“I don’t want to shoot anybody here today. I still did, though. Eight times. Don’t make it nine.”
A trio of auditors wordlessly beheld the small man with the gun.
In other circumstances, the man’s appearance would have raised many questions – how he had gotten to their floor of the Tower, why he had not been preceded by an announcement, what had convinced the other auditors of the Tower to leave his gun in his possession. The answer to all these questions was the same: he was an Old. If he did something, a sane person usually just hoped their wellbeing was in his interest and let the rest sort itself out.
The term “gun” did the weapon an injustice, regardless of the tongue used to speak the word. As a fregnost, Garnihi came from a people some other, less-educated people identified as gun-crazy. He knew his firearms extensively, had a relatively small collection of three or four hundred himself, but that was it. The thing held by the Being of Old named Target… now, that was a gun in the way that the Ripper was scary.
Fregnosts and humans had numerous differences. One kind had four arms and a tail, the other kind had very flexible lips. One had an exceptional mastery of hunting and outdoorsmanship, the other could adapt to get by in nearly any circumstances. However, both largely held guns as objects of tremendous symbolic importance (though one could excuse humans as holding nearly everything as an object of tremendous symbolic importance).
Garnihi’s culture had oft contemplated the “first gun,” the definitively chronologically initial creation from which all modern fregnost guns derived. In that instant he knew a nearly choking certainty that what he was looking at must have been the grandfather of the legendary progenitor of firearms. It was abbreviated and vaguely angular in a way bringing to mind a glued-together jumble of knucklebones, and it felt older than Rhaagm’s foundations.
“Let’s talk,” said the man in something between a conversation and a whispered imperative. It was like each word was tied to a bullet of air on a string, pulled from a depth of lung beyond time and space. The consonant-favoring accent, like its owner’s features, managed to hide its forgettability right until the instant it left one’s mind. Dark, short, a pair of concentric scars circling the right eye off-center. Striped clothes, gray scarves, black and red surfacing from the unfocused haze of the man’s attire.
The gun spake thrice.
Before Uslodineg, Garnihi, or the oleethf could ready combat functions, the small room’s floor tiles chittered. Two stools of appropriate height for seating a fregnost or pohostinlat somehow erupted from a too-narrow bore, closely followed by a pair of chocks for the oleethf’s large wheel. The wooden articles pranced to a stop just in front of the auditors.
“I assure you, if I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t live long enough to know about it.”
The short human smiled with dry amusement.
Garnihi believed him. Whatever he had just done with the gun was not magic nor rapid assembly of matter. It was something unique, not apparently bound by any orthography of laws, either natural or artificial.
“I’m willing to listen,” he said cautiously, sliding onto the stool graciously shot for him. In actuality, it had slightly more lacquer than wood, he thought. His fellow auditors likewise adopted poses of attention, though the oleethf took a moment to properly bracket its wheel with the chocks.
The human laughed, a jolly sound of pleasure.
“Good. Like I said, I’d prefer to avoid any more incapacitations today.”
The Being of Old crossed his legs and dropped to the floor. His smile cut its own throat and passed away messily.
“Because there’re going to be others of my kind coming to visit soon. Not to enjoy your hospitality and catch the latest hoop-hook games, or strike up careers as life advisors. Your n-minus-one utilities and specialist’s tools’ll serve you no better than they would against me.”
The short man radiated danger so potent it practically made a binary set: to be sufficiently distant meant life, to draw close meant death.
Garnihi watched the man’s fingers as they ran down the shining weapon like a lover’s face. He startled a bit when a cylinder detached from the gun, and Target spun the metal object on one finger.
“Hold out your right hand,” he rasped, “all of you. Either of your rights will suffice, sir fregnost.”
After complying, the three auditors saw the Old brandish the cylinder jerkily through the air, three times. A grainy shaking sound came from the object. Activating his overclocking, Garnihi watched three clouds flow from one end of the thing, which resolved into… salt.
To his amazement, every single mineral speck found its way safely into an outstretched cupped palm. Just a dash, but to Garnihi it felt like it weighed as much as a moon.
“I’ve been giving lots of gifts lately,” said the Old. “Salt’s often thought of as lucky, where I’m from.” His smile returned as a grim line, and his salt cellar returned as an indistinguishable component of his weapon.
“Luck’s one thing you’ll definitely need in the coming days.”
Garnihi felt a sudden urge to flee, leave Rhaagm, and never return. Instead, his ears flicked at lice of the mind.
“Armed assault of persons under this government’s employ is a dire offense, and puts you in the category of a felon, sir.” He was amazed at his own audacity even while the words fell from his mouth.
“Yes. And that kind of bravery deserves commendation.”
Huge teeth split Target’s face in a genuinely happy smile.
“It was necessary. Don’t fret your heads about it, the victims’ll live to complain in their current bodies. But before you call your superiors, I need to tell you what I told the other auditors here today. What I need to keep from getting onto the Monolith at nearly any cost right now. So shut up and listen, alright?”
The auditors’ noiseless quiescence was answer enough.
“Excellent!” came the abysmally jolly laugh. “There’ll be a fight quite soon, I assure you. Between contestants like myself. The opposition’ll be interested in doing things to this city and its occupants in the name of keeping us busy. Things that produce a monumental body count.”
The gun spun about a single finger like the gaudiest and most lethal ring ever forged. When it stopped, it pointed perfectly straight up, and had abruptly unfolded into some long needle-thin rifle.
“Everyone more than six thousand kilometers but less than twelve million kilometers from the Tower ought to be evacuated for safety. Unfortunately, that won’t work out perfectly. Furthermore, a large number of people outside that range’ll also buy it. Even so, it’s better than saving nobody.”
A fatalistic gesture that conveyed honest but overfamiliar regret.
“How by unholy Hssi do you expect that to get accomplished?” demanded Uslodineg, showing the composure of a miserly dragon with a toothache. The pohostinlat drew up a readout on one of the districts near the edge of a six thousand kilometer radius circle around the Tower. “There’s one of the best case scenarios: only half a trillion people in the district, and it only covers a height of nine hundred thousand kilometers. What possible means could we use to displace that many people to some location that far from their homes?”
“Force,” answered the Old in a pinched, harsh voice. “For that matter, you’ll have to do so with less than two days’ notice.”
“For each district!?”
“For the entire region.”
Garnihi felt numb.
“You’ll get that much advance warning,” continued the Old, “but no more. This’s all going to happen within a year, so keep a watch for word from myself or… other sources.”
He smiled mirthlessly.
“Congratulations on winning yourselves an interesting task. Now, do your best.”