“Woo! Drugs! Parties! More parties! A bit of composition! That’s all fun, right? Wrong! Sooo many things to plan behind the scenes! Fobbing off the right amount of publicity while making other obvious public appearances. Don’t get me started on how many eidolons we have to consult to keep on the leading edge of trends. ‘Too many’ is the answer. But when everything comes together, at just the perfect time, then it’s a beautiful spectacle, is show business. Oy, Genm! Either pass the bottle here or make another one!”-Leeland Ockerbmen, leading vocalist of Shear Boot, after transferring from chain-punk outfit Gigeliglessssil, and before needing to be revived due to a fatal overdose
Eihks had had the opportunity to bring a couple of foreigners into the fold of his adopted city over the years. In each case, they’d reacted almost exactly the same way: amazement and childlike awe. The second of these guests had soon after become hysterical, thinking he’d been brought to some eschatological house of ill repute.
They came up to the place where her planet’s surface ran into the semi-permeable tuning field barrier stretching across it. The slowly congealing ghostly and half-solid sight of the city’s architectural hodgepodge gave his karkshesh companion a stricken but not woeful look.
The tuning field was a bit of a special case; not an Ullos container, not a normal folding junction setup, not a modified skein to keep one side’s characteristics constant and stable, but somewhere between them. It represented sixty or seventy thousand days’ worth of effort by some of Rhaagm’s very best and best-paid High Arsonists. It also made transitioning from Ktsn’s home to Eihks’s home a far more bearable experience for newbies to the whole “folding” thing. But they didn’t cross it just yet.
“Take it all in,” he said, as they walked up to the border. On one side of existence, the planet continued in its natural everyday way. Field led to more field, as field is wont to do. But – topologically close enough that it nudged into traditional senses – overlying it was the mathematical perfection of redmetal sidewalk. The tint of the anankite caught the sunlight (both that of the local star, which they’d kept around for the karkshes’ benefit, and Rhaagm’s own light-bringer) and positively threw the sparkle straight across the spectrum from ultraviolet to radio-wave frequencies. It was hard to describe or get a grasp of city building motif without seeing it; different styles all clamoring for attention, but a strangely civil sort of clamoring where every structure had a time and place to call its own.
He had confidence in the High Arsonists and others who’d put together the system for containing a whole planet in a fraction of its volume. He really did. Even so, Eihks had Ktsn hold hands to reduce the chance of one of them experiencing those fun things that occasionally happened when a person freaked out on such borders. Stuff like having one’s atoms’ electric charges get inverted or being turned into an abstract concept was vanishingly infrequent, and usually the result of someone deliberately courting disaster.
He’d personally had enough go wrong for one day, though… and some of it perhaps not by accident.
As they passed through the barrier in the Rhaagm direction and not the Gegaunli-karkshesh-planet direction, Eihks spotted the same auditor and same official from before. They waited on the same spot on the same wide sidewalk, both angled vaguely toward him. He frowned, waving to indicate that he noticed their attention and reciprocated.
“Hang on just a moment,” he said to Ktsn. “Need to talk with these people. DON’T GO ANYWHERE.”
The last was delivered with a stern pointing finger, but he knew he needn’t have worried. Between her wild staring and total bafflement, she didn’t look like she was going to so much as lift a foot without him pulling her along.
“Hello, again,” he said to the official in Rhaagmini.
The official bobbed up and down a bit, making little effort to maintain neutral buoyancy.
“Hello, Mr. Richard.”
No outward sign of recognition more significant than the acknowledgement of a returning client. However, the floating old soul also wasn’t acting precisely like it had during their previous engagement. Eihks, in his long-pedigreed history of dealing both with alien entities and with the art of engaging a provider from the client’s side of the counter, had learned certain tells for judging when a situational paradigm changed.
Such was the case now.
“Good afternoon again…”
“I don’t believe I got your name when we met.”
The creature’s cerv-mesh made an auditory sequence resembling an organic lifeform getting hit by fifteen kilograms of thermite, a panicked stipp, a rapidly-deflating balloon, and a brick, in that order. At the same time, it abruptly flowed through a slew of color and texture shifts, landing on something like moss-covered sulfur before it returned to its original form.
“Thank you,” said Eihks, and didn’t bother to try attempting the name himself.
“You have brought a native with you,” the creature he’d decided to shorthand as Llj observed.
“I have invited her to accompany me to the rest of the city she now calls her own.”
“The terms of the contract maintain that the asylees cannot be left unattended within city bounds until they are certifiably integrated,” the auditor said, having closed the distance while he wasn’t looking.
“I am aware of that,” the explorer replied, and he had to rein in his temper a little. “I and she will be going to my residence, and I do not once anticipate being farther than three meters from her between here and there.”
The auditor up-signed.
“So long as you are aware,” she said. She stepped back a few paces.
“I-” Eihks began, looking at Llj again. He had to stop when a titanic freight disk passed by on the road. It didn’t actually kick up any wind with its movement, but it seemed to deform local gravity by a considerable degree with its sheer mass. The idiot driving the thing had some chain-punk band turned up to a volume that was either illegal on public thoroughfares or ought to have been.
“I would like to pick up my personal effects again, if you please,” he said, when the moving travesty had left their presence. “Most of those knives and such don’t mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things, but they’re missed nevertheless.”
The hamper from earlier reappeared, positively overflowing with goods belonging to non-Eihks people, before the official shuffled the contents around. It also produced the wedge shape that was White Essay, which Eihks gingerly took and transferred to its original placement with a grimace. In a reverse conjuring act, he rapidly stowed his returned possessions away on his person, and relaxed ever so slightly when Lusendrad got strapped back into its proper location.
Eihks turned to the karkshesh farmer, who was now evenly dividing her interest between the people discussing matters tangential to herself and the many sights of the world around her.
“Ktsn, time to go,” he said, in a tongue she could actually comprehend. After startling, she gave that handclap that was the affirmative equivalent of an up-sign.
As she absently took his hand, he chin-thumbed a farewell to the odd pair.
“In case you’ve heard,” he said to them over his shoulder, “the rumors have truth.”
He didn’t hang around to see how they took it.
“Anyway, welcome to the rest of Rhaagm!” he told the woman beside him. “Don’t ask to get a full tour,” he added in a half joking tone, “it’d be several times forever before we’d get done.”
“There is no sky!” Ktsn eventually half-breathed, looking at the next-up layer of the city. “And yet, that right there is the sun, is it not?”
It was. The simulation of an uncluttered sky actually didn’t grace too many districts, or terribly large sections of those districts where it did occur. The lack of faux planetary atmospherics was one of the strange and apparently contradictory swarm of little character markers that reflected the local culture of the current epoch. Actually seeing the metal and ceramic and binder medium and various tuning fields that comprised the city’s structural organs was a form of visual debugging and pragmatically useful for some citizens. That alone was enough to keep the trend of giving up sky for sky-obscuring stuff going strong. And up there, neatly peeking through the opaque material in a way that ought to have required some clever reconfiguring of thermodynamics, a bright small orb hung.
“There was a saying that went out of style a while ago,” said the human. “‘There’s the sunshine-blessed and there’s the imaginary.’ Everything that isn’t indoors or otherwise carefully planned out to operate under certain meteorological rules sees the Rhaagm sun. ‘Indoors,’ according to the city’s definition, is something we grasp very well; how the sun actually does what it does is less so.”
He pointed to one side.
“You see that long tall spindly thing over yonder, that’s also showing through similarly ‘opaque’ material? That’s the Tower of Rhaagm. Now, you can know that your planet is technically but not yet officially part of the city because we couldn’t see that thing from your house. If it were, then… well. A lot of other things would be different besides, but we also would have picked out that big old toothpick from your neighborhood.”
There was quiet for half of a minute, then. They meandered down the sidewalk, moving at that pace that all good leisure assumes in due time, one gawping, the other taking the chance to change his every-day mental filters. It was a fantastic place, the Parsed City-State. Infinite distance in multiple directions and highly disparate senses, best described by outlining a very strangely-dimensioned manifold and making a fractal from it.
To the opposite side from where Ktsn’s home was stretched out like a biopsy sample, the industrial-growth fields were stretched out like a massive garden. A hundred hundred flavors of synthwood sprung from the dirt: crystalwillow, steelteak, plastic-oak, enamel-oak, trees that shed tungsten cones, trees that had cores of exotic matter wrapped in vacuum-tight phloem. A hundred hundred ways to say, “Yes, we CAN engineer life out of uproariously inappropriate chemistry, what of it?” The greenware moderating systems between them positively seethed with digital legions that chose to be unseen and unheard.
In the farther distance, hemming in the park on every side, buildings of numerous styles and sizes huddled into subsets representing the bleary hazy madness that was the cross-section of society as a whole. Hives and half-hovels, reefs and condominia, avant-garde cathedrals beside neo-Ulther style high-rise living-houses, a thousand garages around one supermassive stadium. No single material predominated the construction patchwork, and no single material lacked use on some building somewhere. Frequently, they stacked one upon another; stories chewed apart by midair plazas, separating completely irreconcilable differences in design. Each geological layer of the city was technically just that, a slapdash existentially-large bedrock platform hoisted n-plus-one kilometers high by the mysteries of Rhaagm and buildings’ vertebrae.
“What is that?” became the refrain of the hour. Ktsn asked it as many times as she drew breath and had the self-control to point out the object of her curiosity. Many a person without experience in placating children or acting as a tour guide would have grown tired of the game long before the farmer. Eihks, an uncommon sort on several fronts, was used to and enjoyed continuous inquiry. He kept the material flowing the entire journey.
“That’s what we call a disk. Yes, just like the thing back at Goskec Tktl. They’re… think of them like carts or wagons, but they carry people and things without needing a creature pulling them.”
“Doors. They look weird. They do what doors do.”
“Ah! That’s a holojector. Those are a bit complicated, but – you remember how you saw all those faces in the sky? Same sort of thing, but smaller, usually. They’re useful in all manner of situations.”
“No poking, he’s a nice dut gentleman, I’m sure, don’t bug him. Please.”
“That’s a – oh, that? That’s a directory. If you want to get around, you need to know where to go.”
“Hahahaha… urgh… I’ll tell you about THAT one later.”
“Advertisement. They’ve got a special event coming up for metallurgical artists and physical material scientists. Back there, at the big shiny green building.”
“Hush! Don’t point at that person. It’s a mannequin. The one next to it is what is called a ‘skitcher.’ Think of them like special guards. No, it won’t get us in trouble, but we don’t want to get any more attention from the law right now than we absolutely need.”
“Squawks. They’re little flying creatures that go where they please. If you want to see how they taste later I’ll be happy to get you a sandwich… I’ll show you what a sandwich is as well, I suppose.”
“I think all those people are part of a Process Capture congregation. Ah, yes; that woman at the front is wearing the vestments. Yes, that’s a woman. Their beliefs have to do with the veneration of particular ontological and superstructural… never mind. They’re part of a religious assembly. They’ll be going around in circles for a little while and meditating.”
“That’s a moon projection. It’s like a real moon but not. I’m afraid that explaining in any more detail will require you to either listen to me using words that’ll take half the day to clarify, or pick up some ancillary knowledge yourself first.”
“Ooh! Kitty! That’s a cat. Cats are nice. Domesticated animals native to the place whence my own people come, long ages past. They’re- Oh! OH! I’m sorry, sir! I assumed you were a non-sentient, my offense was out of ignorance. ANYway… that’s an uplifted cat. He’s a person like you or me, but sometimes a creature that looks like that will be an animal instead of a person. It’s complicated.”
“… that’s another door, Ktsn.”
They kept on in this way for some time. The ineffable shine and racket of the city’s riotous self asserted the existence of more answers, but the questions always bred faster.
Eventually they happened upon a seam in the city, about half a kilometer from where they’d crossed over from Ktsn’s home.
“Hold on,” said Eihks, warning his charge with one outstretched palm as they came up on the folding junction. “This might be unsettling.”
“What?” asked the farmer.
“You remember how we were just walking your countryside, and we came upon the city? This is going to be like that, but it’ll feel different. A lot different.”
In the event, Ktsn didn’t vomit or anything after getting a bit of an eigenhiccup in the fields mapping her to complex spacetime. She did pause for a step after they arrived, and he started to fret a bit when she began making a high nasal keening noise. It worked out in the end, though, once he patted her hand and provided numerous reassuring mutterings.
The delta of civilization’s river continued flowing and expanding around them, but a couple minutes later the little boat that was the human and the karkshesh came ashore next to a familiar structure. Delectable colors of nostalgic happiness, visible by only one of the pair. They had to wait for a huge number of cars and disks and cycles and slickers and skid-riders and a coach-class flying carpet to pass them by. Eventually they got a free opportunity to cross the street, and then they stood before their destination.
Nigel and Haeightkew, a finely-wrought flavor of housing solution. The place accounted for the entirety of the building measuring a cube five hundred meters to a side. Except for those areas where the city’s iconic and massive greatroads made themselves scarce, it was rare to see much larger sections of space set aside to do… well, anything. The upkeep of rent in such fine quarters would have ruined Eihks, but for the fact that he’d already been a tenant before the apartments became a neighborhood happening scene.
Vest-pocket restaurants that specialized in bringing the best rumor and company to the creme de la creme surrounded a chapel of the Way that a certain pioneer visited semi-regularly when able. One remote office for a particularly important research company, concerned with integrating foreign bodies into living anatomy, did business on the premises. More than a handful of the district’s Ganymedes’ off-season dwellings were to be found at Nigel and Haeightkew. There was even a moderate-sized privately owned folding and context hub, which had a very steep user’s fee but served outrageous amounts of traffic.
The outside was a riotous mix of wildly differing styles, all stolen from wildly differing cultures and crammed around each other in egalitarian disharmony: art deco balustrades leading from mangrove-wood arcades, massive teeth scrimshawed into likenesses of historic scenes, sheets of chemically-pure elements joined into prismatic geometries, bay windows crowned with minarets, glass battlements, bitumen ganglia tangled around themselves, a whole hall near the ground floor that was entirely insulated with living bees. On the inside, however, it was less a heterogeneous whole, and more a hundred tiny kingdoms engaged in cordial cutthroat competition.
Not for the first time, Eihks had to ask himself whether and how much his own presence might serve as an attractor, compared to the rainbow of variety that was the property’s character.
“‘In here, there dwell monsters and heroes and fossilized stars,’” he quoted. He frowned, hearing the lack of poetry in the line’s translation. Ah, well; Bangulorian couldn’t be equally appreciated across all barriers, he supposed.
“What?” the farmer exclaimed, angling her head up in confusion.
“Ah, it’s just that this is a place with a mixed bag of residents and businesses and whatnot, so don’t be alarmed when you see a lot of things that might seem thoroughly out-of-place.”
Eihks immediately pulled his charge to one side to permit a brace of demons passage, just as they were trying to leave by way of the front door. Very rarely did afterlife-facet denizens show up in Rhaagm, but the restrictions on travel to and from such places – on their native demesnes’ sides, usually – oftentimes made their visitations into permanent stays. Such stays were protested with highly variant levels of violence and philosophizing, but these gnarled white-hided fellows had little enough malice in evidence. Even so, the building security eidolons obviously had them under watch, given how many semi-automated perception mechanisms trained on them during their departure.
“Hello, sir!” bubbled a greeter spirit from just inside the front door, directing its attention to the odd pair. It noticed Ktsn. “And guest, I’m sure!”
“Hello there, Mene,” Eihks answered as he walked past. He gave a forehead-thumb to the haint, striding intently. He didn’t slow down for his charge, but he also didn’t need to do so; she was good at keeping a strong pace. Maybe not great at doing so for long distances, but this was hardly a Marathon. Gegaunli kaskshes, he guessed, would perform admirably in a lot of situations calling for an hour or less of absolutely grueling discipline.
They both got into an elevator, her shortly after he assured the woman that they weren’t going into a cell with only one exit just for the fun of it. Instant ascension followed.
About four hundred vertical meters later, they stepped out onto a landing. Eihks looked out over the banister, down over a grotesque little indoor field big enough for a quiet stubby artificial river, at people enjoying a few minutes of peace. A decent-sized boulder on the field’s edge supported a small herd of napping, chatting, laughing souls. A couple of them got upset when a child’s eye-wateringly neon kite came within a few fingers of inflicting concussive trauma.
“This city is most strange,” said Ktsn.
Eihks couldn’t disagree.
“You’re a part of it now, so don’t go making any negative generalizations just yet,” he advised. He didn’t actually hold onto her hand anymore, seeing as they were on a nearly-straight path to his domicile, down the hall and around one left hook. However, he stayed very close indeed.
“All of these people live here?” she asked.
Eihks motioned for her to step aside. They let a stream of close-packed youngsters flow by, following the manifestation of an instructor eidolon who was part of the building’s scholastic services. The kids were of the general persuasion common to many thinking species: exuberant in their enthusiams, quiet in their uncertainties, and as capricious as any living thing could be.
“Well, yes,” he said, “Rhaagm’s a large place as I said. Think of it like your village on a broader scale. Not just hundreds of people, but-”
“No; I mean, are all of these people individuals who live in this building?”
“Oh. Oh! Yes. Well, not all necessarily, but the majority of them, yes. They’re people who have quarters more often than not, unless the numbers have changed since I was last home, but some are visitors, and some might have their places of work located here without actually staying on the premises.”
“But… how do they have enough room to grow their food?” she asked. “I saw no gardens or farmland outside this building, and that-”
She indicated the verdant region on the lower level.
“-cannot possibly supply enough goods to satisfy all the people here! Even if there are ten such places in this building, and all the others are used to the fullest extent and efficiency, they could not manage the necessaries for… what, a thousand people who live here?”
“Actually, we have CONSIDERABLY more residents than a thousand, but we’ll get to that in due time. We make food without having to grow it.”
All the mysteries and all the wonders and all the miracles of existence splayed out before her, and her first true moment of incredulity arrives when contemplating the possibility of generative comestible production. Best to not even mention the slight recent uptick in people installing infusion-based digestion systems.
“I’ll show you!” he chortled back. “It won’t make sense on the face of it, but…”
He let his mouth turn down at the thought of recommending that she receive a cerv-mesh. That was a big bridge, no mistake.
“… you’ll understand it in due time. That and much else.”
Moving around a cart with several riders, he was about to say something else, and she to ask something else, when they reached the hook down to his apartment door and stopped dead.
“Oh dear saints and sinners, what penance do I now?” he half-whispered upon seeing the crowd milling around the front of his home. A positive refugee camp of pundits and journalists, both muckrakers and honest inquirers. Scattered in their number were fans, fans of fans, people who came along because their friends were going, and even a few anti-expansion activists all sprawled like weirdly shaped limbs of some dubiously friendly beast. Even as he watched, a few more swelled their ranks. They all conducted business, talking among their own number, but in a machined, fractionalized way. It was the sort of behavior one might adopt when waiting for something to happen, and trying to fill the time until it did while keeping an eye out for the commencement of festivities, all while standing on the verge of losing focus from exhaustion.
But, amiable day, they were saved additional wandering to find the promised land – their ambulatory Zion had come to them.
“Vermin without the manners to wait until the corpse stops moving,” Eihks growled. As the tide of febrile attention-seekers limbered up and maliciously walked in the explorer’s direction, he spoke to Ktsn in a whistling fury. The reproduction of a second tongue coming from his mesh sounded half-drowned.
“They might start saying or asking things that are aimed at you. If they do, respond only with ‘No comment.’ Alright?”
“I will do that,” the Gegaunli karkshesh shot back. “What is happening?”
“All these people are like…”
He struggled for a second to draw an adequate cross-cultural parallel.
“Think of them as bards, with less interest in writing good songs, and more interest in writing songs which are popular – no matter what they have to do to get there.”
“Are popular songs not usually good?” asked Ktsn, almost indignantly, as the wave rushed onward.
“Oh, maybe in your experience. I envy you that if such is the case.”
The crowd began lapping up against the two step-stomping people. Eihks managed at the last moment to grab her hand once more, lest the frenzy separate them and begin filleting their individual living egos. Camera utilities, lighting apparatus, magical recording means, sensory suites running the length from “baby’s first” to “supermaximum quality,” and even fifteen or sixteen pads full of interpolation paper being used by a man who was either dedicated to the point of being mentally ill or just mentally ill outright. These and many more weapons made war on dignity and discretion with a fanatic fervor.
“Mr. Richard, have you ever passed along your condition?”
“Mr. Richard! Mr. Richard! Did you start your career before being revived or after?”
“Sir, would you consider yourself happy with the outcome of your service in the cause of the city?”
“Excuse me,” murmured a bent-backed kink-tailed kindly fregnost matron, leaning toward Ktsn. How she’d gotten so close without being trampled herself was a bit of a conundrum. “How are you enjoying our fair city thus far?”
Now, that woman was dangerous.
The farmer, not knowing Rhaagmini from the random twitterings of squawks, fixed the fregnost’s nearest arm with a single curious eye as Eihks pulled her along. She didn’t reply.
“Mr. Richard, are you engaged in an affair with this native?” hollered a pohostinlat, who – wonder of wonders – appeared faintly ashamed of asking the question.
Another six or seven needling probes.
Someone asking about Eihks’s family relations and whether THEY were also Tufcich specimens.
“Mr. Richard!” came a voice that was caustically agreeable. Eihks caught sight of Sheyey Duspink, careful and intentional antagonist of the Journals of Gem Pioneering for years, approaching with a whetted smile. Her expression said, “We don’t have any problems here, do we?”
“Did you deliberately construct the circumstances of your resurrection, or did you let most of the chips fall where they may?”
Her voice, brazen and mocking, shot across the others vying for their fistfuls of flesh. Eihks gave her a look. His face contorted, his mouth beginning to open. Sheyey’s brow arched with dignity.
A mad giggle began to creep up from his throat. There wasn’t much of a reason for it at first, just an abstract formulation and repeating the words of her question in a funny mental voice. Then, upon seeing Sheyey’s expression falter ever so slightly, he had an image of himself losing it and her grin shattering like hammered glass. That, of course, was hilarious, and made him half-snort. He caught the laugh behind his incisors where it struggled to get out with all its might. As his change in composure registered, his nemesis’s face quivered, a gelatin with poor viscosity.
When the laugh came out, had it been a paperweight or other similar knickknack, its inertia and direction would have outright beheaded one Sheyey Duspink.
Oh, she hated that.
Watching how she tried to freeze her expression, this woman who over many years had nursed a scientist’s enmity for what they cannot control, he imagined the wheels of brain trains slipping their brain tracks. That was it, that was the end, he absolutely lost it. If laughing could still hurt, he’d be unsteadily trying to ask someone to cut short the agony.
The hysteria put most of the crowd off for a second, then they grew teeth and claws and they dug back in. All the while, Eihks was almost jiggling, honk-braying his incredibly obnoxious guffaws. Continued questions began increasingly directing themselves toward Ktsn, since her lanky companion obviously wasn’t answering anything until he got under control. For her part, she seemed to actually be considering if it might be safer to gnaw off her own arm in the name of self-preservation. Unfortunately, articulating that thought extended his fit by several more seconds.
Bringing himself to a standstill, he brandished his teeth at his old spinster foe and slowly turned away.
“No comment!” he eventually wheezed.
Who knew people would go with THAT performance. Pestilent misfortune… but oh, it was good to wipe that condescending female’s face clean for an instant.
The human and karkshesh managed to more-or-less force entry into the apartment with themselves as biological battering rams. An almost audible moan of disappointment snaked into the entryway after them.
“I’m well and truly fed up with those sorts of people!” he said with a smile, engaging the apartment’s noise-canceling and banishing the windows into nonexistence. Slapping his hands together to dislodge psychic dust, he stepped farther into his dwelling after the stationary Ktsn. He took stock and was relieved to see things hadn’t changed in the slightest.
Messy, when being honest, was a very kind term for his lifestyle.
He picked up a few things littering the floor, and cleaned up a pile of crumbs on the edge of the table with his dæmon cluster. He got to setting up a chair for himself and a seat for his karkshesh guest, and began cooking up a meaty supper in his rarely-used culinary unit.
As he did so, he tossed around the likely outcomes of his encounter with Ms. Duspink. Probably not amazing, but time would tell.
“Make yourself at home!” he told his newest associate, as he discarded his jacket.
He was making himself at home as well while he gave such advice.