Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rist: Episode One

I remember Talibarr, during the time of the Closed Gates...


The pigeons mocked Rist. Squabbling, clucking and flapping about the dark recesses of the partly collapsed canal-tunnel the plump birds managed to avoid the sharp stones of his crude sling. He was hungry and they were not cooperating. Each stone he cast brought him another few steps deeper into the enclosed section of the broken tunnel that jutted out from the weed-choked mounds of rubble left over from the Severing or some other, less dramatic disaster. Murky, oil-slick water filled the stagnant old canal. The debris formed a dangerously loose slope that acted like a funnel that would take larger creatures down to the nasty water at the bottom of the tunnel. Right within the killing zone established by the spiders who prowled above the stagnant water. If you were quiet enough, stayed still and watched you could sometimes see their eyes glittering like hungry stars over the dark, mostly buried waters. Rist could smell the musty-sweet scent of decay and fungi wafting gently from the darkness. Garbage, debris and the remnants of other creatures’ meals littered the place, threatening to fill-in the canal and making the once flat areas on either side both slippery and treacherous. Here and there along the canal a few of the obelisk-mounted orb-lamps still glimmered like left-over stars from some previous, aborted universe. Rist didn’t pay much attention to the lamps or to what might have happened years ago. He didn’t care about distant stars, dying lamps or much of anything else at the moment. He was hungry and the stupid pigeons weren’t letting him hit them with his carefully chosen rocks.




Like most of the refugees and scavengers huddled around the flickering fires of the dry ledges or the less fortunate denizens of the low zones, Rist was starving. Rats, geckos, beetles or pigeons – everyone hunted whatever they could catch in the shattered tunnels, clogged canals and overgrown parks of the low zones. It wasn’t that going without food was so strange a sensation for the little fellow. He’d had to go without food in his belly plenty of times all through his life. It was the nature of the hardscrabble lower precincts. Sometimes you had to leave your kill for others to eat so they didn’t eat you. There were a lot of opportunists and scavengers all about the place. Roving bands of feral children of every conceivable type loitered and meandered hungrily about the lower precincts fighting with swarms of roaches and gangs of rats. Then there were the stinking, biting beetles who seemed to be everywhere snapping their nasty mandibles and scouring the dark places of anything or anyone who sat still long enough for them to devour them. As if flesh-eating beetles weren’t bad enough, there were the shambling coteries of misbegotten freaks and the screaming-choirs of the rafter-zealots that even the refugee camps turned away, but worse than even the drooling degenerates who made masks of their kills were all the spiders. The old canals were canopied with dense layers of webs littered with the bones of countless birds. Spiders were the real rulers of the low zones. And there were lots of spiders. Big ones. Hungry, clever things the size of wild boars or bigger. Thankfully, they tended to stay in their webs. Rist knew all about the spiders. He had grown up watching them, learning from them, even praying to them on occasion. He knew that they were without a doubt the most feared things dwelling in the lower precincts. He respected their power. Being a smallish, twisted little thing, Rist needed to use his wits to survive. Where others had vicious talons, wicked fangs or brutal weapons both manufactured or bred to serve, Rist had no such gifts. He was a drijj, one of the chimaeric creatures given life by the decadent manipulations of bored and jaded Genartists before the Severing, back when the gates still worked.


Drijj were small, waifishly thin and spindly-looking things with a somewhat humanoid cast. They were bipedal with a stunted, slouching posture that conveyed submissiveness and inoffensiveness. Huge, lemur-like eyes and sensitive ears helped them navigate in cramped, dark places few others willingly went. In many ways that fairly summed-up drijj – too small and bitter-tasting to serve as prey, too weak to be any kind of overt threat, they were squeezed out of all the good places and into the regions no one else wanted, claimed or valued.


Once upon a time scholars had argued over the exact taxonomy of creatures like the drijj, now no one cared. They were beneath the notice of most inhabitants of the Talibarrian Archipelago who had far more pressing concerns to address, such as day-to-day survival. Rist, like most of his kind, was oblivious to his genetic lineage. He didn’t see rat or raccoon traits in his striped tail that shed itself hairless every summer, nor did he ponder over the splotchy piebald markings on those areas of his skin where the bristly opossum-like hair tended to clump. It wasn’t relevant. No one cared. Truthfully, if there was anything in his genetic make-up that a drijj like Rist had going for him, it was the vile ammonia-stench of his pock-marked skin and the toxicity of his blood that combined to make Rist an entirely unappealing morsel to the myriad predators and scavengers surrounding him. Even the spiders preferred not to waste effort on a drijj. They’d kill the little things, as they ruthlessly and efficiently killed anyone who crossed into their territory. But spiders rarely, if ever, sucked the blood of a drijj. It was a well-known fact known even to the lowest animals that no one dined on a drijj and lived. They were a worthless waste of time at best, a foul, lingering and completely avoidable death at worst. Even roly-polys, the inoffensive foot-long pill-bugs were better tasting and more useful as their flexible carapaces could be smoked into something resembling tough leather and worn as armor even by the smallest of the feral children.


But even a worthless drijj needed to eat. Pigeons were good raw or roasted. Rist had eaten them both ways and would take whatever he could get. His stomach growled imperiously like an empty tyrant who goaded him onwards with vicious hunger pangs. The pigeons ignored him and his rumbling belly, only moving the least bit necessary to avoid another one of his stones. Then he was out of ammunition. Muttering curses at his chosen prey, Rist scrambled back down from the piles of detritus and cast-off bones to go look for suitable sling-stones. He nervously checked that his knife was still in his ragged sleeve, suspended within the dirty folds and greasy creases by the precious few strands of spider-silk he had patiently peeled off of one of the multitude of pod-like victims the spiders left hanging all over the place. Rist had observed that the spiders made at least two kinds of silk; the sticky strands that would trap you, and the heavier non-sticky stuff that they used to weave and support their webs. He still carried a crude but effective improvised rat vertebrae-spool of the non-sticky web-strand that he used to climb down into ravines, gullies and other holes from time to time.


The spider-silk had come in handy but it was his knife that was like a talisman to Rist. Unlike the dangling collection of gnawed and abstractly scratched rat bones, colorful beetle carapaces and painted gecko vertebrae he wore as charms against the multitude of horrors both real and imagined out in the world, the knife that Rist carried was also a tool and a weapon. It allowed him to open things, cut things, maybe even defend himself if he’d ever have the courage to make a stand against some hypothetical but inevitable assailant. The knife always felt good in his little hands. The ceramic material always felt warm and alive from the least contact with his skin. It was as close to a friend and companion as he had ever known. Some times he tried to pray to the knife, but it never answered him. But Rist didn’t hold that against the knife. It still cut things. It still served him. And it never asked for anything in return. Ever. In his own way, Rist loved his knife.


Rist scurried back out into the sunnier part of the park just above the sunken opening of the broken canal-tunnel. He shimmied and scrambled up over tumbled scree and gnarled clumps of weeds like stunted bushes that had sprung up where the tunnel’s roof was missing and the vines dangled down like a green waterfall of fronds and tendrils. Rist knew better than to try and climb the vines. They sometimes would entangle unsuspecting or careless animals within their thorny tendrils and slowly squeeze the life out them, sucking their blood and juices all the while like vegetable vampires. Even with the dangling cadavers hanging like ornaments within the vines, the air here was cleaner, less fraught with the accumulated stink of death and decay than the tunnels below. Maybe it was the breeze. Rist didn’t much care. He was on a mission. He moved about looking for suitable bits of rock, metal or anything else he could use to bring down a pigeon with his sling. He worked quickly for fear that the fat little birds would fly off to another roost or get taken by someone else. There had been a group of feral hybrid children down here earlier that morning. Rist had watched them kill an old badger that had dug out its den in the rubble heap they had picked to scavenge from. They bashed the animal to a bloody pulp with makeshift hammers, tongs and some sort of saw-thing made from a shard of transparent material they’d probably collected from one of the Broken Towers back towards the Plazas. You could still find splinters and sharp-bits left over from when all the shiny windows shattered outwards all over the plazas. A lot of the time people didn’t see the things until someone stepped onto one and lost a couple of toes. Rist watched the kids kill the badger from his perch until they had given up on it and wandered off looking for other things to kill or easier pickings. The rubble down there was fairly sparse to begin with, aside from noxious weeds and cracked pavement covered with mud and rubble. So much rubble. For a moment Rist wondered what it all came from, but he lacked any real idea of what had been lost when the city had fallen into riots and ruin. What mattered was that the feral children were gone and that he was able to pick out a good supply of ammunition unmolested and ignored. Just the way he liked it.
 
To Be Continued...


Part Two
Ristdex / Index Page

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fighting Words

"According to the Tourist Database, and I quote: 'Devukarsha, the self-declared City of Tiers, is a massive terraced-metropolis built like a staggered mega-ziggurat that leans drunkenly against and is carved deep into the very walls of the Southernmost face of the Great Rift of Riskail.'  This city is magnificent and it only merits a single sentence in the Popular Guidebooks?  A crime, surely." The Geriatric tenaflure in elegantly batiked purple robes resumed his seat with a resigned expression bordering upon disgust and distrust for all published resources.

"All roads lead to harbors where one can book passage to Devukarsha, or they simply are not worth traveling," slurred a drunken clerk from some obscure private archive who'd only gotten admitted to the party by claiming to be some distant relation to a minor satrap from Xilgao.  Security admitted him more to prevent a scene than out of any real respect for spurious foreign potentates.  It was just easier to let the braggart in than to deal with his fussing and recriminations.  In a way it was social blackmail, but a very common form of it, and one that one had best come to terms with early-on in their career or abandon event security altogether.

"Very good sir." The tenaflure perked up;  "I believe that it was Vu Chong himself who once remarked; 'Devukarsha squats provocatively over the river Senube and its attendant canals as it welcomes all the world to come unto it, enter it, and become infected by it like some fat, overly-decorated whore from one of the impromptu sailor's markets down along the waterfront.'  You have something of a poet to you perhaps." He looked earnestly at the plump clerk in the saffron waistcoat and lederhosen.

Encouraged in his increasingly lugubrious state, the clerk prepared to wax poetic to the fullest extent of his all too meager abilites.  Holding forth on his cherished and precious opinions was second only to talking about himself, in terms of his favorite topics of conversation.

"Devukarsha is a sprawling, decadent and thoroughly wicked city-state that has become a great power unto itself, just like ancient Rome under the Han Dynasty with their Olmec mercenaries and Rus jannissaries struggling valiantly to hold together the crumbling empire of the never-setting sun against the forces of corporate barbarism in the final age of annexation before the First Diaspora. Devukarsha stands (leans, really) as a last bulwark against vast and inexorable forces--"

"Surely the Han Dynasty was an African power, not a European power, unless I am mistaken." A woman clad entirely in pearls, and nothing but the finest imported pearls, interrupted his stream of consciousness.

"And the Olmecs were Americans, I believe they were part of the United States at one time," chimed-in another woman wearing a diaphanous cloud of a demi-tunic ensemble that barely managed to conceal her exceedingly pulchritudinous immodesty.  She levelled a thoroughly vacant glare at the clerk whom she was beginning to suspect of being a fraud, and not the good sort of fraud either.

Thankfully a Contractor-Captain of the Guard, one of House Entrvent's Company from the look of his silver cuirass, casually produced an antique firearm and promptly shot the clerk through his forehead.  It was an exquisitely masterful shot, a true demonstration of military puissance.  All the small coterie smiled, smirked or clapped their approval--all of which was ignored by the shaggy-maned mercenary as he replaced the baroquely-etched twenty-six shooter back into the holster, spat once on the corpse in disgust, turned and walked away.  The Contractor-Captain's psigil identified him as one Urslingen, late of Rheeshon.  Most of the usual personal data was blocked by black wards, which were technically illegal, if not an uncommon affectation amongst the sorts of barbarians who took to a life in the paramilitary.

His parting words were something to the effect of "Damn revisionists."

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Glimmering...

In the deep, in the dark, past all the debris and flotsam, something stirs ...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In The Works (Vignette)

Daivarru climbed down the brightly lit ventilation shaft past jagged thorncicles and serated bladevanes until he reached the section of the shaft’s internal ecology where everything had been smashed flat and smooth by the death throes of the wounded glide-nodule. He paused on the periphery of the packed-down detritus and debris. The translucent pod-like object was still there. It looked safely dead. But Daivarru knew better. Machines usually couldn’t lie to him, not without going to extreme measures or using capabilities that many of them lacked. The heavily damaged glide-nodule was sleeping, deep-code repair routines running softly at the very threshold of sentience or thinkability. No one would notice it unless they knew where to look for it.  He was one of those who intuitively knew where to look.  He was good with machines.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tributary Gate: The Red Marshes

Just past the island of green egrets and the Bridge of the Six Fingered Glove, there is a small, sluggish channel that leads to a Tributary Gate.  The world on the otherside of this gate is registered as simply Red Marshes.  It was documented originally by a Siluroi canal-scavenger who was viciously mauled by a nastyjelly bloatslime that ruptured nearly a third of their exposed tissues when it injected a good deal of itself into her flesh.  That being how the bloatslimes kill their prey--injecting themselves into another creature through a fast-acting pressurized form of kinetic-osmosis.  They literally insert hundreds of microcappillaries into your body and then force themselves right on in, rupturing cells, ripping-apart blood vessels, and exploding muscle tissues.

She was fortunate to survive the encounter.

Her offspring have become very adept at hunting, trapping and taming a wide array of nastyjellies and they are specialists at handling bloatslimes.  It has become their family business.

The Red Marshes get their name from the deep red color of the ultra-humid skies, the red-tinted clouds, the predominently red chlorophyll of the plants, and so on.  The air is so humid that the glare from the sun makes it impossible for most people to discern where the water ends, the land begins and the sky seems to just swallow everything.  It's a misleading and disorienting place to those not used to it and even then it can be treacherous.  The Siluroi and Lutrin, Venduu and various turtle-descended species have established raft-camps, pontoon-towns and a few unregistered enclaves past the Tributary Gate.  The Siluroi might take you out to one of the known locations, if you can name it or give good directions, but they aren't likely to volunteer information to outsiders, and especially not for free.

You'll want a good Guide out in the Red Marshes; the nastyjellies aren't the only things that might try to get at you--there are some fairly wicked leeches, razorflukes and freshwater urchins to consider.  Some riverfolk have taken to saying that there are gavials, slasher-fish, hooksquids, devilfish (oversized freshwater pirahnas) and bad garfish out in the Red Marshes as well.  Things that might eat a person whole as soon as spit them out.  Then there is the matter of spawning pools.  No one wants to trespass on a Venduu spawning pool.  You might not be afeared of fish, invertebrates or poisonous crustaceans, but you sure as anything won't want to go mucking aroud in a Venduu's spawning pool.  You'd be wishing you'd ran into a big ol Gatorbear, a whole pack of hungry gatorbears, if'n you blundered into a spawning pool.

Nope, if you're going to visit the Red Marshes, you'll be wanting a Guide and your boots are the last thing you'll need to worry about.  And don't forget your copy of the River Almanac.  There's a recipe in there for sucker-spine crawdads that is simply out of this world.  Them's good eatin' y'know.  Or at least you would if'n you read the Almanac.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Twilight on the Zonges River (Vignette)

On a clear twilight in the early summer in the Northern Hemisphere of Seleucis, you can hear the frogs singing and the insects whirring while you fall asleep on a lily-pad raft poled along by Liteng river-guides. The lampbeetles and flylights have all been shooed-away, back into their baskets and tinted jars along the edges of the lily-pad raft so you can better soak-in the luxurious jade of the deepening dark. The humidity isn't so bad, once you get used to it, and you never knew that trees could be quite so fragrant. Now you know why scentificers from Noss are known to come to Seleucis seeking after rare scents and aromatic herbs. You drift off to sleep as the River Zonges laps against the lily-pad raft, gently rocking it like a cradle. Maybe you shouldn't have had that third shroom-beer, but it was oh so good. Night descends and so do you, into a deep, relaxing sleep. What dreams might come to you in a place like this?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Black and Red All Over (Vignette)

Anastasia awoke screaming. The bugs were back. She could feel a faint hum building within her. It was getting stronger.  More insistent.  They were coming through again.  Before she could get out of the bed her skin erupted into a fine red mist as countless black-needles spontaneously tore through her flesh. All over her body thousands of tiny black things wriggled and pulsed. They were literally thrusting and pushing and crawling out of her skin. Again. Thrashing and wailing, she fell out of bed. Maybe if she got to the shower she could wash them out of her somehow.  The infestation was as intimate as it was obscene.  Her legs tangled in the blood-spattered sheets. For a moment she hung in the air almost suspended by her suddenly-arrested inertia.  She felt like a ballerina in slow motion.  The light streaming in from a half-shuttered window made the blood surrounding her look like a madonna's halo.  The moment of serenity flashed away into bright red pain.  A horrible spasm wracked her body and whatever ecstasy was to be had evaporated in the onset of agony, hideous violation and worse.  She flailed her arms about madly as she fell. Her head struck the night stand. The retro-faux lamp crashed to the dirty floor. She lost consciousness as her phone's alarm clock function went off. The last thing she saw was a cloud of fluttering black butterflies that rose up from around her like smoke. It was a beautiful thing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The High Tombs of Yuddoth, Episode Four

Skran started awake.  It was warm.  Hard and dark, but warm.  And close.  He was in a small place, one with little air movement.  It reeked of sweat and sphinx piss.  Not being able to get at him with her talons, the sphinx had thoroughly marked the spot.  The sharp scent helped him clear his head a bit.  No way was he going to scoot himself ass-backwards into the delicate and tender embrace of the sphinx.  Uh-uh.  The little bit of sleep he'd gotten had helped restore some sense of proportion to things.  He wasn't stumbling about in a daze any longer.  His stomach grumbled.

On hands and knees, re-opening numerous small cuts and abrasions as he went along, Skran crawled deeper into the darkness, going forwards into the unknown regions behind the low-ceilinged niche that had given him momentary sanctuary from the enraged sphinx who clearly had been eyeing him with bad intent. One painful inch after another Skran dragged himself along the slightly sloping incline of stone.  Each piece so well fitted into the others that he could only feel the barest hint of an edge to any of them.  The workmanship that had gone into the construction of this shaft and wherever it led had been exceptional, incredible even.  Like some tombs he'd once read about.

Shit.

Skran paused and got his breathing back under some semblance of control so that he at least didn't hypervenitilate or pass out.  He slumped back down to the sloping stone ramp leading upwards and deep, deep into the rimwall itself.  There was no doubt in his mind at all.  This was a part of some tomb, perhaps a ventilation shaft or something like that.  He rolled over onto his back and laughed until he cried then fell back asleep.  It was just too damn much.  He slept fitfully for a time and awoke still stressed-out and entirely displeased with the way things had turned out.  With barely the clothes on his back, beaten all to hell, bleeding and starving, with a pissed-off sphinx directly behind him and some unknown tomb before him Skran seriously considered becoming a priest, but it wasn't likely to help him out of his current predicament so he dropped the notion.  Skran did the only thing he could do.  He got back onto his hands and knees and started crawling forwards.  Better to confront uncertainty than to dive headlong into a sure, certain and grisly demise.  Sphinxes were spiteful creatures even when they hadn't been scorned or insulted.  Escaping from her after the chase they had run through the forest was about as dire an insult as he could have hoped to have slapped her with.  She would watch that niche and wait patiently for him to do the stupid thing.  In her experience monkeys always did the stupid thing. 

Skran decided to go the sphinx one better and go as far into the tomb as he could get. Maybe he could replace the reposing king from his gold sarcophagus and leave his own corpse in its place.  That would at least be a fine joke to pull.  A final flipping-off of the universe before falling headlong into that great good night.  Stupid as it was, it was better than just trying to get away from the sphinx.  He hated being caught-up in reacting to things.  It was better to choose a course and be pro-active instead.  So far he'd run his fool ass off in one big fat reaction, first to the jarpha mercenaries, the scale-hounds, and the petty lordling he'd managed to upset with his blunt commentary regarding the likely prospects of his less than scholastically-inclined offspring.  Enough was enough.  He had a plan and he'd see it through.

As ridiculous as that was, it made him feel better, sort of.

He was in a tomb, one of the most feared and superstition-shrouded places in the whole of the Great Rift and he chose to look upon it as an opportunity.  Maybe he could learn something interesting before he died of thirst, hunger or whatever else got to him.  He was a scholar damn it, and it was time he started acting like one again.

He just wished that he had a knife or something that he could at least try to protect himself with.  He might as well be naked going into a tomb completely unequipped, unprepared.  It would have been the height of folly had he chosen to attempt this from the beginning.

So he crawled.  He crawled some more.  He kept crawling and the incline got steeper until he was having to brace himself against the narrow walls in order to climb forwards and upwards.  The shaft became a sort of chimney.  Skran kept going.  Climbing through the darkness.  Panting, sweating, bleeding and climbing, climbing, climbing until he tought that he was going to vomit or pass out.  Then his hand passed over the lip of the shaft he was in.  He nearly lost his grip but managed to heave himself up over the edge and sprawl out upon a flat area.  He rested himself.  The climb had been difficult.  He'd barely made it.  The slim reserves that he'd regained before were depleted again.  Exhausted he fall into a deep slumber once more.

He awoke into a pearl-gray gloom.  Above him was a massive icicle stabbing downwards like the poinard of some primordial colossus.  Flickering lights played across the ice, reflected and refracted simultaneously.  Skran blinked away the dirt from his eyes and stood up slowly, carefully.  The ice was suspended quite a distance above him, not directly overhead as he at first had thought.  Above him there were numerous struts, catwalks, or spans running through the space, into the ice-mass and across to the other side.  A set of mirrors on elaborate gimbel-assemblies channeled the light of the rim-aurorae into the chamber.  It took him a moment but he realized that he could see the dawn-light just beginning to crest in one of the mirrors and it sank in that those mirrors would be focusing a lot of bright light into the ice-mass and the shaft-chamber would quickly become completely unbearable to be in--if the light didn't fry his eyes, the melting ice and falling chunks would pulverize him and carry him back down the chimney to his death.  Not acceptable.  He'd gone through too much to let some silly bunch of ice claim him now.  He looked around.  There were small apertures set all around the walls at regular, staggered intervals.  Most of the openings were far too small to accomodate him.  But there were two opposing pentagonal openings on either side of him that were quite large enough for him to pass through.

Skran sidled around the gaping chimney-shaft that he had only a short while before climbed up in the dark.  The light made it look far wider and much more menacing than it had appeared from inside the thing.  He felt light-headed.  Slightly dizzy.  He forced himself to keep moving, to grip the all too smooth walls and keep moving until he could look past the edges of the nearer opening.  He nearly fell again.  The opening let onto a vertiginous catwalk without any rails, a single span of paper-thin material that led across a dark space that could have been anything to a destination that appeared to be some sort of doorway from which streamed a soft orangish light.

He dropped back to his much-abused knees and reached forwards and downwards to touch the span.  It was firm and solid.  Knowing full-well that he just did not have it in him to walk, let alone run across the span, as much as he wanted to if only to get things over with once and for all, Skran resumed his cramped and painful crawl along the span.

An interminable aeon passed before him as he crawled onwards across that span surrounded by vast, undulant spaces that only seemed to be sheathed in darkness.

Finally, anti-climactically Skran pulled himself across the threshold of the open doorway and into the soft, orange light.  It was warm and inviting.  It felt good on his skin the way that sunlight does when the sting is taken out of it by the filters used on habitats and skyhook-trams.  The air was clean and the temperature was comfortable for a change, neither too cold nor too hot.  He had reached a space that seemed to have been deliberately designed for human comfort.  Not the sort of thing one would expect to find in a tomb.

"You look like you could use a friend." Came a small, squeaky voice off to the side.

Skran looked down at a spindly little humanoid figure.  It had bristly hair, large, round eyes, and the hang-dog look of a creature that got kicked around entirely too much.  He recognized it almost immediately as a drijj.  One of the least studied, most ignored and generally insignificant offspring of the genartists.  He laughed through cracked and bleeding lips and fainted at the feet of the silly looking little being.  It had been holding a type of wrench in its tiny hands.

Stealing Saints


Sunrise.  Six ass-clowns were pulling the cart along a muddy, heavily rutted section of a mostly forgotten service-road.  They'd be braying if it weren't for the ball-gags. It looked like rain.  Again.  Modrith sat uncomfortably on the driver's perch and held on to the shock-prod so that the mule-headed creatures kept pulling the cart along the poorly maintained excuse for a road.  It wasn't as if there was much else he could do.  It was his cart, after all.  At least it beat the hell out of marching through the muck and mud down below where various companies of soldiers and mercenaries were slogging along towards the Eastern Marches and the hostile weirdzones awaiting them there.

Modrith shuddered in revulsion at the very thought of the warzone to the East.  It just wasn't far enough away for his liking.  For anyone's liking.

The rain came in with a sighing hiss like ten thousand snakes in a crock of boiling water.  Sizzling red hail mingled with tiny violet frogs fell with the heavy drops, raising a pernicious mist from the soggy ground that threatened to seep its way into everything that wasn't tightly sealed against its watery trespass.  Modrith unfurled his umbrella and set it to hovering just at his left shoulder.  That way he could still manage the shock-prod if any of the ass-clowns got uppity or started to pantomime their displeasure at being out in the rain.  He hated mimes.  On general principles he jabbed the prod into the nearest ass-clown.  The cart lunged over another rut and they picked up some speed.  He just hoped that they wouldn't go sliding off the road with all the squished frogs under their wheels.  They were too far East, too close to the fallout from the weirdzones, he'd told Gadrox that.  But no one listened to him.

Rounding the far edge of a switchback, one of the countless myriad of the things cut all along the escarpment, ridges and tumultuously tumbled and jumbled terrain of the Great Rift, Modrith spotted Gadrox and the others just ahead.  They were already hard at work digging up the foundations of another eidolon that stood there impassively observing everything they did.  Circling himself from an instinctive dread of such things, Modrith brought the cart up and backed it into place with the skill of a long-time teamster.  Then he set about making sure that the old mass compensator was firmly in-place and still operational.  It had belonged to his grandfather and his grandfather before him, back to the days when the family had been respectable mechanics working on the docks and not vagabonds, cut-throats and thieves.  But that was back before the war before the last three, and on another world.  Things change.

He slid back down from the deliberately rickety-looking cart (which was far from it) and walked up to Gadrox who was standing back under a tarpaulin that only half-way covered the workmen digging up the eidolon.  As per custom they only nodded and avoided the use of each other's names while in the company of non-union labor.  A few choice gestures passed between them and they both understood the other well enough to get the job done.

The day-laborers grunted and swore in some brusque and unpretty language that was unfamiliar to Modrith as they heaved buckets of displaced soil, rocks and gravel up out of the deep trench they had dug all around the base of the eidolon.  Grunting his approval of their work, Gadrox took up a crysteel prybar and started to jab away at the anchor-plugs that mounted the upper sculpture to the lower base.  One after another of the heavy plugs snapped off at his insistent, expert strikes.  Tossing aside the prybar, he took up a phase-saw and began to cut through the topmost layer of the base.  There was no other realistic way to remove the thing as they were molecularly bonded, but one could cut through the material of the anchor-platform and make it into a sort of mini-base for the eidolon.

As Gadrox reached the half-way point in his cutting process, Modrith started bossing the day-laborers around, getting ropes slung over the eidolon to stabilize it and heavy mats slid into place to help them ease it into the back of the cart.  For once the drone-workers got things right, did what they were told and everything went smoothly.  The eidolon gave out a sharp crack and Gadrox shut off the phase-saw.  It teetered ever so slightly, then right on cue they started heaving on the lines, the pulleys of the block and tackle groaned and the eidolon tipped slowly, smoothly into the bed of the cart.  In moments it was done.  Modrith supervised the wrapping and padding of the eidolon for transport, lashing down everything so it wouldn't shift and take them careening off and down the steep embankment of the service road.  Gadrox got everything else gathered up and packed away into a battered old foldbox, then sprayed the site down with randomizing fractals so as to play merry hell with whomever tried to determine just who had stolen the eidolon.  The spray would make random connections to hundreds of different people and so thoroughly obscure the probability-trails and connections that it would take days for the best precog to sort it all out, and as everyone knows the best precogs were off serving in the war.  The second-raters left behind weren't up to the task.  It'd take them weeks, months or even longer to sort things out into some kind of sensible pattern.  By then they'd be long gone.  And the results would be so open to interpretation that the Union's lawyers could punch holes through any charges brought against them.

It might be dark days and the worst of times for some, but for Modrith and Gadrox these were the best of times.  Business was booming.  The market for authentic eidolons, even those lacking in registered records of provenance, was a far more lucrative one than many of the other enterprises they'd attempted off and on over the years.  It sure beat the hell out of marching down in the mud like those poor bastards headed off to war and it was a damn site better in terms of the actual pay-off than tomb-robbing ever had been.  And that was with all the surly ass-clowns, raining frogs, and the peculiar sussurative portents of doom that tended to lurk around the older eidolons.  Superstitious nonsense.  The curses inscribed into the base of each eidolon were just there to frighten children, not professionals.  Besides, their work was nearly done for the day and it was time to head back home.  Maybe they'd go for a drink at the Tavern of Three Bells later on.

(This story is dedicated to Telecanter)

That Burning Feeling (Tolsk)

SCRITCH-CHOCKKKKKK!

The pirate's head flipped free from his shoulders, rotated six times, then bounced across the otherwise immaculate hexagonal tiles of the cozy little courtyard.  His companions shifted uneasily in their places, each one not particularly liking their chances of taking down this Uncouth figure who moved like a panther and struck like lightning with the scythe-bladed axe-thing that he wielded like a maestro of deathdealing.

"I said: Do We Have A Deal?" the barbarian growled at the pirate captain.

"But what you are asking is insane.  The Magistrates--"

"The Magistrates be damned.  I have taken care of them.  They will not be a factor in this matter." He grinned savagely, humorously, the effect only deepening his grotesque grimness.

"But--"

SHOK-HOOOOMMPPHHHHH!

The scythe blade snapped out like a scorpion's tail directly into the soft belly of another pirate who had thought himself out of the man's reach.  He collapsed incredulously to the tiles as his ruptured guts spilled out over his twitching hand as he vainly tried to draw his knife.  Unrevenged and impotent, the pirate collapsed to the tiles, his knife sliding away from him in the growing pool of his blood.

"Will you please stop that?!  Good help is hard to find and I can't have you continually killing my crew just because you are being unreasonable."  The captain shook visibly.  If he had some way to counter the brutal bastard looming over him like a menacing avalanche about to fall, he'd have used it.  But they both knew that he had nothing available with which to oppose the bully from across the Great Western Wall.

"Agree to my plan and I'll focus my anger on those who've earned it and deserve it, otherwise you may need to find a new crew."

"This is madness--"

"Aye.  Madness.  Revenge, too."

For a moment the pirate captain stared into the smoldering blue eyes of the Uncouth giant.  He saw only death, destruction and dismemberment in those blazing pools of violence and unbridled aggression.  Tolsk was fierce enough when he was drunk, happy or asleep, but once someone had offended him, challenged him, or worst of all embarrassed him...well, he was all too capable of transcending his otherwise brutish nature to become an elemental force unto himself, a veritable whirlwind of destruction the likes of which the captain hoped against all hope that he'd never have to witness again.

"I see there is no way to dissuade you from this course, so aye, we'll play our part."

"You'd better."

"We'll be there.  It's a terrible chance we're taking, but should we succeed it'll pay a rich dividend, in some other port, of course."

"You'll be rich.  So don't whine to me about having to sail off to some other port to collect your due.  consider yourself lucky that our paths may well never cross again.  Now go get your crew ready.  I'll give you the signal to strike in one hour."

"But what will be the signal?"

"You'll know it when you hear it.  Just be sure that you don't hesitate.  It'd be a shame if something were to happen to your ship, or if the Oligarchs were to learn of your whereabouts."

"You wouldn't--"

"I would.  I will.  Now get moving.  We're on a schedule."  The big man dismissed the pirates with a sharp clap of his burly hands and they scattered like roachers into the alleys and passageways.  He kept his icy blue gaze on the captain's back as he at first tried to walk then jog then broke into a full-out run back to his ship.

Tolsk was not a man to take lightly.  He had no sense of humor.
An hour came and went and the Tavern of Three Bells was again crowded near to capacity.  Some mysterious benefactor had paid a princely sum to the landlord so that he'd pass out free drinks to all comers for the evening rush.  There was something said in passing of a celebration of sorts.  No one much cared.  The drinks were free and people were celebrating just fine without worrying about the particulars.

The brooding goliath leaned against the doorframe of a tenement just across and a little over from the front door to the tavern, glaring balefully at the place of his shame and intolerable degradation.  An unholy flame of retribution shone evilly in his eyes.

Thunder rumbled from out of an otherwise clear and starry night.  Another rumbling shook the docks in their pilings.  Sirens blared, people began to shout, lights shone forth from the far end of the waterfront where a third and even bigger explosion ripped through the hull of another ship.

Casually, almost nonchalantly, Tolsk strolled over to the front door of the tavern and proceeded to jam a heavy polycrete bench against the door.  He'd purloined the bench from the nearby park and dragged the thing all the way there just for this purpose.  Then he struck a light with his flamestick and poked it into the kerosene, fuel oil, brandy and other flammable substances that he had paid a group of urchins to douse the exterior of the place with.  Flames whooshed out and quickly raced out across the entire free-standing tavern.  The urchins had really out-done themselves.  Tolsk smirked in grim amusement.  The revelers were still mostly oblivious to what was going on.  But that was about to change.

Tolsk watched with satisfaction as the pirates took up their places, carts arranged in a half-circle in the cramped space behind the tavern, their planks set as ramps to facilitate loading and the pirates bristling with sharp poles, blades and prods.  He smiled.  It was good.  Very, very good.

Captain Rourke handed Tolsk his flamer personally.

"We're ready.  Did you have to sink all those ships just to--"

"What's done is done.  Let's get to work.  I'm about to make you a very rich man."

"Aye.  Rich and damned both."

Tolsk strode off back towards the front of the now blazing tavern.  Inside people were beginning to notice that things were not quite right.  Little things like the front door not opening to their touch nor even to their most strenuous attempts to force it alerted the less inebriated clientele that something was decidedly wrong.  Tolsk set about making sure that they understood just how wrong things had gone as he began to blast streams of sticky fire all over the tavern's facade, making sure to send great gouts of plasmic-paste streaming through every window.  Screams and shouts exploded from the tavern.  People stampeded out the back door, pushing, shoving, bawling and shouting as they fought past one another only to find themselves confronted by the pirates who then poked, prodded and drove them into one cart after another until finally every living person who'd been in the tavern was locked away within a slave-cart and on the way towards the Dainty Lady and their impending sale into servitude in some foreign port's slave-auctions.

Tolsk emptied his flamer into the collapsing structure that had been a tavern then threw the used-up weapon into the conflagration as well.  Wiping his sweaty hands he walked away from the blaze, headed towards the Low Esplanades and the small boat he'd rented earlier.  He intended to go explore some of the grottoes and not be available for any inquiries that might be directed in his direction as a former patron of the establishment destroyed in what would surely be labelled a heinous act of arson.  At some point he'd have to find his way back to Aegron in order to properly thank Parsons for the micro-torpedoes and the path-foiler.  They had come in handy after all.

A burned, battered and bruised young albino gentleman in the tattered remains of what had once been a jaunty, even festive outfit sat on the stinking straw of a crude cart pulled by non-descript labor-drones and watched the reactions of his fellows.  Some cried, others fussed, raged or swore mighty oaths, but all were ignored.  Proud and arrogant in the way that only the genetic aristocracy can truly be, Tridon Dumarl Alesquez leaned back into the hard collapsed-iron bars of the cart and watched and waited, absolutely sure of his eventual revenge upon whomever had dared to do this to a scion of his noble lineage.  If it took a hundred years or more, he would be revenged for this outrage.  But for now, he watched, and he waited, and he contented himself that all such things would surely pass and that he had all the time in the world in which to exact his revenge.

Epistomonikos

Epistomonikos.  Seruka stopped and looked up at the heavy slab of hand-carved, coffee-and-eggwhite jade that formed the frieze set over the portal to the Academy.  According to the tour guide this particular piece had taken the better part of thirty-three years for a single master-artisan to produce working only with water, fine sand, and her own hair which she used to wear down, smooth and carve the jade into an exquisite work of art.  It was profoundly sad, to Seruka at least, that this particular portal languished unused, neglected and overlooked by the throngs of students and faculty who surged through the over-crowded concourses and pushed their way through the insane clusters of loiterers along the various bridges connecting the campus-sectors that straddled or were separated from each other by canals or the river.  It was as if some sort of ant-like pheromonal trail had been laid-down and the mobs of scholars were too caught-up in it to look for a more reasonable alternative.  In some ways it frightened Seruka.  It could be seen as a form of slavery to the established ways of doing things, a collective type of communal conformity that forced everyone into the same rut for no more reason than that no one ever thought about it.  Tradition was a trail stamped down into a rut, or so her grandfather had always said, before the oneiropolice came and took him away.

Unlike most of her peers, Seruka could take nothing for granted ever again.  She had been close to her grandfather.  As she neared the age of mandatory inclusion, her family pooled what meager resources they could scrape together and paid the exhorbitant fees of the smugglers to get her out of the country. They had drugged her into a dreamless slumber -- in itself an offense that brought with it a penalty worse than death for those caught attempting to subvert the authorities -- but it had been the only way to get her past the constant psychic scrutiny.  She had to drop out of the collective dreamscape so that the oneiropolice and their psychounds would not notice her as they transported her past the razorwalls and mirrorfields.  Three smugglers had perished in the process.  The others considered their fellows fortunate to have escaped from the society that they had no choice but to return to--they were addicts, enslaved to the neurosoma distributed by the socialworkers and advocates who served the Guillotine-council, those frozen disembodied heads locked forever in telepathic-bondage to the Oneirarchs of Lashteel.  To stray too far from the domains of their masters would cause them to die horrible deaths as their brains curdled and psychopharmic fungi erupted from their nervous systems to form fresh colonies of the source of the milky neurosoma and extend the reach of the authorities.  Instead, the smugglers resisted as best they could, taking as many children as they could away from Lashteel, smuggling them out to make lives for themselves away from the society that had enslaved them.  In their own way, the convicts and derelicts were keeping alive the dream of freedom in a place where dreams were the only real currency and all existence was arbitrated by oppressive narcoleptic prophets who wielded the terrifying forces of nightmares against their own people as prison wardens and slave masters.

Freedom.  It was a word that left Seruka cold inside.  Freedom meant starving, losing one's family, giving up everything.  It also meant being completely at the mercy of every stranger and passerby one encountered in a strange, new city.  Freedom was fear and hunger and grieving and it made the scavengers come out at the very merest whiff of its scent.  Seruka distrusted freedom.  It had proven itself far from the utopian dream that the smugglers clutched onto in their desperate naievete.  In its own way freedom had been as capricious, cruel and abusive as the tyranny she had been 'saved' from.  What child can cope with a freedom they know nothing about and are ill-prepared to act upon?

But her grandfather had prepared her, in his own way.  He had taught her the knife and the pen, the reading of various forms of writing, and the banned arts of the proscribes.  She had been born into a family of criminals, intellectuals who preserved the old learning, the illegal skills and ways of a culture that had preceded the Oneirarchs, one that was not mired in the cold, hard dreams of dead men.  Perhaps her grandfather had some inkling of her fate, perhaps.  More likely he suspected that something like it might happen, or even more likely, he himself had instigated her removal from Lashteel.  It was the kind of thing he would have done.  It could even have been the very thing that had made him run afoul of the authorities.  But there was no use holding onto unproven or left-over guilt in her new life.  And it was a new life that she was building for herself.  A life founded on learning.

Seruka looked back at the jade frieze overhead.  She whispered the word reverentially; "Epistomonikos."

It was an old word from an old world that meant 'Making Knowledge.' The Academy at Devukarsha was a place that was focused, some would say even obsessed on just that; the manufacture of knowledge.  Like a barbarian-industrialist's soul-deadening prison-factory, the vast campuses of the Academy churned out an incredible amount of books, recordings, lectures, performances, tutorials, theories, and more.  It was a huge secular cathedral dedicated to the intricate arcaneries of learning and the ancient and accepted traditional methodologies of teaching.  One came here to study or to disseminate knowledge, to peel back the veils of ignorance, or to ponder great thoughts. Otherwise they found themselves driven away at the point of a blade -- and that only if they were fortunate not to have provoked a feud with some recognized authority, erudite specialist or tenured professor.  Seruka had come to this place to learn and she would fight to the death to protect her right to study, to gain knowledge, to make her mark on academia.  She still carried the matching pair of slim stillettos that her grandfather had presented her on her fifth birthday.  At first they had been longer than her arms and she had to wield them like tiny swords.  Now they fitted her hands like direct extensions of her will as only something long-practiced could ever do.

Practice.  The acting out of theory.  Her granfather had taught Seruka that theory was only half the puzzle and it would be a lame thing indeed without Practice to complete it, fulfill its promise and make things come alive into fertile actuality after a dry, sterile sojourn through the wilderness of the unreal, the imagined and the hypothetical.  Thoughts were indeed things, but only things gave a thought any real purpose.  Such was the prevailing mindset of the slender young girl from Lashteel as she crossed the threshold into the Academy grounds and made her way towards the basement archives where she had been assigned to assist the lesser under-curator's assistant with some menial and mostly pointless reorganization of the materials stored in the third cellar-level.  Each hour she spent in that cellar counted towards her scholarship and brought her a small stipend that made it possible for her to stay enrolled in the Academy.  And Seruka was determined to see her way through the mazes and minefields of academia no matter what.  Too much had been sacrificed that she might have this opportunity, and she was not about to disappoint her grandfather who had almost surely been executed for his mindcrime.

Blinking away someone else's second-hand tear, Seruka stopped to peruse the headlines and announcements scrawling and crawling across the datakiosk a few blocks away from the archives.  The war was going badly.  More scandals.  One of the Regents had been horribly maimed in a botched assassination.  Various test results and scores were now downloadable.  Blah, blah, blah.  The same old stuff that had been going on ever since her first day on campus.  Only some of the details were changed.  Everyone kept saying that these were 'dark days,' as if it were somehow the only thing one could say following upon three disasterous wars and the Fall of Sentallim, Karkosin and Drauve to the Enemy.  Dark days indeed.  For those city-states too far to the East to save themselves.  For Seruka these were fine days, filled with learning, and hard work.  She hated politics.  Her childhood exposure to despotism had dulled her appreciation of the whole thing.  The memory of her family still languishing under the tyranny of the Oneirarchs made her sick at heart and drove her on to better efforts, as if by her academic exertions she could somehow redeem or rescue them.

But it was her own redemption that Seruka was trying to earn through all of her intense studies and diligent efforts.

She turned away from the datakiosk in disgust and headed straight for the archives.  Her quick, sure steps dissuaded casual conversation and she sliced past all the foot-traffic in an almost surgically precise manner.  Larger even than the most extravagant manors and estates of the Nobility, at least in terms of objective real-estate, the Academy sprawled across nearly one full quarter of the city's various tiers, platforms, ledges and districts.  In her brief time enrolled within the Academy, Seruka had become used to a great deal of walking.  Unlike most of her fellow students, she rarely, if ever used the various municipal and campus gates to get around.  She preferred to walk.  It strengthened her legs and prevented her from being caught in clusters of strangers like the mobs that congregated around the most heavily-used gates.

She disliked crowds and distrusted gates.  Truly a most curious attitude for one living within a city packed to excess with both such things.

But she adored the Academy.  It was her home now.  A massive hive of erudition and learning consecrated to the ten thousand Secular Saints, the Academy was home to numerous Cliques, Cabals, secret societies (ssshh!), committees, panels, inquisitions, laboratories and more. More than a hundred libraries were liberally scattered across the campus, each one jealously guarding its share of the amassed wisdom and hoarded knowledge of countless millennia, all carefully preserved by hereditary archivists, librarians (both committed and freelance), specialists and curators who watch over priceless collections of the relics and detritus of humanity's long climb upwards from oblivion's very brink. Clerks, scribes, monastic illuminators and calligraphers (both digital and by hand and brush/pen) struggled to process the ever-growing back-log of monographs, dissertations, research findings, patents, and other pixel and paperwork generated by innumerable students, Scholars and Experts, many of whom occupied themselves in correcting the errors of the woefully ignorant past, censoring the scandalous lies of vituperative frauds of bygone eras, and offering expert critiques on just what was meant by the greatest intellects, philosophers and scientists of previous ages.  The place excited her, the very air invigorated her, made her feel alive in a way that she had not known was possible prior to her enrollment.  She had found her niche, her place in the grand scheme of life and she was happy though she didn't realize it.

The Academy was a place of learning, where wisdom was guarded like gold, information had run rampant, and opinions were necessarily defended by force of arms in scholastic duels and assassinations and that suited the girl from Lashteel just fine.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ravishing Virgins

The Smiling Gaijin III soared through the misty pre-dawn twilight, a predatory shape of indistinct grays and mottled, muted blues that some street-artist in Dribaan thought would fool anyone looking up from the ground.  At least the drunkard had been cheap to hire.  That had been about the last thing to go right on this voyage.  Noris stared down at the languid waves below, brooding over the chain of improbable events that had led him to seek service with a fool and scoundrel the likes of Bartolomeo Grell.

It did nothing to cheer him up.  This was a fool's errand they were on.  The least of the Recluse-Caliphs were no joking matter and Galhandro bin Ludri was by no means the least of their number, despite being an apostate, an idolator and worse.  The stories that the elder-beetles recounted around their dim sputtering fires that he recalled from his childhood days spent scavenging amongst the docks of Omece made his skin crawl, what was left of it.  Noris circled himself and spat to his left to ward off the ill-luck he could feel boiling up towards them from the ruby-paned walls of the tesseract estate looming at them on the horizon.

All about the once sleek but still servicable airship the crew of grim-faced jaikonts, spindly-limbed sloor and freethinking homunculi clambered and clumb, seeing to all the myriad preparations, on-going repairs and what-not that went along with moving the ship through one world's skies after another.  Bartolomeo employed few humans amongst his crew, choosing instead the ferocious loyalty of idealistic urfolk drawn from the ranks of the downtrodden or liberated from bondage.  It appealed to his romantic sensibilities.  He was so enamoured with his personal image, of playing the role of liberator, that he even went so far as to install a small shrine to Liberty in his quarters.  He felt it lent a certain panache to his public persona and the study groups he'd contracted with back at Corazune had counselled him to pursue such things as part of his personal branding effort.  Corazune, oh wicked Corazune, shameless and unrepentent, the ruin of many a young boy and the nemesis of all things honest and true.  Bartolomeo had flourished in the fetid depths of its incense-choked alley-tunnels and the rickety networks of stairs, ladders and landings cobbled together from bamboo, scrap-iron and pieces of defunct airships whose crews had gone native, fallen into intoxicated-degeneracy, or been absorbed into one of the all too savory cults which served the appetites of amorphous things that shuddered and blubbered nonsense syllables in the multi-phasic shadows cast by fractured lamps lit with unfixed flames.  Of all the ports and places he'd been, it was Corazune that Bartolomeo most wished to return to; there was something about the place that invigorated him.  He missed the constant attention of the swarms of fish-like papparazzi that fluttered about the place recording everything that they could get their eyes on.  It made him feel more alive, it excited him, goaded him on to greater excesses, more ambitious efforts, bolder lies.  It had gotten him roped into this latest enterprise. 

Ah, Ambition and Her sister Fame, the true twin-goddesses that Bartolomeo worshipped so fervently, so obliviously, so completely.  But it was Fortuna he most needed to placate instead of ignoring Her as he did in his self-aggrandizing hubris.

The warning bell rung out.  Three quick notes vibrating outwards from an abused shell of bronze, each note beaten from it by a crude sculptor's hammer stolen from a blind anchorite.  It was the sort of thing that Bartolomeo often mistook as poetic.  It was part of his overall image.  The consultants in Corazune had been most enthusiastic in their support of his adopting a poetic facade.

He leaned back in his captain's chair.  All about him half a hundred little creatures of various sizes, types and configurations scurried about doing all those unpleasant, unromantic, unmentionably boring and pedantic tasks that suited their petty and trivial natures.  They served something greater than themselves.  They found meaning in their sordid and cramped little lives, a sense of fulfillment that they never would have experienced had Bartolomeo not delivered them from their former low-stations and ceaseless toil.  Now, instead of  serving cruel masters who were at best indifferent to their fates, they served with great loyalty and vigor the man who had liberated them into his service.  Their efforts went towards supporting Bartolomeo, their hero, their leader, their savior from obscurity.  They gloried in their tiny roles as supporting actors in the magnificent drama that was Bartolomeo Grell's very life.

Bartolomeo smiled with his customary smugness as he rose from his exquisitely padded and richly upholstered chair and prepared himself for the impending adventure.  It would no doubt be his greatest, most legendary exploit yet.  No doubt.  The prognostimancers had given him his narrowest margin of potential success yet and he had mortgaged everything to bet on his success.  This one would free him from all outstanding debts and even give him the means, once and for all, to buy reinstatement.  He could reclaim the ancestral estates, again use his noble titles and rejoin Polite Society.  It meant everything to him, so he gambled everything on the chance, the one mad chance at doing something so outrageous, so unprecedented that he would be assured of fame ever-lasting.  And that made it all the more irrestible.

Calmly, thoroughly, professionally, Bartolomeo donned his harness and armor, each piece custom-tailored to his exact specifications and requirements.  He slid his various kits, tools, weapons and assorted devices into their places.  He armed the wards, keyed the talismans, awakened the charms and went through his pre-deployment ritual of preparation with meticulous punctillio.  His rapier and his handgun, coil-whip and lux-wand quickly found their places in their holsters, loops and customary sheaths.  The second warning, now two notes upon the bell, rang out as he admired himself in his full-length mirror -- a baroquely-framed original J'romin no less.  He was the epitome of dashing, the very acme of handsome and virility incarnate.  With a slight nudge on his wrist pad his magnificence faded into an obscure dull haze of no determinable color and he stalked out of his quarters to the drop-bay.  It was time for him to do what he and only he could do.

The bell sounded one single note.  Bartolomeo was ready.  More than ready.  The drop-bay doors opened like a flower unfurling itself into daylight.  The wine-dark waters of the Zamnallix Sea flashed past below.  He jauntily nodded once to Noris who stood glumly looking down at him from the observation mezzanine, his knuckles white with fear or excitement.  Then the bottom fell out of the world and Bartolomeo dropped like a cannon-ball heaved over the rail of a tower.  The ultralight wings snickered into place like panes of insectile veined-glass and he restrained an unseemly whoop as the fragile wings took over from gravity's crude embrace and he swooped at ever increasing speed into a zig-zag pattern of loops and rolls that allowed the micro-craft to shift seamlessly back and forth across a dozen phase-states so as to completely foil any possible sensors or detectors that might be arrayed against it. 

A non-flash registered by its intensely brief absence more than any impression he could describe marked the detonation of a probability mine that had been dropped by the mothership.  That would muddy things up for any cognitives or karmacists who might be on the Recluse-Caliph's staff.  It would also help the Smiling Gaijin to continue on towards the tiny, disreputable port of Kadriz which would appear to all intents and purposes to have been their destination all along.  It was more of a standard precaution than anything, a simple matter of maintaining a professional level of deniability.

Bartolomeo thrilled to the wild acrobatics the microcraft peformed completely at the whim and instigation of a disposable pseudo-mind which would be completely burned-out and unrecoverable upon his arrival.  Another precaution.

His goggles signalled readiness and he allowed them to take over all passive perception and linked them into the suicidal micro-craft's doomed pilot-mind.  The micro-craft navigated the various streams and fields of detection, the shields and static defenses, slipping past every form of observation and sensation using dozens of obscure and esoteric techniques that were the best that money could buy and that Bartolomeo could not comprehend.  Then the brave little micro-craft reached the limits of its capabilities and deposited him as deeply within the outer compound of the tesseract estate as it could take him.  Then it died.  The molecule-thin winglets evaporated and dissolved soundlessly, leaving only the faintest of traces that would quickly be obscured just by the simple movement of the night air.

He switched his goggles setting and ran the schematics of the place through his tactical processors.  The route to the harem was wide open before him and he stealthily penetrated the inner regions of the tesseract-estate quickly, quietly, utterly invisible and devoid of detection.  He wished there was some way to record his progress, except that anything that could observe his efforts would betray them as well.  He would just have to content himself with a skillful, and suitably edited and revised, recreation later.

Slipping past dormant robot-guards, bored metacephalic baboons tethered to jewelled leashes, and other more exotic protectors and defenders while locating the harem of Galhandro bin Ludri was simplicity itself for a seasoned adventurer such as himself.  Childsplay.  He was nearly insulted at the ease of his infiltration.  But gaining discrete access, actually entering those hallowed precincts without being detected, that was the true challenge to his mastery of the arts of espionage and deception.  There was no way to accurately or meaningfully plan any effective course of action until he was directly before the harem's perimeter, immediately scanning its defenses and analyzing its every fluctuation, flaw and eccentricity no matter how trivial.  To do so prior to this point would only have tangled the probabilities into garish snarls and dangerous knots that would have fore-doomed anyone attempting so audacious an escapade as he was attempting.  He watched, waited and let his tactical processors suss out the most providential courses of possible action and mapped out their chances of success one after another until finally he found a way.  There was always a way, if one were but bold enough, dedicated enough, persistent enough to sieze upon it.

In moments, with a few deft maneuvers, some skilled application of various aspects of the roguish arts and a momentary sleight-of-hand distraction, Bartolomeo gained access to the harem itself.  It was beautiful, serene, tastefully decorated in a style that reminded him of the waterfall gardens popular on Rinotto.  An impressive array of statuary collected from across the Known Worlds lined various niches, supported elegant fountains, loomed gracefully over every courtyard or square spaced along the hallways and vaulted paths of the place.  Carpets of the rarest sort, some carefully preserved artifacts claimed to have been liberated from Persia and other long ago empires of the mostly forgotten and discredited past, obscured and softened the luxurious marble floors.  Jade screens carved into delicate triptychs of artistically rendered mathematical abstractions served to form intimate boundaries while wisps of coldlight flittered playfully about like fireflies and the treasures of a thousand looted worlds were displayed as though installed in a museum.

Any other thief would have been hard-pressed to resist the temptation to simply grab whatever looked most precious and costly and get out of there quickly.  The smallest bauble lifted from such a horde would have ensured notoriety and celebrity for decades.  But it would not do for Bartolomeo.  He had not come here for gold, nor jewels, nor rare works of art no matter how pricelss or wondrous thay might be.  He stalked past the gaudy displays and the heaped urns overflowing with vulgar treasures of rare minerals and pearls until he found what he had come for above all else.

Like many of his former contemporaries, the Recluse-Caliph Galhandro bin Ludri was partial to virgins, some suspected it was a stunted cultural preoccupation left-over from their predecessors the Khans of Pashkeb and Mardool whose gene-caste empires had fallen to the usurpation by Matriarchs and humanistic ideologues from whom the Recluse-Caliphs had barely been able to escape.  In their luxurious exile the Recluse-Caliphs had adopted a tragic if aesthetic sort of conservatism, and in this nostalgic malaise that they cultivated in all their holdings and all their possessions, they adored and prized one thing above all others as the pinnacle of their forebear's accomplishment in the genetic arts.  The Elure.  Beings so pure and virginal that they were not born of women, nor so crude as to be the product of chance couplings or the crass minglings of incomplete strands or strains.  They were complete unto themselves, immaculate, delicate, more beautiful than any other work of art accomplished by mankind and completely neutral canvasses both physically and mentally who were so malleable and imprintable that the merest presence of another non-elure forever changed them, degraded them into some lesser exalted state which would be inextricably and totally bound-up with whomever they imprinted upon.  To many of the Recluse-Caliph's rivals, elure-virgins were a prize beyond all thoughts of avarice or cost.  To steal one of these creatures would be the greatest achievement possible to a dedicated and masterful professional such as Bartolomeo.  It would make him a legend in his own time and not only in his own mind.

Calmly, carefully, exactingly, he withdrew the stasis mechanism that he had acquired on the black market back at Corazune just for this purpose.  It was primed and ready to serve his command.  He intended to use it to capture one of the elure-virgins unspoiled, in a pristine state.  No one would pay for a despoiled virgin, nor would he gain or attain the heights of notoriety he desired by simply, crudely ravishing the Recluse-Caliph's elure-virgins.  Any fool could have done so little after so much and cheated themselves of true immortality.  He was no such fool.  As always he had both a well-documented plan and a wealth of improvisational resources with which to accomplish his designs.

"Good evening." came a smooth, silky voice that shocked him to his marrow.  Impossibly, someone had spotted him.  Noticed him.  Addressed him directly and unmistakeably.

He turned as he crouched to see who --or what-- was there with him.  That they had spoken and not sounded an alarm might mean that there was still a chance to extricate himself from disaster.  He reassured himself that the chaosbomb was still within quick reach of his left hand.

It was a woman.

A woman in white.

Her skin was as creamy smooth as an albino in moonlight.  Hair the shimmering shades of milk cascaded down across her slim shoulders and past her slender waist.  The robes that she occupied flowed about her like the shells carved to house the icons of the thirty seven madonnas of record, both demurely covering her sensual curves and revealing a wantonness that he found profoundly disturbing.  But it was her eyes that seized upon his soul and enflamed his nerves with a deadly, irresistible passion.  He could not look away.  He did not want to look away.  Not now, not ever.  Her eyes emanated a seductive transpersonal rhythm that drew him to her.  She was beauty incarnate.  A transcendent principle made flesh.  He moved closer, each step towards her embrace only causing him more and more pain in reaction to how far away they still remained and with a cry of ecstatic torment he relinquished his various wards, eschewed his personal defenses, abandoned his stealth and silenced the warning chatter of his tactical processors.  She was all that mattered to him now.  A consummate narcissist and ego nonpareil, Bartolomeo blinked back tears as he surrendered himself up to something so far beyond his paltry self that he was at an utter loss for words, his thoughts were only of her.  Only of Her.

Tears blinded him to anything but the radiant beauty of the woman in white and her eyes, oh those eyes, those glorious eyes that drank in his soul and filled his mind with an intoxicating effulgence he could not bear to even consider losing.  All his previous life now weighed heavily, hatefully upon him as time lost, as time he never got to offer up unto her, to share in this almost religious-ecstasy.

He never saw her jaw smoothly, unobtrusively extend itself, nor the many rows of needle-sharp teeth that flowed into place as she smiled sweetly.  A single, short, sharp snap and he died in the midst of a paroxysm of beauty and terror comingled as one.  A final orgasmic exit from the stage of life that would doom him to obscurity and at best a footnote in the annals of the ambitious and the foolhardy.

Later, beneath the mingled moonlight, two women in white sat on heavy, brocade cushions placidly observing the glittery stars of a particularly clear night.  There was no sign of the Smiling Gaijin to be seen by any means as it quietly, surreptitiously made its way to port. 

"How was it Mitreel?" the one asked of the other.

"Interesting.  I'd never had a man before."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Fistful of Coins

Heavily scarred and brutishly melancholy, Tolsk sat in the back hunched over a family-sized platter of roast spinefish and a stack of empty shot-glasses that would have embarrassed a frat-boy on break.  A scythe-bladed axe-like weapon leaned perilously at his side like a barely restrained junkyard dog slavering and ready to bite any who ventured too near.  The man radiated a savage sort of hostility that kept the other patrons at a respectable distance despite the crowded conditions.

Several of the doxies and trollops sized him up as they sashayed from table to table making their rounds, some not quite so covertly.  None approached the man.

He was outcast, unclean and his manners were appalling.  Clad in the heavily notched and frequently patched hyper-dense alloy armor of a kidrin from Liswan, Tolsk guzzled liquor, gorged himself on fish, and glared balefully at all before him like some puritanical demigod who simply Did Not Approve of those who found themselves falling under the icy scrutiny of the man's smoldering blue eyes.  To say that he made people nervous would be akin to noting that an elephant is prone to flatulence.  It was one of those things perhaps best left unsaid.

What thoughts lumbered through the man's shaggy head, no one could even begin to guess.  His expression was a frightful combination of wantonness and violence that made legitimate criminals withdraw back into the shadows.  A freebooter, reaver, killer and rogue; it was obvious to one and all that he was all those things and more besides.  He wore the bloody remnants of a Panossian officer's cloak, the soiled boots of a Tabrenian Oligarch chased in gold and heavily scuffed from drastic misuse, a sash taken from the corpse of a sacred hermit of Onduz, and a collection of tinkling charms hung from his neck suspended from braided strands of scalps taken from various opponents and victims that had the bad fortune to cross his wicked, amoral path. 

He brooded like bad weather over his table and eyed everyone suspiciously as though he were some urchin concerned that they might steal his food.  He devoured his meal with gusto and belched so as to knock over his most recent shot of cactus-vodka.  Glaring fiercely at the liquor's sudden betrayal, he grabbed a passing serving wench and demanded a mug of the darkest ale they had in the place.  He grumbled that he was through with duplicitous drinks and their deceptions.

Few who observed the man would doubt that he was indeed quite drunk.  Possibly dangerously so.  But to whom the danger was most acute was the one point of contention that prevented the bouncers from forcibly removing him or the ruffians sitting across the room from accosting him, or so they told themselves.  Like most scavengers, wage-slave employees or cowards, they waited for their opportunity.  It was sure to come after all.

The evening drew on, the Tavern of Three Bells grew increasingly crowded, the ugly, smelly Uncouth man from beyond the Great Western Wall sat with his broad back against the dingy wall covered in sickly yellow paper that peeled back from the rough accumulation of plaster that had built up over the decades as one hole after another had been repaired in the wake of the regular fights that marked the height of the social agenda for the place.  Other places had dancers, floor shows, comedians even. The Three Bells just waited until a fight broke out.  They always did.  Like clockwork.

Leaning over ever so slightly, Tolsk let out a massive, incredibly loud and noxious fart then settled back into his bench.  For a moment everything came to a halt.  Silence.  From the back some childish voice tittered.  Another person giggled.  Someone snorted.  Soon the whole place was laughing, guffawing and doubled-over with ribald humor.

Red-faced and furious Tolsk threw down a fistful of stolen coins without any regard for their actual value and strode forth from the Tavern of Three Bells and out into the early evening fog.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Locusts

The old oak door splintered into a dozen or more fragments in painfully slow motion, each major section tumbling or spiralling away into the hazy murk of the strobe-disturbed night.  The boy held his hands to his bleeding ears and could understand nothing that the adults were screaming at him.  Uncle Cledru stood up defiantly, outraged at whomever had destroyed the door that he'd carved personally.  He shook his fists and his chest erupted into red mist.  Uniformed men, soldiers from some unknown army, burst into the old house.  There were a few sporadic flashes, each one causing a peculiar buzzing sensation on his skin.  Then they were roughly man-handling him and marching him out of the door.  He struggled vainly, being only a small boy and no match for the soldiers.  Looking back at the corpses of his family shocked the fight right out of him.  He grew suddenly cold, alone and very afraid.

It had been winter.  He had turned four earlier that autumn.  His family had been in the midst of their preparations to attend the Solstice Fair in Admeth.  He had only just gotten to be the one who placed the holly wreath on the door to their home in acknowledgement of the Holly-King's seasonal ascendency, which they were to celebrate with mulled cider, roast venison and much dancing and laughter amongst their family, friends and neighbors.  Only it never happened.  In fewer minutes than it takes to tell of it, the locusts had destroyed another family, despoiled another homestead, and abducted still more children whom they considered recruits.

The boy was rudely thrust into a cluster of other children roughly his age or a little older.  All of them were in shock, though a few were crying and one in particular just stood there watching everything with the cold, black eyes of a killer-in-the-making.  She had the distinctive look of someone with telpar ancestry.  He being of dryanni extraction didn't seem to bother her.  For some reason he felt more comfortable standing nearer to her than to the rest.  For her part, she did not reject him.  She was hard and sharp, he was cold and empty.  They formed a wordless bond that saw them through the often brutal and harsh military training that their takers put them through.  They survived.  They mastered the skills and the drills that they were forced to learn under pain of maiming, dismemberment or death.  Unlike most of their comrades, they wore their scars on the inside, for the most part.

Death hovered always on the periphery all the days of their training and indoctrination.  The instructors yelled, swore and did everything they could to break their spirts, crack open their defenses, reprogram their hearts and minds.  Most succumbed.  Not them.  Together they gave one another a kind of strength that silently reinforced their resolve, their mutual determination.  They were beaten for their insolence, threatened for their disobedience, and punished cruelly and often for their stubbornness, despite being the best pupils, the most accomplished recruits, the most promising of soldiers to matriculate from the camps of their taskmasters.

Day-in and day-out they were constantly told that they were unworthy of the uniform that they were expected to win as though it were some prize.  There was constant pressure to cave-in, to conform, to capitulate and let the instructors win, to allow themselves to be broken and remolded.  But they were too smart for their trainers in their silent conspiracy of two determined children who had quickly grown to adolesence.  They learned the fine art of subversion and sarcasm, the ancient tricks of military life that have never changed in a million years, how to scam a superior, evade responsibility, misdirect the attention of officers, and more.  They rose through the ranks, becoming trainees, squad leaders, platoon-leadres, cadets, probationary non-comms, eventually assistant instructors.

They had proven themselves worthy of the uniform.  They had been embraced and assimilated into the ranks of an army that fought what to all appearances seemed to be an unwinnable, endless war.  To all intents and purposes they were committed to the cause.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

One night, a warm summer night with a slight drizzle, they were awakened from their bunks and rounded-up to hitch-along with a locust-team.  To serve on such a mission was regarded a mark of honor and one's position on such a team was determined by a blind lottery.  They had won the lottery. 

The gray-overalled support-technicians got their team sorted out and the armourer made sure that they were properly equipped and armed for their destination.  They stood on the bare concrete pad of the Interface Zone and awaited their final orders.  The signal came through.  Lights flashed, claxons sounded and the boiling fractal mass of the temporary transitional aperture tore into existence and back out again like the bleeding wound in space that it was--and they scrambled through the thing with impeccable precision.

The otherside of the Interface Zone was a courtyard under a blazing red sun.  Hand-painted murals worked into the smooth adobe walls stretched off in every direction.  Wordlessly they hung back, making a show of punctilliously examining the perimeter for possible conflicts.  The rest of the team began hammering at doors, tossing strobe-bombs through apertures and windows, releasing yellow confusion-gas into the area, and the collection of a new round of recruits was underway.

Only this time things went differently.  The screams began almost as if on cue.  The two ideal students, themselves recruits collected in just such a raid, with the screams of their own families still burning hotly in their memories, checked their weapons one last time then strode purposefully and professionally right into the midst of their comrades and systematically killed every last one of them as though executing fish in a barrel.  Without so much as a single word, not the least warning or hint of treachery, the two killed their entire team.

But the transitional aperture was still open.  Another team could--would--follow in short order to capture or kill the traitors.  But they were apt pupils.  While she watched over his efforts, the boy, now a young man went to the swirling maelstrom of aggrieved space-time and began the process of closing the aperture down.  Being a momentary derangement of abstract mathematics, the aperture could never be re-opened in the same place twice.  They both knew this.  Indeed they had counted on it.  Both of them had trained extensively in the full repertoire of skills expected of their profession, but of the two of them he possessed a more developed talent for teleportational mechanics, so it fell to him to shut things down.

Everything would have gone perfectly if only someone from the otherside hadn't lobbed through a phase-state grenade just as Aesic shut the aperture down.  It took three local months for him to recover from his injuries.  His hands, as well as some of his internal structures had been inverted or turned backwards by the weird vortex-effects of the unstable aperture as it shut down and the grenade detonated simultaneously.

When he awoke from his coma, she was gone.  She had left a note for him, a small slip of discolored paper upon which she had scrawled 'Welcome to the Revolution.'

He laughed until he grew hoarse and then collapsed into a fitful slumber.

When he awoke once more, he burned his uniform and the note, thanked the locals for watching over him -- which they were most happy to do in light of his having defended them from the locust team -- and set off for Aegron, the world of his birth and the beginning of a new life as a revolutionary, though he wasn't exactly sure just what that meant.  He knew that he would learn soon enough.
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