“Who ever said that fate is a good thing?”
I lower the detailed map and look up. The fort is waiting for us quietly. There is no sign that our warband was detected. “Is everyone in place?”
“The warband is ready, leader. I am just not sure if we should trust these maps and suggestions. They strike me as... poorly planned.” My second in command swings his large club and points at the fort which protects the border. “I can't believe that the white-skins are stupid enough to have a major trading town just a few miles behind the fort.”
I use one callused finger to scratch my temple. “That's why I trust these plans.”
“What!?” My second calls out and clicks his teeth together, showing his disbelief.
“If this really is yet another plot by the Sociocrathy, then they went through an enormous effort to make it look real. There are easier ways to weaken us than to supply us with enough weapons to take out all the forts at the border.” I return my attention to the map. “This was provided by someone who wants to mess with the Sociocrathy.”
He isn't convinced. “It still doesn't mean that this isn't a trap. Rahar, you are one of the few who were allowed to study our old scrolls. We can't lose you.”
“You are right, my old friend. But this is too important. We might never again get such a chance.” When the empire drove our people to Westfall, they took our land and our pride. They didn't take our wits, knowledge, or our determination to survive. Only a few selected students are allowed to study our history and to receive a proper education. There are simply not enough resources to allow for everyone to be educated properly.
I sneer and spit onto the ground. “You are completely right, and that's why we changed the plan. We won't take out each fort, as suggested. We take down this fort with all our troops and occupy it. Then we simply push through to less well-defended territory in order to gather more supplies. If we encounter resistance, we retreat. We only fight when it's to our advantage.”
My second sighs. “Guerilla tactics! What would our ancestors think? Our honour-”
I don't allow him to speak further and growl. Stepping towards him, I slap my open palm onto his chest, pushing him back. “Our ancestors fought like honourable fools! That's why we, their children, have to live in this desert while the white-skins grow fat in our fertile lands. What do you think will happen if we form a large army? One of their airships will be enough to scatter us in all directions.”
I shake my head. “That will only get a lot of our warriors killed. First, we need more resources to convince the other clans that this isn't yet another hopeless rebellion. That's why we need to take the fort intact. Its magical defences can withstand a few airships, so it will take a few days for the Sociocrathy to take it back. Enough time for our raiding party to retreat back into the desert.”
My second huffs. “Okay. What about the town? Can we eat the villagers? Enslave them like they do to our kind?”
I ball my hand into a fist and barely restrain my rage. Why do I have to work with these grunts? We really need to convince the other protectors of knowledge that this isn't a fool's quest. “Didn't I just explain that we do this to get resources? Slaves will need provisions. We don't have any food to spare. Force the civilians to flee and take what they leave behind. If the Sociocrathy has to care for refugees, they will have fewer resources to deal with us. Don't take any prisoners. Force them to flee.”
My second nods. I am well aware that he isn't fond of my strategy, but I am not here to please him. My goal is to free my people and to recapture the green and fertile lands at the northern coastline. We will force the white-skins back to the mountains and their meadows.
After receiving Kerrigan's report, I place the communication crystal back inside the drawer. My spy network is developing quite nicely.
Absentmindedly, I release the noise dampening barrier around the kitten. Even if grandma Janice can use the kitten to listen in on my communications, I doubt that the kitten can pick up something which it can't hear. Slipping through a barrier is one thing. Being inside a closed off space is different.
I don't even want to assume that the kitten can pick up noise from outside the barrier. If it's capable of something so sophisticated, then I might as well give up and call Janice the winner.
Leaning back, I place both legs on top of my office chair. I think that I actually have some free time on my hands. The fairies got their quarters and are now my loyal servants... ahem... allies of Illum. This evening, we will have a meeting to discuss their future part in my weapon program. Their skills in miniaturization will allow me to create more sophisticated rockets and power cores. Maybe I'll even manage something like a real CPU. They are truly a gift from the gods, assuming that such entities exist.
But that's for later. I turn my attention to the kitten and a sudden idea strikes me. Now I know the perfect name for it! I lift the kitten into the air above me, treating it as if it's an item of worship. “I name thee-”
The door to my office bursts open and Janice enters the room, followed by Zane. “Hello! I hope that we're not bothering you, but I need your laboratory. The facilities on my flagship aren't equipped well enough to conduct the experiments which I have in mind.”
“Experiments!?” Zane shrieks. “I thought that you know what you are doing!”
They continue to bicker, but I don't listen. Instead, I talk to myself. “Did you ever have the feeling that you just found the answer to a profound problem? Something which would solve all your issues? And then you get distracted and it slips your mind!” I lower the kitten and get to my feet. “What do you want?”
“... told you that what you wish for involves dangers. If I knew how to awaken you safely, I would call it a procedure.” Janice turns towards me. “Although it is unlikely to succeed, Zane volunteered to become one of us. I need to conduct some experiments in order to strengthen his soul.”
“Aha...” I study Janice for several long moments. Essentially, I am waiting for her to reveal her statement as bullshit.
She isn't faced by my reaction and points at the hidden stairway. “You are welcome to watch. It would help to further your studies.”
She isn't bullshitting me! “Why exactly, should I allow you two to conduct such an experiment?” I have my own plans for Zane. It would be troublesome if he 'offs' himself. On the other hand, watching such an experiment would be very interesting.
Zane crosses his arms in front of his chest. “Because I want to become stronger! Janice told me what you two are. How can I be of proper service if you are centuries ahead of me!”
“Come on, Nova. I promise to do my best.” Janice smiles wickedly.
Giving in to my curiosity, I open the staircase. “And what if something goes wrong? I won't be the one who explains Zane's death to Oswin.” I hate to be the messenger of such news. There is all the crying, the tears, and the anger. It's no fun. Then I realize what Zane said. I turn to Janice. “You told him about reincarnation and he believed you!?”
How did the two of them get to conspire with each other? No. More importantly, why does Zane want these experiments? Does he have some kind of inferiority complex?
Janice grabs Zane's hand pulls him down the stairway. “Oh, we simply got to talk about this and that. Zane complained about his lot in life. Did you know that your boy-toy is very ambitious? He doesn't want to be just pleasurable. He wants to be useful!”
Zane almost chokes on his own reply when he tries to deny Janice’s words and the Sovereign shuts him up with a quick jab to his throat.
“Boy-toy?” I quickly follow them down the stairway and into my laboratory. “I don't believe that you have any right to judge my relationships with-”
Janice raises a hand to stop me. “Uh- uh! I never said that I am against it. Your preferences are your beer. This is an issue between me and Zane. You have nothing to do with it. I only need to borrow your equipment.”
“Exactly! You are using my equipment!” I walk forward and position myself between Janice and the table which is loaded with tools and equipment. It’s the stuff which we used for our soul-research.
She raises an eyebrow and smiles at me. “Could it be that you feel protective of Zane? I thought that you don't care about relationships with other people? Are you afraid of losing your toy?”
Drawing in a sharp breath, I step out of her way. “Do what you want!”
No! She is playing with my feelings! I have to play my role properly. Joyce would never allow slavery or human experiments. Changing my mind I bar her way again. “You won't play with me! Nobody gets to use my equipment for human experiments!”
Janice turns her attention to Zane. “I told you that-”
“Fuck!” I step out of her way. “I'll watch very carefully! Don't do something stupid!”
Zane whistles softly and looks at Janice. “You really have to teach me. I never saw someone who could get under her skin.”
I kick his shin.
“Ow! What's wrong with you!?” Wincing, he hops up and down on his remaining leg.
“Calm down, children.” Janice ignores us and steps towards the workbench. She gathers some tools and starts building something. In the process, she dismantles some of the gear which we used to prove the existence of souls and the multiverse. Her quick and nimble fingers quickly reassemble the parts into something new.
Of course, I pay her all of my attention. It isn't necessary to explain every little detail, but she still gives me some hints here and there. What she is building looks like one of those old-fashioned hair dryers which you can pull over your entire head. A helmet. The quartz and crystal cartridges which were used inside our detection gear are now used as emitters.
Her 'creation' slowly takes shape. It looks like a headgear with lightning rods. It's clear that she wants to stimulate Zane's soul with a direct infusion of energy. That's doesn't strike me as a safe method. Even if it works...
I turn to my 'boy-toy'. “Zane, I think that you should reconsider the idea.”
He crosses his arms in front of his chest, letting through the arrogant noble. “Why should I? I am convinced that this is the only path forward. You have no right to give me instructions regarding this! This concerns my personal life. I am not like you, playing with a person's personal life until he ends up as a traitor to his country and his fiancée!”
I wince. Only half of it was really planned. The traitor thing simply happened. How was it my fault? It’s not like I have any deep insight into the politics behind the human king. Nonetheless, it concerns me if I lose an employee because of it. “I just want you to know that she apparently plans to supercharge your soul with a direct energy infusion.”
“Nova is right. I already warned you about the dangers and even if I have to repeat myself, this isn't a safe method. We have no idea how much your soul can take. The idea is to create a feedback inside your soul, which rebounds memories of a former life back to you.”
“It’s not like I understand the theory behind it. Can’t you give me numbers?” Zane asks.
“Fifty-fifty,” Janice answers and takes one of the power cords and attaches it to her apparatus, routing the emitters together. “We have to hit your soul's wavelength exactly, or it won't work. My assumption is that once the rebound happens, your consciousness will be flooded with all your soul's memories. A natural reincarnator experiences very small rebounds, getting only a few memories at a time.”
Janice arranges a few of my magnetic coils next to the emitters. I've seen those used in brain experiments. A sufficiently strong electromagnetic field is able to shut down certain parts of the brain. I'll have to ask her later why that's needed.
She gives Zane a serious look. “I won't be able to control the rebound in your case. A large one is very likely to happen. You have to stay in control. Don't get overwhelmed by your memories. Stick to your identity as Zane, or you will likely end up insane. You have to control the rebound and concentrate on the memories of your strongest reincarnations. Otherwise, you could end up with nothing and this whole exercise will be pointless.” She finishes her apparatus by plugging it into the control circuit of my measuring equipment.
I nod vehemently. “Do you understand now? She will fry your brain. Don’t do it.”
The idiot ignores me. “I'll do it.”
Janice gestures at a stool and raises her creation. Zane sits down and she lowers the helmet onto his head. “Are you ready? Remember, you have to control the memories!”
He will get his brain fried. That’s what will happen. But those two clearly made up their minds before they requested access to my facilities. I step back to gain some distance, already plotting various stories for Oswin to explain how his son ended up as a vegetable.
Zane nods a final time and Janice takes it upon herself to manipulate the controls of her apparatus. A blue glow around the helmet is the only thing that indicates that something is happening. It's not like Zane is sitting inside an electrical chair, but his facial expression slackens. Half of his face is relaxed, while the rest is contorted as if he is in pain. It looks like cerebral apoplexy.
Janice is still at the controls. “That's good. Concentrate! Don't get overwhelmed!”
It lasts for a few seconds. Unavoidably, Zane starts drooling, sullying his clothes. By observing his aura, I notice it changing colours. Seeing a soul's aura was the first skill which Janice taught me. It's essential in order to recognize other reincarnated people and I'll be eternally grateful for that.
Remembering that this isn't exactly a scene which is approved for children, I cover the kitten's eyes.
“I think that's enough.” Janice switches off the power and steps forward to rescue the helmet, pulling it off of Zane's head.
Zane falls off the stool. It's as if he is a boneless piece of flesh. His head impacts the ground and bounces several times before he lies still. Then the twitching starts, reminding me that Zane has more problems than a simple bruise on his head. We watch him carefully.
At last, Zane regains some control over his body. He curls up into a foetal position and starts sucking on his thumb.
“Zane, are you okay?” Janice lowers the helmet onto the table.
He shakes his head, tears in his eyes. His voice is muffled, but clearly understandable. “Fuck no! You never told me about the possibilities!”
Well, at least he seems to be lucid and himself. “Possibilities?” I ask.
“I concentrated on my longest life. The one in which I was the most powerful.” He shudders. “I was a woman! By the gods! I had no idea. And there were other lives! And in most of them, I was a woman! What's wrong with this reincarnation business!?”
Janice flicks her finger and points down at Zane. “I totally forgot to mention the psychological side effects of what happens if the experiment does succeed. But all in all, I think that we can call it a success! Don't worry, Zane, you will get used to it. Happens to all of us. Though... I admit that it might be a little shocking to find out that your soul tends towards the female side.”
“Wha...” He tries to form the word, but it seems like he is still a little out of it.
“Oh, my god. I never expected that it would really work! Now we have to explain so much to you. First of all… ugh… this is like explaining the flowers and the bees to a child. Yeah, you see. Most of the time, people end up with the same gender in their reincarnations. But once in a while we roll dirt and get to see the other side of the coin. It's interesting to find out that this can also happen to normal souls. It must be horrible to find your true self like that...” Janice continues her monologue, fascinated by this discovery.
“True self?” Zane moans and starts rocking back and forth. “Why didn't you tell me...”
I step towards him and hunker down, placing the kitten next to him. With one arm wrapped around my knees, I pat his head and run my fingers through his soft hair. “Don't worry. The important thing is not to get so hung up about it. It's just a body. Your hormones might make you swing towards something which you aren't used to, but that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it. Just take the equipment which fate handed you and use it. You will learn that soon enough.”
He doesn't look convinced. His miserable sight reminds me of my own situation, so I want to cheer him up. At least a little. “I am not lying. I know exactly how it feels like. We are in the same boat!”
“S… s… same!? You… are… I…” His eyes turn upwards in their sockets and he passes out.
Screw it! It didn't go so well. That’s what I get for attempting to be nice.
Suddenly Janice hugs me from the side. “Nova, I am so sorry. You should have told me. To experience such a fate when you are actually a-mpfh!”
My hand on her mouth shuts her up. “Shut up! Don't say it! Never even talk about it!” Using all my strength, I try to push her away, but she holds onto me with all her might.
“Let go of me, or I'll hit you!”