Few things in the world can be crueler than kind words. Than the presumption of understanding.
All will be well. Fret not. 'Tis passing weariness. I'm always willing to listen.
The empty platitudes echoed in his mind─polite dismissals wielded to render feelings insignificant. Smoothing over jagged grief, paring away thorns of anger, until what remained could be molded into a socially acceptable shape.
Sometimes he would resist, bristling at sympathetic colleagues. Claw at their consoling hands as they urged him to bury his demons. But they would only look down at him, pity plain in their eyes.
Tell them what they want to hear.
And every time, he was accepted once more, and the sacred pretense of harmony restored.
But this time─this time, I am surely beyond acceptance.
Hermes stood on the prime artifice, high in the skies of Ktisis Hyperboreia. From the lower levels, the emergency announcement echoed faintly. Dangerous creations may be on the loose, droned the pre-recorded voice, and the facility had been placed in a state of alert. A field of dampening magick hung over its dimensionally interconnected spaces, suppressing the abilities of all present save for authorized staff. All this chaos at my whim...
With a hand greatly enlarged by his transformation, Hermes reached out to the facility's aethernet. He commanded more enclosures be thrown open, and images etched in light confirmed the result.
The specimens thus released would fall upon his pursuers, whose priority was not their well-being. In their haste, they would slaughter rather than subdue, and the blood of those innocent creatures would be on his hands. The choice is mine and mine alone, and so too the blame. His heart wrenched with shame, but disadvantaged as he was in both strength and numbers, he had precious few options. Never before had he offered violent resistance to anyone─and merely "anyone" his pursuers were not.
When man is likened to the lifeblood of the star, it is not for the role he plays in nurturing it. In this collective duty, all must flow in a single direction, and disagreements seldom depart the realm of civilized debate. Hermes was not given to asserting his beliefs, but he was about to do so with force, and the prospect filled him with an indescribable dread.
The intruders were pressing ever nearer, leaving a trail of death in their wake. As he set free more hapless creations to bar their way, his thoughts drifted to one of them. Azem's familiar─or so it had been initially claimed. In truth, he was a traveler from the future, from a time long after civilization as Hermes knew it had ended. A person who, despite turning the Elpis flower a sorrowful hue, could continue to smile. What Hermes had glimpsed in his gentle countenance was neither kindness nor forbearance, but strength. And that strength had allowed him to overcome innumerable hardships.
I must be strong too─I will be. He would confront and accept these feelings. Even should they break him. Even should they drive him to do the unthinkable.
"No matter what, Meteion, I will not turn away from the answer."
He looked to his beloved creation, whose gaze took in everything and nothing. Forever changed by the knowledge. He tried to take solace from the fact that she heeded his request to wait, which suggested that her shared consciousness had stabilized.
According to Meteion's report, there was little joy to be found in the distant stars. Assuming there were beings out there who could share what gave their lives meaning, he feared the answer would be too bitter for his fellow man to swallow. That was why he needed time─the time to come to terms with the truth alone, his thoughts unclouded by well-meaning debate or pragmatic concerns for future implications.
With a heavy heart, Hermes opened a higher-clearance enclosure and unleashed the fearsome Ladon Lord in Concept Review. The creation was his last chance─if it failed to hold off his pursuers, he would have no choice but to confront them himself. There could be no justifying the crime. No turning back.
So be it. Better to be seen as an aberration than abide in the fiction for their sake.
"I sent you unto the stars. I won't let your efforts be in vain."
Hermes knelt low before Meteion, but in his transformed state, he towered over her still. With enormous hands made to tame unruly beasts, the gentlest touch could nevertheless do harm. And so he gazed into her eyes, the same striking blue as her wings, and recalled the days that had led them to this reckoning...
Hermes blinked as the blurry images became the room at Anagnorisis. How long have I been asleep...? He sat himself up on the sofa and was still trying to shake off the haze when Euanthe walked in. With a pointed sigh, she explained how they had found Hermes collapsed in a corner of the garden and subsequently borne him here. He shrunk in embarrassment as the memories came flooding back.
"Forgive me... I...may have been neglecting to take adequate rest. It's just...I'm so close now. I almost have the concept."
Many years had passed since Hermes first conceived of a star-faring creation─an entelechy possessed of free will. Due to an utter lack of precedent, however, satisfying the design criteria was a challenge indeed. Drawing upon the power of dynamis, it needed to be able to traverse the vast emptiness swiftly, and thence locate and communicate with other intelligent life-forms. In pursuit of his vision, Hermes had experienced countless cycles of excitement and disappointment. But at long last, the solution had begun to take shape.
Smiling wryly, Euanthe held out a basket of fruit─her not-so-subtle reminder of life's necessities.
"Does this mean you've finally managed to settle on an appearance?"
Hermes's hand halted halfway to the proffered basket. Unlike men, who were expected to conform to established fashions, it was believed that other living beings should look unique. Add color to the star. Alas, while some such as the incumbent Lahabrea, the foremost authority in the field of phantom creation, could produce beauteous concepts at will, Hermes was consistently at a loss. Aesthetics were never my forte.
"Its form should be as simple as its nature is complex," he began. "Birds I know well, of course, and their attributes would suit the abilities it will have. But to facilitate communication with other sentient beings, it should also have the features of a man."
"That's all well and good for a guiding principle, but what about the details? Its physical characteristics, personality, and so on and so forth?"
Hermes hadn't considered such things, hoping in vain that his subconscious would fill in the blanks. Since there was no way of knowing what qualities other life-forms would favor, he could rely only on his own sensibilities. Furrowing his brow, he began rummaging through the cluttered chambers of his mind in search of potential inspiration. The invisible spark of dynamis. The universe and the stars. Birds soaring in the sky...
"...Blue. I want it to be blue, like the sky of Elpis. Our portal to the cosmos beyond."
The words tumbled out even as he thought them. Euanthe blinked a few times in consideration before favoring Hermes with an approving chuckle.
"A fine idea."
In the days that followed, Euanthe and other colleagues provided Hermes with design documents, and even held private lectures for his benefit, all of which helped him to form a clearer image of his creation. As was his wont, it took him more time to settle on its appearance than its more practical aspects, but at long last he succeeded in finalizing the concept.
He would never forget the first time he brought her forth. The nervous anticipation as he channeled his magicks. The gathering motes of light that coalesced into a brilliant storm. The moment of manifestation.
The songbird was barely larger than his open palm. Her blue feathers tinged black at the tips. The threshold to the universe as seen from the prime artifice. Already he could imagine her long tail tracing a line in the sky, like unto a meteor.
No name could be more fitting, for to speak it made his heart soar. So terrified he had been he could not do her justice. But beholding the creature before him now, he knew there was nothing more beautiful in all the world.
So began their exploration of the universe.
Hermes created Meteion's sisters, the Meteia─though their shared consciousness made them more akin to a single entity─and sent them on brief forays beyond the bounds of the star. Early results were mixed. Though Meteion did not lack the abilities she needed to fulfill her purpose, she encountered one problem after another out in the great expanse. But we have come so far already─and we will go further still.
Hermes was conducting further test flights in the Elpis twilight when Meteion, presently in the form of a girl in order to relay her sisters' messages, cried out. He turned to see her frozen in shock, eyes wide and mouth agape. Before he had the chance to speak, she reeled as if struck by a heavy blow, and it was all he could do to catch her.
For a painfully long while, she remained stiff as a corpse in his arms, and gave no indication that she heard his worried words. Then all of a sudden, she awoke with a gasp for air, her body relaxing as if time flowed again. By the way she trembled, feathers standing on end, it was clear that she felt an intense chill. He was rubbing her shoulders to offer comfort when she wailed in frustration.
"We've failed again... Lost another one..."
Though Hermes had expected as much, it didn't make the news any less bitter. As he struggled to console her, Meteion rose to her feet and dutifully delivered the report in her halting voice. Her sister had been caught in a raging torrent of dynamis, she explained, and subsequently unmade. Like so many others before...
As a being of dynamis, Meteion could survive in most any environment by reducing her constituent aether to a bare minimum. A star may be wreathed in flame, frozen from pole to pole, or shrouded in toxic gas, but such hazards would not trouble her. Should life-forms be present who found their environment excessively harsh, she would share in their sensations, but this was purely academic, for life would not flourish in such conditions in the first place.
Yet by the same token, being made of dynamis rendered Meteion vulnerable to its influence. Though its potential was suppressed on aether-rich Etheirys, it behaved in unexpected ways in the void beyond─ways that confused and confounded her. In one sector, there was a star that could manipulate dynamis. It was capable of harboring thoughts and feelings, if not in a manner man could comprehend. In another, dynamis raged as an endless tempest. At its heart lay a great pool of aether not unlike the aetherial sea, the intermingling of innumerable memories giving rise to the surrounding turbulence.
In her search for intelligent life, Meteion relied on dynamis. And so, like a moth to a flame, she was liable to be drawn to that which could destroy her.
"But don't worry! We learn more every time. What places are bad. We'll find stars with life, I'm sure of it!"
Despite her recent trauma, Meteion retained her enthusiasm. But Hermes's own seemed to have deserted him. How many more of her sisters would be sacrificed for his cause? How many times would he have to see her collapse, the life driven from her body? Even if you suffer no lasting harm, I fear I do...
"Perhaps we will. And yet..." he managed to say before falling silent and hanging his head in shame. He sighed and opened his eyes, only to see a pair of inquisitive blue ones peering up into his own. Scolding himself for failing to control his emotions, he took a deep breath to regain his composure...and felt a tiny hand on his head. Meteion was stroking his hair, the motions exaggerated and awkward.
"Have faith, Hermes. We'll get answers. Then everyone will be happy. You, me, everyone!"
The stroking continued for a good while before she withdrew her hand, leaving his dark hair an unkempt mess─and his soul somehow comforted. Hermes looked at her and smiled, and she returned the favor, giggling in her endearing way.
"You're right, Meteion. We will find the answers in the distant stars. And then we will bring change to our own."
He rose to his feet to behold the star-speckled sky once more, with hope in his heart for the future.
That hope did not last. One day, Meteion's shared consciousness became unstable. She and her sisters could not sustain their existence, and all dissipated with a burst. The resultant shockwave accidentally triggered Kairos, which erased several days of memories from those in the vicinity, including visiting observers.
He later learned that several enclosures had been opened in Ktisis Hyperboreia, and many creations perished fighting amongst themselves. After delivering this report, his underling suggested that, in his confusion, perhaps Hermes had sought to free them.
"It seems like something you would do, Chief," the man said with a pitying smile.
Does it? Knowing it was the likely outcome, would I have been so reckless? So cruel?
But it would not have been the first time.
Hermes cursed himself. For sending Meteion forth. For creating her. But most of all, for daring to have doubts. Had he simply thought like everyone else─had he made peace with their morality─he wouldn't have inflicted such pain upon himself and others.
Tell yourself what you need to believe.
And so they did not resent him, and instead gifted him their cruel acceptance.
All will be well. Fret not. 'Tis but a few days of memories. The creatures can always be remade.
The utilitarian logic assailed him. But this time, he offered no resistance. He internalized the lie and came to live as others did. When he was officially nominated to the Convocation of Fourteen, he rose to the occasion, and labored for the good of the star to the very end, to the moment reality itself was sundered.
Of his desperate struggles, nary a mark remained...or so it seemed. Yet be it in the ancient past or the distant future, the yearning for which he sacrificed so much would endure. The fire would rise in those who looked up at the heavens in defiance of oblivion─the desire to confront the answers for which Meteion journeyed...no matter how terrible the truth may be.