“You know, I enjoy having woodglass splinters shoved under my fingernails. I love it so much that I actually enjoy it more than having my ambitions deferred.”-Fallow Srid
“The Estuesse-ModKrtAktMdm, please,” said the voice attached to the human hand that was pointed at the wine in question.
“Excellent taste,” said the roving waiter. He gave an up-sign.
The vessel whose contents had just been selected for execution by consumption was extracted from its placement on the waiter’s tray and put in front of the customer. The customer glanced at it, gave the waiter a gesture of thanks, and the transaction concluded. The one left, the other slid the wine closer to his seat.
Being told that one had excellent taste when one’s tongue possessed no working sensory components was the kind of irony that one learned to appreciate. Especially when one was feeling a bit tense.
There was the beginning of a giggle worming its way up the customer’s throat as he constructed an alternate scene in which he put the whole allocation of wine straight down his gullet, smacked his lips, and replied with something that made the waiter step back and-
No. Not here. Not now. Focus.
A sigh, and a fair portion of the wine left for stomach country. A fair portion remained encased in the safe place that was its unsealed captivity. He swallowed once more for good measure.
The Broken Ship had much in common with most other pubs, and pub-like establishments, throughout Rhaagm. It was a business whose primary attraction came not through the peddling of physical culinary wares or happy juice, but the services of connecting people. The art of giving them a stable nourishing environment to which they could regularly return. For most patrons, the fees inherent to getting a barrel of the good stuff and a massively indulgent feast constituted a nominal proportion of the money being surrendered. Oh, sure – eating, drinking, gambling, the works: those social observances were in long supply, but mostly because they were incidental to the industry of unifying individuals into a collective organism.
Another swig, and the man looked aside at the adjacent table. The table’s holojector was showing a very familiar scene, of a water-bearing world labeled with a numbing amount of information. He found it almost as amusing as disappointing that all the information in question was made of sterile, purely metric data. That obvious (to him at least) doctoring said some very telling things. It also didn’t say some very telling things.
He saw the incarnate form of Gegaunli, Beautiful One of Bones, as she writhed in the containment Rhaagmini peacekeeping forces had enacted. The deity occupied an unfortunate position in the public relations arena. “Woe to her,” was the tut-tutting broad consensus.
He saw the tallies counting up some seven million innocents whose involvement with the affair was “incidental,” as the euphemism went.
He saw a few hundred little indicators on a facsimile of the globe that pointed out where the necessary equipment for setting up the simplex connection would go. Need a method to get that planet from there to here, after all.
He saw a hundred or so images of the natives – the wildlife, the flora… oh, and the PEOPLE, of course. Can’t forget about the people; that would just be mean.
The human smiled faintly as he saw an outline of some fairly high-profile territory in the city’s nicer areas being allocated to the new arrivals, and the way their globe had been integrated with public transit hooks. It displayed a positively staggering amount of real estate that had been bought up at a premium by deep-pocketed politicians with the grudging acquiescence of the area’s more localized officialdom. A high price tag, that purchase.
His smile died when he did not see anything such as “We screwed up” or “We are taking responsibility” or, most important of all, “We’re sorry for having caused this unblemished society such upheaval” anywhere.
No, it was her fault that she’d been given the opportunity to reach out and grab hold of the inquisitive minds of foreigners. It was her fault that safety measures had grown lax on the ripe research frontier her home represented.
The man sighed again, and this time it was the sort which, when one gave it, cost a measure of patience and goodwill to all men.
His attention fluttered and moved to another nearby table, where a different kind of media played. He watched, slightly bemused despite his train of turbulent thought.
“So, we’ve come this far up the mountainside,” a person was saying through the table’s sound system. “It means we can tell a few things about the area that are fairly important. Now, this impacts how we go about exploring everything else in the region – and on the whole planet, to some extent.”
The sensory being depicted was a climbing view of a ridge. The slope was covered in scree and a lot of larger polygonal rocks. Skylining themselves against the other side of the ridge, the recording individual ascended to the top, and looked down the side of a heavily-slanted crag, over what one might call a valley. On the periphery, layers of stone accrued and rose to enclose the valley; a simple entrapment of air by not-air. Around the table playing the media, a small platoon of aaneds gave little appreciative body-noise signals, one of them nudging the other with a little flute-shaped delicacy and giving a down-turned aaned smile.
“Like this!” said the sensory’s narrator, who swept out his hand to indicate the layered rock; here, and here, and there, and there. “Plutons. Not big ones, but lots of them. What we have is surface deformity that’s probably caused by interactions on the upper planetary layers almost as much as aeolian activity. That in turn suggests that we’re stuck in the middle of a zone where tectonic events aren’t precisely rare.”
A pause, timed for human comic sensibilities.
“Yes, ignore the fact that we’re currently on a small mountain.”
A few aaned laughs.
The person making the sensory swung around to look back down the opposite direction from the valley. On the other side of the breathless-high ridge was either an incredibly massive lake or a small sea, judging by depth. In the middle of the body of water, a dead caldera rose. A circular island formed the pupil of its eye.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a waiter, coming up to the human customer. It was conjugated from… he couldn’t tell what, except that there were probably at least three or four major physiologies in there. He wasn’t planning to ask. Bipedal, no-armed, used one mouth to hold its empty serving tray while the other took up the torch of speech. It knew he was human, and it surely had the professional aptitude to mind what was or was not good for human health.
Or at least for the health of most humans, the man reflected.
“Yes?” he responded.
“Are there any other patrons you’d like to meet?” it asked. A sly sideways indication of the aaned collective. “Or do you want to become better acquainted with one particular entity or industry?”
Surreptitiously, the human glanced up and down the venue’s long premises. Many people speaking, a few throwing game pieces, a small crowd dancing in the far corner in a hallucination of different discordant styles. One Allah’s Witness by the entrance was trying to preach to the people coming and going; one or two slowed to listen to her.
He consulted his chronometer.
“No, though I thank you,” he replied. “Must be going soon – I’ve got obligations elsewhere.”
He smiled faintly.
“I’ll make sure to stop by again, though, when I get a chance.”
The waiter made a contented flourish with the serving tray, then moved off toward other business.
“So, we have obvious volcanism on display in this quadrant,” the man in the sensory was saying. “There are some other signs to that effect from the… let’s call it a wadi. That means we may just find either glass or some varieties of rock having vitreous qualities. Good and bad, depending on what sort of tools or materials suit our needs.”
The person swung back, gazing down into the wadi. It was a barren and vaguely sandy-hued kingdom.
“But most significant is the fact that, statistically speaking, we’re very slightly more likely to find natural thaumaturgic sources – or other features beneficial to making and deforming Hiek machines – in substrates that lean toward glass-heavy composition. At least with this facet’s other properties taken into account.”
The hand sticking out in the direction of the cracked valley abruptly caught fire, heat licking across its surface in waves as the minute particles and microscopic organisms and such on its surface were consumed. Fortunately, this illuminated the part of the ridge immediately in front of the speaker. Below his feet, a steep drop-off that had been granted the vagaries of shadow jumped into slightly greater contrast; a good sixteen or seventeen meter fall. One of the aaneds made a low apprehensive sound.
“Now,” the voice added, “we want to get down there fast, but not quite THAT fast. Let’s go the longer way around.”
To the tune of a few harsh cackles from the almost-reptilian patrons, the projection of the sensory clambered along the ridge a bit farther. After finding a couple of ragged-sided steps that dropped in more manageable quantities, the man began going over the imperatives of finding a place to stay the night, given the planet’s extremely long day-night cycle. He noted that the wildlife was both magically-talented and (in the case of the predators whose cousin he was wearing) highly aggressive. This lent importance to finding and taking a defensively strong nighttime refuge. He clambered down the desolate slope one hop at a time.
“Making straight for the little plateau over there probably wouldn’t be a good idea under other circumstances,” he expanded about ten minutes and a small time-skip later. “It’s not going to end well, though, if we claim some different spot and it just makes us better-visible and tastier game for the hungries of the wild. We need defenses. If you remember the… misadventures on facet Iar-Twenty-Eight-Al-Three-Thousand-Five-Hundred-Sixty-Two-Grus-Six-Thousand-Twenty-Seven-Iar-Twenty-Two-Hundred, you’ll probably recall how much a well constructed abbattis can help keep the bumpers-of-the-night from gnawing on you. Don’t have an awful lot of time to go all-out, though, sad to say, so no real abbattis for us.”
A rearward look up at the sun showed it very, very slowly going down. Not long, probably, before it submerged in earnest – the slope toward the valley was already turning dim as the burning ball dipped over its edge.
“So, since we’re already on the topic of the merit of ideas, we’re going to get a little creative. Humans, and you other tree-climbers out there: what’s going to happen now is what we call a ‘very bad idea.’ Too many other critters have decent tree-climbing ability for it to be safe unless it’s done the right way. But with a strong knife… well, we’ll see.”
A blade came fluttering up from the speaker’s belt region in a wide swooping arc without the aid of a hand or other obvious physical force, smacking into the meat of his palm. One of the viewers said something vaguely deprecatory under their breath, and the human customer snort-smiled into the remainder of his wine.
“Step one, we get up into the higher reaches of – let’s go with THAT tree. Assuming it’s a tree, of course. However, we’ll test that momentarily.”
On the plateau of interest, the knife’s tip directed the watcher toward a singular droopy titanic example of what looked to be local vegetative life. Its crooked limbs forked away toward every point of the compass at a consistent seventy five degree angle, so thick that it looked like a brush or comb or feather from a distance.
The knife dropped a little down the field of the speaker’s viewing frustum, and there was a small grunt. A rock gritted against the air in a lax hundred meter parabola down toward the tree. One of the aaneds opened her mouth, possibly to make a wager with her drinking partner, while another voiced a subaudible incredulous exclamation.
“Thock,” said the tree, as it received the present of a rock and didn’t care for it enough to hold onto the gift. One of the aaneds gave a whoop, another snorted and derisively announced that the sensory producer had obviously used a trajectory solution utility.
“Now,” announced the narrator, as the knife went down and the trek toward the tree resumed, “I’ll admit that I cheated a second ago with a scan, after letting off the stone. It’s either a tree or some variety of equally sessile life.”
Groans, and a smile from the human customer.
“Of course, you can’t just count on that in real life if you get stranded out here without a cerv-mesh. Doesn’t cover all our bases, either – could still have a potent chemical secretion covering its exterior, or it could be a very contrived glamor magic on the part of a very successful ambush predator, for example. Rock-throwing often flushes out such wildlife, but not always. That, sadly, is something we’re probably going to have to chance. In fact-”
The run-on of reasoning halted, as a cratered metallic sound came from the narrator’s left.
“Ah,” said the voice, with the sort of misleading outward calm that indicates a banked reserve of momentary terror just around the corner. “You see, THAT I didn’t pick up in a scan.”
A disbelieving laugh from several of the aaneds. Turning in the indicated direction ever so slightly, one didn’t have to work hard to pick out the crenellated shape of something armored and eight-limbed. It was probably at least twice the mass of the human who had received the full extent of its attention.
“Right, well,” peeked out between the laughter’s peaks and troughs, while a small slice of the tavern’s other clientele checked out the commotion’s source. “Time to go, very fast.”
The voyeuristic customer finished his wine, looked to ensure he’d gotten every drop, and ruffled his hair after leaving an exorbitant tip. He didn’t need to stick around and watch the end of the little media drama. He remembered the debacle, and how that stupid octoped had jumped him. It had all worked out in the end, though the way it had truncated his left leg could have ended nearly as badly as anything else he’d experienced on the journeys of his mixed-reception career.
That thought – as well as thinking about how badly agitating his condition might have become under the wrong stars – put a twist in his pleasantly bemused mood. As was long the case, his lowered morale put him on the path toward other easy drops in his morale, and his mind defensively swung toward the duty for which he’d volunteered.
The image of Gegaunli came into the forefront of his mental canvas. A snarl began to form.
But of course, we can’t blame the researchers. So blame the deity.
Oh, she really did own part of the fault in the emergency commandeering of her planet; suborning minds was a grave offense. And his upset at the enforcers of law wasn’t really fair – they were just the cogs doing that which part of the machine of the Jon’s Court demanded, on the behalf of other people from the Jon’s Court.
His mandible clenching with annoyance, the human customer picked himself up both mentally and physically, and quick-stepped for the exit.
“Thank you very much for your patronage, sir!” said the greeting-spirit at the entrance. “Have an excellent day!”
“You’re too kind,” said Eihks Richard, and – to his discredit – he managed to mean it with all his heart.
He stepped out of the pub, onto the sidewalk, moved toward the nearest of Rhaagm’s public transport facilities, and vanished into the city.