Excerpt


Confessor Clayton continued, gesticulating as the basket upon his head bobbed and dipped. “Lady Eostre, also called Ostara. Dame of the Hares we name her, as she is patroness of that which fruitfully multiplies upon the earth, and that which sustains the belly and warms the body when taken with respect. Mistress of Eggs, she is called, for her daily gift of breakfast from hens and fowl, which reminds us of the boundlessness of life and also its cycle. She is also known as Mother of Fluffchicks, for the many small and fluffy birds brought forth from eggs not otherwise eaten. And, of course, children know her best as the Dispenstress of Honeyed Sweets–a reminder to those that have them of nature’s bounty.”

“I see,” I said. “Well, uh, Confessor, what will you do now?”

“We will have a Ceremonial Scattering, that we may know the toil of Lady Eostre, also called Ostara. Then there will be The Baskening, where woven reed baskets filled with bounties for the worthy will be distributed. Than, naturally, will follow Chocpocalypse, where the honeyed gifts of Lady Eostre, also called Ostara, will be consumed. The tummyaches to follow are a reminder to us of the dangers of excess.”

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Administrator Naqebtran steepled their fingers, seventeen in total, and looked across the desk at O’Rourke. The colonial officials called it the ‘selfie stare’ because Naqebtran usually appeared to be doing a ‘duck face’ with their rather large lips. Erhv-Skire like Naqebtran had the lips for an entirely different purpose, for covering the baleen-like plates that they used to filter airborne plankton. But O’Rourke couldn’t help but anthropomotphize Naqebtran, especially given the incongruous look that those lush lips gave when surrounded by bristly hair-like projections.

“I want you to tell me what, exactly, happened in the mines, Mr. O’Rourke,” Naqebtran said, in the reedy voice common to Erhv-Skire. Some of them used a synthetic resonator when dealing with humans, believing that a deeper voice would lend them more respect. Naqebtran had, in their first address as administrator, denounced this, insisting that the miners listen to the message and not how it was delivered.

This left O’Rourke in the unenviable position of attempting not to laugh at the administrator’s appearance while answering questions about the accidents–murders?–which Naqebtran was clearly taking very seriously.

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The artificial docent handed a thick, smooth sheet to Cvkia. “This is a list of rules that you agree to abide by in consulting Sage Goroy Sadak.”

Cvkia glanced over it, reading quickly as her eyes darted back and forth. “I’m not allowed to look him in the eyes?”

“Sage Goroy Sadak’s eyes have been known to distract supplicants. I assure you that they are extremely useful on his homeworld, but to those who have never seen them, they can be…deep-set and unnerving.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to freeze up,” Cvkia said. “Does that happen often?”

“Humans tend to. Others, it varies. For obvious reasons, Xinoi are completely unaffected, but then, they can’t even read the card, can they?”

Continuing to read the card, Cvkia flipped it over. “Try not to exhale?” she said.

“Sage Goroy Sadak’s physiology finds CO2 mildly toxic,” the docent said. “We recirculate his atmosphere with the CO2 scrubbed, of course, but if you get excited, exhale too much, it could be problematic. You will be removed if this happens.”

“Fine, fine. I will look at the floor and hold my breath as best I can.” Cvkia handed the card back to the docent.

Its servos whirred in an approximation of annoyance. “You will be removed of your failure to comply reaches a dangerous level.”

“Very well.” Cvkia was shown through into Sage Goroy Sadak’s chambers, passing through a decontamination grid, a full scrubber, and a body-penetrating scanner. Finally, she was shown to a hard plastic chair facing a translucent wall. Shadows flitted about on its other side, sometimes corresponding to strange noises but more often not. Every few moments, the overhead CO2 scrubbers would kick on, causing a burst of harsh ozone smell and lifting strands of Cvkia’s hair skyward.

When the translucence finally shuddered, lifted, vanished, a small pod was extended outward, connected to the wall by snaking cables and radiation-hardened hoses. Perched atop the pod was a curious creature–Sage Goroy Sadak himself. He was the size of a small child, but with a brilliantly silvery-blue coloration. His mouth seemed twisted in a permanent grin, and his eyes were two flat black orbs that occasionally had silvery bursts of luminescence flicker across them.

“A child?” Cvkia said.

“Aren’t we all?” Sage Goroy Sadak’s voice came not from his mouth but rather a speaker set below and between his dangling and vaguely sausage-like legs. “But I assure you, it is simply a coincidence of convergent evolution. I am well-suited to my homeworld’s gravity and climate.”

Cvkia had been attempting to hold her breath when not absolutely necessary, and was beginning to feel lightheaded. “I see,” she said, in a bit of a wheeze. “And all the secrecy, all the security?”

“Necessary as a precaution only, and often enforced perhaps too strictly by those who are as jealous of my gifts as I am free with them.” Goroy Sadak raised a hand. “Please, breathe normally. It will not matter if our conversation is brief.”

With a gasp, Cvkia gulped in cold, ozone-tinged air. “Why do you let them do this?” she said. “Lock you away, when you would dispense your gifts freely?”

A sound out of the speaker that might have been a chuckle, or an attempt at one. “Even among my people, I am quite gifted. But I am, and have always been, a complete pacifist. I am also, if I may say so, something of a hedonist. I enjoy my creature comforts and find it very difficult to be roused to vengeance. If it suits the Confederation to keep me here, in comfort, who am I to stop them? Information, like entropy, will out. Now, what have you come to ask me, Ms. Cvkia Nebojsa?”

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“I’m looking for Ajixa, the Dark Blade of the Lutil.”

The Lutil approached. Its silicon scales glistened beneath its transparent environment suit, while the ammonia-rich atmosphere within manifested as billowing clouds of jaundiced vapor. Its words came across inaudibly, muffled by both the suit and the atmospheric pressure, but it had a good, military-grade translator. “That one is known to us, though not by that name,” it said. “That you would ask for them as such shows a profound ignorance. Tell me, what do you know of the one that you call Ajixa, and what do you know of this appellation, ‘the Dark Blade of the Lutil,’ that insults them on alien lips.”

“Well, Ajixa was head of the Lutil colony on-”

“We know the encyclopedia entry,” said the Lutil. “Tell me in your own, alien, words.”

“Ajixa assassinated the previous colony leader after maneuvering all their allies out of power, so no one would protest. The first order of business was to invite the human GesteCo Corporation to exploit the place. Ajixa not only encouraged GesteCo to spy on its workers and assassinate troublemakers, but actively encouraged it, even participating personally. Due to the place being under Lutil jurisdiction, Ajixa increased the output of crystalline glucose by 10%, the mines spat out deuterium at double their previous efficiency, and the colony was twice as profitable. And in exchange, 50% of the GesteCo workforce, mostly human like me, died.”

The Lutil nodded. “We prefer to say that Ajixa trusted the welfare of the humans to their own kind, and was disappointed but not surprised at what they did, turning a struggling colony into a profitable one at the cost of many lives. Ajixa did what was necessary, and those who might have counseled caution instead were encouraging.” It paused. “Because of that, Ajixa’s fearsome reputation is only matched by a fearsome bounty from human survivors and a GesteCo anxious to clean its hands fo the mess.”

“You are Ajixa, are you not? I think it is time to drop the pretense.”

A deep bow from the Lutil. “At your service. Tell me why you have sought me out, and the I will tell you whether you will get it, leave empty-handed, or die.”

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“I’m getting interference,” Candice said. “Here, take a look.”

She pulled Luis over to her computer screen, where the instruments were reading. Both the microphone, the infrared camera, and the low-frequency microphone were picking up intense interference.

“That’s a result,” said Luis. “That’s a result right there.”

“Not only that,” said Candice. “It’s directional. See?”

She picked up her microphone and moved it in an arc. The static spiked when she held it down and to the left, pointing at a location that roughly corresponded to the hospital’s newest wing.

Darius already had his portable camera. “All right,” he said “Let’s go.”

“Let me just get some things.” Luis grabbed his forged documentation from the gurney and, dipping into his bag, retrieved a small .380 pistol.

“Is that really necessary?” Darius said.

“We’re not the only people that could have figured out this place would be abandoned,” said Luis. “People have broken into these places to steal copper wire and stuff. I have a permit, but if it comes to it…I’d rather have it and not need it.”

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“Look at this,” said Luis, laying his hand on the walk-in freezer. “This is the hospital morgue freezer. If any part of this building is haunted, this is it. Just imagine…everyone who died here over fifty years spent time in this freezer. All those deaths, all that turmoil, all that negative psychic energy…it’s like a precipitate. Like a chemical reaction. You saturate the area with enough of the stuff, and it will eventually start to fall out.”

“You want to wait until after I get the cameras set up to start making your speeches, hmm?” said Darius.

“You know me better than that,” said Luis with a sharp-edged grin. “I can speechify at a moment’s notice. That, along with your camera and Candice’s instruments, is what’s going to get our series picked up.”

“It looks like the walk-in freezer they had at Arby’s,” said Candice, idly latching and unlatching the giant freezer door. “No drawers or anything.”

“I guess they’d only keep people here for a little while,” Luis said. “No point spending money on drawers you’re not going to use. Darius?”

“We’re all set here,” said Darius. “The cameras will capture anything unusual. We can come back and film some segments tomorrow, once we get everything else set up.”

“The equipment’s ready too,” Candice said. “But are you sure we’re not going to be bothered? Or arrested?”

“Here, you can read it yourself if you like,” Luis said. He handed a creased and sweaty piece of paper to Candice. “A court order prohibiting anyone not involved in demolition work from being on the premises. Seems this place owed a lot of people a lot of money. Demolition doesn’t start for a week, and I’ve got paperwork here showing that I’m a duly sworn officer of the court doing advanced scouting.”

“Fake?” Darius said.

“Hell yeah,” laughed Luis. “But if it means that, for the next week we can live here while we film our pilot, I’ll forge a letter from the goddamn President.”

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“Sir, we have the weather gauge. Shall I order the attack?”

Admiral Strauß lowered his glass, worrying the brass and leather as he did so. He said nothing to his second, who was waiting patiently.

Strauß was only there by dint of his family’s connections and several close relatives in or married to those at court. No one had expected a naval war to break out, so his utter inability to sail and the queasy seasickness that had bent him over the rail after every meal…well, they had seemed less glaring.

But then Admiral Leipnitz had been killed when his squadron had been ambushed and destroyed, and Admiral Hummel had died in an accident shortly after his squadron had routed enemies trying to enforce a blockade. That only left Grand Admiral Wettin and Strauß himself, and Wettin was 88 years old, blind as a bat, deaf as a post, and so riddled with gout he couldn’t walk.

Even so, Wettin had been carried aboard the flagship SMS Drache on a bier at Strauß‘s request. He had only been hauled off after a breathless courier had arrived one hour before the fleet made sail, bearing a message from the Chancellor himself. Many passages had been underlined in red that had faded to rust, giving Strauß the uneasy feeling that Chancellor Schroeder-Mayer had augmented the missive with his own blood.

“Sir…?” Admiral Strauß‘s second, Ignaz Ender, had been hastily promoted after the previous aide-de-camp had been partially swept off the deck by a cannonade. If the boy had any fear after learning that his predecessor had been buried at sea in two distinct stages, he wasn’t showing it.

Strauß could feel every pore on his body prickling with sweat. The upcoming battle, coming after a decisive defeat and a decisive victory, would decide the war at sea. Every last available ship was under his command, and if the fleet suffered a defeat or even a stalemate, there would be no one else to blame.

“Eternal glory if we win…eternal damnation if we lose…” Strauß muttered.

Ender looked at him. “Sir?” he said. “I didn’t quite catch that.”

Strauß clutched at the butt of his holstered flintlock with one hand and the heavy cutlass—too ornate and poorly bedded to ever split a real skull—with the other. It was simply too much.

He unholstered his pistol and pulled the trigger with his thumb.

Ignatz Ender, shocked, stood agape a moment. Then he pointed to the enemy fleet, scrambling to form battle lines. “Treachery!” he cried. “They’ve shot the admiral from their rigging! His final order was to attack…all ships carry it out!”

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