The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice CXLI – The Midnight Sun

English: Planets, Incorporated

These places are so dangerous. Why don’t people stay in nice, safe, space?

And to continue with the adventures of Aikiko in the Underworld…

The area immediately around the Voidwell was about as close to abandoned as Coruscant got – but there were a few lonely or crazed souls hanging about the place. Some were lost in listening to the echoing memories of the Neverborn – but others were just hanging out where few would try to pursue them. A few were even trying to use it… after all, the Voidwell was one of the (very few) places where you could try to jump aboard a starship; while they were passing through the Void notions like “speed” – and the solidity of their hulls – were kind of… debatable.

Of course, if you missed, you’d pop out somewhere in the cosmos at random – but sometimes a spirit felt that it was worth the risk.

Naturally enough, there were patrols as well – just waiting to intercept (or at least pass on a warning about) whoever and whatever popped out of the Voidwell. One of those patrols was heading her way, guns drawn… It was too bad that she didn’t have a clipboard! Holding one of those authoritatively and looking impatient could get you past pretty much any official group!

Skoll proceeded to give her his full, annotated, sensory feed – showing weapons, essence-sources and ratings, artifacts, and rather a lot of other things. The summary said… 23 primary energy weapons (six boosted with esoteric underworld thaumaturgy), 14 side-arms (one a minor artifact, self-reloading, minor damage enhancements), 37 assorted blades (seven boosted with thaumaturgy, three minor Daiklaives), troop essence levels of 2-4 (4 classified as presumptive leader). It looked like the communications systems had already sent out a basic alert. Protective devices (surprisingly enough) apparently lagged behind offensive devices locally; most of the troops had only basic armor. There were some indications of Arcanoi, but nothing particularly major or threatening. Risk classification was “minimal.”

Geez! Targeting displays, energy-readouts, penetrating scans, suggested target priorities… Oh yeah! Skoll had been built… to personally break a Raksha horde of several billion. Normally she’d at least stop to talk in the face of that much firepower… but threat: “Minimal”?!?! Besides… did she really WANT to talk to the local authorities?

(Skoll) Suggested evasion; Mountain-Leaping Stride. Offensive weaponry is currently limited; two of the five primary manse-V power sources are down. Available Secondary Weapons Systems: Twin Heavy Implosion Bows, Daiklaive of Conquest, replication of any single Artifact IV weapon in design library. Primary weapons – Oblivion Lance and Godspear – are currently unpowered, due to unavailability of primary sources. Tertiary weapons (and the list went on).

Geez, the GODSPEAR? Somebody had REALLY done his homework!

(Aikiko) “Can you produce a cloaking field or something?”

(Skoll) “Manifestation of two Rank-IV or four Rank-III utility artifact systems available… Cloaking field engaged.”

(Aikiko) “OK… Well, a flight system and a stealth module for it then? Preferably turning on the stealth before the flight?”

They’d probably have Arcanoi for penetrating that kind of thing – it would be only sensible if they were stationed here – but once she got behind a few buildings it would probably be easy enough to lose them. Arcanoi… were of limited power and range!

The troops raised the alarm – but were easy enough to outrun.

(Aikiko) “What have you – we – got in the way of disguise artifacts? And… can they conceal your power level?”

(Skoll) “Limited disguise functions available; power level excessive for most such systems to conceal. By inference from primary directives it was not a design priority.”

(Aikiko) “Once we’re a bit further out switch to non-winged flight and I’ll use Flawlessly Impenetrable Disguise

The city… was becoming much more lively as they moved away from the Voidwell – and it looked futuristic? Shouldn’t the underworld reflect the past and be pretty primitive? Had the local living technology greatly outpaced Earths? The energy levels were registering as… close to those of Creation proper! It was still lower of course, but not by all that much. How weird! And this close to the Void, too? There HAD to be someplace to land and adjust the artifact setup around here somewhere…

It was easy enough to land on one of the roofs so far above the canyon-like streets. Most of the other traffic seemed to be aerial too.

And… dawn was breaking.

Aikiko watched! It was a bit of a first for her – and it might be tellingly different from Earth’s somehow!

The sun that rose was very small, but EXTREMELY brilliant. According to Skoll’s systems updates… it showed… a blackbody spectrum. Also, it was HOT – and the sun of the underworld was not known for it’s blazing heat! That was DEFINITELY not normal for the Underworld! Sure, her sources were doubtless out of date – it wasn’t like the Underworld and Yu-Shan were on friendly terms much of the time – and the Underworld was clearly MUCH bigger than it used to be – but that was still weird!

Wait; she’d emerged from what had once been the Well of Oblivion. Ergo… this had to be the modern version of Stygia. It SHOULD be near the Earth – although, on thinking about it… on the current scale, the local cluster of galaxies was so NEAR earth as to be equivalent to being only a few feet away from the center in the old days. So… anyone dying in that enormous radius might well wind up here. No wonder it was so busy for the afterlife. The population would be in the trillions, and that might be lowballing it. That still didn’t explain the Sun – unless it was… dying stars? They might still have some faint links to the Loom, and they had to go someplace when they died too. They might well be powering that star up in the sky right now.

While she was watching (and still cloaked) a group of people emerged onto the roof. They… were followed by several slaves and constructs carrying… inflating chairs, a folding table, some snack foods, and what looked like equipment for some sort of ball game. There were courts over to one side. They looked… surprisingly healthy for dead people. Even MORE weird! Some effect of the sun perhaps? Was it intense enough to actually give dead people a tan?

She consulted with Charles… Half of his answer was likely to be wild theorizing – and it would be impossible to tell which half it was – but he was still one of the cleverest and luckiest guessers that she’d ever met!

Besides… her own roll had been absolutely terrible.

(Charles) “Well… traditionally the underworld is energy-poor, and decaying, and teetering on the edge of dissipation, because it’s FED from Creation with the energy carried along by dying creatures – and that’s not very much compared to the energies of creation proper! To make it so… lifelike, SOMETHING must be feeding ENORMOUS amounts of energy in – enough to let things in distant orbits climb away from the minimal energy levels of the classic underworld… Er… the place you describe sounds kind of… familiar. Does it remind YOU of anything?”

(Aikiko sighed resignedly) “Yeah, it looks a lot like Star Wars’ Coruscant… Wait, you don’t think someone took ‘Death Star’ literally, do you? Though it’d be more Life Star, wouldn’t it?”

(Charles) “Huh… “at the center of the Galaxy”… Gah! Do you think it’s orbiting the Galactic Black Hole? That would be a pretty LITERAL “Star of Death!”

(Aikiko) “It’s possible…”

Even with Skoll’s sensors it was almost impossible to make out much about what the rest of the “stars” looked like… Between backscatter from the “Sun”, what seemed to be a monstrous number of ships in orbit (oh, of course… they could fish lost ships from across the universe out of the Voidwell!), all the towers, and the rest of the stuff, not even Skoll could see through hundreds of miles of junk. And at night… there would be a tremendous amount of artificial light.

(Aikiko) “Well, I’ll try to take a look around. This is really weird!”

She ducked into a nest of rooftop vents, swapped out the wings for a disguise module and an essence-signature damper – and took on the appearance of a normal ghost. It was going to be pretty fragile and it wouldn’t survive serious probing or much physical contact – Skoll had a LOT of power to try to hide and he was still made of metal and crystal rather than ectoplasm – but she’d just have to deal with that!

Skoll… had been checking the available local computer networks – although their security was unexpectedly good! On a level with the first age! About all he could access was public information – and there was no evidence that the Mask of Winters was ANYWHERE around Coruscant. The place seemed… well, not quite what he’d be likely to make somehow.

Hm. How to get down to street level? Jump and climb out of the resulting crater? Leap from aircar to aircar until she was down? Levitation disk?

Aikiko decided not to be silly, went inside, and took a public lift-shaft. It looked like coming UP was restricted to upper-level residents, but going down was open – and the place had… 1024 floors, at about twenty feet per floor – although at least a hundred floors were underground.

Wow. Even for the afterlife-world for the local group of galaxies (according to Charles, by far the most densely-populated area of the cosmos) that implied a LOT of ghosts… Well, down to street level to see how most of them lived!

That actually turned out to be below where the majority of the ghosts lived – but there were still plenty down there! The streets seemed to be… lower class. It reminded her a bit of some of the Asian cities crossed with Mardi Gras (due to all the aliens). The aliens… appeared to be very definitely lower class, unless they were very close to human. There were LOTS of people selling stuff, lots of drinking, lots of shows, and other stuff too… looking at the Kadian database, that was closer to the original trilogy than the newer versions.

A closer look at what was on sale showed a wide variety of items. There seemed to be three basic levels of quality though; whipped up from ectoplasm (cheap, fragile, and short-lived – although a lot of the “food” seemed to fall into that category, given that “eating” really wasn’t relevant to most of them except out of habit), made from general underworld materials (which were about as enduring as normal materials were in creation), and the (scarce) stuff that was destroyed in Creation (very enduring – starting at least on the level of thaumaturgically-enhanced stuff in Creation). The ectoplasm crafters were mostly working where beams of “sunlight” were making it through the maze above; they seemed to be using the light as raw materials somehow… Actual “Grave Goods”, Artifacts, and magical materials generally didn’t seem to be available on the streets though – although there WERE a few slaves up for sale – mostly aliens.

Probably a good place to buy a datapad at least! The currency system seemed to be… some sort of credit system for high-level stuff, essence-coins for moderate purchases (it looked like those could be made by anyone with the knack and four motes to spare, but they were good for powering all kinds of things and thaumaturgical spells – so they didn’t tend to inflate much). For small change there were coins of Underworld gold, silver, copper, and stranger metals.

The coins should be easy enough to replicate with a swap of artifacts. Skoll didn’t have one in his databanks – but Charles was perfectly willing to provide a design for an essence-coin pocket. Aikiko went shopping for datapads (and badly frightened a pickpocket or two who found that what they FELT was nothing like what they saw).

This just kept getting stranger… there had to be SOMETHING making this place more vibrant than the rest of the Underworld!

There were plenty of people – well, wraiths – selling such things. Ease of use was a factor though, since it was unfamiliar technology. The high-end models seemed to be… voice and touch-screen using Old Realm (although an English plug-in module was available) – basically a cross between laptops and smartphones.

They were quite eager to make sales – and one salesman (with a lucky eight successes on six dice) managed to sell her a datapad, an english plug-in module, a japanese plug-in module, a data plan, and quite a lot of accessories…

Her essence-coins were, of course, of shiny, radiant, gold, rather than the usual dull black of the Underworld. THAT… created a ripple of silence about her…

(Vendor) “Where did you get THOSE coins?”

Well… they WERE glowing with a healthy solar radiance – rather unlike the pure white of the local “sun”. Uh oh. She should have taken a look BEFORE going to spend them, and maybe put an illusion on them. Dang it! She hadn’t thought of that problem! Maybe if she got Charles to send through a few motes? He had LOTS of different kinds!

And that filled up her pouch with… Elemental coins of sapphire, emerald, ruby, tourmaline, and diamond, of sparkling tinted Sidereal crystal, of radiant Lunar silver, of green-and-gold florite for Aden, iridescent disks of strange metals flashing all the colors of the rainbow (and some colors that were tasted, or smelled, or felt, or heard rather than being visible) for the wyld, a few of carved ivory from the Kickaha, some wooden coins from nature gods, and even a few REALLY strange Primordial metals and stones!

Plus more solar gold of course.

Just as confusing as Charles’s actual Essence signature.

That still left her with the “What to say” dilemma! Telling the truth might lead to dire consequences, but there surely weren’t too many places around here where someone would find coins like that!

Mental Invisibility Technique it was, even if that DID sacrifice her change!

There was much excitement as she vanished – although at least a couple of ghosts still seemed to see her. That was to be expected really… likely heroic ghosts. Still, it gave her an excellent chance to take her leave (and to try to avoid blatant solar charm use; that might be a dead giveaway if the right or wrong people heard about it!

There was a lot of speculation and gossip starting up, a few people making calls, people taking pictures of the area – and two of the ones who saw her were trying to edge up next to her and talk out of the corners of their mouths…

(Ghost) “Hey there… Have you got, like a cult, or a link to the living world or something? Coins like THAT… nobody HERE can make them unless something REALLY weird is going on!”

That did stop her. She hadn’t really thought about THAT option!

(Aikiko) “Something like that, yeah… I wasn’t expecting the coins to look like THAT!”

The second one who had been approaching – and the third who saw her… were losing themselves in the crowd FAST. The one who was talking looked nervous – and rather eager.

(Ghost) “Ah… You’re… alive aren’t you? And more than human… You’ve never made coins before or you’d know how they’d turn out, and you didn’t have to study how to do it, and you had enough essence available to make a handful at once! That’s a LOT of power! A god perhaps? Why here?”

(Aikiko) “Why do you want to know?”

And for a moment it was obvious that he was dead, and hungry, and… sort of lost. Predatory… and more than a bit pathetic at the same time.

(Ghost) “Well… It’s not like I hear it USED to be – but ties with the living world are REALLY useful! And knowing someone powerful there is even better!”

Ah! A ghost with no one to pray to him, no grave goods, and no connections? Of course, these days, MOST ghosts probably didn’t have any ancestor cults or grave goods. What fraction DID wind up in the underworld these days? It couldn’t be very large, or even a city-planet would be buried beneath the dead of several galaxies…

In fact… he didn’t look QUITE human, and he had a rather odd accent in Old Realm, and he’d obviously gotten a fairly advanced education somewhere.

(Aikiko, quietly) “We should go someplace less public. I think I can manage some more coins there, away from prying eyes.”

Her new acquaintance was happy to go somewhere less public; there are lots of darker corners down at street level.

(Aikiko) “Right. There’s got to be some way to HIDE the Essence signs on these. You wouldn’t happen to be a thaumaturge, would you?”

She probably wasn’t skilled enough for alchemical transmutation, if it was even possible, so Illusion it would probably have to be! It should be reasonably practical if she pushed it a bit.

(Ghost) “Ah, I know some of that! Still… that will be difficult; perhaps you would be best off just trading it for other coins?”

Oh of course. Money-changing and laundering would be a big business on a world like this. There were probably currencies from half a dozen galaxies in circulation.

(Aikiko) “Probably… know any markets that’ll keep coin from the living quiet?”

(Ormendante) Ah, that is no great service! My name is Ormendante by the way, (Sighing), once of the Reiskaer Tienken-El-Asvarin, now – sadly enough – of Coruscant.

Hm! Of the “Defiance of Night”? Or perhaps of the “City that Defies the Night”? That was kind of interesting!

(Aikiko) “I’m Kiko! Nice to meet you, Ormendante! Now let’s get these coins changed…”

While giving out her real name, or a nickname of it, might not be the best idea they WERE a bit secluded. Would it be gauche to ask how he died? He didn’t seem like the type to care about Underworld etiquette… Why not? At worst it would be an invitation for bragging and stories and the guy certainly didn’t look like he got a lot of entertainment…

(Aikiko) “So… how did you die, anyway?”

(Ormendante) “Ah (sadly)… I was part of a planet-side search team – the area we had to search was essence-shielded – and we were unexpectedly attacked by some rather nasty creature… some sort of blasted guardian-beasts on an old site I think. I…never did find out what was going on; all I know about that was we came up on some ancient pyramid, there was a blur of movement – and suddenly I was dead, and being pulled across the space of the underworld to here… I hope that the rest of the team got out all right; whatever it was must have been pretty nasty; I WAS wearing issue-armor, and that came along – but it’s got rather limited usefulness HERE.”

(Aikiko) “It must’ve been important for you to have to… beam down?”

(Ormendante) “We took a shuttle; transportation effects might have been disrupted by the essence-shielding, and that can get pretty nasty!”

(Aikiko) “Ah.” (Yes, that was right… the transporter was ALWAYS having problems and leaving the away teams stranded in hostile territory… Just how much of the universe was reflected in Earth’s popular fiction?) “Well, what were you looking for?”

(Ormendante) “The readings said that one of the elders might be trapped there – and finding them IS the reason for the Search of course!”

(Aikiko) “Tell me more about this search…”

Ormendante spent a little while explaining the Jadeborn’s Great Search – at least as far as he knew its history. Still, between the libraries of Aden and her own information… that was enough to fill in most of the picture. So THAT was what had happened to the Jadeborn! That was… epic and sad and desperate and noble all at once. She had to admire their patience and determination though; they must have built up the greatest fleet in Creation by now!

Skoll put up with it quite patiently; after all… if their Great Search was that widespread, they might know where the Master was!

Aikiko let Charles know; he’d mentioned them and he’d certainly be interested in where Creations greatest race of artificers had gotten to!

(Charles) “Ooh… No wonder they were so hard to find! That’s a really big project too!”

(Aikiko) “And at least one of their… kids?… has gotten himself stuck in an afterlife I’m pretty sure he wasn’t expecting. You wouldn’t happen to have a place for him, would you? He doesn’t seem very happy here!”

(Charles) “Huh! Well… the Spirit Sanctum Manse should be able to reach him… but I can’t really make him alive again without changing a lot of his personality; attaching a new lower soul sort of revises all the emotional patterns – and doing THAT without Lethe will cause him all kinds of upset and confusion… it might be a more interesting place to stay though!”

(Aikiko) “It’s worth a try!” (To Ormendante) “Hey, I just asked my Essence source about doing you a favor! You’ll be in a place more interesting than here, and you might even be able to get in touch with your friends there.” (To Charles) “If he accepts, what does he need to do?”

(Charles) “Hm… Well, he’s a spirit, so he can travel over essence links… So I’ll just send one his way!”

(Aikiko) “Okay, got it!”

(Aikiko, to Ormendante) “All you have to do is accept the spiritual link when it comes!”

A few moments later… a blaze of green-gold essence flooded the area, washing over the streets and buildings in a substantial radius.

(Ormendante) “So welcoming… and so much POWER! What IS this friend of yours?”

(Aikiko) “Not even I’m sure, but he likes to help and fix things! You’ll probably meet him soon enough-he calls himself Aden Shining Dream sometimes.”

(Ormendante) “Huh… Well, I’ll give it a try!”

He stepped across.

Meanwhile… there was a LOT of excitement outside (and not a few hitchhikers on the link). Aikiko waved – and then tried to get the heck out of the area!

(Skoll) “This activity seems incompatible with stealth.”

(Aikiko) “Well… I wasn’t expecting the link to be THAT dramatic!”

Skoll had a good point there! Setting mile-wide sections of the city glowing with brilliant arcs of living essence might just make her the least stealthy Night Caste ever! Perhaps a trip back to the Voidwell, and then the Labyrinth, might be best? There really didn’t seem to be much here that wouldn’t wait.

That and there had to be SOME way to get out of Skoll, even if she had to do some Charm research while trapped inside! Still… it was the most COMFORTABLE adventure she’d ever been on, and Aden DID make enormous amounts of magical power available to everyone.

Oh wait! She was still… remotely present in Kadia, and Charles HAD offered to attune her to a bunch of power-boosting and charm-bestowing manses. Why not? That would give her.., a good deal more in the way of power to work with, over and above her personal powers and the Adenic Thaumaturgy.

That turned out to be quick, easy, and surprisingly effective… The kid really DID have a manse for pretty much EVERYTHING.

Unfortunately, as Skoll approached the Voidwell… there was a full military unit waiting, with sensory gear, heavey weapons, warstriders/mecha, and demands that Skoll surrender. Not good, not good! She was pretty sure that not even Skoll could stand up to that level of firepower, not without damage – and her magical skills weren’t really at Charles’ skill level, or even close! Skoll has some really potent weaponry, but so did the warstriders!

The targeting and data displays were kind of overwhelming…

Oh heck. Skoll was DESIGNED for this sort of thing! She consulted him!

(Skoll) “Threat to unit; Minimal. Possible feedback hazard to occupant if essence-exhaustion occurs.”

Urg… Indestructible, right, but there would be bleed-through past the dimensional interface to HER. That much firepower… could probably mote-tap her soon enough, even WITH the boosts from all those manses! Well… she could stall for at least a few seconds! She’d have to think fast!

Wait. Why was Skoll letting HER make all the decisions? Was it just that, in the absence of any programmed directives, he would default to whoever had his ear?

Skoll was more or less expecting that she’d decide to pretty much just wade through the entire unit… After all, Aikiko was a Solar, that was what they DID. Still, the matter had no relevance to his objectives, and therefore could safely be left to Aikiko’s decisions. A comparison between the expected odds of attempting to search the cosmos for the Mask of Winters at it’s current scale and relying on the narrative imperative to cause a coincidental encounter… favored relying on narrative imperative by two hundred orders of magnitude. It was one of the strongest of all forces after all – and Exalts were major foci for it. Keeping his coincidence-drawing captive happy by doing whatever irrelevant thing she wanted just kept her from trying so hard to escape – and his systems had been designed to contain the relatively-static Unconquered Sun, not a Solar who could be expected to actively develop new abilities. If she kept trying… she would succeed eventually. Therefore it would be best to keep her otherwise occupied as long as possible.

One Response

  1. […] The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice CXLI – The Midnight Sun: Aikiko on Coruscant, the Great Search revealed, Underworld Economics, Skoll takes the Offensive. […]

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