Albert woke up to the discomforting realization that not only did he not know where he was, he had no idea how he had gotten there.

Rubbing his head and sitting up, he jumped at the sight and sound of a half dozen empty bottles and bags rolling off his body. Wherever the filthy hovel where he found himself was, somebody had had an absolute rager of a party there the previous night, but hadn’t bothered to clean up. Well, that wasn’t entirely true; there was an open portal in the middle of the room into which some of the detritus had been halfheartedly shoved, but judging by the smell it wasn’t a proper disposal wormhole. Probably raining trash from Amai upon the heads of some unsuspecting dimension like a mad, drunk, messy God.

This wasn’t the first time Albert had woken up disoriented and confused in an unfamiliar situation, and he had a very foolproof way of finding his bearings.

“Hello down there!” he cried, leaning over the whistling edge of the ersatz trash hole. “Do you have any idea where this is?”

A gruff voice, like ground glass crushed into cement, answered back. “You mean the hole in the sky what’s been raining wrappers and unspeakable fluids on mine garden for the past 24 hours?”

Coughing delicately, Albert nodded even though he was sure whoever was on the other side couldn’t see him. “Yeah,” he said. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Tell you what,” the voice said, “you tell me where you and your garbage are from, and I’ll tell you where you are. If I know.”

“This is Amai-of-the-Wormholes, the City at the End, the Grease Trap of the Universe, Endsville, the City of Wormholes, the Universal Sargasso Sea.” That was probably too much information; but then again the place had a lot of names, and Albert wanted to be clear. Assuming he still was in Amai, that is.

“Oh.” The voice sounded disappointed, as if it had expected a far grander pronouncement from the mysterious trash hole. “Where is that then?”

“It’s where all of the lost things in the universe wind up,” Albert said. Stuff like himself, in point of fact, but no point getting exit stencil when he was still trying to get his bearings.

“I know that!” the voice said, annoyed. “Of course I know that, everybody knows that. Amy of the portals. But if you know where you are, why are you asking me?”

Something about the voice finally clicked. Albert was talking through to a version of Igneon, an earth on which humankind had evolved from sentient volcanoes, but one which also coincidently spoke near–perfect English. Now, theoretically, a portal could open to one of the infinite parallel Igneons from anywhere in Amai, but everybody knew that the more volcanic a timeline the greater chance the portal opened up in the Flophouse District.

“Thank you!” Albert called down the trash hole. “That may not seem like much, but you’ve given me all the information I need. I’ll try to close the hole before too much more trash falls on your rock garden.”

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“Grey goo. Don’t worry; it’s not dangerous. It’s not that kind of goo.”

“What powers it, then?”

“Sunlight. Ambient background radiation. Trace elements extracted from the environment. Micro-changes in air density.”

“That sounds suspiciously similar to perpetual motion.”

“Nothing perpetual about it; when there’s no more suns, or radiation, or trace elements, or density, it stops working.”

“So, the heat death of the universe?”

“Or a total, artificial vacuum, whichever comes first.”

“You said not to worry, though.”

“That’s right.”

“Why?”

“It’s just an empty vessel. Well, an almost uncountable number of empty vessels networked together. But without an animating force…”

“A soul?”

“I didn’t say that. But yes.”

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Words only
The tumble freely, fingertips alight
But words only
I want to do more
But words only
I press that button, over and over
But words only
Adding my own, strident, displeasure
But words only
I see fire in the darkness
But words only

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The short sharp snap
Where the bone, bright, is exposed
It has always been there
No matter what we were told
And the only way it can heal
Is for everyone to see it
Broken, jagged, pained
Splinted and sutured
To mend itself slowly

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“I don’t think we’re the first ones in here,” Bogan said at length.

Neilos looked up from Dragovic, who had once again slipped into unconsciousness. “What?”

“It was too easy to get that door open, and it was the closest to the shelter. It should have taken a plasma cutter, not just brute force. And this interior, in here. It’s too clean.”

Thoughts whirred behind Neilos’s furrowed brow. “You hadn’t heard of this expedition, even though you’re a wonk about this stuff,” he said. “They weren’t authorized. Grave robbers.”

“Yeah,” Bogan said. “They opened this tomb, but not much more. Then they shut it again.”

“Left?” Neilos whispered. “Took the loot and ran?”

Shaking her head, Bogan pointed to the open almond case, its contents still scattered on the floor. “They would have taken that. If we can open it, so can they.”

“Then what…?” Neilos started to say. Then, as the wheels kept turning, his eyes widened.

“Those tombs, they’re just too big for what’s inside them, aren’t they?” Bogan said, smiling ruefully. “And those things in there, what are the chances they’d look so much like humans?”

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Bogan slammed the button on the emergency atmosphere generator. The thin membrane inflated, pressing against the ten-foot-tall tomb entrance on one side and a still-sealed door to the rear. The emergency airlock unfurled more or less in the open doorway with a wet pop, and after a moment more the pressure was safe enough to take off the suits. Bogan and Neilos both threw theirs aside without a second thought, laying Dragovic out on the floor.

“Emergency kit! Emergency kit!” Bogan cried, thrusting her hand out. Neilos handed it over, and Bogan began running through the diagnostic steps on the emergency card, starting by shining a light into both of Dragovic’s eyes. They were red, hemorrhaged, and it was unlikely he could see a thing even if conscious.

The decompression and low pressure had hit him hard.

After giving him a dose of sedative from the emergency kit, and watching his breathing grow steady and deep, Bogan rocked back on her heels. “Whew,” she breathed. “That was a near thing. When we catch our breath, when it’s calmed down out there, we’ll go back and get what we can, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Neilos said. He looked about uneasily in the glow of the emergency battery lights. “So what do you make of all this?” he added. “We’re the first people to ever see the inside of one of these things, and we’ve been too busy surviving to even have a look.”

Bogan cast about the room. It was taller inside than the door, perhaps twenty feet to the ceiling, and made of the same green-speckled black stone. Even inside, where there had been no weathering, there were still deep sandstone-like striations. But, most strikingly, there were fourteen sconces set about the two long walls of the room, seven on each side. A clear material that looked almost like quartz sealed each one off, and resting in five of the sconces, seemingly at random, were upright forms. They looked almost like Egyptian mummies, bound in wrappings, but the color of each was jet black with a chromatic sheen. A beetle carapace came to mind, but Bogan had never seen cloth with that texture before.

Stacked about the room, seemingly at random, were containers made of the same stone. They were almond-shaped and about six feet wide, with a clear seam between the two halves. The rear door was like the front one, unadorned, with no writing or symbols visible anywhere.

“I’m almost disappointed,” Bogan said, with an uneasy laugh. “Those mummies are, what, six feet tall? They don’t even fill the cubbies.”

She’d meant it to sound light, but the words landed with a dull thud. The silence of the room was penetrating, stultifying; worse than a soundproof broadcast room. Every breath, every movement, seemed stale and unpleasantly weighty.

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The last wireless message Jenkins had sent was on top of the pile, held down by one of the rocks the Eastern Party had collected from beyond the glacier. McNair picked it up, wincing at the Antarctic chill that still permeated the rock. Jenkins was still in the latrine, audibly groaning, so there was a moment’s opportunity.

Unfolding the note, McNair read it: TO WIRELESS HILL MACQUERIE ISLAND STOP EXPEDITION IN JEOPARDY STOP MCNAIR AND OTHERS UNHINGED MAYBE MAD STOP HAVE ALREADY ATTEMPTED POISON STOP DO NOT REPEAT DO NOT ATTEMPT RESCUE OR RESUPPLY UNTIL FURTHER WORD STOP

“Poison…?” McNair muttered. “We’ve not poisoned anybody.”

He pulled the next telegram out from from under the stone: TO WIRELESS HILL MACQUERIE ISLAND STOP SITUATION DETERIORATING STOP WIRELESS MAST FAILING STOP SUSPECT SABOTAGE BY MCNAIR AND OTHERS STOP

“Sabotage!” McNair whispered sharply. He looked at the small oil-smudged window in the hut wall, through which he could see the wireless mast, very much intact and swaying gently in the polar wind.

Jenkins was stirring in the loo; McNair heard the sound of a belt being buckled. There was time to read one more, perhaps, before shoving them back.

TO WIRELESS HILL MACQUERIE ISLAND STOP SUPPLIES AND RETRIEVAL NOT NEEDED AT THIS TIME PER MACNAIR STOP SEND SY ATHENA ON TO SYDNEY FOR WINTER STOP

McNair’s hands were shaking badly as he replaced the telegrams. Return the Athena to Sydney? Even if the ship couldn’t land it might be able to drop off supplies or embark the men.

There was something very wrong with Jenkins, and he was the only one who knew how to operate the wireless for 2,000 miles in every direction.

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Lot #983b: Untitled Portrait of a Young Person

One of several finished by unsold portraits found in his Rue d’Richat studio after he died, Étoiles presumably painted this piece in September or late August, approximately one month before his body was found. The frame is one of several he purchased in June, along with a canvas that he bought in July–approximately 30cmx30cm.

The subject, though, is the cause of much speculation. High-browed, dark-haired, with a sharp chin and an arch expression, the subject is strangely androgynous, with their ultimate identity being used as evidence for many theories about Étoiles’ sexuality. Either way, the subject is surely young, in their early twenties at the latest, and has strikingly green eyes.

No one matching that description was found when the police were searching for leads in Étoiles’ death before it was declared accidental, but Green-Eyes figures prominently in several theories regarding the artist’s death, playing the role of everything from femme fatale (or homme fatale) to hapless victim.

Either way, the painting was found in the frame backwards, with Untitled Still Life of a Bloodied Dagger (Lot #983a) in the forward-facing position. Much has been made of this by scholars, though Étoiles commonly doubled up his paintings in this way for reasons that remain unclear, and none of the other doubled paintings found in his studio (#982a & #982b, Untitled Still Life of Sausage on a Cutting Board and Untitled Portrait of a Street Dog) or in his sister Margot’s apartment (#981a & #981b, Untitled Still Life of Full Moon Over the Seine and Untitled Scene in a Parisian Clothing Shop) have excited any such speculation.

Nevertheless, the identity of the subject, and the meaning of the expression on their face, has long been seen as the key to understanding who or what ripped the artist’s throat out while he lay in bed after a night of heavy drinking.

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The Green Emperor laid down the fundamental rules of succession near the end of his rule in an attempt to prevent civil war, stating that the reigning emperor must name a successor and that the successor must be confirmed by the ruling House of Gulls. That system, in theory, guaranteed that there would never be a power vacuum and that the emperor and the Gulls needed to be in accord about the choice of successor.

As long as there was a strong dynasty on the throne, with many possible heirs to choose from, the system worked well enough. One of the reigning emperor’s sons or daughters would prove themselves able, be recommended as successor, and confirmed by the House of Gulls. There might be some brief posturing or a short, sharp conflict, but everyone involved realized that it was in their best interest to conclude things quickly.

However, when the Seventh Dynasty died out, the Verdant Empire was left in a quandary. The emperor had been the last legitimate male of his house, and the various cadet branches had been decimated by the purges instituted by his insane grandfather, the previous emperor. The Eighth Dynasty would have to come from a very distant relative indeed, especially since the squabbling between the emperor and the Gulls prevented him from agreeing on a successor. When he died, the Gulls nominated one of their own, a man distantly related to the imperial house through marriage.

The Grassblades disagreed, and forwarded a candidate of their own: a man with an even more distant link to the imperial house but one who was an accomplished general and could command loyal troops. Two emperors feuded over the Verdant Empire for nearly two years until the Grassblades put their man on the throne at last, only to see him assassinated after six months in favor of a candidate supported by the Sickles.

There have now been twenty-five emperors in fifty years, reigning a little over two years apiece. The most august of them clung to power for five years, while three have lasted under a month.

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Long before the Verdant Empire attained its current extent, the heartland was ruled by a body known as the House of Gulls–reportedly because they never stopped squawking, though one frustrated member was also heard to complain that they “shit on everything.”

The Gulls were originally the petty kings and nobility of the patchwork of kingdoms and principalities that made up the heartland, but over time there were a variety of methods used to pick them including appointment, election, and the purchase of seats by the wealthy. Whatever the case, they nearly always represented the political and economic elites of their areas, and any law that was passed required their approval.

In public, the Verdant Emperor always deferred to the House of Gulls, but in practice they were often little more than a rubber-stamp debating society under strong emperors. Weak emperors tended to result in true power resting with the Gulls, though they were rarely able to form a coherent government on their own. During the Imperial Crisis, many of the most powerful Gulls rose to become emperors, almost always feuding with military-backed candidates.

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