This Is Not The End You Wished For
There’s a saying: don’t cast pearls before swine.
Before you rush for your pitchforks, let me explain. When you look at the context of the quote, this isn’t an attack on the swine—pigs are pigs, they can’t help their tastes—but rather an indictment of the farmer. A farmer who doesn’t know how to feed pigs is a stupid farmer. Most people misunderstand this statement.
Not All Heroes was—yes, was—an experiment. It was an opportunity for me to put my work out there and get feedback. It was a test, and it’s a strange test when you realize that you’ve come out of it worse than you went into it. When I look back on things, I see that it was all based on a series of miscalculations. If I could go back in time, I’d tell younger me to take a damn closer look at the data, and put far more emphasis on the quantitative than the qualitative. I’d tell myself to cut way more corners, and to exploit the data rather than respond to it.
Such is hindsight.
It was fun, to begin with. Then, in about a year, the act of writing had become work. That was fine—if you want to stick with something, it must become work, and making the leap from writing when the mood strikes to writing-as-work to is a bridge all writers must cross. But then, quite rapidly, Not All Heroes became a burden. My serial became a millstone around my neck, and the act of writing—of imagining—became torture.
My work ethic collapsed from multiple hours of writing a day every single day to twice a week, if that. Then, slowly, inch by inch, my well of imagination dried up. I found myself unable to hear Jack’s surly moodiness, or Fisher’s resigned commentary, or Sabra’s exuberant rhythm. I couldn’t see Jack’s crossed arms, or Fisher’s graying hair, or Sabra’s big stupid smile.
From there, it became difficult to give voice to the ideas that were the genesis of Not All Heroes and the themes I wanted to explore within the story, notions of heroism and love and free will and humanism and atrocity and power and how these are maybe all facets of the same thing. Soon, it wasn’t just Not All Heroes that was eluding me, but every single other imaginative exercise I attempted, whether it was for work or play.
There’s a thought I’ve always found fascinating: when does a coping mechanism become a problem to be coped with? In a way, that’s what happened with Not All Heroes. The thing I used as an outlet became something that needed one. And that isn’t good for me, or for my art.
Serial writing teaches bad habits, especially if you’re prone to the twin demons of perfectionism and obsession like I am. I am not someone who writes A->B, and yet that is what I had to become. I stopped writing for me and started writing with the thought that it had to be perfect. Every minute I wasn’t writing was like I was wasting time. I didn’t want to write, and I didn’t want to not write. And, as I climbed higher and higher in TopWebFiction’s rankings, that stress only compounded upon itself.
Let’s make this clear: I never thought I’d enter the Top Ten. I never thought I’d get above Worm, much less settle there, such is Wildbow’s juggernaut. I certainly never thought I’d enjoy a week, even if it were just the one, above Ward. Those are heights that so many other serials will never get there, much less within their first eighteen months.
So many other serials and serial writers will never enjoy the amount of positive feedback that Not All Heroes has received. It has presently sat within the Top Ten of TopWebFiction for six months, and has remained just shy of the Top 100 on RoyalRoad for about as long. The latter case is, really, something of a miracle given the sheer demographic mismatch. Am I bragging? I don’t know, but I know I’ve gone longer and harder than so many others, and I’ve done it without a story that easily fits into what the serial audience wants.
But was it worth it?
Well, there’s the question.
Here’s my answer.
I don’t know.
The thing is, the only thing worse than never achieving your goal is achieving it… and realizing you don’t want it and maybe never did. Maybe realizing that you hate it. Pygmalion, I am not.
I have other projects I want to work on. I want to work on them without the worry that I’m undoing all of my effort if I miss even a single update. Because that brief hiatus I took was a horrible idea, costing me about half my weekly readers. If I can’t take a fortnight to myself after about two years of consistent production, then what’s the point?
It’s not a coincidence that those two weeks were where I got so much more work done on Legacies and Starfall and my other projects. I felt free; I felt liberated. I felt like I could imagine again. I felt like I could have fun with the characters in my head. I could see Julian meeting Ari for the first time and hear Kel goading him to go make a fool of himself. I could see Roulette and Seraph soaring across the skies, wind and laughter roaring together. I could see Caleb and Max and Kree sitting in a swaying redwood, watching the sunset. These names mean nothing to you now, but I hope they will mean something to you soon.
I haven’t had fun with Sabra, Pavel, and Jack for a while now. If I had to pick a word to describe my relationship with them, it’d be closer to extortion, I think. ‘Give me something, or we’re all fucked!’ Like I said, not good for me. Not good for anyone.
Another difficulty is that I think, if I’m honest, Arcs 1 and 2 were the story I really wanted to tell. Arc 3 feels almost like a postscript, hard to work with. I think there’s a story there, about Sabra and Pavel and Jack and Sian and Kallisto and where they all go, but it isn’t really one I’ve figured out. Maybe I never will, and that’s just how art works.
There’s more I could say, but little point to it. I don’t consider it a failure as much as a re-calibration. An awareness that you want to play baseball when everyone’s just fine with softball, and there’s no real setup to foster something beyond that. It certainly won’t be WebFictionGuide. These pigs play softball, and that’s okay. But you’re a stupid farmer if you want to pitch a baseball with them.
This isn’t an end, but a transformation. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people doing this, made a few contacts, and the feedback—positive and critical—means the world to me. There’s about seven-hundred of you, readers. That might not seem like much, but it is. So, thanks—to all of you, thank you.
In no particular order, my thanks to: Megajoule, Hejin57, Joary, Elliott Staude, Canticle, What A Fine [Insert Holiday Here], Jordan Leighton, Nippoten, stevenneiman, Taltos Dreamer, ftaku, Garrdor, matbag248, Jellybean, Sharkerbob, Rhythm, L Nimbus, Wizard of Woah, Letouriste, Tarun Elankath, wdqwetyu, BadDobby, Yamageddon, Angelo Pampalone, Barrendur, TeK, Hydrargentium…
You get the picture.
To everyone who left a review, provided feedback, voted each week, and so on: thank you. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, been inspired, and maybe learned and thought a little. To the people who didn’t, I don’t fault you. To the people who sent hate mail or other vindictives, I hope you find peace.
Like I said, transformation, chrysalis. I’m not going to stop writing, but I am going to go back to basics—writing for me, and putting it into a state I’m truly happy with before showing anyone. This may mean I end up doing serial releases in the future, but they’ll be finished—or near-finished—works. I won’t get caught up in this trap again.
See, you don’t feed pearls to pigs—you sell them.
This means I’ll be leaving Not All Heroes up. That is, until I have the first two books edited and ready, which I’m hoping to have done by the middle of 2020 (I’ve already got a wonderful cover artist lined up.) If you’d like to stay informed about all that, then your best courses of action are to either follow this WordPress, so you get an email in your inbox when I upload something, or to hang out on the Discord where I’ll do much the same. You can also reach out to me at the feedback email.
I know this will disappoint some of you. I wish I could’ve completed things as I intended. But, as Blueshift said: necessity justifies. And this is very necessary, as an artist and as a person.
However, I’m aware of what I promised—closure, even in the event of a sudden, undesired end.
So, my loyal readers, find your closure below. If you have questions, I may be able to answer them.
One More Final
The world ends, and it ends at the end of the world.
See, three stories end in Antarctica. Each of them is important as the other and always has been. You see, that’s why the story begins with each of them and all of them: the tripartite mercenary, the aging relic, and the lady of contradictions. They are linked, they are connected.
All three of them are connected to each other, even now, as much as they don’t want to be. They’re not all heroes, and maybe none of them are. But the apocalypse has been a long time coming, and heroes are necessary—and terrifying.
How does it end?
Well, ultimately, the same way everything else does.
Of course, I’m not surprised.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
They woke up at the same time, do you understand that? Sabra to her future, Perseus to his present, and Fisher to his past. All three awoke among ruins, literal or metaphorical. All three knew something was wrong.
In Paradigm City, they tied together and hunted the Monkey King. There’s no difference between any of them, really. All of them believed the world had to change. To preserve the world is to destroy it, to destroy it is to save it.
But you want to know how it ends. Don’t you know, don’t you remember? CASSANDRA Subject 463 already told you. But you forgot or didn’t notice, just as Sabra forgot or didn’t notice.
Six months after Geneva, the enigmatic Concordiat moves out of the shadows and into the light. In New York, Sian and Fisher begin sifting through the shadows, only to find that the Concordiat has been preparing for their endgame for years, and leaves little to chance. Both of them want to ask the same question, but to different people: why?
(Fisher does not realize or, perhaps, ever know, that his question is the same one that Perseus wished to ask Elias, all that time ago…)
In Paris, Perseus Bell lives a normal life, as much as he can, and tries to put it all behind him. He can’t succeed, of course. He has a curse, and that curse is named SzPD. Still, he’s as close to okay as he’s ever been, and by naming his demon, he has some measure of control over it.
Then, Incarnate arrives. She tracks Perseus down at the behest of his old friend Aegis and brings him to a clandestine meeting. Aegis’ team is dead or missing, SOLAR is crippled, and the IPSA is facing down a threat that might finish it off. The Destroyer, bloody Sekhmet, the harbinger Sabra Kasembe, has returned. Aegis asks him, begs him, goads him, urges him to return to his old life. To find Sekhmet, to stop the Concordiat. One final time.
Perseus agrees. So, Kallisto will keep the home fires burning, give him something to come back to. So he will come back. With Incarnate, Perseus searches for dread Sekhmet. But every time he looks at Incarnate, he remembers Aegis’ warning, her grip upon his wrist so hard that he felt it’d break: her eyes, Aegis said, are not her own.
There is little to describe now, and ultimately irrelevant procedural. The three threads begin to link, and the Concordiat seek the mystery of AEON. The Concordiat strikes New York, with Sekhmet as the tip of their spear. But the question is still: why?
For that, we return to Ironforge, and his personal holocaust at the end of the Golden Age.
You see, the Concordiat learned from SHIVA. Equations, Throne tells Sekhmet in the garden of introspection, can change the course of history. If the truth of the world is numbers, then the survival mechanism of humankind is equations. CASSANDRA, the last remaining Trimurti computer, performs more calculations in one second than all the thinkers of antiquity did in their entire lives collectively. Therefore, the issue of saving the world doesn’t come down to morals or ethics but simply processing power, of knowing which variables to alter.
AEON is merely the next step in that strategy. It can be best thought of as a god-machine, one designed to avert the inevitable infinite acceleration of the universe—the Big Rip. Just as people spread out and grow diffuse, so too do atoms. Eventually, everything rips itself apart. The path of least resistance is destructive. Perseus knows this. Pavel knows this. Sabra knows this.
Whether some ancient civilization built the god-machine or the cosmos itself perhaps drafted it, is irrelevant to the Concordiat. The god-machine is, as Blueshift noted, the gates of heaven. By pushing through them, you may engage with something that can twist the base aspects of spacetime itself. What is that but God Himself?
In Antarctica, Maxwell Lewis made the discovery of a thousand lifetimes through sheer accident. There, deep below the ice, lies the best-kept secret of the Golden Age: the transcendental, cosmic source of empowered abilities. It is not alive but nor is it dead. It desires, if such a thing can desire (beware the dangers of anthropomorphism, that is what Blueshift told Sabra) to do nothing more than what it was made to do. To avert the inevitable, accelerative end.
Sabra touched it once, after all, and so have eight others. The Engineer fell in Geneva, and the Destroyer was ignited and stilled. The god-machine, broken and shattered, calls to everyone on the planet. Some people are more suitable than others—more on that later. Sabra’s connection is stronger than most. She was never truly prescient per se, but she could link back into the god-machine and calculate, winnow probabilities. And the reason she could never predict Incarnate was that there was no mind for the god-machine to interact with.
You see, it links to consciousness and willpower. Is it any surprise then that the most powerful empowered are the most driven, the most certain? Is it any surprise that this led to the Collapse, and would lead to another?
The Concordiat will avert this. Such is their concord with the whole of humanity. With control of the god-machine and their mastery of equations, the Concordiat can create a genuine utopia. They can alter humanity at the fundamental level, and avert the inevitable end SHIVA predicted. This is what Sabra fights for; this is what she kills for. A world where someone like her may no longer exist.
And yet, a conflict. If the Concordiat has based their apotheotic play on numbers and equations, then what happens if their numbers are wrong?
But she doesn’t know that. That comes later, after everything collides.
The Concordiat sortie Sekhmet and her team to strike the supercarrier Alexander. There, she will find information that CASSANDRA needs to plot the location of AEON. Fisher, Perseus, Sian, and Incarnate catch her there. Incarnate, loyal to the IPSA even now, goes to face her. There is a confrontation, a brawl, a lover’s quarrel: the wrathful Sekhmet and SHIVA’s pale daughter, fists flying. Perseus gets between the two, again and again, trying to make them stop.
But Incarnate’s eyes are not her own. The Director-General plays his trump card and compels shackled Incarnate to murder. Her blades ignite, and she catches the mighty Sekhmet on her leonine helmet, splits it open. Sabra staggers back then, emerald eyes wide and betrayed-
And Sekhmet draws her khopesh.
It’s a mortal fight, then. Pavel and Desperada kill the Director-General, ending his technological sorcery, but not before Sabra and Incarnate have done terrible damage to each other. And not before the former has transmitted the data to the Concordiat. At the last second, Perseus manages to get between Sekhmet and her killing strike, breaking her violent spell.
From there, to the reckoning.
The Concordiat moves on Antarctica. Ironheart retreats with Sekhmet and Incarnate to the Iron Citadel in Earth’s orbit. Sabra, without her armor and confronted with the horror of her wrath, refuses to fight. This is where Ironheart tells her about the folly of calculations. How much faith, Ironheart wonders, should Sekhmet place in Ra?
Fisher, Perseus, and the others head to Antarctica—but they will be too late.
In orbit, Ironheart gets through to Sabra. But there is only one way to get her to Antarctica in time—an orbital drop. To do this, Ironheart rebuilds Incarnate into the body of Cataphract Prime. Sabra will ride within her. Sabra, observing the process, figures it for a peculiar kind of transcendence.
Then, to the end of the world. The final confrontation. Perseus, Fisher, Desperada and the others face off against the Concordiat. Mark dies. Perseus wounds Throne. Sabra and Incarnate cut a swath through the Concordiat forces, and then fight their way into the AEON installation and then towards the chamber of the god-machine. Incarnate sustains heavy damage and, collapsing at the threshold, can go no further.
So, to the gates of heaven, Sabra must go alone. There, beyond life and death, beyond hate and love, beyond fate and choice, Sabra Kasembe finds the end.
In the shadow of the god-machine, Sabra and Throne face-off. She has one shot, and a fight against Throne is not one she can win. This close, though, she can feel the connection with the god-machine and Sabra Kasembe transcends for the second, and final, time.
The bedrock cracks, the icy plains break and fracture. The Destroyer’s wings extend to the sky, and the heavens are alight with a coruscating aurora. Throne dies, and his dreams die with him. The polar ice is melting, and it’s clear that even if everyone escapes, there might not be a world to escape back to.
She can’t make it back, this time. But somehow, Sabra holds something together: a thought she’s had since she was a child, the true enemy. Because it isn’t Throne, or the Concordiat, or even the Transcended. All of them are prisoners, no matter their power, playing roles in a system that’s kept the whole world in thrall. The system is the enemy. The system is the problem, and it has always been the problem. From Paradigm City and Monkey, to the IPSA and the Empire, to Throne and the transcendental god-machine.
And so The Destroyer calls her khopesh to her hand and, lost in the maelstrom, Sabra gathers up all of her strength and all of her will (and all of her love, because that’s the secret, that’s the key) and hurls The Destroyer’s killing blade at the god-machine.
Everything ends in a blast of iridic light.
A year later, in Paris, the world is settling. Perseus wanders the city with Kallisto. There are less empowered, and the remaining Transcended have gone still and silent. The remnants of the IPSA and Concordiat have banded together, combining the two thoughts of preservation and salvation into one whole. The future appears bright, but it is also unknowable. The first Golden Age ended, after all.
Perseus puts it all from his mind and basks in the experience of a crowded plaza. He thinks he sees Elias and Sam and knows he always will. Then, over the way, he spies a pair of women having their portrait taken by a street artist. One of them is tall, dark and lean. The other is fair, redheaded, with an electric-blue gaze. They spot him, catch his eyes, and smile.
Kallisto calls Perseus’ name and, when he looks back, Sabra and Incarnate are gone.
Kallisto returns and links arms with him. “You look happy. What’re you smiling about?”
“Nothing,” Perseus says. “Everything. Just some old friends.”
They walk into the future, together.
Everyone finds love in the end.