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Black Lives Matter, this isn't hard

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old plans, part 1 · 11:25pm Aug 23rd, 2017

First of all, here's what I had of chapter 27.


Celestia had left after announcing an intention to draw up a bubble bath, and Jeff had hurried off to learn more about the Nightmare’s host. Mag and Bittermann sat together in the rec room, Mag with all of the CIA files, textbooks, and encyclopedias Jeff had been able to find and leave with her on short notice, Bittermann with Jeff’s handgun disassembled in front of her for cleaning. The room still smelled like spilt vodka.

“You’d think top secret files would be more interesting,” said Mag. She’d leafed through the first box of alphabetized file folders, intending to spend the night sifting for relevant information and organizing what she found. She had eleven boxes at her side, labeled Inca 1, Inca 2, and so on. “Like this one.” She tapped an unlabeled document in 10-point, single-spaced. The staple was loose and fell out onto the table. “This is what, a list of war crimes? Cartel executions? I get the feeling I should be appalled, but it’s so dry.”

Bittermann worked the grip with an oil-stained rag. “The government and armed forces can make anything boring. Anything.”

Mag squinted at a bit of smudged ink. “That says ‘necklacing?’ As an execution method?”

“You hear about it sometimes in Africa,” said Bittermann. She set down the rag and grip to gesture. “They fill a tire with fuel and set it around the guy’s neck—”

“Nope, got it, nope, nope.”

“We’re going to a war zone. You’ll learn a lot of things you didn’t want to know.” Bittermann went back to her work.

“True,” said Luna. “And I shall have more questions throughout the night, I think. Thank you for staying to help.”

“Glad to, ma’am.” She folded the rag. Her finger didn’t curl properly. Why did she want a gun if her trigger finger didn’t work, anyway?

Mag turned back to the Introduction to Latin American History textbook, which she’d so far found more informative than the CIA files, and looked through the pictures. For Inca, the textbook had 12 full color photographs of burning jungles, mud-sodden corpses, flags whipping in the wind, child soldiers with calm faces, the silhouette of a mountain range under a gorgeous night sky. The last three plates respectively were a print of an abstract painting in shades of steel blue and jagged gray, a hyperrealistic painting of a soldier’s discolored and wrinkled sleeve, and one more photo of a particolored kudzu of knotted ropes.

“There,” said Luna. “That rope is a talisman of some kind. This camera does not properly capture all magical spectra, but I see an enchantment in its knots.”

“It’s called a ’quipu.’ Huh.” Mag read the caption. “Says it’s some kind of code used to send messages between cities. No, it used to be, and then it turned into some kind of trophy for soldiers. Especially scouts, it says.”

“Some manner of weapon? No, no. It alters the bearer in some way. Tilt this image.”

Mag turned it on its side.

“For scouts, is it? Aye, I see it. Speed and tirelessness. And I see some degree of modularity; I believe altering the arrangement of knots may change the ‘quipu’s’ properties. This is a cunning tool. And a dangerous one, for I see also a way to make the bearer numb to hunger and thirst.”

Mag couldn’t see anything. She turned it upside down and still didn’t. “The text says the knots are a code for carrying census data, so I guess it’s got a mundane use too?”

“I believe it. This is sophisticated, and I hypothesize a cultural heritage of aetheric manipulation. And a martial one, most certain.”

Mag hoisted volume 16 of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Ho – Kr,” off the floor. Its index directed her to the one mention of “quipu” in the book. Reportedly, Incan relay runners called “chasquis” could work together to take a quipu from one end of the empire to the other in less than 24 hours. This, of course, was before the Spanish tore down the Incan central government.

Bittermann clacked and snapped the gun back together and set it down and squared it carefully. In front of her. She took a deep breath and patted the table. “Hey.”

Mag looked up from her book without lifting her head. “Hey.”

“So… I’m here.”

“And away I go,” chirped Luna. “I’ll return in the morning,” she added in Mag’s head.

Mag quirked a smile. “Oh no, our chaperone has left. Can we really be trusted alone together?”

Bittermann didn’t smile back. “I’ve been thinking, and here’s what I’m thinking. The bottom line is that you’re straight.”

“I’m complicated.”

“I know you’re straight.”

“Straightdar isn’t a thing.”


“Why? Stop fucking around and tell me what the hell you’re trying to do.” She stood up. “You know what? If the princess left then why shouldn’t I? It’s none of your business how I feel. It’s not your problem.”

Mag folded her arms. “What problem?”

“Don’t change the subject.” She made as if to punch the table but thought better of it. She sat down. “Well?”

“Look, I feel like we’re talking past each other. I still don’t get why you’re mad.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Bittermann snarled. “No. Do you get that, at least? No.”

Mag slammed her book shut. “Hey, fuck you too.” She realized how that sounded. “Not for saying ‘no,’ I mean. Fuck you specifically for saying ‘fuck off.’ ‘No’ is fine. Fine.”

Bittermann stared down at Mag from across the table. “No,” she said again.

“Why me, anyway? There’s a lot of people in this place. I’ve seen some specimens. Hot, nice, in shape, probably not crazy.”

Bittermann, still standing, began to strip the gun again. “You sound like my mother.”

“I guess what I mean is…” Mag ran out of words. She hadn’t felt this alone since Christmas. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about the way you were looking at me in the paper world and, basically, I want whatever you want. Just tell me what it is, or show me.”

Bittermann looked lost in the woods. “I don’t know what that means.” She set her hands on the table and Mag wondered what would happen if Theresa Bittermann reached out. She didn’t.

Bittermann got up and headed to the door. “Tell me when Princess Luna comes back. She’ll probably have a lot more questions.” She paused in the door. “I like you because you’re a bleeding heart civvie who thinks she’s funny. I like watching you read and I like that I don’t understand you. I want to see you use your powers more. Happy now?”

“Only if you come back. Luna’s not the only one who can ask questions.” Mag held up an open encyclopedia. “Look. This word here. How do you pronounce this?”

Bittermann glared. “It’s ‘agriculture.’” She slammed the door behind her and Mag heard her jog away. Mag couldn’t be sure, but thought she could hear her muttering “no, no, no.”

Mag closed the book, set it on the table and laid her head on it. She’d forgotten how bad she was at being cute. And now she was on her own for the evening, frustrated and relieved at getting shot down.

She leaned back and let her arms dangle. Mag considered her options. From the sounds of it, it’d be best if she backed off. Bittermann had come off as ambivalent about the whole situation, but she’d also made it clear that her feelings weren’t any of Mag’s business, which was just as well because Mag couldn’t tell what Bittermann would want out of a relationship in the first place.

Mag was being stupid, of course. She could have left well enough alone. Why hadn’t she, anyway? Well, she couldn’t accept the alternatives. Bittermann might make up her mind to go after her, and that would put Mag in a reactive role from the offset. Not acceptable. Or Bittermann might decide to swallow her feelings and keep Mag at a distance, or worse, ask to be replaced as Mag and Luna’s bodyguard.

Well, Mag had things to do. She was in exactly the right mood to learn about the last few hundred years of, yes, the shrieking tire fire that was Incan history.

After 45 minutes, Jeff knocked and came in. “Corporal Bittermann sent me. How are things?”

“Bittermann left to do other things, and Luna is, I don’t know, talking to her sister right now or something. She left a while ago.”

He shut the door behind him. “Well, I’ve got all the info I could find, so maybe I can help.”

“You’ve got it? Let’s see it.” She cleared the table. “And if you’re up for an all-nighter, you can take Bittermann’s place. For question-answering purposes, I mean.”

“I figured as much.” He took off his blazer and loosened his tie.


“This is not the tableau I was expecting,” reflected Luna the next morning.

Jeff handed Mag the last of his papers. “That ought to do it. Good morning, your majesty.”

Mag snapped shut the rings on her new bindered combination of recently collected surveillance info and handwritten, collated, indexed notes on Inca, with particular focus on the Antisuyu region. “Bittermann left a couple minutes after you did if that’s what you mean. I’ve been working.”

“I’d prepared a number of ribald witticisms for this moment on the supposition that you wouldn’t be alone. But of course, I see you aren’t. I don’t suppose…”

“No. But maybe you can rework them so they’re about Inca. Did you know alpacas hum? I found out twenty minutes ago. I hope we run into some.”

“Yes, they had humming choirs in Equis. Have, er, have either of you seen Corporal Bittermann at all tonight?”

Jeff stifled another yawn. He’d been doing that a lot. “Well, I know her shift ended, but she said something about sticking around to help with this. Apparently something came up and the corporal had to leave, and I’d just finished getting everything I could on the latest developments over in Inca. I came in and ended up helping.”

“My sister is going to be annoyed if you took over the project she specifically assigned to Mag.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Jeff yawned hugely into the crook of his arm.

“Want to hear what we’ve got?”

Luna used Mag’s left hand to lift open the binder. “This is a formidable amount of information. Perhaps t’would be better to present it to both sisters at once, and she and I can speculate together on the elements of the situation that do not currently fit human understanding.”

“Fair enough.” Mag closed the binder and stood up. “Jeff, you coming?”

“Sure, but at this point I think you’ve got this under control,” said Jeff.



“But what happened with Bittermann?”

Mag sipped her mug of coffee and didn’t answer.


“I hope no one behaved poorly.”

Somewhere, somehow, Celestia had found a bathrobe that fit. “Luna, are you badgering Mag about something?”

The coffee was hot enough that Mag couldn’t hold the mug except by the handle. “She wants to know where Bittermann went,” Mag said through a seared mouth.

“She asked for a few hours to address other responsibilities,” said Celestia briskly. “Of course I told her she didn’t need my permission, but that I appreciated the warning. I can guard Mag myself until we leave. Incidentally, Jeff, I’ve been talking things over with Luna about, well, quite a lot, but for now the upshot is that we’ll be needing accommodation for another person. We’re taking Lady Valérie with us.”

Jeff snorted. “I should have guessed. I’ll pass that along, your majesty, as always. I’d say you’re not making many friends around here, but at this point I’m starting to enjoy the looks on their faces.”

Celestia’s horn glowed and she swiveled her chair a few degrees to look Jeff in the eyes. “Oh? Are we friends, or am I taking you too literally?”

“Well, I like to think we’re friends.”

Celestia nodded. “So do I, Jeff. Is it possible to talk with another person while riding an airplane?”

“For a good while, considering how far we’re going,” said Jeff.

“If so, then I’d like to talk with you for a while. I worry I haven’t been paying proper attention to you, and not just because of all those things you and I aren’t quite saying to one another. Do you realize how few males of your species I’ve gotten to know?”

Jeff smiled. “We noticed, to be honest. Books are being written about it as we speak. What do you mean, things we aren’t saying to one another?”

“Jeff, I’m told you held a diplomatic post of some kind in South America, the place we’re headed today, but you never have anything to say about your experiences or duties there. And for someone so outwardly carefree, it’s odd that you have no reflexive facial expressions at all. Then there’s that weapon you loaned to Corporal Theresa. I don’t know much about this world’s guns, but compared to those I’ve seen in this compound, yours reminds me of a stiletto—small, hidden, efficient.”

“Officers can have handguns in their coats,” said Mag, annoyed that the attention was on Jeff.

“A poniard, then, but a practical one.”

Jeff’s smile didn’t change. “I’ll tell you all about my diplomatic service if you like, but you’ll be disappointed. It was mostly paperwork and hors d'oeuvres.”

“As was my job, mostly. Anyway, Mag and Luna, I see a binder. Should I read it immediately, or would you like to present it first?”

“I thought I’d give you the gist of it up front,” said Mag. “Jeff should go next.” Mag still didn’t like him and considered him a smug bastard, but Celestia was right; he knew a Hell of a lot about Inca.

Jeff waved a binder of his own. “I have info on the Nightmare’s host. Since she’s something of an ideologue, I think historical context is important here.”

Celestia nodded. “If that’s what you two have planned then I’ll take a quick introduction on Incan history, and then we can hear about the Nightmare, and then I’ll go through your notes.”

Mag flipped to the intro she’d prepared. “Okay, so Jeff has a couple of books you probably want to read after you go through this binder. These are my notes, but they’re also kind of a research guide, and I’ve got some suggested reading at the end too, right before the index.” She felt the need to mention the index. She was proud of that index.

“You didn’t sleep, I see.”

“Yep. When I sit down to learn something, I don’t get up until I’m done.”

“I remember. Please continue.”

Mag summarized as best she could. The Democratic Republic of Inca, formerly the largest empire in the Americas, now a third-world country stretching more or less from the top left to the bottom left of South America. Their most notable accomplishments included Machu Picchu, getting lucky against Francisco Pizarro of the Spanish Empire, and then leveraging their absurd wealth to reengineer themselves into a warrior nation over a period of decades. This served them well when the continent dissolved into juntas, civil wars and revolutions, and the following centuries of unceasing war turned them into both an unstoppable military force and a chronic hotspot for political unrest. By the end of the 20th century, the mountains and jungle floors of Inca might well have held more bullet shells than leaves, and farmer’s plows churned up bones every year. Its government was notoriously corrupt. Mag knew of least three ongoing revolutions to tear down the current regime and the various revolutionary armies assaulted each other as often as they did the state.

Mag looked up from her introduction. “Also, a bunch of the Spanish stuck around and built settlements, and not all of them got wiped out, and now the country is kind of integrated together into a bunch of different tribes of two semi-mixed ethnicities that hate each other. On the plus side, it sounds like every single person in the country is a badass at this point, which is sort of cool, and if the rest of the world were as angry about politics as Incans are, Earth would be either a glittering Utopia or a silent wasteland.” Mag closed the ring binder and slid it to Celestia. “So that’s my intro, I guess. Jeff’s turn.”

 Celestia turned the binder around and read the table of contents. “Well, I suppose the Nightmare would be attracted to such a place. And now my chief worry is that, when I see Inca, I’ll want to stay and help.”

“They might not want it,” said Jeff. “They’ve had some bad experiences with outwardly helpful foreigners. And by the way, I find that textbooks tend to dramatize Incan history to the point of being—what was your word?”

“Patronizing.” Mag rolled her eyes. “I didn’t notice it at first, but some of these books make it sound like the streets are running with blood. Or it is, for all I know. Maybe it won’t matter. I’m hoping we can just do a smash and grab. Get in, get the Nightmare before it ruins everything, get out before we ruin everying.”

“Fetching the Nightmare at all shall be the difficult part,” interjected Luna. “But I agree that the kindest thing we can do is defeat the parasite as quickly as possible and then leave.”

“Yes, yes,” said Celestia. “I never said otherwise. Jeff, you were about to say something?”

“Yes, speaking of the Nightmare…” he pulled a collection of printed photos out of his coat and, one after another, he set them in front of Celestia. “… here is the host.”

Mag went to Celestia’s side of the desk to look over her shoulder, though she’d spent hours with the photos on the table in front of her the previous night. The first was of a group of children posing in fatigues on a muddy road with bright puddles in front of green mountains. They each had a rifle somewhere on their person, carried with a familiarity and looseness Mag hadn’t seen anywhere in the US compound, as well as a red bandanna per child, tied around the head, wrist, or bicep. There were no adults in the picture.

Jeff tapped a girl kneeling in the mud on the far left. “This is the photo of the arguably successful defenders of an unnamed valley, taken a few years ago. And there’s our mark. Her name is Nayra de Pacífica Virgen María, no family name. We don’t know the body count of the conflict, but it appears to have been from 20 to 80 soldiers between the two sides. This was taken three years ago, which means she was age eleven at the time.”

Nayra had a broad, serious face and a heavy brow overhanging a distant expression. She’d tied her bandanna so it covered her left eye.

“There, a quipu,” said Luna. She used Mag’s hand to point at a boy near the center.

“Marks him out as a chasqui,” said Jeff. “Traditional Incan jewelry to mark the fastest and strongest soldiers. And apparently quipus are magic.”

“T’is a combination fixed computational device and enchanted tool of war. This image garbles the details of the enchantment’s signature and shape, but one can make out its essential nature.”

Celestia squinted at it. “I don’t see it.”

“No?” Luna turned the picture on its side. “The taproot begins at the yellow bead above the young man’s sleeve.”

“Oh. How convoluted. But I still can’t see what it does.”

On the photo, Luna outlined a pattern of curves Mag couldn’t see. “Observe how the trunk of the enchantment touches his upper knee—his elbow, rather. It knots itself into his aura and tinges it sun-gray-red-blue, traveling thence to his throat and heart. You see?”

Mag nodded along and pretended to know what they meant.

“shop talk,” Jeff muttered, and opened a folder of his own to browse through again.

“Now I see,” said Celestia. “It’s a sort of configurable enchanted object for soldiers. Not bad. But do we know more about this, what was her name, Nayra de Pacífica Virgen María?”

“I think we can just call her Nayra,” said Jeff. “And we’ll want to know more about what quipus do at some point, if you don’t mind. But here’s a picture from a few days ago.”

The next photo showed a milling crowd from perhaps 100 feet above, blurry from the camera zoom. Jeff pointed. “That’s her in the corner.”

Now Nayra wore a bowler hat and brightly colored dress, a popular local fashion, but one usually worn by old women. She was looking up at the camera, though the drone that took the photo was miles above her. Mag couldn’t see her expression.

“And another.” Jeff laid out a newspaper article written in Quechua with a Spanish translation. Mag couldn’t read the headline, but there was Nayra on a narrow wooden staircase with her hat pulled low over her missing eye, and now she walked with a cane.

“’The Witch of the People,’” Celestia read. “This is printed like a newspaper, but reads like a political pamphlet. Interesting. And I see the public knows about the Nightmare. What is this about a revolution?”

“She took the city of La Paz yesterday evening during your interview, and yes, she’s been leaning on the city newspaper. I’m told she can be very persuasive.”

“No doubt,” growled Luna. “Well, we have a revolutionary. This cannot be our first concern, but the answer to this question may inform later decisions. Is this revolution just?”

“Tricky,” said Jeff. “The current government is a republic with regular elections, with an emphasis on stability after a history of regular political upheaval. They’re in dire need of a few decades of peace.”

Mag flicked her binder. “It’s also an authoritarian kleptocracy owned by the cartels. You can read all about it.”

Jeff shrugged his assent. “And on the other hand, this revolution is a furious mob led by some kind of extradimensional criminal. I’m going to be honest. I stopped asking myself years ago which side was right in any war. It’s best just to see who wins and then work from there.”

“I don’t… entirely agree,” said Celestia, giving Jeff a look. “But of course the real question is whether the Nightmare is in control yet.”

“Or to what extent the Nightmare is in control. But we shall see.”

“You’re eyeballing me, Jeff,” said Celestia.

“I just wonder how this is going to play out in practice. I’m not the only one. Have I mentioned there’s been talk of, say, quietly supplying the Incan political establishment with the means to just take out the Nightmare’s host directly? Not serious talk, but talk.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Killing the girl won’t help with the Nightmare. If you want the Nightmare to be destroyed, we’re your best chance. I thought this was understood.”

“Oh, it’s mostly understood, but it’s a hard pill to swallow. Well, if I asked how you plan to do this, would I understand the answer?”

“We can’t risk a security breach, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t answer you in the first place, but I think you’d understand the gist. Mag, you look like you have a question too.”

“What’s the seating arrangement on the plane ride to Inca? Somebody’s got to sit next to the criminal, is what I’m thinking.”

Celestia looked nonplussed. “It depends on what the inside of a plane looks like. I’m imagining rows of seats?”

“And a center aisle,” said Mag.

“I see your point. I’d better handle it.”

Luna spoke up. “At any rate I suggest, in the strongest possible terms, that Valérie sits the farthest possible distance away from Mag.”

“Nah, put her right across from me.”

“She is kidding.”



The cabin of the plane was large enough that Mag couldn’t overhear Celestia’s animated conversation with Jeff, yet small enough that Mag and Valérie couldn’t comfortably ignore one another. Bittermann disappeared into the seats, the furthest possible distance from anyone.

Valérie had brought a CD player and some kind of textbook in French, which, Luna informed Mag, was titled The Nature of Things. Someone had given her real clothes, and Mag hadn’t seen the girl’s bodyguards all morning.

“I maintain that this is an execrable idea. Can you at least explain your reasoning?”

Mag plucked a ballpoint pen out from behind her ear and opened a notebook. She wrote, If we’re sharing a plane then I want her where I can see her.


“But you are too tense for an hours-long voyage. Force yourself to relax or move elsewhere.”


Mag settled in and tried to relax. She watched Celestia get visibly excited as the plane began to taxi into position on the compound’s airfield. She set a hoof on the window and said something to Jeff, who gave some breezy response and sipped a glass of water. They were getting along well enough. Jeff understood Celestia in ways Mag didn’t, experienced as he was with politics, negotiation, and intrigue.

Celestia, still looking out the window and chattering about something, levitated Mag’s binder and opened it to the first page. She divided her attention between Mag’s notes and the desert sliding by, and began to read the notes aloud to Jeff.

She happened to look up at Mag, and waved. Mag waved back weakly, adjusted her seat, and tried to think of something to do other than fret.

She fished a “join the marines” pamphlet out of a compartment under the window and in the margins she wrote, Do you like planes?

“Clever and strange. From the perspective of a winged creature, of course, this feels unnecessarily complicated.”

You work with what you got.


Distract Cel so I can kill her.


“I will not.”

Valérie licked her thumb and turned another page. She had to die.

Were over international waters. No laws. Thin neck—easy to break.


“I am not having this discussion again. Will you stop staring at her? I have gotten bored looking at one thing for so long, and by the way, please blink more often.”

The girl hadn’t looked up for an hour, when she’d pulled out a moleskin notebook and small pencil to take notes with.


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Comments ( 4 )

Very intriguing, but I can see how it would continue to get more and more difficult to manage.

Thanks for sharing it nevertheless.

Democratic Republic of Inca

Wait what?

Edit: ignore that, just saw that the next post approaches it.

See? This would have been an absolutely lovely twist!

You could just have uncomplicated it.

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