Jul 23, 2019 2:32 PM
alteriverse!imrainai lands in sanity
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She shakes her head. "I'm good." 

She genuinely doesn't look scared, this time. You don't have to be scared when you're dead.

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They head up. It takes about two hours.

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She doesn't say anything to anyone. She fidgets in a sort of weirdly focused way. She composes other things in her head, things that match, things that put her in the right headspace. She waits.

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The moon is pretty. Not in the way Elf cities are pretty; it's wilder. There are drifting eddies of dust. She probably knows enough about atmospheres to know that there shouldn't be drifting eddies of dust in places that don't have one, but there it is. The Elves get out without any kind of pressure suit; there isn't air, but one can breathe just fine.

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Weird. Very weird. But he won't want to kill her before he's heard his gift, so she's going to not worry about the weird.

"Which way?"

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They look startled for a second. 

"Oh," someone murmurs after a second, "she can't see that far - he's over there."

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"Ah. Thanks. I'll - see you."

She probably won't. Oh well.

She walks. 

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It's kind of a long way. Elven vision must be extraordinary. Dust swirls in impossibly elaborate patterns around her feet.  

 

He looks human, when she sees him. He's sitting in the dust, drawing on the ground with his fingers not quite touching it. He's wearing something a spacer might wear.

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She smiles when she sees him. She's - scared, OK, yes, but scared the way you are before doing something very difficult that you know, absolutely, that you have prepared for as well as you possibly can, and now you just have to see whether your very best is enough. She feels like her whole being is humming.

"Hello, storyteller."

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"Hello, Imrainai!"

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"I brought you something. I hope you don't have anything else to do today."

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"I may do other things but I promise that the narrative will be here while I do them."

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"All right, then."

 

The longest performance she's ever given was six hours long, and she got through it by the skin of her teeth. This one is thirteen, and has been ruthlessly edited down to a form that a single Liar is theoretically capable of recomposing in one sitting. Most of the material isn't original to her, but it's been strung together in new ways, tweaked and reworked to form a coherent whole.

She takes a deep breath and tells Eru her story, the story of the Liars, the story of the universe.

She tells him that very long ago there were only the stars, shining in a sea of endless blackness, singing their star-songs to one another over the vast distances of space, unchanging and undying (they thought - the stars could not have known that they were mortal). They gathered planets to themselves, great clouds of dust and stone and molten rock, billions of worlds with rocks and millions of worlds with oceans and thousands of worlds with life, all of them listening to the song of the stars. And then, in all the great expanse of all the universe, it happened that one of the worlds sang back.

She tells him that the Carthons appeared in their oceans, leading sedentary lives for millions of years. They moved and grew as slowly as trees, completely unable to explore their world themselves. But they sang to each other, through the oceans, as the stars once had. They grew to love truth dearly, each reporting the others' songs exactly as they had been sung to them, not daring to change a single word if it would threaten their ability to know the truth. In time they gained the ability to manipulate their environment, and created machines that could do what they themselves could not. They learned to move. They learned to fly ships into the endless blackness. And they sang, full of the joy of discovery and the love of one another and the certainty that their perfect honesty allowed them. They went to space, not to conquer or to colonize, but to learn the shape of their universe.

(She signs things with her hands here, silently overlaid on top of her other words, only during the parts of the story that she's told so many times that the story and the rhythm and meter and rhyme all come flawlessly, even when she's just barely paying attention to them. Her hands give voice to the Carthons, to an endless chatter of excitement and discovery and of reports on all things beautiful and wonderful in their world.)

She tells him that, in their endless travels, the Carthons found another species, with another kind of mind. The Alteri were cosmic infants, confined to a single planet covered in endlessly warring city-states. They were violent and cruel and capricious, and yet they sang. They sang of their love for their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children, of their loyalty to their houses, of their endless desire for glory, for honor, for greatness, for achieving that which had never been achieved before. The Carthons saw them and were horrified and delighted, in equal measure. They thought them feral children. They thought themselves adoptive parents. And so the Carthons tended the Alteri planet as their most precious garden, pruning slavery and inequality and scarcity away, utterly certain that beneath their many faults their charges would one day shine like polished silver. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that Alteri society and even Alteri biology were horrifically destructive to them, preventing them from being truly good. In their love, in their mercy, in their compassion, they sought to end the existence of a divided hierarchy of genders, ultimately seeking to destroy both marriage and the dynastic system in the process.

(Her hands say different things here; now they are the voices of the Alteri. They are wounded and furious, in such pain that they can scarcely express it. Legitimate and illegitimate complaints are woven between each other with no distinction whatsoever made between them. They swear by all they hold sacred, by their houses and their ancestors and their heritage and their honor, that their children shall not suffer as they have suffered, not even if the whole universe must burn for it.) 

She tells him the story of those Alteri who led the fight to be free of the Carthons, and of those Carthons who fought to maintain control over their wayward children. There are many players with many names and many distinctly developed personalities, all of them mythic figures by this point. It's complicated and intricately plotted, but it's one of the easy parts - she's told the revolution stories many many many times, because it's high drama. The emotional valence is different than it usually is, though. She spins her lines just so, highlighting things she usually doesn't, emphasizing the virtues of even her villains. She does not stop to mourn them; there isn't time, not in this story. She lets the bodies pile up and the sacrifices weigh on each subsequent generation, on both sides of the conflict, tension and despair building even as the Alteri claw their way back to freedom. And it is never freedom for everyone - as the great houses rejoice, they once again crush others under themselves, the lesser Alteri whose misery has been forgotten by history.

(Her hands are other voices, now. The doubts of the Carthons, the fears of the Alteri, the desperate aching need on both sides to save their children, the pain of realizing that they may not control the future. As the spoken poem leans more toward the Alteri, her hands give voice to the Carthons, who realize to their shame that they have unleashed something horrific upon a previously peaceful universe.)

She tells him of the enslavement of both the Thieves and the Sluggards. In this story it is a desperate act, born of the heartfelt desire to free enslaved Alteri, for the Alteri believe that all of their own people should be offered some measure of honor, not humiliation and squalor. The Thieves, in particular, suffered enormously under Alteri rule, for a long time losing even the power of writing (and therefore of communication in general), leaving them completely unable to so much as communicate their love to the other members of their herds.

(Her hands are Thief voices, crying out to fallen gods for deliverance. They go unanswered. Her hands are the voices of the Sluggards, insofar as the contents of Sluggard songs can be even vaguely rendered in Confederate One. Their song is one of mourning and of the acceptance of their fates. Her hands are the voices of the Carthons, running through justifications to the listener, crying as their once-children force them to choose between being slaughtered and slaughtering the objects of their love, along with all the innocents that have been captured to maintain their way of life.)

She tells him that it was not enough; the Thieves could not lift all Alteri out of poverty and obscurity. She tells him of the crowning achievement of the greatest Alteri minds, of the technological advancement that would, at last, allow Alteri society to become something beautiful and justifiably dear to all Alteri, even the lowest of the low.

She tells him, at last, of the Liars.

The Liars are unique among the peoples in this story - they have never known freedom, and cannot mourn the loss of it. This does not mean that they have never known happiness. They weave it in their hearts, out of hopes and dreams and madness, building new worlds for other less-real pieces of themselves to explore and delight in. They exist in constant pain, and more than that, in constant exhaustion. They persist by feeding each other exceptionally comforting lies, by living on air and interrupted dreams. They speculate, dimly and confusedly, about what it would mean for everyone to be safe and well and for the pain of their existence to reach a level they can bear. They refine the arts of poetry and narrative, unlocking more of their power with every subsequent generation, until a randomly selected Liar can do what she has done, laying line after line of poetry with near-flawless meter for hours upon hours of story, spinning up quilted epics from a patchwork of ancestral stories whose authors (insofar as any of them had single authors) have long since been forgotten. Their tragedy is that they cannot consider doing more than imagining better circumstances - they've lived on lies so long that they've become addicted to them, unable to break their shackles rather than merely sing on in spite of them. She tells him stories, of course, of those who tried, including an abbreviated version of Kalo's tale. She offers a handful of other tightly-spun myths that have been ruthlessly edited down to their simplest forms, sorted so that their heroes become weaker and less capable and meet worse fates over time, as the Liars collectively become less and less capable of taking useful real-world actions, retreating further and further into poems and songs.

(Her hands no longer sign things. Her throat and lungs and stomach ache, but mostly she cares that her brain is screaming to be allowed to rest, because she's pushed it to the very limit of its attentional capacity and held it there for longer than she thought possible. She does stumble, sometimes, but not often, and never for more than a single moment or line at a time. Her training and certainty carry her forward, even as her heart aches in her chest and she worries that she might collapse before she reaches the very end.)

Eventually she thinks she's gotten the story of the universe across, successfully weaving in the idea that every player in this story has been or will be destroyed by their very best qualities - the Carthons by their mercy and desire for knowledge and equality, the Alteri by their ambitions and pride and love for their own, the Liars by their stories and their resilience and their hope. This is where the thing that Imrainai calls a tragedy would end, but her story does not.

She tells him that there lived a woman who fell in love with a star. She loved him for his beauty and for his song and for his constancy. In time she learned to sing his star-songs back to him, and in return he sang to her, specifically, answering her questions about all the people and empires and aliens that he had seen rise and fall. His songs were immensely sad, for the stars had seen all the universe in all its suffering, and had been weeping for it for millennia. The woman was so moved, thinking about someone trying to keep singing under that many eons of sadness, that she decided to go and be with her beloved, even though she knew that it would kill her. She thought that if she brought all her song-magic to bear at once, then perhaps she would be able to hold her beloved close to her for a single moment, before the magnitude of his light and power and splendor simply obliterated her. She hoped that, for at least one moment, the two of them would be happy.

Her beloved was horrified. He begged her to turn back. When she refused, the star grew panicked; he tried to shrink away from her, tried to make himself smaller and colder and darker and less magnificent, desperately hoping that he could turn himself into something that she could hold without instantly dying. When the woman reached him, he was a tiny dying husk of his former self, too cold to sustain himself. She flew to embrace him, hoping that her touch would save him. You can't, of course, warm the stars with your hands, not even the dying ones. Even in his last moments of life, he was still too hot for her to touch without burning herself. But because he knew that she would die without him anyway, in the freezing cold of space, he returned her embrace, and then he died.

But the woman didn't. Her body was heated from within - gently at first, and then like a deadly furnace. She realized that there was a star-child inside her. Naturally, you can't hold a star-child in your body for any great length of time, no matter how powerful your magic is or how small and cold its star parent was when it was conceived. With the last of her strength, she prayed to her people's god of life and death, knowing that he would kill her in exchange for any request he granted. She asked that her child, at least, be spared from the consequences of her mistake, and that it be allowed to live freely, without a master, as its father would have gone on living if she had not caused his demise.

The god asked her what she had brought him. A few moments of her already-ending life? What was that worth?

And so, with her dying breaths, as the star-child burned her organs and the blackness of space froze her skin, the woman sang. She was a master poet, and was able to pitch her appeal perfectly to her audience, even if the audience was a god.

The god let her die. That was only fair. But he lifted the child out of her body, cradling it and raising it as his own, telling it stories of its mother's bravery and foolishness and love. And as he watched this half-Liar, half-star child grow, he grew to love all other things that reminded him of her, and began to look for a way to free humanity. And so he seeded a planet with life, one Liar life for every life that he had taken in all his years as a god of death. The people of this planet grew up free, without alien masters, and called their planet Earth. It was the people of Earth that built the massive gate in space, although they were never quite able to bring the project to completion.

She tells him how, ten years ago, Earth was finally conquered and brought under the joint control of the Alteri Confederacy and the Carthon Empire.

(Her mind is on fire. She internally begs herself for assurance that it will not be much longer, that everything will be all right very soon. She digs her nails into her hands, since she can't bite them, stabbing herself hard enough to bleed, letting the pain give her the final burst of clarity she needs. She doesn't stop composing her poem for a moment.)

She tells him that several weeks ago, an Alteri slave named Imrainai Tellari was unknowingly impregnated on the orders of her master, with no thought for whether she was ready for a child or whose child in particular she might be ready for. By coincidence or fate, this slave passed through the Earth space gate and was taken to Valinor, home of the Elves and the Valar, who believe that individual lives are worth more than planets and that all true stories will end in triumph. She tells him how much she has loved living here, how important it is to know now that there exist people who live freely and try to do right by each other. She tells him that she has never, in all her life, wanted so badly to be allowed to go on living. But she's less than a rounding error, one story in a pile of trillions, and the more she wants to live, the more she wants her entire species (and the Alteri, and the Carthons, and the Thieves, and the Sluggards) to be able to do the same. To experience this same overwhelming sense that things might be able to get better.

She wants her child - if she has one - to live, and to be free. Even if she isn't there to see it.

(Her bleeding hands sign the translated lyrics of a lullaby, in which a baby's mythic and apparently nearly immortal mother sings goodbye to all the stars in the universe as they wink out and die, at the end of all things. She acknowledges that she can't stay forever, but she promises to hold her baby for exactly as long as it takes the heat death of the universe to destroy all that remains of her.)

 

  

She pauses. She breathes. Her voice shakes, when she speaks again, either from nervousness or from sheer physical exhaustion.

"Eru Ilúvatar, creator of the most beautiful story characters that I have ever seen or heard of - I have told you a story. The very best story I have. Will you tell my child a story, in return? One with a world that she likes as well as I've liked this one?"

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