1. a follower of futurism; replacing traditional aesthetic values with the characteristics of the machine age.
2. a person whose role is to forecast future events, conditions, and developments.
|[Up Close with Marisa Deleon, March 3rd, 9:15pm / Segment 2 / Transcript begins]|
Good evening. It's been one year since the historic American Peace Conference, in which Eastusa and the Faerie Court formalized the peace process started by Queen Emily Moonthistle. Of the many stories coming out of that event, ranging from the establishment of the Transitional State of Florida to a gala royal wedding, one story nearly was sidelined -- the introduction of the Orbitals.
The Orbitals fell to Earth the day that Emily Moonthistle took control of the Faerie Court. They are humans from an alternate version of our world, who once lived in the stars in vast space stations called Arcologies. The reason given at the Welcome Wagon NASA conference for their five year long silence was one of power -- that while their intention is to aid their Fae and human allies, they have yet to duplicate their native power source using local materials. Without that, they could not offer their technological advances for Eastusa use.
But two weeks ago, the "Eastusa for Humans" domestic terrorist organization known as the Federalists revealed leaked information that alleges how the Orbitals power source was mined from alternative Earths... and that the Pandora Event was designed to pit factions such as the Faeries against humans, in an engineered act of mutually assured destruction. All so that our world would be emptied of life, and ready for Orbital stripmining.
In wake of these troubling allegations, we decided to go right to the source. Primary Council Leader Ono, one of the leaders of Orbital Arcology #A076 outside New Orleans, agreed to a live interview. As always, questions have not been prescreened, and no question will be left unanswered. It's time to get Up Close with the Orbitals, and address these concerns.
Primary Council Leader Ono, thank you for this opportunity.
|ONO:||Thank you, Miss Deleon. I'm glad I can be here.|
|MARISA:||Let's get to the question on everyone's mind. Is it true that the Orbitals were behind the Pandora Event?|
As a whole, no, the Orbitals did not cause Pandora. Sadly... in part, yes, we are to blame. Allow me to explain.
It's factually true that the Pandora Event, and similar world-layering shifts on other alternative Earths, were performed by certain Orbitals in order to cleanse planets and prepare them for mining. There's no point in denying it; the documents that the Federalists sent to the press are authentic. The key is in understanding that the ones who did this acted in secret, as their crimes would have been considered deplorable by Orbital society.
The true nature of the Pandora Event was a conspiracy within our ranks, one which remained undetected for likely thousands of years. The conspirators realized that if we knew the truth behind our fuel source, we would not stand for it, we would stop them immediately. They wrongly assumed that they were acting in our best interests, that the only way forward for all Orbitalkind was this... this atrocity. This genocidal madness.
I say this now -- any society built on the blood of another does not deserve to exist. It is wholly against Orbital thinking. Had we known this was our legacy, we would have rejected it immediately.
|MARISA:||So, your claim is that the truth behind Pandora was only known to a select few. Not you or anyone else currently within your society.|
I realize that many will not believe that, and will paint the Orbitals with a broad brush. They have every right to be angry. I am angry as well; I was played with and fooled all along, told that these worlds fell upon each others knives because they were savages, when really their chaos was engineered. Your particular world was targeted by that conspiracy in my grandfather's grandfather's time -- well before any of us were born.
But I don't absolve the Orbital society as a whole of blame. Whether or not modern Orbitals devised the scheme is irrelevant; the blood has been splashed onto our hands. We are responsible for that legacy, as we have benefited from it. We MUST balance the scales.
|MARISA:||What plans do you have for reparation to the people of Earth?|
|ONO:||Our plans are as they were stated, one year ago. We want to help this world recover from Pandora. The Event left deep wounds, and as Queen Emily has stated, the way to close them is through communication. The Welcome Wagon, for instance, was a joint effort of our peoples.
For too long, the Orbitals have hovered above these worlds... distant, indifferent. The only way forward, and the only way to make amends for the acts of our ancestors and to work towards a brighter future, is to work hand in hand with the worlds we visit. Our desire is to bring our advanced technologies to bear, to help solve your world's problems.
But those advanced technologies are built on a legacy of blood. They're powered by the same conspiracy that caused Pandora.
|ONO:||Which is why ever since we landed on your world, we have been working on an alternative power source. Not only to provide enough power for our own needs, as our supplies are dwindling, but to develop a sustainable and ethical power source for all to use. Much as your own people used oil and coal long after they realized it wasn't sustainable, to cover the transitional period towards better methods... so too must we use our existing resources.|
|MARISA:||When did you first discover the truth about the Pandora Event?|
[pause] Six years ago, when my city was grounded on your world. We unmasked and arrested one of the conspirators, who told the whole sordid tale.
This secret was kept by the Council. We didn't even tell our own people; we worried the effects would be devastating. The reaction within my Arcology to this news is similar to the reaction in your cities, one of outrage and disbelief.
Honestly... we should have been up front about this. Our worry was the worry we have now, that it would hinder our ability to help this world, that it would ruin our reputation. But keeping it quiet was no solution. Just another transgression to make amends for.
I think the main question on Eastusa's mind is this... how can we trust you, knowing this? After the omission of the truth for so long? And how do we know that this so-called conspiracy is contained, and won't rear its head again?
The lead conspirator, the one who tried to crash-land my Arcology and destroy your world, is currently in a comatose state after injuries received during that battle. If he ever recovers, he'll still be under arrest for the remainder of his lifespan. We will not tolerate any return to the old ways.
But, as I said before... I realize many will not believe that. We have to build up trust with your people. We hope that through word and deed, it can be so. Just as the Faeries were once your mortal enemies but now work hand in hand with you, so shall we, hopefully. And if that trust is never regained... then we will keep to ourselves, and bother you no more.
However... I put my faith in Optimism. I believe in the better nature of humanity. We will solve our internal problems, and then, with your trust and your permission, help solve yours as well.
the second age
by stefan gagne
That was the word Kas two point three was looking for. The lowest point; the point of greatest adversity. That was what her people were facing.
Two weeks prior, the news had leaked out about the conspiracy. It was just as much a surprise to #A076 as it was to the rest of the world, that their Mass Capacitors weren't in fact taken from empty planets so much as planets that were emptied. To say that the entire city was in an uproar would be mild; Optimists tended to speak from the heart, and that included their anger, however rare...
Debates broke out. Oh, nobody wanted to side with the conspiracy, to say that encouraging genocide was a terrific thing. Instead, the debates were about whether they should find a way to leave this Earth before everyone was killed by vengeful, uncivilized locals -- or if we still had a duty to the uncivilized locals to close wounds and bring them up to Orbital standards. Side debates broke out about the nature of man, the nature of trust, how societies bond and betray, lessons of history, and so on... a great many intellectual discussions punctuated occasionally by shouting...
Kas didn't involve herself in any of it. For starters, she had nothing to add; her work was still her work, unchanging, even in the face of this new truth. Also... and while she by no means felt her life was in danger... she didn't particularly want to draw attention to herself, anyway. The risk wasn't worth the reward, in any practical sense.
Maybe it was for the best that the hallways of #A076 had been running on minimal power for the last year. The rolling blackouts and dim lighting, while not aesthetically pleasing, were terrific for helping Kas move back and forth without a high profile. Hug the darkness, take the corridors that led around entire sections which were shut down months ago. Eat in the darker corners of the atrium, from the less visited eateries. The road less traveled meant less uncomfortable encounters to and from her workstation...
This was not a good time to be a Pragmatist in #A076.
The city was nearly 83.89% Optimist. Those were the ones the criminal Lar duped into coming on this mission of "benevolent" aid, the ones who to some degree wanted to break non-interference... even if his illegal use of mind access technologies pushed them the rest of the way. The remaining personnel were Pragmatists... and a good amount of them were already unmasked as co-conspirators, here to aid Lar's scheme. They were in White Rooms, likely for the rest of their lives, the closest thing the Orbitals had to prison...
And then there was Kas. A young Pragmatist who signed on with this grand adventure at only twenty years old, willing to break non-interference laws, because she saw it as the practical thing to do.
Standing at just over five foot nothing, bearing a neutral expression at nearly all times, Kas was unimpressive by any standard. Six years grounded on this world hadn't bought her any particularly noteworthy growth. She wasn't a threat to anyone, and rarely spoke an unkind word. Kas worked on her assignments with diligence and care. Her performance evaluations routinely came back with Exceeds Expectations. (Even if her interpersonal team skills were ranked middling.)
Even so... she was a Pragmatist. Everybody knew it. The label had stuck since the early days, when Lar's crime if not the REASON for his crime became known. Every Pragmatist was suspect -- who knew what cruel beliefs they held, what unethical things they might do in the name of the greater good? And now that the method to Lar's madness was revealed... definitely, absolutely, positively not a good time to be a Pragmatist in #A076.
Suspected or outright loathed by Eastusa, for plunging them into two centuries of chaos. Suspected or quietly loathed by the Fae, despite their Queen's request for an open mind about their close neighbors. Suspected and silently loathed by Optimists, that maybe Kas herself was one of Lar's henchmen...
Despite all that, the stress of it wasn't getting to her. At least, that's what she told herself. As long as she did her work and moved #A076 closer to sustainable power, everything would resolve itself. Their words were meaningless; a quiet life of effective work was all that mattered. Work at her station. Eat alone. Return to her single-resident quarters, to read and reflect. Repeat. No external stimuli changed her life processes.
The rubbery green leaf that smacked her in the face when she entered her private chambers, that was a notable stimuli.
"Sorry, sorry...! Bad Audrey zero point two! Bad. No slapping Kas!"
The plant was pulled away, before its tiny flailing vines could snag at Kas's sleeves. Despite having this green thing removed from her face... she still saw green. Green everywhere, filling her previously featureless and perfectly functional apartment...
A silvery blur stepped in her way. It was smiling. Smiling a lot.
"Hello hello! Sorry, not the best first impression to make, but I'm a firm believer in proper second impressions," the young woman stated. "So. Hello hello, hello! Yew one point four. I'm your new roommate! Ah... sorry, I had to move my specimens in with me, I know it's a bit cramped, but they powered down the greenhouse earlier this week..."
Having nothing coherent to add in face of that frenzy of friendly activity... Kas simply stood in the doorframe, trying to figure out what was going on. The other woman paid no mind, busy moving potted plants around, trying to increase the viable space of the apartment...
"I got my 'papers of walking,' as the locals say, this morning," Yew continued. "They're powering down the tertiary housing district, moving a lot of people around. Saving Capacitors, you know? Anyway, um, I read your personnel record, and I guess they moved me in here since we're both Pragmatists. I... don't think an Optimist roommate would get along well with me, after... you know. I mean, I'm not as dour as most Pragmatists, but-- oh, not to say you're dour and uncheerful! I hardly know you, aside from your files! For all I know, you could follow the merry prankster archetype! I mean... tell me a joke, any joke!"
"Um," Kas offered.
"I know, right?! It's so true!" Yew agreed, desperate to connect socially. "So! I'm Yew. I mentioned that already, which makes the greeting redundant, I know, but you always get a second chance to make a third impression, right? I'm a Botanist. Er. Not a lot of call for a Botanist these days, really, I mean, mostly I'm looking at alternative nutritional inputs, although nobody's interested in my recipes, although I could cook you dinner tonight if you like, if you want! Do you want me to cook for you? Er? Do you? I'm sorry, I'm sorry, am I talking too much? I do this when I am in a nervous state of mind, such as meeting people for the first time, or being moved by the Council into someone else's home, I'm being a bother, I know, even if I can't help how our room assignments work, I really feel bad about this, I'm so sorry, I don't mean to offend, I just, I just--"
"I'm not offended," Kas finally offered.
The other woman latched onto that like a man suffering dehydration in the middle of a landlocked desert region latches onto a bottle of purified water.
"Great! That's just great! Come in, come in, I mean, it's YOUR home, first and foremost," Yew insisted... dragging Kas inside, pushing a few plants away to make room. "So! I'm sure I've exposited to the point of detachment of your auditory canal! Tell me about yourself. What's your role in the Arcology?"
"I'm an Engineer."
That was it. Yew leaned in, expecting more, and got nothing else.
Eventually, Kas began studying the apartment in greater detail.
"Where's my secondary workstation?" she asked.
"Ahh... it's under here somewhere," Yew insisted. "You're working from home today...?"
"The location and hours of my work are irrelevant," Kas stated. "What I do is too important to allow for the recreational pursuits most in the Arcology indulge in. Did you move my workstation? It was over by my study table this morning..."
Kas set off on a grand jungle adventure, to recover the Lost Idol of Productivity. Her native guide was with her the whole way, moving plants, searching high and low. Despite the small size of the apartment, all the furniture had been rearranged or reconfigured or replaced prior to being infested with flora -- this wasn't going to be a simple task.
"Sooo... what do you do for work?" Yew tried, again.
"Yes, yes, but what sort of Engineering? Shift engines? Gravity pumps? ...Cold Fun dispensers?"
"Mass Capacitors," Kas continued... while pondering if the yellow speckled vines she was handling were poisonous. She certainly felt... itchy, being in this room. "I'm with the Concern #80D0 Task Force."
"Right! ... er, the what? Sorry, but the Nutrition Task Force is a bit isolated from anything interesting, you see..."
"Alternative power sources."
"Ohhhhh." THAT Yew knew about. There wasn't an Orbital alive in #A076 who didn't know about the endless experiments going on in the alternative power source lab. "Right, right. ...so, any prog--"
"I wouldn't need to work after declared hours if we were making progress," Kas declared. Without irritation. At least, without intentional irritation.
"Hey, have you considered asking Eastusa for some of their power sources?" Yew asked. "I mean, I hear they're doing interesting things with geothermal taps and nuclear systems--"
Kas shifted a small rack of saplings aside... finding the smooth surface of her backup workstation underneath. Finally, she thought, without intentional spite. "Inadequate and incompatible," she pointed out, as she pulled a chair up to the cramped little corner table. "The goal is cleanly reproducible aleph radiation. A drop-in replacement for Mass Capacitors. I have work to do, so if you don't mind--"
"What's aleph radiation? ...umm. I mean, my focus has been on plants, see..."
This woman is not going to leave me alone until I satisfy her requirements, Kas realized. She put thoughts of getting back to work aside... for now.
"Mass Capacitors contain supercompressed planetary matter," Kas explained. Truly, Engineering 0.1 Basics, but... "The refining and compression process condenses the background aleph radiation in all Earth-origin minerals and organics. Once it's a sufficient density, it provides considerable power, moreso than any current Eastusa technology."
Yew considered... nodding. "Like, the life force in plants...?"
"Nothing quite so superstitious, but I suppose there's a... very, very loose analogy to be made, yes."
"And... you can't make a Capacitor without mining a planet. Which we don't do anymore. We can't do anymore; it's wrong..."
"Thusly: Concern #80D0. To find an equivalent source of aleph radiation," Kas concluded. Her demonstration finished, she turned back to her workstation, logging in. "Since my coworkers seem to enjoy heading off for an evening's entertainment once their obligatory lab time is registered, I have decided to pick up their slack. This is too important to justify spending my time doing anything else, so I work in my off hours. ...I suppose I will be a fine roommate for you, then, as I won't be bothering you at all. In fact, you can leave me alone for the remainder of the night, and continue your own work, or whatever."
"Right! I wouldn't want to distract my assigned domestic living companion's important work!"
Finally, Kas decided. And called up her files, to continue analyzing the results of their latest experiment.
Tap tap tap. Chime chime chime. The simple chorus of an Orbital computer, its holographic interface offering basic responses to the inputs of an invisible surface touch keyboard. A calming sound, one Kas was quite familiar with... enough to drown out the rustle of leaves and the movement of someone else in her home. Her home, of all places, her refuge away from relentless Optimism and suspicion...
Either five minutes or one hour later, a cause and effect scenario played itself out.
Cause: Olfactory inputs.
Effect: Involuntary stomach seizures.
"Um... did you want one?"
She's talking to me again, Kas recognized.
Kas would've turned in her chair to reiterate her distinct lack of need for companionship... if not for the visual input that matched the olfactory input, which induced yet another light seizure. A rumbling in her digestive system...
Her roommate held up the metal tray, wearing an invisible pair of thermal hand sheathes to keep the heat from scalding her.
"I made brownies," Yew offered.
I've no need for such frivolities while my people are suffering, Kas reasoned.
Fortunately, touchpad keyboards meant no cracks to get brownie crumbs between, as she munched away a minute later, while poring through reams of data.
Night cycle. Day cycle. Work phase.
The Concern #80D0 Task Force commenced work at the standardized time, 0800 by the New Orleans local time zone. Although "work" was a variable concept, as far as Kas could tell. Realistically, the entire work phase usually adhered to the following structure:
...which meant that, on a good day, Kas could fit in MAYBE three hours of work. That was assuming that she was able to read through the project materials fast enough to actually fit in some time with the experiment itself, and if she skipped midday nutrition or ate at her workstation (which was discouraged). The rest of the day was devoted to reading, writing, and talking about all the work they weren't actually doing... or worse, team building exercises.
Today's was especially grating on the nerves.
Senior Engineer Pon, who had been the team leader for the entire six year run, had brought a shape-sculpting game popular with children. The idea was to use the interactive voxel space to quickly craft a particular shape, while your teammates tried to guess what mathematical concept best described its topography. Of course, any juvenile could accomplish this task, and having grown adults do it was more of a speed run competition... putting team members against each other to see who was the faster thinker.
Kas was exceptionally good at the game, and usually guessed within seven seconds. She was praised for this by the Optimists in the task force, who were always trying to encourage her to "come out of her shell" and "embrace the spirit of the thing." Inwardly, though, Kas knew she was only playing along because the faster she guessed, the sooner the game would be over, and the sooner she could get back to work.
Somehow, Pon managed to stretch the game out to fill the entire allocated hour for the daily team building exercise. Perhaps it was Pessimism, and she certainly had no empirical evidence to back up a truth inquiry... but he SEEMED to be stalling on his turns, to lengthen gameplay.
In the end, the children's toy was returned to its container, and it was time for yet another of Pon's enthusiastic speeches.
"Once again, you've all done wonderfully!" he praised. "Alpha Team had the shortest overall completion time... but I'd like to think we're all winners. The skills we build during these sessions will one day lead our people out of these dark times, and towards a brighter tomorrow. I know that the truth behind Lar's deception has disheartened many in the arcology... but that only makes our work here doubly important. The redemption of the Orbitals is in our hands, my fellows. And I know we shall lift our hopes high, in the spirit of Optimism! I'm glad I was able to do my small part in raising your spirits today... I know the results of experiment #103D weren't what we hoped for. But I've got a good feeling about #103E! Let's do our best today!"
Finally, Kas thought. It was one of her most common thoughts, to be fair. But before she could rise to get back to her workstation... Pon kept going. And going.
"Oh -- also, I've decided today's optional post-work team building recreation will be the construction of a nanochain sculptwork. We've been challenged by the tertiary shift engine repair task force, who seem to think THEY have better team cohesion. This is a patent falsehood, and I believe with all my heart we will show them who is the designated command individual! ... now, I know these secondary exercises are optional, and you don't have to attend, but... it would really help our team spirit if certain people considered attending more frequently. I mean... you do WANT to have team spirit, right?"
NO, she thought, with all her heart.
"Absolutely!" the task force echoed in unison minus one.
"Great! Then I look forward to seeing you in Atrium Two," Pon said, with a smile. "Remember, compile data from today's experiment for our regular post-meeting meeting! Work well, for the future of all Orbitalkind! And hey... let's have fun out there, m'kay? ...Kas? Can you stay behind a minute? I'd like to 'rap' with you, momentarily."
She didn't need to turn around to know eyes were staring at the back of her head. Being stared at had been common enough, being a Pragmatist in #A076... it only got worse, now. Even on her own team. Now, being singled out when she was desperately trying to fade out and get back to work...
Fortunately, the task force filed out of the meeting area soon enough, leaving only her and Pon.
He took a moment to sip from his UNIVERSE'S #1 ANALYTICAL PHYSICIST mug, before speaking.
"How're you feeling today, Kas?" he asked... pouring on the Concern tones. "I know you got a new roommate recently. I was hoping that might cheer you up some, having someone to talk to outside of work..."
"I'm fine, thank you," she offered. Can I go now?
"I noticed you enjoyed today's game challenge. I'm glad I was able to find something you could really get into; I care about my support staff, you know. I want to make sure you're happy. ...you are happy, right, Kas? Hopeful for the future?"
"I don't believe in hope, sir," Kas stated. (It was the wrong thing to say, and she knew it, but... frustration made her stand out, at times.) "I believe in inquiry and the process of obtaining the truth. The future will be positive or negative based on our actions, nothing more. If you are asking if I have faith in our ability to achieve a positive outcome, I do not have that, either."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Kas. Is there anything I can do to improve your morale? Morale is so important, in these troubled times. ...it's especially important, because, well... we all know that sometimes, good men can make mistakes, when they feel the weight of desperation..."
And Pragmatists could be driven to become villains, for the greater good. It's what they DO, isn't it, those heartless bastards?
"I don't believe in desperation, either," she stated. "I told you. What will come, will come based on our actions. Emotional factors don't play into that, sir. May I return to work now?"
"Ahhh... that's the other thing I wanted to talk to you about," Pon said -- flicking his wrist, activating a projector built into his wearable organizer. File access logs displayed in the air in front of him. "I noticed you've been transferring files back and forth from the lab to your domicile, to work after hours. You DO know that you don't have to do that, right? The allocated work phase is a structure that has proven its value for generations..."
If I was able to get any work done during the allocated work phase, instead of listening to the endless prattle of meetings, maybe I wouldn't HAVE to give my entire life to this fool's errand!
"I am aware it's an self-selected option, sir," she said, instead. "I am within acceptable practices, am I not?"
"Well, it's your choice, but... you should consider putting the work aside and enjoying your life, too. Like attending the optional post-work team building exercises. We could've really used your sharp mind during our last matrix inversion game against the sanitation systems group!"
"May I return to work now, sir?" she repeated. Not wanting to bother fighting anymore.
Pon let out one of his trademarked 'I'm disappointed and expressing my disappointment' sighs. "Yes, of course, Kas. ...but I should note, I've decided that the experiment log files will be access-locked outside of work phase. Too much of a drain on limited resources, leaving the servers open after hours. Being a Pragmatist, surely you understand conservatism, yes...?"
Her knuckles tightened. And tightened.
I'm not doing this. I'm not going to get in trouble again. Bad enough I'm already known for not being a team player; I don't want another incident. No more shouting. No matter how much I want to shout, to scream. I should be better than that, even if I'm not...
Logic would win. Pon would respond to logic; he was a 98, a near perfect genius, and logic was universal regardless of Optimism or Pragmatism.
"The amount of power drain for computational analysis is hardly--"
"You can get back to work now," Pon offered. "And hey... let's try to relax a little, okay? You seem so tense. Tension is bad, m'kay? Yeah. See you at the afternoon meeting."
End of work phase.
Take the dark hallways back. Avoid stares. Don't think about them.
Back home. Which had, of course, become a living jungle.
Collapse on the bed, flopping down face first.
Kas could've gone right to her workstation, as she always did. Plant life had been cleared away from it, aside from a simple potted flower, coincidentally in Kas's favorite color ("A gift given to me by the Faerie princess herself!" Yew had declared). But her station's access had been cut off; local work only. And she didn't have any experiment files to work on.
She had nothing to do. No hobbies, no frivolities. Not even anything productive she could work on. Lying down until she fell asleep and eventually woke up to go back to work was the most appealing option open, right now...
If not for someone literally poking her with a stick. Poke, poke.
"G'way," Kas mumbled into the morphic shape of her metal bed, which had of course formed a comfortable surface with clear airway to bury her face in.
"It's too early for sleep, silly!" Yew chimed. "Come on, now. Bad day at work, huh?"
Kas was upright immediately, sitting at the edge of the bed.
"A bad day at work would imply that any work was actually DONE during the day," she spoke. "We don't work. We play. We even play at working. We run pointless little experiments, things that would obviously never have results, just because Pon 'has a good feeling' about various power theories. It's all completely useless from any practical perspective, and what's worse... I've been locked out. I can't do anything after hours, now. Not even move the pointless experiments along faster, so that we can at least move onto the next pointless experiment sooner. So, right now? I am considering sleep, regardless of time phase. Please go away."
Back to flopping face first on the bed.
The silence hopefully meant Yew had taken the hint and left.
"I think I just heard more words from you than I've heard since I moved in. Also, I think you should come with me," Yew suggested. "C'mon. Get up. Let's go."
"There's nowhere I need to be right now," Kas noted. "Nowhere I'm useful."
"Then I know a great place where you can be useless! It's time for the Festival of Trees!" Yew said, excitedly. "The spring equinox is here, and the Fae have begun their agricultural rituals. I go every year, and it's always spectacular, a great display of the unique technology of the Fae!"
"You mean magic. Not technology."
"Magic is only a science that we have not studied closely enough," Yew chastised. "Pragmatism dictates that there is no unexplainable phenomenon, no mysterious force that cannot be comprehended by man in the long view. ...and besides, it'll be fun!"
Fun. The little up-tweak on the word, a rising pitch, was far too familiar. And with no superior officers to witness an incident, no way for it to go on her record...
"I... am NOT... interested in fun," Kas declared -- rising from the bed, to stand against this madness. "I am a Pragmatist! If my time is not spent working in some way towards my goals, it's useless time! We are at a crisis point, Yew! If we sit around in smug self-satisfaction all the time instead of trying to save ourselves, that bright future those damnable Optimists crave is never going to come! I am sick and tired of people telling me to have fun, telling me to waste my time, talking my ear off with nonsense prattle, insisting I play this game and eat that delicacy and... and... and what POSSIBLE use could be found in going to observe some primitive superstitious nature ritual!?"
It was wrong, of course. Wrong to blow up at her roommate, to likely drive the girl to tears. Yew claimed to be a Pragmatist, but she was all smiles and sunshine and feelings... incapable of understanding the pressure, the weight Kas was under--
"You're limiting your inputs, which limits your capabilities," Yew declared. Simply, conversationally. No tears.
"The Orbitals, as a whole, are self-selecting in where they place value," she explained, completely unshaken by the outburst. "You said it yourself: a primitive superstition. And I said: magic is only a science we have not studied closely enough. You put no value whatsoever in technologies beyond the ones that are comfortable and familiar, much like other Orbitals. Which means the answer to the problem you're beating yourself up trying to solve may be right under your nose, and you'll never know, because you won't LOOK."
Kas groaned. A headache, yes, that was what she needed right now.
"You don't understand. I'm saying that... what I am attempting to express is how pointless it is to... --look, this simplistic view of what has value and what... I mean..."
Now... Yew was grinning. A wry grin, of victory.
"I await your logical point of debate which refutes my theory," she noted. "Come on, don't have all day, now..."
"...there is... not likely any practical and useful knowledge I can glean from watching some Fae celebration," Kas could only offer.
And Yew poked her with the stick again, right between the eyes. Gently.
"Inadequate!" she declared. "Therefore, you are coming with me. You stated you have no useful activity at the moment, and as you have accepted there is not likely any use in attending -- which does not mean NO possible use -- that makes it the best option open to you at the moment. Oh! Oh, and put on your best hat! Sun's not down yet, and it's quite bright outside the Arcology."
"...I do not own a hat. There's no reason to own a hat."
"No reason until today, and suddenly, perfectly sound reason. Funny how that works, isn't it?" Yew spoke. "We'll requisition you one on the way out the door. This is going to be fun! Yes, yes, and productive."
The Equinox. Little more than a footnote in an online almanac for most in Eastusa, completely meaningless to the Orbitals, and utterly crucial to the Fae.
The crowns had been united, true -- Summer and Winter held by the same soul. That meant one leader for all Fae, regardless of whether they were the more numerous peoples of the warm Summer Court, or the mysterious and unique loners of the Winter Court. This was the Second Age, the time of upheaval and change, and most Fae had embraced this new unity as the way forward into the future. Even so... marking the passing of seasons was important. Maybe they weren't enemies, weren't even rivals anymore (except perhaps as rivals for their queen's affections) but the transition of seasonal power remained a time of celebration.
A clearing in the forests just outside New Orleans had been selected for the ceremony to mark the transfer from Winter's blight to Summer's renewal. Aside from a demarcated area for the Queen's family and Court allies, there were no seats; the Fae typically would sit on tree branches around the clearing, or make a picnic of it with a grass blanket.
They came in groups... lowborn elves, commoners who lived and worked around the villages of New Orleans, always happy to have a reason to party. Highborn Fae, representatives of the great Houses, here for oneupsmanship and to keep their families at the forefront of the Queen's circles. Humans were here as well, be they artists and musicians who had helped revive the French Quarter, or Eastusa import/export tycoons with close ties to the Houses. Even a few Orbitals were in attendance... one or two families of Optimists, here to expose their bored children to exotic local cultures.
And then there were the two Pragmatists.
One sat on a low hanging branch. All the trees had been strengthened and expanded by Dryads, for just such a purpose. The other professed to having no idea whatsoever how to climb a tree, and opted to lean against it instead. Both held cups of steaming brown beverage... even if one did so reluctantly.
"Does this have any nutritional value to it whatsoever?" Kas asked, wrinkling her nose at the spicy smell.
"Its value doesn't lie in nutrition," Yew explained... swinging her feet lightly, having no problems balancing on her perch. "Spiced cider is more... hmm. I know how you'll respond to it, but I'm going to call it a 'treat.'"
"I hold no value in treats. You know that."
"Right, and it's a viewpoint you really should reconsider. I know you're predispositioned to hate fun, but... your superior does have something of a point to his fun and merrymaking," Yew suggested. "See, as a Botanist and a Nutritionist, I know the value of consumables that supply the needs of the body. There are more need than simple biological ones -- psychological needs exist, too. The mind cannot perform optimally without recreation. Finding a balance between indulgence and over-indulgence, that's the key. I don't think your supervisor has figured that out, himself."
"My mind performs well enough without any indulgences whatsoever," Kas noted. (After sipping the delicious beverage a little.)
"Ahh, but we're out here right now because it doesn't, aren't we? Ohh -- I'm sorry, I don't mean that as an insult, not really! I'm just saying... mind expansion is key. New experiences, outside the comfort zone. These are what give us the breadth of thinking needed to tackle any problem. Without a rich and varied supply of experiences to draw from, we are limited. Am I right? Am I right, I'm right, right?"
It was impossible to hate logic.
That was the problem, Kas realized. She wanted to take the high ground, or at least take the emotional low ground when she didn't have the high ground. She felt most centered when she was either right or outraged. Being wrong and unable to find objectionable cause, well... that wasn't pleasant.
What Yew was saying was correct. It wasn't a philosophy Kas felt the slightest bit comfortable with, but it couldn't be refuted. A computer was only as useful as the size of its database, the depth of its programming -- a dumb terminal had less use than an information rich system.
Didn't mean she had to enjoy spicy cider drinks, though. Even if she was. And had in fact finished her cup completely.
Kas tried to think of something to say that made sense and would contradict this... 'controlled hedonism' that Yew was advocating. Fortunately for her, the sound of drums interrupted.
"Oooh! It's starting, it's starting, look!" Yew spoke excitedly. "This is my third Festival of Trees. Don't worry, I'll explain the symbolic importance of each phase of the ritual..."
"A ritual with little to offer but symbols is as useful as a picture of the sun to a man in the dark," Kas grumbled. "Are we to watch a pantomime, then?"
"Watch and learn, okay? You may be surprised..."
Kas kept waiting for more instruments to join the drums, but... no, drumming was all they were keen on. Various drums, each interleaving patterns together, almost mathematical in its dirge-like thunder. The lights, provided by several communities of pixies working in tandem, began to dim... as the dancers took to the clearing.
At first, she wondered how it was they were still alive and not collapsing with hypothermic shock. The elves were coated in what looked like ice crystals, with skin so blue it was near corpselike. No doubt this was an example of "glamour," the useless Fae pastime of tweaking one's appearance for self-amusement. Still, they were... graceful, beautiful, from a sheer aesthetic point of view. But so cold, and precise in their movements--
Then they began to blast the grass of the clearing with great gouts of blue flame.
"This represents the harrowing of Winter," Yew explained, in a voice just loud enough to be heard over the drumming. "They're scorching the Earth, rendering it infertile, to symbolize the freezing torment of the seasons. ...I mean, technically they should use cryogenic magics, but I understand those aren't common in the Summer Court..."
After a minute of dazzling flames, whirling and burning, yet somehow never approaching the audience around the clearing... the ground was rendered utterly dead. Nothing could grow there, now, being cracked and brittle and ruined.
Their task complete, the 'winter' dancers twirled away, bursting into clouds of snowflakes and vanishing. Yet more smoke and mirrors. The audience clapped appreciatively, as the first act of the ritual completed.
"So they've made a portion of their allocated lands inadequate for agriculture," Kas summarized. "I'm failing to see the point of this, Yew..."
"SHHH! He's coming!" Yew shushed. "You don't want to miss this...!"
From the depths of the forest... a man emerged.
Despite the tendency towards svelte androgyny, there could be no doubt as to the gender of the elf which walked boldly into the center of the clearing, flanked by two assistants in robes. He was a man. This was clear as he was stripped bare to the waist, aside from various necklaces of feathers and stones and other primitive icons -- dangling over what would be described in Eastusa as "six pack abs." He would be akin to an inverted pyramid, in terms of the width of that chest. His hair, wild and free and long, moved as he moved, striding with confidence to begin the next act of the ritual...
"That's the shaman!" Yew explained. With slightly too much flutter in her voice. "Most Fae communities have one, to assist in managing the green. Isn't he just an absolutely perfect specimen?"
Kas analyzed his physique, matched it up to her assumed knowledge of what would be considered ideal, and decided to agree.
"I suppose. Is that symbolic of something?" she asked. "I don't see why it's important enough for you to specifically indicate to me..."
"Well... to use local colorful metaphor, I would not be adverse to him plowing MY soil, if you know what I am speaking of."
"I wasn't aware you owned farming land in New Orleans."
"No, no! I'm just saying... well, he could till and seed my garden, you know?"
"But you just said you didn't own any--"
"Ooooh! Watch, watch! He's about to do it!"
The man had stopped, in the center of the dead zone. He held his hands to the sky, eyes closed... waiting for something.
Slowly... the two assistants stepped away from him. They began a series of hand gestures, ones used to aid in focusing the Will, for a particularly complicated spell... and, with a single Word--
Lightning blasted out of a clear sky, striking the shaman dead on.
The flash of it blinded Kas, temporarily. This didn't help her confusion. So... had she just witnessed the ritualistic execution of a man via a bolt of lightning? At the very least, he would be suffering intense skin burns and brain damage, from the estimated voltage he just absorbed...
But he wasn't dead. In fact, he was holding the lightning between his hands, arcing it back and forth, while saying something she couldn't quite make out.
More glamour? Possibly, but... that looked like natural lightning, even if it was brought into being unnaturally, and contained by unknown forces...
Before Kas could figure out how it was being done... the shaman knelt low, and pressed his outstretched hands to the ground.
The lightning grounded itself into the soil. The entire clearing seemed to glow, briefly... and then... the soil lightened.
Where there was a blasted and forsaken circle of land, now there was a perfect clearing of fertile soil. Much as it was before the ritual. Ready to be planted, in celebration of the summer to come. If anything... the glow was retained, slightly. It was a subtle effect, but the magic lingered, visible to the naked eye.
Applause sounded, as the ritual was completed. Yew applauded particularly loud, cheering as the shaman took a graceful bow, prior to exiting.
"The renewal of the Earth! Isn't it simply fascinating?" Yew asked, while climbing down from her tree perch, to join Kas. "I know, I know -- it's all symbols and metaphors. But it helps people celebrate their hopes and dreams of a good planting and harvest to come. It's very Optimistic, I know, and you'd consider it a showy waste of magical technology--"
"Are there any cultural boundaries to be concerned with in this immediate situation?" Kas asked. "If I walk out onto the field now, will I be insulting anyone or breaking any local laws and ordinances?"
"...errr... no? I don't think so. The show's over, and folks are going to be going home in a minute--"
"Good. I'm going to go get a sample," Kas declared, her empty cider cup at the ready. "In fact, I could use a larger sample than this. Are you finishing your beverage?"
Kas grabbed the cup away, drinking the rest of Yew's tasty cider, before striding out into the clearing with two empty cups and a look of absolute determination.
0400, by New Orleans local time zone.
There was only one sleep surface in Kas's living quarters, which they'd been forced to share since Yew moved in. Kas disliked sharing a bed with anyone, but that wasn't the reason she was still awake.
She was working.
Her workstation didn't have access to the lab files, but she didn't need them. Everything she needed was right here... two cups of fresh soil. Control samples from Yew's potted plants. A few untapped grade #A7 Mass Capacitors. Some used up Capacitors, of the same grade...
A stirring and groaning distracted Kas from her holographic display.
"...Kas...? Yerwake?" Yew mumbled, rubbing at her eyes. "C'mon, it's late..."
"I'm busy," Kas replied. "Go back to sleep."
"Y'know, sleep is not frivolity. It's a basic biological requirement..."
Debating the point would distract from her work. Kas declined to reply.
After all, the results were in. She'd checked, rechecked, triple-checked. Used various bits of software, to make sure there was no one single point of failure. Every single one had come back positive.
Opening a fresh project file... Kas began to lay out her plan. The elements fell into place perfectly, each component, each part of the machinery. Even the conditional elements which required more research, those she had multiple outcome plans for. Contingencies and options. Every aspect covered, completely.
Every path leading to the same inevitable solution... the salvation of Orbitalkind.
Senior Engineer Pon was in an especially good mood. He'd brought in a new blend of coffee with him, a specialty he'd requisitioned using his own matter duplicator rations, to help build team morale. Every member of the Task Force for Concern #80D0 got a cup of steaming, warm, delicious drink. No doubt this would go a long way to making them feel better about the constant stream of failed experiments.
"Soooo... let's see what we have today," he said, alternatively flipping through files and enjoying his fresh roast. "The previous day's findings have not yielded positive results, but we still have eighty three samples to process before I'm willing to call this one a dead end. I just know if we try our hardest, and show great determination, we'll find the one which yields success. M'kay, I'm going to need Jit to spool up the isolation matrix for later today -- after lunch and our soundshape drill team building exercise, of course -- and Kas, you're going to be in charge of labeling the samples for later--"
"I've found a way to recharge spent Mass Capacitors," Kas announced.
She immediately opened her project file, replacing Pon's holographic projection of the latest abject failure with her own notes.
"Faerie magic is capable of revitalizing the aleph radiation in earthly matter," she explained. "The process involves a spell which transforms electrical power into pure aleph radiation, which is then absorbed into the mass. From my observations and experimentation, the amount of energy appears to be proportional to the strength of the electrical impulse and the density of the mass. That means that with a properly designed facility and trained Fae shamans, we should be able to recharge spent Mass Capacitors over and over using free electricity from a vast array of solar panels. The end result is infinitely renewable energy. There is a minor drawback of needing a spent capacitor in the first place, which must be mined, but I believe we can engineer around that in the long run once we have this reliable power source established."
The coffee mug had stopped halfway between the table and Pon's lips. It... hovered there, as he sat there, taking it in.
"...it's standard protocol at our team meetings to raise your hand if you wish to speak, Kas," he felt he had to remind her.
So, Kas raised her hand.
"I've found a way to recharge spent Mass Capacitors," Kas repeated. "Faerie magic is capable of--"
"Yes, thank you, I heard you the first time," Pon recognized. And set his mug down. "So. Let me see if I'm understanding this. You're proposing that we drop every promising lead we have, so that you can dedicate the resources required to follow this... this absurd concept that a primitive superstitious wizard can somehow apply his 'skills' to do the impossible, namely, create aleph radiation out of thin air?"
"Out of an electrical power burst, sir. Which can be collected by a vast array of solar panels, making it essentially free--"
"And where, exactly, would this array be? Given how utterly inefficient solar power is, and the amount of panels you'd require..."
"On the moon, of course," Kas stated. "We would likely have to coat an ample portion of the moon in nanotech solar panels, and establish an Arcology on the surface to support the required number of Fae shamans. We can start with a small, cost-effective base, and gradually expand it over time as we recharge Mass Capacitors and have more resources open to us."
"Right. So. Drop everything we're doing, embrace witchcraft, and put an Arcology on the moon. This is your plan."
"Yes, sir. It is absolutely logical and cannot be refuted," Kas said, with pride. "I've planned for all assumptions I'm making about the spellcraft involved and its efficiency and output ratios. We can compensate or design around any unforeseen wrinkles, once we get the assembly line up and running. Shall we begin the work, sir?"
Take the dark hallways back. Avoid stares. Don't think about them.
Collapse on the bed, flopping down face first.
That's exactly where Yew found her, a little over an hour later. The surprise of it was enough to make Yew drop the various bags of plant food she'd brought with her. (Even plants needed lunch -- especially Audrey zero point two, which was a cutting from a semisapient plant from the wreckage of #BE12. It tended to get testy if it wasn't fed on schedule.)
"Okay, now I KNOW it's far too early for sleep at this juncture," Yew recognized. "Are you okay? Are you sick? I know a few herbal Fae remedies, if yesterday's spiced beverages disagreed with you--"
Her voice was muffled by the soft metal surface of the bed, but Kas made herself clear enough.
"Pon sent me home," she explained. "Said I was working too hard and needed a break. That I was... that my logic was unsound."
"Hey... stress gets to all of us, you know? It's like I was saying yesterday, recreation is as critical as vitamin intake--"
Kas was upright immediately, sitting at the edge of the bed.
"This is not a matter of recreation," she declared. "I have it. I have it, Yew! I know how to save the Orbitals using Faerie magic! I'm ready to start the experiments, to collect the data, to fill in the blanks and finalize the plan. It all fits together, it's going to work! And... and... that shortsighted, touchy-feely, smarmy little Optimist laughed in my face!!"
"Huh...? Wait, you mean that thing you were working on last night? Well... I mean, speaking as a Pragmatist, I suppose it makes sense to take things slow, and study the variables before jumping to such a conclu--"
With a gestural input, Kas called up her project specifications, displaying them over the flower-lined workstation.
Yew paused, to study them in detail. After all, a good Pragmatist looked at what was in front of her before forming opinions.
"...huh. So you took into account not knowing the precise ratio of electricity to aleph transfer, and everything?" she asked.
"Everything. It has holes, yes -- but I planned for the holes, I projected outcomes, I had solutions ready for each outcome," Kas explained further. "I didn't throw a crazy theory in front of him. I put a lot of thought to this. And any unforeseen variable? We can work with what we are given and solve the problem. We won't know unless we commit to research, scaled experimentation, and hopefully... if things work as predicted... we establish the full lunar outpost."
"And Pon... laughed it off? That doesn't seem right. You said he chases down any silly theory if it looks interesting..."
"I know! ...I didn't want to 'play the card,' as it is termed locally, but... I have to wonder if this is the dread spectre of philosophism. That ideas coming from a Pragmatist, no matter how Optimistic, are unacceptable. Suspect, even. Especially as the basis of Lar's madness came to light..."
"Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to mere incompetence," Yew suggested. "I read the declassified portions of Pon's information stack, the other day. He's a fine worker, an open minded thinker, and consistently gets high marks for interpersonal relations. I don't see him as prejudiced against Pragmatists."
"...so... you're saying--"
"He's an idiot, yes," Yew confirmed. "It's absurd to reject this plan without looking into it. I said Orbitals could be self-selecting, and this is a primary example. This is far too well formed a plan to give up on so soon, Kas."
Kas groaned, sinking back onto the bed. Closest thing to a comforting touch as she usually got.
"I guess I can rephrase and rearrange the pitch. Put it forward again, until he accepts it," she suggested. "It's doubtful he'd take it in any form, though. So... we'll never know if this would work or not."
"Because he controls the Task Force," she stated, confused. "Was this not clear? He decides what we research."
"He decides what they research," Yew clarified... as she continued to read through the plan. "Not what you research."
"...so... you're suggesting--"
"It's a good thing we requisitioned you a hat! We've got some working of legs to do, as we assault the paved thoroughfares!" Yew declared. "I hereby declare us 'The REAL Task Force For Concern #80D0'. Shall we begin the work, then?"
Creeping horror wasn't a familiar concept for an Orbital. Kas assumed it was the spiced drinks catching up to her, as her stomach knotted itself.
"We can't... what you suggest is against all policies and procedures," she stated. "We can't go over a superior officer's head and work unilaterally. There are proper channels for things. To simply strike out on... on a whim, to chase starlight, that's the worst sort of mindless Optimism--"
"I don't see it as such. You have a plan. You have a path of data collection and experimentation laid out right here," Yew said. "I mean, I can barely understand this particular science, given I'm all about the plants, but... the shape of it makes sense from a Pragmatic perspective. As does the idea of acting on what is in front of us, to discern truth. Simple and direct. I don't care if anybody else pats us on the head and sends us on our way -- Pragmatists see what needs to be done, and do it, right?"
"And that's exactly the thinking Lar and his cronies applied, Yew!"
Kas expected yet another snappy and logical comeback.
And didn't get one.
"I wasn't... I wasn't suggesting anything of the sort," Yew said. "It just seemed so clear cut, is all... what we needed to do to save the Orbitals..."
"And no doubt to Lar and the conspiracy, it seemed clear cut what they needed to do to save the Orbitals," Kas repeated. "They didn't see themselves as villains; they likely felt themselves heroes. That the genocides were just... part of the cost of our continued existence..."
"But this isn't a matter of genocide. It's clean, renewable power! I don't see any ethical problems here."
"That's because I didn't write any of them down," Kas admitted. "There are any number of factors which could arise. Maybe the magic drains the Fae of their lives. Maybe the energy isn't really free. Maybe we'll just make things worse..."
"And you said yourself we can't know until we investigate further," Yew reminded. "Look... I'm not saying we be brash, or wicked. Just... persistent. And rational, while others are irrational. We research the project. Set up experiments. I can use my contacts in the Faerie Court to get us what we need, and you can use your know-how to make it happen. If at the end of the day, we decide this isn't something we should do, if the cost is too high... we can stop. Okay? I KNOW we can get this right, if we're careful."
I can let this drop. I can get back to my miserable little routine. The Task Force might even get lucky, one day. I don't have to stick my neck out for this, or risk going too far without ever realizing it. This is where I could turn back...
Instead, Kas got up, and fetched her hat from the storage unit.
Technically speaking, the arrangement was to meet "where the river meets the rock, and the canopy of leaves forms the wings of an eagle beneath the noonlight sun."
It took some analysis using a topographical database with built in lighting model to figure out the exact global position coordinates that best matched the description. Even then, Kas felt that the interplay of shadow and trees didn't QUITE match up to a predatory bird's silhouette.
"We should have at least placed remote sensors at the other three candidate locations," she suggested.
"It doesn't work that way," Yew explained, holding her hat on, to keep it from blowing away as the wind brushed through the forest. "It's... alright. See. Basically, the Fae are VERY into games. Challenges. To the cleverest goes the prize, whatever the prize may be. When the handmaiden told me he'd meet us here, I had a feeling this was him testing us, to see if we were even worth meeting. We had to solve the riddle and make one choice to be worthy."
"I'd think that using our technology -- since you say Fae magic is just another sort of technology -- in a practical way that trumps the challenge would've proven our astounding cleverness. If we could be in four places at once, wouldn't that prove our prowess?"
"But it'd be cheating!"
"I don't know much about the Fae, but I'm reasonably sure that cheating right up to the edge of the rules is not only tolerated, but encouraged, yes? Hence all the stories about Queen Emily's palace being a former gambling house..."
This time, it was Yew who was given pause when confronted with logic. Her pout was clear.
"Well... okay, maybe that would've worked too. But this is definitely the right place, I just know it," she declared. "Anyway. When we meet with the guy, let me do the talking, okay? I swear I know more about the Fae than you. I know how they think, what they hold value in, how to bargain with them. You're the brains, I'm the... not the brawn, what's a good word for 'brains that deal with people'..."
"Good, good. Starts with B, too. I like that. Just follow my lead, and we'll get what we need. --oh! That rhymes. I'm good with this talking thing, aren't? This is gonna be great! I've been wanting to meet him in person for so long, and--"
"You found it, then."
One nearly leaping out of her shoes in surprise, the other merely raising an eyebrow.
He didn't use glamour to stealthily approach; he simply melted out of the trees, becoming visible when he wanted to. There wasn't magic to it at all... the man had a deep and reciprocal connection to the forest, and could move as he pleased through it, be that unnoticeably or noticeably. He simply chose to be noticeable at that moment.
Shaman Tillman offered a light bow. Not a deep one; they'd passed his test, but the women remained suspect. In return, one bowed so deeply she nearly fell over, while the other offered a polite but curt nod.
"I'm told you wished to speak with me about a matter of importance," Tillman spoke, deep baritones resounding well with the surrounding wood. "It piqued my curiosity, that two of the star people would take an interest in a lowly dirt magus. I can't conceive of any problem you face which would require the talents of a shaman, let alone one which has no connection to your village. So... speak. What brings you to my forests?"
"uggle mpt," Yew squeaked.
"whwn tlk s'all."
Offering benefit of the doubt, Tillman tilted his head, to lean one pointed ear closer. Which only deepened the intense blush Yew was sporting, as she giggled nervously and looked away...
Honestly, Kas thought, with a mental grumble.
"I'm Kas. She's Yew. We need your help for a project that will help save my people," she explained, simply. "I believe your Fae magic, as demonstrated at the Festival of Trees, is capable of restoring our spent power cells back to life."
Tillman stepped around the nervous girl, to address the one that spoke directly and honestly.
"Go on," he prompted.
"Our technology uses massively compressed samples of earth -- soil, dirt, plant life, fossils, what have you -- and taps them for an energy we call aleph radiation," she continued. "The spell you use to restore life to dead earth seems to restore aleph radiation as well. I believe that we can use that magic to systematically recycle our power sources, and never again need to bring harm to another society just to empower ourselves. We'd like your help in proving this theory."
"I see. I've heard of your technology, yes," Tillman spoke. "Rumors around my village say that your leader admitted Orbitals murdered worlds to drain them of life."
"It's an unfortunate legacy, and one which I seek to make amends for. If we can rejuvenate the cells, using free energy from the sun itself routed through your magic, we can carry on without harming anyone or anything else. I believe this would very much be in line with Fae thinking -- to use the natural energy that surrounds us, in this case solar radiation, to bring life to those in need...?"
"And what do you truly know of Fae thinking, star child?" he challenged... folding his arms across his bare chest, looking down upon the smaller woman. "You sit within your metal shell of a village, tinker with science, and pay no attention to the rest of the world. The only reason you're here in my forest is because you think I can be useful. How is that in any way harmonious with nature?"
"If my reasoning is invalid, let me offer an alternative interpretation of the situation," Kas suggested, switching tracks. "Yew informs me your people are very focused on debt and favor. As you now know... the Orbitals owe considerable favor to your people, for causing the Pandora Event that pulled you from your homes. This is my way of paying back some of that debt. Once my people are empowered, we intend to help all in this world, human or Fae."
"Why would we possibly need the help of your kind? We have our magic. We have our ways. They suffice."
"They suffice, but can you say you prosper? Can you say your people want for nothing? Mutual support is the edict of your queen -- world cohesion. An uplifting of each other. It stands to logical reason that mixed perspectives can lead to superior problem solving; if you are self selective in your inputs, you will miss the answers, perhaps even the questions, that you need. It's a simple matter of Pragmatism to draw upon all offered resources in looking for absolute truths. The basis of all civilization is cooperation, at the core."
The shaman studied her... all head to toe, then back to her face, which bore the most unusual expression he'd ever seen... outwardly utterly neutral, and yet...
"What if I say no?" he asked.
"Then we'll find someone who's more open minded than you and carry on regardless," she stated simply. "I'm already defying protocols by investigating on my own; I intend to see this through, now. If no one will assist, I'll learn magic myself and get this done on my own."
Thankfully, the shaman had his back turned to Yew, and couldn't see the horrified look on her face, or the frantic no no no gestures she was making to the impassive Kas.
Not that it mattered, as the Fae finally broke his own poker face, to allow a loud, boisterous laugh.
"You've got a fire in you, it seems," he spoke... finally smiling. "A cold flame, but a flame nonetheless. I am known for being a moth, in such situations... very well. My village is busy planting for the next growing season, and my work is done for them; I can lend a hand to stoke your fire. What do you need of me?"
"We're planning to set up a small scale experiment in Nevada, just outside Las Vegas," Kas explained. "It's the closest we can get to the moon's surface, near completely dead. Control factors are critical in experimentation. We should be there in three days; Yew booked lodging at the Mirage..."
"I'll find my own bedding, thank you," Tillman offered... "Unless, of course, you're offering to share your own...?"
"Of course. After all, we've budgeted this venture for two rooms. You may have the secondary if you desire it."
"Ah. Perhaps we'll see how it goes, then," he stated, turning to go. "I will be with you before three sunrises. I prefer to travel on my own. Good day, Miss Kas. Miss Yew."
The man strode back into the leaves and branches, which smoothed themselves out after he passed, , leaving no trace he was ever there.
"--yrpretty...!" Yew finally managed to say, long after he was gone.
"I thought you were the broker," Kas pointed out.
"I know, I know...! I just... oooh! I went all funny inside for a moment. I'm sorry. Won't happen again," she promised. Pouting, as she was before. "Why's he so interested in you, anyway? 'Stoke your fire'? I mean, I'm the Botanist! I LOVE nature and stuff...!"
"I could care less why he's agreed to help, so long as he's agreed to help. We should get going now," Kas said, preferring to move out rather than sit around talking about such trivialities. "You said you could arrange transport for us and the equipment we're bringing...?"
"Right, right... we'll be on a gambler's caravan," Yew said, trying to shake off the Lepidopterae from her digestive system. "Plenty of nobles and commoners alike looking for action, since the House of the Rising Sun got annexed by the queen. Apparently this 'Las Vegas' is known for games, as well as featureless deserts. ...between the caravan, the rooms, and the audience with Tillman, this is really gonna tap what little favor I have with the Faerie Court. I hope everything works out..."
"Hope is for children and Optimists," Kas said. "Everything will work out, or I will make it work out. Simple as that."
The landscape of America had become a spectrum, over the previous two hundred years. It consisted of vertical stripes of territory, each with their own flavor and populace.
To the far east, there was Eastusa, a cluster of walled cities and guarded villages, that had been on a constant self-defense footing until the rise of Queen Emily. These pastiches of urban sprawl had been built and rebuilt, upgraded and converted, and generally kept as stable as possible through two centuries of war. The traditional territory known as America had been reduced to the thirteen original colonies, pushed right up to the edge of the ocean.
Moving west slightly, there was the Fringe. Human settlers and small Fae communities, at each others throats, constantly shifting and moving and rebuilding depending on how hot the war was at the time. In an age of peace, the territory was still contested, with flashpoints and conflicts... more likely to be resolved by diplomatic efforts, but keeping things diplomatic was a full time job.
West again, and into the center of the country, there was the Summer Court. Just as stable as Eastusa, albeit using nature sprawls rather than urban sprawls. Treeborne communities of elves, grounded farming villages, vast manorhouses and territories of the High Fae nobles. Peaceful, but finding a human out there was just as unlikely as finding an elf in New York City.
And then... there was the desert and mountains, sandwiched between the Court's settled lands, and the Forsaken Shores of Westusa. There was Las Vegas.
The city had been vitalized as a joint effort of Eastusa, Faeusa, and the recently liberated cities of Westusa. Daring settlers from the west -- as well as risk-takers from the east -- pooled together to bring back the city they had only seen in old movies. A combination of the greatest capitalistic dreams of humanity and the wild hedonism of the Fae. A city that suited both of them quite nicely...
Despite the surprising and untimely death of the city's champion, Lady Morgana, those plans were still moving forward. Most of the buildings were still built out of sparkles and wishes, pure Fae glamour, but more had taken on solid shape. Bit by bit, the dream city was resolving itself into the physical world.
The first rebuilt casino was the Mirage. It had changed hands twice since Morgana's demise, but carried on without missing a beat, serving as Mission Control for the Las Vegas effort. Businessmen, traders, construction workers, nobles, investors... everybody used it as a central meeting point, from which to launch the rest of the revitalization effort. Having Fae-flavored versions of traditional card games was also quite a tourism draw, bringing in daring and rich humans, who braved the distance in caravans much like the one Kas and Yew had hitched a ride with.
The upshot of the hotel/casino being so swarmed, so teeming with life, was that two Orbitals who had gone AWOL were nearly impossible to spot in the hustle and bustle.
Kas, both hands desperately clinging to the heavy carrying cases that held components for her experiment, was too unbalanced to push away the crushing embrace she was subjected to.
"Good to see you, good to see you both!" the man was repeating. "Good, good. Orbitals! Orbitals, in my casino! Welcome to the Mirage, both of you! I was saying just the other day to my number two, I said, you know what audience we haven't tapped? Orbitals! True, their reputation has taken a hit, but this is a city of forgiveness. May summer's light shine on you and may your luck never come up snake eyes!"
"rhfmgfmh," Kas replied into the expensive spider-silk suit.
The man thankfully released her... and then glommed onto Yew, causing the woman to drop her own heavy bags. Right on her foot. Not that he noticed. (Thankfully, the pot cradled in her other arm carrying Audrey zero point two was spared a cheerful squishy death.)
He wore a Fae imitation of a 1950s gangster's pinstripe suit... apparently considered to be traditional attire of the kings of old Las Vegas. The Fae were quite serious about accuracy when it came to recreating historical content, even if they never quite got a full grasp on the proper context. To his credit, despite clothes that were originally designed for leg breakers and pushers, he had no menace to him whatsoever; his bright blue eyes held nothing but cheer, his long blonde hair swishing as he swayed in the embrace.
Eventually he let go of Yew, who was too shocked to realize how much her foot was killing her.
The man stepped back, to follow up his... enthusiastic greeting with a more formal bow, suitable for Fae nobility.
"I am Big Vinnie Relrye, owner and manager and organizer and director and kingpin of the Mirage hotel and casino!" he greeted. "My ladies, I am at your service. I am to understand you have a pair of our economy class rooms booked? That simply won't do! No, you'll be moved into the VIP suites, at no debt or favor owed. It's the least I can do to give proper thanks for representing your people at my establishment! Anything you require -- food, drink, chips, entertainment, escorts -- you need but mention Big Vinnie, and it or he or she shall be yours!"
"Ow," Yew replied.
"I'll have a healer attend to your lovely foot immediately, of course!" Vinnie spoke -- and with a snap of his fingers, an elf in a playboy bunny cocktail waitress costume was there, applying a Mending spell. "Anything for my honored guests! Anything at all. Do you require further services?"
"...we require discretion," Kas grumbled.
"Hmm? What was that, my lady?"
"We had hoped to keep a low profile," Kas explained. "From my preliminary research, I was under the impression that what happens in Las Vegas 'stays' in Las Vegas...?"
"Oh, of course! I understand fully," Vinnie agreed. "Many of my guests are here to enjoy the pleasures of the Mirage in a, shall we say, incognito fashion. ...oh dear, and I've gone and made a scene. Don't worry; I'll keep you out of the client registry log, and will give you access to our most private elevators and hallways..."
"Just don't make a huge fuss out of this, thank you," Kas requested. "We will be retiring to our rooms. We have an early morning and a lot of work ahead of us."
"Perhaps you'd enjoy sampling our games before turning in...?" Vinnie suggested. "With your keen Orbital minds, you could no doubt win big!"
"Um... I did sort of tap all my favor, Kas..." Yew reminded. "If we could make some of it back, it'd help a lot..."
"Playing games of chance, which are no doubt rigged such that we cannot win in the long run, is contrary to the concept of discretion," Kas reminded. "We will go to our rooms and that will be that."
"H-Hey! Wait a minute, now!" Yew interjected. "Kas, we've had a long ride in the back of a wagon train. I'm starving, I'm all cramped up, I'm dead broke, and I could seriously do with some recreation. I'd rather take care of those needs than seclude myself away! Don't forget, basic biological needs and basic psychological needs are just as important as--"
"Unimportant. All we need is to go somewhere quiet, away from all these... people, and start preparing for the experiment," Kas said. "Come on, Yew. Less we're seen, the better."
"No," Yew repeated. "Maybe you love to play the societal role of the hermit, but I'm not you, okay? --I mean, I'm YEW, not you. You know what I mean. And if you'd just loosen up a bit, you'd see there can be a Pragmatic use of our time beyond cycling through work, home, work, home! --Mister Big Vinnie. I shall avail myself of your facilities to satisfy my various immediate requirements. Starting with food. Can you direct me to the kitchens, so I can prepare my nutritional intake?"
The wannabe gangster/casino boss smiled widely at that, slipping an arm around her shoulders, to pull her away from Kas before minds could be changed.
To add to her confusion, Kas found herself holding Audrey zero point two's ceramic mobile homestead (aka "flowerpot"), as Yew had passed it off to her during the middle of that tirade. The eyeless plant looked up at her, just as confused.
"No need for that, ma'am! We have the finest chefs in Las Vegas in my employ," Big Vinnie assured. "Still, if you'd like to take a tour of the kitchens, I would welcome an outsider perspective. Let us discuss your time in my establishment, and your goals for this visit..."
And they were gone. Into the crowds, gone.
Leaving Kas with four incredibly heavy metal cases and one semisapient plant to carry up to her room.
She spotted them, a flash of silver, being hustled onto an elevator by a bellhop. The staff had anticipated her needs. Very practical, moving to act without needing to be instructed. Not that it helped her mood one bit.
Kas had to move at a brisk jog to keep up with the bellhop, as he swiftly and professionally made away with her belongings. She didn't mind the pace much -- her inner frustration gave her legs wings. Just as it propelled her through the dark hallways of #A076, days ago. Anger was a terrific motivator.
She was already pushing thoughts of Yew and her bothersome tendency towards fruitless self-delight aside, thinking instead of a To Do list. Equipment which could be pre-assembled. How to move it out of the building tomorrow. What tests she wanted to run, what order she wanted to run them in. What steps she would take immediately upon returning, to further the work...
The bellhop outpaced her, as she distracted herself with these workaday thoughts. By the time she got to her room, the bags were already inside, and the man was gone.
The suite was ridiculously lavish. It was a bold parody of every 60's and 70's casino hotel room ever, with posh 'space-age' furniture designs, and horribly clashing color schemes. It was bizarre to think that this was how humanity saw a futuristic society, honestly...
Although she wasn't expecting the room to be lit entirely by candlelight. That made no sense; the Fae didn't completely shun electricity, especially not when they were mimicking human history. Why would...?
"I see you've found your way here at last."
He was waiting for her, lying on the couch, propped up by a few cushions. Waving her into the room, to join him.
"I tracked your destination, and let myself in. It wasn't easy to avoid hotel security, but I'm always prepared for a challenge," Shaman Tillman noted. "So. As promised, here I am, and before the third sunset. I believe there was a promise of bedding...?"
Kas set her partner's potted plant down next to the dish of mints on the coffee table. She was not going to have this discussion while burdened with an armload of flora. In fact, ideally, she was not going to have this discussion at all.
"We have two suites. Feel free to go sleep in the other one. As for me, I've work to do. Excuse," she tried, wanting to be polite.
"Your work is in the morning, yes?" Shaman Tillman asked. "You could do some of it now, I suppose, but only so many hours left in this daylight. A few hours delay won't mean a difference between doom and salvation for your people. Run the numbers; the chances that such a shift in your schedule can genuinely impact the results are miniscule."
At that... Kas raised an eyebrow. "A logical observation. I wasn't aware the Fae were followers of Pragmatism..."
"We're not," Tillman noted... taking one of the complimentary mints from the coffee table, popping it into his mouth. "Mmm. Nor am I, in particular, much of a fan of this... urban setting. Manufactured walls. Synthetic goose down filled pillows. Glass panes, to block the fresh air beyond, in favor of breathing machine air. But as shaman, it's my duty to take in other schools of thought, to better serve my village. Even if only to know and thus defend them from outside dangers. ...it's a duty that, honestly, I've neglected. Which is why I'm here."
"If you don't like the room, you don't have to stay. In fact, I would prefer to be alone."
"Would you?" he asked... sitting upright, now, rather than lounging. "Or is that what you tell yourself, to avoid the scenarios that evolve from companionship? I know some of your people, Kas. I believe they call themselves 'Optimists,' however. So strange, the Orbital desire to apply two often inaccurate labels to themselves, to believe there's no nuance or scale between the two poles..."
There it is, Kas spotted. The headache. Yes, that is what I needed right now...
"What can I say that will put an end to this debate and get you relocated away from my proverbial hair?" she asked.
The shaman considered this. And considered her. Examining her defiant stance, the way that cold fire burned behind her angry eyes...
"Allow me one more topic of debate, and then if you wish it, I will remove myself," he said. "I swear this to you. But only if you are truthful, and complete, and do not attempt to cut the answer short so that you can be rid of me sooner. Is that acceptable?"
"I've nothing to fear from words," Kas stated. "Ask."
"Are you even the slightest bit interested in making love to me?"
Sixty two reactions smashed into each other, piling up, leaving none to actually form real words worth speaking. One squeaked through.
" .. .... .. . what?" she managed.
Tillman took another mint from the table... studying it, the rich chocolate texture, the white cream in the middle. The way it was pressed, crafted, designed for no purpose beyond enjoyment...
"I'm a nature shaman. My domain is fertility," he explained. "As your friend suggested and you agreed -- my hearing is better than most, after all -- I am in fact a perfect specimen. That is by design. I have duties beyond making the grass grow, after all. I have sensual skills you cannot imagine, because you have never started to imagine their applications. My tailored desirability is part of that, in ways that your culture likely has no comprehension of. Although I suspect that if I was to make that offer to your friend, she'd melt like this candy in my mouth, and have one of the finest nights of her life as a result. So. What I'm curious about, what I wish an honest answer to, is that question. Are you even the slightest bit interested in making love to me?"
Thankfully, during that monologue, Kas was able to force her thoughts into a proper organization.
"I'll answer you if you answer me," she decided. "One. Why do you think I have any desire to bear your offspring when I'm in the middle of such a critical phase of my work?"
"I didn't say I wanted you to bear my children. I just want us to experience each other, if you so wish it. Look beyond linear biological paths, Kas."
"Two. How arrogant and presumptuous are you to assume that you are apparently what all women crave and desire?"
"If I was truly presuming, I wouldn't have bothered asking you my question," he noted. "Do I generalize? I suppose. Is that arrogant? Yes, it is. But can you call yourself utterly without arrogance, the way you carry on, as the self-selected and self-sacrificing savior of the Orbitals?"
"You said you were only asking one question, Tillman."
"Logical and true. You may ignore that one, then."
"Three. Most critical. What possible interest could you have in engaging in sexual relations with me?"
The shaman offered a smile. And set the mint he was toying with aside.
"That's a fine point to raise," he said. "It would indeed be arrogant and presumptuous to make this one sided, in either direction. Very well; you deserve an answer for your questioning answer. Simply put: I admire you. You fascinate me. And I am prone to desire that which is fascinating and admirable. That is my superficial failing."
"I'm finding it hard to believe that I'm the least bit desirable. In fact, I go out of my way to be completely unfascinating," Kas noted.
"Which is fascinating in and of itself! I tire so much of being a fertility idol, the fair one that is so sought after. You don't seek me, and that's unique!" he pointed out.
"If you're completely unused to being ignored, you clearly need to get out of your little corner of the world more."
"And that's what you're doing right now as well, isn't it?" he asked. "Getting out of your little corner of the world more? We're both new at this, at experiencing everything else. Did you know that until you came knocking, I'd never left my home? I've barely even interacted with non-Fae. It's all quite... overwhelming. The right step to take, but overwhelming."
"I'm managing it just fine," Kas suggested.
"I can see that... managing it by falling back into the familiar. Your work. You have your work to view the world through, as your lens. I have my sensuality. I can't help but apply what I know to what I don't know, in an attempt to make sense of it."
"Then by your own logic, you're making as much of a mistake as I am," Kas concluded. "You've invalidated your own line of thought."
Like slamming a door shut, that cut off the rapid back and forth of the debate. Tillman paused, looking for another way in... but shook his head, conceding the defeat.
"True. Very true, from that perspective. And you wonder why I find you fascinating... very well. I've failed, and thus, my time here is over. I am true to my word, and as you wish, I shall leave you be..."
The man rose. Offered a formal bow, much as Vinnie had... although his had a more genuine feel to it. Less a manic need for approval, more a genuine show of respect.
And then he was gone.
Kas immediately set to unpacking the equipment, and setting up her portable workstation. Opening the program code, getting the nanopanels ready for deployment.
She didn't really answer him, though. She dodged, played with words, and threw everything back in his face. It wasn't fair to do that; he was straight with her, laying bare his own weaknesses and private thoughts, and she was evasive in return. It wasn't becoming of a Pragmatist...
Did she have the slightest bit of interest...?
A Pragmatist didn't believe in absolutes, beyond absolute truth. And that meant she couldn't dismiss it easily. Couldn't say she had absolutely, positively, no interest whatsoever.
Three program bugs had worked their way into the compiler, throwing up error messages, before she realized her mind couldn't focus. Exhaustion. Hunger, too; she'd skipped dinner, skipped every offered creature comfort. All the things that were supposedly useless and pointless, in favor of making a beeline right back to the sort of thing she could've done back at her own living quarters. Back to the familiar, rather than risk exposure to anything else.
If she gave into those frivolities, if she went down the road Yew and Tillman walked, that'd be empowering these supposed needs. Giving them control of her. She shouldn't need anything beyond her work. She never needed anything before, not that she knew of, and just because she was in strange surroundings, far from home, so far away, in a bizarre and terrifying place, didn't mean she should give into weakness... not when she was so close to finding the solution to the power problem. Once that was done, if she threw herself at the task until it was completed, everything would make sense again... it had to...
Yew found her asleep at the workstation, hours later. With some effort, she helped drag the barely conscious Kas off to bed, taking off her shoes, tucking her in. Making sure she was comfortable and rested, for the long day ahead of them.
Room service had delivered three breakfasts, on the house, before Kas even woke up.
She didn't recall making it to bed... but didn't question Yew about it. In fact, she barely said a word, grumbling a greeting, before sitting down to eat. And eat. Tillman apparently wasn't dropping in, so the third breakfast went to Kas, who was making up for lost meals.
Yew idled in the main room, watching the hotel's television, in order to silently point out that Kas could have first crack at the hygiene facilities. As she flipped between the How Awesome Is Vegas Promotional Channel and the How Amazing Is The Mirage Promotional Channel and some sort of scrambled signal which clearly was pornography, she heard a few muttered Orbital curses coming from the bathroom. (They didn't go for guttural obscenities, preferring shorthand logical paradoxes.)
"It uses running water!" Yew called out. "Turn the knobs to produce it. And use the soap. That's the white bar on the tray. I think it's made from animal fats and oils, or something..."
"You rub it over your skin after hydrating properly, then rinse it off," she added.
Minutes later, Kas emerged, wearing a fluffy hotel bathrobe and looking slightly less miserable. She flopped down on the couch next to Yew, trying to make sense of the patterns on the television.
"I think they're using some sort of analog signal scrambler," Yew suggested. "It's a bit primitive, but if they're going for period authenticity, I guess a digital encryption key or a direct feed cutoff wouldn't be appropriate..."
"Nothing here makes any divide-by-zero sense," Kas mumbled, pressing a hand to her forehead, to push the headache down.
"Rough night, huh?" Yew asked, setting the remote control aside. "You really should've showered and eaten last night, like I did... Big Vinnie showed me a wonderful night on the town, and I sampled the local delicacies! And... well, I didn't quite make back the favor I owed while playing the games, but thankfully I didn't go too deep in the 'hole'. You know, there's so much going on here, it's just fascinating how it all fits together, and--"
"Do I need lectures in the evening and morning about how I'm ignoring the world around me? Do I really NEED that, in any practical... you know what? Nevermind. I'm sure the answer is yes, because apparently the universe wants me to indulge in pointless hedonism..."
Kas peeked between her fingers.
"I was a bit hard on you last night," Yew said. "We both had a long trip, and I was short tempered. I pushed my values on you when you really needed a moment in your comfort zone, to adjust to your surroundings. No matter my intentions, it wasn't the right thing to do. So... I'm sorry."
It was hard to be curmudgeonly in the face of that sort of supplication. Kas sunk inside her oversized robe a bit, before mumbling a quick thank you.
"Right. Now, today? Today is all you and your thinking!" Yew promised. "We've got a scientific experiment to do, after all! You're washed up, fed properly, rested, and ready to go. All basic needs taken care of. And I've got good news -- I told Big Vinnie about our project, and how, um, I'm sort of tapped for favor, and he's agreed to give us use of a vehicle! We won't have to hike out to the desert. We just need to find Tillman, and--"
A rapping noise sounded on the window.
The shaman, clinging to the side of the building, waved to the ladies.
Kas turned in her seat, to look at him, puzzled.
"...what are you doing out there?" she asked.
"I don't like it very much inside buildings, remember?" he replied, raising his voice to be heard through the glass. "The sun is arcing. Time for science, yes?"
The unmarked white delivery van was period authentic, or as close to it as the Fae could get. Its metal workings were utterly pristine in their flaws -- magically induced rusting from supposed years of heavy labor had been speckled here and there. The seats were upholstered in flawless leather hide which had been neatly ripped in places, to indicate how many drivers had gotten in and out during the vehicle's lifetime. They were horribly uncomfortable in the most exacting way, with seat belts that didn't quite buckle with unerring precision, and suspension that had allegedly seen better days...
Making matters worse was the fact that Yew insisted she drive.
"It's a primitive fossil fuel combustion engine, yoked to a basic one dimensional steering column. We're Orbitals; even the least intelligent of our kind are geniuses compared to humans of that era. How hard could piloting their conveyances possibly be?" she'd reasoned. And after two minutes reading the manual found in the vehicle's "glove compartment," which held no gloves to speak of, they were off to the desert. Hitting every single rock, lump, and pothole to be found in the barely repaired highway... with sloppy control over the gas and brake pedals, and little understanding of this thing called the "clutch."
For her part, Kas honestly didn't WANT to further deepen her reputation as a Complainer McAngrypants. On some level, she felt a bit ashamed of how she'd been carrying on, and wanted at least one day of level headed professionalism to clear the table with... but bouncing around in the passenger seat of this repulsive thing, every lump and bump making her brain rattle around in her skull, was not helping.
The shaman riding in back without seat belts or even a seat didn't seem to have any complaints. His natural Fae reflexes and balance kept him steady, even as the vehicle rocked and roared along the highway.
"I'm a bit surprised the humans ever thought that burning corpses of ancient creatures was a viable resource," he did comment, however. "There has to be a finite amount of living death to draw from..."
"They stopped some time after Pandora," Kas explained. "No other option but to cease, once global trade ended. I researched all their power options, looking for alternatives for the Orbitals. They've migrated on to advanced geothermals, nuclear, biofuel, chemical battery, and other resources... all much cleaner, but it's still a hodgepodge. They can maintain for their needs, but can't measure up to the output we get from Mass Capacitors."
"I am curious about your 'Capacitors.' You say they are made of the Earth itself?"
"Highly compressed mass, yes. Soaked in aleph radiation, which is slowly drained away from use. Normally superdense materials would be unviably heavy, but we have gravity technologies to work around that -- and they grow lighter as they're used up. ...the reasons for that would take several weeks and a grounding in advanced engineering to explain."
"May I see one? So that I know what we're to be working with, when the experiment starts..."
"Third case has some spent Capacitors and some fresh ones," Kas indicated, turning around in her seat, to point to the specific identical silver carryall.
As she settled back into her seat... Kas took some tiny, tiny comfort in it. Sure, the trip was terrible, and the previous night was... conflictingly terrible, but this, this she could deal with. A frank discussion of scientific processes; a chance to flex her intellect. Tillman wasn't pressuring her as he did last night, Yew wasn't going on and on about psychological needs. This clearly was going to be her day, indeed...
"The tubes with the green caps are charged with aleph. The red caps are the exhausted ones we'll be experimenting on. We'll compare the two after, to see if they have equivalent output," Kas continued. "I'm hoping that--"
Even over the rumble of the combustion engine, she could hear the deep metallic thud of a dropped Capacitor. The superdense materials did not in fact crash through the floor and begin to burrow a hole to the center of the Earth, thanks to the gravity envelope, but they still had a distinct and loud sound when fumbled.
"It's... dead," Tillman spoke. The pause obvious, as he was trying to find the right word...
"Well, yes, the red capped ones are dead, in a way," Kas agreed. "They should be barren earth, similar to the type you can invigorate--"
"I was touching one of the green ones," the shaman spoke. "It was dead. Death. Just like the fuel for this vehicle."
"I'm not sure I follow. Mass Capacitors don't use fossils or internal combustion..."
"Explaining it would be as difficult as you explaining why these aren't incredibly heavy. But... I should say that... hmm. I will attempt metaphor..."
Kas turned in her seat, again, curious... and for the first time, saw the Fae looking shaken. A different look from his usual self-assured charming poise.
"It's like the feeling I get walking through a swamp," he explained. "Living death. Decomposing material feeding the living material. When you're trained to be in tune with nature, every aspect of the world feels different from every other aspect... a forest, a desert, a swamp, all these things have different lives. ...this may be a more apt comparison. The earth contained in that tube... it's like an enormous graveyard, squeezed down into a tiny space. So much spilled blood and shattered bone soaked through the skin of the Earth..."
They murdered entire worlds, Kas realized. Turned species on species, culture on culture, waiting for them to die off so that we could swoop in and stripmine the world. To carve away what was left of their battlegrounds, corpses and all, compress it all down into a tube, and feed off that atrocity...
She wasn't alone in the realization. Yew and Tillman clearly figured it out at the same time... and none of them particularly felt like talking about it. Where before there was a frank and factual discussion of science, now there was uncomfortable silence...
"I... think we've driven out far enough to achieve a proper control environment," Kas suggested. "Yew, you can head off-road a few hundred meters, and we'll begin."
Yew was all too eager to help set things up. She was still having trouble talking to Tillman... every time she considered approaching, she'd avert, refocus on her work, to hide a blush or stifle a giggle. Bothersome, really...
The two of them set to work, unpacking the equipment, preparing the nanopanels for deployment. The Fae shaman had little he could offer, beyond carrying heavy objects... out here, he was more cut off than usual, being surrounded with barren land. He contented himself with the occasional "Hey, pick that up, put it here" request, waiting to do his part.
As he waited by the van, far away enough for Yew to quit carrying on like a schoolgirl, Kas finished up the programming she had started last night using a portable workstation.
"See, this is what I prefer," Kas was explaining. "I know you ride me for doing too much work, but I ENJOY the work. It's satisfying to follow the process through from end to end and obtain a result. ...granted, I've grown utterly tired of failed results, but. After today, that will be ending, yes? And no thanks to Senior Engineer Pon. I have to wonder if he was deliberately holding us back... "
"What possible reason could he have to do that, though?" Yew asked. "He's an Optimist's Optimist. He believes in a bright future for the Orbitals. He has no cause to cut the legs out from under that future."
"Jealousy, maybe? Pride and glory? Pointless emotions, but he's a man of pointless emotions..."
"I'm not sure I believe that, either. The Task Force is a team effort -- he can't claim complete credit, not when the majority of the work is done by people like you. Also, he could've been promoted out of there and found glory in other avenues rather than languish for six years," Yew reasoned. "True, success in this matter would be a crowning achievement, but... I don't know. It doesn't FEEL right. His file doesn't say he was particularly keen to scale the ladder prior to our crash landing on Earth, and you'd think someone willing to stick it out this long for one big reward would've looked for reward beforehand, too..."
"It's all speculation, and without value," Kas complained. "Rendered completely moot by our actions here today, anyway."
"I know, I know. But it's a fun challenge to try to crawl into someone's head and see how they think. Just like trying to find the best way to nurture and grow a plant, by learning its nature. Kind of like what I've been--"
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"--doin wfu," Yew finished, choking off her last words as the Fae approached.
"Sorry, I couldn't help but overhear, and I agree about the desire to be productive," Tillman added. "Which is why I feel a bit left out now. Can I render any assistance at this stage...?"
Kas fired up the compiler, watching the output for any bug traces. With any luck, this would be the last poke she had to take at it.
"Almost time for your assistance, but not quite," she stated. "I'm preparing the means through which we can artificially generate the electricity you require."
"It's going to be strange, funneling false lightning, but... in principle, it should work," he agreed. ...and then spared a glance to Yew, who was smiling absently at him. "Is... something wrong with your friend?"
"She's bedazzled by you to the point at which it completely inhibits her ability to function," Kas announced, without looking up from her compiler. "It's childish, honestly..."
Tillman's chest heaved with a heavy sigh, recognizing this burden. (The physical reaction deepening Yew's blush.) "Ahhh. I'm familiar with this," he said. "Fortunately, I know a time honored Fae tradition which I can employ in situations like these. Please, one moment to compose myself. ... ... alright. Pay attention, now."
With focus and determination, Tillman assumed a wider stance, his powerful legs taking firm root in the Earth...
...and let tear with a massive, wobbly, horribly embarrassing flatus. A 'fart', to use local color to describe it.
Thankfully, he had positioned himself to be downwind from the light breeze that was passing across the desert. No need to bombard his companions with the end result.
One of those companions didn't even pay attention, busy keying in execution sequences on a workstation. The other... locked dead for a moment, horror and confusion fighting for supremacy in her expression, eventually coming up with a sort of horrified confusion.
"Just a reminder, is all," Tillman explained, standing upright again. "I'm as ordinary as you are, Yew. I eat, I breathe, I sleep, I defecate, and at times I even pass wind. It does not, notably, sound like a golden flute when I do. There's really nothing special about me; I'm a part of the natural order, much as you are. We are all flowers growing under the sun, beautiful in unique ways, but all flowers nonetheless. Do we have an understanding?"
"...yes?" Yew tried. And managed to say it at a normal speaking volume, without any squeak at the end.
"Good," Tillman said, with a smile. "I'm very flattered, really, but let's be equals in this endeavor, the three of us. Okay?"
"O... kay," she agreed. Liking the ability to talk to him, in and of itself. "Right. Equals! All pledged to the great endeavor of saving the Orbitals! ... uh, do you, um, somehow 'hold it in' constantly in case you need to do that on demand, using some unique Fae physiology, or--"
"That is more information than we require," Kas warned, seriously wanting an end to such speculation. "We're ready to begin the experiment. Deploying nanopanels... now."
And the Grey Goo began to spread.
Nobody called nanomatter "Grey Goo" until arriving on Earth. It was one of the primary concerns Eastusa had with Orbital science, apparently; they'd read plenty of horror stories passing themselves off as "science fiction" which said that the inevitable conclusion of nanotechnology was for it to sweep across the world and turn everything into Grey Goo. In reality, Orbitals had been perfecting it for centuries, and knew that such 'Goo' had limited use compared to a well designed non-nano machine... for instance, solar paneling.
Normally, solar power was akin to an Eastusa child making a baking soda volcano in science class. A cute toy, interesting to help learn a theory, but useless beyond that. Even the finest solar collectors Orbitals could design couldn't be used for practical power; they paled in comparison to Mass Capacitors, and thus were largely an ignored field. In fact, the suitcase full of nanopanel material that Kas was deploying had been stolen from an educational lab prior to their flight from #A076.
Despite being dismissed as childish... Kas had to admit, it LOOKED impressive in action.
The panels spread out like the mythical Goo, coating the surface of the desert. The mirror-slick surface expanded, rolling outward in waves and pulses, filling in nooks and crannies of the cracked earth. It was like pouring mercury from a bottomless bottle, a puddle that refused to stop spreading... and yet, it wasn't the wild and uncontrolled Grey Goo of legend. The boundaries Kas had programmed into it, along with the limited supply of solar-capable nanites, meant it would stop eventually.
One minute later, they had a quarter-mile sized disc across the Earth. It wasn't a flawless surface; it adhered to every bulge and ditch, coating rocks and pebbles. It looked like someone had upended a bucket of silver paint rather than installed a gigantic bathroom shaving mirror.
Her workstation indicated green, with the panels coming online, slowly. Charge began to build... even slower. All told, it took five minutes for it to work up the required 1.21 gigawatts.
"We're ready," Kas announced, to her amazed companions. "Tillman? The two prongs on the collector base there will discharge equivalent electricity to a lightning bolt, when you are ready. It's up to you to take that energy, transform it with magic, and shunt it into one of the red capped capacitors..."
She reached into an open suitcase, picking out a standard #A7 Capacitor. Not suitable for personal implements like simple matter duplicators or energy weapons, not enough to power an entire laboratory, but power enough to run something like her portable workstation for two years before the aleph was depleted.
Tillman accepted the handheld cylinder... feeling its gravametrically rebalanced weight, looking hesitant.
"There's usually more ceremony than this," he admitted. "A proper showing of respect to the cycle of nature..."
"We are utilizing the cycle of nature. The sun gives life to the Earth, the Earth gives life to the people. We're just cutting away a lot of the cruft around it all," Kas suggested. "Can you do it?"
"At worst, I take a lightning bolt through my nervous system," Tillman said, with a shrug. "Why not? I'll prepare myself. When I say go... activate the charge. ...Miss Yew, you may want to step back to avoid being electrocuted."
Yew, who had been standing far closer to Tillman's sweat-soaked, tanned, bare chest, lapsed for a moment back into giddy mumbling before the whole "avoid death" aspect drove her to step back towards the van.
Tillman extended one hand to the sky, fingers wide, palm flat... ready to receive the blessing of the lightning, artificial though it may be. His eyes closed, he centered himself... trying to resist the urge to press the other hand to the Earth. He had to focus on the earth in his hand, the target of the spell, even if he'd never cast it in that manner before...
Once ready... he mumbled a word. Go.
Thunder from a clear sky, combined with lightning at ground level, is a hell of a thing. It nearly knocked Kas and Yew off their feet; Kas especially, as she was closest to the workings of the generator. The flash was enough to blind her momentarily, and when the spots danced away... the shaman was holding his ground, a ball of crackling power in one hand. He brought that hand low, and the capacitor high, until they met in the middle...
And the power readout on the capacitor jumped from empty to full. That was it; no dramatic burst of light and sound, no angels singing, nothing to indicate that the Orbitals had just been saved from bleeding themselves dry, alone and deserted on a remote Earth. Trumpets failed to herald the importance of the moment.
Tillman finally peeked out of one eye, unsure if anything had actually happened... until he hefted the capacitor once, twice. Testing its weight.
"It's alive," he declared.
Kas approached slowly... studying the built-in indicators, which were all glowing green.
"Full charge," she declared. "It's indeed alive, in a sense..."
"No, I mean... remember the other full capacitor? That felt like living death? This one does not," Tillman clarified. "This is... purified. Fertile. The death-feed replaced by a river of light... I have to say, I feel considerably more comfortable holding this than I did holding the other one, even if both are viable for your needs..."
At that... Kas frowned. The indicators could be lying, after all, if the Faerie felt that differently about what was going on inside. She waved him over, to plug the refilled capacitor into her workstation, and analyze it...
Yew and Tillman joined her, crowding around, watching the funny lights and holograms and not understanding anything they were looking at.
Kas didn't respond for a minute. She wanted to be absolutely sure, to check and recheck, before declaring anything. Because what she was seeing made no sense.
"It's perfectly compatible," she spoke. "Aleph radiation is strong. In fact, it's actually at 101% of the power levels of a similar capacitor. But... you're right. To put it in the simplest possible terms, which are themselves incorrect but at least close to the reality of the situation and not requiring eight months of advanced engineering training to understand... it's reversed. Inverted. Something about this one is utterly different, but... it's stable and producing power. We've successfully recharged a dead Mass Capacitor!"
Yew took a step back in surprise. She'd never heard Kas... excited before. Aggravated, bored, or just neutral, sure. But Kas was SMILING, even...!
"We did it," Kas declared. "We did it! It's all going to work. The rest of my plan is going to work! With more solar power, more shamans, and a fully realized facility... we can have all of #A076's waste Capacitors recycled within a year! Everything's going to be okay!"
The rest was recorded in history books as follows:
Task Force #80D0 (for that was how they would be recognized) returned triumphant from their experiment, ready to begin paving the road to salvation for Arcology #A076.
With the support of the Council and their allies in the Faerie Court, the mission to the moon was launched soon after. The conduit was opened to the surface of the moon, through which components for Arcology Luna #01 would be delivered. Within months, Luna would be providing power recycling. The rolling blackouts and shortages soon became a thing of the past.
The Orbitals began to spread from #A076, fulfilling their promise to heal the wounds of Pandora. Working hand in hand with Eastusa, and soon with the allies of the United Nations... they would develop treatments for the worst diseases, build infrastructure for nations still struggling in poverty, and raise the living condition for as many on Earth as they could. They would be the glue that held the Second Age together.
Long after she was dead, history would remember Kas two point three to be the martyred savior of the Orbitals. The one who led the way towards an ethical way of living, and would be forever remembered for that, rather than remembered for the tragedy of her short life.
But other than the glorious triumphs of science, the nuts and bolts of how it all worked, and profiles on the proud men and women that made the miracle happen... very little about those days was known. All stricken from the books, in the name of national security.
Notably, they wouldn't explain what really happened in the first ten minutes after that joyous discovery.
The first one to notice was Yew.
"Those are awfully big birds up there, aren't they?" she pondered... holding a hand above her eyes, to cut what glare her hat could not.
The second one to notice was Tillman. Which was the only thing that saved Kas's life.
He'd managed to pull her away before the first ball of fire made landfall, splattering burning organic matter all over the smooth surface of the solar cells. If the shaman hadn't grasped Kas by the arm and hauled as hard as she could, the napalm-like splash would've arced nicely underneath the legs of the portable workstation, leaving her half fried.
Kas's world upended itself, as she was hurled full-force against the side of the van, the three of them taking cover as more blasts engulfed the desert. Nanopanels melted and scattered, the Grey Goo trying to close up the gaps, but liquefying under the intense heat...
Huh. It's raining fire, some observational node in Kas's mind realized, despite having absolutely no idea how this could be and thus failing to accept that it was happening. The desert sand that her heels had been dragged through as Tillman pulled her to safety sprouted small sticks with feathers at the end... arrows, they were called, from what little Kas knew of Fae weaponry. Yes, arrows. Someone was shooting at them with fireballs and arrows. Yes.
"What's going on?!" she tried to shout -- unable to be heard over the screeching of the wyverns, sounding like a chorus of tortured donkeys, braying and screeching above the still silence of the desert...
The wind snapped around the van, rocking it, as the phalanx of giant lizards swooped by. The first pass complete, they began to circle around, slowly... ready to unload a fresh volley...
Tillman worked fast, hurrying the two around to the other side of the van, to avoid the backlash. Out of the corner of her eye... somehow, despite the momentary glance... Kas was able to identify one tiny visual detail on their attackers.
Long braids of hair.
The Braid of Dawn. Fae extremists who rejected the human usurper to the Faerie crowns, choosing instead to embrace Fae purity, and fight against any mingling of races. Apparently, they didn't particularly like Orbitals, either.
"It's a Braid attack!" Tillman shouted, trying to be heard as well. Confirming Kas's fears. "We won't last long at this rate! Do you have any Orbital weaponry?!"
"I, I don't, I didn't think that... I don't even know how to...! --aren't you a proud native warrior type? Magic them or something!"
"My power gives life, it doesn't take it away!" Tillman hissed, through his teeth. "Get in the van. We're leaving! Five wyverns are no match for-- WHAT ARE YOU--"
No time to argue it. No time to even think about it, despite her Pragmatic nature trying to force her to inaction. A higher calling gave wings to her feet.
Kas darted around the van, locking her eyes on the freshly charged Mass Capacitor. It sat on top of her workstation, still intact, despite the splash of still-burning Wyvern stomach yuck around it. While Kas wasn't much of a world class athlete, she could certainly sprint a short distance, fetch the tube, and run back to the van. And even if she was a bit slow... she had to try. If it was destroyed, if her research was ruined, that would be the end of it.
She closed the gap just as the squadron were closing in for the second sweep. Her hands clasped around the tube, pulling it free. And as she turned to dash back to safety, the arrow slammed into her leg.
Someone was screaming. Kas was extremely disappointed to realize it was herself. It was really uncalled for.
After all, things could've been worse. True, she couldn't feel her leg through the pain and had collapsed to the ground, but four other arrows had embedded themselves around her without hitting -- two in the ground, two in the workstation, one leaving the electrical coils sparking dangerously. One out of five was excellent odds in her favor, and she did in fact survive. She had no reason to dislike those numbers, on a purely practical level. So why was she screaming and crying? It made no sense...
Two shadows blocked her view of the incoming death squad.
She only worked out in hindsight what had happened, after the smoke had cleared and she was safely away from this place.
First, Tillman had planted his hand directly into the electrical coil, absorbing the full blast of the remaining charge that had been built up in the nanopanels. Second, Yew had scattered some seedlings about... samples from Audrey. The plant itself may have been sitting pretty back in their hotel room, but a good botanist kept samples on hand.
As the seeds hit the ground, Tillman supercharged the barren desert, turning it into hyperfertile land.
The vined stalks, representing Audreys zero point three, four, five, six, and so on up to about twelve, shot out of the ground like a living wall.
Most of the plants were vaporized by the plasmic spew from wyvern throats, but by absorbing it, the three were kept safe. Other vines snagged at one of the wyverns, pulling its rider free, while the others banked away...
Kas got to enjoy firsthand the sight of an elven rider slamming headfirst into the ground, breaking his neck. It was the first time she'd ever seen someone die.
The wyvern itself, rather than flying straight and true and in perfect formation as the others did, suddenly went wild. It flailed, it snapped at the vines... and eventually settled to perch on the ground. It didn't continue the attack, didn't move to recover its lost rider. Truthfully, it looked a little confused as to what it was doing and how it got here.
You and me both, she thought, because dry humor was a great way to forget the fact that you're bleeding out in the middle of the desert.
Someone was saying something. The ground was shaking. A great many somethings seemed to emerge from the silver ground itself. Kas didn't care. She wanted to sleep, and so, sleep she did.
"...cleaned out the lair completely. We shouldn't have sent the Hounds; they were vaporized and left for dead. By the time they revived, the Braid had already left. Utterly useless Winterspawn..."
"Never would've tracked them this far without help from the Winterhounds. Stow the attitude. The civilians are secure, the Braid agent's secure, we've got material evidence to bring back to Ono. That's enough of a victory for one day. Take your successes where you find them, soldier."
Nighttime? No, the sun was up, in front of her. Above her. She was on her back. Monotones. Greyscales. Maybe she'd gone partially blind...
A new voice.
"Kas! Kas, are you okay? --wait, no, rhetorical and patently stupid question. Statement! You are okay. It's going to be okay... --um, don't sit up. They gave you a mild paralytic so your muscle tissue could finish mending..."
Never before was Kas so completely happy to hear Yew's voice. Seeing Yew looming above, kneeling over her and in bright technocolor, was likewise a welcome sight.
"What's the situation?" Kas asked, simply.
"Your sample's secure. You got it away from there before everything went bad," Yew said, knowing Kas would want to hear that first. "I locked it in one of the suitcases before we moved. ...well, I SAY we moved, but we kind of didn't move. This is really quite fascinating, Kas! It's a whole world inside a mirror. The Summerlions call it Esrever's domain. That's how they found us, through the reflective nanopanels! And now we're on the other side! Err. Because they're thinking the Braid might attack again, so, safer here than in the real world..."
Relieved to hear they were safe -- and notably, her research was safe -- Kas relaxed against the reflection-world's version of the desert sands. Oddly cool, despite being a surrealistically sunny day, on the other side of the looking glass.
"I'm not sure I can move," she noted. "You said I'm okay, right...?"
"Totally! ... well. Apparently the Braid dipped their arrows in some kind of nerve toxin. We're lucky that Scout and the Summerlions had a Fae healer with them to detoxify and mend your wound. You'll be limping for awhile, but you should be within normalized health parameters sooner than you think!"
Kas had never met the Faerie Queen's consort. She'd heard of him... the captain of her honor guard, leader of the Fae military. But she wouldn't recognize the man on sight. Which is why when the one in the hybrid Frontliner's uniform with the lion's crest shoulder patch knelt next to her, she didn't think much of it.
"What were you doing out in the middle of nowhere?" he asked.
"M-Mister Scout! My friend got shot today!" Yew reminded. "I think she needs some time to recover before--"
"I don't need anything of the sort," Kas argued, while ignoring the spinning in her head as she tried to lean up a little, to prop up on her elbows. "Our business was our own. Purely peaceful scientific research. I have no idea why the Braid would have targeted us; I've never met one of their kind before--"
"You did. The Mirage," Scout explained. "Big Vinnie was a Braid plant. Watched over the comings and goings, provided intel, coordinated kidnaps and captures of any nobles or businessmen the Braid's marked as troublesome. Apparently your friend Yew told him all about your experiment..."
Yew couldn't meet Kas's gaze. Not that Kas was being particularly accusatory in her look; immediately she analyzed the situation, knew that the super-friendly Vinnie simply played the super-friendly Yew. She couldn't have known. Not that this lessened Yew's sense of shame about it any.
"So... you knew the owner of the Mirage worked with terrorists, and you let him run free until now?" Kas asked, casting proper blame away from her friend.
"To smoke out who was giving him his orders. Who was supplying his cell with their equipment. ...you don't need to know the particulars," Scout warned. "For your own sake it's best if you don't know the particulars. Seems our investigations crossed paths with your experiment. Bad luck, that's all. Bad town for bad luck."
"Bad luck that I nearly died, is it?"
The Scout offered a curt nod.
"And where's Tillman?"
"Being debriefed in New Orleans," he said. "Closely. ...doubt he's involved with the Braid. But the Summerlions take threats to the Court seriously. My unit stayed behind in Esrever's domain to watch you until you could be safely moved. Get some rest. We'll continue this discussion once you're safely home."
She was going to put in a proper character reference, insist that Tillman hadn't betrayed them, when a sound like a mewling donkey interrupted her.
One painful turn of the head to the left, and she saw a Summerlion feeding the wayward Wyvern. The beast which had nearly murdered them all was completely docile now, nibbling away at some meat scraps right from the palm of his hand...
...and something like a wide harness made of silver lie on the ground next to him. It had been torn free from the Wyvern's back, the smooth and polished metal device destroyed in the process of removing it. From the cross section, it looked strangely like--
Scout snapped his fingers, to draw her attention back.
"For your own sake... it's best if you don't know the particulars," he reiterated.
I almost died today.
The though crossed Kas's mind once, and then was immediately discarded. Easily done, when she had something she could focus on and get properly angry about instead -- everybody fussing over her. Fae medics, asking aloud if she was still in any pain, while quietly mumbling to each other that she must be in shock from the experience. Yew, tittering away and worried, constantly asking if she wanted more pillows or maybe a glass of water.
And, indirectly, frustration at the guards posted at their chamber door... protecting them in case the Braid attacked again. As if the Braid would assault Queen Emily's witching academy / royal palace directly. All just to get at Kas. Absurd. Kas wasn't that important, not enough to be a target. She wasn't going to die. She didn't die. Today, she saved her people. Everything would be fine. It would.
At some point in the day, she fell asleep, and didn't wake up until the middle of the night. Yew had fallen asleep in an extremely posh looking chair at Kas's bedside. And for some reason, Kas was tangled up in her sheets, and soaked in sweat. She gave it no further thought and forced herself to fall asleep again.
Morning came, and there wasn't any pain or discomfort. Well, none worth considering. Everything was fine. Everything would be fine.
One sign of normalcy came in the form of Tillman bringing his companions breakfast. Somehow, just having the three of them together, no matter the circumstances, felt normal. Strange, considering only two days ago, Kas didn't know his name.
A guard opened the door for him, sparing a suspicious glance (which Tillman returned flatly) before the shaman wheeled in a cart loaded with Fae delicacies. Pastries, toasts, jams, fresh fruits, and things Kas couldn't even identify...
"I believe this lavish meal is to make up for their interrogating me for hours last night," he explained, while spreading some jelly on bread for Kas, who they insisted remain sitting in bed. "I'm glad to hear the Summerlions went light on you. I guess being outsiders to the Court makes you less likely to be a member of the Braid of Dawn..."
"It wasn't right, them suspecting you," Yew insisted. "I mean, you're no more a terrorist than Kas and I are!"
"Actually, I was with the Braid for several years," he added, before nonchalantly passing Kas her toast.
She only paused for the merest second, before accepting the plate.
"Was, in a former context," Kas recognized. "I mean no offense, but it seems they had valid reason to suspect him, Yew. But Tillman wouldn't be here now if their suspicions held weight, so we can assumed he's cleared of any charges, yes?"
"But... but... come on! Tillman wouldn't hurt a fly!" Yew insisted. "...well, actually, I suppose insecticide is a part of the cycle of life, and there are several species of flora which consume flies for nourishment, so indirectly I guess he would hurt a fly, but... come on!"
Tillman studied his apple, turning it a bit, to study the bite mark.
"You're both correct," he confirmed. "I was a member of the Braid, and I am rarely given to violence. Which is why I am no longer a member of the Braid of Dawn."
"But... why would you join a terrorist group in the first place, then?" Yew asked.
"Because terrorism was not always their way. The Braid has changed," Tillman explained. "Prior to the Second Age, the Braid wasn't a particularly extreme group. They were essentially anthropological advocates, not soldiers. We preached for purity of Fae culture, to turn away from the corruption of human influences, but did so nonviolently. The technology blends being used by young elves in Florida were particularly unnerving for one such as I, who felt at home in natural lands. As shaman, my duty is to protect my village from outside dangers, and in my youth I was less tolerant of outside ideas than I am now."
"A viewpoint which changed, or you wouldn't be with us now," Kas filled in.
"Correct. The dawn of the Second Age was the turning point. A prophecy so ancient and vague that few Fae believed in it... until Queen Emily. It was undeniable, after that. The crowns, held by a human. Tidal waves of change were sure to follow, and all a Fae could do was embrace the future, or live in denial. I... stayed in the middle, at first. I was suspicious, but willing to wait and see. As Emily proved true to her words, bringing peace at long last, I abandoned my Braid affiliation. I did so just as they started taking up arms, determined to undermine the 'usurper' on the throne."
A thought tickled at the back of Kas's mind.
"They went from theorists to terrorists that quickly?" she asked. "I wouldn't think those involved would already be skilled enough at war to effectively switch tracks... they don't seem to employ unskilled mass-destruction suicide tactics, either. That attack on us yesterday was incredibly coordinated."
Tillman considered it, twisting his half-eaten apple in one hand, thoughtful.
"I was leaving as they were arming, understand," he noted. "On my way out the door... I heard whispers. New members, blacksmiths and enchanters, provided the weapons. Swords that would swing true, no matter how poor the swordsman. Harnesses that could tame any wild beast. These were the crutches the Braid relied on, and to a degree continue to rely on, as most skilled warriors are loyal to the Scout. Some Winterhounds join them, but the ones that do are hardly what I'd call loyal to anything other than the Wild Hunt."
"I suppose a culture based on magic would rely on magic weapons," Yew reasoned. "I mean, I don't know much about magic, but its defining trait is the bending of reality to one's whim. Breaking the laws of thermodynamics and physics, through infinitely complicated and unknown mathematics. A self-swinging sword is pretty tame compared to some stories I've heard of magic--"
"I'm not sure they're using magic," Kas interrupted, as her thoughts linked together, wanting to be heard.
A sharp rapping against the wooden door broke her chain of ponderances.
It was time for their royal audience.
Despite the pain in her leg (it didn't matter, it could be ignored) Kas stood firm in the presence of Queen Emily. She had no real reason for a stance of defiant pride, but naturally assumed one, anyway. Authority and Kas rarely got along, after all, and better to be on your guard than to be a supplicant.
Standing before the Queen of Faerie alone was rare. Standing before the Queen of Faerie and Primary Council Leader Ono and... well, some unknown diplomat from Eastusa who apparently had been rushed to the palace just for this incident, that was more than most could handle without a little concern. Kas handled all three plus her leg with nerves of titanium -- lightweight and stronger than steel.
It also helped that Queen Emily seemed just as irritated and blunt as Kas normally was.
"Okay, so what various people are telling me is that you and your buddies snuck out of the Arcology and went to have a little science pow-wow in Nevada," Emily summarized. "Which means you went against the orders of your superior officer, some guy named Pon, and shanghaied one of my Court to help you. Am I right so far?"
"Tillman volunteered for this endeavor," Kas spoke.
"Yes, yes. I meant... nevermind. Point is, you struck out on your own into completely foreign territory, three against the world, after deciding you knew what was best for everyone."
"That would be correct, Emily."
A few gasps sounded from a few people. After all, not many simply referred to Queen Emily Moonthistle of the Faerie Court as "Emily." But Orbitals used solitary names, reserving ranks and positions for those above them. And Kas was not in Emily's hierarchy. Nor did she put much stock in flowery politeness.
For her part, Emily didn't care.
"Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying it was the wrong thing to do," the Queen said. "It's the stupid thing to do, but you'd be surprised how often 'stupid' and 'right' are one in the same. But you went out on your own because you assumed that you only had two ways to go... through Pon and the chain of command, or on your own."
"My superior officer ignored my theories. I saw what needed to be done, and did it," Kas spoke. "Fully within the principles of Pragmatism."
"So why not jump a few links up the chain of command? Go straight to Ono. Or hell, come to me," Emily suggested. "Your experiment was too important to either let die on the vine, or to go it completely alone. ...Second Age or not, the world's not a safe place, Kas. There's craziness going down out there you don't know about."
"Like the Braid of Dawn using hypertechnology?"
The next wave of gasps gave Kas a newfound unappreciation of gasping. It was such a pointless emotional reaction.
Emily rocked a bit on her royal throne (an old rocking chair). Staring down Kas who was staring her down.
"Officially, Lar's little conspiracy of planet-slaughtering is over and done with," Queen Emily said. "His inner circle, the one that colluded with the former Lady Summer and downed Arcology #A076, has been taken care of. All collaborators arrested. Outside these four walls, that's all anybody's going to know."
"Except clearly it has retained enough influence to sniff out my experiment and order an assault through the Braid of Dawn."
"We don't know that for sure. Lar's still brain dead and locked in a White Room; he couldn't have been involved. All we know is that Big Vinnie ordered the hit. He might've seen it as a crime of opportunity to take out a wayward Orbital."
"That seemed like a considerable amount of firepower for such a small task. Including wyverns with hypertechnology based mind control harnesses, to allow unskilled riders to fly perfectly," Kas said, connecting her thoughts into an unbreakable chain. "They weren't just attacking us because we were Orbitals. They were trying to destroy the experiment itself."
With a sigh, Emily slumped deeper into her rocking throne.
"Sorry, Kas," she offered.
"For this. You're now cleared for top secret information concerning our ongoing investigation into Orbital secret societies. Congratulations. You've now become smart enough to have a big 'ol bullseye painted on your back. You'll have to be guarded 24/7, possibly for the rest of your life; Scout will arrange the details of your protection. ...I was hoping you could get back to your simple life, blissfully unaware, and not get tangled up in this mess. Lord knows I would've wanted that, once upon a time."
I could have died yesterday, Kas thought for the second time, unable to keep it pushed down in the back of her mind. And now she's saying they're going to try to kill me again. I just wanted to save my people. I didn't want this.
"Is that all? If so, I'd like to get back to work," Kas asked. "The small scale experiment worked. I need to start designing a space elevator now, so we can launch the lunar mission. ...assuming Pon has been convinced to give me the resources I'll need?"
This time, it was Council Leader Ono who spoke up.
"Ahh... actually, as of now, you're the new leader of Task Force #80D0," he stated. "Senior Engineer Pon has been reallocated to a different task force. Pon's a good man, and I believe he'll excel in his new position, but he's clearly a poor fit with you. If you like, I can assign your friend Yew to your team as well... although I don't really see what a botanist can do for you..."
Kas, used to snapping off answers with a minimum required amount of deductive thought... had to pause. Technically speaking, she didn't need Yew around. Nothing within Yew's skill set was applicable to the work. Pragmatically, it would be a waste of resources to pull her away from nutritional studies... even if, for reasons Kas didn't want to deduce, losing Yew felt unacceptable--
"I can learn magic," Yew suggested, to cut through Kas's dilemma.
Ono cocked his head. "Eh? An Orbital, using Fae magic...?"
"Wellll... in the long run, that's what we're going to need, right?" Yew reasoned. "Kas's plan calls for a number of skilled persons with shamanic magic in her lunar Arcology. If we're hand in hand with the Fae, it makes sense to share that burden. I'll work with Shaman Tillman, and learn his ways! As a botanist, I already have a firm grounding in the science of his world. After all, we'll need to teach the art to other Orbitals, so that... if #A076 ever rejoins the Orbital fleet, we can set up similar lunar outposts on other shift planes. It's a long term goal, but no time than the present to start, yes?"
Slowly... Kas nodded along with the reasoning. It felt good, in more than one way. Satisfied her sense of Pragmatism, and... something.
Ono seemed pleased, as well. "This is why Pragmatists are so valued in Orbital culture," he said, with pride. "Optimists set the goal, but Pragmatists find the way to reach it. They have long term vision. Very well -- with Queen Emily's permission and his consent, your friend Tillman will be assigned to Task Force #80D0. ...what say you, lad?"
This, Kas was curious about. Technically she hadn't pledged him to the entire plan, all the way from small scale to the final step. The Orbitals weren't his people; he wasn't beholden to see it through, and no amount of puppy dog eyes Yew was making at him would come into play. Given his past as a Fae purist, no matter how his viewpoint may have changed, devoting yourself to living in a technowonder paradise on the surface of the moon was a bit much to ask...
"I have a village to tend to, sir," Tillman said. "The village needs a shaman. ...but, I have apprentices. I suppose I'll have to pick the best of them to take my place there. After that, I will join your effort. After all... it'd be quite a feather in my cap, being shaman for all Orbitalkind. Besides, I'm clearly in good company; why walk away from that?"
It wasn't exactly becoming for a Pragmatist to spontaneously hug someone in a sense of joyous celebration. Which is why Kas didn't do it, and Yew did. Before catching herself, blushing hard, and stepping away while hoping nobody noticed.
Most in the room pretended not to notice, thankfully. Except Tillman, who Raised An Eyebrow. And Emily, who Smirked.
"Take it from me, Kas. Having enemies doesn't mean you can't enjoy having friends," Emily Moonthistle suggested. "Alright, that's enough of your valuable time wasted. Off you go. ...although, if I can make a suggestion?"
"If you like," Kas offered.
"Building a giant shiny laser moonbase is the stuff of bad spy movies. I've read NASA's reports; in reality it's sixty zillion times harder. But... I may have a solution for your rocket-to-the-moon logistical nightmare. A simple one, one which your Pragmatic mind will appreciate. Provided they're amenable to helping you, that is. Royal subjects or not, this isn't something I feel right ordering them to do."
Gravity pumps would take care of the delivery mechanism. She had access to NASA's files, now -- every component she'd need was on hand, as spare parts for the Welcome Wagon II project. The schematic for reassembling them into an unmanned launch platform didn't exist until a few hours ago, but putting it together using her portable workstation wasn't very difficult. As long as they could assemble it to the specifications she designed, the payload would remain safe for the entire journey. After that... assembling the Lunar Arcology would be utterly trivial.
Ready to go, Kas tried to rouse her partner from sleep.
"I'm all done. We need to go talk to them," she prompted.
Yew groaned, and instinctively fumbled around in the air for the chronometer delay gestural space. Except this wasn't the Arcology, this was Queen Emily's palace. And the 'alarm clock' they'd provided her was an alien thing indeed. Plus, it wasn't actually ringing. It did, however, read 03:00.
"...Kas, it's three in the morning," Yew announced, after reading the numbers.
"I'm all done. We need to go talk to them," Kas repeated.
"They're probably asleep..."
"They don't sleep. I read their file while I was finishing the revised blueprint for the conduit," Kas said, holding up an info-tablet, showing the holographic reams of text to the blurry eyes of her sleepy partner.
"Okay, let me put it this way. YOU need sleep," Yew prompted. "I mean, not 'Yew needs sleep,' although frankly I need sleep too, I mean... ...my parents were cruel when they named me, weren't they. Ugh. I can't think straight this late at night. Forget it and just go to sleep, Kas. Frankly, you look just like I feel..."
"I feel fine," Kas lied, even as her aching leg muscle screamed at her, her eyes went wobbly, and her clammy fingers clung to the tablet. "We need to go talk to them. Sooner they agree, sooner we can launch the delivery system, sooner we can set up the Arcology, sooner we can start recharging power cells, sooner everything is finished and we're okay. Let's go."
"Kas, you're still recovering from being poisoned and shot at."
"None of that matters. None of that WILL matter when I'm done--"
"Also, Tillman went back to his village to make arrangements. Therefore, there's no shaman available to start recharging anything. Besides that, it's going to take weeks to assemble the Lunar Arcology. And... and... you know what? Forget it," Yew decided. "I am not a logical and reasonable person at three in the morning. I don't have the energy to debate why I think you're rushing things. I'm just going back to bed."
"Kas, please, sort your life out," Yew requested. "I can't sort it out for you. And if you don't, you're going to have an ulcer and a heart attack before you hit thirty annuals. Now let me SLEEP. Good night."
She rolled over, to face away from her partner, and immediately fell asleep again. So deeply asleep that she was able to ignore any light poking and prodding in attempt to rouse her.
Of course, to do that poking and prodding, Kas had to actually crawl onto the bed. Yew had rolled so far away she was in danger of falling off the edge of their cushy, comfortable queen-sized bed.
Very cushy. Very comfortable. Orbital sleep surfaces were made of a morphic metal which adapted itself perfectly to your contours, providing a flawless resting platform, but... there was a thing to be said about Fae mattresses. Not a thing Kas could say, because after the third poke, she simply fell asleep, right there.
Despite nightmares of great howling beasts screaming out of the sky trying to eat her, Kas slept reasonably well.
Morning in New Orleans greatly resembled morning in Las Vegas. The same grumpy and silent routine, the two of them trading off the bathing facilities, eating breakfast, preparing for the day ahead. But whereas they had a simple reconciliation on that morning... today, there was only silence.
Which suited Kas just fine. Helped her focus on preparing for her presentation, running through her mental notes. No distractions from Yew, no insisting she try the bacon, no complaints about not taking better care of herself. And certainly no Tillman posing erotic logical conundrums to her; he was miles away, at the moment. Good. All the better. Kas didn't miss him, not one bit. And she didn't miss Yew's pointless ramblings.
An hour later, and they were in Esrever's domain. The mirror world, the one where they'd hidden away after the wyvern attack. Only this time, as per an arrangement with Queen Emily... they were face to face with the master of that domain. Master and mistress.
Kas had read as many files as she could get her hands on, the night before. Esrever was a member of the Winter Court -- an entity that lived inside mirrors, able to recreate reflected spaces within them, and able to transport people from the real world to the mirror world and back again. In addition, and this was critical to Kas's designs... he had a consort. Anu, a reflected version of an Orbital, who was adopted into the Winter Court.
Although, on meeting her, she looked more Fae than Orbital. True, she wore the silver-laced cloth of the Orbitals... but it was woven into a ruffled dress of High Fae style. Her ears had even grown pointier, reflecting her true nature as a Winterfae. If not for the familiar face, which matched personnel files on Una point zero one perfectly, she would have little connection whatsoever.
Their greeting was cordial, and polite. They welcomed Kas and Yew into their domain, and pleasantries were exchanged.
But even to Kas... the pleasantries felt obligatory. Cold. There was an air of plain functionality to them, that these were the motions they had to go through, and no enthusiasm could be found. Tillman had coy enthusiasm in spades, compared to them. These two seemed... uninterested in them. Uninterested in anything. Simply existing...
It would've been creepy, if Kas wasn't focused like a laser on the task ahead of her. So she ignored Yew's "I'm kind of creeped out here" expression, and began.
Kas activated her tablet, letting the holodisplay show her schematics, her flight plan, her equations. Everything, laid bare.
"We're trying to find a way to revive the Orbital power source," she explained. "Using Fae shamanic magic, it's possible to recharge our Mass Capacitors. But to do so, we need vast amounts of solar power, and the best way to get the amounts we'll need is to install large scale solar panels on the surface of the moon."
While Esrever blinked blankly, unable to follow that... Anu nodded along. Apparently, her copied Orbital knowledge was a boon in this situation. "Please go on," she prompted.
"We could use a space elevator, but they're too fragile. A space fountain might work, but would require more resources than we have. Same goes for any other means of conventional transport; the return on the investment would impact our already limited power sources. Queen Emily had an alternative suggestion... that you act as a conduit, carrying men and materials back and forth from the Earth to the Moon. With that, we can simply suit up, and walk the components to the moon's surface to set up our base... and then carry the filled Capacitors back to #A076. Again, by walking through your domain."
This, Esrever had some familiarity with. "I have a copy of a small patch on the moon in my mirror domain," he explained. "The moon's surface is highly reflective, after all. But it exists too far beyond my reach for me to transport anyone there. My lord Queen Emily knows this, yes?"
"She suggested that if you pool your resources, it could be done."
"Esrever stays on Earth," Kas explained. "And Anu is placed in a mirror, which is launched by NASA up to the surface of the moon. I've designed the delivery vehicle, as you can see in my plans. After arriving, your connection to each other will allow a conduit to be formed. You would need to remain separated for the duration of the project, since if Anu returns, that would cut off anyone at the Lunar Arcology from returning."
Finally... Esrever showed signs of an emotion. Not a very productive one for Kas's needs, but it was almost a relief to see him feel something.
"And the duration of the project would be...?" he asked.
"Indefinite, as we hope to continually refresh our Capacitors," Kas admitted.
"Then our answer is no," Esrever stated. "I will not part with my beloved Anu. Mortal, I have spent thousands of years alone, wandering these pale reflections. Can you even begin to grasp that concept? Being alone for aeons? ...then, Una came to my world. In her shadows, I found my true love. What possible reason could I have to part ways with her, so soon after we've found each other? ...now. If Queen Emily orders us to do this..."
"She specifically told me she wasn't going to order you. It has to be voluntary."
"Then we do not volunteer," Esrever iterated. "This discussion is closed. We apologize for being unable to help and wish you safe travels--"
"I do not recall that 'we' have reached consensus," Anu spoke up.
"Do you forget, beloved?" Anu asked. "I am not only Winter Court. I am not only your love. I am also an Orbital. These are my people as much as the Fae are my people. They have finally found a solution to their woes, and you would turn them aside -- turn them aside without even asking my opinion, simply assuming what I would desire...?"
"I didn't say I was agreeing to the plan," she noted. "But I do not disagree, either. I want to discuss it, properly. ...we rarely speak, do we, Esrever? As of late, silence reigns over these reflected halls. Let us speak now, to avoid living with regret over silence. Or do you have such a low opinion of my opinion, that you would take away my voice...?"
(Kas was about to interject -- until Yew put a hand on her shoulder, to stop her. And even as driven as Kas was as of late, she knew not to dive into the middle of THIS fray. Better to see how it settles out.)
At that suggestion... Esrever shrunk away. "I didn't mean to imply... I apologize. You are right, it was presumptuous of me, Anu. --but they are talking about pulling us apart! You understand I feel strongly about that--"
"I know! And I'm so utterly pleased, my love!" Anu said... with a bright smile. "I haven't seen you this excited about anything in years! Don't you see, Esrever? We are mirrorfolk. We are naturally creatures of loneliness and reflection and silence. We stagnate so easily! And here come these two children of my people, full of ideas and plans and cleverness... and they shake up our status quo. Isn't this wonderful? I feel so alive today!"
"But... they...! --I am legitimately angry, aren't I?" Esrever recognized. "I haven't been upset in quite some time..."
Finally, Anu turned to face the two Orbitals, to let them in on this weird little insider discussion.
"When I first came here, the mirror world transformed from a place of cold and misery into a lively world," she said. "We were young, and in love, and exploring what it meant to BE in love. It was a first for both of us. We fumbled about, we made mistakes, but we were alive. And now... years later... our natures are reasserting themselves. We are lonely together. Something must be done. --Esrever? You see this as driving a wedge between us. Have you considered a wedge is what we need?"
His jaw sagged. "You mean... you want to leave me?"
"Oh, absolutely not!" Anu insisted, waving the idea off. "But... what is the local colorful phrase? 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder.' What can be more romantic than literally star-crossed lovers, pulled apart, only to yearn for each other anew? It takes our innately lonely nature, and turns it into a thing of passion and faith! ...Miss Kas. I offer a counter proposal."
Realizing it was her turn to talk again, belatedly, Kas tried to think of how to reply. "Um... yeah?" was the best she managed.
"Provided you can offer us a hope of reunion... a promise that in time, you will develop a technology to keep the conduit open without me, so that I can be reunited with my love... I will agree to this," Anu decided. "There must be that hope. Without it, there can only be despair from this parting. With it, there is the promise of another day."
Immediately, Kas's focused mind set to work. Picturing mirror relays, geosynchronous orbiting systems to link the range of the reflections together, forming a chain that would carry the light and expand the reach. But experimentation and research would be needed, to see what technology could yield the best results, to see what would mesh well with their magic. Research which could conclude it to be impossible.
But... it would be presumably doable. Kas was clever, and never let a problem defeat her, so it would simply have to be viable. Which was dangerously close to Optimism, agreeing to something without having a clear cut and calculated path towards it. A folly of a promise.
"I promise," Kas agreed. "If you make this sacrifice to help your people, I will find a way to ease the burden."
Satisfied... Anu turned to her companion, for his consent.
"I won't do this if you disagree with me," Anu said. "We both need to agree, to call it our agreement. I will accept an answer of no; you have as much a stake in this as I do. But I couldn't live with not having my say. Husband of mine? What say you?"
Maybe he needs more logic, Kas considered. I could propose eight different reasons why it's in his best interests to agree. Indirect assistance through the Orbitals to the Faerie Court if we regain our power, or pleasing his sovereign monarch, or...
Or I could just let him decide and not push this, despite my desire to push and hurry and get the plan going.
"If I had no love for the mirror children, for the Orbitals, I'd never have found my dear Anu in the first place," Esrever spoke. "They fascinated me, and drew me to her as a result. I am in debt to them for indirectly creating this lovely creature. ...and... she is right. If we carry on as we have, I fear I will drain all the life and color from her, until we have nothing left. I will embrace this parting, exploring its emotions, and let it enrich me. You have my consent. Provided you strive to one day find a way to bring my love home."
"Of course," Kas agreed again, despite her rational mind yelling that there wasn't enough data yet to make that determination. "You have my word."
Pleasantries and farewells were exchanged. This time, they had a bit more zeal behind them. More smiles, more genuine feelings in the routine of polite departures. When Kas was ready for them, when NASA had finished building her delivery vehicle... they would be ready.
A short time later, and Kas and Yew were back in their room in New Orleans, standing in front of the full length dressing mirror.
Yew was the first to speak.
"Do you... you know, have any idea how you're going to make a conduit without both of them split apart?" she asked.
"Not a single clue," Kas admitted. "Not yet. But no doubt I'll find a way, in time. I am a genius, after all."
"But you agreed to it without having a giant presentation full of data and projected outcomes and variable analysis. I've never seen you propose something without abandoning a night's sleep to preparing ahead of time. That's not very Pragmatic of you..."
"Yes, well, clearly the two of them have some base need for companionship which must be taken into account in my designs. Consideration for their desires in exchange for achieving our goals," Kas decided. "Not that I put any value whatsoever in romantic entanglements, and in fact consider them highly distracting from one's work. But they value it, and that's that. I'll adapt."
"Sympathetic to the lover's plight, then?" Yew asked... with a smirk Kas didn't like.
"Excuse me, but I have to get to work," Kas stated. "Before I can get to work on making the conduit more efficient, I need to get the conduit open in the first place. Send the schematics to NASA, so they can build the vehicle, things like that. ...and yes, I'll go to sleep at a reasonable hour. It's going to take them at least a month to develop and test my prototype, after all. I am going to have... ugh. Free time."
"Oh dear, whatever will you do with free time?" Yew pondered. "Well. I know what I'M going to be doing -- reading every book I can get my hands on in the Witching Academy Library. I'm going to get started on my spellcasting. When Tillman comes back tomorrow, maybe he can help me study, focus me on what I'll need to cast his specific spell..."
"Yes, you do that," Kas suggested, having a seat at her workstation. "Have fun."
She was being hugged. Well, a quick snug.
"Thanks! I'll have fun," Yew agreed. "You have fun too, okay?"
And she was off, bounding away in search of arcane tomes, no doubt.
Kas shook her head slowly, and got to work on cleaning up her schematics, laying out assembly instructions for the team at NASA.
She did not have fun doing this. That would be silly. But... she did have a sense of contentment, at perfectly laying out the lines, optimizing the build order of the parts. Making everything click together. Yes. That was satisfying. Not fun at all, just... satisfying.
The rest of the day was spent planning, and minimally communicating those plans. After all, Kas was in charge of Task Force #80D0 now -- her coworkers needed to be informed of the change in command, and the change in direction. But there was no need for a face-to-face meeting, or one of Pon's team-building distractions. Kas's words were simple -- I'm running things now, pack your essentials, get to Cape Canaveral, we'll be working with NASA on a plan to save the Orbitals, details to follow. They didn't need to know everything right away and it'd be a waste of everyone's time to go into the specifics.
...which meant several confused messages in reply, along the lines of "What's going on" and "Why are we going to Florida exactly?" and one or two "Who are you, again?" from coworkers whom Kas had made no impact on whatsoever, despite working on the same team with them for years. Which meant wasted time dong follow up responses when she could be finalizing her schematics.
NASA replied similarly. Wheedle Q. Cogpolisher, the Royal Know-it-All currently assigned to Cape Canaveral, was ready to go -- nobody else was. They wanted more information, they wanted to know more about who was commandeering their facility, they weren't satisfied with her basic introductory message. So, more time spent replying, less time spent working...
For one very, very brief moment, Kas felt a tiny ping of sympathy for her former boss, Senior Engineer Pon. Who was presumably busy organizing team building exercises with the waste management task force, or something.
Three meals and one night's sleep, and in the morning, Yew was there with a huge smile.
"We're going to live in the forests!" she declared. "Isn't that great? Tillman says that learning nature magic from books is like trying to learn how to live from a computer. He's so wise! We're going to do a full month of training out in the wilds, so I can get used to living as one with the world!"
"That sounds like a grossly inefficient technique, but he is a skilled expert, so I suppose it must have some merit," Kas agreed. "Fine. As irritating as the concept sounds, I'll pack up a portable workstation and be ready to go in the morning. I trust we'll be utilizing sunblock and insect repellant extensively? We should also pack some prepackaged foodstuffs, to avoid horrifying malnutrition from eating nothing but twigs and berries."
"Umm... Kas, you're not coming. Remember? You're going to Florida soon to build your vehicle."
Her mind deadlocked for a moment.
"Yes. Yes, of course," Kas agreed. "I'm not going with you. It just slipped my mind, is all. Yes, I did get a full night of sleep last night. Maybe something I had for breakfast disagreed with me. Won't happen again."
"Kas... did you want to go with us?" Yew asked. "I mean, I know we've honestly only been friends for a few days, and known Tillman for even less, but--"
"I hold no value in companionship, so I have no need to accompany you," Kas declared. "I suspect a momentary synapse misfire, is all. I'll send you a message when the Lunar Arcology is ready to support the recycling process. You don't need to be around until then, I suppose. I don't need you around nor do I want you around. Go have your 'fun' with your Fae friend."
With that matter settled, she turned back to her workstation.
And was hugged for the second time in as many days.
"I'll miss you too," Yew said, smiling warmly, understanding perfectly.
And then she was gone.
Fingers hovered over the smooth control surface for a brief moment.... before Kas resumed her data entry.
Florida felt more like home than New Orleans. NASA's facilities were spartan... throwbacks to an earlier decade, thanks to Fae retro-human stylings, but without any finery or fashion. This was a functional, industrial facility, devoted to projects such as the ElfStar network, Welcome Wagon II, and now the Task Force #80D0 Lunar Arcology.
Kas's apartment had a bed and a bath and a place to put her workstation, and little else. Which was fine; she didn't need anything else. It was a lot of empty space, but it was purposeful, and she appreciated that. Quiet. Isolated. Simple.
On the second day, her coworkers arrived. Kas allowed fifteen minutes to meet and introduce the project, then assigned the work tasks that would occupy them for a month. Except the meeting dragged out to an hour, as clarifications were needed, people were unsure of the process and their place in it, and apparently Kas talked too fast to follow. They left the meeting looking at each other funny, which was not a good sign, but Kas was determined to reverse the damage done by Pon. Her team could cope with shorthand meetings.
They had no mid-day team building exercises. Work had been scheduled for ten hours a day, with a break halfway through for obligatory nutrition. This worked fine until day four, when apparently all the workers got together and rallied against Kas, requesting less hours and more flexibility. Jon's family had a newborn son, and he needed attending to... Lpe had a spinal condition and couldn't stand upright for the hours needed to fit the launch vehicle assembly parts together... and so on, and so on.
Kas found herself spending more time managing them than spent working on her project. And after the day was through, when the team went off to enjoy a night on the town together, she went back to her room and kept working. In quiet isolation. A simple life.
The vehicle was coming along well, and the team was getting it done (despite taking breaks willy nilly for silly personal reasons) so Kas decided not to issue negative evaluations of her workforce. Instead, she focused on the mirror, which had to carry Anu to the moon's surface safely, and be flawless enough to form a reflective conduit to an identical mirror that would be installed in New Orleans.
Wheedle, who was a "gnome" apparently, managed to make the mirror assembly explode when he was installing an experimental magic focusing crystal in the unit. He apologized profusely for the setback, and had a new mirror in place overnight, but it was a delay Kas didn't appreciate. Just more mounting frustration...
And nobody to unload it on. She knew better than to vent on her workers, who already saw her as some sort of slave driver. After hours, she had nobody to talk to, nobody to share it with. So, she worked. And let it build. And worked...
Week three and she was already missing Yew.
No doubt Yew would have cross words, and then insist Kas was living her life wrong. And Kas would debate the point. And they'd argue, and Kas could vent some of her excess energy in the process, and everything would be well. But Yew wasn't here. Even Tillman, the one who apparently was fascinated with her, wasn't here.
Nobody was here.
Alone, in a too-large, too-empty apartment, with no use for her time but work...
On week four she had a cookie.
Several of them had been left on a plate, in the fabrication plant where they were putting the finishing touches on the launch array. "Take One!" a hand-printed sign read. She asked around, making sure nobody had left their lunch there by accident, but no -- it was a gift from Jon's family, to the team.
One by one, the cookies vanished, as grateful coworkers sampled them. All day, Kas overheard them talking about how great the cookies were, wondering where Jyi had found the recipe, discussing other restaurants and bakeries they'd visited around Florida these last few weeks...
The final cookie was taken by Kas. When nobody was looking.
For some reason, halfway through consuming the pointless treat in the quiet of her apartment, she was crying. But at least she wasn't angry anymore.
One month and three days later, and the launch array was finished. They were ready to send Anu on her journey; the following morning, history would be made.
As Kas was running through her final checklist for the fifth time, she overheard the word 'shaman'.
She was out of breath after running around the circumference of the vehicle, to track it down.
"What was that? What was that?" she asked, in what was apparently a terrifying way, based on her teammate's reaction.
"Uh, the... I mean, there's a Faerie shaman at the dormitories...?" he offered. "Ma'am? Is something wrong? I think we're all set for--"
"Was there an Orbital with him? A woman about my age?" she asked.
"Well... yes, in fact. They said they were tired out from the trip and would come say hello in the morning," Jon recalled. "In fact, I think it was supposed to be a surprise and I don't think I was supposed to tell you that and I think I just screwed this up ma'am I'm sorry--"
"Take the rest of the night off," Kas offered. "Go spend some time with your family. That goes for everyone; we're ready for the launch. I'll see you in the morning."
"Ma'am? But you said we were going to be here until midnight doing redundant safety drills and checks and--"
"Also, I require the address of a competent bakery."
By this point, his terror had evolved into sheer horror, as he pondered if his supervisor had been replaced by some sort of generous-minded clone of nefarious purpose and unknown origin.
It stood to perfect reason, of course. Yew and Tillman, being sentimental sorts, had decided to drop in for the big launch day. They wouldn't be needed until the Lunar Arcology was habitable, but it would be like them to treat tomorrow like a special day and want to share it with their friend. It'd be just like them.
It also stood to reason that after the long trip from New Orleans, likely on some horrible backpacking nature trail, they'd be hungry. So, Kas obtained a giant gift-sized tray of brownies from a bakery on the NASA campus. Just like the ones Yew baked, on their first day together. It was just the sort of frivolous, inadvisably non-nutritious treat they'd enjoy quite a bit, and Kas was just going along with their whimsies, after all. She'd even put a bow on it, to make a proper gift.
She would surprise them before they could surprise her. That would be a clever bit of irony, one worthy of discussion. For the rest of the evening, they'd discuss, and catch up. Yew would talk about her adventures in Faerie magic, and Kas would needle her about this and that, and they'd have a laugh, and Tillman would smile at her, and in the morning they'd all watch the gravity pumps fire up and deliver Orbital salvation into outer space. And everything would be just fine.
After asking around a little, she managed to find out where they were staying. Apparently they were bunking up together in the same dorm room, despite there being plenty of space on campus, but whatever.
When Kas silently opened the door and peeked inside, intent on ambushing them with the brownie tray, she found out why.
One hour later, when a bedsheet-wearing Yew peeked out into the hallway to check if they'd forgotten to hang up the Do Not Disturb! doorknob sign, she noticed a box of brownies had been spilled just outside their door. A tiny gift bow had been crushed under the metal pan.
The sun had risen hours ago and Kas was still running through redundant safety drills and checklists. Sleep didn't come that night, so she did the next best thing -- she got back to work. Alone, of course. She'd stupidly dismissed the entire staff, after all... sent them packing when there was still work to do. Off to their foolish little whimsies, their relationships, their lives.
Even as the vehicle was rolled out to the launch platform, she was crawling around atop it, doing final checks, re-doing checks, and occupying herself with whatever mindless busy task she could find. Task Force members, freshly woken and fed and ready to work, were giving each other Looks. She was familiar with that look, by this point; it was the "Our new boss is a crazy lady" look. And she didn't care. Nothing mattered but the work.
When it arrived at the launch point, her guard finally caught up to her.
"Thought we agreed you wouldn't leave the compound without an escort," Scout noted. "Also, heard you snuck out last night--"
"I've got work to do. Nobody's coming to kill me, you can relax," Kas insisted, while adding a thirteenth tick mark next to the same item on her tablet. "They've had all month to do me in, and haven't yet--"
"You've been in the security of the compound all month. Now you're out in the open. Can think of at least three suitable sniper positions here," Scout said, glancing around. "This is the launch day. If we're going to be attacked, this would be the day. Plus, you don't need to physically be out here for this to work. The safety checks are done. And done. And apparently done again. Let's get back to mission control."
"Anu's life, and the future of my people, are in my hands now," Kas reminded. "There is no such thing as enough safety--"
"Which is why we need to get you to safety-- hmmh. Visitors."
Kas knew who it'd be, without looking up from her notes. She'd heard their golf-cart sized transport rolling up, from the main compound in the distance...
"Hello, Yew," she greeted, without greeting. Too busy. "Hello, Tillman. Fancy seeing you here."
Yew tried to find a way to step around her, on the safety catwalk of the rigging around the tall launch vehicle. Some way to meet her eyes...
"Er... hello. Surprise?" Yew offered. "Or... were you--"
"What you two do in your copious free time is unimportant to my workflow," Kas acknowledged, before Yew could stumble through the question. "Copulate all you like; it's not like I care. In fact, you being here at all is unimportant to my workflow. You should've waited for me to send for you. May as well leave, in fact."
A sigh. "Kas... I wanted to talk to you about this, I mean... to explain how--"
"--dammit, Kas! Don't shut down like this, please! Talk to me! Talk to us..."
Frustration. Anxiety. Loneliness. Boiling up, looking for ways out... having none, for a full month. Now, finally, an opportunity.
She closed the checklist file -- and flashed a look of anger up at her friends, finally looking right at them. At Yew, who was frightened and worried... and Tillman, who had a distinct sense of guilt about him. Hand in the cookie jar.
"You want me to express needless emotions? That's always what you want from me, isn't it?" Kas asked. "Fine. Did you know that Tillman attempted to romance me, back in Las Vegas? I understand that under cultural norms, him jumping from sexual obsession to sexual obsession cheapens the--"
"You gave me the strength I needed to have a real relationship with Yew," Tillman spoke... his first words, since arriving.
"--I'm sorry, what now?"
"You were right. I was shut-in to my own culture, my own ways, my own role," he continued. "I approached all women as if I should be desired. It was a fallback crutch, and I needed to look past it. And I respected you for calling me out on it, back in Las Vegas... enough to not attempt to start anything with Yew. Instead, she initiated. I refused, and explained why, what you taught me. We decided to wait, and see how we felt for each other, over time. ...we came here, in part, to thank you. I think I'm a better person for knowing you. But... clearly, we've hurt you. And for that, we apologize, Kas."
There was hate there, in her mind. It wanted to get out. But... now, Kas wasn't sure where it was trying to go.
It was impossible to hate logic. And again, she had been presented with logic -- the conclusion it drew favored the things she denied herself, but the logic was sound. She didn't hate their relationship. She apparently, and this was a surprise to her, didn't hate them, either. Didn't hate Yew, who was always patient no matter how grotesquely stubborn Kas could be. Didn't hate Tillman, who was once just as incompetent socially as she was, even if he was approaching incompetence from the opposite direction.
But... hate. It was there. Where was it directed--?
Logically she should hate that someone just tried to kill her. As in, two seconds ago.
The bullet came from one of those three sniper positions Scout had described. He had pushed Kas aside, stepping in the path of the shot, just before it arrived.
You'd think a high powered kinetic weapon would produce more tissue damage than that, the screaming sane part of Kas's mind considered, as a tiny puff of blood echoed from Scout's front and back. Then, half a second later, the wounds closed up. Summerlion regenerative power.
Scout didn't bother talking. He just scooped Kas up, and jumped off the catwalks. The four of them scrambling for the cartlike transport, ricochets sounding all around them. Scout pushing Kas to keep her head down, as he threw it into gear and floored it...
From the corner of her eye... she could see the trucks. Eastusa military vehicles, with machine gun nests welded to their roofs. Screaming and whooping humans, wearing red white and blue kerchiefs, bearing down in a full-out assault.
Of course. The Federalists. Because being attacked by only ONE racist terrorist organization wasn't enough for her, she'd apparently become a common enemy to both the Braid and the Federalists. Fae, human, nobody liked an Orbital in the end...
In fact, when she heard the braying war whoops of wyverns, she assumed that the mortal enemies had somehow teamed up against her. After all, the 'Yeehaws' and machine gun fire were coming from one direction, and Elven war cries were coming from the opposite direction, in front of the cart, getting closer... but daring another peek showed the royal greens of the Summer Court, mixed with the blue hues of Winterhound uniforms. The cavalry was rushing to meet them...
...and rushing past, parting the wave so Scout could drive right through. Their ranks closed up behind, as they charged the Federalists.
Slowly, her heart began to resume a normal beat. The Mission Control compound was ahead, heavily guarded, and the battle was far behind. They were going to be okay.
Scout didn't ease off the gas pedal until the rickety little cart, apparently with considerably more holes than before, was safely inside a loading dock. Then he finally took his hand off Kas's back, so she could sit up.
Nobody dead. Nobody shot. (Well, other than Scout, who looked no worse for wear.) Yew was just as terrified as Kas was, but they made it through.
"Out," Scout ordered. "We'll move the task force to a deeper room in the compound. It's still not safe out here, but it will be, in time. We were expecting something like this eventually, and prepared for it. You're going to be fine."
"I hadn't a doubt in my mind," Kas lied.
Explosions and screeches of beasts echoed... distant, far away. Far away enough for comfort, as they waited in the NASA cafeteria, with the rest of Task Force #80D0.
Kas was eating a cookie. Apparently, Jon had brought in another batch, and figured this'd be a good a time as any. She accepted it wordlessly, without thinking too hard about it. The cookie was helping. So much so that Tillman had wandered in search of another, while the girls talked. (Also, to give them time to talk, without looming over the discussion.)
"You were going to bring us brownies?" Yew was asking, now that they'd settled in. "That... I mean, thank you, and I think it's a step in the right direction, but... why? I thought you hated comfort food."
Normally wordy Kas didn't offer a defense. She just nibbled her cookie.
"I blame myself for this mess, you know. I had my communicator with me the whole time," Yew admitted. "I was so caught up in learning the path of nature that I didn't even think to send you a message. I could have, and I didn't. Even after Tillman told me about your incident, right there, I should've made sure you'd be okay with this..."
"I'm okay with this," Kas said, quietly. "Really. I am. I'm happy for you two, and I do not mean that sarcastically."
"You sure? I mean... you don't SEEM okay..."
"They tried to kill me again. I don't feel okay with that. ...Yew, I've been... things have been... suboptimal. I should have messaged you, for that matter. It didn't even occur to me. You left, so I figured... 'that's that'..."
"Guess we all messed up some, huh," Yew said. "Well... that's that, in a way. We're going to be fine now. They'll drive off the terrorists, you'll be able to launch your mirror up to the moon, and we'll get to work saving our people. It's going to be okay. ...hey, do you want some milk? Milk is the perfect nutritional complement to cookies. Well, actually, cookies aren't exactly nutritional, so anything would help balance them out, to be fair..."
Kas gave the tiniest of nods. Yew reached over, squeezing her free hand, then wandered into the gathered crowd of nervous Orbitals in search of refreshment.
The battle was still raging, somewhere out there. If it had been going on this long, clearly the Federalists came for a prolonged fight, not just a quick strike like the Braid of Dawn did. Queen Emily's forces would win, though. It was inevitable. It had to be true...
As she spared a look around the room, hopeful for some hopeful faces... she saw a familiar one.
And then he walked away, down the hallway and out of the cafeteria.
Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it was a sugar high. But, without giving it much thought, Kas let curiosity get to her, and followed. She set down her cookie, got up, and walked silently out of the cafeteria.
When her friends got back, she was already gone.
He was waiting for her, by the vending machines, some distance down the hall. Nobody in sight; they were so deep in the compound that only Orbitals, NASA staff, and Faerie guards would be around, anyway. And all the guards were busy playing soldier, outside...
Kas approached, slowly. Now, confusion was overtaking curiosity.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "Did you get reassigned to NASA, or...?"
"I'm here in the line of duty, if that's what you're asking," Senior Engineer Pon said. He was smiling; his usual reassuring, comforting smile. The one which said he cared.
It was with that same caring smile that he drew the metal revolver from inside his jumpsuit, aiming it at Kas's head. A simple kinetic weapon, of classic Eastusa design, complete with screw-on silencer.
"I'm here to kill you," Pon explained. "All that mess outside? That's the distraction. This is the mission. I'm sorry, Kas. I tried, I tried so hard to keep you away from the solutions you were after. But you got too close to the truth, dangerously close. It's a shame, but this has to be done. --the instant you scream or call for the guards, it's over. I'll allow you some last words, if you say them quietly."
She'd known fear before. It was paralyzing... to most of her mind and body. The part of her that helped her cope with terror before, the analytical mind, immediately engaged. It put everything together in less than a second.
"You're going to kill me and let the Federalists take credit," she realized. "That's why you aren't using an energy weapon. You're working with them -- supplying them, supporting them, without telling them where the support comes from. Same thing being done with the Braid of Dawn, fueling their war. Which means, you're part of Lar's conspiracy, working to destabilize the planet. ...I won the bet. It wasn't incompetence, it was maliciousness that kept #80D0 from making any progress. Which is strange, considering you're an Optimist."
If anything, this description of Pon's true nature raised his smile to dangerously mad heights.
"I am an Optimist," he agreed. "Because the Orbitals do have a bright and wonderful future ahead of them. It's already underway, out there in the black. Your death, and the end of your project, are needed to ensure a smooth transition to the future for all Orbitalkind. I almost wish you could survive to see our ascendancy... for soon, the stars will rise."
The hammer clicked back on his pistol.
He's going to kill me, the analytical mind realized. He's going to kill me, and I've never really lived, have I?
All I've ever had was my work, because I shunned everything else I ever wanted. I labeled everything as useless and beneath me, so I could stay focused. But really, I wanted it all. I wanted Tillman -- no. I wanted the love he suggested I could have, in general. Just like I wanted a true friendship with Yew.
My anger wasn't directed at them -- it was anger at myself, for wasting my life. I wanted to relax, to enjoy myself, and yes, even to enjoy my work. I do love my work, I love my science. But I loved it to the exclusion of the rest. It's all I have, now.
So, I'm going to die, and yet I've never really lived. That's just sad. You've got to laugh, or you'll cry.
Her laugh echoed down the hallway. The first true laugh she'd had in years, and years...
...a mad laugh. A sick laugh.
Just enough to confuse Pon, to weaken his hand, as he tried to understand this foreign sound coming from the utterly predictable, stalwart Kas.
NOW, her analytical mind pushed.
The bullet passed through her shoulder, as she rushed Pon head on. She could ignore that.
Despite her smaller frame, Pon was hardly much of a perfect physical specimen, and the impact knocked him backwards easily. He was slammed into the vending machine, smashing through the glass, which shattered around them.
Two bodies hit the floor. And then the vending machine decided to join them, the rickety old thing having given up on the concept of balancing itself any longer. The rest was blood and darkness.
On waking, Kas took stock.
I'm injured again, and lying in a comfortable bed. This time it's my arm that hurts, not my leg. But the fact that I'm thinking this means I'm probably alive, so I'll call it a win.
As before, she was surrounded by friends, on waking. She took comfort in that.
"Report," she wheezed. She wanted to bark it, like a proud victor after a winning battle, but her dry and raspy throat was having none of that.
Yew's hug was enough to nearly end her life, right there.
"You're alive! Thank science you're alive!!" she declared.
"uggle mpt," Kas squeaked.
"--oh! Sorry, sorry--!" Yew spoke quickly, letting go, sinking back into the chair she'd pulled up bedside. "Umm. Report! Right. ...we found you in a hallway underneath Pon, a pile of snacks in little baggies, and a vending machine. Um. You broke your arm and two ribs. And you were shot. But the Fae mended everything up as best they could..."
Tillman was next. "And the traitor to your people was arrested," he continued. "Thanks to you. Finding a Federalist weapon on him was apparently quite a boon. Scout departed for New Orleans with his prisoner and the evidence, immediately after. ...you now have five guards around the room and two inside that cannot be seen, in the shadows. I'm impressed, Kas. You must truly be a special and wonderful person to merit this sort of attention, within and without."
"Pon," Kas said. "Pon. I want to talk to Pon. I think I know what he was doing. I understand now what's going on out there... --what?"
Those were not comfortable looks that Yew and Tillman were exchanging.
"Kas... Senior Engineer Pon... he's dead," Yew admitted. "--not by your hand, or anything grotesque! He was put in a White Room in #A076, secured until he could be questioned, but... we heard that when the Summerlions came to fetch him... he was dead. Just... dead. Nobody knows how or why. Same with Big Vinnie..."
A groan, from her dry throat. Of course. The conspiracy acted wisely. It made perfect, Pragmatic sense; guard your secrets, destroy your failures...
"...I don't care anymore," she spoke. "Don't care how or why or what. Let Emily and Ono deal with that mess. ...what of the launch?"
"The Fae defended the launch station. No damage taken," Yew said. "In fact, umm... they launched the lunar lander already. Anu and the mirror are on the moon and the conduit's open. Apparently, it works, since the first thing to come through was a love letter from Anu to Esrever. Your task force have started running additional tests, based on your protocols, and--"
"They launched?!" Kas asked, trying to sit up -- and much as the last time she was hurt, regretted it immediately. This time, she opted to lie back down, and accept the comfy pillowy trap instead of pushing it.
"You... were shot and crushed under a vending machine three days ago," Yew said. "Fae magic can only do so much. So, you've been unconscious for awhile. I'm sorry. The culminating achievement of your work, and you missed it--"
The sound from Kas's throat was terrifying, gripping Yew right at the core of fear.
Because Kas was laughing. A deep yet somehow giggling laugh.
"... um... Kas...?"
"Hahh... heh... sorry, sorry, it's just... it's funny," Kas said... through her smile. "It's really funny. I missed the launch. ...heh. That's fine. It all worked out -- I did my job, and it all worked out. That matters more. ...can I have a glass of water, please? My throat's killing me. ...also... once I'm healed up, and walking out of here... I think all three of us should have a proper reunion. At a restaurant."
"A nice one. With a superior grade of nutritional content, for our basic physical needs, as well as a superior grade of sensory satisfaction of the taste buds, for our basic psychological needs," Kas explained. "I'm certain I overheard some of my coworkers discussing an excellent seafood establishment in town. That will do nicely."
They were confused, of course. It was understandable, really.
Kas smiled up at Yew and Tillman. Her friends.
"I think I'm ready to live my life now," she declared. "Pragmatically speaking, it's mine to live, and I should get on top of that immediately rather than let it go to waste. Precious resources are to be valued, and that includes whatever time I have left in this life. So. Lobster sound good?"
copyright 2011 stefan gagne