Continuing from where we left off a couple weeks ago...
In the absolute emptiness of intergalactic space a green AMWS drifted impossibly. It was tall and narrow and insectile, with an angular head much like a mantis' and long, jointed limbs. Spikes curved cruelly from its knees, elbows, and shoulders, and a pair of long blades extended from its wrists and along the backs of its hands. There was nothing to suggest that it was remarkable--except for its location, hundreds of thousands of light-years from the nearest IS Gate.
Even the Dammerung, Scientia's vast flagship and capital, which could create temporary Gates of its own, would have taken years to reach this distant spot. Any other ship would have had to have set out when stone tools and fire represented the cutting edge of australopithecine science.
And yet, here it was. The entire cluster lay beneath its feet, two great whorls of multi-colored light surrounded by a scattering of smaller balls and knots of stars. The Virgo Cluster gleamed over its shoulder, a tiny gathering of yellow and blue lights, impossibly distant. And beyond that...
Beyond that, spread out in every direction, was the universe. Great filaments of red and yellow, like rivers of jewels, curved and arced across the sky, marking the borders of vast bubbles of void. It was at once vibrant and serene, cold and beautiful, wonderful and terrifying.
Aser was the only human being to have ever seen it. Oh, astronomers had reconstructed it millennia ago, painstakingly mapping distant objects detectable only in radio through the thick dust and gas that surrounded every star, but Aser had seen it. He knew what no other human knew, would never know. He knew where God lived.
He gazed out in silence, at the infinite majesty of the universe, and pitied the poor fools who believed God cared about them. They ruled a cluster of a dozen galaxies, a paltry few billion stars, and believed themselves masters of the Universe. Aser knew better. One day, he would go out there, to the place no one else could ever reach, and touch the face of God.
He, and he alone, could do it. Those idiots, Calvin and the Primus, believed they led a cadre of Chosen, but Aser knew the truth. He was the only one could reach God, the only one truly Chosen.
He just had one piece of business to attend to first.
Aser, came a familiar voice drifting into his mind.
"Dasra," he said. "What does our fearless leader wish of me today? Shall I bring him rare fruits, perhaps, from the gardens of Magella Minora? Or perhaps something sweeter? A young virgin from the flesh-markets of Orleans 3, mayhap?" He giggled. "Ah, how silly of me to forget. Our fearless leader does not partake of the pleasures of the flesh. He --" Aser could hardly finish the sentence from laughing. "He believes they'd take him farther from God!"
Aser, you know you shouldn't speak of Calvin like that. In her own AMWS, countless quintillions of kilometers away, she sighed. Touching Aser's mind was never pleasant at the best of times, but when he was out in the deeps, it could be downright disturbing. Once, she had made the mistake of going deeper into his thoughts than the level of intentional words.
She had seen many terrible things in the minds of the Chosen. She had no illusions on that front. She had seen herself and her sister, performing lewd acts in van der Kaum's imagination. She knew how Mia felt every time she used her power. She knew what secret Calvin hid so deeply even he did not know it.
None of that had prepared her for Aser's mind. In Aser she found a whirlwind of crystal fragments, countless broken pieces of thoughts and memories caught up in an endless torrent of feeling, never quiet, never still. In Aser there were depths of joy and heights of despair beyond anything she had ever felt or imagined. There was nothing there she could follow or understand, just terrible, black, howling wind and the occasional flash of a half-formed idea or one tiny piece of a perception.
What little she did see was, however, enough. She knew who Aser was, better perhaps than he did. She knew what he thought of himself, and what he thought of others. She had sworn then two things: first, that she would never again go deeper into his mind than she absolutely had to, and second, that she would never allow him to be alone with herself or her sister.
He just asked me to show you something I picked up. He doesn't have any orders. Dasra fed Aser her memories of the attack on their freighter off Bethel, and the intervention of the Isolde.
"It is him?" said Aser. "You know his name?"
The only survivor is now her captain. It is him. His name is Seth Mikra.
"YES!" crowed Aser, and Dasra flinched at the burning-hot acid of his emotion pouring through every crack in her defenses. "Finally, finally! Oh, yes, I'm coming for you, old friend. I'll burn you, cut you, crush you..." He laughed.
He must not be killed. You know that, Aser."Oh, no, no, no. I won't kill him. Of course I won't." Aser paused. "Can I maybe kill him a little?"
"Mia would have laughed." He pouted, but could only maintain it a moment before he began laughing again. "I'm going now."
Please, Aser, don't kill him. We need him. I'll be watching.
Aser's laughter faded to wonderment as he felt Dasra withdraw. He truly was closer to God out here. How else to explain that the one task he had left before he could fulfill his destiny was simply handed to him as soon as he began thinking about it?
"My slate will be wiped clean," he hissed, filling with rage at the memory of what that man had done to him. "Seth Mikra will pay, if I have to tear apart the entire cluster and all the Chosen to get to him." He looked out one last time at the universe. "I'll be back, God."
And then empty space was empty once more.
Nadeshiko put the lab report away with a sigh and looked down at her patient, a small and sallow man, balding and bearded. "Patient Ortir Kormas, age... approximately thirty-five," she said for the recorders. "Found unconscious behind the single men's barracks. Bloodwork indicates extreme hypoglycemia typical of late-stage Horviss-Greln disease." She sighed. "Intravenous feeding has proven inadequate to counter symptoms. Supplies of Isoprate are low, so I will commence treatment with Korana--"
Nadeshiko looked up to see her boss, Dr. Viri, standing at the entrance to the medium-risk ward. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Viri's pale, pudgy face was flushed, and his eyes, overlarge and the best of times, were bulging. "Koranafil! Do you want to kill him?"
"I-- oh shit."
"Propanofil, Dr. Kodesh. Propanofil is the treatment of second choice for H-G. Koranafil is for renal failure."
Nadeshiko hung her head. "I know that, doctor. You know I know that!"
"Yes, I do." His flush was gone now; his face was stony as he walked over to the medication cooler and withdrew a bottle of Propanofil. "Normally. When did you last sleep, Nadeshiko?"
"I woke up half an hour ago," she countered. "Are you trying to accuse me of something?"
"That depends. How long did you sleep?"
She looked away. "Three hours."
"That's what I thought. You need to sleep! Better no doctor at all than one who can't keep her drugs straight."
Nadeshiko winced. "Mizrahi--"
"Aren't gods. You may need less sleep, but you still need sleep."
"And I'm getting enough!" she insisted. "Now get out of my way and let me treat my patient."
"No." Viri attached the Propanofil to a nozzle on the patient's IV, and watched a moment to make sure it was dripping properly into the stream. "There are two possibilities here, doctor. Either you're entirely incompetent, which we both know isn't true, or you're slipping because of tiredness. Which do you prefer?"
"I made a mistake," she said. "People make mistakes. Don't tell me you're not tired, too."
"I am," he said. "But I know I'll save more lives on a good night's sleep than I could by working myself into exhaustion. You seem to be having a hard time learning that."
"Fine," she said. "I'll try to sleep more. Now I have to check up on patients."
Viri shook his head. "No, Nadeshiko. You're taking the week off, starting now. The supplies should be here today, so I won't really need you for a few days. You can go back to town with the deliveryman, sleep in your own bed for a couple of nights, come back fresh when we start running low on nanomachines."
"You can't make me do that."
Viri sighed. "Yes, I can. Go to the gate and see if the deliveryman's here yet. If I hear of you touching a patient, you're fired."
For the second time that morning, Nadeshiko fought to deactivate her tear ducts. It was getting harder. Exhaustion pulled at every cell in her body, despite all her best efforts to fight it down. She wanted to scream at Viri, to tear him apart. Didn't he understand that people were dying? What if somebody she could have saved died while she was gone?
"Fine," she said, and slumped. "I'll go. I'll be back Saturday."
"Good," he said. "Get some sleep, and some exercise, and eat something fresh."
"Yeah," she said. She left the building, little more than a shack, and walked out into the harsh mid-morning sunlight. Finally alone, she shrieked her frustration at the sky.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. She came to Bethel full of hope and pride. She'd seen herself, Scientia-trained, amazing the other doctors with her ability to heal these poor patients. She would save lives, heal the sick, and by the time her two-year stint was up, the refugee camp would be empty, everybody healed and home.
What a little idiot she'd been.