Chapter 74
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With an evil grin, Blake momentarily softened the metal of the bathroom floor, allowing the grappling hook to sink in. Once it was deep enough to stay put, he re-hardened the metal and watched the rope attached to the hook go taut. The whole situation made him want to laugh out loud. Here he was, not just waiting for a group of idiotic assassins to break into his home but actively helping them do it. Still, he kept silent so as not to spring the trap too soon.

They’d thought they’d found a way through his defenses, the fools. Of course he’d thought of somebody trying to tunnel through the metal. That’s why he’d created circuits running through every wall that would trigger if something broke them by, say, eating through them with metal. The alarm had gone off before they’d made it even two feet into the bottom of his fortress, and he’d already been standing in the adjacent hallway, ready for their arrival, when the acid had finally broken through and destroyed the floor of the restroom.

Finally, after what felt like an interminable wait, the first assassin poked her head through the hole. Only she wasn’t an assassin. She was something he’d never thought possible: somebody from home.

He wasn’t alone.

In his typical self-absorbed way, Blake had never once considered that there would be anybody else from Earth on Scyria, and why would he? He’d never come across another installation like the one that had brought him here. Hell, he’d never come across any other technology on that level at all! But now that he looked at the thin girl climbing out of the hole, with her messy short black hair and her grey eyes, it occurred to him just how stupid an assumption that was. Why couldn’t there be other installations hiding around the world? If you could build one, what would stop you from building many more?

He wasn’t alone.

As that realization hit home, a weight that had been pressing down upon his soul, of which he’d been unaware this entire time, evaporated and a geyser of emotion sprang forth within him. His body trembled uncontrollably at the sudden onslaught, the shockingly strong feelings coursing through him clouding his mind and making him weep. There were so many things he wanted to say, but he found himself barely able to say his own name while remaining upright.

He wasn’t alone.

This girl, Sofie... she was from Earth. She knew what a movie was. She’d listened to rock and roll. She’d wasted hours browsing shitty websites on her phone. She’d breathed the same air and stared up at the same sky. She knew the greatness of home, of the truth about civilization that he’d so far been unable to convey to Samanta, Leo, or the other Otharians. Finally. Finally, he’d found somebody who would look upon his works and understa-

A fist struck him squarely in the jaw and his head rocked back. He stumbled—more from surprise than from the blow’s rather paltry power, really—and steadied himself against the nearby hallway wall.

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” Sofie roared at him, rage hotter than the sun burning in her eyes. “DO YOU THINK YOU’RE SPECIAL OR SOMETHING?! THAT RIGHT AND WRONG DON’T APPLY TO YOU?! HUH?! SINCE WHEN DID BEING A FUCKING MURDEROUS DICTATOR BECOME AN ACCEPTABLE THING TO DO?!”

“You... you hit-” Blake stuttered, confused by the unexpected onslaught.

“THIS ISN’T A FUCKING GAME, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!” The girl hollered as she shoved him hard in the chest. “THESE ARE PEOPLES’ LIVES YOU’RE MESSING WITH!”

“Hold the fuck up!” Blake shot back, his mind finally catching up to the moment. He straightened up to his full height and stared angrily back into the irate woman’s burning gaze. “You think you can just waltz in here and fucking punch me in my own home? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

“I’m the only one with the courage to fucking stand up to you and say what needs to be said, that’s who!” she spat back. “What you’re doing-”

“What I’m doing is I’m saving this shithole! What I’m doing is what needs to be done!”

“Oh, really? Terrorizing an entire populace? That needs to be done? What about just gunning people down in the street? You don’t get to pull some wannabe Stalin act and just hand-wave it away! This whole thing is bullshit and you know it!”

“Oh, fuck off! Haven’t you seen what the people in this world are like? And you’re gonna fucking come at me with this shit?! Where’s your anger for the way they treat each other, huh? Don’t act like I’m the bad guy here!”

“They don’t know any better,” Sofie replied through clenched teeth. She leaned forward, her furious glare never leaving him, and shoved a pointed finger in his face. “You do! You know right from wrong, but you threw it away and sank down to their level! That’s unforgivable!”

“Like I care about your forgiveness! Jesus fucking Christ!” he retorted, rolling his eyes as hard as he could for maximum effect. “I’m the only reason that any of those fucks outside haven’t fucking starved to death! I’m the one who’s lifting them out of their shitty-ass lives and showing them what civilization can offer!”

“What, you mean like those trains that they avoid like the plague? How’s that working out for you? Maybe if you weren’t a fucking murderous dictator they’d be willing to get within ten meters of one!”

“Right, because it’s my fault that they’re so fucking stupid that they won’t use my shit unless I fucking force them to! Their superstitious, xenophobic bullshit culture is all on me! I’m the evil one for trying to help them after everything they did to me!”

“Stop trying to justify going full techno-Hitler! No, you know what? That’s too good for you. You’re more of a techno-Mussolini!”

“Alright, that’s enough! You fucking break into my home, act like you know every fucking thing about my life, and think you get to judge me? You don’t know shit! Get the fuck out!”

“No! I’m not going anywhere! Somebody needs to be your conscience since you apparently forgot yours back on Earth!”

“Yeah? Then maybe I should show you what somebody without a conscience does to people that piss him off!”

“Go ahead and try, dirtbag! I ground the King of Kutrad’s balls into paste! I’m not afraid of you!”

“You will be when I’m done with-”

WHOOP-WHOOP-WHOOP!

The two Earthlings both froze mid-holler as Blake’s mobile battlestation skitter, which he’d placed discreetly around the corner where the hallway crossed with another passage, let out an arresting series of cries and began to deploy.

“You gotta be shitting me,” Blake muttered. Of course that woman would show up now. It was like she knew precisely the most inconvenient times to appear and made sure never to miss a single one.

Thoughts warred in his mind for a moment, but his choice was an easy one. This harpy who went by the name of Sofie was infuriating, yes, but if she was capable of doing something beyond yelling at him she would have done it already. That woman, on the other hand, was an actual threat, one which could not be ignored.

“Stay here,” he growled as he stomped towards his awaiting battlestation.

“No,” Sofie hotly replied. “Come on guys, let’s go. I need to cool my head. If I have to listen to this loser’s bullshit for another second I’m going to end up doing something I’ll regret.” Waving the other two to follow, she marched past Blake and continued down the hall towards the other end, where the door to an elevator stood.

“Hey hey hey! Where do you think you’re going?!” Blake shouted after her. “I’m not fucking done with you!”

“I’m not going anywhere, creep!” Sofie shot back, flipping him off with both hands as the elevator doors opened. “Don’t you worry about that! Oh, and by the way, I didn’t even watch those stupid movies and I can tell that your mask is just a big Iron Man ripoff!”

Blake could only glare in response as the door slid closed.

*     *     *

With a heavy sigh, Blake closed the battlestation’s battle command application and took a moment to lean against the hallway wall. Nearly every battle he’d commanded against that woman lasted just a few minutes; she would clash with his units in a violent ballet of carnage and bullets and then it would be over. So, it figured this was the one that took forever—what was life, after all, but a parade of suboptimal events? Instead of charging into the fray, that woman had decided to play a game of cat and mouse, probing in and out looking for a way around his defenses. Checking the console’s clock and doing some quick math, Blake realized that it had taken him over an hour to finally put the woman down. Of course, his efforts to recover the body and her weapon had ended in futility like always.

Putting his mask back on and switching the battlestation skitter back into its dormant mode, Blake slowly walked towards the nearby elevator and hit the button. Now that the distraction was over, he had a moment to collate his scattered thoughts and decide what to do about the events of the day so far.

Suffice it to say that Blake was not enamored with his newly arrived Earth comrade. Her little tirade had demonstrated quite clearly the enormity of the chasm between them. However, now that the adrenaline and feelings of the moment were gone, he couldn’t deny that he still felt a yearning for her understanding. To have his efforts rejected so completely and harshly had stung more than he wanted to admit. Maybe, if he could talk to her again, this time without the tension and emotional instability, he’d be able to get through to her. It was worth trying, at least.

The elevator door opened and Blake stepped out into a larger hall, one of the main chambers of the fortress. He caught a glimpse of somebody passing by out of the corner of his eye and called out to them.

“Hey, Leo!”

The older man halted at his voice, before turning about and heading his way. “Yes, my Lord?” he asked upon approaching.

“You may have run into some... uhh... unexpected visitors...”

“Ah, yes,” the administrator replied. “We weren’t sure what to do about them at first, but we decided that if they were all the way inside and still breathing then you wanted them here so we let them be. Quite a noisy bunch, especially the woman. Seemed quite upset.”

“Any idea where they might be now?” Blake inquired. He could always go to the nearest terminal and find them if he had to, but Leo seemed to have a knack for knowing where people were and it was easier just to ask.

“Probably the same place anybody goes when they don’t want to interact with you,” the Otharian replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I am behind on my work today.”

*     *     *

“-going to listen to you when the first thing you do is attack them?! After everything it took just to get in the same room as this guy, you-”

Blake stepped out onto the observation tower right into the middle of what would generously be called a “heated discussion”. Leo turned out to be right, as per usual. There they were, huddled together on the top deck of the observation tower, the highest and loneliest point in the entire fortress. For the first time, now that Sofie wasn’t right in his face and they’d removed their hoods, Blake’s mind truly registered the other two members of the trio.

One member, a pale elf, with brownish-red hair and sharp green eyes that seemed to habitually dart about looking for threats, was busy berating Sofie. This was the second elf he’d ever seen in person, the first being the Drayhadan Many sent to open up communications between the two countries. Like any good nerd, his eyes focused in on the man’s pointed ears. Scyria fell more on the anime side of elf ears, with long, thin protrusions that could wiggle about and potentially stab somebody in the eye, as opposed to the more Tolkien elf with human-like ears that just happened to taper off into a point.

The other was barely a person, standing under four feet tall. Pitch black hair that seemed to suck in light fell messily down over dark amber skin, but Blake barely noticed any of that. He was too busy staring at the triangular ears twitching atop her head and the long, thin tail waving back and forth from her lower back. A catgirl. An honest-to-god catgirl, right in front of him. Instantly Blake felt a dire urge to scratch those ears, to pet that head, and maybe even scratch under her chin like he always did to the kitties back at his parents’ place, but he shook his head and tabled such thoughts for later. He was here for a reason and it wasn’t time for more distractions, no matter how adorable they might happen to be.

The three of them noticed his presence almost immediately—not a difficult feat given the clank that came with every step—and their argument halted dead in its tracks. Blake stepped forward and spoke quickly. “The two of you leave, I wish to speak with her alone.”

The two others hesitated for a moment, but Sofie just nodded. “You guys leave,” she said.

“I don’t think this is the best idea,” the elf replied, his hand discreetly creeping towards his hips, where two large sheathed daggers hung. “He can talk with us all here.”

“No, this is between me and him,” Sofie replied. “It’s an Earth thing, you wouldn’t understand.”

After a moment, the elf seemed to give up. He strode past Blake with a wary gait. Blake returned the favor, secretly softening his weapons as he passed by just to be sure he didn’t try anything funny. The little catgirl followed behind him. As she passed by with a large sack slung over her shoulder, the contents letting out metallic tinks and clinks with every step, she turned her head to look up towards him, stuck out her tongue, and let out a hearty raspberry before dashing into the elevator, all the while glaring at him. As the door closed, he thought he heard an adorable voice say something about a “mean bad man” before the sound got cut off.

Sofie, for her part, stood against the fence by the edge of the observation platform. The woman looked much different than she had the first time. She seemed much frailer and smaller than before, and Blake couldn’t help but notice her puffy red eyes, sign she’d been crying at some point after their argument. Still, the hostility in her eyes had not abandoned her.

Blake walked a little closer while ignoring Sofie’s wary gaze and slowly lowered himself down against the safety fence that kept people from accidentally tumbling off the side of the platform. He leaned back against the metal and let his helmet melt into the rest of his armor. After a moment, Sofie sat down as well, and a tense silence fell over them both.

“Well?” she asked after a while. “I thought you wanted to talk.”

Blake let out a tired breath. “Every morning, I get up out of bed and I put on my armor, and I take this long metal grabber device that I made, almost like a pair of thin, motorized tongs, and I shove it up my butt,” he said.

For a moment, all that could be heard was the wind blowing against the tower.

“I’m sorry, what?” Sofie eventually managed to sputter out.

“It’s a messy process. Sometimes the poop comes out readily, but often it’s soft and mushy and it breaks down when I squeeze it. Those mornings are the worst. It doesn’t help that the pressure of rooting around in there often makes me start to pee while I’m in the middle of the process. Can’t stop it either-”

“Uh...”

“-since when it decides it’s time to go it just goes. Doesn’t matter if I’m in bed, in my suit, when my bladder determines it’s pee time, I gotta just take it. The worst part is that I usually don’t even know it’s happening until I smell it-”

“What are you...” Sofie groaned, her face in her hands.

“-and so I had to build in stuff in my suit to handle it automatically. It’s a constant pain in the ass. And then, of course, there are the sexual urges that-”

AAAGGGHHHHH! STOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP!!!” Sofie shrieked. “What in the world are you talking about?! Why are you saying this?!”

“Because I want you to understand my life. I want you to understand why I am who I am,” Blake answered. “What do you see when you look at me? You see some big, angry strongman, throwing his weight around and abusing the people, don’t you?”

“What else is there to see?” Sofie replied with a glare.

“The truth is, I’m not big. I’m not strong. I’m barely a man anymore.”

“I don’t get it.”

“When I got here, I saw what their lives were like. I saw how harsh and brutal it was, and I saw how it could be better. There were so many easy ways I could have helped them, and I told them so. And do you know what they did?”

“What?”

“They cut my arm off.” Blake twisted as he melted away the metal around the remains of his left arm, letting Sofie get a good look at the metal prosthetic strapped onto his shoulder and upper arm. She stared at the wound with wide, appalled eyes and gulped.

“O-oh...” was all she eventually managed to get out.

“That wasn’t the end of it though. They branded me as this evil and terrible being and hunted me throughout the country. All I wanted to do was help, but no! Instead, I had to run and fight for my life, and even when I thought I was safe I was stabbed in the back. Literally.

“The blade cut my spinal cord and paralyzed me from the waist down. A head, most of a torso, and an arm; that’s all that remains of the naive fool who appeared in this forsaken place a year ago. Now I’m reduced to manually pulling my own shit out of my body because I can’t poop properly. All I have left is the anger. Because they took the rest of me away.”

“I... I’m sorry to hear that. I had no idea that you’d been through so much.”

“You’re not supposed to. I have to keep up that front no matter what. I have to seem strong because that’s the only way I can survive. Those people out there believe that I’m an abomination that needed to be purged from the world, and they believed that from the moment I arrived. It was a literal part of their religion. There is no reasoning with that.”

Sofie didn’t reply for a moment. He could see indecision in her eyes as she thought about what he’d said. But that indecision quickly vanished, and she looked at him with clarity again. “That’s still not an excuse for murder, though,” she stated.

“Oh, give me a break! They treated me like a was a monster!”

“And your reaction was to prove them right! Maybe some of it at the beginning was self-defense. Maybe you had no choice at the time; I can’t say. But that time is long gone. I’m sorry that you have suffered so much. I’m sorry that your life sucks. But that doesn’t justify mass slaughter. No amount of suffering makes that okay. Period.”

“Spoken like somebody who’s had an easy life,” Blake snarled back. “You really don’t know the ugliness of this world, do you? You don’t know what it’s actually like here.”

“Oh, don’t I?” Sofie replied with a scornful glare. “Let’s go through it then, shall we? Within an hour of me stepping out of the place that brought me to this world, I was captured and made into a sex slave. That sound nice and fun to you?”

Blake looked away while letting out a grumble of reluctant concession.

“Didn’t think so. How about the time when I barely escaped Zrukhora before it was wiped from the map? Or what about how my friends and I were hunted by swarms of bounty hunters all the way from Kutrad to Stragma for weeks and weeks on end? Or how I had to trek through a fucking jungle only to get wrapped up in a fucking war and then turned into a prisoner? Or how after that I was taken all the way back to Kutrad, starved and mistreated the whole trip, before I finally escaped the day before my execution? You want to tell me that’s the easy life?”

Blake remained silent.

“Yeah, and that’s not even half of what I’ve been through, so you can shut your fucking trap. I have been hunted, stabbed, had fucking fireballs thrown at me, and dealt with all kinds of other shit, and do you know how many people I’ve killed? Zero. There was a time when my friends and I were in deep trouble and I could have solved everything just by killing somebody, but I didn’t because I understand that you can’t just throw away principles when they’re inconvenient! If you do that, they’re nothing, or you’re nothing.”

“What if, by not killing that man, you or your friends died?” Blake asked. “Are these beloved principles worth losing your life or people you care about?”

Sofie rolled her eyes. “I’m not interested in arguing bullshit hypotheticals.”

“No, seriously. Like, how should I put this... ah! Did Belgium have people that believed in faith healing?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Just answer the question.”

“I don’t know, there were probably a few of them. Why?”

“Because back in America, if I remember right, it was a problem. There were these people who would have, say, a young child who would get sick, but they wouldn’t take him to the doctor. Instead, they would just try to pray the illness away and, shockingly, the kid would die. It was their beliefs, right? Their religion. So at what point should the government or outsiders intervene? If you could save the child even against the parents’ wishes, would you?”

“Of course! It’s not the child’s fault that their parents are hurting them.”

“Alright, now what if the parents’ response to you trying to save the child was to try to kill you? What then? What if the only way to save the child was to kill the parents? Would you do it? Where do you draw the line, Sofie?”

“I’d rescue the child without killing the parents, even if they attacked me,” Sofie replied.

“Yeah? You going to do it all by yourself? What if it’s not just the parents, but neighbors too, or their whole town, or even the entire country? You think you can take them all on without hurting anybody? Life isn’t that easy and you know it. You don’t get to just snap your fingers and make the good outcome happen.”

“What are you trying to say with this?”

“When I first got here, a teenager collapsed in the village I was in. He was gaunt, malnourished, and worked to exhaustion. You know what they did to try to treat him? They wanted to bleed him like it was the fucking Dark Ages! That’s how fucking backwards they are! And when I tried to stop them, thirty villagers tried to stab me with pitchforks and shovels. That’s the world I showed up in, Sofie. This place doesn’t let you do nice things for free.

“Kids, elderly, they were starving to death right in front of me. You can say I’m a monster or whatever, but when I finally figured out cantacrenyx technology and made the beginnings of my army, I could have just run. I could have stayed true to those beliefs that you talk so highly of and left the country and never killed another person ever again. But then all those people would have died thanks to their religion and all its bullshit. I chose to stay and fight, to help everyone in this country. I chose to save the child, even if it meant killing the parents, because it’s not my fault if the parents are fucking idiots who would rather try to murder me and let their children die than change their fucking beliefs.

“I mean, do you realize what these people are really like?” Blake continued as his voice grew louder and more insistent. “There’s this metal all over this country called ‘tucrenyx’ that’s fucking amazing. It’s stronger than steel, lighter than titanium, it’s a fucking wonder material. Do they use it? Fuck no! Apparently, ‘tucrenyx’ means ‘trash metal’ or ‘poison metal’ and they only use it to chain people up! They could do so many things with it, but no, they’re fucking retarded. And then there are the cantacrenyx crystals, or ‘useless crystals’ as they call them. Everything I’ve done has been done entirely with shit that’s been right underneath these people’s goddamned feet for fucking millennia! They’ve had ages to try something with it but they’re too stuck in their bullshit superstitions and because of that, thousands of people have to suffer and die! I’m not going to apologize for changing that!”

“The end doesn’t justify the means, Blake. You know that. Besides, even if you say you have good intentions, that doesn’t excuse becoming some authoritarian oppressor. It doesn’t excuse... this.” She swept her hand around, gesturing towards the fortress and the city it towered over. “You say you are helping the people of this place, and maybe that’s how you sell it to yourself, but that’s not what I see. What I see is a superpowered child throwing a tantrum, demanding that everybody tell him how good and smart and correct he is. I see somebody who can’t handle losing an argument when he knows that he’s the one who’s right. There had to be ways to accomplish your goals without leaving your soul a blackened husk.”

“Seriously, enough. You just show up acting like you understand everything, when you don’t know anything, and when I try to explain it to you, you don’t listen! You don’t know what Otharians are really like, but you act like do. You don’t know all the pain I’ve endured, but you think you can judge me anyway. Now you’re even jabbering on about souls like you have any idea what you’re talking about. You don’t know shit.”

Sofie just rolled her eyes. “And you do? Figured it all out in the last year, have you? You even have souls figured out, huh?”

“I’ve figured out a hell of a lot more than you, that’s for fucking sure! And yes, souls are very real in this world, and I can prove it.”

“Bullshit. There’s a reason why religion is about faith instead of facts. I don’t care how good at science you are, nobody can actually prove something like a soul exists. I know Scyrians use ‘soulforce’ as an analogue for ‘magic power’, but that’s just a word and words don’t prove anything.”

Blake wagged a finger at her, a smug grin on his face. “Actually, words prove everything. Think about it. You’re not speaking English right now, but I can understand you perfectly. Why is that?”

“Because here on Scyria, ideas aren’t just the words we say. There’s a baser sort of understanding that happens where I’m imparting my internal knowledge and meaning to you beyond just the sounds coming out of my mouth. Or at least that’s how it was explained to me.”

“That’s all you know? That’s basically nothing. You just described the what, but not the why or how, and even that wasn’t completely right.”

“Then how does it work, genius?”

“The knowledge or understanding doesn’t just come from nothing. It comes from the soul. On Scyria, every person has a body, a mind, and what I feel is best described as a soul: an non-corporeal amalgamation of your knowledge, understanding, memories, and overall general existence. While the mind handles thinking and all the rest of that sort of thing, the soul works in tandem with it in a sort of overlapping and redundant manner, handling things like understanding, knowledge, and experiences as well as the transmission of ideas and concepts from one person to another. And before you ask, it is my theory that either we generated souls when we arrived here or Earth does have souls but they are so weak that they don’t actually do anything.”

“Yeah? And where’s your proof?”

“I’m getting to that. When setting up my security with this place, I discovered that people can only understand each other when we are nearby each other. I wanted to be able to contact my assistant in his office from inside my chambers, so I set up an intercom system so we could talk and guess what? We couldn’t understand a single word each other said. Only when we were close and could hear each other’s actual voices could we understand each other. There is no underlying truth just floating through the aether, it is a transmission created by the person.

“However, it’s different than the understanding of the mind. Did you notice that my trains speak Otharian? That’s because I found that even if the soul can’t receive any understanding, the mind, since it processes speech on a different level, can still understand a spoken language if it’s one that it knows. So the people out there can understand it, but you cannot.”

“You know, I bet hearing and comprehending something without understanding it through the soul would feel weird if you’d never experienced that before. That probably contributes to their fear of the trains,” Sofie speculated.

Blake frowned. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, she’d just made a very good point that he hadn’t considered. Perhaps it would be better to turn off the speakers and switch to programmable screens showing written Otharian? But then some people wouldn’t be able to read it...

“But,” Sofie continued before Blake could sink too deeply into pondering, “what you’ve proven to me is that meaning is transmitted from person to person through proximity. That doesn’t mean there has to be some non-physical soul-organ. It could just be some feature of the world, or psychic fields, or something. For somebody who seems so set on logic and science, there’s a lot of assumptions and guesswork in there.”

“That’s because I wasn’t finished,” Blake countered. “This is where a second, more definitive piece of evidence comes in: Manys.”

“Manys? What about them?”

“Think about it. If meaning can only be transmitted from person to person in proximity, how do Manys work? Why can I speak to a Many here in the fortress, and yet somebody in a whole other country can understand me perfectly? How does the meaning get from my Many to the one in, say, Stragma?”

“I... I don’t know,” Sofie admitted after a moment of thought. “You would think that the distance would be too great between the Many here and the other Many, so the meaning would be lost. That’s how they work right? Two of them, one on each end? I’ve never seen more than one at a time.”

“And that’s exactly why you don’t understand. You’ve never seen more than one at a time,” Blake explained, his smug grin widening. “I hadn’t either for a while, until one day I noticed a Many here in the House of Manys that looked just like the Many I saw in Eflok during my execution. After inquiring about it, do you know what I found out?”

“What? Just tell me already instead of lording your superior understanding over my poor little ignorant self,” Sofie sniped back.

“Every Many is an identical twin or triplet, and every twin or triplet becomes a Many. Every. Single. One.”

“They’re... twins? But...” Sofie froze for a moment as the revelation sunk home, before burying her face in her hands. “Why didn’t I realize that?! Many! It’s in the fucking word!”

Blake let out a series of knowing laughs. “You feel real dumb right now, don’t you? I did too, back then. But there’s more to it. Manys are proof that we each have our own soul, because they don’t.”

“Huh?”

“Think about it. Why are my words able to transmit across countries through a Many? If distance matters when talking between two people with two souls, why doesn’t it matter with Manys?”

“Because... they don’t have two souls!” the girl gasped.

“Precisely! A sperm and an egg become one, and a new life is created. At that moment, a soul is generated as part of that life. But then, something happens! The cells end up splitting into two separate beings! But there is still only one soul!”

“One single soul split between multiple bodies, carrying understanding instantaneously across the world...” Sofie muttered, her voice filled with wonder. “But do they each have only a piece of the soul? Their soul is smaller than everybody else’s?”

“It’s hard to say, since as far as I know there’s no way to measure a soul. Personally, I believe that their individual soul fragments grow to fill them until they’re like normal people, so they each possess a fragment the same size as a normal person’s soul. After all, the conventional wisdom is that the soul or spirit or whatever provides the energy for Scyrian magic, right?”

“Yeah, that’s how I understand it. That’s why they call it soulforce.”

“I’ve heard that illusions are very taxing to create and maintain, and yet they are able to handle those big projections for a pretty long time. If they only had half a soul to power that with, that might not be enough. That’s my theory, at least.”

“Holy shit... it all makes sense... Those poor people, it must be like trying to listen to multiple radio stations and television shows all at the same time.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Blake agreed. “Apparently, the government takes custody of identical children when they are born. That’s because, without strict training, the kids are unable to function due to the overwhelming stimulation. Their minds can’t process it all and they overload. You’ll notice I only mentioned twins and triplets. That’s because anything more than that and not even the training can save them. There’s just too much noise and they can’t handle it and die. Even with the training, it’s hard for Manys to deal with all the input. That’s why they have people to handle them and take care of them, and they wear veils and are kept in quiet, dark rooms and all that jazz.”

“Wow... I had no idea...”

“You see my point? There’s a lot about this world that you don’t understand one bit,” Blake remarked. “So maybe you should think twice before showing up out of nowhere and passing judgment on stuff you barely comprehend.”

Sofie’s gaze turned dark. “I don’t need to know how this world works to understand morality, Blake. In fact, I think you know too much because it’s obviously twisted you. I watched your robots gun down a whole building full of people last night! They just ran up and surrounded a place, and then a few minutes later killed everybody inside! It doesn’t matter what world we’re in, public massacres are pure evil and it scares the shit out of me that I have to tell you that!”

“The evil ones were the people inside that building!” Blake fired back. “Those people were some of the last remnants of the old Otharian army who hid themselves among the civilians and claim to be some ‘Resistance’ movement. They would have killed me the first chance they got, and I wasn’t about to give them any chances.”

“That doesn’t mean you can just kill them! You didn’t even try to capture them or stop them in any non-lethal way, you just painted the ground with their blood! That’s what tyrants do!”

Blake let out a disgruntled snort. “You just don’t get what it’s like here. Spend a month out there living with them and then come tell me what you think—if you’re even still alive by then. They hate you as much as they hate me, you just don’t realize it yet.

“I mean, really, did you seriously come all this way to give me fucking church sermons? Why are you even here, anyway? Actually, now that I think about it, how did you even get into Otharia?! The border system should be impenetrable! How’d you get past it?!”

Sofie crossed her arms and looked off the side with a petulant harrumph. “Not telling!” the girl huffed. “You shouldn’t even have a system like that anyway! Don’t you know how many thousands of people are suffering up there when you could just let them in?”

“Let hundreds of thousands of foreigners into Otharia? Are you nuts?”

“They’re starving up there! What happened to wanting to help starving people?”

“I barely have enough food to feed the people already here as it is, and that’s not even considering the chaos they’d bring. Otharians don’t like outsiders, remember? Besides, the last time I had open borders, those Eterian fucks sent assassins to kill me and I nearly died. It’s not happening.”

“If you hate the Eterians so much, why are you helping them at Crirada?” Sofie asked. “Oh yeah, by the way, thanks for making me have to walk all the way here when you could have just let me take your zeppelin.”

“You were in Crirada?”

“Yeah. It was bad in there, Blake. They were basically out of food, exhausted, and ready to break when I left. I can’t even imagine how bad it must be inside there now. That’s why I came, since you want to know so badly. I came to beg you to send more help. They need food, bodies, anything you can offer. The Ubrans have made it a war of attrition, and they’re going to win eventually if you don’t do something.”

“There’s not much more I can do,” Blake reluctantly replied. “I can only make and send so many skitters-”

“Skitters?”

“My robots, the ones with four legs.”

“Seriously? That’s your name for them?”

“Shut up. As I was saying, I can make and send only so many skitters a day, and they get destroyed fast enough that I haven’t been able to make headway.”

“Just send some of the ones that you already have, the ones terrorizing farmers for no good reason.”

“No, they’re what keep me in power here. They’re critical to my goals.”

“What goals? Stockholm Syndrome-ing an entire country?”

“Will you just-!” Blake stood up in exasperation. “Look, I will try to find more ways to help win the war, alright? You win. And now that you got what you came for, you can leave. Shoo. Go away.”

“Absolutely not. I’m staying here,” Sofie announced, rising to her feet in response.

“What?! Fuck that!” Blake cried as he stepped forward, arms gesticulating wildly. “This isn’t some apartment complex where you just show up and declare you’re moving in!”

“How can I just leave after what I’ve seen?!” Sofie shot back, stepping forward herself until the two of them were just inches apart. “It’s plain to see that this place would have been much better off if somebody, anybody, had been able to tell you ‘no’, and since apparently everybody else in this country is either too scared or too dead to do it, it falls to me.”

“Listen up,” Blake growled, the anger from their last encounter returning. “I don’t want you here, and I don’t need you here. Now you take your little group and you get the fuck out, or-”

“Or what?” Sofie spat, not backing down an inch. “You’ll kill me? Dump me in a ditch somewhere for the crime of disagreeing with you? Or will you just lock me away forever in a dungeon, like all the other countries that you claim to be so backward do? Go ahead, do it! Prove me right! Because if you don’t, I’m going to keep coming back every single day, as many times as it takes.”

Blake glared into his adversary’s determined gaze and fought back the urge to strangle something. She was right, if he did something extreme, he was just proving her right, and that was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment. But he could tell that she wasn’t going to back down either. If he just threw her out, he had neither the time nor the energy to deal with her constantly trying to break into his home every day.

“Because you came so far,” he ground out through gritted teeth, “you can stay, as a guest, for a LIMITED. TIME. Got it? That’s as much as you’re going to get. You are not going to live in my fortress, no way, no how, never. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do today that are actually worth my time!”

Sofie let out a “Hrmph!” as Blake turned and stormed towards the elevator doors. Grumbling to himself, he stepped inside and turned back towards the doors, only to realize that the woman had followed him into the elevator. Wonderful.

The awkwardest of silences permeated the cabin as it slowly descended from the top of the tower. Blake kept his gaze on the doors, but he could feel her staring at his back.

“I want you to understand that I just want to help you,” Sofie stated eventually, breaking the tense stillness.

“I don’t need your help,” Blake icily replied. “I don’t need anybody’s help.”

“Everybody needs help. Nobody can survive alone, especially not with the weight of the world on their shoulders.”

“Whatever.”

The silence thankfully returned, as Blake counted the remaining seconds until they reached the bottom of the tower.

“One other thing...” the gadfly said.

What is it now?!” Blake let out, whirling on the smaller woman with his fists clenched.

Sofie shrunk back slightly from the sudden outburst. “Can I, uh, can I see it?”

“See what?”

“Your, uh, wound. Where you got stabbed. I’m just curious, that’s all.”

“Ugh! Fine, whatever, if it means you’ll leave me alone. Just make it quick.” He turned around and leaned both his hands against the cabin wall, before willing the metal around his lower spine to move aside.

“Uhhhhhh...” Sofie said as she bent over to get a closer look. “When is the last time you took a look at this?”

“I don’t know, a while?” Blake replied. “I’ve been really busy and it’s hard to get a look at. I need like four mirrors to even see it at all. Why?”

“You can’t feel it? Oh right, paralyzed.”

“Feel what?”

“This looks infected. Like, really infected. Like, we-need-to-deal-with-this-right-away infected.”

“Oh,” Blake sighed. “Fantastic.”

*     *     *

“I need something sharp,” Sofie said as she leaned over Blake’s back.

“For what?” Blake asked warily.

“To get the fucking puss out, Blake, god,” she scoffed. “I’m not going to drive a knife into your skull after everything I said about not killing people, chill out. I’m not a hypocrite.”

“I’m just... a little skittish of people with knives behind me,” Blake admitted as he extruded a small amount of tucrenyx from his suit and formed it into the shape of a scalpel.

“Thanks,” Sofie said as she grabbed the implement. “Where’d you put the alcohol?”

“Over there,” he replied, pointing at the small container of the hardest liquor he could get his hands on in short notice.

“Great.” Sofie picked up the liquor and poured some in a cup and dipped the blade inside it for a few seconds before pulling it back out and moving back to where he couldn’t see her. “This might hurt, or I guess it might not. We’ll see.”

Blake concentrated on his back but felt nothing.

“Ugh, the smell!” Sofie gagged a moment later. “Yuck!”

“Just do what you’re gonna do and get it over with,” Blake grumbled.

“I am, I am...” came the reply. “So, now that I see what your room is like, I definitely can’t leave. This place is gross. There are dirty clothes everywhere, the smell... when is the last time you cleaned in here?”

“What are you, my mother?” Blake groused. “Stop it, you’re like fifteen years younger than me.”

“And you’re mentally twelve. Now stop moving before I do accidentally stab you. There’s a lot of necrotic flesh to scrape off and I don’t want to end up cutting too deep.”

“What, seriously? It’s that bad?”

“Yes, you numbskull! This is the kind of thing I’m talking about! You need to take care of yourself!”

The two of them settled into another disgruntled silence as Sofie slowly tended to his old wound, until, as always, she piped up once more.

“So... uh... I kind of lied before... about why I came to see you,” she softly admitted.

“You don’t want me to help Crirada more?”

“No, I do! It’s important, and it’s what I told everybody to get them to help me and so I owe it to them to try and all that, but... that’s not the real reason.”

“Then why are you really here?” Blake asked.

Sofie didn’t respond, though her silence told him everything.

“...you want to go home,” he answered for her. “You saw my robots and my technology and you thought ‘maybe he’s figured out a way to go home’.”

“Please...” she said, her trembling voice just barely more than a whisper. “Please just tell me there’s a way to leave this place. Tell me you can reverse the machines that brought us here. Tell me anything.”

“...I’m sorry. The machines don’t work that way, as much as I wish they did. I’ve looked for anything else I could find. I even got involved in that stupid war because I thought that Severed events might point me towards a way back, but the data’s a mess and don’t even know if I’m smart or knowledgeable enough to get anything out of it. I’m still at it because there’s still a chance, but...” He shook his head morosely. “...it seems more and more like it’s a million-to-one shot at this point. It would be best, I think, for you to accept that we won’t ever be going home and move on.”

Sofie let out a long, wet sniff. “...yeah. Deep down I think I knew that. I just... needed to hear it from you, I guess, before I could finally give up. I mean, hope never dies, right? H-hold on... I need to... disinfect my hands...”

Blake heard her stand up and walk away, followed by several more sniffs and a soft sob, but he kept his gaze down on the floor. He couldn’t bear to look at her at this moment. Just speaking that truth aloud had hurt him inside far more than he wanted to admit.

A moment later, Sofie returned and resumed her work. “I apologize... I just got a little emotional.”

“It’s fine, I understand.”

“Every night, as I fall asleep, I wonder why we ended up here.”

“I think it’s a bit presumptuous to think of it that way, to be honest. Why does there have to be a reason at all?”

“But somebody had to bring us here, right? This can’t have been some sort of accident.”

“Why not? Why can’t it just be random bad luck?”

“How?”

“Like, perhaps some weird ancient civilization version of the Y2K bug. Some structural flaw deep in their systems that stayed hidden for millennia, until one day all the conditions are met and it manifests itself and all the machines activate on their own and boom, here we are.”

“You really think that’s the reason? We’re here because of some ancient glitch?”

“It makes just as much sense as anything else, in my opinion. The place I appeared in looked like it had been abandoned for centuries. There was no sign that anybody had been in there to summon me or whatever. Was there any sign where you appeared?”

“No, it was empty.”

“Exactly. There’s no evidence of anybody being involved, and I think that we shouldn’t assume that we’re here as some part of some great shadowy master plan without that evidence.”

“But then... why can you do what you do? Don’t you think your powers point towards some sort of intelligent or divine intervention?”

“Not really. I think that it’s a manifestation of us as people. Working with machines is what I’ve done for most of my life—designing them, building them, programming them... It’s like when I came to this world, I became who I already was, just... a million times more, to the point where it turns into a superpower, you know?”

“I’m not really following you.”

“It’s like, do you know how complicated this suit is? There are trillions of microscopic transistors in each limb alone, on a level of complexity that should make it basically impossible to understand. But somehow, I can look at these transistors and watch the energy flow through them and in a nanosecond I just understand everything going on. I know what they’re doing, I can see if there’s a bug or a mistake, it’s like I just... know all of it within a fraction of a fraction of a second. And then I can create those trillions of incredibly complex patterns practically without thinking at this point, and I never forget them or mix them up. It’s the sort of thing that should be impossible, but if I look at it as basically what I was doing before but taken to an absurd degree, then it makes sense. But it’s only what I was good at before. I’m not some sort of super-genius in everything, just engineering. What about you, what’re your powers?”

“I don’t have any powers for some reason,” Sofie glumly replied.

“Being annoying is your superpow-OW! FUCK! What happened to not stabbing me?!”

“My hand slipped.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Sorry, I’m just a little... it’s not fair, you know? Everybody else gets powers and I don’t get anything. It makes me feel so weak, and I hate it.”

“That must really suck-wait, everybody else?! Are there more of us that I don’t know about?!” He twisted about to look at her in surprise.

“Stop that, I’m almost done,” Sofie replied, pushing him back down. “Yes, I know of two more. And who knows, there might be more than that out there.”

“Who are they?!”

“One is a woman with the Drayhadans. I think she’s Japanese or something like that. She’s a powerful psychic who can take out an entire army on her own. They call her the Mother of Nightmares.”

“That’s one hell of a name.”

“Yeah, my friend got hit by her abilities a while ago. They said that she put them in a vision that was so overwhelming that they believed they were really there. The other person is a woman who fights for the Ubrans. There’s a lot of names for her, apparently, but the Eterians call her The Monster. You probably know all about her. She’s-”

“Hold up!” Blake interrupted. “Is she a woman with black hair, average height, and a huge-ass sword? Crazy strong and fast, seemingly immortal, takes bullets through the heart like they’re nothing?”

“I’ve heard she’s unkillable, yeah, that’s why they call her The Monster. My friend who's still in Crirada said she blew her in half and she just grew her body back. Sounds creepy to me, honestly.”

The revelation made Blake want to smash his head against a wall until his brains came out. “Jesus fucking Christ, how can I be so stupid?” he moaned. “It was right there in front of me the whole time!”

“You know her, I take it?”

“Know her? Ha! I’ve killed that woman what, sixty times? Eighty? I don’t know, I lost count. She’s the reason I haven’t been able to stop the Ubrans more than I already have. I should have realized what she was forever ago, but I just thought she was some super-powerful Feeler or something. God, what’s wrong with me?”

“Well, isn’t it good you know now at least? Maybe instead of fighting, you can try talking to her or something. Bring her to our side.”

“I don’t know... She looks Latina to me, at least through the video feed. Do you know Spanish?”

“Don’t judge somebody by their looks, Blake. You have no idea what languages she speaks.”

“Well I’m just saying, unless she knows English, or... what can you speak?”

“French, German, Dutch, and some English. But no, not Spanish.”

“That many? Yeesh. I could barely get a C minus in high school German class.”

“I’m good at languages.”

“Well as I was trying to say, and I’m just playing the odds here, her most likely language is Spanish, which we can’t speak. If it turns out she doesn’t know any of the languages you listed, there’s no easy way for us to communicate with her through my robots. I mean I know ‘hola’, but that’s about the limit to my Spanish knowledge. I guess I could have them just repeat that over and over again...”

“Then just go there in person and talk to her.”

Hell no! Are you out of your mind? There’s no way I’m going within twenty miles of that murder machine!”

“Then maybe there’s some non-verbal way to communicate with her? Like, I don’t know, music or something?”

“Music, huh...” Blake let out a depressed sigh. “You know, sometimes I think that I’d give my other arm just to hear Earth music again.”

“I know what you mean.”

“It wouldn’t even have to be a genre I like. Could be, like, bluegrass or something.”

“...I miss Earth, Blake. I miss it so much.”

“Me too.”

“I miss the food, and the sounds, and the smells, and all of that. I miss movies and books and music and concerts and my family and... I... I miss feeling safe.”

All Blake could muster in response was a forlorn “...yeah...”. Almost as a matter of survival, he always did his best to avoid thinking about Earth and everything he was missing. His family, his friends, and everything else. But now it was unavoidable, and the thoughts emptied him out and left him feeling hollow inside.

A few minutes later, Blake let out a hiss of pain as a burning sensation ran up his spine.

“Oh, you felt that? That’s good,” Sofie commented. “Almost done. Just finishing applying alcohol and then we wrap you up and you should be a lot better.”

“...thanks,” he managed to say.

“You can thank me by showing me to our rooms,” Sofie replied.

“Hold on, I said that you could stay here for a little while, but I never said those other two could. Especially not the elf. Don’t trust him; he feels dangerous.”

“Well, give him a bit of money so he can afford an inn and food, at least,” she said. “He spent all his money getting us here and I owe him for a lot so it’s only fair. But Pari stays with me, period.”

“Yeah? And why should I agree to that?”

“Because she’s my precious sister, that’s why. I swore to protect her and take care of her and that’s not going to stop now.”

“And? She’s not my sister, and I sure didn’t swear anything. You’re already imposing too much on me.”

“But isn’t she super adorable and cute? Don’t you want to rub her ears and scratch her head and hear her purr?”

“She is cute, but she doesn’t even seem to like me anyway and I don’t need more distractions. You alone are bad enough.”

“Fine, if that’s how you want to play it, let me put it this way. If you don’t let her stay here, that means I won’t be able to supervise her. And an unsupervised Pari means that this city will be up in flames by the end of the week.”

“What?”

“Did you think Jerithim or I were the ones who ate through your floor? Nope, it was my little angel.”

“Hold on,” Blake sputtered, “you’re saying that that little girl created an acid-spewing death-weapon?!”

“Oh yeah, only took her half an hour too. She makes all kinds of things. Explosives, chemical weapons... the works.”

“You’re joking.”

“Totally serious, swear to God. So, unless you want somebody like that running around your city, unsupervised and bored out of her mind...”

“Uuuugh! Fine! She can stay here too. I already have one kid running around this place anyway, what’s one more? But you share the same room!”

“Glad you see it my way.”

A minute later, Sofie stepped back into view, hands on her hips as she admired her handiwork. “All done!” Sofie proclaimed.

“Thanks,” Blake begrudgingly said as he reformed the armor around the lower back and stood up.

“No problem. I’ll probably have to change the bandages every day for a while though. Anyway, did you say you have a kid? That seems very... unlike you.”

“Yeah, her name’s Samanta. I picked her up a while ago.”

“Where is she? I haven’t seen her.”

“Oh, she ran away last night.”

“She what?”

“Yeah, funny story... you know that ‘Resistance’ group we were talking about earlier?” he chuckled, smug as could be. “They somehow got a note to her offering to help her escape from my ‘evil clutches’. I have a robot that keeps track of her when I’m not around and it recorded the note so I found out about it pretty quickly. I figured, hey, why not let her go out for a bit? Let her blow off some steam--she’s been getting a bit snippy lately. I thought it would do her good to remember how shitty her countrymen are, since she’s spent so much time safe in here with me, and if she led me to them, hey, all the better. Oh yeah, that reminds me, I should send somebody to pick her up. I forgot all about her because you showed up.”

“You... you used a child as bait?!

“It was fine,” Blake said with a dismissive wave. “Nothing was going to happen to her. They said they wanted her to join them so they weren’t going to hurt her, and I was watching from above the whole time. She was perfectly sa-”

A fist struck him squarely in the jaw and his head rocked back.

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