The news was all over Gurhal.
It wasn't surprising, if one took the time to think about it. More surprising would be if the news wasn't spreading, if people were keeping their mouths tightly shut and refusing to breathe a word about the strange machines, the little boxes of LEDs and readouts and Light only knew what else that had just mysteriously appeared one day on all three planets. (Four, if Rykros was counted, but it just made sense for those things to be there - maybe that's where they'd come from, even, descending on the system like a plague of faceless fortune-tellers, unsympathetic and ambiguous.) The stories were everywhere, on the news and in the digi-papers and tumbling haphazard and breathless from millions of mouths, frighteningly morbid and yet all the more fascinating for it, drawing in the terrified and the defiant and the just plain crazy alike to get that little off-white card with its black bold text.
Not bad for unobtrusive little boxes whose only real identification was a carefully-scripted sign, flowing calligraphic letters that drew the eye with their swirls and swoops and spoke a simplistic, but unnerving explanation.
"Machine of Death - 100 meseta per use - find out how you will die."
Of course, no one had believed it was wholly true at first. Why would they do something like that? - not even the best seers and spiritualists throughout the system could predict that kind of thing, after all, looking that far ahead into someone's life was downright impossible and just plain silly, because who would want to know how they'd die? But it was a clever little gimmick nonetheless; stick a handful of meseta into the side of the machine, put your finger into the opening and try not to flinch at the little spring-loaded needle, take the prediction the slot at the front spat at you and go on your merry way with a 'cause of death' ranging from the disgustingly mundane to the attractively surreal. (Conversations after using the machine always proved laughable - "What'd you get? I got BATTERY." "Wow, that's boring. Mine said SPRING - pretty weird, huh?" "Well, mine said FLOWER, I think that beats all of yours!") There were even those who were certain this was just another money-making scheme, providing those willing to part with a handful of hard-earned meseta with some amusement while going towards some expensive cause or another.
A clever little gimmick, indeed, until these deaths started happening.
Sometimes it took some doing to connect it to the cards the machine gave out, but there was always a connection, no matter how much one had to stretch their imagination to see it - a veteran Guardian drew SHOCK from the Moatoob machine and died of a heart attack when he found his wife in bed with his Partner Machinery; a fresh young AMF recruit got LASER and ended up on the wrong side of a fence with a rampaging Gol Dolva; a naive young devotee of the Holy Light drew LIGHT and was sent into a spiral of paranoia, eventually dying when, blinded by the searchlight of the Guardians sent to find him, he stumbled into an Onmagoug nest - and slowly but surely, people's attitudes towards these innocent-looking little mechanisms started to change. No longer just for fun, they laid a harsh and inexorably unavoidable sentence on the shoulders of any who braved them, but even as the paranoia and unease grew, so did the number of people flocking to the machines.
After all, if you could find out how you'd die - you could prevent it, right?
Except that was logical, and the Machines of Death seemed a bit lacking in the logic department.
The death tolls grew, spilling out of digital records and echoing off stunned lips no matter where one tried to turn, and even as officials raced to consider every possibility and stay even just the slightest bit ahead of the predictions, they inevitably found themselves one step behind every single time. (SAND - the poor girl who got that one moved off of Moatoob and well away from the deserts only to suffer fatal head trauma when an hourglass decoration in her home fell on her; BIRTH - the man in question took his own life when his expectant wife died in labor; DEPRESSION - the panicked woman, who'd struggled with mental instability her entire life, broke her ankle stepping into a hole and came down with a fatal infection during treatment. No one quite knew what to expect after that one.) Yet still they kept trying, running helplessly over every possibility they could even remotely think of, and that's when they began their research and launched their ultimatum. Every Gurhalian over the age of 13 must be tested; their results would be recorded, their deaths (if it came to that) carefully scrutinized, and the information used to try and find a pattern to this madness.
The people, just as scared, could do nothing but agree, and weeks went by with steady flows of pale, frightened faces making their way to their respective planets' machines, receiving their predictions and turning them helplessly over to the authorities before going on their way, rattled to the bone and never quite knowing what it was that would bring about their demise.
(OLD AGE - a botched robbery led to the elderly homeowner killing his would-be assailant in self-defense--)
(PHOTON - no one had ever seen a Diga spell rebound like that before--)
(MUSHROOM - who'd have thought a routine patrol through the Habirao F.D. would get someone crushed to death by a giant fungus--)
(EGG - people could only shake their heads in disbelief at how vicious a Lunga could get when its nest was disturbed--)
And the tests went on, and on, and on, and that was how Sera Cecille found herself standing before the Machine comfortably ensconced within the Communion's Shitenkaku shrine, one of the highest-ranking Sisters of the Holy Light at her side.
She was unsettled, but she wasn't outright afraid. She eyed the little metal box expressionlessly, pushed long red hair back over her shoulders; her ears twitched briefly at the tips, once, twice, and she brushed away the hand that settled on her arm, presumably meaning to give a reassuring squeeze but seeming to burn right through the sleeve of her ceremonial clothing and setting a disgusted anger alight in the pit of her stomach. "I'm fine," she said coldly, lifted her head high and contemplated the mass of circuitry for a moment, then sifted through the handful of coins she held, feeling out the edges for one of the proper denomination to deposit in the payment receptacle.
Clunk - it fell loudly to the bottom, rattled against the multitude of other coins, and the machine softly whirred for a moment before a small panel slid aside at the front, revealing a space just big enough for her slender finger.
Now or never.
Sera breathed deep, stepped forward, slid her fingertip into the machine - shink, the needle came down faster than an eyeblink and before she could even wince her skin was bathed in mists of disinfectants and coagulants, and she had hardly even withdrawn her hand before something gave a cheery ding and a small off-white rectangle protruded from the slot to the right, almost seeming to taunt her.
She snapped it from the machine, imagined she could hear a whirred protest at her rough, cold treatment, and turned it over to read the bold letters inked on the inverse side.
And then she laughed.
"So that's it, is it? Fine." Her voice when she calmed held an edge, and she turned the card back over, deposited it into the hands of the official at her side and turned to walk out. "Do what you want with this. I don't need it. Worthless machine."
Her reaction was unexpected; no one tried to stop her. They simply watched her with wide, uncertain eyes as she strode down the steps, posture stiff and regal, face unreadably cold.
Only after she was long gone did her accompaniment think to turn the card over herself, to see exactly what it was the machine had predicted for the promising young newman, and when her mind processed the single innocent word she swayed and nearly fainted, letting it drop to the floor and pressing her hands to her lips as she mouthed 'no, no' over and over.
Sera's card read simply this:
Even four years later, the memory of that little card in her hand kept flashing across Sera's mind whenever she least expected it.
It didn't bother her, not exactly, but whenever things got too quiet and peaceful she could always see herself there - standing in front of that innocent-looking little box, staring down at jet-black ink that unarguably, undeniably, spelled out her fate in uncaring block letters that reeked of finality. That was what bothered her; the fact that she just couldn't seem to let it go, that even after she'd packed up all her things and fled Neudaiz like the entirety of the SEED were hot on her heels she kept having this niggling little feeling that she'd done something wrong, that she'd let herself be suckered into believing an interpretation that just wasn't accurate at all. Oh, sure, they'd done their best to keep her there - told her she'd be safe, promised her whatever it took to assure peace of mind if she'd just stay - but she'd flipped them all the metaphorical finger and been on the next damn shuttle out of there, and she had to admit it was much more fulfilling this way. (She'd always sort of suspected she was wasted as some mindless little devotee anyway.)
Free of the Communion, she'd adopted a devil-may-care attitude and thrown herself headfirst into some of the most dangerous work she could find, reminding herself whenever she wavered that she knew how she'd die; as long as she stayed away from that, she'd always get out of even the worst situations in one piece, and so far she hadn't been proven wrong. Even taking a direct hit to the head from a pissed-off Stateria hadn't kept her down for all that long, and she figured that sealed the deal: nothing short of the very place she'd left when she was fifteen could knock her permanently down and out. She no longer felt any nervousness or remorse about diving into the most gruesome situations, never even batted an eyelash at things that would turn most people into a heap of crying gibberish in the corner, and it made her famous. Or maybe infamous. Everyone wanted her to join them, everyone wanted her skills, but in the end, she settled on a barely-known company called Little Wing - made friends, saved Gurhal, that sort of thing, and she loved every last bit of it.
Well. Not quite every last bit. Her prediction wasn't the only thing that haunted her in those quiet moments; there was also the conversation she'd had soon after she'd joined, when the subject of the damned machines had come up and the human girl who'd just been assigned as her partner had gone quiet and pale, looking up at her and chewing absently on lips trembling with fear as she fought down the words she wanted to say. The words they all wanted to say, but never would.
And then she did.
"So - so, Sera, what did yours say?"
Sera had shrugged, snorted, smiled, but pointedly made an effort not to meet those eyes. Best not to act too comfortable with it; she didn't fear it, but she didn't like it, either. "Mine? 'Communion'. Pretty stupid, I know - how about yours, Emilia?" Because she knew they'd all been tested; it was a prerequisite, anymore, you couldn't get work without one of those gloomy little slips hanging over your head, lingering in the back of your memory wherever you went.
The girl - Emilia - had looked down, wrung her hands unhappily and kept chewing her lips till they flushed red with blood, not snapping out of her self-induced reverie until Sera gently pushed her shoulder and startled her. "It said - well, it said - 'memory'," she finally admitted, and put her face in her hands, shaking all over. "What kind of a prediction is that? How can you die from a memory? Does this mean I'm supposed to forget everything? I don't understand!"
Honestly, Sera didn't either, but she put on her best reassuring face and kept her tone as soothing as she could possibly manage. "Hey, you never know. Maybe you and I, we'll be the first ones to defy it."
She didn't believe it herself, but Emilia seemed willing enough, the offhanded words just what her fragmented mind needed to keep holding on.
And now it was four years later and she was hurtling through space at the controls of a small but quick shuttle, the conversation flashing briefly through her mind again. Communion. Memory. Stupid little predictions, one tiny piece of paper no bigger than your typical datacard with just enough room to hold a single word or phrase, one that somehow always managed to come true and left the universe in perpetual fear. "How stupid," she said softly to herself under her breath, shook her head and tucked her hair behind her ear, staring outward at the stars as she raised her voice. "Emilia. How's the subspace reading? Any anomalies?"
'Nothing to worry about," Emilia called back, fingers flying over a console at the other end of the ship. "Still growing stronger around us, but the entry point isn't changing at all. We'll pass through the wormhole barrier in five minutes."
"Great." Sera smiled, leaned over the controls and rested her arms on either side, the hum of the ship beneath her feet familiar and soothing. She lived for moments like this, any more; the thrill of discovery combined with the knowledge of her assured safety, the tremble of machinery as they slid through one of the many gates still open in the dead of space, the clamor and excitement of so many sleeping minds that slowly woke to new living knowledge in their midst - it was addictive, more so than any drug and without the side effects to boot, and she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, lifting her head as if to turn her face to an invisible breeze. "Man, I love doing this," she sighed happily, too relaxed to think nothing of it when she got no reply and pressing onward. "Isn't it nice? Discovering all these new things, gathering all this knowledge. It's really something worth doing, you know?"
"I, um--" Emilia's hands had stopped moving; she stared at the console with wide eyes, the color gone from her face. "Sera? I think - I think we might be in trouble."
Sera tensed, snapped upright from her slouched posture and turned with a trickle of cold adrenaline seeping into her veins. "What happened?"
Emilia swallowed hard, her throat working for a moment but producing no sound, and finally she just pointed, the readouts on her screen telling a story Sera was all too familiar with - a story of lost dreams, ancient powers and unforgiving condemnations, and it was when realization began to dawn that the blonde girl finally found her voice, a raspy croaking whisper. "Maghara..."
Maghara, Sera thought, her own voice failing her in nervous awe, and then she looked at Emilia's hopeless expression and suddenly it hit her.
"Oh god," she whispered, and then louder, almost throwing herself across the cabin to wrap her arms tight around her shaking partner, "oh god--" and she barely realized she was crying, shaking her head hard, clutching tight at Emilia and refusing to look down and meet the look of resignation she knew was there. "No, Emilia, this isn't what it meant - it can't be! You and I, we're gonna defy it, you remember? It doesn't mean anything! It doesn't!"
Emilia was limp with disbelief and sorrow in Sera's arms; she couldn't even bring herself to bury her head in the newman's shoulder, to try and cling to the thin little threads of reassurance just outside of her figurative reach. "This is it," she said, still just as raspy, swallowed hard and tried to wet her lips. "I - never believed it - people saying they'd just know when it was time. I never believed it...before..."
Sera dug her nails into Emilia's back, shaking her head again, trembling all over. Or maybe it was the ship that was trembling as they rushed towards the subspace barrier. She couldn't tell anymore. "Come on, Emilia! You can't just give up like this! You can't - you can't--"
"Sera," Emilia cut her off, then in a wrenching harsh sob, "I'm sorry - I'm so sorry--!" and then her eyes fell closed and she shook harshly, once, twice, then fell still - and Sera didn't even have time to scream before they were surrounded in light, enveloped in clamor, and the most intense pain she could ever have imagined seared itself across every nerve in her body and then she couldn't scream. It was just too much, too painful, like nothing she'd ever felt before, and in the midst of it her mind suddenly flashed to one simple thing - one long-ago memory, darkest black on dingy not-really-white, the still-fresh scent of pungent ink and cut paper in her nostrils as her eyes stared down at a single word that would prove to burn itself indelibly into her mind.
The depths of just what that damnable machine could do were only now coming clear to her.
"Oh," she said, clogged with agony, lips feeling thick and numb like blocks of lead, and then she began to laugh, clutching Emilia's body to her like a life preserver. "Oh - oh, Light - you knew. You knew." Sobs bubbled up under the laughter, and she choked, gasped, suddenly aware of the coppery scent in her nostrils and the gurgle of liquid in her throat and the pain, but she couldn't stop laughing.
She was wrong. All this time, she'd been so very, very wrong.
"I give," she whispered, coughed helplessly and spat blood onto the floor of the violently-quaking ship, slowly relaxing into the darkness that threatened to consume her mind with a blissful smile. "You win."
That little card in her mind's eye, that single word, was the last thing she ever saw.
But it was fitting - she'd always been destined to join the communion of the Ancients.