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[personal profile] jl8e
The Critical Shift story is done in primary writing, and mostly done in revision. I'm not posting it all now to keep from overflowing people's friend lists, but expect a chapter every twoish days until it's done. (There may be delays due to internet problems at home.)

I didn't mean to wait so long between posting the first chapter and the second, but I was shorter on time than usual this past week.

It dreamed.

It dreamed of days past, when it had been supreme, when it had hunted the tormented ghosts of the Underworld. It dreamed of the pleasure of the hunt, and the torments it inflicted when it inevitably captured its prey.

It dreamed of the times when foolish sorcerers summoned it to the Overworld. The hunts they set it upon then were always more enjoyable, the flesh of the prey much sweeter.

And always, the sorcerers eventually made a mistake in their arrogance, and their flesh was the sweetest of all, their screams the most pleasing music it had ever heard.

The Harbinger walked the streets of the new future. He sought somebody. He knew not who, but he was sure that he would find them here.

He was one man, and a stranger in this world. Alone, he had little hope of finding the information he needed to learn.

And so, he walked the streets, away from the brightest lights, the immense spires, and the conglomerations of merchants hawking their wares. Here, it was not so different from the Netherworld. The lost and forgotten of this time were similarly desperate, victim to predators they had little protection from, and desperate enough to grab hold of any little hope dangled before them.

All that he needed was the right spark.

A flickering light drew his attention. He approached as quietly as he could. A man sat by a small fire, watching the flames. He became aware of the Harbinger and watched him suspiciously, one hand resting upon a metal bar.

This one was not yet broken.

The Harbinger crouched down opposite the man, examining him across the flames.

"You want to share my fire?" said the man, "What do you have to share?"

The Harbinger smiled as reassuringly as he was able. "I have some food," he said, "But I do not need your fire." He extended his closed hand, then opened it.

A small flame burned silently in his palm. "For I carry my own with me."

He watched the man watch the flame. Yes, he would be the first disciple.

It could not dream forever. Eventually, it had to awaken.

This last time, it had been summoned not by a giggling eunuch, but by a group of small, timid men. They had bound it and commanded it into this tank, where they were changing it, cutting away parts of its body and adding strange new things to replace them.

It floated in the tank and waited. Eventually, they would make a mistake.

They always did.

He looked at the man standing in his living room like he'd just found a cockroach in his breakfast cereal.

"I should just kill you right now."

If Dr. Boatman was worried his host might carry out the threat, he concealed it well. He waited as the man continued.

"I thought I was done with it all. I'd survived more than thirty years in BuroMil, and then I woke up one morning and the whole sick system I'd fought and bled for was gone like some bad nightmare.

"I have a daughter and a grandson. People look at me and see a respected security consultant; they don't wonder about all the atrocities I've committed.

"I don't remember any of it, but it's still a damn sight better than what I had before, or anything you could offer me.

"I wasn't even on your side! When you two shits started going at each other, I stuck with Bonengel. I led the commando unit that almost got you. What madness possessed you to come to me?"

Curtis Boatman waited to let him calm down.

"You were one of the best, Holz. If I'm going to impose order on this world, I need men like you."

"I've seen the news. You've got plenty of abominations, and they're the ones causing most of the disorder. You don't need me."

"Abominations are shock troops. I need soldiers to create order once resistance is broken, and I need men to lead them."

"And why should I help you and your monsters? This is far from a perfect world, but you're not the one to improve on it."

"You know it's not as easy as that. You're no fool. You do your research when people try to hire you. You think you have some idea of what they're like, but it's worse than you know. You've only seen the fringes.

"This world places no value on loyalty, or honor, or law, or on anything but personal advancement. It's rotten to the core, but it puts a pretty face on it. There are monsters here as great as anything the CDCA ever made, and they're human.

"I'm not going to claim I'm anything but what I am. I don't even have Johann's mad idealism to hide behind. I'm nothing more than the evil you know.

"Whether you join me or not, I'm winning. There's no organized opposition. You can join me, and possibly influence the new regime, or you can keep your head down and hope it turns out for the best."

Boatman pushed the heavy bag he'd brought toward Holz.

"Whether or not you sign up, I thought you might appreciate having your old weapon of choice, just in case you need it."

Boatman turned and walked toward the door. "You have my info if you want it. Good day. My best wishes to your family."

After he left, Holz sat down heavily in a chair. He reached into the bag and pulled out the first Helix Ripper he'd seen since the world changed.

He sat there for a long time, staring at it.

It came alert as the fluid drained from the tank. This was new. Never before had they left it awake when taking it out of the tank. Was this the inevitable mistake?

It would wait. It would see.

The tank hissed open. It climbed out, testing its new body parts. They were unfamiliar, but they would suffice to slaughter all of its tormentors.

As soon as the thought entered its mind, burning waves of pain engulfed it. Overwhelmed, it sank to its knees.

Through the pain, it heard the humans speaking.

"It appears that the neural grepper is functioning. Inform Doctor Boatman that we are ready to begin training."

As the pain ebbed, it decided that it would be an obedient tool.

For now.

He watched as his student reached toward the flame, then paused.

He inhaled, ready to offer encouragement, but the man suddenly plunged his hand into the flame and held it there for over a minute.

When he finally withdrew, there was an expression of awe on his face.

He was ready.

"Very good. Now, walk with me. There are things I wish to know."

"Is it ready?"

"We believe so, Doctor, it passes all the aptitude tests with ease. Other abominations obey it without question, and it shows no signs of rebellion."

"But you're worried."

The scientist paused, then said, in a barely audible voice, "Yes."

"Go on."

"There are good reasons we rarely made intelligent abominations before. They hate us. They want us to die. This one... it's smarter than any of us. It's smarter than you. 'Playing with fire' is a gross understatement."

"I understand your concerns. The control regimen was designed with them in mind. I believe that it is more than adequate. Activate... what did you name it?"

"Gog. General Gog."

"How... evocative. Well, if we want to pick up the pieces, we need to break things first. Let slip the Gogs of war."

The scientist laughed half-heartedly and hurried out.

A voice spoke from behind Boatman. "I fear you have missed your true calling. You should have been a comedian."

Boatman turned slowly in his chair. "And you should have been a stage magician; you have the love of cheap theatrics."

Smythe sniffed indignantly.

Boatman ignored it. "Since you have time to eavesdrop, I assume your own part goes well?"

"Well enough. My unwitting puppets await their orders."

"Excellent. We shall keep them in reserve for now. Between the abominations and the nanotech outbreaks, we may never need them."

Boatman stood. "And now, I have an appointment I must keep."
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