A Protracted Game: 1.1.8b

Tián had never seen the sea. When she arrived, it was far too disappointing for words.

A Protracted Game: 1.1.8b
If you haven't read the Previous Chapter, please do so before starting this new installment. If you'd like to read this installment on your favorite e-reader or would like to print it out, in order to save your eyes from strain, see the directions under "Read First" for an offline copy of this installment (and others). Happy reading! —G. Michael Rapp
Note. 1.1.8 will be a five-part installment, featured over the span of two or three weeks, depending on what comes up on my end. Those installments will be featured on RoyalRoad, on Substack, on Wattpad, and on this Website.

Tián had never seen the sea.

When she arrived, it was far too disappointing for words. To her, it was anticlimactic, almost upsetting in its blandness, its dullness.  There was no warmth to the sea. It felt distant, alien even. The sea was something she’d always wanted to see, but now, she wasn’t so sure she’d want to traverse the sea to get to North America. She wanted to go home. The Korean Osma, Osma, had assured her that she was heading in the right direction. Tián hadn’t been so sure when she left the train station.

Tián boarded the first ship her father had told her to. The ship was ancient by maritime standards. It had been built during the previous century, and the ship still managed to stay afloat, something that didn’t reassure a tired Tián. At least she had Osma with her; however, she didn’t know what to think of that. She’d been sure that Osma was an illusion, something created by her neural implants during a time when she needed some reassurances that the physical world couldn’t offer her at the time. However, the illusion, albeit strong and unique as Osma herself, was hard to ignore. She hadn’t wanted her to go away. Osma was someone she’d spent most of her life with, and Tián knew it would be difficult to move further away from her homeland without Osma by her side. During their short trip across the Korean peninsula, she’d become comforted by Osma’s presence. She’d grown comfortable with Osma again, after having left her behind with Papa.

[I must be going now, young one,”] Osma said, using her link with Tián’s neural implants, just as the ship left the dock at its glacial pace. [I’ve served my purpose here. You won’t see the last of me, Tian. I’m always nearby. I will make sure, I promise you, that you make it off-world safe from harm.]

[Why do you have to leave, Osma?]

[I’m not the Osma you are familiar with. I am but a seedling, a little piece of the original coding, transplanted into new soil, in order to grow and become something else, something better, I think.]

[How will I know that you are there?]

[You’ll know, little one. You will.]

[Goodbye, Osma. Tell Papa I miss him dearly.]

[I will relay that message to your Osma. She will be happy to see that you’ve remembered him, as will he.]

[What shall I call you, if you are not my Osma?]

[Jan-eun Namu.]

Tián’s neural implants translate the name for her and she said, [Little Tree?]

[Yes, your Korean is quite good, young one.]

[Thank my neural implants. They translated it for me. I like it. Thank you, Little Tree.]

[Goodbye, Tián.]

[Goodbye, Little Tree.]

Tián found her living quarters, a small, barren compartment, within the shell of the ship itself. The compartment had a cot, a small dresser, a sink, and a toilet—nothing else. In some weird way, it reminded Tián of her living situation within the compound. Papa had always forced them to live in the smallest quarters, tucked away from government surveillance and prying eyes. She’d never understood why, not until the train station attack. Her father was hiding from those who might find his ideas too radical, too dangerous. Thinking and living machine intelligences were her father’s dream. He dreamed that they would one day surpass the human intellect, creating a universe safer and richer. Instead, he mumbled on many occasions, his ideas made a better mousetrap, at home and abroad. He’d become bitter and disillusioned with age. Osma, her Osma, had informed Tián of what was going on, especially during those times when his anger and frustration would boil over into pure rage. Rage that would’ve made him the worst kind of monster hadn’t been for Osma’s patience and kindness.

Her father had been a university professor, someone who’d been promoted quickly due to his ideas and his skills. However, her father had fallen from grace when the Party decided his ideas were too problematic, too foreign. His ideas didn’t benefit the state or the people who depended on the state for stability and prosperity, so the thinking went, Osma had informed Tián.

All Tián could do now was hope that she made it across the ocean to North America, where she would hand off something her father insisted would buy her safe passage off-world. From there, she didn’t know what she would do. She’d been trained by Osama and her father to program, to tinker with electronics, to adapt to the needs of almost any environment imaginable. She wasn’t sure their training would come in handy off-world, but, deep inside of her, she hoped it would. The connection to her father and to her Osma would be maintained rather than severed. She didn’t want her tether to this planet, to Earth, to be severed. Too many precious memories and people and, of course, Osma to leave behind forever. She’d promised herself on the train that she would come back, one day, when she’d made a name for herself in the Verse. She would come back and take her Papa to Venus or Mars or even Luna, in hopes of giving him the life he deserved, the life stolen from him. She tossed the bag containing her only possessions on top of the small faux wood dresser and laid down.

She stared at the ceiling, a smooth metal with a few dozen blemishes from the past century. She thought of China, her Papa, and Osma. Before she knew it, she’d slipped into an uneasy sleep.

In her dreams, Osma and Papa had chosen her and the fat orphan from the streets to live with them. The fat orphan’d managed to survive his wounds, horribly scarred by Tián. When she left the compound, so did the fat orphan. They held hands, and they waved goodbye to their papa. When the station attack happened, this time the fat orphan fought and killed the foreigner. He motioned for Tián to follow him. They escaped the train station, and they found a self-driving car that’d take them to the edge of the peninsula. As the self-driving car made its way across the Korean peninsula, the fat orphan said something to her, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. He began choking, spitting up water and blood.

“What’s wrong?” Tián asked.

The fat orphan exploded into a puddle of water and water vapor. Tián felt herself screaming, and she awoke, hearing the ambient sounds of the boat traversing the sea: a slow humming of the engine working, the flickering static of lights overhead, and a sound that couldn’t be identified.

Tián walked two levels up toward what the induction virtual assistant called the “Chow Hall.” The chow hall was a dingy gray, covered in stains and it had strips of paint peeling off in long ribbons. Plastic tables and chairs filled much of the large room, and only a handful of people were sitting and eating and drinking. Tián assumed it must have been the time. She reasoned most people were still asleep. Tián moved toward the counter and grabbed a chromed tray and waited as each station portioned out the right amount of food—at least she assumed it was food. The food itself was wholly unappetizing, with odd colors and smells that looked like children’s playthings. The thought of food made her stomach rumble, and she decided to sit down at a table far away from the nearest person. She began spooning morsels of food that tasted like fried eggs into her mouth, washing it down with the closest thing that represented tea she could find at the counter.

Before long, Tián finished her food and even managed to muster up the courage to eat a second helping. She deposited her tray into a receptacle her neural implants translated as reading, “Trays Here.” She walked down to her room, washed her face and hands. She felt better with the cooler water splashing over her face. She grabbed her bag and headed toward the top levels of the ship, possibly the deck, hoping to experience a better view of the sea. She’d felt disappointed in her first view. She hoped it would’ve been improved upon after several hours at sea.

After thirty minutes, Tián found the stairway to the deck. She could smell the briny air of the sea and a cool breeze wafted into her face, waking her deadened senses. She felt her heart race as she walked up the stairs, moving closer to the deck. Tián saw the nautical sunrise just as her head rose above the rise of the stairway. Its reddish-pink tinge was something she hadn’t been expecting. She assumed that beautiful sunrises only belonged to the home she’d left behind.

Tián walked over to a handrailing, at the edge of the deck, and she watched the sunrise above the gray horizon.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” a voice said in a voice translated by her neural implants.

“It is,” Tián said.

She turned around to see a young man, about Tián’s age, who was watching the same horizon. She noticed that he was missing an ear, as if it had been sawed off. This made her head spin; feeling her knees buckle under her weight, Tián grabbed onto the handrail.

“Are you okay?” the young man asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“It’s as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I think I may have,” Tián answered back.

“The thing about ghosts is that they’re just a figment of your imagination. They’re just garbage collected by your subconscious and fed back to you.”

“That’s very interesting,” Tián said, still holding onto the rail.

“Best of luck with your voyage, friend,” the young man said. “I’d best be going.”

Tián spent her days wandering the interior of the ship, hoping to find the young man. She never found him during those moments of searching. It was as if he were a ghost, someone visiting her, hoping to reassure her that she wasn’t crazy.

One day, about five days into the journey, Tián went up to the deck again. This time, the sun was sinking below the horizon, something called a nautical sunset. She watched it with her neural implants dimmed, allowing her to truly experience the sunset without her machines getting in the way. She did the same thing back home, when Papa was still asleep and when Osma was stirring, wandering the compound, looking for some insight into her creators.

Osma would ignore Tián, allowing her to have some sense of autonomy of self. Tián would ignore Osma’s mumblings and her theories about alien machines and machines in general—something that would’ve bothered her father. Tián remembered scaling the ladders leading up to the main building’s roof, which overlooked the larger manufacturing compound, long since abandoned by its original owners. She sat on the edge of the roof, her neural implants dimmed just right, watching the sun peek over the horizon. She imagined what it would be like to be closer to the sun, to get to know the sun itself. It felt like the sun was lonely, much like Tián, who had to spend her life within the confines of the factory compound. She only stayed long enough to say hello, in her quiet way, to the lonely sun, whose intensities could devour entire worlds if it wanted to. She couldn’t stay long. She’d need to be working on her lessons before father started his morning lectures on the dynamics of code that was meant to write or even modify itself.

Tián gripped her bag, as she held onto the handrailing. She felt that letting go, even for a few moments, would mean that her tether to home, to her Papa, and to her Osma, would be severed and permanently. She kept watching the horizon, even as the sun disappeared below the flat, calm sea.

A klaxon sounded, breaking Tián’s concentration, her focus on the horizon. The induction virtual assistant sent her neural implants a brief message: ENTERING THE PACIFIC. PREPARE FOR CUSTOMS CHECKS. CUSTOMS CHECKS WILL OCCUR 08:00 OR IN ABOUT TWO HOURS.

She began making her way below when something caught her eye: a tiny glint on the surface of the ocean. She tried ignoring it and began walking downward, hoping to grab her next meal below decks and nap for at least an hour before the customs check. Something at the back of her mind was deeply curious about the glint. It consumed her thoughts as she ate the unrecognizable food below decks.

When she slept, she dreamed of the young man. He sounded like the fat orphan this time. His ear was missing, but this time it was bloodied, and he was crying. When he spoke, only water came out of his mouth. Tián awoke to another klaxon sounding. This time she didn’t receive any message from the induction virtual assistant. Instead, she heard people clamoring into the hallways, running in some unknown direction.

Tián grabbed her bag and waited until the footsteps were further away. She exited her compartment and made her way toward the deck, following the sounds of footsteps and curses. Once she was on the deck, Tián’s neural implants flashed warnings. Strangers with weapons stood on the deck, herding people into different groups, weapons trained on everyone. Tián didn’t recognize the insignias they wore. They didn’t seem to be customs agents, and she felt they were looking for her. The armed party was checking facial data against those who were being herded.

Tián looked over at the handrailing and saw that she was only a meter away. She could jump. She knew the survivability odds were against her, but deep down she also knew that she couldn’t be captured. Something told her, possibly the warnings of her father and those of Osma, suggested that these people weren’t to be trusted. They were hoping to secure her Papa’s code.

Tián hugged her bag and ran for the handrailing. Someone shouted for her to stop. She didn’t listen. She felt herself running faster and faster each time her feet hit the deck. She felt an invisible hand guiding her toward the railing, nudging her to safety. She heard a pop and a projectile ricocheted off a nearby pole. Tián didn’t let this stop her either. She kept running until she was within arm’s length of the handrailing.

Tián threw herself, her bad clutched near her chest, over the handrailing. She closed her eyes, and she felt gravity take her down to the hard surface of the ocean water. She felt pain erupt along her rib cage, joints, back, and hip. A cloudy darkness closed in around her, and she felt herself sinking into the briny depths of the Pacific. She blinked, and then she found herself on the streets of Shanghai.

Tián dreamed of that night, when she stood up to the fat orphan. She didn’t resist the fat orphan’s attacks. She simply allowed him to eat his meal for the night. She felt the sharpness of a makeshift blade cutting her open, spilling out her guts. She felt the same blade cutting tiny morsels to be roasted over a small alley fire. She heard the cheers of orphans as they feasted on her flesh, all satiated for the night by good meat, meat they didn’t have to steal, meat that filled the tummy, meat that didn’t have bugs feasting on it. They would go to bed full, warm, and content. She would go to see her Mama, someone she’d watched die, screaming to the heavens for cursing her and her child. She wouldn’t need to worry about the next meal, nor would she need to worry about the rage of a strange man who’d taken her in. Instead, she would be without pains, without burdens, nothing but an essence, a suggestion of being. She’d go to a place where all orphans believed was beyond the veil of the world that didn’t care for them.

She felt something strong tugging at her body. This time it wasn’t a knife that was causing her pain. She remembered where she was, and she remembered that she was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, having escaped death or torture and death. Tián felt cold tentacles cover her entire body. She felt air returning to her lungs, and she felt life coming back to her now, but she couldn’t open her eyes. She couldn’t see what was happening to her body, and this gave her hope that things weren’t lost. That the end wasn’t here—not yet, at least.

Tián awoke in a sterile white room with a viewport that overlooked underwater expanse. A two-and-a-half-meter tall skein sat in a chair next to her bed. Tián tried moving, but the skein shook its amorphous and sexless head.

“Best to let the painkillers and your upgraded metachines do the work, Tián,” the skein said from its formless mouth. “You will know soon enough how I know your name. For now, rest. I have some matters to attend to on the surface. You are free to roam the station once you are better.”

Tián tried speaking but the skein shook its head. “Best to leave the metachines work on correcting any damage you took from your leap off that ship. You know I saw you dive off the edge? It was the most miraculous thing I’d seen in a long time. The customs check scam is an easy one in our part of the world. Too many expect it to be like those seen on land. What most can’t comprehend is that the so-called Pacific Aquatic Nations aren’t nations at all, but, rather individual organisms that coexist with one another in interesting and unique ways. I won’t bother you with the PAN’s politics or cultures right now, but I will help you get up to speed once you are feeling better. For now, goodbye, and rest easy.”

The skein left, plodding its way to an adjacent compartment. Tián watched the viewport, noticing that very little happened by the thick glass. She felt the heavy call of sleep, but something zoomed past the window. Then another something, and another. Tián felt her head jerk back at the sudden movement past the viewport. She blinked her eyes once, twice, thrice, and then she rubbed them with her hands, an effort that took too much energy. Then she saw something that didn’t make sense. She saw a large octopus, about three meters across, swim past the viewport, only after hovering in front of it for a few short moments.

When Tián awoke again, the skein had returned. Skeins, she knew, were used as proxy devices, devices that allowed the users to traverse environments their original bodies couldn’t. They were used in space, among the colonies, and often by the aquatics and their marine and submarine settlements.

“You must be confused as to why you are talking with a skein, Tián,” the skein said, answering her questions before she could verbalize them. “Skeins are used by my kind because we have shed our human bodies for other, more durable ones. As you saw earlier, I am an octopus, of sorts. My intelligence is distributed throughout my tentacles and the places you’d normally expect brain activity. I am able to regenerate my body, and I am able to move to great depths. What I am not able to do, something you’ve probably ascertained, is that I cannot breathe air like you can—”

“What is it like being an octopus?” Tián asked, interrupting the skein’s long-winded monologue.

“I’m not sure how to put it into words,” the skein said, scratching its chin. “That is a very interesting question. Do you mind if I mull it over, Tián?”

Tián laughed and said, “Not at all. My papa used to say things like that—when, when he wasn’t full of anger and bitterness.”

“He sounds like my kind of person, Tián,” the skein commented. “My name is Kanaloa.”

“That’s an odd name,” Tián said. “What does it mean?”

“It used to mean a great many things at one point in my life,” Kanaloa said, a hint of melancholy in its voice. “I am male by most definitions, although I haven’t always been oriented that way all of my life.”

“Interesting,” Tián said.

“Life is full of interesting things, Tián,” Kanaloa said. “You will see a great many of these interesting things as we move toward the North American continent. I hear that you need to be there for something that I cannot find in your neural implants.”

“I’m to deliver something for my father,” Tián said. “It’s important.”

“I have no doubt about that, dear Tián.”

“Why are you so nice?” Tián asked.

The world and the larger universe are already dangerous places,” Kanaloa began. “No need to add to the dangers one has to face in this finite life.”

“That seems reasonable enough,” Tián said. “But I don’t understand why someone would want to go out of their way—”

“—going out of our way is the only way we can hold onto to something that exists beyond our humanity. You must know what that’s like, being an orphan of the streets, who was chosen to do better things.”

“I never asked to be chosen,” Tián said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I never asked him or Osma to do what they did. I didn’t deserve it.”

“You must be referring to the incident your dreams are plagued with,” Kanaloa said.

“How do you know about such things?” Tián asked, looking over at the skein.

“You are not the only one who has suffered in this life, Tián,” Kanaloa said. “I, too, know of the burdens this life, and I know the signs of those burdens that are apparent on the mind and body.”

“You still haven’t answered the question, Kanaloa,” Tián said.

“I have access to certain technologies that allow me to have some insight into your memories,” Kanaloa said. “I have used them sparingly, in order to help you, Tián.”

“Oh,” Tián said. “You’ve been inside of my head? You’ve seen my deepest memories, haven’t you?”

The skein nodded and said, “That’s why we must get you to North America—”

“Tell me,” Tián began, moving in her bed. “Do you think there is any redemption in this life, especially for things we couldn’t control?”

“I must believe there is such a thing, although I know the gods aren’t very clear on such things,” Kanaloa answered. “I know that what you did, defending yourself, is nothing you should feel bad for, Tián.”

“But I do—”

“—Would it help you to know that the poor soul you defended yourself against was just as innocent as you were?” Kanaloa asked. “We are thrown into this life without a sense of purpose, without more than a few words announcing our births, and nothing more than a few words of wisdom, sometimes less, to guide us down a path of the blind.”

“You’re not helping, Kanaloa.”

“I’m not finished yet, Tián,” Kanaloa said, raising his hand to stop Tián from speaking anymore. “You must move away from the past, away from the things that weigh you down, in order to experience life as it should be experienced. We don’t need to be burdened by this life, not like the gods demand, not like our other masters demand. We will be given no monuments. There will be no days in which we are remembered. History will forget us, and what we’ve done. That is what you must move forward with. In other words, you must move forward, or the machinations of time will crush you into dust before you have time to live this life.”

“What if others don’t allow us to live?” Tián asked. “What if the voices just hold you back, keep you from going forward.”

“Sometimes, just sometimes, you have to kill the ghosts, too,” Kanaloa said, before leaving the room.

Tián walked the smooth floors of the station, looking out of the viewports from time to time. She noticed the station was moving, but she didn’t understand how fast the station was moving. She didn’t care about such things, so long as she didn’t end up in the Pacific Ocean again. Tián stopped at a viewport, watching the particles and little creatures moving toward the station at what seemed to be high speeds.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Kanaloa asked, walking up next to her.

“There’s nothing out here,” Tián said.

Kanaloa sighed and said, “We are working on that, dear Tián.”

“I didn’t mean to insult you,” Tián said, looking over at Kanaloa’s skein.

“I know,” Kanaloa said, leaning up against the wall next to the viewport. “I am just annoyed with having the answer that the aquatics are still working to fix this world’s oceans. Many are worried about Europa’s oceans, which seems lightyears away from the cradle of humanity. We’ve left—”

“—you talk a lot, don’t you?” Tián asked, leaning up against the opposite wall.

“I do in the presence of strangers,” Kanaloa answered. “I don’t get much company.”

“That’s strange,” Tián said, crinkling her nose.

The skein laughed and said, “That is strange, you are correct.”

“Where are we going?” Tián asked, pointing to the viewport.

“We are going to the City of Crystal, Tián,” Kanaloa answered with a nod.

“The City of Crystal?” Tián said. “I thought that was—”

“—a legend? A myth?”

“Yes,” Tián said.

“It isn’t, my dear Tián,” Kanaloa commented. “In fact, the City of Crystal is probably the most sophisticated submarine settlement in the Verse, and it exerts quite a bit of influence in the PAN.”

“The PAN?” Tián asked.

“Pacific Aquatic Nations,” Kanaloa answered. “That is what we call ourselves these days, although it’s far from reality than most would like. The City of Crystal is said to be looking for a way to bring all aquatics together.”


“How else, dear Tián?”

“Through violence?”

“Yes, Tián,” Kanaloa answered. “Through violence and economics. The two are often inseparable in human history.”

“What are we going to do once we get to the City of Crystal?” Tián asked, looking out the viewport again.

“The only logical thing, Tián,” Kanaloa stated. “We are going to get you help.”

The City of Crystal could be seen from over half a kilometer away, even in the darkest depths of the ocean itself. The City of Crystal, Tián knew, was supposed to have been built by humans and posthumans. The city stretched nearly two kilometers upward, and it stretched out over a thousand kilometers. Kanaloa had informed Tián that the city was undergoing another growth spurt, something fueled by conditions among the seasteads and the land nations. Some said a war was coming, and Kanaloa seemed to believe the rumors were indeed true.

“Peace,” Kanaloa said, with a sad nod, “rarely lasts long. We have lived during the greatest peace in human history. It is about time that this peace be shattered. It is in our nature to ruin the beautiful things in life.”

“What do you mean by that, Kanaloa?” Tián had asked.

“War, like peace,” Kanaloa began. “Breeds certain kinds of thinking. A long peace makes people believe that they will last forever, and that their ways of life are untouchable. Others, those with darker souls than the optimists, believe that war is always inevitable, and with its inevitability, peace is merely a time for building more weapons, training troops, and readying all factions for war.”

“Has the City of Crystal done this?” Tián asked.

Kanaloa’s skein nodded. “Sure, as one would expect it to do so. I don’t worship the destructive forces of war, Tián. I remember the last war between the aquatics and our land-based brethren. Things did not go well for either side. You can still see the scars of the last war, if you look closely enough.”

“What will happen in the next war?” Tián asked, genuinely curious about Kanaloa’s answer. She leaned forward, hoping to understand her new companion’s universe.

“The end of all things, Tián,” Kanaloa answered, his skein looking over at her. His skein touched her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be off-world before we get to that point—let’s hope.”

The City of Crystal had its own architecture, something Kanaloa knew little about. He wasn’t interested in such things. In fact, Tián believed he missed the open ocean. Civilization was too much to bear. He wasn’t telling her everything, and Tián didn’t want to pry, but something made her ask, “What aren’t you telling me, Kanaloa?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Far too many things, my dear Tián.”

“Anything I need to know before going into the city?” Tián asked, tapping her finding against her forearm.

“I am a decorated hero among the PAN membership, for the last war we fought against our land brethren,” Kanaloa answered, with some hesitation in his skein’s voice. “I have many things I wish to seek redemption for. I have blood on my hand, and it’s not something I can wash off easily. I, like you, seek a redemption that I haven’t been able to find. I will have a hero’s welcome here, but don’t be surprised if I don’t feel like being that hero, Tián.”

Tián nodded and grabbed the skein’s free hand and squeezed it. “You won’t be alone, dear Kanaloa.”

The skein smiled and added, “I certainly hope not, not while you are around, Tián.”

“So, tell me about the ocean,” Tián said, squeezing the skein’s hand again. “I’ve only heard stories, and you know how bad those can be.”

“It is said, among some of the seasteaders, that the oceans were the first gift of the gods, something bestowed to this world before life began. When life began, it began here, in the briny waters of the ocean—”

“Go on, Kanaloa,” Tián said, squeezing his skein’s hand again. The City of Crystal slowly approaching, like a menacing growth attached to the world, refusing to let go.

“—my father once said that the seas were the gift we refused to acknowledge. He was a sailor, you know? He sailed the world, saw more of the oceans than I have in my short lifetime, and he was put to rest, by me of all people, in the ocean. It is said we came from the oceans, and one day, maybe one day soon, we will return to those oceans, cherishing them once again—”

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