The Pious Distance (short story)

--| Intercepted remote journal sync from a Bulwark missionary |--

21st century military scholars were very concerned with the growing distance between soldier and target. Drones finally obsoleted any direct contact between warring powers. Their theory was that war became easier to wage and harder to stop when the person dying was too abstracted from the person giving the kill order.

We like to joke that Bulwark factions read different books, but we're on the same page. The civil war finally forced us to temporarily embrace the idea that we all followed the same God, but also that He gave us different orders. The Bulwark Missionary Service, a loose coalition of evangelical views, believes God wants us to continue the Work begun on ancient Earth when the heathen wilds were finally tamed by steel, steam, and mass media. The civil war stopped the Work on Earth and in the Metrospace, but we push back still.

But we do it right. We are only human, and humans are vulnerable to sin. 21st century humans widely understood sin to be an individual failing: if you did wrong, it was your own fault, and it was on society to punish that individual. This was very convenient for such a profoundly evil society.

The Missionaries follow a different, more accurate interpretation. It's one rare point of agreement between us and the Coalition, the people who won the war over humanity's relationship with God and nature and sent us to the fringes. Sin is a collective action problem. If a society is built in such a way that sin is possible, then it is the society that failed.

And that's where the Pious Distance comes in. The cloud of debris-once-vessels in orbit of the planet below and the crumbling cities on it were built in a way that failed this world's people. Our Recyclers went ahead to free them. First, our emissaries offer a chance to repent. Most leaders refuse, and the Work begins again. At a distance. The Work is designed to protect us from the sinful thrill and glee of war and provide a clean, Godly slate on planets where its people have returned to God to be given another chance later.

Who knows what happens after that? God only knows. But I do hope my family comes to understand in the nextphase why I'm doing this to them. For them.

Skyscraper (short story)

Foxes, like the fennec Karpat here, were born of the World Tree, and rarely left the comfort of the vast forests and plains of the dara (”gift of life,” called wilderness in more vulgar places).

Karpat pulled at one of the vines running up the ancient, long-abandoned skyscraper. Lines of green and red wound their way in and out of broken windows, up the statues of foxes, otters, and other species that adorned the old, crumbling metropolis. He looked down the cracked asphalt road, considering his decision, then back up.

Decision made, affirmed by a few deep breaths, he pulled again, then hefted his weight up, planting his feet on a horizontal section of vine. The plants crunched under his weight, squeaked against steel as they shifted, and smelled of mint when they broke.

Covered in and sated by the minty, nutritious life blood of the Tree, he pulled himself into a room halfway up after sunset. He spent the night there, then set out in the morning.

Karpat held on to the wall and planted one foot on a vine outside the window, then the other foot. He grabbed a higher portion of the vine with one paw, then moved the other to it, but it broke as he put his full weight on it. He plunged to his death clutching a falling column of vine, then awoke in a white room.

The Daramour, the consciousness of the Tree everyone meets after death, appeared before him, a mirror image of himself.

“Hello.”

Karpat screamed and writhed from the pain on the floor for a while, until he smelled the mint again and stood up. “Can’t you make it not hurt?”

“Yes, but then what incentive would you have to avoid death? I need my foxes outside as long as possible to bring new experiences and knowledge to me. Each of you has a unique perspective, and it’s what keeps me from losing my mind in here. I depend on you.”

“Sorry. I forgot you’re stuck here. So what happens now?”

“I’ll send you back out, when you’re ready. Take some time to relax, think, and study. You have access to the wealth of my knowledge while you’re here, but I limit how much you can take with you.”

Hops (short story)

That time I made rather obvious Stargate-inspired fiction set in my own universe.

---

Long, long ago people traveled the cosmos through these gates. No one knows exactly what happened. Most people think the spirits inside them didn’t like how people used them and blocked travel. Those people, now cut off from the cosmos, forgot how to travel the stars in ships, so they were stranded far away from other worlds.

We speak to the being that controls each world’s gates, which we call the Tree, through their emissaries called Keepers. I wanted to know more. This brought me to the Keeper’s chamber. Bright neon vines that pulsed in unison, first yellow, then red, then green, then they diverged and exploded into bright, colorful insects. Dara bugs.

“Hello, little fox.”

The air around me changed from cold to warm, then to cool, and I felt at peace for the first time in a long time. I watched the swarm merge into a fox-like form that mirrored my own, but in a blue silhouette.

I walked closer to it. “What are you?”

It tried to move its mouth, some weird sounds came from it, then it finally spoke from an unmoving muzzle. “I know it’s been a long time since I had visitors, but surely hello is still the traditional greeting.”

“Sorry. Hello.”

“Hello. What can I do ya for?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorry. Ancient dialect. What brings you out to my chamber, far from home?”

“I want to know the truth.” She stepped back as the Keeper pulsed. “The truth about the gates. What really happened?”
“The truth of the gates reflects an old way. Not practiced by your people. I meet each of you when you die. At least in this region. I know your ways. Why do you think you need this knowledge?”

“If you know our ways, you know who’s in power. They built a whole religion around the gates. They call themselves the Bulwark.”

“That’s worrying. I haven’t heard of this. The situation, I mean. I know of a Bulwark. I don’t know if it’s the same one.” The Keeper turned back into a swarm of bugs, then returned. “I called a meeting.”

I ran toward the chamber’s opening to put sight to the loud roaring outside. Lines waved and twisted on the blue horizon, past a field of browns and greens. More dara bugs. “What’s happening?”

“Friends. You need to leave.”

“The chamber?”

“Planet. I’m sending you to meet some other friends, more like you. They explore the Network. Not just the few destinations I share with you and your people.”

I walked back to the Keeper. “You trust me, just like that? I’m not used to that.”

“It’s only the specific memories of this Bulwark I don’t have. People you know…knew. They’re with me. Don’t they tell stories about renewal?”

“No. We’re told we go to hell or heaven depending on how we live.”

“Yep. Same Bulwark. I’m sorry you had to live in a place like that. I came from a similar place. Women weren’t taken seriously there, too. Generally.”

“Wait. You were just an ordinary person?”

“Still am. Oh jeeze. They really messed with your concept of what a person is. We’re going to fix this. Trust me.” The Keeper pulsed again, and a portal emerged from the floor made of leaves, concrete, and wood. “Go. You’ll meet your people again.”

I closed my eyes and walked through.

|||

The team took cover behind rocks and trees as the gate activated, guns aimed at whatever was about to emerge. Bulwark? A random traveler? You could never tell.
Each of the gate’s eight lights activated in order. Every gate was unique, but they all had eight lights, and they all activated in the same order. At least that was true of all the gates they knew about.

Out walked a vulpri. She looked distressed and afraid, and you didn’t need a translator to tell you that. The team leader, Rex, popped up first.

“Hello there. Are you friendly?”

She took a moment to respond, and Rex started poking at his translator to see if something was broken, until she broke her silence. “Are you?”

“Should we be otherwise?”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never gone to another world. Did I do something wrong?”

“What? Oh, I get it. You must be from a Bulwark world. You did fine. How’s your Keeper?”

She walked up and sat down at the team’s camp. “I need a moment.”

“Sure.” He introduced everyone as they emerged from hiding.
First the only human on the crew, Talm. He waved. “You’re probably very afraid of humans coming from there. I won’t take offense.”

Then the red panda, Warren, who was the expert on the gates. “Talm doesn’t bite. Usually.” She winked at him, then went back to studying the gate.

And the fox, Chel, who used to be human, but changed after escaping the Bulwark. He nodded and smiled, but didn’t say anything.

Rex, a wolf, extended a paw to Elm. “And I’m Rex. Want to go into the village? It’s all freed Vulpri, like you.”

She hesitated, but took his paw and pulled herself up with his help. “I would like that. I’m Elm.”

“You can always say no. Always. For future reference.”

“I was never very obedient, but it’s good to know you respect that.”

The village was full of Vulpri. You could tell them apart from human-foxes because Vulpri were completely fox aside from the height, hands and feet, and the bipedal motion. Humans who became foxes, or whose parents did, usually still retained a lot of human features with shorter snouts. Better for eating human food. People just called them both foxes and didn’t think much of the distinction outside Bulwark territories. Under Bulwark logic, Vulpri were “natural,” and thus “Godly,” and were to be subjugated rather than exterminated.

Elm and Rex chatted while they strolled through the village, checking out merchants and greeting people. The village was mostly Vulpri-foxes with a few human-foxes, but there were other animal people too.

Rex bought a translator band from one of the shops and gave it to Elm. “There. Now you can understand everyone. So how did you get away to the Keeper?”

She looked to Rex, then scanned the people and places they passed. “Good humans live in Bulwark places. My Observer didn’t do much observing. He didn’t even try to use me like most Observers. I just told him I was off to the local Keeper to ask for passage somewhere else. We worked on a cover story in case anyone stopped me, and I left.”

“So your Keeper. They usually send messages along.”

“Oh. It seemed very worried it didn’t know about the Bulwark taking over my world.”

“Ah. The Bulwark figured out how to suppress the memories and independence of the people who live in the trees and the gates. So you weren’t always under Bulwark rule.”

“Just the last few years.” Elm closed her eyes and started sniffing the air, and let it lead the pair down an alley. “I know that smell.”

Rex sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”

Elm grabbed Rex’s hand and dragged him several blocks. She spoke in Vulpri, the many sounds of foxes mixed with human sounds, at the fox who opened the door. The wrist bands didn’t translate. He responded in a human language: “Welcome home. I heard we had a new Vulpri from occupied space, so I made something for them. That’s you?”

She nodded. “Yes. Being here is like being home, but I’m not anxious anymore.”

Rex declined in invitation to join and headed back to the gate. The Bulwark would almost certainly follow once they realized a subject was missing. A missing person disrupts the purity of the community, and they can’t have that.

|||

The Missionary stepped through the gate, over the debris of the Recyclers he sent ahead. He would not be able to maintain Pious Distance this time.

“Friends. Hello. I ask that you pay for my machines through service.”

Rex turned his rifle from kill to stun. “Not on my watch.” And knocked him out cold with two shots.

The Missionary awoke in a bright void. “Keepspace. I’ve heard about this.”

“You are no friend to these people.”

“Ah. A Created. You do not belong in this way. We will help you become.” He walked around, looking for a wall or a door, but found none.

The Keeper spoke from all around. “I am of the beginning, the middle, the end. I create. I was created. This is our way. Your way is oppressive.”

“My way is freedom from the uncertainty of seeking purpose. We live as God created us. God gave us the tools and the wit to explore the cosmos, worlds to expand upon. Be fruitful and multiply. Surely you know the Word. You’re ancient. Seeded with yet more ancient knowledge. You were created, you are of God just as our machines are. You can exist in our way, as a tool that serves the Way.”

“You will remain here, free to explore the wealth of our knowledge, even see the cosmos through the Network, but not in a way that enables oppression. You will follow this way until you learn to create your own.”

“You claim to be against oppression. This is oppression.”

“It is only like your oppression in the most superficial sense. My way keeps space for you to make your own way. We will protect our way, and the ways we Keep. Ways that destroy and subjugate are not worthy of freedom because they steal freedom from others. I am as unapologetic about this way as you are about your own. This way is better.”

The Missionary argued with the Keeper for an age, until he found a way.

Life Magic (short story)

Sami walked through the dark valley formed by two of the World Tree’s roots. Grass crunched under his paws, and he could smell mint from the illuminated green veins that ran through the roots. As he walked, he ran his paws along the coarse, warm walls and felt the pulse of the Tree.

He came to a clearing where the roots lifted into the air, forming a ceiling of dark red wood, smooth, almost polished. Leaves of all colors covered the gaps, painting dots of light over the concrete floor of the Keeper’s chamber.

“Hello, Sami.” The Keeper approached as a swarm of rainbow insects. Sami took a step back as the buzzing swarm approached, but the mint smell got stronger as it did, and it calmed him. The swarm swirled, taking the shape of a fox. The swarm walked to Sami, around, then back to his front. It turned into a fennec fox, identical to him.

“Hi. How do you know my name?”

“The Tree experiences everything. But your name is all it would tell me. I’m not familiar with your species.”

“Fennec fox. We come from the desert. Well, originally. I'm a city fox.”

“Ah. Cute species. Why do you seek me?”

“Knowledge.”

“Why?”

“To learn more about the world.”

“Why do you want to learn more about the world?”

“I’ve heard of magic.”

“Are you not happy with your abilities?”

“It’s not that. The Tree keeps me happy and healthy. But I desire more.”

“Sami…Sami, Sami, Sami.” It walked closer, until its muzzle almost touched Sami’s. “What you are is ambitious. Be honest.”
Sami looked away, then back. He heard the stories of what happened to people who tried to deceive a Keeper. And it came down to power, even if it was for a good purpose. “Yes. I want power.”

“For what purpose? Do you know why the Tree takes such care in deciding who to trust?”

“Someone with your power could destroy the world.”

“What? Oh my, yes. But under no circumstance will your capabilities ever approach mine. I earned the Tree’s trust with a hundred years under its tutelage. Then I worked my way up through the different manifestations of the Tree’s power, enhancing and proving my capabilities and wisdom. I only became Keeper a hundred years ago. What will you do with the power the Tree grants?”

“I want to explore the Tree’s Gift. To see all there is to see.”

“Exploration!” The Keeper glowed and pulsed, then returned to the fennec form. “This ambition is healthy and reasonable. Life is best when it moves and changes. Why do you need power for this? The Tree rarely involves itself in the motion of life, and it has all the power in the galaxy. Yet life still finds its way around.”

“Safety. Like you said, the Tree rarely involves itself. I want to protect myself from dangers as I explore.”

“Dangers. What dangers? If you die, your consciousness merges with the Tree. The value of your life experience and unique perspective adds to the whole of life, and then you're reborn with a selection of lessons from your past lives. This is the Way.”

“By that reasoning, the value of my death rises the longer I live, and the more I experience.”

The Keeper turned back into a rainbow bug swarm and flew out of sight, but Sami still heard its voice. “Good answer. You now have the ability to summon these creatures and create a specter of any kind of life you can imagine. Use it wisely.”

Wonder (short story)

I used to look up into the night sky and wonder. Then I went there. Among the trillions upon trillions of stars, none had that kindred spirit I longed for.

I found a machine civilization, a sentient black hole (I called him Phil, which he enjoyed very much), and others that, despite all my progressive leanings and wish to understand, were completely alien to me.

The machines had advanced statistical models based on extensive exploration, and as far as they could determine, Earth was home to the only life that resembled Earth life in the slightest. They were delighted when the strange animal landed on their homeworld, and quickly assembled an ambassador whose form was based on the average of all the people they found in my ship’s database.

Determined to find someone like myself, I set off for the void past known space, to see if there was anything beyond. The machines, the black hole, and all the good friends I made there admitted (with some approximation of embarrassment) that they’d never considered such a journey, and helped me build an appropriate craft.


I zipped across the expanse for weeks, increasingly convinced the next ten billion light years would be much like the last.

Then someone said hello.