CatastrophicFailure

Revelations of the Kraken (Chapter 41: Shadow and Flicker)

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Well OK then, cancel red alert, scrape the klingons off the bow and full speed ahead.

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2 hours ago, Patupi said:

Well OK then, cancel red alert, scrape the klingons off the bow and full speed ahead.

I was referring to the forum-derpified quote box. :sticktongue:

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1 minute ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

I was referring to the forum-derpified quote box. :sticktongue:

Oh THAT. *Fumes* How do get rid of those darned things? First time I quoted it gave me no where to type other than in the quote itself, and when I tried to redo it it did that mess :(

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4 hours ago, Patupi said:

Oh THAT. *Fumes* How do get rid of those darned things? First time I quoted it gave me no where to type other than in the quote itself, and when I tried to redo it it did that mess :(

If you’re on desktop, you should be able to right click, or maybe alt+right click... or it might be control... anyways, it should get you a menu to remove the quote box. 

If you’re on mobile, well... that’s just one of those great Secrets of the Universe that would drive you mad if you knew the truth. Kinda like “what does the Kraken smell like?*”

 

 

But at last, the Great Work is complete. :D Clocking in at over 11,300 words, I have truly reached new levels of loquacious verisimilitude. Hoping for release tonight. 

 

*my guess is chest hair and feet...

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2 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

If you’re on desktop, you should be able to right click, or maybe alt+right click... or it might be control... anyways, it should get you a menu to remove the quote box. 

Can confirm its control-right click. Normally though I just select it and press delete.

3 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Hoping for release tonight. 

squee.come faster

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Hello darkness, my old friend.
I've come to talk with you again.
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within...

 

Chapter 26: The Sound of Silence

 

Edgas Kerman walked down a narrow street of cobblestone, gnawing on a borscht-onna-stick, trying very hard to think about nothing. Which was not at all an easy feat, as the more he tried not to think of anything, the more everything tried to force its way into his mind. He felt like the little boy in that old story, trying to hold back the entire ocean with just a finger, certain it would sweep him away if he let go. 

“Hey,” Valentina nudged him, “you all right?”

He sighed, “yeah, just... a lot on my mind.”

“I could tell.”

He looked at her. 

She looked at him. 

Then they both started laughing. Not quite meeting his eyes, she gave him a playful shoulder shove that made him want to vomit and sing all at once. Then the image of actually doing so wormed its way into Edgas’s mind. She looked up at him, and after a moment, they both started laughing again. 

Which sent Dibella into her own fit of giggles, “oh, my goodness, you two are so cute together!”

WWeeaarreennoott!!

More looks and then giggles followed. They walked on alone, beneath the halos of street lamps that clicked on as the day’s already dim light began to fade. Edgas cinched his collar against the cold and damp, frowning as he did so. He liked the cold, after all, but the dampness seemed to be working its way into his bones. There was still the matter of—

“So, what do we do now?” Valentina seemed to ask the question for him, “I have no idea what the Kommissar meant.”

“Neither do I,” Dibella added, “I never even knew he spoke Kerblish. It was obviously a message, of course, but...” she trailed off. 

“Maybe we’re supposed to rob a bank,” Edgas offered. 

The other two looked at him. 

“Well, money is the root of all evil, right?” he shrugged. 

Valentina just rolled her eyes. 

“And what’s an Arstotzka?”

They looked at him again. 

“You both reacted pretty strongly when he said that, I don’t get the reference...”

Now they looked at each other.

“The Political Officer used to say that,” explained Dibella, “I thought it was... perhaps some sort of bad joke... But the Kommissar, he was not the joking sort, especially...” she trailed off again.

“So, you do not know what it is, either?” Valentina asked, “you have studied history, you have your... connections...”

Dibella shook her head, “not even a web search finds anything. According to every computer in the world, the word doesn’t even exist.”

“Wait, what?” Edgas stopped, “there should least be—“

Then Dibella froze, “oh, PЦTIЙ...

The other two followed her gaze...

At the end of the narrow cobblestone street where it met the main square, there was the most... curious sight. A kerb was waving his arms and crying out in a loud voice. He appeared to be dressed only in sackcloth, or perhaps animal hair. His head was completely bare, but he bore a dense, bushy beard, as if he hadn’t lost any hair it had just... migrated south to his chin. And most curious of all were the signboards slung over his shoulders, one declaring, ‘THE END IS NIGH!’

Valentina clicked her tongue, “such a thing would never have been allowed in the Union!”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Dibella rolled her eyes, “they would have just shipped him off to Kerberia.”

“He doesn’t look... entirely stable...” Edgas mused.

“Well, as your people say,” Dibella said, “‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him take his medication.”

Edgas blinked at her, “um, we don’t say that.”

“Must’ve lost something in translation,” she gave the street a considering look, and sighed, “just... try not to make eye contact, and if you have any spare change, you might want to dig it out.”

And so they walked on, trying to watch the strange person without looking like they were trying to watch him. He accosted every one who passed by, who were likewise trying very hard to not see him.

“Hear my words, that I might teach you!” 

The kerbelle walked on. 

“Take my arms, that I might reach you!”

An old fellow in a tattered ushanka continued past. 

“Woe to thee, O blind generation! Ye brood of vipers! Already the axe is laid to the root of the tree—!”

Wait, what?

Edgas looked up... right into the old kerb’s eyes. 

And rapidly looked away again. 

“You there! Have ye eyes to see? Have ye ears to hear?”

Edgas raised a hand to shield his eyes, all three of them quickening their steps as they walked past. 

“I play the flute for ye, and ye do not dance? I play a dirge and ye do not mourn?”

And just when he thought they’d made their escape...

“Krakensbane!”

Edgas froze. 

Cursing himself all the while, he turned, “where did you hear that?”

The old kerb gave him a sly, toothless grin, “aye and aye. Or I and I. R U E?” He launched into a fit of giggles. 

Edgas grit his teeth, “nevermind,” and turned to go. 

“He walks the land, ye ken,” the tramp called after him, “he who shall bend the tree to his will. That is not dead which eternal lie.”

Edgas froze again. Beside him, Valentina made subtle, emphatic little noises that probably meant no.

“Do ye ken, Krakensbane?”

“You shouldn’t say that so loud,” Edgas glanced around nervously. 

“Krakensbane! Krakensbane!” he cried out, pointing to Edgas, “there be Krakensbane here!” More giggles, “or be there? Or be square?” then he spread his hands, “behold, they do not care! See them talk, without speaking! See them hear, without listening!”

He spun around to the indifferent crowd, faces buried in their phones, “fools! Ye do not know, silence like a cancer grows!”

Back to Edgas “lo, me words like silent raindrops fall, and echo in the wells...” then he burst out into song, “...of siiiiiiiileeeeeence!”

“Shhh shhhhhh,” Edgas tried to hush him, “you... you know who I am?”

“Of course!” the old kerb eyed him, “you are a fishmonger.”

Edgas raised a hand to his face.

“Or a burglar, mayhap? A thief, yes? Come to burgle from the dead, or for the dead? He he hoo hoo ho ho!”

“We’ll be... going now,” Edgas turned to leave again. 

“R U E? Is, was, and is yet? He walks the land, ye ken! The one of prophecy! He shall break the world by his passing, pull down every tower! By his hand, shall every cord that binds be broken!”

The old kerb seized Edgas’s arm with a grubby hand, “R. U. E?”

Edgas pulled his arm loose with a scowl. 

“Did he tell ye? Did he? Did he now?“

“Did who tell me what?”

“Did he tell ye how his mother birthed him, turned from him, left him no name and died?

“Did he tell ye how he reached out and struck the darkness, been marked by it in and out, and brought a curse upon the world for his trespass? Did he?

“Did he tell ye how friend and brother lie dead at his feet by his own hand? Did he now?”

The old kerb’s toothless mouth cracked into another grin, “aye and aye, and I and I, that ye did know, by the look on yer face.”

“What are you even talking about, you crazy old coot?!” Edgas snapped, “who?!”

The other kerb’s eyes suddenly burned with sage clarity, “Betrayer.”

“Oh, for the love of...” Edgas shook his head, pressing a hand to it, “I don’t even know why I’m still talking to you. He’s gone, alright? The Betrayer is dead. He did his betraying thing and it got him killed, ok? Jerdous Kerman is dead.”

The old kerb’s eyes grew wide, and he launched into a fit of laughter louder than ever before, spinning around in circles and waving his hands. Edgas tried to disappear into the sidewalk. 

“Ho ho, ha ha, hee hee, ha ha!” then he rounded with such ferocity that Edgas stumbled back, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Grimy hands grabbed Edgas by his collar, “it comes! Like a thief in the night, it comes. Or perhaps... like a burglar.” 

“Gah! Get off me!” Edgas tried to backpedal away, but the wiry, wide-eyed tramp clung to him. 

“Shadow of the first, whisper of the second, as empires rise and fall, so shall the revelation of the third bring the end of this age! This, and all others.” He released Edgas, and pointed a trembling finger at him, “behold! For the Revelation... is at hand.”

“Great, buddy, that’s just great, whatever you say,” he poked at a large rip on his sleeve, “awww, I liked this jacket...” yet something still drew him back to the old kerb’s eyes.

“When the Third Empire waxes like a cancer, black and rotted inside, he shall rise. He shall rise, and beckon,” those eyes seemed to pull at Edgas, ever harder as he tried to turn away, “and all... all shall follow!”

Edgas jerked as if from sleep as Valentina shook him, “here, let me try... something...” she said.

She took the old fellow’s hands, “here, look at me.”

He did so, her eyes staring intently into his, and as Edgas watched, his features seemed to... soften. Relax. Years drained away, revealing the kerb wasn’t perhaps quite as old as he looked. 

“Bless me soul,” he said dreamily, “ye have the most... captivating eyes, m’lady...”

To which Valentina quickly looked away, blinking and rubbing at said eyes, “gah, is pointless!”

“What was that all about?” Edgas asked. 

“Tell you later.”

Now Dibella stepped in, putting a hand on the fellow’s shoulder, “we were told to seek shelter with the root of evil, do you have any idea what that means?”

And just like that, he roared back into fits of giggles, “these tedious old fools! Money! Money is the root of all evil, even I know that!” he leaned in, “perhaps ye should take a swim in a large vat o’ coin. Hee hee, ho ho!”

“I’m pretty sure that’s impossible,” Dibella gave a roll of her eyes, “what about, ‘the false hero points the way?’”

The old kerb stopped in mid-bluster, mouth hanging open. Genuine confusion spread across his face, and he spoke in a whisper, “are... are ye truly so daft?”

Dibella grumbled at him. 

He spun round again, balancing on one sandaled foot, and ended up in a dramatic pose, one finger outstretched down the street, “glory to the hero! Glory to the eternal Union!”

“ЬЯЗZHИЭV'S SHФЗ!” Dibella swore as she looked, then promptly slapped an embarrassed hand to her mouth. 

The other two followed her gaze, down to where Crimson Square met the Boulevard of Heroes... where Sergei Kermanev, cast in bronze and towering over the world, still pointed to the future. 

“Er, thank you,” she stammered “thank you, Mister... um... what is your name?”

His face drew slack again, his eyes going off somewhere in the distance. Fractals of emotions slid across his features, like seeking something bygone and evanescent.

“Elijah,” he breathed, as if his mouth did not know the word. And then, with more confidence, “me name is Elijah.”

“Thank you, Elijah, but we must be going now,” Dibella pressed some coins into the kerb’s hand, “here, please, take an Ünter down to the shelter. You do not need to be on the street.”

He erupted into a fresh fit of giggles, “now why would I want to go and do a fool thing like that?” he leaned in, touched a conspiratorial finger to the side of his nose, and whispered, “they’re all crazy in there, they are!” More laughter followed. 

Dibella quickly herded the other two away before the fellow’s latest fit could ebb. 

They’d almost made it a full block when— “Thief! Thief!”

Cringing, Edgas raised an embarrassed hand to his face against the reinvigorated ranting. 

“A pale horse!” Elijah called after them, “he rides upon a pale horse! And Hell follows with him!”

Edgas stopped. 

The old kerb railed louder than ever, “HELL! FOLLOWS! WITH HIM!”

He cursed himself once more, but Edgas slowly turned back... and saw that the stranger had returned to ranting at passers by, as if they had never been there.  

“So, what was that back there?” he nudged Valentina.

“A crazy old fool who ranting out of his mind who should clearly be locked up somewhere?” she raised an eye at him. 

“No, no, the... thing you did... with the eyes...”

She gave an annoyed grunt, “I... am not sure. It did not work, anyway, I tried to... oh, I do not even know! Whatever it was I did... back then.”

She looked back to the corner, then to Edgas, “he is not Shadowstained, but...”

“What?” Edgas raised an eye... bulge. 

“Nothing.”

“Aw, you can tell me,” he grinned, “er, us...”

She frowned at him, “no, that is just it. It was like... big patch of nothing, as if something were missing.”

“I... don’t understand.”

“Ugh, neither do I. I do not even know what I was doing.”

“Well, we’re here...” Dibella said, looking up. 

The other two joined her. Towering over them, Giant Sergei pointed. They stared up at him in the fading evening light. As ever, the pigeons roosting on his head were unimpressed. 

“So... what are we looking for?” Edgas shrugged, “is there maybe a door or something?” He took a wandering path around the statue’s plinth. 

“No, it’s solid. It’s the largest single bronze casting ever made,” Dibella offered a helpful smile. 

Valentina just rolled her eyes, “no, no, he is pointing somewhere, that is what the old kerb said.” She thought for a moment, “or he was just completely nuts.”

“Ok, so... where’s he pointing? The Fortress?” Edgas tried again. 

“No, I don’t think so,” Dibella shook her head, “the Kommissar would have known we came from there, why would he send us back?”

“What about beyond that?” Valentina tried.

“The Space Center, maybe?” Dibella said, “perhaps we are supposed to catch a rocket somewhere.”

“Oh, no,” Edgas buried his face in his hands, “please don’t tell me we have to go back to the Mün...”

“No...” Valentina’s voice was barely a whisper, “the Dome...”

Dibella raised an eye... bulge, “but... the Dome is gone, now, it’s been—“ Then understanding dawned. “Of course!” she nearly squealed, and began frantically digging in her purse, “I’ll summon my kar...”

***

Valentina stepped out of the disturbingly folded door, “...all right but I am just saying, you should not be summoning things! It just sounds all ominous and shadowy and such.”

“No, really, it’s very simple,” Dibella protested, “I just tap a button on my phone and it comes right to me.”

“Gah!” Valentina threw her arms up, “fine then, but just... call it something else. Like ‘fetching’ or ‘retrieving’ or even ‘here, kar!’ Anything but summoning! We do not need to be summoning right now, is just... all sorts of not right.”

Edgas leaned over to Dibella, “we probably shouldn’t tell her about the drones, yet...”

Which earned another “gah!” from Valentina. She paused in frowning at them to take in the surroundings. “Are you sure is... safe place to park kar?” A burned-out hulk of something just up the alley seemed to grin back at her like a blackened skull.  

“Oh yes, it will be fine,” Dibella insisted, “it has an active security system.” She tapped her phone, drawing a flash of parking lights and a ‘chirp-chirp!’ from the kar.

Valentina continued to frown, “still, this does not... seem like best neighborhood...” One of a gang of street toughs slouching in the corner flashed her a predatory grin. 

“Yes, sadly,” Dibella began as she walked, “we are... still sorting many things out in the new age.”

Valentina followed, pulling Edgas along, but kept one eye towards the group in the corner. The smiley one kept an eye on her, too.

“‘Ello, luv,” he leered as they passed. 

Wait, what?

She stopped, turning to him, “what was that? What did you say to me?”

His grin widened, showing far too many teeth, “now wot’s a delicate flo’r like yer doin’ out onna noit loik this?”

Valentina grunted, “what is up with all these weirdos with Omorkian accents today?! Is Kermangrad!”

“Oi! Now lissen ‘ere, you!” the hood spat, “Oi’s born ‘n’ bred roit in Kernobyl, so Oi was!”

She raised a hand to her face. 

The thug went back to leering, “you ladies lookin’ t’ave a bit o’ fun, then? Reckon me ‘n’ me muckers can ‘elp, roit mates?” The rest of them laughed, “we’ll even foind a game fer the wee ras’bry tart hoidin b’yer, there!” Somewhere, a switchblade clicked open. 

Valentina just rolled her eyes, “Edgas, would you be so kind to hand me rusty steel pipe laying just there? Yes, that one, thank you.”

Thump!

“mOoi FaAIir lAdY!”

Thud.

She held their eyes, slowly tapping the, now rather bent, pipe against her other hand, “anyone else?”

Several dark forms tried very hard to merge into the wall behind them. 

“Good,” she turned to the others, “now can we get on with this, please?”

“There, see?” Dibella said brightly, “perfectly safe.” She went on up the alley, heels clicking softly in the cool evening air. 

The other two just sighed and followed. 

“But... what about the kar?” Edgas glanced back. 

“Blimey, ‘e’s out cold, ‘e is!”

“I told you, it will be fine,” Dibella said without looking.

“Let’s nick ‘is watch!”
“Bugger that, let’s git the kar!"

Valentina frowned at her, “why must we park in dark, shadowy alley, anyway?” 

“Pop the trunk then, lad!”
Click.

“Have you seen the price of street parking these days?” Dibella threw her hands up, “I’m not made of money, you know.”

“Wot the bloody L’s izzat?”
"AAAAAAAAGH"
"AUUUUGH!"
"AAAAIIIIEEEEE!"

Valentina’s jaw fell open, “but... the kar... and you... I thought...”

“Gah! It’s got me pupil!”
“D’ouch, me shin!”

“No, she’s right,” Edgas broke in, “it’s ridiculous. Highway robbery, for sure.”

“Oi, not the face! Aargh, not there either!”
“Fer the luv a’ Kerm, please make it stop!”

With a final, tired grunt, Valentina gave up. 

“Wot the bloody L’s a Kerm?!”

Dibella spared one look back, sighing, “now I’ll have to get it washed again.”

"GAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGHLARGLARGL!"

They came out onto a nondescript urban street, the gathering night giving forth not rain but damp mist, which coated the road and sidewalk in a mirror sheen and chilled to the bone. People hurried about their business, clutching their jackets against the cold with one hand while the other held their phones before them like lanterns. All along the near side, neon signs flashed out, splitting the deepening night proffering frivolous goods and cheap rooms. Indeed, there were no kars to be found along the curb, and Edgas was struck by the odd air of the place, where nothing seemed to disturb the sound of silence. 

“Aieeee, now it’s got me eardrum!”

Except that. 

And there, across the street, was a looming pool of nothing.

“Not... what I expected...” Valentina mused. 

Dibella gave another mournful sigh, “it was supposed to be a grand social project, an example for other cities to follow. But the funding ran out when it was only half-complete, and we never could agree on a solution. Instead, the neighborhood behind us just sort of... happened, while this place has remained vacant ever since.”

They crossed the street easily, only a single dilapidated smoke-chugging dinosaur rumbling past. The nothing resolved itself into buildings of unremarkable height, pitch black against the dark clouds above. A sturdy chain-link fence topped with razor wire greeted them. 

Valentina gave it a cursory shake, frowning at the stout lock and chain across the gate, “I am guessing you have a key?”

“Erm, not exactly,” Dibella said sheepishly. 

“We are going to need to find bolt cutters,” Valentina gave the fence another shake, “and flashlights, too.”

“Already on it,” Dibella said as she tapped away on her phone. 

Valentina turned to Edgas, raising an eye... bulge. He just returned an awkward grin. And then, before she could even form the question, a sound did break the silence. 

“Ouch, me poor spleen!”

Another sound. 

Faint, at first, and then... remaining faint. A low buzzing, a bit like a small mosquito. Small, for Ussari. A moment later a tiny green light appeared above the street lamps, drawing lower until it revealed itself to be... some sort of tiny flying... thing, with six little propellers and carrying an unremarkable-looking cardboard box. 

It set down at their feet, released the box, then zipped off back into the sky with only a cheery, “thank you for your purchase!” in passing. Valentina gaped down at the box. A large smile was printed on it, and... something about a rain forest?

Her mouth tried to form words, but her brain had simply had quite enough and had reduced itself to pouting in the corner, occasionally kicking the less-rational part of herself which was still busy bibbling.

Edgas sighed to Dibella, “I told you she wouldn’t like the drones.” He ripped the tape off the box, revealing a long set of bolt cutters. And something else, which he handed to Valentina. 

“What?” she said distantly, “what even is this?”

“It’s a flashlight.”

She tried to shake some sense back into her own head, “no, no this is tiny pen light, is dark as miner’s... mine, in there, we need real flashlights!”

“Trust me, it’ll work.”

“How do you even..?”

“You have to click the thing, there...”

“Here?”

“No, there.”

“Where?”

“Huh, maybe that wasn’t it, try here.”

“There?”

“No, right here.”

“Is nothing there!”

“No, there’s a little...”

“Um...  Edgas...” Dibella said with a wary tone. 

“Is nothing, which end is even..?”

“Here, this is the front.”

“No, that is back.”

“Edgas, dear, please...” Dibella tried again. 

“Um, here, let me try... no, that wasn’t it.”

“Careful, you are going to break it.”

“No, I think I’ve got it...”

Dibella reaches for him, “no, really, Edgas, you must be careful, it’s extremely—“

A saber of pure bluish-white light stabbed out with a fittingly buzzy sound, splitting the night above the neon signs beyond.

“GAAAAAAAAUGH!” Edgas tumbled backwards, clutching at his face, “my eyes! My eyes!

“Edgas!” Valentina dove just fast enough to catch him. 

“Oh, dear!” Dibella snatched the flashlight up before it could do any more damage, “Edgas, you have to turn the beam down first, these always come set on ‘VAPORIZE!’”

“I... I can’t see...”

Valentina gently pulled his hands away from his face. His pupils seemed to have entirely disappeared, leaving his eyes disturbingly white and featureless. 

She looked up, “I think he is really hurt...”

“He’ll he all right, I have just the thing,” Dibella fumbled around in her purse for a moment, then handed a tiny vial to Valentina. 

“Really?!” she sighed, “iDrops?”

“Er, yes,” Dibella didn’t quite meet her eyes, “left over from the settlement after the last order.”

Valentina just gave an annoyed grunt, and put a couple of drops in each of Edgas’s eyes. Almost at once, his pupils seemed to reappear. 

Are you all right?” she asked.

Edgas turned his hands over before himself, “er, yeah, I think so.”

She smiled, giving his knee a squeeze... and hoping Dibella didn’t notice, “good, we do not need to have you going blind for real.”

They stared at each other for another silent moment, before Dibella’s giggle drew them away. 

Then she sighed, “well, I guess I can return the bolt cutters.” The other two followed her glance to a meter-wide hole in the fence, surrounded by the cherry-red glow of recently molten metal. 

“Ok, but not now,” Edgas rose and dusted himself off, “we should probably do what we came for and get gone.”

“Indeed,” Valentina nodded, “so much for keeping a low pro—“ she looked across the street to the crowds... who still stared at their phones. 

“Nevermind.”

“He’s right, we should get going,” Dibella shoved the long bolt cutters down into her purse. 

Valentina just gawked at her, making little half-syllable noises. 

“It’s bigger on the inside.”

“Guh,” Valentina  rolled her eyes, “why am I even surprised anymore?”

The three made their way carefully through the glowing hole, and off into the darkness. Now properly adjusted, the flashlights sliced through it like a warm churned-dairy spread. On either side, slate-grey tenements like tombstones stared down at them with empty window-eyes. Construction seemed to have ceased just after the shells were complete, all around Valentina saw nothing but bare concrete walls and unfinished doorways. 

Which... troubled her. For a place that was long abandoned, and by the look of it, quite dry inside, it seemed far too clean. Even in the Union, squatters were often quick to requisition any such place. Clean, and... silent...

"Wow, this place is certainly something," Edgas mused as he swung his light around, "makes me feel kinda-"

"Creepy?" Valentina finished.

He frowned at her, "I was going to say, like a secret agent," he shuddered, "don't need any more of that."

"Quite so," Dibella added, "I met a real secret agent, once. It was very awkward, he was all," she screwed her voice up, "'the bondsh' Name. Jamesh Name. Bond Name'sh the jamesh. Bamesh Nond'sh having a shtronk, call a bondulansh.'"

Valentina stared.

"Turns out he was having a stroke."

Her mouth fell open, "that is horrible! Why would you even joke about something like that? The poor kerb..."

"Oh, he's fine, he was back at work the next day."

She stared again.

"They've gotten really good at treating that sort of thing nowadays," Edgas explained.

Valentina look at him, looked at Dibella, looked at him.

She threw her arms up, waving her flashlight around, "why? Why?? Why am I even surprised? One of these days, I will not be surp--"

She froze.

"--prised."

There, illuminated in the beam of her light...

"What? It's just graffiti," Dibella said.

"There are no other marks anywhere here," Valentina protested, "and this is the same thing I saw down in the subway when we arrived."

Scrawled upon the wall were the words, ‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’

“That... is odd...” Dibella stepped up to it. She took a cautious peek in one yawning window, “there’s nothing inside, by the looks.”

“Wait, down there!” Edgas’s like revealed more paint on another building. 

Valentina looked at it, swung her light back to the first, “neither of these would be visible from the street.”

“‘I’ve come to talk with you again,’” Dibella read, “it must be... yes, down this way! There’s more at the end of this path.”

Because a vision softly creeping...

“Now this way!”

Left its seeds while I was sleeping...

“Take a left here!”

And the vision that was planted in my brain...

“To the right, careful, it’s muddy!”

Still remains...

“Which way now?

“Over here!”

They stared up at a structure no different from the rest, save for the words written atop the empty doorway. 

Within the sound of silence...

Dibella shrugged, “I guess we go in.”

In restless dreams I walked alone...

“Down this hall!”

When my eyes were stabbed...

“Up the stairs!”

And in the naked light I saw...

“Eek, a bat!”

And no one dared...

“Another flight!”

But my words, like silent raindrops fell...

“Left? No, right!”

And echoed in the wells of silence...

“Quick, in here!”

“Well...” Edgas huffed, “that’s not disconcerting at all...”

“Maybe this... wasn’t such a good idea,” Dibella shivered. 

The final verse leered down at them from a wide central column in a top floor room.

“Maybe... we’re in the wrong place?” Edgas gave a shrug. 

“No,” Valentina moved to the empty window, “I can just see Crimson Square, across the Fortress grounds,” she turned back, “the statue is pointing right here.”

Dibella looked back to the wall, “the False Hero points the way.”

Valentina returned to it, running a hand along the concrete just below the last spraypainted letters, “you say no one has been here since construction stopped?”

“That’s right. It was quite contentious, they cordoned the whole place off almost overnight when they finally reached an impasse.”

Her fingers traced a rough square on the wall, “the cement here is a different color, it is newer than the rest. And then, of course, this...” she turned to Dibella, “do you have any idea what this means?”

Dibella shook her head.

“I might,” Edgas offered, running his own hand over it. In the center of the little patch of concrete, crudely carved into its surface, was a broken circle...

“It’s the Kraken’s seal.”

“What?” Valentina turned to him, “how do you know?”

“I just know,” he said, “though I’m not quite sure about this,” one finger traced along a sinuous line bisecting the disc, “it almost looks like how the first seal was broken...”

The three stared at each other in the silent darkness, their flashlights playing on the floor. 

At length, Valentina gave a rough sigh and nudged Dibella’s purse, “I do not suppose in there you have a sledge—“

Dibella produced one.

“—hammer.” 

Valentina rolled her eyes, “how do you even do that?”

“It’s bigger on the inside,” Dibella grinned. 

Valentina slapped herself in the face. Then took a good, sure grip on the handle.

“Are... you sure about this?” Edgas asked nervously. 

“Yes. Had long day. Need to hit something.”

“But... you hit something when we got out of the kar...”

She thought for a minute, “need to hit harder.”

“It’s kind of a big step from ‘trespassing’ to ‘vandalism’ though,” Edgas said with an eye toward the window. 

“Oh, we needn’t worry about that,” Dibella chimed in, “they’ve already got us on ‘breaking and entering,’ ‘destruction of government property,’ and ‘possession of unregistered penlights.”

The other two gawked at her. 

Then a thin, mournful scream came wafting in on the breeze, “not me new aiPhone! You put that back—AAAIIEEEEE!”

She shrugged, looking sheepish, “my security system may not be entirely, er, legal, either.”

With a grunt, Valentina rolled her eyes, “get back!” She swung the hammer hard, hitting dead-center on the carved circle with a hollow crunch. The hammer disappeared back into Dibella’s purse while Valentina cleared away the broken concrete, and retrieved...

“A... book?” Edgas raised an eye... bulge. 

She peeked back in the hole, “this is all there is.”

“It... it almost looks like the diary I had when I was a girl,” Dibella mused. 

Valentina carefully pried it open, flipped through a few fragile pages, “it is handwritten, but... this is not Ussari, or even Kerblish.”

“Here, let me see,” the book was handed to Dibella, “in... credible...” she breathed. 

“You can read it?”

“No,” she shook her head, “at least, not yet. It... it looks like the characters of the Old Tongue, but... nothing makes any sense.”

Valentina leaned over, “Old Tongue?” 

“Do you remember your Name Day celebration? When you stood before the Empress all those years ago?”

“Of course!” She scowled. 

“That... flowery language she used, with the archaic pronunciations... that is the last vestige of the Old Tongue. It is an ancient dialect of Old Ussari, reserved only for the Imperial Court for centuries, until Kerillic writing was introduced and it slowly fell out of favor. 

“Anyway, I studied it at university, it is very difficult to speak and even harder to write, but this...” Dibella flipped over a few pages, “I know this word, and maybe this one, but the rest, none of it makes sense. And I don’t have the slightest idea what these characters starting here are. It’s been a while, maybe with some time and a book I could... get something out of it.”

“Uh, guys....” Edgas broke in, “maybe we should get going.” He pointed out the window, where flashing blue lights reflected off the buildings beyond. 

“Quite so,” Dibella agreed, stuffing the little book in her purse, “the Police Commissioner does owe me a favor, but I was hoping to save that one for Carnivál next year.”

Valentina stared at her. 

“What?”

“Nevermind,” Valentina groaned, “let us just go.”


***


They emerged from the much-less-glowey hole in the fence just as a police cruiser with flashing lights crossed down a side street a block up, heading away. They watched a moment longer, but none followed. Across the street, people still huddled, bent over their phones. 

While also... talking to each other...

“Why does that seem strange?” Valentina asked no one in particular. 

“No, that... is strange,” Edgas muttered, “there’s something on all the screens too... looks like every screen,” he turned to Dibella, “did you get any notifications or anything?”

“What?”

“Your phone...”

“Oh! I didn’t want it want it going off while we were prowling about in the darkness, I switched it off,” she produced the object in question and began tapping, “oh... oh my...” her face drew pale in the neon light cast across the street. 

“What is it?”

“Some sort of press conference is streaming... here, watch,” she then unfolded her slim, transparent phone until the screen was several centimeters across. A moving image coalesced, spread with a BREAKING NEWS! banner. It showed a nervous-looking Kerbal at a podium, perhaps in some sort of warehouse, the entire room seemed to be made of metal painted white, with an oval doorway visible just beyond. 

“...at any rate, that is the situation at this point, and the vessel remains isolated,” he was saying, “and now, I’m going to turn the microphone over to our President, er... as it were.”

The camera panned around to another room, separated by thick glass walls. Here, an unassuming kerb stood, clad in an unassuming business suit, with no podium or microphone or prompter. He had an earnest face and an inviting, just slightly crooked smile, and spread his hands in conciliation as he began to speak.

“My friends,” he said with a bare hint of an Exast drawl as subtitles scrolled across the screen, “my name is Layland Kerman, the President and CEO of the Layland-Wutani Corporation. I am streaming to you today from the EHS Sanctuary, currently anchored off the coast of Autmalaga.”

He spoke easily, casually, as if addressing were addressing close friends, while behind him figures in high-level biohazard isolation suits scurried about. Yet here he paused, his eyes dropping a moment as if deep in thought.

“The world is very different, now,” he said at length, “Kermankind holds in its mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of Kerbal poverty, and as we have irrevocably seen these past weeks, all forms of Kerbal life as well. We now face a threat to our very existence on this world, a challenge that assails each one of us, not as Exastans and Autmalagans, not as as Ussaris and Omorkains, not as Kleptogartis and Nefcarkalandern, not as Dachlandish and Gednalnan, but as one people, one family... and one chance. 

“United, there is little we cannot do. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder. We must seek to invoke the wonders of science if we are to survive, instead of its terrors. And to that end...”

He turned, and from a small metallic case on a nearby table, retrieved a small, rounded, silver cylinder.

“This is the Mark 66 antivenin. Or, as my team have taken to calling it through its many experimental versions, simply the Mark. We still do not fully understand how the F9H1 pathogen works, but we have learned how to empower the body’s own defense systems to effectively fight it. The Mark is an amalgam of synthetic antibodies, carbon nanoparticles, and counterprionic sulfonic acids that bind to and chelate the pathogen, allowing the body to eliminate it like any other foreign protein. 

“Thus the Mark acts not only to immunize the healthy, but, we hope, to stop and reverse the progression of the illness in the recently infected.”

Now he paused, holding up the back of his right hand, which bore a large signet ring on one finger... and a small, crescent-shaped scar on the back, “I have already received the Mark 66 myself, as well as all the other experimental serums, in order to personally demonstrate their safety in the uninfected. And today, if we have done well, we shall demonstrate it’s full effectiveness as well.”

He nodded to one of the suited figures, and the camera panned again, now showing a hanging curtain in the far corner of the room. Moving with a hint of hesitation, the worker pulled it back...

“Glorp! Whuguggle—hwork!”

Despite herself, Valentina recoiled back from the screen, a hand rising to her mouth. She shared a look of abject horror with Edgas. Behind the curtain was an inclined gurney, and strapped to that hand and foot was a sad creature that might have been a person. Its face and skin were covered with open sores, and all down its chin and the front of its hospital gown was caked with thick black foulness. Its chest rose and fell in spasmodic, agonal gasps while its wide and miserable eyes stared out into nothing. 

The kerb in the unassuming suit kept his distance, “this is Hadrie Kerman. He was found by Autmalagan Special Forces adrift on a sailboat seven days ago, just off the coast of Pugaraya.” He nodded to one of the hooded figures, “Doctor, if you please...” The figure nodded back, took another silver vial from the case, and approached the gurney with his assistants. 

The camera swung away, “now, I will caution everyone watching that this treatment remains highly experimental, and while we are confident in our procedures, this may not yet—“

A crash and screaming cut him off. 

“His arm! His arm! Get his arm!”

“Watch out!”

“The chest strap!”

“Get back!”

Another crash, and the camera swung back to show the gurney up-ended on the floor, the poor unfortunate flailing about, only one hand still bound, gibbering with wide, pleading eyes.  One of the assistants tried to scramble back, but a questing hand seized his hood. As he backpedaled and screamed, it tore loose with an awful noise, his head now exposed and unprotected. His back hit the far wall, hands and feet still scrambling, face drawn in terror. 

Then Hadrie Kerman’s other hand slipped free, and he shuffled and crawled forward, those horrible, helpless eyes fixed on the doctor. 

“Glorp! Glorp! Whuggle?”

The doctor tried in vain to push himself backwards through the glass. His lips pulled back from his teeth into a rictus, his eyes fixed on the horror before him even as his head shook back and forth in futile denial of the inevitable. 

“No!” Layland Kerman dove at them. He pulled the burbling, slobbering wretch away, just before a hand could grasp at the doctor’s face. His own hand scrabbled for purchase on the featureless floor as he dragged himself back, his other arm wrapped around the slimy, blistered neck. 

The head on that neck turned, fixing Layland with its awful, pitiful eyes, “glorp? Hwork!” Ichor as dark as pitch splattered across his face, yet he pulled the poor unfortunate tighter against his chest.   

“The spray!” he cried out to the doctor, thrusting a hand out, “the spray!”

It took the bewildered Kerbal a moment to comprehend, then he grabbed the metal cylinder, popped the cap off and slid it across the floor. 

Layland caught it, sweeping it up in a single motion, “sanari,” he said softly, pressed one end to Hadrie Kerman's head and his thumb to other. 

A click and a hiss, and his head snapped back, revealing a small crescent-shaped mark where the device had been as all his features drew taught. 

“Gaghlughugl!” he gurgled, his head lashing back and forth. He raised his hands, and might have clawed at his own eyes had Layland not seized his wrists and held firm. The thrashing only grew worse, his entire body wracking in spasms as he gasped and choked. Then all at once every muscle in his debilitated body seemed to clamp down, his back arched one way and then the other, and he doubled over to floor held up only by the other kerb now cradling him. 

With a final, awful, hideous ripping noise, his throat clenched, and an obscene mass of sludge darker than anything before erupted from his mouth and splattered to the ground. 

His form went limp in Layland’s arms for a moment, then his head flew back, his lungs pulling in air as if he’d been holding his breath for days. His chest twitched once, hesitant, before settling in to a slow, steady rhythm. 

His eyes fluttered open, “I... I can see...” They blinked again, “I can see!” His face bloomed into joy as they fell upon Layland, “I can see you...”

Then confusion settled over him, as his eyes took in his surroundings, “wait, where am I?” the suited orderlies, “who are they?” the caked black goo on his chest, “what happened?

Layland smiled at him, “you’re in a hospital, you’re safe. You’ve been very ill. These kerbs are doctors, go with them, they’ll take care of you.”

“Oh... ok...” Hadrie Kerman said distantly, allowing himself to be lifted onto a fresh stretcher. 

Beside Valentina, Dibella took in a long breath, “it’s... it’s a miracle!

Valentina scowled at her, “that was clearly staged!”

“It looked kinda miraculous to me,” Edgas said, scratching at the back of his head. 

Valentina opened her mouth to scold them both, but another wave of sound drew her attention. There, across the street...

“Miracle...”

“Miracle...!”

“It is a miracle!”

Her stomach felt like it kinked in half. On the other side of the street, a crowd had coalesced outside an electronics shop, with a single huge monitor in its steel-barred window. Even from here, she could see Layland Kerman framed on the screen, the people gathered before it muttering, almost chanting, and raising their hands and phones to it. 

The lines of verse she had seen scrawled on the concrete column back inside flashed in her mind like a neon sign.  

“Look, he’s going to speak again,” Edgas said, so she looked back at Dibella’s phone-sheet. 

Layland Kerman stood there, casually wiping black goo from his face with a rag. He paused, taking a moment to adjust his simple tie just so. 

“My friends,” he said, once more smiling and stretching out his hands, “at this moment, delegations from my office are meeting with representatives of the leadership of every nation in the world, and have already told them what I am about to tell you. The trumpet summons us all, can you hear it?”

He paused, as if listening, “a Great Labor lies ahead, but I and my cohorts cannot undertake it alone. The Mark 66 works, and it remains our last, best hope for the survival of our civilization. I have committed every resource at my disposal to the immediate full production of this critical vaccine, and I pledge nothing less than my entire fortune to its distribution. It is my hope, that every kerb, kerbelle, and kerblet within the sound of my voice will receive the Mark as soon as possible. 

“To that end, it will be made available in its entirety to everyone in the world without any cost, at all. But while we can produce the serum and its transdermal autoinjector, we cannot distribute it without the cooperation of the governments of the world. 

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. While we ramp up production to full output, my plan calls for the first 144,000 doses to be delivered to the Hot Zone in Autmalaga, to establish a lasting quarantine line there until production can reach its peak. But Hadrie Kerman's case is not unique, there are no doubt others afflicted with the illness already being borne by the winds across the Great Tethys Sea to distant lands. 

“For this, I have already assembled Special Action Teams, who will be supplied with the second round of vaccines, to respond to an incident anywhere along the Tethys coast within one hour. But this we cannot do without the consent of local authorities. 

“As soon as we are able, we will begin general distribution to the population at large, and once every person in the world has taken the Mark and been made ready, we shall undertake the long campaign of tending to the sick beyond the Autmalagan Line. 

“But once again, my friends, we cannot do this without your help. My ambassadors have now presented the leaders of the world with this roadmap to our future, as well as draft legislation and executive actions each tailored to the nation in question, that must be approved if we are to move forward. My friends, my fellow citizens of the world, I ask you to go unto your elected representatives, and beseech your governments of, by, and for the people, that they act with all haste so that such governments do not perish from the world. 

“I ask you all to join me in forging a beachhead of cooperation, that in an age where the instruments of war have begun to outpace the instruments of peace, let us solve what problems unite us instead of belabouring those problems which separate us. Let us no longer be divided by nation, or creed, or ideology, for a house divided against itself surely cannot stand. 

“So in closing, my fellow citizens of the world: ask not what your countries can do for you, but what together we can do for the prosperity of all people.”

He stretched out his hands, “And now, let us begin.”

The screen went blank, then switched to a pair of news anchors clearly at a loss for words. 

Dibella folded it away, “what an incredible speaker! That gave me chills...”

“That is one way of putting it,” Valentina grunted. 

“But... he’s got a cure!” Edgas nearly squealed, “everything... everything will be alright now. I... I’ve got to get back, they might need... but how...”

“We should proceed with caution,” Dibella touched his arm, “much is yet uncertain. But I did promise you a flight back.” She tapped something on her phone, “come, let us go the the vertiport, I’ll have a plane standing by.”

***

Valentina stared. 

Edgas stared. 

Valentina thought back to a time, which seemed like eons ago, now, when she had seen a pink to end all pinks. Surely, that had been the pink by which all other pinks would forever be measured. But now, she saw, that pink was a lie. For here, here was the pink that would outpink all pretenders, that they shall think themselves accursed they were not this pink, and hold their pinkhoods cheap whiles any speaks that gazed upon this pinkness. 

PЦTIЙS ФLD DЄCЯЄPIT MЦM ДЙD ДLL ҢЄЯ ШДCKҰ ЙЄPҢЄШS, it was so pink!

“What? I like pink,” Dibella said with a frown. 

Valentina’s head snapped around to her direction so fast her neck crackled like gravel, “this-this-this-this-this is yours?!?”

“Mm-hmm,” Dibella squeaked with a nervous little smile. 

“This.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“This right here.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“This very thing.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“You own this.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“This, here.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Free and clear.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Is not leased.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“So is yours.”

“Mm-hmm.”

Valentina looked at Dibella. 

Dibella looked at Valentina. 

Edgas just looked... uncomfortable. 

Finally, Dibella blurted out in a rush, “well, you see, right after everything... happened, there were a lot of changes going on, and resources being reshuffled, and this, and that, and, well, once they started showing up on the surplus market, you know, they were practically giving them away, I mean I got it for a song, and—

Valentina gently placed her hands on her old friend’s shoulders, and screamed, “YOU BOUGHT A CONVERTER?!?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“And painted it... pink...”

“Mm-hmm.”

She raised a hand to her face.

“Well, actually,” Dibella mused, “I only got the hulk, I had to buy the engines from him. He got to the auction first.”

Valentina followed her gaze... to Edgas. 

“Oh, come on, not this again!” he threw his hands up, “I thought I gave you the eight best ones, I had no idea there was a critter nest in the cabin bleed line of that one!”

“Hmph,” Dibella crossed her arms, “do you have any idea how long it took to get the smell out?”

“Well, I mean, in all honesty I’m pretty sure that smell was already in there...”

“Enough!” Valentina roared, “let us just go, my ears have only just stopped ringing from the trip down here, might as well move along before they get too comfortable.” She walked towards the looming pink craft bathed in the vertiport’s floodlights, a hand to her temple, “why am I surprised? Why? Why now at all? One of these days I will not be—“

She stopped, the other hand on the hull. She moved it this way, moved it that, slid it over the glossy pink surface. Where—?

“Er, I had that side door removed to make room for the galley,” Dibella mumbled to the tarmac, “there’s an airstair in the aft bulkhead now.”

Valentina muttered a curse and walked, trailing her fingers along the smooth surface after her way. Behind the rearmost of the two wide, stubby tandem wings was the stump of the aircraft’s rear. Where any other sensible craft came to a gradual, streamlined, tapered end, a Converter just sort of... stopped, just beyond the last wing. It was not by any means the most graceful of ends but it was quite convenient for throwing things out of while airborne, be that paratroopers or cargo or the bucket that usually passed for the latrine on long flights. 

Dibella fumbled around in her purse again, producing a small key fob. 

Chirp chirp.

Interior lights clicked on through the rear porthole, as well as...

Valentina sighed. 

...pink glow mood lighting all along under the hull. 

There was a clunk and a whir, and the sideways-opening hatch she was so used to instead folded down, revealing a short flight of stairs. She braced herself for the exploded-unicorn-and-cotton-candy motif she was sure she would find inside, mounted the first step and...

PЦTIЙS LЄFT ЗДЯ!

She was far too surprised to register that she was even surprised. She had thought the kar was palatial, but this...

Everything was cream-colored leather, she thought even the floor might be leather. Except the things that were impossibly polished burlwood, or walnut, or ebony, or... well she wasn’t exactly sure what that one was, but it was flecked with little iridescent sparkles when the light hit it just so. The light itself was just sort of... there, in a mind-bendingly pleasing shade of white, here and there glinting off gold trim and platinum accents. It should have been garish beyond words, but somehow the modern take on timeless styling just sort of popped and synergized and feng-shui-ed and worked until that less-rational part of her was just pleading to park its posterior in one of the enormous lounge-chair looking seats and spin around squealing. 

This... this could not be a Converter! Valentina had to poke her head out the door and back in again just to make sure she was still on the same aircraft. A Converter was all bare metal stringers and aluminum skin, with exposed wiring runs and hydraulic plumbing and those horrible torn-canvas jump seats with the screw heads the poked out and always seemed to get her right on that nerve on the back of her thigh that made her whole leg go numb for an hour afterwords. And everything, everything was always exactly the same shade of peeling regulation olive drab paint!

She set one foot cautiously on the floor, still not quite sure  if that, too, was leather or if she might simply sink into it and vanish. And speaking of sinks, just to her right was a full lavatory with the finest accoutrements and... three seashells and some moss? That left her shaking her head, which showed her the cavernous closet to her left. 

On either side of the center aisle were massive pivoting, fully-reclining, overstuffed seats, seating seven, no doubt equipped with tray tables that kept one’s meal warm and cupholders that kept one’s drink cold. And were quite obviously far more comfortable than any bed she had ever slept in. Across from the last odd seat was that galley, which looked more like the kitchen of a five-star restaurant despite being crammed into a space no bigger than the closet. 

And finally, at the far end...

As in any sensible Converter, there was no barrier separating the cockpit from the rest of the hull. The boat-like nose, clad entirely in square plexiglass windows save for the very top, jutted out several meters more, and suspended out over that was the unique pilot’s pillar and control console. Here, too, the bare wires and rough innards were concealed, but now with matte-finished dark wood trim that would not reflect distracting glare. Muted leather panels covered the slots where old military radios and hardware had once resided, the entirety of the instruments now reduced down to a sleek ‘glass cockpit’ on the central console. This, at least, was a pilot’s space, meant for flying and not luxuriating. 

And then Valentina saw, hanging from a knob on the overhead panel, a tiny, threadbare stuffed teddybear on a keychain. She turned, her eyes finding Dibella’s just behind her, who looked away quickly. 

Valentina shifted her focus elsewhere, now spying the flight wheel. Where any other aircraft had a yoke or a stick, Converters had an actual wheel, that would have looked more at home on a ship. This one looked like it actually had come from a ship, flawlessly crafted from stained teak yet well worn. 

“The wheel... from my father’s yacht,” Dibella said with an awkward break, “I never have been the sailing sort.” 

They smiled at each other, and Valentina settled into the impossibly soft overstuffed seat nearest the cockpit, just ahead of Edgas. Dibella took her own sheepskin-covered seat, her hands moving over the controls with the practiced grace of long familiarity. Valentina switched to staring out the window at the motley collection of other VTOLs scattered about the the ramp beyond, mentally bracing herself for the traditional aural onslaught as the Converter came to life. 

She was beginning to wonder exactly how long it had been since she’d last slept, this day just seemed to go on and on. She wondered if she even could sleep, with the thousand and one thoughts fighting for her attention just beyond the mental wall where she’d compartmentalized them. Sooner or later, she’d have to let that wall down. At least there was a long flight ahead where she couldn’t possibly...

She... wondered why the STДLIЙ-SLДPPIЙG  ground had just suddenly dropped away. 

Her head snapped up to the instruments, and it took her mind a moment to comprehend that they were already flying. 

“HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE?” she screamed, “I CAN STILL HEAR MYSELF THINK!”

“You don’t need to yell,” Dibella said calmly, wiggling a finger in her ear. 

“Er, sorry, force of habit,” Valentina shrugged, “but how..?”

Dibella grunted, “three tonnes of soundproofing insulation and triple-paned vacuum-sealed windows.”

“Oh. Ok,” Valentina swiveled her seat around, marveling at the still silence. A phrase she never thought she’d... er... think in a Converter. Edgas already seemed lost in his own thoughts gazing out the window, and so she joined him. 

For a short time, she could see the lights of Kermangrad slowly falling away as they turned north toward... lots of nothing. Soon, even those surrendered to the low clouds, and darkness embraced them. 

***

Valentina awoke with a start, a thousand and one jumbled, confused nightmares falling all over each other as they fled the inrushing daylight. She squinted at it herself, trying to blink the bloated orange sun hanging on the horizon through the window into focus. 

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Dibella said from the pilot’s seat, “again.”

“Mmmph,” said Valentina, pulling herself upright. 

“I’d forgotten how loud you could snore. I was considering going outside to give my ears a break,” Dibella giggled. 

“Pthbthbthbthb,” said Valentina. She rubbed one hand at the base of her skull, trying to dislodge one last stubborn, disjointed nightmare that was trying to clamp onto her spine. Across from her, Edgas was hunched over his tray table, rolling his sparkly little rock around with glassy eyes. 

“Hey,” she reached a hand across to him, “you all right?”

“Hm? Yeah, just...” he sighed, “thoughts...”

She frowned, “did you get any sleep?”

“Don’t think so. Just... anxious to get home, I guess.”

That brought an uneasy nod. She turned around to Dibella, “where are we, anyway?”

“Nearly there, descending through three thousand meters now. We should be...” she tapped at a box, “er, Edgas? Do I have the right frequency, here, 109.3? I’m not getting a localizer on the DEVYN TWO approach.”

“Huh?” Edgas looked up, “oh, yeah, it’s probably still shut off, I’ve had the base incommunicado since... everything...”

Valentina’s neck twitched. Whatever was scratching at her spine pryed at the little space between neck bones. She stood up, peering out the glazed nose. 

“But... what about the VORTAC?” Dibella turned around, “I’m not getting anything there, either. I know nobody uses them anymore, but deliberately shutting off an international navigation aid could get you in a lot of legal trouble.”

“Wait, what?” Edgas moved up beside her, “no, that should still be transmitting, it’s the only thing we left on.”

Dibella let out a low grunt, “it could be this radio, it gets... fussy on long flights. I think it’s got a loose cable. Let me try the other one.”

The thing clawing at Valentina’s neck finally found a breach, and bit down hard, “what is... that?” she said, pointing. 

Out on the horizon, at the place where day eternally met night, a dark, inky smudge stained the sky like old blood. 


***

“Edgas!”

He dropped several meters into a snowdrift, disappearing into it for a moment before bursting out in a loping, snow-choked run. 

“Edgas, no!” Valentina waited only a heartbeat longer before jumping from the airstair herself and plunging into the drift. She had to fight her way up through waist-deep snow to chase after him, “Edgas!”

“Doc!” he cried out, his voice edging on panic, “Lemmy!”

She raised a futile hand, but was overcome by the nightmare scene surrounding them. 

Gone. 

It was all gone. 

Here and there, the twisted, blackened titanium bones of modules rose from craters in the ice, still trailing oily black smoke into the indigo sky. 

“Cookie! Poindexter! Doyle!”

The radio masts lay about in tangled heaps like discarded entrails strewn across the landscape. 

“Lemcott! MacBree! Millo!”

Over where the massive satellite dishes once stood, the plastic domes that had protected them hung from the ruins, melted; corpse-skin draped across gaping skulls with empty, leering eye sockets. 

“Doreyme! Fahso!”

The roar of the Converter’s engines faded away, spooling down to nothing. 

“Olaf! Lumpy!” Edgas’s voice finally shattered in the silence, “anybody!”

Dibella appeared, giving Valentina an anguished look before setting off through the debris herself, “hello? Is anyone out there? Hello!”

Silence. Perfect, unbroken silence save for the hollow wails of these lost hung in the air. Not even the wind stirred. Valentina felt a growing numbness that had nothing to do with the cold. 

Then the silence was shattered by Dibella’s scream, sharp and jagged as it, too tore into Valentina’s skull. 

Edgas turned from where he was, bounding across the snow toward the awful sound. Dibella charged the other way, catching him and spinning him around. 

“Edgas... Edgas, listen to me,” she pulled his face to hers, “do not go over there, do you understand? Come this way, we have to—“ Without a word, he shoved her aside, and ran on toward where she had been. 

Edgas Kerman fell to his knees. 

Before him, twelve bodies lay in a line, face down in the snow. 

Dibella approached, reaching a hesitant hand out to him. He turned and buried his face in her hip, clinging to her like a weeping child. 

“Who?” she heaved through barely controlled sobs, “who could have done such a thing?”

“Layland Kerman,” Valentina hissed through clenched teeth. 

“What? No...” she looked down at Edgas, “no, he is a miracle worker! A hero!”

Valentina didn’t respond. She turned, moving away a short distance up a snowbank to stare at the sun. It hung as it always did, fat and and orange and unchanging, ever on the horizon. She wanted so badly to go to Edgas, embrace him, comfort him; she could feel his heart breaking as if it were her own. Yet the pain and misery flowing from him only melded with her own, feeding a deep, burning rage like fuel to a fire. 

She let it burn. Breathed deep, gave it oxygen. Stoked it into yellow and then pure white. She let it burn away her tears, let its light drive the darkness out. This was not petty wrath, this was fury far beyond a simple, solitary being like herself. This was the indignation of Creation itself. 

She kept her eyes fixed on the blinding sun, drinking it in as if drawing on its nuclear fire. She let it mold and shape her anger, draw it out to a point, form it to something purposeful. A spear of Light, forged in fire and quenched in ice, and honed to a razor’s edge. 

It wasn’t over. It had never been over. It was only just beginning. Everything she had struggled through to this point, everything she had lost, everything she had seen, had only been the opening volleys of a conflict the likes of which she knew she couldn’t yet imagine, yet all... all would soon be laid bare. 

The Revelation was at hand. 

Another word for Revelation... was Apocalypse. 

But then, as Valentina stared off at the sun, a stab of plain, very practical ice gouged through her, running up and down her spine. Nearer, more pressing, and far more urgent. She squinted, stared harder, tried to will her already keen eyes into even greater focus. For a time she dared not even breathe. 

She spun around, “we have to go!”

Dibella looked up at her as she charged forward. 

“We have to go right now!”

“W... what?” Dibella eyes were uncomprehending, “but—“

“No time!” Valentina shot a worried glance back toward the sun, “we have to get out of here, now!”

“But... what about...” Dibella’s eyes fell on the shapes in the snow, “we cannot just...”

“We cannot leave any more trace here than we already have,” Valentina said more gently. 

“But... surely we should—

“No, she’s right. We can’t.”

Edgas Kerman... rose.

In that moment, his features seemed cut from stone, the tears on his cheeks freezing from the inside. His eyes looked out upon the destruction with a power awesome and terrible, his jaw set with force that could grind great boulders to dust.  

... and Valentina had a sickening surety she could feel darkness stirring within him. Where she had blazed with fire, he felt carved from ice. 

“We have to go,” he said, his voice gaining strength with each word, “we’ve already disturbed too much.”

He cast his cold eyes upon the dead, and just for a moment, they softened. 

“Twelve,” he said quietly, “there’s only twelve...”

His head whipped around, “someone’s still here!”

“Or maybe they were taken,” Valentina replied, casting another nervous glance over her shoulder. 

Yet once again he bounded off into the wreckage, “Burdous! Doc! Anybody!”

“No! Edgas, be—!”

“Is anybody—GAK!”

A cord cinched tight around his neck. 

He hung there a moment, gagging, arms flailing as Valentina struggled to hold on. His foot began to slip out. Gritting her teeth, she hauled back and up till her muscles burned. 

They toppled backwards, ending up in a heap in each other’s arms.

“I got you,” she grinned at him, “you all right?”

“Yeah,” he croaked, rubbing at his neck. 

Together, they crawled forward on hands and knees, peering over the edge of a blue abyss. It seemed to stretch down forever, a perfect cylinder melted in the ice. As they did, a chunk broke free, and they watched fall away into the azure-tinted darkness, waiting in silence for the impact that never came. 

“That is a deep hole,” Edgas said in wonder. 

“Indeed,” she gave the hood of his coat a tug, “you are lucky is not snap-on.”

Then something in the shadows stirred, and a weak, modulated voice rose up from the depths, “help me!”

They looked at each other, shifted their positions, “Burdous!” At last they saw him, a black-suited figure somehow clinging to a little alcove in the wall of ice. 

“Help me!” he gave a languid wave, “the power cells are burnt out, I can’t move!”

“Burdous!” Edgas cried out, leaping up, “hang on, buddy!”

“Here, this cable!”

“Right, tie it off over there!”

“Is it long enough?”

“It will have to do.”

“I’ve got a rope, tie yourself off!”

“Got it!”

“Ok, lower me down... careful... almost there... he’s on, pull!”

A moment later, a helmeted head appeared over the edge. All three of them stained to haul Burdous up to safety, the driven gears in his suit whining in protest. Edgas fumbled around his neck, finally releasing the catches that held the helmet on and tossing it aside. 

Burdous’s face was a mask of agony. His eyes were red and puffy, tears and sweat and snot smeared his cheeks. 

“I couldn’t stop them,” he pleaded, his voice catching on every word, “I couldn’t stop them!”

“Is all right,” Valentina brushed sodden hair from his face, “you are okay now.”

His sobs paused as he blinked up at her, “Val?”

She nodded, smiling.

He wrapped his arms around her neck, nearly pulling her over, “I couldn’t stop them! I couldn’t stop them!”

“Is okay now,” she tried to calm him, “I know you did what you could.”

“No!” his face twisted into a new level of misery, more tears spilling down, “I didn’t even try!”

She winced, pulling him up. Then a new wave of fear washed over her as her eyes found the sun. 

“We have to go. We have to go now!” she turned to Dibella, “get it started!”

“Right!”

“Edgas, help me move him.”

“Come on, buddy, up now.”

“Go! Go!”

“What about the helmet?”

“Leave it, just go!”

“Almost there...”

“Move! Move! Move!”

She shoved Burdous through the hatch, “take off, now!

The eight engines screamed their piercing wail, Valentina for a moment hanging from the airstair, her feet dangling in space, before pulling herself aboard and hauling it shut, once more plunging the cabin into still silence. The Converter then clawed its way skyward from a blizzard of its own creation. Still panting, Valentina joined Dibella at the wheel. 

“What do we do now?” Dibella’s voice seemed a hair’s breadth from panic. She tapped the fuel gauge, “I don’t know how far this thing can go. I don’t even know which way to go.”

“It’s the North Pole,” Edgas said from where he lay in a heap in the back, “there’s only one way this thing can go.”

They looked at him. 

“South.”



And the people bowed and prayed,
To the neon god they made,
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming,
And the sign said, 
‘The words of the Prophets are written on the subway walls,
And tenement halls,
And whispered in the sounds of silence.’

 

Edited by CatastrophicFailure

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5 hours ago, qzgy said:

Can confirm its control-right click. Normally though I just select it and press delete.

squee.come faster

*Eye twitches* Control... and right click? Literally about the only thing I didn't try. Grrrr..... Wait... STORY! Heh, something to read. Thanks Catastrohpic! :)

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Yay more content! Oh its a bit depressing. 

I feel as if a very interesting explanation explaining what happened there is coming. Or something like that. And more treachery from Layland. Given 66 and the knowledge that you probably know Star Wars fairly well it can't be a coincidence can it? 

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Aw, you linked the Disturbed version? I'll bet you that there are a few people in the audience here who won't realize that it's a cover. I know I wouldn't have, a few years ago before I obsessively listened to everything recorded by S&G.

Plus, I prefer the original. :P

All that aside, though, I like it. Treachery from Layland... but on the other hand he might actually be working to cure the Whaguggle-itis. I'm starting to wonder if his ambitions are starting to stretch past simple world domination (although I'm not sure that we were ever sure that those were his ambitions in the first place...).

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57 minutes ago, IncongruousGoat said:

Whaguggle-itis.

Motion to make this the official name?

 

PDF has also been updated.

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8 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Edgas Kerman fell to his knees. 

 They will burn.

 

Also, awesome writing, as always. 

 

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17 hours ago, IncongruousGoat said:

Aw, you linked the Disturbed version? I'll bet you that there are a few people in the audience here who won't realize that it's a cover. I know I wouldn't have, a few years ago before I obsessively listened to everything recorded by S&G

It’s a special thing when an artist’s take so embodies a work that it essentially becomes their own, like a certain other cover that may soon be making an appearance. I’m old and cynical, but the first time I heard this version it actually gave me chills, and it’s the version that was playing in my mind as I wrote the words.  :)

Other comments... I can’t comment on. :sealed: There’s a much shorter Interlude coming, and then the opening to Act II will for sure be another monster. In more ways than one. :ph34r:

 

And now we come to the audience participation part of the thing. To assist me with a thought experiment, Can someone who’s better at math than me (which should be easy) tell me how big a ring structure would need to be to simulate 1/3g, at an RPM low enough that it’s inhabitants wouldn’t experience the more unpleasant parts of the Coriolanus effect(which is probably hard)?

Bonus points for describing such a structure as a conical section turning horizontally in a 0.05g gravity field. :confused:

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100m radius should do the job. 1.7 rpm, 18m/s tangential velocity, 0.33g centripetal acceleration. All well within the limits of human comfort apparently and you can probably hand-wave a bit on the question of kerbal comfort if needed.

Okay - I cannot tell a lie. I cheated. But you can cheat too!

https://www.artificial-gravity.com/sw/SpinCalc/

I was asking myself a similar question for reasons and found that handy-dandy site.

Edit: 10/10 for amusing autocorrect error. Unless unduly high angular acceleration really does prompt your kerbals to dress and act like a Roman general, I think the Coriolis effect might be what you were after. :) 

Edited by KSK

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Alright, already I have a couple of things which I think were revealed here. 

1. Leyland Kerman is BACK. Packing fake medicine which will actually brainwash you and make you a mindless drone of the Leyland Corperation

2. All of Edgar's friends are now dead :(. I really liked doc. Also, Edgar seems to freeze instead of flaming, like Valentina. Maybe Valentina will melt his icicle of a soul.

3. NOW THE PARTS AT THE BEGINNING MAKE SENSE! Thank you for giving us insight into the names of the three events which will slowly but surely wipe out Kerbal kind. 

That's all from Alpha's truly superior analyzision (yes I have just made that up) protocols.

*Of course the former is a joke. Do not take offense.

Happy Explosions!

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On 8/31/2018 at 6:14 PM, Thedrelle said:

 They will burn.

Also, awesome writing, as always. 

Fully agree on that second point, respectfully disagree on the first.

They will not burn.

They will freeze. To a state harder than diamond, colder than the trackless wastes between the stars, they will freeze.

Then watch as the scorching fire of a thousand suns, the primeval fury of Creation is unleashed upon them.

And nothing will remain.

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On 9/1/2018 at 3:51 AM, KSK said:

100m radius should do the job. 1.7 rpm, 18m/s tangential velocity, 0.33g centripetal acceleration. All well within the limits of human comfort apparently and you can probably hand-wave a bit on the question of kerbal comfort if needed.

Okay - I cannot tell a lie. I cheated. But you can cheat too!

https://www.artificial-gravity.com/sw/SpinCalc/

I was asking myself a similar question for reasons and found that handy-dandy site.

Edit: 10/10 for amusing autocorrect error. Unless unduly high angular acceleration really does prompt your kerbals to dress and act like a Roman general, I think the Coriolis effect might be what you were after. :) 

Ahh, if I'd got time to read this when I wanted to I'd have beat ya to it! Been using that to cheat on... I mean to make my stories far more credible.

 

As for a conical rotation.... That's a tricky one. All I know is what I see on Issac Arthur's channel, and it didn't exactly go into numbers there. Using the stuff that KSK linked you could probably work out what you needed by the great god MATH! (exclamation mark required by law)... or just fudge it? *shrugs* I'm guessing trig on the slope of the floor, with the normal representing a theoretical perceived force. So angle from vertical would be tan-1 of (natural gravity/provided rotational gravity effect). Note the perceived gravity would be rotational grav/cos (angle)

 

I think. This is just off the top of my head. Normally I draw oodles of stuff out before quoting things. I get through far too many napkins like that.

Edited by Patupi

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If you want a simple cone you'll have percieved acceleration changing with height. The net percieved acceleration should be a simple vector sum of the centrifugal acceleration and the gravitational acceleration, which will necessarily be at right angles to one another. That means you can just use Pythagorean distance. If you want to know the angle of the floor, it'll be the tan¯¹ of the ratio of gravitational and centrifugal acceleration. Or the ratio of centrifugal and gravitational acceleration, depending on how you measure the angle.

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But the angle will be small with .05g. I assumed it wouldn't be worth bothering with... and wasn't what I said tan-1 of natural grav / rotational grav? You'd take the average rotational grav in the center, and probably the actual floor would be a slight curve to accommodate it, but the average value should be OK.

 

Edit: Actually, my assumption that the '.05g relative to .33g perceived makes little difference' may be off if the height of the cone is relatively high... didn't think of that. Most such rotating habitats seem to be thin things so I just assumed. Dangerous sport in Math!

Edited by Patupi

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21 hours ago, KSK said:

They will freeze. To a state harder than diamond, colder than the trackless wastes between the stars, they will freeze.

Then watch as the scorching fire of a thousand suns, the primeval fury of Creation is unleashed upon them.

oh, right, fire and ice, good point. Sorry I Missed that

Popsiclize them!

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On 9/1/2018 at 12:51 AM, KSK said:

Unless unduly high angular acceleration really does prompt your kerbals to dress and act like a Roman general

Wouldn't be the first time I've invoked improper use of kerman-skirts... <_<

And I probably shouldn't but...

On 8/31/2018 at 10:14 AM, Thedrelle said:

They will burn.

 

On 9/2/2018 at 11:37 AM, KSK said:

They will freeze

Spoiler

tenor.gif?itemid=9517476

 

Also:

On 9/1/2018 at 12:51 AM, KSK said:

Math stuff

 

On 9/2/2018 at 5:39 PM, 0111narwhalz said:

Math stuff

 

On 9/2/2018 at 5:46 PM, Patupi said:

Math stuff

So... 100 meters is a nice, round number, any coning so minor as to be insignificant, got it, thanks all. :D

Now, on to the bonus round! All this for blink-and-you-miss-it passing mentions...

KSP wiki page for Minmus

I can only get about as far as calculating the needed surface area before my brain starts running out my ears, anyways:

In a 6.4-scaled system,  with .05g surface grabbity, and a radius of 385ish km, what would the average density of such a body be?

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50 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

In a 6.4-scaled system,  with .05g surface grabbity, and a radius of 385ish4 km, what would the average density of such a body be?

Using computer wizadry and magic, the mass of 6.4x Minmus would be ~ 1.0828378742919x10^21 kg. The volume of that Minmus from that one formula learned in middle school V=(4/3)pi*r^3, the volume of said sphere would be about 2.37x10^17 cubic meters. Density is mass over volume, coming out to (ish) 4565 kg/m3 or (if my conversion is correct) 4.565 g/cm^3. Which seems about right for a moon maybe since the density of the moon is something like 3.3 grams per cc. So I guess its fairly close?

Maybe someone should check those numbers. But that should be correct... probably. I think. I've gotten like 5 different numbers due to various mistakes in calculating this.

If you increase the radius to 385 km or so (Slightly bigger than 6.4x Minmusian radius according to wiki and math), the mass goes up to 1.0885x10^21 and the density to 4.55 grams per cc. Not much of a difference there.

.....

1 hour ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

I can only get about as far as calculating the needed surface area before my brain starts running out my ears, anyways:

Are you building a fake moon or something >_>?

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47 minutes ago, qzgy said:

Using computer wizadry and magic, the mass of 6.4x Minmus would be ~ 1.0828378742919x10^21 kg. The volume of that Minmus from that one formula learned in middle school V=(4/3)pi*r^3, the volume of said sphere would be about 2.37x10^17 cubic meters. Density is mass over volume, coming out to (ish) 4565 kg/m3 or (if my conversion is correct) 4.565 g/cm^3. Which seems about right for a moon maybe since the density of the moon is something like 3.3 grams per cc. So I guess its fairly close?

The massxacceleration is strong with this one. ^_^ I couldn't even find the right dang web page. Tho the number does "seem" low. All stock-size KSP planets are crazy dense, Minmus is even denser than a solid lump of iridium, and I don't think the numbers scale linearly (I could be completely wrong on this), so it would seem 6.4x Minmus should end up denser than an "average" moon. Commence with the brain-running-out-ears-ness. :confused:

58 minutes ago, qzgy said:

Are you building a fake moon or something >_>?

It's no moon... <_<
I'm contractually obligated to say that, now.

Actual spoiler.

Spoiler

The upcoming interlude may feature Minmus. Shhh, tell no one. :ph34r:

 

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26 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

The massxacceleration is strong with this one. ^_^ I couldn't even find the right dang web page.

Thanks! Google is a very useful tool, wouldn't have gotten this far without it.

26 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

I don't think the numbers scale linearly (I could be completely wrong on this), so it would seem 6.4x Minmus should end up denser than an "average" moon. Commence with the brain-running-out-ears-ness. :confused:

According to that calculator, the mass (assuming gravitational acceleration is constant and G doesn't change), scales to the power of two with the radius (mass=(ar^2)/G where a is gravitational acceleration). Volume scales to the power of three (spherical shape, pi and 4/3 are both constants). So.... density should (I think) scale with the inverse of radius linearly... (times some factors but still linearly).

26 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

I'm contractually obligated to say that, now.

yes, you are. Sorry? 

Edited by qzgy

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Interlude: Bodies in Motion

 There is another world, drifting in the indifferent abyss of space. It is a world... of contradiction. By any understood law of nature, it should not exist, even more so than the dozen or so other rocks locked in their eternal dance around a star that also defies reason. And yet, those same laws of nature have been harnessed to prove, beyond any shadow of doubt, that it does exist. It is a world that, at any sort of distance, appears green, due to a peculiar quirk of chemistry as photons bounce off the vaporized volatiles in its wispy exosphere. Yet within that tenuous veil, the surface is a mottled mass of black and white. There is no grey; hard rocks on the surface butt against pure white ices. They tower in near vertical cliffs, split again and again by cryovolcanic eruptions from below, churned into a hellish mass of razor sharp crags and ejected boulders. Yet between these cliffs are vast stretches of glassy, perfectly smooth ice, as if great seas from another age simply froze solid as they were. 

Yet even thee frozen seas are layered in contradiction. They, too, should not exist at all, for it is far too warm here, this near to the sun. While the rest of this world seems bent on tearing itself apart in geologic death throes, these seas live on in tranquil stillness. There is liquid water here, trapped below the ice. The sacred elixir of life, rich in amino acids, granted energy by the spewing hydrothermal vents on the sea floor far, far, far below, and constantly churned by the planetoid raging around it, it should teem with life like the azure and jade jewel ever in the green-tinted sky. 

Yet, like nearly everywhere else, this sea is sterile. For the water instead teems with ammonia and arsenic, toxic salts and cyanide, and a dozen other awful things. It is a world of poison and violence, utterly abhorrent to life. And yet, there is life here, after a fact. 

Stretching out across the featureless ice seas are hectare upon hectare of solar panels, for here is the great frozen forge of a new empire. Power from this forge flows into sprawling industrial complexes, where the tainted water from below is distilled and purified... and then ripped apart.

At the outskirts of the fields of silicon and glass are more curious structures yet, enormous, spindly wheels stretching a hundred meters across or more, set parallel to the surface and slowly rotating, giving the denizens within some semblance of useful gravity. It is these stubborn, adaptable beings who have brought life even to this lethal place. For them, none of this is unusual, it is simply a job. The salary is mediocre, but the benefits are good, and one might say the hazard pay is, well, out of this world. 

From their slowly spinning refuges, the strange little inhabitants of this strange little place set off down long corridors, ant-like, towards equipment rooms and operations centers. Here, they maintain and oversee the largely autonomous machines that do the actual work, or perhaps slink over to one of the many domed pools clustered at the center of their wheeled outposts, to partake in the favored pastime of this unusual place: enjoying the peculiar sensation of swimming in only 5% gravity. 

Elsewhere, reduced to its bare atomic essences, the once lethal water now powers through the long night the very machinery that harvests it, or separated further and liquified, fuels enormous, bulbous tankers ever arcing skyward. Yet even these massive vessels, little more than tiny engines mounted to huge golden fuel spheres, are dwarfed by the craft they tend. If this world is the forge of the new empire, then these greater ships are its arms, reaching out across the cosmos to ensnare its sustenance. 

They drift serenely across the black, easily visible by those below, as if lifeless, or perhaps only sleeping. Long strings of gleaming white spheres, each one sprouting radiators that conjure a vision of bleached, skeletal serpents. At one end is a small collection of modules and trusses, and at the other, is yet another skeleton. A yawning, airy arrangement of metal and carbon fiber that looks something like a rocket engine bell, if it were somehow stripped of its metallic flesh. 

Here, the cadaverous celestial leviathans wait with all the patience of the grave as servants bear their food from the frozen, boiling world below. But even among these titans, there is one still greater. It drifts a little apart from the rest, as if in deference to its sublime majesty. This one is no mere backbone but a complete skeleton, if of a most curious-looking beast. It sprouts not one engine but two, separated a fair distance from the collection of modules in the center by a web of graphene struts and weaved nanotube cables, giving the impression of a manta ray... or perhaps a flower. 

She is the second of her class, and yet the more powerful. Her hydrogen-spiked fission-fragment engines represent the very pinnacle of engineering, the apex of a once-revolutionary design now relegated to a museum. With them, thrust and Isp have been raised to dizzying numbers, tuned and refined even over her sister’s. These, it is said, are engines that could venture to another star. But she, like her sister, has been built for a more mundane task. 

And, also like her sister Belladonna, she bears the name of a flower than can expand the mind, heal the body... or extinguish the soul. 

Presently, a small, winged shuttlecraft clings precariously to one of that cluster of modules, as the inner hatch swings open...

 

***

 

“Heeeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyy, Jack-KAY! cries Sheb Kerman, the crew chief, a wide grin on his face, “How was shore leave, mi broski? You paint Bangkong red?”

“Don’t. Ask.”

Jack Kerman turns aside as he comes through the hatchway, spitting out an enormous wad of gum that sails through the air and into the bin marked SPACE TRASH. He pulls his duffle along with him, then scowls as he scrapes his tongue across his teeth. 

“Huh.” Sheb stares at him a moment, his own tongue fiddling with his shiny gold tooth. He seems to rouse himself, plucks a tablet from the wall and tosses it across the module to Jack, “here, this’ll cheer you up.”

Jack catches it without looking, “eh? What’s this?”

“We got a contract,” Sheb smirks, “Dres Trojan, special express delivery to LKO.”

Jacks eyes scan down the text, “whoah, Class H?”

“Someone wants to see what this babe can do,” Sheb gives the wall a loving pat, “but keep reading.”

Jack does, “five percent heavy metals... 17% silicates.... 78% percent methane hydrate?” he raises a confused eye, “what do they want with that much methane in low orbit?”

“Dunno,” Sheb shrugs, “don’t care. But keep reading,” his grin stretches wider than ever. 

“Holey—!” Jack spits a curse, “are you flarping kidding me?! You shopped this, added some zeroes!”

Sheb raises a pledging hand, “not me, bro. That’s the contract. And guaranteed full shares.”

Jack’s already freakishly large eyes bulge even wider, “I could retire on this!” He looks down again, “I could retire ten times on this!” He looks down again, “I could buy my own ship and pay them to retire for me!”

“Gettin’ paid, bro!”

“Gettin’ PAAAAIIID!” 

The two bump chests... which sends them careening about the cabin, laughing and hollering until Jack breaks into a fit of gaping coughs. He spits another wad toward the trash, raising his hand for a high-five, when a speaker crackles. 

“Uhhh... Shuttle Tydirium here... you guys wanna close the hatch please? We’d like to go home now and we’d rather not depressurize your ship in the process. We’d actually enjoy it, but you’re not worth the paperwork.”

Sheb rolls his eyes and shakes his head. He floats over to the hatch, swings it closed, then hits a few buttons. A gentle hiss of air follows. 

He taps his ear, “hatchway closed and vented, you’re cleared to depart, Shuttle.

Wormwood out.” 

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4 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Wormwood out.” 

This name sounds like Bad Times™.

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