It had taken all his life’s savings, both too track the recluse down and to bargain for the use of his device.

Being swept down for anything being carried had scotched his first idea, to carry an AK-47 back with him, but the light of passion and fire still gleamed in his eyes. Even in the simple cotton clothes and leather boots he’d been permitted by the recluse—who created a machine like that just to sit on it and make rules about it?—couldn’t disguise the feeling of elation he felt. He managed to take a penny, hoping to melt it down and trade the copper for something.

Still, it was no matter. The device would send him back to the time of his ancestors, the time of his heritage, that glorious time of July 1862. He’d take up arms and fight for glory on those long-ago battlefields, and give form to his abiding love for the old Confederacy and its noble struggle.

Dispatch, Haven’s Regiment, to Headquarters, Gillom’s Division, Army Of Northern Virginia


In response to your missive from yesterday enquiring about the incident, I send this expanded description. A man claiming to be a sympathizer approached the regimental headquarters, offering to enlist. He was extremely strange in appearance, mannerisms, and affect, to say nothing of his manner of speech. For this reason, we deemed him a threat, possibly a spy. As such he was taken into custody and executed immediately.

He protested that he was a true scion of the South and that we were wronging one of our own. I don’t need to tell you, sir, that I found the thought repugnant. A Southron knows his own and keeps to them.

Nothing else of value was found other than the coin which I sent to you as a curiosity. It is clearly a visage of Demon Lincoln, though the other meanings are obscure. I suspect that they are secret coded instructions for spies, or perhaps a token of support for the War of Northern Aggression.

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“Hey, Mary-Beth,” I said poking my head into her cubicle. “Do you hear that-”

The cube was empty. The cup of chai Mary-Beth always had around this time was still steaming on its coaster, so she hadn’t been long.

“John,” I said walking to the other end of the office. “Are you hearing what I’m hearing? It sounds almost like music, or somebody humming? Weirdest thing.”

I stopped. John’s hoarder’s sty of a cube was similarly empty, with a stack of binders dashed across the entrance like a roadblock. He’d apparently been in some hurry to get out.

I poked about the rest of the office, only to find that everyone was gone. And the sound grew more insistent, a warm and almost choral note at the very limit of what my old ears were able to pick up. If I had to guess, it sounded like it was coming from Ramal Park, near the center of town, which made me think it might be a band concert or choir recital I was only hearing snatches of.

But there was something about the sound that was also alien, something about the register that was unsettling, warm and inviting as it was. My hearing aids couldn’t have been the sole reason for that, as I was able to catch a little of the sound even with them switched off.

I went to the office window and hiked up the blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

“What in the name of…?”

Everyone in town, from my fellow co-workers in the bank to the kids running the Gas ‘n’ Gulp across the way, were streaming slowly out of their places of business, their homes, and filing meekly toward Ramal Park. Toward the source of the mysterious sound.

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“From the ashes I arose, in the great mounds where they were heaped.” Its voice was like a deep bellows, whispers of fire raked over cherry-red coals, and each syllable breathed forth a pinch of acrid smoke and let a little of the burning light within escape.

“I’ve heard it said that the best smiths put themselves into their work,” said Ona. “I suppose that, with enough ash and time, the shards of great smiths past must feel the need to create.”

Cinderforge nodded. “The urge is overwhelming,” it said, “though the materials run low and the supply of fuel ebbs. I have kept this furnace stoked for an age, making trinkets and weapons and whatever else is asked for with a genuine need. But I cannot wander far before the fire begins to fail, and I am diminished form what I once was. I fear that another blade such as Heartseeker is not within me to craft.”

“Why not?” Ona said. She watched the sparks rise from each hammer blow as Cinderforge worked away at the metal. “You’re as strong a smith as I’ve ever seen.”

“There was a time when four arms worked these forges, manning the bellows as well as the hammer and tongs,” said Cinderforge. “To keep the fire, I have had to cast off pieces of myself. In a year, perhaps less, they shall gutter out unless I give up the last part of myself. Even if you could bring me Heartseeker itself, I could not copy it as I am now.”

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The last of the Atimidi was brought, in chains, before the Emperor of the Pale City as a curiosity. While it was kept there, it learned to speak Imperial and spoke at length with both the Emperor himself and with many of his retinue. Unlike the conception of the Atimidi as mindless beasts, it seems that the very last of their number was a skilled and sarcastic orator, despite his imposing frame and enormous claws.

Once, during a feast, the Emperor of the Pale City asked the Atimidi what would happen if the last of their number should die. The Atimidi replied that, while his people had never been beloved of the gods, their disappearance would nevertheless be mourned. They would weep for a thousand years to assuage the guilt of an infinite future cut short. The Atimidi followed this with an offer–and a request–to be allowed to leave, and to die far away from the Pale City and to spare it the gods’ wrath when he, inevitably, perished. The Emperor, unamused, did not comply.

Soon, a conspiracy against the Emperor was uncovered, seeking to murder him in order to place his nephew on the throne. The Atimidi had gone along with the conspirators, hoping to slay his captor and gain his freedom. In exchange, the Emperor had him executed by beheading, along with his nephew and the other conspirators.

At the moment the axe fell, the sky clouded over and a light rain, little more than a drizzle, began. The Emperor picked up the severed head of his onetime captive and mocked it, for having summoned so feeble a storm.

The Pale City did not see sunshine again for a millennium.

At first the steady rain was bearable, but soon the land reached its ability to absorb the water and the ground began to grow sodden and flooded. The great canals and sewers silted up. Buildings sank into the mushy morass. The glittering Imperial Palace buckled and collapsed as parts of its foundation gradually liquefied and ran away and others were worn into submission by the unceasing rain. The collapse killed the Emperor himself as well as all three of his sons; leaderless, the Empire of the Pale City soon splintered.

By the time the final raindrops fell, the Pale City had become a swampland, with only a few structures remaining above the morass, anchored to living rock.

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The coleoids had gained their intellect from the vast and ever-changing tide pools in which they hunted their prey. Always a moment from dessication or entrapment, often at the mercy of largest and more brutal predators until they attained their full adult size, the coleoids were intellects borne of a crucible that few creatures could endure.

But it was not until the first human arrived upon their distant shores that the coleoids were able to progress.

Hunting prey in the brackish waters of their coastal homes, the coleoids had gained the ability to reach out into the aether. They could sense prey, sense its thoughts, and—with age and experience—even compel their meals to action. So when the first human arrived upon that distant shore and began to fish and farm, the coleoids found that they were easy prey.

Not to eat, though enough of the great beasts tried this that they were hunted down and exterminated from the largest estuary. Humans, wary now of the great beasts and their ‘siren songs,’ instead became unwitting pawns of the coleoids.

By reaching out and suggesting courses of action, the creatures were able to rapidly amass knowledge about the world. And by dominating the most weak-willed humans into near-puppets, they gained key allies on land and mastery of fire and iron.

The only question that preoccupied the elder coleoids as they exchanged thoughts in their deep abodes was whether to make war upon the land, or forge an alliance with it. And with every coleoid that was swept up in a trawler’s net or speared from a distance, those pressing for war grew bolder.

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“Nice bike you got there,” said one of the men. “Maybe you should give it to us.”

It was always the same old song and dance. Posturing first, then threats, and then violence. Nothing that would have even gotten you sentenced before the Fall. Anyone you meet that’s not part of a larger outfit doesn’t have the stones for much more.

“What would you do with a bike like this?” I said. “It’s very difficult to maintain, almost more than it’s worth, and I have to barter for spare parts everywhere I go. You ever try to find a replacement planetary gear cassette? Or trade for one? Let me give you something else that you’ll find more useful.”

The man pulled a gun out of his pocket and pointed it at me, in what I think he believed to be a threatening manner. “Naw, I think maybe you should give that bike to us,” he said. “It’s safer that way.”

“Well, you surely know best,” I said. Gamely, I dismounted, took off my saddlebags, and let the bike fall to the ground. I half expected the man to order me to leave them, but his eyes were fixated on my aluminum and steel conveyance. He snatched it up, greedily.

“Hey!” his friend said. “Give that to me.”

“Get bent,” sneered the other. “I got it, it’s mine.” Crucially, in pulling it up, he had let his gun’s barrel point at the ground.

His pal pulled a gat of his own and pumped out two shots. Prudently, he scooped his dying compatriot’s Glock up before I could help myself, though I stood with my hands up the whole time, even taking a step back.

“It’s mine now,” he said, partly to me, and partly to his friend as the latter gurgled his last.

“Hey, sure, fine, take it,” I said. “It’s not worth my life.”

With a self-satisfied nod, the highwayman mounted my bicycle and took off an at unsteady clip. I waited a few moments before following. Since the Fall, no one but me had managed to hold onto that thing for more than a day or two. And I suspected this would be no different.

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“We knew the collapse would come, you see, and the information that had been gained had to be preserved. And thus, the faith. People might forget the germ theory of disease, but the soapy ablutions before meals would see some sanitation preserved. The strict segregation of unclean lavatories, and the insistence on boiling water before drinking it, if possible? An attempt to prevent cholera from taking its toll. We even named those holiest foods the ones most likely to grow penicillin. Even in stagnation, two thousand years of it or more, something would survive.”

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