as several
hundred million tons of planetary crust welled up into the sky several
miles to the east.
A pale, nauseated voice over the comm said "I do sir."
"Get it copied McAndrews. I want every fire-team to have a copy by the
time we land."
The panels were going green all around.
"'Vette, give me a landing solution."
"I've got a string of basalt islands on the map. No ruins, no targets,
no tectonic seams, so probably no post-bombardment vulcanism."
"Sounds good enough. Do we have a solution?"
Sergeant Camier typed furiously at her station, almost as if she were
having an argument with the CI, which was close enough to what was going
on as to make no difference.
Finally she said "I have a solution within eight percent of resource
limits. It's the best we are going to do."
"Fine Sergeant, load it up."
Within moments the CI took the control out of Spencer's hands and the
main chemical rockets began to fire.
Six minutes of the most harrowing turbulence imaginable pounded the crew
before they reached the relative calm north of the line of bombardment. The sky
was opaque with dust and nobody aboard had any sense of attitude or
direction left. The CI was mostly green and reported profile
plus-or-minus two percent.
McAndrews voice cut in on the comm urgently. "Sir. Sir! Tactical Comm
Net is active. The Vision is still there. She
is reporting us lost along with six, I say again only six,
percent of the flight complement. Evacuation is nearly complete."
"Can you get the package out?"
"No way in hell sir, I am receive-only, we can't transmit through all
Spencer Furggison held his hand for just a moment. If the
Vision left without them there was essentially no chance
they would ever be rescued, at which point a safe landing was kind
of pointless. He didn't ask how they could have lost main power if the
Vision was still flying with her full complement, and he
didn't question the readings. He only thought about his men being left
behind as one presumed-dead boat crew instead of one discrete component
of a search-worthy remnant of a downed super-fortress. His fist smashed
through the plastic safety shield and crushed the almost comically-large
The Rho beacon fired. A quick staccato of gravity waves boiled out from
the underpowered main drive core, uniquely identifying number 72 as
alive, if not well.
The immense electrical drain cut out every ship's system except for the
It also put the ship seventeen percent over profile.
Spencer and Yevette quit the pilot stations, trusting the CI to do what
it could, and scrambled back to the main compartment.
They each stepped into their drop stations and keyed their power suits
to life. The armor quickly folded around them and sealed itself to their
The timbre and stridency of the ship's shaking and rolling started to
change for the worse as the main rockets sputtered out.
Spenser triggered the emergency deployment and waited. The
eject sequence would go at the last reasonable moment to drop them as
close to the crash site as possible.
Emergency bolts blew, stripping the spine off the top of the boat,
and there was just enough time for each man to look up into the black
expanse of ruined atmosphere before they were blasted up and away from
the ship in a quick series of explosions.
* * *
Specialist Gregory McAndrews was the first member of his fire-team to
come-to. He made a quick scan of the telltales in his helmet for the
rest of his team; Cpl. Demaria, Chad, green; Pfc. Shah, Salesh, green;
Pfc. Bhakta, Muna, green; and all the distances less than twenty-two
meters. That was good. Switching to engagement overview he could see
that the rest of the unit seemed to be down safe. There were three
yellows on the display and no red. That was outstanding for an emergency
Everything was darkness. Suit lights turned an inky vault of nothing
into a barely perceptible swirling miasma of grays and browns. With
visibility down to less than half a meter regrouping would be
He marked himself as "able" on the tactical system, took a bearing
on the Commander and then set about finding his team in person. By the
time he reached Chad, Muna was up on tactical. Within a minute the team
was full-up and ready.
Greg was the man with the package. Every team had a copy of the data,
but he had the original along with the artifact itself. It didn't look
like much more than a bunch of wadded up mylar, but it was apparently
important, so they formed up around him.
Chad's thick voice came on the squad link, "I have the Old Man at
one-point-one klicks at one-seven-nine degrees."
All three of them checked his reading against their own and said
"How's the package?"
"Signed and Sealed."
"Ok, Muna, you take point, such as it is. Zero Vis R.O.E., stay within
They clicked leader-lines into each other's kit and set out in a
draw-line across the stony, invisible terrain.
Three minutes later Salesh asked "Is anybody else getting jitter on
Chad switched to the tactical overlay. "Yea, I'm getting ghosts, looks
like noise on the net."
Muna said "I've got a possible light source straight ahead."
"Go slow, I've got nothing on local scan."
They crept forward for another minute.
Chad keyed in "I've got partial obstructions all around, dark shadows,
probably standing stone, but with all the dust I'm not sure of the
A second later Greg took a noise burst on his display, "Ok, I've lost
Chad flipped off ultrasound mapping, going back onto tac, "Probably
just the dust, I've got strong readings on everyone."
"Zoom out, I've still got us, but I have nothing coming in from the
rest of the squad."
"Probably the obstructions I'm reading. Must block the signal."
Muna said "does anybody else see this light?" and stopped walking.
They came up along side of her.
"Yes," Greg said, "I think I see what you talking about. We should
be a good way along to the Old Man, so it's probably a beacon."
Salish said "Shouldn't it be on tac?"
Chad thought for a second. "In these conditions, who knows. We've
got a good heading and short distance, let's just keep going toward
rendezvous. If we get more than one klick without contact, we'll
* * *
The entire detachment snapped to high alert eighteen seconds later,
when Fire Team Three disappeared from the tac-net in a burst of static.
Gregory Bjorn Garvey-Perez McAndrews had been walking forever. The
trail of his steps wound back to a lifetime he could neither imagine
nor remember. Somewhere back along that path was a dip, a descent into
a crevasse that ignored whatever separated topography from metaphor.
Wherever he was, whatever he was, there was no reason, no thought, and
no concept; just a fraction of an instinct. There was only one thing,
the overwhelming need to put one foot in front of the other as he walked
up from the bottomlessness of oblivion.
And yet, there was continuity.
One hand slipped from his weapon and found the console strapped to
his leg. His thumb instinctively traced the depression that would
flood his system with stimulants, but he didn't press it. That too
was an instinct. One bought from hundreds of hours of combat training.
Whatever was wrong, he wasn't tired, he didn't lack alertness.
Everything simply lacked... definition.
Each step, each fraction of a step, brought some new essential thing.
A memory. A need. An instinct. An aversion.
It would have been dizzying, it would have been painful, but he lacked
the capacity to feel either.
There was no urge toward theology, or wonder at the experience. It was
marked, and limited, only by the overwhelming drive to move forward,
steady and deliberate, without urgency or fear.
He was alone in an empty universe. There was nothing. Then there was
the line of woven polymers stretching forward from his harness to meet
something no more than a two meters ahead. With the line stretching
forward, came the line stretching back, noticed or wished into
existence. As if in appreciation of his own awareness, there was a flash
of light and a peal like thunder, perceived but too short-lived to be
properly seen or heard.
Fire Team Three was recalled from nothingness.
With the unerring instinct of new-hatched turtles seeking the relative
safety of the sea, Fire Team Three moved forward.
No one spoke.
No one needed to.
Here was not right, and back there was
A Small Flat Eternity
* * *
The first feature of their surroundings that Greg could notice, if you
could call it a feature at all, was a pervasive gray mist. It didn't fog
the faceplate of his helmet. It didn't register as smoke or dust. None
of the environmental mediation systems in his suit seemed to recognize
it as anything at all. It swirled and surged about him in turgid
reluctance to even return scattered fragments of his suit lights.
The continued compulsion to walk is still there but it has lost its
place as the focus of his entire being. The persistent onslaught of the
infinite minutiae of a life remembered all-at-once continued, but even
that somehow could not hold his attention. The mist drew the eye and
beguiled the mind.
With each step the mist receded. It didn't thin. It didn't dissipate.
It moved away, opening a space about them beyond which it remained as
thick and chaotic as ever.
The ground beneath his feet was a little uneven, covered in broken
scrub and stunted wild grasses. The ground seemed oddly familiar and yet
uncertain. Not artificial, nor planned, just awash with the possibility
that it wasn't really there. Like it was someone's ill-informed best
guess at what ought to be there.
Directly ahead was a definite brightening, not so much a lure as a
And then it was simply over. The mist ahead burst and peeled back around
them like thick porridge disgorging a bubble of steam.
* * *
They carried on a step, or perhaps a few, before anything made a proper
impression. Sunlight, harassed by soft, fast moving clouds, washed a
rolling grassy plain in light and shadow. A gusting breeze tugged
lightly at the safety lines stretched between them. A herd of some kind
of ruminant dotted the side of a distant, gentle rise. And to the left
and right, and stretching up into the sky, looming just behind them,
was a persistent oppressive wall of mist, as real and wrong as anything
"Damn." The word, sub-vocalized, but clarified and amplified, floated
across the tac-net summarizing, well, everything.
Corporal Demaria keyed his com, "Drop the lines. Let's get some
There was no question what they needed distance from. But they didn't
head straight out. Their military training urged them not to rush onto
open plains, but the lizard brain demanded they get some space between
themselves and the overpowering enigma of the mist wall.
The individual and differential scanners built into their armor woke up
about thirty seconds later. The initial displays didn't make a heck of a
lot of sense. Their systems were stymied trying, as they were
programmed, to reconcile where they were supposed to be with wherever
they actually were. When that reconciliation proved impossible in every
particular, the machines gave up and started over. The results were
less than spectacular. The first version of the world was dominated on
one side by a grid uniformly textured with the tiny glyph "NaN". Not a
number. The machines couldn't find anything about the mist that made
There was some comfort in the constancy of it all. The mist wall had a
definite boundary. Not a laser-sharp line of seperation, but the world
went from normal to nothing across a uniform two point five meter depth.
* * *
Salesh was on point, Muna had the rear, and Chad was on over-watch.
It fell to Greg to keep an eye on the scanners and the wall. They headed
left, into the rising sun, ostensibly parallel to the mist wall, only to
discover that it curved gently away to the north. By unspoken consent
they generally followed the curve, opening the space between themselves
and the mist by a meter or so for every twenty meters they went along.
The scanners were frighteningly quiet. There was virtually no background
radiation, nothing intelligible on any comm frequency, and not much
in the way of static either. If he wasn't getting valid scans off the
others Greg would have been convinced that the equipment was totally
fried. There was no point in trying to get a celestial position until
after sunset, so Greg started doing soil analysis.
The ground scans proved interesting. The topsoil was fairly lean where
they were, but it definitely got better with distance from the mist.
The ground here was becoming rarefied. The ruminants were systematically
avoiding the area around the mist. They had frequented the area before,
but not for years. There was a lot of information and computational
muscle in his systems but nothing could tell him how long it had been.
Salesh opened up the com, "I think I have a road," and pointed to a
rise just appearing beyond the curve of the mist wall.
Greg focused the scanners. There wasn't much there to see. There was
no plascrete, asphalt, or even cobblestone. What was there was a void.
A line of compressed earth that showed regular traffic. The layout
wasn't very good. It didn't have any of the earmarks of a major roads
project. It followed the un-graded topography of the natural hillside.
But it was a road.
And while Greg was focusing on the road he wasn't focused on the mist.
He largely missed the subtle waves of tiny irreconcilable numbers
briefly rippling across the left-hand edge of his display. All he knew
was that his eye was drawn back. The field of non-number glyphs were all
back to the same inconceivable blankness but he knew something had
Greg snapped left, bringing his weapon to bear and the rest of the team
came to high alert and turned to support.
Chad came on tac, "What've you got?"
Greg hesitated, "I don't know. There was... something."
There was about forty meters of open space between them and the wall.
The tactical display was just useless and Greg shut it off.
There was still nothing. He half-expected to hear crickets any second,
followed immediately by the derision of his peers. But there had
been something. Greg thumbed a stud on the breach-grip of his weapon
bringing up the gain on his directionals while he swept across the face
of the mist.
There was something there. A sound. A noise in the grass nearly
swallowed by the mist.
They all started backing away. Forty meters wasn't a lot of lead if
something came out fast.
When it, no, when they, came out of the mist it was different. There was
no bulge, no suppurate expansion, just one form after another sliding
from the mist and creeping forward. They were gray like the mist,
vaguely canine, and just somehow really difficult to see.
The scanners didn't show anything useful. "Tac is down."
"I count nine."
Muna considered a warning shot. The slug throwers were nearly silent,
designed to do harm, not sound impressive. The waveform projectors
were even less impressive until they boiled away flesh. All of their
loads were effective, with nothing much good for giving warning. After
a beat and a half she decided to spend an high-explosive round into the
ground. "One away!"
They didn't brace, the armor and training made that unnecessary. The bright
flash, the visceral concussion, and the splattering of loam were just as
expected. The beasts started, but they didn't break. Then they settled
into a proper stalking, and the hardened, armored soldiers found
themselves backing away.
A line crept into Greg's mind from somewhere. They spoke the
first tongue, silently, the language of terror and screaming death in
their every step. He wasn't sure where it came from, but those words
were alive before him.
These things were killers. The first impression, the familiar canine
form, fled. It was more snake with legs once you got passed the
massively muscled jaws and the attentive, forward looking lupine stare. The
neck was as long as the body, the muscular tail that long and half again
further. Smooth slate skin that glistened and splayed the light like an
oily sheen as it writhed along the hard muscular frame. Sinuous
glistening skin, flowing with patterns. And the eyes. Always the eyes.
Dark portals that swallowed your gaze and seemed to float...
disconnected... filling the world...
The proximity alert shocked Greg at the base of his spine and combat
readiness cocktail surged into his bloodstream.
The nearest thing was less than five meters away, and Greg
didn't have the foggiest idea how it had covered the distance. Even
the thought snatched threateningly at his awareness, but his finger was
pulling a trigger.
An invisible gout of microwaves burst from his weapon and seared deeply
into the face before him. It didn't die. It lunged.
It was fast.
Greg was slower by a hair, but that left his weapon lagging behind that
vicious head, and so prime for a body shot.
The explosive round dug in deep where neck met shoulder. At the same
moment its jaws closed on his faceplate, and another beast wrenched his
left arm away from his weapon, they all went down in a pile.
The head and neck of the first beast, freed from its body by the
detonation, thrashed violently with enough strength and mass to snap his
head clear around. If the armor wasn't full of augments the thrashing
thing would have torn his head clean off.
For just a shocky second Greg wondered at seeing his tactical display
seeming to float deep in the dark gullet that filled his view.
The more he was tugged and dragged the more his armor went into augments
By the time he got full control of his movements he could hear the
reassuring fire confirmation tones that told him his team was taking
care of the larger group.
At least two of the things dragged at his limbs, while the armor
countered with full power; Greg managed to get his hands on the
thrashing jaws clamped to his helmet and pry the thing loose.
It was still half alive. Just a head and neck, and it still wanted
"What the hell are these things?" he shouted into the comm.
Greg levered himself up on one elbow, made fists, and shrugged his
shoulders in a particular way. His weapon pulled itself into pieces
and slid around onto his back while reservoirs of smart metal along his
forearms extruded themselves out into short serrated blades.
The thing that had been on his right arm switched tactics and struck at
He swung his fist up like he was trying to punch himself in the chin.
The blade plunged into the skull of the beast and he flexed. The blade
blossomed, and power pulsed through it, cooking the meat and shearing
the skull free.
He glanced left at the other beast, rolled back to his right, clenched
his fist harder, doubling the length of the blade, and then swung up,
over, and down into the skull of the thing dragging at his left arm. Its
skull was severed clean through just at the joint of the jaw, which let
him pull its face from his arm.
He sent himself rolling back and then up. No mean feat in armor, but
augments, and practice, made it possible.
A quick look around and things were... not good.
Salesh and Muna were engaging from the flanks, trying to hold the things
back with explosive slugs and Chad was on the ground with three or four
on him, depriving him of any good angle of reply.
Greg said "select plasma two" into his tac and his weapon reassembled
on his back in the new configuration and slung itself down and around
to ready. He grabbed the stock and barrel, brought the weapon up, and
squeezed the trigger.
The weapon stuttered a stream of plastic pellets full of carefully
crafted chemical fire and chased them to the target with a high-energy
bath of tuned microwaves. It put the very idea of a flamethrower to
shame. It was the most destructive thing he could point at Chad without
punching through his armor.
It only took a second or two to fill the air with fire, lightning,
and free protons.
And it actually worked, the creatures withered under the onslaught.
So did everything else.
* * *
It took the beasts an unconscionable time to die. The three that didn't
run fought on for nearly twenty seconds.
Greg didn't stop firing until the things were off Chad.
"Chad, you're clear. Get up and get in formation."
Standing weapon-ready, Greg held his position while Chad got to his feet
and staggered back. There wasn't enough natural fuel on the ground to
maintain the firestorm once the synthetics had burned off. There was
just charred meat, molten dirt cooling into glass, and a wavering in the
Salesh came on tac with three words, "hey... the mist..."
It wasn't reaching out with ominous tendrils.
It wasn't flowing across the ground with spooky certainty.
It was just... forming... in the air, wisps curled and capered
in the thermal eddies, opaque and persistent. Thickening.
It took a second to register.
"The road! Move people!" Greg barked.
And they fled, as if their life depended on it.
It was the only rational thing to do.
The road was unimpressive. From a distance it had looked more
substantial. More planned. The rocky dirt track was really just a pair
of wide ruts that straggled in from the east and then snarled their way
north and west along the rise.
The rise itself proved to be the first ripple of a budding escarpment
that cut north and then west in a curve that suspiciously cupped the
mist at an ample distance.
They reached the verge and just stopped. They weren't spent in the
normal sense, a three klick run in power armor was nothing. Everything
was just a little too much, a little too fast, and they had finally run
out of motivation.
Muna came on tac, "Uh, I've got nothing to the south."
Salish came in a second later "The road is clear."
Greg flipped through several displays, spotting the smoke cloud, the
bulge in the mist wall had advanced, but only so far. There was no
sign of the attackers, and the ruminants had moved further off. "Yep,
We have a good two point two klicks to the nearest living thing."
Then there was a pause. Expectant. Silent. They'd each made their report
and now Chad, as team leader, was supposed to say or do something.
Even if it was nothing more than acknowledge the reports.
It was far too soon to see military discipline breaking down.
"Chad? Hey Chad!" Greg rounded on him and called up his suit display
when he didn't answer.
The numbers weren't wrong, exactly, but they weren't normal either.
Greg ran a few checks on Chad and then on the air. Then he touched a
spot along Chad's jawline and whispered a command. The suit made a few
more more checks on the air and then Chad's visor slid open.
It only took one glance at Chad's face for Greg to know it was serious.
His face looked vacant, like he wasn't really in there.
He snapped his fingers in front of Chad's face and said "Chad?"
When he heard his name his eyes focused for a second, then faded.
He touched the spot again and said "medical protocol, readiness and
fitness" and Chad's visor closed back up.
Greg checked his own status.
"Damn it again. Salish, I'm nearly out of volatiles, give us your
pack. Muna stay on watch."
Salish turned his back and Greg slid a majority of the machinery off
his back and handed it to him when he turned back. "Now get mine."
It was always strange that taking the very heavy pack off the armor made
virtually no difference to the way the armor felt and handled.
Greg said "Chad, turn around," and was half surprised when he did it.
Greg slid the pack off Chad's armor and placed it next to the two Salish
was already linking.
The flexible memories in the packs and suits could, and did, hold an
ungodly amount of information, but there were only so many manufactory
components that could be fit into any one pack. Different packs had
different parts and when they were combined their capabilities
multiplied. If they'd had half a hundred of the things and enough raw
materials they could rebuild civilization. Three together was no small
thing, and they could go as high as four. With that they could still rebuild
civilization, it would just take longer.
The air was breathable and between recycled waste and the grass and
soil around them there were enough organics to feed the arrangement.
Power and time would be all that was required to replenish their stores
and make any necessary medicines. There was even a good shot at making
diagnostic equipment. The immediately hard part would be making an even
Greg had Chad lie down, not that it made a difference, and got the
medical checks going.
Salish started extending collectors from the assemblage of their packs,
the thin sheets would convert light and ambient RF into power. The suits
and the packs had small nuclear batteries to keep core systems alive,
possibility for years, but the bulk power needs had to be filled from
bulk power sources. If the ancient creed of soldiers was "never pass up
the opportunity to take a piss" the creed of modern armored infantry
would be something like "never pass up the chance to take a charge." You
could piss in your armor any time you wanted.
Exigencies and Omissions
* * *
It didn't take that long for the medical systems, such as they were,
to draw a blank. They could see Chad's brainwaves were all over the
place. They couldn't match the patterns to any known condition. As
a bonus, there were no apparent wounds, chemical irregularities, or
foreign agencies in Chad's system. There wasn't even anything in the
way of stress byproducts in his blood. He was just zoned.
His armor did show surprising damage. Whatever those things were, they'd
actually managed bite into the metal. Greg tried to puzzle it out. How
exactly does a living thing gouge armor plate? What were their teeth
made of? How strong were their jaws? Not that it mattered to Chad. They
hadn't gotten through his armor. Sure, it would be good to
put some of the plating through a repair cycle if they could get flush
with juice, but there was nothing that pointed to a material compromise.
Greg stood up and stepped back.
There was nothing useful here, they had nothing that went deep enough.
Greg flipped through the medical equipment database for ideas. Of course
Chad didn't have any embedded hardware in his head to work with. None of
them did. Enemy EM weapons, or a good multiple-g impact turned implants
from useful gear into tiny brain slicers. With only four packs it would
take months, and a heck of a lot of material, to build their way down
to nanoscale systems or neural monitoring gear, so most of what he found
there was of no practical use.
"I swear I'm..."
Muna cut him off, "We've got riders sir."
"Hua. wha...? where?"
She shrugged, "upslope," and Greg followed the line of her weapon to
a distant smudge on the road and triggered the gain on his faceplate.
Sure enough, five men riding what looked to be real live horses. He
wasn't an expert. He'd never actually seen live horses in person, but if
they were something else they were close enough as to make no
difference. A gen-stock horse would be a rich man's extravagance, and
Greg was ready to accept with relief all that that would mean. Then he
really looked at the men. They were dusty, and they were worn, and
nothing about a one of them breathed the first whisper of indolent
wealth. They were on business.
Muna and Salesh each took three steps to their respective sides of
the road. Greg took up a position in the middle and called up the
scanners. The differential feeds from their suits gave them millimeter
coverage on the riders.
It took several seconds for Greg to make sense of what he was seeing.
The riders were armed and armored but none of it was, for lack of a
better word, modern. There was steel, iron, and bronze. There were a
myriad of organics, mostly leather, linen, and wool. The display was
covered with charts and indicators and estimates but it just didn't want
to make any sense in Greg's mind. They were wearing swords for damn's
"Pull it in, weapons down."
Greg split his attention. With one eye he watched the strangers
approach. With the other he was looking through his systems for first
contact protocols and translation programs or something. With everything
that was in there it was stunning that, once again, there wasn't
anything he could find that seemed the first bit useful. Well, there
were language programs but they would either know the language, or have
to be taught it. So that would be no problem, or no help.
The men rode directly to them, raining in when they were about twenty
"Well met strangers. I take it you are Outsiders?"
Greg said "yes" without even thinking, and then made several
startling discoveries all at once. First, whatever that language was,
he was obviously multi-lingual in it with an ease that was unsettling.
Second, the language programs insisted that that there was no match for
the roots and grammar. Lastly, whatever an Outsider was,
he was sure he was one.
There was a pregnant pause.
"Well then, welcome to The Realm. Will you accompany me back to town?"
The experience was surreal. Greg knew he'd never heard this language
before but it was natural to him. Except that one word. "Realm".
It was simple but it echoed with afterimages and shadings of meaning.
The Realm meant the world, not a world, the world, the way a dark-ages
peasant would say 'the earth' and mean the center, the only place, the
whole of the universe. But if that's what the man meant, what he really
thought, then what sense was there behind the welcome. You don't welcome
someone to the whole of the universe.
The man shifted on his horse, and Greg remembered the question.
"Uh, sure." Greg switched to a private channel, "Let's kit up."
Muna said "what was that? I understood..."
Greg cut her off, "I don't know, let's just roll with it for now."
Salish stopped the manufactory and broke the packs apart.
Greg said "Chad, get up," when he realized that he hadn't moved
* * *
Walking up the road was annoying. The power armor just didn't like
it. There was no good match between the road and the terrain profiles.
The armor required a wide stance, both standing and walking,
complicating any attempt to walk in just one narrow rut. Coincidence and
chance had stepped in to provide ruts and raw earth spaced so that both
man and machine had to straddle, causing a constant need to decide
whether to conform the ankle to uneven ground or bite into the road for
stability. If they'd been alone they would could have gone overland in a
loping terrain-agnostic gait.
The city came into view by steps as they followed the curving escarpment
and then finally the completely uniform curve of cliff edge was broken
by a massive horizontal stone finger reaching up and in towards the wall
of mist. That feature alone proved, in some ineffable way, that the
whole escarpment was a deliberate construct. And atop that bluff was a
stone edifice. A castle. There was no other word for the thing. Stone,
blocky, primitive, substantial, and sort of foreboding were the first
impressions cast by the building. When Greg scanned the thing he had
to revise his opinion. The return data suggested a number of exotic
materials and possible nano-composites as part of the construction that would
be decidedly out of place for a steel-age castle.
* * *
Greg would have thought the city, or large town, or whatever it was,
was damn peculiar if, that is, his sense of the peculiar hadn't been
overloaded for some time now. The city was somehow anachronistic with
itself. The buildings were stone, not worked stone, but all of a single
piece, deposited in little repetitive clusters. If the material had
been plastic or nano-composite he'd have guessed colony pods dropped
from orbit, but the stone composition was effectively identical to the
local strata. The carts and wagons visible were all horse or ox drawn
and made of wood, with carefully conserved and precise metal work where
required. There was no sign of electricity usage, but one person they
passed was scrupulously cleaning a store-front with a high-pressure
Younger children played, as they will, while older children were often
hard at work. The clothes were handmade, if not homespun. The sanitation
was apparently outstanding, on par with a modern city, despite the
obvious presence of animal labor. There was a beggar or two to be seen,
but there was no malnutrition evident.
The standard of living seemed very high, even while the apparent
technology was rather low.
The people, however were no mystery at all. They did what anyone
would likely do. They stopped, and they stared, and some few pointed
and whispered. Small children surged forward and retreated in waves
of transient childish bravado. Even from the perspective of the
oddity-on-parade, it was reassuring proof that the people here were
* * *
Their escort led them unerringly between the clusters of buildings and
up to the castle where they were met by a odd assortment of individuals.
It was like a receiving line, or more correctly two receiving lines.
On the left were seven people wearing a most radically dissimilar
combination of clothes, with the exception of some sort of long drape
of one hue or another hanging down their backs. Directly across
from those was an equal line of people each dressed in essentially
identical wrap-around garments that looked both functional and formal.
The opposition and the symmetry shouted politics. The choice was clear.
Left or right, draped mismatch or identical formality.
Around the political array were a sparse but purposeful arrangement
of clearly military men. They were casually attentive, but they seemed
to be keeping their distance, or perhaps neutrality, from either side.
Greg paused for a long time, then he walked straight up to the oldest,
most in-command seeming of the military detachment.
Greg keyed his helmet open and said "I'm Specialist
Gregory MacAndrews and I'm..." and for a moment the urge to say
that strange word, Outsider, pressed behind his eyes, but
he needed to say something more visceral. "... We're...
When Greg's helmet first opened he'd seen the barest moment of something
like distrust flash across the older man's face, but then there was only
"Aye... that you are son."
There was something about that. The simplicity. The certainty. The
placid, honest way he said it. Something. It washed the last tiny
fragment of the unreality away from, well, everything.
Gregory Bjorn Garvey-Perez McAndrews had only one whispered word left.
* * *
The next few minutes barely made an impression, Greg was in too much
Once the political positioning was rendered obviously moot, the two
lines collapsed on them as a mob of well wishers and polite but
insistent questions and invitations. It's kind of amazing how, even
with a whole new language crammed flawlessly into their heads, you could
still not have a clue what someone was saying. There were invitations
to events they'd never heard of at incomprehensible times. There were
questions of the how-much, how-often, and why varieties where each of
the nouns simply had no meaning. It was a cacophony of the nonsequitur.
Fortunately the old man, whomever he was, knew tired grunts when he saw
them. With a few deft words, a good bit of staring, a little pushing,
and the summoning of reinforcements he got them off the portico and
hustled into a suite of some sort.
The suite itself was strange. It was clearly there for guests but it
had just as clearly never before been occupied. It had the feeling
of a museum of the mundane, which made what passed for mundane all the
more exotic. For the first few minutes they scanned everything in the
room in well practiced military suspicion. It was all utterly harmless.
Most of it was steel age, give or take, and hand-spun, but there were
some few things that didn't fit at all. An alloy here that should need
a gravity-free environment to set, a compound there that should require
nanotech to manufacture. In particular a small set of phials and jars
on a tray next to a ceramic washbasin was giving the scanners apoplexy.
After the once-over there was nothing threatening to be seen or scanned.
Shedding their armor seemed stupid but standing in a well appointed
guest suite in full ablative armor seemed just as stupid. The first
contact protocols were useless. everything was out of order. There was
no time of growing together while finding common language. There was no
period of discovery. These people just said "here's your rooms" and
Greg picked a spot near a set of french doors that led out onto a high
balcony, and shed the ablative armor. There was no receiving rack so he
did a field strip, pushing studs and making hand gestures that caused
the machinery to open, pull back, and squat down in a ready sort of
crouch around his ankles and behind his thighs.
He kept the E-suit since he wasn't ready to be walking around the
place naked. He did take off the helmet and detach the respirator from
his back. Once the gloves were pealed back and stowed he looked like he
was wearing some kind of overly snug, all terrain coveralls. Greg had
always felt that if it weren't for the insignia and the industrial feel
of the whole thing, it would look like he had on a one-piece set of
synthetic fiber footy-pajamas.
When nothing leapt out and attacked, Greg stepped away from the squat
pile of armor and looked at the others expectantly. Salish and Muna
found suitable positions next to Greg's armor and did likewise. Chad
had to be explicitly told to do the same thing, but he seemed to know
how to do it for himself. Then he just stood there until Muna told him
to go sit in a chair.
The four suits of armor were enmeshed where the backpacks touched. The
three of them made quick work of getting the solar arrays out and spread
in the sunlight of the balcony.
Once the systems were charging and replenishing themselves, the three of
them just looked awkwardly at one another for a bit. Each of them
waiting for someone else to be the first to say "what the hell is going
Before any of them broke the silence there was a hesitant knock a
Salish and Muna went to the gear and slipped out hand weapons while Greg
went for the door.
When he opened the door he saw, for the second time in no more than an
hour, that strange look flash across someone's eyes, and he realized
it was fear. But then, as before, it was gone in a flash, replaced by
Before he could get angry about the fear he'd seen, Greg took in the
rest the young woman at the door. She was beautiful. Not perfect, nor
flawless, but genuine, and pleasing, and... real. The kind of
woman you wanted to stare at, or brush past just to say you had been that close.
The idea, and the awareness of it, brought a flush to Greg's face and
he just opened the door wider, stepped far back, and slightly stammered
"come on in."
The young woman looked past Greg and visibly relaxed.
Greg admired the way she entered the room. There was no air about her.
She didn't give off a sense of rank or privilege, but she wasn't a
servant or serf either. She was just supremely where she was supposed
"Hello, I'm Nailah, Seweryn sent me to see if there was anything you
needed..." her voice faded as she looked from Muna to Chad. "What
happened to your companion?"
Salish said "We were attacked, there were these snake-dog things" but
Nailah was practically gone by the time he got to `things'. She just
turned and left, the picture of urgency. She wasn't four steps beyond
the door when she started to run.
Greg looked after her and Muna just said "What the hell was that?"
He turned back to Muna "Beats me."
About two minutes later Nailah burst back into the room with a young man
in tow. He was one of the mismatched dressers, whatever that signified.
The stranger looked at Chad and then told Salish "You will need to
restrain your friend."
"Take him to the bed and then you must hold him down while I release
his mind from the thrall."
It sounded like bullshit but none of them had any better ideas. Greg shrugged
at the others. It took them a minute to get Chad onto the bed and into a
position and restraint in a way that the stranger approved.
Greg asked "Why are we doing this?"
The stranger shrugged his shoulders and the drape
turned out to be some sort of light-weight cloak or robe. From the way
it moved it didn't look to serve any practical purpose. "Your
companion is trapped. Stuck in the moment when the Wyrsa
attacked. I will free his mind but he will struggle. He will fight
until he comes fully to himself."
Greg and Salish took an arm each. Muna lay bodily across Chad's legs
and Nailah grabbed his ankles.
The stranger said "ready?" and then brushed Chad's forehead with
Instantly Chad started barking combative profanaties and struggling. It only
lasted twenty seconds or so. Then Chad stopped struggling and said "alright,
alright!" so they let him up.
Once he was let go he sprung back and into a protective crouch by the
headboard and mumbled something that was some combination of `what the
hell was that' and `I must be losing my mind'.
Greg stood on one of the observation towers of the keep. There were
several, and this one was furthest from the mist. He'd been to the two
closest already, setting up instrument packages. With those two, one in
the suite, and this one here he should finally be able to take some
decent readings. It was just a matter of geting things aligned.
For the last several days they'd been treated as honored guests while
they also underwent a grueling series of truly peculiar interviews.
The interviewers didn't seem to be after anything specific. It wasn't
any kind of intelligence gathering operation. The questions were just so
varied. There was government and politics all over, but there were things about
science. Things like "how do you think gravity works". Really odd,
Greg had learned a few things as well. A good number of these people
believed in magic. Not in the theatrical sense. Not in the abstract. Not some
kind of echo of ancient myth. They believed in actual, here and now, strike a
man down with fire, magic.
They were also quite scientifically astute. You could tell from the
questions, both their structure and subtly, that they had an analytical
tradition of the first order. Their math was incredible, but some of
their equations didn't make much sense, and they were fascinated by the
corrections that could be had from the from the data stores in the
armor. They didn't change their own maths, but they diligently recorded
each correction and addition that the team had to offer.
Greg finally figured out that the guys with the strange robes believed
themselves to be mages, while the guys with the uniforms were the
scientists. Thing was, in the native language the words were nearly
the same. It was like the difference between astrology and astronomy.
Two distinct words, impossible to confuse, but with the same root and a
nearly identical implications. It had taken him a while to really think
the thought, the strange translations in his head making it hard to
think about the language objectively. He'd even caught himself deraming in this
new tongue. The only way he could be absolutely sure about what was coming out
of his mouth was to sing, rhyme, talk to his armor, or stumble across a word
for an idea that one language had that the other didn't.
Greg finished placing the sensor package on its tripod, and keyed it
to life. A strobe went off several times, letting the other packages
find this one, then infrared lasers lanced out invisbly from the peer
devices. "That ought to do it." Greg said to himself.
"Ought to do what exactly?" Nailah asked unexpectedly. Lots of the
locals had been observing him constantly, but he hadn't noticed her
"Tell me where I am. Tell me exactly what that is." he pointed to the
"Well," Nailah said with emphases, "that would make you amazingly
That brought Greg up short "Why?"
"This assemblage, mages and scientists both, are trying to figure out
exactly what that is. If you go and do it, you will be
the big man. You aren't from either faction and you have no stake in
the research. That would lose them their standing, and their grants,
and academic types hate that."
"Wait, I thought everybody knows what that is but us
Outsiders." The word still felt very weird.
"Well yes, and no. Everybody knows its a Wilding, and
everybody knows that that means its a weak spot where our reality can
cross up with an organic reality, but nobody really knows what that
means. You know, how it works and all. And since this is the only
stable Wilding anybody has ever found inside the
Margins everybody and their brother is here to study it."
"Is that why this city is here in the middle of nowhere?" Greg had
done a long distance scan and there was literally nothing else obviously
inhabited for as far as his equipment could reach. There were some sites
that might be small farms, but there just didn't seem to be a `next town
"Well that, and the cliff wall that keeps us generally safe, and the
Morganite Pier, and The Watcher. That makes this the best place
to study that."
"It's not a what, its a who..." Nailah gave him a look, like she
was making a decision, then said "come with me."
It was an uncertain journey down and through the bowels of the keep.
Nobody stopped them, or questioned them, but Greg was beginning to think
that this wasn't exactly Nialah's prime stomping ground. After a few
odd stops and some retracing, and one long exchange between Nialah and some
minor functionary of the keep, they finally reached a tiny hallway that
ended in a massive, guarded door.
The guard saw them coming, and just dragged the thing open without so
much as a challenging glance.
The door swung inward, through a space designed to let it do exactly
that, and beyond it was another, shorter length of narrow hall. The
stone of the hall was singular and unbroken. There were no seams and no
variances. It was of a piece both massive and uniform. At the end of
the hall was daylight, and a narrow balcony.
When they reached the balcony it turned out to be something of a
widow's walk leading right along the base of the fortress towards the
mist. Beyond the railing was empty air. When Greg looked down it was
hundreds of feet to the valley floor and looking back to the left he
could see the edge of the escarpment.
Greg took a moment to remember the view as they'd approached the
city. The way a finger of rock lead out towards the mist. "This is the
"Smart boy, but the Watcher is more interesting."
Greg followed her silently as they skirted around the base of the keep,
and finally the railing fell away and the pier proper was in front of
them. It was a finger of smooth basalt that stretched out towards the
mist, and every fiber of Greg's being knew with certainty that it was not
a natural formation. But it wasn't alloy or concrete, it was stone. It
was like someone had found the largest, most perfectly uniform rock
ever, and shaped and cut it down to form half a bridge reaching out
And about a hundred meters out, which was perhaps one-sixth its length,
there was a man, sitting on a small stone pedestal.
Staring out, Nialah just started talking. "Eighty four years ago,
Eighty five come Winterdark, the Realm nearly died.
According to most people Morgan Al'Whalen de'Arte saved the Realm from
the man who tried to murder it. The Morganites are the
people who study and follow the writings and principles of Morgan. They
claim he is out there searching for the damaged places in the realm and
fixing them. Seventy something years ago he came here and summoned this
finger of rock out towards the wilding. And for sixty some years there
has been a Watcher..."
"What's he do?"
She looked at Greg like he was stupid "He watches."
"What? The mist?" It sounded like very tedious duty, not a post a man
could stand for long. "For how long?"
"This one has been there for three and a half years."
Greg said "no way" and headed out to see for himself, heedless of the
harrowing drop to either side of the narrowing tongue of rock.
The watcher was a young man, swarthy in the way of all the locals. He
sat unblinking and seemingly unaware on a short plinth. Greg watched
the watcher intently for several minutes. There wasn't a blink, or a
twitch, or so much as errant eye movement. He was loath to touch the
man. There was just something wrong with the whole thing. He kept
reaching out and stopping. He waved his hand before the man's face once
"Give it up." Nialah snickered. "You aren't going to do anything
here, and he isn't going to respond. He's the watcher."
Greg stepped back, "I don't get it. What's the point."
"You'd have to ask the Morganites."
"Good idea. I'll do that. Where are they?"
Nialah was taken aback for a moment, it wasn't supposed to be a serious
suggestion. "Ah, a Morganite runs small school in town."
Greg said "Good, let's go" and started walking.
Nialah waited a second then started after him.
* * *
Greg had observed the town with sensors and long distance imaging from
the battlements and balconies, being out in the streets was wholly
different. First time through his armor had given him anonymity. Now
blatant curiosity seemed to war with hostile enmity whenever he met
someone's eye. Once the team figured out that going armed locally was
about a forty-sixty proposition amongst the locals, the whole team had
put on sidearms and stun-straps, and given some of the looks Greg was
getting, that suddenly seemed really wise.
Nialah led him through the town by keeping to the larger byways
between the clusters of buildings. The arteries were packed dirt
and random scrub. Many of the buildings had small cultivations around
them. Trees of various practical sorts had been transplanted here from
somewhere, and had been here long enough to go a little feral, but they
were clearly alien to the plains, let alone this rocky rise.
They reached a cluster that looked not much different than any other,
but when they passed within, things were different. Better. It was
cooler, and there was a rise in humidity that was a relief Greg hadn't
known he craved. It was still trees and gardens, but executed with a
subtlety of composition. In the center was a building that gave the
impression of being ramshackle and quaint. It was just an impression.
The door opened with a smooth precision that was markedly out of place
for what was supposed to be something like a public reading room. The
inside was clean and artfully disarrayed. There were books almost
everywhere, and everywhere else held knickknacks and curios. Something
between a long table and a short bar paralleled the rear third of the
right-hand wall as paltry bulwark protecting a door that led deeper into
Greg walked up to the bar and glanced back at Nialah, who looked
uncharacteristally uncertain standing in the doorway.
The door to the back room opened, and Greg turned back.
For a moment he locked eyes with an adolescent of apparently fleet
character. The young man made an "ulp" noise and fled back whence
Greg, fed up, turned back towards Nialah "What the hells is going on
with that anyway?"
"It's your coloration son" came a voice clearly belonging to someone
well past puberty.
"What?" Greg turned to find a man of uncertain years, something between a
harsh thirty and a very kind fifty, comming out of the back room. He was
dressed comfortably in some muted brown work clothes carrying what
looked like mismatched pieces of defunct plumbing.
"You're white as death son, like the plainsmen."
Greg made an empty-handed gesture and added a shrug, not quite ready to
release his mild pique.
"We got us something of a strained truce going on here with the
locals. You go around here looking like you do, and, well if it weren't
for that outfit" he gave an appraising look shaped like ridicule but
delivered with disarming commiseration, "you'd probably find yourself
on the wrong end of some trouble."
The idea was familiar and preposterous. All his life he'd been treated
different for being less than two shades short of albino, but only for
what that said about his modified genes. There'd never been any real
animosity for all that, just distance. He was used to ignoring his own
coloration, and he was used most people being the same swarthy mongrel olive
color of the locals here.
The stranger watched emotions flit across Greg's face, misreading most
of them for lack of context, and barked good naturally "You look like
a devil son! Something parents tell their kids to be wary of. But in
this case the devil is real maybe, and comes in to town to trade twice
That was something to file away. "Uh yea, I'm real scary." No, sarcasm
was the wrong tack to take. "I don't really get it. Well I get that
you aren't 'the locals' but nothing else here makes any senses."
"Haven't they been telling you anything up at the observatory?"
Greg thought for a moment. "Eh, not so much... no. I know they're
all watching that cloud thing, and it's a real odd thing, but they've
been asking more than answering."
"They wouldn't. Hoarders, the lot of them. In sixty years they have
nearly nothing to show for their trouble, except maybe for this town."
"Hoarders of what?"
"Knowledge. Power. The usual." His eyes went a little vague and he
began running his hands along the wall of books. "Hrm... it
doesn't seem to be here." He looked directly at Greg, swept his head towards
the back door, and added "common" as he went for the back room.
Greg looked back at Nialah, shrugged and followed, leaving her to trail
There was a storage room and something like a kitchen setup for serving
snacks, but the man headed upstairs. The second floor looked like some
sort of meeting room or communion hall, but the third floor was unmistakably a
library. Precise order ruled here, putting something of a lie to the
casual tone of the first floor.
Greg half mumbled "what is this place?" without meaning to give the
thought actual voice.
"A school, a hostel, an outpost of sanity. Everything a Morganist
enclave on the outskirts of nowhere ought best be."
Greg looked a silent question back at Nialah, pointing at the man.
She nodded back, and brandished a hand in a universal sign for 'get
on with it.'
The man noticed and then said "oh, my manners, I've been a little
distracted... I am Keeper Jamir."
"Keeper?" Greg asked.
"Yes, Keeper... innkeeper, barkeeper, bookkeeper, and occasionally
peace-keeper. I've run this outpost since just after I stepped down from
"So you're like the Mayor."
"Ah... er... No." Jamir looked legitimately stumped.
Greg looked back again "uh, Nialah?"
She came close, "Gregory?" using his name to perhaps call him a little
slow. "This building and the ones on either side, a shed out back. This
is Morganist land."
Jamir injected a affable "We'll I'd hardly call that civilization out
Greg decided that there was some level of sarcasm or idiom that he
was missing and let it pass. But all the original questions about the
Watcher and whatever a Morganist was came back to priority.
"So you were a Watcher?"
"I was the first watcher son. Morgan was a professor when he found
this wilding. He needed someone to keep an eye on this place. He
asked me. I didn't have a family and my studies were at a pause. I
"Well it was unique, and maybe dangerous, but things here weren't as
urgent as a whole lot of other places that needed his attention."
"Wasn't that like sixty years ago?"
"Sixty seven years ago this summer."
Nialah said "I didn't know you were Slowed."
Greg asked "And how old are you?"
"I'm ninety-three, counting the six years I sat watch, which don't
hardly count at all."
"So you sat there, for six years?"
Jamir's eyes went a little distant "Yup, I did at that." There was a
beat, and then he answered the obvious question. "It was amazing.
Completely, almost painfully aware, but it took no time at all. Just
over in a blink, or it seemed so. The most vital and complex spell I've
ever worked, before or since."
"And then it wasn't my shift any more. Morgan showed up with my
replacement. The new guy took my place, and Morgan dug through my mind
for a while to check my observations."
"Dug through your mind? Who is this guy that you'd let him do that?
That you'd sit still alone on a rock for six years at his say-so?"
"Morgan." Jamir smirked a little, mostly to himself. "Morgan
al'Whaelin d'Arte. Perhaps the most powerful and knowledgeable Talent of
our age. Certainly the most trustworthy. A little strange, a little
scary, and damn funny if you get a chance to catch him off duty."
"And he started this cult?"
"Oh hells no, it embarrasses the piss out of him. We don't worship the
man or anything. The name just caught on. Makes a lot of sense since he
inspired our ideals. He's just not that comfortable with the attention."
"So why the fan club?"
"Well, eighty seven years..."
Greg cut him off, "yea, I heard, something about saving the Realm."
Jamir gave that look universal to teachers that said 'children, what's
to be done with them?' then corrected him. "That's just a rumor at
this point. Nobody knows for sure, and the man himself has remained
silent on the matter. But we do know for sure that he saved the lives of
countless members of every sentient species."
"How does someone do that?"
"With this..." Jamir traced a circle in the air at chest level
like he was stirring a massive pot with his finger tip. Greg felt
something akin to his ears popping. The air pressure didn't actually
change. His ears didn't really pop. Just, all the sudden, like a gust of
cool wind, the room just kind of... changed. It was like the first
time he had ever walked into a sound ablation chamber. True silence
being an almost physical presence that isn't possible to imagine until
you experience it.
An image of a ring, or maybe a light, hung in the air right where the
keeper's finger had traced. It looked like a hologram, or maybe corona,
but there was no apparent mechanism. It both drew and bothered the eye.
It didn't so much cast a light as it seemed to gather the light that was
just around and redirect it.
"What is it?" Greg reached out to touch it but there was nothing
"Well thats a complex question. Too complex. People have been studying
it ever since Morgan gave it to us. That is a master class spell work
that strings together elements that everyone thought were uncombinable.
The spell itself is so exquisitely balanced that even a novice can cast
and maintain it with virtually no effort at all."
"And this saved 'countless lives'? How?"
"No doubt at all it saved the lives. As to how, that thing out there,
that mist, or the underlying cause of it, was starting to happen
everywhere. The first effects were agitation, delirium, and madness. This
is a shock absorber. A buffer. An anchor against the disruption of
reality. Wherever this spellform was cast, order was restored within reach
of its light. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of castings. In every
city, town, and outpost in all of creation. Communities became islands
of sanity and safety in a long night."
"Eh, very impressive, so why the following?"
"Don't you see? He gave it away. No strings. No compulsions to forget.
No obfuscations or restrictions. A veritable concordance to a better way
of balancing potency and complexity that he gave away without thought
"I don't know. Seems to me that saving lots and lots of people
everywhere could be pretty beneficial."
Jamir looked at Greg again. "You know, that's basically what he said.
But Magi just don't do that. Share their secrets I mean. Or at least
they didn't. We're trying to change that. Trying to reduce the amount
of secrecy and back-stabbing amongst the Talented. And we are doing
that by the simple act of sharing, making everything we can learn
"Every profession has some back-stabbing, its kind of inevitable."
Nialah stepped in and said "no, Gregory, he means that literally"
and made an unmistakable under-handed jabbing motion with her right
"Seriously? That seems... wrong."
"Magic is dangerous business my boy, at least once you get above a
certain level of practice. The sort you meet in daily practice in any
normal context, selling regular services, have the normal distribution
of dependable sorts and marginal scoundrels. But there comes a point
where the average sort have been weeded out, where those not willing to
use themselves ruthlessly simply do not carry on. Then the inevitable
question, if you are going to use yourself that way, why not others?
After that why risk your own life when you can steal from someone who
risked theirs? Why do dangerous research when you can steal results?
Why let someone take your research when it was so risky?
"An endless series of smaller and larger questions that start out
sounding like no big thing. A bias forms. Plus, for every Talent
who would say no, there is one who would say yes. The latter have a
nasty habit of killing off the former. They aren't all bad people, not
by a long shot, but there is no way to be sure who is whom, and the bad
may seriously outnumber the good, so paranoia is the rule.
"It's been a viscous cycle for centuries. Distrust and
untrustworthyness breeding amongst an uncontrollable elite."
"Aren't you part of that elite?"
"Indeed I am. My fellows and I have simply chosen not to be despicable
about it. Anything we know can be had for the asking."
"Well, if I think you'll hurt yourself I may require you to learn some
things you've got to know before teaching you the things you want to
know. And I won't tell you anybody else's business, but in terms of
Talent and technique, yes, anything."
It was a more delicate topic, but Greg had to know. "Everyone keeps talking
magic, but where I am from that means 'trick'..."
* * *
Greg lay on his back in bed, studying the book held overhead. It was the
millionth position he'd tried. Reading a bound volume was something he'd never
tried before. It was impossible to get and stay comfortable.
The book was fascinating. Every word and sentence seemed to make sense but the
meanings just seemed to jumble. There were times when he'd read a page several
times and find it'd left no imprint on his brain and he'd have to go back and
Muna came breezing into the suite.
"Thank God," Greg muttered, glad for and excuse to set the book aside. He
tossed the book down on the bed and then remembered it wouldn't have kept his
place like a real pad. "damnit."
Greg rolled out of the bed. "What did you find out?"
"This economy, it... it makes no sense." Muna rolled her eyes. "There is
money, these 'Marks' they speak of, and it is paid for labor and for goods, but
there is no commodities market for raw materials. Precious or refined metals,
they have no economic concept of these. The Marks, they are made of copper and
gold and platinum, but when I ask how much a weight of such metals is worth I
do not get a price in line with the Mark's value. I asked why then the coins
have different values, and they say 'the marks are in the marking' like this is
"So we likely can't trade on raw materials or refining from our packs?"
"No. I do not see how. These small stones I made. Flawless gems. I showed them
to artisans and they scoffed. 'Conjurers's work' they call it, 'no natural
There'd been something about that in the book. Greg considered searching for
it, but wasn't sure how.
"Eh, so what about the other thing?"
"The Corporal? Yes. He is not acting himself. He is reluctant to give orders.
He seems to wander. His adaptation to our circumstance is comfortable beyond
protocol. No, Not himself at all."
If Chad were really falling out of order as badly as all that, then there was
going to be a heck of a crisis of military command. Two privates and a
specialist under a corporal who was falling out didn't make for military
discipline. Greg's own Specialist rating wasn't a proper rank, it was reserved
for people like himself, people who carried any of the genetic modifications
left over after the Kroger Diaspora. The two PFcs had turned to him and he'd
taken the lead, but it was unlikely to last. Eventually the old distrust would
Greg summed that up with two grave words. "Not good."
"Salesh is doing technology assessments. You should see what he's got so
far. There's likely to be simple machines and technological improvements we can
offer for trade."
Muna nodded acknowledgment and headed out to find Salesh.
Since the subject had come up, in his mind anyway, Greg stepped into his
armor. It was comforting to feel it rise up and cradle him. He called up the
displays none of the others would have. The drug pump that kept him feeling
normal was a-okay and the choke built into the collar was ready if the pump
failed. Plenty of his people lived their whole lives without the drugs, and the
choke was a purely military thing, but this place was different. Without
the drugs those monsters in the mist would have been enough to trigger his
The commander would know what to do. But the old man was far too far away.
There was nobody here who knew what a Specialist really was. What Greg really
could become. There was no way his unit was going to survive without a leader.
And there was nobody qualified to take his leash if he lost his shit.
It was good to be out. The wall of mist was much less daunting now that he'd
seen it from a distance and had a chance to watch it do absolutely nothing for
Greg focused a camera on a small flowering plant "Is this what you wanted?"
Nialah looked at the plaque, delighting in the image from safely atop the
castle walls. "It's close. I need the plant with the six-pettal flowers.
You're going to have to get closer."
"You're going to have to get closer" Greg mocked in singsong once he was sure
the coms were not open. Maybe it wasn't all that less daunting.
"Oh stop! What's that" Nialah's voic was very excited.
Quick look for danger then "what's what?"
"The shiny thing, back a bit."
Greg shook his head. Nialah was smart, and beautiful, but she didn't have the
first clue how to give salient direction over comms. Greg tried to reverse his
"That!" she barked. Greg froze and tried to guess what "That" might be.
"What am I looking for?"
"Sparkly bits. On that plant."
Again wiht the clear directions. Careful not to move, Greg brought up the
camera feed overlaying his regular view. On camera one of the local flora was
corriscating. Sparkly bits indeed.
"I'll get a sample".
Greg had a lot of high tech sampling gear but Nialah insisted he use a pair of
her tongs and a number of small leather bags for this work. It was a huge pain
not to fumble with the primitive gear and the arcana. Tearing and pulling okay,
never cut. That sort of thing. Stupid strange rules.
He got a grip, yanked off some leave, fumbled the bag open and stuffed the bits
He heard Nialah make a little "yay" in the background. So like "yay".
Greg spotted another bunch of purple flowers further along to his right and
closer in towards the mist.
"Are these the right flowers?"
"Oh yes. Milosh will pay hard marks for those. Try not to crush them too
"Yea right, tongs and a space suit, I'll get right on the not-crushing."
It was a nice flower. Tiny. Close up it was a cross between a little orchid and
a muppet with it's tongue sticking out. He grabbed the base of the plant and
pulled it out like a weed. Stuffing the root ball into the pouch was easy but
he had to some creative twisting to get the whole stalk inside the bag. Was
twisting the same as crushing here?
Greg's real reason for behing out was to drop some sensors relays. Least that's
what he pretended. He hadn't considered going out here till Nialah had started
wishing she could find someone to do some collecting out in the dangerous
parts. She hadn't been manipulating him, but his willingness had definitely
come from his more primitive anatomy. If one of her friends in the guard could
manage this work with just a sword and a horse who was he to feel all daring
for doing it in power armor?
Greg tossed the sensor package and orderd his pack to start making another.
"Was that the whole list?"
"Are you going the rest of the way around?"
"Sure." Greg keye'd off the mike, "I guess I am going the rest of the way
"Okay. Look for some yellowish dirt it's probably" and Greg said it with her
under his breath "a little closer in."
Greg's proximity alert gave a light tingle on his spine. He dropped the tongs
and swung his gun up to ready. He was going to turn to the mist, he'd been
waiting for shenagans from that quarter all day, but tactical put a
questionable signal to the south west.
Moving away from the mist wall was no strain. The land was flat and the
visibility unbounded. The proximity alert kept dropping out and comming back
without any descernable threat being evident.
Tactical kept futzing in and out on a direct bearing. The proximity alert
tickling his spine every every few seconds with nothing to see. Greg was
seconds from breaking for home at double time when he spotted an old man just
standing a dozen or so meters away.
He was pale. White really. Specialist white, or near enough. The hair was too
dark and sure as hell there weren't any other specialists in the Realm, but it
was close. Even wihtout the rather primitive getup of leathers, Greg knew this
must be one of the local tribe. The stranger just didn't match cultural template
of the keep and village. He showed only tactical arms, a long stick and a
sheithed knife, and none of the armor typical of the combat-ready locals.
He just stood there looking at Greg's fully armored bulk. The proximity alert
going on and off was annoying but nothing was that close. Greg whispered
"close-order four" and his pack quickly retracted and reassembled his weapon
into a low caliber low power bead projector. If he had to shoot he didn't want
to pulp the guy.
The high-speed mechanical ballet of interchangeable parts didn't provoke so
much as a tic out of the stranger.
Nialah's voice came over the com, but Greg silenced the distraction as soon as
he herd the mic open.
The old man was too far away for comfortable speaking, but blasting out a
challenge on the P.A. seemed overly agressive. Greg started closing the
distance at a casual pace.
The old man turned and started walking away.
The old man stopped and turned back.
Greg started walking again and the stranger turned away and started walking.
The entire time the proximity warnings insisted in tickling his spine at brief,
Greg switched tactical overlays. The armor was picking up charge impact
cycles in the picowatt range. The kind of harmless ionization events that would
spill over a hill if there were energy weapons being fired on the far side.
There was no significant terrain here on the plains. The only energy weapons
for miles were in pieces on his own back. Greg switched off the proximity
alert system and cut over to environmental observation and recording.
Every time Greg picked up the pace the old man did as well.
File translated from
On 7 Jul 2014, 01:12.