I stood on the bridge, my arms tightly crossed. The station was visible ahead, orbiting an icy gas giant, far from any inhabited worlds.
Slavery was not a need in the Empire. Automation ensured that labor was not particularly necessary. Most of what might be mistaken for slavery was more of a form of roleplaying. There were those who might spend a century or two in indentured servitude, fulfilling a contract. They were allowed to break that contract prematurely with no more than social consequences, but they rarely needed to. Rich and poor, famous and unknown, Imperial citizens took a certain amusement in playing such roles for the right people. Some would find themselves kidnapped during a voyage, shanghaied by pirates, and sold off to a likely owner at a station like this one.
It was shaped, of all things, like a great ring. Or perhaps a collar. The thought was discomforting. Technically, human slavery was illegal in the Empire. But of course, there were those humans who would simply say it was an act. I would be one of them, after they wiped my memories and toyed with my brain. The idea terrified me. But I couldn’t see a way out. I had perhaps a few hours to figure out a plan. To find some way to escape. I had to provoke the captain. To force her into a confrontation. My chances were slim to nonexistent, but perhaps there would be a way.
“Ladies. I won’t be staying very long. I’m due to be sold shortly.” I smiled around the bridge as a few chuckles floated through the air. “But before I go, I’d like you all to join me in the mess, so I may finish the tale of Sinbad’s sixth voyage. You wouldn’t begrudge me that, would you, Captain?”
The captain frowned. “I don’t like talk of heresy. Heaven… That’s a subject for military minds, not for story-tellers.” She looked around the bridge. “But I suppose that you can tell your story. Just watch it.” I gave her a bright grin as I walked out, heading for the mess.
Heaven. The force that lies in the center of the galaxy. The only beings that have ever stymied the Empire. Its origins are unknown, and the subject of rumor and curiosity. The limits of its power have not been determined. There are only a few things that are certain. First, Heaven has fought the Empire four times in earnest in the long history of the two. These Crusades were started by one side or another. While the Empire managed to match Heaven, its forces were never able to penetrate Heaven itself.
The great sphere that is Heaven is a border between dimensions. Within, the will of El, ruler of Heaven, is manifest. There, no force could last for long. Thus, Heaven has never been completely defeated by the Empire. Yet, at the same time, the Empire has never been defeated by Heaven. The two circle each other like two ancient warriors, waiting for the other to blink.
El is the ruler of Heaven, and all of its inhabitants are reflections of Her. They vary from the obvious clones to distant aspects, but all of them are a part of who she is, a postphysical being with the power of a deity. Her subjects are Messages, and her generals are the Greater and Lesser shards. It’s unknown how many of these Shards there are, but each has great power, and represents one of the major aspects of El’s personality. Setesh, the Protector, is one of these. And so too is Antiqam.
This is not the name she was known by to the Empire. To them, she was Vengeance. Once, she had been the protector of small things. Where races were threatened, by invasion, by natural disaster, by their own lack of knowledge and wisdom, she arrived to preserve them. She was Justice, and the Empire had good reason to fear her, for she would go to war for the sake of a single sapient being. Over time, however, she grew wroth. She fixated upon the Empire, growing hateful. She felt resentment towards them for the damage that they had done. She began to blame the entire race for what had happened, and grew convinced that the only hope for her mission was to destroy them. Thus, she became Vengeance, angered at the harm that had been done to her, and refusing quarter.
It was after the fourth crusade. The Empire was at the height of its power. Peace had been declared between the two, but Vengeance refused to honor it. She rode out, time and again, and threatened the fragile peace of the Empire and Heaven. The Empire demanded she be brought to heel, and Heaven was forced to concede that Vengeance was as much a threat to Heaven as the Empire, for her madness might infect El, and lead to a catastrophic war.
Thus it was that she was shattered. Broken apart, not into the city, but the Folk. Every being within Firdaws was a shard of her power. They were a reflection of who she was, beautiful and powerful, grand beyond words. But the same madness that had tainted her had to be punished. This was why El had split her. So that a part of her would always ache with pain, and feel remorse. There was justice in it, of a sort. It was not anything that a human would recognize as just, but when a deity needed to punish its own feelings and desires, it could do what it damn well pleased, and declare that right.
All these things are what ran through Sinbad’s mind, conjured up as he spoke the name Antiqam.
The city burned. But the people were gone. They had disappeared as though they were never there in the first place. Rahma stood where she had been before, but she was not the same. Eight great wings rose from her back, bands of light that cast dark shadows behind him. Zahad was gone. And yet, he also realized that she was still there, a part of what was Antiqam. “How many years? How many years did I slumber, unaware of my surroundings? No escape from my own shame and anger. No one on whom to wreak my vengeance. And to think, it was not my own hatred for myself that awakened me. Nor was it the Empire and their toys, thrown at me to try to kill me while I slept. No, it was you. A human, seeking advantage.” She sighed, turning. She was as beautiful as ever, still unclothed. She reached up, and removed the collar, tossing it to the ground.
“You know what humans are?” he asked, slightly weak.
“Of course I do. I am one of the Great Shards of El. I am her Vengeance. While I slept, I did not know. But now, awakened, I do. What does your primitive meat-based brain fail to understand about that? I can see, now. All that El had planned. All that she has done. She has allowed herself to grow weak and sentimental.” Rahma- No, Antiqam- turned towards him. More comets were falling from the sky. She raised a hand, and then they were gone. There was no flash, no thunder, nothing at all. The entire invasion force had simply disappeared.
“What did you do to them?”
“They were troops of the Construct Kingdom. Non-sapient. Drones, meant to scout Heaven. They strayed too close and were swallowed in the event horizon. El could have destroyed them, but she chose not to. Her way of introducing strife into Firdaws. Something to apply pressure to me, to punish me. For being who I am. The hypocrite.” She sneered. “I took them, and I endowed them with sapience. I let them know what life is. Then I destroyed them. Slowly, painfully, destroying neuron after neuron in their artificial brains, letting them feel their own death rush over them. They died in terror, far from home, because of what they did.”
Sinbad stared out at the broken city. He felt sick to his stomach. “Why? What’s the point? They were mindless machines, why would you punish them like that?”
She gave him a smirk. “Because that is who I am. You are fortunate, human. You have released me. I think that, in exchange for that, I will punish you. Your race is precious to the Empire, and to El. Both would do anything to preserve humanity. I think… Oh, yes. I think I will kill your species, and leave you alive. Killing three birds with one stone.” She smiled luxuriantly. “But before I go to do this thing, I will offer you information. You did all of this for the sake of learning about the Path to Victory, didn’t you? I will tell you what you needed to know. Then, I will destroy your species, and leave the Empire to rot, and El to go mad.”
She frowned. “What?”
“Telling me about the Path to Victory. I am sorry for not listening to you, and I will accept whatever punishment you offer without complaint. It is right.”
“It cannot be. I am going to destroy your entire race. Do you not care?”
“Of course I do. But I knew that the actions I took from the very beginning of my travels might end like this. It is shameful, and I will suffer for the rest of my days, but that is a decision I made peace with long ago.” Her eyes narrowed.
“You aren’t even going to fight? You aren’t going to resist? You’re a hero, aren’t you? Couldn’t there be some grain of truth, some special knowledge? How can you know unless you hold out hope? Are you just going to give up, and refuse to fight?”
He reached out, and rested a hand on her cheek. She flinched backwards, but he stepped forward, keeping his hand against her skin. “I have hurt you. Deeply. I betrayed your trust. I did not realize what I was doing, but it was still wrong. And I have hurt someone I love very deeply.”
She reached up, and swatted his hand away. “You don’t love me. You cannot. I am going to kill your entire species. Does that not outrage you? I am doing it because of the wrongs of others! Have you no sense of-” She stopped, gritting her teeth. “You will not win like this. Do you think that I care about your love? You are a speck. You are nothing. You cannot stop me, and you cannot control me!”
He nodded. “I won’t try to. But I forgive you. If you kill the rest of my species, I will be the only one left who could judge you for that particular genocide. And if that is so, then I forgive you. You did it because you were hurt, deeply. And if the only way you can be satisfied is to destroy everything that I know, and hurt me, then you have more than earned that right. I have done dark things in my life. I have watched as my brother rotted in jail, with my parents, for a crime that he did not commit. I have left an ancient witch to rebuild her species alone. I have allowed a child to sacrifice herself to her own mother, to save my life. I have left behind a companion who gave their life for me, floating in the darkness between stars. I have abandoned a wife and child. I have left a good man to labor under an impossible burden. And I allowed my desire to undo the evil that I had done cost you everyone that you knew.”
She gritted her teeth. “I do not need them. They are a part of me.”
“But when they were without, you could see them, couldn’t you? It’s not the same, being whole. All of those people who you cared for, who you sacrificed for, they are no longer a part of you.”
“Shut up! I am Vengeance, and you can not declare me Justice! You cannot take away who I am!”
He took a step forward, and his arms went around her shoulders. He embraced her. “But I am still here for you. And I promise I will still care for you, no matter what you do to me.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, fiery rivers of bright white luminescence. Her shoulders shook violently. “You’re supposed to hate me! What am I without vengeance? What is left of me, if you will not hate me for what I do? What can I do…” She sobbed, her fingers tangling in his shirt, her face pressed against him. “You think this is kindness? That this is a way to be nice to me?”
“No,” he admitted. “I didn’t do it to be kind. I did it to win.”
She looked up at him, and coughed out a choked, sobbing laugh. “Clever bastard. Using love like a weapon. That seems to be a human thing, isn’t it? Give someone hope, and they will do anything to keep you from ripping it away.” She rubbed her tears. “You won’t give me the satisfaction of hating me. So I could kill your entire species, and you would not raise your hand. And in the end, I would regret it. Bastard. Paralyzing me. ” She paused, and shook her head, speaking softly. “Do you want to know what the Path to Victory is, human? I’ll tell you, even if you don’t. The truth is, it’s my tool.”
It was a weapon. The ultimate weapon. A weapon, after all, is nothing but a way of overcoming obstacles. The more destructive a weapon is, the less precise it must be. An atom bomb can kill a foe if it lands within a dozen miles of them. A stiletto must be driven into just the right place to kill someone. And a laser must strike very precisely to ensure it hits something. The ultimate weapon, then, is one that delivers exactly as much force as is needed precisely where it is needed. This is what Justice made, in the name of Heaven.
The technology of Heaven is more metaphorical than mechanical. The Path to Victory began, loosely, as a wormhole. A way to travel from one place to another, instantly. This, alone, was useful, but nothing that Heaven did not already possess. What made the Path to Victory a weapon greater than any other was its mind. Sapient, aware, although with priorities and thoughts that none could understand. The thing was, that its precision was concomitant to the destructiveness of the one who controlled it.
It was simple, really. Remember, again, that its power was metaphorical. A bomb doesn’t need precision, because it has destruction. It can land anywhere in the vicinity, and it will accomplish its goals. But a scalpel must be thrown very precisely indeed to sever an artery. So it was that the true power of the Path to Victory was wasted on Justice, and it chafed under her control.
Justice held it, until she became vengeance and was shattered into the Folk. When she was no more, the Path to Victory fled. Its history is known only to itself. It traveled from being to being, until it found itself attracted by the curse placed upon Sinbad. In Sinbad, it had finally found a host who could use it as it was meant to be used. Sinbad did not have any great personal power. He was a human, and not a particularly famous or powerful one. He was, indeed, the weakest being that had ever borne the power of the Path to Victory.
Its power was useless without guidance, though. It was sapient, and far more intelligent than its user, but without a cause, it could not find the way to-
Antiqam stopped in mid-sentence. She laughed softly. Sinbad turned. Behind him, the black portal stood, waiting for him. “You see? It knows what you want. When you are clear in what you desire, it responds. All you need to do is to be certain, absolutely certain, of what your goal is. And right now, your goal is to be anywhere but here. To abandon me.”
He stared at it. “Then… Every time it appeared. Every time it took me away-“
“It was listening to you. Your desire to abandon those you loved, for your duty. Go, human. Leave me. El will soon be here, to shatter me again. Perhaps this time, she will not be driven by nostalgia to preserve me. Perhaps she will render me down into my base components. It doesn’t matter. Leave. Go to save your family. It is a noble goal, and I am glad that my power can finally be used for something noble.”
“You can’t survive? You can’t- be Rahma, again?”
She stared at him for a long few moments. “Do you know why Rahma’s wings were torn, and broken? The wings are how the Folk travel between stars. They were the offer of freedom. Paradise isn’t paradise unless you have a choice to leave it, and the Folk lived in paradise. They never needed to leave. And hell… Hell is no hell at all, unless you are trapped there. That is why she had no wings. So she could be the only one who felt no joy in Firdaws. I would rather be destroyed, fight to the death with El, and be rendered nonexistent than return to that.” She smiled sadly. “Vengeance is what I am. It is who I am. Mercy is not in my nature. I could put the collar on, shatter myself, become weak again. But I will not.”
He lowered his head. “I could come back.”
“The path to victory takes you where you need to be. And what man needs paradise? No, I know where this will end. You will leave. You will never return. Go now, before I lose my patience, and decide that I will test your bravado.”
He gritted his teeth. “You know, I always wanted to be a hero. I wanted to save people. I wanted to make my family proud.”
“Go, then. Do it.”
“Do you know what a hero is?”
“A slayer of men. A breaker of armies. A hero is one who has survived where his fellows have not.”
“Maybe. But above all a hero is someone who brings hope. When despair has fallen, and there seems to be no chance, no way for things to improve. When all is lost. A hero is someone who makes things right, just by being there. They don’t have to be strong. They just have to be strong enough.”
She looked up. “Hope is a drug. A painkiller which addicts and saps your ability to face reality. I would rather live without it.”
He stood at the edge of the portal, staring into its dark depths. It swirled and shifted intricately. He turned towards her again. “I’ll be back.” He meant it.
And then he stepped through.
The cabbie stared, rapt. “And so it is that I returned here. This would have been only a couple of weeks back.”
“That is one incredible story, alright.” The cabbie smiled, as the two of them arrived, once more, at the manor. “So, that was your last trip, huh? I can’t imagine wanting to go for another voyage after all of that.”
Sinbad sat in the back of the car, silent, a contemplative expression on his face. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
The cabbie paused. He had been building quite a good rapport with the eccentric, obviously wealthy man who was giving away his money. Honesty was not a virtue in circumstances like these. “I mean… I am sure that you are telling the truth, as far as you understand it.”
Sinbad laughed. “It is alright. I know the stories are unbelievable. They are meant to be. Think of all of those things. Six loves among the stars. A secret prison camp meant to motivate a spacefarer into searching for technology. These things are silly, aren’t they?”
“Well, not entirely silly. I mean… They make a good story.”
“They do, don’t they? Tell me, cabbie. If you were to choose one of those six, one that you were to fall in love with, which one would it be?” The cabbie shrugged. “Yes. It is not easy, is it? An academic question, though.”
“I suppose you’re right. If you can’t return to them…”
“Oh, no. I can. That was not my last voyage. This is.”
Sinbad stood up, and raised a hand. There was a sound, little more than a whisper. Space twisted visibly, shifting and changing on the landing pad, just beside the cab. It slowly roiled, arches of dark energy rising and falling like prominences ringing a black sun. The cabbie stared at the ball of writhing energy. He could feel the slight tug as his hat tried to fly off of his head and into the sphere. His mouth hung open, a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, sticking to his skin. The shock reached down into his chest and squeezed his heart. Sand worm queens, headless princesses, savage amazons, angels of vengeance. The wormhole was a single truth about the story. And like a single doubt could cast aspersions on the rest of a story that seemed true, a single truth could make a fantasy seem real.
“It was true?” the cabbie managed, weakly. “All of it?”
“Every word.” Sinbad stood by the portal. “You know the magnitude of my task. A queen, the last of her kind, trapped on a desert world, alone and losing hope. A young woman buried in the mind of an ancient general. A loyal machine that is trapped between the stars to protect what she values most. A brilliant genius who is caring for my child. A dedicated warrior who is trying to make up for the crime of being weak. And a goddess who believes I have left her behind. I have seen many tragic endings. This galaxy, the state of affairs, is unjust. There is no single person who is to blame for this. There is no villain to be slain. There is only duty, and obligation, and the pain that comes from those things. They have done so much for me. I am going to save them.” Sinbad smiled. “If you would be willing to travel with me, I would appreciate having a witness. The things I am about to do should be known. Hope cannot thrive unless people know that there is something to hope for.”
The cabbie stared. “I…” He looked down, ashamed. “I’m scared.”
“That is sensible. There is great danger in the stars, standing side-by-side with great beauty. That is the secret of how I made my fortune, and how I made my way among the stars. Although I was frightened, and uncertain, and weak, I dared anyway. And there is no joy in life, no victory, and no wealth, without risk.” Sinbad gestured towards the portal.
“Where does it lead?”
“I do not know, save that it is where I can find victory.”
They stepped through together
“Well? What about Sinbad’s seventh voyage?” Renee asked, her eyes full of excitement.
“Yes! Who did he choose?” Naja said, her eyes wide, as enamored of the story as any of the crew.
“Did he feed the colonel his own heart?!” asked the leader of the Red Cap Society.
The captain just sat across the hall from me, her eyes locked on mine. There was a message in her expression, and the message was ‘Beware.’ I ignored it, and stood up. “I am not going to allow myself to be sold. Even if I stand alone, even if you kill me, I will defy you.”
The captain leaned forward, resting her head on her hand. “Is that so? Such a short life, and you’re in such a hurry to throw it away?” She spoke laconically, her expression amused. It became less so as Naja stood up. “Do you forget so quickly, tiger? I’ve beaten you once.”
“That was then. This is now.” Naja crossed her arms.
The five Red Caps stood, grins spreading across their faces. The leader slid a hand behind her, and produced a crowbar like a magician conjuring up a bouquet of flowers. “Now, understand, we aren’t much for siding with weaklings. So normally, a hopeless fight like this wouldn’t be our style. But I must say, captain. You get right up my nose. I’d personally like to see you brought down a few dozen notches.” She slapped the end of the crowbar across her palm a few times, flashing her iron-toothed smile.
“Captain… I know that you usually have a reason for everything you’re doing…” Renee stood up, frowning. “But I can’t be a part of this. This isn’t fun anymore.” Toralee and Brie stood up beside her. “Why are you doing all of this? Why can’t he just stay with us?” The others in the crew joined, some reluctantly. The look in the captain’s eye became as dark as pitch, her expression turning fierce and hateful.
“So. This is what you do, hmmm? Turn my crew against me. Play the innocent.” She showed sharp teeth. “I could kill every last one of you, and never falter. It would be a kinder fate than allowing you to be manipulated. Used! By that human.” She spat on the ground, standing up, her fingers curling into claws. “You think I won’t? I would relish the chance.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want anyone else dying. I’ve said that already. This is about me, and you, captain. The rest of you can sit down. If she decides she’s going to kill me, that’s fine.”
“Oh, don’t you dare.” Her eyes narrowed. “You think I can’t see the very story you just told? I do not care for you. I do not care for any human. Don’t think for a moment that I would weep if you died, you arrogant, conceited-“
“I can’t stay on this ship if you’d kill him, captain.” Brie’s voice was soft, but it cut through the room like a knife. Silence reigned. The fury on the captain’s face was obvious.
“You want this, do you? A fight. To bait me. To lure me into a mistake. To outrage me.” The captain’s teeth shined. “Then you have won. Name your duel. And I will crush you.”
“There’s only one option, isn’t there? Stories.”
“Ah, of course. Turning towards the place where you think you’re strong. Let me tell you, then, the story of why I hate humans, why my mother was demoted, and why I will not let you win. And I will decide for myself, when we have told our stories, which of us is the victor. And any who wish to dissent will no longer have a place on this ship.”
Captain Kry’s mother rose to prominence five hundred years ago. The Drake Gabyiyl was granted the right to become Dragon after stopping a coup by a radical faction of Undead who wished to overthrow the Empress. She was made a Count of the Reptile Kingdom, and ruled wisely, and fairly. Her career was exemplary, and she had only a single weakness. The Drake Gabyiyl could not reproduce. Even with the best technology, her genetic degradation was too far gone to allow her to have a child by any normal means among the Empire. She wanted to raise a child to take after what she had done, and to continue her accomplishments when she was gone. This was not a common desire in the Empire, but Gabyiyl was not a common woman.
Gabyiyl took great interest in humans. She studied their culture endlessly, and was deeply intrigued by the promise that the species displayed. But of course, it would be centuries until she could meet one. And so she continued her attempts to have a child. And one day, somehow, it paid off. Kry was born. of course, she did not know her mother for decades after. She distinguished herself in combat, and earned a commission in the Imperial Fleet. On that day, she was greeted by her mother, and taken as an ensign aboard the Dragon’s ship.
The two of them served many years together. Kry never asked how she was made, and Gabyiyl never shared that information. The Drake was the most noble and stalwart ally that Kry ever knew, and she never stopped fighting to prove her love for Kry. This made it all the more heart-breaking when Kry found the evidence. Money had been siphoned off by the captain into private projects. Embezzlement, while usually not an issue in the Empire, was still terribly illegal, and there was evidence of vast amounts of money that had been paid to a smuggler, and a deal that had gone sour.
Kry held back her concerns for as long as she could. She threw herself into her work and dedicated herself to it, day and night. But eventually, she couldn’t stomach the guilt any longer. She confronted the captain, and demanded an explanation, or she would alert the Imperial Bureaucracy of Gabyiyl’s misdeeds.
Some might have been outraged by this. Some might have disowned Kry, or had her killed. But Gabyiyl loved her daughter, and believed she deserved an explanation. The money had been payed to a pirate, one of the Aberrant Clan. Gabyiyl had grown desperate, as she had learned about the knife-edge that humanity rested upon. She had always been noble, and followed the law. But there had been one point in her life when she had broken those rules. And she would do it again. This was when she had paid this pirate to travel to Earth, and steal her a human. It was the chance to have the child that she had dreamed of.
But Gabyiyl had been betrayed. After a single night with the human, he had abandoned the captain for the pirate, and the two of them had blackmailed Gabyiyl. She had spent the last few centuries paying for that mistake, and raising the daughter that he had given her.
Kry was outraged. She demanded her mother take action, to punish both the pirate and the human who had betrayed them. But Gabyiyl refused. The greatest joy in her life had come from them, and even if she was betrayed in the end, she would not trade it for anything.
And so Kry went, and told the Imperial Bureaucracy of her mother’s deeds.