Tragedy steals from the innocent, but sharpens instinct. Tragedies hone survival skills. To master a tragedy is to survive at depth and grow new muscle. But to be guilty in tragedy is to live out life in a special cell of endless hell. Gabe had entered that place, closed the door behind him, never to open it, never to leave it again.

Listed officially as a questor on the worlds of Archipelago and Earth, and well regarded as such, the national government of a region he was researching had approached his Guild to request his help. The Guild relayed the petition, and with their recommendation, Gabe set aside his project to accept the assignment. 

Accepted as neutral by all sides in his role as a questor, the government’s strategy had been to  
use his authority to either settle or quell a rebellion in that country’s largest, most remote district. Quickly confirmed and granted portfolio as the district’s chief administrator, instructions soon arrived for Gabe to assemble a delegation, and to negotiate safe passage for them to that country’s opening peace talks.

The dozen men and women chosen were of the finest minds and talents that his district had to offer. Educated and committed to a better world, they were the nation’s best chance for a future peace. A local rebel chief had other plans for them. 

The prospects of peace carry little advantage for a warlord dependent on the spoils that flow from fear and threat. Ransom money would provide a quick infusion for a revolt already flagging with hopes of a peace, was his thinking. The warlord’s final demand before granting passage was that the new administrator lead the delegation. Accepting the reason that a questor’s presence would ensure the mission’s integrity, Gabe assumed command of the taskforce.  

Once all the details and agreements had their required stamps and signatures, the mission set out. Then, as planned, they were intercepted and taken hostage. With their treatment calculated for terror and artfully enhanced, they were placed on display with conditions for their ransom signed and attached. To increase audience participation, the captives were instructed to introduce themselves and tell where they were from so that each face had a name.

Guided by the principle that you don’t get what you don’t ask for, the take-home price for the baker’s dozen was delivered and denounced at once. “Exorbitant, outrageous, unreasonable … offensive to the public nose, unacceptable.” The whole country was watching. Governments under stress don’t necessarily view regional talent as vital to national interests, and the demand for ransom was promptly refused. 

The recorded killing of a secretary yanked from formation and summarily shot did, however, reframe the debate. Not only did the execution serve to ratchet up public horror, but it lowered the price for ransom. The warlord’s thinking seemed to be, build the horror and slowly lower the price until a tipping point was reached with the families and public, and the ransom paid.

One by one, from least to most important, with all the lurid details recorded and broadcast, and with days spaced between to let the horror and the furor build, the delegates were announced, with title, and then killed. The first few were shot. When a simple bullet to the head failed to produce the wanted results, a more dramatic death was introduced. The following three had their throats cut. The gush of blood and the fading light of life from the victims eyes made the watching unbearable. Each death did produce a corresponding drop in price, however; but these, too, failed to win a ransom. 

More drama was needed to pry open the government’s purse. It was his blood the people wanted, and the warlord knew this, but the blood-lust was on them. Hypnotized by the horror they were witnessing, the nation lapped up the crimson he spilled for their viewing. It was nightmare as entertainment, and they could not look away. 

The delegates who followed were brought out individually and told that negotiations had succeeded. It was when their eyes lit up that each was beheaded from behind. The effect produced in the audience was raw rage and a pure fury at the government’s lack of response. A contradiction that seemed to escape the public’s notice was that last small gift in each victim’s life was to die with hope. Yet, it was this pernicious lie that lit the dying eyes that inflamed the nation’s wrath. With two remaining, the penultimate sacrifice was a thrashing, screaming evisceration. Then only Gabe was left.

The Questors Guild does not pay ransom for its members under contract. A questor’s superior training, intelligence and resourcefulness would never come into full flower if it had Mother Guild to bail them out. While acknowledging their earlier recommendation, “You got yourself into it…” was the Guild’s basic position on all points of danger and derring-do, and it did not waver. 

While publicly relenting to the people’s will, his government-of-contract, in fact, wanted the rebel intel that Gabe’s training would provide. And they wanted to go after the rebels without regard to the niceties that hostages entail. Strategically, it would be a public relations coup. Without it ever being spoken aloud, if the government ever hoped to work with the Guild again, it would pay the ransom, and it did.

Gabe’s information did, in fact, lead to the warlord’s capture, and the death of his lieutenants. Legal outcomes were pending for the survivors who surrendered. Guilty was the verdict, and death-by-hanging was the warlord’s sentence, but acting as the district’s chief administrator, Gabe intervened. Despite local and national outrage, he commuted the warlord’s sentence. 

Ruling that no sane person would commit such atrocities, the only just punishment would be to spare the warlord’s life, but locked up with the criminally insane. The ceaseless crying and relentless screaming that filled the days and nights there, the vortex of demons that circled those confined there, the terrors that spread like infection so that there was no sleep or peace there — all this would have been considered too spiritually destructive, too inhumane for one not already insane. But the evidence was clear (insanity by reason of depravity), and so it was done.

Gabe survived to shepherd an end to his district’s revolt and to finish out his contract, but the crisis continued unabated for him. It was not the warlord’s duplicity that broke him. He was a questor. He had full knowledge of the perfidy in the hearts of men. It was, instead, his own part in the dozen deaths that crippled him, that shriveled him to a shrunken kernel inside the hollow shell of self. True, the government had gained intelligence of the warlord’s intention, and had in the time-honored tradition of bureaucratic delay, telegraphed its instructions to abort the mission, but too late. 

The thoroughness instilled in every questor’s training had prompted Gabe to check for instructions one last time, but the social posturing and bickering between delegates had delayed their departure, and he had chosen schedule over diligence instead. The telegraph certainly would have arrived too late had they left on time, but they were late in leaving. 

A matter of minutes only (ten, fifteen at most) separated him from his last check, but miss it he did. And twelve of his colleagues were dead, vividly slaughtered, on film and before his own grief-stricken, unfiltered eyes. The final price of his ransom was two thirds of the original demand. The ransom was recovered, and no monies were lost. To have paid a few dollars more would have saved most of them … but only he was alive. And the door to Gabe’s hell slammed shut behind him, without recourse, remission, or shade of complaint.

~

Archipelago is a water world similar in size and mass to Earth, and shares many of our planet’s atmospheric and geophysical properties. Named after the long string of islands populating its temperate zone, Archipelago possessed much less in the way of land area and population when compared to its sister planet, Earth. A small, maverick asteroid had collided with Archipelago during its early history leaving a large crater on its largest island. Tho early civilizations had been seriously disrupted by the impact, it was the resulting rapid shift in plate tectonics that generated the planet’s current geography, temperate climate and population mix.

Archipelago’s outlying islands range from those eerily similar to Earth in their geography and history, to those freakishly strange in their character and structure. In the family of worlds, Earth and Archipelago might well be thought of as fraternal twins, or as funhouse mirror images of each other, warped, but reassuringly familiar.

Inhabitants of both worlds test as genetically compatible, and are able to share love and interbreed. Tho physically indistinguishable from each other, inhabitants of both worlds largely retain their local customs, and are bound to their native legal systems (beyond the Common Ten). Traditions of caste and social expression were also recognized and accepted. Neither world appears in the other’s firmament, with no shared coordinates, and no identifiable location in the other’s map of the sky. 

contact came soon after turn of the century when ersatz research on Earth went wrong and inexplicably opened a “door” between the worlds, a portal that came to be known as the Membrane. Initial study showed this Membrane to be fully permeable to inorganics, but only semi-permeable as it applied to cellular life. This allowed metals and other non-organics to cross both ways unimpeded, but organic material could only pass from Archipelago to Earth. 

Specifically, raw materials and manufactured goods passed thru unhindered both ways; but organic matter, building materials, produce, fibers and woven products were limited to crossing from Archipelago to Earth. For reasons not understood, living animals and native Archipelagans were able to cross the Membrane both ways without hinderance. The physics of this arrangement remains imperfectly understood by scientists of both worlds, but the fact of it remains. 

Notwithstanding the decades of study, fruitless research and frustrated careers given to it, Terrans remain unable to cross, span or bypass the Membrane into Archipelago. And despite the years of work that have gone into repairing this inequity, no consensus exists on what field of study, or even which brand of physics might finally apply. To confuse matters further, a few products acquire different properties crossing from one side to the other. A worldwide college of scientists has yet to suggest a viable model for these discrepancies, or even hint of an answer. 

Beyond scientific curiosity, only the hope of excellent fame and a fabulous fortune drives those who persist in the search. Wild guesses and perfunctory stabs at theory are all that’s left to the baffled scientists who continue to try. Despite the rivers of investment with nary a drop in return, the fountains that fund this venture have yet to dry up. 

Predictably, the impact of world-meeting-world produced far reaching ripples across both worlds, but so nearly matched were they in geophysical composition and genetics, that the shock of alien soon turned to matters of business and state. Events for the unfolding of Archipelago begin sometime after America’s Second Great Asian war.