The Gauntlet: Prologue: The First Step


Sorce Marionne stared across the water at the slowly receding port of the city of Raguna, the light reflecting from the setting sun dancing in her eyes off the sea, shrouding the ancient metal that lay below the waves. All across the length of the trading docks which ran around the entire side of the city that faced the continent, the port was alive with the flickering lights of lamp and torches, in sharp contrast to the steady electric lights of the city itself. Beyond the port, the windows of the high steel and alloy towers were already lighting up. She saw the 9:75 DT line rolling across its elevated rail, in dull orange light. Even with dulled and old metal, the towers of the city reflected the colors of twilight, glowing in different shades of orange and gold.

She told herself it probably wasn’t the last she’d ever see of home.

It had been only half an hour since she’d parted from her family. Raguna’s port had been filled with travelers, mostly foreigners with their bright and vivid hair, but here and there she’d caught a glimpse of people with their hair in Messiarki shades. Some had been government officials and workers, likely shipping off to embassies on the outside, though a few had the affluent air, good looks and large protective security details of businessmen. A few were dressed as if for an excursion trip, likely to see the forests and hills around Replija. Some of those people had boarded the Yribus with her. It was a relatively inexpensive passage, but because of its primitiveness not many Messiarki preferred it. The others had taken faster, metal-hulled cutters to Relvin, intent on business and government affairs. She herself was in no hurry, and had chosen the ship to begin acclimating herself to the living conditions of the continent.

Her family and a few friends had seen her off. Her younger brother Shad had cried, tugging on the thick trousers of her new wilderness clothes and begged her not to go with a great many fallacies. Neeka, her close intimate since Basic Education, had hugged her and kissed her good-bye. The girl had always been the emotional sort, Sorce  thought as she’d licked her lips in remembrance, but she smiled fondly as she’d thought it. Neeka’s current partner and Sorce’s other intimate since Basic Education had hugged her too, without the kiss. Her current partnership was too new for it to be acceptable unless Sorce initiated it first, which she had chosen not to.

Curtis had hung back, looking awkward when his turn came and shook her hand. They’d seldom met live, but she considered him one of her closest confidantes in the comm forae. They spent hours discussing history and mostly baseless speculations on what was to be found on the outside. This was one of the few times they’d ever been face to face, and she’d been surprised when he’d informed her he’d be coming to see her off. He’d given her a diode light and several spare driver cells for them, saying something about how good light was always useful.

Her mother had been crying, assuring her she wasn’t banished and she could come back any time she wanted. Her father had controlled it better, holding her tight and telling her to take care of herself. If she needed help, he’d assured her, all she had to do was call him from an embassy and he’d arrange to come to her. She’d hugged him back and promised she’d be careful. She’d tried to smile, tried to keep a brave face, and somehow managed to hold the tears back.

She held them back now as she held her bytcomm contemplatively in her pale-brown hand, staring at the 5-bar readout that indicated reception strength. It was down to the last one, and they weren’t all that far from shore. A couple of zens, maybe two, and it would be gone. The Yribus wasn’t Messiarki, and smelled of tar and cellulose and other things she couldn’t identify. It was a wooden steam ship, and thus didn’t have a transceiver onboard, so when she lost reception, that would be it. No contacting anyone until they reached the port of Rondiumiun in Replinja in five days and she got to the Messiarki embassy. Her thumb hovered over the icon that would bring up her contact list. It brushed the glass, and the icon opened, scrolling open the list of names of the people she knew.

The last bar disappeared

With a sigh, Sorce swiped her thumb across the screen, bringing it back to the root menu. She tapped another icon, bringing up the camera and raised the bytcomm, aiming it at the receding city, framing the image. Tap.

She stared at the image on her bytcomm’s screen, wondering if she should take another. It was kinda lopsided. She could probably do better. Instead she flipped shut the protective accessory lid to hibernate it and preserve power, then slipped the bytcomm securely back into her inside vest pocket. It was an old model, about a year old, and it was all she really had from her old life. All her images, all her music… everything. Most of the clothes in her new trunk and backpack had been recently bought, since she didn’t own much that was as hardy as she’d need to face the world. It had cost her family a lot. She tried not to think of it as her family paying her to go away. After all, leaving had been her idea.

Her black eyes began to sting again, and she clenched them shut, rubbing them with her fingers, feeling a little moisture leaking out. She’d never been good at self-control. It was why she was here. At her feet, outlined by the setting sun, her shadow was sharp and long, angling away from her and seemed decapitated by the ship’s railing. It seemed to quiver, the edges rippling. She could feel it move, as if someone were blowing gently on a third limb.

“Stop it,” she said quietly, her temper not helped by a sudden gust of wind that threw her long black hair into her face. She angrily flicked them away from her, shaking her head to get them to fall into something resembling order as she wiped at her eyes. When she looked back down, her shadow was as it should be again.

Her let her fingers rest on the smooth, varnished wooden rail as she regained control of herself. Control of herself, after all, was exactly why she was doing this. When she felt she had recovered sufficiently, she turned to go back to her cabin, such as it was, putting the view of the shining city behind her. The wooden deck didn’t creak as she thought it would, and she could feel the vibration of the steam driver through her feet. It was a relaxing sensation, a reminder of things she was familiar with. It just wasn’t right if the vehicle didn’t hum around her. The Yribus was a steam ship, a luxury vessel carrying mostly small goods and people. It was 30 and a half zens long, an easy five minute walk from one end to the other, the hull made completely out of wood and painted white. When she was younger, she’d once wondered how they kept boats such as this, without proper metal hulls, from leaking. She gathered primitive adhesive was used in lieu of proper welds.

Now that she wasn’t turned away from the rest of the ship, she could no longer pretend she was alone. Not far from her, another of her countrymen, one of the naturalists wearing wilderness gear more worn than hers, was also making images of the city, politely ignoring her. Beyond him, a group of older women were seated together, the hems of their needlessly long skirts railing messily on the ground as they talked. A man and a woman were walking together down the walkway on the sunward side, the man in a sharply cut and fine suit of green, the woman in an orange dress that set off her vivid purple hair. A few others were standing by the rails, though most sat on the upper deck conversing and inhaling from some kind of primitive combustion vaporizer. For all that the Yribus was primitive by Messiarki standards, it was meant as an exclusive vessel to ferry the rich ore traders from the continent. Its rich woods were worn smooth, its paint was neat, and most things were accented bright brass fittings meant to represent gold, or possibly really was gold. They used the venecite standard as a means of exchange in much of the continent, or so she’d heard. She’d never understood what venecite was, though she gathered it was some sort of crystal or gemstone, a valuable mineral.

Below, she knew, Messiarki goods were being carried. Synthetic fabrics like thermisol and mithliline, mass-machined metal goods with special friction co-efficient reduction coatings, perfectly flat panes of glass, powdered drinks, spices and antibiotics. Probably more. She only knew the basics of what they traded with the rest of the world in exchange for shiploads of ores, slag and bullion containing aluminum, titanium, iron, and other metals, as well as raw components for such things like glass, paper and leather. Messiark had few mines and had difficulty providing for their own materials needs. After nine thousand years, there was only so much recycling could do.

As she passed the older women, she listened to what they were saying, testing her language skills. It sounded like they were speaking Saxoish, which made them Replinjani, but their accent was markedly more pronounced than she had learned in school, and she could barely decipher what they were saying. Perhaps it was a regional accent? A speech impediment, possibly? No, it was a feature they all shared, and they looked different enough to discount the possibility they were all related enough to share the same impediment. All had hair of different colors, ranging from a muted green to a brilliant pink. As she passed them, she noted she now had empirical evidence that of those from the continent having a wide range of hair colors was true. Oh, accounts from those who journeyed outside Messiark, whether on economic, political or scientific missions, all mentioned hair in shades beyond the browns, blondes and orange-reds found at home, but Sorce herself had never glimpsed it, not even that time she and her classmates had gone on what she had thought would be her first and only trip over sea to see and collect samples of the forests around Rondiumium, the port city closest to Messiark.

She turned to the small, narrow door than led down towards the ship’s cabins, mindful of her footing in the sway of the waves. Her boots hadn’t been broken in yet and while they felt comfortable she was unsure of their tread, especially on the narrow stairs, almost a ladder. The corridor was low and narrow, so much that she barely kept from bumping her head on the ceiling, and she was not tall for her age. Shining golden lamps at regular intervals lit the way, all on some sort of gimbal that allowed them to sway with the ship’s movements, each letting out a strong white light. She’d been surprised at seeing them at first, having always been told the continent had no electricity. But they’d been dealing with the Messiarki for thousands of years, after all. Perhaps they’d finally managed to develop their technology to the point of primitive drive cells. The lamps had no wires, after all.

Now she just put them out of her mind, heading towards her cabin for some privacy. Now that she could no longer see the city, her emotions threatened to overwhelm her again, and she did not wish to make a spectacle of herself. She had no empirical data on how continentals would respond to such a display, even though she had extensively read of copies their books. Right now she was in no fit state to gather that data. She came to her quarters, reaching into one of her pockets for the primitive metal key she had been assigned. As she reached up to carefully slip it into the access port, her vision flickered. For a moment, everything was overlaid with a strange, monochromatic view. Where her hands were, there were also two vaguely hand-shaped networks of dark lines and dots. She shut her eyes, but she found no escape from the sight. It was as if she were seeing through her eyelids, the monochromatic view becoming clearer for the lack objects in color. Another moment, and the image was gone, replaced with the familiar darkness interrupted with white flashes of optic nerves.

She was shaking, she realized, and sternly ordered herself to stop. This fear-response was baseless, she told herself. She would have to grow used to it in future, if it was a manifestation of her condition. Surely it couldn’t harm her? None of what she’d read had made mention of her condition being inherently self-harmful. True, variations of it could potentially self-harm a person, but only as a secondary effect. She took a deep breath steadying herself. Well, she had a long time to gather empirical information on her condition and compare it against her secondary sources. The rest of her life, in fact.

She fumbled open the look, feeling the unfamiliar scrape as the key slid into the access port, its serrated edge rubbing on what she hypothesized was some sort of spring-loaded mechanical locking mechanism. Mechanically ingenious, but insecure compared to Messiarki systems. The door opened into a dark room lit only by the subdued glow from a single porthole. She stepped inside and let the door close behind her, securing the passive locking mechanism into place and using the key to reset the active lock. Sorce drew out her bytcomm, her thumb making the stroke that would activate its built-in diode light help illuminate her quarters. The narrow beam of white light was intense in the shadowed confines, and she easily found the dial above the bunk that activated the cabin’s single lamp.

Even for one who had lived in a small apartment with her family all her life, the cabin was small and cramped. Besides the bunk, with its curved bed and simple caliper-restraints, structural features she supposed was meant to keep one in place while one slept despite the ships’ constant swaying, there was only room for her luggage, a large backpack possibly filled beyond its normally prescribed capacity. A few hooked pegs lined one wall, which she vaguely recalled was the method of clothing storage on ship. It one of the smaller cabins, meant for a merchant’s minor functionaries, or possibly a not very wealthy merchant. Still, it was in the highest deck, as far above the waterline as possible without actually being outside, a minor and likely futile attempt at self-preservation in the event of catastrophic failure on part of the vessel. Between her only basic skill at swimming, her lack of trained endurance, the ambient temperature of the water and the carnivorous fauna and megafauna that swam the Armeth, she likely had no chance of survival in any case.

Removing her jacket, she hung folded it into a replacement for the bunk’s pillow of questionable cleanliness, leaving her in her base clothes. Lying down on the bunk, she considered her situation and tried to remind herself she was on an expedition of hope rather than an eternal bleak exile. Had it only been a month since she her condition had been identified? It seemed subjectively longer. She had been removed from her educational precinct and moved to isolation facilities, where she had continued her education over comm while her condition had been observed, her vision flickering and her shadow altering independent of light sources. In the end, she herself had volunteered to leave when her condition continued to be uncontrollable.

Sorce closed her eyes. 5 days. In half a week, she’d be on the continent of Relvin. Away from civilization. Away from bytcomm reception. Away from– she shuddered– plumbing. In a land full of unwashed, uneducated, illiterate, rainbow-haired, horse-riding people who had the one thing that you couldn’t get in Messiark.

Empirical information on the possession and control of magic.

She supposed it could be worse. As recently as a hundred fifty years ago, well within her father’s father’s lifetime, people with magic had been outright outlawed on Messiark and its city states, exiled to live outside civilization. Now those kind of people– her kind of people, she realized– could live and even practice there, provided they kept their power under control.

Sorce didn’t have control. So she was going to the people who could teach it to her.


The name of the organization was a legend even in Messiark, the only land besides the apocryphal Wrath Wastes that they did not hold sway. Travellers spoke of them in the reproductions of communal eating facilities along the docks, passed on word of them in books and scrolls and all forms of writing copied and translated from the continent. From what they could understand, they were part research organization, police force, sample repository, library, political block, government, and society, one who held authority and power of restriction and prosecution over all practitioners in Khyort.

Sorce intended to find them, join them, and learn all she could about her condition. How I manifested, how it was spread, how it was controlled and restricted. Its applications, limitations and properties. She would learn all this so she could return and properly reintegrate with her peer group and nation, no longer a danger to those around her due to random uncontrolled manifestations, a proper, contributing and orderly member of society.

So she could return home.

She nearly shuddered at the thought. Home. Sorce chided herself. She had barely left Messiarki territorial waters and already she was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. How childish. She had lasted three days when she had gone on the excursion with her classmates. Surely she had not regressed in willpower? How shameful, to think she had lost maturity.

Reaching into one of her many trouser pockets, she extracted her wired earpieces, fitting them on and inserting them into their proper port on her bytcomm. Though less convenient than her wireless ones, they utilized far less power, a practical consideration when all she would have to power her unit would be individual drive cells. She had fifteen in storage, a number so excessively cautious it was almost silly. The potential energy there would allow her to run her bytcomm and miscellaneous electronics for up to a year, but she doubted they’d be needed. She could have her devices recharged at an embassy building, after all. Still, it was best to learn to be frugal. She had no knowledge on travel durations once she landed. For all she knew, it would require a day, possibly two, to go between cities, instead of the hours and half-hours she was used to. Some accounts by scientists and naturalists she’d read spoke of durations of weeks, even months, but that was surely irregular. However, it was best to keep usage to a minimum until she had established a baseline from which to draw estimates herself.

Her family had helped her with other preparations as well, assigning a credit allowance to her identity designation and purchase needful products. It had been like they were preparing her to go on a naturalist excursion, and in a way they were, such that it had almost taken on the air of the mundane. Her mother had contacted an old classmate who had become a naturalist herself and interviewed her on what equipment was vital. Most of their choices they had made on her advice, though they had forgone the documentation equipment, normally indispensable on such an expedition. They had purchased her sets wilderness clothes, new base clothes, her travel rations, shelter gear, survival tools, self-defense equipment and other such supplies.

At the time, it had seemed needlessly excessive. Now, in the privacy of her cabin, starting off on this journey, Sorce wasn’t so sure. The self-defense equipment, a canister of capsaicin-derivative and a pair of extending metal batons seemed insufficient to actually protect her from the dangers of the continent. The descriptions of creatures, of strange predators only barely glimpsed by expeditions and heard of only from possibly unreliable second-hand sources, fanciful and improbable while in her room at home, suddenly seemed all too real. She suddenly thought of the megafauna that lived in the deep waters between Messiark and the continent of Relvin. She’d once seen a full-sized replica of a megalodon jaw in Raguna’s museum exhibition halls. The thought of this suddenly fragile-seeming vessel encountering such a creature made her shudder.

A thought suddenly came to her, and she glanced out the porthole nervously, though by now it only showed the dark skies of late twilight and a brief sparkle of stars, more visible and numerous away from the light-saturated skies of the city. Still, it did not damp her worries. Should they encounter a dragon, in the open sea, without any means of shelter and protection…

Shuddering, Sorce activated her bytcomm with an experienced flick of her finger and after some navigating selected a language training audio file. She knew she was in denial. Worse yet, she was in denial over the possibility of a remote possibility.

That did not make her fear any less real.

Settling herself on her bench and keeping a part of her mind listening for the call for the evening meal, Sorce Marrione listened to recordings of words in a language foreign to her and tried not to think of dragons and storms.

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