Ventus – Day 31 of 135

Jordan reached out blindly, and felt the bannister at the head of the stairwell. He held it tightly in both hands to anchor himself. It was the panic he had to fight. There was no other way to stop the vision.

He put his awareness into the tip of his nose, and breathed slowly, in and out, counting his breaths as he did so. Over the next few minutes he used every trick Calandria had shown him to engender calmness, and gradually the voices faded. When he was confident he had them at bay, he let go of the bannister. He could see again.

Jordan wasted no more time, but grabbed up the bucket and went straight to Axel’s room. He debated whether to knock or walk in, knowing Axel might be with someone. He stooped to peer through the keyhole, just in case.

A candle burned on the table by the window. Axel sat there in a loose robe, his hands steepled. He was speaking in a low voice to someone out of sight. Jordan craned his neck to see who he was speaking to.

“…The local humans don’t seem to be in great awe of the Winds they deal with every day,” Axel was saying. “They know the morphs and desals moderate animal populations. People treat morphs like they do bears or moose, with caution but not fear. But they mythologize the Winds they know the least–you can see it in their names for the geophysical Winds–like ‘Heaven hooks’ and ‘Diadem swans’. They can’t connect the activities of these Greater Winds with their day to day lives.”

He still couldn’t see who else was in there. Well, there was nothing to be done about it. Jordan knocked lightly on the door. Axel stopped speaking immediately. Jordan heard him approach, and then the door opened a crack.

“What the hell do you want? Do you know what time it is?”

“Come quickly,” Jordan said. “We need your help.”

Axel opened his mouth, thought better of it, and went to dress. He left the door wide open, and Jordan was able to satisfy himself that indeed, there was no one else in the room.

§

He was not surprised to find August asleep and breathing easily when he and Axel arrived. Calandria had removed the man’s bloodstained jacket and shirt, and was examining a harsh gash under his sternum. Amazingly, the gash was not bleeding.

“I had to use nano on him, or he’d have died,” she said without preamble. “Jordan, go wash the stairs.”

He did so despite fierce curiosity. When he returned, August had been bundled under several blankets. The fire was roaring nicely. Calandria and Axel seemed to be arguing hotly about something. They stopped when Jordan entered, and both glared at him.

“Bad move to save him,” Axel said. Calandria said nothing.

“What was I supposed to do, let him die?”

“What were you doing out there in the first place?” Axel shot back.

“What does that have to do with it? I was there. He was in trouble.” Jordan stuck out his chin. “What was I supposed to do?”

“The question is,” Calandria said drily, “what are we supposed to do, now that we have him? I let the nano work just long enough to suture the wound. I think I got it all out, but he may wake up in the morning without a wound at all. That’s going to be hard to explain. Our discretion in this place seems to be evaporating. Once again you are the cause of the problem, Jordan.”

“It’s hard to think ahead when somebody’s dying in front of you,” Jordan said quietly.

Axel and Calandria glanced at each other. “All right,” said Axel, “we’re going to have to handle this carefully. He can’t be moved right now, obviously. But he must be moved tomorrow night. You,” he pointed at Jordan, “will be his nursemaid tomorrow. Then you will help me sneak him out and into town tomorrow night. Understand?” Jordan nodded. “We’re lucky he’s feeling personally humiliated. The fact that he wasn’t supposed to be fighting will work in our favor; he won’t come back here for a while–if, as you say Cal, he’s not totally healed by morning.”

“How could he be?” Jordan asked.

“Science,” Axel said blandly. “Not the kind we’re teaching you, though.”

“Nano, right?”

Calandria swore in that other language again, and Axel laughed. “Yeah, nano. Shit, Cal, it was your idea to snatch Jordan in the first place. Live with it.” She glowered at him for a second, then composed herself: the anger seemed to drain away totally, and she was once again her usual poised, calm self. This sudden calm was in its way more unsettling than the anger.

“How are we going to explain August’s miraculous recovery to him?” she asked.

“He wasn’t exactly in a position to judge how bad it was,” Axel said. “All he knew was he had a hole in him. If it turns out to be less of a hole than he thought, well, he’ll just thank the Winds, I suppose. We’ll bandage him thoroughly, and if there’s no hole there at all tomorrow, I’ll put one in–cosmetic, of course, don’t look at me like that.”

Calandria shook her head. Axel smiled. “You’re good at planning,” he said. “I’m good at improvising. That’s why we get along.”

“When we get along,” she said with a sphinx-like smile.

Jordan sat down on his bed, suddenly very tired. In the back of his head, he heard Armiger and Megan still talking. It didn’t matter. At that moment, he had to wonder which was the more real–the quiet, ordinary dialogue taking place in his head, a thousand kilometers away–or the mad conversation Calandria May and Axel Chan were holding, barely a meter away from him.

“Jordan!” He looked up. “Did you clean the blood off the steps?” Calandria asked.

He shook his head, and rose to do so. He’d left the bucket outside, ready for this.

“I’ll help,” said Axel unexpectedly. After they got outside and shut the door, he said, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.”

“You did the right thing,” said Axel as they both knelt to dip rags in the bucket.

“She doesn’t seem to think so.”

“Oh, she does. She just gets angry when something happens she can’t control.”

Jordan sighed, and began swabbing at August’s blood. “Why?” was all he could think of to ask.

“Cal has her own problems,” said Axel quietly. “She’s never been a happy person. Why should she be? She never had a real childhood.”

“What do you mean?”

“Cal was inducted into a military organization at a young age, after her mother was sent to prison. Over the years, they made her into a tool, an assassin who could serve the causes they were paid to support. She can change her face, her height, her voice… I don’t know what she can’t do. She can read a book and memorize every word the first time, or learn a language in days. She’s probably the best fighter on this planet. She has amazing powers, but she’s never really had her own life. She ran away from her masters, the ones who made her, and for years she used her talents to support herself. Then she got tangled up in the war against 3340.

“People had tried to destroy 3340 from without,” Axel continued. “Cal found the way that worked–she killed him from within.”

“You told me.”

Axel shook his head. “I gave you the sanitized version. You know 3340 was in the habit of ‘promoting’ humans–turning them into demigods pretty much at random by making them immortal, replacing their biological cells with nano, that sort of thing. He’d subverted the whole human civilization on Hsing to this perverse lottery. Once you became a demigod, though, he took control of your mind using some sort of sophisticated virus program. One of his ‘conscious thoughts’, I guess. The place really was hell, there was no morality there, everyone just scrambled to try to become immortal, and didn’t care what they had to do to get it.

“3340 looked unbeatable. But we kept hearing rumors that one demigod–and only one–had beaten the virus thought, and thrown off 3340′s enslavement. Calandria tracked him down, and got the secret. Then she arranged to be ‘promoted’ by 3340.”

“How did she do that?” Jordan had been dabbing at the blood spots one at a time; now Axel upended the bucket and poured the contents down the steps. “It’ll be dry by morning,” he said.

Axel looked at his now-wet feet. “You needed to really impress 3340 to get promoted. So Calandria betrayed us.” He glanced up and, apparently satisfied by Jordan’s shocked look, nodded. “The whole underground that Choronzon and the Archipelago had built up on the planet. Had us arrested, thrown in jail… sentenced to be eaten by 3340′s data gatherers.

“It worked.” His voice had become uncharacteristically flat. “The god took notice of her. He promoted her to demigod status on the spot. She became sur-biological, able to shape-shift, split her thoughts off into autonomous units, invent new senses for herself. They tell me it’s the ultimate experience, short of real deification, but you’re not even remotely human anymore. And of course, he slipped his virus thought into her, and it took her over.”

Jordan had forgotten the wet steps. “Her plan didn’t work?”

Axel half-grinned. “Our ally god Choronzon had arrived in force, but his navy was being cut to pieces. Calandria went straight into the heart of the battle. But once she got there… she fought off the virus, and flew through 3340′s ranks showing all the other demigods how to get free.

“So suddenly 3340′s whole navy turned on him. Both navies chased him down to a mountain on Hsing, and Calandria and Choronzon confronted him there, and killed him.”

Jordan shook her head. It sounded like myth, but Axel was telling it in a bald matter-of-fact way.

“It must have been overwhelming for her.” Jordan shifted uneasily, trying to imagine what it would take to deliberately choose to become like Armiger. “But you say she’s human now?”

“She rid herself of all her powers–had her nanotech commit suicide by building itself back into normal human cells. She did it publicly to show the people of Hsing that being human was better than being a god.” He shook his head. “Me, I’d have stayed immortal. Think of the fun you could have.”

“Why did she do it?”

He shrugged. “Like I said, she has her own demons–metaphorically, I mean. I think they pursued her even into godhood. She found some way of coming to terms with them by becoming human again. I don’t know the details, she won’t talk about it. She’s also the most fanatically moral person I ever met,” he added. “She thought it was the right thing to do.

“The thing is,” he added gently, “you impressed her tonight by saving August. She wouldn’t have left him to die either, no matter what she might say. She just doesn’t understand that at heart she’s no different from any of us.

“And that, my friend, is a scar I don’t know how to heal.”

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