“Well… My name is Ashleigh… as you already know.”
Virulesse stared at me with such a blank expression that I almost thought I broke her. Woo, I was off to a great start.
“And I’m twenty-two years old—although, I don’t know what that translates to in terms of Era’s orbital period—but anyway, I’m a—was a—software developer… But I guess you wouldn’t know what that is either… so maybe I should just take this from the top.” Jeez, this was so much easier when I had Elder Hammond’s Eye of Truth to grease the wheels on my explain-o-meter. I took a deep breath, gathering and organizing my thoughts. “So Earth has these things called computers and about eighty years ago a bunch of scientists figured out—”
Virulesse held up a hand and I bit my tongue. “Stop. Let’s take this one thing at a time, shall we? How did you come to leave your old world—I believe you called it Earth?” I nodded. “How did you come to leave your Earth behind and find yourself on Era?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. That was one question I definitely knew how to answer. “That’s easy. I died.”
The Exarch quirked an eyebrow at me. “You died?”
I nodded. “And next thing I knew, I was in some kind of afterlife realm, talking to Seriphen—the Goddess of Reincarnation.” I described my encounter with the goddess, and all the things she had told me. The ‘greater multiverse,’ the collective psychic subconscious, and all the different worlds out there, each with their own System. “And then she poofed me away, and I woke up on Era. Somewhere near Gostrey, to be precise.”
Virulesse listened to the entire tale with more blank-faced objective neutrality, but her eyes twitched a little wider every time I revealed something of cosmic significance—I could tell she was fascinated. When I finally stopped talking, instead of asking me any of the obvious followup questions, she turned toward Vaxal on the other side of the room.
“All true,” Vaxal said. Oh, right. Telepathic lie detector. At least I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of convincing Virulesse to believe all of this cliché fantasy bullshit.
“Remarkable…” Virulesse said. “Not only are there worlds beyond our own, but there is also life after death…”
“Only for some people,” I reminded her. “The overwhelming majority of people just… stop existing.” Recalling the way Seriphen had casually relegated billions, possibly trillions of souls to oblivion while having the power to save them still filled me with a cold anger. There was no real afterlife after all—no heaven, no hell, no salvation except for the lucky fucking few.
“True,” Vaxal said, his voice hoarse like a rockslide falling down another rockslide.
“A pity,” Virulesse said. “That would have made things much easier. Ashleigh, do you know why you were granted this reincarnation?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “No idea. I’m just really lucky, I guess.” Or really, really unlucky, more likely.
“Did you do anything in your life on Earth to set yourself apart from the rest of the people? To set yourself above them? Did you lead a life of exceptional virtue? Extraordinary vice? Anything of the sort?”
“Not really,” I said. “I mostly just kept to myself, reading books and playing games and doing my job. I didn’t really get out much, or talk to people outside my friends and family all that often… To be honest, it was kind of a pathetic life.”
“Completely true,” Vaxal rasped.
I turned around. “Hey!”
Vaxal smirked toothily at me. Ugh, whatever. I probably deserved it.
Virulesse pondered aloud. “Hmm… Perhaps there’s some sort of minimum threshold of worthwhile living that most people end up meeting, but which you did not. And thus, you were reincarnated so that you could fulfill the quota for a sufficient life.”
“Okay, now you’re both just ganging up on me. But I don’t think so. I mean, I was boring, for sure—but I was far from the top-1%-of-the-top-1% of Super-NEETs that might make that idea make sense. Seriphen said I was one of the ‘lucky few’—there are probably millions of people on Earth who lived just as little as I did. And that’s just on Earth. If you multiply that across all the other worlds in the multiverse, it’s probably billions of people at least. That doesn’t sound like a ‘few’ anymore to me.”
“I suppose you are correct,” Virulesse said, another note of disappointment coloring her voice. “Are you a virgin?”
“What the fuck,” I said, “that’s personal!”
“Answer the question, Null-rank,” Vaxal growled from across the room.
Virulesse continued to stare at me with savagely emotionless eyes, waiting for an answer.
“Ugh, fine. No, I’m not.” What was it with magical thinking and the idea that female virginity held special power? Power over a certain subset of guys, maybe. I guess this was just one more multiversal cultural constant I would have to deal with. Hur-fucking-rah, the patriarchy was literally infinite.
“Did you die a virgin?” Virulesse asked.
“True,” Vaxal said.
I turned to him again. “Could you stop?”
Virulesse didn’t let the interrogation slow down for a second. “How did you die?”
I averted my eyes from her penetrating gaze, ashamed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You know, for a knowledge exchange, I sure seem to be doing all the knowledge sharing so far. How about I ask the next couple questions and you go on the defensive for a change?”
“You will have your chance to ask questions when the time is right,” the Exarch stated. “Remember—this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership in pursuit of higher truths.”
“Bullshit,” I said, “the time is now.” Virulesse was good at her politics; I had to give her that. She had successfully distracted me with the interrogation whirlwind for a little while, but now I was back on track. “You say this is a partnership? Then play your part: tell me, partner, what the fuck is skyball?”
“It’s a sport,” Virulesse said tersely. “Hardly of any consequence to our endeavors.”
Well, that was an evasive answer if I ever heard one. “How is it played?”
“I don’t know all the rules and regulations,” she said, sounding bored. “As a provincial governor I try not to waste my time on such banalities as skyball. But if you want to skip ahead to discussing our respective cultures, tell me more about Earth. How advanced are its strongest nations?”
“No, we’re still on skyball. Answer my question, Exarch-rank.”
“Exarch isn’t a Rank; it’s a title. I’m a—” Virulesse cut herself off before she said anything more.
If there was still any doubt in my mind, that confirmed it. All her talk of wanting to trade intel with me was just that: talk. All the teases of answers coming eventually were nothing more than teases, designed to keep me talking and sharing and divulging for as long as she could without giving anything in return. And I was so desperate to make sense of this whole nonsensical world that I played along way longer than I should have. But not anymore.
Except Vaxal was still towering in the corner, with the power to incinerate me with nothing more than a thought. And who knew how much stronger his boss was?
It didn’t matter whether or not I figured out Virulesse’s motivations or schemes. I was trapped, with no way out except to refuse to play their games and probably be killed for it. I was powerless. Just like Vaxal had told me.
The silence only lasted for a second, and Virulesse resumed her unfinished statement. “I am a duly appointed Exarch of Beleria, chosen by the King himself after his successful insurgency against former King Bylas. While you are within my borders, you will submit to my authority. Do you understand?”
I shrank down in my seat. “Yes,” I replied meekly.
“Good,” Virulesse said. “Now, back to the topic at hand. Would you say Earth’s civilization is advanced? Politically, industrially, technologically? Despite the lack of a System to give it order?”
“Yes to all of the above,” I said. What choice did I have? It was either answer the Exarch’s questions about how the primitive people of Earth were able to invent democracy despite their cosmic feebleness, or face her wrath.
“True,” Vaxal announced, to no one’s benefit.
“Although, naturally, a single human from Earth would stand no chance in combat against even an Iron-rank human from Era, correct?”
“From what I’ve seen so far, probably not.” Telepathy, speed, fire, lightning, the list went on and on. Heck, even machine guns probably wouldn’t do much to level the playing field, if the Gray Guard’s energy shields had anything to say about it.
“If a human from Era were to be transported to Earth—whether via reincarnation or otherwise—do you think it would be possible for them to keep the Seven Sevens System?”
The question caught me off guard, and I slowed down to think it through. “I guess it’s possible… I mean, I was able to come here without giving up my lack of System, so maybe?”
Virulesse nodded, deep in thought. “And… Do you think it might be possible to travel to Seriphen’s realm intentionally? Without dying?”
Wait a minute… I replayed Virulesse’s line of questioning in my head, looking for the thread of motivation that tied it all together. I found it quickly—staring me in the face, a big blinking neon sign that shouted “how hard would it be to conquer Earth?” Holy shit.
“Well?” Virulesse asked.
“Um… I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? With the right kind of magic?” I was freaking out, but I managed to hide it—mostly. I couldn’t let Virulesse just waltz across the multiverse and take over my home planet, could I? And even if I didn’t think it was possible, I didn’t know it was impossible. I had to answer truthfully, or face the consequences.
“I see…” Virulesse said. “Vaxal, make a note for me to review the available literature on teleportation Artifacts. I know there aren’t many left, but—” She glanced sideways at me, realizing she was on the verge of divulging something new. “Just make the note.”
“Yes, my Exarch.”
Virulesse returned her full attention to me. “Now then, let’s move on to Earth’s technological capabilities… I believe you mentioned something called ‘nuclear weapons’ earlier? Tell me about those.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not going to help you conquer the multiverse. Especially not starting with my home planet.” Consequences be damned, I couldn’t just let her expand her tyranny beyond the bounds of Era. Even if it meant being killed on the spot for displeasing her—my one life was nothing compared to the seven billion on Earth.
Virulesse grinned, her eyelids drooping in smug delight. “What makes you think you can stop me?”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. Any answer I could give other than a basic “I can’t” would have been total bullshit. I didn’t have any real power to stop the Exarch Virulesse. It was possible that no one on Earth did, either. Even nuking her from orbit might not be enough, for all I knew. And at that point, with nuclear fallout and all the casualties that would ensue, would that really be an option?
Virulesse saw through my silence for what it was and her smile widened. “Do you come from a powerful family, Ashleigh?”
The idea was so wrong it was almost laughable. “Yeah, and I have a bridge back on Earth I’d love to sell you,” I said sarcastically.
“True,” Vaxal declared.
“Then you and I are more alike than you know,” Virulesse said, taking my statement at face value. “The Syndane family has held power in Beleria for countless generations. Since the days of Impruss Canyndir, we have grown from merchants into nobles into political advisors—and now we hold two of the seven provinces of Beleria. Even as dynasties rise and fall around us, the Syndane family expands its territory.”
What the fuck. At no point in my life on Earth did I ever own a bridge, or any other kind of real estate—unless you count the lease on a crappy apartment. My family was no more powerful than any other third-generation immigrant family—which was to say, not powerful at all. Either Vaxal was flagrantly lying to his ruler, or his lie detector didn’t work on me.
“But we are nearing the limits of our expansion on Era,” Virulesse continued. “Beleria has reached a wondrous stability under the rule of the Silver King, which we dare not threaten to upset. And the countries across the sea, I’m sorry to say, far outrank us militaristically. But beyond Era…”
It was too much for me to keep up with. Names, places, dynasties, secrets—I might be able to lie. A way to fight back—if I could keep this discovery in just my own head. Shit, I had to change mental gears. “So what you’re saying is, your family is so weak, that the lowest-hanging fruit for expanding your power base now is in an entirely different universe?”
My remark had exactly its intended effect. Virulesse scowled at me, all her villainous waxing abandoned. “Do you still think it wise to taunt me, Null-rank?”
I raised both of my hands in submission. “No, I’m sorry; I only want to understand. This is still a lot for me to take in, I’m sure you can imagine.”
“Yes, I can quite imagine,” Virulesse said. God, what a self-absorbed prick.
The beginnings of a plan were forming in my mind. It was risky, but I was already in twenty thousand leagues over my head. Do or die. All I needed now was a lot of luck, even more luck, and to start talking Virulesse’s language. “And… I want to understand what’s in it for me. How my… cooperation will be rewarded.”
That caught her interest. “Oh?”
My words were so unnatural to me that I had to drag out every single one by force. “If we do collaborate to conquer the multiverse… Surely with countless worlds out there, you could spare one for me? I think I could lead a pretty darn useful vassal state under your banners, if you would allow it. A world entirely dedicated to experimentation with foreign Systems.”
If there was one way to absolutely blind a power-hungry tyrant, it was to get them to realize their insane ambitions were too small. Virulesse had said nothing about conquering the entire multiverse, but that was the next obvious step after taking over a single other world. Virulesse had to realize, as I had, that the Seven Sevens System probably wasn’t the weakest System in the multiverse. If she could subdue Earth, why not a world with another System? And then another, and another, until her empire had enough combined might that no one could oppose it?
A million times easier said than done, of course, but would-be conquerors never think about all the thousands of would-be conquerors who failed before them.
“If you give me the chance, I guarantee I can prove my leadership capabilities to you,” I said. Fun fact about the extent of my leadership capabilities: the one time I was selected to be the leader on a group project in high school, a week later the entire group mutinied against me. Turns out most people don’t like getting assigned research on the weekend. Who knew?
“True,” Vaxal said, with a hint of shock in his voice.
Virulesse’s pensive expression softened. “Your offer intrigues me. Naturally, I would prefer to have you as a willing subject—but I must say, I didn’t expect such a quick change of heart. What are you really after?”
The second key to blinding a power-hungry tyrant? Making them think your own insane ambitions pale in comparison to theirs. “Isn’t it obvious? Earth. I want to protect my people.”
Virulesse smiled, and I knew I had her in my grasp. “Your loyalty to your people is admirable. We have a deal. You’ll have your Earth, as soon as I’m done with it.”
Virulesse had to know that such a deal meant nothing. Neither I nor anyone else on Earth had the power to stop her if she changed her mind. Paying lip service to an unenforceable deal for the sake of getting me on her side? It was a price so low that she may as well pay it just for fun.
Vaxal interrupted us. “Exarch, message from Harah. She requires your presence in the High Hall as soon as possible.” He had his HUD up, a glowing purple hologram-screen with white borders. Neat, it apparently had direct messaging functionality.
Virulesse sighed. “We’ll have to resume this later,” she said to me. “A productive first session—the first of many to come.”
She barely waited for me to stand up alongside her before walking toward the door at a brisk pace. “Vaxal will show you back to your room,” she said as Vaxal opened the door for her.
I nodded. “I look forward to working with you,” I lied.
Vaxal grinned as he gave his final affirmation to the Exarch. “True.”