Chapter 1:

[ -1 ] - prefaces, postfaces, probabilities

the ashes from

I don't really have anything cute or funny to say, I just like writing and I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it~

This is the first of a few prologue chapters. From now, the chapters will be much more ordinary, so if this isn't much to your liking just know it's a rare thing - please stay tuned! ************************************************************************

Before I write the story I need to dream to remember. I must remember what to write and what not to write. And clear my head of all irreverent thoughts. This will not be an account, or a history, or a documentation of fact, because there are no facts here. I am only going to tell the truth.

History has the unpleasant trait of being tied to a bicycle wheel. Of being a knife taped to the spokes. It turns and turns and eventually it comes around again and whoever happens to be alive at the time gets knifed. Of course we happen to be the ones pumping the pedals but that does not matter; it is not as if we could stop if we tried. So we just keep getting knifed, over and over and over.

It is a good, hard knife. It does not blunt.

In the year 79 A.D. the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae, and Nuceria were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. For the week prior to the eruption, small, continuous earthquakes shook the region in warning. Nobody thought much of it. Then for two days the volcano expelled one-point-five million tons of molten rock and ash per second. The projectiles coalesced in the dust column fell from a height of a dozen miles, accelerating to a speed of twenty-one meters per second and crushing anyone struck. Buildings collapsed and were eventually buried under the weight of ash like grey snow. Herculaneum was entombed by a pyroclastic flow - gas and molten dust - of three-hundred degrees centigrade. Almost every single inhabitant died where they lived.

There was nothing special about the people of Pompeii, of Herculaneum and of all the rest. They were not more criminal than the rest, nor any less. In fact they had been visited by disaster a few years ago — by an much larger earthquake that tore down their temples and homes. The whole city had been caught in the middle of trying to pull itself back together. The scaffolding was still around to be turned to ash.

In hindsight what did they expect, cultivating the hills of a volcano much less founding a city beneath? All those lives added together just measure up to the strength of a few bad choices by a few individuals who decided to stake their claim in the worst place. Everyone crisped on a senator’s dime from three centuries past.

There are no volcanoes, neither active nor delusively dormant, that I am aware of in the vicinity of Moscow. But it is still true, two thousand years later, that bad things happen to good people, and that nobody can do a thing about the past. We live with the mistakes of others, and often that is one’s entire life. Nothing more than a mistake.

I have flipped coins my whole life. I have fumbled with currency every waking moment it feels like. More coins have known my fingers than have known me. They landed like so: heads-tails-heads-heads-tails-heads…and the list goes on. Those are my findings. Is this sequence so much more significant than any other? I choose to believe so. Because no one else has come up with such a chain. I mean, what are the chances?

In the very dead of night, once, I saw a shooting star. We were drinking in Donetsk, on the rooftop of an old apartment block which had never been lived in before the bombs took bites out of it. The star shot across the sky like the tip of a scalpel.

“In the old days there was so much burnt up garbage in the sky you couldn’t see any of those,” Skorpion said, as it sputtered it somewhere across the plain. “They would burn bright as the sun but nobody saw because of the smog.”

“You’re supposed to make a wish whenever you see one.” I said. “Did you know that?”

“Yeah, but what would I wish for? Clearer skies?” She laughed. She was the sort who was proud not to care, or to look like it. “Maybe that’s why the ancients breathed plastic. They never saw. They didn’t have a clue.”

"Did you read about that in those books of yours?" She had taken an interest in history. It was passed off to us as nothing more than curiosity. But if that were the case then she would not try so hard to hide it.

She emptied the can and crushed it in her palm. "All knowledge comes from books. Where the hell else?"

The sky whirled on its axis, like the spin of a cosmic clock. Polaris winked in the eye of the storm. Wolves cried up at the moon. Things came alive knowing the stars were watching.

I reached out and grabbed the moon, imagining it slipping through my fingers like silk. It wasn’t the first time I’d looked up after being deployed to S09 but it was a different world from Moscow. I never got tired of slowing down. “Well, do you think it’s better this way?”

She thought about this for about half a second. “I was created five years ago. So how would I really know what it was like back then?”

“So, not a fan of obvious judgments,” I said.

“Let’s play a game, Commander, guess: I’m thinking about a color and a plant. They both start with the letter g."

"Don't you imagine?"

"You know what you have and you don't know what you don't. Knowledge comes out of books but you can't get understanding out of them. No feeling."

"A Doll's going to talk to me about feeling."

She flicked my nose and grinned. "Felt that? I felt it." She pressed my hand against her heart. "Right in here. So I know. No imagination could replicate that."

Bull shit. I wish she were still alive so I could show her that even after she died, I could imagine a better place with her in it. I could write the imagined world instead and maybe it would become true for somebody. Who would know?

She would hate that. She told me that I write best when I write true things. So I will, out of respect to her.

It is easy to imagine the alternative, however. All the grass over on this side is dust.

I don’t have many important memories from the best years of my life — in university, I mean — but one. Once an itinerant professor came to teach a semester of quantum physics. I am unsure whether I learned or unlearned in that class.

The first day, the professor stood in front of the board, unmoving, for seven minutes. Then she said to us that there was no such thing as luck. “Biology is tried and true. Chemicals react predictably under similar circumstances. Until the smallest level, all things follow an ordained path. And then we hit electrons. They whizz around and fly at impossible speeds and cascade in a dozen superpositions all at once. There is nothing we can do about them. We don’t know them. There is neither sense nor order in the function of reality. Things happen and they will continue to happen. Anything called ‘luck’ is just p-hacking for the quanta of chance. In the end it doesn’t make a difference. That is what this course is about. It is about absolute randomness and coin flips and how to show that the outcome changes nothing.”

The room was dead quiet. Nobody signed up for a philosophy course. We were waiting for math. So some people ran the numbers all on their own. "Is that Fate, professor? If everything is predictable?

A few students crowed. “Do you believe in destiny, Professor Persica?”

She told them to leave the room. “Think about this: throw a brick and it’ll fall, won’t it?”

The world was no good to romantics. That is about the extent of what I got from that semester.

In Moscow the very very young children still sing and dance between the weeping willows on the banks of the Moskva. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

Once it was thought that that rhyme referred to another dark time in history, the Black Plague. The black plague made people break into rosy rash and twisted them up until they died in poses. Then the bodies were set on fire.

Of course that was not the case. Nothing is so clean. Historians and folklorists from before the war spent lifetimes tracking its evolution back through the anthropocene. The older they went the less recognizable. When it left English it branched into a dozen other languages. That is all they wrote. The rest of the trail grows colder with each passing day. In fact I think we have lost hold of one end of the rope already.

From child to child we have passed down the rhyme, the other end, until its past was wiped away. The collective memory of children is stronger than all of history.

It is difficult to show the provenance of immortal things. It is difficult to prove anything in this world. I am a skeptic. I don’t believe in causation. After all, before you are born nothing is proven to happen. You — I — am responsible for everything that ever was. In one very narrow way of thinking.

Ashes, ashes? The ashes from where? For what did a thousand generations of skipping children ring the roses? There must be a reason that we do the things we do now, a cause for our struggle and to struggle for. Nothing is born into this world with purpose. But what do I know?

I insist that there is a beginning somewhere.

It may have been that I would too eventually have forgot Professor Persica and her fervent nihilism, given the time which had passed since then, if the electrons had not collapsed in a way just so. As it was, we would meet again not half a decade later, the year I enlisted with Gryphon and Kryuger and signed away one pointless future for another, the year Sangvis Ferri crumbled upon itself to reveal the far side of brilliance, the year I became involved, however distantly, with the story which I am about to relate.

Though now by insistence she is Persica, just Persica, a flickering figure on the screen with whom I do not reminisce. Persica and I are not the main characters of this story; but in our own, oblique way, we, too, are central to the events of that year. And perhaps that is what make us special: viewers who, offered the stranger angle, see the things that others cannot. Many things are like that, I find - seen shadows and flat reflections in the corner of the eye - objects and events whose real natures are almost always forgotten when looked at sideways. There takes place a piercing of the veil. One sees patterns that aren’t all there.

In many ways Persica was right: that good things happen to people good and bad, and bad things the same way, and events are neither good nor bad to begin with, simply truths that fall into the laps of passerby. But that year...the most devout are made out of reformed disbelievers; that year I hadn’t yet grasped the levity with which I was thrown into the crossfire, and spent all of it convinced that perhaps I was there to make a difference. Yes, Fate had it in store for me, a bottomless vat of heroism from which I would draw and draw again. It was good that I had believed the lies, because without that imaginary resource perhaps things would have gone even worse than they had.

“Fiat lux,” if you believe the carvings in the Vatican, were the first words to be said as the universe unfolded like a flower into the intricate world of creation that we now allegedly inhabit. “Let there be light.” And so there was.

M16 told me all of that. If she is to be believed, she has traveled the world and seen everything, which would make her the wisest. In Rome, she said, they ran a mission investigating an outbreak of ELID. They found the plague starting to settle down around Southern Italy. The United Nations made the decision to commence saturation bombing of the country up to the base of the Alps. The fires took years to extinguish and by the time they finished the grass was glass and Venice was underwater. The Mediterranean had reshaped its borders. It was no loss. Nobody important lived there any more.

Fiat lux will not be around to hear the last words whispered. Lucky.

So I will tell you a story, commander.

It will be hard for me because I don’t have all the details anymore. Once upon a time, maybe. But now I leave pieces wherever I go — they fall out of my head like loose pebbles, but Hansel and Gretel had no trouble with it anyway. I do not think you will either. It is not a difficult story to listen to. It is just like the ones we have all read already, exactly like them. Stories we grew up in. Stories that we are without trying. It involves all those human things. It is about hatred, loss, despair, love, betrayal, triumph, the interminable bond between brothers and sisters and lovers, justice and injustice, empty skies and heat daze, things that happen and things that don’t — and about Dolls, too, five remarkable Dolls and the indeterminacies of electron cascades.

I will tell you a story set in the bleak winter of 2062, Strategic Area S09, that began with the execution of a single, perfect order…

Ana Fowl
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