1. one who lives near another.
2. one who shows kindliness or helpfulness toward another: to be a neighbor to someone in distress.
The morning's mists curled across the wasteland. They wove through shattered tree trunks and uprooted stumps. They slid down the mountainside, past skeletal remnants of cities long gone. In time, they crawled along the floor of the valley... filling the back and forth sequence of recessed pits that had formed overnight. The tracks of the prey.
The prey (because to think of it as predator was to give in to the fear it sought in them) had lurched its way steadily to the north and east, moving at a fair clip, for the last three days. It was tireless, unceasing, unpausing. The prey never slept. If it had, this task set before them wouldn't have required nearly as much effort, after all.
Moving silently as always, the equally tireless hunters shifted along with the mysterious beast, flanking it. For hundreds of miles they had tracked it, waiting for the right moment to strike. Patience was the key in the hunt... waiting until the spirits of nature provided you the leverage needed to tilt battle in your favor.
The great spirits must have been smiling that day, for fortune favored the hunters. A wide open expanse... lined by the remnants of buildings. Mists to fill the groundswell, to hide their numbers. Despite being as restless as they were deadly, the beasts were typically sluggish in the morning hours, as the rising sun gave favor to those who would no longer be prey to the terrible monsters that roamed these lands. Morning light in the eyes. Morning mists about its feet.
Two teams struck immediately, without need to signal the start of the event. The oral tradition handed down the methods needed to the hunt; the rest they could feel in the blood and bone. Arrows and primitive firearms discharged from both sides, peppering the massive bulk of the enemy.
Its roar of pain was so great that it echoed for miles and miles around, a blast of sound which would pour fear in the hearts of lesser men. It did nothing to the hunters... and, in fact, aided them greatly. The pain-cry masked the sound of the third team, the ones who scaled the buildings, using them as a launch-point to leap for the beast itself.
Most of them were unable to find a handhold on the creature's ragged hide. Several fell to their deaths. They would be buried with honor by the end of the day.
The successful ones, they used every skill both natural and supernatural (one of the many gifts of the prey) to climb the beast. The distraction teams kept up the pressure, kept the monster's pain receptors busy with their ineffective attacks, kept it swiping at them with serrated claw and stepping on them with feet the size of houses. Again, many died. But they died so that the silent ones could continue their climb.
Moments after the attack began, five foot blades were slammed into the back of the creature's neck, and pulled in unison to sever its spine.
A minute later, when the rest of the kaiju realized it was dead, the prey fell to the ground. Earth cracked and the sky roared with its impact. After that... silence.
There was no celebration, of course. This was a murder, and not a joyous occasion at all. The priest, who had waited behind with the juniors who had come along to observe the hunt, had an hour of ritual to perform begging the creature's forgiveness and thanking it for the bounty that was to come. If not, the kaiju would no doubt return as a vengeful ghost, to bring swift retribution upon those who had wronged it.
With the hunt complete and the apology accepted, half the men stayed to guard their claim from enemy villages, while the other half returned home.
Within a week, the village had relocated around the corpse of the fallen prey. After all, the task of carving up the body to repurpose every part of it was as enormous in scope as the creature itself. Muscles would become meat; blood would go into the potions the priestesses brewed for young hunters, to make them as swift and tireless as the enemy. Organs would be harvested to make other potions. Bones and skins for building structures. No TROPHIES were taken, of course... only materials that would keep the village alive until the next hunt.
There was one critical difference to this hunt, however.
A young harvester had brought the silver egg-shaped object to the village elder's attention. It was found in the great creature's stomach, and yet, hadn't been digested even slightly. After a few moments prodding at the device... it came to life.
The spirit within the egg summoned itself forth, and began to speak in a dialect common in the southern villages known as kansai-ben. (Likely, the place where the kaiju had originally consumed the egg.) Its words were lost at first, amidst the cries of surprise and alarm, frightened reactions... soothed away by the gentle words and promises the young priestess's ghost spoke of. Her plaintive speech repeated soon after, in a loop... followed by a similar speech, delivered by the ghost of an older man, who claimed to be from a neighboring land, working with the 'queen' they had just listened to...
Deciding what to do, how to respond to these spirits was not a decision they could make themselves. It would require consideration from the wisest of their lands.
This was known for years to follow as the Four Great Nations Meeting, and would forever reshape the destiny of the latter day islands of Nippon.
the second age
by stefan gagne
My name is Queen Emily, of the Faerie. This message was sent to you in peace, in an effort to learn more about you, and for you to learn more about us.
For two hundred years, this world has been shrouded in mystery and misfortune. Wars and despair. We've known more than our fair share of both, as no doubt many who hear this message have as well. Only now are we starting to come out of that dark age, into a time of peace and prosperity. Within our borders, we have reached mutual understanding between old enemies, and are now cooperating in this effort to reach out to you, to meet new neighbors across the world stage.
We do not seek conquest. We do not seek what is yours. All we want is to establish lines of communication, so that we can know more of one another. In time, we are hoping that will lead to friendship, and perhaps mutual support. There's no need to go it alone as you have these last centuries; we can work towards bringing this world together.
If you are interested in talking with representatives from our shores, press the button on the top of this machine five times. That way, we can talk to you and see you through this machine, and vice versa. We will also send our Welcome Wagon, a small diplomatic envoy, to visit you and to learn more about you. We hope to hear from you soon. Message repeats.
Hello. I hope this finds you in good health. My name is President William Petersen, President of the United States of America. This message was sent to you in peace...
It was probably bad form to bring your daughter to work on the first day of a new job. Having a five year old playing in the room while discussing matters of national security wouldn't fly with her new superiors... but that didn't stop Agent Elisa Morales from fidgeting as she waited for her briefing, all the while wondering if little Maria would really be okay with her nanny today.
The girl had gotten used to living in New Orleans. She started out as a blank slate, a refugee from the cursed lands of South America... she still missed her daddy, true, but the wonders of her new city had given her a chance to remake herself. She'd grown to be a precocious and happy five year old, one who clapped along to elven jazz music, and couldn't get enough of the Cold Fun the Orbitals had brought along with them. All of those delights they had to leave behind when mommy Elisa got her marching orders, when Agent Morales was reassigned to Florida.
Now, they were living in compound housing, with astromages and NASA technicians. No other kids her age, elven or human. Nothing for dear Maria to do but play with her toys in a corner of their new apartment. At least Elisa had managed to get Helen, her confidant and the girl's nanny, to come along with them. (Even in New Orleans, Elisa had too many duties as an Eastusa representative in the Faerie Court to be home as often as she wanted to be.) A small amount of familiarity, to help the girl transition...
...and now, within a few days, she'd be blasting off into orbit in some hypertech space shuttle. Spending even more time away from her new little family.
Duty. It was duty, Agent Morales reminded herself.
She'd been hand selected by President Petersen for this role, despite the objections. After all, the generals reasoned, if Elisa was selected then the team would have three women and one man, which clearly wasn't what-- and then the objections silenced themselves. Because once you start complaining about women's roles in society, much less those of the interracial lesbian couple that was already green lit for this project, things got controversial. The generals hated controversy as much as they secretly hated that the Welcome Wagon wasn't a fully armed platoon of Frontliner good ol' boys, ready to gun down their new neighbors at the slightest provocation.
Both Petersen and Emily knew this mission had to be handled delicately, with great tact. But Petersen, in a nod to the naysayers, wanted to make sure that someone with conventional combat experience was along for the ride. Agent Elisa Morales was the complete package... compassionate, caring, AND an expert marksman with experience dealing with unknown powers (from her time in the FACT Team, which evolved into the Anachronism Task Force). Apparently that outweighed the drawback of having three dainty little girls on a diplomatic mission, because, well... here she was.
In a dingy NASA waiting room, outside Mission Control. A rebuilt structure that apparently had been tailored by elven nostalgia junkies to look like a 1960s office, right down to the terrible brown and orange color schemes. From the taste of it, the coffee might've also been a two hundred year old relic.
"You should really try the sweetener."
Elisa snapped out of her inward frame of mind, as the suggestion was made. It took a quick scan of the room, left, right, AND down before she figured out who was talking to her.
He was a merry looking fellow, with a wilted hat that once was quite pointy, and a beard of white tangles that vaguely resembled an albino patch of moss. If not for the modern white lab coat with embroidered NASA logo, she'dve wondered why a children's storybook was talking to her, and if maybe she'd been way too fixated on Maria lately.
"Here," the man said, waving a small purple paper packet at her. "Sugar. Well. It's supposed to be refined sugar, but the elves can't help but add a few things. No, simply can't help it. It's quite, ah, tasty, even if I don't know what's in it. And as the Official Court Know-It-All, when I don't know something, it must be special knowledge indeed! Very special."
"Ahh... it's safe, right?" Elisa asked, gingerly accepting the packet of 'sugar'.
"Oh, quite safe, quite! We don't allow any mind-altering substances during work hours. Nary a one. Interferes with productivity," he said. "Although believe me, the elves can really party after-- oh! I didn't introduce myself, did I? I didn't, no. Sorry, apologies. Wheedle Q. Cogpolisher. From your confused look I assume you don't know what I am, what I am in a sense of genus, species, phylum? Quite alright, no offense taken, none at all. I'm a gnome. I know things. It's my official role. Gnomes are good at knowing things."
"Mr. Cogpolisher," she recognized, from her briefing dossier. She leaned forward in her seat, so she could shake hands with him at his level. "The head of the Welcome Wagon project. It's good to meet you. I'm Agent Morales."
"The human warrior, yes, I know. Well. Not a warrior, not a Frontliner, but the combat specialist. Not that all you do is kill people, of course, that's not what we need or want, but-- I'm getting off track, aren't I? Yes, I am. Ah. It does make a lot of sense, honestly, we have a Frontliner in the team, but he's just our navigator, our pilot. Having a tactician, that's simply good sense, and I'm all for it. You are welcome, Agent Elisa Morales, quite welcome! So. You know the program already, then, do you?"
"The Welcome Wagon is our attempt to reach out to civilizations across the world," she recited, nearly word for word from her earlier reading. "Announced in a NASA press conference at the Florida Peace Conference, a joint effort by the Faerie Court, the United States of America, and the Orbitals. Beacons carrying messages of peace were sent to promising leads, as judged by ElfStar satellite observation, and our task is to meet with representatives across the world to start the communication process."
"Exactly! And it's not entirely true that you're going to be subjected to deadly peril every time!"
"--wait, what?" she asked, broken out of recitation mode.
"Wellll... the... first forays have not quite met with projected success expectations," Wheedle tried to explain without explaining. "We've had three runs so far. And I should say, in your favor, that your predecessor was not nearly as highly recommended as you were! When they found his remains, well, I should say the remains of his remains--"
"I think I need to see the logs of prior missions, if you don't mind," Agent Morales said in a Very Insistent Tone. Which was powered in part by her displeasure at finding out that the eternally smiling president of the free world had left a few details out before she agreed to this...
"Er. Right. I mean. They're probably not top secret, I mean, this is an open atmosphere of inter-team communication," the gnome mumbled away. "So. I'll see about that. Um. Although we do have a mission planned for tomorrow, you see, and I'm not sure I could get the files assembled prior to--"
"Tomorrow? Hold on. I was under the impression we had a few days before my first mission..."
"Well, that was the plan, but there's an exciting opportunity!" he said, with considerably more cheer. "We, I mean, the team, they wanted to go ahead without you since we'd been waiting awhile to hear back from Japan and we just got the signal weeks after sending the bacon, well, that's not relevant, not sure why I brought it up, but ah yes, they just got back from from that mission this morning and we've already got a real pickle of a situation with the Moscow beacon that Una's eager to look into, so... um... long story short, too-long-didn't-read, are you free tomorrow, Agent Elisa Morales?"
Hours flew by in a whirlwind of activity. None of that activity actually involved her, however.
She'd tried to stay out of their way... the elves, gnomes, and humans that rushed about doing science-y things. None of them had time to chit-chat, not with another mission coming up so soon. Apparently the weather mages had determined a midmorning launch would be best for the craft due to atmospheric window shifts, or some other thing Agent Morales knew absolutely nothing of.
At best, Elisa could observe the process, without being able to get involved. She was only here because Petersen wanted her to be here, and apparently to replace the last Eastusa representative, of whom no one was willing to speak. She couldn't load the strange 'Mass Capacitors' they were porting around, couldn't help plot the trajectory for launch and landing. Her job was to be there midmorning, and that was that.
There was no sign of her crewmates, either. According to the few scurrying scientists she could pin down, Una and Nel were 'busy' and whoever this 'Louis' was, he valued his privacy and was terrifying enough that nobody felt like pointing the way to his quarters. The first time she'd meet her teammates would be on the launch pad, again... at midmorning.
By dinner time, she gave up, and simply took whatever files she could get on the Moscow welcoming beacon with her to dinner. She memorized them while eating surprisingly pleasant elven food off of nasty plastic cafeteria platters. Elisa had an uncanny ability store text in her mind... not a photographic memory, and often she had trouble matching names to faces, but text was easy enough. With Moscow and some spicy noodles in her belly, it was time to go back to her quarters and play with Maria.
Sleep came easily that night. You got sleep where and when you could, when on assignment. The worry for Maria's safety while she was gone remained but didn't cut into her ability to drift away. (Worry for her own personal safety, well... you worry too much about that, and you may have trouble doing your job.)
And so, by eleven in the morning, she found herself strapped into a seat deep within in a shiny wedge of metal.
Agent Morales had seen examples of Orbital technology before... in photographs, as part of the ATF's dossier on Orbital culture. Cameras never did their hypertech justice. You can't catch the beauty of it unless you're there, seeing the way light plays off the liquid silver surfaces... flowing and reflecting and glinting in the early daylight. Even in what one NASA representative had called "a hack job of various technologies" they'd managed to craft something so elegant that Elisa could imagine the skies gently parting to let them through.
Inside was another matter. For example, the seats. NASA had insisted on basic buckle-down safety harnesses, with industrial strength buckles manufactured in the Twin Cities. The Fae had insisted on spider-silk woven straps to ensure maximum comfort. The Orbitals had insisted on using their oddly comfortable reactive metals for the seat backs. Everything in the ship was a mash of cultures... some gritty and modern, some elegant and delicate, some abstract and chromatic. Presumably, it all worked out in the end.
More importantly, as she sat on the tarmac waiting for the weather mages to give the "all clear" for takeoff, she could finally SEE her crew.
Una and Nel were legendary, of course. Particularly Una.
Una was involved in the romp which landed Emily in the hot seat as Queen of Faerie. Una was responsible for taking down the criminal that had spearheaded the conspiracy behind the Pandora Event. (That little fact was top secret, but being a chosen one of the President had its advantages.) Una was a compassionate leader, a veteran of several exploration campaigns, and the de facto commander of the mission.
And yet, she was only in her mid twenties. So much experience already, dealing with the tangled messes the FBI had to train agents for years to deal with. The fact that she could still retain a smile after the things she'd seen was impressive in and of itself.
Nelliwyn Myfanwy was less documented in FBI files. She was in there as "Fae representative to the Orbitals, controversial lesbian wife of Una." That left a sour taste in Elisa's mind, turning the word over, wishing whoever wrote the dossier hadn't felt it important to tag CONTROVERSIAL LEEEESBIAAAAN onto her. Nothing about her seemed that controversial; she chatted mostly with Una about light and leisurely topics, while they waited for takeoff.
Granted, Nel was apparently one of the most gifted illusion mages seen in generations -- to the point where the High Fae unofficially considered her an 'Illusion Fae,' some new stripe of noble bloodline, just to avoid admitting that a common elf could accomplish what she had accomplished. That was a talent not to be underestimated, and one Elisa would have to take into consideration when approaching the mission.
As for Louis...
...he hadn't said a word since Elisa got to her seat. Hadn't even looked away from his paperback book. No dossier on him; raw observation said mid thirties, distant African-American origins, well-kept short Frontliners haircut, corrective lens surgery with implanted bifocals given how he shifted his focus whenever glancing at the runway and back to his book.
"Latency Compensation and Drone Combat," Elisa read aloud.
Pilot Louis (as all Frontliners held simple role descriptor prefixes in addition to rank) ignored her.
"You've done a lot of drone piloting, then?" she asked, trying again to initiate conversation. "Observational drones or combat drones? I'd assume there's not much use for dogfighting these days--"
"Wild wyverns. They'll eat anything they see in the air. Hardware costs money, so, shoot 'em down, peace treaty or not."
And... nothing more. Turning pages, ignoring the world. For their part, Una and Nel were talking away in the seats behind her, having apparently long since given up on trying to engage their pilot in chat.
Okay. So. Being friendly wasn't working. Perhaps being adversarial would work better...
"Pilots don't get much respect in the Frontliners, huh?" she asked. "Doing simple cargo runs, or flying remote drones from basecamp. I've heard--"
"My job is to get you there and back, alive and in one piece," Louis spoke, without looking up. "That doesn't mean I have to chit-chat. Let me do my job and you do yours."
"...alright," Elisa agreed, settling back into her seat. "I was just trying to be friendly. I meant no offense."
"I don't need to know you and you don't need to know me. As long as we do what we do best, everything will work out fine. --Pilot Louis to tower, I copy," he spoke, this time into his headset microphone, pressing one finger to the plastic TRANSMIT button. "The Welcome Wagon is ready to fly. You may want to hold on."
Before Elisa could ask what she was supposed to hold onto, they were in the sky.
Her poetic assumption that the skies would lovingly part for their graceful craft was completely off. Immediately, everything in the cockpit began vibrating and rattling around, as disagreeing technologies clattered against each other. Inertia pressed her back into her seat, where the Orbital metals pressed in around her, cushioning her, a small comfort as the buckled harness had begun pinching...
Blue skies, fading to black. A sick feeling in her stomach, that she was falling, falling forever...
"Low earth orbit achieved," Louis reported back to tower. "Welcome Wagon beginning arc towards target destination. Arrival in Moscow, fifteen minutes. --don't throw up. We used up the last of the little paper bags a week ago."
Outer space. I'm in outer space. I'm an astronaut now... Elisa thought, the thoughts floating away with her stomach.
"It's quite a sight, isn't it?"
Una was leaning forward, just over Elisa's shoulder... but her eyes were on the windshield ahead, at the oddly non-twinkly stars.
"I used to wake up to this every day," she said. "And it never lost its wonder for me. Hi. Sorry we didn't have more time to talk before; I'm Una point zero one of Arcology #A076..."
"Ahh... Agent Elisa Morales." Keep breakfast down. Keep breakfast down.
"You're going to be just fine," Una promised. "The Welcome Wagon project has had a few, ah, hitches, but I think we're getting the hang of this now. It's not that hard... just be friendly and nonthreatening. We're the first outsiders many of these people have seen. It's a bit scary for them, but I like to believe that with patience and kindness, we can find a mutual understanding... don't you agree?"
"I'd like to think that," Elisa replied, focusing on the conversation to keep the nausea at bay. "But my job here is to defend the team and advise you in any conflict situation. I would greatly enjoy not needing to perform that role... with the understanding that you'll let me take point if our lives are in danger."
"Absolutely. I trust you got the, ah, ammunition we sent to you...?"
The clip had felt empty, when Elisa weighed it in her hand that morning. There were metal cased bullets in it, yes, but... other than the metal from the standard issue agency ammo clip, there was no heft to it.
"Nonlethal against all normal human targets," Una explained. "The rounds cause an energy burst on impact. They're, well, a bit expensive, what with the microscopic Mass Capacitors in each one, but we felt it was worth expending our limited resources on them. To avoid any tragic incidents."
"And... if we encounter non-human targets, I brought an armor piercing clip. Just in case."
"Err, right. I also have my blaster, and Nel is very effective in indirect combat," Una said. "But I'd like to think that at least once, it won't come to that!"
"At least once...? Wait, you mean you've never--"
"We're getting better at this by the day!" Una insisted. "We nearly had an understanding in Japan. In fact, I have all confidence that on a return visit, we can smooth out the wrinkles. It would've gone perfectly if not for, well, the incident with the elder's daughter and the cow. In our defense, the cow was unusually aggressive."
Should've brought more ammo, Elisa groaned inwardly.
Another voice joined in... with Una's elven wife leaning forward, trying to smooth things over with Elisa better than they managed to smooth things over in Asia.
"You have to understand... this world was purposefully set in perpetual combat," Nelliwyn explained. "Put on the edge of a knife, in hopes it would topple over, or cut itself apart. We are bound to see misery and despair everywhere we go, even carrying a message of peace. Only recently were the Fae able to relax their war footing, and start thinking about a life without that endless tension. All thanks to one person trying to make a difference! Until someone takes the first step to making things better for everyone, nothing will improve."
"Right! And this time? Well, this one could be our best mission yet!" Una insisted. "Moscow seems to be thriving, a center for humanity at peace! We've done some ElfStar observation passes to confirm, and the city is fully populated and in good repair. No armies, no disasters, no mutations, nothing strange at all!"
"Except that nobody's responded to the welcome beacon yet," Agent Morales recalled from her memorized dossier.
"Well... no, but... it might be they haven't noticed it yet."
"It landed in the middle of Red Square, ma'am. The camera can see passers by striding right past the recorded image of Queen Emily and President Petersen without paying any attention to it."
"There may be a language barrier problem," Una rationalized. "Language can shift quite a bit in two hundred years and Eastusa's documentation on Russian wasn't perfect. I'm sure once we touch down, and Nel can study their language long enough, we'll be able to communicate just fine! I mean, what could possibly go wrong?"
Cold and cloudy afternoon in Moscow.
Central to the city, and some would say central to the entire nation, was Red Square. The great history of Russia and the brief-lived Soviet Union surrounded it... the tomb of Lenin, the majestic cathedral of Saint Basil. Stores and shops also lined the square, with shoppers going to and fro, bundled up in coats to cut down on the chill of the day. Hundreds of people, in fact, including tourists who were busy snapping photographs of the city on their cellphone cameras, which was quite interesting given there was nowhere for them to be touring FROM, and the roaming charges were quite extensive for tapping into a 4G network from two hundred years into the future.
Still. Business as usual, nothing out of the ordinary.
The silver beacon which had embedded itself in the pavement continued to ramble on in ancient Russian about peace and camaraderie across the borders of all nations. Nobody paid it any attention.
Nobody paid attention when the equally silver wedge shaped spaceship slowly drifted out of the clouds, and landed right in the middle of Red Square.
Departure hatch opened, ramp extended.
The ambassadors of the Welcome Wagon made their appearance, and nobody paid any mind. Una zero point one stepped to the forefront, alongside Nelliwyn Myfanwy. Agent Elisa Morales stayed behind them, keeping a cautious eye on the apathetic crowd. Which did not cast an eye back in return.
Una was starting to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable about this. Her prepared speech greeting the good people of Moscow, about how she came in the spirit of friendship, all of that was lost in the confusion. The best she managed was:
"Erm, excuse me...?"
Moscow stopped moving. Every man, woman and child halted in their tracks.
Every neck in the city, including ones attached to people in buildings miles away who couldn't have known was going on, rotated to face the ship.
And the screaming began.
Over ten million mouths, all screaming in perfect unison. One terrifying note of human agony, pouring out of jaws that seemed to drop so far as to unhinge. Never stopping for breath. Never pausing. Never taking their eyes off the newcomers, screaming, constantly screaming...
Agent Morales was pulling the women back into the spaceship, fighting the urge to wipe away the blood trickling from her ears, while Pilot Louis was initiating an emergency hatch closure.
"Get buckled in! We are getting the hell out of here!" Elisa shouted at the top of her lungs, voice barely registering as whisper even to her own damaged ears. "MOVE! Louis, start the engines--"
"No, no-- NO! Wait!" Una insisted, pulling back against the arm that was trying to pull her away. "Wait! Just... wait. Look. Look out there!"
Through the tiny window in the hatch, through the soundproofing which thankfully cut out the roar of ten million screaming Russians... they still stood there. Still screaming. Still staring.
But not moving.
Una ignored Nel, as she tried to wipe away the blood, just as she ignored the pain in her head. "They aren't attacking!" Una shouted back. "They're just... screaming. Crying out. We aren't in danger. We don't have to leave!"
"Aren't in danger? An entire city stopping to yell at us isn't dangerous? They aren't human! Do you see anybody taking a breath out there to refill those lungs?" Elisa asked, gesturing. "They're... I don't know. Throwbacks. Copies. Doppelgangers, like Seattle...? Either way, this is hardly a warm welcome, and we are risking the mission every moment we stay--"
"We just need to find a way to communicate with them," Una insisted, talking quieter now, as she recovered from the decibel blast. "Maybe they're just scared. We came here to quell the fears of this world. No sense giving up now, not before we've even made an effort..."
Five hours later, and Elisa's danger sense had dulled itself to uselessness.
"Maybe the translation isn't right?" Nel suggested, clicking the microphone off. "All we have to work from is old records of their language. I might not be saying the right words..."
Una shook her head. "I think it's a matter of volume. We could try turning the ship's external sound system louder...? Maybe it's a sensory issue... they didn't hear the beacon and didn't see us land. ...but they heard me when I said 'excuse me' before, so, well... ummmm..."
"We could try a visual language of some sort. Or musical? How did that movie go...? Daa dee daa doo daa, I think...?"
The fifth exasperated sigh from their Pilot made itself known. He'd given up gripping the controls nervously, ready to take off at a moment's notice, in favor of browsing his flight theory textbook.
Not that the danger, if there was any danger, had ceased. In fact, nothing had changed. Screaming Russians. Constantly. Unmoving. Even after the sun had set, even after everyone should've gotten tired and gone home to sleep or at least had to go to the bathroom or something. The only thing between them and permanent hearing loss was the ship's hull, and even that wasn't doing a perfect job.
"I've always been in favor of a series of prime numbers. You can't go wrong with a series of prime numbers," Una suggested. "It's the most basic logical structure available to sentient lifeforms. We start with that, and work our way up until we have a means of communication--"
Elisa was about to pull the plug when someone beat her to it.
"You've got an atmospheric window coming up in a half hour," Pilot Louis commented, without looking up from his reading. "We skip it, we can't safely leave until morning. This is a waste of our time. Just send a science team back here later and let them figure this mess out. My job is to get you home alive, and I'd rather not hang out long enough for that to become an issue. My suggestion is you scrub the mission. Ma'am. In all due respect."
The young woman cast one last forlorn look out the window, at the ones she came to visit. The ones who howled away into the night, for every minute that this foreign intrusion continued to disrupt their daily lives...
Without a word, she nodded to the pilot. And sank back into her seat, sullen for the rest of the trip home.
Elisa called up an external camera, as the ship slowly rose back into the sky. Just before it broke through the cloud layer... she could see the people of Moscow resume walking, silently picking up from where they were so rudely interrupted.
Note (Agent Elisa Morales): In accordance with President Petersen's wishes, I am adding my personal observations to the official Anachronism Task Force dossier on the Welcome Wagon missions. I will be dictating these to myself after each mission, for later entry into our knowledge bases.
File: Moscow (Mission #1)
Addendum (Followup): While the primary Welcome Wagon team was preparing for their next mission, NASA sent a science and communications team back to Moscow in the otherwise unused Wagon. They were met with the same cold reception we were. As of this writing, there have been no successful communications to or from the lifeforms that now occupy the city. Odds are, we may never know who or what they are, or why we cannot reach them. Personally, I feel it's best to leave them be. They were peaceful enough before our arrival.
File: China (Mission #2)
More preparation went into this mission. We have been in contact with a representative from the court of Emperor Sheng, crown leader of China. Unlike the Moscow beacon, this one met with a warm response and an eager desire to communicate.
Although pleasantries have been exchanged between the respective ambassadors (Representative Yan and Una) the lion's share of the discussion is going to be saved for our physical meeting, in accordance with the wishes of Emperor Sheng. Speaking from a tactical perspective, there is a risk in prolonged, embedded contact with a foreign civilization, no matter how pleasant they are over two-way satellite communication. However, I agree with Una's optimistic perspective that without allowing some degree of trust, no progress can be made.
Addendum (Resources): It's unfortunate that the individual known as Benny the Broker is unavailable, as my research indicates he's been in frequent contact with China's government in matters of business. I suggested postponing the mission until he returns from his mission, in order to be better prepared, but Una was eager to go ahead. Especially after our stalemate in Moscow.
The Court of Emperor Sheng was a court of reason. It held the wisest of philosophers, educated in the most ancient texts of Confucius. With them were political theorists, who studied the ways of Jefferson as much as they studied Mao. Scholars and educators were national treasures, teaching the nobles of the court alongside the sons of generals, to raise a proper generation of learned men that could bring China out of the dark ages that had troubled it.
The Court of Emperor Sheng was a court of beauty. The gardens were kept in perfect splendor, and guarded well to prevent them from being despoiled by some wandering drunkard, or an unfortunately uncivil citizen trying to make some sort of protest statement. With the war so far from their door, there was fortunately no chance of the grounds being laid bare and wasted, as was the case in many farms across the Sheng's nation. They remained eternally peaceful, as they should be.
But above all, the Court of Emperor Sheng was a court of order. The scholars were kept in perfect balance, selected to maintain a wide spectrum of thought... but not too deviant from center, not upsetting to anyone. The palace was kept spotless and perfect, guarded with well regulated precision shift that rotated to keep fresh guards in place, to avoid slouching as they stood as perfect and alert representatives of Sheng's might.
Within the court of courts, where the Emperor himself sat upon a throne of kings, that balance was flawlessly expressed. Generals and territorial representatives, lined neatly in rows, wearing their assigned and identical robes. And, in today's case, the addition of three visitors from foreign lands... standing in a perfect equilateral triangle form, the most eloquent of shapes, ready to speak to the most perfect leader of men.
Although Sheng was giving the one towards the rear of the triangle the same funny look the woman was giving him.
"Greetings to you on this wonderful day, Emperor Sheng," the silver-clad ambassador spoke, following the script given to her by Representative Yan. "May the sun shine on your beautiful palace, as it shines upon your beautiful nation. --hello! I am Una zero point one, representing the combined peoples of Eastusa, the Faerie Court, and Orbital Arcology #A076. I'm pleased you were willing to meet with us! I know that we can establish the bonds of friendship between our peoples, in the name of global peace."
"Are you royalty?" the Emperor pondered.
"--er, pardon? Royalty?"
"Yes. I am told your leader is a Queen, which is a European royal construct," Sheng explained. "No doubt there are many such titles within the Faerie Court. Do you hold one?"
"Ahh... not as such, sir," Una spoke. "I hold the rank of ambassador, as do my companions. We are, however, authorized to speak on behalf of our leaders. Within reason."
"I am a man of reason, as any in my court will tell you. Very well. The functionality of your representation will suffice for my needs," the Emperor stated. "From the introductions you made with Representative Yan, who fulfills a similar role for me albeit in a limited capacity, I am to understand the sciences and magics of your courts are quite formidable. Would you agree with that statement?"
"Our... capabilities are considerable, yes, but our focus is on quality of life for our people. We are willing to consider an exchange of such technologies, to help you with any problems you're facing with drought, or disease, or such..."
"Are you suggesting I am incapable of feeding my people and seeing to their well being?"
"N-Nothing of the sort, sir! I was merely using that as a working example..."
Slowly, the Emperor rose to his feet. Which resulted in an intake of breath around the court -- naturally perfectly symmetrical, right down the aisle.
"If I may be straightforward, Lady Una... I have no need of your comforts and staples," Emperor Sheng stated. "What I have need of is your weapons of war. Your advanced technologies, be they of the sword, or the gun, or the explosive. Perhaps even things our generals can only dream of, concepts in the art of war that are beyond us. I have summoned you to my court to discuss the price you require for such things. As you have noted, you speak for your leader, and can therefore broker such a deal."
Now the one in the back of the triangle was definitely looking sly. Emperor Sheng did not like a sly look in a woman's eyes. Fortunately, the forward pairing was more alarmed than cunning, which was proper in the presence of his royal majesty.
"We... are not prepared to enter such negotiations," Una noted. "We are here on a mission of peace and communication, sir. We do speak for our leaders... and they are not interested in arms trade. At this time."
Emperor Sheng's displeasure was enough to send a chill through the room. The expression on his face changed very little, "That's interesting, given one of the pretenders to my throne was boasting the other day that soon he shall have 'Faerie steel' which will render his warriors impervious to our most powerful dragon mounts. Apparently he spoke to one Benny the Smuggler, in regards to this transaction..."
While his command of their language was naturally completely perfect, whatever obscenity the gloomy one muttered wasn't clear to him.
"I assure you that the one known as Benny is not an official representative of the Faerie Court!" the ambassador's companion spoke, stepping forward to step up to the accusation. "As you noted, he is a smuggler. His actions are independent of Queen Emily's wishes!"
A terrified Representative Yan leapt to his feet, pointing a shaking finger at the elven woman.
"You were told not to break formation! This is the perfect court of Emperor Sheng!!" Yan called out. "You could get us all killed for this offense--"
A mild cough from the Emperor was enough to silence the room.
"The ambassadors do not know of our ways. Which means they also do not understand that the affront this Benny has shown me by aiding one of the many so-called Emperors who pretend they control this land is a debt that must be repaid," Sheng spoke. "They will be educated as to this error while they are detained. Guards, seize them, and bring them to the prepared cells for interrogation. Yan, summon their communication device to my chambers, so I can negotiate their release in exchange for Faerie weaponry to enhance the might of our dragon riders..."
Except the Court's new "guests" weren't there anymore. The trio had vanished into empty air.
"Faerie trickery," Sheng declared. "Guards! Impound their vessel, and search the castle. They will be found, and they will pay for this! That is the holy command of your Emperor!"
File: China (Mission #2)
Addendum (Damage Report): Although the Welcome Wagon's aft heat shielding suffered damage during our escape from the palace, we were able to set down in a contested warzone and use a burned out city for cover while we made repairs. Fuel expenditure calculated at 160% of mission expectations due to supplanting the shields with extra power to make up for the difference. Without that, reentry into the atmosphere on the return trip wouldn't have been possible.
Addendum (Benny the Smuggler): A re-evaluation of the administration's connections to this individual in light of his worldwide interference with our peace processes is STRONGLY suggested.
Nightfall at Cape Canaveral.
Florida's gateway to the stars was remarkably free from the light pollution which kept most of Eastusa from having an nice, pleasant starry night. The original city had collapsed to rubble long ago, with only a supportive skeleton town built up around it using a pastiche of Fae magic and reproduction period pieces. Just enough of a city for the modern incarnation of NASA to call it home.
Elisa couldn't sleep. No real reason... Maria had been in good spirits on finding out mommy would be home to play for a few days. Helen had treated her to a spa day earlier, in a meditative elven glade, so it wasn't like she was stressed out from earlier missions. As far as work went, there was nothing to do until the next run, so she had no troubles there.
Which was the trouble. No trouble was trouble.
Agent Elisa Morales liked being useful. Useful to her country, useful to the cause of freedom, or even just useful to help someone else's day go a little smoother. She'd acted as a conduit between New Orleans and Philadelphia for some time now, a mixture of desk surfing and field work, every day a new task in and around the Faerie Court's new capital city. But out here, on this assignment... she was useless. She felt it the first day she was here, and every day she spent here. Once the Wagon was in the air, then she was on alert, but in the downtime there was nothing for her here. Which made her restless. Which made it hard to sleep.
So. Loiter outside her dormitory room. Lean on the railing, third story up in this converted motel, overlooking the launch grounds. Look at the stars. And wait for the boredom to defeat the restlessness.
"Can't sleep either, huh?" she asked aloud.
"How is it you can hear me coming so easily?" Nelliwyn asked, leaning up against the rail next to her. Her sleep robe was a blend of human textile manufacturing and Fae spider-silk weaves... far too elegant to be the commodity garment it was. "Even when I'm not consciously trying, I'm usually at least a bit obfuscated, these days..."
"I was on the old Artifact team. We knew that a flicker at the corner of your eye or the sound of a pin dropping could be the last thing you ever see and hear," Elisa explained. "Keeps your senses sharp without being so jumpy you don't react smooth."
"Polar opposite of my Una," Nel said, with a wistful smile. "She could snooze through a wyvern's howl. Me... I'm a bit too light in my sleep. Comes from years of being at the beck and call of another. Not that life is like that anymore, but the old habits, you know..."
"I know. So... what woke you up tonight? Hope I wasn't making a ruckus..."
"No, no. Just... thinking. Too much thinking to fall asleep in the first place. Una's a bit... stuck."
"In a moral quandary," Nel explained. "Ethics are of utmost concern to an Optimist. She wants to decide for herself which way to go before she brings it up to Emily or your President, wants to make sure she knows where she stands first. Doesn't want to look unsure in front of royalty."
Elisa's instincts twitched. An opportunity to be useful. "What's the situation?" she asked. "Is it about our next mission? I haven't heard any plans yet..."
"We're thinking of going to Australia next. According to the ElfStar fly-bys and the limited communication we had with our beacon before it was... destroyed, they're in a terrible situation," Nel explained. "Pandora brought with it an army of iron automatons, which immediately seized power and imposed a totalitarian regime over the continent. There's been a resistance movement, general civil unrest, but... it's in tatters. And the freedom fighter cell that got our beacon wants our help. --no. They desperately need our help."
"And... we're under orders not to interfere with the affairs of sovereign nations," Elisa recognized. "Which is why we had to escape China under duress..."
"The eyes of three nations are upon us, Elisa Morales. We must tread lightly. This is not like Queen Emily's decision to open the Forsaken Shores; we had autonomy, there. We changed things... for the better. Defeated tyrants. Freed prisoners. Banished dark gods," Nel spoke, in a more whispered voice, as if the memories were both terrifying and impressive, even so soon removed from the events. "But... this is another flavor of adventure. And Una isn't sure we have any right to do what... well. What she honestly would very much enjoy doing."
"Freeing Australia," Elisa recognized. "Overthrowing their robot overlords."
"Exactly. By all rights, we should be contacting the ruling authority and establishing peaceful relations. But how can we do that when their existence is anathema to what we stand for?" Nel asked. "America, for instance. Kanthi Kennedy speaks of it as a nation of freedom and liberty, a place that will not stand for tyrants. How can we represent your Eastusa and NOT interfere?"
"What about the Faerie Court? Indentured servitude is part of your culture..."
"WAS part of our culture. This is the Second Age," Nel said, firmly. The distaste for that topic clear in her voice. "For my part... having spent most of my life in chains, this is... it's one of the few things that I can work myself into genuine anger over. Those people deserve freedom after two centuries as slaves!"
Elisa leaned away from the rail. Digesting the situation, turning it over in her mind.
"Putting aside the ethics of turning an ambassadorial effort into a liberation force... Nelliwyn, we simply don't have the manpower for that kind of mission," she said. "Welcome Wagon Two, which could be capable of carrying a strike force, is a long ways away. Assuming that it gets budget approval, even..."
"And what of it? With a crew no larger than this one, we freed the Forsaken Shores from their bonds. Emily saved the world from the madness of the seasons with fewer! And right now, across the seas, we're putting our hopes in the hands of a foursome to avoid war with England. So... why not? Yes, logic is against us. But we have the Queen of Faerie on our side. Good fortune comes to those she smiles upon."
The FBI agent let tact drop for a moment. "...seriously?" she had to ask. "She's just, I mean... no offense to your religion, but..."
"It's not a religion, it's... very, very hard to explain to a human. Even to Una," Nel admitted. "My point, however, stands. It's been done before. It could be done again, if we are resolute. Strong in spirit."
"So... sounds to me that you've made your decision. And so has Una, for that matter. Neither of you are trying to decide where you stand, you're just worried about the reaction."
"I suppose. ...you know your king-- your President better than most," Nel corrected. "How would he react?"
A tough one. Which merited a truthful answer. Elisa let discretion slip a bit further, even though officially she knew she ought to maintain the dignity of the Presidential office...
"Petersen is an idealist to a fault," she said. "He's put all his eggs in the basket of the Second Age. Rode to office on a raw wave of desire for change. Problem is, he's probably not going to last another term, not with the opposition party refocusing on a mix of trumped up domestic issues and lingering racial hate. He knows his time is running out... and that makes him dangerous."
"Not to us. I mean... well. If you give him a risk that will result in a better tomorrow, any risk, he's going to take it. After all, it's only his ass on the line, and he knows his ass is doomed regardless. He's going to do as much un-damage as he can on the way out the door. ...so. He'd approve of this plan without batting an eye. Strike a blow for justice? Bring freedom to the world? Inflame the ulcers of his detractors? Oh yeah. In a heartbeat. ...and how about Emily?"
Nel stood up visibly straighter, the curve of her robe moving with her.
"The Queen of Faerie bends to no outside will," Nelliwyn declared. "She is resolute. If we present this to her, she will approve."
"Then I think we've got our next mission, don't you?"
The elven woman returned a bright smile... relieved that her worries had suddenly faded away.
"I suppose we do," Nel said. "Thank you, Elisa Morales."
Elisa returned the smile... but guarded, not wide and beaming. "Glad I could be handy in a pinch. ...one question, though."
"The reasons for doing this are righteous, yes. But what would a Pragmatist say?" she asked. "Not some conservative mind that's terrified of doing anything outside our charter. A true Orbital Pragmatist. What about the long term consequences of our actions?"
"Freeing an oppressed people?" Nel asked, puzzled. "How could that be anything but wonderful?"
File: Australia (Mission #3)
With support from all three of the Welcome Wagon's participant societies, we arrived in Sydney to track down what happened to our friendship beacon.
It had previously come in contact with an organized resistance cell, who stole it from a secured fortress run by this nation's robotic overlords. We had a very narrow window of communication, in which we were told the basics of the conflict. While normally I wouldn't advocate striking out on such a mission without more intelligence, we believe we've inferred enough from the preliminary reports and Elfstar fly-overs to have a reasonable plan of attack.
We have no way of assessing the strength of our potential allies on the ground; there may be many cells, a continent-wide populist movement. There may only be a rag-tag group of idealists who can provide no support for our effort whatsoever. We have no means of contacting them to coordinate the attack, either. Any attempts to do so could ruin the ambush attempt.
Addendum (Purpose): This is outside the scope of the original Welcome Wagon charter. I acknowledge that, as does the entire team, and the three of us will take responsibility for any failure. In accordance with his wishes, Pilot Louis of the Frontliners wants me to state for the record that he disagrees with this mission, but will perform his role to the best of his ability.
Under gray and stinking skies, the iron fortress of I.K.E. rumbled with the sound of warfare.
The pitch was entirely wrong. The resistance used small arms and improvised explosives... the best they could manage under the enforced peace that their minders had maintained for two centuries. Scrounged and salvaged weapons, repaired fifteen times over without replacements. But the thunder of guns from beyond these walls... that was clearly the work of I.K.E.'s enforcement titans. Heavy machine guns. Rocket launchers. Human screaming, that couldn't be heard, but given the power of the other sounds... maybe the those who were daring enough to join in the riot were going straight from healthy to dead with no maiming in between.
The shackles that held Agent Morales in place were overdesigned. Even if they hadn't been attached to the wall of the New Oval Office, they were made of such a heavy grade of iron that she wouldn't have been able to move anyway. It was a struggle just to remain upright.
Across from her, the President of Steel was surveying the carnage beyond, through flickering cathode ray tubes that were in dire need of replacement. His ball-joint armatures were folded behind his back, in a poise of synthetic dignity.
"Communists. Socialists. Insurrectionists. They spit in the face of New America," he spoke, in a voice that rang with a dry, metallic tone. "I brought them peace. I destroyed their criminal empires. Prosperity and safety for all. Mom. Apple pie. Industry. Science. Technology. They still fight. Incomprehensible."
"I don't know if you've looked at a globe in the last two hundred years, but you aren't IN America," Elisa reminded him, making sure the spite and snark came through clearly. "This disgusting puppet show you've made isn't America. I'm from America. I represent true America and its President. This Cold War paranoia parody of yours is not America."
The twenty foot tall iron golem turned to face her... and she immediately wished it hadn't. Staring into the lifeless, reanimate eyes of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was going to serve as nightmare fuel for some weeks to come.
Its mechanically articulated jaw opened, so that the embedded speaker inside could crackle back to life.
"I guided the greatest generation out of the darkest age this world has ever seen. I built America into a land of might, on the back of the diesel engine and the atom. I annihilated all enemies. Repeating this should not have been difficult," he reasoned. "When I was brought here by Communist machinations, I did my best to spread liberty to this backward land. I brought the spirit of God's favored nation to this place. And they hated me for it. Me. I.K.E. I thought everybody liked I.K.E..."
"Whatever you THINK you are... you aren't Ike," Elisa said, seeing an opening. "I don't know who designed you, but obviously they made mistakes. If they hadn't, would you be having trouble keeping your people happy? Your flaws are apparent in your results; your system isn't up to this task. You should step down from the Presidency. Sir."
The riveted machine creaked and groaned, as it made the simulated human gesture of scratching its chin in deep thought. Not that the massive metal claws made contact with the rotting flesh of the severed head in a jar of biotic fluid atop its shoulders; this would be over far too quickly if it managed to shatter that glass.
"There is a horrible flaw in the doctrine of America. This is apparent in my results," the Iron President agreed.
"I'm glad you can see reason, sir."
"The error lies not in my punch cards, but in the citizens of New America," he decided. "They are of an inferior stock compared to true Americans. Obviously, I will need to purge all life from this land and start over using synthetic patriots. In the name of liberty."
With a full twist of his torso joints, the President was busy pushing buttons at the massive array of 1960's era computer controls before Elisa could sound protest.
The sound of munitions beyond the walls of the New White House paused, ever so briefly.
And then resumed, twice as intense as before.
"Thank you for helping me," the robot toned, swiveling back around to face her. "Your service is no longer requi-requi-requi-requi-req-req-req-re-re-r-r-r-r-r--"
One by one, the flickering monitors were replaced by sprays of white noise. One by one, the thunder of guns went silent.
Twenty minutes later, they arrived.
"What was the delay?" Agent Morales asked, while Una set about burning through her manacles with a cold torch.
"The radio signal encryption took some time to crack," Louis admitted, nodding to the metal box tucked under one arm, with various colored wires sticking out of it from various angles. "Then I had to find the shutdown sequence in all the active channel chatter. Good thing we fitted the Wagon with a primitive broadcast antenna before leaving."
A crowd began to gather around the four liberators of Australia... resistance leaders, scientists who had lent a hand in crippling the robots, even simple citizens who had taken up arms when called upon to do so. None of them had seen inside the White House before; few did, unless they were never going to leave again. Fewer still had stood this close to the President of Iron, the tyrant I.K.E...
They set upon him immediately. Smashing his head jar, beating the animate corpse's head in. Bashing its casing, tearing wires free, pulling the thing apart by any means necessary.
It wasn't a sign Elisa felt comfortable with. It wasn't Mr. Eisenhower's fault that someone had dug up his grave and used his body to make this abomination. They ought to have more respect than that for the dead.
"The signal's carrying across the continent?"
"Piggybacking off the very same relay network the President was using!" Una declared, beaming with pride. "We have turned the enemy against itself! All the robots will be permanently deactivated within an hour. This land is now free! You are all now free from bondage!"
A rousing cheer came up from the gathered crowd, pausing in their swarming over the President's metal corpse to celebrate. Hugs, handshakes, and excited words swapped throughout the room.
Una sought out their contact, pulling him aside. Wires with dangling vacuum tubes trailed out I.K.E.'s torso as he stepped away.
"You did good work here, alright," he said. "Our children and our children's children'll be singin' your praises, mark my words. Finally, we can call ourselves AUSTRALIANS and not bloody yanks!"
"I'm glad we could be of help," Una said, shaking his hand firmly. "This is your time now, Mr. Crowshaw. Make the most of it... be wise, be kind. With the established order overthrown, you've quite a task ahead of you. I'm sure you'll make a fine leader!"
"Excuse me? HIM? Our new leader?"
The protesting voice pushed its way through the crowd, despite the bloody arm in a sling he was nursing. He interspersed himself physically, pushing the resistance leader away to address Una directly.
"Just because his lot got their hands on your shiny walkie talkie first doesn't mean he runs the show!" the man said. "His cell ain't even well known in the Resistance. Crowshaw, what've YOU lot done for this country? Sat around in your bunker fixin' weapons! Meanwhile, MY unit bled and died for this day! I lost a dozen good men and women in the last hour alone. If anybody's going to take over the big show, it's going to be a proper military commander! Like me!"
"I think we've had more than enough of jackbooted tyrants," Crowshaw countered. "You lot did your part, but you need a thinker to rebuild this nation. All you think about is way to take robots apart bit by bit! Not exactly a skill in much need anymore, right?"
Una tried to intervene, clearing her throat, waving her hands, doing whatever she could to distract. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please...! I mean... surely you had a plan for a peaceful transition of power once your resistance movement succeeded? I mean, there's public services to consider, and local law enforcement, I mean--"
"Law enforcement!? We've had to deal with iron law for generations! We've had it with law!" called a voice from the crowd (which was starting to become a mob, now that they'd gotten bored with yanking I.K.E. apart). "No more kings. No more presidents! I say every man's got a right to his own life now!"
"No, no, we are NOT having a goddamn anarchy!" Crowshaw called out. "Look, I hated the metal bastard as much as any of you, but--"
"Really? Is that why you weren't out getting your hands bloody?" his rival asked.
Glass shattered, as Crowshaw smashed a vacuum tube from I.K.E.'s innards against the man's head.
"You want to see bloody hands, mate, I'd be HAPPY to oblige you...!"
The fight for power began. No clear lines in the sand, no clear division of forces... a dogpile, some supporting one man, some supporting another, some supporting no man. Other leaders of the resistance throwing their hat in the ring, screaming out for their supporters to join them. Fists, at first. Any metal object in reach that could be yanked free, next. And then the first shots from small arms...
Minutes later, Louis and Elisa were escorting the diplomats out of the ruins of the New White House. Soon after the Welcome Wagon was in the air, and fortunately, Agent Morales had the field training needed to extract bullets from Una's arm and Nel's leg.
File: Australia (Mission #3)
Addendum (Civil Unrest): Our extraction from the scenario was done under protest from Una, who felt the situation was far too dangerous to leave be. Odds are strong that the country was about to collapse into anything ranging from complete anarchy to fiefdoms run by local warlords. It is my view that the situation was far too dangerous to do anything BUT leave be.
We came to liberate them. We did not come to guide them afterwards -- that would have taken a long-standing peacekeeping force, which they would have actively resisted every inch of the way given their understandable distaste for foreign power figures. Not that we even had the ability or resources to institute ourselves in that manner.
There will be considerable debate about whether we had any business getting involved in the first place. As noted, we take responsibility for this failure. But from this point out, I suggest focusing on diplomacy.
Mr. President... I'm aware of the ultimate goal of the Welcome Wagon. I've seen the blueprints for the project in New York. But our role in this is only to open the door -- it's up to those above my pay grade to keep it open.
File: Brazil (Mission #4)
Continuing the theme of intervening in situations that threaten the future of humanity, Una has selected Brazil as our next destination.
Unlike Australia, this is a more straightforward conflict situation, one in which our actions have no chance of leaving a power vacuum. Our assistance would be simple and direct -- providing supplies and aid, opening a line of communication, and nothing more. By her reasoning, our chance for success is strong.
The primary obstacle to success consists of several million flesheating zombies.
Addendum (Objections): I must strenuously object to this mission. Although ElfStar flyovers and beacon communications indicate a stable and secure colony of living humans amidst a continent of the undead, the documented risk of any entry into Los Muertos controlled lands is not to be taken lightly. Our last entry into their territory was considerably more prepared for combat than this one, and most of our team perished.
The Welcome Wagon cannot hold the fully armed strike force I recommend for any such entry into South America. It is an inappropriate tool for this task. While there is currently no airborne vehicle capable of traveling the distance required to journey by land through Mexico and down into South America, lack of a better option is still no excuse for using the Wagon.
I can only hope that Una's "Optimism" regarding our pending success is well founded.
Second verse, same as the first. The first being Veracruz. The episode that still gave her night terrors, long after she'd successfully climbed out of that hellhole, having cut the head off of the beast known as Los Muertos...
Supposedly if you kill the head, the body will die. That's what the lore surrounding "zombies" said, anyway. Boom, headshot, no more zombie. But she'd seen to it that the king of the zombies died on a cargo ship in Veracruz... and the rest of the body kept on shambling. No cunning to them, not anymore, but you didn't really need cunning when you had millions and millions of yourself to throw at any given problem...
Of course, the armored survivor's compound didn't have a zombie problem before they arrived. They'd held off the undead for two hundred years. Only with the arrival of an outside party did the schism start, and then the terrible betrayal, and...
...and in the end, the details didn't really matter. Human turned on human, and shortly after, zombie turned on both of them. Nothing left to do but run.
Illusion magic wasn't helping. Masking sight, sound, AND smell... Nel was skilled at it, but the zombies were far more skilled at finding their prey no matter what you did to throw them off. They'd been hammering at this fortress for so long that a simple trick like hiding inside an oil drum back in Veracruz wasn't going to throw them off a well earned meal.
Ammo was spent. The Mass Capacitors in Una's blaster went dry long before, becoming nothing more than tubes of inert processed minerals. Even the sidearm nobody knew Louis had, the scoped Magnum that had popped numerous zombie braincases during their retreat, was out of shots.
The Welcoming foursome. Three survivors... a father, a mother, their child. Seven out of the hundreds that had lived here were all that remained, as the dead swept like an ocean through the colony.
Seven hundred meters to the open hatch of the Welcome Wagon.
On their heels... seven hundred zombies.
Too close to their heels. The wife went down first, her scream cut off sharply, as she was taken down in a pile of the dusty and dry long-dead.
"VERONICA! NO, dammit, no--!" the husband screamed.
"RUN! Keep running and don't look back!" Elisa insisted, despite her inability to follow her own orders...
The traumatized child was thrust into her arms.
"Take him and go! Don't argue!"
And then, five.
The grasping hands and biting teeth were inches away when the hatch finally slammed shut.
Agent Morales leaned hard against the hatch, easing the young boy down, as her arms were far too tired to hold him anymore. He stood his ground, even as the ship rocked, lifting off into the sky and shaking loose the few Los Muertos that were able to cling to its smooth surface.
See to the mission first, Elisa thought. "Are we okay?" she asked. "Quickly. Check yourselves; any bite marks, anything? Examine every bloodstain, every tear in your clothes. This is important."
"Not a scrape," Louis replied coolly, from the pilot's seat.
"We're clear!" Una called out, after the couple gave each other a quick search.
"And my body armor held up fine, so I'm okay," Elisa said. "Good. I hate to sound cold, but we should consider ourselves lucky..."
Someone hadn't reported in.
Elisa looked down, at the boy... who was staring at the gash in his leg. Where Los Muertos had left a passing gift, just before the door could close.
The child looked up to her, about to say something. And then dropped to the ground, the shot ringing out sharply in the metallic cabin of the Welcome Wagon.
His sidearm now holstered, Louis calmly resumed flying the ship.
"You're all lucky I kept a bullet for myself," he noted, as matter of factly as someone would point out that he didn't get correct change at the drive through.
"You... you shot him," Elisa spoke, as if to convince herself this was a thing that had actually happened.
"I read the dossiers on Los Muertos. He'd turn in moments. Couldn't risk having a live dead on the ship, ma'am. I have my orders."
If not for the buckled harness keeping him in his seat, Louis would've been pulled straight out of his chair and slammed headfirst into the roof of the cabin. Nevertheless, Elisa gave it her best effort, knuckles white with the effort.
"We have a CURE, you bastard!" she screamed. "We could have brought him back with us and arranged for a--"
"You had the Scout last time to pacify that civilian you pulled out of Veracruz. You don't have a Lion of Summer with you right now," Louis pointed out, paying no mind to her anger. "We'd have to deal with a pure infected we have no means of safely restraining aside from a standard issue NASA seat belt. The Welcome Wagon would've gone into a dead man mode and flown back on its own, and then five zombies would break out and spread the infection all across America. This was our only option, ma'am."
"How do you know that? We didn't even explore our options, you went right to executing a child!"
"My job is to get you there and back, alive and in one piece," Louis reminded her. "You don't have to like how I do it. Just let me do my job and you do yours."
Addendum (Crew Replacement): I don't care how thick the paperwork is to have a new pilot assigned to this team, and I don't care who in Philadelphia agrees with Pilot Louis's analysis of our situation. I want the mission roster changed, or I'm changing it myself by leaving this team.
Addendum (Earlier Crew Replacement Request): I withdraw my hastily worded statement that I would be leaving the team. While I still believe Pilot Louis did not grant enough chance to investigate nonlethal alternatives, and I disapprove of the policy which informed his actions, he was indeed only following orders. He seems to be very keen on following orders, and I can't fault him for playing this assignment completely by the book. I can fault the book instead.
File: India (Mission #5)
After the half-disaster in Australia, the Wagon was grounded for several days. In that time, we finally heard back from our India beacon, with an extremely promising lead. This one poses none of the ethical problems of prior missions and seems to have no risk for disaster, so we've been given the go-ahead to make first contact. With any luck, this will be the "feather in our cap" which can prove the Welcome Wagon project's worth to our combined nations.
The glimmering spires of Neo Delhi were inspiring enough that even Louis raised an eyebrow at them.
This was the last, best chance for the Welcome Wagon's success. The ambassador from India was quite articulate and well spoken, describing a civilization of high technology and complete peace. No internal strife, no external wars, negligible street crime. A monoculture of perfection, the resplendent jewel of eastern Asia...
While she felt his speech over the beacon's communicator was puffed up with pride, experiencing the sights of India firsthand was enough to convince Elisa that maybe the guy had justified right to boast.
India had been remodeled completely by the alternate-Indian population that was transplanted into it by Pandora. In that world, India had taken early lead in the industrial age, and became the dominant economic power. The end result was a complete upgrade of this world's India... a techno-cultural marvel of majestic towers, each one ornately decorated to marry form and function. At the core, each one was nearly as sophisticated as an Orbital arcology, but without the Orbital's penchant for plain and simple metal designs. These structures were living works of art.
It had taken weeks for them to make contact. At first, NASA assumed there was some kind of bug, because the beacon reached a point over the skyline of the country, and... stopped. It wouldn't descend any further. The Indian beacon was written off as "to be explored later" in favor of focusing on data coming back from other beacons.
Little did Florida know, but their little silvery egg had hit a bubble of energy that domed the entire nation, one which sealed it off from the rest of the world. After a time, the beacon was recovered by skyship patrols and evaluated by India's top scientists and diplomats... with the eventual decision to open up a line of communication coming a week later.
"Neo Delhi, this is Welcome Wagon One from the Americas, requesting permission to enter energy shield," Louis chattered on his headset. "Code zero bravo six nine. Tango. Alpha. ...thank you. We'll remain in holding pattern."
If Una could've pressed her face up against the windshield, she would have. She'd insisted on 'riding the shotgun,' as she'd almost correctly referenced, with Elisa moving to the back row with Nel so the enthusiastic young woman could take in the sights of India unobstructed.
"Utterly fascinating! A techno-culture not unlike my own, sealed away for two centuries!" she declared. "No wonder they had few problems surviving; no chance of their less civilized neighbors invading, and an entire population devoted to internal development. We are quite fortunate that they decided to reply to our beacon!"
"Given our... record, the timing is indeed fortuitous," Nel agreed, doing her best to lean forward and chat with her wife, despite the harness holding her into her seat. "But Una, be cautious. A pretty visage can often hide a terrible secret..."
"Oh, I'm being Pragmatic, don't worry. We will take all care and caution, and Miss Morales and Mister.. ... um..."
Louis let her stew in that for a moment before replying.
"Jones," he filled in.
"Mister Jones will protect us in the event of any misunderstandings. However! I have a good feeling about this one, Nel. By all accountings, the people of Neo Delhi are rational, peaceful, and hopefully will make fine friends for the Americas!"
Even their landing pads were ornate.
Elisa was studying the wrought ivory posts surrounding the circular platform with interest. They were spaced several meters apart, leaving plenty of room through which one could accidentally fall to their death... if not for the telltale shimmer of an energy barrier, similar to the one that stretched across the entire Indian sky. Despite being a basic safety measure, a great deal of care had been given to making sure they were decorative and pleasant to the eye.
Apparently, this landing pad -- and the entire skyscraping diplomatic facility, for that matter -- had been crafted just for their arrival, and erected within a week. From the delicate yet durable mosaic baked into the landing surface, it would've been easy to mistake the structure had been here for generations. Despite the wondrous nature of it, the Ambassador hadn't been particularly forthcoming on Elisa's questions as to how they were able to construct this locale so quickly.
He was far more interested in the Welcome Wagon itself, and its occupants. From the moment he stepped up to greet the landing party, his shimmering green floor-length robe swishing as he stepped up to them, all questions were about the visitors. How the Welcome Wagon's propulsion systems worked, how it dealt with orbital re-entry burn. Who constructed it and why. How the Orbitals, Fae, and Eastusa governments got along...
Elisa wanted to get a word in edgewise, but Una was only too happy to answer every question posed to her in a cheerful and chipper manner. Fortunately she was self-conscious enough not to leak any state secrets or paint their nations in a poor light, but she seemed to have no problems with the one-sided nature of this interrogation.
The Ambassador stroked his beard, as he studied the gravity pumps towards the rear of the wagon, nodding to himself as he confirmed every assumption he'd had made prior.
"You use a form of fusion, correct?" he asked. "To power your 'hypertech' devices."
"Yes, sir! Specially reorganized mineral matter, harvested from the earth itself!" Una proclaimed. "The fuel is supercompressed into Mass Capacitors, which contain nanotech which controls the fusion process and translates it into the energy we use!"
"Hmm. It seems grossly inefficient. And exactly how much matter is required to power this ship...? Your mining processes must be rather large in scale..."
As the Ambassador skirted dangerously close to one of the many things the Orbitals didn't like to talk about, Agent Morales intervened.
"Sir, it seems the sun is going down," she pointed out, nodding towards the gloriously beautiful sunset that was sliding below the techno-urban horizon. "I would suggest that we resume discussions in the morning. We also have many questions about your marvelous society, no doubt as many as you have of ours, and I think it'd be best if we all got some rest before continuing..."
The man smiled to her. While shaking his head.
"I suppose I've learned enough," he said. "You may leave now. Thank you for your time, Miss Una, Miss Morales. Your visit was quite illuminating."
Una, having her ongoing stream of answers interrupted, took a moment to get her footing again. "Ah... very well. Have you prepared quarters, or...? We would be comfortable staying on the Wagon, if you prefer..."
"I'd certainly prefer. In fact, as noted, you may leave now," the Ambassador declared... this time adding a little 'shoo, shoo' hand gesture into the mix. "We would like you to leave our nation, and never return."
"...I'm sorry? Did we... offend, somehow?" Una asked, worry setting in firmly. "I meant no disrespect in anything I said, sir, and--"
"No, no. You misunderstand. You have been polite and courteous, and we are in appreciation of this," the Ambassador clarified. "As noted, your visit was quite illuminating. It illuminated the fact that you have nothing to offer us. We are beyond your people on every conceivable level... technologically and culturally. We are perfectly aware of the chaos and strife beyond our energy dome, Miss Una, including the chaos in your own adopted homeland. In fact, that is the only thing you can possibly offer us: your own troubles. We do not need them, and we have no interest in helping you with them. Please leave and never return. Thank you for your time."
He had already turned and started to leave before his speech was finished, leaving the dumbfounded woman staring at his back.
"Wuh... wait, wait!" Una pleaded. "Sir, please, we have traveled far, and... yes, I admit we have our own issues, but we are working through them, and trying to rally the nations of the world together in peace so that we may all--"
"We need nothing from you. We are perfect already," the man spoke, without breaking stride. "Please leave and never return. Thank you for your time."
A door which was not previously there slid closed behind him, an interlocking series of wooden slats that formed a bas relief of Krishna when fully sealed.
After a few minutes of one-sided and polite protest, the Welcome Wagon crew gave up, and returned to their ship. As it ascended into the sky, the landing platform below them disassembled itself, its spire sinking back into the city below. It had served its purpose, and now with the foreigners outside the energy dome, would never be needed again.
Few words were exchanged during the lengthy return trip home.
On landing the Welcome Wagon back at NASA headquarters, they were greeted not by a rousing cheer for a job well done, but by the Queen of Faerie herself.
Minutes later, they were in a mission briefing room, looking at ElfStar satellite footage.
"Okay, so here's our overhead pass on Neo Delhi from yesterday," Emily narrated.
"Here's what it looks like right now. I'll zoom in for details."
Bodies everywhere. In the streets, hanging out of windows. Some in pools of their own blood, others... simply collapsed, right to the ground, or slumped against walls and structures. The central bazaar, in particular, must've had several thousand dead, all of whom were going about their business peacefully until...
Una stood upright.
"This... it's not... this can't be," she insisted. "We were there only two hours ago!"
"I know. And in those two hours, it looks like every man, woman and child in India has died," Emily said. Her voice stayed... flat, trying to force itself to calmness. "I ordered more ElfStar sats retasked for image passes the instant we found out. Every city in the nation is like that. They're all dead, Una. And it happened shortly after you left."
"I know what you're thinking and this can't be a matter of an infection vector," Una began, quickly. "The Wagon and its contents are decontaminated before and after every takeoff and every landing. We expunge any germs or bacteria that--"
"I know, I know. And the eggheads tell me that even if there was some disease we brought with us, there's no way it could've spread so quickly and effectively," Emily said. "As near as we can tell, time of death across the entire energy dome was simultaneous, not a spreading wave. They're just... dead. And we have no idea why. All we know is that we are the reason. Be it directly, indirectly, I don't know, maybe their leaders felt they were contaminated and did this to themselves, it doesn't matter, all that matters is they're... it's just... one minute. One minute, please."
The Queen of Faerie had to take a moment to look away, to avoid looking unqueenly. Even in front of her friends.
"...we're shutting down the Welcome Wagon project," Emily began, once she could. "This is too much. This, on top of the other situations you've faced... it's just too much, Una. We need to stop and wait until Welcome Wagon Two is complete, when we can send a more robust team. Trained diplomats. Armed security forces. ...dammit. I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I'm not angry at you. I still believe in you. But this is bigger than you and bigger than me, even. We can't go on like this without drastic changes."
Una sank soundlessly into her chair. Nel was there to comfort her, but doubtless it wouldn't be enough.
The Queen of Faerie clicked off the projector, intent on getting out of the room as soon as possible, before the uncomfortable situation got any more uncomfortable.
"Trained diplomats and armed security forces," Elisa repeated, the phrase sticking in her mind.
"--ah? Right. I mean, we don't have a choice, Elisa," Emily said. "Even Petersen's iffy on it but clearly this isn't a job that can be handled by the four of you alone--"
"A heavily armed security force implies you're expecting violence and are prepared to react with violence. Not the right image you want to project during first contact. Oh, sure, it shows we've got a pair and will defend our own, but it presumes no trust in your so-called new friends," Elisa continued. "And trained diplomats? You mean the kinds that would probably have negotiated with I.K.E. rather than risk what we risked to free his slaves? He was ready to ethnically cleanse our species, you know. You don't play it safe with a monster like that, and I've not a doubt an Eastusa politico diplomat would be ready to bend over for the robots to avoid a war."
"...that's... kind of a gross oversimplification of the tangle we're facing..."
"This isn't like some Pre-Pandora diplomatic meet and greet, this thing we're doing," Elisa continued. "THAT is the gross oversimplification. We aren't just opening doors. This is Earth under Pandora. Sometimes, we have to kick in doors that won't open for us. We have to take chances because this world was purposefully set to war with itself, and 'complications' are the norm. We've had a bad run, I'll agree. But... give us one more shot. You want to decommission Welcome Wagon One, fine. Just not yet. I'm not quitting on this without proving it wasn't a complete failure."
(...which was a bit of a surprise to Elisa, who was more than willing to take Maria and move back home rather than head out into this mess once again. But Agent Morales was standing firm.)
For her part, the Emily Moonthistle wasn't looking at her. Wasn't looking at any of them, and not in fact looking at the present moment in time. Her form... blurred, for a brief second, as she considered the problem in a way only a Faerie Queen could.
"There's going to be consequences if you do this," Emily warned. "Risks. Are all of you willing to face those risks?"
Una was first to step up to that challenge. "Y-yes! Of course!" she declared. "I know, I KNOW that if I do my best I could help this world find peace..."
"I go where Una goes. My will and hers are one," Nel spoke, quietly.
"When we spoke after Veracruz, you said to me... 'Once the doors to the world start opening, doing the right thing is only going to get harder,'" Agent Morales quoted. "You were right. And I'm not going to back down. I'm ready."
Which left one. Who didn't even look up from his pocket phone / computer / whatever, where he was busy shuffling colored gems around.
"What? Frontliner, remember?" Louis stated, sounding bored with it all. "This is my duty. Even if I wanted to bail on you, I won't. I've got one job and I will do to the best of my ability. Haven't you people heard of work ethic?"
"Alright. One more mission," Emily agreed. "I'll let you pick which one. And I'll be waiting for you when you get back."
This one's for all the marbles.
It was a phrase Una had picked up... somewhere, somehow. An Eastusa term. Which was odd, since apparently children no longer played the titular game involving tiny rounded stones and a demarcated circle of elimination. Still... all the figurative marbles, they were at stake.
Not that it really mattered, in the end, for the project. Welcome Wagon One was likely dead in the water; the entire effort put on ice in favor of waiting for more money and more manpower to be available. They could squeeze in one more mission, only at the mercy of her old friend. But even if it was a smash success that turned them into heroic media darlings, their silvery chariot would likely be retired immediately after.
There were any number of missions in the list of beacon responses she could have picked. None of them were particularly friendly, but if they engaged in some serious theatrical heroism, perhaps they could be turned into overwhelming moral victories. So many dark and deadly corners of the world, and very little light to be found...
But in the end, there was only one that caught her eye.
Una had insisted on a full mission briefing. No folders of paper shuffled around NASA basecamp, for individual study. This time, they would approach the problem as a team. They would talk it over. And if they were not in agreement, it would simply end. That was only fair.
In one of the makeshift conference rooms, wedged between physics research labs, Una used a portable hologram projector to call up her map.
"Honolulu," she began. "Capital city of the territory known as Hawaii. Despite being a remote island chain deep in the pacific, this land was part of Eastu... part of the Americas, prior to the Pandora Event. With miles of Kraken activity all around, it was sealed off, and the population likely died in isolation. Although... there seems to be at least one survivor."
With a flick of her finger on the touch-sensitive projector's controls, the replay began.
The welcoming beacon had to drop straight down from the sky -- no room for an angled approach, not with a tiny string of islands surrounded by Kraken. It landed on a nondescript beach, with jungle-like terrain and urban ruins in the distance. Video transmission from its external cameras began the instant it sensed significant motion.
With the sounds of Emily's hopeful greeting echoing through the room, carried from the Beacon's speakers back into the Beacon's microphones (along with the sound of surf on sand), a blur moved quickly away from the lens. Seconds later... it returned, peering right into the camera, with an extreme close up.
It was hard to tell if the figure was a boy or girl, but he or she was definitely young. Possibly mid to early teens. Wide blue eyes, peering into the camera and back up to the out-of-frame projection of Queen Emily. Some sort of crude face paint had been applied, a masking pattern smudged on by finger, but that was the only notable detail visible in the close-up view...
When the recording switched over to President Petersen's greeting, those blue eyes went wide... and then static. The recording kept going for a few seconds, camera having been destroyed by physical impact, before the beacon ended up in the ocean. Flashes of error messages displayed around the screen, indicating saltwater seeping into a cracked casing, before the video record ceased.
Una replaced the video window with the map, zooming in for detail.
"Additional ElfStar passes were made, and it seems there is likely a small group living in the ruins of the city," she explained. "We've been able to spot primitive rain-catchers and drainage systems on the rooftops, and most of the debris has been moved aside to clear the roadways. A 'mini-mall' area along the shore seems to be the primary focus of area for these survivors. ...however, as this was an extremely small and apparently unthreatened population, the beacon findings were moved to the bottom of the pile in favor of more promising leads."
"Could you zoom out for a second...?" Elisa asked, pointing as the image enlarged. "There. I'm seeing way more active volcanoes than Hawaii had on the ancient maps. How exactly is that unthreatened? I mean, half the islands are missing..."
"The geologists determined the survivor's colony has at least another fifty years before there's any real risk. With such a small theoretical population, no valuable resources, no real diplomatic impact for future plans... there's been no interest in a mission to make contact," Una explained. "I'd like to make contact. I want this to be our last mission, if it is to be our last mission. Once Welcome Wagon Two starts, I doubt they'd be interested in such... what is the phrase? Miniature tuber growth vegetables?"
"Are you sure you don't want to go for larger potatoes?" Elisa asked. "If we do this, even if we make flawless and peaceful contact with the cluster of survivors, it's not exactly the sort of thing they throw ticker tape parades for."
"That doesn't matter to me. If I've failed in my purpose, if I was unable to lead Welcome Wagon One to an incredible, far-reaching success... then at least I can help someone in need before I go. ...however, I understand this may not have much glory to it, and that--"
"I'm in," Elisa agreed. "You had me at helping someone in need. And I'm guessing the rest of us are in, too. We were in when Emily asked, for that matter. So. When do we take off?"
File: Hawaii (Final Mission)
The approach to Honolulu will be a direct descent. The Wagon is theoretically capable of an controlled fall, operating from velocity-controlled gravity pumps rather than chemical propulsion and the Earth's natural pull. However, this will be our first attempt at such a landing. Pilot Louis has repeatedly insisted this will be a cakewalk and that our concerns are annoying.
The maximum success we can get from this mission is to make contact with and provide survival supplies to a small cluster of humanity that has been isolated for 200 years. This is assuming the colony is friendly, relatively human, and unthreatened by anything aside from very slowly developing volcanic activity.
Addendum (Justification): I am in full agreement with mission commander Una that this low return for high risk is still worth undertaking. And besides, this world is full of surprises, both good and bad. Perhaps this time, we will be pleasantly surprised.
The only safe landing point was in a small state park, near the coastline and near the mini-mall encampment. It would allow for a tightly angled landing in a clear field, provided they could squeeze in between the overgrown trees.
To his credit, Louis controlled the speed and angle of descent flawlessly. The Wagon touched down just as easily in Hawaii as it had anywhere else, despite the unusual circumstances. So far, so good.
"I take it I'll be staying with the craft, in case you need immediate evac?" Louis asked, after killing the gravity pumps and allowing the Wagon to settle fully onto the ground.
"I think it should just be the three of us, yes," Nel spoke, quickly. "Something about that video we saw... I have a feeling this would work best. We'll be in communicator contact, yes?"
"Monitoring your frequency and using the dedicated ElfStar link," Louis confirmed, tapping a finger against a holo-projector showing a constant overhead view. "Go do your meet and greet thing. I'll be waiting to get you home safe and sound."
As the women filed off the ship, Louis returned to reading his flight theory textbook. Not that this stopped him from keeping constant oversight; the ship's systems carried what they saw and heard, and the satellite kept a watchful eye over the proceedings. Reading was something he was adept at doing without losing one bit of alertness. Had to, during long and boring flights over Eastusa space.
And once they were safely out of sight, once he finally had some peace and quiet to himself... Louis swapped his flight text for a copy of a military-themed romance epic, which had been safely hidden in his flight vest inner pocket.
Except that while the pilot kept an eye on his charges and an eye on his book, another eye was kept on him. Watching, end to end, observer to observer to observed.
Most of the city, and in fact most of Hawaii in general, had fallen completely to ruin. Impassable roads, collapsed buildings, cars parked everywhere. Fortunately, no bodies, but presumably they'd have rotted away to nothing after two hundred years if there was some sort of cataclysm. Overgrowth had begun, with the island's natural landscapes working their way into previously urban territories.
The exception to the rule was a ten block radius of Honolulu, the one they were slowly walking through right now. The streets were clear. Weeds had been trimmed. Even the paint on the rotting signs had been touched up, and in a few cases, signs had been completely replaced. Not that the interior of the buildings were useful for anything... but the exteriors, those were tended to. Like a model railroad, where the appearance was more important than the functionality...
"Like a playset," Elisa pondered aloud.
Una glanced over. "Hmm?"
"Maria has a little wooden train playset. She loves playing with it," Elisa explained. "Sets up the figure-8 track, runs the trains around it, makes choo choo noises. But she also sets up buildings, and little people figures waiting at the stations. Wouldn't be as fun without the trimmings."
The third of the trio was a bit more unnerved at the thought.
"That... would explain the strawmen, then..." Nel considered.
They'd passed by primitive scarecrows, men made of straw, propped up against buildings. Some wore a few crude bits of clothing, like a makeshift hat, or a rotting suitcase tied on to one arm with string. None of them looked particularly threatening, aside from being 'fake people' which is always a bit unsettling... they were just part of the scenery. Like the scenery being part of the scenery.
"These people have been cut off from the world for two centuries," Una reasoned. "They may be carrying on patterns of what their ancestors remembered as normalcy. The rituals have likely lost all meaning. ...it's going to be difficult integrating them back into modern society, I suspect. I'm all the more glad we came, if they're this in need."
Elisa felt the reassuring weight of her sidearm, under her jacket. "That assumes they want our help at all," she added. "Don't forget, we may get the same sort of welcome we've gotten before. Especially if they're that far removed from us..."
One of her sidelong glances at the buildings they passed became less of a glance and more of a stare.
It had an interior. Cleaned up, properly lit, and filled with...
Elisa glanced up at the storefront signage. It would've been easy to miss, this nondescript little store. Not nearly as prominent as the franchise outlets and other loud and important places they'd passed. Just a humble little shop, with a hand-painted sign, reading HALEY'S COMET COMICS.
Someone had poked holes in the roof and installed long-lasting plexiglass, to make sure the shop stayed lit during the day, despite no electricity. The doors and storefront window were in good repair -- in fact, it was quite cool inside, by some unknown means. No doubt to keep the comic books preserved.
The shelves were fully stocked. Which made no sense, given there was no way ordinary pulp paper comics could survive two hundred years, much less the toys and figures on display, each with hand-lettered price tags. Nothing here could have endured that long...
Nel was the first to browse the isles, to study each individual four-color cover she passed by. And she came to the conclusion quickly enough.
"The same person drew each and every one of these books," she realized.
"I'm... not much of a comic art historian, but... I'm seeing Batman, Spiderman, Starwoman, X-Men... all sorts of famous pre-Pandora titles here," Elisa said, picking up an issue of The Sandman #9 from a rack. "I'm pretty sure they weren't all drawn by the... same..."
It only took a few moments of flipping through the pages to realize Nel was right.
"They're copies," Nel continued. "All of them. All copied by the same artist, presumably from the original books. Or likely, copied from copies of copies of the originals. Keeping the stories alive, no matter how often the pages rot away in time... it's like Faerie texts. You have to recopy them so that future generations can enjoy them; there's no digital archiving. And each time, a signature of the copier is left, mutating the work slightly... but the original shines through."
Una was already flipping through an issue of Starwoman and Astro Gal, smiling at the brightly colored pages. "Hand-made paper, hand-made inks...! The dedication, the determination of these artists is simply amazing! You know, many of my friends from #A076 are fascinated with comic book culture. Several of them were sneaking out to Baltimore for MediaCon even before the Orbitals were introduced to the public, that's how exciting these stories of heroes and villains were to them..."
As Elisa turned a hand-made "collector's" bust of Wonder Woman back and forth in her hand... she considered. "All the toys in here are recreations, too. Some sort of clay, fired and painted. All this effort to make sure this ONE store survived, while all the others are just stage dressing... Una? Are we near the hub of the colony?"
"Quite central to it, I'd say, from the overheads," Una said. "You think they've based their entire culture on this store--?"
The cracking of clay on the well-swept shop floor drew Elisa's attention sharply.
A small pile of broken Superman figures, where there wasn't one before. And standing there, staring in terror at the three of them as they leafed through her personal library... a young girl who couldn't possibly be more than fourteen years old.
Immediately, Elisa recognized the face paint. This was the girl who had found their beacon... her paint now clearly a superhero's mask, a tiny little domino shape that would do nothing to protect her identity. She wore a tunic of rough cloth, dyed a bright blue, with a golden star shaped piece of cloth awkwardly sewn into the front as a crest. Across her shoulders, a cape made of woolen cloth... which trembled, as the girl trembled, under Agent Morale's studying eyes...
"...everybody... calm, everybody," Elisa insisted, taking three steps back, rather than any steps forward. "We're just... visiting. We're not here to hurt you..."
The girl glanced back, to the door, considering running for it. If they lost her, if she fled, she could hide anywhere in this labyrinth of ruins. They may never find her again...
Acting out her little fantasy of a comic shop. A fantasy of a city to live in. Everything exactly the way it should be, or at least, looking like it should. How things looked was very important. That was the key...
Slowly, Elisa reached into her blazer... and pulled out her wallet.
"Can I buy one of those figures, please?" she asked, producing a few $10 bills.
It took a few tries to slip Una and Nel a small amount of hard Eastusa currency, but eventually, all three were customers of one extremely happy comic book store owner.
Elisa worked with the girl to repair one of the broken Superman statues, which was then purchased for $10. Una picked up an authentic replica prop from a Buck Rogers serial, a little tin raygun that had been created from hammering on a can of beans until it formed the right shape, street valued at $10. For Nel, she took a keen interest in a stack of Starwoman and Astro Gal comics... which were apparently the shop's top selling item, given how they formed at least a third of the shop's inventory. Likewise, they cost $10.
The cash register drawer was entirely free from rust, as if it had seen frequent use... despite there being no one to sell things to. With the transactions complete... the owner felt relaxed enough to chat with her new customers.
Or, rather... relaxed enough to narrate to them.
"In a world that time forgot, in a city without citizens, one lone defender stands against the forces of evil," the girl continued. "Her eternal vigil of justice ensures the peace and tranquility of the Hawaii!"
That was her third attempt at speaking. The first one consisted of a strangled set of vowels and consonants, until Una helpfully provided a bottle of water from the emergency survival supply pack they'd brought along. The girl gulped down half of it, before trying again, this time getting some words out without being able to string them together properly. And then... a smooth burst of comic book narration.
"So... you're all alone here?" Una asked. "Where's the rest of your colony? Or your mommy and daddy...?'
Briefly... that terrified look returned to the girl's eyes. Her mouth worked itself, trying to form the words. "... th... thhh... ieaa..."
"The lone defender recalled her origin story," Elisa quickly supplied.
"There was a flash of light, like the brilliant radiance of the sun!" the girl immediately replied, returning to her happy expression. "Soon, the champion of righteousness found herself transplanted into a new world -- a world so similar to her own, and yet, so different. A strange and mysterious world indeed, true believers! A world in need of a heroine who would stand for truth, justice, and the American way!"
Pandora, Elisa recognized. "And... did anyone else accompany the heroine on her strange journey to a new world?"
"...th... there was..."
"There was a sudden craving for delicious, delicious coconuts. Justice requires nourishment!" the girl decided to say. "The champion, being gallant and courteous, offered to go forth and immediately gather the treats for the benefit of her new guests. Up, up, and away!"
Without a further word, the young girl jumped over the counter, landing perfectly onto the other side in a flat out sprint... right out the front door. With a single flex at the knees, she leapt.
And did not come down.
The three had to gather at the door, to verify what they suspected. The tiny blue dot that ascended into the sky, soaring through the air like a bird towards the beach, was proof enough.
For emphasis, Nel held up her stack of comics... upon which a young girl with a blue costume emblazoned with a yellow star was visible. Astro Gal, teen sidekick to Starwoman.
"So... she's not a lonely comic book fan, acting out super hero fantasies..." Una realized. "We're dealing with an actual super hero."
Boldly, the champion did set forth to retrieve the delicious coconuts!
This was truly a generous act -- a sharing of precious resources with citizens in need. The quenching of thirst was no less a critical task for a hero than the quenching of wrongdoing! It was very important to stay hydrated, especially in the intense summer heat.
Without proper attention to food and water, one could... well, not exactly waste away, when you were an immortal champion of justice. But if you just lie in the street doing nothing, not bothering to eat or drink, waiting for the empty world to go away, you'll get extremely dehydrated anyway. Eventually you won't even be able to cry. And being deathly dehydrated when you can't actually die is terrible. And terrible for keeping your crimefighting skills in shape!
With great care, the young heroine did select only the finest of today's selections. She'd kept farms of various plants, whatever she could figure out how to cultivate and grow within the ruins of the city. At first she'd kept a large scale crop, so that she could feed the good citizens of the Hawaii, before realizing the food she set out for them would just rot away in the baking sun. It made no sense, until she put her mind to the task, and had a revelation.
The citizens were technically made of straw now! That's why they didn't eat anything. With that understanding she kept a small crop, only what she would need to stay healthy, along with a few nice things she personally enjoyed eating. Not that she didn't enjoy eating her vegetables! Vegetables were very important to keep scurvy and rickets away. Having scurvy and rickets when you can't actually die was twice as not as fun, and not good for justice!
For her new friends, her exciting new friends who she was reasonably sure were not made of straw, only the finest would do. Using her SUPER VISION she could examine the coconuts inside and out for proper consistency. Centuries of this had taught her how to evaluate only the best produce, straight from the tree!
So, after circling the island a little to work off her excess energy (so happy, so happy to finally see people, people not made of straw, mustn't fly too close to the water, mustn't be eaten by a sea monster, takes a long time to get out of their stomachs, hurts a lot, mustn't) she selected only the best of the best of the coconuts, and returned to her home.
Of course, they had seen her in her double identity as Carrie Lane, mild mannered comic book shop proprietor. But they seemed like trustworthy citizens who could protect her secret. No need to worry. Besides, the last supervillain went away ages ago. (The last real one. She made some out of straw so she could protect her citizens made of straw from their terrible machinations. But the last real one was gone. He was gone. He wouldn't hurt her anymore and as long as that man she saw in the silver egg never came back everything would be fine.)
After touching down outside Haley's Comet Comics, which presumably was once owned by a nice lady named Haley that Astro Gal still vaguely remembered from years ago, she boldly strode froth with an armful of delicious coconuts which fell to the floor and rolled away when she realized her new friends were reading Issue #65 of Starwoman and Astro Gal.
The comic had a small but dedicated following. It was drawn by a local artist in the Hawaii, and published independently. According to the letters column, which Astro Gal had copied five times now, it was considered "too silver age" and "too optimistic" for modern comic readers. It was cancelled after Issue #64. Which was quite fascinating, given it had been a reasonably accurate telling of Astro Gal's life before being drawn to the Hawaii... written by someone who had never visited her Earth, had no idea his ideas were echoes of her adventures.
That was true for issues #1 through #64.
Issue #65, on the other hand, had been written and drawn by Carrie Lane, so she could tuck it away quietly behind some extra copies of Secret Wars and never have to read it again.
She hadn't thought of it in thirty years or more. It hadn't been recopied very often -- she only pulled it out to restore it when it was completely falling apart and there was no time left. She'd rather put it off in favor of recopying some old issues of X-Men, or maybe Runaways, which she enjoyed very much. There was always something that needed to be done, something more important, which distracted her from Issue #65. Until she had no choice, and had to pull it from the back shelves to recopy before it turned to dust...
Her new friends were definitely not made of straw. The straw people knew not to read Issue #65.
They were real. The first living people to visit these islands in ages.
"My mother died," Carrie remembered aloud.
She still had plans today to rescue the kindergarden class from the terrible straw clutches of Doctor Sinisterhands. Instead, she spent the rest of the day crying, and in the arms of the nice woman who was not made of straw, and who understood Issue #65 and what it meant to her. All of them understood. And finally, someone was there to hold her after so long.
The next day, Carrie brought them to the memorial.
They insisted she didn't need to do this; she insisted she did. It was an important part of the process. Every time she remembered what happened, she had to return, to pay her respects. Not that she ever really said goodbye, which was traditional. That wasn't something she was ready to do yet.
The memorial was carved into the side of a mountain -- one which had resumed volcanic activity in the last fifty years, but fortunately wasn't threatening the grave site yet, despite the dull glow from high above. Here, the air was warm, but not uncomfortably so. Not enough to melt the marble tableau of the site.
She'd spent one of her early years carving the statue of Starwoman out of marble. It was important to have a statue for a fallen hero; there were plenty of them back home, for every hero that died in the line of duty. Even on this strange new world, that tradition had to follow them. Especially for her.
Carrie brushed some of the leaves and debris that had cluttered up the memorial away. Well, 'brushed' as in used her superbreath to blow them away.
"The battle raged on throughout Urbantropolis," Astro Gal explained, for the benefit of her new friends. "It was to be the final battle between Starwoman and her arch nemesis. He had finally gone too far, and thus all former ties of loyalty were broken. Starwoman pledged that she would see him brought to justice, once and for all, on that day. Astro Gal wanted to fight, but... Starwoman made her promise not to. The young heroine had been hurt enough by the dastardly villain."
"And in issue #64... it seemed Starwoman was about to be defeated by the evil Doctor Mindmelter," Nelliwyn recalled. "But the series was cancelled, then. The... next issue was a bit vague on what happened next..."
"Astro Gal wasn't entirely sure what happened next, either," she explained. "Doctor Mindmelter had the upper hand in the battle. Desperate to help, Astro Gal flew towards the fray! Suddenly, there was a flash of light, brilliant as the sun... and all three found themselves in a strange new world! The world of the Hawaii!"
"So... after arriving... Doctor Mindmelter--"
"Was defeated!" Astro Gal said, with pride, hands on her hips. "The distraction was enough to break his mentalist focus! Starwoman was able to use her Star Beam to disable him. ...to... kill him. It was unintentional; all three were dazed from the transition, and control of one's superpowers is a delicate thing. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Starwoman and Astro Gal were triumphant over the forces of evil!"
"But... in Issue #65, it looks like..." Nelliwyn began, flipping through the ancient comic book to find the final scene. "It looks like... Starwoman fell before hundreds of copies of Doctor Mindmelter...?"
"That's not a problem anymore," Astro Gal spoke. "It can't happen again. The fight raged on for days, devastating the Hawaii. But it's over. ...Starwoman, she... my... my muhh, my... she died. But so did he. And. And it's all over. It's just me, now... everybody else, everybody who survived, they... they're gone and it's just me now..."
Her new friends were unsettled by this. Astro Gal could sort of tell, even through years and years of zero social activity, through the atrophying of her ability to relate to people. They were worried about something...
"We need to get out of here," the fierce one who reminded her of mother said. "I don't like the implications of that issue. Defeated or not, the bastard may still be lurking around here."
"He can never come back," Astro Gal insisted. "It's going to be fine. The only bad guys here are pretend ones. I just... they don't exist, it's all pretend. I know that. The only bad guy can't come back because they all died."
"Even so, we should get back to the Wagon with Astro Gal and get out of here," Agent Morales said. "There's nobody left here to rescue, and every minute we--"
She may have used a super shout. The one in the pretty silver dress staggered back several feet from the volume of it. But despite remorse over a misuse of her powers, she had to stay firm...
"Astro Gal can't leave the Hawaii. She has to protect it," she insisted. "Astro Gal can't go anywhere. She can't leave mother. She can't say goodbye. This is home now. She has to protect it... there's nobody here, it's all pretend, but she can't leave, shouldn't leave. With great power comes great responsibility..."
Nelliwyn was there, to hold her shoulders, stop her from shaking.
"I don't think your mother would want you to stay, Carrie," she said. "It's okay. You've done well, protecting the Hawaii. But you need your life back. I know what it's like... to be trapped, to be miserable and alone. But life doesn't have to be that way. There ARE good people outside here who can help you. People like me, and my friends. You saw Queen Emily in the welcome beacon, yes? She wants to be your friend. So does the other one you saw, President Petersen--"
"He can never come back because there aren't any men here anymore," Astro Gal explained. "He can only take control of the minds of men, not women. You can't let any men come here or else he's gonna come back."
It didn't seem like a very surprising thing to say, which is why Astro Gal was surprised to see surprise on their faces. And alarm.
"Louis," Agent Morales said. "We need to get out of here before--"
Crushing one's mind brings around a certain pitch of scream. It was a familiar pitch to Astro Gal; she heard it in all of Doctor Mindmelter's victims. Now, she was hearing it in perfect three part harmony, as her new friends fell to their knees, clutching at their ears, mouths open in screams...
He was back.
He looked different. He always did, now that he'd been freed from the flesh of his original body, turned into a mind forever voyaging. Always with the white glowing eyes, always with the disdainful scowl... this time, in a dark man, wearing some kind of military uniform. Didn't matter. It was still Doctor Mindmelter.
He floated into the mountainside sanctuary, feet never touching the ground, since he had evolved long past the point of needing to worry about gravity. Arms folded, he observed his victims... and Astro Gal, who despite having no psychic pressure placed on her, was doing a fine job cowering in terror anyway.
She could never keep me away from you forever, Carrie. You knew that, he telepathically spoke... with a smile that was supposed to be comforting and came across as anything but. Divorce wouldn't keep you from me. Custody hearings wouldn't keep you from me. You're my daughter as much as you're hers. Well. Except the whore is dead now. Which means you're mine. All mine. Forever.
He considered the would-be rescuers, tapping into Louis's memories to identify them. And his smile widened considerably.
So, the world outside Hawaii lives on. Good. My daughter and I need somewhere to live; everywhere else should be enough room, once I can get my new vessel off of this island prison. Best thing my ex-wife could've done, killing me, setting me free. All of your kind will kneel, now. Just as you're doing.
...wait. No. One of you isn't kneeling...
Without turning, he snatched up the one who was sneaking up behind him with a rock, lifting her high into the air.
Una tried to cry out in protest, as the ghost controlling Louis began twist Nel's limbs, contorting them in punishment for daring to try and ambush him.
Another mentalist. Interesting. You've got some real talent in you if you could trick me, he recognized. I can't have a rival. Bad for my future empire. You're going to have to be--
Doctor Mindmelter paused to emit an exasperated mental sigh, at being distracted from a proper execution.
Carrie, the adults are busy right now. Sit down and be quiet like a good girl, he requested. Everything's going to be fine. Daddy just has some business to take care of before we can get on with being a happy family again.
"I, I, I, I... I won't let you kill her!" Astro Girl shouted... ceasing most of her trembling, to strike a heroic stance. "I'll fight you, Doctor Mindmelter!"
Really. Like your mother did? She was forced to kill nearly every man on the islands just to stop me. Hardly a hero's work. Are you willing to kill this innocent I've possessed, just to stop me...? Lot of blood on the bitch's hands by the end of that fight. I'd rather not have that for my daughter.
...and the hero's resolve wobbled. Memories of that terrible day... of what her mother had to do, just to free her from her father, the father who hurt her, terrible memories of terrible things...
I suppose in the end it doesn't really matter, Doctor Mindmelter said, with a shrug. It's not your call to make. See, there's one thing I've always said that nobody's remembering, not even this moron.
My job is to get you there and back, alive and in one piece. Let me handle this, kid.
Pilot Louis of the Frontliners immediately took off like a rocket, a streak of psychic power arcing from the marble floor of the memorial, headed skyward at great speed...
...before slamming straight down into the top of the active volcano, high above. Right into the lava.
They could feel the scream of Doctor Mindmelter across their frontal lobes, suddenly silenced as Louis Jones did his duty.
Minutes later, when the remaining crew of the Welcome Wagon regained consciousness, Carrie Lane was there with fresh coconuts to help nurse them back to health.
"I think I'm ready to say goodbye now," she told them.
Despite having had no access to running water in two hundred years, Carrie remembered how to use a shower. That was a good sign, the psychologists said -- whether it was some aspect her immortal nature or just old memories asserting themselves, it suggested recovery from her ordeal was possible. A long and difficult road, but one day, Carrie Lane may be able to be a normal girl again.
Well. As normal as an eternal teenage heroine could possibly be.
"According to Petersen's spin doctors, they want to play up that we rescued a comic book superheroine," Queen Emily was explaining, in their sidebar conversation. (Out of whispering range, Carrie, Nel and Una were playing a game of Candyland, spread across a table in the NASA cafeteria.) "They're desperate for any sort of good news out of the first Welcome Wagon effort, so saying we have a genuine champion of justice as a 'new resource' may make it look like more than a string of failures and disasters..."
"It's not right to put that on her head," Elisa said, watching as the teenager tried to remember what card did what in the board game. "'Traumatized' is putting it mildly. She shouldn't be out putting on spandex and punching muggers anytime soon. If ever again, for that matter. This isn't her world, things don't work like they do in the comics..."
"I told Petersen as much," Emily agreed. "Keep 'Astro Gal' out of the press. Just let her live her life. But, it's not really my call, sooo... we'll see, I guess."
"Was it your call that Louis was going to die?"
"Before we left, you warned us about it," Elisa said. "You said there were going to be consequences, if we chose to do one last mission. Risks. They say you can see the future. Did you see him die?"
"What answer would make you happiest, Elisa? That I saw him die?"
"You could have said something."
"I didn't warn you about the future, because I didn't see myself warning you. Events played out as they were going to play out," Emily explained. "A dedicated soldier answered the call of duty. You didn't like him very much, he wasn't really that nice of a guy, but nevertheless he nobly gave his life so a young girl could live. Possibly even so the world could be saved from a madman. In the end... the future is safer. It all works out."
"Hmh. Doesn't mean I have to like it."
"You don't have to like how I do things," Emily said... without much anger. Just a factual statement. "My job is to get us where we're going, as safely as I possibly can. And Carrie is part of that future."
"But... you want her out of the press. You don't want her forced to play hero."
"Nobody's forcing anyone to be a hero. Some people simply are. Like Louis. Like her. Frankly... like you."
Emily pushed aside her largely untouched cafeteria food, getting to her feet. The grubby plastic stool hadn't done much for her semi-royal dress, but she didn't care.
"You should get some rest. Play with Maria. Unwind a bit," Queen Emily suggested. "Always value the time you've got. Never know where the next mission will take you."
Elisa raised an eyebrow. "Wait, so... the Welcome Wagon project's still in the air...? I thought this was the end."
"Oh, it's probably shut down. Media spin and backlash, government types washing their hands of it... they think the mission's over. You and I know that thinking something doesn't necessarily make it so," she said. "Now if you'll excuse me, this freeze dried ice cream is not agreeing with my stomach. I think I'm going to discreetly track down a loo and have a nice queenly sit-down on a different throne for awhile."
Addendum (Home): Glad to be home. But I will be ready when I'm called upon again. I suspect the same of Una, Nel, and for that matter, their new young ward Carrie.
Addendum (Prior Offer): Regarding your off-the-record offer, Mr. President... I accept. Assuming the outcome you're predicting comes to pass, I'll be available shortly after the next election day. I think I see the limitations you spoke of now, how the back and forth of the powers that be is hindering the Anachronism Task Force. I am prepared to do what is asked of me to keep this world safe from the coming threat.
copyright 2010 stefan gagne