Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Make A Man, Part Two
Something sharp poked Silvio in his guts.
“I says we eats um.” Another sharp poke, this time to his back.
Something was chewing his hair.
“What Nattattattattak says?”
“She not here. Eats um I says.” Another jab, only this time much more vicious and right in the kidneys. Silvio cried out in pain. It wasn't just another nightmare. He wasn't home in his unsafe bed. He sat up, rubbed his eyes with filthy hands and realized that he was still soaked through and through. The canal. He remembered the canal and almost drowning. Then he remembered what had set him off on his mad hare-like dash into the tunnels. She had been beautiful. He had panicked. He ran. He always ran.
“We do what king-lady say. No bad-an'ark'ee. We Siv'Liars.” came the sharp-edged voice behind him.
Silvio tried to discern who it was that had been chewing his hair and debating the possibility of eating him. He had a few thoughts on the matter and hoped that he would at least get to register his objections to the motion before it was entirely decided upon against him. The shimmercloak would have been of great use in this situation. But then he would have drowned had he kept it.
“Excuse me. I seem to be lost. I mean no trespass.” His voice came out cracked and even he could hear the rampant fear that was gurgling in his watery guts. He hoped that he could get out of this situation and not soil himself. Some hero of the oppressed proletariat he was; surrounded by cockroaches with half-digested political delusions and on the verge of diarrhea. As if yesterday hadn't sucked enough.
“Ah it says. Means it needs trile for eat.”
One of the roacher-gang hunkered down and threatened to stab him with its makeshift spear. Another of the gang slapped the spear-point away abruptly.
“We get Nattattattattak. That king-lady say.”
Silvio had no idea how to interpret their inflexible chitinous faces but the one with the crow-skull spear clearly disliked him being anything but a source of protein. He tried to nonchalantly examine his captors, hoping to size them up and maybe determine a course of escape. There were four of the roachers, each one well over four feet tall and with antennae sweeping outwards for at least twice that length. Those antennae were extremely sensitive and could track him through all the subterranean domains of Devukarsha and very likely beyond as well.
The platform was dimly lit and he suspected the roachers were suppressing the local lighting. Being an interloper in these parts Silvio had no authority to command the infrastructure and it studiously ignored him as an unregistered trespasser who had willfully and knowingly forfeited his right to its assistance. Such was the risk that a slummer-spelunker ran when they dropped out of their comfortable environs to go exploring in the nearer-depths of the tunnels, service niches, municipal caverns and canals beneath Devukarsha. There was nothing to stop anyone from running off and playing around in the dark spaces and interstitial regions, just like there was no prohibition on suicide or joining a clique. It was a matter of personal choice and it was left up to the individual to back up that decision. It would not be Polite to contravene the free exercise of an individuals' inalienable right to self expression no matter how daft, stupid, pointless or foolish, so long as it did not interfere with anyone else's similar and equal right to express themselves as well. Cross that line and Magistrates and others would sort things out, by force if necessary. Justice (A Transcendent Principle, not a mere vulgar goddess), in all Her depictions and idols of representation throughout Devukarsha was not just blindfolded, She carried a two-edged sword that was bloody more often than not.
Silvio considered his options. He still had his gun wards affixed to his belt, but they wouldn't be of much use against spears like the roachers carried, nor would they prevent his getting chewed into a bloody mess if they decided to make a meal of him. He still had the radi-gladius in its plastic sheath, but now the weight of the thing did not comfort him. It was a weapon meant to confront abstract energies, to disrupt light and to combat phantasms, not chitinous philosovores. He regretted not having discussed the fine points of actually using the weapon now. He had been in such a fury over the affront to his dignity by the impudent figment that had violated his person the last time he had come down into the tunnels that he had become single-minded in his acquisition of a weapon suitable for revenge. He had allowed himself to become so narrowly focused on the task he had in mind that all practical considerations had fled the field before him. A cold, hard realization settled into Silvio's stomach. Knowing one has been a complete and utter fool is a fairly easy, even common intellectual realization, to have that truth jammed into your face so that the realization was visceral and something imprinted upon one's bones was something else. Silvio disliked the sensation intensely, and to his credit he resolved to do something about it. He was a true pragmatist after all.
“You seem like a reasonable lot. Might I bargain for my liberty, perhaps some assistance? I am lost, as I--”
“No says.” One of the other roachers jabbed their spear at him in warning; “King-lady says.” That settled things for them. It ought to settle things for him as well. It was the way of roachers. He was in roacher territory, he lived or died by roacher customs. That was the way of it.
Placid and stone-still, the roachers seemed entirely willing to wait centuries until their leader arrived. They were unsettling to look at in the dimness. Like odd statues with only their antennae swaying gently to betray that they were alive. Patient. Ruthless beyond the conception of emotional creatures. Insects were dangerous. Roachers were not known to be overly fond of anything. They'd as soon nibble the guts of one of their own as to devour mold or dine upon anything else. Intelligence was not any sort of guarantee of good manners, let alone fraternal feelings for humanity.
Silvio rose to his feet and stretched, conscious the whole time that he was under the roacher's intense chemical and electrical scrutiny. They were not especially visual creatures, he recalled from one of the classes he had actually paid attention to, when he showed up. If he were to rip out their antennae it would blind them far more fully than if they were to gouge out his eyes. But there was no way he would be able to blind four of the things before they impaled him on a crude spear. He would just have to take his chances with the King-lady.
“Says this?” Came a clicking voice from behind him. The other roachers stepped back and re-arranged their grips on their weapons as they took up a slightly more coordinated if withdrawn cordon.
He turned towards the direction of the new voice. It was a shorter, but stockier, far heavier roacher than the others. Rat-bone necklaces were twisted and wound about its limbs and tied into elaborate patterns that highlighted the various splotches of color in the King-lady's chitin. Bits of garbage, mostly salvaged fragments of colorful plastics that had not quite decayed into pseudo-celluosic dust, were worked into the overall design as though the most precious of jewels. Perhaps they looked more appealing to a roacher's compound eyes.
Silvio bowed politely, this being royalty after all. And he was in their realm now.
“Your Majesty,” he bowed again, this time with an added flourish; “Thank you for deigning to come and greet a guest such as myself personally. Truly you are most gracious as well as wise and civilized.”
Like all artists, Silvio had learned the fine art of lying, placating hypertrophied egos, and catering to outrageously self-important personalities early in his career. If you didn't, you never got to have a career. Only fools and those who weren't artists themselves entertained the naive myth that success as an artist had anything to do with talent or ability when in fact it had far more to do with mastering the social graces, joining the right cliques, being seen in all the right places and so on. There was a whole world of Art beyond the easel, tablet or monitor. He knew this all too well, having served a brief and bitter apprenticeship with Julosconi before defecting to Radcliffe's patronage. Three of his six duels, so far, had come about directly because of his defection to another gallery-owning patron.
He knew how to handle pretenders.
“Says well. Siv'Liars us. Too.” The King-lady pointed the top-most of her right limbs at Silvio to emphasize the last. He appreciated the gesture. This roacher was not so much delusional as dedicated to an ideal. Where it ever got the notion of some sort of mixed-up monarchical system was an open question, but not terribly relevant to the main task of staying alive.
“Thank you, your Majesty. It is well that I was found by your noble subjects before some uncouth scavengers could eat me out of hand.” He looked pointedly at the roacher who had jabbed him previously. It looked steadily at him. Unperturbed.
“Says eats um. Says--” The roacher's spear clattered to the dirty platform as the King-lady daintily bit its antennae clean off. Then she proceeded to devour the mutinous gang-member's head. She shoved the twitching body away, made an imperious gesture and the others proceeded to feast upon their fellow. She preened her forelimbs and settled back on her hind-legs. Inscrutable and deadly.
The king-lady paused in her after-dinner ablutions only long enough to make an offer:
“Men'chun trade? Give go free?”
Silvio almost laughed in his relief at what he thought the roacher was offering. It sounded too good to be true. Or was it? They were roachers, not humans. Their rules were not his, despite some seeming similarities. Perhaps he could come to some sort of arrangement, an understanding of sorts. He never thought that he'd be attempting to broker a meeting of the minds with a cockroach. Again he wished he had his camera. This could be worth a lot of serious extra credit, if he managed to get himself out of this mess intact.
“Trade? I give you something you like, and you guarantee me safe passage so that I can go home again?”
Quickly he took stock of his possessions and tried to come up with something that might be of interest or use to a cockroach. Then an idea presented itself.
“Tell me, oh great and wise King-lady of the roachers; do you have enemies within this dark domain over which you reign as the lawful sovereign? Are there those who challenge your supremacy? Rivals, perhaps. And do they wield firearms by chance?”
“Man'ee rats. Bad-an'ar'kee. No Siv'Liars. Some do bang-guns.”
Silvio smiled broadly as he re-interpreted the roacher's clumsy pidgin-speech. There was a need and he had a solution. That meant value. Now all he needed was to close the deal and get out of there before all hell broke loose.
“Your Majesty, I come to you bearing a gift that will help you to defeat your enemies, especially those cowards who come against you with firearms and not the honorable blades of a civilized opponent.”
Silvio hesitated. Did that mean what he thought it meant?
“If I make a gift of protection from firearms, making you able to defend yourselves from the guns of your enemies, would that be suitable to your tastes that you'd be inclined to grant me safe passage as I am requesting?”
Silvio smiled broadly as he removed his belt and unhitched the plastic sheath with the radi-gladius inside. That he would keep. On the belt were a dozen fully charged gun wards that would stop, deflect, or repel bullets, flechettes and similar missiles, perhaps even some of the cruder sorts of ammunition if it was projected with enough force. There were stories of arrows occasionally being affected, but he would never wish to test the theory personally.
Satisfied that the wards were all intact and operative, Silvio placed the belt before the roacher King-lady with a bow. He slipped his left hand into the plastic sheath and took hold of the radi-gladius just in case there was some last-minute treachery.
The King-lady reached down with her middle left arm and snapped-up the belt.
“What is.” she clicked. Un-inflected and precise in its phoneticism, the roacher's language skills did not extend into differentiating questions from statements, at least not to anyone having to listen to them speak.
“On that belt you will find a full dozen gun wards. Each one can defend one of your followers from the bullets of your enemies' guns for a greater or lesser amount of time depending upon how powerful their weapons are, and how many times you get shot at. Eventually the wards will run down and no longer be effective, so it is a good idea to use them sparingly.” He bowed, “Your Majesty.”
“Says Good. Go.”
Within moments the roachers were gone and Silvio was left standing on the little platform jutting out into the dark waters of the canal. He shivered from something he told himself was the chill from sleeping in still wet clothes.