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Generated: Jun 08, 2022 8:07 AM
Post last updated: Jun 07, 2022 10:16 PM
step outta your bubble
Vanda Nosseo meets Ars Doloris
Permalink Mark Unread

This world has been making itself somewhat inconvenient to investigate. It's the only solar system in its universe, and the design is pretty blatantly god-created. The sun is made out of glowing filigree and gossamer fabric, the stars are a complex swirl of carefully arranged light, there's multiple moons and one of them is a giant paper lantern... It's incredibly pretty, though, and the planet at the center of the system is just as carefully and beautifully arranged as the sun and moons and stars. 

There are, also, almost no mortal settlements on the surface - a few tiny monasteries, somewhat more clusters of what are effectively landing pads for beautiful flying craft and outlets for large portals to dimensional pockets. 

The mortal population isn't exactly small - instead, every messy corner of humanity is neatly folded away like a pile of clothes shoved in a drawer, except instead of drawers or closets, settlements are tucked into enormous dimensional bubbles. The bubbles are extremely magical, and so is a lot in them - though not everything, or even perhaps most things. The people don't seem to be reductionist, and many of them have magical bodies (this seems to skew very, very heavily towards the adult population; magical children seem vanishingly rare).

The world isn't at war right now, and the news doesn't mention anything the locals consider large ongoing atrocities. They call their gods the Arts, and large sections of news reports on the interactions with the Churches and their associated Arts or on interactions between the Arts. There don't seem to be any imminent dangers from those (though the way Allspeak translates the name and epithets of the most frequently mentioned god, the Art of Suffering, might be a little unnerving to some people).

Some of the bubble settlements are clearly more culturally, politically, or religiously influential than others, and some do seem to be part of larger polities or alliances. One of the more religiously important cities looks to be Thousand Tigers, the capital of the Liberty River Valley Alliance. The Liberty River Valley has an unusually dense cluster of bubbles along one heartbreakingly beautiful valley, the mountains terraced to support the numerous landing pads, the aircraft tailored to visually complement the numerous colorful birds that flit among the trees and waterfalls.

Thousand Tigers is also one of the prettier bubble cities - among its numerous churches are several dedicated to the Art of Architecture, and they have a lot of magically supported buildings. It's not particularly large population-wise nor particularly over-crowded - the bubble cities need to be able to support themselves with zero imports if needed, and this one seems particularly attentive to that - but it's still got about two hundred thousand people buzzing about their days. There's also a pretty clear city center, luckily, with a large public square overseen by grand buildings.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, Tarwë's going to like it here, probably, Nelen thinks, as he teleports everyone down into Thousand Tigers's public square.

Permalink Mark Unread

People nearby step away from them on startled reflex - but there isn't actually much further response, and after some curious glances most people go back to their business. (A few watch for longer, but - their physical appearances don't actually stand out much, even the less beautiful members of the delegation. One of the people they startle has iridescent scales growing from her skin and turning into little frills, and someone else walking by seems to be made at least partly out of yarn.)

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, if nobody's particularly bewildered by them or how they got here, they will walk up to the most government-looking building there is to be had.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's a bit hard to figure out - a few are pretty definitely museums, but the largest and most impressive buildings seem to be churches, not government offices - but there's a stained glass building with a sign out front that says 'Department of Divine Affairs' next to possibly-a-church, a closed park with meeting tables on its other side. 

Permalink Mark Unread

- Though there is someone paying an unusual amount of attention to them, sitting on the wall between the maybe-church and the Department of Divine Affairs. She doesn't look bewildered, more concerned or possibly suspicious, and she's squinting at them and tilting her head a bit.

(She's also one of the least adorned adults around. Still beautiful and with an athletic dancer's build, but there's a harsh edge to it, and she doesn't look modified at all, the light scars on her neck and hands untouched by attempts to either highlight or conceal them. She's in loose and plain clothes, too, almost ascetic next to everyone around her.)

She jumps down from the wall towards them as they approach, raising a hand.

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"- hello!" says Nelen, raising a hand back and waving a little.

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"Hello!" She strides over, moving rather gracefully, expression shifting to a teasing smile. "You five are very strange, aren't you?"

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"We usually get more of a reaction than this," Nelen admits, glancing around at the unimpressed populace. "We're from Vanda Nossëo, a federation based on another planet around another star."

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" - So like, the stars aren't exactly painted on but they're pretty close, and I thought there weren't any other planetary projects around?"

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"Yep, your world only has only the one star. But there are other worlds - a little but not a lot like how this bubble here isn't in the same place as its entrance suggests - and most of them have many many stars."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, other universes - as far as I know we fell out of contact with anyone else millennia ago, after the original gods got into some kind of interdimensional spat."

" - Also that explains why your magic* looks weird."

*This word doesn't exactly mean 'magic.' It could perhaps more closely translate as 'magical or technologically enhanced capacity to fight.'

"But you guys don't look weird to most mortal eyes, and you teleported weirdly but most people also won't spot that, so they're probably just assuming one of you is really Favored."

She shakes her head and keeps going before anyone can respond. "So I can answer questions and also direct you to, hm, whatever government entity seems appropriate - I'd get pulled into the vast majority of that anyways, unless someone feels like trying to get a god at the table instead, this is the type of thing everyone tries to kick up the chain of command."

"But - why are you here?"

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"There are other teams in other bubbles too, we were assigned to this one basically at random but it looked like a big enough bubble to warrant its own visitors," says Nelen.

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Hum. "Why this universe, though?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, our method of scouting for universes is actually random. We choose a starting universe, and then randomly visit a new one and see what's there, unless we're looking for something specific that we can specify without having visited first. Universes can be next to each other or not, so when we have the organizational slack to look for a new universe, we tend to choose ones that are right next to places where we have useful neighborhood-spanning powers because that means we can do the most good there, although occasionally we look for other worlds just because we're trying to find a shortcut or something and then we circle back to those planets eventually with a diplomatic arm. This one was random, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"What're your goals here, then?"

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"Oh, we're here to invite people to join or, failing that, just get acquainted with and trade with, Vanda Nossëo, the interdimensional federation we work for."

Permalink Mark Unread

"For joining - do you mean people as in individuals, secular polities, or collective adherents of a Church?"

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"Individuals may immigrate but if they want to keep living in a territory on this planet ruled by a government, theocratic or otherwise, then joining requires a majority vote of the inhabitants of that polity."

Permalink Mark Unread

She frowns thoughtfully. "How do you handle non-territorial governance systems, then? - Probably we could just do a universe-wide vote, given that the largest Church claims nearly all sapient mortals as Her adherents, and She normally doesn't delegate Her jurisdiction to secular polities..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Most governance systems are territorial, although sometimes you'll get ones that are coexstensive within some or all of their area. We're not opposed to a universe-wide vote, if that's what makes sense here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So like, if something is an element of government you want to enforce against gods, then you need a god with sufficient weight enforcing it, and with a divinely valid claim to the mortals being protected. And gods won't bother with enforcing anything outside of their Art."

"So the largest Church, that of the Art of Suffering, cares about and so governs interpersonal interactions that could negatively affect someone's integrity-of-self, and if you aren't enforcing laws around those against gods your polity probably won't survive long, so effectively all polities cede jurisdiction on those to the Art of Suffering."

"But like, if I went and disrupted traffic, I'd have to answer to the city council about that, and if I defaced a building - here I'd have to answer to Architecture's Church, but in some polities you'd answer to the city council unless you felt like appealing their decision. If I wanted to travel to another bubble within this divine-territory without just teleporting, there's - hm, I think four or five distinct governments involved in that, and if I wanted to travel to another divine-territory that number would pretty rapidly balloon."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It sounds like we're going to need to learn a lot about the gods here... many worlds don't have them and ones that do can vary in how they work and what they're like."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah - there's a lot of people we'll need to loop in, probably Divine Affairs and Secular Diplomacy from the city, then some of the Churches..."

"...If you're that alien, probably we should also get like, first pass screening about etiquette and possible surprises out of the way first, since divine affair stuff can get, uh, tetchy once you bring in the Churches."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Please," nods Nelen, "we don't know any of your protocols."

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"Yeah, let's find somewhere comfortable - and private - to sit and talk." She glances briefly around, humming, then: "Do you guys have any taboos about like, this kind of discussion happening in a secular wing of a temple? - A mostly politically unaligned one, just, my greatest formal ability to command resources is within a specific Church."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't have taboos about that, although if it introduces us to any particular god-related risk I'd like to know," says Nelen.

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"Nope - the Church is my bio-dad's, the Art of Battle. He's at his worst just kinda interpersonally obnoxious - his main interest in interdimensional stuff will probably be seeing if foreign fighters can best him, but he's not going to randomly attack people."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...all right. And if he - challenges us to a duel or something that won't be rude to refuse?"

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"Nope - though if you go around blustering about how powerful you are and turn down a duel, you'll lose credibility. And if you accept a duel and give a good showing, he'll offer you his Favor, which grants various kinds of magic."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Good to know. We can have our meeting in the church if that seems best to you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Most convenient at least, which is close enough." Onward, then. 

The main local Church of the Art of Battle is apparently one of the larger buildings facing the square, a five-or-so story building constructed in a U shape, set back from the road enough for an outdoor exhibition arena. The people hanging around (those not currently in a spar) wave or bow to the woman leading them, and she waves back with a laugh. The inside also seems to be pretty much a fighting-oriented gym, with multiple large rooms and extremely fine weapons that are apparently publicly available on racks along the sides, alongside obstacle courses and the like. It's just as beautifully designed as everywhere else, though the decorations and function of the place are definitely themed around martial traditions. 

Lace leads them up to a third floor office/ conference room decorated with a chaotic assortment of artwork on the walls - paintings and tapestries of combat scenes, a rack with daggers in ornate hilts, painted shields, masks - as well as several tall and very full bookshelves.

"Welcome to my office," she says, cheerfully. "Sit wherever you like, and help yourself to food and drink." She gestures to a small bar in one corner with a mini-fridge, a little cabinet, and a tea kettle, an eclectic mix of cups in cubbies above it. (There's a large comfy-looking couch, a daybed, two enormous beanbag chairs, an office chair, an oversized armchair, and exactly one chair that isn't horrendously over-plush. There's also colorful rugs on the floor.)

Permalink Mark Unread

Nelen sits on the couch, Natsuko takes a beanbag, Zanro does too, Cassiel flops on the daybed because wings, and Tarwë takes the armchair.

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She sits cross-legged in the office chair, twitsting it back and forth a little. "So - introductions. Who are you guys, where are you from, what's your favorite art..."

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"I'm Nelen Utopia, from Amenta in the world of Warp, and I mostly like theater - if that's what you mean?"

"Cassiel Jones, Revelation by way of Heaven, sculpture?" says Cassiel.

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"Exactly what I mean! But if you have a favorite piece or a favorite thing to do, that counts too."

"I'm Lace, I'm from Little Lightning Bug, and my favorite art is painting, right now." She nods to some of the paintings hung up around the office. 

Then: "What about you guys?" to the other three.

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"Little Lightning Bug is an adorable name for a place," says Natsuko. "Tanaka Natsuko, Cube, architecture."

"Tarwë, Space Arda - there are several Ardas, but ours was nicknamed for a unique-so-far trait instead of just called something pretty, and the alternatives haven't caught on - choral music."

"Zanro, Mîr, uh, hm, fusion thrash metal?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Tiny bounce! "What's fusion thrash metal? And why are there multiple Ardas?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's a kind of music," Zanro says, "thrash metal's a human genre but the kind I mostly listen to is orc-made stuff."

"There are some patterns, and also some people within or without those patterns, that repeat," Tarwë says. "Earth is a planet that repeats a lot - Natsuko and Cassiel are from different ones - and Arda's a pattern that repeats a lot, with most of them being single flat planets but mine having the same approximate story play out across two planets very far apart from one another. Thus 'Space'. Ardas are found at different times, and mostly have the same set of people you'd expect at that time - that is, an earlier one will have the same people a later one had at that time - but Space Arda has a larger population and I'm one of the extra people."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. Wonder if there's other versions of me out there..."

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"There might be," says Nelen. "The way we have to check in cases where it's not really obvious - like them living in the same house and having the same name on a copy of the planet you live on - involves some modestly bottlenecked magic, such that it would be cheap to do it for a handful of people now and then, but we definitely couldn't handle everyone wanting to find all their alts, so it's not a typically offered service."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Eh, I bet I can talk some god or another into giving me an alt-finding power as a Favor."

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"If that's a thing they can do, sure," says Nelen. "But it's possible you don't have any; there's a few people who are important enough that the higher-ups wanted to go looking for more and failed to find any of."

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"Bet I have some, though I might have to go looking farther off."

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"I have alts and it's not that interesting," says Natsuko.

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"Oh, I'd have fun with it."

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"Enjoy," Natsuko laughs.

"Anyway," says Nelen. "Etiquette and surprises?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Giggle. 

"So - probably the gods are the biggest difference here? Or at least the obvious one."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's also very unusual to be the only solar system in the world and to mostly live in pocket dimensions. but yes."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Those are both downstream of the gods, actually. Like, blatantly so."

"Solar system - the gods made everything in this universe to spec and they didn't feel like making multiple systems."

"Pocket dimensions - the vast majority of gods think sapient mortals were a mistake and so range from grudgingly tolerating us to actively wanting us gone. The bubbles make it easier to keep them at 'tolerating,' since we can have settlements without messing up their landscapes or being very in their face, and bubbles reduce the number of people a regional god can trivially get to if they're mad - they can disconnect the portal which will suck, but the regional gods can't act outside their territory and the inside of the bubbles doesn't relevantly count, so they can't just wipe out the city."

" - The gods with churches within settlements are all more-or-less mortal-friendly though, and gods overall are a lot less hostile than they used to be."

Permalink Mark Unread

"What happens to a bubble with a disconnected portal?" Nelen asks.

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"They can't trade with the outside world until they can get a new connection - which is hard to do, especially quickly, and a lot of bubbles aren't as self-sufficient as they need to be to weather that comfortably. They also have to go purely through allied gods to negotiate a new connection, which can limit their options and risk causing misunderstandings or unideal terms."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Are there any isolated bubbles that might need relief sooner than later? We can teleport more teams down."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't know of any, but that's a good question to ask - hm, probably the Art of Suffering..." She notes that down. 

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"And as long as we're talking about - etiquette and surprises - I don't know if it will surprise you to learn that that's a remarkably concerning name for a church from an outsider's perspective," Nelen says, a little delicately.

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" - Wait, really?"

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"If that's completely bewildering it might be a glitch in the translation magic, it happens sometimes - the word I'm hearing means, uh, the thing shared between phenomena like pain, grief, distress, hardship -?"

Permalink Mark Unread

" - Are those your only words for, uh, the sensation caused by things which cause physical bodily damage; losing stuff you care about; major, hm, unpleasant emotions; and difficult to manage life stuff? Like, the words you're using are at least translating as the more negative-connotation synonyms for those."

Permalink Mark Unread

"My language doesn't have a lot of options there..." He looks to the others.

"Some people are masochists? And like pain, or some of it?" volunteers Cassiel.

"I have some archaic words - pain-that-grounds-you-in-your-body, sacrifice-for-the-sake-of-service, vengeance-and-hatred-fuel, life-not-worse-than-death - but they've fallen out of use since our species underwent some circumstance changes," says Zanro.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Most people like at least some physical pain, or at least don't mind some of it. Finding all pain super aversive is - like, I guess it's not a disability exactly? But it is weird, and you'd have trouble getting the most significant Favors which I guess is kind of like a disability."

" - Guess I should say most people here enjoy some pain? Anyways, there's..." She frowns like someone trying to mentally poke the idea of alien machine translation. "So from what Zanro said - pain-that-grounds-you-in-your-body seems to have translated straightforwardly, but the other three sound janky."

"Physical damage... There's sickening-pain, which is - like, it's pain when you know that thing shouldn't hurt like that, it's the feeling of your legs giving out under you when you try to put weight on them. There's wearying-pain, which is - slow destruction, the pain of bone grinding itself away, the gradual slide into oblivion, that makes you fuzzy and sore. Those are the two common ones for negative connotations? But most words for damage are positive."

"Consequence-pain is more neutral, but it's a bit positive - it's your early warning, the heat before you burn, the exhaustion before you collapse. It's your body and mind coming to you as a friend, telling you to slow down and love yourself."

"Then there's thrilling-pain, which is like - adrenaline, dancing along the edge, and you haven't pushed too far yet but you're tantalizingly close. And pain-to-serve is - like, sacrifice-for-the-sake-of-service has that in its janky phrasing, but it's pain you bear for someone else's pleasure, and you get their pleasure through it, or pain that benefits those you love kinda in general."

"Then there's exalting-pain, which can be like - pain that at first seems destructive, but then you've realized it was building you into your truer self. Pain that changes you. Emotionally, too - like, if you're being a horrible person, and this destroys an extremely important relationship you had, and it hurts and that hurt drives you to do better - the pain you feel then is one kind of that. It's also - pain that means you're growing stronger, like the burn of muscles after an intense workout."

"And sublime-pain, which - would take really long to adequately translate if you don't have that as its own concept - anyways with the Art of Suffering's title, Suffering is a kinda archaic word that centrally covers both exalting-pain and sublime-pain and like, their equivalents with stress or grief or hardship or whatever. The Art herself governs everything related to those, including the negative forms, but, hm - sickening-pain and wearying-pain are ugly, and she'll get mad about those the same way the Art of Architecture would get mad about defacing buildings?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...huh," says Nelen. "It seems plausible, hearing that explanation, that having the setup you have here has substantially shifted your evolution towards generalized masochism?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Might want to just ask Suffering Herself about that - She'd be able to actually track how it's changed over time, and She's at least as old as our species."

"She's always been extremely tightly associated with us, though - She's our goddess. She won't answer questions on if She made us or if we made Her or if She adopted us, but - there've been stretches of history where She was the only god who wanted our species to keep existing. It's possible we were made in Her image, or that we were always like this and She was made in ours, or that it's mostly cultural, and She's the one everyone worships."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can see how that would have a very deep effect, if she's been protecting you from the other gods for as long as anyone has records."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We have mostly trustworthy proof that it's been our entire species' existence - most of the other gods don't like Her and wouldn't lie to advance Her interests. And if you're willing to risk talking to one of the original gods, it's not too hard to get them to confirm that She showed up about when we did, and that She's been very obnoxious about protecting us even from when She was weaker and had none of the allies She does now."

" - I'm not going to tell you not to try to independently confirm that, though if you're asking the original gods, you'll want to send people who are very hard to kill with the understanding that poking one of the original gods is going to predictably get you swatted at, no matter how polite you are. Or find some other way to confirm, I guess."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Original gods - some of them are newer?"

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"Yeah. I don't know how we end up with new ones, but it happens - most of the mortal-friendly gods are young gods. We haven't really budged any of the original gods all the way into friendly, and the ones that flipped were mostly near Suffering's age or younger. So like, the Art of Battle showed up about four thousand years ago, and there's an Art that's shown up in the last few decades, the Art of Transcendence. Plus a bunch of others over the course of history. But the original gods are all at least as old as our universe."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Is there a complete list?"

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"I'd assume so? But about the same way I'd assume there's a complete list of known plant species somewhere."

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"Order of magnitude?"

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...Hum. "There's, hm, three that are very much actively in favor of humans, another two dozen or so that are kinda passively in favor of us, probably about twice that are neutral, I think about, hm, high two digits or low three digits that are still kinda mad our species exists but only about two or three dozen of those still think this is worth getting into a fight over. And there's somewhere in the thousands but not the hundreds thousands that probably vaguely wish we'd go away, would kill annoying mortals in their territory, and might destroy a mortal settlement in their territory after sufficient disagreements, but wouldn't pursue anyone outside of their borders and would probably not kill someone actively trying to leave their borders."

"The main thing tilting this in our favor is that the Art of Battle and the Art of Suffering are the core of 'actively want mortals to exist,' and competitions between them and other gods are extremely lopsided in their favor, and the other gods are bad at coordinating enough to route around them. - The other god in that category is the Art of Transcendence, so ze hasn't gotten much of a chance to establish zemself in the balance of power here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right. Thank you very much. What else do we need to know?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I think I need to know more about you guys to figure that out? What you want here, what your assumptions are, what unpleasant surprises will come up for us from you. I've been guessing at where you're missing context and like, trying to over-explain rather than under-explain, but I'm gonna be missing stuff."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you think that it would help more to - hear about our previous assignments, or about our life stories, or something else?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Hm, previous assignments first I guess? Plus like, what does joining Vanda Nossëo mean is something that lots people will have as one of their first questions. So what's happened to those worlds - how has your contact with them affected them, and how have you guys handled diplomatic problems with them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay. This is the most interesting assignment I think - any of us? have ever gotten -" He looks around at the others for confirmation and gets nods. "Also this is a new team so we all had different prior experiences. My last one I was an envoy on a municipal level team visiting a planet called Sarunu. It was one of the most low-surprisal assignments you could get, a planet of nonmagical humanoids in Edda who'd recently invented the steam engine and had occasionally seen some interplanetary traffic but didn't sustain long term relationships with any of the visitors' societies. I was assigned to a town called Atuza and most of my job was explaining that we couldn't take a side on their ongoing dispute with six or seven other towns depending who you asked about aquaculture contamination - they eat a lot of frogs there - and about whether some of them had been praying to their gods, who did not exist, that's common, to inflict various misfortunes on each other, and they were all mad at each other in this weird pattern -" He makes a little illusion. "This one's Atuza, and the green arrows mean having a food supply related grievance, and the red arrows mean there's a family-level feud between major players in the towns, and the blue ones mean there's spiritual conflict, and the white arrows mean they had a border argument, and the black arrows mean there was a relatively recent failed attempt to make peace by swearing brotherhood between the leaders and that fell apart for any of eight different reasons, and - anyway, it was complicated, but only socially, not magically, they don't start you on magically complicated assignments. Is that the kind of thing that helps you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"A little. Did their feuds change after you arrived? And did the aquaculture problem get fixed?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, things changed - a lot of little things, adding up, we started selling food and they weren't so acutely stressed about their locally farmed frog supply, and someone from this town," he pokes part of his illusion, "went shopping in Vanda Nossëo and heard some conflicting perspectives on theology and came back with a prayer wheel, which is an invention some religions like for automating the recitation of a prayer, and attempted to pray for rain with it several million times, and it didn't rain, and that cooled off the religious arguments a lot, and one of the folks on the border they were arguing about here decided to move to Beach and start a frog restaurant -"

Permalink Mark Unread

Hum.

"Did they end up joining Vanda Nossëo?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yep, we stuck around through the end of the vote and then Integration took over from there for making sure they had services and lines of communication and so on and I got promoted and collected this team, which brings us to... now."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Why do people usually join?"

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"The two things that come standard with joining are defensive support and a universal basic income. Everything else you could theoretically get by being on a teleporting-bus-line and going and buying it and bringing it home. But theoretically isn't actually, it's much easier to get investment and development in your area if it's covered by Vanda Nossëo law."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If someone requested safe territory outside our universe to stick a portal on for one of our pocket dimensions - how easy is that to get?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"- huh. Well, we don't know yet if that would work, it's possible that your magic only works in this world, but other than that it doesn't sound like it would be hard to wrangle as a signing perk, all you'd need would be an unoccupied rock with an atmosphere so you could step outside if you needed to, right?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Pretty much, yeah. Could we negotiate individually with other members who have spare spaces for us to stick portals, even if we don't join?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Probably, most places that want a rock want it more terraformed so your request would be relatively cheap. Why?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"So, the idea I'm expecting people to be interested in would be to have our own settlements we can get between more easily than right now, since teleportation is a rare and inconvenient power and traveling outside the bubbles is fraught. We wouldn't need a lot of space, and - yeah we can handle our own terraforming and infrastructure, though people are going to appreciate if it's easy to travel to places not-us - probably we'll have some logistics headaches at first since people will want to travel a lot more once they're allowed to, and we'd need to negotiate rules for the commons between the bubbles, but I don't expect that'll be any harder than what we're dealing with right now."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I see why that would be appealing. Is there something you're expecting to find unappealing about membership?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Dunno. People are very good at inventing objections to stuff, though, and while I'll be greasing the wheels, it's not me you have to convince."

"Is there anything people usually find unappealing about membership, either with like, terms of membership or knock on effects from having it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"A lot of people don't like our voting policy, which is that every person in a polity has to be invited to vote, including children and members of any other categories typically denied political voice. Some places have issues with the minimum laws requiring free emigration and against murder, torture, and rape. - since it might be relevant that's nonconsensual instances of all of the above, it is legal to perform assisted suicides, engage in consensual, uh, kink practices is where it normally comes up but here it might be religious practices."

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"Well, emigration is extremely tightly restricted right now, but I suspect that'd change if anyone leaving a bubble had a destination other than somewhere with gods who might try to fuck us up if we allow people to travel there. Most people dislike the current emigration situation."

"We do have restrictions against, hm - so, death and pain and all are regulated by the Church of Suffering, and the thing they care about isn't exactly consent. Like, if someone tortures you, and this causes you mental harm, you can bring a suit against them with the Church even if you consented - though if you were given sufficient information to make an informed choice, they can use that as a defense - and if you weren't mentally harmed the best you can do is bring a suit for them being reckless about that, even if you didn't consent."

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"...are a lot of people... tortured, nonconsensually, in a way that does not cause them mental harm?" asks Nelen.

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" - Yeah? I mean, not asking first is super reckless if you don't already know someone, but like, for a lot of people it's not a big deal, especially for something brief or not really disruptive. It's usually harder on people - consent and expectation are kinda protective against mental harm - but normally that just means you're more likely to get a Favor out of the whole thing."

"- This probably comes up for me more often than for most people. Like, most people don't wanna risk accidentally harming someone, or if they're willing to risk that they get in trouble pretty fast. But I've got enough of a reputation that basically everyone who knows of me assumes I can't be harmed, and I'm a fun challenge to kidnap apparently." She says this with a fond expression. 

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"Okay. I can see how that would make you a pretty awkward candidate for membership, and I don't think it's obviously one of those things we can just staple an amendment to the law about, either. But there shouldn't be much issue about you getting somewhere to put portals, and if anyone would like to come to Vanda Nossëo instead of here, we have plenty of room."

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"You'd wanna talk to other people to confirm if we think that's worth changing, and the Art of Suffering would be the one commanding any actual law changes there, but, yeah, I think people are unlikely to be enthusiastic."

" - Oh, relatedly, if you guys' species are easier to accidentally harm, we might need to figure out ways to handle potential issues for people visiting here? Not at all my wheelhouse, though."

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"How do you tend to define mental harm?"

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" - Uhhh, that's honestly weirdly hard to articulate - ending up in a state of being you don't endorse?"

"Or like, ending up anxious or miserable or despairing, or having your resiliency reduced really dramatically and noticeably - also people who are anxious and despairing usually say they endorse being that way which doesn't make it not harm, because their ability to realize what they endorse is fucked? And you can be in a state of being you claim you endorse but your meta-self wouldn't endorse. And - stuff that makes you stop taking actions, or start taking actions your meta-self wouldn't, that's mental harm. And I've heard some people say that anything that moves you away from your meta-self is mentally harmful, and I'm not sure I agree with that but it isn't a terrible model."

"That's not... All the things that are mental harm, and some things that are those wouldn't be mental harm on balance, but... They're pretty big examples?"

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"Hm. The framework of meta-self is new to me but I think you should assume that visitors here from other worlds may both be easier to accidentally traumatize and dramatically more likely to be furious and hostile about attempts to torture them that do not happen to result in them being traumatized to that extent. You don't have to worry about this very much with us, we're trained and selected for risky situations, but kidnapping and torturing a Vanda Nossëo envoy will at minimum not get good results. If it's for some reason culturally important to torture a Vanda Nossëo envoy we can find one who's up for it, there are plenty and we've thought up weirder contingencies to recruit for than that, but none of us in this team - as far as I know?" He glances at his teammates. "- yeah none of us."

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"There's no like religious demand people be tortured or up for that or anything, and someone doing official stuff is unlikely to get into misunderstandings, and you're not going to get into that kind of situation just walking down the street."

"The problems I'm expecting would be more shaped like, some tourist goes to a club, finds someone to hook up with, and miscommunications about what exactly is implicitly okay happen. That wouldn't bother people here normally, so it's... Not something people are cautious about, and it's the main case where 'person didn't consent but wasn't bothered' happens between strangers here - most of the other cases are like, the people involved know each other well enough to know what someone's bothered by or not."

"That kind of problem can probably be mostly fixed by warning people about potential miscommunications, though?"

"- The kidnapping thing specifically probably would only come up if you make it broadly known you think getting for-real kidnapped sounds like fun and you don't sufficiently specify what you don't want within that. Though the Art of Suffering might actually just intervene if that seems likely to happen to an alien? She usually pays enough attention to the aether to notice when someone's about to be in prolonged distress. And if it's bad enough she'll step in, and she could probably be talked into being more proactive around aliens. Main question then would be if people not from this universe cause ripples the same way..."

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"Okay. We can very carefully warn tourists about this, and they won't be coming anytime very soon."

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"We can figure out stuff on our end, too, but yeah it'll take a while."

" - Probably actually the biggest thing to figure out with visitors would be keeping them very out of divine territories. If people in your worlds can teleport wherever, that could go badly very quickly."

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"It wouldn't actually be trivial to teleport from inside a bubble to outside of one without some help. We can use dead reckoning, or go by an image, but dead reckoning assumes spatial contiguity. It's possible we'll wind up marking this whole world no-tourism, it wouldn't be the first, but it doesn't seem quite as dangerous as would require that designation..."

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"Visitors within the bubbles should be fine? The Art of Suffering can declare new guidelines for keeping alien visitors safe - people really do listen to Her, and the background chance of problems really is low - it's just outside of them that could cause problems for everyone else."

"I suspect we'd also benefit from tourism that doesn't result in people going around annoying the gods, and that we could benefit others - I admittedly though have no idea though how we compare to other worlds on that. Our magic should be shareable if nothing else, but you'd need to check with an Art to be sure..."

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"Can you say more about the Favors - how they work, how people get them, what they do?"

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"A Favor is a magical power, and once you have it, it can't be taken away. The Arts grant them to people who, hm, create beautiful things within that Art's purview? And who dedicate those things to the Art in question. There's a huge variety, and how much you impress the Art usually influences how powerful of a Favor you get. Most of the Arts grant Favors on a theme, but, hm - that theme can stretch pretty far? But they have a core set of powers they'll grant first, or will grant most often. I have a vague sense they have more trouble granting some powers than others? But they're really cagey on the exact mechanics here."

"So, the Art of Battle might give the participants in an exhibition fight his Favor, or might give one to someone who exhibits a fighter's spirit in a spar with him - he's a bit weird in that he'll give you a Favor on pure gumption sometimes, you don't actually need to be good at fighting, just committed to becoming good at fighting. His most common Favors are inexhaustibility - if you really impress him he'll do a version that extends to mental and even magical endurance; accelerated healing; resistance to disease or poison; magical senses centered on fighting - how something can be used as a weapon, what an opponent's about to do next, how dangerous someone is; greater strength, speed, or flexibility; greater, hm, capacity to control how much damage you do; and general enhanced senses. There's degrees within this - a near-total but mildly slow healing factor is pretty easy to get out of him, but you'll get a minor increase in your endurance long before you get true inexhaustibility."

"The Art of Transcendence gives Favors that allow people to alter their own minds and bodies, and ze'll offer outright immortality as one of the higher level Favors. Ze is impressed by self-alteration - there's kind of a theme in general of Arts giving Favors that make you better at their art type, though they'll usually then raise the threshold for how much you have to impress them to get more Favors. The Art of Architecture grants enhanced abilities to do math and to imagine things in detail; to shape and alter physical materials; to affect space - he's the major source of the bubble power; to analyze buildings; and to create kind of an assortment of magical effects relevant to extremely weird architecture - permanent floating platforms and lights and stuff."

"The Art of Suffering gives - a pretty large array of powers, She's extremely unusually inclined towards stretching the definition of Her purview. Healing of oneself and others; immortality; a sense of others' desires and fears; a sense of what actions will harm or benefit others; telepathy; a perfect memory; an assortment of offensive and defensive powers - those used to be a lot more common before the Art of Battle appeared and started seeding mortals with his spark of divinity everywhere and otherwise went around handing out combat powers like candy, and before the Art of Architecture began granting the bubble powers, but like She still does routinely raise Her greater priests to levels where they can hold gods at bay. She gives out at least basic Favors pretty liberally - and She grants them for overcoming hardship, for helping others find their path through hardship, for being masochistic or sadistic, for pushing your boundaries - for a lot of life, really... The primary beauty She judges offerings by is the process of self-exaltation, experiences that build people up through adversity - though pure thrill pleases Her too." Tiny smile.

"Most people here have a self-healing power, though, usually through Suffering but also often through Battle or Transcendence. The people who don't are mostly kids - Battle's the only Art who gives kids Favors, really, and most kids don't respond to seeing the Art of Battle with trying to punch him. Though he does also stretch the definition of 'Battle' sometimes if there's like, a kid with some terrible disorder that's giving external healing trouble - his self-healing power is arguably the most comprehensive? Except I guess if you're using Transcendence's Favors to circumvent 'running on biology.'"

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"Interesting. Do you reckon that these might extend retroactively - if, for example, I teleported in someone who has already had a really epic combat history, would the Art of Battle be likely to bestow a favor on them or would they have to demonstrate here?"

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" - So he's never genuinely lost a fight, he finds this very frustrating, and he'd one hundred percent demand they try to kick his ass first, mostly because he'd want to see if they could. Normally you can dedicate works you've already made at least sometimes - the Arts vary in how much and what they'll accept - but he's weird there. If they've since lost the ability to fight like that... Maybe he'll give it retroactively? There's a lot of legends of him doing that when he first appeared."

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"There's people in my homeworld who turned into dolphins and are just dolphins all the time now," volunteers Natsuko. "Would Transcendence like 'em?"

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"I bet! You have to get into like, solid attempts at undimensional eldritch existence or uploading yourself or something to be Transcendence's favorite, but opting into being another biological species entirely definitely pleases zem, and ze's one of the Arts more willing to do retroactive dedications."

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"So you'll probably have some people swinging through to pick up magic powers for things they've already done with the tools available in the rest of the multiverse," Nelen says. "- dolphins? Really?"

"Really!" says Natsuko.

"Would there be any volume of that which the Arts would tend to find - draining, or annoying?" Nelen goes on.

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" - The big thing they want to do is incentivize their thing? The volume they'll tolerate for people they're encouraging or enabling to do more of their thing or who intend to move here and join their worshippers would be a lot higher than for rewarding people who've already done the thing and then promptly leave. I'm not... Sure they really have a limit on their attentional capacity - many of them have an area limit of some kind, but like, the Art of Suffering is at any given time interacting individually with at least several thousand people. I'm not sure what the volume limits would be though, or if they can be meaningfully drained. Some gods will be more easily annoyed than others, too."

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"I think it would incentivize people being dolphins if they could expect to be dolphins with magic powers," says Natsuko. "But they wouldn't be doing most of it here where the Arts could - look at them, or whatever it is they're getting out of it."

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"They're... Getting a universe filled with beautiful things? Regardless of whether they can see it. I'm not sure if all of them will care about a multiverse filled with beautiful things - though if their people start settling and bringing our art outside this universe, they'll follow if they can - and I expect Suffering will care about things outside Her borders more than most, and will be most willing to grant powers to people passing through. - That sort of thing might be an interesting knock-on effect of getting our own safe harbor, actually, especially if it'd have room for us and immigrants..."

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"If the Arts are likely to want to leave the universe we're definitely going to need to work out how laws can apply to them, even if the most interested are also the most benign."

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"I expect most of them would be perfectly willing to keep within the borders of whatever polities their people secure, and in general act as members of those polities - the Art of Suffering is... In some ways our ultimate head of government I guess? The Arts will enforce our laws and protect us if we're attacked, and Suffering would continue enforcing laws on the other Arts, but... They are what they are and cannot be anything else, and Suffering is ours."

" - So probably that's going to look like 'negotiate with the Art of Suffering.'"

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"How do you recommend we go about that?"

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"Try talking to me," purrs a deep, lovely voice from right behind Nelen.

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Nelen only startles a little, and Cassiel sits up on the chaise, but otherwise they largely maintain their composure. "- hello," says Nelen. "I'm sorry, I didn't know how much surveillance you tended to do or whether there were particular protocols to observe. It's nice to meet you."

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"I pay more attention to my darling Lace than most, and your teams have made quite the splash in a few of the bubbles. Most of them got pointed right to my Church, and I'm delighted to meet your team now too." She circles around them, gliding as much as walking, and leans against Lace's desk. 

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"You did call me Your priestess than one time, My Lady, so arguably Your Church found them," Lace says teasingly.

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"Brat," she says, and a light wind curls around Lace's throat, making her hair flutter.

Then a light shrug, and, to the diplomatic team: "I'm not much one for ceremony in diplomatic contexts," she says. "I find it gives the other gods a false impression of how far I'll budge."

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"- ah, I don't know how much the Arts in general tend to interpret that sort of thing or in what direction?" says Nelen.

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"If you ever have to negotiate directly with the unfriendly Arts, I'd suggest approaching from a position of strength but not aggression - you have your territory, and you will not permit them to infringe on it, but you will not infringe on theirs more than needed to defend what's yours. Dissembling implies weakness, to them."

"I prefer frankness as well - I'm a strange Art, though, and I don't assume that what is stated is the only thing that could be said, and I enjoy a dance of words every now and then. So if your own negotiators prefer ceremony, or indirectness, or etiquette of some kind, I can operate within that."

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"I'm only indirect insofar as directness seems like it might offend," says Nelen. "Which is often when talking to strangers from a strange culture, but still."

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"Understandable," she says with a little dip of her chin. "Taking offense to anything said in these discussions seems likely to be unproductive, however; I want what will increase the beauty* of my people, and needlessly casting goodwill aside is not the path towards that."

*She's doing something like overriding or circumventing Allspeak, here. It is somehow very clear that this phrase is synonymous with flourishing, with reaching the pinnacle of your self-realization and then creating new heights to climb, with wonder and satisfaction, with progress towards an unassailable pleasure.

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"I'm glad to hear that," says Nelen.

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"I suspect so."

"I am not careless with my people," she says, seeming to address all of them but focusing on Tarwë. "I do not delight in pain for pain's sake alone, nor in defiance for defiance's sake alone. My people have given me their love, and I give them my strength, and it is through our hardships that we grow together, and through our pain that we find pleasure."

"I am not that shadow in your mind - if even the tiniest fraction of what you fear was true of him, then his selfhood is utterly profane to me."

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(Low, surprised whistle.)

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"A reassuring claim," says Tarwë. Which doesn't mean anything in particular about whether he believes it, or even thinks it's the sort of thing you're likelier to say if it's true, but he can at least acknowledge it's a reassuring shape of remark.

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"Your hesitance isn't unreasonable. We're likely stranger to you than you are to us."

"We both want what is best for our peoples, though, and for the world to be beautiful in our eyes. I will conduct these negotiations within that framework."

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Tarwë nods. Nelen glances at him, sort of checking in, before he speaks: "How much of this conversation have you already heard?"

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"I've checked my darling Lace's memories for what I didn't observe directly; assume 'everything she has heard or noticed.'"

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"Great. Aside from - not being a Melkor - anything you want to address out of what we've covered so far?"

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"For one - I'm confident in my ability to ensure the safety of any visitors from the sort of interpersonal misunderstanding Lace is worried about. Her concern isn't unreasonable - but it's not something I'll find hard to patch."

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"How would you go about it?"

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"A mixture of ways."

"Appropriate orientation for visitors - to our laws and norms, and to the sorts of things they should explicitly communicate. So, to, to how to call for me - I can hear attempts to summon me, or desires that I be present."

"Appropriate orientation and explanation for locals, too, with tourists initially limited to smaller settlements that will be easier to acclimate. There are also many with existing ways to noticeably flag people who are, hm, fragile in mind - this isn't popular everywhere, because some find it discriminatory or uncomfortable, but it's a system that would be easy to adapt for aliens."

"I can also simply track any visitors who accept that I have the right to do so - I can feel the echoes of harm in the aether regardless of if I'm tracking someone, but a more direct tracking would permit a finer-tuned sort of proactiveness."

"My people are no strangers to the idea that certain types of people are easier to harm than others - children are the most common example of this, but trauma, mental illness, and cognitive differences can create fragility in strange places, and it won't be a large jump for many to understand that aliens are often fragile in certain areas we are not. We are, by and large, not malicious - cases of accidental harm are very easy to handle, because it is rare for people to disagree with the reparations I set for them."

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"What kind of reparations does that tend to wind up looking like?" asks Cassiel.

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"Depends in part on the needs of the other party, but - I do not destroy people whose selfhoods are not fundamentally profane."

"If they have caused a tangible loss, they must replace it to the best of their ability. They must seek to understand why this happened, and what flaw in their decisions caused the problem, and they must address that. They must understand the damage they have caused, and understand why to avoid it. They must take care not to act recklessly, and to accept aid when needed - so, if someone got drunk and so was careless, they must abstain from alcohol. If they cannot behave as they must in an area, then they must move. They must seek to minimize ongoing harms to others involved, and to reverse or repair harms as they can."

"The aim is for them to grow beautiful, too."

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"What makes a selfhood fundamentally profane?" asks Nelen. "And - how do you back your 'musts'?"

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" - I'm unsure how to explain it to someone not from our context. To be profane to an Art - is to be fundamentally opposed to everything they are, to destroy the beauty they specifically work for. For one's selfhood to be profane - that person cannot be anything but opposed to the Art, and in becoming themselves, they become ever more opposed to beauty. My people cannot be profane, because they are my people, and their selfhoods are inherently aligned with my vision of beauty."

"And those who cannot cooperate with my society cannot be part of those I protect - most will follow my rules without threat because they desire to be part of that whole on their own, but if they scorn me, then I cannot defend them. I will not cast them from the settlements - that is the purview of the secular government - but it is... Visible to the other Arts whether or not someone is mine."

"They could leave to your lands in the future, I suppose; perhaps the secular governments will choose exile more often if that is available."

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"We can take exiles, yes," Nelen confirms. "Do the other Arts tend to - attack people who've forfeited your protection?"

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"More that they hesitate to attack trespassers under my protection. Those Arts within the bubbles are not a concern - it is travel outside of them that becomes fraught."

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"How does travel between bubbles normally work?"

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"Mortals step out of the portal into the ordinary universe, and then they cross the planet by whatever craft is available to them until they reach the next portal. If they are lucky, the two are close by, and the gods whose territories they pass through are not easy to offend."

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"I'd imagine that the bubbles would be established in relatively friendly territory to begin with - does the territory change hands much? Or do the Arts' attitudes shift? Do they have precise rules about how to travel that are easily violated by accident? Or is it something else making it risky?"

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"That'd require friendly territory in the first place," Lace says. 

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The Art of Suffering sighs and nods. "The friendliest territories are closer to 'the most easily intimidated.' After that, 'has extremely precise rules that run on a logic incomprehensible to mortals and are easy to accidentally break' would be very unusually friendly - the vast majority of them do not have explicit rules."

"The rules for travel are set by me, to make it very clear to the other Arts where my territory begins and ends, and which offenses I will go to war with them over, without committing me to far more wars than I could actually realistically fight."

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"What do Arts who are offended do, do they jump straight to simple lethal violence or do they have more elaborate habits?"

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"Each Art behaves differently, and how they act fluctuates with their current perception of the inter-divine situation and how likely they think I am to attack them over this or that offense against my people. - The Arts of the Lands are the ones in question here. Those Arts without a territory consisting of contiguous real space are significantly less obnoxious or dangerous, and are far more friendly to my people."

"There are a very few Arts of the Lands who are more tolerant - this bubble's portal is in the divine territory of one such - but here, travelers must be within specific crafts that follow specific patterns, and there cannot be too many of those crafts, and she will act as aggressively as any Art against travelers outside those crafts, or crafts that deviate from their pattern, or excess crafts, or crafts with visual flaws."

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"- is it a visual thing? In the same way people like us see things? Would it help if the crafts were invisible, or cloaked in an illusion of a flawless craft?"

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"By and large - no. They know everything that is in or interacting with their territory if they care to, and they are coterminous with everything that is theirs, and they care about interactions with themselves. If it was not a visual flaw, it would be a flaw in noise, or in the movement of air, or in the magical footprint."

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"Magical footprint?"

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" - Nearly all Arts can sense magic, as well as other things related to their domain. We interact with the world through far more senses than you."

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"Huh. Can you see ours?"

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"Yes."

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"I can, too," Lace volunteers. "That's why I noticed you guys are weird."

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"Interesting. Okay, so - takeaways from this meeting seem to me to be, yes bus stops and stores but exclusively inside bubbles, the transit authority will probably want to establish a local intra-planetary line sooner than usual because your state of the art on that is notably impoverished, membership is unlikely to be the right choice for you at this time but you may want a colony in an adjacent world to put more bubbles in, not as a signing perk just as something you'll be likely to buy on the open market?"

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"Yes - though 'adjacent' may or may not be necessary, there, or might be technically unnecessary but have additional advantages."

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"Many magic systems only work adjacent to their originating universe," Nelen explains. "But it should be perfectly feasible to test it."

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" - We might get weird problems if ours breaks when we're not adjacent then. Possibly alarmingly weird problems? Or like, do individuals tend to keep their magic stuff if they travel?"

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"Depends. I can put in a precognition order in so we'll get a warning if it'll seriously debilitate a test subject, if that's a concern, but it would be more likely to take the form of merely not being able to access magical powers while out of the neighborhood."

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Questioning glance at the Art of Suffering.

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"...I'm meaningfully coterminous with my people."

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"...is there anyone you'd like to exile anyway who is not one of your people any more who might agree to being a test subject?"

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"I don't decide who's exiled or not, and the main issue would be with my people - they'd behave differently from other mortals here I expect, and the other Arts would behave differently from me and from mortals."

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Thoughtful squint. "Isn't there that one group of people who decided they wanted to be a hivemind?" she asks the Art of Suffering. "They might be willing to peel someone off for a test."

"And I'm fine with being a test subject in general - I'm a sparked* mortal so I'll probably behave weirdly too, but like, I'm probably less likely to be harmed by the experience than a full Art. Though I'd bet most full mortals would at worst get severed from being part of Suffering's people, and that should be fixable once they come back?" 

*This also translates as 'part-divine.'

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"Yes, and hopefully so."

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"Right, but if it isn't safe for a person from here who isn't one of your people it almost definitely isn't safe for one who is, so it's the test we'd want to do first, less risk of backlash onto the Art herself."

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"Fair enough."

"Asking for volunteers among those who've repudiated me should suffice - many of them would accept the ability to live elsewhere as sufficient payment."

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Nelen nods. "We'd prefer someone who doesn't have any Favors, if there's multiple options, since we don't have those fully integrated into our model of how people can be potentially dangerous, but otherwise we're willing to take immigrants even if they don't have perfectly unblemished pasts."

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Hum. "We'll see, then."

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"So bus stops should wait pending tests. But shops are a yes?"

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"What do your shops do?"

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"We distribute merchandise - things like our translation magic, say, I don't know what else might be in demand here or for that matter if even that one would be. On other planets popular items include contraceptives, exotic foods, lamps and heaters, bus tokens but those we'll hold off on here..."

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"We'll definitely want foreign art."

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"Oh, I should have realized, how silly of me. Any particular kinds?" laughs Nelen.

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"All of them!"

"Foreign foods and drinks and perfumes and sensation lotions and tactile-stims, and plays and dances and songs and stories - or like recordings of those, and sculpture and paintings and weavings, and fashion and jewelry, and body mods, and architectural plans or guidebooks, probably carefully bred or arranged plants and animals would need some kind of import regulations but those would be very popular too, and decorated tools, and sex toys, and traditional weapons, and martial arts styles, and bondage stuff, and musical instruments, and plush toys and pillows and blankets, and ceramics, and just - everything interesting."

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"Well, that'll be fun for the inventory people. Might take a while to get together a good selection."

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"We'll definitely be very motivated to get trade relationships with aliens, if nothing else. I bet we can trade art for art pretty well."

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"Usually the shops selling things for stories is a transitional measure, but I'm sure we can tell the Dwarves to come speculate on your currency and have an exchange going soon. - Dwarves aren't literally all of the Vanda Nossëo finance sector nor are all of them finance people but it's not far off and they don't tend to consider it an objectionable stereotype."

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"Trading for stories is probably going to get inefficient since someone will try to recite their ten million word epic at you, but short stories and poems might work better. Unless stories in like, an existing durable medium work fine, then you'll just have a lot of books and flashdrives."

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"Books and flashdrives are fine," Nelen assures her.

"Is all this art-happiness downstream of the art gods? Is there a god of ten million word epics?" wonders Natsuko.

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" - Honestly the love of art just feels like, normal? Like it's just part of sapience. And long stories aren't the only kind of very enthusiastic art people get up to, it just struck me as the most time consuming type to receive."

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"It's normal to like art!" Nelen assures her. "Especially in conditions of material abundance and safety, which you have more than a lot of planets we meet. But you do seem especially focused on it; most places are more interested in practical gadgets at least at first and trade us descriptions of what they had for breakfast half the time. Which is fine, 'what sort of thing do people eat for breakfast before Vanda Nossëo shows up' is of interest to anthropologists. Anyway, worry not, there's trillions of people out there, they can produce plenty of art even if there's a per capita asymmetry."

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"Probably anyone has data already that your anthropologists could look at? I know we track art history a lot, and there's like a good amount of interest in other history so people are kinda aware that's something future anthropologists will wanna know about..."

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"Then our anthropologists will be delighted and we can get a currency exchange going at around the same time as the shops."

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"Cool."

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"Then I suppose our next task is to figure out the logistics of tests on whether it's safe for people here to travel."

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Shouldn't take too much, though some of the steps might be a little time consuming even with her Church assisting...

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Meanwhile...

 

He's heard something about other universes, and something about magic possibly breaking, and Suffering isn't letting him spy on her conversation with Lace and that team, but, well. 

There's more than one team, and no one informed all of them to not mention certain facts to the Art of Battle.

So, very shortly after he gets a map of the multiverse - 

 

The Art of Battle appears in Aurum, exactly two hops away from his home universe. 

(He doesn't instantly disintegrate or anything, at least. That would be a very boring way to go out. He can still distantly feel his sparks, too, at least that they're alive, though he doesn't care to test whether he can reach across the intervening distance yet.)

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This interrupts Golden's meeting with her department of agriculture about the blood-berries. "...can I help you?" she inquires of the new arrival.

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"Possibly!" he says, with absolutely zero awkwardness or even apparent awareness that he's possibly being rude. "One of your Vanda Nossëo teams landed on my world, I overheard about the multiverse thing, and I want to see if going more than a hop away breaks my powers - I'm a god of combat who's axiomatically incapable of losing fights, and this is very boring. This world is far enough away from mine, and it sounded like it might contain interestingly challenging powers, if you can point me at a tournament or suchlike."

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"The superpowered Olympics is in two months." She waves away the meeting people, murmuring that they can have conference room six and carry on without her. "Fight to the - what endpoint? Are you from that new world with the weirdly popular goddess of suffering?"

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"Hm, until someone can't keep going is most fun, but I don't know the norms here - and yes, I am."

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"What's your plan if nobody's willing to be turned into a pile of rubble here?"

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"Keep hopping around until someone can't resist the urge to punch me in the face. That's usually pretty easy to find."

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"Usually? Is this not your first time outside your own world?"

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...Hum. "It is, though I'm probably not that much less annoying outside of my universe."

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"I will ask my brother in law if he wants to attempt to beat you up. Should I assume that even if your powers are not working as expected in this world he should not go easy on you?" She taps on her computer while she says this.

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"He should absolutely go hard on me either way."

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"If he manages to kill you are we going to have a diplomatic incident? Did you leave a note?"

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"Nope, even if he somehow kills me - I'd be very impressed - everyone knows what I'm like. And absent very exotic and far-reaching magic I'd reform anyways - possibly tragically minus some memories if the distance messes with re-coherence, but eh, you can tell me what happened if I show up a second time with no memory of this conversation."

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"All right..." She glances at her computer. "He says to meet him on the field in the middle of the track, do you need a picture of it or anything?"

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"Nah, I can feel him. Thanks."

And with that, he vanishes from his office and appears next to whoever is anticipating trying to beat up a god right now. 

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Here he is! He is a large vampire with no other special combat magic or anything.

"You don't look like a god," he says.

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Smirk. "Am I not pretty enough?"

He sizes his opponent up, evaluating how much of a threat he is. 

(No one's a true threat to the Art of Battle, but there's variations within unthreatening, and he's experienced with interpreting them.)

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"Valar do this staticky thing and you just look like a guy." Emmett, being a vampire, is super-fast including in thought, tough as diamond, strong enough to throw a truck or powder a rock between his fingers, rapidly self-repairing if not physically separated from a removed component, and capable of fighting even in pieces, though at a serious disadvantage. And he's venomous.

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"I find people are more willing to punch me when I look like maybe they could hurt me. But if you want me to get all dressed up before we fight..."

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"Man, I don't want to punch straight through some human's skull, do your thing that makes it look like that'd be hard."

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Entertained grin. 

And the air around him gleams - and his lightweight robes and thin shoes are suddenly replaced by a skirt of leather straps and thin metal plates - high metal boots - no shirt or cuirass, but he has a heavy collar that extends across his shoulders and partway down his back and front, metal plates sewn into it like beads - and his skin looks like stone suddenly, with a smooth gleam like marble shaped by a master sculptor.

(This in no way, shape, or form changes the actual composition of his body. This is as much an illusion as the concept that he normally has a biology - that illusion reaches into every sense, because he is an Art and nothing if not thorough, but his body is divine.)

(Looking the part is always fun, of course.)

He makes the air around himself - well, not exactly staticky, not like the Valar do. But it crackles with a potential like lightning about to strike, like a grand clash looming.

"Do I meet your standards, now?"

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"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!" whoops Emmet, and he charges forward, aiming to put his arm straight through the Art of Battle's chest.

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He laughs and twists out of the way with the speed and prescience of someone who routinely wins fights with gods throwing lightning at him (and who thinks showing off by dodging is sometimes fun, even if tanking it is sometimes advantageous). 

"You move strangely," he says, "And your cues aren't a human's - "

He's behind Emmet, and he lashes out in turn, striking like a hurricane at the vampire's back. 

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Emmett jumps about twenty feet in the air, twisting to come down like a piledriver.