Kutattca

Commissioned Interlude 12 – Maria, Arthur, And Company (Heretical Edge 2)

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Wearing stained coveralls, a backwards cap, and goggles, with a face that was as grease-stained as the clothes themselves, Maria Chambers whistled cheerfully while focusing intently on her work. The work, in this case, involved making very specific adjustments to a series of very complicated-looking pipes and valves behind a section of wall about fifty feet forward and one floor down from the Olympus’s main engine. A very small metal ball floated in the air just to the side, its single lens projecting a holographic display of exactly where this section was, what it should look like, and what Spark needed to be done to it. A box lay nearby with the assortment of parts that the young girl wanted to be used to replace specific pieces. 

“Well, you seem to be in a pretty good mood.” The voice that interrupted Maria’s whistling came from the elderly-looking Native American man who strolled casually down the rounded corridor toward her. Though over a thousand years old (and technically believed by everyone back on Earth to be deceased thanks to an attack from his own sister, Litonya), Kutattca had a strong spring in his step and an easy smile. “Having that much fun working as a mechanic?” 

Carefully using what amounted to an incredibly fancy wrench to adjust the long, metallic green tube to the exact position Spark’s instructions specified, Maria finally turned to the man. She waggled the wrench at him pointedly. “A space mechanic, thank you very much.” With a cheerful wink, she added, “And yes, it’s quite exhilarating, honestly. And ahh, processing all these instructions, learning what these different tools do, all of it helps with the umm…” 

“With your new gifts,” Kutattca finished for her, chuckling a little while he nodded. “Yeah, believe me, I know exactly what it’s like when you start out. Actually, Boscher Heretics get that a lot. Getting new powers, figuring out how they work, slotting them into your normal rotation, all that. Especially when you make a new power work alongside something you already had. There’s just a… a really satisfying feeling when you make something new work with something old.” 

Watching him for a moment, Maria gave a very slight nod. When he spoke of being a Boscher, the same thing her granddaughter was, the man’s voice held an inescapable tone of guilt. The things he had done, the people he had killed, the ignorant hate that he had taught to others over so many years, the man clearly had a lot of feelings about all of it. Not that such things were entirely his fault, of course. The Seosten had established things, had set things up intentionally to make Earth some kind of Boscher Heretic training ground so they would be combat-capable before being sent out to the front lines of this war against the Fomorians. Still, it was obviously one thing to know that he had been manipulated into being the way he was and doing the things he did, and emotionally accepting it. The thoughts of all those likely-innocent creatures he had murdered out of a mistaken assumption of guilt had to weigh heavily on the man at times. 

While she was still focused on that, Kutattca turned his dark-eyed gaze to her and offered a very faint smile. “Then again, you have another reason to be happy right now.” 

With that thought, Maria’s own smile grew, a warmth filling her. “Yes,” she agreed. “Seeing my son and my granddaughter–well, feeling and hearing them, anyway. It was…” Trailing off, the woman swallowed. “It was very nice. I can’t wait to see them all again. Without any lies,” she added pointedly. “Not that I blame them, but… well, yes, without any lies.” Her eyes shone with delight and relief then. “And my daughter-in-law, they saved her. They truly saved her from that… monster.” Simply from what she had heard and read about the evil Necromancer, Maria knew that his death had been a long time coming. She shuddered to think of what sort of things poor Joselyn had been through over the years. And shuddered almost as much when remembering the horrible things she herself had thought about that poor woman. 

In a kind, gentle voice, Kutattca quietly replied, “I’m glad your family is safe. And you’ll get the chance to see them in person. Just as soon as we get this ship put back together and ready to go.” Turning a bit, he looked up and down the corridors, head shaking with obvious wonder. “Live over a thousand years, think you’ve seen everything, and it turns out you’re completely clueless about the real universe out there. Until my… until Litonya played her little betrayal game, I had no idea there were things like this out there. They don’t let us know about this. As far as most Boschers are concerned, so-called ‘aliens’ all come through portals or things like that. The majority of us don’t have any idea that there’s literally space empires out there, with all these fancy starships. We… we spend so long thinking they’re demons and monsters, I don’t think we could ever truly process the idea that they could put something like this together.” 

“They don’t want you to process that,” Maria gently pointed out. “The Seosten, they need you to see every other species a certain way for their little training ground to work.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides, if you don’t know anything about spaceships, it’s easier for them to hide their own. They’ve built that entire society to work one specific way for them. Leaving all those blindspots for them to manipulate and get around with, it’s not exactly surprising.” 

“Yes…” Looking back to the woman thoughtfully, Kutattca murmured, “I’ve never met him, of course, but I believe I can see why someone like Joselyn would be so attracted to your son. And any child they produced…” Trailing off once more, the man gave a very low whistle. “Well, now I truly do want to get back to Earth. This is something I have to see for myself.”

With a whoosh noise, the nearby elevator doors opened, before Arthur Chambers stepped off. He took in the sight of the two talking before shaking his head as he teased, “Oh good, you found another audience to show off for. Guess you don’t need me around then.” With that, the man did an about-face and acted as though he was about to walk right back onto the elevator.

Shaking her wrench-thing at him, Maria primly countered, “You march your little butt over here and hold this nozzle so it doesn’t turn when I start moving the pipe here. And honestly, as though you haven’t been the one showing off what you can do for days now. Don’t think I haven’t heard all about it from the children, young man.” 

“Young man?” Raising an eyebrow as he did just that, Arthur pointed out (with no small amount of obvious amusement in the words), “You do remember that I’m older than you, right?” 

A broad, knowing smile crossed his wife’s face as she confirmed, “Caught that, did you? Besides, we are young, compared to all these people we keep meeting and learning about. You and I, we’re practically infants.” She looked over her shoulder. “Kutty, how old are you, again?” 

The Native American man gave a very soft cough before simply replying, “A hell of a lot older than most and far younger than many. My sister and I were born around three hundred AD. Which doesn’t exactly make us spring chickens, but there are a lot of people older and stronger than us.” After a pause, he added, “Litonya might have an edge over them in hypocrisy.” 

“I dunno,” Arthur objected thoughtfully, “From everything we’ve heard since we got here, she has some pretty stiff competition in that field. There’s a lot of hypocrites out there.” 

Acquiescing to that with a bow of his head, Kutattca agreed, “I suppose you have a point. I’m just a little…. the situation with my sister is a lot more personal. The two of us have a long history, and I ignored far too many of the warning signs about her for far too long. To the detriment of myself, those I care about, and many others. And the world itself.” 

“You were close once, weren’t you?” Maria quietly prompted, fully facing the man by that point. Her work could wait for the moment. This was more directly important. She’d heard so much pain in the man’s voice whenever he brought up either his sister in general, or what she had done in attempting to kill him. It was obvious that Litonya’s betrayal, and her actions in general, hurt him a lot. A part of her wondered if he had ever really talked about it with anyone else, if he had ever unloaded those feelings rather than bottling them up and allowing them to fester. 

At first, Kutattca was silent, before giving a very slow, faint nod that was barely visible. “Once,” he confirmed in a soft voice. “We were inseparable, best friends. We hunted for our village, brought back food together even as children. When we were teenagers, we started hunting whales. Not by ourselves, of course. We were part of a whole hunting party, out in these long canoes. It was during one of those trips out on the boat when we saw the Thunderbird and the Haietlik.” His gaze had moved away from them by then, looking off into the distance as though staring into his own memory of that long-ago, far more innocent time. Before everything changed, before his life became something far bigger than simply hunting whales. 

After a moment, Arthur spoke up. “Haietlik, that’s what you were a Natural of, right? And Litonya was a Thunderbird Heretic. What uh, what are those, exactly? If you don’t mind me asking.” 

Shaking his head, Kutattca replied, “Not at all. The Thunderbird is ahh, well it’s a giant bird.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Puriel announced, as he approached from the opposite end of the corridor than the one Kutattca himself had come from. He was accompanied by Aletheia on one side, while Spark and Omni walked together on the other. Three of the four were covered in the same sort of grease and various other liquid stains that coated Maria. Spark, being a holographic projection, was as clean as ever. Maria had once asked the girl if she regretted not being able to get dirty, and Spark had stared at her as though she was being utterly absurd. Apparently, despite being a child, the girl had little to no interest in being messy. She was always very well collected, presenting herself in pristine clothes and skin, with hair that was immaculate and perfectly split between being blonde and black.

As soon as she saw both children, Maria took a knee and opened her arms. Omni immediately came running, throwing himself into a hug. It was a far cry from the way the boy had been not-so-long ago, convinced that he couldn’t touch anyone without using his power to shift into a younger version of who they were. Because those idiot scientists who had been working with him were more interested in testing what it could do and how they could use it than they were in teaching him to control it. Now, after enough training with Puriel and Aletheia, he only used it when he chose to. Well, for the most part. If he was overly emotional, scared, and whatnot, it tended to happen anyway. But it certainly wasn’t the uncontrollable, automatic reaction those cretins had apparently acted like it was. 

Of course, the woman embraced not only Omni, but also Spark (hard-light holograms could be hugged too, as she had made perfectly clear). With both of the kids held close, she asked, “Are the other children with Uncle Al?” 

Omni gave a quick nod, his shaggy mop of brown hair going wild. “Making pictures,” the five-year-old announced before reaching into his pocket to produce a folded up piece of paper. He proudly held it up, displaying an enthusiastic, if not incredibly skilled, drawing of Sariel herself using a bow and arrow to hunt giant scorpions.

While Maria gushed over that drawing, and the one he produced that had apparently been drawn by Spark, Kutattca glanced toward Puriel. He arched an eyebrow at what the man had said before. “Yeah, I suppose you’ve probably run into plenty of those yourself. Maybe even wherever they come from. I’ve always wondered, the Thunderbirds and Haietliks, do they and those Nemean Lions and the Amarok wolves–” 

“They come from the same planet,” Aletheia confirmed. The dark-skinned woman glanced toward the older Seosten beside her briefly before adding, “Several other ordinary animals on Earth, and derivatives of those animals, are smaller versions of those found on that other world. We are not precisely certain why, but our best guess is that they are the descendants of the remnants of other Fomorian experiments. They made humans look like us, and some of their other creations look like species from across the universe. Perhaps for eventual infiltration purposes.” 

Curious as ever, Arthur asked, “Is there a, ahhh, commanding species on that world? You know, actual advanced civilization. Cuz, you know, any species that could thrive in a place with so many of those things around…” 

“Yes,” Puriel confirmed with a slight grunt. “There is a ruling species… of a sort. They’re called the Jotunn, and they–” 

“Jotunn!” Arthur blurted, “That’s like… Odin. Are you telling me Odin really existed?” 

In response to that, Maria gave her husband a long-suffering look. “You do understand that you’re asking that of the man who was Zeus, yes? Why on Earth would that surprise you?” 

While Arthur huffed a bit, exaggeratedly, Puriel gave a very soft chuckle. “Well, yes, Odin exists. The Jotunn are actually artificial creations, created by a… well, he’s known as Ymir, and he is apparently the only surviving member of a species who lived there long before even we as the Seosten existed. They lived before the great calamity that destroyed almost their entire population, and that of most of the universe. Ymir was the only survivor of his species, and he cloned himself into several more Ymir. Together, the multiple Ymir attempted to restart their species, but were only able to create what they consider the imperfect replicas known as Jotunn. Eventually they shifted away from creating versions that looked like them and simply tried to make incredibly different Jotunn, as many they could, to see which they preferred to be the inheritors of their world.” 

“So Odin, he’s one of these Jotunn?” Arthur carefully asked, trying to think of what he could remember about the mythology. 

Aletheia, however, shook her head. “Odin was a human who somehow found his way to that world. He became close enough to one of the Ymir clones that they… bonded. Odin is the only known Ymir Heretic. Which makes him one of the only Heretics of a species that existed before the arrival of the Four.” 

Maria swallowed as a chill ran through her. “You mentioned them before. They were the giant, world-destroying monsters that almost wiped out the Suelesk before they created the first dragon eggs and fled through their portal to some other universe. Your people found one of their crashed ships on your world and it accelerated your technology.” 

“Yes.” Puriel was frowning thoughtfully, his gaze intent on the nearby wall. “Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about those creatures. Including why they disappeared. We don’t know if they were defeated and destroyed, if they followed the Suelesk elsewhere, or…” 

“Couldn’t you ask him?” Arthur pointed out. “Ymir I mean. Or one of him. If he was there at the time and survived–”

“Ymir does not speak to people very often,” Puriel flatly replied. “And he–or they, don’t speak about what they call the ‘before-times’ at all. Believe me, more powerful and more diplomatic Seosten than I have tried to get information about those creatures and what happened. The most they’ve ever managed is a single name, but we haven’t been able to get any details.” 

Standing next to Maria, both hands clutching her leg, Omni solemnly piped up, “What if they come back?” As everyone’s eyes moved to the young boy, he added, “The bad things that killed all of Ymir’s friends and family. What if they come back and kill more people?” 

“Oh, dear, now see we shouldn’t be talking about all that.” Maria stooped, picking the boy up and holding him close. “It’s not something we need to worry about now, sweetheart.” 

Clearing his throat, Kutattca nodded. “Yes, well, the point is that Thunderbirds and Haietliks are giant birds and giant snakes. The Thunderbirds–some call them Rocs, are incredibly strong. Some say they tear apart mountains. They also control lightning and storms. Hence the name. The Haietliks manipulate electricity too. They’re better at that than the Thunderbirds are, but they don’t fly on their own and they don’t control weather the way their winged partners can.” 

“Partners?” Maria asked curiously. “The giant snakes and the giant birds are partners?” 

“Oh yes,” Kutattca murmured, his attention clearly back into his own memories. “The Thunderbirds use the Haietliks as, ahhh, javelins. They carry two of them on either side under their wings, close to their bodies. When they’re hunting and spot a whale, or any other animal big enough to be food, they use their wings to project the Haietlik ‘javelins’ down to strike the target, stunning or killing it outright between the impact and the electricity from the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks.” 

He was quiet again for several long moments, once more lost in the past. Finally, the man murmured, “I’d rather not get into it right now. But… to put it simply, Litonya and I found several of those things. We were foolish children who wanted to go and see them up close, but the older hunters in the canoe forced us not to. They took the boat back to our village, saying it was too dangerous. But Litonya and I… we snuck out again, in one of the smaller canoes. We wanted to see the giant birds and snakes.” 

“Why did you remember them?” Maria put in abruptly. “Wouldn’t the Bystander Effect–you said this was around 300 AD, yes? That was a long time after it was established.” 

Puriel was the one who answered that. “It took hundreds of years for the Bystander Effect to spread across the world and grow to its full strength. Think of its original form as a virus. From where we targeted it, the spell had to be spread by people who were affected by it, to people who were not. In remote areas, such as where this tribe lived, it probably took hundreds of more years past this point before it existed in full strength.” 

As the others processed that, Kutattca continued. “We took a smaller canoe out there. We watched the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks. When they left, we saw there was still plenty of whale left. So we harvested from it. We thought… we thought we could prove to the other hunters that they were cowards to run away in the first place, by bringing back meat for the village. We took as much meat as our canoe could carry, and went back. But… but one of the Thunderbirds saw. And it was angry about us stealing their food. So it brought its flock and they all followed us back to the village. Then they, the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks, destroyed our home. They killed everyone we knew. Everyone we loved. Our warriors managed to bring down one of the birds and a couple of the snakes, but that was… they killed everyone we had ever known. But they left us alive. I still don’t know why. Punishment, maybe? Killing everyone we knew, but letting us live so we’d know what our theft cost us. Litonya and I, we ate from the bodies of dead Thunderbird and the Haietliks. It felt like some minor form of vengeance. We ate their meat raw and drank their blood. Each of us drank from both. Litonya formed a bond with the Thunderbird blood, and I with the Haietlik.” 

“And then it was just the two of you,” Maria murmured. “Alone out there, with the bodies and… and no one else.” 

“And no one else,” he confirmed. “We found others, of course, eventually. But for years, it was just the two of us. And for centuries after that, we could always count on each other. We had different opinions, but we loved each other, and we were there whenever one of us needed the other.

“I… thought my sister, for all her problems, would be there for me when I trusted her with what Joselyn Atherby had told me. I was wrong. She betrayed and attempted to murder me.” 

“And how did you survive that?” Arthur asked. 

Kutattca’s response was a very faint smile. “That, I’m afraid, is a story for another time.”

Understanding that it was hard for the man to talk about all that, Maria turned back to Puriel. “Before, you mentioned that your people managed to get some sort of name out of this Ymir when they were asking him about what happened to the world-ending monsters? What name?”  

Puriel was silent at first, before answering quietly. “We don’t know what the name means, exactly. Only that it is the name of someone connected to the end of those monsters. A survivor, their destroyer, their creator, we have no idea. Ymir offered nothing more than this single name, and title. 

“Galazien the Iron-Souled.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – Maria and Arthur Chambers (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is a commissioned chapter. Many thanks should go to the commissioner.

One Day After Maria and Arthur Chambers and Alcaeus Arrived In Seosten Space. 

On a small corner of the island that held Puriel’s private residence, a simple rectangular metal table had been magicked into existence, complete with chairs that looked as stiff and hard as the table itself, but were actually quite comfortable and soft to sit in. In those chairs were three men, who sat facing the water of the strange, alien (to two of the men at least) ocean. 

The sole ordinary human among the trio, Arthur Chambers, spoke up in a gruff, yet also somewhat dazed voice. “Let me go ahead and see if I’ve got this all straight in my head between everything you people’ve said since we got here. Feel like I’ve been getting the recap of that…” He paused before turning a bit to glance down the beach a bit, where his wife of over fifty years was staring intently at the ocean water. “Maria! What’s that show you like with the man who has that thing with his eye and the limping sailor? You know, the silly soap opera you watch right after lunch that puts me to sleep.”

“You only pretend to sleep, dear,” his wife primly retorted without turning away from her intense examination of the water. It was as though she was trying to spot some difference, only by eye, between the water of this world and that of Earth. “And it’s called Crescent Falls. Which you know darn well if you weren’t trying to save face about enjoying a soap opera in front of Hercules and the alien wizard. Which is quite frankly silly.” 

Clearing his throat, Arthur waved that latter part off. “Ahem, as I was saying, feels like I’ve been getting a recap of about thirty years worth of plots in that Crescent Falls spaced into about ten minutes. Only while my wonderful, beautiful wife is giving me that summary in one ear, my granddaughter’s in my other ear telling me the plot of every single comic book movie in existence in chronological, not release, order. And while all that’s going on, I’m trying to watch a history documentary.” He paused to consider how he had phrased that. “Yup, soap opera in one ear, superheroes in the other, trying to watch history.” 

“That… is not a bad comparison,” came Al’s (Alcaeus, apparently) thoughtful response. In the time since they had arrived here, the nearly seven-foot-tall man had wiped away the mixture of magic and make-up that made it look as though he had actually aged at least somewhat in the decades that they had known him. His hair was now deep black without any gray or white to it, and his face lacked even the hint of wrinkles. He had used trickery to appear to age so that he could spend more time with his friends before he would inevitably have to disappear from their lives. Or… would have had to, before all this happened. Before he had chosen to tell his friends the truth about the situation they were in, only to be interrupted by a quick burst of events that had led to them being here, on the Seosten homeworld, about as far from Earth as possible.

Arthur continued after giving Al a brief glance. “So, if I’ve got all this right, you lot…” He gestured vaguely with one hand toward the seated and silent Puriel, “have been at this space war for about three hundred thousand years now, give or take. A space war with a bunch of genocidal monsters created by some medical experiment gone wrong. Wait, pardon me, the medical experiment ran away after accidentally giving all your people the power to bodysnatchers anyone you want to. He made his own damn species of monsters, then you all went to war. You’ve been fighting it for all this time and ‘for the Greater Good’, you’ve been enslaving every God damn species you come across to use as foot soldiers cuz you are fucking outnumbered as shit. And somehow every time someone thought to bring up the thought that playing nicely with people to stop the big bad monsters might be a good idea, they… I dunno, mumbled?” 

“We tried to make allies at first.” As he said that, Puriel’s gaze flickered over to watch the water himself. “At least, that’s what the histories tell us. In those days, we didn’t live nearly as long as our people do now. Longer than humans, but not the ten thousand Earth-year lifespan of a… ahhh, modern Seosten. And we still had the same problem with birthing live children that we’ve had since the moment we gained the ability to possess people. Shorter lifespan, less children, of course we tried to partner up with other worlds, other species against this threat. The Fomorians want to wipe out everything in every universe that isn’t them or their creations. Obviously, we would do everything possible, including ally with others. But… it didn’t work out.” 

His voice turned quieter then. “Our people were betrayed. Three different species we allied with, three species we tried to stand with as friends against the Fomorians. All three betrayed us, led our people into an ambush by the Fomorians. It turned out they had made a deal to be spared if we were destroyed. The Fomorians convinced them that all they wanted was us. So they threw us away. Three hundred and thirty-seven thousand Seosten were killed in three hours.” 

After letting that sit for a few silent moments, Puriel finally went on. “Our military was devastated. In more ways than one. With those forces gone, we would have been wiped out. It was the opportunity the Fomorians needed. They would have washed over us. So… our ancestors did the only thing they could do at the time. They infiltrated the fleets and political leadership of those three species who betrayed us and forced them to come to our aid. It was a desperate move of a people who were on the very brink of being wiped from all existence.” 

By that point, Maria had abandoned her ocean vigil and moved to stand next to her husband. Laying a hand on his shoulder, she watched Puriel for a moment. “That sounds quite horrible for your people, sir. Quite horrible indeed. I know humans have never been through anything… exactly like that. But we’ve had our moments in history, our betrayals and wars. That kind of thing can set the tone between two peoples for… well, forever.” 

“Indeed,” the former captain of the Olympus agreed, watching the woman with renewed interest. “And so it set the course of my own people up to this day. Our ancestors realized… or believed that they could never rely on anyone other than ourselves. Between the initial ambush and the subsequent attacks, our military was heavily damaged. It took over a generation to fully recover to the levels it was at before. In the meantime, we relied on taking over our neighbor species and forcing them to work together. More than once, our infiltrators discovered plans for truces with the Fomorians. These other species did not understand that they were being fooled, that the monsters would never truly leave them alone. Once we were destroyed, they would turn their attention to our betrayers and wipe them out as well, no matter what ‘deals’ they had.” 

It was Arthur who found his voice next. “Sounds like a real tough time for your people.” Where some would have had no small amount of sarcasm in that sentence, he was genuine. He thought of how a place like America would have reacted to something even vaguely like that in the Cold War. If the Soviets were trying to wipe them out entirely, literally trying to kill all of them, and kept making deals with all of America’s allies to betray them? Or worse, World War 2. What if, during D-Day, the American soldiers storming Normandy had been led into a trap by their supposed allies that nearly crippled the military entirely? How would America then react to outsiders? How easy was it to see the United States, given the same ability to possess their neighbors and finding even more potential betrayal, to entirely give up on any idea of cooperation-by-choice? Look at what the country did after terrorist attacks decades in the past. Arthur Chambers had been alive for a long time, enough to see a lot of changes throughout the world and his home. He could see, all too easily, what would happen if anything remotely similar to what had gone on with the Seosten  were to happen there. 

“It was quite some time ago,” Puriel noted quietly. “But yes. As I said, it set the course for my people. It convinced us that no one could be trusted, that we were alone in this war. And yet, we could not be alone, because we would be destroyed. Our only choice, they believed, was to force all non-Fomorians in the universe to follow our commands. There were, I believe, some noble intentions to release them once the war was over. But… no one expected it to go on this long. How could they? This system has been in place for hundreds of thousands of years, and the war has no particular end in sight. We have been at what amounts to a brittle stalemate for longer than human civilization has existed. I truly do not know what a galactic society without my people in control would even look like. I can’t imagine it, much as I have recently tried.” 

“And you,” Arthur pushed on, “or your people in general, you came to Earth and you… you took human’s ability to, what was it you said…. bond? You took humanity’s ability to bond with other creatures and created a whole school out of turning kids into soldiers for your war.” 

There was a brief pause before Puriel gave a slight nod. “It took some time to get to that point, but yes. There is… perhaps some context you should hear to understand everything that has happened.” 

Maria took a seat by her husband. “By all means, let’s hear the context for everything that has happened to humanity since the Seosten arrived. 

“But something tells me you better have alcohol somewhere on this island.” 

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

“Avia?” The small, hesitant voice spoke up in the fancy Seosten kitchen. It was accompanied by the sight of a very small, very young face trying to peer up over the far side of the metal counter that filled the middle of the room. All that was visible, however, was a mop of brownish-red hair and a pair of inquisitive green eyes. The boy who was speaking was not quite three years old, small enough that he’d had to climb onto a chair just to see partway over the countertop. 

Maria Chambers looked up from the mixing bowl she had been busily stirring the contents of. A smile touched the elderly woman’s face as she saw the child peering at her. “Why, hello there, Stavin,” she greeted him while dipping the wooden spoon into the cookie batter. “Would you like to help me over here?” When the boy gave a quick nod, she set the bowl down before walking around the counter to put herself beside the chair he was perched on. “Touch okay?” 

Eagerly, Stavin bobbed his head while staring at the nearby mixing bowl. “Touch okay.” 

Only then did Maria reach down to pick the boy up and set him up on the counter. Because it was important that these Seosten children understand that they had the right to choose when and how they were touched just as much as others had the right to choose when and how the Seosten children themselves touched them. Yes, it was proper that children (or people in general) with their conditions ensure that they had permission to touch people before doing so. But it was just as proper that they themselves be given the same courtesy. 

The idea that so many within the Seosten society were treated as outcasts, as… as less than slaves, appalled Maria to an extent that she hadn’t known she was capable of being appalled. ‘Lies?’ She refused to think of them that way, let alone call them that. Nor Mendacia, considering that was only the Seosten (or Latin) way of saying the same thing. It was positive poppycock. 

After some thought on the subject, Maria had settled on referring to them as Gummies (for gum, because they were hard to get out of things if you weren’t careful). The children seemed to like the term, especially when Maria explained both what gum and gummy candy was. They were fascinated by the concept of each.

“Thank you, Avia!” the tiny boy crowed while sitting cross-legged on the table. Avia, which apparently meant grandmother, was a term the children had taken to calling Maria over these past two weeks. Arthur, meanwhile, was Avus. 

With his gaze laser-focused on the large bowl, Stavin asked, “I can help?” Belatedly, he added, “What’s poppycock?” 

Right, she’d been thinking that word when she picked him up, Maria realized after a moment of brief confusion. Because like his fellow… test subjects from the prison lab, Stavin wasn’t exactly normal even by Gummy standards. Instead of being stuck in bodies he possessed, the boy was incapable of possessing people. Rather, he would immediately hear the thoughts and feelings of anyone he touched. If he touched them long enough, he could project his own thoughts and feelings into them, making the person believe those thoughts were their own. The belief was that he would eventually be able to essentially hypnotize people this way. 

With a slight chuckle, Maria explained, “Oh, it just means nonsense, dear. And yes, you certainly can. Here.” She held the spoon out to him, waiting for the boy to take it. “Now you stir everything in that bowl up real good, okay? Then we’ll scoop them out onto the pan.” 

Tongue sticking out one side of his mouth, the tiny boy set to work stirring with both hands. The bowl moved against his efforts, until Maria reached out to hold one side so it would stay in place. With a chimed, “Thank you!” Stavis began stirring once more. 

While he was doing that, the doorway into the kitchen opened, as four more figures entered, one notably taller than the other three. The larger figure was still fairly small for being an adult, a dark-skinned woman only an inch or two over five feet, who wore a dark red Seosten bodysuit with black piping. The other three figures were more of the Seosten children. First, the tiny six-year-old (also black) Zahd, a Gummy girl who was permanently stuck in her ‘boosted’ state without Puriel’s help in draining her excess energy. Then there was the brown-haired young boy called Omni together with his sister, Spark, a girl with hair that was half blonde on one side and half black on the other. 

Maria wasn’t… fully aware of exactly what the situation with Spark was, though she had the basic idea. She was a full Gummy, not a medical experiment like the other children, and she had possessed Puriel himself so that he could hide her from the rest of the Seosten who would have hurt her. Now she was… magic. That was about as much of it as Maria understood. The girl was magic, a hologram like in those space movies. She was still physically possessing Puriel, but his own powers were enough to allow the girl to create this hologram around the house and island. A hologram that was also somehow solid. 

“Hello, Avia,” Spark politely greeted her, standing up straight with both hands interlocked behind her back. She gave a single nod. “Zahd, my brother, and I wished to offer our assistance.” 

Zahd bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh! And not just to eat gams, even though they’re really good and stuff. But also buhcuz helping is good too and it’s good to be good.” It was very clear that she was reciting a speech she’d been told. Or at least, reciting the general gist of it. And from the way the girl looked toward Spark for approval, it was also fairly clear who the source of the speech was. 

It didn’t take long for Maria to hand out two more mixing bowls, one for Zahd and the other for Spark and Omni to use together. Which would be a lot of dough, but at least that meant plenty of cookies could be made, enough to feed almost ten hungry children. While they stirred, Omni himself piped up. The boy, as always, had dozens of questions. He was curious about every little thing, positively famished for information. The things he asked often followed no particular order or category, simply being whatever popped into his head at any given time. Maria loved that, she loved his enthusiasm for learning. 

She loved all these children, and could not fathom how their own people could abuse and mistreat them so much. 

While the kids were working on stirring up the dough, she focused on the woman who had accompanied them. “I’m sorry, it’s Aletheia, right?” Maria extended a hand to the woman after brushing it off on the apron she’d asked Puriel’s housekeeper, Olan, for. 

Accepting the offered hand, the other woman nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry I’ve been away. It’s been… difficult to prepare a way for Puriel to bring these children to Earth. Things have been very tense at the border between those who wish to leave the humans alone for good, those who wish to ally with you, and those who wish to openly invade the very moment the truce is over.”

Maria winced at that. “Yes, Puriel was explaining that. Apparently my granddaughter had something to do with the situation.” She didn’t bother keeping the proud smile from her face. Everything she’d heard from that man about what Felicity had been up to, even if, by his own admission, he only had a very small part of the story, made her love her granddaughter even more. 

The smile faded as she thought of the other things he had told her. The things about Joselyn, the truth about why that dear woman had truly disappeared. Thoughts of what she had to have been through, of what… of just what she had repeatedly sacrificed, still felt like a hand clutching Maria’s own heart. 

She owed that poor woman an apology for everything she’d thought about her. And the things she had said to her husband, even if said in error and in private, they were still wrong. And awful. 

“She was indeed,” Aletheia confirmed. “Your family has a habit of being involved in dangerous situations.”

“Why do you think I like them?” That was Alcaeus, the enormous man chuckling as he came into the room. “And that was before I even knew who the rest of the family was.” 

“Doesn’t that detract from your point?” Maria pointed out, giving him a raised eyebrow. “You never knew we were related to that Joselyn or that our granddaughter was going to this… Crossroads until recently.” 

“Semantics,” he insisted with a wink before focusing on the Seosten woman. “Puriel said you had news.” 

“Yes,” Aletheia replied. “Although it is less news and more of an… ally. An ally Chayyiel has spent quite some time procuring.” 

“You say that so dramatically,” a new voice teased as another figure entered the room. “Makes me feel like I should be a lot more help than I’m gonna be. After all, I’m not part of the Committee anymore.” 

With those words, the elderly, yet still-spry Native American man straightened to look at Maria. “Morning, Mrs. Chambers. Believe me, it is such a pleasure to meet another native Earther out here. I hear you’d like to know more about Joselyn Atherby.” 

“The name’s Kutattca, and despite my sister Litonya’s best efforts, I can tell you plenty.” 

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