The Urge Odyssean

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“During his earliest years, he saw the world through a lens shaped by Ast; both the facet and its residents, though mostly informed by post-Aiden history. The people originally hailing from Ast went through many trials, and those trials had a lot of Pyrrhic victories. Thanks to their magic, we have much firmer underpinnings for what it means to be sentient, as well as Ullos containers and all sorts of other innovations. Thanks to Aidenism, philosophers will be debating the nuances and types of ‘peace’ from now until the end of language – and probably twice as hotly as before. Are the sacrifices and suffering they survived a worthwhile exchange? An interesting question, and who knows the answer? But they had an adventure, those long-ago humans and naufers and executioners and assassins and aaneds… and it would be an unkindness to let that adventure go to waste.”

-An Overview of Young Yrdkish Polity: Examinations of Lord Harrison O’Casey’s Memoirs

Procrastinating on uncomfortable talks was a point of occasional great weakness.

Eihks scratched out another line and jotted down a sum. While so doing, he toyed with a pile of sticks normally used for calculations by the capital’s arithmeticians. He didn’t need them; he’d totaled the figures for the whole ledger in his head shortly after opening it. It would have been awkward to go into full detail about the “strange body jewelry” adorning his and Ktsn’s necks, though, and explain what it meant to have distributed permanent externally stored memory.

Ktsn sneezed as she reached into a dusty crate and picked up something between a hammer and a tuning fork. Eihks hid multiple chuckles as, cleaning it, she continued to periodically summon off-white puffs of malice. Each was met with a four-nostril volley.

As he turned over one of the painted sticks, he sized up the rest of the table, frowned, and placed it. Another joined it, and another. It was a neat system they used in this country, like if the abacus had a baby with children’s building blocks. It only became a problem if someone jostled the table and knocked down your tower.

He crowned the tower, and thought it looked a bit like a castle.

Actually, that was appropriate. He made a quick shift to how the sticks stood, and added a couple of little palisades.

Castle one – Fanlil. A nation where a person had value less as an autonomous well-rounded individual, and more as a drone with skills honed to a bleeding edge in a particular industry.

He walked another stick across his fingers. It wobbled into place a short distance from the first tower, being joined by a couple more sticks, then yet another when he had to carry a one. It quickly gained a curtain wall.

Castle two – Dōdielnan. A nation where the citizenry regularly experienced the beauty and chaos of choice, without the same level of strict guidance.

Each, a structure grown organically from necessity.

Fanlil’s whole socioeconomic contract shaped their inner workings in a fashion reminiscent of a multicellular organism. Those with agile hands should be weavers or stenographers. Those with strong legs should be porters and couriers and fieldhands. Don’t overtax the workers to the point they become fatigued for extended periods, don’t underfeed them, give them the basics of dignity even if they aren’t lavished with praise or pay. Whole echelons of coordinators had sprung up with the skills to solve the linear programs and min-maxing problems these situations bred at all scales and levels. The nation’s administrators represented the highest and most accomplished of those coordinators.

Dōdielnan enjoyed fruits of labor grown in a different sort of orchard. It was a machine with far more modularity. Higher levels of literacy – percentages weren’t clear yet, but suggestions put it on par with many fully industrialized human civilizations – meant you could count on reading and writing ability more frequently. You could delegate more complex and vital tasks. You could have someone like Fonlat write up her own expenses and manage inventory without having to hire specialized assistants at profit-gouging rates. However, her industriousness would prove subpar compared to a professional clerk. An opportunity cost of proficiency for flexibility.

Two notably different structures.

Eihks stopped placing sticks on his little stick tower bastion fort castle when Fonlat tamped down another document. More work requests. They threw off his rolling average, so he scratched out the figures he’d assembled, and adjusted the final numbers. More sticks, starting another structure.

Then he mentally reread the material he’d just seen, and let his cheeks billow out. Go back, prorate the prices and rates based on time, and THEN assess the cost-benefit balance. Get your head in the game. He scrapped the new stick thing and gave one of the castles another floor.

They’d been pulling in a massive amount of business. Fonlat did the lion’s share, Eihks lightened the load where tasks were simple and repetitive, and – after she’d recently shown some of her whittling skills – Ktsn had begun contributing where finicky bits depended on skill rather than style. That made their current orders feasible to complete, but they were still piling up quite the work backlog. A backlog long enough that it stretched into administrative territory misty with temporal distance.

“We don’t have any ordering for filing these jobs, aside from name and the time of the request, do we?” he asked, with half his brain.

He held up the document Fonlat had just set down. The mostly-completed tabulations before him sat next to a catawampus stack. He’d been insert-sorting them by date, but the collection would prove ornery to properly manage if it got much larger.

“How else would they be organized?”

“I don’t know, expected duration of work? Alphabetically?”

He waved the flimsy more vigorously.

“I’m just asking.”

“Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s fine like that.”


Another scratched set of numbers.

“Wait,” Fonlat said, half-kneeling and combing over a hard leather tool caddy while skimming a receipt whose script put legal-document flourishes and serifs to shame. “Hand me that dead-water knife on the side table.”

“This one?” Eihk asked, grabbing for a long implement with a billhook curve to it. The sawteeth had a weird helical twist, difficult to pick out on the see-through medium.

“The thing that’ll bite off your whole hand if you pick it up wrong. Yes, that one.”

He flipped it around on its long axis, caught it carefully on the flat, and extended the grip.

The woman stared at his hand, then his face, before finally grunting, “I didn’t think a simple trader could disable an armed man by flinging knives at him, or do… other things. I still don’t.”

She took the odd blade.

“But maybe it’s best to let sleeping hounds lie. You don’t ask about my young days, when I was called another name and helped flush out poachers down South; I don’t ask about unusual skills.”

“I thought you could reshape living-water and dead-water,” Eihks commented, very intent on moving their discussion to someplace less personally chafing. “Can’t you just…?”

He waved a hand.

“I’m not exactly capable with this magic myself, but even so it seems like you could reshape it.”


He grew a curious frown when Fonlat waved the thing in his direction.

“Shows what you know. Dead-water is hard, but it’s not all made equal. Most of my tools you’ve seen are permanent dead-water, rather than the normal stuff you’ll see other people use. Can’t shift it around or turn it back into living-water, but it’s harder, as well as solid enough to go right through an entire tree if you use it right.”

Eihks looked at the blade with an academic’s interest, assessing it with a thaumometric utility. The Hiek machine governing the knife’s behavior had almost identical makeup compared to what he’d seen with dead-water before. A few identifiers stood out, all of which were also features where living-water and “normal” dead-water differed. Maybe a one-and-done material alchemy of some kind?

Unfortunately, one apparently had to be a living thing in order to attain fullest proficiency at the subgenre. He would settle for taking his equipment’s word for it, rather than experimenting.

“Fascinating,” he said, with full honesty.

After a minute, he got back to his clerical work, and the work of figuring out how to broach the subject of his recent surveillance shenanigans.

His efforts got sidetracked when a nimble oil-slick flowed over beside him and flopped over to expose a streamlined, uncleaned underside. It was an almost comically canine mannerism.

“No, Tassy, later,” Eihks told the happily patient creature.

He pointed one of the sticks at her.

“Belly time later.”

Tassy didn’t move, but she stopped looking expectant and started looking relaxed.

After a moment, he considered the two castle stand-ins for neighboring countries.

It was funny. The ancestors of many of the current Fanlilite administrators were responsible for a massive creation – hardened against economic and social traumas, and whose weak points were made pathologically redundant. One of Goeyren’s forebears (some driven queen named Tehdhud, evidently) planted the seed of a violently self-capable culture. She’d instituted now-defunct tax-related encouragements toward becoming jacks-and-jills-of-all-trades, and that program’s effects led to citizens who were adequately capable of quite a lot.

Two very different ecosystems, both fallible – just with different locations for their points of structural failure.

As with any complex mechanism, no matter how strong or fully-planned its design might be, the perfectly wrong thing happening to the perfectly wrong part at the perfectly wrong time could prove disastrous. The more complicated the mechanism or the longer its period of service, the more catastrophic its collapse. Both of the mechanisms in question had been around for quite a while.

Knowing what he knew of history, knowing what he did of current events, Eihks suspected that either Dōdielnan or Fanlil or both would shortly be pushed to the brink of failure. Well, Eihks himself had survived a failure state recently, and maybe a nation could as well.

He smiled, opened his mouth, and started talking before his coward brain could try to negotiate him back from the edge.

“So, I learned something of import yesterday,” he announced, setting aside the weapons for warfare against ignorance. His hands folded before his face. A percussive thump as a dropped box caused the table to be jostled, and in turn caused the metaphorical Dōdielnan to fall literally apart. He strove to not stare at the dislodged sticks.

The ladies gave him their attention. Ktsn still held a very filthy box of something in her non-free hand. Fonlat’s jogging of papers came up short, and the circle of her face shrank on her skull. Tassy shifted just a bit, yawning so her tongue-things waggled at him. Seeing that nothing threatened her dear human, she resumed watching the door for new developments.

“There’s another person from elsewhere besides myself, Ktsn, and your mother,” he told Fonlat.

He replayed that statement in his head and almost spat out his teeth at how stupid it was.

“That’s to say, I ran across someone else who absolutely wasn’t born on this globe.”

In theory she might just have been someone who knew or learned how to use equipment that’s probably rated for surviving skirmishes in no-atmosphere microgravity. Then got access to such equipment. Which was labeled with one of the gem’s more common variants of English.

Hahaha no.

“How could you tell this?” Ktsn prodded.

“Because she was making use of some weaponry that was highly, highly radioactive.”

Ktsn got it, and the box started shaking and rattling against her claws.

“Imagine you had an incredibly hot fire stuck inside a box, and you could control it like an arrow, or even living-water, to harm your enemies,” Eihks said to an understandably flabbergasted Fonlat, “but every so often the box needs to be opened a bit to carefully let some of the fire out.”

He tapped his chin.

“And the fire’s invisible.”

Fonlat’s handsome visage hardened on weird laterals.

“How much have you been drinking?” the woodworker demanded, after examining Eihks’s face for tells.

“None. This is a science well-known to my people. I’m not exactly the best teacher on the subject, unfortunately, but I assure you it’s quite real.”

He paused to mull the issue. Yes, yes, the locals would probably eventually teach themselves the relevant gross chemistry and physics. Probably, they’d figure out that elemental decay meant tumors, which meant bad stuff. Unless something especially drastic happened, they’d make the connection logical to most humans and apply it in warfare. Maybe their hydrothaumaturgical industry could find significant applications in disposing of waste products and keeping the process usefully heat-efficient.

In any case, Eihks Richard wouldn’t be taking credit for spreading a sudden Promethean gift like that, unless he was going to balance out all sides. Since it seemed like major conflict lay on the horizon, he figured he’d suggest they keep-

He stopped thinking for a moment, reeling at his own beatific porcelain stupidity.

He had been going to mention that they probably ought to keep tabs on their powered-weapons guest, but avoid any sort of direct confrontation for right now. Come at the problem sidelong, mitigate unrest a little.


“I just realized that I’m unsure whether this newcomer has taught the people who summoned her the sciences behind radioactivity,” he said in an abruptly vacuum-tight voice. His eyes telescoped into the infinite distance.

“Because, assuming she has, this might not just be a soldier who can devastate towns and cities on her lonesome. This might be a faction, or party, or even nation with unique access to and understanding of extraordinary power.”

As Fonlat’s body language became a superposition of disbelief and terror, he very briefly entertained the possibility of passivity. After all, it might be that – had he and Ktsn never arrived on the facet – a nuclear razing of the country was inevitable, at some point in the future of advancements in the venerable art of war.

But, no. If he stopped a would-be revolution by killing instigators with his dæmon cluster, that was a thing of disgrace and infamy. It was quite another to make a concerted, reasonably constrained effort to improve local events within the remit of the mission statement of the Journals.

“We ought to learn whether she’s offered such assistance, and if so try to keep as many people alive as possible.”

He saw a sudden image of himself and Ktsn running over a bed of hot coals. Each carried one end of a giant plate, balancing it precariously, as people fell from the sky onto its surface. He had the strongest need to burst into mad laughter at the imagined looks of strained concentration. With some effort he grunted into a fist instead.

They could unambiguously learn from the stranger whether she’d offered instruction on making yellowcake and the like. It was very doubtful that she had any experience in fighting off dowsings or dissembling under their influence, and Eihks was a fair (alright, adequate) dowser. It would be patently illegal to use any evidence gleaned from testimony-under-duress in – say – a court of Rhaagm, but for their purposes it sufficed.

However… that was a terrible idea, in addition to being simply odious. Violence was something with which Mr. Pioneer had a fair slew of experience, yes. In the proper context, it could prove the most dissuasive, permanent, or speedy solution. Intruding upon a person’s mental sanctity fell into the realm of abstract assault. Strongarm tactics – psychological or physical or otherwise – usually made for a poor means to win allies.

If this foreign woman could be befriended, persuading her to keep less entangled with local politics would become at least theoretically feasible.

Fonlat’s arms folded, and she adopted a grandmotherly expression. Ktsn set the box down before she dropped it. Judging by the consonant tinkling its contents made, that was for the best.

“Let us be clear on this, then. We are going to contact the local guard force and tell them what, exactly?”

Ktsn situated herself just in front of the still-shuttered shop counter. One of her slowly-multiplying potted plants sat above her, a tiny vibrant blue thing like a feathery buttercup.

“That’s a very good question.”

Eihks’s hand raised, and a head lowered to perch like a timid squawk as he mulled over the broad strokes.

“It may be in everyone’s interests for us to avoid alerting the authorities to her presence. At least until we get a chance to talk with her. That’s my first thought. Yet, if the people who are her current protectors take exception… and I’m sure they would… trying to get to her would be problematic.”

“You managed to find her just fine and without those people taking exception! Unless you’re lying, and there was a great deal more problematic story development that you didn’t tell us.”

Eihks put his other hand in front of one eye as he looked at his employer. He used his elbow to do the gesturing he’d normally reserve for hand-talking.

“I can’t say if I was more skilled or lucky. The former’s more appealing, of course, but people are overly-self-confident all the time. I’d much prefer a small number of participants trying to sneak in and negotiate with the woman, or at least head off hasty decisions.”

Tassy squeaked adorably. Eihks grinned a rictus at her.

“I’d say it’s best to get some assistance!” Fonlat growled, to his vague surprise.

Eyes narrowed. Words waited, briefly unsaid.

“We find ourselves in a predicament, then.”

Eihks leaned forward, nose wrinkling. Habitually, a statement like “Let me deal with this, I’m the expert” queued up for oral ejection. He kept his lips shut.

So many things competing for attention, putting him on edge. The tiny gremlins of the more mundane to-do list nipped at his toes. Pretending that he was satisfying a need with food, sleeping as he had to, pulling his weight in the moment-to-moment chain of qualia that was life. Above those, a whole mess of problems less easily sorted into escalating priority and about which he could do little. Blackmail, his far future, that tiny golden bell of terror around his companion’s neck that whispered “OLD-TOUCHED” in silent granite screams.

Of those which he had the capacity to ameliorate, he needed to pick apart and edit the various Journals drafts this outing had produced so that he could excise Ktsn from the material. Six major versions of his current script, all branching at disparate places to support different narratives.

That one new thing, more than anything else, sat chewing damp holes in his content complacency. The woman hadn’t quite come out and announced her willingness to be explicitly credited – and saddled with additional burden – as his co-creator. She was gradually opening up. He saw little chance she’d ask him to grab an axon stripper and extract her cerv-mesh. If anything, he’d say the odds she would eventually begin using her mesh at least as much as himself were significant. But she hadn’t just yet, and she was moving forward at her own pace. Her carriage was delicate, a certain hesitance ribbing her actions. She valued her privacy.

Almost as valuable and limiting and difficult to manufacture as new real estate in Rhaagm, privacy – even just the illusion of privacy. He knew.

Dear gods and un-gods and saints and sinners, he knew.

The tall human’s hair flapped a bit as his head rolled a quick cloverleaf. Again: so many distractions. Focus.

A hard-cheeked smile went up, neither mocking nor sympathizing. He descended from the clouds of introspection back into his skin. His boiled-clean tone was a petri dish, and his words the specimens begging an unbiased assessment.

“Suggest to me an alternative to this scenario, please. We tell the guard of a mysterious stranger. We reveal much of what we know – possibly even that we’re from elsewhere. The powers that be grasp that we know what we’re talking about. We specify where to find this woman. After some heated discussion we prove we aren’t deceptive or mad.”

Eihks almost scarred the air with a hard chop.

“A confrontation later begins, with guards sent in en masse to deal with the problem. Either her companions make sure the woman escapes, or she decorates the streets with the guards’ bodies.”

A hand went up, and he threw on an almost impish smile. The petri dish was set aside, and the scientist on duty was handed a short memorandum with lots of little exclamation points.

“If this stranger decides to do battle, most people wouldn’t survive her attention. Please believe that I especially believe that, even if you’re certain I’m wrong.”

Fonlat tapped a tooth. Fine forehead-lines threaded themselves across new tropics. The sawdust she wore trimmed her in the apparel of competence. The slant of her hips and distance of her eyes suggested much about her adventuresome younger days: experiences nicely generalizable to the topology of life’s challenges. She measured the width of the room in paces, several times and in multiple dimensions.

“Hmmm. Suppose that you do some reconnaissance work first. Ascertain if you can quickly get this person alone. If not, then contact someone else – SEVERAL someones else – and get some assistance. If neither of those are available, then you can improvise.”

Eihks’s expression wasn’t pleasant. Fonlat’s changed to match his in kind and threw her hands up.

“Well, if you think it’s so bad then you propose an idea more specific than being ‘subtle’ and sneaking up on these people!”

It probably wouldn’t sound great to just say “I at least half expect there to be mortal combat no matter what we do so just attempt to procrastinate on that score for as long as possible” out loud. A lot would depend on where and how they crossed paths with the stranger.

He noticed Ktsn’s stare hadn’t wavered much in the last few minutes, and sighed.

“No, you make a point. That’s probably one of the better idea skeletons we could ask for. On that subject, it might be a good idea for you to try and convince the authorities if we aren’t back in… say, five waters after leaving.”

A smile.

“Hopefully, this whole thing’s a lot simpler than preparations suggest, and she hasn’t begun telling people whatever she knows about stabilization and fuel enrichment and such. For now, we ought to sketch out more likely scenarios without overcommitting.”

She stopped and jabbed a rough finger at him.

“I really hope you know what you’re talking about, boy. The king’s trying to convince an emissary from Nognāt to open up the metals trade again. We might see these dangerous weapons of yours sooner than you think.”

“I’m reasonably confident it’s probably going to take much longer than a few turns of the season to advance that far.”

Eihks pursed his lips in a full-face frown.

“And I’m older than I appear by a great deal.”

Fonlat snorted. Her elegant disdain made her look like an advertisement on a Toothskin refractor, or maybe the poster for a drama production.

“So if things DO go badly, and you actually need a bail-out from the guard, what sort of secret signal will you use?”

Eihks folded his hands in front of him, and stared back.

“I’m reasonably confident it won’t come to that. If it does, you won’t have to wait to get a signal – you’ll know. Think ‘sky is on fire’ but with big metal shooty weapons.”

She looked less than convinced, but she just snorted.

“I hope you can blend in smoothly with the crowds. This year’s White Fields festivities are supposed to be exceptional.”

A long slow blink.

“This year’s what?” he asked.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: