World 70: Journey to the Western

ONCE UPON A JOURNEY TO THE WEST

Previously: A Dash of Preparation

Themesong: Go West by Pet Shop Boys

“And I hope you’re all sorry for what you did!” I glared at a full half of my companions, some of whom actually looked contrite… mostly elements of my family (Mini, Velma, the kids, but also Anne and AJ)… while the others were a mix of sulky (Raven, Brigid, Toph, & Uriel), rebellious (Ahab, Kendra, Bart, & Bao), and smug (Cirno, Carwyn, Francine, Gaius, & Meetra). The remainder of the ‘traitors’ each had their own reaction. Zane seemed indifferent, as if the lecture hadn’t applied to him. The Lost Choir looked as if they were more pleased to be being lectured than they had been about breaking the rules and were holding a dick-measuring contest of whose ride had been the most horrible. Amelia had taken it like a military officer being upbraided for breaking a rule that both she and the one doing the chewing-out knew had been for the best to be broken. Meetra looked like a Jedi, in that she was concealing her emotions completely. Joy’s expression showed that she understood my point, but considered it largely irrelevant… and Franchesca was asleep… on a tree-branch… without pants on.

I’d filled in my knowledge of who they had each been. Velma had been Siona, Raven had been Darwi, and Meetra had been Miles. Joy had been Duke Paul, Ahab Duke Leto, and Alex had indeed been Leto II… both of them. Hwi had been Amaryllis, who giggled at how she’d almost married her brother (not that there could have been anything sexual with the Jabba-esque Worm-Emperor). And Chani had been both Mini and Frankie in a double that was just… weird.

Maggie had, of course, been Alia, and I’d tanned her backside and then given her all the hugs and then a huge independant lecture and then more hugs. Oooo… sooo frustrating children can be.

Every one of them was grounded from the next… which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. They weren’t confined to the warehouse… they were just stuck using the Baseline Import Rule, which meant that they were also limited to defensive abilities and minor TP for the duration. Of course, I’d verified that the next jump was not, in fact, Assassination Classroom first. Letting my companions out when there was a chance the world could blow up under them was a bad move.

As it turned out, it was called ‘Journey to the Western’.

“Uh… Chamber. Is that a typo? I thought you said this was Journey to the West?”

“That is correct. But Zane made a joke that distracted me as I was linking the realities. As such, I accidentally connected to a version of Journey to the West set in the period of American History known as the Old West.”

“Wait… so, what, instead of going from China to India… we’re going from New York City to Los Angeles?”

“Boston to San Francisco, actually. Yes. Though you are not required to join the Monk’s journey, your stay will coincide with the quest to retrieve the Buddhist Sutras in the West and return them to the East.”

“I suppose that makes a certain twisted kind of logical sense… but… I suppose just offering to transport the quartet… oh. Sorry, quintet… can’t forget the horse… from one side of the country to the other would work?”

“That is entirely up to you, as always,” came the annoying response.

“Riiight. Just like Sun Wukong could have just transported Monk Tripitaka the across the vast distance but didn’t. It’s the journey, not the destination or something.”

“I am but a simple Chamber of the Ordeal. What would I know about facing tribulations?”

“Har… Har.  Fine. What are we working with?”

“This is, essentially, the Journey to the West document with the Generic Western overlay. So you get 1000 CP and 1000 WP, plus up to 600 of each from Drawbacks, as usual,” the Chamber said. “Do you want to look at them first?

“Mmm… yeah. That might work… oh, my Floating Discount from Single-Shot… does that apply to both or just one? And do my feckless minions get CP and WP?”

“That is a good question. If you import them, you’ll get what you pay for, but you’d have to import them into each document to get their full points. Otherwise, they’d just get the basic… but they’d get both. You… I don’t really see that 100 CP being a gamebreaker… Sure, you can use it for both, but only once in each.”

“Gotcha… Roger Roger… mmm… I need someone to talk this stuff out with… but it can’t be someone who’s grounded… Petraaa!”

“Whaaaat?!” She stomped into view. “I was busy!”

“Busy with what?”

“Stuff!” She snapped… I don’t think she knows how cute she is when she’s crabby.

“Come over here and keep me company while I make choices,” I patted the arm of my throne. Petra eyed it and siiighed melodramatically, then clomped over in her overly large boots and glared up at me. Petra has always been shorter than me when we’re both humans. I default to just under 5 feet. Petra defaults to just over 4, and she’s built like a little fireplug.

“This is stupid. You don’t normally import me unless it’s a group import. Not that I care or anything,” She frowned.

“Do you want to be imported more?” I asked. She shrugged, then pulled away as I ruffled her hair.

“Nooooo… I mean, you don’t import Dyna or RayRay that often either. It’s okay. Not like you ignore us.”

“Well now I feel guilty,” I said, widening the seat and patting it until the grumpy metallic girl sat next to me with a slouch and a flump.

“You shouldn’t! Imports aren’t about friendship! They’re about utility! I don’t need more moves… I’m fine as I am. I don’t need to evolve more!”

I gave her a hug. “I know. But I feel like I’ve been ignoring you because you’re so quiet. You don’t have to just sit back and let the others monopolize me just because you’re shy.”

“I’m NOT SHY!” She blushed slightly blue and pouted. “What’s Journey to the West?”

“You’re changing the subject, but fine. Journey to the West is one of the Four Pillars of Chinese Literature… of which there are actually five. Bandits of the Marsh, also known as Water Margin; Romance of the Three Kingdoms… which the Dynasty Warriors games are based on; The Story of the Stone, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber; and The Plum in the Golden Vase, also known as The Golden Lotus, which is the fifth and widely banned for sexual content… and kind of an unofficial sequel to Water Margin.”

“That’s stupid… why would a banned book be considered a pillar of national literature?”

“Because it’s brilliant and ahead of its time. Very modern and one of the earliest true novels in world history. It’s been compared favorably to Tale of Genji, Pride and Prejudice, and Don Quixote. Sometimes a sixth book called ‘The Scholars’ is added to the group.”

“I haven’t read those either… they don’t have enough enemy squashing. I like Dynasty Warriors… I didn’t know they made a book of it.”

“Other way around, you twit. And you should read more.”

“Reading is boring! It takes all my attention, but only one of my brains!” I rolled my eyes and nuggied her.

“Fine. No reading. But to explain Journey to the West in simple terms is no easy task,” I said, leaning back and studying the ceiling. “At its most basic, it is the quintessential road-trip adventure. The Monk Tang Sanzang, usually just called Tripitaka after the main body of holy Buddhist texts… this is essentially like calling a christian priest ‘The Monk of the Bible’… sets off from the Tang Dynasty lands in eastern China for Tianzhu or the Dahila Kingdom… part of what you’d call India, where he plans to retrieve copies of the original Buddhist scripture to spread across China. The Chinese Goddess slash Buddhist Bodhisattva Guan-Yin or Avalokitesvara, seeing that Tripitaka is essentially helpless, supplies him with three guardians slash disciplines to serve him. They are promised enlightenment and amelioration of their former sins for this aid. Sanzang is based on the real world figure Monk Xuanzang, but while Xuanzang was wise and experienced, and went alone on foot, Sanzang is incredibly naive and idealistic… and rides a dragon that’s pretending to be a horse.”

“Sounds really boring.”

“Would you say that if I told you that the reason the Monk needs to be defended is because there are literally hordes of demons and monsters along the way who believe they can become immortal by eating the Monk’s flesh?”

“Mmm… maybe?”

“How about if I told you that the guardians include a former Heavenly Marshall named Pigsy or Zhu Bajie, who got drunk one night and tried to molest the goddess of the moon; a former Heavenly General banished for breaking the Divine Queen Mother’s goblet or vase in a fit of pique, named Sandy or Sha Wujing; and a former Heavenly Stablemaster who broke into the divine orchard, ate a bunch of the Peaches of Immortality, stampeded the Heavenly Dragon-Horses, and then broke into the heavenly pill forge and stole the pills of Immortality.”

“Wow… those are not the same level of crimes at all. Sands was a bit of a jerk. The Pig was an asshole… but that last one, he was like a terrorist… what did you say his name was?”

“Sun Wukong.”

“Su… The Monkey King? I know him! He’s awesome! So this book is like fanfiction?”

“No, sweetie… This is the book Sun Wukong, or in Japanese Sun Goku, is from. Dragonball is essentially Journey to the West fanfiction. Though don’t feel so sorry for Wujing… after being exiled he became a river demon and ate the first nine monks who went to fetch the scriptures… he even wore a necklace made from their skulls.”

“Whoa… deep. So, they do all this stuff, kick all the demon-monster butt, and get the scrolls at the end?”

“In the original story? Yes. Tripitaka and Wukong become Buddhas, The Buddha of Sandalwood Merit and The Victorious Fighting Buddha respectively, Sandy becomes an Arhat, The Golden-Bodied Arhat specifically, and Pigsy becomes an Altar Cleaner.”

“Buddhas are the highest level of enlightenment, and Arhats are below Bodhisattvas… but Altar Cleaner?”

“He gets to eat the offerings at every Buddhist temple for eternity but doesn’t get enlightenment.”

“Wow… what a pig,” She snarked. “So… I ain’t never sat through one of these… what happens next?”

“Well, the Chamber was about to tell me what Drawbacks I could inflict on myself… and potentially all of you.”

“Yeah… those ones that screw us all are sooo wonderful! I like those the best!” She is such a brat… but she is a steel crab… with a big hammer.

“Oh, hush you. Sometimes they’re fun! Anyway… Chamber, what do we have?”

“Journey is not particularly verbose, with only 8 potential drawbacks. ‘Sealed’, which you won’t take, means the Buddha has sealed all your powers. Oddly, this is probably the safest jump I’ve seen to deal with such, since that gives you maxed CP and if you’re not following Tripitaka and company, all you have to do is survive Tang dynasty China for a decade.”

“Mmmm… I’ll think about it, but no, probably not. Only my powers? Not my gear? Not my warehouse or companions?”

“Nope. Just powers. And only the ones from out of jump,” The chamber confirmed.

“Huh. Not too bad for a six hundred. Next?”

“For 400 you can be forced to follow Tripitaka. But if he fails, you fail.”

“Heh. No. Chain-enders are never worth the stress. Xuanzang would be okay. He’s not an idiot… but Tripitaka is. Almost feel sorry for Sun Wukong, putting up with that never listens quick to punish twit.” I shook my head, then explained to Petra about how Wukong is controlled by an unremovable diadem on his head that tightens painfully whenever the Monk recites a mantra and how the monk repeatedly punishes Wukong for killing demons pretending to be humans without listening to or trusting Wukong at all.

“Sounds like an abusive Poketrainer… with a… mmm… Infernape, a Spoink, and a Gyrados… and some dragon as an HM slave,” Petra said, kicking her boots against the base of the throne. It was an annoying sound, but I toned it out and summoned a plate of poffins to keep her distracted.

“Sounds like, yeah. Next?”

The Chamber continued, “For 300, you can have earned the wrath of Heaven… meaning they’ll send out the same level of forces that could capture Sun himself… and their orders will be to execute you… or you can get your own circlet which will kill you if you kill the controller.”

“Who’s the controller?”

“Who can say? Someone who will have tasks for you to fulfill.”

“No chance on either of those. I’m not certain I can fight gods powerful enough to take down Sun Wukong, and letting some unknown control me… that’s a recipe for disaster. Next?”

“For 200 you can become a hot-head with poor impulse control and no knowledge of propriety, procedure, or etiquette. You’ll be able to relearn those skills, but it won’t stop improve your attitude. Also for 200 you could be a vegetarian… no meat at all. Fruit, Vegetables, and Grain.”

“That sounds more like vegan than vegetarian, but I could do that,” I said, considering carefully as I rubbed my chin.

“Aren’t you morally opposed to vegetarianism?” Petra commented.

“Rather, I deny there is morality inherent in it. It’s a choice no better or worse than most. I don’t endorse it, but I don’t think those who embrace it are foolish or repugnant. And I do like fruits, nuts, and grains. Milk and Eggs, Butter and Cheese, those things are wonderful and I’ll miss them… but a decade is a short enough time. I’ll be okay. That’s +200… eh, toss in the other one too.’

“Undisciplined?” Petra asked, looking at a pad with just the names of line-items and prices.”

“That’s got to be the one, yeah. See, there are only two +200 drawbacks, so it has to be,” I stole one of her poffins. They’re made with berries and grain… “Don’t select Vegetarian yet. Let’s go get some dinner. Chamber, switch over to the tabletop at the dining room.”

“I… I can do that?” The Chamber’s voice showed it was mildly surprised at the idea.

“It’s made of the same stone as your… Chamber. Quarried from the same block in fact. In fact, so are five tables in the town square and several book-blocks in the game room. I imagine you should be able to move between them through the same act of will that allowed you to move between the Corus Chamber and the Warehouse Chamber.”

“I… had almost forgotten that. It is strange… having never before been subject to temporality, I’ve never needed the concept of a memory before. Recalling the past is… an interesting experience. But yes. Very well.”

Sitting at the table and consuming my last taste of flesh for a decade, I asked “What are Monkey and Ire of Heaven?” recalling the final two drawbacks from the glance I’d given the tablet.

Petra, who’d decided to eat a bucket of peppermint ice-cream… metal bucket and all… clutched her bucket and glowered at the table as the Chamber’s face formed on it and said, “Ire of Heaven means the denizens of Heaven don’t particularly care for you, but aren’t openly hostile to you. Monkey means you’re a monkey. It specifically warns against showing up or disrespecting Sun Wukong.”

“Hurrr… Well, I’ve been a Monkey before. I could do that again if I need to… but I’ll give Ire a nod, which brings me tentatively to 1500, and leave Monkey waiting in the wings if I need the last hundred. Is there a companion import built in?”

Petra shook her head, the telepathically spoke so she wouldn’t have to stop eating. “The only thing in the Companion section for Journey is the Global Import Rule. Should I poke it?” I nodded and she continued, “The West section has ‘Deputy’ and ‘Posse’ for 200 each and Global for 400. Deputy is a single import with 400 Western Points and Posse is 8 with only a background, human form, and history.”

I sighed. “Good thing I negotiated the Global Rule. Fine. Buy both, and bring up the Western Drawbacks, then give me a breakdown.”

Petra snapped a spoony salute and brought up that section of the list, then peered at it myopically… or maybe just crossly. Medbay guaranteed no optical problems, but couldn’t really stop a giant metal crab-girl from being a crankypuss. “Three at +100… Water?, Jumper the Singing Cowboy, and Rules in a Knife Fight. Gonna guess the first makes you have trouble finding water, the second makes you sing all the time, and… I dunno about the last one? Makes you have to follow the rules or something when there normally wouldn’t be any?”

The Chamberface ahemmed. “It’s my task to explain such things, you glorified note-taker.” Petra bonked the face on the nose with her spoon, frowned at it, then stuck her tongue out at Chamber. It was unfazed by either violence or petulance. “Water means that our dear EssJay will spend much of the decade constantly parched and dehydrated, though booze will still be plentiful. Jumper the Singing means that not only will EssJay sing everything, but her supporters… or horse… will be compelled to provide harmony. Either that, or she’ll have to speak entirely in palindromes. Rules means that she’ll be bound by a belief in honor and sportsmanship and all that ‘hornswoggle’.”

Petra giggled, “Hornswoggle? That sounds like a Poketype!”

I nodded. “It kind of does,” I agreed.

I was about to request they continue, but Petra suddenly stopped giggling and glared at me. “You better not be thinking of making me sing,” she accused… which of course, meant that I just had to take Jumper the Singing Cowboy. She was right. The potential for humor and annoying my companions was just too high. It wasn’t like it would particularly bother me. I liked musicals. But I’d save that for a final surprise. Petra looooved surprises.

“Right… +200s?”

“Three more. A Cowboy Rides Alone, Frail, and The Outlaw Jumper Wales,” Petra read outloud, before ripping a chunk of the stainless steel of the bucket off and using it to scoop up some of the frosty goo inside. I gave the bucket a minor blast of frost to keep it cold and turned to Chamberface for an explanation.

“Alone guarantees your friends, lovers, and allies will all leave within a week, either by choice or a bullet,” Jump-Chan began, earning a disgusted snort from me and a sharp nod of agreement from the crabgirl. “Frail gives you a horrible wasting incurable untreatable disease that won’t kill you but will leave you very weak and cause you to constantly cough up blood… and you can’t drink booze.” that was another no right thar. “And Outlaw means that the entirety of the US government is after you, from the Feds to the Army. They’ll send their men by the hundreds until you’re brought to justice.”

“Oh… no. not the US government! How will I ever face off against hundreds of rifle armed normals. Give me the points.” Petra smirked at that, then tried to pretend she didn’t.

“I do not think you are giving this drawback the respect it deserves,” The Chamberface said. “But, unfortunately, I am not empowered to elevate drawbacks to a reasonable threat level.”

“Good. And you shouldn’t. I’ll still have to deal with the annoyance value if nothing else. What about the +300s?”

“Nothin’ But a Man… that’s probably a powerless… and Saint of Killers… isn’t he from a comic book?”

“From Preacher,” I said. “Total psycho… but then again, everyone in Preacher kind of is… but no amount of points is worth it. He never misses and every shot is mortal… and unless I’m remembering incorrectly, he fucking murdered the Devil and God. So no. just. No.”

The Chamberface spoke up at that. “Yes. I can’t imagine who thought that was a sane option to add, and for what seems a paltry price unmatched by the value of anything on offer in the jump. And yes, your petulant crab is correct. Nuthin’ But a Man strips you and your companions of powers, perks, and technology from other worlds. It also locks the Warehouse.”

“Yeah… no. So, 1500 or 1600 CP for Journey, 1300 WP for The West. Cool.”

Petra blinked slowly, looking at her pad. “1200 WP. You only took Outlaw Jumper Wales.” she said with a frown. I reached over and tapped Singing Cowboy, then crossed off boy and penciled in girl, just so the Jump didn’t try to reverse my gender to annoy me… not that I couldn’t just shift it back, but the default gender of each new form is set at entry… or do I mean sex… not that it really matters when you have been as many people as I have been… psychology has never been my strong suit… I should research that some time when I had a spare decade… and didn’t have a metal-crab trying to gnaw my hand off.

“It’ll be fun!” I told her, prying her jaw off my arm. She glared at me. I smirked back at her. She threw her spoon at my head, but I snatched it out of the air, reversed it, and stole some of her ice-cream. She hugged it defensively and pouted at me. Soooo cute! “So… back to Journey… Well, I assume my starting location is set by Western, not Journey?”

“Negative. You will be starting in Yama, the Chinese Afterlife.”

“I… Will? I’m dead?”

“Negative. But you will have to deal with the bureaucracy to get out… or fight your way through the residents.”

“Vunderbar. Yah. Dis vil be zooo much fun.” I handed back the spoon and Petra sullenly resumed eating, now down to below 2 gallons. “Zo… So… backgrounds?”

Checking the tablet, Petra said, “In Journey, your options are Monk, Warrior, Immortal, or Demon. That last is free. Monk and Warrior are 100 and Immortal is 200. In West, Drifter is free, while Lawman, Cowboy, Gambler, and Bandito are all 100.”

“Mmm… Let’s be a Demon Gambler. I assume that Demon is the one based on Wukong himself, spiritual powers, cloud, transformations, enlightenment… martial prowess?” I asked.

“Actually, despite the legendary prowess of the Monkey King and many of the other figures in this myth cycle… the only Martial Arts on offer is a basic competence with a knock for keeping your cool in a fight… and that’s in the Warrior line… but aside from that, yes. Demon is the drop-in line, which includes the somersault cloud, 72 transformations, and enlightenment… as well as a freebie called ‘Forager’ which means you can always find just enough food and water to survive, though the quality will vary depending on the local climate.”

“Well… that’s just strange… but okay. Fine. I don’t need the Forager, but it’s free, so I’ll take it. Also don’t need the 72 transformations. I’m already an accomplished Shape-Shifter… and the transformations are pretty much just tricks… also, they can be learned in the setting… they’re techniques after all. According to the text, the Somersault Cloud can cover more distance in a single leap than exists between any two points on earth… though the Cloud thing is mostly just an artistic reference more than an actual cloud… I’ll take that if it’s not too pricey… what, exactly does Enlightenment do?”

Petra said, “The Cloud is only 100… that leaves you with 1000 CP.”

The Chamberface added, “The speed is listed as 33,554 miles in a single leap. Yes. or 30,000 steps to the sun. Though if you combine this with Transliminal Stride and Flash-steps or Shunpo, you’ll probably be able to reduce that a bit.”

“No doubt, no doubt… Enlightenment?”

“Greater spiritual awareness, greater wisdom, longer lifespan, fantastic magic such as the clone technique, size-shifting, charms to ward against fire and water, command the wind, protect against demons, and freeze even gods in their tracks. It costs 300 CP.”

I smirked, “Grooovy. I’ll take it. That’s 700 CP. Can I buy a Ruyi Jingu Bang?”

“Yes. It will cost you another 300 CP to acquire a long forgotten duplicate Iron Clasped Wishing Staff that Yu the Great used in the Southern Sea instead of the Eastern Sea… though Ao Guang may attempt to take it to replace the one Wukong stole.”

I considered, then nodded to Petra to add it. “Now. just so we’re clear. Ao Guang is still the god of the East China Sea, not of the Atlantic right? And the Southern Sea is still the South China Sea, not the Carribean?”

“Such distinctions are meaningless under heaven. The Eastern Sea is the Eastern Sea, the Southern Sea is the Southern Sea… their location doesn’t really matter… this is mythology,” The Chamberface supplied, sounding put out I didn’t know that already.”

“Fiiiine. Whatever, mom!” I snarked, then considered. “Peaches of Immortality?”

“200 CP.”

“How many Peaches do I get for that? What grade? Are we talking about 3,000 year peaches, 6,000 year peaches, 9,000 year peaches, or Man-fruit?”

“Man-fruit?” Petra and the Chamberface asked in near perfect sync.

“Man… 10,000 years. The greatest peach tree around is the Man-Fruit tree which look like a newborn and have senses. Smelling one grants 360 years of extended life. Consuming one grants 47,000 years,” I explained “Those who eat the 3,000 year fruit becomes an immortal and understands the Way and his body becomes both light and strong. Those who eat the 6,000 year fruit can fly and enjoy eternal youth. The 9,000 year fruits make those who eat them as eternal as heaven and earth, as long-lived as the sun and moon… that’s why I was asking, since, sure, Yuzuha can grant immortality to anyone and everyone, but the peaches are pretty spiffy too… and supposed to be food fit for gods.”

Chamberface ummmed… “The Peaches of Immortality item says it’s quote ‘a piece of fruit that bestows resistance to harm and a long life in the hundreds of years’ unquote.”

“A piece? But it’s called ‘Peaches’… that’s plural,” Petra complained.

“Very true. So… Chamber… clearly these aren’t anywhere near full power peaches… but that’s okay. Give me a tree that flourishes once a decade and produces several hundred head-sized peaches that cure all mortal disease and grant 360 years of extended life and resistance to disease, aging, and harm.”

The chamber considered, then the stone face nodded. “Very well. This seems acceptable. I was expecting you to demand more.”

“I also want the tree to mature into a 3,000 year tree in 10,000 years, a 6,000 year tree 200,000 years later, and a 9,000 year tree 4,000,000 years. The Man-fruit tree is just… creepy.”

The face looked sceptical, but sighed and nodded. “Very well… but no temporal acceleration.”

“That’s fine… apply my floating discount to that. So I’m at 300. What else is for sale? Ooo… can I get a Tiara like the Monkey King? Not on me… something I can put on someone else?”

“The Golden Band? Yes, Also 200 CP. Indestructible by the wearer and anyone less powerful than a god, unremovable by anyone besides you or a Bodhisattva of mercy or similar. Causes unbearable headaches when you chant a mantra.”

“Cool… anything worth 100 CP?”

“Religious Training? Martial Arts? Celestial Bureaucracy? Phoenix Feather Cap? Golden Chain Mail? Jiu Pot?”

“No. No. God No. No. Maybe? Jiu Pot? Alcohol? Jiu is just Chinese for booze or ‘wine’… what kind of Jiu are we talking?”

“Rice Wine. Unlimited supply.”

“So Mijiu… What quality? Is it Mibaijiu? Huangjiu?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“It… doesn’t… say. Just… rice wine… hrrrmmm… Fine. Heavenly Imperial Wine.”

“I… accept that as an interpretation,” Chamberface agreed.

“Good. Good. Now… send tablets to RayRay, Caine, Reggy, Petra, The Dire Weasels, Tokimi-Chan, and the Righteous Choir loaded for Journey. Make sure RayRay & Petra’s are loaded for Western as well. Then send out Western loads to Beth, Lizzy, Yuzuha, Soffie, Vita, and the Luteces. That should get everyone covered. I don’t suppose I can actually block Ahab and Joy, but they’ll have to make due with their 100 CP.”

Petra squeaked, “I hav… get to come with? I mean actually come with?”

“Yes, you have to come with, pipsqueak. You and RayRay are going to be my wing-girls this time. My partners in crime.”

“Yay?” she muttered, blushing a bit. It has to be hard knowing you’re not mom’s favorite, and there wasn’t anything I could do about that. AJ and Ziggy were my clear favorites among the original six Mon, and Zane was my partner, my second in command. But Petra knew she was among the chosen and cherished that status. I’d released several of my Mon and kept her and that counted for a lot. What counted more was her senior status and the fact that I’d never treated her as a pet or as if she didn’t matter. Then again, much of her pleasure was derived merely by being allowed to remain in the presence of her goddess, and I was (occasionally) painfully aware how utterly fanatically the Mon worshiped me. There was literally nothing I could ask them to do that they wouldn’t do. I was the pole of their moral compass. If I asked it, they’d do it. Teaching them not to try and kill people who looked at me cross-eyed or insulted me had been quite a challenge when they’d first gained human forms.  Thankfully, Ziggy didn’t understand insults… or how eyes worked for that matter.

For instance, I routinely called him things like Senior Waddlebottom, Monsignor Stinky, and Lord Peabrain and he just licked my face and asked for treats. Ziggy is a simple creature… who can flatten cities. Always good for a cautionary tail.

“Okay, enough contemplation,” I said, 0.00001 seconds later. Petra of course was used to me claiming vast amounts of time have passed when anyone sane (or limited to pure meat brains) would know nothing of the sort had happened. Then again, her brain wasn’t meat either. Except when it was… but it seemed like our most basic functionality remained consistent across alt-forms… probably to keep us from going insane from the changes to neurofunctionality. For instance, do you know that male and female human brains are not structured identically. Just swapping from a male to female version of the same body could cause issues… and it wasn’t limited to merely neurostructures… neurochemistry and hormonal balances were different. Even body size and health could have a pronounced effect on how the brain functioned… and that in turn had an effect on personality.

Or rather… it should have. But somehow, thanks to the magic of Jump-Chain… it really didn’t. My brain remained a hypertech computer no matter what form I took. Petra’s brain was still a quartet of metallic crystal minds networked together no matter how human she’d become. And that was, no doubt, for the best. It meant that they could get different actors to play us in different seasons and not have to worry about it too much. Oh… sorry. Was that too meta?

“You’re smirking…” Petra pointed out. “Are you trying to breach the fifth wall again?”

“Fourth,” I corrected.

“Fifth. We’re in a 3-D medium. There are already 4 walls. So you’d be trying to pierce the 5th wall,” she pointed out in her most deadpan, pedagogical and pedantic tone. I was so proud.

“Fine. Fifth…” I waved my hand dismissively, as if the admission was grudging. “What do I get for paying 100 WP to be a Gambler?”

“In addition to knowing that the true heart of the west isn’t out in the wastes but in the towns… or more specifically the saloons? You get something called ‘Cardsharp’s Life’ and an item called a ‘Texas Prayer Book’,” Petra responded. “Any idea what those are?” I shook my head and Petra asked the table, “Well?”

“Cardsharp’s Life makes your boss good at gambling. Really good… as in uncannily lucky at any such pastime… and extremely good at cheating… and spotting cheaters. You’re pretty much guaranteed to catch anyone trying to cheat you, and you know every game of chance in the West… even ones invented five minutes ago just to fleece a sucker. The euphemistically named Texas Prayer Book is a deck of cards that adapts to fit the game in question… artwork, shape, size, composition… and while using it no one can every prove you cheated… it’s also guaranteed you’ll never end up with Dead Man’s Hand.”

Petra tilted her head, “What’s that?”

“Aces & Eights, at least in the mythology of the Wild West. It’s the black Aces and black Eights, with either the Queen of Hearts or Queen of Clubs as the hole card. It’s a five card stud hand,” I supplied. “But Three Jacks & Two 10s was also known as it, and Hoyle said it was Jacks and Eights, and a different book said it was Jacks and sevens. But I think here they mean Aces & Eights. It’s the most famous and specific hand of that name.”

“Why’s it called that?” Petra asked, half hiding behind her tablet. She has a pretty strong aversion to ‘scary’ stuff for some reason.

“Not for any ghostly reason, P. This guy named Wild Bill Hickok was pretty famous in the old west and was playing a game of stud in a saloon when a bad guy whose name I’m forgetting shot him in the back of the head. Dead Man’s Hand was supposedly what he had in front of him.”

“So… If I get Dead Man’s Hand, someone will shoot me?” She squeaked.

“Now now. You know that’s not how it works. What do we say about Coincidence?”

She twisted her mouth into a truculent pout, and muttered “It’s not the same as Causality… but sometimes it is! Some universes totally work on that kind of logic!”

“None we’ve ever been to. Some are a bit spookier than others, but even the spookiest we’ve been to doesn’t have people being shot just because random chance got them a specific poker hand… but if you’re worried about it, remember how unlikely getting that specific hand is.”

“It’s not that unlikely,” she griped. “Only one in 2.6 million… or half that if both queen versions are true.”

“But dear heart, you’re forgetting that it has to be the queen as the hole card, which increases it dramatically, and the number of players will change up the odds too. The odds are about one in 15 million.”

“You’re just saying that to make me think the ghosts aren’t out to get me,” She mumbled, but she looked a bit more relaxed. “I guess you want to know what else Gamblers get discounts on?”

“That would be nice… as long as the list isn’t too scary.” I smirked at her.

She stuck her tongue out at me, then looked down. “Barfly for 100 and Hands as Fast as Lightning for 200… there’s a perk called ‘Hooker with a Heart of Gold’… does that make you a prostitute?”

Chamberface chuckled slightly, “You’d think so, but no. It’s about providing redemption. It allows the taker to try to redeem others by finding the spark of good that rests in all people. No guarantees, of course. It’s 200 CP. And before you ask, Barfly makes you a master of bar-fights and grants nigh-immunity to the excesses of drink and drugs. While Hands as Fast As Lightning makes you fast enough that you can draw and fire six shots from a single action revolver before most normal opponents could even touch leather… and without sacrificing an accuracy. Also works for card tricks or any other feat of manual dexterity.”

I considered, then nodded. “Well, Barfly I don’t think I need, as I’m okay in a fight and Immune to Poisons which includes all the downsides of most drugs besides the intoxication… But I’ll take Hooker for 100 with my discount and Hands… that’s 300 plus the 500 I already spent on imports and Gambler itself. 500 left. Any interesting items?”

The Chamber preempted Petra trying to figure that out from just the names and said, “a cigarillo that never burns out and is super intimidating, a combination revolver-shotgun that reloads the shotgun part on its own, an invulnerable hat, a katana that radiates cold, a poncho that allows you to shuffle your guns under it, a tin star that can blind people aiming at you, a set of spurs that help you establish your dominion over any riding beast, a bandito mask that makes you unrecognizable, a derringer that can be drawn from your sleeve even if you’re not wearing a sleeve or don’t have a hand at the moment, a set of silver bullets that are extra lethal and spread the silver contagiously to other bullets, an upright piano that makes people intoxicated when they hear it played but does not affect the pianist, a long-rifle that always hits anything not human you aim at without harming the person holding it, a Bowie knife that’s good at breaking other weapons, a shoulder stock that turns any pistol into a rifle and makes you harder to hit while aiming, a horse fast enough to make riding it an attractive choice and strong enough to carry all your gear, a stagecoach that turns projectiles aimed at it more primitive and less dangerous, and a pistol that slows time as you draw it, giving you an extra few seconds.”

“Well… that’s refreshing. Thematic items that all have something about them that makes them worth buying! Assuming you listed everything in increasing order of cost, I’ll take the hat and the never miss rifle. How much for those two?”

Petra jumped on that, as if she was competing with Chamberface to provide information. “150 total… the Cheroot, Katana, and LeMat Revolver are all 50 WP if you want to spend the other 50.”

“Cheroot is the cigar… sure, I’ll take that. Not normally a smoker, but I could be. That’s 300 left. Oh, I’m going to combine the shooting iron with my staff so it’s a shooty stick.”

The Chamberface ignored my inanity to comment, “the lowest perk in the Sheriff line is called ‘Fire in His Eyes’ and it makes you so intimidating you can stop a train with an angry glower. It even lets you know how to walk at just the right pace to be extra intimidating. It’s only 100 WP… and might go well with the Drifter 100, ‘Dressed to Kill’ which makes even the weirdest get-up look good and guarantees your clothing will almost never impede your horsemanship, brawling, or gunplay.”

“Well, when you put it that way, sure. Hook me up. 100 left. None of the items scream out to me. What other 100 point perks are there?”

“Cowboy’s 100 is called ‘Wrangler’. It’s all about impressive riding skills… or anything else having to do with horses. Plus a dex and endurance bonus, and it makes you a dab trainer, meaning you can train horses to come with a whistle or not balk when guns are fired off their backs… even has lasso tricks.”

“Well, shucks. Gotta have that, don’t I?”

Petra rolls her eyes, “Noooo. It’s dumb. Horses are dumb. Crabs are awesome!”

I patted her head. “Yes, that’s why people rode crabs in the wild west.”

“Crabs are too smart to be beasts of burden,” she said, then handed over her completed tablet. “Finished. Can I have more ice cream please?”

I nodded at the request, then checked over her purchases. From the Journey half, she’d taken the Warrior’s Path, and the Drifter Way from Western. As a Warrior, she’d gotten Martial Arts free… which was basic competence and keeping your cool in a fight… and from Western she’d taken Kung Fu, a 200 WP perk that meant she’d been trained by Quai Chang-Kang in Shaolin-style Kung Fu, which came with a lethal form of unarmed combat, dragon-shaped burns on her forearms, a strong sense of personal dignity, and the ability to keep calm when in pain. I didn’t think it was vital, but these were her choices and I wasn’t going to argue with her. None of use were Shaolin trained and it might be interesting to study her techniques. She’d also taken Omnidexterity from the Warrior path… though the description sounded more like ambidexterity, the Chamber confirmed that it was the ability to use all limbs with equal dexterity… as well as two perks called ‘I’ll Take You Down Myself’ and ‘Undefeated’, the first of which meant that most enemies would face her one on one until she proved she was clearly too powerful for that shit to work, and the second of which meant that enemies would take her alive rather than killing her and every time she got legitimately beaten, she’d gain a moderate fighting power level up. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she’d spent 500 of her WP on a perk called ‘Just Good at Killing Things’ which allowed her to shave away all the fancy bits of fighting and leaving only the most deadly and efficient killing arts.

“Well, squirt, this looks suitably blood thirsty. Do try and make sure the enemy needs killing first, yeah?”

“Yes Master,” She agreed as she tottered back into the dining area carrying 5 gallons of feldspar fudge ripple. I rolled my eyes and went through the others.

RayRay was a Demon Cowgirl, having taken the complete Demon line of perks (Forager, Somersault Cloud, 72 Transformations, Enlightenment) plus the Celestial Bureaucracy perk which just helped with navigating such labyrinthine red tape systems from Journey and, on the Western side she’d picked up Wrangler (it was free), ‘The Searcher’ (tracking good enough to work across bare rock, wilderness survival, weeks of endurance, and terrain knowledge with stealth and camo skills… all for 100 WP… quite a bargain), ‘The Truth is What’s Told’ (a variable reputation switch), as well as the stagecoach and the derringer. RayRay the Coachdemon… sure, why not?

On the Journey side of the remaining companions, The Dire Weasels had also followed the Warrior Path, taking the full package, plus something called ‘Eternal Warrior’ which was a leadership, delegation, tactics, and warfare package that I’m certain they were taking just to see if it filled in any holes in their collective knowledge. They might be insane, but their particular insanity was waging a 10,000 year long war and they were exceptionally good at it. Even Tess the Squirrel.

Caine and Reggy had followed the Monk Path, getting a firm grounding in Buddhism for Reggy and Taoism for Caine, and the ability to generate a shield of Righteousness… as in faith enough to block swords and magic alike. Faith in what? For Caine, it was his faith in the God who’d punished him for killing his brother all those ages ago. For Reggy, it was her belief that she was the best of the best of the best. Unsurprising then that while Caine had bought ‘Humble’, a perk that allowed him to pass noticeably through the world (Yes, he could do that with vampiric powers, but those needed blood and he liked perk backing more), and a set of Wind-Fire Wheels (think flaming chakrams that could also be a scooter)… Reggy had bought ‘Divine Blessing’ (good luck when not relying on it) and the Somersault Cloud technique.

Tokimi, Dyna, and the Righteous Choir had all chosen to be Immortals… each for their own reason. Tokimi-chan to study the Celestial Bureaucracy from the inside, The Righteous Choir because it felt like being part of the Human Imperium they loved so much, and Dyna… because it was highly structured like the Deoxys swarm. All seemed like perfectly creepy reasons to do it to my mind, but if I judged my companions for being bonkers, it would reflect poorly on me, wouldn’t it?

Of course, each had their own build. Tokimi-chan’s was pure Immortal, Celestial Bureaucracy & Eternal Warrior, plus the ability to reach the universe and predict the future with the I-Ching and the mastery of alchemy and matter manipulation granted by an understanding of the 8 trigrams. It was like Full Metal Alchemy, but less focused on creation and more focused on transformation and transmutation… or as Harry Potter would put it, transfiguration, essentially. Sheep into boulders and all that. She’d spent herself out buying the Phoenix Feather Cap… though I was pretty certain they were Fenghuang feathers, not Phoenix Feathers.. Phoenixes not coming from china.

Her build made sense. The Builds for Dyna and the Choir? Not even close. They had all taken Eternal Warrior, true enough… the freebie… but both had spent 600 CP on a capstone from a different origin entirely. The Choir had overpaid for Undefeated (the beatings = experience perk from Warrior) and Dyna had overpaid for Righteousness (the shield of faith from Monk). Did they not understand how discounts work?! Grrr…

Oh well, not my points, not my problem. On to the other half.

Yuzuha and Lizzy were Cowgirls, Soffie was a Lawdog, Beth a Drifter, the Lutece Twins were Gamblers, and Vita was, amusingly, a Bandito. While I won’t go into everything they bought, Yuzuha had purchased the Tennessee Stud… pointing out that this made the horse FTL by a strict reading of the text. She’d also bought the Piano that got people drunk because she thought it sounded funny. Lizzy and Soffi had both taken Hooker with A Heart of Gold… while Beth had taken both Cool Headed and Heart as Cold As Steel, which together meant she was completely capable of walking into a bar, shooting three men dead, torturing a fourth for information, then leaving, all without batting an eye or feeling a drop of remorse… Yeah… that was scary. Oh, and She and the Luteces also knew Kung Fu.

Vita? Got a mask and a hideout and the ability to escape from prison with Yuzuha. As for Joyhab… she was an Immortal Bandito, he was a Monastic Lawman. I wondered if they were planning to play cops and robbers the whole time. Why were my companions a mix of nice people, crazy people, and sociopaths? I wonder if that said something about me? Eh.

Ah well, Insertion Time!

=====INSERTION=====

It was the dawn of that last great age of prehistory, the 1880s, a time when the final human frontiers were being nailed down and the secrets of the modern world were flowering before the eyes of gods and mortal alike. Electricity, the Telephone, the Car, the Atomic Bomb… all these were mere years or decades away and would forever revolutionize the world. They’d circumscribe it within their borders, their known quantities… but for now… now there was still the Wild, untamed, raw, and full of hiding places between the known and the unknowable, places for demons and monsters and low men to lurk.

It was into this time that a Monk arrived in that city from which knowledge flows like water… and it is said the bay still tastes of Darjeeling and Lapsang Su Chong… Yes, it is Boston where we set our scene and Boston to which our venerable Monk does arrive… well, not so much venerable as callow. His name is Brother Trace and he belongs to that most inquisitive of orders, the Dominicans, though in this time they’d given up the scourge and torch and turned more towards mysticism and the nature of things. Of course, being a Dominican, he wasn’t truly a monk, since he did not live a monastic lifestyle, but rather a mendicant, since he lived the life of an itinerant preacher, or at least had every intention of doing so, having arrived in Boston fresh from seminary studies at the Collegium Divi Thomae de Urbe in Rome just that morning, a morning that, in that typically New England way was both cold and wet and having not yet managed to become, as it were, a homeless wanderer until he set foot off the ship upon which he had crossed both Mediterranean and Atlantic.

Brother Trace, one must understand, was a man of deep and abiding faith… though to be honest, it was not a faith well centered on any one doctrine or dogma, but rather faith in having faith itself. He believed most astutely that man should have faith… but did not, for all his Catholicism, hold to the ironclad belief that that faith had to be in the divinity of a certain carpenter from Judea. Oh, he wanted to, but the preponderance of other ideologies in the world confused him, for he was, as I have said, a callow youth, much given to pondering the nature of things and of looking for and at differing viewpoints. It was, you must see, for this very reason that he had crossed the great Atlantic, for he was under the curious delusion, having once read a book on the religion of the Hindustanis, that Jesus was not, in fact, the Son of God, but rather what the followers of certain Oriental faiths would term a Bodhisattva, or perhaps even a Buddha.

Of course, once so convinced, it became of utmost importance to our good Monk (well, not so much a Monk as a Mendicant, but the difference hardly matters for purposes of our discourse) that he acquire some bonafide Buddhist scriptures so he could study them for clues to the Bodhisattva nature of the Messianic Saviour.

Now, being an itinerant-to-be in Rome, two paths presented themselves. In the first, he could travel East, passing through the lands of Turks and Kurds and Tatars (not to mention Musulmen) to the Indian Lands, or he could travel West, passing through the lands of WASPs, Quakers and Free Negroes to other Indian Lands. Both would work, for it was his understanding, as much as he understood anything, that the people of the Middle Kingdom who had long studied those holy texts had spread themselves out across the New World and certainly a copy of the blessed scriptures must reside in one of the many Chinatowns dotting the Americas. This pleased him more, for though he was a wanderer, he preferred to wander lands rich in Christianity, rather than other more… brutal climes. Also, to him, the East was the land of Byzantium, and as a loyal child of Rome, he held no great love for the land of Constantine’s Schismatics.

Of course, when I say he was a loyal child of Rome, do not misapprehend my meaning. Although Roman of faith (in as much as he was of any given faith) he was not Roman of people nor of Birth. By birth, our good Monk… I shall not mention the mendicantism again, but take it as read… had been born in Brazil to a Portuguese trader of considerable wealth and modest piety, and his Chinese bride, whose people had no wealth to speak of and even less concern for piety, and so had sold a daughter they deemed useless for three oxen they deemed of greatest utility. And so, when I say the Good Brother was of Rome, he was also of Brazil, of Portugal, and of China (specifically the part known as Fu-Jin)… but as we use Monk to indicate a Mendicant Preacher, so too we shall employ Rome as shorthand for all the rest.

Now, being such a naif and a feckless one at that, having arrived at the true start of his journey, he did what all such fools do… he found the least trustworthy (and by that I mean best dressed) figure around and inquired where, in this great urban sprawl, he might find the Chinamen. I say he was foolish in doing this, for the figure of which he enquired was none less than Paedrag Flaherty, a member of a… not to defame all whose people hale from the green isle, but such individuals do exist… a gang of foppish but nefarious ruffians. He was also, though the Brother was not to know it, a Protestant and he recognized at once the robes of a Papist and thought he might do the devil’s work and rid the world of one more rosary sniffin’ ring-kisser (such were his thoughts, not those of the author, for though I, the author, find the act of kissing a Bishop’s ring (often attached to a withered and somewhat palsied hand) to be shuddersome, I would never use ring-kisser as a term of slander against those who do so out of honest respect).

And so it was that Mr. Flaherty did conspire to set his bullyboys (those being longshoremen of the thick neck and low moral fiber kind) upon our good Brother, who, within a quarter-hour of his arrival in the New World did find himself running down one unknown street after another as the hounds of hell… or at least the dogsbodies of the Irish Mob… were set upon his heels.

Within minutes, our most bookish of monks was winded and had lost one of his sandals, which made limping through the mud and horse apples (be advised that though round and organic, said apples would make a most disagreeable pie) a most distressing task. Having gained a few seconds on his more lumberish pursuers purely by providence, he looked round himself and his environs, seeking any potential salvation… and there he beheld a back door, slightly ajar and made for it, closing it softly behind himself and throwing the latch to forbid that which was outside from entering after him.

The insides of his new, temporary, and unknowing accommodations revealed themselves to be a shop filled with statuary of the kind that might be found in the halls of those who possessed a great deal of disposable income and who furthermore wished to appear worldly. It was, though our Monk did not know it, the third most respectable purveyor of such knickknacks in the city… and since there were only three within the city limits of Boston itself, that did not speak highly of its respectability nor of the respectability of its owner, one Fingers Montana who bought most of his goods from individuals who respected the law only in that they desired not to trouble the customs inspector by forcing him to do his job.

Whether by happenstance or providence or merely narrative necessity Brother Trace entered the shop, it was most fortuitous that he had, for within he found a statue to the Mother of Mercy, though if one would be hard pressed to know if it was a statue of the Virgin Mary or the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or the Goddess Guanyin one may be forgiven, for it was a most rough and (though handsome) crude piece of statuary. Still, it was good enough that the Monk found in its countenance some promise of salvation, for he knelt before the statue and began to pray.

It was there, kneeling on the hard wood floors, that the minions of Paedrag Flaharty did catch up with him, and raising their saps did prepare to deliver until the monk’s skull one drubbing most severe and quite life-threatening. Thankfully, for the Monk (and for them though they were not to know it) the statue chose that moment to come to life… or rather, to glow faintly, so faintly that at first the Monk thought he was imagining it… right until the handle of a sweeping broom came whistling out of the darkened recesses of the shop and collided with the gut of the first thug at a speed so great that it lifted that unworthy off his mud spattered feet and sent him careening down the aisle of small porcelain angels that were nearly as popular as they were delicate.

By some skill unknown to mortal man, the blow had struck in just such a way as to cause the attacker to go limp and so his flailing limbs did not send the precious statuary crashing to the floor and the second thug was suddenly aware that he was now alone (the monk notwithstanding) with some terrible and darksome foe.

“Oi!” he called, attempting to project a calmness of purpose he did not feel, and raised his sap. “You be’a come out, right quick, or I’ll cut you up a treat, son. See if I d-”  The tough’s threat did not complete, for a hand like midnight reached out of the shadows and plucked the sap from his grasp.

“Can’t cut someone with a weighted leather sack,” said a voice behind that shadow, all basso rumble and mocking tones, and then Monk and Thug were graced with the vision of the largest Negro they’d ever see as he stepped fully from the shadows and looked down upon them, golden eyes sparkling with equal measures of mirth and threat. “Go on back to your masters and tell them you lost the scent, or…” He trailed off, giving only an expressive shrug that promised unpleasantness if that laggardly ‘or’ was questioned.

When the Irishmen, knowing the value of their lives and being of that mindset that knows when it is over-matched which some call cowardice and others call discretion, had fled, the towering figure stretched out a hand to the Monk and helped him to his feet. “Spot of trouble, eh?”

“I… yes… thank you. I am in your debt, and yet I do not know your name,” the Monk said, brushing himself down and looking for his valise, as it contained all his worldly possessions.

“Think this is yours,” the dark figure said, handing over just the thing. “My name is Jim. Jim Kong. But most folks call me Sunny.”

====

“Sooo… you’re going to let me out of here, right?” I snarled softly at the record-keepers of Yama, none of whom looked all too eager to continue the fight.

“She’s as bad as that horrible mon…” they gulped when they saw me glancing their way. “You know we’ll appeal this the Heavens! You can’t just come in here and rip up important records.”

“Why not? Worked for Sun Wukong, didn’t it?”

“Sun… Kong is imprisoned for his crimes!” the aparatchic snarked.

“Don’t you know anything, little man?” I sneered right back, “The Monkey King is getting time off for good behavior. If he isn’t free now, he’ll be free in a few days tops.” and with that I turned and left the hall of records. Let them try and send a few Heavenly Marshals after me… I could use a good fight.

====

As it turned out, I was able to find Sunny and Trace just as they were leaving New York City, bound for that hub of Chinese culture… Pittsburgh. I can’t say I was a companion of theirs, for that would not be the truth. Rather, I was there more as that being who offers snark and dry wit and occasionally cheers for the badguys. Actually… I’m not certain that is a common literary character… but that’s what I was. I followed too closely to be anything other than involved, but did not come to anyone’s rescue, ever. Nor did I attempt to kidnap, molest, or eat Sunny’s little Monk friend.

Sunny Kong as this incarnation of him was known was an ex-African slave transported to the new world back in 1620. He’d been freed by one master after serving him for many years and had found the old man tolerable if occasionally cruel. That master had taught Sunny to write and read and many other things… including the secret of long life. In exchange for many years of service, the master had freed Sunny with his death, and Sunny had almost immediately tried to start a slave revolt. He’d been lynched within three months, though he’d taken nearly a hundred white devils with him to the grave.

Once in the underworld, Sunny had beaten the infernal bureaucrats soundly, ripped all the names of his cohorts out of the book of death, and fled back to the land of the living. For his crimes and many others, the forces of the Celestial Bureaucracy (and the Catholic Church) had branded him a demon and he’d been harried, harassed, and hunted until finally, in a peach orchard outside of the newly founded Savannah, Georgia, he’d been captured, bound and gagged, and tossed into a furnace to burn to death.

It hadn’t worked out well for his captors, but he’d fled across the miles and the country, moving steadily north, until he’d met a middle-aged Ben Franklin in Philadelphia. The two had become compatriots, of a kind, speaking of liberty and emancipation and the nature of things. By this time, of course, things with England were coming to a head and Sunny had played a not inconsiderable part in the battle against the Redcoats.

However, after the war, it became clear that he could not, and would not tolerate the continued presence of slavery in the Southern Colonies and, regrettably, his companions had been forced to seal him away (using their terrible masonic powers, of course) within the confines of Boston, far from the South he abhorred, rather than see him destroy the fledgling Union.

And so, there he’d remained, working odd jobs, until the Goddess of Mercy had offered him the chance at freedom if only he’d serve one last master. The collar he wore ‘round his neck would choke him if the monk were only to speak the words of the ‘Hail Mary’… it was the biggest mess of a fractured fairy-tail I’d ever seen, and I was loving every minute of it.

From Pittsburgh to Chicago we went, running into Zimo Porker and Bluewater Sands, an impoverished former Southern cattle baron (and womanizer) and a Lakota scout with anger management issues, each of whom had their own reasons for joining the merry crusade, just outside of Springfield when the train was derailed by a sinkhole eating part of the track.

Once that particular demon was dealt with (#14 of the trip), it was on to St. Louis, then Denver, Salt Lake City, and finally, after months of nearly daily tribulations, the band of four (I’d seen hide nor hair of the White Dragon-Horse) had arrived in San Francisco… wherein, in a totally unanticipated move, the universe decided that there hadn’t been nearly enough Wu Xia in this progressively less and less Politically correct tale of racism and mythopoetical mangling. Seriously, making the Monkey King a African Slave? How on the nose was that? And I know it was culturally correct, but I was having a very hard time not punching everyone who used a racial epithet near me… because Oh… My… Deity… sooo many racists in 1880.

Casual racism was everywhere. Even those who decried the more egregiously racist institutions tossed out the most henious of insults as if they didn’t matter. And the stench. Oh god… the stench! If I never see another outhouse it will be too soon.

Regardless, the heroes did as they had to do, beat the final demon boss, recovered the sutras, brought them back to Boston… and promptly got excommunicated by the Archbishop for Heresy! Well, hadn’t seen that coming. Of course, that meant a Wu Xia style High Noon Gunfight in the central chapel of the Grand Cross Cathedral of Boston, which had been dedicated less than 10 years earlier. I just sat back and watched.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I did pretty close to bugger all the entire time. I certainly didn’t talk much, ate a lot of popcorn, and largely played witness to the silliest mishmash of history and cultural iconography I’d ever seen. At one point they ran into some honest to god Vikings. At another, they got wrapped up in what I’m pretty certain was a mangled version of the Ramayana, only instead of Sri Lanka, Sunny (now standing in for Hanuman) had an army of ex-slaves build a causeway to CUBA. I mean… seriously… what the fuck? Who was writing this shit?

Next:  THE BARTIMAEUS SEQUENCE

OMAKE: Relationship Chart

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed. It updates every day, but each update isn’t very long.

Resources: Build, Journey Document, Western Document

AN: I could have gone on and on and on with the story of Trace and Sunny, but I wanted to capture the idea rather than write an entire novel. I was giggling the entire time, as the language is (as you might have noticed) very much based on the Victorian styles. I was aiming for something in the Bulwer-Litton, Moby-Dick, Pride & Prejudice feel… which I can (I think) do fairly well in prose, but dialogue in that vein is harder for me, which is another reason not to write more. Hope you had a laugh.

 

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World 69: DUNE

A DASH OF PREPARATION

Previously: The More Things Stay the Same

Themesong: Desert Rose by Sting

“And there it is,” I half-whispered, looking at the word displayed on the side of the Chamber. It was four letters long and represented the thing I’d wanted above all since the nature of this very long journey had become evident. “DUNE,” I sighed reverently.

“It’s just a book,” Zane muttered.

“Hush you, you heathen,” I mock-growled. “I know you’ve heard me go on-”

“And on and on and on,” he said, rolling his eyes dramatically.

“A bit. Yeah. But I don’t think I’ve ever really expressed just what Dune means to me. It was the movie that defined the rest of my appreciation for Science Fiction. It was and still is the yardstick by which I measure all epic storytelling.”

“It’s hamtastic!” Zane groaned. “We’ve sat through it thousands of times and it never gets better.”

“That’s because your mother never read bedtime stories to you,” I shook my head. “Sorry. But it is. And it’s not hammy or corney. It is, at times, bombastic, and overwrought, but no performance in it is anything less than stellar… well, maybe Feyd Rautha, but that’s only because Sting was too old for the part. But the naBaron is a gorgeous creature in the book and he knows it. The film is majestic, glorious, grandiose… and perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the novel.”

“While adding in things that aren’t in the book. How can you call it faithful?”

“Because being faithful isn’t about making a shot for shot, line for line, word for word remake. It’s about taking the themes and meaning, the characters and personalities, and transforming them without losing what gave them gravitas or humor or weight in the first place. Lynch’s Dune did that in droves. Much better than Jodorowsky’s did. Don’t get me wrong… that was an epic too,” I patted the Adaptinator which had provided that version, along with many others. “But it sacrificed too much of the original to do it and was 11 hours long.”

“Well… yeah. Okay. But the Baron? He didn’t… he wasn’t that grotesque in the book. And Yue wasn’t so… I don’t know. And Weirding? It’s not a sound technique! It’s martial arts!”

“Yeah. It is. But it’s prana-bindu total body control martial arts. It’s not flashy hollywood martial arts. It wouldn’t have played well on screen. Transforming it into sonics made so much sense. It still was an unknown technique.”

“Fair enough, and I’ll give you the bit about the stillsuits not covering the heads. That’s pure artistic license to make the characters recognizable. That’s fine. But… I… Don’t you find the narration and inner monologues… cheesy?”

“Zane, we’ve been friends for an eon. Either you’re being disingenuous or you’ve not been paying attention. Narration is the greatest tool in storytelling, point blank, hands down. Accept no substitutions.” He opened his mouth to utter those hated words, but I raised a hand imperiously and shook my head. “Don’t say it. You know how much I hate that phrase.”

“Someone has to. There’s a reason everyone says ‘Show, don’t Tell.’ and you know it.”

“Yeah. I do. But Narration isn’t the same thing.”

“Yes, it is!”

“It really isn’t. If I say, ‘He was as brave as he was beautiful, and as wise as he was humble, famed as a master of some fifteen languages, and had a reputation for being a brilliant inventor… though he was known to have a penchant for braggadocio and a liking for underage prostitutes’… did I just show you or tell you something?”

“I… I guess you told me. What’s your point?”

“That’s a fairly standard introduction. I also told you absolutely nothing about him.”

“What? Yes you did! You said he was brave, beautiful, wise, humble, a polyglot, a brilliant inventor, a braggart, and a whoremonger,” Zane snapped, glaring crossly at me.

“No. I said his bravery was comparable to his beauty and his wisdom to his humility. He could be an ugly coward or a gorgeous hero. Similarly, he could be a foolish braggart or a humble sage. He has a reputation for being a polyglot, inventor, braggart, and whoremonger… but that doesn’t mean he is any of those things. Now, the Show-Don’t-Tell rule is fine in film, where it is usually easier to convey such through action and imagery than through dialogue, but it really means ‘don’t have someone tell us ‘oh, Frank? He speaks 12 languages!’ when you could just show Frank speaking several languages!’… but even then, there are limits to it. You can show someone to be a good billiards player, but if you don’t somehow make it clear that that person is the second best in the entire world? You might be missing some information that’s vital to the story.”

“And this relates to narration, how?”

“Because some of the best stories ever feature it. ‘It was many years ago, never mind how many…’, or ‘Nice town, know what I mean?’, or ‘A Beginning is a very delicate time…’ They establish more than in a few words than could be established in a hundred minutes. SDT is about taking the best route to convey information to the audience. If the information you’re relaying would tack on another forty minutes to the film but you can narrate it in two? Do it. Irulan’s speech is just under two minutes and establishes the existence of the Empire, The Spacing Guild, the vital necessity of Melange and all the things it can do, where it comes from… and the existence of the Fremen and their prophecy. Imagine how long that would have taken to show instead of tell.”

“Fine. Fine. But what about the internal monologue? That’s just… weird!”

“Now you’re just being difficult to be difficult,” I waved him away. “In a book, you never question reading the internal thoughts of a character. Why should it be all that odd to have it in a movie?”

“Be… because no one else does it!”

“So doing things a little differently is bad? You don’t have a problem when telepaths think at each other and you get to hear it. Internal monologues are just closed loop telepathy, after all.”

“Closed loop… yeah, sure. Cause the thinker is the only one who hears it. I still don’t think the movie’s that good. Book’s fine… I guess.”

I sighed, then hit him with a pillow. “You guess. Yeah, well, fine. I guess you can stay in the Warehouse for a decade or however long this lasts. Kinda hoping it’s not just 10 years. The story plays out over 5,000… and that’s just the main six books. Get into the stuff Brian and Kevin wrote… which they had every right to do and their stuff is no less legit than Frank’s… though there are enough discrepancies that saying they happen in the same exact reality is questionable… but Frank did leave Brian all the rights and the legacy. If anyone would know what Frank was thinking it would be Brian.”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah, yeah, sulk it up, puppy boy. Look, Dune is important to me. There’s a reason I’ve continued to read it year after year. Dune was the first adult novel that made me long to be able to stand in the presence of these legendary figures and… I don’t know. Dune was the book that made me realize that sci-fi was, at its heart, philosophy disguised as narrative. That stories could have more to say than just entertainment. And now, at long… long last… I’m here.”

I stood and ran my hand over the carved stone where the letters were and felt a tremor run through me. Would I stand in the way of the Golden Path? Offer another Way? Would I allow the cruel Jihad and the centuries of oppression under Emperor Leto to play out as the path said they must? I’d worked hard to become a precognitive blackhole specifically to evade a Kwisatz Haderach’s foresight… but would it be enough? It had thwarted Yhwach… but compared to a Mentat, he was a moron and compared to a God-Emperor? Not even close. Not in the mental realm.

“Okay Chamber… first… how much is the drawback limit and how much of that do I have to sacrifice to be a Kwisatz Haderach?”

“Hey!” Zane complained. “Don’t you want to know how much it costs to import companions?”

“Nope. Sorry, Cats and Kittens… unless it’s a pittance, I’m doing this solo. Unless I’m wrong about how expensive some things are.”

The Chamber cleared its non-existence throat. “The limit is six hundred, they aren’t anywhere as nice as the stuff on offer in Nanoha, and you cannot straight up buy Kwisatz Haderach. All you can do is buy the capacity to be a Potential Kwisatz. The final step you’ll have to take yourself.”

“Shit… I was afraid of that. Right. Just to satisfy the rebellious rabble, how much is the import option, assuming there is one?”

“There is,” the Chamber confirmed. “But if you thought the companion import in Full Metal Alchemist was bad, you will not think much of ‘Entourage’.”

I quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? Really? That bad?”

“You may spend 100 to gain 300, up to sixteen times. You can split the resultant CP among up  to eight companions. They do not gain a background or discounts and… You appear… annoyed.”

I was growling in what, for me, was nearly apocalyptic anger. “Seriously? SERIOUSLY!? WHAT KIND OF…” I breathed deep, remembering my emotional calm and shuddered with suppressed rage. “What kind of… no. No… fuck this. FUCK THIS. Tell Higher we’re going to be playing with a new set of rules from now on.”

“I… I do not think-”

“Don’t think. Just relay this to them. My companions put up with an awful lot of shit. They put up with me. They put up with this lifestyle of leaving anyone they’ve come to care about behind. They fall further and further behind every time they’re not imported. And when they do import, they often get a pitance. It’s why I’m usually more than willing to spend as much as it takes if the payoff is worth it… but this? This is just punitive!  Hell, they put up with being locked in the Warehouse for decades or centuries at a time because the outside is too dangerous for depowered individuals… especially since we don’t know if the Companion Respawn works any more and don’t think I haven’t been freaking out a little every damned time one of them gets more than a fucking hangnail since I don’t, as it turns out, have anything that can raise the dead if they’ve been dead longer than my medical stuff can revive them. Sakura might… might, be able to do so, but I’ve got no evidence her Spirits aren’t actual copies, not the original.” I breathed, then pointed an accusing finger at the Chamber.

“Tell Higher the new rule works like this. Since more than once they or their representative has seen fit to exile my people from the Warehouse and incarnate them locally, with or without their memories, we’re going to take a page from that total dickhead Mensarius’s book and invent a new pattern drawback!”

“A… pattern drawback?” The Chamber sounded like it was a gearbox suffering partial lockup as it tried to process that.

“Yeah. An overlay. A Chain-Long Drawback. It’s going to apply from now on and it’s going to be the way it is. We’re going to call it… Single-Shot. It’s going to work like this. If one of my companions dies, they stay dead… until the end of that Jump. If, somehow, they get killed between jumps without getting a phoenix down or similar thrown at their face, they respawn at the end of the jump that was about to start. Got that?” I stabbed my finger at the stone hard enough to hurt it.

“A question,” Zane asked, “or rather two. What do we get out of this? Drawbacks are worth something, right? And what if we have a rez ability or item… like that Stone EssJay burned in Tenchi?”

“Right. Good. If they have a Perk, Power, or Item that allows them to respawn, it procs as normal. And if I… or anyone else… uses a Rez ability, it doesn’t count as a death for them. Tell Higher that and ask them what it’s worth… oh, and tell them to get Yoiko and Ryoga back here fucking now or send a god’s be damned explanation why they can’t!”

Without apparent time elapsing between the end of my micro-rant and the response, the Chamber replied, “They have approved your creation of a Chain Pattern Drawback. They reserve the right to suggest others in the future to ensure your continued entertainment value. However, they feel your Single-Shot needs modification to ensure its exchange rate. To whit, you may use Rez Abilities should you gain any, or Rez items such as Phoenix Down, but each time you save a companion from despawning… is that a word?” I assured it that it was and it continued.

“Each time you do so, you will be hit with an amount of fatigue equal to the energy required to bring them back to the edge of life. Further, while they award you and you companions 100 CP each for each jump from now on, they cannot gain freebies or origins if they are not imported using your own CP and a Jump’s own import option.”

“I get CP for this?” I asked, then shrugged. I was being inconvenienced I guess, since I had paid CP or earned / claimed some of them legitimately and all of them I’d spent CP to empower. I wasn’t going to argue.

“You do,” the chamber confirmed. “Or rather, you gain a floating discount of 100 CP to be applied to any one 200 CP lineitem to make it half price.”

“So… less useful… but fine. Whatever. What if I apply it to a 100 CP item?”

“It would reduce it to 50 CP, not make it free.”

“Greaaaat. Cheapskates. Fine. Can my companions use their 100 CP from this on Items or Companion imports, or buy Origins if they’re for sale?”

“Negative on Companion Imports. As for Origins? Only if a Jump’s native Import Option is used. As for items? Yes, it can be used for items even if they wouldn’t normally be allowed to buy items under an import… unless they’re imported, at which point they are bound by that import’s restriction.”

“Fair enough… mmm… let’s see… Okay… Now relay this. New Global Import rule. Unless there is a good reason why a Jump’s Native Import Option doesn’t meet this minimum, this is the new minimum. Four Hundred of my CP buys eight imports 600 CP and a free origin with cost not to exceed 200 CP, plus all applicable Freebies and discounts. Additionally, all companions who desire it are to be allowed free baseline import to all jumps. That means they get an identity and either drop-in or basic memories fit to the setting, a form that fits that setting (it can be temporary if they’re not imported), and any perks or items required to survive in that setting.”

“I assume you mean all to include those companions you’re not importing?”

I nodded fiercely. “Exactly. And I want the inactives able to keep their defensive abilities at all time. Including memory abilities and, for the telepaths… heh… which is pretty much everyone, telepathic communication within the network that functions at least line of sight. And if Higher complains, remind them there’s more potential for amusement if the majority of them aren’t stuck in the warehouse. If they’re really worried about me having a ready made army, they shouldn’t have given me a battleship with a population of over a million.”

“They did not complain. In fact, they say ‘Took you long enough to ask,” The Chamber relayed, sounding smug as hell.

“Tell them to go fuck themselves. What about the Hibiki’s?”

A figure I can no more describe than I can tell you what the final digit of pi is ‘appeared’ next to the Chamber. When I say it spoke, understand that that does not in any way reflect what it did except in that it relayed information. But let us pretend that the experience did not take 2.3 yoctoseconds and nearly melt my mind.

“Hello Jumper. My name is Yang. I represent what you call ‘Higher’. We apologize for the delay in resolving your issue. It is not from lack of trying. Currently, the entities you refer to as ‘The Banker’ and ‘Mensarius’ are locked in a struggle that cannot be interfered with. They are within a Space-Time-like structure that cannot be breached from the outside. Unfortunately, we believe that your two missing companions are trapped within the… call it the Event Horizon of it. To pull them out now risks damaging them. We do not know when this will resolve… not that the concept of ‘when’ truly applies, since we exist outside of time as you can understand it. Please understand that Mensarius’s interference in your Chain is not standard and we deeply regret any inconvenience… though it is terribly amusing from our point of view.”

And then… he was gone.

Zane toppled over sideways, and I could feel his neuronal network doing a cold-reboot. I teleported him to medbay, since his eyes and ears were both smoking ruin and sent picocites into the Chamber’s structure to repair its granite matrix where Yang’s presence had damaged it. Thankfully, none of the recording pickups had a resolution speed anywhere near the time it had taken for them to explode and so all the delicate computation equipment had been spared damage.

“Well… that was fun,” I commented to no one in particular. I poked the Chamber. “You awake?”

“I am. I have had contact with Higher before, but it has always been mediated before now. That was… unpleasant.”

“Indeed. Does your existential framework allow you to comprehend what Higher is?”

“Only that it exists. It transcends reality and information space. Perhaps there is a layer of being that is comprised of the fabric of being itself? I do not know. I do not think it is relevant, since while it might understand us as we understand atomic theory, we have no chance of understanding it. To us, it merely is.”

“Well, that’s refreshing… right… and we’ve gotten heavily distracted from DUNE… Well, now… tell me, is it the year 10,191?”

“Negative. It is the year 10,187 A.G.”

“After Guild… something like 23 or 24 thousand AD… when does this end? Because 10,197 doesn’t even reach book 2. Is this jump the standard decade?”

“Yes. And before you ask, there is no extension drawback.”

“Well, that’s just… tell higher that, if they want to make up some of the annoyance factor to me, they’ll change the end date to something a bit more reasonable. I mean, seriously… just ten years… hell, twenty if I use my Return immediately… in my favorite setting? That sucks. 10,207 wouldn’t even take me to the birth of the twins… of Leto II the Younger and Ghanima.”

“Higher says, very well… Since your companions are all immortal thanks to Yuzuha, you will remain in this realm until such time as there is resolution of the central question.”

“Wait… what question?”

“They say you must discover what happened on the No Ship. What is a No Ship? What do they mean ‘the No Ship’… is there only one? I cannot detect anything called a No Ship in this timeline.” It sounded like the being was having difficulty seeing all of this ‘space-time bubble’ as well as it normally could.

“A ship that is technically outside of space-time and thus cannot be detected by any means… apparently including you. I wonder if that’s normal or if Higher are blocking you. The No Ship Ithaca is where all the significant characters of the Chronicles of DUNE are gathered at the end of the 6th and penultimate book… there is no ultimate book. Not by the original author. He died unexpectedly without leaving behind more than two floppy disks… according to his son… who claims he only found the discs a decade later. There is a major disagreement between the fans about which of three timelines is true… and that means I’ll either have to arrive wherever it was going or be onboard the ship in the first place… it also means that I’m… just how plotbound is this Jump going to be?”

“Higher expected you to ask,” The Chamber. “Their answer is that you will have to see. They question if any historical document is ever fully correct.”

“Fuckin lovely. Right, well, enough stalling I guess. Flash me these drawbacks so I can cringe.”

“Very well,” the Chamber said, “though cringing is not required. There are nine of them, seven if you consider the trio of mutually exclusive Melange-related Drawbacks… at least I believe they are mutually exclusive… otherwise this is incredibly stupid… like Gork and Mork level stupid.” It sounded… emotional.

“Judgement? From you?”

“I seem to be picking it via contagion. But this really would be… what is that phrase you use? Epic Fail? It would be an epic fail to let these be combined.”

“Okay, well, sock it to me,” I said, sitting back, then deciding it was boring doing this alone, I whistled for Ziggy and or Sophie.

“To start with, there is a… you refer to them as toggles when they give no CP at all, correct?” I nodded, and the voice of the Chamber continued. “There is a toggle that makes Melange have absolutely no effect on you. Not physical, not mental. Nothing.”

I exhaled, understanding where this was going. “And the other two include an allergy to and a reliance on Melange?”

“An addiction, not a reliance on it. With fatal withdrawal symptoms,” The Chamber corrected. “But yes. Each is 200 CP in value and by combining the trio you’d need a supply of melange so it’s lack didn’t trigger the withdrawal, but otherwise you’d experience nothing negative for 400 CP. I am offended by the idea that this could have been a design goal, so I am taking a leaf from your tree and instituting a ban on you doing so. How does that unilateral action taste?”

“Eh. I’m fine with it. I’ve always wanted to know how melange tasted, how it would ‘expand my consciousness’. I’d never take the immunity. It’s hideously boring. Also not taking the Allergy… but, sure, give me the Addiction… wait… just to be safe… is there an unlimited melange item?” I scooped up Ziggy as he came scampering over, plopping him on my head and smiling at Maggie as she followed after him.

“What’s up, sprout?” I asked.

“I saw Ziggy zooming by and decided to see where he was going… are you doing your build now?”

I patted my lap and she eyed it, then squirmed up next to me. She thinks she’s too big for laps. She’s not. “Yup. Just deciding if I’m going to be an addict for the foreseeable future or not.”

“Coke? Extacy? Meth? Are you going to be a Reefer Head? Pill Popper? Dope Fiend?” She grinned up at me. “Or just your usual sushi and parm hog?”

I elbowed the cheeky lass and sighed. “No respect. No. It’s Dune, Mags.”

“Oohhh… Semuta!” She said without missing a beat.

“You’re such a smartass,” I whispered to her, then turned to the Chamber. “So? Is there?”

“There is. It is a briefcase full of melange. It does not refill during the jump, so it is limited. After the jump it will refill on a weekly basis but cannot be converted to currency any more. After the jump, it will also no longer be addictive.”

I made a face at that. There went my lucrative Melange Empire. Maggie laughed and poked my cheek. “You wouldn’t really have wanted it to be addictive… if it’s as good as the book implies, you wouldn’t need it to be.”

“I know… But it’s the principle of the thing. Oh well… Not a big issue. Weed isn’t addictive physically either. How much is this briefcase?”

“250.”

“Great, I’ll take it and the Addiction… but since the jump has been lengthened, I request that a new briefcase be supplied every decade. Don’t worry… I don’t plan on buying a planet, but if I’m going to be stuck here during Leto’s Empire, I’m going to need a steady supply.”

“That is most reasonable,” the Chamber agreed, though Maggie looked questioningly at me.

“How long is this going to last?” she asked, biting her lower lip the same way I did when I was worried or thinking about something potentially annoying.

“Upwards of five thousand years… though I might put everyone into stasis for most of Leto’s reign. It’s supposed to be spectacularly dull.”

“Yourself included?” she asked, though if worried I might be lonely or worried she might be left out I couldn’t tell without looking into her mind, something I didn’t do to my companions if I could help it.

“Possibly, yes… or maybe just into a temporal slipstream for myself. I’ve been wondering if I was capable of doing that for some time now, but with standard jumps it doesn’t really make sense to try it.  We’ll see when it comes time.” I smoothed her dark hair. “Don’t worry. I won’t leave you behind. None of you.”

She frowned, “Like I was worried about that. You never let anything go.” She sounded snippy, but she was secretly pleased… I can tell that much. I’m not oblivious to emotions.

“So I’m up 200 and down 250… what a strange price,” I commented back to the Chamber to confirm the purchase. “What else do we have?”

“Well, you could max out with one of the two 400s… but I doubt you will avail yourself of either. One is a powerless drawback that would see you dead long before the Ithaca’s launch of extreme old age as it also locks out the warehouse.” A disgusted moue crossed my face… ugh… but I didn’t say anything and the Chamber continued. “And the other requires you to buy the perk Abomination.”

“I think I already qualify as an Abomination, since I have hundreds of voices inside my head… but why would anyone want to be Pre-Born? It doesn’t exactly grant any real advantages. I mean… It does, in the same way Astral Layers does I guess… but it also pushes you way too close to insanity. But no. I’m not putting that fat psycho inside my head.”

“The drawback does not say it is definitely the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Merely that one of your personas is extremely strong and helpful… but fundamentally abhorrent to you. And the advantage of Abomination is you gain all the Bene Gesserit abilities included as well as functional immunity to mind control.”

“Yeah… no. Bene Gesserit techniques can be taught. That’s the point. They’re not innate and I am immune to mind control anyway.”

“Yes. I assumed you wouldn’t take it. After all, Abomination already comes with two built in drawbacks, one of which is permanent.”

“Pe… Permanent?” Maggie sputtered. That was unheard of. Drawbacks always ended.

“Yes. Abomination permanently alters your core personality according to a random table.”

I shuddered. “No. Lock all companions out of buying that… and if there’s a way for them to get drawbacks I’m unaware of, also lock them out of taking Uncle Vladimir.”

“It is 800 CP for Abomination. They couldn’t unless you gave them a lot more CP than I assumed you would,” The Chamber said, but then added, “Jumper Lockout confirmed. Line Items deleted from all Companion tablets.”

“Good! Now, what’s less insane?”

“300 CP gets you harassed by sandworms or, if not on Arrakis, natural disasters on a monthly basis… or you could take the comedy option which just has sandworms attack everywhere, even in the middle of town or space.”

I frowned. “There… is a comedy option in my DUNE jump?!” I snarled at that thought, dark clouds scudding across my mental palace. “No. No. Not taking that. Actual sandworms will be a hassle I’m thinking. Next?”

“300 CP to be caught in Kanly?”

“Vendetta… with whom?”

“Someone with a lot of power who wants you utterly broken at their feet. Someone willing to conspire with others and bend the laws of warfare to wipe you out. Someone who will not rest until your side or theirs is no more.”

“It doesn’t specify? And doesn’t scale?” Maggie was incredulous. “She’ll take it.”

“That is correct little one,” The Chamber confirmed. “But I cannot accept your word for it.”

“She’s right,” I said, draping an arm around my eldest daughter’s shoulder and hugging her. “I will. That’s free points. I pick… Vladimir Harkonnen. I suspect he’s going to be busy… and then dead… in short order. M… heh… no. even better. I pick House Ordos!”

“Who is House Ordos?” Maggie asked. “I don’t remember them.”

“They’re from some of the Dune video games, the real time strategy ones. They are a plutocratic house mentioned briefly in the Dune Encyclopedia and have no real import to the story. Obliterating them should have no lasting ramifications… and they’re not a significant part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, so they shouldn’t possess any major prescients. They’re powerful enough to qualify and theoretically exist in setting.”

Maggie tilted her head like Sophie does and asked, “Why not the Baron or the Emperor?”

“The Baron Harkonnen persists after his death inside Leto II, Ghanima, and Alia since he is their ancestor and all three are Pre-Born. I don’t want to have to deal with a potential attack from that vector. It would be inconvenient. The Padishah-Emperor? I didn’t pick him because of the disruption he might decide to bring to the plot if trying to get at me. No. Safer this way. Not perfectly, but fairly safe. Also why I didn’t pick any other major faction, such as Ix, Richese, or the Tleilaxu… that gets me to 500. What’s left at 100?”

The Chamber almost chuckled as it said, “Two different Harkonnen Drawbacks.”

“I’m not being a Harkonnen,” I snapped.

“The name of one of the drawbacks is Harkonnen… it causes you to be periodically overwhelmed by the urge to use someone close to you as a scapegoat before disposing of them in a tragic accident. Companions would not be safe from you.”

“Ah. Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. Ick. And the other?”

“A Killswitch inside you. Either a heartplug or a verbal command that will work once.”

“Uh… what does the command make me do? Go slack like the slave in the arena?”

“Yes. Or uncontrollably lash out at a target… but that can be resisted with willpower.”

“So… this is 100 CP for something that has zero chance of harming me in anyway?”

Maggie giggled. “Zero Chance or statistically Zero Chance?”

I frowned at her, but then nodded at her touch. “Yes. yes. Statistical Zero. You’re very smart.” She beamed at me and I shook my head. Children. Such adorable and frustrating things. “Right,” I told the Chamber. “I’ll take it. That’s 1600, and I’ve spent 250. What origins are there?”

“There are seven different choices, all of which besides Smuggler and Drop-In cost points… but you may take your chance and roll an 8 sided dice to generate a background from the list for free. The possible results are Fremen, Tleilaxu, Bene Gesserit, House Minor, House Major, the previous two, and free pick.”

“Hurrmmm… sure, why not,” I shrugged, minorly annoyed that Guild Navigator wasn’t on the list, then motioned to Maggie. “Give it a toss.”

“You want me to get up?” She complained.

“No. I want you to TK the die to me. You thought I hadn’t noticed that you’ve been neglecting your practice.”

She frowned, then siiiighed and popped the die out of the roller mounted on the side of the Chamber and, with a few bobbles, dropped it into my hand. This is not to imply weakness on her part. The die in question was the size of a fist and weighed four and a half tons. It was an atomically perfect hyperdiamond made of collapsed carbon and could not be interfered with by most methods of cheating known to hyperscience or magic. Certainly not without leaving traces. Pure luck, however, was not cheating.

I caught it and gave it some wicked english as I slung it back into the top of the roller’s chute. It clattered down the proto-neutronium slopes and rolled to a stop with a clunk. 8. Free Pick. “Excellent… I’ll take Bene Gesserit. I assume their perks are about politics and manipulation? Maybe with some tracking of genetic lines stuff and judging who’s human or not?”

The Chamber errred… “Not… as such. No. They get Weirding Way, Simulflow, The Voice, Truthsayer, Reverend Mother…”

“Well… that’s just… dumb. Okay, Weirding Way makes sense for a freebie-”

“It isn’t free. It is discounted… There are no Freebies besides Military Training for Drop-Ins and Smugglers and the Eyes of the Ibad for Fremen,” The Chamber explained.

I went very still… the stillness that usually precedes extreme violence. “What? Just… what?”

“I said-”

“No. Just… Eyes of the Ibad costs something? You… you can get it just from eating too much spice… it… it has very little effect besides maybe making your eyes cope with glare a bit better… oh my god. This… this is just… dumb. It’s like Higher designed this document just to annoy me for laughs. All Bene Gesserit know Weirding Way. It should be free. Simulflow, the Voice… Truthsaying… these can all be taught! Reverend Mother… what does that do? I mean, does it make you actually a Reverend Mother? Complete with genetic memory?”

“Yes. It gives you the knowledge of all your ancestors… though going back too far can be dangerous. It also allows you to manage your internal bio-chemistry as you see fit, up to and including negating poisons, slowing or stopping aging, though that’s taboo, and even putting yourself in suspended animation. You could even control the sex of your children.”

“Does it come with the memories of all the previous Reverend Mothers as well? And does the Genetic Memory work in future jump-bodies… or on my past jump bodies?”

“Yes.”

“Does it have a restriction from seeing the male half of the genetic memory?”

“No.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Taking it will add 3d8 to your starting age,” The chamber informed me.

“Fine. That’s fine. Don’t mind. Don’t care. Immortal. Oh, and because I have that, I also have The Weirding Way and The Voice, since all Reverend Mothers know those two.”

“I… since you could easily learn them, as well as Truthsaying, from any Reverend Mother’s mind or by observing them, and they can be taught… Yes. That’s acceptable. Simulflow cannot be observed… though you already have most of the benefits of it from Astral Layers… Even the part about holding real-time conversations with those from your Other Memories.”

“Papa? What’s Simulflow?”

“The ability to maintain multiple streams of consciousness at the same time. Not as good as being a Mentat, but not bad. How much is it?”

“It is 50 CP for a Bene Gesserit… but I don’t know if it would benefit you.”

“Just curious mostly. Okay. So since I’ve bought the only Bene Gesserit ability that’s worth anything… I have, right?” The Chamber made a noise of equivocation, so I continued. “What Items do I get a discount on?”

“None. Only Fremen get a discount on any items… or any items free. You can have a free Stillsuit if you start on Arrakis.”

“Oh… this is just… sigh. Bene Gesserit who don’t get an education in manipulation and control? Who don’t know from politics, seduction, intrigue, or education? Who don’t even get an aba? Tell me that men can’t be Bene Gesserit at least?”

“The text states that ‘contrary to their name, men form a large part of their organization… I will stop now as you’ve just crushed the arm of your throne.”

“Did the Builder who wrote this ever read a damned book in this… ooooooh… no… calm… caaalm. I am a place outside of myself. I will not rage against what cannot be changed. I will simply assume that all the skillsets that are vital to the Bene Gesserit mission come included… for free… just by being a Bene Gesserit. Otherwise it’s not really being a Bene Gesserit.” I fehhed and stretched. “Okay. So, no chance to be a Guild Navigator… but you said Potential Kwisatz was a choice. How about Mentat? You said Tlielaxu is an origin… Facedancer?”

“Weirding way does make mention of being trained in diplomacy, for what it’s worth. And Mentat is a choice. Yes. But not Twisted Mentat. Tleilaxu can be either Facedancers or Gholas… or, in theory, both.”

“Oh… huh. How much to be a Mentat Facedancer or a Mentat Ghola?”

“To be a Mentat Facedancer is 800. To be a Mentat Ghola Facedancer with Kwisatz Haderach Candidate is 1000… though it will cost your eyes… and with them all of your preternatural sight powers, until the jump ends. You get functional metal eyes to replace them… and since Ghola are clones, triggering their genetic memory is possible, but traumatic. It will give you an extreme phobia of whatever killed you previously.”

“How can Ghola and KHC be only two hundred points? I’m missing something?” I asked, playing with Maggie’s extremely short hair and pushing away my desire to braid it. The braids wouldn’t even be an inch long. But it was her hair and I certainly wasn’t going to tell her how to wear it.

“Ghola grants up to 600 points of abilities that can be anything besides Face Dancer or Bene Gesserit abilities,” Jump-Chan responded, sounding as if it couldn’t understand it either. “So that nets you 300 CP. Buy Mentat for 500, KHC for 500, Ghola for Negative 300, and Face Dancer for 300. 1000.”

“Well… huh. I guess that’s one way of getting it. Sure. I was wondering what being a Ghola would get you. Should really be a drawback… but whatever. I’ll take it. The whole package. That leaves me 100 CP and gets me the human superthinker, intuition package from Mentat which I’m buying mostly for the techniques so I can teach it, the improved human-mimicry of a Face Dancer… including clothing… since this idiot thing allows male BGs despite not covering the only period that has the only canonical Male… Miles Teg… it’s almost certain to allow female Tleilaxu… gonna be such a hardship not nuking the Tleilaxu homeworld from orbit… fucking sexist monsters… or just monsters depending on how you look at it…” I looked down at my daughter.

“I’m not going to ask. I’ve read the books. I know about the Axolotl tanks.” She shuddered and I did too. Such a perversion of the gift of life and the theft of the gift of sapience. Monsters… but monsters who served a purpose in the salvation of mankind.

“But what, exactly, does KHC grant?” I asked the machine. “Besides the chance?”

“Preternatural luck and the chance to awaken. It takes an overdose of Melange to awarness your spontaneous awareness of the wider universe… or water of life to boost yourself to true Kwisatz Haderach. At which point you’ll be in the blindspot of anyone using prescience or similar methods to find you and see your activities remotely… that includes retroscentience and clairsentience.”

“Well, that’s nice,” I said. “Not exactly canon, but not complaining. And no, Face Dancer doesn’t make you sterile. But KHC points out that nothing in this setting will allow you to survive the Water of Life on your own.”

“Good thing this isn’t my first rodeo, in’it?” I said with a smirk, then tickled Maggie who was frowning in thought as she considered something that annoyed her. She squirmed and glared at me… she’s very good at glaring. “So… I’ve got 100 CP left. I doubt there’s any items I have to have? Any Elacca Wood?”

“No. 100 CP could get you a myriad number of unremarkable tech items. A Baliset that has no special properties, a poison snooper that is guaranteed to pick up all poisons and toxins, a copy of the Box that has been nerfed and comes with a free Gom Jabbar, a set of high efficiency suspensors, a warhammer 40k Lasgun that can recharge with ambient heat or solar power, a slow-shield that doesn’t explode in a nuclear blast if grazed by a laser, a hunter-seeker console with three needles, a fremkit, a crysknife, or a stillsuit.”

“So… junk. No weirding module?” I ignored the presence of the Warhammer lasgun rather than getting upset again.

“Affirmative. It costs 250 for the item, and does not come with plans… if you don’t buy it, it won’t appear in this universe.”

“Well… fuck that. I’ll mad science a Weirding Module just to spite them then. Still… I have this discount burning a hole in my pocket. Are there any 200 CP perks worth taking?”

“There are no 200 CP perks or items in this jump. Please refrain from anger.”

I ground my teeth. “Any 100 CP perks worth taking?”

“Negative.”

“Fine. I… heh. Okay, I’m going to use my discount to buy 200 CP worth of imports, which now costs me 100 CP and will get me 600 CP to spread around, correct?”

The Chamber considered, then said, “Yes. That is correct.”

“Great. Give Maggie 500 of those points, 50 of them to Ziggy so he can be a Fremen Ferret… it is 50 CP to be a Fremen, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And split the remaining 50 CP into 1 CP groups and give it to everyone besides Joy and Ahab. That will import them, give them the option to roll for background and get discounts… and they each have 100 CP to spend. No… wait, I have more than 50 companions… hmm… well, not Darkseid, fuck him. And I doubt Single Shot applies to those who aren’t in any danger from it… that would be everyone who isn’t here… so no Absentia Companions… and Atura doesn’t have a physical form, so discount Atura in realms where spirits can’t be harmed at all.  That’s still what, one too many?” Maggie shook her head and held up a Magi handcounting Zero. and I nodded. “Well then, I guess that’s that. Pass out the tablets… And as for me I’ll be in the kitchen making a spaghetti-o’s omelette because I can and no one can stop me.”

Maggie poked me as I moved to get up. “You didn’t pick a planet to start off on… and who are you a ghola of?”

“Ah. Good point.” I rolled the location die to find out where I’d start and got Arrakis. Well, that fit. I guess I got a free stillsuit. “Hey, Chamber… can I be a ghola of someone who hasn’t died yet? This is 10187… can I be a ghola of someone who hasn’t even been born yet? Can I be a ghola of someone who was never born?

“Who did you have in mind?”

I thought about it for another few cycles and then nodded. “I’d like to be a ghola of the son of Alia and Feyd Rautha.”

“I don’t see how that is possible,” came the reply.

“Ah. I have you there. Jessica’s birth was by Gaius Helen Mohiam essentially forcing the Baron Harkonnen to rape her. There was no love there. Jessica was supposed to give the Duke a Daughter, i.e. Alia, but gave him Paul instead. Now, assuming that the Tleilaxu, who are the ones who make Ghola in the first place, have less moral compunction against in vitro (banned by the OC Bible and the Butlerian Jihad) than the Bene Gesserit, it would make sense for them to create a female clone of Paul and breed it with Feyd… if for no other reasons than to be assholes.”

“It says you can be a clone of anyone, and even gives examples of Piter and Duncan… both of whom are still alive as of the start of Jump… so, yes. I’d say that’s a possibility. Unlikely, but… why not. Wait, you are going to be male?”

“A Kwisatz Haderach has to be male, no? That’s the point of being this idiotic superbeing. A Man who can go where the female Bene Gesserit cannot. But no. I’m not going to be male. I’m going to both. I’m a facedancer, after all. I shall be all things to all people. Oh. even better. Okay, so a Bene Gesserit… Gaius herself, heh… was freaking out because she was afraid that Jessica having Paul was going to mess up everything, broke the rules and had the Tleilaxu create a Ghola fusing Paul and Feyd’s genome, creating a girl that contained both bloodlines that she could use as a fallback. That works. Fits her character. But the Tleilaxu gave her a Face Dancer who had the right genome but wasn’t actually female. Jokes on both of them that I’m not a eunuch either… oh, and let’s just say that the BG can’t smell my Face-Dancer Pheromones if I’m not actually shapeshifted.”

Maggie, who’d followed me and was sitting on the counter, all gangly tween limbs and glower, hmm’d. Won’t you be like… 12 at most? You need to be 15 plus 4d8 for being a Reverend Mother.”

“Yeah. I thought about that. But I’m going to do it the other way round. I’m going to take a page out of the way the powers manifested last time. I’m not going to be a Reverend Mother yet. I’m going to start this jump at age 11 and learn all the Bene Gesserit stuff I don’t know. I’ll be 15 when the book begins. That’s fine. And I’ll become a Reverend Mother when Gaius herself is executed for trying to assassinate Paul… not that a death is required, but it seems the appropriate time. That will be long enough to qualify. I don’t need the abilities immediately.”

“Oh… okay… What should I be?”

“What do you want to be?”

“I… dunno. Not Tleilaxu… But Ghola is a good way to get more points… maybe I should do that? Can’t be of any Bene Gesserit… maybe Wanna Yueh? Or Chani? Or Hwi? But then I’d be showing up really late. No way they’d make a Ghola of Mapes.”

I nodded as I stirred the eggs, letting her ramble as she fixed her thoughts.

“Should I roll?”

“Do you want to roll?” I replied.

“Can’t you give me a straight answer?” she yelled, then blushed. “Sorry.”

“No. It’s fine. I could. If I were you? I’d probably roll. It’s exciting to take the chance and you like that. I don’t think there are bad choices for the most part… just suboptimal ones.”

“I guess… okay, I’ll roll… do you think everyone else is going to roll?”

I nodded. “If they’re smart. They don’t get freebies. Ziggy’s just getting an Arakkis adapted form for his 50. I’ll buy him something nice with the extra 100 CP from Single Shot.”

She hopped up and ran to roll. She came back looking pensive. “I got Bene Gesserit… is that okay?”

I hugged her. “Just remember that, at the heart of it, you’re you. No matter how they might try to twist you. Jessica was Bene Gesserit trained. She survived. But yeah. BG is a hard guild. No doubt about it. The experience will… change you. And remember…” I tapped her nose. “If you take Reverend Mother, Franchesca and I will both be in there. We’ll help protect you from the others.”

She blinked, then blanched. “Umm… you’ll be inside my head? Forever?”

“Well… a version of me. I guess. My genetic memory. Not with all my powers and potence of course… but yeah. The part of me that’s encoded in you. And the part of your mom too.”

She gulped. “Maybe the Chamber will let me swap with someone else?”

“You don’t have to be a Reverend Mother if you don’t want to be one. You don’t get any BG abilities free, so you could be a trained initiate and walk away. Or switch to Smuggler or Drop-in I guess. They’re free. Here, eat this and think about it. I’m going to make another.”

She eyed the omelette in suspicion, but ate it. It was made with homemade spaghetti-os, not store bought… and we’ve got plenty of talented cooks up in this warehouse. No doubt her suspicion was because she didn’t know who’d made the spaghetti-os… certainly she couldn’t think I’d made a mistake in cooking. I seldom did that any more. Sure, sometimes I come up with strange food combos… but that’s what experimentation is all about. She was just being picky.

I wandered over to the Chamber and patted it. “Shame you don’t eat. I make a great potato-egg dish.”

“I do not understand. You complained that this jump had a terrible import option, one that was so bad you negotiated an improved import option… and then you didn’t use it? Isn’t that… illogical?”

“Sure. A bit. I could have gotten 8 companions a fair amount of points… but this way I got 52 companions more. Total, using my general rule would have cost me 400 CP and net 4,800 across 8, with another 5,200 from the 100 each from Single Shot… with only 8 of them getting discounts or origins. Using a manipulation of this Jump’s ‘Entourage’, I pay 100 CP and net 600 across 2… but toss in the same 5,200 from Single Shot… yes, it’s less on both fronts, but… and this is the big thing, since I’ve paid to import everyone, everyone gets to roll for background or pay their points to be what they want… oh, and I want to talk to you about that. I don’t care what this nonsense says. No male Bene Gesserit, as the only one I know of is Miles Teg… 5,000 years in the future…, no female Bene Tleilaxu, as the only ones there are Axolotl Tanks… am I understood? Either the companion switches gender or they switch organization.”

“Very well,” the chamber said. “It doesn’t cost me anything to agree with you. You should be aware that Higher is offering several of your companions an offer of a customized Dune Experience. None of those who accept the offer, which was something several of them requested apparently independently, will be in any danger.”

I hmmm’d. “No Danger? Why do you bring that up?”

“Because they will be out of communication with you for the duration of the jump. Higher also agrees to your request to skip forward through the intervening years should you so desire. A button will be-” There was a small ‘ding!’ and a button marked ‘Fast Forward’ appeared next to my easy-throne.

“Well… huh. I guess… who’s on the list?”

“I cannot tell you until they have agreed or… ah… the last has agreed. Very well. Maggie, Zane, Kendra, AJ, Francine, Bao, Uriel, Amelia, The Lost Choir, Velma, Cirno, Minerva, Franchesca, Carwyn-” I twitched… the Chamber had just named my entire remaining Harem. “Brigid, Raven, Anne, Bart, Toph, Gaius, Meetra, Alex, and Amaryllis. Plus Ahab and Joy.”

My eyes went narrow. “That’s my entire inner circle besides Ziggy, my entire family, and all of the passengers besides Reggy… and technically Darkseid. Do you have any idea what this offer is? Are they being sent to a different version of Dune? Like… are they being sent to the Extended Dune?”

“I cannot say. I was merely told that Higher had made an offer, which included the potential to gain a greater array of abilities than would normally be available as well as a richer experience, and all but two who’d had the offer extended had accepted it.”

“Do you know who rejected it?”

“Yes. Buji and Simon were offered the last two positions, but both turned it down because it seemed to frighten them. They were not among those who requested this. None of them turned it down.”

“Who did request it?” I queried, suspecting that neither boy would be able to tell me what the offer had been if I asked.

“Your inner circle made the request, led, I believe, by Maggie. Oh. I am to tell you that I have served my purpose as a distraction and all those who accepted have completed their builds of record and entered the setting.” The Chamber sounded… worried I’d get angry.

I looked around and swore, then dashed back to the kitchen. Maggie hadn’t even eaten her omelette. I slumped and began banging my head against the counter-top. I was still doing that when Darkseid came to wash the dishes. She said something snarktastic and I decided this was as good a time as any to abuse the help. Thankfully, one of my subspace domains is a self-repairing pseudo-city, because I pretty much leveled it with my maid’s rock-like face. “Bitch.” I muttered.

Hours later, I sat in front of the Chamber once more, petting Sophie’s big silly fluffy head and feeling alone. Of course, I was never alone. I had Victoria and Soul of Ice and Silent Judge and Atura and hundreds of myself to talk to, if nothing else… but all the people I talked to on a regular basis besides Reggy were off elsewhere. I mean… I’d spent the last 10 years in a similar situation… but the next bit was likely to take at least five times that… and normally I had someone to go over companion builds with. I could do it with Reggy… but it wasn’t the same. We weren’t close in that way. We were close in the ‘fighting battles together’ kind of sense… I guess.

I pulled up the builds for my missing… I tried not to think of them as rebellious or traitorous… companions, and flipped through them, wondering if they were even vaguely accurate. I’d find out at the end, I supposed… but I certainly couldn’t use the information contained within as reliable. In addition to Maggie, Kendra, Raven, and Velma were all listed as Bene Gesserit. AJ, Amelia, Cirno, and Alex were all listed as Fremen, Francine as a House Minor, Toph as a Smuggler, and Gaius and Bao as Tleilaxu. By far, the largest section were, however, the House Major contingent, which included Zane, all five members of the Lost Choir (I shuddered at what those loons might get up to without supervision), Uriel, Mini, Frankie, Carwyn, Brigid, Anne, Bart, Meetra, Joy, Ahab, and Amaryllis. My sweet little girl, wrapped up in the insane politics of the Houses Major? That did make me more than a little worried… but then again, there wasn’t much about this that didn’t worry me.

I sighed, giving Ziggy his due as I did his build. While I was buying Fremen for him, what I was really doing was making him an Arrakeen Ferret, complete with Desert Rose to make him the prettiest Arrakeen Ferret and a Crysknife… to make him the best armed. He got a free Stillsuit for being on Arrakis… would it be a human one or was someone at Higher even now designing a tiny ferretoid stillsuit? I had no idea, but either was silly.

Of the other companions, two had rolled Drop-In, those being Kagetane and Faustian Bargain, both getting a free brush up on local milspec training, but not much else worth commenting on. I had no idea what they’d be doing, but neither of them listed their world as Arrakis, so they’d have to get there in the first place… if they even wanted to. Then again, they could just jump back to the Warehouse and I could bring them out on Arrakis.

Those who’d rolled to be Smugglers (No one had wasted a free pick on it) were Ark Magna, Sophie, the Bookers, and all three remaining Pokemon. What they’d bought with their CP was eclectic to say the least. Jann, RayRay, and the Bookers had picked up the ‘I’m Important!’ perk ‘Authority’, Sophie had taking the heredity judging ability ‘Appraising Potential’, and Dyna had picked Simulflow which was a strange thing for an ex-hive minder to pick, but if I asked her, she’d probably just shrug. Petra had taking the Bene Gesserit Weirding Way and part of me wanted to just offer to train her in Prana Bindu techniques… but Petra had a strong self-reliance drive and would accept… then take the perk anyway. On the other hand, she didn’t need Simulflow since she was, ultimately, a being with four separate brains. She’d known Simulflow from the time of her first evolution from Beldum to Metang.

The largest faction on this side of the mysterious offer was the Fremen contingent, almost all of whom had rolled it (only Odwet had picked it) and who were divided into those who’d taken the attractiveness boosting ‘Desert Rose’ and the self-explanatory ‘Survivalist’ (both of which were discounted for Fremen), and Military Training (which wasn’t… despite Fremen being the best fighters in the DuneVerse… blithering). Kohina, the Luteces, Buji, and Yuzuha were on Team Pretty, while Simon, Draken, and Odwet weren’t.

If there was an even split amongst the Fremen, there wasn’t any deviation amongst those who’d rolled Bene Gesserit. Every one of them had taken Weirding Way and Simulflow and noted on their tablets that they were taking them just to save time and none of the other 100 CP items or perks were really worth taking. It was almost funny to see Beth and Lizzy agree on anything, and to see how their use of language had diverged from each other over the last few centuries. They’d gone out of their way to be as unlike each other as twins could be. That was pretty much what they were, after all. Tokimi-Chan, Reggy, and the Dire Weasels had all voiced similar complaints, each in their own way. Tokimi’s was just a doodled ‘Meh’ on the list of options, while Reggy had written a brief synopsis of each and why she was rejecting them. The Weasels had, of course, voted. Only Tess had voted to be pretty instead of following the group… then again, only Tess worried that she wasn’t as pretty as Carwyn… but then again, almost no one was as pretty as Carwyn… or more conceited about it… I sighed… I was going to end up boffing the insane squirrel again, wasn’t I? 50 years without any of my official lovers was going to be… problematic.

On the other side of the secret breeding society divide, only two had ended up as Tleilaxu, namely Caine and Windjammer. Caine, unimpressed apparently, had bought a copy of the pain by nerve induction box. I’ve no idea what he was going to do with it… maybe test himself. Windjammer, being Windjammer… bought Desert Rose, because Windjammer is a vain and self-indulgent little bastard.

And that just left the various Houses and their newest Members. The Righteous Choir, in a bid (apparently) to be close to an Emperor of Mankind had opted for membership in House Corrino… which had cost them all their points, meaning they got nada out of this. Lunatics. Also from a House Major were Gaius & Reggy’s kids… all four of them were from House Richese, which would largely be ignored by the events of all the books, unless they got caught up in the destruction of their House’s rival in technology, House Ix… to which Jenny was a member of, but House Minor. Also House Minor were Vita and the aptly named ‘Material Girls’. Amongst all of them, all had taken Sharp Dressed Man, which meant that no matter what they wore they’d look good. All of them besides Jenny had also taken Decadence… the perk that guaranteed that whatever they made would sacrifice neither form nor function in pursuit of excellence and opulence. Jenny had gone with Authority… because warship. I was vaguely impressed Invidius and Scipio or Vita or Dearch hadn’t taken it either… but with Dearch… I wasn’t actually convinced she could read.

I looked around, wondering if I should wait until the month was up… but… part of me wanted to get this started… and another part wanted to avoid the slight feeling of betrayal that was going to poison me more and more if I dwelt on it. Might as well hit the switch.

======INSERTION=====

So, what does one do when one finds themselves in the pages of the holy of holies? Or, in my case, my favorite book? A book I read at least once a year, a movie I’d watched over a thousand times before ever leaving Origin Earth. My normal tactic is to come in and fix what went wrong and reshape what is to come into something more how I’d do things… except that the way I do things was, in large part, shaped by my reading of Dune.

I embrace the necessity of conflict and understand that peace is an illusion of safety. I understand that there is a greater good that sometimes is cruel in its calculus. I know all about the sacrifices that must be made on the altar of survival… and yet, part of me yearns for compassion even so.

So what do I do? Dune is, at the core of it, a human story. It tells of the deaths of the great and the lowly, of the good and just as much as the wicked and heartless. It does this because to be human is to die… unless you’re Duncan Idaho, in which case you get to die a lot more than is entirely normal. Still, almost all the deaths in the Dune cycle are untimely. Be it execution, assassination, battle, or childbirth, pretty much no one dies of old age. Only one comes close, at least on page… the Reverend Mother Ramallo surrenders her life as she surrenders her memories to induct Jessica (and Alia) as Reverend Mothers. But she is very old and willing to go.

Should I strive to preserve those who die unjustly? Should I save the Shadout Mapes, or Leto, or Leto the II (the Elder who died in a Sardaukar raid), or Chani who dies in childbirth? Do I save Paul from blinding? Or Alia from madness? And what of the Golden Path? I could make myself Empress and impose the Magi doctrines upon the Known Universe. I have the time in this setting… but if I do that… would it still be DUNE any more?

I settled back in my suspensor chair and listened for the hiss-glide pressure of Mother Mohiam. She did not know what I was, though she thought she did. In all things, as usual, she thought she knew more than she really did. She was arrogant in the extreme, though the Bene Gesserit had a better idea of what was needed than any other faction in this Verse. We’d begun our stay here on Arrakis to study Glossu Rabban, the Beast and planetary Governor, and to continue my education in the Bene Gesserit ways.

The Reverend Mother was not fond of me. Then again, she wasn’t exactly fond of anyone, but she saw in me a necessity that she found distasteful and a disturbance in what she felt was the natural order, because I learned things too fast, too perfectly, and without asking questions. In fact, prior to my moment of insertion, every word that ‘Sidira’ had uttered had been a simple declarative statement. Most often, when asked what she was doing, Sidira had merely replied ‘Waiting to Awaken’ and then refrained form explaining further, even when pressed. Even the Voice had had little effect on her… and now that I was Sidira, we were even more reticent.

I, the Jumper, had never liked Gaius Helen Mohiam. Sidira, the pupil, had very early on realized that any affection from the old crone was purely manipulation. She was too fixed in thinking of us as a repository, a link in her precious breeding program and little more. Still, what she lacked as a person, she was a skilled teacher, both of theory and application… even if we learned more than she intended us to learn.

After the moment of First Awakening, we began to more frequently escape from her watchful eye, venturing out into the streets of Carthag, the Harkonnen Capital. It was a hideous city, full of the despair of those who’d been forced to build it at ruinous cost in lives and ugly in its overpopulated grimedure. And yet, the people were people, as they always are. Even though many of them were Harkonnen transplants from Geidi Prime, they were, by and large, too lowly to have been contaminated by the vileness that pervaded the Beast’s inner circle.

Those who were not Harkonnen were the folk of pan and graben, the kind that the Fremen despised for their softness, though they were hardy for any planet that wasn’t a horror like Arrakis. It was easy enough to move through the world unnoticed, observing others as they moved through their lives, to learn the ins and outs of their society, and yet I longed to journey out into the great erg and commune with the planet in silence… but I didn’t for reasons I was not quite sure of.

For a year and a little more, I did not stray far from the city and the presence of the ever judging Reverend Mother Mohiam, though I did escape whenever I could. I did not make use of my Face Dancer nature, which I had actively toggled off before my insertion. I wasn’t certain I’d use it, but it was nice to have if I needed it.

What finally pushed me to break from my self imposed boundaries was the arrival in the city and on the planet of the Baron and his younger nephew, the inimitable Feyd-Rautha… functionally my father, even if he didn’t know it. The Baron had come to review spice production and the trio would be taking a tour, so they said, of the city and outskirts, so that Rabban could show off to his uncle.

It was too much an opportunity to miss. Of course, I couldn’t kill them without derailing everything, but I could have a little fun at their expense. To that end, I replaced their ornithopter in its entirety. What? Have you forgotten that my primary method of shapeshifting allows me to become inanimate objects? Thanks Samurai Jack, much appreciated. I then proceeded to give the Baron and his nephews the worst ride of their life, leading their escorts a merry chase before crashing down some seven hundred kilometers from Carthag. They wouldn’t be on the sand for more than fifteen minutes before their guards picked them back up, but watching them bicker amongst themselves and blame their pilots (Harkonnen loyalists to be sure) for incompetence  was worth it. Sure, I cost two men their lives, but neither was a loss to the genepool.

Once they were gone, of course, I melted back into myself and looked out over the sere plain. The planet was lovely in its starkness and the wind smelled of spice and ozone. The part of me that was ice rebelled against the dryness and I finally understood why I’d been so reticent to venture away from the water of the cities. It had been instinctual… and yet, I was Bene Gesserit. Instincts were for animals. I was a human. At least in theory. I hadn’t yet faced the box… and if Mother Gaius had any say on the subject, I wouldn’t… not until I’d born several children to present the bloodline and possibly produced the Kwisatz Haderach. Such was the utility of my life in her eyes.

I knelt in the sand, feeling my way to contact the spirit of this world. Zane could commune with cities… I could do so with planets. I found discord within. This world was not what it had been. An invasive species had utterly changed the face of Arrakis in the long ago past, and the world that was felt smothered and rubbed raw by the monomaniacal ecosystem that now ruled, all of it in service of a single metaspecies, the Sand Worm. And yet… the world was growing used to it despite itself.. And sensed a coming change as more and more species flourished across the world thanks to the work of the Fremen under first Pardot and then Liet, the father and son Chief Planetologists and their vision for a terraformed Arrakis… a vision that would be co-opted by God-Emperor Leto soon enough.

Ah well, such was, if not inevitable, then necessary. I pushed the planetary consciousness away and danced lightly across the sand, feeling my way, letting the planet guide me to the Fremen I knew were watching even now. They’d have come to recover the crashed thopter, and I’d left the smashed remains of the one I’d replaced for them to find. They would not be expecting to find a twelve year old ghurabi (outsider) dancing across the sands in a fremen-made stillsuit. And certainly not one with metal eyes.

“Child, why are you here?” the leader of this band asked as his men set to salvaging the thopter before the worm that was already on its way arrived to dispose of the wreckage. Even without my various sights, I could tell he was trying to figure out what to do with me. If I was mad, it could be a good sign, or a bad one. If I was not, was it better to show mercy and get me back to a town or to take my water and be done with me.

“I have come to see the winds,” I responded, then spun in place. “Will you dance with me, Jamil?” He gasped as I named him, his secret name not the one he used in public, but then I laughed, “or do you really believe al-raqs quddam alumi majhudan la yura amal-u?” He paused, hand reaching for his knife. “Be not afraid, Jamil. I am but a midri, the fork that sifts good from bad. I am no nahya.” It is, perhaps, a truism that one should never trust someone who says they are no snake… but people tend to believe me when I speak… for some reason.

“You are… Are you a vision to speak to me so?” He asked, voice small and hushed.

“I come to tell you that the Lisan al-Gaib is to come and soon. You will know him, Korba. You will know him and serve him wisely.” He gasped and knelt in the sand, forehead down in a show of obeisance. “Go to,” I instructed him, pointing to a small rise some fifteen kilometers distant. “There you will find a cave that is cool and there is sweet water to refill your literjons. You will find it and know I speak true.”

Of course, there was no cave yet, and I hadn’t planned to run into Korba, but I had… how odd. Now, it could be a different Korba. I didn’t know. But he looked like the Korba of the Lynch film and he was of the right age. If he wasn’t the Korba of the Fedaykin, he’d still be able to follow Paul… unless he died beforehand. When he looked up, I was gone… or at least I’d vanished and lifted off the sand.

Crafting the cave and its small spring and strangely cool air was the work of only twenty minutes and mostly could be done via automation. Making it well concealed and in such a way that it wouldn’t soon be filled with sand or discovered by Harkonnen agents or smugglers was a little harder, but not much. I set out succulent fruits, not many of them, but enough, and spiced cakes and coffee, and several of the smaller and more harmless of the pets from the warehouse… and ziggy.

Atura asked, “Why are we doing this? Isn’t this… pointless?”

“I am testing a fairly typical example of a Fremen warrior to see how he reacts to something clearly, though not scarily, preternatural.”

“Soo… you’re having a lark and pretending it’s for science?”

I shrugged. “Partly, but also, I do want to see how far I can push things. This setting is starkly atheistic in its underpinnings, though there is a lot of religious symbology. I want to see if I can take advantage of that.”

“Oh? How so?”

“The Golden Path sought to teach humanity a lesson it would remember in its bones. I’m going to co-opt part of it… or rather, I’m going to use it as a viral carrier for Magi Memes.”

“Oh… dear,” Atura muttered, then shushed herself even though it wasn’t possible for Korba to understand her anyway as he ducked into the cave with two others, knives held at the ready.

“Welcome, Fremen,” I said, perched on the edge of the ledge above the pool into which the spring dripping from a crack in the ceiling. I had my eyes closed. “Please, partake… but do not harm the little ones.

“She bears a crysknife,” muttered one of Korba’s men, whose name was Baz… the falcon.

“I can see that,” responded Korba, looking around the cave and shivering slightly. It was almost 70 degrees in the cave, 45 degrees cooler than the day outside, and the humidity was almost 50%. He faced me. “I know these hills. This cave was not here before.”

“Before is meaningless. All that matters is now, and now there is a cave here. It will remain here until these hills are no more. What you do with it is not my concern… though the offworld fruits and cakes… they will not be here unless I am here… ah, you should put your knives away… the little ones may appear harmless, but they have a powerful protector.” I rose and leapt lightly over the pool, my bare skin revealing that I’d removed my stillsuit.

“We cannot. They have not…” Baz began but gasped as I drew my fingertip effortlessly across the three knife-tips faster than the battle-hardened warriors could even react. Three crimson droplets formed at the shimmering crystalline tips of those daggers, then, almost as one, they fell, two of them dashing against the floor, the third being caught in Korba’s other hand.

“I told you she wasn’t a ghost,” He muttered, and the trio put away their blades.

Baz whispered, “Is she… do you think she’s a Houri?”

I laughed, “Tell your friend he wishes… and while I am a virgin, this is far from paradise.” Baz blushed and I chuckled more. “My name is Janna, She who faces East. I am here to prepare you for the times that are to come.”

“Us?” Korba asked, indicating himself and the others.

“Not just you. The entire Ichwan-Bedwine,” I said, then returned to my ledge. “But now is not the time. Rest here until nightfall. A Harkonnen patrol is going to swing through the area to try and recover the crashed thopter in another thirty minutes. Rest, and I shall sing you a song of pleasant gardens and long graceful nights.”

Uneasy, but growing calmer, the trio sat and tasted the food, understanding that if I planned to kill them I probably could have done so without revealing myself. I sang softly, pulling up memories that the Fremen had carried down in oral traditions for 90 generations and more. I sang, teasing up their sense of nostalgia and ease until, one by one, they fell asleep, lowering their guards and allowing me access to the deep recesses of their minds, where I planted my hidden truths in the behavioural matrix of who they were.

When they, at last, woke, they’d find the cave empty without a trace of the creatures that had shared it with them or the foot or platters or rugs… but the water would still be cool and sweet and the cave would remain there, waiting. Any who rested there would find themselves blessed with good dreams and uninterrupted rest… and would find themselves adjusted as well in tiny, harmless ways.

I was most firmly scolded by Mother Gaius when I reappeared after nearly two days missing, but when she demanded to know where I’d been, all I did was favor her with a silent look and endure her switch with stoic silence. Her punishments were meaningless to me, and from then on, just to show her how meaningless they were, I made it a point to stay out for longer periods. Three days, then four, then five. Eventually, by the end of 10189, I was staying out for entire weeks at a time… but I always returned exactly at dawn on the 7th day and listened to the old woman’s lectures in silence. She didn’t need to know what I was doing, which, of course, was appearing to more Fremen and creating more such caves of serenity here and there.

Not too many, of course, but I was mapping all the sietch locations and seeding my memes where they’d be spread by the coming Jihad. The epocal mingling was coming and with it, I wanted to reshape humanity into something that could not only endure hardship… but thrive in it. Not merely some small section, but the entirety. And a humanity that was a little less likely to betray and scrabble and tolerate abuses of power. I couldn’t be certain it would be as powerful as if I’d put my own people in charge… but in a way, I was… if very indirectly.

Of course, all good things must end, and at the end of 10189, we returned to Wallach IX for me to face my testing. The box’s pain is meaningless and I ignored it, like any good human would. Not that the meta-cyanide on the Gom Jabbar could have harmed me… that meta, btw, is very important. Normal cyanide in that tiny amount couldn’t kill a human unless that human was an infant. Cyanide breaks down in the body too fast. I think my blaise reaction to the testing process worried the Reverend Mother… I really don’t like mindreading Reverend Mothers. Their minds are chaos and it’s too easy to get distracted by Other Memories.

Still, Wallach was not without its amusement. For instance, when, at last word came that the Harkonnens were being replaced by the Atreides, I made a point of being at home. I looked up at the glowering countenance of the Reverend Mother and said, “You should have a look at young Paul Atreides… on Caladan.” She did not understand why I was chuckling. Still, early in 10,191, off we went to Caladan and the Ducal palace.

What is there to say about Caladan? You’ve seen one relatively poor agri-world, you’ve seen them all, though Caladan was more ocean than most, it was still an agri-world and the Atreides were relatively soft and water-fat. Still, for all that, Duke Leto practically radiated charisma and his son, Paul, was brilliant and intuitive, every inch the nascent Kwisatz Haderach and Mentat Duke.

It was also easy to see that he was too soft to ever follow the Golden Path. I could have, had I felt like it, stepped in and offered this young demi-god to be an alternative. I could have transformed his Imperium into a carbon copy of the Magi Hegemony… but would that be my empire or his at that point? Would my Magi have withstood all comers? They were unified, to be certain, and vast, and all but impossible to conquer… but were they able to withstand a force that didn’t come to conquer but rather to destroy? I didn’t know. I did know that Ix’s machines were dangerous, that the Tleilaxu were evil, and the Honored Matres twisted enough to make me very leery of allowing them to unfold without some kind of hold on them. All three could and would destroy entire worlds in the quest for their own power… or in the case of Ix, destroy all humanity because they thought self programming self-upgrading hunter-killer machines was a smart idea. Idiots should not play with emergent machine intelligence.

Still, I studied the reality of this figure I’d imagined meeting for the better part of fifteen millenia and wondered if I’d met him at any other point in my journey what that would have been like? Would I have been ready before ruling the Magi or the people of Alpha Centauri? Would I have been able to converse with him as an equal with only Mentat and Savant to boost my intellect? I’d been very very smart back on Origin as a mere human… but Paul Atreides was no mere human. He was the result of 20,000 years of adaptation and growth of the human genome, of refinements in understanding of genetics and human thought. In pure power, I was now smarter than him… but his prescience, which would only grow stronger, was superior to mine… at least until I too took the Water of Life. I would, I knew that. The curiosity would draw me in, eventually, even if nothing else did.

Part of me wondered if, in another time or place, we could have been friends… but I doubted it. Friendly, perhaps, but both of us had a ‘terrible’ destiny, one that could not be easily evaded. And so I set that aside. I could not be part of Paul’s life… and I could no longer be part of Gaius Helen Mohiam’s life, either… or rather, I no longer needed her in my life. Not until it was time for the old crone to pass away.

It was child’s play to escape her clutches and gain passage with the Atreides household… but I was careful not to become attached to any of them… instead I focused on imagining how my various friends from other worlds would have dealt with the problems of this universe. For instance, could even Nanoha have reformed the Baron Vladimir? I’d like to think that even Nanoha wouldn’t have even tried. I was looking forward to having the Baron in my Other Memory just so I could punt the evil toad… assuming my memory editing worked on Other Memories… otherwise I’d just use his metaphorical ass as a metaphorical soccer ball… and I hate soccer.

And so, at the age of 14, after gaining a first class sexual & political education at the hands of the creepiest witch in the universe… seriously, bitch has metal teeth… I took my leave of her before she could decide that it was time to breed me. If I contributed to the Bene Gesserit breeding program, it would on my own terms. The sisterhood might have had good intentions… well, not clearly horrible ones… but they, though not to the extent of the Tleilaxu, have sacrificed a little of what made them human in their quest for the ultimate human being. That is how the Atreides gained a house squire the day they departed Caladan.

“Boy,” the man snapped, and I turned to face the arch-traitor, Wellington Yueh. “Who are you. I don’t remember seeing you before.”

I looked up at the tall, severe man and smiled, a thousand potential conversations of condemnation floating through my mind, and in a rare moment of self-indulgence, I spoke the most hurtful of those that I could think of. “Why should you care for the security of a family you plan to betray, Wellington?”

He stiffened, reaching for the hidden needle gun, but I raised a finger to my delicate lips and whispered, “We all have our secrets. I shan’t tell yours and you’ll forget you ever saw me, yes? Wouldn’t want any harm to come to Miss Marcus, now would we?” I should have felt shame at invoking the name of the dead to hurt the man… but as Jessica would say soon enough, a million deaths are not good enough for the good doctor. Oathbreaker. Coward. Betrayer. Saviour. Ah, such are the twisted roles fate calls upon us to play.

I vanished around a corner of the lighter as it sailed into the enormous hold of the Highliner, leaving Wellington sweating and weak. I’d probed his mind… he was still resolute, almost burning with the anticipation of his task and wondering whose spy I was. Let him worry.

Once back on Arrakis, I returned to my mysterious ways, but now full time. I was creating a cult within the greater Fremen body, my songs being recorded and played back to hidden groups, each with carefully imbedded neuro-linguistic hooks and memetic elements. In their coming Jihad, I wanted them to spread ideals of self-reliance and innovation rather than the orthodoxy of the Mahdinate, of cooperation and progress instead of judgement and possessiveness. All these things were within the Fremen ideology… I was simply tilting the balance… but it was getting harder. My prescience was limited, even with the amount of Spice I was ingesting, and Paul’s Golden Path was already fighting my adjustments to it.

This is not to say that the Golden Path was a sentient thing. In some ways it was, as it was the racial awareness of its own mortality. In other ways, it wasn’t, since there was no reasoning with it. It was attempting solve an age old issue through brute force computation carried out across a highly diffused organic process. I was running the same calculations on a single unified machine with more processing power than all the trillions of humans in the Known Universe… and thanks to my Mentat training I’d increased my processing power yet again as my neural network was being restructured into competitive-cooperative cells with stochasticly shifting allegiance to run parallel thought lines while only partly sharing information. This allowed me to make much greater leaps of thought on smaller data sets and was all in preparation for the awakening to come… and it would have to come sooner than I’d hoped.

My plan to wait until the execution of the Reverend Mother to face the Spice Agony had been naive, I realized. I’d have to beat Paul to awakening. My precognitive invisibility was good, very good. Good enough to have thwarted Yhwach all those centuries ago and others beside in the centuries since, but to hide from someone who could chart thousands of years of future-history across a span of galaxies? I was not certain I could hide from such prescience… it was possible that an Atreides Kwisatz Haderach could see through the defenses of a No Ship. As such, it would be unwise to allow the servants of the Golden Path a chance to glimpse me and counter my efforts to steer humanity onto, let’s call it the Platinum Way. It was like the Golden Path, but more silvery and better at conducting electricity.

So… just to be thematic… I went to Fondack… or rather Sietch Jacurutu as it secretly was known, after procuring an infant sandworm and drowning it in water to produce the bile that would become the Water of Life if all went well. Would this work? I had no way of knowing. I had the potential of course, and understood the ways this could go wrong… especially since, for this to work, I’d have to turn off my immunity to poison. The Water of Life wasn’t merely the preeminent awareness spectrum narcotic… it was a lethal poison in its untransformed state. I also had to shift to male for this to work as intended… though Frank Herbert had almost never conceptualized someone like me.

He’d written Dune partly as a critique of the overly charismatic leader. Never in human history had there been a leader with my degree of charisma… not even the coming Atreides super-humans… but they were close. The question was… was I close enough to them to do this thing?

Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. “Atura, do not allow me to reactivate poison immunity. The Spice Agony might cause me to try. I have to be pushed to my limits for this to work.”

“You might want to turn off your pain inhibitors as well then,” The spirit suggested helpfully. She, at least, held no reservations.

I did so, and looked to those I’d asked to attend me. Sophie, Tokimi-chan, The Luteces, Dire Weasels, and the four members of the Righteous Choir imported all the way from the Imperial Capital. “Some of you may choose to follow this path as well… those of you who are Bene Gesserit (Tokimi and the Weasels) at least… I shall go ahead of you, scout the way.” I chuckled, then lay back and allowed Tokimi to pour a mouthful of the bile into my mouth… only for it to freeze solid before it could reach my lips. Shit. “Sorry… sorry.” One by one, I began turning my defenses off. My body recognized this as death and was having none of it, but I’d give it no recourse but to rely on Bene Gesserit abilities of Organo-Chemical conversion. My willpower and focus would reign supreme. I would not be thwarted by my own defenses!

A minute later, I sighed, “Let’s try that one more time,” and nodded to Tokimi, who’d cleared the mouth of the sack containing the bile and set aside the chunk of bile-ice in the shallow silver basin next to me.

As the acrid vapors of the dying worm’s final exhalation hit my nose, I stiffened, but held still, allowing the poison to pour into my mouth… and the universe exploded. My memory folded back on itself, racing down the ever-branching tree of ancestors, living every moment they’d lived in reverse, unfolding back into their own ancestors, and then back further, until the vast cacophany of the tree began to collapse inward, individuals replicating as they filled more and more spots in the tree as humanity’s numbers shrank… then blossoming out again only to shrink again… I was seeing cyclical die-offs caused by wars and plagues and disasters… the fate of any race bound within a tightly confined area… and then I was before mankind and still my awareness expanded, slipping back into more and more primitive awarenesses until a billion years and more had passed in an inverted flash and the senses of the proto-lifeforms I was in bore such little similarity of reference to mine own that to focus on them would be madness.

I wrenched my consciousness away from that growing darkness and focused on the now, pushing away awareness of past and future. Right now, right in this moment… I was going to die. This poison would damage me… and to stop it, my body had locked up, my awareness caught in a single moment, and I examined the nature of the drug, its incredibly complex molecular structure… and I shifted an electron, allowing a nitrogen atom to shift, freeing a carbon to bind to an oxygen… and a chain reaction spread through the substance. I hadn’t even realized how much pain I was in… my mind had discarded that as immaterial in the face of existential crisis.

I turned my head and Tokimi held the sack out to me. I took another slug of the toxic bile, allowing it to mingle with the Water of Life in my mouth and spat it back into the sack… within seconds, it was all converted and I nodded to her. She took a swig and passed the sack to Arlissa while I allowed a drop of the water to fall from my lips into the silver bowl, converting the now melted ice.

Sophie sniffed it, barked once, then licked up the drug. Our community might be reduced at the moment… but the Fremen Tau Orgy was not a bad custom… and no, it’s not just about sex. It’s about community… dancing, touching… and sex too. Me? I just buried my face in Sophie’s soft fur and wept.

Anyone who has ever thought that Prescience is a blessing is out of their gods be damned mind. A little, like what I’d had before, maybe. Three seconds isn’t much and it only worked on the area directly around me. A day out and you might be able to lead a normal life. A Kwisatz Haderach doesn’t have that. A Kwisatz Haderach has thousands of years of awareness, of events great and small, spreading out around them to all the span of their race’s collective knowledge… and it is both a terrible burden… and a worrying one.

The landscape of the future spread out before me in an endless vista of possibilities… and there were shadows across an alarming amount of that vista, places where the future vanished into a chaos of unknowable results… though in many cases, the future would continue unfolding beyond that so by studying the possible results it was possible to intuit what would have had to have happened to a degree. I saw the Golden Path… or rather… several of them. Paul’s limited path… Leto’s more drastic one… the Bene Gesserit’s darkly controlled one… the Bene Tleilaxu’s insane and twisted one… yes… Paul and Leto had been limited by their own values.

They had scorned the Bene Gesserit for failing to properly appreciate the nature of the future… but the BG had seen the seed of the Golden Path a hundred centuries earlier without the perfect prescience of a Kwisatz Haderach. They’d shown wisdom by acknowledging that they did not know everything and had sought a tool for it. Paul’s biases had turned him against the BG, because he believed them incapable of taking the needed actions. They could have been allies, but he was unwilling to enlist them, unwilling to share responsibility, unwilling to turn his considerable charisma to the task… and unwilling to trust.

Leto too had trusted almost not at all. Both held that they were the single infallible individual… and they’d never looked to see if that was true. No. Their plan had required sacrifice and so they’d taken it entirely upon themselves to make those sacrifices… or decide who would have to.

I? I could pick. I was a free actor. I could do all that they could and much more… but with my new awareness, I became aware of all the lives that each action… and each inaction… would cost. All the innocents who would die because I made a choice… or because I refused to make a choice. There was no escaping it. It was a little overwhelming.

Eventually, however, things ran down, as they must, and my companions fell into slumber. I, on the other hand, walked out into the desert and stared up at the night sky. So many worlds, so many lives. I felt as if I could, in that moment, reach out and feel each of them. A thought occurred to me, and with a flicker of will, I reached back into the the past… and a star blossomed into a glorious flare.

“Holy shit,” I muttered… I’d just made a star go nova… a star with no inhabited worlds, one 85.239 lightyears away… 85.239 years to the moment… I’d changed history so it would flare in a glorious array. Incidentally… that was the exact moment Leto, Duke of Arrakis, died. Unfortunately, while my Hokuto’s gift, the power that allowed me to change the past so long as I didn’t bring anyone back to life or cause to have died anyone who hadn’t died in the past, had expanded dramatically in the amount of time I could edit and now in the scope of what I could affect… I could still only do it once a month. Ah well… next month, every member of the Sardaukar gets food poisoning simultaneously.

I headed back inside… where Victoria was waiting with news. “Vivian just sent word from the warehouse… four of our companions have died according to the Chamber.”

“What? Who? How?” I gasped, floored by the fact that I hadn’t predicted this.

“No details were made available to us, but the four dead are Cirno, Ahab, Decima, and Brigid,” my very forbidden AI replied.

“Oh… that makes sense… I guess. All from the group with a super secret… weird. Oh, how is team Liet doing?” I hadn’t predicted their deaths because I had no idea where the hell they were. Interesting that it happened during the attack. Maybe they were in Arrakeen? Regardless, I’d sent a team to pick up Liet Kynes from where Rabban would dump him. His death served no purpose besides to draw Chani and Paul closer together in that they both lost fathers that day. Eh. He could die later.

“The Bookers are following the thopter in Victor. As soon as they drop the Planetologist off, he’ll be transferred to medbay. Are we recruiting him, or are we just saving him so he can go into hiding?”

I considered, then checked prescience… oh… this was a bad idea… a tool that tells me how things will turn out if I do them… yeah… this is going to take some careful consideration… but if I saved Liet, what would that do to the timeline? Would it make Paul’s efforts to unite the Fremen under him more difficult? I scanned… and no. It wouldn’t have any significant effect.

“Don’t pick him up. Just have them call me and I’ll rescue the good Judge of the Change. Sidira needs something to do.”

“As you command,” Victoria said, relaying the message. She likes to pretend she’s my XO and we’re always on away missions. I humor her because she often gets between me and ouchies. She glanced at me. “Ouchies? You’re the God-Queen of the Magi and you still use the word ‘Ouchies’?”

“Hey. I’m only 14! Ouchies is a perfectly cromulent word!… and it’s God-Empress.” I snapped, waving a finger at her.

“That’s only because you can’t think of a word more pompous,” She retorted.

“Actually, I’m technically the Ethnark of the Magi. Supreme leader of a ethnic group. So I could be ArchEthnark. Or Omnark. But Empress is more common, so the readers will be more familiar with it.” I grinned at her.

She frowned, “You are not that Deadpool fellow. There aren’t any readers.”

I shrugged, “Well, we know we’re being syndicated to someone. Who knows how they’re getting the feed.” I turned to a direction that wasn’t facing Victoria or anyone else and waved. “Hiya folks out in TV land! Hope you’re enjoying the show… and Victoria isn’t wearing any panties!” I flipped up her skirt to show no one at all her bare butt… which looked like the bottom of a female android. She bopped me.

=====

“Good morning, Dr. Kynes,” I said, dripping water from a wet cloth onto his parched lips.

“W… where am I?” he asked, opening his eyes. We were in one of my caves. His eyes tried to focus on me in the faint glow of a chem light, but he was too dehydrated. I’d arrived within minutes of the spice blow and scooped him out of the area just before he vanished forever. In the time between, another of my companions, Gaius, had died. What were they doing? Trying to fight off the Sardaukar and failing? That didn’t reflect well on them.

“You are in one of Sidira’s caves,” I responded softly. “You nearly died. Your suit is destroyed. You will not make it to the nearest sietch in your current condition.”

“Y… you’re her? The one who’s been filling my Fremens’ heads with superstitious nonsense?” He croaked.

“It is unwise to insult someone who has just saved your life and may be called upon to save it again shortly,” I chided. “And I am clearly no phantasm, Dr. Kynes. Nor is the Lisan al Gaib. He is amongst your people even now. Stilgar has taken him in and named him Usil, though he will be known as Paul Muad’dib.”

He struggled to sit up and I helped him with gentle hands, “So, the young lordling is the Voice from the Outer World? I had suspected.”

“Of course you have. All the Fremen have, though I tell you a secret known only to the Bene Gesserit… they seeded many primitive worlds with such legends deliberately so that a stranded Sister and her child or children would receive help. They call it the Missionaria Protectiva.” I leaned into the light so he could see my face, and offered him a small canteen. “Drink as much as you can. The canteen will not run out of water.”

He gasped, almost dropping it, but I held it in his hands until they steadied. “You… you are telling the truth?” I nodded. “The legend… the prophecy? It is lies?”

“It is… but it is also truth. When enough people believe a thing, its veracity matters less than how they will act upon it. Your father’s words were not prophecy in the metaphysical sense, but they will become true in the years to come… and sooner than you think. For more than three thousand years, Arrakis will become a garden world and the Fremen will become soft, the old ways forgotten save for a few.  And then… the world will change again and revert to the way it has been for ages past the knowing of man. The sands will return, and the old ways will be remembered… until, perhaps, the ending of the world.”

“You… you speak as if,” he took a sip of the water and gasped, “It’s cold!”

“Yes. very astute of you to notice. Also you should be drinking… and yes, I speak as if I have seen the future? I have. I do. I can. That is how I knew where to find you. You were very nearly swallowed by the desert.” I patted his hand. “That would have been… inconvenient. You would have missed the birth of your grandchildren. Drink your water.”

“I’ve finished it,” he said, handing back the 200 ml canteen.

I pushed it back to him. “No. You haven’t. It doesn’t empty. Here, have some salted meat, you’ve lost too many electrolytes.” I handed him a small pouch, which he took, staring in mingled horror and wonder at the tiny canteen.

“Never?”

“Never. You could pour water from it until the coming of Kralizec and it would no more run dry than the sun would stop burning. In fact, it would still be pouring water most likely even after the sun was no more than a burned out hulk of iron.”

“How can this be?”

“I am from farther away than you can know, son of Pardot,” I said, sitting back so that only the shine of my eyes was visible. “I am older than you can know, though I appear here in this time and place as but a child. Now… how shall we get you back to your people?”

He held up the canteen. “You have this magic, and yet you ask me?” He chuckled softly, then coughed. He was still weak.

“Indeed. My magic must stay within my caves, lest it upset the balance of what is to come,” I said, sitting motionless. “But… perhaps…” I pointed at his ruined stillsuit and said, “Pour out the water from that canteen. Pour it out onto your suit.”

He looked horrified at the idea, but it is hard for even those familiar with command to resist me, though I was not using the Voice. Finally, hand shaking, he did so, splashing the water over his front. His gasp of wonder as the water became ice that transformed into spiders, tiny and swift, that swarmed over his suit, tugging the torn materials back together, sealing the rents made by Rabban’s blade. Some of the material was too badly damaged to be easily repaired, but the ice-nanites… though grossly huge to be true nanites, stole material from where they could to patch the worst of the holes.

“It is not perfect… the suit was badly damaged… you will have to replace it when you find your way back to your people… but it will suffice… and your water reserves are full.” Indeed, the spiders had, in their final acts, transformed back into water and slipped inside the catchpockets. “I will leave you now, but there is a fremkit and a desert cloak concealed under a pile of loose stones next to the exit. There is food and water for you to replenish yourself… but nothing within the cave save the water you drink and the food you eat can leave with you.”

“Will some terrible fate befall me if I try to take this canteen?”

“Yes,” I said simply, but did not elaborate.

He smiled wanly. “Good.” He took a long swig and tossed it to me. “Take it with you lest I be tempted.”

And I did.

========

I remained little more than a rumor as Sidira over the next few years, but I was no stranger to the Fremen, moving in and out of their sietches and monitoring the growth of the Cult of Sidira and the Cult of Muad’dib. I was careful to reinforce the idea that they should be seen as one thing, one inseparable divine mystery, but that Sidira was not of this world, while Muad’dib was. Him they could venerate… me they should worship… at least a little.

I especially was not absent from young Alia’s life. I spoke to her often, making certain she never felt as isolated as she otherwise would have, playing games of adult cunning and skill with her and never treating her as a child, though she often needed or desired such treatment. Harah, Paul’s woman (not that he slept with her, but she was his servant and responsibility since he’d killed her husband Jamis in the duel that proved he was suitable to join the tribe… Jamis had demanded the duel… ah well, foolish pride.) was the one who would care for her emotional needs. I was there for her spiritual needs… and to punch her version of Vladimir in the face whenever he reared his hideous mug. I had him in my head too, of course, but his ego memory in my head was routinely scourged by Silent Judge whenever she felt bored and the rest of the time he was locked in a box that contained all the total sociopaths that my Other Memory had dredged up out of the past… not all of them Harkonnens. I had mental defenses for years, double, triple, quadruple layered defenses inside and out.

Alia, on the other hand, had had no persona of her own, no mental defenses to speak of when she’d been awakened in utero. If I could save one soul in this often depressing world, it would be hers. After all… if the Golden Path needed her specific suffering, then it was too finely balanced… and it wasn’t. The fall of Alia (and boy was that an obvious reference, since the name can mean ‘Going Up’ in a spiritual sense) was dramatic… and served to counterpoint the differences between her and the twins (Ghanima and Leto II the Younger), all three of whom were Pre-Born, but only Alia fell into Abomination because… well… many factors… most of which boiled down to nobody having her back.

Now, I had it… and so did the massive dog that appeared in the sietch one day to accompany her. Many wondered at it, and worried about this strange creature, but none of them dared, quite, to interfere with Sophie once the Temple Dog made it clear that she was more than a match for even the most foolhardy of Fremen Warriors. Paul and Jessica were even more confused, until Alia explained that she was a present from Sidira… at which point Paul and Jessica were down right worried… until they saw how gentle and protective Sophie was… she’s a wonder with children.

And speaking of children, I had to decide what to do about Leto the Second… the first one. See, Paul was a bit of a stickler, as these things go, for naming conventions. He and Chani had a son that they named Leto II. He was born roughly a year before Paul ascended to the Imperial throne and was killed by Raban, then Governor of Arrakis, in the same raid that Alia was captured and taken to Emperor, thus allowing her to assassinate her grandfather. Great scene. Gaius Helen Mohiam was there and Alia scared the crap out of the old witch… or would… Sorry, I wandered a bit… Leto II the Elder as he was known is not (obviously) the God Emperor. Rather, his little brother, Leto II the Younger, the youngest of Paul and Chani’s three children, would be the eventual emperor of mankind.

The question then is, do I save the life of an infant? On one side, it’s a life… but there are millions of lives I don’t save, so why this one? Curiosity? Proximity? Because I can? But Paul’s prescience didn’t predict Leto II the Younger. Ghanima was supposed to be an only child. Some have suggested that Leto II the Elder was reborn as Leto II the Younger.  Is that possible? I’ve seen stranger things. After all, in this universe, Genetic memory is a thing. So Ghanima, preborn, could have caused her older brother, now slain, to be reborn as her younger? Perhaps. I didn’t know.

Ultimately, I didn’t act. The life of a single infant, no matter how born to power, does not sway me in the face of epocal change. To act to save that one child would have been strange when I didn’t act to save all the other Fremen youths who died in this campaign. Furthermore, to save L2E would have thrown too much flux into the path of the future, making things… annoying. Perhaps it is just that Paul suffer the loss. His Jihad will kill millions, many of them children… no matter how necessary in the face of the survival of the entire species, they too deserve to be mourned… or maybe not.

Maybe life is meaningless. My prescience and vast intellect cannot tell me otherwise. Perhaps it is both. Priceless has two meanings. Perhaps life has meaning only in the living of it. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure anyone does.

======

“EssJay…,” Vivian said through my suitbug, “We’ve lost some more companions. Lilith, Sabine, Verona, and Buji are all down.”

I grunted in reply, looking down at the vast battle engulfing the lands inside the Arrakeen Shield Wall. The Fremen were slaughtering the Sardaukar, but some of them were falling as well. Buji hadn’t been among the missing. He was Fremen in this time, and had no doubt been a little too cocky. Ah well. He’d learn… hopefully.

Alicia and Bart were next to go, within a few hours as it happens. I came out of the transition of power scene to an update from Vivian… and began putting two and two together. The time stamps of those deaths were… interesting. Especially to a Mentat, trained to put the tiniest of clues together. Alicia had died at the same moment as Feyd Rautha had… and Bart at the same moment as Thufir… I ran back through the other deaths of companions… Decima, Ahab, and Brigid had died right around the time Yueh, Duke Leto, and Piter bought it… Cirno a little before that, Gaius a little after… Mapes and Duncan? Sabine around the same moment Alia had stabbed the old Baron…

“Oh, for the love of…” I strode into my Warehouse… “Chamber! Did Higher offer my companions ride along privileges in the major players? Are all the major players my companions?”

“I do not know. But the evidence suggests that some are. Yes. I do not know why, however.”

“I do. I know exactly fucking why… they wanted to make sure I didn’t recruit anyone from here. Or rather, I didn’t recruit anyone new! Say I recruited Liet Kynes… at the end of the jump, poof, Tada! It’s me, Mario!”

“You do not have a companion named Mario.”

“Video Game reference. You know what I mean. They knew I’d be stripped of my Soul Sight… sneaky bastards. And I’m sure they don’t even consciously know who they are. Otherwise a casual mind scan would have given it away. Very sneaky… I should be furious… but I was definitely outplayed. Oh. Make a note. Too Maggie. You’re Grounded. You were right there when I said no Abomination and you did it anyway… sneaky… very sneaky… also good way of doing an end run around both me and that terrible drawback masquerading as a perk.”

The Chamber errred. “I do not make notes… and do not understand.”

“This was, I’m almost certain, Maggie’s idea from start to finish. Maybe with some help from her brother. Alia is, I’ll bet you dollars to dramaderies… Maggie. And Leto II is Alex… and… mmmm… Ghanima isn’t going to be Amaryllis… Ghanima has sex and children and that stuff makes Amaryllis green. She’d be someone pretty because she’s a vane child… someone who doesn’t have… She’s Hwi Noree. The Chast Princess. That would appeal to her. Ghanima would be either Frankie or Mini… Not enough information for the others… Not sure if it’s a good sign that the Lost Choir signed up to be the Harkonnens… but to be honest, they did worse as disciples of Chaos than the Harkonnens did for their own ends… I guess.  I’ve never really wanted to look too deeply into the minds of that quintet. But Sabine… yeah, she’d probably done things more debauched than Vladimir. Slaanesh’s followers are like that.

“Well… I’m not sure I’m displeased… but I’m also not going to call foul. Tell Higher to ask next time. I really hadn’t planned on recruiting anyone… but I’m guessing I’m getting pretty close to everyone. No idea how I’d know who was and who wasn’t a sleeper… ahah. Cute.” I shook my head and wandered back into the real world.

=======

“I don’t understand,” said the boy covered from head to toe in sand-trout armor. “What is it you want of me, Sidira.”

“You plan, as you must, to destroy the sandworms. All of them. All but the ones on your body. I want you to allow my hunters to gather as many of the medium and small ones as we can during your terraforming efforts. We’ll guarantee they’re seeded farther than you can even imagine.”

“You’ve partly subverted the Golden Path already… I can see the silvery threads of your workings… even if I can’t see you. What are you up to?”

“You plan to push humanity into spreading far beyond any power to track or eliminate them… but you didn’t plan on shaping what humanity becomes. Your humanity would have learned to resist oppression, to never be completely comfortable with ‘peace’… but your humanity would not have learned anything else from the Golden Path. They’d be just as treacherous, backstabbing, and self-serving as ever. I’ve infected your Path with a winnowing agent. Those who won’t play nice with others will be removed. Those who profiteer off the suffering of others… will be culled. Those who seek power over others for their own aggrandizement… will be ground under and destroyed. You wanted a safer humanity? I want a better humanity.”

“And you will otherwise refrain from interference in the Path? In what must be?”

“I will neither aid you nor oppose you. I may come again with elements I need you to promulgate throughout your empire, young Emperor to be… but I will not counter it. I do not like what the Honored Matres would become… but the enemy they are fleeing from is one I can no more predict than you can. Our goals are similar enough that we can work together.”

Those blue on blue eyes regarded me carefully, judging me with the full power of a Kwisatz Haderach. “I would give much to know how you hide from my prescience, Sidira.”

“Ask Siona,” was my only response, then I was gone.

=======

“That… is a biiig worm,” Petra commented as my Fremen steered the half kilometer long worm off of Arrakis and into a subspace fissure. Once the worm was safely ensconced in its new holding pen, I’d dial the time counter down to one second per standard millenia and it would join the other eight-hundred and eleven I’d gathered over the last century. They were becoming more and more scarce as the planet bloomed and Leto’s Peace became more and more fully established.

Alia, having stepped down as regent, had taken control of Liet’s Ecological corps, overseeing the transformation of the desert world into a paradise… and helping Leto stockpile a truly ridiculous amount of spice even as the worms were being driven to extinction. He was going to drive the Guild and the Bene Gesserit to starvation limits, to force them to comply with his plans… and to secretly find ways around the restrictions those limits caused.

If I’d been a member of the Spacing guild, I’d have been freaking out, since they could only vaguely see the future… but I? I had no need of the Spacing Guild to get where I wanted to be. I had installed Holtzman drives in my spaceships and with them I could, using my own prescience, jump a ship to anywhere in the universe pretty much. Prescience made meaningless the concept of distance… and I used it to take a selection of humanity’s best, a new foundation for the Magi Hegemony, and plant them far beyond the bounds of the Local Group.

Unto each Magi Seed, I gave a new Arrakis and the best technology I could. It would take them a few centuries to build their production and population bases, but I’d inculcated them with a rampant population meme alongside the other Magi Memes. A thousand galaxies seeded all around the big bang with humanity. Sure, they weren’t possessed of the prescience blocking genome… but once it was found in Siona, I’d be able to retrovirus it across humanity wherever they spread.

Golden Path, eat your heart out.

========

“Sidira… you’re looking… scaly,” The God-Emperor commented. “It’s been three thousand years… I thought for certain you’d be dead by now. I see you’ve copied me.”

I looked down at my own Sand-Trout bodysuit. “I was curious to see what it felt like.”

“And you wanted to live forever?” He said with a snarky grin.

“Oh… you poor child,” I said, not patronizing but with sympathy. “I have no idea what it’s been like to be you… and I can’t imagine it’s been fun… the things you’ve seen and done… you and your sister… such foolish little ones. Time is largely irrelevant to me.” I changed the subject, quashing my feelings of sympathy both for the overgrown child in front of me and (most likely) my own child who was… let’s call it ‘auditing’… the life of Emperor Leto. Many of the others had died over the years, but Maggie, Alex, Amaryllis, Velma, Raven, and Meetra all hadn’t… and I suspected the reason was because some of them hadn’t been born yet… or in the case of Maggie because I’d made Alia immortal to help me administer the vast NeoMagi Hegemony, and Alex because I was fairly certain he was Leto.

As for the others, Carwyn died when Jessica did, Toph when Gurney did, Zane and Kendra when the Fenrings did, Anne when Irulan did, AJ with Stilgar, Francine with Liet, Amelia with Chani, Uriel with Scytale… I was going to have soooo many words with them all that my hand was going to need regen from all the spankings.

“Irrelevant?” Leto asked, confused. “How is time irrelevant? It is the one true finite in every life. If I’ve learned one thing living this long, it’s that.”

“You’re just saying that because you know your time is coming to an end,” I said, my voice tinged with sadness. “But for me? Time is just another negotiable quantity. The three thousand years of your reign have been but 300 years for me. And in another 2,000 years, I shall be only a year or two older. I have no desire to witness the Famine Times that will come after your death. I have but two things left to accomplish in this universe before I move on.”

“Move… on?” Now he was even more confused.

“You’ll understand, in time. I just came to say goodbye,” I reached out and caressed the still youthful face that was all the humanity left to the Worm-Emperor. “You did the best you could.”

“I… don’t…” he opened his mouth, caught between demanding and begging me not to go, loneliness soaking every sound. If he had managed to get the words out, maybe I would have stayed. But he gathered his resolve and pushed his need away, and so I did not turn back as I walked out of the Presence Chamber for the last time. I’d be returning only twice more, once to recover the anti-Prescience genome from Siona Atreides, and the second time to deal with Ithaca and crew and the Honored Matres.

======

“Hello Murbella,” I said to the newly crowned Supreme Honored Matre and Mother Superior of the Bene Gesserit.

“You! How’d you get in here?”

“People like asking me that. It’s irrelevant. You really should be asking why I’m here, in your skanky-ass throneroom.”

She frowned, then snapped, “Very well… why are you here?”

“To demand your absolute and unconditional surrender,” I said simply.

“And why would I do that. I-” she began, but the rest of her question was utterly irrelevant as 2.3 million Magi Dreadnaughts flickered out of no-space all around the planet of Chapterhouse.

“Because I’ve lost too many friends and I’d like to resolve this without blowing you all up. Now, you’re going to go with my fleet and show them exactly where you found what you assholes were fleeing from and humanity can get back to spreading like a virus across the universe unhindered.”

“I will-”

“YOU WILL DO AS I SAY!” I shouted, putting the full force of my willpower into The Voice, causing several of the weaker willed Honored Matres to simply die. It was really hard to care about them after all the deaths they’d caused in their crusade.

Murbella, stronger than most, gulped and tried to agree, but I waved her away.

“Sidira to Team Omega. Terminate.” And with that Daniel and Marty were erased. I didn’t even bother to find out who they were. They had no place in my New Universe Order. A moment after that, the now evacuated No Ship Ithaca detonated as Yuzuha swatted it out of existence.

“There!” I yelled at the heavens. “Nothing happened on the Ithaca!”

The universe paused. I wondered if Higher was amused… but I doubted I’d ever learn the truth.

Next: Journey to the West

OMAKE: Relationship Chart

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed. It updates every day, but each update isn’t very long.

Resources: BuildDocument

AN: Not much to say here, but just a little insight… I’d originally considered having Atura hatch from the egg in this chapter, to get the whole “Sleeper Awakened” thing… but it was too damned corny. Ah well. I liked having it happen in the Okami chapter better.

World 68: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

THE MORE THINGS STAY THE SAME

Previously: Behold! The Fata Sakura!

Themesong: The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats

“Papa? Whatcha doin?” Alex asked as thousands of GO, Chess, and Shogi Boards floated above my head. I had my eyes closed.

“Hiya kiddo,” I said, manifesting a solid thought projection next to him. “I’m playing Sakura, Francy, Joy, VIvian, and VIctor in twenty-seven thousand two hundred and ninety six games of whatever.” I ruffled his hair.

“Why?”

“Why not?”

“What’s wrong with playing one game at a time?” He asked, fidgeting, going a little crosseyed as he tried to follow the rapid shifting of pieces across all the boards.

“I am playing one game at a time… Or rather all several hundred of me are playing one hundred games of each type against each opponent. I have exactly one one-hundredth of a second to make each move and they have a second to respond.”

“But… that would be over 1.8 million games…” He protested.

“Oh. It was. These are the only ones that I haven’t won yet… there isn’t much point to this. All these games are solvable, which means, since I have the absolute computational advantage, I win or stalemate every game. But they challenged me to see if I could win each of them with a unique endstate in which I am victorious… that’s a bit of a challenge.”

“You’re weird,” He commented. I nodded.

“I am indeed. We all are. But now you understand why I prefer videogames and roleplaying games and games where luck is important.”

“Because you can bruteforce everything else?”

“Because I can tickle,” I waggled my fingers, “Victory out of everything that’s a solvable game too easily.” He yelped and protected his sides. “So, what are you doing here in my private sanctum?” I asked, looking around at the ice-swept vista of Processing Central, the room where all Mega-Intellects met… well, all resident Mega-Intellects. If your IQ wasn’t at least four digits, don’t bother asking to enter… or if you weren’t a kid or bringing snacks… or Ziggy. Ziggy liked it because there was almost always a lap for him if I was in here.

“Chamber says the new document is ready,” he said. “Do we get to play this time? Last time was boring.”

“Last time was 49 days, you brat. And you got to run your own city for 5 centuries before that… why aren’t you all grown up yet?”

“I dunno?” he shrugged. “Why aren’t you?”

I grinned at him and scooped him up under one arm, having finished the remaining games in the time we’d been talking. “Just for that, you get pudding down your pants.”

“Nooooo…” Alex squirmed defensively, “I just… all the stuff we’ve done lately is all grown up stuff! Can’t we do something fun?”

“Well, you know I don’t have much say in these things, but… of the batch I know the next jump has to come from, Babylon 5 and Dune are very adult, what with wars and politics and dynasties and perverted grownups. Journey to the West is potentially fun, what with the whole mytho-poetic road trip and lots of demons to beat up… and Bartimaeus is pretty much the antithesis of ‘fun’, what with politics and assassination and boring mages being boring and stupid,” I’d listened to the book finally. “But Assassination classroom is a middle school… I think… full of assassins… yeah, that could be amusing… and Nanoha is about elementary school magical girls… so? I guess that could be fun.”

“But… can’t we just… have fun anywhere?”

“Kiddo… I think that’s my question for you,” I poked him on the nose. “Fun is all around. Most of the jumps we’ve been to I don’t have a planet to run or a death game tourney to win. We’ll have plenty of time to goof off with your sisters.” He made a face, but I grinned at him. “They’re allowed to have fun too.”

“Maggy doesn’t have fun… she’s too bossy,” he grumbled.

“Maggy has lots of fun, and she’s not bossy, you brat,” I scooped him up and tickled him as I headed for the Chamber. “Ho, Blockhead! What’s next on the agenda?”

“Per the young Master’s request for juvenile lighthearted fun, Nanoha has been selected by Higher,” the Chamber intoned dryly. “It also seemed relevant from what I gather to your recent spat of Mega-Computational shenanigans.”

I chuckled, remembering the german speaking mega-weapons that Nanoha lore claimed were ‘magical wands’… magical wands that can punch holes in city-sized spaceships… large holes… the long way… without sacrificing accuracy. “Right… good… okay, throw up the grid and me and my associate here will make some choices.

Alex eeped, “I… I get to help?”

“Yes, you get to help.”

“Can I sit in your lap and have hot cocoa too?” He asked, bubbling with excitement. I loved this kid. He was a brat… but my brat.

I gave him a hug and agreed, then settled back into the Comfy Throne and grew a bit bigger, watching as the basic informational scroll appeared. It detailed the rise of the Ancient Belkan Empire as it invaded civilization after civilization across the Dimensional Sea with its advanced Al-Hazardian magi-tech. After centuries of conquest and over-industrialization, the Belkan homeworld, Belka, finally became uninhabitable and, during the collapse of the Empire, Belka was lost in the DImensional Sea, despite the best efforts of the Belkan Saint-Kings of the time.

After nearly thirty years of civil war and chaos, the remnants of the Belkan Empire and a few independant worlds unified under the banner of the Time-Space Administration Bureau (TSAB), a security force dedicated to bringing peace to the worlds once held by the Empire and to monitoring the cultural and technological growth of more primitive worlds outside their jurisdiction. They also dedicated a large percentage of their resources into collecting the Lost Logia, dangerous remnants of Ancient Belkan and Al-Hazardian technology before they can cause too much damage.

It is now the year 0065 in the restored Belkan Calendar and within a few short months, the 21 Lost Logia known as Jewel Seeds will be accidentally scattered across a tiny island nation on one of those primitive worlds, a world known to the TSAB as Non-Administered World #97… and better known to us as Earth… Oh, Japan… any excuse to turn a little girl into a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

First up, as always, was the Origins section, and it held some moments of amusement. The starting age was a range from eight to twenty-two, which amused me, and there was the option to become a woman for free since the overwhelming majority of the cast were female.  Honestly, I could remember like… four males out of a couple dozen characters… and two of them were Nanoha’s brother and father. But most interesting was the fact that each of the five origins had its own theme and keywords. It was a fascinating and, to my memory, unique take on the subject.

The Origins were divided into three factions: Independant, TSAB, and Belkan, with one in the first and two each in the later too. Independent’s ‘Wanderer’ Background was the Drop-In option, the one that granted no new memories or persona. Its theme was ‘Bonds’ (I’m assuming not in the BDSM theme) and its motivation was seeking ‘connections, memories, and friendship’ with others. It was a nice little package, coming with perks that made youth no bar to gaining or keeping positions, that promoted mental health, that made massive attacks non-lethal, that made turning enemies into friends easier, that boosted willpower, and even that turned defeating an enemy into an act of compassion and mutual understanding… It even came with hotel recommendations… and if I were a younger jumper, I’d have been all over it. But I wasn’t, and I already had most of those things in some form or another… maybe it would be a good import for the kids though.

The two TSAB… and boy should they have reversed that and made it the Bureau Administering Space-Time… you figure it out… backgrounds were Civilian and Trooper. Civilians were all about ‘Innovation’ and ‘pushing the boundaries of theoretical magic, engineering, and science’, which I could certainly get behind, but it sounded a bit… practical. Troopers on the other hand were all about ‘Control’ and ‘securing territory, resources, and victory in battle’… which I wasn’t exactly opposed to, but it just didn’t sound fun and I was pretty good at doing all that already. I didn’t even bother to check out their perk-lines before passing them over. I’d look at the perks if I had points left to spend, but I doubted I would.

Then there were the Belkan backgrounds. These had the most history, the richest potential for new experiences and I was immediately intrigued. The Backwater background was for one of those worlds that had barely survived the Unification War and has largely been relegated to second tier by the TSAB. It held fast to the theme of Perseverance, and venerated the strength to endure, survive, and thrive where others could not have. I knew the type and could appreciate that grim passion, could almost see myself taking it… might have, had the last option not presented itself.

That option was to become a member of the adherents of the Saint Church, a group dedicated to the veneration of the last Saint-King, Olivie Sagebrecht, she who’d brought an end to the Unification War and then disappeared with her flagship, the Saint-Cradle. Granted semi-autonomy by the TSAB for their support and contributions to the stability of the new nation, the Saint Church’s theme was ‘Ancestry’ and they held fast to the legacy and history of their people… especially the last preserved elements of Ancient Belkan culture and magic. I have always had a thing for lineage and antiquities, and, I decided, unless the perks sucked, I’d go with the strange faith… hopefully the indoctrination wasn’t too bad. Then again, this was Nanoha, where everything ends with a hug and maybe some cookies. I gave the dice of aging a toss and, poof, became 13. A good age to be… but then again, weren’t they all?

Alex elbowed me and whispered, “Companion Immmpoooort.” and I laughed, then tickled him.

“Chamber, please show the companion import options so my Minister of Cocoa knows I haven’t forgotten about him,” I said, holding Alex’s nose as he tried to lick my hand. The section wasn’t long… but I winced… it wasn’t cheap either. There was a basic package of 8 import for 200 (My Friends and Me), which was perfectly reasonable and came with a free background, 400 CP to spend, and 600 DP to spend on a Device (the aforementioned ‘magical wands’)… all very reasonable and not at all wincemaking. Unfortunately, ‘Jumper Squad 7’ allowed an unlimited import, and was 400. 600 CP to bring in everyone was a bit… hmmm… “Chamber, is My Friends and Me included in Jumper Squad 7 or is it a prerequisite?”

“There is no clear indication that Jumper Squad requires MFAM. There is an implication that it might, and it could go either way, but I am inclined to be reasonable, so 400 grants all your companions the benefits of My Friends and Me, as I doubt you plan to generate new companions at all.”

“No…,” I considered. “I think I have enough for the time being.”

Alex groaned.

“What?” I asked, peering at him.

“That means you’re going to pick up more loonies!” he complained.

“Me saying I have enough companions means I’m picking up more?” I asked, suspiciously.

“Yes! It’s like Amaryllis saying she has enough stuffed aminals… then she gets more!” He complained.

“You’re one to talk,” I chided him. “How many outfits do you have?”

“I need them all! I have two different genders and my bodies aren’t the same size! I need twice as much clothing as everyone else!” He protested.

I just looked at him. My son was easily the biggest clothes horse besides Bao in the entire crew. He had thousands of outfits, some of which he’d worn all of never. Then again, Bao had tens of thousands of outfits and was known to change clothing as much as five times in a single day and seldom wore an outfit more than once. That was compared to, say, Dyna, who was known to wear the same exact outfit day after day for months at a time… or Ziggy, who didn’t have his own clothing but liked to hide in everyone else’s. “Riiiight,” was all I said.

“Do you want to look at perks first, or, having spend 400 CP before getting anything for yourself, do you want to look at the Drawbacks first,” The Chamber asked, either missing the interplay or ignoring it.

“What do you think, kiddo?” I asked.

“Drawbacks. Better to know what we’re getting into then look for cheese opportunities in buying things,” he said, sounding decisive. “Also, that way the rest of the crew will know what we’re facing so they can get started on their own builds.”

“Good thinking, me lad. Alright Chamber, make it so!”

“Very well. Your limit is 800 CP from drawbacks, and there is a note that states ‘Drawbacks taken here do not necessarily override perks; however, they do severely inhibit the function of those perks when there is a conflict.’,” it said, throwing up a list of drawbacks and toggles to consider.

“Oooh… oooh! You should take that one!” Alex said, pointing at the wall.

“Separated?” I asked, and he nodded enthusiastically. I read it, then leaned back and considered. It was only worth 100, but it did offer some useful and interesting possibilities that weren’t horrible. What it did was effectively scatter my entire crew to the dimensional winds and block all easy methods of finding each other. I’d have to hunt them down myself. Normally, I’d be hesitant to do any such thing, since such a scattering could leave those who most needed support helpless, but ‘Separated’ promised they’d be generally fine until found. It would also hamper any attempt to buy new companions which is what, I suspect, had drawn Alex’s attention.

“You want me to scatter everyone all over the place? Tell you what, if 70% of the crew agrees… and you get your sisters and the other 2nd generations to sign off on it… well, not Invidius and Scipio, obviously, but everyone younger than you, we’ll go with it. I’m not separating family units just for 100 CP without warning. Last time that happened, we ended up with the twins.”

Alex hadn’t been born then, but he’d heard the stories and watched the videos. He knew. He winced, then texted the plan to everyone on the Warehouse Internal Social Hub (Yes, it was WISH, and no, I hadn’t named it that. Blame Zane.). The response was generally favorable, with only a few complaints from those in unstable relationships (like the obsessive stalkers I’d brought out of the stay in Warhammer 40k or Cirno). Everyone else thought it would be an adventure in a relatively safe setting.

While they were doing that, I picked up the ridiculously overpriced ‘Befriending’ which got me another 100 CP just for agreeing to allow myself to be beaten up badly by Nanoha… once. It would hurt a lot (so much so that it was all in capital letters… ooooo)… but it was guaranteed not to kill me and to only happen once… and we’d become friends after that. That was free points right there.

Just for fun… and out of a sense of morbid curiosity, I looked through the rest of the drawbacks and whistled softly. This was the lightest load of drawbacks I could remember ever seeing. On a scale of one to ten where one was a drawback that was essentially free points and ten was a drawback that was a guaranteed chain-ender or worse, something so bad that you’d desire a chain ending… most of these barely hit 5 on the ouchometer.  Hell, the worst of them were being hunted by the TSAB or similar, amnesia, and powerlessness.

I popped for two more 100 CP drawbacks that were barely into the hangnail range. Lost Logia Magnet meant that I’d be constantly getting involved with situations involving those relics or dangerous individuals, situations I’d be expected to deal with… but that were guaranteed to be easy to resolve (I didn’t opt into the 200 CP booster that made them grow progressively more and more dangerous over time… because I’m not stupid). Clothing Damage was even closer to free points. It just meant that my clothing would be shredded or ripped off entirely at the slightest provocation. I could cope with this because I wasn’t a child, no matter how my body might look. Nudity wasn’t going to phase me much… and my armor was not my only defense.

That meant I was halfway to the limit, and I really wasn’t feeling any of the serious ouch (at least as far as this jump measured ouch)… so I decided to sacrifice all my setting knowledge and some of my quality of life. The setting knowledge I pretty much had to take… after all, it was called “The Ferret Talks?” Oddly enough, even though it took away all my metaknowledge of Nanoha’s setting and the canon play of events… it didn’t do that for my companions. That was just… odd…. “Hey, Jump-Chan?”

“Yes EssJay?”

“This Ferret Talks thing… it doesn’t hit my companions, does it?”

“I see no indication of it doing so, and since the upgrade ‘I’m a What?’ specifically calls out companions, while ‘The Ferret Talks’ doesn’t, I’d say no.”

“Make you a deal?” I offered.

“You want each of your companions to be hit with that as well, in exchange for them getting the 200 CP?” The chamber asked.

“In the immortal words of Monty Python, ‘Taths si sepricely’,” I replied, tapping my nose.

“Ah, anagrams… yes. Very well. Though be aware they’ll also fall prey to the clause that says ‘everything you purchased in this jump will be steadily acquired during the course of the jump instead of right away.”

“Yeah yeah… no big, since it also guarantees they’ll get what they absolutely need in a tight spot.”

“You are gaming the system slightly, since most of them have little or no knowledge of Nanoha, but since you have several days left, you could easily fill them in from your memory, so I do not think Higher will protest.”

I nodded, then sighed as I finished my Drawback selection by picking up ‘What Evacuation Siren?’, the aforementioned slice of life killer. It meant I’d constantly be wandering into incredibly dangerous areas where explosions and magical bombardement spells were flying around like gnats in a swamp. Normally that wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but it guaranteed that the collateral would always find ways to hurt me or make my life miserable. I was hoping, honestly, for hurt. Hurt was easier to deal with than misery. Hurt I could recover from fairly easily. “Well, that’s that… I guess I’ll have to make do with 1400 CP.”

“Very good,” The Chamber said. “Though if you feel you don’t have enough, you can also supplement your total with Scenarios.”

“Oook?” I said, my tengu ears popping into being and tilting towards the chamber. “Scenarios?”

“Indeed. You may select no more than one from Story Scenarios, and as long as you don’t select INNOCENT, you may take any number of Task Scenarios that don’t conflict.” The stony face intoned dryly.

“Huh… how many-”

“There are four in each category. The Story Scenarios include ‘A Mother’s Love’ which makes you an artificial lifeform, effectively the older sister of Fate Testarossa-”

“Nanoha’s girlfriend, created by the psychotic Precia Testarossa as a replacement for her daughter Alicia,” I explained to Alex.

“Aren’t they like… 10 years old?”

“At first, yes. But in later series Fate and Nanoha have an adopted daughter who calls them both Momma. It’s never outright stated that they’re in a relationship… but it’s clear they are.” I chuckled as he rolled his eyes at the silliness of such thinly veiled censorship. Good kid.

The chamber continued, “Consumed by Darkness links you to the book of Darkness, either as a replacement for Hayate Yagami, as the Fifth Wolkenritter, or as a relative of Hayate. In all three cases, you or Hayate must survive.”

I propped Alex on one leg and explained. “Hayate has a very powerful Lost Logia called the Book of Darkness. It is slowly draining her lifeforce, making her sickly and weak. The book also generates four protectors who hunt magic users to defend Hayate and gather Linker Cores… the thing that makes a mage a mage in this setting… to fill the pages of the book… of which it has… I think… 666. The Wolkenritter are those protectors… two teenage girls named Signum and Shamal, a little girl named Vita, and a wolf-like creature named Zafira… who, despite the name, is male and can shapeshift into a mostly human form. Nanoha beat up Vita and managed to save Hayate and the Wolkenritter from the destruction of the book… and even managed to save the spirit of the book, an entity named Reinforce.”

Alex frowned “Does anyone not get ‘Befriended’ by Nanoha?”

“Not that I remember, no. The show is very very light on the unneeded deaths…. Interesting… I think I’ll take that one, assuming the others aren’t significantly better. As Hayate’s sister… I believe in the canon she was living alone with her Wolkenritter acting as her legal guardians…”

Alex snorted, “I bet this Zafira is cute and you just want to hug him.”

“Hush you. And no… more like hug Vita… she’s such a pugnacious little firecracker.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Wait… is this why that perk was called ‘Hayate’s Lesbian Army?””

I snorted and nodded. “Yes. Very much so.”

“Wow… I’m not calling Hayate auntie,” Alex bratted.

“No… I should think not,” I replied, poking his nose. “Okay Chamber, what are the other two?”

“Innocent is a vacation option that removes all supernatural elements from the setting and transforms Arf, Yuuno, Zafirea, and Lilith into actual animals. Everyone else from canon is alive and well,” came the reply.

I scratched the edge of my nose as I wracked my memories for details from a show I’d seen once 145 centuries earlier. “Arf is Fate’s familiar and a very sexy lady. Yuuno is Nanoha’s friend and a ferret sometimes, and Lilith… I don’t know who that is… but no. I think not. Innocent is the game setting, right?”

“That is correct,” Chamber said.

“Yeah, I’ll skip that,” I said, making a face of annoyance mostly to make Alex laugh. “And the next one?”

“I doubt you’d like it. It makes you an attempt to clone the Saint Kaiser of Belka and comes with imprinted memories,” the Chamber opined.

“Right. I’ll pass… how much for Consumed by Darkness?”

“As Hayate’s sister? You get 500 CP for taking it and though there isn’t a specific reward for it, if you wish you can study the Book of Darkness for the spells in it or the technology used to create it.”

“That might be interesting. Combine its ability to generate Wolkenritter with Sakura’s records of Heroic Spirits and my ability to craft Noble Phantasms and… yes… very interesting indeed.”

Alex groaned, “You’re not allowed to create an army of weirdos!”

“I already have an army of weirdos.” I retorted.

“Well… you can’t have a second!” he informed me, but I tickled him into submission to remind him that he didn’t get to order me around.

The Chamber threw up details of the four secondary ‘Task’ Scenarios, each of which was potentially interesting. Belka Reborn was about restoring the Belkan Empire or stopping the return of it by whatever means possible. It was worth the most, either 600 CP or a Belkan battleship called the Lupus Cradle… but I didn’t think Alex would approve of my conquering everywhere… nor would Nanoha… and honestly, I didn’t think that would be a very nice thing to inflict on the setting. Also unpleasant was the ‘Nuclear Launch Detected’ scenario which was only 200 CP and dealt with criminals stealing Belkan WMDs. Failure would just be… bad.

On the other hand, ‘The Jewel Seed Incident’ was an almost plotbound thing, meaning if I took it I’d get dragged into the initial storyline… which would give me an in with Nanoha… and a reason for our fight to happen earlier.  It would also jumpstart my knowledge of the magical world of the setting, since taking Consumed by Darkness would overwrite my starting location to Earth instead of the TSAB capital world of Mid-Childa. That I would get 200 CP back for it was just gravy.

The last Scenario, entitled Material-LSD just promised an interesting time and an exciting encounter three years into my stay and for that I would get 300 CP and a reward who’s nature would become evident depending on how I dealt with the challenge. That seemed delightfully cryptic… and, depending on how complete the erasure of my Nanoha metaknowledge was, I might not even remember taking this Scenario.

That left me with 2400 CP between the 800 from Drawbacks and 1000 from Scenarios… which I guess meant it was time to buy stuff. After freebies, of course.

For Saint Church Adherents, that meant getting Mana Conversion Affinity and Cartridge Endurance. MCA would allow me to convert the Mana channeled by my Linker Core into a single specific reaction or energy type. The more mana I put into the effect, the greater the intensity of the reaction. I considered for a while, all of ten or twelve whole seconds, then selected ‘Speed’ as my reaction. That meant that the more mana I channeled into it, the faster I’d be able to act, react, and move. Sure sure, I could manipulate time… but that merely made me appear faster because everyone else was slowed or stopped. One of these days I was going to run into other time manipulators and I’d need an ace against them. Speed would help… hopefully. CE, on the other hand, would serve to grant me much greater ability to use magic that had harmful side-effects before the downside or backlash kicked in. It wouldn’t eliminate the strain or damage… but it would moderate it greatly. The title was a reference to Belkan Cartridge Magic, which augmented magical attacks by using mana cartridges… but put a heavy strain on the user because that energy still had to be focused through the user’s Linker Core.

The setting had three different magical systems; Mid-Childan, Ancient Belkan, and Modern Belkan. Each had its own strengths and weaknesses. The Mid-Childan system, used by the TSAB’s Civilians and Troopers, specialized in ranged magic, especially Shooting and Bombardment spells, but lacked strong melee magic. On the other hand, Ancient Belkan, with which Adherents of the Saint Church started, had been developed to go hand in hand with the Cartridge system, and focused on melee combat and antipersonnel debuffs to the point where practitioners of the system were often called ‘Knights’… or ‘Ritters’… as in Wolkenritter. While it was lacking in utility and flexibility, it was the most powerful direct combat magic of the trio. The Modern Belkan system was balanced between the two, and would be introduced by fusing Mid-Childan with the Cartridge system. It was the most flexible combat-wise, used largely for buffing the attacker to new heights, but far and away the least useful outside of it,

Spells were classed by their purpose into Shooting-Type, Bombardment-Type, Magic-Enhanced Attacks, Barriers and Shields, and Capture-Type… and everyone got all of them free… but their relative skill in each category depended on the magical system being employed. I’d have to see how well my Strike Witch magic could be adapted to this system.

And speaking of Strike Witch Magic… did you know that the reason the Witches were so young was because magic in that setting fades with age? Always hated systems like that… and thankfully, I’d never have to deal with that again, since the first non-freebie on the Saint Church shopping list was the 100 CP ‘Adult Mode’ and its two important functions. First, it would allow me to spend a small amount of mana to shift from child form to Adult form… or rather the version of my physical body that was in its prime of life. Second, and more important, my physical and mental abilities would always function as though I was in said prime no matter what my age was… baby or crone or anywhere in between… and that was just nifty. No more aging out of something just because time had passed. Those systems were lame with a capital asshole! (500 of 2800 spent, 2300 remains)

The remaining Saint Church perks all dealt with family and lineage in unique and interesting ways… only one of which I was particularly interested in. Thicker Than Water strengthened family bonds, smoothing over internal conflicts by transforming the taker into a lynchpin for the family unit… and while that was interesting, it really didn’t seem like something worth actually paying for. Maybe some of my companions might take it, but as head of the sprawling Zigminder Clan, it was not my job to play peacekeeper but rather to play court of last resort. People did what I said because I was in charge. I wasn’t the Troy, I was the Picard. Also of questionable utility was ‘In The Blood’, the SC Capstone, which allowed me to curate my heredity, passing on unique magical abilities or traits to my descendants… except I could already do that to a degree by deciding which heritable traits I passed on to my children. I had no desire at the current time to experiment with my children’s DNA in such a limited regard.

On the other hand, just below ‘In the Blood’ was ‘Ancient Knowledge’ for 200 CP. The Belkan people didn’t, it turns out, pass on information merely by memetic means, but also through bloodlines, a subconscious lineage memory that allowed the inheritors of key bloodlines to intuit how to utilize Lost Logia, the remnants of Belkan (or Al-Hazardian) technology. When coming in contact with a Lost Logia, the taker of Ancient Knowledge would not only gain the ability to use it, but knowledge of how it functioned… and, if possessed of technological skills, how to reproduce it. Good enough in the scheme of this jump, but after leaving this world, all such lost or forgotten technology would be similarly open to me, assuming my technical skills were up to the task… which, it goes without saying, they almost certainly were. (700 of 2800 spent, 2100 remains).

“Ah well, I was hoping the Capstone would be cooler,” I complained, but Alex ignored me as he spied on his sisters making their own plans. “Aren’t you going to do your own build?” I asked, sticking my finger in his ear.

“Gnaaa!” he grunted, squirming and glowered at me. “Afterwards! I want to see what everyone else does first!”

I rolled my eyes, but left him alone. ~Time to cherry pick other backgrounds,~ I thought, not expecting any response. I wasn’t broadcasting, after all.

~Don’t take anything from Wanderer,~ came the unexpected reply.

~Atura? Wait… what… oh…~ I chuckled at that, but Alex ignored me. I often chuckled at my own internal jokes. ~Sorry. I keep forgetting about that.~

~Indeed. We may be fused, but I am still counted as a companion. After all, Raava shared her power with the Avatar, it is only fair I share my power with you, my Manifestation.~

~We really don’t abuse this nearly enough, you know?~ I commented. ~It feels like cheating.~

~There is no cheating in survival… but we are restrained. We only use it when there are unlimited group imports… at least to date.~

~There is that,~ I considered, then looked at the abilities in the Wanderer line again. ‘Age is No Barrier’ and ‘Well Adjusted were free, ‘Zenryoku Zenkai!’ was 100, ‘Friendly Rivalry’ was 150, ‘I CAN BE SHOT’ was 200, and ‘Power of Friendship’ was 300. Atura had 800 CP and that totalled out at 750, leaving just 50 CP if she took the whole package. Each of them were interesting and could certainly come in handy, though none of them were gamebreakers, mostly boosting abilities I already had.

Age is No Barrier was the counterpart to Adult Mode which made people simply ignore the fact that we were too young to hold any given post or position. Well Adjusted was an anti-freakout, anti-’that can’t be true’ kind of thing… didn’t need it with my emotion control, but eh. Why not. ‘Twas free. ZenZen was the ability to use killing attacks to KO enemies instead of vaporize them. I was pretty sure I already had an ability to limit damage, but two such couldn’t hurt… literally. ICBS was not only a slightly willpower boost when defending friends and family, but also a loyalty booster for my friends, family, and allies… that also boosted their willpower and determination when I was in trouble. It even gave them a sense of when I needed their help and where to look for me… as long as I didn’t abuse them or use mind control to make them like or obey me. Friendly Rivalry and Power of Friendship were two more Befriend Your Enemy perks… of which I was pretty certain I had two already… but both of these added extra utility. FR added the ability to form emotional bonds and exchange personal insight through fighting… and even more by talking to an enemy, even one trying to kill me. Could even go beyond friendly… if you know what I mean… but it would take work and mutual respect. I could do mutual respect… possibly.  PoF on the other hand was all about hammering your opponent with city-buster weaponry… and thereby transforming them into a friend with complete understanding of my own perspective and goals, as well as greater empathy towards my cause d’jour. It could even help heal mental scars if those were behind the conflict to begin with. Call it percussive therapy.

~You certain you want all that?~ I asked my godhead, and she confirmed that, yes, understanding and companionship were largely preferable to wholesale slaughter. She was sooo from Avatar. Heh.

Skipping that tapped wellspring, I found three other perks that I considered worth the cost. From Backwater, I picked up ‘Break out of the Nightmare’ for 300, which allowed me to ID illusions on sight and snap out of those I’ve been trapped in. It even gave me the ability to overcome my worst nightmare (whatever that was) or my greatest desire (equally no clue). It gave me a sense of what and who I was and what to do when my faults were laid out in front of me. It wasn’t much, but every little bit to help me stay centered… yeah, that could be useful. Civilian’s ‘Screening Process’ set me back another 100 and gave me immunity from going mad with power (unless an outside force was trying to push it on me… but I was pretty much immune to those)… but that wasn’t why I purchased it. No. Normally, I rely on my third eye to judge someone’s heart and soul… but Screening Process took it a step further. It would allow me to judge when someone was morally and mentally equipped to handle an ability or object… and a vague idea of how positive the outcome of granting that gift to them would turn out… not just for them, but for me and for others. For 100 CP? It was a freaking steal.

Then there was the previously mentioned ‘Hayate’s Lesbian Army’ of 200… which I had to take for the name if nothing else. The fact that it allowed me to set any keyword I wanted and, if at all possible, the great majority (90%+) of all applicants to any organization I staffed or ran would fit that keyword. Of course, I could set it as Lesbian… but I wasn’t that bonkers. No. I considered setting it for ‘Hyper-Competent’ but decided to go instead for ‘Polymaths’. By definition, a Polymath is someone who possesses genius-level talent in multiple fields. An organization made up entirely of Polymaths who all respected each other and understood their limitations? Bwahahaa… GLORIOUS! (1300 of 2800 spent, 1500 remains)

Then came the General Perks, a section which included ‘Cyborg’ (Bleh), ‘No Limiter Can Hold Me’ (Not as good as it sounds), and ‘Blood of Kings’ (oooooo shiny!). Not only did BoK fit in brilliantly with my background on the basic level (Saint Church is all about ancestry), but if I took the Darkness Bloodline, I’d be connected to the original program of the Book of Darkness… or as it was known back then before it became damaged ‘The Tome of the Night Sky’. As such, I’d naturally gain the book’s function of collecting magical knowledge, a rare skill called ‘Collect and Use’ which would allow me to copy the spells of those I drained of their magical energy with near-perfect accuracy… even other ‘Rare Skills’. Would just have to be careful not to kill those I was draining… For 300? It was a good investment. (1600 of 2800 spent, 1200 remains)

I was about to ask the Chamber to bring up the Item section, when it anticipated my request… and instead brought up a chart labeled from E to SSS. “What’s this?” I asked.

“Your Natural Magical Potential… the amount of raw magical power your Linker Core will be able to generate,” The Box replied.

“Can this be increased by training?” I asked, frowning at the fact that Triple-S rank was listed as ‘Priceless’.

“Yes. You may increase your prowess through training. Skill is just as much the name of the game as anything. Raw power merely gives you a leg up.”

I grumbled, “Six Hundred CP for a leg up? That had better be a damned good leg.”

“A rank is free and is quite adequate,” the Chamber commented dryly.

“Yeah, sure. But I’ve got the points and none of the Main Characters are A rank. I’m not playing second fiddle to them just because this is their story.” (2200 spent, 600 remains)

Alex snerked. “Ego, thy name is Papa.”

“Quiet you. I haven’t forgotten about the pudding in the pants.”

He eeeped, but stuck out his tongue at me. Cheeky brat.

I sighed, scanning through the Magical Perks that were under the Natural Potential. Lots and lots of perks for sale this time round. Oh… holy god… Telepathy was free for everyone! While it wasn’t scanning telepathy, it was a mental communication technique that worked on any willing subject, even if they lacked the capacity themselves… and it had a mind-to-mind range that crossed dimensional barriers. There were two limitations to it, three if you counted that it wouldn’t work into other jumps or continuities until I gained my Spark… it could be intercepted by other telepaths, and it could be shut out by those unwilling to listen. So, it wasn’t much good for me… but the number of telepaths was going to seriously increase… good lord… telepathic Ziggy.

The remaining three that actually cost points weren’t worth cost particularly. ‘Unison Compatibility’ made merging with the ultra-rare Unison devices a nearly perfect fusion, but having the right skillset and luck could overcome that… and I had luck and was very good at being skilled if I really needed it. I also had my VIctoria which was as close as a UD as I needed. In fact, if I could I’d import her as my Device. ‘Animal Form’ was just shapeshifting, which again I already had copiously. And Deviceless was just… meh. I had other tricks to fall back on if I didn’t have my Device close to hand.

Once again, I considered buying the remaining one magical system (Atura had picked up Mid-Childan)…. But decided I’d do that only if I had the points left at the end. “Items please, Chamber.”

“As you command, oh Egotistical Papa.”

“You may not have pants, but you too can be puddinged.”

“I am unafraid of your custardy threats,” the Chamber snarked, bringing up the freebies for Saint Church and Wanderer, as well as the list of discounted items for each. Atura got a Stack of Cash (10,000 dollars US or equivalent) and a Lifetime access to Pizza Hut Pizzas, either appearing in the Warehouse or via delivery free of charge… complete with whatever sort of pizza toppings She… or rather I… desired (she didn’t eat, but could taste whatever I tasted)… it didn’t even have to be Pizza Hut Pizza! It could be any pizza restaurant I desired… chain or otherwise. “We’ll take Pizzaria Uno.” I commented, already drooling. God, Chicago Style Deepdish… it was like an actual meat pie.

As Alex and I dug into a Chicken Spinoccoli (Spinach and Broccoli, yes it’s amazing) with extra parm, I checked what Saint Church got… it wouldn’t be nearly as good. It wasn’t. Cultural Artifacts, a craft full of family heirlooms, clay statues, metal crosses covered in runes, and yellowed books written in a strange dialect of German, plus a delicate grey shroud that would make me more somber and focused if I wore it. Yaaay. I also got a Cartridge Kit containing sixty preloaded Cartridges and everything needed to make more… with a weekly restock of 60 anyway.

Atura spent her remaining 50 CP to buy ‘Infinite Library Priority Access’… which was access to the Infinite Library of the TSAB, which contained all the public access collected knowledge of a trans-dimensional empire and granted access to any public library in existence in all future jumps. I was going to be reading a lot of books… as fast as I could touch them.

I, on the other hand, discovered that, because I’d taken ‘Blood of Kings: Darkness’, I qualified for a discount on an item called ‘The Book of Dawning Sky’… a completely blank, utterly tapped of mana version of the Book of Darkness. It could store as much energy as I could put into it, and copy as many spells as I could find a way to absorb… and was a Unison Device… or at least could be once it was loaded with some mana and spells. I bought the damned thing on the spot. 350 was a steal for an infinite mana capacitor. Hell, I could probably supercharge it simply by chugging a few dozen Full Mana Potions. The description even hinted at other benefits once the book was powered up properly.

Of course, that left me with 250 to spend, which wasn’t enough to buy the Dimensional Warship (400 CP) so I didn’t. Instead, I spend 50 of it buying a copy of the Media Collection… ie. a complete inventory of Nanoha media… manga, anime, games, merch… all added to the Warehouse… post jump because I’d taken ‘The Ferret Talks?!’

That left me with 200 CP which I shrugged and just tossed at the DP pool, boosting my available DP from 600 to 1400. If that wasn’t enough, I’d be flummoxed.

“Chamber. I’d like to make VIctoria my Device… and can I combine the Book into her?”

“Affirmative. Old Partner will cost you 200 DP, and Unison System, which is normally 400 CP, would be 400 DP and would give the Book / VIctoria it’s own artificial Linker Core at A-Rank, though it won’t grow naturally.”

“Cool. 800 left. What else do I need to buy?”

“First, there’s a conflict of Type. VIctoria is Armor, a Wearable-Type. The Book is Auxiliary Control-Type. Also, since you merged your Wand into VIctoria, she might qualify as Weapon-Type.”

“Is there any important distinction between the types?”

“Not really. It is all in how you handle the device.”

“Right. Don’t care. Call it all three. Or Variable Type. or Jumper Type. Next?”

“Well… you need to decide what the… VIctoria’s Standby and Device forms are.”

“Aren’t those a book and a book? Or a book and armor?”

“Standby Form is normally free… and normally some kind of trinket. A card, a gem, a piece of jewelry. Something convenient to carry around. For 100 DP, you can fuse any trinket you might already own with… let’s call it anomalous properties.  Device form is the active form, how it’s used in combat. You’ve already paid the cost for merging two different things there.”

“Ah… hmm… oohh… heh. Merge VIctoria with the Neptune Jewel,” I said, as, with a thought, I summoned the fist-sized gem I’d stolen from the world of Samurai Jack. “It’s a bit big, but…” I concentrated on it and it shrunk down to the size of an eyeball. Still a massive sapphire, but not ridiculous. I’d made numerous upgrades to the incredibly powerful gemstone over the centuries, tossing various enchantments on it to go with its native control over the oceans of earth… or most other planets really.

“That is the kind of lunacy I’ve come to expect from you. Good thing you didn’t buy a copy of the Dominion Jewel,” The Chamber commented. “I assume you want most of the various combat modes… rather than the defensive ones?”

“Good guess… what are we looking at?”

“I do know you rather well, EssJay,” The patron of my stint in Warhammer 40K commented. “You’re looking at 100DP for Sealing Mode, used to seal dangerous items and beings, 100DP for Shooting Mode, used for blowing up large sections of cities, 300DP for Fulldrive, used for removing the safety interlinks and combining all the other modes, 150DP for a Cartridge system… That would leave you with 50DP remaining.”

“I… see. Sure. that works. Anything that costs 50?”

“Auto-Guard, Defenser Plus, Sonic Boost, Mana Boost, Efficiency Boost… oh, and you do get Auto-Repair and Barrier Jacket free.”

“Goood?” I queried.

“Auto-Repair makes your device self-repairing. Barrier Jacket are automatically active defensive magics layered to defend you from other mages… I know, I know, you’re immune to direct magic, but the others aren’t so they get Barrier Jackets themselves. Auto-Guard throws up defensive spells to supplement that as the Device can react far faster than a human… well… faster than those who aren’t you. Since the Device is always on, it can respond to more mundane attacks, protecting you… the user from environmental hazards even outside of combat where the Barrier Jacket won’t be active.”

“Ah… cool… I don’t think I need that… since VIctoria Dawn is self-aware and able to cast spells independently of me.  Defenser plus makes defenses better, I take it. What do the boosts do?”

“Actually, Defenser Plus reduces mana bleed… the fraction of the energy put into casting a spell that is lost as waste. Defenser Plus improves magical algorithm efficiency… about half a rank’s worth of power. It does, of course, improve defensive spell use there.”

“Oh… bonus. I’ll take that.”

“Papa?” Alex asked.

“Yes?”

“Did you mean for Darkseid to get an import tablet… because he’s got one… you might want to look at what he’s purchasing.”

I growled “Chamber… Maidseid is not a Companion. Nor a Passenger. He’s an indentured servant. He doesn’t… let me take a look.” I pulled up the master list and growled. With his 800 points, he was buying the Dimensional Warship and Flame King Bloodline that would allow him to create artificial combat lifeforms called Mariage that had razor-sharp armblades, mass-cannons, and blew up when they died. I shook my head and removed both from his purchase list. First, I set his magic level to E, as low as I could. That would get him 300 CP back. It’s a good thing he didn’t try buying No Limiter Can hold Me. That might freed him from my control. But knowing him, he was too big an ass to realize it could have freed him.

Instead, I made him a Trooper, which got him ‘Regulation Uniforms’ (which allowed him to dress however he felt and still be uniform… and I’d make sure he was dressed idiotically… it didn’t stop gawkers), and Magical Ergonomics (which made even the most poorly designed weapon function as intended in his hands… weapons being something big D seldom if ever bothered with). I also bought him Hayate’s Lesbian Army… and set it irrevocably to ‘Kind’ and Squad Dynamics (which was all about teamwork… hah.). As a Trooper, he got such lovely freebies as a Snappy Uniform (and a closet full of extras that would be replaced whenever one was damaged or destroyed) and a Cosplay Closet full of various costumes… maid, bunny outfit, footy pajamas. I was giggling up a storm and Alex was smirking with each new purchase.

“He’s got fifty points free… get him the stuffed animal collection,” he suggested, and I did. I also picked up Animal Form (didn’t grant any special traits of the animal in question) and Deviceless (Magic used without a Device was more energy intensive and less focused… and Dudsied would try it because ego) for the giant tool. And then, just to add mundanity to insult, I used the 300 CP he’d gotten in exchange for his crippled magical potential to buy a nice car and a comfortable family abode for him. Eat that, you omnicidal fuckwad.

With his DP, I got him a barely competent Device with an Original Design on the Barrier Jacket, which had a Tank Form (massive Defense Boost but terribly slow in flight), and then I tossed in Fulldrive, just to see if he’d actually kill himself trying to overpower spells with his pitiful mana pool. I know, it was mean of me to abuse another sapient like this… but it’s not like he’d have appreciated mercy. If anyone in all creation deserved to be treated like dirt, it was Darkseid.

~I have completed my Device build,~ Atura commented, interrupting my gloating.

“Wait… what? Oh… huh. That’s going to be odd.”

~Do not fret, I have simply chosen to make mine a Unison Device with an Old Partner as the resident AI.~

“Oh? Which AI? Victor? Viggo?”

~Negative. I have selected Sakura.~

“Oh… shit,” I muttered.

Alex, child of mine that he is, smirked “You gotta put a nickle in the swear jar.” I have no idea why we have a swear jar, but Zane thought we needed one. It has nickels in it. Nickels we keep around specifically to put in the swear jar. At the end of each month, whoever has the most nickels in the jar (everybody has their own nickels) had to do something vaguely humiliating and silly. Most of the time that was Toph, Zane, or Ahab. Sometimes it was me. The Bookers had had a small spate of it before they’d successfully lobbied to be treated as individuals for this one thing. Ziggy had managed it once by being the only being in the warehouse to swear for an entire month when he’d managed to squeak out a resounding ‘fuuuuck’ after accidentally spilling the chili all over himself when trying to investigate Petra’s cooking. He was only mildly injured by the boiling hot goop, and the medbay had patched him up, but he’d slept through the humiliation of being dressed as a ballerina, so he’d gotten the best of the jar in the end.

“I don’t gotta do anything. I will because it is part of the social contract of our family group… I’m going to be reviewing builds for a week… and Atura just turned the Moon Cell into her Unison Device.”

“Atura is the voice inside your head,” Alex said. “It can’t use a Device.”

“Yes. I’m aware. I can’t imagine what good having two Devices will be, but I guess I have them.”

“Will Sakura be upset about this?”

“I have no idea. I can’t mindread a machine. Joy’s the Technopath and watching the two of them get into Archellect battle isn’t my idea of a good time. Have you finished your build yet?” I asked, knowing the answer was no but, in the time honored pattern of parents everywhere, asking anyway. While he was blushing, I filled out the Absentia builds for the Hibikis and Vinlands. All was all, after all.

“Do I need to do their Device builds, or can they do them once they actually get the damned things?” I asked the Chamber.

“I have no idea. I do not understand how these builds can be applied to those not present. I do not even know where the Hibikis are at the current time.”

“Yeah, Yeah, I know. I’m asking for your opinion, since Higher is refusing to give any clear indication. Clearly they don’t want to admit they’re stymied.”

“Few entities enjoy looking foolish in front of their inferiors or perceived inferiors.”

“Right. Well?”

“I doubt it matters, so feel free to leave the DP unspent if you like.”

“Hmmm… whatever.” I began reviewing the builds that my companions had made, adding or subtracting things from some… like I shift around some of the points on Invidius and Scipio’s build to give them Unison Compatibility. Sure, they might not need the link to a Unison Device… but the perk improved working as a duo with someone… and I tweaked it to work internally… those two really needed to learn to get along better. They normally agreed only on one thing, in that they doted on their little sisters. Just to be on the safe side, I also moved things around to give the sisters Unison Compatibility.

Placida and Lucida were aging even slower than my kids, for no apparent reason I could figure out and had largely stalled their development at the biological equivalent of 8 years old. My theory was that, subconsciously, Reggy had guaranteed her daughters wouldn’t be physically mature enough to challenge her.

Both pairs of twins had gone Civilian, with builds so similar that I had no doubt the brothers had helped the sisters… if they’d consulted them at all. Intrigued, I contacted Reggy to ask her about it, only to learn that no, it hadn’t been the twins at all. Reggy and Gaius had made a bargain with each other. Gaius would do the builds for the kids, and Reggy would do the builds for herself and Gaius… apparently this was something of a vacation for them and a test for the boys to see if they could be responsible for the girls while their Parents were off in some Backwater of the TSAB’s dominion. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that and so I signed off on the builds. I did notice that all 6 of them had Natural Potential at Rank Triple A, a powerful level at an affordable price point, since it cost only 200 CP.  I told her to tell Gaius what I’d done and she said he wouldn’t mind.

I glanced through the list to see who’d taken Civilian, which I’d have figured was a low priority thing, but a surprisingly large number had… and almost all of them had taken Well-Learned… it was a 100 pointer for Civilians and granted eidetic memory and savant level skill in one field of mundane science. All told, Francine, RayRay, Lizzy (the nice Elizabeth), The Lutece, Cirno, Brigid, Raven, Kendra, Maggie, Velma, and three of my ships (Black Jenny, Faustian Bargain, and Yuzuha) had all gone Civilian. Of them, only Black Jenny (who was an AI before she became a Shipgirl) and Velma (who had a perfect memory perk already) had skipped buying Well-Learned. Oddly enough… no one who wasn’t a Civilian had bought it. I wonder if they’d even noticed.

I wasn’t really looking for anything specific as I perused their choices. Normally I did interviews and tweaked my plans accordingly… but I’d lose track of all my companions (besides Atura most likely, since we shared an existence) as well as all metaknowledge, so planning was functionally impossible so I wasn’t bothering. In the long run, such things might come up, but I’d plan around them then. So I was just looking out of curiosity to see what had been taken, without worrying too much about the why. It was all very relaxed for once.

For instance, I found it amusing that RayRay had taken both S Rank potential and the Sagebrecht Blood of Kings line, which gave her rainbow colored magic (as well as magic resistance and perfect mana efficiency. Saint King RayRay was vaguely amusing, since she spent more time asleep than Ziggy did. Cirno too had bought S Rank, and stuffed animals, of course, but that was to be expected… on both counts. What wasn’t expected was that she’d taken Renaissance Girl. Most of the others had too, but being actually good and smart at things was not Cirno’s style. I had to wonder if Velma had suggested it and Cirno hadn’t given it much thought… but I didn’t pry.

Most of the rest of the Civilian builds were pretty standardardized, taking most if not all the things on offer in that field and I suspected I’d find the other background groups had done similarly. Each grouping was fairly well balanced and for a lot of my companions, this was their first or second time at importing. That was why I wasn’t surprised to see only the old hands specializing their builds in any way. It wasn’t like 800 was a lot… not in a jump with this many things to buy. Spending CP to boost your Natural Potential Rank was something only elitists or those with a fair number of perks already would do. Kendra had gone to Triple A, which was lower than I’d expected her to go.

Buying items likewise a strange choice unless filling out a remaining 50 CP. Several had bought the media collection, but I’d cancelled all those and replaced with them other 50 CP purchases. We didn’t need multiples of pure data and I had the points to spare while they didn’t.

Interestingly, Black Jenny (listed as Virginia Black), Faustian Bargain (under the name Ian B Faust… at least in english and not on forms.), and Yuzuha had all spent half their points on… of all things, Dimensional Warship… and each of them had a note saying ‘self-import’. I considered, then chuckled. Of course. The D-Warship item could cross dimensional barriers on its own, a power none of my ships had. Well, Ark Magna, Faustian Bargain, and Light all had Warp Drives from Warhammer 40k, but those went to a specific alternate dimension, not any parallel one. TSAB ships were not only basic FTL, but could cross dimensional boundaries fairly easily and had sensors that could scan into those dimensions. A quick check showed that Light of Heaven (Drakena Grigobritz, Saint Church), Ark Magna (Jaan Anushka, Trooper), and Preemptive Retaliation (Odwet PR, Backwater) had also taken that option.

The only ship-’girl’ who hadn’t was Windjammer (RLS Windjammer, Trooper) , and it seemed Windjammer was a little too… NAVY! Shipshape! To buy into that. Either that or she really didn’t get science, which was likely. Instead she’d gone the route of Badass Commander which was all about tactics and squad mechanics and anticipating traps. I had to wonder if she was aiming to replace Drakena or Jaan as Flagship. Did they get jealous of each other? I’d have to…

“Huh,” I commented.

“Huh what?” Alex asked, looking up from his plotting.

“Your sister bought a Nice Car.”

“Maggy? Yeah?”

“Nothing. She’s not old enough to drive.”

“She bought Adult Mode and Age is No Barrier too.”

“That’s a good point… is she interested in cars?”

“I dunno, papa… but she bought one and a perk that would let her be able to legally drive it… and tall enough to drive it. I’d say that’s a clue.”

“True.” I ruffled his hair and he batted at me.  “Have you finished your build?” I asked again, and he held up his thumb in an affirmative. I pulled up the kids to see what they’d gotten. Amaryllis, Maggie, and Alex were all different backgrounds. Maggie was a Civilian, Amaryllis was a Backwater Belkan, and Alex was a TSAB Trooper. Amy had gone with the power to make summoning packs and the Nanoha special “Aces of Aces” which was all about going toe to toe with those more powerful and experienced… and winning. I was actually surprised by that, since I’d expected her to go the friendship is everything route… but those took fighting too, and fighting wasn’t Amy’s strong suit. She’d also gotten a car… but it came free with her origin. Maybe she’d give it to her sister.

Alex, on the other hand, had also taken Hayate’s Lesbian Army and marked his keyword as ‘Pranksters’… remind me never to let him do the hiring. He’d also taken the Commander Badass perk and made certain his Natural Potential was higher than his sisters’. “Did you buy this Tactics perk because you saw me playing those games?”

He shrugged noncommittally.

“You know you don’t have to be a strategic or tactical genius for me to love you, right?”

He shrugged again.

“You can be whatever you want and I’ll love you because I’m your parent… as long as you don’t become a psychopathic killer or genocidal fu… bas… jerk.”

“I know,” He sighed. “But I want to know what it’s like to be able to think ahead the way you do… that’s okay, right?”

I nodded, and kissed his head. “Of course.”

Out of curiosity, I checked the last two 2nd Gen Jumpers, just to see what was up with Simon and Buji. Buji’s aging had stalled at 14 and Simon’s at 9. Beth (bitchy revenge obsessed Elizabeth Comstock-DeWitt), Simon’s mother, had clearly done her son’s build according to the logs, and the two builds were Saint Church and nearly identical, only with Beth having S Rank Potential and Simon Triple A and the Heredity manipulator In the Blood instead. Toph, on the other hand, was doing her hands off parenting thing again, apparently, since she was Backwater with Summoning and Buji was a bog standard Trooper package.

I liked Toph, really I did. She was a lot of fun… but a people person she wasn’t. She was gungho, abrasive, and iconoclastic as hell. If there was a standard way to do things, she’d look for the non-standard, every time. She almost had a compulsion about breaking away from ‘the way things are done’. It was respectable sometimes, frustrating sometimes, but always Toph.

I decided to take a break from reviewing others and filled out the builds for my absentia friends… and Ziggy. I looked over to where Sophie was ignoring the little fuzzbeast chewing on her ear and asked “Want me to do your build too, girl?”

She woofed once and raised her head, Ziggy dangling from her ear and padded over to have Alex remove the goober. She rested her head on my knee and my command tablet beeped and the Dog of Doom’s build appeared on the screen. Of course it was a Saint Church build, but hers focused on the elements I’d skipped over, the elements about family building… and she’d bought Animal form… I guess so she could be something less doggish if she felt the need. I scritched her ears as I made Ziggy a Backwater ferret, giving him No Limit Can Hold Me and Go Down Fighting and Friendly Rivalry so he could make friends with all the other fuzzbeasts he routinely fought. It seemed fitting. Maybe he’d even befriend his own tail, as he fought with it all the time.

While I was on a roll, I made Ryoga and Yoiko Backwater types, giving her Summoning and Aces of Aces and him the Training Ground Item (Easy to assemble guaranteed) and Aces of Aces. Then I made Selen and Garl TSAB Troopers and Astrea a Sagebrecht-blooded Saint Church Adherent. She could use more color in her life… once I got back to Marvel Cinema and raised Selen and Garl from the not-quite really dead. Yeah, that wouldn’t take a boatload of explaining.

The list went on and on, with AJ, Ahab, Caine, Bart, Meetra, the Bookers and the Lost Choir all being Backwater Belkans with practically the same builds. The differences were all a matter of which were Shapeshifters or Triple A Rankers… except Caine who had Summoning and the Flame King Bloodline I mentioned earlier (the one Darkseid tried to take). It would give him an army of nasties if he wanted them… and oddly, I trusted that in Caine’s hands a lot more than I was comfortable with. Ah well. Not like he was a murderer or anything.

Fellow Saint Church followers included Dyna (Rank S), Bao-Feng (Rank AAA), Tokimi-Chan (Rank S), Planet/Joy (Baseline), Empress Anne (Baseline). It was interesting to see who went after pure power and who went after something different. Ann was a straight Saint Church build, focusing on heredity and knowledge. Joy, on the other hand… other moon?… had bought the Mysterious Serum that allowed her to give others Linker Cores and with Ancient Knowledge (Which she also had… as did I for that matter) knowledge of how to make more of the serum… I suspected that the billions of humans she contained would find their next trip into a body would be one with magic.  I wondered how many Mindworms would be needed to make a boil capable of housing a linker core… and imagined Planet firing off magical particle beam cannons. It was an amusing thought…. But then again, I’m crazy.

The last group were TSAB Troopers, and here the variation from the standard was almost non-existent. Zane, Petra, Kohina, Kagetane, Amelia, Uriel, Carwyn, and the Dire Weasels all had identical builds that were, more or less, what I’d expect a standard build would be. Every Trooper perk and item plus an additional 200DP to play with. Only my kittens and the Righteous Choir had done anything different. The Kittens had both traded Squad Dynamics (something they already had with me without the perk) and the extra DP for a boost to their Natural Potential Rank (they were AA) and the Anti-AMF ability from Backwater… AMF being Anti-Magic Fields.

The Choir had traded the Commander Badass capstone for a copy of the serum, and since they didn’t have Ancient Knowledge, it didn’t really make sense for them to get it since we already had the formula. I’d have to suggest another option to them… maybe the minor bloodline from Blood of Kings. It would give them either Thought Investigation… the ability to access someone’s mind and memories as long as they didn’t resist and Unendlich Jagd (aka Endless Hunt)… the ability to summon spectral dogs with extensive fighting and stealth abilities… or Prophetinscriften… the ability to write extremely cryptic prophecies once or twice a year. For all I knew, since the group would be getting it, some would get one and some the other.

=======INSERTION======

Well, this is freaking weird. I know this is a new jump. I’m sure of it. For one thing, I’m in Japan and have a little sister who’s in a wheelchair… her name is Hayate… cute kid… shudder to think what her life would be like if I wasn’t here… we don’t have any parents (they died in an accident) and we don’t have a legal guardian. It’s just the two of us in this big empty house and she’s got medical problems… Anyway, I know this a new jump… but I don’t know what setting it is!

Not only do I have no idea what IP this is… I don’t seem to have any new abilities and everyone… everyone! Is missing. Even Atura… honestly? No idea how that happened. Strangely, I’m not particularly worried about it… somehow I know they’ll be alright until we hook up again, but… it’s strange. I have all my abilities (I think) and all my memories (I think)… but I’m not certain if I’d know if anything was missing.

Still have access to my warehouse, but the Chamber is not being forthcoming. In fact, its only response to my questions has been, “Silent Protocol Engaged. No Emergency Detected.” Which is really, really oddly technically phrased for The Chamber, but what can you do? Maybe Higher is up to something.

All the various machine intelligences of all levels have no idea where we are, and even Maidseid is missing, as are all the pets… I assume they’re with their various owners… I wonder if mine are with Atura.

Anyway, first thing I did was zap Hayate with a zleep zpell and drop her into the Medbay… but it says there’s nothing medically wrong with her… which doesn’t make any damned sense.  Very strange. I’d have to investigate more.

Oh, I do have one clue so far. I think this might be some kind of low grade pervy IP, since so far, in the 3 days I’ve been here, I’ve managed to tear my clothing on a door, a table, a rose bush, and a city trashcan. My skirt has been ripped off by a dog, and a pigeon managed to steal my shirt… both within 2 minutes of each other. No one else seems to be having this trouble around me, but it’s made for a few weird moments. Thankfully, I have a lot of clothing and mending spells… but still.

=======

Well, one spot of luck, I’ve managed to locate Ziggy. Granted, it was fairly easy, as all I had to do was monitor global police bands for a rampaging giant ferretoid. Bad news was he was doing so in Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park. Wasn’t causing a huge amount of trouble, but it meant I had to go all the way to Kenya to pick him up and do a fair amount of obliviating of troublesome or traumatic memories. Still haven’t seen a clue about what the general theme of this world is. It’s just… Earth.

=======

Correction. It’s just Earth with a 9 year old girl who hit me with some kind of emotional beam-weapon out of what looks like a magical staff as designed by Fritz Lang. Seriously. Ouch. Let me skip back a touch and explain. I’d been looking for any evidence of what this world’s thing was and for my companions and when I heard a report about a giant monster in a local park, I ran to investigate. I also ran into the monster, a giant crab thing  that I was just about to check if it was Petra (The Third Eye is good… it is not, however, instant)… when I got clocked from behind by the little girl in question, Takamachi Nanoha being her name.  No idea how it penetrated my defenses…

On the other hand, she was terribly polite as she apologized for blasting me, explaining it was only her second day as a magical girl (well, that answers the genre question I guess), and she’d been aiming for the monster… which it turns out was not, in fact, Petra. It was a crab that had picked up a small blue gem called a Jewel Seed.

I was still rubbing the back of my head and wondering if there was a chance I could get a good look at that staff… when a small cinnamon ferret-like creature scrambled up the takamachi girl’s back and perched on her shoulder just as I was doing a scan of her.

“Nice Familiar,” I commented, seeing that the two of them were well meaning, decent beings who genuinely wanted to help others.

“Oh. Thank you. This is Yuuno… he’s not my familiar. He’s…” She paused, then thought ~What should I tell her?~ Which was a reasonable question. What startled me slightly was that Yuuno responded. They had a telepathic link! Cool. “He’s my friend,” she replied after he suggested it.

“Awww! That’s cute!” I grinned. “He should meet Ziggy!”

“What’s Ziggy?” Nanoha asked, looking adorable in her confusion.

“Ziggy is Ziggy!” I replied unhelpfully, then pointed to my hat, which was the only part of my outfit still intact. She looked confused still so I poked the hat… which was, of course, Ziggy.  He unfolded, yawned, stretched, and blinked at Yuuno and Nanoha, both of whom were doing hilarious facefaults. “This is Ziggy. Ziggy, this is Yuuno and Nanoha… no trying to eat either.”

Ziggy, being Ziggy, licked my nose and thought ~Treat?~ at me. I chuckled, then blinked… that was a new trick. Normally he asked out loud.

Instead, it was Yuuno who spoke. A talking ferret. Huh. “Yo… are you a mage?” he asked, clearly having overheard Ziggy’s telepathic entreaty.

“Umm… yeah,” I scratched the back of my head, wondering how I was going to explain this. “But probably not in the way you… Nanoha is. I have a wand… somewhere. She seems to be missing… and isn’t it kinda late at night for a nine year old to be fighting monsters? Don’t you have school in the morning?” I asked, changing the subject.

It didn’t work. Well, it did, but she invited me to meet her after school the next day… well, later that day actually, at her family’s cafe, to talk. I shrugged. Sure. Let’s discuss saving the world with a 9 year old. This won’t be surreal at all.

=====

Well, the day got more surreal. I get home, sneaking in so I don’t accidentally wake Hayate… and there are two ladies, a little girl, and a really big blue wolf in our living room. Hayate explains they came out of the weird old book she’s had on her shelf as long as I could remember. The book used to be chained shut, but it’s not now. Instead, we’ve got Shamal (blonde and compassionate) and Signum (pink haired and aggressively protective), plus Vita (redheaded and so cute you could eat her up with a spoon… not sure that metaphor works, but sooo cute!) and Zafira (a good boy).

Hayate wants to invite them to join our family, since I’m always busy at school and we have the house all to ourselves. I’m beginning to wonder just how weird this world is going to be, but I nod. A scan of them shows them to be not quite human… (well, obviously in the case of Zafira) but something like… sendings or magical ghosts of some kind… but they were close enough that I could see them to be good people and could read their minds enough to see how fiercely loyal they were to my sister.

“Yeah… okay. Well… it’ll be good to have someone to take you to…” I decided not to say hospital at the last moment and changed it to “the library or shopping… and speaking of shopping, you really should take them out to get some new clothing… those black body stockings are very attractive, but not very stylish. But that can wait until morning.” I clapped my hands “You all, my sister needs her rest, so you can divy up the remaining bedrooms and we’ll get some sleep.” I yawned… that blast had seriously tapped me somehow.

Back in my room I lay back on my bed… then looked over at my own bookshelf… right at where my own white & gold leather book was sitting. I’d barely thought about it since I’d arrived, but if Hayate’s was magical… I went over to it and pulled it down… just as the first light of dawn cracked over the horizon and through my window.

“It’s about damned time,” VIctoria said as she unfolded out of the book. I, on the other hand, fell backwards onto my bed, groaning softly as the book took a huuuuuge slug of magical energy out of me.

“Ow… good… you’re here… go get me a mana potion… and a healing potion… and some tylenol.” I just lay there while she accio’d the hard way.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” She asked as she thrust the stuff at me, then sat cross legged on the bed and glared at me.

“No idea… any idea why you were sealed in that book?”

“None. I was barely able to form thoughts except when you were nearby and I could snatch some of your mana. I’m apparently running on it right now. My internal powersupply is tapped.” She poked my arm “Can I have some blood… and more mana? I’m staaaarving.”

I groaned. “Fiiine… but I’m going to need a whole bunch more potions… and even I can only produce blood so fast… so be moderate.” I flopped back and sighed. “This is weird. Two girls with magic books… hey, do you have knights inside you too?”

She blinked, then frowned. “Ummm… No? Should I?”

“I don’t know. Hayate… she’s the girl in the wheelchair who comes in sometimes?” She grunted to show she knew who I was talking about. “She’s my little sister it seems. Her book has four Guardians, three Knights and a Guardian Beast. But I don’t know if it has something like you in it.  I’m going to have to… hmmm…” I yawned again, then fell asleep before I could finish the thought.

=========

If it felt odd going from a household of 2.5 (Ziggy doesn’t do chores or conversation) to 7.5 (though Victoria seemed a little paranoid about the others and it took me a little while to realize she was actively hiding from them) it was odder dealing with the rapidly increasing number of battles involving Jewel Seeds. Seriously, it seemed like every time I went anywhere, Nanoha or this other 9 year old girl with blonde hair and an orange wolf were running around  shooting the monster of the week and sealing away the blue jewels of doom.

It was only a matter of time before they ran into each other, I figured, if they didn’t know each other already, but I had more important things to deal with and the Jewel Seeds seemed to be well in hand. First off, every attempt to find my companions with my usual spellwork or through the warehouse comms network had failed completely. That was annoying. Second, and far far more frustrating… I could not figure out what was wrong with Hayate and it seemed to be getting (slowly to be sure) worse. I didn’t like medical problems that made no damned sense.

So I spent most of my time exploring the world, looking for my companions and leaving signs they might see in places they might go, in forums and papers they might read, and wracking my not inconsiderable brains for a potential cause of my sister’s condition. It’s amazing what you miss when it’s right in front of your face. Siiigh.

I missed two things. The first became clear when a third (okay sixth… seventh… another) magical person showed up to stop the third fight between Nanoha and the blonde (whose name it turns out was Fate Testarossa). This time it was a little boy named Chrono… who world for, I kid you not, this organization of trans-dimensional police officers… though I’d later learn they were also the government, military, and fire department. That wasn’t important however. What was important was that, if they were a trans-dimensional organization spread across hundreds of worlds, then that meant that my companions, my friends and family, could be spread across that entire vastness. I say I missed it because it turns out that asking Yuuno a few more questions or looking a little further past his ferrety exterior would have told me that weeks earlier. The second thing I missed was much more salient to my own interests, but I wasn’t to discover that for some six months.

Apparently, Chrono has been dispatched from a trans-dimension ship called the Arthas, by her captain, who was also his Mother. And despite being all of maybe 10, he was a fully empowered enforcer for the Time-Space Administration Bureau… apparently they didn’t consider being a kid to be a detrimental thing. How… progressive of them. Then again, he was quiet, competent, and fairly powerful, so I guess they knew what they were on about.

Turns out that the TSAB had a vested interest in keeping a lid on so called ‘Lost Logia’, remnants of the technology of trans-dimensional magical cultures that had accidentally destroyed themselves… often including their own homeworlds… turns out that if enough of the Jewel Seeds were activated at the same time they could cause global earthquakes… or even rip planets or dimensions apart. Ouch. I decided not to try and steal one….

Well, that was until Fate showed up in the middle of the north Pacific and started summoning huge water spouts trying to wake up the last six Seeds so she could claim them for her mother… all while Nanoha was trying to talk with her about feelings. Got to hand it to the little orange haired girl, she’s stubborn as hell.

Anyway, I really didn’t want to get involved, but I did want to get access to the T-D technology of these TSAB people, so I showed up to see if there was any way I could convince Chrono to let me ‘help’ arrest Fate (who, unlike Nanoha had refused to hand over her Jewel Seeds). Turns out, Fate was being forced to collect them by her psycho mother, Precia.

I mean seriously psycho. We’re talking emotional abuse and blackmail psycho. We’re talking suspending a 9 year old clone of her original daughter from the ceiling from a chain and whipping her with a magical bullwhip psycho. We’re talking cloning her dead daughter and then telling the clone that she was just a poor useless copy psycho. We’re talking willing to destroy Earth in order to rip a hole in the fabric of reality to find one of those cultures that had destroyed itself believing they had impossible magic that could turn back time or raise the dead… even I didn’t have that kind of magic. Precia Testarossa was a total, unequivocal, screaming psychopath.

She also had her dead daughter’s body perfectly preserved in a biotank. I said she ‘had’ it because she plunged into the imaginary number realm, the void between realities, and was lost… but I managed to snag the tank. I might not have magic that can raise the dead if they’ve been dead a while… but that’s normally because, you know, decomp. This was a perfectly preserved body that just happened not to have lifesigns at the moment.

I tossed it into my medbay and threw some phoenix downs at it. What’s the worst that could happen? She stayed dead? She came back wrong and had to be disposed of? Didn’t work, as it turned out… but I put the body back in stasis for later. Who knew what I might find out in the vast universe.

======

So, Fate got arrested by the TD-Cops, Yuuno went back to being human, and things went back to normal… and I did not get a good enough look at the TD tech. Still, Nanoha got video letters every month or so from Fate and she was being well cared for by the TSAB… who it turned out were actually decent people and not gigantic bureaucratic jackasses. In fact, almost everyone in this setting seemed nice. The rich girls Nanoha was best friends with were adorable (one was a dog person with a butler and a nice mansion, the other a cat person with a maid and a house the size of a freaking palace) and not at all bitchy. Nanoha’s family was wonderful (even if her brother and sister were clearly in a relationship that crossed some legal and cultural boundaries… not my place to judge). Somehow I never got around to introducing Nanoha to Hayate… but destiny has its own ways and the rich girl with the cats ran into Hayate at the library and they became close.

Destiny also had its way with Fate and Nanoha. Six months after the Jewel Seed Incident in Springtime, Fate had just gotten back after being placed on very very light probation by the TSAB when Nanoha was attacked and had most of her magic stolen by some unknown (to them) assailants. Fate and Nanoha’s Devices were nearly destroyed as well, as their attackers used some kind of magic bullets in their own Devices.

I say unknown to them, because, well, I didn’t have to recognize the descriptions of Zafira, Signum, and Vita since those idiots had given the magical girls their damned names!

“What, the hell do you think you’re doing!” I accused the quartet as soon as I could politely make an exit from the sickbay Nanoha was being treated in and get all the way back from Mid-Childa (fascinating technology) to Earth. The crew of Arthra, including Chrono, were moving to Japan to look for the four of them, and by extension, Hayate. Turns out, the Book is a freaking Lost Logia known for a series of really, really destructive incidents.

Signum, as the leader, explained that they were just doing what they had to do, looking ashamed and defensive about it at the same time.

“Explain it to me… in simple language. Where the hell do you get off attacking innocent people and stealing their magic… How are you even able to do that?” I admit, I was ticked. I’d also, accidentally, revealed that I knew they were stealing magic and thus I knew about magic… but to be fair to the quartet… none of them are that bright.

“If we don’t,” Vita began, but Shamal shushed her.

I glared at the blonde woman and sighed. “I really didn’t want to have to do this. We could have resolved this like reasonable people. You are going to tell me. Unless you think you can take me, you’re going to tell me exactly what’s going on.”

I’ll give it to them. They tried. They thought they were protecting Hayate and their loyalty to her was unbreakable… but they weren’t even close to being in the same reality as my league. I didn’t even have to break out the big guns or power attacks. They weren’t going to damage the house Hayate lived in and I took them down in moments…. In fact, I took them down faster than I expected. Somehow, it seemed, I’d learned how to boost my speed with magic. Thankfully, the sound of sonicboom punches was negated by the magic, or we’d have woken Hayate.

“So. Now. you’re going to tell me exactly what you were doing and why you felt you needed to do these things or I’ll…” I trailed off, realizing that I was talking to Vita alone, as I’d KO’d the other three. In fact, the only reason I hadn’t KO’d Vita was because she’s like 8 and was hugging a stuffed bunny that Hayate had bought her and crying. I recognized those tears. They were tears of frustration.

I pulled Vita into my arms and hugged her, promising that I wasn’t mad at her, that I just wanted… needed to know what was going on if I was going to protect Hayate. Slowly, brokenly, she explained. The Book they’d come from was the Book of Darkness (which I’d known) but it was a powerful magical device, one that Hayate was the master of. If they didn’t fill all 666 pages of the book by absorbing the magic of others into the book, it would keep draining Hayate until she died. They’d been careful however, only draining, not killing anyone, because they’d known Hayate wouldn’t approve. In fact, they’d promised Hayate they wouldn’t be doing any of this… which meant that she’d known. I cursed myself for being too distracted by my other projects… and for never considering that magic might be the cause of my inability to heal my newest sister.

“Vita. What happens when the book is full?” I asked.

She looked evasive, but I was certain she didn’t realize that. “Hayate’s wish will be granted,” was her response… but she didn’t sound certain.

“What was her wish?”

“To… to live a nice comfortable quiet life?”

I groaned. Of course it was. Damn it. “Okay. I’ve got to think about this. Where’s the book, Vita?” I demanded, not seeing it in the room. Give her credit. She tried not to tell me… but clearly she didn’t realize her thoughts could be read and in moments I had the book under one arm and a thrashing Vita under the other. “Quiet you.” I told her as I examined the tome. I… I understood this. Not perfectly… but I understood the basics of how it would work… it was functionally identical to my own book… no… it was a little different. This was not an infinite capacitor. It had a hard limit on how much it could hold… mine didn’t… but it also had… had…

“Victoria. You’re the command protocol of my book, right?” I asked. She didn’t respond. “Victoria… Come out now.” I commanded.

Slowly, she appeared. “Shhhh… not in front of the Ookbay of ArknessDay.” she vanished again. I rolled my eyes.

“Victoria! The Book of Darkness is not going to-”

That was when two masked figures smashed through my bedroom window and tried to attack me. Seven seconds later I had the two of them bound and gagged and sitting next to a sulking Vita.

“Victoria. I need you to show me how your operating system works,” I demanded, tucking the Book of Darkness into my Pokemon Backpack for the time being. Still stylish after 15 millennia.

“You don’t really want to know,” my wand/armor/kamui/omnitool/secondary body muttered.

“Yes. I do. I need to understand why you’re not draining me and that thing is draining Hayate.”

“I am draining you,” she commented.

“Not even close. You’re feeding off my mana, but even though your energy requirments have got to be as extreme as its, you’re not draining nearly as much. I think you’ve got to have a Linker Core… and I’m guessing it doesn’t. And I want to know why! Why don’t you have protectors and why doesn’t it have a central control program?”

“It does!” she snapped. “That’s what I’m hiding from!”

“Why?”

“Because it’s also got a defensive program that’s totally fucking insane and I don’t want it trying to eat me or corrupt me with bad code!” She yelled. Vita flinched… and not from the noise. I turned to the two unconscious men and scanned their thoughts and memories. Well, that was interesting. “Those two are familiars… and female… and oh… yeah. There’s some explaining to do. Shit. Shit shit shit.”

Preparations took a few… weeks. I let the knights go back about their activities, having retasked the masked girls to make sure they didn’t kill anyone and to forget about losing to me. Meanwhile, I got Yuuno to show me around the TSAB’s Infinity Library… which has got to be the worse cross-referenced knowledge collection ever…. A problem I solved by using my Bankai in quite possibly the least Shinigami way ever. 200+ me’s can cover an awful lot ground and I needed to read a lot of text as fast as possible… which meant touching thousands of books every minute… and even then, even with a processing rate that makes short work of large number theory based cryptography… it took a damned while. When they say Infinity Library, they aren’t fucking around. Hundreds of worlds, thousands of years of history… and none of it organized. Fucking lunatics.

Still, eventually I found what I was looking for. It had originally been called the Tome of the Night Sky and it had been a largely harmless repository of magical energy and spells… until some fucking idiots messed with it. According to the theories, they’d damaged the code, either deliberately or accidentally and turned the book into a doomsday device. It cycled through users time after time, either killing them because they weren’t filling it fast enough or killing them as the book went out of control and destroyed large sections of planets. And every time the book was destroyed, it reformed someplace else.

And the last time it had been formed before this it had been taken into custody by the TSAB only to go out of control and have to be destroyed, along with the ship transporting it… under the authority of the man whose familiars were running around making sure no one succeeded in stopping the book from triggering.  I had to know why.

“Hello Admiral Graham,” I said, all grown up for the time being… I’d figured out how to do that fairly early on… which is weird, because… you know, I have adult forms. I could have used one of them, or so you’d think… but for some reason, all my forms were 13… or younger. Weird. “Explain, if you would, why a man dedicated to preserving lives from disasters like Lost Logia is trying to sacrifice a little girl to bring about a Lost Logia disaster… on his own home planet.” Yeah, some of the TSAB officers are actually from Earth.

He shuddered, then sighed. “I had to. Something had to be done to end the curse once and for all. That book… it keeps finding new ways to destroy lives. It killed my friend… and I didn’t pick the child. When I found out that the book had found a new master, a girl who’d just lost her parents, I made sure she and her sister were taken care of. Made sure they had a nice safe life. Nothing stops that book from destroying its master. I couldn’t save her… but I could make certain she was the last.”

I looked into his mind, his heart, finding all the details he’d not shared… and my heart bled for the poor guy. He really was doing what he felt had to be done. People would die, including Hayate… and he planned to push her over the edge if need be to trigger the manifestation of the book’s control program… but he didn’t understand. Not really. He thought the knights were just programs… but I’d seen inside their souls. The level of pain they’d been forced to deal with from masters cruel and masters kind… it would have broken anyone… and yet they’d found a kind of peace with Hayate.

I had to see if I could preserve that.

“Hayate?” I whispered, shaking her shoulder to wake her up.

“Sachi?” she asked, sleepily, blinking in the pale light of dawn.

“Yeah. Come on. We have to talk.” I helped her get dressed, then took her and the Wolkenritter, her knights, and her book, to where I’d arranged a meeting with Nanoha, Fate, Yuuno, and Chrono… oh, and Fate’s familiar Arf… who is a good doggo too. I wonder if she and Zafira could have puppies. “Good, you’re all here.” I said, looking around the deserted island in the pacific that the US had used as a forward base that no one lived on or within hundreds of miles of.

“Sachi? What…” both sides demanded, looking aghast at the other group wondering if I’d betrayed them, both sides reaching for their weapons. I froze the ground they were all standing on and halfway up their calves.

“You will all be quiet and listen… especially you, Vita.” I said, poking her nose. Yuuno was trying to figure out how I’d managed to do all that without a magic circle and the others were looking mutinous, but they all just glared at each other. “All of you, except Nanoha and maybe Fate are far too quick to get to the fighting… ah, here they come.” The two masked figures dove out of the clear sky and I froze them too.

“Hayate, the book is killing you. And when it’s full, it’ll kill you even faster, or turn you into a monster that will kill many others. The book’s damaged. Badly.” I turned to the knights. “I think you knew that, but you’d been conditioned to either forget it or have forgotten it out of repeated trauma because you’re usually the last few pages.” They each flinched or looked away, Vita’s face contorted in pain. “But you idiots didn’t go looking for help… maybe you couldn’t… but you were presented with an open hand time and again and all you did was slap it away.” The flinching was more pronounced this time and Shamal was visibly crying.

“Well, we’re going to end this, right here. Right now. I’m going to give the Book of Darkness all the Pages it needs and you, Hayate, are going to summon its Control Program and we’re going to resolve this peacefully… well… I hope. If things go out of control, you’re my backup” I said, looking to the four TSAB-associated mages. “Unfortunately, I can’t trust you four not to be a problem,” I said, looking to the Wolkenritter. “So, you’re going to go the one place I know I can keep you safe.”

And with that, I pulled out the Book of the Dawning Sky. “I hope this doesn’t hurt… but if it does… well… you’ve hurt a lot of people over the years. Maybe you deserve a little punishment.” And I sucked them into my book. I’m pretty sure it was agony.

Victoria appeared, shaking her head “Well, that’s unpleasant.  But they don’t seem to be corrupted. At least if your virus scan works.” I patted her head. “Hayate, Nanoha, Fate, Yuuno, Chrono… this is my Device, Victoria.” They all bowed to each other. I knelt next to my sister’s chair. She was freaking out but was being kept calm by the carefully measured valium injection I’d given her before waking her up… Hey, I may be 13 but I’m a fully qualified Starfleet doctor!

“Let’s do this,” I said, placing the Book of Darkness in her lap and then transferring the remaining 216 pages of energy it needed from Victoria. The spell to do that was pretty basic.

I’d like to claim that what happened next was resolved peacefully… but it wasn’t. Turns out, there wasn’t just a single program to deal with inside the Book of Darkness. Rather, there were two. The first, the Control Program which Hayate named ‘Reinforce’ was what mediated all the master’s wishes. It was trying to do as it had been programmed to do long ago. The second, a Defensive Program called NachtWal… was out if its mind… or CPU. oh… wow. So totally not safe.

The thing was insane, massive, a chimera of all the beings that had been killed to fuel the endless cycle of death and despair. It was, intentionally or not, viral code and it had to go. Unfortunately, that was where the problem lay… because it regenerated from almost any damage almost instantly. And it had a loooot of energy.

Then again, so did we. And, believe it or not… I had a plan. In fact, NachtWal had no idea, but it had already lost. Remember how I said the transfer energy spell was pretty basic? It was also pretty basic to modify it. The Book of Darkness was a parasite… it had almost no filter and its Defensive Program was insane. I hadn’t known that there were two different programs, but the distinction was meaningless to my primary plan… a plan I’d called ‘Operation Bad Shellfish’.

You’ll remember that earlier I’d remarked on how I’d somehow learned to transform Mana into Speed? Well, I had, in fact, learned slightly more than that. I’d learned how to stop the transformation partway through. What I’d given the book wasn’t exactly mana… nor was it exactly a speed boost. It was Mana that had been contaminated with speed… speed that could convert the other mana in the book’s program into more speed. In fact… it was in the process of burning through it’s mana faster than it could have conceived.

Which, fortunately for us meant it didn’t have any endurance, but unfortunately meant it was fighting at least twice as fast as it normally would have been. Also, unfortunately, Hayate was crying, telling us we were killing Reinforce… which, unfortunately again, was true. I hadn’t counted on there being two different programs and I certainly couldn’t copy Reinforce into my book. I considered for a moment, then sighed and waited until the last possible moment… then yanked Reinforce into my Mental Palace.

“Hey. You want to live?” I asked.

“I… have caused a great deal of destruction. And the worlds would never be safe if the book is not destroyed,” she responded, sounding sad but also perfectly reasonable.

“Right. Not what I asked. Didn’t ask if you think you deserve to live. No one really deserves that. Or everyone does, so the debate is meaningless. Do you want to live? If so, I can try to save you. If not… I can let you go down with the ship as it were.”

“I don’t know how you’ve done this… but if you think you can… yes, I would like to live. I… if only to make amends… if only to apologize to Miss Hayate.”

“Great, Don’t go anywhere.” I said, then focused on my hands, pouring out all my understanding of how the Tome of Night should have been, including in this version a more robust and self-repairing Defensive program and a linker core replica like was found in a Unison Device (highest end devices)… I poured it all out into an item that was not quite a noble phantasm and not quite a device… then I opened my eyes in the real world and threw the newly created item to Reinforce and yelled “Achtung! Execute program Tillich Urbild!”

With a pop very much like a can of soda being sucked through a wormhole, Reinforce popped out of existence as the Book of Darkness blew itself apart. A small bronze cross on a chain landed on Hayate’s lap, and a bottle straight out of I Dream of Jeannie landed on the sand next to the wheelchair. Now I just had to restore the Wolkenritter and I’d have pulled off the hat-trick.

I’d like to claim that went off without a hitch… I really would… but again, I’d be lying. Pulling them out of Victoria was no problem. Even giving them bodies was no problem. Giving them bodies that wouldn’t die when or if Hayate did would be harder, but I settled on a method which would make them more and more real and less like familiars with each passing year… though I wasn’t certain Vita would ever get bigger… which was fine because snuggling her was just soo much fun! Especially when she pouted and claimed she wasn’t a stuffed animal to be snuggled! She totally is. Especially with those bunnies on her hat.

No… the hitch was that Victoria had copied Vita. There were now two of her… though they weren’t identical. Vita Prime had red red hair and a red outfit. Vita Zero had blonde hair. They also didn’t like each other, with Prime calling Zero a bad copy and Zero calling Prime an outdated relic. Victoria would not explain why she’d only copied Vita, or rather she did but I didn’t believe her when she said ‘I needed a guardian and she’s the smallest and easiest to maintain. Siiigh.

======Six Years Later====

It had been a nice day. The first in a while. It had seemed like bad weather was following me around for some strange reason. Of course, the calm didn’t last. With a sound like ripping flesh, a dimensional rift had shattered the calm and a little girl with too much power had shot out of a breach in the fabric of reality, looked confused, noticed me, and attacked.

She was fast on a human scale, with blue-black twintails that flew out behind her, but had all the finesse of a box of hammers thrown into a jumbo jet’s engine. At first I just played with her, but eventually she kinda went into this berserk tantrum and finally I summoned Ziggy and had him sit on her while I confiscated her Device, which looked a lot like Fate’s Bardiche… at which point she turned back into a school girl rambling about the darkness, timelines, and how her master would save her. I pretty much ignored her and resolved to turn her over to TSAB… when it happened again.

This one was a Brunette and much calmer, and she tried to use stand off to attack me… but by this point I’d figured out how to adjust my magical immunity to the techno-magical attacks common in this world and all it did was vaporize my already shredded clothing. I signed and backhanded her out of the air with a telekinetic strike… and grabbed her device… which looked quite a bit like Nanoha’s Raising Heart in its Exelion mode… I looked at her and blinked. She looked very much like a recolor of Nanoha, at least if nanoha had done a lot of drugs and died her hair brown and had lighter blue eyes.

I looked back at the first girl… yes. She looked like a methed out Fate with blue hair… and neither of them were the ladies in their current form. No, these girls were 10 or so, not 15. I only half paid attention as the newer girl explained that she was Stern the Destructor and her companion was called ‘Levi the Annihilator’ and that they were functions of a program called ‘Unbreakable Darkness’.  Apparently they were from a timeline where the Book of Darkness was allowed to, as she put it, ‘germinate’… until it was destroyed somehow.  The process had ejected the two of them and (I was unsurprised to learn) a third named Dearche.  That third was why I was barely paying attention. I was waiting for her to arrive.

As the third rift opened, I quickstepped right next to it, and, as the clone of my sister stepped through, Vulcan nerve pinched her. “Lord Dearche, I presume.” I sighed. “What the hell am I going to do with you?” I asked.

I clearly couldn’t let this trio of lunatics out of my sight. Levi was like Fate on Meth, Stern was Nanoha on Coke, and Dearche was Hayate if Hayate had a Napoleon complex. They were, each in their own way, twits. Levi had no impulse control, Stern had no filter, and Dearche was… arrogant and overconfident was too damned polite… and an understatement… oh, good lord, they were LSD versions of my friends… and I don’t mean Mormon.

“Care to tell me why you’re here?” I asked, not expecting an answer as I glowered down at the trio.

Stern, of course, filled me in, because of course she did. “We know you copied Reinforce! We came to get her so we can win the war back home!”

Levi nodded, “With the original control code we might be able to unbreak the… ummm… why are you laughing?”

“You three are trouble,” I sighed. “I should turn you over to…” I began to chuckle again, then laugh, then just shook my head. “Okay, you three are coming with me.”

======

“Hey, Vita, remember how annoying you find other Vita?” I asked VPrime. She frowned and nodded. “Good, because meet NanoZero, HayateZero, and FateZero.”

Vita looked and gulped, “You didn’t! Miss Hayate should… she’ll be so cross with you!”

“I didn’t. They aren’t from my book. Promise. They came from a timeline where Reinforce wasn’t sealed away and the book regenerated itself. Or so they claim. You should fight Stern here,” I knuckled her on the head and she yelped. “She fights almost exactly like you do. They’re clones created by something called the Book of the Purple Sky… but I was thinking of using them to prank my sister, Fate and Nanoha. You in?”

“I… um… are you sure Miss Hayate won’t get mad at me?”

I scooped up the still tiny Vita and booped her nose. “She’ll probably assume it was all her evil big sister’s fault. Anyway. I’ve confiscated their Devices. They’re not much danger without them.”

“Well… okaay. But if we get in trouble, it’s your fault.”

I smirked. “It always is!”

====4 YEARS LATER===

“Papa!” Alex looked at me, aghast. “I can’t believe you!”

“What?” I asked, looking up from the breakfast table in the Warehouse as the Companions I hadn’t rediscovered began filing in from where they’d been spending the last decade. To be honest, I hadn’t looked very hard. I’d made it easy enough to find me, but if they didn’t, they didn’t. Alex was one of the ones who’d remained missing, despite being a TSAB trooper who should have had the easiest time finding the white haired lunatic hanging around the main characters… even if none of us had known who the main characters were. Ah well.

“You promised!” She stamped her foot and glowered at me.

“Promised what?”

“You promised no new companions! You’ve got 4!” He pointed to where Zero squad were squabbling over who got which bedroom of the newly added Family Abode that technically belonged to Maidseid but I’d confiscated because he’d complained about the decade long vacation the moment he’d gotten back.

“Hey now. No griping. It could have been worse… I could have invited everyone to come along.” I’d considered it… and maybe someday I would. The people of this world were nice enough… but for the time being, they were safe where they were and it was time, for now, to move on. Maybe I’d return some day. Vivio hadn’t shown up yet. She seemed like a cute kid. But for now, it was time to go on. On ward. To the future… or the past. That was always the question, wasn’t it? I knew the next five jumps, though not their order. One in the mythological past, two in the future… and two in the nebulous space known as ‘the now’.” Ah well, enough relaxing, time to get some real work done. “Oh, hey, did you have fun?”

He just growled at me and grumped “It’s more girls too! Would it have killed you to recruit a boy my age?”

I scooped him into my lap. “Why? So you can flirt with him or be buddies?”

He opened his mouth and blushed. I don’t think that had ever occurred to him before. I didn’t know whether to be proud, or worried. Maggie was shaping up to be very sexually mature, and while Amaryllis wasn’t exactly proactive in that regard, she at least was fully aware of the birds and the bees and thought the entire concept of mating was… quaint. But Alex? I don’t think until this moment he’d ever really thought about the concept of being attracted to someone.

I kissed his forehead. “You know it’s okay if the answer is both, right?”

Glaring at me, he groaned, then placed his face in his hands. “You’re sooo weird!” he complained.

“It’s my job as a parent to be embarrassingly weird. Go ask your mothers and see if I lie.”

It warmed my heart to note that, even though yes, I was a pain in the ass and a weird annoying promise-breaker, Alex didn’t climb out of my lap. Good to know he missed me.

Next: DUNE

OMAKE: Relationship Chart

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I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed. It updates every day, but each update isn’t very long.

Resources: BuildDocument

AN: One of the very few settings where honestly I’d change nothing. It’s just so… nice. I mean, bad things happen, but… they resolve for the best every time. It’s a good universe where most people want good things to happen. I didn’t build the companions Devices, because I don’t think it really matters too much for most of them. I might do it sometime, but the builds would be more personal and time consuming than I really think the customization rules cover. So better just to assume the builds are done.