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Nox last won the day on November 30 2023

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    Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.

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  1. Over the Gulf, 07:01 This one was good. Daring. Young, most likely. Desperate to live. Weren’t they all? The dive was magnificent, foolhardy. Tchristan Skjursón, captain of the first wing, decided he would like more of this boy’s kind come the showdown. The boy flew, as they said, by the teeth. Such a scream dive. Skjursón didn’t know the runty little enemy fighters could achieve that. It seemed almost a waste to slay him. Wound tight in his flight suit, Skjursón committed his FP1-i steeper still, adjusting the trim, slicing down through the air like a knife at point six of mach. His cockpit was dark save for the winking lights of some instruments, which reflected off the black leather gloves encasing his hands. The stooping Firebird was an obvious mark in his gunsight. How was it surviving? Pilot skill, or luck? The young had little of the former and, sometimes, barrels of the latter. The dive was testing the enemy plane right to the limits of its airframe. A single degree deeper and the descent would strip the wings away at the cabane or blow out the engine. Behind his full-head helmet, Skjursón smiled. His face, so seldom seen, was marred by a grizzled tissue of scars. At three hundred metres, the Firebird pulled out, dragging a long, aching turn up and away to avoid the ragged earth, its prop engine spitting and foundering. Another surprise. Another admirable display of skill. Or luck. Skjursón tilted his stick and nudged the engine, pulling out of the dive effortlessly, mocking the laboured struggles of the smaller plane. It had been locked in his sights for two minutes now. Why hadn't he killed it? I want to see what you've got, Skjursón thought. The Firebird veered around a hilltop, letting the cross of its shadow flicker across the sunlit canopy, then tipped its wings hard to steer around another crag. Skjursón kept his FP1 almost level to execute a following path, ripping through the air like a hungry bird of prey. The Firebird was still in his crosshairs. Suddenly, around the next turn, it disappeared. Skjursón frowned and swung about, assuming the boy had finally misadventured and flown into a hillside. For the first time in nearly three minutes, the gunsight was empty… visual lost... No, not dead. There he was. The little wretch. He’d somehow flick-rolled the Firebird around the headland and swung back the way he’d come, gunning low on WEP. Skjursón lifted his black-clad hands off the stick and clapped. Very fine indeed. A warning note sounded and Skjursón snapped it off with a curse. He was down to reserve now, almost at the critical fuel threshold. That meant he had no more than two minutes left before he had to turn for home. More than that, and he wouldn’t make it to the beachhead aerie. "Game’s done now," he hissed through chapped lips. He surged the FP1 forward and it went fluidly, responding perfectly, sure as a shark. Reacquire, he thought to himself. He’d made five kills already, another ace day, but this boy would make a nice round six. He’d dallied too long, playing games. The FP1 chased and sought. The Firebird was pulling wide rolls and staying low, keeping the twisting furrows of the hill line between itself and the hunter. Skjursón spat the most foul curse he knew. The little bastard was slipping away. By the tips of his fingers. By the teeth. He had allowed too much grace. Now the enemy was mocking him. He got a partial alignment, then lost it again as the fugitive Firebird banked perilously around a coastal crag. They both passed so close that sand stormed up off the beach in their combined wash. Another partial. Skjursón fired. Dazzling tracers laddered away from his machine and cut the cold morning air. Miss. Another turn, another partial, another futile burst. Skjursón throttled up and soared around, swinging his machine out wide on the Firebird's eight. It was running for all it was worth, burning at full power. Skjursón got a true sight at last. "Goodnight," he muttered, bored of the game now. His thumbs dug at the trigger paddle. Cannon fire lanced down through the air ahead of him. Skjursón felt a tiny vibration and a glance told him he’d been holed in one wing. Out of the sun, a second Firebird was diving on his tail, its nose lit up with muzzle flash. Just a look told the expert captain that this second craft was piloted by an idiot, a man far less capable than the spirited boy he had been chasing. It was coming over too shallow, wobbling badly, desperately. It had no real target. But still, it was behind him and gunning madly. The warning sounded again, impatient. He’d reached critical fuel threshold. He was done here. Enough. Skjursón pulled the stick and powered off almost vertical, pulling out of the chase. The second Firebird went by under him as he climbed, bemused by the sudden exit. Skjursón climbed into the sunlight, gaining altitude. He banked 180 and aimed his beloved FP1 South. This broiling air war was just getting started. There would be another day. And another kill.
  2. Over the Gulf, 06:35 In the side rush of dawn, the distant peaks glowed pink, like some travesty of a fondant cake. Hard shadows infilled the cavities like ink. Streamers of white cloud strung out in the freezing air, 2000 metres below. Nock Leader was just a cruciform speck in the bright air ahead. He started to turn, ten degrees to the north-west. Òmah tilted the stick, following, rolling. The horizon swung up and the world moved around. Slowly, slowly. He heard the knocking sound and ignored it. At least the inclinometer was still working. As he came around and levelled the column, Òmah reached forward and flicked the brass dial of the fuel gauge again. It still read full, which couldn’t be right. They’d been up for forty-eight minutes. He took off a gauntlet and flicked the gauge once more with his bare fingers. He felt sure the lined mitten had been dulling his blows. The dial remained at full. He saw how pinched and blue his hand had become, and pulled the gauntlet back on quickly. It felt balmy in his insulated flightsuit, but the cabin temp read minus eight. There was no sound, except for the background roar of the engine. Òmah looked up and around, remembering to maintain his visual scanning. Just sky. Sundogs flaring in his visor. Nock Three just abeam of him, a silhouette, trailing vapour. The altimeter read 2800 metres. The radio gurgled. “Nock Leader to Nock Flight. One pass West and we turn for home. Keep formation tight." They made another lazy roll. The landscape rose up in his port vision. Òmah saw brittle flashes of light far below. Artillery fire on the islands. He heard the knocking again. It sounded as if someone was crouching behind the frame of his armoured seat, tapping the spars with a hammer. These engines always made a burbling, flatulent noise, but this didn’t seem right to him. He keyed his radio. "Nock Leader, this is Nock Four. I’ve–" There was a sudden, loud bang. The channel squealed like a stabbed pig. The world turned upside down. "Oh throne! Oh crap! Oh shit!” a voice was shouting. Òmah realised it was his own. G-force pummelled him. His P7E Firebird was tumbling hard. Light and dark, sky and land, up and over, up and over. Òmah choked back nausea and throttled down desperately. The radio was incoherent with frantic chatter. "Nock Four! Nock Four!" Òmah regained control and levelled. He had lost at least a thousand metres. He got the horizon true and looked around in the vain hope of seeing someone friendly. Then he cried out involuntarily as something fell past his nosecone. It was another Firebird, one wing shorn off in a cascade of torn struts and body plate. Flames were sucking back out of its air intakes. It arced down and away like a comet, trailing smoke as it went spinning towards the ground. It became a speck. A smaller speck. A little blink of light. Òmah felt his guts tighten and acid frothed inside him. Fear, like a stink, permeated the little cockpit. Something else flashed past him. Just a glimpse, moving so fast. There and gone. A memory of black wings. "Nock Four! Break! Break and turn! There’s one right on you!" Òmah leaned on the stick and kicked the rudder. The world rolled again. He put his nose up and throttled hard. The Firebird bucked angrily and the knocking came again. Throne of Stars. He’d thought his bird had malfunctioned, but it wasn’t that at all. They’d been stung. He leant forward against the harness and peered out of his cockpit dome. The aluminum skin of his right wing was holed and torn. Night’s teeth, he’d been shot. He pushed the stick forward to grab some speed, then turned out left in a hard climb. The dawn sky was full of smoke: long strings of grey vapour and little black blooms that looked like dirty cotton. Nock Flight’s formation had broken apart and they were scattering across the heavens. Òmah couldn’t even see the bats. No, that wasn’t true. He made one, bending in to chase Nock Five, tracer fire licking from its guns. He rolled towards it, flipping the scope of his reflector sight into position before resting his thumb on the stick-top stud that activated the quad cannons in the nose. The bat danced wildly across the glass reticule of the gunsight. It refused to sit. Òmah cursed and began to utter a prayer to the sun to lift his wings and make his aim true. He waggled the stick, pitching, rolling, trying to correct, but the more he tried, the more the bat slipped wildly off the gunsight to one side or the other. There was a little smoky flash ahead, and suddenly Òmah's Firebird was riding through a horizontal pelt of black rain. No. Not rain. Oil. Then debris. Pieces of glittering metal, buckled machine parts, shreds of aluminum. Òmah cried out in surprise as the oil washed out his forward view. He heard the pattering impact of the debris striking off his nose plate and wing faces. The bat had chalked Nock Five and Òmah was running in through the debris stream. Any large piece of wreckage would hole him and kill him as surely as cannon-fire. And if so much as a screw went down the intake of his engine… Òmah wrenched on the stick and came nose-up. Light returned as he came out of the smoke belt, and slipstream flowed the oil away off his canopy. It ran in quivering lines, slow and sticky, like blood. Almost immediately, he had to roll hard to port to avoid hitting another Firebird head on. He heard a strangled cry over the radio. The little dark interceptor filled his field of view for a second and then was gone back over his shoulder. His violent roll had been too brutal. He inverted for a moment and struggled to right himself as the hills spread out overhead. That knocking again. That damn knocking. He was bleeding speed now, and the experimental engines of the P7E had a nasty habit of flaming out if it struggled too hard. He began to nurse it up and round, gunning the engine as hard as he dared. Two planes rushed by, so fast he didn’t have time to determine their type, then another three went perpendicular across his bow. They were all Firebirds. One was venting blue smoke in a long, chuffing plume. "Nock Leader! Nock Leader!" Òmah called. Two of the Firebirds were already climbing away out of visual. The sun blinded him. The third, the wounded bird, was diving slowly, scribing the sky with its smoke. He saw the bat clearly then. At his two, five hundred metres, dropping in on the Firebird it had most likely already mauled. For the first time in his four weeks of operational flying, Òmah got a good look at the elusive foe. It resembled his plane, superficially, the cockpit set far back above the drive at the point where the bow of the blade-wings met. A jet interceptor, the cream of the enemy air force. In the dispersal room briefs, they’d talked about these killers being dirt brown or green, but this was pearl-white, like ice, like alabaster. The canopy was tinted black, like a dark eye-socket in a polished skull. Òmah had expected to feel fear, but he got a thrill of adrenaline instead. He leaned forward, hunched down in the Firebird’s armoured cockpit, and opened the throttle, sweeping in on the bat’s five. It didn’t appear to have seen him. It was lining up, leisurely, on the wounded plane. He flipped the toggle switch. Guns live. Closing at three hundred metres. Òmah rapidly calculated his angle of deflection, estimated he’d have to lead his shot by about five degrees. Reverent eye, he had it… He thumbed the firing stud. The Firebird shuddered slightly as the cannons lit up. He saw flashflames licking up from under the curve of the nose cone. He heard and felt the thump of the breechblocks. The bat had gone. He came clear, pulling a wide turn at about two hundred and seventy kilometres an hour. The engagement had been over in an instant. Had he killed it? He sat up into the clear blister of the canopy like an animal looking out of its burrow, craning around. If he’d hit it, surely there would be smoke? The only smoke he could see was about a thousand metres above in the pale blue sky where the main portion of the dogfight was still rolling. He turned. First rule of air combat: take a shot and pull off. Never stick with a target, never go back. That made you a target. But still he had to know. He had to. He dipped his starboard wing, searching below for a trace of fire. Nothing. Òmah levelled off. And there it was. Right alongside him. He cried out in astonishment. The bat was less than a wing’s breadth away, riding along in parallel with him. There was not a mark on its burnished white fuselage. It was playing with him. Panic rose inside pilot cadet Zhep det Òmah. He knew his valiant little Firebird could neither outrun nor out-climb the enemy's craft. He throttled back hard, and threw on his speed brakes, hoping the sudden manoeuvre would cause the big machine to overshoot him. For a moment, it vanished. Then it was back, on his other side, copying his brake-dive. Òmah swore.. He was so close to it that he could see the jet nozzles on the belly under the blade-wings. It could out-dance any prop craft, climbing, braking, even slowing to a near-stall. Òmah refused to accept he was out-classed, refused to admit he was about to die. He twisted the stick, kicked the rudder right over and went into the deepest dive he dared execute. Any deeper, and the Firebird's wings would shear off its airframe. The world rushed up, filling his vision. He heard the air screaming. He saw the glory of the land ascending to meet him. His land. His home. The home he had joined up to save. Behind him, the pearl-white enemy machine tucked in effortlessly and followed him down.
  3. Hotel Royale, 07:24 Gofain made a good run across the northern sectors and arrived outside the Hotel Royale well inside the time Lord Silakh had allocated for the job. The only slight delay had been a queue of market stallers lining up to get onto the Temple Plaza for the midweek debates. These days, it seemed to Gofain, Old Zona kept to its bed until after eight, as if afraid of what horrors might roam in the dark hours of night. He rolled in under the wrought iron frame of the hotel’s awning, quietly wondering how long it would be before even that was taken for war metal, and glanced around. There was no one about except for an ancient old porter dozing on a folding chair amongst a half-dozen empty boxes, and a gaggle of housekeepers smoking together by the service door down the side of the building. Gofain was about to get down out of the cab when the glass and varnished wood of the hotel’s front doors flashed in the early sunlight, and a mob of dark figures strode out purposefully towards him. They were fliers, he knew that at once by the swagger of them, but not locals. Nor were they wearing the black and grey coats and flight armour of Imperial aviators. There were at least a dozen, dressed in quilted flightsuits and brown leather coats, carrying equipment packs loosely over their shoulders. They were unusually tall and well-proportioned individuals, slender and uniformly black-haired. And they weren’t all male. At least three of them–including, it seemed, the figure leading them towards the transport – were women. Gofain got out and walked round to the back of the transport to drop the tailgate. He nodded a greeting to the first of the newcomers, trying to get a decent look at the insignia on the coat sleeve, but the young man spared him not a second glance and simply hoisted in his kit bag and climbed up after it. Only the woman paused. She had cold, searching eyes and a slim jaw that seemed to be set permanently in a gritted clench. Her black hair was cropped short. "Transport to MAB North?" she asked Gofain. She spoke her Astintzen with a foreign accent that sounded rather odd and nasal to him. "Yes, ma'am. To the dispersal station." "That’s 'commander'," she corrected, hauling herself up into the transport. "Carry on." Gofain waited for the last of them to climb aboard, then shut the gate. He limped back round to the cab and started the engine. Outlander. That’s what it had said on the woman’s silver shoulder badge. Imperial (Outlander) XV, embossed on a scroll backed by a phoenix that clutched two spears in its talons. He drove them through Almat's borough and turned North towards the base. On University Street, a pair of Firebirds went over at about five hundred metres, turning South and West. Gofain looked up to watch them pass. In the driving mirror, he saw the fliers in the back do the same. Zona Historical District, 07:35 The service had finished, and the faithful were filing out, most stopping to light candles at the votary shrine. Candles for the lost, or those who might soon be. As usual, as she did every morning, Reba het Aiksh lit three: one for Bàch, one for her brother, Vero, and one for whoever might need it. She was tired. Night shift at the manufactory had really taken it out of her. It had been a struggle not to sleep through the Temple Knight's reading. If she’d been any warmer, she surely would have dozed off. But her coat was too thin: a second-hand summer coat, not even lined. Perhaps next month, with her next wages and what she had put aside, she’d be able to pick up a winter jacket or better from the Order supply. As she turned from the candle-stand, she knocked against someone waiting their turn to light an offering. It was the man she’d seen by the temple door on her way in for the service. Tall, dark-haired, another outsider. He had a sad face. He was dressed like a soldier, and had that scent of machine oil and smoke about him. "My pardon, ma'am." he said at once. She nodded 'no harm', but kept a distance as she went by. He’d been talking to himself when she’d first seen him. A stranger, maybe with battle-psychosis. That was the sort of trouble she didn’t need. In fact, the only thing she needed was her rest. She could be home by a quarter to the hour, and that would give her three hours’ sleep before she’d have to rise and dress for her day job at the pier. When that was over, at evening bell, she’d have an hour to nap before the night shift at the manufactory began. She hurried out through the temple doors into a cold street where full daylight now shone, and made her weary way back towards home.
  4. Zona, almost a century prior... He couldn’t sleep. It was anticipation mostly, the prospect of a new war to survive, but his body clock was still running on Fortuna time, and to him it was late morning. Just before six by the clock on his night stand, he gave up on his bed and got up. It was cold and not yet light. In the adjacent rooms, the other men of G for Gekhà were sleeping. He could hear snoring, particularly the volcanic rumble of Bombardier Ada. The Order of Ordinance had issued them billets in a once-handsome pension on Ukhai Canal, and they’d piled in late the previous afternoon, leaving their packs in a heap in the hallway, eagerly laying claim to rooms. The younger men had broken open liquor and got down to the business of getting drunk so they could better sleep off trip-lag. He’d had a glass or two, but the cheap escape held little attraction. He and the other flight officers had swung the best rooms. He’d had to order a disappointed Zhakh out to make way for him: "Find somewhere else," he’d told the young tail-gunner. But the room wasn’t much of a trophy. The carpet had long gone and the plaster was crumbling. Darkened sheets were nailed over the windows in place of curtains. Damp patches blotched the ceiling like sores. There was a smell of fatigue and faded grandeur. That’s what years of warfare did to a place. They certainly did the same to a man, after all. The old woman who ran the building had told him that there would be no hot water until after eight, and he hadn’t come across a continent and an ocean to start a tour by standing under a piss-cold shower. He’d got dressed in the half-light – boots, breeches, fleece-vest – and started to pull on his flight coat. But his fingers had then encountered the insignia sewn into the thick quilts of the garment, the captain’s bars, the squadron badge, the name-strip that read ‘len Zhai, Arkho’. He had put it aside and opted instead for a more anonymous tan leather coat. The landing was dark. On the floor above, the crewmen of Hello Hellfire were slumbering, with the crews of Throes of Terror and Widowmaker on the floor above that. The retinues of K for Killshot and Send Them All Home were billeted on the ground floor. The other six crews of XIX Wing ‘Guardian Flight’, Imperial Naval Air Force were tucked up in another pension down the street. Zhai lit a candle. The light was dim, but enough to light his way down the creaking staircase. In the hall, there were ancient books stacked on the mantle of the ornate but flaking fireplace, but those that he touched in the hope of finding an hour or two’s distraction fell into dust. He let himself out onto the street. It was chilly and quiet, except for the gurgle of the canal. A van rumbled by on the far side of the waterway, its headlights cowled as per blackout procedures. He walked a few paces, noticing the stumps, regularly spaced, where iron lamp stands had been removed from the boulevard for the war effort. He tried to imagine the place in peacetime. Elegant, glass-hooded lamps, purring boats on the grand canal, prosperous citizens going about their business, stopping to greet and talk, dining at terrace taverns now long boarded-up. There would have been students too. The briefing documents said that Zona was a university town. In truth, he realised, he knew precious little about this neck of the woods. Precious little apart from three things: it was an old, proud canton; it was strategically vital to the dominance of the Holy Spears of the Navy; and he, and thousands of other soldiers and aviators like him, had been drafted here at short notice to save it from the enemy. He noticed passers-by suddenly – other pedestrians out in the early light, dressed in dark clothes, all hurrying in the same direction. He heard the chime of a sunrise bell ringing out the eye's rise, calling them to worship. Zhai followed them, crossing a bridge over the canal, hanging back. By the time he reached the sacred temple on the far bank side, the dawn service had already begun. He stood for a moment outside, listening to the chorus. Above him, in the cold, grey light, the bas-relief facade showed the masked figure of the Infinite Emperor gazing down upon this little stretch of His domain. Zhai felt ashamed. He bowed his head. When, eight years earlier, he had sworn to give his life as a warrior in the service of the Infinite Empire, he hadn’t realised how damn hard it would be. He’d always wanted to be an aviator, of course. His home village's local air base bred that instinct into all its sons and daughters. But the cost had been great. Two years before, during the final onslaught to liberate the Fortuna from the toxic clutches of the enemy, fighting alongside the Lord Commander Izoh van Ifòch, he had almost died twice. Once as flaming rubble over the Gates of Judgment, then as a prisoner of a warlord back in Ostronia. In the two years since then, Zhai had been unable to shrug off the idea that he should be dead already. He was living on borrowed time. His instructor at the academy had drummed into him the concept of fate’s wheel. He’d said that it spun at the astral throne's side. It spun for balance, for symmetry. What was given would be taken, what was loaned would be paid back. A life saved was only a life spared. His had been saved twice over. There was a reckoning to be had. And here he was, in a new land, charged with the duty of fighting to save it. The reckoning would be here, he was sure of it. Fate’s wheel would turn. He had been spared twice so he could live long enough to see his own home secured. Now he was fighting to save another man’s home. This, surely, would be where the accounts got squared. The crew of G for Gekhà had seen this fatality in his every action, he was sure of that. They knew they were flying on a doomed bird. Doomed by him, cursed by him. He’d lost one crew over the Gates, and he should have gone with them. Now Fate’s wheel would bring another crew down with him in its efforts to even the tally. He’d asked for a transfer, been refused, asked for a non-operational posting, had that turned over as well. "You’re a bloody fine flight officer, Zhai," Lord Theit had told him. "Get rid of this fatalistic nonsense. We need every bastard with airtime and combat experience we can get. Zona will be tough as nails. Our forces are in hard retreat from the continent. It’ll come down to a bloody sea war, mark my words. Request denied. Your transport leaves tomorrow at 06.00." Zhai looked up at the graven image of the Emperor, hard-shadowed in the rising sun. The faceless mask somehow looked disapproving, glaring at his timid soul, fully aware of the cowardice in his heart. "I’m sorry," he said, out loud. A woman in a long black coat, coming late to the service, looked round at him. He shrugged, bashful, and held the observatory door open for her. Light, and a chorus of triumphant vows dedicated to the Eye Ascendant, washed out on them both. She hurried in. He followed her, and closed the heavy door behind him.
  5. Ryxtylopia, more recently... The speaker was stirring. His speech was grand and encapsulating. It assuaged all the worries of the gathered press, and bade them record Ryxtylopia's wealth and status for all the world to see. The trouble was, the speaker was just a figure in the distance and largely inaudible. In the gathered audience, in the dusty heat, Arkilo fen Jeik shifted impatiently and craned his neck to see. The assembly had been gathered in a square north of the Diportyvo di Ryxenia. It was just after midday, and the sun was at its zenith, scorching the high rises and yards of the city. Though the high walls around the square offered some shade, the air was oven dry and stiflingly hot. There was a breeze, but even that was heated like exhaust vapour, and it did nothing but stir up fine grit in the air. Powder dust was everywhere. Jeik's throat was as arid as a river bed in drought. Around him, people in the crowd coughed and sneezed. The crowd was largely reporters. Many of them, like Jeik, had been granted their first permit to the city, at long last, so they could attend. If this was what he had been waiting for, Jeik thought, they could keep it. Standing in a crowded kiln while some old fart made incoherent noises in the background. Most seemed to share his mood. They were hot and despondent. Jeik saw no smiles on the faces of the invited press, just hard, drawn looks of forbearance. They were simply, wearily, enduring the indignity of this showmanship. From time to time, they clapped in a desultory manner, but only when stirred to do so by the speaker's attendees. His mind wandered. He looked up at the high walls around them, geometric edifices against the blue sky, baked pink in the sunlight, or smoke black where shadows slanted. Far beyond the walls, he knew the true living spaces of the city were in less attractive repair, aged plasterwork hanging off like shed snakeskin, missing windows like blinded eyes. To the south of the gathering, the arena stood on station, in wait for the coming game. A burst of clapping made him jump. The speaker had apparently said something gripping, and his people were stirring up the crowd in response. Jeik slapped his sweaty hands together a few times obediently. He was sick of it. He knew he couldn't bear to stand there much longer. He took one last look at the stage. The man was rambling on, well into his fiftieth minute. Jeik turned away, and began to push his way out through the inflexible crowd. He headed towards the rear of the square. Local police had been stationed around the hem of the crowd as a precaution. They had been required to wear dress uniform, and they were so overheated that their sweaty cheeks were blanched a sickly green-white. One of them noticed Jeik moving out through the thinnest part of the audience, and came over to him. "Where are you going, sir?” he asked. “I’m dying of thirst.” Jeik replied. “There will be refreshments, I'm told, after the presentation,” the policeman said. His voice caught on the word 'refreshments' and Jeik knew there would be none for the common men. “Well, I've had enough.” Jeik said. “It's not over.” “I've had enough.” The policeman frowned. Perspiration beaded at the bridge of his nose, just beneath the rim of his cap. His throat and jowls were flushed and sheened with sweat. “I can't allow you to wander away. Movement is supposed to be restricted to approved areas.” Jeik grinned wickedly. “And I thought you were here to keep trouble out, not keep us in.” The policeman didn't find that funny, or even ironic. "We're here to keep you safe, sir.” he said. “I'd like to see your permit.” Jeik took out his papers. They were an untidy, crumpled bundle, warm and damp from his trouser pocket. Jeik waited, faintly embarrassed, while the man studied them. He had never liked barking up against authority, especially not in front of people, though the back of the crowd didn't seem to be at all interested in the exchange. “You're an Aukeran?” the policeman asked. “Yes. The Crimson Standard.” Jeik added before the inevitable second question got asked. The policeman looked up from the papers into Jeik's face, as if searching for some essential characteristic of Aukeran-ness that might be discerned there, comparable to a cat's ears or perhaps a Dalimbari's serial tattoo. He'd likely never seen an Aukeran before, which was all right, because Jeik had never seen a Ryxtylopian before. “You should stay here, sir.” the policeman said, handing the papers back to Jeik. “But this is pointless.” Jeik said. “I have been sent to make a memorial of these events. I can't get close to anything. I can't even hear properly what that fool's got to say. Can you imagine the wrong-headedness of this? This isn't even relevant to the games. He's just another kind of presenter. I've been allowed here to report on his reporting, and I can't even do that properly. I'm so far removed from the things I should be engaging with, I might as well have stayed in Ior Aria and made do with a telescope.” The policeman shrugged. He'd lost the thread of Jeik's speech early on. “You should stay here, sir. For your own safety.” “I was told the city had been made safe.” Jeik said. “We're only a day from the game, aren't we?” The policeman leaned forward discreetly, so close that Jeik could smell the stale odour the heat was infusing into his breath. “Just between us, that's the official line, but there has been trouble. Insurgents. Protestors. You always get it for stuff like this. The back streets are not secure.” “Really?” They're saying rioters, but it's just discontent, if you ask me. These bastards have nothing, and they're not happy about it.” Jeik nodded. “Thanks for the tip.” he said, and turned back to rejoin the crowd. Five minutes later, with the speaker still droning on and Jeik close to despair, an elderly woman in the crowd fainted, and there was a small commotion. The police hurried in to take charge of the situation and carry her into the shade. When his new friend's back was turned, Jeik took himself off out of the square and into the streets beyond. He walked for a while through empty courts and high-walled streets where shadows pooled like water. The day's heat was still pitiless, but moving around made it more bearable. Periodic breezes gusted down alley ways, but they were not at all relieving. Most were so full of sand and grit that Jeik had to turn his back to them and close his eyes until they abated. The streets were vacant, except for an occasional figure hunched in the shadows of a doorway, or half-visible behind broken shutters. He wondered if anybody would respond if he approached them, but felt reluctant to try. The silence was penetrating, and to break it would have felt as improper as disturbing a mourning vigil. He was alone, properly alone for the first time in over a year, and master of his own actions. It felt tremendously liberating. He could go where he pleased, and quickly began to exercise that privilege, taking street turns at random, walking where his feet took him. For a while, he kept the arena in sight, as a point of reference, but it was soon eclipsed by towers and high roofs, so he resigned himself to getting lost. Getting lost would be liberating too. There were always the great skyscrapers in the distance. He could follow those back to their roots if necessary. Protest and police had ravaged many parts of the slum he passed through. Shanty buildings had toppled into dusty heaps of splinters, or been reduced to their foundations. Others were roofless, or burned out, or wounded in their structures, or simply rendered into facades, their innards blown out, standing like the wooden flats of stage scenery. Holes pock-marked certain walls, or the surfaces of paved roads, sometimes forming strange rows and patterns, as if their arrangement was deliberate, or concealed, by some secret code, great truths of life and death. There was a smell in the dry, hot air, like burning or blood or ordure, yet none of those things. A mingled scent, an afterscent. It wasn't burning he could smell, it was things burnt. It wasn't blood, it was dry residue. It wasn't ordure, it was the seeping consequence of sewer systems long broken. Many streets had stacks of belongings piled up along the pavements. Cheap furniture, bundles of clothing, kitchen-ware. A great deal of it was in disrepair, and had evidently been recovered from ruined dwellings. Other piles seemed more intact, the items carefully organised, some packed in coffers. People were intending to quit the city, he realised. They had piled up their scant possessions in readiness while they tried to procure transportation, or perhaps the relevant permission from the authorities. Almost every street and yard bore some slogan or other notice upon its walls. All were hand written, in a great variety of styles and degrees of calligraphic skill. Some were daubed in pitch, others paint or dye, others chalk or charcoal - the latter, Jeik reasoned, marks made by the employment of burnt sticks and splinters taken from one of the open fires. Many were indecipherable, or unfathomable. Many were bold, angry graffiti, splenetically cursing the authorities or defiantly announcing a spark of resistance. They called for death, for uprising, for revenge. Others were lists, carefully recording the names of the citizens who had died or gone missing from that place, or plaintive requests for news about the missing loved ones listed below. Others were agonised statements of lament, or minutely and delicately transcribed texts of some significance. Jeik found himself increasingly captivated by them, by the variation and contrast of them, and the emotions they conveyed. For the first time, the first true and proper time since he'd left Aukera, he felt the writer in him respond. This feeling excited him. He had begun to fear that he might have accidentally left his spark behind in Ior Aria in his hurry to embark, or at least that it malingered, folded and unpacked, in his hotel like a least favourite shirt. He felt the muse return, and it made him smile, despite the heat and the mummification of his throat. It seemed apt, after all, that it should be words that brought words back into his mind. He took out his notebook and his pen. He was a man of traditional inclinations, believing that no great piece could ever be composed on the screen of an abacus, a point of variance that had almost got him into a fist fight with Vera ret Nekhs, the other Aukeran amongst the media group. That had been near the start of their trip, during one of the informal dinners held to allow global reporters to get to know one another. He would have won the fight, if it had come to it. He was fairly sure of that. Even though Nekhs was an especially large and fierce woman. Jeik favoured notebooks of thick, cream paper, and at the start of his long, feted career, had sourced a supplier in a mountain town on the Spine, who specialised in antique methods of paper manufacture. The firm was called Landers, and it offered a particularly pleasing book of fifty leaves, bound in a case of soft, black leather. The Landers Number 16. Jeik, a sallow, rawheaded youth back then, had paid a significant proportion of his first gratuity for an order of two hundred. The volumes had come, packed head to toe, in a waxed box lined with tissue paper, which had smelled, to him at least, of genius and potential. He had used the books sparingly, leaving not one precious page unfilled before starting a new one. As his editorial fame grew, and his earnings soared, he had often thought about ordering another box, but always stopped when he realised he had over half the original shipment still to use up. All his great works had been drafted upon the pages of Landers Number 16's. His report on the Morean crisis, all eleven of his Kalmachian Cantos, his Ostronian travels, even the meritorious and much referenced infiltration of the Black Wyrm Cult, written in his thirtieth year, which had secured his reputation and won him the Solar Laureate. The month before his retirement from field reporting, after what had been, in all fairness, a long span of unproductive doldrums that had seen him living off his reputation, he had decided to rejuvenate his muse by placing an order for another box. He had then been dismayed to discover that Landers had ceased operation. Arkilo fen Jeik had nine unused volumes left in his possession. He had brought them all with him on every trip. But for an idiot scribble or two, their pages were unmarked. On a blazing, dusty street corner in the broken slum, he at last took the book out of his coat pocket, and slid off the strap. He found his pen - an antique, for his traditionalist tastes applied as much to the means of marking as what should be marked - and began to write. The heat had almost congealed the ink in his nib, but he wrote anyway, copying out such pieces of wall writing as affected him, sometimes attempting to duplicate the manner and form of their delineation. He recorded one or two at first, as he moved from street to street, and then became more inclusive, and began to mark down almost every slogan he saw. It gave him satisfaction and delight to do this. He could feel, quite definitely, a piece beginning to form, taking shape from the words he read and recorded. It would be superlative. After years of absence, the spirit had flown back into him as if it had never been away. He realised he had lost track of time. Though it was still stifling hot and bright, the hour was late, and the blazing sun had worked its way over, lower in the sky. He had filled almost twenty pages, almost half his book. He felt a sudden pang. What if he had only nine volumes of genius left in him? What if that box of Landers Number 16's, delivered so long ago, represented the limits of his career? He shuddered, chilled despite the clinging heat, and put his book and pen away. He was standing on a lonely, scabbed street-corner, persecuted by the sun, unable to fathom which direction to turn. For the first time since escaping the accursed presentation, Jeik felt afraid. He felt that eyes were watching him from the blind abodes. He began to retrace his steps, slouching through gritty shadow and dusty light. Only once or twice did a new graffito persuade him to stop and take out his book again. He'd been walking for some time, in circles probably, for all the streets had begun to look the same, when he found the eating house. It occupied the ground floor and basement of a large wooden tenement, and bore no sign, but the smell of cooking announced its purpose. Door-shutters had been opened onto the street, and there was a handful of tables set out. For the first time, he saw people in numbers. Locals, as unresponsive and indolent as the few souls he had glimpsed in doorways. They were sitting at the tables under a tattered awning, alone or in small, silent groups, drinking thimble glasses of liquor or eating food from wooden bowls. Jeik remembered the state of his throat, and his belly remembered itself with a groan. He walked inside, into the shade, nodding politely to the patrons. None responded. In the cold gloom, he found a wooden bar with a dresser behind it, laden with glassware and spouted bottles. The hostel keeper, an old woman in a khaki dress, eyed him suspiciously from behind the serving counter. “Hello.” he said. She frowned back. “Do you understand me?” He asked. She nodded slowly. “That's good, very good. I figure most everyone understands Common these days, but there are still some accent and dialect differences that…” He trailed off. The old woman said something that might have been 'What?' or might have been any number of curses or interrogatives. “You have food?” he asked. Then he mimed eating. She continued to stare at him. “Food?” he asked. She replied with a flurry of words, none of which he could make out. Either she didn't have food, or was unwilling to serve him, or she didn't have any food for the likes of him. “Something to drink then?” he asked. No response. He mimed drinking, and when that brought nothing, pointed at the bottles behind her. She turned and took down one of the glass containers, selecting one as if he had indicated it directly instead of generally. It was three-quarters full of a clear fluid that roiled in the gloom. She thumped it onto the counter, and then put a thimble glass beside it. “Very good.” he smiled. “Very, very good. Well done. Is this local? Ah ha! Of course it is, of course it is. A local speciality? You're not going to tell me, are you? Because you have no idea what I'm actually saying, have you?” She stared blankly at him. He picked up the bottle and poured a measure into the glass. The liquor flowed as slowly and heavily through the spout as his ink had done from his pen in the street. He put the bottle down and lifted the glass, toasting her. “To your health.” he said brightly, “and to the prosperity of your home. I know things are hard now, but trust me, it will be all for the best. All for the very best.” He swigged the drink. It tasted of licorice and went down very well, heating his dry gullet and lighting a buzz in his gut. “Excellent.” he said, and poured himself a second. Very good indeed. You're not going to answer me, are you? I could ask your name and your lineage and anything at all, and you would just stand there like a statue, wouldn't you? Like that stadium?” He sank the second glass and poured a third. He felt very good about himself now, better than he had done for hours, better even than when the muse had flown back to him in the streets. In truth, drink had always been a more welcome companion to Arkilo fen Jeik than any muse, though he would never have been willing to admit it, or to admit the fact that his affection for drink had long weighed down his career, like rocks in a sack. Drink and his muse, both beloved of him, each pulling in opposite directions. He drank his third glass, and tipped out a fourth. Warmth infused him, a biological warmth much more welcome than the brutal heat of the day. It made him smile. It revealed to him how extraordinary this nation was, how complex and intoxicating. He felt love for it, and pity, and tremendous goodwill. This land, this place, this hostelry, would not be forgotten. Suddenly remembering something else, he apologised to the old woman, who had remained facing him across the counter like a fugued stone, and reached into his pocket. He had currency - Aukeran coin and Ryxtylopian bills. He made a pile of them on the stained and glossy bartop. “Some claria,” he said, “but you'll take that. I mean, you've clearly no room to be picky. Gold, you don't know what I'm saying, do you? How much do I owe you?” No answer. He sipped his fourth drink and pushed the pile of cash towards her. “You decide, then. You tell me. Take for the whole bottle.” He tapped his finger against the side of the flask. “The whole bottle? How much?” He grinned and nodded at the money. The old woman looked at the heap, reached out a bony hand and picked up a five piece. She studied it for a moment, then spat on it and threw it at Jeik. The coin bounced off his belly and fell onto the floor. Jeik blinked and then laughed. The laughter boomed out of him, hard and joyous, and he was quite unable to keep it in. The old woman stared at him. Her eyes widened ever so slightly. Jeik lifted up the bottle and the glass. 'I tell you what,” he said. “Keep it all. All of it.” He walked away and found an empty table in the corner of the place. He sat down and poured another drink, looking about him. Some of the silent patrons were staring at him. He nodded back, cheerfully. “How foolish is mankind?' Jeik laughed, enjoying the way his words broke the silence. “How desperate and flailing? Is it that some simply need so much to lock others away in places like this?” He fell silent, considering the point he had raised to himself, and stood up suddenly. The muse had abruptly jostled the pleasure of drink out of the summit of his mind. He bowed to the old woman as he collected up his glass and two thirds empty bottle, and said, “My thanks, madam.” Then he teetered back out into the sunlight. He found a vacant lot a few streets away that had been levelled to rubble, and perched himself on a chunk of concrete. Setting down the bottle and the glass carefully, he took out his half-filled Landers Number 16 and began to write again, forming the first few paragraphs of an article that owed much to the writings on the walls and the insight had garnered in the hostelry. It flowed well for a while, and then dried up. He took another drink, trying to restart his inner voice. Tiny black ants milled industriously in the rubble around him, as if trying to rebuild their own miniature ruins. He had to brush one off the open page of his book. Others raced exploratively over the toe-caps of his boots in a frenetic expedition. He stood up, imagining itches, and decided this wasn't a place to sit. He gathered up his bottle and his glass, taking another sip once he'd fished out the ant floating in it with his finger. Jeik wobbled down a few streets, away from the lot, and heard a rushing, scouring noise. He discovered a team of policemen, stripped to the waist, using a high pressure hose to erase anti-government slogans from a wall. They had evidently been working their way down the street, for all the walls displayed stains of water and runny medium. “Don't do that.” he said. The police turned and looked at him, their hose spitting. From his garments and demeanour, he was unmistakably not a local. “Don't do that.” he said again. “Orders, sir.” said one. “What are you doing out here?” asked another. Jeik shook his head and left them alone. He trudged through narrow alleys and open courts, sipping from the spout of the bottle. He found another vacant lot very similar to the one he had sat down in before, and placed his rump upon a flat block of wood. He took out his book and ran through the drafts he had written. They were terrible. He groaned as he read them, then became angry and tore the precious pages out. He balled the thick, cream paper up and tossed it away into the rubble. Jeik suddenly became aware that eyes were staring at him from the shadows of doorways and windows. He could barely make out their shapes, but knew full well that locals were watching him. He got up, and quickly retrieved the balls of crumpled paper he had discarded, feeling that he had no right to add in any way to the mess. He began to hurry down the street, as thin boys emerged from hiding to lob stones and jeers after him. He found himself, unexpectedly, in the street of the hostelry again. It was uninhabited, but he was pleased to have found it as his bottle had become unaccountably empty. He went into the gloom. There was no one around. Even the old woman had disappeared. His pile of mixed currency lay where he had left it on the counter. Seeing it, he felt authorised to help himself to another bottle from behind the bar. Clutching the bottle in his hand, he very carefully sat down at one of the tables and poured another drink. He had been sitting there for an indefinite amount of time when a voice asked him if he was all right. Arkilo fen Jeik blinked and looked up. The gang of policemen who had been washing clean the walls of the slum had entered the hostelry, and the old woman had reappeared to fetch them drinks and food. The officer looked down at Jeik as his men took their seats. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked. "Yes. Yes, yes, yes." Jeik slurred. "You don't look all right, pardon me for saying. Should you be out here?" Jeik nodded furiously, tucking into his pocket for his permit. It wasn't there. "I'm meant to be here." he said, instead. "Meant to. Was ordered to come. To hear the Fallopian... Shit, no, that's wrong... To hear the Ryxtylopian government announce their plans for reconstruction? For the slums. That's why I'm here. I'm meant to be." The officer regarded him cautiously. "If you say so, sir. They've drawn up a wonderful scheme for aid work here." "Oh yes, quite wonderful." Jeik replied, reaching for his bottle and missing. "Quite bloody wonderful. Finally getting onto the right track..." "Sir?" "It won't last." Jeik said. "No, no. It won't last. It can't. Nothing like that'll last here. You look like a wise man to me, friend, what do you think?" "I think you should be on your way, sir." the officer said gently. "No, no, no... about the city! The people! That plan won't last a day after the cup ends. To the dust, all those things return. Empty platitudes, as far as I can see." "Sir, I think-" "No, you don't." Jeik said, shaking his head. "You don't, and not one of you does. Knock it down, rob them blind, promise to build it back up, take even more. It'll happen again, and again. Soon it'll happen to you, too!" "Sir-" "Your masters' greed will make you all fall apart, eventually. You mark my words. This little town, your city..." "Sir, you-" Jeik rose to his feet, blinking and wagging a finger. "Don't 'sir' me! This Federation will fall asunder as fast as you breathe! You mark my words! It's as inevitable as-" Pain abruptly splintered Jeik's face, and he fell down, bewildered. He registered a frenzy of shouting and movement, then felt boots and fists slamming into him, over and over again. Enraged by his words, the other policemen had fallen upon him. Shouting, the officer tried to pull them off. Bones snapped. Blood spurted from Jeik's nostrils. "Mark my words!" he coughed. "Nothing you build will last forever! You ask these bloody locals!" A bootcap cracked into his sternum. Bloody fluid washed into his mouth. "Get off him! Get off him!" the officer was yelling, trying to rein in his provoked and angry men. By the time he managed to do so, Arkilo fen Jeik was no longer pontificating. Or breathing.
  6. Zona, almost a century prior... Sometimes – times like this perfect dawn, for instance – it amused Frei rem Gofain to play a private game. The game was called "pretend there isn’t a war on." It was relatively easy in some respects. It was quiet, and the night chill was giving way to a still cool as sunrise came up over the city. From where he sat, he could see the wide bay, hazy in the morning mist, and the sea beyond it, blue-grey, glittering. The city of Zona itself – a mix of modern construction, low-rise homes, and ancient steeples – was peaceful and quiet, huddled on the wide headland in a quaint, antiquated manner, as it had done for twenty-nine centuries. Sea birds wheeled overhead, which spoiled it slightly, because he envied them their wings and their freedom, but still, at these times, it was easy to play the game. Zona was not Gofain's birth-town (he’d been delivered, a silent, uncomplaining infant, forty two years earlier in Zhuna Ra on the far side of the Gulf of Golden Fronds), but he had, unilaterally, adopted it. It was smaller than Zhuna Ra, prettier, a littoral town that understood the mechanisms of the sea and, with its universities and its many schools, was famous as a seat of learning. It was older than most others too. The old town quarter had been standing for two hundred years when the first plucky Azten began sinking their sharp teeth into the banks of the sacred river to raise Ior Aria. Zona, dear old Zona, was one of the oldest cities in the infinite empire. Gofain had adopted Zona partly because of its distinguished past, mostly because he’d been stationed there for six years. He’d come to know it well: its eating houses, its coastal pavilions and piers, its libraries and museums. It was the place he’d always longed to return to every time he snapped the canopy shut and waved the fitters away. And it was the place he always had come back to. Even the last time. "You there! Driver!" The voice broke through his thoughts. He sat up in the worn leather seat of the cargo transport and looked out. Lord Silan, the Order of Ordinance dispatcher, was coming over towards him, three aides wobbling along in his wake like novice wingmen. Silan’s long robes fluttered out behind him and his boots were raising dust from the dry earth. His voice was pitched high, like the seabirds’ calls. Gofain didn’t like SIlan much. His game was ruined now. The dispatcher's call had made him drop his eyeline to take in the ground and the airfield. And no one could pretend there wasn’t a war when they saw that. Gofain opened his cab door and climbed down to meet the dispatcher. He’d been up waiting since five, sipping coffee from a flask and munching on a coil of local bread. "Lord," he said, saluting. He didn’t have to. The unctuous man had no military rank, but old habits, like Gofain himself, died hard. Dispatcher Silan had a clipboard in his hands. He looked up and down Gofain, and the grubby transport behind him. "Driver Gofain, F. R.? Vehicle 143?" "As you well know, Lord," said Gofain. Silan made a check in one of the boxes on his sheet. "Fuelled and roadworthy?" Gofain nodded. "As of 05.00. I was issued coupons for forty litres of II-grade, and I filled up at the depot before I came on duty." Silan checked another box. "Do you have the receipt?" Gofain produced the paper slip from his coat pocket, smoothed it flat, and handed it to the dispatcher. Silan studied it. "Forty point zero-three litres, driver?" Gofain shrugged. "The nozzle guns aren’t really accurate, Lord. I stopped it when it wound over forty, but the last few drops–" "You should take care to be more accurate," Silan said flatly. One of his aides nodded. "Have you ever fuelled a vehicle from the depot tanks, Lord?" Gofain said lightly. "Of course not!" "Well, if you had, you might know how tricky it is to get the wind exact." "Don’t you blame me for your inaccuracies, driver!" Silan sputtered. "Essential resources such as fuel must be managed and rationed to the millilitre! That is the task of the Holy Order of Ordinance! There’s a war on, don’t you realise?" "I had heard…" Silan ignored him and looked at the nodding aide. "What’s zero-three of a litre II-grade at base cost?" The aide made a quick calculation in his head. "Rounding down, ten and a half claria, Lord." "Round up. And deduct it from the next paycheck of driver Gofain, F. R." "So recorded, Lord." Silan turned back to Gofain. "Transportation run. Personnel. Pick up within thirty minutes from the Hotel Royale in–" "I know where it is." "Good. Convey them to the dispersal point at MAB South. Do you understand? Fine. Then sign here." As he signed his name, his stiffened fingers struggling with the pencil, Gofain asked: "Are they fliers? Fliers from the East at last?" Silan huffed. "Not for me to say. There’s a war on." "You think I don’t know that, Lord?" Gofain asked. As he took back the clipboard and the pen, Silan looked up at Gofain's face and made eye contact for the first time. What he saw made him shudder. "Carry on, driver," he said, and hurried away. Gofain climbed up into his battered transport and turned the engine over. Blue-black smoke coughed and spurted from the exhaust. Lifting the brake, he rolled the truck down the gentle slope of the hardpan and drove off along the field circuit trackway, following the chain link fence. The game was certainly ruined now. No pretending any more. Here were fuel tankers, smeared with black waste, armoured hangars, repair sheds reverberating with the noise of tools, lines of coils on their trolleys, munitions trains parked and empty on verges of swishing grass. And airstrips. Cracked concrete looking like psoriatic skin in the early light, with four-engine bombers sulking on their hardstands, props like sabre-blades raised in threat, hook-winged dive-bombers under tarps, fitters and armourers working around them. Beyond the strips, facing the sea, lay the long runway and the Firebirds, stretched out and vaguely glinting in the rising sun. Five Firebirds sat idle at the head of the roads. Dark blue with grey undersides, they were tiny, one-man planes with stubby wings and tails, their engine cowling stripped, their nose guns muzzled. They looked squat, leaden. But Gofain knew how they felt to fly. He knew how they ran down those runways, throttles right back, engines farting and popping as they fired to velocity. The bellydropping jink as they cleared the ground and lifted up into the blue, raw and throbbing. The cold smell of the cockpit. The reek of rubber and steel, fuel, nitrous. The feel of being aloft, alive… Gold above, how he missed it. At the gate, beside the staked revets and the heavy fences, he pulled over to let a munitions convoy roll in. He glanced up into the driving mirror and, for a moment, saw himself. More than anything, more than even the airfield full of prepping warplanes, the sight of himself reminded Frei rem Gofain that his cherished game was only pretend. There was, inescapably, a war on.
  7. In this strange land, there were no prayer bells. Tai Gofain rose with the morning sun, wrapped in oppressive silence. It was the strangest part of travel, he reasoned. Looking about the lai Irriavada suite, everything else seemed so close to normal: His crimson goalkeeper's kit was neatly folded nearby, as if in eager wait. Songbirds called in the breaking dawn. Far below, even the din of a city in waking was familiar. The sweeping windows across from his bed offered an unparalleled view of the skyline and the sea, and for the sweetest moment he could have believed he was home. The unending eye crested the horizon in all resplendence, calling the children of its sworn deity to exalt in the renewal of vows. But the silence, as every day prior, did not give way. Tai rose and approached the great window. He shivered, in part for the conditioned air of his suite, in main because the quiet never ceased to unnerve him. In Aukera — fair, distant Aukera — the bells would have been clamouring alongside this view. Even in little Afit, they rang from the temples, from the school, from the town hall and from several homes. They rang to exalt the rising sun and to signal the dawn prayer. They rang to call the people together, as one. As he knelt to intone the renewal of oaths, though he knew it to be a symptom of an overactive imagination, he heard those bells and the chorus in his mind. “O Lord of Sacred Gold, sworn to the rising sun, I kneel before your radiance…” The crowd roared. Tai blinked. Blue sky above, green field around. The stadium rose up around him on either side, packed to the brim. He heard chants, jeers, prayers, in languages unrecognisable. He saw hundreds of flags, many his own. He lowered his gaze and saw the team arrayed before him, and the Arifians beyond. He tensed, and waited for the whistle. “I renew my vows to you, as you rise in triumph to banish the night. I pledge my service unending, to mold my soul in worthy rembrance…” Darkness given way to daylight. The call of native birds swelled, the toll of prayer bells ceased. Another power outage in Afit, and the children had been set loose onto the schoolyard in education's stead. They might regret it later, perhaps, but the prospect of play defeated any hesitance in a young goalkeeper's mind. He watched the other children struggle for the ball, patiently. Twelve years hence, a young adult stood in similar position with the presssure of a nation on his shoulders. "I shall cast my name and deeds in amber, to be borne to the end of days, and attain perfection in the new paradise of Your making. I shall speak the Golden Word, and light shall flow from my lips. I shall strike impurity from my soul, and be remembered as an image of Your perfection…” Twelve years… an instant, but almost a lifetime. Some of his seniors — brothers, now — had laughed at that notion. Captain Sòjìc had clapped him on the back. ‘Son,’ he had said, ‘keep those thoughts close. One day you'll blink and it'll be twenty, thirty years gone. Then, if you remember, you can start to call it a lifetime.’ "I shall bear the names and deeds of my brothers and sisters into your arms, and see them born again. I shall uplift their weakness, embolden their weariness, and guide them should they be lost…” The Captain was at the front, as always. As his age advanced, it was less and less a fitting place to be, but becoming the greatest player in the Infinite Empire had left only a taste for more. Despite his reservations, especially facing Arifiyyah so early, Tai held a glimmer of hope. Perhaps he was right, and this might at last be their year. As tense silence descended over the arena, and the game against the world-third team loomed into being… “Your light shines upon me, and I bathe in its brilliance. O Azten Lord, from whom life's waters flow, O God of Seas, which protect our bountiful shores, O Bearer of the Word, which will enlighten all things... O Infinite Emperor, master divine, I exalt in thy names, which shall endure for ever and ever. Aten.” The whistle blew. The crowd's roar rose to a climax. There was a knock on the door. Tai started, jolted from his reverie. He was still knelt before the window. The cold air. The silence. No crowd, no stadium, no locker room conversations, not even an Afit field. The sun had risen yet further, and the world was now truly alight. “Tai!” Called Òbdau's voice. “We're heading out, get a move on!” Tai rose, mouthed a prayer for luck, and moved to the door.
  8. Te Ur-Ajlàh sho Aken Rà - Football Team of Aukera Away Jersey: Starting Eleven Name Number Position Age Tai ret Gofain 8 GK 19 Sei ret Jeik 11 RCB 26 Shifed em Idhi 22 LCB 29 Adhìr zen Gitò 19 LB 30 Kai em Fraikh 26 RB 33 Gothu Dhai 4 PM 24 Ipai ret Ikhfan 6 PM 27 Òlfikh Lauhìr 14 AM 26 Val ret Nàkh 13 AM 20 Dhòmmein Arjulkh 20 AM 31 Sòjìc em Etelsh 2 CF 35 Reserve Name Number Position Age T. Veigvun 1 GK 23 O. Ojeik 10 GK 30 M. Vàkhmìng 7 B 29 F. Velàj 5 B 27 Z. Ainaumla 12 B 25 S. Mauzh 16 B 28 T. Vau 9 M 29 E. Midh 18 M 25 T. Biggi 3 M 23 A. Ingid 15 M 33 D. Ezhelai 21 M 31 Style Modifier: +3.5 Head Coach: Ren vet Òbdau Captain: Sòjìc em Etelsh Who to Watch: The Aukeran team has a reputation for oddball combinations and left-field plays, and this roster seems no different. Without the pressure of a well-established industry or a reputation to uphold, trusted picks and connections to the Coach and Captain had an easy in to the Cup for yet another year. Tai Gofain is the youngest player to represent the archipelago in some years. Hailing from Afit, a mountain town in Aria canton famous for its production of local football legends, he rides the high of a recent victory in the Hierarch's Cup in team with Etelsh. Crediting a 'sixth sense' from communion with the sacred mount, his talents are now to be truly tested a thousand miles from home. Team Captain Sòjìc Etelsh remains a consistent, aggressive power for several years running. Proximity to coach Òbdau has seen him present in every Aukeran go for the cup in the last decade and a half, as well as several stints in the Hierarch's and League of All Realms. His penchant for flair is a defining aspect of the entire team, and will remain so for so long as he keeps the head. (I'll as more to this when I'm not sleepy and/or sick and/or both)
  9. The logo of the Aukeran National Football Team Aukeran Football Lore and Hosting Bid:
  10. The Land of the Gods - Zòn ekh Jaikoà - An Early History Long ago, before the world had a name, there was shaped a great archipelago to the North of Nur. It was a beautiful place, with lush forests, sweeping plains, and towering mountains. The land was bountiful, and held all that might be needed in abundance. Yet, in these ancient epochs, man had not yet sat foot on such pristine soil, and so it was that it came to be the exclusive domain of the divine. Wise readers know these islands, in modern times, to be the "Pala sho Aken Rà" - the lands of the Orthodoxy of Sacred Gold. So named for the being who would become principle among countless deities, Aukera's more formative state is still represented in the local term for the main island; "Zòn ekh Jainkoà." The land of unnumbered Gods. In the ages before the coming of man, divinities in their thousands resided in the sacred archipelago. Some held dominion over territories as vast as mountains, others as small and serene as a forest glade. Many of the thousands of smaller islands has their own resident divine. In this era, gods of wind raced over the golden fields, and deities of water held court beneath the springs. In earlier years, the unnumbered Gods fought violently against one another, shaping the land with the ferocity of their bouts. Great craters and gouges in the landscape are, to this day, attributed to those first battles, when constraint had not yet been forced upon them. In time, as the land's rulers reached the limits of their strength, a natural peace began to settle. Bereft of human worship, the fledgling Gods could not extend themselves beyond their means, and so settled into their carved domains and allowed the land to heal. When man first set his foot upon the Zòn ekh Jaikoà, he did so tentatively. Surviving archaeological evidence suggests that the islands were inhabited more than twenty thousand years hence, in the form of scattered tools and signs of cave habitation. These early migrants, who are believed to have originated from the Southern continent and arrived by sea, subsisted as hunter-gatherers within the domains of whatever God would abide their presence. An abundance of recovered artifacts shows that early humanity found patronage beneath a forest divinity of Nemikh, whose image was later proscribed. Depictions of Gìorezh, a deity resident within the canton of Oshk Zhei, are also apparent. As man spread and grew toward sedentism, they began to draw the attention of countless others. While natural limitations had drawn the borders of the archipelago's Godly domains, its residents had never been happy to settle. Ambition, that most valued tenet of Azten theology, inhabits every immortal being in abundance. Humanity, to this end, became the new battleground through which the most eager Gods sought control. Humanity's growing presence on the isles is marked by various depictions of regional deities. In Kastal, a cave mural shows a tremendous being of starlight teaching its disciples the means of creating tools. Carvings in the mountains of Fizhisk uniformly portray a serpentine divinity swallowing stormclouds. In the highlands of Aria, several sites are marked by a depiction of the sun with the great horns of a stag. In due time, all of the land came to be thus — A hundred kingdoms, each presided over by the most ambitious of the divines. The scriptures teach that this state persisted for many years, in peace and war, with rise and fall. The influence of the Gods waxed and waned, though the conflict in its whole grew to a such fever pitch that it was clear such conditions were bleeding the land dry. Toward the end of this chaotic epoch, from which little memory remains, there came to be a kingdom built around a mighty river. Along the waters of the Azten, at the heart of what would become the Aken Rà, grew the city of Ior Aria. The patron deity of this kingdom was a golden stag, from whose horns flowed purest water, and who shone with the light of the morning sky. He had long sat atop the mountains, by the spring from which His river flowed, and gazed peacefully into the sun. Unlike many divinities of power, He had permitted the growth of His city unconditionally. Straddling the connection between the North and South of the island, Ior Aria flourished without the intervention of a god. For this, however, He was revered with equal fervour to even the most present deities. When at last He descended from the mountain, His people received Him with fervour. For long had the God of Ior Aria stared into the sun. Atop the peaks, He had achieved communion with the Light, from which springs life and all that is good. When He descended, His eyes had been stained in gold, and His insight deepened beyond even the eldest of His kind. He preached freedom from conflict and from woe, and promised man both unending peace immortality. At the beginning of all things, spoke the Light to the void, 'unfold'! And lo, did the Unending Eye open, and all darkness burned away. All that endures within this Light is as Gold. That is Immortal, cast in amber radiance. For memory is the purest form of being. And I shall know all that is Good for all of time.
  11. I am a firm proponent of the First Pizza Amendment, whereby anybody can do anything they like to their own pizzas, as is their constitutional right. Personally, though, more of an extra extra cheese guy.
  12. Who (or what) is the Infinite Emperor? Astintzen Culture for Foreign Delegations, by Arch Lord Alios et vin Gehien ((WIP I hit submit too early oops))
  13. I find a lot of these discussions are rooted in a flawed definition of omnipotence - omnipotence means one is able to do everything that can be done, whereas it is often instead framed as "nothing is impossible." There is a key difference. An omnipotent would have infinite power to enact change, but this change would still need to be bound by what could actually be. The theoretical stone would have to be infinitely large to defeat an infinite amount of lifting power, but such a large and heavy rock is a contradiction since material objects cannot be infinite. An omnipotent could create a stone so massive that by our perception it is infinite - but it logically does have an end point, just one impossible for us to even comprehend. At such scale, does the difference really matter? This ultimately boils down to the point that a being of omnipotence cannot create a contradiction, which doesn't detract from said omnipotence. At least in my opinion.
  14. I was absolutely insufferable in high school. I was also absolutely insufferable for a while after highschool, as some of my older RMB posts will attest. I'm very happy to have met my wife after the fact, for her own sanity.
  15. I do like fruit salad. And the ability to turn most foods into a salad by means of presentation. I'm sure the question Gods won't take kindly to gaming the system, though. Water it is. It's good for you, anyway!
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