ARCHIPELAGO: The Prequel Series  


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 foresaken cell of endless hell. Gabe had entered that place, closed the door behind him, never to open it, never to leave it again.

Gabe was listed officially as a questor on the worlds of Archipelago and Earth, and was fully invested as such. The national government of a region where he was conducting research, needed the status provided by a questor, and approached his Guild with an official request for his agency. 

A useful legal tool in difficult cases, this practice provided a wall against bribery and coercion. The Guild reviewed and approved this country’s petition, and with their endorsement, Gabe set aside his project to accept the assignment. 

Recognized 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, Gabe soon received instructions to assemble a delegation, then 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 among 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 threat and fear. Ransom money promised a quick infusion for an uprising already flagging with hopes of a coming peace. The warlord’s final demand before granting passage was that the new administrator lead the taskforce. Accepting his reason that a questor’s presence would ensure the mission’s integrity, Gabe assumed command of the taskforce on their journey. 

Once the varied details and agreements had their required signatures and stamps, the mission set out. Then, as the warlord planned, they were intercepted and taken hostage. With treatment of the hostages calculated to instill horror, they were recorded, (individually, and as a group), and put on display. To increase audience participation, the captives were instructed to introduce themselves, so that each name had a face with a history and family. Conditions for their release were signed and attached.

Guided by the principle that you don’t get what you don’t ask for, the extravagant take-home price for the baker’s dozen was delivered, and officially denounced. “Exorbitant, outrageous, unreasonable … offensive to the public nose, unacceptable.” The whole country was watching. Governments under stress do not, 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 interest and dismay, but it lowered the price for ransom. The warlord’s thinking was to build the horror and slowly lower the price until a tipping point was reached. Surely, the families’ hope and public outrage would force a change in decision, or so he assumed.

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 name and title, then butchered. 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 abominations 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 great fury at the government’s lack of response. A contradiction that seemed to escape the public notice was that last small gift given to each victim’s life, to die with hope. Yet, it was this pernicious lie that lit the dying eyes that most 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 a maternal Guild to bail them out. While acknowledging their earlier recommendation, the Guild’s basic position on all points of danger and derring-do was, “You got yourself into it…,” 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 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 to lock him 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 his 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 tortured, 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 possesses somewhat 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 continent. 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, 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 funhouse mirror images of each other, warped but reassuringly familiar. Inhabitants of both worlds test as genetically compatible, able to share love and interbreed. 

Tho physically indistinguishable from each other, inhabitants of both worlds largely retain their local customs. Beyond the Common Ten, citizens are bound to their native legal systems. Traditions of caste and social expression are also recognized and accepted. Neither world appears in the other’s firmament, with no shared coordinates, and no identifiable location in the other world’s map of the sky. 

First contact came not long after the first great war of the century, when ersatz research on Earth went awry, and inexplicably opened a ‘door’ between the worlds. Based on initial studies, and a journalist’s coinage, the portal came to be known as the Membrane. Astonished scientists soon established that this Membrane proved to be fully permeable to inorganics, but only semi-permeable as it applied to cellular matter. 
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 unhindered both ways; but organics, building materials, produce, fibers, foods, 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 either way unhindered. 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. 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 provide even the hint of an answer. 

Beyond scientific curiosity, only the hope of excellent fame and a fabulous fortune drive those who persist in the search. Wild guesses and perfunctory stabs at theory are all that is 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 the Terrans’ Second Great Northern War.

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