Turning Off the Needle Highway

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Milk teeth. Hot pink. Thrill seeking. Kosckelezern. Methamphetamine. Un-god supplication. Salt of Solomon. Lily-in-the-Deepest-Dark. Partial asphyxiation. Betel nuts. Gambling. Snow. Eating. Opium. There is a long, long ladder of interesting substances or activities to which susceptible persons of weak will or unfortunate neurobiology might slave themselves. These have, almost universally, some combination of two things at the bottom rung of their lucid engagement: self-deception and apathy toward the external.”

A Dissertation on Addiction and the Psychology of Dependence, the Relationship of the Same to Various Extrafacetarily Exposed Cultures, and Metanalyses of the Same

The feeling that Eihks had at the base of his skull was entirely fictional. That is to say, the sensation was legitimate; the tactile suggestion of it was completely ersatz. His seething brain refused to let him rest until he turned around, stared it right in its cerebrum, and admitted that he was aware THAT WAS A SIDE EFFECT OF THE PROBLEM.

His problem, incidentally, was that he was a Tufcich class of undead. The problem compounded itself in that he was additionally guilty of hiding that truth for the last…

Well. That was a lot of years stretching back into the past.

The karkshesh (Gegaunli karkshes, the networks were calling them – as though to rub salt in Eihks’s psychological wound) had made things inconvenient for him, to be certain. It wouldn’t have been impossible to fend off denouement if Ms. Ktsn had gone and sliced open his leg or torso or even his head without showcasing his arcane cap. Enough people had midrange immortalities or other special capabilities that it wouldn’t be enormously unusual if he survived a massive wound without any outward reaction besides annoyed discomfort.

On the other hand, he’d been stuck with deceptions for a long time, and maybe this was a sign saying that he needed to come clean – damn the immediate consequences to reputation.

Perhaps best to not dwell on it overmuch.

At least they wouldn’t fire him from his philanthropic assignment – not that they wouldn’t have done if they’d had more people in their volunteer pool, and he hadn’t demonstrated perfect reason, and the arcane cap on his femoral triangle didn’t (very explicitly) show with its sigils why it had reanimated him but didn’t make him over into a virulent animal.

Yes, he and that pohostinlat lady had struck it off right away. “Reasonable concern of risk” indeed.

His medical facilities hadn’t quite fully repaired his leg from the earlier stresses visited upon it, but he could walk adequately during the short period the convalescing process would yet take. They tromped together through the mid-height grass away from the village, Ktsn flipped over to let her legs take lower, faster, broader-angled steps. “Fastlegs,” the locals called the stance, according to the linguistics data Eihks had received. She was low enough to have the underside of her torso-ish region brush the stems almost constantly.

“That little section of metal on my leg is problematic for a number of reasons,” he huffed. The first shall be last, and the last person he’d met would be the first to get explanations for his shame.


“When you have one of these, you’re a special kind of…”

Local language lacking, improvise necessary terminology.

“… not-alive creature. I’m not officially in trouble, as such, but after showing that little section of metal to the world, it’s clear to everyone around me that I can cause trouble quite easily.”

“That is – what?”

The eye on the closer side of Ktsn’s face suddenly angled up, and her eyelid squinted at him.

“I am afraid I do not understand.”

How to explain.

“I was killed a long time ago, and have been walking around ever since with the fear that people would realize that fact.”

“Excuse me,” said the woman as she kept the pace. “I do not think you understand the meaning of the word ‘killed.’”

“I absolutely do, thank you very much. Just because I’m technically cheating at fluency in your tongue doesn’t mean I don’t understand it.”


Eihks tapped his cerv-mesh, and the karkshesh’s eye followed his finger.

“The thing on my neck puts knowledge in my head, and lets me say and do things that would be hard or impossible otherwise.”

Her set of rounded inner teeth showed as her lips retracted a bit.

“I’ll explain that later,” he said.

Ktsn said nothing.

“When my people were… studying yours, we learned a fair amount about your diseases. You have that thing called moltrot.”

He waved a hand up at his face.

“You see somebody who’s partly balding, and the hair around the patch begins turning a very light blond. That tells you they’re sick and you should stay away, right?”


The woman was at least listening, rather than silently resenting with an ear unstuffed.

“The same thing for me. If you see this,” he added, with a point at the metal under his clothes, “it’s like a very large bald patch, with a very deep white rash around the edges where the hair’s turning color. Imagine that rash, except covering my whole body.”

The farmer didn’t slow, exactly; however, she did swerve just a bit farther away from her companion, over a short mound of dirty clover-stuff.

“I’m not actually…” he started, a wry grin slitting his lips apart. It crumpled suddenly; no existing word for contagious in the language. Approximations aplenty, but all possessing very different connotations.

“You’d have to secure my cooperation to get this sickness, and my cooperation isn’t forthcoming.”

When she looked at him with even more skepticism, he ran a hand through his bangs. The action almost caused him to trip over a thing that was either a rock or a biologically bizarre plant, hiding in the taller grass.

“First,” he said, mimicking her prim-and-proper manner of speech, “I would have to actually bite or sink my fingernails into you, and hold on for some time, to pass along my condition. Second-”

And there she went. Look at her go.

Eihks stopped, cocked his head, and observed the woman sprinting. Sure, it was only for a short time, but those legs could go bleeding-fast in bursts. She wasn’t getting away from his tracking utility; let her depart for a few minutes. He’d catch up.

He’d been interested in how the karkshesh had reacted to his appearance. Fear had, unless he was badly mistaken, been right there at the surface. He’d learned what tells to anticipate, and what sorts of things evidently lowered the implicit threat level of a creature like himself, from the basic data of his state-sponsored information-dump. It was nice that she waited as long as she had before lashing out. Not great, since the lashing out still happened, but time would tell which direction that pair of behavioral plot-points curved. It was very neat, though; a species whose instincts led them to preserve the group at the cost of the individual during times of fear. Not when the fear-source was a known and known-to-be-insurmountable quantity, true; interesting, regardless. The manner in which anger drove the experiencing party away from its object also discouraged internecine confrontations. Curious but arguably sensible adaptations for a lineage whose birth rate was relatively low and who had relatively long lifespans. Very worth studying, all of it.

Now, even more interesting was the fact that she’d identified his kind. Eihks most certainly didn’t see anything in the material handed out which mentioned describing the species who’d be assisting in this venture. That was a mystery he intended to dig up as soon as he could. At the same time as he investigated what had happened back there in the village, possibly.

Whatever had damaged his tibia, and thrown him off balance just long enough to let the woman get her little pickax into play, and expose his dirty little secret to the world, it wasn’t just stepping on a branch or having a rock roll underfoot.

That had been, unless he was badly mistaken, magic.

It’s times like this that make you wish you’d invested in a bit of College of Prophecy advisement.

The man watched her dart into the trees, arboreal puffball leaves wicking the breeze. He sat down, counted to a hundred, very distinctly didn’t think about his professional career likely coming down in burning wreckage, and then counted to a hundred again. In the meantime, he drew shapes in the air like he was carving with a knife. It was a beautiful day out in the abducted world’s field, with the faintly purple clouds overhead and the occasional sounds of critters foraging for whatever they might find.

It would have been far more beautiful if he could still taste or smell or touch. It would have been placid and happy if not for the silent tessellated faces across the sky below those clouds.

The greater worry of his integrity as an objective source of truth tried to surface, and he made an effort to avoid thinking about something he couldn’t change just yet.

A few more counts to a hundred, and Eihks stood up, detecting the fact that his charge had stopped her headlong flight. She was far ahead, and her wandering patterns had a curt biological-random character. He suspected she was following paths or such, indicating commonly walked areas with well-laid-out and often-followed routes. A house of some description, if he wasn’t mistaken.

He wasn’t going to cheat and use his dæmon cluster for surveillance, not in this case.

When he decided to go for broke, the human began working his gyrokinetic talents, placed a thaumaturgical fulcrum in the air, flung himself skyward, and soared.

The ripping sound of his jacket’s flip-flap resistance caught one hundred percent of his attention for an instant, but then he returned his focus to the ground. A rolling savannah plain slewed by almost twenty meters below, making him feel like he was riding a disk or skids or an abnormally smooth-paced steed. Slight adjustment of angle, to better court air resistance; he preferred the convenience of not getting his limbs shattered.

It all would have been much easier for him to deal with, had the whole planetary surface not been subject to the same restrictions as most of the rest of the Parsed City-State of Rhaagm. No folding. No dissemination of extrafacetary technological advances without a license. No folding. No ritual resurrections outside of institutes thoroughly approved for the task, unless the gestalt of the victim was otherwise demonstrably endangered. No killing except in defense of self or others. And most important for his own purposes, unless he was in very very special designated areas, NO FOLDING. He wasn’t annoyed in the slightest. Ah, well; practice with the craft wouldn’t do him ill.

He swooped past one particularly tall tree, and threw out another fulcrum. This one lasted about a millisecond, and sliced off perhaps one percent of his momentum by imbuing the tree with just a little of his kinetic energy at a steep angle. The tree didn’t react outwardly, except to rustle a bit near its topmost layer of fluff.

By slow effort, he passed along bits and shards of his breakneck speed to the environment, one incredibly acute magical twitch at a time. It didn’t kill all of his velocity, though.

Instead, as he dropped, he picked out a squat cabin near the far end of his trajectory, and identified one last fortuitously-placed tree beside it. Around the cabin spread an admirable swatch of cropland, or a poor one, depending on who and how many had done the planting. Tools and various things that didn’t belong inside a house lay scattered around the wood dwelling’s outside in ordered pockets of chaos. A tiny horizontal chimney made of clay and some kind of mortar sprouted from one end of the dwelling.

The pioneer clamped another fulcrum onto the adjacent tree, swung himself quite high, carefully spread out his feet, and landed on the minutely slanted plank roof with an almighty thud.

He heard a rapid rattling of feet as the Gegaunli karkshesh below him scurried about. He almost started laughing as he imagined the way they’d be able to keep a rhythm up on a drum rig.

In less than three seconds, a quadruped came charging out of the house, sling in one hand and pickax in the other. Both sets of teeth were on display as she whirled, checking the front of her home.

“I know you are out there!” she said.

“I appreciate your forthrightness,” Eihks said, dangling his feet from her edging. “I also hope that things will go more smoothly for us from here on in.”

She whirled, faster this time, and without even a full revolution in her sling loosed a stone that came within a centimeter of Eihks’s left hand.

“Wow!” he said, watching the rock bounce off the roof and go skittering along the sky behind. “You’ve got… quite the arm! I’d need a lot of practice to get that skilled with a sling.”

“The next one is going to hit you in the head!” Ktsn replied.

Eihks’s response was to fall the three meters from the roof to the ground, and approach the woman as she was winding up another stone. Her near eye widened, and she took one two-feet-only step away, presumably to better her aim. His whole body went slightly slack with bold acquiescence.

“If you don’t think I was telling you everything I’ve already said for a reason, then go ahead,” he said, very softly and stock-still.

Taking him up at his word, Ktsn loosed her stone, and it smacked directly into his skull perfectly between the eyes. There was a second of him rocking back, blinking a bit, then he righted himself, and picked up the stone.

“You see, if I had a normal human skull, that would have killed me,” he told her, as she let the sling’s thong fall loose. He examined the stone, impressed with its smoothness and near perfection, and underhanded it at the cone-shaped “toe” flagella of her long palindromic feet.

“But we have a little bit of a different arrangement, my skull and I,” he said, folding his arms and putting on a wry smile. “I come from a society that makes things which you’d call impossible not just easy, but commonplace. Universal, limitless nutrition. Magic for not just the few studious sorcerors or the like who want to devote their lives to it, but everyone. Infinite knowledge, and almost every branch of scientific discovery followed farther than you could dream. Immortality, in a variety of senses of the word.”

She was peering at him now, a bit more intrigued than disturbed – though only a bit.

“You wish for me to believe all of that?” she asked, storing her weapon away. That was one of two things at work; either sufficient fear to discourage belligerence, or an accepting rationality taking hold once more. Body language might be revealing more, but his reading material wasn’t quite as up to snuff with every conceivable posture or expressing of body-noise.

How those anthropologists got the time to study all of that about the Gegaunli karkshes’ personality, but hadn’t realized that deific disaster was hanging over their own heads, was more than he could be bothered to fully contemplate just now.

“That’s my goal here,” he said, more gentle and normal in his tone and attitude. “I’m here to help you become one of us.”

He moved away from the building, staying on a blank stretch of grassy yard that struck a medium between not being close to her house and not being close to her cropland. Sitting, his hands descended behind his head as he looked up.

“By the way – this is neither here nor there, but should be said – I appreciate you not getting over-excited or panicking when you first saw me. Most species take one look and see the largely-bare skin, the little patch of fuzz on top, the awkward feature structure, and the ways we move and behave, and either get really, really disgusted or really, really attracted. Both are awkward. Humans are awkward, too, but not quite so much.”

A stunned moment of silence.

“Think nothing of it,” Ktsn replied, in a way that seemed to indicate she didn’t want to dwell on the topic.

He could relate. Oh, but he could relate.

A few long seconds, as each someone waited for the other someone to say something further.

“So… perhaps, just perhaps, my service so far is less than perfectly clear in what it is supposed to achieve,” said Eihks, leaning his head on his shoulder. His fingers rapped down his leg, and he stopped when they came close to the metal shape embedded by his groin.

He looked up at where the sunlight made the projected faces glow much brighter, and frowned.

“To wit: I’m here as your undesirable companion until such a time as you are in a place of understanding your rights and restrictions, your abilities, your-”

“I must ask, what do you mean when saying that you were killed?” interjected Ktsn.

The explorer felt a bit of reassurance at the fact that this was the first time she’d butted into his rambling trails of speech. Then, he felt something between sadness and annoyance, sprinkled with a reflexive dash of I-told-you-so-because-you-used-the-word-“undead” (except-he-hadn’t-because-of-lexical-problems-but-never-mind).

“Allow me…” he said, a bit above a whisper, “… to illustrate my meaning,” and rose to his feet.

“If you could please lend me your pickax?” he asked, holding out his hand. When she clearly didn’t make any move to oblige, he huffed, closed his eyes, and said, “If I wanted to hurt you, I don’t actually need to do anything like wait for you to give me a pickax.”

His hand traveled to one side, still watching the near eye of the brown-coated farmer, and he spun up another fulcrum. It tore up a bit of the grass, and also picked up the stone she’d used to smack his skull, putting it in his palm. He brandished the stone, his index finger raised, and her eye looked like it was about to spring out of her head.

“I’m asking, and although I could simply take it, that would be bad manners. It would also be against my instructions. So it won’t be happening,” he assured her. “The last thing this whole messed-up day needs is a potential charge of assault on a native.”

A couple quirky gyrokinetic manipulations later, the rock floated down (gently, gently) to right in front of Ktsn once more, in little up-curved waves. She looked very carefully at the thing for a very long time, then adjusted her grip. His still-extended empty hand filled several seconds later with the heft of well-worn wood, and the crude yet black-iron-quality head of the sharp end glinted as he turned it this way and that.

“This will only take a moment,” he assured her.

With a wide high flourish, he swung the edge of the pickax around in a greasy smooth circle. He did a quick on-the-fly twisting adjustment as he watched his arrogant swing continue. The angle, regrettably, wasn’t quite appropriate for the width of the tool’s wedge.

He had just enough time to regret not using another personal utility to solve for the proper trajectory before the hardened breadth of it went straight through his neck. The blade came out the back directly next to his esophagus, and came to a dead stop as the handle encountered his clavicle.

“Ah, oh, Crippled False,” he swore, very thankful that he couldn’t feel pain. “Sorry,” he assured the now horrified karkshesh, “I can fix this.”

A noise like the splatting of a flat stone on almost-dry mud preceded his withdrawing the pickax. After a two-count, he swung it again.

This time it struck true, and managed to disconnect spine, backbone, flesh, cardiovascular tissues, and a great deal else. Two finger-widths of skin and muscle kept noggin and neckin in close contact, before a final application of the wedge parted the lot.

It took the experience of numerous inconveniences from a considerable stretch of his history, but Eihks managed to reach out, deftly twist his left hand, and catch his falling head by the hair.

Some very short time thereafter, he began carefully forcing air through his stump via a fast-built, fast-moving chain of fulcra. It was a macabre method of speech, but he used what he had.

“So, as you can see,” he rasped, “I know exactly what I meant when I said ‘killed.’ There’s-”

His eyes flickered down, and he saw the karkshesh laid out flat, giving stupendous evidence for excessive shock having the same effect on her kind that it had on his.

“Well, that’s just dandy,” he said, before reattaching his head, and asking himself what he… what the program… how…

He had a lot of problems. This one, at least, he knew how to address.

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