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The Beatrice: A World Cup 51 RP [Complete]

A battle ground for the sportsmen and women of nations worldwide. [In character]

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Candelaria And Marquez
Envoy
 
Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sat Jun 25, 2022 4:20 am

Twenty-Five. The Goddess


Three… two… one… ACTIVATE!

The crowd roared their approval as the smaller of the two supplicants began to circle the other. A lithe, silver creation, with bowed, hypermobile legs, giant scimitars for arms and an eternally grinning skull for a face, it had all the advantage in speed and reaction time, and scored the first blow, slicing at its larger cousin’s mighty thigh and causing sparks to fly.

A tumbling mass of building blocks, the angular supplicant struck back within moments – a great swing of its fist catching its opponent unawares and lifting it off its feet and into a corner of the arena.

Ten thousand rupees on the big one!

TWENTY thousand!

More roars as those too close to the ring were showered in cogs and sprockets as the smaller supplicant clambered to its feet only to be walloped once more. The damage was largely superficial, of course – most of the fighting supplicants in Kaleta’s stable were bedecked in all manner of pointless mechanical gewgaws masquerading as vital components precisely for this purpose – but there was little guarantee that it would remain that way. For a supplicant to be damaged beyond repair was an undesired outcome, and a comparatively rare one, but there were several such bouts every night and sooner or later wholesale destruction was inevitable.

Despite all that he had come to swallow since entering his current service, the aide – he had no name beyond that; names were a thing to be earned – couldn’t help but find it all somewhat distasteful. Humans and their fellow organics replenished their numbers naturally, and the arena’s scrubs were experts in getting blood out of the carpet. Supplicants were another matter. As in most of the sectors beyond Albrecht, the rule of the Morticians was much weaker here than in the capital but there were certain laws that you would be a fool indeed to break, and the law against the creation of new supplicants was little needed in any case – most of the necessary knowledge had departed with the coming of the vortex, if not before.

Even when it came to their repair, the line between renovation and creation was a grey one though. Across the strip, peripatetic mendicants – organic and supplicant alike – navigated the choppy waters of one of the Concordium’s most firmly held taboos, lives lived even deeper in the shadows than their fellow citizens of the vortex, ever hoping not to catch officialdom’s short-sighted eye.

Kaleta had his own cadre of such tinkerers, and made little effort to conceal it. The Morticians proclaimed otherwise, but few argued seriously against the proposition that Caires was his, to do with what he pleased. And what he pleased was much as his forefathers of his ancient family had pleased. Bloodsports, nootropics, whoring, gambling. It seemed like the whole sector was his pleasure palace, these days.

Another roar greeted a sudden reversal of fortunes, as the nimbler supplicant caught the giant with a lucky blow that left a leg dangling. Its stricken adversary wheeled wildly on its one good leg, swinging and missing.

War, entertainment, manual labour… the aide had little idea of the original purpose of these beings, if they could even be called that. He didn’t associate with them if he could avoid it, and was even less keen to be seen to do so. He was only too aware that his own existence, as a factotum, walked a legal tightrope. When he ventured beyond these four walls, he did so with an accompanying whisper of fear and disapproval: “Cyborg!” He couldn’t even say for certain that it wasn’t true. Best not to be seen to fraternise. Be one with the organics. In Caires at least, a man such as he could just about get away with it. But as for the supplicants, he couldn’t help but wonder… did it hurt? Did they enjoy it, live for it? Or had they not been given the capacity for such emotions and sensations?

“I grow tired of this play,” Kaleta pronounced suddenly. He clapped his hands, two flubbery booms echoing out from his balcony and throughout the pits. “Bring me blood!” his shouted down to those below, amid a hail of spittle and meat, “bring me glory!

The crowd, who had for the most part been rather enjoying the combat already presented before them, roared their agreement all the same. It didn’t pay to disagree with Kaleta’s ever shifting whims. In some ways, in an unchanging enclosed world without weather, without anything to strive for save for safety itself, the uncertainty of the hulking creature’s mood swings provided some measure of comfort against languor.

The stumbling, buzzing, supplicants were dragged from the arena and swiftly replaced by two new combatants – one in a chair, turbines whirling from his wrists, the other dragging a mighty pincer to her left side, her other arm but a stump. They would be on instruction to make the battle last, the aide knew, but there was little chance that it would be more than a passing fancy for his master. The factotum steadied his tongue, lest his distaste at this bastardisation of the great star Caras’ vision become evident. Kaleta wouldn’t care one way or other – he held no light for any star, as much as he enjoyed the products of their fervour – but in this sector the Carasians had achieved hegemony long ago. To many dionísios – outsiders, honoured or otherwise – Caires was Caras. Though for others, increasingly, it was simply Kaleta. The sector and the man could no longer be separated.

Below, the aide’s eyes were drawn mercifully away from the ring and towards a group of knights, ever fused into their dull armour, as they shouted out sums of money and waved their tankards. Such… reduced creatures, the factotum thought. This had been their city, not so long ago, so he had been told. In the power vacuum that had followed the coming of the vortex, Caires had been theirs for the taking. The Knights of Dimrar and the Knights of McNeil had divided the sector between themselves, and promised an era of chivalry and honour. Instead they had warred amongst themselves, and from the ashes some ancestor of the current Kaleta had seized the city for himself. Today, the two orders mostly kept to their respective fortress-monasteries many levels below. They found few willing recruits from the city itself, the numbers of the Knights of Dimrar replenished when required predominantly by the young boys they took in raids upon the Yaforite levels, those of the Knights of McNeil mostly outsiders. What a chance they’d squandered! And now Caires was mostly this, repeated – on a smaller scale, of course – a thousand times over.

More cheers erupted as a turbine made contact with stump amid a squall of blood. The clawed Carasian barely seemed to notice, out of her iron skull on whatever drugs Kaleta’s kyrkoherds had pumped into her. Caught up in his moment of apparent glory, the other combatant dropped his guard for a moment – and even those high up on Kaleta’s balcony could readily make out the expression of horror that followed as the pincer closed in around the wings of the turbine. The crunching noise that followed was slow and horrible, though the aide chided himself for the thought. It was just an attachment, not the man’s actual body, being unceremoniously torn from its owner. But that wasn’t Caras thinking.

His master gave a satisfied snort as the crumpled remnants of the weapon were sheered clear from the fighter’s mutilated wrist, and the aide risked a sideways glance up at the grotesque behemoth upon his throne. This Kaleta had become the very embodiment of indulgence in recent years. Even the most dedicated of Rosalians would have their right arms reattached to come even close to his corpulence (or rather, the traditional reverse – but being surrounded by Carasians left one with an altered perspective on such sayings). The aide had heard more than one of his master’s other underlings and toys threatened with being crushed like a bug should they displease him, and that was likely no idle threat. Still… this had to be done, and it might as well be when Kaleta was distracted by the gruesome scene below. He wasn’t the only one who could render the factotum’s all-too brief existence yet more fleeting still. There were the Morticians to think about.

“My lord, if – if I may?”

“Hmph? What? Out with it, come on, come on…”

“Sir, yes, I… I have been entreated to remind your lordship that the Assembly,” – and here the aide paused for Kaleta’s mocking snort – “the Assembly has requested that our patrons begin leaving the premises, sir? Several hours ago, in fact, I…”

“KILL IT! DON’T JUST STAND THERE, WOMAN! Is that about the damned goblin riots again? Do you see anyone in here rioting? Anyone having nightmares? Hardly! Having the time of their damned lives!”

“It is said the dust goblins – not that they exist, of course – target those sleeping alone, my lord…”

Kaleta scoffed again. He had the chins for it. It was quite the signature sound. “Then you have my sympathies, boy! But you can tell the bloody Assembly that Kaleta’s hasn’t shut down in fourteen seasons straight, and I’m not about to do so now! Crowd control be damned. Whatever the lunatic masses are doing out there isn’t my concern. This is my pit, and my punters are honest, law-abiding citizens GO FOR THE CHEST, YOU’VE STILL GOT ONE TURBINE YOU LITTLE SHIT! Can’t get the fighters these days…”

“Your message is quite understood, my lord, I shall alert the… oh, my word, that’s really quite…”

“It’s quite nothing,” Kaleta spat, unimpressed. The clawed warrior staggered back and collapsed onto the ropes as her opponent’s head bounced once, rolled a little way, and came to a halt in the far corner of the arena. The roar of the crowd covered the sad whirring of the surviving turbine as it sliced into its late owner’s wheelchair before finally powering down. “You were in a vat the last time we had fighters worthy of the name. No style, these kids…” Kaleta yawned expansively. “These jousts today bore me, and you put ideas in my head, boy. I would to bed.”

“Yes my lord, very good my lord… I shall call for your bearers. Does your lordship require, ah… a new companion?”

“Regrettably, yes,” Kaleta sighed. He smacked his great lips in thought. “I think… a redhead, today. Perhaps… blind, yes. No legs.”

The aide hastily lunged for one of the ring files to his side and began riffling through its pages. “Uh, my lord, I don’t think we have a girl of that specification available at the curr–”

With some difficulty, Kaleta moved his neck towards the little factotum to his side and fixed him with a horrible leer. “Make. One.”

“Yes… very good, my lord. Does my lord…”

The aide trailed off in alarm. A number of screams and a general hubbub was cutting through from below, and now his master too clutched at his bulbous head and roared. For an all-too-brief moment of purest joy, the factotum thought that might herald the end of the horrible creature, but instead Kaleta regained his composure and wiped the drool from his lips. There was a new expression plastered across his pudding face; beatific, awed. It was an expression the aide had seen before, elsewhere, upon the faces of devout Carasians after catching sight of their new implant for the first time.

As the first surge among the psychically inclined subsided and the tsunami proper crashed in, only the aide could hear Kaleta’s fevered whisperings. “Oh… Oh yes, she returns. And what a companion indeed, my boy… I shall have her… oh yes, I shall…”

* * * * *

“Fluck!”

Makynlee flung herself over the heap of metal crates that blocked her path, surprising herself that she’d made it at all. She looked up, an uneven hole in the far wall about the size of her first still smoking. If that had hit her she would have been drapes, but the fact she was evidently still alive was but a meagre morsel of good news at this point. The boxes that were all that stood between her and certain death might well be the very cause of that death, mere seconds from now, once her assailant had been able to reload. At best they would surely collapse, leaving her exposed in this dead end. Just as likely they’d explode, covering her in the corrosive ooze that ten-to-one was inside.

She should spring to her feet, she knew, use the cover of the crates and let off as many shots with her laspistol as she could before the darkness set in and Margaret came to claim all three points. That she was alive gave strong indication that she’d already failed in her primary task, backed up by the lack of any groans, much less shrieks or shots, from Jazlynn, nor indeed any sign that the more experienced ganger was still conscious. Makynlee was a kid, fresh out of the chem-labs, with little to offer the Baneful Beldams barring her body, to be thrown into the fray as a fleshy shield for more valuable members.

She’d been full ready to do her duty, but their attackers – whoever they were – had caught them in an ambush. Clattering and gunfire in the distance made it clear that battle had been joined by much of the rest of both gangs, but she could only guess at whether she would find herself a foot shorter if she looked up above the crates to check if Jazlynn’s – she assumed – killer had stormed off in search of a more worthy target than a mere callow whitey like her. One day, in the unlikely event she survived long enough, she’d be a gang sister, maybe even a matriarch. She’s always had her eye on becoming a scoper, but they already had Camsley, who could read the tables as well as anyone, although admittedly if she’d seen this coming she’d kept her counsel. In any case, she just didn’t have the knack for it.

Still prone, pistol shaking in her right glove, her left made its way down her thigh and towards her ankle. Blood, hers, but just a flesh wound and not bleeding too profusely. Most likely she’d cut it on the crates as she’d launched herself over them. Makynlee withdrew her hand back to her belts, and she fumbled in her pockets for a needle already dosed with salve. The pain duly brought to manageable levels, she patted herself down a little further, then performed a head count.

One.

Good. The correct number, whatever arguments some of the more devout Jordanians made.

She wondered vaguely why she’d thought of them, before realising that she was staring at a familiar black symbol, printed on the side of the nearest crate. Faded, but clear – the double-headed eagle of House Hawker. Was that who had set upon her and her gang? Unlikely, given that she hadn’t heard any of the familiar keening, nor the swish of wingtips against Misery’s narrow passageways, that accompanied them in their rare forays up to these levels. Instead, the symbol was a welcome one, probably a sign that the crates contained only mushrooms or carrion blocks. And if she knew House Hawker at all, they might even be empty – and instead conceal a passage downwards. Should she try to find it, abandoning her girls in the process and risk finding only a mine of some sort, maybe decades old but still primed, ready to blow the face off the first unfortunate to finally wander down this forgotten stretch of passageway? Even if not, she would surely wave farewell to her career as a ganger, and more than likely her life, if she was found to have abandoned Queen Madylei and the others, and slopping down into the lower levels was chem-pit-into-the-reclamation-tanks stuff in any case.

Nah. Best stay still. Don’t move a muscle. Catch your breath.

Who even were these fluckers? It mattered more to the older and better equipped among her compatriots, who could tailor their weaponry to their opponent as required even in the heat of battle, and she was just a sacrificial grunt with a pistol and a smile. Even so…

They were males, surely. Makynlee knew Madylei had her enemies among House Raellis, but she felt she’d know instinctively if they’d been assaulted by rivals from her own house. Who then? Males were all the same, other Raellians would tell her with a spit to the side, but that blatantly wasn’t true – even if, she had to concede, most of the gangers of the other houses on the Misery levels were united by being ever more grotesque creatures, half of them barely more bearable to look at than the shrivelled grey jizzworms that passed for the males of her own people. It was said by more generous elderly matriarchs that once, generations ago, the other houses had each at least stood for something, had some driving ideology beyond the addictions to the biosculpting that had warped their descendants beyond recognition.

Makynlee could acknowledge that, even now, many of the Maddenites possessed a certain arachnoid elegance, as they wound their skeletal way, bent double, through the passageways. And as for the Panaderans, they almost made one question one’s life choices. But the bellowers of House Vélez had grown lumpen, the gangers of House Pavoni were most often found on all fours, and the blind little Guamen weren’t even worth fighting. Members of House Soro could be little distinguished now from the fragile, sump-dwelling frogkin they’d mass-produced to act as their shields in the dark times of Science, and later bred with to their eternal impairment. The North Walkers……… Well, why the big paws? And House Federici, uplevel, well their hired chumps were easily disposed of if needs be too. There were contracts between the disciples of Jacin and Jason going back decades, her people providing the stimulants that fed the Federician lust for the chemical hits they didn’t have the wit to cook up themselves, but that didn’t engender any regard for them among her own kind. Far from it, as the little freeze-dried genital trophies that Addiryn and Layni, among others, wore on their belts attested to, each one sawn from the corpse of a Federician caught in the act of indulging their other favoured, unspeakable, habit.

And when it came to the Rickies… well, no-one liked them, not even other Rickies.

She really, really ought to re-join the fray right about now. She was totally going to do that. Uh-huh.

Instead, an anguished yowl arrested any subtle movements towards that endeavour. Cats? Fluck, that was all they needed. In her short career she had yet to face one of the hunting parties of their young toms, down from Din’s loftiest levels to indulge in bloodsports officially discouraged by the sector’s nominally ruling Cat Mother. Makynlee had met other cats in the bars and chem-dens uplevel, again mostly young males on walkabout or mercs, swaggering and arrogant but alright in their way; preferable to baseline males, that was for sure. More than one of her contemporaries, the noxious chem-labs holding limited appeal and them lacking the gunslinging skills or suicidal tendencies to join a gang, had found their way up to the Cat levels, where by all accounts – alright, by some accounts – you could carve out a decent life as one of their obedient pets if you were a good girl. It couldn’t, Makynlee knew, be the life for her. Apart from anything else they sang all the time. And the buttholes. Sweet Margaret’s teeth, the buttholes.

On the other hand, specifically the one caked in her own blood, this life wasn’t looking like it was going to be hers for much longer either.

“BASTAAAARDS!”

That was Braxcie, for sure, and a range of other screams, shouts and yowls brought her back to reality. Not Cats, but a cat, of sorts. Pudding, Braxcie’s loyal malkhynn, severely injured if those howls of anguish from both were any indication. That was a contract as old as any – the Cats got pliant Jacin maids, Makynlee’s people got their savage dud offshoots, and House Raellis remained in the good books of the true masters of Din. And now another roar, itself inhuman, confirmed today’s adversaries.

Beefshacks. Physically imposing – alright, terrifying, fine – but as pathetic as any male Misery had to offer all the same. Just heaps of mobile meat, muscle and rage. Vatgrown, degenerate, lacking the brains to feed themselves. Shat as they ran. It was almost tragic that the Larries had been reduced to fielding as many of these hulking monstrosities amongst their gangs as their own number. That was House Raellis’ fault, in their own little way. The Larries had relied on her kind’s chems for the muscle they knew couldn’t be obtained by bench presses and breeding alone. But contracts had fallen through, other houses had offered more rupees, and today’s Larries were featherweights with comparison to their forefathers, or even mothers.

That was what this ambush was about, then? Trying to abduct Chemiss Alyxraa and force her to pump them full of hers wares for free? Well… to relegation with that! No way were these fluckers too good to go down!

Gang Queen Madylei was having the same idea by the sounds of it. From beyond Makynlee’s hiding place came a screech that would rattle the passageways of Misery for levels around, as surely as the bells of the Catedral far above. This was a roar Makynlee had already come to know well – the gang’s leader, out of her skull on a cocktail of spazz, spunk and spank, a combat monster to rival any beefshack.

The crates behind her chose this moment to explode in a shower of metal panels and shards. Right. Long past time to earn her rupees, then. Makynlee dragged another needle out of a pocket, slammed a full dose of sass into her exposed stomach, and turned upon her assailant, laspistol blazing. She didn’t have the intelligence of a chemiss, the wisdom of a scoper, the strength of a matriarch, and she’d never have the leadership to be a Gang Queen. But she could be a meat shield, as surely as any beefshack. She’d let Jazlynn down. She wouldn’t fail her gang again.

“QUEEN SABREIGH RULES, MOTHERFLUCKERS!?” she screamed.

Her opposite number dodged most of her shots, though at least one landed with a grunt. He tossed aside his firearm as tradition demanded, and hoisted his wrench meaningfully. The Larries were pugilists to their bones. Respect demanded that a challenger standing in front of you must be taken out in close combat, where possible.

For a moment, Makynlee hesitated. Even despite their current reduced circumstances, no Larry could be considered scrawny. But this one could have passed for any ordinary civilian of the scrabbling houses, were it not for the distinctive haircut. So… He was just a whitey, like her. Probably in his first battle, and not enjoying it half as much as he’d thought he was going to. She wondered if, in his own hesitation, he was thinking the same.

The Larry spat out a gobbet of blood and teeth from where her pistol shot had made its mark.

“Bradley Lee don’t like you, miss. Bradley Lee kill you, now.”

Any thoughts of mercy sparked out of Makynlee’s mind. The way they spoke about themselves in the third person. That was unforgivable.

As he dived towards her, Makynlee feinted deftly. She fired off some shots at him from behind, saw the youth stagger, and pelted towards the passageway’s turning, tossing a choke gas grenade behind her. She reached the corner, checked she hadn’t stumbled into any mêlée as the noise of battle echoed around the level, then pulled out her stiletto knife. Bradley Lee was hardly worthy of it, but the concoction of toxins it would secrete would be at least as likely to bring him down as any number of pistol shots. And Makynlee…

…screamed, and fell to her knees. And as the word and pain of the Beatrice consumed her, she knew that she could be a gang scoper after all. Face down, she smiled, wiped the blood from her nose, and awaited the Larry cruiser with the blooded, whirling, toravore arm implant storming towards her. No point fighting back now. They’d all be screaming in a moment anyway. She shut her eyes, and concentrated on the Serious Injuries Chart. There were some fates even the greatest of seeresses couldn’t foresee. Better rolls sixes…

* * * * *

And in Arrigo, fallen Arrigo, the first Candelariasian city to rise up to the heavens and swallow the fleeing millions, and the first to collapse under their weight, supple little veras snaked their way through air pockets left amongst the debris of the flattened corridors, bringing goods and messages to the isolated settlements that carved out modest existences by erratic lamplight.

Far below, in the very depths of ancient Arrigo, lived another people. They had no name, for what need did they have of one with barely a shared memory of any outsider? In the eternal blackness they could not see. While the great machinery that had once powered the sector had been silenced – crushed – these many years, their legacy to the dwellers of the Arrigo deeps was a welcome deafness, for only those who lost the sense had failed to succumb to madness. They did not smell, nor taste, for the fungi on which they subsisted offered nothing but an unbearable foulness.

Instead the pale dwellers touched, each gentle caress a subtle message – plentiful fungi here, toxic pools there, a trickle of good water here, touches to convey love, convey solidarity, convey hope and the simple joy of nearness. And now, in a single moment of blissful incomprehension, of divine revelation, the pale ones received Beatrice’s word like a slap, and winced at the pain, and shed tears in the sudden knowledge that they were not alone in their world after all.

* * * * *

And in the halls of the Onweird… God know, honestly. Left this section blank first time around and can’t for the life of me remember what the Onweird were supposed to be about, and it’s not like any of this is remotely relevant to the ongoing plot, so… Just use your imagination, really. Knees, nosebleed, etcetera.

Go back and chuck in something suitably Jewy for Bove Sector in the previous chapter if it’d make you happy, do.

* * * * *

And even far to the south, over the black waters that oozed around the largest islands of the archipelago, the wave of her word began to hit.

Near the summit of a towering creamy citadel, all graceful twisting glass to the Strip’s utilitarian blackness, half a dozen figures were assembled. One might wish to describe them as ‘colourful characters’, though this being a tangentially sport-related tale it should be noted that this would not, in this particular context, be a means of subtly indicating that they were born in Africa, but instead referred to their resplendent, if in some cases impractically limited and certainly rather tight, clothing; all vibrant purples, reds, greens… None of those present would have been able to explain quite why they dressed in this manner, or even to have particularly understood the question. It was just what felt right. It was just what they did.

“I’m telling you, I’ve never known her like this!” insisted one. “And have you ever known Ennui to be wrong!?”

A balding man who appeared to be the eldest among them puffed out his cheeks and hmm’d. “Ennui, perhaps not! Your interpretations of her visions however, at times, Scrape, have been known to be, ah --!”

“Shit!”

“Thank you, Captain Matter, I was aiming for tact there…!”

“Zircon, I swear to you, this is different! You know what she’s like, she can get a brief vision of someone’s death two days from now, and then spend the rest of the day obsessed with someone stubbing their toe next year! Sometimes it’s all so vague, but --! This is all she’s been seeing for two days now! And it’s more than that!” Scrape added, nervously, “Or, or rather, it’s no more than that, which is… Guys, look! I don’t think there’s anything else! There’s no other visions, there’s nothing outstanding! No more deaths, no more arguments, no more awkward accounts of sexual activity, no more stubbed toes! It’s like this is it!”

“Are you really sure about that!?” a woman asked mildly. “I thought there were all sorts of visions of hers you couldn’t work out!?”

“Yes, sure, and there still are, but --! Rocket-Girl, I’ve been working with Recall lately, and he’s been able to identify quite a few of Ennui’s prophesies as having happened already, and I’ve poured through my notes but I just can’t find anything major left to occur! Beatrice is back, guys! And this time, I’m not sure any of us are going to survive it!”

“So… What are we going to do, then?!” the final woman present asked, looking helplessly from Scrape to Zircon, Captain Matter to Rocket-Girl, and finally back to Ennui, swaying slightly in her chair, white eyes staring into space.

“We’re going to not panic, Dust Devil, is the first thing we’re going to do!” Zircon insisted. “I just wish we could know why this was happening! I don’t doubt Ennui’s correct, Scrape, really I don’t! We can all see how angry the vortex is looking these recent days, and it backs up everything Mole has told us about what the Insiders are saying about the message of the dust goblins! But if what you say is true, if the Morticians have a Device, surely we’d known about it! Surely they wouldn’t be so insane as to use it again! Oh --! I wish Slab were here! The mantle of leadership weighs heavily upo–!”

“Less flappy-mouth, old man!” Captain Matter spat, meaningfully pulling up his cape. “It’s long past time we took action! There’s no way Rocket-Girl or the other flyers are getting over there while the vortex is like this, but Judder can bamf in a small team of us right into the heart of the Mortuary if needs be! I’ll round up Bloat, Victim, Vis-Kid, maybe Crypt, and we’ll blow that popsicle stand! Hit ‘em hard and fast, an–”

“Hold it right there, Captain Matter!” Rocket-Girl interjected. “Do our oaths of non-interference suddenly mean nothing now!?”

“I have to concur!” Zircon told him too. “Our forefathers gave strict instructions, a list of specific occasions when we might act -- we’d know if this was one of them!”

“Oh, yes, it was written, wasn’t it?!” Captain Matter said bitterly. “We’re no better than the football people and the damned cultists when it comes right down to it, are we!? If Scrape and Ennui are right, this is our very existence we’re fighting for!”

“Convenient for you, this, isn’t it?!” Rocket-Girl said, calmly as she could manage. “You’ve been agitating against the status quo for years!”

“This isn’t about me! But yes, you know I’m tired of us accepting our fate to rot away in this prison!!”

“Our haven!”

“It’s a fine line, woman! The Selkies take us away from our families and send us here against our will! We can’t breed, we seldom see our fifties! You may call this a haven, but I would sooner rule in hell!”

“You know what the Insiders would do to us!” Dust Devil told him quietly. “The Morticians would exterminate even the ronions on sight if they weren’t so useful for keeping the populace under control! Here, we can protect our kind! You really think the baselines would have let Orbit survive once her powers emerged? Or Blowout or Gaybomb or Progeny?! We’re safe here -- or, at least we were --!”

“We should be liberating our ronion cousins, not using their tragic existences as a threat to stop us living our own lives to the full!!”

“The ronions aren’t our cousins, Captain!” Zircon sighed. “As much as many of our number may be indistinguishable from them, only we have the Green genes! They, alas, are --mistakes! We are bound to the word of the forefathers! Oh, Captain,” the oldest of them continued, with a slight chuckle, “you think yourself so unique! In every generation there are malcontents, those who question our ways! I should know, young man, believe me! We’re not so different, you and I!”

“I can bend any atom in the universe to my will, Zircon! You can excrete a semiprecious stone once every seventy-two hours, if you’re lucky! We are not the same! Half our number have no powers at all, or cry milk from their eyes, or know where cats have been! It’s time that those of us with real gifts start leading the way! We listen to Ennui, and we take action now, before it’s too late!”

Rocket-Girl folded her arms and set her jaw. “You could get us all killed in the process! Don’t make me fight you, Dwayne!”

“I’d like to see you try, Emily!”

“Oh, for pity’s sake, children,” Zircon groaned, “let us not resort to deadnaming, please! Or to a pointless fight, we had plenty of those back in my day, too! Slab would get all “You dare mock me?!” and Flashpoint would be all “I’m thru playing your games!”, and then they’d start scrapping and Unit would come steaming in all “NO HURT FRIEND!!” and give the boss-man a clobberin’, and he’d be all “Huh -- that actually hurt!” and “How can anything so big move so fast!?”, and then anyway they’d all agree that they were more than a team, they’re a family!, and ugh -- Great days, glory days, but all so, so tedious! We are the Green Children! We are supposed to be above all this!”

The two would-be combatants both opened their mouths to respond, but were silenced by screams from Scrape and Ennui.

“Pen… Pen…!”

The others turned to Ennui in alarm. “Have --?! Is she --!? Have you ever known her speak!?” Dust Devil squawked.

“Never! If only we could understand what she’s trying to tell us!”

“Pen… Pena…!”

“Penicillin?! Pentagon!? Er, er…! Pension! Penmanship!”

“Penalty…!”

“I can see it too!” Scrape gasped. “That’s --! How?! I’m just a low-level psi, I can’t pick up anything from more -- more than a metre -- ghaah! Guts -- on fire -- must keep -- talking --!”

“Save your strength, brother Scrape!” Rocket-Girl whispered, laying a hand on her stricken comrade’s shoulder. She turned to Dust Devil. “DD, is this happening to our other telepa–”

Before she could complete the word, Dust Devil had vanished and reappeared, face red, breathing heavily. She took a moment to compose herself and realign her tit window before replying: “Yeah! Lady Sensation’s out cold, Leak’s got one hell of a nosebleed -- Even Equilibrium’s having kittens!”

“Damn! And Progeny?!”

“Er, he’s having tiny gibbons! Dear little things!”

“Well that’s not good either, that only happens when he’s picking up on extreme stress! Maybe we do need to act, Zircon! It’s not as though some of our predecessors haven’t played fast and loose wi– ”

Her older associate cracked his knuckles and tutted. “Alright, alright! Get Buchetta up here, we’ll have her open a porthole to the Mortuary! We’ll keep a close eye, and if we have to step in…!”

Zircon trailed off as Ennui groaned once more, wincing as much through the unfamiliar exertions required to emit speech as the mental onslaught provided by the Beatrice. “Sus… suspen…sion…”

“Well!” Zircon breathed. “That can’t be good --!”

And in came the wave.

* * * * *

And in Albrecht, in the Dead Levels, those Morticians still assigned to their organisation’s first duty were treated to a unique spectacle – the silent screaming of the dead, those who had chosen to spend eternity within the virtual reality of the SynIntSphere, their dreaming consciousnesses awoken by the Beatrice’s howl of vengeance to stare out in terror from the bleached skulls that housed them.

* * * * *

ENOUGH!

For a moment it felt to Mark as though Beatrice had addressed them one more, such was the power behind the shout and the anguish with which it was delivered. But the word came with the visual accompaniment only of the rippling strips of red fabric that flowed around the Scorpion King, as the ancient one dragged himself upright once more.

“I will defeat you, alien! I will fulfil my destiny!”

He tore towards her – powering as he did so towards a flickering blue ovoid from which the tip of a pointy black hat could just been seen and a mantra of “Lisa Walker! Jenny Majorheily-Orinova-Reuberson-Mohammed! Dana Blomquist!” could barely be heard – arms outstretched, hands clenched…

…and at the being’s feet, or where her feet would have been had she had any, knees crunching into glass, he fell. The blue light had expanded rapidly, creating a halo that knocked the old man to the floor. Mark felt it too, as it passed through him. There was little power there, but it had been enough to fell an ancient monarch with nothing more to give.

Beside him, Mark heard Lady Keturah emit a little grunt suggestive of a certain satisfaction. She nodded.

“And now… we parley…”

“Won’t work,” Mark said dully, looking up at her. “Morton couldn’t. Rohaert couldn’t.”

“She is not they, manager.”

Mark frowned… but he looked back towards the creature and now he saw what the tall Selkie had seen before him. Surrogate, against the far wall, clutching the head of Wonder. And in front of her, walking towards the creature, a girl. Shaking with fear yet compelled by something from within, crimson shirt billowing, her left hand clenched tightly over the little model right-back. Surrogate looked appalled; Tread… well, it was hard to tell. But neither could do anything to stop her. Their deity’s decisions were to be followed, even to the death. Even to her own.

“There must be a consultation, manager, if we are to survive this day. An appeal. From one goddess to another…”

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sun Jun 26, 2022 3:35 am

Twenty-Six. The Beacon


“Sorry all, just had to nip to the lav!” Russie Walker called out with forced jollity as she rounded the corner. Inside, she seethed. Four and a half years.

Four and a half years she’d been Minister for Unexpected Happenings and Emergency Preparedness, loyal as they came and damned good at her job too, and in all that time it had just slipped Fanny Bloody Tan’s mind to mention that the defunct, debased, reviled M.O.R.T. was still a thing, operating under her nose, and somehow out of the very same building it had occupied for years. They’d barely spoken over the course of the ten minutes it had taken for the Presidential smart car to zip down the streets of Albrecht, through one set of conveniently green traffic lights after another, past the small museum and the little memorial that together constituted the only parts of the Ministry still supposedly in operation. Only part of that virtual silence had been down to any loss of face on her part, mind. The rest was a mutual unwillingness to quite face up to the simple fact that the course of the Tan premiership was surely about to change significantly and neither of them had the slightest idea right now how bad it was going… to… get…

“Oh. Christ…”

For a moment, the little copse of humans surrounding the President had parted and, through the chink, the minister found herself staring through the glass separating them from the rebuilt Device Room and looking straight at her. Her, the creature from a nation’s collective nightmares, the wingèd wyrm, hanging there a little above the floor, flexing its mighty neck.

She’d never seen it before, that was the thing. The creature had lived rent-free in every Candelariasian’s head for more than a decade, but there had been no photographs, no CCTV that had survived the Incident, only sketches from the more artistically inclined of the M.O.R.T.’s survivors. The Ministry had taken memory prints of anyone they could, multiple copies in some cases, but the technology to actually turn that into images anyone else could look at was most likely still years away.

The wider, horrible, effects had felt real enough, lord knew. Few Candelariasians had escaped it, those not in the country at the time being chiefly among them, the members of the national football team being the most prominent of that privileged group, a fact that had only added to the national aversion toward their profession as the months had gone on. But the image of the creature herself, when it began to appear on every front page and every news bulletin, had been just a drawing, and even the official line questioned whether the vision of that apparent lifeform, presented to Morton and the rest of them, hadn’t just been a psychological manifestation of a non-physiological being beyond human comprehension.

But this… oh, this was real. Even from the other side of the glass, she couldn’t just hear the thrum of its wingbeats – she could feel it. It wasn’t like CGI – the creature had weight. It had presence. It possessed a twisted kind of beauty, but a single second of sight carried a profound fear down to the pit of her stomach.

Beatrice. It had been the Creature, at first, the Invader… the Visitor, some tried to get going without success. They called it all the Occurrence, the Happening, the Hatching. But, since most people really didn’t want to think too hard about the details, they’d focused on the fact that the National Space Facility had tracked the thing as it had entered the atmosphere through the little old scientific satellite of that name, and so it had become the Beatrice Event, and soon too she had become, simply, Beatrice. Not a lot of fun for those women blessed with the name already, but their lot in life had been a hard one anyway.

Besides, the name had just… felt right. Despite the policies of close-to-full disclosure that subsequent administrations had followed though, only a few of her countryfolk – herself included – fully grasped the fact that a small handful of people had somehow had forewarning that the Beatrice had been coming, and had even used the term amongst themselves. Even now, that fact remained unexplained. The prophets of Beatrice were long dead.

Unexplained to her, anyway. Perhaps the M.O.R.T. knew, and Fanny knew, and had elected not to tell her. Had Tan known that this was coming too, the return of the beast? No… No, Russie had seen her face when the boy had told her. The President had been as much in the dark as she was.

“Good wee?” Tan asked brightly.

“Think I might need another one,” Walker conceded. She glanced at the unfamiliar men and women around her, who seemed to fade into the walls in comparison to the thing behind the glass. One was wearing medals and a natty little hat, the others mostly characterised by their Spectacles of Knowledge. “Can we, um… Can we kill it? Please?”

The Brigadier, if she was any judge of shiny badges, cleared his throat awkwardly. “As I was explaining to Madam President… Possibly. Yes. No. We don’t know.”

“What exactly have you lot spent the last decade doing if you can’t say you can kill this bloody thing before it… does its thing again?” Walker demanded.

“Ms Walker,” one of the elder of the bespectacled boffins said, as kindly as he could manage, “since even before the Ministry of Realities and Temporality was formally founded under the President’s predecessor, I have been among those working on a means to render innocuous the lifeform we classify as Beatrice in the event of its return to our shores. We’ve studied the accounts of the survivors of the attack on the Ministry down to the minutest detail. This isn’t my area as such, but I’m assured we have projectile weapons we believe capable of piercing its skin, various forms of netting, grappling hooks, etcetera… sonic weaponry, you get the general gist. We even allowed for the possibility that, in the event it did ever return, it may well do so to the scene of the previous encounter, and to that end have laced the rebuilt – device-free – Device Room with explosives. She’s landed in our very back yard. We’re good to go. Unfortunately… all that is rather rendered moot by the observation that she appears to be intangible.”

“Eh?”

“She came in through the wall, Ms Walker. Wafted like nobody’s business. We had skylights put in in order to ensure that, were she to make a direct entry from space once more, only glass would break her fall and we wouldn’t risk the whole building coming down on top of us. We had not allowed for the possibility that she’d simply… waft in through. It’s really most vexing.”

“It would explain why none of our satellites picked up her arrival, though,” Tan mused. “She didn’t come here from space, she came from… somewhere else.”

“That would appear to be the case, yes,” said the officer. “As for whether any of our weaponry would work none the less, we could test the theory and hope it doesn’t pass straight through her, we could probably get a Poltergust 3000 in from the DUH in a pinch as well but… Well, we’d be running the risk of precipitating a tantrum on the scale of last time. If not worse. I think I speak for the M.O.R.T. collectively when I advise caution, ma’am.”

“So what, has it evolved? Is going all Casper the next stage in its life cycle? What?” Walker sputtered. “After ten years, you’re no nearer to understanding this thing?”

“Madam, please,” the older scientist sighed again, "we’ve had people spread across the three regions, and the other one, and every corner of the known world, carefully watching the fall-out of every significant temporal incident. The whole Ossidiacqua situation,” he said, provoking a certain amount of wincing, “the Equestrian business, the Osarian conflict, the Squornshelan pocket, Eastfield bloody Lodge… Observers in Super-Llamaland, Electrum, Starblaydia, Saltstead… Bonesea, good lord, Furellum, Buffalostan, Menukten… You get the idea. We’ve learned a great deal, much of it frankly terrifying, ninety percent of which would sail serenely over your heads, ladies, and I feel confident in saying that because at least eighty-five percent of it soars majestically over mine. Domestically we’ve compiled extensive registries of seemingly anomalous individuals that cannot be accounted for solely by TDD activity, along with likely regens, loopers, Cable’s Syndrome sufferers – not that any of them saw fit to provide a heads-up about this, which is unnerving in itself – and… Well. To be frank, despite our very best efforts, we’ve learned absolutely sod-all additional information about the Beatrice phenomenon. She, or her species generally, if there is such a thing, doesn’t appear to care about anyone else buggering about with time. It’s only us she’s interested in, and at that it was only the once – until now, of course.”

“Twice,” Tan said mildly.

“Sorry?”

“She’s visited us twice before, at least. ‘She’s coming back’, so the svartálfar said, yes?”

The scientist bristled slightly, but did not demur. “Indeed.”

“So why is she back, then? Tell me this lot haven’t been using a bloody device again, Fanny.”

“We have not,” the Brigadier snapped. “The only Beatrician technology we retain are the fragments of the device from which the… other creature emerged, and those of an older vintage. We’ve studied them, inasmuch as we can. They’re sitting in a vault somewhere now, right?” he said, nodding to his spectacleder colleagues for confirmation and receiving it wholeheartedly. “Not being used in any way. The creature can have no further quarrel with us. So why us, why now, why here… I don’t think any of us can say. I’m sorry.”

“Wonderful. And we can’t appeal to a higher authority? There’s got to be some kind of… international temporal oversight body? Or something?”

“Depending on what she has in store for us, I think it may be a touch late to put in an a complaint to Ofchron. Or, you know, what-have-you. The Holy Empire may for all we know have this place absolutely flooded with agents making sure no silly mundies accidentally destroy the world or such forth, and the Valentians for that matter, and other such nations and organisations besides, but if they’re not choosing at this moment to make themselves known I think we have to assume we’re on our own. Again…”

Walker rolled her eyes. “Great use of everyone’s time then, this department…”

“We have had the ‘R’ part of our brief to worry about too, you know?” the professor told her, a touch defensively. “We’re as close as we’ve ever been from tracking down the long supposed Wangan’wang Artefact and ensuring there’s no repeat of the Five-Four-Three-Six-Dash-Six-Five-Four-Seven Incident. We won’t be drowning in giant puffs of slimy cream or purple guano for very long next time, mark my words. And we’re pretty close to solving the whole damned Sodje business, I’m quite certain. We’ve virtually mapped the whole of Svartalfheim, kept a close eye on fallout from the rise of the Land of the Large Sapient Penises, the Free Republics Rimation, the Brigantii Imbrication, the Paradystopian Coagulation… Had a good old poke around what’s left of the Scylla Research Facility. There’s the Xati to consider too, any continued unsafe operation of the Ramaker Contrivance, we have our own admittedly imperfect reproduction of the Laeter Instrument that we’ve barely begun to explore the possibilities of, then there’s the Palacios Exp–”

“Please stop.”

“We’ve observed snapshots of countless alternate futures, alternate presents… Or perhaps I should say alternate pasts, full stop, since technically, as far as we can tell, time has already been run to its conclusion and really we’re just experiencing, at best, edited repeats…”

“What, with the blackface removed?”

“Temporally speaking, arguably, yes. The point is, our knowledge has increased extraordinarily over the past decade, rendering in the process most of our previous understanding of Time complete bollocks, if I may say. Earlier special theories are now educationally subnormal, we’ll have to take a delayed-choice quantum eraser, ah-ha, to our textbooks once we’re allowed to publish. All terribly exciting, not remotely upsetting, but, well… Perhaps if we had more funding, perhaps if the resources of the M.O.R.T. as it was hadn’t been split across multiple departments that are barely even aware of each other’s existence never mind share offices? They’ve got former assets from the Imperial Office of Paranormal Activities and the Metafizicheskoi Issledovatel Grupp Uchenyi at the DUH, for heaven’s sake. Goodness knows we’re this close ourselves to getting someone on the inside at the Institute of Multi-Verse and Temporal Studies, but…”

“Perhaps if we concentrated on the big black matter in hand, my loves?” Tan hissed at the others. Behind the glass, Beatrice flexed and flicked its tail. Otherwise, it appeared disinclined to do very much at all. “I almost wish it would do… something. Give us a reason to fight back, whatever the consequences. It’s like it’s just… chilling.”

“Looks ill, to me,” a new voice said, from behind them. “Either way, we’re in a right pickle, aren’t we?”

Walker turned with the others to see a rather windswept middle-aged woman who was mostly elbows approaching them, a smaller copy of perhaps eight years trailing behind her in a garish yellow school uniform. They’d never met, though much like Beatrice herself Walker knew her face well enough. So, evidently, did President Tan.

“Dr Rohaert… Thank you for coming at such short notice. Looks like I’ve dragged you in off the school run, so apologies, but time waits for no… well, whatever the hell sh–”

“Tah-tah-tah-tah-tah,” Sukie interrupted hastily, nodding her head towards the small girl already attempting to weave her way through the forest of legs in front of her in order to get a look at what was apparently so interesting behind the glass. “Let me, uh, just get this one settled and I’ll join you… standing hopelessly in front of a pane of glass awaiting our possible doom, I suppose. Sounds like a fun morning. Rebecca, let’s go and put you out there with the nice security dwarf an–”

“No-wuh…”

“Rebecca,” Tan said, adopting her talking-to-small-children-the-very-elderly-and-people-from-the-Outlying-islands voice, “I think it would be really helpful to your mum if yo–”

“You’re President Fanny Tan,” the girl said, addressing her feet.

“Yes! Yes, that’s righ–”

“You’re an Eastasian female.”

“Er… Well yes, I suppose I am, uh, sort of half-‘n’-half, bu–”

“Like Naoki Tonnelier and Kim Mihyeon. And the mothers of Benji Fu and Jesse Nakatsuru and Kim Daeeui, and the former long-term sexual partner of Fred Foster, an–”

“Okay!” Sukie said with a brittle brightness, “Becca, I’m going to need to help the President with some very important work for a moment, so… have you got your book? Right, let’s go and pop you…”

Accepting that the day was only going to get more surreal, the assembled group – and possibly the Beatrice, although no-one was checking – watched the pair amble away round the corner for a few moments before the elder came hurrying back.

“Sorry… But not very. Right, where were we?”

“That’s an unusual chil… uh, I mean, an unusual interest, these days, for a child of, uh… her age…”

Sukie grinned horribly. “You were right the first time, Mrs President. The lottery of late motherhood. My step-brother got her into them when she was knee-high to a pillywiggin and now I swear she could tell you what Peter Vanderpent had for breakfast the day before the match with Radyukevich in season Ex-Ex-Whatever without blinking… and very little else, to be honest. Could be worse, mind. The other mums complain about all the unicorns and mermaids and…”

“TikTok dances,” suggested Tan, with feeling. “She’ll, um… be alright in there, aye?”

“If she starts repeatedly slamming her Albrecht FC Season XXXVI annual over her head I’m sure we’ll hear it. It looks ill,” she repeated.

They all looked back at the creature. “You think so?”

“As much as I’d like to have wiped that day from my memory… well, I can’t. It’s certainly not got the proud upright bearing it had the last time. It looks tired, or old, I don’t know… Has it done owt?”

“Not a dicky-bird.”

“Huh.” Sukie peered at it. Walker was rather impressed. The woman was projecting quite the image of capability barely offset by the fact that she was visibly shaking. The saving grace was that she was by no means the only one. “One of your boys said on the phone it had moved through the wall? Are we even sure it’s the same one? Could be a male; a juvenile? Do Beatrices only do that when they’re very distressed?”

“It would appear our ‘boys’ here haven’t a clue,” Tan sighed. “Do we even know that it’s female, gentlemen?”

“Beyond its apparent interest in its supposed ‘egg’?” one of the younger scientists said. “No, we know nothing. Could be an attentive father. Could be a space… seahorse. In lieu of a twitter profile its pronouns are a mystery, we’re just hanging on our own cultural tradition and its undoubted Big Momma energy.”

“Brilliant. Not that it matters either way, I don’t suppose. Susannah… sorry, it’s actually Sukie, yes?”

“Inexplicably so, I’m afraid. Never been very me.”

“As a Fanny, I feel only a soupçon of your pain,” the President smiled. “Look… What about the svarts? There’s been no reports of any activity from them, no uptick in nightmares…”

The other woman shrugged. “Honestly, I feel like Becca’s seen them more than me over the last few years. They’ve mostly kept to themselves, say ‘aareet’ from time to time, but… It’s not that they cared, you know? I don’t think so, anyway. They were warning us, trying to stop us causing the Occurrence I guess, because of the effect that all the years of additional nightmares would have on their own ability to reproduce, and I think with good reason. I’m not sure there’s all that many of them left. I’m really not the, y’know, Mother of Goblins, anymore,” she added, pointedly, “I’ve been firmly back in the entrails game only for years now.”

“Not so firmly you didn’t know about this place,” Walker, still somewhat miffed, muttered.

Sukie frowned. “I got a courtesy call, I’ve never visited. Love what you’ve done with the old place, by the way. The sparkles in the walls? Very temporal, very utopian future. Feel like I should be wearing long white robes and not using contractions. I can volunteer the information that it’s getting pretty dark and blowy outside, if that’s any help. Looks like something’s brewing, but I can’t vouch that’s not just Storm Marijke. Has anyone tried talking to it?” she added.

The Brigadier shook his head. “We’re concerned when Morton did that it was taken as a challenge. If we can avoid antagonising her. It. Whichever…”

President Morton,” Tan murmured. “But I’m afraid if no-one’s got any further suggestions…”

“I don’t suppose you’ve still got Donald hanging out?” Sukie asked.

“The murderous ogre with the many penises? He went back to his own people. They’re very pleasant, actually, softly spoken, sent me a box of Maltesers as a thank-you. Turned out he’s just an arsehole.”

“I fear,” the original older scientist said, “we shall require a more subtle hammer than dear Donald, in any case. Madam President, I wasn’t there at the time, but I know I can speak for many in saying that it never ceases to amaze me that the M.O.R.T. at the time had access to many of the greatest minds in the country, an extraordinary variety of skill sets, and yet our attempts at combating the Beatrice came down to flinging a few mysterious himbos at it, and some geese, and hoping they’d… peck her to death, I suppose. I wish we had more to offer, but… Well, for a start, the option does remain of us making employ of the Greens…”

“Nope,” Tan said sharply, before he’d even got the word out.

“It is what they were made for,” he replied mildly, “and they’re by no means children any more. We could assemble them very quickly…”

“They’re not bloody superheroes, hen. They deserve to be left in peace, President Morton was right about that. Plus, do you want to be on the wrong side of Ms Young-Owen’s wrath? And before you suggest it, even if we could drop Lady Trout a bell and see if she can’t coax the residents of Gordon Bay into coming to our aid I don’t think there’s much evidence that chucking an assortment of salvani and hornwiggins and bloody ipotanes at her is likely to do much good either.”

“There are numerous Gordbaysian resident species who have exhibited – or at least claimed – considerable knowledge of… well, magic, for want of a better term, or science if you prefer, temporal manipulation, seeing the future, quote-unquote. I rather suspect the elder of our aboriginal cousins down there could tell us a thing or two, too. Either way, we haven’t exactly found them willing to share their secrets, and if they really wanted to they’d probably be here right now doing so, but…”

“Yes, exactly that. They’ll have known this was happening long before we did, and if they had any intention to help… This is a human matter, chaps, and we have other weapons at our disposal, we ca–”

“I fear…” Sukie echoed, mostly to herself. “This is, though, I’m not sure I do fear… Well alright, I’m scared stiff, but it’s not like last time, it’s not… projecting terror, you know? Maybe she really doesn’t mean us any harm?”

“Yes, maybe it’s come to apologise,” the Brigadier scoffed. “Would’ve saved a lot of huffing and fussing if it’d just sent flowers, or maybe some Maltesers, actually, I… Ah… Madam President, I don’t think…”

“We can try talking. Maybe this time… All this natter about finding some means to destroy her, I get it, God know, but you catch more flies with honey, chaps…”

“No doubt that’s where spiders have been going wrong for the past two hundred and fifty million years, ma’am,” the oldest scientist sighed. Walker scowled at him, for want of anything more useful to do.

“You have a lot to say for an unnamed character, mister man. If you’ve nothing helpful to volunteer to our President…”

“It’s Professor Pietraszkiewicz if anyone had asked,” he replied mildly. “Brigadier John Smith, over there. Life would be so much easier if we all wore stickers. But look, Missus Tan, I do agree with yon soldier-boy, I really don’t think…”

But she was already marching towards the door leading to what had once been the Device Room, hands raised in a pre-emptive dismissal of the anticipated protestations. As the President reached out for the handle, Beatrice rose her head and shuddered. Her tail swished, her wings began to beat ever faster. There was a general sense that a great deal of colour had returned to her cheeks, metaphorically speaking. For the first time since Walker had been there, the creature’s mouth yawned open.

Fanny Tan would die believing that her actions had induced Beatrice’s sudden change in demeanour, and would wonder to her last how different the course of Candelariasian history might have been had she not opened that door. She would have no idea that the timing was merely a coincidence, and that the scene of the creature’s return to something close to its full power was being repeated elsewhere, elsewhen.

Everywhen.

* * * * *

In every moment that ever there was and ever there would be, Beatrice awoke from her torpor.

The effort of stretching herself so thinly across the temporal river that flowed from the arrival of the first sentient lifeforms in the Candelarias to the death of the very last had taken much out of her, but she was far from finished yet. These creatures were never meant to be. This archipelago was a place of refuge, of safety, that should never have been fouled by humankind and their friends. She’d selected it especially.

This Candelaria And Marquez, by all its many names, was a dark cloud. And this land, its hills and valleys, its lakes and rivers, suffered under its shadow. It could not be allowed to continue.

They had destroyed her whole clutch… and for what? For sport.

Once too often they had tortured her young, forcing her to awake from her slumber of eons and return to this world. Yet her warning had not been enough. Again, they had all but torn a hole in the universe by their foolishness, their heartlessness. And now, once more, after centuries, they had seen fit to torment the very last of her brood. These habitual offenders had struck again, but they would strike no more. There would be no more mercy.

The fools did not understand the river. The river was not theirs to paddle in.

And now, as forfeit, this land would be theirs to defile no longer.

EXPEL

Beatrice screamed, and across thousands of years billions after billions of people fell to their knees and clutched their heads in agony. Beneath blackened skies, a chill descended and the wind roared. Around a trillion Hers, the churning air swept those unlucky enough to find themselves in her presence off their feet.

Kolan tribes in the swampland that would one day become Albrecht raised their spears in defiance against her, again and again. Whatever local militias the early European settlers could muster fruitlessly did the same with sword and musket. Prime Ministers from Robinson to McManus gave orders for the army to open fire, though few bore witness as their men were brushed aside. President Clarke and his successors sent in the M.O.R.T., to no avail. A million Robyn Mortons stood against her herself, and in each was the first sacrifice.

Deep within the levels of the Inside, the private armies of the jaebeols, the soldiers of the Selcouth Lords, were each rallied to fight a battle they could never win. The Friend and the Coastguard and the Morticians would fair no better. Millennia later, the crab people – and that is to say, people who had evolved into crabs, as most things eventually do – snapped their claws with furious impotence. And the final living man in the Candelarias, blinded by the gases of a dying Earth, smiled his last.

And then… they faded…

* * * * *

Fanny Tan clambered to her feet, but that little victory lasted only a moment. It wasn’t so much the wind which, in truth, tore at her clothes dramatically but no worse than the average winter storm, but the searing pain of the creature’s words. Memories of the terror of that day, more than a decade ago, came flooding back and only served to make today all the worse.

“Is this… just us!?” she screamed back towards the control room, knowing full well that it wouldn’t be.

“I don’t… I can’t! Madre de Dios…!”

Tan watched in horror as the man’s hands passed straight through the keyboard. He wasn’t the only one, though the effect was sporadic – something brought home with a bark of agony just out of sight. She turned to another of the M.O.R.T.’s scientists struggling to release his fingers from within the desk in front of him, blood pouring from his knuckles.

“Jesus…! I can see reports!” someone else cried, “there’s… it’s happening everywhere. Everywhere in the country! But our stations in Nethers and ‘gossa are asking what the hell’s going on; it’s just us! Why us!? Why now!? We haven’t got a device!”

“Sir!” another shouted, wiping blood from sheared fingers onto his shirt, “I’m picking up a massive chronometric spike, ten thousand particles per million, we haven’t registered anything like this since Ossidiacqua! She’s doing something to the timelaaaaagh!

“Why aren’t… why aren’t our clothes falling… gah… falling through us!?”

“It’s some kind of localised temporal displacement field, It’s extending a little beyond the skin… I think… I don’t know! The clothes never fall off, alright!? That’s also why we’re… agh… why we’re not falling through the floor! Yet!”

“Can you get a message out!?” the President shouted. “Anyone who can still type, get the country to stand… clear of solid objects… And then for… for God’s sake, destroy this place!”

“We don’t know if that’ll even do any good!”

“I’d rather not live to find out what happens if we don’t try!” Tan countered, the last words of her order obscured by the strangled cry from the woman who dragged herself through the wind and past her.

NO! I’ve got to… got to get Rebecca… BECCA! BECCA!

Teeth clenched so hard it felt like her head would burst, Sukie heaved one foot after another. As she turned the corner she faced a scene of devastation, armed Ministry men who had attempted to take on the Beatrice and been brushed aside. Several lay whimpering on the floor amongst their fingers, hands that had phased in and out of their firearms now bloody stumps.

And standing in amongst them, a small girl.

Rebecca frowned at her. “I can’t pick up my book.”

“I know, sweetheart,” Sukie told her, hopelessly attempting a soothing tone. Her insides weren’t so much in pain as feeling disturbingly ephemeral. Throughout most of her working life she’d been acutely aware of other people’s kidneys and pancreas and such but seldom gave much thought to her own – now, the sensation of their transient absence was as horrible as anything she’d ever felt. It was as though they, and she, and the people of Candelaria And Marquez were fading away, piece by piece. Running away, if that was still even possible, would surely do nothing to improve either of their chances of survival. But there were instincts that went far beyond cold logic.

She reached out and tried to grab at Rebecca’s coat, and was grimly unsurprised to find her fingers closing on air. This was quickly followed by the realisation that the girl herself had drawn away from her, a dark expression on her round little face.

“I’ve got to get my book,” she insisted. “It’s the Season XXXVI annual. Uncle Jack says they’re expensive ‘cos they didn’t make many of them ‘cos we only finished seventh in the CMSC but it was Fahmi Hamizi’s breakthrough season an–”

“We’ll get you another one! Look, Becca, there’s this bad creature, okay, not a nice one like the svarts or the hornwiggins, but a nasty one with – with teeth, and it’s doing this, and we need to get away before, well, before Mrs Tan blows us all up, for starters, but we… Sweetheart, please, God, just come with me…”

“A bad creature? You mean that one, that’s flying about in the room over there? It’s not bad. I’ll tell it to stop, then I can get my book.”

“No! Don’t you dare… don’t go!”

With a final puzzled look at her mother, Rebecca turned and pottered across the hallway and through the door, not stopping to attempt to open it first. A horrified Sukie dragged herself after her, and reached out a grasping hand one last time.

In a thousand other moments, she succeeded. Clutching the back of the girl’s school jumper or its sleeves, she pulled her from the room and towards the nearest staircase. Mostly, they were caught in the explosion that levelled the Ministry in a last and, as it would turn out, hopeless attempt to destroy the creature. In a handful of such moments the pair succeeded in getting away, just in the nick of time, only to join the rest of their country, Candelariasians of centuries past and of the distant future, in fading away.

But in this moment, just this one, her daughter walked away from her and looked up into the face of Beatrice.

“Excuse me?”

For a second, it paused. Its blurred wingbeats slowed perceptibly, and its long neck slinked downwards to bring its glistening maw to loom over the girl, its head within a foot of Rebecca’s face.

ABSENCE

Sukie rocked back on her feet, and heard the groans from Ministry people beyond the translucent walls. Grey smoke briefly choked her vision, save for seven black spaces that spelled out the word.

“I think you should stop making people go all wafty,” she heard Rebecca say, calmly but resolutely. “I can’t get my book, and you’re hurting Mummy.”

FEAR

Little knifestrokes, cutting into the walls and making her wince as though it was her own skin. But as for Rebecca, she appeared largely unaffected. The creature shifted its position a little more, its face now level with the girl’s but, it appeared to Sukie, cocked just slightly to one side, like a puzzled dog.

Rebecca shook her head. “You’re not scary. Mummy takes me to Gordon Bay City sometimes. I’ve seen kozo and mannegishi and the vodnik and everythin’. Adults find new things scary, sometimes. Like, like…” She floundered for a moment, fishing around her brain for a reference she was at home with. “Like, Naoki Tonnelier. She’s my favourite. She was the first foreigner to play for Albrecht FC, and the first woman. Some people didn’t like that, Uncle Jack says, and then… they just did. They got used to it. I knew you was coming, anyway. The svartálfs told me.”

VOICE

The letters, flickering like flame, felt uncomfortably hot as they prickled against Sukie’s face. But they didn’t scold, and her skin didn’t blister.

Rebecca gave a half-shrug. “It’s just another way of talking, isn’t it? Fionn at school, he says things with his fingers, but you don’t have fingers. And Konstantin, he’s new, he only speaks this Kyrin dialecky, and Poppy just draws pictures, which I s’pose is sort-of like what you do, and you dribble like her, too. And then there’s the svartálfs, they speak all funny too, but they tell me things, when they know Mummy isn’t watching. They said you were going to punish us, all of us, because you’re scared we’ll hurt you again, an’ we’ve hurt you too much already. But I don’t think that’s very fair, ‘cos we didn’t mean to hurt you. We did this at school, ‘cos Mummy doesn’t really talk about it even though she was there. The men didn’t know the devices was your eggses…”

SANCTUARY

“I know. And, I wasn’t there, because it was before I was borned, but everyone says they didn’t know. They just wanted it so they could play football with their friends.”

FOOT

BALL

The girl nodded enthusiastically. “It’s the best thing in the world! Except… We don’t have it anymore. Time’s different here, and we needed the… the device, to keep up with everyone else. People didn’t really want to play anymore after what happened, but even if they did they couldn’t’ve done, not really. So, our footballers went and got boring jobs and all the others from the other countries, they… well, they got old. Like, Naoki Tonnelier? She was Ariddian, and they aged faster than our footballers even in the olden days, so she was an old lady even when some people she played with were young men, but after the Bea… well, after the, y’know, the You, she got really old and died, and everyone says that was the first time people realised that all the footballers from all the other countries were going to die soon. They mostly have, now. Apart from the elves, and even they’ve gone away mostly. So, we had to use the device otherwise we couldn’t have played properly, an’… We’re very sorry. Everyone says that. They didn’t know.”

HELPLESS

We could help you, though! You don’t have to get rid of all of us. The svartálfs told me what you’re trying to do, but you don’t have to do it every… time. Do you?” Rebecca took a big breath. “What about just us? Just this one, just this place, just this moment? We could… look after you? Please?”

The creature stretched its neck further forward still, until its bulbous black skull appeared to rest against the girl’s forehead.

JUST

THIS

ONE

?

* * * * *

“You don’t have to do… this,” Goddess told the creature, quietly. “Whatever it is you’re doing to us, you don’t have to. We knew you were coming back, and the Morticians know as well as anyone what happened before, in em-em-ecs. They couldn’t just let you, they had to do something! I know you don’t understand, but…”

Mark had to concede that Beatrice appeared momentarily distracted by the incongruous presence of this bold little child – or member of some diminutive humanoid species, who knew if she even possessed any concept of human childhood? – standing, shaking but defiant, in front of her while the adults stood petrified or else lay broken. Besides the creature and Goddess, the only movements in the device room were of kyrkoherds and selkies, attempting as a few of them were to address the wounds among the fallen Morticians whilst trying not to attract Beatrice’s attention. Still, though, her wings beat, her body flexed.

For his part Mark was trying very hard to ignore the distinct sensation that key parts of his body were phasing in and out of existence, and likewise the fact that, from time to time, he could clearly see twinkling patches of wall through what had previously been the very tangible bodies of Surrogate and Tread, to say nothing of those of the assorted organic beings dotted about. He risked a sideways glance at the Lady Keturah, and for a moment saw straight through her.

“…and, what the ancients did to your eggs, that was horrid too! But they had their reasons. Football, it’s important! It had to have been, right? To justify doing what they did…”

The manager found that his head was shaking for him. He’d spent most of his life in the sport, one way or another, but it wasn’t important. It never had been. And these poor people, they didn’t even know what football was

“…it’s so important,” Goddess went on, earnestly, “that even now it’s at the very heart of everything we do, everything we believe, even though almost no-one really remembers what it was all about! People used to listen to… well, to beacons, like me, and to scientists, but now they consult the Ultimate Guide. They look through the scores, the results of their club’s matches on this day during the Golden Era, to tell whether they’re going to be lucky and stuff. Because that was the time when our country was truly great! And they couldn’t’ve done that without your eggs…”

Mark’s consciousness, having opted to outsource decisions regarding the physical actions of his head to quarters of his brain of which he was less perennially cognisant, was powerless to stop his screwed-up little face cringing even more. They were each of them likely to be minutes away from their doom, but Goddess was surely moments away from a sticky end if she carried on like this. All the same, he couldn’t help but feel… humbled, really.

At his age, well used to having his bodily excreta mopped up by women in blue, feeling humbled had become an all too persistent experience. It was a strange thing, though. Everyone centres the time they lived in as the ‘now’ from which the past and future emanates, as though in the great river of time it’s our time that serves as the temporal protagonist. It’s the best of times, the worst of times, but it’s always a special time. But it was still disconcerting to discover that, as it happened, you were right. Sure, this Concordium was a decrepit shadow of what it must have once been, but before all that, before the vortex, it must have witnessed such wonders! And yet… the time period it looked upon as this land’s greatest epoch, a barely remembered time these people based their very lives around, was his… a period of thirty-odd years notable because some of its men, and a handful of its women, played football to a high standard, and won some shit. It was those few decades, in the eyes of their distant descendants, that made the Candelarias something more than just some more rocks upon which to store some humans.

By and large, in the months following the Occurrence, footballers young and old had been spurned. Here, they were gods. Gods who could never answer their worshippers’ prayers, but… Well. Pretty standard gods, actually, now he thought about it.

“I wasn’t brought up in a star cult,” Goddess was saying. “When I was little, I used to think the other kids were silly for believing in footballers, in football. How could you believe in something you didn’t begin to understand? But I get it now,” she said, turning her eyes downward from Beatrice and towards the bobblehead gripped between her hands, “because it’s… because it’s the same with me.”

A dead child walking, and yet… the wingbeats were definitely slowing down. He looked again across at the supplicants. For the moment at least, there was a reassuring solidity about them.

“Wonder… that’s the head, over there, Surrogate’s holding him… Wonder made me. He never went on about it much, but Surrogate says that, well… It’s like people. Human people, I mean. Thousands of years ago, humans didn’t understand much about the world, and so they tried to fill up all the holes in their universe with gods, which they didn’t have to understand, they couldn’t hope to, because gods were above people always. And then they did start to understand stuff. They started to understand about plants, and what happened when you put seeds in the ground at certain times, and looked after them in a certain way. So they stopped worshipping plants, and they stopped giving souls to the stones once they understood how the wind and the ocean had made them, and they worshipped animal spirits instead, the Candelariasians, they had, like, wild boar and snakes and things, and they didn’t understand them, so they made them their gods…”

Mark agreed it was the wild boar he missed the most.

“…and then they learned all about how animals thought, and they worshipped gods of weather instead, rain and thunder and such, because they didn’t understand how thunder worked…”

Mark was no theologian, but he was fairly sure that Goddess’ grasp of the development of humanity’s spiritual traditions was a touch lacking. Nevertheless, Beatrice appeared all but transfixed by the human girl’s little stream of consciousness. Now, surely, was the time for someone to strike! The Scorpion King, any Mortician, someone, while the creature’s back was turned. Do something!

“…and eventually, all that humans didn’t understand was the atoms that make up the universe, and so that’s where they found their gods, Surrogate says. Out there, in the atoms, in everything. Well, Wonder… Wonder understood the atoms. He understood everything, that’s just how he was made. Everything… everything apart from people, the fleshies. We don’t think like the supplicants do. So to him, the atoms weren’t gods, and the thunder wasn’t gods, and the footballers the ancients worshipped weren’t gods… but we were. So that’s why he made me. His own god – well, goddess – to believe in. Something he knew he couldn’t hope to understand…”

Mark found himself looking to his right again, at the selkie matriarch Keturah. She too was watching the little scene unfold, but she bore not the expression of bafflement shared by most others around the room he could see, but rather, to Mark’s eye at least, one of a certain… smugness.

Everyone’s time is the now that defines everything that has gone before and everything that will happen hence. And every person is the centre of their own story. And yet… it was beginning to dawn on him that, reincarnation of a revered manager or not, he wasn’t the protagonist here.

That in itself didn’t come as much of a shock. He was an old man and a little boy, and was on both accounts well used now to lacking much in the way of agency. He’d spent long enough being dragged around, a pawn in the competing agendas of others. But suddenly, it was all too obvious that he was but a strand in a web of plans that went far beyond his understanding. You could only stand back… and worship.

“She’s why we’re here, isn’t she?” he whispered, an eye on the girl, the other on Keturah. “She’s why I’m here.”

Beatrice was snaking her way down, until her empty face was uncomfortably close to Goddess’. The movement didn’t appear to concern Lady Keturah, who filled the silence in her low, hushed voice. “There are those who disapprove of my kind’s alliance with the Morticians. They believe my sisters and I debase ourselves. There is so much that they do not understand. Stratagems that have their antecedents lifetimes ago…”

Suddenly, Goddess looked up. The sudden jerk of her head caught Mark off-guard, but not nearly as much as Beatrice – and that in itself was the bigger surprise. The creature twisted backwards, but kept its head focused squarely on the girl.

“Tread says humans fear what they don’t understand. Worship, fear… I suppose there’s not a big difference, really. I think the cultists, they love their footballers but they also fear them. Fear what they’ll let happen to them if they don’t believe. Fear a world without their example to guide them. I don’t see many other children anymore, but… when I did, when I was little, they used to fear me too. A little bit. ‘Cos I wasn’t a football person, or in a cult, I was the cult. Beacons used to be revered, and now we’re just weird. And we… we fear you. The things you did to the ancestors, the things you might do to us. And you fear us… why wouldn’t you? The things we’ve done to you. You don’t understand us. We don’t understand you. We might never understand each other. But that doesn’t mean we have to fear each other. I reckon… there could be another way…”

“We know the svartálfar, my sisters and I,” Keturah was whispering to Mark. “It has been in the blood of our mothers from the very first of our kind. And the Beacons, those that still exist, whether they know themselves what they are or not, they can sense the Beatrice. But to know the Beatrice… that takes something much more. A beacon, part selkie, part warrior, part everything. Every branch of our lineage entwined as one. Ironic that it took the work of a machine mind to make her, but here she is. Just when she is needed, just as is written. Who shall a goddess pray to, but another goddess?”

“Is it written, is it? Another legend? The Account of Dexter?”

Lady Keturah glanced down at Mark and smiled slightly. “There will be other accounts…”

“…I know what you’re trying to do. I think,” the girl told the creature, softly. “We can all feel it. You’re trying to make us fade away. All of us, I think. Everything in our islands, for all time. The dust goblins know, they’ve always known. There will be no time for any of us to live in, but you’re different. The islands will be safe, just for you, for as long as there has been and until there will ever be. And we won’t exist, and never will have existed. But you won’t be safe, that’s the thing! There’s billions and billions of people outside the vortex. Probably, anyway. And there’s definitely billions and trillions and, and, quattuordecillions before the vortex! You can’t make all of them fade away. They’ll fear you, they’ll fear these empty islands, but they won’t stay away forever. It’ll all happen, all over again, with some other people. But inside the vortex… we could help you. I can help you. I can protect you. We don’t have to understand each other. We just have to stop being scared of each other.”

Perhaps Goddess couldn’t bear that empty black face boring into her any more. Mark was never quite sure why. But whatever her thinking, the little deity chose this moment to turn away from Beatrice. Her back turned, she was as vulnerable as she’d ever been, and perhaps that was the point. The manager saw her face, the remnants of her make-up smeared, lips trembling.

“It can just be us,” Goddess whispered. “Just this place. Just this time. Just this moment…”

He held his breath. And then the alien’s yawning mouth opened, wide enough that it could swallow the girl in a second. And its words deposited themselves in his mind’s eye, needing no ears, needing no bean.

JUST

THESE

TWO

* * * * *

The creature twisted in the air, kicking with its tail until it hovered over the place occupied years before by the time dilation device. Acting without the slightest thought, Sukie stumbled forward and grasped Rebecca’s shoulders in her hands. For once her daughter made no protestations as she was manhandled back towards the doorway, but she kept her eyes firmly on the alien. It screamed…

* * * * *

…and this scream was different to those Mark had had the misfortune to hear before. No words were dropped into his field of vision, but nor was it the anguished howl that bypassed all senses and went straight to the pit of the soul. This howl… was animal. It wasn’t the roar of a goddess, but of a beast…

* * * * *

Holding her abdomen as though it was the only way to be sure that her insides weren’t going to go absent without leave again, President Tan staggered, half running, half tripping, over the stricken men of the M.O.R.T. that lined the hall and joined Sukie in the doorway to the device room. And seconds became minutes as they watched in silence as, one after another, blue-green sphere followed blue-green sphere in descending, with slow squelches that became faster every time, from the creature and rolling a little way across the floor. The passage of each was soon blocked by rubble, and they came to collect in a heap of twenty or thirty or more…

* * * * *

...and, at the summit, Beatrice came to rest. She wrapped her tail around her clutch, and stared down upon Goddess and Mark, and at the people of the Concordium stood and lain around her and her spheres. And she opened her mouth once more, and the golden strokes of her silent letters echoed in the minds of every sapient being throughout the two Candelarias…

* * * * *

AGREEMENT

Tan saw entente. Across Marquez, hundreds of thousands saw acuerdo. Rippling through the streets of Albrecht, Candelariasians looked up from their wounds or those of their friends and family and perfect strangers, and saw cytundeb or comhaontú, hyeobjeong or aitifaqia. And they knew that something, something, was over…

* * * * *

Surrogate was the first to break rank, still clutching Wonder’s head. She walked across the room and put her free arm around the shoulder of her little deity. Mark watched others stir, the Scorpion King and the Director, and he tried to discern their feelings. But he’d never really learned to read the dark visage of an Alan, and the crumples of centuries made the face of the monarch of the TSS just as impenetrable. Both rose, unsteadily, to their feet, but they made no motion towards the tower of devices, the creature perched upon it, nor the girl standing before her.

And transposed upon the scene were new letters, that shone and curled. They did not arrive without pain, but the pain was dulled and bearable and they came without the summoning of renewed dread. A new word.

CONCORD

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Mon Jun 27, 2022 3:06 am

Twenty-Seven. The Men of War


…igh expected, Timonian Bight, one thousand and twenty-two by the same… …ext twenty-four hours, Clogbotherer north at Sarah, south at Sarah, north-westerly backing six, occasionally seven at times, becoming greasy… …new low expected, Claire, you’ve let yourself down there, Claire… …showers, good, drizzle, bracing, occasionally chilly, pants… …orties, Ansernia, Brendan, Valero, backing half a dozen, frequently, showers, good to soft, soft in places… …some, Ssotapel… …ariable, adequate, becoming pleasurable, occasionally ecstatic later… …erate later, St Martin, variable four, becoming southerly twelve, swans, angry, very poor, can’t be happy with that. South-West Gary, unceasing monotony, confusion later, sixes and sevens, two and eight, firm, soft later, bring tissues. Cottager, Fastlove, becom… …sand and sixteen, rising slowly. Lurpack, three, twenty-four miles, rising more slowly. Weijenberg, north by north-west, slight geese, divebombing nastily. Vaque… …day, allowing a full frontal depression to descend Sunday, some sadness, vale of tears, good. The Isle… …ree or four later, fine, fine, whevs, becoming very goo… …egular outbreaks of wind, absolutely incredible, becom…

A nervous tap at the door.

“Yes, yes, come in, God…”

…mocebelauahsuhnaozzzzzzzpzpzt… …asales, Blackwell, Knee, four or five, occasionally six at first in north, fog patches, very poor, see me. Green, south-easterly, varying wes…

“Uh, Captain, eh?”

“I mean, why even bother? No-one even fishes… yes, what?”

“End of watch, eh? Nothing to report. I check lifeboats. We still don’t have any, ha?”

“Good, good. Where’s the bit about Clotaire? What even is a Clotaire..?”

“I, uh, had ballast pumps polished? Splice mainbrace, eh? Captain? Uh… we rogered the cabin boy?”

“Good, yes, excellent. Hope you gave him what for.”

…sewgniyaansaisayagaoajamzzzzzzppzzpt… …ding rapidly. Clotaire, sixteen going on seventeen, baby it’s time to think, good, occasionally moderate at first. Motte, south-west, five or six, alm…

“And I won’t remember, that’s the thing. None of us will…”

The third mate sucked his teeth. “Captain, some of de lads, we… Are you feelin’ overworking, sir? Long hours, eh? Not too late to turn about, eh? Tenderville, mebbe, ha? Feet up, warm fire, good whoring, eh?”

The captain appeared to properly notice his subordinate for the first time. “Xokaíbía lad, you’re not from up this way, are you?”

“No captain. Vatmark, eh? Greylands. Long way from home, ha? Long way from wives, haha.”

“Quite. So, with an outsider’s perspective… Do you not think it’s odd? The Candelarian islands, I mean. They just sit there, this big pile of untapped resources, and anyone could pile in and have their feast, and… Nothing. Not a man jack there. Just the odd treeshrew, apparently, because even naturalists don’t go. Bkyka could’ve inhabited the place centuries ago, millennia. Spanish, English, Dutch, all the other archipelagos inhabited. I mean, if nothing else the Sargossan regime would’ve piled in by now, but… Nothing. And we don’t even talk about it, that’s the thing that gets me. Or East Zirconia, come to that. It’s like this… fog. In our lives, in our conversations. Never to be spoken of, never to be acknowledged how bloody weird it is. We just… sail on by.”

The third mate nodded politely. “We sail by other islands too, eh? Many in Rose Sea, ha?”

“Yes, yes, certainly. But most of those are full of fellas with their tackles out who’ll shoot arrows at you if you come too close. Or, y’know, dragons. Swans. What-have-you.”

“Dey say dere being swans in Candelaria islands too, eh? Break your arm, ha?”

“Yes, so they say, so they say… Is that reason enough to just pretend they don’t exist? To not even fish there?”

…mlaxishahiuhhuanzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzpspstzppz… …idly. Clotaire, sixteen going on seven…

“And the thing is, you know, Xok? That isn’t a West Zirconian broadcast. Certainly isn’t a Chesapeakine accent, or Delamawarian. Listen to those vowels… I’ve recorded it. It’s all on cassette. But it won’t be there tomorrow. Just white noise. Sometimes, if you get really close, you hear music. Like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Oh, not wildly different. Just pop, you know? Spanish language rap. But it doesn’t exist. You can look up the lyrics, but you won’t find them. And then you won’t remember them, or remember there’s anything to remember, until the next time. It’s like there’s a whole other country, and… Well. You wouldn’t understand. You’re too new…”

Xokaíbía pottered a little way further into the captain’s quarters, and invited himself to squat down at the end of his bed. “My, ah… my people, eh? Before de missionaries, and de anthromen and de administrators, eh? Dey used to believe de universe was like… cake, ha?”

“Sponge?”

“I not wet, sir. Have jacket. Dey believed in levels. De sky above, where de makers lived, and de xíbokítií, and de twice-dead who lived in de ground below with Koxákni and de daughters, eh? And below that, more sky, and den de forest, and den de ground again, and den de sky again… Levels and levels, forever…”

“Well. Good thing they realised they were wrong, then. I don’t much hold with mythology. The fairies can all drop dead as soon as you turn eight, in my view. Apart from the real ones, obviously.”

“I say dey used to believe, captain. I did not say dey was being wrong, eh? I sail south seas, I talk to people… Dey say, dings… different, once, ha? On de land, perhaps, you not notice, but… on de sea, when de wind is just so, eh? Der are whisperings… of the never-was, or of de men to come, or of de men on… another level, eh? Off Olastor, often, de sailors say dey hear of places what cannot be… Dey whisper of Carasatoga and Chenkorya, of Megadia and Mangolana, of…”

“That’s not the same, Xok. Even I’ve heard of those places.”

“Sure, sure, eh? Could you find dem on map, ha? We hear from dem no more…”

“Well, that happens. I expect they’re off out in the east, somewhere. Or Anaia, or something…”

“So you say, captain. But de men who speak of Nezhabudca Bay and de Watson Sea, eh… Dey say different. Lands upon lands, dey say. Dere are levels, captain. Dis I promise you…” He rose from the bed. “Good sleeping, captain.”

“Hm? Yes, yes. Of course. And you, Xok. I’ll see you on second watch…”

He wasn’t wrong, the captain thought, once he was alone again. Every old seadog knew that. He’d done the Goose run, in years past, Logria or Pasarga, round Branta, down to Tchérec, out to the Pazhujebs. He knew more than one colleague, sailing away from sorrow or the law, make it out to Ceni and Avon. And along the way, oh yes… Levels upon levels. Old countries didn’t die… they piled. Not up nor down, but there… always there. When the wind was right.

…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzppspt… …shzhzhshshshshshzpshshshsh….

Nothing. Already gone. No recording. No memory before too long. No, this was different, this place. There were no piles here, there was nothing. Or rather… the Candelarian islands, it seemed, wanted everyone to know, without ever spelling it out, that they were empty. They had always been empty. They would always be empty. Not grey, waiting to be found. They were to be left alone. Like they always had been. Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.

The captain sat back in his chair, his eyes shut. He could not think about it. By tomorrow, he wouldn’t at all. Wouldn’t have a choice. But right now, he treasured the whisperings of a people who had never existed.

Because when all was said and done, the captain knew, at the end of the day… where did this rootless old seadog come from? And why, against all evidence, did he know in his heart that it was there?

* * * * *

Some called them the Candelarian Islands. More often, they didn’t call them anything at all. They didn’t speak of it. Its hills and valleys, its lakes and rivers… they were left well alone. No humans, no Kolan or Candelariasians or Crab-People… Just its trees, and its flowers, and its mice and treeshrews, and… and the devices, protected, in every moment that the islands existed, or would ever exist. No-one knew the name of C&M, of the country’s achievements, of its failures. And only a few ever knew that there was anything to know. The islands had been scoured of humanity, so pitilessly, that only a few whispered artefacts remained on the breeze.

Except… for two bubbles, two moments, that flowed down the river of time with the Candelariasianless rest. In those two moments Beatrice rested upon her eggs, a little girl cross-legged in her shadow. And Candelaria And Marquez and the Candelarian Concordium survived.

Merrily, the first of those two momentary bubbles happened to be the single momentary bubble with which we are concerned, and bobs along the river concurrently with the rest of sporting and political history as we know it, across Rushmore and beyond. So none of you lot or your peoples actually noticed anything weird happening, nor probably ever will, unless you’re really inclined towards sploshing about in time’s river or, if you prefer, time’s bubble full of bubbles full of bubbles.

I just really want to make it clear that there were consequences, alright? Big ones. Just, you know… not for us, as such.

Yay?

* * * * *

The three politicians – that’s President of the Government of the Republic of Candelaria And Marquez Fanny Tan, Minister for Unexpected Happenings and Emergency Preparedness of the Republic of Candelaria And Marquez Russie Walker, and former Cabinet Secretary for Svartálf Affairs of the Democratic Republic of Gordon Bay City Doctor Sukie Rohaert, in case you’re losing track, which would be entirely understandable – viewed the static tableau at the heart of the Device Room from their vantage point beyond what had previously been the viewing window, with emotions both conflicted and mutually unknown to each other, as nature intended.

“They’re still there, then?” Tan said, redundantly, after a while. The other two, their eyes still set upon the coiled Beatrice and the small girl sat crossed-legged before her, nodded with equal superfluity.

“Took her out for a whizz a couple of times,” the staring Sukie offered, distantly. “She didn’t say much. Seemed pretty eager to get back. Gave her a haribo sandwich in the hope it might drag her out of the virtual bloody catatonia she’s been in the past few hours, but…”

“Are they communicating? The boffins back there were throwing around ‘mental congress’ like it was going out of fashion.”

“I don’t know! She’s a bit of a mystery to me at the best of times. And this is not the best of times.”

“It may be a good time to act, though,” Walker said. “The creature… Beatrice, whatever, she might just be gathering her strength again right now! I’ve spoken to the lads since you’ve been gone, Fanny, they’re ready to rock. They’ve been working on this for a decade, and she won’t catch us unawares this time. We’ve got tranquilisers, we could still blow the place…”

“Because trying the physical approach worked so well the last couple of times?” Tan retorted, with a wave of an arm around the room.

The bodies of screaming soldiers and scientists alike had been dragged to the infirmary or the morgue as required. It hadn’t been Sukie’s first scene of disaster, and as ever she’d taken in the injuries of those present like a dog smells. Normal colours had been dulled, replaced by those each signifying lacerations, abrasions, contusions, defence wounds, clean cuts. She could have got to work, there and then, on those who hadn’t survived it. They were owed that. But no amount of tantalisingly fascinating new modes of death could drag her from the two beings in the room beyond.

She’d denied herself a lot, over the years. But today… today clinical detachment would have to go to hell.

Despite the absence of the fallen, the place still bore the hallmarks of the aftermath – not to mention afterbiology and afterxenoanthropology – of a Beatrice encounter. For all its advanced technology the Ministry of Realities and Temporality had yet to achieve the social singularity known as the paperless office, and sheets reminding Graham to order milk and Freya to degauss the electron tantaliser still littered the floor.

“Besides… we have an agreement,” the President added.

They have an agreement,” Walker pointed out, “not us. We’ve just had to roll with it. Doesn’t mean it… she, they, whatever… isn’t planning on breaking it at the drop of a hat. We might not be so lucky next time.”

Tan puffed out her cheeks. “The boffins reckon they may be becoming a composite being. Well, you’ve read the reports of course, we all know what happened to Debbie Baker, essentially fusing with the TDD… or egg, or whatever we’re supposed to call it now, if it’s just something that species can do they may be forming a… Jesus, what did they call it… a gestalt consciousness, or som–”

“I am here, you know,” Sukie interjected, the terse tone she’d intended to adopt stifled somewhat buy the tremolo of her voice. She steadied herself with an intake of breath and tightly folded her arms. Behind her shoulder, the two other women shared a grimace.

“I’m sorry, hen, really,” Tan said. “This has to be incredibly hard for you. Rebecca will… she’ll be safe, we’ll…”

“We’re probably being unduly negative anyway,” Walker added, with a certain amount of forced jollity. “I mean, we’re still alive, y’know, and… well, it’s not like she tortured us with memories of forgotten pasts like last time.”

“Yes, everything’s just hunky-dory,” Tan muttered, shooting her minister another look. “Apart from the hundreds who are dead, of course, if not thousands. It’s really not great out there, ladies. Hospitals are overflowing, there’s people… organs pushed aside to make way for doors, people who rematerialized inside cars… and I mean, inside cars. She was trying to wipe us from existence, so… agreement or no, I think we can run with ‘negative’. That just doesn’t mean that trying to blow her up again is going to get us anywhere.”

“Yes… Sorry, I know. We, um, we watched your statement on the telly back there. It was good, I thought. Very statesladylike. You’ll get us through this, Fanny…”

Hundreds dead, Sukie thought. I could be out there, being useful. An opportunity to employ my actual skill set, the one I spent years gaining, and training to be able to qualify to actually use it, rather than just knowing some little blackcurrant daemon men, or an alien space bat.

Heart attack yesterday, cerebral haemorrhage, drug addict lined up for this morning, suspected hypothermia this afternoon. And out there were hundreds, so she said, of death by machina of deus. Wouldn’t have to call in the forensics for that, but every one of them still deserved a thorough investigation, a full report. The country owed them that final dignity, and it was her job to provide it. It was basically her specialism these days, anyhow. Some people did genomic analysis, some did stab wounds… she got handed the cases of suspected paracide, by reputation alone.

She could be out there, a darn sight more useful to anyone than she was in here.

But she should be here. That was non-negotiable.

“At least the bloody storm’s stopped, that’s something,” Tan was saying. “The injuries, though… You won’t believe where men put their pensis, honestly, some of the things they’ve got phased into, my God…”

“I’m a pathologist who spent several years living in Gordon Bay City… I could believe it,” Sukie said, her voice a little less strained.

“More of a case of where penises put their men, I find,” Walker offered, trying a grin.

“Oh, don’t say crap like that, it only gives them an excuse.”

“My, you’re never off duty, are you?” Tan told Sukie, with a genuine laugh.

The woman flashed her a weak smile. “You and me both, I suppose. Mother, mother of the nation… much the same thing. God, look, not that I technically care, because my daughter has at best a really problematic friendship and at worst might be becoming a gestalt bloody whatever with a giant black space-snake, but… All that stuff happened, right? All that phasing in and out of reality gubbins, it wasn’t just in our minds?”

“I’m not sure there would have been quite so much in the way of blood and limbs if it had just been in our minds, ducky,” Tan told her, as kindly as she could manage. “I mean, look, Russie, you’ve spoken to the chaps here…?”

Walker nodded. “They all agree, massive chronometric disturbance, unprecedented, off the scale, etcetera. They keep going on about the microwaves stopping going ping, or something. A lot about… emptiness. Not that they’ve got a clue what actually happened, I’m pretty sure. Honestly, I’ve never seen a group of scientists so happy. They already think it’ll take them lifetimes to unpick…”

“The term ‘localised’ came up a lot my end, don’t know about yours. I’ve already had Carizzo and Van Delta and all of that lot on the blower wondering what the hell is going on here. And Niamh,” the President added, failing utterly to supress a small shudder.

“You have my immense sympathy, ma’am,” Walker said. “What did you say to them?”

“Oh, fobbed them off to Foreign Affairs, mostly. Declass can wait, although probably not for very long. Just until we know if she intends to… stay? Is that the plan, she’s going to sit and warm those eggs for the next few centuries? Do we need to make up the spare room? I don’t know… Kinda fun lying to foreigners again, though. Feels like we’ve got a little of the old C&M back. Charmingly retro. But yeah, anyway… Very real, and very much just us. I supposed we meddled with time, with the TDDs for so long, well… The boffins did say there was a price to pay. I suppose this is us paying it again.”

“They sound more like priests.”

“Yes, Doctor Rohaert, they often do. I suppose when you reach this level of big-scary-science there’s not so very much difference.” The President sighed. “I ought to be back out there, really. My ratings’ll take a hit if I’m not, apart from anything else. Don’t want to be caught asleep at the wheel, should be organising, signing things, showing my face, being President. So should you, by the way, Russie. Apart from the ‘being President’ bit.”

“Heaven forbid. And yeah, I know, I was earlier, for a while, I just…”

“Had to be here? Yeah. What’s a few hundred deaths when a little girl and an alien monster could be deciding the fate of the entire nation as we speak? I might be needed. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. I don’t know… I should call Matt again…”

Walker reddened slightly. “Gosh, sorry, I haven’t asked, are you and yours…?”

“The kids are fine, Matt’s fine,” Tan told her, waving away the question. “Well, not fine… Some fingers in bandages where they tried to grab door handles, pretty standard fare. It’s not like…” She trailed off, and turned instead to Sukie. “You should be very proud, you know? Whatever happens, your daughter… she may have saved us all. Not to mention,” she added, as the Beatrice flexed slightly and repositioned her tail as it draped over the pile of little devices, ”ushered in new life…”

“I suppose it’s skipped a generation,” Sukie said blankly. “You were never going to have a normal one…”

“Sorry?”

Sukie frowned at the question, as though only now aware that she’d been speaking aloud, and shook her head. “Oh, just something dad always says. God, I should phone the old sod, let him know… something. No, when I always tell him about Rebecca, her little… ways, her Albrecht FC obsession, all the rest of it, he always says that. He’s referring to mum, really. Bit of a riddle her, too. Never really knew her. Me, I mean, not him, although I suppose that goes for the both of us. Bit of a rolling stone, my mum. Wanted to see the world, then died young. Dad loved her, but he always says he never really figured her out… He’s an obstetrician, you know? Or was, before he retired. Mum was a midwife too, apparently, in ‘the old country’, wherever that was. He never says, but I think he was mildly disappointed I was more into dead things than new-borns. I suppose I’m the same with Becca really, but here we are…”

“She does appear to know an awful lot about Candelariasian football, to be fair. I think that counts as ‘dead things’.”

“Hah… Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Not sure how we’re supposed to refer to those things, those eggs, anyway… You know they can talk? Like, they’re alive in their own right, they’re not just eggs, or just foetuses, or…”

“If it’s really alien, there’s no reason why it needs to conform to our terrestrial expectations of standard taxonomy, nor procreation… apparently. If this state of affairs is going to last, we’re clearly all going to have to take a few night classes. Although lord knows what lessons we’re supposed be learning…”

“That the pure and innocent little girl could achieve what we washed-up harridan mothers could not?”

“Do I detect a slight grin, there?” Tan said, nudging Sukie’s shoulder with her own. “You’re not starting to enjoy this just a little, are you Doctor?”

“Smiling through the terror, maybe. Although I suppose there’s something to be said for being the mum of the second most important woman in the Candelarias…”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, although right now I don’t feel much like… oh,” Tan said, following Sukie’s eyes towards the sinuous form of the Beatrice, “yes, I suppose she is rather the female boss right now. We should have a crown made up, given that we apparently live or cease to have ever existed at her beck and screech. And that of your daughter, I suspect…”

“You’re not going to get all Herod, are you?”

“I reckon I’m more of a shepherd in this scenario. Or possibly the second inn keeper, I’ll give it some thought. At least we’re well off for wise men, although… Where the hell are they all, at the moment? It’s been twenty minutes, I could do with some reassuring babble about dilatonic bonnets and sillystring theory.”

For the first time in hours, Sukie wrenched her eyes away from her silent daughter and the no less taciturn Beatrice and joined the politicians in glancing around the vast expanse of the device room. Only now that it appeared to have dwindled was she able to acknowledge the prior hustle and bustle as scientists, soldiers, cleaners and other Ministry people had swept around her, literally in some cases. For a moment she wondered if the Candelariasian population wasn’t evaporating into the sunset again, but the noise coming from beyond the room, while containing a certain amount of disconcerting clamour, wasn’t wholly suggestive of uniform awfulness afoot.

“I suppose you’re going to have to declassify the existence of this place too,” Walker pondered, a touch of reproach in her voice. “In the interest of openness and so forth. Unless you want to give it another new name. The Ministry of Reconciliation and Truth has been right there for years, I’ve always said…”

Tan flashed her a look that couldn’t have shouted RESHUFFLE any louder if it had been etched into the walls. “Can’t say I’m as much of a fan of costly rebranding exercises as some of my predecessors. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it… Ah, good, humans who aren’t us.”

It turned out to be just one human for now, a cleaner in an oversized brown coat who bobbed an awkward curtsy in the President’s general direction and bowed her head so low her nose was all but scraping the floor. She had clearly been running, and took several deep breaths before she said: “Pleadings your presidentialship’s pardon, ma’am, but, uh… well, the lads tried to stop ‘em, but…”

And now the door opened anew – flung open, rather than inched imperceptibly as before – and in marched a whole new set of problems.

They were men – because of course there was going to have to be eventually, Sukie thought, with a sigh – though not the short-sighted little scientists that Tan might have been hoping for. These were a different breed entirely, each chiselled and brown and generally built along very similar lines were it not for the wide disparity in apparent ages. Among the dozen-or-so of them there were at least of couple of teenagers, two or three more in their later years, one hunched over a walking stick. Most were probably in their forties or a little older, though definitely not in the ‘dad bod’ territory just yet. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant sight. And yet…

What did set them apart, superficially at least, was the colours of the clothes they were wearing. Red and black, black and grey stripes, vibrant orange. Not every one of them wore an old CMSC shirt, some merely wore approximating colours, and some of either Sukie no longer recognised by name – but she knew these uniforms by sight well enough now, from Rebecca’s books and tattered programmes and old VHS tapes.

And besides, if there were things that even the Truth & Reconciliation Committee didn’t publish for the benefit of all Candelariasian ears, Sukie Rohaert was no ordinary Candelariasian. Somehow or another, she’d found herself working for the M.O.R.T., and as member of the Gordonbaysian cabinet to boot. She knew about the Brothers. Not a whole lot… but enough. A decade ago she’d stood at the side of three of them, after all, and faced the Beatrice.

Her eyes flicked to the one she had known, however briefly, as Mato – a Candelarian raised by Kolan, looking rather more respectable than the half-naked apparition she’d met before, in buffed black shoes, jeans, a vintage McDonald SC shirt. For the first time she saw his real face – older, but still recognisable, and no longer buried beneath a smear of grey and blue facepaint.

Her eyes travelled further to the right, to the M.O.R.T.’s very own Anthony, forever in his battered old Khatib FC shirt, and… well, that was one conversation she really didn’t need right now, and she turned away from him and found herself into looking into the proud, arrogant eyes of the man front and centre of the group.

It had been a decade since she’d seen him last too, in the flesh, though she’d seen archive footage of his likeness on TV and at the hearings plenty of times since. The one they called John Patience, another veteran of the Battle of the Device Room, the former self-appointed President of the Candelaria And Marquez Association Football Association. Not in a suit this time, but Scorpions red.

On a different day, her daughter would have spotted him by now and probably have bounced up and be chewing his ear off about the merits of Wayne Thorpe versus Steven Fritz versus Peter Vanderpent or Kim Daeeui, or what might have happened if they’d sacked Trevor Organ in XXV, as she generally did on those occasions where she noticed a soon-to-be very bemused stranger sporting her beloved dead club’s colours. But Rebecca’s back remained turned, her eyes set upon the Beatrice as intently, Sukie realised now, as Patience’s. He looked straight through her and towards the creature, fists clenched, a growing sneer playing upon his lips.

Well, one lip. The upper one. Not sure you can actually sneer with two lips. Is that a moue?

Behind the Brothers, a motley collection of armed gentlemen fingered their various firearms, tasers and truncheons. Their uniforms – army, police, M.O.R.T. security, grey suits – some still damp and bloodied, suggested that Patience and his men had been on the march for quite some time, through the now becalmed storm and into the heart of the Ministry. Evidently, no members of this ad hoc guard of honour seemed too sure as to whether they should have attempted to stop them, nor who exactly they were guarding from whom, but they’d made up their minds that some guarding was definitely called for and were damned well going to guard. But quietly, so as not to upset the genetically engineered super-soldier-footballer-president-man, nor any of his mates. Sir.

To Sukie’s surprise, and evidently that of Patience too, the awkward silence that followed their arrival was broken not by the group’s apparent leader but a rather more wizened figure, who bounded forward towards Tan with an incongruous spryness. His shirt, red and white striped like a dangerous butcher, fluttered around him.

He grasped her unresisting hand momentarily, albeit long enough to illicit a wince, then appeared to decide that he should instead place his hands together as if in prayer and proffer the President a brief bow.

“Ahh… My dear, my dear! Madam, you present unto me great honour with but your presence! A woman of rare quality, I do think, for a daughter of the Orient to bourgeon so among this land. It does you great credit indeed, my dear!”

“Um.”

“Thomas,” he stated, dropping another bow, “Thomas Merrytent and Paschal. And it honours me, honours me, madam, at this sunset of my years, to follow this man, Mister John, through the cities and towns. Not showing ye kingdom of God, of course, would that we would be so presumptuous, but gathering yet our own twelve, or thereabouts, such that we might complete our destiny and deliver this dear country from this darkness that so pervades it. Oh… For so many, many years, I have made passage through this world with only the dimmest acquaintance of my place within it. But now I no longer run from what I am… I run towards it, to this moment. To her, I do think… But it is like she sees us not,” Thomas added, his face now further scrunched into a frown as he peered around the bemused President towards the Beatrice.

Sukie twisted her neck to do the same, and saw that the creature remained just as it had been moments before, curled around its pile of eggs, notional eyes set upon Rebecca. Of the new arrivals, and the commotion they had brought, neither Beatrice nor her daughter appeared remotely interested.

“She’ll see us fucking soon,” one of the men – red, white and black; Port of Clotaire if Sukie was any judge – snarled, in an accent she couldn’t place. “Get a shift on, girls. We’ve got a job to do.”

More than one of his compatriots made a show of rolling up his sleeves, an effect somewhat diminished by the fact that they were mostly in short sleeves anyway.

The one called Thomas stepped backwards towards the group, bobbing his head once more. “It would perhaps not do to dally, my dear, hmm? None of us would wish yourself or your lovely companions to be hurt, and it is beyond doubt that there will be considerable bloodshed before this deed is done.”

“I’m not planning on going anywhere just yet, hen,” Tan told him, recovering her composure a little. “I’d like to hear exactly what’s supposed to be going on from Mr Patience here, if he doesn’t mind. Nice to finally make your acquaintance, Mr President. Heard a lot about you, only some of it involving bodies reduced to bags of shattered bones.”

With a slight growl of irritation, Patience finally spoke. “What is going on, is that we’re here to kill the creature and end this country’s suffering. It’s what we’re called to do. It’s what we were made for. Last time she caught us unawares. There were only three of us. This time…”

“Oh, I’m sure, I’m sure. But sorry, just to rewind there for a mo, the last I heard you’d been cooked up in the bowels of the CAMAFA to go and conquer the world in football, proven unstable, all been destroyed apart from one or two, you’d ended up in an asylum, etcetera… You have to read a lot of documents in this job, lads, so I might’ve overlooked something somewhere, but I don’t remember anything about killing any aliens…”

“Oh, we’ll show you unstable!” one of the more apparently youthful of the Brothers, in Mayo Valley baby blue hoops, blurted. Another placed a steadying hand on his arm, and glanced towards Patience.

“John? Will this take long?”

Patience sighed. “We’ve waited long enough, we can wait five minutes more. I suppose I owe the leader of this country an explanation, although God knows why it needs to be now. You’ll be thanking me profusely before the day is out, Tan. All of us.”

“We’ll see, won’t we?”

“Hmph. The short version, then? On his death bed, my creator told me the truth. I understood half of it, believe even less, but… What stood out could not be denied. Football was woven into our DNA, yes, to provide us with goals with which to occupy our warriors’ minds and bodies until such time as they could be employed in the manner he had intended. Each designated club would provide us a family, discipline… And yes, in certain regards Morrison failed. We were too much for him, we could not be contained by a mere sport. But destroy us? No… A man like he could not destroy his greatest creations. But he couldn’t hope to keep us sequestered from the rest of C&M indefinitely, and he lacked the resources to protect us from it, and it from us. So we were strewn, across Rushmore, across the worlds. And I have spent a decade of your time finding my brothers, collating them for this moment, for the day that we were made for. Some… well, some are long dead. Of one unforeseen malady or another, at the hands of the state, at their own hands… But there are enough! We have grown in a dozen lands, denied our birthrights, the secrets of our origins, the knowledge of each other’s existence. We know no pain, no hunger, we possess perfect vision, perfect hearing, the strength of ten men… This is our burden. We could share it with none. We had no outlet for our rage, we were feared, we were hunted, we were locked away. But this… this is the moment of our triumph! Now… Stand. Aside!

“What he said,” the PoC-coloured Brother grunted. There was some general nodding.

Tan shook her head. “Can’t. Sorry, hen. Few hours ago I would have let you do your worst, but events have moved on a bit. There’s an agreement. And I’m not in the business of breaking treaties.”

“A treaty? With that?”

“Between them, really,” Tan said, waving a hand behind her to encompass the general locality of Beatrice and Rebecca. “The rest of us feature in Appendix B at best, I think. But we have to give this a chance, we have to see where it leads…”

“This is fucking stupid. Move aside, bitch.”

This was from the Brother in Clotarien colours again, but it was Patience who made a menacing step forward towards the three women. Behind him, Sukie saw other steps being taken. Not all were from the Brothers. The guard of honour was ready to act to protect their President. There was the clear sense that things were about to get ping.

Ping, granted, might not have seemed the most threatening of noises, but the pathologist knew better. Downton Albrecht had been her beat for most of her working life, and while it was hardly the worst corner of the world she’d still tweezered plenty of little metal slugs out of cold, blue bodies over the years. Ping meant ricochets, trained marksmen or not. And this was a room that included herself and, rather more pertinently, her daughter.

“That’s your grand plan for sating the beast, is it?” Patience said, mockingly. “Your answer is child sacrifice?”

“There’s no sacrifice,” Sukie found herself hissing aloud, and immediately wondered privately if she even believed it.

Patience appeared to notice her for the first time. “Your child, is it? Hmph. I might have known you’d be involved with this nonsense somehow. What a disappointment you are…”

“What the hell is that supposed to mea–”

Another Brother interrupted them, a figure for whom both a small quantity of dark face and the lower half of an old Sloane Wanderers shirt were barely visible either side of a matted sylvan beard. “Ghah! Enough with the lippy-lippy, I say! If zese women stands in our way, we should kill zem!”

His nearest colleague placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Let’s not do anything too hasty, Joseph. This is John’s call.”

“Always safety-first, eh Colin?” said another still. “Joe’s right, we should strike while the creature’s half asleep. No treaties, no agreements! Our destiny awaits!”

“They’re not wrong, you know,” Patience told Tan calmly, looking down at her. “If you force our hand… Well, any of us could tear you limb from limb.”

Just one slip, Sukie thought. Just one nervous cop or army boy, doing his duty to protect and serve… and ping

“I don’t doubt it, hen,” Tan sighed. “Although I’m not sure why you’d think that makes you special. I mean, the ‘limb from limb’ stuff, sure, but come on… Look at me. I’m only small. Any man could kill me, pretty much, if he put his mind to it. That’s just a thing we live with, us lady-types. It’s wearying. It’s our burden… one of them, anyway. So forgive me my blunted sympathy for your terrible plight.”

“Fanny…” Sukie heard Walker whisper, along with some indistinct noises that may have included the words ‘wise’ and ‘antagonise’.

“Oh, and I don’t think I believe in ‘destiny’, either… and certainly not one determined by one’s mother or father,” Tan added, with a quick glance sideways towards Sukie. “Bearing in mind half the people in the country don’t have the mothers and fathers they were born with, or none at all. We make our own destinies. Personally, I think your creator was bluffing to the last. I reckon he made you for football, screwed up, treated you badly, tried to fish up some high and mighty justification for it all.”

“It… It is written,” Patience insisted. But to Sukie, suddenly, he seemed… unsure.

“History’s written by the victors, they said,” Tan told him, conversationally. “But who writes the future? Prophets, soothsayers… bullshitters in my book, sorry if that’s treading on anyone’s religious toes out there, but come on. You think you were made to fight this thing? Kick it a bit and hope for the best? Maybe you were supposed to serve witness to the treaty of the century?”

You may have no purpose but your own, woman. But my brothers and I were made. Our father, he desi–”

My father, John, my father risked everything to get my mother and me to a place of safety. It cost him his life. I never knew him, but I’ve spent a lifetime trying to repay him, trying to live up to what he hoped for me, and I can’t even really know what that was. But I do know my mother, John, and sh–”

“I ate my mother,” the one called Joseph grunted. “I sucked at her teat, then sucked at her bones. The bones was better.”

“We had no mother,” Patience rebuked him quietly. “Perhaps we had substitutes, some of us, but… Whatever you think you have to tell us is of no interest.”

“Finally he gets his nuts back!” the Clotarien grinned. He flung his arms wide. “Let’s end this, boys! BEATRICE! Face us!”

“Fanny!” Walker hissed insistently again, with a sharp nod of her head. Tan and Sukie both swivelled, to see that for the first time in hours the two beings behind the glass had turned away from each other and towards those in the room beyond. Beatrice had shifted into a more upright position, swaying gently, wings thrumming a little more intently than before. She might have been gearing up for a renewed assault against Candelariasian minds and bodies and their very being, Sukie knew, but… it didn’t feel like that. The creature was watching, waiting… with interest.

And Rebecca, Sukie knew full well she would be the only one to notice, was watching and waiting too, her little body swaying, subtly but surely, perfectly in tandem with that of the Beatrice. Her eyes unreadable, she remained locked in their own little world, one with no place for a mere human mother.

President Tan turned her back on them once more. “My maman,” she continued, “risked everything too. She could have stayed put, she could. But she wanted me to grow up in a country where people could speak freely, act freely, think freely. Granted, she ended up picking Candelaria And Marquez, which shows the same lack of judgment in the pinch that she displays in her choice of boyfriends, not to mention baby names but… Well, I think the point still stands. She was a frightened mother, seeking refuge, seeking safety for her child. Look at the creature behind the glass, John. Really, look at her. I know first-hand what she can do, her power, her rage… Is she terrifying, Mr Patience? Right now, right this moment, does she terrify you?”

“I don’t feel fear…”

“Of course not, hen. Funny thing is, neither do I right now. Not where she’s concerned. Because she’s a mother, John. And she wants safety for her young. That’s all she’s ever wanted, I reckon. She’s not worried about their destiny… just so long as they live, unmolested, unexploited. There’s some who would find that terrifying, some regimes, but not mine. Not today. Today I’m asking for your acquiescence, John, pardon my French. I need your help, your agreement, all of you… to step aside…”

“And play it your way?”

“Perhaps, hen. Let’s start by playing it young Rebecca’s way, and see how we get on?”

Sukie looked back and forth, between the creature and her daughter, Tan and the Brothers. Well, she was bullshitting to save her life, of course, and maybe all their lives, but… she also wasn’t wrong. Beatrice seemed smaller, somehow. For all she’d done, for all she was capable of, the terror that she engendered just wasn’t quite there anymore. Was it something in her body language, or something she projected straight into human minds, Sukie couldn’t say, but she seemed almost… meek. Hopeful. Expectant?

And Beatrice wasn’t the only one, that too was dawning on her. She looked at Patience too, and he seemed to have somehow shrunk. He wasn’t a tall man anyway, Sukie realised for the first time. No taller than the other Brothers, barely taller than her. Many of the great footballers were on the shorter side, after all, Rebecca would explain, before reeling off a long list of players whose names she wouldn’t even try to remember, though an inordinate number of them appeared to be called Kim. But right now he seemed shorter still, hunched, looking at his feet, the bottom of his classic Albrecht FC shirt scrunched between his hands like a guilty child. His siblings – or vatmates, or God knew what they were – were looking at him, and she tried to read their faces. Disappointment, pity, disgust…

“You’re not going to let this bitch fucking talk you out of this? Jesus Christ man, it’s what we’ve been waiting for! It’s what we were made for!”

“Maybe we could just… see how it goes? Even for a day, just wait and see?” Colin told him.

The feral Joseph grunted again. “I like her. Zis Candalian queen. She has warrior’s spirit. We hear she say, hm?”

“We can’t give up on two destinies,” Patience said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “They took football away from us. You can’t take this too…”

“Maybe football can come back to you, gentlemen. Maybe there’s still time, I don’t know. Others in our boat have found a way, over the years, half our near neighbours for starters. The allegiances that are written into your blood, the families you should have had, the purpose you should have had… We’ll look into it, maybe… maybe there’s still a place for you.”

“You’re humouring me,” Patience muttered. “Football in this country is dead. Most of the clubs are dead. All the great administrators, dead. Robert Morrison. Owen Jones, Sam Mc O’Neil, Quentin Vokolos, Jono Wilkinson, Robert Gilbert, Mamdooh Momtaz, all dead. Killed some of them myself. Mark Baker, Elgin Dannat, Lloyd Donnelly, Andy Le Lan, all the great coaches, dead… The rest of them scorned, hated…”

“Perhaps it’s high time that changed. Slowly,” Tan added. “Very, very slowly… You could forge your own destinies. All of you. Your father, your creator, gave you life. Don’t let him define how you have to live it.”

He’s a brutal killer, Sukie thought. Who knew how many times over? But then so is Beatrice, and Tan had apparently decided to give her a second chance, so… The rules were always different for the powerful, after all.

And lord knew there was still no appetite for football in this country, after everything it had done to them. But perhaps that could change, once the Candelariasian public knew the truth of the Beatrice, of her rage, and her terrors. Others had found a way…

Patience gave the President a little nod, a signal that elicited some general tutting from his brothers but little more. They were actually going with it. And as for Beatrice, well… She said nothing, deposited no words into their brains, but remained swaying gently and somehow, on some level, Sukie felt a sense of… approval, perhaps, washing over her.

And Patience turned his back on the women and the creature and began to walk back amongst his brothers and the armed men behind them and towards the far door. Behind them all, Sukie heard a little gasp she knew was Rebecca’s, and a squeal of excitement as she read the name on the back of the man’s shirt.

“Tonnelier!” Rebecca shouted, beaming. And the spell, however briefly, was broken.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue Jun 28, 2022 4:29 am

Twenty-Eight. The Bridge


For what must have been the thirtieth time in barely twice as many waking minutes, Mark’s eyes were drawn inexorably upwards. The forced entry of the Beatrice down into the deepest levels – presumably, anyway – of Albrecht had carved out a sheer tunnel to the Inside’s long abandoned upper echelons and beyond.

He couldn’t make out anything from all but the lowest of the sector’s strata, of course. For one thing the creature had made its entrance at an angle and, curled up on an ancient swivel chair in a corner of the Device Room, he was ill-placed to attempt to follow its path without craning the stunted little neck on which the still uncomfortable bulk of his head rested. Equally though, she had torn through enough cables and the like to ensure that, based on what he could overhear from the chatter of the assorted Morticians and their hangers-on still present, half the sector was still without all but emergency power. Energy had been diverted to ensure that the city’s filtration systems continued to prevent the choking air of the Outside rendering Albrecht even less amenable to comfortable living than was already the case, and to maintaining the dead levels. For those wretches condemned to the lowest levels – save those of the Morticians themselves, of course – in particular, light was a luxury the state, such as it was, could currently ill-afford to grant.

Some kind of meshing had been placed above him, covering Beatrice’s final entry point. Its addition could only have been symbolic in intent, given that it appeared insufficiently robust to take the weight of a child, much less any of the lifeforms that resided above. Mark could from time to time identify the shapes and even make out the faces of some, scrubs mostly, peering down into this sanctum of the Morticians with fear and wonder, their shrivelled faces rendered yet more grotesque by the shadows cast by their weak little portable lamps. They would have to had dropped down several levels, via the convenient fissure left by the Beatrice or by more conventional means, risking their lives in the process, all for a glimpse at the first living new arrival into the vortex for centuries.

Other beings moved amongst them, or at other times the scrubs would scatter at their approach. Some of these cast shadows too, looming and flickering beyond the lattice, skittering and lurching shapes Mark’s mind could barely let him parse as belonging to a human form. Yet none of those around him seemed overly concerned about what could at any moment come tumbling down the void above and through the fabric that was all that protected them from the most gnarled and dreadful of the ronions. Perhaps some technology or magic beyond his understanding shielded the Concordium’s enforcers from the lowest of the citizenry above. At the same time, given what he knew of the M.O.R.T. of centuries past – more and more of it trickling back all the time – he half-wondered whether the encounter between the Carasian Kingscott and the hulking dud two days before hadn’t in fact been as much for show as the heroic effort in saving the lives of the city’s more palatable denizens as it had appeared at the time. Perhaps there were other concords at play here – not merely between selkie and Mortician, but Mortician and ronion.

And then, of course, there was the other agreement, and once again his eyes made their now familiar path from the unknowable above to the unfathomable at the far end of the room.

The short period of time since her arrival hadn’t proven enough to dull the incongruity of her presence. The Beatrice hovered still, tail caressing her eggs, Goddess sitting cross-legged before her, the pair – it could only be assumed – in some silent communion. Neither had yet deigned to utter another word to anyone else. It had been evident that even Lady Keturah, beneath the superior little smile Mark had rapidly come to dislike, was unclear at this point quite how things were supposed to proceed. “What is… is,” she’d said, which struck him strongly as nun for “Don’t look at me, flower, I’ve done my bit”.

And so it was that what had been undoubtedly one of the most significant single events in the history of the Concordium within the vortex, and quite probably in the history of the human habitation of the Candelarias, had been followed by a rapid return to something resembling normality. Morticians had returned to work, some in this very room. There was little else that could be done, it appeared, apart from watching and waiting.

His eyes flicked back upwards once more. Another thing that was causing him some agitation was that no-one seemed terribly concerned about the prospect of the entire vast edifice above collapsing on top of the lot of them. The structural integrity of the sector had to have taken quite the hit from the unstoppable object that had torn through level after level. Look at how people here spoke of Arrigo, and reacted to the smaller stripslides closer to home.

He wondered if their disinterest in the possibility of going Full Wendell was down to the knowledge that there was nothing they’d be able to do about it and thus there was no point in worrying, or if they simply had the utmost trust that the centuries spent sustaining the Inside against the attrition provided by the vortex itself would leave it standing even in the face of this most unexpected of incursions. These people didn’t produce too many creators, Morrison and Wonder notwithstanding, but if nothing else they were maintainers.

But then, had it really been so unexpected at all? Not to the selkies, it appeared. Perhaps they had spent decades covertly ensuring that the city was sufficiently ballasted against the prospect of collapse on this very day.

Whatever forethought might had gone into preparing for this moment, no-one now seemed too sure what to do with him, and nor was he alone in that regard. The presence of Surrogate and Tread was tolerated – it was clear to all that the supplicants and Goddess came as a package, as she in turn ensured the conviviality, if that was what it was, of the Beatrice – but Mark and the Scorpion King were anomalies all of their own. Wordlessly, they’d found their own corner of the device room, and for now it appeared had been left to their own devices. Who exactly was going to tell them they didn’t have the right lanyard?

Mark had slept on his chair, intermittently, but somehow even there had felt the eyes of passing Morticians and their ilk lingering upon him. If Beatrice was the focal point of everyone’s attentions, then he was still an object of curiosity for most, fascination for many. Word had spread about him, too. The Concordium had another Hallowed. A figure from the age of football had been returned to them. Truly, this was a day of wonders!

A sigh brought his attentions to the crumpled inhabitant of a nearby chair. The thing about the most splendid of outfits was that their wearer appeared all the more diminished when they were torn and singed, the strips of crimson that once fluttered behind him now hanging limply. The magic of majesty struggled to survive such things intact.

Mark had noticed too the expressions on the faces of those passing whose eyes had alighted upon the heap that was the Scorpion King. Perhaps it would only be a brief interlude in the man’s long, long life, but for now awe had turned to pity, even a degree of disgust. He couldn’t help but sympathise. He’d lived just that transformation himself. Old age would do that eventually, and if the Scorpion King appeared able to endure the worst that the passage of time upon the mind and body had to offer, then a shift in the circumstances of this ossified nation was always going to change his standing within it eventually. He appeared to be feeling it hard.

“…seen so much… so many failures… seen so much…”

“Mm,” Mark said. He felt he ought to say something.

“The Beatrice, twice… Thrice, now. The fall of football. The great resistance, the rise of the nujeongbu, the new troubles, the Affront…”

Not far from them both, Lúthien Anwamanë, bent low over a console and, to Mark’s mind, pretending to work whilst actually on babysitting duty, muttered something laden with diacritics. Belatedly, his speaking bean, hitherto silenced by the familiarity of the King’s speech, kicked into action to tell him: “Oh, here we go…”

“It’s annoying, isn’t it?” Mark agreed, “all this listing. You all do it, you know.”

But the morose monarch of Albrecht FC was oblivious to their mild protestations. “…the wars of expansion, the geneboom, the Palmouthian cold war, the Concordium itself…”

It was as though he was ticking them off, era by era, the years of sun cycles and football seasons alike all rendered irrelevant within the cocoon of the vortex.

“…the cyborg uprising, the rule of the Friend, the northwards flood of humanity, the coming of the vortex, the datapurge, the desalinator massacres, the rebirth of stars… Oh, I’ve seen so much. And through it all, I’ve waited for my chance. One day, I knew it would come, one day. Finally I would defeat her. I would answer destiny’s call. In this time or another, one way or another, I would liberate us from her shadow. Instead… instead I live this long, forgetting how to die, just so that I can witness my own fall.”

“Isn’t… I mean, wasn’t today a good thing? It feels like a good thing’s happened?” Mark ventured.

“I should have destroyed her. Could have done, should’ve… Too old now, too alone. Tried to change the past, couldn’t even do that. And now, for trying… now they’ll destroy me.”

“Oh get a grip, John,” Lúthien snapped suddenly, turning her green eyes upon him. “You did what you thought you had to do. You might have interfered with the Morticians’ plans, but you’ll be forgiven. You’re owed that much.”

The King snorted. “Hmph. You’ll see, girl, you’ll see. They’ll worship at the altar of their new goddess now, before too long. Both of them. They don’t realise it yet, but they will. Beatrice will bring them hope, and she’ll be their undoing. The people of Albrecht will exchange their syndicalist police state for a theocratic matriarchal duumvirate before you can say ceremonial knife, and the rest of the Concordium will soon fall in line. And us, hah… There’ll be no place for us. No place for the Hallowed, no rivals, no… We’ll be purged, elf. You’ll see. The three of us, and the rest. Like the gegnomes, like the amazons. Then they’ll try the Greens too, they will, and that war will crumble the strip and citadels alike into the sea… And the creature’s munificence, if you think that’ll last, hah… Well, it won’t. But they’ll never stop trying. In any time, any timeline, as long as there’re devices, they’ll keeping messing with them. Why do you think the chronology of this place is so entangled? It’s not just a convenient excuse for poor plotting, no… the very land bears the scars. I feel them, you know? Those other rivers. Just from time to time, I get to have a little paddle. They wash over me, and I’m left merely uncomfortably moist and a touch confused. You’ll feel them too, Baker, if you don’t already. Anomalies like us, it’s part of the deal.”

Mark, who’d spent much of the last decade uncomfortably moist and a touch confused, nodded in serene incomprehension, before the King suddenly looked up. His little eyes, deep within the folds of his parchment skin, were fixed upon him, expectant, pleading.

“You do understand, don’t you? Why I had to tear you away from them, why I had to try something different? Something, anything, just as I have timeline after timeline… I always thought you… you were vital. Without you, our second father, our mentor, we’d have no hope at all of defeating her. But I thought, maybe… maybe it would be better without you. No offence meant, but under you we had discipline, tutelage. Without you, without football, what would have become of us? With nothing but raw rage, no outlet, only Morrison’s callousness, what then? Could we have turned that against her? But we didn’t, did we? Because you’re here, and I’m here, and she’s here, and nothing changed. Nothing ever does, no matter what we do. The rivers all flow into one, eventually. These timelines, they’re just tributaries. We cannot stop trying, but we will never change the destination. Never, never…”

I think,” Mark volunteered, “that we could all do with a nice lie down. And some toast. I always feel better after some toast.”

“Do you remember it all, mentor? I know you didn’t before, in my office, I could tell. Didn’t even know who I was. Do you remember any of it? Baker’s two dozen? Our childhoods, our victories? Oh, I was… such a hothead back then…”

“You amaze me.”

“Kept on a leash, though. Sometimes literally… But you were always there, watching…”

“That’s the helicopter generation for you, I’m afraid. I blame myself, really,” Mark said, knowing full well he could have accused the Scorpion King of being a punnet of strawberries at this point without it making any odds. For the moment at least, the monarch’s mind was lost to the time stream.

“Poor little Horace. The eleven against eleven. That time, hah, that time Colin… No. No, you don’t, do you? You weren’t there. There was only one Mark Baker, and he died, and you have his memories, and that’s all there is. You didn’t go back, I stopped you… and still nothing changed.”

“I’m sorry,” Mark told him. But he was right, the manager knew, about some of it at least. He was remembering things, remembering worlds that had never been. Maybe he had met the brothers, in his other body, maybe… As is the way of such things, his mind settled on the seemingly inconsequential, and he smiled to himself with a certain satisfaction. Darwin Rondags… he hadn’t selected Darwin Rondags for the Baptism of Fire. No, he’d selected that great hairy bugger, Lan Albret, as the back-up right-back. A man who’d been born and lived and died so long ago… and yet, Mark was quite sure, hadn’t even existed until a couple of hours before. He couldn’t have done, not without Vanderpent the Chrononaut.

“Predestination paradoxes,” the Scorpion King intoned, glumly. “I know you’re thinking about them. Try not to, it’ll give you a headache, and you’re pinny enough for plenty of those already. All those memories in your head, all that knowledge, all so fresh… Lordy,” he added, sobering up slightly, and pulling himself to something close to an upright position. “Turkish are going to be insufferable, you know? A Hallowed of their own, and a real football person this time, not whatever the hell I am… Don’t tell them everything. I’m serious about that, don’t. Lúthien’d say the same, right? It’ll destroy them, if they know it all. It’s just a ball game, but they can’t know that, you mustn’t… Even with these fancy new goddesses, they can’t find out the truth about the one thing that’s sustained them all these years… Promise me!”

“Sure, sure, I promise! Really, I don’t think I have any intention of finding these Turkish people, I mean… I don’t know what I intend to do…”

“Oh, you will. All those people, worshipping you. An elf could resist that,” the King smiled, with a sideways glance at the Mortician, “but a mere man, like you and I… Not a chance. I know you,” he added, without rancour, “even if in your timeline it’s barely mutual. Do try not to let it go to that massive new head of yours…”

The Scorpion King, Mark decided, was not a man who wallowed for very long. Perhaps that was how he’d survived so many centuries. That and the genetically engineered body, obviously.

Caretaker scrubs fussed around them with dustpan and brush. The robot dog Pet, who we brought up in Chapter 3 and who has been present at Mark and Goddess’ side ever since, we just forgot to mention it, scampered about, bored. Random Morticians passed back on forth on private missions of their own. Mark felt quite sure half of them had no particular reason to be there and were just finding excuses to gawp at their new goddesses-in-residence. The old monarch wasn’t wrong about that, either. It was clear from this vantage point to see the transference of awe from football icons to the swaying black lifeform who held the fate of the Concordium in her wings. And that was just Morticians and their compatriots – how would the general public of the Inside react to her… rule? Was that what it was to be?

The Director appeared from time to time, newly suited but with his head still contorted in Alan form, casting furtive glances towards Beatrice and Goddess. This was a man with justification to worry about his job security.

The King had evidently been thinking along similar lines. “Oh, he’ll be hating this,” he intoned, with a nod towards the Director. “Her presence, yes, but the very fact that he’s been well and truly outfoxed. Plans within plans… Lady Keturah knew, I’ll be bound. The Headmistress too. This one, feeble, king notwithstanding… there’s only pawns in this game, Baker. Pawns and queens.”

The manager started mentally workshopping a gag about draughts, but this was not a country where any monologue could be expected to stop short at three pages of A4, and his fellow Hallowed appeared to have plenty to get off his chest.

“It’s a shame, though, about Martin. Takes so long to train up a good Hole-Simpkins, and the next one’s barely a boy. I’ll almost be thankful if it proves an unnecessary task. And the Wonderbot, of course, more to the point. My fault entirely, but quite the loss nevertheless. As one artificial being to another, I can’t help feeling some affinity. I know what it’s like to be a tool. Did the selkie’s bidding in creating that girl, I’m quite sure, got his memory banks wipes for the trouble, then his head gets blown off. Not a banner decade.”

“Gutted for the lad,” Mark agreed, vaguely.

It was, he’d decided, his turn to wallow a bit. Oh, he’d made his own mistakes in life. If he’d woken up staring into the gates of hell rather than the pearly ones it would have been, y’know… tough result, but fair enough. Heads held high. We go again. Etcetera. But he hadn’t asked for this. Was it even really a second chance, if he was just a broken selkieson, with a head full of metal and second-hand memories? Was there a real boy underneath all the trappings of a hand-me-down personality? Would the friends and family of the real Mark Baker, long dead, recognise him if he could speak to them? Or was he truly Clark Laker, just a crude facsimile deluded into thinking he was anything more?

And as for this place, these people… what a sorry disappointment C&M’s future had turned out to be. Insulated within the vortex from the wider worlds, the presumed horrors of ecological collapse and warfare on who-knew-what scale, they could have used their technology to create a utopia. Instead, the Candelarians had turned to magic and prayer, superstition and religion. They were hardly the first, but surely they were safe here from the pestilence and the beasts, the droughts and the floods, that sewed panic, fear and desperation in other societies and saw them reach for false faith and enchantments?

He could see it in the eyes of those who now stared at the creature and the child, when they thought no others were watching. These people had been waiting for a sign. She’s coming back… Had that been a threat or a promise to them?

Damn them all. He shouldn’t have to care, to waste time thinking about all this. This wasn’t his world. How dare they bring him here?

He raged internally against meddlesome nuns, against Machiavellian M.O.R.T. ministers and callous Morticians. He raged against the elves, even though he was fairly sure now he’d been spirited away for his own good. Still it had been 2007, guys, seriously, you can’t just spirit people away without their consent. Not cool.

And not that internally either though, it transpired. Beneath the mass of wrinkles, the Scorpion King smiled at him again. “We may have come by different routes, my… young friend, but you and I are in the same boat.”

“So what do we do?”

“All any man can do, Mark Baker. We follow the river…”

Mark nodded. That was the thing about the river of time. You could play poohsticks in it, sure, but you couldn’t hope to dam it. Not even if you chucked in the donkey.

* * * * *

Beatrice swam unseen through the minds of the Candelarias, seeking the best word. RED appeared too non-specific; PATIENCE little meaning in this half of her domain. So she settled for the only word she could find with universal appeal.

SCORPION?

“Oh, yeah,” replied the silent thoughts of Goddess, “that’s the Scorpion King. You can tell by the big hat. He got Wonder killed, but I don’t think he really meant to. Surrogate says we should show our cheeks to those who wrong us,” she added, doubtfully.

Beatrice paused. The humanoid juvenile’s thoughts were a jumble that she could barely begin to navigate. She settled again on a single concept.

IMPORTANT?

“I… I don’t know, really. He’s just this old fan. He wasn’t even a player, not that anyone remembers. Or a manager, like they say Clark is. That’s so… weird. He’s a grandfather, but he’s also this silly stupid boy. But he’s… he’s got a body, I suppose. The Scorpion King, I mean. He gave me this shirt. Surrogate says some people can only believe in things they can see. She sort-of sniffs a bit when she says that, but I think people have to find hope where they can get it. Wonder made me after all. Not that they worship me really. The others, I mean. I’ve always known that, I think. They just followed Wonder. I don’t know what they’ll do now,” Goddess sighed. “Tread’ll want to find Linesman and… kill him, probably. There should be less killing, I think. A bit less, anyway…”

Beatrice relaxed as the juvenile’s thoughts subsided a little, her attention taken by the carved representation of a humanoid, albeit not a very good one, that currently sat in her lap. Even she could tell the head was too big, though perhaps the figurine was intended to embody a being of the genus that contained the one the juvenile called Clark. He was a puzzle in himself, an entity different to any she had encountered before, yet possessing strikingly similar thought patterns as another, otherwise wholly distinct, being. Meanwhile, the juvenile’s parents did not appear to possess thought patterns at all. She had much to learn about all these lifeforms.

A stray thought wormed its way between Goddess’ mind and her own, one she’d heard before, from the Other. She mused…

* * * * *

BECCA?

“Yes?”

TONNELIER?

“Oh, she was the best,” Rebecca enthused. “I mean, for a left-back. They don’t score much, but that doesn’t matter. Although she did sometimes,” she added, loyally, “against Rangpur, for Ariddia, her brother Yuto Takahara got the assist. She was better than him, though. Even though he scored more. She scored her first two goals for Albrecht FC against Arrigo Portuguese, both headers, but then she didn’t score again for years, until a match away at Mayo Valley in XXVIII. But she also got assists agai–”

IMPORTANT?

Rebecca gave this due consideration. She was aware that other people appeared questioning of her ability to correctly assign merit. “Yes,” she thought, anyway. “She was the first woman to play professional football in C&M. And the first to manage a team. She got old and died, and so did Candelariasian football, but before that she was definitely important. I wish we still had it. New football, new matches, new stats… There’s other countries, but that isn’t the same. And they move so fast, we can’t keep up, and no-one talks about it anymore anyway. Not even old football, really. Not kids, anyway. They look at me like I’m weird, the kids at school, and some of them eat poster paint. I just… it would be nice to have someone to talk to. Who understands that it’s… it was important. Because it was!”

TOUCH

It took some time for Rebecca to work out what was being asked of her, and thereafter she didn’t immediately move. A lot of the things her mother told her she didn’t really understand, particularly about men. She was at least dimly aware though that if a stranger asked you to touch their balls, it was wise to politely demur.

But Beatrice wasn’t a stranger now, not really, and she’d been wondering what the eggs felt like since she’d first seen them. Rebecca had a very clear list of things that felt nice to touch, and those that didn’t tended to make her angry.

She leant forward, stumbling slightly. She’d sat there for so long, legs crossed, that she was stiff all over. But she ignored the discomfort, balanced herself upright with one hand, and reached out with the other to run the tips of her fingers, and then her palm, over the cold, smooth surface of the nearest device.

* * * * *

Many years later, long after Rebecca Rohaert and her children and her children’s children had died, Goddess frowned. She’d placed the bobblehead reverentially to rest by her side, and placed a hand upon one of the Beatrice’s eggs as requested. She wondered what she was supposed to feel.

Just as she was about to remove it again, she got her answer. There were words in her head, distant but clear, more than mere noises but their intended meanings lost on her. They were not etched into the walls of her mind’s eye like those of Beatrice, but nor were they conventional sounds entering her body from beyond.

They sounded more like her own thoughts, if anything, but it was as though another girl had set up camp somewhere in the recesses of her mind, and was calling out.

Hello? Hello, is that… is someone there…?

Goddess dutifully flicked her bean, but as she’d expected the words failed to make any further sense. They bypassed her ears completely, rendering the speaking bean useless. But, though she couldn’t pick out more than the odd recognisable term here or there, Surrogate and Wonder had taught her well enough. She couldn’t speak Old, but she could recognise the cadence.

With a hand still rested upon the device, she turned her stiff neck to look back behind her. Her eyes impatiently flicked away passing Morticians and scrubs, until they came to rest on the person she’d been looking for.

“Offering!” Goddess called out to the far side of the room, “I think this is for you!”

* * * * *

The reader is invited to consider the angler fish.

You know the ones, surely? Ugly little chaps, eyes like moons, teeth like razors, doobry sticking out of its forehead with a light on the end. Fucking mental things.

But not, in point of fact, actual chaps, at least not most of them. Sisters can be bug-eyed and toothy for themselves, after all. You never seen the Princesses of York? No, in many species of this order, the males are atrophied little sods who know nothing more in life than swimming around looking for a female. Once they find one, they bite onto her backside and secrete an enzyme that dissolves its own jaw. Two become one, or in some cases half a dozen become one, the male becoming part slave, part parasite as it sacrifices its autonomy and nervous system alike. It loses its heart, its face, its brain, until there’s nothing left but a pair of furious fishy gonads. It’s like being married really, eh fellas, am I right? Like I say though, mental as anything. Couldn’t make it up. Does my nut in.

And then there’s axolotls, you know? And fish that live in the arseholes of sea cucumbers and feast on their genitals. Tongue-eating isopods. Praying mantises, and caterpillars, actual caterpillars, I mean they’re just ridiculous. Lizards that cry blood, I mean that’s nothing really. Penis fencing, think about it! Penis. Actual. Fencing.

The point of raising all this is that, on that giant superearth we call the Earth, Life will find a way, and as often as not that way is extremely silly. And alien life, well that’s just going to be unimaginably odd, isn’t it? Unless you are an alien, obviously, in which case it’s perfectly imaginable. Except for your equivalent of angler fish and… Look, you get the point.

What I’m saying is, if the following load of old balls strikes you as a tiddly bit unlikely, to the extent that it totes ruins your immersion, we-ell… check your privilege, frankly. Might be a bit different if you had a light coming out the front of your head and a pearlfish had just gnawed off your nutsack.

A long, long time ago, in a spiral arm you ain’t about to reach by tram, there was a planet wracked by an eternal storm, winds that made those generated by the Gordon Bay Vortex feel like the most gentle summer breeze. Those perambulatory, silicate lifeforms that evolved within its crust and dug their way with tooth and claw to the surface found a world without the predation inherent in their underground biomes and a near uniform coverage of juicy magnesium mosses, or something, I’m really just spitballing here, but a whole new set of challenges. Such were the winds that cloaked this world, one’s pointy bits and floppy bits seldom lasted long before they were blown off. This was not a place to come equipped with a doobry with a light on the end.

And so it came to pass in this place that being smooth became the way forward, and in due course nature ushered in an age of balls. The spheroid reigned supreme. Some were light, and adapted to spend their existences floating amongst the clouds of, Jesus I don’t know, pick something, tetrafluorosilane. Others sailed through the sky, others still rolled endlessly across the plains. Those that fed upon the mosses beneath their fee… their selves, themselves, were in turn hunted – more by lucky ricochets than great predatory aptitude – by bigger balls still.

And then… then one species learned to harness the temporal rivers to which most forms of life are but balls in the wind. Their skills in this department were not without limit, and required a great deal of energy, but still routinely proved a quite literal lifesaver. At the moment a particularly fearsome ball, having caught you napping as you rolled your way to new feeding grounds, closed its… jaws?, sure, why not?, its jaws around you… suddenly, that event had instead taken place yesterday. And you weren’t there to be eaten yesterday. Conceivably another member of your species might have been, and been caught on the hop, or bounce, without the energy to piss in time’s river, but, hey, sucks to be them. Rather more likely, it was a member of another species who got themselves ingested. And so the balls of time thrived. Speciation occurred. And certain spheres became pretty damned smart.

What happened next? Couldn’t tell you, not for sure. Perhaps some of these semi-sapient spheres were harvested by some passing aliens and became curiosities, weapons, culinary delights, pets and the like, on their own homeworld. Or perhaps the Creature arrived on the planet of the balls directly, on its long journey through space. However it happened… a most peculiar form of symbiosis occurred.

A ball of time – perhaps just one, perhaps thousands – became an egg. Perhaps it took a generation, perhaps ten thousand. Perhaps it needed the guiding hand of an outside intelligence. Whichever, each ball’s internal systems were rearranged to allow the presence of the young of the Creature to grow within in it, just as its own young had once done. This egg, however, did not nourish the foetus within – no, the foetus nourished the egg, with its own blood laced with chronotons, or… just go with it, honestly, not long now. And inside the foetus… grew balls, to be laid in the distant future, or perhaps indeed the past, wherein new Creatures would grow, and eventually pass on the appropriate units of heredity of both disparate lifeforms. The spheres, for their part, had no need to feed anymore, no need to roll. Should they and their sable fledgling cargo be threatened, they would simply change the passage of history, so that it had never happened. United as a clutch, their power was enriched tenfold. They feared none, and spent their lives in situ, thinking circular thoughts.

All the mature Creature needed to do, meanwhile, was to find somewhere safe to lay their young, and their young’s rotund protectors.

And that was no easy challenge, for the Creature would discover that the galaxy was filled to bursting with species not only very interested in the abilities of both species, but also in many cases capable of harnessing such power to their own ends. There existed a myriad others ways to achieve effective time travel, of course, should you actually want to dabble in such dangerous science, most of them by artificial means. But the spheres had the advantage – or disadvantage, from the perspective of the spheres themselves – of being pretty, of being cool mystical orbs, and of being silica-based and thus readily integrated into computer systems. Some species, at least at first glance, might even have mistaken the spheres for something artificial themselves, for being a mere device. Certain nations, inheriting the means to operate the spheres from another, but lacking any real understanding of their manufacture, could only have wondered at the secrets lying within these eggshell light yet virtually indestructible artefacts.

The fools.

* * * * *

The Creature reeled through the thin air of this strange, blue world. She was tired, weighted down by her developing young. She should have laid a long time ago, but nowhere in this galaxy was safe enough for her kind. Curse these bipeds!

She flew over oceans, over deserts and mountains. And some… some seemed safe. But she fluttered her wings and swam back and forth down the rivers of time, and sooner or later there they were: these aggressors, those who had exploited so many of her kin, these small-bodied, small-minded, blackhearted little beings. The most concealed of mountaintops would in due course become desert, or have been so before, and there they would be. Some native to this world, she supposed, some interlopers themselves. Some without minds she could even penetrate. All wicked. All dangerous. All a threat.

And yet, as she wheeled over one anonymous collection of little islands… she paused. This was curious. They looked like any other in this land – the same valleys and rivers, much the same grass and animals. But there were no bipeds. Not one. On other islands nearby there lived vast hives of them, but here… nothing.

She had so little strength left now, but with maternal fervour she dove back into the temporal eddies, and kept her head above water as best she could. Back and forth she rode the waves, the islands changing all the while – a passing glacier here, a forest that came and went, deserts that did the same. Megafauna lived and died… but never were there bipeds to hunt them. These islands, alone amongst the multitude, remained silent of their babble, their machines, their weapons of war, their ignorance. Forever. Very strange… but what a gift!

The Creature selected a point on the river without too much in the way of giant shrews or fearsome swans, when the atmosphere was clean, when the temperature was neither freezing nor boiling. And finally, gratefully, she laid her eggs.

* * * * *

So. That was a swamp, was it? Not an experience Ka’hal felt he particularly wanted to repeat, but that was okay because there were so very many experiences where that came from. This world appeared to offer near infinite opportunities for getting oneself killed in memorable ways, and several of his kin had already managed just that, but if you survived… oh, the wonders were multitude!

He hadn’t felt nearly so grateful at first. The yellow ball that hung in the great blue expanse above had hurt his eyes, and the expanse itself offered terrors all of its own. In the realm in which Ka’hal had been born and had assumed he would die, there was if nothing else the certain comfort provided by the oozing ceilings of the warren of caverns that was their home, layers upon layers, ultimately reaching up to one such that couldn’t be passed. Here, it had felt as though a person only had to jump to risk being lighted away upon the breeze, up amongst the birds and into the lap of the gods beyond.

But as the days had worn on he and his fellow pioneers had learnt to love the warmth of the sun, the shapes its rays made as they played amongst the leaves of the forests. And the food! It made one weep for those who had died without stepping foot in this paradise and tasting such succulence. Their promised land…

In truth, he’d never really believed it existed. The elders had told such stories, but as far as Ka’hal had been concerned they were merely that – stories. Faerie tales. The corrupted recollections of distant generations. He still half wondered if he hadn’t been correct in his cynicism, given that this new world exceeded the promise of the storytellers’ sagas in almost every way. They had told of vast layers of caverns, not fashioned from maggots but of human manufacture. But there was no sign of such edifices, nor any clue that people had ever stepped foot in this land before. Perhaps time, and the forest, and the rain, and that was a whole new experience in itself, had simply buried or washed away the remnants of civilizations past.

They’d all been terrified of the rain when it had first come, huddling under their inexpertly fashioned shelter lest a single drop fall upon their faces and they be sent back into the old realm. But it soon became apparently that the magiks only worked for certain waters – a cascade here, stagnant pool there – and that which fell in great sheets from the everlasting blue presented little threat. Sometimes in recent days, Ka’hal would stand out in the open beneath it, face turned up to the heavens, catching droplets on his tongue. That it felt refreshing only underlined how spoiled his people had already become here, for the very air in which they walked was already like nothing he’d ever dreamed. The storytellers had claimed that the atmosphere of this world was brown, and choking, but it was anything but. It made that of the caverns seem stale by comparison. It all seemed quite the conspiracy now, and Ka’hal knew he wasn’t the only one to wonder if more than one of his predecessors hadn’t stumbled across a reliable fluidic passageway between the two realms before, only to heed the stories of the old country’s downfall and opt for the security and familiarity of the caverns instead. What fools they’d been, if so!

What was for certain was this: nothing and no-one was going to send Ka’hal and his people back from whence they had come. This was their realm now. Coílín the Seer’s people had returned to claim their birthright.

Perhaps other people would come and try to take it from them, in time, and Ka’hal knew he would fight tooth and nail to stop them if so. They were out there, for sure. On the clearest of days, from the highest vantage points, plumes of smoke could be seen from the distant isles far to the south. Planks of fashioned wood had been found along the shoreline, another indication that there were toolmakers in the world beyond. But his people had already tramped a fair portion of this island over the past weeks, and had found no sign of anyone here. It seemed bizarre, given what plenty there was, and at first there had been a certain disappointment among some of his kin that they appeared to be alone. Ka’hal didn’t join those of his compatriots who speculated aloud as to the nature of the women they might find in the world beyond. There were plenty of his people’s own women to share this bounty with.

Not that they were entirely alone, as the unaccustomed cycle of day and night had soon brought home to them. Every one of his kind knew the story, of how his people had fled their supposedly dying world and come to the caverns of the daemon realm, and had wrested it from the foul beings that called it home. The daemons had to have gone somewhere, so they came here. But the nightmares… the nightmares were a small price to pay, Ka’hal thought. The great honking white things that stalked the land by day were altogether scarier, in his view. They called them the stepdaughters – from a legend far older than even the flight into the daemon realm, so it was said – and Ka’hal thought it a good name. Having to live amongst these unwanted creatures was just part of the dowry that came with accepting the hand of this beautiful world.

Until they could get around to slaughtering every last one of them, anyway. Ka’hal felt that…

He paused mid-thought and mid-step, and looked around hurriedly. “Lo’orca?” he called out, “‘Enia?”. He heard one reply in the distance, but he knew full well that the figure laying on the ground a few metres away wasn’t either of his friends, nor any of his kin at all. Still sodden with swamp extract, he pottered cautiously forward. “Hello..?”

To his surprise the round little man proved to be alive, though evidently very weak. He was scarred, clearly of great age, and sported a straggly grey beard. He replied to Ka’hal in a voice like the rustle of leaves, but he could make no sense of it. As he approached closer he could see that, despite the balmy weather, the stranger was shaking slightly, though rather than put his arms around himself for warmth they were crossed at some distance in front of himself, as though he had been until recently embracing some equally squat object or being and hadn’t yet noticed that it had wriggled from his clinch and scampered off.

Despite the oddness of all this, Ka’hal was excited. This was the first human – or something close to human, at least – from outside their realm that any of his people had spoken to in generations. And he had stumbled upon him! The honour!

“Are you… are you hurt, sir? Can I help..? What’s your name? What is this land’s name, sir?” he added, questions tumbling out of him now. If only the little man could understand him!

The figure, still prone but with his head tilted towards Ka’hal and blinking feebly at him, groaned. “Ugh… Rz-Mr,” he said, weakly, and shut his eyes.

* * * * *

There are those who believe that the course of human history is largely dictated upon the whims of the Wandy, a race of giant walruses. Others go further still, and claim that the Wandy control the very universe itself.

In fact, they are merely interested observers. It is the case, however, that the Wandy are the only species in the universe to derive nourishment, not to say quasi-sexual ecstasy, from consuming bootstrap paradoxes.

And from their celestial vantage point overlooking all that ever was and will ever be, the Wandy watched proceedings in the Candelarias keenly, and wanked themselves senseless.

* * * * *

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[OOC: Thanks to those readers, and I appreciate my chutzpah in employing the plural there, who were mad/bored/kind enough to plough through this old twaddle. And thanks and apologies to the numerous NSers both extant and otherwise whose characters and concepts I shamelessly, and in several cases shamefully, magpied for my own purposes.

Signing off now to focus on RL crap for a bit, but hope to be back proper in some capacity in a while. Or another decade, possibly. Laters.]
The Republic of Candelaria And Marquez
Our national sports team have won some international tournaments

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