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Moments after the transmission from The Lairs, Ezkshi decided on her KTmA battle plan; a personally-devised fusion of several complex scenarios concocted at the Cizr Armada Academia. An opportunity such as this was too tantalizing to resist and would likely not come again for a thousand years, legacy be damned if the Liars’ prediction proved false. With a telepathic prompt, she placed all crew within visual proximity of her in temporary catatonia, withdrew from her benighted corner, drifted through the command deck, and entered a secure area. While the crew recovered, the door quietly morphed shut behind her. Sufficient lookahead protocols were in place for the command deck to function, however briefly, without her active direction. Besides, what she intended to do was more important—in both personal and collective terms—and demanded the entirety of her concentration.

Physically, she was alone in an unlit chamber adjacent to the command deck—a place that opened and responded only to her and other empathically pure Cizran officers. In spite of its ostensible simplicity, via the miracle of neuro-connectivity, it transformed what her senses beheld into something miraculous. It truly defied the science.

As immediately as the door sealed, she was enrobed in the shimmering astra of cyclically-harvested potential. Around her whorled a simulation of the interior of the konul she intended to manipulate, trillions of motes layered in manifold strata, each uniquely defined by the flavor of their reaping. Then, as a seer gazes through tongues of fire, she peered deeper than what her mundane senses allowed and beheld the battlefield. From a distance, she saw the utter vastness of the light-flecked cosmos; closer still, the faintly-blue spiral of the Su-laria galaxy as it swam through the heavens; even nearer, the sector of incursion where the great beast was butchered by the incessant onslaught of the Bahá-cizr; within, a conflagration of destruction and Diamobos burst like a clot of dirt-rife slurry against the interior bowels of their cosmic prison; and, finally, the Aptosite ship wherein Snil and Karzar stood before the fading phantasm of their would-be captive.

With a gesture, she ripped the Aptosite ship in twain from bow to stern. The groundwork was already in place from the explosive cocktail of nanites, chemicals, biologics, and femto-responsive quasi-mineral-organics—all of which burrowed into the enemy vessel’s hull as soon as the curtain was drawn back on their masquerade as Nenegin zar-Taliļ, Aredemos, and Kirri. Soon thereafter, the infection proliferated throughout the extent of the ship and its complement.

Unfamiliar as she was with their anatomy, Ezkshi did know few things fared well without atmosphere and she imagined the ruptured vessel would suffer a multitude of casualties.

Even so, she was not finished with her work; in fact, as far as konul manipulation went, she wasn’t even started.

Again, her consciousness expanded. She saw the whole of the strange being that interjected itself into the domain of the Empire. It swam in what was open space. Was, until she shaped her vision, and the whole fell into a box—one inundated with flashing MAZERs, bursting LADAR, fulminating fusion reactions, would-be Cradles of Life, and genuflecting magicarp. The box compressed, like the interior of a trash compactor, shank, and cramped what was in it. The vision wasn’t hers alone, but it manifested in reality beyond her mind. What she did in this moment, her manipulation of the konul’s harvested potential, affected reality.

The box shrank into a nothing, and then was no longer in or part of the Su-laria galaxy. It had, instead, been all pushed into a microscopic dimension.

It was … inner space.

The cell she balanced on a talon contained the wreckage of Kilamara and Diemobos, the Cradle of Life and its pillaged worlds, and the Aptosite invaders. She had been careful to mortar the gaps precisely so as to plot an escape for her fleet and the nodes of the grid.

With a disgusted gesture, she flung it away; it skipped like a pebble across the trillions of light years of distance that separated the Empire from the slums of the verse. Then, without a second thought, she went about the restoration of this sector of Cizran space.

Beams of light and tunnels of time channeled through the colorful layers of strata, reshaping and reversing the photons of the star around which they orbited. An evolution seemed to be taking place, as dust coalesced, gathered into rocks, and further accumulated into a planet and a moon strikingly similar to Kilamara and Deimobos. Verdant and fertile, the planet boasted a single continent with a great central desert separating two vast jungles. There were no mountains, only deep fissures in the otherwise vaguely undulating landscape. Meanwhile, the volcanic moon became darker and colder as it aged. Life spawned, but, just as before, it was not intelligent. However, this time, she ensured it lacked the strange dynamic that allotted them possession of a power by which they could destroy their own world.

The sector was restored to what it was meant to be.

Another cycle.

Another subservient, mindless harvest that would one day be reaped and, after several cycles, restore the effort exerted on behalf of their redemption.

. . .


Meanwhile, on Cizra Su-lahn, outside the Av’sti’s headquarters, a scandal was playing out in polygraphic polyglotic polyamorous majesty.

“Butina cyp-Mariia, we have reasons to believe there are recordings wherein you colluded with the enemy—licentious treason wherein you and Zeptir wallowed in untold heresy! What have you to say for yourself?”

She struggled against her restraints, spit at the ground, and insisted, “No collusion! This is a witch hunt! It is the Av’sti, their deep-state strangle hold on the Cizran Empire, that is to blame! I did nothing wrong! See how big my hands are? SEE? LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME, YOU SPECIPHILES! The chemtrails are reaaaaaaaaaalllllllll!”

“Silence, sTRUMPet,” barked one of the guards, “soon you will be PUT IN a cage and left to rot!”
WIP - I'll finish this eventually. :) Otherwise, feel free refer to it as an example group.
The Cizran Empire

. . .


About

The Cizran Empire rests along an isolated filament of The Verse and sprawls throughout an entire galaxy. Many intelligent and heterogeneous species reside within, but the Cizran subjugated their rivals ages prior and their rule is absolute. As a consequence of a conflict-free era, bureaucracy, decadence, and ritual usurped further cultural maturation. Even so, technology is advanced and, through it, disease, death, and want are almost absent. Much less commonplace a solution to the universe’s difficulties is magic, regulated and relegated to state-sponsored objectives such as interstellar missions.

The Kr'Nalus—a cataclysm from beyond known space that splintered their hive mind and brought them to the brink of annihilation—marked the beginning of the second Cizran galactic expansion. Suddenly individuals, they were compelled to regroup, rebuild, and reconquer. While no specifics of the Kr'Nalus remain, it nevertheless influenced cultural resurgence, intertwining government with a peculiar brand of religious philosophy. In such, the gods, believed to dwell in houses set amongst the stars and threatened by the power of the Cizran whole, sent Heralds to dilute their strength. Over time, as secularism came into vogue, physical manifestations of divinity diffused to abstract concepts like beauty, acumen, and power. Many sites, such as the Space Temple and Shrine of Tsathoskr, were constructed in respect of these intangibles.

  • Leadership—There is no official figurehead; instead, society is governed by members of the Av'sti, which is the religious, legislative, and executive branch; the Noema, which is the bureaucratic oversight branch; and the Durantaza, which is the judicial branch.

  • Technology—Age and momentum birthed an era where subjects enjoy effective immortality, nigh-perfect health, and vast leisure time. Magic is almost unnecessary and money is the artifice of lesser beings. Instead, laws and regulations limit an individual’s impact on society. The Empire possesses colony-size spaceships, terraforms and destroys worlds, and harnesses almost all the energy of local stars. Superluminal travel is incredibly expensive, its price the spiritual energy of hundreds for a single jump, and as such is limited to gargantuan transports and military vessels.

  • Magic—The transmutation of arcana into power, magic drains the life of the caster and indeed weakens the whole. As a consequence, it is forbidden aside from that officially mandated by the Si’ab. Likewise, high priests seldom cast spells during their lifetime, but instead rely on a system of misinformation, manipulation, sankuls, and konuls to isolate and transfer the heavy cost of magic from society to individuals.

  • Religion—Jaded and sure of their place in the cosmos, Cizran religion is relegated to ritual and historical remembrance where gods and goddesses still exist, as do the millennia-old shrines erected in their honor, but they serve as symbols of intangibles that defy explanation or acceptance and as icons of mysteries beyond the scope of scientific knowledge.

  • Inequality—Compared to a Cizran, other species possess few rights, holdings, or power. Especially on Cizra Su-lahn. Power begets power, and niceties of state are bestowed on the basis of knowledge gleaned. Yet inequality yields satisfaction of place, and beneath them are castes lower still, those of artificial life, that which is grown, that which is machined, and, at the bottom, that which is animated.

The Divine Animal

Throughout the vastness of the cosmos, in intelligent minds, lurks a tao of dread and desire that life on other worlds strives against its own unlikelihood with familiar tenacity and diversity of form. On most, it fails, for nature’s demands on evolution are harsh and unpredictable. Yet, on a few, life prevails, flourishes into civilization, and contributes to the timeless poem of creation its own transcendent verse. Species emerge from sea, earth, fire, or sky; worship nature, ancestral bones, or the intestate and unthinkable expanse of light-pricked night; then foment war and inevitably devour another in the frantic climb to the acme of ambition.

Occasionally, this chaos yields culture, but even then life is a volatile affair relentlessly hammered into shape and structure. The shapes it takes are innumerable, many weak while only a handful are strong. Amongst all these, there must exist an expression that is the ideal sum of its many facets. Somewhere there must exist the perfect form and a divine animal that embodies it.

With that form in mind, Cizran flesh became a holy book; scripture waiting to be written in the blood of the divine animal. Across the many systems of their empire, rare is it that two Cizran share the same physiology. Few even remotely reflect the form that was forged on their homeworld. They elected new bodies, and over time a greater number degraded their flesh for the sake of gaudy fashion and to flaunt their wealth and power. Most forgot the quest that sent them into the far reaches of space. Fewer recognized that, one day, the excess would be shorn if they are to adorn that sacred form.

Critical Points

  • Samarra—see Territories.

  • Shipyards of Zo—see Territories.

  • Gareza Prison Complex—see Territories.

Territories
Cizra Su-lahn

( Diplomacy ) Bathed in weird orange glow of the star, Bukan, is the birthworld of the Cizran Empire, the planet Cizra Su-lahn. Tranquil and clement, the entire world is a garden cultivated by an army of kukulls and slaves. No non-native species is permitted unattended outside the capital; indeed, most "inferior beings" are segregated to space stations in orbit around the planet or enslaved as pets and side-shows in villas. The remainder of the planet is sacred and has been utterly dominated and domesticated, everything the eye can behold is owned and by prominent Cizrans.

  • Samarra—on either side of the river Sirnak sprawls the seat of galactic government, the city of Samarra. Within is the Ja'regia, where, over the course of centuries, bills become law; the Hall of Records, where homage is paid to bureaucracy and every moment transcribed; and shrines to various gods.

    • Shrine of Tsathoskr—this holy abode concealed no corner suitable for quiet contemplation. Instead, it was simultaneously awful and exquisite. From its interior dome and bowed walls luminiferous flora assaulted the visual and olfactory senses with the story of creation, neither wholesome nor pleasant, but possessed of vivacious honesty and bewitching brutality. Each scene punctured the mind with its loud awakening and to refuse intimacy brought a mad cacophony of thorough debauch. Nature awaited no consent to mold life and, later, consciousness. Rather, time and the elements lustily collided and birthed from their orgies all that would ever be. Scenes of ravenous rape and devour flushed in wild juxtaposition to raw canvasses of stark birth; creatures fed their offspring the young of other species; storms surged, volcanoes erupted, and supernovae shown. Notably, not a single depiction of conventional romance presented itself in the decor. The place was one of singular purpose. It served as a reminder of all that wrought civilization, indifferent to modern contrivances. Life, mollified neither by elaboration nor banality, was thrust upon those who dared enter.

      Such a scene splayed across one of numerous panels boasted millions of colorful carnivorous plants that writhed a presentation, with lifelike clarity, of two bears rutting. It emitted all the noises one might conceive: wind teasing the meadow grass, distant birds chirping, and each grunt, snarl, and howl of bestial union. With this colluded the musk of their mating, the dew on the verdance, and a vague essence of pine colluded and lanced directly into the viewer’s sensory cortex.

      Just one of a thousand depictions.

      Worship of such a deity requires to embrace with fecundity one’s base urges.

  • Space Temple—in orbit around the planet, here alcoves can read somebody’s mind and virtually link them to that location, often far-flung spiritual sites or places from which they have been banished. It serves the purpose as a neutral territory where any sojourner might take sanctuary and feel the presence of their fellow believers as they virtually stride the grounds of their elected shrine with neither the labor nor consequence of a physical manifestation. This is done by linking their mind via a psylink powered by divine force.

  • Cloud of Ghot -- blah blah blah.

Alcazar

( Trade ) A moon of endless astroblemes bearing enormous rifts in all direction as far as the eye can see.

  • Gareza Prison Complex—isolated from the riff-raff of Alcazar is a heavily-militarized prison complex that houses both Wa'ali and Cizran alike. Here, every inch and moment are recorded and subject to audit. The more dangerous the prisoner, the more heightened the security, with a range of group cells to dimensionally-isolated sensory deprivation chambers.

Ganax'ab

( Production ) On the outskirts of the empire, this system is governed by Ec-shavar and comprised of two planets.

  • Q'ab -- a verdant world and cultural seat of the Ganax'ab, most of its sapient denizens take refuge in the capital city of Zöld'nach.

  • Ganaxavori -- a harsh and barely habitable world where the handful of the natives still live in caves and the atmosphere is toxic, it is here that Ec-shavar's flagship set down as a symbol of his dominance over these worlds.

Killimara

( Military ) Blah blah blah.

  • Deimobos -- blah blah blah.

  • Shipyards of Zo -- blah blah blah.

Politics

Located in a relatively isolated area of The Verse, the Cizran Empire stretches across a whole galaxy. Within, relatively few species were sophisticated enough to challenge the might of Cizra. These were crushed. The dominant civilization for several thousand years, they are decadent and gaudy, often cultivating lesser species for entertainment and, ultimately, to harvesting their spiritual energy.
Allies

N/A
Enemies

N/A

Group Characteristics

Empathic Organ—What remains of the Cizran hivemind in the aftermath of the Kr'Nalus, a cataclysmic event that reduced a collective to individuals. The organ, a mineral structure, enables Cizrans to sense another's presence, communicate telepathically, identify members of their species in spite of physiological modifications, and assess the depth of the collective well.

The Well—All Cizrans have access to a shared life source, known as the common well, which may be manipulated and coerced in what is only describable as magic. Heavily regulated, this resource is not used casually, for each use weakens the whole.

Genetic Remapping—Expert geneticists, Cizrans are able to modify their physiology at will. This is the cause of their vast dissimilarities in appearance. With little more than a thought, a Cizran may sprout wings, grow armor, and so on. The possibilities are limited by only imagination, energy, and a comprehension of what changes will result in what forms.

Members

OOC Leader—there is no official leader; we just discuss the plot and our ideas in a Skype chat.

@Circ as Eti Naris, Nenegin zar-Taliļ, Nirak mul-Siyé
@Gattsu as Domnik, The Kukull
@apathy as Xo'pil, Plangó Felho'Te-vesztø
@Liaison as Silexies, Kaan, Eel Sermonde, Cigány Cnidaria
@Alucroas as Kirri, Aredemos, Zeptir

Appendix I - Characters

  • Ec-shavar—governor of Q'ab and Ganaxavori, he is a powerful Cizran and member of the upper-caste. His exterior like basalt, dark and rough, it is only broken by veins of variegated luminous crystal that shift in hue in accordance with his temperament. Concentrated around his skull, it is this crystal organ that facilitates his empathic bond with other Cizrans and allows him to draw from the common well of spiritual energy. He stands four meters tall, supported by four powerful legs while another quartet of mantis-like limbs serve as arms, ready to strike at a moment's notice. His head lacks eyes or ears, but boasts a powerful mouth, clenched like a bud until it blossoms with concentric rows of translucent teeth.

  • Potan Mul—Cizran assassin employed by the empire's high inquisition; owner of Eti Naris.

  • Eti Naris—synthetic companion and spaceship pilot; owned by Potan Mul; looks like a red panda in a gunslinger costume.

  • Nenegin zar-Taliļ—Cizran admiral charged with patrolling the sector of space containing Killimara and other planets; is large, white, and has eight legs.

  • Ulu'gol—arachnid artisan; he exists for comic relief.

  • Bajaga Garul and Tarhara Maka—echinoderm artisans working on a commission for Potan Mul; Ec-Shavar didn't appreciate Potan Mul's gift and murdered the pair of artisans.

  • Nirak mul-Siyé—Cizran member of the Noema and information conduit, she seldom moves, much less departs the Ja'regia.


Appendix II - Terminology

  • Konul—war device deployed in orbit around a planet that drains the spiritual vitality of the inhabitants.

  • Sankul—coffin-shaped device that restrains heretical or criminal Cizrans and separates their spirits from the common well; their vitality is then drained and channeled towards the execution of high-level magic, such as FTL travel.

  • Kukull—spirit-infused matter, much like a golem or an elemental, bound to a Cizran's will and purposed for specific physically-demanding tasks, such as farming or mining.

  • Kr'Nalus—the splintering of the Cizran hive mind that led to their new culture, need for bureaucracy, and subsequent re-expansion across the galaxy.

  • Ci’zaria su-to Tóth—sacred tome deemed heretical and officially banned within the Cizran empire.

  • Xo'Xan—a Cizran still alive from the time shortly following the Kr'Nalus who sought to use genetic modification to achieve deification; these are now deemed heretics.

  • Av'sti—inquisition branch of the Cizran religious arm of government.

  • Av'llys—member of the Av'sti.

  • Si'ab—highest body of the Av'sti.

  • Noema—head council of the Cizran bureaucratic arm of government.

  • Wa'ali—inferior species.

  • Durantaza—an hierarchical caste-structured system of courts.

  • Shalam—an atheractive and radioactive mineral.


Appendix III - Species

  • Cizran—although typically just under four meters tall, there is no end to Cizran variety and morphology due to their obsession with genetic self-modification. The only unifying factor is their empathic organ, a crystalline mineral substance that allows them to recognize one another and pull spiritual energy from the common well.

  • Killimaran—These insectoid aliens stand at 2.5 meters, their skin is a mixture of ruddy orange and sandy brown that allows them to blend in well with both the rainforests and desert. Their heads are somewhat squid-shaped, with black, ovular eyes set nearly on the sides, their mouths are horizontal insect mandibles, and their arms feature short retractable as well as regrowable spikes that curve upwards along the humerus and downward along the forearms, possessing a second pair of vestigial limbs near their hips. The nails on their fingers split in two small extensions which aid in a variety of tasks from gripping, piercing, and tearing into the objects of their desire.

  • Q'ush—between 1.5 and 2 meters tall, these are lizard-like in appearance.

  • Azot—a bipedal monkey that stands around 1.5 meters tall.

  • Alakast—arachnid beings with a hard carapace and as many eyes as legs, these stand around 1.5 meters tall.

  • Echinomorph—one-eyed, under 10 centimeters tall, these ambulate on five tentacles and reproduce by spores (similar to starfish) that fall off their sexually dimorphic bodies.

  • Ganaxan—the submoronic rift and cave dwellers of Ganaxavori, with their course hides and bulky bodies these blend in quite readily with the rocky landscape they call home.
In the wake of Ua’s corporeal manifestation, ignition of the galactic engine, and abrupt egress, Ajana, the star on which the divinity succored, waxed unstable. Knots of plasma and magnetic snares danced wantonly on its increasingly spotted surface. Within hours, the inevitable took place, and it discharged a multitudinous bevy of solar flares. The largest clusters thereof careened toward defenseless Q’ab and Ganaxavori. All surface life was threatened, but, serendipitously—if such could be claimed of a routine and predictable matter of cyclic fate—the lethal heat struck just as planets drifted into a haze of cosmic ice. That moment was the great deluge recorded of in ancient lore where, instead of burned or frozen worlds, ostensibly disconnected events rejuvenated the stellar system and only those arrogant enough to dare the highest reaches of atmosphere suffered for their hubris.

The native Q’sh were safe and, for the while, unencumbered by interlopers or oppressors; Ganaxavori yet imprisoned its celestial form; and whither went the engine’s transformational discharge mattered neither to either sphere’s time nor space.

All seemed calm.

Then, behind Ajana reared the lurking blight that smudged the further lights in the star’s penumbra to utter darkness. Black as coal and lit by an infernal internal fire, it shimmered with malevolent radiance and vibrated a chakra of mounting hostility as it unfurled into a ring-like structure of incredible breadth—a praxis archetypal in the Ouroboros. When the extremities mated, the shadow was illumined by a mist of cyan aether. Therein, space warped, and for an instant shone exposed the star of an alien galaxy, until it was eclipsed by an army of shades that erupted as a plague of equals parts madness and horror. Billions of Cataclysm descended on Q’ab to plunder its bioforce-rife surface; meanwhile dreadnoughts, leviathans, and sentinels encircled Ganaxavori and prepared to devour the flesh of a so-called god. The local node of Bahá-cizr, only just restored to order by Ec-shavar, posthumously relayed the late Cizran governor’s warning, but failed to activate defense protocols before being overwhelmed by the enemy swarm.

It took but hours to harvest the hibernating planets of Ganaxavori and Q’ab. Even the self-fashioned god, that imprisoned celestial and foe of Ua, was made short work of as Tsathoskr paralyzed its will and drained it of its every ounce of astral marrow.

Glutted on victory, the flotilla vanished from whence they came—through the hole pierced in space. Once all disappeared through the yawning portal, the jet span that circumnavigated the ominous center writhed in a diminishing spiral and vanished into its own dissipating fog.
Junior Audit Servitor 397 robustly fulfilled her obligation inasmuch as the documentation and collation of investigatory evidence into the inmate escape from Gereza Prison Compound was concerned and, quite likely, went into details beyond her standard purview although, that given, she certainly took all precaution to remain well within protocol; likewise, although with diminished enthusiasm, did Audit Servitor Supervisor 19, Junior Audit Manager 5, Audit Manager 7, and so forth up the chain perform their work within satisfactory parameters until a thin slip of paper with seven words eventually drifted into the Ja’Regia: Gereza inmate escape. Silexies among suspected conspirators. It was the official summary of the million page preliminary draft that landed with a metaphorical thud in a digital filing cabinet in the Hall of Records. Unless the investigation’s outcome became quite scandalous and managed to penetrate the public-sanctioned media feed within her lifetime, an unlikely prospect, JAS-397 would probably never know what became of her efforts. Instead, her work done on that matter, she recommenced with the mundane business of everyday auditing.
This story takes place on Earth-F67X. The -F67X designation comes from its participation in the UFP (United Federation of Planets) and UEF (United Earth Federation), a multiversal political entity that strove to combine all parallel Earth's under one political umbrella. After a multiversal fault, parallel Earths lost their ability to communicate and the UFP and UEF were obsolesced. Even so, Earth-F67X continues to maintain its designation in the event contact is every reestablished.

The various geopolitical zones of Earth-F67X are:

* North America
* South America
* Eurasia
* African Quarantine Zone
* SWAG (South-West Asia Group)
* Antarctica

North America

This is where Capital City is located.

African Quarantine Zone

This is where the Glasslands, Nyundo, and Xanathan are located.

SWAG

This encompasses and includes the geography west from was once the Indian subcontinent, south of what was Japan's Hokkaido island, north of what was Australia's Tasmania island, and east of what were the Hawai'in islands and ventures into the Asian continent as far north as what was Mongolia.

Leadership rotates among five capital flotillas-cities: Colobus, Vervet, Rhesus, Tamarin, and Mandrill. These are not in static locations, but may be anywhere within the adjoining oceans of the above-described territory.

New Roswell

Somewhere beneath the snow, ice, and stone of Antarctica is the New Roswell Earth-F67X Defense Headquarters.
A transient series of soft yellow discs illumined the decks of The Kithless and, while obscurity dimmed their antecedents, led Spencer to his second interview. Down a steep stair, around a corner, and he found himself in a gallery with large paintings bolted to the walls. They were crass, irreverent, and made mockery of Earth’s moral institutions. In one, a woman reclined on a surgical bed, a pristine blue sheet spread over her engorged belly; a bible, carefully opened to Psalm 139, verse 13, propped against her swollen breasts; and between her thighs lurched a filthy, hirsute demon that eagerly plucked the limbs of a fetus from her womb and flung them into a bucket filled to the brim with offal. Another featured a televangelist who gestured wildly toward a presentation on the evils of homosexuality and the wisdom of Leviticus 18:22—even as he coerced fellatio from young boys shackled to his pulpit, their faces tear streaked and sallow. All featured themes of hypocrisy, like an Iman and a Pujari who congratulated another on the executions of their wives whom earlier they conspired to rape as a pretext for getting rid of them; in the background, their underage daughters awaited in wedding attire. Many contained eerily life-like impressions of demons, their faces twisted in equal parts menace and agony as they watched him, all superimposed with cryptic wards.

Spencer cringed, as he was almost sure the Satanic heralds’ eyes traced his path and tongues flicked hungrily in his direction. It all seemed a bit much. Still, he ambled forward, studied a few more works, but quickly tired of the morbid theme. Fortunately, he was at his destination, for a doorway opened in the hall and the lights that led him ceased.

Within, Czes sat behind an easel, brush in hand, and contemplated a canvas. It wasn’t blank; rather, it was prepared, a wash of gray and gold formed vague shapes that would ultimately provide depth, in the manner of Plage de Canetto and other Italian masters, for the final composition. It was his distraction while his spokesperson, Lionel, addressed the assembly in Tamarin. He decided to not risk a venture into the city just yet, so The Kithless sulked just beyond the harbor.

Spencer, barefoot and shirtless, but at least now adorned in beach bum khaki shorts, slouched against the frame of the studio door.

Without looking up, Czes began to speak,

“Art is, and has for thousands of years been, a social critique, particularly along the intersection of faith and governance. In The Divine Comedy, Popes Nicolas III, Boniface, and sundry other figures, rulers of their world, are condemned to Hell on account of their political corruption; similarly, Modena damned all non-Catholics in his fresco The Inferno. Both examples of hate framed as art. Meanwhile, Zdzisław Beksiński’s Embrace is a reaction to hate, an exposure to souls devastated by the institutionalized evil of the Third Reich. All three are fundamentally political. They shape our recollection of history.”

Spencer snorted. “Maybe for nerds. I look at art because there are moments in this crazy life where if I don’t I’ll go mad, not to become upset over things I can’t change.”

“A surface observation of art’s necessesary function in the direction of introspection. It provokes within us that which we would not draw out of our souls of our own volition.”

“Nah. I want to be happy.”

“No, you don’t want to be happy; you want to empathize. To be somewhere. To truly know somebody. You want to feel something specific, particularly when you are too numb or overwhelmed to feel. Here,” Czes stood up, walked over to his nearby stacks, withdrew a book, and flipped it open on a table. He gestured for Spencer to come over and pointed to an image of a statue of a young girl, shy and sad, the weight of a massive stone she struggled to carry crushing her to the ground.

“This is a reproduction of Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, superior to the original in my opinion.”

“Now I want her to be happy.”

“It is inevitable art will be used as an instrument to foment hate—Tribalism, Racism, Nationalism, Specism; pretenses on which to justify the desecration and devaluation of life. Based on your report, it is inevitable Earth’s government will bend Allure City to its will. My question is, what should we try to make the people of Earth feel toward toward their new neighbors—at least the ones who are under the yoke of informants and enforcers like Merse Grandstrum and Margaret Iedereen?”

“Feel? Most of the assholes in Allure are spies, bullies, or in the pay of such. Privacy is owned by those with wealth, pull, or cunning. It is the ones who are just minding their own business and trying to make a life that deserve any feeling,” Spencer quipped.

Not one to waste too much time sober, he emptied a decanter of deep brown liquid into a crystal chalice too dainty for his tastes but adequate to the situation. He drank deeply, doing his best to feign apathy. Despite that, the last part of what Czes said caught his attention. He stopped a moment, his bottom lip pushed out a bit as he entered his thinking pose. After a while, he huffed, and the pressure of his exhale tossed a stray lock of hair from his brow.

He thought of the vendors struggling to make a living in the agora, the corpse of his friend stinking up a cheap basement apartment—what was his name? Raymond. Rengar. Oh yeah, Randall. He thought of the Platinum Warriors, the propaganda, the third of the city that were a single entity who informed on those who just wanted to live their lives in relative comfort.

Czes patiently tapped his foot, head cocked to the side and hands folded behind his back.

“Does she know?” Spencer finally asked, glancing down at the depiction of the caryatid.

“Know what?” Czes inquired.

“That she can just drop her stone.”

“Interesting,” Czes replied. “Thank you, Spencer. That will be all.”

He then touched an earpiece and said, “Yes, Lionel? In your presentation, focus on the how the people of Allure need to be free of the tyranny of propaganda and suspicion. Focus on how choice, for them, is an illusion fashioned by those in power; one they recognize, but can’t do anything about. If given a chance, we believe they would rise up against their oppressors—the very savages who slaughtered over a hundred million citizens of Earth on the Iberian Peninsula. If we truly want good neighbors, they must allow us to help them cast off and crush the machine of false chaos that presumes to govern them by manipulation rather than representation.”

He touched his earpiece again and the line went silent. Spencer, at that point, was gone; still, Czes made a mental note to have him dropped off in Tamarin where he would doubtlessly enjoy the night life.

Czes listened again, finally ascertained he was alone, and turned. Through a secret passage, he passed, its entrance disguised by a floor-to-ceiling original of Rassouli’s Shores of Heaven. Behind him, the masterpiece fell back into place. Darkness enveloped him. Small, chill, and almost featureless, the room was solid basalt and adorned only by a shelf on the wall opposite him and an occult engraving that dominated the floor. There was no light for his eyes to adjust to, but he knew from memory where each element was placed. With rehearsed and steady ritual, he pulled a small flint knife out of his vest pocket and set it in the middle of the magic circle. Carefully he stripped and set his attire, neatly folded, on the bench. The stone floor send the chill of expectation up his spine as he sat naked before the blade, yet, without hesitation, he lifted it in both hands and slashed it across his jugular.

Blood spurted from the wound, cascaded down his chest, and coursed through the channels of the magic circle hewn underneath his hunched-over frame. Geometries repeated ad naseum, squares overlapped squares, and circles spiraled in an ouroboros that spat ancient glyphs and mystic psalms. Into the eye, the ox, the virgin, and the axe, his blood poured and, with each quart, cast the chamber in an otherworldly carmine glow. In spite of his injury, he gurgled the names of select symbols and, as they answered their light pierced his vitae so fiercly their mirrors reflected as stars on the dark vault overhead.

Suddenly, he was elsewhere; a place he dubbed Spiritus Infra Terrarum. It was not the spirit world, but a plane below where the shades of souls wandered with features dimmed and animus bared. They could not see, for their vision was focused purely on the spirit world above; hidden from view, but sensed as the blind know night from day. As always, he did not have long for, already, he felt his blood defy the ordinary course of nature, recoil from the stone, and ascend in minute droplets all too eager to again flow through a wound that would only seal when his strength failed and his blade fell.

Through the shade realm, which by weird properties mimicked or mocked—whichever interpretation one preferred—the world of the real, he sojourned and at last came to Allure City. It, alien and uniform, was easy to find. There, in sharp contrast to the variegated images Spencer supplied, he saw an absence of diversity that intermingled merely drudgery and control. It was the former he sought to incite and the latter to dismay. Particularly the latter that were too similar, too singular, too much copies of the same. The mouthpiece that promised peace on Earth’s airwaves before being auspiciously silenced. Into that corrupt unity, he spoke a prahelikā of division that manifested as a vermin swarm on which danced the carriers of an astral plague that would flow from soul to mind and lay waste to the whole that was many.
An old woman sat in the back of Ndakala’s rented bush jeep. She looked far less than her years, but wealth, whiteness, and access to good food and better doctors were larger factors in that than personal genetics. Most hated her ilk. He was not most. Motives, however racially-underpinned or subliminated with guilt, were what earned his respect. Misguided though she was, he understood that she wanted to be of service to his people. Most outsiders, like her, couldn’t help but be fools, and behind him she sat in an immaculate white pantsuit with a floral-print silk scarf flung around her long neck with precision sufficient to make it appear an afterthought. Atop her head was a woven grass hat, which shielded her sweat-flecked brow from the subtropic sun. Barely an hour into the day and the humidity sweltered such that it compelled a paper fan from her satchel.

Her name was Lydia Benson, but to him she was the rich American woman who wanted to visit the place where such a pittance of her wealth was philanthropically invested.

“We are almost to the village, Lady. Maybe another hour, maybe two,” he said as the road turned east, away from the open highveld and into bush forest. The night before, his friend and pilot brought them by propeller plane from Cape Town to Johannesburg, still a bustling city, but also the last bastion of relative safety and civilization under Xanathan rule before wilderness and lawlessness took over. It was a perilous journey given the restrictions imposed on flights in the wake of the Iberian Incident—that being the reason his client remained still in South Africa and why he was making another trip up into the jungle. The details were still sparse, but from what he understood an alien city appeared and buried tens of millions of Earth’s citizens.

He refocused his thoughts back on the journey and their destination. Already, they had spent three hours driving along abandoned roads and over open fields. Now they were in the former Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve, just south of the Olifantsrivier, and close to where she wanted to be taken—the village of Phalaborwa.

Suddenly, she screamed; more of a stifled rasp, as he heard the sound of her palm fold over her mouth.

Evidently her eyes were far better than his, for it was a moment or two later before he saw what provoked such a reaction. Half a mile up the road, an overturned personnel carrier smoked. Around it were jeeps upended and on fire. Bodies were strewn all over. One was impaled on the stump of a dead tree, aloft like a macabre scarecrow. Instinctively, he stopped, snatched up his binoculars, and took in the details. The carnage appeared recent, maybe a few hours old. Blood still pooled from the wounds of what might be unconscious survivors. The vehicles were Xanathan, no doubt about it. He knew not what crazy guirellas dared venture so deep into the corporation’s territory, but they must not have accounted for the consequences that would befall the entire region. The riposte would be horrible and it would go worse for anyone found in this area.

“We have to leave right away. We can’t go this way, Lady. We have to go around. North. Off-road. It will add another two hours on to our trip, but I know a way. Through a canyon. Very dangerous, but it is either that or turn around.”

She nodded.

“Keep going?”

She nodded again.

He started the jeep, backtracked two miles, and turned up a game path that led down a steep embankment. It was mere minutes after his jeep was safe beneath the cover of the brush that he heard the choppers. It wasn’t the time to keep moving, it was the time to wait. He stopped, motioned for Lydia to get out, and they both crawled underneath the vehicle in the hopes of evading any thermal scans—if it wasn’t already too late.

“Just keep calm and quiet and nobody will know we’re here,” Ndakala whispered.
It was inaccurate to say darkness enveloped Tristan, but all his power armor’s ranged sensors dimmed when he lunged into the superfluidic mass. The last thing he saw was an oily polyp blossom outward, its surface briefly aglow in a genuflection of cyan brilliance, then numerous tenebrous petals enclosed around him. In that moment, he and Tethys lost sense of space and place. In lieu of astrometrics, night vision, and spectral analysis, his artificial intelligence provided a slew of biometric data; with that came a warning that flashed red and angry on the holographic superdisplay of his HUD.

VAL’GARA

VAL’GARA

VAL’GARA

“Now you tell me?!” Tristan incredulously bellowed, “I sacrificed myself for nothing! It’s going to kill me and then go on to kill everyone else on this base!”

> Attempted incursion of the Vesuvian Virus into my nanofilter matrix on physical contact with the entity was, and remains, the first and only decipherable indicator. Before that, your guess was as a good as mine. In a word, poor. Countermeasures won’t last long, so it is fortunate you are already inoculated against the virus.

What’s that suppose to mean?

> You are, and have been, infected. I wasn’t sure before, but the signatures match. More importantly, you haven’t suffered any subsequent psychological or physiological mutations.

Tristan was stunned, but in his current state didn’t feel as though he possessed the capacity to react. Even so, he knew this was what he was trained to confront. Well, not the part about being infected and likely doomed to become a monstrosity—rather, how to fight against odds impossible. He needed to calm down and come up with a plan, but what? He was still alive. Perhaps Tethys was responsible for that, but there remained the possibility his enemy deigned to manipulate him. He couldn’t allow himself to become an enemy asset.

Ultimately, he he needed more information.

<< Sssso >>

It was like an annoying buzz in his ear or the whisper of a ghost, if such existed. He didn’t appreciate the distraction, but maybe it was a clue. Tristan wanted to know, so he asked, What was that?

> The entity is overpowering my efforts to block its psionic messaging. It is likewise pursuing more aggressive and physical avenues in order to remove me as a barrier.

I’d prefer you stay intact. So it wants to talk? Try letting it have enough interaction that it doesn’t treat you like a wall to be broken through—he recalled the concrete bunker doors being reduced to rubble mere moments earlier and cringed. What’s the worst that can happen, eh? I’ll lose my mind and become a lunatic mass-murderer sooner rather than later?

> Standing down.

<< SOUNDER. >>

No longer a whisper. No longer vague. Another voice in his head, but now it boomed. No, more than that; it nearly crushed his psyche. To think his power armor actively filtered the lion’s share of the otherwise intolerable psionic impulse. He tried to frame a response. It voiced the phrase in a way that was insistent and rife with expectation, as if it sought to call to someone or guide him somewhere.

“Uh, hi. I’m Tristan. Just trying to get back home to Earth.”

<< SOUNDER. >>

He almost blacked out.

“I, eh, don’t understand. What is ‘Sounder’?”

It then uttered what he assuredly believed to be both a name and an unholy rite. The very enunciation delved in and reordered the foundation of his otherworldly beliefs. Twenty-seven staccato syllables tore through him, beyond him, and plumbed places deeper than he, but still he felt from that chasm rise the tormented chorus of those scorched by Hellfire; brutal, yet melodic, as heavy in grief and sorrow as in desire. The canto of the damned crescendoed and Tristan, in its wake, was violated, his cheeks flushed and loins turgid. Inexplicable and insatiable lust lashed the primal places of his being where mind and spirit mated. Like a spoiled sacrament polluted by every vice imaginable, he felt himself, unwillingly, partake, and came.

At the apex of his harrowing orgasm, his physical eyes rolled back and his mind’s eye, for the first time, opened.

It beheld a universe splayed out.

Suddenly, he was a conqueror who surveyed domain after felled domain and knew, intrinsically, he saw the product of his efforts. He set the villages on fire, crushed cities to rubble, and reveled in the gyre of carrion and taste of soot in the wind. He saw the City of Dis with its fiery towers, the dreamscape bathed hues unimaginable, the ephemeral realm of the psions, the weird green light of Sal’Chazzar specked with silhouettes of a dead civilization’s fleet, the eternal bioluminescent rains of Urum, a million worlds conquered, and ultimately he saw Earth. It wasn’t his, yet. Perspiration gathered on his brow. Of course it was his. In his chest, his heart beat heavy. He belonged to it. Then, between the beats, someplace deep inside him—deeper than any place could exist—an answer came.

A dare defiant, it impugned the credibility of that which called its name and challenged it to succeed where others failed. It, within him, made Tristan more than he was, more than he understood or could possibly have comprehended. Electromagnetic fire poured through him—or perhaps from him. His mind flayed and was flayed by an equally violent psionic tumult. As a conduit, he could merely feel—while trying desperately not to feel—and watch the rapid, confused scroll of the datafeed within his HUD.

Tristan shut his eyes as the intensity became too much.

Finally, it stopped.

He thought, perhaps, he blacked out, although it could only have been for a moment.

He opened his eyes again and all was quiet—still. Space loomed large around his drifting frame. Stars winked in the distance. And there, in the corner of his vision, he saw Earth.

> Tristan, please acknowledge.

I’m here, Tethys. Is that really—what happened?

> A struggle for dominance. Temporary armistice. Yes, that’s Earth. Recommendation: avoid. Further decision-tree analysis required. Self-reconstruction ongoing. We are not alone. Massive power signatures present, both on Earth and in adjacent space. Your symbiote, present; origins assessed as demonic, infected with the Vesuvian Virus. Val’Gara entity, present.

That thing is still here?

> It is right behind you, Tristan.

You said other massive power signatures?

> Yes, one nearby linked to ops signature.

Open comm to that channel.

> Comm opened.

<< Tristan Singh here. To whom am I addressing? >>

<< Bullshit. Tristan is dead. >> the voice came over his comm crystal clear.

More than that, it was strangely familiar.

<< For a while, no doubt. Say, you aren’t—uh. Callsign ‘Lionheart’; right? >>
One moment, Tristan was occupied with the repair of a spacecraft. Small, cheap, unimpressive, yet far more evolved than even the more advanced prototypes he heretofore encountered. Once its navigation was active, he loaded the star charts, synced them with his power armor, and plotted a course for Earth. It would take days to reach, but in that span he hoped to mentally recondition via meditation for what he anticipated to be a culture shock. What followed was a blur. Alarms sounded in his helmet, perhaps in his head. Cracks traced along the contours of the reinforced concrete hangar bay doors. A dozen spacecraft rattled around him. Cracks blossomed into fissures. Chunks of debris crashed to the deck and reincarnated as translucent walls of dust. His ship wasn’t nearly ready; neither was Tethys, who frenetically alternated enemy alerts and friendly hails.

He dropped to a knee behind the ship and reached for a gauss cannon. With no idea what was coming, his position and weapon provided little comfort, but at least there was something between him and the swiftly eroding entrance.

Tone down the noise and provide a brief verbal sitrep, he thought.

> Mobius signatures detected in armory. Jadis non-response triggered reconnaissance.

Why the alerts? They are friendlies.

> I am friendly. You are an unknown and a potential threat. Additionally—

The bay doors burst inward. Re-bar and pellets of concrete ricocheted off the walls. Tethys’ passive countermeasures protected him from kinetic intrusions and, with her ad-hoc memory maps and spectral overlays, he was able to peer through what was otherwise an opaque barrier of debris. Already rattled by the violent intrusion, he was further horrified by what he saw. There, he beheld a blotch darker than the space behind it with a malignant penumbra that bled hungrily over the halos of the benighted stars that outlined its inarticulate mass.

Tristan recoiled against the wall and, by instinct, retreated into the shadows. He wanted to hide, but doubted his precaution was sufficient. Eventually, a coherent thought crescendoed over the volatile drum of his heart:

. . Not of Earth. Not Mobius! What is that thing?

> Signature unrecognized. Encounter novel. Based on preliminary indicators, you are friendly. I am unknown, but not considered a threat; merely an accessory.

Similarities?

> Meta-psionic aura presents a frequency close to the force sustaining your animation.

His mind almost shut down at how inconceivable the report was. How could something so undeniably sinister consider him an ally? Or … well, he didn’t want to consider that part. Tethys didn’t have an answer for that fragmentary thought. Still, his training kicked in and as he assessed what he knew he recognized two things and the first took a mere moment to confirm.

Likelihood of hostilities between Mobius recon team and this entity if I hang around?

> 100%

Odds of all our team making it home alive?

> Insufficient data to calculate probabilities for that outcome.

Not worth the risk. Sometimes you can just sense power, and this thing is a lot stronger than anything I’ve seen here—yourself included, no offense. Anything I’ve seen ever other than maybe on Xenophore where a mad god made an entire enemy fleet disappear. I have to do something.

> No offense taken, Tristan. Be careful, it isn’t just your ass on the line.

The unusually human quip from the artificial intelligence was something he would have to examine later. He stood up and stepped out from behind the half-repaired ship. It looked worse than when he started and wasn’t going anywhere after its recent role as a damage buffer. He had a team to save, or try to. If this thing was his friend, then maybe it was here for him. It was a possibility. The only way to find out was to throw himself at it and let fate lead where it may.
As the laminated cardboard door creaked wide, Ndakala Blayhi glanced up from the plywood slab and plastic crates that composed his desk. With a gesture, he lifted cheap horn-rimmed glasses off the bridge of his nose; not prescription, but adequate to read words on a page. Expressions were another matter. Still on his desk, atop a stack of papers, was his new identification card. On it was printed and embossed his third name, same as his first and inherited from his grandfather, an Efé village shaman. He was proud to reclaim it, but likewise ashamed the journey took so long. While his former and second name, Joshua, availed him security and opportunity, he now recognized it came at the cost of identity. ‘Joshua’ was a symbolic rejection of his past—an ingratiation to those in power over his world. This was something he could not comprehend as a young boy, but now, much later in life, recognized the subtext.

Fortunately, he outlived the west's cultural war. They lost. Not to his people, who were too disorganized and fraught with internal strife to ever stand up to the west; rather, unable to cope with the fallout of the Val’Gara attack, the west abandoned him, his kinsmen, his country, and the whole African continent. In their place reigned chaos and an alien business—Xanathan Enterprises. Still, the quarantine was the direct cause that yielded a new era of violent cultural revitalization, even as new powers sought to impose their will on the cradle of humankind.

‘Joshua’ was now a liability. Were it not for that, apathy would have hewn it on his tombstone.

“How may I help you, Digbo?” he asked.

The stock clerk’s attention drifted to the single personal item in the makeshift office tucked behind pallets of melons, paper towels, and water. It was his first day on the job, but Ndakala thought he would do well as a member of the Aldi famiy.

“Ah,” Ndakala carefully lifted the bibelot and looked at it the way he always did, as though it was his first time. “My grandfather, my mother, and myself. One of few photos taken of the Efé village in the Ituri. Yes, yes, that young man was me. Now I am old and my hair—I use to have some, as you can see—what little is left is white.”

He laughed and carefully set it back down on his desk.

“But what interest does a young man with his life in front of him have in an old man? No doubt you are anxious to leave and celebrate life.”

Digbo, a dark rhino of a youth from Kraaifontein district, just shrugged his heavy round shoulders and vaguely smiled. A former rugby player and, at six foot five inches, over two feet taller than Ndakala, Digbo wasn’t much of a talker. Most of those who worked in the back were quiet. The cashiers were the ones who loved to socialize.

Ndakala stood up, went back to the safe, keyed in the combination, and found the company checkbook. He removed just one check, secured the safe, turned around, sat down at his desk, and filled it out. Done, he stood up, handed it to Digbo, and shook his hand.

“What better way to celebrate than with your first paycheck, yes?”

That got a much larger smile. Toothy white, a handsome contrast.

Ndakala nodded and smiled back, “Good, good. Be well. I hope to see you still here after I return in a few days.”

“Yes, sir, Mister Blahyi. You will.”

Digbo turned and left, leaving Ndakala once more alone. Not a nosy one, that, he thought as he brushed a fly off a patch of melanoma-poisoned skin on his bald head. No doubt he was more interested in checking in on his friends or a special someone than the sojourns of an old man. Still, Digbo appeared trustworthy, strong, and showed consideration for his fellow Aldi employs. Eventually, Ndakala might recruit him to a broader humanitarian interest.

Eventually, everyone was gone and he, as manager, was left to turn off the lights and lock up the store. His assistant manager would unlock it in the morning. Aldi—indeed, most of Cape Town—didn’t operate on the 24/7 immediate gratification work cycle of the west. He was glad of that.
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