“Salutations! If you are reading this, you are paying visit to that gem of civilization, the Parsed City-State of Rhaagm. You are a human, or otherwise a creature whose physical attributes and basic requirements for life are comparable to those of many subvarieties of the human species. Welcome, and may your stay be fruitful, enjoyable, and informative! With time, perhaps you may even wish to call our city home.”-One of several English translations of the pamphlet A Human-Analogue Visitor’s Guide to Rhaagm
No worrying about the Lesser-Greater Sifters of Cubic Ganglia. No worrying about the festivities over the hill of tomorrow. No worrying, period.
“I don’t much care for talking in Yrdkish,” Louis confessed. He gestured with his kylix (roughly the size of a buckler) and the drams of golden mead yet in it sluiced around the containment. No drink cells for the festivities today, they had to gain class somehow to make up for all the other ways they were surrendering class. “It makes me sound like a stageplay. No matter how hard I try to sound like a stipp.”
He giggled, the motion rubbing his coat up and down against the green hill’s tall soft back-prickles. The miracle of the technology of guided speech: enabling people everywhere to not sound like drunks.
“You know what I mean?” he asked Alarusx Iinitosl, shining star of the dying light.
“No,” she replied, chewing a stick of rank cinnamon. She pushed the long tails of her coat aside, switched the stick to the other side of her mouth, and sneezed.
Almost as beautiful was the reverberation of demented distortions of light and not-light coming from the distant amphitheater, playing faintly against the canopy of the greatoak towering above. According to his brother-of-no-blood, the outfit known as Shear Boot lay a whisker below God in the great chain of being. They were certainly well-liked enough. Considering how many average Yrdkish could be expected to recognize a particular example of anything, the band had to be practically atypical in their rapport.
Now, as for the actual music…
Louis Artaxerxes wouldn’t have called himself a musical pleb, or even a musical anything, during his young years in near-Earth-Standard France. The Black Death-
He suddenly drew off a tiny draft of mead. Even thinking the name motivated him to very temporary, very cutting sobriety, lasting just long enough for a private sousing in memory of the fact that he’d never again revisit that lugubrious time and place. It wasn’t something he’d ever explained to anyone, it wasn’t something he ever intended to clarify.
-had made the act of simply keeping oneself alive its own crucible. Children didn’t often do well, even without the ill will of disasters. Especially, they didn’t often do well when they were under the poor sufferance of men of malice such as Niall Bennosuke.
He swirled the kylix, put on his smile, and looked down the hill again. When he looked back down the hill, it was with suitably rapturous eyes. Two executioners, two fregnosts, a pohostinlat, and a human: six cogs of the Shear Boot machine all wired up, busily making art happen.
“I don’t think that’s really music,” said Penowa, from Louis’s other side. He spoke in wavering Rhaagmini, thanks to the freshly introduced cerv-mesh sticking out of the back of the mmnmomnæ’s neck. The gang’s attendance of the faintly manic events was one part salute to their newest member’s graduation to “proper” extrafacetary citizen status, and one part pre-competition celebration anticipating the bullets and bombs to be released starting tomorrow.
“That’s what some people say,” replied Al, continuing her vehement mastication. She sniffed, tossed a hair out of the way of her face. “This isn’t a style for everyone. But that’s the point of genre, one might suppose.”
She made a resigned forehead-swipe and turned away, just as Louis began to tell her how very pretty and charming and smart she was. He cut himself off before beginning a monologue that even he realized would have faithfully come across as drunkenly earnest. He sighed. He sipped another tiny breath of the delightful stuff.
“I’m just waiting for the followup act,” griped Celnn from above and behind both Louis and Penowa. He was wrapped around a half meter globule of nutrigel containing far more mild but still intoxicating controlled substance, as he studiously failed to watch any of his nearby chums. “Dominion Those Tell are simply the greatest thing to ever exist.”
Louis couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or snobbishness.
“It sounds a b-”
Penowa couldn’t have stopped talking more quickly if he’d been shot. Actually, Louis thought, the little experience he’d had on the subject suggested people got really obscenely loquacious when they got really holey.
He looked in the direction that the little trunkface was looking, and what did he behold but a small crop of other mmnmomnæ walking and chatting among themselves, of the fairer sex if he wasn’t mistaken. They all bore a style of utilitarian full-body wear that managed to clothe all, yet – judging from the little guy’s obvious consternation – left absolutely nothing of consequence to the imagination.
The human leaned over, and accidentally rapped an elbow on the ground. A drop of mead achieved liftoff from his vessel and landed perfectly atop a grass leaf’s tip. His diagnostics told him that he had roughly an extra twenty three percent reaction time tacked on to his normal reflexes, and that his judgment about what constituted “stupid” needed the help of a digital crutch, a second opinion, or both. Naturally, he disregarded the warning.
“You know what you should do?” nettled Louis, feeling a positively evil look alight on his face as he glanced down at the fluffy shape.
The large soulful features of the smallish fellow condensed, tentatively plumped up to almost-normal proportions, then ran screaming for the hills without leaving his face. Louis wished they would scream more quietly.
“Stare right at them,” said the youngest of the estate’s Artaxerxeses. “Stare right at them, and if they notice, stare more.”
“No,” tossed off Celnn. He was staring at the human over the bulge of his nutrigel like Edward sometimes looked at his owner in the morning, demanding something and then complaining in his squeaky hooty voice because he hadn’t received the correct something. “You stare until you get caught, then you offer them an obviously unacceptable gift as though you found it on the ground and thought it might belong to them.”
Louis felt his brain start reaching outward for an expected event that wasn’t there. He grappled for it, missed, and his neck ratcheted over to one side. He started paying attention to what he was actually seeing with his eyes, and not the eye-of-his-mind, and turned to the person who was supposed to have chimed in but had instead missed his cue with aplomb.
eGarra was busily and quite expeditiously not doing things that involved the others of the group. Specifically, he was growing and twining harmless little yellow-and-ultraviolet flowers together into a chain with some gardening magic Louis didn’t recognize.
“Hey, oleethf-human!” the once-Frenchman said. He almost laughed at the sound of his own joke, which alarmed him several seconds later because it wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t something worth repeating.
eGarra snorted. He rolled the slowly lengthening snake of flowers around in his hands, not saying anything.
“What do you think?” asked Louis. The vessel sloshed as he rolled to a shoulder, another little slurp of its precious cargo slipping free and wetting the tip of the mmnmomnæ’s ear. Nobody, including he, actually glanced away from the flower aficionado as they all turned toward eGarra, but Penowa’s ear began twitching madly. Waste outside notice, want outside notice.
Eventually, the once-oleethf’s youthful face bore itself more directly to the sky. A slinking florid chain began wrapping itself into a noose around his throat, the little recursing tattoo on his cheek winking just above its edge. He glanced down at Louis.
“What do I think about what?” he prodded.
“What should you do if you see someone you really, really like? The kind of person-”
“No!” wailed Penowa, not inebriated or accepting in the least as he gently shook the shoulder of the ruffle-haired grinning human drunk currently providing him with room and board. His protest drowned in the sound of Shear Boot embarking on their next overture. It was The Dreaded Hand, and it was as subtle an allusion to Louis’s brother as it was quiet. The flurry of music getting dumped out of the diminutive stage took on more of a thrash leaning, arhythmic and bludgeoning and full of savage glissandi.
“Yes,” Celnn almost whispered in Penowa’s ear, lurching about in a quick spiral to put his cerv-mesh speakers immediately next to the mmnmomnæ’s head.
“-who you think’s a real cat?” finished Louis, as he waggled his eyebrows at Al, whose reaction was to shift her cinnamon once more and not so much as cough in his direction. He stopped when he realized that there might actually be an uplifted feline or a member of a feline-like species in his vicinity, and hurriedly looked about to make sure he hadn’t stuck his foot in his mouth. He saw none, and felt doubly relieved that he had both caused no undue offense and garnered no hangers-on who assumed that he considered having a catlike appearance especially attractive. He had enough sort-of-conflicted feelings about his udod-aodod-in-law without injecting more awkward interspecies relational entanglement.
Oh. Speak of the Ripper, and it will appear.
“I think you ought to be thinking on more constructive matters,” replied eGarra as he draped the last curl of his improvised lei about his throat. He didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when Louis failed to give him the attention he’d more or less promised by questioning him in the first place.
“What’s the point?” asked Celnn. He lassoed his nutrigel in the coil of his tail, dragging it after him, and half-crawled-half-slithered along the ground to a slightly less verdant patch of hill. “You can’t be constructive at an event like this. It’s practically against the law.” If a zselétael could hammer back a glass instead of just going experiencing the joys of fluid consumption through osmosis, he probably would have done just that. Instead, he wound around his prize more tightly.
“I agree,” said Louis without hearing a single word of his longest and thinnest friend’s verbal disbursement. He started to tell his dæmon cluster to refill his mead (having abandoned himself out in the wilderness beyond the influence of or access to culinary units). He stopped himself. No, no, no – go and attend now, not later.
“With whom?” asked eGarra, finally directing his flickering gaze to the human male who was younger than himself in every sense of the term.
“Well, not with you, and not with him,” Louis said, backpedaling to make himself sound less like an idiot and failing as though he was a sportsman in the art of failure rather than maypoling. The fact that he realized he was making a laughingstock of himself didn’t help. “With myself, I guess.”
“Huh,” snorted Al. She gave Louis a look like she cared for the stench of frustration on him far less than she cared for the stench of alcohol.
The lad decided to cut his losses, had his integrated systems purge his ethanol content and smooth the metabolic processing thereof, then compressed his ceremonial drinking vessel. Completely sober, he stood, facing up the hill toward the little tree-ceilinged plateau coming from one side.
“Hang on,” he muttered to the little crew. “I’ll be back in a bit. Need to take care of something first.”
He resolutely set off in the direction of the plateau and – more importantly – its occupants.
“I’ll keep this spot warm for you,” Celnn shouted after him as his ankles started shoving the grass aside. The zselétael mutt curled around his treat much like a centipede winds up to better protect itself, murmuring something under his breath about maypolers having to compensate in all sorts of interesting ways. Louis didn’t stop, but he did hear the pitter-patter of little feet as Penowa Teso clambered after him without prompting. Louis might have sighed. Instead, he chuckled. Like a faithful hound constantly licking his hand, but with even less understanding of human preferences for personal space, his friend.
“What is it?” asked the ball of fluff, marching along behind. Louis rotated slightly at the waist without slowing his ascent. He put his minute smile away, and took out a serious frown, as he realized the shorter individual held genuine concern for the human he’d begun to call friend.
“I was going to talk with a few people a bit later,” said Louis. “They’re all here now, though.”
With a fatalistic forehead-swipe he indicated the trio currently in congress, all intimately known to him: a run-ragged yet composed udod aodod, an executioner in very striking belted robes, and a blue human the size of a Kodiak with a crescent-shaped plate in his face. The trio in congress had taken to a set of flat-topped benches, arranged into an open pentagon. They all had taken idle note of Louis’s approach. Each, to some degree, ignored him; each, to some degree, gave sign of happiness at his approach.
Penowa recognized the latter two of the three with some little trepidation, and the first with quite a great deal. As the pair approached the trifecta, he looked up at his “landlord” with something that split the difference between a return to the epiphany of Louis’s connections with Pennat Gate’s leadership and irritation of the bowels.
“If you don’t want to come along-” started the human.
“I do,” interrupted his friend, a small serious expression settling upon him.
And so we earn that which cannot be earned.
The moderately tall grass cut off, and the ascending pair had a few seconds to enjoy the slightly therapeutic sensation of walking over a hard woodrubber path. The material broadened and thinned, seamlessly transmuting into the ceramic pavement of a circle-shaped courtyard. Tall and curious crystalwillows clambered over one another, trying to filter out the light of the unliving sun where it managed to pierce the platform’s massive arboreal ceiling. Their faintly translucent shadows grated the ground, a display that brought to mind once again the swarms of warriors and weapons that would be crosshatching the preselected Pennat Gate platforms before sundown tomorrow.
“Hey, killer!” said Francis “Bugbear” Pickering, planting a solid elbow on a solid knee as he rubbed the left section of his face, idly tapping the metallic surface with a perfect fingernail. A hand like a shovel patted the air next to his seat in assurance. He smiled on one side of his mouth, as his biological eye winked, and his artificial eye sparkled. “Oh, and you too, fuzzy. Hey, fuzzy.”
The massive human forehead-thumbed a greeting to the mmnmomnæ, chuckling in that well-too-deep-to-plumb way that he had when Penowa’s ears pulled back, followed by the rest of him. The short creature stood still for a moment longer, caught in the debate between his dedication to Louis, and his dedication to not tempting fate. His kind tended toward cavalier attitudes about the whole personal space thing, but that trend reversed itself with a poisonous glee when faced with less familiar and possibly antagonistic figures.
Seeing how Louis slowed for him to catch up, the shorter fuzzy boy – surely a man now, in light of those things which he’d overcome – forced each of his legs ahead one pace and then another and then another, tail aswish. He drew up short again when he noticed the female sitter of the triad, but only briefly, and he didn’t look at her toothsome maw.
For Louis’s part, he smiled a briefly sheepish awkward smile at the woman named Sun-Beneath-Skin, and she self-consciously brushed her soft quills. The executioner who Louis had called “Big Sister” for a short dusty golden period of his childhood watched the youth with a downward-curved smile on her own face. Her seat wasn’t terribly far from her husband. Her heart and his clearly beat within a single chest.
The spot between them, which Bugbear continued to indicate as “free” with one of his huge mitts, quickly became occupied by Louis’s posterior, then Penowa’s gradually-decreasingly-nervous presence.
Louis schooled his expression into seriousness as he looked up, and then farther up, at the udod aodod who technically had closer relation to him than the other two, but with whom he’d never felt quite as comfortable. Seroku Adz Tataki Ba’fus was nothing if not spotless in its behavior, and nobody if not a perfect gentleudod aodod. It was just that in addition to the oddments of alien psychology, it had a kind of perfect sterility to its nature. That kind of sterility which, long ago, characterized the occasional eras of Rhaagm where undisciplined exploitation of privilege and practical omnipotence saddled society with frustration and existential crises and a genuinely unparalleled suicide rate. In the case of Louis’s in-law, it was just the nature of its species to trend more toward the static.
Actually, he thought, that was far less true of Adz now than it had been for quite some time. It wasn’t exactly happy now, but he thought it had begun displaying a greater propensity for something like “peace” within the last few hands. It was no less sterile or static, but it had a certain serenity, a certain confidence about itself. He was happy for the big person, and with the smile of providence their relationship might continue to improve with time.
There was one clearly visible service agent with a vantage of the Lady some distance from the little courtyard, armed for skin eater. The figure, of course, was one clearly visible service agent. As with a great number of things, the visible implied a great deal of non-visible. Given the important event coming up tomorrow, Louis figured walking up to the udod aodod and trying to chin its hand might draw aggravated response from overprotective minders. He figured he’d give it a miss.
“How’s that stipp I got for you, little brother?” asked Bugbear with a glint and a grin. It was said with malice of forethought. Louis had once called Sun “Big Sister” on account of her being married to the guy who Sebastio had claimed was closer than a sibling in some ways. Paradoxically, while he’d had little enough trouble humoring her in this respect, he’d never felt any inclination to call Francis anything except the name by which everyone knew him.
“Edward’s alright,” Louis said.
He jumped a bit when the band down at the bottom of the hill made a round-robin ululation, and carved up the eardrums of any listeners unfortunate enough to possess eardrums. The band then embarked on a piece that was “inspired” by the studies and victories of those many individuals throughout the history of inhabited facets who had each respectively first opened the gift box of applied subnuclear physics. It was both extremely loud and very carefully crafted. “Detonate” was the word which came to mind; it sent shafts of sterile tin-smelling air up the rise where they speared the brains of the audience.
“Alright,” Louis repeated, feeling for a moment that Shear Boot had caused a very shallow back-step against the current of time as the dulcet tones of Alinoso, “the handsomest blue fregnost to ever live,” shattered reality into numbing colors and skillful caterwauling. “He’s found a new friend,” he added, a smile bending one side of his face as he emphatically didn’t look sideways at Penowa.
He heard the flipper-flap of ears going back and forth, somewhere in the neighborhood of nervous intercut with upset.
“He keeps waking me up by trying to put his feet in my ears,” came the mutter with the nasal quality of a trunk pinching itself partially shut. Louis knew it signified some amount of less-than-joyous almost-resentment, a discomfort “less than having my fur get all glued together, but more than forgetting the last stair at the bottom.” The slight whine to the declaration gave Bugbear a slightly more sober expression. Sun got that look her perfectly black eyes had gotten shortly after Louis had started briefly living with them at the Hammer and Scapula, when he’d failed to correctly use a Rhaagm toilet for the first time.
To his left past the executioner, Louis noticed Adz restraining its leg-cables from knitting together, and restrained a smile himself.
“So… what did you want to discuss?” asked Louis. “I’d guess it’s not about the ‘birthday present’ you gave me and his current bill of health.”
At that, Bugbear – and Adz, to lesser extent – contemplated the presence of Penowa. They both showed slightly different kinds of unease at the fuzzy fellow’s presence. Louis subtly showed both of them a very emphatic endorsement of his friend’s suitability. The kind of endorsement which nonverbally stated that the human would be taking his leave if they forced his small friend to take his.
“You’re guessin’ correctly,” said Sun, in that not quite unpleasant rumble of hers. “We’re here to discuss plannin’ for contingencies.”
The shorter human no longer had to restrain his smile. It didn’t actually fall off and break, but he felt a chill roll down him like thunder across a dry lakebed.
“What sort of contingencies?” someone else asked with his voice, from far away.
“The sort where it is a very real possibility that we may have to subject to a forfeit,” answered Adz. It felt moderately odd to hear the creature speaking any of the tongues of the Big Three besides that of its home, with that same broomstick-straight-through-the-digestive-system stiffness it had when speaking Yrdkish – as all Yrdkish would do from now until doomsday. “The autumn elf of the day has not extinguished the bonhomie of our allies with her exposure of our weaknesses, but we have not terribly many true allies in our odyssey regardless.”
The udod aodod’s ears flicked. Penowa’s ears flicked. Adz’s eyespots fluttered. The air suddenly seemed thicker.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Louis, but of course he did understand.
There was a deep sad breath from Bugbear, just as Adz’s lips parted slightly to show its arc-shaped dental adornments. Louis, as he occasionally did upon seeing the tic, wondered at the absence of tongue from mouth. Louis, as he occasionally did upon recalling the life to which he was now beholden, considered the many ways even his short pre-extrafacetary life had oriented him so such small details still pricked him with their thorns as he grasped them.
“I and my husband, Lord Tuoamas and the estate’s great tactical minds, our allies, our visitors, and those who could be turned to our temporary aid have been drawing battle plans to wrestle with potential repercussions from tomorrow’s reckoning.”
Adz’s tentacles or leg-cables or whatever were wound beneath its seat, looking like a closed flower bulb in their fanciful overlapping. The scales covering the udod aodod had the dusty color of a fine cheese in the mellow light.
“What we mean,” said Adz, “is that a very real possibility we may face is ridding ourselves of a significant portion of our population. Should Nor’ridge emerge victorious from the confrontation we will formally initiate tomorrow, those Beasts we call our own will require alternate arrangements.”
The udod aodod slipped its hands across each other, glancing aside toward the scene down the hill as Shear Boot kicked things up a notch with psitechnic engineering and shafts of radiation meant to blind more than illuminate.
“And that’s why we’re here,” said Bugbear. Without looking at Louis, he bent forward at the waist. The artificial left eye gleamed again; like a ball bearing, not like a knife. “We’ve done some interesting placement of washed peoples and the like before, we of the Hammer and Scapula. Beasts? Intelligent ones at least, we can probably get shoved into a new home. A suitable home, though?”
He made a curious little gesture with a hand, and produced a flickering bolt of magus-fire; the conflagration crawled over his blue sausage fingers like a coin trick. Its Hiek machine had the beautiful elegant sharpness of an obsidian rose. The guard standing a short distance behind Adz quite obviously tightened a grip on the lengthy warsash draping the lengthy frame as the conflagration danced. Louis knew that actually holding the thing was unnecessary, but as far as visual impact it made an even more effective “no funny business” than holding up and obviously examining a destabilizer construct within neck range.
“Not suitable. Probably not acceptable. But better than being stuck in permanently hostile territory.”
Bugbear popped the sphere of flame into the air just as he would have done with a coin, and for a second as it spun in the air his birth eye looked past the construct, straight over at Louis. His face was harder than redmetal.
Louis blinked. He blinked again. It wasn’t working, he was still sitting there in the wavering sunlight filtered through the translucent trees, he was still listening to the squawks making nuisances of themselves, and he was still picking up the faint ambient body heat of the mmnmomnæ beside him.
“The Pastoral Division is now effectively dead,” Adz added, “and the last positively identified incident of Beast-caused peril was the debacle of the übertier with which you yourself were involved. That is not to say we cannot possibly expect further difficulties of that vein in future, even if we never have a feral Beast escape from the Purple investigation headquarters. No; the problem now is drastically different, and one on which we hope you might be able to offer advice.”
“Also, matters of logistics-” began Sun, before Adz cut her off with a fanning-out of its digits, even larger than Bugbear’s.
“No, not now,” it said, not quite reprimanding. “Louis should not concern himself with anything besides what we require him to contemplate; our task has enough complications as it stands.”
“Please get to the point,” said Louis, his throat gone stiff, his back held straight, and his voice perfectly even. He stared at the udod aodod with the intent to bore through its head.
When Adz looked far down at him, Bugbear twitching at the tone of his words, the youth felt those simmering coils, which had returned in force after the over-Beast attack, start polymerizing. For a moment, that wavering heat remained below the level of conscious influence. It wouldn’t for long.
“You know what? I’ve changed my mind,” Louis hissed, face turning grotesque, and rose. He pushed up and began walking off.
His boots on the courtyard’s buttery-smooth surface made sounds less like pleasant clicks and more like knocking on an ornate door; a door made of glass and filthy ivory. He wasn’t running, he wasn’t even trotting, but he took on a long stride that multiplied the distance between himself and those other bipedal two-armed creatures.
A determined exclamation from Penowa, and the sound of feet falling to the ceramic behind him, almost elicited an about-face. He hardened his resolution, and kept going. He heard a levelheaded Bugbear’s not-quite-remonstration of the fuzzy fellow’s eager pursuit.
“No, friend. Don’t follow. Your friend’s a good one, but his mind sometimes goes down roads that are a bit immature.”
Immature? He’d had enough of mature. He’d had enough of doubting. Sebastio Artaxerxes hardly escaped the compass of Louis’s anger – especially when the elder was doing something patronizingly protective of the younger. Yet, what he’d done for Louis constituted some of the only unilateral good he’d experienced since his being taken in by the mistress of the Great Mountain. There were very very few cases where Louis could muster up the willingness to extend good grace to those who needled his brother’s designs. Acknowledging the Lord’s faults was one thing. But-
The intellectual side of himself quietly mentioned that Adz hadn’t criticized Sebastio, hadn’t even said that his charted course for the estate (and those people for whom he was responsible) seemed suboptimal in any way. It had merely indicated prudence in constructing alternate fallback plans. The rough-shod flames running through the youth didn’t argue with that reasoning; Louis just let the thought slide past him unmolested.
A small still insipid voice in his head asked Louis whether he enjoyed leaving this problem behind as much as he enjoyed leaving the misbegotten climes of his birth France for the extrafacetary locales. He pictured that small still insipid voice as belonging to a white naufer named Heggad, then pictured the white naufer receiving a counterargument in the form of a studded mace. It didn’t make him smile, but it loosened the rib-creaking tension of his chest enough to let a scalding breath out of his nose.
Especially over the last few days, that had become an exceptionally short-length track that his thoughts ran. He wondered (for far from the first time) if that bore some resemblance to the cerebral beating and tacking done by any udod aodod.
“Are you perhaps keen on embracing the future and how Sebastio propelled you out of the past, so that you can better escape the past?” “No, and shut up. I’m worried about more important things, like whether I’m still secretly afraid of our Beasts on a subconscious level.” “Oh, so you’re interested in moving forward?” “Of course, and I said shut up.” “Oh, so are you perhaps keen on embracing…”
“I’ll go, see that he won’t be doin’ somethin’ unwise,” came Sun’s mellow voice, and Louis felt the hairs on his nape standing when a pair of large hooves started clapping in his direction, and he heard the jangle of her horn jewelry. He didn’t want her coming after; he could already tell he was probably going to be throwing a tantrum. The strange commonality shared between himself, herself, and Sebastio – one a once-harlot, one a child of a harlot, and one raised young in a harlots’ den – gave him a strange and powerful aversion to disappointing his brother or Big Sister to their faces.
When Adz said, “No, I shall attend,” he didn’t know if it was relief or yet greater agitation that curled around his heart.
The slap-slap-slap of slewing tendrils piled along after him as Louis continued on his unflagging way. Without really considering it, the human aimed himself up farther up the hill, moving toward the distant trunk of the ancient hybrid tree whose branches capped the platform’s skyline in every direction. The darker, thicker stands and gardens of vegetation on the behemoth’s side of the rise drew him in like the mouth of a well. More specifically, he stepped free of the little ceramic plateau and started climbing the short difference between his coordinates and those of the moderately-sized open-plan temple to Missing Gods at the hill’s utmost apex.
The temple in question was that in which Louis, Sebastio, Lord Tuoamas, and – curiously enough – Bugbear and Sun had assembled the prior year. They’d met in the name of salvaging the mmnmomnæ populace that would have otherwise been subject to Beast devourment on their home facet. Some of their number now met again to contemplate a not dissimilar problem from the Beast side of the equation. Symmetry? Subconscious design? Divine nudging? Why he’d felt the urge to return to the temple didn’t signify just yet.
Just as Louis reached the path going through gradually sprouting herbaceous groundcover right up to the open pillars of the majestically minimalist structure, the lofty sounds of an udod aodod in pursuit dropped off. Louis drew up to the stone design of the temple’s entry arch, then pulled up short when a spectacular flash of light from the concert below threw up a hulking silhouette before him against the doorway. Within the temple’s confines a couple of visitors huddled, taken with the nonexistent altar and barely noticing his presence. He felt his quadriceps rising and falling beneath his skin like the connecting rods of pistons with his final step, and breathed out once with gusto before looking to one side.
Adz towered above him despite a “footing” that lay almost a vertical meter down the hill, keeping itself to the heart-leafed shrubbery on one side of the temple’s path. Its soft, grainy speech made it sound like a naufer getting the inside of her throat sandpapered down to suppleness. All four of its eyespots lay revealed in the nests of their eyefibers, its ears almost plastered to its skull, and the lines of its long heavy arms and shoulders had the angles of a set square. The Lady’s leg-cables, unlike the ever-flexing tendrils of a hudenot, supported it with the rigidity of hard thulite.
In the shade of a couple not-terribly-close trees he noted a few figures keeping watch over the udod aodod, possibly to ensure he didn’t try to shoot it or do things to its person with R’gaonit or Tufcich thaumaturgy or such.
If not for its breathing, the human might have considered the variously light and dark off-brown shape to be a still sensory capture. If he wasn’t mistaken, that expression indicated its getting caught in the weirdly shaped eddies of mentalism common to its species; not reaching out to the tree of speech and picking words as needed, but starting at the beginning of the alphabet and pulling its vocabulary through its cognitive center one lexing operation at a time. If he hadn’t run off, that long process would have been unnecessary.
Louis pondered to himself, in the name of keeping his mouth shut for a bit longer until he completed temporarily calming down. His large relative’s sometimes roundabout thought patterns weren’t terribly different from the way in which he would eventually have to travel back up his threads of social entanglement. First, engage with Adz. Then, go back down, make nice with Bugbear, apologize to Sun. Reassure Penowa that he didn’t hate his housemate, or even harbor any animosity. Rejoin the rest of “the gang,” as they’d come to know themselves, before the-
“I know that things have not been easy for you of late,” said the udod aodod. “You do not have the luxury of humoring yourself as you would like. Remember that it has been easy for none of us.”
Louis ran a palm down one of his hairless cheeks.
“I’m aware,” he said, quarter-joking. “I can’t forget anymore, after all.”
He flicked a fingernail against the little metal quadrilateral prism of his cerv-mesh where its side emerged from the back of his neck. The osmium exterior of the box made a tiny clack, and he felt his scruff’s epidermis twitch a micrometer or so.
“Why in God’s name do you need me?” he suddenly demanded. “You know what I think of…”
My brother? Your husband? Our Lord?
“… Sebastio. Sebastio’s plans.”
He almost pointed at Adz in accusation, avoiding the gesture at the last instant as he saw the tone of his not-quite-shout reach its guardians. Instead, he grabbed at his hair as though he could pull his scalp off like a hat.
For its part, the udod aodod lowered its trunk to the ground. It became not much taller than himself even with the wedges of its ears, perhaps trying to adopt a more psychologically vulnerable position. Its palms flattened themselves in the thin carpet of ferns and grasses, and its thick outer garment pulled taut against its torso in a sudden stiff wind.
“What do you think we are trying to do?” it asked. “Bugbear and Sun and I – do you suspect that we want to damage what he and Lord Tuoamas have accomplished, after all this time and effort?”
“I suspect that what you intend to do might be seen as a lack of confidence in Pennat Gate’s mission,” was the acerbic response. “After bringing in a Beast population, after staring down that walking putrescence that is Harrison O’Casey, after what happened with Leanshe three hands ago, can you deny that loosening expectations of victory will undermine this estate’s cause?”
When in doubt, speak from the heart… unless completely inappropriate.
“I can tell you that we have been discussing possible negative consequences nearly since the Lordsmoot,” Adz said. “What we do is no betrayal. If we succeed despite the daunting elevation of this hurdle then we shall become all the better for the effort. If we fail, it is our responsibility to outline how we might best edit the sensory that is our estate’s dream manufactory. If that should be necessary.”
The young man who was athlete, artist, magus, immigrant, and much more slowly turned to look at the massive tree growing near the Step’s center. When he exhaled next, he was fairly confident he was ridding himself of necessary bodily moisture, because it felt like his face went wrinkled and misshapen and colorless. He glanced over the temple to Missing Gods, where he and Penowa’s uncle and that schlrikt Seven and others had all gathered two and a half lifetimes ago. Thinking about how they’d all gone and gotten plastered for an hour or two after that little get-together made him want to bring out his kylix again, and start drinking once more.
He grimaced instead, and spun so quickly that his clothes tried to whirligig him off his feet.
“Lady, I’m scared. I’ve been scared for a long time. I’ll probably be scared for quite some time to come.”
He tapped the box on his neck once more, with a shaky hand very different from the lackadaisical joking manner he’d had when tapping his cerv-mesh a minute past.
“After that Sifter popped up and… well, I’ve been jumpy, distrustful, and easily turned around. I guess you’d call me a mess.”
Louis briefly pivoted on a foot, and took half a step in the temple’s direction. Then he undid that directional progress by turning back to Adz and moving half a step.
Indecision was evidently something his brother had indeed passed along, if in a roundabout and non-genealogical fashion.
He repeated the utterly useless dance shuffle several times, the Lady silent the whole while, before his eyebrows came together and his voice became almost rusty.
“Have you any idea what it’s like when your life changes to something better than you could possibly have imagined, because of one single decision you’ve made or accepted? Do you know how scary it is to know that that option might be dashed to the ground for whole universes of people?”
“Yes,” said Adz.
He came to a screeching halt, contemplating those simple-eye-like lenses, and suddenly suspected from the udod aodod’s unspoken argument that it told the truth.
I support your brother. The thought of his grand ambitions for a safe haven coming to naught strikes at my very heart, and people like Harrison O’Casey will continue to oppose those ambitions with their every fiber… and yet I keep the faith.
Then the human’s gaze caught a gleam bouncing from the gorget marking the Lady’s office, and with a feeling of profound foolishness realized he no longer suspected.
“I see,” said Louis. When the band far below came to a shuddering climax in their musically-empowered spiritual journey, the rooster tails of flame shooting from the tiny stage failed to raise his spirits, or even do more than draw his idle gaze for a bauble of time. He felt his tongue rasping the insides of his teeth. He looked down at Adz. He looked down at Celnn and Al and eGarra. He looked down at Sun and Penowa and Bugbear.
“I see,” he repeated, and for all that it was a sketched-on mask he couldn’t prevent a small smile from shooting past on its way elsewhere. “I’m sorry. I’m just… No, you do mean well. Prudence. Prudence, that’s one thing he’d wholeheartedly support.”
He managed to make himself believe that last statement was conspecific with the truth, or at least something with equivalent truthiness value.
Our Father in heaven, but I’m a mess.
“Let’s go and… talk, then. I’ll be good.”
Nobody said a word about his stomping off. The only reminder of his leaving the event was the fact that he elected to stay standing opposite Adz’s perch, taking a few steps every so often to ward off nerves like he had popped a triple dose of fidget.
“If we have to propose a refuge for unwanted people, the quirks of Beasts that make them so unappealing to everyone else would put them right at home in the Trisected Republic, or New Armis.”
Bugbear’s sales pitch lost a bit of its air and he actually adopted a sheepish expression when Louis gave him a look like he’d grown a second head, the second head was that of a fish, and the fish had a doctorate in fertilizer manufacture.
“There’s no way anyone is going to try putting Beasts into a general circulation which might use them for traditional warfare; they’d probably get a visit from Rhaagm’s big man Jonathan himself to make his displeasure clear. But they’re uniquely suited for information gathering, what with the ability to identify which of a dozen decoy ‘meat puppets’ actually possesses a gestalt, or what part of a network is inhabited by a true eidolon and not just a jumble of expert systems.”
“Have your contacts been dissuaded by the Etruphana hullabaloo?” Louis asked, eyes squinting in Bugbear’s direction.
“Dissuaded in the sense that they’re leery of the black box that’s Yrdkish statecraft, yes. Dissuaded in the sense that they don’t enjoy the thought of either being patsies or getting fingered as interfering busybodies, yes. Dissuaded in the sense that they won’t have anything to do with us on the matter of Beast adoption, no more than a few.”
Bugbear growled something that sounded a great deal like, “I’ll give that strobing banshee ‘unstable and infighting-prone.’”
“So, have you found a… buyer, as it were?” asked Adz, hands clasped in front of it.
“We’ve talked to a few mayors of the Republic, and between them gotten grudgin’ admission that they’d be willin’ to give a trial period a shot. A few thousand unusual immigrants each, at least. Less so for New Armis, but they’re in the same bracket in most respects besides the number of intakes they’re acceptin’.”
The points of Sun’s slightly bared teeth told Louis she was far from happy with the thought of cutting the newest beneficiaries of Pennat Gate’s dreams loose. For that – regardless of the personal reservations he yet held about those beneficiaries – he loved her a little more.
The shorter human present cleared his throat. Well, if we’re already dealing with unpalatable options, perhaps it’s time to throw all the disgusting cards on the table.
“When we last talked, Sebastio mentioned some kind of plan to ‘take care’ of Nor’ridge and other antagonists of that stripe,” Louis said, every word a bitter wafer. “He said that it won’t get anyone hurt or dead, but Pennat Gate won’t have to worry about a lot of things if it goes into effect. I don’t know anything else about it, but…”
Adz tensed. Sebastio’s spouse obviously possessed some details about the plan in question. It also obviously thought that the plan in question might fall into the category of fundamentally toxic compromise – something Louis had suspected but not wanted to believe.
Hating himself with an oceanic depth, Louis asked, “I gave a bit of thought to… putting that plan, whatever it is, into effect early. Before our contest is resolved. It might not be the honorable thing to do.”
Understatement. In the eyes of the Republic Lords and Lawmasters, possibly – probably – a capital crime.
The Lady gave no indication of what it thought. From his experience with it, though, the once-French lad guessed that its outward placidity came from the dual fonts of its thought structure and a self-discipline of towering potency. He couldn’t deny that his own sense of integrity scalded him for the impropriety.
And yet, when he glanced in Penowa’s direction, remembered how the mmnmomnæ woke up on his little bed on the other side of the little house they shared, how the expression he wore each morning was one not of forebearance but contentment, how he had gotten laughing on more than one occasion simply seeing his troublesome stipp waddling around and failing to locate a good spot where he could situate a nest on Penowa’s garb, Louis found the steel in his soul to persist.
“If it would keep our people together under one roof, though…”
“Louis-” started Bugbear, before falling silent as the peripherals of most of those watching detected the approach of a new personality. A new personality who most certainly wasn’t on the short list of those who the Lady and its guests would have approved seeing in their present context.
Long before he actually stepped into view farther up the hill, coming from the more arboreally-blessed side of the platform’s topology toward the little crystalwillow-shrouded plateau of discourse, a very significant number of offensive tools trained themselves on Hereld Upswitch. In turn, as he drew to slightly outside comfortable talking distance, he trained upon Louis Artaxerxes a baroque flourish of that same hat he’d worn when they’d first met.
“Young sir Artaxerxes,” the man said, with that same ear-gouging accent exhibited before. “I hope you will do me the pleasure of admitting breeze and tell me how you are doing of late.”
He twitched that same pestiferous and loathsome facial adornment he’d previously sported. His thin garments, haughty bearing, resolutely serene expression, and utterly unwanted presence collaborated in such a way to give him the appearance of a statue made for a person that the sculptor simply couldn’t stand.
Next to Penowa, Louis saw one edge of Bugbear’s mouth turn up ever so slightly, and the look in his eye of flesh was the look of a man whose thoughts were, “So you’re the fun-loving soul who decided to harass two of the most important people I know.”
Louis felt himself grow hot, and then immediately cool. His many rehearsals of what he’d do if he again clapped eyes on the excuse for human excrescence that was Hereld Upswitch all clamored for space in his head, and got pushed away in a single heartbeat. He felt his eyelids begin to droop, started to prepare one fistful of poet-fire, reached for his trusty quadratic accelerator in its compression storage, and-
“Please do not force me to use a hermetic chamber function upon you. I would prefer to avoid such indignities.”
Adz’s voice was the spearpoint of reason. It clearly wouldn’t accept any sort of defiance or belligerence from Louis, implicit or otherwise, and intended to make sure his youthful exuberance was sealed away if he decided to be ornery.
Hereld looked at the Lady, his face a complete blank. He adjusted the angle of his hat, adjusted the fit of his coat, gave a little unconscious up-sign, and turned his cuffs with unconscious grace.
“I think,” he said with a faintly astonishing purge of his abominable accent, “that you need to go throw yourself in a culture of hot pink. You ought to mount your head on the claws of a particularly ugly Beast.”
The fevered look he had was beginning to become worrisome.
“Sir,” interjected Sun, with her interjection summarily ignored by the fresh arrival. He continued his monologue of abuse and the others slowly took in that monologue of abuse, their collective ill-will sharpening with every word coming from below the greasy mustache. The agents began to step out of the shadows like so many scavengers.
“You need to purge yourself from this life and bring us all that much closer to moral Pareto efficiency,” said Hereld, looking into the Lady’s eyespots the way some children might look at a particularly delicate gewgaw whilst holding a hoop-hook staff.
“Mr. Upswitch. You are coming with us.”
One of Adz’s squad with the legal right to do so had folded herself just behind the behatted human. The aaned’s body was draped with a warsash, and the hand which had not just slapped a cuff around Hereld Upswitch’s arm held a shiver knife that looked roughly the size of a zweihander. Behind her floated a magus caber, with an angry light swirling above it.
“I-” began Mr. Upswitch again, only to get cut off by the aaned bodyguard hitting him with a compulsion. The magus caber picked up and mutated the thaumaturgical working’s Hiek machine. Even if he’d had something on par with a Rhaagm auditor’s resilience against mental magic, he would have needed some very specific defensive measures to fend off the compulsion’s entwining tendrils as it wrapped around his brain.
Hereld’s reappearance marked the fourth run-in the Artaxerxes family had had with exceptional personal danger, since the debut of that curious bohemian creature Seven. On the first such occasion, Sebastio himself hadn’t exactly been in danger until the appearance of that morphite. On the second such occasion, Louis was under the terribly mistaken impression that being in the immediate vicinity of a gun battery, with attendant highly-proficient artists in the discipline of war, exempted him from abduction. On the third such occasion… well, over-Beasts didn’t precisely constitute a member in the “actuarially significant” camp of eventualities.
This time, the minders put their experience to very good use.
The kinds of personal armoring and protective countermeasures available to a culture like Yrdky – a culture with the ability to arbitrarily if painstakingly set and reset a universe’s elemental triple-points, bring certain of the dead back to life (for some definitions of “life”), dictate to all sorts of minor deities and their adherents when and whether they would be permitted communion, compress two bits of data into a little more than one and a half bits of data, and construct a perfect sandwich – were quite formidable. As soon as the threat represented by that most wanted excuse for human excrescence appeared, many such defenses were immediately erected around Lady Adz, Louis Artaxerxes, Francis “Bugbear” Pickering, Sun-Beneath-Skin, and (after a moment’s consideration by Lily, the de facto leader of Adz’s current detail) Penowa Teso. Despite the deliberate cultural avoidance of such technological demigodhood during the normal course of extrafacetary life, it was standard operating procedure to protect persons of interest in such a fashion when confronting a clear and present danger like Upswitch. The personae grata might have been harmed if they were subject to, say, the will of a Being of Old, or artifacts that played by the rules of nonstandard arcane Rochambeau sequences, or another over-Beast, or perhaps a causality sabotage. Pretty much anything else would be stymied long before it could even think of doing them ill.
Unfortunately, standard operating procedure for defense of a principal usually prioritized the principal’s health over that of everyone else, and in this case the everyone else included one Hereld Upswitch.
“I…” he said, the eyes vaguely covered by his hat’s shadow suddenly gaining a billion-year stare. Every muscle in the human’s body slowly relaxed by a sniff or two.
Hereld looked, almost contentedly, between the udod aodod and the young sir Artaxerxes, mouth open just wide enough to permit the insertion of a knife if one were so inclined. He blinked slowly.
“Ah, well,” he said, fighting for self-control as the aaned behind him moved to grip one of his arms in her scaled digits. “I guess you aren’t even curious as to why I’m here, now.”
“I can think of more than a couple of reasons,” Adz said, revealing a mass of razor dentistry overlapping itself betwixt mandible and maxilla. “I find none of them appealing to the interests of this estate.”
Upswitch’s dazed expression gelled for the tiniest span of time.
“Oh, that’s hurtful, Lady, especially when coming from such a waste of good proteins as yourself. I came here, after all, for this.”
His little giggling return fire earned him a smack across the head by the guard holding him prisoner.
Later on, the aaned guard declared that the action resulted from a temporary lapse in her self-control. She claimed that that self-control had been significantly taxed even before the appearance of Hereld Upswitch, for a plethora of reasons.
That lack of self-control led to a blow which happened in tandem with a series of directional charges, embedded in Hereld Upswitch’s skull and vertebrae and clavicles, going off at a single remote directive. The blow coincidentally made it seem, to the security sensories later produced on the subject of the incident, that its applicator used sufficiently excessive force to cause a conversion of everything between the applicatee’s hat brim and the applicatee’s sternal manubrium into a great deal of fibrous pulp and red mist. Interruption was immediate and – given the fact that his cuff made continuing to store the thread of his gestalt a crime nearly on par with illegal possession of a cuff in the first place – almost certainly represented a cessation of his self, not merely a strange continuation of identity picked up elsewhere in a revivification clinic.
With a sound much like a thick branch being tossed into a mud flat, the number of living carbon-based physical bodies correlated to on-site sentiences decremented by one. The corpse’s legs folded up as it fell, the dispersed residue began softly raining down in a very wide arc, and that hat landed with perverse stability right on its ex-owner’s back, just below the savaged crater of ex-Hereld’s neck.
And thus did technology once more demonstrate its talents to the assembled: the alchemization of less interesting and more stable problems into more interesting and less stable ones.
Louis, as it turned out, had many unexpected demands on his time that prevented him from rejoining the rest of “the gang” that evening.
As usual, almost everyone who attended the pre-war-games festivities later voiced the opinion that Shear Boot was, quite simply, the greatest.