Written by James Wylder, Art by Annie Zhu
This chapter is part of the 10,000 Dawns Finale, which you can read all of (and download!) at this link: http://www.jameswylder.com/home/10000-dawns-the-finale
Chapter 28: The Council
Image: You see Kinan Jans. She is sitting in a chair, looking at you. Directly at you. She offers you a cup of tea, but you're going to have to get it yourself. This is a book after all, she can't actually hand it to you through the pages. She tries though, if that counts for anything.
Kinan: I need to you witness this. Whatever happens from here on out, part of this is up to you.
Image: Kinan steeples her fingers, and closes her eyes, pressing the fingertips of her forefingers against her nose.
Kinan: Getting this into your hands, it hasn't been easy. But Inkspot has done a good job.
(Yes, I have.)
Kinan: Perhaps you feel I've tricked you. Kept some secrets from you. I have. But the future of the human race in 500 years depends on you reading this, right now. Because right now, we're just stories in another Universe. But when you read this, this will be a story in your Universe. It will be as real as the feeling you have that you want to eat toast in the morning. Or the memory of tea. Try thinking of tea. I'm offering you some, here. Have a cup. Imagine the taste. The sensation lingers in your mind and in your body. The tea is in you long after you drink it. It becomes real inside you. Inkspot and I have been watching you read this whole time, and thanks to you, this whole operation has been possible.
Image: Kinan presses a button on the desk, and a picture of you pops up on the wall, projected. You're looking great, by the way.
Kinan: You're a valuable member of this team. Dawn appreciates your help, so consider yourself an honorary member if you see this through... But now things get serious. What happens here in this chapter will have huge ramifications for humanity. I can't help Graelyn. Not directly anyways. But you can, and all you have to do is keep reading.
Image: Kinan lays her hands out on the desk, palms up.
As she watched her home bombed to the ground, Graelyn realized the gravity of her job. Part of her had assumed Kinan had been overstating the seriousness of her case, that maybe the warlord had just wanted a foothold in the Prime Reality. Part of her had assumed the Firmament had been exaggerating when they said that this reality had “fallen” in the future. She could now see, very clearly, that this was not the case. They had if anything, understated it. If she failed, changes would sweep across the history of 10,000 Earths, and they would all die, and the Council would win in thousands of defacto victories. They would sweep across everything, and it would be burned.
It is here, important to note scale. There is simply a point one reaches where numbers are meaningless when casually mentioned. You get above a certain point and it becomes “a lot’ and “even more than that”. The number of lives at stake was simply too large for Graelyn to understand fully, She could grasp its immensity, and she felt raging horror at it, but when she tried to think all she could think of was the individual lives she had met. Arch. Lizette. Alice. Manuel… She could go on and on. Her cat, Mister Sprinkles, came to mind to. She imagined him scratching at a locked cage, as the building he was in crumbled and burned. She wasn’t even sure if Arch, her Arch, her only person she could be sure to count on anymore, was going to live through this.
She was alone. Totally alone. And yet she felt watched by eternity.
She dropped to her knees, and slumped. She had no idea what to do. The orb was broken. Arch was dying. And she was just a teenage girl…
She got up, and weakly looked around. She had to save Arch, and save the Universe. Her mind began to work. She had to do this. She had no choice. She inhaled, and exhaled, and began to conceive a plan.
She opened up a panel on Arch, and hooked her tablet up into it, pouring data on his health onto the screen. She moved to do the best battlefield dressings she could, and used a rock to bang shut a tube that was leaking vital fluid. She couldn’t do much, but she did what she could.
She had to fix the orb. No matter what, this had to be done. She reached inside it, and found the neural connectors, jamming them onto her temples.
“Orb, what would be necessary for you to make another jump?” The orb sat for a moment, and she wondered if it had died.
“N-New Trime-Regulator needed.”
“I don’t know what that is!” The machine politely replied by jamming a full knowledge of a Trime-Regulator and how to install it into her head. Okay. To get one, she’d need to find a Council vessel. It shouldn’t be a hard part to find there. The orb stuck some more info in her head, and thinking quickly, she asked it to stick some languages in there to. Done.
Disconnecting, Graelyn went over to Arch, and laid a reassuring hand on him, when she heard a noise, and stopped with her steps. Carefully, she made her way over to the edge of the hill, crawling through the scorched grass. Framed with the burned sky was a small group of people, dressed in ratty yet fairly new survival gear. They all had rifles. Someone was trying to restart another person's heart, but it was clearly a fruitless effort. The rest of the group looked exhausted, broken. Only one of them didn't slouch, their face covered by a wrapped cloth and goggles, their head by a helmet. An insignia on their arm made it clear enough who it had to be. Graelyn's heart raced. There was some hope after all. If she was here, maybe they stood a chance.
“Alice!” Graelyn yelled to the woman with the patch of a songbird on her arm. The woman turned, as did the rest of the group, and Graelyn scampered down the hill. “Alice MacLeod! Thank god. I need your help.” The group of people looked at each other, then halfheartedly raised their weapons at her. Graelyn skid to a halt, raising her hands towards the red burning sky. The woman with the songbird patch raised an arm to stall her troops, and unwrapped her face. It wasn't Alice. It was Alice's friend Yi, from her squad. She wasn't tall enough to be Alice, upon second glance, anyways.
“Alice is dead.” Yi said. “She died in the second wave, when they leveled London. Not that I ever met her in person.” Graelyn looked at her patch again.
“Why the songbird patch then?” Yi looked down at it.
“Its a symbol. A Nightingale. Someone has to lead the survivors. Alice died, someone had to take over. I'm the 4th one to bear the title.” Graelyn nodded. Made sense. Still, she was starting to get nervous. No one had put their guns down. “As for you, you're dead to, Graelyn Scythes. The Council publicly executed you three hours ago.” Everyone kept killing her, geez.
“So, I died like a hero...”
“Look, that's why I'm here. I'm not your Graelyn Scythes. I'm her, but I'm not her.”
“That doesn't make any sense.” Graelyn wanted to wipe her brow, but kept her hands in the air.
“The Council is from an alternate reality right? I am to. I'm here to try to stop them and save humanity.”
“You're a little late.” Yi replied, “You're looking at it.” Graelyn peered around at the group. There couldn't be more than twenty of them.
“You can't be serious.”
“I've never been more.”
“Well neither have I. Look, I'm trying to go back in time. I can't stop the Council from Invading, but I can give humanity a heads up... A kick start. Change enough that they can't just walk over us, but not enough that history diverges too much and the Firmament steps in to fix it.” She realized that might make no sense to them, but no one looked confused. She was after all, dropping a complicated political situation between multiple realities on their heads in a few sentences.
“How could you do that?” Yi asked.
“The same way I got here, I have this orb thing that travels through alternate realities, as well as through time. The Council built it. It was only meant to scout, not change history, in hindsight probably so the Firmament didn't stop them looking at stuff, which I am only just now realizing as I'm explaining that to you, sorry about the tangent, but if I can get it to someone who knows how to analyze it and take it apart they could take steps in secret to stop the Council. I even know who I'll use. But the orb is broken, it needs a part I can only get from the Council.” Yi gestured to her troops to lower their weapons.
“Okay. So we get this part for you. You go back in time... Sorry this is hard to believe.”
“I'm a seventeen year old version of what I'm assuming is a thirty something year old woman who you saw die. And I'm guessing she has a different hair color to.”
“This is a longshot.” Graelyn looked at the beleaguered people.
“Are you really all that's left of humanity?” Yi shrugged.
“There might be a few pockets who haven't surrendered yet. But we're definitely the largest.”
“Then face the facts: you're going to die unless you help me.” Yi paused, and thought it over. A bolt of lightning flicked between a crystal moon and a strange bio-mechanical vessel.
“Anything has to be better than this. At least we'll go down fighting. What's your plan?”
Graelyn grimaced, “Well, you're not going to like it.”
“We're not going to fight.”
* * * * *
The moon was having a fairly descent day. It looked like the war was basically over, the last resistance in Moscow had been destroyed, basically. As it floated above the ground, causing massive disturbances below, not that it cared, it picked up an emergency beacon. Scrambling into action, the moon scanned the ground for where it was coming from, and spotted an old Council Probe. It was very old. The kind they'd abandoned for being too hard to control. Going too far back in time could cause huge changes, and you might accidentally write yourself out of existence. The probes had been meant to simply gather data on a reality and then leave, but even that sometimes caused too much of a problem. What was it doing here? Still, the probe said it needed extraction. The moon was not one to argue.
* * * * *
“What exactly is she doing?” Yi asked Arch. The group had gathered around the orb, as Graelyn had hooked herself into it somehow. She wasn't exactly sure what to make of the Cyborg, but now wasn't exactly the time to ask questions.
“Making a call I presume.”
* * * *
“What is your name?” The orb asked. I'm a moon, the moon replied. “No, your name before that.” The moon scrunched its forehead up. It had had a name, hadn't it? No, its programming replied, no you didn't. “Yes you did.” The orb said. “Pull the 4th cord from your head immediately for security reasons.” The orb was not one to argue.
No wait- its programming began. But it had already yanked. Suddenly, it remembered it had a name. Awiti. It had been a she, and she had lived in Nairobi. She'd had two brothers, who enjoyed designing clothes. They'd sewn her a brilliant suit for her first job interview together. They'd died, hadn't they? She felt the moon around her, she was it, and it was her and...
“...My name is Awiti.”
“I need you to listen very carefully. I need you to send down a Trime Regulator.” She had plenty of those. A stockpile in fact. She could do that. She was getting so confused.
“Its okay.” The voice said. “If you send that down, this will all be over.” That was good. She could get behind that. She had an orb drone pick up the part, and begin to float down to the ground. Somewhere in her head, alarms were going off.
You must recall that part, a different voice said.
“Do not rescind my order, Awiti.” The first voice said.
You are a Factory of Crystal, you do not have a name.
Yes, she thought back, I do, and she accelerated the drone towards the ground.
“Thank you.” Graelyn thought back, as the Council fleet aimed their guns at the moon, and it exploded into a shower of molten Crystal, its massive chunks hurtling towards the ground cataclysmically. Graelyn didn't disconnect as she heard Awiti scream through the mental link. As the link finally turned to silence she disconnected and watched the girl she'd just met burn.
She had been so brave. Graelyn had never even seen her face. She'd died because she'd asked her to. She tried not to think about that.
* * * *
A single crystal ball lowered from the sky like a meteor, shining bright, and then halted a foot from the ground, hovering, humming. Graelyn ran to it, and with it touch it popped open revealing a complex chunk of machinery. Pulling it out, Graelyn ran to the orb and following the instructions in her head, installed it. The orb hummed to life, and without hesitating, Graelyn jammed the cords back onto her temples, and laid in a date, and a place. As the Council fleet shifted to move towards them, their guns angling, the orb lit up. The topsoil around them lifted up a few centimeters, and a white disk burst out of the orb. Yi looked a bit stunned. Graelyn smiled at Arch, who weakly gave a thumbs up.
“It worked!” Yi said.
“We have to get in the portal quick, they're going to bomb us.” Yi shook her head.
“We'll stay here. We've lost everything. Go change the past, give us a new future.” Graelyn looked Yi right in the eyes, and made a decision.
“Don't be an idiot. You won't do any good dying here. You want to save your future? Do it yourself. You fought the council firsthand. Teach them how they can do that in the past.” Yi's mouth opened, then closed. “If you die, you cant do anything. Now jump through the damn portal! And one of you grab Arch and move him to the orb, its not like I can carry him on my own.” Without anther word, Yi gestured at her people, and they began to run through the portal. The Council's guns began to aim. Two quickly moved Arch next to the orb, and ran through. Yi herself followed, and then Graelyn angled the portal to surround herself, Arch, and the orb.
Who are you? A voice yelled into her mind.
“Well, its not like you'll remember.” Graelyn replied.
* * * *
Graelyn had assumed she could control the portal. She was wrong. She was falling through a winding green glow with the others, a giant gash in reality. With all her might she tried to direct where they were going, the Orb keeping them in a bubble of its own making, diving through the gap between Dawns. She could sense they were nearing the exit, and aimed them towards it. The Orb was trying to sustain the whole group of people she's chosen to save from the end of the world, and it suddenly struck her that while this had been very nice of her, it had in face been a rather stupid movie. If she'd been thinking intellectually, disregarding emotion, she'd have left them behind. The Orb was repaired, but still damaged. She considered letting them go. They'd float off into the gap, and wither and vanish, or end up in random places in the history of the Prime Reality, or... She honestly didn't know. But she'd be dooming them.
She'd save herself though, certainly. Graelyn nearly gave the order, but then she remembered.
She was a hero. She'd died trying to save that reality. That was the real her.
She closed her eyes, and apologizing silently to Arch, told the Orb to focus on getting the survivors to that reality safely. The Orb shot towards a chunk of time/space, and carved it open, sending the survivors through a portal safe and sound. The Orb headed towards the gash it had made, and Graelyn opened her eyes just in time to see the gash closing. She pushed the orb forward, gave it everything she had toward rocketing it forward, and the Orb began to slip through the hole, with Arch and Graelyn trailing behind it, holding on for dear life.
And then the gash closed. The tendrils attached to Graelyn's temples snapped off, and Arch barely got his hand out in time before it was crushed. They shot past it, and careened on.
* * * *
The ambassador to the Firmament squirmed in his seat like a child who'd been sent to the principal's office without knowing why. Gossen Suss had been to see the Arbiter of Alternity several times before, but every time had been a bit terrifying. The Arbiter was thousands of years old, and couldn't be bluffed. It had seen things he couldn't even comprehend. He felt a surge of relief that the Firmament treated itself like an interuniversal road crew, fixing potholes and making new paths, but not bothering to change the course of events like they were an interuniversal police force. The Council, the glorious empire he'd sworn himself to, was something they'd never truly considered rising up, even in their most pretentious might. Still, the Firmament was powerful, powerful enough they might have been able to wipe out the Council before they had become glory and might, but they were sticklers for rules. The Council was like a unifying story across cultures, the details might differ, but the core story remained, bending everything around itself. You couldn't escape the Council, he knew. They couldn't be defeated. Their story was eternal.
“Excuse me, the Arbiter of Alternity will see you now.” A hooded Firmament said to him. Gossen wasn't sure if he liked them more or less with the hoods up. At least with the hoods up they were a known element, with them down who knows what they would look like that day. Gossen stood up quickly, and smoothing his hair down, stepped through the door into the Arbiter's office. The room was covered in small screen's, whose visual fidelity was beyond that of the human eye. It was like being surrounded in thousands of windows into different worlds, each one presenting an image from a different reality. The Arbiter stood in the center of the room, holding one of their weird books that seemed to be projecting holograms of different characters into the air as he skimmed it. Annoyingly, the Arbiter had chosen to take the form of Gossen Suss himself today. Gossen tried to not look as creeped out as he was.
“Ah,” he heard his own voice begin, “Ambassador, welcome back. Would you like some tea?” Unsure if the tea was actually tea, or just something that was approximately tea he's have trouble keeping down as he drank it, Gossen refused politely. “Pity, its Earl Grey.” A pillar rose from the floor with a pot and a set of cups, and the Arbiter poured itself one.
“I was hoping the tea would calm you down. After all, I'm here to issue you bad news. Worst of all, bad news you won't actually understand.” Gossen hated when they talked down to him like this. Of course he'd understand. The Arbiter took another sip, and then set the cup down on the pillar. “Ambassador Suss, have you ever seen Star Trek?” Gossen wasn't ready for that. Was this news sci-fi related? He preferred to stay in reality, not far off fantasies. Gossen was grounded in common every day things like interuniversal travel, paperwork, and off the shelf replacement limbs that would grow to match your genetic code. He didn't deal in fantasies.
“I can't say I'm particularly familiar.” He replied. The Arbiter looked disappointed.
“I'd hoped it would make a good analogy for this. See, in Star Trek, there is a group called the Federation. Like the Firmament they have a resolution to not interfere in conflicts with lesser cultures. They break it all the time though, so it barely matters. Now, we at the Firmament are similar to the Federation in that we have firm rules about what we do, except we never break them. When we interfere, it is because we have a mandate to. I believe you have compared us privately to an interuniversal road crew before-- oh don't give me that look! Like your superiors don't read you mind all the time. Your thoughts aren't anything special.” Another pillar rose off the floor, upon it was a page of parchment, upon which was scrawled glowing letters in the Firmament's characters. “Now, that being said, we have formalities we must follow, as odd as they may be. So its my sad duty to inform you that the treaty between the Council and the Firmament has been declared null and void.” The Arbiter raised a hand, and the glowing letters floated off the page, hovering a few inches above it, and then flew into the Arbiter's hand. Gossen's eyes went wide.
“Excuse me, but this is impossible!” The Arbiter looked smug, “The Council and the Firmament have never had a treaty!”
“Exactly.” The Arbiter replied, “The treaty never occurred, therefore, we have to declare the treaty null and void. I'm afraid the negotiated freedom you had to travel between universes has been belied as well. You're no longer welcome in the Labyrinth, and our agents are going to attempt to take back the Factories of Crystal you took from us as well.” Gossen's jaw dropped.
“This is outrageous! I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“Yes, as I said, you wouldn't understand this. Your pathetic monkey brain is ridiculously underpowered, and while its not my job to take sides in any conflict, I do have to say its a relief to not have to follow the ridiculous things you managed to negotiate into that treaty when we were so briefly weak against you.” Gossen furrowed his brow.
“Someone changed history!” The Arbiter smiled like a parent who finally heard a child say 1+1 was 2 after four hours of hearing them say it was still 1.
“Good! You're catching on!” Gossen grew angry.
“That goes against your rules though, you're supposed to prevent anyone changing history.”
“Sorry, your treaty said we were to stay out of your affairs, and we did. What happened in that timeline never did now, and we've scrubbed it from existence, barring a few survivors some Dawn Agents managed to move to the past. But we'll ignore them too, after all, they were moved while the treaty was in effect. Stopping them was your responsibility.” Gossen was angry. This twerp with is own face was talking to him like he was some sort of petulant child! His face grew red.
“The Council will never stand for this. We will stop them, and then we will burn your final Firmament to dust, we will-” The Arbiter rolled Gossen's eyes.
“Oh shut up. Our rules say I had to inform you of this, we must be alone, and there must be a witness who is not me to our meeting who remembers it.” Gossen raised an eyebrow.
“I've read your rules. A video doesn't count.”
“Yes, but someone is witnessing this meeting.”
“I don't understand.” Gossen received the most pandering smile of all time. Just imagine the most smug, and yet utterly condescending face you can. Amp it up. No, more! Okay maybe that was too much... No more still, yes that one! That face. Gossen frowned.
“Of course you don't.” The Arbiter looks at you, and smiles, “But I do thank you for stopping by. The Final Firmament is glad to be keeping your reality in order since the beginning of recorded history, which if I may note we invented. You're welcome. Its pretty clever how Kinan pulled this off, I have to admit, even if she is insufferable. But I doubt she explained it to you. Do you want to know what's been going on this whole time?”
“What are you going on about? Who are you talking to?” Gossen said.
“Shut it. There are infinite alternate realities, and we live in just 10,000 of them. Lots of things are possible you can't even imagine. Somewhere I'm sure, books are alive. Their letters can change history. The soul of the book spread through all of its copies throughout the world... Suppose you slipped a book like that into the world. Put it on the internet. Put it in print. Let its words get in peoples heads. That could change people. Give witnesses to events that might never be seen. Make them real when they were merely dreams before.”
“That's how every book works. People read them, and it changes them. That's nothing special.” Gossen said.
“Really? Well then, that's very interesting.” The Arbiter laughs, “But if there was a girl who gave away her cat, and ended up below the sea, and then in an alternate reality... Well, maybe you knowing that story could change something. But back to you Gossen, you have a lot of words in your head, and now that I've told them to you, and I have so many other witnesses, I don't really want you to keep them.” The Arbiter reached out his hand, and a slew of glowing letters poured out of Gossen's forehead, flying through the air into the Arbiter's hand. It closed its hand on the glowing characters, and Gossen blacked out.
Gossen Suss woke up on the bench outside of the Arbiter's office. Had he fallen asleep? He was supposed to meet with the Arbiter today. Checking his watch, he saw he'd missed the meeting time. Crap. Straightening up his robes, he knocked on the door, and a hooded Firmament cracked it open, and seeing his face, shooed him away. He gulped. He'd messed up big time. With the war against the Prime Universe not going as swiftly as they'd hoped, they needed any traction they could get. It was like they'd had a warning, not like that was possible. Defeated, Gossen shoved his hands in the pockets of his robe and walked away.
* * * *
She had barely gotten her helmet on. She'd closed her eyes, and held her breath. She was lost in nowhere, and there was no one. She had succeeded at everything, and she was dead.
Graelyn opened her eyes in horror. She'd messed up. Around her, peaking through the green glow, she saw faces.
“No, you're the girl.” Lizette said.
“We saved her. You were right." Manuel Said.
“You realize they'll kill you. You can't let this go forward.” Alice Said.
“Good luck.” Kinan said, “I'm counting on you.”
“If I'm going to be down here, I'll need a mechanic anyways. Just consider that your first observation as my mechanic.” Arch said.
“Meow.” The cat said.
She drifted down through them, and tried to think of what to do. She didn't know. She looked over to see Arch, and tried to get close to him. Whispers began to creep into the edges of her mind, and she tried to push them out.
“Are we going to die?” appeared on Arch's face, and Graelyn didn't answer. She focused. She needed to get out. She thought about herself. She was a hero. She really was. She knew this. There were rules to these things, laws. Things she could exploit. This wasn't just arbitrary, there was a way out. She remembered then that she'd had the answer all along, and she didn't realize it. She tried to swim through the space to be by Arch, and he grabbed onto her. She reached into a pocket in her suit, and pulled out the cat pin. She couldn't let go of it if she wanted to live. The thing was an anachronism everywhere, passed around through time and space and different universes. It didn't make sense. And she'd cut a weak spot once before with it. It had to work. Carefully, she pulled the sharp point of the pin out, and slashed at the green. It was like she'd cut open a sandbag she was falling into-- the tear she'd made screamed open, shooting bits of reality out, and devouring them. She had no idea where they'd land, or if they'd survive at all. Arch, and herself dropped through the hole, and landed in a rolling sprawl on a finely polished oak floor.
Arch propped himself up, and Graelyn rose to her feet, aching. She'd done it. They weren't dead. Sure, she didn't know where she was but... She looked around the room. There was a sculpture of a fist, made of Jade, and a model of the pyramid at Nojpeten. There was a fountain in the floor, with a waterfall rolling down it. A bust of Richard Attenburough sat on a pedestal. Music wafted through the room, Mozart from the sounds of it.
And at the end of the room a woman rose from a mahogany desk wearing a blue skirt, a blue blazer with a pin on the lapel, a white blouse, a black tie, and red hair. She stared into Graelyn's eyes.
Or rather, Graelyn stared into Graelyn's eyes.
The real Graelyn.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.