Fiction Friday: Faultless, Part 1

Still running that Patreon! The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is still more than three months away, but Patreon backers can start reading it today!

I’m taking a break from Felda’s story for a while, because I find I keep thinking about Ghost’s instead. So I’m taking a crack at writing it. This is set quite a ways to the north of Toftor, in a culture with rather different structures and issues.

Trigger Warning: Child abuse and neglect, internalized racism, body image issues

Caer Wyndle, Pryderys
Twelve years, four months, and seven days until the end.

It wasn’t Ghost’s fault. Not really.

Sure, she was the immediate cause, but she had no idea what she was doing, and more importantly no way of knowing what she was doing. There had simply never been a chance for her to learn what she needed to know–if there had been, she likely would have learned it gladly.

That’s what she was doing in the library, after all; learning. She spent a great deal of time there, there being little else to do. She got yelled at if her parents or Parry caught her doing servant work, and of course she couldn’t go outside because someone might see how ugly she was.

Every once in a while Mother would send her maid, Kina–though mother always called her Kiah for some reason–to fetch Ghost. Kina would drag her to the baths to be washed and scrubbed and shoved into a frilly blouse and short pants, and then she would be presented to Mother. That was the only time Ghost was called Emlyn, which was her name in the big red book of family trees on the shelf by the mantle in the library: Emlyn Glenys Dyvis, daughter of Gwenfer Dylan and Caradoc Dyvis (nee Gruffyd). Mother was the only person who called her that, when she called her at all.

Every time started the same: Mother would grunt, say, “You seem in good health, Emlyn,” and Ghost would agree. Then Mother would sigh and say, “Really, we must get you a governess or a tutor one of these days. It isn’t right, a Dyvis child growing up wild.”

Then Mother would brush her hair, or play a game with her, or teach her something, until eventually Ghost did something wrong and the screaming started. She stopped being Emlyn once mother started screaming; she was just that child, as in “Take that child out of my sight!” It was hard to tell what would be wrong, but there was always something.

Once, a few years ago, Mother taught Ghost her letters, and the sounds they made. After that Ghost would practice in the library, sounding out the words one by one. As time went on she got better at it, and learned more words. No one particularly cared if she sat for hours in the library–not like the kitchen, where sooner or later she’d be in someone’s way, or the halls and rooms where Mother and Father lived and entertained guests, where Ghost wasn’t permitted except when Mother sent for her.

No, in the library she was left in peace, except if Father or Mother or a guest wanted to use it. Then she had to disappear before they entered, so they wouldn’t see her. She was very good at leaving a room just before someone else entered, which was why everyone called her Ghost. Well, at least, all the servants called her Ghost, and she herself did too, so that made Ghost her real name, whatever the family record-book might say.

So her education consisted of whatever books she pulled randomly from the library shelves, which meant a great deal of history, mostly in the form of “and then General so-and-so led the charge on Wherever and won the Battle of Thingy,” books of advice on business, and literature, mostly in the form of “and then General So-and-So led the charge on Wherever and won the Battle of Thingy, as well as the hand of Princess Whatsername.”

There was very little in there about magic, and none at all about the proper order in which things ought to be attempted when learning magic. And she was eleven, that age when such gifts begin to manifest. Not that her gift was that great–middling, really. But it was a Fire rune she looked at in the book, tracing her fingers over it while she read the instructions about focusing on it, letting herself flow into it. And the library was full of wooden shelves stacked with paper books. And they did put the fire out without too much damage. Eventually.

Honestly, she probably could have just faded away, stayed out of sight until the whole thing was forgotten, if not for the fact that she panicked as the first flickers of flame danced across the book, and ran screaming from the library straight into Mother, Father, and the Thain of Caer Wyndle.

On the other hand, six months in a dark cellar did give her both time and motivation to practice the fire rune. She had it quite under control by the time they let her back out.

Eleven years, nine months, and thirteen days until the end

Ghost sat under a table in the kitchen, nibbling at a twirlbread that had been dropped on the floor and trod on. Normally she wouldn’t eat food that had had feet in it, since Alamea always made sure that every meal she prepared for Mother and Father had more leftovers than all the servants together could eat, but she very much liked twirlbread, with its cinnamon-sweetness and chopped nuts. Unfortunately she couldn’t have the fun of unwinding it into a long thin strip of fluffy baked dough, because it had gotten all smashed, but it was still quite tasty after she scraped off the footprint.

Speaking of her, Alamea walked into the kitchen at just that moment, trailed by the new scullery lad. Ghost didn’t know his name yet, since he’d started while she was in the cellar. Ghost quite liked Alamea; she was kind as long as you stayed out of her way and obeyed her iron-fisted rule of the kitchen, and she had a big, round, lilting voice that was somehow exactly right for a woman barely taller than Ghost and seven times wider, with a broad face and thick black calluses on her big, strong hands. The scullery lad was a bit taller and a lot thinner, but his face was close enough that he might be her cousin–and probably was, for all Ghost knew.

Alamea strode over to the bubbling pot of soup, and her apprentice, a shy and anxious girl named Luana, only a few years older than Ghost herself, stepped back. Alamea lifted a ladle and tasted the soup, while Luana clutched her slender hands together and watched in worried silence. “Hrm,” said Alamea, and Luana visibly relaxed. That meant, Ghost knew, that the cook had no complaints about Luana’s work.

Alamea turned to the counter, inspecting the vegetables and spices Ghost had watched Luana chopping and grinding for the last hour. “Hrm,” she said again, and laid a saucepan on the stove next to the soup. Soon she was tossing and flipping vegetables, adding them and the spices to the pan in some arcane order Ghost couldn’t figure out.

“Hi, Mele,” Luana whispered to the scullery lad. Aha! So that was his name!

“Hi,” he said.

“How is, uh, everything?” Luana asked. When he shrugged, she continued on, “Um, if there’s anything that you need help with, or want to know… I mean, since I know you’re new–I mean, of course you know that you’re new, but–“

“Oh, just go fuck already,” Alamea interrupted. “After work. Luana, I need you to start cleaning the fish. Mele, run to the pantry and get me more flour and two onions.”

Luana blushed like two inkblots spreading across her cheeks, but Ghost caught the hint of a smile on the older girl’s face as she turned to her work. Ghost watched in fascination; this was a part of life she’d only seen glimpses of before.

A couple of minutes later Mele returned and laid down the supplies Alamea had requested. “There actually is something I’ve been wondering,” he murmured to Luana. “Who’s that little girl I sometimes see? The one with the filthy face and the torn smock? Is she the maid’s daughter or something?”

“Little girl?” asked Luana. “Oh, you mean Ghost! No, no, she’s their daughter.”

“Them?” he asked. “You mean–she’s a nob? But then why do they let her just… wander like that? It’s not right!”

Ghost perked up, suddenly interested. Wasn’t it?

“You’ve answered your own question, boy,” said Alamea. “You said she looked like a servant’s girl. Oh, she’s got the same lovely dark skin and eyes as her mother, all the Dyvis women do, but she looks more than half Keo, doesn’t she?”

Ghost stifled a sigh, since that was likely to get her noticed and probably walloped for eavesdropping. That was always what it came down to, her ugliness. Fat and short and toadlike, flat nose in a broad face, and a tangle of curls that grew denser and bigger rather than longer–not like Mother’s hair that hung down shining and dark and straight, tall, slender, long-limbed, beautiful Mother, or the tall, slender, long-limbed, straight-haired, beautiful ladies that sometimes visited her.

“Hard to believe she’s their child,” Mele agreed.

“Exactly,” said Luana, voice dropping to an excited whisper. “Rumor is, His Lordship thinks she’s not. He thinks Her Ladyship had a Keo lover and forgot to take her draft.”

“Rumor,” said Alamea, disgusted.

“Well, that’s what Kina told me!” Luana protested.

“Yes, and she told me Her Ladyship thinks the child’s a throwback, that the Gruffyds aren’t quite as pure Tarnic as their family tree says,” Alamea countered. “She repeats everything she hears, that girl.” Alamea passed the vegetables in their pan to Luana and took the cleaned, boned fish from her.

“Well, if either one is true, why do they stay together?” asked Mele.

“Here, make yourself useful, boy, and peel this garlic.” Alamea cracked a couple of eggs in a bowl and whipped them swiftly, then poured out the flour onto the counter. Soon she was at work coating the fish in first egg, then flour. “Because the Gruffyds might be rich and Tarnic, but they’re as common as we are,” she said. “And Lady Gwenfer might be a lady, but this manor was half in ruins and all her old father had left before young Mr. Gruffyd, as he was then, proposed. They may hate each other, and they do, almost as much as they hate her, poor little thing! But they need each other, Ghost or no.”

Ghost clutched her scabby knees to her chest, hardly daring to breathe for fear they might catch her. She’d never heard anything like this before. Mother and Father hated each other? Hated her? She rolled the word around in her head. Yes. Yes, that was the right word. They hated her. And, she was vaguely surprised to notice, she hated them.

The next day she snuck out of the house for the first time.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fic: Chapter Three Begins

Sorry for the lateness on this. Been having computer issues. 

Dr. Nadeshiko Kodesh was not having a good morning. “Three people,” she muttered into her coffee. “Three more dead, doctor. So much for talent.”

She drained the cup, staring blankly at the wall of her small, bare quarters. She had an apartment in the city, paid for by the Bethel Fund, but she hadn’t slept there in a week. Hadn’t left the camp in six days. With Berrol sick, she had no choice; it was just her and Dr. Viri caring for nearly three hundred refugees.
Most of the refugees were sick most of the time. The doctors took great pains to isolate themselves from infection, but with hundreds of people crammed together, most of them with damaged immune systems, there was simply no way to be completely safe. In her two years here, even Nadeshiko had been too sick to work twice. Hardly a month went by that Viri or Berrol didn’t miss a day or two, and Berrol had now been throwing up virtually everything for six days. They had him in a hospital in the city now. Apparently, the city hospitals did have beds they weren’t using, as long as you weren’t from Midbar.
Nadeshiko slammed her cup down. Her eyes hurt, and frustrated, angry tears threatened to fall. Instinctively, she switched off her tear ducts until the feeling passed. She couldn’t really blame the city. They could easily have filled every hospital bed with refugees, at the cost of leaving nothing for their own citizens; they chose, instead, to admit all the refugees under the age of twenty, and supplied food to the remainder. It was more than a lot of other places did.
No, she had only herself to blame for losing three more patients. Death had beaten her again. Next time, she’d fight harder.
Time to work. Closing her eyes, she concentrated, dissolving the fatigue toxins in her system, slowing the absorption rate of the caffeine and enhancing its effects, so that one cup of coffee would keep her up for several hours without making her hyper. The slight shaking in her hands subsided as she forced her biochemistry to accede to her will.
Feeling fully refreshed, albeit frustrated and a little slow, she stepped out into the bright desert sun and got to work.
***
Seth made the last finishing touches to his ad and sat back. “What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” said Izzy. “Just like the last three versions.”
“I want it to be better than fine! I’ve got a good feeling about this find. Somebody out there’s going to pay through the nose for this thing.” Seth looked down at his ad. 

“Salvage for sale,” it read. “Sealed, armored container recovered from wreck of tramp freighter Ahura off Bethel. 1.4 tonnes, 18m x 8m x 2m. No identifying markings, content listing, or danger warnings. Sold as is, unopened. C25,000 OBO.”

His asking price was five times the worth of the container empty. Unfortunately, not even he and Izzy together had been able to crack its lock codes, and its armor was too heavy to be pierced by anything less than the Isolde’s bow cannon, which ran too much risk of damaging the contents. All they knew about its contents was that they weighed about half a tonne, based on their best estimate of the weight of the container, so Seth pretty much had to guess how much they’d have to be worth to warrant that level of protection.
“Okay,” he said finally. “As soon as we land, get us some time on the spaceport’s EPR and upload that to, uh,” he ticked off markets on his fingers, “let’s say the local market, Ur, the Federation, and Artaxerxes. Oh, and Scientia and the Church, of course.”
“Gotcha, boss,” said Izzy. Something about the way she said it made Seth feel she wanted to say more. “You ever think about how great it must have been in the old days, boss? Back when you could just upload this sort of thing to the UMN when you felt like it, with color and video, and talk to buyers in realtime?”
“Yes, in the wonderful golden age of our wise and benevolent ancestors,” Seth answered sarcastically. “I don’t know where you pick up these things. You know I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“You’re a salvager, boss. You of all people know how much technology we lost in the Dark Ages. You really think we’ve gotten it all back?”
“I think legend has exaggerated what the ancients could do. If there really had once been a giant super-fast network spanning the whole cluster, don’t you think Scientia would be at least working on recreating it now? Next you’re going to tell me you believe there really was a Saoshi who magically visited a thousand planets a hundred and fifty years before IS Gates.”
“Ah, boss, you don’t have to make fun of me.” There was a clear pout in Izzy’s voice. “Anyway, we’ve got clearance to land. We hit atmosphere in five minutes.”
“Gotcha,” said Seth. “Let the guys know. I’ll meet them at the bridge.”
***
“Well, hell,” said Wally. “Now what do we do?”
“First priority is to get out of here,” said Sardula. “Judging by those cages, there’s at least four more Divs in the building, and more to the point there’ll be soldiers coming to pacify them as soon as they’re confident everyone in the building is dead. After that, we watch their communications and try to figure out if the Original is still here, or if they’ve moved it offplanet.”
“How exactly do you plan on getting out?” asked Wally.
Sardula pointed to the far end of the room, where an open shaft led up. “That must be how they got the objective out without anyone noticing; it’s probably for bringing equipment and personnel in and out of the lab without having to pass through lower-security areas. The other end is no doubt concealed somewhere in the hills behind the facility.”
“Sure,” said Wally, “and it’s probably covered by a squad of AMWS and a couple of missile batteries, too. They obviously aren’t kidding around about securing the Original.”
“At least one squad,” Sardula agreed.
“So, what, you want to just crawl up the shaft and ask them politely to let us go through?”
“As much fun as that might be, I have a better plan.” Sardula looked up the shaft. “Yes, the other end must be about six hundred meters south-by-southwest of the facility.”
“That’s really great to know,” said Wally. “I don’t suppose you’ve been transmitting all this to a small army of friends who are now going to fight their way down the shaft and pick us up, have you?”
“Not exactly,” Sardula answered. For the first time, she gave a small, secretive smile. If Wally hadn’t just seen her go toe-to-toe with two Divs and win, he’d have said it made her look pixie-ish. “Ah, it should just about be here.”
“What?” asked Wally. “I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly,” said Sardula, as a small black AMWS materialized at the bottom of the shaft, hovering in near-total silence.
“Oh, wow,” said Wally. “Is that a Fuyutsuki & Ogilvy Stealth AMWS? I’ve heard of them, but this has a different profile. Is it a new model? I thought F&O cancelled the ZX series!”
“As far as anyone else is concerned, they did.” The cockpit opened, and Sardula climbed nimbly up into the pilot’s chair. “Coming?”
“Right, right!” said Wally, scrambling up into the copilot’s seat, underneath the pilot’s and slightly farther forward. The cockpit closed around them, and Wally felt the brief, quivering disorientation of an artificial gravity system kicking in. Then they were off, rocketing up the shaft at dizzying speed.
“Wait!” shouted Wally. “Shouldn’t you turn the stealth back on? We’ll be seen!”

“That’s the plan,” replied Sardula. “Hang on!”
Wally craned his neck, trying to look up the shaft to see what guards were waiting for them. As a result, he didn’t notice something small and red and shining drop from the AMWS. Then the first missiles came spiraling down the shaft, and he couldn’t bear to look any longer.
***
“So, how long are we stopping, Captain?” asked Vix. She shaded her eyes as she studied the town on the other side of the spaceport. She had to admit, from here it looked pretty — long, low buildings of white stone, mostly, their domes shining in the desert sun.
“Couple of days at least,” Seth answered. He’d discarded his jacket, and looked even younger than he was in his red t-shirt and black jeans. “Gotta give buyers time to notice us. I want our next stop to be delivering that box to its owner.”
“Ahh,” sighed Wehj, stretching as he stepped out onto the ramp. “Feel that sunlight!”
“All right,” said Seth, “I’m going to make our delivery. You two try not to get into too much trouble, all right? I’m not covering bail this time, Vix.”
“Hey, that guy had it coming! Just out of the blue, stops me on the street and starts yelling about something, tells me there’s gonna be a reckoning? He’s lucky I just decked ‘im!”
“He was a street preacher!” Wehj protested.
“Whatever,” said Vix. “I’m going to go find out what the locals drink. You coming?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Wehj. “But you’re paying for your own drinks this time!”
Seth shook his head as the two walked off across the landing pad, actually nothing more than a ring of lights on a flat stretch of packed-down red sand. “Any luck finding us a hopper, Izzy?” he asked.

“Sorry, boss,” she answered through his earpiece. “Looks like it’s going to have to be a truck. Hoppers are pricy around here.”
“Ah, hell, I hate riding things with wheels. How expensive are we talking?”
“You want to eat this week?”
“Ow.” Seth grimaced. “Fine, make it a truck. Where do I pick it up?”
Seth accepted the directions from Izzy, then went to get the truck, a battered old thing that didn’t even have autopilot. “At least it’s not internal combustion,” he muttered to himself as he drove it back to the Isolde. “I guess I should be grateful for that.”
Fifteen minutes later, he was bouncing and jolting his way across a badly-maintained desert road, practically crawling at 175 kph. The climate control was broken and the windows didn’t open, so he was pouring sweat, envying the medicines in their nice, heavy refrigeration units, and hating the universe. “Next time, I’m sending Vix.” A particularly skull-rattling bump spawned a stream of curses, giving Seth time to reconsider. “No, she’d murder me when she got back. I’ll send Wehj.”
A distance marker shot past. Forty kilometers still to go. “I hate planets,” said Seth. “I don’t know why anybody stays on them.”