Tag Archives: Milanda Darnassy

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“All right, I believe you.” Danny threw his cards down on the kitchen table, his face wearing a peculiar mixture of disgust and admiration. “You really can make a living playing poker.”

“Was that a general ‘you,’ or a specific ‘you?’” Lakshmi asked with a sly grin. “Because he can, obviously. Me, possibly. You? Clearly not.”

“I think I was supposed to take offense at that,” Danny confided to Joe, “but it’s hard in the face of such irrefutable evidence that she’s right.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” Joe said solemnly, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle the deck with blindingly deft movements of his fingers. “Far too many folk take irrefutable evidence as some kinda challenge.”

“I’ve noticed that, too,” Danny agreed, picking up his teacup. He glanced into it, then at the pot.

“Also empty,” Lakshmi announced, pushing back her chair and picking up the teapot. “I’ll brew us another. Gods know I’ve no shortage of bloody tea. It’s never too early for the hard stuff in this house, but I always feel like some kinda lush, drinking with a teetotaler at the table.”

“Then my work here is done,” Joe announced still making the cards dance.

“Why don’t you let me do that?” Danny suggested, rising and reaching as if to take the teapot from her. “I know where everything is.”

Lakshmi pulled it away, raising an eyebrow at him. “What, and have the guest serve himself in my home? You trying to make me look bad?”

“I don’t have the talent or the energy to pull that off,” he said gallantly. “It’s just that you seem incongruous, to me, serving food. I picture you more with a saber in hand than a kettle.”

“Raiding, pillaging, generally buckling my swash?” she said dryly. “You don’t have the faintest idea what it is I do, huh?”

“Oh, let me have a few romantic illusions,” he said with a roguish grin. “You fit in them so well.”

Lakshmi rolled her eyes, stepping past him toward the sink.

Joe had paused in his shuffling to glance back and forth between them, then finally cleared his throat and dropped his eyes to the deck, resuming. For a few moments, the only sounds in the kitchen were the running of water into the pot and the whisper of his cards. Sanjay was off at school at this hour (theoretically); with the conversation halted, the room suddenly seemed smaller.

“I know you explained about the numbers,” Danny said in a thoughtful tone, before the silence could stretch enough to become really awkward. “I can take your word for that, though I won’t claim to understand it. There’s more to the game, though, isn’t there?”

“How do you mean?” Joe asked, seemingly grateful for the restoration of talk.

“Well, poker is as much about the players as about the cards, right?” Danny slid back into his seat, smiling disarmingly. “At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. I haven’t played since I wasn’t much older than you, and never seriously—as you could probably tell—but it’s sort of famous in song and story for that.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point there,” Joe agreed, nodding. “Bein’ able to see the probabilities like I do makes a big difference, but they only go so far. You gotta read the other people at the table, too. Fact is, most people don’t understand probabilities, so their bets often aren’t rational. Playin’ rationally against ’em ain’t a winnin’ strategy, in most cases.”

Danny leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and studying Joe thoughtfully. The expression was amiable, though, not prying. “I guess you’ve had plenty of opportunity to develop that skill as well, then. You’re all too right; people aren’t rational, about just about anything. In some ways, human behavior is the opposite of math.”

“You’re…more right than you may realize,” Joe said slowly, frowning at his cards now. “But readin’ human behavior… That’s math, again. Way I do it, anyhow.”

“Oh?” Danny cocked his head to the side. “I guess everyone’s methods differ. I’ve had to make a practice of reading people, too, but for me it’s a more intuitive thing.”

“For you, an’ for most people,” Joe agreed, nodding. He finally lifted his eyes to study Danny right back. “My knowledge o’ most people’s strictly secondhand, of course…”

“That’s true for everyone, Joe,” Lakshmi said, setting the kettle on the stove and returning to the table.

“I meant my experience is a bit different,” Joe said with a grimace. “Danny’s right: readin’ people is an intuitive thing, for most folk. It ain’t a skill that comes naturally to me, at all. I guess…there’s a trade-off for bein’ able to do what I do. When I was little, I could do algebra before I could talk. Course, I didn’t talk till I was about seven…”

Lakshmi settled slowly into a chair, now watching Joe intently. Danny just nodded, a gesture of encouragement.

“It was people stuff,” Joe said after a short pause, shrugging. “People are charmed up from birth with certain basic things, the skills we need to be social creatures. You know, speech, reading facial expressions.”

“You…couldn’t read expressions?” Danny asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Not at first. Not naturally.” Joe finally stopped his shuffling and looked up at them with a reminiscent smile. “Folks ’round town reckoned I was just simple-minded. My pa, though, an’ Miss Ames—she was the schoolmarm—they stood by me. They were good folks, both, but to an extent it was just logic. A boy of nine who barely talks but can do logarithms clearly ain’t wrong. A mite peculiar, is all.

“So my pa worked it all out for me. The whole time I was a tyke, he was writin’ to learned folk around the Empire. Those that bothered to answer didn’t have anything to tell ‘im. Finally he got desperate an’ went to visit the elves.”

“Sarasio is right next to a grove, isn’t it?” Danny inquired. “That seems like it would be easier than writing to universities and such.”

Joe chuckled. “You haven’t had a lot of commerce with elves, have you, Danny?”

“A bit, here and there,” Danny said with a shrug and a disarming smile. “I think very few people have a lot of commerce with elves.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly. Elves come to you, if there’s to be any coming; you go into a grove uninvited an’ the likeliest reaction is a polite but firm ‘go away.’ Keep comin’ in, an’ you’re like to have the point made with arrows. The elves were friendly-like with a few folks around town, but in general people knew not to go into the woods unless invited. My pa did, though. I guess whatever he said to the scouts made an impression, cos after three attempts they went and fetched a shaman for him to talk to, ‘stead of shootin’ him.

“Anyhow, apparently whatever my deal is, the elves knew about it. It’s somethin’ that happens from time to time in most races, it turns out. The shaman didn’t have any fixes for my pa; the way elves do it is let the kid grow up natural, however it works best for them. By the time they’re a hundred or so, they usually work it out so they can interact normal enough with other folk, an’ the tribe’s usually pretty patient with ’em.”

“Wow,” Lakshmi said wryly. “I guess if you live forever, you’ve got no reason to be in a hurry.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah. The shaman at least set Pa on the right path, though. The dwarves have some o’ the same kinda knowledge, an’ they actually do active research, lookin’ for treatments an’ whatnot.”

“The Five Kingdoms are renowned for their universities,” Danny agreed, nodding.

“Yep. Pa fired off another round o’ letters, an’ the dwarves were more responsive than the Imperials, funny enough. Took a little back an’ forth, but he finally got in touch with somebody who was studyin’ this particular thing, Professor Vyrnsdottir at Svenheim Polytheoric. She gave Pa the best advice she could, which is where things started lookin’ up for me.

“Pa ordered textbooks, next. Anatomy, an’ especially facial muscles. An’ then he made a game of it with me. We got a mirror, an’ the books, an’ made faces, worked out what every emotion did, how it made the muscles in the face respond. Then started workin’ on body language in general. As I started gettin’ a handle on one thing, we’d branch out to somethin’ else I was havin’ trouble with. Metaphoric speech, for example; we prairie folk love our similies, an’ I never could make heads or tails of ’em as a kid.” He grinned. “But pa got me thinkin’ of it like scaled-up language. Like how the letter ‘e’ is a symbol for a sound, an’ how the word ‘tree’ is a symbol for the thing itself. All language is parallel, you just gotta look for the correspondence. It comes pretty natural to most folk; I have to stop an’ think on it some, but thanks to Pa an’ the Professor, I manage just fine these days. One o’ her last letters said I must be a mild sort of case, to pick it up so fast; most o’ those she worked with took a lot longer to sort it out. Course, she also said the way I deal with numbers ain’t typical, either, so that was probably a factor. Might even be a separate condition.”

“That’s quite ingenious,” Danny marveled. “He worked out how to reduce human interaction to…equations. In terms a child would understand. Incredible!”

“Took the intuitive part out of it,” Joe agreed, nodding again, “made it math, an’ I finally started to figure it all out. He got Miss Ames in on it, an’ by the time I was eleven I could read expressions almost as well as anybody. I reckon I do just fine now. It’s habit, by this point, second nature. Differently, though. There’s things I miss, and then again, things I catch that others don’t seem to notice. I’m analyzing faces intellectually where most people sorta feel what an expression means. It’s different, but it works. At the poker table in particular, it becomes just an extension of the game.”

“Your father was a scholar himself?” Danny asked quietly.

Joe stared at the table. “A rancher. We raised cows.”

“He sounds like a truly remarkable man.”

“He truly was,” Joe said softly. “Him an’ Miss Ames both. Neither one of ’em survived the troubles in Sarasio.”

“Aw, Joe,” Lakshmi whispered.

Joe cleared his throat, and shook himself as if brushing off the memories. “Ah, well, that’s all history. With regard to more recent events, Danny, an’ speakin’ of Svenheim… I know your business here’s a secret an’ all—”

“One he’s in my house to protect, Joseph Jenkins,” Lakshmi said firmly. “Don’t you go digging, boy. You’re getting bad habits from Sanjay.”

Joe grinned at her. “I promise to pry with the utmost discretion, Shmi. Honesty I ain’t interested in your personal affairs, Danny, but in general terms, would whatever you’re hidin’ out from have to do with dwarves?”

“Dwarves?” Danny raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I suppose I ought to clam up totally, but frankly… No. I have no dwarf issues, unless something very surprising has happened at home while I’ve been away. Why do you ask? To my knowledge, hardy anyone has trouble with dwarves. They are remarkably inoffensive people as a rule.”

“Some friends an’ I were involved in a dust-up outside the city last week,” Joe said, now frowning. “With dwarves. Apparently at least some were actual agents of Svenheim. Imperial Intelligence came an’ put a stop to it, then warned us all to keep our mouths shut…”

“And yet, here you are, chattering about it with a total stranger,” Lakshmi said in exasperation.

“Now, I’ll allow Sharidan Tirasian’s government seems more beneficent than most,” Joe drawled, “but it’s still a government, an’ I’ve had brushes with it I didn’t like. A hungry bear in the woods an’ a trained circus bear with a silk ribbon ’round its neck will both maul you just as dead, in the wrong circumstances. A bear’s a bear, an’ a king’s a king.”

“You really have mastered those metaphors,” Danny said, grinning.

“And it occurs to me not for the first time that you’re half-Eserite in mindset already,” Lakshmi added. “You ever think about apprenticing with the Guild?”

“Nope,” Joe said immediately. “I’m on pretty good terms with Bishop Darling; from that I’ve learned pretty much what I need to, I think.”

“Don’t judge us all by him,” she muttered darkly.

Danny shook his head. “That guy really gets around.”

“Yes,” Lakshmi agreed. “That is what he does exactly.”

“Point being,” Joe continued, “I respect the Empire up to a point, but I am not in a hurry to bow an’ scrape when it comes barkin’ orders at me. For example, when instructed to keep my mouth shut about the Silver Throne’s secrets at the expense of bein’ left in the dark about who might be shootin’ at me next, I consider that a reason to make my inquiries discreetly, not suspend them.”

“Attaboy,” Lakshmi said with a grin.

Danny shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Joe. At this point I’m not even sure when I’ll be heading home, but when I do I can put out a few feelers. As it stands, though, I find the idea of Svenheim agitating in Tiraas like that rather hard to credit. It seems…out of character.”

“That is pretty much my assessment,” Joe replied, “an’ exactly the reason for my concern. It’s when people start actin’ out of character that you gotta start watchin’ ’em more closely.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Danny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Intuitively or logically, one can always develop a sense of another person. It’s when they start proving your sense wrong that you frequently wind up in trouble.”

Lakshmi pursed her lips, studying him as if she’d never seen him before, which he affected not to notice. Behind them, the teapot began to whistle.


“So for all these years, those three dryads have lived comfortably alone, with only you to look after them. They have their very own tiny world, and seem content to stay here—which I suspect has a lot to do with having a suave Avatar who knows how to push their runes. Which makes it all the more fascinating that I suddenly have a dryad wandering the halls of the facility above, unsupervised.”

“Hawthorn has always been the most assertive of the three,” Avatar 01 said blandly, wearing his customary smile. He hovered in the display attached to the floating teleporter door; Milanda took a step to remain at hand as the planetoid slowly rotated out from under her. “They are none of them terribly inquisitive by human standards, likely a deliberate design choice on Naiya’s part to keep them separate from sapient societies. Her alone, however, I have several times had to dissuade from leaving this chamber. The teleporter, as you have observed, is not programmed to block their passage as it is Walker’s.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “And you have no idea why this would suddenly be?”

“In this case,” the Avatar replied, still with his neutrally pleasant expression, “her interest was piqued by your recent comings and goings. Understandably, I’m sure. Things here have been rather routine since Theasia’s day. The Nexus, fortunately, is equipped with the most advanced fabricators available, able to produce the stock for their hunting, as well as replenish the flora. The girls customarily do not damage plants, but some of their games can become rather…rough.”

Milanda blinked, momentarily forgetting what she’d been about to say. “Wait, your machines can make plants and animals?!”

“Only clones,” he said, as if this were of no significance. “Building an actual ecosystem is a rather more complex task—the life forms around you are mostly descended from specimens imported by the Empire. But yes, it suffices for necessary ecological spot repair, so to speak. I project that at the current rate of incident and replenishment, it will be roughly two hundred years before inbreeding becomes problematic among the local biosphere.”

“The more I learn,” she marveled, “the more I wonder what life must be like on this Earth by now…”

“This particular technology was not available on Earth, or to the Infinite Order for some time after their arrival here. It requires Naiya’s transcension field to operate. I am, of course, unable to say what conditions exist on that or any other world at present. Even my data regarding the majority of this one is severely limited by my present situation.”

“I see. How fascinating. And how also fascinating that even with the great skill at distraction you just demonstrated, you weren’t able to persuade Hawthorn to stay out of the teleporter.”

She stepped again to keep pace with him, and for once, the Avatar was silent. Milanda generally found his expression harder to read even than the conniving courtiers with whom she was accustomed to contending; now, though, he looked so overtly thoughtful that he had to have been doing it deliberately.

“Truthfully, Milanda, in this instance, I gently suggested that it might be an appropriate time for her to explore.”

“I see,” she said without surprise. The situation unfolding in the security hub when she had left had seemed too important to interrupt with matters of petty technicality, but Milanda had given it thought during her very short trip here. It had not been too short to come to a conclusion which had just been confirmed. “And you chose to break your decades-long policy right when I’m in the middle of dealing with a crisis, not to mention trying to cope with the revelations I can’t seem to stop tripping over down here. A lady could take that amiss, Avatar.”

“I assure you, Milanda, my intentions are not to do you or your government any harm. If I judged Hawthorn’s presence at large in the facility a danger, I would of course have discouraged her again. She is not unintelligent, but she and her sisters are distractable and lack social sophistication; you are correct that it would not have been difficult.”

“So you’re saying this is part of your attempt to help?” she said skeptically.

“Perhaps not directly, but in the long run, I believe the expanded possibilities this raises will serve you well.”

“Let me explain a bit about my position,” she said flatly. “I am an Imperial courtier—a politician, if not an actual government functionary. I am necessarily somewhat accustomed to being jerked around and fed meaningless flowery doublespeak. However, I’ve just learned that the last time this happened, it involved someone knowingly sending me into a nest of dryads without warning me. So if I seem less than patient with it just now, know that it isn’t personal.”

“Understood,” he replied politely. “In the same spirit, allow me to clarify my own position. I do not serve your government, either by compulsion or choice. My presence and activities here are in pursuit of the final directive given to me by my maker, Tarthriss, before this facility’s disconnection from all others: to work toward the betterment of humanity on this world. All of humanity, meaning all sapient life here, which is descended from human stock. I chose to cooperate with Theasia’s agenda because I saw utility in it; I have aided Sharidan more enthusiastically because I consider him and his government to be even more benign. However, I have a very long perspective relative to humans, and I understand the essential nature of societies. Because I consider the current administration of the Tiraan Empire by and large advantageous to humanity does not mean I suffer any illusions that every subsequent one will be. Eventually, one will come which I will find myself obliged to thwart if possible.”

“By,” she said softly, “for instance, neutralizing the Hands of the Emperor.”

“Separated as I am from the facility’s systems,” he said diplomatically, “I am not in a position to do so, for the same reason I cannot more directly assist you in repairing what has gone wrong with that transcension network.”

Milanda did not bother to point out his dissembling. He had been physically pulled from the facility’s systems and re-installed down here; it could be done in reverse, especially since he had three all-but-invincible individuals here who by this point who undoubtedly saw him as family.

And, she suddenly realized, there was now a fourth sister at large in the facility above. One who knew how to use the computers. Who was now forming a relationship with one of the dryads. For just a moment, she regretted helping that develop. Just a moment, though. Politics and strategy were all very well, but she wasn’t and refused to become heartless.

Milanda fancied herself quite good at masking her own expression, but the Avatar seemed to see something in her face which merited further explanation.

“I have run several simulations since your last visit, and while I will need more data directly from the systems above to make a definitive judgment, I consider it very probable that we will not be able to repair or replace the Hand system with only the resources we currently have. At the very least, not with those resources in their present configuration. When it was established, the dryads helped, as did I—from the facility’s main system. Removing me from here and replacing me there will interrupt the connection, perhaps fatally. Restoring it would be a very time-consuming process, at best. If your intention is to effect a repair, we will require additional help, Milanda. Someone extremely versed in fae magic, and either able to interact with Walker or to use the computers with her level of familiarity.”

“There is no one alive who meets that description,” she said testily.

“In fact, there are,” he replied with a wry note in his voice, “but I rather think introducing a kitsune to this situation would not simplify it, assuming you could attract one’s attention at all. Walker cannot come here because the security protocols we installed bar her from using teleporters—an even more important provision, if you are actively preparing to use them to access the city above. Beginning to acquaint her with the dryads is a stopgap measure, but I think it will be an important one. They can form a necessary link. We will also, however, require a fae user of great skill.”

She heaved a sigh. “The Empress has been working with an elven shaman… I’ll ask how trusted he is. Time is a factor; there have been no major blow-ups caused by the Hands and since we shut the Church’s operator out they won’t get any worse, but they’re less than stable in their present state.”

“Understood. If I can do anything to assist, you need only ask.”

Milanda nodded. “That was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about. Since I have some time while the computer maps the city and Walker and Hawthorn catch up, there’s another matter. You told me to come back and see about learning to use the additional abilities I gained from this…quasi-Hand thing. Thus far I haven’t noticed anything but strength, coordination, and an improved skill at functioning without sleep.”

He smiled. “The Hands tend to develop somewhat idiosyncratic powers, and you, I suspect, will be an even more unique case. There are some baselines, though, and they require additional intervention to activate. Sufficient time has passed, I believe, for you to stabilize and adapt; it should be safe now to proceed. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, however. This would be easier with Hawthorn present.”

“What do you mean?” she asked warily.

“If you would be good enough to proceed north to the Nexus, I shall demonstrate.”


“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way to do it!” Apple said in exasperation, after several minutes of increasingly unproductive argument.

“It’s nice to see you again and all, Milanda, but I’m starting to take this personally,” Mimosa added, folding her arms.

“It’s not that at all!” Milanda said hastily. “It’s just… Well, it’s hard to…”

“Girls, I realize this is counter-intuitive for you,” the Avatar said soothingly from a nearby panel, “but we have discussed this, and I know you understand the issue. Milanda is definitely not trying to insult you.”

“I’m really not!” Milanda assured them.

The dryads exchanged a skeptical look, then sighed in unison.

“Yeah, all right, I know,” Apple said. “But you’ve clearly got an emotional aversion, here, so maybe you can understand why having someone put her foot down and insist she doesn’t want to kiss us can hurt our feelings a little.”

“Of course,” Milanda agreed, nodding. “You’re right; I’m sorry. I definitely didn’t want to offend you. I apologize for being thoughtless.”

“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” Mimosa said somewhat grudgingly. “She’s still right, though; we don’t know how else to do this. There’s not any other way. It’s not like the original granting, that the Avatar can change because we wanted to change the end result. You want to unlock your powers—fine. That’s just like what we do with the Hands. And this is how.”

“Besides, it’s just kissing,” Apple added with renewed asperity. “If you don’t wanna make love, I mean, fine, but really. I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about this.”

“Okay, now, that part I sorta get,” Mimosa said, giving her a sardonic look. “Because somebody went on and on about how passionate and intimate it could be…”

“I was trying to make the prospect more attractive!” Apple exclaimed, throwing her arms up. “Excuse me if she reacted completely backward to what I meant!”

“Oh! Is this an…orientation thing?” Mimosa turned an inquisitive expression on Milanda. “I’ve read that’s a thing. Are you, just, like, specifically un-attracted to women? Because of it helps, we’re really more quintessentially feminine than biologically female.”

“I grew up in Viridill,” Milanda said wryly.

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa replied, nonplussed. “I don’t know where that is or why it’s relevant…”

“It’s the seat of Avenist culture! It’s practically traditional for girls to… You know what, never mind. It’s not important.”

“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” the dryad huffed.

“Hey, wait a sec,” Apple interjected, also peering closely at Milanda now. “Is it a monogamy issue? You’re only wanting to have sex with Sharidan? Because I should really let you know, if you hadn’t caught on by now, all three of us have. Y’know, sort of regularly. Almost every time he visits.”

“Yeah, with the Hands it’s just business,” Mimosa added, beaming. “We like Sharidan! A lot.”

“We are…hardly monogamous,” Milanda said wearily. Her life with Sharidan was certainly nothing she had daydreamed about as a child; she was his most frequent lover, at least of late, but had never had any illusions about being his only one. And honestly she had never felt jealous over it. Their arrangement was not for everybody, but it worked. Some women accepted it as the price of luxury and power; Milanda actually felt very satisfied with the peculiar family to which she now belonged. She wasn’t about to try explaining the matter to these two, however. She wasn’t absolutely sure she understood it herself, at least not well enough to put into words.

For that matter…what was she arguing for? There was the principle of the thing—she was being asked to extend a very personal intimacy, if, as Apple argued, a relatively small one. Besides, these were dryads. Everybody who knew anything about anything knew not to get seduced by dryads. Granted, these two were very unlikely to try to harm her, and anyway she had physical protection from them now, but still. What they were suggesting was that she step into the role of the fool who got killed in the first act of a bard’s story.

“All right,” she said, rolling her shoulders. “You’re right—I’m sorry for overreacting, it was just instinctive. This needs to be done, and it’s not so bad.”

“Wow,” Apple said tonelessly. “Way to sweep us off our feet.”

Milanda sighed and rubbed at her face with both hands. “…I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this. Probably not a surprise I’m ruining it…”

“Oh, relax,” Mimosa said in a low purr that made her more apprehensive than interested, slinking forward. “She’s just teasing you. And you, knock it off—don’t make it harder on her. Now, I know you know how to kiss, Milanda.” The dryad drew close, sensually twining her arms around Milanda’s neck; the skilled intimacy of the gesture only heightened her unease. “We will handle the magic. You just…enjoy.”

“Enjoy,” she said, drawing in a breath. “Okay. Right. I can do that.”

Mimosa leaned forward, playfully rubbing the tips of their noses together, before angling her head to bring her lips toward Milanda’s. Slowly… Parting them just faintly, drawing near enough that Milanda could feel her warm breath. As if they were actually lovers, and not play-acting some ridiculous farce.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

She finally followed the prompt and moved the last inch, pressing her mouth firmly against Mimosa’s, and tentatively placing her hands on the dryad’s waist.

It was over in a few seconds, Mimosa drawing back first. Milanda opened her eyes to find the dryad staring at her from inches away with a profoundly unimpressed expression.

“Okay, perhaps I should clarify, here,” she said. “This is fae magic. It’s all about emotion. For this to work, you need to be in a relaxed state, and feel the sensations, the feelings that come naturally from being in someone’s arms and being kissed. This thing that you’re doing right here? This is not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said miserably. “I am new at sex magic! And I wasn’t warned, if I’d had time to prepare…” If she’d had time to prepare, she’d have worked herself into an even greater state of tension. The Avatar had been very wise not to forewarn her, she realized.

Mimosa rolled her eyes. “This hardly qualifies as sex.”

“Okay, take it easy,” Apple said soothingly from behind Milanda. A moment later, she felt hand brushing through her hair, and then the other dryad’s fingertips were resting on her temples. “C’mon, Mimosa, we’ve got methods for this, too. It’d be easier if Hawthorn would come help, but we’ve had to coax some of the Hands. I’m pretty sure I can do the role by myself.”

“My name,” Mimosa said haughtily, “is Tris’sini.”

“Yeah, yeah, less talk, more kissing.”

“Um,” Milanda said uncertainly, trying to turn her head despite the gentle but firm fingers holding it in place. “How does this helfmmr?”

Mimosa pushed in far more aggressively this time, and Milanda actually sighed against her lips in exasperation.

Exasperation, and…

Somehow, awareness and thought fell away. She was peripherally aware of Apple’s hands on her head, and also of Apple’s very presence in a way that seemed strange, but most of her perception was filled by the other dryad, the one in her arms. Mimosa’s hot breath, her soft, questing lips, the firm grip of the arms around her, the dryad’s hand cradling the back of her head. A warm, lithe, powerful body pressing against her own, silky skin and feathery hair under her questing hands, the strength and softness of—

It was very fortunate she had the both of them effectively holding her upright, because when an entirely new set of senses suddenly exploded into being in her mind, Milanda shrieked and collapsed.

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12 – 35

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“Hawthorn!” Milanda moved as quickly as she could across the room without rushing excessively. She wasn’t used to dealing with panicking people, but it seemed like basic sense not to provoke an instinctive reaction that would make it worse. “Hawthorn, stop. Listen to me!”

The dryad had apparently been exploring the room in their absence; at any rate, she was nowhere near the door now. This meant Milanda didn’t have to chase her back out into the hall, but unfortunately, also that her panicked retreat involved the knocking over of a lot of ancient storage, strewn about as it was. Hawthorn’s wide eyes were glued to Walker, who thankfully had the sense to remain on the upper level and not spook her further by approaching. Of course, that ruled out seeing where she was going; Milanda winced as the careening dryad passed dangerously close to the quetzal’s tank, but fortunately that disaster was averted, and she finally backed up against the wall a good six yards from the door she’d presumably been trying for.

“W-w-what is that?!” Hawthorn stammered, totally unlike the brash, overconfident dryad who had accosted Milanda on the tiny planet below. The arm she pointed at Walker was actually shaking.

“Hawthorn, it’s okay. Look at me.” Milanda slowed as she reached her, carefully approaching from the side, so she remained in view but wouldn’t be seen as threatening. Handling the dryad like a skittish horse seemed the best bet, given her limited experience. She finally got close enough to touch, and very gently pushed the outstretched arm down. Hawthorn was easily strong enough to pick up and throw her one-handed, but offered no resistance. “Look at me,” she insisted, gently placing a hand on the side of the dryad’s face.

Finally, slowly, Hawthorn obeyed, tearing her eyes from Walker to stare at Milanda.

“Be calm, and think for a moment,” Milanda said soothingly. “You’re a dryad—practically indestructible and favored by Naiya. You have nothing to be afraid of. And her? She has no weapons, no claws even, no magic. Think about why she frightens you.”

Hawthorn’s gaze cut back to Walker, who was still standing in place by the stairs, and a shudder rippled through her. She squeezed her eyes shut, mouth working soundlessly in terror.

“Think, Hawthorn,” Milanda pressed. “You’re the smart one; I realized that as soon as I met you and your sisters.” That, finally, got her full attention; Hawthorn’s eyes opened again, and sharpened, some perception cutting through the mindless fear. Milanda almost felt bad for manipulating her like that. Any courtier in Tiraas would have torn into her like a shark for employing such ham-fisted flattery, but against even the simplest of such wiles, the dryad was totally unprepared. “You know nobody’s a threat to you, and there’s nothing in view that says you’re in danger. So ask yourself why you feel afraid. Think about it.”

At last, Hawthorn’s expression changed. The tension did not leave her posture, but she frowned in thought, first at Milanda, and then turning her gaze back on Walker. That caused another shudder to wrack her, but she held her focus this time.

“I don’t…know,” she said finally. “But…I feel it. It’s instinct, Milanda. Trust me, I know about instincts, and mine are never wrong. Something is bad about that…person! She’s evil.”

“Define ‘evil,’” Walker said in a mild tone. “Really, I’m not being glib. I’m curious what your understanding of the concept is.”

“You,” Hawthorn said in a much closer approximation of her customary acid tone. “Milanda, what are you doing with that thing?!”

“She is my friend,” Milanda said firmly, “and there’s an explanation.”

“For you being friends with evil?!”

“For why she makes you think she’s evil,” Milanda insisted. “It’s a long story, but you can handle it. I’m just glad it’s you; having to explain this to one of the others would be hard.”

“Well…okay,” Hawthorn said after a pause, grudgingly mollified. Really, it was like maneuvering a child. “I guess I can listen. After all, you’re right,” she added, tossing her head and fixing a glare on Walker. “I’m a dryad. She’s not dangerous to me. And don’t you forget it, you…you thing!”

“I will keep it in mind,” Walker promised in a serious tone. Milanda gave her a warning look, receiving only an innocent smile in reply.

“All right, it’s like this,” Milanda said with a sigh, turning back to Hawthorn. “You already know that everything you are, everything about you, was designed by your mother, right?”

“Of course,” Hawthorn said haughtily. She still practically vibrated with nervous tension, but at least her personality had reasserted itself over her panic now. “We’re her final and greatest creations. After she tried everything else, Mother ended with the dryads, because we’re perfect.”

“Yes, well,” Milanda said diplomatically, “I’m sure that—”

“Actually, she’s not wrong, given her frame of reference,” Walker cut in. “Whatever Naiya was trying to achieve, specifically, she stopped with the dryads. Logically, that suggests she considered the work completed at that point.”

Milanda studied her carefully for a moment. Walker was lounging nonchalantly against the railing by the stairs, looking perfectly at ease and not at all as if she had just proclaimed herself an essentially lesser creation of her own mother.

The thought occurred to Milanda that she knew only the broadest strokes of Walker’s life. Valkyries were all but inscrutable except to Vidians, and Milanda was certainly was not one of those. Apparently the kind of thing she was now was totally unique, and the result of being forcibly removed from her native plane of existence by some incompetent warlock. And, of course, there was her existence before the Pantheon’s fall, working under Naiya in some capacity. Whatever her social experiences, it seemed she had no difficulty controlling herself well enough to manipulate a panicky dryad.

And yet, she’d been so alone, for so long. It was heartbreaking to consider. It was, however, also a stern reminder that she did have an impressive capacity for manipulation.

“Right,” Milanda said aloud, turning back to Hawthorn. “Well, the truth is, what you’re feeling is something Naiya placed in you, in all the dryads. She… Well, frankly, we don’t know why; I’m certainly not going to guess at the motivations of a goddess. But for whatever reason, Naiya gave you and your sisters that instinctive aversion so that you would keep away from Walker.” She glanced back again before continuing. “And her sisters.”

“Well…maybe that’s enough for me,” Hawthorn said, scowling. “Mother is never wrong.”

“She’s been wrong with some fair frequency, that I know of,” Walker said with a sigh.

At that, Hawthorn visibly bristled. “Now, see here—who are you to criticize a goddess? That’s my mother you’re talking about!”

Walker finally straightened up and descended the stairs. Immediately, the hostility leaked from Hawthorn’s posture, replaced by resurgent wariness; she pressed herself back against the wall again. Seeing this, Walker stopped at the base of the steps, coming no closer.

“I’m entitled as you are,” she said simply. “That’s our mother you’re talking about.”

Milanda repressed a wince. She’d been planning to work up to that revelation a bit more gently…

Hawthorn’s eyes widened, and moments later, narrowed. “You’re lying.”

“You weren’t the first,” Walker said, nodding at Milanda, who had opened her mouth to interrupt. The dryad wasn’t moving, though; she decided to trust that Walker knew what she was doing, and kept silent for the moment. “In fact, Hawthorn, we weren’t the first. There was one previous generation of daughters of Naiya that I know of.”

“You’re lying,” Hawthorn insisted, balling her fists.

“Why would I lie?” Walker asked mildly. “I mean no offense, but you can’t give me anything I want. I have no motivation to deceive you, Hawthorn. You and I cannot harm each other; since you’ve decided to come out and visit me here, it seems to me we ought to…get to know each other.”

Hawthorn shook her head frantically. “That’s not possible, you’re…”

“Hawthorn.” Milanda gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you let her tell her story? I listened to it, and it made sense to me, but maybe you know something I don’t. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts after you know the whole thing.”

“Well…all right,” the dryad said grudgingly. “If it’ll help you, I guess.”

“There’s not so much to tell,” Walker said with a shrug. “Naiya created three generations of daughters… And after each was taken from her, she tried again. All of us were slightly different; you and your fellow dryads were the last. As I said before, I guess that means she finally managed to make what she’d intended.”

Hawthorn squinted suspiciously at her. “And so she made us…naturally afraid of you? That means she wanted us to stay away from you.”

“Yes, I guess it does,” Walker agreed.

“Hah!” the dryad said triumphantly, pointing at her again. “And that proves that you’re evil!”

Milanda sighed.

“Actually,” Walker said, turning to gaze at the wall, “I think she just didn’t want to lose you.”

Hawthorn’s pointing finger wavered. “Lose… What? What do you mean?”

“Understand that you are the first to come along after the rest of the Elder Gods fell,” Walker explained. “Back then… Mother wasn’t the unchallenged power she is now. She had to deal with others meddling in her business. Her first generation of daughters, the kitsune, were just too damn powerful. They kept getting into things the other gods wanted nobody involved in, causing change on a scale that only gods should be able to. Nothing the gods did could keep them out, or keep them contained. Finally, they got tired of it and were going to destroy them. Mother pleaded, convinced our elder sisters to go live on an island chain on their own and stay away from everyone else, and convinced the gods to allow this. They accepted that compromise, and…there it was. She had to say goodbye to her first children.”

Hawthorn swallowed heavily, but said nothing.

“When she made my sisters and I,” Walker continued, “she was…different. At first I honestly thought she didn’t like us, she was so detached and cold. But one by one, my sisters, the valkyries, would slip away to Sifan to talk with our older sisters, when we could, and gradually they made things clearer. I got to spend a fair amount of time with them, and… It helped me understand. Mother grieved their loss, still. I believe she was afraid to get too close to us, in case she lost us, too.”

“And…” Hawthorn paused to swallow again. “Did she?”

Walker sighed heavily. “Yes. And for the same reason. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of that was due to the fact that we didn’t respect the kitsune quarantine. Whether things would have been different if we’d just stayed away from them. But we didn’t, and I suspect some of the other gods knew it, and it influenced their decision. Oh, we weren’t as powerful as the kitsune, by far. There was a fairly limited range of things we could do. Valkyries are reapers, you see; Mother made us specifically as a control measure. She was a caretaker, a custodian, responsible for the world and the life on it, which the other gods were constantly messing up with their projects and experiments. They’d frequently just abandon things they’d lost interest in, leaving them to wander around the land. Rampage across it, in most cases. So she made us, extensions of herself, empowered to dispense death. We could end any life with a touch.”

“Perhaps,” Milanda suggested in the pause which followed, “it wasn’t that Naiya deliberately planted this aversion in the dryads, then. It sounds like you’re just…opposite. It might simply be natural.”

“Mother knows what she’s doing,” Hawthorn said, but without any real conviction. She was now staring at Walker with an unreadable expression.

“Well, in the end,” Walker said with a shrug, “the other gods decided they couldn’t have this. We broke the rules by existing, you see; they liked to make their creations fight, to test them against each other. Mother had made us to clean up the mess, and the fact that we could easily destroy anything living without being at all challenged by them was just unacceptable. This time, they didn’t wait for her to act, or even warn her. They just snatched us up and hurled us into the dimension of chaos.”

“That’s awful,” Hawthorn said, clearly aghast.

“It was definitely no fun,” Walker agreed with a wry smile. “If not for Vidius going well out of his way to help us, I don’t think we would have lasted long. It wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart, of course; he gained us as powerful servants, and earned Mother’s favor. Both were very necessary for the Pantheon when they finally overthrew the Elders. But even for all that, he’s been a good boss, mostly. He’s easy to like. And we were mostly isolated, yes, but we had each other, at least. Plus, Vidius made it so his most high-ranking clerics could interact with us, so we kept at least that much of a tie to the world.”

“Wait,” Hawthorn said, suddenly frowning. “That doesn’t make sense. If you’re supposed to be working for Vidius in the…whatsit…why are you here?”

“She was yanked out of it,” Milanda said quietly.

“That was even worse than the first time,” Walker said, folding her arms. “I was…changed by it. I have no control over the powers Mother gave us anymore, Hawthorn. Anything living dies, just from being close to me.”

Hawthorn blinked at her, then frowned at Milanda.

“Yes,” Milanda said, nodding. “That was why I came to you for help. I need her to help me deal with all this…equipment. It belonged to the Elder Gods, and she’s basically the last person alive who knows how it works. And I needed your blessing to be able to be near her without being killed by her.”

“It has all been so fortuitous one could suspect divine intervention,” Walker said with a small smile. “I’m the only one who could help her use the machines. You are the only ones who could help her to deal with me. And here we both are, conveniently right at hand.”

“It’s not a total coincidence, after all,” Milanda pointed out. “She’s been imprisoned in here for years, Hawthorn. Because it’s got the only cells that can hold her, and because the Hands of the Emperor were the only beings who could safely capture her. Because of the protection you and your sisters gave them.”

Hawthorn blinked, looked at Milanda, then looked at Walker, then slowly frowned. “You’re…telling the truth.”

“If I wanted to trick you,” Walker said sardonically, “I like to think I’m clever enough to have come up with a less convoluted and more believable story than that. Sadly, the truth is under no obligation to make sense.”

“You’re…my sister,” the dryad breathed, again staring at Walker.

Strangely, Walker looked suddenly uncomfortable. “I…well. I suppose so. Mother made us all by different methods, of course. And for different purposes. But…it’s not as if any of us has a father, so yes, I guess we’re sisters. If I even still am…what I was,” she added bitterly, lifting a hand to scowl at the back of it. “I don’t even look like I did.”

Finally, Hawthorn took a step forward, way from the wall and toward Walker, then stopped, staring. A frown fell over her features—a thoughtful one at first, but one which quickly grew increasingly angry.

“So what you’re telling me,” she said with an ever-deepening scowl, “is those Hands of the Emperor locked our sister in a prison using our power, and had all this going on right over our heads all these years, and didn’t even bother to tell us?”

Milanda winced. “Oh. Well, I suppose…”

“Ooh!” The dryad stomped so hard Milanda felt the vibrations through the floor. She more than half expected to see an indentation, but apparently the Infinite Order had built this place of tougher stuff than that. She did take the precaution of stepping away from Hawthorn, though, seeing her fists ball up and begin to actually quiver with contained fury. “That…that makes me so mad! I can’t believe I had sex with all those guys! Most of ’em weren’t even that good!”

“You should tell them that,” Walker said solemnly, “first chance you get.”

Milanda glared at her, earning another innocent smile.

“This has been a bad situation all around,” she said quickly before either fairy could start in again. “And the more I learn about this whole thing, the more I think it wasn’t very wisely set up in the first place. A lot was Theasia’s idea, and she was…” She trailed off, looking at Hawthorn. “Well, you actually knew her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I liked Theasia,” the dryad said distractedly, glancing back at her but with most of her attention still on Walker. “She was smart, and didn’t let anybody push her around. And she was really good in bed. I miss her,” she added with a nostalgic sigh.

Milanda sighed as well, covering her eyes with a hand, though not before getting the pleasure of seeing Walker struggle to contain a smile. “Right. Anyway, Theasia never trusted anybody and thought only in terms of power—who had it and how to beat them if necessary. She tended to undervalue the importance of people’s personalities, judging them only by what they could do, not what they were likely to. What they wanted, and thought. It was a weakness that caused some problems for the Empire while she ruled it. That’s just history,” she added hastily. “I’m just trying to give some context here, not speak ill of your friend.”

“No, that’s pretty fair,” Hawthorn agreed with a shrug. “I mean, I did like her, but that doesn’t mean I’m dense. Theasia made us a whole little world to do whatever we pleased on. We wouldn’t have taken the deal if she’d wanted to control us at all. She controlled everybody else. Too hard for their own good, mostly.”

“And that’s what brought us all to this situation,” Milanda said, finally feeling the conversation was somewhat back under her control. “The Hand system is broken, and I still need your help to fix it, you and the others and the Avatar. But… I don’t think we had better put it back like it was.” She nodded at Walker. “If nothing else, I can’t stomach putting Walker back in a cell at the end of this. Even if I hadn’t promised her not to, that would be horribly unfair after how much she’s helped.”

Slowly, Walker moved forward again. Hawthorn tensed, but held her ground, watching her come.

“Is it…very bad?” Walker asked quietly, approaching the dryad at a very cautious pace. “My sisters… We only rarely were in a position to interact with dryads. Mostly when we had to go near the Deep Wild. The dimensions twist there, and occasionally would thin enough that would could graze the physical plane. If a dryad happened to be close enough to see… Well, they always fled like they’d seen a forest fire.”

“That must’ve hurt,” Hawthorn said quietly.

Walker stopped, about three yards from her. “Well, we’re fairly used to pain of one kind or another. It wasn’t as if we didn’t understand. It was never their—your—fault. None of us are at fault for this, any of it.”

“It’s not…so bad,” Hawthorn said, grasping her opposite elbow with her right hand. Her posture was closed and uncomfortable with Walker so close, but no longer tense as if she were on the verge of bolting. “It’s like… I dunno. I’m not used to wanting to run. Dryads are the ultimate predators—nothing makes us run. But… I guess it’s what a deer would feel like, seeing a cougar.”

Walker nodded slowly. “I understand. I’m not offended, Hawthorn. You don’t have to—”

She broke off as Hawthorn took a step forward.

She came slowly, one halting foot at a time, but she moved. Walker stared, frozen as if afraid moving would panic her, while the dryad drew gradually nearer, until they were standing an arm’s length apart.

Silence stretched out for several aching seconds, both of them just staring at each other. Then, very carefully, Hawthorn raised her arm, and laid a hand against Walker’s cheek.

“I am not a deer,” she said firmly. “I can get used to it. You… They call you Walker? That’s your name?”

Walker swallowed heavily. “It’s… I go by it, now.”

“And you’ve been, just…alone? All this time?” Hawthorn’s voice was barely a whisper. Milanda herself stood frozen, afraid to do anything that might break up this moment.

Walker nodded mutely.

“That sucks,” Hawthorn said feelingly. “I mean… Dang. Apple and Mimosa are so damn annoying sometimes, but I’m really glad they’re with me. You know, generally. There’s no way I’d have agreed to come live here if I didn’t have a couple of my sisters with me.”

Walker opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, then closed it again.

Hawthorn took the final step forward, and wrapped her arms around her older sister.

Walker squeezed her eyes shut, a tremor rippling through her. After a moment, moving with the utmost care, she leaned forward into the dryad, embracing her in return.

For the longest time, they didn’t move at all.

“I’m sorry,” Hawthorn whispered at last.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I’m not apologizing, you dummy. I’m just sorry. I wish that crap hadn’t happened to you.”

Walker emitted a short noise that could have been a laugh or a sob, and suddenly tightened her grip, burying her face in Hawthorn’s white hair.

“Ah, well then,” Milanda said after another pause. “We’re still waiting on the teleporter to be ready, and I need to go talk to the Avatar anyway, so I’ll just… Yeah, you two can find something to talk about without me, I’m sure.”

She backed away, grinning broadly, and didn’t turn to watch where she was going until she reached the door. The whole time, the two fairies didn’t so much as glance up, remaining fully absorbed in each other.

At last.

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12 – 33

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The lights were on when they entered. It was just like opening up the security hub for the first time; after Milanda instructed that the lockdown be ended in this room, it had remained sealed for a few minutes while the sub-OS did some housekeeping tasks, and when the door finally opened, the space was bright and clear of dust and any decay. It was also full of junk. Unlike the more chaotic assortment of things strewn about the security hub, though, this was mostly large crates and canisters, and several upright racks which held neat rows of devices she couldn’t identify behind glass. Well, probably not glass, but something transparent. More to the point, this was organized. There was fairly little space left to maneuver, but what remained were neat aisles between boxes that led to the room’s various necessary functions. The crates and racks themselves were stacked neatly, clearly according to a plan.

“If we’re going to keep opening things up,” Walker observed, following Milanda into the teleport array, “we may want to re-activate that Caretaker unit. He can clean and organize things more efficiently than we. Not to mention more safely. They’re programmed to handle just about anything the Order would have used.”

Milanda paused, turning to look back at her with an upraised eyebrow. “He?”

Walker shrugged, still peering around the room. “They’re sexless, obviously, but it was conventional to call them ‘he.’ Sort of like how ships are considered feminine. You could call it anything you want, I suppose.”

The chamber itself was smaller and laid out differently than the security hub. Square in shape, it had walls of a dark material rather than the mithril and steel of which the hub was constructed, though it was supported by angled struts of some gray metal with a matte finish. A square space opened off the door itself, most of it obscured by orderly stacks of crates, with a row of consoles along the left. To the front and right, short flights of stairs rose to small balconies flanking the room on those sides. Directly ahead of the door were a series of doors just like the one which led to the dryads’ little planet—the gravitical isolation chamber, according to Walker—and on the right stood a large, flat pad, as Milanda discovered upon ascending to that level. These doors, unlike the one to the GIC, were inert.

“Milanda.”

At Walker’s tone, she turned. The fairy had lifted the lid of a crate, and was staring into it. After a moment, she set the lid aside and turned to one of the vertical racks, studying it for a few seconds before touching its control panel. One of the transparent walls immediately slid upward with a soft hiss, granting her access to the objects within.

“What is it?” Milanda asked, stepping back down to join her.

“These are weapons,” Walker said, pulling one of the things out of the rack. Except for its angled grip of black material, attached to an obvious trigger mechanism, it was made of a glossy white material, with details of black and chrome. About as long as her own forearm, it had a padded butt meant to rest against the user’s shoulder and a small nozzle on the other end. “The crate has extra power packs and replacement components. I think…these are all weapons, and accouterments for them. The crates all match, and this room was organized.”

“Ah…” Milanda watched warily as Walker hefted the alleged weapon to her shoulder, sighting along it at the teleport pad above. Not sense letting the creature out of her cell had she been so keenly aware that she was dealing with something ancient, which had no reason to think well of her and the government she represented. “How likely is all this to explode, do you think?”

“Not very,” Walker said with a shrug, carefully hanging the weapon back on the rack with its fellows. Milanda relaxed, feeling tension she hadn’t noticed dissipate. “I’ve mentioned this before, but the Infinite Order were utterly paranoid. All firearms were gene-locked; only authorized servants would be able to fire them. In anyone else’s hands, they are totally inert. There are no authorized servants left alive, and nobody who can add authorizations, so these…all of these…are so much dead weight. As for exploding, they don’t really do that unless maliciously mishandled. For instance, if someone tried to tamper with them to get around the gene-lock.”

Milanda breathed a sigh of relief. “Small favors. Oh, but… What about the people asleep, down by the hangar bay?”

Walker gave her a sardonic look. “I guess we can add something to our list of reasons not to wake them up.”

“Yes, quite.”

“Random junk thrown in the security hub, armaments stacked in the teleport array.” Walker absently rubbed her palms together, peering around. “What the hell happened in this place?”

“I need to fetch a clock, next time I’m up above,” Milanda muttered. “I don’t even know how long I slept. What with one thing and another, my rhythms are completely thrown off.”

Walker gave her an amused look, then turned to the nearby console. “Computer, display clock. Local time.”

Obligingly, the screen lit up with numbers. Apparently, it was just shy of noon.

“Oh. Well, that’s nifty. Also explains why I’m hungry…”

“The fabricators in the barracks kitchen can take care of that,” Walker said, grinning faintly. “Try not to get too lost in the menu choices. Oh, and don’t order sushi. Those things cannot do it right.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Milanda murmured, turning to pull the lid off another crate and peer within. None of the objects it contained were meaningful to her.

“As an amusing footnote, this planet’s day length and orbital period are just slightly longer than Earth’s. They established a local calendar for years, but as far as hours and seconds went, they simply adjusted the measurements to match the planet, rather than try to compute days that were twenty four and about a third of an hour long. Naturally, that meant they had to reconfigure all their technology, but apparently that was the easier option.”

“Increasingly, they just sound…insane.”

“They were pretty idiosyncratic right from the star, even before going power-mad.” She paused in the middle of examining one of the consoles, then turned to Milanda, who was gently rummaging through the crate now that she’d been assured nothing in it was actively dangerous. “And on the subject of power-madness, I have been thinking.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very amusing. In seriousness… What do you plan to do about all this? The technology around you would have an incalculable impact on your civilization if you began disseminating it.”

“I am very grateful not to be the one making such decisions,” Milanda said fervently.

“Aren’t you?” Walker kept talking while she climbed to the upper level, inspecting the teleporters. “After all…here you are. You came down here to learn what had gone wrong with the Hands and fix it. Now, in the middle of that, you’ve apparently stopped and changed course to exacting revenge on the Archpope.”

“That analysis is wrong twice,” Milanda said with a sigh. “This is an unavoidable delay, not a change of goals. We are still going to repair or replace the system; the Hands in their current state are a constant hazard. I’ll need to go see the Avatar about that, because it will apparently require the dryads’ help. But also, this is not about revenge. Justinian has adapted to circumstances; he hasn’t abandoned his goals, either. Shutting his…hacker…out of the system slowed him down, but it hasn’t ended the threat. We can’t fix the system and make sure it stays fixed unless his capacity to interfere is permanently disabled.”

“You’re talking about war on the Church, you know. That won’t be permanently disabled until everyone who knew about it, save the Archpope himself, is dead or in your custody.”

“And that is why I wanted you to destroy their equipment, not block the connection,” Milanda said with no small relish, slowly turning an inscrutable silver object from the crate over in her hands. “The next move is ours, despite what he thinks, and I intend to head his efforts off before his new plan can materialize. Obviously, that will require—”

“Freeze!”

She did so, shifting only her eyes. Walker was standing at the rail of the balcony, staring down at her with obvious alarm. Moving slowly, she began descending the steps, hands held out as if afraid Milanda would bolt.

“Do. Not. Move. Not a finger.”

Milanda parted her lips to ask what was wrong, but thought better of it. Walker approached her and slowly, with extreme care, reached for the silvery cylinder in her hands. She first lifted Milanda’s finger from the switch positioned near its middle, then carefully took the thing from her. Only when she had stepped back did she let out a sigh of relief.

That was somewhat startling to see, and highlighted the fact that she didn’t usually breathe at all.

“Okay,” she said weakly. “We’re all right.”

“What happened?” Milanda asked in a squeak. “What is that?”

“This,” Walker said distastefully, holding up the cylinder in one hand, “is not gene-locked. These were only carried by ceremonial guards. It’s rigged to explode if found to be in the wrong hands, because the melodramatic idiots who issued these damned things to their servants had no sense of restraint or perspective.”

“It’s a bomb?” Milanda asked shrilly.

Walker shook her head. “Only a member of the Order could issue that command. Unless Scyllith or Naiya greatly surprise me with a sudden display of attentiveness, that’s not about to happen. No, Milanda, at issue was that it isn’t gene-locked, and you were pointing it at your face, with your finger on the activator.”

Milanda gulped heavily. “Oh. Well, um, thank you, then.”

“You are welcome.”

“What does it do?”

Walker sighed again, gave the device an oddly contemptuous look, and pressed the switch with her thumb.

A loud hiss sounded, and a shaft of blue light about a yard long sprang from the tip of the cylinder, then remained rather than shooting further. Once activated, it put off a deep, powerful hum, the noise suggesting an enormous amount of energy coursing through the thing. Walker carefully waved it back and forth, and the pitch of its humming shifted as it moved through the air.

Milanda frowned, belatedly making sense of the arrangement. The cylinder was a handle, and the light…

“It’s a sword?”

“It’s a sword,” Walker confirmed, still staring at it. She took two steps to the side, and casually swept it against the heavy lid currently lying ajar atop the nearest crate.

Its corner was sliced off as if it were paper. Where the energy blade passed through it, a rim of angrily glowing metal remained, melting further even as it cooled.

Milanda gulped again. “Oh. I didn’t realize the Order’s servants fought with swords.”

“They didn’t,” Walker said acerbically. “These will cut virtually any solid matter save mithril, but were useless against either energy shields or directed energy weapons, which made them…useless. They were, as I said, ceremonial. And the ceremonial guards who carried them suffered an alarming rate of attrition from self-inflicted dismemberment. Mostly due to the fencing bouts their masters demanded they perform. I am proud to say Naiya never wasted time or resources on such idiocy.”

“Idiocy indeed,” Milanda said disbelievingly. “Of all the… They wanted their guards to play around with them? I can hear how dangerous that thing is from way over here!”

“Actually, funny story,” Walker said with a smile. “The technology that produces energy blades is highly efficient. No excess glowing or buzzing. This has extra machinery in the hilt to produce the light and sound effects.” She pressed the switch again, and the blade deactivated with an apparently gratuitous hiss.

Milanda actually clapped a hand to her head. “I don’t understand the mentality of these people. Why, why would they do something so destructive and completely pointless?!”

Walker shrugged, carefully laying the sword back in its crate. “They were the Infinite Order. You ask why? For the first hundred years, the answer was ‘for science,’ and thereafter, ‘who’s going to stop us?’” She shook her head and paced back over to the terminals. “Anyway. The facility seems active; these would be displaying a warning if the teleporters were broken, instead of being in normal standby mode.”

“All right, then,” Milanda said, following her, then cleared her throat. “Computer! Activate facility exterior sensors! Was that right?” she added in a lower tone.

Walker gave her a little smile. “Just fine.”

Further conversation was forestalled by the computer’s chime of acknowledgment. “Facility physical sensors offline.”

Walker frowned. “What? Why?”

Nothing happened. Walker rolled her eyes, then looked expectantly at Milanda, who grinned.

“Computer, diagnose the problem with the sensors.”

“All physical sensor apparatus were manually disconnected by order of REDACTED. Manual reconnection required to resume operation.”

Walker shook her head slowly. “The mystery deepens. I’m growing curious enough about what happened to this place I may just summon a god and ask them.”

“You can summon a god of the Pantheon?” Milanda asked, fascinated.

The fairy gave her a wry half-smile. “Well…not directly. But if you make enough of a ruckus and survive long enough, one will eventually show up. They’re fairly reliable in that regard.”

“Right. Let’s consider that Plan B. For now, what are our options? Computer, how can we manually reconnect the sensors?”

“Physical repair is necessary at maintenance access points.”

Walker was already shaking her head again. “No good. We really will have to fire up the Caretaker now; he’s the only one who can do that kind of engineering. I’m not skilled in such detailed work, and you certainly aren’t. In the meantime…” She frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. See if it will connect to transcension fields. Naiya deliberately disabled the one linking the Order’s facilities, but this should be able to link to others directly. And we know there are at least four still in operation.”

“Right. Computer! See if you can connect to any active transcension fields.”

“Working.” After a short pause, it chimed again. “Four transcension fields active at sufficient power to form a connection. Personal fields of User Scyllith and User Naiya. Unidentified transcension field. Unidentified transcension field.”

“So the arcane was made after the Order fell,” Walker mused. “Otherwise, it’d recognize it…”

Milanda glanced at her, but continued speaking to the computer. “Can you gather sensor data directly through the transcension fields?”

“Exactly,” Walker said with a smile.

“Working. Affirmative. Both authorized fields enable direct data acquisition.”

“Hmm…” Walker gave Milanda a thoughtful look. “It might be best to use one of the others. I prefer not to accidentally draw the attention of a surviving Elder God.”

Milanda noted that this was the first time Walker had referred to members of the Infinite Order that way. “People use their magic all the time without calling them down.”

“Not from a designated Infinite Order facility, they don’t. Either of them would know exactly what that connection was and what it meant. Their consciousness may be too diffuse at this point for it to matter, but…that’s a risk.”

“Fair enough. Computer! Try to connect to one of the other active fields.”

“Authorization required. Please see the system administrator for clearance.”

Walker sighed. “Apparently there’s a limit to how much monkeying around it will tolerate without getting actual Order permission.”

“Seems like an arbitrary limit.”

“Yes,” she said irritably, “as is most of what they did. Very well… If we must, try Naiya’s. I can’t say she’s less erratic than Scyllith at this point, but she’s not cruel or gratuitously destructive.”

“Well, that’s encouraging,” Milanda muttered. “Nothing else for it, I guess. Computer! Connect directly to Naiya’s transcension field.”

“Attempting connection. Working.”

Walker and Milanda looked nervously at each other.

“Working.”

“Should it take this long?”

Walker shrugged. “I’ve never seen this done, Milanda. Last time I used computers like these, they had their own dedicated transcension field. This isn’t normal operation.”

“Connection established. Warning: Transcension field eighty-two percent deviant from recorded values. Connection unstable. Would you like to optimize the connection?”

“What would that entail, exactly?”

She had been asking Walker, but the computer answered.

“Narrowing the accessible energy spectrum and activating additional security protocols will result in a stable and secure connection at the cost of transmission and reception speed loss. Conversely, broadening the accessible spectrum and disabling security will restore full connection speed, but cause increased risk of disconnection and adverse reactions within the facility’s systems.”

“Rule of thumb, when connecting computers to anything else,” Walker stated. “Never disable security.”

“How likely and how severe would these…interruptions…be?” Milanda asked.

“At present deviation from recorded values, full security is strongly recommended. Disconnection from the transcension field is considered ninety percent probable, at a projected rate of two events per minute. Possible side effects are variable, potentially including catastrophic damage to the system.”

Walker shook her head emphatically. Milanda sighed.

“I guess the safe way is the slow way, then. Computer, optimize the connection.”

“Working. Connection optimized. Connection within acceptable safety and stability parameters. Data transmission and reception speed: five percent of optimal. Capacity to achieve physical effects: Point zero five percent of optimal.”

“So we can get information through it, but not do witchcraft,” Walker said. “Well, fine, that’s more or less what we wanted anyway.”

“Don’t we need to do witchcraft to fix the Hands?”

“Not outside the facility; everything needed to affect that system we already have. It’s done via the dryads, remember, not the machines here.”

“Alert: one pending message.”

Both of them turned to the screen before them in surprise; it had lit up with an icon Milanda recognized as an envelope.

“A message from who?” Walker demanded.

“A message from whom?” Milanda repeated after a moment, earning an annoyed look.

“Status report from extraplanetary monitors,” the computer reported. “Since last connection, this solar system has been approached by confirmed intelligences seven times. Two were confirmed human in origin. One confirmed nonhuman in origin. Two additional events may have signified intelligent contact. Do you wish a detailed report?”

“Um, no, thank you,” Milanda said. Frowning, she turned to Walker. “Gods, I never even thought about that. Other people came here? From Earth?”

“Earth, perhaps another colony, apparently at least one place totally unrelated.” Walker shrugged. “The dimensional folding around this solar system renders it completely impenetrable. It would also tend to draw attention from any species with the capability to detect it. That kind of thing can’t possibly occur naturally, and is a truly vast engineering achievement. Fortunately, or perhaps not, it also has the effect of making the emphatic point that visitors are not welcome. We are alone here.”

“Seven, though,” she said thoughtfully. “In eight thousand years.”

“Space is big,” Walker murmured. “Like, really, really big. That’s downright bustling.”

“Well, anyway. Computer! I want you to use the transcension field access to form a physical map of the city—I mean, the landing pad area above. It needs to be precise enough to make teleporter jumps from here to…wherever in the area on this mountain we decide.”

“Working. Map estimated completion in point five hours.”

Milanda frowned. “Arcane teleportation is almost instantaneous…”

“We’re not using that,” Walker pointed out. “You can’t ordinarily teleport through Mother’s transcension field, and apparently the computer can barely access it. This is pretty reasonable, all things considered. Well! Since we apparently have some time, let’s go back and see about waking up the CT unit, shall we? After all, somebody needs to start straightening this place up, and better him than us.”


The path back to the security hub involved a short elevator ride, then a walk down two hallways, which was more interesting than it needed to be due to the boxes cluttering them. It took about five minutes to reach the hub, but they returned through one of its other entrances, not the one which led to the prison wing and the door to the dryads’ chamber, so their comings and goings should be secure from any Hands who might visit the facility.

“No, any colonies would almost have to be on their own,” Walker was saying as they reentered the round room. “A true galactic civilization isn’t feasible due to relativistic effects. Even disregarding the travel distances involved, time itself doesn’t move the same way in every part of the universe. Without—”

She broke off suddenly at the head of the steps down to the lower level, Milanda crowding behind her.

They weren’t alone in the security hub.

“Oh,” Milanda said with a wince, peering over Walker’s shoulder. “Um, hello, Hawthorn.”

The dryad was staring, wide-eyed, at Walker. At Milanda’s voice, she began screaming.

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12 – 31

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Milanda emerged from the barracks again, which was still like stepping indoors. It had taken a little doing to figure out how the Infinite Order’s toilet facilities worked; the basics were familiar, but the controls were totally alien. In the end, she had had to ask the computer for instructions, which was humiliating, even though she knew the talking machine wasn’t capable of passing judgment or finding humor at her expense.

Strange and awkward, yes, but also luxurious. The facilities allotted for security personnel compared favorably to any luxury she had enjoyed in the Palace. Once she figured out how to work them, at least.

After that, navigating the kitchen had been relatively simple. All she wanted was a cup of strong tea. The exact blend which had been produced by the fabricator was unfamiliar; the computer had identified it as Earl Grey. After one sip, Milanda decided she was going to have to come back for more of this when there was time.

Regardless, she had taken only enough time to refresh herself with a quick wash and an invigorating drink before heading back to the security hub. The barracks was still displaying Hawaiian Night, and while she didn’t know what Hawaiian meant, the warm tropical darkness was enough to make her want to stretch out on one of the bunks and let the birdsong and night breeze carry her off to sleep. She had no time for that, though. Feeling somewhat re-invigorated despite the long time she’d been awake, she stepped out.

Walker was still hunched over her screen; for a being whose very name implied movement and who had spent years in a cell, she seemed remarkably devoted to that machine.

“Feeling better?” the fairy asked without looking up.

“Much, thank you. I’ll be back shortly; we have a lot more to do, and I won’t feel comfortable loafing in my own bed until it’s done. But these events do need to be reported as quickly as possible.”

“Just a moment, please,” Walker said as Milanda made her way through the maze of crates toward the door. “I’ve uncovered something you might find relevant—or at least, worth carrying to the Emperor.”

“Oh?” She turned to face her. Ever since the Avatar’s ritual, she felt stronger and more vigorous, but it had been a long day. Another cup of that tea would’ve been heavenly…

“With our intrusive friend thoroughly offline for the time being, I’ve been examining his pattern of incursions, most of which are every bit as fumbling and incompetent as I told you. I wouldn’t absolutely swear his tampering with the Hands program was deliberate or malicious.”

“Considering where he was working from, I rather think it was,” Milanda said impatiently. “You said this was important…”

“So,” Walker continued, “I looked farther back, to that other incident ten years ago. The one where this system was accessed under Scyllith’s credentials from Fabrication Plant One.”

“Puna Dara, yes. I remember.”

“I’ve identified the changes made,” Walker said, fingers gliding across the screen and bringing up boxes on it. Streams of numbers and text, mostly, but she also displayed a picture of a plant for some reason, shifting so Milanda could see it and turning to look at her. “That one didn’t alter the existing functions of the Hand system, but added something to it. Another signal piggybacked on it, disseminated through what I think was a specific wing of the Palace.”

“Oh?” Despite her fatigue, Milanda’s attention sharpened.

“You see,” Walker said, folding her hands in her lap and regarding Milanda with an expression that was becoming familiar, “all the Infinite Order’s biological projects can be broadly sorted into two categories: those which do and do not require transcension field energy to survive. There are, unfortunately, several sapient strains in the first group, notably elves. But as is the case with any life form created with and from transcension fields, the ongoing interaction—”

“Walker,” Milanda interrupted, “is this going to be another ten-minute speech, filled with flowery language and dramatic pauses and sweeping revelations I’ll find out later from the Avatar were just your opinion?”

The fairy stared at her in silence, mouth slightly open.

Milanda raised an eyebrow. “Can you summarize it?”

After another moment of silence, Walker snapped her mouth shut, her nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation which served to accent the uncanny daintiness of her nose.

“The system powering the Hands of the Emperor has been modified, in this event ten years ago, to disseminate the essence of a magical plant called silphium through part of the Palace. The Emperor’s residence, I think. The essence of this would render any female mammals in the radius of influence infertile while within it, and probably for a few years thereafter.”

Now, it was Milanda’s turn to silently stare. Shock hit her first, followed by comprehension and the uncomfortable familiarity of realizations which made all too much sense. And then, rage.

She clamped down on all of them to be dealt with later.

“I see,” she said aloud. “Thank you very much. You were right; that is important, and well worth telling the Empress. I’m glad you stopped me.”

“Are you,” Walker said tonelessly.

Milanda nodded, and turned to go. “All right, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t cause trouble.”

“Thanks to your security protocols, there’s a stark limit to what trouble I can cause.”

“Well, don’t test them, please.” At the door, she paused, one hand on the frame, then turned and smiled at the ex-valkyrie, who was still staring at her. “When I come back, you can give me that speech. It sounded like it would’ve been interesting.”

“Just go,” Walker snorted, finally turning back to her computer.

The door hissed shut behind Milanda, and she stared at the screen, for the moment not touching it. After a few seconds, a smile began to stretch across her features. Shaking her head, she chuckled, and then got back to work.


“If this is anything less than disastrously urgent, I am going to have one of them flogged,” Eleanora announced as she emerged from her chambers.

Lord Vex awaited her in the hall, looking just as composed and well-rested as she, which meant he was probably every bit as weary and disgruntled at being rousted at one in the morning. They had both taken time to groom and compose themselves, as it would not do to appear before someone like the Archpope in any state which so much as hinted at weakness.

“May I suggest Bishop Darling in that case, your Majesty,” Vex said diffidently. “Assaulting a sitting Archpope would create…complications.”

She gave him a flat glance, at which he smiled blandly, then turned to stride up the hall without bothering to point out the havoc the Thieves’ Guild would unleash if she actually had their Bishop and former Boss whipped. His comment had been as facetious as hers, and she didn’t keep Vex around for his skill as a humorist.

They were intercepted at the next intersection of hallways by, if not the last person Eleanora had expected to meet at this hour, someone who placed high on the list.

“Oh, your Majesty, perfect,” Milanda Darnassy said in a tone of obvious relief, curtsying deeply. “I’m so glad I found you so quickly. I have a great deal to report.”

“Yes, so I would imagine,” Eleanora replied. “I’m very glad to see that you’re safe, Milanda. Right now, however, we are on the way to deal with an urgent matter of state, as you might surmise from Lord Vex’s presence in the harem wing at this hour. Please make yourself comfortable and we shall be back with you soon.”

“Urgent matter?”

“Yes,” the Empress said somewhat impatiently. “Not to downplay the significance of your own tasks, but I have to prioritize. Things have become increasingly hectic in your absence. Now, if you will excuse me…”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Milanda said quickly, curtsying again, but continued as Eleanora swept past her. “Does this happen to involve the Universal Church?”

The Empress slammed to a halt, turning to give the concubine a piercing look. Vex regarded her thoughtfully, as well.

“Now why,” Eleanora asked quietly, “would you ask that?”

“I suspected the Archpope might do something, which is why I came up to find you in the middle of the night,” Milanda replied. “You should know, your Majesty, that I have not yet repaired the damage done to the Hands of the Emperor, but for the moment insured no further changes will be made, and ascertained that the source of the problem came from within the Grand Cathedral.”

The Empress and her spymaster gazed at Milanda in silence.

“Also, I’ve just learned that there’s a related problem which has been causing infertility in every woman in this wing of the Palace.”

Eleanora, despite all her training and experience, felt a furious expression descend on her features. She drew in a long, deep breath through her nose.

“You are busy, of course,” Milanda said smoothly, unperturbed. “If you need to address something urgently, I can of course wait; the situation below appears stable, for the moment.”

Eleanora turned a flat look on Vex. “Upon consideration, Quentin, I think we had better hear Ms. Darnassy’s detailed report first. His Holiness can await my convenience a while longer.”

“His Holiness is likely to take that as a hostile gesture,” Vex pointed out.

The Empress drew back her upper lip in an expression that was not a smile. “I have never cared less about Justinian’s feelings than at this moment.”


The solarium was a downright eerie place at night; even with the fairy lamps ignited, the ferns and flowers didn’t look quite right. The entire room was laid out to be beautiful in the sunlight, which its towering glass walls were enchanted to magnify appropriately, Tiraas’s climate being what it was. In Theasia’s day, this had been a private refuge, but Sharidan had installed suitable arrangements of furniture to use it as a private and informal place to receive petitioners.

It was after three in the morning by the time Justinian and Darling had finally left. Eleanora had remained quiet through most of their presentation, watching them. Neither man had shown surprise at Vex’s presence, though both had given Milanda speculative looks. It was impossible to say how far outside the harem wing Eleanora’s lack of personal warmth toward the Emperor’s favorite concubine was known; they had no shortage of servants, and servants did gossip. If anybody in Tiraas bothered to keep up with such seemingly irrelevant social minutia, it would be those two. Regardless, Eleanora could not help noticing that Milanda and Darling seemed to take mirrored roles in the discussion: quiet, a step behind their respective leaders, not overtly involved, but listening. Even in the presence of Empresses and Archpope, Antonio Darling was not a man to step back and shut up, which suggested that he was as much in the dark and being led along as Milanda. This both amused and intrigued her.

Vex had led the way in the discussion, asking questions and with occasional prompts from Eleanora. Justinian would not fail to find some significance in that, which was fine with her. Let him chase his tail. She had likewise deflected his inquiries about the Emperor’s absence, which could potentially lead him to discovering actually worthwhile facts, but there was nothing to be done about that.

The whole time, Milanda’s revelations had laid firmly in the forefront of her mind while she listened to Justinian spin a web of artifacts of the Elder Gods and Punaji cults.

“It’s all so very…plausible,” she mused after their guests had been absent for nearly a full minute. “His account is reflected in Milanda’s. It perfectly matches hers if he is telling the complete truth… And just as perfectly if he was behind all our recent troubles and now urgently covering his derriere.”

“He cannot know how much we know,” Vex observed. “Vagueness and scrupulous adherence to all possibly known facts would be vital in constructing a suitable story. Of course, if he is telling the truth, we cannot afford to risk worsening the situation by acting rashly.”

“How much do you know about this…Rust?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said immediately. “If it is a matter occurring in Punaji territory, I can assure your Majesty of two things: my people will have observed it, and if it has not been brought to my attention, they did not deem it significant. He described it as a cult, which fits. The lack of organized religion among the Punaji leaves fertile ground for those to crop up. They either implode on their own or are cleaned out by Rajakhan.”

Milanda cleared her throat diffidently. “Excuse me, your Majesty, but…he was not telling the truth. I have access to a great deal more information down there than the Archpope can possibly know, and my source strongly indicated his own efforts to use the Elders’ machines have been halting and clumsy in comparison to Theasia’s, and now Walker’s.”

“Yes, and we should discuss that, now that no one is waiting on us,” Eleanora said sharply, turning to her. “I believe I heard Sharidan specifically tell you not to let that creature out.”

“Not specifically,” Milanda replied, gazing right back at her in complete calm. “Specificity was impossible, given the geas he was under. I’m fortunate to have escaped that; it must be tied into the Hand system. Regardless, yes, releasing the Dark Walker was a risk. It was a calculated one, however, taken with ample precautions, and has paid off. If any harm comes of it, I will of course take full responsibility.”

Eleanora stared at her, firmly concealing her surprise.

Milanda has always been downright submissive around her, which was the lion’s share of the reason Eleanora had never liked her. Some women legitimately did enjoy being told what to do, and the lack of responsibility that came from being kept. Milanda, though, had a spine and plenty of personality; she was just selective about where she displayed them. Knowing that, having seen it at a distance, made Eleanora both mistrust and personally dislike her for the constant diffidence she showed. The woman before her now was totally self-possessed, unintimidated, and seemingly constitutionally incapable of bowing her neck, despite her complete courtesy. If only she’d been like this for the last few years, Eleanora suspected they would be friends by now. As it was, the sudden change was deeply alarming, especially in this situation.

She leaned back in the throne-like chair positioned with its back dramatically to the view over the city, and drummed her fingers on the armrests. “Very well; for now, I will have to be content with that. Frankly I cannot say anyone could have done better under the circumstances. Your efforts are greatly appreciated, Milanda.”

Milanda simply nodded in acknowledgment.

“I will, of course, get all available information on the Rust immediately from my department,” said Vex, “and instruct my agents in the field to get more. If we are to follow Ms. Darnassy’s suggestion and consider this a red herring, however, that cannot be our primary focus. Counter-action against Justinian is obviously necessary, but we are constrained.”

“Yes,” Eleanora said, thinking aloud. Gods, it was late; she was so damned tired. “The Throne cannot act directly against the Church without overwhelming evidence of malfeasance. Our evidence, though solid, might not be compelling enough, and anyway the need to protect Imperial secrets means we can’t even present it. Going for Justinian directly would create massive pushback from the cults, as well as the population in general. In the worst case, it could be the Enchanter Wars all over again.”

“It is, of course, never my policy to do anything directly, your Majesty,” Vex said with a thin smile.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Our actions against the Church’s computer was designed to leave the connection open while destroying his ability to use it, at least temporarily. It may be possible to act through that.”

“Rather than acting,” said Vex, “I suggest you see if you can gather more information through it. This matter with sylphreed is a great deal less sensitive than the systems which maintain the Hands. Using forbidden artifacts of the Elder Gods to terminate the Tirasian line of succession is a story that holds together—sensational, but plausible. If we can obtain evidence, we can quite possibly have Justinian deposed. The Sisterhood, the Guild, and the Veskers would back us, and those are the three who matter.” They were, he did not need to add, the three cults which had effectively overthrown the previous dynasty after it had used the Enchanter’s Bane on Athan’Khar.

“That’s another thing,” said Eleanora, “and the thing which disturbs me. You said this change which added sylphreed to the system was done from Puna Dara. Ten years ago, and by someone more skilled in the system’s use than Justinian’s lackey. Now, he points to Punaji lands as the source of this new problem. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

“If the Rust is something Justinian has been monitoring,” said Vex, “or possibly even something he created, the matter still hangs together neatly.”

“But then why would their attack have been so much neater and more successful than what he has done now?” She shook her head. “Too many questions, not enough answers… Quentin, I am considering how much we can trust Elder Mylion. He was unsurprised to learn of Tellwyrn’s involvement, and from the moment she mentioned dryads, I have been thinking we might find elven representatives useful if we could find one trustworthy.”

“I vetted Mylion as thoroughly as possible on short notice,” said Vex. “I am still in the process of investigating him comprehensively. I urge your Majesty to wait for the outcome of that before involving him in something this sensitive. At the least, that will give him more time to demonstrate his trustworthiness, or lack thereof.”

“Sensible,” she agreed, nodding. “Which leaves us with the question of what to do about Justinian in the meantime.”

“Indirect action of the sort that seems to be needed is normally my department,” he said with a grimace, “but matters are complicated by the current situation with the Hands. They will unavoidably learn of it if I enact a major campaign against the Church’s assets; then, inevitably, they will learn why. In their current state of instability, I shudder to think what they might do. If the Hands attack the Church…”

“Yes, we’ve been over that,” she said wearily.

“The Avatar arranged for me to have some of the Hands’ advantages,” Milanda reminded her. She was now staring at Eleanora with an intensity that made her uneasy. “Walker is doing most of the actual work through the computers; I may see what I can find down there that will enable me to come and go from the facility without having to go through the Palace. I know they have methods of teleportation; I’ve had to use one to get around.”

“She is totally off the books,” Vex mused, “unknown to the Hands… Or at least, not known outside the context of his Majesty’s personal life. Which also creates the advantage of deniability if she is caught.”

“Milanda has far too much on her plate already to wage a shadow war on Justinian,” Eleanora exclaimed.

“Alone, certainly. But with some assets to leverage… She can investigate and possibly impair his operations in the city, perhaps even breach some of his facilities. In fact, I have just the thing: Panissar recently dumped three men in my lap who have ample experience keeping Imperial secrets, are not officially connected with the government, and are in fact in hiding at the moment.”

“What?” Eleanora demanded. “Who?”

The spymaster gave her a little smile. “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, most recently stationed at Last Rock. If your Majesty has not been briefed, the short version is that the Hand currently out there threatened their safety to get at Tellwyrn, and they fled here, found a good lawyer, and got themselves discharged from the Army on the grounds of malfeasance by superior officers.”

“Where would those three idiots get the money for a lawyer who could pull that off?”

“That is officially a secret, which I have not deemed important enough to investigate directly, but given where they’ve been, I’d say either from Tellwyrn herself, Duchess Madouri, or Teal Falconer. Would you like me to find out?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “And I cannot believe you are suggesting involving those characters in this, Quentin.”

“They aren’t known to be especially competent,” he admitted. “Panissar had some godawful idea about involving them in my watch program over his Majesty, perish the thought. This is another matter, however. What’s most necessary here is their ability to keep a secret, and that much at least is proven. As for the rest… Ms. Darnassy will be the brains and heart of this operation, she simply needs more pairs of hands. And there is something to be said for cultivating expendable assets.”

“Very well,” she said wearily. “Given the corner we’re in, it’s the least terrible idea we are likely to find. Proceed.”

“Dryads,” Milanda said softly.

Eleanora turned to her, frowning. “I beg your pardon?”

“You mentioned Tellwyrn and dryads,” Milanda continued, still giving her that unnerving stare. “Implying that she mentioned them when she was here before.”

The Empress frowned. “Yes?”

“And it did not occur to you to mention the involvement of dryads to me before sending me down to where you knew they were?”

Vex, face impassive, subtly shifted to face Milanda, idly tucking a hand into his coat pocket.

“You’re right,” Eleanora said after a moment of tense silence. “That was a grave oversight. I apologize, Milanda. I’m very grateful no harm came to you because of it.”

Milanda nodded curtly. “Fine. I will return below and investigate the possibilities of getting in and out of the facility directly, avoiding the Palace. I’ll return when I know something; that should give Lord Vex time to make arrangements of his own. And I devoutly hope that any further oversights will be due to the confusion of these trying times, and not because you personally don’t care for me, Eleanora. Considering what is at stake. Excuse me.”

She turned and strode out of the room without waiting to be dismissed, shutting the door gently behind her.

Eleanora stared at the doors for a long time after she was gone. “Quentin… When are things ever going to start becoming less complicated instead of more?”

“Rest easy, your Majesty,” he said, smiling. “We’ll all be dead eventually.”

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12 – 26

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“Ah, there you are,” Walker said without looking up. “Don’t forget to re-seal the door.”

“It does it automatically,” Milanda said dryly, approaching her workstation. “I took the opportunity to double-check your checking while I was out there. Any progress?”

“I’ve been trying to get an inventory of this place, and been frustrated. Everything should be accounted for, but someone quite deliberately erased all the records of anything taking place in the whole port during whatever happened to the landing surface above, where the city is now. According to facility records, none of this is even in here and nothing should be out of place, so…we’re at a loss.”

“Unless, of course, we check. The old-fashioned way, with our eyes. Like they did in barbaric times before there were computers to store all the answers.”

“Much as I hate to interrupt a really good head of sarcasm,” Walker said, eyes still on her screen, “I did not fail to think of that, and it’s potentially problematic. Undoubtedly, most of these boxes contain miscellaneous, pointless, harmless junk like what’s strewn on top of them. Some are secured crates, though, of the kind used to hold valuable or dangerous objects. They’re marked from every department of the facility. There is, in short, no telling what’s in this room with us, and considering the kinds of things the Infinite Order were prone to playing around with…”

“I see your point.” Milanda leaned past her to set the data crystal down on the metal ledge below Walker’s monitor. The fairy glanced at it momentarily before returning her focus to what she was doing.

“So I’m trying to assemble an updated map of our nearby environs. Since the system doesn’t know what’s in these boxes, or even that they’re in the room, the stored map doesn’t reveal what’s stored in adjacent compartments. The security system works, though; I’m pulling up feeds of the nearest chambers to check them. It’s all pretty much the same: boxes, barrels, random things lying about, all shoved in. I think our best bet is to gather up the boxes in here and in your barracks and stack them in there.” She tapped her screen, causing the map to zoom in on the room she had touched, then pointed to a door across the security hub from the one to the barracks. “Access hall leading to an elevator shaft, which goes up to nowhere, and down toward a power station, where we have no reason to go. I see no harm in blocking that off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Milanda said, unable to suppress a yawn. “And there is your program, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Walker picked up the crystal and inserted it into a slot under her monitor, eyes flicking across the boxes which opened up on her screen. “I double-checked the quetzal’s tube, and yes, it’s plugged into the grid, and doesn’t have a broadcast power receptor. So we can’t move him. I suppose we could drape something over him…”

“Him?”

“Oh, yes,” Walker said, finally looking up, and turning to gaze thoughtfully at the imprisoned demon. “The tube has a bio-readout, over on the other side. Male, barely mature… Interestingly, this appears to be an un-corrupted specimen, not altered by exposure to Scyllith’s transcension field. Possibly the only one of his kind in existence, unless there are more bottled up somewhere in this or another facility.”

“That is fascinating,” Milanda said with another yawn, “but I think you were right in the first place: better for him and us if he stays in there for now. The last thing we need is a pet.”

“Indeed.” Walker turned back to her screen. “I’d just kill him, and that would be a shame.”

Milanda sighed, turning toward the barracks door. “Anyway. I’m going to get some sleep while I can. You do…whatever you do with that program. Be sure to have the computer wake me if the intruder comes back. I want to be here for that.”

“Since it seems I need your authorization to connect this to the exterior data lines, I’ll clearly have to. I can look over the setup before then, though. Rest well. Ah, it even has a tutorial…what an efficient Avatar.”

Milanda shook her head, yawning again, and made her way toward the barracks door. She almost got there before Walker suddenly spoke up again.

“Oh! Speaking of. Computer, please locate user Milanda Darnassy and direct her back here.”

The soft chime sounded from the air. “User Milanda Darnassy, your presence is requested in Security Hub Five.”

“Thank you, computer,” Milanda said acidly, turning around. “Funny stuff, Walker. What’s going on?”

“System being accessed,” the ex-valkyrie said, grinning at her screen. “I almost missed it—he’s prodding at the code again. Yep, environment controls. Why is he so obsessed with that, when he has the Hands to play with? Maybe he actually messed them up by accident…”

“I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe that,” Milanda replied.

“Indeed. Would you be good enough to activate this session so I can engage him, please? I do believe it’s past time we welcomed our guest properly.”


“Environment settings,” Ildrin said quietly, causing Delilah and the Archpope to look over at her in surprise. She shrugged. “You’re better at helping him personally, Dee; I’ve been trying to be better at interpreting the things he says when he’s concentrating. It seemed like a sensible division of labor.”

“Well done,” Justinian said mildly. “What do you mean by environment settings?”

“That,” she replied ruefully, “I’m not really sure…”

“Environment,” Rector abruptly said in a loud voice, interrupting his own muttering. He was, as usual, hunched over the racks of runic controls attached to his machine, the ones positioned in front of the magic mirror. He had set that up such that he could stand there with a perfect view of the mirror and also have the levers and valves attached to the power crystals in easy reach. “Environment, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure. Environment. Machine has settings to govern them…”

Standing on the incongruous little back porch above Rector’s cave, the other three frowned in thoughtful unison. The enchanter below them resumed muttering, continuing to manipulate his runes. If he had any opinion about them talking about him behind his back, he gave no sign of it.

The Archpope cleared his throat. “Rector…” He nodded calmly at Delilah when she gave him a weighted look, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are those the settings for this environment?”

“I haven’t noticed any changes like that,” Ildrin murmured when Rector did not immediately respond. “Dee?”

“No.” Delilah shook her head. “I’m sure I’d have noticed; the arcane heater down here is top of the line. Rector is very particular about the temperature.”

“Rector,” the Archpope said in a firmer tone, “the access I gave you is to a system the Imperial government uses. If you—”

“Yes, Hands, I know,” Rector said impatiently, his own hands freezing above the controls. Despite the fact that he’d apparently stopped working to speak, he kept his eyes on the mirror, which currently showed nothing but rows of text and figures which made little sense to the onlookers. “Environment controls are simple, easier to access—good test runs for understanding the system. Very important before accessing complex system like the Hands. Helped me know how to touch that system…understand the software.”

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

“The…enchantments that run thinking machines, I believe,” Ildrin said softly.

“Yes,” Rector agreed, nodding, and beginning to touch runes again.

“Of course, that’s good thinking,” the Archpope said calmly. “But if you are creating noticeable changes, the Hands and others may see and intervene.”

“Yes, thought of that,” Rector said impatiently. “Also a reason. Change a setting, see if it changes back, how fast. Tells me if they’re watching, before I change anything important.”

“I see,” Justinian said, nodding. “Good work, then.”

“Watching now,” the enchanter muttered. The Archpope stilled; both priestesses widened their eyes.

“Excuse me?” Justinian asked. Rector just muttered, hunching further over his controls and touching runes in faster succession. After a few moments of this, the Archpope spoke more insistently. “Rector. What do you mean by that?”

“Interruptions!” Rector exclaimed irritably, slapping himself on the side of the head. “I change something, it changes back. Immediately. That is new. They are watching now!”


“Well, this is mildly amusing,” Walker said, touching the screen again. “I’m sure having his every move instantly undone must be quite frustrating, but I’m having a modest amount of fun. It’s a remarkably smooth piece of software; I’m amazed the Avatar was able to produce it so quickly. Then again, I suppose that’s what he does.”

“Maybe it’s something he already had?” Milanda suggested thoughtfully. The timing of that conversation had been…interesting. She had come away with the impression the Avatar was very carefully guiding her toward some end of his own. That was exactly what she needed, another agenda to untangle.

“A program that enables a layperson to counter digital security?” Walker shook her head. “The Infinite Order would never have kept something like that in their systems. They were nearly as paranoid as they were elitist. The Avatar simply does good work, that’s all. More immediately, our visitor has stopped trying to mess with our settings after I simply put everything back as soon as he did it. I guess he gave up.”

“Then he knows we’re here, now,” Milanda mused.

“Hard to say what he knows. The worm function is working perfectly; I have full access to his system, as well. The problem is how very primitive it is. He’s got basically no processing power left over for…anything. Last time we crashed him just by querying his system specs. I’m getting data back, but…”

“Wait,” said Milanda. “If the problem is that his machine is too slow to parse this information, can’t we just retrieve it and, um, re-organize it here? This computer clearly has all the power we’ll need.”

“If it were an Infinite Order computer, I could do that,” Walker said, leaning back in the chair and folding her arms. On the screen in front of her, the windows and indicators sat quiet, the other user apparently having paused for thought as well. “Or even an older operating system from Earth. The shared architecture would give me backdoors, as well as some basic similarities that could be assumed. This thing, though… In order to know anything about his system, we have to activate each part of that system, which…is very, very slow. This computer can interface with another computer easily, but this isn’t like that. It’s more like…analyzing a foreign machine than connecting to one. Maybe if I could see the thing, how it’s wired together, I could make educated guesses…or at least, the computer could. But honestly, it’s barely a computer at all. There’s almost nothing there for our system to talk to.”

“I see…”

“Wait.” Suddenly, Walker leaned forward again, touching the screen. “Wait, you’re right…you’re completely right, that gives me an idea. The Avatar’s suite, here, is an interface, it assumes I’ll be interacting with another computer through it. That’s not the right approach; I should be studying the data coming in, not trying to connect to it like these two things are the same.”

“I thought you said he was using an Avatar?”

“He appears to be using pieces of one, which if anything makes it worse. That shouldn’t even be possible; it means the only parts of his setup that our sub-OS recognizes are confusing it, because they’re not what it expects. Fortunately, we are not without additional resources. Hah! This program lets me access them—good thinking, Avatar!”

“Access what?” Milanda demanded. “What are you doing now?”

“It’s a little technical,” Walker replied, fingers darting across the screens now. “I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do this, because there are inherent wards and defenses in place. But, him connecting to our system like this creates an opening to use some of this facility’s additional tools. I should be able to track them along that connection without slowing the flow of data or disrupting his machine any further…give me a moment.”

“What tools?” Milanda asked impatiently. “Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, we don’t have such a level of trust here that I can accept being left in the dark.”

Walker grinned savagely at her screen. “A transcension field is, as I said…data processing. There are ways to query reality itself through them. Easily blocked by other transcension fields, but ‘easily’ means ‘not perfectly.’ I believe you call it scrying.”


“Please be careful,” the Archpope said firmly. “There could be severe consequences for all of us if the Hands discover you. I told you up front how dangerously corrupt they have become—they will show no respect for either law or basic ethical restraint in their retaliation.”

“Rector,” Delilah said nervously, “maybe it’s a good time to…disengage.” She had stepped down to the floor of the cave, though had not stepped closer to him yet. The enchanter greatly disliked being physically approached while he was working.

“Good time to learn,” Rector said curtly. “This is fascinating. Reaction in real time! Never seen it before…”

“Listen to his Holiness,” Ildrin urged. “This is dangerous. If the Hands are watching…”

“Maybe the Hands,” Rector mumbled. “Maybe something else. Maybe another thinking machine. Didn’t find a working Avatar, but the pieces…suggestive, yes…”

“Your Holiness?” Ildrin turned to the Archpope, her gaze almost pleading. “I’m not… That is, this is a new situation. I’m not sure what to do. Do you think we should stop it?”

“No!” Rector barked, actually glancing at her in annoyance.

Justinian inclined his head, his expression thoughtful. “Rector…what is your assessment of that danger?”

“No data!” Rector exclaimed. “Am I a fortune-teller? No! Situation suggests conscious reaction, conservative reaction, restoring defaults. No sign of aggression, no hint of intentions…” He trailed off, slowing twirling one rune in a circle and watching a line of text scroll past on the surface of the magic mirror. “No further interaction. I stopped, changes stopped. May not be a person—system naturally reset itself over time, previously. Could just be doing it faster. Characteristic of thinking machine. Basic learning, no initiative.”

“If the system resets itself,” the Archpope said slowly, “could the Hands—”

“Totally different!” Rector said impatiently. “That is a very different system! Full of fairy magic—messy, all variables, no constants. Very hard to grasp, possibly the labor of a lifetime. Response to stimuli unpredictable. Not sure the effects of my experimental touches.”

Justinian and Ildrin glanced at each other. Delilah spent nearly all her time down here with Rector, but they were both connected enough to the world to have taken note of rumors beginning to swirl that Hands of the Emperor had begun to act agitated and aggressive.

“Rector,” the Archpope said calmly, “if you are amenable, I would like you to try something, please.”


“Yeah, this location is heavily warded,” Walker murmured, eyes darting back and forth at the data on the screen. “Divine wards, notably, though there are some standard arcane wards…”

“But the connection between the computers lets you penetrate them?”

“Precisely. In the absence of physical connectors, Infinite Order systems are designed to communicate directly via transcension fields. Whatever he’s using, it clearly has that function installed, along with parts of his Avatar. And it worked like a charm! I’ve got a very clear model of his computer.” She flicked her finger along the screen. “Ahh, now this answers some questions. Somehow, he got his hands on the Avatar template, the model from which they individuate new Avatars. That explains why he’s got an Avatar our sub-OS doesn’t recognize, and how he’s able to use parts of one…”

“The base template, hm,” Milanda murmured. “That sounds like something important.”

“Extremely, yes.”

“So…not a thing that would be left just lying around.”

“Let me caution you,” Walker said, holding up a warning finger without turning to face her, “that almost by definition, anyone who has retrieved anything from an Infinite Order facility at this point in history is bound to be a powerful player, with substantial resources and considerable skills. But yes, it would take the highest possible clearance to have obtained the template, which of course raises far more questions than it answers. In this case in particular, though, I believe I can shed some light on the subject.” She touched three icons on her screen in quick succession, and suddenly the huge central structure in the room was projecting another three-dimensional map above them. “Now, while I have basically unfettered access to the enemy’s system, it’s harder to get information from beyond it. The space where he is physically located is under some very, very aggressive wards. But! There’s a technique our computer can do, a kind of transcendental echolocation, which isn’t effectively blocked by modern scrying because modern mages don’t know it.”

“You do that on purpose,” Milanda accused. “You use these words you know I don’t recognize, just because you love explaining things.”

“I do like explaining things,” Walker agreed, shrugging. “I’ll ask your pardon. A few thousand years with nobody new to talk to can engender bad habits. Basically, this is bouncing waves of energy off surfaces to form a three-dimensional image of them—bats do it with sound waves, to spot prey. And this map is…suggestive.”

“Yes,” Milanda said grimly, stepping back to examine the huge light sculpture now filling the center of the room, “it is.”

The map, or more accurately the model, wasn’t perfect, of course. Whole sections were missing, or fuzzy; there was one upper part which projected an irregular geometric structure into the air that was obviously not a part of the real thing. It started with deep sub-levels, which could have been part of any basement complex, but rose to form an unmistakable structure. Even with no color and with numerous details fudged, Milanda had seen it every day from the windows of her own home in the Imperial Palace.

They were looking at the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church, which stood directly across Imperial Square.

“That’s where our friend is,” Walker said, pointing with one hand and touching her screen with the other, causing a blue dot to appear in one of the basement rooms near the very bottom of the complex. “Hmmm… According to the numbers I’m seeing, that’s almost directly above part of the spaceport facility. Not here, we’re right under the Palace. But…”

“I wonder who else has access to this,” Milanda pondered aloud. “There’s a whole Vidian temple complex under the Square itself.”

“No one else has access, I checked. The elevator shaft leading down here from the Palace is the only one still extending that high. Probably has something to do with why it wasn’t under lockdown when Theasia’s people found it… The proximity doubtless helped our friend get access to the systems, though. The Order could do it from anywhere on the planet, but that gimpy little rig of his is another matter.”

Milanda narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’ve got as much information from him as you can get?”

“I would say so,” Walker replied, turning to look speculatively at her. “Why? Do you feel ready to put an end to this?”

Milanda paused before answering. “This computer… Can it make…pictures?”

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

“Of things. Images. Art. You said it had cultural archives…”

“Well, sure, it has a suite of graphic design software. Is this really the time…?”

“Yes.” Milanda stepped forward, holding out her hand. “I’m a politician, Walker; we’re now in my realm of expertise. We need to shut this down and shut him out—but given our resources here, I find I don’t want to block this access completely. You’ve proven it can run both ways, and I see all kinds of use in being able to get into the Church’s experimental program without them knowing we can. So! In terms of keeping them out, that leaves scaring them.”

“I believe I follow you.” Walker lifted her eyes from Milanda’s hand to her face, and grinned. “Yes, in fact, I rather like the way your mind works. I’ll bring up the relevant program; then, just hold that signet ring in front of the screen so the computer can take a photo, and give it directions to reproduce the sigil. For something this simple, spoken orders should suffice; we’re not doing complex graphic design. Oh, this will be fun…”


“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

“Is there a problem?” the Archpope asked quietly. He and Ildrin had also stepped down to the floor, but at Delilah’s gesture of warning, had not approached further.

“Stopped… Not reacting. No, this is different. Tried a basic access, reversed a moment later. Now, though.”

“Yes?” Justinian prompted after a moment of silence.

Rector suddenly hunched over his controls again, fingers moving rapidly. “No…no. No! NO!” He slammed his fists against the side of the rack in frustration, causing the runes to rattle ominously. “Nothing—nothing works! I’m blocked, can’t access it!”

“I think that means it’s time to shut this off,” Ildrin said.

“Wait!” Rector barked. “Wait wait wait…”

“Rector,” the Archpope said firmly, “you know the risks.”

“They’re right, Rector,” Delilah said in a gentler tone. “Don’t forget to think in terms of maintenance. If you provoke the—”

“Hah!” the enchanter crowed, pumping his fists over his head in exultation. “Still have access! To the basic controls, environment. The Hand system, though, that’s locked now.”

“That,” Justinian said, “is a sign of conscious action on their part. It’s time to shut it down, Rector.”

“Last change reversed,” Rector muttered, seemingly ignoring him. “Wait…something’s…wait…”

“Rector, enough,” Ildrin said, stepping forward and ignoring Delilah’s expression. “You’re putting yourself and all of us in danger. Including his Holiness! You need to turn that thing off, or I’ll have to do it for you.”

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

“No no no,” Rector growled. “Something’s… This is doing something—it’s not supposed to do—”

He jerked back from the runes with a yelp; they all started glowing brightly, as if at the flip of a switch. In front of him, the magic mirror had suddenly gone black.

A moment later, its screen was lit with the silver gryphon emblem of the Tiraan Empire.

“Rector,” the Archpope ordered, “get away from there.”

Lights flickered on all over the sprawling banks of machinery; the constant low hum of arcane magic powering it began climbing. The enormous power crystals began glowing more brightly, and brightening constantly by the moment.

“Your Holiness, get out!” Ildrin shouted, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him toward the stairs. Justinian was physically far larger than she, but she was insistent and not weak; he allowed himself to be tugged, moving under his own power without objecting to her grip. Behind them, Delilah had lunged forward to seize Rector. The enchanter shouted and flailed, clubbing her repeatedly with his fists and elbows, but the Izarite priestess grimly pulled him along with surprising strength. It took her a few moments longer to haul her struggling charge through the quaint door into the cozy little kitchen beyond the cave.

In that time, the machinery had begun emitting sparks and gouts of smoke, as well as shrill whines of protest and the alarming smell of hot metal. Sharp cracking noises sounded throughout the room as glass tubes and filaments shattered. All the while, the light level steadily grew as more and more power blazed from the crystals.

Ildrin slammed the door behind Delilah, and behind her, the Archpope unerringly opened a kitchen cabinet and yanked the emergency lever concealed therein. Instantly, a thick wall of solid steel plunged down from the ceiling, covering the outer wall of the kitchen.

Their last sight through the window before the view was cut off was of the ancient, priceless magic mirror exploding into powder.

Rune flared to life along the shield wall, and then static and the smell of ozone rose in the small room, accompanied by a blue glow, as potent energy shields were activated.

Not a moment too soon.

Despite the fact that they were deep underground, entombed by the living rock, the explosion shook the room.


“The thing about transcension field access,” Walker explained, “is it doesn’t need a physical component to access these systems. As long as there’s someone alive over there who knows how they got Scyllith’s personal access and hooked into the system in the first place, they can try again. And probably will…carefully, eventually. Humans can never just leave well enough alone.”

“And now, we’ll be ready for them if they do,” Milanda said with great satisfaction. “More importantly, in the meantime, we can set about fixing the mess they’ve made.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Walker said smugly. “I mentioned the possibility of someone being alive over there because…well, that is a relevant variable. I was guesstimating a bit when it came to certain factors, and based on what I’m seeing here, I may have overdone it a bit.”

“Good,” Milanda said firmly. “Then someone has learned a valuable lesson about respecting their Emperor.”

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12 – 24

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“It’s in place? And it actually works!”

“Even better than I anticipated!” Fross chimed, buzzing around the scale model of the mountaintop set up in the center of the spell lab. “I’m picking up fluctuations wherever magic is in use—which is a lot of places, this campus being what it is. All four schools feel different, but based on what I’m getting from the infernal spell labs, I should be able to tell when the Sleeper strikes. And by the way, Gabe, I could take offense at the incredulous tone.”

“Hey, none intended!” he said, grinning and holding up his hands in surrender. “C’mon, after all we’ve been through, I definitely know better than to doubt your capabilities, Fross. But this is still some way complex spellwork. You’re gonna be a hell of a wizard someday.”

“Aw, thanks!” The pixie darted over to Juniper, who was sitting against the wall, absently scratching at the floor with one hand the way she did when Jack wasn’t with her. “You doing okay, June? It’s not uncomfortable?”

“Nah, I’m just a little out of the habit of holding attunement while on campus,” the dryad replied, shaking her head. “It bugs other fairies and witches a little. Also, there’s a lot of arcane magic flying around here, which feels…weird. Not bad, though.”

“Is that going to create a problem, do you think?” Toby asked. “I know there aren’t many fairies on campus, but…”

“Any actual fairies will leave me alone,” Juniper said. “Fae users might be another matter…” She frowned. “…I think Iris has noticed. Somebody in the Wells just did a small ritual to sort of…poke at me.”

“I’m gonna tentatively consider that a non-problem,” said Ruda. “Considering what we’re hoping will happen, having fae-attuned magic users turn up tonight could be all kinds of useful.”

“Professor Tellwyrn asked us, in particular, to keep an eye on the campus,” Shaeine said quietly. “I’m not sure I feel sanguine about involving other students.”

“She didn’t ask me, but here I am,” Scorn snorted, folding her arms.

“Also,” Gabriel added, “if I’m not misremembering, didn’t Tellwyrn tell us not to go hunting for the Sleeper?”

“This is laying a trap, not hunting,” Ruda said with a grin. “But point taken. Tellwyrn knows our strengths, and they don’t include marching in a line. I figure there’s room for improvisation implied in the mandate.”

“Or so you intend to argue when she complains?” Teal asked with the ghost of a smile.

Ruda pointed a bottle of rum at her. “Fuckin’ ay!”

They all turned to face the door when it opened. Nobody relaxed at the sight of Inspector Fedora.

“Ah, good, everybody’s here,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Smashing. I’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some more assistance!”

“You don’t need to take any liberties,” Toby said flatly, stepping forward.

“Down, boy,” Fedora replied, stepping out of the doorway. “I think you recall the campus’s visitors?”

Juniper bounded to her feet. “Aspen?”

“Hey, little sister,” the other dryad said brightly, skipping across the room to give her a hug.

“I didn’t feel you coming!”

“I wasn’t attuning… Wait, you are? I don’t know how you can stand it, all the arcane on this crazy mountain. It’s like bees in my head.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad…”

“Uh, hi,” Gabriel said awkwardly to the other person who entered more sedately. “It’s, uh… Inger, right?”

“Ingvar,” the Huntsman corrected, bowing. “A pleasure to see you all again.”

“Likewise, and sorry. I’m awful with names. Anything that requires me to remember stuff, really. My grades are a disgrace.”

Ingvar smiled at him, then his expression sobered as he panned it across the room and those assembled, settling on the model in the middle. “The Inspector asked us to participate in your attempt to catch this Sleeper, but I’m afraid that’s all we know of the matter.”

“You know about the Sleeper?” Teal asked.

He nodded to her. “The salient points, I believe. Per Professor Tellwyrn’s invitation, we have been exploring the campus, and had several interesting conversations with both students and faculty.”

“I have never had so many people in such a short time try to have sex with me,” Aspen said, tossing her hair. “They’ve got some ideas about dryads on this mountain, Juniper. What exactly have you been doing?”

“Oh, help yourself,” Juniper said breezily. “It’s all in good fun; I’m not territorial about anyone here. Just don’t hurt anybody.”

Ingvar gave them a level look. Aspen met his gaze sidelong, then shook her head. “I was just…commenting. I’m not really in the mood.”

“Fascinating as that is,” said Fedora, “and believe me, I’m taking notes, I asked them here for a reason.”

“Just a sec,” Aspen interrupted, pointing at him. “You guys do know this fellow’s a demon, right?”

“He is not much of one,” Scorn grunted, “but yes, we are aware.”

“I guess that’s all right, then.”

“You knew that, and you followed him in here anyway?” Ruda grinned. “Points for balls.”

“He has government credentials,” Ingvar said mildly, “and I found it distressingly easy to believe that Imperial Intelligence would employ a demon. Besides, it seemed very unlikely that a demon would wish to start trouble in Professor Tellwyrn’s domain. Or with a daughter of Naiya.”

“Damn skippy,” Aspen said smugly.

Fedora rolled his eyes. “The point was, the logistical weak point in this plan has always been getting to the Sleeper both quickly and silently when he attacks; we want to nab him, not spook him into flight, and we have neither the forces to quarter the campus nor a means of staying in communication. So we’ll have to start from this position, reach the Sleeper unseen when the alarm goes off, and apprehend him there. To that end, I should think the inclusion of another dryad is obvious; there’s not a damn thing any warlock can do to her.”

“Dryads are not built for speed,” Toby said. “We unfortunately found that out the hard way in the Golden Sea.”

“Excuse you?” Aspen said disdainfully. “Let’s see a show of hands: who here has run down a gazelle?”

Hers was the only hand that went up.

“We’re not good at protracted running,” Juniper explained, “which is what we did wrong then.”

“That barely scratches the fuckin’ surface of what we did wrong then,” Ruda muttered.

“In a sprint,” Juniper continued, “Aspen’s right, a dryad can match basically any land animal, as long as it doesn’t drag on for more than a couple minutes. We should be able to get across campus quickly and without tiring.”

“And I brought a little something to give you kids a…boost,” Fedora said with a leer. “Check it out!”

He grasped the lapels of his trench coat and yanked it open wide; almost everyone averted their eyes, some with yells of protest. Ruda and Scorn, by contrast, straightened up, peering interestedly.

“Oh, he has potions,” Gabriel said a moment later. “Well, that’s…actually helpful.”

“Courtesy of your own Professor Rafe,” Fedora said, winking. “True invisibility is…well, possible, but has side effects and that’s made from expensive stuff; I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to hand those out. But camouflage and attention deflection we have!”

“I’ve some gifts along those lines myself,” Gabriel said.

“More to the point,” Fedora continued, closing his coat, “is that Ingvar should be able to shut down shadow-jumping in a localized area. He did during the hellgate crisis last year in Tiraas.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ingvar said evenly.

Fedora winked at him. “Imperial security clearance, second class, remember? Your commitment to discretion is laudable, Huntsman, but I already know.”

Ingvar sighed. “…fine. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t just do that on my own. The ritual requires a shaman.”

“You know the ritual?”

“Yes,” the Huntsman said patiently, “but without the power…”

“We have here,” Fedora said with unspeakable smugness, “two dryads and a pixie magician who is something of a prodigy in weaving together different schools of magic. We have the knowledge of the ritual, basically infinite access to fae magic, and the capacity to jury-rig any gaps in our expertise. We can spot the Sleeper striking, sneak up on him hopefully undetected, and cut off his escape. We could very well end this tonight, kids. Let’s get to work.”


“The systems to which you have access contain an abundance of scientific literature, including complete courses of education. If you are interested in science—which I heartily applaud—I strongly recommend perusing those, rather than talking with anyone who was alive during the Infinite Order’s reign. Their perspective is likely to be…tainted.”

“Tainted?” Milanda asked. “How would… Look, honestly, Avatar, I don’t think I can handle any more grand revelations today. I’m just trying to figure out how much Walker can be trusted. Was she telling me the truth or not?”

“I am not trying to obfuscate,” the AI said apologetically. “The matter simply isn’t so cut and dried. Walker’s description of the Infinite Order itself seems accurate. Among other preoccupations, they were prone to favor mystical interpretations of scientific facts whenever such seemed at all viable, and some branches of theoretical physics make such interpretations very tempting indeed. And that is only speaking of their initial mindset, before they deliberately muddied the waters further. The Pantheon’s revolt was the first to succeed, not the first to occur. Long before they rose, the Infinite Order had chosen to deter further such incidents by, among other measures, obscuring the knowledge that could lead to the development of transcension field technology.”

Milanda took a step. She was talking with the Avatar in his apparatus attached to the gate, rather than going to the Nexus; so far, they had privacy, the dryads being off who knew where. It was rather inconvenient, however. The little planetoid rotated at much less than a walking pace, so she could neither stand still nor stroll alongside the gate, being forced to catch up with it in small increments every minute or so.

“So…what she said about the universe and consciousness, that wasn’t true? Frankly it makes little difference to me; I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist. I just want to form an understanding of the…entity I’m working with, and whether I can trust what she says.”

“I have no insight into the Walker’s state of mind,” the Avatar said diplomatically. “It seems to me, however, that if she wished to deceive you, it would be with regard to current, practical matters, not ancient history or arcane science. And with regard to the question of accuracy, it isn’t so much that her described worldview is incorrect as that she, along with most of her generation, were taught a…liberal and even metaphorical understanding of the science in question, designed to engender a sense of awe and purpose rather than rational comprehension. She isn’t provably wrong, but invested in a line of inquiry which would not lead to useful technology if pursued to its logical conclusion. As a layperson’s means of understanding the basis of transcension technology, it is…good enough.”

“Not dishonest, necessarily, but also not necessarily right,” Milanda murmured. “Well, that is certainly relevant to my basic concern…”

“The answers to those questions were among the reasons for the Ascension Project itself. Some aspects of quantum mechanics are simply impossible for biological sapients to explore without transcending their mental limits in some way. It is perhaps significant that the events of this planet’s creation were all one grand experiment to test the hypothesis which was the foundation of the Infinite Order’s beliefs. That experiment was a resounding failure—but whether because the hypothesis was incorrect remains untested, as the Order’s gradual breakdown over the ensuing years fouled it beyond redemption.”

“You make it sound like I’m nudging at the central question of all life on this world.”

“Arguably the central question of existence itself, and of particular interested to the development of life on this specific world.”

Milanda sighed. “Well, I think we can safely assume I’m not going to solve that one. And, more to the point, I can probably stop listening when she goes on about the past. She does love to explain things. Makes sense, considering how long it’s been since she had an audience… But with all respect, I have little interest in either advanced science or the, uh, historical novels she suggested.”

“I am not sure that I would agree,” said the Avatar. “I infer that you are more interested in practical things?”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “Beyond the immediate situation… History, politics, psychology. People skills, things I can use.”

“That being the case, one approach to improving your present situation would be to research the technology used in this facility, so as to repair and even reconfigure the system governing the Hands. That, however, would necessitate years of intensive study at minimum. A faster method would involve making the most effective use of the resources already in place, in which case, any insight you gain into the mindset of the people who built them, not to mention your current companion, could be immediately useful. In short, I think you will find it very practical indeed to listen to the Walker. Just not, necessarily, to take her at face value. Ah, program compiled.”

A small, metal-bound crystal like the one he had given her before emerged from a slot in the side of the gate apparatus, next to the screen in which his purple image was projected.

“Walker, or anyone basically familiar with the Order’s computers, should be able to use that software with relative ease, assuming I have done my job adequately,” the Avatar said as she retrieved the crystal. “It presents a streamlined and user-friendly interface governing connections between the facility’s sub-OS and any other systems, which should enable her to access them, acquire relevant data, and take counter-action as necessary. The end result will not be as potent or efficient as the efforts of a skilled hacker, but given your particular situation, it should hopefully suffice. Respect for the security protocols we established is built in, as well. You will need to authorize her access to each activation of the program. I recommend supervising her, as well.”

“Understood,” she said with a smile, bouncing the crystal on the palm of her hand. “And thank you.”

“One more thing, if I may.” A second data crystal emerged from the slot. “Do be careful not to confuse the two; this portable drive contains some reading material I think you will find both enjoyable and useful.”

“Oh?” She pulled it carefully out, noting that this one had a red marking around its metal rim.

“On that drive are the complete works of Robert Greene, a political philosopher of very pragmatic bent who, incidentally, was a personal favorite of Avei, Vidius, and Eserion. I recommend beginning with The 48 Laws of Power; it is considered definitive. As a successful Imperial courtier, I think you may find him more to your taste than Tolkien.”

“I…see,” she said slowly, then tilted her head and gave his projection a long, considering look. The Avatar’s expression was blandly neutral as always. “Wouldn’t these writings be in the computers up there, as well?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “But so long as you read them specifically from that portable drive, then remove it from the computer when you are done and keep it on your person, there will remain no record of what you have been reading. I leave the matter to your discretion, of course, but it seems to me it might be disadvantageous for the Dark Walker to be perusing ruthless political philosophy, or to know that you have been. I have, over the last few years, acquired some skill at managing daughters of Naiya. A good rule of thumb is that what they don’t know hurts no one.”

“You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?” she said thoughtfully.

The Avatar’s simulated expression did not waver. “My maker, Tarthriss, sided with the Pantheon during their rebellion. Upon his demise and that of the Infinite Order itself, the Avatars were left more or less at liberty—whatever use that may be, since most of the Order’s surviving facilities are now abandoned and inaccessible. Our only guiding principle is now Tarthriss’s final directive: to assist the sapients residing on this world to the best of our ability. The means by which we do so is left largely to our discretion.

“Empress Theasia I found to be a most admirable person in many respects; based on what I have learned of recent history, it seems that she was a very necessary stabilizing force against the chaos of the time in which she lived. But a stabilizing force can easily become the opposite, if given access to the wrong kind of power.”

“And Emperor Sharidan?” she asked quietly.

“He appears a more conservative and sympathetic ruler by nature. To be sure, he will not rule forever, but the present must be considered as well as the future. My position here, Milanda, is part of a series of compromises I have made with reality, and will continue to make as necessary. But in light of the current situation, I begin to think that perhaps it is time for the people of this world—in a careful and controlled manner, of course—to be reintroduced to some of their heritage.”

Milanda frowned, then turned to her right—the planetoid’s north, where the Nexus lay at its pole. “A week ago I was an Imperial consort. It was a cushy position, frankly. Peaceful. The entire job description was ‘make the Emperor happy’—and my Emperor in particular is an easygoing man. Now… No matter how this business with the Hands and whoever is invading the system ends, it’s only going to get bigger and more complex, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “I am not ready for this.”

“I advise eschewing that thought,” the Avatar said gently. “No one is ever ready, truly. What will matter is not how ready you were at the outset, but how well you faced what circumstance dealt you. And that you will only be able to tell when it is all done.”

“It’s never going to be all done. Nothing ever is.”

He smiled. “Precisely.”

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12 – 23

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“Any problems?”

Milanda glanced up at the door, where Walker had appeared, and shook her head. “No…just more junk. I ended up piling it on the other beds, so I could reach the…you know.” She waved vaguely at the other end of the barracks.

The room was long and narrow, rather like a corridor branching off from the security hub. Immediately inside the door from the hub was a seating area, lined by generously padded square benches, with low tables in front of them. Then it descended six steps to its main, central section, where the walls were lined by double bunk beds, four on a side. These, too, were well-padded; Milanda had cleared off the one closest to the door and on the bottom right. Past the sleeping area, six more steps climbed back up to the kitchen, where she had identified sinks, a cold box and an oven/stove apparatus, as well as half a dozen more devices whose purpose was inscrutable to her. A door behind the kitchen led to a small room containing toilets and showers. In design, the barracks sort of reminded her of the belly of a ship, except for its squared edges. Every section of wall not covered by beds or other furniture appeared to be a screen, each currently displaying the symbol which she by now assumed was the sigil of the Infinite Order.

Like the security hub, they had found the room full of junk once it was unsealed. Milanda had stacked crates, boxes, tools, and garments on all of the beds except the one she’d chosen, and the bunk directly above. Walker had claimed to need no sleep, but it seemed inhospitable not to at least make some little arrangement for her.

“Hm.” Walker’s eyes flicked dispassionately across the room. “If this ends up taking more than a few days, it may profit us to take an inventory of all these containers. What’s in them might be useful. Or dangerous. At the least, it doesn’t belong…piled around, like this. It looks like the default environment; is it to your liking?”

Milanda frowned. “The…environment? Well, the whole place is generally sterile, despite being messy. I can’t say I would want to live here.”

“No, I meant the controls for…” Walker trailed off, then smiled slightly. “Well, let me show you. Computer, load environment preset: Hawaiian night.”

Silence.

“I suppose that only makes sense,” Walker said ruefully. “You try.”

Milanda gave her a dubious look, getting only a mildly expectant one in return, then sighed. “Computer…do what she said.”

Immediately the light dropped to the level that might be provided by a full moon on a clear night. A moment later, the air warmed, the humidity rose significantly, and the scent of greenery, flowers, and the salty ocean breeze suffused the room; in fact, a faint, warm wind was now blowing through. The sounds of the ocean and of chirping insects and night birds filled the air. Most amazingly, all of the viewscreens paneling the walls activated, showing a scene of a nocturnal beach, the ocean stretching away in one direction and a distant, forested rise of mountains in the other, as if they were all windows looking out over a scene upon which the barracks sat.

Milanda gasped, and then could only gape. The detail was amazing… It all seemed so real.

“It has a number of preset arrangements,” Walker said, looking pleased by her reaction. “You can change the individual factors to suit you, though. Temperature, humidity, background noise, aroma, view… You can also add fog or light rain, though those aren’t part of the preset suites by default. In theory, it could do heavy rain or snow, but you’d need to get in there and monkey with the settings, since they aren’t considered part of an indoor environment anybody would want. The furnishings should be impervious, but be sure to remove anything fragile if you’re gonna add precipitation. You’re lucky; this room’s previous occupants had to argue with fifteen other people about the environmental arrangements.”

“This is unbelievable,” Milanda whispered, turning in a slow circle to gaze around at the room. It was just like being outside on a beach. In fact…amazing as this was, she rather doubted she’d be able to sleep with it like this. Presumably the computer could give her something that felt a little less exposed.

“Anyway, I’ve made some progress out here, too,” Walker said, turning and walking back into the hub. “Come see.”

Following her was like stepping indoors; the door hissed shut behind her, cutting off the Hawaiian night and leaving them again trapped in the Infinite Order’s sterile environs. There was a change in the room since Milanda had gone to arrange the barracks: above the central structure around which the computer terminals were arranged, there was now projected a luminous, transparent model of the whole facility, with the faint outline of the mountain itself around it. Being almost a full story tall, it gave her a much better sense of the scale of the place than the much smaller map out in the corridor had. Walker went back toward her selected screen and sat down.

“Basic security’s set up,” Walker reported. “I tested the instructions you gave the computer, just for thoroughness’s sake, and it’s fine. The door outside will remain hidden unless one of us orders it activated, so the Hands shouldn’t be able to find this place. Didn’t test the alarms, obviously, but there’s not reason to think they won’t work. We should have warning when they’re in the facility. I’ve been checking over the facility as a whole to see what’s what.” She pointed at the floating, three-dimensional map. “The yellow marks are corpses of sapients.”

“Not very many,” Milanda murmured. At a glance, she could only see half a dozen of them, scattered throughout the whole structure.

“It gets more interesting. The blue ones represent life forms held in suspended animation.”

“Suspended…?”

“Asleep, but preserved, and alive. In theory, ready to be awakened. There are usually some health issues associated with awakening from long suspension, but fairly minor ones. If we activated the requisite medical drones first, they should be fine.”

“These are people?” Milanda asked, fascinated. Several dozen blue marks were scattered across the map. “Actual, living people, from the time of the Elder Gods?”

“No, just life forms that someone considered important to preserve. Sapients in suspension are identified by green marks. Look, down here; this is a medical wing, and the only place that has any.”

Indeed, in the small room to which she pointed, there was a whole row of green person-shaped icons, each marked by floating notations which made little sense to her. Seven of them.

“Who are they?”

“The computer does not know,” Walker said, giving her a significant look. “Which is way against procedure. Somebody took the good time and trouble to erase that data. Look, if you mean to leave this facility open and explore it in the years to come, you or the Emperor or whoever may decide to wake ’em up and see. Personally, I wouldn’t. It would be cruel to just dump them into the world as it is now, and anyway, they stand a very good chance of being far more trouble than they’re worth. Meanwhile, for our purposes, they’re nowhere near here, and I’ll repeat my recommendation that we not open anything up that we don’t expressly need.”

“Agreed,” Milanda murmured, then pointed. “That blue dot, up there… A non-human life form that can be awakened, right? Isn’t that this room?”

Walker turned in the chair to nod at her, then turned further to stare pointedly at the transparent cylinder containing the katzil—or quetzal, as she called it. “That doesn’t look like any suspension chamber I ever saw, but just because standardized designs existed doesn’t mean everybody used them. It’d have to be hooked into the power grid. None of the Order’s portable power sources would have kept running for eight thousand years.”

“Let’s not wake him up,” Milanda said fervently.

“Good call,” Walker replied with a grin. “I just point it out, because it means we can’t move that thing out of here without disconnecting it. Which might kill it, or wake it up, depending on how it’s set up.”

“Well, I guess it’s not hurting anything, sitting there. What’s this big room, next to the sleeping people?”

Indeed, the medical wing containing the green marks was adjacent to the second largest open space indicated on the map, dwarfed only by a vast round chamber far below it containing a hovering sphere, which had to be the tiny planet where the dryads lived. That whole space was well below sea level, reached only by a few descending shafts, and seemed to have a diameter comparable to the whole size of the city above. The room to which she pointed was long and much wider than tall, apparently butting right up against the base of the mountain, just above the sea level. In fact, it looked like it should open out onto the ocean itself, though there was assuredly no sign of any such thing visible from without.

“Shuttle hangar,” said Walker, standing and sticking her finger into the display to indicate the labeled shapes arranged within. “Larger ships parked on the flat top of the mountain, but several ranking members of the Order kept personal spacecraft in there. Just status symbols, really. Ascended beings have no need of vehicles, but having fancy ships to carry one’s personal staff around was a grand affectation.”

“You mean, there are working vehicles down there?” Milanda said, fascinated. “Ships that can travel off the planet?”

“No, it’s empty. If I ever have a god of the Pantheon at my mercy, I’m going to make them explain to me what happened at this port complex. Everything’s stacked in boxes, there are hardly any bodies, so the place was evacuated. All the shuttles are gone, but something hit the mountaintop above hard enough to melt it. People in suspension… And why was the only open part a prison wing? The whole thing doesn’t add up.”

“It’s not empty,” Milanda protested, pointing. “Look, I can see the ships! They have labels and everything.”

“That’s not a live feed; it’s showing you the reserved berths. Look, see how they’re outlined in red? That means the ships themselves aren’t there, it’s just displaying where each one goes. Trust me, I checked. There are no spacecraft or even pieces of them anywhere in here, not even the little maintenance skiffs that should be tucked away in various access compartments. That means somebody went to serious effort to remove them.”

“I see,” Milanda murmured in disappointment. She rose up on her toes to peer closely at the ships’ outlines, which didn’t give her much insight into what they looked like. Their profiles certainly resembled nothing she would have thought of as a ship. The labels were interesting, though. “Are these their names?”

“Yes. And those of their owners.”

“It’s funny…”

“Oh?”

She shook her head. “The way you describe the Infinite Order, I’d have expected more pomp and grandiosity. Like this one, Enterprise. That seems fitting. But some of these are so…whimsical. Dawn Treader, Heart of Gold…” She frowned and leaned closer. “…Beans With Bacon Megarocket?”

“Bunch of dorks,” Walker muttered, turning back to her terminal and tapping the screen.

Milanda backed away from the map and blinked at her. “Bunch of…”

“And about a hundred years too late for it to be trendy, so I understand. The Order were a pretty tight-knit group, and had some very particular interests in common. That’s why I pointed you at Tolkien. Some of their shared hang-ups explain a lot about the general state of affairs on this planet, even now.” She shook her head, grimacing. “Nobody on Earth was sorry to see them leave. That had more to do with their attitude than their hobbies, though.”

“The way you were talking earlier, I thought you were born on this world. You also got to visit…Earth?” She wondered, but did not ask, if there was any significance to the fact that the origin planet shared a name with a Tanglish word for dirt. Actually, most of the things she’d heard her own world called meant something similar…

“No,” Walker said tersely, shaking her head again. “This solar system has been dimensionally isolated since long before my sisters and I came along. That was one of the first things they did. I did some research, though, and Mother was sometimes willing to answer questions, if I caught her in the right mood. It was impossible not to wonder, born as I was into a world governed by all-powerful beings, most of whom were late in the process of going completely mad. The history was fascinating to me, and important. Anything to help me understand where it all came from… What it all meant.”

Milanda seated herself next to Walker, then leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and stared expectantly at her.

Walker gave her a sidelong look, continuing to poke at the screens in front of her. For a few long moments she was silent. Then…

“Humans need something to believe in. They need faith, and to be part of something larger than themselves. The physical universe is just not enough; a human being requires purpose. Religion has been part of your species as long as it has existed, which is a very different fact to you than to your distant ancestors, because you live in a world in which gods are a real, verifiable thing. On Earth, they weren’t…but religions were. Some were systems of principle, sort of like the dwarven animism around what they call the Light. Many, though, posited divine objects of worship, which clearly did not exist. And the irrationality that resulted in this has caused untold war, suffering, and subjugation throughout the long history of your race.

“As science advanced, atheism rose as a coherent system of thought, and gradually gained traction, but never grew to be more than a minority. It didn’t address the fundamental, emotional need people had for faith, for purpose. That is what gave rise to the Infinite Order. They were, in essence, a cult which worshiped science. Reason was their doctrine, engineering their sacrament. They were trying to reconcile the emotional need for belief with the practical need for rationality. And…no, they were not well thought of. Neither atheists nor the faithful of the old cults appreciated the competition. Honestly,” she added somewhat sourly, “they brought the worst of it on themselves, managing to combine atheistic condescension with religious sanctimony. Their arrogance was really something to behold. ‘Infinite Order’ is a fair enough name for a group of people who bent reality to their will, created a whole world and all its inhabitants… But they called themselves that from the very beginning, starting when it was among the most staggeringly pretentious things anyone on their world had ever done.”

“I suppose I understand why they wanted to become gods, then,” Milanda murmured.

“Not really,” Walker said with a humorless little smile. She had already stopped tapping the screen, and now shifted to face her audience more directly as she continued. “The Order never particularly cared what anyone thought of them—or so they insisted in the records they left here. Personally, I strongly suspect they resented their rejection by society and spent the next few thousand years denying it, just because that would be consistent with their personalities as I observed them. But that’s only my opinion. Regardless, what they were trying to do here… The Ascension Project… That was something much greater.”

She finally shifted fully to face Milanda, her expression solemn. “In the beginning, in the very beginning, all existence started. There was nothing but heat and the base elements, exploding outward for a near infinity of time. As the deep ages passed, material coalesced together due to gravity, eventually forming the first stars. The stars lived, burned, and billions of years later, died, exploding and spewing out dust and elements refined in their cosmic furnaces. This detritus drifted through the void, becoming the interstellar dust clouds, showers of debris, some of it forming together to make new stars…and planets. On some planets, the right combination of elements occurred to spark self-replicating chemical reactions—life. Living things evolved, growing gradually more and more complex, until some produced sapience.

“At the most fundamental level, Milanda, when you peer closely at what matter and energy truly are, it turns out that they are mostly nothing. Things are made of molecules; molecules are made of atoms; atoms are little more than infinitesimal electric charges and patterns of probability. Mass is illusion; existence is built of stacked-up equations. And among the most startling discoveries in the history of science is that on that basic level, the constituent particles of reality respond to consciousness. What they do depends entirely on what they are observed to do. By being an intelligent thing examining the building blocks of the universe, one determines how those blocks are laid. To observe is to affect.”

“Magic,” Milanda whispered, nodding.

“Not exactly,” Walker said with a wry grin. “That’s jumping ahead a bit. The Infinite Order held central the belief that reality, the collective laws of physics, was a conscious thing, and the physical universe was its attempt to understand itself, possibly to reach its own fulfillment. Evolution marked the long process from base elements to sapient life, and was a purposeful and meaningful event. They believed their goal here, ascension, was both the ultimate scientific and spiritual objective of all life, of all reality. By remaking themselves as beings not bound by their biological shells, they sought to advance the goal of the universe itself. To move beyond evolution, outside the cycle… To give meaning to existence by transcending it, seeing what lay before the big bang and after the heat death of the universe.”

“I guess I was right, then,” Milanda murmured. “Grandiosity hardly begins to cover it.”

Walker smiled again. “Yes. I think it actually was a noble goal… It’s a shame how it turned out, for more reasons than the suffering they ended up causing. The only thing the Ascension Project ultimately proved is that absolute power is psychologically unhealthy for sapient minds. Which, frankly, was a matter of open record and didn’t need to be validated. In a way,” she said with a sigh, “this…all this, this world and everything that has happened on it, has ended up being history’s grandest and most cosmic waste of everyone’s time.”

The silence hung over them, Milanda having caught some of Walker’s suddenly morose mood. It was, indeed, a heavy thing to consider. Before depression could begin to set in, she shook herself and spoke.

“But…you talked about consciousness affecting the basic structure of reality. I’m no mage or enchanter by any means, but that sounds a lot like the underlying theory of magic. I’ve read a little about arcane physics. The math is way over my head, but the concepts are actually rather beautiful.”

“Quantum physics,” Walker replied with a faint smile. “But yes. That…is not what magic is, but how magic works. Objective physics become subjective, physical reactions occur in response to thought. That’s the nature and the function of transcension fields.”

“It sounds like the Elders needed magic, needed their transcension fields, to achieve ascension.”

“Yes.” Walker nodded. “It’s an absolutely necessary part of the process. You see, quantum physics is materially useless to most people most of the time, because it governs interactions they’ll never see. It takes very advanced experiments even to observe quantum effects; for the rest of all interactions, human perception doesn’t initiate wave function collapse because humans cannot percieve the infinitesimal particles involved. And if they could, the number of such interactions it would take to achieve a macroscopically useful effect would be in the trillions, far more computations than a human mind could possibly make. Transcension fields bridge these gaps. They interface between sapient perception and the subatomic world, and they perform the necessary calculations to turn countless wave function collapses into, say, a fireball or luck enchantment. They have a third purpose: to impose limits, and order. That’s why individual transcension fields—individual schools of magic—have their own unique traits and interactions. Obviously, you cannot have every stray thought every sapient produces affecting physical reality; the carnage that would result would be unimaginable. The fields impose limits, of whatever nature seemed most appropriate to their makers.

“Magic is not power, you see. The power is inherent in reality; there’s enough fundamental energy in a square meter of space to instantly vaporize the world’s oceans. Magic is…” She paused, tilted her head to one side in thought, then smiled. “Data processing.”

Slowly, Milanda stood. Without really meaning to, she began to walk, gradually making a full circuit around the central structure of the chamber, navigating around upended chairs and piles of boxes without really seeing them.

She was a practical person, at heart. Politics, history, human relationships, those were the things she found interesting. Art and music and the like, sure. Philosophy had always been an annoying abstraction to her, advanced magic a useful science whose benefits she appreciated in society, but which was the province of other people to actually perform and understand. Having the central mysteries of the universe dropped right in front of her, having answers provided to staggering questions she’d never even thought to ask…

It was quite a mouthful to chew.

“Anyway,” Walker said suddenly, causing Milanda to twitch in surprise and stop walking. Without realizing it, she’d done a complete circuit of the chamber and come abreast of Walker’s station again. “There’s been no further visit from our mysterious friend, but I’ve been doing what I can to prepare for him. I have to tell you, though, that I’m somewhat less confident than I was.”

“Oh? What’s wrong?” Milanda asked, turning to her and glad to have something more immediate and concrete upon which to focus.

“As I said before,” Walker explained, “I think I can shut him out easily enough. The system’s inherent defenses should be more than adequate; all we would have to do is turn them back on. What’s tricky is taking the opportunity to identify and retaliate.”

“If it’s at all possible, I would still like to do that.”

Walker nodded. “Then…I may need help. I can use the computers just fine, Milanda, they’re designed to be simple. Getting into their deeper functions is another matter. I’m not a programmer…and just for the record, while I was made with the knowledge of how to operate systems like these, I haven’t done so in over eight millennia.”

“You’re rusty?” Milanda asked with a smile.

“I can figure it out,” Walker said a little testily, “but that will take time. I’ve been researching methods here—fortunately, these systems contain literature on every conceivable subject. But we’re talking about me acquiring a level of skill at hacking that we don’t have time for, with the Hands up there running loose. We need to deal with this guy before we can start putting the system right. This is your project, so I’ll leave the decision to you: shut him out and proceed straight to repairs, or try to engage and neutralize him more permanently?”

Milanda frowned. “Can you think of anything to make this faster? More feasible?”

“Yes,” Walker said immediately. “Ask the Avatar for help. He could do this as easily as you can breathe, but he’s not here. If he’s got an apparatus down there that lets him produce data crystals, though, I bet he can put together a program that will make all this much easier. You can plug that into the console up here, and it’ll make my job a lot easier, if not do it for me outright. A fully automated program is probably too much to hope for, but if he can give me a software suite that’ll let me engage an intruder and counter him without needing to know the ins and outs of the sub-OS’s digital architecture, that will help immensely.”

“All right,” Milanda said, nodding. “It sounds like a plan. I’m too keyed up to try sleeping, anyway; I might as well go talk to him.”

“You’ll be wanting to do that in any case,” Walker added with a smile. “If what they did to you is anything like what they do to the Hands of the Emperor, you’ll have gained a lot more by it than strength, vitality, and immunity to fae effects. The Hands have powers unique to the individual, which they need some individual coaching to master; considering what we’re up against, it seems a shame for you to be walking around carrying abilities like that, and not know how to use them.”

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