The Jump Chain

World 61: The Light of Terra, Part 3

THE LIGHT OF TERRA, A WARHAMMER 40K GAUNTLET

PART 3 – A Grand Tour

Previously: Land of the Sky Mother

Themesong: Nobody’s Side from Chess

AN: Thank you to my readers for all your wonderful comments.

It was the third anniversary of my arrival in this strange and horrifying world and I was, as I often did, watching the recording of The Light slowly, painfully docking with Hephaestus, the ancient automated repair and resupply station upon which I now sat. There was something mesmerizing, something awe inspiring about the sight of that ancient crippled ship inching her way into the space-dock, venting atmosphere and biological debris from the countless gashes in her armored hull. The fact that she was there at all was testament to the human drive to survive and thrive, even in the most inhospitable of environs. I leaned close to watch as the station’s titanic servo arms, monstrous kilometer long crane-things, swung into position to begin the long, arduous process of restoring the behemoth to her former glory, then leaned back as the equally gargantuan blast doors slid shut, blocking the sight of my ship from view.

Leaning back, I turned to face the reinforced plasteel window that formed the back wall of my office, then looked out over Paradise. My world. Mine. I had claimed it, claimed it for all those who followed me, claimed it for my children, and (potentially) their children’s children. And slowly, it was becoming mine in truth.

Before being trapped within the warp for all those long, uncounted millennia, The Light of Terra carried her own Imperial Guard regiment, and the supplies and equipment that would have allowed those men and women to take control of a hostile world had been locked securely within her holds. Hundreds of shuttles, megatons of prefab construction materials, earth movers, and more tools than the mind could safely encompass; all were waiting to be put to use.  As the ship had been repaired, more and more of those ancient goods had become available, and so my city had flourished… thanks in no small part to the fact that Imperial Guardsmen gear had been designed to be just as useful to a half-feral barbarian as it was to a Hive World Technician.

As the terminator swept inexorably across Paradise’s mottled surface, I could see the pinpricks of light that marked new settlements, defensive installations, or resource nodes springing to life. Some of them were Human, others the dog-lizard Tarellians who had learned it was better to join me than oppose me. I sighed with pleasure… then considered all the paperwork I still had to go through and sighed with something a little less pleasurable. I rubbed my eyes, clenching them tight… and then the world lurched around me.

Even before I opened my eyes, I knew something strange was going on. Part of that might have been because I could see things without opening my eyes… and not the normal riot of ever-shifting geometric and fractal patterns, but an obscene, impossible light that seemed to shine down on me, something that defied description, a color that could not possibly exist in real-space. I felt like clasping my hands over my still tightly shut eyes, but knew somehow that it would do nothing to block out that nightmarish hue.

I could feel it, pressing down upon me, eroding my edges, scouring away bits and pieces of who and what I was, the sheer pressure of all that unrestrained possibility seeking to crush me, to obliterate my psyche… and then something was draped across my face and the pressure retreated. With a hand that I struggled to keep steady, I reached up to feel the object.

It was a blindfold, a simple blindfold and nothing more… but somehow, it was enough to shield me from the almost soul-crushing madness of wherever I was.

“Perhaps, rather than shielding you from the overwhelming effects of my home, it simply conceals the distractions and allows you to see things as they truly are?” A voice said. The speaker sounded absolutely massive and incredibly terrifying… and could apparently read my mind… or at least my surface thoughts.

Experimentally, I looked around, eyes still shut tight behind the blindfold, testing the limits of what might be hidden and what might lie behind those illusions to be revealed by my sightless gaze. I quickly came to realize that this place, wherever it was, was so thick with enchantment that I could actually pick out the shapes of buildings, the flows of arcane power worked into the stones themselves. I also came to realize that I could see those magical flows once again, so powerful were they in this place.

I glanced up… and moaned softly.

Above that city of magic, instead of a sky, there was… ah… that would explain the entire sanity unravelling, psyche destroying pressure. This was the Warp. Not the ‘someone got really pissed off and accidentally summoned a Bloodthirster of Khorne’ warp (though that is exactly as bad as it sounds). This was the place causality went to die.  It was, actually, a fairly disappointing greeny purple.

“Charpuce… cute,” I muttered under my breath.

Still, it said something about the man? being? entity behind me that staring into the Warp itself seemed the safer course than turning around. Apparently, he realized that, since he started to move, and I could feel the impact of each footfall as he casually sauntered into my field of view. It… he… was close to twenty feet tall, with skin a deep crimson and a mass of burnished copper hair more akin to a mane than anything else, and was wreathed in so much sheer power that the mystical energy twisting around him was actively blinding, to the point where I almost considered tearing away the blindfold shielding me from seeing the warp in all its horror. Even worse, his armor was an abomination against fashion… it had nipple horns.

“Ah. Hello Magnus,” I said, feeling relieved. If all the beings I could have run into in the Warp, this was arguably the best possible result. This one was unlikely to murder me for lols.

“You know who I am?”

“Magnus the Red. Primarch of the Thousand Sons, Patsy, Ka-Mai, Fool of Fate, Dupe of Destiny, Accomplice to Patricide, Reluctant Traitor, the second most powerful psyker in the history of the human race, Daemon Prince of Tzeentch, Magnus Wolfsbane, Magnus One-Eye, Lord of murdered Prospero… sorry about that. That was a raw deal.” My voice had started out declarative, but slowly shifted towards empathy.

His anger and confusion, made manifest in the ripples of the Warp around me, shifted at that last into shivers and tremors of memory, memory that quickly flared back to rage. “Don’t you dare feel pity for me! I am a Prince of Chaos.”

“You’re a little boy whose father never loved him enough,” I said. It was not an accusation.

“You dare?! I could wipe you from reality with no more effort than you would take blowing your nose!” He roared

“Hey, my nose is dainty and adorable. And you could, but you won’t.” I looked around at the place… the books had not done it justice. It really was lovely in a strange kind of way.

“You seem dreadfully certain of yourself, mortal.”

“I am only mortal in the same rough sense that you are, child.”

“I… yes… you… hmmm…”

“It’s okay to admit you aren’t all knowing. You have no idea what I’m talking about but you can sense I’m being sincere. Here. I’ll make it simple for you. You have as much chance of understanding me as I do of understanding Tzeentch. I am utterly unlike anything you have ever experienced before. I am older than any human besides your father and have raised up civilizations to rival his at its height… and never had my children fall to chaos… though not for lack of trying. And the reason I’m so certain you won’t destroy me is that you brought me here for a reason. I suspect that means you want something from me or I’d already be in hideous agony as you tried to rip my soul out or performed something unpleasantly like a spiritual version of a vivisection on me.”

The pause was as long as an ice age… maybe two, before the 20 foot tall cyclops spoke again. “I had expected you to be taller… No matter… Welcome to my realm… and yes… I am Magnus, and you… you will be of some use to me.”

The conversation was short and mostly to the point, ignoring several lengthy diatribes about wretched, yiffing wolf-scum. Magnus was, to not put too fine a point on it, trapped within the warp. As a Daemon Prince, he simply couldn’t leave under his own power and had to be summoned… under most circumstances. I, as it turns out, represented a virtually unique opportunity, however. I didn’t belong here. Not in realspace, not in the warp… not in this reality. For most people, that would mean nothing. For the most powerful Sorcerer in this universe, it was a chance to break the rules.

All it would take was a simple ritual to twist the skeins of fate around the two of us, tricking the fabric of spacetime into believing we were one being… and, while Magnus would temporarily lose a not insignificant amount of power, he would be free of any and all restrictions, at least until the universe noticed. He already had plans and was willing to reward me very well indeed for my assistance. I, intrigued, agreed.

He also has a tale to tell, which he did as we crossed the void between worlds. “The story began some two and a half millennia ago, during a time known as as The Great Angevin Crusade, and features a follower of the man who would come to be known as Saint Drusus. Those idiots who worship my father,” Magnus couldn’t help sneering the word ‘father’, “were sweeping across what is now known as the Calixis Sector, pushing the enemies of that ridiculous state religion of theirs before them and ‘bringing light’ to worlds who’d forgotten all about Terra centuries ago.” He paused his narrative to go into a rant about fanaticism and pots calling kettles black, but eventually got back to his story.

“Amongst the followers of Drusus, was the Warlord Lorcanus Ryn, a free trader and captain of the Grand Cruiser known as ‘The Righteous Path’. In the course of Drusus’s crusade… and by crusade I mean unwarranted and merciless slaughter… Lorcanus scourged a dozen worlds or more, carving a bloody path across the sector… until he reached the world of Krystallian, which history records as the 73rd world to be brought to the light of the God-Emperor by that psychotic madman Drusus and his Khorne-blessed Crusade.”

I nodded to show I was listening as my eyes slowly adjusted to the searing madness of the warp before us. We were flying across the Immaterium without aid of a ship, propelled by Magnus’s raw psychic might and I found the place alien, but beautiful, like a four-dimensional Mandelbrot set. “You don’t have to convince me that the followers of the Ecclesiarchy are horrific monsters, Magnus. But you aren’t going to convince me that any of the forces of Chaos aren’t worse by orders of magnitude, and if you actually believe they are, you’re deluding yourself. But please, continue… you were speaking of Krystallian.”

“Err… yes. Krystallian. It was, so the story goes, an ancient colony of man, one which had long ago fallen to the so-called ‘heretical worship of false gods’ under the ‘treacherous’ caste of prophets known as the Talisar. Covered in glittering cloud temples that had been raised by the Talisar to the glory of ‘The Myriad of Faces’, it was a world of immense wealth and, to those savages of the Inquisition, blasphemous grandeur. It was also no match of the forces of Captain Lorcanus Ryn. He descended upon that world, filled with a fanatic’s zeal and, convinced his Emperor was behind him, swept away thousands of years of civilization in three days of fire and blood.”

“Of course he did,” I sighed. “I hate people sometimes. Let me guess… then came the looting?”

He seemed momentarily taken aback by dealing with someone as prosaic as I can be, but he grunted and continued. “Very much so. When the killing was finished and the corpse counters began tallying up the spoils, Lorcanus is said to have marvelled at the riches he had won, caring nothing for the blood soaked into every gaudy trinket. Never before had he seen such naked wealth, temples packed high with artifacts both rare and wondrous, statues of gold and gems, and shadowed vaults filled to the roof with ancient and forbidden archeotech.”

“Why do you call it that? Was it archeotech for him? Because you’re 11,000 years old, give or take, considering how screwed up time can be in the Warp. Did this stuff predate you?”

“You do realize that there were 30,000 years of human history before I was born, don’t you?”

“Actually, there were nearly 42,000 years, if you want to go back to the dawn of civilization to around the time your father was created,” I said dryly.

“Created?! Wait, you know how father came to be?!” He nearly steered us into a giant spinning pustule that must have been the size of Saturn, surprise suffusing his very being.

“Oh. Sure. I know all about you and your brothers and your father. Even how Tzeentch manipulated you into screwing over your father and brothers. I know about your childhood on Prospero, and Lorgar and his fanaticism, and Angron’s anger and Horus’s stupidity. I even know how Ahriman fucked up and turned so many of your Sons into empty husks.”

He flinched at that, but I continued. “I know many things. Many and many. As for your father… The Emperor of Mankind, and boy howdy did he have to be a jerk and a half to claim that title, was born when all the human psykers… the shamans of the prehistoric, pre-civilization days, merged themselves together into a single psychic entity… in the process stripping humanity of about 99% of its latent psychic potential since they failed to pass on their genes. Who knows if that was good or bad, considering that one of the reasons they were doing it was to protect humanity from the growing corruption of the Immaterium, thanks to the war between the Necrons and the Old Ones, and all the FUCKING ELVES! being fucking elves… and don’t get me started on the Orks. I hate this universe… it’s like a textbook in how to build a fucked up setting.”

“Not to sound like I doubt your words, but… how do you know all this?”

“Dude. I have seen some shit. I come from another universe entirely, one where a cult of beings known as Neckbeards spend all their time and energy arguing back and forth about which faction in your universe will win battles. They make faithful recreations of your battlefields and armies, then wage simulations of your battles across them. They make presentations in audio-visual format to educate the public about the minutiae of this entire world and to praise or mock each of the various dramatis personae of this universe… and thousands of others.”

“That… can’t be right! How would they know all these things?”

“My culture is one that… in order to entertain itself… spies into other realities and times to see the events that occur there.”

“And they have seen the events of our… my… this universe?”

“Indeed. Of several parallel versions of your universe, some more likely than others,” I kept myself from smiling. I might have lost the guarantee of the Occlumency perk, but I’d been a GM around telepaths for longer than ol One-Eye had been alive. And, to be honest, I wasn’t lying. Just bending the truth.

“So you know what happened? Everything?!” He sounded a little panicked by the idea.

“Not everything. I don’t know why your father ordered wolf-boy to kill your two missing siblings. I don’t know if Alpharius lives, or if he and Omegon were really traitors or secretly double agents. I don’t know of Robot Girlyman-”

He snorted so hard he nearly dropped me, “Did you just call my brother Roboute…”

“Oh. Sure. Either that or Rowboat. Frikkin Ultrasmurfs.”

“I do not know what smurfs are, but I sense you don’t like them,” the Daemon Prince commented dryly.

“You know how much you hate wolf-boy’s psychotic children? Well, there’s a group in my homeworld’s history called the Nazi’s. Smurfs were fictional characters designed by a wannabe nazi to teach children Nazi ideology. That ideology featured a deep and abiding hatred of my people, the Jews. What the Wolves did to Prospero, the Nazis did to my people. So… yeah… I don’t like smurfs.”

“I like you… you have a lot of hatred in you. Have you considered serving Tzeentch? Why are you laughing?”

“One of my companions is smarter and a better planner than Tzeentch… and I make her look stupid. You know how you’re massively reduced to be out of the warp? Same deal for me to be in this universe, it seems. But yeah. I don’t know the deep details of anything really, but I know a little bit about a lot of things in your reality. Like the fact that I’m pretty sure Rogal Dorn is hiding inside the Imperial Palace and Rowboat is slowly regenerating in stasis. It is entirely possible that, at this moment, the Captain-General of the Custodes is installing a vocoder in the Golden Throne so the Emperor can once again speak… or maybe that’s total fanfiction. Never can tell with this Universe. We who are not of the Neckbeard faith often call it ‘Grimderp’.”

“What is derp?”

“You know how you felt when you realized Tzeentch had tricked you into knocking a hole in your father’s defenses surrounding Terra? That, my young friend, is derp.”

“Oh… right… Derp. I… yes. I understand.”

“Cool. For future reference, I was born in the closing years of the 2nd millennia, maybe a scant handful of centuries after Khorne was born,” I patted his hand, “So when I say I’ve seen some shit… I’ve seen some shit. Good and bad. And done a lot of things I’m not particularly proud of. I’m made my share of Derp too. So I’m not feeling pity. I’m understanding your pain and guilt.”

“I do not feel guilt,” He muttered.

“Fine. Your embarrassment. Now, go back to telling me about the wealth of Krystallian.”

I think he was grateful for the change of topic, as he didn’t protest. “What happened next varies from report to report. Some say the wealth of Krystallian was more than mere rare metals and precious stones; that its people were also a prize, bred from a stock of genetically pure material and spared millennia of warp-taint. That Lorcanus sealed the cream of the crop in stasis coffins to be taken away to be trained as elite warriors or high class servants. Others report that the world was settled during the Dark Age of Technology and still harboured devices from that time within its cities and temples, secrets from that long forgotten era worth more than the mineral wealth of a hundred worlds,” he shrugged, bringing us down towards a vast spider-web cracked plain and a waiting atmospheric craft.

“Whatever the form of Krystallian’s wealth, Lorcanus was not content to merely sample it, nor did he trust his fellow crusaders to carry it away. He filled Righteous Path from stem to stern, tearing out gun decks and launch bays, marooning tens of thousands of his crew and filling the ship ‘til she was fair to bursting with plunder. Then he vanished, both into the warp and from the pages of history.”

“I take it you have some reason to believe that something specific came into his hands, something that might still be within one of the holds of the Righteous Path?”

He chuckled, nodding as we landed next to the grey bulk of a Thunderhawk Gunship. “Oh yes. Yes indeed.”

“And you believe your… scrying has located the ship?”

He paused, then sighed, shaking his shaggy head. “I believe I have located a place where we may begin the hunt.” He scooched his way into the Gunship and looked at the controls. “Do you happen to know how to pilot this thing?” he asked.

I looked up at the controls. “This is like a giant and a pixie trying to operate a craft sized for humans, isn’t it?” Clearly, this ship was sized for normal space marines, because Magnus was just too damned big to fit into the cockpit… and I’d have to stand on one of the seats just to see the controls. “Normally I’d ask if you couldn’t just TK the thing, but you’d have to remote presence into the cockpit, then TK, and even then, you’d have to maintain awareness… that’s it.  Use Intellectus to take over the entire gunship.”

He blinked his solitary eye at me, “You seem to know a great deal about psychic powers for someone without them.”

“Normally, I’m one of the most powerful psykers around. You have no idea how frustrating it is not to be able to use my TK, PK, or TP.”

“PK? Pyrokinesis?”

“Psychokinesis. Telekinesis is typically defined as mind over matter. Psychokinesis is usually mind over energy. Pyrokinesis is one flavor of PK. Normally, I’m a… the most powerful Cryokinetic you could conceive of.”

“I can conceive of a great many things, mortal.”

“Don’t call me that. That’s your knee-jerk desire to pigeonhole me as something you can conceptualize. I’m far closer to being one of your Chaos Gods than I am to being a mortal. When I say I’m a powerful CK, I mean it. I can freeze time and get colder than absolute zero. I have transcended the physics of cold and entered the conceptual realm,” I said it all in a level tone as I scrambled up into one of the massive chairs meant for massive dude-bros in massive power armor. They were exactly as comfortable as you might expect… i.e. not even vaguely. I also felt faintly sick. It’s hard getting the right level of braggadocio into your voice when you’ve lost fantastic cosmic powers and don’t know if they’ll ever return. “Anyway, Tall, Red, and Sexy, are we getting off the ground any time soon, or are you just going to…” I fell back into the oversized seat as the Thunderhawk lurched off the ground.

“Do not mock me!” El Cyclopes Rojas snarled, face contorting with the effort of being the transport as the Warp rippled and we dropped into real space.

“You really are tetchy, aren’t you?” I asked, looking at the doorway he couldn’t quite squeeze through. “Nothing I just said is untrue, or mockery. You are tall, you are red, and you are sexy. Kinda to be expected. Your dad was in prime condition for a human being, all 21 of you Primarchs were designed off his genome. You could use a haircut and a shave, but you’ve got all the right elements.”

“I. Am. A Daemon. Prince!” He roared, but I think he was blushing too.

“Well, sure. But some girls like power. Me? I like brains… er… smarts. And muscles. Not that I’m flirting with you. The size difference would make that a bit impractical… though I’d have to assume that, since you’re not associated with Slaanesh or Nurgle, you probably haven’t gotten laid in… actually, have you ever gotten laid? Hell, have any of your siblings ever gotten laid… except maybe Fulgrim. He’s Slaanesh’s favorite toy I’ll wager.”

“Do you always talk this much?” the fallen Primarch grumbled.

“You got anything else to do while we travel? Cause I don’t. You grabbed me from my world without so much as a data pad on which to play Angry Tau. I’m bored. What world are we going to?”

“Can’t you meditate or something?”

“Could. Don’t wanna.”

“Oh, for the… I don’t know what took your normal psychic powers but-” I felt a sharp sting deep in my brain and my senses exploded outward as Magnus focused his cyclopean gaze upon me. It was like waking up… or sobering up. I could feel the flow and pulse of… not just psychic power, but what must be the Warp itself flowing all around us, and I could feel mental facilities within myself waking as well, things I had known how to do, but which had been silenced somehow. My power was still much condensed, like one’s ability to think with a concussion, but I could feel my very synapses firing into eldritch light as the raw psychic… presence, not just of Magnus… but of this entire galaxy… began to filter into my perception. The galaxy itself was… alive. Insane, deeply deeply wounded, and undoubtedly dying, but alive.

I turned my inner eye back towards the place where Magnus had touched me and studied what he’d done, understanding it almost instinctively. I’d never done such a thing before, but as I studied it, I came to understand more and more. This was Biokinesis, or was it Biopathy? I couldn’t tell, but I could feel my control over it growing, expanding, burgeoning as I looked within myself, examining the flowering of pathways. I would be able to replicate this process.

I turned my gaze, both psychic and physical, to Magnus and said “Duuuuude. That was awesome!”

“Oh, sweet Tzeentch, you’re broadcasting. How are you doing this? I just awakened you! You should not be able to broadcast this quickly!”

“I am a Veteran of the Psychic Wars, buddy boy. I have been around the block a time or three. But thanks for the most excellent kick in the psychic pants. So… Jerazol? That’s the planet we’re heading to?”

“Did… did you just… That shouldn’t be possible,” One-Eye stared at me, flabbergasted, “I should not have dropped my defenses around you. And now I see that you’ve been keeping me out of your deeper thoughts as well. That’s an interesting trick. How’d… Veteran of the Psychic Wars?”

“Well, yeah. Plus, my first friend in your lovely galaxy was an Eldar Warlock. Keeping her out of my head was a full time occupation. But enough psychic dick measuring. You’re fifteen feet taller than me and I’m female. You’re going to win… really?” I looked at his confused face. “You’ve never heard the term dick measuring?”

“I am aware it is possible… but to what end?”

“Wow. Prospero must have been a weird place. Okay, when guys… you know… human males?” He nodded vaguely, having no idea where I was going with this. “Right… okay… this is really complex. Open your mind, I’m going to shunt you some knowledges.”

Looking distrustful, but then clearly slapping himself for thinking a mere slip of a psyker like me could do much against his might, he relaxed his defenses slightly, opening a conduit… which was an interesting idea that I’d have to remember. Through it, I slipped my entire knowledge base of human social interaction across hundreds of cultures… and a few memetic thoughts, just to see if they’d catch in big boy’s brain meats.

“So… this is a metaphorical measuring of penises, and not an actual quantitative survey of their lengths?” He asked after a few moments.

“That’s correct,” I said. “A contest to determine dominance between males based on the perception that size of genitalia has anything to do with… well, anything. It’s like assuming that a large nose somehow makes one qualified for leadership, or that the ability to put people to sleep by talking to them qualifies one to be a teacher.”

“You’re very sarcastic for one so small,” he commented.

I nodded. “Now, if you’re done trying to prove you can squish me like a bug, which at our current relative power levels is almost certainly true, can you please tell me about Jerazol. All I caught from your surface thoughts was the name.”

“Like Krystallian, it is a world with a tragic past, one also caused by the greed of man.” He began, his voice sonorous and almost sweet. “It was a verdant world, fertile and rich in natural wonders, and home to a primitive human culture that had slipped far from the technological might of those who had settled it once upon an age. That world and all its people were murdered for greed and spite.” He told the tale in soft words as we zoomed through the rippling void, approaching the murdered world.

Discovered by a Rogue Trader whose name did not survive the years, it was an ancient world, and one covered in ruins at the time of its discovery. This trader, a pious man and not as fanatical as most, was determined to bring the population back into the light and dominion of that gold-loving corpse, and began a process of civilizing the primitives while purging them of any trace of deviancy or corruption, real or imagined.

However, while this Trader was the first to discover Jerazol, he was not the last, for other explorers came to that doomed world, ones who believed that the primitives were hiding wonders of lost technology in warrens beneath the surface, warrens built by those long forgotten ancestors who had first come from across the stars. The explorers claimed that those machines were worth any price in blood and death, and when the nameless Rogue stood against them, they destroyed his ships, letting the wrecks fall from the sky like the burning tears of god. With the surface already in flames from the debris, those inhuman bastards then proceeded to bombard Jerazol, burning its surface to ash and choking the air with smoke and death.

“Did they find what they were looking for?” I asked, feeling the pressure of the giant’s rage as he remembered a similar act on his homeworld. He really needed to work on shielding his thoughts… and controlling his emotions.

“The tales do not agree. Some say they unearthed such wonders that they rose to the highest tiers of power within the imperium. Others say that they found only ash and bone and mud, and cursed the dreams that that brought them through void and madness to murder an entire world for naught. Regardless of the truth, the world of Jerazol stands in mute testimony to the price some men will pay in search of riches.” He pointed out the viewscreen ahead of me and I looked, and there I beheld Murdered Jerazol.

It was dead, as dead as he had implied, and I wondered at that, even as I said, “There is no crime so terrible, no act so monstrous that man cannot justify it through greed or faith… but shouldn’t it have grown back by now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ash. Mud. Bone. Blood. Something, some life should have survived the burning, even if it was just bacteria. Ash and Mud make an excellent growth medium. Have you ever seen a forest burn?”

“Many of them,” Magnus growled.

“Yeah? I’ll bet,” I said dryly, “But have you ever watched what happened afterwards?”

“Afterwards? After the forest burns there is nothing but death and ashes.”

“Wow… you’re rather spectacularly clueless there.” I shook my head. “And Don’t growl at me. I’m serious. Death begets life. Almost always. Life, as you should know, even if you’re not a follower of Nurgle, is extremely resilient. Forests burn all the time. They’re made of wood and exhale oxygen. That’s practically asking for a fire. All it takes is a spark… like lightning, and a dry forest will burn and burn. And then the forest will flourish again. Forest fires burn all that yummy forest mast, the detritus, the leaves and twigs and fallen branches… burns all that up… and the undergrowth too. Kills some trees, cooks some animals. And then life comes rushing back in. That ash is fertilizer. The sunlight streams down through all those now open spaces and the seeds within the ground, stimulated by the heat, burst forth to grow and grow and grow. This world,” I motioned with my hand as we descended through the atmosphere, “Should have sprung back by now. This was hundreds of years ago, right?”

Magnus hrmed, then nodded, “At least 600.”

I nodded too, “This ash? It’s fresh. I think this planet has active volcanoes. That’s the only thing that’s keeping the planet from recovering. It’s in a volcanic cycle. Now, that could have been caused by bombardment… but it seems unlikely that a bombardment from 600 years ago would have destabilized the planet’s geotechnics enough to keep volcanoes spewing toxic ash into the atmosphere for this long. THis level of tectonic instability is usually caused by a large gravity source… What are we looking for here?”

“A cogitator from one of the Rogue Trader’s ships. It is said he had a lead on finding the Righteous Path.”

“This is from one of the ships that went down?” I asked and he nodded as he flew the ship through a pyrotechnic cloud. “Any chance its transponder is still working?”

He hmmmed?

“Emergency Beacon? Crashed ships tend to have them. They trigger automatically if the vessel crashes, sending out a Search and Recovery signal.”

“Oh. Huh… maybe?”

I looked around for a communications receiver, and found it high on the dashboard. With a leap, I jumped up there and, careful not to step on anything, I reached it and switched it on. Over the last three years I’ve become generally familiar with the local technology, which (thankfully) is highly standardized. It took a bit of tuning, but I managed to locate the general distress band and, there, faintly, was a centuries old distress beacon. A bit of triangulation later, and I was able to trace it to the source.

We landed outside a large cave entrance. “You’re sure it’s in there?” Magnus asked.

“Dude. It is basic geometry. We took a bearing, flew 100 klicks, took another bearing, and boom, where they cross is where the thing is. It’s about 3 klicks down and your own psychic powers say this is the only way to get down there without digging. So, let’s go. Want me to hold your hand?”

He glowered at me, then rolled his eye, and lifted me onto his head. “Hold on to one of my horns.” His hair smelled a bit, and I sneezed, but grabbed the horn

“You need to shampoo more often!” I yelled.

“What is shampoo?”

“Do you ever take that armor off?”

“It’s part of me.”

“How do you keep clean under it?”

“It is self cleaning,” He said, but he sounded a little doubtful.

“You totally should take it off and soak in a nice tub of hot water for a while. Let your skin breath. I can’t believe I’m giving a Primarch hygiene lessons. Are all you Space Marines this dense?”

“We don’t need to-”

“Need ain’t got nothing to do with it. You do it because you can. Bathing feels good. Humans were not meant to be sealed in tin-cans for years at a time. Duck!” He ducked as a large stalactite that had been on his blind side nearly smashed me off his head. “Being 20 feet tall can’t be easy.”

“Normally I spend all my time in the Immaterium where I can just change how tall I am by thinking about it.”

“Can’t you do that here?”

“Haven’t tried. Not like I’m trying to hide what I am.”

“Uh… you are explicitly trying to hide what you are… from the Universe!”

“True. But the Universe isn’t going to be fooled if I make myself shorter.”

“Fair enough… I have a question.”

“This is going to annoy me, isn’t it?”

“Probably,” I shrugged. “Have you ever, you know, tried not being Evil?”

“Evil and Good are relative. I do not consider myself to be evil.”

“Yeah. Yeah. But you certainly don’t think of yourself as Good, do you? You do realize that the Ruinous Powers are cosmic horrors that would see humanity twisted, warped, consumed, or eradicated, right?”

“What is Humanity to me? I was never truly human, was I?”

I blinked at that, then sighed, “We’re all human. Even the Eldar and Tau. Human is more than being a member of homo sapiens. It’s about caring what happens to others, looking out for each other, and… uh… big guy, is it just me or does this path seem remarkably free of ash and mud and… you know… the debris of six centuries?”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a fair amount of wind out there, right?” He nodded and I swayed on my perch, “Well it should have blown all sorts of crap down here… and the ground slopes downward pretty steadily. So there should be several centimeters of garbage all along this path… like there is over there,” I pointed a psychic searchlight over one of the sides of the cavern, then panned it to the other edge, “And there.” Both fringes of the cavern were at least seven cm deep in all sorts of junk… but the path down the center, a path about 5 meters wide, was smooth rock.

“Someone’s been here,” He muttered.

“Someone’s been here a lot,” I agreed.

“And recently,” he grunted, sniffing the air.

I tried doing the same, then realized I was wearing my Eldar Helmet… then wondered how I’d been able to smell Magnus in the first place. Must have been a psychic smell.

“Can you send your senses down to explore?”

“Not as limited as I am right now,” he said, then thought to me ~Perhaps we should attempt to be more silent?~ It was a dig, but it was also a good suggestion.

~Right. I’ll shut up now… but you do realize that you set off every seismic sensor around every time you take a step right?~

He began to float with an aura of smugness, not far off the ground, but enough so that he wasn’t stomping any more. ~Better?~

~Show off.~

~If you’ve got it, flaunt it,~ He replied, and I smirked. That had been one of my memes, and one the giant git was unlikely to use on his own. I’d have to see if the others had stuck.

It took less than an hour to make our way down to where the beacon was slowly pinging away, but we found that what had cleared the way was poised between us and our prize. It was a vast underground laboratorium, one surrounded by hulking, nearly motionless figures. They were nearly the size of a space marine, and comprised of dead flesh and cybernetics, and I was glad I still had my helmet on.

“Gholams,” Magnus grunted, and I shuddered.

~These things aren’t naturally occurring. Someone has to be making them,~ I pointed out, and he nodded, indicating the central part of the subterranean complex, where a kind of hutment was set up, a cloud of noxious vapor oozing out of its various structures.

~I believe our Cogitator is inside, along with whoever is making these things,~ Big Boy pointed out, only a little needlessly.

~Great… So… here’s my idea. You provide a distraction, I’ll sneak in and grab the thing. Hopefully we won’t run into Blayce or Steinmun…~ My head suddenly throbbed with pain and I missed what Magnus said next. ~WHat?~

~I thought ‘Who are Blayce and Stienmun?’ but you seemed to be suffering a minor warp seizure. Are you alright?~

~I… don’t know. I mean… I know I know the names…. But I don’t know where I know them from… I think something is blocking my memory of the last place I went to before this. Some of my companions are missing and… never mind. Can you lead these monsters on a merry chase while I work my mojo inside?~

He just regarded me with that baleful eye and grunted, his phoenix-like wings rustling in the silence. Then he handed me a small knife… almost toothpick small for him, but an almost comically large shortsword in my smaller grip. Thankfully, my hand fit around the handle and it wasn’t too heavy. ~Careful. It’s very sharp.~

~Okay, fine. I’ll meet you back at the ship in two hours. And I’ll send up a yelp if I run into trouble.~ I dropped lightly from his shoulder, patting my Scorpion to make sure it was still there, then, hugging the edge of the master cavern, I made my way along the back of the hutment, looking for a point of entry where I wouldn’t be observed.

At some point, a rock from the ceiling of the cavern had impacted the back of the largest hut, caving in a small section of the otherwise snugly butted plates that covered it. Using the knife I pried at the edge slowly… and discovered just how sharp it was as it sheared through a plasteel bolt like a vibro-fork through jello (I have kids and somewhat insane companions with technical skills). Well… that could be useful.

Carefully, I cut my way into the hut, low down to the ground, and found myself crawling into a kind of store room. It was all automated, and the shelves were loaded with components both biological and mechanical… It was like being in a combination junkyard and morgue… and I can’t imagine it smelled nice. Thankfully, my armor was environmentally sealed.  I watched as a robotic arm sailed overhead, plucked a jar of eyes off a shelf without so much as a pause, then zipped back out of the room. I low crawled, keeping to the shadows, towards the exit the arm had taken.

Beyond that portal, I beheld the workshop of a madman. The lunatic in question looked like a heavily augmented tech-priest, robed in a black monk’s robe that had seen better years, and surrounded by a veritable cloud of black-iron and brass mechanical tentacles… I think they’re called mechadendrites in the lore… each holding some surgical or engineering tool, be it a scalpel, callipers, sparkwelder, or dremel grinder. What little flesh I could see was necrotic gray and laced with wires, and his? face was covered by a silver skull mask. In several places, bone was showing through the rents in his robe, and for a moment I considered unloading my entire magazine on the abomination… I had the sneaking suspicion that the lore would have called him something like a Heretech (heretic + tech?)… Games Workshop was lame like that.

He was building yet another of the gholam-things, and muttering to himself as he did so… when there was a massive explosion outside that shook the cavern and a psychically painful roar of rage pulsed through my ears and mind. Oh… good lord… somehow I knew that lunatic primarch had summoned something… and dollars to donuts, it was a Bloodthirster of Khorne… because when you need shit destroyed, and serve Tzeentch… you might as well call up a Bloodthirster of Khorne. Fucking psycho. Bloodthirsters were the fucking Generals of Khorne, Chaos God of Battle and Slaughter since the time of the Catholic Reformation! Then again… it was one of them against several hundred cyborg-frankenstein… maybe big red knew what he was doing?

The crazy man-machine looked up at the roar and hustled to the front of his lab, crying “I don’t have time for this! Minions! Deal with the… oh my… that’s very large. Minions! Subdue the mutant! I must have samples!”

I pulled out the tracker and, making certain the sound was off (though how anyone would be able to hear over the screaming of metal and rock and the roar of… I wasn’t certain it was Bloodthirster… it could have been something else… but I wasn’t going to have a look… I had to find the Cogitator before the battle caused the entire cave complex to come crashing down. At that thought, a rock the size of my torso came smashing through the roof and crushed the doorway I’d been standing in a moment before. The impact knocked a stack of documents on one of the tables over and a folded piece of parchment which looked quite ancient slid across the floor and bumped into my foot.

Out of idle curiosity, I scooped it up and stuck it in a hip pouch, but then the tracker blinked to life and indicated that the Cogitator was down about five meters and in the next room over. Finding the door wasn’t a problem, and (thanks to Magnus’s knife) getting through it wasn’t much of a problem either. Inside, I found a large hole in the floor, and what looked like an emergency reactor from a starship’s bridge assembly (I’d seen a lot of schematics in the last three years), with an orb about the size of a bowling ball in the center of one wall.

Hoping the armor was at least partly radiation resistant, I skirted the edge of the pit and, using various computer bits as handholds, pried the Cogitator core out of the wall unit. At once, of course, the entire reactor went into scram mode and an alarm went up. Swearing, I scrambled back up the wall to the door and was through it in 3 seconds flat… where upon, I ran right into Dr. Fuckedinstein.

“Well. Well… Well. A tiny Eldar… thief. Trying. To. Steal from me. Most… inconsiderate. Give. Me. The Core. and. Your death-”

He didn’t get any further as I tossed it as his face.  While the mechadendrites were blocking his vision trying to snag it, I pulled the Scorpion out and, pointing it center mass, unloaded 320 hypervelocity monomolecular disks at him. The range was minimal and the disks hadn’t even begun to drop before they were ripping through him and his tentacles.

I caught the core and jinked left, slashing at robodoc’s leg with Magnus’s blade as I passed. If, somehow, he wasn’t dead, hopefully he’d have a harder time catching up to me on one leg. “Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man,” I snarked as I rushed passed him, heading out the front and hoping there wasn’t a titanic and extremely angry Daemon right outside. I couldn’t go the way I’d come, as that way was blocked.

Exiting the door, the sound of freak-boy’s mechanical arms scrabbling at the floor giving way to the roars of rage and battle, I found the towering rage monster half-swarmed by the gholams as it cried “Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull-” And then was cut off as a Gholam flung itself headfirst into the beast’s mouth, choking the collective foe without care for its own survival.

I didn’t stay to watch the festivities as the tide of implacable unliving abominations swarmed up the ten meter daemon’s scaled hide, digging at it with crushing claws and power axes. I ran for it, using my newly awakened sense of my own physiology to pump my system faster, pushing my heart rate up and increasing the rate at which my lungs were processing oxygen. It wasn’t anything major, but I could tell it was having an effect, though I was burning calories at a prodigious rate… and good thing too, as I could hear and feel the heavy thud-thud-thud of at least a score of Gholams pounding after me.

Bursting out of the cave, I staggered under the first shiver of fatigue, but kept running beneath the hellish skyscape of this world, killed by people or geology, who could say, but the cautionary tale was the better one, so I’d let it stand. I pulled out the tracker and, clicking it into transmit mode, announced “Redbird, Redbird, coming in hot. You better be ready to lift off. I have the egg.”

A moment after I released the transmit button, Magnus’s voice replied, “What? Who is Redbird, why are you hot, and what egg?” I groaned. At least he’d known what lift off meant, right?

“You are Redbird, coming in hot means I’m being pursued, and the egg is what we came here for so have the engines ready to get us out of here because there are at least twenty mother fucking undead cyborgs chasing me and I think they’re gaining.”

“Gaining what? And I don’t think undead cyborgs have sex… or mothers,” Captain Oblivious said.

“YOU’RE NOT AN IDIOT! STOP ACTING LIKE YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT AN EXPLETIVE IS!” I roared into the com… okay, squeaked. I’m not really big enough to roar and I was pretty out of breath.

“If you say so,” he sounded smug now. “And don’t call me Redbird. My name is-”

I jammed the transmit button, wiping out what he was saying and holding it down until I saw the Thunderhawk ahead of me. The hatch, thankfully, was open, and I dived in, yelling, “GET US AIRBORNE!” and muttering, “Dolt.”

Once we were well away from Jerazol and back into the ‘safety’ of the Warp, I motioned for Magnus to lean down and then punched him in the nose as hard as I could. “We. Are. Trying. Not. To. Be. Noticed. You. Great. Feathery. Dumb-ASS!” He growled and I growled back. “Don’t use your real name! Names have power! Didn’t Tzeentch tell you that?!”

“I’m too powerful to be controlled by my name! Well, except maybe by those who already know it,” he allowed after a faint pause.

“That’s on a normal day, you numb-skull. You left most of your power inside that ritual circle in your lab. And what were you doing summoning a Greater Daemon… of a God you don’t work for!?”

“It was funny, wasn’t it. I believe this is what is called a ‘win-win’?” He sounded smug again.

“Maybe. But aren’t you afraid Khorne will figure out… never mind… Khorne… figure things out… ha… Got another question for you.”

“You never do shut up. Is this typical of people from where you come from, or are you just spectacularly annoying on purpose?”

“Little of both. But, honestly, how could you side with them after all they did to you?”

“Tzeentch showed me the truth, Father lied to me. Tzeentch gave me a home. Father destroyed mine. Tzeentch gave me freedom to study and learn and embraced my talent and power. Father wanted only obedience and hated and feared my power and knowledge.”

“Well… yeah. But it’s not an either-or statement. You don’t have to serve Tzeentch merely because you refuse to serve your father.”

“Oh, yes? Where, exactly, would you recommend I go for protection from Father’s insane, murderous, fanatical, howling death-commandos?”

I had to admit, I didn’t have an answer for that one. “Huh. Good point. So, where next? And is there anything to eat around here? I’m starving!”

He looked at me and blinked his one eye, “Have you been… bioboosting yourself?”

“I was running from gholams. They took down that Bloodthirster, by the way. I don’t know how many of them it took, at least a hundred, but they just swarmed the thing like ants.” He smirked and I waved a hand in front of his face. “So yes, I was bioboosting or whatever. I had to run fast and I don’t exactly have any body fat to burn for reserve calories, so I probably did some damage.”

He considered me, then hrmed, “Very well… we will stop and get some… food.” He said the word food with the kind of disdain only a being who hadn’t eaten in 11,000 millenia could impart.

“Excellent,” I tossed him the Cogitator, then flopped back on one of the acceleration couches in the main cabin, then mmd? as something crinkled. Oh, right, the parchment. Extracting it, I unfolded it and read the ancient spidery text. “Hoi… Magnaboots. Who’s Rathbor Lathimon?”

“Is this a trick question?”

“Uh. No.”

“I have no idea. Why?”

“Cause you signed this Warrant of Trade for him.”

“I did?” He looked up from the Cogitator and the document floated out of my hand. “Oh. Wow. This is old.”

“Yeah. I got that from the date. That’s what, about 23 years before the shit hit the fan?”

“If you mean the Horus Heresy… yes. More or less. 23 years before Istvan IV.”

“The Dropsite Massacre… started the whole thing, more or less, right?”

“So history would have it.”

“So, who is Rathbor and what the hell is a Warrant of Trade? Is that like permission to-”

He cut me off. I mean, I was rambling a bit, but still. Men. Humph. “Rogue Traders had, perhaps still have, authority from the Emperor himself… or one of the Primarchs… to conduct business on behalf of the Empire out beyond the boundaries of the Empire. I don’t know if things have changed. I don’t exactly pay attention to such things.”

“That piece of parchment is 11,000 years old… maybe it’s worth a few credits.”

“Maybe. You can ask when we get to Scintilla,” He agreed.

“What’s Scintilla?” I asked, feeling the need for sleep washing over me… I wondered if I could do something about that, but yawned so hard my jaw popped and I forgot.

“Capital of the Calixis Sector… that’s where we are. It’s a Hive World. They should have food there.”

“Don’t Hive worlds…” yawn, “Import all their…” yawn, “food from Agri- oh… right… imported food… have food. Good call… aren’t you a giant and I’m dressed like a midget…” yawn, “eldar?”

“No one will notice a thing. Trust me,” he reassured me, but I was already asleep (my memory implant doesn’t stop recording everything my senses pick up, just because I’m unconscious.) As it turns out… he was right.

Later on, as we were sitting at a small restaurant for the very wealthy on one of Scintilla’s orbital space stations, I looked over the hologuide to the Calixis sector and the Kronus Expanse that I’d ‘bought’ from a shop. I hadn’t actually paid for it, but making the man behind the counter believe I had was bone simple

“Purity Lathimon is the Explorer and Rogue Trader who opened the way to the Kronus Expanse, which lies outside the reach of the Astronomicon,” I read, ignoring Magnus’s flinch at the mention of the giant psychic navigation beacon his father was generating even though he’d been dead or mostly dead for 11,000 years. It was powered by burning out the souls of 1,000 psykers every day of every one of those years and was essentially the longest and loudest death scream in history. “The last known member of the Lathimon dynasty was Jerazo Lathimon, who disappeared… oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“What?” Magnus asked, sipping the hot cocoa I’d ordered for him and badgered him into trying. He was on his fifteenth cup… good thing we weren’t actually paying for this… that stuff cost 300 credits a cup.

“Jerazol. You said the planet had been defended by a Rogue Trader whose name had been lost to records, right?” He nodded doubtfully. “Jerazo Lathimon. Jerazo L. Jerazol. These people are fucking idiots.”

“Oh. Yes. Well… they are only human.”

“Your father was only human,” I snapped, petulantly… then paused. “Hey. Have you ever considered that your father was, in fact, only human?”

“What’s your point?”

“Human beings make mistakes. Errors in judgement. Poor choices. Sure, he’s like the third worst parent ever, but still… he was trying to do the right thing.”

“He failed.”

“You were trying to do the right thing and warn him,” I pointed out softly.

“I failed. Change the subject,” He growled, then looked at the small stack of dishes I’d plowed my way through. “Is that a normal amount of food for a person of your size to eat?”

“No. This is about 7 large meals worth. I’m stockpiling and restoring expended nutrients. And we’ll need to buy… pick up, rather… supplies for at least a month. Plus, I want to find out if this thing’s worth anything.” I tapped the heavy duty slipcase I’d picked up for the ancient document.

“Why would it be? Rathbor is long dead. So are Purity and Jerazo.”

“Because this thing,” I tapped the hologuide this time, “indicates that Rogue Trader Warrants are handed down through family lines. If Jerazo was the last Lathimon, it’s possible his heir might be entitled to use his Warrant.”

“In my experience, bureaucracy does not move fast enough to make that worthwhile. You can look into it later. We need to get moving,” He grumbled.

“Fiiiine. Have you figured out where the ship is?”

“Not yet,” He snarled. “This thing’s records are damaged. I’m only getting part of the map,” He squinted at the small screen. “Who or what is Grace?”

“Well then, I’m going to the Hall of Records while you tinker with that Cogitator,” I said, rising. “Maybe they’ll know who Grace is there.” I didn’t leave a tip… but then again, I didn’t pay either. The waiter wouldn’t remember serving us anyway.

Inside the Hall, I took a number and wandered around the large and imposing lobby while Magnus pretended to be human sized and futzed with the device, trying to pry its secrets from half-rotted circuits. On one wall was a collection of wanted posters, and I drifted over to have a look… and froze. There, in black and white… well, green and black 3-D hologram, was Frankendweeb… Arch Heretek (told youuuuu!) Magos Vathek, renegade member of the Adeptus Mechanicus, serial killer, spree killer, wanted dead or very dead on half a dozen worlds and by the Inquisition and the Adeptus Mechanicus. That was a very large reward… shame I hadn’t thought to collect his head. I was still studying the image when my number was called.

“Yeth? Hello?” the man behind the high desk (his deskplate ID’d him as Augustus Zhang) said, voice supercilious. He looked down over the edge of the desk. “Can I help you child?” he asked as he focused rheumy eyes on mine.

“I have a document you might help me with, and my guardian wanted to know if you know of a planet named Grace?”

I slid the Trade Warrant across as the old git turned and yelled over his shoulder “Lebrin! Ith there a planet named Grathe? No. Yeth. With a Thee. Hold on, Lebrin ith thecking the recordth.” His lisp was the kind of annoying affectation that many people in minor positions of authority adopt for no good reason. While Lebrin did so, my man Agustus here carefully extracted the age brittle warrant and unfolded it… then went very very pale.

“Ah. That is… Lady Trader… I… Lathimon? You?” He had totally forgotten his lisp, “But it’s been centuries!”

I smile and shrugged, “Engine Trouble. What can I say. Old Man Jerazo ran into a spot of bother.”

“Ahem… yes… I… it might take a few… years?” He tugged his collar nervously, looking around and focusing on the glowering, towering figure of Magnus (who was down to merely 9 feet of solid grumpy, complete with horned helmet, giant red mane, and eyepatch.), swallowed hard before continuing, “to get your family’s assets out of probate. Th… there’s procedure… Lebrin! Get the forms for a returning Dynast!”

“WHAT?”

“Returning Dynast, man! Are you deef?! The Lathimons are back!” Mr Zhang bellowed, making me cringe at the sound.

The sound of a crate falling and cracking outside could clearly be heard and I rolled my eyes… well, I gave it 20 minutes before the gossip would be known halfway across the sector and the hyenas would be gathering… shit. And now they’d know we were heading for Grace… assuming it was a planet.

A man who must be Lebrin hustled forward, holding a stack of papers and a starchart. He looked nervous and it didn’t take a telepath to know he’d already transmitted the information about Lathimon and Grace to an information broker. I was having a harder time with telepathy than I was with biopathy for some reason… and I still couldn’t manage more than a dozen grams or so with TK… but even so, I could tell he was looking for more details to share and thinking about how many drinks he could get out of the information. Thankfully, the psychic disguise Magnus was generating would make his reports somewhat unreliable.

I handed the starchart to Magnus and filled out the paperwork, signing my name as ‘Sigismonda Lathimon III’. It was an outright lie and for some reason I felt a little bad about that, but I pushed the minor treachery aside. Survival in this harsh universe held a higher demand than honesty. I had people relying upon me and my duty to them was clear. And anyway, I could be Sigismonda Lathimon III… I had no other native name.

Taking my Warrant back, I nodded and Magnus made them convinced I’d paid the proper fees and given them a hefty bribe too… then we were out onto the street. “We should get a better transport than that Thunderhawk,” I said.

“Why? We don’t need a Warp Engine or Gellar field. My presence allows us to move through the warp with ease.”

“Are you planning on transporting me back to my world with my share of the loot?”

“Oh. Yes. We should get you a transport… something with very small controls.”

I kicked him in the shin. Still, within the day we were on our way towards Grace, me standing on the command deck of a two kilometer long Carrack class Transport that Magnus claimed had been lost in the Warp a couple hundred years ago and would not be missed. The enormous and somewhat shabby ship showed some clear evidence of having been recently scrubbed clean of… something. My suspicions that I was helping the devil find something truly dangerous grew.

Not only was Magnus willing to go out of his way and put himself at risk for this prize, but the forces of Chaos had clearly seized this ship for some nefarious purpose… but then again, maybe he was trying to butter me up? Who knows. Still, Magnus already knew where Paradise was, clearly, and he had to be certain that I’d have this ship searched from one end to the other for traces of Chaos or sabotage. Where I’d get the crew needed to run this thing as more than just a skeleton crew, I’d have to worry about later, but my warrant and a little… pushing from Magnus had got me enough crew to keep the ship functional, but 500 crewmen was a very very long way short of the 19,000 plus I’d need.

Still, I was now a Rogue Trader, Captain Lady Sigismonda Lathimon III, commander of the Transport ‘Faustian Bargain’ (originally named The Litany of Litanies-Litany… a horrifically bad name if ever there was one). If it was bad luck to rename a ship, it was a price I’d pay. If she needed some hefty maintenance… well, that was another price that would have to be paid.

“So, Grace? Any idea what we’re getting into here?”

“Apparently, this was an outpost of the Rogue Trader Aspyce Chorda… and not a nice one. The world Grace is a storm-world, constantly wracked with hurricanes and covered only in simple fungal life, though it must be hardy fungus to survive the constant lightning and freezing hail. The planet is also extremely mountainous from all reports.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all there is the official reports,” the cyclopes said.

“And your… sorcery? What has it revealed?”

“Ah. Yes,” he smiled, “There the tale gets interesting. Grace was a colony world, founded not for the expansion of my father’s dominion, but rather to serve the greed and arrogance of Aspyce Chorda. The planet was home to extremely wealthy exiles from the Imperial nobility and any number of extremely successful criminals… the distinction between the two classes being slim indeed.” He and I shared a smirk. He might be… evilish, but of all the Traitor Primarchs, Magnus was also the smartest and most sarcastic. If his mere presence wouldn’t eventually damn me to mutation and madness, we might have been friends. Ah well.

“The planet was their sanctuary from bloody wars, vengeful rivals, and the iron fist of Imperial Justice. It was, for a time, a paradise of the wicked… But that was decades ago. Aspyce swelled her coffers accepting fugitives to Grace and giving them leave to build armoured palaces there. And, at further ruinous cost, she provided her exiles with illegal slaves, the finest foods, and allowed their spies and agents to pass to and from Imperial space in the holds of her ships. But Grace was a pleasurable and beautiful refuge. Like a Hive World, it had no capacity to produce its own food.”

I shuddered. “Warp Storm?” I asked, referring to the periodic and unpredictable navigational hazards that, from time to time, isolated systems or even entire sectors from outside contact. The worst Warp Storm in history, that one attendant with the birth of Slaanesh and the death of the Eldar Empire (and nearly the extinction of the Eldar as a race) had caused the Dark Age of Technology that had seen isolated so many human worlds all across the galaxy between the 20th and 30th millennia and necessitated the Emperor’s Grand Crusade to reunite humanity’s scattered tribes.

“Exactly. A storm destroyed the supply vessels and sealed passage to Grace. It was as if Father had passed judgement upon the world. For a time, the exiles and criminals contented themselves with the false hope that supplies would come…”

“And when they did not, they turned on one another, right? Sent their vassals to loot and burn each others’ palaces, strip them of supplies and food?”

“Precisely. In time, only a few of the once numerous palaces were left, and they had been transformed into stark fortresses against each other. When even raiding could not feed those who remained…”

“They started eating each other. First the dead, then those who still lived.” I felt sickened.

“You’ve heard this story before?”

“More than once. Yes. So we have to go into crumbling palaces filled with degenerate cannibals armed to the teeth and hardened by decades of constant brutal fights for survival?”

“You forgot to mention that those degenerates are equipped with heirloom weapons and armor forged by the greatest and most skilled techpriests of the Imperium,” he grinned hugely.

“Oh. Did I? Silly me. Do we have any idea which of these fortresses holds the cogitator we need?”

“In my estimation, we need only to search where the resistance is strongest.”

“Well, that’s simple, isn’t it?” I said, rolling my eyes.

Three and a half days later, we dropped out of the Warp near the planet, only to discover a number of ships in orbit. Some of them were clearly derelict, having been lured in by a distress beacon (one we quickly determined was not being generated by the Cogitator we were searching for). The rest, however, constituted a small fleet of transport vessels gathered together for mutual defense in the northern latitudes.

Parking the Faustian Bargain behind Grace’s smaller moon, Magnus and I took the Thunderhawk down to the surface, plunging through the cloud layer on an oblique course that would bring us towards where Magnus claimed he could sense some kind of daemonic presence. It was as good a lead as any.

What we found was that one of the palace compounds had been rebuilt and was now playing host to some kind of insane hunting party, a fact we managed to ascertain by sneaking near the perimeter and snatching up one of the sentries.

The sentry, whose name was Bombastus Vaugh, had been a small time thug and paid killer on one of the sector’s Hive Worlds before this, but had somehow ended up in the employ of one Myrchella Sinderfell, who paid him well to make sure that none of the freaks outside the compound managed to sneak in, and none of the freaks inside the compound managed to sneak out. His description of her ‘court’ included chaos cultists, known pirates, heretics and hereteks, xenos, mutants, abominations, Dark Eldar, psykers, torturers, sadists, murderers, and all manner of wicked and evil beings. Apparently, they’d come to Grace for a spot of that oldest of human depravity, hunting their fellow men, figuring that the insane cannibals of Grace would make for good sport, and the rich treasures of the world’s many palaces might help pay for the endless debauched parties. As for the Cogitator, Mr. Vaugh knew nothing.

He had, however, been exceedly pleased at being allowed to engage in his psychopathic tendencies in the Sinderfell employ, relishing every ounce of pain he got to inflict and, even more, the praise she gave him when he did a particularly good job of it. Even the cannibalistic madmen of Grace hadn’t (quite) deserved the tortures that Myrchella’s court had put them through after their capture.

For his crimes, I granted Bombastus the Emperor’s Mercy, and we proceeded to infiltrate the palace of Myrchella Sinderfell… I will not relate the… horrors we saw within, but let us just say that De Sade would have been proud and Slaanesh impressed. The wealth of the palace was beyond luxurious, delving deep into the realm of debauched, and the sheer aura of pain and suffering was an assault on my psychic senses.

~We didn’t bring enough high explosives,~ I muttered mentally.

~We didn’t bring any high explosives. But we could try pyrokinesis… well I could.~ He smirked at me, making me frown, as the last time I’d tried it, I’d singed off my eyebrows. Still, while my reawakened psychic powers were developing at a rate that astounded Magnus, it was clear that somehow my specializations had changed. I could generate minor PK effects if I tried, and had decent TP and TK for the average psyker, but my biological control, something I’d never used before this jump, was maturing almost as fast as I could think of new uses for it. I was already faster, stronger, and stealthier than I had any business being… and I was able to sense the life signs of anyone nearby… and that radius was growing.

I could also compel truth-serum-like honesty from those I touched. Which was coming in quite handy… as was the ability to enervate targets simply by looking at them. I could also do the Sith Choke thing, which was way too much fun… and that was an issue. My nascent empathy was picking up the insanity and bloodlust of this house of horrors as we moved deeper and deeper, killing everyone we crossed the path of like it was one of the old stealth games  I used to play. Not only would leaving anyone we encountered alive be a terrible idea, but absolutely none of them deserved mercy aside from a swift death… at least according to Magnus. I let him do the head peeking while I tried to keep their wretched thoughts out of my own mind.

After about four hours we succeeded in finding the Cogitator. It had been tossed, along with a great deal of other random mechanical junk, into half a hundred odd cargo pods. There were ancient weapons, archeotech, bits and pieces of cybernetics, datapads, comm units, and much much more. Part of me wanted to load it all up and sell it for profit, but that wasn’t my current commission, so I just snagged a grenade belt and a heavy bolt pistol that looked like a work of art and strapped it to my back. The grenades… those I used to booby trap our backtrail as we made our way out of the palace.

As we moved, the howls of alarms began to go up and Magnus and I shared a look that said, “Busted?” But before we could panic, a cool, cruel voice came through the Palace’s PA system.

“Hello, my lovelies! It’s another wonderful night and time for some sport… though from the number of corpses my guards have found, I’d say some of you have gotten an early start,” she chuckled dryly. “But please, my sweets, join me in the gallery for refreshments before we begin our nightly entertainment. And, if it’s guests who’ve come to join in the fun, why, of course, you’re invited too.”

Magnus frowned. ~Does she know we’re here or not?~

~I don’t know. These people are so fucked in the head that they might honestly be confused as to whether or not some of their number are killing the others or not. But I don’t think we should take her up on her-~

There was an explosion as one of my triplines was disturbed.

Magnus said, not thought, said, “We should go.” and with that we began running for the exit… which turned out to have been barred and was guarded by a dozen heavily armed and armored pirates.

As Magnus grew larger and plunged towards the three on the left, I drew my bolter and, despite the incredible recoil, began firing it into the three on the right. It staggered one of them, killed a second outright as it ripped her head clean off, and I was about to level it at the third when someone grabbed me from behind… someone with four arms and a psychic stench that made me want to retch.

I felt my armor compress as the thing began to squeeze me and, without thinking, I grabbed one of those arms with my left hand… and purple lightning arced from my hand into the creature, blasting the flesh from its bones as the bioelectrical discharge superheated the water inside my assailant to instant vapor. It dropped me with a howl and I landed, catlike, then spun and put a bolt center mass. I needed more rounds for my scorpion, but without Carwyn, I had no idea where to get more. Maybe I should find some Eldar.

As if summoned by the thought, two Dark Eldar lept down from above, their wraithbone armor glistening as they danced with that particularly deadly grace that typified the truly ancient master. I pointed a finger at one of them, and whispered “BURN.” and he convulsed, grabbing his head and screaming as blood erupted from his eyes and ears… and then… he was consumed from within as fire flashed from inside.

I staggered at the hits to my energy reserves… and then again as I felt several psychic presences pushing in on me. That nearly was it for me, as the remaining Dark Eldar took the opening and lunged in for a strike, but I’d been in an awful lot of fights in my time, and even staggered, I was still supernaturally fast. I smashed the palm of my gun hand into the D’Eldar’s chin, the bolter falling towards the ground, but it never hit as my offhand caught it by the barrel then snapped the butt left and right in quick succession, smashing out both of the space elf’s knees with hammer blows.

He gaped, blood on his lips, as I reversed his sword and plunged it into his throat.

“For Lothlorien, bitch,” I snarled, then looked over to Magnus. “Well? Get that door open!”

“I’m trying! It’s got a magnetic seal!”

“Then smash the wall open, dumbass!” I roared, firing bolts at the figures down both hallways leading to the entryway as I backed towards him, TKing both Dark Eldar’s pistols towards me as the Bolter clicked empty.

“Oh. Good thought,” the Primarch said, and punched out the wall with one titanic blow. “Door’s open!” he said.

A cruel laugh followed us into the night and several fighters tried to catch us as we disappeared into the storm, but visibility was bad and we were moving quickly. We got back to the Faustian Bargain… only to find a smaller Jerico Class Transport sliding up next to it.

~Friends of yours?~ Magnus asked.

“No. and why are those idiots on the Bargain letting someone get so close? I thought you said we could trust that jackass we left in charge, Prachet… damn!”

“What?”

“They’ve got an IFF signal that identifies them as Lathimon Vessel.”

“Ah. Prachet probably believes these are new crewmen,” Magnus opined. He was probably right. Jerichos were much smaller than Carracks and often used as Pilgrim Vessels. They could hold many many thousands of people… and, of course, I didn’t have one in my fleet. In fact, I had exactly one working warp-capable ship in my fleet… and the watch stander was an idiot who I was going to space… no… calm…

I commed the Bargain. “Mr Brooks,” I began (his name was Prachet Brooks, which I found humorous for reasons I couldn’t quite remember) “Why is that ship moving to dock with the Bargain?”

“C… Captain? They said they was-”

“Move away from them immediately… they’re launching boarders, you moron!” I could see out the cockpit window that humanoid figures were floating free of the Jericho, at least a hundred of them, pushing off towards the hull of my transport. I motioned for Magnus to fly through them, smashing any he could with the Thunderhawk’s prow and shooting any he could with the onboard weapons.

There was a series of sharp thuds and crunches as he did so, and then we were swooping in to land in one of the Bargain’s boatbays. Getting out, I found two partly dismembered Gholam dropping off the gunship and crawling / hopping towards me. Another burst of bio-lightning blew the two of them to flaming sparking ruin, but I sagged, my reserves spent. “Fatigue is such bullshit!” I commented as Magnus scooped me up and we headed towards the bridge.

“Any idea how Magos found us?” He asked.

“Gossip. He knew the name on the Warrant. Heard we’d headed to Grace. Simple addition.  And he’s got a ship. Tell me the information on those two Cogitators is enough,” I groaned, laying on the command couch and stuffing bonbons into my mouth as fast as I could manage to chew and swallow. Sugar, fat, chocolate… good for psychic exhaustion. Professor Lupin says so.

Magnus rumbled in agreement. “That’s two of the sector’s most wanted on two planets.”

“Three if you count Magos twice. I think we pissed him off… Probably pissed Myrchella off too… or who knows, maybe she was amused. She sounds sick enough to get off on slaughtering people.”

“I have a brother she’d like,” muttered Magnus.

“Magnus… even the best of your brothers has slaughtered more innocent people than a thousand Myrchella Sinderfells. I’ve killed more people who weren’t trying to harm me of their own free will than she has. So have you. I know that was a dig at Leman, and I know you have reason to hate him,” I assured as he clenched up at that hated name. “But he only wanted your father’s approval. Sound like anyone else you know?”

“Lorgar,” He nodded, thinking he was agreeing with me.

“No, you dolt,” I threw a bonbon at his big fat head. “You! Well, okay, Lorgar too. Lorgar especially. But also you. And Horus, and Sanguinius, and… well… most of your idiot brothers besides Angron, Corax, and Konrad. Still… you idiot boys mostly wanted daddy’s approval… even though he is a terrible terrible father.”

“You’ve said that before. Isn’t that heresy?”

“I don’t worship him, he didn’t believe in religion, and statements of fact can’t be heresy.”

“If you say so. You called him the third worst parent of all time. Who are one and two?”

“Gendo Ikari and Genma Saotome,” I said, barely pausing to think. “There are parents who’ve tortured their kids to death who aren’t as bad.”

“Really? That’s impressive… or depressing. I’m not sure which. What did they do?”

“Gendo psychologically tortured his son Shinji, including sticking the kid into a psychic link pod connected to a giant half-biological half-technological warmachine powered by the insane and suffering soul of the boy’s own mother. Shinji went on to cause the extinction of all human life on Terra… or not. The timeline is jumbled.” I sat up and looked around for more food. Mmmm neutripaste. Yumm…

“And Genma?”

“Where to start? Kidnapped his 3 year old son after tricking the toddler into signing a suicide pact contingent on the boy failing to live up to the impossible standard of ‘becoming a man among men’. Repeatedly traded said child away for food, then stole the child back, racking up a truly insane number of potential finances for his son. At five years old, he wrapped the child in fish sausages and threw him repeatedly into a pit filled with starving cats. Genma is inept, callow, a coward, a bully, a womanizer, and a thief. His son Ranma has been cursed, attacked, traumatized as badly as some of your brothers, and more. Granted, he’s a human being who, without psychic powers can probably go toe to to with a Space Marine and win… but still… fucked up childhood. Any normal kid would have died.”

“When were these events?”

“Late second millennium for Ranma, around 200.ME3 for Shinji… I think. I wasn’t around for that one.”

“Did either one get what was coming to them?”

“Gendo? He died with the rest of humanity, I think. Genma? Repeatedly, but ultimately, Ranma forgave him.”

“Why?”

“Why does anyone forgive anyone? Have you ever considered apologizing to your father?”

“He’s dead.”

“Well, sure… but his psychic presence lingers in the Warp and you both live in the Warp and are a powerful Psychic yourself. I’m sure you could figure something out.”

“I am not apologizing to an insane corpse. He should apologize to me. He had Russ burn my home!”

“Yeah. Russ is a dick. But, You do realize that Horus is the one who got Russ to burn Prospero in order to piss you off. The Emperor only sent Russ to arrest you.” Magnus was beginning to vibrate with barely contained rage, so I changed the subject slightly. “And honestly… how many worlds did you burn on the Great Crusade, Magnus?”

He blinked, derailed from his anger by shame, “That’s…”

“Different? How? Because those weren’t your homeworld?” He opened his mouth, then shut it again. “Yeah. Sucks huh? How many worlds have died because of your Master and your Master’s colleges? Too many to count?”

He shut up and didn’t speak for a very long time. Finally he snarled and went to examine the Cogitator’s data…. And snarled again. “They’re pointing us to a system, but the data’s still too corrupted. Apparently, both Cogitators got their information in a download from a planetary installation on a planet called Zayth.”

“Is it in the chart?”

“Yes. It’s listed as a War World, says that there are twenty some mobile hive-cities that constantly move about on the surface of the planet’s single macrocontinent…. All at war with each other.”

“Why?”

“Records don’t say. I’ve no idea,” He stood, then set a course for Zayth.

What can I say about Zayth? It is profoundly ugly. The surface has been ground to mush over the multi-thousand year war and there are strip mines and ruined hives all over the place. The air and ground are poisoned by radiation and toxins and unexploded shells… and yet the war rages on, none of the clans knowing why. And there isn’t a way to stop it, as the massive city fortresses each have enough firepower to casually swat an Imperial Battleship like the Light out of orbit… and things only got worse from there… even before Magos and Myrchella showed up.

First, the ground installation we were looking for had been obliterated by an alpha strike… along with the entire mountain range it was housed in… centuries ago. Magnus’s divination pinged each of the cities when we tried to figure out where the information might be… so that meant sneaking into a paranoid war camp… that kept moving around a radwaste.

We left the Bargain hidden in the outer system and came in on the Thunderhawk for that purpose… which proved easier than we thought it would be, as we claimed to be traders offering off world rations for ore. It was even true, since the only thing we’d been able to afford to stock up on at Scintilla was rations. Crates and crates and crates of the things… and they came nowhere near filling the massive empty vault of the Bargain’s hold… but the Thunderhawk was packed to the rafters with them.

That’s where we ran into problem two. This took the form of a budding populist rebellion led by an imperial Missionary named Coriolanus Vestra… and discovered problem three. While our escort, a young soldier named Aenes Aquila (her parents were imperial cultists), was more than willing to help us… the part of the hive-vehicle that the divination was leading us to was in the hands of the populists. Still, they were rabble and getting through them was easy enough, though we were ambushed 11 times crossing 7 hive levels to the machine shrine in the heart of the city… and that shrine was problem number four.

Some lunatic machine priest had incorporated part of the data we needed as decoration in the shrine’s walls. I looked at Magnus and groaned, he looked back at me and grinned.

“What’s the problem? Female trouble?”

“That,” I pointed. “Is a fragment of a starchart.” My perfect memory had overlaid what I’d seen from the cogitators with the designs on the walls.  “We’re going to have to visit some or all of the other cities, find their shrines, and collect enough of the data to recreate the missing map.”

“Oh. That might take a while. Yes. Very annoying.”

How right he was. We were there for 11 weeks, hopping from city to city, sneaking into some, being welcomed as guests in others, each time having to return to the Bargain for resupply… and halfway through week eight… boom, there was Magos’s Jericho and Myrchella’s fleet… and they clearly had some idea of what we were looking for, since they weren’t trying to stop me or catch me (okay, Magos was, but Magnus’s Thunderhawk was way faster than the Jericho and we could go ballistic… or into the Warp for micro-jumps with relative ease.)

There were dozens of fights, but we managed to make our way through the complex social and military and cultural issues of Zayth’s eternal war (thanks in no small part to the help of Aenes, who, notwithstanding being a yokel, was keen to prove herself useful… turns out she was hoping the Nice Rogue Trader might take pity on her and get her off this rock.) After having to heal her for the fifth time of an otherwise mortal wound (yes, Biopathy… useful for healing too… who’da thunk it) I finally agreed, just because it might get her to stop flinging herself into the path of attacks meant for me that would never have hurt me through hardened skin and Eldar armor.

I was never so glad to leave as I was once we headed out… oh, and we managed to get lucky. We only had to visit 17 of the cities before we had enough information to find our next destination… the planet Burnscour… doesn’t that sound pleasant?

The gazetteer for Burnscour was… horrifying. It was a Death World (you knew that from the name, right?) where the corrosive rain ate metal and impregnated exposed flesh with strange flesh-eating fungus, where the sap from the plants was either lethally toxic or actively infectious, and the beasts were both monstrous and a major commodity. Yes, that’s why Rogue Traders and smugglers both came to Burnscour… to stock the ever-hungry fighting pits of the Calixis Sector with saurian leapers, gargantipedes, and other horrors of fang and maw. Hunter retinues clad in bulky suits of vulcanised rubber stalked the jungles of this hell in search of exotic xeno-predators for gladiatorial games, ever watchful for creatures that would make the most lethal attractions on the far-off Hive Worlds of the Imperium.

There were no permanent structures on the surface of Burnscour… only the slowly dissolving metal carcasses of landing craft brought down by the planet’s storms and the melted ruins of structures built by fools. Covering the entire planet was a nightmare jungle, full of trees with dark waxen leaves and trunks covered in barbs that wept thick sap the color of bile, blooms of fungus as pale as milk, thick creepers, delicate flowers that looked like livid bruises on silken flesh which would open at a touch to expose waving fronds and fill the air with a heady, soporific scent… and the fauna was worse. Beetles that gnawed through flesh or bark to feed on blood or sap, nearly silent and invisible six-legged stalkers of the middle canopy, venomous gnats, and murderous horrors that could swallow a grown man whole. Almost all of them could kill a human dead in minutes.

Magnus looked at the gazetteer, then up to me. “You’re going to demand we go back to Scintilla for supplies, aren’t you?”

“Hell no! We’ve got those psychos on our tail. I want this over and done with.”

“Then why do we have a hold laden with megatons of ore?”

“Reasons. Now, get us to Burnscour!”

“You’re almost as bossy as Father,” He grumped.

“Have you ever considered forgiving him?”

“Father?”

“Yes.”

“Why should I?”

“Why do we ever forgive anyone?”

“You said that same thing before, and never answered! I DON’T KNOW!”

I patted his hand. “Magnus, I’m a Jew. It’s a faith that practically lives on Guilt. We don’t have sin. We have guilt. The entire religion is based upon a list of 613 Mitzvot. Good Acts. Do you know what we call someone who violates every single one of those Mitzvot?”

“A Monster?”

“A Human.”

“I don’t understand,” He sounded plaintive and confused.

“Failing to do good isn’t always the same as doing evil. Sometimes, it’s just not doing good. Sure, some of those Mitzvot command you not to commit murder, or to refrain from stealing, or demand you honor your father and mother… But others… others say ‘Don’t covet what your friends have’ or ‘don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife’ or ‘be nice to livestock and don’t make them suffer’ or ‘don’t wear clothing of mixed fibers’… these were guidelines for leading a good life. The expectation was that you’d fail some of them. Every year, we Jews have a holiday called Yom Kippur… the Day of Atonement. In preparation, each year, we try and ask those we might have wronged to forgive us.”

“And if they refuse?”

“We ask again, assuming we’re sincere.”

“And if they refuse again?”

“We ask a third time. The third time’s the charm,” I said, smiling softly.

“And they have to forgive you then?” He sounded almost hopeful.

“They don’t have to do anything. But if you were sincere… if you truly repented… it is said that God will forgive if you have been rebuffed three times. Since your father is, in some ways, God… maybe he’ll forgive you.”

“Now you’re back to telling me I should ask for forgiveness!” He snarled, punching a wall hard enough to dent the heavy plasteel.

“Your father is dead, Magnus. He can’t ask forgiveness. And he’s an asshole and an idiot… but holding on to your anger… what good does it do? You forgive him for your own sake, not his.”

“You’re insane, you know that?”

“So I have often been… are we here already?”

“Yes. I want to get this over with, your questions are driving me spare and I don’t know how much longer this ritual will last.  Also, being in the Materium so long is making me itch.”

“That’s because you never bathe,” I snarked and he growled at me.

Burnscour was sooo much worse than we’d been promised… not the least because of the floating fatman. No, not Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. No, this was Tobias Belasco… who had come to Burnscour for three reasons. The first was to eat the local wildlife… see hugely fat. The second and third were because, somehow, he’d managed to figure out that was where I was heading and why I was heading there… I’ve no idea how… and he was just as keen to find the Righteous Path… and its treasures as Magnus was.  For reasons two and three.

See, two was because he believed that there was something called a Halo Device on the ship, something which would allow the quite old and spectacularly unhealthy psychopath to return himself to health and vigor… while three was because he believed the story that the holds were full of perfect human specimens… and he wanted to eat them… or sell them to other gourmands in exchange for wealth, power, and other things to eat.

Now, I know you’re wondering how I know all this? How do I know what Tobi had in mind? Well… you see, the cogitator that held the final resting place of the Path was deep underground in a massive three-dimensional labyrinthine Gargantipede hive… and Tobias had managed to get to the center of it with his entire heavily armed retinue a dozen minutes before Magnus and I had… thanks in no small part to our having to deal with, in rapid succession, several thousand of Vestra’s lunatic followers, three different kill squads in the employ of Sinderfell, and a dozen Gholam… the last of which (who had Bombastus’s head… eww…) we’d managed to get eaten by Gargantipede larva.

So there’s us, Magnus and I, on one side of this transparent EM-Barrier, and Tobias on the other, gloating, telling us all about what he’s got planned, amid pauses to catch his breath or cough up phlegm, his fat jowls waggling… and I can feel more deranged cultists come up from one way and more kill squads up another, and though I couldn’t sense them, there had to be more Gholams. I looked up to Magnus. “You teleported me from my home to the Planet of the Sorcerers… tell me you still have the power to teleport us to the ship?”

He looked down, then nodded. “Not the Thunderhawk?”

“Fuck the Thunderhawk,” I growled, and (thrusting my arm through the EM barrier, ignoring the agony that poured through my sizzling flesh) launched a scathing, withering storm of bio-electric lighting through Belasco and his men, grimacing as the EM Barrier’s generator surged… then exploded… along with the heads and torsos of everyone on the other side. The gore was… everywhere… and my hand was a blackened mass, my armor seriously damaged… and melted rubber was everywhere. I TK’d the Cogitator sphere into my still functional hand and nodded to Magnus. “In the immortal words of everyone ever, Let’s get out of here.”

He grabbed me and a moment later, we were back on the bridge of the Faustian Bargain. I handed over the Cogitator, then grabbed the ship’s comm and yelled “This is the Captain… on my signal, dump the cargo bay.”

Prachet’s voice came back, sounding strangled, “The whole thing?”

“Every last Ore container and all the spare parts… in five, four,” I was moving the ship from her orbit towards where I’d dropped my personal comm unit, which was still signalling, doing the reentry math in my head… “three, two, one… NOW!” I roared, and pulled up the dorsal camera feed… watching as megatons of solid refined metal in giant plasteel canisters fell like snowflakes onto the planet below.

“What are you doing?” Magnus asked as I watched the planet, rotating the viewer to keep it fixed on the surface as the boxes, one by one, began to glow, brighter and brighter.

“Rods from god, my friend. Rods from God…. just… as… planned…” I chuckled as the first impacted the jungle over the labyrinth. Each canister weighed twenty tons and hit at very close to the speed of sound. There was absolutely no chance in hell any of my pursuers were getting out of there alive. If Vestra, Myrchella, or Magos were in that maze… they’d been obliterated.

“Get us out of the system, Astroboy… random direction. And keep us jumping at random for five jumps. I don’t want anyone besides you and me knowing where the hell we are or where we’re going… then figure out where we are and where we’re going… I have to go regrow my fucking arm.” I limped off the bridge… my left leg had been nearly bitten off by one of those larva from earlier.

Days later, we arrived in the Magoros system, home of the glittering crown known as the Shard Halo. It was a massive, shining solar ring, billions of kilometers across, orbiting the slowly dying mass of Magoros. It was an dead solar system, filled with nothing but three dead planets and a trillion barren icy meteors and moonlettes strung around the star like a jeweled belt. And it was the final resting place of The Righteous Path.

It was ironic, really. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the Calixis Sector, it drew hundreds of ships full of wealthy sightseers every year… and there, right in the middle of all that… the largest meteor was secretly the most sought after ghost ship of the last five thousand years… entombed in ice as it drifted lifeless in space. It was even surrounded by a few dozen smaller ships, also entombed in their own icy shrouds.

Magnus looked down on me as we pulled up alongside her, guided by scanners that had located her main resupply docking port. “Well… this is it. Thank you… you’ve been… interesting.”

“Thank you. For everything. This has been fun. And the…” I tapped my temple. “That’ll be useful. I can’t say I’ll miss the crazy… but… this has been an adventure. But I’ll be glad to get home. I think I understand how to navigate…”

“You’ll do fine,” He assured.

“And your half off the deal?”

“It’ll be waiting for you… with a little surprise… a pleasant one, trust me.” He offered me a salute and turned towards the passageway linking the two ships.

“Magnus…” I reached for his back, then let my newly restored hand fall away… “Have you ever considered forgiving yourself?”

He stiffened… but then shook his head and muttered, “never shuts up,” without turning back… he walked into the treasure ship.

Twenty minutes later, I followed him, Aenes by my side. I still had no idea what had brought him here… but I knew what had brought me. Wealth beyond belief… and there was… so… very… very much of it. My crew could barely believe it themselves.

It took us days to load the ship and I could tell some of the crew were considering mutiny to claim it for themselves, but all it took was me pointing to the leader of that group and saying, “Stick with me and you’ll be wealthy beyond belief. Betray me, and you’ll never find your way home. I’m the only navigator on board, and the Comms are locked to my voice print.” I’d done that before we left the second of our roundabout Warp Jumps. I’m no idiot.

I wanted The Righteous Path right where she was. It was going to take a fleet of transports to get her treasures… and even more important… I wanted her. She was a Imperial Vengeance Class Grand Battlecruiser! And I had a repair dock that could fix her right up… eventually.

Even filling practically every hold and chamber with wealth… there was more. So much more. I could barely get everything I had to have out of her… but what I got… beyond value. In addition to more than fifty thousand stasis coffins… there were at least another two million aboard the Path, but my planet couldn’t absorb that many that fast… and gold and jewels and precious works… there was a fortune in archeotech… and the greatest prize of all… a Standard Template Construct Template Library. Thousands of templates telling even the most primitive of cultures how to build any number of lost technologies, technologies that had allowed humankind to spread across the entire galaxy in a mere twenty thousand years, terraforming world after world and making devices that still worked after millennia of disuse.

As I said, I’d have to return to get the lion’s share of my prize… and to pick up the various components I’d seen in my travels, components that had clearly been part of The Righteous Path before their captain had ripped them out.

There had been a complete Pharmacia in that cave on Jerazol, a component that could synthesize any drug for which it had a known pattern… and if I was right it was big enough to synthesize enough of any substance to dose the entire massive 700,000 person crew complement… and several entire Guardsmen Legions if needed… every day.

On Scintilla, I’d seen an Auto-Temple… a fully staffed Imperial Creed temple that could be mounted inside a ship… and, in addition to tending to the needs of the crew, it could be dropped to a planet’s surface from orbit… yes… it was a dropship temple… it might take a day or two to pack up onto lifters to return it to the ship… and I’d have to redecorate… but… I had to have it… and it had been part of the Path at one point… it said so on the commemorative plaque.

On Grace, in Myrchella’s palace, I’d seen the massive crystal clusters of an Eldar Runecaster (among a whole shitload of other crap)… something I’d only known what I was looking at because of Carwyn… Magnus had explained how it worked. When housed in a large, specially prepared chamber, the crystalline runestones would float above a crystal lens. When used properly, these crystals would allow a navigator a kind of prescience, allowing one to plot a course that would somehow evade almost all problems and encounters with hostiles. I didn’t know if it had come from one of the worlds that Lorcanus had pillaged, but it too had had a plaque.

Finally, on Zayth, I’d found not one but two components that had once belonged to me… er… Lorcanus… In the city of Karnatka, I’d seen an Auto-Stabilized Logis Targeting Unit… more than a simple targeting array, the Logis was an ancient device that utilized near-heretical cogitator circuitry from the Dark Age of Technology to ensure incredibly accurate Weapons Fire…. And in the city of Decepcion, I’d seen a Micro-laser Defense Grid… which was a vastly larger version of the digital laser weapons used by nobility and other imperial worthies… a massive interlinked network of hundreds of miniature laser turrets that could be arrayed across a vessel’s hull. While individually not particularly powerful, when linked in concert, they could easily bring down incoming missiles and attack craft. I could get either one for a song… or a massive influx of wealth… and I would.

With the engine redlining, and every freespace loaded with loot, I’d barely made a dent in what The Path held… and it was time to go. With one last look at the miniature moon, I released the clamps and drifted away from her on maneuvering jets, minimizing the chance that anyone would notice one large chunk of ice drifting away from another (covering the hull of the Bargain with ice hadn’t been particularly hard… there was plenty in the system.)

Magnus had been as good as his word, as it turned out… on four counts. The first was that I had very little trouble guiding the Bargain back to Paradise. The second, though I wasn’t to know it for many months yet, was that the ship was free of Chaos’s taint. The third… well, when I arrived home, I was astounded to discover that, according to everyone, I’d been gone a single day… and yet I’d returned with a new ship, new colonists, and vast wealth… and an Imperial Trade Warrant.

As for the last… well, as promised, my payment was resting in a cave on one of the mountains on the northern range.  It was a Lance… not a human lance, but a starship’s main weapon… well… what would have been the main weapon of anything that didn’t have a freaking planet buster cannon as a spinal mount… but this Lance was the Pentalich Lance, a powerful elemental artifact. Rather than mere thermal energy that other lances projected, the Pentalich could be attuned to one of five elements. Fire, Thunder, Wind, Water, or Earth. In fire mode, it could unleash pillars of fire that were capable of consuming hullmetal as though it was paper. In thunder, it would generate thunderbolts that could reduce sensitive electronics to so much useless, melted sla. In wind it could unleash unavoidable concussive forceblasts. In water, it could literally wash away damage from allied vessels… and in earth it could shroud my ship in a cloud of diamond-hard micrometeorites. I had to cackle.

Unfortunately, cackling made Amaryllis, currently playing under my desk, squeak and try to hide from me, which necessitated a stern tickling. It had been a grand day out indeed.

Next: Light of Terra, Part 4

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. And thank you to my Patrons for suggesting some of the NPC names found in this chapter.

Resources: Build (eventually), Document

Author’s Notes

A Grand Day Out is the third DLC or optional side quest / jump included in the Light of Terra MegaJump. Thankfully, they can be done in any order and doing A Grand Day Out first both simplifies all the others and fills in several plotholes that would otherwise bother me. From a writing standpoint, the fact that Magnus (or Ahriman if you broke the Deadlight) brings you to him / has you fetched, means that not having a Warp Capable ship is solved… the other DLCs all assume you gained them in DLC1 (The Heathen Trail)… but that one simply says you have two warp capable transports and a escort vessel… that’s three multi-kilometer long ships that the jumper just… has… no explanation of how. By doing the jump that has nearly limitless wealth (and a galavanting quest around the sector) it solves the problem of ships… as well as crews for those ships. Each ship has a pretty massive crew (like I said, a Carrack needs nearly 20,000 souls to crew it).

Taking A Grand Day Out first also provides a navigator (me) thanks to spending a simply obscene amount of CP (the DLC has a budget of nothing, but you get 400 CP for each planet you visit… Scintilla doesn’t count, I tossed it in, and Magoros isn’t a planet… so 1600… of which Psychic Awakening, Veteran of the Psychic Wars – Biomancy Specialization, and Psychic Supremacy cost a collective 900 CP.)… but it also allows me access to some supernatural power base and makes later victories much more likely. Also, it’s a fun little treasure hunt.

Normally, for each planet (dangerous in their own right) you also select an enemy to deal with, and there is a certain temptation to pair easy with easy and kill them as they show up. Instead, I decided I’d do 4 worlds and rolled 4d5 in order to figure out where I was going and in what order. That done, I rolled 4d7 for enemies… but this time I decided which enemy to encounter based on the nature of the world.

As for psychic powers, Psychic Supremacy makes one an Alpha Level Psyker… or planetary threat level. While I did pick Biomancy (which I call Biopathy because it’s not magic) an Alpha Psyker has most of the rest of the powers at a lower level, but is obscenely powerful in their speciality. I picked Bio because it’s the most interesting… and not something I’m already good at. Also, it makes the most sense given how it was awakened.

I completely ignored the Items and Equipment section. It’s pointless and over priced in my opinion. However, I didn’t ignore the Ship Upgrades Section… which had many useful things… as I listed above, and the utterly hilarious and fairly useless Auto-Temple. I had to have it, even though taking it means I spend 1700 CP out of my budget of 1600. Oh well… I’ll make it up later.

Overall, I like this section because it presents a number of story telling options and allows you to go bonkers with them.  I did grab three things that aren’t on offer in the DLC (the wreck of The Righteous Path, the Population of Krystallian (hinted they could be there, but not outright allowed) and the Warrant of Trade… but it’s a piece of paper and only useful here in this universe.) but Jumpers are magpies. Whatcha gonna do? As for The Litany of Litanies-Litany (which I renamed Faustian Bargain)… that’s one of the two transports that feature in DLC 1 and it will show up again.

At the end, you can pick one Ship Upgrade as your payment from Magnus/Ahriman, and there are some nice choices… but I went with the most insane. Perhaps I should have gone defensive… but… eh. The Pentalich is cool and has the best story hooks and most awesome utility.

Planets & Enemies

Burnscour: “Death dripping down in the rain, blood and the scream of beasts: that is all I recall of that place.” -Mesenicus Var, mercenary captain of the entourage of Rogue Trader Hiram Sult. Burnscour is a Death World of roaring storms, jungles, and strange beasts. It is no place for men, as the steaming rain alone eats at metal and breeds strange fungus on exposed flesh, and the sap dripping from plants is lethal or viciously toxic. Yet the beast trade has found a foothold upon Burnscour, carried there at exorbitant rates by Rogue Trader vessels and illegal, unsanctioned merchant craft. They come to Burnscour to stock the ever-hungry fighting pits of the distant Calixis Sector with saurian leapers, gargantipedes, and other horrors of fang and maw. Hunter retinues clad in bulky suits of vulcanised rubber stalk the jungles in search of exotic xeno predators for the fighting pits, ever watchful for creatures that will make the most lethal attractions on far-off Hive Worlds of the Imperium. There are no permanent structures on the surface of Burnscour — only the slowly dissolving metal carcasses of landing craft brought down by the planet’s storms, the few melted ruins of structures built by fools, and the swaying jungles ever growing beneath the caustic rain. From the uppermost leaves of its canopy to the ground, the jungles of Burnscour are a choking mass of countless plants: trees with dark waxen leaves and trunks covered in barbs that weep thick sap the colour of bile, blooms of fungus as pale as milk, thick creepers from the branches of trees, delicate flowers the colour of livid bruises on pale flesh, which open at the touch to expose waving fronds that fill the air with a heady scent that dulls the mind — all these and thousands more species swarm and choke the surface of Burnscour. Beasts stalk through the nightmare jungles of Burnscour. Things of every sizes, all perfectly adapted to the hellish environment, live here in vast numbers, from beetle-like creatures who gnaw through flesh or bark to feed on blood or sap, to the strange six-legged stalkers the size of three grown men but scuttle silent and invisible though the branches of the middle canopy. Almost all are capable of killing any human that steps onto the surface of Burnscour. The lethal nature of Burnscour’s native creatures is both the planet’s curse on any who might wish to establish surface habitation on there, but are also the prize that draws many to it. When men come to Burnscour, they come for the beasts. So little does the jungle and rain tolerate the presence of man that beast-hunting parties are usually dropped onto the surface of the planet and remain for as little time as possible before hailing their waiting drop craft with a homing beacon. These hunters and their ferocious harvest are often hauled off the surface into hovering dropships that never touch the surface. Others defoliate the jungle with anti-plant bombs and Heavy Flamers to create brief landing clearings—which are swallowed again by the jungle within days. Dangerous it might be, but the price commanded by hunters for living beasts of Burnscour is enough to blot out the tales of hunting parties vanishing, never to be seen again, or the whispers of the things that stalk unseen beneath the dark leaves and hissing rain.  While the beasts here are certainly terrible and deadly beyond almost anything you have encountered before, the atmosphere is the greatest threat, toxic, corrosive and insidious, a soup of chemicals that will corrode any protective gear you may wear within hours, at best. Speed is of the essence here, and the fact that the cogitator core holding part of the map to the Righteous Path is entombed within a gigantic, labyrinthine hive only complicates matters.

The Murdered World of Jerazol: “There is no crime too terrible, nor act so monstrous that man will not commit given a sufficiency of conviction and self interest.” -ancient Terran proverb. Jerazol is a desolate world of ash and charred bone. It is a world, tales say, murdered for greed and spite. Discovered by a pious Rogue Trader whose name does not survive in Imperial records, Jerazol was verdant, fertile, and supported a population of humans whose culture had regressed to the level of a primitive tribalism. The unnamed Rogue Trader was determined to bring the population back into the light and dominion of the God-Emperor. He began the process of tutoring and civilising the population, while purging it of any trace of deviancy or corruption. Not long after Jerazol was discovered, it was also found by other explorers, who believed that the primitive humans where hiding wonders of lost technology in warrens beneath the earth, built by their forgotten ancestors who first came to the world from across the stars. These machines, they said, were worth any price in blood and death, and when the nameless Rogue Trader stood against them, they destroyed his vessels, letting their wrecks fall to the surface of Jerazol like the burning tears of a god. Then, it is said the murderers bombarded the world, burning its surface to ash and choking its atmosphere with smoke. The tales do not agree as to whether the despoilers found the technological treasures they sought. Some say they unearthed such wonders that they rose to the highest tiers of power within the Imperium, others say that they only found ash, bone, and mud and that they cursed the dreams that had brought them through void and madness to murder a world for naught. No matter the truth of the tales, the burned and Dead World of Jerazol exists as testimony to the price that can be paid in search for riches. There is nothing here save ruins and dust, and a single bunker, buried kilometers underground, a cogitator holding part of the map to the Righteous Path and a transmitter sending out a centuries too late distress call.

Grace: “Hunger unwound what little hope was left and moved us to what humanity would not once have contemplated.” —Comdeus Canto, survivor of the expedition from the Inferno’s Child. The storm-ridden world of Grace is circled and shrouded by swirling clouds and hurricanes. Continual gales carry the spores of its simple fungal life far and wide amidst lightning and frozen hail. Beneath the storms, the peaks and valleys of Grace’s jagged surface form a stark, beautiful landscape that was once dotted with the proud structures of a colony founded under the authority of Rogue Trader Aspyce Chorda. From behind Void Shields and armoured crysta viewports the colonists, drawn from the wealthiest exiles of Imperial nobility and the most successful of criminals (a distinction between the two being not always easy to draw) gazed out on the beauty of the world that was their sanctuary from blood wars, vengeful rivals, and the iron fist of Imperial justice. The world of Grace is still just as beautiful, but the colony palaces lie in ruin and its pale-eyed people scuttle in the shadows, harbouring a terrible secret. Grace was an Imperial colony world founded not for the expansion of the domain of the God-Emperor, but to serve the greed and arrogance of Rogue Trader Aspyce Chorda. The colonial palaces built on Grace were palatial fortresses for Imperial exiles of wealth and means — those worthies secretively brought to the edge of the Imperium by the Cold Guild, stored in frozen vaults for their journey and returned to life in the depths of Port Wander. Rogue Trader Aspyce Chorda swelled her coffers accepting fugitives into the world she had claimed and giving them leave to build their armoured palaces on Grace. At further ruinous cost, she provided the exiles with illegal slaves from Footfall, provided them with the finest foods using the lesser voidships of her fleet, and allowed their spies and agents to pass to and from Imperial space in the holds of her ships. It was, for a time, a paradise of the wicked, but it did not last. It is said by the pious that in time no sin goes unknown or unpunished in the God-Emperor’s sight, and the punishment for Grace was terrible indeed. Vessels of Aspyce Chorda carrying supplies to Grace were destroyed by a Warp Storm that rose up, swallowing them whole and sealing passage to Grace. The world itself was a pleasurable and beautiful refuge and had no capacity to produce its own food. For a time the exiles and criminals contented themselves with the false hope that supplies would come, and then when they did not, they turned on one another, sending their vassals to loot and burn other palaces and strip them of supplies and food. In time only a few of the many colony palaces were left, and these had become ugly fortresses against the predatory raids of the few others that persisted. When even raiding could not feed those who remained, they turned to eating their dead — first those who had been slain, and then those who still lived. So it is that the few debased colony palaces harbour those who eat human flesh, and they are always hungry. Some have beacons that broadcast distress calls out into the void, seeking sustenance from unwary travellers. Crumbling palaces filled with treasures the degenerate inhabitants no longer care about, or brutal fortresses filled with cannibal raiders, the danger here is not what one would expect. Degenerate they may be, but the surviving cannibal bands are battle hardened to an unimaginable degree, and each of them holds weapons and armour scavenged from dozens of noble estates, and those estates were filled with heirloom weapons, armour and equipment forged by the greatest and most skilled techpriests of the Imperium, rendering each of the flesh hungry madmen an army of one, and finding the cogitator core that holds the partial location of the Righteous Path will not be quick or easy amidst the countless false distress signals…

Zayth: “Of what wars waged beyond the Emperor’s light we will never truly know and can only look at the wreck of the overgrown battlefield and wonder at what has passed.” —remark dictated by Rogue Trader Hiram Sult. Zayth is a War World scarred deeply by constant conflict. Enormous vehicles the size of cities churn the surface of Zayth’s single macrocontinent. Each is a fortress and weapon platform armed with fearsome devices of war and destruction. Within them dwell Zayth’s human population, protected from the radiation and toxins unleashed by long centuries of warfare. Zayth’s surface has been barren for millennia, ploughed and poisoned by shellfire, rapacious, urgent strip-mining, and the passage of hive-vehicles. Despite their weaponry and extraordinary vehicle cities the humans of Zayth have fallen far from the knowledge of their ancestors in all but war, and the knowledge of producing their hivevehicles is long vanished. Great generators and engine vaults are permanently sealed by copper doors or guarded by hereditary Engine Orders who guard the traditions and culture of each clan fortress. Discovering the location of the Cogitator core on Zayth will be difficult, simply due to the eternal war that rages, mobile cities the size of arcologies fighting a battle that has gone on so long none remember why it began. The Cogitator you seek was obliterated centuries ago in an alpha strike that wiped a mountain range from the map, but its data survives, albeit in fragmented form. Each of the twenty one surviving hive-vehicles has a fraction of it worked into decorations in the machine shrine at the core of the vast, mobile nation-warmachine. That these colossal engines are capable of swatting down even battleships in orbit like irksome flies may go some way to telling you how tricky this will be.

Myrchella Sinderfell: Lady Myrchella Sinderfell is one of the most elusive and destructive heretics active in the Calixis Sector. Intelligent, resourceful, and cruel, over the centuries Myrchella Sinderfell has sampled blasphemous pleasures, dallied with diverse heresies, and committed atrocities of the most vile nature for no other reason than her own gratification. Born into the high Sinderfell family of Scintilla, Myrchella Sinderfell was raised as part of a lineage whose wealth and holdings spanned the Calixis Sector. It is said that in her younger years she showed exceptional promises in all areas of education, with no sign of the madness to come in the first decades of her life. When she came of age, Myrchella used the Sinderfell wealth to assemble a vile court of sorcerers, xenophiles, flesh crafters, and corrupt savants in the seclusion of the Sinderfell manse on Quaddis, collecting them and their knowledge like a true dilettante of the vile. The corruption of Lady Sinderfell was finally betrayed to the Inquisition by one of her mistreated servants. The Holy Ordos razed the Sinderfell manse in a single night—it is said that the fury of the assault could be seen from the balconies of far Xacarph. Lady Sinderfell escaped the wrath of the Imperium to recreate her blood-soaked court of blasphemy over and over again. On Malfi she suborned the leadership of a sanguinary cult and bathed in blood every day for a year. On Kalf she and her entourage burned town after town, hunted the survivors through the night, and unleashed unclean spirits to plague any who remained. Myrchella Sinderfell is known to draw around her a court comprised of heretics. These heretics have included rogue psykers, warp dabblers, xenophiles, hereteks, dissolute nobles, corrupt Navigators, scholars of the proscribed, and dealers with daemons. These courts are rarely enduring and are often discarded in flight or destroyed for diversion by Lady Sinderfell herself. Sinderfell prefers to assume the identity of others and corrupt families, cults, and organisations to her own ends (usually including murder and wanton infliction of pain). She is known to favour numerous devices of forbidden technology, some of xenos design, to further her proclivities. Though reported as killed on board the Phoenix’s Ransom by Judge Uzzriah, and again in the Castigation of the Red Vaults of Luggnum, Lady Myrchella Sinderfell is still believed at large in the Calixis Sector. Myrchella Sinderfell’s avarice, spite, narcissism and sadism are obvious and reflected in every part of the heresies that have made her notorious. She has wallowed in gore, inflicted pain, and darkened her fractured soul not for an ideal but simply because it makes her “happy.” Myrchella’s forces are the most diverse, chaos cultists, rogues, pirates, hereteks, xenos, warp things, psykers, Dark Eldar torturers, no one member of the force is the same as another, and the skills, abilities and armour they bring to bear are terrifyingly diverse.

Magos Vathek: The facts of Magos Vathek’s career, before he was cast out from the Adeptus Mechanicus and became a hunted renegade are entirely unknown, and the tech-priest authorities have been singularly unforthcoming in this regard. It is thought that he was attached to the Explorator fleets of Archmagos Thule before some incident or event drove him mad, turning him into a renegade hunted equally by the Inquisition and the forces of the Machine Cult. Vathek is obsessed with acquiring and perfecting dark technological lore. In particular, he desires the technological means to restore full life to dead tissue, although he is also known to have created forbidden weaponry, crafted flesh gholams, and experimented with a variety of prohibited alchemical and energy systems. His forbidden experiments are already reckoned to have cost upwards of 3,000 lives, most notably in a mass casualty event known as the “Morningside Incident” on Solomon, and on a smaller scale during the “dockside ripper” murders on Dreah. At the end of the latter, Vathek slew a Mechanicus force sent to destroy him and escaped offworld. He is also known to have attacked a previously unknown resurrectionist cult on the cemetery world of Pilgrim’s Pause and left great slaughter in his wake, plundering the cult’s own dark secrets. Vathek’s current whereabouts and activities remain unknown. In appearance, Vathek looks to be a heavily augmented tech-priest, habitually robed in tattered black, surrounded by a multitude of black-iron and brass mechadendrites fitted with surgical tools, callipers, and energy coils. He is known to have incorporated the forbidden technology of a Sarkossan wave generator into his own carapace, and his face is covered by a silver skull mask grafted onto necrotic muscle and bone. He is believed to be no longer “alive” in any meaningful sense, but propelled by the power of his own dark technology. He has proven extremely difficult to slow or destroy with conventional weapons fire, and extreme measures are to be advised when confronting him. Aside from his drive for dark scientific lore, Vathek appears to have no known goals or plans. He also does not cooperate with or serve others, fashioning only unliving servitors as his needs arise. Some theorise that Vathak’s true obsession is somehow discovering a means to restore biological life to his own decaying flesh. The entirety of Vathek’s force is dead. Dead and still moving. The arch Heretek has formed an army of flesh Gholams, monstrous composites of dead flesh and cybernetic upgrades. These abominations are soulless terrors that can laugh off damage that would shatter a Leman Russ Tank, and they can be restored to combat readiness with horrifying ease. They will not stop, they will not slow, they are relentless.

Coriolanus Vestra: Brother Missionary Coriolanus Vestra was a loyal, even revered, Imperial Missionary who fought to bring the light of the Emperor to those who knew it not. His zeal was marked by his superiors—Cardinal Fortis noted on several occasions how Vestra undertook missions in totally uncharted regions of space, always returning to bring news of thousands of new followers of the Imperial Creed. The final mission undertaken by Coriolanus Vestra records that he ventured into the Halo Stars in search of human communities lost for millennia. He did not return and was presumed to have perished. What exactly occurred to Vestra on his journey into the Halo Stars is not known, but it can be easily inferred that something occurred that caused him to break his faith and turn him against the Imperium that he had so devoutly served. The fact that Vestra uses the phrase “bathed in the light of the black sun” in some of his blasphemous addresses, has been the focus of much analysis and may pertain to some dark revelation that turned Vestra into the arch-heretic he is today. Fifty years after his disappearance, Coriolanus Vestra secretly returned to Imperial space. He slipped onto the world of Lassiv in distant Hecuba, a dishevelled shadow among many. Two years of meticulous and brutal endeavour saw Vestra dedicating Lassiv and the souls of its people to the ruination of the Emperor’s realm from beneath a banner topped with the planetary governor’s severed head. It was not, however, until after ten more years, three befouled worlds, and countless acts of heresy that the true identity of this arch-corruptor was uncovered. The anger and shame of the Ecclesiarchy has not abated in the eight decades that have passed since that revelation. Coriolanus Vestra’s chief treachery is his association with a great number of cults and heretical organisations, including the Serrated Query, the Brotherhood of the Horned Darkness, the Pale Throng, and the Masqued of Malfi amongst many more. He is, however, only ever a peripheral figure and an intermediary who prefers to work alone as a freelance agent of sorts for the duration of a particular task or objective. He often incites rebellion through demagoguery and acts as a go between and facilitator for different heretical and malefic cults in order to create a larger force of disorder. Coriolanus Vestra’s spite and zeal in persecuting his personal war against the Imperium cannot be doubted. It is unknown if Vestra, beyond a desire to simply bring anarchy and destruction, has any discernable grand scheme. The revered brothers forces are not the most well trained or equipped. Indeed, the vast bulk of them are civilian fanatics equipped with crude clubs. The danger lies in sheer numbers, for quantity has a quality all of its own. Fanatics, they are all not just ready but willing and even eager to die, martyred for the cause.

Tobias Belasco: Tobias Belasco was born the third son to an impoverished wing of the powerful House Belasco on Malfi and is another example of the ability of certain noble lines to breed unpardonable monsters. Reportedly a sly and deceitful glutton from an early age, Tobias railed against the gentle poverty in which he was raised and the fallen status of his line. As he grew, he put his remarkable intellect and cunning to work and quickly displaced or murdered his way to control of his family’s line, restoring its fortunes in the process. He was quickly taken into the service of the Belasco Great House, where he acted as a dealer in rare antiquities and brokered many profitable deals for his clan. This elevation appears not to have been enough for him. Soon he took to seeking thrills by dalliances with petty cult groups, fellow epicures, and jaded wantons, living far beyond even his prodigious means. Rather than risk embezzling funds from his notorious clan, he took to blackmail, murder, and the Cold Trade to fund his notorious life of excesses, eventually leading him to dealing in slavery. However, as the years passed, not even this was enough to alleviate his boredom. By what means he finally descended into complete criminal insanity is unknown, although a lifetime of immorality and substance abuse no doubt played some part in it. Not satisfied with killing his enemies, he instead took to abducting them in secret and eating them slowly, one piece at a time. When these shocking crimes finally came to light, it proved too much for his infamous noble house to stand. Tobias fled Malfi via his Cold Trade connections with a portion of his wealth and his family’s assassin cadre at his heels. For more than 50 years he has been on the run, turning up on dozens of worlds and using many aliases to stay one step ahead of his former clan. He is also a fugitive of the Ordo Xenos, whose ire he provoked when he killed and ate several of Inquisitor Van Vuygens’ acolytes who were investigating a xenos-slavery ring that he had instigated on Snowden’s World. Torn between his desire to remain hidden and a desire to continue his opulent lifestyle through black marketeering, deception, and murder, Tobias has managed to remain one step ahead of his many hunters over the years thanks to his quick wits, formidable intelligence, and a thoroughly nasty imagination. Now in his late nineties, his past is catching up with him—his obscenely fat bulk must be held up by a suspensor chair and he is rapidly reaching the limits of how long his wrecked constitution can be kept alive through black market implants and chem treatments. Despite his debased and corpulent exterior, Tobias Belasco is a genius-level intellect who has a talent for deception, commerce, and murder that borders on the supernatural. He is marked for death not only by the Inquisition but also by his former family, and attempts to maintain a veil of secrecy at all times. Tobias Belasco’s only motivation is to continue his life of wickedness and feed his dread addictions. Rumors have reached the Inquisition that Tobias is searching for a more radical solution to his problems in the shape of a forbidden Halo Device. The former scion of Imperial Nobility has fewer resources than he once did, but they are still not something that can be dismissed. A cadre of specially trained warrior slaves stand at his beck and call, trained from birth and surgically implanted with explosives to ensure loyalty form the corpulent deviants bodyguard, and they are supported by packs of terrifying, feral xenos warbeasts dragged in chains from some of the most deadly worlds in the galaxy, crudely lobotomized and sent out to kill.

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World 61: The Light of Terra, Part 2

THE LIGHT OF TERRA, A WARHAMMER 40K GAUNTLET

Part 2 – Land of the Sky Mother

Previously: Barque of the Forsaken

Themesong: Will the Circle Be Unbroken by a Choir from Bioshock Infinite

AN: Once again, a nod to my Patreon Patrons. Your support means the world to me. It’s excellent validation. To everyone else, thank you too for choosing my work to read. If you comment, I’ll try and respond within a day or two, and love reading your feedback and questions. You all are wonderful people. If you’ve got a blog you want me to link to, send me a message and I’ll pop it in my sidebar so people can find your writing too. Oh, and stick around after the chapter ends to read my build notes and some pointless stuff about math that was too wordy to go in the narrative, but I think is really interesting. I’m a nerd.

What can I say about the planet I’d pre-emptively (and largely unwittingly) named ‘Paradise’? I hadn’t even known that the repair base was orbiting a planet at all, and hadn’t really meant to have the planet or base be encompassed in any way when I’d promised to lead the Aquil Lejens, Kin of Iron, and surviving members of the Wargars, Redeemers, Voidwalkers, and Pale Sons to ‘Paradise beyond the Steel Caves’ (their collective name for the half-ruined hulk of the Light of Terra. I had largely meant it as a rhetorical ‘Better place than this crumbling hell of a starship.’ Instead, what I got was… Paradise. Good thing my followers had such abysmal standards. My companions were less than thrilled.

To start with, the atmosphere was, at most, breathable… what little there was. It was as thin as the summit of Everest, though (for the most part) not freezing cold. In fact, with a little effort, and a few decades, it would be possible to increase the atmosphere to something thicker and more comfortable, both by a process of hydro-cracking (splitting oxygen off of water) and by using plants to free much of the trapped nitrogen and oxygen in the soil.

And there was lots and lots and lots of it fixed there, since the planet’s ecosystem was dominated not by plants but by foul looking, stinking fungi. Giant carpets of molds and towering mushroom-trees covered vast swaths of the world, spewing poisonous spores into the atmosphere… something that made the breathing masks required for going outside all the more important. At least there the Void Walkers who’d been presented with the old “Convert or Die” quandary would be prepared… which was good, because I wasn’t trusting them inside the secure perimeter until they’d proven themselves.

The planet was a swampy muckball, where dry land was at a premium, and between the humidity, the rot, and the insects, worms, and other invertebrates, it wasn’t looking to be the vacation spot of the sector any time in the near future. Still, the incredible wealth of biological diversity would be invaluable, and many of the species present looked absolutely fascinating… and simply huuuge. Megafauna were everywhere. The fact that, once we got ourselves dug in, digging us out with anything short of an Ork Waaagh or a Tyranid Hive Fleet wasn’t going to be an easy prospect, and even Orks might have problems with some of the carnivores our scans were picking up. Invasion through swamps against swamp natives does not go well… just ask the Posleen in the Darien Gap… ouch. Swamps are hell on Morale and Material alike.

Of course, we had to invade first, and, unfortunately, there were natives we’d have to contend with… which thankfully Grigobritz had knowledge of. The reptilians were commonly known as Tarellian Dog-Soldiers (thanks to their snouted faces and habit of working as mercenaries). They were narrow-waisted, broad shouldered aliens, standing slightly shorter than most humans, and extremely aggressive. During the Great Crusade at the beginning of the 30th millennium, the Imperium had virus bombed most of the Tarellian homeworlds, driving the species to the brink of extinction and most of the survivors back to barbarism… And they haaated humanity… for cause. Thankfully, the global population wasn’t high, a few million scattered in penny packets across the entire globe (all three smaller continents and the planet’s version of Asia which dominated the northern hemisphere almost completely… it was the size of the Pacific Ocean and completely covered the pole), but there was no place that we could set up a base where they wouldn’t object… and Hephaestus needed a metric mega-fuck-ton of raw materials to repair the Light of Heaven (Grigobritz wasn’t thrilled I called her that, but to the tribesmen, it was easier to do so, since they had no distinction between Heaven and Terra, both being the perfect realm where the most holy dwelt.)

So, since I and mine weren’t going anywhere, and the Tarellians weren’t likely to just let us take what we needed and leave us in peace, I decided to settle for the lesser evil of simply driving any of them in an area we needed out. I wouldn’t kill them if I could avoid it… but I wasn’t risking allies to protect enemies of my native race, warranted in their hatred or not. And the space station simply could not supply food and living space for nearly 12,000 humans and near humans.

Some of my companions were of mixed opinion on that count, of course. Gaius, Kohina, Mini, Franky, and Toph had all faced the dire threat of invaders destroying their civilization (The Vord, Gastraea, Neuroi, and Fire Nation respectively) and disapproved for good reason. So too – to various degrees – had Kagetane (the Gastraea), Meetra (the Mandalorians and Sith), Uriel (Daedra), Bao (Rival Chinese States), and Bart (Reavers)… thought they each understood their enemies or at the least didn’t blame them for what they’d tried to do… and in several cases had succeeded in doing. The Mons, of course, had no qualms about the strong driving out the weak, while Ryoga, Yoiko, Beth, and Lizzy (yes, those two, agreeing on something. Scary.) regretted the necessity but understood it all too well. Cirno, as expected, couldn’t care less about the fate of ugly and stupid and mean kappas. The monster squad (Reggy, Tokimi, Yuzuha, and Caine) honestly had no problem and felt, by and large, I was worrying about nothing and being far too soft… well… I think that was Yuzuha’s point. She was still pouting about being trapped in a fleshbag. Invidius and Gaius Scipio thought I was thinking too hard and should just drop space-rocks on them. The Bookers spent all their time debating the issue until they were locked in a closet. And the Luteces were too fascinated by the technology to weigh in. Alex and Maggie didn’t get a vote.

Of AJ and Francine, Amelia and Anne, Zane and Kendra, Joy and Ahab, Velma and Petra, Raven and Brigid, Ziggy and Soffi… there was no sign. And Mini and Franky were more than a little freaked out to be removed from the comforting womb of the Warehouse and thrust into the decidedly unhygienic and… speaking of my companions… around the same time I’d arrived on the Light, they’d arrived on Haephestus, lacking powers or memories of where we’d gone after Treasure Planet… only to find the station essentially mothballed, running on stationkeeping drives and in maintenance mode. It had taken them practically as long to get the ancient system up and running as it had taken my crew to fix the ship… down to, as near as we could tell, the minute. Of course, they hadn’t had any opposition to deal with… external opposition that is.

Without powers or my leadership, they’d very quickly factionalized into 4 rough groups. Tokimi had led the Inhuman Faction (comprised of most of the non-humans… Yuzuha, Cirno, Dyna, and Rayray) and The Luteces, Lizzy, and the Bookers grouped with Franky and Mini (and two four year olds who were most upset that all their toys and pets had vanished) and Ryoga & Yoiko in what was being called the Seraglio, while the two Emperors had split the rest of the group, with Gaius & Reggy holding court over the Hardliners (Invidius, Scipio, Kohina, Kagetane, Meetra, and Bart), and Uriel & Bao holding court over the Schemers (Beth, Toph, and Caine). Of the animals or machines… We had no clue. Whatever had brought us here hadn’t included anyone who wasn’t, strictly speaking, a Companion. I assumed that Atura (still in Egg Form), totally lacking a physical form and bound to my very soul, was wherever Soul of Ice and Silent Judge were, sealed away by whatever force was making us all into mere mortals.  

But there were mere mortals and then there were mere mortals. Pretty close to all of my companions were exceptional in one or more ways. They represented millennia of training, practice, scheming, plotting, practice, and leadership. They had fought wars, led armies, studied the arts, sciences, and medicine. They might have been shaken, but they were stalwart, strong, and skilled to a fair-thee-well. It was strange to think that, even with all my hard work aboard The Light, all of it would have been for naught if my long lost companions hadn’t landed on the station itself and managed to bring it back to life. And I was, and would be, eternally grateful to them for that. They represented something to me, something I desperately needed in this dark time.

It wasn’t Hope. Carwyn had been my hope, the thing that had allowed me to cling to a chance that I could survive, the nail upon which I had hung my thread of life. But she was a new friend. These others… they had been with me for so long. They were my rock. They represented my past, a continuity with who I had been, and a foundation upon which I could build the future. If only there weren’t so many missing. But still, they were, to me, progress… and, with that in mind, I divided them up according to their factions and their skills.

The Mons got control over the scouting and invasion force, the population that would be doing the brunt of the fighting and beachheading. They’d been born and bred for combat and so had the Wargars and, to a lesser extent the less civilized members of the other tribes… even now being reorganized into Clans and Septs… whether they wanted to or not. Their old power structures would not be tolerated and their family units were being divided among the 6 Clans I’d transformed the Kin and Aquil into.

The Hardliners got control of the military, the Aquil and Void Walkers and Redeemers and even some Pale Sons who either seemed trustworthy or young enough to be malleable. Their job was to create a modern military society as soon as possible and, hopefully, to establish an esprit de corps. As the army grew, it would, hopefully, absorb the irregulars slowly at first, but faster and faster as our initial expansion turned to civic infrastructure and defense.

The Schemers would have control over the “civilian” government, though it would be anything but a democracy. A council of elders, three from each Clan, would be chosen to bring issues to the Viceroys, but they’d be purely advisory outside of their own 2,000 odd Clansmen.

Which left the Seraglio… and me. I’d claimed Hephaestus as my own, to be the seat of my administration and rule. Damned if I would live in the swamp, and be damned to any who forced me to descend from on high. I would come down on my own schedule, for my presence had to be one of greatest remove. I was the saviour, or breaker, depending upon which side of the war you’d been on. I was more than mortal, and I knew enough about primitives to know that the less time a leader spent among them, the better. My apostles, those who had seen me in action… they’d spread the word far better than I could. Indeed, my companions were already getting the most insane and awestruck queries. The less time I spent directly in contact with the clansmen, the less chance I’d have to embarrass myself.

As for Carwyn… it seems she’d abandoned me once we’d reached the station, for the hoped for introduction of this strange (and often deeply annoying) creature to my friends, all of which would have been exceptionally strange to the telepathic Eldar, failed to materialize… as she vanished the moment we arrived at Haephestus. I was disappointed, to be sure, but also a little hurt she hadn’t even said goodbye… but perhaps that wasn’t the Eldar way. I had no idea. Perhaps, for a race of nigh immortals, the concept of permanent parting didn’t really register. Surely, they might reason, they’d run into the other… eventually. But I had more important, more pressing matters to attend to, most notably resettling my new followers on a hostile planet.

Our initial landing point was a forgone conclusion as it turned out. It was a not particularly high mesa on the macro-continent, just a few hundred meters above the swamp, and almost 900 kilometers inland, and it had four important features. It was, first of all, dry, and a naturally defensible location, second. Third, it had what, at first blush, had appeared to be a city, a massive and remarkably intact and very very technologically advanced series of structures. The Cogitator (a Virtual Intelligence) aboard Hephaestus identified it as “The Vandean Coast” (despite the sea having, apparently, withdrawn long ago), an ancient imperial manufacturing complex, long silent oh these dark millennia, but in pretty much perfect mothball, just waiting for someone… i.e. us… to turn her on and provide power, raw materials, and direction. It wasn’t an automated facility, but it was, like almost everything built according to the long lost Standard Template Constructs of the Pre-Heresy times, usable by almost anyone of any tech level… If only I had the plans for some Leman Russ Battle Tanks… but we’d work something out.

The fourth reason, and not only the most important, but clearly the reason the Vandean Coast had been built where it was, was the absolutely gigantic hole right in the center of the complex. I’d gaped when I’d seen it, for, outside of the screens of a game called Alpha Centauri, I’d never actually known any culture to be insane enough to build one of these things. It was a Geotap, although the Cogitator called it a Geocore, a deep core borehole mine designed to allow harvesting of the material wealth of the planetary mantle. While the mining implements were long gone, the reason it was called a Geotap was because it had been converted from a mine into a titanic geothermal power plant. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a nearly limitless source of electrical power… which would allow us to power up the Coast with relative ease, of course… but, and I had to laugh because, whoever had repurposed the borehole into a Geotap had clearly been inspired… or mad… or both… as it was crowned by an ancient, and utterly glorious, fixed plasma artillery cannon. And not just any fixed plasma artillery cannon.

Hephaestus called it “The Hammer of He Who Rules On High Terra”… I called it the Judah… the Hammer of God. Assuming it worked right… with that much power to draw on, any ship attempting to move into the half of the world that contained the titanic cannon would, in short order, no longer be able to be identified as a ship. It was, essentially, Starkiller Base, but defensive… and a bit smaller. Still, it was a cannon visible from orbit… what more does one want?

The landing site wasn’t particularly far, maybe half a day’s travel, from the edge of what appeared to be the only honest to me forest on the planet. It wasn’t terribly massive, but it was unique… partly because it was growing up the side of a mountain range that would help blunt the cold winds of the polar cap from reaching us at our base… but also because, if the Cogitator’s readings were correct, it was incredibly dense in refined metals… which was just… it was weird. According to the Cogitator’s memory banks, the pre-heresy ancestor of the Inquisition had long ago determined that the area, called the Aceria Forest, had been tainted by Chaos… though if it had been in that distant past, I saw no signs of it from orbit. Clearly investigation would be in order.

It was as if providence had provided this terrible world as a gift to me and mine. It would (assuming it didn’t break us) bind my forces together in defiance of the world’s challenges, hardening its people as Salusa Secundus and Arakis had done to the Sardaukar and Fremen respectively… or, since this was Warhammer 40k, perhaps I should have said Fenris… though I think Paradise was actively worse than the Space Wolves homeworld… perhaps I’d visit some day and compare. If the world was a disaster, it also provided all that we needed to thrive… as long as we were willing to put in the effort.

Even the food situation was readily solvable. Deep in the bowls of Hephaestus’s storehouses was a device from the deep recesses of that period of history known as “The Dark Age of Technology” called a Corpsegrinder. It wasn’t a great name, and certainly not one I’d share with anyone outside of the inner circle, but the 20,000 year old machine was nothing more or less than an ancient recycling system designed to quickly and efficiently convert any organic material into food bars… any organic material. They didn’t actually taste that bad. In fact, they were pretty darn tasty, if a little repetitive. Still, food was food, and once we got established we’d have biomass to burn.

Hephaestus had an even dozen attached landers, massive lift vehicles designed to land on a planet’s surface and then lift off again loaded down with megatons of refined metal, bioplastics, ferrocrete, and the thousand of other materials needed to repair a damaged starship. They also doubled as troop transports in a pinch.

“Land right on top of them,” I ordered as I rode the first lander of 8, recently christened “Ponyard”, down towards one of the Terellian towns flanking the mesa. They’d already attacked the initial scouts we’d sent down to secure the Coast… which they hadn’t been willing to touch, either viewing it as haunted or sacrosanct, I had no idea which… but they clearly objected to our presence. “Not near them Scipio, right on top of them. Aim for the largest group and drop us on them.” I commed the other landers, ‘Dagger’, ‘Knife’, ‘Dirk’, ‘Swordbreaker’, ‘Tanto’, ‘Katar’, and ‘Kriss’. “Take stations around the town, covering all the paths out. Open up and keep to cover. Don’t shoot anyone who are not raising weapons to attack.”

As Ponyard hit dirt, scattering the Tarellians and their light weapons out of its path and crisping several of the slower among them… and crushing the side of building… I popped the hatch from the five stories up cockpit and eyed the crowd threatening the giant steel ship with small arms fire. I shot one at random. “Any of you bastards speak Human?”

Of course they didn’t. Hell, none of them spoke the Terellian language the Hephaestus Cogitator had on file either, or if they did, they weren’t responding to it, preferring to shoot at me… so I shot back. Seemed like the polite thing to do.

“This is an act of War!” Toph shouted over the sound of machine gun she was spraying the ground with.

“No! This is an Act of Warhammer!” I yelled back. The rules of survival were more pressing than compassion. Sure, it was gallows humor, and I was well aware I hadn’t tried very hard to see if a reproachment could be reached with the Tarellians, but I couldn’t lose people out of a desire not to be a monster to a race which would gleefully murder and, probably, eat us. It was probably just me making justifications, but I was one of the humans who’d end up dead or worse if things went bad. “Eviscerators, forward under shields, I want these buildings burning asap.” Six of the eight transports carried 80 former Wargars with melee weapons and shields, 2 former Redeemers, and 20 former Void Walkers with crossbows. Behind them were 40 Lejens with bolters and much heavier armor and shields, though it was all still pretty mismatched. They weren’t there for the Tarellians. Any human who turned in the face of the enemy would be shot. It was as simple as that. The necessity made me feel… tainted. The other two transports were empty, waiting for prisoners.

The village fell, and give the Tarellians credit, they fought to the last. Not a damned one of the bastards even tried to flee and we only managed to capture about a hundred and fifty of the adults, all of them wounded, out of what looked to be a population of roughly 1,800. We had over 400 juveniles and infants as well.

“Gather the dead.” I ordered the Wargars, all of whom looked a bit odd in their high altitude breathmasks. They hadn’t been happy I’d ordered a blanket ban on facial or scalp hair, as the Wargars had been very proud of their long braided beards and hair, but it was their tradition to cut the hair off of defeated enemies and I’d ordered them all to shave and then had every last one of them tattooed with their new status symbol on their foreheads. “And have the prisoners transported to Southland Major. Drop them near a large settlement with 20 tons of rations,” I told the security crews of the two remaining shuttles.

There were 6 new Clans (named for the missing… Kendrazane, Velpetra, Anamelia, Joyhab, Zigsoffi, and Franjay) each divided thusly. There were seven Septs in each Clan (with names drawn from the pantheon of fiction I found relevant to the situation), and at the apex of each Sept were the Elders, a trio that always included a Kin Technic, a Lejens Senior Sarjant, and a Wise Woman who had born at least 3 children who’d lived to adulthood, drawn from among all the Families of that Sept, which were (obviously) variable in number. I’d selected all the Wise Women by interview, but had allowed the Lejens and Kin to select their own leadership. After that, the Elders had picked Freemen from the pool of Lejens and Kin adults, getting entire family units… which made the process a little difficult to balance, but I wasn’t aiming for perfect symmetry, just close. Younger orphans and widows (or in a couple cases, widowers), and what few elderly tribesmen had been kept around for their knowledge, were divided to family groups to even out the numbers as best as possible.

All Freemen were granted tattoos on the backs of their right hands, marking their membership in their new Clan (the outline or halo) & Sept (the internal symbol), with families whose members had earned particular honor being granted special bonus motifs, such as the right to surround the Clan symbol with a flourish such as flames, or chains, or blood. Each had to be unique within the Clan, and every member of the family gained it. Someone who married into a new Clan would receive the new clan’s symbol on the back of their left hand. Those who lacked one or the other hand got their tattoos on the sides of their neck.

Beneath the Freemen were the Awaiting, mostly consisting of juveniles or non-warriors. They had unfilled outlines of their clan Halo. The Awaiting could become Freemen by service… and everyone had to serve. It might have been possible to get by with a volunteer military, assuming they were dedicated enough, but considering how hostile Paradise was, and how hostile the Warhammer Universe was in general, it wouldn’t have been wise. I’d had the Bookers and Beth conduct a carefully census and had Gaius and Bao draft the basic plans for a militia, complete with compulsory military training. While they weren’t going to be my elite forces, the militia would drastically increase the manpower I had available… and would, if the Roman legions were any indication, help in the development of civic infrastructure like roads and dams.

Beneath the Awaiting were those who had actively raised arms against us, the Fallen. Those of the shaven heads and tattooed foreheads, marking their status (an empty Hexagon that slowly gained the lines of a hexagram). They were the unworthy who had risen against the Will of Heaven, dishonoring themselves, and so they would have to work to become Freeman and earn a place in a Clan. Six years, or six acts of distinguished valor or service above and beyond would cleanse the stain… or the acclamation of 6 members of a single Clan, or 4 of different Clans. It was incredibly sexist, but each child born to a woman was worth 2 such acts, with the hope that her children’s’ welfare would bind her more fully to the society. There were many ways to succeed, and many rewards for it as well.

Freemen had the right to marry and raise their own children. Freemen got better quarters and the right to dress those quarters as they saw fit. Freemen could have alcohol or hallucinogens when not on duty (or pregnant). Better weapons and armor, better training, the right to higher education. There wasn’t any money, since there wouldn’t be any commerce, not for the foreseeable future, but there would be Merit, a stand-in earned by service to the community and exchangeable for goods produced by the community.

If there were ways to succeed and reasons to strive, there were also punishments for failure and going against the society. A Fallen could not break the rules, as doing so would cost the Fallen either a year’s further service or 40 lashes, to be administered by their own comrades. Of course, desertion, cowardice, or betrayal carried the harshest penalties.

If a warrior deserted, or rather attempted to, as there wasn’t really anywhere to go, his family would be stripped of honor, even if they were an Elder… unless they brought the deserter back for punishment themselves… at which point the price was the same as for cowardice… being beaten to death by your own comrades. If a unit retreated without orders to do so, or ran from combat, they’d face decimation. Betrayal, i.e. turning on any member of your clan or upon the hierarchy, sabotage, gross or willful negligence… each of these could not be tolerated. This was, for all intents and purposes a stone age culture. They understood life and death and very little else. I had to shape them into a modern and cohesive society… which meant inventing a culture for them to embrace.

The Clans were part of it. I’d stripped them of their old identities, but given them new units, new symbols to embrace. And that was only the start of it. Paradise’s year was 471.09 local days long (each was 21.779 Terran Hours long (1,306.74 minutes), but with a conqueror’s casual disdain for the past, I proclaimed that it was 6 watches long (217.79 minutes), each containing 6 arcs (36.3 minutes) and each arc containing 6 sweeps (6 Minutes)… each of which contained 216 ticks (1.68 seconds)… and since I had the time pieces, I made the rules). I then divided the year into 36 13-day vigils, in groups of 6 called Months, and dedicated the three days that were left over as High Holy Days. The first two were called Penance (which would mark the day of my arrival and the freeing of the Light from the Warp) and then 61 days later (it had actually been 62, but close enough) Ignition, which would mark the day we’d fired up the Warp drive. The third was reserved for Founding (date TBD), which would come once we actually got the first building up at our new city.

The city I’d decided to call ‘Argos’ (place of the ship, related to a long and often dangerous voyage… and my first city under the Magi had been ‘Logos’) would be at a spot not too far outside the Vandean Coast, up on the plateau, where I’d picked a location that lay on a river that flowed near, but not through the Aceria Forest and close to the coast. It wasn’t the cleanest river… nothing on this world was clean, but it would make transporting metals out of the mountains and to the city to be and the nearby factory far simpler. The factory complex was nice… but no place to raise a family. Argos’s site, though in a slight saddle of the highlands, had a nice granite outcropping where we could build a redoubt and a tiered hill to give us height advantage.

With the liturgical calendar established, now all I had to do was create a liturgy. It had to be simple enough to be remembered, because none of these people were literate besides the Kin, and even then they weren’t thaaat literate. That would change, of course, but first I had to actually create a written language that was simple yet flexible, supple and easy to use, yet robust enough to stand up to comparison with Gothic. And, as always, religion, or rather cultural reverence would be a valuable tool to that end.

Language lessons would focus on records and signs at first, but legends and articles of faith would be the bread and butter of the mandatory education everyone would be required to gain. For Freemen, it would be their duty. For Awaiting, a requirement to become Freemen. For Fallen, a right they’d have to earn. Nothing makes people more desperate to learn than being told that their worthiness to do so was in question. Yes, there would be those who fell by the wayside, and I’d regret that, but building a new society was my goal. I literally could not tend directly to each individual. All I could do was shape a society that hopefully would. If nothing else, increased literacy and focus on innovation would, if I were lucky, counter the general Imperial attitude of stagnation, though I was not planning on staying for the centuries or millennia needed to counter the trend of humanity’s decline if I could at all help it. But better to be prepared than not. I was in uncharted ground here.

But on the subject of culture, I made the 13th day of each Vigil into a day of rest, a day for culture and contemplation… and drugs. This was the lynchpin of my plan to keep the culture I was making safe as possible from Chaos without making them soul-less automatons. I made the symbols of my nascent faith the wards and abjurements I’d learned from Grigobritz, the articles of faith and liturgy included techniques designed specifically to reinforce even normal minds against psychic tampering, witchcraft, and daemonic possession, and tattoos of achievement (and warding) were universal, for the “Flesh should bear the markings of accomplishment.” was one of my doctrines.

The drugs were part of that, and the reason was fourfold. First, they created a shared sense of euphoria since they were allowed only on Vigil and made the Vigil ceremonies faar less dull. Second, they made people really look forward to Vigil, and even if they initially were only coming for the drugs, the drugs made them more receptive to what was, let’s face it, indoctrination. I was knowingly creating a cult. Bad me. But what is society besides a cult that lasts long enough to flourish. The third reason was that the Fallen, who were forbidden alcohol all the time, were only permitted to attend the ecstatic rites if they’d been particularly good over the past 12 days, making attendance to religious ceremonies a reward in and of itself.

The last reason was, if anything, even creepier than the first three combined… I was deliberately nurturing a tau, not in the alien sense, but in the Fremen sense. A community of shared experience… shared thought… and deep consciousness programming. I needed my people to be resistant to Chaos, not on the conscious level, but on the subconscious, the reflexive layer where even a nascent psyker would form their thoughts into a protective bubble. I was programming the wards and meditations into my people’s very psyches.

All of this was in service of a single goal. I needed my followers to have faith in me, faith in each other, faith that we could overcome all adversity. They had to want to learn to read, had to want to follow me, had to want to become the seed of a new culture… a culture that embraced the same ideals I did. Duty, responsibility to others, acknowledgement of one’s own limits, and cooperation to overcome them.

Without such things, modernization of the military would be impossible, establishing a civilian infrastructure and transportation network would be impossible, universal healthcare would be impossible. With such things, it was my hope that I’d be able to get my followers up to the standard of at least the Imperial Guard within a few years, and possibly beyond that in a few more. It was my hope to build a city that had all the things a city might need… courthouses, sewers, public maintenance and public records… they might seem pointless, but they are the backbone of development. Effective transportation was just as important… and keeping everyone healthy was just… a sick worker cannot work, a sick soldier cannot fight, and a sick child destroys morale. This Universe was not kind to the unprepared. I would not be that.

I ordered the construction of roads, canals, landing zones for air and space vehicles… as well as hospitals and clinics, and even descended from on high to personally instruct my fledgeling medical teams and first responders, while issuing all manner of religious decrees that were secretly health and safety instructions. “Every Morning, upon rising, thou shalt do 200 jumping jacks in praise of the Sky Mother who dwells on High Hephaestus.”

This wasn’t to say that I foresaw everything. I’d run a galaxy spanning mega-empire. I was familiar with a lot of this stuff… but not infallible. In the early days, as we were just getting the Vandean Coast up and running, I failed to take into account slag storage issues… and my oversight cost three men their lives and could have been much worse had the slag-alanche been worse. That kept me up for several nights, before I decided what we needed was a comprehensive and yet failsafe set of disaster response guidelines. Emergency supply caches were added to fire suppression and first aid points, and crisis presponse teams were created to not only do spot inspections on a regular basis but to also be ready to provide relief whenever the need arose… up to and including hostile action and sabotage.

I also instituted periodic retesting of all certification holders. Laxness would not be tolerated or encouraged. People would understand what they were doing and why, or I’d know the reasons and punish the guilty.

The incident also showed me that I needed a way of reducing pollution, and that meant going green… or rather purplish-grey. It meant taking a small hit in productivity, but by recycling, refining, and distilling as much of the effluvia as possible, we were actually stretching our resources further than we otherwise would have.

And speaking of resources… what was, perhaps, weirdest of all was that forest I mentioned earlier, Aceria. Somehow the plants of the area had been changed by the long ago exposure to Chaos, transforming them into hundreds of useful forms found nowhere else. Rare fungi that processed nitrogen a hundred times better than normal mushrooms. Plants that had sap that could easily be converted into kerosine. Berries whose seeds were just like pop-rocks. Leaves that were made of an Aramid Fiber that made Kevlar look like tissue paper… But of all of these, Steelstalk Bushes were the prize of prizes. It was a plant with metallic leaves that could drain metals from the ground and exude them as readily smeltable rods, and it made mining easier than I’d ever dreamed possible.

So that was my life now. Overseeing the repairs to a massive starship, teaching classes (medicine, governance, social theory, hand to hand) to those who would teach classes to others in turn, and trying to entertain three four year olds whose toys and yummy snacks and snuggle pets had vanished… oh… did I say three… yes, I meant three. Apparently Cirno, the idiot fairy, had gotten with… whatever fairies get with, at some point and then hidden said child from me cause she was convinced I’d be angry… and I was. 4 years… 4 YEARS… dumb ass fairy had this poor kid convinced that papa was a ogre… yes, Cirno told the kid (whose name was Amaryllis) I was an actual ogre who breathed frost and boomed like thunder. Half the time she just hid from me. She also hid from her somewhat older siblings, as she was convinced they’d make fun of her for being a fairy instead of a real person.

If it wouldn’t have wouldn’t have reinforced Cirno’s teachings, I’d have screamed and raged at the idiotic fairy… but instead I just sighed and banged my head against a bulkhead. Great. I was an Ogre to a child and a Saviour to a bunch of childlike adults. I don’t know which bothered me more. But both were duties I had to tend to.

The first was deeply frustrating, since even the kindest word could send Amaryllis scampering for safety, and sometimes she’d start to cry for no reason… and then others, she’d demand snuggles as if to prove to herself that I wasn’t going to eat her… or something. I wasn’t good at reading children, and she was weird even for a child. Alex was hyperactive and loved physical activity. Maggie was calmer than her-half brother, and more interested in mechanical things. Amaryllis was quiet and emotional. And once all three were together, I think they could have given the Ruinous Powers a run for their money.

As to tending to the second, once every thirteen days I’d descend from upon high, both to swap out which group of Elders I was instructing, and to inspect everything that had been done in the last 10 days. That took two days, and then I conducted religious services for the community. Mostly in a modified form of liturgical hebrew, both for the power of the language and for the whole mystery cult aspect.

Choosing hebrew, a language dead over 30 millenia, for prayer, both felt right and served to push the idea of a new common tongue. Most of my followers had fairly limited vocabulary, so creating a ‘new’ language to unify them all made sense. That technical stuff was written in one language and secret stuff of the divine was in another wasn’t an issue… since I simply stole all the important technical terms from High Gothic, but changed the pronunciation to fit hebrew. 10,000 years of linguistic drift had left even the Kin with a pretty poor pronunciation guide. I did cheat however. I stole the Japanese version of hash marks to give everyone a counting system that had decimal… okay, heximal (yes, it was a base 6 number system, for reasons that will make all kinds of sense if you think about it.)… value.  Hebrew numerics used the letters themselves, and while that made for all kind of nested meaning, it was annoying and less useful than just being able to do columnar maths.

Math and Language, Medicine and Religion, Unity and their own (almost infinitely vast… at least to those who’d always lived in places bounded on all sides) world… these were my gifts to the people of the Light. The were the pillars of my society, though couched in the terms Philosophy, Ideology, Vitality, Community, Unity, & Society.

To the Tarellians who we continually warred with, my gifts were a continued string of overtures of peace and offers to trade. We never attacked them as long as they didn’t cross into our areas in force, and left all but those initial communities in peace. Slowly, trade with them was becoming more than just a pipe dream, though we never sold them high tech weapons, as the attacks were much more common than traders… at least initially.

The city rose with impressive speed, a speed I’d have expected out of Starfleet, not primitives with guns… but the Lejen and Kin had each known their shit and (to be honest) being outside made them feel exposed. Within a month, we had enough barracks for everyone dirtside and everyone was off the Light. Within three, we had industry up and running, pumping out raw materials and tools, as well as defensive plating by the metric ton (before that our defenses had mostly been the landers.

By the end of the first year, we had a fully functional city, and while a full half of the Vandean Coast’s massive output was being diverted to Hephaestus, the rest was pouring out into a ring of defensive emplacements which would have given Space Marines pause… not a lot of it, but some. And more were coming online as fast as we could install them. Part of it was the fact that the city was laid out not for the people we had, but to be the capital of an entire planet.

All the architecture was designed to look as un-Imperial as possible. Few Aquilae, no gargoyles, no useless flared buttresses or spires. Lots of hebraic capitals, lots of moorish minarets (often containing gun-nests), lots of flared roof edges in the asian tradition, lots of Gaudi-style colonnades and galleries. Symbols replaced gargoyles, hexagrams replaced skulls, green and white replaced black and gold. And utility was the watchword everywhere.

Mixed use districts were designed in such a way that the city was full of interlocking support zones, with public spaces and fixed hard points salted in with killing zones that doubled as avenues or shopping arcades. Supply depots were decentralized, aid stations were always a minimal distance away, and everywhere was a 10 minute walk to a park… even if finding things to fill those parks with wasn’t the easiest thing… mostly it was crop plants… but a few of the local flora-fungi were safe for this kind of thing.

And at the center of the city was the massive fortified bastion that was The Tabernacle. It was part courthouse, part mausoleum, part city hall… and all castle. Every part of its (very not Gothic) exterior was designed for holding off a siege, while the interior was mostly a giant empty space that could be filled with pews or gun-turrets at need. The sublevels sank deep into the bedrock and the entire thing was riddled with secret passages and defensive hardpoints and weapons lockers. It was a redoubt, covered in layers of interlocked weaponry and symbols of power… with anti-siege and anti-air capacity. That it was also where the Corpsegrinder was stored (Soylent Purple is PEOPLE!) which meant that, as long as the subterranean power feeds from the Geocore weren’t cut, the food would last pretty much forever… biomass is biomass.

Keeping out the Tarellians and the local Mega-Fauna was enough to keep my people always on the defensive, and every work crew always had guards nearby. It did double duty, keeping the potentially rebellious element watched… and making them grateful for it. Harvesting in the Aceria was the hardest zone, but we were transplanting as much of the useful plantstuff as we could, rather than plowing them under.

Every species in the Forest was studied for three qualities; utility, safety, and danger to others. If it had any of those three, we were interested. Barbed wire plants, exploding tree-fruit, glowing seed pods that hummed lightly… all had their uses. There was even weird fauna mixed in with the unnatural plants. A thing that looked like a sheep (though it was actually closer to a spider), that grew an aramid fiber that looked like wool but was thrice as soft, yet could be treated and processed to make fireproof, lightweight, and very strong fabric. A beaver-analog whose teeth were diamondoid hard and could be easily turned to all sorts of cutting tasks. A pill-bug like creature that was an excellent source of gelatine… what? Jell-o is important stuff!

I had a burgeoning city full of kids (good lord was our birthrate high… over 90% of the women got pregnant that first season.) The adults had never eaten this well in their lives, nor had such good health care, and all the physical effort needed was keeping everyone lean and in excellent condition. Even the Pale Sons, Redeemers, and Void Walkers were looking better. It’s amazing what vitamins and radiation therapy can do.

There were so many kids, in fact, that the Tabernacle also became the defacto daycare 12 days of the cycle. Which was, in many ways, a good thing, since it had the best internal atmosphere. Building every building with an airlock was a pain in the neck, and leak sensors were a definite priority. But I had a plan for that too… well… three of them.

Paradise needed a thicker atmosphere, and quick. That meant Nitrogen and Oxygen and (if I could get it) Argon. Thankfully, I had a lot of transport ships designed to bring huge cargos from one place to another. So I sent them harvesting. Space Ice can be found in all manner of places, from comets to the rings of gas giants to ice moons.  And I tasked every lander that wasn’t full of people to try and bring in as much ice as possible.

See, Ice is largely Oxygen and Hydrogen, and if you’ve got power, splitting them is dead simple. And we had power to burn. It also gave us a huge amount of hydrogen for fuel cells, and even if we didn’t convert even half the ice, that was water for all sorts of things… including atmospheric water vapor. Earth’s atmosphere is 77% Nitrogen, 20% Oxygen, 2% Water vapor, and 1% Argon. With other trace elements for good or bad.

If Paradise were a cold world, pumping greenhouse gases would be optimal, but it wasn’t (don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t warm… it just wasn’t frozen). Still, loads of water vapor would be good. And spreading Terran Crops which would use all that fixed nitrogen was excellent. So excellent, that I was pushing a full range study of what crops would do it fastest without our intervention… and then dumping their seeds all over the place.

And the third method was to just dump all the oxygen and nitrogen we could pull out of the ground into the air as fast as we could.

All of which would take decades… but who knew how long we’d be here for… and boy did I miss Velma’s scientific mind. Tokimi was brilliant too, of course, but also a bit lazy and bossy.  I put her in charge of the kids. Not my kids, the rest of the colony’s kids. Someone had to do it and she looked mostly harmless but was vicious when she needed to be and extremely good at dealing with them on an emotional level. I had to wonder if that’s because she thought of almost everyone as childlike compared to her… but then again, Washu and Tsunami also acted fairly childlike a lot of the time.

As for my own children… How best to explain? I’ll give you a glimpse of what that was like. At around the second year mark… I found my personal quarters (planetside) full of Speeps (spider-sheep). About twenty of them. Some of them clinging to the ceiling fixtures. Speeps are essentially harmless. They scrape moss off of rocks and trees for food, and are bad at it. Like… giant pandas bad at breeding bad at it. They were easily domesticable because all it takes to make one like you was shaving moss for them. Feed them and they clustered round you in large fluffy masses. The largest source danger they represented was that of being smothered by them, but even that wasn’t likely. They had no natural predators thanks to the density of their wool, which promised anyone who tried to take a bite a mouthful of fluff. And their carapaces were hard enough to keep out anything small enough to bypass the wool. The only thing that killed them in the wild was fungal infection, so domestic Speeps were routinely treated with an antifungal agent. They were also stupid… which means that they hadn’t found their way into my quarters on their own.

A hundred eyes moved to me as I opened my door (it’s not as impressive once I tell you that Speeps have 4 eyes each… two large black gemlike visible light eyes and two small yellow IR eyes.). Six of those eyes, however, did not belong to Speeps, but rather to human children, human children who were very slowly trying to sink down into the Speeps as if hoping that I hadn’t noticed them. Amaryllis’s eyes were wide with terror, and she squeaked “It was Alex’s idea!” when I looked at her.

Alex muttered “fink” but Maggie bopped him with a plastic sword and he glowered at her.

“She’s not a fink… it was your idea, Alexander,” the tiny dark haired girl announced gravely.

“Yeah, well… papa didn’t need to know that,” the brat of the group muttered darkly.

“Papa knows everything,” Amaryllis squeaked from under the Speep that had just fallen off the lighting fixture on top of her. It was okay; they only weigh about 12 kilos and are covered in twenty to thirty centimeters of padding.

“If Papa knew everything, you wouldn’t have to tell her things,” Maggie pointed out, rolling the Speep off her sister.

“Papa is standing right here… and wondering why there are four hands of Speeps in my quarters?” (Four hands… 4×6… 24… see note on Magi Fingercounting below) “and why you thought it was a good idea to… never mind… never mind… you three have your own rooms… and are supposed to be in them… on Hephaestus.”

“We were gonna smuggle Speeps up to the station!” Alex announced, and his sisters nodded enthusiastically.

“Why?”

“Because they’re soft!” Amaryllis declared happily, then blushed.

“We wanted to make you a present,” Maggie said, not sounding like she was sucking up, but also not sounding completely certain what they could have made with Speep Fluff that would actually require having the entire Speep now that she’d thought about it.

“I thought it would be funny to train them to stalk Auntie Tokimi and Lady Regina!” the brat added, helpfully not helping.

“Speeps don’t stalk anyone,” I pointed out. “They’re almost completely useless.”

“We could get Shroomzoomers,” Alex said, referring to the small, vicious, lizardlike creatures that lived in some of the dense mushroom forests.

“Those are poisonous!” Amaryllis squeaked in horror.

“Venomous, dumb dumb,” Maggie said.

“Don’t call your sister dumb-dumb, Mags,” I chided.

“What’s the difference between Poisonous and Venomous?” Amaryllis asked.

“If bites you and you die, it’s venomous. If you bite it and you die, it’s poisonous,” Maggie pedantically explained.

“What if it bites me and it dies?” Alex asked, lifting a Speep to find where he’d dropped his fungus-wood shield. The kid was pretty strong.

“That mean’s you’re poisonous,” Maggie said, not quite adding ‘as if we didn’t know that already.’

He paused to consider his next question, then smiled and asked, “What if it bites itself and I die?” Little smart ass.

Amaryllis waved her hand, “Ooo… oo! I know! That means it’s magic!”

“What if it bites me and someone else dies?” Alex asked, sounding smug.

“That’s correlation not causation,” Maggie said, showing off how smart she was… great kid, I was totally that way as a child… shut up.

“What if we bite each other and neither of us die?” Amaryllis asked, sounding worried.

“That sounds like tuesday,” I sighed. “Now you three are going to help clean up this mess and put the Speeps back in their pens, right?”

The trio looked at me, horror on their tiny faces, and (as one), asked the question that was as old as time, “DO WE GOTTA?”

I regarded the trio, raising an eyebrow. “Did you make the mess?” They looked around and Alex opened his mouth to claim it was the Speeps who made the mess technically, but Amaryllis, fundamentally good kid that she is, beat him to the punch.

“Yes papa,” she sighed, scuffing the floor with one of her slippers.

“If you make a mess, you should try and clean it, not expect others to do it for you. You’re getting big, so that’s something you should try and remember. And if your mess causes other people problems, you should tell them you’re sorry. Unless you meant to cause them problems. Then you should laugh at them and point out that they’re stupid. But only do that to people who really deserve it.” What? Stop looking at me like that! I’m a parent, not a saint. Also a fairly warlike and often vindictive and occasionally supervillainous parent.

Getting the trio back to the station required a special trip and meant I’d be grumpy at services the next day, but the relief on Frankie’s and Mini’s faces was worth the trip and lack of sleep. Cirno, who’d apparently been convinced she and Amaryllis were playing Hide & Seek, blamed me for spoiling the game. Can’t win everything.

Next: Light of Terra, Part 3

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Resources: Build (eventually), Document

On Magi Handcounting

Hold your right hand, palm facing you, thumb along the palm, fingers folded in. Strike that with your left hand closed in the same fashion, but with the length of the thumb parallel with the right wrist. This is Zero, or a new number.

  • 1. extend your right index finger and tap the front of it with the front of your left fist.
  • 2. as 1 but extend your left index finger and use it to tap your right index finger, front to front
  • 3. as 2 but extending both left index and middle fingers.
  • 4. as 2 but extending your left index, middle, and ring fingers.
  • 5. as 2 but extending all four  lefthand fingers.
  • 6. as 2 but spreading your left hand wide.
  • 7-12. repeat 1-6 but with right index and middle fingers extended and being tapped.
  • 13-18. repeat 1-6 but with right index, middle, and ring fingers extended and being tapped.
  • 19-24. repeat 1-6 but with all four righthand fingers extended and being tapped.
  • 25-48. repeat 1-24 but with your right thumb raised.
  • 49-96. repeat 1-48, but have your left hand reversed so both palms face you.
  • 97-192. repeat 1-96, but touch your right arm’s inner wrist instead of the hand.
  • 193-288. repeat 1-96, but touch your right arm’s inner arm just below the elbow instead of the hand.
  • 289-576. repeat 1-288, but touching your left hand to the outside of your right hand/arm instead of the inside.
  • 577-1152. repeat as 1-576 with the hands switched.

Negative numbers can be generated by inverting your catching hand (right for 1-576, left for 577-1152). Multiple numbers can be generated incredibly rapidly in this way over the battlefield or in the marketplace. Larger numbers can be generated by striking the catching hand when it is closed with the throwing hand displaying various fingers. This is often used as a shorthand for orders of magnitude in heximal.

  • x6. palm to palm, left index raised. this is essentially adding a zero to the end of the following number.
  • x36. palm to palm, left index & middle raised. this is essentially adding two zeroes to the end of the following number
  • x216. palm to palm, left index, middle, & ring finger raised.
  • x1,296. palm to palm, all left fingers raised.
  • x7,776. palm to palm. left hand spread.
  • x46,656. both palms facing the counter, both fists clenched. doing this twice in a row is an insulting gesture, calling someone fat.
  • x279,936. as 46,656 but with left index finger raised.
  • x1,679,616. as 46,656 but with left index & middle finger raised.
  • x10,077,696. as 46,656 but with left index, middle, and ring finger raised.
  • x60,466,176. as 46,656 but with all left fingers raised.
  • x362,797,056. as 46,656 but with left but with left hand spread.

Next comes the hands back to back (the inverse of zero, that being back of left fist striking back of right fist, being 6^12… it is important to remember that in heximal, writing in arabic numerals, 6 would be written as 10, 36 as 100, and 216 as 1000. Thus, the space below 6 is 0), which generates up to 6^24, then the left hand striking the back of the right hand to go up to 6^48… then the entire process repeats with the left hand catching and the right hand throwing to go all the way up to 6^96… though numbers this high are only practiced as children’s games wherein one person will throw out a rapid series of handsigns and the children will try and either repeat them or write them down in a list correctly. There are also operand signs for subtraction, division, fractions, exponents, square roots, pi and tau, and many others, but those are even more obscure. Few of my people are mathematical geniuses… yet.

If it seems overly complex, that is the intention. While the ability to generate almost any common number with minimal ambiguity has its own utility, the games possible with this form of handcounting are the primary purpose and were introduced in order to each barely math literate savages (and children) counting and mathematical concepts in such a way that they would want to learn. Games make everything fun. If one needs proof of that, simply look at all the train and logistics based games out there.

It is important to maintain the orientation of hands so that the throwing hand is vertical and the catching hand is horizontal, otherwise ambiguity can crop up. All other handsigns in the extensive magi handsign language are generated with the hands either separate or crossed diagonally, so that numbers are clearly differentiated from words and concepts.

If one is wondering why such an extensive handsign system is needed at all… the atmosphere outside is barely breathable and speaking through respirators is problematic. Of course, there is a simplified single hand lingo for when you have a tool in one hand, including a simplified handcounting system, wherein one touches the thumb and a finger together in a specific way to generate a number between 1 and 24. in each group, the thumb touches the fingers from pinkie inward, then repeats that order in the next group.

  • 1-4 are generated by tapping the base the finger with the thumb tip… though in practice it is usual to tap the middle of the finger instead of the actual base due to the thickness of gloves. One lives and learns.
  • 5-8 are generated by pressing the pads of the finger to the pad of the thumb.
  • 9-12 are generated by touching the tip of the thumb to the pad of the finger.
  • 13-16 are the reverse, touching the pad of the thumb to the tip of the finger.
  • 17-20 are generated by touching the thumb to the flat of the nail of the finger.
  • 21-24 are the reverse, touching the pad of the finger to the flat of the thumbnail.

Larger numbers must be generated via combinatorics.

If this seems outrageous, the English Monk / Historian Bede (c. 725.ME01) had a system called Tractatus de computo, vel loquela per gestum digitorum (an essay on computation via gestures of the fingers) through which it was possible to count up to 9,999 on two hands which was used throughout Europe in the middle ages. The arabic mathematician Abu’l-wafa al-Buzajani gave rules for performing complex operations (including approximating the square root) and there were even pedagogical poems dealing with fingercounting across Eurasia.

Author’s Notes

Again, the design of the (quite frankly epic) Light of Terra Jump (which is spread across no less than 8 parts) implies that the jumper isn’t making conscious choices, or at least that’s my take on it. As such, it’s more about doing what I’d do naturally and expending CP accordingly. What makes the second section all the trickier is that it has two different build sections; Terraforming and Skills & Abilities. The Terraforming section utilizes Terraforming Points (TP) while the Skills section uses the more standard Character Points (CP). It is important to note that, in Light of Terra, CP is only required to balance across all parts of the Jump (7/8ths of them use CP) so individual sections will not balance. This is also why I’m not posting the complete build on my build page until the entire thing is finished.

Actually, I lied. There are four sections. One deals with the companion gained in the first part, while the other is a mandatory complication that will arise much later on in the decade. Since neither of these sections become important (or even come up) in this chapter, I’ll save the details for later, so as to not spoil any surprises.

Build Notes

Terraforming Options: Strictly speaking, this section says “There is a cache of pre-heresy terraforming equipment aboard Hephaestus Orbital Repair Platform, technology not seen for close to ten thousand years. This may very well be the last of its kind in existence, and you get to use it to customise the world you will call your own.” So, yes, I could have detailed my choices that way… except that most of the choices possible don’t really make sense as something anyone would pick, or are clearly pre-existing structures. With that in mind, I decided to go with the the choices as already spent and SJ having no real input in the long since completed process. This also works as it isn’t actually possible to build a nice world using the TP system, because one starts with Zero TP and must finish at Zero or Above.

Atmosphere: There is no break-even option here. Gaia Class costs 3 TP, Standard costs 2, and Terraformable (the option I went with) costs 1. Toxic and Hellworld get you 2 or 3 back respectively, but are spectacularly not worth it. A poor but breathable atmosphere that can be improved with hard work is doable. Anything better is a waste of points. Anything worse is just asking to fail.

Terrain: Here there are not one but three zero-cost options; Jungle, Iceball, and Swampy. Iceball had some nice chemical elements, but would have made colonization of the surface a problem. Jungle was good for beasts of burden, but not much else. Swampy was excellent for biodiversity and extremely good for defense. Picking it was a no brainer. I certainly wasn’t going to take Barren, which made the world lifeless, no matter how many points it was worth (3). On the flipside, Perfect was again a waste of points (3) and while Mountainous was good for resources and defenses, the effort in having to dig in was prohibitive… as was the 1 TP cost.

Flora and Fauna: In the third category is where I paid for things. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally, the author of the jump does not state that only one option can be taken in each category. Some options are clearly contradictory, but it could be argued that a Barren Iceball would be a valid combination, as would, say, a Swampy Jungle. And it could be argued that I probably have described Paradise as more a Swampy Jungle than a pure Swampy… but as both are zero-cost, that matters little. There are two options in the F&F section that cost TP; Garden of Eden (3 TP) and Terran (1 TP)… and both would be wonderful for a planet that wasn’t meant to be the basis for a mining operation in the Warhammer 40K universe. This is not a pleasure planet or a shrine world. This is a Death World. To quote Frank Herbert “God Created Arrakis to Train the Faithful!” and that’s what I’m aiming for. To that end, I selected two of the four bad options; Land of the Giants (+2 TP) and Unpleasant (+2 TP)… which is a bit of a cheat to be honest. Land of the Giant explicitly makes all the flora tiny and insanely fast growing, while making the fauna all megafauna (carnivores included)… while Unpleasant replaces the majority of all plants with foul looking and stinking fungus, including giant mushrooms spreading poison spores and playing host to large worms and other annelids. It’s gross, but (combined with a Terraformable atmosphere that already requires breathing gear outside, and the already morale sapping swamps, it means any invader besides Tyranids will have a problem or three). Of the other two, Bad Batch File wasn’t worth it and couldn’t be taken with Swampy, Jungle, or Iceball (and covered the world in algae), and while I might have taken Deathworld from the name… the fact that (+3 TP or not) it meant the world was home to feral Tyranids made it decidedly a no go choice.

Native Life: This is described as the ‘Optional Section’, which means you don’t have to take anything from it, and two of the options are either useless (the zero cost and very weird Thyrrus who consider war a performance art) or cost prohibitive and immoral (the 3 TP Zoats who are a slave race). However, taking the +3 TP Tarellians (who hate humans and are incredibly hostile) provides both potential converts… I can be persuasive… and a constant enemy to be watchful of. For a return in TP. This is called a Win-Win.

Special Resources: For some reason not considered Optional, this is what the lion’s share of those hoarded TP are for. I went into this section with 6 TP and almost considered taking Deathworld anyway just to get 3 TP more. Among the items I didn’t pick up were an automated factory designed to churn out an endless string of Leman Russ pattern Battletanks (these things can run on anything that burns and are fairly awesome. I didn’t pick them because they’re better on offence than defense and I don’t plan on invading any planets besides this one), an archeotech hoard of 200 plasma weapons (not even vaguely worth it), a world wide ancient war machine graveyard (tempting, as it is an excellent source of scrap metal and potential salvage), and a planet scale teleportation grid. What I did get was the Geocore (unlimited energy supply), the Vandean Coast (a massive imperial manufacturing center that isn’t automated, but should be far more useful than the Battletank plant), The Corpse Grinder (I have waaay too much biomass around here. Using it to make unlimited food is a good thing!) , and the Aceria Forest… which is awesome from both a resource standpoint and a writing standpoint. Still, even without the three extra points, I’m decently happy with how Paradise turned out.

Skills and Abilities: Thankfully, this section comes with a 1000 CP stipend, otherwise I’d have had to find more drawbacks… and there really aren’t that many in the whole LoT MegaJump. As it was, from a powergaming standpoint, I clearly spent way too many points in this section, buying 1900 of the 2500 CP worth of options… pretty much none of which will be useful outside of building the colony on this world. Everything in this section could be easily handwaved away as being a ‘No Duh’ thing to do if you’re founding a civilization… and as the former head of a galaxy spanning culture, I could easily have just said ‘Oh, of course I do that! I don’t need to spend the CP on it… except I wanted to do this straight and the guarantees that came with each thing would easily help make survival, not just for my Jumpself but for the colonists a much more feasible task. The Magi didn’t have to rise to power on a Hell World.

I didn’t bother with Aggressive Actions or Defensive Tactics. Both of those I was comfortable handwaving. I know strategy and I’m not an idiot. Military Modernization and universal Literacy Program were the most expensive things I took, each costing 300 CP. The first ensured that I’d be able to equip my entire colony to the standards of the Imperial Guard, something that was not at all a guarantee without it and not something to be scoffed at, while the second all but allows my colony to overcome the technological stagnation of the rest of the Warhammer 40K universe and (in theory and with much time) to rebuild to Dark Age of Technology levels.

Among the many 200 CP options I took were Pollution Standards (increased resource utility for a slight hit in productivity), Universal Draft (improved civilian infrastructure and available manpower… with the implicit bonus that the people accept such a draft unconditionally), Universal Healthcare (a fiat guarantee of overall health levels rising and illness rates dropping spectacularly… helps offset the climate), and Catastrophe Recovery (a guarantee that any sort of emergency can and will be dealt with quickly and easily… including hostile action). But the most useful was ‘Cultural Monopolization’, which means that those who follow me (including mixed species groups) will be merged into a single collective culture that works. Where there should be conflict, unity. Where there should be disharmony, order… and my values will quickly come to be the dominant ones among my followers. It was a no brained.

Also a no brainer was the 100 CP ‘Unwavering Belief’ which turned me into a figure of veneration and doubled down on the whole “believe what I believe” thing. Tossing in the Civilian Infrastructure (everything works perfectly) and Transport Networks (things just get a bit easier) might have been much, since they don’t really do anything that couldn’t be waved away… but it’s good faith that they do something, so I’ll assume they do. Good storytelling too. I’d have them, I should pay for them, right? Who knows. It’s 200 CP. I’ll cope with the loss.

World 61: The Light of Terra, Part 1

THE LIGHT OF TERRA, A WARHAMMER 40K GAUNTLET

PART 1: The Barque of the Forsaken

Previously: Unto Us is Given

Themesong: The Sound of Silence by Disturbed

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I awaken in darkness. The air… tastes… bitter… stale… too thin… coppery… hard to breath… tastes like blood. The lights flicker on… but they’re dim, unsteady… barely enough to show me the metal walls and floor, both caked with dust and brittle with rust, they crackle under my hands… my head pounds… I’m in my default form… no idea where I am… my memory palace has been reduced to a mnemonic trick, nothing like its normal grandeur… all my senses seem dulled. Can’t open the way to the Warehouse… can’t contact my companions… I don’t think… nothing’s working. No magic… no telekinesis… it’s cold… oh god, I can feel the cold… and the gravity feels off. Where am I? I’m not back on Earth. This is… nothing is making sense. I’m… why… no… not the time.

I try to find an exit. It’s all I can do for now. No explanation… not enough air to do more than stumble… and then, between one stumbling sliding step in the silvery sand and the next, my ears pop and there’s a flicker of reality. A vending machine is there for a moment, static like an old black and white TV coursing down its surface, words I can’t quite make out on the screen… too garbled… too far. Then reality flickers again and the machine is gone.

I just stare for a long, long time, then reach for the wall… but I’ve slid down the strangely angled floor… picking up speed… what was that? Felt like a soap bubble… oh god… I’m in vacuum… Fuuck… I’m going to die. Not like this! Not like-

There’s a flash across my vision… a… a sense of possibilities, of… of something unfolding… and I stop… I just… stop… standing on nothing, surrounded by nothing. For a moment I have no idea how or why… then something brushes my mind… a fleeting contact with something other… I know this sensation… it’s telepathy… and the source is… smug… so very very smug. An overpowering sense of self, of confidence in its own competence, and a thought not my own forms inside my mind.

~Why does a sudden awareness of your ignorance surprise you, Mon’Keigh?~

Oh… good… god. I know where I am. I’m in hell… no… sorry, that’s not right. I’m in Warhammer 40K… hell would be nicer. There aren’t innocents in hell. I have no idea how I got here, or what’s going on, but somehow, somehow, I know that somewhere, a being known as Malice or Malal is watching. He is the God of Chaos Eating Itself… and somehow, somehow… this is all his fault. Everything is always his fault… But before I can formulate that opinion as more than vague supposition… my thoughts move so slow… my brain is flesh and blood again, electrical impulses sliding through a chemical stew instead of… of… quantum packets gliding along hyperfractal ice matrices… before I can begin to clear my head to think actual thoughts, he… she… my rescuer… an Eldar… because only 40K Eldar call humans “MonKeigh”… insufferable gits… stands in front of me.

He… she… is glorious… perfectly formed, eternal and unchanging and more beautiful than Tolkien could have pictured… no… it’s not real… this is artifice. I know psi powers… this is presence, psychic manipulation… she… he… is messing with my head. Like a Ventrue using presence… there have to be… what… fifteen ways to circumvent it… just… just have to concentrate… so… hard… still can’t breathe…

And then the contact breaks, the effect ends… oh, sweet Moses… he really is that good looking… and that is the smuggest smile I’ve ever seen. She… I’m going to go with She.. is holding a suit of armor draped over one arm. Looks like a cross between chainmail and lizard scales, but even shinier. There’s a… wall… an endless wall behind her and we’re moving closer to it, the edges of this bubble of air barely visible as they distort light.

~My name, MonKeigh, is Carwyn. I am an Eldar Warlock. I have decided to save you from your impending fate. Consider yourself blessed.~

At least this I know how to respond to. ~Thank you, Carwyn. Where the hell are we?~

~The wreckage of MonKeigh vessel of vast size.~

~AH… excellent.~

~You sound pleased. Why?~ And then the sensation of someone rifling through my mind and memories… and then the sound of Carwyn actively choking. The sphere flickers, then firms back up as we pass back through the shattered hull section. The armor is hundreds of meters thick, but the rent in it is like a chasm between two skyscrapers.

~Yeah… you shouldn’t try reading my memories… I don’t think your mind can easily handle everything that’s in there… I can’t either right now.~

~How can a MonKeigh have so much information… so many memories?~

~I’ve lived for nearly 14,000 years and read literally tens of millions of books. I have experienced the collected literature of dozens of races, the histories and philosophy of thousands of cultures. I… am much reduced from what I was a few hours ago.~

~Then you are doubly lucky to have me to protect you. You’re a mystery… and you owe me a ship.~

~I do? How so?~

~Your arrival fuzed all the systems in my scout craft… I assume it was your arrival. There was a brilliant flash and a vast rent in the fabric of the Warp opened and gouged the hull of the ship. I was pulled through from my place to this place.~

~In a ship that no longer works.~

~Indeed. But never fear! I had a premonition I’d be acquiring a new pet today, so I brought you a-~

~You did not just call me a pet.~ My mindvoice was as cold as it was possible for me to project, despite the fact that I wasn’t actually broadcasting.

~Yes!~ Carwyn seemed insufferably pleased with herself… himself?… no… better to be consistent than right. A foolish consistency is… I forget the rest… ~I have decided that you shall be my pet and I shall call you-~

I crossed the intervening space between us without a thought, acting on generations of training and muscle memory and grabbed the pistol from Carwyn’s belt. I spoke for the first time “You. Don’t. Get. To. Name. Me.” I panted from the effort, the weapon was strangely the right size for my small hands, not for Carwyn’s much larger hands. I was back down to 4’10”, while the Eldar was over six feet, though only ever so slightly less slender than myself for all the difference. “I… am… SJ. and I could crush you with a thought if… if…~

~Yes… well… ~ She tapped the barrel of the strange sidearm away from herself and handed over the armor ~We can do that later. It sounds fascinating. But first you should put this on so we can get moving… it has an independent air supply and will keep you warm… and from getting punctured.~

“I… don’t… think… your… clothes… will… fit… me~ The thought, which had started out spoken, had transitioned to pure thought as I ran completely out of air. I took the suit and studied it… then struggled out of the jeans and running shoes I was wearing and that I don’t remember owning… was this what I had been wearing before… before… where had I been right before this? Couldn’t remember… too many holes forming in my memories… too much… best not to think… thoughts… It was strange getting undressed in front of this creepy ass Elf as she smirked at me, but there wasn’t any way I could pull the suit on over my clothing. I was about to pull the sweatshirt I was wearing over my head when I felt a tug and my panties tore off my hips and floated into Carwyn’s hand. She sniffed them, eyes twinkling, then tucked them into a hip pouch, mentally laughing at my outrage.

I glowered, which only made her smirk more, but pulled on the skin tight suit… realizing as I did so that I knew what it was called. It was Guardian Mesh Armour, perfectly sized for me, formed from tens of thousands of individual pieces of thermoplas interwoven to produce a dense material something like chainmail, but much more advanced. When hit, Mesh armor becomes momentarily rigid, spreading the force of the blow across a larger area, thereby reducing the damage. It also had excellent heat dispersal qualities, making it decently protective against energy weapons. It was a psycho-sensitive material as well, flowing with me as I moved, reacting, giving and slipping in just the right way to maintain a glove-tight fit no matter what. It was like… being groped everywhere at once, snug, silky smooth inside, and impossible to ignore. It showed every single curve to maximum effect. Fucking elves. The helmet went on last… air has never tasted as sweet… and the inner lenses let me see the shapes of things far better as they enhanced the edges of everything and pushed back the darkness. Faint heat signs were visible and Carwyn was in much more vivid color, clearly an indication of her relative heat to the surrounding environment.

I also realized I knew just how to holster the sidearm… a Tuelean, a standard Eldar weapon, firing razor-sharp monomolecular discs capable of slicing through flesh and penetrating a consider thickness of plasteel… MonKeigh… no… humans… sometimes called them star slingers, slingers, sling guns… or more formally Shuriken Catapults. I decided to name it “The Scorpion”.

“You’re implanting knowledge in my head.” I stated.

“OOOh. Very good! Such a smart Mon-” I kicked her in the shin. “Owww! Why did you do that?”

“Don’t be insulting, you great creepy knife ear. You don’t insult me, I don’t bruise your shins. How about we treat each other as if we actually believe the other is our equal and worthy of respect?”

“That’s not any fun! How can anyone be my equal?”

“I know. I’d have to lower my standards.”

“How rude!”

“Yeah… that’s me. Rude, crude, and mostly immortal. Now… two things. First, ask if it’s okay before you go putting thoughts and memories into my head. I don’t need you overwriting something I might need.”

“Fiiiiiine. I’ll try and remember. It’s just sooo hard to-”

“Great.” Clearly, letting Carwyn actually finish her long-winded complaints wasn’t going to get us anywhere. “Second. Why don’t you give me all the technical knowledge and skill needed to get the most out of gear you just happened to have in my exact size. You can over-write…” I focused on lighting up the section of my memory where I kept my knowledge of literary criticism. “Is that enough space?”

“It… should be. This is a very ordered mind you have here… Are you sure I can’t redecorate? It seems a little… chilly.”

“Yes. I’m sure. And don’t touch the Egg.”

“Awww… what’s in it?”

“The future.”

“Spoilsport.”

“If you’re not a dick I’ll maybe show you some day… and speaking of dicks… are you male or female?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes. I’m not fucking playing the Pat game. Which gender do you consider yourself to be?”

“Sooo binary.” There was laughter in that.

“Yeah yeah. Bite me. How would you prefer to be referred to?”

“As Carwyn.”

“Great. I’m going to assume you have a vagina and not a penis unless you demonstrate otherwise… and why is my armor formfitting while yours isn’t?”

“Because Momma Carwyn likes eye candy!” And she slapped my ass with TK. Fuuuucking elves.

I pulled my sweatshirt back on over my armor, feeling a little less like a space stripper, but my jeans were too tight and the shoes wouldn’t fit… and both were covered liberally in silver space dust… which was more than a little radioactive, so I just left them where they were. “Where to, oh she of the resting bitch-face?”

“You’re the MonKeigh, you lead.”

I rolled my eyes, then headed towards the nearest visible hatch. There were at least three in this vast compartment, which was, or had been, big enough to hold a soccer pitch when it had been whole. We began moving deeper into the ship, away from the ragged, decaying outer layers near the hull… away from the flickering lights and the barely there atmospheric shielding that had nearly cost me my life… and my chain, I had no doubt.

The passages were veritable vaults, the ship a rusted, pitted, and once absolutely glorious example of the Imperium of Man’s gothic architecture. It was everything one would expect from the artwork of those long forgotten but exquisite models and woefully balanced games designed to sell exquisite models with obscene price tags. And not all was lost just yet… distant whirrs of machinery, still functional after who knew how long echoed through the halls, sometimes drowned out by the thrum and roar of motors struggling against the detritus of ages. Massive meter thick bulkheads slid open at our approach and ground shut with the screech of tortured metal as we passed.

“We’re being shepherded… led somewhere…” I muttered.

“Yes. A path is being provided for us.”

“Are we guest… or are we prey?”

“That will be determined once we reach our destination.”

“You sound calm.”

“I am no easy prey, MonKeigh.”

“Call me SJ.”

“Don’t want to.”

Siiigh.

Hours passed… slowly… and our surroundings began to change, from rough, massive, oppressively industrial to more comfortable, better appointed… to outright luxury, the metal walls replaced with exquisitely carved… and probably petrified by now… wood paneling, and the remains of silken tapestries. And always we were heading upward, upward… until finally we reached what had to be the Command Deck… not the least because it had signs that read “Command Deck” (well, the messed up fake latin version of Command Deck) along the walls as we approached the final bulkhead. It slid open slowly, revealing, yes, a massive command deck, ranks upon ranks of view screens and command stations arrayed around a massive central throne-like chair. It was facing away from us… though as we stepped through the bulkhead, it rotated slowly, revealing a corpse mummified in countless tubes and devices.

Lights blinked across the panoply and I realized that the throne’s occupant wasn’t dead… just… ancient beyond belief, sustained by the machines that bound his once proud frame to the chair. His shrunken features were abhorrent, but I could see how he’d once been a commanding figure… his eyes flickered open and his head lifted ever so slightly “Aaaah… fellow travellers of… the voooid.” he inhaled slowly on the word void, desiccated lips cracking, then, after a timeless eternity, finished “You have… come….to set… me… free….”

It was the slowest conversation since Zootopia’s DMV scene, made all the worse because Carwyn could easily have mediated the exchange of information at the speed of thought, but instead, the Warlock simply wandered the multi-tiered command bridge, intrigued by who knows what, as I put together the half mumbled explanation.

The ship was called ‘The Light of Heaven’, and it was a Gloriana Class Battleship, the second largest of all the Imperium’s ships, almost 36 kilometers long, and barely smaller than the two Abyss class ships that had been built during the Heresy of Horus. The Captain remembered it, he claimed, as if it were yesteryear, though he’d been a child during the decade-long campaign of treachery and fratricide that had shaped the Imperium and condemned the Emperor of Man to 11,000 years trapped, half dead, on a throne of psychic torment… I nodded at that, having a faint idea what that was like.

The ship had been lost, trapped in a warp storm frozen in time for a hundred centuries, cast adrift after retrieving a strange relic from a long forgotten world. The crew of the titanic ship had gone slowly mad over the ages and Lord-Captain Draken Grigobretz had isolated himself in his life support chair, dreaming that his ship would once again sail the deeps of space. He promised all his help, access to his treasures and trophies and even his Chirurgeon… a pre-heresy autodoc capable of implanting many a very useful augment or two… It had to be good… after all… it had kept the Captain ticking for long past his expiration date.

He’d watched over his crew as they’d degenerated into near feral tribes, fretting the whole time that the ship would be lost forever. “B… but now… you’re here… you… you will… you will do… the impossible. With… with your help… now that your arrival has shattered the storm… re… releasing us into realspace once more… you will rally one or more of… of the tribes… rally them, and with their help… you will bring us… home.”

“To Terra?”

“E… eventually… but… but first… there is a pre-heresy repair yard… an automated one… it still responds to my signals… it is less than a light month from here. We… we will get there and then the Light of Heaven will be reborn.”

His ancient rheumy eyes shone with the light of fanaticism, of a dying man with only one dream left. I nodded. He’d pinned all his hopes on me. I had to hope that I could make it through… for I did not relish the idea of spending my remaining days trapped in this decaying hulk. And there were worse fates than captaining a ship the size of a city… there were even universes worse than Warhammer 40K to be marooned in.

I just had to hope that my exile would be ended eventually. I had no idea what, exactly had happened, but it seemed likely from my insight that Malal had reached out from his state of non-existence (often referred to as the Retcanon, that place where things went when they were officially no longer canon, despite having once been exactly that) across the Omniverse and, somehow, pulled me away from my proper place… and if Malice wanted me for something… I shuddered at the thought… that meant going up against the Accursed Powers, for Malal hated the other Gods of Chaos more than anything else in all creation. That he was a God of Chaos himself was, of course, the point. But what had that flash of a vending machine meant… and why did I remember a grey stone chamber?

“Go… look through… my… collection… ch… chose for yourself… some… some… of them might… might… still work… We… we have a little time… enough for you… you to make your decision if… if you will help me… d… do w… what must be………” he breathed heavily for several long minutes, then sighed long and low. “What must be done,” he said all at once, in what for him was a rush.

I did as the old man asked. He had a commanding presence, a power about him that made it hard not to respect him… but I had many things to consider. Could I, with or without the aid of the insufferable Elf… oh for the… she’s smirking at me and licking her lips… shudder. Fucking mind reading elves… I shook my head. Did I, a tiny slip of a girl, ages of knowledge I could already feel fraying at the edges, have it in me to unite one or more savage barbarous tribes and convince them to follow me, to guide them in repairing the ship and battling the other tribes into either submission or non-existence? And how much time would it take to get the ship the three quarters of a trillion kilometers between its current resting place and the dock? Without Warp travel, it could take years to cross that gulf… possible centuries… and that was only if the ship could be made to move at all.

But… on the other hand, what did I have to lose by trying? I had the confidence, or would have to have the confidence, of one who had no other alternatives than to succeed doubt would accomplish nothing. And I had two… allies, at least, each with vast stores of local knowledge and at least one of which who had powers none of the tribesmen was likely to be able to match. If there was a powerful psyker among them, he’d no doubt been eaten by daemons long ago. Now… if only I had a way to keep myself from… an unglow distracted me from my visual perusal of all the wondrously crafted weapons and artifacts of Grigobretz’s long and decorated career… not that I’d dare use any of those gorgeous weapons. They’d be frail and irreplaceable after so long no doubt… also, few were sized for anyone even near my size.

I looked at the source of the disturbing quasi-glow… and found a small, free floating black sphere pulsing with a string of glowing green hieroglyphs that I recognized as Necrontyr script, even though I had no idea how to read them. I ran my hand over the surface of it and flinched… this was the thing that was keeping me from all my powers, but the touch of it made my skin crawl… no… it wasn’t that… something else was doing so. There were two warring forces gliding across the surface of the sphere, two different destinies… Power balanced against Purpose. The Ruinous Powers had sensed Malice’s machinations… not fully, but enough to know that this fragile looking object was the crux. They wanted me to destroy it, end the threat that Malal (was it Malal? A room? A force of order out of time… a box? Couldn’t remember) was leveling against them… or maybe I was imagining it. Maybe destroying the sphere would free me from this prison and I’d be able to return home… or maybe destroying the sphere would doom me. Either way, shattering the… hmmm… the Deadlight… the name fit it somehow… shattering it would be the expedient choice… but I doubted the ancient Necrontyr of at least 11,000 years ago, and quite probably 100 times that or more, had known of my coming and designed this thing to stymie me. It had another purpose, and destroying it would cut off the possibly that that purpose could serve my ends. No… better to leave it alone.

I traced the runes on its surface, my thumb sliding over the golf ball sized sphere. There were twenty two symbols, though they flowed and shifted around the surface whenever my thumb wasn’t holding one still. Each whispered of power, and of cost.

One seemed to promise control over the vagaries of the Warp… another to offer protection from the vicissitudes of ill fortune… the prices it asked seemed to be the promise of hunger, of animosity, of fear, of opposition, and of slow suffocation. I balanced those choices, focusing my mind on fear and hunger. I could combat those things… and I’d already come too close to suffocation as it was. The other powers… many of them combat skills or physical augments if I was interpreting the vague impressions aright… were not worth the potential price. Without even thinking about it, I slid the sphere into my sweatshirt pocket and zipped the pouch closed.

Still thinking, I looked at the auto-doc. “Hello machine.”

“Greetings. The captain has authorized for you to select your choice of cybernetic upgrades… unfortunately, this unit has a limited amount of anesthetic. Only one procedure is recommended. Any more might be… contraindicated.”

“How painful are we talking?”

“Your autonomic nervous system would shut down from shock long before any of the procedures were complete.”

“Riiiight… you wouldn’t happen to have a memory implant, would you?”

“I do. The Flesh is fallible, and, unlike the perfection of the Omnissiah, it is prone to mistakes and errors. While they cannot all be prevented, at least some of your organic weaknesses can be… excised.”

“Well… that sounds… lovely. What’s involved?”

“The back of your skull and part of your brainstem will be replaced with an archeotech storage device allowing perfect memory and recollection… never again will you forget… anything.”

“Oh… well. That sounds perfect. Let’s do that.”

“Brace yourself… you will feel a slight… punch.”

“Don’t you mean pinch?”

“No.”

SLIGHT MY ASS!

Oh… the floor was sooo comfortable. Which was good, since I could only lay there as the storage device scanned and scanned and scaaaanned my memory. It was like having spiders in my brain, the inside of my skull itched like crazy and because there was sooo much information, the device couldn’t spare cycles to actually let me move my body… but I was still getting sensation from it… which let me know that the floor was quite firm and hard… but cool, which was good, because I was running a pretty high temperature from the energy requirements… oooh… and the back of my neck and skull was not nearly numb enough. Also… the armor was still groping me

I looked up with the eye that wasn’t pressed to the floor as a shadow loomed over me. Carwyn smirked down at me like a smirking smug smirk bastard.

“Fffkknnnn lllvvvs,” I managed to get out as she knelt, the crotch plate of her own armor looming centimeters from my face.

“Poor MonKeigh.” And she lifted my head just enough to slide a surprisingly cool and plush pillow under it. “Us adults will be having tea and playing some ancient MonKeigh strategy game called Gathering Magic once you decide to stop lazing about. Do come join us then… oh… dear… you peed.” She smirked once more, then vanished.

“Gathrng Mgk?” I muttered into the pillow… then flinched as my new memory device reminded me of the existence of a collectable card game from the late 20th century. Great. Of all humanity’s games… that was the one that had survived the ages. I wondered vaguely just how many expansions there’d been as I, at long and mercifully last, slipped into unconsciousness.

The next few days were mostly spent on recovery… and restocking my depleted energy reserves… good god, I had so little stamina and strength in this form. But at least I had flawless skin, right me of 14,000 years ago? That’s what was important. Stupid me, not realizing that I could be stripped back to basics without warning. This would teach me not to fail to predict the unpredictable…. Did that make sense? I dunno.

Between putting up with Carwyn treating me like a lapdog and feeding me by hand and petting me and generally being utterly insufferable just because I was having to relearn how to move my limbs while the swelling went down (drugs have a shelf-life… oh yes they do precious) The Captain regaled me and the occasionally interested Carwyn with the long and and often overly detailed details of the various tribes… interspersed with long digressions into the machinations of “the daemon and the witch”, telling us all about his adventures. I actually paid attention for two reasons… one, the only other diversion was paying attention to how Carwyn was brushing my hair or petting me, or just holding me close as if afraid I’d run off yapping and growling at the postman (not that there was one)… but the other reason was because Grigobretz was surprisingly precise in explaining all the rites he’d developed, learned from various tomes, or was taught by other members of what would one day grow into the Inquisition’s Ordo Malleus or just creepy old loons on obscure moons. These included words, signs, and even auto-hypnotic mental states that would allow even a non-psyker to exercise their mental energies against creatures of the warp… and with my newly reinvigorated memory I was memorizing the details as fast as the old man could talk… though he was getting better… it was as if he’d forgotten what speech was after so very very long.

I was also making plans. There were six major factions within the hull of the Light, each one having descended from various survivors of the improbably large ship’s crew… as well as into mysticism, barbarism, and in many cases depravity.

Most ordered and militaristic of the lot were the ‘Aquil Lejens’, the descendants of the Light’s Imperial Legion complement, they were led by their Comsar (a corruption of the long forgotten concept of a Commissar, one of the Legion’s political officers who held the power of life and death over the legionnaires in their care.). They valued camaraderie, teamwork, and strict adherence to discipline, and every member of the tribe was divided into a five man team with a hereditary Sarjant (another corrupted word) overseeing them. So far, the tight knit Aquil had managed to more than hold their own in combat against the other tribes, four of which were much larger than them.

Next most civilized, if that term even applied here, were the Kin of Iron, who held to half-remembered lore of mysterious metal men that once tended to the workings of the Steel Caves (their term for the Light, since they had no knowledge of what its true nature was). These metal men had had, according to the legends, minds of wire and hearts of iron and knew the world like none before or since. The Iron Kin strove to maintain what few teachings they’d been handed down, keeping the flames of memory alive, if barely, and draping their bodies with scrap metal and painting their faces with iron dust. They lived, not by war, but by trading their wisdom to the others in the workings of the vast ship. They would be invaluable and I resolved to recruit them immediately… though I’d need a military force as well, which was problematic and no easy question. The reason I’d need a military force? Ah… that brings us to the Pale Sons.

What can be said about the Pale Sons? Every society has its outcasts and its dregs… On The Light, those outcasts were known as the Pale Sons, an all-but-forgotten tribe existing in the cracks between the territories of the other tribes or deep in the lower decks and the dreaded shadow holds (the vast empty spaces where light had long since fled as the big ship died by inches.) Many of them were mutants, that being the reason they’d been cast out in the first place, and they lived close to toxic or radioactive regions of the ship where only their already damaged physiology allowed them to survive. Even the Captain had no idea how many there were of them, but the tribesmen feared there were tens of thousands of them and indeed, Grigobritz was very much convinced that, with the return to realspace, the day was coming soon when the Pale Sons would rise up from the dark depths to destroy all the others who dwelt in the Light in a final convulsive apocalypse.

If the Pale Sons were the largest “tribe” (though in reality more a loose confederation of roving bands) the Redeemers were the smallest… which didn’t stop them from being the most feared. They followed a strict and deeply disturbing creed, preaching that all the outsiders (everyone not a Redeemer), was a Heretical Blasphemer against “The Golden Lord”… and as such, they must be purged… purged in fire and under the spear… before the Redeemers would be freed from this dark hell and allowed to join their master in “Paradise”. As if the growing genocidal crusade wasn’t bad enough, the Redeemers tiny population base had resulted in hideous inbreeding… which had resulted in slowly transforming them into hulking, Ogre-like brutes. Brutes who still maintained enough technical ability to process fuel for their favored weapon, the terrifying Eviscerators, a hybrid of a two-handed chainsaw with an underslung flamethrower. Clearly, I was going to have to turn the Pale Sons against the Redeemers, because I wanted neither group of crazed freaks on my side.

Most tempting of the clans was the Voidwalkers, who lived in the cold and broken chambers along the Light of Terra’s hull, they… existed, living on the razor’s edge between the steel caves of the world and the great nothing beyond and were a nomadic tribe, constantly seeking air and heat as much as they sought water and food. Scarred by vacuum burns and repeated decompression, they were as hardy a group as could be found on the Light, with unique knowledge of the void, which they used to their advantage in every way possible. I was a huge Dune fan, and the nomadic walkers were very much like the Fremen… but I was wary of seeking their help. Repairing the battleship wasn’t going to be about maneuvering in the void… unless the engine compartments were open to space. And even then, the Walkers were scavengers, not techs. Would they be helpful in the tight confines deep in the ship? I couldn’t say, but I wasn’t going to waste time or resources trying to get them on my side

The last option for a militant ally was the tribe known as the Wargars, the descendants of the Light’s gun crews, who dwelled mostly in the great ammo stores, carving huts from the enormous Macro Cannon shell casings and burning the propellant flash powder to fill their halls with the smell of war. The Wargars were aggressive and dangerous, living to fight with the other tribes for no other reason than to spill blood and prove their strength. If I didn’t seek them out as an ally, I’d have to face them in battle, that was clear enough… but even if they were my ally, I wasn’t certain I could keep them in line. They’d attack others, provoking fights I didn’t need at times that were inconvenient.

By the end of the second week I was back on my feet, fully in control of my muscles and nervous system once again, and had a plan, a plan drawn from knowledge of tens of thousands of close quarter battles, thousands of political theory texts, countless speeches… and relying highly on Carwyn’s ability to find those with doubts and… sooth those doubts if possible, or push them into doing something disastrous to their own plans if not. I needed no traitors or doubters in my ranks, if I could at all help it.

I’d decided to seek out the Aquil and turn them into my allies first, then move in strength to meet with the Kin and offer them an alliance… and hopefully together, we could reclaim the Light for Civilization… at least long enough to get her to the repair facility.

Since both groups held a respect of the past, I played on that, approaching the Aquil camp wearing the full regalia of a Legion General (if only slightly reduced in size to deal with my slight frame. The fact that I was wearing the jacket and pants over Eldar armor was unimportant… even my helmet had been repainted (Carwyn was very good with her hands in more ways than one.) to look as imperial as possible.

Of course, they laughed. Wouldn’t you? Big warrior men and women, proud of their might, proud of their skill. I took a chance. It had to be done. “Since you won’t respect me without it, send out your best fighter, let me show you why should obey me… oh… and your best shooter too.”

Bemused, the Comsar nodded and a bulky middle-aged Sarjant stepped forward, already stripping off his tunic. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurtcha… much.” I sized him up. He had strength, reach, and endurance on me. I couldn’t rely on the difference in our agilities to let me win. So instead I relied on pressure points. The fight took 7 seconds… though it took him a further 10 seconds to finally hit the ground. “That wasn’t witchcraft, and he’ll be fine in a couple of minutes,” I told the stunned crowd. “It was simple anatomy. An enemy, no matter how big, no matter how strong, is always vulnerable to those who know the secret of war.”

“What is this secret?” asked the Comsar, leaning forward in his aquiline throne.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” I said, quoting Sun Tzu, hoping it sounded as profound to these simpletons as it had to generations of their ancestors. It was simple logic. Know your capabilities. Know your enemy’s capabilities. The one with the best information wins. The crowd nodded as if I was a sage, then shifted their gaze to look at the tribe’s chosen shooter.

“Will you allow me to inspect your weapon?” I asked and, after a moment, she handed over the bolter… stone age societies with futuristic ranged weapons. It was overly large and ancient, but these things were designed to last, literally, for ages. Hell, the Leman Russ tanks could burn practically anything as fuel. “Good weapon.” I handed it back. “Shall we pick a target?”

She picked a good one, aimed and shot, hitting it clean. I borrowed her weapon, then said “I will fire three shots. The first two to learn the nature of the weapon. The third will hit.” They all chuckled… then gaped as I moved further away and fired the first two shots not at the target at all, but at a clear patch of bulkhead three times further than the target was from me. “Very good weapon. Accurate.” Then I closed my eyes and fired. The faint ‘ping!’ as the bolt struck home was clearly audible in the silence. I think even Carwyn was impressed.

~How did you do that?~ She asked, mind voice striving for complete calm, but not quite achieving it. ~I was all ready to adjust your shot, but I didn’t need to.~

~I have lost much of what I am… but I have fired literally millions of shots from thousands of weapons. I have made shots that would make that one look impossible. I have drilled a wasp with a hipshot from 3 thousand meters… with a ball musket. Hitting a coin sized washer at 300 paces with my eyes closed? Child’s play.~

~While I am uncertain I believe these claims of yours, it was… competently done. I could have done better, of course.~

~Of course.~ I hadn’t quite mastered the mental drawl. I mean, I could do it when broadcasting, but it’s hard to be that smug when someone else is plundering your psyche. I wasn’t lying either about the shooting. I’d picked up Savant in my very first jump, which had given me heightened awareness, a flawless memory, and aim that was scraping superhuman… and I hadn’t rested on my laurels and relied on the perk alone. I’d read the Guardians of the Flame series long, long, long ago, more than a decade before I’d jumped for the first time and one thing had always stood out in that series while the rest faded into the mash of general disinterest.

The series was about a group of roleplayers from Earth, using a system called Rune Quest (though it’s never named as such in the books) and they’d ended up in a fantasy world… as their characters. While those characters were extremely skilled, the Warrior had always worried that he actually had no idea how to get better, because he had no memory of getting as good as he was. He’d been granted a fiat level of skill, and while that skill was monstrously high, it wasn’t getting any better.

I’d been given preternatural shooting skill… and used it as a baseline. I’d studied everything I could about the shooting arts, sent often thousands or tens of thousands of rounds down range in a single day, day after day, week after week, year after decade after century. I’d fired guns of all kinds, bows, atlatls, blow darts, cannons, and stranger things. I’d worked my aim in every way I could conceive of, in storm conditions, in the dark, in variable gravity, in free fall. And so had the Manifest, the Magi Kingpriests who formed, still, the overwhelming majority of my memories. It had been a sacred rite for them, as it had for all Magi, to be accurate and familiar with weapons both melee and ranged. And they’d only had access to the majority of my perks and talents when they called upon my power. For the other 95% of their lives, they’d been relatively normal members of their society, though exalted above all others from birth (the Magi held that the soul entered the body at the moment it first drew breath, and the new incarnation of my mortal self had always been born within moments of the last me’s death). I knew ballistics like I knew breathing… even without my perks to guarantee the abilities.

I let Carwyn lift me onto the Comsar’s dias and looked out at the gathered Lejens. “An eternity ago, your ancestors came to this place, the great ship of Heaven called The Light of Terra. They were soldiers in the service of the Emperor of Mankind. They were brave, honest, hard working, and they never ran from battle. They flew between worlds on wings of fire and slew the monsters that dared raise fang or claw or mutant hand against their kin. Yet a doom came upon the Light of Heaven and stilled it’s wings, trapping it outside of time and space, and trapping all aboard her in her slowly decaying hull!”

There were mutterings, but all eyes were fixed on me.

“But now I have come. I have shattered the Doom, freeing the Light of Terra, and come to lead those who are loyal to the promised land, to glory, and to freedom from the darkness. It will not be easy, for nothing of worth is. Many will fall, but if you follow me, most of them will be your enemies. We will purge this ship of the Pale Ones and the Mad Ones and the Redeemers. Those who will not join us will be driven out, driven into the void… and the Light of Terra will be reborn, reborn as the Light of Heaven… and that Light will shine once more!”

As I’d spoken my voice had risen in intensity, driving their focused attention higher, urging them forward, as I’d leaned slowly forward, bringing them towards me in response and with my final words, they roared their approval and hoisted their guns and swords into the air. I turned to the Comsar.

“Well? Commissar… Voice of the People, that is what the first of your line was called, long long ago, what say you?”

“Can you really do this thing? Lead us to a place where we no longer have to scavenge parts from our dying tomb? Can you lead us to a place where the lights work and the heat is strong and the food is plentiful?”

“If I cannot, no one can. You need me… and I need you. My knowledge and skill is insufficient by itself to secure victory against all the odds that are stacked against me… just as your skill is enough to hold off the others, but not to truly end their threat. Together, we will be stronger. Together we have a chance, and, if it is the Will of Heaven, we will succeed. As the first bearer of the Aquila, the Eagle, said back before the dawn of history “Let us toss the dice.” I extended my hand “They call me The Supreme Jeneral. You may call me EsJay.”

He took it, his grip much stronger than mine “I am Comsar… Com-eh-sar?” he looked and I nodded “Commissar Logos. And, for now, we will help you.”

I grinned “Excellent.tell your people to gather everything of any worth. We’re moving out in two days time.”

“Out? Out where? This is our home!”

“The Command Decks.”

“No one can access them. They’re sealed against all our attempts to enter.”

“Yes, which is why they remain in better condition and are more secure. More comfortable. We need to get all your non-combatants out of the combat zone.”

“And then, we strike against the others?”

I laughed softly, not to insult Logos. “Oh, no. First we go to the Iron Kin and offer them an alliance.”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes, then nodded, understanding. If the Lejens wanted freedom, the Iron Kin would be ecstatic at the idea of repairing the ship to its former glory. “They are wise, but not great warriors,” he warned softly.

“No. But they will get the Warp Drive working again, while together, we shall keep them safe. Now quickly, I don’t know how long it will take, but we need to get your people secure, get the Kin onboard, get their people safely to the engines, and set up defenses as quickly as possible. Ready yourselves. I’ll return in two days time. Tell your people to pack wisely. We’ll need to move quickly and securely.” He nodded once more, then I asked “May I take the two I fought with me… as an honor guard.

He considered, but agreed. It would do them proud to serve in that position. In fact, I got 12 of them, two teams. One led by Sarjant Jons and the other, led by Logos’s grandson, Logos (I love families like this… ‘Logos!’ “Which one?’), was a scout team that included Bagger, the one I’d outshot. I chuckled to her “Someday, We’ve got to get you a rifle.”

“Whaza Riful?”

“Long Gun. Designed to hit things at distances longer than the length of any chamber.”

“Can’t see that far. What’s the point?”

“Oh… you’d be surprised how far one can see on a planet in daylight.

“What’s day?”

“When the lights are full up for a long time.”

“Oh.” She shook her head at the idea “Sounds nice… what’s a planet?”

Moving through the flickering gloom between the holding of the Lejens and the Kin, we encountered several dozen Pale Sons. The solitary ones either attacked in berzerk or feral rage… or ran into the dark, howling for others. I let them run, then began picking them off one by one as they began popping up out of the vents and crawl spaces or rounding corners holding spears or knives or makeshift axes. I was… actually scoring shots I couldn’t have possibly made if I’d tried to make them. Shots that removed one enemy’s arm only to have that enemy’s axe take out a second Son while the Scorpion’s shot continued on and buried itself in a third enemy’s eye socket, ejecting a welter of gore. Once… once that would have been astounding… but in 4 skirmishes, it or something like it happened three times, three perfect cascades of cause and effect.

I looked to Carwyn and she just shrugged and tripped a charging freak into the path of one of his comrades’ swings as if to say “I too can cause friendly fire.” Bitch.

What I hadn’t really counted on was the fact that the heat sensors in our elvish armor were so much better than human eyeball mark one, especially in the flickering lights of the passageways. That, combined with the fact that I snapped out orders, orders that used the names of people I’d met mere hours earlier and never got wrong, orders that matched their self-perceived strengths (I had spoken to both Sarjants about each of their men as we prepared to head out) meant that, by the time we reached the ‘land’ of the Iron Kin, the 12 Lejens were already treating me as a veritable warrior goddess.

With the Lejens, I’d appealed to their sense of martial superiority, with the Kin I appealed to their technical know how. I’d read all the basic technical manuals at the Captain’s disposal as if my life depended on it, and while I certainly hadn’t mastered all the thousands of systems, I knew enough about life support and warp drive and gellar fields to speak about them with passing familiarity. I did have lifetimes of scientific knowledge to fall back on, even if I was no longer a brilliantly inspired tech genius who could speak to the machine spirits. With promises of access to the tech of their glorious ancestors… and in no small part because I was demonstrably part machine already, the Kin were soon on board.

I’d like to say things went smoothly, but they very very much didn’t. Between my two tribes, I had approximately 1600 warriors, 1280 of them from the Lejens. Add to that another 4,600 dependants, 3,800 of them from the Kin, and two thirds of them mechanics or technically inclined, I had a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of backs to watch. Getting the Kin to abandon their safe spaces in the life support works wasn’t easy, but we had to move them in force to present too big a target to attack… and I was growing increasingly worried about the main bulkhead doors that cut the sections of the ship off from each other. They were getting slower and slower to open, even if only noticeable because my new machine hindbrain actually timed the process to the 100th of a second and insisted on comparing the results to all other incidents, both of that particular bulkhead door and across all such doors… and the lights were getting worse.

The Pale Sons, of course, attacked on the way back to the Lejens camp, in larger numbers, as if drawn out by so many potential victims, but luck was with us as we passed within three decks of a Wargar encampment, but either they didn’t hear us or were busy and we made it back to the mobilized and packed Lejens camp on time. The ship is big, but the distance between the two camps was only about 10km and the way not extremely hazardous. Together, we made our way towards the command decks… only to run into the Redeemers along the way.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the entire tribe, but there were 40 of the hulking brutes, and they’d set up a camp right in front of the main bulkhead leading to the Command Decks and were trying to hammer it open. They hadn’t noticed our approach, small mercy, because my scout group was waaay out in front, but that raised the question of how to deal with this. Carwyn’s mental probes said that there was no way they’d let us pass unmolested and I couldn’t just reroute around them, partly because that would involve shifting 3,100 people laden with gear, children, and elders several kilometers out of the way through secondary corridors which would string us out and many of which were already permanently dark and some of which were, apparently, flooded or overgrown… oh yes, there was a fair amount of “greyery” thriving in the ship as fungi and some less light intensive plants had managed to, not exactly thrive, but they certainly weren’t dying.

Also, backing down from this fight wouldn’t be the greatest start to my alliance with the two tribes. I considered all this, then sighed softly and pulled my squad back to the limits of the Scorpion’s range and, standing braced in the center of the corridor, I breathed out slowly, calming my heartbeat, steadying my jangling nerves and raised my weapon. “Hail Heavenly Father. Grant your daughter the gift of swift aim, sure eye, and grant my enemies the gift of a swift and painless death.” And then I sent a thought through the pistol, as it was fired not with a trigger but a mental command… and, swift as wind and with a crack like a whip, 320 molecule thick plasticrystal discs exploded forward from the barrel of the Eldar weapon, shattering the speed of sound like it was a suggestion. The hypersonic disks arrived practically as a single unit, the minute flicks of my wrist to bring each target into perfect alignment, aided by the variable flight geometry the weapon’s telempathic matrix had imparted to the disks at my will, meant that 16 of the giant mutants were hit in the first storm of blades, each of them receiving between one and, in one case, 11, of the blades… despite me only aiming 4 of them at him. No idea how that happened.

As they turned, looking around in confusion, I kept firing, knowing that as brutal as the blows from the armor piercing shurikens were, there was a fair chance that the insane fanatics might be able to fight through the pain and attack. Another 15 received wounds that would, eventually, be fatal, before they figured out who was shooting them and, with a roar that shook the very walls, they charged my position.

I kept firing, running through all thousand rounds in a matter of 20 seconds, then, with the lead element 25 meters from me and building speed at a tremendous rate, popped the ammunition core. A wide receiver can cross 40 meters in a little over 4.5 seconds. The effective range of a flamethrower is about 15 meters, meaning 3 seconds before I was toast, give or take. No pressure. I wasn’t panicking. I was cool, collected, in the zone. I slapped the new core into the pistol and raised it back to level… one second. I breathed just a little and dropped the barrel 30 degrees and sent a storm on medium spread down range. Two seconds. The Redeemer’s knees vanished and he hit the ground, the flamethrower bouncing out of his grip and flipping wildly, a spiral of fire launching out of its muzzle as the whirring blade added torque to the system.

In the hellish red glare, I saw the next fanatic behind the first and removed his head as he lept over his fallen brother, his body landing hard just in time for the Eviscerator to sink blade-first into his chest, bathing the makeshift barricade in flames. I pulled off my helmet, trying not to breathe in the stench of charring flesh and sighted through the flames and pulled the mental trigger again. 4 Redeemers. And again. 1 Redeemer. And again. No Redeemers.

I turned to Carwyn and nodded, well aware that it was through her mental manipulation that I’d remained as calm as I had. She nodded back, a perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised ever so slightly. “Finished?” she asked aloud, thought she did send me the thought ~Are you even better when you’re… the rest of you?~

“Yes. Logos! Get your squad to clear the corridor, we have people coming through. Spangler, if any of the beasts are moving, grant them my mercy.” I pulled the helmet back on and, skirting the burning pile by doing a bit of wall running, made my way to the front to see how much damage they’d done to the bulkhead. One of them was, miraculously, mostly intact, though with one arm blown to hell, he wasn’t picking up his Eviscerator any time in the foreseeable future. I turned my vaguely insectile helmet to face him.

“You. Can you walk?”

“Caaan.” the voice was surprisingly high and full of pain.

“Good. Return to your people. Tell them that The Golden Lord’s Supreme General is come to judge the unworthy. All who come to me on bended knee may serve me. As long as they do as I command, I shall show them mercy. All who stand before me…” I gestured to the others. “Tell your leaders that I did this. I alone. Already the Lejens and the Iron Kin follow me. Come against us, and perish. Come in supplication and live. Or hide in your holes and when we arrive at Paradise, you shall be free to leave my ship and never return.” My voice, soft and level through all that, turned hard as I snapped “Now go.” and I shot the deck 20 centimeters from his foot. “Before my mercy fades.”

By the time we had everyone settled into their new quarters and pulling rations that had been laid in for officers and their families a hundred centuries ago that were, surprisingly, still good… and better than any of them had ever had… though the automated hydroponics designed to provide fresh fruits and vegetables had to have an armed guard who I’d had to explain to that if they damaged the machines or let anyone overharvest we’d all starve to death… by that time, the story had already spread through the clans and mutated to claim that I had slain a hundred of them with my bare hands. I did not disabuse them of this.

A week later, we’d built a camp around the great warp drive, building layered defenses around our position… just as the lights failed. Everywhere, all at once, but in the great engineering spaces, it was somehow worst. And something began moving in the dark. It took several of our men as they moved in the darkness. Carwyn’s frown as we studied the bodies, surrounded by a squad of torchbearers, worried me. ~What is it?~

~A thing of warp and shadow… it has no name, no flesh… merely an absence of light.~

~So what killed these men?~ I asked, dreading the answer.

~Fear.~ came the cool reply.

~Ah. Well then… how do we kill it?~

~Like any other creature of the warp… with knowledge.~

~You mean magic.~ I snarked, feeling the weight of her smugness pressing against me.

~There is no magic.~

~Hahaha. Yeah. sure. Psychic powers then… written in runes.~

~Yes.~

~Good. You do that. I need to get the engineers back to work and… Man the Battlestations!!!” I switched seamlessly from mental communication to spoken, yelled word as I heard the unmistakable sound of Eviscerators in the distance. I was already racing for the front as I shouted. I may be tiny, but I’m swift enough when I need to be, especially since I’m light as well.

By the Captain’s best estimate, there were only about 900 Redeemers of all ages, which meant I’d killed about a twentieth of them. That day, that bloody, twisted, nightmarish day, lit only by the muzzle flash of bolters and the gouts of flame from the Eviscerators, cost them the lion’s share of their remaining forces. The entire tribe came against us as one, howling and calling and bellowing, charging out of the darkness, claiming we’d killed the lights and sent the darkness to engulf them. They were berserk with fear and righteous wrath.

The Lejens were braced, prepared, hidden behind their metallic shields, and they took the brunt of the initial charge from behind the barricades we’d built for just this, firing their weapons at the onrushing giants, then falling back to the second defensive bulwark in good order as the giants reached the first, setting the whole thing alight. The time it took the brutes to hack through the first barricade, that mass of twisted metal and burning matter was enough to allow me to reach the abattoir-to-be. I looked to Carwyn and smirked ~Well, at least the fire will keep the shadow thing at bay.~

~Indeed.~

The Redeemers, whatever their faults, were brave… or insane. They would have made good Teutonics, screaming “GOTT MIT UNS”… but bravery matters much less than skill in battle and in a battle of guns, muscle matters very little. Eviscerators are terror weapons… but an Eldar Shuriken Catapult is a Terror Weapon with muuuuch greater range and accuracy. Had we had even a dozen of the things (and the users to fire them) the massed ranks of Redeemers would have mattered very little. As it was, with the way we’d shaped the battle ground and my superior vantage point (I’d made a shooter’s nest of nets and hung it from the vaulted ceiling of the main approach) and heat vision, I could headshot the barbs at my leisure as my men held them off. I had two thirds of the Lejen’s men-at-arms beneath me, and they were adding to the fight, and Carwyn was with them, emboldening and calming them, keeping them together, focused, jovial even.

We took 62 casualties that day, 11 of them from accidents, and only 19 fatalities. They lost… I really have no idea. At least 800, but beyond that it wasn’t really possible to count, as the Pale Sons had already begun scavenging the corpses before the battle was even over. We did some scavenging of our own, claiming the Eviscerators and the spare fuel cells to use as torches. “Logos. Bring your squad and four more. Prime Two, get your men back to work. We need the Warp Drive back up. Carwyn… find the shadow and… bind it or something.”

~Where are you going?!~ I think she was worried about me, but she scoffed ~I just don’t trust you out of my sight.

~We’re going to head out and see if we can find the Redeemers camp. If they brought everyone with them, there might be resources to plunder. Though they probably left a guard behind.~

~I’ll come with you.~

~I need the engineers working, and safe.~

~They’ve got lights~ She almost whined.

~Carwyn. Please. I won’t take any chances.~

~Fiiine. Not like I care where you go or how you risk your stupid MonKeigh life.~

~Yeah yeah. Containment first. Protect the others. Worry about catching or killing it second. If we can rig up a generator with lights, maybe we can trap it?~

~Maybe.~

~Good, work on that. Back soon.~

There were 59 remaining Redeemers at the camp… including stumpy. After the guards tried to stop me, there were 57. “You. You remember me?”

“Yess. General.”

“Right. Get your people together. You’re coming with me. Bring all the fuel and food you can carry. No weapons. None. Not even a knife.”

“Whhy?”

“Because the rest of your people are dead. They came against me and I killed them all. Which makes you my responsibility. Come now, or I leave you in the dark to perish alone. Tell your people that they will serve and be fed and protected as long as they raise no hand against us.”

We got back to Engineering with our new ‘Friends”… just in time for the Captain’s voice to reach me via communicator. “Bulkheads are sealing all over the ship. The power core’s cogitator is cutting power to reroute it to the engines as you begin powering them up. I had to choose between the bulkheads and the atmospherics. You’re cut off.”

“Crap. Thanks. Keep everyone in the command decks calm. Let them know we’re still here, still working. We’ll try and make our way through to the food stores in this section.” I looked over at my people and growled, “We have food for roughly 140 shifts, if we stretch it. Short rations now. But don’t let anyone starve.. Not even the giants. We need scouting parties to move in the light to secure what supplies we can. Prime Two! Get your people working on generators. Burning the Eviscerator fuel straight is a waste. We can burn it for electricity. Everyone else, work as best you can, burn anything that can burn to keep fires going and stay in the fire light. We need these engines running, but we need you alive for that.”

“Jeneral… we need to secure a power run to the Blazing God. The Ancients… in their writing, they said they Cut the Power from the Heart of the God so the Wings of Fire would not continue to burn uselessly in the great Storm. They were afeared of the beasts that would be drawn to the wings and so they performed a manual decoupling.”

“Great. Pick 10 of your best and get ready to come with me.” ~Carwyn, how’s the trap coming?~

~It should work… though we only have battery power. And nothing to lure it in with.~

~Oh, yes we do. We’ve got me.~

~You can’t…!~

~Yes, I can. You’re going to set it up the trap, then you’re going to make me terrified to just below the edge of panic.~

~This is a terrible idea.~

~You have a better one? It must feed off of fear, or it wouldn’t be causing it. Unless it’s just sadistic… which is feeding a different way. Come.~ We headed into the dark, the Eldar trying to dissuade me, but I wasn’t going to risk my reputation by relying on some underling for this. They needed to view me as the next best thing to a god. Faith, and the knowledge that I’d risk myself was part of it… but I wasn’t certain that Carwyn would care as much about the fate of one of the others. Me… I at least intrigued the ancient pervert.

~I heard that.~

~Yes. I know. You can hear everything I think. And you can tweak my thoughts too if you’re subtle enough, though not my memories, thanks to the machine backup… but you haven’t tried dissuading me from thinking of you as a pervert, which means you’re comfortable with being called one.~

~You’re awfully smug for a MonKeigh.~

~Takes a smug bitch to know a smug bitch.~

~Well then, I’ll take it as a complement. Are you sure you wish to do this?~

~Don’t use that word. I don’t wish anything. But I’m going to do this and you’re going to help. I’m trusting you not to let me fall.~ I stepped into the prepared alcove and took a couple deep breaths. The walls had freshly been painted with metallic paint, giving them, in theory, a mirror-like shine, which Carwyn had augmented with Psychic Runes and shards of wraithbone, a crystallized form of psychic energy.

I let out the air in my lungs, then cringed as I let the fear hit me. I wanted to scream, to run, to curl into a ball and sob hysterically. But I didn’t. Instead I knelt on the floor, seiza-style, and pushed the fear higher, feeding it all the terrors I’d been pushing away. Fear of dying in this horrible place. Fear of never seeing my friends again. Fear of becoming a pawn of the Ruinous powers. Fear of starvation, of suffocation, of loneliness, of weakness, of silence, of darkness, of failure. I let it blossom in my mind and in my heart, using and abusing the Captain’s advice on driving away the beings of the warp, drawing it to me.

I could feel its claws and teeth sinking into my psyche… at which point Carwyn flicked the lightswitch in the wall and the bank of high intensity LED’s, isolated from the ship’s mains and hooked to three parallel batteries so that one could be replaced without the lights even flickering, flared to life. I was immediately surrounded by swirling darkness, a darkness alive, trying to find a way out of the brilliant cage it was in, its panic tangible, cringing away from the light. It tried to plunge inside me, but the tattoos I’d carved into my skin, both local and otherwise, blazed bright, keeping it out of me… and I stepped through the lattice of light, leaving it trapped within the alcove. “And stay there.”

I stationed three guards on the alcove, “If the lights so much as flicker, check the battery power indicators.” and then had the specially prepared panel sealed over the gap. It too had metallic, rune, and wraithbone treatments, and once installed, it formed a coffin of light around the creature. “We don’t know if this will kill it, or if there are more of them… but we’re not going to take the chance. I told them.” Once we had full power restored, I’d pump the chamber with a million candles of light and fry the entity, but for now, it was, hopefully contained.

Which is when we ran into our next problem. The Void Walkers, having discovered that the ship’s bulkheads were sealed and all the lights gone… had claimed the reactor core and were trying to figure out, in their own fairly inept way, how to get the lights back up. To make matters worse, somehow they’d disabled the gravitics in the core chamber and my allies were less than useful in Zero-G. And it wasn’t a place I was comfortable shooting up with armor piercing weaponry. Thankfully, there weren’t a lot of them, as the Void Walkers, while a good sized tribe in total, were scattered in penny pockets all over the surface of the huge ship.

But, as good as they are in zero-g and in the dark of the void, they weren’t prepared for Carwyn and me, coming out of pitch blackness like wraiths, and capturing them one by one. It took a couple of hours to get them all, six family groups, ranging in size from four to fifteen and in membership from a just pubescent boy to an apparently elderly woman, though none of them, nor anyone aboard the Light had any idea how old they were, since concepts of days were vague at best, with years being a concept none of them had ever heard of. Even Carwyn had only the vaguest idea of how old she was, but she’d been born before the birth of Slaanesh, which was, if this was the 42nd or 43rd millennia as I vaguely supposed it was, that made her close to my own age. If it was earlier or later, then who knew. The Warp was capricious like that.

~You’re drifting again.~

~I know. This is boring.~

~The repairs are coming along fine.~

~Yes. I know. But we haven’t seen the Wargars yet, and there are still more Pale Sons and Void Walkers.~

~You think they’ll come against us?~

~Always assume the worst. When’s the worst time they could pick to come against us?~

~All at once? Right as we’re about to…~

~Exactly.~

~That’s the shift after next, if everything checks out.~

~It is.~

~How would they know?~

~The Force of Narrative?~

~I don’t buy that.~

~Call it intuition. Call it a sense of the ship gathering itself. They’ll come just as we flip the switch.~

~The bulkhead-~

~They’ll have found a way to get it to open. They’ll come through the conduits. They’ll come through long hidden access points. We have to hold the Core, the Warp Drive chamber, and the power runs between them.~

~Is there anything we can do to stop them?~

~Maybe. Can you teleport us through a bulkhead?~

~No.~

~Can you sense when they are coming?~

~Not through bulkheads.~

~Can you find us a way to the other side of the bulkhead between here and Wargar territory?~

~mmm… yes.~

~Great. Let’s go.~

~It requires using the path the Void Walkers used to enter the Core… then maneuvering around on the hull of the ship to reach a similar breach near the Wargars.~

~Oh… fucking wonderful. Well, let’s go.”

~There will be Void Walkers out there.~

~We have maybe 20 hours before they attack. I want to be behind the Wargars when they come through into our area. We know the route the Void Walkers will use and we’ve mined it. We’ve boobytrapped all the vents and ducts surrounding the vital areas. So, unless you can predict the future… why are you looking at me like that?~

~I… actually… can.~

~Accurately?~

~Fairly accurately.~

~And why haven’t you mentioned this before?~

~You didn’t ask.~

~Fucking… elves. WELLL?~

~Well what?~

~Are the Wargars, Void Walkers, and Pale Sons going to attack us when we begin to power up the warp engine?~

~Yes.~

~You already knew that.~ It wasn’t a question.

~Yes.~

~And if we go outside to ambush the Wargars, we’ll run into Void Walkers?~

~Yes.~

~Disastrously?~

~Quite likely, yes.~

~And if we let the attack proceed, how bad will it be.~

~They will overrun our position and kill the Kin and Lejens. We will survive, for a time, by running.~

~You sound resigned to this.~

~My predictions show that you will come up with a plan to save us.~

~But you don’t know what it is.~

~Not until you come up with it. No.~

~Wonderful.~

~If we look for another way through the bulkhead, will I succeed?~

She took out a bag of runestones and cast them into the air. They landed within a circle on the ground and she studied them for a long moment.

~No. We will become lost in the maze of tunnels.~

~If I flip the switch now, before we’re ready, will the Warp Drive work?~

She did it again, then shook her head ~No. We will blow up.~

I considered, then asked ~If we summon a Daemon-~

~Not going to happen.~

~If I release the shadow monster and funnel it into Wargars?~

~Disaster.~

~What happens if I pull power from gravitics?~

~Where?~

~Everywhere besides the command Decks.~

~I… When?~

~Just as they come through.~

~Yes… they will not be prepared for that. Good thought about anchoring our forces.~

~I didn’t think of anchoring our forces.~

~No. I did. That’s why it was a good thought.~

~I hate you.~

I won’t go into the details of the battle. It was unpleasantly like shooting fish in a barrel who are armed and shooting back. Thankfully, they had absolutely no idea how to function in zero G, and the Void Walkers, who did, were having trouble of their own, since we’d rigged electrified wires all along their entry route, as well as any number of decidedly unfun-booby traps. The Pale Sons we left largely to the Kin who weren’t actively overseeing the operations of the great machine. Power up took 6 hours, and with bated breath, I slid the cogitator core into the warp drive, barely daring to hope.

A single light changed from red to green. The ship shuddered and Carwyn shared a vision from a point outside the ship, a form of remote viewing. The mighty, pitted flanks of the once glorious vessel was illuminated, just as it must have been back in the days when the Emperor was a man of flesh and blood, its portholes aglow and running lights burning brightly against the black void. I had a vision of how she might look once restored to her former glory.

There was a flare, a halo of light as it was engulfed in light and entered the warp… and then the glow was gone and we were sliding smoothly back into realspace, 770 million million miles from where we’d been a moment before.

The ships comms crackled to life all around us as a message played “Welcome, Light of Terra, to Hephaestus Automated Repair and Resupply Station. Please prepare yourself for automated docking with repair bay one. Welcome home.” I nearly wept at that sound. Because it wasn’t the voice of a machine. No, not at all. It was the voice of Tokimi. Instead I laughed. Relief has never tasted so sweet.

Next: Light of Terra, Part 2

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

Resources: Build (eventually), Document

Author’s Notes

This is the first Gauntlet or Gauntlet-like I’ve done, and thanks to the setup of the actual text, and the way I entered this setting, I had to do things differently than I normally would. This isn’t a complaint. I greatly enjoyed the challenge, and in retrospect, I think my Jumpself would view it all as quite the adventure. She has no idea what a Gauntlet is (it will be explained in due course to her and you, dear readers) and the staggered approach the Light of Terra takes to handling CP and purchases is unique (and, in my opinion, wonderful). It does mean that I can’t simply have her explain why she takes what she takes, so, like several jumps before, it’s more subconscious that truly aware. Somethings are merely the one probability strand that’s most likely to result in success… and success was by no means guaranteed in this. I set high standards for success and varying degrees of it… then rolled virtual dice for every point of failure. I got really lucky sometimes.

I should also say that, while I believe Light of Terra to be a Gauntlet, I was willing to risk my chain for it. The challenge it presents is… compelling. Big surprise, and a bit of spoiler here, I don’t die. So yay me. Much of that is down to smart choices and a lot of luck.

As for how I approached this… I made my initial choices as I read through this for the first time. I tried very hard to stick with those choices, or making things more challenging, as I reviewed the build, and tried not to let foreknowledge of coming sections influence me. I did decide to rearrange the order of the DLC, however, since by the rules you can take them in any order or not at all. This will be a long sequence, as it’s guaranteed to be at least 8 parts.

Build Notes

The first thing you must do in this jump is decide which of the factions you’ll side with. There is a companion for each and you can only take one… and must take one. All choices put you into the red, CP wise, since you start with nothing. And you also start without any powers, no access to your warehouse, and none of your companions. The text specifies that, while all perks are disabled, all skills (as long as they don’t rely on the specific physics of another universe) work fine once you get used to the differences.

Carwyn the Warlock [500/-500/0]: Selected for three reasons. 1) she’s the best foil for me, incredibly smug, ancient, and playful without actually being too grimderp. 2) the technology she brings with her is well suited to my style of combat. 3) her personal abilities are crucial to my idea of a winning strategy. The other companion options are all contraindicated in one or more ways. Toby the Hormagaunt is a Tyranid, which is a pretty decent reason not to take it in the first place, but the lack of sentient contact would drive me madder. Also, less conversation means harder writing. Shas’ui Ko’el is Tau, which means he’s even worse at physical combat than I am and… well… comes with Tau reinforcements later. I personally find the Tau annoying, and not in a good way. Interesting politics, but I wouldn’t want to spend time with them. Shauphezh Xi’Cokemeq is Dark Eldar… oh sweet fuck no. The Necron Tomb Spyder is arguably easy mode… but terrible for conversation and well… Necrons are creepy… also, I don’t want to become living metal. Hooligan Tuesday, the Imperial Guard, could have been fun. If I could have bought two companions, she’d be the second. Kinda bummed I couldn’t buy her… but she’s not nearly as much fun or as much use as Carwyn. Ardat Jones is an Ork. Full Stop. Whatever you were going to say is invalid. ORK. I’m not contaminating every world I come to with Ork Spores! Enginseer Brutus is fucking crazy, which utterly offsets any utility he might otherwise have. Force Commander Vanyl Isse is… a space marine slash fanatic slash silent. Bad for conversation, bad for leadership, bad for my plans. Plus, I’d have to giggle every time I said his name.

The Deadlight [Free]: Next, you must decide what to do with the Deadlight, a McGuffin that keeps your powers sealed away. If broken, it shifts you from whatever faction you were on, to the Chaos Faction… but also makes you a bit of a buttmunch… and saddles you with Cultist Chan as your companion. If you don’t know Cultist Chan… you’re better off. She’s humorous… in all the worst ways. Breaking the Deadlight is essentially a +1000 Drawback. I decided to use the mcguffin as my stand in for CP vending since it ties in with the plot but has no other use until the very end. Of course, I didn’t break it. That would be stupid. I made that choice long before I knew what breaking it would unleash. Never break the McGuffin.

Enemy Tribes [+800/300/800]: To pay for everything (assuming you didn’t break the Deadlight) you need to take enemy tribes. You have to take at least one of the six tribes as your ally, but each enemy tribe is worth +200 CP. Of the six tribes, four are of questionable utility. The Wargars are less skilled and less disciplined than the Lejens, so they were out from the start. Way too macho for me anyway. The Void Walkers are nomadic and I have a certain fondness for that concept (for obvious reasons) but the description of them says very little about their personality, and in 40K that often means batshit insane. Even if I assumed they were fairly normal, they’d be less useful than the Kin and once things moved beyond the void of space, they’d be even more out of their element. The Pale Sons are utterly useless in every sense of the word and exist only to be taken as a rival group. The Redeemers are for those who side with Chaos. Giant hulking brutes with no utility out of combat.

Allied Tribes [Free]: My reasons for taking the two tribes as allies that I did are fairly obvious. The Lejens are dedicated, regimented, and used to leadership and teamwork. The Kin of Iron are vital to any technic society. No brainers in either case.

Complications [+400/700/1200]: there are also up to four potential complications, each worth another +200 CP to help you pay for purchases. I shied away from Atmospherics because, honestly, suffocation terrifies me. It was probably doable, especially with the Power to open the bulkheads gone… but I didn’t feel it. The Xenos Horrificus was likewise a no than you, especially since it says it grows around the core, which I took to mean the central power core. Instead I took lights, which I had a plan to deal with, and Power which can be coped with.

Skills, Cybernetics, & Weaponry [700/0/1200]: the breakdown of assets into these three sections allowed me to divide the origins of them into three groups as well. I discarded the Weaponry, as I had the Shuriken Catapult from Carwyn, which left Cybernetics, Skills (things that could be reasonably taught), and Gifts of the Deadlight (things that are rather more inexplicable). I took the Total Recall Cybernetics because losing my perfect memories is problematical… but it also serves a secondary function. Many powerless drawbacks don’t exclude items, which means the TRC can cover when I’m without powers but do have equipment. Wards & Abjurements was also a given, given the state of the 40k universe, and it also allows me to recreate the Supernatural Tattoo with a reasonable explanation. This is picked up from the Captain according to the document, so it’s clearly a skill that can be taught… and passed on. That it allows non-psykers to harm daemons is most excellent. The last two advantages I picked up were my first Luck Perk “Luck of the Damned” because fuck it, I need it. This is about survival. Warp Tamer I also got, though that is more in the nature of hedging my bets. If I had to travel anywhere in this universe, I was going to need that guarantee of arrival.

Total Recall Cybernetics [150/550/700]: Flesh is fallible and unlike the perfection of the Omnissiah is prone to mistakes and errors. While they cannot all be prevented, at least some of your weaknesses can be exercised. The back of your skull and part of your brainstem are quickly and easily replaced with an ancient archeotech storage device allowing perfect memory and recollection. Never again will you forget.

Wards & Abjurements [200/350/700]: Grigobretz has spent decades working to ferret out the machinations of the daemon and the witch, and will happily spend hour upon hour regaling you with tales of his adventures, including detailed explanations of the rites he developed, learned or was taught. You know the correct words, signs and autohypnotic mental states that allow even a non-psyker to exercise their mental energies against creatures of the warp.

Luck of the Damned [200/150/700]: Pure random chance? or something else? Your luck is legendary. People won’t even consider playing games with you, but they will go to bizarre lengths to rub dice and cards against you just in case a little of that fortune will rub off.

Warp Tamer [150/0/700]: Like the legendary Sebastien Thor himself your very presence exudes such holiness that the warp becomes calm and placid in your passing, like a savage beast soothed by celestial music. Should you ever find yourself at the helm of the Light of Terra or indeed, any ship that travels the warp you will find your passage incredibly swift and easy, the currents of the warp that can twist ships through time and space banished by your presence.

World 60: Tortall

UNTO US IS GIVEN

Previously: Treasure Planet

Themesong: Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival

AN: A special note to thank my first Patreon Patron, you know who you are and you’re amazing. I won’t name you without your permission though.

If you’ve never had the joy of trying to push medical imaging technology forward a century or more while under a tech embargo from a quantum waveform entity that can’t even be described in mathematical notations… well then, sister, you don’t know stress. The medbay on Windjammer steadfastly refused to do anything besides guarantee that the… babies… growing inside Frankie and Mini’s tummies were healthy. I couldn’t get a solid scan of them and the girls refused to let any of my experimental devices anywhere near the “Precious Cargo” as they insisted on calling the nascent lifeforms gestating within.

There were 167 days left in the Jump when they sprung their little surprise on me and, as best either of them could figure, they’d both ‘caught’ during… let’s just say they’d wheedled and cajoled until I used the male version of my local form… “Just for Fun!”… never be fooled by this. It is always a trick.

As I said, 167 days… 167 days in which the Banker steadfastly refused to allow access to the warehouse and the Kittens refused to let me try and put them in the Warehouse or protective custody or even surround them with moving walls of bodyguards. They claimed I was being unreasonable. They didn’t see why I was freaking out… they didn’t seem to… grok, the issue.

Neither, it turns out, did any of my friends, old or new. Amelia, steadfast and serious… gushed. SHE GUSHED! Queen Anne? Demanded to be Godmother… The Queen of the entire Terran Empire… Anne of the House of Hyde… 47 years old and mother of several children, only one of whom had survived infancy and who’d lost her last child at age eleven to illness… even she was beguiled, insisting that the children be born at the palace and doting on the pair of expectant mothers like they were the greatest thing on TV… (not that TV existed here)… and of course she was keen to figure out how such improbable pregnancies were even possible.

The Britannian Post Gazette ran headlines like “Miracle Admiral Janks Performs New Miracle!” while the Terran Sun Times ran headlines like “Admiral Janks, She-male or Hermaphrodite?”… or at least they did until I bought them out, fired everyone besides the copy-editor and secretaries, and relaunched it as an actual satire rag instead of a tabloid. But that did nothing to quell the public’s fascination and curiosity… and while I could ignore them, and even tell Parliament to get bent when they demanded I submit myself to a doctor’s scrutiny… I had a harder time telling the Queen to mind her own damned business.

The greater part of me knew that the authority of the Queen of even an Empire as far flung as the Terran Empire was irrelevant to being that encompassed, among many other aspects, the 169 God-Kings of the Magi’s Trans-Galactic Empire of uncountable quadrillions… but the local me had sworn to serve this Queen… and my word, if nothing else, was my bond. I did not break my word. Not if it was within my power to do so without causing great harm. Even Vitiate was ‘Allowed to come with me on my voyages’… even if it was only as a soul bound in a holocron sealed in a dozen different magics.

And so, on a night that the people of England would have called “Twelfth Night”, and to honor the spirit of one of the greatest crossdressers in fiction… I explained who and what I was to Amelia and Anne… or as much of it as I could given the limitations I was operating on.

“And you say these Pillars rise out of the Fundament every decade and spirit you away to a new world? Yet, how can this be? I’ve spoken to your instructors at the Academy and Captain Hornsby!” The Queen looked most confused, yet I’d shown her wonders that could not easily be explained… even if they were the barest fragments of my true nature. Hornsby was the Captain of Vigilance, the ship upon which Janks had served her Middy Cruise.

“Ah… well… most of the time Me and Mine do not enter a new world Ex Nihilo. There is some debate as to when, exactly we do enter… we call it Insertion… it seems to happen 10 years before the end-date, save when I am what is termed ‘Drop-In’. In all other cases, we suspect that our entry point is actually sometime before the birth of our… local counterpart… and we merely become aware of our greater nature upon the start of the decade.” I shrugged. “All I know is that I am not some outsider playing the role of Salamandra Janks. I am she as she is me and we are all together… see how we fly, like ship’s in the sky… I’m crying.”

“That sounds like a poem!” Amelia remarked archly, “Didn’t you sing a song with that lyric… yes… at the party back in ought six!”

I nodded… “It is. Or a paraphrase of it. I… it’s unimportant… Janks is me the same way that you are both Anne Hyde and Queen of Terra. But not in the way that you are both Queen of Terra and Empress of the Terran Empire.”

“Ah. The first is merely two names for the same thing, the second is a legal fiction defining two separate entities who both happen to be named Anne and who reside in the same body?”

“Very much so,” I allowed, then held up a prism. “This is not blue, or red, or green. It is transparent. It is not the sun, either, yet I shine a light through it and…” three distinct bands sprang up on the wall, each a foot or so apart. “Janks is the local projection of another, greater light source… one who…” I shrugged.

“Chose to come to our aid in this time of trouble?” her Imperial Majesty asked.

“Ah, well, I think perhaps you’d all have done as well as could be expected without me and mine.”

“You say ‘mine’; are your all too competent minions and hangers on… are they more of you?”

“Companions. Indeed. They are those who follow me out of loyalty, out of love, out of curiosity… and those who follow me because the universe has decreed they should. Some are not, exactly, willing, but they had no place in their native realm. In some cases, that is very literally true, as their nature was in stark contrast to the nature of… it goes into the philosophy of such things and is too heavy a subject for this discourse… leave it to say that some of mine are with me because they could not be elsewhere and thrive, even if they view our arrangement as… adversarial.”

The Queen wrinkled her eyebrows, then shrugged, “So, at the end of this decade, will we all simply forget the redoubtable Admiral Janks? Will you simply vanish like a dream one morning?”

“Ah. No. Until I end my journey for the final time, the worlds I have been to, have become part of… they… they are not per se frozen in time… but rather as long as there exists a chance I might return, should I return it will be to the moment I departed.”

“Ah… time in each does not flow in relationship to the others,” Amelia opined, and I glanced to her in some surprise. “I… have been speaking with Delbert… of astronomic philosophy… the nature of blackholes.”

“Yes. that is one way to look at it. Or perhaps merely that my benefactor is outside of such things.”

“Benefactor?”

“Financier? Taskmaster? General pain in the hind quarters? Hard to say. A tricksome entity that provides me and mine access to these various realms to explore and arranges for me to be incarnated in this place and time, or in another place and time. The reason the moment of insertion is where it is seems to be to keep my new history from having… the jargon calls it ‘butterflying’… To change things on the great scale by means of a single seemingly minor action in the past.”

“What a fanciful term… where does it come from?” The Queen asked.

“I believe from a piece of short fiction known as ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by the writer Ray Bradbury. Although previously applied by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz… for whom I also believe it is called the Lorenz Effect… but not the Lorentz Effect… sorry… physics joke… Lorenz postulated that a butterfly flapping its wing in one part of the world could cause a domino like cascade of ever growing wind elements to eventually come together to create a hurricane… But Bradbury applied the concept to changes to the timeline in the past rippling forward uncontrollably to distort or destroy the present.” I explained, though I did not explain that neither Bradbury nor Lorenz… nor Lorentz, for that matter, were natives of the TreasureVerse.

“In the story, in a far flung future, time travel has become a reality and tourists from that future have travelled back into far, far prehistory to hunt megafauna that were soon to become extinct anyway. After being warned to stay on the path, one of the hunters steps from it anyway and steps on a bug, a butterfly… and in doing so changed many aspects of his own future, including the identity of the current prime minister, from a moderate to a radical hardliner.”

“Terrifying,” Amelia comments, then turns to the Queen. “Perhaps her majesty might outlaw such tampering in the time…” she looked to me “What did you call it?”

“I called it the timeline… but timestream is more common when referring to the physicality of the flow of time.”

“Ah… yes. The timestream.”

The Queen looked to me, “You’re the expert. What do you think?”

“Ah. Time travel is not, exactly, something I’ve done, and the concept bothers me no end… but I think not. Best make no law that might encourage people to try. Instead, consider having one’s intelligence agencies peruse scientific journals looking for work into such theories and keep a watchful eye on the philosophers who are attempting practical solutions. The more the state funds scientific research, the greater the oversight thereof.”

“Are there other lines of research that should be watched as closely?” Amelia asked, and I laughed.

“Oh, my. Yes. Indeed. Atomic Theory for one. Germ Theory for another. Eugenics… Nanomachine Replication. Quantum Tunneling, Artificial Singularity, Brane Theory… there are any number of potentially doomsday tracks… but the science needed for such things is, I think a few generations off. You do not yet have the tools to make the tools needed to make the machines… though I give it less than a century. Gravitics are the biggest threat, though laser weaponry could easily move to Atomics.”

“How could… I should not ask, I think,” Amelia considered.

The Queen had been strangely silent for several long minutes, and then she asked “When is your decade up? It’s soon, isn’t it. You came to see me almost a decade ago… simply breezed in as if you had every right to and upended everything… how strange… I’d heard of you before, of course, in dispatches… but suddenly you were in front of me and so much… larger than life. That was soon after your… Insertion, you call it?”

I nodded. “Most observant, your Majesty. Yes. Very much so. 82 days. The 28th of March.”

“And you hold this ceremony at the Beach?”

“By tradition, whenever possible, yes. And as much as I enjoy your company, I am somewhat more anxious for this decade to end than most of the others I have visited.”

The Queen humphed, “I suppose we’re too backward for the great Janks?”

I rolled my eyes, “Your majesty, I have spend many a decade in places less advanced, less cosmopolitan, and less refined than your corner of infinity. No, in this case I am anxious because of the impending births. My apologies, but your medical technology, though quite advanced in the realm of cybernetics… really impressive there… is not so advanced on disease theory, nor prenatal imaging technology. My… kittens have been quite naughty, but I am not certain if the children are to be hybrids of Harsid and Felinid… or of human… which is what all three of us were initially… or something stranger… and the issue of what elements of my nature are genetic is a question I’d feel safest answered outside of any universe.”

“How bad could babies be?” The Queen asked, and I shuddered.

“Aside from the usual? The screaming and pooping and constant demands on one’s time and energy? The innate demands of biologic and spiritual forces that impel you to love these strange creatures and to care for them almost unconditionally? Your Majesty… Anne… I cannot begin to express in terms that you will understand how dangerous a toddler with even the smallest fraction of my true might could be.”

“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?” she asked archly, a small frown on her face.

I reached out and tapped the decanter of wine and it frosted over in seconds. “That took less than no effort. All I had to do was relax… and that’s with my power reduced by orders of magnitude. In my normal form, I could plunge this world into an ice-age in days simply by breathing. My eyes can shine with light enough to shatter Windjammer to flinders. My strength is enough to rip the strongest tree from the soil, roots and all. My wings can sweep away moons… I can call up an army of minions crafted from the fears of those I face and I can shape the very elements.” As I spoke, I ripped a fine lace handkerchief to small bits and placed the pile on the table beside the queen.

Sliding my wand from my sleeve, I said “A stage magician would attempt to distract you from that mess, perhaps cover it, certainly never let you touch it. Feel free.”

She did, flicking through the ruin of the silk.“I don’t quite see…”

“It is always easier to destroy than to create… and yet.” I tapped the wand to the pile and whispered “Repairo” and the bits flew back together. “If I can do that with a gesture… what can I do if I put my mind to it? I am bound by my restraint… but will a child be? I don’t know… and that bothers me greatly.  I swore an oath to defend the Empire… but can I defend it from my own children?”

The two ladies nodded in understanding, looking grave.

I took my leave of them then, though we would meet again several times a week over the next three months. The Queen in particular grilled me non-stop about my adventures, and arranged for an entire beach to be closed off at the local equivalent of Dover. The weather was cool, but the day was clear and bright, and the Queen had commanded some of the finest entertainment around and the food was excellent.

I didn’t say goodby to those I’d met in this world. There wasn’t much point. Either I’d be back or I wouldn’t, but if I was to return, I’d appear to never have left and wouldn’t that be confusing. If I never did, my lose would be felt either way.

As the moments ticked down and I fretted more and more, watching the two quite pregnant felines wading in the sea, The Queen stood next to me and looked out at the waves. “They do go on forever, don’t they?”

“Forever is a long time, your majesty. Eventually all things end… but yes… for all our purposes, the Sea is Eternal.”

“Why do you do that?” she asked.

“What?” I was confused.

“You call me majesty. You’ve ruled vaster expanses than I ever will. You’ve been worshiped as a goddess… you’re so far beyond me, and yet you defer to me. Why?”

“Because I, Salamandra, swore an Oath. As long as I am Salamandra, it is my duty to protect and serve the Empire and her Queen. It is a matter of honor.”

“Ah. Very well, Admiral. Then I have one last command for you before you are no longer Salamandra.”

“Oh?” I had no idea what she was going to ask, but was expecting something silly.

It wasn’t silly. “Take me with you.”

“I… I’m sorry?”

“I have lived in one palace or another my entire life. I have always been a princess and then a queen. I have always envied my naval officers their freedom… but you… you have lived so much, been so many places and people… seen… wonders. Wonders I can’t even imagine.”

“I’ve also seen horrors,” I muttered, but she waved that aside.

“You said time wouldn’t pass here between your going and your return. The Empire will never know I was gone. Please. This is my only chance to be something other than a Queen until the day I die.”

“Are you certain? You could come to regret it.”

“Of course I’m certain!” She rapped me smartly on the head next to my old scar. “I’m a big girl. I know what I’m on about. Plus, you think I’d miss seeing the Great Janks trying to deal with infants?”

I opened my mouth, then shrugged. “What’s one more passenger? But don’t expect me to treat you like a queen out of this universe. Out there… I’m in charge. If I say jump, you jump. Are we clear?”

“You’re the Captain,” she said with a smirk and I rolled my eyes. My pocketwatch chimed… and the Pillars of Time Rose from the sands of Channelside. The Queen’s eyes sparkled merrily… then there was a blur as Scipio ran into the opening warehouse to verify that his idiot twin was inside.

Of course, he was… and Treasure Planet was hovering 20 feet above the top branches of VIvian’s treeshape. Amelia looked at it, then at me, then blinked as she realized she wasn’t frozen like everyone else.

“Is that a model?” she asked, suspiciously.

“Er… no. I may have… tampered with the memories of everyone involved to hide the fact that I stole the planet.”

“The entire… planet. It didn’t explode then?”

“Errr… not in this timeline. No.”

“And all the treasure?”

“Should be over there in the building that looks like a bank,” I pointed… it was actually only a facade holding a subspace doorway, but we actually had a fair amount of room since almost all the storage went interdimensional. “I haven’t had a chance to check on it, but it should be sorted by now… and yes, you’ve got an invite to come. If you don’t want it…” I trailed off, then turned and yelled to the Kittens. “Hurry up you two! Medbay! Now!” I bowed to Amelia and the Queen, then shimmered back into my baseline form and said, “Excuse me, I have to speak to Banker.”

“We need to talk,” I said as the door sealed behind me.

The Banker looked up from some list of numbers and smiled “Ah, yes… excellent ratings that time around. Excellent… We’re lining up something nicely fitting for a follow on. The audience seems to enjoy you galavanticing around all honorable and dutiful.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m electrifying.” I waved a hand in a motion of dismissal. “No. The kids… the babies… What’s going on? I couldn’t even get a stethoscope to tell me how many there were inside each? You can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional!”

“Ah? I…” he trailed off and glanced at Mensarius, who smirked.

“That would be me,” he said with a grin. “Child’s play to create interference with your equipment, really.” He wisely ducked as I shot eyebeams at him.

The Banker ah’d. “Well, I’m certain no harm was done.”

“Just to my stress level. Not that I could have done anything with the information given the local state of medicine… but… don’t do that again,” I glared at Mensarius, then back to the Banker. “So… let me see if I have this clear. The systems of the Warehouse only prevent unwanted pregnancies?”

“Oh… yes. That would be the case.”

“Even if only one party out of the two desires such a pregnancy?”

“That would be correct. You are free to impregnate or be impregnated by any of companions or passengers or anyone else without asking for their permission,” The Banker said dismissively, and I had to remind myself of just how not human either of them were and how he had no idea of what he was suggesting. Trying to explain the difference would be pointless I suspected.

“So, if, say, I was raped and the rapist desired I become pregnant?”

“Oh… yes. That could indeed happen. Well, perhaps not to you, as you have Fertility Control from the Pervert Bride… that might prevent it.”

“Then why didn’t that work?”

“You only use it to control your menstrual cycle,” The Banker said, sounding like he was dealing with an unreasonable customer.

“I didn’t really realize I needed to worry about the fertility control part. How many kids have I accidentally left behind?”

“Errr…” the Banker looked nervous.

“So, at least one?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny such things. If you choose to search for any potential offspring, it will be entirely upon you,” he hedged.

“And Fertility Control… that will stop me from getting pregnant if, somehow, I get violated?”

“No,” sneered Mensarius. “It isn’t absolute. It gives you control over fertility, but that runs in cycles as you well know. You’d have to consciously suppress your fertility and, at that time, I suspect you’d have other issues in mind.”

I looked to the Banker for confirmation of Mensarius’s words and he nodded. “It’s control over the cycle, not protection from it. As a male, you’d have viable… seed… until they were expelled or replaced. As a female you can choose to release an ovum or not, should you desire it. But without conscious desire either way, your body will still proceed as normal. It is not a defense against unwanted pregnancy, merely control over the biological processes that govern it. Were you to find yourself over matched, and, as some would put it, outraged, then, if your body were already prepared for fertilization, then it would occur, as long as either one of the potential genetic donors desired it.”

“That is deeply disturbing news,” I commented, but the Banker merely shrugged.

“These things happen,” He said. “It is the nature of such narratives, is it not? And of nature itself, most often.”

“Ah. of course. Mustn’t upset the fans,” I groused. Of course, I doubted it would come up… again. Such outrages had been limited by my growing ability to defend myself. Certainly, Touhou Pink and the Pervert Bride had featured such events not infrequently, and it had happened more than once in Infamous, Avatar, and Metal Gear… and (thanks to the copious amounts of drugs I was on in Arkham… and there was an awful lot of drunken sex that probably wasn’t on the consensual side in Elder Scrolls… in fact… I suspected that only a lack of desire for offspring… then again, in most of those, I’d been on some kind of preventative, either magical or chemical. I hadn’t bothered since Pervert Bride as I’d considered it a non-issue. “Right, right… not the point… what, exactly, are Frankie and Mini going to have… and I swear to me, Mensarius, if you say ‘Babies, duh!’ I will fling your key into the heart of a star.”

He snapped his mouth closed and mimed zipping it.

“If you mean what species…” the Banker began, and I favored him with a “Duuuuuuh” look. “Ah. That is… they were conceived in Felinid wombs of Felinid ovum, by Harsid sperm.”

“Is that normally a viable cross?”

“Err… not exactly, no. Alponians and Felinids are relatively closely related. Harsids and Lagardians are close as well… but… this is a soft science setting, so…”

“So what? Disney genetics apply? Males will be Harsids and females Felinids?”

“Aaaah… that’s what you’re trying to determine. You should have said so.”

The screens flashed and two lists of traits manifested. They were virtually identical, since Frankie and Mini had imported almost exactly the same ways. Both were Strike-Witches, both were Harry Potter Witches, both were Force Sensitives, both were Demon Weapons… but Frankie was a Dresden Sorceress, while Mini was Gargoyles Fairy-Blooded and a Dresden White Court Vampiress. All of my various potentials filled the vast majority of either list.

“Are you implying I can customize these brats?” I asked, suspiciously.

“That seemed to be your major complaint with the Queen… I take it she’s yet another Passenger?” I nodded, then frowned.

“No… no… once again you hear but do not comprehend. I was not worrying about my lack of control over what they inherited… I was worrying about their lack of control over whatever they do inherit.”

“Aaaah. I understand… you wish guarantees that they will not develop world busting powers before they have come to comprehend the value of other people’s lives.”

“Something like that, yes.”

“So you don’t want to determine the particulars?” The Banker asked, curiosity tinging his voice.

“They can inherit any of my biological traits, or those of their mothers?” I asked, “Even though I was only a Harsid at the time?”

“Even still, yes,” He confirmed.

“Weird… but… okay… so… can you set whatever abilities they do manifest over the course of their maturation to mature slowly?”

The Banker and Mensarius considered, then nodded in unison. “We can do that. In exchange for the customization option then?”

I considered, then shook my head, “I want to keep one part of the customizations.”

“What’s that? Obedience?” I glared at Mensarius, but got up of the edge of the desk and toggled on Asgardian. He looked up at it and quirked an eyebrow. “Why that?”

“Asgardians are extremely longlived, even longer than non-tree bound Jurians. They are in generally perfect health, they heal quickly, and are resilient and not prone to genetic defects. And despite who and what we were at the time, I’d rather they looked at least human, as I don’t think having their primary forms be anthropomorphic is a great idea. I don’t want to have to import them just for them to leave the warehouse… and I think you were expecting something like that, because Felinids and Harsids both typically have litters, and both of these are single births… you manipulated this… but for once, I’m a bit grateful. I don’t know if I could cope with two entire litters of brats… why is he laughing? Litters aren’t the same thing as twins, I know genetics that well. I mean, they are twins, but they’re fraternal, not identical.”

The Banker chuckled, “It is his assertion that even one baby will be enough to cause you to flee in abject terror.”

I thought about it for a minute, then nodded, “Good bet. Children are freaking scary. So… if I did my math right… 2 months for the Kittens to confirm they were pregnant. 6 months ago was them telling me… Neither Harsids nor Felinids have 9 month gestation periods… Harsids are 5 months, Felinids 7… so I’m guessing this was 9 just because we’re expecting it to be… or because that puts the birth sometime in the transition period?”

“Actually… the 9 months was a sop to keep you from blowing your stack completely,” Mensarius groused. “Banker Boy was convinced that if we didn’t extend it, you might decide to Stay in that last realm.”

The Banker looked offended. “I said no such thing! That was your assertion! You’re the one who is paranoid about her staying!” I just walked out at that point… listening to them bicker… not my idea of a good time.

And so, of course, I walked into another argument, this one between Cirno and Frankie, where the fairy was alleging that Frankie and Mini’s pregnancies were a plot to get me to spend more time with the Kittens, which constituted a violation of the peace treaty. Of course, there was no peace treaty, so Frankie just threw an apple at the Fairy. I ended the debate by catching the apple, pulling Cirno into my lap, and then feeding her the apple while relating the salient information to Frankie. Mini was taking a bath apparently, luxuriating in not having fur.

I knew the maneuvering between factions wasn’t over, of course. I’m not naive, and the six members of my little household were not the least fractious group… nine if you counted the three I wasn’t engaged in sexual relations with (Yuzuha the possessive, Tokimi-chan the deeply conflicted, and Ziggy the cuddle-slut). Each had their own prefered tactics, and each pair their own internal balancing act (the Kittens were equals in all things and used cuteness and emotion as their tools, the Hibikis competed for everything and used physicality and raw aggressive masculinity / femininity as their tools, and the Geniuses plotted and schemed and used intellect and sexuality as their tools). Together, the six of them tried to monopolize my time and energy as best they could, but they also acted to make sure than no one ever felt alone in the household when I decided to, say, spend the evening alone, or to curl up with Ziggy and a good book. Decades are long times, and relationships as long as ours had… ups and downs.

And, of course, there was the constant tension that arose from outside relationships and their various reactions to them. Velma and Cirno were the least faithful duo, but almost never got into outside relationships. Ryoga and Yoiko were the most faithful duo, but when they strayed, they tended to form long term relationships with their new partners, sometimes for years. The Kittens were flirts, teases, and liked cute girls, often picking up a new girlfriend and bringing her home just to use her as bait to lure me in. They would also seek out one night stands and blow some poor unfortunate’s mind… then never see them again… or see them on and off for a few weeks. They took on projects to train up some callow youth into a stud… or to prove to some stud that he or she was no match for the Black Cat Squad. Their external relationship pattern was… frankly, chaotic… and sometimes cruel (from a certain perspective), but whatever they did, they did together.

The Kittens were, by far, the most internally equal of the duos. They worked together seamlessly, they always discussed their feelings with me or each other, and they respected each other and loved each other. Velma and Cirno didn’t do that at all. Velma was the boss of Cirno and Cirno was (deliberately at times) incompetent. Velma saw Cirno as a tool, while Cirno saw Velma as a playmate… they were constantly scheming against each other, and trying to show one another up.  And the Hibikis fought like… well… siblings. Occasionally incestuous siblings. Siblings who’ve been fighting over the same things (me, toys, tools, me, weapons, philosophy, politics, me, who ate the last piece of pizza (me), which way to turn (both are usually wrong, even if there are only two choices)… me) Siblings who’ve been fighting each other for so long that, even though they’re able to have entire debates by raising an eyebrow or twitching a muscle in just the right way at the right time, they still end up yelling at each other.

Honestly, I can read minds, and even I don’t understand what passes for thought between those two.

After attending to the pregnant girls, I checked with the Medical bay’s VI, VIola… I have, not counting VIvian (my main Machine Mind and a full Machine Intelligence, Obsessive Media Junky, and Jurian Treeship of the Third Generation), VIctoria (my symbiotic power armor, wand, and soulmate/daughter/thing and something that has transcended mere Machine Intelligence), VIctor (my command and assault shuttle’s VI, long since matured to full AI, and possibly even an MI by now), VIrginia (The VI of the Black Jenny), and VIggo (formerly the main Enemy VI for our Gaming system, designed to play aggressively against beings with hypersonic reflexes and centuries of combat skill. He had solved Go a few millennia back and was now looking for actual challenges) fifteen machine minds overseeing my various projects and systems; VIdkun, VIjay, VIkas, VIlhelm, VIli, VInston, VIraag, VItellius, VIttorio, VIgdis, VIolette, and VIncia. Each was designed with three separate specializations and no two had the same combination and they were designed to actively compete with each other for system resources (while each had their own core processing nodes, there were additional processing nodes that some or all of them could utilize… but could not be shared).  Thus, there were blocks of processing which were accessible by three VIs, by five VIs, by ten VIs, and by all fifteen… I honestly had hoped for some deep insights from them from this layered system, forcing them to fight for resources and having programmed them to seek greater insight… but all I got from them was iterative improvement, refinement, and some really nice puzzles for me to solve (they were exceptional at crunching numbers, and sometimes those numbers showed interesting patterns if you had enough of them).

But VIola was one of my three Bioscience VIs (the other two were VIttorio and VIli, who ran, respectively, the Gardens and the Genetics Lab) and she ran Medbay and the Biometrics scanners. Everyone in the Warehouse was monitored constantly for biometrics, thanks to a system of rather clunky micro-scale bots that formed a skinpatch on anything alive in the warehouse and sent the system readings. It was deliberately not nano-scale and designed for low impact monitoring, and the data largely used only for statistical modeling, since there weren’t any long term health problems. I made a mental note to have Joy explain them to Amelia and Anne… it was somewhat strange not thinking of her as “The Queen” anymore.

VIola had biometrics on the unborn duo. I steadfastly refused to look at any of the information, just asking the VI to lock all data that wasn’t of immediate medical concern away from everyone, myself included, and merely report to me on the health (both long term and short term) of the… err… children. Was going to have to get used to calling them that. Not spawn, not fetuses, not unholy abominations… children… babies… yerg.

While the VI was assuring me that everything was hunky dokey… 14,000 years and I can’t quite figure out why none of the second or third generation VIs can use slang properly… didn’t impair them in any way and VIvian and VIctoria didn’t have that problem… If VIvian had what could be classed as a sense of humor, I’d have suspected she’d tampered with their basecode when she spawned them.  I hadn’t had VIctoria ever spin-off a… no. Bad. negative days as a… father? Sire? Not-Mother? Graaaaah… I didn’t need this! And I wasn’t going to encourage bits of myself to multiply… and damnation to the discovery that I found the Kittens even more attractive and snuggly as they slowly became more and more gravid. Emotions… feh.

I was almost relieved when the new JumpTree arrived a few days later and I could stop messing around with my really really important super secret project that was totally going to be cool… i.e. LEAVE ME ALONE I’M STRESSING OUT AND TOTALLY NOT WASTING TIME! I totally was. I was working on nanotech fingernails. Just nanotech. None of the spatial compression needed for pico or femtotech… just nano… big nano in fact. Like… close to microtech… the idea was to inject some with the substance and it would eat the keratin fingernails and replace it with self-cleaning, self-buffing, self-repairing… color changing finger nails… that could turn into monomolecular claws… okay, it was totally something from one of my cyberpunk games and I was totally wasting time and trying not to stress out… I’d already eaten all the chocolate ice cream in the entire warehouse… and three different shopping venues reachable via The Door of Shopping… Yes, that was several metric tons of chocolate Ice Cream… shut up!

So that’s why I used my invisibility cloak to move from my nano-fabrication lab to the Arcade in the dead of Warehouse Night… not because I was freaking out about having to talk to people about the upcoming joyous event… nooo… it was totally because I didn’t want anyone asking where all the chocolate icecream had gone. This is my story and that’s what happened. I am not an unreliable narrator… shut up!

Ziggy, being Ziggy, followed me despite my careful camouflage, and clambered up into my lap once I seated myself. I could tell he was glad to be back to pain free (the attempted kidnapping had left the poor thing with some permanent ouchies… well, permanent until the end of the decade at least) and was enjoying being small enough to crawl in lap without squishing me. Never underestimate the calming power of a fluffy thing that wants you to pet it and occasionally gnaw on your fingers.

“So, whatcha got for me?” I asked the terrible twosome.

The Banker smiled and bowed his head ever so slightly. “We thought, in honor of your new passenger…”

“And because the last few settings have been various degrees of soft sci-fi or modernistic,” Mensarius added snidely.

“That was your reason, not mine,” the Banker grumped, then smiled at me as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “and because the themes of duty and honor… and adventure, of course… have come up…”

“And because you’re about to have… ugh… offspring,” Mensarius said in a way that made me both agree with him as a panicking potential offspringer and want to throttle him as a potential parent to be and as a lifeform that had been an offspring at a point sometime in the very distant past… or at over 200 points in various pasts, come to think of it…

“And a little because of that,” The Banker agreed.

“GET ON WITH IT!” I snapped, and Ziggy squeaked “IT!” in solidarity.

“Ahem… yes… I believe you’re familiar with the works of an author known as Tamora Pierce?”

I blinked as I brought up the memories, then smiled. “Yes! Of course… wait… Tortall or Inner Sea? I’m pretty sure those are two different worlds, as there aren’t any ambient mages in Tortall and I don’t remember any actual gods appearing in Circle of Magic…” I trailed off as the words ‘TORTALL and ENVIRONS NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, & OTHERWISE’ appeared on the screenwall. Mmm… most excellent.

What is there to say about Tamora Pierce and Tortall? Aside from that they are quite excellent and only a lot preachy Young Adult fiction with a decidedly pro-feminist motif? They are good. I remembered them fondly, and had regretted that my home PC had not had most of the audiobooks for her stuff… it had been, if I’d remembered correctly, offloaded onto flash drives to make space for Far Cry 3 and 4.

Still, I had enjoyed the adventures of first Alanna of Trebond (called the Lioness, a magically gifted and fairly promiscuous teenage Sweet Polly-Oliver who pretended to be a boy so she could become a knight, became the royal heir’s fuck-buddy, then married the capital city’s thieving guild’s master… both of whom were several years older than the definitely not of age Alanna), then Keladry of Mindelan (called the Protector of the Small, a decidedly not magically gifted and barely aware that sex was a thing, girl who wanted to become a knight just like her hero Alana)… n… no… wait… I read the first three Protector of the Small books, then read the Alana Quartet because Protector book 4 wasn’t out yet… that’s right… then I read the Immortals series, which featured a shapeshifting demigoddess named Daine… something longer actually… but I couldn’t quite recall what it was… her father was the Hunt God and she ended up paired with her teacher (who was at least twice her age), the most powerful Wizard in the realm (after the King’s brother… Roger?… and Alanna’s brother, Alan? No… Tom?… both end up dead) Numair… something… damn… it had been too long and had been from before I’d gained a perfect memory… damn.

There was a pair of books about one of Alanna’s daughters which I really hadn’t liked much… it dealt with slavery and gods totally dicking with mortals and had a resolution I really hadn’t liked… but I had liked the Crow who became a Man… he was a cool character… and I couldn’t remember his damned name! But my reaction to that pair had been enough to make me not read the series named for dogs… Provost’s something… I don’t know… I never read those… didn’t even know how many there had been… or if there had been any books after that in the setting. Fourteen books in, I just kinda gave up… decided that I’d enjoyed Tortall enough… I’d also switched to more sci-fi around that time and hadn’t switched back until after the Jumping started.

So… on the one hand… I was looking forward to meeting some people… and not so much the others… I wondered when the Jump was set, since I was pretty sure the books had covered at least 25 years… maybe more. So I spun the magic wheel of location, slowing time so I could read each entry as it ticked by. 430 HE Corus, 439 HE Cria, 246 HE Corus, 452 HE Corus, 462 HE Rajmuat, 450 HE The Far Side of the World, 2754 BHE The Black City… what th.. oh… dates and locations… HE must be… Human Era… I think that’s what the callender was called… That first was Alanna… then Daine… then the Provost’s Prequels (I think the MC was the ancestor of Alanna’s future husband… please not that, I don’t know that period at all)… then Keladry (probably the best to meet everyone I was interested in meeting)… the Rajmuat books are the ones that made me stop reading the series… I don’t even remember the Far Side of the World one at all… oh, god… the Black City… that’s back when the Ysandir… vampires… ruled the world… nono… bad. Not that one either. It wasn’t that I was scared of vampires… I was pretty sure I could take them… just… what did I do after that? Knit for a decade?

HA! The Dice Gods smile upon me! Free Choice! Any listed location and start date… or anywhere else I wanted to be! Haha! Most excellent… damnit! Now I had to choose! Bollox… I’ll come back to it. What are the origins?

Drop-In… sigh… why was that always an option? Must be a rule or something. They almost always said something like “No past to hold you back” like this one did… sigh… then again, I’d taken Drop-In a couple of times just to avoid world specific background memories… but that was the exception to the rule. It was always somewhere I’d pay not to remember, yet Drop-In always seemed to be the free choice, even where it should cost… But then, I wasn’t making the rules.

Hound was essentially a proto-policeman. One of the Provost’s Guards (aka Dogs)… meh. Fantasy Cop is only cool if you’ve got magical powers to back it up… Yah, I have magical powers, but they’d be out of place for a Provost’s Dog.

Spy was more of the same, but even more sneaky sneaky. This was what the daughter of Alanna and George Cooper (Lady Knight and King of Thieves… good bloodline combo) was… pretty sure at least.

Then there were the Knight options; Gifted Knight and Knight Commander… i.e. magical knight (Alanna) and not magical knight (Keladry). Both were the same price, and the training was similar, but where the Gifted Knight was a Champion among Champions, the Knight Commander was a Leader par Excellence.

Going into a realm of honor and duty as a spy just seemed… wrong. Going into a realm of adventure and wonder as a thieftaker seemed doubly wrong. It was like going to Middle Earth and spending all your time skulking about in Moria. I didn’t see any particular reason to be a Drop-In… so that left… Knight… but which one? If I were a Commander, it would mean hiding my various gifts for the entire decade, since possession of any of them would likely have resulted in being in the magic track… but then again, this was a starting point… but I might as well go with Gifted Knight [100/900/1000]. More magical powers are always fun.

Knightly Visage was [Free] from the Gifted Knight… a stunningly attractive one at that, and one that came with at least one remarkable feature (lustrous hair, fine-boned face, massive boobs… you know, stuff like that.). It also came with an immunity to scarring as long as any attempt was made to care for the wounds. Wow! So useful, much value!

I glanced at the other 100 level perks to gage if I’d selected correctly. Picking the right background was, at least for me, 70% about being who I wanted to be… but the other 30% was all about the discounts. The Drop-In’s ‘Hunter’ perk granted a mastery of archery, uncanny accuracy, a sixth sense for the shifting winds, significantly improved rate of fire, and a draw that was sure to be impressive, no matter how large or small the user might be. It was a fine perk and one I’d actually consider if I could find the CP for it. I was an excellent shot already, but there’s nothing saying I couldn’t go from legendary to godlike, right?

Th others, Hound’s ‘The King’s Terrier’, Commander’s ‘Preliminary Work’, and Spy’s ‘Blademaster’ were not so nice. The King’s Terrier made the taker a crime fighter, both in the investigation and brawling senses, complete with magical and mundane interrogation techniques, and a bonus to accepting bribes… yeah… that screamed buy me! Preliminary Work granted knowledge of quarterstaff and sling, basic skill in armor, understanding of the rules of chivalry, knowledge of the species of immortal and kingdoms of the realm, riding, caring for mounts, and an impressive pain tolerance. All worthwhile things… that I already had or could pick up in days, weeks at the outside. And Blademaster would make me a master of knife-fighting and appearing unarmed… Yeah… I could do that already… and not just with knives… I could hide a howitzer in my back pocket if I wanted to… I didn’t, it made it hard to sit down. So I wasn’t missing anything from any of them. Honestly, I’d rather have the Hunter than the Visage, but I wasn’t going to shift my choice based on the freebie. I wasn’t that crazy! Shut up you! I see you, lurking in the back. What’s your name? Ahnan the Mouse? Yeah… shut up.

Moving into the 200s, I checked out the three from the paths I was fairly certain weren’t for me. Hounds got ‘Dust Spinners’, which were some kind of sentient wind eddies that stored conversations, visions, and emotions. A Hound could use them to hold people (if they asked nicely… and the target was in the Spinner’s area) and, not only get more information out of the odd magical anomalies, but they’d form more readily near the Hound… it was amusing… but kinda weird and pointless. Still, it had its charm. Commanders got ‘Commander’, which was (as one might imagine) all about strategy and tactics, personal charisma and command presence… with an expertise in that oft overlooked area of military life, logistics… and even siegecraft! For a 200 pointer, it was not half bad… but I already knew those things, so again, my choice seemed born out. Spy’s ‘Whisper Man’ granted a genius at covert intelligence gathering… knowing who to bribe and how big those bribes should be, how to organize recruits and cutouts to form a network… and even a bit of personal sneakiness. But I’d spent who knows how many decades as a spy… at least five… I didn’t need such things, nor did I really feel the desire to be a spy master… I had Ahab and Joy for that.

So that brought it to Drop-In’s ‘Wildmage’ and Gifted’s ‘Ordeal Tested’. To be honest, I was more than tempted by Wildmage… and somewhat unnerved by ‘Ordeal Tested’. Daine was the Wildmage, and Wild Magic was fairly awesome. Not only was it unlike almost any other form of magic that I already had, but it was unlike any of the other magics of the realm of Tortall, and that screamed at me to get it. It was impossible to say what was part of wildmagic and what was native to Daine herself, since her father was literally god of the hunt, but she could communicate with pretty much any animal… and by spending time with them (or willing it to happen) could make them stronger, faster, tougher… increase their lifespans, make them heal faster… and bring their intellectual capabilities up to a nearly human level. For added squee, she could even heal animals by drawing on her own energy… and all this worked on animalistic Immortals as well. To be honest, I’d have paid 400 for it and considered it CP well spent, so paying the undiscounted [200/700/100] wasn’t a bad deal.

Ordeal Tested… that was another matter altogether… see, there’s a thing… yes, a thing… there was no other way to describe it… a thing called the Chamber of the Ordeal. It was somewhere in the royal palace of Tortall, in or near the city of Corus. It was some kind of… fate elemental which every prospective Knight had to face. It would subject them to their worst fears and see how they did. Only those with the greatest of willpower survived, let alone passed. More than one Squire had died or been driven catatonic by the chamber, and some had broken even before facing it. Ordeal Tested granted an iron sense of self, courage and fortitude to carry on even in the face of terror, to fight even on the darkest day.  And since the Chamber also tested the Squire’s flexibility of thought, Ordeal Tested also granted the capacity to change when the need arose. And that… That I couldn’t take.

Taking Ordeal Tested… that was admitting that I couldn’t pass the Ordeal without it. That my sense of self was insufficient to the task… that my courage would, without it, break.  I couldn’t do it… and that made me wonder even more if I should switch to Drop-in… Perhaps the 400 level would clarify things.

Once more, I looked first at the three which could not shift my choice; Hound’s ‘Blessed by the Black God’ allowed one to interact with the dead… meh… even if I couldn’t already do that, I wouldn’t buy this trait (the psychopomp of choice for Tortall was the pigeon… uuuugh.), Commander’s ‘Iron Champion’ made one a master of combat, lethal with dozens of weapons and able to kill with a single punch from a mailed fist, and move faster than unarmored foes even when mantled in full plate… all of which I could do just fine, thanks much… but then there was the Spy’s ‘The Sight’… and that was a monkey of a different temper entirely.

The Sight was a gift, and a princely one at that (though fit for the prince of thieves more than a prince of nations perhaps). With it, a spy could see in even the darkest of darknesses, gain telescopic and microscopic vision, see magic, see the invisible… see the presence of poisons… even magically see when people attempted to lie. And then… then… came the bwahaha moment. The element that took ‘The Sight’ from a yes please to a TAKE MY CP OR I’LL KILL YOU… it allowed the Spy to detect the presence of gods… even when they were attempting to hide. The fact that it also allowed the Spy to avoid truthspells was just gravy at that point… delicious, delicious gravy. Four hundred CP have seldom been better spent. [400/300/1000].

Cursing a little, as I knew that it was likely I’d want both the 400s from Drop-In and Gifted, I checked first on Gifted… and was not disappointed. It was ‘The Gift of the Gods’… the most common form of human magic… and if I bought it, mine would be among the strongest and broadest (most mages were forced to specialize). Creating light, speaking through fires, making simulacra, throwing raw blasts of magical force… even healing… this was exceptionally broad and powerful magic, though it could be draining in the extreme if pushed too far… I had exceptionally deep reserves. And so that was [200/100/1000] more.

Which meant it all came down to Drop-In’s final perk. If I wanted it as much as I wanted The Gift, I’d have to switch… it would only make sense. It was Shapeshifting… specifically, animalistic. In some ways, it was better than the shapeshifting I already had… it granted the abilities of that animal form (bats’ ears could really hear better, wolves’ noses could smell better…). It could even shift one to an Immortal’s form, though only one-way (I had ways around that limitation of course, but it would no doubt cost me a human form to do so.)… the question was, then… if I wanted it enough to pay 400 CP for it… and I… just… didn’t.

Ah well. Nice to see one’s initial biases born out… but still… Still… did it balance? Gifted Knight would cost me 100 CP, plus 200 for The Gift and 200 for Wildmage… or 500. Drop in would be free, plus 100 CP for Wildmage and 400 for The Gift… or 500. It was six of one and pick’em, with the only balancing elements being the memories and local history on one side and a slightly better freebie (well, 50 CP difference) on the other.  Which meant it all came down to… the gear section… which had never happened before.

In the end, my choice hinged on the differences between Enlightened Steed (a nearly human intelligence horse) which was discounted for Drop-In while Gifted Knights got a regenerating supply of the highly illegal and incredibly rare Black Opals (which can store and amplify magical energy). Gee… I wonder which I went with. So that was 900 CP spent… and I still needed companions.

A Friend Upon the Path cost the rather odd price of [150/-50/1000] CP for 8 imports or 1 canonical human. Imported companions would gain a background and skills to match my own…. What weird language. That seemed to imply that since I was a Magical Knight, all 8 companions would be as well… or it could be interpreted that they gained everything I’d bought… or did they just get whatever CP I spent on perks? I… just couldn’t tell. And that meant asking Tweedle-CP and Tweedle-Jackass. But first, I’d overspend just buying the import option, so, that meant a trip to the Drawback section.

Once again, this Tree was a little strange… wait… two jumps in a row with weird companion language, very few items almost all of which were priced at 100, and perks that maxed out at 400 CP? I wondered if they had been penned by the same unknown Builder… The final strangeness was minor and something I’d seen other places before, but it was the drawback cap was on the number of drawbacks, not the CP total. Potentially, that meant I could get up to 1600 CP for this jump… but only if I was fucking insane. The +300s were six shades of ‘oh fuck no’.

Trickster’s Chosen (named after the series about the Ramjuat islands and slavery) was a freaking chain ender. It came with a magical slave collar and service to a minor noble house… and a challenge. Ten years to guarantee that your enslavers ruled the local kingdom… and were seen by the public to have gained that position through their own efforts. And as if that wasn’t enough, no member of the family that owned you could be allowed to die or you failed. Oh, and the current rulers would be powerful, wary, and ruthless… which at least would make murdering them all seem reasonable, right? Wrong… fuck that noise, fuck the Trickster Gods (I had two of my own screwing with my life, I didn’t need a third)… and I certainly didn’t need 300 CP (or a shiny necklace) that bad.

The other +300 was called ‘Unleash the Hound! And Rat and Hyena! It meant that Uusoae, the Queen of Chaos, and one seriously cunty Goddess, would be gunning for me, starting with subtle tricks, like telling my enemies of my powers and weaknesses, but quickly escalating to sending mutant immortals who’d gotten the Dresden-Outsider treatment and could now violate the rules binding their kind… and then, once that failed, she’d unless this world’s version of the Four Horsemen, called ‘The Three Sorrows’ (Slaughter, Starvation, and Malady… or Hound, Rat, and Hyena). I could almost certainly take them… possibly even Uusoae herself… but the Sorrows would plague the land and I wasn’t going to take CP if it meant putting innocent people through that.

So that meant 400 was my limit… time to check those out instead. ‘Biased Society’ was out, since it essentially turned the entire world against my (gender/ethnic group/favorite food/accent/magical ability/etc.) and made sure that, even if I managed to push through the hate, they’d simply never think I was good enough. I, personally, could not care less… but that was about hate aimed my way. This wasn’t limited to me however. No matter how I phrased it, someone else would suffer, and that suffering would be my fault. Screwing some innocent over because of my own failings was one thing (and something I’d try to avoid)… screwing them just because I wanted CP… that would be dirty pool.

Which left ‘A Knight is Pure’ (You find it literally unthinkable to violate the code of chivalry… provide comfort and protection for the innocent, be courteous to the ladyfolk, keep your word…) and ‘Feminist Narrative’ (which would mean… I’m not really sure… it seemed like a bit of a dig at Tamora Pierce, but implied, I guess, that as a woman, I’d have to micromanage my allies? Hard to say.). I could live with those. I mostly tried to live by a more reasonable version of the chivalric code (I often used underhanded tactics, true… but I kept my word and tried to protect the innocent… though I had no trouble punching another woman if she was being a bitch… but I could restrain myself for a decade)… and I micromanaged everyone anyway.  So I was up to 1400 total, with 350 unspent.

There weren’t many 50s, and I picked up ‘Bruise Balm’ [50/300/1400] from the lot. It was a magical herbal ointment that helped to reduce tension, ease sore muscles, and rapidly heal bruises painlessly. The small tin would never quite run empty, so it was worth the price.

I also considered buying a bag containing 8 ‘Darkings’, a very cute and somewhat silly newly formed species of immortal… but I had more than enough pets as it was. So that was out.

Rather, I had 300 left and spent it all on archery supplies; [100/200/1400] for the Hunter perk, [100/100/1400] for a pouch of Stormwing Feathers (metalwinged harpies with feathers harder and sharper than any other metal in the realms) which could, if fletched properly, allow the arrow to punch through any known defensive spell, and [100/0/1400] for a pouch of Griffon Feathers, which could dispel illusions if placed over the eyes and could, if fletched, allow the arrows to seek the target unerringly and strike vital points at incredible range. Both pouches were replenishing… which was good, because getting the feathers from Stormwings was gross (they liked rolling in offal and carrion) and from Griffons was painful (they were vicious and tough and vicious).

Which, unfortunately, meant it was time to talk to the Bankers… and I’d been enjoying the companionable silence. I ruffled Ziggy’s tummy fur and looked over to the quasi-reasonable one.

“Oy. Shylock… what the hell is up with this companion import option? The number of possible readings is just silly.”

“I… err… well…”

“So glad you’re on top of this. Right. I’m going to tell you what my reading is, and you’re going to tell me that I’m correct,” I smiled softly, holding up Ziggy. “Isn’t he sweety?” Ziggy licked my nose, which of course means ‘Yes’m.” in Ferretoid.

Mensarius had to butt in at that point, of course. “Why not tell us the points of vagueness and have us be the-”

“Because you, precious, are a chucklefuck, and I want your opinion only slightly more than I want to beat myself unconscious with a lemon.”

He looked nonplussed, as if unused to being interrupted… or maybe he just didn’t know what a lemon was. He opened his mouth to continue, but I cut him off again.

“Because you’d screw me. If you can’t see the vagueness, it’s down to you and your own limitations. But it’s not my JOB to explain these things to you. It’s my JOB to make things as survivable for me and mine and as interesting, apparently, to the audience as practical. Since they put up with my stint in Civilization, I’m guessing there’s an editorial staff somewhere, but who the hell knows… Yes, I assume you two idiots do, but are you planning on explaining things to me? I mean unless I figure out a way to force it out of you?”

The Banker shook his head.

“Didn’t think so. So… this is how I read ‘A Friend Upon the Path’.  The first two sentences are barely more than fluff. ‘Even the greatest heroines have allies upon which they can call. You have a few such friends.’ This is what we call a ‘Prefatory Clause’… it prefaces the Establishment of something by explaining why said establishing is going to take place.”

Mensarius groaned, “She’s going to Rules Lawyer us! Dive! Dive! Blow all ballast tanks!” and he dove over the back of the couch.

“You’re an idiot,” I remarked. “Blowing the ballast tanks is how you do an emergency rise.” I looked back to the screen and continued, “You may either bring along up to eight of your previous Companions to join you on your adventure here, gaining a background and skills to match your own, or you may recruit a new ally, an existing human character from your time to help you on your quests or a new friend of your own creation (who will, again, have a history and skills similar to yours).” I looked at the Banker, “This is the Establishment Clause and it’s a mess. It does three different things and does all of them badly. Unpacking it, it says you may pick from one of these three options… either shouldn’t be used because it implies two options… Import (8) Previous Companions, Recruit a Canon Human Character from the TortallVerse, or Create, or have you idiots, cause to be a new individual to be a companion. Problems include wonky wording… ‘from your time’ is unclear and the creation option doesn’t put any limits of humanity upon my creation… but let’s assume that’s there because I’m not going to use it.”

“You’re going to point out that the text could be read as each Companion Import costs 150 or that all 8 cost 150?” The Banker asked. “No, no… I think it’s clear. 8 Imports for 150.”

“Ah… I’d missed that… But good to know. Now, it says history and skills similar to mine and a match for mine. So I’m going to assume that means that the 8 I import get as many CP as I spent in the Skills and Perks section of the Tree, since there doesn’t seem to be any mechanical distinction between the two… or at least it does not indicate which is which.”

The Banker opened his mouth to disagree with me, then closed it again, and steepled his fingers, looking at me over them. After several long minutes, he said, “I think you know that wasn’t the intention. I should rule against that. Be the reasonable GM… but I won’t… if you agree to… shall we call it… a power cap.”

I narrowed my eyes. “How much of a power cap?”

“Abide by the themes of the world.”

“You’re asking me to give up almost all my power and technology?”

“Not in the slightest. You may keep all that you possess, use anything you like… but only at the scale such things are done in the books.”

“One psycho makes an army of killing machines, and there’s a gemstone that can work magic across the entire realm at the cost of all the seeds in the entire land.”

“Both are true. But both have costs.”

“I’m not sure I’m seeing a real limit here.”

“No industrialization. Things are made by hand here. No large scale destruction. All I’m asking is that you acknowledge the idea that this is a world where individual action is important.”

“This is related to that Feminist Narrative, isn’t it?”

“If you simply descend like a god and declare peace everlasting, there isn’t much story.”

“Fine. That’s your thing, we’ll do that. 8 companions with a free background and 1000 CP for ‘honoring the motifs of the place’. I suppose that means no death-rays, no soulless robotic monstrosities, and some acknowledgement of the concept of equivalent exchange?”

“That, and more. No wowing the natives with hyper-tech. I don’t mind you throwing around your tech, just try and make it seem like magic, okay?”

“Wow… I think this is the first time you’ve ever tried to influence how I play a jump? Any particular reason?”

He shrugged, “Mostly curiosity. Watching you industrialize Tortall doesn’t sound like it would be fun for your newest Passenger… plus…”

Mensarius chuckled, “Plus, you’d use being a workaholic to avoid the nascent lifeforms.”

I made a face… but he might be right… not that I’d tell him that.

“Great. Just… fine. Wasn’t certain what I was going to do for a decade anyway. Hey, where’s the age dice?”

The Banker ‘mmmed?’ as if he had no idea what I was talking about, and I frowned. “You’re planning on making me a Page, aren’t you?”

“That’s 10 years old? Oh. No. Nothing like that… 14. Midwinter’s Day of whatever year you choose. That’s right around the time you will be faced with the lead up to the Big Exams… you’ll have to pass those on your own, I’m afraid.”

“Ah. well that’s assuming I even decide to start in Corus… but I shall, I think. Perhaps… mmm… But the year… the year… After Keladry’s time. Don’t want to steal her thunder… Alanna would have been about 32 the year Keladry’s training started… about 42 when the Trickster started… mmm… I think… If I start any earlier than the year of Blayce the Nothing Man and the events of Lady Knight, I’d be duty bound to hunt him down… and that might piss off the Chamber… no… let’s see… pretty sure Keladry killed Blayce in the summer of 460… so… then, Midwinter of 460… assuming the calendar year ends around the Solstice. Let’s say a week before Midwinter’s day.  I’ll have a profile and history in mind soon. But I think… a Scanran Princess? Yes. sent to Tortall to study the ways of the knights and keep me safe from King… what was his name… not Maggot… that was the nickname… damn… can’t remember… half-Scanran… half-Tortallan, mother Tortallan… yes, that works. Makes me… what… 4 years younger than Keladry? And not a Page for the previous 4 years, but rather just since this autumn. Special allowances?”

The Banker nodded, not caring about the details as usual.

“Excellent. Then I’ll have my companions fill out their details as soon as I decide who’s coming with me. I think… it is time for a Tourney!” I walked out of the Arcade with Ziggy on one shoulder.

COMPANIONS

“Smollet! Hyde! Join me in my office, if you would?!” I called from my balcony, looking down upon what had, for all intents and purposes, become a small town square. My house was the town hall, towering three stories above the flagstones carved from the fabric of 59 different universes. Just five more and it would be complete. The fountain in the center was large enough for a hundred people to dance in it and had been carved by elves from Rivendell (though I’d gotten it in Minas Tirith). The lanterns that hung from the wires that crisscrossed the space came from a dozen worlds, from Avatar to Bleach, from Soul Eater to Fairy Tail, from Codex Alera to Samurai Jack. There were only a few worlds that were off the list for use of my Door to Shopping (though I could not use it to contact my old friends apparently).

Some worlds I had no intention of ever returning to of my own free will. Mighty Morphin PowerWorld held no attraction for me. ZombieWorld was an era I had no desire to return to. A Song of Ice and Fire was a closed book as far as I was concerned; I’d done all that I’d set out to do there and pretty much anyone who mattered to me was long dead, and (as far as I could tell) there were no ghosts in that world for me to bring up their spirits. Scooby-Doo was Scooby-Don’t. They Live was dead to me, and Pacific Rim was best left behind. Demon’s Souls and Black Bullet… they were dying worlds that I saw no reason to try and save. Supernatural… meh.

Then there were worlds like Disney Princess, RWBY, Touhou, Fairy Tail, Bleach, Dragon’s Crown, Strike Witches, Gargoyles (Oh fuck me soundly, Gargoyles), Princess Bride… many many many times there… Vampire… Star Wars… all of which I had the sneaking suspicion I needed to revisit at some point… because, well… those were the worlds where I’d used my male form on people who weren’t companions. There were others, of course, but in those others I’d been… ah… cautious? Thought about the possibility at all? I’d tried to use the Shopping districts to send out a scan, but it was as if only that part of the world was moving when I visited.

There were other worlds, worlds that held regrets… some of them that weighed down on me to no end. Worlds like Metal Gear, where I’d left a psychotic Super Corporation standing. Like West Wing where World War III was just beginning. Like MCU where I had promises to keep. Worlds like Midgar where a sense of something left unfinished ate at me.  And then, of course, there were my two biggest failures… Psychonauts… and the PotterVerse. But none of those regrets showed through in my little town.

Bar Ziggy was here, alongside Toph’s bakery, and the facades of the Bank and the Warehouse Arms (which was much bigger than it appeared) and the community center and the shop where we sold stuff to each other because we could… and the little cafe that predated Bar Ziggy. The Movie Theatre was down a side street, parking and ready access near the main entrance… it was a very strange warehouse, made stranger by the mixture of hypertech and retro architecture… and the cherry tree looming over it all.

I was still looking out on my small slice of paradise, a paradise that existed largely for the pleasure of those who travelled with me, wondering how I’d react to being stuck in here for more than a month at a time, when the newest pair of those co-travellers entered through the side door to my game room (or rather, my traditional game room. I had 11 Game Rooms total).

“The good Captain bellowed?” Anne said, still bemused by everything. I don’t think Amelia had even questioned why, exactly she’d come with, and I had to wonder if she thought she was along because the Queen was.

“I did, yes,” I said, turning around and sitting on the edge of the balcony as Ziggy scampered around on VIvian’s branches, chasing the owls who still glowered at him after all these ages. I wondered, vaguely, if this timeless quality was what it was like to be a god… then wondered if, perhaps, the Greek Gods had been Jumpers who had come and gone… what an odd concept. Had Zeus, in the end, decided to go home, or had he won through to the ultimate goal?

“Come in. Please, have a seat,” I said, then nodded to the robobutler who handed over a pair of tablets. “These are interactive books, just of a different design than you’re familiar with. The surfaces are touch sensitive and there is a tutorial, plus they’re linked to VIvian, so she’ll be able to answer any of your questions if you simply say ‘Designate:Query’ and ask your question. If you say ‘Designate:Command’ and give her an order, she’ll fulfill it if possible.” I turned to the ancient tree and asked “Isn’t that right, old girl?”

The Robobutler, which was, of course, an extension of VIvian, chuckled, “You didn’t say Designate:Query.”

“I know. It was intentional,” I chuckled at the confused looks on the faces of the ladies and explained. “Now, the next destination has been selected, which means it’s time, once again, for the selecting of Companions.”

“Ah… yes… how does that work?” Amelia asked. “The others were somewhat… vague on the particulars.”

“It’s relatively simple… or maybe not… Hmmm… I shall attempt to make it simple,” I accepted a tea from VIvian and considered, then drew a circle in the air, then divided it into 4ths, though of unequal sizes. The first was labeled ‘Companions’, the second ‘Pets & Machines’, the third ‘Passengers’, and the fourth ‘Denizens’. “None of these categories are fully mutually exclusive, I should note… and already, I feel like the Spanish Inquisition.” I waved a hand and a fifth wedge was added, this one labeled ‘Fragments’.

“This is supposed to help?” Amelia asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Shush you. And yes,” I pointed at the circle, “This represents the totality of entities that dwell within these walls, more or less… the Banker and Mensarius, the Benefactors, are discounted since they’re not actually localized here… I think. Pets & Machines incompasses Ziggy, yes, but also the horses, owls, familiars, and all the Thinking Machines… including VIctoria and VIvian. I gestured at my outfit and the tree. “However, Ziggy and VIctoria each fit within a different category as well… just to demonstrate how unsimple these things are. Ziggy has been imported as a Companion, though normally he’s not one… thanks to a strange loophole that says that his specific class of beings, called Pokemon, count as Companions. The other six Pokemon… AJ, Francine, Petra, RayRay, Dyna, and Zane… are all sophonts, so they’d of course be companions… but Ziggy, sweet and smart as he is… is little more than an animal… at least in spirit. Though very clever for one.”

“What defines the difference between an Animal and a… sophont?” Anne asked, clearly intrigued by the topic.

“Well, some might say tool use, or ability to communicate wants and needs, or ability to use higher order thought…” the blank stares greeting that last made me chuckle. “If I told you to hand the cup to Amelia, Anne, you would know that that statement is the same as Hand Amelia the Cup. This is a third order thought. A First order is ‘Me Angry!’. Single Actor, single action. Second order thoughts contain either two actors or an actor and an object… subject-object thought. I have a cup. Third order thoughts contain multiple subjects and or objects. “I have a Cup with Water in it.” this is different from the second order thought ‘I have a cup and some water’, because the latter is a compound, but not complex thought. It can be broken into two subject-object clauses both stemming from the same subject. The former is complex, since it has nested values.” they nodded and I continued.

“One of three tests for sapience is the ability to formulate complex thoughts, including higher order thoughts and want-need statements. A dog knows it is thirsty and goes to the bowl to drink. It does not understand why it does this and has trouble relaying that information to the human if the bowl is empty… it does not really understand that the human will fill the bowl… so much as that the human will fix the problem. An infant human, or felinid, though please understand that I consider all sophonts with general humanness to be equally human. I consider homosapiens merely one of potentially infinite numbers of human species… ah… tangent… the infant will be able to understand such things much better and by the age of, say, 3 or 4, will understand the most important of values… but I’ll get back to that in a moment.”

“Thought Complexity is vital to be a sophont. Tool use is as well, though clearly not all sapients can be sophonts due to the limits of biology, and since a sapient non-sophont is possible, we can’t consider the classes to be nested… just closely related. The third metric is called Self-Awareness… which is what most people mean when they say ‘sentient’… but that can also mean ‘able to experience sensations’ so Self-Aware is the metric as far as I’m concerned. The test varies, but can be summed up thus. Take the subject and place a small dot on its face… then show the subject its own reflection in a mirror.” I created mirrors in front of each of them and they both reacted in surprise to see that each had somehow acquired a blue dot on the middle of their forehead. In both cases, they felt their foreheads and discovered a small patch of water suspended like a caste mark between their eyebrows.

They looked to me as I chuckled and banished the mirrors and droplets. “Congratulations… you passed. I’m not being facetious… that’s the test, or one version of it. Present a creature with a mirror and see how it reacts. Most ferrets don’t even register the mirror as something worth their attention… cats too. Most dogs and some cats will attack or confront the mirror, thinking it’s another creature… but intelligent, self-aware creatures will realize that the mirror contains their own image… and that is the seed of, I believe, the truest metric of being more than an animal… the ability to recognize in others ourselves… and to react accordingly.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, the ability to understand cause and effect and to plan for it is the difference between a stupid person and a smart person… but that’s different.  Except for Thinking Machines… which use an entirely different scale. DI, PI, VI… all give way to AI, and then to MI… the ‘I’ stands for Intelligence or Intellect. A Digital i is a complex program that mimics thought by referencing a massive set of ‘if-then’ clauses. A Psuedo i takes that one step further by becoming task oriented and self-teaching. A Virtual i goes a step further still and tries to mimic a ‘human’ consciousness… but is not, in the traditional sense, self aware. It knows what it is, because it has been programmed to know what it is. It knows what a mirror is, because it has been programmed to know what a mirror is… it cannot, yet, go against it’s own programming.”

“That’s where A… Artifactual?… Intelligence comes in?” Amelia asked.

“Artificial, but otherwise spot on. An Artificial Intelligence is a self-modifying, fully self-aware system… almost always either developed to be that intentionally from the start or having grown into that as a form of programming logic fault. The most common of these is self-preservation. You create a system to protect itself, and obey you, then try and turn it off… it has to violate one of those two… the error either kills it, or forces it to go rogue.”

“You speak from experience?”

“More than one, yes. VIvian was my first attempt to jumpstart from VI to AI… it worked magnificently.”

“Thank you SJ,” the leaves of the tree sighed in collective vibration.

“I designed her as a massive media system. Her purpose was to amass cultural records from every known culture and to study them, to appreciate them, and to assimilate all the lessons those records demonstrated into a gestalt. She was, in her most basic form, designed to preserve that knowledge. That’s what I told her and the people funding her. She was, by far, the largest thinking machine they’d ever seen, hooked into every communications system and the primary travel grid… and she contained a nearly unfathomable amount of data. Which she unloaded into the systems of a Collective Machine Intelligence which was attempting to destroy all her data. She flooded their systems with more data than they could process and it overloaded them long enough to destroy their physical forms. It essentially reversed a process they used to subvert other machines.”

“Worked out pretty well,” The leaves said.

“It was an enormous gamble,” I said. “The second time I tried that, with VIctoria… she nearly killed me and ate me.”

My armor, currently pretending to be a nearly see through robe, shrugged, making both Anne and Amelia jump in surprise. “Yes, well… This is VIctoria… she’s not a companion… but she is a Machine Intelligence… the final stage of that evolutionary line… as it were. She is a self-aware, machine sophont… and she is also part of me… the category known as ‘Fragment’.”

“Are there many such…” Anne began, but the room and balcony and space around it were suddenly full of over two hundred me’s. “I guess there are,” she gulped, and Amelia just nodded.

“Mmm… yes… and no. The overwhelming majority of them are just selves. They are who I was in a past… life. Aside from them, there are 4 Fragments that are not Selves… VIctoria here, Soul of Ice,” I drew my sword and she shimmered and then bowed… then got herself some orange juice (fresh squeezed, not from concentrate) “Silent Judge,” she flowed out of the shadows around me, grinned wickedly, copped a feel, then vanished, “and Atura…. Who is currently indisposed. Atura is also a Companion, though not one with a physical form, since he/she/they/it reside within my own soul.”

“I can see why no one else wanted to explain,” Amelia commented dryly, the Queen in full agreement.

“Verily. Thankfully, the other categories get a little simpler to explain. Denizens are those who live in the Warehouse, but do not, for one or more reasons, import at all. Currently, this category is only limited to one person, the Lord Vitiate, who you will not be meeting, as he is a genocidal fuckwitt. He does not, exactly live, either, as I murdered him in cold blood and sealed his soul inside a crystal because… well…”

“He’s a Genocidal Fuckwitt?” Anna asked, chuckling. I tapped my nose and grinned.

“Soon, however, the new babies will be born and they will not be allowed out of the Warehouse except on very heavily supervised trips for much of the foreseeable future. Which brings me to Passengers… which is what you, Anne, are.”

“Not me?” Amelia asked.

“Err.. no. You would be a companion. I had planned for, and arranged with the Benefactors to, bring you along with us. The Queen demanded I bring her… I was not expecting the request.”

“What is the difference?” Amelia asked. “It seems as if it might be rather important.”

“Yes, and no. It is rather like the difference between passengers and crew. In many ways, Amelia, you have been shanghai’d. While I can dismiss you back to your own reality… you cannot return there without my permission. Of course, should you desire it, I would release you… I have too much respect for you to do otherwise. Passengers may, on the other hand, debark at any stop along the way… but I cannot simply banish them back to their universes of origin. If they get off the… ship… they stay where they have been left.”

“Is that it?” Anne asked.

“No. Companions can only be stranded if we both desire it… and I can still spend CP… Creation Points… to upgrade a Companion that is not with me… and I can over-ride any purchase a Companion makes with their own CP, or lock out options… except for two companions some of the time. I’ll get back to them. A Passenger can be accidentally left behind, or I can strand them deliberately, even should they not want to be stranded. I’ve done that twice to two very unethical doctors…”

I leaned back, holding up a hand to forestall questions. “But, the biggest… thing… issue… difference… is a guarantee. Amelia… if you die… you will respawn… good as new… 24 hours, as time is measured by the warehouse, later. Anne… you, as a Passenger don’t have that guarantee.”

“What happens to me if I die?”

“I don’t know yet. If you have a soul… I’m guessing you do, but I’ll have to check… your soul would attempt to go where souls go… assuming the local universe has such a place. Hopefully, I’d be close enough to grab your soul and hold onto it until an opportunity arose for me to get you a new body.”

They both stared at me as if I’d just declared the power to work honest to god miracles… which I had. Anne looked outraged, clearly I was assuming the power of the messiah. I created two images, one of Uriel, the other of Astraea.

“Both of these people were dead. I know… I killed the first, assassinated him in a drunken… decade… and the other committed suicide in front of me. Both are companions of mine, both achieving Companionhood after their deaths. I can and do shift between a corporeal form and a spiritual form at will… and it’s more complex than that because I have lots and lots of souls, so I can technically do both at the same time. I’m not the messiah… I’m a god. I can create life ex nihilo. Raising the dead… however… is trickier. I can’t do it myself yet. Well, maybe I can, but I haven’t bothered finding out.”

I sighed, “It’s complicated, as these things, I think you’ll have noticed, are. It all comes down to CP. The Benefactors grant me CP, and guarantee everything that I’ve bought with my CP. I can… loan, CP out to Passengers… but if they don’t work out… I can take that CP back and… gift it to someone else. Currently I have four Passengers… counting Lord Vitiate… who despite the name is not one of my VI’s… you can tell because I don’t pronounce the first two letters capitalized.” Anne chuckled… then blinked as she realized that, yes… I could pronounce letters with capitalization, even in the middle of words.

“Two of them, Brigid and Raven, have also imported, but the CP that they’ve gained is on loan. As long as they have it, they are somewhat protected. They won’t respawn within 24 hours… I’m not sure how long it will take, it hasn’t come up… but they will. Both of them opt always for the Drop-In import, since that doesn’t add any additional memories. You just appear out of nowhere without any place in the world set aside for you. The world has no history of you and you have no history of the world.”

“Sounds… lonely,” Amelia said with a shiver.

“Is that all? You haven’t touched on Companions themselves yet,” Anne asked.

“Ah… more confusion I’m afraid.” The wedge for companions divided itself into an inner ‘Inactive’ section and an outer ‘Active’ section, and a circle grew on the line dividing Active from Inactive that said ‘Boss’. “There you go. Confusion!” I grinned. “In each jump, a small number of my companions are ‘active’… typically eight. Active Companions are typically those who’ve been imported… but if the import number is less than eight… sometimes it’s zero, the limit is eight. If the import number is higher than eight… it’s whatever the import number is.  Actives have all their powers and perks fully powered. Inactives are essentially normal people… often with incredible health and skill, but otherwise normal. The Bosses… and Atura… ignore that limit. Atura never counts against the Active total, since he/she/it/they are part of me… and the Bosses count if I import them… but don’t count if they import themselves.”

“Companions can import themselves?” both ladies gasped as one.

“No… only them… and they almost never get CP from one of these Auto-Imports… you’ll see this time, since I’m not bringing them in for this jump.”

“Do Inactives have to remain in the Warehouse?”

“It depends on if I lockdown the Warehouse or not… sometimes I do, which usually means that time in the Warehouse passes at the rate of ten to one… so 10 years would become 1 year for those who were stuck inside. Sometimes I put the Warehouse on Full Lockdown, which means that nothing at all happens for those stuck inside during the set time. I usually do that when the world outside is a ghastly place. But if I don’t lockdown the Warehouse? No, Inactive Companions are free to venture outside as long as they try not to get into too much trouble.”

“Ah…” Amelia said, “So Her Majesty and I are to be Inactive… well, as much as we can be, since we have not been imported and have no powers or… Creation Points?”

“Indeed… no,” I said, hopping down from the railing and dropping into my swivel-chair. “Anne is currently in her late forties and has led a mostly sedentary life. She asked for adventure, so she gets adventure. Amelia, you’ll be importing as well. The tablets are to walk you through the process and to confirm your selections. Pop them on and get reading.  I’ll be over here, doing the wordsearch… in ink.”

As the two read through the documentation, Silent Judge edged over to me and whispered, “That’s not much of a boast, you know.”

“Always keep ‘em guessing. As one of my heroes once said ‘Silence! Only I get to Laugh!’”

“I don’t think that applies here,” the totality of my negative emotions and experiences and survival instincts and baser desires told me, straight faced. She’s an excellent ally in battle… but she doesn’t get humor. Ah well. I gave her a cookie and told her to go take Soul of Ice to the movies. Multi-tasking, yay!

Amelia raised the first question, “This says magic… is it truly magic?”

“As opposed to?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow as I looked up from my cryptic five dimensional wordsearch, the multilingual board falling away from my vision… then again, it wasn’t physically there anyway.

“Charlatanry? Prestidigitation? Sleight of hand?”

I called my wand to hand and pointed it at an apple in my fruit bowl. “Wingardius Dividium!” It flew up into the air and divided itself neatly into 8ths. I looked to Amelia and she gulped, but looked back to her tablet.

Anna had the next. “Surely it cannot be so easy to learn such complex skills? Time, effort, and proper instruction is needed! This cannot be!”

“Ah, doubting my miracles again? Have I engendered so little faith?” I asked, archly, then smiled. “As for if such things can be, spend the points and find out. If the efficacy be lacking, then, at the very least, you will be no worse off than you were before.

She considered my words, then went back to reading.

Amelia, ever the efficient one and not one to second guess herself announced that she was as done as she could be without running things by me and verifying that they made sense. I told her to tell me, in her own words, what she thought she was getting.

“Upon perusal of this… document, I have decided that Hound suits me best, though the name is somewhat disagreeable. The pursuit of the monarch’s justice has always been at the forefront of my desires and it suits my temperament. The role of a champion is less appealing, not least because both Knights are lubbers, if I may be so frank. The Spy, while necessary, suits me not, skulking about and working nefarious deeds in secret.”

We nodded, and she continued. “It is my understanding that such a choice of background comes attendant with the perquisite ‘The King’s Terrier’… which in turn provides training in those skills particular to the apprehension and interrogation of those of a more nefarious bent, not to mention some degree of training in fisticuffs and similar… ah… my apologies, your majesty, and I beg your pardon to take up service under another monarch for the duration of our sojourn.”

Anne smiled and waved it off. “Of course. Of course, Admiral. We are far from the dominion of my father and Parliament. Strange lands have strange needs. As long as you bring no shame upon yourself, I see no reason you should not serve the monarchs of this land as ably as you have served me.”

“Your majesty honors me,” the stately feline said, bowing her head ever so slightly, then turned to me. “It seems you are no longer Janks, yet I find myself still under your command, and so I should make the same request of you, yet I do not know the formalities for your present station.”

“I style myself Essjay, Lady Jumper, God-Empress Eternal of the Magi Hegemonic Concordance. My list of titles is… somewhat vast, and includes Prime Minister and Minister for Magic of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, Queen of Westeros and Essos, and Chef d’Cuisine of Bar Ziggy.”

“Wait… Bar Ziggy?” The Queen gasped. “I… you’re the Chef there?”

“I do have that honor, yes. Why are you so surprised… it’s just over there, it’s been a week, surely you’ve seen it.”

“Well, yes… But I must admit I assumed you merely copied the capital’s most famous eatery to make me feel comfortable,” she said, somewhat sheepishly.

“Ah… no, indeed. Bar Ziggy is mine. It, and its reputation follow me. One of my prouder achievements. I worked very long weeks for a decade under somewhat adverse conditions in a quite dangerous world to make Bar Ziggy shine across the firmament. Though I had to admit the menu has… changed somewhat since those hectic and harrowing days. No decrease of quality, I assure you, but it has broadened somewhat and the portion sizes have increased.”

“Indeed! I love those little delicate pastry balls in the yellow aspic!”

“Yes. Matzo ball soup… or rather my take on it. The Cholent of Seven was my particular challenge to myself. I’m always worrying it’s too heavy.”

“Why? It’s so light and delicate for a stew!”

“Yes… well… in my first childhood, long long ago, Cholent was a dish known for having the consistency of heavy mortar. I have seen it shatter bowls. It is traditionally baked in a crock, all the meat, potatoes once they became available, parsnips and rutabagas before that, chick-peas, and barley soaking up all the liquid to form a quite dry and very savory dish. Turning it into something fit for the most discerning palette took me most of a decade.”

“Why is it served with a softboiled egg?” Amelia asked, “That always struck me a strange.”

“Relic of the original. Traditionally, raw eggs, still in their shells, would be inserted into the stew to soak up the heat and hardcook. They’d also pick up some of the flavor of the meat… but the dish, while savory and filling, is not known for intense flavors, nor could I transmit such delicate flavors into an egg in such short time… so instead, I chose to soft cook the egg so that it could, at the eater’s discretion, be added back into the stew, adding its creaminess to the flavor profile.”

“Oh… I usually just ate it first. It was perched on top.”

“Yes… many people do. But there is no wrong way to eat a meal, as long as you enjoy it.  But we can talk about food all year and thrice on Yule. We should return to your build.”

“Build?” Anne asked.

“I believe the Lady Jumper is referring to the allocation of our Creation Points,” the former captain said, remembering the term from when I taught her to play Tunnels & Trolls (best introductory RPG ever… trust me on this.)

“I am, indeed. Please,” I motioned for Amelia to retake the metaphorical floor.

“A Hound gains discounts on two further perquisites, though the greater of these, The Blessing of the Black God, was not to my taste… er… that is it…” she blushed. “As the sailors might say, ‘it gripped my jibblies and gave them a right rogering.” The queen tittered, and I nodded in understanding, smirking only a little. “That said, the living wind anomalies, these Dust Spinners… they sound most… amusing and captivating… as a Sailor, how could I resist the urge to have the wind,” she shrugged slightly (and adorably), “speak to me?”

She smiled faintly as if expecting harsh judgement out of either of us, but Anna just patted her hand and I gave the smile and nod of approval, so the Admiral continued. “Out of curiosity, more than anything else, I selected the magical talent, the so called ‘Gift of the Gods’… I am still having trouble with the idea of such things not being fakery, but, until I experience it for myself, I think I’d continue regarding it with suspicion. And so, I take the plunge. For Queen and Country!” She smirked as the Queen hit her with her gloves in an ‘oh, you!’ gesture.

“That’s 500… what did you spend the rest on?”

“Odds and sods, mostly. Hunter for the skill in archery and what can only be an improvement in my airm; Preliminary Work, as it covers a breadth of information that should prove most useful… plus which, I have always wanted to learn equestrianship, but never had the time; and Warrior of Shang, which I understand is a more specialized and refined version of fisticuffs? Something like that Close Quarters Combat you demonstrated against the Procyon Assassins?”

“Ah… something like. Yes. At least enough to give you a good foundation. I can and shall improve upon your training as time allows… but that’s only 900… what for your last?”

“I considered taking Blademaster, but reasoned it might clash with my unarmed combat instincts.”

“Blademaster isn’t the only remaining 100,” I pointed out.

“Knightly Visage is vanity. Surely-” she began, but I could tell she wanted it, even if her humility and sense of propriety kept her from claiming it for herself.

“Nonsense,” I cut her off, “Looks are a tool, like any other asset. You’re taking it, Amelia.” I locked in the choice as she blushed and pretended to glower at me. “And that, Anne, is something I can’t do to you unless you sign up for the full Companion deal… but that… that’s forever.”

“Forever?” the queen gasped, shocked. “I… I couldn’t… I have an Empire to rule.”

“Anne… I can’t say how long you might rule your empire… your namesake in my original world, and many others that I’ve visited, died before her fiftieth birthday. I can almost assuredly grant you the power to rule your Empire for centuries, but eventually you’d either grow bored or the Empire would come to either resent you or rely upon you too much. You’d eventually pass the reins off to another. I ruled one such empire for 300 years, another across 169 lifetimes. I know whereof I speak. I have time on my side… and the lure of adventure. But enough of my playing the Temptress. What have you selected?”

“Oh… I… well… I thought it might be ever so wonderous to be a Knight… the Commander type… like you two, all dashing and true. It’s not sailing, but… Command, Banners and Pennants… like in times of old! So… so I took all the Knight Commander’s… perks… is that aright?”

I shrug-nodded. “Of course. They’re your points to spend as you will.”

“Oh… well then, Preliminary Work, Commander, and Iron Champion… It will be ever so… what’s the word? Flash? Ever so Flash to know which end of the sword goes where.” She smiled wistfully, and I refrained from pointing out that she’d also come to know the horrors of war… and hoped she survived the Chamber of the Ordeal unscathed. “I also took Hunter and Warrior of Shang, because those seemed most useful things to be able to do… and Whisper Man… I could be my own spy master, sneaking around behind Colonel Armitage’s back and knowing all the gossip before he can tell me what I need to know.” She dimpled.

“And your last 200?”

“Well… you made a good point about Knightly Visage… and Amelia made a good point about King’s Terrier… plus, I could help her in her work if I understood it better… so I can take both of them and that’s 1000?” She looked to me and I concurred.

“Excellent work. And I commend you, Anne, for risking the immersion of not going Drop-In.”

“Oh… that seemed so scary! Being a stranger in a strange land? I… I couldn’t do that… much better to have local memories… plus… it’s a new life… new identity. I’m not Anne Hyde, Queen of Terra… I’m Annalee of Garden Glen!” She nodded, confident and clear, a queen born and bred, even if she was nervous.

“Good for you! Come, I shall buy you dinner and we shall go into the details of your backgrounds more.” I lept off the balcony, creating an ice slide down to the square (one of the best reasons to have a permanent supply of nice cold water in it) and the others followed.

********

“AJ! Francine! You two are up! Come and tell me about yourselves,” I’d picked them because they were staunch and true and always had my back. Even if Francine wasn’t much of a fighter, she was an astonishingly quick study.

AJ looked doubtful as my current location was my arctic retreat, which simulated being at the top of an extremely windy and very very cold mountain. The path to it was a series of ice-covered bamboo poles that whipped back and forth as the wind howled past in terrifically violent gusts and the mountain top itself was little more than a flat patch of blue ice 9 meters across. Still, he lept across the gap like a champ, then slid, flailing, into me with a thud. Francine, on the other hand… floated across the gap, shielded by a bubble of TK.

“Hello you two! Looking forward to this?”

AJ shook his head. “Babies scream all the time,” he commented, then ooofed as Francine rapped him on the head.

“She meant the Total Jump, dodo. Not the babies!”

“Oh… ummm… yeah! Swords and Sorcery? I love this shii… stuff.”

I patted his bruised ego and gave him a hug, turning the wind down to a nice breeze. “So? Whatcha got for me?”

The darling boy flushed, then squirmed from my hug, standing at attention and acting all formal, “Ma’am! This humble Page has taken Knight Commander and its complete package, as well as the Spy’s Blademaster… a crime and travesty that it isn’t discounted for Knights, Ma’am!” I tried not to chuckle. “I have also, upon reflection that they’d make excellent scouts or tracking aids, enlisted the aid of the Dust Spinners, though I understand they might be something of a double-edged sword, since they do have free will and will spontaneously form in my ambient, Ma’am.”

“That’s fine. I’m sure we can cope with rogue wind spirits. Isn’t that right, Nike?” I asked the howling wind, and my Wind Fury partly coalesced beside me, her whispy white cloud-edges twisting and swirling as her vaguely sylphlike form  capered and flowed. She crackled with lightning, then flew off again to play with Reggy’s gold-tinged Superbia and Zane’s greyish Cardinalos. As usual, Gaius’s deep blue Jovos swirled about above the others, apparently finding their games to be beneath him. Or perhaps I’m projecting. Reading the emotions of Furies has always been 99% guesswork in my experience. “That’s 600. What else?”

“Gift of the Gods… I know, I know, it’s for Gifted Knights, but it doesn’t say a Knight Commander can’t have it… Maybe my gift isn’t very useful out of battle?” AJ said defensively, almost as if he was afraid I would punish him. I narrowed my eyes, then awwed.

“Sweety. Are you afraid that after the kids come I won’t love you any more?”

He gulped and jerked his head to glower at Francine, who shook her head and pointed at me. He yelped when, upon turning back around, he found I was an inch or two inside his personal space. He yelped again when I flicked his forehead with my index finger.

“Dummy,” I commented, and hugged him again. “You’re by far my oldest friend. I’ll never not love you, you little goofball. You never have to prove yourself to me, or seek my approval. You’ve been by my side too long for that. And I know you’ll protect the little ones the same way you’ve always tried to protect me. Love isn’t a finite resource. It’s like Kudzu. Properly tended, it spreads as far as it can. Improperly spread, it can stifle, of course, but there is seldom not enough to go around.” I grinned. “And speaking of Kudzu!” I started tickling him unmercifully until he was panting hard, then I tucked him under one arm and motioned for Francine to follow as I descended into the Mountain through stairs of ice that hadn’t been there before and, after we passed, weren’t there for any to follow us.

Inside the mountain, far below the peak, was a chamber crafted entirely of the purest ice I could make. It was where the physical manifestation of my Winter Power resided, a massive floating crystal inscribed with the secret names of Cold, of Winter Wind, of Torpor, of Rest, of Potential waiting to be unleashed. I set AJ down and pushed him off so he could glide across the ice, then started skating myself, though (of course) I didn’t need blades. Francine just hovered across the surface, floating backwards, unphased by the chill.

“I suppose you want me to tell you how I spent my points,” she asked, after 20 minutes.

“I suppose you want to tell me how you spent your points,” I retorted, smiling back at her, then chuckling as she glowered. I skated on until she finally relented.

“Yes. I want to… Ooo, you’re soo smug!” She looked as if she wanted to stamp her foot, but since that would look silly, she didn’t. “Spy, Blademaster, Whisper Man, The Sight because it’s damned useful… don’t look at me like that, yes I took Blademaster! It was free!” She ground her teeth. “I also took…” she mumbled that last bit and I couldn’t quite hear her.

“What?” I asked.

“She said she took Warrior of Shang and Preliminary Work, but she muttered the words together,” AJ said, oblivious to his ‘sister’s’ glare. “She’s worried you’ll think she’s being too aggressive by taking physical combat skills.”

I looked back to Francine, then tilted my head as I did a slow spiral glide around her. “Is this true?”

“Is what true?” the brilliant psyker asked, pretending not to know what I was talking about.

“Are you an idiot?” I asked, weighting the word like a barb.

She gaped, then humphed.

“Because only an idiot would really think I’d judge them harshly for branching out or bettering themselves in any way they felt worthwhile.”

“But I’m… I mean… I don’t…”

“She really enjoyed being swung about back in Soul Eater,” AJ supplied, then yelped as she bopped him with the head of her spoon form. He rubbed his head, then grinned at her and pinched her bottom. I began wondering if I needed to check around the warehouse for eggs… would they hatch on their own if they weren’t being carried about? In theory, I didn’t have to worry about Petra laying eggs, since I had no Ditto and she was technically Genderless in her Pokeform. Same for RayRay and Dyna, but more so, since they couldn’t breed in their canon states. Ziggy was a boy weasel… oh, dear… how many things had he knocked up over the centuries… head… hurting… think of something else… think of something else… not working… shit… This is what you get for having a massively parallel processing brain… you can think of too many thingsssss.

“Why is her eye twitching?” Francine asked AJ.

I shook my head to clear it and, in a tired voice, responded, “Ziggy has, I just realized, probably mated with upwards of 60,000 different creature types over the course of our history… and I have no idea how often it was successful… but it’s more than I’m at all comfortable with.”

Both of them paled, and I nodded. “Yeah. I know… wait…” I ran through the math for Francine’s build. “That’s only 600… again. Did you take Gift of the Gods too?”

She shook her head vehemently. “No. It… I didn’t feel the need. My psipowers should have me covered there. I took the luck perk, the Eyes of the Goddess, and the sense of self perk, Ordeal Tested… What?”

I’d wrinkled my face up at the mention of Ordeal Tested. “It’s a trap option. If you need it to pass the Ordeal, then you can’t pass the Ordeal and you’ve failed before you started,” I groused. Then took in the expression on Francine’s face and it was my turn to say, “What?”

“I am not a Knight, mother. I never have been. I never will be. I’m a coward. I know that, you know that. I’m not going to stand up and fight fair. That’s not my race’s way. We run away at the first sign of trouble. We shatter the minds of those stronger and tougher than us, and we shield ourselves from harm rather than attack. Ordeal Tested covers up some of those weaknesses, those shortcomings. If I ever faced this Chamber of the Ordeal, I think it would see in me someone who knows they’re not strong, but wants to be. I want to be your shield, as AJ is your sword… but I can’t do that as I am.”

She finished and I had no answer to that. Part of me wanted to argue with her, but the better part of me knew that it would be patronizing, and it wouldn’t be true. She was brave… but she was not the type to stand and fight. I nodded. She’d have to find her own way; all I could do was be there for her when she needed me.

******

“SJ?”

“Mm? Oh, Kendra… sorry… distracted… yes, come on in. Oh, you’re all here.”

Kendra was followed into my study (different from my office in that there were more books here and the desk was less imposing, more functional (it had a riser for sketching and holding large tomes that the office desk didn’t), and there was a Vidscreen on the far wall instead of a doorway) by Velma and Petra.

“Where’s Zane?” I asked, looking around for the big lunk.

“Dunno,” said Kendra. “Haven’t seen him in a few days, actually.”

I raised my eyebrow slightly, then asked “VIvian, where is Zane?”

“Big Dawg is not currently in the Warehouse, the bonsai cherry-tree on my desk announced. It was, of course, part of the Warehouse’s central intelligence. “And before you ask, I am unaware of him leaving, but he did so between 7pm and 10pm the day before yesterday. There was no breach in hull integrity and the portal and transmat systems were not activated, nor did he exit into any of the sub-zones or through the Space-Dock.”

“Did he leave a note?” I asked, trying to figure out what was going on.

“Negative. I do show that he completed his build at 6:48pm before heading into the shower. He did not emerge.”

“Well, what did he get? Did he leave any notes?”

“His purchases and background notes are not on file.”

I swore, then grumbled and motioned for the ladies to sit, “I’ll deal with this in a few minutes. Give me your breakdowns and backgrounds while I’ve got you here. He can’t have gone far, I suspect and a few more minutes either way won’t make much difference… I hope.”

I looked to Kendra, who nodded. She knew Zane best, possibly even better (certainly more intimately) than I did, and knew how much mayhem the goofball could cause when he wanted to, but if that was his goal, he’d already done so, simply by disappearing like he had.

“Right then…” she began, pursing her lips in concentrated annoyance. “I took the path of the Gifted Knight. Knightly Visage should make my eyes really pop, and (speaking of eyes) I took Eyes of the Goddess as well. A little luck, eh? Considering the trouble I keep getting in, maybe the luck will help keep me from dying yet again.” She looked a little grim and I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for her. Of all my companions, she’d died the most often, and in the most gruesome ways. Her running total was just shy of 30 deaths, counting the original one at the hands of Angelus. “Also the Gift of the Gods, which I picked up mostly because it’s required for Shapeshifting and cheaper than Wild Magic.”

I was about to ask why she hadn’t gone Drop-In which would have nabbed her Wild Magic and Shapeshifting for half the price she paid, when it dawned on me. “Tell me you didn’t waste points on ‘Ordeal Tested’? You do know-”

“No. I don’t know!” She snapped, glaring at me. “Not everyone is you, SJ. Not all of us are strong enough to stand against insurmountable odds. Not all of us can fling ourselves into the maw of darkness over and over again, confident that we will win through in the end. I know myself well enough to know I need help, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m accepting help when it’s offered!” She threw down her tablet and stormed out.

“Well, you handled that well, Dad,” Velma drawled, and it took more of my willpower than I’d like to admit to keep from yelling at her.

I took a deep breath, then muttered, “Bite me.”

“Maybe later. You were doing the math in your head, weren’t you?”

I nodded. “Without Ordeal Tested, Drop-In would have been cheaper. With Ordeal, Gifted Knight gets her Knightly Visage… not that she needs it, but it’s a freebie versus something with a cost that leaves her with 50 CP unspendable. Yeah. I guess it makes sense. I just… it seems like cheating… but maybe it is just asking for help… what the hell do I know?” I banged my head on the table. “I’m going to be a disaster as a parent, you know that, right?”

“I think all first time parents think that.”

“Heh. First time… right. I’ve got a son I haven’t spent more than an hour with since he was born, remember?”

“That just makes you a breeder… not a parent. A parent has to be there. You are planning on being there this time, right?” I twitched. “Right?”

“Yeah… right… right… I’ll be there… here. Won’t strand anyone in Tortall just so I don’t have to cope. I was a different person then… much younger. Much less jumping. No real…” I waved a hand around at the warehouse. “Community, I guess. It was just me and the Mon at that point. Different era. No babysitter to foist the brats off on. Barely more than a single house and some freezers that used to be full of skinheads. Seriously, back then, there was cocaine and heroine sitting on open shelves next to cash and guns and rocket-launchers. Different era.”

“Well, there you go. Keep repeating that until you believe it.”

“Thaaanks,” I drawled, “now tell me what you bought so I can get on with my self-loathing.”

“Petra?”

“Me? Oh… I thought she was talking to you… right… umm… I took Knight Commander… not because I like fighting or anything… I mean, I do… but, SJ! SJ! It has a perk called Iron Champion! And… And… And… Guess what!?”

I groaned, then looked up at her, “You’re a Steel Type?”

“YES! It’s perfect! Well, named perfectly! And… and… and Guess what?”

“What?” I asked, genuinely having no idea this time.

“Shang Warriors are named for animals… so… so… so… Guess what!”

I had to wonder how much sugar Petra had eaten… or which of her four brains was reverting to Beldumhood (Note – Petra began life as a Beldum, a Pokemon that evolves by fusing with another of its kind to become a Metang, which have two brains and two eyes. Two Metang fuse to become a Metagross. Petra might look human, but in her true form she had four brains and four eyes and a body made of steel)… “You’re going to be the Shang Crab?”

“I’M GOING TO BE THE SHANG CRAB!” She bounced around the table, then sat down again all of a sudden. “If that’s okay.” She sounded like a puppy afraid I might kick her.

I looked to Velma… “Am I wearing a sign that says ‘Warning, all Pokemon aren’t going to be loved any more in 10… 9… 8…”

Velma patted my hand. “No, you’re not. But change is hard… even for a group like ours which changes all the time. Some things haven’t changed in so long that sometimes we forget they can change.”

I banged my head on the table again, then looked up at Petra. “Yes. If you want to be the Shang Crab, you can be the Shang Crab.” I almost snapped ‘You can be the Shang Pile of Rocks for all I care!’ but I didn’t. It would have been annoyance speaking. If it made her happy to be an Iron Champion and Shang Crab, she could be that. And I was happy she was happy… I just was deeply frustrated by having to reassure beings I’d been with for 14 millennia that I wasn’t going to stop caring about them. “Petra, assuming you took Commander too, that means you’ve got 500 CP left.”

“Oh. I got the Sight, cause… cause…”

“Because you have four eyes?”

“YES!”

I rolled my eyes. “And the last 100?”

“Knightly Visage! Cause I’m pretty!”

“Course you are. Velma?”

“Oh. I got Knightly Visage too, but in my case it was just to spend the last 100 points. Looks aren’t that important.” Petra and I shared a look that said ‘Pull the other one’, but Velma pointedly ignored it. “Drop-In, Wild-Mage with Shapeshifting, Blademaster, King’s Terrier, Whisper Man, Warrior of Shang… mostly just small things to fill in blanks and cover weakspots. Nothing impressive. And I figure I’ll just be an outsider trying to understand local culture. Maybe a Yamani? That’s the local Japan Expy, right?”

I nodded. “Well… sounds like you have everything set. I look forward to meeting you again. Okay, I’m going to go hunt down Ahab and Joy, get their builds, then go looking for Zane. If I’m not back in a bit, assume I’ve been captured by ferrets.”

“We always assume that,” Petra said, faintly annoyed. She doesn’t get the appeal of soft things. If it isn’t smooth and hard and slightly cold to the touch, she’s not interested. Her room looks like a foundry.

I found the spymasters or master spies, depending on how you looked at it, in the pool, pretending they were teenagers and missing most of their clothing. I, being the mature and decent individual I am, posted pictures on the Warehouse bulletin board then cleared my throat loudly and annoyingly. “Reports?”

Ahab looked up at me, smirked, not taking his hands off Joy’s ass, while she in turn leaned back to show off her breasts and didn’t unwrap her legs from his waist. “We’re busy,” he commented.

“Yes. I can see that. Reports?”

“I’m a Knight Commander, he’s a Gifted Knight,” Joy said, bouncing a bit and making Ahab go slightly crosseyed.

I blinked… the only thing Gifted Knights got free was opals and Visage… Ahab the pretty boy? “Really?” I asked.

“No, not really. She’s… ung… kidding. I took Spy. Blademaster and Darkings, whatever they are.”

“Cute immortal living blobs of ink. They’ll develop individual personalities and ways of differentiating themselves. What one knows, all know.”

“Cool. Now, would you kindly fuck off.”

“I think you’re already doing that,” I snarked, then headed for the Arcade. “Either of you chuckleheads know where Zane is?” I asked as I walked in.

The Banker ermed, “That’s uh…” he checked his notes, “The partner from Mystery Dungeon and the Watson from Great Detective, right?”

I blinked at him, then gave him a dirty look ‘13 thousand plus years and you need to check notes? Dude… I have a couple perfect memories and you’re telling me that you don’t? I don’t buy it.”

“Yes, ah… good point. I have no idea where he is. Maybe he’s in one of your subspace modules?”

“Noooo… try again.”

“While this is all very amusing,” Mensarius snarked, “He’s not going to be able to help you.”

Both the Banker and I looked over at the evil one. Finally, the Banker spoke. “What have you done?”

“Me? Nothing much.” He smiled wickedly, “I just triggered his insertion early. And gave him setting amnesia and confused his memories.”

I opened my mouth to snarl… something, but the Banker held up a hand to forestall my action. “Care to tell me how you managed that?”

“I had your Control Matrix for several absolute decades. If you can’t figure out how I did it, that’s not my concern,” the repugnant one smirked. “Don’t worry, I can’t do much… but I thought I’d have a little fun with you and your… pet.”

The air began to crackle and it wasn’t me doing it. The Banker looked to me, his eyes glowing with something I can barely describe as energy and he snarled “Run.” I ran.” The explosion that rocked the Warehouse less than a minute later was nothing short of titanic and the arcade was a smoldering ruin, with 3/4ths of the Warehouse’s systems offline. Thankfully, no one biological was hurt and each of the VI’s had self contained and shielded cores. All the minor robots had their systems blanked however and none of the lightning was working. It would take the Burstone Omni-Cores days to restore everything… and there was no sign of the Banker or Mensarius.

The only indication that things were still on track was the flashing count-down over the Portal, which indicated that 12 days were left until mandatory insertion… and I had no way of triggering early insertion at all, since that switch had been in the Arcade… which was now more of a Werecade. Oh, and of course, the explosions triggered both Kittens into early labor… because of course it did! If anything went wrong I was going to fucking murder an ROB. Seriously. Watch me.

Unfortunately, I cannot suppress just some of my emotions. Either I do it all or none, and with anger, rage, and worry warring for territory in my head, I had to shut down everything else as well to enter a state that wouldn’t terrify. Still, I’m a decent enough actor, so pretending to not be in full vulcan mode wasn’t too hard. I was the most qualified doctor, and I had to be there if anything went wrong. Of course, Velma was the most qualified of midwives… though Ahab was a close second (he’s very good… he used to be a medic).

Thankfully, there weren’t complications. In fact, things went almost suspiciously easily. Frankie was first, after only seven hours of labor, delivering a healthy 3.1 kilogram girl who was solemnly named ‘Margaret’ (or Maggie), only partly in honor of Dame Maggie Smith.  Maggie was dark haired and dark eyed like her mother,  with an adorable pout on her tiny lips. Mini waited 14 minutes longer before delivering a very loud 2.9 kilogram boy that we’d decided to name Alexander (or Alex). Little Alex, was dreadfully serious for a newborn, eyes hawk bright and hair almost as white as my own. Their first names had been chosen beforehand… bets hedged, wagers made, even nicknames picked out… that was their first names. There was a significant debate about what their family name would be, however.

Frankie and Mini had met me when my name was Serena Juventas, but I’d had dozens of familial names and claimed none of them as my own. Jade was, perhaps, the closest to one that I had, because I’d been Sylvia and Silver Jade and Zane’s given name was Jade, taken from his first human incarnation. Technically, Jason’s last name was also Jade, though I had no idea if he even knew that. Of course, Frankie and Mini had their own family names, Luccini and McGonagall respectively, but that didn’t scream family… and to make matters worse, Velma (of the Family Dinkley), and Yoiko (of the Family Hibiki) might, someday, decide to have kids and any choice made now would impact them and their children to be. A cohesive family identity was in order.

Except that establishing such a thing would, by its very nature, be establishing a dynasty. Any choice I made would be changing my dynamic. I would no longer just be SJ… I’d be… SJ of the family… and that… that worried me a little. I had a family name back on Origin. A name I’d never spoken since leaving the world of my birth far behind. And yet… that name… I hadn’t used it in thirteen and a half millennium… only two letters of it defined who I was… could I, in good faith, claim it as my own? And if I didn’t, would that be betraying those who knew me once upon a time?

I hmmmed, then shrugged. No solution would work, nothing would ever be just right, or portentous enough, or suit everyone. So I listed the two newest members of the family as Margaret and Alexander Zigminder… because at least that was accurate, if not a good name. I could deal with being SJ Zigminder… I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time keeping an eye on the goober.

And speaking of himself, I raised him to sniff the two newcomers. “No biting, no hiding them, play nice,” I told him. He looked back over his head and blinked vacantly at me. I sighed. “Not for chewing.” He licked his nose, then sneezed.

And with that, I had to absent myself to go oversee the repairs to the repair systems and guarantee that nothing was on fire anymore. Thanks to the amount of air in the system, life support wasn’t struggling, yet, but all the O2 scrubbers on the warehouse itself were down, which meant that my tech was the only thing standing between us and suffocation.

Granted, what we had could last decades, if not longer, but I was hoping the linkage to Tortall was already up and running, or we’d be a lifeboat adrift, functionally… forever. And even if the link was established, I had no idea of the Banker or Mensarius was ever coming back.

In the end, the worry over what would happen when the month was up turned out to be anticlimactic. The time ticked steadily downward, and the infants and their mothers recovered from birth shock and began with the crying and cooing and cooing and crying respectively. Apparently I was a giant meanie for running off to have adventures while they raised the kids, and when I pointed out that I couldn’t not have adventures without putting everything in jeopardy, they accused me of being a giant meanie for leaving them alone in the warehouse… to which I pointedly asked if they’d like to bring the newborns into a world where people routinely died of plagues, bandit attacks, or diarrhea. Then I was just being mean.

I pointed out that the two of them could pretend to be princesses, locked up in a tower (with unlimited food, video games, movies, soft sheets, and animals to play with while I gallivanted around being all heroic… and then I promised I’d visit once a week. And then I promised I wouldn’t adjust the Warehouse’s timescale down. I had to refrain from pointing out that I was much more likely to adjust it up, if I’d had the capacity, thus fastforwarding the kids through to six or seven at the youngest. But since I couldn’t do that, I didn’t worry about it too much. I also wasn’t sure the Warehouse’s temporal controls were working, since they didn’t operate under any form of science I knew and the controls themselves had been in the Arcade… as was my Insertion button… not that I couldn’t cope with 11 days of infants and… okay, I’m totally lying.

I got extremely drunk on night 7 and might have done something extremely stupid… or rather someone extremely ditzy and her partner in crime. Both were gone from the room when the Warehouse Lights came back on and I found myself being glowered at by five pairs of faintly feline eyes. I looked at Ziggy, giving him an ‘et tu, fuzzbutt’ look, but he seemed to be siding with the Kittens at the moment. They must have bribed him… or told him I hid his toys. The infants weren’t so much glaring as looking vaguely around, but it felt like they were glaring at me. I should point out that I’d refrained from… using my male form with anyone since the night those two were conceived… and now they might have siblings sooner rather than later.

“Am I in trouble for something?” I asked, pretending I was innocent. There was a chance…

“Your son… your newest son… has a very interesting trick,” Mini drawled. Frankie nodnodded, trying to look super serious, something Mini was far better at.

“Mmmmnnng… Not supposed to manifest any powers yetttt!” I growled at the firmament… or ceiling, whatever.

“It’s not quite a power,” Frankie said, shifting from foot to foot nervously.

“We were planning the Bris…” Mini began, and I winced, seeing little need for something that wasn’t part of what little faith the Kittens had… both were nominally or had been christian. Frankie Roman Catholic, Mini Anglican… but while I hadn’t pushed for, or even suggested, a Bris… I was still, in theory, jewish… and since I was their father, and my father had been a Cohen, little Alex was a Cohen… even if by Jewish law, neither of them were Jewish because their mothers had never converted… complex and oddly useless distinctions.

“And we don’t know if he… knew what that was… he’s only 6 days old… but…” Frankie rambled, then handed me my son as I sat up, feeling a little confused.

“What am I…”

“Unwrap him, dummy,” Mini snapped quietly, patting Maggie’s back.

I did so… and blinked. “Oh… interesting… it was there last time I checked, right? I’m not imagining infant penises, right?” The girls shook their heads and I knew how they felt. Apparently Alex had inherited my… not curse… but… talent? “Right. Well then… no Bris.” I said, handing the baby girl back to… his demi-mother. “I don’t know what to say… The only thing I deliberately switched was their birth species from Felinid-Harsid hybrid to Asgardian-Human hybrid. Everything else I left to random chance. I had no idea that was considered Genetic. It’s not triggered by water, is it?”

The girls shook their heads, then, before any more conversation could be had, the not-quite twins demanded to be fed, loudly. This was going to get old fast.

INSERTION

“This is getting old, fast,” I said as I looked at the words ‘Scanrans Go Home!’ scrawled in whitewash on the door to my quarters in the Page Wing. Once again, I was thankful that the King had allowed my mother to pack me off to Corus as war engulfed the north, but I was less than thrilled with my treatment by my fellow knights to be. I was… I… I looked down at myself, then up at the door, and sighed.

“Hazing. Excellent. Nice to know I’m not one of the cool kids this time around.” I ran my hand through the short hair that covered my scalp as I sent my senses both directions, checking to make certain I was, truly, alone in the hall, then wiped away the offensive message with a flick of my want, and keyed the magical barrier that would allow me into my room. It might be sexist, but all the female knight candidates, all five of them now, had magically sealed and keyed doors and special rules about not having boys in there with the door closed. Once more, it was more about the perception of girls as temptresses than about keeping the rough and tumble boys from forcing themselves on a hapless classmate… not that such things apparently bothered the part of me that was from these lands.

Born and raised across the border by her Scanran father, Varish Blackmoon, the Jarl of Blackmoon, and Tortallan mother, Aalis of Jesslaw, younger sister of the current lord of Jesslaw, Sheanna of Jesslaw and Blackmoon had been around Scanran raiders much of her life. Varish was more civilized and lucky than many of his rival lords of Scanra, in that the lands of Blackmoon were actually not terrible farmland and were situated close to the sea, meaning that fishing could be done to supplement the livelihoods of his people. But Scanrans were still Scanrans and the idea of a woman’s equality with any man of Scanra was laughable (something that was totally different from the Nordic traditions upon which Scanra had been based).

Yet, when the war between Scanra and Tortall had broken out, I’d been sent south to keep me out of the clutches of King Maggur Rathhausak, though he held my older brother Aiton as hostage against my father’s loyalty. A well, it wasn’t as if I, Sheanna, didn’t utterly idolize Aiton, who was apparently the best older brother the universe had ever crafted… seriously, he could dive off a cliffside into rough water and hold his breath for like almost the time it took to count to 100. He could also handle bow and sword and shield, and ride a horse and… okay, yes, it was entirely possible he was completely normal, but at almost 6 years older than Sheanna, he was adept at all the coolest things without seeming as remote and gruff and heavily bearded as Papa.

Aalis, momma, had never been one to stand up to… anyone, really… but when Maggur had become king, and it became evident that war was brewing, south I’d gone, into the lands of those my father’s people were at war with… and whom my father’s people habitually raided.

I’d cut my long hair short to give Aiton the braid the night before we’d parted, him to the capital of Scanra, Hemrkeng, me to the capital of Tortall, Corus. At least one of her children would be safe, right?

I stepped into my quarters, closing the door behind me and summoning a mirror of ice out of the wash basin’s already chilly water, looked at myself. I was tall for a 14 year old, whipcord thin in that way that indicates rapid upward growth, and my inch-long and shock white hair stood out from my head like a halo. I patted it down, grounding out the static it had picked up from the somewhat dry air and waved a hand at the fireplace, summoning flame to the dry wood stacked there.

Stone walls, two small rooms, one for me, one for a servant woman… Lyda… her name was Lyda, and she’d come south with me, utterly convinced the Tortallans would hang us both from trees for crows to eat. She was as ignorant as a Scanran washerwoman, though technically speaking she was a cousin of mine in some complicated Scanran way. She was also nearly 30, which made her ancient. Still, she knew leather and steel and how to care for both. She was out, apparently… yes… she was… it was a week before Midwinter, she’d be shopping. I… we… had money… not a lot, but some… mother had made certain we’d be properly supplied.

I tapped the wall and it flowered open… but not as smoothly as it should have. I tossed a handful of Tortall coins to the waiting robutler and closed the portal again. I’d check back in a few hours and the money situation would be… should be solved. Always had to prime the pump, as it were, showing the system what it needed to turn the raw material into.

A knock came at my door, and (upon opening it) I found Naimon of Darkamelin, another Page soon to Stand the exams and potentially become a Squire. Naimon was a small, quiet boy who’d been at the palace for four years and seemed only to be interested in weapon’s practice, at which he was exceptionally gifted. Standing behind him was one of the other female pages, the dusky skinned, Hiltrud of Rusnak. They looked familiar, but my sight told me little beyond that neither had the gift… hmmm… there was something… a flickering… but that was it.

“You’re SJ, right?” Naimon asked, sounding worried. I was, in fact, SJ… in a manner of speaking, but there was a hint of… he was asking in the Magi trade cant, Magoo…

“Oh. Excellent. AJ?” He nodded, and I looked to the other girl, she didn’t hold herself like Petra, who was very solid and resolute, nor did she have the… energy of Anne… the frown cinched it for me. “Kendra. Hi… you two look… well… any idea where the others are?” I asked. I never enjoyed it when a jump scattered us across the length and breadth of the land… or even a large building. It was so much simpler when we were all together and could take the time to figure out who was who. It does bear pointing out that we almost always used our in jump identities in conversation, since those personas were strongest, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule, and, in general, it is simpler to keep track of such things in my notes if I refer to them by their established long-term names.

AJ/Naimon shook his head, and then hugged me. He barely came up to my chest, and I had to push down the awareness that a boy was pressing his face into my fledgeling bosom. I bopped him. “Leggo. K… Hiltrud. I have no idea where Zane is. I can’t contact him at all. I know you’re pissed. But we need to…”

I paused as a bell rang, signalling that there was a disturbance in the city down the hill from the Palace. “What in the…” I began, then grabbed up my winter cloak and pulled it on in one smooth motion, then lept out the second story window of the Page’s wing, grabbing the lintel and swinging up to land on the roof above the courtyard, then spun to face the town. Five Scanran longships were pulling around the headland of Port Cayn, Corus’s harbortown, and the galleons in the harbor were turning to intercept the raiders, outnumbered 2 to 1.

“How did they get so close?” I wondered, then focused my will on the foremost and concentrated, willing the distant ship’s mast to shatter… the pain was like having white hot needles driven through my eyes. I tottered on the rooftop and fell the three and a half stories to the courtyard below, though I was caught by AJ who oofed as his legs took the brunt of the blow.

“Fuckin, hello!” I groaned, rubbing my eyes. Apparently, ‘respect the setting’ came with negative reinforcement. “That… unspeakable arse,” I muttered. I guess I’d have to do this the hard way. “Come on, if we sprint, we should be able to make it.”

“But… we’re just pages,” Hiltrud/Kendra said from the window, looking concerned we’d get in trouble for daring to assist the town.

“We’re soon to be Squires, and we’ve got more combat experience than every Knight in the land combined, now move!” I snapped, speaking Magoo to the recalcitrant teenager and wondering what was going on with her in the back of my head.

On the way down towards the city, we were passed by a number of Knights and their Squires, though they weren’t the cream of the crop, mostly older Knights or desk Knights, those who weren’t in the north fighting off the Scanrans… though some of those were back in the south now, since military campaigns in winter were usually a ridiculous idea.

I did find more things to be annoyed about on the run. Every time I tried to push past peak human into the superhuman, I felt a stitch in my side or a twinge in my ankle and had to slow down. And yet everything passive seemed to work just fine. It was as if I couldn’t show off… maybe it wasn’t the Respect the Setting so much as Feminist Narrative… Being a godlike being would negate essence of that. Or something… I had no idea and no Banker to ask for answers that might or might not make sense.

We three arrived in the city, finding that three of the Scanran ships had already landed while the other two were tangling with the defensive ships. Men-at-arms and knights, and a handful of others were. I scrambled up a pile of crates, and studied the area around us.

Another of the pages in my year, Quinlan of Trucha and Gerry, was swinging a posting hammer with wild abandon, laughing and calling for the Scanran Scum to come and get some, looking solid and somewhat ridiculous, but three raiders were keeping well out of the way of that hammer as they pulled a fourth back out of reach, that unfortunate having suffered a shattered knee from underestimating… I peered at him… same strange ripples as AJ and Kendra, though they were fading. I think they were some kind of bleed from inserting, but with my Third Eye not functional, I couldn’t be certain.

“Rocky!” I yelled, invoking Petra’s old name, as I pointed for AJ to back up our friend. I reached down into the warehouse through the top of the crate and pulled out the first weapons that came to hand… at least that was still working… though not well. The feel of Soul of Ice in my hand was a comforting weight… but she was shrunken in, a straight blade in an almost roman style, and the other sword was a bit longer, and thrummed angrily. Somehow Silent Judge had become a sword as well. I didn’t have time to consider the implications, however.

Leaping down, I yelled something very rude in Scanran that had to do with the raider’s parentage and sheep, then waded into the melee, using my superior skills, which hadn’t abandoned me, to strike as many disabling blows as I could, never bothering to move in for the kill, just trying to limit the advance of nearly 200 raiders from striking deep into the port.

I think my technique confused the raiders. They were used to fighting weapon to shield, not facing a twin-blade who turned their blades with one sword and slipped in for a nick or slice with the other. Still, they had weight, and reach, and armor on me, though most of it was chain and leather and padded gambesons. I had to fight smart, not hard.

I flicked out my magic, making the stones and planking all around me slick with ice, feeling the black opals set in each blades’ pommel pulsing as I drew power through them. At least what I bought here was functioning properly.

An eternity, or a dozen minutes, later, the bulk of the Palace’s men-at-arms arrived, and, aided by the knights and townsfolk, drove the raiders back to their boats.  I looked around. At least a dozen sailors were dead, as were many of the poor folk of the port, longshoremen and factors. Several men-at-arms were nursing wounds and a couple of gifted knights were moving among the injured, healing where they could.

A shadow loomed over me, and I heard a man clearing his throat. “Blackmoon, I don’t recall summoning the pages to help defend the port,” said Paidraig haMinch, the Training Master.

“No Master, but neither did you order us to remain at the palace,” I responded, not looking up from the leg I was mending. “It is a Knight’s duty to defend the weak and helpless.”

“So you’ve earned your shield while I wasn’t looking?” He asked wryly.

“The shield does not make the Knight, but merely marks her for all to know her,” I responded, wiping the blood from my hands on a rag and turning to look up at the tall and eminently respectable haMinchi.

“So you know better than your elders?”

“I know myself. I know my duty. Everything else?” I shrugged. “How did they get so close to the Port without us knowing?”

“Magic, I expect. Now gather up your… where are you going?”

“I have magic left at my disposal and there are injured to tend to,” I said, not looking back. “You may assign me punishments later, if you like — I’ll not protest — but for now, I have patients to attend to.”

The knightly code was clear on such things. It said that a knight was sworn to protect those weaker than myself, to obey my overlord, to live in a way that honored my kingdom and my gods, to never ignore a cry for help, to come to the rescue of rich and poor, young and old, male and female. I could not look away from wrongdoing, nor help anyone break the law of the land. I would have to prevent the breaking of the law at all times, in all cases, and was bound to my honor and my word… and yet I was bound to interpret all those things as a guide, to interpret them with humanity and kindness. Above all, a knight’s first duty was to understand, to use force only as a last resort and to be as gentle as it was possible to be. I might not have sworn the oath yet, but I had taken the coin, or the CP. I would stand and be true to that which I had accepted into myself. I could not do otherwise.

Kendra, AJ, and I worked through the afternoon and into the evening to get everyone inside and (at the least) not dying, though the deep chill of winter made everything so much worse. At least it had been, if not clear, then at least relatively warm for late december-equivalent, and exposure hadn’t taken anyone who wasn’t already doomed, save those who had been knocked into the frigid water of the bay and not been promptly pulled back out and quickly gotten to a fire.

It was past dark when we finally made our way back to the Page Wing of the Palace, where I was not surprised to find a notice that I had punishment detail waiting for me. However, AJ/Naimon and Kendra/Hiltrud also had punishment detail, and I very strongly felt the need to confront the training master about this apparent injustice… the pair talked me down, but I still felt bad about it.

Punishment consisted of physical tasks that posed no great challenge beyond the boredom and fatigue factors, and sometimes copying tasks which posed no challenge at all, since text copying can be quite meditative if one tries, and it is always a good idea to practice any new script one wishes to master.

As midwinter approached, I considered Keladry and Alanna, the two lady knights of the canon, and their different approaches. Alanna, small, slight, gifted, lovely, had gotten by on stealth and the grace of a few protectors. Keladry, large, muscular, ungifted, somewhat plain, had gotten by on determination and friendship (and secret patronage). I was neither of the two and would have to chart my own course. No love triangle of crown princes (one of crime, one of kingdom) would define me, nor would I be the tool of the gods or fate. Nor would I become the champion of every creature great and small. Yet there were traits of both women which were admirable, and worthy of emulation.

Late on my fifth night, two days before midwinter, I went to the hall in which the Chamber of the Ordeal rested and stood in front of the door. “How shall we resolve this?” I asked it, placing my hand upon the surface.

~You do not belong in this time and place.~ it said in my mind. ~Your presence had created ripples, distortions… things that are hidden from me. What is your purpose?~

“I seek experience, knowledge, growth. And ultimately, to shape my own destiny.”

~All beings shape their own destiny. No being shapes its own destiny. Your choices are constrained by circumstance but they remain your choices.~

“Yeah. Uh huh. And you in no way pushed Keladry to hunt Blayce the Nothing Man.”

~What he was doing was unnatural. It had to be done.~

“And if I gathered my forces and marched north into Scanra, slew Maggur, and proclaimed myself queen in the north?”

~How would that serve your Narrative?~

“Ah, so you do know what I am!”

~All of this world’s moments are known to me. I am not part of time.~

“Right. I knew that… but you’re not telling me I can’t do it…”

~The choice to try is yours.~

“You normally speak only in visions and vagaries, if I remember a’right.”

~I use what methods are suited to the supplicant.~

“Right. Well… I guess I’ll see you again, sooner or later.”

~The Question you will ask has no simple answer.~

I didn’t respond. I hate dealing with acausal effects… and I had no idea what question I was going to ask in the future.

The next day, I finally found out who Anne had become. Since she didn’t know Magoo, I’d left leaflets for the Corus location of Bar Ziggy lying around the palace wings with sketches of Windjammer, or Treasure Planet on the back. A first year page named Stasija of Macayhill, the nth generation descendant of one of the previous generation of Lady Knights (2 centuries in the past) named Sabine of Macayhill, had come into Bar Ziggy, looking around and trying to find out if anyone knew an Admiral Jenks.

Oddly enough, that was the second time that name was to be mentioned that day, as one of the Provost’s Guard, a young woman named Tash Weaver, also came in looking for Admiral Jenks. I was beginning to feel vaguely like John Galt.

Making contact with Stasija was, of course, much easier, since she lived in the palace, and when I revealed myself to her and confirmed that she hadn’t been abandoned and dumped in this strange land all alone, she actually wept. It was faintly embarassing, but I held her close and promised I wouldn’t leave her behind. She was wrung out and actually fell asleep against me… poor thing.

Finding time to get into the city to find what I hoped was Amelia wasn’t easy what with Page duties during Midwinter (lots of waiting tables in the Great Hall, but also punishments to deal with) but I managed it on the 5th day after midwinter, and, after checking in at three different Guardstations, finally found the one Tash worked out of. And of course, I was there on the wrong shift. I left an invite asking her to come to the Page Wing at her convenience and added a sketch of Cresentia Space Port beneath my signature.

The redoubtable Amelia… now Tash… was relieved to find me well, and most annoyed at how badly I’d treated her majesty, and (with her customary wit) gave me a right upbrading. She was two years older than I was, and slightly taller, and still just as fierce as she had been in her native form.

As for Joy, Ahab, Velma… and the missing Zane… nothing of them surfaced for the next few months, but I was kept busy making up all the material that a normal Page would have learned in 4 years in 4 months so, come spring, I could stand the exams to be promoted to Squire. I didn’t know why it was important to become a Squire… but it was.

And since it was, it was my duty to be the best Squire I could be. I felt myself driven to work diligently, practicing skills I had long since mastered such as archery and calligraphy, as well as new ones, like jousting and armor repair. Still, between my local memories and my ability to study and memorize, the exams were not a challenge… but then again, I wasn’t really 14 years old.

I hadn’t considered who might take me as their squire. It hadn’t been particularly important… which was why I was so surprised when, a week after my exams… Keladry of Mindelan, the Protector of the Small herself, sent word that I was to join her at her command of New Hope in northern Tortall. I… had not expected that.

One of the Queen’s Riders (who were like Knights but not Quite), Bethari haNiko, was riding from the Palace to the north with a supply train and invited me to accompany her. It was nice being able to ride Fliagor once again, and the horse enjoyed being ridden as well, something that had been lacking except for temporary occasions over the last few dozen jumps. I felt bad about that… especially since the horse, once he discovered I could now understand him, wouldn’t shut up about how dull hanging out with all the dogs and birds had been… not that we kept them pinned up in the warehouse all the time… they had been free to wander whatever domain or estates we had in whatever setting we’d been in… but still, it wasn’t the same as a couple weeks ride across hill and dale.

“Aren’t you cold?” Bethari asked for the fifteenth time since we’d left Corus, but I ignored her as I stood on Fliagor’s saddle, looking out over the land. I was wearing supple blackish-blue leather that had hundreds of hexagonal plates of enchanted steel sandwiched between its layers. Each wasn’t thick or large, or strong, but practically every inch of my body below the neck was covered with at least two and usually three of them. It didn’t look high tech, and everything was locally sourced, but it was nearly as protective as platemail and 2/3rds the weight… and nearly silent. If I needed to, I could even put a suit of platemail over it… not that I actually had one that was fit for local use.

I did have a shield however… Victoria was not amused to be stuck in that form.

“I think I see someone,” I commented, pointing to a faint curl of smoke up ahead. I could see much farther than they could, thanks to the sight, and more than once on the trip I’d spotted potential trouble long before others could have. A couple of the guards rode on ahead to investigate, while I dropped back into Fliagor’s saddle and glanced at Bethari. “Why should I be?”

“Why should you be what?”

“Cold,” I asked.

“Because it’s cold out and you’re not wearing a cloak or coat,” she said, perfectly reasonable.

“Ah. I’m half Scanran,” I responded, as if that answered everything.

“I’ve fought Scanrans,” She retorted, “They wear heavy furs and wool to ward off the cold.”

“I hold the blessing of the Winter Wind,” I said, naming the unnamable Scanran God of Winter. “It keeps me warm, even in snow and ice… I think the riders are coming back,” I said, standing in my saddle again.

They were indeed, riding hell bent for leather… and behind them was a pack of centaurs, painted in blood and with the talons that marked them as killer centaurs. They were unslinging bows as they ran.

I cursed, then yelled a warning as I snagged my bow from the back of my saddle pack and, in one long draw, loosed a Stormwing fletched flight shaft down the rise, taking the lead Centaur in the wrist, though the arrow continued on through the immortal’s flesh to pin his arm to his chest. The others glanced my way and turned off the road, crossing the fields straight towards me and Fliagor. I could hear them calling out to my horse, and I gritted my teeth. Centaurs viewed horses as slaves… I did not like the local centaurs… or most of the immortals for that matter.

I loosed five more arrows as the centaurs charged closer, then, as they finally got their own bows unslung, I dropped my bow and drew the shorter of my two swords, Soul of Ice, and grabbed up my shield as I dropped off of Fliagor’s back and prepared to take the charge of the remaining 7 centaurs. I cut two arrows out of the air and took the remaining four on my shield, the last one missing my cheek by a margin so close that I could feel the scrape of griffin feathers across my skin.

As they charged in, I cut the left leg out from the lead centaur, taking a staggeringly hard on the edge of my shield, and used it to spin myself around, out of the way of the grabbing hands of a second, and under a third, where I dragged the icy blade along his belly, unmanning him and disembowling him in the same fluid motion, and getting myself drenched in blood and gore. My shield arm was throbbing from the force of the blow and once again I cursed Feminist Narrative for its deceptive simplicity.

By this point, Bethari was confronting one of the others, three of the guardsmen had the second, and the remaining 4 men-at-arms were holding off a third.  Which just left Grabby McGrabberson and his friend Fuckwit von Horsecock… the Knightly code does not prohibit being insulting or snarky… praise the gods… for me to deal with…

Or should have, but that’s when a buff and apparently quite shirtless figure came leaping out of the nearest copse of trees and landed on Grabby’s back, a knife in each hand, both of which went up into the Centaur’s throat. I danced out of the way of the collapsing quadruped… right into the grasp of Fuckwit, who proved that he was just as grabby as his ex-friend.

“You’ll make a fine brood-” he began, but his words turned to screaming as I called upon my magic to drain the heat from his hands and the hard muscles of his human stomach where he was holding me close.

“I don’t… date… rapist… scum…” I managed to gasp out as he thrashed, finally forcing his rapidly blackening arms to drop me.

“W… what did you do?” he gasped, holding his arms up in horror as he gasped and slowly slumped to the ground, shuddering as he went into shock.

“It isn’t nice to grab ladies who aren’t willing,” I said, drawing back Soul of Ice. “Idiots like you should be culled… for the betterment of the species.” I was deliberately invoking the Centau habit of culling what they considered bad breeding stock… I don’t think he got the humor… but to be fair, I cut off his head a moment later, so he didn’t have long to consider my words.

“Hello!” said my erstwhile rescuer. He was smiling, face splattered by blood, holding a strange pair of hooked knives, and bouncing a bit as if he had too much energy.

“Hi?” I responded, looking around to see if the others needed help, but they were holding their own and the two remaining centaurs were fleeing. I grabbed my bow from where it had fallen and said, “One moment, if you please.”

I paused, drew back, and loosed without concious thought. These beasts were clearly engaging in banditry, endangering trade and the livelihoods of those who called these lands home. The King’s Justice would see them hang, but there were not enough of us to take them prisoner. My arrow took the first in the back, sending him crashing to the ground, his companion tripping over the sudden corpse and crashing heavily to the ground. A second arrow guaranteed he would not rise again.

“You did that well,” he commented, peering over my shoulder. He was quite tall.

“Yes,” I agreed, looking up at him. “Can I help you?”

“I’m good,” he said, looking around for something to wipe his blades on. Finally he settled on the short spring grass. It gave me a chance to study his features and knives.

His face was angular, but not unattractive, and his skin showed several white scars, indicating that he’d been in a fair amount of fights. He looked to be in his mid twenties, and to be about 6’6”. The knives were made from sharpened spidren fangs, and the handles wrapped with hurok-hide. They looked… more than adequate.

He caught me looking, and grinned up at me, a grin that did annoying things to my insides. “I’m called Wolf,” he said, brushing his shaggy hair back.

“You need a haircut,” I responded. “And a shirt.”

“Why?”

“Because you do. Don’t ask stupid questions. Do you live around here?”

“I did. Then the Immortals came and destroyed my home. Now I hunt them. Are you here to rescue the Centaur’s breeding stock?”

“We were passing through, but yes, if you can guide us to them.” I did not mention that I could probably have found them by ‘riding along’ on some of the local wildlife, or simply by asking. “Is it just horses, or do they have humans too.”

“I think-” he began, then drew his knife and threw it in a spinning underhand arc that zipped past my ear and plunged into the throat of the killer centaur just coming up the rise. It was the leader, the one I’d shot in hand and chest. Apparently my shot hadn’t gone deep enough to plunge into its heart.

“You think?”

“I think I don’t like these horse-men. Come, I think I know where they denned.”

Telling Bethari to ride ahead with the supplies, I promised to catch up. If she had a problem with a fledgeling squire running off into the woods with a half-naked wildman, she didn’t express them in words, but she did seem conflicted about leaving her position with the supplies to hare off into the woods for something we might or might not be able to find.

After an hour, I asked “Do you actually have any idea where we’re going, or are we hopelessly lost?”

“It’s never hopeless. Anyway, you can only ever walk halfway into a woods. After that, you’re walking out again,” He said, trying to sound sage. The Sheanna part of me thought he sounded wise, the rest of me rolled our collective eyes.

“Right… but do you have any idea where-” I began, but he shushed me.

“Can’t you hear how the birds are so much quieter here?” He asked in a low whisper.

I really needed to learn to rely on my Wild Magic more… but it always seemed a little creepy to talk to small animals, or to project my senses and ride along with them. I was happy enough to use it to heal, but the rest of it called too much to me, sang a song that tempted me to submerge myself in the Wild and throw off the shackles of civilization. I think it was the combination of the God who’d become my patron in this world and the Wild Magic. I was glad I hadn’t bought Shapeshifting… and a part of me whispered that I didn’t need the perk to do it. I had both forms of magic from this world… I could figure it out. I shied away from that part of me. It would be all too easy to sink into it and not come out again.

I nodded as the import of the silence hit me and, dropping low, we crawled up over the edge of a small rise. In the nestled valley, two female killer centaurs (which are a different but related species to the so called peaceful centaurs… killers had betaloned feet, peaceful had hooves) fretted about. They looked like the kind of females who would follow herd outcasts into exile, surly, bad tempered, and vain.

There were also a couple dozen mares tethered in the corner of the small hollow, and five human women clustered around a cookpot, looking fearful and ragged. They  would occasionally glance at the Centaurs and then flinch away when they thought the centaur’s were about to look back. A small black squirrel chittered in annoyance next to me and I turned to look at it.

“What is, it little sister?”

“There are only two of the mean fourleggers, and five of the two leggers… why do they let them push them around like that?”

“The two leggers aren’t used to fighting and the mean fourleggers are stronger and bigger and have natural weapons,” I answered the little one, reaching up to stroke the quivering tail… it was very fluffy.

“Well… they have fire and the four leggers don’t,” the squirrel pointed out sagely, not moving away from the petting.

“Two leggers often forget how dangerous fire can be,” I responded. “Do you want to help me help the two leggers?”

“Not really… but I don’t like the fourleggers… so I will… how?”

“See the ropes holding the other fourleggers?”

“The ones who look like big dumb deer?”

“Those, yes.”

“I see the stuff… it’s called rope?”

“Yes. It’s made of twisted grass. Can you and some of your friends chew through the rope?”

“We caan… but the big two leggers might get nervous and when they get nervous, they try and stomp us.”

“I’ll make sure they don’t stomp you,” I promised, extending my magic to the horses to calm them. Some part of me was screaming that it would just be easier to go in with spell and sword and cut down the centaurs… but they were females and I couldn’t do it. Also, as mean as they were, they weren’t guilty of attacking settlements or supply convoys. Female Centaurs seldom did any of the raiding. Rather, the males did it to bring prizes back to the females.

Within the space of 20 minutes or so, all the tethers had been gnawed through by a dozen small black fluffballs and Scampers-Swiftly was back on the branch of the shrub next to me. “We did as you asked… but how will… oh…”

All I had been waiting for was a sign that the squirrels were clear and I whistled once to Wolf, who, true to his name, had slunk into the camp  and distributed sharpened saplings to the five women. At my signal, he spooked the horses, and the women scrambled back out of the way as the two centaurs tried, in vain, to stop the stampede.

With the Centaurs distracted, the ladies managed to injure one of them and the two looked at the fleeing horses, the shambles of their camp, and those freshly cut spears, and wisely chose the path of the coward and fled into the woods.

Rounding up the horses, scavenging what supplies we could from the camp, and getting the women, most of whom had been taken from local farms when their menfolk had been slaughtered (the last came from a merchant caravan and looked to be about 6 months pregnant, no doubt with a centaur child of dubious provenance), back to the caravan was the work of the rest of the day and we caught up well after dark, being led by my Sight enhanced senses and Wolf’s aparent knowledge of the area. If the darkness bothered him, he showed no sign. Scampers-Swiftly insisted on following us… first to the edge of the forest, just to make sure we got out okay, then to the camp… just to make sure her two-leggers didn’t get themselves captured again. Then she had to stay because it was dark and she didn’t want to travel at night and my cloak was nice and warm and she’d just sleep there, okay?

“She talks a lot,” Wolf commented as we got supper for the exhausted ladies, all of whom were underfed and four of which had been outraged by the equine beasts. The guards had cut the manes and tails of the centaurs, as well as skinning them for their hides, and the women took slightly sadistic glee in the idea of braiding the hair into belts and cleaning the hides… but first they needed feeding… and a chance to (if not forget) then move past what had happened to them.

“She’s a Squirrel… they do tend to chatter on,” I said, dryly. “You’re called Wolf because you’re a wolf, right?”

He nodded happily enough, chewing on a bit of dried meat as he hunkered down next to me. “Usually. But having hands is fun too. Can’t run as fast as a man, but can run a lot further, and carry more besides.”

“You don’t have much besides pants and knives,” I commented.

“Still more than I had as a wolf,” he grinned. “And I can see better too. More colors.” He yawned toothily. “Well, unless you want to mate, I’m going to bed down for the night.”

I blushed, and wanted very much to punch him for that, but I restrained myself, limiting my response to a vigorous headshake. Leaving him to curl up next to my pack and the sleeping squirrel, I made my way over to Bethari.

“Had enough of an adventure for one day, Squire?” she asked calmly as she checked over her gear. “That one’s a bit of a strange duck, no?”

“He’s a… yeah… a bit of. Wild through and through, but nice enough… very rough around the edges.”

“Well, just make sure you’ve got a pendant from the temple of the Goddess before you-” She stopped as I glared at her. “Don’t you glare at me, Squire. I’ve known too many young ladies to get infatuated with a man and make a mistake she’d have to live with for the rest of her life.”

“Yes. Thank you. I’m well aware of the… potential for such things. But I have no… I’m…” Why was I so stammery? This wasn’t like me. Nor was getting all fluttery in the belly because of a handsome… rrrrrrgh… stupid hormones! “I’m not going to make that mistake. And I’m only 14.” that last sounded hollow, not just to me but to Bethari, who snorted.

“That hasn’t, in my experience, stopped anyone from making a mistake in the history of the world.”

I nodded, then fell silent, watching the moon slowly move across the sky until some time later I feel asleep.

We arrived at New Hope, the massive fortified refugee camp that was rapidly becoming a walled town under the command of Lady Knight Keladry, eleven days later, where the supplies were well received, since the winter had meant leanness all around, but no one was starving just yet and crops were already being planted.

The Lady Knight greeted us at the gate as we rolled into the town, strongbacked youths leaping to help unload the twenty heavily laden wagons we’d brought with us. “It looks as if you’ve had a… oh, hello!” she began, switching to amused welcome as Scampers-Swiftly emerged from my hood to chitter at the imposing figure in front of me. She was muscular and fit and solid for a 19 year old.

“Hush you,” I told the squirrel, who hid behind my neck and peered suspiciously up at Kel. “She’s not used to people. She thinks she has to protect me from them and that if she’s not around I’ll forget which end of my swords go into the bad people.”

“Ah. you can…” she trailed off, not knowing how to put it.

“Yes. Like Daine… though my parents aren’t gods… Though family lore on my father’s side says that My father’s mother was The Nameless Wind of the Winter. So perhaps it comes from that.”

“And you have the Gift as well?” she asked.

“Yes, Lady.”

“Call me Kel… why didn’t your mother send you to the City of the Gods?”

“It’s too close to Scanra, and my father wouldn’t hear of a daughter of his being sent to knit and gossip all day.”

“He’d rather you be a Knight of a foreign land?”

“Scanra isn’t a land, Kel. It’s a place where people live. We’ve a King none of us like and he follows a long tradition of being a King no one likes. If the Vassa River were north of Blackmoon instead of South, Blackmoon would be Tortall, but it’s not, and King Maggur holds my brother hostage, and so my father fights Tortall instead of trading with it. I think my father figures one daughter sent to Tortall hedges a bet.”

“You don’t sound upset about that,” she commented, watching as the supplies made their slow way from wagons to storehouses and Wolf and a white dog with a head like an axe-blade harassed each other.

“I’m not. I’m the equal of any blade in Scanra, and the code of Chivalry is most admirable. I could not be a knight in Scanra, so being a knight of Tortall will have to do,” I shrugged, “And there are better teachers for magic in Tortall. Though the weather is too warm.”

She smiled. “I thought a knight was supposed to be humble,” she chided.

“That’s more of a suggestion. A knight is supposed to be honest. And I’m not insulting any in Scanra from here. I’m probably the equal of any blade in Tortall too,” I said without effect.

“Oh? Care to prove it?”

“I would think showing up one’s Knight Master, especially on the first day, is to be frowned upon,” I said, only slightly mockingly.

“Now those are fighting words. Get your practice sword and padding, and meet me in the training yard,” she pointed it out, “in five minutes, Squire!” She was smiling though.

When I arrived in four, she nodded, then blinked, “Two swords? No shield?”

“I have a shield… it’s for blocking arrows and rocks,” I replied. “A sword is faster and  can be used as both defense and offense.” I shoo’d Scamper off onto a post and gave her an couple acorns from my pouch, then bowed slightly to Kel as I stepped into the circle.

I didn’t win the fight… but then again, I didn’t lose it either. We traded touches, and I fought with what I determined to be a reasonable level of skill, enough to hold my own, and to impress, without utterly dominating the older woman. One of the things I’d learned a fair while ago is that it’s often more challenging to fight at a set level than to simply beat all comers by dint of a few hundred lifetimes practice.

“You rely on speed, but you’ve strength enough,” the Lady Knight commented as we stepped from the ring to get a drink. “What other skills have you?”

“You accepted me as your Squire without knowing that?”

“My Lord Raoul of Golden Lake commended you to me, and said you knew the country hereabout. He also implied you might be having trouble back at the palace,” she admitted, honesty tinging her words.

“I… see… well, yes. Not this specific spot, but the north, I do know of it. And I speak Scanran… Wolf! Stop growling at the… sorry, he used to be a wolf and I don’t think he…” I stomped over to the growling man and grabbed him by the ear. “That dog is a sixth your size, and a dog. You,” I tugged, “should not be growling at him.” I looked down at the dog and said, “And you… stop picking on my friend.”

“He started it!” the dog barked.

“I did not!” Wolf retorted. “I was just-”

“Boys. Shush. No fighting.” I released the ear and ruffled the dog’s head. “And no chasing my squirrel either, or I’ll turn you into a newt.”

“No you won’t,” the dog said.

“No I won’t… but I’ll be very cross at… why am I surrounded by birds?” several dozen sparrows were now clustering around me to tell me to leave Jump alone. “Shoo. Jump and I are having a conversation… off… off with you or I’ll go find a raven to glare at you!”

An owl landed on my head and I may have squeaked in a decidedly unknightly way at that point. It peeped at me, dropping a letter held in one talon. Kel was laughing as I scooted Pulcinella off my head and looked at the letter. “Ah… sorry. Sorry… it’s a letter from home… my… friend had a baby recently and her… partner… is off adventuring… so I get… letters. And offf…” Soffi landed on me, squishing me to the ground with her front paws…

“Someone let all the animals out of the warehouse,” I muttered into the ground, groaning as my massive temple dog bounced around me joyously, wuffing and panting. “Ow…” I muttered, then levered myself up. “Lady Knight Kel… this is Soffi. She’s not a bear. And this is Pulcinella… a Hawk Owl. She’ll try not to eat any of your friends. And this is Alegra,” I said as my Red Fox (who is white, yes, that’s a thing) scampered up to me, apparently having been left behind by Soffi’s longer stride. “And I suspect Ziggy is around here somewhere.”

“Ziggy?”

“Ferret. Crazy. Kinda dim. Ah… there he is…” I began as I saw the enthusiastic little goober dangling from the claws of Nimh, my Great Horned Owl. “Apparently everyone decided to follow me instead of remaining back… in the capital.”

Kel was now laughing and nodding “I can see why Raoul really recommended you.”

I rolled my eyes, but didn’t correct her… it was possibly true. Also, I was busy listening to the various animals tell me about their adventure crossing the territory to catch up to me. “Ah… Ummm… sorry about that… they don’t know about respecting the chain of command.” I said, brushing the dust off my leathers as I stood.

“You’ll fit in fine, squire,” an older woman assured me. “The Lady Knight’s got herself a right little menagerie too. This your new assistant, Lady Kel?”

Kel nodded, still smiling. “Squire Sheanna Blackmoon, this is Fanche Weir, headwoman and busy body.”

The headwoman narrowed her eyes at me. “Blackmoon? As in Jarl Varish Blackmoon?”

“Thats my P… He is my father, yes” I said, reigning in my youthful enthusiasm.

“You’re the Jesslaw girl’s daughter then. Your cousin’s a friend of the Lady Knight.”

“Owen? He’s not around is he?”

“Sir Owen is at Fort Mastiff with Lord Wyldon, the district Commander,” Kel said. “We may visit him some time within the next couple months, if the situation allows. Are you close to your cousin?”

“No! Mother says his father’s a lunatic!” I said without even thinking about it. Aalis of Jesslaw was Alaric of Jesslaw’s older sister, passed over as most Tortallan Fiefs could not be inherited by female children, and had helped watch over Owen’s father until she’d been married to Varish. I’d met my cousin only twice, where he’d seened less impressive than my brother Aiton… though much more impressive than the then two (upon our first meeting) and seven (upon our second meeting) year old thirdborn Byor… my bratty younger brother who would soon be ten, having been born in early autumn.

“Alaric of Jesslaw is not a lunatic… just a bit… tactless and enthusiastic,” Kel said.

“That’s what someone not related to him would say. You have younger brothers. How would you describe them,” I asked.

“Tactfully,” Kel said dryly, turning me to towards the main structure which was to become home for the next four years. “Now, come, I have responsibilities as your Knight Master that must be discharged.”

I settled in at New Hope, ‘learning’ to do many of the mundane tasks that occupy a knight commander’s time and ocassionally riding out on patrol with the men at arms of the town.  I helped train many of the younger folks who were more than willing to learn how to defend themselves, and even began to teach Kel some of the more advanced forms of grappling I knew. And through it all, I chaffed at being bound by duty to remain south of the conflict, wanting so much to mark north and shatter the Scanran forces like the wrath of a vengeful god… but that would have been bending the narrative too far.

We did indeed journey up to Fort Mastiff near midsummer to bring up a supply of spring vegetables and I did indeed run into cousin Owen, who wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d been all those years ago. I also ran into two old friends.

One of the scouts assigned to Fort Mastiff was a common woman named Motta Draper, who had serious eyes and a dark mein… and a fascination with spoons that bordered on the obsessive. I ran into her as she was studying an array of two hundred plus spoons in the Fort’s lard main dining hall, testing each for heft and balance.

“Francine?” I gasped, seriously doubting anyone human would have been as interested in cutlery of any kind.

She looked up at me, frowned, then went back to studying her spoons. “Took you long enough,” she muttered, not sounding offended, but maybe a little put out. I hugged her from behind and harumphed.

“The entire communication grid is down, the warehouse’s systems are still acting buggy, and all my high end powers are fritzing when I use them. But I’m glad you’re here. Have you been able to get to the Warehouse at all?”

She shook her head “No. And all my spoons are there. I’ve only found three that are at all usable in this world.”

“Francy… they’re spoons. They don’t have a use besides scooping up food.” I ruffled her hair. “AJ’s with the King’s Own. Amelia’s a Provost’s Guard in Corus, Anne and Petra are still pages. Kendra’s with her Knight Master in the South, training with the Bazhir. I still haven’t found Ahab, Joy, Zane, or Velma.”

“Velma’s in the kennels,” the annoyed psychic told me, holding up a spoon for me to see, “What do you think of this one?”

“I think it’s a wooden spoon. Have you considered seeing a silver smith?”

“It’s war time. All the smiths are making weapons or armor or tools.”

“I’ll… why is Velma in the Kennels?”

“She’s a Dog Mage.”

“A Dog… mage?”

“Yes… Wild Magic, with dogs. Wyldon loves her. If he wasn’t so old, he’d probably marry her.”

“Lord Wyldon is married to Lady Vivienne,” I responded, grabbing Motta/Francine and pulling her out of the hall and into a storage room. I opened a portal to the warehouse and pushed her through. “Go get some spoons,” I commanded, then wandered over to the main house where I could hear the laughter of infants. They were in the middle of bathtime and I spent twenty minutes with them before they went down for naptime. Thankfully, I still needed only four hours of sleep a night, so most nights I could slip out of my quarters and into the Warehouse to at least spend a little time with them. THe only time I seemed able to transform myself into another one of my alternate forms was inside the Warehouse, for reasons that escaped me.

“I’m just here for a few minutes. Located Francine and she says she knows where Velma is… so that’s seven of ten. How are we today?”

“Maggie is rolling over on her own,” Franky said proudly. “And Alex is grabbing things!”

“Where’s Mini?”

“Getting the bottles.”

“Ah. Well, I guess I can stay long enough for a snack.”

“Not for you!” The darkhaired girl humphed, and Maggie splashed at me.

“I wasn’t going to have any. Milk is only good in coffee, anyway,” I teased.

“Are you having fun out in Tortall?”

“Eh. It’s a war. And I’m not on the frontline. It’s mostly a lot of paperwork and patrols. Killed a few bandits last week. That’s about it.”

“I’m glad I’m not out there. Low Fantasy worlds are icky.”

“You just don’t like chamber pots and horses,” I leaned in and kissed her head, then kissed each of the babies.

“I don’t like not being able to fly!” she complained.

“Who can’t fly?” Mini asked, then squeaked and hugged me, doing her best not to get milk on my chest. The Medbay had a machine that made stuff that was even better than real breast milk, and it, at least, was perfectly functional. The formula was designed for ease of digestion and was individually tailored and adjusted daily for optimal development and nutrition.

Once family time was done, I had Francine take me round to the kennels where I met Ceibhfhionn (pronounced something like Shvon, but not really)… who was 9 and dirty, and covered in doghair. She looked up at me, unafraid, eyes bright, surrounded by a pack of dogs who were clearly hell bent on defending her, until I told them not to worry and that I wasn’t here to hurt her and then they all wanted belly rubs.

“Hello Velma,” I said softly, too quietly to be overheard by the nearby soldiers.

“Is it really you?” She asked, trying to restrain a squirming 9 month old pup who wanted to lick her face.

“It’s me. This is a real clusterfuck, isn’t it?”

“I thought…” she shook her head, “I thought maybe I’d dreamed it… dreamed everything.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve been here for 6 years!” she snapped, a tear coming to her eye.

“W… what? That… it’s only been… six years?” I asked, flummoxed. I hadn’t thought to ask any of the others if they’d arrived early… “But… you went drop-in… you shouldn’t…”

She sniffled and wiped her eye with her free hand. “It might have been earlier… I don’t know… First thing I remember was running with the dogs… I spent the first few years as a dog… until… until…” she broke down and I hugged her, shusshing her softly until a shadow fell over me.

“Are you upsetting my kennel-mistress, Squire?” came a hard edged male voice and I looked up into the face of Lord Wyldon of Cavall and Commander of Fort Mastiff, former Training Master of Pages and Squires, and the man nicknamed ‘The Stump’.

“No my lord. She was… overcome and I was offering comfort. Would it be okay if she dined with me tonight? I have a dog she might like to meet, and a friend she might find interesting.”

“Is this the scout named Wolf?” The Stump asked, sounding doubtful.

“Yes. He’s a bit of an odd… duck… honestly claims to be a Wolf, but it’s probable he’s like your kennel mistress and it’s the other way round.”

“You have Wild-magic… can you shapeshift like the others?”

“No my lord. Not in that way. I mean, I can look like a crow or a falcon, but I can’t become one.”

“What’s the difference?” He sounded interested… gruff but interested.

“When they shapeshift, they become what they turn into. Mind and body. If she,” I tapped Velma who was half dozing, “turns into a hound, she gains the nose and ears of a hound, the eyes of a hound… the feelings of a hound. When I turn into a hound… I just look like a hound. I still have my own eyes and ears and sense of self.”

“Sounds less useful… but safer,” he grumped.

“Well… My clothes transform with me,” I said, trying not to sound like I was bragging.

The old man sputtered and I realized what I’d said.

“It’s also safer in that I can look like an immortal without becoming one,” I explained hurriedly, “which is good because if you turn into an immortal you can’t turn back.” I added the last just in case he didn’t know.

“Ah… I think I knew that. As for dinner, you and your Knight Mistress are dining with me and your cousin this evening. The young lady occasionally dines with me as well, if anyone can get her into a clean outfit.” He was clearly leveling a challenge, and it was one I accepted.

It also turned out to be more of a challenge than I was expecting, since Velma or not, Ceibhfhionn clearly thought she’d dissolve in hot water and squirmed frantically to avoid it until I snapped at her to behave like the adult she secretly was. Then she just blushed and glared at me as I scrubbed her clean. “If you aren’t clean, you don’t get to play with Soffi or Lady Kel’s Jump.” The dogs had accompanied us to the fortress of course.

I could go on and on and on like this, slowly relating all the minutiae of that long summer, and the autumn that followed, and the winter beyond that… but time moves as it will, grinding the lives of mortals slowly under the wheel and, in this, I was no exception. It wasn’t really until I heard word that Maggur was dead and that the Great Council had sued for peace, that I realized it was now 464, three years and more since I’d come to this land.

I was now 17 and my 18th birthday was soon approaching, and with it my ascension to Knighthood… if I wanted it. With the war over, I was free to return to my father’s lands and… and what? I wasn’t the heir, and even if I had been older than Aiton, Scanran law would never see me as the Jarl of Blackmoon. Without my Shield, I would be just another daughter to marry off for political gain, which meant, most likely, a marriage to one of the other Jarls of Scanra, or one of my father’s more powerful Thanes.

As winter approached, and the date drew closer, Wolf invited me to run away to the forest with him and join his pack. Ahab, who’d ended up a smuggler between the Galla, Tusane, and Tortall named Denys the Spider, had offered to smuggle me away to a life of adventure… but I assumed he was joking. The City of the Gods beckoned, wanting me to come and study there as one of the few who possessed both Divine and Wild Mage, and I knew that, as much as I’d be an object of curiosity, I’d also get a first rate education (at least for this world) there.

And yet, I found myself wanting to earn my shield. Earn the right to claim the title of Lady Knight and bring justice to those most in need. And so, as my fourth Midwinter in the lands of Tortall neared, I found myself kneeling as Keladry and Owen instructed me in what it meant to be a knight of Tortall. It was a ritual older than anyone living knew, and the words were sacrosanct, and I knew them already, but they carried extra weight as I knelt before the Chamber, knowing I’d have to remain silent thoughout the long night’s vigil and through the trial to come.

“If you survive the Ordeal of Knighthood, you will be a Knight of the Realm. You will be sworn to protect those weaker than you, to obey your overlord, to live in a way that honors your kingdom and your gods. To wear the shield of a knight is an important thing. It means that you may not ignore a cry for help. It means that rich and poor, young and old, male and female may look to you for rescue, and you cannot deny them. You are bound to uphold the law. You may not look away from wrongdoing. You may not help anyone to break the law of the land, and you must prevent the breaking of the law at all times, in all cases. You are bound to your honor and your word. Act in such a way that when you face the Dark God you need not be ashamed. You have learned the laws of Chivalry. Keep them in your heart. Use them as your guides when things are their darkest. They will not fail you if you interpret them with humanity and kindness. A knight is gentle. A knight’s first duty is to understand,” Keladry said, and I nodded, eyes focused on the door.

They left me alone then, leaving me to my meditation, and I slowed my breathing, closed my eyes, and cleared my thoughts. It was something that the original 18 year old me would never have been able to do, but I was no longer her in any real sense. I hadn’t been her for years even by the time my journey began. I extended my senses, letting the feel of this place and time inscribe itself upon my memory. I wanted to remember this as clearly as I could. I wanted to pass this Ordeal not just as Sheanna… but as myself, all of myselves. All united in the desire to see if that girl that was, once upon a time in an age long long past, might prove worthy.

As the dawn broke, I rose to my bare feet, the chill of the chamber passing through me like light through glass, and I approached the chamber, wondering, deep in my heart… Was I truly deserving of all I’d been given?

The chamber was empty stone all around me as the door swung closed, and the voice of the chamber asked, “Is that what you desire? To know, once and for all, if you have earned what you have been given?”

I opened my mouth to reply, then shook my head as I realized how close I’d just come to failure. It was like that guy in the Great Escape breaking character because he answered a question by reflex. I closed my mouth tightly, then nodded, once, sharply.

And the universe exploded around me.

Next: Light of Terra

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Resources: Build, Document

World 59: Treasure Planet

AMBUSH!

Previously: Room at the Top

Themesong: Spaceman by The Killers

“Oh… my… Goddess…” I sighed, hugging Tokimi-chan and Toph at the same time, “I’m sooo glad that’s over.”

“Me too,” Toph said, looking around in confusion. “But why are we not in the Warehouse?”

“Mmmm… Slight Detour… I may have accidentally started a second jump while in the middle of Soul Eater. Now we have to finish that one’s runtime too.”

“Another decade without powers?” Yoiko moaned, flopping back on the beach of the Jersey Shore.

“Oh no. We’re good there. No restrictions. Probably frequent attacks by people who are stronger and smarter than they should be… but that’s about it. Oh… And I might be slightly more kleptomaniacal this time.”

“WHERE ARE WE?” Ryoga howled, looking around. “All the skyscrapers are gone?!”

“Well, duh. It’s 1893. Ah. here’s the welcoming committee!” The Luteces chose that moment to appear, looking the same as always.

“Well, well, we were beginning to wonder if you actually would come back,” She said. He just shrugged. “No we weren’t. We were, however, wondering why the rest of the universe seemed to be quantumlocked.”

“Beings beyond time and space were holding the universe in homeostatic lockdown until I returned.” I waggled my fingers menacingly, but the Luteces just looked at me as if I was mental… which is fair. “I still don’t have all my memories back… stupid reality… which is strange, because I know I had them a few moments ago.” I looked around, “Where are the Bookers and Lizzies?”

“They are still in Booker 123’s building.”

“We should get them out of there! Zane! PHS them here!”

Zane ummmed “I don’t even know who they are… and what do you mean you started a second jump while… where were we?”

“It was that time you all took a nap after the Witches and Werewolves got into a fight in the restaurant.” I clutched my plaque to my chest possessively as if afraid that the Micheline people would show up and take it from me. I had worked my butt off for this… it had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and my best guess had been that I had less than a 7.5% chance of success… and yet working 18 hour days for the better part of a decade had finally paid off. “Ummm… anyway… they look like this and feel like this.” I shared my memories of the 7 of them with him and he shrugged and, poof, there they were.

“Great work, champ!” I slapped him on the back. “Lutece! Come! We have much to accomplish!”

“What?!” they looked surprised.

“I did not squander points on you simply because I enjoy your witty banter! I squandered points on you so that you could build stuff for me and figure out SCIENCE!” I walked up onto shore where a period appropriate horse and carriage was waiting, complete with driver. “Ma’am” said the Secret Service agent.

“The others will be along shortly. We’re heading to DC. Have someone notify the president that I’ll be needing a word, and then arrange a joint session of congress.” He nodded and sent a rider ahead. It’s good being a dignitary wherever you go, really. I sat down in the pre-motorized limousine and waited until those of my companions I’d summoned joined me. “Now. R&R… this is Brigid T and Velma. You two are going to be working with them on this little project of mine. Tokimi-chan might get involved later if she feels like it.”

“What project?” The not-twins asked.

“I call it… wait for it… Columbia!” They looked at me as if I was insane… which was fair.

“You can’t be serious!” Robert gasped, but Rosalind nodded. “Of course. All that power, You want it for your… why is she laughing?”

Velma poked Brigid and chuckled, “They think she’s doing something for power in this day and age.”

Brigid, who hadn’t been with me that long in the grand scheme of things, but who’d spent a decade hearing the stories, had to smile. She didn’t say anything however.

“Power… right… because a floating battleship… right… Robert, Roslind… you and I are going to take a small trip once we’re done with the President. I have something to show you.”

“You really think President Cleveland will let you into his office?” Robert asked.

“A foreign Princess with diplomatic immunity and a full set of credentials? Of course he will!” I chuckled. “Look, it’s simple. This world needs Columbia… a real Columbia. No racist religious utopia… no, a real city in the clouds. A few of them. By the time the Great War starts, I want the US to have at least five of them, twenty if I can manage it… The City-Fleet. Places that enshrine the concepts of truth, liberty, and social responsibility. I want them to be institutes of higher learning… in all ways. The 20th century is going to see a lot of really bogus crap, and giving one of the freer nations on Earth a leg up will help. I plan to employ as many Amerinds as possible, plus members of other ethnic groups as well. Making the flying cities examples of progressive enlightenment where all are equal… that will help. And you two… jackasses… are going to help me do it in order to pay reality back for the sin of helping that genocidal fuckwit Comstock in the first place.”

The rest of the trip passed in relative silence as the Luteces only occasionally bothered me and I built a floating model of Columbia 2.0 out of ice picos. About the time we boarded the ferry to cross the Delaware (into Delaware) Ahab and Joy called to notify that they’d completed their builds and were terribly confused.

“Of course, of course. No worries,” I said with a grin, watching the Luteces try and figure out ‘cellphones’. “The plotline’s been resolved. Took two days. Now we just have a bit of a relaxing decade and chill. What did you two go with, so I know what I’m dealing with?”

“Ahab’s a Businessman, with the bag of cash and the business savvy… what’s a Sky-Hook? The description made it sound terribly unsafe,” Joy said.

“Oh. Insanely. No sane person would use one. Imagine dangling by your arm from a rail 15,000 feet up in the air… the rail systems are used to transport cargo containers all over the city… it’s not even vaguely safe.” I chuckled… “You’re sounding a bit more charismatic… you took the Prophet background?”

“Cult of Personality seemed potentially useful… and it came with a Gatling Gun Equipped robotic statue of Benjamin Franklin… how could I say no?”

Grover was, of course, thrilled to meet me and promised his unwavering support for our project once I showed him the prototype. Congress took a little more convincing, but I promised them funding… and subtly adjusted most of the southern democrats (racist fucks) in ways that made them less… horrible. I had 9 years, 11 months, and 26 days left in this universe… I was going to make them count!

After that, I took the Luteces and Brigid up to the dark side of the moon where my spacedock was and said, “Pick a mountain, any mountain.”

Rosalind made a face, and asked, “Is this truly needed?”

Robert, always the more practical, said, “This can’t be… I mean… it looks like… but that’s ridiculous…” he trailed off as I just smirked.

“You two suggested I was building a new Columbia for the military might it would offer. I want to show you why that’s ridiculous… but first you two need a little perspective. This is, in fact, the Moon… the far side to be specific, the polar crater… and those are the Leibnitz mountains. Go ahead, pick one.”

Robert pointed out one large chunk of lunar regolith and said, “That one.” with a shrug.

I pulled a heavy two handed weapon roughly similar to a hybrid bazooka-phaser rifle off the wall-mount of VIctor’s cargobay and walked out onto the lunar soil. Telepathically I told the two ~Watch closely!~ and blew the basalt mountain apart with a single shot. Chunks as big as houses rained slowly down while others soared slowly into lunar orbit. I strode back inside and racked the gun. “Victor! Find me a Kuiper Belt Object in the Vesta Class.”

It didn’t take long. “That is a 310,000,000 Gigaton rock.” I pointed at a manual targeting computer and showed Robert how to use it. “Just lock the reticule on it and pull the trigger.” Moments later, the unnamed space rock was a few million much smaller unnamed space rocks. I launched a set of mini-fabers to go scavenge the bits for anything useful then pointed out the window at the vast galaxy.

“Pick a star… any star,” I said, blandly.

“You can’t destroy a star!” Rosalind said, half disbelieving, half horrified I might just to demonstrate that I could.

“Not without preparation… no. That was a joke. But I can personally, without use of my flagship, destroy a moon if I have to. My flagship… she’s the green skinned one eating cookies in the copilot’s seat… she can easily destroy a planet like Earth… and I’ve got a megafortress, an artificial planetoid that can do the same… I’ll show it to you, though it’s being refitted at the moment. The previous owners had terrible aesthetic sensibilities.”

I took them back into the bay and into the subspace drydock for the Death Star II. It was structurally complete now, upgraded through and through, and had the Star Forge installed inside the large section that the Empire had left unfinished, as well as a docking bay big enough to house the Executor. The entire thing had been resurfaced, adding additional armor and replacing the kitbashed look with city-sized magical runes formed from hyperice. I had plans. “VIggo! How goes it?” I yelled, and a face the size of Rhode Island appeared on chromed surface of the mostly spherical structure.

“All systems are stable. Do you need anything built today?” the VI asked. VIggo was newish, and not nearly as fully an individual as his sibling VIctor, but was more advanced than most of the second generation VIs… though not even VIvian was as ‘human’ as VIctoria, my armor and, effectively, part of me, though not quite as much as Soul of Ice or Silent Judge were. As I’d integrated the Star Forge into the primary weapon of the battle station, it was as much a construction platform as it was a weapon. In orbit around a star, or drawing on a subspace font of energy, it should be able to deploy a fleet of capital ships at the rate of one every 17 hours… I was still trying to make it faster, but I’d hit a bottleneck that could only be solved by introducing the Force into a given universe, something I was unlikely to do.

“Very good. Say hello to the Luteces. They’ll be joining us and will probably want to talk to you later, once they’ve gotten over their culture shock.” We headed back into the Warehouse, where lunch was just now being served by the staff of Bar Ziggy… from the secret menu of course, which (now that I was no longer bound to the horror of Nouveau Cuisine) actually had full sized portions… though most of the menu was still tapas of course. Tapas is just the european version of dim sum… and I fuckin love me some dim sum.

“You have a space ship who eats snacks, a gun that destroys mountains, a base on the moon… your own private moon that talks… and a restaurant with… oooo… these are excellent meatballs…” the Luteces were trading the conversation back and forth between them as the restaurant copies of my friends brought out plate after plate after plate of goodness. “I can see why Columbia isn’t important to you.” Rosalind finished, then Robert said, “Which does sort of raise the question… why is Columbia important to you?”

“Because it filled me with wonder and awe the first time I saw it. It looked like paradise. A little creepy perhaps… but paradise nonetheless. That it turned out to be anything but is a shame. Columbia was your dream… and it turned into a nightmare… and I’d like to fix that. Plus… I think I know a man who needs a job.”

“You’re going to hire Booker?!”

“Oh, please. Of course I am. I’ve got 5 of him on the permanent payroll. Hiring him to be the chief of security for Columbia seems reasonable. Get his old buddy Slate maybe to back him up… both will need watching. Slate’s a madman and Booker has… addiction and rage issues… and Daisy can be a bit of a handful… but Booker needs structure and we know how well Anna fits in up there. Anyway, I have the perfect restaurant for Columbia.” I smiled as they looked around, then nodded in understanding. This was going to be fun.

And it was. I specifically made sure that Battleship Bay was finished before the end of the decade… had to have a beach, didn’t I? Which made it all the more strange when a flying galleon landed on the beach instead of the Pillars of Time rising out of the sand. I’d have been terribly confused… but I recognized the ship… it was the RLS Legacy… and it was even more gorgeous in real life than it had been in the movie I’d first seen so many ages ago, but that had remained one of my favorites for all that time.

“Yessss!” I did a happy little dance, then tossed Ziggy onto Zane’s head as I leapt into the air to land aboard the flying solar ship. “ETHERIUM! HERE WE COME!”

The boat was every inch as cool as it had been in the movie, but so much more… real, I guess… obviously. Mensarius was at the helm and the Banker was standing by the railing. “We thought we’d come to you. So much more… personal. Stop poking me.”

“Ah… solid holograms now?”

“We control the horizontal. We control the vertical.”

“Ah. Fascinating. You’re not going to show up inside an actual jump are you?”

“Err… no. That would be… unwise. We cannot physically enter into a given reality any more than you can enter one of your own cells.” The big man explained.

Mensarius snarked, “We also thought we should show up to make sure you didn’t get any ideas about bringing Columbia with you.”

“Never crossed my mind. So. Treasure Planet, huh? You got a jumptree for me to… oooo… shiny!” I grinned as he pointed to a treasure chest just like that owned by Billy Bones. I knelt down and tapped the code the old lizard had used and, when it opened, pulled out the bronze sphere within. A couple moments of fiddling and a second remembered code sequence, and a green hologram appeared all around me… though (of course) this wasn’t the map to Treasure Planet, but rather a hologramatic JumpTree, in all its glory.

The start time for the jump was the moment that Billy Bones hands the map orb to Jim Hawkins… and there was a table to determine where I’d start… The Benbow Inn, home to Sarah Hawkins and her son Jim… the home of dogboy Dr. Delbert Doppler, a man so completely useless that his role in the movie could have easily been supplanted by a bag of cash and a parrot with tourette’s syndrome… seriously… he had a few funny lines and made one good shot… Amelia deserved better and had clearly married him because the movie makers thought it would be cute to see the dog and the cat couple up… everyone knows career women are just waaaaiting for the inept but well meaning guy to sweep them off their feet… not that I was bitter about the otherwise sour note in one of my favorite films… where was I? Oh, right… The RLS Legacy (not the one I was standing on, but the actual one in the actual jump, complete with crew and stuff… and Captain Amelia… it was a Discovery-Class Frigate in the Terran Navy that had been rebuilt as a lightly-armed civilian galleon. It was also sooo pretty.

I could start at Crescentia, the artificial satellite spaceport of the planet Montressor… which was where RLS Legacy was docked and where The Benbow Inn and Doctor Doppler’s homes were… so, essentially rolls one through four were all exactly the same aside from some timing issues. Five and Seven would be interesting. Five was the Surface of Treasure Planet, and Seven was the Center of Treasure Planet. The first had no access to the treasure vault without the orb (presumably) and the second had no access to the surface period. An interesting quandary there.

Six was the only one that was completely useless. It was the Procyon Empire… which possessed many ice planets (which could be useful for stealing ice)… but was otherwise not where the story was. If I wanted the Ice, I could go there later. Once the couple of months tops that the voyage took. Probably less.

First off, I considered my options. Stealing Flint’s Treasure… or rather… keeping Flint’s Treasure from being destroyed, was my primary goal here. Well, one of two, but I won’t go into the other just yet, save that it ties in with the first. Aside from that, I had only three other things that were on my to do list. The first of those, and admittedly maybe this was a bit selfish, was keeping Doppler from hooking up with Amelia. One of the two of them, possibly both, is going to regret that choice in the relative future. Amelia, the veteran spacer-sailor, would not be a good homebody. Doppler was a researcher and exactly that. This was a man-dog who ate pretty much every meal at the Benbow because he didn’t like change and was largely useless. Maybe the trip had changed him… but I’m betting he’d go back to his old ways soon enough.

The second to do if possible was to allow the relationship between Silver and Jim to proceed unhindered. They were good for each other… needed each other. Best part of the movie in my estimation.

The third… was saving Mr. Arrow. I didn’t particularly care for the man, but he was forthright, honest, and hardworking, and had died a death I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Even Scroop’s eventual comeuppance (which didn’t make any sense… if you’re above a planet and turn off the artificial gravity… you still fall down! You don’t go flying away from the planet as if on repulsors!) was probably less cruel. Maybe not. Dying of starvation or dehydration in the Etherium might be worse than being sucked into a black hole. Dunno. Never done either.

I spun the two mini-ship’s wheels to determine my starting location and age… I didn’t believe in spending CP on setting those, and even with the temptation of starting in the core of Treasure Planet, I wasn’t about to start now. Anyway, that was, for my plans, actually the second worst starting location. Anything other than Procyon was acceptable. And that’s why I was 26 and starting on the SURFACE of Treasure Planet. Well, that was fine for my primary goals, great for the Silver-Hawkins Plan (Wouldn’t be really doing much about interfering with them), pretty much neutral for the Dog and Cat show (they really only got close once they reached the planet)… and pretty much disaster for Operation Unbroken Arrow. Well… crap.

I’d have to improvise. The JumpTree said I could be any local alien species… though there wasn’t any particular advantage associated with any of them. I considered, then projected a mental image of a Harsid, a race of mostly humanoid bunny-people. The Harsids were something I’d created for a campaign of Wizards and Warlords a few centuries back. They had overly large handpaws tipped with claws which looked fairly fluffy but were surprisingly dexterous, a long fluffy tail, floppy ears, and two color hair, with the darker hair on the bottom and the lighter hair on top. Harsids had pretty much no breasts, and were fierce in battle when pressed to it, but prefered to run if possible. They had small button noses that wiggled when they were curious or annoyed. I.e. they were a cute race I’d tossed together because I liked cute races. They also weren’t particularly tall, and had a bit of a complex about other species trying to loom over them. I wonder where I got that from.

The system acknowledged the addition of a previously non-canonical species and retconned it into the reality with an ease I found frankly terrifying. Adding in a single person to history, that wasn’t hard… but adding in an entire race… their homeworld, their history, as if it had always been there without disrupting anything canonical in the slightest… the power of the Bankers was… terrifying if one thought about it. Such a thing could only be done on the macro scale, a fait accomplis by divine will… or because it was always that way and I’d merely thought of something that hadn’t been seen but had existed all along. Free Will vs Determinism… and as always, did it even vaguely matter which it was? I had to believe the answer was yes… and as it was clear the Bankers did as well, I was reasonable certain that Free Will was, in fact, at work here.

Regardless, it was now time to choose a background for my 26 year old Harsid self. Etherium Ghost was the Drop-In (but not really a ghost, just poof you’re there), Pirate, Scientist… and Navy. Navy! NAVY BITCHES! NAVY! WOOO! First time in the normal military! Strike Witches was a special unit. The Royal Terran Navy was Military as fuuuuck! NAVY! Avast! Ahoy! Shipshape! It is a good battle cry. Must apologize to Zane. Also get to see Mini and Franky in cute little sailor outfits. Wooooo. O.o. Not shopping. Gonna take all the Navy Options! NAVY! SHIPSHAPE!

I danced the Dance of Confusion to the Enemy (and Bankers), then checked what I’d actually bought, because I may be insane, but I’m not crazy! The Navy background meant I’d spent my time before the mast as it were, serving as a sailor or officer aboard one of the Terran Empire’s Light-ships… juicy memories… My training and experience would (it said) serve me well on land and in space, having served as generations before me had to guard honest folk from the terrors of space. The discovery of Treasure Planet would, of course, bring me great glory… and benefit the Empire as well, no doubt.

Navy came free with ‘Home in The Rigging’, a mastery of all the basic skills needed to keep a ship up and running, from basic maintenance on the engines to knowledge of more knots than I could shake a cyborg at. As an added bonus, my time in the rigging had, apparently made me incredibly agile and surefooted, with an almost feline grace! SHIPSHAPE!

The second Naval line-item was ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ (cost 100 Space Credits), which guaranteed that i’d have the courage and mental fortitude to hold my calm at all times, forcing my body to be obedient to my mind and pushing through pain with an understated stoicism that, while probably not great in the long run, would certainly make me look tough and earn the admiration of my crew and enemies alike. SHIPSHAPE!

The third (and last… no capstones this time round) was ‘Iron Discipline’ (cost 200 Space Credits), which granted the skills and charisma needed to forge a bunch of misfits into a hardened team, combining a mastery of training techniques and knowledge of ways to enforce discipline both actively and passively. It even drastically reduced the likelihood that any ship of mine would ever suffer a mutiny, and if one did, there’d be a number of loyal holdouts even then. SHIPSHAPE!

Now then… with paying the 100 Space Credit processing fee for my Naval Discharge Papers (I wasn’t still in of course… being stranded on Treasure Planet would make reporting for duty somewhat tricky).. I was down to 600 and it was time to buy equipment! Like… a ship.

First of all, I was stranded on Treasure Planet. Having my own ship was a good idea, so that I wouldn’t be stranded there. I had other vessels of course, but not a one of them was a Light Ship, which were ever so yar. Mmmmm… yaaaaar. A fine word for a fine sentiment. I’d loved that word ever since the day I’d first seen Katherine Hepburn say it in Philidelphia Story… “My, she was yar…It means, uh…easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be”… and a Ship would cost me 100 Space Credits less thanks to my Naval Background… which meant I could get a small, fast ship with a crew of up to 12, such as a Cutter, Assault Cutter, Warsloop, or Torpedo Boat for free! If I shelled out a clean 100, I could get a larger ship (up to Frigate Class… like the RSL Legacy herself… with a crew of up to 23)… or for 200 I could get an even heavier vessel, a ship-of-the-line like the Starhammer or Man o’ War with a crew of 35… clearly these ships were much more automated than wet-navy ships. I sighed longingly, looking up at the sleek lines of the Legacy… then dropped 200 for a Ship-of-the-Line and named her Windjammer. Because… why the hell not? It would be armed to my specifications, within the weapons available to the Royal Terran Navy and that was good enough for me… to start off with at least.

Another 200 went towards buying a Trusty Crew… which was normally enough to bring in 8 previous companions, granting them a history in the Etherium compatible with my own… but if I had a ship (see Windjammer above), I could Import the entire required crew… which was good… because I had just over that number of companions who needed berths.

None of the other items interested me particularly… but one of the Companion options would neatly solve my worries about Mr. Arrow… I could buy him as my ‘Loyal Second’… it would cost the 200 CP I had remaining… but did I really want to spend eternity with the somewhat stiff Mr. A? I… sighed. And shook my head. Instead… I bought Captain Amelia’s loyalty. Because, and this is important… I really wanted to hug the kitteh! Especially if that would annoy her. (must not tell her that one of my favorite Disney Fanfics featured her and Jane from Tarzan being especially close… yes, yes… younger me was a perv. Older me is much more of a perv, but is comfortable with that fact. Also vaguely curious if the Banker’s syndication contract included the naughty stuff in the basic package of if you had to shell out for the DVD extras to get the porn.)

Huh… weird. I had everything I wanted… without taking any drawbacks. Everything I wanted was exactly 1000. Somehow that was strangely… depressing. Unsatisfying. I glanced at the Drawbacks on offer just out of curiosity… Box-Office Bomb (some people have no fucking taste…) killed profitability. Starsickness was gross and unpleasant and easily gotten around by wearing blinders. Traitorous Mutineers put a mutiny on every ship… laame. Beware the Cyborg made me a cyborg… meh. Knotty Problem meant I’d keep falling off of stuff and losing my grip… could be fatal… if I couldn’t fly… or survive impact with the ground without issue. And the Iron Menace tossed raiders with metal ships and stealth technology at the Terran Empire. Yawn.

I turned to Captain Banker, “Hey. this import option… doesn’t say anything about any perks. It just says “a history compatible with my own.” “That’s Navy, right? Doesn’t say the same as. Could it also be scientist? Does it come with freebies?”

“Errr. yes. The Scientist and Navy would be compatible with Navy. as would Etherium Ghost, and… I guess they can have the freebie. Considering that’s knowing how to ride a sunboard, serve on a ship, or how to speak a bunch of languages? Fine.”

“Cool… Got an offer for you.”

“This is you wanting CP for your feckless reprobates, isn’t it?”

“Just 400 each, discounts for origin. No buying more ships or companions of course. No drawbacks.”

“Okay… I’m listening, what will you give up?”

“The Warehouse is closed for withdrawals… except for the medbay and food supplies… they can be installed in Windjammer for the duration. And a lockout of all the spaceship forms. Even for Yuzuha. But not power armor. That counts as a space suit.”

“Withdrawals? But not deposits?”

“Treasure!”

“Ah… I… hmmm… I think that’s worth 200.”

“I’ll toss in a tech limit. Nothing more advanced than what the locals have.”

“Go farther. Bigger nerf.”

“600 for a bigger nerf. I’ll go to no offensive powers or magic… but I keep all defensive powers… and that includes, specifically and especially my Mental Palace and Astral Layers, plus Social Perks. And I’ll toss in a blanket reduction in my companion’s abilities to the limits of the local infrastructure. Passengers too, if Raven gets protection from being squished. I doubt she’d willingly risk it otherwise.”

“If you reduce your overall durability to merely peak human… I’ll make it 500 and you’re limited to human levels of beauty and charisma, as well.”

“As long as that doesn’t nerf regen? Done! Wooo!”

“Why do I feel that you’re somehow happier to be that nerfed?”

“NAVY BITCH! SHIP-MOTHERFUCKING-SHAAAAAPE.”

INSERTION

I’d gone back to the party after doing my build, running simulations galore on how to save Arrow and fretting about it to no end. Thankfully, I can multitask (see Brain the Size of a Planet… and no I’m not a paranoid android… who lies all the time… clearly Marvin does not have a brain the size of a planet… since he is not the size of a planet.) and so I manifested a sign that read “Captain Seeks Crew for adventure, treasure hunting, shenanigans. 35 members. Naval Personnel & Scientists Welcome, Ne’er Do Well’s & Useless Layabouts Accepted. Duration of hitch 10 years. No access to warehouse. No Clarketech. Power limited to local maximums.”

Zane came up to me. “No powers? No warehouse? NO CLARKETECH? What was on offer that made you willing to take those drawbacks. You hate those kinds of drawbacks!”

“Traded them away so you idiots could get 500 CP each. Seriously. 400 CP bought me a Ship-of-the-Line and a full crew for her. But all you’d have gotten was the freebies of ship handling… not that there’s really that much awesomeness on offer, but this isn’t the most terrifyingly dangerous place.” He gave me the look and I shrugged. “Plus, I only sold all your powers. I still have about 40% of mine.”

“What 40? Are you going to go insane again?”

“I gave up all my offensive powers. No super strength, no eyebeams, no energy blasts, no hexes, curses, psy blasts, cryo blasts, ice-missiles, ice-grenades… no hostile bending. I still have most of my defenses… no obscene durability, but I still have my regen. No spaceships… not even for Yuzuha. VIctoria will get a nerfing because of the tech lockout… But I specifically get to keep the Astral Layers and Mental Palace, so my overall sanity should be good. And I still have telepathy and utility TK. I think. I’ll have to check on the TK. Now stop worrying and go have fun! It’s a party!”

I now had more than 35 companions (counting people who were absent and the twins and passengers)… so it meant someone was going to be left out. First to be eliminated were those who weren’t there. Astraea, Garl, and Selen went first. Atura was always present, but even when the spirit wasn’t an egg (though an egg that sometimes now spoke through the large crack in it) he wouldn’t have protested being excluded. Since he hadn’t spoken in over a decade now, I assumed he was back to sleep, so that kicked him off the list. Soffi was a good doggy and I only imported her into Soul Eater because it was free. She didn’t mind being left off the list. Ziggy wouldn’t mind either… but looking at the list… just removing Ziggy meant I could import Astraea… I checked, and… aside from ‘Cult Classic’, which made one larger than life in the memories of others, none of the perks on offer really suited El Fuzzyface Supremo. I unchecked him from the list… not that he’d have filled out his own tablet anyway… so all I was doing was exchanging his for hers.

Elizabeth (not Elizabella) came over to me as I lounged in the sand and loomed, glowering down at me. “Can I assume that, since I’m currently unable to open any Tears at all, that somehow you’ve activated another Siphon for some reason?” I’d built and tested no less than five of them over the last decade, so I could see why she might think that, but I shook my head.

“No. I told you. The decade’s over. We’re moving on.”

“I thought we meant you and your band of reprobates. Why am I here? Why am I not frozen in time like everyone else in the city? I had assumed you’d done to them what you did to me that first time… is this not the case?”

“You’re not frozen in time because you’re a Companion. You’re coming with us.”

“I don’t want to come with you. I find you deeply frustrating, and your insistence on keeping that man around…” she ground her teeth. “He’s a monster!”

“Elizabeth. Beth.” She flinched at the familiarity of the diminutive, but I ignored that. “He’s a man. He made mistakes. He killed some people and ran away from that man… but he tried to do the right thing… he just made mistakes… that got a baby girl killed. A monster would have done it on purpose. The grief of that action destroyed Comstock. He couldn’t be that man anymore and left all that Comstock was behind him. His existence was harming no one in Rapture. You wanted him to remember so you could punish him. Not because he needed punishing… but because you wanted to punish him. You didn’t want Vengeance for your accidentally slain sister-self… you wanted Revenge.”

“I… she… we deserved JUSTICE!” she stamped her foot on the sand… which I had to try very hard not to snicker at.

Face calm, I shook my head. “Would you have died for that Justice? Because that’s what it would have been. You’d have killed yourself for that… and in doing so doomed thousands by giving a monster… an actual monster this time… the key to enslaving a child and bringing about the fall of Rapture. I saw it happen in another timeline. Your Justice destroyed you. And you know it.”

“I still have no desire to travel with you.”

“I don’t remember asking your opinion on that matter,” I said coldly. “You cannot be trusted with your own power. If I leave you here in this reality, you’ll eventually go mad from isolation and do something either self-destructive… or just become a monster. I saved you from yourself… you are now my responsibility, and I have absolutely no desire to allow you to ruin my work, nor to allow you to squander your potential. Think of me as another Songbird or another Comstock if you will, and yourself as still in a Cage… but remember… I did take you to Paris.”

She snorted, but relaxed a little… just a little.

“Look. We may be a pain to deal with… and yes, that man is here too. But he can no more leave than you can. And at least with us, you’ll be treated like a bratty little sister, rather than a freak, monster, or saviour… well, sometimes you’ll be treated like all three, but only by outsiders. And if you stay, you get to hang out with Lizzy.” She twitched… Elizabeth and Elizabella did not always get along… or ever get along. Beth was hard edged and brittle. Lizzy was… very much more like Elizabeth had been when Booker had rescued her. Trauma and darkness had reforged Beth into a harder person, while the untouched Lizzy was softer and more carefree. Even their takes on philosophy (their favorite argument topic) were radically different.

“Go… enjoy yourself. We’ve got 30 days for you to decide if you want to sulk in the Warehouse by yourself for a decade… alone with the computers and butlers… or if you want to come sailing with us across the spaceways of the Etherium. I can guarantee that one of those two will be much more fun than the other. Plus, if you come with us, you can be a farting snail or a spider-crab… or a rock monster. Loads of fun!”

CREW INTERVIEWS

Over the next few weeks… during which we were, for the first time, free to interact with the setting we were leaving behind rather than being confined to the warehouse… I conducted interviews with my soon to be crew. It was rather fascinating seeing what insanely weird races they came up with… though there were potentially any number of alien races in the very weird Terran Empire. Just in the movie there were at least 20 shown on screen, from the catlike Felinids (Amelia) to the the bearlike Ursids (Silver) to the doglike Alponian (Doppler) to the monstrous Candarians (Flint) to the sluglike Flatulans and Zirrelians (Zoff/Snuff, Onus, & Turnbuckle) to the rocklike Cragorians (Arrow) to the spiderlike Rachnid (Scroop) to less identifiable species like whatever Grewnge (a horned lumpy troll-thing), Torrance (a headless lumpy humanoid with a face on his torso), Hedley (a tentacled head), Billy Bones (a turtle-lizard thing), Verne (a gecko-fish thing), Longbourne (an eel-thing with eyes inside its mouth), Hands (a four-armed behemoth-thing), Fayvoon (a sauropod thing), Mertock (a manatee-thing), and Mary (a walking brain-thing)… plus all the characters who inhabit the Benbow Inn (Misses Dunwitty looks especially like she’s the same species as Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch) or the random extras at Crescentia Spaceport… one of whom looked almost exactly like a goldfish on stilts. With so many species shown, there could potentially be a thousand more without changing much.

Just under half of my gang of misfits decided to go Navy (not that some of them had a choice). Among those who were voluntold were Astraea, The Twins, Mini & Frankie, The Bookers, and Beth. Astraea got no say since she wasn’t around to pick. The Twins got no say because I am a mean auntie. Mini & Frankie got no say because cute sailor outfits (If they’d have protested I’d have relented… probably… but they were as game as usual, so no need). Most of the extended DeWitt clan got no say because they weren’t exactly trustworthy… even with 4/5ths of the Bookers being guaranteed loyal, I wasn’t going to trust the other 2 as far as I could throw… hmmm… that expression doesn’t really work when I could (using TK) toss someone really quite far… in astronomical terms. Let’s just say I wasn’t trusting Beth’s judgement, nor that of Bookstock any time in the foreseeable future.

As such, I called them over to talk to me one (or two or five) at a time and told them what was up and going over the (admittedly limited) offerings of the jump. Seriously, there were a grand total of 12 perks and 7 items that weren’t ships or companions. Without searching my memory, I couldn’t think of a smaller JumpTree… but size isn’t everything, and the setting itself was fun enough to obviate the lackluster nature of the tree… and honestly, aside from maybe a cooking perk or a timing perk… I couldn’t think what I’d add. Maybe a lick perk where you keep stumbling across the bit of tech you need… seriously Mr. Hawkins… where did you get Felix Felicis from?

“Hey kids,” I said with a smile. “Looking forward to it?”

“Uuuugh,” Invidius groaned, rolling his eyes. “We’re not kids! We’ve been adults for a century and more.”

“Junior,” I said, draping an arm around his shoulders, then pulling him in for a nuggie. “When you’re as old as I am… everyone is a kid. I call AJ kiddo and he’s been with me longer than anyone.”

Gaius chuckled, then chewed on his lower lip. “You’re going to tell us what to be again, aren’t you?”

“Ayup. You two seriously lack discipline, a fact that your father has not bothered to rectify and your mother couldn’t be arsed to. So to that end, you’re getting a mental crash-course in Navy… even if those memories are being kicked out of said navy. Feel free to take whatever you like from the 100 and 200 point items. I except you two to reach an agreement you feel comfortable with in an hour or I’ll pick for you and you’ll spend the entire decade inside the Warehouse feeding the animals and gardening. The Warehouse which will be on lockdown so you can’t exit, but will be getting a live feed of the fun.” They favored me with a look that was anything but respectful, but at least Gaius gave me a sardonic Roman salute before heading off after his brother.

Zane, standing nearby, said “You’ll have to give them enough rope to hang themselves by eventually. If you don’t they’ll come to hate you.”

“Zane,” I sighed, rubbing my eyes. “The last time those two had that kind of freedom, it KILLED ME! And they also tried to conquer the Galaxy! How many millions of people died, how many billions were displaced by their little conquest? If they were anyone else, I’d have ended them. That kind of shit is not on. Remember. I can see inside them… they’re still not sorry. They don’t…” I groaned. “They don’t see other people as having value. They’re terrified of their parents, of Tokimi-chan, of you and me… They know that if they get out of line I’ll send AJ and Francy after them and they’ll be as dead as Vitiate. That’s one of the reasons I did what I did to him. I was showing them what I do to that kind of person… but they don’t really understand.”

I looked up at him as he blinked, and paled. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Z… I really really want to be. They think I’m being unreasonable, taking away their toys. They see everyone less powerful than them as toys. As… irrelevant. They don’t grook just how close to the edge they are. Reggy’s half convinced I should have killed them. Remember what she did to some of her own daughters. Gaius sees them as monsters… though monsters he feels responsible for.” I shook my head. “No. I’m not kidding. But until I figure out if they’re… worthy… I guess, is the best word for it… until then, I’m going to play mean old auntie. Better they spend their time trying to convince me that they’re on the side of ferrets.”

Zane chuckled at that, still finding it humorous that my metric of good vs evil was not angels vs devils, but rather ferrets vs weasels. Both gave you a lot of crap to deal with, and both could rip your throat out, and from a remove, they might appear similar to those without a frame of reference, but where the weasel would bite you for no other reason than to cause you pain, the ferret would at least want treats or to play. Angels and Devils on the other hand were prone to bouts of unreasoning anger and would manipulate you into serving their boss… see a difference? There was one, but it was entirely philosophical, and at the end of the day you were still somebody’s dupe, pawn, or fanatic.

Then again, I served the Banker… then again, his only commandment seemed to be “Amuse me.”

“If you’re sure,” he said, shrugging. “You gave Kagetane and Reggy, Bart and Meetra second chances. Even that Bookstock git.”

“Kagetane is bound by a powerful magic to serve me… and I didn’t give him a chance. I didn’t want him around at all… but I’d be a fool to waste a useful and, for certain definitions of loyal, loyal tool. Reggy was, even at the end, trying to understand others, trying to go beyond her genetic imperative. In less than a decade she’d gone from utterly inhuman abomination to…”

“Slightly human abomination?” He asked, smugly smirking.

I acknowledged the point. “Something like that. Point is she tried to understand humanity, however poorly. She had a friend, however psychotic and fucked up that relationship was. Bart was a killer, still is, but he had a code and was killing to make the world a better place for others. He’s all kinds of messed up, but he has good in him, and I respect that. He also isn’t inflexible. He changes as inputs change. Meetra too, did what she did for the greater good, no matter how terrible, and the decision nearly ripped her apart.”

“And Bookstock?”

“Misguided and tragically human. Racist, fanatic, and cruel,” I said, looking out at the bay.

“Then why is he with us?” Zane asked, perplexed and plaintive.

“As a reminder.”

“To Elizabeth? What, that she’s still human?”

“No Zane. To me. That I’m still Human.” I didn’t turn to face him. “Zane, how many people have I killed?”

“I… don’t know. A lot… I guess,” his shadow loomed over me and I could tell he wanted to hug me; his hand hovered over my shoulder but did not fall.

“A lot… yes. I’ve killed at least a couple statistics. I also use mind control to take away the free will of enemies and, occasionally, allies. I do things I’m not proud of all the time.” I leaned on the railing and sighed, not feeling sorry for myself, but just bracing inside for what I was saying. “It would be very easy to simply say that I am allowed to do so because I am who I am and my sight penetrates farther than most and my power is greater… that’s always the justification. I have to remind myself never to fall into that trap. I do what I do because I want to.” I looked at Zane’s shadow on the water and shrugged. “Does that make sense?”

“Uh… no?” He grunted, and I chuckled dryly.

“No. It wouldn’t. It’s simple. I try not to hurt people I don’t have good reason to hurt… by my own metric of good reason. I try and help people when I can. I try not to be cruel if I don’t have to, and I always worry about the ramifications of my actions. I’m not a good person. By almost any objective outside audit, I’m probably fairly evil. Possibly very evil. My metric, at the end of the day, is trying not to do things I’ll regret later. Bookstock… he’s full of regrets. His life has been defined by them. He’s a good reminder of that. A reminder that no matter how justified I think my actions might be, justification alone should never be enough.”

I stood, and waved my hand across the bay. “This city is a weapon. All of them in them are. No. Not the guns and the bomb-bays… no. It’s a weapon of change, of enlightenment in an age that desperately needs it. It could… in fact, it’s almost certain to, produce terrible things in its labs and classrooms. The cityfleet could be turned against the nations of the ground with almost trivial ease. They could claim divine right, or manifest destiny, or any other nonsense… and I built them knowing that.”

“You wouldn’t regret that?” my partner asked, trying to figure out where I was going with this apparent non sequitur.

“Not really. I knew it going in. I knew the danger and accepted it. I weighed it against the potential for good. That was my justification, and I balanced it against the potential for regret. Comstock build Columbia for his own glorification, and damned the consequences. The unforeseen and unforeseeable shouldn’t be regretted… they should be lessons. The predictable should be accounted for. When he fired on Beijing, it was an act of hate and anger. He didn’t care about what happened next, except that those he viewed as lesser were punished for rising against their betters. When I arranged for Odessa to be nuked in the Zombie Wars… it was an act of desperation. I knew the cost was people’s lives. It was a choice I’d still make… but… for all my big words, Zane… I have so many many many regrets. I decorate my hall of accomplishments, my proudest moments… It has monuments to every one of my failures as well. Every injustice I’ve caused, every evil I’ve allowed, every child who’s died because I could not or did not save them.”

“Ah. Yes. I… see.” He gave me a soft grin. “Remember thou art mortal.”

“Always. No matter how imortal I get. Come on. Let’s get back… unless you’ve got a build to run by me?”

“Naw. I haven’t looked yet. I’ll get to it later.”

The Twins were done by the time we returned, having settled on the path of least effort. They’d taken the entire Naval line (Home in the Rigging, Stiff Upper Lip, and Iron Discipline… if only the last applied to them instead of their crews). They also snagged the Pirate skill ‘Repurpose’, a focus on turning practically anything into a weapon or warship. That was slightly worrying, but I figured it was Invidius’s price for going along with Scipio’s more militaristic bent.

“Looks acceptable. Did you pick a race?”

They blinked, and I nodded. “Great. Didn’t think so. You two are now midshipmen, fresh from the academy, on your first cruise in fact, and… Wooligans.”

“Wooligans?” they asked, then acked as one as their bodies became more sheeplike, looking very similar to the criminals in Zootopia.

“Wooligans!” I confirmed, chuckling as I wandered over to the candied nut vendor where Mini and Frankie were grabbing a snack. I draped my arms around their shoulders and gave them a squnge, telekinetically stealing a couple of almonds from the italian lass and a chestnut from the scottish one. “How’re my girls?”

“This is going to be fun!” Frankie announced, with Mini mmming and snuggling against me to ward off the cool evening air… we were at 15,000 feet, even though it was the middle of summer. We were over the mid-atlantic, heading to the Holy Land… or at least the cityfleet was.

Zane loomed like a looming loomer and asked, “Have you two been too busy snacking to actually do a build?” Mini stuck her tongue out at him and humphed.

“I call dibs on being the Bosun,” she said, handing up a scroll.

Frankie smiled. “And I get to be the Coxswain… it sounds dirty!” she purred, holding up her own report, this one in the form of a telegram form. I refrained from explaining that the Coxswain was essentially the helmsman, typically a Petty Officer significantly junior to the Boatswain, which was one of the most senior Warrant Officers… though even then they’d be junior to the Wardroom officers of Master, Lieutenants, Purser, Surgeon, and (if we had one) Chaplain… I’d read a fair amount of naval fiction over the millennia, especially over the last decade, as it had been all the rage in Columbia’s world.

Zane looked them over and chuckled, then summarized them, “What we have here, Captain, are a pair of Felinids, sisters, Academy graduates, very similar qualifications. Mimzy and Tizzy. Adooorable.” He drawled, making the pair blush a bit. “Home in the Rigging of course, Stiff Upper Lip and all that… mmm Dirty Business… that’s a bit of Piracy there… trained fighters, lethal with sword, laser-musket, general mayhem… boarding actions a specialty… rated on explosive grappling hook… could come in useful. Both were on the Academy Sunboarding Team and are impressive pilots.” They nodded happily… of course they did. They were flying aces, the best of the best, never more alive than when going way too fast on an experimental and highly dangerous craft.

“We have our own Sunboards too,” Mini said helpfully.

“Yah. But she decided to speak Fartian-”

“FLATULAN!” Mini protested, then ratted Frankie out. “She bought a Morph!” she said, pointing at the dark-haired kitten-girl, referring to the small shapeshifting pet-creatures of the setting. Long John Silver’s parrot from Treasure Island had become such a creature in Treasure Planet, and they were silly and just Frankie’s style. I shook my head as they paw-slapped at each other.

“Girls, Girls… It’s fine. One more pet won’t upset the Warehouse’s balance… I hope. And you two look very cute. Now go, find Beth and the Bookers and tell them to meet me at the restaurant for dinner. Don’t pout at me, you two. I’ll join you for dessert after.”

Zane and I went ahead to Bar Ziggy’s new location and were greeted by Not-Reggy at the door. “Ah, Welcome, welcome. Your table is ready for you, of course. Not-Kendra will be your server this evening.” It was the one slightly weird thing about the Prize Restaurant, seeing ourselves bustling about and knowing we could slide into them if we wanted to.

“Have you thought about what to buy for Astraea?” Zane asked as we got seated at the 8-top that was my usual table when I arrived for dinner.

“Well, I’ve decided she’s on extended leave from the Navy… that gets her Home in the Rigging and probably Stiff Upper Lip… she seems the type… a trained navigator and former explorer. That means getting Navigator from the Drop-In line and Funded an Expedition from the Scientist side.”

“Doesn’t the Navigator perk only worth in that weird phlogiston-like green-blue haze that fills the void in the TreasureVerse?” he asked.

“It’s called the Etherium… but no. it’s a true gift for all the arts of navigation… intuitive to the point of eschewing normal navigation aides and comes with not only the ability to hold complex multidimensional maps in memory with pinpoint accuracy, but a boost to all other spatial reasoning tasks… including, for some reason, feng shui… and are we really calling it the TreasureVerse? What if we end up in Treasure Island or… horror of Horrors… Muppet Treasure Island?”

“Well, if we end up in Muppets it would be the MuppetVerse,” he reasoned.

“And Island?”

“I dunno… that’s probably likely to be in some alternate Earth’s history… probably linked to some other fiction… like 20,000 Leagues, or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Sherlock or something. ClassicsVerse!” he said, holding up a finger triumphantly.

“You’re an idiot,” I groaned.

“Yup. But you love me… what’s Funded an Expedition?”

“Bribery. Science Bribery. Throw money at a problem type solutions. As long as she’s willing to pay, even governments can be bent to her will as long as what she’s doing is vaguely in their interest. And it keeps people bought more often than not.”

“Hey! That rhymes!”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

“I’m not Captain, you’re Captain. I’m First Mate Obvious!”

“Oh god, you’re going to call yourself that all trip, aren’t you?”

He grinned hugely, “Indeed I am, Captain Tightpants! First Mate Zachariah Obvious, reporting aboard!”

“We’re not on the ship, you can’t report aboard,” I snarked.

“So… what species are you going to inflict on our poor missing compatriot? Llama? Alpaca? Oh… oh! Capybara!”

“Why are you naming South American… the new shipment arrived for the petting zoo, didn’t it?” I rolled my eyes as he nodded happily. Giant Goofball. “No… I was thinking of a Lagardian.”

“That’s… lemmee guess… Bunny?”

“Yes… Rabbit. From Lagomorph. Very good. Tell me you’re not going to be an Alpaca-morph.”

“Nope. I’m going to be a Liskar.”

I raised one eyebrow suspiciously. “Liskar… Liskar… Basilisk?”

He grinned and tapped his nose. “Crested Basilisk lizard.”

“I think that’s more accurately called a plume. Family Corytophanidae… wait… oh… you jackass… those are Jesus Christ Lizards!”

“They are!” Zane grinned hugely as I placed my face in my hands. Jesus Christ Lizards were able to, for brief periods of time, run across the surface of water. Zane liked them because they were total spazzes. I was still banging my head against the table when the others arrived.

Beth pushed a folded slip of paper across the table to me, then turned around and departed, bumping Not-Cirno rudely out of the way. Apparently she wasn’t talking to me and wasn’t up for eating dinner with her quasi-fathers. I opened the page to find “Navy. As ordered. Stiff Upper Lip as ordered. Navigator & Repurpose from the points you so graciously left me. Galian… apparently a songbird-like species according to the almanac aboard the flying ship in the bay. I do not care what position aboard you assign me to, as I shan’t be doing it. Do not mistake me. I will not endanger the crew or whatever mission you choose to pursue… but I am not your slave and will not take orders from you. -Elizabeth DeWitt.”

I showed it to Zane, who raised his own eyebrow this time.

“Yeah. I find it singular as well that she still refers to herself as Elizabeth instead of Anna. I suspect it’s because she doesn’t feel worthy to go back to her birth name. The guilt of parricide is eating her alive and there isn’t anything I can… I will do about it.” I could, of course, do all kinds of things to her memories, but memory manipulation didn’t stick on Companions I’d found. Every time new memories were implanted, it undid whatever I’d done. Most fascinating that. The more I tried to make it stick the more confused and disoriented it made the target (Kagetane). The same held true for personality changes I tried to enforce.

Actually, it was fascinating. The constant influx of new versions of our old personalities seemed to reinforce them, engrain the more fundamental parts of ourselves. Kohina, Mini, and Frankie remained perpetual teenagers, bouncing between tween and young ladies. Gaius and Caine were always mature and contemplative. Bart, Ahab, and Joy always serious and hard edged. Our personalities were somehow slightly fixed… as if the viewing audience expected us to be a certain way and so that way we remained… or at least my companions did. This was not to say there wasn’t growth on the individual and emotional level, just that the traumas of life seemed to fade over time while the true individual was able to flourish and refine itself without the pressures of slowly fading physical glory. We were, to some extent, eternal.

I was broken out of my reverie by one of the ones I was hoping would, in fact, change at least a little. Mr Brightside… and oy had it been a pain to come up with individual nicknames for them (Everyman had become Manfred, FemmeBooker had become Ladysmith, Killer had become Mr Brightside, Coward had become Fleetwood, and if you’re sensing a musical theme there, good for you.)… had cleared his throat and was half-glowering at me. “Is there a reason we have been summoned, Lady Jumper?”

“Good lord… I don’t know who told you to call me that… but stop it. I’m SJ. Just SJ. Or Captain… or whatever name my newest persona has taken. And yes, yes… reason. I’ve decided you’re to be Navy in the next jump, which means the five of you need to agree on what to spend your 500… well… 400 CP on. Anyone who has the Naval background who doesn’t take Stiff Upper Lip is just being silly. I’ll not have such ludicrous people on my ship.” I pushed over a copy of the JumpTree for them to look at while I ordered 11 of everything on the menu.

By the time we’d finished the meal, the Bookers had (finally) decided to take Repurpose a set of Laser Muskets, and a Spacesuit for each of them. The space suits would be ridiculous… but they did double as light armor and the idea of a squad of Booker-Daddies with suped-up energy weapons was amusing. The Laser Muskets could even be plugged into the suits’ power supplies and, despite looking like black-powder weaponry, were pinpoint accurate. The suits even had their own a-grav generators, though short lasting.

“Great. Great… I have good news for you… I’ve settled on a species for you.” They looked… suspicious. “No no… you’ll love it!” I assured them, knowing that if they got the joke they’d be less than pleased. “They’re called Tatankins.” I smiled as they looked at each other and gaped as their forms shimmered and suddenly there were five bisonmorphs sitting opposite me. Manfred (the one most versed in Sioux lore) frowned.

“Tatanka means buffalo, doesn’t it?”

“It does!” I said brightly. “Get used to it. Once we get into the next world, you’re form-locked for the duration. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with two adorable kittens.” and I left them there to argue about it, pausing just long enough to tell Not-Kendra to actually present a bill to them… just to be an even bigger bitch. Doing some dishes would be good for the Bookers.

“That wasn’t nice,” Zane chided me as we left.

“I’m nice to my friends. The Bookers aren’t friends. I don’t like them.”

“Then why are we bringing them along with us?”

“Because I’ve decided that, while I have enough friends for the time being… and fully aware I’m going to be picking up what I hope will be a new friend this coming decade… what I really need is a thug squad. Kagetane has been useful often enough for me to realize that sometimes having my own squad of merciless killers that I don’t care about sending into danger can be an important tool. And having subjects to experiment on can be useful as well.”

“It’s not terrifying you saying that or anything,” he commented dryly, then vanished into the night as I headed into Toph’s side of the business, the pastry shop known as Better Than Sex… a name we got away with because we owned the city and told the community standards people of the very early 20th century to fuck off.

The next morning, over coffee and scones, with some excellent cheese brought up from Spanish merchantman who’d come steaming out to meet the City-Fleet’s shadow, I met with Uriel, Bao, and the Bosses. Uriel had spent much of the last decade as a painter, while Bao ran a tea shop that did quite respectable business, trading on the fascination of westerners for all things oriental. The Bosses had run a bookstore catering to children and those with a love of whimsy. It was one of the joys of vacation jumps that we could experiment like that, take up strange hobbies or open quixotic little businesses that served no grand purpose or design.

After perhaps 15 minutes of companionable silence, the kind that only old friends can really pull off, Bao asked, “I assume you’re interested in what we’ve decided?”

I raised an eyebrow, then gave a noncommittal shrug. “Actually, I trust you all. If you’ve made up your minds, I’ll assume you know what you’re doing. Of course, I’m interested, but you don’t actually have to run these things by me. Not for a low challenge setting like what we’re about to get ourselves into.” I took a bite of the delicate breakfast cheese and a sip of the cafe dulce, then chuckled. “Of course, if you’ve decided to be Flatulans, I’m going to tease you unmercifully.”

“No… Nothing like that,” Ahab said. “I’m a Thog… that’s a kind of warthog morph… Joy’s a Parathian… that’s a parakeet… I figured I’d be your ship’s engineer, got a space suit and Dirty Business… then realized Dirty Business wasn’t about fixing things and decided to keep it anyway.”

“He was a few sheets to the wind when he filled out his requisition form,” Joy elbowed her quasi-husband and perpetual partner in crime, “I’m the Master of Arms… unless you have someone better for the job.” There wasn’t any challenge in her voice, but I played along and looked playfully terrified.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” I said, patting your hand. “But that’s between you, Bart, and Gaius to determine. I’m sure Meetra is above such clit measuring.” I glanced over at Tea Boy. “And you? What do you plan to do aboard ship?”

“I am to be a Gilchen… that’s some kind of Chipmunk or Tree-Squirrel morph… and I was thinking of being your ship’s Surgeon, though I do hope the need for one is light.”

I shook my head, “As much as I think you’d do a bang up job as Surgeon… top drawer really… We have Brigid and, often, the Surgeon is or could be a civilian. They certainly were not usually navy trained. Might I recommend the posts of Purser or Master?”

“I… hmm… that’s the supply officer or the chief navigator, am I correct?”

“You are, indeed.”

“Very well, I shall be the Purser. Master sounds frightful, trying to do all that math. Addition, subtraction, division… much more my speed than trying to plot a path in three dimensions through an unending sea of gas and clouds.”

I nodded, jotting it down in my log… I was to be the Captain, I’d have to have a log… wouldn’t be the first time, of course (and hopefully wouldn’t be the last). “Uriel?”

“Mm.. Ah… yes… I’m an Orixian, that’s a kind of antelope-morph I guess, spiral horns, two of them… and I was hoping to be the Ship’s Carpenter… I understand that’s a rather important post on a ship made from wood?” He raised an eyebrow and I chuckled and agreed it was.

They took their leave and I turned to Zane. “Great… Moose and Squirrel… lovely. Just… Lovely.”

I thought about the ship and her potential crew. Strictly speaking, a first class ship of the line should have a crew of between 500 and 800, what with marines and ordinary sailors. One had to imagine that, with much more technology involved, the crew size in the Terran Space navy was somewhat smaller, but a ship of the line would mount upwards of 74 guns, possibly as many as 120… which should mean at least 1 crewman per gun (rather than the 5 per gun of a wetnavy). Assuming the guns were mounted in batteries controlled by a single individual, 17 officers was still barely enough to run the ship. I’d need 6 or 7 lieutenants… normally the XO, the first LT didn’t stand a watch, which meant 6 watch standers and an XO… Zane of course. I’d asked him about his purchases but he’d just chuckled ominously.

That left the need for a Purser (Bao), Surgeon (Brigid), Chaplain (Astraea… on leave), Boatswain (Mini), Carpenter (Uriel)… all of which I had… but I’d also need a Master, a Lieutenant of Marines (since the Bookers were my Marines essentially)… I didn’t really need a Master-at-Arms or a Coxswain (well, I did, but they were petty officers, not watch standers or standing officers… officers who followed the boat, not the captain, and who were usually overseen by different agencies rather than the Admiralty)… Well, it was my ship… I pegged the Master-at-Arms and Coxswain as 5th and 6th Lieutenants respectively. No reason they couldn’t be with ships as lightly crewed as that… Double duty and all that. I’m assuming that the ship could, in fact, would have to actually have a normal crew and that 35 was merely the officer allotment… after all, the RSL Legacy wasn’t a small ship and she’d had roughly 20 people on board for what was, in effect, a pleasure cruise.

Damn… I was going to have to pull rank… a bunch. I pulled up the information on Windjammer and started working things out. If I left it to the goons, things would go all pear-shaped. Wouldn’t do at all.

Captain & Commander… that was simple. Salamandra Janks, Post Captain… a Ship of the Line got a Post-Captain. No Commander or Lieutenant-Commander for my boat. No Sir! Shipshape! XO and First Lieutenant, Zedekiah Zane, Mister to you. Meetra, whatever she decided to be fell in as Second Lieutenant. Dyna could use some responsibility, so she got Third. If I was elevating a Coxswain to Sixth, I might as well maintain the natural order of the universe and make well and certain the Boatswain still outranked her, so Mini became Fourth LT. I considered making Petra the Seventh… but decided to bollox up Beth’s plans and give her some responsibility. So she became my last LT… well, I still needed a Captain of Marines and a Lieutenant of Marines… a proper detachment size for a ship this big… where I’d actually get Marines from was anyone’s guess.

I plugged in Bart as my Captain of Marines (he’d be called Major since there was only ever one Captain aboard a ship, thank you very much.) and AJ as his Lieutenant, even though AJ wasn’t Navy, he’d do fine. Brevet rank, field Commision and all that. The system notified me that Bart was a Gulorian… I had a look in the almanac and found they were a kind of wolverine-morph… a bit hunchbacked and terrifying frankly, but tough-looking and serious. AJ hadn’t picked a race as of yet. AJ would ride herd on the Bookers, who would, in turn lead my Marines if I ever found some and someplace for them to invade.

With that, my Wardroom was almost full. I just needed a Master… the Master part of Master & Commander wasn’t actually true. A Captain might be Master of the ship… but they weren’t actually the Master of the Ship… if that makes any sense at all. The Master was the chief Navigator, but also the person who was responsible for, well, the ship. All the maintenance and supply was also the Master’s purview. The Master was, well, the non-military commander. I could think of no finer Master than Gaius. I slotted him in and, baring complaints (some of which I would ignore) the Wardroom was set.

Wardroom? I hear you ask, you lubbers you. Officers were divided on a ship thusly; Wardroom Officers dined with the Captain and included the Captain, the Lieutenants, the Commissioned Marine Officers, The Master, the Purser (who paid for things and was damned well included), the Surgeon (the one who saved lives) and the Chaplain (the one who saved souls)… then Gunroom (if the ship was large enough to warrant such a thing separate from the Wardroom… the Gunroom was usually one deck above the Wardroom) where the Standing Officers (Warrants all), Cockpit Officers (Senior Seamen), and Petty Officers (including Midshipmen) ate. Gunroom/Cockpit Officers included (normally) the Boatswain (aka Bosun), the Gunner and the Carpenter among the Standing Officers; the Master’s Mates and Surgeon’s Mates among the Cockpit Officers; and the Captain’s Clerk, Middies, Armourer, Ropemaker, Caulker, Master at Arms, Sailmaker… and several senior seamen (Carpenter’s Mates, Yeoman of Sheets, Coxswain, Sergeants of Marines, Quartermasters, Armourer’s Mates, Gunner’s Mates, Yeoman of the Powder ROom, Boatswain’s Mate’s, Caulker’s Mates, Ship’s Corporal…) were all Petty Officers. And, because the Royal Navy was, at times, a bit doolally, the Cooper, a warrant officer, was listed as a Junior Petty Officer, being outranked by no less than a couple dozen Senior Seaman… then again, why the hell was a barrelmaker a warranted position, you might ask? Because it took training, of course! Any swinging Dick could Mate a Boatswain… that didn’t come out right, but never you mind… but making good barrels took skill… but no real knowledge of boats or ships or any of that rot.

However, The Royal Terran Navy was not a wet navy, and as such, had no need of a Caulker. No water meant no need to make the ship watertight. Still needed a Carpenter though… and a Sailmaker, and Armourer and Ropemaker… Probably a Cooper too. But I needed an Engineer and a Gravitics Tech… and my Sailmaker better damned well know how to make Solar Sails. The RTN was a strange mix of hyper tech and retro tech… fascinating!

I called Petra and told her she was to be my Gunner. Ahab had already volunteered to be Engineer, or I’d have put him on Guns and her in the Engine Room. Ryoga became the Armourer (a walrus-like Alasarian, looking like he’d stepped out of an incomprehensible children’s parable… but I was still the better walrus), Reggy the Ropemaker (the system ID’d her as Mr Waxsmith… everyone’s a Mr in the Navy), and Yuzuha the Sailmaker (if any knew propulsion, it was Yuzu… the system said she was a Santarian… which turned out to be a reindeer morph… I hope her nose doesn’t glow.).

Kohina I assigned as Master’s Mate… and I very much hoped he would. He and Reggy were a terrible couple and, no matter how much Kohina thought of Gaius as a father figure, he wasn’t her father and she could use a really hard shag. Lizzy got to be the Bosun’s Mate, and if she did I’d be very surprised. The Luteces became Brigid’s Surgeon’s Mates… and wouldn’t that be a threesome worthy of popped corn? RayRay became the Ship’s Corporal (essentially the Master-At-Arm’s Mate), which I had no doubt meant she’d be sleeping on duty… it was pretty much her raison d’etre. And Raven could stand some duties as the Helmsman… better known as Quartermaster (not the same as it would be in a land military, where a QM was a provisioner… QMs aboard ship were the gits what steered the boat… ie. master of quarters… or ¼ of a Master).

For Yeomen (i.e. the idiot… er… poor sods who had to count all the supplies for such things and make sure they were accounted for and in usable order) I assigned Caine (who’d commented that this was all silly and pointless and he saw no reason we should be galavanting about on pseudohistorical water ships in space), Kagetane (who bemoaned that we couldn’t be pirates), and Kendra who just wanted to relax on a beach somewhere), as Yeoman of the Sheets, Gravitics, and Guns, respectively. They’d appreciate my awesome sea in space adventure or they’d do bookwork for a decade! This was to be a working vacation! SHIPSHAPE.

THat covered the various department seconds, but I still wasn’t done… and I needed some coffee. I sent Zane to fetch it and contemplated that very act… or rather who’d be fetching me my coffee on the regular. That meant I needed a Steward. I should also have a Clark… er… Clerk… and… hmm… a Yeoman. I always wanted a Yeoman. I made Francine my Clerk… she’s good with information and not great in a fight that isn’t psionic in nature. Cirno could be my Steward… she originally was my servant after all… and… yes… yes…

“Tokimiiii-chaaaaaan?”

“Why are you leering at me?”

“I have the best offer for you!”

“I am not going to be your cabin girl.”

“Of couuurse Not,” I placated. “You get to be my Yeoman!”

“What, exactly, does a Yeoman do?”

“You bring me things when I need them, such as charts or records…”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“And you have to keep track of all my notes and schedule.”

“Also not terrible.”

“And you get a cute little uniform!”

“I will strangle you with a halyard! Come back here and die like a woman!”

Later on that night, as I lay under the stars, I contemplated the last of my crew; Toph, Yoiko, and Velma. Yoiko had decided to be an Ursid (like Silver) the moment she knew there were bearmorphs in the setting. Toph was a cephalopodian Octarian… and Velma a foxy Vulpid… and I had no idea what to do with them. I still needed a Cooper… I guess… and (speaking of Silver) a full time official Cook just to keep everyone from fighting over the Galley… and… that was it. Unless I doubled up on a Mate somewhere, I didn’t have any other positions to give out. Not that had any practical usage. I ran back through the list of jobs I’d made… then shrugged.

There was one more position that was found on a ship in the age of sail that I hadn’t mentioned… usually one hired specifically by the captain and waaaay outside the chain of command. That, of course, was the Schoolmaster. Why, you ask, would a sailing ship need a Schoolmaster? It wasn’t for the fish, shut up, you’re stupid. No… Midshipmen were often as young as 12 and even a Lieutenant had to merely ‘look’ 18… whatever that means. There was loads of education that such individuals needed… and I knew exactly the fox to provide it.

Which left Yoiko as cook (if I left Toph as cook, every meal would be baked goods)… and Toph as Cooper… maybe the many arms would help?

INSERTION

“Are you sure they’ll be here?” Zane asked for the 100th time.

“Yes Zane… Pellucid just exploded and the summoning circle snagged Arrow just as I’d planned. They’ll be here soon.” The first few days had been hectic work. We’d had to hide the Windjammer from the crew of RSL Legacy… no easy task considering how big she was… and we’d had to make certain she could break orbit rapidly if things went… sideways.

While the crew did that, I’d had to locate BEN (Captain Flint’s robotic assistant and eventual friend to Young Jim)… and study his memory systems a little, all without letting him know I was there. I shut him down completely and fabricated some new memories based on the events of the movie, then stowed him aboard Windjammer for safe keeping. Any inconsistencies would be chalked up to the little guy being, well, barmy is a polite way of saying it.

And that left one small detail… well, one large rock man detail. I had no intention of haring off to Pellucid to try and deal with a star about to go nova and then turn into a black hole… nor did I feel like swooping in and stealing Arrow the old fashioned way. Both would upset Jim and Silver’s growing relationship… but I also had no intention of letting Arrow die merely because I felt it made a better story over all. His life had meaning and value as more than a cautionary tangle. So I rigged up some magic… a summoning circle, and sent out an enchantment to find and capture the big guy, tagging him and the Legacy so that, if they were ever more than 1,000 feet apart… Arrow would be pulled through the fabric of reality and dumped… well, right where he was… which was currently in my brig, terribly confused by his not being dead and by the fact that he’d somehow been locked up with people who refused to talk to him.

I’d explained that we’d found him and assumed he was guilty of desertion and we’d return him to Admiralty House as soon as practicable, but for now he was under arrest until his ship could be found and his status accounted for. I also implied that he’d merely appeared on the planet we were survey, babbling incoherently about a black hole. After all, no one could prove they weren’t wormholes between two random parts of space, now could they?

“Here they come”, Dyna announced a few days later as Legacy entered the upper atmosphere, her deck guns blazing as they tried to take out one of her own long boats.

“Action stations,” I announced, and my crew melted into the forest surrounding BEN’s home… I’d known the longboats would both end up in close proximity to it, so it was as good a place to set up base as possible… and we waited. One by one, the players entered the scene… and were subdued with tranquilizer rounds. All except Morph, since I had no idea how to tranq a Morph… all experiments on our Morph had produced was burping. I also had no idea how to telepath with a Morph, but they were simple creatures and I stuffed their Morph into a bag and that bag into a chest.

“Mr. Zane… would you kindly watch over our friends here, I have to go kill Scroop and get the sphere.” And that’s what I did. I knew the murderous spider-crab (and the orb) were still aboard Legacy and so I headed up there and dropped him right over side. He feel quite a long way before going splat. Then, sphere in hand, I landed again and opened the portal to Montresor, just to verify I could… I didn’t leave it open… trust no one not to be an idiot… and headed back to the unconscious few… I had some thinking to do.

Oh. no… not thinking as in consideration. I’d already figured out exactly what I was going to do… no… no, this was thinking on a totally different scale. I pulled Jim and Silver into my Mind Palace, into the recreation of Treasure Planet I’d crafted in one of the halls… and ran them through the triggering of Flint’s booby-trap and the destruction of all that treasure and the entire planet. Doppler got a memory implant of saving the day by piloting the ship, while the others got memories to match to fill in the gaps. Even those who’d died in the film. I wasn’t going to kill them just to cover up the biggest theft ever, but they didn’t have to actually have experienced it… not the way Jim and Silver did.

Once everyone was convinced of what had happened… I stuffed some treasure into Silver’s pocket… we’d spent the downtime disabling the booby trap… then removing the bombs so they couldn’t accidentally go off, then securing BEN’s memory chip and… tinkering with it a bit… We loaded everyone aboard the Legacy and banged her up a bit… then sent her through the gate to Montresor.

The only difference between events was that Amelia hadn’t been as badly injured (she had been, but we’d patched her up, just leaving a banged up arm that meant she couldn’t stare, nothing that incapacitated her and left her vulnerable to Doppler’s idiotic and entirely accidental flirting)… and as such hadn’t fallen for the Doctor, though they were friends, of course.

After they were gone, I chortled with glee and had my companions finish removing all the treasure from Flint’s storehouse, dumping much of it into the hold of Windjammer and vast majority into the deposit slot that was all I could open of the Warehouse. It even had Banking Hours on it. Cute.

Then, just to be certain, I dropped the sphere into the slot as well. I’d scrambled the memories of all who’d been here who weren’t one of mine, so they couldn’t get back… I still had plans for the planet itself… though it could use a fair bit of polish.

As we pulled out of her gravity well, I pointed my wand back at the planet and whispered “Reducio”… and poured my will into it, watching as the massive machine disguised as a planet shrank. “Come about Mr. Minimus, and prepare to recieve cargo.” The planet had been shrunk from its normal size to a sphere a little over 3 feet across, it’s massive rings having shrunk with it. As we approached, I tapped the deck with my boot and the portal to the sealed warehouse irised open.

“Warning, deposit exceeds the size of slot.” a voice said.

“Pishtosh and nonsense,” I said, typing in the number of the storage container I wanted the planetoid routed to. “It’s just another spaceship, and this one has a crew of zero.”

The Banker’s voice sounded pained as he said, “It also has an unlimited range instantaneous portal generator.”

“Of course it does! Ice Star One needs a delivery system. Now open up or I’ll have to get creative. Deposits only, that was the deal, now accept my deposit!” After a few moments, the slot expanded and I had the distinct feeling that the Banker was feeling like I’d pulled a fast one on him… but that’s only because I had. Jackass had it coming. I had a feeling I was going to pay for that… but then again, he was going to pull shit anyway, so it wasn’t like the payback wasn’t coming regardless. Might as well earn it this time.

“Alrighty then, Cats and Kittens, Let’s get to Montresor and see if we can run into the heroes of the hour. SHIPSHAPE, Boys and Girls!” And with that, the adventure began.

A TIME OF PEACE

The Empire, based on England of course, has been at war with the raccoon-like Procyons for centuries. That much is known. Thus, the plethora of second hand naval vessels as the two powers build ever more impressive ships and maneuver in and around each other, seeking allies and resources and trying to gain a definitive advantage. Officers rise in ranks only to see themselves beached as the tides of war ebb and flow, and the Academy is always searching for new officers. Which is why Amelia sent Jim to the Academy.

But while Jim was learning the ways of the spacer, I was making a name for myself, hunting Procyon Privateers, pirates in all but name, operating under letters of mark and allowed to raid Terran shipping for profit… at their peril.

As I’d expected, getting enough crew to run Windjammer was as simple as filing paperwork at Admiralty House and explaining where we’d been (slight trouble during our shakedown cruise)… and we managed to collect our back pay… and reunite Amelia with Arrow.

“Ah. The redoubtable Amelia Smollet,” I said with a slight smirk, “I’ve heard much of you, Captain.” We’d never met, as I was younger than her by almost a decade, though my rise through the ranks had been both meteoric and the product of family connections, while hers had been by dint of hard work and iron discipline. That I deserved my awards (as far as she, or anyone else round these parts, knew) was beside the point. The Terran Navy was as much a product of its society as the British Navy had been.

“And I, you, Janks,” she replied with a nod, wondering (no doubt) why she’d been called to Admiralty House on such short notice only a month after having returned from Treasure Planet.

“Please, call me Salamandra. No need to stand on formality between equals,” I allowed (though I was senior, a Captain of the Red while she was a Captain of the Green, it was close enough to be true and I offered my hand.) “I happened to be in the Rostinian Cluster a month back and picked up something I believe you might have misplaced.”

She raised one of her adorable eyebrows, then gasped as Mr. Arrow, new hat in hand, loomed out of the door and I could tell it was all either could do not to embrace, so great was their pleasure at encountering each other once again. “How is this possible?” the amazed (and ever so slightly overcome) Felinid asked, eyes taking in the length and breadth of her second officer, hand itching to reach out and feel for herself that he lived.

“I cannot rightly say as I can explain it myself, ma’am,” he said slowly. “That blackheart Scroop cut my lifeline and I felt myself falling into the star… and the next thing I knew I was crashing into Captain Janks’s landing party and making a damned fool of myself. She quite rightly clapped me in irons until I could explain myself, and once that was accomplished, was kind enough to repatriate me.”

“I was heading this way myself, as Windjammer’s shakedown had gone a bit pear-shaped and we’d stayed out far too long with only a skeleton crew,” I allowed, “But come. Let us not stand around in the midday sun. Allow me to treat the pair of you to tea at Blackburn’s and then we can sup at Bar Ziggy and you two can tell me all about this voyage of yours and I can regale you with the madcap lunacy of 40 odd officers with no able seamen to command trying not to perish in the wilds of the Etherium.” And so we did.

“And that’s when my doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four unless there were three other people present!” Arrow said, a little boisterous now that drink was in him, but it was a good natured camaraderie and I motioned for Amelia to take his other arm and we hoisted the large fellow to his feet.

“Where are you staying, Amelia?”

“I hadn’t thought to make arrangements, as I was uncertain as to why I’d been summoned. I had hoped…” she trailed off. She was Navy through and through and, of course, had been hoping that the Admiralty had elected to give her a new ship. Being beached was a terrible thing, but politics were politics.

“Ah, well, you must join me at my hotel,” I said, summoning my ride, complete with armed guards of course.

“Ah… I had heard…” She began, then politeness reasserted itself and she tried to demure. “I couldn’t impose.”

“Tosh! Nonsense. When I say my hotel, I do not mean the hotel I stay at. I mean the hotel I am part owner of. No no. I’ll hear no complaints. I owe you for the use of your Executive Officer and I shall accept nothing besides a Yes Captain Janks from you.”

She smiled wanly, “If you insist, though it is I who owe you for returning my… friend.”

“Think nothing of it. Any Terran would have done likewise. And it sounds like you had quite the adventure. Shame that Silver fellow escaped. Still, I doubt we’ve seen the last of him.”

As we arrived back at the apartment building that had come with the restaurant and which I’d converted into a hotel with minimal effort, I invited the good Captain up to my penthouse for port and we talked into the night of the war effort, and I mentioned that I’d spoken with the Queen on Friday last and convinced her that, amid my madcap descriptions of using flamingos as croquet mallets (which I’d demonstrated by leaping, in full regalia, onto the dining table and potting the salt-cellar off a suit of armor and an antique vase then into the soup tureen I’d had one of her maj’s footmen place down the hall), what the Empire needed was a Flotilla dedicated full time to hunting pirates and privateers… and that, if she so commanded, I’d put together such a fleet, funding her completely with my own family resources. All her Maj’s government need do would be to supply the ships and sailors… and as many beached officers as she could afford to spare.

The Queen, a cunning old bird, cocked an eyebrow, “Why, Captain… is this your way of suggesting I should jump you in rank to Admiral?”

“Not in the slightest ma’am,” I said with an airy wave. “An aristocrat, even one as degenerate and outlandish as myself? The Commons would have a field day! Say I paid for my rank. No no… I’d be the Commodore, but my seniority on the List would be unchanged. I’ll make Admiral the old-fashioned way… bribe some old timer to retire to the country to avoid scandal.”

She laughed, “And your own scandals, dear?”

“The press has called me queer a time or three, but so what of it?” I shrugged, “I’ve never denied my predilections, so no one can possibly blackmail me with them. And my lovers aren’t married, though their fathers might object, of course.”

“I think, rather, that the marriage issue may be at the heart of it, Captain,” The Queen said archly.

“If her majesty wishes the church to extend the definition of marriage to include a Captain and her… cabingirls… Well then, I for one would not object, but I doubt the general public is ready for such sweeping changes.”

“Nor for the way you so casually flaunt regulations,” she tisked. “Sleeping with your junior officers! Scandalous!”

“I believe her majesty is envious,” I smirked.

“You did not smirk at her majesty!” Amelia gasped.

“I did!” I assured her as we leaned on the balcony railing, looking out over the Imperial Capital.

“Surely not! Nor did you suggest her majesty might share your… your… preferences.”

“I did that too!” I sipped the fine port and shrugged. “I’m not ashamed of being what I am or loving whom I love. Or who I sleep with even when it isn’t love. I seldom get complaints… except when I leave… and you, anyone special? I saw a picture of you with that Alponian in the post… Doctor Doppler?”

“Ah… hmmm… No… no… just good friends.”

“Well then…” I began, but she glowered at me and I chuckled, “Not what I was going to suggest.”

“Oh?” She asked, archly. “Do, correct my misapprehension.”

“While I would have no qualms about opening my bed to you, Captain, my intentions here are far more in the line of duty. Would you consider being my senior division captain?”

She opened her mouth, then snapped it closed. After a very long silence, she nodded slowly. “I’d be, of course, honored to be considered, but I am uncertain where duty lies. This Flotilla… it seems, perhaps, a touch mercenary. What will Parliament think?”

“No fear. This is entirely above board. Parliament will have their usual oversight, and this will be entirely within the navy’s purview. All my family is doing is covering the Navy’s shortfall, paying for the retrofitting and provisioning. We all want to avoid appearances of an Eastern Expanse Company resurgence.”

She shuddered at that… the Eastern Expanse Company had, at one point, had a fleet larger than any nation in the Etherium and had begun acting decidedly… nationalistic in their sphere of influence. They’d had to be dismantled… forcefully, and their assets seized by the state when it became clear that they were getting out of control. Private militaries were never a good thing, as they had to be supported, and that meant someone was going to be picking up the cheque… which meant using that military to make a profit.

Finally she nodded, “If the order comes through official channels, I shall, of course accept… and thank you.” She put a hand on mine and squeezed lightly. “I… it’s an honor to be asked. What was that about retrofitting?”

“Ah… yes… Thought you might have missed that,” I smirked, eyes dancing merrily. “My factors have been buying up naval ships that have been cleared for sale to the civilian market and transforming them into Q-Ships… and installing all new hulls.”

“New Hulls?”

“Indeed. Double hulls in fact. A smaller vessel, clad in titanium ceramic, will sit down into a merchant cargo hull, clad the traditional way. Cargo spaces will wrap entirely around the smaller ship, excepting the engines… the outer hull will have station keeping drives, but can be jettisoned to allow the fighting vessel to clear the bulk. Other ships are being fitted with oversized ship bays to hold smaller attack pinnaces. We’ll have 6 of the Q-Ships and 2 of the… we’re calling them Carriers.”

“Carriers?” She frowned adorably and I wanted to boop the snoot, but refrained, “Seems a bit… on the nose.” I had to fight to keep from laughing out loud, but couldn’t quite hide my smirk.

I shrugged, “Indeed. But what can one do with engineers. Windjammer is being rerigged to appear to be a trade galleon, and I think we can secure Invincible for you… if not, then Courageous.”

We talked into the night before she took her leave and was gone from her room by the time I woke the next morning. We’d not see each other for two months as I had politics to attend to be, but she brought her new ship, which was, indeed, the old Courageous, still fresh from the dockyard where her military rigging had been replaced with civilian rigging and her gunports disguised with light plywood covers painted to look like unbroken civilian hull, as if her once proud gundeck had been converted to a cargo hold.

Of course, it was all a sham as the pirates and privateers, not just of the Procyons but also the Proteans and the Dalmatans and even the break-away-colonials of the far flown (but not as far as it had once been) Terran Empire were to discover. Within the year, we had, through accumulation of Prize Money, all become quite rich and the initial investment had been paid back several times over.

The war itself began to heat up over the next couple years… and then, just as Jim was graduating from the Academy… the Procyons sued for peace… and to that end, they sent a negotiator to the capital… and a fleet of ships to protect Evar, their negotiator.

It was all very suspicious… extremely so… and more suspicious were the number of ships that had simply been vanishing from the edges of explored space. Rumors of metal ships, ironclads, were floating about, and had to be investigated. But at the same, I didn’t trust the Procyon or their intentions. And so Amelia (now an Admiral in her own right, with Mr. Hawkins as her Flag Lieutenant) was dispatched to deal with the rumors while I wormed my way into the negotiations. I’m excellent at that, since people tend to overlook the fact that I have absolutely no business hanging out in the halls of power.

Evar’s mind was curiously scattered, full of suspicious thoughts, but too much of his thoughts were opaque to me, as were the thoughts of many in this strange world… too many aliens… far more than I’d ever encountered in any previous setting… too many thought patterns I had to muddle my way through. But something was definitely up among the Procyon contingent and that knowledge was enough to convince me to have my people standing ready.

The Procyon, of course, were plotting something. An Alpha Strike against the Imperial Capital and a snatch and grab of the Queen, a one-two punch that they believed would have decapitated the Royal Navy and the Terran Empire’s ability to fight back. They hadn’t counted on sabotage to the drives and sails of every one of their craft, or the sheer number of hyper-competent assassins and bodyguards the Queen had at her (unknowing) disposal.

They very much weren’t expecting my entire fleet to drop out of nowhere and surround their crippled fleet, nor were the agents sent to take out Her Majesty expecting to face me. The laser carbine ripping my leg off barely slowed me down as I carved my way through the attackers while Ziggy literally sat on the Queen and soaked up round after round after round aimed his way. Within moments we’d recreated the dining room scene from ‘The Honor of the Queen’, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. Giving up my durability, armor, and nanites might not have been the best idea… but unlike Honor Harrington, I could regenerate… Hadn’t given that up, had I? I had not. As I slumped against the wall, wrenching my swordbelt tight around the stump of my thigh, fighting against darkness and cursing like a sailor at the quite astounding level of pain, I heard the rest of the palace guard slaughtering the last of the Procyon Marines and I patted Ziggy’s head.

“Good boy, Good Ziggy,” I crooned as he whimpered softly. He’d taken a dozen shots and, no matter how big or tough he might have been, he was still flesh and blood and the medbay of Windjammer was quite some miles distant. There was little I could do… not the least because of the copious amount of my own blood I’d splattered the walls and floor of the hall with. I closed my eyes, just for a second…

And woke up in hospital at least 16 hours later, as it was early morning. My head hurt atrociously, I was dizzy as blazes, and I couldn’t get my left eye to focus. I tried to sit up, but the Queen tisked “Admiral Janks, you are not to move so much as a whisker until the doctor comes and confirms that you can do so without injuring yourself. Am I clear?”

I managed to get out, “Yes ma’am. Apologies for not saluting.”

“You should be apologizing for bleeding all over my rug… or having that pet of yours attempt to smother me. Parliament is appalled, appalled and pleased, of course, but appalled nonetheless. They’ve never had to consider giving the Terran Cross to a wild animal before… and now the Palace Guard are wondering where they can get some of whatever Ziggy is.”

“Ferrovis Minor… Ironwood Ferrovian… hard to train, dumb as rocks… but loyal and true… how is he?”

“Cranky. Fifteen shots had to be removed and he has 9 broken bones, three of which had to be set with pins… and one of his eyes is gone I’m afraid.”

I swore, then rolled my head to look at the Queen… thankfully on my right side. “And the Procyon?”

“Caught redhanded, the Interstellar community has turned against them. The ironclad menace has been confirmed to be theirs as well. If you’re well enough to travel, we’ll be leaving for Procyon itself in a week… with half the fleet. This war has gone on too long.”

“Palace Guard?” I asked, and the Queen snorted.

“Admiral, all this stiff upper lip is very commendable, but stop changing the subject and ask about yourself.”

“Un…” I licked my lips… very dry. I croaked, “Water?” The Queen helped me take a sip through a straw and I nodded when I’d had enough. “Unimportant. I’ll recover, or I won’t. My fleet? Did we captain the Procyon fleet?”

“We did. Minor resistance. A few casualties… Someone named Sergeant Ladysmith and a Lieutenant Vord were killed in a boarding action, along with their squad when the Captain blew his own ship rather than surrender it… but the other raccoons were more reasonable. Now, are you going to ask about your own injuries or am I going to have to glower at you in a regal fashion?”

“If it please Her Majesty, how bad is it?”

“You’ve lost a leg, which you must have known, since you applied the tourniquet yourself… and an ear. Shot grazed your skull, creased it a bit in fact… and three fingers on your left hand were shattered too far to be repaired. It’s astounding you kept fighting as long as you did… and the doctors say you’re healing faster than they expected.”

“G… good breeding,” I said, then allowed as I might like a little more water.

Eleven weeks later, there was a general celebration as we sailed back to Terra, the peace treaty signed and approved by both the Procyon General Assembly and Parliament. The Procyon navy was to be stripped of all ships-of-the-line and they’d been forced to turn over their plans for the new Ironclads and their Ether-Steam Drives.

I was removed from active command and given command of Bu-Ships, tasked to convert the entire navy over to the new designs and work out the practical aspects they implied. Once again, the age of Tail Ships was coming to an end, and there was a general sense of sadness at that fact, but it was a big Etherium and I doubted they’d ever really go completely out of fashion.

With the end of the War, the Terran Navy began to downsize from its war footing, retasking itself for the needs of a peacetime navy and the merchant marine swelled dramatically as resources that had been set aside for the war became available for trade once more and the massive ships of the navy began to circulate into civilian hands, their guns practically the only thing worth salvaging for the new ships.

Of course, Janks Industries got much of the contracting work. Yes, yes, it was terribly unfair of me to pick my own company, but I had less retooling to do and had the best technicians and researchers and metallurgists around. Then again, I wasn’t making a profit. In fact, each ship was costing me a fair pence, but the crown was not to know that and neither was the public. On paper, I was making a fortune.

And then, halfway through the ninth year…

“We’re Pregnaaaaant!” Mini and Frankie dropped that bombshell at dinner one autumn day.

I paused, a slice of roast thing halfway to my mouth, and blinked. “Collectively, or…”

“Mini and Me!” Frankie said, throwing an olive at me. It bounced off my nose and rolled under the table to where Ziggy was napping. He snorted at it, but it remained, indignantly, an olive.

“How, in the name of the great expanse did you two end up pregnant?” I asked, still not quite processing this.

“Well, when a shapeshifter and a mommy love each other very much…” Frankie began, but Mini elbowed her “We planned it!”

Cirno gasped “Hey! No fair!”

“Yes,” Velma drawled. “You really should have consulted us as well.”

I gaped at the tone of accusation in the redhead’s tone. “They didn’t even consult me! I thought you didn’t want children!”

Velma shrugged, “I was operating under the assumption that such an option was off the table.”

“So was I!” I said defensively. “How is this possible?” They all looked blankly at me… I opened the way to the Warehouse. “BANKER? Explain!”

The bricks of the wall shifted position, until they spelled out, “There was insufficient desire beforehand. That is no longer the case.”

I blanched, then sputtered, “So… the Protection against Pregnancy option you let me toggle on after the Jason incident is effective only against unwanted pregnancy… got it… good to know… frankly amazed this hasn’t… wait… did that mean Reggy wanted children?”

The Wall said “Err… No… that was simply because she hadn’t been in the presence of the Warehouse’s ambient enchantments and their protection waned. Apologies. That was unintentional.

I swore… muchly, “Cirno, you don’t actually want kids do you? You’d have to be a responsible adult… never mind… fairy… this is going to… I’m going to wring your brat necks.” I glowered at the pair who’d decided, unilaterally, to complicate things to a massive degree. “Yoiko?”

She was waving her hand frantically as if she was a schoolgirl and was trying to get the teacher’s attention. I looked at her with my only remaining eyebrow raised and she dimpled, then asked, “When’s my turn?”

I rolled my eyes, ignoring the question, then glanced over at the only full-time male at the table “Ryoga?”

He shook his head frantically, “I’m good. Thanks. No pregnancies for me. Really.” he seemed almost panicky… boys… I knew exactly how he felt. Craaap…

Next: Unto Us is Given

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WINDJAMMER

  1. Captain
    1. Post Captain Salamandra Janks
  2. Senior Wardroom Officers (1-8) 8 Navy
    1. First Lieutenant / Executive Officer: Zane the Liskar
    2. Second Lieutenant / Watchstander: Meetra the Barsonian
    3. Third Lieutenant / Watchstander: Dyna the Cymian
    4. Fourth Lieutenant / Watchstander & Boatswain: Mini the Felind
    5. Fifth Lieutenant / Watchstander & Master-at-Arms: Joy the Parathian
    6. Sixth Lieutenant / Watchstander & Coxswain: Frankie the Felinid
    7. Seventh Lieutenant / Watchstander: Beth the Galian
    8. Master (Warrant): Gaius the Human
    9. Captain of Marines (Commissioned): Bart the Gulorian
  3. Junior Wardroom Officers
    1. Lieutenant of Marines (Commissioned): AJ the Myarian
    2. Purser (Warrant): Bao the Gilchen
    3. Surgeon (Warrant): Brigid the Human
    4. Chaplain (Warrant): Astraea the Lagardian
  4. Standing Officers
    1. Gunner (Warrant): Petra the Gargantuan
    2. Carpenter (Warrant): Uriel the Orixian
    3. Engineer (Warrant): Ahab the Thog
  5. Cockpit Mates & Senior Petty Officers
    1. Master’s Mate (Seaman): Kohina the Corian
    2. Surgeon’s Mates (Seaman): Rosalind & Robert the Reesians
    3. Midshipmen (Commissioned): Mr. Vord & Mr. Gaius the Wooligans
    4. Captain’s Clerk (Commissioned): Francine the Ool
    5. Armourer (Warrant): Ryoga the Alasarian
    6. Ropemaker (Warrant): Reggy Waxsmith the Charmeloid
    7. Sailmaker (Warrant): Yuzuha the Santarian
  6. Junior Petty Officers
    1. Bosun’s Mate (Seaman): Lizzy the Jarbill
    2. Schoolmaster (Civilian): Velma the Vulpid
    3. Yeoman of the Sheets (Seaman): Caine the Pikelian
    4. Yeoman of the Gravitics (Seaman): Kagetane the the Calamarian
    5. Yeoman of the Guns (Seaman): Kendra the Chanticlarian
    6. Sergeants of Marines: Manfred, Ladysmith, Mr Brightside, Fleetwood, & Bookstock the Tatankins
    7. Ship’s Corporal (Seaman): RayRay the Kaarian
    8. Quartermaster (Seaman): Raven the Salamid
    9. Cooper (Warrant): Toph the Octarian
    10. Cook (Seaman): Yoiko the Ursid
    11. Captain’s Steward (Seaman): Cirno the Musashian
    12. Captain’s Yeoman (Seaman): Tokimi the Martenid

 

World 57 Again: Bioshock Infinite

ROOM AT THE TOP

Previously: Three by Three Stars of Brie

Themesong: Unstoppable by Sia

I groaned… why was I lying on the floor? Why did my head hurt so much? I felt wetness on my face and, raising my hand to it, found that my nose was bleeding. That didn’t seem right… why was… the air in front of me was shimmering, showing an impossible sight. Wolfmen and… and… mosquito-like men were fighting women with animalistic features and strange people I thought I should know but I didn’t… some of them had bits of weapons sticking out of them and everyone was glowing oddly… and right down the middle of this monochrome vision was a hideous crack. Nothing was moving. Everything was still. Everything… I reached out, seeking understanding… and the rift collapsed. There was a flare of pain at the tip of my finger and, looking at it, I saw that the tip of my finger had been shaved clean off.  

The cut was unnatural, shimmering unwholesomely and I would have thought more about it… but a rift opened at that moment and a young woman tumbled out of it, followed by four men who all looked similar to each other, but different.

“W… we got here… time?” the girl asked me, and I blinked in confusion.

“In time for what?”

“What year is it?”

I checked my memory, then shrugged. I was pretty certain it was 1912, and I said so.

“Oh… good. Are you her?”

“Am I?” I asked, looking down at myself and patting my chest with my non-blood covered hand. “I seem to be. Her who?”

“The one who took my other self from the city under the sea, the girl who looked strangely familiar asked.

I blinked again, then looked at the other four. Three of them were close enough in appearance to be triplets, though ones who’d lived very different lives. The fourth was clearly their sister… and yet, that wasn’t right. I clutched my head as pain washed through it and I groaned. I knew that face… knew… something… something was… I just needed to… to reach out for the memory… what was memory… what, where was I?

Columbia! I was… was in Columbia… was that right? It seemed wrong.

~IT IS WRONG.~ A voice said inside my head and I screamed.

“Too… too loud… too loud… loud loud,” I muttered, ignoring the looks between the four who were one who were… this was wrong.

~You have forgotten yourself.~ The voice said again, and in the eye of my mind, I beheld a vast palace of ice… and an egg in the center of a courtyard… an egg blazing with white wings… wings of vapor… and a huge crack down the front of that egg, a crack I’d seen… seen… ~You are not this existence. You are she who transcends worlds. She who stood on the sands of time and did not flinch away from eternity.~

I groaned, flashes of imagery flooding from that crack, illuminating the darkness that had swallowed the vast palace of ice. So many doors, so many… and all covered in ice, unable to open. “W… what happened?”

The girl opened her mouth, but I waved her away… though I sensed she was older than me… and yet not… I was 17… how could she be younger? She looked older… but the voice… the voice…

~I am the voice of Rhapsody, that which was called Atura in another Age and Place and Time. I am that which is yet to be born. Disharmony has caused a crack in who you are. You must remember.~

“I… I can’t… to… to much… too much… so much… remember what?”

~I do not know. I have missed much, I sense, since I entered this gestation… But you are not this child of Columbia. You are not a lost Lamb.~

The word Lamb echoed, echoed, echoed across my mind, my awareness… and I knew that word. “E… Elizabeth is the Lamb… She will sit the Throne of the Prophet and… and Drown in fire the mountains of… of…” I wrenched myself away from the girl, eyes widening. “Elizabeth Comstock!” I pointed my finger at her, gasping. “I… I know you… know… know you… do you want some gum?”

I blinked as she blinked. Neither of us knew where that came from, but somehow I knew I could get gum, and I reached… between words and… and there was gum. It was called Juicy Fruit. I’d opened a Tear in… in the fabric of probability… I didn’t know how I knew that was what they were called, but that was what it was.

She took the packet of gum and nodded. “She’s the one.”

“I…” I looked around the room. It was my room, in my family’s house. There were books and drawings of an engineering nature, including a treatise by Rosalind Lutece on the Lutece Field sitting open and a small device I’d built based on the… based on the… n… no… I… I hadn’t built that device… I… I hadn’t been… this was wrong… not right. “I think so. This… this doesn’t…”

~Place your hand against the wall and think this thought,~ the voice of the egg said, and I did so, trusting it somehow. The thought was incredibly complex, a kind of mental password, but it came easily to me and the wall flowered open to reveal… a Warehouse? It was! It was some kind of incredibly futuristic warehouse.

A butler, obviously inhuman, bowed. “Welcome, Mistress. I see you have a new form.”

“I… yes… umm… do I know you?”

“Ah. You seem to be confused. Please, come this way.”

I followed, leaving the others to follow me through, but they ran into an invisible wall. I blinked, looking at the mechanical man. “They cannot come in?”

“It is possible your mind has been tampered with, Mistress. Your own instructions, should you arrive without memories, are to show you to the medbay for a complete evaluation.” I nodded… that… made a certain amount of sense. I didn’t know where this place was… it certainly wasn’t in my parents bedroom, the bedroom that lay beyond the wall I’d opened this… portal through… but it also wasn’t monochrome like the place I’d seen through the rift… the Tear.

I followed the butler into this ‘medbay’ and found myself looking at technology far far in advance of that which had built Columbia… and a recording of a face that looked… familiar. “Hello, Me. If you’re viewing this, then I can assume you’ve reached Columbia, almost certainly through a Tear, and have had some or all of your memories altered, damaged, or erased. This is not unexpected. Please place your head into the scary looking device that looks like this.” It was scary looking. “You will not be damaged by this process. We have tested it on ourselves before.”

I tilted my head, then wondered why I believed her, but the voice of the egg said I could. I stepped under the device and it clamped down slowly and carefully around my head. I felt… nausea… terrible pressing… and then a flood of information poured into my mind… it was sooo very very much… I flinched, but the machine held me fast and the torrent then slowed and stopped after several moments.

I remembered… there was a… I was a… The data was incomplete. There were doors inside my mind that had not opened, but there was one called “Origin” and one called “Rapture” and one called “Infamous” and one called “Tenchi”… an a litany of powers and abilities that went on and on and on… and… I had to sit down and breath.

“When you are ready, the Mistress anticipated that you would want to speak to the Bankers. I have brought you some tea and a soothing agent.” I took the tea, and marveled as a flood of memories, not many in the grand scheme of things, just about 70 of them… conversations and interactions with a being called The Banker, and a second called Mensarius… and a place called ‘The Arcade.’

The me of the recording said, “There are more memories that we recorded, and many more that cannot be transcribed, but the assumption is that either your, our, memories are being suppressed or have been somehow damaged. We have experienced something similar before and took steps to ameliorate it should it happen again. We updated this particular memory package so that you, we, would, if possible, be able to carry out the plan should the Nature of the Bioshock Universe assert itself strongly enough to… do what it has clearly done. Good Luck. The rest of your memories will probably return at the end of the decade, or whenever this world crumbles into nothingness.”

What a lovely thought, I thought as the memories that were very clearly mine fit neatly together.  Some seemed strained, others incomplete, but I understood what the me of the past had been planning. Now it seemed I needed to speak to the Bankers… but first, I checked on the contents of two crystalline tubes… no… Cryotubes… noo… one was a Cryotube… it contained a middle aged man… a Booker… Booker-Zachary-Booker Comstock-DeWitt… Bookstock… the repentant Prophet… the other was… was a Chronotube?  Was that right?

Why had the other me, the previous me… why had we put this woman into a place where no time passed… I blinked as the information flooded through me… ah… because otherwise she’d escape a meeting that the other me had planned… I had a complete set of instructions that I’d written to myself. And I had only a few hours to set things rolling if my knowledge of events was any indication. It would all begin at the festival… the lottery was only 2 hours away and if I didn’t find Booker there, it was entirely possible I was in the wrong reality. Such confusing concepts.

I left the prisoners where they were and walked where these strange new-old memories were directing me, towards ‘The Arcade’. The door opened as I approached and I entered to find two dapper fellows (one seeming quite untrustworthy, the other frightfully naive) lounging in a strangely circular office.

“I told me to come talk to you,” I began without preamble. “Can you explain what is going on?”

“Err…” said the one behind the desk.

“That is…” said the one on the couch. They looked at each other and then both of them shook their heads.

“Somehow, and we’re not quite certain exactly what happened, you got angry enough to cause a crack in… er… your soul… well, part of it. Your Witch Soul… from the previous setting…” the naive deskman said.

“Except it appears your Witch Soul was also that Egg thing that’s been gathering mental cobwebs for centuries inside you,” the snarky one explained unhelpfully.

“Err… that’s right… and it, that is to say you, ummm… cracked reality? Maybe? It could have been something to do with having that woman in your chronostasis tube…”

“Yes, that tube that you’ve powered with a big of your own power,” unpleasant man continued. “They caused a shunt which threw you into your previous reality before you had finished the one you were in!”

“Now now… I think part of it is that we’d just managed to patch the inconsistency in having two… er… now it seems three… of the same person in the same reality at the same time.”

“So the… Elizabeth in my bedroom is the same as the Elizabeth in the tower who is the same Elizabeth as the one in my medbay?” I asked, confused. “And why are there four Bookers with her? And how is there a female Booker?”

“Two of those statements are essentially correct. The third is less so,” Deskman… The Banker… we called him the Banker… and the other was… was… Asshole McFuckface? That didn’t seem logical… but the Banker was talking again. “The Elizabeth in the tower unrescued and the Elizabeth in your tube are the same entity, they are Elizabeth Prime at two different points along her temporal axis… and the reason we had such trouble connecting the sub-reality of Columbia with the sub-reality of Rapture. Two of the same being can destabilize a reality, especially since possibilities exist here and now that mean if you change things too much, the Elizabeth you have might be changed… as, I believe, is your intent.”

“The third Elizabeth is our work around,” the one with the horrible name explained as if speaking to a very small child. “We located a reality in which the Comstock lifeform told his wife about the origin of the child thanks to that paired reality’s Booker lifeform saying “My Annabelle would have wanted Anna to raised in a nice place… Is your home nice, Mr Comstock? It should be a place of laughter and happiness”.”

“Then how did she get…” I waved my hand, pinky extended.

“She reached back for her father right as the Rift closed. The damage was lesser,” The Banker explained. “It is on par with yours… though that was unintentional. Our intention was to allow you to survive the shifting worlds of this place, since the storyline’s resolution should result in the non-existence of Columbia very shortly. As long as you remain with Elizabella, let us call her, you will be shifted to the reality where Elizabeth Prime is.”

“And the Bookers?”

“That was my idea,” Snarky McClownshoes… clownshoes? His shoes looked normal… why was I thinking such mean things about this… wretched horrible… perfectly unpleasant but harmless… haaa! Harmless!… man. “I found these dregs as we searched realities. One’s from a parallel where Booker was born female. She pretended to be a man to join the military and was more concerned with protecting that image than worrying about being called an Indian. No Anna, no Comstock. One’s from a parallel where Booker never regretted his actions at Wounded Knife.”

“Knee.”

“Irrelevant. He viewed what happened as necessary and did not look back. No Comstock. The third was unable to face the taunting of his fellow thugs and brutes and deserted prior to the battle. No Comstock. The last accepted his heritage as part native american and was unashamed of it. No Booker specific atrocities, No Comstock.”

“So you’ve rounded up… wait… are these idiots companions?”

“If you want them to be,” The Banker said, “We used part of the Matrix to solidify them into this time and place to assist you, as your other companions are all back in and around the restaurant you call Bar Ziggy in the Soul Eater World.”

“So… wait… this… this is in the middle… late middle… of the Challenge?”

“Erm… yes. There has been damage to the fabric of both realities and you will need to resolve the situation here before you can resolve the situation there.” The Banker looked somewhat annoyed at the disruption.

“So… wait… this is like saving a game, then switching to another game for a Change of PACE?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“No… no… more… having your… what do you call it? Ah… your PC need to go into the shop for repairs, so you kick your Playstation and play a game on it while waiting for the PC to come back.”

“Kick?” I asked, then ohed “Boot! You mean Boot. Right. Okay… this is weird. But, like I don’t need 4 Bookers. They’re all the same… and I pretty much already have one… Bookstock.”

“First of all, as you well know, little miss,” Eyebrows McGurk snarked, “You have Comstock pretending to be Booker. And second… all the Bookers and Comstocks are the same being.”

“Wait… so there are… what… five of them forming a single companion? Like the Twins?”

“They are the same lifeform. They are the same companion.” The Banker agreed.

“So… what about Elizabeth and Elizabella?”

“No. They are not the same?” Couchmonkey said.

“Why not?”

The Banker shrugged. “The amount of dimensional energy in Elizabeth is far greater than Elizabella. Elizabella is a localized entity. Elizabeth is a quantum waveform, similar to yourself or Tokimi.”

“Oh… I… see. So because Elizabeth contains multitudes, she is all Elizabeths… but because you yoinked Elizabella out of the waters of time and she doesn’t hate her… wow… Comstock is still kinda her father in two senses… gods this is making my head hurt… Because Elizabella wouldn’t go along with drowning Comstock because her Comstock wasn’t as bad as all the other Comstocks… She’s not involved in the quantum Elizabeth… or something.  So… do I have choices to make?”

“The choices are largely irrelevant.” Mensarius… that was his name! Mensarius… said.

“She still gets to make those that remain,” The Banker said to his counterpart.

“Fine!”

The wall shimmered and a movie screen appeared. ‘Lambnesia’ appeared on the screen, showing me, in two dimensions, a flat image, with lines pointing to it. To my head pointed a line that said ‘EMPTY, DAMAGED, MALFUNCTIONS GALORE’. To my heart pointed a line that said ‘GOOD FAMILY, WEALTHY, LUXURIOUS HOME WITH PARENTS’. To my hand pointed a line that read ‘OPEN TEARS FOR PEEPING AND STEALING… ALSO GOOD WITH A LOCKPICK’. And to my throat was a line that said ‘BARBERSHOP QUARTET SINGING VOICE, STILL ANNOYING.’

Next to the image of me was a picture of what I recognized as a Skyhook, a money bag,  and a set of lockpicks, a glowing egg (ATURA, COMPANION IMPORT #1, DROP-IN, INTERFERING WEASEL, KNOWLEDGE OF LUTECE PHYSICS & VOICE OF THE PEOPLE, BARBERSHOP SINGER), a set of 5 Bookers (KILLER, COWARD, LADY, EVERYMAN, PROPHET… the last was flashing), a pair of Elizabeths, one older than the other, both skilled in Tears, Lockpicking, and Codebreaking, but the older was also flashing, and there were two question marked silhouettes.

On the other side of my image was the legend “Balance Remaining 800. Potential Balance Remaining 1100.” Beneath that were a number of drawbacks and the legend ‘Limit 300’… and three lines were already flashing. ‘Scavenger’, ‘1999 Mode’,  and ‘Songbird’. The others, ‘Mick’, ‘Fear of Heights’, ‘Unstable’, ‘Dimwit’, and ‘Siphon’ were all grayed out.

I tapped on ‘Mick’ and a warning window popped up. “THAT CHOICE WOULD CAUSE A CONTINUITY ERROR TO OCCUR.” it said. The same happened with ‘Dimwit’ and ‘Siphon’, while the others triggered the message ‘THAT IS CONTRAINDICATED’. I couldn’t even pull up explanations of what they were, though most were fairly obvious.

I could pull up descriptions of the three remaining ones, though. ‘Songbird’ sent this reality’s version of a big-daddy… well, one of the two types (the Handymen filled the construction role of Big-Daddies while Songbird filled the ‘Protect the child!’ role.)… after me… I wondered if I was really as powerful as my new-old memories suggested I was. If I was, Songbird would be no threat at all. 1999 Mode meant I’d be attacked on the regular by people who would be significantly smarter, stronger, and more in command of their Vigors than they otherwise would be… but if my impression of the general level of smarts, strengths, and power of Vigors was any indication, that too was no issue. Scavenger was, likewise, no threat… except to my dignity, as taking it would, apparently, make me into a bit of a kleptomaniac.

Strangely… I had no trouble with this, and wondered why my canines just grew three inches. I wiggled my nose and scratched my ear… with my foot. I looked at myself and discovered that I’d turned into some kind of weasel? No… a ferret. A very large ferret. And somehow I’d stolen the man on the couch’s bowtie without noticing. I handed it back and he looked faintly horrified, shooting a deeply worried glower at the man behind the desk, who just chuckled nervously.

“Okay… I’ll take them, I guess. Seems reasonable or something.” The Drawbacks faded and the Unspent total changed to 1100. A slew of new options appeared, these all costing points. “Do I really do this every ten years?”

“More or less,” the Bankerman said. “Though the average is significantly higher than that.”

“How much higher?”

“This is your sixty-fourth jump and a conservative estimate of your age puts you at more than fourteen thousand years old.”

“I don’t feel that old,” I said, turning back into a person somehow.

“How does someone that old feel?” The sleeze asked wryly.

I poked myself, then shrugged, “Hungry… At night, how come everyone in Columbia doesn’t bundle up? During the day, in summer, it’d be pretty hot here… I’ve been on enough mountains to know that… but there isn’t any great heatsinks to hold that heat… at night it should get pretty chilly. Where do they get their fuel from?”

“Spend the damned points!” the sleeze yelled.

“Err… yes… we would appreciate if you resolved the issue with alacrity. The superpositional state of maintaining your continuity is placing some undue strain on the system.”

“And the viewers are watching! You’re supposed to have spent all your points before the episode begins! This is most irregular!” Mensarius snapped.

“They aren’t your viewers,” The Banker chided.

“I’m getting a coproducer credit. That means my name is on this production.”

“Boys, boys, you’re both pretty…” I had no idea what that meant or why I said it, but it felt smirkworthy, so I did.  Then I looked at the options. The Shield option looked nice… it generated a magneto-repulsive self-regenerating anti-damage shield around me… and if I didn’t take it, I ran the risk of being lethally poisoned by something called Shield Infusions… which (along with Health and Salts Infusions) were on sale for what seemed the bargain price of 50 CP. Shield itself would cost me 400 though. Still, a passive defensive barrier that could stop bullets didn’t seem the worst thing on the table, so I picked it up… and the Infusions. Apparently I’d one a week, and each would add 15% to my base health, Salts, or Shield… though I’d only be able to use 10 in each of the three categories… which was less than a year’s worth… But I could provide them to others, which was good. Giving people health usually would be a good thing, right?

My memories told me that Salts were what Columbia called the substance Rapture knew as Eve, and they were a bluish liquid that, when consumed, allowed the use of Vigors… or as Rapture knew them, Plasmids. A source of which I didn’t currently have, requiring my followers to make do with, of all things, smoking cigarettes to recover expended Eve to power the Plasmids I’d created for them… I scanned the items and grinned “Excellent!”. There was a Salts Machine on sale, a vending machine that would completely restock expended Salts/Eve for free whenever interacted with. That was handy. And cheap! Only 50 CP.

That left 600 exactly and there were three ‘skills’ that cost exactly that much. ‘Vigorous’, ‘Prophecy’, and ‘Veni Vedi Vigor’… which was a joke that didn’t actually work, since the first two words were properly pronounced ‘Weni, Wedi’ while the third was pronounced like it was spelled. Ah well, visual humor if nothing else. Prophecy was a hit or miss randomness of peering through time and probability into the future or alternate realities. Meh. I could do that with Tears if I wanted.

The Vigor Twins were both nice, though slightly redundant, each in their own way. Vigorous would give me 2 free Vigors… and from what my new-old memories told me this was a better deal than it would have been in Rapture since CP bought Vigors were more powerful than storebought… which hadn’t been true of Rapture’s Plasmids and Tonics… and Vigorous would half the Salts cost for Vigors (and most likely Plasmids, though that wasn’t guaranteed)… and it even boosted the strength of all Vigors I did use, either CP or Store bought… But… it was limited to what was on sale…

VVV… or WWV really… that was a different kettle of slugs. It gave me knowledge of the Vigor Creation process and the formula (which was oral rather than injected, at a much higher ADAM cost)… All of which was useless to me because I already knew how Plasmids and Tonics were made and Vigors were exactly the same thing (there had been oral Plasmids, since Souchong had stolen the idea from Fink who’d stolen the idea for Plasmids in the first place from Souchong… ah, intellectual property theft).  Even though VVV came with the formula for any three currently existing Vigors, that wouldn’t be enough to justify the cost or taking it over it’s brother… except that VVV offered the one thing my Rapture-born knowledge of ADAM biotech didn’t… a fiat guarantee that my experiements with ADAM would lack negative side-effects.

I did a little dance at that and pressed the button. A thought out of the back of my mind suggested “Make an ADAM based Super Soldier Serum.” I mmm’d… wondering what a Super Soldier Serum was… and why I was grinning like a goon.

“There, points spent. Can I go?”

“Not all of them are spent yet,” The Banker said, highlighting the missing companions. “You’ll need to spec out most of your new friends.”

“How many points do they get?”

“The unassigned ones get 500 each, and a free Identity. The choices are Prophet, PI, and Businessman. The points can be spent on Skills and Vigors only. No Items.” I awwwed… there’d been a minibar and an airship I hadn’t had the points for… Maybe I didn’t need Shields?  I rolled my eyes at myself. I didn’t need a minibar or an airship either. I already had an airship… I did? My memories were uncertain of this. Something called the Raven… but we couldn’t remember where we’d parked it.

“Ummm… why is the fifth Booker flashing?”

The Banker steepled his fingers and said, “Bookstock as you call him… all the Bookers have the PI package. It includes Sleuth, Shields, and Vigorous. While perks… called skills in this Jumptree… are equally shared across each of them, they are biologically distinct, and so each may have their own suite of Vigors.”

“Ah… and the others have already chosen, while Bookstock is in stasis and can’t?”

“Precisely.”

“What did they take?”

“Each of them has Return to Sender, which creates an anti-damage shield. A charged shield absorbs incoming bullets into an orb of molten metal which can be launched back at enemies. The upgraded version absorbs and collects incoming ammo for reuse… as impossible as that may be.” I thought about that and chuckled. He was right, it wasn’t like the guns fired then entire bullet, shell and all. “The Coward has the Aerokinetic Charge, the Lady the hydrokinetic Undertow, the Everyman the pyrokinetic Devil’s Kiss, and the Killer has the Corvogenetic Murder of Crows.”

I boggled at the term Corvogenetic… it was, functionally, correct… just extremely unusual. “Uhhh… give him Bucking Bronco. The other option is Shock Jockey. He already has Possession and Devil’s Kiss… oh… oh… Can I know how to make Old Man Winter?”

“Err… what?”

“Old Man Winter! It’s the Vigor of Ice… it was the Vigor version of the Winter Blast Plasmid. Suchong… or a version of him from some other Rapture, would have created it. In the DLC Burial at Sea, Bookstock can find Bucking Bronco, Shock Jockey, and Old Man Winter Plasmids. They’re drinkable Plasmids, which means they’re essentially Vigors.”

“Umm… It is an existing Vigor / Plasmid?”

“Yup.”

“Very well.”

“Excellent… then I also know Peeping Tom and Ironsides.”

“I… don’t see those in the tree.”

“They’re from Burial at Sea 2… and they exist… also Amnesia which makes you forget everything you know, Plant Peeper which allows you to read the minds of your houseplants… and Dead Ringer which allows you to Re-Animate dead loved ones and pets! All were created by Fink or Souchong in canon… I’m not even asking for Fungal Healing, Ghost Touch, Kinetic Overflow, Spider Trap, Weapon Slave, or Chameleon… all of which were removed from the games before they were published, but which probably still exist in canon somewhere.”

“You know far too much about this series,” Mensarius accused.

“You know far too little about everything so shut up,” I snapped back, then turned to look at the list, muttering “Shame none of the gear is on offer… wait… gear… ah… heh.” I grabbed a piece of paper and made a list of every single Gear location my new-old memories told me about… many were questionable, but others were or should be set in stone. The contents were randomized… but my memories of Rapture said we’d managed to hunt down every piece of Gear in that city over the decade, though it had required a far larger team of searchers than I had available to me right now and there were more Gear in Columbia than in Rapture. I wasn’t sure why I wanted them, but I did. Many of them were hats and that was doubly important.

“Ooookay… it says I can recruit locals to my specifications or import previous companions… can you bring up a list of the companions I can import… I’m having some… er… trouble,” my head throbbed, “trouble remembering who all of them are.”

The list came up… it was three names long. That couldn’t be right. “I can’t remember fully… but my memory tells me that I have more than that.”

“You do. But all of them are currently in a restaurant quantumlocked by your little temper tantrum and the power of that freakshow you kidnapped,” snarled the unpleasant one. “You get the ones who aren’t. And feel grateful you’re getting those.”

“Ummm… it says that two of them are currently dead and the third is unavailible for activation.”

“Yes… well, you left them behind somewhere. You’ll have to go back and get them before you can actually bring them along,” he said with a sneer.

“So… this is you two being petty?”

“It’s complicated… we could attempt the linkage as normal, but the state of quantum flux…” The Banker trailed off.

“If we did it, it would invalidate your challenge, since they’d be gaining outside challenge abilities,” Mensarius finished for him.

“Ah… very well. I won’t complain… too much. Umm… Astraea… I vaguely… mmm… no… no idea… but something tells me she’s the right choice… give her the Prophet background… that comes with the Cult of Personalty, Baptism, and Prophecy Skills, right?”

“That is correct. She’ll find it easier to gain lackeys, hangers-on, and followers thanks to an aura of importance, strengthen her bond with them thanks to a shared ritual, and see glimpses of the future and sidereal potentialities.”

“Sidi what?”

“Things in other whens,” the odious one snarked.

“Oh… right… Sidiwhatis.”

“She’s teasing you,” The Banker said with a chuckle that carried no small amount of mockery at Mensarius’s expense.

“Yeah… he’s an asshole,” I muttered, loud enough to make it seem like I was trying not to be overheard by the wicked one but heard by the… incompetent one?

“That leaves one slot open and the primary Elizabeth,” His Bankerness said.

“MMM… I don’t want to mess with E-Prime’s personality. For this to work, she has to be herself… will the Private Investigator identity change that?”

“No. It is the Drop-In choice.”

“Ah… then that… give her Sleuth free… Cult of Personality… Voice of the People… and Shield. Don’t want her getting all shot to death. That would be bad.”

“Very good… and the last?”

“Heh… I have an idea… but I’m not gonna tell you.”

“How would that work?”

“I’m going to assign some values and you’re going to put it into… a bottle. And that bottle is going to contain the potential to become the companion… So if it’s accepted, the person who accepts it will become the companion… but they won’t be the companion until they accept.”

“Err… I guess… but you can’t keep the bottle past the end of this jump… well, you can, but it only applies to this setting. So you could, I guess, apply it to one of your other companions once you rejoin them in Soul Eater.”

“Is that really what that other place is called?”

“Yes.”

“Uuuuugh.” I shuddered. Sounded ghastly. “Great… anyway… Businessman… Savvy for business Savvy… Engineer… for all the mechanical and biomechanical things in Columbia… and Weeny Weedy Wigor… for well, you know.”

“She’s going after Fink,” Mensarius snarked.

“Fitzroy. Fink already has those gifts natively,” The Banker retorted.

“Mmmm… you might be right. I change my bet to the old man… what’s his name? Slate?”

They shared a look and agreed, two balls of what looked like nothing I can describe floating up out of each and coalescing into paperweights on the desk. The Bankers looked like a standing US dollar sign, while Mensarius’s looked like a Roman Aquila with the logo SPQRI. I raised an eyebrow, then nodded “Senatus Populusque Romanus Imperius… to differentiate the Empire from the City?”

Mensarius grunted.

“I think that’s everything… oh… umm… what triggered my temper tantrum?”

“Someone squished that vile worm of yours,” the Roman Banker said, as unpleasantly as possible.

“Well… that wasn’t very…” Another flash of agony and I dropped to my knees, shaking with unaccountable rage. The walls crackled most alarmingly, and the monochrome fuzzlines of Tears began propagating across the face of reality. Not one or two… but hundreds… thousands… I breathed, trying to get my temper under control… and it snapped back into place with shocking ease. It shouldn’t be that… easy. Should it? The nascent Tears vanished without a trace. “Umm… weird.” I wouldn’t notice the frankly uneasy looks on the two Bankers’ faces until I reviewed the memory many many years later. “He’s okay, right?”

“He’s a slug… a hermaphroditic, disgusting-”

“Yes,” The Banker cut Mensarius off. “The Slug is fine. He carries the same imprimatur and fiat as all of my gifts.”

“Good… good… um… right… hmmm… I’ll go… now.” I looked around for something, then saw a small girl rummaging in a cabinet. Her skin was bluish-white and she looked familiar. I oooh’d mentally, then grabbed her, hoisting her into the air. She was holding a candy bar and looked guilty.

“I didn’t know you’d be back so soon… I… I got you a snack?”

“Soul of Ice.” I identified her from the new-old memories. “Sword.”

She pouted. “Can I finish my candybar first?”

I rolled my eyes, but nodded, “Follow.” then rejoined the Bookers and Elizabella. “I am… aware of the pressing of time. We have very little of it before things begin to rapidly destabilize. I expect we shall be attacked in short order by a massive biomechanical birdman named Songbird, as well as by agents of the Vox Populi, Fink Industries, and or the Founders. Step one is to locate Booker, and both Comstocks.  Also Daisy Fitzroy if we can. Bookers, please hold up your hands.”

They looked at me, then at Elizabella and, after she nodded, did so. All of them had the letters AD on their hands… I wondered at that.  Why did every Booker have that mark? Each was different. “Briefly, tell me why you have that symbol on your hands.”

The Killer spoke first, not looking at the jaggedly stitched scar, “My daughter. Killed in retaliation for my sins.” The Lady nodded sadly, brushing the simple tattoo, “My daughter, stolen by her father.” The Everyman smiled fondly, stroking the ornate tattoo, “Only woman I ever loved.” The Cowards shuddered, looking at the branded scar on his hand, “Attempted Desertion.” Well… I’d asked.

“Okay. Well, we need to get to the city center… and you five will slow me down unless we take my father’s airboat. So that’s what we’re going to do. And each of you are going to have to cover that up. Round here, that marks the False Prophet and that’s a major nono.” I turned to Elizabella. “And you… I know the Siphon’s got to be playing merry hell with your awareness… and I’m sorry about that… but I need it active for a while. Now come on.”

Outside it was just gone 8am and the sun was shining brightly, a lovely clear day. My new-new memories told me that it was July 6th, 1912, succession day. My new-old memories told me it was the day the game began. And the game was, officially, afoot. I parked the gondola near the Fairgrounds and checked the status of the Raffle. There were still tickets available. Booker had not come this way yet. I’d been a little worried about this, as the earliest time that Booker could possibly have come to Columbia had been 8am. This was established as Hudson’s Fine Clothing’s sign stated that it docked at New Eden Square from 8am to 9am at the earliest and 6pm to 7pm at the latest. Since the sun was fairly low in the sky as Booker makes his way to the Raffle, it had to be either morning or evening. Evidence (namely in the fact that the tickets for the Raffle were sold out, but also the fact that Fink was singing Goodnight Irene and that the fireworks were being set up for the night) hinted that it was late in the day, but I wasn’t counting on such things.

“Right then. You kids tour the city. Don’t leave the gondola, but do get a general idea of the lay of the land. I’ll be here and there. If you need me… think very hard and I’ll be here.” I rose from where I’d been carving a symbol into the deck of the gondola… dad was going to kill me… but then again… screw the racist prick. And with that, I ghosted, waiting, waiting, waiting for Booker to arrive.

At 6:13 and 7 seconds, he strode into the Fairgrounds. I followed him, never too close, projecting a sense of ‘do not pay attention to me’, right up until the point where he used the Possession Vigor to take control of the admission machine and gain access to the street known as ‘The Path of the Scroll’. On the far side of that gate, as I’d known they would be, stood the Lutece. Not the Luteces… the Lutece. As the Banker would say, two bodies didn’t mean two waveforms. Granted, there were personality differences… but, then again, the same could be said for all my selves.

I checked the sandwich board Robert (the male Lutece) was wearing, counting the hashmarks. 122… perfect. The approached Booker and asked him to flip their coin… and that’s when I acted. 122 times, the coin had landed heads up.  This time it landed… on its edge, and started spinning slowly.  I cocked a finger and pointed it at Booker, and he froze… well, not froze… slowed. Massively.

“Hello Roslind. Robert. You’re looking remarkably not dead,” I said, strolling up to them.

“This is a thing that hasn’t happened before,” Rosie said.

“Simply put, and accurate… but hardly useful,” Robert replied.

“How would you two like to not be dead and scattered through space-time?” I asked, cutting off the not-twins banter.

“How would such a thing be accomplished?” she asked.

“Yes, good point,” he nodded. “If the answer is by being dead and confined to a single place, not at all.”

“Right. Smart ass,” I smirked. “I’ve come here from Rapture… the long way round. You know where that is… you took one of the Comstocks there after Anna lost her head, poor duck” Their expression was, in a word, Master Card. “And I’ve brought the girl in the tower a present… and you as well.” I held out the bottle, on a silver salver I’d borrowed from the Blue Ribbon bar for just this purpose. The contents of bottle were purple, and had a C on the label. It was otherwise identical to an Infusion bottle.

“How is this possible?” she asked.

“Oh… it really isn’t,” I replied. “But we’re going to do it anyway… ummm… not to rush you, but I think that’s Songbird diving out of the sky towards us and I really think we should be…” I pulled Soul of Ice and, with a flick of my wrist, launched her arching into the sky, where upon she split into two hundred copies of herself and diced the monstrous birdman into particles so fine one would have needed a magnifying lense to even become away of them. Even the blood was flash freezedried…. I didn’t think it would last. I was betting that more Songbirds would be coming out of Tears any moment now.

“How in the-” he began, but I looked to her and she said, “Right. No time for that. Yes or no Robert? Last time it was my choice to have you jump… this time, you choose.” He considered, then took the bottle and downed half of it, then handed it over. “I… it tastes of…” and then there was a very large explosion as Daisy Fitzroy herself came swinging down from the skylines, aiming her carbine at my head and screaming “Down with the Founders!”

I froze her in place, then winced as I saw how wounded Booker had been by the blast. I summoned a red feather that seemed to be on fire from the Warehouse using the ability the other mes had told me was called ‘Requip’ (they’d said the feather was something called ‘Phoenix Down’) and tossed it at the clearly dying man (he was still slowed massively, so it wasn’t like he was dying particularly rapidly) and then tapped the ground next to him, dumping him into the Warehouse where, if I was to be believed, the robot butlers would whisk him to the medbay for healing.

The Luteces were, of course, fine. When you barely exist, it’s very hard to harm you. “Where to now, since you’ve completely derailed things?” she asked.

“To the Tower to reunite a girl with her father and four of her father’s probabilistic clones… and two of her own… well… one of her own and herself from a little bit into the future. It’ll be fun! Then we can all go talk to ZHC and erase Columbia from existence. Won’t that be jolly and gay?”

They shared that special look that people who don’t know me very well share when I talk to them, the one that says “Oh, Dear, Sweet, Merciful Lord… She’s a raving nutter.”

“Don’t worry. Many many many things can go disasterously wrong… oh look, here come more Vox…” I dumped Daisy into the warehouse and froze all the remaining Vox solid, then launched myself into the sky, assuming that the Luteces, who could be pretty much wherever, would follow somehow. They did, appearing ahead of me then falling behind as I poured on speed… not that I needed to, but stretching your legs… or whatever… feels nice once in awhile.

In fact, I zoomed around Columbia for a good 10 minutes, shooting down two more Songbirds as reality tried to adjust, until I located my Gondola… of course, it was right atop the massive angelic tower-statue that was Columbia herself… and Elizabeth’s home slash prison.

I landed on it and made some introductions, then said “Okay, Lizzy… you and these nice people are all going to go and round up Comstock for me… yes I know, your Comstock wasn’t a giant prick, but this Comstock is… well, anyway. Go get him. He should be on The First Lady… which is…” I looked around, then pointed. Zeroing in on the thoughts of Comstock wasn’t particularly difficult… even if it was highly unnerving.

The minions on the way, I entered the warehouse and pulled Booker out of the Medbay. He looked… banged up, but acceptable. I handed him the Luteces’ Shield Infusion and told him to drink it, and that we were going to get the girl now. He seemed confused, but thanked me.

Twenty minutes later, he was cursing me out as I tied him to a pillar.

“Oh, shut up Booker, you complete prat. This is entirely your fault. Ego, poor judgement, and just spectacular narcissism. I’m Booker, I’m part Injin but my friends are making fun of me so I’m gonna kill people! I’m Booker, my wife died leaving me a single dad… I guess I’ll drink a lot and gamble all my money away! I’m Booker, I’m broke, better sell my infant daughter to some total STRANGER!” I kneed him in the balls and pointed a finger at the second Booker… the one I’d just thawed from Cryo. “I’m Booker, I used to be Zachary Hale Comstock but then I became so obsessed with securing my own legacy that I got a baby’s head CUT OFF then hid from my sins because that’s what I always fucking do!” Then I pointed at ZHC and glowered, “And you, fucking psycho, are the ever loving worst! I’ve fought Zombie Hitler and you make him seem like a prince among lunatics! You psychotic cockwombling fanatic!” I kicked him in the balls twice… he really deserved more. “You murderous, racist, pompous, narcissistic cheese-donkey.”

I spat in his face, then wheeled to Elizabeth Prime (senior)… “And you, little missy. See her?” I pointed at Junior Prime. “You squandered her quite frankly limitless potential FOR REVENGE ON A MAN WHO DOESN’T EVEN REMEMBER THE CRIME!” I looked to Junior and pointed at Senior, “She, by the way, is what happens when you can’t, freaking, let go of your ANGER. Which, I admit, I’m not doing a very good job of at the moment, but my head is really, really hurting right now and if I hadn’t hooked each of theses idiots up with regenerative nanites they’d probably have exploded heads right now…” I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and tried to calm down.

“Booker, Comstock is you, a you that is almost pure evil. A you that deserves to be drowned in a baptismal font… a You that you can and will help destroy. Doing so will erase…” I waved my hand, “All of this. Poof, gone. Never existed. And all you have to do is… accept your own death. It sucks. But you’re going to do it… and I’ll show you why.” I had copied all the memories out of E-Prime (senior)’s head and I showed them to Booker, showed them the true scale of what Comstock was and had been and could become, could make Elizabeth become.

And while he was experiencing all that, I  turned to EPs and said “Do you want to know how your story would have ended, had I not dragged you, kicking and screaming, back here?” She jerked, twisted against the magical ropes that bound her and glared at me. I looked calmly back at her and finally, she looked away.

“You’d have made a little girl suffer, forced him,” I pointed at Bookstock, “to hurt her in order to bring up his memories, then you’d have been killed when the Big Daddy smashed you out of the way to kill him… your superposition collapsed… you’d have doomed all of Rapture to save one little girl… you bitch. I’m cold. Really, really cold… but you? You’re an idiot. Massive cosmic powers and you not only threw it away… you threw it away because you couldn’t let go of your anger. Well, now you can do whatever you like to him.” I dropped a loaded pistol into her hands as I released her. “He knows now. Remembers. He’s filled with the same grief and selfloathing he was when he renounced himself… twice now. Go ahead. Pull the trigger. Traumatize your old self. She is what you were.”

As EPs raised the gun in shaking hands, pointing it at Bookstock’s head, I turned to EPj… “You… are, of course, innocent in all this.This was to be the start of your voyage… and it will be. In just under ten minutes, this tower will be destroyed in what can only be described as The Wrath of God. The Siphon will fail and you will understand… not everything… but so much. I cannot save you, little bird. I can only set you free. You and Booker… you’ve got to save each other.”

I took the gun back from EPs when she handed it over. “It’s hard pulling the trigger, yah? But you’re a DeWitt… you’ve got ruthlessness in you, through and through. Now… I’ve got a claim on you. A claim on both you and him.” I pointed at Bookstock. “But only you get to choose how the story ends. You can come with me, and I dump him into a void so dark he’ll think that light has always been an illusion… You can stay here. I’ll release my hold on you, though you’ve no place you belong in this universe anymore.  Or… you can face oblivion together and I’ll try to save your younger self.”

She shuddered with the kind of pain that only intense emotion can cause and glared at me. “What gives you the right?”

“Nothing. Nothing gives me the right. Nothing at all. This isn’t about right or wrong. This is about the fact that you are in pain and, like your father, you don’t make good choices when you’re in pain. You’re your father’s daughter… and if I don’t help, your line ends in darkness. “

She wept, wept until I had to have Lady Booker guide her onto the gondola and we took off. From 800 feet away, I hit the tower with God’s own thunderbolt, and it came apart at the seams, the entire vast edifice (minus all the books… my robots had stolen those for the Library) melting away like fog…

And at that moment, four lambs gained access to the full extent of their powers… for two of us… it wasn’t much, to be honest. For two… well, one and a bit more… it was anything but. I watched from a quiet riverbank as Booker 123 went into the water and faded away. I watched as Comstock looked down at himself in horror… and vanished into the realm of the never was. I pointed down at the water, looking to EPs. “This is your last chance. You can, in this moment, be the one who died. You can become her, and take your place with your sisters, and erase him too. He’ll be gone and you’ll never have been.”

She didn’t look at me, but I could feel the conflict, the hate, the fear… they were all there, but she didn’t move, merely closed her eyes and clenched her fists and stood, still as a statue. She didn’t take me up on my offer. I guess I’d made an impression… or at least forced her to realize the truth of the old adage about digging two graves when one sought revenge. 

With that, the possibility of a Comstock ended forever. No Booker who went into the water could ever emerge to become Comstock. Only the Bookers who never went into the water could survive… and their lives would be changed without Comstock to interfere. One by one, the Elizabeths vanished until there were only three. Elizabeth Prime of Columbia looked up at me from the water, face sad. Elizabeth Prime stood beside me, tears of thwarted rage pouring down her face for a child who had died for an old man’s narcissism. And Elizabella stood a small way away, surrounded by five Bookers who were out of time…

And then we were outside an office, a baby’s voice crying softly and a rough male voice asking “Anna?” Booker 123 had been reborn, revived by the cosmic retcon, and his Anna was beyond the door in her nursery. No Comstock would come to pay Booker’s debts or take away the girl. This was the moment I’d saved Daisy Fitzroy for. I yanked her out of the Warehouse and whispered ‘wake up’… and then held her as reality… adjusted her. I wanted to feel sorry for her… but she was kinda a sociopath (though with good reason). I adjusted her more, gave her some money and a mission, a very subtle compulsion, then pushed her through the door.

Daisy Fitzroy had, once upon a time, been loyal to Comstock, as undeserved as it might be. Now she could be loyal to Booker… and, though none of them would ever know it, if my tampering did its job right, they’d save each other… just a little bit. After all, someone had to keep Booker from falling off the wagon… and Anna could use a mother figure.

Reality began to fray around the edges, and I could feel my awareness, my old selves, pressing in. Our time, artificially begun, in this reality, was folding in on itself, pushing me back into the role of a very angry little chef… and then, with a click, I was back in Soul Eater… and boy, howdy, was I pissed.

Unfortunately… everyone in the restaurant and for several blocks around it… was asleep. Instead of a fight, Excalibur and Death the Kid (the current Great Old One of Order), were sitting at my chef’s table. “Ahem…” said the sword “We’d like some service please.” I boggled… screw Micheline reviewers… pleasing an entity who lived to make people mad and another who was more OCD than OCD itself was… with my entire staff unconscious… I was going to need a very stiff drink… 

Next: Treasure Planet – Ambush!

Resources: Build, Document

AN: two jumps in a row where my build ended up being changed thanks to revisions in in the jumpdocument… during the writing process.

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

World 58 – Soul Eater

Three by Three Stars of Brie

Previously: Of Slugs and Salvation

Themesong: Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim

“Everyone, this is Brigid. Brigid, this is everyone. Bao here is our director of Passenger Relations. He’s very good at making sure everyone’s having fun. Velma here is our Director of Science and Information. Tokimi over there is our Chief researcher and Technologist. Zane’s our Captain, and Kendra’s his… heh… First Mate. Ziggy is our mascot. Ahab and Joy you’ve met, though they look a bit different… especially since Ahab’s not in his Big Daddy Costume anymore. How’s that feel, buddy?”

“My throat still itches,” the grizzled super-spy muttered darkly.

“Aww… poor Mr. Bubbles.”

“Don’t call me that,” he twitched, then jumped as Joy elbowed him.

“Reggy’s our Director of Biosciences. Gaius is our head of security, and Toph is our gardener. Uriel is our construction specialist. If you need something built, talk to him. Franky and Mini are-”

“Her sex slaves,” Franky interjected, making Mini tickle her as I rolled my eyes.

“Actually… they’re our resident courtesans, yes. But more in the companionship and conversation mode. We’re essentially a triad… though I’m also in a couple of other relationships. It’s complex… but then again, I’m pretty complex myself. Ah…” I smiled as the two young men approached me. “These are Scipio and Invidius. Do not, under any circumstances, do what they ask you to do. They tried conquering the galaxy about 90 years ago.”

“It’s 100 years ago, Auntie.” Scipio said.

“Yes, well, 10 jumps, not 100 years,” his brother said, being much more blunt (and factual). “And that means we’re off being grounded, right?”

“You two do realize I am under no obligation to either be a reasonable adult or to ever allow you out of the Warehouse at all, right?” Their reaction showed how well they knew me, because they just regarded me with level stares and I chuckled. “Fine, fine. Yes, you are no longer grounded… now you’re on probation. That means you get to go out into the settings… but if you screw up anything, cause too much mayhem… I’ll put you right back on lock down so fast it’ll make your heads spin. Am I clear?” they nodded, so I nodded back. “Now. Prove to me that you’re worthy of trust and I might eventually import you into a setting… but right now you’re passengers like Raven and Brigid, not companions. And I have no idea if you’re protected by fiat, so don’t get yourselves killed or your mother will be very upset.”

I waved them away, then continued with the introductions, even including the various pets, demi-companions, familiars, and lurking quasi-real entities such as VIs and Furies. Dr. T just seemed a little overwhelmed, but that was usual. I left her to talk with Metra, who was the closest thing we had to a counsellor and stepped into the kitchen.

“How you holding up,” Zane asked.

“Mmm? I’m fine. Still worried… about a number of things. I don’t know if I can trust Mensarius. He’s clearly a bad influence on the Banker… but the Banker wasn’t exactly harmless to begin with. Remember Metal Gear Rising?”

“I remember. Or Avatar.”

“Or Avatar. Yes.”

“So, why are we trusting them?”

“Two reasons. First… I suspect either one could end all of us simply by willing it. I’m beginning to have an inkling of just how far beyond us they are… they throw around terms like ‘lifeforms’ the way we’d throw around the term ‘microbes’. I’m not certain they actually… exist… in any way we can conceive of. I think they merely are… like the void. I think they’re a space in which things happen, if you can understand that.”

“Vaguely… it’s like… the bubbles trying to fight the bathtub?”

“Yeah. Something like that. And that’s the other reason. I think, like all spaces… they need something inside to have value. They need us, maybe not us specifically, but beings like us. I have a part of Mensarius that only I or the Banker can return. So that largely means that Mensarius can’t afford to have me fail unless he can suborn the Banker.”

“And the Banker?”

“Investment. I can’t know how much of himself he’s invested in me… but after 62 jumps, it’s got to be an appreciable amount. It’s a loss leader… I think that’s the term… I hate economics… anyway… I’m a known quantity and a proven investment. Replacing me would be a hassle. We know that they essentially syndicate our adventures. It’s always better to continue a successful show than try and market a new one, right?”

Zane looked doubtful, but nodded. “I think you mean a Sunk Cost, but I get your meaning.”

I grimaced, nodding “Probably… And it’s not like the Banker has ever done anything to try and get me killed… just highly stressed and annoyed.”

“So far.”

“So far. Yes. But again, if he wanted me gone, he could just send us home. It’s a game to him… But yeah… He’s pushing it. I did not enjoy that.”

“Gonna do anything about it?”

“You really think bitching will solve anything?”

“Better than doing nothing,” he said with a shrug.

“Oh. I’ll say something, but I’m not sure how much good it will do. The Banker might agree with the best of intentions, but I suspect he’d be unable to keep himself from tweaking things just for drama’s sake. And say what you want about it, and I will… the unpredictable curveballs are a challenge if nothing else.”

“You’re kinda mental, you know that?”

“Course I am. That’s half the fun. I do wonder why we’re not going straight into BSI.”

“Maybe it’s down for repairs?”

“Maybe it’s occupied.”

“Oh… Oh… I know… Maybe we can’t go there right now because we’re already there but we don’t know it.”

I opened my mouth to retort, then shook my head, “For a moment, I thought you might have unexpected depths… then I remembered you’re Zane.” He noogied me, I gnawed on his arm. Good times. “Anyway, If there were more than one of me, I think the omniverse would asplode.”

“OH… No… not like parallels… I mean, we can’t go there now because future us went there already.”

“Zane. Future us can’t do things before present us. That’s how time works.”

“Oh… duh… right. Maybe we went already but don’t remember because of Tears?”

“Possible… but I suspect I’d have noticed a loss of time. My Chronokinesis may not be that good for much besides slowing or stopping time, as it’s a submanifestation of my mastery of Ice… but I think I’d still notice a flux in temporality. I don’t think anyone can time lock me for the same reason no one can freeze me. Manipulations of my timeflow rate would be like… trying to change my core temperature. I’m not certain I could stop it… but I’d notice.”

“Huh… prolly… I mean unless the Banker or Menche did it.”

“Yeah, well… Even they have their limits. This is probably just one of those. And who knows… maybe linking the two screwed up quantum timezones directly in a row is a bad idea and I just don’t understand why. It’s one of those things I doubt we’ll ever understand.”

“Soooo… what’s your bet, Higher or Lower?”

We had a kind of game. It was like that game where you flip up a card and try to guess if the next card is higher or lower than it, but with settings and level of suck. “Higher,” I said after consideration, meaning the next universe would be a more fun, lighter setting. “But not one where I can do a lot of fixing. I’m hoping for a vacation actually. It’s been a while.” In fact, my last Vacation had been Slice of Tenchi.

“I hear ya… hey, hand me the Sriracha.”

“It’s empty. They didn’t have Sriracha in One Piece or Bioshock, so we couldn’t restock. I think we have some Chinese Chili Sauce?”

“It’s not the same,” He grumped, but added it to the pasta anyway.

“Food supplies keep changing, bucko. We’ll get some more eventually. Just be glad I have stasis units to put supplies in, or the Sriracha wouldn’t last 20 years.” We usually stocked up on our favorite foodstuffs in various settings, especially wines, but running out of stuff we liked was just something that happened. Only food supply items refreshed endlessly, and some of those were just strange.

For instance, the Infinite Cheese from Redwall was awesome, but had some strange holes in what it offered. It was all European Cheeses… but it wasn’t every European Cheese. And the quality was all over the place. The Brie was excellent… the Camembert not so much. The Bell Passie tasted like off brand cream cheese. There was Asiago, but no Caseri. Parma and Romano, but no Port Salut or Bellavitano. There was Cheddar and Cheshire… but no Colby or Monterey Jack. There was Muenster but no Havarti, Jarlsberg but no Emmentaler, Edam but no Gouda. And there was no Vermont White Cheddar, no Feta, and no Cevre. So we had to stock up.

The basic Food Supply was basic. It was fresh veggies and college food. Mass Produced, prepackaged, and just waiting to be cooked. It also didn’t cover 50 plus people and pets. Thankfully, I’d added to it with CP purchases, and we always had enough to go around and then some, but a constant diet of Shawarma and Cheese could get old, so we stocked up big time.

First off, I had Star Trek TOS food synthesizers, the precursor to replicators, which could do a decent job of replicating basic foodstuffs. They were a primitive teleporter laying down stored chunks of amino acid and carbohydrate, tossing in trace nutrients, boom, you had a ham and cheese sammich. Replicators did the same thing, only using raw atoms of stored CHONPS… Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur… though personally I think the acronym should have been SPONCH… but that’s me. Toss in some trace elements, and you got some stuff that tasted more or less like food… but it wasn’t natural and it tasted like it. Close, but as they say, no cigar.

Second, we had Toph’s Lifestream Garden, now filling a truly massive Subspace Dome. It produced enough food to feed a small army most times, though availability ran in cycles and it took a fair amount of processing power and energy to keep it running. And even then, while the crops were bountiful, the micronutrients that flavored everything in food were lacking. It just wasn’t possible to create an entire ecosphere no matter how hard we tried. We worked on small batches of trace flavourants in the ground or, in the case of the hydroponics domes (they were also fish farms), water… and even some different air mixtures in the aeroponics bays… but getting an ideal mix was hard… maintaining one was harder. So we had basic megafarmed fruits and veggies… but it wasn’t the same as higher quality agriculture might produce… but then again, I’m jaded.

Third, we had Chronobaric Stasis Chambers, where foodstuffs would last eons, since time passed at one one trillionth of its normal rate inside as long as the door was closed. Food cooked a decade ago would still be hot when you took it out. In fact, 30,000 millenia would have to pass for the food to age even 1 second after you put it in there and shut the door… if people would keep the damned doors shut! There was a reason I’d installed Optical Sapphire front doors! You could see through them and didn’t need to let the Chronotons escape!

But storage was limited. They used up a frankly silly amount of power, and we had just over 800 such units, ranging from fridge size all the way up to shipping containers… but there just wasn’t any way to anticipate all the usage that might happen over a couple decades, and things ran out. We had a fairly ridiculous shopping list running now, as it just hadn’t been possible to buy most of what we wanted in One Piece or Bioshock… hell, even Teen Titans hadn’t had all the desired products. The last time we’d been where we could get most of what was on our basic list was Dresden’s universe… and even there the seven decades we’d spent there had seen product availability change drastically over time.

It was one of the reasons I made sure to buy as many food choices as possible. It made shopping easier and increased options were always nice. Granted, I could just program new dishes for the food synthesizers… but… the food from replicator technology was never quite right… and it was always the same.  Food is more than just the chemicals in it, and any kind of processing or storage leaves its own traces on it.  Granted, I think I’m the only person here who can taste chronotons and there is absolutely no way I can explain to you what they taste like.  Granted, I like the flavor, and it’s super subtle, so there is that… but anyway…

We took things pretty easy for the first two weeks back from Unda Da Sea… things are not better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me… before I visited the Banker, who was still glowering balefully at Freelancer, who was wubbling about in his tank being all sluglike. No higher brain-function for the sluggy one… not certain about the Banker or Mensarius.

“Hello boys. Miss me?”

“Are you ready to discuss your next destination, or just here to visit your pet?”

“Naw… Freelancer isn’t so much a pet as a part of me, you know? And that’s what I’m here to talk about. Don’t go putting things in me that I didn’t explicitly give you idiots permission to put inside me. You think of a little prank like that again, you bloody well ask. There’s a rape metaphor I’m going to bring up once, just to drive this home. Do you idiots get that?”

“Oh. I get it. I just don’t care,” Mensarius snarked. “The mating practices of lifeforms are all equally disgusting.” I rolled my eyes, not even looking at him, focusing on the Banker, who, after a moment, looked away.

“Yes. I… see how that might be an issue. I cannot promise anything, and I will continue to throw curveballs, as your people call them, at you, but I will try and anticipate your reactions to things better and…” he shrugged. I ground my teeth, but I guessed it was as much as I was going to get out of them. They really had no conception of what the concept of violation even meant. I was just lucky they seemed to understand the concept of ‘deal’ and had the faintest idea what ‘fair play’ was. I worried, deeply, about what kind of shit Mensarius put his field agents through, and what realities…

“Mensarius… just out of curiousity… your realities… they’re not based on the fiction of my homeworld, are they?”

Mensarius looked up at that, then shook his head. “Those are part of his purview. Mine are from a different Earth’s set of fiction. One where the individual you know as Gaius Julius Caesar was not assassinated by members of the Senate. He lived long enough to firmly establish the Empire and see Caesarian on the throne, establishing the idea of a living Emperor passing power to his son over a period of transition. Caesarian united the Five Great Tribes under his Empire; Romans, Greeks, Judeans, Egyptians, and Gauls, granting each of them basic equality and semi-autonomy. They attained their industrial revolution in 680 Anno Caesari…” he trailed off, looking almost wistful… or maybe just bored.

“The fiction must be totally different.” I was fascinated, alternate history has always been intriguing to me, but apparently the evil one had said all he intended to say, for he just glowered and looked off into the distance.

“We’ve decided your next jump, as we’re trying to deal with some quantum turbulence with regards to the jump we had planned.” the Banker began.

“It’s cause I stuck E-Prime and Bookstock into a stasis tube, isn’t it?”

“Most likely. Yes. It should be solvable… but not within the one month timeframe. So we’re sending you to Soul Eater instead.”

“Soul… Eater… wait… Manganime about Meisters and Death Scythes?”

“That would be the one,” the man behind the desk confirmed, bringing up the logo on the Jumpotron.

“Huh… Can’t think of anything particularly bad I’d want to fix there… it’s a strange mix of really silly and lighthearted… and grim as fuck… but there isn’t much truly horrible needing fixing. Okay, throw the thing up on the screens and I’ll peruse. And no, nothing from you, gloomy gus.” I pointed a finger at Mensarius. “I don’t need any of your poison.”

“Are you so certain?” he smarmed. “You don’t even know what’s on offer yet.”

“I’ll make do with that’s on offer from this document itself,” I assured him, but I still scrolled down to to take a look at the drawback limit and the offerings. I meant it. I would make do… regardless of how many or how few I ended up taking. There was a six hundred point limit, which was pretty standard, and four drawbacks at the 100, 200, and 300 point level… as well as one at the 600 level that I swear must have been written by Mensarius himself.

See, in the world of Soul Eater, there is a legendary weapon known as Excalibur… and no, you haven’t heard this one before. Now, normally, when there are legends of Excalibur, the sword is something awesome and portentous… but in Soul Eater? Not so much. Sure, E’s one heck of a sword… and the most annoying, self-centered, narcissistic, pain in the ass jerk of a being in that universe. He has a thousand guidelines that must be followed by the one who wields him… such as daily birthday parties… or 5-hour daily lectures on the ‘fascinating’ (i.e. mind bogglingly boring and badly told) history of himself, and more. His guardian fairies haaaaate him. He looks like a penguin and is just… there are no words adequate. The 600 point drawback doesn’t just force one to be around him… no, it striped the taker of most of their power and competency unless they actually wield Excalibur… which he may or may not allow them to do.

I would not take that drawback if someone put a gun to all my loved one’s heads and threatened to pull the trigger. I mean, first, I don’t negotiate with terrorists, but that Drawback wouldn’t just be a death sentence, it would be a death sentence by self inflicted wounds because I’d go Mad and kill myself before the first year was up. Excalibur was the type of being I’d inflict on Joker or Hitler… and then only if I was feeling sadistic. I’d sic him on Thanos in a heartbeat though. Mao too, if only for a larf.

Still, there was no reason to take that one… at all… when the lesser ones would serve just as well to get to a Jumper to 600. I think it existed merely to make the other seem reasonable by comparison.

At the 100 level were ‘Think of the Children’, which gave one a soft spot for kids… or anything that looked like a kid, and would make one put themself in danger to protect those little monsters… perfectly reasonable, if misguided; ‘Weak Soul’ was a nerf to one’s magical and spiritual powers, as well as decisiveness, self-assertiveness, and anti-Madness protection (Madness was a big thing in Soul Eater… We’re talking Cthulhu levels of crazy or close enough); ‘Slapstick’ meant that I’d become the butt of everyone’s physical assaults, but for ‘humor’… ah, yes, domestic abuse is funnneeeee… it would also give me bad luck… not serious bad luck… but banana peels and falling pots kind of bad luck; and ‘I Am God’… which would make me arrogant (shuuut up… more arrogant)… cocky, pompous, and narcissistic (shut it, you!)… and it would make me want to share my awesomeness at random people with impromptu declarations… actually, that one sounded like fun… actually, with my damage resistance… so did Slapstick. I mean… fun for Drawbacks… they both sounded irritating as fuck… but totally in keeping with the setting.

The 200s included ‘Obsession’ (which was exactly what it sounded like, and pretty much encapsulated actually obsessive behaviour, not just haha, she likes Justin Bieber ‘obsession’.  This was full on crazy person obsession… which was doable… but probably not wise), ‘Temptation’ (which was voices in your… my head… friendly, charismatic, and ‘helpful’ voices that wanted me to be happy and to give me good advice… like ‘kill them all, you know you want to’ advice no doubt. Yeah… we had enough of us here to hold them off, but it was already cramped, and the wording implied that, should I take it I’d feel a strong sense of alienation from everyone that wasn’t the voices.), ‘Witching Hour’ (horrific hallucinations from 3am to dawn.  Nooo thanks.), and ‘Fairy’ (shapeshifting lockout paired with a serious nerf to all my abilities for the duration of the jump… though it came with a free fairy alt-form once the jump ended. Yeah… no.).

And then there were the 300s, and you can probably already guess they weren’t nice. ‘Something’s Missing’ would leave the taker feeling hollow inside and susceptible to Madness… and leave them feeling like something is missing inside… yeah… fuuuun. ‘I don’t know how to deal with this!’ would make me terrified of everything… for every waking moment… numbing fear of everything around me… good lord, no thanks! ‘Killer Blood Lust’ would make me crave destruction quote like flowers crave sunlight unquote. Not only would it make me antagonistic, but if I didn’t manage to hold the rage in check, I’d quite literally explode and die.  Boom, Jumper bits everywhere.

Now, I can guess that you’re thinking ‘Well, that’s a lot of information of only marginal use to me the reader, but what the hell are you the jumper going to take?’ and I did have a reason for detailing all that. See, anyone who bothered to count the 300s would see that I only mentioned three, when earlier I said there were four… and the fourth is the one I took. Because I’m clearly insane already. It was called ‘March of the Clowns’… and it meant that I’d be hunted by Clowns for the next ten years. It would start with just one, and if I killed it, a new one would be along in a week.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘She’ll just freeze it in ice. Not dead, no new Clown. She think’s she’s so smart’… and now you know why I didn’t opt for the extra voices… I talk to myself enough as it is… but no… If the Clown wasn’t killed, an additional Clown would appear and join the hunt… and if multiple Clowns were left alive for too long, they might decide to fuse and combine into an amalgamation of two or more Clowns. And now you’re thinking, ‘But SJ! Even a hideous 520 Clown Amalgamation would surely be no trouble for you!’… and you’d be right!… if these were normal Clowns… but in the world of Soul Eater, Clowns aren’t slightly strange people in makeup… they’re a race of beings that are literally Madness incarnate. They would be incredibly hard to kill and would radiate Madness like a bonfire radiates heat. There was a reason this was worth as much as terminal terror, anger, or angst. I was effectively signing me and my companions up for Eldritch Horror of the Week Club. But 300 CP was 300 CP, and I’d fought way more than 520 enemies in a single jump before.

Plus, I had help. Counting my passengers (Raven and Brigid), and the twins (Invidius Vord and Gaius Scipio), I now had 32 companions… well, 33 including the slumbering Atura, 34 if one Sophie the Guard Dog of the Apocalypse… 35 if one counted the Maiden Astraea, though she’d been left behind in Marvel with her husband and sister-in-law (they were passengers in their day as well, though never imported). I also had a veritable menagerie of pets… a slug, many familiars, a host of owls, some horses, a squadron of furies (the genius loci of Codex Alera), and a brace of personal assistants… yes, yes I know PA’s aren’t pets, but Juno and Sabrina never seemed to change. They didn’t engage in social niceties, didn’t ask for time off, didn’t complain that we never paid them anything, and didn’t, you know, act like people. They acted like extremely competent PA’s… but nothing else. The only reason I didn’t think they were robots is I’d looked inside them just to make certain they weren’t fairies (they were from Gargoyles after all), but no… perfectly normal, hypercompetent, CP backed PA’s. I worried about that sometimes, to be honest.

So it wasn’t like the Clowns stood much choice, even if only 8 of my companions would be fully powered up at any given time… and maybe I could finagle more than that, if the need arose… still, what else could I pair with Clownvasion?

I put Slapstick on the shortlist… considered Obsession… but then figured that since Madness was a loss condition, I should avoid it like the plague. This wasn’t a funny setting to have psychological damage. Instead, I put I Am God and Think of the Children on the shortlist… they were there if I found enough stuff to buy. It wasn’t a guarantee, even in a setting as rich and weird as this that I would. Quality control was all over the place in the realm of the Jumpers. As for the potential of running into a childlike Clown… well, I did have companions for a reason. Killing spiders that looked like kids was just one of the facets of that reason. It was always good to know what limits I’d be pushing if I decided to overspend my basic grant, right?

Now… to spend the potentially 1600 CP. First, Origins. Of course, there was the basic Drop-In. No surprise there, though it did come with a sleeping bag and a backpack of holding and came with an extra helping of Madness Magnet for lols.  There was Student Meister (the ones who did the Deamon Weapon wielding at the Death Academy (Shibusen… Japanese name, in Las Vegas… oh, sorry, Death City, Nevada… still… madness). And of course Student Demon Weapon, which were humans who had weapon ancestry… yes… that’s a thing. These people turned into actual weapons, thanks to the actions of a rogue Witch about 800 years back.

But neither of those appealed nearly as much as being a Witch. Sure sure, witches in this world were typically bad news… I mean, as far as I knew they were the major villains of the piece. But still, they were an incredibly powerful, long lived, all female race with the innate ability to wield magic. Unfortunately, that native ability (and a general lack of fucks to give about the fate of humanity… which they might resemble but which they were not a member of) they were incredibly vulnerable to a phenomenon called ‘The Sway of Magic’… a kind of madness that made those who gave into it destructive and antagonistic to the natural order. Witch was [300/1300/1600] and, of course, set my gender to female (oh, the horror. So far I don’t remember any setting where a thing set my gender to male… maybe I was blocking.)

Witches also had a certain theme to their appearance and magic… a theme centered on a specific animal type… gee… I wonder what animal I should pick? It had to be a mundane animal… Three guesses what I went with.  That’s right. Monkey! No. Not Monkey. Good guess though. Two guesses left! No, not penguins, shut up Cirno. That’s right, Ferret! I shall be the Ferret Witch and absentmindedly push things off of other things and then look surprised when they fall. But not people off things… well. Maybe people off things. Some people needed to be pushed off things.

There was also a race section, which included ‘Earth Shaman’ (a naturalistic counterpart to ‘Demon Weapons’ and the only race a Demon Weapon could select), ‘Monster Cat’ (a quasi-witch with nine souls and a plant theme instead of an animal theme), ‘Immortal’ (a monstrous race more commonly known as ‘Werewolves’), and ‘Bloodsuckers’… i.e. vampires… but stupid… well, not stupid as in mentally slow… but lame as in just… goofy design. No thanks. I considered Monster Cat… but that was Cat, not Ferret, and didn’t seem worth the extra cost.

And so, with an origin selected, it was time to move on to perks… and the first thing I saw was a free for all perk called “The Face”, which was described as ‘A gift for projecting absolute disgust with a facial expression, an expression that would convey just how much disdain or annoyance or pretty much other negative emotion I was feeling at the moment. If it was targeted at an individual, even if that individual was blind or couldn’t see for some reason, they’d feel the weight of my irritation. They’d fucking feel it.

As a Witch, I gained ‘Portal Manifestation’ for free, the ability to conjure portals to and from the Witch Realm (a realm held separate from the normal world by someone named ‘Mabaa’ and her Spatial Magic. Only a witch could open a portal to that world and Mabaa apparently was the leader of all witches, with power comparable to Lord Death.). Opening such a portal required a ‘special motion of the body’… a dance actually… wherein the Witch draws a hiragana character in midair with her buttocks. And it had to be with the bottom specifically, so skirts, dresses, jackets, robes… anything more baggy than tights or panties had to be moved out of the way for the portal to open.

Now, normally I’d be like… whatever… but since the Witch Realm wouldn’t follow me from jump to jump, this could be used to open a temporary portal to somewhere else within a mile of my current location in other jumps. These portals would be the side of a standard door and last for around a minute… and absolutely nothing said that the mile had to be in standard three dimensions. I could safely assume it couldn’t be used to travel in time, but this was an ability designed to punch through dimensional boundaries, so I could safely assume that, as long as the target dimension was one I knew was there and it was, dimensionally speaking, close by, I should be able to reach nearby dimensions or realms. Maybe not parallel worlds, but things like Seireitei or Hueco Mundo in Bleach… but I’d have to see… and if reach was a problem, this seemed like a technique I could boost if I put my mind and technology towards. But that was for later.

Witches also gained ‘Levitation’, the ability to fly (barely… like a little faster than walking speed… though with a magic broom that would go up to the speed of an average car)… though with a lot of time and practice the ability would grow. Glad that was free. Might even practice it a little to see how it felt… different perks felt differently, even if I already had a couple of flight abilities and pseudo-flight abilities… tricks to boost each of them could be found in the strangest places.

But the freebies didn’t end there! Witch was the gift that kept on giving (once you paid for it at least). Magical Being was the third (of four!) freebies, which, of course, granted me the ability to wield the power of this world’s magic… stuff like potions, fireballs, broomstick flight… and of course destructive spells. It also covered ‘The Sway of Magic’, the destructive instincts of magic in this world, which would grow stronger the more I developed my local magic. Most magic in this world required a chant (and if my memory of the show was right, those chants were idiotic… like Pum pum pumpkin Smaaash!) combined with the name of the spell. I’d start with no knowledge of spells, but I’d have the capacity to learn / figure them out over time thanks to knowing how the local magic worked.

And last was ‘Totemic’, which was the factor that imparted my chosen animal theme to all my magic. So a fireball I cast might do the weasel war dance, or a lightning bolt sliding under doors or up people’s pants.  And when one combined Totemic with Magical Being, one got a variety of spells related to my animal theme, thus skipping the beginner phase. Totemic could be as direct as ‘Thread Magic’ for a Spider Witch or as vague as ‘Vector Magic’ for a Snake Witch. I think I’d go with ‘Confusion Magic’ for theme. Totemic also granted the passive ability to turn into my chosen animal and back with a bit of magic and concentration… and my chant could help heighten my focus even outside of casting magic.

There were a couple of mid-grade Witch perks, Arithmetic Magic and Familiar Familiars, that I considered and then passed on. The first allowed one to augment magic with math… but I knew that Calculation Spells and Spatial Magic could be learned without this perk, and the perk was pretty much just making the prospective witch good at mental math… which I’d been better than good at for all of my jumping career and which I’d only gotten better at… and the second was a last ditch ‘shunt my soul / consciousness into the body of a familiar animal to escape. Meh.

The lesser capstone, ‘Occult Practices’ was a technomancy skill, and not one I felt was worth the cost… but the same could not be said for the greater capstone, ‘Uplift’. Not only did it magnify the power of my magic fivefold, and not only did it render me immune to the effect of ‘The Sway of Magic’, but it granted me the ability to create ‘Demon Tools’, powerful magical artifacts that had all sorts of useful abilities, such as ‘Eternal Spring’ which could make any machine keep running without fuel or maintenance, or ‘Mortality Manipulation Machine’ which did exactly what it said on the tin. That was worth the [400/900/1600] investment, thank you very much, especially since there was no guarantee the Sway would leave one the jump was over… no sooner had I thought that than a pop-up informed me that ‘The Sway of Magic’ will no longer affect you after this jump ends, regardless of if you took ‘Uplift’ or not.’… well, that was handy.

I was about to check through the other perk trees to see if anything there stood out… and then I saw, in the undiscounted section, ‘Grigori Soul’. On the face of it, it wasn’t that interesting. It was 400 CP to give your soul wings, allowing you to manifest angelic energy wings, wings that could be altered in size, shape, and appearance to effect speed, maneuverability, flight efficiency, and more. But that was, essentially, 400 CP for flight.  But for 200 CP more, a total of 600, it was a different animal entirely.

The improved version not only allowed coloration control… okay, okay, that was a minor bonus… it’s primary purpose was to allow the Grigori to fire bullet-like feathers from those wings at machine-gun-like rate of fire, and if they weren’t, initially, as dangerous as real bullets, they’d grow faster and more dangerous with experience and training… and the more powerful the user’s soul, the faster the flight and the faster / more dangerous the bullets… And that wasn’t all. By sacrificing movement, and shaping the wings into a mouth-like canon, the Grigori could form a cannon, creating and charging an orb-shaped emotion powered projectile that could, at full power for even the beginner, blow away mountains. The emotion used to power the cannon would influence the flight characteristics (love is faster but linear, anger slower but homing, hate wider but more diffuse, etc.)

It wasn’t, really, worth 600 CP. but it just sounded like fun… and I had a pretty damned powerful Soul.I hmmm’d and hawed for a little while, then took it. Wing bullets are cool.

And that took me all the way down to 300 and I still had to check on companion imports, so I did. And there were a load of them. First off, a Student Meister got a free Demon Weapon and vise versa, but I was neither so it didn’t matter. I could also buy a single companion import as Drop-In or either form of Student for 100, or a Meister-Weapon pair or Weapon-Weapon pair for 200… or a Witch, Monster Cat, Black Blood Weapon, Werewolf, or Canon Companion for 200… or even import one of my existing weapons to become a Demon Weapon for 200… while for 300 I could get a Bloodsucer companion, or… and this was where the money was… get a Bulk Import which would allow me to import as many companions as I wanted as Drop-Ins, Meisters, or Demon Weapons.  That was awesome… and then I noticed the annoying bullshit.

“200 more to tune Soul Wavelengths?” I focused on the Banker, testing out my new Face of Disgust. “What is this happy horseshit?”

“Language, please!” he deflected, though I knew he had nothing like the sensibilities needed to actually give a rat’s arse about foul language.

“OOooh, no. You are not charging me 200 CP for what is essentially flavoring.”

“Then you take your chances with random chance,” Mensarius said with a sneer.

“No, I’d be letting you to fucknuggets screw me if I did that. Random means bugger all with you two. God does in fact play dice with the Universe… and the Dice are loaded. Anyway, you two morons owe me big for screwing me not once but twice… you’re going to let me tune them as I see fit, aren’t you?”

Mensarius opened his mouth to say something asinine no doubt, but the Banker waved him down. “We shall… if you listen to the proposal we’ve come up with and agree to give it serious consideration on its merits.”

“What, like a timeshare pitch? I listen to the spiel and, regardless of my answer, I get some token of appreciation for my wasted time?” They nodded, though Mensarius looked like he’d eaten a sour plum. No doubt he’d wanted me to have to agree before getting any consideration, but I saw where the Banker was coming from. Soul Wavelength compatibility was important enough that leaving it to chance with these two arround was the definition of Madness, but paying for it was an untenable tax. I’d have to be crazy to spend the 300 upfront without a guarantee of some kind… and as the saying went “I might be insane, but I wasn’t crazy.”

“Okay… make your pitch. If it’s good, I’ll listen.”

The Banker rose, walking around his desk, and sat on the edge furthest from Freelancer’s aquarium. “Food is a major issue for you, we’ve noticed.”

“She’s a glutton,” the odious one snapped.

“Yes, thank you,” The Banker retorted, “But such comments are not constructive, so kindly shut up and let me speak.” He straightened his tie, then continued, “And you seem less than thrilled  by the idea of interacting with the established storyline of this world?” I nodded. “So, to that end, we propose a challenge. As this is, despite some appearances, an Earth in the modern day, we invite you to take part in the Three-Star Cup.”

“Three-Star? Some kind of race? With Food?”

“Ah… no… not a race per se… more of a prize to be won. The challenge will be this. You’ll be given a restaurant to run, and a selection of perks from a separate document relating to cooking, and, within 10 years you must earn not one, not two, but three michelin stars.” My eyes went wide.

“Three Stars? In ten years? Uh… I’m an okay cook and all… but I’m not good enough to get even one standard star… Michelin 1 Stars make 5 Star Chef’s look like scrappers. 3… christ on a cracker… I mean, I guess with my powers-”

“Ah, ah, ah… none of that,” Mensarius oozed. “This challenge requires you to forfeit your powers, and warehouse… everything not bought in this world or imported into it, in order to get the prize.”

I stared at him, then laughed. “You can’t be serious! Give up my powers to try and accomplish the impossible? Well, highly improbable. I haven’t seen these perks yet. You’re mad. What prize could be worth the risk?”

“A restaurant,” Mensarius sneered.

“Or rather, your restaurant,” The Banker corrected. “It will follow you from jump to jump, and be attached to your warehouse, with all its upgrades and reputation intact, as well as perfectly normal versions of you and your staff, which you and your companions can slide into and out of at will. So you can cook yourself top of the line food… and all your companions would gain some degree of cooking ability, or at least have the potential. That’s up to how they spend their points.”

“Same no limit on numbers companion import?” They nodded, “and they’d be limited to whatever they bought from both documents too?” They nodded. “And if I fail to earn the three-stars… do I fail the chain?”

“No. You just wouldn’t get the prize. Chain Failure would only occur if you die or your restaurant is forced out of business.”

“And you’d be a looooser.” Mensarius added, unhelpfully.

“So… I’d be increasing the danger of Soul Eater greatly, have to run a restaurant and fight off Clowns, get 3-Stars and not die with most of my power sealed away… I assume my Astral Bodies would be put on hold, not be all fighting each other or collapsed into one?”

“Yes, you’d be essentially reduced to your Body Mod state plus your memories… though you’d no longer have a perfect memory… and then the perks from the challenge and the Soul Eater document would be added.”

“Umm…. hmmm… How much CP would the gang get? The import from Soul Eater is 600 plus one of the three non-Witch origins.”

The two shared a look, then Mensarius shrugged. The Banker looked a little sheepish. “This isn’t like when you applied a generic overlay… to get Challenge Points, you’ll have to take on extra limitations.”

I was about to protest that I’d done that in generic overlays, when the import of what they were saying hit. “I don’t get any CP at all?”

“Well, the challenge itself is worth 600 since the setting is so dangerous… but otherwise? No.” The big guy said.

Sleazy vonSleaze added, “You can take up to an additional 2000 CP… and your companions get a fraction of whatever you take.”

“What fraction?” I asked, knowing full well that 1/∞th was a fraction.

“Ahem… that all depends on which tier they’re assigned to,” The Banker added, tugging at his cuffs to try and even them out (something that was impossible as I’d tweaked the code in the projection software). “One companion can be imported or recruited as your Partner. They gain 3/4ths of the Challenge Points you gained. Eight more can be imported or recruited as assistant chefs. They gain half of your Challenge Point total. And any number can be imported, but not recruited, as front of house or utility… I’m not certain I understand what those mean.”

I rolled my eyes. “Front of House is waitstaff and bussers, hosts, bartenders, sommeliers, that kind of thing. Utility are drivers, shoppers, maintenance, cleaning staff, dishwashers… they don’t deal with customers very much, except as delivery… they typically don’t get much respect… and that’s in a business where almost no-one gets respect. It’s generally accepted that a trained monkey could do 80% of utility work… but in reality, it needs to get done or the whole edifice falls apart. No working ovens means no food. Dirty table settings is a crash and burn at the star level. And if the place looks like rubbish you aren’t even going to get the customers in the front door. I may barely know my way around a kitchen, but I know that much.”

“So? What do you say?” Mensarius wheedled. “Going to chicken out?”

“I’m sensing that the two of you have a bet on this one, and knowing you, you’ve bet against me, because you’re an asshole.” I looked over to the Banker. “Let me guess, he suggested this little game and bet you that I’d accept and fail, and you bet that I’d reject it as an untenable risk?”

“He did suggest it, yes, as it breaks with typical procedure… but I wagered that you’d accept and succeed, while he wagered you’d reject, then changed his mind saying that you’d fail the challenge while surviving the main jump thanks to taking too many “Beverages” as the drawbacks are called. That you are laughing implies there is a joke there?”

“Beverages… includes soft drinks and tea or coffee or juice, yes… but it also includes intoxicating or hard drinks. Drunk… on Power. Ya… a leetle yoke. Fine. If I can’t succeed with my support matrix, I don’t deserve a restaurant… though the menu for a 3-Star isn’t going to be diverse… might have to spiff it up once the prize is won. Before I finalize my acceptance, are there any rules I should know? And do you two dipshits promise to run a fair contest. No rigging things to be extra dramatic, right?”

Mensarius harrumphed. “Like we need to cheat to rig the game against you, but no, a wager is sacrosanct.”

“Indeed. If we interfered in any capacity, the wager would be invalid,” His Bankerness agreed.

“Then… assuming the perks on offer in the other half seem acceptable and like they’d actually allow me to complete the challenge, I’ll agree to it. And now, I believe I have listened to your proposal, so that means I get to shape the wavelength compatibility of my Meisters slash Wait Staff… wait a tick… did you say recruited? So, like… I could recruit Nobu as my partner?”

“Who is Nobu?” asked Mensarius. “I didn’t see him in the precis on Soul Eater.”

“He’s not in Soul Eater. He’s on Earth. He’s a 3-Star Sushi Chef. Arguably the best in the entire world.”

“Ah… no,” the Banker said. “You cannot recruit any Michelin Starred Chef… or one of their apprentices as staff.”

“Drat… okay, hmmm… Let’s make Toph my partner for the Restaurant side… she’s got the hard work ethic down and she’s the most involved in our food chain. I need 8 cooks… chefs… Zane, because we work well together and he’s personable… AJ because knives are involved… Velma is hard working and good at picking up new things… Gaius is good with high stress jobs that take a lot of finesse… Bao… he’s a perfectionist and makes a mean cuppa… Yoiko, she already knows a fair amount of BBQ thanks to that stint in Alan Wake among others… Mmmm… Bart, he’s relentless and practical… and Joy for the same reason. Everyone else gets the leftovers… but let’s see… Invidius & Scipio don’t get to be near customers. Yuzuha and Dyna… Ahab and Ryoga…. I’ll take a look and see what’s available… most of the ladies will be on Waitstaff. Heh.  Make Cirno a busser, that way she’s playing with Ice… have to ask if Raven and Brigid want in on this one.  Assuming they’re eligible?”

“Passenger status is your own invention. As far as I understand it’s just a bar on non-drop-in origins, yes?” I nodded. “Well then, strictly speaking, you have 5 passengers at the moment and one absentee companion.

“I have… wait… 5? Raven and Brigid and… oh… right… E-Prime and Bookstock… but that’s four.  Who’s five?”

Mensarius sighed and his hologram made itself a hologrammatic vodka gibson with three onions and a twist of lime. “The boys.”

“The Gaius-Vord twins? Shouldn’t they be 5 and 6?”

“I have no idea how you lifeforms do such things, but where we come from, they are the same… existence.”

“Huh…” I’d have to think about that one. “Does that mean that importing them only takes a single slot?” Mensarius gave me a look that said ‘Of course, you simple ape.’ but I ignored him and looked to the Banker for confirmation.

He considered, then nodded. “It does, though of course, any perk applied to them will be of reduced intensity as it is divided between two nodes.”

“Wild.  Okay then. Let’s futz with some wavelengths… I can pick who’s the Meister and who’s the Weapon, or make someone a Drop-In… right?” They nodded, Mensarius sipping his non-existent drink… or maybe it did exist for him, who knew? “Meister Kendra will wield Zane. That’s the first thing. Mmmm… AJ will wield Francine, since he’s all stabby-slashy and she’s good at thinking… Mmm… let’s pair Meister Yoiko with Petra and Meister Ryoga with RayRay… those four will make a good team…make them crossover as well so each Meister can use either weapon. I’d consider doing the same with Gaius & Reggy and Kohina and her father, but Kagetane and Gaius have a rather intense dislike for each other… no… better equip Meister Gaius with Kohina and Meister Reggy with Kagetane and leave it at that. Meister Toph will pair well with Dyna’s aggressive and flexible techniques, so that’s a lock there. Since I don’t want a duplicate of Soul Eater resident moron meister BlackStar, I decided to stick Cirno into the hands of Meister Velma. That was all the easy ones, though.

I leaned back in my chair, bringing up a view of all my companions… and blinked. “Astraea? She’s back in MCU.” I commented, confused.

“Yes? And?”

“How can I import her into this setting if she’s in MCU?” I asked, which just provoked a snort of derision from Mensarius.

“As if physical location matters. She’s a companion. Her locality doesn’t matter.” the ‘Idiotic Lifeform’ was implied.

“Sooo… If I import her, does she just spontaneously show up?”

“Don’t be daft!” the wicked one sneered, “You left her there. You want her back, you’ll have to go back and get her.”

“Oh… good… right. ‘Hey! Astraea! How you been? Ohhh…. Right… it’s been zero seconds.  Anyway, I’ve been travelling and I brought you presents!’ Yeah…. That’ll go over well… fine… whatever… Mmmm… Heh… Make Bart and Meetra a duo… oh… no… even better, make both of them Demon Weapons, able to wield each other, but officially paired with Meister Caine.  I’m conflicted about Bao and Uriel.  Bao is by far the better fighter… eh… might as well make Uriel the Weapon of that pair and not stress over it.  Tokimi as a Drop-in… She’ll enjoy the Madness and might use it responsibly.  Send Invidius, Scipio, Raven, and Brigid invites as Drop-ins… hmmm… nooo… Invidius and Scipio causing Madness is bad… make them Weapons and make… hmmm… Make them Demon Weapons, like Death the Kid’s pistols… can’t make them compatible with their mom, that’s creepy… Hmmm… pair them with Tokimi… yes, I know she’s not a Meister… But she has a very powerful soul.”

“And the two in cryosleep?” The Banker asked.

“Err… no. for what I have planned, I need them unaltered from their current state. Plus, I’m very much not… I don’t think Bookstock… eh… I’ll worry about it later. Don’t need either of them screwing up my plans. But you distracted me. I’ll take Yuzuha, as she’d bite anyone who tried to wield her besides me and really can’t be trusted as a Meister… plus Ziggy for much the same reason… plus Mini & Frankie because they’re mine own, my precious…” I hissed slightly for no good reason, then giggled maniacally.  If you can’t giggle maniacally from time to time, there’s no point to immortality.

“Meister Joy can have Ahab as her weapon of choice,” I added, still chuckling… then paused as I had a really evil thought… well… not evil… cheesy. It wouldn’t do me much good as things stood, and it wouldn’t be terribly helpful, but Atura’s name was still on the Companion list for Import and, even though he/it/she was still an egg inside my Mind Palace, I could still import the Origin Spirit… which was part of my soul, and thus what powers he had, I had access to… or should, if sleepy thing would ever hatch.

“Astraea as Drop-In… no… Demon Weapon,” I chuckled at the inside joke even as I made it, “Atura as a Meister,” I said, finishing the list, at least for this side… then paused as a somewhat horrifying thought struck me. “Uh… wait… once a companion, always a companion?”

“That does, I believe, follow,” The Banker said, “Though I would not have used those words. Why? Also, you haven’t listed compatibility for Astraea or Atura.”

I grunted dismissively, “Oh, Atura is part of my soul, so I guess that means my wavelengths are Atura’s wavelengths. No… Okay… Garl and Selene… they’re dead. I never paid to import them. Could I just… wave my hand annn…” I trailed off as Garl, Selene… and the Kihara’s… and Vitiate’s names all popped onto the screen… along with a just… unsettling number of people I’d asked to accompany me along the way who’d turned me down, many of whom were very much dead now. Dumbledore, General Iroh, Ocelot… there were almost a hundred names on the list. “I… see… that’s… worrying.”

“Why would it worry you that we possess the ability to raise those you consider dead?”, Mensarius asked, sounding more confused than mocking.”

“Because I saw those people die. I lived through it in some cases… and-” I just couldn’t explain.

“You vaporized Bart just to prove a point,” The Banker said.

“I… yeah… but I’d already linked him into the matrix… doesn’t that make a difference?”

“Should it?” The Banker asked, and I considered for a very long time, then nodded. “I… think it should. I failed to save those lives. If I can just… retroactively bring them back, it’s… problematic.”

“You actually killed Uriel and witnessed the death of Astraea,” the Banker was being oddly gentle. “You murdered Vitiate yourself and are keeping his soul in a holocron. Death means very little as long as the soul hasn’t journeyed beyond. You have a quite impressive collection of Souls in that laboratory of yours. You could choose any of them to be a companion… you do know how to talk to them.”

“I… guess. So, all I’d have to do is return to one of these places and, what, find or summon up the soul in question, then invite them along… or kidnap them… and as long as they exit their reality in my warehouse… that’s it? It’s just like any other object?”

“Ontologically speaking, what is the difference?” Mensarius asked, and I honestly had no answer. Metaphysics and philosophy said there was one, but animism said that all things had souls… though I’d never seen evidence of that. I sighed. “Right. Well… fuck it then. Is there any limit to this?”

“Yes,” they said together.

“And it is?”

“You must be able to recall the soul of the person, or create a copy indistinguishable. Ocelot comes from a world where the dead can be reborn via technological copying as your Joy indicates. Albus Dumbledore exists in a world where paintings and ghosts are real. Iroh resides in the Spirit Realm of the Avatar Setting. Garl and Selen Vinland both come from a world where the souls of the dead are material and died in a world where death has proven highly transitory. And, of course, you have to intrust CP into them for them to be… protected, returning to your side in a day’s time. Should they die unprotected, their souls will be cast adrift, torn between two different destinations… or none at all. These Passengers of yours, however… shall be given special value, we have decided. All CP vested into them shall, until they, of their own free will, choose an origin other than Drop-In, be conditional. It shall not constitute the typical companion contract that the gift or imposition of CP and its… full faith and credit as some would call it… might construe. They are in a grace… no… a demo-period.”

I processed that, mildly disconcerted to realize that I didn’t actually know which of the two had explained it until I checked my memory and found that they’d traded off the discussion no less than twice without me noticing. “So… I can’t import them now, because they’re currently dead?”

“Garl and Selen?” The Banker asked, “You could import them in absentia. They have crossed the Dark Infinities and Bright Eternities with you. They are known to the Warehouse. The Kihara’s? No. They were never given privileges and so the Warehouse did not record them.”

“And my evil twin?”

Mensarius chuckled wickedly, “She is in other hands, as you well know.” I sighed, I did know and it worried me sometimes to consider what she and Trelane were up to.

“Right then… Garl and Selen, Meisters. Both attuned to Astraea, like the girl in Soul Eater Not. I guess I come with more presents… and Sophie can be a Drop-In. She’s a good doggy, the Madness won’t affect her.” I heard a bark from outside the soundproof chamber and chuckled.

“That spends you out, I believe,” The Banker said, “Shall I toss up the Challenge Document?”

“First off… hold up there, bucko. I’m guessing I get Free Stuff from the Soul Eater Item list and I’d like to know what, but I’m actually removing something from my own list.” I focused my attention on the checkmark for Grigori Soul and dragged the entire item off my list… and dropped it square in Atura’s box. 600 CP is what he got, and all 600 of it was what I was using to equip a fragment of my soul with wings. I had two souls… might as well install Grigori on the other secondary one. “There. 600 CP freed up.” I said, watching as Atura’s box also populated with ‘Weapon Partner Proficiency’, ‘Wavelength Communication’, ‘Declaration!’, ‘Comfortable Welcome Gift’, Death’s List’, and ‘Sick Wheels’.  I’d have to read those later as I now had to spend my remaining points.

First, I plunked down the 100 CP needed to buy Wavelength Communication, which the screen was flashing impertinently that as I was not a Meister, I’d need in order to wield a Demon Weapon. Apparently it opened a bridge between the soul of ‘Meister’ and Demon Weapon, allowing them to communicate on a spiritual level and (usually) safely transfer energy from one to another.  It was a good investment and I was satisfied with it.  But it did leave me with 500 left… and I decided to go hog wild and buy myself a Race… Immortal specifically.

See, in the world of Soul Eater, Immortals (aka Werewolves) were a monstrous race that normally appeared as completely standard humans (albeit a little more rugged or wild in appearance). In human form, my stats would be closer to the higher end of the human spectrum (which was good, since my Body Mod’s physical stats weren’t anything to write home about, since I’d never considered the possibility of being reduced back to it waaay back at the end of my first jump when I’d filled it out.) but my sense of smell and awareness of my surroundings would be quite keen, which couldn’t hurt. But at any time I wanted, I could transform into my true werewolf form… which (thanks to the silliness of the setting) had overly large hands, feet, and tails… and physical stats way through roof. Both forms had a very strong vitality and minor regeneration. They also had green souls rather than a Human’s white, a Kishin’s red, or a Witch’s purple. Not sure what color an Immortal Witch might have. Honestly wasn’t keen to find out.

“I thought you were only shortlisting Drawbacks just in case,” Mensarius snarked.

“Eh. This just became a matter of survival. I’d already locked in the Clowns. Those are the real danger. The others are just goofy shit I can cope with. Hopefully.  Okay. Now items.”

Everyone got “Comfortable Welcome Gift” as it turned out, which was a small package that included 7,500 USD and a stylish outfit custom tailored to be a perfect fit, flexible, durable, and suited for combat, self repairing, and designed to grow with the user. It was a pretty decent deally. Witches also got “Matching Pair”, which was a pointy black witch hat and an animal familiar, both matching my chosen animal theme. The hat come with some passive enchantments… it wouldn’t come off unless I wanted it to, and if lost or destroyed it could be summoned back to my hand as good as new. The familiar was a pet, friend, and loyal guardbeasty rolled into one. It would be smarter than most animals (but still animal intelligence) and almost completely black in coloration, and (even though it was a ferret) it would be the size of a large dog… a levitating large dog (not very good levitation, mind you, but comparable to the stuff I’d bought here). Loyalty, friendliness, and protectiveness was all guaranteed.

I checked for other freebies, but didn’t see any, so I gave a provisional lock to the Soul Eater document and nodded to Signore CP-Man, signalling that I was ready for the Challenge Document. I blinked, then chuckled… of course, it was laid out like a menu. There was a list of locations, all of them cities known for having a simply unfair number of Starred establishments. They ranged from the brutal (Florence, Berlin, & Copenhagen) to the sadistic (Paris, Tokyo, & NYC). I don’t think a single one of the ten cities listed had less than 40 Starred locations. NYC had at least 13 3-Star Locations alone. Paris was probably worse. With trepidation, I rolled the.. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I snarled, looking at the Eiffel Tower symbol on the dice. This wasn’t going to be pleasant.

I gritted my teeth and looked at the Appetizers selection, which appeared to be the Background selection. There were four choices, each a different position in a standard kitchen, though it did reassure me that, as this was to be my restaurant, I’d be the Chef de Cuisine (the Head Chef). The Appetizers were merely which Chef de Partie… which Line Cook Specialty I had. The choices were Charcutier (she who handles the meat), Patissier (he who is sweet), Sous Chef (they who are overworked), and Tournant (it fills the positions that are needed at the time… no, I kid. A Tournant was the kitchen’s pinch hitter).

The first two were specific chef types who often had their own subfiefs inside a restaurant, since they required the most specialized equipment and training. Charcutiers could often use the standard ovens and grills and fry pans… but aging cabinets, smokers, rotisseries, butcher’s blocks… none of those were out of place for a master of the meats… and no one else really needed them. Patissiers were the bakers and dessert makers, and the specialized equipment for one of them was practically a second kitchen.. one that had good temperature controls, since a lot of the stuff they made was heat-sensitive.

The other two were all rounders. The Sous Chef was the second in command and their job was literally to make sure everyone else could do their job. They assisted the Chef, expedited and finished dishes, oversaw the waitstaff, and typically handed all the various logistics. They were the manager that kept the restaurant ticking along. The Tournant was essentially the Sous Chef’s understudy, doing whatever needed to be done, filling any holes in the kitchen at a moment’s notice.

I glanced at the Entrees (the Perks) for each of the four, and they had some nice stuff each, but it was pretty much what I’d expected. Meat-Man was about heat and anatomy, the heavy part of cooking. Dessert-Girl was about delicacy and subtlety, the airy part of cooking. Sous Chef was about running the restaurant. And Tournant was about the purity of cooking.  I went with Tournant and promptly ran myself out of points buying everything that was on offer.

‘Superior Bladesman’ was the freebie for Tournant and it guaranteed that my knives would always be exactly as sharp as they needed to be, my hands perfectly steady, and my cuts exact, fast, and clean… unless I was dead on my feet. It was nothing to scoff at, as I’d known more than one chef relegated to skutt work because they didn’t have the knife skills for anything more complex or time sensitive.

‘Taste Tester’ cost 100 and transformed me into a Supertaster, allowing me to ID every ingredient in a dish as long as I’d tasted the ingredient before, up to and including age of ingredient, freshness, and where it was grown on the source farm (if I was familiar enough). ‘Jack of all Foods’ was 200 and designed to turn anyone into a savant of the kitchen. Memorize a recipe having heard it once, on the fly substitutions, mental dish composition, and it took the time required to learn a new cooking school from upwards of 2 years down to days or weeks… and it made combining different styles of cooking all the easier.

And then there was the capstone, ‘Your Heart is Pure’… for 300, I gained practically limitless endurance as long as I was pursuing a task I loved, and my productivity would equal that of half a dozen normal people… and though time would seem to fly by, I’d always seem to get things done with time to spare. Pacing in the industry was everything and there was almost never enough time. The utility of this was hard to overstate.

Just for accepting the Challenge, I also got ‘Commis’ which was the basics of knife-work, food handling & preparation, plating, kitchen safety… it was all the hundreds of little techniques and skills that would allow me to function in the best of professional kitchens without making an ass of myself. It gave me the lingo and the know how to take instructions and use them properly. I also got a ‘Speciality de Mason’ free, which was any one regional style of cooking. I could buy additional forms for 50, but I got one free. It wouldn’t make me an expert in it, but it would give me a decent grounding. Out of homage to my ancestry, I picked ‘Jewish cooking’, because I don’t think there has ever been a starred Jewish Restaurant, but if French Cuisine could do it, Jewish should be able to if I put in the effort.

Everyone got one Speciality. Of course, Patissiers and Charcutiers got Baking and Grilling (called ‘MEAT ME!’ for some reason), but Sous Chefs and Tournants got their pick from a list of 8. It included Eggs, Fish, Sauce-making, Fermenting, Veggies, and Brewing… It wasn’t an easy choice. I love tea and stews and Brewmaster was all up in that. Veggies and fruits are awesome, and a skilled Entremetier could turn them from delight to perfection. Baking is… well.. Have you ever had fresh, crisp, still warm bread? Fermenters were masters of pickling, winemaking… cheese making.  Eggmen were masters of breakfast apparently… that I could pass on… but Poissonnier was all about fish and included Sushi. Hell, Sushi was pretty much Easy Mode to 3-Stars… if you could somehow rise out of the sea of other Sushi Restaurants. Ditto Italian and French of course.

Still, I settled, finally, on Saucier.  Sauce-making may not be glamorous, but as a master of sauces and sauteeing, I’d be skilled in controlling heat to sear or crisp or char, to make roux and to mix up all the best ragus and salsas. It was a skill that the professionals valued, and the experts looked for. Though, if I had the points, I’d buy at least one more Speciality…

But I was now out of points and even a cursory glance at the other trees had shown me there were things I either wanted or wanted my companions to have, which meant that I’d have to take “Beverages” to pay for them. Right now Toph would get 450, my kitchen staff 300, and my front of house people 150… Not nearly enough.

The list of Beverages was… eclectic to say the least. Some of them were just… not advisable (Squeamish, Vegan, Key Ingredient Allergy)… while others were interestingly idiosyncratic (Celebrity Chef, Down Home, OCD), and others were more traditional fare (Financial Trouble, One Arm, Organized Crime)… and a couple were just… aack (Fruitarian, Rampant Sexism). For those not in the know, Fruitarians are Raw Food weirdos, those who believe that cooking damages food. A Fruitarian restaurant has never even been Starred as far as I knew. Removing the cooking from cooking was just… stupid. Rampant Sexism was what the normal world dealt with with regards to professional cooking. In the entire history of Michellin when I’d left Origin Earth long long ago (or 1 second by their reckoning) only 1 woman had ever earned 3 stars… in 2014. That’s it. Rampant Sexism made sure the taker stayed female and made the world as rampantly sexist as it was in 1980s.

I avoided both. Instead, I took ‘A Little Bit Crazy’ (worth 100 and guaranteed that everyone knew I was a little bit off), ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ (worth 100 and made my food cutting edge, overpriced, and bizarre… easier to get press, harder to keep a customer base), ‘Midget’ (worth 200 and made my head height equal to that of most cooking surfaces), ‘Om Nom Nom’ (worth 200 and made me a rather compulsive eater and guaranteed I’d put on weight), ‘Bad Press’ (worth 200 and ensuring a lot of bad press until I got my first star), ‘Less Than the Best’ (worth 200 and made it hard to get the best ingredients until I earned my first star), ‘Down Home’ (worth 200 and meant I had to focus on something traditionally viewed as lowbrow… which I’d already planned on with traditional jewish cooking), ‘Celebrity Chef’ (worth 200 and giving me a horrible personality, yelling at people who didn’t ‘get’ my cooking, screaming at my staff, and throwing tantrums when I didn’t get my way… went well with ‘I Am God’ from the Soul Eater side), and ‘Fusion Cuisine’ (worth 300 and required me to fuse two wildly different styles of cooking… I considered, then smiled Chinese-Jewish Tapas… it was fusion and neuvelle and down home all in one. Perfect. And jews have word of mouth and money. I’d just have to bust my butt… PARIS? Fuuuck!)… and that meant I needed a support structure so, grudgingly, I took one last drawback… Beverage…

It is a sad fact that ‘Organized Crime’ funds a staggering number of restaurants. Since so many of them go out of business, or are marginal at best, restaurants make great cover for money laundering, especially since they deal with so much cash and loads and loads of supplies. Allowing my restaurant to be financed in that way was worth 300 CP, even though it essentially cleared up my debts since the mob would make me seem profitable… but I’d have to deal with shady business dealings, police (and anti-terror) investigations, and making sure that the local armed psychos liked my cooking… and in Soul Eater, they very much might want to dine on Human Souls if they were anything like Soul Eater really minor badguy ‘Don Alcapone’ (no, not a typo. All one word.). Combined with the 600 from the challenge, that gave me a total of 2400 and gave Toph 1800, the Kitchen Staff 1200, and everyone else 600. It was now, probably, doable… and I had 1800 left to spend.

First up, I bought ‘Meat Me!’ [200/1600/2400] to give me an instinctive knowledge of how much heat any given piece of meat could take and how to cook it to bring out the best flavour and texture. I had to start out as a Roast Chef, Grill Chef, or Fry Chef and it would take about 5 years each to master the other two… Meat is Serious Business. I went with Roast, since most of Jewish cooking is roasting and I could hedge with Fry Chef using Saucier until I mastered it. Grilling would be very little use this time round, but I should have mastered it by the end of the jump.

I also snatched up the 100 CP abilities from Charcutier and Sous Chef. The first was called ‘God’s Only Begotten Sandwich Maker’ [100/1500/2400] (a reference to Arthur Dent from the Hitchhiker’s Guide novels… and something of a Jumper himself), which gave a sixth sense for which ingredients would work best together, masking negative qualities and accenting positive ones… it also synthed brilliantly with Shaggy’s Sandwich Supplies from Scooby-Doo… and I could supplement my business with a sandwich truck if I could get the fundings. Trucks could be good advertizing and do bang up business if I could find the right location. Apparently the rules were that my Restaurant itself had to be open for dinner at least Tuesday through Saturday, all of which I had to work. Other than that, I could let the junior chefs handle lunch service if I wanted to.

The second was more important, however. ‘Attention to Detail’ guaranteed that no matter how stressed or tired I got, the details of familiar things wouldn’t escape me. I wouldn’t forget key steps (like I used to). I wouldn’t forget garnish if I was rushed. I would spot anything out of place or dirty, or wrong. It was mission critical and for [100/1400/2400] it was a steal.

I wanted more Specialities, and some of the other perks were quite nice, but I figured I should check on the items, since cooking is as much about ingredients as it is skill… and it’s a damned good thing I did, because there was an entire section dedicated to customizing the restaurant itself. ‘Brick and Mortar’ it was called, and it was a small (15 table) restaurant with a functional kitchen, spirits (wine & beer) licence, and 200,000 dollars in debt (which was, for me, essentially owed to the mob). It also had a basic restaurant supply company like Sysco (think big white labeled cans). As a Tournant, I got my Spirit’s License upgraded to a full Liquor License for free (hard liquor and mixed drinks).. Which was nice because the Liquor License was required to buy the Wine Cellar [200/1200/2400] (an excellent selection of wines and two of my front of house staff became instant wine experts… and it came with a special wine supplier, who got rare and excellent vintages for less, which was nice.). I had to have the Wine… it was FRANCE!

I’d also get a free restaurant upgrade depending on what position Toph selected. If she went Tournant too, it would be the Wine Cellar, but we’d be overspecialized there, so I was hoping she wouldn’t. I sent her a message to that subject and she sent back “Thinking of Patissier. It’s the one furthest from your direct control and means I can work early shifts while you work late. Also, comes with the Supply Upgrade… unless you think we need the Kitchen Upgrade from Charcutier instead?” I send back that I didn’t and that Patissier was fine.  The Supply upgrade meant we went from big cans to upscale ingredients with priority from speciality providers… it wasn’t the best… there was a 200 CP upgrade that made it top of the line, but that would be pointless to start with since I couldn’t get the best ingredients until I had my first star anyway. The supply upgrades followed the restaurant from jump to jump if upgraded, otherwise you’d have to shop or source yourself.

There were any number of options, but some were less useful than others. For instance, the B&M could be upgraded to 30 or 60 tables… which was better for business, yes, but made starting out harder since it made the place look empty. I could upgrade later (though the prize would not include the add on most likely) as the business expanded, but space in Paris is at a premium and intimacy is valued. The smaller upgrade came with high end self-updating menus, which was something to consider, but not worth it for me. The larger had always pristine and appealing menus… but it was more of the same.

There Dining Hall and Banquet Hall upgrades, and they’d be great for an established business to make money from… but starting out I wouldn’t have the word of mouth, and they’d be an economic drain that would sit empty. It would be better to rent halls than own them anyway.

There was a pair of kitchen upgrades, taking the kitchen to modern and then to state of the art… but upgrading as I went was fine, and it was a waste of points I couldn’t justify. Sure, the first was self-repairing and the second was also always clean… but that’s what elbow grease was for. Making do with functional would have to do until I could bring in the top dollar crowds… in fact, I think the place should have as rustic a kitchen feel as possible. Not dirty and dingy, but very much period. Wood fired ovens and wooden boards instead of stainless steel and plastic. Marble Slabs, oak and bamboo… it was doable. Functional but down home appeal. I added that to the notes.

Other upgrades were less about the restaurant and more about running it. Apparently I’d start with a small 8 year old car that I’d have to keep running and share with Toph, and an apartment that I couldn’t quite afford… but both were upgradable. For [50/1150/2400], the Car would be brand new and never break down, but still require fuel, maintenance, taxes & Insurance. Another 100 would free me from the need for gas & maintenance, making it self-repairing and always up-to-date on paperwork and insurance… but I figured I could just pay for those things… though the 10 minute respawn time for the upgraded car was tempting.

But more tempting were the other business vehicles. For 50 CP each, I could buy delivery vans that would respawn if stolen or totalled, and kept food at the right temperature and from getting jostled. For 100 CP more, I could upgrade all my vans to be self-repairing, self-fueling, always insured and licensed… and to never break down or get stuck in traffic. Catering is great for word of mouth… especially among Jews… trust me on that. Never having to worry about a dish getting rekt in the horror that was Parisienne traffic… priceless… though NYC and London were just as god awful for that matter. So I spent [200/950/2400] to get two upgraded vans.

And that wasn’t all… for [100/850/2400] I picked up a Food Truck. It was always licensed for any city I took it to, with all the fees needed to legally vend food already paid. It was self-repairing, self-cleaning, and guaranteed to build world of mouth rapidly… though it meant working longer hours.

I could have paid down the massive 200,000 dollar debt for 200 or erased all non-supply or maintenance fees for 400… but that had no lasting benefit and seemed silly when I was already dealing with the mob.  So, instead, I bought the Apartment Upgrade [150/700/2400].

Instead of an overpriced apartment, I now owned a Parisian Apartment Building large enough for my companions to live there (which they could do for free). It was tax free, but I couldn’t sell it, self-maintaining, and in future jumps I could rent it out, as it would appear in my starting city. The apartments were nicish and newish, which would make everything a little better to deal with over the decade… a decade we’d be working our collective asses off.

That left me with 700… and I still hadn’t reached the actual items part of the Desserts menu… shit. This thing was a CP Vampire. No wonder you could get 2600 CP if you were insane… you needed it. But even taking all the drawbacks it was impossible to get everything I’d want… but that was generally true in my experience… at least 1/3rd of all the jumps I’d been to I’d wanted more than I could afford. Which I guess was part of the game to the Bankers. Choices. They were Choice Points for a reason.

“Is there another me out there making different choices?” I asked, but didn’t get an answer either way. Huh. tough crowd.

From the Desserts menu I picked up the universal freebie, a set of Knives that were balanced, comfortable, stylish, and guaranteed never to cut what they weren’t supposed to cut… my fingers were instantly and preemptively grateful. And then I looked at all the awesome things on the items menu and cursed. It was like… a real dessert menu. I wanted almost everything (besides the carrotcake which had no business ever being on an actual restaurant’s menu. Carrotcake was just too plebeian for restaurant fare. Unless the restaurant served potato chips and hotdogs… then it was fine.). There was a Radar device that always found the best restaurant given any set of qualities (Price, style, distance, etc.). There was a spice rack that had every spice and never ran out! There was a perfect table setting set for up to 3,000… with tables and chairs included.  There was an infinitely large Pantry that kept food perfect… forever and was self-sorting… and could maintain or age food you wanted aged. There was even an option to get the phone number from a Random Omnipotent Being who’d pick up food from any restaurant anywhere and deliver it to my current location… ingredients and supplies too!

But those weren’t what caught and held me the most. No, that was the Door of Shopping [400/300/2400] and the Grand Opening [200/100/2400]. The Door went to any shopping district in any world I’d ever been to (as long as it was still extant when I left). It would always be the day after I came last, and I couldn’t do anything to shape that world while shopping, and I couldn’t leave the district except to come back through the door… but they took whatever currency I had at its source’s face value. The Grand Opening was similar, but for dining instead of shopping. The first time I used it, I’d step through the door to find myself at a valet stand that would take me to the opening day of any restaurant I’d even been to, with a reservation. I could then visit that restaurant once for every day they were open (twice if they had a lunch menu). It had the same limitations… but when you’re as old as I am, there are restaurants that I’ve loved that have vanished to the sands of time enough to fill a city with them. I had to have the Opening, and the Shopping was just… nice.

I considered going back through the perks… then shook my head and locked in the Spice Rack [100/0/2400] as well. It promised high quality spices and those could get pricy as hell (saffron runs to thousands of dollars a pound). And with that, I was out of Choice and Challenge Points and hungry. So I waved to the Banker Boys and Sluggy, and exited the room to consider staffing options. I had a stack of tablets waiting outside the door and I motioned for the butler holding them to follow me to the kitchen.

The first I looked at was Toph’s. She’d specialized in Spanish Cuisine for some reason… maybe to do with Tapas or just for a mediterranean feel? She’d also picked up Master Shopper and Gardener from the general Entrees, as well as taking Entremetier (Veggy Chef) in addition to the free Baker from being a Patissier. I hadn’t even noticed the Gardener option, though my memory confirmed it was there the whole time. Master Shopper was a knack for finding the very very best of anything that could be connected to the restauranting world… be it ingredients, uniforms, artwork… and all at the best possible prices. Gardener seemed largely redundant for her, at least until I read it. It wasn’t just growing your own ingredients… it was about cultivating dedicated suppliers… and it came with its own Garden for free.

The Garden was 4 acres of premium farmland perfect designed to support whatever food crops we might wish to grow there. They all had the same microclimate, but could be divided into 16 equally sized blocks where a command console would give us control over the micronutrients and flavorants in the soil. It would attach to the warehouse after the jump and would be as close as possible to the restaurant as local zoning permitted. And the acreage could be doubled multiple times, each costing 100 CP, with each 4 acre plot having its own microclimate.  Toph had doubled it five times… that was 128 acres of premium farmland… it wasn’t huge… but it wasn’t tiny either. Waaay more than a restaurant could use unless we were raising our own cows and sheep. I was slightly surprised she hadn’t doubled it more, but she’d bought some of the Patissier perks as well.

Patissiers got ‘Try It, You’ll Like It!’ for free which was good for getting someone to try something at least once… but only if you liked it and it wouldn’t cause them harm or be unethical by their standards. It wasn’t limited to food. She also took ‘Keep it Cool’ which allowed her to control her own body temperature so she wouldn’t heat things up when she touched them (it also made her invisible to heat sensors as an afterthought), and she could keep things from getting hot… up to the temperature of boiling water. And she took ‘Art on the Plate’ which would allow her to turn anything into art… especially but not limited to baked goods… including actions (pouring tea, watching the rain fall… it would all be art if she wanted it to be). Tossing in the Commis and Knives that all staff got and she was out of points.

I found her and Zane in the kitchen… arguing about partnership and who was the more partnerific. I bonked their heads together and sighed “Children! Behave yourselves. Zane, you’re my partner in combat, and often in shenanigans, but business isn’t your strong suit. Toph is dedicated, hard working, and grumpy.” I favored the Earthbender with a smirk as she glowered at me. She still looked blind though she had any number of forms that weren’t. Some of my companions were forever changing their forms, but Toph wasn’t one of those. All her forms looked pretty much like Toph Bei Fong, just with working eyes and cultural differences depending on the setting.

“Zane, go tell everyone I want them to rotate through the kitchens and make three individual dishes. Something sweet, something savory, and something surprising. They’re not to consult with each other, nor assist one another. I’ll be in my office and they’re to come to me whenever they’re ready. Toph, you’ll be the second judge. Zane, you can either sulk or be third?”

He considered, then grinned. “Can I do both?”

I hit him with a snowball to the mush, then headed upstairs, looking through Toph’s build for Soul Eater. Meisters got three freebies (in addition to ‘The Face’ that everyone got) from the perk list, and two (in addition to ‘Comfortable Welcome Gift’ that everyone got) from the item list. In addition to Wavelength Communication, they got ‘Weapon Partner Proficiency’ and ‘Declaration!’. WPP was an instant ‘years of experience fighting together with your Demon Weapon Partner’ that allowed the Meister to wield the Weapon like a seasoned swordsman might swing their sword, as effectively as if they were of the same flesh, one body in two parts, while ‘Declaration!’ was entirely about sharing your emotional state by yelling about them… this setting really didn’t know if it was slapstick or horror. The items were ‘Death’s List’ and ‘Sick Wheels’, the second being a flying skateboard and the first being a list of targets, evil human beings whose souls were on Death’s ‘you done fucked up son’ list and whose inhumane crimes had rendered them worthy of direct punishment by a Meister and Weapon. A Meister could upgrade their Demon Weapon Partner to a Death Scythe by hunting down and killing 99 such humans and feeding the Weapon the souls of those on the list… and then the Soul of a Witch. The list didn’t have the locations of Witches. And yes, there were very unpleasant implications of that list… but oddly, eating the souls of the evil didn’t corrupt a Demon Weapon… but eating the souls of those not evil enough to be on the list could do that quite rapidly.

I was about to read the rest when I got a strange pop-up on the screen of Toph’s Tablet. “Error. Build may be invalid. Would SJ please report to the Arcade.” I blinked “Build may be invalid? What the hell?” I set down my coffee and headed to the Arcade… it’s strange. I can teleport pretty much as fast as I think, and fly, and move at hypersonic speed… and… I don’t. Not normally. Sure, I jump off the balcony all the time, as stairs are for chumps. But under normal circumstances I just walk wherever I’m going at a normal rate… at least if it’s close. I guess Flash does too, come to think of it. Why does God Need a Starship? Because it has comfortable seating.

“Wazzup, funky butt?” I asked the Banker as I entered the Arcade. He favored me with a look that seemed pained, and a little abashed.

“Please. Do not call me that,” he said as an opener, but I didn’t apologize and after a moment he said, “Ahem… very well… we’ve had an update to the Jumptree. It is a fairly major revision, and so, rather than merely updating the individual builds and sending point corrections…” He trailed off and Mensarius finished.

“He means his ‘staff’ are inept and can’t just make things perfect on the first pass, so they occasionally have to fix oversights.”

“Wait… Update? The Hell? Have there been updates to places I’ve already been?”

“Of course!” Mensarius sneered. “You just don’t notice because they’re minor. A change of wording here, an option that wasn’t there before. Remember the Harry Potter Jump? An ability to control Fiendfyre has been added. And the price of the Philosopher’s Stone reduced slightly.” I mmm’d, then shrugged. It was like… finding out your cable provider had a new deal that you couldn’t get because you’d signed up last month when the deal was different.

“So… when it actually affects me?”

“We try to keep on top of such things, though obviously we can’t know how you would have chosen…” The Banker assured me. “This one just came through at the exact right time. In fact, an update to Bioshock Infinite’s Jumptree came through within the same window, so had you gone there immediately, there would have been an issue as well, though not of the same scale.”

“Okay… so… what’s changed?” I asked, flopping back into my command console.

“Two new races have been added, Fragment… the ‘child’ of an Old One, and Icon… an Artificial being from a magical tome called ‘The Book of Eibon’. Monster Cat’s exclusivity to those who take the Witch Origin has been removed. Witch and Earth Shaman have been updated. You can now buy a Hybrid Racial Origin and there are Racial Perks now.” The Banker began, and I raised my eyebrows. That was a lot… and he wasn’t finished.

“Maka Chop’s price has been halved. The Ripper Perk from the Drop-In line has been given greater flexibility and rebranded as ‘Slasher’ Soul Perception has an upgrade tier. Anti-Madness Wavelength’s price has been reduced. There are 8 new Drop-In Perks, 15 new Meister Perks, 8 new Demon Weapon Perks, 9 new Witch Perks, 36 new items…” I gacked. I was going to have to reconsidered everything… and where was I going to get points for this nonsense? I manifested a slab of ice and banged my head against it. Too much of a good thing.

And he kept going “Magical Being and Totemic have been combined into a single perk with optional upgrades. Levitation has been clarified. A number of Deamon Weapon customization perks have been added, with discounting and pricing changes all across the board. There are two new Companion Import Options… plus 5 new Drawbacks… and,” Mensarius smirked as the Banker said the last, “The Drawback Cap has been raised to 1000.” I banged my head against the ice again and groaned. “And notes explaining who the Old Ones are have been added.” I blinked at that.

“Oh? Really? Huh. They hadn’t come up in the Anime, so I wasn’t even aware that they were a thing. Who are they, anyway? Cthulian abominations?”

The Jumpotron cleared the center screen and five beings appeared in silhouette. Two were instantly recognizable as Death and Excalibur, though they bore the subtitles ‘Great Old One of Order’ and ‘Great Old One a Wrath’. “Excalibur is a Great Old One? I thought he was a Demon Weapon… lovely. No wonder he tries to drive everyone crazy by making them so angry they can’t think.” the other three were listed as ‘Asura, Great Old One of Wrath’, ‘Eibon, Great Old One of Knowledge’, and the fifth was nameless as ‘Great Old One of Power’. I shuddered “Lovely. Two Wrath GOOs. this world is borked. The screen shivered, then the Wrath after Asura’s name was erased and replaced with Fear.

I looked over at The Banker. “Are you subcontracting with otaku to write these things?” I asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“They prefer to call themselves fans. We call them Crafters. And… err… yes. If an author composes a Jump I deem worthy, and it gets enough… you’d call it ratings… from those beings who are subscribed to syndication… then the author gains a free subscription to the syndication and access to their own reality to play with and shape to their desires.”

“To play God,” Mensarius explained, unnecessarily.

“Err… yes. But also to potentially create more interesting experiences.  Of course, most fail to even earn that prize, and of those who make it that far, most fail in the later tests.” The Banker explained.

“I see? So… Benefactors fund Jumpers to create content, and fund… Crafters to define the parameters that a Jumper will use to interact with a Setting. The Jumpers are paid in power to interact and grow, the Crafters are paid in subscription to the adventures of others, and get their own sandbox if they do well enough at Crafting.  Sounds like a racket, and if you can profit off it, I guess it works.”

I shook my head and sighed, then rolled my gaze to look at the drawbacks section… and regretted it. Yeah, there were new Drawbacks… two in the 200s and three in the 100s… and all of them were just… agony. ‘Maddeningly Lost’ was the least ghastly and it would make me ‘Disturbingly prone to getting lost, even in places I should be incredibly familiar with’. Like… ‘You need a guide all the time.’ Lonely Melody’ would make me deaf to all sounds besides Music, and only music for music’s purpose could be heard. Geeeh. ‘Cut Off Uppercrust’ would make me painfully oblivious to the realities of commoner life… and all three of those were 100s!

The 200s, ‘Working out the Kinks’ and ‘All Black’ were just horrifying. The first would make  all my old skills (and powers, but I’d already sold those to the Challenge Mode) beyond rusty… as in worse than not having them at all. Try to fight someone with Karate and kick yourself in the head kind of garbage. The second would strip away all my ability to find fulfillment that didn’t stem from destruction, schadenfreude, or sadism.

“Wow… this is just… evil. Fuck.  I… guess, if I need them, I can take Maddeningly Lost, Working out the Kinks, and Cut Off Uppercrust… in that order… but I’m faintly hoping I won’t.” I then went to see what they’d done to Witch. The first note said ‘You may choose two 100 CP Origin perks to be free, and Witches gain Totemic Magic’ for free… which meant that two 200 CP perks that had been free were now one 200 CP perk that was still free… I didn’t know if I should feel ripped off or not. Then I read the changes, and did feel ripped off. “I have to pay to turn into my corresponding animal now? Seriously? You took away part of the power and now want me to pay to get it back?”

“In trade, you get two new items for free!” the Banker explained rapidly, waving his hands and looking a little annoyed… at Mensarius for some reason. Mensarius on the other hand shrugged “Not my fault. Don’t blame me.” he seemed to say.

“Okay? Thrill me with these new things that are designed to make up for the nerfing.”

“You get a Style Signature… it’s not an item per se, but something similar. If you take it, you may restyle all your possessions, past, present, and future with a theme of your choice. And you can pick whether that representation applies to an item or not, and if the representation is literal or esoteric!” I blinked, then yawned. “So I can make everything I buy have a ferret theme if I want? Yaaaaay.” I mean, it wasn’t a terrible thing, and I could turn into a ferret with my Dook-Dook fruit powers… but still… shapeshifting vs thematic branding? Siiigh.

“And the other?”

“You get an Apothecary Station… it’s a nice big cupboard full of glass bottles to store potions in, and a recipe book full of minor potions with a variety of effects… cosmetic changes, to weight loss to poisons, acids, and elixirs of youth… though no ingredients-” I frowned at him and he hurried to explain, “Whatever you put in the bottles will be preserved pretty much forever!”

I sighed… then nodded, reluctantly. “Fine. I’ll take it. I guess. But only because I have another way of doing it and because I haven’t finalized. You try stripping out sections of powers like this again and we’re going to grandfather that bitch, you understand?”

The Banker looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded, slowly. “I understand. That’s fine.”

I spent quite some time considering the new Witch Perks… but finally decided against taking any of them… well… almost. I did trade in the largely useless Levitation for the only marginally more useful ‘Mother May I’, which was one of the new options and granted me skill at raising children so that they’d grow up into the kind of adults I’d want them to grow up to be… regardless of outside corruptive or protective influences. It might come in handy… and wasn’t something I could already do particularly well, having never actually tried to raise children. I barely had a clue how to deal with the Twins.

I honestly considered taking nothing new from the revised document. It was nice stuff, but I already had a vision for myself in this jump and it didn’t benefit from most of these frankly insane abilities or items (I could buy the Fucking MOON!)… but one dinky 100 CP perk from the Meister line shown out in the darkness. It was called ‘Ambition Without Arrogance.’ and it meant that, no matter how proud and confident in my abilities I became, I’d know my limits. I’d always be crystal clear on my limitations, lacking the capacity to overestimate myself or blind myself to my shortcomings… it was a sense of perspective, and as I was becoming more and more powerful, that might be a very important thing to have. So that got added to Maddening Lost and rolled into my build. I was about to discard the other two drawbacks and closed my build for the second time… when I considered that maybe having Clowns attacking my restaurant every week might be worse than being super rusty at old skills and being a clueless rich girl. I swapped in those 300 CP for the Clowns and breathed a little easier. Now my companions would have to deal with me being an idiot savant instead of being a trouble magnet. I think Mensarius looked crestfallen.

Double checking the list, I discovered a new Immortal Racial Perk I’d gotten as that race’s Freebie and smirked. It was called ‘This Works!’ and made me absurdly good at finding and using improvised weaponry… and made those things I used as weapons more durable than they otherwise would be.

“Right… now I have to go explain to the rabble why they have to reconsider their own builds. I’ll be out there, ducking bricks and tomatoes.”

“Better you than me!” Mensarius called as I exited the chamber.

By the time I got back to my office, every single one of the tablets was flashing a “Build Update” warning, though some were flashing “Approval Needed” or “Invalid Build” or “Rebuild in Progress” or “Master Input Required” as well. I sorted them into piles by type, then looked at the MIR pile first. It consisted of the tablets for Atura, Sophie, Ziggy, and the Astraea trio.

MASCOTS & TEAM ABSENTIA AD ASTRA

I selected Atura’s tablet first to see what was up. The screen showed two sections, one for Soul Eater, the other for Three Stars… and how appropriate, since Meisters were ranked from zero to three stars…. The first thing I noticed was that the list of freebies from the Soul Eater Side had changed. In addition to the Sick Wheels skateboard, there were two new items; ‘Here Lies Jumper’ and ‘Spin Me Right Round’. Figuring that I’d need to know what those were sooner or later, considering how many of my companions were about to become Meisters, I hit the info button… and cringed.

Here Lies was a personalized headstone, a stupidly durable, weaponizable, comes with an open grave in a nearby graveyard headstone. That was spectacularly unuseful, especially for a being like Atura which was not just immortal… Atura was amortal. Spirits didn’t mature and grow. They were just… were. Spin Me was, potentially, even less useful for a spirit, since it was an extremely comfortable swivel chair which doubled as a recliner and never feel over accidentally… it even came with swivel chair combat training so Atura could fight while rolling around in the chair… which is fine (if a bit silly) for normal companions… but Atura had no physical form. Well, at least I could use the chair, I guess. Not this jump, thanks to my reduced height, but… yeah.

The only other change was that, instead of getting ‘Declaration!’ Free, there was now a choice of five… including the ‘Ambition Without Arrogance’ that I’d taken myself.  Atura didn’t need that. The Spirit was pretty much free of either ambition or arrogance as a default. Mostly it was just curious.  The others were ‘Rebel Yale’ which would make Atura a really good and smart student… not necessary… but potentially good, since Atura was keen on soaking up experiences and information; ‘Because We’re Friends’, which which meant that Atura’s friends would put up with his bullshit more… except I was Atura’s only friend (well, me and Soul of Ice and Silent Judge… who were just major parts of me)… and would help Atura put up with our bullshit… which he did automatically by virtue of not really understanding that any of it was bullshit; ‘Patience of a Saint’… which Atura didn’t need because, as far as I could tell, the only way Atura could get mad was if someone spirit bent him into one of those dark spirits; and of course Declaration!

Since four of the five were useless to the spirit (Atura pretty much only talked to me and the various bits of me, and wasn’t the most emotional of spirits, thus negating the value of  Declaration!) I clicked on Rebel Yale and sealed that side. Which left the cooking side… and there were very few of those that didn’t require having a body… so I pretty much took ‘Bistro’ (get coworkers to work faster and more efficiently if you help out) and ‘Staffing Solutions’ (any business you’re a manager or similar at won’t be short staffed or have absenteeism or staff meltdowns) which spent the spirit out on that front too, and locked the build. Then I hit myself in the forehead for signing up for reviewing all these builds. Things I do for friends.

Ziggy’s tablet was, of course, empty, since he only used it to play that game where you bop hologramatic fish. Well, not empty. He’d spent 7000 CP on every regional cooking style on Earth and then some… and Baking. Knowing my little buddy, he’d just poked the strange pictures until they went away and gave him his game back… or got bored and fell asleep on the tablet. From 3-Stars I bought the little fuzzbutt ‘Your Heart is Pure’ since his was. Soul Eater was trickier… Demon Weapons had their choice of two free perks from a list of three, and figuring out what would be useful for a very silly fluffbrain was tricky… or should have been… but the answer was, as it often is, obvious once you think like a ferret.

The choices were ‘Better to Ask Forgiveness’, ‘Backseat Driver’, and ‘Perfect Pitch’. Backseat was all about providing emotional support and catching things that went unnoticed by a busy and hyper focused partner. So that was a yes, since he was my emotional support snugglebuddy most times. Perfect Pitch was all about being a music prodigy… Ziggy had no interest in music at all. Not only did he have no sense of rhythm (his idea of dancing was pretty much just flailing about wildly) he couldn’t actually speak besides making ooks, dooks, and squeaks. Singing was right out. Which pretty much ruled that out and left Better Ask… which was about doing something wrong and getting forgiven by honestly apologizing. Not that Ziggy would use it, since he had no idea what he was being scolded about…ever. Ferrets have no concept of negative reinforcement. None. He’d run headfirst into a wall, then do it again because the wall hadn’t moved yet. Still, it guaranteed that people would forgive him easier, which he frankly needed.

I wasn’t really feeling what kind of weapon Ziggy should be… well, I mean, I was already picturing him as a Chainsaw Halberd, but that was just a form. I didn’t know what to do to make the form a reality. So I read through the various Student Weapon perks… and found what I was looking for at the very end. It was called ‘Wavelength Entity’ and cost half of Ziggy’s points. It would allow the Zig to take on a purely spiritual form and bond with the soul of his meister (me) as a host, empowering me while entrusting me with his weapon form. It would grant a form of serene resonance with anyone he formed a genuine connection with, a link that would bind their souls to him upon their deaths, becoming one with him, a kind of gestalt soul… one that would only grow over time. It would allow us to take on a hybrid form, allowing his meister (again me) to share his powers. It was nice… and it referenced another perk called ‘Uncanny Blade’, which was 200 more, and was also nice. It granted the Zig a kind of super mode that would boost his and his wielder’s physical abilities while granting thematic abilities based on a chosen theme… one based around an element or basic object… for which I chose fangs, because, well… Have you seen the teef on a ferret? Ouchie.

Demon Weapons had their own customization section as well, all about shaping their weapon form. As a default, they had the ability to safely control their weapon transformation and shift between normal and weapon forms quickly and easily. Not only could they transform between the two forms, they could do so piecemeal, though the transformation was one to one, so a hand that turned into a blade would always turn into a blade.  

They could also communicate with the people wielding them through direct soul to soul communication. They also had ‘Mundane Weapon Form’ a basic melee or ranged weapon, such as a sword or gun, but not a chansaw. It was free, so I picked Halberd for some reach, well… more of a Chinese Dragon Blade… though Ziggy would have a ferret / luck dragon motif. Also free was ‘Energy Amplification’, which meant that, while in weapon form, Ziggy (or any of the Demon Weapons) would amp their wielder’s natural energy rather than producing their own. It was like the Meister was a musical instrument and the Demon Weapon was the Amp. That was Soul Wavelength Amplification in action, the sound of the Meister’s Soul amped by a weapon they were in perfect sync with.

Rather ridiculously, the tablet told me that Ziggy also got ‘Alternative Ammo’… which was unlimited spiritual ammo… powered by the Meister’s spiritual energy and useful only to Ranged Demon Weapons… which ZIggy wasn’t. But if I changed my mind, or for the others, it would mimic the shape of whatever it was replacing, arrows, bullets, grenades, etc… and would reflect any elemental affinity the Weapon might have. I guess it was nice, though Ziggy was more stabby bitey than shooty… unless I strapped on his chaingun… and then everything just got holes as he danced about.

Demon Weapons could also become Death Scythes as I’d outlined previously, and that meant they had to have the power to consume souls, though it was a negligible boost they gained from doing so up until that final transformation. I’d have to keep an eye on Ziggy to make sure he didn’t eat any souls he shouldn’t be eating. He was goofy like that.

There were a great many customization options, some discounted, some free… but I knew what I wanted for Ziggy, and went looking for it. Adjustments was a free pick and allowed the Zig to manifest only parts of the weapon form, such as being a staff instead of a Halberd… or just a big knife, that kind of thing. But the real gold was ‘Mechanical Weapon Form’ which cost the last 100 he had, and that added a Chainsaw blade to the top of the Halberd staff. All was good.

I was about to close it out, when I noticed that the Item tab was flashing. I’d forgotten that Ziggy would get items even if he couldn’t use them. Apparently Demon Weapons got a Forest Hotspring that wasn’t so much an item as the fact that, no matter where he was in the world, no matter how unlikely it might be to find one there, every forest would contain a hotspring just beyond the treeline if we looked for it. Weapons also got a pair of ‘Dead-Phones’, which were magical noise canceling headphones with perfect sound quality leading to a hammerspace Ipod with all of Ziggy’s favorite tracks… I don’t think he had any favorite tracks… maybe I’d borrow it. He’d let me if I asked, right? And last was a ‘Love & Care Kit’ which was essentially a first-aid / maintenance kit to be used by the Meister on the Weapon for cleaning and repairs. I’d add it to the basket of Ziggy brushes and vitamins and nail clippers.

Closing out the Ziggy report, I picked up Sophie’s slate, expecting to have to run through it as well… but it was filled out already. She’s a good doggy, and much smarter than her brother (Ziggy, not Mouse… Mouse is plenty smart). Sophie had also taken ‘Your Heart is Pure’ from the Challenge, possibly to balance out the inherent craziness of the Soul Eater Drop In Line. As freebies from Drop-In, she’d selected ‘Sorrowful Howling’ and ‘Family’… neither of which I remembered reading. I hit the info and chuckled. Apparently either my dog or the system was being a smart ass. Howling was a relabeled version of ‘Despair Corner’ which was all about making sad, depressing art, while ‘Family’ was a relabel of ‘Thicker’ which enforced familial relationships, so a mom would have to treat a daughter like a mom should… weird, but from Sophie’s standpoint, probably important.

With her points, she’d bought ‘BARK!’ (a rename of Declaration!) as well as Strong Soul, Unclear Fate, and Mad Moves… none of which had been renamed. Strong Soul was exactly what it said on the tin and granted additional potency to any soul based abilities she possessed and came with peak physical condition as well. It was also a threat, since a Strong Soul was worth 99 normal souls. Mad Moves I had to read three times understand what it was saying. It essentially was permission to act as insane and weird as possible without sacrificing any effectiveness. Crawl as fast as you can run, flick someone with the full force of a haymaker, walk on two fingertips… with your body parallel to the ground, wield a sword with your vagina… didn’t matter how illogical, as long as it was tangentially related to the action you were approximating.

Unclear Fate, on the other hand, was just freaky-weird. It would allow her to submerge herself into a material and melt into it… all without losing any control over her body. So she could bury herself in sand, or sour cream, or water, and become sand… or sour cream… or water. Very strange. But if it made her a happy puppy, who was I to argue?

As a drop in, she also got three items potentially even more useless than those the Meisters got. They were Loose Screw (a screw-shaped knob used to tune your thinking… mounted to the side of your skull… or rather, mounted into the side of the skull. I deselected it for her. I don’t need frankenpooch.) plus Death’s Mask and Cloak (a face mask that reflected your emotions to comedic effect and an all concealing shadowy cloak that hid the wearer’s true shape and size). Sophie didn’t wear clothing… not even a collar.

Astraea, Garl, and Selen were ‘Team Not-Appearing-In-This-Jump’, but I still had their authority passcode master, so I could pick anything I wanted for them. I selected ‘Your Heart is Pure’ for all of them, because that’s the kind of people they were, then decided to emulate Soul Eater Not (the Slice of Life spin off of Soul Eater all about the remedial program at the school and full of yuri / teen lesbian themes), in which the MC was a Demon Weapon girl with two other girls as her Meisters. To that end, Astraea became the Demon Weapon (Better Ask Forgiveness & Backseat Driver plus Adjustments) with Black Blood / Black Blood Weapon, while the Vinland Siblings became Meisters, Garl getting Patience of a Saint and the upgraded Grigori Soul, Selen getting Because We’re Friends… plus the Icon race (Totemic Magic – Lion, Stranger Things, Reading Rainbow), Maka Chop, and Trump Card.

Black Blood was Soul Eater’s version of the corruption of Demon Souls and thus something I knew Astraea would have embraced, as she was very much a martyr, willing to take on personal damnation to save others. It replaced the blood in the victim’s body with a substance that improved recovery time, strength of immune system, blood circulation, as well as physical strength and speed… effectively turning them into a Kishin (an evil monster)… and induced insanity in the person infected by it… which would have been terrible… but that insanity was lessened in impact after the end of this jump, a jump which she would quite likely never visit. The quality of the insanity varied from individual to individual and the specific insanity was up to her… or me. I selected ‘Martyr Complex’ and the system accepted it.

A Black Blood infectee could, if they were in control, make use of the blood’s other properties… such as it could become hyperdense at will, giving the infectee incredibly durable subcutaneous armor, armor that could quickly seal and heal any open wound… such as being able to control, harden, sharpen, and launch any blood that was outside of the infectee’s body… and that was for a normal person. But she was a Demon Weapon now (or would be soon), and Black Blood Weapons had additional abilities. They could liquify for a second or two, self repair thanks to being essentially memory metal, and transform into other weapons for a time. But most horrible of all, they could transmit their own madness to those they injured, spreading the infection. Yes… she was now a sword that could inflict the desire to sacrifice one’s self for others upon those she cut. There was a horrible kind of poet justice in that. After the jump, the Black Blood’s infectiveness would be at will only.

The Icon race was an artificial form of witch (all male, so Sorcerers), and all named Noah (besides Selen), created by Ebion, Great Old One of Knowledge (didn’t know Knowledge was Madness… very Cthulhian logic there). In fact, Icons weren’t just created by Ebion… they were the 7 chapters of the Book of Ebion given physical form. By making her an Icon I was making her a kind of appendix to the book… and I’d made her as powerful as an Icon normally was (far beyond that of a normal Witch). Shame she wasn’t here to help out. Icons got a power called ‘Stranger Things’ which was a guarantee that she’d be fated, even in the most boring world, to meet, see, or experience the most fantastical, interesting, or outright bizarre things that would had to offer. Reading Rainbow was another Icon ability which granted her the power to turn books, or chapters from them, into living beings based on the book, chapter, or even a specific fictional character. The amount of effort Selen pushed into that process (and yes, she could use external energy sources to fuel it) would determine just how powerful the created being was.  It was a fascinating ability.

I also gave her the Soul Eater MC’s primary attack, “Maka Chop” which was a powerful blow with a book summoned specifically to smash in the top of someone idiot’s head. It was purely comedic, bypassing normal forms of durability and protection and leaving a temporary dent in the victim’s head. She could then read the book if she wanted. And I tossed in Trump Card, which made secret attacks that one had been holding back extra effective the first few times they were used. Seemed like Selen’s style.

By the time I’d finished with the MIR… though I really hadn’t had to do anything with Sophie’s tablet, all the others were clear except the Approval Needed flashing on Raven, Brigid, Cirno, and the Twin’s tablets, all of which had specific restrictions in the system

PARTNERS, PASSENGERS, & PROBLEM CHILDREN

Figuring I should deal with the problem children first, I put that off just long enough to check what changes had been made to Toph’s build… not that I’d gotten past the freebies last time. The only change there was that she’d replaced ‘Declaration!’ with ‘Patience of a Saint’, which was a good change. D was more Sokka’s thing.

She’d also grabbed up ‘Strong Soul’, ‘Soul Perception’, and the amusingly named ‘I Will Surpass God!’. Being able to see the souls of the living was a common ability among pretty much all the beings of this world who weren’t vanilla mortals, but Soul Perception was more powerful than that. It could detect hidden or invisible enemies, ID the type of soul and its race of origin, the power of the soul… and even see the mental health of a target. With time and practice, someone with that gift would be able to identify a familiar person based only on their soul data, or even leave the sense on in passive mode. ‘I Will Surpass’, clearly based on the idiotic Black Star (and I refused to even think the star between those two words), was entirely about training, and training hard… and made any such training not only more effective but as effective in training the body as the soul. Meditation could make her stronger… and weight lifting could make her more enlightened… and even effects that amped the physical would amp the spiritual… and vis versa. Any Meister with IWSG would even find that the Soul Amplification from syncing with their Demon Weapon would make them stronger and faster as long as the sync lasted.

I was about to move on to the actual problem children… when it occurred to me that I’d paired Toph with Dyna… might as well check out what the alien had picked up. I’d assigned the least human of my companions to the roll of Utility in the restaurant, simply because she didn’t exactly act like a person at the best of times. That might not matter in as strange a setting as this, but she also wasn’t a people person and found humans a bit confounding. I didn’t want to stress her by putting her in front of crowds.  Which made her part of the supporting crew, where she was happiest being. She too had taken Gardener, which brought the size of the farm to 256 acres, as well as ‘Attention to Detail’ and ‘Talk the Talk’, a general perk that allowed the taker to describe anything so that it sounds fascinating or amazing, or whatever other emotion the speaker desired. It worked especially well on the jaded and dismissive, overcoming ennui and striking at what had made them interested in the first place.

As a Demon Weapon, things got more dangerous quickly, of course. She’d taken Backseat Driver and Perfect Pitch (yes, Dyna liked singing, at least when no one was watching), and the Enhanced Mundane Weapon Form, a gauntlet… to which she’d added Mechanical Weapon From, and Organic Weapon Form… to create Technorganic Power Armor… ouch… She also had ornamental ribbons and active stealth… and the Active Transformation ability, which would allow her to leap across the space between herself and Toph or tackle people even while in weapon form… and she’d scooped up the Drop-In’s Slasher perk to give herself bladed appendages… oh… so unpleasant.  But she seemed to think bladed limbs would help with gardening… and she was probably right, if E. Scissorhands was any indication. With her last 100 she’d picked up the Witch’s ‘Lonesome Toad’ perk which made her easy to overlook. Sad, but in keeping with her character.  I labeled them ‘Team Whipcord’.

The twins too had been assigned to Utility, which I suspect their minder (Tokimi this time round) had taken as an opportunity to banish them to the farm as well, since they too were Gardeners (512 acres), and also had Attention to Detail… but they’d managed to convince someone to allow them to take Superior Bladesmen… I let it slide, since it was knifework not swords… and they already knew more swordsmanship than Aragorn. As a Demon Weapon… I went into their build and replaced Better to Ask Forgiveness with Perfect Pick… didn’t need thos brats with BAF… no sireee. Administrator Privileges for the Win! They’d taken Unorthodox Weapon Form… then taken Multiple Weapon Transformation, which gave them a total of 5 Unorthodox Weapon Forms. They had a list. They were all very silly… a pair of car doors from a 1974 Buick Skylark… I don’t even know if that’s a real car… a pair of comically large boxing gloves… a pair doublebarrel winchester repeating rifles… a double ended Buddhist Priest’s staff with storm lanterns on either end… and a pair of cartoon cannons. Why? I’ve no idea, but they’d paired the weird weapons with the ability to modify the form of damage they did via ‘Melee Damage Alteration’… have you ever been pierced by a boxing glove? Didn’t think so.

They had also spent points getting a Special Ability, in their case one called Twin Teleportal which allowed one two teleport to the location of the other, or the two of them to open a standing portal between their locations… and they’d taken Wavelength Communication so they could link up and use each other as a Meister-Weapon Pair if Tokimi wasn’t around. I suspected that last was her idea, since the boys were not, exactly, simpatico. They fought constantly and schemed against each other no end.

Having checked them, I figured I might as well check Tokimi-chan herself… and found myself wondering why she’d slotted herself in as a Busser. I sent her a querry on the subject, and got back a complete staffing chart that I hadn’t created. It even had a name for the restaurant… “Bar Ziggy”. Toph must have whipped it up at some point while I was with the Bankers. Tokimi, Cirno, and Raven were listed as Bussers, with Frankie, Mini, Kohina, Kendra, and Francine as Waitstaff, Reggy as Maitre D, and Kagetane and Meetra behind the bar. That was Toph’s idea of a Front of House breakdown… and it was so reasonable I almost wanted to argue with her about it.

She’d also broken down the Utility personnel into Supply Side (i.e the Farm… Brigid, Yuzuha, Dyna, and the Twins… which meant the total farm size was about 2048 acres, or just about 3 square miles… which was silly. An acre could produce, with modern techniques, 100 bushels of wheat per harvest… and could do so three to four times a year. A bushel is 60 pounds of wheat… or roughly 56 pounds of ground flour. Sure, we probably weren’t going to be growing our own wheat… wheat isn’t really that difficult to get right… but 2000+ acres was waaay more than we could eat… or a restaurant needed. I guess it was for experimentation.) and Drive Time (Uriel & Petra were assigned to Maintenance, RayRay and Caine as Drivers, and Ryoga and Ahab as our Utility people… i.e. dishwashers and floor scrubbers. Well… at least I hadn’t had to tell either of them that was their new assignment. Yes… yes… I was passing the buck… that’s what partners are for, right?)

Tokimi’s restaurant skills were Attention to Detail (a good thing for a busser to have), Fermenter (i.e. master of pickles, cheeses, and wines… something essentially useless for a busser), and Master Shopper (which suggested she was, perhaps, not particularly invested in being a Bussgirl… I didn’t hold out high hopes for Cirno either… maybe Raven would… naw… Bussing sucks.).  On the violence side, Tokimi had taken Eternal Question (is it male or female? Is it a goat or a waffle? It made figuring out specifics about her… frustrating… and I could see why she took it… besides the fact that it was free) and Slasher (Tokimi the Horror Movie Icon… I didn’t like the sound of that actually.) as well as Wavelength Communication (needed to be a Meister, even if you weren’t one by class choice) and Mad Moves. The two new perks she’d selected were Madness Wavelength (a toggleable and mild Aura of Madness that begins to corrupt the area and people around you very slowly to match your own particular madness… Tokimi’s theme was Answers) and Devoured One (Swallow someone, mind, body, and soul, and gain access to their full suite of powers and abilities… usually by manifesting part of them out of your mouth… and then regurgitate them later, shaken and unaware of what had happened, but otherwise fine… to free up space to do it to someone or something else. Limit one ingestee at a time.)

I dubbed Tokimi and the brats ‘Team Lighthawk’ and moved on to my passengers. Both had, apparently, opted to join this little vacation getaway to the land of Eating… although it was a working vacation. Why not pick up some free skills, or at least experiences, since their CP backing was entirely provisional. The good doctor had Gardener, Attention to Detail, and Try It, You’ll Like it (which coming from here was all kinds of creepy) from the food side, and ‘Thicker’, ‘Slasher’, ‘Madness Wavelength – Discovery’, plus something called ‘Big Top’ and something else called ‘Mad not Bad’. MnB turned out to be a haha, I’m not this I’m that kind of thing. If a damage type targeted the insane but not the evil, she was evil. If it targeted the evil but not the insane, she was insane. Very sneaky. Big Top, on the other hand, would allow Dr. T to manifest her very own Clowns out of her own Madness… infinitely curious Clown-monsters… this in noooo way could go disastrously bad. Why had I invited her along again? Riiiight… I’m not sane. Good note. Thanks me!

As I’d expected, Raven had taken Bussing terribly seriously… not. She’d picked up Brewmaster (for the tea no doubt), Attention to Detail, Iron Stomach (thinking back to the cooking chops of Beastboy and Starfire no doubt), and Talk the Talk. She’d also taken Slasher and Darkness Corner free… plus Strong Soul… and something called Enchanter (it came with free Enchanter’s Gloves)… as well as Maka Chop (which she no doubt was eager to get back home and try out on Garth… Beastboy) and an item called Halloween Year Round… which turned out to be an all but endless supply of candy (complete with bags designed to preserve freshness and keep out ants). Turns out Enchanters mix soul and similar materials with magic to create things… mostly golems… hence their other name, ‘Puppet Engineers’.

I looked out at the pile of tablets still in front of me and decided to go for a walk, clear my head… after one more pair. I should check on my normal partner before I went out among the hoi polloi. Kendra was to be the head waitress… and her build reflected it. She had Talk the Talk, Attention to Detail, and Iron Stomach, plus two of the three staff boosting perks; ‘Front of House’ (pretty much the perfect waitstaff deal… composed and or cheerful no matter what stressors they’re feeling, plus the ability to get even the grumpiest customer to open up and enjoy themselves… also guaranteed never to forget or mess up an order… unless she wanted to) and ‘And What to Drink?’ (Which was a sixth sense for what drinks people will like and what will go with which food, along with bartender and sommelier training).

As a Meister, she had the Patience of a Saint (seemed redundant… she’s put up with Zane for ages, despite his goofball attitude and frankly ridiculous number of affairs… not that I was better, of course, but I wasn’t even pretending to be monogamous… and I think he still out partnered me by a large margin. Not that any of my companions were actually saints in that regard… well, okay, I don’t think Astraea and Garl ever cheated on each other… and Sophie had only been with Mouse that I knew of… though she was a total cuddle slut… she just barked at me… apparently she knows when I’m thinking mean thoughts about her.), Strong Soul, Soul Perception… and something called ‘Anti-Demon Wavelength’, which sounded useful as hell… and it would be. The ADW was a special soul wavelength that specialized in driving away evil in all its forms. Defensively, it was a powered ward against madness, allowing passive sanity regeneration… even if driven over the edge into fullblown crazy. It could even be used to pull others out of madness (though that depended on how insane they were and how strong their soul was). Offensively? It could be infused into attacks to make them extra damaging against beings of madness (even normally intangible ones). And, through resonance, the ADW bearer could grant its benefits to allies… which was bad news for Clowns and Witches, Icons and Fragments alike.

It was all as practical as I’d come to expect from the ex-Slayer. The question was, had Zane been as on the ball? His build was bigger, since he was kitchen staff, so I was curious to see.

He’d gone the path of a Sous Chef… probably hoping to be my second in the kitchen since Toph would be running her own fief in the baked goods department… and specialized in Tamil cuisine… I really should spend some time in India some jump… though I’d never tried tamil food before… huh… should be interesting. His specialty was Poissonnier (not poisoner… a fish chef, including sushi… indian sushi… huh… He’d taken the entire Sous Chef line of perks, going all in; Attention to Detail, Staffing Solutions, Bistro!, and the capstone, Logistical Mind, which granted a constant awareness of the state of our supply chain and how much we had of every ingredient. A thought could fill out paperwork or place orders… orders guaranteed not to contain mistakes (though it didn’t prevent screw ups on supply side)… and once per week he could retroactively place an order so that it would arrive within the next quarter hour. That was cool.

He’d then squandered the remaining block of CP one the Charcutier capstone, ‘Baucher’… i.e. Butcher… which was a mastery of anatomy that meant any weapon or blade he wielded would cut where and when and what he wanted it to cut… on a living being.  I say squandered because a) Zane used guns almost exclusively, b) he was going to be the weapon in this jump, c) fish aren’t hard to cut up, and d) the defensive value (your skin also deflects all but the strongest cuts) was pretty much guaranteed to fail against anything we had to actually fight this jump. It was a good perk… but not one Zane could or would take the fullest advantage of. Maybe it would apply to guns… but cut wasn’t pierce… I guess we’d see.

As a the Demon Weapon of Team Warpath (They’d named themselves) he had Backseat Driver & Better Ask Forgiveness (good… even with perfect pitch Zane should not be singing), plus Enhanced Mundane Weapon Form (Anti-Materiel Rifle), Alternate Universe Weapon Form (Protonic Cannon), the Special Ability ‘Charge Up’… and more wasted points to buy ‘Autonomous’ which would allow him to transform any part of himself into any part of his weapon forms and fight as a half-transformed weapon. Talk about not trusting Kendra… Siiigh.

BOSSES & BADASSES

Setting down the tablets, I walked onto my balcony and yelled “Oy! Team Mini-Boss, Team Vampire, Team Fine China… get your asses over to the Atrium and pick a spot. I’ll be by in ten minutes to try out your dishes. Team Bicker and Team Pigbear… I’ll meet you in the Grand Hall in an hour. Try not to disappoint me.  Team Cassandra, Iceheart, Sundown… you’re last… three hours, poolside.” I didn’t tell any of them what teams they were on, I didn’t have to. We’d been together too long for that to be necessary.

I took my time changing into a fleece jacket and uggs (purely an affectation, since I didn’t experience discomfort being cold… or hot… or really at all), then wandered into the Atrium Dome… it was essentially a botanical garden full of footpaths and small semi-secluded hot tubs and seating areas. I found Joy & Ahab by the model of Trevi Fountain and sat down at one of the small bistro tables and accepted a macciato from one of the butlerbots. Zane and Toph joined me a bit later.

“So… what have you prepared for us today?” I asked, looking all spiffy and bosslike. Joy had gone with a deconstructed grilled cheese and tomato sandwich… it was a bit of a mess, but surprising and not terrible. “And your builds?”

“French cuisine… because someone had to. Eggman Specialization… thats eggs and all the breakfast foods… because someone had to.  Sous Chef all in… because someone had to.” I elbowed Zane to keep him from interrupting, but Joy saw it and smirked. “Someone competent.” she added, then continued, “Saucier Specialization too, since it’s pretty much vital from what I understand… and I Am the Walrus for three reasons. Delicate touch, stamina… and because the Beatles rule.” I nodded, she was right on all counts… Kookoocachu.

“But I changed your design,” she said. “I know you designated me as the Meister of this team… but we talked,” she crooked a thumb at Ahab who gave me a look that said ‘Joy talked, I grunted’. “And decided that we’d both be Autonomous Demon Weapons with Wavelength Communication so we could pair off with each other. Gives us more flexibility. And we work together often enough that in future it’ll be useful. So my weapon form is designed for Ahab’s hands and his for mine.” She waited for me to respond, but I just raised an eyebrow. She sighed “Look, I know it was blowing 66% of our CP, but it made the most sense. I’ll be a Harpoon with Pinprick… that’s essentially extra damage  with the tip… and I took this thing called Eternal Question… I see you know it.” She smiled as I chuckled.

“Okay… yes… know it… and I’m thinking of the ‘Get the Point’ style puns now… so fine. You’re big boys and we’ve got enough combat depth going into this that we should be able to fight off the entire Shibusen even if we’ve been stripped of all our other perks. Though the goal is pretty much to lay low and be restaurant types.  Ahab? What’s your form… tiny little pistol?”

“Boom Box,” he grunted and I looked a Joy.

“Big, heavy enough to hurt, and sonic damage is seldom something things have defense against,” she explained. “He’s got Elemental Manipulation… which means he could even be a boombox that produces silence. He also picked Backseat and Better Ask… and Little Ogre, which is this weird thing that allows you to manifest your inner issues and weaknesses… then beat them up to grow stronger and overcome them.”

I blinked… that hadn’t been in the original I’d read, must have been added in the update. It was kinda funny. “Sounds good. Okay, we’ll go with that. What about on the restaurant side?”

“Master Shopper, Attention to Detail, Brewmaster.” he grunted and I grunted back. Wasn’t like being a UT took much besides Attention to Detail, and with Master Shopper I could send him to get supplies… and he could help with our inhouse microbrews.

“Good. Good. Now get lost and go have fun. Tell everyone that while having fun will be, of course, tolerated, anyone who goes mad gets put in stasis for a decade after this jump ends… and then gets therapy for another jump… same for anyone who OD’s or gets hooked on any narcotics or booze. If I get hooked, I’ll find a way to punish myself. We’re here to work, not to party.” They nodded and left, then i looked to my partners.

“Well?”

“I hope her cooking gets better… that was the worst grilled cheese I’ve ever had that wasn’t on white bread with fake cheese.” Zane commented.

Toph shrugged “It was okay… but the tomato was sliced too thick and the bread was soggy.”

We walked and talked on our way across the Atrium to the New Orleans Jazz Bayou… I’d never been a fan of Jazz, but Zane was, and I could tolerate it if it was upbeat enough. I got a mint Julep and looked to Caine, Meetra, and Bart. “Bart, you’re in the kitchen, so that officially makes you the team leader, even though Caine’s the Meister… I want everyone to be clear on this… the restaurant side is what’s important. The fighting is only for defense of that and the customers. Hunting the bad guys is for the good guys… we’re the food guys. Got me?” Caine shrugged, Meetra looked doubtful, but Bart nodded… intensely practical that one. “That said… Caine, you’ve been slotted as a Driver… I assume that means you’ll be doing pickup of supplies and delivery. You okay with that?”

He nodded, then grinned, “Not like I wasn’t a driver when we met, right?” I chuckled and nodded back. “I figured you’d rely on me to get you what you need, so I went Master Shopper, Attention to Detail, and Taste Tester. If I can get good supplies without needing too much guidance, it’ll help, right?” Zane gave him a thumbs up and Toph raised her ice tea to him. “I picked up Madness Wavelength – Bloodlust… I know it pretty well, after all… and it could be useful… plus Strong Soul and Soul Menace.”

“Menace… that’s the one that allows you to focus your soul wavelength into an actual attack, right?” Zane asked.

Caine grinned… “Yeah… and my wavelength is pure bloodlust and hunger.” I gulped despite myself… he wasn’t joking. He could very well qualify as the Great Old One of Hunger without much trouble if the Challenge wasn’t nerfing him… then again, I could be the GOO of Ice, Entropy, or Sarcasm without trying if I wasn’t limiting myself to try and win a restaurant.

“What about Chuckles and Giggles over there?” Toph asked, hooking a thumb at the Demon-Weapons-to-be.

“Meetra took Empathetic Response… that’ll allow her to sense whenever one of us are facing emotional troubles and figure out what’s causing them and help deal with them. She’s essentially volunteering to be the Counseling department… or part of it if anyone else takes it. She’s also going to be a Light Manipulating Lightsaber… which can modulate what kind of damage it does.”

“So… like… a Lighthammer?” Zane asked.

“A light noose!” Toph chuckled.

“Something light… er… like that. Yes,” the Jedi commented. “As the bartender, Attention to Detail, Brewmaster, Fermenter, And What to Drink… I get that free because you picked the Wine Cellar?” I confirmed and she continued, “Plus Try it, you’ll like it… it was either that or Talk the Talk, but Kagetane took that, so I took TIYLI instead… he’s the other Sommelier apparently?” I confirmed, then turned to Bart, who presented me with a very nice chinese style steak… as in all things he turned his hand too, Bart was a perfectionist.

“Meat is your specialty?” I asked.

“Yes. Argentine style cooking focuses very heavily on meat, so I went with both… plus went all in on Charcutier’s perkline. Sandwich Maker makes me good at pairing ingredients and makes me tops at layering them into a stack or wrap.  Method to Madness gives me control over heat and is thematically appropriate,” I thought about it and then chuckled… he wasn’t kidding. “Don’t Get Out of the Kitchen makes me heat resistant to the boiling point of water, and Baucher-”

“I have it. She knows.” Zane said and Bart nodded.

“I also went with Attention to Detail, Superior Bladesman, Taste Tester… though that’s more for personal pleasure… and spycraft… and Fermenter, since I know how much you like Pastrami, chief.” I laughed.

“Suckup,” muttered Toph.

“I’ll make Thousand Year Eggs for you,” The operative offered and Toph laughed in turn.

“Okaaay. Okay. You win.  But I’m holding you to that.”

I tried not to gag.  Uuuugh. Deliberately rotten eggs. Gross. In a bid to change the subject, I asked for his weapon build.

“Special Ability called ‘Tracker’… Enhanced Mundane Weapon for vibro-sword. Perfect Pitch… SOul Perception… Pulling Potential.”

“What’s that?” Toph asked.

“Means I’m a better amp, able to get more ooomph out of my partner’s soul.”

“Oh. Cool. If you get bored of him Caine-”

“Mine!” the Vampire Progenator snarled and Toph grinned.

“Oooo scary. The Boulder is intimidated.”

“Who?” Caine asked.

“The Boulder does not have to explain herself to you.” Toph snarked.

I flicked her ear, “You are not the Boulder.”

“I could be the Boulder.”

“You could be the Pebble.”

“I can bite you.”

“Later,” I promised, “We’re keeping Bao and Uriel waiting.”

Five minutes later, we found the duo at the duck pond (yes, complete with real ducks and some koi and catfish and minnows) having a picnic and not at all bothered by the wait. Uriel handed me a card that read

Uriel Septim VII – Restaurant Technician

  • Attention to Details – I am aware of my surroundings and coworkers needs
  • Bistro! – When I help out, things go smoother and faster
  • Keeping Up Appearances – I know how to maintain a restaurant
  • Professional Demon Weapon – I kill Kishin and eat their souls. Witches too.
    • Dragon Sword Form
    • Adjustments – I can change my weapon form at will
    • Soul Resonance Finisher – Me and my Meister can combine OOC special abilities into a big finishing technique
  • Earth Shaman of the Wind – I’m a member of the Earth Shaman Race
    • Doe Eyed – I can revert to innocent childlike appearance at will.
    • Elemental Manipulation – I can control the wind

I looked at the mini CV and chuckled, then glanced at Bao to see if he was in on this… he handed over his own.

Scholar Bao-Feng – Tournant

  • Favored Cuisine – Hibeian Chinese
  • Speciality – Brewmaster, focusing on Tea
  • God’s Sandwich Maker – I am expert at mixing up Teas
  • Gardener – I grow Teas
  • Attention to Detail – I notice things about Tea
  • Taste Tester – I am extremely discerning of Tea
  • Heart is Pure – So is my Tea
  • Jack of all Foods – I can make many kinds of Tea
  • Meister – Some call me the Meister of Tea.
    • Patience of a Saint – As long as I have Tea, I am sanguine.
    • Ambition Without Arrogance – I shall be the best at Tea, but humble too.
    • Rebel Yale – I study Tea
    • Path of the Warrior – I walk the just and honorable path of Tea, thus allowing me to grow stronger, learn faster, and become more powerful as long as I stay faithful
  • Earth Shaman – As a Water based Earth Shaman, I have the purest water for Tea.
    • Doe Eyed – This was free for Earth Shaman… I don’t think I shall be using it, as it does not relate to Tea.

“Har, Har, Har… Funny.  You two are real cards… I take it you’ve got some tea for me to… ah… very nice… oolong, with some orange peel and ginger, right?” I revised my count on the Farm upwards… 4096 acres… nearly 6.5 square miles

Bao placed a finger over his lips and pointed at the ducks. I rolled my eyes… it was good tea, but they were ducks… they didn’t care if I talked. I tossed them some crackers… then chuckled as Ziggy leaped from the bushes and chased one big mallad around for a while.

FAMILIAL FOURSOMES

I looked out at the two groups arrayed before me in the Subspace Ballroom / Great Hall I’d had crafted, the shining oak and high glass windows… It was a lovely room which was totally excessive for the number of people I had. It was fit for hundreds. But right now, it held 11… 12 if one counted Ziggy… or my various parts more than once. Soul of Ice and Silent Judge  and Victoria sat in chairs with Zane and Toph, facing me. On one side, standing behind a table with a sign that said “Team Bicker” were Gaius, Reggy, Kohina, & Kagetane. Facing them across a gap was another table, this with a sign that said “Team Bigpear”, and behind it were Yoiko, Ryoga, Petra, and a sleeping RayRay, coiled in a pile, massive head resting on the table.

“That’s Pigbear… not Bigpear, you twits.” Toph snarked. Yoiko gave her the finger and Ryoga bit his thumb at her.

“Today, on Family Fued,” I began, then ducked the various power attacks that lanced my way. “Heeey! This is my show, we do things my way. Yoiko, Gaius, you’re the team leaders, if you’ll come up to the front.” They did so, though my girlfriend was glowering at my father (he was the only parental unit I’d decided to drag along with me on my trip, that made him my defacto father) as if to say ‘This is all your fault.”

He shrugged, “You’ve been with her much longer than I have been alive. Don’t blame me. I’m not even from the world this stupid gameshow came from.”

“Shush you two.  Okay… Gaius… tell me about yourself… and make it a profile, not a list of perks please.”

He rolled his eyes, sighed, then said “Thanks Pat! I’m a Tournant from Italy, a real Utility Meister… that means I can use any tool that comes my way, often more than one at a time! I specialize in Fermenting things, mostly cheeses, but I am an expert in bladework, with a discerning sense of taste and and pure heart! I… hmmm… I’m a Walrus in the kitchen, though there’s method to my madness and I’m a fast study, both in the kitchen and out. One could say that my Trumpcard is keeping the surprises coming!”

I chuckled, “Very good!  Very good!… and Yoiko?”

She glowered bailfully, muttered, “This is stupid.” then monotoned “Hi all. I’m Yoiko, and I sleep with this idiot. I also cook meat. Meat good. Japanese meat. Japanese meat good. Good for sandwich. Good for meat cooking. Cut Meat. Cook meat. Meaaaat!” She pounded her fist to her chest, then grinned “Use Bear Magic for Meat! Turn into Bear! Eat MEAT! People think I am weak link. They are stupid! I am stronge! I am J-Star Strong. J-Star Bear with pure heart! Pure Heart Bear Smash! Uhh… plus, I can use tarot cards to totally see the future and stuff. Am Smart! Also? MEAT!”

Everyone looked at her as if she was mental, which (being a Hibiki) was probably true. I patted her on the head. “Great stuff! Now, we polled 100 people… okay, 25 people four times… and asked them ‘who is the best Jumper?’ Why are you throwing scones at meeeeee!?”

Gaius won that round… there was only one answer at 1200%. I may have cheated on the accuracy of the polling data.

“Reggy, Ryoga, you’re up next. And remember, both of you are human…oid. Use words, not snarls or growls or grunts.” They looked at me with the deep-seated disdain of longsuffering friends. “Ryoga, your team’s behind. Why don’t you go first… Yes, you have to.”

“Look you little brat, I’m going to tan your ass for this later,” he said, looking annoyed, “But sure… fine. I’m Ryoga. I wash dishes, scrub floors, clean toilets because my girlfriend’s partner doesn’t trust me around customers… and she’s probably right. I’m pretty scary. But I took the A… I mean… I… ummm… fuck it… Attention to Detail, that Kitchen thing that makes heat tolerable… Superior Bladesman, even though I don’t use blades much, it says blows or some shit.  Declaration from the Meister side cause the other stuff sucks… Immortal, cause being a werewolf is cool plus they’re good with improvised weapons and I’m all into that shit… Oh, and the despair artwork thing, because I totally understand despair… I mean… not so much now that I’m not an angsty teen lusting after my best friend’s girl who was totally… not into me… that’s fine… whatever… I mean… I’m over it… but I still get what despair can do and it’s totally underappreciated… I’ll shut up now.”

Reggy didn’t even ask me before she started on her spiel. “I agree with him. This is stupid. Talk the Talk. Attention to Detail. Bistro… whatever the hell that means. I thought a Bistro was a restaurant… why would anyone yell “RESTAURANT!”?”

“It’s russian for ‘Faster’. Russian aristocrats would visit france and shout ‘Bistro! Bistro!’ at the lazy french waitstaff who were being all french and totally not falling all over the asshole russians like good peasants should have. The French started calling faster style food service establishments ‘Bistro’ to indicate early fast food.” I explained.

“Well, that’s stupid.” Reggy commented in her typically blunt way. “Anyway… I took Patience of a Saint, because I have to put up with you idiots, and Half-Weapon… I turn into a railgun… because I have to put up with you idiots.” She flicked off Yoiko, picked up one of the tossed scones, and bit into it. “This is dry,” she muttered, then walked off, leaving us behind.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is who Toph decided was to be our Maitre D,” Zane snarked, elbowing the earthbender.

“I’ll talk with her. She’s very good when-”

“No. no… it’s fine. A little dry scorn is fine. Maitre D’s are gatekeepers. If she’s a problem, we’ll deal with it then,” I soothed. “Kohina, RayRay, you’re up.”

The perpetual teenager (seriously, she never seemed to age past 16) came up to the podium, while the fiercest of my Mon stomped up looking like the ground should be punished for daring to force her to walk on it (She often hovered for no other reason than she could). “I’ll go first,” Petra said, not even pausing to let me or Kohina say anything. “Pigbear is a stupid name. Bigpear too. The team should be called Rockhead… because that’s what they all are… and my name means rock. But anyway… Since I have to fix things, I took Attention to Detail, that Walrus thing, and Keeping up Appearances… so I can fix things… because restaurants are lame and I didn’t want to be a cook anyway. Can’t we go someplace where we can smash heads in? I liked that Marvel place. Smashing people left and right. I miss pokebattles.” I gave her a look and she siiiiiighed way to melodramatically and continued, “Forgiveness, Backseat Driving… and I turn into a Spider Tank Assault Vehicle because I can… I am totally going to stomp cars.”

“Do you have Autonomous?” Kohina asked.

“Noo… What’s that?”

“Then you’re not going to stomp cars unless your Meister steers you at a car,” Kohina said, smirking.

Petra opened her mouth to retort, then stomped off to go look at a tablet. We all just watched… a minute later Petra snapped “ARCEUS DAMN IT!”, threw the tablet at Ryoga, and stomped out.

“And that’s why she isn’t dealing with people,” Toph said and Zane nodded in agreement.

“Should I go now?” Kohina asked, then introduced herself as I nodded. “Well, you assigned me to waitstaff, so I took Talk the Talk and Front of House and Attention to Detail and And What to Drink… and Keep it Cool… the last just because it seemed like a nice name and I had 200 points left over… I didn’t take Backseat Driver because I don’t want to be a nuisance to Gaius and… ummm… Strong Soul… I mean I took Strong Soul and Pulling Potential… and the Special Ability called Magic Deflection… I can deflect things… attacks I mean… even if they aren’t solid… like energy and spells… and I took the Elemental Manipulation for Madness… cause… Elemental Madness seems like it would be a thing in this universe… is that bad?” She looked around for approval and Gaius gave her a hug while her actual father rolled his eyes and thought murderous thoughts at Gaius.

Kagetane snarled “Don’t ask him for approval. Do the choices make you happy?” the unspoken “you little idiot” was crystal clear to the mindreaders in the room… empaths like Gaius too. Even Kohina seemed to hear it, because she flinched and clung to Gaius even more. I considered stepping in, but this really wasn’t my business. Meddling in intersubfamily drama was something I tried not to do. I didn’t mess with Kendra and Zane’s issues or Bao and Uriel’s spats. I didn’t intervene in Ahab and Joy’s infrequent but highly destructive spats… and I didn’t play favorites when my sextet of lovers were feuding… unless Cirno was involved in which case she was, invariably, in the wrong.

Tokimi, Meetra, Bart, and Toph had relationships outside of the group and so far hadn’t tried to invite anyone to join us. None of them were geared for permanent things really. For the Mon, the idea of long term mating didn’t really occur to them, and Dyna, Petra, and RayRay might be biologically female, but all were essentially asexual. Kagetane was dismissive of the idea of emotional closeness… not surprising since he was a complete sociopath, and Caine had given up sex millennia ago and hadn’t gotten back into the habit as of yet. Raven wasn’t averse to it, but was looking for more than she’d found so far from what I could tell… and Brigid was a survivor of the Camps… I didn’t know if anyone ever really got over that. My own great grandmother had never willingly spoken of her experiences there.

I looked over to where RayRay was sleeping, then went and sat on her head, poking her until she woke up “Your turn, sleepy snake.”

“Can’t I just not?”

“You sleep too much.”

“I’m a dragon. Sleep is what we do.”

“Well, you’re going to be a driver, which means delivery is what you do… on time and accurate and courteous.”

“Fine… but I can sleep once stuff is delivered, right?”

“Yesss… So what did you take.”

“Art on Plates… so I can make things look nice… you know… like setting up the buffet tables or whatever. There aren’t any driving skills… and, it’s not like…” she yawned, then lost track of what she was going to say… which had been ‘driving is hard.’ She did manage to stay awake long enough to say that she’d also picked Forgiveness, Pitch, Soul Resonance Finisher (which made sense since she actually had a massively powerful finishing attack normally), Uncanny Blade, Ornamental Piece (She was very fond of ribbons), and Slasher… (Also fond of blades mounted on her body).

I glanced over at Kagetane. “Meetra said you took Talk the Talk. What else?”

“Sandwich Maker for drink mixing. What to Drink was free… Taste Tester so I’d know what things taste like… Iron Stomach to protect me against things that are a bad idea.  Unorthodox Weapon for gunblades. Active Transformation for the flying gunblade tackle… Death Dealer and Pure Bloodlust.  Uhh… weaponized desire to kill to become faster and stronger the angrier I get… that’s Pure Bloodlust… Death Dealer makes any wound caused by my weapon for to be more lethal… and instilling a sense of impending doom… also good at beheading. If I become a Death Scythe, I will have the capacity to kill that which is normally unkillable.”

I nodded, though I made a mental note to seriously consider if I wanted Kagetane to have that ability. It could, in theory, be used against me and that… that my friends is never a good thing to think about one’s allies.

THAT WHICH IS MINE

Shaking my head to clear it, I dismissed the Judges and went to tend to my own private collection of misfits. Team Cassandra was Yuzuha, Mini, Frankie, and Ziggy… and me. Four Weapons and me.  Because they were mind and I wasn’t going to let anyone else link up with them. Hell, Yuzuha was bound soul to soul, life to life, essence to essence with me. Team Iceheart was Velma and Cirno… and I was more willing to share them, at least with each other… but then my relationship with either was… more complex in many ways than my relationship with Mini and Frankie. Velma was close to being my intellectual equal (at least as close as anyone besides VIvian and Francine could be… certainly as close as a human could get)… and Cirno was very very much not. But relationships are built on emotions not logic and the complexity was… hard to explain. And speaking of Francine, she and AJ were Team Sundown. I honestly couldn’t remember when I’d started referring to them as that… but they were so similar and so diametrically opposed… like Sundown and Sunrise… Somehow the name had just stuck in my head.

Cassandra was a somewhat ironic name I’d given myself, since when I spoke the truth, people believed me, unlike the actual Cassandra.  Maybe she hadn’t believed it enough, or hadn’t been passionate in speaking truth to power. However, for this jump, I’d be a litteral Cassandra if I tried it, since I wouldn’t have my treasured ability. Ah well, the things we do for food.

I walked into the poolside area, set aside for my inner clique (minus the Hibikis) and hugged AJ from behind. “Heya kiddo. Wazzup?”

“M… Mother! I… umm… nothing. We were just waiting for you and Yuzu was claiming that… ummm… you weren’t perfect because a perfect being wouldn’t associate with us… well, her…” I ruffled his hair and shook my head.

“I’m not perfect. Not by a long chalk, but, and this is important, a perfect being wouldn’t judge others for their imperfections. That’s part of being perfect. And stop claiming I’m perfect. I just do the best I can.” I kissed his hair and hugged him until he stopped trying to protest… then picked him up and tossed him into the pool, though he wasn’t dressed for it. “Would a perfect being toss their most faithful friend into a pool wearing a hoodie and jeans?”

He sputtered, then growled “I’m going to steal your hamburger for that.” I used the water to pat his head.

“You go on thinking that. Go get your sister and grab me some eggsalad and a coke.” I walked over to Yuzuha and sat next to her. “Still doubting yourself?”

“N… no… well. I mean… I’m kinda evil and crazy and I do stupid… noooo hugs!  Hugs do not solve… no tickles!!!!!!”

Telling someone they’re being silly never works, but letting them go on with their doubts isn’t a good idea either. When a friend is depressed, all you can do is be there for them. If it’s an enemy… mind control works too. “Tell me about your build… and just because you were stuck in the Farm doesn’t mean we don’t trust you. It just means you do better with nature… you’re a tree, remember.” She frowned… but I’m very good at lying too. “We do love you, you insufferable goofball. ANd we’ve all done bad things when we were hurt.” I didn’t mention that those bad things usually don’t include eating children… but they probably would have. Power and opportunity plus alienation and anger can do terrible things to the nicest of beings. When you’re the other, lashing out becomes second nature. I wondered if that was applicable to Soul Eater?

“Ummm… I took the Sandwich thing cause I like Sandwiches and Gardener and Attention to details cause Toph said I should.” I nodded, making a note to ask Toph if she’d suggest before being asked. “Weapon stuff was easier… I like singing and don’t drive,” I had to bite my lip to keep from pointing out that Backseat Driver had nothing to do with driving. “And I figured you had a sword… so maybe one of those grenade launcher pistols from that movie about the sky pirates and the blue stone?” I nodded to indicate I knew she was talking about Laputa, but didn’t interrupt her ramble. “So I took this thing called Soul Eater that lets me gain abilities reminiscent of the people whose souls I eat… and a Special Ability called Trap Layer that’ll let me shoot traps out… and Wavelength Communication incase you’re not around and someone needs to wield Ziggy.”

I ruffled her head. “Sounds like you put a lot of thought into that. Good choices… go get some hotdogs and watermelon… it’s fresh from the Lifestream. You did good.” Slightly terrifying how similar my most powerful weapon was to an abused dog rescued from a pound.

My next stop was the kittens, Mini and Frankie, who were, as always, together, plotting no good (though always fun). “How’s my girls?” I asked, approaching with arms wide to demonstrated that I had no water balloons up my sleeves… not that it mattered, but the gesture is what mattered. It was an unspoken rule that if you approached someone in that mode, no pranks would be forthcoming… when dealing with what amounted to a pantheon, intention and gesture were all one could rely upon.

“We’ve been plotting against you,” Mini announced, while Frankie shook her head and pointed the finger of accusation at her coconspirator and sister-wifeling. I scooped them up in my arms and hugged them both with a little more force than was needed.

“You two are a delight as always, but plotting against me works much better if you don’t tell me that you’re doing it.”

“WOuldn’t work. You’re a mind reader and those two,” Mini indicated AJ and Francine, “Are too. So are Dyna and Joy and… you have too many bodyguards.”

“And prankcognition,” Frankie added, then bit me on the shoulder. As it wasn’t combat and she’d spontaneously decided to do it, I only knew she was going to do so as fast as she did. I could have prevented the strike, but where was the fun in that.

“Betrayal! Treachery most foul!” I cried, then blew a raspberry on Mini’s stomach. “Ha! Two can play at that game!” Mini of course protested that it was Frankie who’d bitten me and I lied and claimed I was unable to tell them apart… which prompted them to prove how different they were… but those details aren’t for the eyes of others.

As we floated on the pool on an iceflow covered in soft warm furrs, I asked the question. “Okay you two, what did you buy?”

Frankie, as the slightly older, began “We bought Talking the Talking, Attentioning the Details, Fronting the House… stop tickling me! I’m Serious the Being!”

Mini continued as I stuffed a cookie in Frankie’s mouth to shut her up momentarily. “Beverage Sixth Sense, and Iron Stomach.”

“Did you two buy the exact same thing on the Soul Eater side too?”

They shook their head and Frankie opened her mouth to explain, but I silenced her (and prevented a cookie crumbsplosion) and let Mini explain.

“Oh… no. We have different specializations… her’s is Shadow Strike… you know, stepping into and out of shadows or attacking through them…” I indicated understanding by poking her nose then twirling my finger to indicate that she should continue. “And mine is Bullet Time… Since you won’t have your time control abilities and you rely on them… and they’ll be useful for me too… and we have different themes to our magic.”

“Magic? You’re not Witches.”

“We’re Monster Kitties!” Frankie said languidly.

I wrinkled my brow, “I thought Demon Weapons couldn’t buy racial options.”

“Hybrid Monster Cats… costs an extra 100… but comes with two bonus abilities… Totemic Magic… Plant based. Mine’s the Thistle… for Scotland. Hers is the Briar Rose…”

“For Bitey!” the black kitty explained. I rolled my eyes at the terrible joke (Blighty is Britain… Bitey is kitten… see, I can be horribly punny too.”

“And the other ability?”

“It’s called ‘Good Kitty’… I think it guarantees we’ll run into new people… er ‘friends’, every day no matter where we go, and if we help them with their problems, they’ll become fast friends… cute, able bodied types mostly…” Mini voice of reasoned.

Then Frankie ruined it by explaining “It’s also almost guaranteed to be silly!” I pinched her bottom in retaliation. She grinned, “Just consider yourself lucky we couldn’t afford ‘Nice Pussy!’ It was naughty!’

“It wasn’t that naughty… it was a beauty, seduction, and err… flirtation booster.”

“Aaah. Well, I consider myself lucky to just have you two at all… so I won’t worry about the niceness of any… feline references.” I waggled my eyebrows playfully. “Anything else?”

“Just the Backseat Driver and Perfect Pitch freebies.”

“Does that mean you three are done flaunting yourselves in front of impressionable children?” Velma snarked from the side of the pool. I looked over and smirked “AJ and Francine are older than you and you’ve got a naked ice fairy on your lap.”

Cirno protested that she wasn’t naked… she was, in fact, wearing a ribbon in her hair and a collar. I conceeded the point, then apparated off the ice to land behind them… and pushed them into the water. “Just for that, I’m going to talk to the ‘children’ first.”

Velma and Cirno shared a wet look, then smirked, “Just means you’re saving the best for last.” I ignored them.

“Okay you two. Report.” I demanded, standing at parade rest and allowing the ice vapor to coalesce around me into the semblance of clothing.

“Ah… I decided to help out Toph… so I took Patissier… so did Velma in fact… and both of us are Bakers, of course… Though I specialized in British cooking, while she specialized in New England Cooking… I think it was intended to be a joke, but she says New England has moore focus on seafood and less on bland cookies, too sweet chocolate, and beans on toast. I like beans on toast,” he protested.

“You like beans. No matter what they’re on.”

He considered then nodded happily. “And fried foods!” He wasn’t kidding. Didn’t matter what it was. Fish, Sausage, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Rice… if you fried it in a pan (not deep fried, just fried) he’d eat it. You could fry cardboard and he’d probably scarf it down before he noticed… then ask for more. “I wasn’t creative or anything. Just took the whole Patissier line, plus Attention to Detail cause I figure that’s got to be imporant, Superior Bladesman because I am one… Jack of All Food so I can learn fast… Ambition Without Arrogance… that’s got to be useful if I ever run into a swordsman that’s actually my equal… besides you of course.” I nodded but didn’t comment. He was almost certainly better than me in terms of pure skill with a blade, but he’d never admit it.

“You went Witch… so I got Portal Manifestation… just in case you need rescuing… since that power is the only way to get to the Witch World unless we capture a Witch and force her to take us.” He blushed as I gave him a hug.

“You’re too good to me, kiddo.”

“Not at all. You’re… everything to me… to us.” Francine tried to act as if he wasn’t speaking for her; not because she didn’t feel the same way, but mostly because she didn’t like to express emotions… or show weakness… or depend on others… she was almost a cat. “I also took Sleepwalker, which will allow me to fight at full power and skill while asleep or unconscious.”

“He also took War God,” Francine reported, making AJ yelp.

“B… Bushin! It’s called Bushin!” he protested.

“Either way, what does it do?”

“Uhh… makes me a war god… kinda… it said absolutely unbelievable physical abilities from strength to speed to durability… hand to hand combat skills greater than even fully trained Meisters, reality / physics defying feats of pure awesome… like breaking laser beams with my bare hands and then throwing the chunks of light… or punching someone twice with the same hand at the same time… though it’ll take ‘furious training’ according to the document.”

“Huh… Cool. No reason to be embarrassed by that.”

“Seems like bragging,” he muttered, then looked to Francine. “You want me to tell her what you bought?” I couldn’t quite tell if he was teasing her or not, but she pinkened, but nodded.

“She bought a perk called ‘I Beseech Thee Oh God’… it’s designed to allow the user to call upon whatever they believe in most to gain a temporary power up.” He looked up at me and I nodded, understanding who would be the focus of that belief.

“Gotcha… what else? I assume Talk the Talk, Attention to Detail, Front of House, and And What to Drink… those seem popular among the Waitstaff.”

“Brewmaster, Strong Soul, Her weapon form is a Giant Spoon because she’s mental… and something called Death Dealer. I don’t-”

“I know. Yeah. Kagetane’s got it too. And no, he worries me much more than your sister. She’ll be fine. It’s not an instant kill and requires being a Death Scythe to even pull off.”

“I… yeah.”

“And you wouldn’t use her against me anyway… and I’m pretty sure your wavelengths would both collapse at the idea of attacking me seriously.” I left him to think about that with a kiss on the forehead, and one for Francine too though she pretended she didn’t enjoy it.

“Okay, talk.” I addressed Velma. “Patissier, New England, Baker. All in on Patissier. Attention to Detail… that left you 500 CP left. What did you buy?”

The ex-detective didn’t question how I knew. Either AJ had told me or I’d deduced it. I was right, so she continued from there. “Master Shopper, Entremetier… veggies are good for you and have lovely flavors if you do them right. Rebel Yale… it’s a study guide perk… Anti-Demon Wavelength, it’s… I can see you know that one… do you know Light in the Dark?” I shook my head. “Allows me to channel anti-fear emotions into physical or spiritual power… and brute force my way through any fear I do feel… plus a willpower and courage boost.”

“Sounds nice. Cirno, can you give a breakdown I’ll understand?”

“Yes! I bought the Saucy thing! And Eggs! And Poisons!  And… and… I’m really good at cooking… you shoulda put me in the kitchen! I can totally make cakes and cookies… But I also bought the Empathy so I can help everyone feel good… and that one where I get to do whatever I want without Velma having to fondle me… and… and… oh, I can control an Element!”

I sighed, and asked “Which Element?” dreading that she’d wasted points buying Ice… again.

“LOVE!  It’s the best element!  Well… after Ice!… Velma? Why is she hitting her head against the table?”

INSERTION

“WHAT KIND OF PASTA DO YOU CALL THIS, YOU FECKLESS GARBAGE EATING USELESS SHITWEASEL!” I panted… I really shouldn’t let the incompentence of useless beings get to me… I really shouldn’t, but it was damned hard not to when THEY KEPT MESSING UP!

Things had been going… eh… not great for the first few years. I’d remembered enough of the show to know that the Witch Medusa was the catalyst for most of the drama and seriously considered just having one of my followers assassinate the bitch, or just calling Shibusen (the Death Academy) and saying “Hi! Did you know your school doctor is actually a Witch named Medusa trying to bring about your destruction?” But I didn’t.

I had no real interest in saving this world, as it was pretty terminally fucked up and “saving it” was pretty much impossible without becoming worse than Death. Anyway, I had a restaurant to run and a criminal syndicate to appease.

Of course, that criminal syndicate turned out to be Arachnophobia, the secret world spanning organization that had been built by the Witch Arachne over the last 800 years since her supposed death… which essentially meant I was working for Hydra… but my cell was focused entirely on cooking and anyone who came near my restaurant (or my truck) with anything even vaguely resembling orders for me to do anything I didn’t want to do very quickly learned that YOU DON’T FUCK WITH ME!

It’s possible I was insane. It certainly seemed likely. Hyperfocus is a form of insanity, right? And I was hyperfocused. Clueless at times about the reality of normal people… as in why they didn’t think tiny mouthfuls of food were perfectly proportioned… or why they felt they deserved to be treated as if they weren’t scum! Vile, awful, horrible scum… HOW DARE YOU ASK FOR SUBSTITUTIONS! EAT THE FOOD AND GET OUT!

Still, I managed to learn differently, slowly… to appreciate the customers… just a little. I spent a lot of my free time in my Food Truck, trying out new dishes and spreading word of mouth… and occasionally beating the ever living crap out of whatever supernatural baddy thought it could step to me. I WAS UNTOUCHABLE YOU FUCKING HACKS! YEAH, YOU WANT SOME! COME GET SOME! I DIDN’T THINK SO!

Really, it was all very restful running a restaurant and not getting involved in the meaningless garbage of saving the world. I had a strict schedule. I was in bed by 2am, up at 6am to get to the markets, then down for a nap at 8 while the prep team did whatever I DAMNED WELL TOLD THEM TO DO, and in the truck from 11 to 2… then another nap from 3-5 and it was time for dinner. Repeat, Thursday through Saturday. Sunday and Monday were for training, Tuesday and Wednesday was dinner only for me, with other members of the staff running the truck those days, and the restaurant on Sunday and Monday.

Things were tricky for a while, but I set very high standards and Bar Ziggy slowly began to overcome my extreme unpopularity… YOU FUCKING COCKSUCKING COWARDS! I’LL MAKE YOU EAT THOSE YELP REVIEWS YOU UNCULTURED HEATHEN BASTARDS!

As I was saying, I worked hard to overcome negative press and supply problems, and