“Have confidence that your travel will serve a purpose, and that the strange land you leave behind will not die in your absence.”-Unofficial motto of Yrdky’s Fountainists, in the late thirtieth age
“So what would two taps mean?”
“So only three taps or more?”
“That is foolish!”
Both of them managed to keep a brisk unbroken pace up the pathless countryside toward the village. The ease of her stride on this alien globe came as something of a relief, initially. It might have made the journey to their destination a thing of leisure. Conspiracy between the cookpot heat, the additional insistence on talking, and aggravation managed to turn leisurely into lamentable.
“It prevents miscommunication,” Eihks told her.
He didn’t need it for actual walking, but he’d drawn forth a length of sevenfold wood from his belongings, and extended it so that it became a crook or something. The magnificently ugly wood terminated in a carved loop, threaded by smooth thick rope that wound lengthwise around the staff multiple times. Knots kinked the rope in some doubtlessly important way, but what meaning it might have escaped her. The rope’s end constricted a dark scintillating oblong the size of Eihks’s hand, clearly weighty and swinging slightly despite its tight binding to the staff. The rope gave the implement the general impression of a yoke.
He’d insisted that he would use it to signal her and – if needed – defend her. Personally she’d just as soon have him provide her with a gun like he’d been showing her last night, and left the actual defending to the person who needed it.
“One tap is too easy to miss, or to falsely hear when stressed or listening hard. Similar for two, under the wrong circumstances. Consecutive numbers are too easy to mis-count as well. So: three taps means ‘I have things under control, situation is good’; five taps means ‘I am sorry, the situation is about to get very bad and get ready to protect yourself.’ Seven indicates ambiguity, such as inability to speak the language – after that, the signal to relax or escalate should be obvious.”
She moved in a haze, stiff and clench-fisted. Part of her posture was annoyance at Eihks’s lecturing. More came from frustration at the probable reception he’d outlined, and her role in it was more than passingly humiliating. A hot splash of unease as she reconstituted the sight of the actually-literally eviscerated animal, with him wearing its blood like a wader wears water. Her loaned understanding of “slivering” had more than enough depth to extrapolate possible dangers in the extremely rapid exchanging of two volumes. It was the sort of thing which far too easily could become deadly, even without some of her being designated as part of one of those volumes.
The incident with the gpsl nuson had showcased what he COULD do with a touch when he chose (and how he’d performed that feat was yet another unanswered question). That had been a scene in a painful play, whereas this was painfully real. It also faintly reassured her, that vision – if he’d ever wanted to simply do her harm, he hadn’t lacked the means. Unless he had a specific ritual and impenetrable motive in mind for maiming his companion, she was probably safe around him in that respect.
Of course, physical harm was not often the best mechanism by which to do someone ill – and that was another part of her present uneasiness.
Her guts wrenched when a distant curlique in the sky flapped after a fashion that could be neither missed nor ignored. Her self-control sufficed to keep her sling where it belonged and not in her hand.
While growing up, the Daephods had dealt with flying pests. These were small for the most part. The sorts of things that hid on the undersides of leaves and could fly into your eyes if you were inattentive. The biggest thing that she’d ever seen take flight could still have fit inside her jaws if she wanted (eugh) to bite down on it.
Ever since she’d learned what a “bird” was yesterday, after that incident of psionic assault at Eihks’s domicile… well. It was enough to make a person paranoid of all things that flew.
The winged sky-animal fluttered rapidly as it descended toward a cluster of what were apparently trees.
Her curious side groaned in disappointment. Her worried side relaxed the tiniest amount.
“I said I won’t make you,” Eihks continued, and she flinched. “That doesn’t mean that I won’t seriously recommend accepting a sub-kernel if it proves I actually speak the lingo.”
“I am not interested,” she reiterated, recovering herself. “I am already dependent upon you for the ability to get to and from this portion of reality. It does not seem a great deprivation, comparatively speaking, to be unable to comprehend the spoken language.”
Bristly, bristly. She couldn’t quite help herself.
“Especially not given that I am a ‘dumb beast of burden,’” she added with venom, and resolutely focused on the decreasingly distant but still indistinct buildings.
“If you wish to understand what’s being said – a fairly important component of any cooperat-”
“I am not supposed to SPEAK, am I?” she replied.
There was a sigh. The staff swept out expansively, its rope veins swinging and eliciting tiny whispers where they rubbed the hinges holding it together.
“Not until we confer in private at some point… and I give you the confirmation that things support your moment of revelation, as it were.”
Claws rattled, not quite despite herself.
No, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to goad him, but she still did it.
Eihks made a particularly intentional stamp in the fieldgrass using the end of his staff.
“As I said, if we find out that multiple intelligent species people this planet, there shouldn’t be a problem with you being yourself,” he grumbled. “Until then, as I also said, I will not gainsay people who assume you’re a simple animal. I won’t confirm or encourage such thoughts either, though. You are very specifically my ‘companion’ – which is absolutely true. That’s the literal truth, however creatively bent.”
A deliberately patient, placid edge rocked over several of his syllables, as though they were boats about to be upturned.
“Anyway, your pardon for the next couple of minutes if things seem… odd. I’ll be trying to get in character again for a role I’ve used in the past. You probably won’t detect much of a difference immediately. Here’s the story: you and I come from a distant land. I happen to be a threadbare hard-dealing trader who’s no longer in possession of any goods, but who’s been a journeyman practitioner at just about everything. Looking for work of almost any kind, and if the people here would be so generous, work of almost any kind is what I’ll accept on your behalf and mine. Again, all of it true.”
The boats got a little water slopped over their gunwales that time.
“‘Almost any kind’ sounds open-ended.”
“The clandestine is to be avoided. The flesh trade, the sticky-handed trade, the blood trade, anything of that type. I’m willing to make parts of the world a worse place if more parts of it are immediately made better; ease of profit isn’t enough reason.”
Ktsn felt her small bulb of respect swell up, though not by terribly much.
“I would like to know the end goal here, if you please,” she said.
“Of our initial introduction to these people? Hopefully – ideally – we’ll not only get the chance to integrate ourselves into their social structure in some innocuous but vaguely profitable way, we’ll have you contributing as an explicit equal rather than an implicit behind-doors one. That will help get us into place to do some long-term good by contributing to this culture.”
“No,” Ktsn grated, struggling to put her thoughts in order. “I mean, what is the end goal of our stay at this facet? Do you produce a particular quantity of media, and then we leave? Do we have to visit particular places? Perform particular chores?”
Eihks gave what she’d come to recognize as a chuckle, deep down and rapidly rising.
“It’s funny that you ask that question, because I’ve been asked variations of it by a plentitude of interviewers. Not once, though, have I put it into words beyond very brief illustrations. Hmmm.”
A kick of a small rock.
“The answer is that it differs from place to place.”
He looked down and sideways. When he spoke again, his diction had sped up. Syllables almost bumped against each other within the cage of each word.
“The duration and nature of our stay, to put it simply, is ‘that which successfully results in material usable for an average member of the extrafacetary public as a general guide.’ More specifically, we also need to try and take special note of anything which could pose dangers or complications for my countrymen. Those are now your countrymen as well, of course. We start small, local-scale, and work outward from that.”
The end of the staff found a muddy spot, and sank past the first joint. Eihks slowed a moment, wiggling the thing, and then it came free with a ghastly suck.
“Let’s approach it like so,” he said. “When I showed you that earlier work of mine, that took place on a planet which didn’t have any reason for me to immediately suspect intelligent life. On the production side of my project, it went like the following. Ahem.”
His hands began flapping about, fingers dragging and pushing intangibles.
“Arrival and assessment of the facet’s wider-scale dangers. Is the planet tectonically stable? Is there going to be some kind of meteorological extinction? Are hostile entities preparing an orbital kinetic bombardment of the globe? No, nothing of that kind is evident. Good. Now, to the more immediate concerns of what might be useful in a survivalist context. Food, reliable source of water, tools. Safe harbor from the weather. Find these things in their rudest form, secure them.”
That compacted cadence in his speech continued, becoming more self-sustaining and polished.
“The primary activity then becomes a game of observation, with a gradually-increasing circle of focus. What is the most interesting element of the environment? If there is evidence of sentient residence, that immediately jumps to the top of the list.”
The staff slowed, and its owner hung off of it like a curious fungus for a short spell, looking at her with those eyes slitted.
“Always, always, always consider thinking beings as the top rung of your priority ladder. Where they exist, they will be the biggest boons, the biggest hindrances, the biggest variables of any scheme or design in which they play a part. In many cases, they’re also the biggest dangers.”
“So these people should represent a major shift in your plans of how to go about the exploratory process.”
“Yes. Anyway, as pertains to the adventure I was showing you before. Several run-ins with decidedly feral life later, things became more clear. I was dealing with an array of ecosystems that had multiple complex tiers. A bit more digging failed to turn up anything like instances of fluctuating particle-interacting fields in the facet’s design. No need to worry about gravity suddenly going soft and letting me float off into the atmosphere. No concern over whether I’d step into the wrong pocket of space and combust.”
A sustained rustle as they both stamped across a mat of dead grass and live mud.
“And now, today, we have people. Something for the very top of our list of possible problems.”
“Very well,” she eventually huffed. “I would like to know what the plan is before we catch the rugfos out of its den, so to speak.”
“Our plan, simply put, is to get ourselves into good company, and try to integrate with said good company.”
The staff pointed.
“That good company.”
He brushed off a couple of insects as they landed on his sleeve.
“Then we’ll investigate whatever cultural matrix they’ve got established. Seek employment. Find a good starting fit for out-of-town strangers: physical labor or errand running, most likely.”
“I mean, what specific actions are we going to take after that first step of meeting?”
They straddled a thin creek, as the wind snapped through the surrounding leaves and culms again.
“To put it briefly, we’re going to play things by ear.”
“That is stupid and irresponsible.”
Eihks completely halted, and turned toward her. He crouched a bit, so their eyes lay on a level.
“Do you know what?” he asked, soft and earnest. “If you EVER feel that that’s the case, I beg you to let me know.”
After a short and uncomfortable pause, he stood, and they continued. They paced themselves less to gobble up the distance, and more to slowly chew through it with an appreciative tasting.
“There are too many variables to count with these kinds of expeditions. Coming up with a grand-scale stratagem is possible, and I’ve laid out the skin of a plan I’ve used before. But for practical purposes, the best courses tend to emphasize flexibility. Shadows rather than objects, if you will.”
“… I still say we ought to take the time and draw up some more detailed plans for bad eventualities,” Ktsn grumbled.
“It is good to have a certain amount of detail, yes. Too much, though, and you’re wasting time. If you care to come up with a list of every possible way things might go wrong without warning, dear Ktsn, I promise I’ll buy you your own gemship. Keep the worrying down a bit for now. Remember: I’m a professional.”
Those jumbled-looking teeth bared themselves again, then hid as their owner looked ahead.
“Not to cut things short, but we’re coming up on a patrol or something, I think. We can talk later. Remember, five taps means danger, and you probably need to run like mad.”
He quickly rapped out a demonstrative rhythm on a rock. Five very fast taps.
Before she could ask what he meant by “patrol,” a shout came from behind a particularly thick bamboo stand. Suddenly, six figures flowed with graceful skill out of the uprights, barely disturbing the screen of stalks. They were either human or so close as to make the difference indistinguishable. Dark fluffy hair adorned several faces and covered most heads.
The polished polearms they carried were used to vault them directly into the pair’s path.
Five people kept what seemed to be an ambivalent distance. The sixth was skinny and green-clothed and bore long stringy plaits of muscle, and delivered to the aliens what was obviously a challenge. It was a babbling gibberish, filled with clicks and hums from one end to the other.
Eihks leaned on his walking aid, gesturing at the group, at himself, at Ktsn. He made several elaborate signs. Either they meant nothing to this crowd or they had more important matters on their minds.
The presumed leader – presumably male – said something spiced with concern. He lowered the tip of his spear, and Ktsn saw that the end of his pole wore an intricate metallic cage. Inside the cage floated a glassy globule.
An intentional shift of the weapon, and she felt herself restraining the urge to charge as a transparent spike snapped out of the end of the cage. It was a feeling which doubled when she began to suspect that the spike – as well as a small whiplike coil dangling at the owner’s waist – was, in fact, water.
Another exclamation from the leader when Eihks straightened up. Almost immediately, the transparent point of the leader’s spear pulled back as though for a toss. Ktsn really, really realized for the first time that he was tall not only to herself, but also other similar-species bipeds.
The others rustled around among each other, and several of their weapons also bared their teeth when the man said something else: an ultimatum, if she wasn’t mistaken.
Finally, her companion ventured a phrase that had vaguely similar phonetic features. Slow and awkward, maybe, but comparable.
The leader looked Eihks up and down, and her as well. He spent a LONG time looking at her, but every few breaths he looked back at her human co-traveler.
Mr. Leader spoke more slowly this time, letting his spear relax forward just a bit. A quiet slightly garbled addendum washed out of the crowd. Eihks replied with ponderous gravid care, a couple of mashed-up words or word fragments at a time.
Meanwhile, so quiet that she almost missed it, three downward pokes of his ugly staff’s end. Three, and no more.
That transparent point disappeared from the leader’s weapon’s tip, though the pole still menaced her companion in a lesser bludgeoning occupation.
She supposed that that was to be expected, on reflection. They were two strange persons who had showed up with their bottom halves covered in a still-wet coating of blood.
The six humans looked at the two of them, obviously thinking hard, before one pointed at them then pointed back at the better-defined shapes of the village’s buildings.
Eihks said something indistinct, then waved at Ktsn.
Gegaunli uplift my bones, protect me from Taralngegeshet’s intercession, and see me well tomorrow.
She looked at the waving hand, looked beyond it, and went along after its owner.
As she began to pick up her pace, she consulted the sky once again.
As she felt earth under her feet, she thought of Cursog, briefly and with nostalgia.
As she heard the babbling voices of the newer humans, she looked behind one last time at the place where she’d survived an ordeal.
As she turned her attention to Eihks’s strident tone, she contemplated their path toward civilization, and – even if only with the detached part of her mind – made a decision.
Take the future one day at a time.
She did spy a particularly florid natural bouquet of bamboo by the side of the road just as she was getting up to speed, and slowed for a second. Claws scratched up a dirty clod-covered branch, decorated with little fronds. She made it disappear into her bag.
Most of the others nearby didn’t. Ktsn, in turn, didn’t see the faint smile cracking a certain explorer’s face.