<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Make many into one. Make one into many. Make none into one. Make one into none. All problems can, in some sense, be described by a failure to perform a combination of those operations. The hardest, of course, is the conversion from having zero solution sets for your problem to having one solution set.”

-Rol Bangulorian, On Generative Skepticism

“It’s not, well, an honor. It’s more of a convenience that’s very difficult to overstate.”

Ktsn gave a quick shaky handclap indicating that she was listening, from where she lay on the bench. She had a different view of her host’s home from when she’d arrived. In the second and smaller of the home’s rooms, everything was slathered in indigo or red, and more sparsely decorated. She enjoyed the feeling of the broad featureless surface beneath her; the way her mind was spinning like a perfectly smooth millstone she enjoyed far less.

“You are sure it will not hurt?” she asked, for the… eighth time, or so.

Eihks made a rumbling rock-clacking throat sound of mirth, which was infinitely preferable to the racket he’d given off earlier.

“It’ll be completely painless after I apply the anesthetic,” he repeated, for the… eighth time, or so. He was looking her up and down, and holding a small familiar-looking box shape in one hand. Ever since he’d apparently pulled it out of thin air, she’d been making very surreptitious comparisons with the object from which she was hearing part of his speech. She noticed first that they were identical, and second that it was indeed submerged in his flesh up to the halfway point.

“Now, it won’t be comfortable,” he added, again. “If we had a comprehensive analysis of your people’s brain structure, I could arrange a simple tactile blocker in the appropriate quadrant to keep you from feeling anything, but that hasn’t happened yet and so I can’t.”

“Why not?” she replied.

He stopped glancing over her laid-out form and met her gaze, fuzzy lines above his eyes swishing around.

“Because we need permission to legally do that,” he said. “In the nearly impossible eventuality that you get hurt as a result, it might conceivably be fatal. We don’t take those sorts of things lightly.”

Holding up the little box before one eye and looking at her neck with the other, he added, “Do I have permission to make an analysis of your brain structure, by the by? You’ll be the first Gegaunli karkshesh to get examined. I can probably make that blocker for you partway through the process and save you from some discomfort.”

The advisory “might conceivably be fatal” ran through her mind. The seductive “you’ll be the first” ran counter to it. The former won out when they collided.

“No. You do not.”

Eihks made his lips curve down once more.

“If it’s about the concern of your safety, rest assured that the odds are negligible and-”

“I am not interested in the odds.”

“Ay-ugh. Fine. Have it your way. It’s far less dangerous to you than some of the things I do on a regular basis.”

“That being proven or disproven can wait until a later time,” she bit out.

Eihks held the little boxy shape aloft, by the edge of the bench, and it started floating once he took his hand away.

“Remind me why this is necessary,” she asked, several quiet heartbeats later.

“Because, while having a full and complete life is entirely feasible without a cerv-mesh, it isn’t feasible to go exploring as I do without one. There are stop-gap measures and substitute or temporary meshes, but they don’t perform nearly as well as, or have the sheer durability of, one of these. Also, they fundamentally lack some crucial features of the genuine article.”

Fear-instinct told her that it was in her best interest to strike down the floating box. The fact that she saw Eihks walking around with one in himself, showing nothing she could identify as ill effects, argued against fear. In favor of it stood the fact that she didn’t have a clue how much of her confidence in Eihks’s well-adjusted nature was due to his exhibiting a very poorly grasped medical condition. She avoided taking a swing at the little metal block, but she convinced herself to feel very bothered about it.

“Preparing anesthetic,” Eihks said. A tall dark metal prong folded out of the edge of the table, and it snapped eight or nine additional joints into view. At the end appeared a rounded chevron prism, which broke and re-formed numerous times in quick succession.

“Why, exactly, do you call it a convenience to get this cerv-mesh put in me?” she asked, resuming her original line of inquiry. She very distinctly didn’t watch the arm as its flexion brought it directly over her neck. She made an effort to distract herself from the way it silently settled on her skin, a small lukewarm animal which might be either beautiful or parasitic.

“Not the provision of the cerv-mesh as much as becoming an… officially recognized dweller of Rhaagm,” Eihks mused, then his nasal projection grew wrinkled. “Sorry, but you don’t have a word for the idea, as far as I know. ‘Taking up residence in a nation as a member of its populace with particular inherent privileges.’ Not that having a cerv-mesh is a detriment to the process; oh, no.”

He turned away from her, and she got the distinct impression that he was trying to put her at ease by not paying attention to the arm either. A small bubble of resentment at the patronizing accommodation cohered inside her.

“It’s quite hard to become a member of the city’s community in that way, under normal circumstances. You need a person who is willing to… I suppose you’d say put their own dwellership up as collateral. That’s one possibility. Another involves paying an obscene amount of currency. Most of the other methods either require you to understand the politics of Rhaagm very well, or a tremendous amount of waiting. You’ve bypassed a lot of those issues.”

That rocky noise again, harder and lower. Lips snapped open like ropes fraying apart.

“And all you had to do was-”

Hands, waving.

“Never mind, we’ve been over that. Just know that while it can’t be categorically compared to what you’ve endured, it’s compensation that many a person might envy. If someone says something to that effect, I ask you to assume they’re ignorant rather than malicious.”

He paused.

“Now, you’re sure you want to give this lifestyle a try?” he pressed.



“Alright. Applying.”

Cool even dampness ran over a patch of Ktsn’s skin, and the region seemed to be lifted straight from her body by smooth clawless child’s digits.

“There, do you feel a prodding?” Eihks asked, drawing closer. His head got right next to her eye, and his arm reached over her, doing something.

“Feel a what?”

“Ah, no. Good.”

He leaned back, and dragged a seat toward him along the floor with one of his feet, hooking a supporting upright without losing balance and falling. She wasn’t used to the bizarre fusion of capability and ineptitude showcased by the bipedal form. She wasn’t sure if she ever would get used to it.

“Now, let’s go over the benefits of this arrangement,” he said.

“It will allow me to explore the… gem, like you do.”

The thought of a limitless cascade of “facets,” where each place and its contents might be quite like her old home, and might be inconceivably unlike her old home, transported her to a differently unsettling mindscape. Just a bit.

“Perfectly correct, but you need to know a bit more of the gory minutiae than that. This is a big personal investment you’re about to make; body piercing with a major difference, if you will. I know how much of a change that can be, so I ask your patience.”

Ktsn grunted.

“Very well,” she conceded.

One hand rose, sprouting five little pillars of pale flesh. Four of them folded into the palm.

“First, though not necessarily most important, is that you will gain a virtual presence in the city and the places which are partnered with it. Buying, selling, communicating, traveling, identifying yourself, and generally interacting with the world around you is still possible without such a measure. However, it’s only a minority of people who choose quite that degree of privation in their lifestyle. It would be hard, tedious, and vexing for you in the long term.”

He put up another digit.

“Second, you have the ability to learn like myself. You can literally put knowledge straight into your head without the need to digest it through reading or listening or any other form of sensory intake.”

Ktsn wasn’t quite sure how she should feel about that.

“I enjoy the process of educating myself as much as the outcome,” she eventually muttered.

“I as well! It’s just that, for some subject matter, the process will take an extraordinary amount of time. In some cases it’s beneficial to speed things up.”

When she gave a skeptical look, he added, “This feature isn’t something you’re required to use; none of these benefits are forced upon you unconditionally. It will just exist as an option.”

When he raised the third digit, he tapped the back of his neck.

“Related to those: you’ll gain the capacity to access, make, and do things with utilities of all sorts. Case in point: my volunteer work means that I need to understand your language. Even if only as an uncouth hick. But do note, just because I comprehend how the word ‘wilderness’ is formulated doesn’t mean I inherently have the ability to say it flawlessly.”

He repeated the bisyllabic word slowly.

“You hear that at the end, where my mesh takes up part of the enunciation? That’s because I only have one tongue. I get mental guidance and persuasion regarding how the mouth and other oral components should be shaped, and if I comply with that guidance then you get speech such as this. However, I’ve got literally only half the glottal tooling needed for some phrases you use. In cases that need more assistance, a different utility can take over for filling in the stuff that’s impossible to correctly construct otherwise. Like I said: cheating.”

Against her own better judgment, the farmer felt herself getting sucked into the ethereal realm of speculation. How did one simulate the use of a second tongue in its essentials? Was it part of this unusual-sounding technique for communication that gave Eihks his strangely spiced accent, or was that his “real” voice?

“Fourth,” he said, nagging and tugging her back to the moment at hand, “is what you can think of as a net of subconscious bits and pieces all working in concert to keep you alive; a special type of ‘tuning mechanism’ that we call a skein. This one is incredibly important, keeping things consistent. The essential rules of the universe, things like how an object falls when it’s no longer supported, or the way putting a flame to wood makes that wood catch flame as well, aren’t as unconditional as you might think. Not an idea that’s immediately easy for everyone to get, so let’s go over an example. You have blood in your body, and – for some reason – you probably want it to stay in your body. Imagine, however, that the ideas of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ suddenly stop being mutually exclusive when applied in the same frame of reference, and that your blood might just arbitrarily exit your veins.”

There wasn’t the slightest hint of levity in him now.

“What your cerv-mesh will do is keep you in a little you-shaped bubble, where (even if everything else around you stops behaving sensibly as you understand the concept) you can be confident that you will stay the you you’re used to being. You can put food in your mouth and eat it, but also keep your blood from deciding it’s had enough of you and wandering off.”

Reeling as she whipped about on fantastic mental vectors, she almost missed it when his thumb crooked out.

“Last, and somewhat variably useful, is an amount of protection against ‘interruption,’ as we euphemistically put it. It’s difficult to describe in some ways. In essence… we can preserve your spirit, your person, if your body dies – under certain circumstances. At other times, we can create a person that thinks it’s you, and acts pretty much like you.”

Complete breakdown of comprehension.

“I am afraid that I do not understand that in even the slightest.”

“Can’t say that’s an enormous surprise. That will hopefully be remediated soon.”

He pushed his seat back just a smidge, and turned to look over the rest of the room. Distraction? Probably not.

“There’s also something you can apply to receive, which doesn’t come standard with a mesh. The term probably translates best as ‘spirit group’ in your language. But you’ll be able to learn more about that later, if you want – along with the basics of interruption, and anything else that takes your fancy. For now, let’s deal with your procedure.”

Before she could request clarification, a fat wide band of something leapt out of the bench just ahead of her rear legs. The same happened almost concurrently behind her front legs. Several more straps extruded, wrapping her in a way that distributed the strain very evenly. She wasn’t exactly in distress just yet, but moving anything besides her arms, ankles, ears, and eyes had become flat-out impossible.

“RRRRRRR!” she chastised.

“I’m aware,” Eihks responded. “Allow me to put it this way, though. A burr hole is going to be sunk through your spine, at the end of a canal going through your skin and muscle tissue. Because of the fact that the slightest deviation could put it through a very different and very detrimental part of your anatomy, the restraints are necessary until the hole is bored. There are alternate methods that don’t require surgery, but they aren’t as reliable.”

“RRRRRRR?” she demanded.

There was a short rasping, a sound like metal having a rapid whispered argument with flint, and then the bands holding her down vanished.

“Right now,” said Eihks. His eyes had slanted down, and his arms were thrown one over the other in front of his middle. It was an expression that seemed to hide much.

Ktsn groped around her neck, feeling for the point where, on the highlegs side, she’d had the anesthetic applied.

A simple featureless rectangle of metal, at precisely body temperature, greeted her touch. Around it, the flesh was flush and whole and unblemished. It had no more indication of being something other than her than any successful tree graft she’d performed.

“You’re one of us now,” he said.

She was so thrilled.

She was so enraged.

She would have been several other things as well, but the sudden and unheralded feeling of her nervous system’s tributaries rapidly getting chemically altered put a damper on anything so taxing.

Eihks later explained that the affected anatomy had been converted to a material which – thanks to her cerv-mesh’s influence – possessed nearly identical function and form to the stuff composing her neural tissue. The most significant difference was that a track of sorts had been laid from motor to sensory to interneuron, all the way up and down, for her cerv-mesh to pass and receive signals as well as act in the role of supporting scaffold.

At the time, all Ktsn knew was that fooling around with the very components that let one feel in the first place was a sensation she had little to no chance of adequately describing beyond “unpleasant.”

It took half a heartbeat, and the invasion of the strange material was very distinct. The whole time, in fact, she could identify precisely where the conversion was happening, what tissues were next to be affected, and how each miniscule portion connected back to the root of herself. If she’d been standing before, it would have brought her down immediately.

“Excellent,” the human said, a hundred thousand body-lengths away and a lifetime later. “You’ve got the system’s interfaces and core up and rolling. The only thing left is setup for information management. Take it easy. Let me know when you’re ready for the next part.”

Ktsn couldn’t keep the pads of her fingers from running over the sides of the mesh’s box. They quavered just a little.

She had been expecting a little influx of… something. A trickle of awareness flowing into her, like the opposite of how dream-stuff often leaked from the mind of the awoken sleeper. Maybe some kind of tension as her muscles began squeezing and relaxing without her direction. If that was actually happening, though, it was slow enough she couldn’t notice. She didn’t feel any presence or absence of energy. Her bodily differences, in fact, seemed barely even academic – let alone practically impactful.

“The next part being what?” she asked, eyes unfocused.

Eihks leaned against the wall, legs crossed in a way that should have guaranteed his falling to the ground.

“Turning it on, of course.”

“And I suppose that you need my permission to see that gets done.”

“In your case? I absolutely think you ought to have the right to confirm or deny continuation of your procedure.”

Ktsn felt increasingly dubious about her wisdom in trusting both of the humans she’d lavished with her benefit-of-the-doubt. For the first time, astoundingly, it occurred that everything she’d experienced for the last “day” might be an injured brain’s attempt to make sense of the world around her. 

Thinking back on Thomas, though, stamped that contemplation flat.

“Then get it finished,” the woman replied, sulky and ready to be done with the whole affair.

A… something overtook her, without warning or quarter.

The sensation she suddenly found herself hosting was one that she best described as “thinking someone else’s thoughts.” A little voice skittered down into her from elsewhere, and scurried around the inside of her skull.

{Hello!} said the voice. It had a jagged perfectly imperfect quality, faintly reverberating and bell-like. It was directed at a certain place in her neck, she determined. It wasn’t something that she actually heard, but that was the closest analogy she could find. It resembled her own voice, as much as it was an actual sound.

Her mental pelt started rising all over.

{My name is Xelat,} the voice added. {I am here to serve. This should not take particularly long.}

Abruptly, Ktsn found a portion of her mind being prodded and stimulated. With a start, she realized that portion had gotten loose, and that thinking in just such a way – following the example of the intruder – she managed to “vocalize” in the same fashion.

{What are you?} she asked, and her own emission had the same phantasmal air.

{Why, I am a helper,} responded… Xelat. {As that implies, I am here to help you.}

The fact that there was no accompanying visual, no sign at all of the creature’s intelligence besides the voice, gave her a tremendous mental dissociation. It was like Taralngegeshet had decided to play a prank upon her, and she couldn’t deduce what might take the woeful burden of unwanted unholy attention away.

{What manner of being are you, Xelat?}

A small tangle of silence, floating into the river of words.

{Your language does not possess a truly isomorphic term; you might consider me a “vision.” You, however, do not yet have the wisdom that is the language of Rhaagm. One matter with which I shall assist you is that of the linguistic persuasion. Most of the rest, in all honesty, is stuff you should not need to contemplate, beyond how you plan to use it.}

{Wait, what do you mean?}


Then Ktsn received the very first download of content to her cerv-mesh.

A brain-bending influx, a priori of impossible proportions, a suffocation of syllablery and science and strange knowledge. Words like “toast,” and “love,” and “demagogue,” and “thaumaturgy,” and “table,” and “concatenation,” and “stipp,” and “reading,” and “simony,” and “foot,” and “holy,” and “untouched,” and “birth.”

The knowledge retreated as quickly as it arrived, into the back of the new annex to her mind. It crept deep down the well of the cerv-mesh, hiding away until the moment it was needed by its possessor. The acquisition of a lexicon’s sensibilities, and the emotional charge or sterility of a many-pointed verbal constellation’s stars, left her feeling not drained, but electrocuted.

{There you go! Allow me to clean up, and I shall vacate the premises.}

If her experience thus far had been getting drawn into a dark alien room of the house-of-the-mind, it was as though Xelat briefly illuminated features of the dark room in simply passing close by. Ktsn perceived the strange exotic directions the entity moved with some difficulty. Each time she grasped the existence of another odd feature of her augmented mind, she found it impossible to do anything besides identify it as yet another imponderable, and get carried along for the ride.

{What is all of this?} she demanded, swishing here and there around the cavity of thought, and catching blurred synesthetic glimpses.

{These are functions of your mesh’s core library!} the sound-sight-thought of a rapidly moving Xelat said, in the brief moment before fleeing amid the gewgaws. {Here is an uncompression feature for opening large deliverables! This is your socket for connecting to the Monolith! This is your folding suite, and related simplex mechanisms, as well as room for expanding into more extensive features-}

As each facility was detailed, a flush of overarching awareness suffused her, spiraling away almost immediately and leaving greasy indelible dregs. Things were going into and out of the sanctum of her mind, and she couldn’t stand it. It was precisely the sort of violation that she’d feared. Insidious tendrils chiseled all the way down to the bedrock of will, much the same as she’d heard was supposed to accompany Gegaunli’s fervor – and no tangible guarantee that her will would remain inviolate.

{ENOUGH!} she shrieked at the entity. {Leave this place now!}

Her psyche fluctuated with a pulse of outrage, and Xelat seemed to stagger. In a moment of inspiration, Ktsn noticed that she was actually thrusting her thoughts with daggerlike purpose. She directed that onslaught at the alien presence.

{Alright! I shall leave this place now, Your Grace!} the thing replied, with a bite of surprised vitriol. An envelope of light-silence-tautology enveloped the entity and blotted out a portion of her mind for an instant.

Then the temple of her selfhood was left to her and her alone.

As her brain rose to wobbling mind-feet, she understood that her experience had elapsed over no more than an eighth of a breath – if that long. Now, she’d been invaded and changed, and it made her uncertain if she ought to expect yet more changes presently.

“Hello! Ktsn! I’m here if you need me.”

The human’s three-step approach brought her gaze snapping to his face. His teeth almost split his head in half, and he crouched next to her. One hand held out, with the other held to one side where she couldn’t see it.

Something was off, but what that actually was lay momentarily beyond her comprehension.

“Do you want to try standing?” he asked.

“Not just yet.”

The teeth stretched out, and the human’s eyes sparkled with some strange inner light.

“I’m so happy to hear that,” he declared.

“That being – Xelat – whatever it was, did things in my head,” she growled.

Eihks blinked.

“Well, yes; I did say that information management still needed to get implemented. I asked Xelat to do the necessary setting-up.”

There were quite a few unanswered questions.

“Look,” said Eihks, gentle-voiced and slow-spoken. “You weren’t in danger. I’ve never had anything bad happen to me (unpleasant, maybe, but not bad) from the assistance of an eidolon.”

That last strange word was when it struck her: whatever she was speaking, it wasn’t the common tongue she’d known all her life. She was thinking about what she wanted to say, and it felt like her mouth had a… transparent image of feeling, something guiding her about which muscles moved where. With some difficulty, she managed to mouth the words that she’d grown up saying; using the word for “strange” that her dear mother had taught her, instead of the term she’d learned all of a handful of heartbeats prior.

“You’ve got a bit more of an accent than most people possess, as things stand,” Eihks remarked as he took a step away from the bench, putting his hands on his hips. “But that’ll go away in time. I’ll try to give you warning if something equally unpleasant might happen to you in future; yes?”

Grudging tolerant acceptance.

She’d been advised by Thomas the Librarian to not distrust this man; yet she found herself hard-pressed to be anything else. On the whole, he might have been the most reliable route available to her future self; that didn’t make him an unconditionally good choice.

She slowly brought herself back to a part-raised position, glassy-eyed and dazed, then rose.

She’d knelt as a stranger to the city, and now she rose a stranger to herself.

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