From the reaction of the rest of the students, it was clear that this was a story that Athena had told many times before. But none seemed to object to hearing it again, and I saw several glance my way. It was sort of like when you’re watching a movie that you know well and it’s about to get to a really good part, so you look at the person who has never seen it so that you can see their reaction.
“The Seosten,” she continued, “were obviously not the first race to discover Earth. Humans had been interacting with other races for quite some time. But most of the non-Earth species that made their way there did so by accident up to that point. Some arrived through portal or teleportation mishaps or the equivalent, while others stumbled across it with their own starships as they either fled the Seosten/Fomorian conflict or simply explored what was unknown space.
“Either way, Earth, then known as Rysthael or an ancient word meaning Hidden, was just that. It was hidden. The planet was so far away from Seosten and Fomorian space, and so out of the way, that many beings sought it out in order to live apart from that endless conflict. It became a sort of… what you might call a fairy tale, a story about a paradise world free of that violent war.”
Letting her gaze slowly move across the room, the woman took a moment to meet everyone’s gaze, making sure we all understood just what a big deal it was for those people to have a safe haven to flee to that wasn’t part of the intergalactic war. Then she continued. “Unfortunately, this, of course, could not last forever. Rumors of such ‘haven worlds’ had naturally been going around essentially since the very beginning of this eternal conflict. But this one contained details and other evidence that made the Seraphim, leadership of the Seosten, take extra note of it. So, they sent out expeditions to search for it. There were dozens of small scouting vessels whose goal was to find this planet of untouched resources and a strangely Seosten-like species.”
Standing in the center of the room, Athena turned in a circle, her voice softening a little. “It took over thirty Elohim-standard years–” Pausing, she looked back to me. “Elohim is the Seosten home planet. For reasons that are as obvious as they are self-centered, the Seosten have made our world’s cycle into the standard for our space. An Elohim year is roughly eighty percent longer than an Earth year. So thirty Elohim years would have been around fifty-four Earth years.”
“In any case,” she continued once that was clear, “for those thirty standard years, the scouting ships searched for this mythical paradise that the other species called Rysthael. Then, one vessel found it. Rysthael was located. This was roughly two thousand years ago.” Quickly, she did the mental math for me by helpfully adding, “Just under three thousand five hundred Earth years.
I thought about that for a moment, seeing the Seosten woman (and most of the rest of the class) watching me curiously before I finally put in, “That would be around what we call 1500 B.C?”
Athena nodded. “Somewhere in there, yes. The Seosten scouting vessel came to the planet and found… well, humans. Along with every other species that was there, of course. There were cities full of humans working alongside other species. But there were also places where humans hunted everything that wasn’t human. Or, of course, were hunted by them. But one place in particular stood out to the crew of that Seosten vessel. The land that, at that point, was known as Kemet, or Hwt-Ptah. Hwt-Ptah itself was translated roughly and rather literally by one of Earth’s other peoples into the word Aiguptos. Or–”
“Egypt?” I put in without thinking, then flushed deeply. “I mean, sorry. I don’t know if I should raise my hand or–or what the… yeah. I remember hearing the whole Aiguptos is Egypt thing.”
Athena smiled. “It’s quite all right, of course. Yes. The land then known as Kemet or Aiguptos, what would eventually become Egypt. When the Seosten scouting party investigated, they found that this civilization was comprised of equal parts humans and other intelligent species. They had come together to create one of the most powerful empires on the planet at the time.
“In fact,” she continued, “many of the so-called gods and other mythological creatures that this civilization had been telling stories of for so long were either Bonded humans or powerful non-humans.”
Alters and Heretics, I realized. Which made sense. As far as I knew, Egypt mythology had a lot of different gods and powerful creatures in it.
Mr. Reinswield briefly interjected. “As a point of fact, one of those Bonded eventually became one of the founding members of what those on earth call Eden’s Garden. The one known as Sobek, he acts as the leader of what they call Vigiles.”
Sobek. That was the crocodile god, right? He was one of the Vigiles, like Hisao? I wondered if that had anything to do with how independent they were. Since, as I understood it, they were basically given blanket authority to make their own decisions in the field, as judge, jury, and executioner.
Athena continued. “More interesting to the scouting team, there were many bits of the Egyptian mythology and stories that were clearly based on somewhat corrupted stories of powerful beings from back within the Seosten Empire. Somehow, the non-humans who dwelt there had lived on the planet for so long, generation after generation, that the actual truth of their origin had faded. All they had were stories that they passed on to one another. Stories that became myth, to the point that they didn’t even realize that they were actually worshipping the very same masters that their ancestors had fled from so long before.”
Reflexively, I started to ask what that meant, but the woman was already explaining, “You see, the Egyptians’ primary god was named Amun. In their language, that was a word meaning ‘Hidden One.’”
I sat back suddenly, blinking a few times. Amun. The Egyptian god Amun actually meant ‘hidden one’? Which itself was a veiled reference to the actual hidden ones, the Seosten. Clearly, it was just like Athena had said. Whatever Alters had settled with the ancient Egyptians had told their descendants about the Seosten, which had eventually become the basis for the god they actually worshipped. Wow. Just… wow.
“Seosten procedure at that time,” Athena went on, “was to quietly infiltrate the world to find out what we could. Unfortunately, having an entire religion that was at least partially based on us was unacceptable. So, the Seosten scouting force took measures to alleviate that problem by possessing the ruler, or as they called it, pharaoh at that time. He was a human male known as Amenhotep. The Seosten-Possessed Amenhotep ordered the worship of Amun and his like to be stopped, and established a new god for them to focus on: Aten, the sun deity. This allowed the Seosten to destroy many records that were solely about how to identify Seosten possession, among other important things.”
Biting my lip, I thought back a bit before offering, “But worship of Aten instead of Amun didn’t… um, it didn’t last very long, did it?” Granted, I was going by half-remembered things on a project I’d done a couple years earlier, but still. I was pretty sure his reign as the main Egyptian god had been relatively short.
Athena nodded. “Correct, as it turned out, there was an unknown force that was aware of the Seosten presence in the city. They eliminated Amenhotep, who had taken the name of Akhenaten in honor of Aten, as well as the Seosten possessing him. They then turned his heir, a young boy named Tutankhaten, into a Bonded with the blood of that same Seosten.” She gave me a brief look before explaining, “Bonded is another word for Heretic. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun, signifying the return of their focus on Amun instead of Aten. In other words, the return of the focus on teaching their people how to identify and defeat the Seosten.”
Tutankhamun or Tutankhaten, I realized, in our day was simply referred to as King Tut. King Tut had been a Heretic. Or rather, I supposed, a Bonded. He had been a Natural Seosten Heretic/Bonded.
“It was the Seosten’s first real encounter with the human method of bonding. Up to that point, they had encountered such things in isolated incidences on the planet, but that was the first time that it was very clearly a human becoming something more by being genetically bonded to another race. It was, obviously, rather surprising that it would work on a Seosten.”
“But who was it?” One of the other students, a furry bunny-like humanoid about four feet tall, asked quickly. “Who turned the human king into a Seosten-Bonded?”
Athena shook her head. “I’m afraid that we still don’t know. But between whoever it was, and the new pharaoh, they managed to fortify their kingdom against Seosten influence, despite the scouting force actually managing to eventually kill Tutankhamun. It didn’t stop the rest of their military from spreading word and spells that could somehow detect and expel Seosten from their hosts.
“So, the Seosten on the planet returned to our space for further instructions. With their information, the plan was made to have another ship go to the planet, a ship with a specially selected crew. Their job would be to locate another civilization on that planet, and use them to create a force that would eliminate the Egyptian problem. That ship was called the Olympus.”
My eyes widened, while Tabbris shifted on my lap, blurting a happy, “Mama was on that ship!”
With a smile, Athena nodded. “Yes, Sariel was my crewmate. The ship was captained by Puriel, while I served as the Chief Tactical Officer. Sariel was one of our infiltration specialists alongside the man who would become Apollo. Essentially, their role on the ship was to discover and research as much as possible about the target species and teach it to the rest of us.”
She trailed off for a few seconds, clearly lost in memory as a somewhat sad smile touched her face. Then Athena shook it off, returning to her story. “But this was no ordinary Seosten ship. The mystery of what force was behind this Egyptian empire, and what exactly humans were and why they could bond with other species so well, was entirely too important to leave to just any ship. Can anyone tell our new friends Felicity and Tabbris here what the Summus Proelium project was?”
That magma-student spoke up in a voice that sounded surprisingly gentle and melodic. “The Seosten Empire always has dozens of special projects running whose intention is to find special ways of challenging or defeating the Fomorians. Superweapon development, essentially. Some are straight-up weapons such as extra powerful ships, missiles, magic spells, and, in some cases, super-soldiers.
“Summus Proelium was the latter. It was a secret project that was intended to create Seosten who were capable of matching Fomorians on the battlefield. They would be stronger than ordinary Seosten, capable of boosting themselves far beyond what most could, and would even have certain special abilities built right in. Abilities that the Fomorians would be unprepared for.”
“Precisely.” Giving the magma-student a brief, encouraging smile, Athena nodded. “Yes, that was the goal, in any case. Well, somewhat. The actual goal was to upgrade Seosten soldiers into having many different abilities and strengths. A full Seosten supersoldier, if you will. But reaching that goal required stepping stones. Which meant that the scientists involved needed volunteers to work with.”
Lifting my chin, I guessed, “And you guys were those volunteers?”
Her head bowed slightly before the woman confirmed, “Yes. We came from many different Choirs, all volunteering to be tested and experimented upon in the name of creating that perfect soldier. We were poked, prodded, injected, and went through more surgeries and other procedures than I can possibly count. They modified our DNA in ways that have not been done since Cronus.”
Okay, that was something I definitely wanted to ask about. But it sounded like a long story, so I elected to wait until later and ask privately.
She went on. “In the end, the project was… relatively successful. Each of us was enhanced, some more than others. And we were each given what you would call special abilities. Mine allowed me to process information incredibly quickly, and granted me an extremely limited form of precognition. I refer to it as scattershot precognition. It provides me with instant and complete knowledge of the immediate results of five or six different actions I can take, up to about five seconds away from the action. In other words, when I use it in the middle of combat, it instantly shows me exactly what would happen up to about five seconds in the future. And it does that for five or six different possible actions, giving me instant knowledge of what will happen for the next five seconds along each of those five or six paths. Then I simply choose one and carry it out. To most beings, it would look as though the world freezes every time I use it. It gives me a snapshot of the entire battlefield, along with the details of each of those potential actions. I choose one, and the battle continues. Nothing actually stops, but in that instant, my mind speeds up so much that the millisecond it takes for me to make my choice of what action to follow seems to be quite long to me.”
After explaining that much, the woman chuckled. “But as I said, we were all enhanced in different ways. Sariel was granted unerring accuracy, Puriel controlled many types of energy including the electricity he became known for, and Radueriel was given the ability to… essentially create and fix things. We all came out differently, based on what the scientists did to us.”
One of the other students bounced up in the air then, floating a little before going back to his seat. “Is that why Chayyiel looks so young?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, obviously. But Athena nodded. “Yes. Chayyiel, the Seosten who would eventually play the role of Hestia on Earth,” she added in an aside that was obviously for my benefit, “was perhaps the closest to a perfect success of the program. Ironic, in some ways, as she was not actually one of the volunteers. Chayyiel was, in fact, the daughter of the program’s director.”
To me, the woman explained, “Seosten do not generally raise their children themselves. Instead, they are raised within groups by qualified and trained professionals, and are later chosen by various Choirs based upon their merits. Each Choir may choose to make their choice from the available… stock,” saying the word made her grimace while continuing, “or allow another to take their turn or turns in exchange for one of their youth.”
I grimaced. “You mean Seosten children are traded back and forth like baseball players.”
She didn’t look like she was sure what that meant, but nodded anyway. “I… imagine you have the right idea. Director Aysien, however, kept his own child, using his political influence to stop anyone from taking her to be raised by others. He put her through the same process as the rest of us, trying to create the ultimate super soldier. And in the end, she was his greatest success. Chayyiel is not only the strongest and fastest of all of us, she also received two incredibly potent abilities. The first allows her to know the weakness of anything she looks at. A building, a person, a ship, an entire army, anything that she focuses on she immediately understands their weakness and how they can be beaten, broken, opened, and so forth. Looking at a simple box, she would know exactly where to tap it to make the box open. Any living being she looks at, she immediately knows where their weak points are, both mentally and physically.
“Additionally, as though that wasn’t enough on its own, every time she faces an opponent, Chayyiel immediately gains every bit of combat skill, knowledge, and expertise they possess. For example, she started out an ordinary child with no particular skill. After spending less than sixty seconds in a room with one of the veterans, she possessed every single one of his combat skills and could perform them perfectly.”
A perfect understanding of anyone or anything’s weaknesses, and the ability to instantly download all the combat skills of anyone she ever met? God damn, the goddess of the hearth was freaking scary.
“Unfortunately,” Athena went on, “as you already noted, Ulstin, the process wasn’t perfect. We were all essentially frozen at the exact physical age that we were when we underwent it. Even more than most Seosten, our aging process was halted. For Chayyiel, this meant that she was frozen at the physical age of a young child.”
“So they turned you all into super soldiers and sent you to Earth?” I asked.
She chuckled, head shaking. “Actually, the project was ended roughly fifty years before the Earth, or Rysthael as we called it, was located. We were all assigned to the ship Olympus, and worked together on many other combat and exploratory missions before then. We were… shipmates, often friends… like family. Puriel was our captain. Those who had become the most powerful from the experiments were bridge and command officers, while others who were less enhanced were ordinary crew. These would eventually become minor gods on Earth.”
“Like Charmeine,” I muttered a bit darkly.
“Yes,” she confirmed, giving me a brief, curious look. “Charmeine would be known as Nemesis on Earth. On our ship, she was a soldier under the command of Abbadon, the one you know as Ares. Or even Paschar, who took the role of Eros or Cupid while serving as head chef on the ship.”
Cupid. Love potions. Yeah, I supposed that made sense. Under my breath, I mumbled, “Trust me, he’s on my list too.”
Again, the woman gave me a look that made it clear that she would be asking me many questions later, before going on. “In any case, we were eventually given the assignment to go and investigate this new planet. We were to find out what exactly was going on with the humans, who this mysterious force spoiling our plans with the Egyptians was, and whether we could use these humans in our war with the Fomorians.
“To that end, once we arrived on the planet, we began to infiltrate another powerful civilization of the time: the so-called Greeks. We found other gods that they had already worshipped, made alterations where needed so that they would fit us better, and took on their identities. It required minimal record and memory alterations, as we did so over the course of more than one generation. Allowing them to worship us as gods, we focused on making the Greeks as powerful as possible. Powerful enough to subjugate the Egyptians and discover who was responsible for teaching them about us, who had turned Tutankhamun into a Seosten-Bonded.
“Unfortunately, we never did discover that. Our Greece was merged with another potent civilization, the one known as Rome. Soon, it became more and more clear that our group was not going to be able to contain the humans for much longer. They were growing entirely too powerful. We had found that they were very good… weapons to have access to. Once we understood the human bonding ability, they became a goldmine of potential soldiers and hosts. Then came the prophecy.”
Afraid that I was going to regret the question, I nonetheless asked, “Prophecy?”
The Seosten woman snorted. “Well, they call it a prophecy. In reality, a figure appeared before the gathered Seraphim, a figure that was from far, far in the future. They told the Seraphim that the humans would destroy us, that they were the work of the Fomorians, and that when the Fomorians returned to claim their creations, the humans would be used to kill all Seosten.”
My mouth worked a bit. “But–I don’t–who? Who was the time traveler who told them that?”
Her head shook. “Apparently, the figure died shortly after delivering the message. I don’t know any more than that, unfortunately. This was all part of the information we were given, along with the news that the Seraphim were debating two possibilities. Either we would destroy the planet entirely and end any chance of that future from coming to pass. Or we would use an incredibly powerful spell to block humans off from all other species, so that you could continue to serve as our weapons, only on our own terms.”
“The Bystander Effect,” I muttered, remembering what she had said earlier about that.
She nodded. “What you call the Bystander Effect, yes. It is the Seraphim’s attempt to avoid the future that was relayed to them, while retaining humans as a weapon against our enemies.”
My eyes rolled. “Yeah, because God forbid you guys just say, ‘Hey, wanna team up against these genocidal dickweasels?’ Why do I feel like just working together was never even considered?”
Athena met my gaze, nodding once more. “You know the Seosten too well. But that is precisely what we are trying to change. The Seosten partnering with other species and working together, especially with humans, is the only way that this war against the Fomorians is going to end well.”
She gestured toward Tabbris and me. “That is why you two are so incredibly important. Because with you, we can prove that very theory, that humans and Seosten would fare better working together as partners. And the first step toward that is to rescue all of the Seosten who have been imprisoned and experimented on by Kushiel.”
Tabbris’s voice was quiet. “Like Mama.”
Athena gave a single, grave nod. “Yes, like Sariel. I promise you, we will rescue her, and all of Kushiel’s other prisoners. But you will have to be ready when the time comes.”
“How do we get ready?” I asked, a bit hesitantly.
The Seosten woman smiled slowly. “How? By training, of course.
“Lots and lots of training.”