where things begin...
Mentat Toolei Vors sat across the table from Zero. He steepled his fingers together and looked at her. He swallowed, exhaled. There was slight fear, and reluctance in his voice as Zero watched him.
“I’ve got an ear with Fal Booth.” Toolei said to Zero, ran a finger along the edge of the short cup in front of him. “As well you know. He summoned me to see him this morning, urgently and unexpectedly. It pays to keep up the contact, so I did.”
“We talked, and I agreed that someone should tell you before you wind up getting summoned before the Council. Which you will, soon.” He paused, gauged her reaction. “The reason isn’t what you think, and not that, either. Something has happened, Zero. Something strange and unbelievable, something that isn’t common knowledge yet.”
He lowered his voice, looked around the cafe. “We have visitors, Zero. Visitors from Elsewhere. Visitors that want to meet *you*.”
~Another city survived!~ Her third guess but then his words settled and clarified within her excitement. ~Elsewhere?~ Zero tapped the smaller engine in her belt and a pulse of finder data went out and registered back no hostiles in 90 meters.
The start of an excited smile stalled on Zero's face. She slotted the mental chips in place; watched the idea boot up. "So you more worried about me meeting them or them meeting me? I mean, how weird are these Elsewhere Scouts? They military? They cyborgs?" Zero's last few words were low volume but she did not take her eyes off of Vors' reactions. "With all the things we've seen, what's got you.... so jittery?" She swallowed a sudden horrible idea. "Vors, they aren't Dwimmerlaik slaves here to parlay are they?"
"No, they don't appear to be Dwimmerlaik, quite to the contrary, Zero. What has me so unnerved, perhaps beyond my usual training is the strange nature of their arrival and their request. I have no idea why these strange visitors want to meet you, and you in particular. Not you in the sense of your rank and missing, Zero. No, they're asking for you by name, as if they knew you for years, or something."
"I am still trying to fathom the possibilities and probabilities of them being aware of your existence prior to their arrival here, and I cannot fathom how they could know you before coming here. Any ideas?"
Zero laughed. "None. You are getting old, Bookworm." She grinned. "It's a trick, of course. If they don't seem strange by their looks--- it must be some con by waste raiders. Some of the outcamps and scavengers have a bounty on me because of the propaganda machine. Those stupid ratty posters, 'Squash the Hero Zero', earn full gene rejeuve!"
Toolei looked dubious.
She refreshed his drink. "Go on. You said their arrival was strange. Did they appear in a cloud of smoke?" Zero opted for teasing, but she was curious. What outcamp trade group could rattle the Council into making hasty requests? Maybe they waved some Dwimmerlaik weapon tech around. Maybe they were not hostile but promised info about a tech cache. But why insist on her to fetch it? Ah, probably trapped. She had a reputation for outwitting traps.
Despite her increased excitement, she settled back and adopted a relaxed calm to offset his nerves. Zero stared at Vors and made a small gesture that meant, 'come on, give'.
"That is the thing." Toolei finally said, with a sigh to Zero. "We're still trying to figure out just how they did it, and the current theory is hitherto unknown teleportation technology. They came out of a door to one of the creche rooms. Just stepped out of it, right in the middle of the place. Nearly got themselves shot in the process. We've done a hundred scans of that doorway, and it seems absolutely normal. But for the delegation, it was not."
Zero stared agape. The creche was triple security. And it was roughly located directly within the foundations of the gov tower.
"The Council is hoping you can crack their secret, given their interest in you." Toolei finished.
Zero almost stood up to shout at Vors, but this place was far too public. Her guts jittered but she was already solving for the danger. This was terrible. Such a secret tech would ruin the last city's safety. Well, in fact, it had ruined it. No one here was safe now. She leaned forward and smiled as if they talked finer points of a particularly important threedee epic. "Ah, so now I'm a dainty diplomat? I don't think so." She made the fake smile larger and made some gestures as if landing a punch line. "You gonna take me up there? I mean, are these Outsiders locked up or are we trading with them for the teleport tech? How does the council expect me to leverage the Outsiders if we give them me right off the bat? Eh? That's just bad tactics."
Her jitters stopped. Shit. Her eyes narrowed and anger leaked into her voice. "You fungus head. Council set you up to ease me in." She stood up and when his eyes followed her, she gestured him to stand. "Hey, let's go. They want me back full jets, yes? The first negotiations are already mostly done. The council has a plan and I'm the hinge-pin because the city is screwed if these are the bad guys. So it hardly matters what we say here. Yes. Let's go see just how much of a poster girl I am to be this time. High Evolution! Trust a mentat to sketch me a security breach ass backwards." She tugged her gloves out and pulled them on.
Zero sighed and put a hand on his shoulder as they quit the cafe. "Hard positional data first, Vors. Theories and politics after. I'm going to keep telling you this until you either join the scouts yourself or decide to stop talking to me." She knew she shouldn't but she laughed. The anger was gone. Combat status yellow. She winked an eye closed and toyed with grabbing a beer and pouring it inside her uniform. The Outsiders already knew too much if they asked for her by name and arrived within sniper range of her barracks. They would not expect the Hero Zero to arrive staggering drunk. That might put the Outsiders off their balance. Advantage us.
Zero laughed again. Neither would the council expect it at all. But no, the duststorm of that idea would fall on Vors, once the Council caught up with the deception. If she engaged the Outsiders without trying a nice diplomatic approach first, Vors would be hung out to dry. She wouldn't kick such a dubious vector into his duty file. He and she were following orders. Now, and until things got better. Zero matched her stride to Vors.
"The Council has confined them to a small set of rooms around Creche Six." Vors continued to explain, keeping a brisk pace for Zero to match. "There have been no additional demonstrations of their ability to bypass and get through our security. The Delegation is six in number, one leader, female, one obvious mentat type, male, the other four appear to be soldiers. The mentat might also be a warmaster. I'll leave you to judge that, Zero, for yourself. The soldiers do seem to defer to him as one."
In a few minutes, Vors and Zero's progress brought them to one of the rooms near the creche area. There were a few minor members of the city here, mostly security. In addition to them, however, was Strider Zizkal Holm. He nodded at the arrival of Zero and Vors.
"Vors. Zero." Zizkal said, nodding. "I'm glad the Mentat didn't drive you away from our problem. Do you have any questions of *me* before we have you meet our, ah, visitors? Fal is in there with them, now, and a couple of the rest of the Council. I'm playing the dweller at the threshold, here, for you."
Zero tapped her face once and scissored her hands chest high. It was the Strider shorthand for 'we are not talking here'. It also told Zizkal clearly that Zero had her game face on. Who knew if the Outsiders could walk through security screens that they could also hear through security screens? Zero nodded once slowly without much outer expression to acknowledge the honor and acceptance of Zizkal offering to be her Threshold.
Zizkal repeated the gesture and capped it off with a nod. He looked from Zero, to the door, and back to her again. Vors put a finger to his lips, in unspoken and unshared thought.
So many questions. So many tactical options. So buggered. Zero flipped an alert switch on her belt to wake the sharpbats. Weapons would gather. If power in the building went down, there would at least be a ring of sharpbats around the place. She squared her shoulders and let her body find the balance point of the moment. Then she nodded at the door. "Let's make it happen." She smiled at them, but there was nothing in it. It was form.
Her senses and future were bound to the room with the dangerous Outsiders.
Through the door, a hall, and an additional door, the approach to the Outsiders was silent, ghostly, empty. Not quite like the true silence of the void of space, this silence was an abnegation of speaking, of noise, as if it were emitted and consumed, in discipline, in forethought, in preparation. More security, at the final door. They saluted both Vors and Zero, said nothing, and opened the doors.
Sitting Room Six Delta. Two rooms away from Creche Six. A place that was often used going to and from the creche. A room of transitions, of futures coming to pass. Zero saw a few of the council, here, standing, talking, particularly Fal Booth. But sitting in a sunken area near the center of the room, as if the Council attempted to pen and hem them in, were the Outsiders. The cut of their clothes was alien, long, and they also wore armour, some sort of breastplates, made out of something unfamiliar, something between stone and metal in appearance. They were ornately carved, painstakingly adorned. Four of them were made of some blue material, two of them were jet black.
The one who was clearly the Mentat and perhaps a warleader, rose first from the group of six. Old, with dark hair, carrying his years as confidently as he carried and wore his blue armor. (Casting call: Wes Studi)
His eyes found Zero immediately, and he bowed. "You must be Zero." His voice was gravelly, patient, ancient. His eyes took in Vors beside Zero, flickered over to the rest of the city denizens around. "It is our pleasure to meet you. Please, come and join us."
Behind him, Zero noted that the four soldiers sat, watched. The last, near the Mentat, coolly appraised Zero, Vors and the Mentat's words with a calculating, appraising, aristocratic air. She was dressed in black armor, a contrast to her dark red hair. (Casting Call: Susan Sarandon)
Zero kept her face still but she didn't miss the flatness of the air in the room or in the expressions of the Council. The temperature was off in here also, and the equipment never let that happen as long as the gear ran at all. She gave away nothing and did not track the faces or acknowledge the various ranking city councilors. If these Outsiders thought they would see which persons here were respected or expected to lead they would not get it from her body language. They were too well informed already.
The Outsiders were predators, not unlike the Dwimmerlaik. Except they looked like people, not the desiccated and strained look of Dwims. But the elaborate nature of their gear, that was certainly much like the Dwims. His voice and manner were pleasant enough. They wanted to talk. They had taken pains to make that clear. That actually bothered her more, on consideration. Aliens should really look alien; act strangely. Zero tallied the tools and possible weapons she could see slung among their trappings on the Outsiders.
The weapons, such as they carried, appeared primitive and stuff out of her history, not her combat training. Blades. A crossbow.
Zero paced evenly to the group at the invitation. She stopped and took a parade rest position that also put her fingertips closer to the controls in her compbelt. She nodded once to the Speaker. "Strider Zero reporting per request. Ready for duty."
"At ease. Strider Zero. Please, be seated. One of the soldiers rose, changed seats so that an open chair was opened between the chair the man had rose from "I am Glandive, and this is Lorinne. We are members of the House Mnemon, of the Dragon Empire."
"So we are. It is." the woman added, leaning forward. "our very great pleasure to meet you, Zero."
Zero believed them. That was unnerving. There certainly was some kind of strange intrigue going on here. But just as certainly, Zero saw it from their side. They were at a disadvantage, walking into a war torn land. Suspicion lived here. Serious consequences would follow as both sides were armed. In a sense this was a mirror. Her own anxiety at being out on a limb like this with Outsiders was their situation too. Could they get out if things went wrong?
And really, were the remaining Ka-El numbers here such a threat? Not unless these people were just as badly chewed up, by say, the Dwims as her folks.
Still she nodded at the offered seat and said, "No thank you. I'm a bit too stressed to sit." She took a slow breath and gave it her best shot, "I hope you are thrilled enough to meet me that you will forgive some straight talk." She did not really pause, just made eye contact with the two leaders, Lorinne and Glandive. "You present a problem and a threat to us. Our resources are limited, but we do not give way easily. I would consider it well meant if you could explain concisely what you seek here. How you know so much about me. And anything else that can put this ...meeting... on less perilous grounds. Your courage speaks well of you so far, but these things I ask shall be addressed or there will be a reckoning." She added abruptly, "Please."
"A reckoning." Lorinne. "So fierce. So much like a Cathak or a Tepet in temperament. And yet intelligent and discerning. No matter, such choices are still far ahead. Very well." She studied Zero for a moment and then continued. "We came here to your fastness by means of extradimensional travel. Doubtless your biological computer." she flickers her gaze to Vors. "already told you of that. The reason why we came here is for the personal and the political. The political, in that the enemy that you have fought is extradimensional in nature, and shares alliance, if not outright kinship, with an enemy the Dragon Empire strives against. We've common cause."
"The second is that the key to extradimensional travel is a recessive trait that runs in bloodlines and certain genetic markers. Our monarch has bade us to seek individuals with this bloodline, to see if they do have the trait, and to invite them to visit our Empire, for training, mutual cooperation, alliance. We came to your world and have determined that you, Zero, are a Dragon-Blooded Warden, as I am."
"I think" Glandive put in. "That Zero is going to require proof of that." He looked from his superior to Zero. "A test is rather simple to arrange. Right now, if you like."
Just like that: extradimensional travel. So it was true the Dwims did not find Ka-El with starships, or have logistics spanning parsecs. They stepped sideways from some other place. Which fit the notion that you didn't always plan your arrival point in a universe just a dimensional heartbeat away. Sometimes you ended up inside a fortress. Thank Rao that Dwims had not done that trick. Or had they in fact? Some of the cities had fallen without raising any alarm at all. No answers to that had ever been calculated.
But they hadn't really ....wait. Impossible! Clan Tolerance was thousands of years old. Pure Ka-El families. Dragon. Blooded. Whatsit? Personal genetic markers?
Zero held her surprise and glanced at the city council members. Their faces mirrored her thoughts. This made no sense--and so they held blank looks, no emotional impact.
Zero cleared her throat. "Ah, my grade is not senior enough to ....negotiate a treaty of mutual defense." Now she nodded at Fal Booth. "You will find us reasonable, if a bit fierce." She smiled. "I'm not sure I understand how you would test an alliance with Ka-El. Is there something in your culture about determining valor and honor before you can treat us as equals? Please explain." Damn. Were they bigots? Only allying with similar genetic thresholds? Some master race? Ewwww.
"Oh" Lorinne replied. "For openers, we are seeking a treaty not with your city, although I expect you yourself will be key to that occurring. The Dragon Empire values Gossamer worlds and peoples who fight the same sort of forces we do. In fact, we believe that the Dwimmerlaik you face are the same race that we do, as we have named them similarly. They attack your world, and the Empire, and many others. There are Gossamer worlds out there which are no more, turned into chaotic Shadow by their efforts. They would turn all the worlds to Shadow and Dust if they could."
"But the test Glandive spoke of." She gave her subordinate a slightly disdainful look before looking at Zero. "is a test of you, Zero, to confirm your ability to access the extradimensional space we call The Grand Staircase. Anyone can walk the stair, but regular access to the Stair is accomplished primarily with people who have this talent. Certain locales in worlds have a connection to the extradimensional space of the Stair, and people with the talent can forge the connection at those specific points."
"We call those points Doors." Lorinne explained. "For their manifestation is the semblance and characteristics of one. We want to confirm you, Zero, have this talent. Even beyond the strength and ferocity your people show in facing the Dwimmerlaik, which the Empire values and would ally with, we wish to confirm your ability, and make with you a personal treaty."
This got stranger and stranger. In front of her council leaders, they asked to ally with a single person. The scope of the battles with the Dwimmerlaik was so much bigger than she imagined. And the current peace was an illusion. These people shared intel of a larger battlefield. If the Dwims were not here now, it might be due to more resistance in a few dozen other places.
The Dwims would be back. Ka-El had not survived by the skin of their teeth. They had a temporary reprieve. Or perhaps much more if the Dragon Empire really had resources to share.
Zero paled. She took a breath to release the tension in her stance. It did not work as well as it usually did. "And if you send expeditions out like this, you find yourselves short-handed of Dragon Wardens. Why has the ability become scarce in the Dragon Empire? And of more interest to Ka-El, why should it appear here, when I am descended from a thousand generations of Tolerance science clan? What comes next if I agree to this test?"
Zero regained her internal balance slowly. By all logic... their test equipment to track this genetic marker was not refined enough to allow surety. If the universe was as complex as their story, the Dragon Empire must have calculated some very grim outcomes if they could not replace the Wardens they had lost. Zero looked the lady over more closely. There certainly was... nothing to suggest she could be Tolerance clan.
"Good questions, all." Lorinne replied. "We have lost many Wardens in the most recent Hot phase of our long conflict with the Dwimmerlaik." she said. "In point of fact, House Tepet, one of the five Great Houses, is barely a shell of what it once was. Other Houses, including our own Mnemon, suffered less catastrophic but significant losses of soldiers, Dragon Blooded scions, and Wardens. And so the Empress has declared for us to search for Lost Eggs, like you. Wardens are needed to access the Stair effectively. We have some tools to do so, but Wardens have a flexibility and power that is sorely needed."
"Her Radiance the Empress is well over a thousand years old, and her descendants have explored many worlds." Lorinne continued. "And the strangeness of time, especially in Gossamer worlds like this, means that many worlds have had our seed in it. Even in your own old line. As for why it should manifest here and now in you, that is, Zero, as much a question of religion and spirituality as it is of genetics."
"Finally" she said. "Were you to pass this test, then we would ask you to come with us to the Empire, to obtain citizenship within it, membership within a House, and to work for and with the Empire, and aid it,and the Gossamer worlds that face and oppose the Dwimmerlaik as a Warden. We would help teach you and unlock the potential you have. This world, your home, would be under your auspices, you our bridge and interface between the Empire and your city."
"Or you could stay here." Glandive said. "And tell us to go. We would do so." Lorinne gave a reluctant nod at Glandive's words. "We would leave this Gossamer World, and you, and yours to your devices. Our presence here has clearly been disruptive. Your discomfort, and those of your people here is obvious. There is always risk and challenge in reaching a new world. It is a hazard of exploring the Staircase."
"Its possible that you could cobble things together and try and learn your potential on your own, without the Empire. There are Wardens who are not descended from the Empire and of the Empire on the Stair, for the Stair is unimaginably large and even the Empire knows of only a portion of it. Such solo Wardens usually discover the Stair on their own and fumble through learning things on their own. But we offer friendship, alliance, education, and common cause against an enemy you are already fighting."
Zero nodded slowly as she put more pieces together. Ka-El would never survive another effort by the Dwimmerlaik. Perhaps all this talk of war through a thousand thousand doorways was enough to drain away the Strength of the Dwims for a time, but the scope of what was Out There had increased enough to spell doom for her friends and families.
And yet... the package sounded like a gold cage. Even if it was a wonderful view from that cage. Likely she would never see Ka-El again if she agreed to this.
"Before the test, which I am willing to attempt, I must speak privately to the City Council and hear their counsel," Zero said softly. "You shall have whatever beverage and light foods you can describe for our security officer." She pointed at the senior man in the armed detail. She bowed the small formal gesture of agreement to the Outsider Imperials.
"Of course" Glandive replied. "We eagerly await your deliberation and decision."
Then she turned and nodded with a head tilt to the exit path, taking in the sober faces of the council.
Once outside the double seals and long access corridor, Zero stopped just to take a breath and let the small group find a balance.
Zero held up one finger in a preemptive gesture to these august people and dove in, "This whole thing is madness and I would half expect it to be some elaborate ruse by our enemies, except I do not think those people are organidroids. The Dwims would have used such tech on us before now. And why steal one strider away? And why with talk and fantastic myths? And yet, what they offer is a hollow future, where I become some student doorkeeper lost in a scale of infinite logistics, a junior gatemaster, working for a foreign power that is probably not in the least willing to cede an alien from some nearly crushed world any leverage at all. It is polite slavery."
She smiled and wagged the finger, "However, if half of what they say is true, our world is doomed. I knew I would die someday defending our home. This is possibly a better future than that dark scenario. So if I can hold some sort of alliance with them, get them to send minor resources back to Ka-El, and even research into how these Doors might be sealed against invaders... why then I could see Ka-El becoming stronger for as long as I can hold out in their extended war service. Anyone see a side to this that I have not covered? Anyone suggest we kill them and plasmaweld the damned door shut?"
Half the faces of the council and the group looked at Zero, some of the others at each other, a few looking at Vors, with an accusatory look. The Mentat folded his fingers together.
"There IS an argument to be made to just kill them, and forget what happened." Fal pipes up first. "No offense to you and your service. I fear that the point of this whole exercise is to get you to activate what they want to activate, at all costs. Deny them that, let them react badly, use overwhelming force, end the problem."
Zero nodded respectfully. She considered the data of their arrival through a security door might be some kind of trick. It calculated as an unlikely probability.
Zizkal Geese, the senior archaeologist, shook her head firmly. "If this group can reach here, so can others. Dwims at worst, other people like this group at best. Putting our head in the sand only delays the problem. We need resources beyond what we have. This is our chance to get the,."
Zero held her stance neutral, since this was exactly the reasoning she had just outlined.
"Too risky. Let us delay" Huron Qwell said. "Sound tactical doctrine, given our weak hand. Tell them to leave, don't kill them, shut the door. Live and let live. We crack their secret ourselves, given time and independent effort."
Unworthy, she thought, and ill considered. Retaliation might be new forces and new enemies. Even if the Empress took no moves.... there were Houses that might have a broader secret agenda.
"No" the booming voice of the field commander ended the buzz of chatter. He looked at Zero. "We could order you to play along, for the sake of duty. You are, as you said, one junior strider. If they wanted to invade, this charade of asking you in particular makes no sense. You agree to go with them, but negotiate favorable terms of materiel aid, here and now, for the privilege. See if they are willing to
"So you would increase the cost of her participation?" Vors said.
"Yes." Virago said. "See if they are willing to sweeten the pot. See how badly they want you." His eyes studied Zero, and awaited her response.
Zero gave the tilted shoulder form to them all, in thanks. It was an old fashioned thing to do, but it seemed appropriate when dicing with the future of the nation.
"They will concede some courtesy, to learn what they came to learn." Zero smiled. "So I shall ask for simple acts of good faith before I try the Test. If their story is accurate, then other genetic treasures may lurk in even our limited population. So I shall see if we can get the detector they used to map me. Our people are pretty decent at reverse engineering odd tech."
Zero did not elaborate the advantages of this. She suspected not all council members were privy to the atypical results of most of her own fitness scores. The ones that were would see the advantage of the window into Empire tracer tech. Why not try to find other young people who might be trained to replace her and provide better than expected performance?
The stuff was probably good at finding Dwimmerlaik as well.
Besides if she ever did get back, (somehow the Test was not even a threshold obstacle compared to the Outsider story told and the event of the Empire arriving here in the city center), she might then train others to see whatever Dragon Wardens saw.
"Then after the Test, before I let them take me anywhere, we get some promise based upon the Victory they bring to the Empress." Zero paused. "Problem being, they are a small party and they can really only promise from their House resources I would think, without breaking the process of all Houses of equal honor having a chance to ...." She could not think of the right word. Bid? Cajole? Negotiate? She moved ahead using Virago's term, "sweeten the appeal for my loyalty."
She added with candor, "I feel as if I am in a dream. I shall lose my family for a second time. Yet no one dies and the story is not over. A new season of renewal may grow from it." She shook her head at the emotions churning. Focus. Jitters later. Zero pulled her professional optimism back into place. "So? How about I ask for them to commit to House alliance with us? Minimum medical support deliveries for double our current population on a cycle of 60 days. We don't lack for power output or tech support but we are short-handed on doctors and even worse on triage nurses and long term rehab."
She felt balanced and waited their decision.
"There is a possibility." Huron said. "That they are lying, themselves. There is no Empire, no great resource base behind them. They lie, dissemble, seek our aid and alliance, but did not want to come as paupers. So they trumpet themselves and theirs, but when you go and see, there will be no Empire, no Empress, no resource base." He looked at Virago. "A junior strider is not a large price for us, but may be a significant increase in their manpower."
"There is only one way to find out." Virago says. "And that is to do what they want, with the additional aid. Formal alliance with their House, additional resources. Yes." he cleared his throat and faced Zero. "This we will do. Is there any further discussion?"
The remainder of the council remained silent. Virago looked at Vors. "I want you to accompany Zero, to record and see, to analyze what they have to show our Strider. They focus so much on her, that someone with her will get less attention. You can thus observe and learn things they do not and will not tell her."
Virago looked at Zero and Vors. "If Strider Zero has no objection." Vors said.
"None," Zero said. She gave Vors a friendly nod. And that was that.
Being agreed, the group moved back to confer with the Outsider delegation. Zero felt a difference in that room. Again, cooler than elsewhere by a tiny margin. And no, she could not believe these people were without the resources they sketched, or even that their simple weapons were what they appeared to be. Looking at Glandive and the Lady Lorinne, she felt something... much like the vibration when a mass of sharpbats were answering a gather signal. The air tickled the skin on the backs of her hands.
Zero outlined the Council's decision in summary: the detector, the medical support, and finished with, "Certainly, you may judge my participation essential to your mission, but we would like a token of a longer agreement. The Council suggests your detector would be something you could now leave behind, having found your 'genetic marker person', and as a promise of future alliance. We request in the longer term medical needs instead of weapons or other secrets of your War, so that you need not compromise policy before you report your success. In effect, we wish a broader friendship and support, not just an offer to further the education of a Strider in a strange Empire."
Zero smiled. "If your test is ...what you suggest. Our city is favorably disposed to 'loan me out' to see your wonders. However, I have a personal request that my associate Vors be allowed to accompany me. If you have counters, or find these offers pleasing, speak your points." She walked up to Glandive. "Otherwise, I'm ready. Test away."
"The problem with giving you our detector." Lorinne replied in counter. "is not that we are unwilling. It is a technomagical artifact, one created by the Empress herself, and it only works in the hands of Dragon Bloods. It will work for me. It will work for Glandive, and for Reynalt. " she indicated one of the soldiers. "It will work for you, of course."
Zero felt lucky to have such an interested expression on her face when the words stunned her. 'Technomagical?' Devices keyed to genetic or specific bio-signatures were not magical unless ....well, maybe it was just a neutral way of describing things to a ...foreign culture to avoid secure details. It was not as if the City Council would be sharing information about singularity engines with the Imperials. But it made her oddly nervous this talk of fairy tales. She ran a mental kata to smooth the tension away as Lorinne spoke again.
"However would be inert in the hands of anyone else here, unless they had the bloodline. Or was that your play, to seek for yourselves anyone with the Bloodline in your population? Given that you have it, there is a probability someone else does as a recessive trait, as an ordinary Imprint. You are just the one we know about, Zero."
"Medical needs, though." Lorinne looked at Glandive. "What do you think?"
"Would probably require someone to come here, to administer the cures" he said in reply to her "But Wood Dragon Staves and the usual Medicine spells should work, given the tests on the local mana. They are asking for a greater alliance, and the Empress' mandate in the matter does apply here."
"True." Lorinne said. "We should have brought someone blessed by Sextes Jylis with us. We'll need to find someone suitable to act as diplomat AND healer."
"I'll see to finding a candidate when we return." Glandive said. "Within Mnemon first, if possible."
Lorinne nodded, turned back to Zero.
Hmmm. Zero nodded even as she regretted how the negotiating framework had tilted. But the Imperials long exchange gave her recovery time from the mythic references to mana, spells, and magic. The Striders' reaction training to theoretical dangers made her a poor politician. She'd need to get Vors to give her lessons in the math of diplomacy.
Observe. Analyze. Communicate. Stay on mission.
Perhaps there were religious words in their culture that had been assigned to more modern facets. That made some sense. She could see something of the same thing in Ka-El culture, now that she looked at it that way.
And yet, it was creepy how everything kept cycling around to 'genetic markers' or hokey semi-religious catchphrases or ancient armor field gear. This culture was into narrow traditions that defined their options before they knew the resources of engagement.
Ka-El before the Dwims had a few of those lessons to learn, too. Soldiering had almost been a lost art. Not so much now that they had lost nearly everything. The good thing, she mused was the Empire must not be losing even if they were worried. Their reasonable diplomacy, as the council suggested, spoke of dealing from a position of strength and confidence.
She looked around at the council faces. Ah, yes, by the Imperials words, the deals were with her, not the city. If it all went bad, the damage was limited. Zero nodded again. "Certainly a compromise we can accept. An embassy would be a fine framework. We accept your advisement that the tracker will not work except for the Blooded, but as you say, it will benefit us both if we locate other people of the city that it responds to. And you do not object to Vors sharing my experience with your team. Yes, so we agree."
Zero was not a politician, but since the Imperials liked traditions, she gathered and refilled cups for everyone. "To a successful test," she gestured to the Imperials and formally sipped the drink.
"Very well, then." Lorinne says. "Glandive," she prompted.
Glandive reached into a pocket, and produced a tetrahedron of some black material, perhaps rock, the points capped in gold leaf and the entire object about the size of a fist. Glandive let it rest on its palm. "It works by a psychic..."
"Psionic," Lorinne corrected.
"Psionic connection to the holder. It's activated by the holder sending the command :Seek my children: There are subtleties to it, and the range is dependent on the skill of the bearer in the use of such devices. At the very least, you, here now, could point this at everyone in the room in turn and determine if they have the bloodline." He cupped his palm over it, pointed his hand at Zero. The pyramid began to vibrate, excitedly. The vibration ceased as he swept his hand around the room, until his hand pointed at Lorinne, and then at the soldier Reynalt. No one else his hand pointed at produced the reaction."
Glandive set it on the table. "Doubtless you want, or perhaps your Mentat, would like to test the device before we depart to see the Door, to prove that you can make it function."
Zero took up the device, not because she did not believe them, but because if this was part of a darker intention, she'd take the brunt of it before Vors. She weighed it in her hand. It was heavier than rock. Dense. She placed her other palm over it.
:Seek my children:
The buzz did not surprise her as it was pointed at Glandive. However, the extraordinary weight of the thing put off a lot of energy. Containing it with two hands was required. She mimicked Glandive's action, setting it down to shut it off. She assumed the Council would reverse-engineer the thing after they left, but Vors should try it. She strongly hoped his powerful mind would find a way to activate it as well.
It would be good to surprise the Imperials about something in all this.
Zero picked up the tetrahedron and handed it to Vors. She wanted time alone with Vors later. Too many clues to friction between Vors and the Council. Too much excitement in Vors iffy explanations about the arrival of the Imperials. He took all of this very seriously, almost emotionally. It was a quality he often barbed in others. And if there was friction, why would the Council choose him to go with her. A mentat she did not know or trust would make more sense. "So if that is techno-magical, it performs well with my brain that never grew up expecting such things. Give it a go."
Zero watched Lorinne while with her hands behind her back, she tapped the datacomp controls in her belt to record.
"This shouldn't quite work." Lorinne said. Vors ignored Lorinne's words and pointed it at the visitor. His eyebrow wrinkled as he concentrated with visible intensity. And, with a much greater effort than Zero needed, the tetrahedronal stone started to vibrate after 10 seconds. Surprised as anyone, Vors nearly dropped it onto the floor. He fumbled, picked, it up again, and pointed it at Zero. Again, after ten seconds, the stone eventually started to work.
Zero's datacomp recorded all of the energy readings easily. If any of the Imperials knew what she was doing, they showed no sign.
Vors repeated the process with Glandive, getting the stone to vibrate after nine and a half seconds.
"Perhaps its a trick." Vors said. He pointed it at Virago, on the other side of the room. After about a half minute of trying and failing to evoke a reaction, he finally set it down.
"Still, remarkable." Glandive said. "Perhaps Vors has an unactivated bloodline, or an exceptionally trained mind whose training correlated with the interface."
"If you are insisting on him coming." Lorinne said to Zero. "We can certainly." her eyes moved to study Vors. "test him as well. This was an unexpected result."
Zero smiled at Lorinne. "Well, for out part we've already agreed he comes along. We'll talk about testing if he wants to." She resisted turning to wink at Vors. Zero gestured in the direction of Creche Six and the entry point of the Imperials. "This has been very interesting. We have done a bold thing today with this agreement and I personally appreciate your skills in negotiating for your Empress. So let's be about it then. Whatever comes next, our city shall gain an ally and a bit more time."
"Well, then" Lorinne said. She looked at her group, and with the group, Glandive and the soldiers formed up.
Zero left the device where Vors had set it down. The Council would reap that while this 'genetic test' happened. Zero moved to Lorinne and paused. She felt upbeat but cautious. If things did not work, it represented a bigger failure for the Imperials. And Lorinne seemed a good sort of commander; one who trusted her seconds and people. Zero intuited Glandive much more than Lorinne. She thought Glandive and Zero could work together very well and he seemed to have a ...sense of humor.
Lorinne was all business. Still it was not Zero that had brought them here. It was their need and tests and culture. So Zero pushed aside any worry of the failure aspect falling on Glandive and Lorinne.
Failure could be a good thing. Depending.
Zero made a welcoming gesture that included Lorinne as a partner, as if inviting her to a couples dance. "You already know the way, but allow me to host."
"Very well then" Lorinne said.
"On her" Glandive called, the soldiers moving with precision to follow. Glandive trailed behind, alongside Vors.
And as she moved, she acted the tour guide now. "These facilities are significant to us, and most secure. The daily grind of attacks and infiltration attempts long ago taught us to protect our young within our core defenses. Dwimmerlaik will target nursery, or youth facilities first because the shock tends to break our combat team responses. Our history shows, thirty percent of a reaction force becomes emotionally incapable or overreacts if a successful strike on children is involved. Casualties then are much higher in defense. Of course, post creche time, we disperse our children from learning and protections once they are able to socialize with clan."
"How often do you suffer Dwimmerlaik incursions? What are the size of these incursions?" Lorinne asked in turn, engaging Zero's patter with her own questions.
"When they were attacking, it was irregular to the point of frustration," Zero said honestly. "Attacks ceased on our world 11 lunar cycles ago when a running front of attrition suddenly went into retreat. Within 48 hours, all sign of the Dwims was gone. We thought they had some sort of religious shock or command meltdown. Certain of their attack strategies lead us to believe they are fanatical in doctrine. We defeated all the rear guard units they left in place and... nothing since." Zero gave credit to Lorinne. "So your point of view about the scope of their activities helps us prepare for more to come."
Zero kept up the patter in casual style as they moved through the two rooms leading to Creche Six. Zero had not been here before, but she pointed out power traces, control systems, and the sharp-cannons. It was an alpha creche. No children inside were older than twelve months and they were still in cold learning and machine rest. Zero finally stood before the heavy iris door nearly twice her own height. She tilted her head and examined the comp panel which showed all systems green. Funny that. The system should have gone orange as soon as the door opened without a correct code.
It defied logic that the Imperials had input a valid code.
Zero looked at Lorinne. She shrugged. "So state the parameters of your test? The secret is done how? Skin contact? Blood? I assume you did not use the door code."
"We did not" Lorinne said. "And the far side of the Door looks vastly different. However, one of the abilities of a Warden is a esoteric ability to go through Doors which are not specifically sealed and protected."
"You should not alarm her." Glandive said, coming up to the front. "Security is important to her and her people. We have flaunted that with our entrance."
Lorinne gave a conceding nod to Glandive and turned back to Zero. "Opening the Door is done by an act of psionic will. You will yourself to have the Door to open onto the Stair, instead of where it normally does. *Know* that the Door can open elsewhere, hold it in your mind, and open the Door with that in mind."
"Anytime" she added, with a smile.
Zero tried to smile back. It was a bit thin because this felt wrong. She could walk through all the concepts, all the revelations but it did not change the territory inside her head. She was NOT a descendant of Imperial Outworlders.
But then, Zero knew that was not the point of all this either. She nodded once to Lorinne; accepted the challenge.
Zero stepped to the door comp and centered her intentions on it. It did not matter that she had no code; no clearance for this door. She reached out and punched in for vocal access. "Comp, this is Strider Tolerance Zero. Override mode. Cycle the entry to Creche Six."
"Apologies, Strider Tolerance Zero. Ident confirmed, but you have no override privileges in this section. Logging refusal."
Zero felt relief and the awkward sense of trying to do the impossible. She stared at the creche comp, willed herself to be in tune with it. A distraction tickled her collarbone, a chill in her grandmother's jade ring she wore on a neck loop under the stillsuit. Zero pushed aside a happy memory of Gramma. She keyed the comp again with a finger stab. "Door access override. Open for military emergency."
"Apologies, Strider Tolerance Zero. There is no corroboration of an emergency. Logging refusal and tagging your actions to Security."
The Imperial Outworlders remained silent, watching the situation with not a detached air, but a confidence in the resolution of an escalating situation.
Zero flushed. Rao. This was frelled up. She frowned at the door comp. "This is important. Scan the people standing here. Cross reference alerts in system for security breach. Emergency status authorized from Council. Acknowledge."
"Strider, your actions are now tagged as comp assault. Please remain here until Security arrives. Attempts to depart will involve weapon release. This is a priority response. You are warned only once. Do not seek to depart the scan zone. You have no previous infractions on record and are not drugged or under duress. Do not complicate your offense and your record will speak well for you."
"Pre-deployment." Glandive mumured to Lorinne. "Shall I..."
"No" Lorinne replied, just as quietly. "Wait for it." She regarded Zero again and smiled, again.
Zero sighed. She looked sideways at Lorinne, and saw the expected small 'anytime' smile. Zero said softly, "Ah, please no one move until we get this corrected." Zero took a cleansing breath. It did not help that this whole thing must be possible. Lorinne was proof. Glandive was proof. She was an ass for taking her problem to the comp. She must do this in some way that was outside anything normal.
Zero looked at the smooth door iris, the frame, the heavy rim reinforcing, and rubbed her palms on her hips. "Sorry all. I going to, ah...." She gestured a wave-off at the comp. Zero squinted at the door. She rearranged the unseen volume behind it, pushed it aside as if it was a touch pad link. She leaned forward and put her palm on the iris surface.
She stared at her hand and looked thru it into the unknown. It had to be there.
The temperature around her dropped. Small puffs of air swept up from her heels. Mist colored wisps sketched lightly behind and around her.
Zero twisted her hand and hissed at the iris. The Door shifted a bit more than the twist of her palm. There was a beyond. But the scale of it was monstrous. She grew more afraid as she groped to understand what it meant. She felt small standing on the edge of a black song that lapped at the back of her fingers on the door. But this music was not anything written for humans.
Zero knew then what the horrible part of this was. She was not human and never had been. The vibration under her hand thrummed all around and sang in the metal and it opened.
Not as it should. No. It did not iris open on the mechanisms of Ka-El. It swung inward on impossible hinges that did not exist. There were tears in her eyes. And she stepped back as the chill and wisps around her vanished.
"Beautiful" Lorinne said.
Beyond the Door, the impossibility of the swinging Door, was no room of Ka-El that she had ever seen or known. The floor was a metal grate, a relatively wide mesh of metal. Even without the spiral staircase, in the same slightly rusted metal style in the center, looking up at the ceiling (5 meters high) also a grate, allowed Zero to see that there were more grates, more floors above her, and just as many below her. On the other side of this metal grate was a large metal door, not very distinct from the solid greyish metal that composed the walls of a rectangular room that had, to her estimation, a diameter of 15 meters from either of the Doors to the centrally located staircase, and approximately 10 meters from the stiarcase to either of the other two walls, not adorned with Doors.
"Congratulations." Glandive added. "Did I note a proto-First Manifestation as well?"
"I think we did." Lorinne noted. "Go on, Zero, go through, take a full look. Perhaps even open the far Door. "We scouted it before coming to yours, there is relatively little danger."
The computer, Zero noted, was no longer showing any complaint.
Zero straightened her spine. She took the few steps forward. She had not cried in years, but the Imperials had not reacted. Or had decided it was too shameful to show a reaction. Too bad she wasn't the poster warrior hero everyone needed.
Zero steadied her breathing. At least with the strange metal space beyond, the grating indicated free upflow of air. As the breathing would convince her body everything was balanced, so would the upward airs erase traces of water on her face.
As she stepped over the threshold, surprises stabbed her awareness. Her belt datacomp died without even a fault warning. Her suit power flickered, gave a five second implosion power fault, and then steadied before she might throw herself down the steps trying to save the people behind her. But her heart thundered a gallop. Sweat fell off her chin and vanished down through the metal grates. She held onto nothing by her fingertips, half into the crouch jump that probably would not have saved anyone.
Slowly, as if she still might yet implode, she keyed her glove controls and checked through the register on the suit status. All readings normal. Zero swallowed. Singularity parameters all green. She ran back through the readings. And there. For a moment, a tiny fraction of a second, the singularity engine had gone off the scale. Her hands shook. Now the belt datacomp reset itself without her doing anything. The field belt's neocells ejected and the suit extended new power feeds direct from the suit engine. Zero heard the ejected cells hit the metal mesh floor. She saw them break into powered bursts as if the containment were a thousand years dead and broken. Stepping through the door had killed the belt power. That made no frelling sense. The belt gear was newer issue and prime stuff. Her suit was old gear and tinkered to Rao and back.
But then singularity engines never failed. It was a basic part of the universe, they either worked or they never ignited. But once one was running, they did not flicker or fault. And neocells did not turn into powder. Zero used her thumb to switch on the subvocal throat mike. "Suit power check."
~Nominal. All green.~
"Yeah, right." Zero made the visual scan of this new universe up the center and down. It was a long, long way to nowhere, this shaft. It might extend a klom in both directions. The layering of metal floors made the whole thing fractal out distance judgment. She could not tell. The air moving upward dried her face. She stood up and flexed a bit. She turned back to Lorinne. The commander's stoic, challenging look was still there.
Lorinne walked slowly toward the open door, watching Zero carefully as she did so. Glandive remained put.
Zero spoke out loud, "Suit, did you alert an implosion fault?"
~Yes. The instability corrected. We adapted for other power faults with shutdowns. We now command the MT.757 field strider belt as part of the overall protection and safety protocols, Strider. Please do not pause in an Imperial Door until we correlate this new performance data.~
Zero worked some spit around in her mouth. "Vors, don't tell me what YOU see yet. But drop your powered gear before you come towards me. It might kill you." Zero felt her thighs and arms start to tremble again. She put her hands on her thighs and took some long slow breaths.She sucked on her lower lip, and got a sudden memory of her younger sister doing the same anxious tic in windstorms. She blinked the recall away.
Zero looked up at Lorinne again. "You've ruined my life. Don't expect me to be grateful. But now what would you suggest, Lady Lorinne? You still want me to try this other Door? I'm feeling a bit iffy."
Lorinne nodded, and, completing her progress toward Zero, stepped through the threshold to the grate-floored room on the other side. She looked up at the staircase and then down again.
"I have changed your life, irrevocably, its true." Lorinne said. "Whether that means your life is ruined is for you to decide, and to make so, or not."
Zero looked at Lorinne closely. She saw a commander that had talked younger and less qualified people through events tougher than this test. Lorinne's eyes had seen messy failures up close, if Zero judged right. They were alike that way.
"Opening the other Door may end any lingering doubts of the nature of the Staircase and what it means." Lorinne said. "Your suit, however, seems to have adapted rather well, I see. You have a strong personal reality. I suspect your Mentat's technology will not fare as well. You are wise to counsel him to remove it before stepping through."
"What non-Wardens see when a Door opened." Lorinne pitched her voice low to Zero "Varies considerably, especially those new to seeing it. I know of emissaries of the Empire, non-Wardens, who have never managed to see the Stair from the outside. Usually, however, one builds up a basic recognition of the Stair given exposure to it, even if one is not a Warden."
"How your Mentat will do shall be telling." she adds.
Zero lowered her voice even more than Lorinne had. "That makes a lot of sense. So even your own troops find this ....unnatural without training. This universe behind the curtain stuff could break more than your heart." She nodded once to Lorinne. Then Zero looked across the way at the other Door. She imagined putting her hand on the second Door, staring through her flesh like it was a lens. She found without effort that she had a hand up covering nearly her entire view of that Door. This time the black song rose faster against her palm. The thrum was definitely a different song. That difference helped her realize part of what was so exciting about the Ka-El music. The Ka-El Door she'd opened wanted her touch. This second one was not so inclined and it was less full of vigor.
Zero put her hand down and turned back to Lorinne. This time she turned fast enough to actually see the tiny wisps of color near her feet disappear. "Thank you for your counsel and your concerns." Zero looked down at her boots and then back to Vors. "Stay there Vors. I'll be a minute more and then we shall close this phase of testing and discuss."
"You're sure?" Vors' tone was uncertain, a bit wavering. Very unlike what his Mentat training would and did teach him.
Zero nodded with a small smile. Zero cocked her head at Lorinne. "I shall follow your guide and open the second Door. Not to convince me, but to flex me."
Zero moved in a glide to the far side of the grated floor. As she passed the steps up, she gave it a longer look. It was lit just well enough to see her estimate of size was good. It was really going to be a long walk up.
Then she stood before the second metal opening. Her hand went to the Door surface. She felt the music thrum immediately without imagining phantom inner workings. Zero twisted the inner action of the Door as she moved her palm in sympathy. There was a grind of grit and the Door swung into the Stair to reveal another place. Sand blew into the chamber and disappeared through the floor grates. Heat followed as the Door stopped. The realm looked barren. Two suns of different golds stared back at her over a wavering horizon. Some huge broken structure was half buried about three klicks away. It might even be a ship crash. If so the captain had kept a hand on the controls all the way down, for it was largely intact.
Zero could feel the humidity being sucked into the parched world. Her eyes narrowed at movement and she reached to her shoulders and popped loose the magnifiers. The suit ears extended off her shoulder blades and powered up. She immediately heard the whine of a machine barely visible moving across the bleak sand towards the distant structure. Well, someone lived here. But something told Zero that life in this world was very hard.
The temptation to explore was solid. Zero turned her face back to Lorinne. "Close again? There is someone out there."
"Close it" Lorinne agree, with a wave of her hand. "The ship crash has been there for some time, relative to us, time may flow there differently. It is not quite that you can walk into a Gossamer world and spend a hundred years outside of the world in a night's revelry within it, mind, but there can be significant differences in perceptual time. However, it must be said that those differences are uncommon, and are almost always due to someone exerting control over that flow purposefully. Unless the interaction of the two Great Powers have warped the Gossamer World out of the normal flow of time and events."
The whole idea set Zero's mind off kilter again. Time was supposed to be immutable.
"The incident with the Vadhagh." Lorinne agreed. She returned her attention to Zero. "Multiple Doors can open onto a single world, in fact, it is a common method of using shortcuts on the Grand Staircase. An interstellar civilization such as that one can have Doors on different planets."
"Exploring and traveling the Grand Staircase is far, far more than just simply walking up and down stairs." Lorinne added. "If we were to do so to walk back to the Empire, it would take us months of stair climbing. We can and we will take a much shorter course."
Zero nodded once and turned back to face the desert wind. She kept her feet inside the Grand Stair but walked to the hinge side of the Door so she might touch it more easily without putting her suit power over the threshold. She placed her palm there. And then connected to the Door again. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw contrails in the sky coming closer, but still several dozen klicks out. The metal Door closed.
Zero shook her head at the gritted seal of that Door. "I have a bad feeling about this place."
"It's unlikely they would have seen the Stair." Lorinne said. "Possible, but the Stair tends to try and mask itself from those not attuned to it, psychically sensitive, or to one of the two Higher Powers.
She walked back to Lady Lorinne. "I guess it would be Vors turn. Let me see if he is still in the mood." She suited actions to words and walked back into Ka-El. This time she felt the difference right away as she crossed even as the disruption in her singularity engine barely registered. Zero was somehow more sensitive from just the small period being gone. In fact, it almost seemed she caught bits of soft song, very odd, from the comp panels in the room. And, frell, her Gramma's ring was both hot and cold at the same time.
Weird. Zero tapped Vors on the shoulder. Her voice was low and intimate, "Well? My head is spinning. Did you want to try this or no?"
"If you are rolling on your z-axis, I might as well do the same, if I am bound to." Vors replied.
Zero just smiled, it was the best answer to that.
"A full test?" Glandive asked Mnemon.
"Yes, why not?" Lorinne said. "Even with the stone's results, best to check entirely." She walked to the Door and closed it. "Come, Mentat. Let's see if you can do what Zero can."
Vors swallowed, nodded and walked up to the Door. He closed his eyes and opened the Door...to reveal the creche room that should have been there, not the Staircase.
The computer started to react again, flashing warnings
Lorinne closed the Door, and then opened it, herself, to reveal the Staircase. The computer quelled itself again.
"What do you see, Mentat Toolei Vors." Lorinne said. "Do you see?"
"I see...a grated floor...a platform...a staircase. It's all dim, indistinct, in monochrome. As if it wasn't quite there. Like in a dream." Vors said, turning to look at Zero. "Am I right?"
"Yes," Zero nodded.
"There we are, then. Latent ordinary dragonblood, I'd judge. Do you concur, Glandive?"
"Full testing in the Empire would confirm it." Glandive said. "Its also possible you are ordinary except for mental training and sensitivity. It's useful either way. You won't have to be led through by the hand through Doors on our journey back."
Zero re-registered her belt comp, checked to see if it was tapped into the Ka-El systems around them. It was. So she squirted the whole data record off to Council lock and voice sig. She then said with some sadness. "So shall we start the next leg of the alliance pledge? A trip to see the Empire. I'll try to be a decent student before we get wherever we are going."
"There is much to learn before we even get there." Lorinne agreed. "And a fair walk to the Empire." She looked to Glandive. "Get everyone ready. We leave immediately." She turned back to face Vors and Zero.
"How much danger is there? What is the probability that we will encounter Dwims on the journey to this Empire?"
"Most of the danger in a journey through the Gossamer Worlds are in the Gossamer Worlds themselves" Lorinne said. Around Zero, the rest of the Empire's party were heading through the Door, onto that metal grate on the Staircase. Most sorcery and high technology work poorly or not at all on the Staircase itself. Familiarity with what you would call primitive weapons is extremely valuable, since they work everywhere."
"Other peoples and other things than Dwims can be met on the Stair." Lorinne continued. "We skirted the lair of a young minotaur on the way here; we will similarly endeavor to avoid him on the way back. There are some, not many, who make their home *on* the Stair itself, Zero. Minotaurs are chief among these."
Now everyone, except Zero, Vors and Lorinne has passed through the creche room and onto the Stair. "Shall we go?"
"Oh, yes," Zero looked at Vors and Lorinne. "We put ourselves in your hands. But give us some useful training as we go."
"It would be dangerous for us *NOT* to educate you enroute." Lorinne replied.
Zero wanted to run back to barracks and get her full kit, but it was an emotional retreat. What use would her sharp gun be? Or would it explode crossing the threshold? She needed lab time with tools to analyze her suit adapting and incorporating her scout belt gear into its system. Not going to happen today. Instead she spent a moment with Vors checking over his gear. Anything with a Ka-El power source might just go boom. So she pestered him for each little thing. Ear gps. Thumbnail talker tags. Monoknife. Energy cells. Personal data comp. Singularity engines if he had weapons. All of it should be left here. And she joked with him a bit, just to make things smoother. "There is nothing that will kill a soldier faster than hesitation, bad decisions, or bad gear."
"We don't know all what gear will be bad." Vors pointed out, reluctantly. I feel unclothed without most of it." Regardless of his hesitancy, however, Vors divested himself of everything.
Zero smiled thanks to Lorinne for her patience as she stepped back into the Infinite Stair.
Again the fluttered thermal tickle in Gramma's ring. Zero tried but failed to resist anger surging behind her blank face. She'd never get the story on that. Something five generations back or five hundred, her past was destroyed by war. Her future defined now by aliens from an Infinite Stair.
Frell. Aliens. I am an alien.
Lorinne, Glandive and the rest of the Empire representatives remained quiet for the first half hour of the journey upward through the grated, rusting metal form of the staircase. Vors spoke quietly to Zero throughout, telling her his Mentat-trained impressions: the regularity of the architecture, the even spacing of the Doors, the feel of that sameness, the impression and oppression of it upon his senses. Thirty minutes of stair climbing, however, and the set of rusted metal staircases and platforms ended abruptly.
Zero enjoyed Vors commentary, even more so when the surroundings changed abruptly, for were not the joinings between absurdities the place to learn more about each?
The last platform was several times larger than the ones below, contained no Doors, and instead had a wide arch of a metal of some sort. There were symbols on the arch, in an alphabet Zero did not recognize. Beyond the arch, the staircase resumed, but it was different, now. Instead of rusting metal grates endlessly rising, it was a series of short, rising stairs oriented at right angles to this staircase. The material of this staircase was...wood?
Zero ran her fingers along the wood. She'd never seen wood used to make a structure.
"So much wood." Vors mentioned at one point. "I would say it was a sign of wealth, but it seems more common than metal, here. Is metal a sign of wealth on the Stair? What are the economics of such a place? Where are the inefficiencies, opportunities? How can we exploit this?"
"This is a transition point between portions of the Staircase." Lorinne instructed. "The Staircase changes characteristics at intervals. These changes are cosmetic as well as practical. Some regions of the Stair do have varying physical laws in terms of the functionality of higher chemistry"
"Some regions of the stair allow for the ignition of gunpowder" Glandive added helpfully. He looked at Zero. "Your suit may show an adjustment again as you enter into this new region."
Zero nodded thanks for the alert with a friendly smile to Glandive. At the same time, she realized that not only was the scout suit acting strangely, but it might also be an anomaly to the Imperials. If only sorcery was constant, they had reason to wonder why her tech was still working.
"I can see how you wanted me to strip me of my equipment." Vors observed to Zero quietly. "A series of these transitions would ruin most normal equipment. I should still want to study why yours survived at all."
She leaned closer to Vors, "Yeah, there is something odd about that. We should figure that out." After all, she should not be so sure the danger of the suit was over. Even if the readings were stable. Singularity engines existed or they did not. The Imperials were insisting that each section of the Stair might rewrite the acceptable rules. She wondered at the making of powder that formed itself into a gun on ignition. Disposable weapons, she guessed. Carry around the bag of powder. Summon the gun only when you need it and the Stair allows it to work.
"A couple of flights of these stairs, and we will be exiting onto a Gossamer world for a transit across it as a shortcut." Lorinne said. "At that Door will be our opportunity to show you a bit more about what you can do as a Warden."
Ah. Zero gave Lorinne a swift nod. A new world. Well, she'd never dreamed of being an interplanetary explorer, but this could be fun. If her brain could keep up with all the wonders. Zero stayed close to Vors and watched Glandive's body language for clues.
Glandive and Lorinne became a little more tense as they approached a Door in this new section that looked the same as the others. Vors already noted to Zero, not that it wasn't obvious that Doors in a section were identical, but like the sections themselves, the overall Door type changed in this new section. Here, the Doors were wooden, painted white, except for garish red doorknobs.
Lorinne and Glandive conferred quietly. Without warning, they stopped everyone at one and Glandive turned to Zero. "A lesson. A Warden can tell general facts and impressions about a world on the other side of a Door, without opening it. Stand close to the Door, and concentrate on casting your mind and impressions through it and into the space beyond. In a sense, where we stand partakes both of the Stair and the world beyond it, the laws of the universe blend here."
"So, Zero, without opening the Door, tell us what lies beyond it."
Zero nodded to Lady Lorinne and smothered an undercurrent of frustration. It was only right to use these new sensations now while there was relative safety and ...educated opinions to clarify things. The Ka-El Strider moved forward to the Door and considered its strange textures for a moment. Was this the path to the Empire that had been spoken of? Or was this in fact some strange case of red knobs meaning previously marked with a 'warn off' flag? Another test then? She cleared her mind of uncertainly and frictions. As previously Zero raised her hand parallel to the Door face and projected her inquiry forward into the Door as if she were sighting down the barrel of an EM Array.
The reaction this time was stronger than ever; Zero felt as if the world beyond had only been waiting to be asked. There were strange songs, incredibly loud and piping at her right through the Door. She felt her palm vibrating as if the sound waves were a great volume. Yet she knew her ears were not pained and no vibration touched her face. The music was confusing, or perhaps just from a culture that enjoyed unpredictable and raucous tempests. Then again, if this was the world's own heartbeat, the place must be dangerous and have plenty of distractions. Then the impressions seemed to gather some sense of tempo and shape. Colors moved, some with no names, many that she found familiar but brighter than normal hues. There did not seem to be people, or the people did not register at the tempo of the world. She thought there was geologic rhythm that matched the odd music and color. Some of the colors vented skyward and collapsed to no rhyme. Lava? Rainbow molten rock? Hot. Yes, it would be very hot on the other side. Bearable though.
Zero felt nausea tingle through her abdomen. It was getting a bit much. She put her hand down and stepped back. She felt the sweat on her face and faster heartbeat; though it started to slow now that she was not touching the world beyond. "It feels empty, but full of activity," Zero began, "and there is something dangerous about the ground. Volcanic? The place seems to be thriving in a frenetic clash of energies. Oh, and it is hot enough on the other side to be a desert."
Zero looked at Lorinne.
Lorinne smiled and simply opened the door. The door opened outward, revealing a landscape with a riot of activity on a plain below the promontory that the Door's frame opened on. Lorinne walked out, squinting, putting a hand over her eyes. A massive thermal feature, something like a geyser, was close by the promontory, a riot of green and blue color that simmered. Even as Lorinne stood there, an eruption occurred, sending a fountain of colored water into the air, and then back down again. The sense of the intense heat of the terrain was palpable even through the door. The Imperial retreated and closed it.
"No one around." Lorinne said. "But someone, or something built the hut that the Door opened through. That is something to consider, Zero. Doors on the stair must connect to a Door in a Gossamer World, and a constructed Door in a Gossamer World is needed to connect to the Stair. So a Gossamer World has to be inhabited, or once WAS inhabited at some point. You can find that perfect pristine paradise...but there will be at least one artificial structure--the one that contains the Door."
"That is an interesting commentary on access. Always a crafted portal. So you cannot arrive somewhere that no one has ever been." Zero sorted and filed some experiments to chase later. "Are these portals ever in forms that are ....hidden, such as a clear glassine Door that makes the conception that there is another access beyond more problematic? Do mundane doors also obey the Warden ability?"
"Doors always are barriers and impeding of some sort." Lorinne replied. "If you had a Door frame standing all by itself in a field, it would not qualify and never could qualify as something that could connect to the Grand Staircase. A false door in a tomb, for example, that leads nowhere could not be a Door, either."
"There have been some strange edge cases." Glandive put in. "But in general, Zero, a Door is a barrier, and an opportunity, and the Staircase connects to a Door that partakes of both those aspects. There are scholars who insist the Staircase must be an artifact programmed to search out only those conditions, rather than just dropping Doors anywhere. That, though is above my pay grade." Gladive finished with a snort.
Zero was aware that although he wasn't participating, that Vors was listening intently to every word of the exchange.
Zero nodded to Lorinne and Glandive in turn. So much information to be scanned and fit into the Imperial puzzle. And yet, the Empress and her dreams were also inside a larger enigma: the Infinite Stair. And like Ka-El, the Empire fought for survival. Allies in need.
"Well," Zero offered, "I think it shall turn out I am glad you 'ruined my world'. I still feel as though we are small animals with pointy sticks running about in some larger game. This Stair is far too wondrous to be a toy or accident of cosmic powers. The decisions made in organizing all this are incredible. Whether I get to any such proper pay grade, I shall be looking to understand much more." She didn't need to look at Vors to understand he was hard at work on the mysteries already. Expecting that Lorinne conducted a lesson here rather than working closer to the Empire path, Zero waited for the group to move along.
Lorinne and Glandive did get the Imperials moving again, but it was only a couple of flights of stairs before they stopped again, and Lorinne opened the Door there without preamble. Glandive indicated for Zero to come forward. Through the open Door, Zero could see a room with wooden walls and floor.Several windows of glass let light into the room, through the window Zero could make out a cityscape.
"Our shortcut." Lorinne said. "The City of Sheung Wan. There are three Doors to the Staircase on the island, which makes it an important client-state for the Empire. We'll be heading to one outside of the city itself, in a temple to a local God. That Door opens into the same section of the staircase as the main Door to the Empire."
"Your first real experience with another Gossamer World, Zero" Lorinne says, and motioned for everyone to come through. "We'll travel in comfort to the temple, a factor here, downstairs, actually, will be sending someone up shortly." There is the sound of footsteps and activity from below.
Thee look of confusion on Vors face grew. "Zero" he said quietly. "I can no longer understand a word the Imperials are saying."
Zero tensed. She did not nod to Vors, but gestured in the Strider cant that she understood him. Zero double-checked the positions of all the company in the room. She estimated from the noise below how soon they would have company. Zero reached out to Glandive and hooked a finger in his arm bracer and tugged him closer. The tension inside her gained power and she almost thought her stomach would cramp. She whispered, "I hope you are not betrayed. Something just went wrong with Vors ability to understand your tongue. I can still understand, but what has happened?"
"Betrayed?" Glandive said, turning into the finger hook and looking at Vors and Zero. "Oh! The transfer into this Gossamer World. To your ears, Vors, Lorinne is not speaking your language any longer, she's speaking the local language. You can still understand it, Zero, because you are a Warden. The translation spell for me is translating your language to Imperial and back again. So when she started speaking Cambulac, you could no longer hear her but you can still hear me, yes?"
"Yes" Vors replied.
Zero immediately felt the tension flow away as Glandive calmly detailed the situation. The wonders of this bigger new universe so easily turned into combat-ready stances for her. It was so obvious, so hostile, and so necessary. She long ago had asked herself in a weak moment, 'when can I stop fighting?' and the answer had been very sad.
"Wardens have few problems with local languages." Glandive continued. "Non Wardens in their company require accommodations when traveling the Gossamer Worlds. We can get things settled here, we're overdue for a rest."
Zero nodded. A rest would be nice.
On cue, a young man came up the staircase, looking around at the Imperials. He bows and starts talking to Lorinne, soon heading down the staircase. Lorinne turned toward Zero and Glandive.
"We'll break in the main room downstairs." she said. She looked at Vors, and then Glandive.
"Translation issues, Lady Lorinne." Glandive said. "Zero's vassal is having difficulty with the language shifts."
"Well" Lorinne says "while we get noodles and fish, we could fit your man with a translation spell of his own. By your own approval and his, of course, Zero."
Glandive repeated this word for word, Vors nodding. "Do you want to risk your vassal" he smirked "Zero?"
Zero wanted to punch her vassal and his smirk. Instead she smiled and nodded once. "Oh let's see what happens," she winked at Glandive, "perhaps Vors will be allergic to magic and he'll turn purple." Rao, she needed to sit for an hour, do her breathing exercises, and enjoy her music. Danger vibes made her toes twitch in her boots even with the tension released. She'd been in combat mode longer than this. This should be nothing. Perhaps the stress was in trusting so many strangers while the threat level kept changing. Absurd. She would not sag or look tired in front of Lorinne.
Zero followed the group downstairs and into the delicious smell of fish and noodles. She perked up. Her nose agreed someone really knew how to cook fish properly.
Downstairs proved to be an Inn straight out of a vid. Wooden walls, floors, ceiling, furniture. Tables of various sizes, ranging from single circular ones to large trestle ones. It was to the latter that Zero and the rest of the Imperials were directed. Waitstaff were already putting plates at positions, and others bearing pitchers of something, and bowls of noodles, plates of grilled fish and vegetables.
The Inn had plenty of other customers, who looked over the Imperials but with the eyes of seeing an uncommon but not unprecedented party.
"The cuisine of Sheung Wan is very similar to the Empire, although their noodles are generally thinner than ours." Glandive said as he indicated spots for Vors and Zero near him. The soldiers started orderly ladling food on their plates and rotating the bowls around the table with military precision, the march of bowls headed toward Zero, Vors and Glandive in short order.
"We never did get a meal back in Ka El" Glandive said. "I hope this is not too alien to you?"
"We rarely get to set up a portal kitchen when in the field. Too much energy signature. This is wonderful." Zero helped pass bowls and then dug into her own. It was hot. Some spices she did not immediately equate to anything else she'd ever had. It was really good. Better than city food back in Ka El.
Or she'd eaten fieldstat rations way too long and her taste buds were mutated.
No, she thought not. The fish was even better. In short order, Zero demolished the offered food. She felt better and her energy levels were up again. She studied the people moving around them. She listened to the subdued chat. She realized there was an undercurrent to the language. Her head told her what they were saying, but if she really concentrated, she could also hear the whisper of their chatter. And it was nothing she knew.
As she relaxed and let the others finish, she glanced at Vors. He ate slowly and used the process to cover his examination of everything around them. It was a good trick she'd tried to emulate most days. He appeared bored and just savoring the quality food. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was sorting this new life into a schema.
He probably had memorized the name of everyone in the unit by now.
Well, Vors and she were not going to get much private chat time until they were in an Imperial City with quarters for both of them. Zero scrunched up her nose and picked through ideas for getting messages back to Ka El before too long. She would be gone quite a while. There had to be some sort of education for orphaned Eggs they would ask her to participate in. And that was not even counting all the ways to defend yourself on the Infinite Stair when you were a young Warden that the Empire trainers would insist she learn.
Maybe a year's worth of time before she came back this way. Zero sighed.
She lifted her eyes and again found Lorinne already watching her. Zero touched eyebrow with one fingertip and saluted the redhead. Yep. Things were going to be interesting and horrible for quite a while. Lorinne responded with a respectful nod, and turned to talk with their host.
Zero turned to Glandive. "Great meal. Do we sleep here? Or is it safer to sleep beyond the next Door?"
"After the next Door is a stretch of Stair. We'll camp somewhere along there too." Glandive said. "But here, here we're going to stay and rest. Local time on gossamer worlds is worse than timezones and jet lag. You walk all day on the Stair, struggle to make your distance, and reach a Gossamer World to find...its morning and finding lodging is difficult. Local time here is late afternoon, judging from the sun. A moment."
Glandive excused himself, going over to where Lorinne and the innskeeper were talking. Zero did notice there was a beehive of activity among the waitstaff, as if, indeed, preparing for a sudden influx of unexpected guests. Glandive came back quickly, just as Vors was about to tell about his observations.
"We are staying for the night, and will head to the shrine in the morning. Aside from getting Vors outfitted with a translator spell, you are at liberty. Lorinne probably would be happier if you took along an Imperial with you for any jaunts you wanted to do into the city. I'd be happy enough to volunteer one."
He cocked his head. "This is a much better solution than trying to confine you to quarters only for you to sneak out, after all."
Zero grinned. That idea tickled Zero's funny bone. Her? Sneak out? She nodded at Glandive even if not for the reason he might think. If he assumed she often leveraged her skills to break rules that said something about Imperial power. She tucked that away for later. It was years since she'd dodged a curfew or a direct order. The combination of her record in the field against opponents and the sometimes awkward distance of her comrades in the 77th Regiment--- well, it just was not right to act up and take liberties when so many dealt with deadly hardship every day. Bad enough the morale posters and the interviews on the Holo made her an elite case without her acting the same. Her Father would be shamed if she waltzed around like a diva.
That made her think about her Father's mother and she fingered the jade ring inside her suit. It was still cool.
She pursed her lips. Glandive might be compromising a technical point. The Imperials crafted a deal with Ka-El that she would look, listen, and consider their offer. Even if he suspected Zero was stuck taking a deal, he might be doing her the courtesy of acting the ally rather than the commander. He was not her senior yet. She liked that idea. "Well, I'm pretty tired. Too much excitement today. But it would be pleasant to walk around and see a city not under the cannons of the Dwimmerlaik. I'll take your offer." She shifted her eyes to Vors and raised an inviting eyebrow. It might also be a time to get a brief from Vors.
Vors nodded. "I would like to see the city and experience it from the perspective of a..." he paused, "tourist."
"Very well." Glandive said. "Let's get you outfitted."
The process of ensorceling Vors with a translation spell turned out to be a relatively short process with not a tremendous amount of interesting visuals. Glandive had Vors seated at a table, and produced two tiny jade objects about the size of the tip of Zero's pinky. One object was placed in Vors' left ear, and the other was placed on his tongue, extended out for the purpose. There was a chanting of words, two tiny pinpricks of light, from each jade object, and then Glandive removed them. He then rattled off something that Zero did not understand, but Vors gave a nod and a smile. Vors responded in the same tongue, Glandive nodding in turn.
"It works to specifications" Glandive said. "Norian is a tricky language to learn, and you came through loud and clear. It should last several days, depending on local Gossamer world conditions. I've got Sergeant Anand waiting at the entrance to the Tea House, when you are ready to depart and see the city."
"Since I assume this is a very safe place or you would not be loosing the novices even with escort, then no, I have not questions. How soon should we be back here? I am standing a watch tonight?" Zero threw a shawl, borrowed from the innkeep's wife, over her travel gear.
Vors cocked his head to listen, calculating, curious.
"Standing a watch?" Glandive shook his head. "No, that is not necessary. Even in a place of danger, it would be doubtful that Lorinne would ask you to stand guard, unless we were extremely shorthanded. And we are not in a place of danger, here."
"Or else, as you say, we wouldn't loose you into the city with just a Sergeant. But do be back here before Midnight. You will want to have some sleep before tomorrow's march to the Temple."
"And" The soldier smiled. "have fun."
Zero smiled in return. "Well, we're off then. Come along, Vassal." Zero barely restrained her grin and went to find Sergeant Anand. Since there was only the one figure in Imperial gear at the Tea House door, it was not hard. Zero sketched a salute. "Dear Sergeant, let's take a walking loop of the metro. If you lead I'll try not to get lost, eh? Sticking to the main streets is fine by us. Call me Zero unless that's a taboo. OK?"
"It is no taboo." Sgt. Anand replied, saluting in return. "Your rank after all has not yet been made official in any event. Once adopted into a House as a Dragon Blooded scion and Warden, you will vastly outrank me, and such familiarity would draw comment. At the moment you are a guest and ally."
"Come" he said. " Sheung Wan awaits us."
The walking loop of the metro began in earnest, the tall, moderately dark skinned and dark haired officer striding through the crowded streets of the city with confidence. Most people, Zero noted, seemed to recognize the colors and figure he cut, and hurried out of his path. This provided a small bubble of calm amongst even the largest crowds, and indeed the streets were teeming with pedestrians, peddlers, and activity of all sorts. Most of the buildings were wooden, with the stone buildings all larger and even better kept.
The tour changed from its resolute march as they turned a corner onto a crowded plaza. On the far end of the plaza, on a small hill, a large sandstone building with accents of white and green glinted in the sun. Anand's tour, which had started with a bunch of streets with shops, crossed the large space and he stopped near the temple, and looked up at it reverently.
"Most of the Gods here are different" Anand said,. "Local ones. But this temple was built by the Empire for the reverence of the Five Dragons, with an emphasis on Pasiap."
"Would you like to go inside now, or did you want to simply note locations like this for further study once we finish the loop?"
"Oh, yes. Let us see it." Zero thought it was only right to learn about the ancestors she shared blood with. There was a time in her own world's history, many thousand years before, when ancestors had mythic powers to shape the world.
With a nod to Vors, they followed the Imperial up the entrance and into the imposing structure. "Pasiap is not the name of a House I've heard yet. What can you tell me about him?"
"Pasiap is not the name of a House." Anand said, with a slight tone of shock. "Pasiap is the Immaculate Dragon of Earth himself." His eyes widened slightly and Anand said nothing for the next couple of minutes as he led Vors and Zero up the steps and through the open doors of the Temple. The Temple doors were ornately carved with a ouroboros design, five similar but distinctly different dragons, tail to head, connecting and bonding to each other, forming a greater, unified, strong, single entity.
By the time the trio had reached the head sinuous corridor painted with images of dragons, and ideograms that resolved themselves in Zero's mind to appear to be quotes, or aphorisms, or perhaps prayers, Anand had recovered his shock to speak again.
"Forgive me, this is only the second time I've been to a Gossamer World unaware of the Dragons. I didn't realize you were unfamiliar with the Five."
"This is a prayer walk" he indicated the corridor. "You can either follow the path of all the Dragons, giving reverence to each, or focus on a particular Dragon. Naturally, Pasiap has more prayers and affirmations in this temple, as I told you. The shrine is at the end of the walk."
"Anand, please forgive me," Zero responded in a mild tone considering the churn of her thoughts, "when the Dragons were spoken of, I assumed it was an honorific term, like Ancestor, or High Evolutionary, someone who founded a House or saved an Empress or Mastered a Theorem of the Universality. I meant no disrespect." She gestured to the paths. "Perhaps you'd like some quiet time here? I'm willing to try a meditative path."
She smiled. "Lady Lorinne seemed to think me a true warrior. Which path suits warriors?" Zero admired the level and detail around her. She concentrated on masking her confusion that Dragon Blood meant supernatural creatures had mated with her family line. The level of Strange was high enough to numb her. In a way, she felt like Anand had just set off a bomb.
"One can be blessed by any of the five Dragons and be a warrior." Anand replied. "However, it must be said that Hesiesh, the Dragon of Fire, is the Dragon that most those inclined to the arts martial have been chosen by."
"You don't... know what Dragon has blessed you?" Anand regarded Zero. "You've never..." Recognition blazed in his eyes like twin suns. He regarded the walk and then at Zero. "It is possible that going through the meditation oriented toward your element will cause you to manifest it for the first time." He looked at the wall and then back at Zero.
"What does that mean?" Vors said. "What does a manifestation entail?"
"It means" Anand said. "That Zero will show which element she has an affinity for, and therefore which Dragon anointed her." He regarded the two of them. "Perhaps a demonstration on my part might be in order?"
Manifestation. Proto-manifestation. That had been said at the Door in Ka-El. "Just a minute," Zero offered. "I'm not sure acting the tourist in a city unfamiliar to me is where I want to ...manifest. Not to be too blunt, but I'd like training and knowledge before I'm ...wait, no dragon has ever visited Ka-El, let alone blessed me." She stopped before the next question got out of her mouth. ~One step at a time.~
Anand looked at Zero skeptically. Vors just remained quiet, observant, listening.
Zero put away her intense curiosity. "OK, let's keep this simple. No particular manifestation, let's just take the Path of All Dragons. It will be safe, yes? Vors is Blooded also according to Lorinne." Zero gave her friend a look that said, 'can we just avoid punching Fate in the Face this time'?
"You are?" Anand said to Vors.
"That's what she said."Vors replied. "Not a Warden like my liege lady." he gave a brief smile to Zero "but a Dragon Blooded, or a latent one."
"Ah, I see." Anand said. "No, it would not be well for both of you to manifest, especially if you share the same element. Or worse, opposing ones. Follow, watch, learn."
The next half hour was an education in learning an aspect of Imperial culture--religion. The Path of All Dragons proved to be a series of aphorisms and prayers to each of the five dragons--Daana, Hesiesh, Mela, Sextes Jylis, and of course, Pasiap. The elements mapped out to various character traits, and strengths of character. Daana's Water-aspect and the prayers and aphorisms related to change and development, fluidity. Hesiesh related to passion, to challenging assumptions Mela oriented to idealism and intellectualism, and the pursuits of mind over matter. Sextes Jylis hedonism, experience and life .Pasiap got the most quotes and most aphorisms and prayers. His domain, it turned out, was tradition, stability and ritual.
Zero studied everything carefully and quietly. She wondered about her own understanding of Rao. Certainly no one on Ka El thought the sum of Creative Principles watched over them or appointed their leaders with blessings. However, this was a strong element in the Empire. Her culture's faith was pale compared to the Empire's beliefs. And whether magic even worked on principles that she could understand, it did not mean that Rao was any more concrete than Dragons being intimately connected to the genetic code of the Imperials.
The end of the path ended in the shrine itself, which was a bullet shaped high-walled chamber with windows streaming down onto the five statues. The middle, brown and black dragon, Pasiap, was larger than his brethren, but all five statues, Blue for Mela, Green-brown for Sextes Jylis, Red for Hesiesh, greenish blue for Daana, were entwinted together as a group, and unit. A couple of people were on small wooden benches before the statues, praying quietly while kneeling.
Wordlessly and reverently, Anand went to the nearest open bench and moved to emulate those worshipers already here.
Now Zero felt as if she were intruding. She could hardly offer meditation to magical dragons in a sincere way. Yet this chamber felt ...odd. There were layers of mystery here. Was it upsetting her to realize these meditations might be more real than the Rao? No. Zero was sure she was not shocked, or jealous, or even confused. She had not been much for faith meditation even as a child. Once her parents died, she'd never felt drawn to it again. Some doctors had encouraged her to try it, but she preferred the Rehearsal Therapy Meditation. Anytime she looked at the Dragon icons, it felt as if there was something she should hear or see. The colors were off a bit. They seemed over-saturated to her eyes. But really she sensed only her own disquiet. So lack of training? Or lack of faith?
However, she did feel as if Anand was more honest than Glandive and Lorinne had been. If the Empire revered Magic Lizards, that was a big stretch from claiming an immensely long lived Empress had gathered magical powers and defended a promontory in a universe threaded with an Infinite Stair. One version of the Empire was much more alien and possibly an indication of a juvenile society. The version given back in Ka El seemed like natural allies with similar values. That was just not true. What could she have in common with these Elemental Dragons and how they thought, assuming their reality was a part of the variations of an Infinite String the Doors allowed smaller folks to travel?
Promises had been made and so far kept. Perhaps Glandive and Lorinne had judged Ka El's people would just not accept all this mummery. Zero wondered if they quietly thought her world sterile and uncaring.
All this flashed through her mind, but her face was a still pond of inner reflection. Zero whispered to Vors, "Do you find it strange that this is so obviously important, but our Imperial friends only talked about blood lines and like-minded allies defending against the Dwimmerlaik Threat?" Zero did not want to say it out loud, but honesty pushed her to add, "And does this temple feel different to you? As if we are being measured or watched? Any psychic activity you can sense?"
"My guess" Vors said, his voice pitched low "is that the Empire judge and judged us to be resolutely atheistic, and that a revelation or an attempt at proselytizing would have gone badly. Certainly, if they had said they wanted to meet you because of this religious beliefs, I never would have led you to them. Never. Do all of the Imperials believe as the Sergeant does? Certainly some must do, to create this place, and space."
"As far as psychic impressions. A moment. Let me try something." Vors broke away from Zero and slowly approached the statues. He looked up at the statues and stared, his eyes focused on the central Pasiap. Twenty seconds passed.
And then Vors collapsed in a heap to the floor.
"!Vors!" Zero leapt across the space and landed near him. She made a quick scan for any change in the people around them, even though she did not really think they had attacked him. "Frell," she muttered. She did not even have a med comp and regretted that Scout Triage Aid did not cover mentat works.
Zero's reaction was faster than everyone else, Anand included. There were looks of surprise and shock on the part of the parishioners. Anand, on the other hand, was at Zero's side in a flash.
She checked his breathing; used a finger to clear his mouth in case he had fallen badly. She set him in a more relaxed prone position. She began mouth to mouth, pumping oxygen into him.
Anand was softly cursing, mostly to himself, crouched on his other side.
"He's breathing" Anand finally said, righting himself. Zero could see that he was breathing, and wasn't choking or the like. Anand grasped Vors' right wrist. "He's got a pulse, fluttery but getting stronger." He looked up at Zero. "Psychic shock, if I had to make a guess. We should try and get him to someplace comfortable. Was he trying to cast a spell...wait, you don't DO that in your Gossamer World, do you? Let me see." He grasped Anand's hand again." Zero's efforts in getting more air into him started to have a salutary effect...Vors' eyes began to flutter but he was still far from conscious.
It might have been Zero trying to channel Vors' penchant for analysis and observation, but Zero noticed that both Vors' skin, and the air around them, was becoming distinctly cooler.
Zero kept half her attention for the crowd. She was prepared for temple officials to arrive and ask questions in the next ten minutes. Perhaps it would be better to move out of here quickly.
She watched Vors and Anand. This business of temperature fluctuations around Imperials and their doings; might be related to their magic. It would explain the environ oddities she noted back in Ka El when first negotiating with the group. She blamed herself. Always asking the next question. Vors was a curious sod. The two of them together were just asking for an event. Well, they got one.
Zero held herself from glaring in the direction of the Magic Lizard icons.
Anand checked Vors over for the next few moments. Alarm started to rise in his eyes and he looked to Zero. "We need to get him out of this temple and into some open air immediately. I can feel his Essence flow rising, the temperature dropping. He's going to Manifest in the next couple of minutes, as an Air Aspect. We don't want him to bring this place down on our heads when he does it."
"You need to be calm as well." Anand added to Zero. "Or the stress of this will cause you to Manifest too. Can you help me carry him?"
Zero nods her thanks and gives Anand a brief smile. "Let this be between us for now." And Zero revealed herself in a way that would shock Vors if he were conscious, she lifted him with ease. Vors went over her shoulder and she jogged quickly towards the exit. Neither Vors bulk nor his weight, half-again her own, slowed her at all. The act of moving quickly in rescue of a comrade was a balm to her anger. She'd done this over a thousand times.
~And this time will work just as well.~
Anand was completely unsurprised, it seemed by Zero's strength. Zero did not miss that.
In moments she covered the distance waving aside any pilgrims that walk the hallways. She exited the Temple and scanned for a spot in the grander plaza that was mostly stone and contained. She pointed to it when Anand pulled up next to her. "There. Lead on. Warn people off."
"Out of the way. Clear!" Anand boomed, rushing forward. The square thinned, especially in the quiet corner that Zero had picked. By the time Zero gets Vors to the spot, there is no one within 15 meters of the spot. Anand directed Zero to get Vors to an upright, seated position against a wall.
Vors' eyes opened. Zero could see that the color of his eyes had changed, and their texture as well. They were gray, shot through with white. That feeling of cold was now unmistakable.
"First Manifestation. Second Breath. Here it comes." Anand said, pulling Zero back. Anand was stronger than he looked, too.
In that seated position, Vors looked at Zero, holding out his hand. And then a downdraft of icy-cold air whooshed onto Vors from the high atmosphere, rattling windows and knocking over a nearby table. That gust entered Vors or reached him as a focal point, and then pushed outwards, bringing Zero and Anand to their knees in a freezing gale. It was cold, so very cold. Frost covered the ground around Vors. The people closest to the Manifestation backed up, their cries and words lost in the howl of that unearthly wind.
The sound finally retreated, a couple of minutes later, followed by the wind peetering away to nothing. Vors was covered in frost, too, his skin blue from the cold. He smiled tiredly at Zero. "My calculations did not predict such a result."
Zero coughed cold dust and rubbed her eyes. She grinned, just happy he was alert and jabbering calculations. Nothing could be too wrong with Vors if he was talking math. "I'm not sure what you were trying to do, but don't do it again in a temple. The--," She almost said, 'magic lizards' out loud, "Dragons must like your nervy way of poking into things."
"No, they clearly do not" Anand said. "What did you do?" he asked Vors.
"I attempted communion with the Dragons." Vors said. He focused his eyes on Zero despite responding to Anand. "I...made contact. I still need to analyze the entirety of the event."
Zero brushed at ice glitter on her sleeves. She scanned around to see if anyone had caught too much of that magical thermal blast. Fortunately it seemed that the only ones hit by the blast in a serious manner were Zero and Anand themselves. The locals still were not moving in, pointing and talking.
She got to her feet. "You have deeper talents than Lorinne expected. Think you are up to walking back to our hostel?"
"I can well walk out of here." Vors said. He got to his feet. A little shakily, but he managed it. "If we take it slowly." he amended.
"A Second Breath initiated by the Dragons directly, before my eyes." Anand said. "And a Warden. You both are a wonder." He looked at Zero. "This does, I think, cut our tour off. And, possibly means I broke the letter of the command to keep you both out of difficulties and trouble."
Zero added quietly to the non-com, "I'll let you make the report Sergeant and then you can explain as much as duty requires. We are not fully versed in your protocols, but I support you did no wrong to us." She clapped on hand on Vors shoulder and the three set a mild pace back towards the inn.
~Thank Rao they were not hauling Vors back on a stretcher.~ The whole of it was unnerving in ways Zero found eerie.
Zero spoke to Anand with an easy tone of casual banter between comrades, "Perhaps along the way, you'd explain more of what a Manifestation is? How it is that a First Breath or Second Breath figures in the growth of the Blessings granted by The Dragons? What are the signs of these things? We are supposed to be learning as we go, according to Glandive it would be a harm not to study up."
Vors remained quiet, his pace slow, but already back into the Mentat pattern of observation, listening, and data collection. Anand picked up the conversation.
"First Breath is...how can I give another word you'd know..." Anand paused, "Birth!"
"Yes, First Breath is what you'd call Birth. Everyone undergoes a First Breath, regardless of who they are. If you are chosen and blessed by the Dragons, now, as we three are, the Second Breath, or First Manifestation, different words for the same event, occurs when the person chosen shows their element for the first time. Its the unmistakable marker for any Dragon Blooded, Warden or not, that one of the Dragons has chosen you to be their representative, their champion."
"Children of Dragon Blooded parents are often Dragon blooded." Anand continued. He chewed his lip. "But it is not guaranteed that a child or descendant of the Dragon Blooded will manifest as one themselves. Such people we call Patricians. While more highly ranked than the nobility, they are usually given less important duties and responsibilities, since they cannot do many of the things the Dragon Blooded can do."
"This finding of Wardens, and having people like you open Doors, is strange." Anand added. "You haven't manifested as a Dragon Blooded, and yet you ARE one, and a Warden to boot. It makes me wonder when you, like Vors, will take your own Second Breath. I don't know how that gets managed. I think people from the Heptagram do something to get you to unlock your Second Breath and then you can be taught to control it. And, unless you are truly roused, the manifestation isn't as catastrophic as what happened in the plaza."
"That's a relief" Vors said.
Zero nodded slowly and smiled her appreciation to Anand for his succinct explanations. "Yes. We do not want a thermal blast inside an inn or other populated gather space."
"Thermal blast?" Anand said. "Do you think you're blessed by Hesiesh, then?"
Zero shrugged. It would be childish to think a temper and aggressive history were a real link to firey powers. Hopefully. She shot a stern look at Vors. Perhaps he would read it as, 'less risks, more sharing of analysis'. In Zero's experience with her fungus headed friend, he would only note she was irritated and barely change his ways at all. A mentat was all unrestrained curiosity boosted by amped intellect. Most scouts would not put up with them.
Nearer to the inn again, she quietly reminded Anand he would report their tour and she would likely support his version.
Then she made of point of giving Glandive a cheery smile and wave at his table. She did not stop. A hand on Vors' arm, and she aimed him at the upstairs. Leaning in she muttered, "Bed for you, lizard twister. Enough and then some for this day."
"I'm going" Vors said. "I have to process and think about this in any event. Replay the events in my mind." He trooped up the stairs, which left Zero and Anand to face Glandive.
There was no immediate sign of Lorinne.
Glandive looked at Zero and then alighted his eyes on Anand.
"Ah, an unexpected Second Breath on the part of Lady Zero's vassal Toolei Vors, sir." Anand said. "Quick thinking by myself and Zero managed to get him out of the range of civilians and so the First Manifestation did not cause any property damage or injury to the general public."
"Which Dragon has blessed him, Sergeant?" Glandive asked.
"Mela, sir." Anand replied. "A powerful and striking manifestation of the element of Air."
"I see" Glandive said. "Although not a Warden, he is going to be courted to join a House, although your rights will be respected in that, Zero." He paused and looked down at his soup as if for inspiration and then looked up at Zero. "Do you have any amendment or addition to Sergeant Anand's report?"
"Vors seemed to like the city, sir," Zero says. "He's always been fond of meditation and such. As the sergeant says no one came close to being hurt. We came straight back. Is there any first aid needed after a Second Breath? I'll see he gets it."
"First aid? No." Glandive replied. "Rest, food, drink when he feels up to it. It can be a draining experience." He regarded Zero levelly. "You come from a rather materialistic and deterministic shadow, Zero. How did you feel about a blatant display of, well, magic, and from one of your own kinsmen, and not one of us? Especially knowing that you could, can, and will manifest in this way, yourself?"
Zero glanced about the near area judging distances and how likely nearby ears might have caught Glandive's modest question. No one really close. She expected nothing less from a commander of Glandive's experience. Zero gave Anand a pause and a look. If Anand were quality----and why wouldn't Glandive hand-pick his team to go out on the edges of strange territory to hunt Lost Eggs---the look would transparently ask for a moment of privacy with the senior officer.
"I'll go make sure that Vors gets to his bed, sir." Anand says.
"Fair question, well put, sir," Zero said with her low 'enemies near' voice. "How long do you have for the response? For I have much to say and I'm tired enough from the wonder you've plowed up and over my head to give you an honest answer. Your Empire's desperation does not change with my answer. Neither do my promises."
The pause could have been for him to answer. It wasn't really. Zero allowed herself three breaths to reset her center. "Ten years of service to my country, sir. Patrols solo and with mates a couple times a day, several times a week. Much of that was a blur of horrors and triumphs. I've made and lost hundreds of friends. Before you and the Empire came along, I would admit that my nerves were numb to anything but the electricity of combat. My off hours are the weird times, since I can't find any relax time that shakes off the knowing that the next time I go against the enemy may be the last."
She looked up through her lashes, letting her anger creep into her eyes. "I'm scared by your Universe. I'm all at odds. This isn't combat and it isn't a time to relax. My reflexes are making me twitchy because everything is dangerous in the Universe you've dragged me into. But I said yes and I meant it. I am pissed to be less than you need. I'm not ready for this. I'll learn fast and still not be ready. Your Universe is Infinite."
Zero gestured and poked a finger into his chest.
Glandive blinked, accepted the gesture, and continued to listen.
"Let me put it differently. Ka El is in its death throes. Our tech made us last a lot longer than the Dwims expected, I guess. But they kill us better than we kill them. We've known for years....I've known for years that we will lose." She looked around the room slowly. Once she turned back to Glandive her voice lowered again. "I see your Empire is us ten years ago. You are mighty. You have the measure of the Dwims. Yet your Empress knows you will lose." She nodded once slowly. "You'll die well. But you'll lose. You don't have the strength you had before. You cannot hope to replace it. This move..." She gestured to herself and circled her finger to indicate she knew there were other teams seeking Wardens. "It's weak and it will not suffice. You are so desperate to shore up your defenses you've cast a big net and gotten unknown volunteers. Why would they leave their own families? Why would they die for you? Why would a smattering of Wardens really make a difference when you've just lost an entire HOUSE of Wardens? The strategy does not add up. To me. It is madness." A small hand gesture indicated that this was a thing she did not take it personally.
Glandive bit his lip, said nothing.
She smiled and the anger pulsed in her look and the set of her jaw. A lock of her hair blew about just behind her ear. She did not notice. "But I like you. Personally. And I believe you people are the real deal. But then, my case is a darker mirror of yours. My home is worse off than you. We have nothing to lose. Your culture is still in denial of death. Mine has accepted it and the Dwims shall pay for every atom of our existence. Throwing in with your risk is a higher stakes game. Madness. But it sure sucks to be me. Yes."
Zero moved closer into his personal space. "Magic? It adds to the unknown because I don't understand it. Ancient Gods touching people's brains? I've seen the Dwims do things that just made no frellin' sense and get away with it. Walk through walls in one case." She huffed a breath. "Had nightmares for days after that. I expect I'll have nightmares from your new Universe too. Magic? Sucks to be rather deterministic, yes it does."
She looked up at him. Her eyes were old, the gold flecks drained of color in the limited light. "My promise stands."
"Your tactical analysis." Glandive said "is astute, Zero. Extremely so. Because you're right. The Last War hurt us very badly. We won and the Dwimmerlaik will still come. So, yes, the Empress' Lost Eggs policy is a throw of the dice, a gambit. To replace the irreplaceable, and not be enough even so. Even if every Lost Egg the Empress sent us to find was willing, came and was qualified, it would not replace our loses. And we lost many Dragon Blooded who are not Wardens, too. We've more of those, but losing an entire House of them was a blow."
"But, we are not going to go gently into that night." Glandive says. "Not to be too arrogant or to assign too much importance to us on an Infinite Staircase, but if the Empire falls, the Dwimmerlaik are much advanced in their goal to unmake everything. And that I will not allow to happen, as long as I have breath. Which is why my cousin and I went to find you."
Zero looked non-plussed, but he stood close enough to see some color come back into her eyes. Something he said resonated with her.
"Perhaps" he said. "This desperate gambit may provide the disparate viewpoints, skills, and ideas to find a way out of the inescapable trap."
"And if so, I want to be a part of that glorious face punch," She said quietly. "In the meantime, you're right. The magic makes me twitchy. But I've never been a slow learner."
"It's difficult to talk in fractions of an infinity." Glandive said. "However, from my experience, there are more Gossamer Worlds with some sort of magic, by which I mean the fundamental forces and nature of local reality can be altered by a single person's will or innate talent, than there are Gossamer Worlds of a completely deterministic and mechanistic nature. Learning magic is just a way to make sure you understand the nature of the Gossamer Worlds better. Which makes you a more effective Warden, and as a person, better able to make your way through them."
"Well, then I shall learn the basics and see what talent I have to this Reality of Will that is so common," Zero fell into a tired and relaxed posture now. "Vors will probably excel at it and I can ask him to put it in terms more 'deterministic'. Though I must say that you skimmed the data on our ancient history if you think we have always be so practical and mechanistic. There were times when philosophy and mystery were a greater part of our world. It has been longer for us than the age of your Empress."
"There was a lot of your history to digest. Such is the problem in dealing with Gossamer Worlds." Glandive replied.
She chewed her lip a moment. She remembered the odd things here and there when the Imperials stood within Ka El. Fluctuations of temperature where such never happened. Security alerts that just went away. Doors opened with no record.
She set a hand just to the back of her hip where the primary singularity engine for her suit system bulged. Maybe her talent at tech would relate to something more hands-on in the Empire mysteries.
Zero blinked at Glandive. "Say. I've read that somewhere. Or was it a threedee? '...Not going to go gently into that night.' That's pretty. Except I cannot recall where I heard it. Or does it mean something special I should know?" Zero experienced a fleeting memory of a fine wood platter and carefully carving the words with a slim silver tool. So odd. The memory was fogged, and like she had done the work herself more than she recalled it from an archive drop. She really was tired.
Zero brought her attention back to Glandive.
"A memory you don't remember having." Glandive looked at her, contemplative. "I could give you another bit of what you might think is mystical claptrap." he said. "It is our belief, in the Empire, that souls, especially the souls of Dragon Blooded, reincarnate. That in fact, any and all such Dragon Bloods are reincarnated. Now,while memories do not generally transfer from life to life, it is said that some can remember snatches of their previous existence. By the grace of the Dragons, of course. It is possible that from another life, a life here, that you remember the poetry of Peleps Aestus Gemini, whom I quoted."
He barked a laugh. "Look at me, as if I were in front of a member of the Immaculate Order, trying to recite catechism."
He'd done it again, caught her out unable to respond to a strange view of the universe. She took a moment to think. "So your magic of personal harmony involves the reuse of a person's intent in a new life but not necessarily their memory and personality? Isn't that pretty impractical? Ah, wouldn't such a person be...," she struggled to think of the right word, "experienced from an early age? They would be hard to socialize with other children. Doesn't sound possible." She grinned suddenly, "Yes. You're right. I have a very 'wait, stop' reaction to this sort of thing. I'll keep an eye on that. How can you tell if someone has ...been through life before?"
"Now, that's way out of my knowledge" Glandive waved a hand. "For past lives and the reincarnation of souls, you'll want to talk to one of the monks of the Order. Or talk to the Mouth of Peace himself, that's the head of the Order, the Hierarch of the Church. Or if you prefer a more personal spiritual journey, you could make a Pilgrimage to the top of the Imperial Mountain. That is a good way of learning about yourself...and who you are, as well as who you were. Me," he pointed at his chest, "I haven't had anything call to me from a prior life for me to make such an investigation."
"Not yet, anyway" Glandive added. "The possibility of being awakened to the potential of enlightenment is something all beings with a soul have."
Zero nodded a bit. Oh this looked like a longer journey every time she asked a question. If she went to school for all of this, she'd never see combat. Or the Empire would nicely order her to stop asking questions and get to work. "I think if I'm smart I'll go sleep now. What time do we move out, sir?"
"You did come back early from your expedition. And Lorinne will want to give Vors extra bed rest, given his First Manifestation. So while an hour after dawn would have been the usual answer, I suspect it will be closer to two and a half hours after Dawn before we mobilize and leave. We don't want to stay too long." Glandive warned. "You and Sergeant Anand have handled the situation with honor and skill; the locals may still have reservations about the incident. Lingering too long will invite them to scrutinize us, and you, more deeply than we desire."
Zero nodded, but tried to fit what he was not saying into the larger picture. Too much scrutiny? It did not clarify anything that she could see. Or she was just too far into this to make sense of it all. Local reservations? Local interference? But if the Lizard Gods were able to tap into the Infinite Stair, why did the local authorities and their gods have a problem with the alliance with the greater Empire? Everyone should be on the side of preserving civilization. Yet more questions then. Were the Empire's motivations and ethics something of a bitter pill to cultures they walked through to use Doors? The Empire was obviously a caste society. So in defense of the Stair, did cultures that could not produce a Warden rank as third class societies? Well, it might make sense. But the teamwork and trust of the Imperials was not faked. They respected every soldier, not just the Dragon-Blooded caste.
Zero felt flickers of a headache. Her back muscles tingled with fatigue and inside the suit, it almost seemed her fingers were numb. She focused on Glandive. More questions writ plain on her face. "OK. I'll just accept that. I hope this school for Wardens has a speed course of instruction. My questions are filling up my head in a bad way." Literally.
"Ah, just a moment." Zero felt foolish, but she checked anyhow. She tapped her belt and opened the emergency diagnostics. ~MedScan. Any toxins in the food I ate today?~
~No harmful components from the database. Please note that nine of the spices in your stomach do not exist in the database. Heartbeat is elevated. Body reactive systems are patterned per an allergic reaction. Seek a detailed medical inquiry.~
~Frell. Every question brought a new Frelling set of problems.~ Zero sucked her lower lip. She did not have allergies. None. She smiled at Glandive. "Good plan. Let's not stay long. I'm going to catch some downtime. I'll be in my cot." She nodded once to Glandive and slowly went upstairs in the direction of Vors and Anand. Everything was fine. Fine.
Sure, no allergies to anything in her world. 'But the food here was so good.' Better tasting than anything she'd eaten in years. She would not borrow trouble. Who knew how the plants and spices worked here. Stupid. Her biology would have to be the same superior kind as the Imperials. Anand was stronger than men she knew at home. She saw that. And she remembered Anand's other warning, 'the stress of this will cause you to Manifest too.' The Grand Stair contained infinite worlds. Infinite farms and produce, in forms she might not even recognize as being fundamentally different. She could never ever understand the Infinite dangers of the new Universe.
Zero lay down on her cot and stared at the ceiling. She was just tired. It was all a bit much. The loss of control made her angry. She stopped grinding her teeth and used the three fold counting routines the docs had taught her when she couldn't sleep after the death of her family. Zero shaped the anger and thinned it out again. She saw exactly how the mathematical deterministic universe had imploded on her in the last many hours. She wondered if Glandive realized how condescending it all was. She gave him credit. He'd said it with calm and kindness. It was her stress all right. Lots of it. She cycled another set of three fold. It helped.
Zero initiated the suit downtime, ~Decant.~ It purred and split and folded and stretched and pulled interior probes and settled just beneath her. The suit went quiet. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.