September 2020

Typically appearing as a harmless fog, the mistmaid ekes out sustenance by circulating nutrient-rich dew and draining lichens and other molds of their meager life force. But they are always vulnerable to dissipation, as any mass that strays too far from the main will be permanently lost, usually disappearing (though occasionally growing into a new mistmaid, their secondary method of reproduction).

Mistmaids that are threatened will, therefore, take the form of something that an intruder would not harm–often a woman for early, and male, explorers. In this guise, the mistmaid is capable of communication, whispering a few words. Most of the time, they seek to escape and rely on deception to achieve this end. But if food has been scarce, they are known to lead the unwary into fatal situations, like steep drops or bogs, and feed off the dew and lichens that feast on the corpse.

Any sapient being killed and fed upon by a mistmaid has a chance of spawning a new one after the “parent” moves on. These mistmaids do not seem to have any connection to the deceased mortals, but have been known to form themselves into their likeness in a few rare cases.

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“The truth is that you know nothing of this place.”

“The truth is that this place will eat you whole. In a month, not even bones will be left.”

“The truth is that you are already dead, and the rest of you is simply, slowly, catching up to that fact.”

“The truth is that we know nothing that can help you, or ourselves.”

“The truth is that only in us eating you, or you eating us, is anyone stronger for the exchange.”

“The truth is that we have lied to you, but not nearly as much as you have lied to yourself.”

“The truth is that when you are dead, which will be soon, and when we are dead, which will also be soon, it will be as if we never spoke.”

“The truth is that when you are dead, which will be soon, and when we are dead, which will also be soon, it will be as if we never existed.”

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“Yes, if only others had the wisdom to ask us, they’d know what we know!” the first bird cackled.

“Fine,” Mocks said. “Tell me what you know, then?”

“Why should we?” the second squawked. “If we hadn’t said anything, if we hadn’t been as talkative as we are wise, you’d have passed under here unawares.”

“Shooing us away with your blundering, not even giving any food.”

“All right, all right. What’s it going to take, then, to share what you know?”

“Food always helps,” said the second bird.

“Yeah, got any food for us?”

Mocks patted through pockets and pouches, coming up with a granola bar that crumbled easily to the ground.

“Well? Back off, then!” the birds said. “We’re not gonna eat it with you right there.”

“Yeah, could be a trick! A trick to catch us and eat us.”

“Why wouldn’t I just eat the granola?” Mocks said. “And you’re way too small and…gamey…to eat.”

“Sounds like something a bird-eater would say. Go on! Get lost.”

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“You led them to Earth,” Myassa said.

“Of course,” Taos said. “I needed some spare parts for my late-model R’de dreadnaught. It was either that or wait a millennia for humans to invent the necessary technologies, and frankly I’m not all that confident you’ll survive that long.”

“What’ll they do now that you’re gone?”

“Well,” Taos said. “It seems that the Vyeah have continuing, and frankly baffling, desire to destroy R’de technology. Assuming there isn’t another dreadnought crashed somewhere on that rapidly warming sphere, there’s nothing there they have any great need to destroy. If that makes you feel better.”

“I do have family there, you know.”

“Yes, I’ve read the file. Frankly, I’d be rooting for the R’de to glass them after the way you’ve been treated–talk to me when we’re done here if you do–but I also understand the need to cling to things like that. Look at me here, in the galactic core, with a few humans as pets to help me with things that require thumbs.”

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It’s an essential service
You cannot deny
A school is only as good
As its football team
Virus be damned
If we don’t play, we
Let the contagion win
These kids are rearing to go
And definitely have a choice
And are not endangered
For our amusement
By the purse-holders
I’m sure you’ll agree
That an opening 30-point loss
Is well worth risking
The lives of our players
And all of our fans

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“It’s relaxing, isn’t it?” said Taos. “K’ltlei, it’s called. No one knows what the name means or who gave it, which usually means that someone named it after themselves but just didn’t have the stones to claim it.”

Myassa took a deep breath, the fresh cool air stinging in her lungs a bit. Strange animals called placidly from the distant floodplains, and clear cool water coursed all about the ruins in an elaborate aquatic ballet. “It’s better than the atmosphere of that ship,” she said. “I’ll give it that.”

“Now that we’ve returned the ship to its homeworld, I have a confession to make,” said Taos.

“You regret kidnapping me?”

“Quite the opposite. I regret not kidnapping more of you. But you understand that I was in a hurry, under attack, and just learning how to pilot a R’de dreadnought that’s older than most life on earth.”

“More of me?”

“I was able to use the ship’s teleporters to take a few local folks. I think you might have met some of them? They would have been glassed by the Vyeah, so I really did them a favor.”

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“How many do we have now?” Ben said. He’d been buzzed at the beginning, but events had given him a quick, sharp sobriety.

Amanda counted with a shaking hand. “Twelve,” she said. “When I brought them out to the grill, the basement was empty.”

Ben worried the woodcut in his hands. “Wait,” he said. “We didn’t burn this one. It was the last, so that’s…thirteen.”

“You just took it out of the basement.” Amanda looked at the line of woodcuts, each carefully leaned against the wall by invisible, unknowable hands. “Does that mean…?”

“No,” Ben said, firmly. “We’re just seeing things. Stress and the virus. Creepy things and too much beer after we’ve been taking it easy. Maybe we popped an Adderol we don’t remember.”

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Zaiat’x, of Clan Sov’dvu, writes these words.

The R’de have been unrelentingly attacked for seven weeks, with fire raining from the sky. Our best defenses are as naught.

And yet, as we intercept and decode their transmissions, we see that this is not their usual way. They are traders, merchants, with an empire built on currency and economic domination. It’s true they are no cowards, and do not hesitate to fight, but from the intercepts it is clear that they crave conquest for selfish means.

But our entreaties have been ignored. No communications have taken place. Only from entering the minds of our prisoners have we been able to glean anything, nd even they do not know–or care–why they have been sent to exterminate us.

I fear the end, asdo all living things. But I think hat I fear more is that the R’de will perish without ever knowing why we were exterminated. When Clan Sov’dvu slaughtered Clan Pxe’aol, they at least knew that it was because of the Old Schism, as miserable of a reason as that was in hindsight.

But we have nothing.

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“Tell me, how has Vyaeh rule been?” Taos said. “I’ve heard how the Krne feel about it, of course, but this planet is still largely cut off from the Vyaeh FTL network. That and every voice I’ve picked out has been utterly boring.”

“I’m not sure rule is the right word,” Myassa said. “We send them our resources, and in exchange the richest folks are able to buy their technology. Everyone else just acts as if nothing has changed. We even still vote in elections, but the choice is always between two Vyaeh cronies.”

“Ruling through cronies is very cost efficient,” Taos said. “But I imagine that things don’t go well if you try to assert yourself.”

“Ask Kabul about that,” said Myassa. “Oh, wait, you can’t, because the Vyaeh glassed it from orbit and sent in an assault carrier loaded with elite troops.”

“Better to just keep your head down, watch bad Vyaeh-approved shows or worse reruns, while buying stuff off the local network and just accepting that ten cents of every purchase goes offworld, hm?” Taos said. “And to think, on Kl’tlei, you once took out a Vyaeh officer at seventeen klicks’ distance with a sniper rifle of my own design.”

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The conference is virtual
People may or may not be able to see or hear you
There will be no questions
Present as if to all
Even if
You speak

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