The Great Belligerency [Round 4: Static]

The Great Belligerency [Round 4: Static]
RE: The Great Belligerency [Round 4: Static]
Cole reluctantly marched down the deserted street, prodded by Ur every few steps. The whole experience was frustrating and humiliating. It was as though he were a rebellious child being dragged through town by his mother.

She hadn't even told him where they were going. Despite what she had said about an "ignorant tool" before, she was hardly in any hurry to inform him. He would have commented on the hypocrisy if he were able to speak.

After what seemed like an eternity of walking, Ur suddenly stopped him in mid-step.

"This is close enough," she said.

Close enough to what? he didn't reply.

She walked up to him and pulled a bee off of his body. Cole had an unpleasant feeling about just what bee it was.

"You cannot hide anything from me, mortal." Ur looked at her hand, where the bee was crawling weakly, taking stock of its newfound freedom. "You have been hoping that I did not know about this mockery of nature, that if I were distracted you might use it to escape me."

It would have been nice.

"But you should be thankful. I will soon grant you the freedom you desire so much."

How kind of you. I'm sure there's no catch.

"All I ask in return is one simple favor. But I believe you will find it to be in your interest as well."

She returned the bee to Cole's body, and they both vanished.


Phil Girnham was bored. He'd appeared in some kind of ornate palace, in front of a door that was shut tight. Even a grenade hadn't budged it.

With nothing else to do, he had taken to wandering the corridors, but they all looked more or less the same. Maybe a trained archaeologist could tell the difference between the assorted piles of rubble filling the place, but to him it was all a bunch of rocks.

After half an hour, he was bored enough to take a closer look, but all he found was that some of the rocks looked a little like arms and legs. Statues, apparently.

He vaguely remembered the recording, something about a ruined world; maybe this place had been trashed in the disaster. Then again, he supposed, it could have been ruined long before that; maybe the machine had flung him into an ancient temple.

Too bad it was an ancient temple without a convenient exit. He couldn't even tell if the door would have lead out or deeper in, assuming he could even find it.

After what seemed like hours of wandering, he found another door. Or possibly the same one; by this point he'd forgotten the details of it. A door was a door.

He gave it a small push. It opened. Maybe it was a different door, then. Unless he'd gotten so lost that he'd managed to find the other side of it, of course.

As he stepped through the doorway, he found a small chamber with a golden altar and an ornately-decorated urn sitting on it.

So he hadn't gone in a big circle, at least; on the other hand, he still wasn't outside. Then again, the altar and the urn were the most interesting things he'd found since his arrival.

He stepped towards the altar and glanced inside the urn. It was full of some sort of dark red liquid.

It wasn't blood, Phil had seen enough to be sure of that. Maybe it was acid, or an explosive. Maybe it could help him get through the other door, assuming he could find it again.

As a test, Phil lifted up the urn and poured a little bit of liquid on the altar. The liquid burst into flames as soon as it struck the golden surface.

That was a conclusive enough test. Phil didn't need to see any more.

But he found that he couldn't stop pouring. His arms were frozen into position, and the liquid kept flowing out, until it covered the altar, flowed all across the floor, and set the entire chamber ablaze.


"We are here. This is as far as your little friend can take you."

Ur plucked the bee from Cole's still body once more.

"Take a good look around. You will be spending some time here."

Cole found he could move, at last. Not much, but enough to turn. He took her advice and examined the area. They seemed to be in some form of palace, or temple; there was a great door behind him.

"That door is shut tightly," Ur said, pulling him to face her once more. "Your job is to open it - it is, after all, your only way out of here."

"You've gone to all this trouble so I can open a door?" Cole asked. "I wish I could say I was surprised."

"That is all you need to know. The rest is up to you. Enjoy your freedom, fool. We will be waiting for you on the other side."

Ur smiled, tapped the bee in her hands, and vanished. Cole's body felt light again, and he could move freely.

He promptly put his newfound freedom to use by forming his hands into claws and pounding on the nearest wall as hard as he could. It hurt his claws more than the wall, but he was beyond caring at this point.

"She will pay for this!" he shouted. "I am no plaything for the gods!"

Cole would have smashed something, but the chamber was already filled with rubble. As he pondered whether it would be worth breaking a rock into a smaller rock, he heard a loud, piercing scream echoing through the halls.

Evidently, he was not alone in here.


In truth, Ur understood less of what she had just done than she would have cared to admit to Cole, or to any mortal. But she knew enough.

She knew that this temple had been sealed away by divine power. Even in the city, she had been able to sense it. That meant this world had gods, gods who would surely take notice of a mortal trying to break one of their seals.

And when they arrived, she would see to it that they did not limit their wrath to Cole.


Phil was on fire. This was the least of his problems.

He was more concerned with the serpentine shape the flames on the altar had taken, the fact that the fiery snake was staring directly at him, and the fact that he couldn't move at all.

It only got worse when the serpent spoke directly into his mind.


Phil found he could move his mouth. This was presumably so that he could give the serpent an answer, but as far as Phil was concerned, it was better used as an opportunity to scream at the top of his lungs.

The serpent was less than amused. Phil's shrieks were cut short, though not before they echoed through the entire temple.


"I don't know!" Phil blurted out. "I don't know who you are, or even where I am!"



Phil tried to answer, but this time his mouth was still firmly shut.



The flames swirled through the room, all flying towards Phil. The pain was intense, and his screams would have been even louder if he were allowed to make them.

Slowly, the flames surrounding his body subsided. He removed his helmet, and looked at his hands.

"Such a weak body," he said to himself. "I shall have to remake it to be more suitable."

Before he could prepare himself, however, he found that he had another guest.

"Phil? Was that scream you? And do you have the slightest idea where we are?"

"Phil" turned around, and put his helmet back on. His suit burst into flames.

"You carry the stench of false gods," he said. "I will give you one chance. Renounce the false gods and swear yourself to me, or be destroyed."

Cole groaned. He was becoming more and more convinced that he should have taken his chances with the heavy artillery.
RE: The Great Belligerency [Round 4: Static]
Amala was lost.

Had Anansi not sent her back? Yet she could see nothing, feel nothing. She was not in the city; she was not anywhere, as best as she could tell.

What had gone wrong? Why had she not yet returned?


The girl had been fortunate this round.

Her first stroke of luck had been appearing close to the spirit. Close enough that her trackers thought their work done when they caught the spirit.

Then, when one of them pointed out a second signal had been detected in the area, someone noticed the crow. Half of the squad ran off after it, leaving the girl securely undetected. Given time to learn more about this world, she would easily blend in with the human population.

And then, as she followed the group escorting the spirit, she realized how fortunate she had truly been. This was a group of novice soldiers. Even their hastily-assigned leader was lacking in confidence, and none of them seemed comfortable with the idea of killing what looked like a little girl.

Better still, it was a group of novice soldiers with face-concealing helmets. All she had to do was follow them quietly and wait for one to separate from the others.

She watched as they marched into a diner, which was in much better shape than the surrounding environs. A few minutes later, they emerged without their captive. Fascinating. There was a brief argument - apparently they'd left the spirit with their cook, and some of the soldiers weren't sure if it was a good idea.

That might be useful information to pass into the right set of ears later on. She continued following the group - without a captive to watch, and with doubts emerging in the ranks, it was more likely that someone would end up isolating themselves.

Indeed, not five minutes later, one of the soldiers started to lag behind. A little more distance from the others, and it would be safe to send out a call for help that only he would hear.

"McReed! Get back in line!"

The order was sudden, and surprisingly forceful considering its source. The lagging soldier picked up his pace, and rejoined the group.

It was unusual. Not an hour ago, the leader had seemed no more confident than the rest of them. Now she seemed determined to keep the group together. Every time a recruit came close to being a viable target, Sasha called out to them again and they fell back in line.

It was almost as if she knew they were being followed.

She did. She knew a frightening amount about who was following them and why. She also knew what was happening at Whistler's diner, what was happening at headquarters, what was happening in a sealed temple buried beneath the surface some miles away from the city, and what was happening in a secure, forgotten bunker even further away.

As well as the personal histories and dietary habits of every soldier under her command.

She was trying very hard not to think about what all of it meant, or what HQ would do to her if they got ahold of this book which was telling her everything and found out about her little arrangement with Whistler, not to mention everything else he was keeping in his kitchen.

It was a lot of things to not think about, and in all honesty, she wasn't doing a good job of not thinking about them.


"They all heard a message when they came here?" Whistler asked, surprised.

"Yes. I heard it, too." In fact, Soft knew, the other battlers had also heard it; the Narration had told her that, back when she still had it. But explaining the whole battle to the death thing didn't seem worth the trouble right now. "They all want to help."

Soft wasn't sure if she wanted to help. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do now at all. But at least translating helped her keep her mind off that, off of everything else.

"And I've just been keeping them cooped up in here," Whistler sighed, pacing back and forth. "Dammit, what should I do? If I tell HQ about this, they'll just round everyone up and shoot 'em all. And even if they want to stop whatever wrecked the world, I got no idea what it is."

Soft didn't want to say anything, but she found herself translating for the other refugees. It wasn't even for any reason. It was just the only thing she felt able to do.


As it turned out, even if Whistler had told headquarters about his menagerie, they likely wouldn't have done anything at that point. They had bigger problems on their hands.

By now, the four lead Rebuilders had heard all about the mysterious Outsider covered in insects that had suddenly vanished, and they were even more worried about it than the commander who had given the report. Not that they let it show, of course. They simply broadcast a description of the Outsider and told all troops to shoot it on sight. Since this was the policy for all Outsiders, nobody thought there was anything unusual about it.

But this was, to the leaders, no ordinary Outsider. They had already retreated to the meeting room to plan their next move.

It seemed odd to the commander that they were taking this Outsider so seriously - they'd dealt with escapees before, after all. This one might have a wider range, but how much more dangerous could it be?

Of course, she could hardly be blamed for underestimating the risk. After all, like most citizens, she had not heard of the prophecy that the Lord of Insects would herald the Firebringer's return.


"These alarms are driving me crazy," Ambrose groaned, covering her ears. "Can't we just get to a terminal and shut them off?"

Minotaurus shook his head.

"Not until I can be sure we are alone here - save the dead, of course. If someone else is here, we would alert them to our presence. Or, if another uninvited guest arrives and disables the alarms, we would know of them."

"I guess that makes sense, but it feels like they're getting even louder."

Minotaurus paused for a moment in thought.

"I believe you may be right. There seems to be one more alarm than when we entered."

"I didn't trip it!"

"As I said, I cannot be sure we are alone here. But we will soon be at the central control chamber. From there, we should be able to use the bunker's surveillance systems to locate anyone else who may be lurking here."

"Then can we shut off these stupid alarms?"

"Most likely."


Minotaurus walked to the solid steel door. It was locked, as most of the doors had been, and posed as little obstacle as the ones before it. Ambrose disabled the electronic sensors on it with just a moment's work, and Minotaurus tore the door out of its frame.

The door lead to yet another corridor. It was, for the most part, like the dozens they had already walked through. There was, however, one significant difference: the glowing runes covering the walls.

"We are very, very close," Minotaurus said. "As you may have guessed."

Ambrose stared at the walls awkwardly as she followed.

"Those are holy symbols," Minotaurus explained. "I do not know their specific significance, but they have not been in common use on this world in centuries."

"His world ended," Ambrose said blankly. "He saw it happen. He turned to religion for answers."

"That seems likely."

Minotaurus took a few steps down the hallway before he realized he couldn't hear Ambrose behind him. And that he knew why.

"When this job is finished, I will find out exactly what happened to the people of New Shambhala," he said, without turning around.

"Thank you."

They resumed walking down the hall, and before long Minotaurus stopped before another steel door. It looked identical to the other doors they'd seen in the complex, save for the large circle of runes inscribed on it.

"This is the room," Minotaurus said.

"You don't say. Do the symbols do anything, or are they just for show?"

"They serve as protection from 'unholy elements'. They should not interfere with our procedures. However, the security codes will likely be more complex than the others we have seen."

Ambrose smirked as she approached the lock mechanism.

"That's not saying much."

Despite being at the core of the bunker, the door lasted no longer than its predecessors. The pair stepped through the doorway and found the control room.

It was rather unimpressive, all things considered. Even if you ignored the dust and cobwebs and the decomposed corpse in the chair, it was really just a desk with a few monitors on it. Not even rows upon rows, just five. Even the machine in the corner looked more like an excessively elaborate science fair project than the most advanced technology on the planet.

Or at least native to the planet. One of the monitors was fixated on a satellite image of a large golden structure. Minotaurus was staring at it.

"What is that?" Ambrose asked.

"A sign that we may have far greater problems than I thought." He grabbed the keyboard and began tapping at it with a surprising amount of care, given the size of his hands. "But before that, there is still the matter of the files we came here for."

"And shutting off the damn alarms," Ambrose groaned.


It hadn't taken long for Cole's conversation with the fiery god to go from bad to worse. A simple groan of disbelief was, unsurprisingly, taken as a grave insult, and of course Cole was far too proud and spiteful to back down.

It was only when a flame-covered fist was mere inches away from his face that Cole realized exactly how much trouble he was in. He was unsure of his cursed body's tolerance to fire, as it had never really been tested; but he could be reasonably confident that the thousands of insects he was dependent on would not survive in that heat.

He leapt back, dodging the blow, but the god was already preparing another strike. His foe could react faster than he could, Cole realized, as he backed out of the room; he could not simply keep running, especially in the confines of this temple.

But his various biological defenses were of little help. Girnham's body was surrounded by an aura of flame, ruling out any plan that involved direct contact. Yet a chemical spray was hardly better - Cole doubted he could produce enough to douse the flames, and Girnham's suit would prevent any of them from affecting his body. Perhaps if he had focused more on chemistry, he might have been able to find a combination of fluids that would be combustible, but that lay outside of his expertise.

There was the Shambala spider's explosive webbing, however. With few other options, Cole produced a small strand of it, then quickly flung it towards his foe.

The god in Girnham's body waved his arm, and a burst of fire struck the webbing in midair, detonating it. Then his hand began to glow as he walked out of the flaming chamber. Cole had an unpleasant notion of what, exactly, was going to happen next, and of how ill-prepared he was for it.

Cole dove down a nearby stairway, and felt unpleasantly warm as a stream of fire flew above him. He could not simply react. He needed to work out a plan, and quickly.

Escape wasn't an option. The temple was large, but ultimately he was confined to it - unless he opened the main doors, and even if he knew how, that was just what the goddess had wanted him to do. And the corridors were too tight for flying.

Then it struck him. He had a number of burrowing insects available to him; what if he were to craft his own corridors?

Another blast of fire overhead reminded him that he had little time, and his body was not shaped for digging. He needed to delay the flame god long enough to alter himself.

The webbing might work, if he could strike the god by surprise. But what else could he do? Chemicals were out of the question, and physical contact was too high-risk.

He needed to think of something, some change he could make quickly that had a chance of turning the tide of the battle.

And then it struck him.

Cole picked himself up, just in time to see the god walking down the stairs slowly and deliberately. It was showing off. The god knew that it had an enormous advantage; it was barely expending effort and Cole was already nearly defeated.

Its advantage would have been significantly greater if it had turned on the sound dampeners in Phil's helmet. It might even have thought to search its host's memories for that information, had it been aware of the amount of noise a male cicada could generate.

The particular species Cole was mimicking was capable of producing sounds up to 120 decibels, enough to deafen someone if it was right in their ear. And Cole was considerably larger than a cicada.

The god shrieked in agony, though Cole couldn't hear it; he had already shut off his hearing structures. But he could see its pained writhing. It held its hands to its head desperately, pressing the helmet further against Girnham's ears.

Cole didn't waste time. He fled as far as he could before he began reshaping himself into a mole cricket and digging through the floor.

He felt an unpleasant blast of heat behind his rear limbs just as he made it underground.


"So what have you found?" Ambrose asked. Minotaurus hadn't needed any help with the files, it seemed, so she mostly just stared at the glowing machine in the corner.

"Text for the recorded message this system plays, various hypotheses... as to the matter of his interest in ancient religion, there is a very clear point in the files where he begins speaking of 'the Firebringer' and 'the Wise Ones' and similar incomprehensible terms... wait."

"What is it?"

Minotaurus pointed to the folder on one of the screens.

"This file was created today."

"Is it a log file? It might just be doing that automatically. Something's keeping the power going, after all."

"Not quite. It appears to be some sort of error report... hmm, interesting."


"It appears the system is set to automatically scan for life forms leaving this world. And one has. Stranger still, it appears to have attempted to return. This seems to be the cause of the additional alarm."

"Attempted? It didn't make it?"

"The system has placed it in a dimensional pocket for analysis. Let me see..."

Minotaurus' eyes widened.

"This is not good."

He quickly flipped to another file and started scrolling through it to confirm his fears.

"I do not know how, but Aran's battle has come here. This may be a coincidence, but I have my doubts."

"You think the guy who's running it did this?"

Minotaurus shook his head.

"I cannot imagine they would use this system rather than their own power. But this is not even our greatest concern."

"Oh, right, that gold thing," Ambrose said. "Are you going to actually tell me what it is?"

"It is a long story, but I will have time while we move," Minotaurus said, transferring the files to his own device. "I will investigate these further later on. We are done here."

He stood up and started walking out. Ambrose followed him.

Had Minotaurus waited a moment later, however, he might have noticed the newest file had an update.

The being in holding had been removed.


The Executor was not in the best of moods. He'd been watching for the better part of half an hour when he realized that the trail he'd followed back to this world hadn't even made it all the way.

It had been caught on something. Someone was trying to study it. As if he didn't need an additional distraction with his battle.

Fortunately, it was a simple matter to move the contestant - or third-of-a-contestant, apparently - from an empty space into the adjacent world. She was already in the Void, after all.

He didn't give much care to where he dropped her. What did it even matter at this point? What mattered was preventing further interruptions.


Amala felt something move. She was coming closer to... to something.

To someone.

To her children.


"I knew we weren't ready for the Lord of Insects yet," said Jaca, the Head of Public Safety. "If we can't stop him from waking the Firebringer, all our efforts to repair this city will be for naught."

"I've been saying all along, we shouldn't have kept the people in the dark about the prophecy," Head Architect Pyk grumbled. "How many Outsiders have we killed needlessly when we were only worried about one?"

"You know well that mortals have a poor track record when it comes to prophecies, Pyk." Ol the Chief Clerk took off her glasses; she rarely had a chance to reveal her eyes. "They always try to meddle with the outcome and it never goes well. I could name a thousand examples."

"And yet, is that not precisely what we have done?" Pyk shot back. "And what do we have to show for it? Dozens of Outsiders dead, and the Lord of Insects is loose. And, it would seem, more powerful than we imagined. If he can truly move without form, as the report suggests, then he may even be able to bypass our seal."

"Enough, all of you."

Chief Medic Vei was the quietest of the four, but when he spoke, the others took it seriously.

"It doesn't matter at this point what we could have done. What matters is keeping the seal on the Firebringer intact."

"Assuming it isn't already too late," Jaca muttered.

"Well, it isn't yet. If the Firebringer leaves the confines of the temple, we'll know..."

The creature was an insignificant pest. A diversion. It hardly mattered if it escaped now; its punishment could wait until the false gods were destroyed.

The Firebringer's new body had the power of flight, it seemed. It rushed towards the sealed door and raised its flaming hands.

The door began to glow a bright red.

Ol's voice trailed off before she could finish her sentence. The other three knew why as well.

The seal was weakening.

"Well, in that case, we'd best come up with a plan fast," Vei said. "It's not as if we can simply pray for a miracle - who would we even pray to?"

And then Amala appeared before them.
RE: The Great Belligerency [Round 4: Static]
"That, I suppose, answers that."

"Without actually answering anything at all," interjected Pyk. "What's going on here, and who are you?"

It wasn't often that any of the heads of the Rebuilders were at a loss, but it seemed to be coming at a greater and grater frequency as the prophecy unfolded. Amala, on the other hand, was becoming quite accustomed to confusion and uncertainty in the time she'd maintained her individuality, and did her best to seem confident and self-assured and generally dignified.

"I am Amala, who tends the garden." A bit of divine prescience guided her next sentence, and she felt fairly confident in saying "I have crossed the void to aid you, my children. What can your mother do to ease your plight?"

As she focused on the scene in front of her, it became quite clear who exactly she was addressing. Perhaps that burst of divine prescience could have been a bit more specific; she almost felt foolish addressing these people, given their nature, but decided she was too far in to back down now. Nevertheless, one of the four grinned.

"Our mother, eh? I feel like there might be some kind of miscommunication here."

"No," Vei spoke again, focusing everyone's attention. "Look closer, beyond the shell. If anyone could be called our mother, it would be one like she."

As the others observed her, Amala felt a swelling of power in the back of her mind. She was bolstered by their faith and understanding, and her uncertainty was replaced by empathy and maternality.

"Yes. I may not have birthed you myself, but I am no less your mother for it. I see fear in your hearts; tell me, what is its cause?"

Since the apocalypse, the four Rebuilders had made plans on plans, set about doing everything in their power to save their world and their people; in the space of instants, those plans were discarded and reformulated. They could never hope to confront the Firebringer on their own: he had proven time and again to be their match and more, and only their seeming destruction and that of their subjects had sealed him away. Now, though, there was a new factor, one noted in no prophecy and anticipated by none it spoke of. As they described the situation to the new arrival, new plans were made. They would be painful to enact, but they provided the first glimmer of hope that had really shown itself in recent memory.


Ur smiled as she watched the door in front of her heat, buckling as it began to glow and warp. She was unsure how the foolish scientist had managed a feat like this, but she felt sure that his hubris would be punished immediately, and she'd be able to channel that punishment onto countless others. Everything was coming together nicely. She stroked the bee in her hand pensively, almost as one might a surly white cat.

Her wicked smile faded and her fingertip slowed, though, as she became aware of the nature of the fire that was licking at the far side of the seal. Aran was surely not its source; he could never muster power like this, and moreover would never allow himself to harness a divine source of energy. Whatever had happened in the minutes since she had sealed him in the temple had quite gotten away from her, and it was becoming clear that it would be best not to be present when whatever was happening actually happened.

She turned to flee; she could have teleported, of course, but wanted to see what would actually emerge in a gout of godly flame and a wave of molten metal. As she did, though, she collapsed to her knees: it was bad enough that her plans for Aran seemed to have gone awry, but she felt in her bones that something had changed for Amala as well; the connection to her followers in the Plateau had been a galling, nauseating sensation in the back of Ur's mind, a headache and a reminder of why she was forced to play with insects like her stolen charge, but that needling, almost-forgettable presence suddenly blossomed to a coruscating, suffocating wave of negation. Something present and powerful was feeding her other third, and whatever it was left little room for something like Ur to exist.

As she crumpled, bad became worse: behind her, rivulets of molten metal became gouts of spurting quicksilver, and the door began to melt in earnest.


Forgotten as was possible and as alone as she could be, the last third of the sundered goddess floated through the darkened city. She was directionless and perhaps insensate, an empty cocoon or broken eggshell, inhabited only by ghosts and memories.It might not even have mattered what she did or where she was, had her spectral Brownian motion not brought her into the path others had happened to take.

She'd been drifting for some time without stopping, but without warning ground to a halt and screamed. It would probably have alerted quite a few people to her presence, had everyone who could have heard it not already known she was there: the cybernetically-augmented girl had detected her easily, enhanced senses catching the muttering and groaning the once-goddess seemed to constantly emit; the leader of the small band of Rebuilders had been informed by her new book what was approaching and what it would be doing; her followers had been warned by means of hand signals and whispered commands, and had expected the scream.

Nevertheless, both the girl and the commandos independently decided to converge on the source of the sound. The former had given up on the possibility of catching her quarry off-guard, while the latter simply needed a reason to delay rendezvous with her commander while she thought. While no party involved had intended to encounter any other, their imminent meeting was so perfectly timed that it might seem a higher power had ordained it, had it not been for the fact that a higher power was what they were about to meet.
RE: The Great Belligerency [Round 4: Static]
It was very difficult to hold a meeting when you had only one translator handling at least a dozen different languages. As such, the first order of business had been figuring out if there was an alternative.

It turned out that there was. Portia had developed one in her laboratory back home, though it was only calibrated to the languages of her homeworld. And lacking several key exotic materials, she hadn't really been able to work on it anyway, or communicate what she needed.

But now it was possible to work together. Na-Alle-Tuon (who Soft thought resembled a large lizard with a teakettle for a head) was an expert alchemist, and knew exactly what was needed to synthesize the rarer metals. As to the matter of aligning it to the local languages, Garanthus Allex (who Soft thought of as a large rock who didn't so much "talk" as "vibrate") knew of a spell which could grant a nonliving object the full linguistic knowledge of a living being. Garanthus explained that it had been able to understand all of them because of the spell, but was limited in its own communicative abilities. But a device designed for translation would surely be able to communicate that knowledge effectively. Finally, Zorgen (who looked like a small furry rodent to Soft) said he had a knack for making more of something, so he could make translators for everyone once they had one functioning.

That left the actual gathering of materials, which had to be done by Whistler since anyone else would be shot on sight. And so he left to find what he could; and Soft, finally able to do more than speak for dozens who couldn't, asked for a break.

As she shuffled over to an empty corner of the ruins, she heard a small buzzing sound.

"What is it, Nigel?"

"Bzz," Nigel said.

Or at least, that was how it would have sounded to anyone else. Soft understood it as "I believe something is troubling you. The Mind asks that I do what I may to ease your burden. I ask that you speak, and I will listen, and perhaps advise."

Soft reflected on this. She sat down and thought about where to even start.

The words came to her almost automatically.

"Once upon a time..."