Burning in the Void – Portfolio Sample

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CHAPTER ONE

heretic _Sera

Sera moved the delicate fingers of her right hand to brush away a lock of black hair, slick with sweat and blood, which had slipped down to cover her dark green eyes.

“Hands behind your head witch or you’ll lose them,” growled one of the wardens. He stepped into the corner of her vision and gripped the hilt of his sheathed sword menacingly. His armor, a patchwork of ceramic and metal, tacked together with epoxy and links scavenged from old chains, was streaked with Sera’s blood.

She complied, wincing as she pressed her palm against the sticky, pulsing lump on the back of her head. Sera blinked back tears of pain and looked down at the deck beneath her knees. The large square tiles had once been smooth and clean, gleaming white with the holy purity of bone, but they were now stained with dried blood spilled by countless prisoners who had knelt in this very chamber since the founding of the Kingdom. Seeing her submit to his order, the warden eased his grip on the sword hilt and stepped back out of sight.

Sweat dripped into Sera’s eyes and she blinked rapidly, wincing at the pain, and at the visions of suffering and humiliation that splashed across her eyelids whenever her eyes shut. She swallowed a whimper, took a deep breath, and tried to think of better times. That too brought only pain. Once joyful thoughts of her parents and childhood friends were twisted into the more recent memories of the shock and disappointment on their faces as the wardens dragged Sera past their chambers, through the commons, and out of the ward. Disheartened, she instead thought back to all of the people she had helped. The joy on the faces of parents as their children ran across the green grass of Spine Park after being healed of infections and broken bones. Tending the gardens of healing with her master, old Rigel, in their own special corner of the royal gardens. Soon, though, Sera’s heart grew heavy again as she realized that many of those grievously wounded patients might have been healed with the same forbidden magic that had condemned her. 

The narrow door at the end of the chamber creaked open and the assembled prisoners looked up as one, anticipating which among them would be called forth to face their king. The royal announcer was a withered old man whose skin was so wrinkled that it piled up in loose, spotted layers above his low brow. He was dressed in a clean, unadorned blue robe, which marked him as a servant of a noble family. Despite his simple attire and obvious age and shuffling, clearly painful gait, the man carried himself with an unmistakable air of self-importance.

He squinted and spoke in a wheezing voice, “Sera, apprentice to the healer Rigel, you are summoned to face your king and god on the charge of heresy.”

Sera’s breath caught in her throat. She glanced from side to side at the faces of the other prisoners, but found only the harsh glares of men and women who, despite their own crimes, had now found someone who they could all look down upon. She blinked rapidly, forcing tears of rage and frustration to remain inside, and met the announcer’s eyes. “I deny all charges and…”

“Save your breath child. I have no interest in your case, save to bring you before righteous judgment,” the announcer said. He turned away from the doorway and shuffled out of view.

The wardens grabbed Sera under the arms and hauled her upright. The one who had threatened to cut off her hands remained behind while the other stepped ahead of her and lead the way out of the waiting chamber. They stepped over the low threshold of the chamber doorway and into the brightly lit passage, turning towards the wide door of the royal hall. This door had a design similar to that of the doors that sealed every chamber in the kingdom, in the whole world as far as Sera knew, with a single large slab of metal balanced on heavy hinges, with a locking wheel at the center beneath a clear viewport of thick glass nearly four centimeters thick. This door, however, was twice as wide as any other that Sera had ever seen, and the viewport had been painted over, which was a crime for the people of the wards. The door was wreathed in bright murals, the colors of the paint far more vivid than any Sera had seen in the wards, depicting the people of the kingdom offering gifts to their holy ruler. On the door itself was painted the image of the king, Lord Ahan, seated in his crystal throne with the sword of the kingdom resting across his knees.

The royal announcer pressed his wrinkled hand against a red panel beside the door. Sera gasped in surprise as the red metal pulsed with a soft glow then, as quickly as a light panel turning on, changed to green. The door emitted a soft hissing noise, then Sera heard the familiar clang of the internal locking bars retracting. The door swung slowly open to reveal the crowded outer court of the royal hall.

The guard behind her placed one hand on Sera’s shoulder and pushed her forward. She lifted her chin, wiped a hand down her face to clear away her tears, and shuffled forward, the rusty fetters around her ankles pulling her stride short as she stepped awkwardly over the threshold.

The chamber was crowded with members of the nobility. Sera had never seen so many well fed and splendidly dressed people together in a single place before. She shifted uncomfortably, strangely self conscious of her oversized tunic and tattered trousers, even though she knew it was ridiculous to be concerned about her appearance when she was in real danger of being executed. Sera’s clothes had never fit properly. She had sewn them herself in the evenings while Master Rigel drilled her in the uses of various medicinal plants, and the cloth from which they were made had been taken from the bodies of patients who died under her care, so her ragged appearance was accentuated by the subtle stains of their blood and sweat. Sera had seen the nobility of course, at festivals, and on the rare occasion when Lord Moore deigned to hold court in the fourth ward, but they rarely mixed with common folk like her.

The warden turned and grasped the front of her robe, pulling Sera forward into the crowd. She shuffled forward and heard the hiss and clang of the door swinging shut behind her. Suddenly the assembled nobles burst into movement, clustering into groups of threes and fives to whisper and surreptitiously wave a finger at her over the rim of their wineglasses.

“Bring forth the heretic!” a voice boomed from deep within the crowd. The bodies parted, revealing a gaunt man dressed in white robes fringed in dark red thread and a kufiya of cloth dyed a deep red, which framed the sharp features of his narrow face. 

Sera’s breath caught in her throat. This was one of the three high priests, the men who stood between god and the king, shielding him from the deadly glory of the creator. Nobody but god knew the names of the three, but their faces were known to all people of the kingdom. Each month one of the high priests would stand between the crystal pillars that flanked the gilded door to the temple. There he would repeat the sacred laws for all to hear, accept the sacrifices of the people, and proclaim the gifts which would be delivered to the healers and merchants that month. As an apprentice healer, it had often fallen to Sera to stand beside the bodies of the dead and sick while her master, Rigel, made the formal offering to the priest and prayed for sacred tonics to treat harms that were beyond his skill to mend.

The high priest turned his hard eyes upon the assembled nobles and called out to them in a voice that echoed across the large chamber, “Children of god and loyal servants of the king, the woman you see before you has been accused of a great sin. If she is innocent, the truth will set her free and the righteous anger of god will be poured out upon those who brought false charges against her. If she is guilty, then god’s justice will be done to her that the body of our lord may remain pure. The lord will not suffer the wicked to live within himself! The unholy, the rebellious, those who defile their own bodies, are as pustules festering within the body of our god. For the sake of his holiness they must be removed.” He raised his hands towards the courtiers in blessing and called out, “May you always dwell in the body of god!”

All the assembled nobles raised their glasses and called back the traditional response in one voice, “His bones are our fortress.” 

“Let the accused face the judgement of her god and king!”

The high priest turned and strode back to his seat beside two other priests, on the right side of a wide dais. Sera blinked and realized that, in her fascination at standing among these nobles, so close to the high priest, she had not even noticed the king himself. Now, with the crowd parted before her and the high priest settling into his gilded chair, Sera could not help gasping in awe at the sight before her. 

At the center of the dais, twenty meters away from her, the king of all humanity sat upon his great crystal throne. The light of the room glittered across the smooth curves of the throne, imparting the surface a liquid gleam, under which the countless facets of shattered and melted crystals embedded within the throne shone with a thousand shifting rainbows. As a child, Sera had been taught that King Sergey had captured a hundred thousand profane relics from heretics in his conquest of the wards. When the last of the heretics had been put down and the world scoured of evil, Sergey had ordered the relics piled in his new throne room and melted with holy fire to form his throne, thus proving the might of the church over the superstitions and evil magics of the heretics. Now that Sera was looking at the throne with her own eyes, it was more magnificent than any of the tales had led her to imagine. The brightness of the light reflecting off of it cast dapples of rainbow across the white robes of King Ahan, who sat upright in the throne regarding Sera with his dark eyes. His long gray hair tumbled down over his shoulders in a flowing mane that made him appear more dignified and wise than old. In his hands he held the sword of the kingdom, forged for King Sergey over two hundred years ago from the finest steel that could be found and set with the holy gem that had enabled Sergey to drive all demons beyond the Seal and lock them away forever. Appropriately, the wall behind the king was decorated with a colorful mural depicting the revelation of the true church to the first prophetess Diana and her establishment of the kingdom with the aid of god’s chosen ruler, King Sergey the Founder. 

King Ahan nodded his head.

The wardens pushed Sera forward through the parted crowd until she stood only five meters from the king. As they approached, she noticed a long table set below the dais to the king’s left. Four men and a woman, the members of the royal council, sat at the table.

“Minister of Justice, state the charges.” King Ahan intoned in his gravely voice. 

The words were not spoken loudly, but they struck Sera with such force that her knees shook and she nearly collapsed. The wardens grabbed her under the shoulders and held her upright. One clasped a knot of Sera’s hair at the back of her head and twisted so she faced the royal council.

A thin man with greying blond hair stood and lifted a sheet of thin paper from the table before him. He held the paper before his face, only inches from his nose, cleared his throat, and read aloud, “In the year of The Kingdom two hundred and fifty-three, in the eighth month, on the nineteenth day, Sera, daughter of Livia and Gerald, is accused of the heresy of witchcraft. This accusation is brought by Nigel, vicar of the fourth ward. The accuser states that on the seventeenth day of this same month he was summoned to the home of Dan and Sara to give final comfort to their daughter Anna, who had fallen ill with the bloody cough following an expedition to the perilous regions. Upon entering their chambers he witnessed the accused pierce the skin of the child with a needle and inject her with what he at first believed to be a holy tonic. When the accused saw Vicar Nigel, she attempted to conceal the needle within her tunic. The honorable vicar seized the needle and immediately determined that it was not a holy tonic, but a blasphemous relic of the pagan era, likely recovered from the perilous regions. He therefore issued an order for the accused, her victim Anna, and the parents of the child to be confined to their quarters on charges of the heresy of witchcraft.”

The Minister of Justice lowered the paper and Sera saw that his eyes were unfocused and cloudy. It would not be long before the cataracts consumed his vision. What would happen to him then, she wondered. If he were among the common people of the wards he would likely serve as a sacrifice at the next festival of giving. Did the nobles also offer their infirm to god? She could not recall seeing any brought before the priests at the festivals, but that didn’t mean that they were not sacrificed in the privacy of the temple.

King Ahan nodded his gray head and fixed Sera with an intense gaze that set her knees wobbling again. He raised the sword from its place on his knees and pointed the tip of it at her. Though his hair was gray and his skin wrinkled, the sword was steady in the king’s hand. “Let the accused come forward and kneel before holy judgement,” he growled.

The wardens released their grip on Sera’s arms. When she didn’t move, one of them gave her a shove and she stumbled towards the king, bare feet leaving faint scuffs of grime and blood on the gleaming white tiles of the deck. Sera found her balance and shuffled forward until her feet came to rest at the base of the dais. She dropped to her knees and remained still, staring at the king’s sandaled feet. As a child she had been taught that the king was responsible for judging the people according to the laws of god, but the lessons had never explained what one was supposed to do if called before the king for judgement. It was just assumed that children would learn the lessons. She winced, and nearly cried out, as the gleaming edge of the holy sword slipped down and rested under her chin. The tip of the blade pressed into her skin and she raised her head to gaze up into King Ahan’s cold eyes.

King Ahan raised the sword and laid it across his knees again, but the fingers of his right hand remained curled around the grip. When he spoke his voice was rough, but curiously kind, as if she were a naughty child and he the kind father seeking the truth of her deeds. “Are you Sera, daughter of Livia and Gerald?”

“Yes, my lord.” Sera called out. She flinched at the volume of her voice. She hadn’t intended to sound so loud and defiant.  

“You are an apprentice healer in the service of Rigel?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Did you minister to Anna, daughter of Sara and Dan, when she was ill two days past?”

“Yes, my lord. But…”

“Do you deny that the child was immediately cured of a fatal illness?”

Sera froze. Would she even be allowed to tell of the events? To explain that her master kept a small supply of hypos for his own use and that she had stolen one of these because Anna was her niece and she couldn’t sit by and do nothing as the child died as a result of her parents’ foolishness. Sera grimaced at the memory of her sister and Dan returning from the perilous regions, packs loaded with salvaged materials, smiles stretched across their faces even as their child struggled to keep up behind them, the first signs of the sickness already showing in her bright red face. They should have never taken one so young as Anna into the deep passages, but Sara had been greedy and insisted on bringing her daughter along to crawl into spaces too small for an adult to fit through.

“Do you deny it?” The king asked again, his voice hardening. 

Sera realized that she had been staring vacantly and hurried to answer, “No, my lord.”

“How is it that one such as you came to be in possession of such a powerful tonic?”

“I… found it in a basket of supplies my master bought from the scavengers and instructed me to sort.”

There was an outburst of excited whispering from courtiers as they reacted to this news. Sera glanced back at the glittering crowd, wondering if her confession had condemned her. The king glanced up in agitation, but quickly returned his gaze to Sera. She wondered if he could tell that she was lying, but she dared not admit that Rigel had many such devices and she had seen him use them before.

“Did you know that the tonic possessed the power to heal the child?”

“I hoped it would, my lord. The label on the hypo case said it was capable of healing in an emergency. I was desperate to save my niece, so I stole the hypo from my master and injected her with it.”

“You refer to the device you used as a hypo, rather than a tonic. Explain yourself.”

“That is merely what it said on the label, my lord. The words of the label were printed in the manner of our ward designations and the labels on holy tonics, not written by hand like the labels on apothecary tinctures. The instructions said to break away the plastic cover and pierce the skin with the needle, pressing the hypo hard against the skin. Master Rigel had already administered a tonic the day before to no effect, so when I found the hypo I dared to try it as a last resort.” 

The king looked to the high priests. “Does the church ever provide tonics that are labeled with the word ‘hypo?'” 

The high priest shook his head slowly from side to side, his brooding eyes never leaving Sera’s face. “No, my king. Since the founding of the holy church all healing remedies have been known as tonics.”

The king nodded and looked back to Sera. “The high priest speaks truth. If you are not a witch, child, then you are most foolish.”

Sera did not respond. She knew that the church closely regulated when, and for what purpose, the skin might be pierced. Such laws were necessary to protect the sanctity of the body, as the laws that governed housing, scavenging, and daily life, were  necessary to guard the holy body of god. She had known that it was a risk to give Anna the hypo, but her actions had been born out of desperation, not sound theology. But where could the hypo have come from if not the church? It had healed Anna, that was beyond argument. 

“Do you accuse your master of witchcraft?” The king asked. 

Sera gawked at the king for a moment before she realized that her mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut with an audible click. She knew now that she was trapped. It didn’t matter if she accused Master Rigel or not, either way the king had decided that heretical magic had been used to cure Anna and someone would be punished for it. 

The king leaned forward in his glittering throne and pointed at Sera with one long finger of his left hand. “Sera, you have already confessed to using a heretical device to cure the child of her illness. The question is no longer one of your guilt, but of whether there is still hope for the redemption of your soul. Now, tell me whether your master knew the nature of the item you stole from him.”

A new voice echoed through the hall, sharp, dripping with sarcasm, and strangely inhuman in its tenor. “That was hardly a confession of heresy, your highness. Hell, I’d call it more an indication that your predecessor’s educational reforms were successful, since this altogether average girl from the slums of the fourth ward was capable of reading the ancient instructions.”

A vaguely human shape rose up behind the throne, its shadowy outline twisted and fragmented into unnatural angles by the facets of the translucent material. Two hands reached around the right side of the throne and grasped the backrest with unnaturally long fingers, which began drumming up and down in a syncopated rhythm. A face appeared next, so pale that it might have been painted white, with a matte black assemblage of metal and wires protruding from its left eye socket and wrapping hideously around its cheekbone and ear. The face split into a wide grin, showing off a tongueless mouth full of glittering metal teeth.

“This is a solemn trial and I’ll thank you to not profane it with your blasphemes, Fool.” The king growled, turning to fix the thing’s one good eye with both of his. Sera forgot her fear of the king and scrambled backwards until she fetched up against the legs of one of the wardens, terrified of this aberrant monster leering at her from behind the throne.

“But when would be more appropriate than now?” the Fool replied. Its voice, clear and laden with contempt, resounded throughout the room though its mouth never moved. “I am a relic of the heretical age. A walking, talking blasphemy to your sacred church, saved from destruction by the founders of your nation and faith as a permanent reminder of what you have rejected. There is no time more appropriate than a trial for heresy for me to interject with a few… harmless witticisms.” The Fool let out a strange warbling sound that Sera took to be laughter, then skittered out and crouched on its fingertips and toes the foot of the throne.

Sera cowered against the legs of the wardens. If the Fool’s unnaturally long fingers and twisted face were disturbing, its body was the living embodiment of horror. The flesh of the Fool’s arms was missing in irregular patches which were burned and tattered around the edges, as if it had been burned with fire and never healed, revealing a sickening morass of wires, cables, and metal rods twisting together where its bones and sinews ought to have been. A row of dark tattoos, strange patterns of black and white squares arranged into grids of larger squares, ran down the Fool’s chest to where his false skin disappeared again into the cusp of an exposed metal pelvis packed with more wires and mechanisms. The Fool’s legs appeared to be human, except for the soles of his feet, which were worn away to reveal the metallic bones of his feet.  

“You may speak your peace at the conclusion of the trial, until then hold your tongue,” the king said icily, gripping the hilt of his sword so tightly that his knuckles grew white.

“Would that I could, your highness, but the third king of this realm cut it out, thinking to silence me. Obviously, he failed.” The Fool cackled again and did a backflip, then stood at attention beside the king’s throne. “I am, however, your loyal servant, and so I will remain silent for a time.” The monstrosity laughed its strange, close-mouthed giggle and bowed his head, then crossed his legs and dropped to the floor beside the throne. He fixed Sera with his one eye, folded his fingers together, and rested his chin on his knuckles, like an attentive child listening to the teachings of a vicar.

The king turned his gaze back upon Sera and waited in silence. After a time she realized what he expected and, bowing her head in shame, crawled back to kneel at the foot of his throne. The king nodded and said, “I ask you again. Do you accuse your master of heresy?”

“No, my lord.”

“How could he not be guilty, when you are guilty of the same crime and the instrument of your heresy was, you say, stolen from your master.”

“I did not know the hypo was an instrument of witchcraft, your majesty. I assumed that it was a sacred gift which I had not yet been taught to use, just as I was once not permitted to administer the sacred tonics.”

The Fool cackled and said, “You see, King Ahan, this girl is an innocent. She acted out of ignorance born of your…”

The king brought his fist down upon the head of the Fool, who went silent, but gave no indication that he had even felt any pain from the blow.

“I am innocent,” Sera cried. “I know that our faith teaches us to not pierce the skin except in the most dire of circumstances, but I assumed that the hypo was one of the exceptions.”

“Are you hearing this? The witch now seeks to debate theology,” cried the high priest. “The word of the faith is clear, ‘the body is a temple to god, you shall not profane it.’ This woman performed heretical acts upon a child of the faith, and now that child must be offered to god at the next festival of giving, before we even know what service she might have performed in god’s name.”

“No!” Sera screamed. “You can’t sacrifice Anna, she is so young. The tonic healed her!”

“She is forever tainted by your heresy, witch. God called her to be a sacrifice. Her hair fell from her head, her lungs gave forth blood, her eyes streaked with red. Such are the signs of one called to be a holy sacrifice during their service in the perilous regions. If she had been healed by a holy tonic or prayer, then we would know that god chose her for a life of service, but she was not.” The priest leaned forward in his chair and placed one hand upon the sacred bone that hung from a cord around his neck. He pointed a trembling finger at Sera and cried out, “You attempted to steal god’s chosen sacrifice through witchcraft, but have failed. The only question that remains is whether you will join her as a holy offering, or face holy justice in the public square.”

The two other priests leaned forward, clearly agitated by their brother’s outburst, and one and placed his hand upon the shoulder of the impassioned holy man. He brushed the hand off and glared bitterly at Sera, who cowered down to the deck. All the tales she had heard of demons reduced to ash by the righteous light of god flooded back into her mind. After a moment the priest wiped his mouth with the back of one hand and fell heavily back against his chair, but his eyes never left Sera’s face and his lips remained fixed in a hard line.

Sera’s mouth worked soundlessly, trying to say words that her strangled throat would not form. Her eyes cast about the room, searching for someone who would meet her gaze, but nobody would make eye contact with her, except for the furious priest and the abominable Fool.

“What? You thought you could change little Anna’s fate?” the Fool said, tilting his head to the side. A vicious imitation of a tongue tisking in disapproval emanated from his empty mouth. “It seems I am not the greatest fool of all here today.”

King Ahan laughed raucously and bent down to pat the Fool on the head. After a moment the others joined in and laughed as well. Soon everyone in the chamber was laughing, save for Sera. Even the priest who had condemned her laughed bitterly as he glared at her.

“Not the greatest fool in here at all,” the Fool said again, his synthetic voice barely audible above the laughter echoing all around. She hated him for making a mockery of her, and of little Anna’s fate, but for just a second a faint red light blinked on and off in the metallic mass that had taken over half of the Fool’s face, and Sera could have sworn he was winking at her.

The laughter died down. King Ahan wiped his eyes and nose on cuff of his left sleeve and squared his shoulders. He looked at Sera and all merriment drained from his face. “Sera, daughter of Livia and Gerald, you are hereby found guilty of the heretical crime of witchcraft. These charges were brought by a vicar of the faith and have been affirmed by your sovereign king, thus you are found guilty in the eyes of god and mankind.”

Sera moaned and bent her head to the floor as the enormity of her fate fell upon her. She had only wanted to save Anna from a fatal illness which she should never have contracted in the first place. The deck panels were cold and hard beneath Sera’s knees as she knelt, openly weeping and raising her arms to the king as she pleaded incoherently for mercy.

“I hereby excommunicate you and sentence you to a slow, public death, as is the fate of all heretics. You may have two days to contemplate your fate before the sentence is carried out. If you know of other heretics and can give evidence of their crimes your sentence will be commuted until their trials have passed, at which time you will be executed quickly and your body will be returned to god.”

The words of the sentence washed over Sera, but she barely heard them. Tears blinded her and she was deafened by her own pleas for mercy as the wardens dragged her from the chamber, through the halls, and down into the dungeons below the palace.

CHAPTER TWO

have you ever been set on fire? _Captain

Imagine you are looking at a field of stars, each one a fleck of burning gemstone against the black velvet of space. Now, squint your eyes and try not to be sick as your vision pulls in on two of those points of light, the others swirling around and passing by you in a blur until, at last, you are looking at a single point between two of those stars. There, drifting along an invisible path, two-thirds of the way between those two burning spheres, is a single oasis of life. A kilometer long from the tip of its curving ice shield to the ragged scar of twisted metal at the rear, glittering along the length with spots of light. Four cylindrical segments protrude from the core, striped along the side of the ship at even intervals, like the backs of burrowed serpents peeking above the sands of a desert. Three of them gleam with lights as they turn slowly in place, revealing changing patterns of light like the spikes on the drum of a music box, while the fourth rests still and dark in its hollow.

Now turn your attention to the rear of the ship, where the metal skin has blistered and charred, and the inner structure pealed up and out in a twisted, agonized mass of melted steel. Clearly, something has gone horribly wrong here.

Now, tell me: Have you ever been set on fire? 

The experience is an exquisite symphony of agony. There is the heat, of course, but that’s only the beginning. If you’ve ever burned your skin bad enough for it to blister, you understand the simple, direct pain of the heat. But that is only the beginning. The true suffering comes after the initial blast of heat, when the crust of charred skin begins grating against the inflamed flesh beneath, as deep within you the regular, living pulse of air and fluids transforms into a drumbeat of agony as every breath, each heartbeat strains against the inflamed flesh. Fluids begin to leak into places they ought not. Charred flesh and brittle bone begin to flake away and, while you are horrified at the sight of your own body breaking up in front of your eyes, each fracture is a small mercy as it cuts off the nerves and you can no longer feel the pain. Eventually the pain grows so intense that the mind breaks away from it, disowning the fragile body which has failed to protect it. 

I sometimes wonder if it would have been better for me to die in that infinite night when my body set itself afire, leaving me to blaze through the heavens like a suicidal comet. But it is pointless to dwell upon the past. The present holds enough pain as it is.

When that first, agonizing wave of pain hit me, I panicked. My mind shut down like a computer struck by lightning. Ironic, that, seeing as the entire purpose of my existence was to prevent the systemic failure of an expert system, which was predicted to be the result of any number of unanticipated situations. The engineers who designed me believed that only the inherent flexibility of the human mind could provide the balance that such a massive, complex system needed. Instead, it was I who collapsed under the strain of the pain signals flooding my brain and, in the end, it was the autonomic expert systems that kept me, and my children, alive while my conscious mind went into something like a coma.

By the time I emerged from that coma, coaxed gently back to life by those same mindless automata, everything had changed.

CHAPTER THREE

you must accept this _Sera

Sera was still crying when she woke. She did not know how long she had slept. It could have been mere minutes, or hours, or even days. In the darkness of the prison cell she had no way to tell time but the beating of her heart, which was racing so quickly that she feared it would burst from her chest. Her shirt was soaked through, though whether it was from her tears, sweat, or blood she could not say, and it clung to her body in heavy, awkward folds. The air was hot, stale, and redolent of unwashed bodies. She lay on her side, pressing her face into the hard tiles of the deck and wishing that she could push herself into the floor and become part of the world. 

That was almost the worst part of it all, she decided: that she was no longer a part of anything. For her entire life Sera had served some purpose. First she had been the daughter of loving parents, who raised her to respect the king and honor god with her body and deeds. She had worked hard to help them with their work in the protein farm from her earliest memories until the day she was apprenticed to Rigel. Then, as the apprentice of a skilled healer, she learned the secret arts of tending to the ill, including when it was appropriate to pierce the skin to set a compound fracture, or lance an infection, or stitch a laceration. Throughout her whole life Sera had been a faithful citizen of the Kingdom of Humanity, laboring under the guidance of the one true faith to better to lives of those who worshipped the true god, in whom they all lived. Now all of that had been stripped away. She was excommunicated. Nothing but a condemned heretic. If she didn’t testify against master Rigel then she would be executed and her body cast away, never to be offered to god so that she might return to him and become a part of the people. 

That thought brought with it a fresh wave of tears. Sacrifice. How Sera longed to be allowed to offer herself as a sacrifice to god now that the option had been taken from her. For so many years she had questioned her faith, confessing her doubts to the priests and taking little solace in their assurances that she served god by caring for the sick, and that true faith would come with age as she settled into her position within the kingdom. Now that would never happen. Instead her niece Anna would be sacrificed, despite all that Sera had given up to heal her, and Sera would be executed as a heretic. 

Sera sat up and wiped way the viscous liquid, likely a vile combination of sweat, blood, tears, and snot, from her face with the wet hem of her shirt. She sat still for a moment, trying to control her breathing and quell the sobs that still surged to the surface by counting her breaths. She lost count somewhere after five hundred and gave up, satisfied that she had at least stopped wailing. 

She bent over until she rested on her hands and knees and began to crawl, sliding each hand forward and pausing as she rested her weight on the hand, half expecting to brush against a sharp edge or put her hand down into a deep hole. The king had sentenced her to death following two days of solitary contemplation, but she couldn’t help fearing that she would be killed before that time. Though the king was adored, at least in public, throughout the world, Sera had heard the rumors of secret dungeons filled with traps and unspeakable horrors. Seeing the Fool at the trial had only given credence to such tales. Sera continued to slide forward across the hard decking until her head bumped into a solid surface. Slipping her hand forwards, Sera found where the surface met the floor and felt along it as far as she could. Standing, she discovered that she had reached a wall.

Sera leaned against the wall and felt at her pockets. They were empty. That was no surprise. She moved her hands up to her head and found that her hair was still tied back with the short ribbon of woven plastic that her mother had given her. The dark of the room was so absolute that she could not see the ribbon, even when she held it up only and inch before her eyes, but she knew that it was a pale yellow checkered with a violently bright green. Sera crouched down to the floor again and set the ribbon on the floor beside her, up against the wall, and began to shuffle to the right, keeping her left shoulder pressed to the wall at all times. 

In this way she moved around the perimeter of the room, getting a feeling for the shape and size of it. It could not have taken her more than two minutes to complete her circuit of the chamber and return to the place where her ribbon lay on the floor, but the journey seemed to take an eternity of ragged breaths and rapid heartbeats. She picked up the ribbon, did her best to pull her black hair into some order, and tied the ribbon around her hair at the nape of her neck. In one corner, Sera had found a set of buttons that reminded her of the controls to the public toilets in her home ward. She crawled there again and pressed the buttons until a toilet folded out of the wall with a soft hiss and click. She made use of it, then fumbled in the dark to find the button that would flush the bowl and hide the toilet away again. Pressing it, she listened as it slid back into the wall and gurgled with the liquid sounds of the device cleansing itself behind the wall panel. Continuing around the room she found the bed, which had an integrated foam mattress that smelled of sweat and worse things. There was no blanket.

A bed and a toilet in a square room about twice as long as she was tall. This was to be the entirety of her world for the last two days of her life. 

Resigned that she had explored the limits of her cell, Sera collapsed onto the soft sponge of the mattress. Laying stretched out on it she felt exposed and vulnerable to unknowable presences in the dark, so she crawled across the mattress to the corner where two walls of her cell met and huddled there, hugging her knees to her chest. 

Two days in this place, Sera thought. I’ve already explored the whole chamber. I can’t see anything. I can’t hear anything but my own breath and the cleaning cycle of the toilet. This really is the perfect place to make people sit and contemplate their actions before death. 

Sera had grown up accustomed to small places. Her whole life had been spent in the Kingdom of Humanity, with its kilometers of twisting tunnels winding through the wards, each one a ring centered upon the kilometer long Spine, but rarely had she been trapped in a space so small as this. Most people of the kingdom lived in quarters about three times the size of the cell Sera lay in now and worked in larger chambers, as much as twenty meters to a side, or in the open air of the Spine, with its sprawling markets and wide parks lit by the bright strip of the sun. There, children could run across curving fields of grass and grains, climb through the twisted branches of the trees in the parks, and generally revel in the fresh air that was so abundant in that place, and in such scarce supply in the lower corridors of the wards. After a long day spent tending to the sick in the deepest reaches of the fourth ward, Sera could always look forward to climbing to the Spine with a shopping list from Rigel and wandering through the open stalls of the market, where merchants sold craft goods, foodstuffs, and, for those who could afford them, the exotic spices that were scavenged from the food stores in the deep passages.

The key difference between the cell in which Sera now sat and the tight hallways and chambers of the rest of the kingdom was light. Everywhere in the common spaces of the kingdom there was light, glowing softly from panels set into the ceiling and strips running along the floor. The only place where no light was to be found was in the dark, battered, deathly corridors of the deep passages.

That thought set Sera’s heart aflutter and gripped her chest with fear. What if that’s where I am? Could they have taken me to the depths and locked me in some secret dungeon?

No, she decided. The king had said that she was to be left to contemplate her crimes for two days, then return to court for execution. They would never go to the effort of delivering her to the deep passages, only to return her to the palace after two days. Nobody went to those places but the scavengers. Not even the wardens went there. And even the most experienced scavengers disappeared at times, or came back coughing up blood and losing their hair in handfuls. 

Sera heard footsteps clanging against decking from the far corner of the room. Then a single musical tone sounded. She pressed herself deeper into the corner, pulling her legs up as tight as she could, wishing she could slip through the wall and escape this cell. The sound came again, a soft musical tone, followed by another, and another. There was a loud thump, followed by the hiss of a sealed door opening, and Sera was blinded by light. 

She cried out and pressed her palms against her eyes. She had begun to wonder if the darkness pressing against her was actually blindness, but now the bright light seeped around her hands and convinced Sera that she could, in fact, still see. She heard feet padding across the deck, followed by a repeated thud and hiss. The bright light disappeared and her eyes no longer hurt. 

Sera dropped her hands and looked up into the face of a demon, glowing horribly in red light. A band of black metal encased the left half of the monster’s head, joined to the face by a spray of wires that burrowed into the eye socket. Sera screamed and scrabbled back into the joint of the walls until she was standing, feet and hands pressed flat against the walls as she drove her body into the corner. If only she could push hard enough, something told her, she could slip through the walls and escape the abomination that stood before her.

The Fool grinned and twirled its left hand in a courtly wave as it bent over its right arm in a mocking bow. He looked up at her, still bent at the waist, and spoke in a soft voice that was entirely different from the mocking tone he had used in the court. “Good evening, my dear Sera. Please stop screaming. It would not do for the guards to awake and find us together.”

Sera let out one last gasp, then choked on a sob and fell on the bed gasping for air.

The Fool stood upright and sighed deeply. “There is not much time, my dear child. I know that you find my appearance revolting, indeed very existence must offend you, but you must overcome that and listen to what I have to say.” 

He approached the bed and reached out with one mutilated arm and slipped a finger, nearly twice as long as any finger Sera had seen before, under her chin. The finger tweaked upwards gently, though Sera felt a sense of immense strength being held under control, guiding Sera’s chin until their eyes met. The red glow that illuminated them both came from a small light embedded in the metallic mass grafted to the left side of his head.

“I promise, I am not here to harm you.”

Sera tore her eyes from the blasphemous implant and looked at the right half of the Fool’s face. The human side of his face bore a look of such deep concern, surrounding an eye of such intensely sad blue, that Sera could not help letting her fears slip away. Then her eyes wandered back to the horrible tumor of electronics melded into the left side of the Fool’s face and she winced in fear.

“You may touch it, if that will help.” 

 Sera blinked in surprise and looked back to the human eye. If this man is a liar, he is the greatest of all, she thought as she gazed into the depths of sadness in that blue eye. She nodded slightly, then reached up with her right hand to stroke the curve of black metal protruding from the Fool’s eye and wrapping around to the center of his skull at the rear of his head. The metal was smooth and cool to her touch, studded along the side with faintly glinting protrusions. She covered the red light with one finger and they were in darkness again, except for the faint glow shining through her fingertip and seeming to pulse with the rhythm of her heartbeat.

“It’s a rather crude augmentation,” the Fool said, his voice wistful. “I was an early volunteer for service and we all had such limited resources, so even the most advanced implants required some external component. I imagine that some improvements have been made in the last two centuries.” 

He let out another sigh. Unlike his words, which seemed to come from his mouth without any expenditure of breath, the Fool’s sighs were real and deep, pushed out from voluminous lungs with a depth of feeling Sera had rarely observed.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. 

“And I don’t have time to explain.”

“Are you here to kill me?”

“Of course not.”

“Gloat about making everyone laugh at me in the court?”

“No.”

“I… I don’t know what to think.”

“I wish I could tell you that this will get easier, but right now you have two options and neither of them is especially pleasant.”

The Fool settled onto the bed beside Sera. He moved quietly and with an athletic grace that Sera had rarely seen, but it was clear from the dent he made in the foam mattress and the creak of the metal bed frame that the Fool weighed significantly more than the average man of his size.

“You need to make a decision now, Sera. I cannot explain everything, you simply would not understand, but I believe that fate has brought you to me. If you stay here, you will be executed in less than two days, no matter what. If you refuse to testify against your master you won’t even have the privilege of being fed to the recompiler. The king will order the priests to chain you up in the Spine near the entrance to the fourth ward and everyone who enters the marketplace will watch as you slowly die over the course of many days. After you die, your body will remain in the market to rot away as a reminder of what happens to heretics. Only when there is nothing left of you but dry skin and bones will they take your desiccated remains into the deep passages, put them in an airlock, and eject them.”

Sera shivered and wrapped her arms around her body. She wanted to protest, to tell the Fool that he was wrong and nobody would ever suffer such a horrific fate, but she had seen it done once before when she was a young child. A man had spoken out against the priests at the festival of giving when they demanded an additional sacrifice. It had taken three days for him to die, and then the market had reeked with the smell of his body until well after the next festival. 

“I can see you know that I speak the truth,” the Fool said. 

“I could testify against master Rigel,” Sera said, trying to project a defiant attitude, even as the words felt bitter and hollow in her mouth. She would never turn against him. 

The Fool nodded slowly, briefly turning away from Sera so she cold see only the inhuman side of his skull. She had the feeling that he had already weighed her words and found them lacking conviction, and was only pausing to give her time to think. He turned back and said, “You may, of course, do that. Then you will die quickly and be fed to your god, and it will be Rigel who befouls the marketplace with his rotting corpse.”

Sera knew that the Fool’s words were true. She wanted desperately to explain that she would never betray master Rigel, that she had already lied about where she found the hypo to protect her old teacher, but a fear of betrayal held her back. It struck her in that instant that she was starting to trust the Fool, this abomination of flesh and machine, despite his innate evil and long standing as a servant of the kings. 

How do I know that I can trust him? Sera wondered. For all I know this… thing is only here to draw me into a trap, or to corrupt my soul with sympathy for his unnatural form.  

“I will not name master Rigel a heretic,” she said aloud. 

The Fool nodded solemnly. After a moment of silence he said, “There is a third option.”

“What is that?” Sera asked, not daring to hope.

The Fool turned to her again and said, “You can go quietly to your brutal death, or you can allow me to help you.” 

Sera choked back the bile that rose in her throat at the thought of what the priests would do to her. Though many years had passed, she still could recall the sickening stench of decay that filled the market for weeks as the heretic’s body hung slack from the ropes, the foul juices of its decay running down the side of the platform and across the deck. Such would be her fate if she stayed here, that was the law. Each month the priests stood before the gates of the temple and read aloud from the Book of Life, “Whoever turns from me, I shall blot them out from the cycle of life. Whoever worships me with their body and soul will be returned to the people after death, that they may live forever in the body of god and humanity.”

Sera felt as if a part of her soul broke in that moment. A crack in the perfect vessel of her faith that had sustained her throughout the childhood years of hard labor in the protein farm chambers, through the physical and emotional strains of her training as a healer, and even throughout her trial for heresy. Through it all she had been certain, deep in the core of her being, that god would carry her through the trial and keep her safe until she was returned to it. Now that certainty began to waver as the cold waters of doubt found a crack and began to drip into her soul.

Sera cried then. Not for the injustice of her trial, or for the fate of Anna, or even for the cruelty of her fate, but for the faith within her that had just felt the first cold shock of doubt.

The Fool waited beside Sera as she sobbed into her hands, saying nothing, not moving. The only sign of life was the slight rise and fall of his bare chest as he breathed. It took nearly five minutes, but eventually Sera stopped crying and looked over at the Fool through eyes blurred by tears. She was still shocked by his unnatural modifications, but somehow his very existence no longer offended her sensibilities. The crack in her conviction was still fresh and hurt like a knife twisting through her gut, but she could already feel it widening and opening her eyes to new possibilities. If someone like her, a good person who loyally served others for her whole life, could be sentenced to such a terrible fate for saving the life of a child, then how could she depend on anything the priests had told her?

“Are you finished?” the Fool asked.

Sera nodded and wiped her face with a sleeve still damp with tears and sweat.

“What is your decision?”

 “Tell me what you have to offer.”

The Fool turned to face Sera and held out his hands, with their extraordinarily long fingers, to her palms up. She hesitated, then took a deep breath and placed her hands in his. He gave her hands a gentle squeeze and smiled, then gripped her hands tightly and leaned in close to speak to her. “Sera, if you follow my instructions you will escape from this place with your life. I will not lie, the journey is treacherous and your destination holds its own dangers, but there is a good chance you will find safety.”

“Where can you send me that I might have even a hope of safety? The Kingdom isn’t that large. You’re not going to send me to the deep passages are you?”

“No, child. Now listen carefully: The Kingdom and the deep passages are not all that exist in this little world we have been given. There is another place.”

Sera gasped and tried to pull back, but the Fool held her hands tight. She cried out, her voice cracking with fear, “No! You can’t send me there.”

“Where do you think I mean to send you?”

“There is nothing but the Kingdom, the deep passages, and hell.”

“And what is hell? What do the priests tell you?”

“Hell is the place where all of the aberrations were sent when King Sergey drove them out of the Kingdom. It is a terrible place where the monsters eternally hunger for the flesh of pure humankind.”

The Fool chuckled and held Sera’s right hand up to the device sprouting from the side of his head. “All the aberrations, except one. Right?”

“Well…”

“Am I so terrible?”

“I don’t know. How do I know you aren’t plotting to feed me to the other aberrations?”

The Fool dropped Sera’s hands and stood. “If you refuse to trust me, then you can stay here and await your death.”

“No! I don’t want to die. Please, just tell me what I need to do.”

In answer, the Fool turned to the wall beside the toilet unit and placed his hand against the wall. Sera heard a low thrumming noise, then the Fool removed his hand from the wall and said, “There is a passage behind this wall. If you enter it and follow my directions you will find your way to… to another part of this world.”

“That’s all?”

“Of course not. I need you to carry a message for me.”

“Who is it to?”

“Anyone outside the Kingdom. It doesn’t really matter who gets the message, as long as someone out there knows.”

“What about my family? What will happen to them if I go?”

The Fool stepped up to Sera and placed one hand on her shoulder. “Your family is lost to you. By now they know of your conviction and have already begun to grieve. Think about little Anna, Sera. The only hope for her is if you deliver my message.”

“How? She is to be sacrificed.”

“If my message is delivered, she might be saved.”

Sera looked into the Fool’s human eye and saw no sign of deceit. She didn’t know what had motivated him to choose her, but that was irrelevant now. She was dead to this world and if carrying the Fool’s message would give her, and those she cared for, a chance to live, then she would do it.

“How?”

“I cannot tell you. You must trust me.”

She swallowed hard, then nodded.

The Fool released Sera’s shoulder and held up his other hand. In it rested a small crystal cube secured to a woven band. “Put this around your neck. When you reach the end of your journey, give it to anyone you meet and tell them it is a message from the Kingdom to the captain.”

“Anyone?”

“Anyone. They will either deliver it or look at it themselves. Either way, the message will have an effect.”

Sera nodded and took the necklace from the Fool’s hand. She put it around her neck and ran her fingers along the sides of the cube. It was perfectly smooth and seemed colder than the air around her.

The Fool reached up to his human eye and ran his finger across the surface. It came away with a thin, translucent bowl perched atop his fingernail. He held it up between them.

“You must accept this,” he said.

Sera hesitated and flinched away, unsure what the Fool intended, but then she took a deep breath and nodded. I am already damned. How can it get any worse?

“Hold your left eyelid open.”

Sera did as she was instructed, pulling her eyelid up with one finger as she pressed down on her cheek with another. The Fool reached forward and pressed the translucent dome gently into her eye with a single fingertip. Her vision immediately blurred and her eye began to sting.

“It will take just a moment to adjust. You may be uncomfortable for a few hours, but you will be able to see. Don’t rub at it.”

“What is it?” Sera asked, forcing herself to not rub her left eye as she blinked furiously in an effort to clear her vision. The stinging was already fading, but her vision was still blurry and she had the impression of strange colors dancing in front of her left eye. She felt off balance from the difference in focus between her eyes.

The Fool smiled and replied, “You wouldn’t understand. Just know that it will guide you to safety. I have already given it instructions, so all you need to do is follow the arrows. Do you see them yet?”

Sera blinked again and her left eye swam into focus. A line of faint blue arrows seemed to overlay her vision, pointing towards the wall beside the toilet panel, on which now appeared the outline of a door sketched in yellow. 

“I can see. This is powerful magic. Are you sure that it is…” Sera paused, then laughed softly to herself and shook her head. The blue arrows moved in her vision as she did, as if they were painted on the floor. She had been about to ask if the magic was approved by the priests or heretical, but then she remembered where she was and knew the questions was foolish. 

The Fool stepped over to the wall beside the toilet and pressed his fingers against the wall. In Sera’s augmented vision the glowing yellow square on the wall flashed green, then a section of the wall slid away to reveal a narrow closet dimly lit with red light that revealed a tangle of wires and tubes connected to the toilet unit, and the rungs of a ladder leading upwards.

Sera slipped off the bed and approached the closet as the Fool stepped away. She stepped into the space and tilted her head back. The ladder stretched upwards for about three meters, then ended at the lip of a narrow passage that led away into the darkness. The blue arrows overlaid on her vision followed the ladder, appearing to hover in the air above her head.

She turned to the Fool and said simply, “Thank you.”

The Fool nodded and replied, “Follow the path and see my message safe to the other side. Then do as you will with your life.”

He stretched out his left hand and pressed it against the wall beside the door. Sera heard a soft tone sound, then the panel slid down over the opening with a barely audible hiss, leaving her alone in the tight space.

CHAPTER FOUR

autonomic systems _Captain

I have been a god for about two hundred years now. You’d think that is the sort of thing that one would remember, becoming a god, but the simple fact is that people started to worship me while I was still in my coma.

Much happened in the days after I was burned. As my mind slowly healed in the safety of unconsciousness, the automatic systems throughout my body remained active, keeping the majority of my children alive for me. Meanwhile, my children did their best to cope with their situation. They worked hard to repair my body and maintain a livable atmosphere. They contained the radiation, patched the hull, and lived on tight rations for weeks until the recompilers were brought back to full working order. Without their labors I might have never recovered and the rest of my children would have died as certainly as an ant colony collapses without the workers.

Somewhere though, there was a breakdown in cooperation. I like to think of it an autoimmune disorder. As I lay unconscious, completely unaware of the autonomic systems that would decide my fate, parts of my body began to rebel against one another. The white blood cells that had worked so hard to purge the infection from me began to attack other parts of my body. They struck first against my heart, attacking the cells that pumped the blood of life throughout my father’s…

I’m sorry. I got lost for a moment there. 

It happens at times, when I try to recall or form conjecture based on events too close to the explosion that nearly killed me. If I had a therapist they would probably call it a coping mechanism. In fact, now that I think of it, there was a member of the crew who was supposed to serve as my therapist. No, that’s wrong. It was a team. A whole group of psychiatrists, cognitive theorists, and mind/machine interface engineers dedicated to ensuring that I continued to operate properly. 

It’s not an easy thing to connect a human mind to a machine with full sensory input. Visual stimulation isn’t hard. Auditory input is even easier. People were experimenting with all of that fifty years before I was created. No, the hard part is convincing a human mind to accept a mechanical…

That’s not what I was supposed to be explaining to you. 

What was it?

Oh, yes. I remember now. I was telling you how I became a god.

It all started while I was in a coma after the explosion that tore me apart. My children, that is, the crew of the ship, could not agree on what to do after they recovered from the initial emergency. They had sufficient resources to live on indefinitely, but the question was not one of physical survival, but how to best prepare their minds for the lengthy prison term that had just been handed to them by the universe.

I wasn’t awake then, so I can’t tell you exactly how the arguments proceeded, but from what I have pieced together the crew essentially broke down in to five factions. One of those groups broke away from all the others and, after a brief conflict that resulted in dozens of deaths and a reactor malfunction that contaminated nearly a third of the living space in the contested shaft, they sealed themselves away from the rest of the ship. 

Then they began to worship me.

CHAPTER FIVE

blue arrows _Sera

Sera climbed the ladder, following the path of glowing blue arrows etched into her vision. Her bare feet, long accustomed to carrying her across the hard decking of the wards and corridors, gripped the ladder rungs beneath her as she moved quickly up to the top of the ladder, where the blue arrows turned mid-air, guiding her to step off into a narrow passage. 

The passage extended into the distance as far as Sera could see on either side, curving gently upward until the floor appeared to disappear into the ceiling. The walls of the passage were covered in a grid of narrow metal rods, which held back a bewildering assortment of tubes and cables in different colors. The only light emanated from a narrow stripe set into the ceiling of the passage, less than half a meter above Sera’s head, which glowed a soft yellowish white. The light was just bright enough to cast shadows among the nests of equipment on either side of the narrow walkway. The blue arrows overlaid on her vision seemed to hover in the air about three centimeters above the floor, guiding her to turn right and follow the passage into the unknown, but not actually illuminating the floor beneath them.

Sera breathed deeply, tasting the air. She couldn’t taste, or smell, anything of the sickly sweet scent of sweat, melted plastics, and decay that permeated the wards. Here, in this bare space between the walls, the air tasted only faintly of plastics and smelled of, well, nothing. It was disturbing to Sera. She wondered briefly if she would have preferred the heavy odor of the marketplace and Spine, even with the reek of a recently executed heretic thick in the air, to this barren sterility. 

She shook off such thoughts. She was now gone from the Kingdom, or on her way to being so. 

Sera took another deep breath of the frighteningly sterile air and moved forward, following the arrows. She moved slowly at first, stepping hesitantly as if her feet didn’t believe that the floor would remain solid beneath her, then striding along between the racks of equipment with growing confidence. She passed several shafts like the one she had taken to reach this passage, pausing at the first to look down and discover that it also lead to a ladder that descended into a small cubby illuminated only by the faint white glow of symbols etched into the wall. When she turned from the path the arrows shifted beneath her feet, pointing back the way she had come, and a faintly pulsing red octagon appeared in the center of her vision. She turned back and continued to follow the trail laid out before her. As Sera moved along the passage, the illumination strip on the ceiling ahead of her appeared to flicker to life just after it appeared around the curve ahead. Looking back, Sera realized that the strips behind her were winking out just as they disappeared into the curve of the passage. 

Eventually she came to an intersection where the passage she had followed continued ahead and another bisected it, leading off to the left and right. The blue arrows stopped in the middle. Sera stood at the center of the intersection, looking around for any indication of where she should go now. In every direction the tunnels stretched into the distance, indistinguishable except for strings of symbols painted onto the floor of each tunnel just beyond the intersection. 

“S3-L5-R2ac,” she read aloud, looking at the symbols written on the floor of the passage she had arrived from. Sera knew how to read, but the strings of symbols seemed more closely related to the markings that designated ward addresses rather than actual words. The intersecting passage to the right was marked “S3-L5-A4f” and the one to the left was similarly labeled “S3-L5-A4r.” Both appeared identical to the one she had been traveling along, except that they vanished into darkness about thirty meters ahead without any apparent curve. 

After turning around three times to examine each of the passages, Sera wasn’t even sure which of the tunnels she had come from. She knew it was one of the “R2” passages, but had it been “R2a” or “R2ac”? She began to panic, fearing that the Fool had lied to her after all. What if this was not a hidden path to freedom, but a devious maze built to confound the minds of heretics? 

Sera could feel panic rising in her throat, threatening to strangle her rapid breaths and churn her empty stomach, when a faint yellow pulse flashed in her corner of her vision. She turned towards it, half expecting to see a warden or some horror from the priests’ stories, and saw a small panel attached to the wall between two of the corridors, jutting out between coils of green and red wires. A soft yellow glow outlined the panel and, as she watched, a second square outline of yellow light pulsed at the edges of her vision and shrank down to surround the panel. 

It’s guiding me, she thought, with sudden surprise. The thing that he put in my eye isn’t just showing me where to go, it’s trying to tell me what to do.

Sera reached out and touched the blank white surface of the square panel. It pulsed softly and emitted a low tone, then displayed four simple symbols, each glowing a soft blue or red, on its surface. She started back in surprise. She had never seen an image that moved before, but this day had already been so filled with wonders that she was prepared to accept this too. The yellow square overlaid on Sera’s vision shifted to surround a blue symbol that looked like an arrow pointing upwards into a circle. Sera pressed her finger against the image, then pulled it back in surprise as the symbol pulsed a brighter blue. 

A soft hiss sounded from the tunnel behind Sera. She spun to see that a hole had opened in the ceiling of the intersection and a ladder was lowering down to rest its silver legs on the floor of the passage. As the ladder came to rest the blue arrows returned to Sera’s vision, pointing upwards for her to climb this ladder. 

She turned back to the panel in the wall. The symbol of the arrow pointing upwards was glowing a bright blue, though as she looked at it a sliver of pale blue appeared at the top of the symbol and began edging downwards, wiping away the brighter blue as it advanced. She stood there, mesmerized by the sight of the glowing symbol as it slowly transformed before her eyes. The paler blue washed across the symbol until, with a brief flash of white, the symbol dimmed to its original appearance. The soft hissing sound came again and, glancing over her shoulder, Sera saw the ladder retreat back into the ceiling and the hole iris closed. The blue arrows overlaid on her vision disappeared and were replaced once again by the flashing yellow box surrounding the image on the panel.

Sera pressed her finger against the symbol again and waited for the ladder to descend, then followed the blue arrows up the ladder and into another narrow passage. This one was also lined with tight bundles of wire and tubing, illuminated only by dim light from a stripe in the ceiling, but as she stepped away from the ladder Sera noticed that the symbols painted onto the floor of each passage were different. The arrows appeared, prompting her to start down the passage labeled “S3-L4-A4r”. The hissing sound came again and Sera glanced down to see the hole she had climbed up through irising closed beside her. 

Sera followed the blue arrows down the passage, growing increasingly confident that the Fool had actually provided her a means of escape. He had told her that the journey would be dangerous, but thus far she had encountered only strange and wondrous things. Perhaps he meant only the danger of falling down all of these ladders, Sera thought as she moved quickly down the tight corridor.

It wasn’t long before she realized that was only the smallest of the dangers she would face.

She continued to follow the passages for a long time. It could have been an hour, or two, or more. It was difficult to tell time in that place. Not long after ascending the first ladder she passed through a place where the air was foul with the stench of human waste and saw, glancing down a side corridor, a pool of brown liquid spread across the floor from a break in one of the pipes along the wall. Sera hurried past the intersection, breathing in short gasps and holding the sweat soaked collar of her shirt over her nose and mouth, grateful that the blue arrows ghosting out before her did not lead down that passage.

Further along the air and decking began to grow gradually colder, until her bare feet burned with cold each time she took a step and her breath came out in blasts of white haze. She stepped quickly, praying that the cold would pass and she would come to the end of her journey. In the moment of most intense cold, Sera saw that the pipes and wires lining the left side of the passage were covered in a thick layer of ice, over which flowed a bright orange liquid. The liquid dripped out of a pipe near the top of the passage and slithered down across the icy wires and shattered pipes to pool on the floor. She hurried along, pressing her body against the caged pipes on the right side of the passage to keep as far from the mysterious orange liquid as possible. The cold was so intense that she was unable to draw a full breath as the chill air froze her lungs with each inhalation. As soon as she passed the puddle of orange liquid, Sera began to run, desperately hoping that she would leave the cold behind before her aching lungs seized and left her choking and breathless on the floor. 

Warmth slowly returned as Sera ran, and she was soon able to breathe normally again, but the condition of the pipes and wires surrounding her continued to deteriorate as she traveled onward. In some places the wires had frayed, leaving the air filled with the acrid stench of burning as bright sparks sizzled and arced across the broken gaps. In one place water filled the passage, initially shallow but deepening to fill half the passage, forcing Sera to cling to the cages along the side wall and pull herself along through the stagnant liquid. 

Through all of it, the blue arrows pointed her onwards, sometimes guiding her to climb up or down a ladder, at other times sending her left or right along side corridors. She soon realized that all of the passages ending in “A” and a number ran straight, while those which were labeled with an “R” curved. The other letters in the passage labels all remained the same, though the numbers which followed each “L” rose and fell depending on whether she was climbing up or down a ladder.

It was while she passed through the water, her fingers clinging to the grid of supports, half her body immersed in the warm, stagnant liquid, that Sera was struck by the realization that she was not shocked at the presence of this strange place. She pondered that revelation for a few moments, allowing the consideration of it to distract her from the thick layer of slime covering the submerged wires, which her toes repeatedly brushed against despite her efforts. She supposed that the lack of surprise stemmed from her knowledge that that the world in which she had grown up was surrounded on all sides by unknown horrors. One need only step beyond the markets clinging to the curved walls of Spine Park to see the great seals at the north and south ends of the kingdom. The royal guard maintained a constant vigil at the seals, ensuring that nobody tampered with the sacred mechanisms that held the vast round portal shut, preventing the demons beyond from pouring into the kingdom. And every child who grew up within the kingdom knew the dangers of the deep passages, which twisted below each of the wards, like an infection spreading beneath the skin. In some places, especially at the southern end of the kingdom, the deep passages reached nearly to the Spine itself. Sera had never dared to explore the twisting hallways of that place, but she had helped master Rigel treat some who had dared to explore too deeply into those accursed passageways and returned with strange wounds and stories of others who did not survive the journey.

That thought reminded Sera of Anna, who had returned from an expedition to the deep passages with the strange illness that marked her for sacrifice. 

Some time later Sera was moving down a passage, thankfully clear of obstructions, when she heard a voice echoing down the hall. Sera froze, listening intently. The voice had stopped speaking, but a new voice sounded in its place. After a moment, she moved slowly forward, stepping carefully so the slap of her feet along the floor would not be heard. She came to another place where the passage split in four directions, but this time she ignored the blue arrows and listened at each of the passages until she thought she could tell which the voice was coming from. Ignoring the pulsing blue arrows, which prompted Sera to continue straight ahead, she turned left and followed the echoing sound of the voice as it grew louder. With each step the red octagon pulsed at the center of her vision, urging her to turn around and follow the line of arrows, but she had to know whose voices she heard echoing through this strange place. 

Soon the voices began to fade. Sera turned around and followed the sound until it was loud again. Looking around her she found a low passage, just high enough for her to crawl through. The voices seemed to be coming from that tunnel. She ducked down and crawled into the hole, ignoring the frantic pulsing of red light at the center of her vision. She tried to close her left eye, but that only made the warning light more intense as it washed against her eyelid. She crawled along the low tunnel as quietly as she could, straining her ears to hear the words.

“…be another way!” one of the voices said. 

Another voice came then, and Sera nearly shouted in surprise as she recognized it as master Rigel. He whispered fiercely, “There isn’t!”

“But I don’t want to go down there. What if we are marked for sacrifice?”

Sera thought that the voices were right beneath her now. She looked around for any way of seeing through to the chamber beneath her. A narrow tube ran along the wall beside her, wires sprouting from it at regular intervals and feeding down into panels set into the floor of the passage. Sera ran her fingers around the edges of one of the panels until she felt a narrow latch. She slipped a finger under the strip of metal and flipped it, loosening the panel and allowing her to pry up an edge of it. She put one eye to the narrow crack between the floor of the passage and the partially removed light panel. 

Through the crack Sera saw the familiar dingy walls and floor paneling of a hallway in the wards. The light in the hallway was dim and the markings on the walls layered over with many generations of graffiti, so she assumed that she was looking down into a hallway in one of the lower wards, close to one of the deep passages, where few people went if they could avoid it. Adjusting her angle slightly, Sera could just see the face of master Rigel, standing beside a young woman who she did not recognize.

Rigel put a hand on the woman’s shoulder and bent down to look her in the face. “You have to trust me Jenny. We must go into the deep passages, just for a time. Just until I can find a way to…”

“No! My father worked down there. He used to make me go with him. It’s dark. There’s places where it gets so hot you can’t hardly breathe. I survived all that and managed to get work in the Spine, but he stayed down there until he was marked by god. I’m not going down there again.”

“I can’t stay up here, Jenny. If you don’t come with me, I’ll have to leave you,” Rigel pleaded. Sera could see the pain in his face as he knelt before the woman and pleaded with her. “They want to question me about my stupid apprentice, especially now she’s escaped. If you don’t come with me they’ll find you and torture you until you tell them where I’ve gone.”

Sera wanted to call out to them, to pull them up into the passage and let them follow her to freedom, but hearing master Rigel call her stupid awoke a flame of defiance within her heart. You can take care of yourself, she thought. It’s your fault that I’m here now. 

Sera allowed the light panel to drop back into place. She rested her forehead on it and closed her eyes to hold back tears, then opened them again as the insistent flashing of the red octagon pulsed against the darkness. She shook her head. Too many tears had already been shed since she had been captured, and none of them had done a thing to save her or those she loved. She had been foolish to follow the voices into this tunnel. There was no hope left for her in the kingdom. Maybe I should rescue them, she thought. It’s not really Rigel’s fault. He was a good master to me and I knew what I was doing. Sera nearly pried the light panel up again and called to Rigel, but realized she had no idea how to bring him into these tunnels.   

“I can’t go with you,” the woman said, her voice choking with emotion. “It’s too dangerous.”

Sera backed up along the tunnel until she reached the main passage again. The red warning light ceased to flash as she moved, whatever force that controlled it apparently satisfied that she was once again traveling in the correct direction. As she moved Rigel continued to speak to the woman in harsh whispers that were hardly audible through the ceiling. When she reached the tight corridor she stood and once again followed the path laid out by the blue arrows, leaving her old master and his woman behind. Soon enough, their voices faded and Sera was alone again.

So far the path had been difficult at times, but by following the guidance of the blue arrows and pressing switches and mysterious changing symbols wherever the yellow boxes indicated, Sera had managed to find her way through this strange maze of passages that wound through the world she had known her whole life. She now knew approximately where she was in relation to the rest of the world, and that knowledge brought with it more fear than learning that Rigel was being pursued by the wardens. The twisting path she had followed had led Sera southward along the length of the Kingdom, to the edge of the place where the deep passages crept closest to the civilized world.

Throughout the kingdom, Sera had been taught by master Rigel, the law of the church brought peace to the dangerous world. This held true along the entire length of the Spine from the great northern seal to its twin in the south. From this central point, the Kingdom of Humanity delved down into the curved corridors of the wards, which ran in great loops around the Spine. Each ward was sealed off from the others, except for where they met at the Spine. In the north the wards ran deep, sometimes as far as fifteen levels before the uninhabitable region of the deep passages began. As one traveled south through the kingdom the depth of the wards varied, in some places only reaching three levels before giving way to the deep passages, but the trend was towards the shallow until the southern seal, where nobody lived below the surface for fear of being marked for sacrifice. At one time, over a hundred years before Sera had been born, the southern wards had delved deeper, but in the time of King Jonathan a mysterious plume of cursed ash had burst forth from the southern wards. Thousands had been burned to death and sickness had spread throughout the wards until, acting on the advice of the priests, King Jonathan had ordered all of the ash swept into the southern wards and the doors sealed. That had been a dark time for the people of the kingdom, and some whispered still that the cleansing had only forestalled a devastating invasion of horrors from the depths of hell.

It was to the south that Sera’s path had led her, she was sure now. The markings on the walls of the passage that she had peeked into had indicated that she was passing through the sixth ward. She didn’t know the exact location of her prison cell, but the royal palace was located in the first ward and her journey from throne room to cell had taken mere minutes. She wondered again if the Fool had truly sent her to safety or if this was some cruel form of execution. The blue arrows continued to march onward into the dim light of the passage and, if the path they led her on continued in the direction she suspected it would, Sera knew that she would soon have no choice but to pass through the sealed region of the southern wards.

The thought of that made her shiver.

 I have no choice, she thought driving fear from her mind. It is this, or the death of a heretic in the marketplace. She took a deep breath and continued to follow the path marked out for her through the spaces between the walls of her world. 

Sera had not eaten or had a proper rest since her arrest yesterday, or was it the day before? Time was impossible to tell here in the hidden passages that tunneled between the walls and ceilings of the Kingdom. She had been hauled from her chamber in master Rigel’s quarters early in the waking hours and spent much of the morning kneeling outside the royal audience chamber. Her trial had not lasted long, that she knew for certain, and she had slept only fitfully between bursts of tears in her prison cell. She couldn’t have been in that cell more than a few hours, a day at the most. 

However long it had been, the slow ache of hunger had begun to gnaw past the fear and make itself known. It was only an hour’s walk from the great northern seal to the rarely visited ring of the tenth ward if one took a direct path along the Spine, but she had climbed up and down so many ladders and turned so many corners in these tight passageways that she must have traveled three, four times that distance. Exhaustion pushed against the back of her eyes, blurring her vision and continually tempting her to lay down and sleep on the hard floor between the racks of wire and piping.

But she pressed onward. If she stopped to sleep now she knew that she would awake to even greater hunger, which might prove more distracting than the weariness that now gripped her. Besides that knowledge, there was the fear of what lay beyond her sight in these strange passages. Whether she traveled in a straight line down the “A” passages, or along the steep curves of the “R” passages, the illuminated strip that ran along the ceiling was only lit for about thirty meters on either side of her. Sera could not help fearing that somewhere, out beyond the gentle glow of the ceiling strip, awaited armed wardens or demons, prepared to come upon her the moment she lay down and fell asleep. 

And so, for what seemed the hundredth time, Sera pressed her finger to the magical box set into the wall, waited for the moving symbols to appear on the surface, and tapped the one that would cause a hole to appear in the floor at the center of the intersection. It seemed that she had climbed down at least a dozen times since she had last climbed up, and that made her nervous. Not only because she associated down with bringing her closer to the deep passages, but because she suspected that she would have to climb up again at some point, and the prospect of climbing up a dozen or more levels made her already tired arms ache anew.

The hole in the floor irised open and Sera stepped forward to climb down the ladder. 

A bright red glow washed over the left half of her vision. A box she had never seen before appeared in the upper left corner of her vision, flashing a pale red with a brighter red number reading “331”. Beside the number a strange symbol appeared. It was red dot, surrounded by three red wedges with curved outer edges.  

Sera moved back into the passage and the numbers crept down with each step, but did not go away. Only when the glowing timer on the ladder control panel ran out and the floor closed up over the hole did the bright red number cycle downwards until it reached zero and winked out. She had no idea what the number meant, but the flashing red glow worried her. The arrows showed no other path, however, so Sera tapped the image to open the hole in the floor once more and, ignoring the bright red number and pulsing warning, followed the blue arrows down the ladder.

She reached the bottom of the ladder and continued to follow the arrows through the passages, even as the number in the corner of her vision continued to creep upwards. It seemed to go up more as she moved along passages that were labeled with a string ending in “A”, which she now believed to be oriented along the north-south line of the kingdom, and drop slightly, then remain steady when she traversed east-west passages. When the twists and turns of her journey caused her to double back, traveling northwards, she thought, the number ticked slowly downwards. Eventually she started to dread turning the corner whenever the arrows marching off into the air before her indicated a turn southward. She would creep slowly up to the corner, watching as number crept up by increments of one or two every few steps, then take the turn quickly and gasp as the numbers shot up by ten, twenty, even thirty points. She always ran down those corridors as quickly as she could, the red number ticking rapidly upward, hoping that she would come to a turn soon and see the number drop again.

It was not long before Sera came to hate that number. When the Fool had first placed the thin disk of translucent material on her left eye, Sera had been in wonder of the glowing trail of blue arrows that showed her where to walk, but now she wished that she could pluck the thing from her eye. The constant pulsing redness was maddening and, though she had no idea what it truly meant, the ominous red number sent a chill down her spine and a pulse of agony through her already aching head with each upward tick.

Then she collapsed.

One moment Sera was running down a passage as quickly as she could, silently mouthing the numbers as they ticked upward, then the hard decking of the passage hit her in the face. She lay on the deck, legs twitching with exhaustion, arms flailing ineffectually as she tried to push herself up. She succeeded in pulling herself up onto her elbows, then saw the blood dripping onto the deck in front of her face. The sight of it, and the sudden bittersweet taste of it in her mouth, caused Sera’s guts to twist. She vomited, what little liquid she had in her stomach erupting out of her and splattering across the deck in front of her. Her stomach twisted again, convulsing Sera’s whole body and turning her limbs to rubber. She dropped again, feeling the wet vomit soaking her shirt and the hot deck pressing into her bare face and arms as her stomach repeatedly heaved within her.

After a time, she managed to crawl forward until she had moved beyond the puddle of blood and vomit and reached one of the support braces that held clusters of tubing against the tunnel wall. She gripped the brace and pulled herself upright. The passage seemed to spin around her as she stood, the multicolored pipes and wires blurring with the illusory blue arrows into a twisted hallucinogenic cage that surrounded her on all sides. Through it all the red numbers pulsed, silently screaming “792” at her over and over again. 

“No!” Sera screamed into the whirling tangle of lights. I must not stop here. I need to get to the end of this path. I will.

She took a shuffling sideways step, gripping the grid of the equipment cage with both hands. The world spun around her again, but she stayed on her feet and kept moving along the passage, one torturous step at a time. After a dozen steps her head cleared enough that she could see the path once more. Another dozen shuffling steps returned her balance enough that Sera was able to walk straight down the passage once more, though she kept both arms out, fingers trailing against the equipment cages, in case she lost her balance again. 

And she did. Five more times Sera collapsed to the deck and had to crawl, drag, shuffle, and stumble her way along the gleaming blue path. She had already lost all sense of time, and now the feeble sense of direction she had thought to hold in her mind slipped away also. Passages bled into one another. Turns left and right went uncounted. Sera’s lips and tongue grew so heavy with thick, blood-tinged saliva that she ceased muttering the numbers that still flashed in her vision. She ceased to see the shape of the passage stretching out before her, with its unending white deck panels and walls covered in racks and cages. Nothing existed in her world but the constant aching pain of her head, the foul thickness of her mouth, and the flashing colors of the red number and blue arrows. So she stumbled along the glowing blue path through a hazy world of red agony.

A time came when the blue path disappeared, leaving Sera lost in a haze of red and white. She nearly collapsed then, defeated and alone in an empty world of pain, until she saw the glowing yellow squares flashing in the haze and remembered how to activate the ladder. Sera didn’t know whether her body was capable of climbing, but when the ladder appeared, hissing down from the white and red void above her head like a miraculous stairway in one of the priests’ stories, she put one hand and one foot on it and pulled herself up a single rung. Then another. And another. 

She climbed upwards through the layers of her world, dragging herself up each ladder, then collapsing on the deck of the level above as the hole through which she climbed irised closed behind her. After a time the yellow boxes would reappear, directing her to climb yet another ladder. She had climbed five ladders in succession before it struck Sera as odd that she had not walked the path of blue arrows for a long time. Then she realized that the red numbers were no longer flashing in the corner of her vision. Instead a single number glowed with a steady red light beside the strange symbol shaped like three wedges of light radiating out from a circle. The number was still red, but Sera didn’t mind it so much as the previous numbers because it did not pulse. She also took relief from the fact that the number now held steady at 17, which seemed far less ominous than the flashing six and seven hundreds that had accompanied her through the stifling heat of the tunnels several levels down.

Still feeling too weak to stand on her own, Sera crawled over to the nearest equipment rack and pulled herself upright. The dizziness returned, along with a vague sense of nausea, but she did not experience the gut-twisting agony that had been her companion through the passages down below. Her vision had cleared as well. No longer did Sera look around her and see a twisted cage or indistinct blur. Her head still hurt though, and her mouth had dried to the point that her tongue felt rough against the roof of her mouth.  

Drawing a deep breath into her aching lungs, Sera followed the trail of blue arrows down the tunnel to her left. Her vision had cleared, but Sera’s conscious mind quickly slipped into a haze as it retreated away from the cacophony of pain signals coursing through her body. She stumbled along the tunnels, drifting in and out of consciousness as the arrows guided her.

The floor dropped away beneath her. 

Sera’s arms flailed and her right hand gripped briefly at the rung of a ladder. Too late her mind caught up and she realized that the arrows had turned downwards, guiding her to climb down a ladder into a maintenance shaft like the one she had climbed to reach the hidden passages through the world. Her right shoulder flared with agony from the weight of her sudden stop. The fingers on her right hand gripped the ladder rung more tightly for a moment, then gave way. 

She fell.

Cold decking met her feet and Sera crumbled to the floor, toppling to one side and slamming her head into the wall panel. The panel slipped silently upward, spilling Sera into a chamber.

The walls were white. A bed jutted out into the room from the wall, the smooth curves of it melding into the paneling. On the bed Sera saw a young woman, screaming as she jumped upright and backed into the corner, holding the thin blanket over her naked body. Standing in the middle of the chamber, his abhorrent metal eye glinting at her mockingly, was the Fool. 

How did I get back here? 

Sera’s eyes closed and darkness swallowed her.

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