The following is a commissioned interlude. The next regular chapter will be out as scheduled tomorrow.
The elegant, gleaming silver ship dropped smoothly through the air of the water-covered planet, slicing right through the hurricane-like weather without any apparent issues. The ship itself was shaped much like one of the millions of raindrops that were currently pelting it in this tumultuous storm. It seemed to pay no more heed to the weather than it did to the warning hails being sent to it from the world’s single inhabited surface, a tiny island with a lighthouse taking up almost the entirety of its surface. The lighthouse turned its beam upward, illuminating the approaching ship.
As the beam passed over the ship, it did far more than light it up. It also acted as a scanner, detailing just how many people were inside the ship (one, as far as the scanning beam could tell), its offensive and defensive capability (incredibly high, in both cases), and other details.
The ship’s (apparently) only occupant sat in the pilot’s seat, watching the console light up with demands that he answer hails or be shot down. His ship was broadcasting all required security clearances, but that apparently wasn’t enough for the people down there. Which made sense, given how unaccustomed they were to getting visitors. And, of course, what they were doing.
For a handful of seconds, Puriel watched the frantic lights on the console in silence. He knew what was going on down there. The codes he was transmitting, as well as the ship he was flying, were too high level for them to risk shooting him down without some kind of confirmation that he was actually a threat. Yet the longer he went without answering their hails, the more nervous they would get. There was a fine art to letting the people get just worried enough that they would be glad he was answering, yet not so worried that they would do something stupid.
Finally, he acquiesced, activating the comm. Not by reaching out to press the button or anything as mundane as that, but by directing just enough energy through the console with his own Tartarus ability. Electronics were easy enough to manipulate by moving electricity through them properly. Particularly for something as simple as what amounted to turning on the radio.
“Now see here,” the old Seosten who appeared on the holo-screen in front of him immediately blurted as soon as the connection was established, “I want to know exactly who you think you… you…” He trailed off, his eyes finally taking in the full answer to his half-spoken demand.
“Niekal,” Puriel spoke calmly, his storm-gray gaze betraying no emotion. “It seems that you aren’t at the facility on Clypeus-Septem after all. I hope they’re redirecting your mail properly.”
Saying things like that, things that quickly challenged what people he was talking to might expect him to say, were a good way of putting them off-balance, Puriel had found. And people who were off-balance were far more likely to be accidentally honest. Or at least less prepared with their lies. It made them stumble, and in their stumbling, he could find out important things.
In this case, the elderly (he was quite near final retirement by this point) Seosten on the holo-screen cleared his throat uncertainly. “Ah, yes, I… that is, Trierarch Puriel, I will have the landing bay prepared for your arrival. Do take care to, ahh, mind you don’t get wet.”
As the man said that, a hole opened up in the ocean below, just in front of the island where the lighthouse stood. Forcefields from the ocean floor all the way up to the surface activated, extending outward to push the water away from a circular opening that was eventually wide enough to fly several of Puriel’s ships through side by side. A brief glance toward the scanner showed him that the opening through the ocean connected to a metal tunnel in its floor. The tunnel seemed to lead another twenty kilometers or so deep, beyond passive scanning range.
“I’ll do my best to avoid clipping the edges of your front door,” he informed the other man, before disabling the comm with a thought as he angled the ship into a dive through the opening in the ocean. It was a ten kilometer drop from the ocean’s surface to its floor, and the man found himself watching hundreds of sea animals as they went about their business beyond the faintly glowing forcefield. Was this a normal event for them, he wondered. How often did this happen?
As the ship continued downward, he closed his eyes and looked inward. Within his mind, he saw the girl who had possessed him years earlier. Sariel’s daughter. She stood in her mental workshop, the main table temporarily clear of its usual assortment of neatly-drawn blueprints for various buildings and ships. Over the years, the girl had designed dozens of them. She had a remarkable gift for such things, partially drawn from her ability to scan Puriel’s own mind for his knowledge of them, information gained from his millennia of life. Yet what she produced was far more than simple reconstructions. She took what she learned and used it to create ideas for even grander designs. If she had been what the Seosten saw as ‘normal’, the girl would have been fast-tracked through the highest schooling to become one of their foremost ship designers.
But given her… disability, she would never be allowed anywhere near such important things. Her incredible gift for design wouldn’t matter. The Seosten leadership would never permit a Mendacia to create their ships. They would never believe that one such as her could be so brilliant. The stain of her handicapped possession power would blind them to everything else.
And not so long ago, Puriel himself would have agreed with that completely. He would have seen it as unfortunate, yet perfectly reasonable. He might even have felt sorry that what should have been a great gift in a young mind had been tarnished and broken by her status as a Mendacia. He would have dismissed those arguing against such things as fanatical idealists.
It had taken the deaths of so many who had helped him when they had no reason to do so in order to change his mind. The blood of those who had saved him had finally opened his eyes.
Too late for them. Too late for so many others. Yet soon enough to protect this girl. Soon enough to have protected Sariel’s child from the depths to which his own wife would sink to exploit her.
And, if the two of them were right about the results of the records they had pored through after Kushiel’s death, perhaps soon enough to save another of Sariel’s children from those depths.
As he looked inward to her, the girl looked down at her empty table. She wasn’t distracted or unaware of his attention. She knew he was there. Yet, as always, she said nothing that did not need to be said. That was her way, to speak only when necessary. Her hair, split evenly with one side pale blonde and one side pitch-black, the tight braid alternating dark and light, drew his focus as she gave a slight shake of her head to send that braid bouncing. “They don’t want you here,” she announced with certainty, her voice flat. Turning from the table finally to look at Puriel, Spark met his gaze while simply adding, “They’re ashamed of what is down here.”
“Ashamed,” Puriel echoed thoughtfully, glancing outward to ensure that the ship was still descending as it should. They had just passed into the metal tunnel, the massive hatch on the ocean floor closing behind them so that the forcefield could be released to allow the ocean back into its normal state. “You think Niekal is ashamed of the work he’s been doing in this place?”
“You think that,” Spark reminded him, stepping away from the table to stand at his side. The eleven-year-old reached up, her small hand catching his much larger, more calloused one as she added, “You saw it in his eyes when he recognized you. He is afraid of your judgment.”
That much was true, Puriel knew. Even if he had been ignoring it consciously, his little passenger never lied about such things. She saw his thoughts, his memories, his opinions as easily as a normal person read the cover of a book placed in front of them. They had been together this way for years by this point. A fraction of an instant for his lifetime, yet somehow… somehow more than that. In many ways, Puriel felt as though he had not truly been alive until Spark became a part of him, until the girl entered his life and his soul (in more than one way).
“Kushiel’s records of this place were vague,” he noted after a moment of silence. “We don’t know what she used it for. But I believe if your… brother had been killed, she would have noted it. As far as she was aware, he is still alive. And if he is, we will remove him from this place.”
“And the others who are here, yet are not related to Mother?” Spark prompted, looking up at him curiously as her hand squeezed his. Or rather, as the mental projection of her hand chose to make it feel as though it was squeezing the mental projection of his hand. The girl, of course, had not possessed a physical body since the moment she had possessed him years earlier.
Puriel knew what she was asking. She wanted to know what he would do with the rest of the people who were here, in this place that its own head scientist was ashamed of. A place like this, whatever was going on, it was enough to make Niekal flinch at the thought of Puriel seeing it. Taking Sariel’s remaining child away under some pretense was one thing, but what of the others? It was a question he couldn’t rightfully answer just yet. Not until he saw more of this.
By that point, it was time to focus on landing the ship. While a part of him remained there in that workshop within his own mind, holding Spark’s hand, Puriel directed most of his attention outward. He took the controls, guiding the ship out of the tunnel and into a large landing bay. The facility here was clearly enormous, hidden deep beneath the floor of the ocean world. This single room was large enough to hold two dozen ships the size of his. At the moment, there were several of what were clearly cargo vessels parked on the far side of the bay, while the rest remained empty save for various pieces of equipment and people. Several of the latter were approaching the spot where Puriel’s ship was landing, preparing to help him disembark.
As the ship settled into place on the landing struts, the man straightened and stood from the seat. Turning crisply on one heel, he walked to the hatch, a thought sending the right power through it to make the door open and the ramp extend. Before his welcoming party could get fully into position, he was already descending while raising his voice to greet the assortment of soldiers. “Good morning. I hope you all weren’t pulled too rudely out of your beds by my arrival.”
That said, he took a brief look at them. Three of the nine troops who stood there at attention were Seosten. The rest were various other species, though he couldn’t say just yet whether those were possessed by more of his people or not. They stood at attention, a couple clearly having thrown their uniforms on at the last possible moment. This was not a facility that was at all accustomed to being visited at all, let alone by any superior officers. They had been alone, here in this secret lab, for a very long time. And unless he missed his guess, Kushiel hadn’t visited this place much either. Not in person, at least. That was… curious.
While he was taking that in, Niekal joined them, arriving slightly out of breath from what was clearly a headlong sprint to reach this point. “Welcome, Trierarch. I must admit, we are surprised to see you here. You did not have to concern yourself with our work while mourning the loss of your life partner.”
“Kushiel kept herself busy in her life, as shall I in her death,” Puriel replied simply, essentially explaining nothing. “The details of this place were very scarce. Yet there is one… patient that she specifically noted as being sent here. The one she called Omniscereon.”
“Omni,” Niekal murmured, giving Puriel a brief look before nodding once. “Of course, you would want to see the son of your former…” He paused, shaking himself rather than continue. “Ah, come this way, Trierarch.”
They walked, flanked by the troops, who were all exchanging looks. It was clear that they didn’t know what to think of their unexpected visitor either. Puriel ignored them, while following Niekal through the maze of corridors that lay beyond that initial landing bay. As they walked, he spoke up. “The work you do here, it’s not exactly open-book.” He focused on the man who was studiously not looking at him. “You run experiments on those my wife and those like her deemed unacceptable for normal lives. Hybrids. Mendacia. Non-Seosten rebel prisoners.”
“We do what we must to stand a chance against the machinations of our enemies,” Niekal replied, though it was clearly a rehearsed answer. “The Fomorians will not allow ethics or compassion to stray them from their goal of total conquest. We cannot handicap ourselves in our defense against the same.”
“Some would say that your experiments here are inhumane,” Puriel calmly pointed out. “I’ve seen very little of the details, yet… I am glad that those here are of no importance to the Empire.” The words were ash in his mouth, but it was important to say them, to calm those around him.
It worked, at least enough to make Niekal visibly relax somewhat, the tension mostly leaving his face as he glanced to Puriel with a quiet, “The experiments we run here should not be subjected to any being. But they are necessary for our survival as a species, as a society, and as life itself beyond the vile monstrosities that the Fomorians would see the whole universe become.”
“And this Omniscereon,” Puriel made himself ask in as flat a voice as possible, “what of him? What have you learned from your tests upon the male child of Sariel?”
Rather than answer verbally, Niekal gestured to the door they were standing in front of. “This way, perhaps it’s better for you to see for yourself.”
Through the door, the group entered what was clearly a sort of prison cell. The floors and walls were spotless, gleaming white. Straight ahead was a slightly shimmering forcefield blocking off the majority of the room. In that blocked-off cell was a single toilet, a sink, a shelf of toys and ancient-style books, and a shower in one corner.
There were also Seosten children in the cell. Eight of them, of varying ages and genders from toddlers up to what appeared to be Spark’s age. All were naked, save for metal bands around their wrists, ankles, and necks. The room itself would have been fairly crowded with only four of them. With twice as many, Puriel was unsure how they managed to all find space on the empty floor to sleep in peace.
“As you know,” Niekal was explaining, “Kushiel was adamant in discovering a cure for our species’ reproductive issues in general, and for the Mendacia complication in particular. She had experiments run on the women and the unborn fetuses in the regrettably now-ruined fertilization lab. Some of those resulting children were born as Mendacia themselves. Others came with various… other complications, some of which we have never seen before. Those latter children were brought here, to this place, where we hope to study their conditions enough to come to an understanding that will allow us to eliminate the condition once and for all.”
Keeping his tone as flat as possible, Puriel summed up, “The children were experimented on in the womb, or even before, to try to curb the potential to become Mendacia. Instead of erasing that possibility entirely, the experiments altered their possession abilities in other ways. Now you want to use them to find out what went wrong and end the Mendacia mutations here, in this lab.”
“Essentially, yes,” the other man confirmed. “Though not only their possession abilities were altered. In some, they were mutated in other ways. One of our charges is incapable of coming out of their boosted state for more than a few minutes a day, existing almost exclusively in a very slowed-down world, from their own perspective. Another changes sex to match the last person they touched at any given point. And there are more.. interesting alterations.”
“What of the boy?” Puriel asked, taking care not to make it sound like a demand.
“Omniscereon,” Niekal spoke up loudly. “Come to the front.”
They all watched then, as a brown-haired child picked his way out of the group and approached to stand in front of the forcefield. He was as naked as the others, his hair long enough to fall partly into his eyes.
Brother. In that single word that Puriel heard in his own head, Spark showed more emotion than she generally did within an entire speech. Not that she was emotionless, he knew. Far from. She simply didn’t tend to show it in her words. But here, now, she did. She saw the boy and knew him on some deep, instinctive level.
Niekal was talking. “Omni, show our guests what you are capable of.” He then nodded to one of the guards, who sighed, clearly uncomfortable with this whole thing, before stepping over to put his hand through the forcefield. Apparently it was of the type that allowed people on one side to pass through unhindered. Or perhaps it only stopped those with the shackles and collars.
Either way, the guard (A fox-like Reusfiel) held his hand through the forcefield. With a moment of hesitation, Omniscereon raised his own hand to tentatively touch it. As soon as he did, there was a brief flash, and the boy staggered backward with a gasp. His body glowed for a moment, shifting and transforming in front of their eyes.
Then the glow faded, and the boy stood straight. Only he wasn’t the boy they had seen before. He was a young Reusfiel, a child version of the very guard who was now withdrawing his hand, looking very disturbed.
“Wh-where am I?” the transformed Omni stammered, sounding completely lost and confused, even terrified, as he looked around the cell and stared at the men in front of him. “P-please, please, I don’t–I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here. My name’s Kapper, m-my mom lives at–”
Niekal extended a hand, using a remote that clearly activated the collar on the boy’s throat, because he jerked and yelped in pain. His body shifted back to his normal state, abandoning its borrowed fox-like form.
“Instead of possessing those he touches,” Niekal explained, “the boy transforms his own body into that person at an age that matches his own. He appears to take on their old memories and personality at that time as well, curiously enough. We’re still working on understanding exactly why and how his possession ability was altered in this way. But we should have answers soon.”
“Answers soon,” Puriel echoed, staring at the naked boy, at all of the naked children. “This place… this is only one cell. Surely you must have more than these few children to work with.”
“We have many experiments running within this facility,” Niekal confirmed. “Kushiel’s work was only one such effort. But I assure you, we will not abandon it simply because of her loss.”
For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He looked inward instead, seeing Spark there. She stood in her workshop, staring at him pleadingly. She opened her mouth, a single word escaping.
Clearly uncomfortable with the silence, Niekal continued. “You need not worry, Trierarch. Your wife’s legacy will not be forgotten.”
Rather than respond to that, the old Olympian captain stepped forward. He passed through the forcefield and stood fully within the cell. The collection of children looked up at him, as his gaze passed over them all before fixing on the boy in front. “Your name is Omni?”
Despite the boy’s ragged appearance, Puriel could see Sariel in his eyes as he looked up. “Yes, sir,” he answered quietly. “Are you a doctor?” As he asked the question, the boy automatically raised and extended his arm as though offering it. Puriel saw the marks of the blood, marrow, and tissue samples that had been taken incessantly likely throughout the child’s entire life.
Behind him, Niekal spoke up. “We try to avoid extended contact with the subjects outside of testing parameters, sir. Particularly so many at once. It’s not good to rile them up.”
Puriel didn’t turn around. He stood facing the children, with his back to Niekal and the guards, a forcefield still separating them. “You are cut off here from the rest of the Empire,” he noted. “Very few know this place exists. If you were attacked by the Fomorians, or some rebel group, it would be very hard for any assistance to arrive. It could take some time before your loss was even noticed.”
The old scientist paused before replying carefully, “Your concern is noted. But our advantage is that no one knows we exist here, Trierarch. Rest assured, we and our experiments are perfectly safe. Our work will continue.”
In that moment, the lights in the room vanished, plummeting it into darkness. Yet not only in the room. The corridor beyond, and indeed the entire facility, was completely without power. All lights, all security measures, all communication methods, were entirely cut off.
Then a pair of small lights returned. A crackling of electricity that sparked once, then again, before settling into a pair of tiny, gleaming orbs as Puriel faced Niekal and the guards. His thundercloud-eyes were aflame with lightning that provided the only illumination in the entire facility.
“No,” the man who had once been Zeus replied to his companion’s fateful last words.