“When you have a problem, blame numbers. You will always be correct.”
-Ast aaned proverb
The reaching-fellow Seven Plus Two Minus Three Times Three, or Seven as it was known in an abbreviated capacity, stepped through the hole in Home and into a new place. It didn’t concern itself with why the hole had appeared, or its purpose. It wanted to visit the new place and had to go through the hole to do so. The hole lay lower in the priority of interests than what, and why, the new not-Home place was.
The new place was not dark, or hard underfoot, or possessed of trees of flesh. It was soft and straight-edged. There were people around as well. Not fellows like Seven, but the same kind of things as Friend Essie. One came up to Seven’s shoulder, and the other not quite so high. One had very light flesh, and the other one’s flesh was even lighter. Both were covered in the same type of cloth that Friend Essie wore.
The people were on the other side of a stripe, dividing a small room in half. The lighter one had a long pain-hurling thing in its grasp, and it was aimed in Seven’s direction.
When Seven tried to go over the stripe, it found that it couldn’t. It placed one large finger against the place where it met the ground, and it felt a pressure resisting its movement. Its finger bent back against empty air when it did the same thing higher up. It looked at the finger’s front. It looked at the finger’s back. It looked at the people, who were looking up at it.
“Why is this?” it asked, doing its best to mimic the sounds of Friend Essie, when it taught Seven and others.
The long pain-hurler hit the ground with a clack while the peoples’ eyes got very large. They started making a lot of noise, then no noise at all. They considered each other. They considered Seven.
“... You… can talk…?” said the taller one. It took another step back.
“Yes,” replied Seven.
“Yes,” murmured the shorter lighter one. Both of them looked at each other again. The tall person came closer, but not nearly close enough that Seven’s nails could have reached, even without the invisible barrier baffling it.
“You are a person, yes?”
“Yes,” Seven responded.
“How do you speak Rhaagmini?”
That was the name for the sounds Seven and others had learned, Friend Essie had said.
“We learn from Friend Essie,” Seven replied. “I learn very well.”
“Amazing!” exclaimed the short one. “The discovery of… of… I can’t think of anything that compares; maybe the first formulation of a tuning field?”
“A bit too far there, dear,” the tall one said, slowly, lowly. It turned back to Seven. “Who is Friend Essie?” it asked, as though it were afraid Seven might be hurt by loud questioning.
A matter that Seven had pondered often.
“Friend Essie is like you,” it said, pointing at the tall one, then the short one. “Smooth and light. Little eyes. Strange feet-hands. It came to us a time ago. Appeared in Home, and we learned from it. First it used a pain-hurler on us like what you have there,” it noted, transferring its finger to the object on the ground, “but it eventually stopped doing that.”
It had been trying to learn something from the two before it, but it now forgot what that was. The two looked at each other again.
“Essie. Esmrald Qlikiss?” the short one asked.
“No. Ridiculous! How could she have survived?”
“‘Time’ is a very different prospect-”
“-in the Purple. Yes, Magdod. Uuugh, but this whole thing’s more uncomfortable and creepy than getting a mesh inserted. I really, really hate schlrikts.”
“It… It’s not nice, Kal, but think about how important this could be. What if all Beasts everywhere are becoming sapient? Maybe it’s not ‘exciting,’ but this is so much bigger than those Count conjoinments.”
“That’s debatable, I think.”
The tall one turned to Seven, and pointed into the air. At the terminus of its forefinger appeared an image, the size of Seven’s head. Depicted there, moving slowly and with different cloth on its body, was a figure Seven remembered.
“Is this Friend Essie?” asked the tall one.
“That is Friend Essie,” confirmed Seven. As it did so, it experienced something. Friend Essie had often talked about things called “emotions” that sounded very odd. Wantings that didn’t correlate with survival instinct, wantings to interact with people and ideas in specific ways. Maybe that was what it had in its breast as it watched the strangers and the picture of Friend Essie. Some manner of a thing was twisting inside and rising up toward its head, something that compelled it to keep looking at the picture even when Seven knew what that picture showed.
“Do you know where Friend Essie is now? Can you tell us about her?” asked the shorter one, coming closer. “Is she still around?” Each sound came with a little bounce.
“Friend Essie remains with Three Times One Minus Four,” Seven replied. “Three remains where it has always resided in Home, by the Gravel Pit.”
It turned to point through the hole between Home and the new place. When it came about, it saw that there was no hole back into the hard dark realm it knew so well. There was a wall, and no sign of Home at all. There was the new place and nothing else.
“If the hole I found were still here, Three would be that direction.”
“Ah,” said the shorter of the two. It suddenly jerked.
“Is something serious?” Seven asked, turning to watch the tall one.
“Not precisely,” it answered after a short delay.
“I just contacted Sebastio,” the short one said to the tall one. “If this isn’t something he’d be upset about not knowing, I’ll eat a live squawk and wear its bones as eyelid piercings.”
“Ahh…” replied the tall one. It slumped just a bit. “I… well, I wish you hadn’t done that. The man has enough worries.”
The short one started coming closer to Seven, and the tall one hissed.
“I’m nowhere near the Ullos container, Kal. No need to worry-”
“I lost you once. Then I lost you again at Gursral. I might still breathe if it happened a third time, but I couldn’t survive it again.”
The shorter one turned, face twisting up violently.
“Pleeeeeaaaase,” came from the tall one, and it made Seven watch it very carefully.
“Okay,” the short one said, softly, and stepped away quickly.
Seven remained still, watching the people and waiting to see what else they might do, not truly hearing the other noises they made. Most of those they were already making were unfamiliar anyway. Instead, it considered that long pronouncement. It was some kind of thing to be mined, something that was good, but which might hide a great deal of bad deep inside.
Eventually, though, it was drawn to a section of wall that flew apart, round and huge and smooth. It faintly resembled the way that Home’s many byways sometimes opened up or closed, making new ground and sky where there was none before.
Through the new opening came, first, more sounds.
“... Argyva, if anyone ever openly questions your dedication, I or your Lord will make sure they regret it for a long time thereafter. Now, kindly make sure nobody comes down this wing of the complex without us knowing about it. This area is already under sensitive-level monitoring, but our purpose may require additional circumspection.”
Then came more people. One was taller even than Seven, and had lots of flagella in two bunches below its waist. On seeing another short one, Seven’s survival instinct instructed it to move far back into a corner.
The arm of the new short one had yet another person in it, and that person was made of murder.
The new creatures chattered at the others in some noises Seven could not decipher.
“Rhaagmini, if you please,” said the tall one. It dipped its head at Seven. “We have a thinking, speaking Beast.”
“Crippled False,” breathed the new short one. The attached murder-person shifted, but did not attack.
“... You are serious?” came from the really tall one. It had little feeler-things in bunches on its face, a little like eyes, moving back and forth as its head turned.
“It’s not exactly what I would have expected,” added the new short one. Every smallest sound out of that person drew Seven’s attention with immediate totality. It peered up at the reaching-fellow. “It’s also troubling. Troubling, curious… slightly embittering. Congratulations, you’ve cleared off my schedule for the rest of the day. From one furnace into another.”
“What is-” began the old short one. “What are you called? Or do… people have some way to identify you?”
“I am called Seven, or Seven Plus Two Minus Three Times Three. I am a reaching-fellow of the people.”
“Incredible,” said the really tall one. It looked to the old short one. “What led to this?”
“We were looking at some trace data pertaining to our mutual friend, and all those Beastly fusions. This fella came traipsing along and, well, look at it.”
“How is it even speaking? A schlrikt does not have lips.”
“THAT’s what you want to know?” came from the new short one, looking up. “What it’s using to form syllabic constructions?”
The old short one shook itself, and considered Seven.
“My apologies, Seven. I’m called Magdod.”
“I’m Kallahassee,” said the tall one more quietly.
“I am known as Adz,” said the really tall one.
Seven watched the new short one, who vigorously scratched at one arm.
“If you please,” it eventually said, “call me Lord. Some people call me Sebastio, but that’s not right for now.”
“Friend Lord, tell your other person to not destroy me,” said Seven.
The people gave a variety of reactions. Friend Lord took a languid step sideways, head tilted.
“What do you mean?”
“Tell your person in your arm to not destroy me. It is against my survival instinct to not inform a person that I aim not to be destroyed.”
Friend Magdod and Friend Kallahassee began talking very quickly. Friend Adz stared at Seven. Friend Lord tapped the arm-that-was-a-person.
<You do not have to worry about that,> said the other person through Friend Lord’s body. <I only act against danger. If you do not pose any danger, I have no reason to harm you.>
Seven made a keening noise.
“Now… guess how our Beast friend learned Rhaagmini,” said Friend Magdod, sparing a tiny look at Seven before stepping close to Friend Lord. “Go on, guess.”
Friend Lord’s face moved around a good deal.
“You know, there’s basically what might become a moderate-level blood feud with Nor’ridge getting kicked off by coming here. Given how much Rhaagm wants to get at me, that’s not great. So if you’re going to wallow in it, then yes, here’s an admission: I don’t possess unlimited petty knowledge, which puts me in the rarefied bucket of absolutely everybody.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry. It’s just… unbelievable.”
Friend Kallahassee turned around the room, hands on the back of its head. A foot stomped on the long pain-hurler, and it abruptly made a sharp high noise. Bright bickering miasma flew from it at great speed, bounding from the wall, missing Friend Adz by the width of Seven’s nails, and swatting Friend Lord in the side. Friend Lord’s cloth turned hard and crystalline and cold. It staggered sideways, caromed off the wall, and then flowed to the ground. An instant later, it flowed back upright, in the flexible manner of a sewing-fellow.
“Ow,” said Friend Lord in a low voice. It brushed the cloth where it had solidified, and the cloth began to crumble away. Just as quickly, it began to recompose. “I cannot imagine why you couldn’t just use a quadratic accelerator if you needed a reliable firearm.”
“I’m SO sorry-”
“Don’t start. Don’t tell why you have a very awkwardly modified magicannon just hanging around. Just tell us what made you bring us here.”
Friend Kallahassee and Friend Magdod looked at each other yet again. Friend Magdod eventually breathed out before it continued making noises.
“You know the conspirators who said they were coerced into helping lay the Monolith low, back before we got our new sun? Lecnellecnlelnecec? Doris Ald?”
“The Ganymede traitors and their accomplices?” came from Friend Lord.
That fifth person spoke out, and it made the very nails quiver in Seven’s fingers.
<Those who earned banishment to the Purple? Those who were brought before the Bookers and the Jon only after their records were dumped from every revivification center in the city? Those that shall regret it if they ever fall into our power? We are not familiar, but even so. Yes. Yes, we know them very well.>
“Well, by some absolutely incalculable odds, Esmrald Qlikiss either is or was until recently a survivor of the Purple, and she seems to have taught some of the locals her native tongue.”
A soft glow suddenly came from Friend Lord, and for the first time Seven wondered whether it might in fact be Foe Lord. It turned toward Seven, glowing from head and hand, and stepped closer. In fact, it moved directly through the barrier which prevented Seven from exploring the room on its own.
“Is the person who taught you to speak still alive?” Friend-Foe Lord looked up, and Seven decided that telling about Friend Essie was possibly beneficial to its chances of survival.
“Friend Essie continues teaching us at the Gravel Pit, in Shine Backward.”
Friend-Foe Lord stopped seeming so dangerous for a moment.
“What is Shine Backward?”
“Shine Backward is one of the people’s gathering places, with houses and orchards, in Home.”
“I can’t even begin to think how to deal with this,” said Friend-Foe Lord as it stepped around in a small circle before going back out of the unseen barrier, looking over at Friend Adz. The glowing from head and hand had dwindled once more. “We’re presumably talking about some kind of infant society of Beasts. Do you have any insight, Lady?”
Friend Adz observed Seven, its tendrils lowering it slightly as its hands kneaded the air. The shiny thing on its neck glistened. Its four little eye things moved rapidly. It lowered farther and looked at Friend Magdod and Friend Kallahassee.
“How did you arrange this visit?” it asked.
“Made a type nine event, opened up the entryway, and like I said - we got our friend here arriving less than ten minutes later. If you’re asking how we knew to expect… this, we didn’t.”
“And have there been any attempts to do harm?”
“None at all. If anything, our guest seems phlegmatic, even timid. Actually, no; not timid, just removed. It’s been not so much curious as generally passive. In fact,” said Friend Magdod to Friend-Foe Lord, “I don’t think it’s shown any kind of noteworthy ungoaded reaction outside of when you showed up.”
Its finger brushed across the top of its head.
“If it intuitively knows something about Caladhbolg, then that’s a whole different mess to consider.”
<It is a matter upon which I can speculate fairly well,> said the fifth person with Friend-Foe Lord’s mouth. <Beasts are creatures of the psyche. They are built, if you pardon the vulgarity of the expression, to destroy creatures of thinking nature. It stands to reason that they have some sense which can detect sapience, indivisibly distinct or otherwise; consider that they kill things which may be killed, but only feed on bodily remains - see the leidbäume of the Purple.>
Friend Adz moved closer, one arm swinging gently.
“Seven, Home is where you come from, correct?” it asked.
“Home is Home,” answered Seven.
“Ah. Yes, well, that makes sense. Do you need sustenance?”
Seven didn’t know the significance of that sound.
“Sustenance, what is?” it replied, tilting its head as it looked Friend Adz up and down.
Friend Adz grew still for a moment. Eventually, its eye things began moving rapidly again.
“Sustenance is what one consumes to persist. Do you need to eat regularly?”
That was another of those things Friend Essie had explained.
“It is good to eat of trees of flesh. It is not a need.”
Friend Adz slithered back along the ground, pointing upward and tilting toward Friend Kallahassee and Friend Magdod again.
“Well, assuming that you can keep this place sufficiently proof as a holding pen, then it might be good to gather some of our better minds for an extended interview, and see if we can locate other specimens of the same kind.”
Friend-Foe Lord’s fingers oscillated like the edges of a sewing-fellow.
“An excellent notion. Lord Tuoamas has now been provided notice of this little discovery, and he’s currently telling the most close-lipped of the nobility. Five or six minutes at most before we get company, and then this little gathering’s going to see a lot of…”
Its fingers stopped.
It looked up at Seven.
“I was about to say we’re going to catch some eigenflak for basically holding a person against their will, but we’re dealing with an intelligent Beast here. This is disturbing territory, outside any precedent that comes to mind.”
Friend Magdod’s arms went vigorously upward.
“We’re talking about entities that can’t be killed unless you deliberately cause them major physical injury whilst some sentient mind associates the very attempt with reticence and regret. I think we’ve been in disturbing territory ever since we found out about the critters in the first age.”
Friend Kallahassee leaned close to Friend-Foe Lord.
“I know I’m well beyond surprising at this point, anyway,” it said quietly, watching Friend Magdod.
Friend Adz pushed past the others, and picked up the long pain-hurler from the ground.
“Let us prepare for a new age with some modicum of safety, shall we?” it said, placing the object down on a flat even surface near the stripe. “There will be enough trouble in due time without shooting any more of the nobility, as things stand now.”
It bent down over Friend Kallahassee, who rubbed its face with both hands.
“Look, we’ve been on the hunt for more of those half-Bennosuke abominations. They’ve been worrying ever since they started coming around with even more mutations. We need to slow the things down, and - for your information, Lord - we need them slow, preserved, and whole. I… ever since we found that stalker hybrid with a human head, I’ve had nightmares. What would you suggest? Again, apologies.”
“To be blunt, I think my Lady deserves your apologies more than me,” said Friend-Foe Lord, jerking its head back at Friend Adz. “But no more magicannons. If you need assistance to set up a killbox or hermetic chamber, I’ll oblige you.”
It turned toward the place where the wall had opened.
“Ah, there’s Lord Tuoamas now.”
It exhaled, and twirled deftly to Seven.
“I hope you don’t feel too much anger for this in due time, Seven,” it said softly.
Seven’s head cocked.
“Anger, what is?” it inquired.
Friend-Foe Lord made a small sound, a sound like what Friend Essie made which it said was good. It was a bubbly ripply sound, not harmful precisely, but also a sound to which one had to pay attention immediately.
“Well, if you don’t know what anger is, then that improves some things, and makes others worse.”
The opening appeared again, and a person wearing far more cloth than any of those already present strode through with a click-clack step. It had three more of differing sizes following close behind, but those three stopped as soon as they caught sight of Seven.
One, with horns as well as a thicker and much taller pain-hurler, whispered something quiet and intense. The pain-hurler came up to point its nose at the reaching-person’s middle. Seven’s middle bowed to try and evade the little packets of pain it would soon allot for its personal malefaction.
Noises from the extremely-clothed person suggested a countermanding of the action. The horned person replied, obviously indicating that all the involved parties should be moved outside of the room.
Friend-Foe Lord’s arm person evidently weighed in with gusto as the person’s limb virtually exploded. One moment, Friend-Foe Lord stood closer than all the rest, facing the room’s opening, just outside the odd barrier. The next, that limb sprayed into weaving tendrils which immediately spanned the width of the room, weaving and braiding into an impenetrable net. The whole edifice had no seam or feature, reaching from ground to the top of the room. Whatever the others might wish to do with Seven, they would have to go through Friend-Foe Lord’s arm person first.
“Rhaagmini, if it please you, Lord Tuoamas. Also… don’t fire on our guest, or we may lose an irreplaceable learning opportunity.” That came from Friend-Foe Lord, who may have been Friend Lord after all.
“Lord Artaxerxes,” said the clothed person who must be this Friend Lord Tuoamas, “you are saying it converses? In the Parsed City-State’s tongue?”
“Indeed, it’s self-evidently cogent. We’ve been talking for a little bit.”
“Lord Tuoamas-” began the horned one with a hurried voice, but it ended shortly.
“Blue, stand down.”
Friend Lord Tuoamas sounded as forceful as the convulsions that wracked Home during the changing-times. A moment later, Friend Lord’s arm person retracted, and the new solid wall became nothing more than an appendage once more.
The horned person raised its weapon once more as soon as the more physical of Seven’s barriers vanished, but that drew immediate action from Friend Lord Tuoamas.
“No, Armsman. You will listen to your principal. I cannot distance you from my guard, but I can make sure you are relegated to petty duties.”
As with so many other sounds it had heard in the gathering, the precise meaning of this statement escaped the reaching-fellow. However, it felt its fangs ripple in uncertainty. Whatever Friend Lord Tuoamas was conveying to its associate, the wielder of the incredibly long pain-hurler made a low runnel of toothed noise, and let the nose of the implement rise beyond the point of danger.
“Now,” said the person after it advised the bearer of arms, “what exactly is going on, and what am I to do about it? More accurately, what do you wish that I do about it?”
“We ought to do something affirming the intelligent nature of these new fascinating, strange creatures - in particular, Seven.”
“The Beast’s name. No, don’t begin about protocol, Lord Tuoamas; there’s no book on how a person is supposed to introduce an acquaintance like this. And besides, the nonexistent book’s about to get drowned with my follow-up suggestion. Lady, I’d ask you to forgive the suggestion, but it’s not simply overeager, it’s outright stupid on several levels.”
Friend Lord tilted its head at Seven.
“We should consider adopting some more new blood.”
There was a silence like when Friend Essie had showed up at Shine Backward, its strange form stumbling over the ground of Home’s joining byways. When it had arrived and let itself be known, begun to bestow that collection of sounds and articulations by example and then lesson, no fellow made any noise for a long time.
When Friend Lord Tuoamas spoke, it was softer than the gentlest of Home’s jagged winds.
“Do you have even the slightest idea how many people will be screaming for your head if you so much as joke about something like that?”
“If it is half as many as protested the acceptance of the Iar-Ninety-Deg people two years ago, the answer will be ‘infinitely more than preferred,’” said Friend Adz, who had moved to one side. It leaned over Friend Lord. “This was not part of the discussed considerations. If you insist on going out of your way to endanger yourself, Lord Artaxerxes, we must talk in great depth soon.”
“No?” said Friend Lord, stepping back and considering all those in attendance. “We raised the idea of an extended interview. How about this: we keep our friend in an ‘interview’ consisting of an examination of conduct over a firm fixed period. If anything suggests failure of the enterprise, we abandon ship.”
Friend Lord Tuoamas scratched its head.
“In principle? That might have merit. In practice? How eager do you think people will be to embrace the same sort of creatures which massacred their families, friends, and countrymen?”
“I’m personally open to the idea. Even so, bring it before any ministers and cabinet members you trust to be objective. Talk it over. But don’t require them to come to any consensus for at least the next two hands. I plan to spend that long in the company of this special individual; that ought to at least bring the knee-jerk reaction quotient down to ‘extraordinarily prejudiced.’”
Friend Adz moved away from Friend Lord with a writhing twitch. It started to make sounds back, but the arm person came upright, between the two.
“I won’t force you to share in my privation, Lady. That would not only be immoral, it would void the validity of the whole experiment. But know that I will take chances I think worthwhile. After all, that was how Pennat Gate came to be where it is today.” At that, Friend Lord Tuoamas looked away, brushing its small mouth with a hand.
Friend Adz made a very low sound indeed in its chest, its fingers convulsing.
“I could not refuse such a thing, Lord. Not if you chose to so subject yourself. Your… experiment lies in a fair medium between minimizing civilian exposure to a known peril, and maximizing the proportional opportunity for making actionable observations. It is against my better judgment, but your judgment had proven surprisingly fruitful in the past.”
“How can we be sure this thing is safe?” came an incredibly high screeching voice from one of the other pain-hurler wielders which had arrived behind Friend Lord Tuoamas. It hadn’t attempted to train its weapon on the reaching-fellow, but the creature had kept part of its body unmoving that Seven suspected might be its head, and therefore might have been intensely observing Seven the whole time.
“That’s part of the experiment,” replied Friend Lord, and then it bent toward the reaching-fellow with a ferocity unrivaled by even the direst of ur-fellows. The creature was there by the much taller Friend Adz, and then with a crack like every part of Seven’s house had been shattered all at once it stood directly in front of the reaching-fellow. It glowed from both the arm person hand and its face once more. Also, a snapping hissing sound came from it, and small jagged strands of light darted up and down its form briefly.
“Seven, shall you attempt to harm me, or any of those to whom I might introduce you?”
Seven took a long step back, its talons tapping the hard ground.
“I shall harm in the pursuit of my survival instinct,” it replied.
Many noises came from the others, and for a moment it seemed like every weapon in the room would shortly be expended on the reaching-fellow where it stood. That arm person raised again, though, and the fingers of that hand lengthened. They went around Seven’s throat, wrapping tight and strong.
Seven didn’t budge as Friend-Foe Lord raised itself on tendrils of extrudate descending to the ground from that same hand, its small eyes coming level with Seven’s own.
<What shall you do if I tell you that you will not harm any person, creature, or thing unless I first give you license?> said the arm person with the mouth below the small eyes.
Imperative. A demand-which-needs-to-be-met, as laid out by the life-giver.
“That is as it shall be,” replied Seven to the command, as it could and must.
That made Friend-Foe Lord stare very closely for a long time.
“... Eh?” eventually came from one of those watching; it must have been Friend Kallahassee.
“Seven,” said Friend-Foe Lord, looking over its shoulder at the others, “you will not cause harm, nor allow harm to befall those about you, until I countermand this dictate. Is that understood?”
“That is understood, Friend-Foe Lord.”
Friend-Foe Lord’s face moved rather violently. Its neck tilted to one side. With a sinewy fluid motion it deposited itself on the ground once more, releasing the neck-fastened tendrils.
“Ah. That will become very difficult to parse very quickly. From now, call me Lord Artaxerxes.”
“If that shall be correct, Friend-Foe Lord Artaxerxes.”
That face bent again.
Friend-Foe Lord Artaxerxes walked back into the crowded bunch.
“There you go, armsman. If there’s any indication that our Beast guest will renege on its word - and I’ll be spending the duration with overclocking engaged in perpetuity - it will be killed.”
The whole figure shivered momentarily.
“That is a promise.”
Friend Adz stared down at it as it approached, looked up at Seven, looked at Friend Lord Tuoamas, looked behind it at the closed opening in the wall, and made a chittering noise.
“Argyva,” it said. The opening reappeared, with another person very slightly larger than Friend-Foe Lord Artaxerxes standing there. The new person possessed several weapons, though it held none of them at the ready.
“I will petition you for sainthood by the end of this year if my husband still lives,” Friend Adz told it.
The figure continued watching without any indication that it was a creature rather than a very strange-looking rock formation. Eventually, the opening shut again without it having said or done a single thing.