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There exists a world where, when Alexa sees the viewport, she marches to the front of the room. Mounts the dais, clears her throat, and calls for attention. Yes, yes, thank you for coming, she would like to formally announce that the Pallas Rex is present and available for questions and/or vengeance, as the situation requires.

Because, yes, she's bad at parties. But she knows damn well what it means when the leader of a group holds a party with such a prominent viewport. It means that there's about to be a demonstration, a display of force, an execution, an object lesson. Something terrible is about to happen to Ridenki, and all the Hermetics are going to be able to see it in excruciating detail.

It traps them in visions of the past. They can't! The Alced have suffered enough! She can't let them bring the planet back to the way things were!

It's only the touch of a hand on hers that draws her out of her panic. And even then, it's not til she looks at Epistia, takes in the quiet concern on her face, that she realizes how abruptly she locked up at the sight of that window.

And she doesn't even have the words to explain herself.

She forces a breath, and then two, and carefully squeezes back. Yes. This is workable. She can do this. She just needs to figure out which of these nigh-identical coats has a Birmingham inside, get them alone, and make her case.

Courts. She can do this. Follow the patterns, watch who's mingling with whom, and find the one who's at the center of all the motion.

[Look Closely with damaged sense: 4,4,4, +0. 8. How could I get Birmingham by himself?]
"Now, you can't ignore it."

There's not much to do at night.
Mighty Natascha puffs contentedly to herself, worn from the long day's haul and belly slowly digesting a load of coal. Mister Conagher dismissed the other firemen to the crew car hours ago before announcing his own intention to turn in. That just leaves the two of them, sat round the little lamp in the corriidor of the coal tender.

And Granpappy never rushes a good story. He takes his time tamping down the baccy in his pipe, savors the smell of it. Reachs out the window, lazily strikes a match against the tunnel wall as it rushes past, nestles it deep into the little cup. Builds up steam, puffs a few rings. All in complete silence, eyes never leaving the spellbound little kobold on his too-large chair. And it's not til the ceiling runs thick with pipe smoke that he graces his audience with a continuation.

"There's some say that if you acknowledge the paradox, you'll end the world or summat. Reality'll collapse in on itself. And they're smart men and all, and I'm sure they've all done some amazing math and come out dead sure of themselves. But I've had the pleasure of meeting myself before, and ain't any harm come of it so far. You're there, and he's there, and what can you do about it? Myself's a gentleman, and knows things I don't, so no harm in picking my brain as he's there, right?"


***

Of course, Granpappy never actually said what to do if your future self had made enemies. Frankly, a disappointing gap in knowledge, and Coleman can't wait to meet himself to find out how to deal with it.

That, or throttle himself. Oh, you weaponized Sasha? Great, great! Brilliant! And you rule the lower levels of the Heart? Fascinating! The eyepatch is new! When does that happen? Who were you plundering at the time? Does that happen before or after we entirely lose our sense of self and turn to piracy and train cannibalism? Because of course that's what we're doing, right, is hunting other engines for parts and crew?

No doubt that's what the Blemmyite was for. Is for? Will be for? Bah. Black Coleman wants their expertise in amalgamation, the better to splice and graft Sasha to her true destiny. She will survive, no matter what happens to everyone else.

For now though, the kobold climbs into one trashcan-lid sized metal paw, lets Sasha lift him up to the clenched fist, and taps it gently with his own. "I'm afraid you've me at a disadvantage here. You know me, but I've never met you before. You are?"
"Ruin..." Alexa turns and takes in the planet again. Views it as it was--wreathed in flames, shadowed by Ares, stricken. Views it now, a verdent paradise, blue and green and teals. Quietly, decisively nods. "In the end it was, I suppose."

But it wasn't always like that, was it? Back in the beginning, when she could still believe in the cause. She could look at Molech and see the brilliant tactician, marvel at the sweeping ambushes, the precision with which enemies were cut down, and tell herself the cruelty was worth it. Planets scrambled to fall at his feet, without a single shot! They were making it possible to fight wars without fighting wars! Soon, warfare itself would be pointless, eradicated! And all she had to do was ignore the gnawing feeling that this was very wrong.

She was broken, obviously, if all she had to do was fit into the place that Molech told her to fit.

It was so simple. When she won, it was because she successfully carried out Molech's orders. And when she failed, obviously she'd failed to understand what he wanted.

That's part of the reason she never actually commanded the army against Thriss. Even then, back when Nero was a jumped-up nobody from a backwater, Thriss was a capital-T Threat. Her grasp of strategy, her ability to surprise, to plan and execute maneuvers, almost rivaled Molech himself. Alexa would go to comply with orders, and find Thriss two steps ahead in routing it.

(Privately, she almost suspects that Nero had to have gotten rid of her quietly. But no, that's what Molech would have done. Far better to occupy a resource like Thriss with conquering somebody else--with bringing others under the heel of Empire. Something to occupy that needle-sharp mind and keep her far from the capitol.)

Much better to fight Mengekai. You'd never find a general so willing to respect the rules of war, so rigid, so damn polite about things. It was never about the objective, about winning the day at any costs. Only with Mengekai could she demand single combat, a duel of champions, and find an agreeable, almost charming wink in return. He expected honor, and if it was found, would return it. For him, war was... Well, not a game. Not exactly. It was a messy affair, desperately to be avoided. But if there were no more battle, then where would he win glory?

Would it be strange to call him a friend? On opposite sides of the war, certainly, and they'd kill each other in a heartbeat if the war demanded, but also not entirely an enemy? It's strange--she almost wishes she could track him down, find out what he's up to, reminisce about all those times they fought each other.

Such an odd whim.

He can't have settled down--he'd never be able to sustain his troops, ply them with gifts to establish his own power, without a steady supply of plunder. Pirate, maybe? Would Nero turn him loose on the galaxy, let him play warlord?

And, at the end of the day, he's not Vatemoral, and thank goodness for that. Thriss's grasp of strategy was flawless, but you never knew what Vatemoral was packing or even, half the time, what they hoped to gain. The only universal was that it was going to be nasty, be bigger than last time, and involve an esoteric or two. They were playing a game, and damned if anybody else knew the rules.

That wasn't to say they were a bad person, but Vatemoral was the kind of person for whom the answer was less important than asking the question. They delighted in poking simply for the knowledge of what would happen when you did. Vatemoral is probably in an order of mysteries somewhere far from here, and Alexa is too glad for that.
What is this feeling? Of unbearable tightness, like everything is squeezed too tight in her chest? She can't move, can't breathe, because to do so must surely shatter the illusion.

Because that's what it is. It has to be. She... She saw the wreckage! Felt the heat! Knew that the planet had fallen! She watched the ships burn, named the crewmembers on them, did the rites of the dead, for none remained on the planet to see Hades placated! This can be nothing but the cruelest joke to play on her.

And yet.

And yet, there it sits, as if war had never come.

She dares to raise a hand to the glass, as if by reaching out, she could grasp the planet, draw it close. Traces the lines of the continents, as familiar as the day she read them on the map. Tries, in vain, to see if she can't spot one of the armadas. It's nonsense, she knows. Who could have survived?

And yet, she finds herself smiling.

It cannot be. It's impossible. Nothing short of the direct intervention of the gods themselves could bring this about. A terraforming effort on this scale, a restoration like this! She shudders to think what the cost must have been. What world did Nero sacrifice to the gods to bring this about? What dread bargain the price for Alced?

And yet, there it is.

And here she is, miles away. She aches to be off, to see the surface. Is it possible that some of of her comrades yet live? That she could find them, reunite with them, share stories with them, reassure each other that yes, you made it, you survived! Share drinks, live, reminisce of those who did not!

She presses almost flat against the glass, her stare hungry for what she cannot have.

"Did..." She gulps, musters the soft words back into line, and turns a soft gaze on Epistia. "Did your mother ever talk? About this, I mean. About Alced."
Well, small point of order, if he may, ma'am? You see, and he hates to bring it up but, well, he's not an Engineer. His mind hasn't been touched by a train, raw and uncensored and intolerably full of that barrage of input. He may wear the gloves and swing the wrench, but if he were to go into a roundhouse and call himself an Engineer, at best he'd be laughed out of the building.

And more's the pity, really. Mister Conagher hadn't had the words to fully explain what it's like to fully connect to an engine, though the word "overwhelming" had been involved. And at the first connection, it's almost painful? It's... Look, your brain is trying to interpret senses you didn't have thirty seconds ago, and the train is getting used to what it's like to be able to see. You have two foreign minds that are temporarily fused together and every nerve is firing at the same time and you're not sure whether you're dying or if you've ever been alive before this or whether you're seeing the moment the universe began.

It's not sight, you see. To feel the tracks under you, to shriek down the tunnel and hear the earth moan in response? You're experiencing echolocation, feeling the future of the track through your wheels, and your primitive lizard brain isn't ready for it. And that's before the train decides to reach out, to touch at the other minds in the area, incorporate their senses?

Really, donating his sight almost feels like it must be superfluous.

Sasha isn't fully formed. It's clumsy, pushy, the way the tendril of will nudges at his brain, a child's first clumsy grasps at an object. She can't just reach out and direct his eyes, show him what to look at, and she's not subtle enough to skim across the surface of a mind without it noticing--already he can see some booth barkers turning to stare at the train.

This is gonna be trouble.
"Of course, Captain."

Alexa doesn't dare look. There's the chance, yes, that Epistia is forgiving. That she'll be excited, happy even, with this assignment. It's a day out, a chance to spend time with one another! And if there's anybody who could be counted on to guard her from the predations of curious priests, it's Epistia!

She wants to hope. But the thought of what she might see--disappointment, or anger, or even simple resignation!--better to seal it away deep in a vault, where reality will not tarnish it.
Smiling isn't natural during a war council. It's especially unnatural to smile at your ward. It calls on muscles that, long-disused, have wasted away. It ignores instincts, baked in since carving and hammered in afterwards, that say that concealing your emotions is the only way to avoid being hurt.

But Alexa chooses to do so anyway. It's small, and tentative, and nervous enough that the slightest sign of disapproval will banish it like a scent on the wind, but it's there. She sees, and she hears, and she appreciates.

The smile hesitates, and then wafts away at Iskarot's words.

It's not that she hasn't thought about boarding an entire ship of Hermeticians. Indeed, she's done her level best to avoid its presence as much as possible, and the thought of spending time in an entire ship just like it has hung over her head, a constant looming disaster-in-waiting. And a master who loves nothing more than to decided, on a whim, to take the most interesting piece of a collection? It's not flattery to worry about that, surely?

"I volunteer to accompany her," she says quietly. Redana does not need her, evidently. But she bears the good graces of the Hermetician. Surely his impulses can be tempered by her presence?
Really, he should be a nervous wreck.

It's not that clowns don't ride the Vermissian. Any who see the Ringmaster's wrath don't need to be taught twice. (Indeed, most don't get the chance.) Clowns are, reluctantly, welcome. Which means that, of necessity, some trains must run here, though the names of the poor unfortunates slip his mind at the moment.

Which means that Sasha needs to learn to deal with these kinds of things.

He's been a bad parent, do you know that? A bad example. They found the flood, and he ran. They found the angel, and he ran. They found King Dragon, and he ran. And these are all sensible decisions! But Sasha might get the wrong idea, might learn the wrong lesson.

And so, he ambles down the row of tents, holding Sasha's hand. This is a dangerous place, Sasha, but that's alright! Just stay close to Coleman, and we'll be fine. See, we might even do something fun--oh, you hear that? Can you hear the words the Jetcoaster is screaming? It sounds like it's enjoying itself, don't you think? Oooh, and fried pickles? Those sound amazing, wouldn't you like to try some?
"Reconnaissance does seem to be in order," Alexa murmurs, and does her best not to flinch.

This isn't her first war council. Or. Council, maybe? Yes, that has a nicer ring to it. Just here on this random planet at the same time as the Hermetics, totally harmless, no war involved.

But she can't help but flinch when people actually look at her.

She's not... Look. She understands tactics. Grand sweeping movements of armadas. Molech made sure that she understood all of it, and even if he hadn't, she's had centuries to perfect her understanding of his doctrines of war.

But she was just the background, before. Molech gave the orders, the instruction, and she was to sit behind him and make sure none of his counsellors got so ambitious they became a problem. Having someone listen to her is new.

So, to avoid the stares, she joins Dolce in his pensive contemplation of the Yakanov. At this distance, it's hard to make out the details, but she can see the plovers crawling over the massive crystal like ants across a log.

Yes, reconnaissance. Not getting shot with that would be nice.
Alexa kneels before the alter of Hera, face cool against the tiles, and tells herself, again, that this isn't a snub. She...

Well, she doesn't have that much to give. The only things that she truly, unequivocally owns are her spears, her shield, and a precious piece of parchment occupying a place of pride on Alexa's shelf.

(It took some doing to convince herself it was safe there. That it wouldn't be found, opened, abused or taken. But, well... Well. She'll open it. Soon. And maybe, just maybe, she'll be allowed to make it some friends? Some other memories to put on the shelf.)

To her left, Redana's offering sits there, as if taunting her with how much better it is than her own--simple, heartfelt, symbolically meaningful--even in hardship, the offering of someone bargaining for empire.

She does her best not to look at the plate in front of her. To Dolce's credit, this version survived the oven mostly intact, which is more than can be said of the other attempts currently smoldering in the sink. She makes a note to scrub the charcoal out of the pans after this. It's not fair that the delightful chef should clean her mess.

There are no illusions that this is an acceptable offering for the queen of the gods, of she who walks vested in wealth. But it's all she has to offer, and she just hopes it's enough to buy a small bit of protection for those she cares for. A breeze at the right moment, an eccentric that fails to charge fast enough. Just enough to make sure that everybody who leaves the ship also comes back.
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