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End of Dreaming Side Stories

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It’s not easy to lead thousands of people.  It’s harder when you’re replacing a reliable incumbent who could see the future.

Wade is deified somewhat in the eyes of the civilians of Providence.  Everything he told them has come to pass.  The Big One.  The fall of the Federated Skyfleet.  The rise of the Valse Faction.  The Flotilla War.  The end of the United Nations.  The Skywar.

They’re happy enough to go along with his last order:  land in the Catskills, eighty miles or so northwest of the NYC ruins, and convert the ship into a ground settlement.  But as with any final order from a vanished religious figure, the interpretations vary greatly.

There are people who think the Defense Force should be dissolved, that they should draw up a constitution and vote on new leadership.  There are people who think they should start trying to grow real plants again, that the matter synths should be used only for medicine, just in case the wear-and-tear of food construction could contribute to breakdown.  There are people who think they should be building weapons and defensive systems, and people who think they should be preparing a counterstrike against the Valse Faction.  There are people who think they should stay on the ship, even landed, rather than risk going out into the ash and radiation.

Juliet honestly has no idea what she’s doing.

Mike and Katie are supportive, but it’s not like they know what to do, either.

The old regime is gone.  No more X-Men, no more Avengers.

All she’s got is her chain of command and a little schooling about politics and sociology.

She shoots down the idea of voting on new leadership.  They need the last remnants of military structure from the Defense Force if they’re going to survive things like scavenger raids.  She lets them work on that new constitution of theirs while she plans the settlement and supervises the work.

They dig into the mountain with some laser drills Stark put on the carriers for that purpose.  After the digging is done, they move the shield emitters (they have to move the ship’s secondary computer in order to coordinate the controls).  As soon as that’s done, they move the photonic converter (they drilled a light shaft for it), the air processors, and the matter synths, and start packing people in.

“What about the radiation?” a man demands, pointing out the window to the smothered sunlight and the ash-covered ground.

“We ran the scans,” Juliet tells him.  “It’s ten mils a year in the caverns, and you’ll get more radiation poisoning from a dental X-Ray than walking from here to there.”

“But we don’t have dental X-Rays anymore, and don’t we have less than two mils a year on the carrier?”

She growls.  “Ten mils a year will barely even faze your body.  The state of California was rocking eight a year before the Big One.  This ship is being dismantled whether you like it or not—you can leave and face forty mils a year elsewhere or stay and take your ten.  Manhattan’s still glowing, so I wouldn’t recommend trying that way.”

He shuts up.  For about five seconds.  “Who the hell put you in charge?!” he yells.

And because Juliet has had a long, trying day (long month, long year, long decade), she shoves him against the bulkhead and holds her claws up to his face.  “I am Commander Juliet Richards of the Sovereign Nation of Providence, and as such I am the senior surviving officer and de facto leader.  I have been a military tactician for Providence for the past twenty years.  I have lost every single member of my extremely hard-to-kill family and I was given the solemn responsibility of defending eighteen thousand, six hundred and seventy-one civilians by the Supreme Commander himself.  If you don’t like it, that’s fine by me—I’ll only have eighteen thousand, six hundred and seventy left to worry about.”

He gapes.  The claws tend to have that effect on people.

She takes a long breath and steps back.  “Now pack your shit and get off my ship so it can be broken down to finish up our settlement.  What you do after that is no concern of mine.”

God, she hates civilians sometimes.  It’s like they don’t know the damn definition of ‘sovereignty.’

A few nearby duck their heads when she passes, clutching their packs and duffels and makeshift carts and meekly joining the line.

She understands now why it had to be her.  In the beginning, anybody who doubted Wade shut up when he said ‘play nice or I’ll throw you out an airlock,’ because they knew he could and would do it.  So since she’s strong and has half a dozen six-inch claws that can cut through certain metals, they’ll keep quiet long enough for her to become the status quo.

It’s not very nice, but there it is.  Their position is too isolated and precarious for real democracy, and their population is too big for proper socialism.  They’ll have to remain a sovereignty for the foreseeable future.

Moving the people is the most annoying part of this whole process.  They bicker about space, about arrangement, about neighbors.  Juliet lets her aide (Madiah, who’s been a SHIELD administrative aide for thirty years and was a field agent before that) handle it.

Moving and converting supplies, however, is the most time-consuming part.

Dismantling the carrier would go much faster with more manpower, or with a high-level meta helping out.  Shit.  Rachel would’ve been a ton of help.  So would Carol, but drinking yourself to death tends to keep you from helping out twenty years down the line.

She can’t recruit from the civilians yet, either—they have to secure the weapons and computers first.  Only fleet personnel can handle that stuff (god knows what a civilian would do to or with such dangerous and sensitive equipment).

As a result, she ends up doing most of the heavy lifting.

It takes an entire day before a young man sheepishly comes forward and confesses to having the ability of telekinesis.  He’s no Rachel, but he’s pretty strong, and it turns out he has a knack for taking apart the bulkheads.

Juliet still does most of the heavy lifting (restricted tech is restricted tech), but disassembly speeds up.

Once all the classified tech has been moved, they break the Dayspring down starting at the top.  Juliet calls the civilians together and asks for labor volunteers—and then she offers the chance to join the Defense Force.

“You’ll be trained and armed,” she tells them.  “Meta-human abilities are useful, but not necessary.  The only requirement to join is a commitment to the safety of the citizens of Providence.”

She gets seven right away (including the telekinetic from before), pushing through the crowds to her.  She memorizes their names and faces.  New links in the chain.  Fresh growth in the forest.

The Fleet Defense Force is nine strong.  One telekinetic, one thermal manipulator, and one technopath.  It’s a start.

When they finally have the Dayspring stripped down to the main officers’ deck, Juliet sees her quarters again for the first time since the retreat.

Ah.  That’s what their settlement’s been missing.

She takes one last load of steel to their warehouse and goes to the central cavern, the gathering area.  In the glow of makeshift lighting, she picks a place to start and extends one claw.

Gradually, people take notice.  Most of them never knew or even heard of the people whose names she’s carving, but they can see what she’s doing and the sentiment behind it.  Someone pulls an old pocketknife and starts to cut a name of his own, clumsily.  Other tools surface, other people start to carve, other names appear.

Juliet runs out of names that she can remember.  There are hundreds on the wall, maybe thousands; nothing like the number on Wade’s walls, and some of the names are civilians, but it’s a start.  She can go through the personnel databanks later and finish the job.

As it should be, the first name is the biggest.

She turns to the people working beside her, and the people gathered to watch, and settles her hand against the deep groove of the O in ‘Tom Shepherd.’  “It always starts with one,” she reminds them.

They nod, but they don’t really know what she’s talking about.  They think they do, but they don’t.  Katie’s going to be important, and she’d be dead if it weren’t for Tommy.

The need for sleep finally hits her.  Staying awake for a week can make the Sandman’s touch hit like a ton of bricks.  She doesn’t know how she gets to her new room, but she pauses to carve her family’s names on the wall over her bed.

She’ll never get to see how important it is that she passed on Wade’s lesson.



Chapter Text

CausEffect (Start With One)


There is no name for the mish-mash shared language the Liberators speak.

Naava’s ancestors were from someplace called ‘Africa,’ and he grew up in Camp 25.  It was cold there, and windy, up in a mountain basin with livable rads.  The Master wants his slaves to survive, after all.  Hard to pick and choose the best mutations if all the mutants are dead.

Then Kadi and Matya came, in the dead of night, crushing the Master’s machines like brittle clay and cutting down the armed human guards with fierce-looking claws.  Naava was amazed by the two young women—mutant, and powerful, but without the mark of the Master’s brand on their wrists.  Free mutants!

Their rescuers didn’t understand any of the languages in the camp, and no one in the camp could understand the language the sisters spoke.  It was two days before they managed to use crude sign-language to communicate.

The sisters belonged to some settlement far to the north, and had left it in search of someone.  On their journey, they attacked the Master’s camps and freed his prisoners, human and mutant alike.  Anyone who wished to could travel with them, but clean food and water would be scarce.  Naava considered it far less risky than waiting at the camp for the Master to send an armed guard to investigate.

It took a week of hiking down into the hot, dry plains before they came upon the next camp.  The sign numbered it twenty-four.  They were getting closer to the Master’s fortress.  Naava tried to express his dismay, but the sisters either didn’t comprehend or didn’t care.

Matya, the sister who crushed things without touching them, gestured to the camp with her chin.  Kadi sniffed at the air and said something; then she turned to Naava and held up four fingers, then seven.

He signed to her to make sure.  She nodded.  Four humans and seven drones.

They attacked in broad day.  Naava used his gift to rust a hole straight through a drone.  It was his first act to free fellow mutants, and he’s never been prouder since.

Some of the people at Camp 24 spoke the same language as Naava, so they were able to get their message across much sooner than at Naava’s camp.

Four more mutants joined them, with three different languages.  It was time to make a common language.

So they did.

It was slow work, borrowing the shortest and most easily pronounced words of their old languages, but the sisters had some long-term destination and didn’t seem to care how long it took to get there.

After a week of careful hiking and another camp, there were ten of them, and their new language was mature enough for Naava to question the sisters more closely.

“Where exactly do you come from?  You said north.”

“More east than north; that way is the opposite.”  Kadi waved a hand toward the glow of the setting sun.  “We come from there,” she went on, pointing northeast.  “From ‘ah-nee-wah,’ the place where the dawn is born.  We are ‘ahk-veer-ree.’”

He frowns at the unfamiliar words.  “Ahk…”

“‘Veer-ree,’” she repeats.  “We are ‘veer-ree,’ you and my sister and I.  Gifted.  Mutants.  ‘Ahk’ means ‘free.’  ‘Ahk-veer-ree,’ the free ones.”

Naava tries the word, the sounds of it.  “I am…‘ahk-veer-ree.’”

“No, no.  ‘Veer-ree’ is many.  ‘Veer-rah’ is one.  You are ‘ahk-veer-rah,’ we are ‘ahk-veer-ree.’”

He nods his understanding.  “And who—or what—did you come all this way to seek?”

“You know of the Steel Plateau?” Matya asked.

He didn’t.

“North of here is a ruined place made of metal—bigger than a hundred camps together.  Long ago, our people lost something near there.  We were the first with the courage to seek it.  To avoid the big guard posts, we had to come by sea, far out of our way.  If we find what we’re looking for, we can go straight back.  If not, we must go back to the sea or go up to the Pits.”

“The sea is suicide,” he told her bluntly.  “The rads are so high a man’s skin blisters in an hour.”

“Human skin,” Kadi said.

It took another week (another camp) to make their way along the mountain chain.  It was slower than the sisters preferred to travel, but Naava got the impression they could hike for days on end, and none of the others could, especially on scarce water.

They rounded a spur, and in the high sun the Steel Plateau was completely obvious.

“Allahu ma’ana,” someone said.  Naava didn’t know what it meant at the time, but he could appreciate the awed tone.

More than anything, the Steel Plateau looked like someone had taken the biggest machine ever made and smashed it into the mountains.  It glittered in the orange haze, even with ash and other things covering it.

“There will be water beneath and around it—fairly clean,” Kadi told them.

The Plateau was even bigger up close.  It towered over their heads, so huge it must have been made by gods, or by the Master, and stretched away into the distance farther than Naava’s eyes could see.  And it had plants growing on it, with vast nets of roots, and leaves the size of blankets.  The water in its shade was clear and cool, and tasted of nothing.

“Now what?” asked Lydia, one of the volunteers from Camp 23.

“Up and over,” said Kadi.  “It will be a rough crossing, but the Plateau is our only landmark.”

“What are we looking for?”

“Deathless,” said Matya.  “A great warrior.  A leader of our people, long ago, before the sky was black.  If we can’t find him, then we’ll look for his weapon—a stone…a…seeing thing.  Sorry, it doesn’t translate.”  She traced it out in the ash-dirt, curves and loops and crooks touching a long vertical line with curled ends.

They crowded around her to look at the letters.

She pointed at the word and said something that sounded like ‘eh-doh-shah.’  She seemed to think for a moment, then said something that sounded like ‘nohd.’  None of them knew the word.  “It’s…a machine that’s alive and can see into the future.  My great-grandmother called it Aytbahl.”

“How can a machine be alive?”

“It has a mind,” said Kadi.  “A real mind, not just instructions.  We have a transmitter.  If great-grandmother was right, Aytbahl will hear us through the transmitter once we cross the mountains.”

The others were brimming with questions, but everyone was too tired and thirsty to keep questioning.  They camped and rested for a whole day in the lee of the Steel Plateau, and then they began the arduous climb up the mountains.

It was cold and hungry travel; not even scrub roots or cacti clung to the slopes of the mountains.

Two days after they left the Steel Plateau, they descended from the ash cloud to see a new glint of metal in the distance.  Matya started to talk to the transmitter in the strange, lilting language she and her sister spoke.  Then she started speaking some half-familiar language.  No voices answered her, but none of the Master’s machines were coming, either.  As they got closer, she tried twice more with no answer.

The new landmark was another great ruin, much smaller than the Plateau.  It looked like…two great machines, heavily damaged from a battle.  The larger machine was split in half like a fiber wafer, honeycomb chambers exposed to the ash and air.  Huge writing was just visible along its flank.

“What does it say?” asked Bret.

“It says ‘prah-vee-dens,’” Matya told them.  “Guidance from the gods, ‘ood-vah-thah.’”

“It feels wrong here,” Lydia said.  “It feels…like a grave.”

Kadi just nodded and started climbing.

Aden flew.  Katrin climbed.  Vlad jumped.  Matya used her mutant gift to carefully lift the rest of them.

When they caught up to Kadi, she was crouched in the ash-drifted wreck of a room.  There were bones and bone fragments everywhere.  Some were buried under collapsed parts of the room, or under broken machines.  Two skeletons were holding hands—a sweet but rather disturbing image, especially since one was missing its skull.

Naava frowned as a strange darkness on the other of the paired skeletons caught his eye.  When he wiped the dust from one of the arm-bones, he found it to be made of gleaming metal, darker than silver but more luminous than steel.  Metal bones!  What mutant had metal bones?

Matya and her sister sat together for a while, near the back of the room.  They looked like they were praying.  And then Kadi straightened up, and she had a long knife in her hand.  No, not a knife—a claw, like hers but made from more of that brilliant silvery metal.

“Our great-great-grandmother,” she said.  “Aytbahl may not be answering because it’s deactivated.  Come, let’s see if it’s in his room.”

Somehow, the sisters knew the exact inner workings of this strange place.  They led the way.

Kadi paused with a low growl.  In the shadows, someone called out to them.

Lydia waved Kadi back and replied.  “He says he’s Ila, from the old Camp 20.  I told him we’re traveling liberators.”

“There is no Camp 20,” said Jason.  “It’s been abandoned for years.  It’s a crater.  Too much trouble and expense to get it up and running again.”

“Ask him how he found this place,” said Kadi.

Lydia relayed the question and its answer.  “He says the mutants who liberated Camp 20 told them to walk west for a day until they saw writing in the ground.  They followed the writing here, and found a machine like the Master keeps—a thing that makes water and food.”

Matya’s eyes widened.  “Writing!  Ask him about the sign of the sacrifice, ask him about a room of names.”

Ila stepped out of the shadows.  He looked old, as mutants go, worn down from years of slave labor (which was apparently better than the treatment they received from the Overseers whom the Master had struck down two hundred years ago, according to the stories of the elders at Camp 25).  He beckoned to them and turned to lead the way deep into the shade of the ruins.

When the shadows became too dense, Ila held out a hand and summoned a small flame into his palm.

In the guttering light, they stepped into a room covered in writing.  The walls, the ceiling, the floor…all had writing scored deeply into the metal.  There was one word or phrase that was particularly large and deep.

Ila patted that word and said something like ‘tahm sheh-purd.’

Matya nodded enthusiastically and spoke again in that half-familiar language.

Ila looked surprised, and they spoke at some length.

Kadi turned to the group of Liberators and pointed at the big words on the wall.  “The sign of the sacrifice.  That name will be everywhere Deathless goes.  It’s our lesson, the words we have to keep alive in our hearts for two thousand years, when Askani the prophet will bring the Dayspring child.”

“What lesson?” Aden whispered, peering at the carvings with something like superstitious fear.

“It always starts with one.”

That lesson was a revelation to Naava.  It was like someone had blown away ash from a window.  He doesn’t know anything about saviors, or old militaries, or their world’s blue-skied past, but those words ring true deep in his bones.  All it had taken to free him was a pair of mutants on a quest.  They went on that quest to find one man.  One.  Someone must be the first to say a word.  Defiance begins when one person can’t take any more.

“Ila’s people know the lesson,” Kadi told them.  “Only our people, the people of the Dayspring, know that lesson.  And Deathless.  He must have freed the ones who freed them.  The trail is much warmer than we had dared to hope.”

The sisters offered them a choice then:  stay with Ila’s people and make a waypoint for free mutants, or follow them and keep seeking Deathless.

Ten years later, the Liberators are still following the trail of names.  They have crossed mountains and canyons and plains, scoured every mile between Ila’s waypoint and the Dayspring, skirting the foreboding carcass of the city surrounding the Master’s fortress.

All they hear are tales—never news.  Nothing helpful like ‘he went south,’ just fanciful nonsense like ‘he moved like a shadow, and he cut down anything and anyone in his path.’

They don’t give up.  Kadi and Matya say they’re not capable of giving up.  It’s in their blood—they fight and fight until there’s nothing left.  ‘Jeh-dahn,’ the clawed people, guardians of the ‘ret-lahn,’ the leaders of the people of the Dayspring, for generations.  Mutants protecting humans.

Naava finds it inspiring.  It gives him hope that mutants and humans can work together to win their freedom from the Master, and that hope keeps him strong for years to come.

Matya’s great-great-granddaughter will be a woman named Marrak Ad’jeda, guardian and friend of a woman called Eera Lak’retla.  Though separatist rivals will oust their people from their home, a wanderer will reclaim it for them…

A wanderer who moves like a shadow and cuts down anything and anyone in his path.

They will offer him some of their precious baked goods in gratitude (made from real wheat and sugar and goat-butter, not from a machine).  He will write names in the dirt and tell stories about a man named Dayspring.

But none of this will come to pass without Naava following Matya to the ends of the land and back and falling in love and siring her child.

It always starts with one.