“A thing living, I did dream, and it was me – when I awoke, I was dead, and had died free.”-English inscription in the Tower of Rhaagm, accredited to the Maker
As he strolled over the field, he picked out and tried to play guessing games about the other volunteers for the Gegaunli Reconciliation popping into existence. One there to the side, a pohostinlat with especially massive ears and wide eager eyes. Maybe a once-foreigner herself, hoping to pass along the help she’d received earlier in life. A pair of humans not too far behind, folding in from elsewhere, laughing. Husband and wife? Siblings? He couldn’t tell, and of course they might have both started life as something very different – but in present-day Rhaagm that kind of total remaking was less than frequent. Way, way off from the sparsely-concentrated group, a whole family complete with pre-adolescents troop-marched along toward the village. They stopped as they met one of the locals charging from the village’s nearest gate. The local stopped, the family stopped. They all looked at each other. Adoption, maybe? At least the karkshesh didn’t try and attack or mess around with the children.
Eihks glanced skyward, just as the audial component of the public service loop FINALLY cut off. If he were the one in charge of this philanthropic pursuit, he would have started by doing a lot of research, then deploying fifteen or twenty thousand first-contact brokers all over the place. There were only seven million and change people alive on the whole world; that was practically begging for one-on-one guidance. But nope, someone in the city’s public relations machine decided that the most economic route toward letting everyone know the current state of affairs was “tell everyone and tell them now, and don’t worry about things like the trauma of seeing projections in the stratosphere.”
Eihks kept up the pace, though he found himself a bit pleasantly surprised as he noticed one of the people with whom he was walking. He’d been looking for her after hearing that she might be involved with the project; tremendous fortune of fortunes, they’d collided. He made a slight detour, allowing a smile to not quite unbalance his face.
“Hey. Gertrude. Gertrude!”
Gertrude Tiridiris, as it happened, was a once-human who had been (and apparently still was) placed in the body of a dagacha. She happened to have crossed paths with him during the experience of jointly surviving a semester of magical studies at Kinsmen, where (among other things) they’d learned of a shared love of art. Irony of ironies, her name then was just as suitable for a name now, if she ever decided to go live in a dagacha tenement. She had kept her original brain rather than going for the full conjugation experience, voicing worries that her gestalt might be voided in the transition. Not an unreasonable concern, depending on one’s epistemological view of the soul and its integrity.
On the interpersonal plus side, her human brain meant she used the word hate maybe a tithe as much as a full dagacha.
“Mr. Richard,” she said, wide head turning to meet his incoming trajectory. She smiled, an off-putting thing to see with so many large teeth and on such a massive face.
“I would’ve expected you to get your old meat suit back,” said Eihks. “Or aren’t you finished with your hybrid-magic theory yet?”
Gertrude laughed. It made a few people jump, that boisterously-loud expulsion.
“No, not yet. I’m actually making progress on implementing my discipline across six additional disparate classifications of subfacet. When I was fooling around with R’gaonit workings, I got a recommendation from the University of Astarte’s head of Cryptothaumaturgy. She liked my ruleset structuring, evidently.”
Eihks almost stopped, his face faulting across its segmentation.
“Yes! She visited a few years ago, poked around some of our projects. Since then, I’ve even piled a bit more variety onto the discipline’s dictionary. Now it’s going to incorporate a lot of Stephanie-Desril thaumaturgy – where it’s applicable, anyway – and even pull in a few types of Hiek constructions from weirder facets. It wasn’t going to be much more work than I was already planning on doing, and… oh. Sorry.”
If she could have blushed, she would have done so there and then.
“I’m using all the air again.”
The two tromped down the hill-less meadow, watching the other volunteers and being watched in kind. All the while, they kept a small portion of their respective noggins and noggin accessories dedicated to monitoring the people converging on the karkshesh village.
“Oh no, it’s fascinating!” Then, because it would be gauche to run her personal data through an eidolon for research: “Which Astarte, though?”
She named the school’s home district in Rhaagm.
Eihks gestured at her in a way that meant “all of this.” The decision for changing the flavor of her meat, as it were, was rooted in how much easier her new speciation made for managing certain magical side-effects and products.
“… actually help appreciably with your Stephanie-Desril problems? I wouldn’t think a ‘true-name’ magic genre would have much benefit or loss from Hiek-resistant skin, unless it were completely Hiek-nullifying. Or you were using the right sort of tuning apparatus.”
Another laugh, Gertrude’s smaller slower steps keeping track with Eihks’s much longer stride, so long as he made a little effort to pace himself.
“It’s still useful for other Hiek machines, you know. Most of my daily thaumaturgical doses come closer to Ast magic, anyway! And, you know, chandlery doesn’t hurt so much.”
“Ah. I don’t really have a problem with the pain myself, but that’s reasonable justification. Just hope the dulled nerves don’t give you any other problems.”
The Bequast-born academic extended a hand, consumed an inconsequential and invisible dot of his flesh, and set his index finger afire. It didn’t last for long, once his skin was burned clean.
“Yes,” said Gertrude, her smile becoming shallow. “I can’t stand the thought of pain dampeners every time I need to metabolize or synthesize, but I just can’t make myself do it with human tissue. I’m not looking for an atypical’s ability to regenerate or nullify unpleasant sensation, just a bit of assistance.”
Eihks very carefully said nothing and kept his face neutral. When his digit cooled and the fire quenched, he let his hand fall to his side.
“But enough about me! What have you been doing?” she asked, looking up at the taller man.
Eihks waved a palm, rolling the wrist in corporeal shorthand for “and so on and so on.” His frequent grin reappeared.
“If you’ve been keeping up with the Journals of Gem Pioneering, then you’ll know I’m actually coming to the end of another collection. Going to be starting a new focus soon. It’ll be less focused on survival and the purely utilitarian side of academia, and more on the social and exploratory side of things.”
“Oh?” hummed Gertrude. “That’s a bit of a departure from your… older material, isn’t it?”
By her tone, Eihks knew she hadn’t kept up with his productions since he’d shown it to her years prior. She’d probably catch up again soon, though.
“Yes. I’ve done the emphasis on ‘glamorous alien explorer cum dramatist life’ schtick before, rather than just including the juiciest bits of ‘what can go wrong when staying alive.’ It didn’t get quite the reception I would have liked, so yes – things took a drier and more objective turn for a while.”
He noticed a scuffle to one side of the village; some of the other volunteers had encountered a lanky lumpy form of local fauna, and the fauna wasn’t happy. The resolution involved a restraining Ullos container and a lot of profane denigration the natives really didn’t need to hear, or get translated.
“But recently the audience cried out for more, please! Thus, more shall be forthcoming. I’ll keep up the dry and objective side of the studies, of course, but the behind-the-scenes demand for a fuller narrative is going far up the list.”
He grinned at the wrong-footed dagacha, and swiped a thumb sideways across his forehead in a “what can you do?” sort of fatalism.
“Don’t worry if it sounds exciting; the exciting bits are incidental, I assure you. Or rather, they will be. Ghost Grid Caliber has a THING about their published material getting too exciting.”
He suddenly jerked, then flickered his eyes at the distant people who hadn’t yet gotten word about their soon-to-be visitors from the great shambling travesty that was Rhaagm.
“Ah. I’ve found my babysitting victim.”
An uneven eyebrow slashed Eihks’s face open and let flow a smarmy stream of resignation.
“I’m afraid this is where we need to part ways. Would it trouble overmuch, ma’am, if I sent you a direct channel message later today – perhaps arranged for some more regular future correspondence?”
“I would be delighted to accept such a pretentiously-phrased offer, dear sir.”
“Then goodbye for today, and may your receiving everything your heart desires be deferred a suitably long time.”
Eihks doffed an invisible hat at her in mock of classic New Armis millinery-style salutes, side-stepped, and made a three-quarters rotation. He began strutting in the direction of the village’s nearest entrance, and its inhabitants.
According to his dossier, the babysitting victims of each respective volunteer had… unwittingly failed to lodge protest upon being tagged with identifying Ktarebte machines. On the one hand, sapient rights violation (albeit minor, in the face of the further violations on the table) – doubly so since the karkshes had been unaware of the infringement. On the other hand, it meant he actually managed to identify a native as the person-of-interest for his purposes.
Well. Time to meet a foreign lady, get her acclimated, and then get back to his business. He and she would probably get along just fine, in one way or another. Things would have a bit of a hiccup in his life schedule, but then they’d be back to normal with a little delay. Boo-hoo, how terrible.
Outside the black box of the potentially finite, a tiny voice whispered in fevered passion, there is a great and terrible retribution awaiting those who rouse to anger the Abstract of Misfortune, and He Who Is Its Prophet, Murphy.