Character study: The Bear

Jonnifer Wubbleford, if one was forced to describe him in a single word, was a rascal. But this didn’t do him justice, because he really demanded three or four words to fully capture his prime selling points. Describing him by any one of them alone ran the risk of critically mischaracterising him, and false advertising never did anyone any good in the long run.

He went by the callsign – codename, nickname, whatever – “Bear”. The Bear, whenever he could get away with the slightly aggrandising article. And nobody who had actually set eyes on him could argue with the title or the article. Even after getting to know him, at which point it became obvious that a wild slavering beast straight out of Gethsemane, he wasn’t.

The Bear – this was a fun fact he preferred to share only once he felt he was getting to know somebody, but sometimes he led with it – was actually fourth-generation Bonshoon, not Blaran. But he looked so unorthodox that he generally let people assume he was a Blaran. It was just easier that way. His great-grandparents had come out of the sleepers on the Bonshoo, but unlike almost all the rest of the sleepers who would become the emergent Bonshoon species, they weren’t Single Sigh. They were … something else.

He had a similar build and similar hereditary flaws, the very things that defined him physiologically as Bonshoon just as surely as his legal Fleet citizenship status defined him culturally. He was put together, on a basic level, pretty much exactly like a Bonshoon, or indeed like any Molranoid: seven-and-a-half feet tall, two legs, four arms, a wide flat-topped head with ears like bat-wings, a smiling mouth punctuated by a pair of elongated incisors that curved over his lower lip.

But he was also covered in a thick pelt of grey-brown hair varying in length from fuzz to long, ropy strands.

This was a Blaran-style augmentation, fair enough, but it was more deep-seated than that – not to mention, aside from those passed down through certain very specialised Blaran castes, it was a far older alteration. Almost all Blaren were physiologically the same as Molren, at least superficially, at birth. Their augmentations were added technologically. The Bear’s augmentation was one that his family – his subculture – had wrought on itself on a genetic level generations ago. Possibly, or so he liked to believe, back where they had lived on the old Fleet homeworld. Back before even the Twin Species had existed as a concept. It skirted the edges of permitted alteration and of course he would never be a Molran, but it was tolerated.

He’d never been augmented. His parents and his grandparents and his great-grandparents had never been augmented. They’d all been born this way.

Still, this was a mildly interesting distinction at best. Aki’Drednanth accepted it placidly. Molren were able to handle it on an intellectual level, but only after seeing so much evidence that it was only worth pushing on rare occasions. Blaren just thought it was funny that any Blaran would try to convince people he was a Bonshoon – when they didn’t find it insulting. And Bonshooni … well, they believed him, but not even the Bear gave much of a damn what Bonshooni thought, and he was one.

As for humans, and Fergunak, it was difficult to say. With humans it was difficult to say because every single one of them had a different point of view and changed their minds every time they fell asleep and woke up again, which the infuriating primates did all the time. With Fergunak, it was difficult to say because Fergies really didn’t give you the impression that they could tell air-breathers apart. Aside from aki’Drednanth, which presumably gave them brainfreeze when they ate them.

The Wubbleford family gene bred relatively dominantly, although a lot of this was because they interbred with other Bonshooni for the most part and Bonshoon blood was basically a smoothie of irredeemable fuckedness. When they bred with Blaren – or, on at least one occasion the Bear had heard about in the Wubbleford dispatches, a Molran – there was a bit more genetic regulation and selection that took place and the result was vanilla more often than not, albeit vanilla that needed to shave once a year or so. All told, since great-grandpappy and great-granny Wubbleford had stumbled out of their sleepers and been swept into the birthing of the Fifth Species, the extended family had swollen to just under two hundred souls. About a hundred and fifty of them were ‘full Wubblefords’. He was by no means unique, but a hundred and fifty fuzzy-wuzzy Bonshooni in all of Six Species space had a way of making him seem unique.

His distinctiveness neither helped nor hindered him, on balance. He occasionally used it to his advantage, and it occasionally got in the way of business, but for the most part nobody really batted an eye. It was part of who he was. It was a part of what he did.

The Bear was a registered bard of the interstellar realm, and although he didn’t have representative status he was a dues-paying member of the Sojourners’ Guild. That was his job, and he was good at it even if he wasn’t exactly renowned. His hobbies were a bit more difficult to quantify in a snappy set of titles, but it was fair to say they were all extensions of his work. One way or another. Depending on your interpretation. They went a long way towards explaining why he didn’t push himself into the limelight more, certainly.

You couldn’t be famous, fuzzy and an art thief. Classic triangle. You could only pick two.

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Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

The Lie of the World, Part 7

“…Bowman remained at Delnoch for a year, then travelled to Venturia to fight the Nadir once more. He did not return.”

There was silence in the common room as Chucky finished his tale. Then, as one, the audience leapt to its feet and roared approval. Beer and apple brandy flew in the air, and a wave of noxious body odour flooded across the stage on a tide of rotten-tooth-breath. There were howls of delight, cries for more, and several of the rowdier regulars of the Winespring Inn immediately began pretending they were the great Druss.

A not inconsiderable percentage of the audience also began crowing for the head of the ‘frilly juggling whoreson’.

Chucky turned to Thom, who was crimson with rage.

“I’ll try to hold them off with another story,” he said insincerely, “sneak out through the kitchen and don’t look back.”

“But … but…”

Mister C of 9 picked up Thom’s flute. “Could we get a bowl of butter up here, mister Mayor?” he called over the continuing acclaim. “Seems our unwelcome glee-wannabe doesn’t know where to stick his whistle,” there were bellows of laughter and further applause. Mister C bowed modestly.

“Go now!” Chucky gave Thom a shove, and the bewildered gleeman began to shamble off-stage in disgrace. “Now my friends, prepare to be humbled like the miserable curs you are by this next tale, of how Druss-”

And it was about that moment that the trollocs attacked.

 


 

“Shadowspawn!” somebody – a woman – shouted urgently, and Chucky looked to the back of the room in time to see a large man with a strange cloak run outside, right behind a small, dark-haired female shape. There was bedlam in the Winespring Inn.

“That was Moiraine,” Chucky said, grabbing Mister C’s elbow. “And Lan! They’re the ones who find the heroes and start us on the adventure! We have to stick with them!”

Mister C was looking disgruntled. “Just when we were getting warmed up,” he complained. “Well, let’s see off these Shadows Porn guys at least.”

They jumped down off the stage and headed for the main door. People were milling around and panicking, and from outside there came the sound of screams, running feet and unhappy horses. The door was crowded with people – some trying to get in, others trying to get out, and there was no way either side was going to win. Chucky looked at the seething, stinking mass helplesly.

“We should have gotten out sooner,” he said. “I knew there was going to be a trolloc attack, I just got too wrapped up in that story.”

“Window?” C asked nonchalantly.

“Window,” Chucky agreed.

Outside, the little village was in a shambles. People were running everywhere, and several houses were on fire. Chucky couldn’t help thinking it was a bit of an improvement. They hurried away from the Inn, and paused in the middle of the street. Mister C tugged off his sunglasses and drew his sword. Chucky grabbed the sunglasses and tried to hit him with them.

“Put those back on!” he shouted. “They’ll try to kill you if they see you walking around like that! What are you doing anyway?”

“I was just getting into the mood…”

“Don’t get into the mood! Don’t be an idiot! Put that sword away!” Chucky paused. “Wait! I’ve had a better idea. You can control the Shadowspawn that are attacking … you’re a myrddraal. You can tell them to go away … or turn on each other! Give it a try.”

Mister C nodded purposefully. “Which ones are the Shadows Porn?”

“I know you’re saying porn intentionally,” Chucky said. Mister C looked impossibly bland. “Oh for crying out … the big hairy ones.”

“Right,” C ran over to Haral Luhhan, grabbed him by the collar, and growled. Haral screamed and voided himself.

“Not that one! That’s the village blacksmith, you idiot! I mean the ones with goat-faces!”

“Oh! Right, sheesh, sorry,” Mister C looked around with a confused expression. Then his face cleared, he snatched something down from a passing horse. “Aha! Obey me!”

Alsbet Luhhan shrieked and fainted.

“Those ones,” Chucky said gently, turning Mister C’s head and pointing. “Those ones. The ones that look like Warhammer beastmen and Diablo 2 Moon Clan guys.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you say?”

Mister C of 9 strode over to a cluster of towering trollocs, who were busy chopping apart the door to an inoffending building. He stopped in front of them and stood with his legs apart, chest out and sword held aloft. One by one, the trollocs stopped and stared at him in dawning anxiety. Mister C hastily shook out his cloak, which he’d sort of bundled up and tied around his waist, and spread it over his shoulders. The trollocs sighed in recognition.

“Now obey me!” he cried. “Aarrrg!”

“Arrg,” the trollocs said doubtfully.

“Gather all of your friends and run away! Head for the hills! Turn tail! Get lost!”

The massive beastmen frowned down at the skinny eyeless shape. Mister C of 9, who could smell contempt three miles away, snarled and stabbed one of them with his sword. It howled and died without dignity. Agreeably enough, the remaining trollocs turned and lumbered away, shouting their new orders to their fellow warriors as they went. Chucky marched up and slapped Mister C on the back.

“Good work, old chum! Now quickly, get that stuff off and let’s find a place to hide. If that woman sees you-”

“Which woman? The one from the Inn?”

“That’s the one. She’s Moiraine, an Aes Sedai – uh, a sorceress. Main character. She’s the one who gathers up the main village guys and takes them on their quest.”

“Of course. Like Gandalf gathering up the hobbits.”

“I think we’ve established the similarities. Quickly, let’s get under cover. We can steal a couple of horses and follow the group at a distance … it’s not even as if we’ll be the only people following them.”

Mister C paused as they hurried towards the large barnlike construction that was the stables. Farther away on the outskirts of the village, the sounds of fighting were degenerating into the sounds of yellow-bellied fleeing, punctuated by several whooshy explosion-noises. “Wait, horses? We can’t ride.”

“How difficult can it be?”

“And we can’t steal horses either. Horse thief is a classical, highly professional career. You can’t just do it.”

“How difficult can it be?” Chucky repeated. He stepped into the stable and looked around, then grinned. “Don’t worry, I have a better idea.”

“Better than that crappy idea you had just now?”

“Shut up. See that?” he pointed at a large, cluttered wagon standing in the middle of the straw-covered floor, already hitched to a sour-looking old horse. “That’s the peddlar’s wagon. Padan Fain the peddlar is one of the most evil-ass Darkfriends in the books, right? He was sent here by the Dark One to find the village boys who could be a threat, and kill them or something. It was Fain who brought the trollocs here, and if I recall correctly, he leaves with them. His wagon gets burned, and everybody presumes he was killed in the attack,” Chucky paused and frowned. “It’s not burned yet, though. Maybe we scared away the trollocs who were going to do it.”

“‘We’?”

Chucky was looking across the stable at another group of horses, including a towering black warhorse. “Never mind that. The main characters will be coming in here sometime – probably tomorrow afternoon – before they leave. We can get some sleep.”

“That’s your first good idea. I’ve always wanted to sleep in a hayloft,” Mister C frowned sideways at Chucky. “Not with you, of course, but I guess I’m tired enough…”

“Don’t worry,” Chucky rolled his eyes. “I’ll be sleeping in the wagon, to make sure nobody tries to steal or burn it. Anyway, the hay would make me sneeze.”

Mister C drew his sword, clasped it in his teeth – almost dislocating his neck in the process – and clambered up the ladder into the hayloft. He looked around for a comfortable place to sleep, and spotted a familiar patched cloak. He prodded it with his blade.

Thom murmured and sat up. His beard and hair was matted with tomato, obviously thrown by disgruntled audience members. He glared at Mister C, then at his sword. “You don’t need that knife. I am not a cheese for the urrg.”

“What are you doing up there?” demanded Chucky, rummaging through the junk on board the wagon until he found something not-filthy that he could sleep on. He settled for a few bolts of blue-dyed cloth, and a small sack of flour.

“Just killing a guy,” Mister C’s head popped out over the edge of the loft and grinned down at Chucky. “How’s your death-count doing? Not too good.”

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Spider-Man: Far From Home (a review)

I went with Wump and a few good friends to see this, the so-called dénouement, the love letter to Marvel’s first three phases of cinematic adaptation and the closing chapter in whatever you want to call this epic story. There will be other chapters, but this was the end of the one we’ve been living through so far.

I’ll put this much before the read-more break, and then move into spoiler territory: It was a great movie and we really liked it. I mean, was there ever really any doubt of that?

Beyond this point, there are spoilers and I am not going to bother spoilertexting because it makes shit annoying to read.

Continue reading

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The Lie of the World, Part 6

Debs looked around at the featureless countryside. She had to do twice as much looking, because she was looking for Janica as well as herself. Janica still couldn’t see, although the a’dam linking them was helping in other ways. She was, for instance, having no trouble understanding Debs’ thick, drawling Scottish accent.

“I think we must be in Seanchan,” Janica was saying. “It makes sense – if we’ve been put to the beginning of the story, then there’s no Seanchan people on the mainland. They’re all still on their way over there in a huge fleet.”

“Aye,” said Debs.

“And if we’re already on the mainland, then I don’t know where we are, and there’s no reason for us to be here, no explanation for it,” Janica went on reasonably. “It would have to be explained in the books somehow, the sudden appearance of Seanchan on the mainland without a fleet.”

“Aye.”

“It’s probably a puzzle we have to solve. All the others are probably scattered around, and they have puzzles to solve too. Like the beginning of Baldur’s Gate. So I figure we’re in Seanchan, and we have to decide whether to stay here, and see what happens, or try to get to the mainland somehow.”

“Aye.”

“We should ride that giant purple watermelon with wings just over there.”

“Aye,” Debs paused, then frowned. “Wha’?”

“You’re going all vague.”

 

“I was jest thenkin’. Mebbe we should’nae be together like this. I mean, mebbe it’s no’ right, and anyway, ye’re nae gonna enjoy bein’ a sleeve, like.”

“I’m not a slave. It’s just a disguise, so nobody will bother us during our adventure. As long as we don’t get separated, and I don’t end up being dragged off by some other sul’dam. I mean, you’re not going to immerse me in scalding heat and hit me with invisible birch branches, are you?”

“Gorrah nay, lass!”

Janica, who had been quietly wanting a nice sauna for the past three hours, sighed to herself. “So anyway, we have to decide what we’re going to do. Maybe we should stay here in Seanchan, and see what things are like. Maybe you should see what things are like, I mean. I can’t, of course. But it might be that we can do more over here. Find out about their prophesies, let them know who the Dragon is and help them make a more peaceful entry to the other countries. Maybe we can make sure the whole world is united when the Last Battle comes,” in her mind, she saw a medieval UN, and a peaceful solution to the war against the Dark One, ending with incarceration in some sort of magical prison.

“D’ye know who else is over here in this world?” Debs demanded. “Forsaken. Contro. McSmashie. Satters. Yer esteemed husband. An’ they’re all prolly o’er on th’ mainland, runnin’ aroond, tryin’ tae help out jes’ like we are.”

“Oh,” Janica thought about that. “Oh God. We have to get over there.”

“Aye.”

“But how? The first step is to get to civilisation. There must be a city or a town somewhere, we might be able to blend in, or at least get people to leave us alone while we think about a plan – we’re sul’dam and damane, after all. Can you see anything like that?”

“Nae toons.”

“Oh. Any houses?”

“Nae hooses.”

“Any bow-wows or moo-cows?”

“Nae boo-woo … ach, t’heel wi’ ye.”

“Sorry,” Janica said contritely. “I should be acting the part. By the way, maybe you should see if you can use the One Power, while we’re out here in the wilderness all alone.”

“Aye, alreet.”

Janica gasped as she felt the Power flood into her, completely without her control. The tingling, life-bringing force was hers, it was from her and rushed through her, but she was separate from it, as if it was being siphoned out of her spirit by the heavy collar around her neck. There was a bright, blurry flash and a tremendous detonation.

“Coo,” said Debs.

“What happened? Did it work?”

“Oh…” Debs looked around at the shattered arc of landscape. The earth had been turned over, rocks had been boiled to evil red puddles, and the occasional tree was charred and stuck in the ground branches-first. “…Aye. Ye could say tha’.”

“Well, good. That’s good. We need to practice.”

“Aye,” said Debs, a lot more positively. “But mebbe we should wait fer these fine gennlemen on the birds tae leave.”

“What birds?” Janica cast her eyes futilely at the sky.

“They’re on the horizon, commin’ this wee.”

“What are we going to say to them? Quick, we have to come up with a story! We’re out here doing some practice, okay, and we’re very high-ranking and I’m your personal damane and I was a gift from Tuon, use the name Tuon, she’s the Daughter of the Nine Moons, and … oh no.”

“Wha’?”

“What if they don’t understand us? What if we don’t understand them? They might speak a different language.”

Debs looked up at the great, circling raken. The insect-helmeted man on the lead beast raised a gauntleted hand and roared to be heard over the considerable expanse of rushing air.

“Och aye, sul’dam, begorrah! See you, leashie!”

“Nae worries,” Debs said with a broad grin.

 


 

Ishamael McSmashie slid across Tel’ran’rhiod like nightsoil. The pack on his back bulged with assorted evilness, the shotgun was a comforting weight in his right hand, and the True Power of the Dark One roared through him without pause. He could sense the Great Lord of the Dark through this bond, and knew that His power would only increase as the seals broke. It had been a while since he read the Wheel of Time books, but he seemed to recall something about the Forsaken being trapped in the Bore, which was like part of the prison, and the Dark One’s power being unable to affect the mortal world.

Except for Ishamael, who was partially free. And apparently insane.

“Don’t know about the insane part,” he said to his special squeezy-friend Mister Hugglepuff, who never said Angus was too small to be a Forsaken, “but I’m certainly free. And before any of the others, too! It’s time to do some real work – get some real stuff done, make this guy into a real character, yes Mister Hugglepuff, lots of work to do…”

With a really bloody convincing evil laugh, Ishamael spread himself across the scattered lights of the dream-plane, giving children from Shara to Seanchan that really bad nightmare where you’re running away from something with only your underpants on and you’re wetting the bed and everybody’s watching you and you’re late for school and you’re falling and you keep trying to tell somebody something but they can’t hear you. And, inexplicably, something about tiny little guys with red hair too.

“First stop, the dreams of one of those bloody little farmboys I’ve been ordered to destroy,” he said, and looked around grimly. “No, cancel that – it can wait. First stop, a way out of this stupid place, and a bit of a look-see at the world around me. Nothing out there my trusty backpack of tricks can’t handle.”

Ishamael called upon the rich trickle of the True Power, tore a hole in the fabric of the dream-world, and stepped through it into darkness.

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Character study: Babellum Voom

From a very early age, the daughter of Forgotten-Memorial-In-The-Rain and Stolen-Heart-Half-Mended knew that the Mygoni life was not for her. She was accorded the freedom to pick her own cultural pursuits, of course, and so chose a normal Fleet-standard name for herself. She chose Casandrian Go’sana, adopting the name of a distant ancestor from her family’s pre-Mygoni life.

By the time she’d passed her First Prime and the Wild Empire was subsiding into the bland eternity of the Six Species, Casandrian knew not only that the Mygoni life wasn’t for her, but that the Molran life wasn’t for her. Her species was taking the admittedly tried and tested sociocultural models of the Fleet’s long exodus and pushing it down onto everyone else. And that was fine for the other Molranoid species, since they were used to it. It was fine for the aki’Drednanth and the Fergunak, because they didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Each in their own fashion, they just went along with what the Fleet decided was right. But the humans…

The humans didn’t understand, and they were never going to understand, and even more importantly they were never going to be okay with not understanding. They didn’t have it in them to stop asking questions, to stop changing their minds, to continue generation after painstaking generation doing the same thing again and again just because it worked.  And if the Fleet tried to make them, the poor twitchy little creatures would break. The Six Species was a cruel experiment and Casandrian wanted no part in it.

She didn’t really think about any of it on that level though, not consciously. She just knew that being a Molran was going to bore her to death. Fortunately, there was another species ready to hand for her to turn to.

Becoming a Blaran was easy enough. Doing it in style was more of a challenge. Doing it in style, while simultaneously preserving the connection with her family that was her paramount concern … well, that was nothing short of a masterwork. Fortunately, she had her twin sister to help. And so Casandrian Go’sana became Babellum Voom.

The main difficulty was deciding on an augmentation.

For a long time, she didn’t bother. It wasn’t mandatory, and there were as many unwritten rules about the process as there were Blaran clans, organisations, crews, families, individuals. Ultimately, there were no rules, and neither Babellum nor her sister were comfortable in those waters. Not at that early stage, anyway.

Her first attempt was … unfortunate. After a lot of effort and research into Fleet and Separatist history and mythology, she settled on a striking skin decoration as the basis of her own unique Blaran augment-look. It turned out, apparently, to be coincidentally reminiscent of a creature from old Earth mythology: a tragically foolish and ungainly creature incapable of taking care of itself.

Fortunately the myth was extremely obscure, the only real references to it being proverbs unconnected to the misbegotten creature’s appearance. Even more fortunately, the crew of humans and Blaren she encountered on her first official outing on the criminal stage were among the very few capable of even making the physical comparison in the first place. The embarrassment was contained.

Still, she’d been laughed at and there was a risk that the story might spread, damaging her space-cred. And murdering every single one of the offending know-alls, destroying their networks and infrastructure, and then tracking down and systematically taking apart anyone who might have been able to share the joke – all while vanishing from the underworld’s view until she’d re-thought her augmentation –  was a better first outing than she ever could have planned.

With help from her meticulous and ruthless sister, Babellum went on to destroy images and descriptions of the legendary Earth failure-monster whenever she could, up and down the expanse of the inhabited worlds. She eradicated it entirely. It was easy enough, as the Wild Empire came apart at the seams and the reformation’s wholesale destruction of information took off. The end result was an incredible story.

Babellum Voom had done business with an established crew when she was just starting out. And they’d done something to offend her. And she had destroyed them as though they’d never existed. And nobody knew why. And nobody knew what she even looked like.

As the years went by, she settled on a new series of augmentations. They were subtle. Most people didn’t even notice them. Most of those who did notice them didn’t know she was who she was. It helped the rumours and stories to spread. A couple of high-profile vendettas and showdowns, a lot of very successful commercial ventures, her reputation stabilised and her place was assured in the dark pantheon of the shit-dancers. And all the while, she and her sister maintained their partnership. And their terrible secrets.

The years became centuries, the centuries millennia. Babellum Voom and her sister were forgotten. They returned, and they went back to work, and they were remembered again. Then they were forgotten once more. They became myths just as surely as the fabled Earthly creature Babellum had long ago wiped from the ledgers of Six Species knowledge. And they lived on. They endured. They became ancient, and wily, and they watched the children of the galaxy play with a wry and forbearing gaze.

But they never stopped. And they never went into one of those horrible old-people ships.

A certain madness, one might say, ran in the daughters of Forgotten-Memorial-In-The-Rain and Stolen-Heart-Half-Mended. One might more accurately say it hurtled at relative speed.

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Character study: Provenance-Circa-Eleventh-Century

Most Molranoids went into seclusion after their Third and Final Prime. This was particularly true of Molren, for various sociocultural and psychological reasons. Blaren, after all, could hide their age and absence of dignity by installing pooka lamps on top of their heads and declaring that they were semaphore trees or something. Blaren were, by and large, very silly.

And as for Bonshooni, well, those poor misbegotten cousins of the Molranoid family didn’t usually live to Third Prime anyway, and didn’t have much in the way of dignity to start with so it didn’t really matter what they did.

But the Molran, and the more refined Blaran, sought a decorous and honourable setting in which to live out her final fade and exhale her final breath. For the most part, this was on board one of a half-dozen Fleet Worldships specifically given over to the respectful care of quinmillennials. It was extremely rare for a Molran to die of old age in any public sphere.

Provenance-Circa-Eleventh-Century had no intention of dying of old age in public, or on a poxy Worldship that smelled of Margolyse and forgotten joy. She had no intention of dying at all, come to that – and if she had to, she was damned well going to make sure everybody else died first. And that all the wine was finished.

Still, for all this, Circa was a Molran to her core. In all the generations of her family, since the Lawkeeps of old had drafted the Twin Species Social Code, only one of her kinfolk had deviated from the optimal defining characteristics of Molranity by more than 0.7%. Not even many Molren knew what that meant, but when you considered that the skinswitch threshold was 73% deviation and the overwhelming majority of modern Molren stood between 3% and 58% of deviation from purity, it was important. Her refusal to retire in the conventional manner was unorthodox, certainly, but it was strictly and most certainly not a deviation. And she kept largely out of the public eye in any case, so the effect was much the same.

Circa’s grandparents had embraced Mygonism when the Fleet had arrived at Earth, becoming one of the first families of Mygoni Molren. This did not, despite the common misconceptions of the general population and despite the rarity of the phenomenon, constitute a deviation either. The Mygoni had been an emergent human subspecies based around an article of Firstmade faith – the Pinian First Disciple – that already had a staggeringly close equivalent in Fleet culture. Furthermore, the Fleet was able to stabilise the reckless collapse of humanity’s genome and turn Mygonism back into a culture instead of a species. And Circa’s family had been one of the ramrod-straight imperium spikes holding the whole mess together.

She had been named, in the Mygoni style – the Mygonite style, as they said these days – for a Wild Empire-era Fleet calendar that no longer existed. However, it just so happened that she’d also been born some eleven hundred years before the official founding of the Yeka Mogak, the Six Species, so her name still made sense to anyone who mattered. An awful lot of Mygonites weren’t so fortunate.

Provenance-Circa-Eleventh-Century, marching steely-eyed through her forty-ninth century, was a truly ancient Mygonite. In fact, she was probably the second-oldest living Mygonite in existence, and that was only if Mygon the Last was actually real, and still actually alive somewhere. And – again contrary to popular misconception – she had never once said golly, better muddle through. Provenance-Circa-Eleventh-Century was most emphatically not that kind of Mygonite. She was the other kind. The kind of whom you did not want to make an enemy.

If was entirely likely, in short, that a nastier old bat-head didn’t exist anywhere in the galaxy … but if one did, it was the only other living member of Circa’s family. The one who had abandoned Mygonism. The sole member of the family to ever have deviated from Social-Code-ordained Molranity by more than 0.7%.

And that was Circa’s twin sister.

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Character study: Zeegon Pendraegg

There was a saying, or perhaps a very short anecdote. It explained how to get to Vola Par from the capital. Travel north until your feeder vents clog with mosquitoes. Then turn left. It was one of Zeegon’s favourite sayings. It said a lot about the place with which he considered himself more or less inseperable.

It was true that, just a few hundred miles to the east of Vola Par the air grew damp and the lakes and forests were thick with obnoxious blood-sucking insects. But out in the rolling northwestern plains, there was nothing for the mosquitoes to cling to in order to keep themselves from blowing into the sea. And nothing for them to feed on except the occasional Volan and the herds of cattle they drove. And if you took a single drop of blood from either species, they’d chase you all the way to the edge of the galaxy just to squeeze two right back out of you.

The north tip of Vola was freezing and inhospitable, with the arguable exception of the tower farms that dominated the polar regions. The south of the continent … well, that was the territory of an entirely different breed of obnoxious blood-sucking insect, if you asked anybody in Vola Par. The south of Vola wasn’t even Vola. It wasn’t the same country, wasn’t even the same world. It was the capital. It was the Dome. And as far as every offworlder was concerned, it was Aquilar. And Aquilar – not Eternal Aquilar the planet, but Aquilar the solar system, Aquilar the monolithic institutional empire – was all there was.

Zeegon had never been to the capital. He’d learned about it, of course. He’d never quite believed that the world on which he lived was teeming with life – a trillion people in all, it was said, albeit spread across the system’s three planets and eight habitable moons – but that was what the teachers insisted. It was hard to imagine when you were out there, pressed like a bug in a hot glass vise between the plain and the sky. When you saw the dust of a fellow traveller on the horizon and thought well, so much for that moment of peace and quiet.

The most crowded place Zeegon had ever been to was Vola Krat’n, out on the coast. It was something of a tourist destination, and had a reputation as being a den of mild-to-middling iniquity, but as far as Zeegon was concerned it was just a slightly noisier, slightly more heretical, unnecessarily-crowded version of downtown Vola Par. It was about as crowded, in fact, as he could really imagine any place being – even though he knew, on an intellectual level, that the capital must somehow be more crowded still. City folks, he’d long since decided, must stack like cups.

Nobody really bothered to come inland to Vola Par, and Zeegon liked it that way. It was a long way to come for very little reward – which as far as Zeegon was concerned made it thee best-kept secret in the empire. The sleepy, close-knit little settlement was as old as any city on the continent, with church-slabs dating back to the reformation and cruder sacred sites dating back further still, and in a lot of ways it was unchanged since its very foundation. The people of Vola Par were farmers, mechanics, builders – and all, in their own ways, members of Zhraak’s great and ubiquitous flock.

Well … flock … there was another saying, one that the Orthodox Zhraaki priesthood of Vola Par were fond of. If you cannot but be a sheep, be a better sheep.

Zeegon … disliked this saying. He far preferred the one about the mosquitoes. But even so, he had to admit that this second saying defined his home and his people almost as succinctly as the first. If you squared your shoulders and clenched your jaw and determined to put as good a face on a saying about sheep as possible.

His family, the upstanding and respectable Pendraeggs of the suburb of Three That Was, had – or so it sometimes seemed – been part of Vola Par since Eternal Aquilar had accreted out of star dust. A Pendraegg had probably been out there with a mag-scrubber, brushing the primordial particles into place, then sitting back and folding his arms in satisfaction and saying yessir, she’ll make someone a fine lil planet one day. They had deep roots in the farming community, and deeper roots still in the priesthood.

Zeegon was one of the Pendraegg family’s first and freshest tendrils into the world of mechanics, and had enjoyed considerable success. He’d done his share of work in the tower farms – it was something of a rite of passage for the young adults of Vola Par – but had always gravitated towards the automation machinery, the transports, the maintenance jobs. So it was probably fair to say that his was an offshoot more than it was a whole new root. Still, it was a start.

As for the other root, he’d never really considered a life in the Zhraaki priesthood. But that wasn’t so much a question of choice, so much as … well, difficult to say really. For one thing, there just weren’t that many opportunities to fix up and test-drive buggies in the priesthood, although he might have started a whole new denomination if he’d taken that path.

Mostly, though, it was just the way it turned out. If you travel north until your feeder vents clog with mosquitoes, after all, there’s always the option of turning right. Metaphorically speaking.

Zeegon had never really suspected how far his love of wheelers, buggies and PIVs would take him, but it was just possible that his parents had. They’d named him – on the urging of his uncle, who was a Zhraaki priest – in reference to an icon in Old Grand Fweig that denoted the shape and motion of stars and planets in space. Zeegon spoke of curiosity, exploration, adventure; of a soul intended to seek truth and meaning outside the limitations of the world in which it had been born.

It was entirely possible that nutty old uncle Io had been onto something.

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