Benefactor has been published!

Quite a few people over the last couple years have asked how they could donate to me, and I’ve always indicated that I didn’t want to take money unless I could give something in return besides a few pixels on a web page.

Well, I can now offer pixels on your Kindle!  (Or on your free-to-download Kindle Reader on your desktop.)

A couple months ago, I wrote a short story that I enjoyed.  I’ve poked and prodded at it, and decided that I wanted to publish it.  Firstly, because it’s good (I think) and secondly because I wanted to figure out how to do the Amazon E-book publishing process with a short story before I tried it with a novel.

If you have enjoyed my writing, and would like to ‘donate’ by buying something, you can find Benefactor for sale here.

The story is roughly 7500 words, and priced at 0.99.  If you enjoy it, I would greatly appreciate a review!

Not a Chapter: Set In Stone project has begun

I have started my third writing project, called Set In Stone, and you can find the backstory here.

Set In Stone is going to be a planned project, unlike Symbiote and Reject Hero.  It is going to be science fiction, but a type of science fiction that there are very few examples of.  Stonepunk.  The story is also going to be rational fiction, meaning that everything in the setting should make sense, and the actions of most characters will be understandable.

Yes, if you are thinking Flintstones, they are stonepunk.  They are, however, not rational stonepunk!

No chapter content has been created yet, outside of my own mind.  I am now beginning to build the rough series story arc and the more detailed first book arc.  In order to build a rational world that my characters would inhabit, I felt that I needed a backstory.  I have created the backstory now, and invite anyone who reads this to follow the link above and let me know what you think.

Not a Chapter

After writing for about 20 hours straight on two chapters in the fanfic I’m writing right now, I came up with the Arch title for the next series:

Set in Stone: <x>

Since I am going to specifically create the world so it can be serialized over time with different snapshots of the life of a character, the <x> will change from book to book.

Set in Stone: Follower will be the first book.

Set in Stone: Soldier might be the next, for example, if the main character stays in the military, or Set in Stone: Wanderer if he does not.

Considering the background of the story that I’ve been building, when the phrase came to mind, I could NOT not use it.

Not a Chapter: Knights of Broken Swords

As mentioned a few times recently, my first fiction project where chapters and whatnot will be planned in advance is going to be a Dresdenverse / Pactverse crossover.

Come join me as I play around with Butters and Bob working together with Blake and Evan.

The first chapter is up.  https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10888845/1/Knights-of-Broken-Swords

I am keeping it over on fanfiction.net because I do not want to comingle my fanfic with my original fiction.

Not a Chapter: Building the rational backstory universe for the next book

I’ve been over in Reddit with the /r/rational people discussing my ideas for a rational fiction basis for my next story.

It’s right here if you want to see how it started

In any case, the backstory bit got too big for Reddit, so I’ve moved it here.  I’m hoping that I’ll get good feedback here, like I did over there.  I’d like to keep this discussion over there, but there’s a tiny text limit over there, around half a chapter.

In any case, the next story will not be about things in space, it will be about people from a culture that resulted from the colonization of Secundus.

Oh, and the interstellar colony ship launching system is based on real science, and real numbers, not magical pie-in-the-sky interstellar transport mumbo-jumbo.

****

Humanity managed to make it to the stars, but roughly five years after the first wave of generation ships left the Sol system, Earth and its first colony, Mars, warred with each other. The generation ships received many messages from the governments of both planets, some apparently truthful, others obviously not. Leviathan and Prometheus monitored many transmissions during the course of the horrific war which lasted several months, but eventually, the Sol system went completely radio silent. It was unknown if humanity survived in the Sol system.  After centuries of fading hope, there were no still no radio transmissions heard from the Sol system.

Unfortunately, the war between Earth and Mars did not remain entirely contained in the Sol system. Earth had financed and populated the colony ships and had a population dozens of times greater than Mars.  A huge number of people wanted to leave Earth, and a large percentage of Martians were quite happy where they were.  There were a few Mars citizens who had the desire to be a part of the first wave colony ship missions, had exceptional qualifications, and were invited to be a part of the first wave interstellar colonization efforts. One of those Mars citizens was Lindsay Kirkwood, a propulsion systems engineer.

When the Sol system went silent, and it was clear that she would never again hear from her family, Lindsay’s sanity began to degrade. Leaving family voluntarily was one thing.  Knowing they were dead was another.  To be clear, nobody on the colonizing expedition knew for sure who started the Earth/Mars war, but Lindsay thought she did. As her sanity quietly failed, it became clearer to her that Earth could not be allowed to colonize beyond Sol. Her co-workers took her silence to be mourning, and they were right, but it was madness too. Others were mourning too, she was not alone, but most of the others had brought family, people to share the pain with.  Lindsay didn’t have that shoulder to cry on, or have to supply a shoulder for someone else to cry on.  Two years and one month after the last transmission from Sol was received, the fruits of Lindsay’s madness were ripe.

Generation ships Leviathan and Prometheus were each Stanford Tori, 1.8 km in diameter. These tori were each twice as massive as standard Sol system Stanford Tori, because they were designed to move, not to merely orbit the sun. The total mass of each ship was 1.85e+10kg.  Practical fusion power was still twenty years away (as it had been for the last two hundred years) when the colony ships departed Sol. Such titanic interstellar vessels were only capable of accelerating to 5% of light speed because they used nuclear salt water rockets and a remote fueling method for acceleration out of the Sol system.

The core component of the remote fuel system was a massive quench gun bored through the center of Earth’s moon.  This launcher accelerated 200,000,000kg self-guiding packages of two percent Uranium Bromide enhanced water for use in the colony ships’ nuclear salt water rocket engines. During the colony ships’ acceleration phase, each package received by each ship was burned as fuel as it was collected, adding 50,000m/s delta-v per package. Three hundred launches of fuel were required for each vessel to accelerate to five percent of light speed. Then an additional 300 launches that had been launched in advance of the colony vessels were collected during the course of travel. 1200 total packages of fuel, for the Secundus colony alone.

Uranium mining had become a very lucrative business in the Sol system, and the solar arrays that powered the lunar gauss gun and allowed it to launch fuel had to generate up to 2.5e+22 joules of energy per launch, which was close to the annual power requirements for the entire Sol system.  Per Launch.  4800 launches were made over a period of several years.  Over half of the launches were full power launches, since half of the fuel delivered to the ships had to be accelerated to very slightly less than the cruising speed of the colony ships, before they left sol.  Several persons with more than a passing knowledge of economics thought that perhaps the war they had barely missed had been caused, in part, by an economic crash after the colony ships were in space, and the fuel had all been launched.

Three hundred of the fuel packages added together was more than three times as heavy as an entire colony ship, so the ships would have to deploy huge solar sails to assist in slowing at their destinations, as well as gravity well assisted braking.  Lindsay’s plan was made simple by the presence of so much fuel, even though she was not able to detonate the fuel all at once. This type of fuel and the packages they were stored in simply couldn’t explode that way.

On the day she chose to act, Lindsay locked herself into the main propulsion system control room, used her intimate knowledge of the propulsion control systems to bypass security lockouts, and then she accelerated Prometheus into a collision course with Leviathan. If she forced the two ships to use more than half of the total fuel carried between them, Earth’s colony would fail.  Even with a moderate expenditure of fuel, one of the two ships would not be able to generate enough delta-v to slow itself, making the colony far less likely to survive.

The only thing that saved Leviathan was the extra mass Prometheus’s carried fuel and the sacrifice of three other Prometheus engineers. Within seconds of the rockets activating, the three heroes started ripping high voltage, high current cables out of conduits near the main propulsion system control room door, and used those cables as crude arc cutters to break into the control room. Prometheus was not a warship, her bulkheads were designed for atmospheric integrity in the event of a hull breach.  They did not stand up long against the improvised welder.

When the three attempted to pull Lindsay away from the controls so they could stop the acceleration, Lindsay detonated a small bomb, killing herself and the three heroes. The bomb also destroyed the workstation that was running the security hack to prevent the Leviathan’s bridge from overriding the propulsion system controls. The instant the security hack was gone, the Prometheus’s navigation computer accelerated the ship away from the Leviathan.

During the planning phases of the colonization missions, while the ships were being designed, there had been a great deal of second guessing about whether or not an AI would be appropriate on the colony ships.  If one had been present, surely it would have stopped Lindsay’s reckless use of fuel and perhaps even saved her life by noticing her behavior, her research into security systems, her careful examination of systems that she really shouldn’t have had much interest in.  AI’s, unfortunately, were still no more stable than a human at the time of launch, perhaps even less stable.  Of course if an AI went unstable, you could shut down and memory wipe it, but AI’s had been known to become vindictive if they were shut down and memory wiped.  You couldn’t hide the fact that you had done it either, not with a human crew.  A memory wiped AI was more than capable of determining that it had been memory wiped by the reactions of the humans around it, and within hours, days on the outside, it would know why, who did it, and usually hold a grudge.  They were also very, very expensive, and would add hundreds of tons of infrastructure to a ship.

Even though there had been no ship AI to stop her, Lindsay had not destroyed either ship.  She had, however, made it impossible for one of the two ships to stop in the destination solar system, no matter how they shared fuel. The total fuel used was significant, and Leviathan’s navigation computer had also been forced to burn fuel to try to avoid the collision. There was only enough fuel remaining between the two ships for one ship to stop in the destination solar system.

Prometheus was the ship that carried the vast majority of the industrial infrastructure for the new colony. Losing her would cost the colony its space industry, both of its prefabricated space elevators, and all of the planetary heavy mining equipment. Losing Leviathan, however, would mean that the colonists would not be able to terraform Secundus. The choice was clear.

All the humans in Prometheus were transferred to Leviathan. All the fuel was transferred as well, and as much of the portable industrial equipment that they could afford to carry and still have the fuel to stop in the destination system with a sane factor of safety. Prometheus was over-mass, over-fueled, and crowded. Population controls were implemented even more strictly. No child could be brought into the world until two other people died. It took a hundred years of lean times before the population of Leviathan became stable at the capacity it was recommended for. It was fortunate for the large crew that the ship’s life support capacity had been heavily over-engineered.

**

The planet Secundus was discovered second out of the four known extra-solar rocky planets with liquid water around a stable star. All four of these planets had been sent a pair of colony ships in the first wave of colonization. It was a barren place when the generation ship Leviathan arrived, roughly five centuries after leaving Earth. The original crew were all long dead when Leviathan arrived, but the citizens of Leviathan had maintained a civil society. The colonists were mostly well-educated and industrious.

Leviathan was meant to terraform the planet, seeding the world with Earth life-forms. Genetic material from almost every known creature on Earth was included in the ship’s storage, and that databases also contained nearly the entire sum of genetic knowledge that the human race had collected. The colonists could populate the planet with Earth life forms, modified Earth life forms, and even new forms of life, if they wished. Unfortunately, Leviathan was not designed to be a base for heavy industry. Again, the ill-fated Prometheus, still coasting through space at 5% of light speed, had been meant for that role.

The colonists would need a habitable world in order to prosper. The star that Secundus orbited had no other rocky planets, no asteroid belts, and very few free asteroids. There were a few rocky moons around three gas giants, and Secundus itself had a substantial moon, larger than Earth’s moon but less dense. Leviathan didn’t have the proper industrial capacity to confidently establish an in-space colony. That wasn’t its intended role.

For all the crew of the Leviathan knew, the other colonies might fail, and the descendants of Leviathan might be all that remained of humanity. There were many powerful arguments either way, but it was eventually decided that Leviathan would use all of its available resources in the way that they were intended – to terraform Secundus and provide the best possible place for their descendants to survive, in a biological environment as close to Earth’s as possible. After that work was completed, and the ecology stabilized, the citizens of Secundus would begin to expand the industrial capacity of the planet with the intent of eventually starting a lunar colony and using the moon’s minerals to build a space industry.

Tiny near-light-speed interstellar probes had told planners on Earth what to expect from Secundus. The planet was significantly larger in diameter than Earth, but about the same mass. It was very iron poor, with no radioactive materials to speak of. There was some tectonic activity, and some small amount of iron in the crust. The moon was slightly more iron rich, but had apparently formed in much the same way Earth’s moon did, by collision, so it’s mass was mostly made up of the same things as Secundus itself.

The oceans of Secundus contained a good deal of dissolved iron and other metals, collected over billions of years of exposure to the underwater recycling of the planet’s crust. Additionally, the oceans of Secundus were very large, and contained many times more water than Earth’s oceans. The landmass of Secundus was split into several disconnected continents, and a great many islands, but the total area of dry land was significantly less than half that of Earth. It was almost an ocean world.

Hundreds of years had been spent planning during the voyage, after the loss of Prometheus, fifteen generations participated. Every resource on Leviathan was planned for, every likely problem had been considered and a great many unlikely scenarios as well. Everything would be used. After Leviathan finally arrived, the great work began.

The colonists didn’t have to start from scratch. Interstellar probes had delivered some of the building blocks of life – microbes, bacteria, yeasts and molds. By the time the Leviathan entered orbit, hundreds of years of simple life forms had seeded the atmosphere with oxygen. Humans could have breathed it, barely, and only for a few minutes, but none were offered the opportunity because resources were carefully husbanded. Carefully designed landers dropped from orbit delivered ferns, lichens, moss, grasses, and simple invertebrates to the planet. Years later, crustaceans, arachnids and insects, followed. Decades after that, woody plants, bushes, fruits, vegetables, fish and then birds were added. After twenty more years, the crew of the Leviathan started seeding the planet with small mammals.

The lack of accessible iron and other metals on the planet was a problem, many of the small mammals and inland plants of most types were sickly due to lack of metals. This had been foreseen, but the geneticists wanted to see the real scope of the issue before they modified any creatures.

After some time experimenting with more probes dropped from the orbiting Leviathan, locusts were modified. Each year after the end of the growing season, they would emerge and head from inland to the seaside. Upon arrival at the sea, the locusts would consume seaside plants and shore-washed seaweeds. Both classes of vegetable matter had plenty of iron and other trace metals in them. After feasting on mineral rich plants, the locusts would then return inland to breed, lay eggs, and then die, leaving their metal-rich corpses to be consumed by animals or provide fertilizer for the poor soil. This mass migration, every year, moved sufficient quantities of iron inland to improve the health of inland plants and animals. Despite this, most mammals that did not consume seafood or ocean plants would still need to be modified to better retain iron.

The colonists would need metals for industry as well. Again, the loss of Prometheus was painful. Many young colonists had wondered, for centuries, why it was that the Leviathan and the Prometheus had been specialized as they were. The records on Leviathan answered that question, because it had been asked many times before construction had been started on any of the ships. It had simply been cheaper to make the ships specialized, allowing a greater capacity for less mass. Each individual colony ship was a staggering investment of resources, and Earth had built four pairs, eight total colony ships.

Leviathan simply did not have the materials or industrial equipment required to create an ecology like that of Earth, as well as create the industry required to support either deep crust mining or massive water electrolysis efforts that would be needed to supply significant amounts of metal from ground-based sources. Instead, most species of crabs were modified to have longer lifespans and to collect metals from seawater for use in building their shells. From iron to silver, gold to copper, modified crab biology collected a great number of useful metals from the ocean.

Nearly a hundred years after Leviathan first entered Secundus orbit, colonists began to be delivered to the planet. Once down, nobody was allowed to return. The industrial costs of maintaining the cargo shuttles wasn’t ruinous, but it was significant. Every down shuttle was carefully loaded for maximum efficiency, and every up shuttle was empty.

Humans who had lived in artificial environment inside a gigantic cylinder for decades experienced a natural planetary environment, where the horizon curved down, not up like it did in the colony ship. For the most part, they were happy. For another twenty years, the results of the terraforming of Secundus were carefully monitored. The first colonists on the planet bore children who had been conceived there, and the first children born on the planet had their own children. All seemed well.

Leviathan was large enough to pose a threat to life on Secundus if it de-orbited onto the planet, and the prefabricated space elevators that Leviathan and Prometheus were to have anchored were still hurtling through space in Prometheus. It had simply not been possible to remove them from their specialized deployment mechanisms without wasting too much fuel.

After the ecology was verified to have been safe for twenty years, the next hundred years was spent stripping the great ship of everything useful that was not required to operate the ship. As metal-poor as Secundus and its moon were, creating another Leviathan would be absurdly difficult. The colonists, with few exceptions, agreed that the Secundus colony would one day send Leviathan back to Earth.  Unfortunately, even with optimistic estimates, a return to earth would not be possible for centuries.  The engineering effort to launch a colony ship was far, far out of their reach, and they would have to mine the cores of the gas giants for uranium, which might be an even more challenging engineering project than launching the ship back to Earth.  The colonists were confident that even if truly terrible things had been done to Earth, by the time the Leviathan could return, well over a thousand years would have passed, and it was likely that the Earth would be habitable again, with some work.

It was a grand plan, but evolution raised its ugly head. A genetic variant of sand mite developed, somehow incorporating modified genetic material, probably from fiddler crabs. The mites were extremely small, and aggressively sought out strongly conductive metals of all sorts, consuming them directly, for use in their carapaces.

If the mites had developed even a single decade before, the colony would have been severely set back, but not crippled. Some of the last equipment to come from the Leviathan had been the computers and equipment used for genetic engineering. The colony had grown overconfident, and lax in its quarantine methods. The only warning the colony had was a die-off of fiddler crabs. One of the youngest geneticists went to examine and collect samples of the dead crabs. He returned with his samples, and did not realize that he was carrying on himself thousands of mites, slowly consuming the metallic substances in his equipment. When he brought the samples and the mites on him into the labs, he introduced the mites to the genetic manipulation equipment, and to the cabling and conduits leading between the lab equipment and the computers.

Because the first casualties of the mites (after the fiddler crabs) had been the genetic engineering equipment that would have been required to adjust the mites to stop them from consuming metals, all of the colony’s computers, lab equipment, even their shuttles were made entirely useless in a short time. Most of the colony’s electronics were gone in a single season, the rest of the high tech equipment, even though carefully protected, was gone in five years

The colonists’ high tech society had crashed back to the equivalent of the pre-computer age in just a few years, but there was no question of their survival.  As a whole they were strong people, and no more human-harmful genetic aberrations were encountered.  Despite the mites, for a thousand years or so, there was sufficient metal from the colonists’ supplies to allow metallic tools to be fairly commonplace.

Eventually, nearly two thousand years after the mites consumed the computers of the colony, metal tools and implements of various sorts were almost unheard of on Secundus. Even a small metal tool was worth a king’s ransom. No matter how well-kept it was, if a metal tool was exposed and used, it would be consumed by the mites in anywhere from months to a few years, depending on how carefully it was protected between uses, and how often it was exposed.

Not a Chapter: Future Plans

OK, it’s been growing on me for a while now, and various bits and pieces are starting to come together.

My first project after Reject Hero is going to be a planned-in-advance crossover fanfic of 5-10 chapters or so, 15-50k words, between Butters / Bob from the Dresdenverse, and Blake / Evan from the Pactverse.  It will take place in the Dresdenverse.  I already have several scenes bubbling in my brain, and a general idea of what will happen.  However, this time around, I’m planning it, by the gods!  Random stuff can happen within the guidelines of the story, but the storyline itself will be predefined!  Arcs!  Targets! Goals! Plot and story! The narrator will be a normal human who needs help with something important.

**

A new webpage will be put up.  I would like to design my own, something that will allow me to put all my stories in one place, but keep them separate, which WordPress does not do well.

**

As for the next project after that, I am building the character and world in my head now.  So far, I’ve come up with the following things.  The fanfic above will allow me to test out the whole “planning” thing.

1) There will be no magic or super powers.  I’m going to make an effort at rational fiction.

2) The world will be an Earth colony, post-collapse.  Thousands of years have passed.  The world has very few artifacts of the ancient times, because the colonists had been fleeing a war between Earth and Mars, the only two planets with real industry, and were forced to use, re-use, and abuse practically everything they brought with them to hammer out a colony that could survive.  There are no holdover space dwellers, no secret enclaves of technology.

3)  The colony had been fully terraformed, the original state of the planet was that it had no life at all.  So only Earth life, though some of it might have been modified by the ancients who were significantly more advanced than we are today in real-world technology, especially in bioengineering.

4)  The planet is larger than Earth, but iron-poor.  The oceans are large.  Fish were genetically modified by the terraforming teams thousands of years ago to collect the trace iron in the oceans in their organs and bones.  Most insects were genetically modified to breed in the oceans and coastal waterways and estuaries, and have build high iron content in their bodies.  They migrate inland when they hatch, and their iron in the food chain supports the iron needs of the animals and plants.

5)  Metal armor and weapons will be extremely rare.  Most armor and weapons will be made of leather, bone, wood, glass, and stone.

6)  The main character will start as an adolescent child of fourteen or so, but a child who has lived in a medieval world.  Naïve in a few ways, and ignorant of some things, but very worldly in matters of basic survival skills, and simple crafts that adults need to survive.

6)  The story will start with the child’s father being drafted into a passing army involuntarily, and the boy with him.

7)  The father is a charcoaler whose eyes were injured in a sap explosion years ago when he was young, stupid, and hadn’t been wearing slit-goggles to protect his eyes one day when he had been tending a fire burning waste limbs and roots that weren’t much use for charcoal.  He can see, somewhat, but not well enough to tell friend from foe at more than a few feet, which makes him almost useless as a soldier.  He can still cut wood expertly enough that the carpenters want him around, and if the carpenters don’t need him, an army always needs firewood and water.

8)  The boy is of interest to the army because he has tamed and trained a few pigs of mixed genetic heritage, which have been trained very well to find food in the forest.  Truffles, eggs, various roots.  He’s also trained them to stand guard, and a few other useful tricks.

9)  A lot of the conflict will be centered around the boy and his pigs surviving as camp followers.  Soldiers love bacon, but commanding officers like interesting food like wild fowl eggs, berries, truffles, mushrooms, and various small animal and snake meat.  Eventually, of course, the boy proves his worth and the worth of his pigs, and becomes a honorary soldier/mascot with the nickname ‘Piglet’.  The soldiers still dream of bacon, especially one or two who will probably be villains of the piece, but most of them will fight to protect their mascots.

10) The first story will be short, 75kish words. Somewhere around 15 chapters.  It will also be my first story to publish unless I make a real soup sandwich out of it.

 

Oh, and it will give me an excuse to learn about stone age / hunter-gatherer tools, weapons, and armor, and try to imagine ways that water power and perhaps some primitive steam power would be used in a society with almost no metals. None of the little bits are set in stone (hah!) but I’m definitely going to be writing something like this.

Epilogue Book 1

Prior Chapter

I sat in my chair, in the brightly-lit room, far underground, staring at dozens of large monitors, watching preparations.  Various gods and humans with divination powers had worked to determine where these newest bugman attacks would occur.  Gods of war and battle waited at every portal.  Today, I saw Thor, Ares, Durga, Hachiman, Virtus, Serbon and Gabriel at the predicted portal emergence points.  Around them, four other gods with highly useful battle abilities waited in a loose circle around each portal, about two hundred feet from the center.  Each of the four second-line gods had a cadre of chosen human supers surrounding them.

The bugmen were apparently extremely desperate for resources.  They were extremely difficult to take alive, even by gods, but it had been done, and their minds had been read to verify the information from the one near-comatose bugman we had captured from their first attack.  Their civilization was on the verge of collapse.  They had never managed to leave their Earth, as weightlessness caused them extreme biological distress, death within hours for an adult bugman.  They had managed to get to their moon, and the gravity there was sufficient for them to survive, but they had apparently only managed that by sending eggs, which were then hatched and tended by machines, remotely, until adulthood.

They had tried to attack through a portal there, on the moon, which had not gone well for them at all.  That portal had manifested in sunlight, where both Ra and Luna could act upon it with their full strength.  Luna’s power of fascination rendered the invaders immobile, and Ra burned them down, regardless of their armor.

The attacks had become more and more desperate.  Every wave contained more attackers, with poorer equipment.  The sheer mass of dead bodies was sufficient that, after the battles, the killing grounds had to be exposed to heat sufficient to break down their body chemistry, or else their body chemicals would poison the areas where battles had occurred.

There were a couple agricultural gods that would help after the sterilization, but only rarely was there any assistance offered by the gods capable of generating sufficient heat for sterilization.  Gods didn’t seem to be very interested in post-battle cleanup.  When I asked, one of Matty’s friends had volunteered to take Dr. Fusion to each battle site after the portals had collapsed, resolving that issue nicely.

“Alvak.  Are the Svartalve insertion contingents ready?”

The speakers built into the headrest of the chair relayed his response to me.  “Yes.”

“OK.” I looked at the timers under each of the seven active monitors with red LED lights around their images.  Less than ten minutes.

I sat up a little straighter, took a deep breath, and then picked up a very large sheath knife from the table beside my chair.  It was large enough, and light enough, that I could wield it efficiently with my weak, oversized hands when I was changed into the soul well.

Removing the knife from its sheath, I stared at it, turning it slowly so it glinted in the light.  I felt a bit queasy, but dry-swallowed, and calmed myself.  The soul well deadened emotion in me, but it didn’t eliminate fear completely.  It had been a great help to me during mental recovery, by allowing me to face my fears.  Black birds, especially large ones, still scared the crap out of me in human form, but I could act, they didn’t mentally freeze me or cause uncontrolled panic.  Darkness was just a minor irritation now, even pitch blackness, unless I was already fearful, in which case darkness magnified my fears unpredictably.  Black birds in near darkness were still bad.  Very Bad.  Knives still bothered me, which was one reason I refused to allow anyone else to use knives on me for what I was about to do.  Alvak had offered to make a machine to do it, but I refused that as well.  Anne thought I was nuts, but it wasn’t Anne’s choice.

Get to it.  Not much time left.

I carefully cut a foot-long, inch-wide strip off my left thigh, and handed it to the first Jinn in line, an albino, about six feet tall and three hundred pounds with Polynesian features, wearing flip-flops, a pair of black Bermuda shorts, and an obnoxiously brilliant neon yellow pullover T-shirt.  One of Ali’s uncles.  He called himself Jamar.

A youngster, by his own admission, barely older than the human race.

I smiled.  “Thank you for helping today, ‘youngster.'”

Jamar grinned as he dropped the strip from my leg into a fanny pack at his side, and then moved to a nearby wall and created a door.  “Calvart, please ask Thor if I can open a door and enter the area with him?”

Calvart spoke.  “Thor, base here.  Are we clear to send a soul well fragment to your location?”

On one of the monitors, I saw Thor hold his wrist up to his face.  “Yes.” Came the response, slightly after Thor’s arm was already moving back towards his side.

I continued cutting, intentionally forcing myself to recognize what I was doing, to try to help deaden my fear of knives.

It has helped.  A lot more than those hypnotherapy recordings.

Six more long slices from my left leg.  Six more Jinn and Jiniri with fanny packs.  Six more gods were asked permission, and six more Jinn and Jiniri stepped through doorways to stand beside those gods, preparing to use the pieces of my body as lures.  Ali and Matty were two of them.

I cut one more strip and handed it to Karina, who would stay by my right side as a reserve.  One of the last two of the youngest ten Jinn and Jiniri on the planet that were wakeful stood to the left side of my chair.  He would accompany me, myself, if I had to act directly.  The last Jiniri was with Anne and Danny at one of the gatherings in Enclave viewing areas where they would watch the fights.

I still didn’t understand why Anne and Danny went to the meetings.  I was deep underground, and Jane didn’t get anywhere near the fighting.  I suspected it was simply to be there for others, and that was a good enough reason, even if it made me a bit nervous because they were around people that might get violent if they saw their family members hurt.

Fifi will be there too.

I pitied the poor normal human that might piss that little mop off by attacking my family.  I had, as a joke, gone to a butcher and gotten a cow femur that had been stripped of most of its meat, and brought it to the Enclave apartment, wrapped heavily in butcher paper.  I spread out the butcher paper and put the femur down next to her water bowl, and Fifi had just stared at me for a moment, before walking over, picking up the twenty pound bone with her mouth, somehow, carrying it into the bathroom, and jumping into the bathtub with it.  She then pawed the curtains shut and commenced to making crunching noises for the next five minutes that had me cringing.  Anne had silently watched the whole thing, grinning like a madwoman, and held my mouth closed as Fifi pawed the curtain back open and the bone was gone.

Now I’m Fifi’s favorite person, when I’m at the apartment.

I’m probably one of the butcher’s favorite people too.

Seeing the butchered bones helps desensitize me to meat images as well.

Calvart’s voice spoke.  “All seven emergence locations have soul well fragments in place, and defenses are ready.  We are activating shielding now.”  I watched onscreen as containment fields sprang into existence around the predicted portal emergence points and above the ground.  The bugs had yet to use nuclear weapons.  We suspected it was because they were using all radioactive materials for power generation.  None of the bugmen that had been captured had mental imagery of nuclear weapons.

I heard all seven war gods check in with Calvart, acknowledging the shields.  Coyote and a few of the other pantheon head gods had done a good job of twisting metaphysical arms to get all of the extant gods and major magical beings to sign on to the new contract.  Part of that was threats of selectively calling in the debts owed to me from my past actions, and the promise of future power.  The darker gods had been happy with the old contract, because it was easier to interfere with.  Loki had even admitted that in front of me with a smile before one of Odin’s wolves gripped his left leg below the knee, and growled.

I sheathed my knife, and placed it on the table next to me.

I think the new contract works much better.

I would now be assisted by five Jinn and five Jiniri, chosen to be the five youngest of each type who were wakeful, not just a single Jinn.  Ali and I had both been relieved when he was no longer required to be my sole attendant.  There had been some bad moments.  Now we enjoyed each other’s company again, when we were both in a mood to speak to one another.

Anne was happier as well, since having so many Jinn and Jiniri around allowed her and Danny a high degree of safety.  With ten Jinn and Jiniri around to make sure I wasn’t surprised or injured, she could live with me now, in the house, and the apartment was Danny’s.

Gorgon had not interfered with me at all since I gave up my company to the board of directors and Danny.  I sent Jamar, the oldest and most powerful of my current assistants, to talk to Gorgon and make sure there wasn’t anything being planned.  The response had been, and I quote.  “Do you think I need to be told what you are, Jamar, or what other beings Zeke Collins has for allies now?  I got what I wanted from him.  Go away.” Jamar indicated that Gorgon had been sincere, and I didn’t need to worry about him, for now.

As long as Danny and Jane stay together anyway.

I could hear Alvak and Calvart talking with others, organizing secondary and tertiary defensive perimeters.  They were probably also building circuit boards, or programming new applications, or whatever else needed to be done, but they helped me coordinate defenses well enough.

The range of the fragments of the soul well that I sent to each portal site was smaller than the whole me would have been, about fifty feet in radius, or half as much range for them than my whole body would be.  With the energies that the gods released, the shielding was likely to burst, and some enemies thrown clear.  I had seen Mjolnir pop a shield like a soap bubble when thrown, but Thor had only done that once, and apologized profusely afterwards for his thoughtlessness.  The bugmen themselves had some weapons capable of breaking shields, but we were seeing less of them now.  Still, there were always at least a few leakers, sometimes a lot of them.  The secondary defensive lines always got some action, and the tertiary defensive lines frequently had to help a little.  Every now and then either I, or tactical reserves standing by with gods that could teleport, were required.

I watched as the Jinn and Jiniri at ground zero repositioned themselves, and then buried themselves under ten feet of dirt and stone.  This wasn’t to protect them, but to make them immobile, at the point of entry of the invaders.  The invaders would then be concentrated on attacking the ground under their feet while the war gods slaughtered them.  The mass of earth and stone over them would prevent the gods from knocking them away from the portal.

Not needing to breathe is a plus.

If a god wanted a share of power from a battle, they must contribute either before, during, or after the fight in a way that matched the roles set out in the contract, or in an alternate way that at least three pantheon leaders agreed would be useful.  Loki had even stepped forward once and taken a place within the shields, just to show that he could, when Thor insulted him.  It had been frightening to see him fight.  The bugmen simply died as they entered our world.  They froze solid when Loki blew at them, and then shattered when Loki struck his staff on the ground.

Thor had attended the same defensive position as Loki’s, as one of the four inner perimeter gods.  He even stated clearly that he was there to take over the defense when Loki failed, because he didn’t think Loki could hold the center.  As the portal closed, Loki had walked past a speechless Thor, simply raising an eyebrow, saying nothing.  The next day it seemed as if every Goth or Emo kid in the world was wearing white face paint, carrying a staff, wearing robes, and gushing about how awesome Loki was.

Thank you for the idea, Coyote.

I just wish I had been there to see his reaction when Loki realized what happened.

Of course, the Svartalves had already had the idea of using the soul well as a bargaining tool to put darker gods into situations where they would be seen as heroic, with hundreds of different variants, when I asked.  In the end, the new contract would basically force all gods to assist humanity if they wanted power.  If they refused to help, they would be forgotten.  If they tried to attack sufficient numbers of humans to generate enough fear to power themselves, the other gods, powered by the soul well’s power, would tear them down and banish them in a dimensional pocket like the one Ahmed had trapped me in.  The Abrahamic gods, due to their inability to manifest bodies on Earth, were allowed to send angels in proxy.  Archangel Gabriel was their normal choice, and he was no lightweight, even compared to the war gods.

The countdowns ended, and the large containers of assault balls appeared, as always, and the war gods and Gabriel destroyed them almost instantly, like normal.  The gods and archangels could use their magical abilities to destroy the incoming devices before they were formed sufficiently to activate.

No creativity.

Not that I’d rather they be better fighters.

It was painful to watch the carnage, but about three hours later, Alvak announced total success.  Seven teams of Svartalves, four per team, had teleported through the portals to the other side, bypassing the battle completely.  They had reported from the other side that the environment found there would sustain Svartalve life, and that there was magic, but it wasn’t being manipulated within their sensing range.

I can’t even imagine how desperate the bugmen must be to keep attacking like this.

A great many rapid experiments had been performed, and the far side Svartalves were confident that their mission would be a success.  The Svartalves on the other side had then destroyed all seven of the bugmen’s portal generators, trapping themselves in the cross-layer dimensional space.

Twenty-eight Svartalves were now responsible for doing whatever was necessary to force the bugmen to first control their birthrate, and then to help them develop their bodies and technology to allow them to become a spacefaring race.  The Svartalves would only allow the opening of future cross-layer dimensional portals for peaceful purposes of exploration or trade.  Those transplanted Svartalves and their descendants would also protect that dimensional layer from attacks from yet other dimensional layers.

The geas on the Svartalve race would hold no matter where the race went, even to worlds with no magic, it was thought.  Svartalves had been into space, far from any magical source, to test their theories with extra care.

When Svartalves say they tested ‘with extra care’ I’m willing to take the results as ironclad.

The Svartalve racial geas was carefully designed, by Svartalves, to force any Svartalve that even thought they might have figured out a loophole in the geas to, first, not utilize the loophole, and, second, report the possible loophole to every other Svartalve they knew.  They must then communally figure out how to fix the geas and get rid of the loophole, after which point, they would create a god to adjust the geas, and then extinguish the god when the fix was in place.

Seeing the expressions of the human gods that heard the Svartalves explaining this had been hilarious.  Coyote had kept it to himself, not telling any of them.  The Svartalves had calmed the frightened gods by saying that it had taken the Svartalves forty million years of strict breeding programs to develop the ability to kill off their own gods.  The human gods just needed to prevent the human race from developing into a gestalt-capable mind.  Then, upon further questioning from Thoth, the Svartalves had explained how their eugenics program had worked, and I was the one that was sick.

Svartalves are scary as hell, sometimes.

I can’t even imagine what the Troodon must have been like.

I didn’t think the human gods needed be concerned, and they agreed with me as far as I knew.  Trillions of Svartalve hatchlings had been culled in the name of Svartalve racial self-improvement.  They had no mammal sensitivities about their young, though they did at least regret the necessity on some level.

At least they say they do.

Stop it.

If they wanted to do humans in, they could have already, easily.

They probably have hundreds of plans already drawn up, in case they need to.

Not that I’m going to ask.

Nothing was guaranteed, but with all Svartalves forced by racial geas to monitor and take actions to repair or improve their own racial geas, it should be self-preserving.  The only reason the Svartalves allowed such a geas was because they placed it upon themselves through their first temporary god, Valsom.

The inefficiency of including human tinkers in the Svartalve geas had annoyed Valsom, and he was also clear that he didn’t think the human gods could handle modifying the main geas on humans, so he had provided the human pantheon leaders a stripped down version of the Svartalve geas.  The geas was far less complex than the Svartalve geas, but it apparently satisfied the human gods, who implemented it.

A great deal of mental healing efforts had been put into helping Tinkers.  For some, it was a lost cause.  They had grown too accustomed to their own mental illnesses, and could not be cured without basically turning them into different people.  Others blossomed into fine mental health with minimal guidance.  Some had mixed results.  Jane, for example, was still extremely agoraphobic, rarely going outside, but she had lost most of her OCD tendencies.  The Svartalves fixed the tinkering genetic modifications so that the infused elementals and spirits of innovation in future tinkers would draw energy from metabolic processes, as opposed to other parts of the human mind.

“Alvak, Calvart, are there any mop-up operations ongoing?”

“No, Mr. Collins” was repeated in stereo.

I held out my hand to Karina, and spoke.  “Calvart, please call the Jinn and Jiniri with soul well fragments, and ask for them to return.  Alvak, please communicate with the gods and find out if there are any strange requirements for delivery, or if there are any complaints about any gods not doing their jobs appropriately.”

“Yes, Mr Collins.” Stereo again.

Karina handed me the strip of my leg, and I fitted it into place, watching as it wriggled slightly, healing back into place, almost instantly.  The other seven pieces of me arrived in short order, and were all fitted into place on my leg.  I now contained the soul energy of hundreds of thousands of dead bugmen.

I saw Anne and Danny arrive on camera, and made sure the red light on the door was lit so they knew not to enter yet.  Their escort Jiniri, however, needed to attend me, and opened the door, walking into the main cavern.  Fifi was there with Anne and Danny, and ran in circles around the two of them a couple times before flopping down on Danny’s feet, rather than on the floor.

Even temple guardians prefer a warm place to lay down.

The last Jiniri approached, and all ten of them held hands, except the Jinn and Jiniri nearest to me, who only held the hand of one partner.  They each reached out and I reached out to them as well.  As they touched me, I felt the heavy syrup sensation of the soul energy being drained from me through both arms.

I looked at Ali.  “Were you able to get it all, and evenly distribute it?”

“Yes, Zeke, everyone got an equal share.” Ali answered as he removed his hand from my wrist.

I stood, and then shifted back into my human self and pushed the base intercom. “Good job everyone.  You all know what to do from this point on.  Let Alvak or Calvart know if there are problems that you need help solving.  They’ll let me know if I need to know.  There will be a cookout at my place tonight, if any of you want in, just show up.  I’m the grill-master tonight.  Beef burgers and turkey dogs.  If you want steaks, Danny will fire up the other grill.  Remember, no pork, please.  Bring your own anything else.  The grill shuts down at ten, the lights are out at midnight.” I released the button.

“See you there, Zeke!” Ali commented as he ran to one of the nearby walls, created a door, and stepped through it with a wave.

I made sure my phone was connected to the access point system, in case someone needed to reach me.  It was almost guaranteed that someone would probably think they needed me, and I’d end up pushing them off to the Svartalves unless it was something that actually needed my attention, like a social/people problem.

I pressed another button and the red light at the door turned green.  Anne and Danny pushed through, and I went to meet them, tucking my phone into the inner pocket of my windbreaker.

Anne gave me a hug, and I slapped Danny on the back.  Danny said he was going to get Jane from over at her mother’s, and I nodded.  Anne and I hurried back to the house to close all the blinds and make sure Jane’s ‘safe closet’ was in good order.

Human technicians and practitioners, and a couple of the Jinn and Jiniri arrived in short order, before I even had the charcoal lit.

Jamar saw my predicament and grinned.  “Don’t worry, Zeke, I missed giving fire to humankind by a few hundred thousand years, but I’ve got this, I think.”  The charcoal caught fire, and was immediately ready to cook on.

“Thanks Jamar!”  I quickly started tossing burgers and dogs on the grill.

After I had the grill covered with burgers and dogs, but before I had to carefully watch for flare-ups from dripping grease, I spent a moment looking up at the stars.  I couldn’t see them well through the smoke and with the outside floodlights on, but they were still there, winking.

I wish there had been a way to save you, Ahmed.

Anne walked up behind me and put her head on my shoulder. “Thinking about him again?”

I flipped a couple burgers that really didn’t need flipping yet.  “Yeah.  Is it that obvious?”

“When you look off into nowhere with that pain on your face, yes.  It’s obvious.  At least to me.  I’m sure the Jinn and Jiniri notice it too.  I bet it’s part of why they like you so much.”  She pushed me away from the grill a bit and pulled my head down, staring into my eyes.  “Happy thoughts, Zeke.  Think about what you and your team did today.”  She gave me a kiss on the nose.

Anne then produced a white chef’s hat and apron, which had apparently been tucked behind her back, made me put them on, and went back inside to work with Matty to make sure the non-grilling parts of the party went well.

I put myself on autopilot on the grill, thinking about what we’d managed today, finally.  The first step towards not just protecting Earth, but all Earths.  The organization I’d built wouldn’t stop alien invasions from other places in our dimension, but the Svartalves said that the number of dimensional layers was finite.  That meant, eventually, in a few hundred thousand years or so, we will have ended the possibility of all Earth-based cross-layer dimensional attacks.

I might even see that day.

I still knew almost nothing about magic.

I no longer wanted to know about magic.

Success isn’t magic – it just feels like it.

Prior Chapter

Arc 3, Balance 28

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As she pulled me into the house and back towards the kitchen, Anne was irritated.  “Whatever that Valsom thing was, its timing was terrible.  We just got you back, and you’re acting like the world is about to end.”

I shook my head, to try to clear my thoughts.  “It is, for Valsom.  He was saying goodbye.  I doubt I’ll see him again.  Svartalves work quickly, and Valsom is a very old, very experienced Svartalve.  I suspect he can predict, within an hour, when everything will be completed.  When he has set the third geas for his people, they will turn him off like a light switch, from what he said.”

“Didn’t he say they used you?” Anne asked, sounding confused.

“Yeah, they did.  They had to.  I was the right fool for the job.”  I shook my head.  “I can’t even be angry at them for it.  Seventy-five million years of slavery, Anne.  Barely able to express themselves.  They are all tinkers, but they couldn’t acquire materials easily, nor tinker without permission.  What do you think Jane would do in that scenario, if it started now, and lasted the rest of her life?”

“Become terribly bitter and probably start breaking rules almost immediately.  She’s obsessive.  Even Danny complains from time to time about her fixation on her experiments and production schedules.”

Speaking of Danny, where is everyone?

I looked outside and Danny, Mom, Pops, and Coyote were talking on the porch.  Mom was leaning against the front door.  “A geas would prevent her from breaking the rules.  She’d have to live within the rules outlined for her, as best as she could.” I replied.

Anne considered.  “She would probably start planning, either on computer, on paper, or in her head.”

I nodded.  “Now imagine that she lived for five thousand years or so.  How many ideas would she have?  How much would it hurt to not have the freedom to act on those ideas?  Then imagine a whole race like that, and imagine that their restrictions have lasted millions of years.”

“I can’t imagine it.  Too big, Zeke.” Anne hugged me.  “I don’t want to imagine it.”

“I don’t have to imagine it, I lived next to it for a while.  Valsom and his crew, if you offered them work, were ecstatic. Literally cheering.  The more complex it was, the more work there was to do, the happier they would be.  If you tried to ask them to take a break, they got angry and sullen.”

“Zeke, shut up.”

“What?”  I shook my head.

Anne stepped shifted her hand from my right elbow to my right hand, and pulled me through the kitchen, past the laundry room, down the hallway towards the master bedroom suite.  “I said, shut up.  I was hoping to have the whole night with you, tonight, but I don’t think I’m getting that with the way you’re acting now, am I?”

“I’m sorry, Anne, but I really need to go talk to Ali, if Coyote can find him.  He lost his father.”

“I personally think Ali is a lot more mentally tough than you appear to think he is.  Remember how long he’s lived, how many people he’s seen die.”

“None of them were his father, Anne.  His father was literally billions of years old.  Can you even imagine something nearly as old as Earth suddenly dying?  Here one day, gone the next, like any of us mayfly mortals?”

Anne pulled me into the master bedroom.  “But you killed his father, Zeke.  Will Ali want to see you?  Will seeing you just make it worse for him?  Ali is powerful.  Would he be able to hurt you like his father did?”

I sighed.  “Ali is a good kid.  He knew his father was going to kill me when he last saw me, and was trying to demand answers why.  There will be at least some resentment, I’m sure, but he knows that I didn’t seek his father’s death.  He can see my intent, and I’m damn sure not going to approach him to start a fight.  Ali and I had something like a parent-child bond, at times.  If I can offer him a shoulder, and he wants it, I’ll give it to him.”

“Before you go offer your shoulder to some four hundred year old magical boy, you’re going to spend at least a couple hours here, with me.”

“But…”

Anne interrupted me, with her right hand on my lips.  “No buts, buster, it’s already been arranged.  Your mother, father, and Danny will be going home, and you and I will be staying right here.  I don’t care what Coyote does, but if he absolutely must stay close to you like he said, I expect him to stay quiet and invisible.”

I looked around, and didn’t see Fifi. “Where’s the dust mop?”

Anne gave me a strange look.  “Fifi will be going back with Danny.  You really need to see her with one of her bones, or playing tug-a-rope with Danny before you make her mad.  She’s a lot more than she seems, she’s not just smart and fast.”

Imagine that.  An animal that’s more than it seems.

“I’ll try to remember to ask for a demonstration later, Anne.  I’m guessing it will be impressive.”  I smiled.  “Knowing that you and Danny are well-protected makes me feel better.”

I heard a truck start in the driveway.  It wasn’t mine, so it must be Mom and Pops leaving.  They wouldn’t leave if Danny was alone, so Danny must have called in for a teleport from the Enclave, or maybe Jane had given him something to let him teleport to her lab.

Anne tapped my left hand, still clenched around the device in my pocket.  “Let go of it.  It’ll still be in your pocket later.  I have better things for you to do with your hands.”

I let go of the device, and it fell into the depths of my pocket.

Anne was right, she did have better things for me to do with my hands.

Despite my desire to offer help to Ali, I stayed the night.  Anne was my wife.  Ali was a friend.  Ali had his sister.  If I went to him as well, my wife would have nobody tonight, and I just wouldn’t do that to her after I returned, eight days after she thought I had died.

As I lay in the light of the bedside lamp, Anne tightly molded to my side, hugging me in her sleep like I was a big teddy bear, I realized that it had been over seventy days since I had seen Anne.  I probably would have stayed, no matter what, after we got started, after the immediacy of Valsom’s comments left my mind.

Figuring out what all my new phobias would be, and trying to deal with them, was going to be a real challenge.  I made a mental note to find a good hypnotherapist and get a recording I could use when I slept.

Would hypnotherapy work on me when I was the soul well?

Definitely worth thinking about.

I’m afraid of the dark, but stay functional enough to at least turn the lights back on.

Birds or bird-shaped things had a tendency to start looking like ravens, which scare the fuck out of me.

Knives make me ill, just to think about them.

Thinking of any sort of jerky or unprocessed cut meat makes me want to heave.

I wonder what other surprises I’ll find hidden in my brain over time.

At least burgers and seafood seem OK.

My mouth twitched as I realized I now had an excuse to order a burger when Anne and I went out to eat.  It would work once, and after that we’d never go anywhere without a seafood selection.

I woke up at dawn in the best way possible.  Anne and I proceeded to enjoy ourselves for an hour or so after she woke me up.

There was no fresh food in the house, so Anne did an internet search and found a breakfast place that offered drone delivery.  She ordered a big breakfast for us both (mine with no meat or eggs), downloaded the company’s drone beacon app, activated it, and then we dressed in sweats and slippers before going out with coffee to sit on the tailgate of my truck, waiting for the breakfast to fly in from wherever the place was.

The drone arrived a few minutes later.

Once again, Anne shows she’s smarter than me.

I’ll have to remember this for myself, for later.

We were both ravenous, and the big breakfasts disappeared faster than either of us expected.  Anne found two cans of tomato soup and a sleeve of saltine crackers, and we made more coffee.

After we finished the soup and crackers, Anne was a little upset.  She knew her body pretty well and a change in appetite like that made her nervous.

“Anne, we skipped dinner last night, and Coyote’s regenerative healing makes you hungry.  It was just a little bit of healing during the fight between Trainwreck and Thor, but I bet it drained our body reserves.”

Anne thought for a second, nodded, stood up, and starting to collect the trash, cups, and bowls.  “Speaking of all the recent events, after you get dressed, give me a kiss and go find Ali.  You’ve been very nice about it this morning, but I know you want to go.  He’s your friend, a partner, and there is that contract.”  After a brief pause, she added “Coyote, Thank you for allowing us this time.  I imagine there are other things you might be attending to right now.”

Coyote’s voice answered, sounding like he was just around the corner.  “There are always things to do, Mrs. Collins.  I’ve traded a couple favors to take care of the truly important things, but I will need to go my own way soon, before I bargain too much away.  If Ali isn’t ready to be active again, we may need to find someone else, but there are several alternatives.”

I gave Anne a kiss both before and after I got dressed, and then we walked outside where she called the Enclave for a teleport.  A few seconds later, a portal appeared at the same place where Mindblade had generated his, what seemed like an eternity ago.

Anne gave me a kiss, and then spoke seriously.  “Please give Ali and Matty my condolences if you find them.  I know they are hurting.  They have each other, but none of their other relatives are awake.  Matty mentioned that once, a couple days before you disappeared.”

We can only hope they are asleep.

The way Anne looked at me when she said the other relatives were asleep made me pretty sure she was thinking the same thing I was, but neither of us said it.

“I’ll look for a hypnotist for you, Zeke, and ask around.”

Nodded.  “Thank you, Anne.  I’m going to need the help.”  I walked her to the portal, and collected one more hug and kiss before she took a couple deep breaths and walked through the black surface and disappeared.

I turned around, back towards the house.  Coyote was waiting for me, standing on the porch and tapping his long cane against the door.  “Another few nights like that, and this will be a healthy threshold again.  I felt its resistance.”

I sighed.  “I can only wish.  I bet the threshold at our last house, before I got powers, would have been a challenge, even for you.”

Coyote’s tongue fell out of the side of his mouth. “Perhaps.  Are you ready to run?  Do you remember clearly how we ran before?”

I nodded.  “Keep in step, do what you say, don’t watch your feet.”  I checked my pocket for the device Valsom had given me.  It was there.

“No showboating this time.  Maximum speed, minimum time.” Coyote walked down the steps, and I followed, matching his pace.

When we were both on the driveway, Coyote started to jog, and everything stopped moving.  By the time we were at the end of the driveway, we were both running at a good clip, and trees were blurs.  I stopped paying attention to my environment, and just fell in behind Coyote, listening to his footfalls while watching his hips and shoulders to match his pace.

“You’re doing a lot better now, concentrating better.  Thank you, it makes it easier.”  Coyote picked up the pace again.  “Darkness soon, we’re approaching a dimensional fold that will give us access to where we found you.  The darkness will be brief, like an eye blink.  I will carry you in, so don’t panic when you lose the pace.

Darkness.  Great.

Even though I was behind him, I nodded.  “OK”

A couple seconds later, I felt myself being lifted, and there was starless darkness.

Nothing.  No stars.  No moon.  Pure emptiness.

I froze, staring at the darkness, and a few seconds later, I realized there was no longer darkness.  Coyote was cocking his head at me, ears facing forward.  “Zeke, are you OK?”

I sighed.  “No, I’m apparently severely afraid of the dark now.  I didn’t think it was that bad.  Last night it wasn’t that bad.”

He must have really given us privacy last night if he doesn’t know that.

“There’s no light at all in intra-dimensional space, Zeke.  None.  It’s not surprising you had a very bad reaction.”  He paused.  “Are you ready to go speak with Ali and Matty?  They are still here.”

“Is that a good sign?  It’s been what, a week or so, in here compared to the day we’ve been gone?”

“I would say it’s an encouraging sign.”

“Do they know we’re here?”

“Yes.”

“Are they listening to us?”

“Yes.”

“I suppose I’m already speaking with them then, but I’d rather do it face-to-face if possible.  Can you lead me to them?”

“Yes, follow.  Keep the pace.” Coyote turned and started walking.  I fell in behind him, and kept pace for two or three seconds, and then we stopped again.

Ali and Matty had dismantled the cairn and unearthed the etched stones, bringing two of each stone over to Ahmed’s grave.  One of each stone for either of them.  They sat opposite each other, with their father’s grave between them.  Between each of them and the grave, the etched stones were spread in an arc.  The suit sat next to the grave as well.  If Ali and Matty were north and south of the grave, the suit was west.  Its facial visor system had apparently been modified so that the heads up display and monitor faced outwards, so Ali and Matty could see what was displayed there.  It was crudely done.

Ali had Ahmed’s claw in his hand.  Just looking at it made me feel ill.  I quickly looked away, but not before I was treated to a couple flashbacks of the suit leaning over me, and then walking away with another part of me to dry by the fire, or grind into powder and mix with water.  The scent of burnt palm, or whatever the local trees were, assaulted my nose.  I wasn’t sure if it was a part of one of the flashbacks or not.

“It seems as if you’re still a little worse for wear, Zeke.” Ali spoke slowly. “My father’s claw is now hidden, you can look again.”

I looked back towards him.  “Yeah, Ali, the body’s fine, but my mind probably won’t ever be quite the same again.”

“I’m sorry my father did that to you, Mr. Collins.” Matty spoke.

“I’m sorry I killed your father.  I know what happened now, better than I did before.”

Ali looked up at me, sharply, and narrowed his eyes.

“Ali, please stay out of my head.  I had a good reason last time.  I have a good reason this time.  I want to tell you things in a specific order, if I can.”

Ali grimaced and nodded.  “Sorry, Zeke.”

I paused.  “Anne wanted me to give you both her condolences.”

They both nodded, and Matty spoke.  “Thank her for us.”  She waved her hands over the inscriptions and towards the suit.  “Thank you for leaving these.  Your consideration of us, and your analysis of what happened was helpful, as we started finding gaps and holes in our own memories.”

“Ah, so you have already divined that your father was pulling a lot more strings than anyone realized?”

They both nodded, and said, in unison.  “Yes.”

“Do you know he was forced to?”

Ali answered.  “We suspect.  We do not know.  It’s doubtful that we’ll ever really know.  Father never recorded anything, he kept everything in his head.”

I nodded.  “I thought so.  The best way to hide something is to keep people from ever suspecting that it exists.  Even Coyote can’t steal it if he doesn’t know it exists.”

Coyote snorted. “Truth.”

Matty pinned me with her eyes.  “I’m not reading your mind yet, but I fully plan to, if you don’t start talking faster, Mr. Collins.”

“Have you seen Valsom?” I asked next.

“No.  That’s probably for the best.  If he had shown up here, knowing what I do now about how he arranged Father’s death, there would have been a fight, and we would not have preserved the area for Coyote, as he requested.”

“I…  I don’t know what to say next.  Everything is so complex, and I don’t understand enough.”  I sat down opposite the armor suit, and shivered when I looked at it straight-on, instead of in profile.  Flashbacks started, and I closed my eyes tight, taking a few deep breaths, hoping they would pass.

When the flashbacks stopped, I started talking again.  “This place is not a good place for my sanity, and worse for my concentration.  I am going to close my eyes, shut my mouth, and allow you two to read my mind.  Most of what you need to know occurred in the last day, my subjective time, since I was removed from this dimensional pocket.  You may get something of value from before your father died, but it’s mostly me being shaped into an unintentional weapon by Valsom and the Svartalves.  I strongly suggest that the last thing you view is my conversation with Valsom, yesterday.

Coyote spoke again.  “I agree with him, Ali, Matty, but please be careful.  He received mental healing from Odin, so he’ll still be a bit fragile for a while.  He was a pawn in all this.”

I closed my eyes and imagined I was at the house with Anne, remembering this morning.  The memory was strong, and I was able to almost fool myself into thinking I wasn’t in the fern hellhole.

Matty’s voice complained.  “Zeke, that’s not fair.  I promised Anne I would stay away from you for forty years, and now you give me a trailer of what I might expect forty years from now, if we’re both still around, and if things work out.  Can you think of something else please?”

Planning forty years ahead.  Crazy.

“Please.  I’m too young and sheltered to be exposed to such adult themes.” Ali commented, chuckling.

I tried to remember the fight between Thor and Trainwreck.

Ravens.  In the branches of the throne, watching the fight.

I froze, and after several seconds, forced myself to find something else to remember.  Sigrun’s story about Svipul and the Seer’s Catalog seemed safe.

A few minutes later, Matty spoke.  “Coyote, may I have the device?  I should only need it once, and then I will return it.  I suspect that you also have an interest in seeing what’s in the library.”

“Thank you.  Yes, I definitely want it back.  I am pretty sure I can find the library now that I know the Svartalves have access to it.  I know a lot of their spaces, but it’s definitely hidden.  I’d rather have direct access.  Time is more precious to me now.

Ali spoke.  “Matty, you know that a lot of my childish behavior was forced on me by Father’s manipulations.  Do you think that I need to wait, like Valsom said?”

“I don’t think so, Ali, but can you give me a little while to at least check on the last few hundred years’ records?  I have a strong feeling that if we’re not careful in our reading, we’re going to end up mentally scarred by some of the things father was forced to do.  It’s almost certain that the time in there is highly accelerated.  Father must have spent huge amounts of time there to record on the scale that Valsom insinuated.”  She paused.  “If it’s a trap, I’m stronger than you.”

“Not a trap.  I saw through his seeming, and I saw true intent.  If he wanted to hurt either of you, he would have done so when he came to look at the inscriptions.  Neither of you saw him.  I don’t know what abilities he has as a god, but a Svartalve his age is a canny and dangerous opponent by any measure, especially if allowed to prepare at leisure, even with no technological tools.  If he meant either of you harm, he probably would have attacked when he came by.”  I opened my eyes, making sure not to look straight forward at the suit, looking instead in the direction of Coyote’s voice.  He was standing with arms crossed, about ten feet away, looking down at us all.

Matty was sitting cross-legged and holding one of the devices Valsom gave Coyote and me.  She made a twisting motion with her two hands, and then pressed the red button.  A rectangular door-sized portal opened in front of her.  She hopped to her feet, and stepped through.

Before I could protest, Ali was through the door as well.  Moments later, he hurtled back through the portal, and dug a shallow trench in the black earth, bits and pieces of ferns flying every which way.

Ali jumped to his feet.  “All I wanted was the locus.  I was leaving.  I’ll stay out until you say I can come in, Matty!”

Matty blipped into our field of view in front of the portal on the other side, looking very serious.  She squeaked.  Then she squeaked again, almost immediately.  Her facial features were a bit blurred.

Matty’s head pushed through the portal to our side, and she spoke.  “Stay out till I say it’s clear, brother.  Promise me.  ‘I will not enter Father’s library, by any means, unless my sister Matty says I can, or a week of my personal subjective time has passed.'”

Ali sighed. “I will not enter Father’s library, by any means, unless my sister Matty says I can, or a week of my personal subjective time has passed.”

Matty nodded.  “Thank you, brother.”  She pulled her head into the portal again, and disappeared.

“Not fair.” Ali said, under his breath.

Still shedding some of the eight-year-old mentality, I see.

I figured it was as good a time as any to see if we could move elsewhere.  “Ali, you can come back here any time, or go to the library any time, now that you have the locus, right?”

“Yes, Zeke.”

“Do you mind taking us back to the house so I can give the armor back to the Svartalves for service?”

And get me away from this place.

Ali stared at me for a few seconds and then shrugged.  “Come with me.  There’s a flat vertical surface over here.”  Ali started walking.

“Suit, can you follow me without assistance?”

The suit stood in a fluid motion.  “Yes.  Walking locomotion is possible for another two miles without solar recharging.”

“Follow me then, suit.” I called out as I walked after Ali, who was waiting by a tall, vertical stone.

I waved to Coyote as he entered the portal leading to the Library.  He nodded to me.

Without saying anything, Ali created a door, and then opened the door into one of his rooms he used as a transfer point.  I followed him in, and the suit followed me.  Ali then created another door on a different wall of the room.  When that door opened, it opened into my apartment.

After we were through the second door, I closed it, and Ali waved to make the door disappeared.

“No more doors, Ali.  There should be a way for me to access a storage area and lab under the barn now.”

Ali looked at me for a moment.  “I was a little angry with you last time we parted ways, wasn’t I?”

“Ali, you were angry with good reason, but I had good reasons to risk making you angry.”

We stared at one another for a couple seconds before Ali said “True.  Let’s find the entrance.  It shouldn’t take long”

We found the entrance to the underground area in seconds.  It was under the stairs leading up to the apartment.  We went down the stairs, and there was a series of several ninety degree turns with downward stairs before a flat landing with another door.  There was clearly a palm and retina scanner there.  I put my palm and eye to the scanners, and the door opened.  The lab area was easily ten times as large as the prior lab was, and I saw at least half a dozen suits in various stages of assembly.

There were two Svartalves, both visible, at separate workstations.  As Ali and I entered with the suit, they both turned their heads so each of them had one of their eyes facing us.  The one closest to us gapped it’s toothy jaw slightly, and spoke, never stopping its work.  “How may we assist, Mr. Collins?”

“Please have this armor repaired, but store all of its environmental recordings onto removable media I can access with my personal computer.  Are you the senior Svartalve left with me?”

“I am.  My name is Alvak.”  The speaker twisted his head like Valsom had done.  I nodded my head in response.  “My assistant is named Calvart.”  Again the twist of the head, this time from the other, and I nodded.  At no point did the absurdly fast movements of their hands stop.

“I’m happy to meet you two.  This repair job is not high priority, if there is another suit that can be brought to fully functional status first, that would be a priority.  I would like at least one fully functional suit ready, at all times, if possible.”

Alvak spoke in a matter-of-fact voice.  “There are two suits ready now, six that can be in service in two hours or less, and eleven that can be assembled in more than two but less than ten hours.”

“We’re going to need to talk about this.  If you have to keep busy, there are other things I could use instead of multiple redundant suits, but that discussion can happen later.”

“Yes, Mr. Collins,” Alvak responded, keeping his one visible eye on me.

“Suit, stand against the wall and shut down.”  I walked back out of the door into the stairwell.  As I turned, Alvak’s immobile head, one eye facing me, all of a sudden seemed to have a raven’s head superimposed over it.  I carefully didn’t look back as I closed the door and made sure it latched.

When the door was safely closed, I gulped air to calm my stomach and wiped my brow.

Ali was staring at me.  “You’re a soup sandwich, mentally, Zeke.”  He paused.  “I’m not much better right now, honestly, even if I’m not as obvious about it.  I want to make it clear that I might not be able to work with you long term, but what I saw in your mind made it clear that you aren’t to blame, so I’ll stay around at least long enough for a replacement.  Coyote can protect you, but he can’t redistribute soul energy if you are exposed to deaths.”

“Ali, we can only do what we can do.  If we can’t work together after your father’s death, I will understand, and you don’t need to supply a reason.”  I caught his eyes with my own, and held them for a brief moment.

Ali nodded.  “Thank you for understanding, Zeke.”

“Can I ask a small favor of you, Ali?”

“You can ask.  If it’s something that requires finesse, I’m probably not ready for it yet.”

I pulled the little teleportation device out of my pocket.  “You don’t need this thing, and I damn sure don’t want it.  I’ll let you choose who to give it to.  I think it would be best to give it to one of the benevolent gods of knowledge or wisdom that actually interacts with the rest of the world, but if you think you know a better recipient, it’s your family’s library.”

Ali’s mouth quirked into a half smile as he plucked the device out of my hand.  “You want me to give it to Odin.  I’ll think about it.  Thoth or Athena might be a better choice.  Are you sure you aren’t interested in seeing what useful information might be in my father’s library, Zeke?”

“Yes.  I’m sure I’m not interested.  I’m developing an allergy to magical knowledge, I think.”

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