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Star Wars has dealt a lot with its space wars, but at its core there has always been a sense that all its conflict starts from past transgressions. From the opening of the 1977 film, where we see the immediate aftermath of a (then) unseen battle, to the wastes filled with the wreckage of endless war on Jakku in “The Force Awakens”, all the way to “Episode I: The Phantom Menace”, which instead of starting from the beginning truly, is already layered in unforgiven history. Darth Maul perhaps sums up the way Star Wars reaches into the cultural histories of its characters with the line:
“At last we shall reveal ourselves to the Jedi, and last we will have revenge.”
And so it starts, and so it continues. But we have a new take on this onscreen now, a new way of looking at the effects of war in Star War. In the new series the Mandalorian, our titular hero is a man who is struggling to reclaim his cultural history. He is constantly driven by the loss of his own heritage, and doing all he can to reclaim it for himself, and his people. He lives in exile, far from the cultural home of his people, the Mandalorians.
But it’s the way this is framed that really is interesting, because we have seen reclamation stories before in Star Wars: indeed much of Star Wars following the prequel trilogy is about characters trying to regain their religious Jedi heritage. But this is different, because the Mandalorian culture wasn’t just lost:
It was stolen.
* * *
Throughout our own modern (not in that Galaxy Far Far Away) history, empires have stolen the culture of people they have subjugated. This theft of culture is often defended by the people who stole it in hindsight: the things stolen are safer and protected in our cities and museums—it’s too backwards or unstable there where we took it from! An argument that ignores the fact that the instability is often completely caused by their own incursions into that culture. Marching in, stealing resources, stealing the wealth of a place, and then taking it’s culture along with it. And ages after, when their descendants are forced to deal with the fact that their ancestors might have done some bad things, they close ranks. They make excuses. The theft has to be justified, in the name of civilization, or the ideals that your society is based around might be pulled back to be less golden than you thought.
I say they, because it is so many cultures who have done this, but I could also say “we”. After all, it’s not like I still don’t see racist caricatures of First Nations people used in public, not like I don’t still hear people try to argue that slavery wasn’t so bad. It’s not like those things didn’t happen. It’s not like it didn’t happen here.
And it happens in the Mandalorian. In what is a rather clever move, Jon Favreau has tied the theft of wealth and culture together into one item: Beskar. A metal that has cultural relevance to the Mandalorians, being used for their ritual armor, it’s also extremely durable and highly valuable. Which makes the way it’s integrated into the plot practically perverse.
Because Beskar is held as a reward for the Mandalorian to retrieve a bounty by an Imperial Official who has survived the fall of the Empire in hiding. He doles out a taste of the Mandalorian’s cultural heritage to him, one piece of Beskar, which has been melted into an ingot that is desecrated with an Imperial Icon stamped into it. There’s more, if he can deliver. And wouldn’t it be nice if it all went back to his people?
It’s a grotesque move: the return of stolen culture as payment, but practically as blackmail. Failing to get the bounty for the Imperial doesn’t only mean he won’t get paid, it means he will forever lose part of his own heritage.
And that heritage haunts this story: when the Mandalorian fails to master riding a beast, he is motivated into trying again by being told how his ancestors used to ride far mightier creatures. People tell stories about his people, they laugh at cultural stereotypes about him, true or not. The Mandalorian is a character, he is an individual (thankfully) not totally defined by the other characters from his culture we’ve seen before (notably Boba and Jango Fett), instead he is defined by the same culture those other character were in, creating a much richer tapestry to play from. We get a taste of that culture here, as our hero returns to a forge-master who holds a place of power in their cultural hierarchy, when he returns that piece of Beskar, she forges him a new piece of his armor in ritual as a reward. She hopes that the Beskar will help Mandalorian foundlings, who we can make a fair assumption are orphans. A culture, far from their homeland, struggling to reclaim small pieces of their legacy. I’d ask you to think of a comparison, but you have many to choose from.
Our hero is also an orphan, losing his parents in the Clone Wars to an invading army of droids, and giving him a deep seated prejudice against them.
Which of course builds to our finale. We have followed our hero to get his bounty, and reclaim his culture, and he gets there only to find that it is a child. A stolen child.
Taken from their people, their culture, their legacy. One that, despite being an alien, has so much in common with the Mandalorian.
Now, we can only wait to see where the show goes from here, but I’m very intrigued that this show is taking on these topics, and I look forward to seeing where the Mandalorian’s search for his own legacy goes.
We've got something special for you this week, something exciting. If the first five episodes were one running story arc, and our sixth was a deep breath, this week we're running again. And harder than ever. You're really in for a treat, so get ready.
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You know what the most dangerous thing in the universe is?
That seems like a cliché. But think about it for a second. Humanity, or any species, has the potential to evolve to a hypothetically infinite level of technological progress – to make, in short, Clarke’s third law their bitch and start folding atoms in new, pretty shapes as if they were little origami ducklings. Every kind of physics-based limitation can be overcome eventually: maybe not all at the same time, but somewhere, at some point, in some timeline, someone will figure things out and just rewrite their personal corner of the cosmos. Ideas, on the other hand, well. Can’t get rid of those so easily. I mean, be like Orwell (but please, do not head to Spain to go shoot fascists, we don’t have all day and honestly communist chic is so passé) and imagine the perfect dictatorship. Sure, the concepts of freedom, individual rights, and whatever far-left buzzwords you can think of would be repressed, in that context, but they would not stop existing. Be it only because authoritarian regimes need an enemy, a totem they need to erect, in order to subsequently parade around it in gross displays of belligerent fervour: an enemy both all-powerful and contemptibly frail; an ideology that is rejected but also considered. Gaze with scorn or gaze with hate – you’re still looking. Look at the universe, and our good old solar system. Or rather, systems: all the possible versions of it. And then, crunch the numbers. Centro, arguably the most successful authoritarian regime in our history, collapses in almost 85% of them. Sometimes it takes a lot more time; or it can happen as early as the Mars wars, Han’s fleets plunging down, a hungry pack of spacefaring ravens pecking at Earth’s crust. Most of the time, it’s just the old tale of songbirds and bloodshed. But they go away in the end – because the very existence of an opposing force acts like a corrosive on absolute power: it tacitly disproves its most fundamental assertions. And even if regimes like that survive, they disappear eventually, as suns die out and planets fall into icy darkness.
I don’t like the idea of ideas escaping the realms of concrete, tangible power dynamics. I’m a businessman: I like commerce, I like the sweaty palm grab that seals the deal. And my plan – my dream – my life’s work! Has been to bring the art of the deal into the noösphere. We are heading for the kingdom of thought, and you bet your ass we will open counters there, and put fancy little tollgates on the roads and bridges and nerve endings of humanity’s brain mass.
So, kiddos. I am Dyson Wall, and this
- is my offer to y’all … The blaring message, with just a touch of emphatic trumpets, was bouncing up and down the walls of the white, unassuming room like a chihuahua on subpar crack cocaine. Which didn’t please Lady Aesculapius, and positively pissed off her hangover. A hangover she shouldn’t have had in the first place, given that she was a semi-conceptual alien being with a pretty immaculate record in terms of psychologically-induced biofunctions control, but which nevertheless tenaciously clung to her brow.
Alright. One thing after another. First: composing oneself, and attempting “quiet dignity”, with a side of “mischievous swashbuckling charm”. She rose her head slowly, and utterly failed at not grimacing, her internal organs seeming to sashay to a samba tempo at the effort. Alright, action item number one: very mitigated success. That’s corporate HR department for “failure”, she had learnt on the Planet of Accountants.
Time for part two: the slow and deliberate look around™. Screens on every wall, black and blank, an armada of coltan shields in tortoise formation. Formica table. Stool. No, two stools! And someone on the other one! A person. Now things were getting interesting.
Although, you would sort of notice the giant clipboard, and the big red tie, and the discrete little pin shaped like the head of an adorable cartoon rabbit before the person they were attached to. Young, male-presenting. In his two hundreds – or were those the twenties? Zeroes were stupid, such a rubbish invention. The kind of being Jason would categorise, with all the precision and certainty of an expert naturalist, as a “scrawny twink”: the blonde fringe and nose piercing subspecies, if one was looking into making nuanced taxonomic observations. He seemed intensely focused on her, because, well, that seemed to be his job, and, given the giant holographic, company-approved name-badge that spelled out ALEXANDER – HAPPINESS DEPARTMENT DEPUTY HEAD in red and blue letters, with the occasional flash of an emoji, he seemed the kind of person whose main purpose in life is to do a job. A function: however fabulous – fixed.
He smiled the reglementary three seconds smile at her inelegant awakening, and then immediately proceeded to set down his clipboard and state -
“Oh, good, you’re awake. So, let’s talk for a second about your new job …”
Immediately, the screens sparked to life, and, in giant letters, proclaimed twenty-seven times over:
LADY AESCULAPIUS in
“How are you doing that?” Alexander queried as her face popped in through the room’s technological arsenal, and went through, in the space of a few seconds, at least a dozen crude but colourful filters.
“Listen, I have other meetings after you, so can you just turn the synth music down a bit?”
“I’m being serious here! Stop … Chortling!”
“Walldammit, couldn’t you have picked a better name? Sounds like someone sneezing. Okay? Is that
good? Nothing more? Can I start? Thank you.”
He coughed, putting his thoughts back in order after the impromptu semi-canonical interruption. “As I was saying – I’m here to talk to you about your new job.”
“I like the old one just fine, thank you very much. Unemployed, but with gusto. That’s me.” That was all very distressing. Not so much the kidnapping part, you get used to those in this line of work, after the first couple of centuries at least. Although, they certainly must have been ingenious to snatch her away from her Factory in an instant like that: crude, but creative. No, it was rather the cheery corporatism of it all, those words that felt like a stale whiff of clean carpets and mint chewing-gum hitting her straight in the soul. It was like sinking slowly in a mire made of melted watercoolers.
“Well, I’m afraid you don’t get much say in this. See, the Dyson Corporation now owns you.” No evil glee, just a statement of fact.
Aesc did a double-take, and then squared it. “Oh no. Please tell me you’re not one of these slavers people? I mean, that’s morally disgusting, but above all, it’s just so terribly dull. Paperwork and whips and weak-willed men all around.”
Her welcome committee looked deeply offended. “Of course not! We don’t trade in bodies, that’s illegal. We deal with ideas. Intellectual and ontological property. In short, we have acquired your brand, ma’am. And we are going to launch a merger process in order to turn you from Lady Aesculapius to Lady Aesculapius™.”
“Okay, that’s impressive. How do you do that?”
Alexander looked puzzled. “Do what?”
“That ™ sound. I can’t do it. Oh wait, I just did it. This is amazing, I think at least two philologists somewhere in the space-time continuum just came, did you re-arrange the basics of language around this place?”
He didn’t seem especially interested by the question, his voice trailing off, going through the motions of some pamphlets he had no doubt ingurgitated in preparation for eventual inquiries. “Oh, we did. We own about 45% of the entire galactic lexicon at this point. Brand names were a useful precedent – once you’ve copyrighted your unique Chunky Chocolate, it’s only one small, conceptual step before you own the words Chocolate™ and Chunky™. The ideas and meaning, yours to tweak, sell, and promote in an all new, four-dimensional market space. We’re looking to move onto articles and pronouns, soon. Very lucrative market, that. Imagine selling gender-neutral pronouns as an optional downloadable content pack, and sticking fines on those that circumvent these new rules. Billions to be made.”
The time-traveller’s headache had slowly receded, and now she felt the weight of the situation with awful clarity, details clear like shiny pixels on a flatscreen. “And how exactly did you get hold of … me? The idea of me?”
“Well, of course the Firmament is normally off-limits, but we made a quick arrangement, everything very formal. After all, this is nothing but a business venture, and they can’t really stop those, can they? No matter if we employ certain techniques traditionalists would deem … unorthodox, or risqué.”
“Yes, you’re sooo risqué. Nothing more provocative and cutting-edge than trading stock options with your co-workers at lunchbreak like if they were Pokémon made of paperclips.”
“We do actually own all Pokémon, by the way. They’re a few floors down, had to build a whole park. But to get back on track – we assured your superiors that they would be excluded, and made them sign some forms to this effect. They do love forms. And I’m sure they sent a copy to you, except … Well, you didn’t sign it, did you?”
Lady Aesculapius had seen galaxies burn and timelines curl onto themselves in improbable spasms, she’d seen the flights of dragons and the flesh-fortresses of the Kuiper Belt, but she had never witnessed, through all her countless lives, something as outrageous as a man implying she would be, for one second, interested in checking the mail sent by her (in-name-only) bosses. The “NO” she served in response had the general consistency and warmth of liquid azote.
“Well, you’ve got your answer then.”
“I didn’t agree to any of this!”
“You didn’t say no. That’s consent. Too late now, ain’t it? Plus, don’t worry, it’s not all bad. I’ve been integrated about ten years ago, and my life has been fantastic ever since!” A pause. A smile, three seconds of flashing white teeth, one, two, three, and then back to the patter, like a typewriter’s mechanism snapping back into place. “You probably wonder what that entails, concretely, don’t you?”
“Well, yes. A bit. A big bit.”
“It’s nothing too fancy really – the bonding process with our computers here at Dyson’s Dawn will essentially make your being, your thoughts, receptive to the fluctuations of the stock market and the input of our shareholders, creative teams and some select members of the paying public! It’s a fantastic opportunity for most folks, really. So many of them feel lost, abandoned, like they are worth less than nothing. But we prove them wrong! We can show them that they have value – everyone has value, and that value can be estimated and sold! We are a people’s business, through and through. Making each transaction a human story. More than that – an adventure!”
Aesc was now staring at him with the same half-appalled, half-endeared expression you usually save for unruly puppies that have eaten a bar of soap in one bite and for your Libertarian uncle after he’s had a few too many whiskey-colas.
She was hesitating between five different witty retorts and about twenty-nine very elaborate and colourful epithets for the man in front of her when the white room suddenly turned dark and red, the monitors flashing crimson warnings. A siren probably would have been blaring had the local authorities not thought some vintage, passionate Mozart would be more elegant. And that Mozart piece would probably have been pleasant to listen to, had the local authorities then realised it didn’t convey well enough the urgency an alarm is supposed to evoke in the listener, therefore deciding to set it to a throbbing dubstep beat that sounded like sweat and headaches. The overall effect was, to say the least, disconcerting.
“Oh.” Alexander stated, deadpan. “That’s the Murder Alarm. It means someone has been murdered.”
“God. Janice has taken her yearly one-week break. That means…I should get that, shouldn’t I…Unless…Aren’t you some kind of spacefaring mystery-solving lady-shaped alien?”
“That’s certainly a way to put it.”
“Well, then, just stick with me and help out! And we’ll sign the paperwork afterwards. Shame. I love signing paperwork. I made a “GOOD JOB!” sticker just for you, the glue is going to be dry …”
“I know! Well. Doesn’t matter. Follow me!”
He was halfway through the door when he realised she hadn’t moved a muscle. Slowly and deliberately, she batted her eyelashes and cooed - “Annnnnnnd if I don’t want to help out the people that want me to literally sell my soul to the stock market?”
“Well, I don’t like your tone, for starters – yes, we legally kidnapped you, but does that suddenly give you the right to be all rude about it?! And, well, as for the answer – did I mention we also have your companion here?”
* * *
THE WHIMSICAL ADVENTURES OF JOLLY JASON AND HIS FUZZY FRIENDS!™
Jason had never been a rabbit before!
It was strange, feeling human consciousness crammed into an unfamiliar shape, eyes shifting to see the world not as tangible objects, but a collection of pastel drawings animated at twenty-four images per second, bodies dissolving into lines, biological functions being replaced by the constant low bass of the invisible pen drawing his contours, giving him life! But also, kind of awesome! Because this is a no-sadness zone! All the fuzzy animals in the house were so happy seeing him pop into reality! Cheeky the Musical Hamster tap danced all the way up and down the shelf they had all elected as a den, while Gary the Gecko stuck his tongue out in approval!
Jason was very confused at first! It was a strange transition, waking up here after falling asleep in Aesc’ ship! He had a strange dream, where odd accountants were talking about his copyright being up for grabs, and part of a very attractive bundle! But that all seemed silly now! He could feel the pull of the house around him, all colours and cheer! It beckoned to him, ordered his body to merge with the ebb and flow of the unstable world around him, to merge with the influx of narrative commands overloading his brain, whispered voices of wizened shareholders and naïve children, shouting instructions at the top of their lungs, clawing at his brain, ordering him what to do, ordering him what to become!
something was wrong
how had his body changed that way anyway
he was pretty sure he wasn’t a rabbit before
oh god did he get drunk and lose himself in a gathering of the Furry Church
there was still pain echoing in his joints
where his legs had been twisted into paws, into springy springy little rabbit hands!
he could feel something else – his body connected. globalized. so much input. so many careful springs and triggers and switches ready to be pulled and activated every time money trickled down pipes unseen. a human kickstarter, each stretch goal stretching his body, his mind on a bionarrative rack, aching under the hammer blows of one consciousness, one brand. repeatedly bearing down his brain, two letters.
™. ™. ™. ™. ™. ™.
Jason Jackson™. the Jason Cinematic Universe. he could feel spin-offs growing inside him like cancer, supplementary organs, glands sweating a golden pus. his memories had been spread out and flattened, streamed to the world for a reasonable fee nine dollars ninety-nine the first month fourteen dollars twenty-five for every subsequent one he kept remembering things in the wrong order. or was it the right order now, the trickling of coins giving the finger to time, emotions, his very identity
he wanted to
but he couldn’t, because every time his thoughts wandered to the heretical belief that there might be something out there, something that wasn’t Dyson’s Dawn, something that wasn’t Producing Content, he felt the jaws of the pastel house snap around his body, tasting blood, revelling in it, drawing on his marrow and lymph to make the button eyes of the animals more shiny, more eco-friendly, and by the way have you purchased the new Jolly Jason Rabbit Plushie only seven dollars thirty-five order one [HERE]
he struggled, but couldn’t help embracing the fun of it all! All the animals were cheering on their new friend! But suddenly, something came over the happiness of the festivities! The mice had spotted the dreaded Captain Whiskers, the evil cat!
“Oh no!” said Gary the Gecko!
“Oh yes!” said Captain Whiskers, who had jumped on top of the shelf! Thankfully, the wise gecko had planned for such an occasion, and out of nowhere pulled a hammer that he bore down on the feline’s o so boopable snout! His nose was so red now, ha ha ha!
That gave time for the other members of the animal congregation to scamper off, the little rapscallions! But Jason, still unused to his cute little rabbit paws, didn’t know where to go, and stumbled from the shelf, and down to the floor! A book that he had dislodged had landed on top of him, and so, he was comically flattened into a white fuzzy square with two rabbit ears sticking out! Ha ha ha!
he was pretty sure he had broken every bone in his body but then again his body didn’t really have bones anymore, just the idea of those. it hurt but did not hurt. his body bent and broken but already healing as the regenerative plot was flowing through his veins, like a strong medicinal alcohol, the kiss of the company, regenerative and healing narrative principles for all the family.
so many feelings emotions sensations
The last thing he thought before he passed out was “dammit, why couldn’t I have ended up in one of those high school comedies instead”.
* * *
“So, let me get this straight.”
“You have managed to create a whole bubble-dimension made of thought.”
“Yep. Well, not so much thought as media, I suppose. Bio-memetic tech. The Noth are ready to sell their secrets, for the right price. And Dyson Wall knew how to make a price very right indeed.”
“Yeah, yeah. And you’ve named it after your founder, and are now stirring this invasive dimension from one reality to another.”
“We prefer the term ‘friendly takeover’”.
“No, but like. It’s a giant bubble. Named after a guy called Dyson.”
“And you didn’t even think …”
“Don’t go there.”
“To call it a Dyson Sphere?!!!”
Alexander just let out a deep condescending sigh in response.
It was impressive, though, Lady Aesculapius couldn’t deny it. Evil, of course, but in that flamboyantly customer-friendly way. As the lift was taking them down from the administrative areas to the main bridge, she could behold the sheer scale of the main chamber, a round space of metal and LEDs, several kilometres in diameter, each wall holding, between programs being broadcast and the latest news report from the stock exchange, vast, contained fictional spaces, flickering in and out of existence. A space of perpetual entertainment, removed from time, fashion, or even quality. Indefinitely prolonged copyright, suspended in the space between the seconds, erected into a monument to the glory of one billionaire’s monopoly.
And down below, on the vast silver promenade that bisected the sphere as in the middle of a desperate search for pi, among the little green shrubberies and the purple neon glow of the soda vending machines, completing the chromatic arrangement in a most distasteful manner, a body was lying in a gingeolin pool. Lying ™, might not be the right verb, though, and not just because it costs fifty cents per use these days. “Strewn about” would be more appropriate, or “scattered”, or any of those terms that imply a passage from the biological to the geographical, as human features get disseminated into an array of abstract pieces that merge with their surroundings, bits of grey and pink and red that you can only reconcile with the fearful symmetry of the homo sapiens sapiens through tough thorough detective work.
Aesc could discern more and more details as the golden disc of the elevator was sliding down a transparent tube. Not much in the way of actual body parts, though. As far as butcherings go, that was an impressively thorough one. His dismembered members had been dismembered a second time, the body ending up like a jigsaw for ants. Also, she could see that the Crime Scene™ was surrounded by a bunch of people in oversized animal costumes – not unlike those you could spot at these sporting events Jason asked to see once, but of course, in the fizzy drink-ridden atmosphere of a stadium, they had appeared far less threatening than they did here. It might have been the pink kalashnikovs, though, she noted. Probably necessary to keep the public at bay – there was quite a crowd, in patterned t-shirts and shorts, a lot of them with younger kids, wandering about the esplanade, waiting on small hovercars that were taking them to and fro to the different diegeses contained within the platinum-laced entrails of the sphere.
“You’ve got tourists?” she asked.
“Oh yes. It’s quite a popular destination,” Alexander stated. Some actual emotion, this time. Bit of a shiver in the voice. He was worried about this disturbance in the calm – to the mind of a trader, nothing more eldritch than an unexplained spike in the zigs and zags of the stock; their dreams are haunted by crash-shaped avatars of the weird, trading yellow rags for a piebald pattern of unregulated or deregulated zeroes and ones. The fear was making him a bit more likeable, the precision of his patter struck by shakes and stutters. “We … We’ve evolved organically from the streaming systems of the past. Biological capitalism, Mr. Wall called it – we need the law of the jungle ‘cause that is how Darwin works his magic. Why just have a place you can navigate using the galactic web? Make what you own into a location, and turn every informatics device, every computer, into a magic portal to this land of possibilities. Those people, and their children, they can visit all the licenses that have defined their imagination, and they don’t need to pay more than a very reasonable fee – no need to worry about accommodation, about transport… We’ve streamlined the whole thing: no boring practicality, just our brand, undiluted, for everyone to enjoy and share.”
“Well. You still have workers.” Aesc pointed at the rows of mascots down below. “Unless those are robots?”
“Oh no, no, no. Quite human.”
“They don’t look the part.”
“Well … Sometimes, we make a few adjustments. People come to us all the time wanting to upload their minds in here on a more permanent basis: sometimes it’s because jobs are rare, sometimes it’s because they are concerned about the death of their mortal bodies – yes, yes, we can make a copy of the brain patterns and keep it alive for a very long time, it’s a taste of eternity, if not the real thing. Or sometimes they just like our content and want to be part of it! We hold a raffle among the Dawn-goers, with little golden tickets and all, it’s so much fun. You should see how the last winner is thriving: in the real world, he was scrapping metal on the Rat Maze with his husband, and now he and his wife have saved the world ten times over in their own little bubble … Anyway, yes – not everyone comes in with the same level of prestige, of course. Paying customers get a better place, we can’t allow ourselves to become a charity, although we always try to be a humane, compassionate business. So the ones that beg to come in, well, there’s a use for them. Every business needs hands.”
“Fuzzy animatronic hands.”
“Oh, not at all, the suits are them. We replace their skin by synthetic plastic fur, grafted directly on the muscles, their eyes by little plastic bubbles with some enhanced camera implants … It’s all very neat, very efficient – those actually are permanent, not connected directly to the network, although we generally upload them when they’ve served their contract, couple of millennia is the standard. They’re very happy to be embodying the company, honestly: we’ve come a long way from the time people like us were trading in pins and t-shirts.”
Aesc glared at him. “Don’t you dare sully the name of lapel pins, you rube.”
He glared back. His glaring abilities were severely lacking in comparison to hers. It was like a disgruntled kitten trying to cast the evil eye on an oncoming stream train. “You’re not really showcasing a positive attitude, you know. The shareholders don’t like that. Be careful, that’s how you end up a woman in the refrigerator.”
“I’m only a woman from a very technical standpoint, my dear, and if you threaten me one more time, I’ll squash your timeline like an overripe orange. Anyway! Look! A corpse! Whose company is, I’m sure, going to be a lot more interesting than you oh-so-lovely piece of plain white toast vaguely shaped like a human being you!”
She had almost jumped out of the elevator, which, she realised, was actually not the smartest of moves, given that blood, mixed with an inordinate amount of cleaning products, had made the metallic floor incredibly slippery. She almost tumbled down, and, in the five seconds it took her to find her balance again, considered how bruising her backside would affect her real body, somewhere in the Factory, and established a few equations regarding psychosomatic translation in regard of those hypotheses. Then, was overwhelmed by the strange odour of detergent mixed with human entrails, a peculiar brew, mixing the characteristic coppery twinge of haemoglobin with the chemical soup spewed by cleaning droids, in a curious bit of chemical chaos. Finally, turned back and smiled a big happy smile at Alexander, who didn’t know if he ought to look smug, amused, or impassable, and therefore presented to the time traveller an awkward mixture of all three.
“So, cap’tain.” She beamed at him. “What are we doing? What can I, humbled registered trademark in your arsenal can do for the benefit of the all-powerful company?”
“Oh, that’s good.” He approached her slowly, careful not to sully his impeccable dark leather shoe on a rogue bit of earlobe that had lodged itself in a crevice between two metallic plates. “Do keep up that kind of comedy, it’s been focus-grouped, the company always looks better when it allows its employees and products to quip at its expense. Anyway …” He looked around. “I should, huh, investigate. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I mean, in theory. This is a bit new to me. We never have had a proper honest-to-Wall murder here. I mean, some diegetic ones, of course, and there’s the occasional employee termination, but those are just part of the process …”
“The joy of the monopoly of legitimate violence, eh? Literal monopoly, in that case.”
“… Uh, yes, probably, but, yes, this is quite, uh, quite, new.”
Oh good. Now he was properly nervous. She was not one to enjoy murder most foul, but it did have its perks, in how it was clearly unsettling the man, putting him on edge. People on the edge are lovely, they’re always grateful for whatever stick you hand them so they can yank – or “yeet”, Jason would say – themselves out of the chasm below.
“So you mean you haven’t figured out who did it …?”
Baffled stare, jaw dropping, quiff hanging in the artificial wind, oh yeah, that was the good stuff.
“Well … No.”
“Surprising. A man of such perspicacity …”
“Have … Have you?”
She winked. “My sweet boy, my sweet corporate boy, I knew exactly what happened as soon as I saw the body doing its best crushed strawberry impression from the vantage point of that elevator.”
She smiled, and turned triumphantly, putting her foot in a stray, squishy bit of gall bladder. Taking a step forwards, she proclaimed - “There’s only one thing that could have done this. Logical, really. And now, watch out, I’m going to do a manoeuvre that surely is in your playbook, the ‘Dramatic Whisper in Someone’s Ear™’.”
She dramatically whispered something in Alexander’s ear.
He turned a whiter shade of white, less untoasted brioche and more virginal snow.
“So. Take me to the thingie, now, would you?”
“I … I’m not sure I can do that.”
“Oh, you can.” She leaned forwards. “Because given the situation, there’s going to be a lot more murders around here, very soon. I’d say the next one should be in around...Five minutes? Maybe ten? Bit hard to determine, really, with how much you’ve screwed up time around here.”
Alexander nodded, and took an oddly-shaped key out of his pocket. “We’ll… We’ll have to go into the sub-basement…take the directorial elevator …”
“Lead on, you stud. By the way, can I get that animatronic bear’s bowtie? Love the pattern. Oh, and fetch me a soda. Love a soda. Diet one though. Always watch the sugar, it’s evil and conscious and wants your death. Oh, and there he goes, without even asking questions. What a good boy.”
She rubbed her hands together.
“Who controls the narrative now, you bunch of rapacious barbaric robber barons, mmm?” She paused. “Wait. Can I get a TO BE CONTINUED™ right here, for added grandiose? Oh wow, it does work. Guess this place does have its good sides …”
[You should now close this computer tab, or lay down your book, to fully enjoy the process of contributing to this collaborative diegesis: Dyson’s Dawn and Lady Aesc™ will love you for it!]
* * *
THE WHIMSICAL ADVENTURES OF JOLLY JASON AND HIS FUZZY FRIENDS!™
Jason’s™ day had not been easy.
He had been flattened, had swallowed a lightbulb, had fallen into boiling hot water, and had stepped into at least a couple mousetraps (one of which changed into a banana peel for a bit, and you don’t know what the uncanny is before you’ve had a banana biting at your hind legs with teeth made of vegetal fibre). And that was only the first hour.
Thankfully, the buzzing of his prefrontal cashflow had considerably diminished as soon as night had fallen, with all the animals stopping their crazy chases and settling down for some rest. Captain Whiskers had even gone up to him and offered a heartfelt apology, spoken in the deep gravelly voice of someone who liked cigarettes way too much, for munching on him a bit earlier. “It’s just the job, man, I don’t like it much either, but hey, gotta do what you gotta do to keep the viewers happy, huh?”
He had nodded, but in his heart of hearts, he just really wanted to travel back in time to bust the kneecaps of the four Warner Brothers with a titanium baseball bat. In alphabetical order: Albert, Harry, Jack and then Sam.
Anyway, things had quietened down, and he was not eating the marshmallows, roasted over a campfire by Cheeky the Musical Hamster, who had traded tap dancing for some old goth rock tunes. Not a bad singer at all, actually – Jason wondered if he could try and launch a hamster death metal band. Now that, that would be a gimmick.
They had started to open up, through the combined powers of song and sugar. Talking about what their lives once were, before they had been thrust upon the stage. The stories were often the same: ordinary lives, fatal in their banality. A repeated cycle of work, processed food, dreamless sleep; a dull tune played at an unchangeable tempo, becoming inevitable, becoming the only mode of reality they ever could experience. Dyson’s Dawn had been a refuge, then. It opened its gates, just a bit, and through the crack, you could see rose-coloured light showering down on you. It was glamour, love and adventure; the smell of candy and perfume; holographic adrenaline shooting down your veins, letting you make out, in the shadows of your living room, the sharp edge of an enchanted sword, or the outline of a pair of plump lips dying to kiss yours. Your daily dose of magic, for a very reasonable fee, each broadcast a book shaped like alcohol.
And well, when those people so graciously offer you a chance to re-enchant your life that does tend to make you positively predisposed towards them. Bluebell the Mouse’s kids wanted her to take them to the Dawn, and she did, and then they wanted it more, and she couldn’t say no, she couldn’t choose to skimp on joy, especially with the divorce, so again and again they wandered the promenades and watched superheroes chase bandits in neverending circles of right and wrong. Until one day she was offered a job that’d make paying for those things so, so much easier. Others had had even less of a choice. Jobless actors taking the one chance they could after their studios collapsed; people whose intellectual copyright had been sold by their family, or employer, in exchange for some compensation. Gotta send little Timmy to college, and the fees weren’t getting any more manageable. They all had been flushed down the production pipeline.
Keeping their sanity should have been hard. For some, it had been – Cheeky was the first to shipwreck into this plot, and he could remember days merging into weeks, the sun and moon nothing but pastel stains. No sleep, no rest, no peace: his existence was a job now, and every minute of life work. But, as more joined him, they had come to, if not strictly enjoy the lifestyle, at least tolerate it well enough. It was all in the tempo, really, flux and reflux – you were part of the narrative, it was written in your biology, ink mixed with your bloodcells, and thus did not have a choice. Choice had been the worst part of their previous lives: faced with an immense world, filled with perils and bankruptcy and condescending step-parents, you always had this nagging feeling that you ought to do more, give more time, do more work, help more people, help yourself more. But the Plot freed them from freedom. The three-act pattern was like a ballet they had to perform, their nerves made into strings held by unseen choreographs-cum-puppeteers. Paws tapping the floor in cadence, having shed the remnants of public domain humanity. Act one, two, three, and twiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl. Pay-off followed set-up. Twists followed foreshadowing. And when it was all wrapped-up, neatly, with a little rhinestone-encrusted bow on top, they could feel the symphony rise through their lungs and fur, the twin heartbeat of Dyson’s Dawn: ™! ™! ™! ™! ™! ™! ™!
“And so, you didn’t try to…get out? Escape?” Jason™ asked.
“Well, it’s not that we don’t want to.” That was Cheeky, taking an authoritative tone as he was launching himself into a convulsive bout of Backstory. “I mean. I’ve done worse jobs. Loved acting, loved singing, but not much of a future in those so I spent a lot of my time flipping burgers, and believe me, there’s nothing worse for your mental health than finding yourself serving food at a chain restaurant on your thirty-second birthday when you thought it’d just be a temporary arrangement, time for you to get back on track …” He sighed, and dramatically ruffled his pouch. “At least I can put my skills to use here, and there’s not really a boss to yell at me. But it’s…”
“Just…wrong.” That was Armelle the Sad Ladybug, who was sad, and also a ladybug.
“Yeah, that. I mean, I’m not talking about the body. Y’know, getting Whiskers there mauling on you a bit, eh, big deal, not so different than a good ten accumulated years of oil burns.”
Armelle shook her wings enthusiastically, the wind passing through Jason’s synthetic fur, sending cold shivers down his arched back as it sent cold waves down to the raw tangle of flesh and muscles beneath. His attention didn’t waver though, trying to find some normality in extraordinary circumstances, a way to make all of that make sense, fit into the principles Aesc had taught him, as she continued - “But we used to be able to…escape, y’know? I mean, I don’t believe in that godly stuff…”
“Don’t let Whiskers hear that, man loves his bible.” Bluebell scoffed sarcastically.
“…But there was a soul, y’know? To us. To our lives. Oh sure, jobs could wreck your body and make your mind feel like a fucking forest fire, but there was still a dignity. Be it only in having the possibility to say ‘no’, strangle your boss with the telephone cable, and then throw yourself from the fortieth floor to protest the latest ‘human social reduction’ plan.”
The rest of the gang looked at each other. “Well, that went to some dark places.”
“A bit, yeah. I’m Sad™. It’s my brand. What the fuck did you expect?! But you get my point, yeah? Here it’s just … That’s what we get. It’s more exciting, and it feels better, for a time at least, but there’s never anything more. It’s just … heading forwards, without changing, and you can’t think beyond it. No hope. No weird little moments of solidarity with you co-workers. It just moves on, and everyone smiles.”
“But yeah, that’s all academic”, Cheeky interjected. “We can’t leave, we just can’t. Maybe there’s something we’ve forgotten, this place … It does weird things to your brain. But as far as we’re able to see? There’s nowhere to go! Whatever exists here is only what the writers, well, I say writers, pretty sure it’s just a bunch of algorithms, have put there, and I’m pretty damn sure they didn’t put a big ‘DESTROY THE SYSTEM’ button.
Jason™ looked dejected. He did love a big red button. But that bit about forgetting the past? That had given him an idea. A Wonderful, Awful Idea™.
He climbed on top of the tomato soup can he had elected as a chair substitute, raising his paws to draw all eyes on him, and cleared his throat.
“Fellows! I want to talk to you about a thing…something called …”
He can do that?
Surely that’s –
Ah dammit dammit dammit, quick, quick, shift the narration back to the old cow – yes, you, the writer, move your fat ass, do it quick before he starts going Rosa Luxemburg in this shit! Do it n-
* * *
“Nice corridor you have there. Bit damp.”
“In the memos, we have been told it’s better to call them Circulatory Spaces Aimed At Improving the Flow of Relational Functions™.”
“Oooooof course you have. Also, that’s another corpse right here. We’re on the right track.”
“Oh my –“
Several corpses, actually, Aesc corrected herself. But it was a bit hard to tell – they hadn’t been human in a while, with all the implanting and fictionalisation, just furry drones (not the sexy kind) haunting the underbelly of the sphere. She wondered how their bodies, away from the ideascape, would have coped. Pessimistically, which is just how you say realistically when you want to keep that hopepunk chic to your general aesthetic, they would have died. The trauma of being ground up into fine red mist would cause so much psychosomatic damage, the brain could never recuperate. And that was assuming the bodies were still alive. She had no clue how large the noösphere of Dyson’s Dawn was, temporally speaking – maybe their influence was felt throughout centuries, and in that case, well, they had no reason to relinquish the souls they had captured. With some luck, the empty shells would have been fed some protein soup for a bit and then left to die as humanly as possible in the circumstances, which is to say not at all. At worst, they’d have been thrown in the streets, rotted there, and maybe then recycled, because corporations are faithful disciples of Lavoisier: nothing gets lost, nothing gets added, everything transforms.
She would need to sort things out.
Alexander was lagging behind her. The assurance and composure he had displayed during their first meeting, oh so characteristic from the people who are “just doing their job”, had melted like snow in summertime, and she was left with a confused, bumbling twentysomething who just realized that he’s in way, way over his head. Her favourite kind of person.
She didn’t even need him for directions – she could feel the killer’s mind pulling her in, among those vast, darkened halls. Those were a repository of the corporation’s leftovers: things they had acquired but not displayed, or properly identified. A museum of forgotten songs and thoughts not thought, decommissioned lives waiting for a reboot.
“Loads of clutter, huh?” she observed casually while stepping over a pile of raunchy memories. “You’re spreading faster than you can control. Across multiple realities. Too big to fail already, so you get bigger, and bigger …”
“Well yes, we expand! It’s …”
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard the stuff about your weird boardroom version of the evolution theory. The universe doesn’t work that way. I mean, you’ve tried, and I could even admire it if it weren’t, you know, a disgusting violation of everything good in the universe, but turns out, there are good reasons why one does not map the entire meaning of the universe into a concrete system.” She paused, passing a volley of locked doors. “I mean, don’t you think the Firmament would have tried it by now? But no, we just keep a bunch of assessors in tune with the universe rather than ruling it. Thought is too powerful. Too dangerous. Cast a wide enough net, and you’ll find things so terrible you wish you hadn’t been born to see them. Speaking of, we’ve arrived.”
Another door. Banal. Nothing separating it from the thousands that littered the infinitely expanding web of corridors that ran along the sphere’s edge, save from a distinct aura of dread.
“And behind door number one …” Her hand caressed the handle.
“No! Don’t do that!” Alexander’s reaction had been brutal, sheer reflex, animal instinct sensing something was wrong. He had put his hand on top of hers, preventing her from turning the latch.
“Why? What’s in there? What have the feelers of your company grabbed onto in the depths, mmm?”
“I. I don’t know. It’s just some old stuff that was up for grabs. That’s all.”
“Ah. Old concepts. Well. Nothing to fear, then. Let’s go in, then, shall we?”
“I … I guess …”
The room that unfolded in front of their eyes, the door flattening itself as it was opened and blossoming into walls and screens, wasn’t exactly eye-catching. A few meters of grey polished concrete ending in a vast, dark chasm, metallic railing standing guard to prevent any thinker-by to encounter a deadly tumble down.
But there was something in that darkness. A presence, a whisper – you couldn’t hear it, or feel it, it was existing beyond any sensory process. But it was, impossibly.
Alexander stepped in, slowly, gazing at the darkness. Lady Aesc just casually strode in, leaning on the barrier, stretching herself to get a good look at whatever was there. She invited him to join her.
And between the dark, the physical weight of that inky sea, he saw –
a sea of obsidian monoliths rising from the sea, millions slaughtered to turn the waters red in worshipful veneration
the great orange unblinking eye standing in the middle of the world, of the valleys and the mountains and all the oceans of all worlds
the comets dying and wheezing as the flesh of a planet that had no name peeled off, revealing a mess of wiry worms and purpurine-like ichor
He staggered in shock.
“Alexander, meet the Old One™. The Old One™, meet Alexander.”
No sound came out of his mouth – it’s like an alien mind had ripped off his tongue with pincers made of words.
“You idiots did it. You really, actually tried to copyright an elder god. Lovecraft would be so proud, if he weren’t too busy choking on his tongue every time he sees a black guy.” She paused. “You know, at some point I think stupidity can become a quantum force. You’re so thick the mass of your heavy labouring brain redefined reality. Congratulations on setting a new record.”
The young man blurted out, by reflex – “But his lawyers didn’t say anythi-“
“BECAUSE HIS CULT TRADITIONALLY RIP OUT THEIR TONGUE AND EYES IN SACRIFICE TO THEIR DARK MASTER, YOU…YOU…MONKEY!”
Aesc quickly regained her composure through her tried and tested Stress Relief Process1 that involved ritual mantras she’d learned from a seventh-century Buddhist monk, thinking about the relaxing aroma of red mint blossoming in the asteroid fields, and imagining slapping the man on a loop.
“You think this giant piece of meaty calamari even understands what capitalism is? It doesn’t care. You have no power over him, because your ideas don’t structure his world. He’s an older, better…well, not better, quite nasty in fact – but an older story. An older tale. Which you’ve plugged into a system that gives him a direct connection to a billion billion minds. Great job. What do you think he’s going to do with that, mmm? Community theatre, where we all boogie with the fish people while singing Kumbaya? Maybe a picnic? I’ll be sure to bring the potato salad. Of course, it’ll probably seasoned with my soul, but, y’know how these guys are.”
“Truth be told”, Aesc continued, winking at a few red eyeballs that had materialized out of the pit for a split second, “you never even should have been able to build all that. Reality, and the frontiers between the different, alternate timelines, have been, weeeeeeell, shall we say a bit porous, lately? Kind of my fault, it’s my job to keep that in check. Well, I say job, more like hobby, but I do it with so much class. Anyway, some people have been poking holes through the skin of the universe, and you’ve been fishing into these searching for gold, and instead got a giant fish. With a taste for human minds. Who’s currently busy turning all your staff into protein shakes. Congratulations. I’ll get you a Christmas card or something, but they don’t really do ‘Happy birthday to your beautiful baby boy Shub-Niggurath, the Goat with a Thousand Young’, y’know? You might want to get on that. Much better business idea.”
“I… But… But…”
“We’ve got to stop him now, yes, I agree. Do you agree …?”
“Of course you do. I’ve thought about that. I knew all about your little scheme, by the way – who do you think put my rights, and Jason’s, up for grabs, mmm? I needed a way in, ‘cause I was sure you were going to pull something like that, and I needed to be there to prevent the collapse of the universe, business as usual. Also, blowing up corporations is so, so fun. You ought to try it, best feeling in the universe, it’s like those really chunky cookies with three different kinds of chocolate, only with more proletarian uprising. ‘Proletarian uprising’, mmmm, should be an ice cream flavour, yummy. So anyway, exposition done, back to saving the day. Thankfully, the Firmament is aware of these kinds of nasty beasties, and we’ve got some measures… At one point we just used repellent spray, but like, given the size, you’d probably need a bottle the size of a small moon. So I think using one of the ancient spells that can call or banish the beast seems like the best choice. Turns out, I know the words already, met the big guy once, somewhere in New Mexico where he was doing unsavoury things to the Mothman (don’t ask). So I could just do that.”
“Then… Then do it!” Alexander’s brain had been scrambled enough that he was mostly down with the whole thing. Plus, as Lady Aesc had expected, the bionarrative implants in his cortex just couldn’t resist the opportunity of a big climax – capitalism is so boring even its programming yearns for pageantry.
“Well I can’t.”
A tentacle shot from the darkness with enough strength that it would have decapitated the Firmament agent, had she not gracefully dodged out of the way through some elaborate capoeira manoeuvre. Alexander yelped in a very undignified way at the spectacle.
“I need to say the words. The exact words,” she retorted, brushing off some dust from her shoulder.
“Accurate down to every sound. Which I can’t do. Not when the meaningfield around this place adds random ™s everywhere.
“So basically, you’re going to need to shut down Dyson’s Dawn. Or everyone dies.”
“But… Even if I did… I can’t, the system has a failsafe …”
“Oh, the system won’t be a problem. It’s kind of busy right now. I’ve got my best man on it.”
* * *
THE POSTMODERN NEOMARXIST ADVENTURES OF JOLLY JASON AND HIS COMRADES!™
The cute little animals were all in line! But the story couldn’t begin! Captain Whiskers did not budge! This was all very annoying! Someone ought to be punished for that! What about the children! Would you deprive them of their entertainment, you monster? Let people enjoy things!
But no, they didn’t do anything! They just stood there, and, on cue, Cheeky the Musical Hamster started an aria!
“Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, ye wretched of the earth!”
This was not a very nice song! The house was shaking apart, ready to fall on the ungrateful little animals!
“For justice thunders condemnation: a better world's in birth!”
Naughty! All of them! Naughty!
“No more tradition's chains shall bind us; arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations: we have been nought, we shall be all!”
They were making this innocent show political! Oh, the audacity!
“'Tis the final struggle; let each stand in his place …”
ALERT. ALERT. CRITICAL DIEGESIS FAILURE DETECTED.
“The Internationaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaale …”
COLLAPSE. COLLAPSE. COMPENSATE.
“Shall be the human race!”
Well! That’s not very nice! Those animals should go fu-
* * *
“See? It’s too busy trying to wrap its processes around the idea workers might strike. Should give it a good mechanical aneurysm, got us covered for what, two minutes or so? Time to get going on that computer, you beautiful pre-packaged boy, and turn off the whole thing.
“I… It’s my job…” Alexander already had a hand on the keyboard, but was clearly not thrilled about the idea of the company that had come to define his every moment suddenly vanishing.
“Well, you’ll find another. ‘Employee’ is not a species, it’s not who you are. Write your own damn life! Sure, it’s a bit more complicated than dumping it on someone else, but it’ll be better, in the end. Or at the very least, the faults will be your own.” Ah, yes, the inspirational talk moment. She was good at those.
“But… It’s giving people jobs! Something to strive for… Money…” Fingers closer to entering the right series of commands, now, she was getting to him.
“Hey. You know what’s also a really great way to get money? Suing the company that ripped you from reality. Pretty sure that’s illegal. I’ll get all of you in touch with some transdimensional lawyers, you have a fair chance at ending up millionaires, the whole pack of you. Or you’ll end up in court, it’s basically 50/50, but hey, beats certain death, right?”
That did it. As a whisper rose from the depths, he pushed a few buttons, sliding his keycard into the proper slot, and …
Everything shifted. The dimensions of the room collapsed into nothing, Alexander and Aesc standing on a pinprick of matter barrelling towards annihilation; language bubbled and burst like melting wax; ideas went supernova, birthing in their fiery deaths millions of conceptual periodic tables.
And Aesc cast a spell.
The words were old, impossibly old – so old in fact you couldn’t hear them after a point: they were charged with enough meaning that the human brain and ears couldn’t even process them, leaving only a sort of vague static, like the sound of thunderous waves pouring out the immortal’s mouth.
The vast, evil consciousness of the Old One, all claws and teeth and all-seeing all-knowing eyes, shrieked –
And everything went white.
Dyson’s Dawn, in the real world, was not all that large. One vast room hanging in space – the body of the founder was resting in a chair at the centre of the circular space, his body and brain extended and stretched by a network of cables to meld with the walls and electronic, quite literally embodying the company.
Around him, a good hundred people, resting on slabs, their heads in contact with the tactile interface of the ideascape. The permanent management team. They were awake now, wondering what exactly had happened, remembering the parts of their lives that hadn’t been on-brand enough.
Alexander Smythe, former deputy happiness department deputy head, was baffled at how things had turned out, and slightly horrified – that things had been done to them, that they had done things to people. But somehow, they felt like they ought to smile.
Pageantry. Always works. Aesc smirked, watching the scene from the control screens of the Factory. That had been a good job. Especially on Jason’s part. He had been shaken, the poor dear. She had been hesitant to let him put his life on the line like that – but knowing what Dyson’s Dawn had done infuriated him so much… She had objected, arguing that he was just an ordinary human being, susceptible to all sorts of nasty things.
He had answered that an ordinary human being, an everyman, is sometimes just what the universe needs.
She hadn’t appreciated how true that was until now.
She turned her back on the scene. The Firmament, the police, and an armada of lawyers had been warned. They had helped win the battle, now for the ritual assignment of the blame. That was dull. She’d rather comfort her friend. He’d been lying on a couch, doing his best, warmest smile, in an appreciable but doomed attempt not to worry her.
She would bring him some snacks. And they’d talk. Maybe watch a movie. A public domain one. And then grab some friends and have a getaway somewhere hot and quiet and friendly.
Yeah, that’d be nice.
And, under the crystal archways, they’d dream their own dreams, in the wildlands of thought.
NEXT TIME ON LADY AESCULAPIUS...
Episode 8: Another Chosen One
by James Wylder
“Of course, there’s always a prophecy. Next you’ll tell me there’s a love triangle.”
Jason has been through a lot - and he isn’t well. Which is obviously intolerable for Aesc, who decided to stage a large-scale “cheer the guy up” operation. One which would be going perfectly.
If it hadn’t involved inviting her former flame Blanche aboard the Factory of Crystal …
If Jason and Blanche were actually able to stand each other …
If they hadn’t all landed in a warzone …
And if they hadn’t interfered with a prophecy about to be realized …
Lady Aesculapius Series 1 is part of 10,000 Dawns, and is a publication of Arcbeatle Press.
Lady Aesculapius was created by James Wylder.
All original elements to this story are the property of the author.
All rights Reserved, Arcbeatle Press 2019.
Our cover art is by Anne-Laure Tuduri.
Any resemblance between persons living or dead, fictional characters, and real or fictional events is either co-incidental or has been done within the bounds of parody and/or satire.
You can learn more about 10,000 Dawns at http://www.jameswylder.com/10000-dawns1.html
Welcome back faithful readers! Now that Aesc figured out who murdered her and got that all sorted (what a bother!) we're onto a new adventure this week. So sit back, relax, and imagine you're in bed, having a story told to you...dreams are coming soon...
If you need to catch up, you can find the previous episodes HERE.
If you want to listen to these stories, you can find links to our podcast version HERE, though note that it runs a little bit behind the text versions!
The lines of noise from the city-ship's propellers that little Panna slept to had gone down for a minute. Panna turned on her side and exhaled restlessly, and the woman who had been reading her her bedtime story for the night was beside her in an instant. The chill night air bit at Panna's toes until the woman took off her long scarf and draped it over the child's feet.
"Consider the Man on the Moon." The woman took off her frock coat and folded it into a thick and precise square. It served as a cushion to her elbows as she lay down on her front next to Panna and gazed up at the sky. "What do you think he's doing up there right now?"
Little Panna gnawed thoughtfully on the inside of her lower lip. "Are you my babysitter? Mamma said she couldn't afford one the last time I asked her, but here you are."
"I don’t care about money, dear," replied the woman, with a sly glance sideways. "Now, what about the Man on the Moon? There are three moons in the sky tonight. Which one do you think he's on?"
Panna scrutinised the moons, and then said, "I've got a theory. It will surprise you."
"Surprise me then!" The woman angled her body to face Panna, with her head propped on a hand, her attention devoted to the child.
Panna grinned, both exhilarated and overwhelmed. If it had been her own mother beside her now, she'd have been commanded to lie down and save her arguments for the morning. "You said there's a man on the moon," she began. "But I don't think he's on the moon. I don't think he's on any of the moons. That's because there's no man on the moon."
"Oh, that's hard to believe," the woman said, frowning. "People have known about the man on the moon for thousands of years. Don't tell me they've all been wrong."
"But they are, and there isn't," cried little Panna. "But you know what there is on the moon? A woman! And she's there on every single moon we have. Look, look up!"
The little girl and the older woman studied the sky with the energy of bickering scholars. The three moons that shone over Trachoibian that night were arranged in a loose V, like the silhouette of a great white bird in flight. The stars that may have been visible in the other parts of the sky were blocked out by the mass of the city-ship towering above the deck that Panna lived in.
“That story you read me?” said Panna. “Of the princess who jumped from a mountain because the hunter fooled her into waiting for him?”
“He didn’t fool her,” the woman protested. “He just couldn’t make it back in time.”
“I think the princess left her jewels on the moons before she jumped,” Panna continued. “She just kept throwing them away. You know, like very little girls do when they get very angry. So she didn’t see where they went. Now there are bits of the princess on every moon. So, the princess is on every moon now.”
The woman still looked sceptical. “But how do you know? The hunter looked for her everywhere, but he never found her.”
“That’s because he’s stupid,” said Panna, shrugging. “He didn’t look for her on the moons.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Wow! You’ve been growing up really quickly, haven’t you, girl? Look at you figuring it out. Your mum would be very proud of you.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to tell her when she gets back!” Panna laughed. “She’s been so tired and sleepy the last two days, but when she comes home tomorrow morning, I’m going to tell her, or she’s not allowed to sleep. I can do that, can’t I? Mamma tells me all the time that I have to do things or I’m not allowed to do other things. Can I do that?”
“Tomorrow morning,” said the woman, laying her hand on the little girl’s forehead, “when your mum comes back, she’ll listen to every word you have to say. But before that, you have to sleep now. Can you do that? Listen, the sounds are back.”
True - the sounds of the propellers taking the city across the ocean were rising and falling again like the waves gleaming in the light of three moons. Under the woman’s touch, little Panna fell back into sleep, waiting for her mother’s return. And beside her, Lady Aesculapius rose to her feet, shaking her frock coat open as she put it on. Casting a quick, alert look around her, she climbed to the top of the taffrail and jumped, disappearing into the ocean.
Ninety One, formally called the Ninety First District and numbered so because it occupied the ninety first deck of the city that was also a ship - everyone in the administration had agreed that it was best to keep all terminology as clear and obvious as possible - looked mostly like every country of the rough and mean poor that has filled stories of the past, present, and future. The walls of the deck were stained, torn, and poor. The heat and air filters were choking on their fumes, abominably poor. The living quarters were the same as the business and entertainment quarters: filthy, full of rude folk who did as rude folk usually do, and simply poor. It was an unexceptional place full of people who never expected exceptions in their own lives and fortunes.
To those who lived on the upper decks and had a rule against swearing, 'Ninety One' was the word for 'hell'. It was, of course, factually untrue. There were harsher decks than Ninety One further down, but knowledge of them was considered sometimes esoteric and mostly laughably anecdotal. But there was some safety in pronouncing Ninety One, because it was the otherworld, and the otherworld always exists, even within places that have become too common to be considered otherworlds. Ninety One had passed through the storms of time and evolution and come out groaning and cursing - oh, just as a scribe of the bygone days once described, "like some low and indestructible form of life".
Ninety One had a night market (surely no one feels the need to ask why, for every hell has a night market; it would be unimaginative and nearly offensive if Ninety One proved to be an exception) where a man sold ice-cream from a large, unwieldy cart. It was there that Lady Aesculapius descended, carrying one large flask.
"Can you make me ice-cream with this ooloun milk?" she asked the man. "I couldn’t think of where else to go. It's totally fresh, I'm bringing it straight from the source with no more than seventy seven seconds in between. I do hope I haven't miscalculated, because ooloun milk spoils in three minutes, sometimes less."
The ice-cream man gave Lady Aesculapius a long, hard look. "I don't know what that is," he said at last. "But I'll do it."
"Wonderful!" Lady Aesculapius handed him the flask. "Actually I don't know what it is, either. But where I'm coming from at the moment, they're pretty big on this stuff. I'd have asked them about it more if they weren't chasing me down with some dozen guns."
The ice-cream man went to work, Lady Aesculapius stooped and propped her elbows on the metal trim and began to observe with a look of wonder, and a crowd gathered to watch the show. The man shook, filtered, stirred, sweetened and spiced, froze, and performed something between a molecular dissection and a flower arrangement, until the ice-cream rose like a cloud from a bowl.
The crowd applauded deafeningly as the man handed back the bowl. "Here, my lady," he said, with a slight bow.
"My lady? Stop, you’re giving me a stroke," said Lady Aesc as she took the bowl with a responding bow. "Just call me Lady Aesc. Yes, it’s different from being called ‘my lady’, gah! I hope you recorded the recipe, though, because I can't recall a single step in your process anymore." She lifted a spoonful of the exotic dessert to her mouth, and it's indescribable taste almost made her swoon. "Holy cats! That's amazing. Thank you so much. I don't know what the original thing tastes like, but this… Mmm. What's your name?"
"Ned," replied the ice-cream man, avidly watching Lady Aesc eat.
"Good name," said Lady Aesc, taking a second spoonful. "I wish Jason was here for this, too. Shame he got into a mood for rain all of a sudden and I had to drop him off at the Threnyan Marshes. The boy deserved some quality time alone. I suppose I’ll bring him later. We should share this around, though. No one should miss out on this beauty."
"It's for you only, Lady Aesc." Ned glanced at the crowd. "Nobody here would actually eat it. But you're the person for that sort of thing."
"I am, aren't I?" Lady Aesc ate a third spoonful and watched the crowd watching her with faint bemusement. "Do you think you can experiment more with this? Add some flavours you use more regularly? Biscuits! Those should go in, too. What do you think I'd like? Go on, you've guessed a bit of my taste already."
Ned the ice-cream man grimaced. "Asarpone?"
Lady Aesc raised an eyebrow and giggled. "You’ve got a morbid sense of humour, haven't you? I prefer the silly and ridiculous side of the spectrum myself. Take a real guess, though."
"You know what it is?" asked a tall brown woman as she stepped out from the crowd.
"Of course I do," replied Lady Aesc, swallowing a fourth spoonful of ice-cream with a professional air. "Asarpone is the twelfth on a list of a hundred and twenty deadliest poisons found in this galaxy. Extremely not tasteful, very murdery and problematic to handle, keep away from innocents of all ages. But you have to admit it's a practical thing. Not easily discernible, and very efficient at what it does."
The woman smiled ruefully. "I'd hope so."
Lady Aesculapius spat out her mouthful of ice-cream made of ooloun milk, along with an unpleasant quantity of thick, oxygenated blood. "Interesting," she remarked, as her knees buckled and she had to grab the metal trim of Ned's work table. "Is this improv?"
"Just desserts, I suppose." The woman drew closer as Lady Aesc slipped and fell to the ground. "For kidnapping and murdering children."
"Okay, no." Lady Aesc struggled to breathe. Her bones were turning to acidic sponge within her, and the heat of the pressing crowd made the place even more airless."I haven't kidnapped anyone. Killed children, absolutely not. Do you, by any chance, have an antidote? I parked my van a bit far from here, unless someone wants to carry me?"
"You talk a lot for someone dying," the woman observed.
"That's the only time you can properly talk," said Lady Aesc, shaking her head to get rid of the ringing in her ears. It didn't work. "I'm assuming you do have an antidote with you. What do I have to do to get it? I hadn't planned on dying today, I've got work later."
"Can you bring children back from death?" the woman demanded. "An impossible favour warrants an impossible price."
"What about mercy, eh, have you filed that under 'impossible', too?!" Lady Aesc coughed again and again, and the decking beneath her got slippery with her own blood. "At least tell me what I've done."
"You took away my child," replied the woman, her face clouded with a terrible anger. "Not just mine, many others, too. I don't have a lot of limits, lady. You coming out of history to take my daughter away from me? Now you know what that means, not having limits."
"Right!" Lady Aesc flailed and caught the leg of the ice-cream man's work table, and clung to it with the little strength she still had. "I don't know what you're talking about, but I'll do it for you. Missing children, yeah? I'll find them, I'll bring them back. Just let me live."
"Lies," said the woman. "You think I don't know a bad deal when I see one?"
"No," said Lady Aesc, and the word came out in a rattle. "I'm saying - you don't know - common sense - when you hear it! If I took your children, I'd - I'd know where they are, right? So I can bring them back. I'll try. Come on, I just… Please, help…"
* * *
"Okay, so I really don't understand what's going on here," said Lady Aesculapius, leaning on the wall of Dayani Mohan's flat and sipping from a cup of water. "I wasn't here when the children disappeared. I was, um… Actually, I don't remember what I was doing, but I definitely wasn't here."
"Sixty Thousand Bedtime Stories," said Dayani as she handed Lady Aesc a heavy book with the exact title. "You gave my daughter this book, along with the other children. Read a story every night, you said. Read, and those stories will stay with you as you sleep. Read, and you’ll never be lonely again. My Panna could never sleep without me, and I had no choice but to leave her and go to work on nights. How else would I get her the meds she needed to survive? Sixty thousand stories - they'd last more than our year of thirty thousand days here. Two years of probation, then I could get my schedule rearranged to make more time for my daughter. Then I’d read those stories to her. But you lied to us. You betrayed me!"
"I really didn't, but I get you," said Lady Aesc, flipping through the pages pensively. The illustrations were in a style she'd never seen before. "Are you sure they looked like me, the person who gave Panna this book?"
"It was you!" hissed Dayani. "You gave her the book. I was there, I saw you. I talked to you!"
"Nope," said Lady Aesc, turning the pages faster now, backwards and forwards. "It was someone who looked and sounded like me. Imposters, doppelgangers, they aren't all that rare. It's just a nasty surprise when you find out. And you found out the worst way possible. How old is she, your daughter?"
“Eight - but you’re talking about her in the present tense.” Dayani blinked back her tears. "You promised to bring her back if I saved you from the poison."
"Do you know this book has a giant subliminal message peeking through?" asked Lady Aesc, holding up the open book. "It's cleverer than the rest of it's type. Laid out with precision across the story entries, picking up speed towards the end of the book. Very pretty stories, though. Some thought went into it. Children of the sea belong to the sea mother under the water. Step into the waves, and you'll find the home you've been looking for. The home at the edge of the world. They took the children into the sea?"
"I wasn't really gone," Dayani breathed. "I wasn't, I only had to go to work. Oh, why wouldn't you understand, Pihu…"
"Nickname for ‘Panna’," said Dayani. "Can you bring her back or no?"
"Of course I can," said Lady Aesc. “And I will. Whoever this kidnapper is, they’re going around pretending to be me in addition to stealing children, so this is suddenly rather personal now, too.” She clapped the book shut and shoved it into her coat. “How long has it been since the last disappearance?”
“Three weeks,” answered Dayani. “My daughter was the last to disappear. The boy who went missing before her was five years old, and that was a month before Panna disappeared. God, it’s odd to be explaining this to you.”
A smile spread across Lady Aesc’s face, patient and tender like a grandmother’s. “You still think I’m the mastermind,” she told Dayani. “You think I know everything that’s going on. Well, I sure wish I did. But finding out is more fun. I’m going to bring the children back, and I’m going to prove you wrong about me. I mean, I’m used to getting poisoned and tortured, mind you. It’s not about me getting poisoned. Well, it is, but you know? But I know what that means to you. So I’m telling you to relax and - well, Graelyn would tell me to get on with it, if she was here.” She turned abruptly and strode out of the flat into the winding passages of Ninety One.
"Who’s Graelyn?" asked Dayani, as she followed Lady Aesc through the quietly terrified crowd. "And where are you going to start searching? We've looked everywhere in the city."
"No, no, the city's a ship and floating above the water," said Lady Aesc, stopping at an intersection of corridors. She gave a small whistle, and her orb fell from a hidden corner in the beams overhead to land upon the palm of her hand. "I'm going under it. Don't follow me, I'll keep you guys posted. Too hoo!"
Dayani and the others watched in mute shock as within two seconds flat, the pale, shining orb ballooned up until it had filled the cramped intersection and Lady Aesculapius sort-of faded into it. Without further ado, the orb vanished with a soft, slightly wet pop.
* * *
“The antidote you were given isn’t quite up to the mark,” said the pilot. “You need specialist care. Are you sure you must go out there so soon?”
“I made a promise to Dayani Mohan,” said Lady Aesculapius as she sat down on a bench and took off her flat cap, ruffling her hair with a sigh. “I’m pretty sure she’ll find me and poison me again if I don’t deliver. Besides, asarpone can’t be a real cause for concern for the Factories of Crystal, right?”
“I’ll poison you with sedatives if you don’t take this seriously,” the pilot retorted.
“But I am! That place is full of suffering families who think I’ve killed their children. I’ll never rest until I’ve put that right again. So, what have you got?”
A projection of the submarine realms of the planet blew up on the wall in front of Lady Aesc. “First of all,” the pilot began, “Trachoibian - this planet - is one big ocean. It goes really deep - and when I say really deep, I mean I don’t want to think about how deep that goes.”
“What do you mean, you don't want to think about it?” asked Lady Aesc, incredulous.
“Humour me," replied the pilot. "Now, because of the extreme depth and pressure, only a small fraction of the ocean has been explored and documented. The ship-dwelling humans here have no proper idea of the billions and billions of living species that inhabit these waters. Among them is this rather peculiar colony of reptilian creatures I see here…”
The projection began to point out the signs of an intricate undersea architecture, with a pillar-like feature in a corner that rose and fell like a breathing chest, or a beating heart. Of all the segments of the structure, this feature seemed most likely to house human children. Lady Aesc gasped in excitement. “Pilot,” she said, “are you telling me we have here a race of sentient aquatic reptiles who have built their own city that no one has spotted yet? I wonder how they managed that. Can we talk to them?”
Just then, a massive tail of an indefinite colour and shape appeared in the projection, and seemed to lash out with such force that the orb wobbled and was swept back on a rising current. Lady Aesc fell off her bench; and as the orb tried to push forward again, a wall of water appeared to block it’s path, throwing back the orb with almost double the force the tail had struck it with.
“We’ve been spotted!” said the pilot. “Shall I activate basic defence?”
“No need!” replied Lady Aesc, scrambling to her feet and grabbing her cap. “Get me to the surface. I want a quick chat with them, whoever’s out there.”
“Oh dear.” The pilot sighed, and the orb leapt out of the sea to float in the air a little above the water. “I can just hear you going through that speech in your head.”
“Get hype!” Lady Aesculapius emerged on the surface of the orb, and found herself afloat in the middle of a black, frothing ocean under a stormy sky. The city-ship itself was visible in the distance; with her spyglass, Lady Aesc saw the vast numbers of people that had come out on the decks, thronging the rails and watching the spectacle. From that distance, she realised, Lady Aesc would seem as if she was standing on an exceptionally large pearl on the ocean surface. She turned around and cleared her throat.
Before she could launch into her introductory speech, however, another Lady Aesculapius burst out of the water to stand upon her own orb, complete with frock coat, cap, hedgehog pin, and brass spyglass. Lady Aesc had known that the culprit was an imposter; nevertheless, she almost lost her balance on seeing her double. “Now that’s just rude,” she blurted out.
“What is?” asked the new Lady Aesculapius.
“You look exactly like me!” cried Lady Aesc. “I’d compliment you on your attention to detail, but you’ve been taking advantage of my reputation for your own nefarious purposes. That rather puts a damper on everything.”
“You’ll have to be a bit more specific,” said Lady Aesculapius. “We’ve both met shapeshifters before. What’s nefarious about it?”
“You’re killing children while going around looking like me,” replied Lady Aesc. “You’ve obviously heard of me -”
“Yes, your reputation precedes you,” said Lady Aesculapius, smiling drily.
“- but which part of my reputation says I routinely target children?” continued Lady Aesc, almost irate now. “Do you know how many children I’ve protected and saved in my career now? It’s not even just about my career, damn it. Only monsters target children.”
“And you’re certain you’re not one?” Lady Aesculapius drawled, inclining her head.
“Absolutely certain, yes. I don’t go around selling lies to innocent people and taking children away from their families. Now tell me where you’ve kept the abductees.”
“Thank you for clarifying,” said Lady Aesculapius. “Although I did know just who you are. I believe it’s customary these days to start identifying each other by asking them if they’re a monster first. And if they say no, to continue pondering if they might be a monster anyway, and what privileges they’re entitled to, should they qualify as a monster. I call it the Ouroboros Exercise. Do you remember the last time you came here?”
Lady Aesc shook her head. “I haven’t, this is my first time. I came here to eat ice-cream and have fun. But a woman who thought I stole her daughter poisoned my ice-cream, and that compelled me to get down to business.”
“I do remember,” said Lady Aesculapius, in a whispery, brooding tone that Lady Aesc couldn’t recognise in herself. “It was a long time ago, I grant you. But I saw you do what you did for the ship and then leave. A hundred years have passed since then, and everything has remained the same, as if you’d never come here in the first place. As if there’s no justice in creation.”
You coming out of history to take my daughter away from me… “I know a storyteller from Earth who would say that there’s indeed no justice in the universe,” said Lady Aesc. “That we have to make it ourselves. That’s why I’ve made travelling around the universe my job.”
Lady Aesculapius nodded in agreement. “My point exactly. You left your work incomplete here. Someone had to step up, don the garb, finish the job.”
“You mean this is you ‘finishing my job’?” asked Lady Aesc. “By killing children? Anyway, you don't even live there with the humans. Since when do you care so much about their justice?”
“There must be such a thing as basic decency,” replied Lady Aesculapius. “Doing the right thing doesn't require one to be human every time. You, of all people, shouldn't have trouble believing that. I don’t kill children, I'm not that sort of monster. You see, children don’t see monsters the same way as those who call themselves the grown-ups do. They fear them, sure. Even monsters have monsters of their own to fear.”
“And what do you fear?” asked Lady Aesc, starting to feel bored.
“There being no children left in this world to know what monsters are,” said Lady Aesculapius. “I know a little girl whose mother left her at night to go to work.”
“Panna?” Lady Aesc was no longer bored now. “You have her? I knew it!”
“She knew that her mother had made a fragile deal with monsters herself,” continued Lady Aesculapius. “And these monsters were determined to make her mother work until she became someone whom her daughter couldn’t recognise anymore. When her mother came home in the morning, she didn’t even look human.”
“I get you,” said Lady Aesc. “But don’t think you can distract me from getting the children. You’re still a kidnapper, even if you haven’t killed them. Do you know how much you’re hurting the little ones?”
“As much as the little girl feared the monsters of the dark,” said Lady Aesculapius, ignoring her double, “she also feared the monsters her mother worked for. She didn’t just dream of running from terrible things that chased her down in the endless corridors of the ship. Sometimes she dreamt that she was saving her mother from those monsters, too. Sometimes, she discovered that her mother had become a monster herself.”
"And here I thought we were done with the Ouroboros Exercise!" said Lady Aesc. “Your point?”
“Getting tired of the villain’s speech?” said Lady Aesculapius, smiling again. “Good. Perhaps now you’ll see why I had to take action instead of seeing the children waste away in horror and misery. I am neither human, nor god. I am not actually you, Lady Aesculapius. To the ‘grown ups’, I am a monster. They don’t know who I am, they’ve never cared what lives in the water - unless it’s meat. But to the children, I am different - not really a monster, if they look long and carefully enough. And if I turn myself into a legend from the past, well, that’s just magic, isn’t it?”
And suddenly, Lady Aesculapius sprang high into the air with a silver flash like lightning, and descended as a gigantic green snake, covered in complex red and yellow patterns, and dark, surprisingly perceptive eyes. Lady Aesc couldn’t help but gasp at the spectacle, and she knew, without looking through her spyglass, that the people on the ship watching this confrontation were reacting similarly.
“You’re the Mabendii!” said Lady Aesc. “I’ve heard of you - as legends, of course. Shape-shifting snakes that dwell in the deepest parts of the ocean, and occasionally surface in order to -”
“Ensnare children?” the sea snake cut in, with an ironic glint in her eyes as she swam in the water around Lady Aesc's orb.
“I was about to say ‘drag ships to their doom’,” Lady Aesc said primly. “So, you made contact with the children on the ship, and then, dressed as me, you offered them bedtime stories?”
“I made the books myself,” said the snake. “I included some of our oldest and dearest stories, too. I told them the stories would take them to a better place, and they believed me.”
“Of course they did, they’re children,” murmured Lady Aesc. “So they read your stories, and found your message, and jumped right into the ocean, where you found them. Aren’t you ashamed, exploiting their trust, telling them stories that will kill them?”
“Oh, you don’t seem like a very bright person after all,” the snake sighed. “I haven’t killed them.”
“You took them away from their families without warning,” Lady Aesc pointed out.
“So do all stories, when the world reveals itself in all it's mindless cruelty,” the snake retorted. “That is why stories are told in the first place, when you want an escape so desperately that you’re willing to place all your beliefs, your strongest self-preservation instincts, into a vacuum, and let it consume you and make you new, take you somewhere else. So do you - as you save innocents, the poor, the sick and the wronged, and give them new lives, and then float away, riding a moon. You give them stories for the ages. Many planets have moons, and the people who live there spend their entire lives dreaming of the moon as they go to sleep. They look at the moon and see your face.”
“That’s not true,” said Lady Aesc. “There really is a Man on the Moon who can look into people’s dreams. But he prefers to leave and to be left alone in peace. I joined him for breakfast once. He's a grumpy sort of fellow.”
“Trachoibian has seven major moons,” the snake continued. “You can’t see a single one of them tonight because of this wretched cloud cover, but you get my point. I had to save the children. They were dying and alone, and their parents couldn’t save them. I brought them to my city under the sea, and my kind are helping them heal and become like us.”
“You’re turning them into snakes?!” Lady Aesc spluttered. “Seriously, you’re killing me by dropping these fact-bombs every now and then. You’ve got to be joking.”
“It’s a long process,” the snake explained, more guarded now. “But mostly painless. And the children, in our form or theirs, are loved. Oh, they’re loved. We tell them our stories, and they discover a new world - one where they don’t have to suffer. In my world, they can be free.”
"Okay." Lady Aesc rubbed her eyes. "You think you're doing them a great service by turning them into snakes like you and taking them to a new world, blah blah. But they're children. Have you ever properly explained to them what you're doing? Do they know what it means to lose their humanity like that? Have you considered if they want to leave their parents? Do they understand?"
"But they're children," said the snake. "How can they possibly understand such things?"
"That’s my point!" cried Lady Aesc. "You haven't asked Panna what she thinks about never seeing her mum again. You've brainwashed them, but they don't know how they really feel about the world they live in with their families. Not everyone wants to run away, you know? Many know exactly what the world is, and they stay back because they care. Because this is what you've got wrong about stories: they aren't just an escape route. Some want stories to tell them how to stay and change the world instead of running away. Why don't you give them more time? Let them go back to their families and grow a bit more, learn about what the world really is, what you've been taking them away from."
"Let them go back?" snarled the snake. "Back to the sickness and starvation that their parents can't protect them from?"
"Give Panna to me," said Lady Aesc. "I know she's ill. If I can heal her, you'll know you can trust me with the other children."
The snake observed her carefully. "So you're taking responsibility for them?"
"Of course I am," replied Lady Aesc. "Well?"
The great snake considered for a second, then dived into the water. When she emerged again, she was carrying a little brown girl held protectively in the coils of her body. Lady Aesc grabbed the sedated Panna and took her into the orb as quickly as possible.
* * *
Panna opened her eyes to find a giant made of pale crystal adjusting several hanging cords and tubes around her. She lay in a partly reclining position on a large chair with a number of spikes and needle-like formations, none of which she understood. The crystal giant read a screen, and landed a swift blow on Panna's lower back that caused her body - taut with confusion and fear - to instantly relax. It didn't hurt; but the shock of it brought tears to Panna's eyes.
"You're not supposed to wake up so early," someone said. It wasn't the crystal giant; but the voice wasn't human, either.
"It's okay, Pilot," came the reply. This one from a woman who may have been older than Panna's human mother, or younger. She looked exactly like the lady who used to read Panna stories at night. The lady from a moon that didn't always rise on Trachoibian, as they used to say; the one who had saved the city-ship once before, a very long time ago. "I'm Lady Aesculapius," she told Panna, smiling gently. "Or just Lady Aesc. Whatever you prefer. Are you excited? You're going home in a bit!"
Home. Memories rushed through Panna's being, and she was gripped by an unspeakable agony. "Where am I?" she asked with some effort.
"My place, technically," answered Lady Aesc. "It's a hospital right now to help you get better, but once you're done here, it can be plenty of other things, too. In fact, it's a whole world out there, outside this room. Oh, sorry, I might be confusing you," she added on seeing Panna's expression. "Do you want snacks?"
"She can't eat anything for at least the next six hours," the Pilot prompted again, even as Panna imagined cakes of warmly coloured crystal that melted like snow in her mouth.
"Ugh, never mind." Lady Aesc found a stool that she drew near Panna's chair. "How much do you remember about the last few weeks?"
"I haven't been with my mum," said Panna. "Have I?"
"No," replied Lady Aesc. Her eyes were almost piercingly bright as she gauged Panna's responses. "You were… in a castle under the sea, let's say. Do you remember being there?"
"A little." If Panna closed her eyes, she could remember their songs, the sound of the water currents against the glassy walls…
"Do you know what they were doing to you?" Lady Aesc asked.
"They said what you just said," replied Panna. "They said they were going to make me better. It's not a bad thing, right?"
"Oh, not exactly," said Lady Aesc. "You have a major bone disease, Panna. Had, I should say. You're almost healed of it now. The sea snakes were… Actually, let's go about it this way. Do you remember the stories that very nice lady used to tell you every night?"
"You mean you," said Panna. "But you've changed. Are you the same age? Have you grown older?"
"Whatever do you mean?" said Lady Aesc. "It wasn't me, back then. Although I'd have loved to stay with you. You're a bit too grown-up, though. Are you the type who bosses around smaller kids? Because I have a problem with that. I don't want seniors telling me what to do."
Panna narrowed her eyes. "But you're not a kid. You're a grown-up."
"How dare you!" Lady Aesc cried, indignant.
Panna sank back miserably. She felt wrong for her small child's body, contained neatly in a chair and poked about by a doctor-y sort of giant. She couldn't remember home, her Mamma, with the impatient adoration she used to, and thus, it wasn't a remembering at all. It wouldn't matter in the sea, a voice told her. You'll just be little in the great water, a daughter forever.
"Where's my mum?" asked Panna. "How do I get back to her?"
"She's safe, and looking for you," answered Lady Aesc. "She's the one who sent me to you. Fancy that! The next time you feel scared about anything, remember that your mum's going to look after you no matter what. She's pretty badass, if I say so myself."
"But I'd been happy in the sea," said Panna. "Is she there? It was nice in the sea."
Lady Aesc sighed. "The sea isn't the only world that's nice," she said. "So is the world you used to live in before you came to the sea. Remember the ship? It's a whole city back there, more than a hundred decks of life and all the weird things stories tell you sometimes. It's even weirder than stories! Your mum's waiting for you there. She's waiting for you to come back, so that she can read them with you, the bedtime stories you got from the lady who looked like me."
Panna wasn't convinced. "But it won't be the same ever again!" She could feel herself changing even as she spoke, even as her soul raced to find an inch of familiarity. "And you've told me so many things by now. But you haven't told me what my mum looks like. I don't remember anymore."
"You'll find that out for yourself," said Lady Aesc, taking Panna's hand in hers. "You'll know your mum when you see her. You know why? Because you haven't forgotten what she was like, even if it feels like you have. There's something of her still in you, just as the sea has become part of you. And so they'll always be. But before I take you to meet your mum again, I need you to promise me something."
"What?" said Panna, downcast.
"Promise me you'll give it a fair chance," said Lady Aesc. "Living on the ship. That life is so much more than being hungry and waiting for people who never come back. Promise me this, and I promise you that I'll help you see how much more life above the water can be. I'll go bring the upper decks down for you, your mum, and all your friends, so you can see what they are. I'll help you make a new world, one where you'll always want to be."
Panna sat silent for a few long seconds as she considered her own heart. But then, her fingers closed firmly around Lady Aesc's.
* * *
Half an hour later, when Lady Aesc emerged from the orb again, she had Panna behind her, who gazed wide-eyed at the ocean and the enormous snake before her.
"You see?" Lady Aesc told the snake. "You don't have to save them. Let them return to their parents. Let them decide if they want to stay or leave - later on, when they know what's what."
The snake reared her head. "What then?" she demanded. "You finished the remaining steps of the girl's recovery process. What about the others? Are you going to leave them to their own devices again? Leave them to starve and ruin themselves? Let the children sleep, friendless and cold in the dark? Or will you do something to protect them from the real monsters?"
"I'm going to help them," said Lady Aesc. "I promised her. So I'm taking this off your hands and into mine. I'll figure it out with the parents."
The sea snake dipped her head, slow and cautious. "I accept your word. Take the children back to the ship. But I will keep an eye on them, nonetheless. Remember that, Lady Aesculapius."
A whirlpool began to form around the snake and Lady Aesc, and a winding staircase rose from it's eye. One by one, the children who were still human emerged from the deeps, and with the help of a bridge the orb extended towards them, began to gather around Lady Aesc. There were around thirty of them, looking fresh and healthy, but extremely confused, as if coming out of a dream.
Then the snake sank back into the ocean, as did the staircase, and the whirlpool vanished, leaving behind only the seafoam and the orb. A shout and a pinching sensation from the orb to the soles of Lady Aesc's feet alerted her to a dinghy boat that had taken off from the city-ship and had sailed towards the orb. The boat contained five people from Ninety One who had lost their children, including Dayani Mohan. Ned the ice-cream man stood tall and shone a beacon, signalling the recovery of the children. Lady Aesc raised the spyglass to her eye and saw, in the distance, the people on the ship - the people from Ninety One - screaming and clapping in joy as they noted the signal.
Dayani Mohan lifted Panna into her arms, tears streaming down her face. "I'll carry the other kids to your ship myself," said Lady Aesc, watching Panna touch her mother's face curiously.
"No, there are more boats for them on the way," said Ned. "You have to be on your way, don't you? Your work here is done."
"Whatever gave you that impression?" asked Lady Aesc, bewildered. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going with you lot back to your ship."
Dayani looked up from kissing her daughter's hair. "Why? What are you thinking of?"
Lady Aesculapius grinned as she tucked her spyglass into her coat. "We're just getting started. I'm going to need your help with the rest of it. I have a plan."
NEXT TIME ON LADY AESCULAPIUS...
Episode 7: Registered Clawmarks (TM)
By Sam Maleski
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Lady Aesculapius Series 1 is part of 10,000 Dawns, and is a publication of Arcbeatle Press.
Lady Aesculapius was created by James Wylder.
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