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Generated: Jun 24, 2021 2:49 PM
Post last updated: Jun 24, 2021 3:38 PM
beg and borrow and steal
Demon Cam in Haven City
Permalink Mark Unread

There's a windowless stone room in the basement of a building in a dead-end alley. Between the boiler, the several bunk beds, the piles of boxes, the shelf of bottles of assorted liquids, and the too-small table in the middle of the room, there's barely enough floor space for Rit to spread out the paper she's sketching on. It's supposed to be a map with some cryptic notes around the edges.

Rit almost looks human. She's a featherless biped, at least, with five-fingered hands and a very average face. But her limbs are slightly out of proportion, her ears are pointy and too big, and her brown hair has hot pink roots. The person sitting on one of the bunk beds frowning in her general direction is the same species, whatever it is.

She speaks one language and it's not related to any Earth languages.

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There appears upon her map a person! He is a featherless biped too, but his hair is brown all the way down and his ears are round and his limbs are differently proportioned and also he has navy blue wings and a tail. They match his pants. "- uh, hi," he says.

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His summoner gasps and switches her grip on her pencil to one that would work better if she had to stab someone with it. "How did you even get here?" she says.

The person on the bed, meanwhile, aims a gun at him.

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"...uh, you summoned me," he says, glancing nonchalantly at the pencil and the gun. "I'm... not going to hurt you?"

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The man on the bed doesn't move.

Rit sets her pencil down. "How did we do that?"

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"Drawing on the floor. Awful habit. Uh, where am I?"

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For some reason this question makes her grimace and suck in a breath through her teeth.

"Haven City," the man says.

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"Which is... where."

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They both relax slightly at this question.

"Second planet out of twelve," says his summoner, "and if that doesn't help I don't know how to identify the star system."

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"It doesn't help at all! How fascinating."

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"If you can get home," says the man, "you probably should. The baron would be interested if he knew you were here."

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"How ominous. What form might this interest take?"

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"If you're really lucky, maybe you can sell him alien tech to fight the metal heads. If not, I wouldn't put it past him to cut you open and see what's inside."

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"Metal heads?"

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"The other aliens - you can recognize them by the glowing yellow gems in their heads. There's a range of intelligence, a lot of them could theoretically be bargained with if they didn't universally hate us and want us dead. Oh, and if you somehow kill one, don't touch the corpse without gloves, they leak dark eco."

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"What is dark eco?"

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"They don't have it on other planets? Uh, eco is a fundamental part of physics, like matter and time. The lies-to-children version is that it comes in five or six colors and the purple kind, also called dark eco, is evil - it can dissolve some kinds of things, or warp them, and in smaller quantities just makes people sick and more likely to be violent. It's part of what we use for the power grid."

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"........gosh. What do the other four or five colors do?"

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"So, still bearing in mind that this is the lies-to-children version and if you want the other version I have a degree in it - green is used for poorly-directed or undirected healing, if you're fast enough and have enough to work with, and for encouraging plants to grow. Blue is also used for the power grid, the Precursors used it for all their cool stuff, and if you know how to channel it and grab a bunch you can run faster. Red sort of lets things act like they have more inertia than they do. Yellow's another good one for power generation but it tends to be sort of explosive and hot and very capable of starting fires - there's even a trick for channeling it to shoot fireballs. And light eco is probably real - you can sort of tell from studying the other colors, but it only shows up in old legends. If it exists, it's... probably related to negentropy somehow. Might do healing, might make things fall slower, might do levitation, I'm kind of guessing."

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"Goodness. Uh, how does the wisdom of my being here change if I cannot in fact be cut open by curious barons?"

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"...Then I'd expect him to want to convince you to fight for him. Against the metal heads that might even be worth it."

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"Why do they hate you so much?"

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"They practically run on dark eco, in amounts way bigger than what it takes to have a measurable effect on how evil a city full of humans is. And they probably think we're ugly aliens - we're not hot, our art is probably ugly, our crying orphans aren't whatever they think is cute. We both need eco and there's only so much of it and we're edible to them. Can't really imagine why they wouldn't hate us."

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"Hrm. Uh, is eco a - substance? Like, could you put it in a jar or whatever."

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"Yeah - not arbitrary jars, and it doesn't interact with the jar the same way it would if it were a gas or a liquid or a solid. But yeah."

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Jar of blue eco?

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Nope.

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Rats. "Do you think they'd leave you alone if they had all the food they wanted?"

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"...Maybe? I think they might also want their own planet."

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"If they had their own planet and all the food they wanted?"

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"I haven't talked to one. If we could give them their own planet, we could maybe not give them any way to get back to this one..."

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"Sounds plausible enough if neither of you guys has invented space travel."

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"They got here somehow."

"Yeah," says Rit, "but if they had their own independent warp network at all the entire war would look different and at least one wastelander would ever have seen at least one metal head teleport."

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"Oh, they're recent arrivals, this isn't a forever war situation?"

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"Written history says they suddenly arrived centuries ago and we've never found any fossils of them."

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"Interesting. Did they immediately start hostilities, according to your records?"

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"Supposedly, yes, they just arrived and started hunting us."

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"Yikes! Are there any communication attempts, is the language understood at all..."

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"Yes and sort of. There's a lot we don't get but there was a famous parlay attempt a long time ago - it broke down because they, uh, wanted us to unilaterally disarm in exchange for not being exterminated. The king at the time told them where to shove it."

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"...wow, okay. Uh, do you have any ideas of official people I could go to who do not like to cut apart and study strange visitors? It wouldn't work but it would be such a waste of time."

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He laughs darkly. "I'm it. Second in command in the Underground, the resistance here. Or you could check if Kras City still exists, but we haven't heard from them in years and we're assuming the worst."

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...does Kras City still exist?

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It does! It's not even in particularly bad shape. A number of convoluted racetracks loop around and through the entire city.

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"This look right?" he asks, displaying his palmful of city.

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"...Yeah. You really don't need to worry about the baron, do you."

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"I don't think so! Unless eco in particular can zap me. Do you have any around?"

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"Not pure. I could shoot you, most kinds of ammo use eco."

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"Sure, you wanna nip me in the wing? It's easy to replace." He sticks out a wing.

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He shoots. It's not any more effective than a normal bullet.

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"Cool," says Cam, shaking and refolding the relevant wing. "Okay, so, does Kras City existing change anything important here?"

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"Maybe. You have somewhere to go if you want to leave. We probably still don't."

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"You don't wanna come?"

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"Suppose we take the worst-off thousand people and go. If Kras can feed that many more, they won't do it for free. All thousand of them would need new jobs over there, without any idea who to trust less than usual and who to bribe in which business. And they're not on our warp network, so it'd be a long trip. The baron could shoot us down on the way out, Kras could get spooked and shoot us down on the way in, and in between here and there there are metal heads unless you put them on another planet first. And this is all assuming you want to help out with enough air trains to carry everyone, otherwise we can't get out."

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"I can feed people. And make a - I don't know what an air train is, a shuttle."

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"Might work. Wait. You got Kras without knowing it existed. Can you check for... places in Kras where they torture dissidents?"

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"...that is not a conjurable parameter but if you can name some dissidents I can see how they're doing?"

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"I don't know any in Kras - I do know some missing people here - what is conjurable?"

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"Books by title and author, locations by time, all the works ever written in a particular language... I should maybe do that anyway, try to train a computer to speak what the metal heads speak..."

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"Damn. - Can you do prisons in Kras?"

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"I don't think so but if there's a uniform the prison guards would wear, or something, I could bootstrap from there...?"

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"I wouldn't know. If you can do groups of armed people within fifteen feet of injured, unarmed people, that's either a prison or important anyway."

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"That's too elaborate. I can... do... surroundings of blood that is not in people? But that will get me a lot of false positives."

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"And negatives. - Better plan. You get rid of the metal heads and we make a new city."

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"I can start there, sure, after my computer's chewed on the language some - it might only be able to do writing if they don't have audio recordings - is this an okay place to put a person-sized amount of hardware?"

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"...Maybe. We probably won't be raided here but that's... say a seventy percent chance we make it another month."

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"Oh, it doesn't need to be safe, just not in the way, I can remake it if anything happens to it." He finds a corner to stash the processors.

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"Hey, while you're making things, can you get me everything Gol Acheron wrote, if he existed?"

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"That will get you his diary and love letters and whatnot, which I need a better reason than a casual suggestion to turn over."

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"I would guess he's too dead to be embarrassed, but fair enough."

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"Maybe you have an afterlife, who knows? Can someone recommend me a good map of this, let's say continent?"

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"There might be dozens of good maps but I kind of like the ones in the front matter of my history textbook, what was it called, Legacy of the Precursors? Something like that."

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Cam produces a nice big instance of that one.

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Haven City is along the southern coast of its continent, just west of a jungle and southwest of an active volcanic crater and some similarly geologically interesting areas. There are a lot of ruins: some lost cities, including one just off the coast marked only as "lost Precursor city", and some places marked with names like "ancient citadel". There are some known areas of metal head settlement, and some badlands that (based on their general latitude and distance from the ocean) should have been nice and fertile.

It's not a very big continent.

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"What's the deal with Precursors?" Cam asks.

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"That's the million-orb question. There's a bunch of ruins that would be older than recorded history if they didn't have words engraved on them. The tech still works, including the talking statues - we have one here but unfortunately it makes less sense than a romance novel plot, when it bothers to say anything."

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"It speaks your language though?"

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"It does, I think."

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"Can I meet it?"

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"Yeah - can you hide the wings and conjure really realistic fake ears? Not that the oracle will care, I think, but the people between here and there..."

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Cam puts on a long coat and a mirror with which to prosthetize his ears convincingly.

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"Should work. At least it's the season for a coat like that. I can show you the way there, then?"

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"Yes please!"

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Up a flight of steps to street level, the hideout exits into a dead-end alley that itself exits into a poor neighborhood. The uneven pavement is cracked and occasionally simply missing in irregular patches. In a couple of places there are huge trenches carved into the ground, with small wooden bridges placed over them that themselves are falling apart and full of gaps. The pavement is entirely for foot traffic; the vehicles fly overhead, just a couple feet below the lowest of the cables stretched across the streets. It's hard to tell which parts of the buildings are artistically uneven and which are just poorly made, but if nothing else the roofs tend to look sloppy. The air smells like some pollutant that isn't a normal byproduct of a gas engine. They pass one of the baron's propaganda stations, which is currently playing a recording of him exhorting everyone to sacrifice for their city, and then head out over the water on an uneven network of boardwalks. A lot of the other pedestrians are walking slowly and looking down.

Their destination is a smallish one-room building over the water. The statue inside has two glowing clear domes in front that might or might not be supposed to suggest eyes. The rest of the room is full of burning candles.

The statue deigns to speak to Cam. "Greetings, visitor," it says. "You are a surprise. I must urge you in the strongest terms to wait and learn until those things which are in progress now have begun. For your patience, I offer you a title and an author." It enunciates the title and author clearly, but they're definitely not in the local language.

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Cam resists the temptation to fix infrastructure on the way.

"Hello," Cam says. "I won't be able to read that today, do you have other suggestions for how to get oriented to the situation?"

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The oracle does not answer.

"Honestly that's better than most people get," Rit says after a few seconds.

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"Most people it won't talk to at all?"

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Wobbly gesture. "Not on their first try, anyway. Hey, I don't know if it counts if I don't have to buy it, but just in case can I have a candle to light while I'm here?"

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"Uh, sure." Little glass jar of vanilla candle. "What for?"

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"It's an offering - the oracle doesn't exactly ask, but people who pray and meditate and make offerings seem happier and less, you know, evil." She lights it from one of the other candles and sets it on the floor.

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"What does it do that's oracular?"

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"It says mysterious bullshit and seems to see the future or at least see the entire present and be very smart. You're the only person I've ever heard of getting a book recommendation you couldn't get at a library. And it told my mother once to 'embrace solitude and shun the imminent festivities' and she didn't go to a party the next day and the entire section of the city the party was held in was overrun by metal heads and most of the guests died."

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"Yikes, okay. I'll, uh, see if I can crack the book, same as the metal head language.." He produces a hard copy and flips through it in case it has useful illustrations.

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It has a map of a galaxy with a place marked, a map of a solar system with only two planets, pictures of alien scenery, pictures of metal heads and other creatures, a timeline, and a diagram.

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"...gosh," says Cam. "You said this is a twelve planet system, yes?" Do the other creatures look like they might be of a biosphere with the metal heads.

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"And that's not the yellow sun or the green one."

Like the metal heads, some of the other things depicted have glassy glowing parts, often but not always the same yellow color as skull gems. Like the metal heads, some of them have metal parts or half-exposed tubes.

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"You have two?" Is this the same language as his computer is currently chewing.

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No relation to that one at all.

"Arguably. The yellow one's our star."

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"And the green one visits on bank holidays? Can I put some more hardware here or should we go back -"

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"I figure we can go back whenever but I don't know what kind of hardware you're thinking."

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"Same kind I put in the corner of where I popped up."

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"It will definitely be noticed and examined and possibly have candles put on it but I don't think there's a rule that says you can't."

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"...maybe I'll put it inside a crate or something." Crate. Cam puts a few candles on top of it as extra obfuscation.

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"Anyway, we can go back but we could go to the port, I've got a red pass - I don't know how much freedom of movement you're used to but here you can't leave your neighborhood without clearance."

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"How dystopian! Do they check the passes against any kind of central authority that has a record of to whom they are issued?"

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"They explain when you get them that they're doing that. I know for a fact they have the capacity to do it. But in practice not really."

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"So I could have one too, presumably - where would you like to go?"

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"...To the green zone to watch the races, if that's an option - can I just get a copy of all of - if 'all the kinds' won't do it then all of Commander Erol's, if I promise they're not for bedrooms anything like that?"

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"I, uh, don't think smuggling you into entertainment venues is a priority for me, since there's a war on."

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"It's more war-related than it sounds but not in a way where me being there in person matters, especially not today. But the stadium section is also the section with the good library, which maybe doesn't matter anymore, and - almost everything that's set up to encourage people to think, or do anything for fun that doesn't involve drinking. And all the people who have access to that kind of thing. It's, I dunno. Fifty percent frivolous."

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"Library does not matter unless it comes with particularly helpful librarians," Cam confirms.

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"I mean, some of it is seeing which books they're putting on the shelves this month and which have disappeared, or who's reading what, but if you're about to make it safe to run then everyone can quit the cloak and dagger shit. And maybe you can conjure the other stuff anyway... Is there anything you need to do in person at all or is the smartest thing just to hide out reading stuff for a week?"

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"I will probably want to hang out reading stuff for a week."

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"...If, while you're doing that, you make a lot of boring food that people could plausibly have gotten around here, I bet they'll want to take time off from fighting to distribute it - you can't leave it in public for the taking and expect the guard not to confiscate it but we can probably get it where it needs to go."

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"I would be happy to also make some boring food if you can tell me what food bores people."

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"Personally when this is over I am never eating another limon again. Oh, or brown rice, or cornberry and cheese stew. I guess don't make the stew, just make the grains. You could leave some here first, I think, and then we can go back?"

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"Yeah, sure, what's a normal looking package situation for 'em?"

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"...Mm, the fastest to describe and hardest to get wrong would be burlap bags."

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"Cool." Burlap bags with "brown rice" and "cornberries" stitched into them appear.

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And then she can show him the way back if he needs a guide.

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He does not have such a perfect sense of direction as to turn her down. "Did you have a name, by the by? I'm Cam."

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"These days I go by Rit. Cam is such a normal name. Don't know what I expected, just."

They pass a couple of armed people in red armor, and the propaganda station again ("welcome not the unknown face," it intones).

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"Unknown faces a big deal around here?"

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"Well, they can't be immigrants, so they're either regular criminals in disguise or metal heads in disguise - second one's not likely, they'd have to be stupid powerful to even get inside the shield wall, but it's technically possible."

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"Shield wall is - eco thing, something else?"

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"Eco-powered thing. Also a physical wall but that doesn't help much when some of them fly."

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"I see. And 'powerful' here cashes out to...?"

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"So bearing in mind I spent half a semester on metal head bio and it was more about the cellular level, and the people who really work with these rankings are the ones who go out and shoot them, probably the ones that are smarter and less likely to just fall over dead for no reason and have armor that can stand up to more blaster rounds."

And here they are.

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"Some of them fall over for no reason?"

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"It's sort of like aging, but if you want to do math to it you want to pretend they have a half-life instead of - I don't know if your species even ages, though."

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"We do not. How interesting. Are they radioactive?"

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"Literally the entire planet is radioactive, you can even find out how old some things are by checking the isotopes of carbon in them. But metal heads aren't much more radioactive than the average crocadog."

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"Crocadog. Gosh. I wonder why the half-life model then."

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"I know a textbook that explains that - Metal Head Microanatomy by Doctor Lany, uh, but the preface is by someone else I forgot - actually, do you want a dozen titles and I can answer questions when you're done?"

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"Dozen titles sounds good. And your food order."

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"Oh. Yeah. Hey, Torn!"

The man, who is still resting on one of the beds, looks up. "Hm?"

"I thought if the strategic situation is about to change and we've got Cam to conjure things we could be giving out more free food, am I right?"

"Yeah. To start with, as many five-pound bags of cornberry flour as will fit under the table and two dozen cans of chipped yakow - make them look like the Laughing Lurker brand, if you can."

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"Can do." Bags under table, chipped yakow. He makes a nibble of chipped yakow to taste.

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It's dried meat, offensively salty and otherwise unseasoned.

Torn looks over the foods. For the first time since Cam's been here, he smiles.

Rit recommends an introductory biology textbook, an introductory eco studies textbook, a history textbook, a biography of Baron Praxis, What Makes A Zoomer Zoom, Computers Made Simple, A Brief History of Eco Studies, and a bunch of fiction she thinks will give cultural context.

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"Thanks!" He sticks them all into his computer on a little stick and starts in with the history textbook.

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The book explains that, while the Precursors were very important and existed in the past, they are the subject of an entirely different field of study and will not be covered here, and skips forward to the earliest currently readable narrative records and their archaeological context.

This continent was the second one settled by humans and the first one settled by most types of lurkers (the reader is assumed to know what a lurker is). Historically it wasn't the seat of the most important civilizations, as judged by people at the time. But the descendants of other civilizations are few and scattered and assimilated, and there's only so much room in one book, so the local civilizations get nearly all the focus. The book covers their migration to the continent, their initially peaceful relations with the more intelligent lurkers (there's substantial evidence of trade, and there are burials of lurker skeletons in human graveyards, buried with similar sorts of burial goods). The humans on the continent eventually unified politically, partly by making use of salvaged Precursor warp gates to keep travel times low.

The centuries that followed are sometimes known as the golden age of sagecraft. The sages were people who studied and worked with eco, and usually studied other things, and were recognized by other sages as learned and worth listening to. They were described at the time as usually having powers like levitation or the ability to communicate with plants.

Then at one point an unpopular law was followed by arson and acts of sabotage, many of which specifically took advantage of the warp network; the book claims that the resulting crackdown on dissidents wasn't strong enough, since the violence got worse. Eventually, for only partly related reasons, the country split down the middle, northwest and southeast, with lurkers controlling the territory in between. The fact that the split was along geographic lines was partly a coincidence but it made it much more appealing to just shut down the warp network. Written records from the west in the following centuries report fewer and eventually no sages, fewer scientific discoveries, increasing border raids from lurkers, and two famines. At least there are substantial records from the west, though. The east - might not have kept good records, or their records might have been destroyed. As best modern historians can tell, there was at least one all-out war with the lurkers, maybe more; the country fractured further, but it's not clear how much; there was a volcanic eruption in the middle of their territory; and this would have been when the lurker sharks migrated to the area en masse and would have taken a bite out of their fishing industry. One of the very few stories from this time and place is that of the Last Sage, also called the Dark Sage, Gol Acheron; the books assumes the reader has heard that one before. It does say there probably was a historical Gol Acheron; it's wildly unlikely that the legendary hero defeated him and opened a door in his citadel that let the metal heads out, because the metal heads arrived far to the south, near what is now Haven City, and the only plausible locations for his citadel are nowhere near there.

When the metal heads attacked, the east was devastated, but still had the knowledge and technical ability to put together primitive force fields. The west was hit later, but more thoroughly destroyed. Its survivors fled east. It isn't clear whether Mar came from the east or the west (the reader is assumed to have heard of Mar before), or even if he came from another continent; he appeared when he was needed, built Haven City, unified the southeast, drove the metal heads out of a substantial area, and made Haven City the capital of a smallish but prosperous country. Under his rule, science began advancing again, the population started growing again, and mankind even made peace with the lurkers. After his death, the war carried on at a stalemate for a while. The humans spread and prospered, but so did the metal heads.

Then there are centuries of names of rulers of Haven City, and the dates of their reigns, and the dates of the destruction of dozens of other important settlements; the last time a city fell was less than twenty years ago. As of the writing of the book, Haven and Kras were presumed to be the only two human settlements remaining anywhere on the planet. The book ends with Baron Praxis, who (contrary to popular belief) is related to the House of Mar, rescuing the city from the weakness and laziness of its prior ruler and preparing to reverse the era of decline.

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Cam's questions are:

- what's a lurker
- what's Gol Acheron's supposed deal
- what's Mar's deal

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"Lurkers are a whole group of related animal species - except lurker sharks, they're not real lurkers - they're pretty varied but they all have these weirdass jaws, it'll make sense once you've seen one. A few species talk - not random words, they know what they're saying, they mostly know what you're saying - and they even make tools that are almost as complicated as what people make. We have a couple that are citizens, they're not that much less civilized than, well." She smiles bitterly.

"Gol Acheron is supposedly the sage who first decided to start studying dark eco and supposedly might have turned evil and supposedly might have wanted to destroy the world and supposedly might have been friends with some lurkers and supposedly might have been killed by a legendary hero who might or might not have been Mar or Mar's father or Mar's lover or Mar's pet crocadog, I know five different versions of this bedtime story and I don't believe any of them but sages were real and someone started trying to study dark eco and turning evil is the kind of thing that could happen if you did that without taking any safety precautions and the world wasn't destroyed, thanks to Mar.

"Right, Mar is - I mean, he's in the book, there are lots more books about him. He's a hero, he's the next best thing to a Precursor, whatever. I don't know, I don't care much, I barely even celebrate the Feast of Mar."

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Cam makes a lurker model to investigate its jaw. "What's a good Mar book?"

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It has a pronounced underbite and four protrusions from the lower lip.

"Dunno," Rit says, "it's not my field."

"Early Governance of Haven City: a New Perspective by Samos," says Torn.

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Cam adds that to his reading list. "Did you find anywhere else to put food or anything while I was reading?"

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"I texted the Shadow about it. He's interested in seeing if you can 'heal the ecology'," he says with barely detectable sarcasm, "so we can farm more in the long term. We could use more potable water for the stockpile, too. We need things for the war, but it's hard to say what we'd still need if the metal heads were on another planet. Other than that, what kind of assurances do you need to do recon for us?"

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"You don't have the species I'm used to so my ecology healing would be inexpert at best but if you tell me in what containers you want your water that I can do. Recon like...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Plastic jugs or glass bottles, doesn't matter. We need to know if the baron is planning anything in the next few weeks. I want everything he's written and every room he's visited and every person he's talked to in the last week. I want to know about every weapon he has. I want to know the location of Mar's Tomb. I want to know where an orphan we're taking care of came from. And while we're at it, I want to scout sites for the new city."

Permalink Mark Unread

Plastic water jugs. "I would need more reason to be confident the baron's bad news before spying on him. Tomb and orphan origins and a scale model of the continent I can do though, where do you want that last one and what time should I be looking for orphan contexts in? I'll also need their name."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Scale model of the entire continent should wait till I've cleared the food out of here, unless you can put it up on a wall. The kid can't tell us his name, is there a way around that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I could put it on the wall if you like, though I'll need to plasticize the water features and stuff so they don't slosh out. Do you have a name you're calling him?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...'The kid.' And - I guess not much is secret from you - the Heir of Mar."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...like a descendant or something weirder?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"A descendant. I mean. We think so. I think."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay, I'm gonna call him Junior for conjuration purposes. When did you find him?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Couple years ago, couldn't tell you the day."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Can you narrow it down like at all, I don't want to drown us in models."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can call the Shadow - parents aren't a conjurable parameter or this is still trying to pin down who the kid is?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can conjure the parents, I thought you wanted something more like geographical provenance - who's the Shadow, anyway?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The leader of the Underground. More than that is supposed to be secret but..." He makes a face. "He wrote that book about Mar."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Good for him." Tiny model parents of Junior.

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A tall bald man and a green-haired brown-skinned woman.

"That's impossible. - That's Damas, the one Praxis deposed. He's been dead a lot longer than this kid has been alive."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...could it just be a weird lookalike?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It could be. Can you check?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"In a sort of roundabout fashion, sure... how old is Junior?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe four."

Permalink Mark Unread

Scale model of Mr. Damas five years ago, with surroundings?

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Leaning on a parked car, either talking or laughing, gesturing. The person next to him, a dark-skinned man with "life" tattooed around his arm, is reacting with mock anger.

Permalink Mark Unread

"This is Damas five years back."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...So he abandoned us. Guess I can't blame him. - I need to talk to the Shadow about this." He shakes his head. "In the mean time, you wanted more reason to believe the baron is bad news. For a first pass, you can get it by listening to whatever the propaganda is today - even he can't make himself sound good. And I can name some laws he came up with. That'll only scratch the surface but it's what I've got that's already public."

Permalink Mark Unread

"What do I wanna grab to read up on that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

He can name laws, mostly by numbers but sometimes by nicknames. "The propaganda plays on the loudspeakers with the red holograms all day every day. I don't know if there's a file of all the soundbites for today and if there was I'd ask you to listen to it somewhere I don't have to hear it."

Permalink Mark Unread

Cam'll start with the laws then.

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This one makes leaving the city without permission a capital offense. This one declares a state of emergency and indefinitely suspends council elections, something similar to habeas corpus, funding for public television, and the right not to be subjected to torture without having been convicted of a crime. This one authorizes the exile of families that don't adequately support the city, such as by having members in the Krimzon Guard or donating eco. This one ends all funding for the publicly run orphanage and grants all its assets to the Ministry of Extreme Labor. This one declares that neither the city nor Mar Memorial Stadium is liable for any injuries or deaths that may occur during sporting events.

Permalink Mark Unread

...and the author of these things is definitely the Baron they're talking about?

Permalink Mark Unread

He doesn't seem to have written the one about the orphanage and he isn't the sole author of the one about exile or the one declaring a state of emergency.

Permalink Mark Unread

That leaves plenty to spare. "Yeah, okay, what did you want on this malevolent despot again?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"To start with, everything he's written in the past week - can you get it in a format where we can search for mentions of weapons or the underground?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you have computers, want to learn to use computers, or want me to do the searching?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"They exist. I have one but not much of one. Can you make our kind? They run on eco."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It seems like I can't make eco. If the file storage doesn't run on eco I can make that, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Don't think so. Can you make one that works like a model I specify and runs on a power source you can make?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I cannot naively do power conversion so that would involve a detour into electrical engineering."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Then I want the files and a new portable computer but the search'll go a lot faster if you do it."

Permalink Mark Unread

Cam hands him a computer, and loads another chip into his computer, and looks up what the Baron has to say about the requested topics this week.

Permalink Mark Unread

In a message to the commander of the Krimzon Guard, he wrote:

If we must make the choice, the weapon is a higher priority than the shield wall. The best defense is a good offense! Be prepared to take a stand and die for your city.

In a note to his daughter, he wrote:

Our plans are coming to fruition. The war will be over soon, one way or another. Afterward, I have no intention of continuing any of my sadly necessary wartime policies or prosecuting the rebels. Trust me for another three months. Keep up the good work. I'm proud of you.

In a message to a small handful of high-ranking people, he said:

Why can't we spread a rumor that the Underground is a honeypot? The vermin who flock to them would think twice about that!

Permalink Mark Unread

Cam is curious about more correspondence with the daughter!

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The daughter reported that she did find a buried artifact but wasn't able to move it, here's a picture, and she got attacked by metal heads while she was out, here's a list of the kinds involved. He told her not to bother going back to excavate it properly yet. His note about plans coming to fruition came after this and not in direct response to anything she wrote. She answered:

I'll do whatever I have to.

Do you want to spend the anniversary together?

And he told her when to be at the palace for dinner and which dining room to meet in.

Permalink Mark Unread

Scale model of the artifact.

Permalink Mark Unread

Chunk of metal with the seal of the House of Mar on it. It's not obvious that it does anything besides stick firmly in the rock and look pretty.

Permalink Mark Unread

Maybe there is normally eco stuck to it which didn't come along. What else did he write to the commander of the Guard?

Permalink Mark Unread

The baron sent him some requirements for the updated version of a patrol schedule and summoned him for some in-person meetings. They discussed how to keep someone called Krew from betraying them and whether it seemed like Krew understood their true aims. If he's conjuring both sides of the correspondence, the commander sent over reports on the numbers of various sorts of crimes reported and the number of criminals apprehended and mentioned that someone had voiced a worry about the eco reserves for the shield wall.

"Krew deals in weapons sometimes," says Torn, reading over his shoulder.

Permalink Mark Unread

"In, like, a supplying the resistance sort of way, or like an opportunistic black market sort of way, or...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Second one."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Charming." He shakes his head and goes back to his books. What's the deal with Mar.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's sort of unclear. Instead of going into too much detail about narrative accounts of Mar's actions, this book comes at it slantwise, looking at his policies and the growth of the city and associated country.

Specific laws and policies attributed to Mar include universal military service for people between twenty-two and twenty-four who couldn't prove health or financial hardship; exile and seizure of assets for rape and murder; the recently-suspended policy that resembles habeas corpus; jury trials, semi-voluntary for the jurors; money and food aid for pregnant people, all children under five, and children between five and ten actively attending school; and the election of an advisory council.

It's possible to infer a lower bound for tax revenue based on the number of person-hours of labor that went into the shield wall and the eco grid, both public works attributed to Mar, and given the amount of time those took to complete and the published tax rates (where those are still available), it's possible to put a lower bound on the mean population despite the lack of a census. That plus other records make it possible to guess the population growth rate, and it's particularly impressive given that they were actively subject to attempted genocide the entire time. Of course, part of it isn't from people being born. By all accounts they put a lot of effort into facilitating migration and trade between different settlements, and Haven City and its associated country seem to have gotten a lot of net immigration.

Another notable thing about Mar's reign is that, while it's remembered extremely fondly now, published works from the time, including newspaper editorials (something that only began to come into existence about halfway through his reign), included a lot of criticism of him and his policies.

It's possible to date the construction of nearly every large statue of or monument to him, and they all post-date his reign, with exactly one exception: his tomb was almost entirely completed in his lifetime.

There are not only no statues of him from during his reign, there are also no reliable contemporary depictions of Mar. Samos has a pet theory that Mar isn't even one person, but several working together under a shared pseudonym. Not just because his face isn't reliably known; also because he handled a lot of governance himself, at the same time as he directed the war against the metal heads, at the same time as he designed and organized the building of the shield wall and the eco grid and the sewer system and the tomb, at the same time as he collected and wrote commentaries on surviving samples of Precursor writing, at the same time as he apparently had a family, at the same time as he wrote an impassioned treatise on the concept of human rights, at the same time as he negotiated peace and mutual protection with the lurkers of Misty Island, at the same time as he wrote half a book on astronomy and two contradictory books on the philosophy of governance. It's also possible there was a Mar, but that other people's achievements ended up attributed to him somehow, whether because he deliberately stole the credit or just because of the unreliability of the historical record.

If this were true, the narrative of Mar as one person who appeared one day and won his victories through his personal valor and strength of character would be thoroughly ungrounded.

It's not a terribly long book.

While he's reading, Rit leaves, and someone stops by to pick up some of the food.

Permalink Mark Unread

Cam waves distractedly at the food-getter. Checks to see if "Mar" gets a unique conjuration result.

Permalink Mark Unread

Nope!

Permalink Mark Unread

Interesting! Author(s) of the attributed texts?

Permalink Mark Unread

The unfinished astronomy book is by a short man with green hair that fades to yellow and a conventionally pretty woman with callused hands and blue-and-green hair. The treatise on human rights is by that same man, a woman with facial tattoos that look a little like Torn's, a woman with black hair and a missing eye, a yellow-skinned man and a red-skinned man. One of the books on government is by the tattooed woman. The other is by a blue-skinned man, a man with a badly-damaged right ear, and an orange creature with a tail that isn't a lurker.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hey, uh, help me out here, is this within normal variation for your species?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I do know a guy with green skin. That one," (the orange one) "is an ottsel."

Permalink Mark Unread

"What's an ottsel?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Don't I want to know. They talk. The one I know won't shut up."

Permalink Mark Unread

"But not about, say, where they come from or anything?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"They don't look alien but then neither do you. I haven't asked, the one I know lies for fun."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Charming. Okay, thanks." He puts the models aside. Reads the bio textbook.

Permalink Mark Unread

The biology book begins by explaining the concepts of phylogenetic taxonomy and evolution. There's a two-page spread of the tree of life, followed by a brief discussion of what phylogenetic groupings (like "fungus", "bird" or "reptile") are useful for and when paraphyletic groupings (like "arthropod", "plant" or "mammal") can be more useful. The book takes pains to clarify that this phylogenetic taxonomy is based primarily on observable, current genetic similarity; if, as is extremely plausible, the Precursors created all life, they nonetheless created it in such a way that it fits into this tree and more genetically "related" species are more likely to have similar reactions to drugs and be similar in their internal anatomy. Then the book explains the concept of a food web and illustrates with a sample one.

Eventually, after a disclaimer that none of this necessarily applies to metal heads, the book gets into more contingent facts about life on this planet. A lot of it is like Earth biology: the local people have cells, they have blood and lymph, they have organs recognizable as livers and hearts and stomachs, and they run it all on ATP. But they don't have a separate mitochondrial genome and their blood and bones have cells that are specialized at carrying and storing eco. Most species have the ability to draw energy from eco, instead of or in addition to things like food and oxygen, but the systems for that are woefully inadequate to the energy needs of large, active species, and in some cases animals can survive having mutations that make those systems nonfunctional.

And then it goes on to explain how photosynthesis works, which is not notably different from how photosynthesis works on Earth.

At one point Torn interrupts to let him know the Shadow is coming over soon and wants to meet Cam.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, I can put this down when he gets here.'

Permalink Mark Unread

In the time it takes the Shadow to arrive, the guy handling food distribution stops by for another load and heads out again.

And then the Shadow arrives. He is the green-skinned person Torn knows. He is currently wearing his hair up and wrapped around an entire log, the ends of which are just poking out from what appears to be a sack that has tiny sprouts and mushrooms growing from it.

"Hello," he says. "You must be Cam."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello, that's me. Interesting updo."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Why, thank you. I find it helps me keep the natural world on my mind, so to speak. Anyway, I'm told you can make just about anything except eco and that you've been very helpful to the cause. I thought it would be... interesting to talk you about your goals."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Eternal flourishing of all sapient beings everywhere."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Eternal, hm? I suppose we wouldn't have to worry about the food chain or running out of planets."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You wouldn't! It's great!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"And you intend to stay here and fill the universe with eternally flourishing beings?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, I have to do something about your ongoing metal head conflict first and there might be logistical issues with my remaining here for always but in the broad strokes sure."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Aha. What sort of logistical issues?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I need to be summoned, so if my summoner is no longer summoning me, poof. I could probably come back just fine with someone else summoning me, though, I'm just not sure - see, if it were possible for people here to summon us then it's very odd for this to be the first time it's happened."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Bizarre. How does a summoner summon you and how would your current summoner stop?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can make you pre-print circles to lay out on the floor and fill in, and if, say, she died, that would do it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not sure leaving something like that around is safe if the baron might raid this place. I am also asking what to avoid - I'd already be dead if you wanted that and I don't know whether to trust that all members of your species universally want the eternal flourishing of all sentient beings."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, they don't, I was planning to leave you circles that mention me by name. The usual advice back home is not to draw on the floor; more specifically you don't want any diagrams roughly circular referring in any language to summoning anything, flat on the ground with room to stand in the middle."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not that surprising that it hasn't happened to anyone here before but I'm surprised it never happened to the Precursors. Speaking of which, I bet you can conjure their writings, can't you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, though I'll need another of those," he waves at his hardware, "to decipher the language."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Do you have a way to get rid of things you make?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No. It won't be useful to random people from here, though, I guess they could learn some materials science from disassembling it but not the contents."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I wonder how hard it would be to get you a warehouse... Anyway, those might be slightly farther future concerns than - what exactly are your plans for the next, let's say the next month?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Orienting to the situation - the metal heads' language will likely help with that, and the language the book the oracle recommended me is in."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Prudent of you. I can't say that I'd want to launch straight into a humanitarian project on your planet, if I found myself there, either. But, ah, there are ways I expect the situation might deteriorate unfixably in that time."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"According to our sources there's currently enough eco in reserve to run the shield wall for another two days. The baron's mining operations are under attack by metal heads right now, and as best I can tell the reserve is shrinking. The city might well be overrun in a matter of weeks. Our plan of last resort is to get the Precursor Stone, which I doubt you can conjure a copy of, and use it to destroy their nest, with substantial risk of casualties - uh, on both sides." He doesn't particularly care about metal head casualties and isn't particularly convincing at pretending to but he has a feeling it'll play well with Cam to try. "And I don't even know what the baron is planning next but rest assured there's no chance it won't endanger anyone."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Does the Precursor Stone look like, uh, this -" He rummages in his models for the rock the Baron's daughter was after.

Permalink Mark Unread

"It would have a version of that symbol on it, but records indicate it would have been green and not made of metal."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay, uh, I can't make eco, but I could - go wade into the fight and see if the metal heads will back off if I'm indestructible at them and when my translation's up try to talk to them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"That sounds like the best plan anyone has proposed this year." This may be damning it with faint praise, a bit. "Ah, you can probably have a conversation without the translation, but only with the ones who can sound... intelligible."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, even better. Okay, gimme directions?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, your best bet would be the nest, but they might take it amiss if you just barged in. You could leave the city through either the dead town exit or the north drain, and try talking to the metal heads there - they won't be able to talk back, but they might know who could."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I assume I shouldn't fly. How do I get to those on foot?"

Permalink Mark Unread

There is, conveniently, a map of the city already hanging on the wall for him to point at. "We're here. The drain is here." It's near the oracle. "You'll need to enter through the same exit you leave by and ideally not change shape while you're gone or bring anything living in with you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...okay! I don't change shape, as a rule. Other last-minute advice?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you go for a swim you'll be shot. I don't imagine you'll care. - When you get done with that, I'll have written a wishlist, in case you want to consider doing some conjuration for me."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, you wanna title your wishlist and I can check it out if I have downtime?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Things I Want, Volume One. And good luck out there."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thanks!"

And Cam heads out.

Permalink Mark Unread

By now it's dusk. There aren't really streetlights but there are fires and neon signs. As Cam passes it, the propaganda station is claiming the resistance is dead.

The exit is set up like an airlock, with two doors that never open at the same time. A computerized voice warns Cam that he's leaving the city.

Outside the city, there is a beach. A small part of the beach is taken up by sand and trees and palm trees and sparse grasses and a large chunk of shattered metal something; beyond that there are tall cliffs and lots of plumbing-related infrastructure that would be tricky but not impossible to climb. A tall metal head with four legs and two arms is pacing aimlessly on the sand and does not immediately notice the door open.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Excuse me!" Cam calls to it, waving his arm.

Permalink Mark Unread

That gets its attention and gets him shot at. Not by a weapon it's visibly holding, but directly from one of its arms.

Permalink Mark Unread

Gosh. He falls over. Gets back up. Approaches it.

Permalink Mark Unread

This gets him shot at again.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's really inconvenient for this plan that he's so unsteady on his feet. He encases the metal head's arm in a lot of ballistic gel and tries again.

Permalink Mark Unread

The metal head hesitates and then starts trying to bite and rip the gel off, backing a few steps away from Cam.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hey, I just wanna talk," Cam says, still advancing. "Can you find someone who can talk to me?"

Permalink Mark Unread

The metal head hesitates, then bends down to write a few words in the sand with its non-gel-encased arm.

Permalink Mark Unread

Are they by any chance in a language Cam can read or no such luck.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's his summoner's language, or at least an attempt at it. It reads STAT YOUR BUISNESS.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I would like to talk to your people and try to find a resolution to your conflict with the other people."

Permalink Mark Unread

The metal head stares at him for a few seconds with its unblinking eyes, then writes STAY and scurries off up a cliff.

Permalink Mark Unread

...Cam will wait for a bit, then, reading his supply of books. History of Eco Studies?

Permalink Mark Unread

The field begins with the sages, whose approach was different from modern approaches to the subject in mixing practice and theory and being extremely interdisciplinary. The interdisciplinary approach led people to seek their advice on a variety of other topics, and gave them an interesting position in society.

- And he doesn't have time to get particularly far, because several metal heads show up, three of which look almost identical to the first. The others have only four limbs and are red.

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"Hello! Can any of you talk to me?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Not out loud, apparently. One of the red ones, though clumsier at actually forming the letters, is at least fully literate, and will try to write to him.

Hey, my real name is classified but you can call me Billy. What brings you here?

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"Hi, Billy! I'm trying to figure out why you guys are having this war and see if it can end."

Permalink Mark Unread

Who sent you?

Permalink Mark Unread

"I sent myself and do not know if my native guides wish to be named."

Permalink Mark Unread

Where are you from?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Washington."

Permalink Mark Unread

Are you from this planet?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Nope! Are you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

I hatched here. I can't say I like it.

Permalink Mark Unread

"How'd your ancestors get here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Through a rift. How did you get here?

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's classified. Rift was - intentional? Natural phenomenon?"

Permalink Mark Unread

I wasn't there at the time. I'm really surprised you're not trying to kill me for my body parts.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't want your body parts. You don't have history about it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

I'm not a historian. It might have been made by the Precursors.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay. Is the war about people wanting your body parts?"

Permalink Mark Unread

The war is about the Precursor Stone and room to live in and eco and food and people wanting each other's body parts and the fact that we're in the habit of being at war. In descending order of importance.

Permalink Mark Unread

"What's the Precursor Stone for?"

Permalink Mark Unread

It's an egg.

Permalink Mark Unread

"One of yours?"

Permalink Mark Unread

A species we knew before we were stuck in the rift. Definitely not the locals.

Permalink Mark Unread

...Models of the Precursor Stone's parent(s).

Permalink Mark Unread

More than two ottsels, each of which is individually smaller than the Precursor Stone.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ottsels," he diagnoses.

Permalink Mark Unread

Is that what they're calling them these days? How do you do that?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Magic. Why do you want an ottsel egg?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Why does it matter to you?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Trying to end the war, remember?"

Permalink Mark Unread

That explains why it matters THAT we want the egg.

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's why it matters why you want it! I'd like to get everybody what they want peacefully and you could get what you want from the egg another way, like if I make you a planet, then that will help a lot."

Permalink Mark Unread

We are not going to leave an egg of that species in their hands because of our history with its parents. THEY can use a different power source. And I'm not qualified to be making deals with you but I think our leader would agree leave them alone if we got the egg, they left us alone, and we got an entire planet with lots of food and eco and other things we want from a planet.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can't make eco in particular, unfortunately."

Permalink Mark Unread

What else can't you make?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vacuum, antimatter, people. - can make eggs."

Permalink Mark Unread

They confer amongst themselves briefly.

Under what circumstances would you make the eggs of things that can choose whether to cooperate?

Permalink Mark Unread

"...why the phrasing 'choose whether to cooperate'?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Imagine I want a rock to be grey. I can tell the rock to be grey but that won't change anything. Imagine I want you to make me a grey rock. I can tell you to do it and that will change something. If you do it and I bite you then you won't do it again. If you do it and I give you something you want then you will do it again. I know that, so I would not bite you if you did something I asked you to do. It is wrong to punish people who help you or reward people who hurt you. But at the very beginning, you aren't paying me back. You have a choice. Unlike a rock. Unlike some animals. So when would you make eggs of things that have that choice?

Permalink Mark Unread

"...well, I draw the important line somewhere else. I'd make you a chicken egg with fewer assurances than a person egg. I would need to be very confident that you planned to treat a person that hatched from an egg well and that this wouldn't have strategic effects that would concern me."

Permalink Mark Unread

Species that choose not to cooperate start wars of extermination. I'm not qualified to say for sure but I think we have enough of those and don't need more right now. I think our leader will probably be more worried about convincing you not to make eggs. But why would you care whether we planned to treat the person well?

Permalink Mark Unread

"I care about people in general and want them treated well and object to creating situations in which I am responsible for that not being the case."

Permalink Mark Unread

Do you object to the death penalty?

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. I could imagine it being appropriate in some circumstance but generally object to political entities having the power to hand it down because they will not reserve it for such corner cases."

Permalink Mark Unread

A long time ago there was a species that had everything. Enough food, enough water, enough eco, enough space. They traveled the universe. They came to a planet where they found a different species. They did not like how this second species did things, how they went to war, what their favorite color of eco was, what they believed was right and wrong. So they decided to change all that by force without asking. Is that the sort of corner case you mean?

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I can see that starting a war but I associate the concept of the death penalty with justice systems."

Permalink Mark Unread

I don't understand that distinction. Is it important?

Permalink Mark Unread

"It matters to me. If you're in a position to wield a justice system at someone you likely have the option to choose non-death penalties; wars may not have that affordance."

Permalink Mark Unread

Because you want the minimum harm needed to stop them or because you think death is out of proportion?

Permalink Mark Unread

"The former."

Permalink Mark Unread

It may interest you to know that conquering this city would suffice to put an end to their use of slaves.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Cool, I like ending slavery. I'd like to achieve that as nonviolently as possible."

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I think we need to tell our leader what you've said. How can we talk to you again later?

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"You could take me to your leader? I'd like to get this sorted out quick, that's why I didn't wait till I had working translation for your language."

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It would be useful if you were there but we walked a long way and don't want to show you secret paths that make the trip easier.

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"Suppose I demonstrate that I could find the location anyway?"

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The location isn't secret, the paths are. I just don't want to walk the long way back with you. If you had an air train I'd consent to come along and tell you where to fly it.

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Cam takes his coat off and spreads his wings.

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Billy draws a very messy and approximate map of the area between the beach and the nest.

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"Thanks! See you there."

And he takes off and flies.

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It gets dark out. The green sun is just past zenith but it's a very underwhelming sun for its apparent size.

The area around the nest was once a city, and not a metal head city, but the ruins are buried under piles of dirt and scrap metal. A substantial fraction of the light comes from glowing plants lining a very uneven and winding path to the entrance. It would be extremely hard to get in on foot. Not impossible, but extremely hard. When he lands, the large spiderlike metal heads attempt to gesture that he should go through the large opening into the cave system that makes up the nest.

The nest itself is visibly alien. The ground looks as if it has veins or maybe a network of very shallow roots, and here and there opaque green domes stick out of it. There are big gaping pits, and the walkways past them have something a bit like fences made of mysterious spikes, some of which look as if they could be alive if they weren't so utterly still. A metal head whose head is bigger than Cam's entire body is waiting inside.

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What a creepsome setting. Cam snaps some photos on his way in.

"Hi," he says to the giant metal head.

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"I hear you want to negotiate," says the giant metal head, whose voice sounds noticeably off but isn't harder to parse than a slight accent would be, "and I am the one who would make the final decision about any peace treaty."

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"Nice to meet you! I'm Cam. I'm a newcomer and a neutral party to the situation and I'd like the war to end, and I am prepared to fabulously bribe you to get it, what can we do with that?"

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"I will need to provide context for this. Something I am learning about the people of this planet is the extent to which they operate as individuals. Many species do, to an extent. I am not every 'metal head'. Precursors were different people socially; one might like flying, and another calligraphy, and a third animated sculpture. But they are very similar in values; they make their children very precisely. And they share the memories of their ancestors. If the so-called Precursor Stone were to hatch, the Precursor that came forth would resume their war with us on the day of its hatching.

"I say all this because otherwise you might think it was overkill to hunt and destroy every single Precursor that has ever lived. You would not kill the infant grandchild of one who wronged you. But I will not compromise on the destruction of their species."

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"Oh, that's why you want the egg. ...Why has it taken so long to hatch, does it need special conditions to do that or something?"

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"It does, but ones persistently at risk of being fulfilled while it remains in their hands."

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"Can it think, yet?"

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"It is probably able to learn new information. I am not sure if it can draw inferences or feel anything. I suspect it cannot."

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"And you're very confident that it would immediately - while alone and many years after the initial conflict - start attacking you all again?"

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"I am not confident that it wouldn't, say, spend ten years building weapons and reproducing first."

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"Ah, if they can reproduce alone that's something. So you don't actually want the egg, you want the egg to be destroyed? And the other guys want it as a power source, right, how does an egg serve as a power source..."

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"Dishearteningly nondestructively! Although I suppose after enough millennia of it it might be exhausted. The egg contains a great amount of eco and energy intended for use by the newly hatched Precursor. There is... extra."

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"Where does eco come from under normal circumstances?"

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"From one perspective, this question is as answerable as 'where does mass come from under normal circumstances?' but I think you are asking from an engineer's perspective and that makes it easier. Often, where it appears there is no eco, the eco is simply too dispersed to be of any use - like water vapor in the air. It can condense, naturally or with assistance. Most rocky bodies have some trapped inside, as well; it has been mined both from planets and from asteroids."

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"Is there enough for everyone if there were enough condensation equipment? If there were that, and also I introduced non-eco-based power for various infrastructure?"

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"I am not sure it can be condensed as fast as Haven City uses it. I imagine if they stopped using it for lighting and flight and the shield wall and weaponry and medical experiments that would change. There might still be shortages of individual colors, but I expect we could solve that."

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"Okay. So if the egg is destroyed and they stop hogging the eco, do you have a further quarrel?"

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"They will need to stop hunting us for our skull gems; we might consider refraining from hunting them for their flesh in exchange. They will need to either allow partial terraforming of this planet or get out of the way of our space program. And there is more, but for that, you must also speak to Baron Praxis. As must I."

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You might consider it, wow. "I can supply flesh, if they're really that tasty, and possibly also skull gems unless those involve eco. My understanding is they like the planet how it is, though I didn't specifically ask - what terraforming did you want to do? What's their beef with the space program?"

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"It isn't tasty at all - very little that grows on this planet is. Our skull gems have many functions, but I think to the people of Haven City they are only trophies; it is possible the mere knowledge that you might be able to conjure them would suffice to destroy the market for them. To leave this place, we would need ships capable of carrying all of us to another planet, and fuel for them, and food for the journey. With the war disrupting our ability to build infrastructure or stockpile food or fuel, we are stuck here. And as for our terraforming plans, I find myself wondering if you can conjure them."

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"Probably, but I don't have translation for your language yet. Do you have a planet in mind?"

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"Some underwhelming candidates; we haven't pursued that while we have unfinished business here and could not leave anyway. We might be able to terraform one of the other planets in this system, or live in enclosed habitats, but we will, ah, understand if you would sooner see us leave the system entirely."

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"I can supply ships and fill 'em up. I can also terraform, but I won't be available for that until things are more stably squared away. What do you need besides materiel to clear off of here?"

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"We have an ongoing business relationship with someone on this planet, who owes us and is only falling farther behind on payments. We are willing to consider simply ending the relationship and having no further dealings with them, but I am not sure yet whether to offer them the chance to pay up and have us remain here doing what we were paid to do. I am leaning toward no."

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"What're they paying you to do?"

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"...It is secret, but I will tell you if you will demonstrate the ability to at least in principle find out for yourself. Would you be able to conjure, say, the multimedia presentation called..." something which cannot be pronounced by a human.

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"Sure." Pop.

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"Ah, you can. That isn't the secret, that is about our terraforming plans, but now I am convinced I am only saving you some time by telling you. We were hired to attack Haven City on a convenient schedule, by Baron Praxis."

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"Wow, everything I hear about that guy makes me like him less."

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"I have yet to meet anyone who feels differently. If your proposed resolution to the war involves us disappearing one day with the Precursor Stone, then he is not a concern. Otherwise, the, ah, division within Haven City will matter a great deal."

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"I was thinking I'd find and destroy the Precursor Stone, rather than you wandering off with it?"

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"...That might be agreeable to us. It would also be a very impressive feat."

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"Is it particularly hard to destroy?"

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"Yes. My primary plan was to arrange a hatching surrounded by metal heads, but I will accept other options. It might survive being thrown into the yellow sun but it is unlikely that it would ever be able to hatch under such conditions."

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Cam looks around for a rock, picks one up, interpolates it into dust.

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"I am somewhat concerned that if you break the stone open in such a way it would cause a violent release of energy."

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"I'm indestructible, but that's good to know, I can bring it into space first."

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"I would expect the resulting explosion to reach us from orbit unless the stone was very drained, much more so than I expect it to be by now. I would expect the resulting explosion to reach the suns from here. I would need to have studied more physics to say whether a light year would be far enough."

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"...gosh. Okay. Is there a way to usefully capture this explosion since eco is such a limited resource? Or are we talking about a non-eco explosion."

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"Both, and I can set my scientists to answering that."

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"Exciting, you do that. Do you maybe want to tell me what makes it hatch in case they're on the verge?"

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"Contact with one pure of heart. A certain affinity for eco might also be required."

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"...'pure of heart'?"

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"I am afraid I am a very biased source but I would expect it to mean someone who approves of the Precursors' values."

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"Which is the whole, conquest of you for being culturally distinct, thing?"

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"...I believe that is simply an implication of the rest of the set. They existed for many ages before we met, and in that time they pursued a number of projects that I am aware of. They were particularly fond of spreading life throughout the universe and particularly against war and chaos. They had an aesthetic sensibility which I'm sure you can discover through conjuring their ruins. They loved science and discovery, perhaps to an unwise degree. And, yes, they hated dissension, destruction, death, dark eco, the appearance of most things we find attractive, the infliction of pain, vengeance, and heterotrophy. I would even go so far as to say they hated change. And we were on our planet warring with each other and enjoying it - we were the only species there that I think you would consider people and we were still decades away from the capacity for interstellar travel."

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"You actively enjoy war?"

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"An amount of it. It has been many centuries of fighting with aliens who are unwilling or unable to arrange truces and I am... tired."

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"How sure are you that the Precursors weren't just - overreacting to a misunderstanding? Enjoying war is weird."

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"It has not seemed so in my experience but I am certain our experiences do not overlap much. They didn't ask, they didn't sue for peace when we responded in anger, they they never behaved in any way that gave me the impression that they were trying to understand. But no, I am not sure."

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"I'm, like, slightly worried that I will turn out to be pure of heart if I grab the egg, you see."

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"I would expect gloves to suffice but if you're particularly concerned you could try tongs. Made of Precursor metal, if you want to be very sure."

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"Also it would be a real pity if someone trying very hard with a suitably restricted baby Precursor could get them to cut it out and then instead genocided them, so I would like to do some background reading once I have their language translatable."

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"Naturally. I expect recommending any particular titles or helping with translation would only make it less useful to you. But do you have a communicator?"

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"A communicator?"

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"The people of this planet use them to speak to and hear each other over distances of miles, as if they were face to face."

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"Oh, I don't have one and if you mean that literally I don't have anything as good up my sleeve either but I could make something for it. You can also write to me without going to the trouble of sending the letter; just put 'Letter to Cam' on it and I'll get it next time I check."

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"That will work for me to write to you, but what if you have something to tell me?"

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"Oh, then it won't work at all, I can make some phones for us, but the letter option is available if it ever makes sense."

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"I appreciate it. And - I will, at least for a while, leave Haven City unharmed and let Baron Praxis know that I am ending our deal."

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"Thanks, I appreciate that! Do you guys need anything in the short term?"

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"Nothing you would find so immediately understandable that you could confirm it wasn't a weapon."

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"No? No tasty non-person foods from your home planet? Why are you here on this one, anyway, I didn't get a clear understanding of the history."

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"We would love the flesh of..." something unpronounceable to humans, "but I can imagine ways I could use it as a weapon. We were trapped inside a deprecated rift network by the Precursors, only for a curious young man to discover and open one of the gates. We were meant to languish outside time and space for all eternity."

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"Wow. I guess if you wanna do some genocide and don't like death that might happen."

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"In their defense it was not as long inside as out."

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"I think all eternity would have wound up being pretty long! What exactly is a rift network?"

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"A more powerful but less safe version of a warp network."

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"Which is..."

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"Warp rings are circular devices large enough for a person to pass through. When two are connected on a warp network, you go into one and out the other. The old rift network handled time as well as space; you could go in one gate and out the same gate a year earlier."

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"...wow, that has, uh, probably a lot of implications. I assume I can't go to the right place and go back in time and see if I can talk the Precursors out of conquest?"

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"Those gates, at those times, are not connected to the only gate on this planet. Even if they were, that is not what happened."

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"It enforces a consistent history?"

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"It is difficult to experimentally distinguish several possible theories that would explain the observed result that we have no records of anyone reporting having changed the past and seen those changes reverberate through the future. It might be that if you could go back, you would undo the war, and afterward you would remember a world where I had told you you were the destined peacemaker who had arrived to save us all from eons of misunderstanding and pointless losses and you went to play your destined role."

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"...well, that's disturbing but not as disturbing as the eons of pointless losses probably. But I can't try it?"

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"Not with this planet's gate."

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"Okay, but how far would it be in a spaceship?"

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"I do not know of any gates that are connected to the ones that would allow you access to the Precursors. The gate here would not require a spaceship to reach. If you wanted to find our old planet in the present - I do not know. We are lost."

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"...I could try to find it, though it would be kind of a hassle."

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"It is not a priority but it would mean a great deal to me."

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"Has the planet got a name?"

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"It has had many, although I'm afraid several are just various words for dirt. Perhaps you could try..." this short one.

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First order of business: planet exist?

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Nope.

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"- it's gone, sorry."

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"It is, at least, good to know." His inflections are humanlike enough to sound distinctly solemn.

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"Yeah. I'm sorry. I hope your new planet is nice. How exactly do you use food as a weapon?"

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"It would likely be toxic to local creatures."

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"I see. Do you have enough to eat without eating any people for the next little while?"

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"It will not kill anyone to refrain from eating anything that can speak for the next day."

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"Also babies of species that can speak."

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"I expect we can survive that too."

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"Would you like some person-flesh, which is less likely to be toxic, to tide you over more comfortably?"

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"I wouldn't turn it down."

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He makes a pile of it, vacuum-sealed so it won't go bad right away.

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"Thank you."

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"You're welcome. Anything else we should cover before I circle back?"

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"Not that I can think of."

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"Would any of you like to help refine my computer's understanding of the language?"

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"How?"

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"I'll give you one and it will ask questions about which of two sentences is more felicitous."

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"It's very possible that someone will do that once I've had a chance to let them know they can stop trying to ambush people."

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"Cool." He leaves a computer not too far from the pile of meat. "And a phone. Poke this to ring me."

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They can do that. After he leaves they set about checking whether he's tried to poison the meat.

The green sun, he might notice, is moving south in the sky.

The voice of the airlock computer tells him it's good to see him still alive. The area just inside, over the water, is one of the darkest parts of the city at this hour, not that he has much basis for comparison.

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He meanders back. Puts his coat back on when he gets to the edge of town.

Stops at the oracle's en route in case it has anything new to say.

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It's quiet for now. Some candles have burned out since the last time anyone was in to clean them up. The food has disappeared.

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"Hey oracle?" he says, in case that helps, but if it doesn't he'll turn around and go back to home base.

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It doesn't help. Someone does try to mug him with a kitchen knife on the way.

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The kitchen knife will mysteriously snap as soon as it strikes! Cam picks himself up off the ground, rummages in his pocket, offers the guy a limon.

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The guy will take the limon and run. No one else tries anything on the way.

Back at the hideout, Torn is asleep, Rit is gone, someone is sleeping restlessly on one of the top bunks, and someone is whispering a bedtime story to a small child.

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Aww. Cam will do his reading very quietly. What's in the rest of the eco book?

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When last he left the History of Eco Studies the field was dominated by the sages.

Their mix of theoretical and practical approaches supposedly became a problem when Gol Acheron and his sister began studying dark eco. There's a brief digression about how reliable various aspects of the various stories about them are, and what it would say about the societies that invented them if they were invented. One version of the story is even reproduced in full in the book: their exposure to dark eco drove them mad and led them to want to team up with the lurkers for world domination, only for them to be driven even madder and seek to betray the lurkers and destroy the entire planet; then someone from one of the villages they raided got mad, broke into their citadel, prayed for a miracle, received light eco from the heavens, and destroyed the dark sages.

Regardless, it is clear that treating dark eco as something to be studied, understood, and used represents a major change in the field. These days people take precautions to limit their exposure and don't try to destroy the world.

Recently, the attitude that eco is something sacred has been fading. Simultaneously, advances in statistics have led to changes in the way experimental results are reported. Consequently, modern and historical writing on the topic sound very different: the field has gone from discussing how red eco embodies the virtue of steadfastness to running controlled trials of people's running speed and grip strength with and without red eco exposure.

There's an entire chapter on the history of eco containment, and the weaknesses of older materials, and what new experiments have been made possible (for example, injecting eco into people is now technically feasible).

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Gosh.

Cam sets the book aside once he's through with it and does a bunch of conjurations to try to put together an origin and timeline about the origins of lurkers and ottsels and metal heads and - he doesn't actually know the name of the main species. Which of these are native, he knows where the metal heads came from but are there more in the universe, are there any Precursors left besides that one egg...?

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This planet was barren until the Precursors came and terraformed it hundreds of thousands of years ago, bringing or creating starting populations of a wide variety of species, including very close ancestors of the local humanoids and the lurkers (and the crocadogs and the palm trees and the ferns...). Precursors who have ever been present on this planet are overwhelmingly likely to have been ottsel-shaped at some point, with the distant second most common shape vaguely resembling the oracle.

There are no longer any other metal heads.

There is one ottsel-shaped person on this planet right now, an orange one who looks much more similar to the one who cowrote one of Mar's books than the average Precursor. There are a handful of ottsel-shaped Precursors elsewhere in the solar system. And then there are the other Precursors. They don't look much like ottsels. Some of them resemble the oracle even more vaguely than the others. Some look capable of flight. Most are cyborgs; most are purple or black or both; most are spiky. Other precursor artifacts tend to be smooth, curvy, and brown or bronze with occasional red or blue or black details; the ships the spiky purple Precursors are on, on the other hand, are purple, spiky, sometimes tentacled. This variety has existed for hundreds of thousands of years, but the share of all precursors who are spiky and purple has increased dramatically over time.

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Huh! (He made all these models very tiny and gave himself a magnifying glass; he sweeps them all into a paper bag once he's consolidated his notes.)

He phones the metal heads.

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The metal heads are phoneable.

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He puts headphones in, speaks very softly right into the pickup. "Hey, uh, I checked, and there are still Precursors around, which makes me more reluctant to abort their egg. Also nonzero of them are on this planet and they aren't obviously involving themself in your affairs, can you explain this?"

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"...I take it you met Daxter," says the metal head leader.

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"Didn't get the name."

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"The talkative one. He is not a Precursor. Baron Praxis has replaced part of his skull with metal but that does not make him a metal head. Daxter is not a Precursor."

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"Comes up when I conjure for members of the species."

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"Can you conjure people whose parents were Precursors, or who hatched from Precursor eggs?"

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"One sec." He does this.

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The non-egg one currently on this planet is in neither of those categories. The ones elsewhere in the solar system, on the other hand, seem to belong to the species in the normal way.

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"Okay, the ottsel manages somehow not to have this trait, I don't know why he's a member of the species, maybe they cloned him or something, that might do it. The rest of them have eggs and parents though."

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"It would be very surprising if they were aware of us and not planning our extermination."

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"Well, they're out there. There are two color schemes of 'em even."

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"Two - ah, the dark makers, yes. They were once Precursors. I expect the two, ah, 'color schemes' are at war with one another."

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"Did you have some kind of long term plan for avoiding them?"

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"No. I thought they were gone, because it has been ages and there is still life in the universe."

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"Okay. Do you have an early formulation of such a plan, or should I, like, maybe go talk to them?"

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"I would urge you not to draw their attention to this place."

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"If they're in reasonable commuting distance at all I wouldn't tell them where I came from but they might guess that I was in reasonable commuting distance."

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"If you are, we will need to plan for an invasion. Are you?"

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"Checking." Are they in this bit of galaxy here.

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There is one dark maker ship within a light year of their system.

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"Some of the purple guys are - not necessarily impossible to correspond with if I aim radio at them but definitely not convenient and definitely not someplace I can just jaunt casually."

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"It could be worse. Thank you for telling me all of this."

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"Please do not decide to murder the ottsel just to be sure, or anything."

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He laughs. "I am already sure. Have no fear on that count."

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Cam ends the call. Conjures the Shadow's list.

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He's organized it into four categories: war-related, scientific, urgent humanitarian, and long-term humanitarian.

For the war, he wants some forensic conjuring done on whatever it is Krew is making for the baron, whether there are any metal heads inside the city, and the amount of eco in several stockpiles (he's hoping Cam can make plastic models of it, or conjure specifically for barrels that are empty but should be full of it), and whether some missing people are dead or in prison or in trouble they could be rescued from. Besides that he'd like a set of fake Krimzon Guard armor and rifle. It will be less good but still potentially useful if the rifle can't fire, just as long as it looks right.

For science, he wants a few blank notebooks and pencils, the scientific writings of Gol Acheron if Cam has some sensible way of filtering love letters out, and similarly for a couple of other sages, and he'd like to know if Cam can conjure for something like sages who were contemporary with Gol. He wants a model of a Precursor and a sample of their writings and a diorama of the Lost Precursor City when it was inhabited by the Precursors, and confirmation of whether all life on their planet was created by the Precursors. Oh, and confirmation of whether Mar was one person.

For urgent humanitarian reasons, he'd like to fill a larger room than the hideout Cam is in with chipped yakow and tomato cherry jam and cherry tomato jam. He's working on clearing out a place for it and should have one in a day or two. He'd also like sterile bandages, needles, and for Cam to collaborate with Rit about what drugs would make the biggest difference to her practice.

For the longer term, he has a rough map of areas where the topsoil is either absent or thoroughly fucked up by the war, where he'd like Cam to try adding a couple of feet on top and planting this list of seeds, some of which are for plants that have gone extinct recently. And he'd like it if it were possible to make non-eco-powered versions of an eco condenser and an eco color sorter. And he'd like to be able to improve on the baron's urban development plans, maybe by finding someplace to add a nice tall hotel where people can stay while their condemned neighborhoods are destroyed and rebuilt, and maybe even by getting Cam involved in the rebuilding.

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Cam will do... most of this. He doesn't know what the Guard gear is supposed to be for and will hold on that till he knows. He'd like to talk to the metal heads - and to the Shadow about the metal heads - before relaying intel on them. And he'll wait till Rit is awake before designing a medical care package. Gol Acheron's published works can get got. When Rit wakes up he's fiddling with eco condenser designs and has a model hotel by his elbow next to a city diorama.

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Krew is making something a local engineer could, and Cam might, recognize as a bomb designed to mostly explode in one particular direction. Gol Acheron has no published works.

Rit comes in in the early morning at about the same time as an elderly man with a staff and very long sideburns.

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"Morning," says Cam. "I'm supposed to talk to you about medical supplies?"

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"Oh? Okay. I could use more of those, actually I have a list... somewhere... actually I bet you could make my list... some of them will be too big for the hideout but I can go over it and point those out."

The old man nods to Cam and waits for Torn to wake up.

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Once she has titled the list, lo, it appears. "I don't know the pharmacology for your species, I trained on other folks, but things like splints or whatever I might have improvements on."

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"That sounds worth taking a look at while I'm here. Are you an actual medical doctor, then?"

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"I went to medical school, but our credentialing system is probably not identical to yours."

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"I'm not even a doctor, they're just desperate. Or at least I wasn't one before I spent the last few years patching people up. Anyway, splints, make me one of ours and let me know how you'd improve on it?"

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He makes one of theirs and pulls up splinting-related information on his computer to go through with her. And bandages, and disinfectants, and anything else not directly related to the specific biology of this species. Do they have a name, by the way?

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Socially their name for themselves is broad enough to include similar species and would also apply to Earth humans, but they do have a system for giving species unique scientific names. It's just unwieldy. Theirs is nine syllables long.

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That is pretty long! He will call them their umbrella term if that isn't insensitive or anything for convenience.

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It's not insensitive, they call themselves humans all the time! Rit is so grateful for the supplies and the improved splints and bandages and so on.

Meanwhile Torn wakes up and talks to the old man, who's just come in from the wasteland with a report on the metal heads.

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What is the report on the metal heads?

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"They're up to something in the abandoned mine; I wasn't able to get close enough to see what they were doing in there. Something must have happened overnight because they're pulling back from the city; I was," yawn, "up for hours watching them. I hope you don't mind my taking a rest now."

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"They were in the Baron's employ and I have convinced them to break their deal with him in expectation of sending them all to another planet soon."

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"Very impressive."

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"Thanks!"

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The old man picks a lower bunk to nap on. Torn, now that he's up and not otherwise busy, asks Cam what else has changed overnight.

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"Nothing else changed much, I just learned some things."

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"Like?" he asks, getting some writing implements ready.

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"Ottsels are members of the Precursor species! Which comes in two color schemes and they are probably having a war out there in space somewhere. The Precursor Stone is an egg and the metal heads' original planet is gone presumably as a casualty of their original conflict with the Precursors. Things attributed to Mar were done by several people. Metal heads don't actually like eating humans but this planet isn't very well suited to them and any other food I could have made them might have been potentially usable as poison to local creatures so now they have a bunch of human meat nobody had to die for to tide them over while things are in flux."

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"Wow. I didn't know I could get less religious. Ottsels." He shakes his head. "If the metal heads aren't going to get in the way, we can either leave or depose Praxis. The Shadow will rather the second one."

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"He seems like he sucks! What's the deposition liable to look like?"

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"Best case scenario: kill him, make a deal with his daughter and have her act as regent for the heir, put Erol on trial and probably execute him, probably have a mass amnesty for everyone still alive in the fortress prison. That could go wrong if he got away. Or if Erol got away. Or if anything happened to Ashelin. Or if it turned out the KG wouldn't work for us. Or if it turned out anyone in the prison was there for a good reason. Or if the metal heads attacked while we were all busy."

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"Erol and Ashelin and KG are...?"

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"KG is short for Krimzon Guard, Erol is their commander, Ashelin is the baron's daughter."

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"Got it. Why is the baron being dead as opposed to locked up the best case?"

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He laughs bitterly. "Can't say he doesn't deserve it. Still. Better to be sure he's gone and not have to waste space keeping him around, especially if we're about to empty out the prison aside from him."

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"Are you sure he didn't ever bother to arrest non-political criminals? I did have a mugging attempt on my way back."

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"I've already talked that over with the Shadow and a friend of mine in the Guard. We aren't going to hold anyone who was convicted under Praxis and we aren't going to lock anyone up until we've had a chance to make a new facility - we don't have blueprints drawn up yet but we've talked it over some and I can tell you what we've already decided it should have. But we're not locking someone up who I'm sure didn't hurt you or take anything you can't replace."

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"- no, no, I broke his knife and gave him a limon, I don't want to go after the guy, I'm just pointing out the rate of actual crime is not zero. The jail itself is a problem here?"

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"We could probably do a lot better with the same building. Could do ten-hour workdays, visits twice a month, allow paper books... but the Shadow thinks it's important they get to see outside."

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"It has salutary effects on one's health," Cam agrees. "Okay, I'm not going to bat for the Baron, he's an asshole and a politically complicated one."

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"Yeah. If we don't have metal heads to worry about we can pull it off on our own but it might be easier with help and easier might mean lives saved. Or, we can run. I'll have to talk with the Shadow about that and I'm thinking we should loop you in, you know what you can offer us and you can get us information that'd make it easier to choose."

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"What kind of information?"

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"If we do run, we're leaving his current prisoners behind and don't know how many of them there are. If we move somewhere we'll need to know what else lives there now. We need to know if Praxis has any plans for what to do about it if a hundred air trains materialize and start flying people away. We need to know if he's booby-trapped the palace or the fortress or if he has anything destructive on a dead-man switch. We need to know how much of the countryside Kras claims and where."

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"Okay. I can do some of that easily, like number of prisoners - what's the building called?"

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"The fortress. - Not everyone in it is a prisoner or a guard, it's also the armory and a lot of other things."

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"Order of magnitude on expected number of occupants?"

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"It varies but probably more than fifty and less than two hundred."

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"If I just give you a heap of little plastic dudes can you sort them by clothing or something?"

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"Yeah."

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Little bag of little dudes.

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He sorts them. The ones in red armor and the ones in yellow armor go together in a pile, and the ones in assorted rags (with labels including "prisner", "renosirp", and "prisc r") go together in a pile, and the miscellaneous others go together in a pile.

Meanwhile Rit takes some of the medical supplies to deliver to another hideout, and someone takes the kid somewhere more suitable for a kid, and the hideout ends up empty except for Cam and Torn and Kor.

Once the models are all sorted out, Torn frowns at the pile of prisoners. "This is fewer than I was expecting, in better shape than I was expecting, and that's Samos."

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"Who's Samos?"

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He picks out the model of the Shadow in prison clothes and a new hairstyle. "See? It's weird for him to have a lookalike but I just talked to him yesterday... I should call him."

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"...huh." Is this the same person, Cam would like to know by means of more plastic dudes.

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Yes.

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"It's not a lookalike, it's the same guy. I don't remember if I explained how to write me but I'll check -" Letters to Cam?

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There are three. The first:

I have a new wishlist for you. Or you could call it an old one.

My daughter Keira's biological father and any published works of his. A restored Lost Precursor Coast swamp habitat, to the extent possible, which should include green swamp grass, Asher's swamp grass, common swamp grass, cattails, lurker bats, southern gray dragonflies, thornwalls, mangroves, black algae, swamp fleas, three species of green algae without distinguishing names, swamp flies, and unfortunately some extinct species that give birth to live young. A copy of Loran's sculpture titled Beauty and Ferocity of Nature. My notes that were lost to water damage on the third day of the third month of the 548th year as the sages reckon years.

The sages' reckoning hasn't been used for the calendar since before Mar.

The second:

if you feel like it, not that i would want to PRESUME to tell you how to use your time, you might CONSIDER getting me OUT OF HERE

The third contains strategically interesting information about the fortress prison and mockery of some of the guards.

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...Cam hands over the third letter and starts trying to figure out how old this guy is and who his daughter is and what species he is.

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Torn reads the letter and looks steadily more baffled, while waiting to see if Samos will pick up his communicator.

Samos exists in two places right now - the one with the fungal updo is taking a bath - and has existed in two places for about two years, before which he existed in one place for several decades. Before that, there were centuries of him not existing. But before that there's about a decade of him, just one of him, roughly contemporary with stories of Gol Acheron. He didn't exist at all before the fall of the continent-wide civilization.

He's the local sort of "human", just an unusual shade of it. His (adopted) daughter has callused hands and blue-and-green hair and looks an awful lot like one of the people who cowrote one of Mar's books.

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"- oh, I see, he time traveled. How interesting."

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He gives up on trying get through to fungal-updo-Samos. "What? How? Can we do that?"

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"Precursors had it but I didn't think there was any to be had nearby! Do you know where the one who isn't currently in jail is?"

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"Not sure. I would've guessed he was having breakfast but he'd pick up if he were."

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"In the bath. I just mean like the address."

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He can point it out on the city map hanging on the wall.

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"I will go pay him a visit unless you have reason to believe that's unwise."

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"Can't think of any. If you're slow he might head over to the forest before you get there."

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"If I ride around on a full sized version of this will that create more problems than it solves?" Cam asks, displaying a tiny motorcycle.

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"Yeah, lots. You can - you can't conjure the fuel, though - you can borrow the green zoomer parked in they alley if you stay in your lane, stay in the high hover zone, and don't run into anything."

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"I don't know how to drive one."

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"They come with a tutorial but that won't give you much practice, will it. Still probably safer than trying to drive on the ground."

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"You could zoom there? Take this with you." He hands over a little drone.

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He thinks about that for a moment.

"Might be fine. Conjure me some extra concealer?" His tattoos are unique and he's wanted.

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Makeup appears over the tats. Cam holds up a mirror.

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"Nice."

He can zoom to the Shadow, then, with the drone.

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Cam watches through the drone camera while trying to piece out the metatimeline of the Shadow's time traveling habits.

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Torn heads into another, slightly nicer, city section and knocks on a door. Samos invites him in and offers him tea.

Samos has the fungal updo at the earliest time he existed, when he appeared before the time of Mar, and by the end of his time back then he'd ditched it in favor of just wrapping his hair around a log and calling it done. During his continuous block of decades of singular existence up till a couple years ago he went from being a baby to being a child to being an adult.

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Okay, so Cam knows a version who has been in normal time his whole life, and he is - somehow going to - go back in time and live for a kinda weird amount of time and get thrown in jail - when did he get thrown in jail?

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Not very long after he arrived in this general era.

Torn declines the tea and tells the not-in-prison Samos that Cam sent him to bring over the drone.

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"Hi!" says the drone. "You might wish to know that you are apparently slated to time travel at some point! Your future self goes back a long ways and is still kicking but he's in jail and has sent me some letters."

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"We'll just have to fix that. And I'll have to pack, how far back was it?"

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"Pre-time-of-Mar."

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"The amenities are going to be terrible, aren't they. Well, we'll have to get the other me out and ask him what's going on. That dovetails nicely with the next steps we need to take to bring down the baron - Torn disagrees with me because he's wrong - so how about if we talk about it after I'm done visiting the plants and see if we can have a plan ready to go by tomorrow."

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"Visiting the plants?"

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"They have feelings too, you know! And besides, if you get in the habit of not going to the forest as long as there's anything more urgent, you'll never go, and then you'll turn into a sour cynic who hates everyone and wants to turn tail and run even though we're winning." He gives Torn a pointed look.

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"I wouldn't say I do know that plants have feelings but I suppose if that's how you feel about it perhaps your future self will understand."

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"It's not like you don't have recon to do first. Can I use this... alien communicator... to contact you in a quarter of an hour?"

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"Sure, I can leave the mic live, just don't do anything loud."

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The Shadow heads out to the forest, which isn't far, to quietly try (and fail) to meditate, until he isn't too horrified to face this mission the way he'd face any other. The ambient forest sounds are peaceful and not loud at all: a distant waterfall, a quiet chirping bird, a soft wind disturbing the trees.

Torn meanwhile heads back to the hideout. He takes a call while he's on the stairs on the way in and starts swearing by the time he's properly inside the room. He hangs up. "We have new problems - probably nothing worth wasting time on but maybe important, can you find where one of my men was ten minutes ago? His name's Jak and he's probably with the ottsel I told you about."

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Jak's surroundings ten minutes ago.

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Ten minutes ago, Jak, a teenager with a rifle who looks like one of the authors of Mar's half-finished astronomy book, was standing on what looks like the palace roof judging by the nearby series of merlons and spires. He did have an ottsel on his shoulder.

Ten minutes ago, Jak, the tiny Heir of Mar, was perched on the back of someone's badly worn-out sofa.

"Why am I surprised anymore," Torn mutters.

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...Cam checks real quick if "exists twice right now" is a conjurable parameter but it is not.

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"That's probably the palace. Can you figure out how he got in? We can assume the baron'll notice and patch the gap so we'll have to do this some other way - I'm going to skin those two alive, they've probably just made everything twice as messy as it has to be."

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"I hope you have a volcano to drop all these models in," says Cam, but he pans back to find the point at which he entered.

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"Yeah, just north of here. That elevator, huh - we can work around that."

Which is when the Shadow pipes up via the drone, "We shouldn't need to use one anyway. Just stage a trap for him outside the palace. - The plants have had enough of my company, I'll meet you in a few minutes."

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"See you in a bit, try not to fall in a time travel portal en route."

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They talk over their plans and then put them into action. The biggest delay is feeding Praxis the right information to lure him out; he's very prepared to defend himself against threats he's ever heard of before, but demons aren't one of those. Torn tips Ashelin off in advance; within ten minutes all the propaganda stations in the city are playing her announcing the change of leadership and a mass pardon for everyone still alive in the fortress and everyone charged exclusively with supporting the Underground.

As soon as the older Samos has access to a communicator he calls Torn and tells him to send someone to bring something back for him from the sacred site in dead town. And once he's done that, he writes a letter to Cam, burns it, and goes to the forest to commune with the trees.

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And what sayeth this letter?

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My younger self and the Heir of Mar need to visit the past for several reasons. Keira should be working on a rift rider they could use for the trip. I doubt you can conjure most of what she needs, but you might try. When it's done, it will need to pass through the rift gate, which is portable and no longer where it was when we last saw it. I'm worried the metal heads might have taken it.

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"Hey, is it still a big deal if I fly around what with the new management?"

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"Go for it, if anything happens I'll make a face at Ashelin about it."

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He flies off to meet Samos in the forest.

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It's fairly open for a forest, with lots of open grassy areas. The wooden bridges over the streams and ditches are in much better repair than any of the ones in the slums, and look as if they were made with any attention to aesthetics whatsoever.

The older Samos is floating in the lotus position about seven feet off the ground in front of an especially large tree near a cliff.

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"You can levitate, that's cool. Your letter was a little light on the justifications?"

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"The continent would have been flooded with dark eco otherwise."

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"Howso?"

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"Gol and Maia studied it and they wouldn't listen to me when I warned them what would happen. No one ever does."

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"I don't feel very informed."

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He sighs and floats down until his head is level with Cam's.

"In the course of their studies, they were exposed to enough dark eco to entirely corrupt their values. They decided it was so beautiful that they just had to share it with the entire world! Never mind how many innocent creatures would die or worse if they did! I tried warning them but they blew me off, and next thing I knew they were trying to open the silos of dark eco the Precursors locked away."

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"How does dark eco do that, anyway?"

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"I wrote a book about that - the old baron wouldn't allow me to publish it, of course, and I'm going to update it with my new observations before trying again - but the short version is, all eco has the potential to cause partly reversible long-term cognitive changes after repeated exposure in a dose-dependent way. Thinking it's beautiful is normal for any kind and trying to destroy things is normal for dark eco. I don't suppose you want to hear about the microanatomical changes associated with chronic eco exposure."

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"They all appear to be less dramatic?"

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"Not all the behavioral changes seem to be caused by what we call matter, if that's what you're asking."

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"...can you just, like, elaborate more on everything you say in general."

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"Some of the eco-associated behavioral changes are probably metaphysically mediated. That means they aren't caused by matter. They're part of the other aspects of the mind. I expect that means you couldn't do anything about them even in theory. When people are aware they've been changed by eco exposure, they're usually glad of it. Even so I think you'll agree that dark eco is the worst of the lot and green eco is the best. Green eco generally makes people more proactive and less stuck in the limited perspective of their own species. At any rate, dealing with Gol and Maia is the most important of the several reasons we need to have visited the past. Unfortunately I'm not sure what you can conjure to confirm that unless maybe Gol kept a diary. A diary is a book in which someone writes about their life."

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He snorts at the definition of 'diary'. "What are the other reasons?"

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"Well, here everyone has a use for the kid. Sending him somewhere one person has a use for him and half a dozen people just treat him as a child would be better for him. I would have kept raising him if I had to but just think of the conflict of interest! And secondly dark eco was more avoidable back then so it's better for developing brains to grow up in the past, not that that's always good enough. Thirdly, while we were there, I had access to information that's been lost since - I corresponded with sages and documented soon-to-be-extinct species. I can redact and publish my notes and bring all that knowledge back. Fourth, without me, my daughter would have been orphaned as soon as her mother died - and then probably died herself when Gol and Maia opened the silos, instead of coming to the future to study modern engineering. Fifth, Onin thinks it's a good idea and Onin sees a great deal that the rest of us can't. And finally, I think all this might turn out to have something to do with Mar. Just call that intuition."

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"Who is Onin?"

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"A soothsayer. If you want to hire her, she works out of a tent in the bazaar."

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"Look, I just don't feel oriented enough to the situation to orchestrate an abduction of your past self into the past, have you considered suggesting it to him yourself?"

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"I'm not asking you orchestrate an abduction. He'll agree. That just won't do any good without the rift rider and the rift gate."

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"Oh, okay then. Next time lead with that." Cam spreads his wings to go back and follow up on the requests.

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Keira, who at least looks like one of the people behind the half-finished astronomy book, is in her garage near the stadium, past the canals and the gardens and in the nicest part of the city. She's working on her rift rider behind a curtain. Her front door is open. At the sound of someone coming in gets to a point where she can safely set down her tools and does that, but doesn't open the curtain.

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"Heard you might need parts."

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She steps out from behind the curtain and gawks just a bit. "Yeah. I heard you make stuff, huh? I'm close enough to finished with this that it's probably worth the extra space to conjure the whole thing out of thin air, but I can't find these two artifacts - here, I have illustrations, come see - I need an energy gem called the Heart of Mar and a Precursor artifact called the Time Map, and I don't even know where they are."

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"- okay, well, if they involve eco I can't make 'em but I can find 'em." Surroundings of these objects?

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They both exist twice right now. The Heart of Mar is inside a statue of Mar and encased in some brand-new igneous rock. The Time Map is buried in sand and chilling in a room full of artifacts that looks very much like it might be in the metal head nest somewhere.

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"I can ask the metal heads about this one," he says, indicating the last. "Do you know where to find the statue or should I zoom out?"

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"It was in a museum, I think, but it was stolen a while ago. It should still be in the city somewhere."

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Surrounding block?

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It's underground and underwater in what was once meant as a habitable building of some kind but never was adequately sealed off from the storm drains or the sewer system.

She wrinkles her nose. "I can probably design a robot that could navigate down there, especially if I don't have to build it."

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"I can do robots but I don't know off the top of my head if I have any optimized for both water navigation and art theft."

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"Hmm. I did read about this statue. You might not be able to conjure the gem or that key in its hand but what if we just drill those out and you copy the rest of it? I'm not sure how to get the gem out nondestructively anyway."

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"I can send in something with power tools, sure. You need the whole statue for some reason??"

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"Me? Nah. It's famous. People miss it. We can take the Heart of Mar and leave everything else for the museum."

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"Oh, sure thing. Where is this area, I can't make the robot in place from the model."

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"I think that might be under the red zone near the east wall."

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"I'll go get some altitude and eyeball it and drop a robot there and you can help me direct it to get your swag." He goes and flies up into the air to look at the east wall for a recognizable block.

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Fortunately all the blocks in that area are completely different sizes and shapes. Keira can help direct the robot if he leaves her a remote control or something.

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When the robot is placed he lands near her and lets her look at the display of its camera!

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She has never actually tried to navigate the accidental-extra-sewer-space before but she's heard from people who have and she does her best.

The easiest way to get anything this big and solid back out would be through the maintenance entrance, but it won't open for something it doesn't think is human; she can figure out where there'll be a grate that they could put back more easily if they had to remove it.

"Ugh, I'll have to wash these. But anyway, I think the best open space to put a new statue in is the courtyard outside the stadium."

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"You can tell me where that is after we get your stuff."

The robot has power tools and can disassemble the statue.

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It comes apart like nonmagical stone. The gem hidden inside is much harder and all but invulnerable, but Keira thinks the key in the statue's hand might be a normal amount of soft for the gold alloy it's mostly made of.

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The robot removes the hand entire just in case and fetches the objects back to them.

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"Thank you so much! Let me know if there's anything I can do for you while I'm here - anyway, if you walk out that door and turn right, the stadium will be on your left, and if you make another right and go down the stairs, there should be room for a copy of the statue."

And she can wash the artifacts and hand the key and the hand back over to him.

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"I don't need that," he says. "- I guess I could just attach the rest of the statue to it, save getting the key in the right position." He accepts the statue hand and heads for the stadium to place an art installation.

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Insofar as there's a place in the city where a spontaneously appearing large statue is appropriate and welcome, this is that place. People stare, though, and try with varying success not to look like they're staring. Someone on a zoomer gets distracted and drifts out of their lane for a second.

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Cam keeps an eye on them in case he needs to materialize airbags.

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He doesn't.

Someone in Krimzon Guard armor asks who he is and what he's up to.

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"I'm Cam! I put the statue over there and now I'm done. Do you like it?"

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"Do I like it? I, um, I think it's kind of artistically lacking - are you the alien who arranged the truce with the metal heads?"

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"That's me! I'm about to go visit them again, would you like to pass on any messages?"

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"Messages. To the metal heads." She giggles slightly hysterically. "Sure, why not, ask if one of them wants to be my penpal!"

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"I'll make a note of it." He writes this down on his computer and looks for a clear space to take off; fortunately in a zoomer-populated city this is not that hard.

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Plenty of convenient clear space. There's even a ledge to jump off if that's better.

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It doesn't!

To the metal heads.

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To the metal heads. The very articulate one he spoke to before is busy somewhere but Billy is around.

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"Hi Billy! I'm looking for a rift gate. Do y'all have a rift gate? Also somebody wants a metal head pen pal."

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Yeah! There are specific humans we're supposed to let use the rift gate and an artifact for it if they ask. You're not one of them, though. What's a pen pal?

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"A pen pal is someone who you exchange letters with. I don't want to go through the rift gate, I just want to make sure it's available for some people who need to go through it for time loop reasons; can you tell me who it is you mean to let through?"

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A green one, a fake Precursor, and two I wouldn't recognize but our leader would. Not necessarily all at once. We're not completely sure who has to go to make the history we know happen. If it helps, one of them is young and important.

I'll ask around about the pen pal thing.

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"How do you guys know who is supposed to go?"

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Our leader saw them on the way out of the rift.

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"Stands to reason. You guys want more snacks while I'm here?"

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Sure! You know, they also eat meat in the city, in case you care about yakows and flut-fluts.

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"I will set them up with vat meat infrastructure before I go home but if yakows and flut-fluts are animals I do not care about them all that urgently." Meat.

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The way you do moral reasoning is weird. Thank you for the meat.

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"How do you do moral reasoning? People keep telling me dark eco messes with that but I don't know if that's what you're noticing or something else."

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I'll write up a summary but you might as well conjure it later, it might get long.

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"Sure, that works fine. You can write me about would-be pen pals too."

He flies back in to report that the gate is available to the described parties.

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Older Samos is still floating in the forest and glad to hear the gate is available. (Younger Samos is busy having a 3D video call with an architect.)

The one they call a fake Precursor is lying on top of the bar at the Hip Hog Heaven Saloon, flirting with the bartender.

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Does Older Samos think they need to bring the fake Precursor and/or apprise him of anything such that Cam should go interrupt?

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He doesn't.

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Cam leaves him alone. The time loop does not seem all that fragile.

Anybody else need anything? Food, say, as a stopgap - and in the slightly longer term does anyone want to learn to operate meat vats?

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Lots of people need things, including food, and some of them would like to learn to operate meat vats. He also has a letter from Ashelin asking to arrange a meeting to talk about hiring him to redo some infrastructure soon, and one from Keira asking if she can hire him for more forensics.

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He will set up meeting times with both of those people, with priority to the infrastructure because that sounds like more fun.

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Ashelin, who appears to have written one of Mar's books on governance and co-written his treatise on human rights, arranges a small meeting in a fancy but not very comfortable meeting room in the palace. It's just her, Cam, the younger Samos, and two people who worked for her father: Vin, a jumpy man who works with the eco grid and has a doctorate in theoretical physics, and Count Krull, who works on housing and urban development.

She'd like to know what it would take for a newly constructed neighborhood to run on a non-eco energy source.

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"I'd need to put a generator in the neighborhood - or nearby enough that I can run wire to it. Unfortunately, while we have good power storage where I'm from, it's not enough to continue forever without refueling - I can make you wind-, tide-, and/or solar-powered electricity collection and run it into the place, though tidecatchers will only work if you're within wiring distance to an ocean. With tides. The appliances that can run on electricity may be unfamiliar, but include lights, computers, and assorted kitchen and cleaning objects; I'm not actually sure what-all you currently power with eco."

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She glances at Vin.

"Lights, computers, zoomers, vacuum cleaners, heating and cooling, elevators, passcode-operated locks, and security systems," Vin lists from memory, and then checks his notes and adds, "and artwork, communications, and automated industry."

"This is going to be a residential area, so there won't be much industry," says Ashelin, "but some things are quiet enough. It's right by the ocean but we'd have to keep the generator outside the walls and run the wires over or through, and then that's one more thing to defend outside the city. How tall a neighborhood could we support with solar generators on each roof?"

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"The one of those we don't have is zoomers. I mean, I'm sure someone has invented a flying motorcycle but it will not handle the same and I do not currently know how to drive one, though I can figure it out and give lessons. If you want solar alone, you can't get too tall - five, six stories if I make some generous assumptions about your weather and power requirements. I could put wires underground without having to dig though, if there's nothing important in the way."

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Krull has a 3D map of the underground pipes in the relevant area and a nifty hologram projector to make it seem to float over the table. There's a possible path around them and under the north wall.

"Even five or six stories is taller than what we have there now," says Ashelin, "but having a second power system for redundancy would be safer; we can set up something by the beach and have it charge batteries most of the time. If we can't run zoomers on electricity we'll still have to hook the new neighborhood up to the eco grid but if we run the rest of the amenities on electricity it'll help."

"How much can we power that way in the rest of the city without having to retrofit some kind of - electric grid?" Vin asks.

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"If you want everything battery-operable and just have people swap them out at chargers as necessary, everything I've listed, but this approach has drawbacks for some things, especially climate control - you can make air conditioners and heaters that work like that but they're just generally more annoying. Also possibly hard to childproof, those designs are mostly popular in Hell which has vanishingly few children."

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She looks at Vin. "How long do we have?"

"Uh, it depends on how soon we can hook up the new wells to the city grid and whether the truce holds but in the best-case scenario I think we have at least a year. More pessimistically, a couple of months or less."

"How soon could you have an electric grid in place without destroying any existing buildings or blocking any streets, assuming I could get everyone on board with letting you run wires through their walls?"

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"...difficult. I can put wires underground because what's underground is going to be rocks and dirt the exact positions of which don't matter so I can do miles at once; in walls I might bust a water pipe or something and I'd have to do each house one at a time. I think you might want to go with the battery-forward option and I can do spot installations for anywhere that's a particularly bad choice. I'd want some small empty lots to put the charging stations on and then I can set up panels and tidecatchers to fuel them."

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"If it won't make it structurally unsound you can cover most of the palace roof with solar panels. Maybe some of the fortress, too, but I'll have to check. Hmm. If electric appliances are going to be less convenient for the near future, and the main benefit is to the city... what if I hire an artist to collaborate with you on, I don't know, limited edition battery-powered electric table lamps to commemorate... something, there's no shortage of things worth commemorating right now. If we only had, say, two thousand - we wouldn't have enough but we might have better uptake to start with if they're scarce and upscale."

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"Sure, something like, hm, this?" He materializes a little glowing golden tree in his hands.

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She smiles. "Like that. Maybe another couple of tree species or colors too so they're not all the same. Is that your own design?"

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"No, I saw it in a friend's house one time, but I can do it in different shapes and colors."

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"That works. Traditionally there'd be some kind of engraved caption on the base but I'll have to think about what to say these are for. How much do you want for, let's say four hundred each of gold, white, red, green, blue - no, make it three hundred ninety each of those, and fifty purple?"

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"Can do! Where do you want 'em?"

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"Might as well just put them in the next room, through that door. You aren't charging?"

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"...what, for lamps? Nnnno?"

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"Artisans usually charge but if you don't need to buy food and it's no effort I guess you wouldn't."

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"I don't and it's not! If you do want me to put wires in the walls of a lot of houses then I will get bored and might want some sort of compensation but not for some lamps." He materializes the lamps in boxes.

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"I'm definitely not complaining. All right, you should look over the blueprints we have and see how they need to change to accommodate an electric grid." She glances at Count Krull, who offers Cam the local equivalent of a thumb drive. "And, ah, Samos has a proposal for a new prison compound outside the city that I'd like you to take a look at and see if it can be... electrified?"

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"Sure, can do! I'll need to convert that to put it on my computer -" Does this just work straightforwardly?

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That works.

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Oh good. What's the compound look like?

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There's one main building laid out a bit like a squarish 8, with translucent force fields over its two internal courtyards. It has lots of windows that overlook the courtyards, most of them tiny and barred and reinforced with forcefields. It's supposed to serve as a factory, too, and not one OSHA would approve of. It is, at least, also supposed to have a library and a clinic and something that isn't quite a chapel but is something similar. There are small outlying buildings for use by the guards. Then around all of it there's one big outer wall.

Other than the force fields, some of the things eco would be used for are lighting, door locks, motion-detecting lights, motion-detecting computer-operated weaponry, cameras, elevators, and the automated parts of the factory.

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"Electricity doesn't do force fields," Cam remarks. "You might want, like, safety railings and things in the factory - what will it be manufacturing? - I can replace all the non-force-field eco use with electrical stuff though the factory equipment might be a little fiddly to get exact and I would like to consider non-shooting-people options for security."

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He starts frowning slightly at the mention of safety railings. "I hadn't thought your species would have more safety features in their factories than ours - or, ah, that you'd have factories at all - but anyway it's for zoomer and air train parts I doubt you can help with. The non-shooting-people security is what the force fields and locks and guards are for but if you have more ideas let's hear them."

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"Oh, we don't, humans of our acquaintance do. Robots? Do you have the concept of robots? Or you could hire a fairy, that's usual for prisons."

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"We do have robots." This Samos is too young to even be tempted to brag about his daughter having cracked computer vision all on her own. "How would we hire a fairy?"

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"You'd summon one! Mind, I'm not sure it will work normally, since it's very weird that I'm the only daeva who's ever been summoned here, so first I will want you to summon someone who is, say, okay with being a test subject on the condition that if they are stuck here forever they get to adopt the nearest orphaned baby."

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"There are people we could summon here who would want to adopt orphans?" This is not the best news she's heard this year but it's in the top ten.

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"Yeah, loads, daeva can't have children."

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"Would their adopted children grow up to have powers like yours?"

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"No. However, people who perform summonings might turn into daeva when they die, that being how it works where I'm from - except that where I'm from, dead people who haven't summoned anyone also have an afterlife and it doesn't have any of your folks in it."

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Samos looks as if something suddenly makes dramatically more sense to him.

"That seems worth testing," Ashelin says, just as Vin volunteers to be the one test it.

"Can daeva themselves die?" asks Krull.

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"Nope! We're indestructible."

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"Something of a downside but I'm sure not everyone will see it that way," says Krull.

"Is there any kind of system in place for making sure none of these prospective parents want to destroy the world?"

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"I would be starting with well-regarded members of relevant interest groups and also, normally, daeva are summoned with bindings; I can copy what's kept planets back home safe when fairies adopt kids and tweak it to fit demons."

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"And it needs to be tweaked because...?"

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"Fairies have different powers - in particular they cannot trivially destroy the world."

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"And no one with an orphan problem has bothered with demons when fairies are safer and - after all it doesn't matter if anyone starves where you're from, does it."

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"Actually, the existence of an afterlife is not widely known among the living, but they have cut it out with the starving anyway and there are not many orphans per capita."

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"Wow. Well, we have... I didn't expect to need numbers on that today but more than a hundred just with the Ministry of Extreme Labor and probably a lot more than that in the city."

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"...the Ministry of Extreme Labor? Has orphans?"

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"Yes, but I'm hoping to change that."

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"Oh good! Let me whip up a circle and ask for a recommendation from Wistful..." He fiddles with his computer.

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They'll let him work on that for a moment. Samos smirks the smirk of someone who was rescuing orphans from slavery before it went mainstream.

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"- Wistful recommends a Mrindeh, Mrindeh confirms she is willing to live here forever adopting babies in case she can't go home," Cam says after a bit, "I have a circle whipped up for the case, here it is -" He presents a circle on the floor and a pen to the would-be human test subject.

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Vin can finish it. He's so excited to maybe get to be indestructible. 

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There appears a woman of Cam's species! She's dark-skinned and red-winged and looks very excited. "H-hi everyone!"

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Vin squeaks and jumps a bit when she appears but then waves and goes back to his seat.

"Welcome to Haven City," says Ashelin. "I hear you're interested in adopting a child here."

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"Yes! Yes I am - the letter said you needed to try to send me back -"

"Yeah, if you can just concentrate on sending her home for a minute I can give you another circle and you can redo it and she can go pick out a baby - are they mostly babies or are there a lot of older kids, that'll be an important screening criterion -"

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"The ministry won't have anyone younger than four."

"The Underground does but not many," says Samos.

Vin concentrates on sending Mrindeh home.

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Mrindeh disappears after one minute of this. "Huzzah," Cam says. "If I could get a rough list of age distribution available then Wistful will probably be able to sort out the rest." He puts down a new Mrindeh circle. "I think she should get a baby though, for agreeing to be our guinea pig."

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"Let me just call someone about that," says Ashelin.

Samos, on the other hand, can give him the numbers of children of each age with the Underground. Their youngest is about a year old. (He omits the Heir but without having the four-year-olds all in one room to count them it's not obvious he's doing that.)

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Cam takes notes. "Do I want to know what happened to all the younger babies," he says, not really inflecting it into a question.

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"I know for a fact that at least one of them found a loving home."

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"Good for that one baby." He gestures toward the new circle, waiting to be completed.

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Vin completes the new circle too. (Meanwhile Ashelin takes notes on age distribution and titles her notes something sensible for Cam to conjure later.)

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Mrindeh appears immediately.

"They don't have tiny infants but they've got, like, one year olds, is that good?" Cam tells her.

"Mm-hm," says Mrindeh.

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"I can introduce you after the meeting," says Samos.

"Do you expect you'll want to pick up any other jobs while you're here?" asks Ashelin.

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"I can make things," says Mrindeh. "I don't have any real specialist skills..."

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"That'll be plenty on its own, there are shortages of most things around here." And turning to Cam: "But you said fairies are less dangerous and better for the other job we were talking about?"

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"A fairy can still absolutely kill you or destroy the entire city, to be clear, they just can't trivially wreck a planet. You need bindings and to be on decent terms with the fairy for this to work out well. But, yes, fairies sitting up in a crow's nest over a prison scanning for escapees are standard, they can pick 'em up and put 'em back."

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"That sounds like an improvement. - I don't think you ever told us exactly what kinds of daeva there are and what their powers are?"

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"Demons make things, angels change things, fairies move things."

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"Taxi service. No eco necessary, we can repurpose an old zoomer or several, they don't even have to be flightworthy anymore."

"How about medicine?" Vin asks.

"How about a - book about daeva and how other people have hired them for infrastructure, and we can adjourn the meeting and talk more when everyone's had time to go over it?"

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"I can machine translate such a book but machine translation is... bad," says Cam. "Mostly you want angels for medicine though I am a trained medical demon, but they're not trained on your species and neither am I."

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"Hm. Would any angels like to adopt children and go to medical school?"

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"Almost certainly. They will be harder to find, though, since we can't write letters directly to them - or fairies - just summon couriers."

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"Then let's summon couriers and have them start putting together lists for us."

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"Sure, I'll dig up some names for you." Rummage rummage.

"Um, do I get to adopt the baby now or should I just - wait somewhere," says Mrindeh.

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"I'll take you there - we'll talk about the prison later, shall we," he adds to Cam as he gets up.

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"Sure thing," Cam agrees.

Mrindeh follows, nervously bouncing along.

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Then Samos can show her the way, out of the nice neighborhood around the palace and through the worst parts of the city.

And meanwhile Vin can finish any more circles Cam gives them.

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They come on an occasional basis as he tracks down fairies or angels listed on Davidson's for courier work. Some of them don't get answered right away.

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In that case Krull will eventually leave and Ashelin will skim some old laws and draft edits while they wait. At one point she asks what happens if you roll a circle back up after finishing it and before it gets answered.

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"Then it won't get answered while it's rolled up but is still live if you lay it back out."

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"Good to know."

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"Does the baby already have a name?" Mrindeh asks. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

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"A boy, and we have unreliable information that his name might be Storm. I suppose if we keep calling him that long enough it'll be true whether it was to begin with or not."

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"Storm," sighs Mrindeh. "That's a nice name."

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"I prefer traditional names like Mar and Lexa, myself, but I suppose it's convenient if you have different taste."

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"I don't know much about names in this language yet."

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Samos does and can go on about it at length. His name is from a fad several decades ago for names like Samos, Damas, and Kerkis, but almost no one under thirty has a name like that and the babies these days get names like Storm and Rayn that used to be popular in Kras City ("and why anyone wants to imitate them is anyone's guess").

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"Is something wrong with Kras City?"

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"There's something wrong with every city these days, but at least Haven is ours. And Kras doesn't even try to respect history or minimize audience casualties at sporting events."

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"Oh dear. Is that from - sports riots, or from the sport itself?"

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"Well, both, but I meant the second one. Racing is bloody here too but it stays in the stadium."

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"Racing what?"

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"In Kras they drive 'cars' - like zoomers, but with wheels."

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"Oh, people back home have those."

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"I suppose it's probably less dangerous if all your pedestrians are indestructible."

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"I think humans use them too? But less recently."

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"I'll never understand why anyone would put cars and human pedestrians on the same streets."

They pass a propaganda station playing a recording of Ashelin announcing that leaving the city is no longer a capital offense.

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"- it used to be a capital offense -"

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"We're very happy about the recent regime change. - Just through this door and down some stairs."

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"Who's taking care of Storm right now?"

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"In general, members of the former resistance movement. Today, Kor."

Through the door and down the stairs is the hideout where Cam was first summoned, where Storm is sleeping and Kor is cleaning up from Storm's last mostly successful attempt to feed himself.

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"Ohhhhhh," coos Mrindeh, "he's beautiful."

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"He is soft and small and growing into an intelligent child," Kor says, looking up. "Hello, are you a friend of Cam's?"

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"We've never met, he got my name from Wistful - that's a wannabe-parents organization in Hell -"

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"I have never heard of such an organization. What sorts of things does it do?"

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"...mostly we just talk about how much we wish we had kids and what we'd do if we did. Once in a great while a child demon will come in and somebody'll adopt them but it's never a sweet little baby."

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"And you don't make your own child demons. That sounds... very upsetting."

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"Yeah, demons just start existing one day, and always adults, except for the ones who used to be humans."

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"Only humans? No former lurkers or Precursors...?"

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"Yeah, I didn't know you existed till today." She sits on the floor next to Storm's bed.

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Kor laughs at that, very quietly.

Storm wakes eventually. While they're waiting for that, Samos fills Kor in on what Cam told them about summoning.

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"Hi there Storm," whispers Mrindeh, when he's awake.

Storm looks at her groggily. Hides under a pillow.

When he peeks, she's got her face hidden behind her hands, just barely able to tell when he's looking through the gaps between her fingers. She drops her hands, smiling. "Peekaboo."

Storm hides again.

"Wheeeere'd Storm go?" she whispers.

He peeks.

"Peekaboo!" Mrindeh chirps. "What does he like to eat, I don't know if Earth-type food will be good for him -"

When she has a menu, she makes him some breakfast, and feeds it to him, and by slow degrees coaxes him onto her lap, beaming.

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This all reassures Samos quite a bit about the alien they're handing Storm over to.

The next time Cam checks his mail after the meeting he has letters that say they're from Kor, the metal head leader, Billy, and the leader of the Precursors in the local star system.

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...well, that's, uh, a convenient implication of time travel he hadn't especially considered, cool, he will read all these letters.

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Kor, who is after all very old, is tentatively interested in the experimental use of summoning for immortality and wants a recommendation for a safe circle design to use for it and ideally a recommendation for what to pay fairies with. He might or might not end up wanting immortality but he wants the information just in case.

The metal head leader writes that he had a conversation with the oracle. The oracle claims to be interested in peace, given the current truce between the metal heads and Haven City and given the situation with the dark makers. Also, he heard that Billy wasn't able to identify all of the humans who are allowed to use the rift gate, and he can clarify that one of them is the Heir of Mar.

The Precursor writes that they're tentatively optimistic about the progress toward a lasting peace with the metal heads, and that the dark makers are an extremely urgent threat worth taking their attention away from the metal heads to deal with anyway, and that they have no desire for war with those who sincerely seek peace, and that further questions or comments should be directed to their oracle in Haven. It's costly for the oracle to speak to people but this is important enough that it will try.

Billy has finally penned an explanation of metal head moral reasoning. Bearing in mind that it varies (though less than human moral reasoning), metal heads generally consider entities whose decisionmaking includes choices about whether or not to cooperate to be moral agents. They can be made up of other entities who are also moral agents: for example, if a democracy is composed of people who elect a leader and then do whatever that leader says instead of independently evaluating the quality of the leader's decisions. (They thought for a long time that humans worked this way but it turns out they really, really don't.) There are actions which, if one agent does them to a second agent, provoke the second agent to want revenge: battery, theft, and so on. There are actions which, if one agent does them to a second agent, provoke third parties to want revenge: perfidy, for example, is not a crime against the agent who accepts the false surrender, but against anyone who might want to surrender to that agent in the future. And then there are actions which are an offense against everything sacred, that provoke everyone and mean that the offending agent is downright evil: trying to alter someone's mind is a salient one, but trying to convince someone that an act of war is actually an act of peace counts too. (This is different from spying undercover, but they would have been much less surprised to meet aliens who thought spying was evil in this way than they were by aliens they actually met.) Happiness and flourishing don't directly enter into it, except insofar as some actions are an attack to some entities and a kindness to others; intelligence doesn't either, except insofar as it's a necessary prerequisite for making moral choices in the first place. Oh, and it's only from their centuries of exposure to humans that they're picking up on why anyone would think forgiveness was desirable or even acceptable, but these days they are starting to see it.

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That's such an interesting essay on metal head moral philosophy!

Cam delivers a standard prison fairy circle to Kor and will stick around long enough to pay the fairy for him before visiting the oracle.

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Kor examines the circle for a bit and then goes ahead and finishes it. The fairy gets multiple languages from him, including the metal head one. Also, Kor wants to know if it's safe to keep the used circle as a souvenir.

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"Yes, that's safe, it's used up now - I guess someone might copy it and if they messed up with that it could be a problem but it's not dangerous by itself."

This particular fairy does not want a long term prison job but knows someone who does.

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Convenient. Kor folds up the circle to keep it and wishes Cam happy travels.

The oracle won't be the one to break the ice but it is there among the candles, listening, whenever he gets there.

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"Hi?" Cam says to the oracle. "I don't know exactly what it costs you to speak but I'd like to know how I can be confident that the egg won't embark on a campaign of genocide if it hatches."

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"You can observe that we are in your star system, ignoring the ones you call metal heads. You can observe our greater foe and our history of trustworthiness. You can observe that we have never been the first to attack in any conflict."

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"They didn't turn up nearby when I looked."

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"Perhaps they are too entwined with eco for you to conjure some of the time."

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"I guess that could be. Is there a way I can talk to them directly?"

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"At this distance and moving into the future rather than stepping backward, if I relay messages directly, the round trip would take more than one of your hours. You could shorten this time by conjuring their responses."

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"You're in communication with them?"

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"I am."

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Cam checks to see if he already has anything from local Precursors.

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Nothing new since the last letter.

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"The story I got from the metal heads indicated that the Precursors started the conflict, even if there is some definition of 'attack' that they did first."

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"Our history of this matter is summarized in the book I gave you."

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"I will see how the machine translation is doing now, then." He plugs in the output of the translation software into his computer and opens it up.

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It's from the last days of the older phase of Precursor civilization (not that they called themselves that; they called themselves makers or life makers), and attempts to summarize the hora quan war in an easy-to-follow way. It's a tertiary work whose position on the tradeoff curve between telling a straightforward easy-to-understand story and giving all the evidence is far toward the former end and it openly admits this. It is also intended to be possible to contain only on low-tech non-eco-powered media like scrolls or stone tablets, which is unusual for a book from their civilization at the time.

They were working on a terraforming project and removed some dark eco from a planet to make it nicer. They sent it away, aiming for it to end up in orbit around a foreign sun where it could stay for ages. This was far enough before the invention of time travel that the time period in question was inaccessible by the time anyone double-checked where it had ended up. And it appeared that the dark eco asteroid was missing, and that a planet around that sun had an unusual amount of dark eco and signs of a recent impact. And that planet had people living on it. Not just life, but intelligent life. Intelligent life that had faced some manner of apocalypse, given the ruins, but was now rebuilding and reaching for the stars. They had already visited the other planet in their system. And they were cruel, destructive, violent, and dark.

There's an interlude about their ecology and speculation about what it might have been like before it was warped into something so evil. Then the narrative resumes.

The aliens, whom the makers named the hora quan, were warring with each other, even though you'd expect that they'd get along best with each other since they were the same species. The amount of war, and the extent to which it was open and not happening through proxies or cold wars or space races, was frankly surprising given both their tech level and the fact that they were still around to keep doing it.

There was one group in particular that had recently destroyed or conquered some of its neighbors and was in the process of trying to conquer a much smaller polity. This aggressive group was particularly disliked even by their conspecifics and considered excessively warlike. The makers took some of their leaders to a maker ship and - fixed them. Made them light instead of dark. Kind instead of warlike. Patient, nurturing, peaceful, almost serene. Then they returned the healed hora quan to their home planet, where they were met with horror and confusion and then, eventually, hatred. Their own polity dissolved almost overnight. Some of its former members joined the polity they'd been trying to destroy, but not enough to make them a majority and not many who had been in decisionmaking roles.

The polity that the makers had protected by doing this declared war on them. The leader of the group of hora quan whom they had saved from annihilation proclaimed the healed hora quan an abomination, and the makers likewise, and insisted that the only fair and proper response was genocide. Initially they may have intended to aim at a smaller political unit, but later they learned that the makers were not at war among themselves, and so the hora quan aimed for the destruction of all makers, everywhere.

Well, not all hora quan. Several other polities lent either material support or manpower to the one that had declared the war, but no others declared war themselves. The war quickly moved into space and away from the hora quan home planet, and the makers left that planet alone during the war, other than surveillance and destroying any spacecraft they tried to launch. There were eventually attempts to retaliate for the spacecraft destruction, but not especially effective or disproportionate ones.

Attempts to ask any group of hora quan what they had done to deserve genocide generally got the answer that they had done something abominable in trying to heal the hora quan, who wanted to be left alone and allowed to continue being evil, and that it was just and right to exterminate them for trying to spread light and healing.

There's a description of various battles and the heavy losses the makers (and, for that matter, the hora quan) took during the war, and the only partly related shutdown of the rift network and the eventual success in sealing their enemies away inside it. By their own account the makers tried pretty hard to avoid doing anything they considered terribly evil in the war, while the hora quan didn't seem to have any qualms about things like attacking medics and damaging life-bearing planets and employing dark eco as a weapon. Descriptions of ship-to-ship combat and space logistics and so on take up about half the book.

Meanwhile, the dark makers (mostly not appearing in this book but evidently very important) killed the makers guarding the hora quan home world and then destroyed the entire planet.

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"...yeah, I'm comfortable describing 'abducted world leaders and mind controlled them' as a form of starting the conflict even if they didn't acquit themselves well in subsequent deescalation attempts."

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"The war has taught us many valuable lessons. We would handle first contact differently now."

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"Oh? What would you do?"

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"We would give but not take. We would account for differences in values. We would seek balance and peace. I have a more recent track record which you may examine."

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"Yes please, where will I find it?"

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"You would speak to our hero, who was before his birth and will yet have been again."

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"...that seems to describe several people."

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"He keeps company with one who was made a Precursor."

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"Does he have, like, a name."

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"He has multiple names. The one who was made a Precursor calls him Jak."

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"Okay, I can go ask Jak. Anything else I should check out?"

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"Not immediately."

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So Cam goes looking for Jak (the one who is old enough to speak in complete sentences).

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He's out in the wasteland with Daxter, a ways away from the city, cooking a dead animal while Daxter collects fruit. They both see Cam coming and tense up but don't run or shoot him.

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"Hi! The oracle said we should chat."

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Jak relaxes slightly at that.

"Oh? And what are you hoping to chat with me about?" Daxter asks.

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"The Precursors' track record on first contact."

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Jak and Daxter trade baffled looks.

"I don't know much about the Precursors," Jak says.

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"...maybe there is time travel going on and I am supposed to speak with you in a few hundred years or something, that seems like par for the course of this place. I assume I'm not supposed to talk to you when you're a small child..."

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Jak frowns.

"The oracle is pretty wacko," Daxter agrees, "and it does say weird stuff about the Precursors. Doesn't it, Jak?"

Jak shrugs. "What exactly did it say?"

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Cam reads out his transcript of the conversation starting from "we would handle first contact differently now".

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They trade baffled looks again.

"We're from the future," Jak says, "that must be what 'was before his birth' means. But the rest of it..."

"It's gonna be another 'beware the dark light', isn't it," Daxter says bitterly. "You think you know what it's talking about but no! It's something completely different! And useless, don't forget useless."

"It said 'I'. I've talked with that oracle twice - unless it's one of the ones from the past - it hired me to kill metal heads but I don't know what that has to do with first contact."

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"Well, it's not encouraging that it hired you to kill metal heads because it's trying to convince me that it can leave them alone going forward! Beware the dark light?"

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Daxter glances at Jak, who nods slightly.

"Oh, oh, there's a story behind that one," Daxter says. "So Jak and I went to Misty Island a couple y... uh, centuries back - spying on the lurkers. They were having this meeting about how they were gonna attack the village later. Now, they may say discretion is the better part of valor, but valor is also the better part of valor, so we poked around a little more while we were there. And we found this huge vat filled with dark eco. Just - completely huge. You could go for a swim in it! But, word to the wise, don't. Anyway, the lurkers found us, and Jak and I stood our ground, but in the battle, I was knocked back into the pool. And when I came out? I was conveniently travel-sized and orange.

"So we were on our way north to try to convince Gol to change me back when we met this oracle, and it says..." Daxter doesn't so much mimic the oracle's voice as mock it: "'Beware the dark light, for it has twisted the fate of one of you.' And I'm thinking, 'wow! Couldn't you have told me that last week?' Well, guess what. Then we came here. And the second we set foot in Haven City, the guys in red came after Jak, too many to fight all at once, armed and armored while we were bare-handed and flat-footed. Then they took Jak away to do experiments and now he has sparkly dark powers and the oracle has leverage. 'Cause, see, Jak needs help controlling his neat new powers, and the oracle can help him. For a price. Basically what I'm saying is we thought the warning was just useless, but, surprise! Turns out it's useless and insulting."

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"Yikes. I wonder if that's a side effect of using time travel to generate advice or if it's just like that."

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"Dunno, but don't listen to it."

"You said you didn't want it to kill metal heads," Jak says. "Why not?"

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"...they're people?"

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He laughs. "So was Praxis."

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"I mean, the metal heads absolutely have a body count, but they wanna fuck off and live somewhere else, they don't even like it here."

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"They sound just like you and me," Daxter says in a mocking singsong.

Jak frowns deeply. "I think it wants me to talk you out of that. Because I need to kill eighteen more metal heads before it'll teach me anything else. But - fine. There's no reason they shouldn't run away if they want to."

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"It might be willing to teach you more now that peace with the metal heads is a requirement for my help with its stuff."

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"What stuff are you helping it with?"

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"There's an egg it wants hatched."

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"And you're suspicious of it because, what, it might not play nicely with the metal heads since it works for the Precursors and they're full of dark - Oh. That's why it sent you here. Because it still talks to me and I'm full of dark eco too."