Homelessness Is Hilarious Until It Isn’t

Submitted by elliott on Fri, 06/07/2019 - 22:52

 

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“... When you live in someone else’s shadow, trying to distinguish yourself is a very natural human thing to do. That was why it first caused some disquiet when he so regularly evinced tangible frustration, just as his elder brother did. Over time, though, it became clear that his vexation came not from doubt in the mission of which he became an essential component. No; Lord Artaxerxes’s tears came of knowing that he would affect the world around him, and hoping it would be in the right direction. He, in contrast, flared with the bursts of anger belonging to someone with something to prove, and after being recruited to a crusade on which to prove it.”

-Lord Naomi Galt, on Louis Artaxerxes

 

A dream is a place where one can set their secret selves free to embrace those things which inspire… or simply happen to be “weird.” Should the dreamer possess a built-in module of a cerv-mesh designed to let them more efficiently achieve lucid status, they could utilize every hour of the day in some meaningful fashion.

The youngest Artaxerxes had no desire to do any such thing.

Louis felt along the floor of the big green kitchen, reaching out for the next brick of honey. The bricks giggled and pattered away from him, and if it weren’t for the frame on his neck which kept him from looking around he would have scowled at them and chastised their misbehavior. He needed to finish his honey portrait. Without the delicious variously-hued golden and red blocks, his picture would be forever incomplete.

It might be best to just cut their legs off so they’d stop running.

Kicking himself over, the metal struts which held everything above his waist still - save arms and shoulders - clonked on the hollow floor. He couldn’t see the honey bricks, but he pushed himself along with his feet, because he knew where they were, and he’d be a dismembered octopus before…

Wait.

He stopped kicking with the edges of his shoes and bent his calves upward. Yes, that was right. An octopus, but not a dismembered one! The little extra atrophied feet dangling uselessly from his knees swung back with the motion, numb and yet still attached.

I’m going to stab you, honey! he cheerfully thought as he resumed progress. Immediately he heard a splat like ripe fruit beneath a slicker’s foot, and bumped a brick with the metal cage apparatus around his upper half. He reached up, and found a dead unit of honey. It had been killed by a squatting Hereld Upswitch as he pecked at it with his face, and it died quickly enough that it didn’t flail about and harden in a weird pose.

“Thanks!” said Louis, and Hereld clucked at him before going back to pecking at things, and shedding mustache hairs absolutely everywhere.

Louis picked up the honey and threw it at the portrait.

The portrait became a perfectly rendered depiction of his deceased Papa.

Well, now that he’d achieved his picture more quickly than he’d hoped, he could sell the other bricks of honey to-

Without fanfare, the floor dropped under him as he began rattling down stairs with unusually steep design.

Each tromping impact landed him on the cage around his top half. Bounces resulted every time, getting higher and higher as he descended, flipping with a giddy smile. It was balloonlike in its gentleness, making him glad that he was leaving behind his picture in such pristine state.

As soon as he bounded off the last riser, he rose a thousand paces into the air, then smashed into the floor at the stairs’ bottom. His pieces melted.

Louis awakened instantly, completely, and knowing that he was no longer dreaming.

Two deep and carefully articulated breaths brought him upon a banquet of fresh emotions, every morning the same and every morning slightly shifted. The thick and difficult-to-swallow toast that was seeing ghosts of people who weren’t fortunate enough to have their own Sebastio, the lines of not-theres stretching out into infinity, and the phlegm-and-bile aftertaste of seeing his departed father at their head. The massive bowl of soup, impossible to finish in one sitting, delivered by the notion of being connected to an infinite community by digital means and a small box on his neck, wired into his neural workings. The small, sour, disorienting blancmange of trying to come to grips with a country whose rules of conduct he understood on some level, but not really; living among people who didn’t worry about food or longevity or the need to earn a wage, some of whom didn’t even have matter-composed bodies, some of whom didn’t even understand the word “worry.”

The cup of hot wine, which he took with him everywhere in his furious heart, and which loosened his muscles whenever he sipped, as he looked out into the empty cavity of his room and into the future and into the chipped halcyon face of hope.

It was all a mess. He was put in mind of when he’d first seen a depiction of that pants-wetting creature of Ojjij called the skin eater, plastered against the side of some punk’s sporty disk. He’d asked Sebastio about it, and had received the sort of answer most little children don’t get when they ask their older relative about the monster who lives outside their window: “Oh, those? Yes, they’re definitely real; we have some in the local wildlife preserve.”

When a human looked at the spindly and almost pewter form of the thing which had too-large eyes not dissimilar to those of a cow atop its long head, the hands of an aye-aye, the unwebbed feet of a waterfowl, a permanent hunched gait, and the temperament of a particularly vicious child, they didn’t usually think “apex predator.” But they would usually think wrong. When you were on a skin eater, you didn’t usually think that you needed to be careful and not eat everything you could catch in your rubbery claws so as to provision your food sources out for the future. But you would usually think wrong.

The skin eater’s habit of getting what it wanted all too often ran its selection of prey completely dry. Like the skin eater, in many ways the worst possible end state for Louis - and indeed any thinking creature - would be to receive everything his heart desired at a stroke. It wasn’t an idea that sat easily, but it was one he’d accept.

He sat up, knocking a sleeping Edward onto the floor. After two seconds, the stipp made a hoot and slowly turned around, looking for his caretaker. After four seconds, he started walking over toward the door. After eight seconds, Louis got up. He picked the stipp up, turned him around, and put him in front of his floutfruit hanger. The little creature stared at the leather-colored vegetable nutrient storage, and after several more seconds began sucking juice from the fruit’s soft underbelly.

A quick consultation of his chronometer.

“Oh, right,” said the stipp’s owner, and he doubled back, petting the thirsty creature and using his culinary unit to make another floutfruit. He first took a step in the hanger’s direction, then recalled that he possessed a dæmon cluster. Rhaagmini would have found the frivolousness nettling, and while most Yrdkish considered such issues moderately beneath them, they wouldn’t have objected in any case. He floated the additional fruit over and hung it with far more care than it required, and tore off into the wild blue yonder after checking that he had compressed his ornithopter.

Twenty minutes later, he, Celnn, Alarusx, and a new arrival in the form of a little fellow named Penowa Teso were all on a hill near Al’s residence. Somewhere off in the ether, eGarra was engaged in a fierce discussion with his family; it was expected to take most of the day. They disregarded the person so treacherous to their brotherly love that he would forsake their company for that of relatives. Instead, the quartet engaged in the twin pursuits of art and helping Penowa to overcome the sort of culture shock that could outright kill a person with an inordinately weak constitution.

“So, what exactly is this supposed to be?” asked the short tan fuzzy fellow - mmnmomnæ, they called themselves. His family resemblance to his uncle Sela Naas couldn’t have been more obvious in some respects: color and pattern of fur, relatively tall stature for his race, and tendency to twitchily look around to name a couple. Another was his insatiable curiosity. Yet another was his faintly endearing way of closely following people around.

“We’re making a recruitment simulation!” Celnn half-yelled as the wind picked up a bit. He spent a second adjusting the route planned for Louis. A translucent worm overlaid the land-and-skyscape, thickening and narrowing to indicate where the flyer would have leeway. “We need to convince more people to support what Pennat Gate is, what it means.”

“It doesn’t seem like support!” objected Penowa.

Louis considered the verbiage; as a courtesy to the mmnmomnæ, they used his native tongue, since he didn’t yet possess a cerv-mesh or any sort of general-purpose translation. That would probably change soon, but not yet. As things stood, of course, some words - simulation, post-physical, sievemind, algebra - had no direct translation and very roundabout equivalent expressions. In this case, “support” had connotations of a strategic combat slant.

The human male uncompressed his ornithopter, the thing’s stowed form popping into existence just above his outstretched hands. Backing up, he let out the shrunken wingspan, and tweaked the pinion lengths to suit agile movement at the cost of some stability, then lengthened the spine and changed some important pieces. He coughed a hiccup of a laugh at the mmnmomnæ’s perpetually-amazed eyes, before bringing himself under control and debating the best way to answer.

“We’re trying to make the point that this place is trying to do something good, and that we ought to be able to count on sentiment and contributions to our cause.”

And whatever else that Upswitch peg might’ve insinuated, he was right in one respect: I’m no agency-less pedestal. I’m no stained glass banner. I’ve been an actor ever since I stuck that perverted man-Beast creature, and my acting’s going to make a difference.

“Oh,” said Penowa, looking up with his huge adorable bat ears twitching and his little adorable trunk sniffing.

Can’t pet him, Edward will get jealous. Also, patronizing.

Louis felt darkness scrunch up around his head like an anti-halo as his brain tunneled into the abstractions of semantics, and it turned his whimsical lull into a baked roughness.

“Out there, there are too many people like you and your family and friends, people that we have the ability to help, if we’re willing to make the effort and sacrifice,” he said, and felt a bit surprised when black mist didn’t come rolling out of his mouth. “People like everyone I used to know. The thought…”

He almost choked up a moment, but his cerv-mesh instructed him how to tense this muscle, flex the other, and overcome his temporary limitation.

“The thought that they’re out there and we’re here safe and sound - it’s watching a starving man watching you through a window as you eat supper with your family.”

Penowa’s eyes had gotten large enough to wrap around from being cute to being sad and mildly unsettling. Louis smiled, making sure to not show teeth, and rubbed his face against a strut.

“So my brother and a lot of other people are making controversial strides of late, getting this place to do good even when it’s… maybe ill-advised in cases.”

“What exactly is this place trying to do?” asked the mmnmomnæ.

There were a hundred ways to answer that question. One, which had been quoted at Louis during his youth at the posing of the same question to his freshly-minted brother, burned through the chaff of the others. He didn’t realize it, but he even adopted the tone in which Sebastio had recited that day in a Bequast backwoods cabin, when he was still navigating the minefield of securing Louis a spot in extrafacetary society. Securing him a place at the table. He still hadn’t looked into the Richard person to whom modernity owed the quote, but according to a larger-than-expected number of people he was hot stuff.

“‘Greed of spirit has cost too many too much over the eternities. Charity of spirit is the only necessary remedy, and the only acceptable response.’”

“What?” inquired the short betrunked figure.

Al tapped the side of her head.

“People like you, me, and him-”

Her head tilted at Louis, and he crouched his flushed face behind a wing a bit when she gave him what for her was a step above a salacious lip-licking wink. That was, she curled the arc of her mouth upward to an actually perceptible slant.

She had more or less done her best to freeze and shatter his heart when he’d expressed an interest in her two years prior. Unfortunately for her - unless she was being smarter than he was and calling his bluff before it was even made, and obviously that couldn’t be it because he wasn’t that dumb - the ploy had backfired. Don’t ever estimate the stupid relentlessness of the infatuated human heart, because it will always be low.

“-are the sort of people who don’t have anywhere else we really belong. The guy in charge around here, with the shiny colorful hand and the freaky eyes, is convinced that needs to change. A lot of other people who have a bit of a say in matters don’t care for that idea. So Pennat Gate - us - is trying to change the world by example.”

Penowa started trying to clamber up Celnn’s sloping back.

“No, get off!”

Two handless limbs converged on the fluffy shape, grabbed him with pincer precision, and put him down on the ground again without pausing in the task of assaying. Penowa didn’t try it again; at least he wasn’t a pohostinlat trying to smack bony plates against someone’s flesh as a means of greeting.

“But…”

The short creature moved closer to Louis, ears flicking in a way that definitely reminded Louis of Adz when the estate’s fly population temporarily shook off eons of genetic tinkering and started dive-bombing its head. Penowa and the many others salvaged from the type nine event which had afflicted his home facet had been members of the increasingly-large family of misfits for no more than a hand so far. Their inclinations to grab each other as a method of garnering attention and clamber over other people in their vicinity had actually been suppressed quite well, all things taken together. When he was fighting that impulse successfully, though, he got a little troubled squint in one of his little eyes.

NO. NO PETTING.

“Hey, you’re ready, right? I have things to do with my girlfriend later,” muttered the zselétael, sounding a bit like Al. One of his hands pointed at the starting end of the thread of light, located halfway down the hill.

“Fine! Yes!”

Louis stopped glaring Celnnward, and intentionally and not at all involuntarily softened his expression when he lifted an eyebrow at Penowa.

“Hold that thought, friend; we’ll go over it in a second. Here’s your helmet.”

Louis uncompressed his own headgear, then a second bit of cranial armoring which he altered for better comfort in the cases of people with massive protruding ears. He held out the gear, which the mmnmomnæ took the equipment.

“Why do I need this?”

The ex-French human put on his helmet, had it unfurl his stopsuit to slip around his body, and tapped the tail end of the ornithopter’s spine where an extra set of harness dangled.

“Because I’m not letting you fly without protection.”

 

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Three minutes later, the long kickstand legs which permitted full preflight strap-in disappeared, and the craft’s monstrous little supplementary engine coughed out a massive spurt from the anterior propeller. The human and his companion sprang into the air. Penowa’s helmet feed was a fit of increasingly regret-laden hyperventilation despite the preparatory warnings, as the duo began a descent less than four meters above the hill’s length. Then, with a series of amplified arm twitches and an angular momentum adjustment, Louis brought them up and coasting through the fork of a massive crystalwillow, on track and moving improbably fast.

“So, you were holding onto a thought?” said the frontmost of the pair to the lattermost as they cleft the sky. He paused for a second to salute at Celnn when he reached the appropriate moment in his arc. The zselétael gave him an approvingly edited snippet, having removed the flyers’ stopsuits and thrown up the words “We Shall Be Home” across Louis’s chest. Louis recommended they leave the stopsuits on, both in the edit and in real life.

“Oh!” squeaked Penowa, a bit nervous and breathless. He regained a bit of his gumption at one point when the first derivative of their altitude gain was positive and the second derivative was negative. Gentle wasn’t quite the right word for it, but as the ornithopter glided it was about as gentle as the experience actually got for even the most heavily-blooded maypoler.

“I was going to ask why someone wouldn’t want to us to be here,” he got out, staring raptly far below at the swimmer-clogged river. He watched the way some of the Fifth Step residents pointed and looked upward, the way that some of them busied themselves with getting their own footage of the nimble craft overhead.

Like usual, the paradox that was Celnn showed a strange and uncanny ability to estimate optimal social exposure opportunity despite his tendency to forget which side of the dinner plate went down, as it were.

Pushing that rumination aside, Louis felt lines grow into his face as he digested the question. Just as he had interrogated Sebastio’s motives in the past, he’d also previously opened the caustic bag of offal now opened by Penowa. Seen through an orphan’s eyes, someone comparatively just shy of omnipotent taking offense to his presence… well, it had not been too odd for a boy barely into puberty. But the fuzzy little fellow had learned enough to draw into his compass a certain revolting truth. The people of Yrdky, of Rhaagm, of many places who had essentially solved the gamut of existence’s problems, who could reconcile the coexistence of a perfectly normal uplifted gerbil side-by-side with pure-energy-state creatures - these did not look kindly on outlanders. Tolerated? Yes, especially under moral duress; one of the first things Louis had stuffed into his eidetics after receiving his cerv-mesh was Rhaagm’s Quartering of Aliens ruling.

Thinking on the way that people like himself were historically seen made his jaw clamp a bit tighter. A few beads of sweat popped up on his forehead, only tangentially related to exertions.

“Well, let’s start a bit further back with me as an example. My brother wanted to see me get essentially the same treatment you’re currently getting: becoming an immigrant. Now, that’s not as simple as just saying to someone, ‘Hey, my friend here wants to move into our country’ - you need to be one of a couple of things. In your case, you’re an acknowledged asylee, so people put in the work to rescue you from major events you couldn’t directly fight.”

“Fight?”

“Your home was about to get a massive Beast visitation, and that’s on the short list of stuff the countries around these parts will unconditionally make an effort to remedy. It makes it kind of awkward for us, actually - we’re trying to rebrand Beasts as just another culture with a bit more danger to them - but when there’s good reason to believe they’re just going to be mindless murder factories, we do what we can to assist. If it were just starvation or your planet exploding, that would have been different.”

“Different!? They’d just let us all die off? Excuse me, I’m sorry, but we weren’t being threatened by the right kind of danger, so it was obviously our fault.”

Louis felt the muscles of his temple drawing his jaw violently shut.

“People die every day out there, Penowa. You can’t save everyone. Despite how much we’d like to, MOST people lie outside the range of what Pennat Gate or any other estate or collection of estates can sustain.”

A brief surveying of the area. Louis’s wings waggled.

“I apologize. I feel strongly about the subject, as you can probably tell. Anyway, I wasn’t the same sort of rescue. Now, where I lived, I would have been dead inside of a year or two in all likelihood, from something considerably faster than old age. For me, my brother had to navigate a few problems. He…”

How to say it. “Bequastish citizenship was too expensive and a person with an existence-level godlike artifact encouraging a facetary native to complete the brain-bending of Rhaagm’s naturalization process was begging for an auditor or even the Pursuant to use him as a speed bag in the name of keeping the peace and it would have been the height of foolishness going through the normal birthing canal of immigration at all when Niall ‘the Nightmare Count’ Bennosuke’s ambition had kicked off one of the greatest manhunts of the era.” Detailed, yes. Adequately explanative, no.

“He managed to pass me through a legal loophole, in a fraction of the time most immigrations take, because he’d never before employed the tactic himself. Sadly… he was looking forward to the next thing to exile, based on how dangerous he’d become, and it was obvious he positively needed to keeping doing the same thing for other people - if only for his own sake. If he wanted to do the same thing for future mes and yous, it would have simply taken too long. So he came and earned himself a nation where he and his people could play by different rules.”

He coughed.

“He isn’t hated - the people he’s helped rescue consider him something like a flawed saint - but neither do people approach him with warm loving devotion.”

“You mean like how they think of… what is his name? Tomos?”

“... yes, Tuoamas is the object of much affection for the people around here. There’s a reason the residents of the estate deeply cherish him. He’s a man of conviction, who made their home into something new over the course of his administration, but always keeping their wishes in the fore of his mind.”

Sebastio had confided to him that there was more to Tuoamas than most people saw, that the man’s weaknesses actually made him far more respectable in his eyes. That wasn’t the sort of thing that one idly divulged to new acquaintances. No matter how adorable they were.

The youngster behind him made a curious contortion, possibly some cultural gesture Louis wouldn’t even have recognized if he’d seen it.

“Well, that’s useful to know, I guess, but still doesn’t seem to explain why they don’t want us about. Is it just because it’s so hard to normally get… foreigners, like us, meshed into towns and cities and such?”

“That’s not it either, although successfully placing immigrants wears away at the ‘way things are,’ and so it’s a sort of threat in its own right. Look at it this way,” he told Penowa. “Say there are twenty people in a room, and you’re one of them. Suppose all the others are part of one big family. Would it be fair for you to tell them how they ought to act?”

“Am I older than these other people you speak of?”

Louis chuckled as he swerved to keep wide out of the path of an oncoming squawk. Alright, some cultural differences on what qualified one for leadership were still a bit sticky.

“Assume that you’re all the same age. All the other people basically think the same way; you’re the only one who thinks as you do.”

“I suppose it might be wise for me to tell them how to behave, but it wouldn’t be fair.”

“Then suppose that you brought a hundred members of your family with you - the opposite becomes true. The point is this: if enough people like you, people who come from what we call the gem, got accepted into the fold, representation would take a drastic curve.”

Obvious contemplation. Then: “That’s it? That’s why that Oksey-”

“O’Casey.”

“-whatever his name is doesn’t want us around?”

“Yes, but for that… person, things are a bit more complicated. However, that’s not the whole reason either. Even if everyone in a position of authority wanted to welcome as many facetary natives - that’s what they call you, and me, and anyone born elsewhere - as they could find, there are problems of space.”

Another dip, this one an artful dodge like he was weaving a paper swatch back on top of an opponent trying to do the same to him. A jaunty wave at Al, though both she and Celnn obviously thought it was meant for the simulation.

“Hang on, hang on.”

Penowa wasn’t concerned in the slightest anymore with the discomfort of his tail stuck in a special suit sleeve, or moving improbably fast. He was a bright one, this guy.

“You have the ability to just CREATE things out of thought and will, and you’re telling me you can’t find enough room for people to make their nests?”

A pair of arms gesticulated, throwing off the ornithopter’s center of gravity.

“Sorry!”

“Fine, don’t do it again,” grunted Louis as they slewed sideways across a tower with mixed Gothic and Ast decoration. When they were safely clear, and people below weren’t hollering encouragement quite so loudly, he softly exhaled with an invisible grimace.

It was amazing how much he and a mmnmomnæ had in common, if you counted the questions they asked as ninety percent of the final grade.

“Now, if you want to get really specific, Yrdky and Rhaagm can both produce ‘new space’ in absolutely any sense you care to think about it. The problem is that it gets harder to do that as they add more and more space that needs to relate to that other ‘new space’ in some way. Also, a lot of what’s going to be made is spoken for long before it’s ever actually available. There are more people coming in from the outside, but since very few people actually stop being alive in Rhaagm, or these parts for that matter, there would still be population growth if not one immigrant more were admitted from today forward. Hold on, we’re going upside-down for a moment.”

Loop-the-loop, check.

“When you’re talking about ‘me,’ though, it’s not just the physical space that I occupy. We don’t have to worry about land needed for growing food, or most other commodities you’re used to producing or consuming. Instead, there’s about that much in information media specifically allocated for my personal use, or that at least concerns me in an immediate way. That can be shrunk fairly easily, but again, we’re essentially speaking of bonds and…”

Ah, yes. The mmnmomnæ might understand how books and such took up physical volume, but they didn’t exactly boast much of a banking system in their primarily agrarian pre-rescue civilization.

Also, that tree was coming up rather quickly.

“Basically, it comes down to planning how what free space there’s going to be twenty generations from now ought to be used. And there’s not as much of that available as anyone might like.”

A few more long seconds of silence, save the wind, the tuneless whistle of fabric, and the distant hubbub made by people when they aren’t paying attention to what they’re saying.

“Well, I’m happy to be alive and be here, even if it’s not perfect, and I’m not loved by everyone all of the time,” said Penowa.

He sounded thankful, and it was contagious.

{You done real good, son,} said Celnn a minute later, in a rare mode of silliness. {If you want to try some freestyle stuff, it would be neat, but what we already have is spectacular.}

{Really? Then let me see what I can do,} Louis replied, strapping on his serious face.

“We’re going up,” he said, getting a questioning chirrup from his passenger.

The ornithopter flipped about, angling back toward Al (and by extension, Celnn). It bore down into a shallow inertia-stealing dive that took both riders from improbably fast to even more improbably fast. Practically before realizing it, they were soon moving at the kind of speed where air friction causes baldness. All of the pilfered momentum got consumed in a joyful fountaining dextral-rotation rise, racing toward the sun’s position appointed three hours in future and leaving stomachs and regrets far behind for a brief spell.

As the sharp-winged vessel began a lazy coast back down to the platform’s surface, human and mmnmomnæ both took the opportunity to absorb the endless plains of adjacent platforms and iconic mountains in the far reaches of sky. Louis breathed deeply, Penowa only less so because of the extrema of his lung design. A zselétael voiced praises in Louis’s brain, which were accepted and formally reciprocated after the stoic Yrdkish fashion.

“Hey,” said the voice whose owner was just behind Louis’s feet, as they spiraled in a vulture’s ring. “Hey, I think I recognize that person. The long haired one, over by the big tower thing - do you know who she is?”

The big tower thing thus named was one of the platform’s weapons clusters. It housed a wide array of offensive tools. They ranged from as primitive as long black powder swivel guns to field-violate arms like Saint Peters, which would be deemed legal for use in Yrdkish war games SOMEWHERE in the territory maybe once or twice in an average natural human lifespan. Given the strategic military ramp-up hovering over the estate in the wake of Nor’ridge’s not-too-subtle threats, weapons clusters were being run through their paces on a semi-regular basis.

Today, the installation in question was also the subject of the scrutiny of a Lawmaster’s appraiser, wearing the device of an independent goldspire. When you were an appraiser, you got the special kind of dirty looks reserved for a person whose greatest joy in life consisted of telling someone that no, they couldn’t use their guns for the upcoming argument because they exceeded light cone range or had too potent a yield or were in some way just plain wrong.

Louis felt his hackles rise when he saw that the person who was getting the dirty looks this time had enlisted the guidance of none other than Heggad bet Lesredat bet Niner bettin Heggad the Grand. Now, there was a man who couldn’t win for losing today, on any level.

That small gaggle of people of which he was a part, standing around and examining the emplacement, also featured a lithe autumn elf. Her face, to which Penowa obviously referred, wasn’t exactly one he could forget.

He’d had a bit of a talk with the powers-that-be about Leanshe; the fact that she’d been both co-opted and forthcoming about the fact. It had been made very clear that he and the others in the know needed to keep that upended allegiance secret. If she’d gone and admitted breeze about her back-alley dealings (willing or otherwise), it suggested that she didn’t want Nor’ridge to know of her admission. Explicit confession that she might be framed for a big brother attack gave that a lot of weight; you didn’t joke around about crimes that serious.

Alternatively, Nor’ridge might have counterintuitive cause to seed that information, whether true or false. Of course, that game of double-guessing was a rabbit hole that might never end. The consensus, after some dialogue, was that leaving her alone for the time being would serve the establishment’s purposes. There was little enough doubt that she would serve the ends of Nor’ridge, unless she was spinning a lie of frankly pointless proportion. As Louis had heard it said often, though, she was too stupid to be stupid enough that she’d embark on a path that convoluted and pleated with failure.

Keeping her in the public eye left a dangling reference that might serve her own estate just as well. Her getting grabbed by her new handlers, or Pennat Gate doing the grabbing itself, could be pointed enough stabs at sending or receiving declarations of… something. For the time being, though, Leanshe needed to stay where she was. It was simply good manners in the game of long knives to avoid making eye contact with other pieces until they were being moved.

“That’s a person with whom neither of us is going to try to converse. Now, that all-white fellow with the big ears and the long clothing…”

“You all put long clothing on, though!”

“I mean the one with the- nevermind. Just hang back for a minute, this might get… ugly. Don’t say anything, please.”

“Alright,” replied Penowa, in a voice still freighted with reservations.

{Celnn, we might be out of the loop for a bit,} he sent to his friend. {Need to talk with someone.}

{Sure thing. I will still grab your descent, if you do not mind.}

Taking a circuitous route of dips and rises, the ornithopter swooped down to the edge of the large steel and osmium plate upon which the weapons cluster’s tower stood. Louis gave Penowa a moment’s notice, and then the passenger’s harness disengaged before he dropped about two meters. Such a small fall wasn’t even enough to trigger the stopsuit’s protective measures, but the mmnmomnæ managed to stick the landing in any case.

Louis pulled up one last time, sent the pack-it-in command to his faithful steed, and the ornithopter snapped into itself. Things went inside other things, the other things shrank, and the shrunken other things relocated themselves for optimal reduction of volume. Before he even started falling again, the craft fled to his personal storage. Two seconds and a parabolic six meters later, he skidded to a stop. A soundless flapping of material, and his stopsuit pulled up into itself. The helmet went the way of the ornithopter.

 

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He looked back once, signalled to his fluffy friend to stay put, and got confirmation.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to try and deliberately divert his attention from Leanshe. She hovered off on the edge of the metal plate, measuring the engine workings which would lift the installation a considerable distance off the platform’s surface with one of the appraiser’s helpers. They threw banter back and forth, with the autumn elf’s aura indicating a glib focus. Louis set his cerv-mesh to start recording their dialogue in case they said something of import. However, he focused on the naufer who was pointing out the quadratic accelerator bores poking out of the tower’s front end.

Ever since he’d learned of Heggad’s little “incident,” the youngest Artaxerxes had gone out of his way to avoid the naufer. If there had been a maypoling matchup between then and now, things would have gone to pegs really quickly. It probably would have caused Louis to try and essentially garrote his teammate.

The fact that Heggad hadn’t come out and publicly apologized since the Lordsmoot for what was not only terribly impolitic, but also a mockery of good sportsmanship, shouted volumes.

Would they both come away from this without needing to regrow limbs? Doubtful.

Heggad was busy speaking to the karkshesh appraiser, and so didn’t acknowledge Louis as he approached. That honor fell to a nearly morbidly-thin executioner, wearing a sort of cowl and coat affair. Signs pointed to the man being a sage of some kind, probably a consultant for analyzing any of the estate’s mystic or ritual arms. His low mumbled chanting reinforced the impression.

“Greetings,” intoned the executioner across his own voice, without breaking mantra for even a heartbeat. It was an accented Yrdkish that bespoke a manually-learned understanding of the tongue. Assuming he hadn’t gotten larynx grafts or the like, it was a neat little trick.

“Hello,” said Louis to the side of Heggad’s head.

Heggad, like many other creatures of extrafacetary means, had a fairly extensive toolbox as far as data-foraging whenever he felt inclined to use it. Even without possession of any thaumaturgical skill, or utilities for snatching content from the Monolith or other networks in his vicinity, though, Louis Artaxerxes was an unsubtle creature when in motion. It came from the recurve posture of his back, the noise of his joints’ wide arcs and the careless way he went about his business: don’t try to cause a fuss, but if it happens then so be it (much like someone ELSE whose concerns were less with complaints and more with legacy). Of course, Louis had been etched against the sky for long enough to draw a crowd, so drawing attention was basically a given.

After a quick double-blink, Heggad cut off his rambling dissertation on the chthonic magicannon supplementing the more traditional quadratic accelerator lineup. The hand he’d been using to illustrate paused. It fell to his side, and digits began tapping from one end to the other. Thumb, finger, finger, finger, finger, thumb, finger, finger.

“Hello,” replied the albino naufer. His ears twitched, but his nose didn’t as much as budge. Short of actually spitting out the words “I want you to leave as of ten minutes before you arrived” he couldn’t make his desire to have Louis go away any clearer.

They both paused for but an instant as a messed-up-sounding throat intoned “Hello!” from just off to the side of the plate. A mutual quirk of attention showed the both of them a prickle-backed morphite who had wandered along. Ever since the Lordsmoot, escorts courtesy of the Pastoral Division had become a great deal more sparse and a great deal less uptight. In this case, the Beast had a single hudenot Sledgecraft Guild caretaker. The woman was almost twice as long as Celnn from end to end, and she had a proportionate number of weapons. If trouble started, she’d introduce trouble to the posterior end of an n-minus-one collapse and put trouble in the morgue’s spatial reconstruction department.

That still didn’t make the prospect of standing close to a Beast a comfortable one, though. No matter that they all happened to be creatures of placid nature, no matter that they all shared an almost childlike eagerness to learn and interact with the world. If anything, there were moments that the relatability of the creatures in itself still caused a shiver up the spine.

“I have not seen much of you recently, bet Lesredat,” Louis said, wiry arms folding over his vest. It came out in a tone that could have been mistaken for civil or even pleasantly surprised. However, the fact that he was interrupting official Lawmaster business was the sort of rudeness which would only be forgiven if it served a very specific point, no matter where it happened to take place. The failure to provide his teammate’s personal name as the preferred form of address left no ambiguity as to what he actually felt in his breast.

“For good reason,” replied Heggad. His snout dipped toward Louis, figure-eight pupils rising to near the upper lids as he finally secured eye contact. “We need to show appraiser Yuthsel that we have no self-reassembling equipment, go over ammunition production line specifications, and provide bills of model lading. Do you know how many times we have switched out the designs of weapons on even these minor installations in the last two years?”

A meaningful gesture at the structure. It caught the notice of several others in the group, a couple of whom stopped in their assembly of diagnostics and procurement of logfiles and discussions with the digital personality weapons director. One of them noticed Louis, unconsciously waved a few tentacles, and got back to looking over the inscription of the several glyph foci drawn on one side of the tower for repulsing more orthodox magic. Both the executioner’s horns and his hood swung about at a bit of an angle as he glanced at the structure as well, still chanting.

The appraiser’s gaze aimed toward Louis, and she did NOT appear happy.

“And you have been hanging out here for the last two hands? Quite a while to inspect some artillery,” Louis almost spat. One cheek pinched.

“If you are here to contribute, then we welcome your input,” said the karkshesh, obviously upset at the disruption of the expected order of events. “Otherwise, we must continue with our assessment if we hope to meet scheduled milestones.”

Heggad’s teeth showed for a moment, jowls clenching.

“If you think I am proud of what I have done, then you are grievously mistaken,” he bit out of his air supply. “However, my past obligations are no less binding than those of my present. When two conflicting callings vy for my favor, the eldest must have precedence. Do you deny the validity of such training weights? Are my valuations in error when I place my ancestor’s wishes above those more distantly held?”

The appraiser’s body language changed. Familiarity with karkshes being minimal for Louis, it could have meant a hundred different things, but based on context it was probably discomfort. What Heggad was barely trying to dismiss wasn’t even close to treason, though in principle cheating in a competitive setting in Yrdky made enemies like little else. Of course, everyone - everyone - had heard Lord O’Casey’s flimsy accusations of the duplicity in Pennat Gate’s maypoling-related current events.

Flimsy accusations didn’t mean worthless accusations.

“Procrastination shall not serve the interests of this estate or the interests of anyone else,” the appraiser said. A certain warning lived in that voice, the warning of displeasing the Lawmasters’ clique.

Louis up-signed.

“Indeed not,” he said with no small amount of venom. “So I will only reply that kicking up the coals may be a necessary response when honor lies on the line, but more than sufficient to earn the enmity of one’s peers. Particularly when the thing those coals will serve to set afire is the only thing some of those peers see as a light in the darkness.”

His stare at the naufer who he’d supported, and who’d supported him, for more close games than he could bear to recall was a little bit fiery. Far moreso, though, was it a thing of deep-space cold.

Animal brains tend to pay attention to very different graphemes than those symbolic assessors which usually differ the feral from the sapient. One instance of things more easily noticed by the pattern recognition of survival rather than civility is an unanticipated noise.

Another trigger, far less frequent, is an unanticipated silence.

That trigger tickled Louis’s hindmost thoughts below the skin of consciousness, moments before an observation flickered as a reference to the unsorted feeling.

Huh; that sage stopped chanting.

For but a moment, perhaps. Then a fast low voice picked up like an ash-laden wind; a fast low voice speaking Rhaagmini.

“Something Into Most! Something Into Most! Something Into Most! Something Into Most!

A startled look to the left showed the man much closer than expected, and Louis suddenly remembered the afternoon Sebastio had brought him from a little Bequast cabin into that Rhaagm tavern called the Hammer and Scapula. At the time, of course, he hadn’t the slightest idea as to who such illustrious figures as the Jon or the Pursuant could be, or the fact that if the former had commanded it, the latter would have taken him into custody in the Tower of Rhaagm. However, he’d felt his flesh nearly liquefy the first time he met the pure-black gaze of Sun-Beneath-Skin. Spending a little time in her company taught him that being a toothy horned three-meter monster covered in short soft quills didn’t prevent one from being a sweet and caring person.

Two polished onyx spheres the size of his fist, watching him with a starving avarice, brought back that first panicked moment of beholding his first executioner. He wondered if the sensation was analogous to what Heggad had just felt on the receiving end of Louis’s own stare, and doubted it.

“We must have the son of the Maker!” the man half-sang, half-moaned, just as every perceptive organ turned his direction. He swayed a bit, and as his robe flapped open Louis saw a little necklace swing into view for the tiniest instant: a talisman that he recognized.

Another Sifter? Oh. He must be talking about Caladhbolg. Oh. I… guess I’d make an attractive hostage for negotiating-

Thoughts flickered and died as the executioner then folded behind him. In the corner of an eye, he saw the executioner pulled from the depths of his garments a small device Louis recognized as an axon stripper, just before the human tripped his overclocking.

Paradoxically, the sight brought the human a tiny measure of relief. So many things he’d had to learn and pick up in the years since his being brought to Yrdky. So many points of uncertainty he’d had to confront after getting dumped into a place that was only foreign in the sense that the ocean was damp. Yet, if you saw someone holding an axon stripper, it told you one of two things: you had an appointment with a doctor, or you were about to get kidnapped.

As the executioner brought the tendril-sprouting end of the device down on Louis’s cerv-mesh, the shorter of the two figures folded himself away. He earned several milliseconds of respite, but having only moved across to the other side of the river he still lay well within sight of his assailant. The executioner shortly resumed his position of relative superiority, axon stripper now close enough to almost interface with the cerv-mesh’s external-facing port. Louis folded back onto the metal surface, and found himself followed immediately by the executioner.

Following the intrusion of certain less-than-friendly people into the hallowed ground of his home in an attempt to kill his adoptive family, Louis had gone and gotten some adjustments to his body. In Rhaagm, that sort of thing had been out for several million years, not seen particularly often except where necessary for one’s occupation or sustainment of life, or on people who really didn’t care about what was kosher and what was not. Specifically, he’d installed a thumb blade, with some very nasty modules built in for good measure. A single direction from his cerv-mesh, and a nine centimeter edge sprouted from the pad of his digit, made of scrimthus and therefore practically weightless. The keen side of it hummed with a destabilizer construct.

His new vantage giving him an emaciated instant to twist and meet the opposition, Louis whirled. Everything moved more slowly to his augmented mind, but that everything included himself. On balance, with his opponent showing signs of similar overclocking quality, the whole affair simply lasted longer. A sideways weave put him just on the inside of the huge man’s first swipe, and the human’s reciprocation proved somewhat more successful. He was screaming and screaming and a thin squirt of executioner blood made some of the Sifter’s quills harden and screaming and another swipe with that terrible thing and a slash crossed that big black dog-sheep nose. Then the executioner folded again, leaving a few drops of blood dangling before gravity took them, and reappeared just behind his intended target.

“Some help would be just wonderful!” the victim would have shouted, had there been time. Instead, the aforementioned help came from the Sledgecrafter without need for auditory warning. She fell upon the executioner. With strength one wouldn’t expect at first glance from a noodly bunch of muscle fibers wrapped around gristle, she wrenched back on the executioner’s shoulders. One of them responded with a prolonged muddy squish that was the organic match to a luxury disk making a slowly rising whine. The other received the ministrations of a flat bomb, and it and everything down to the wrist abruptly discovered the joys of translating particulate matter to dimensions utterly invisible from the wrong angle.

The maiming released the axon stripper from its wielder’s grasp. The tool had gotten an official divorce from its first marriage with part of a thinking creature, but only very shortly after it extended its thin arms and began carrying on an actively powered affair with Louis’s hardware.

“Indescribable” is an inherently oxymoronic term; “nearly indescribable” is nearly so. In that spirit, the pain which the human recipient of an axon stripper’s kindnesses felt was nearly oxymoronic. A tool which excises the supporting network for a cerv-mesh’s integration must necessarily baffle any pain dampener circuits wired into the same. More importantly, of course, a cerv-mesh occupies a small portion of the anatomy in isolation, but relies on idempotent matter conversion of much of the bearer’s nervous tissue to construct the physical medium for everything from sensory hook-ins to diagnostics.

Academically speaking, a doctor or psychiatrist could identify more theoretically painful ways to do a person harm than turning their own nerves into the source of supremely intense stimuli as their essential composition got remade without the anesthetic of the typical cerv-mesh operation. Louis Artaxerxes was no medical specialist. He could offer laments aplenty at a later time, though, recounting how the tribulation never caused unconsciousness, how his body was a massive temple and the single ceaseless instant of pain knocked out its supports and destroyed it, while crushing everything within beyond any hope of short-term reconstruction or salvage.

A few seconds later, more completely numb than he’d ever been in his young life, he lay upon the metal ground with a bloodied nose.

“Our Father in heaven,” he softly gasped when breath returned, lacking even the strength to wick the taste of red from his lips. A shaky moment or two saw him slowly regain more awareness of his broader context. Shouting, lots of movement, and the unmistakable shivery slithers of a hudenot. The full terror of how close he’d come to something very bad indeed only sank in as he reflexively grasped for utilities now purged with his mesh. It had an effect second cousin to being struck with sievemind or alzheimer’s. No augmentations of senses, no macrocosmic communications. If he’d needed a skein to survive, and it had occupied a mount point of his local logic faculties, the incident would have interrupted him. Not the “we could debate the issue of clones and identity and linkage for quite some time” sense of interruption, the “when we cough up this new body, it will walk and talk and think like you but have a status similar to a fraternal twin” sense of interruption.

He rose with some trepidation, taking in the scene. Yes, plenty of shouting. The fact that the sage was nowhere to be found, obviously escaped from the scene of the crime, put him somewhere between relief and an inconsolable scarlet-drowned fury. The compromise was a hefty smoky sigh.

“Here,” said the Sledgecrafter, rippling her way over and presenting a loop of thulite and silvery elastic to the downed civilian. He ground his teeth, managed to pull himself upright, and pushed two fingers through the collar’s gap. He didn’t actually don the temporary mesh just yet.

“Thank you,” he replied, and his throat felt like he’d suffocated. “I will provide you with compensation; contact me at-”

“No, there is no need, Mr. Artaxerxes,” replied the Sledgecrafter. She diverted several eyeclusters to a place just behind where he’d been laid flat. A large section of compacted organic matter, once part of an executioner, lay so flush on the ground that retrieving it by hand would have been a challenge. “The fact of your survival is more than adequate compensation.”

“I hope that you are well,” burbled the nearby morphite, proboscis inclined in something that almost could be interpreted as sorrow.

“Thank you,” he repeated with dusty diction, not knowing what else to say.

At the rapid approach of a white shape, he arranged his features into perfect nonexpression. Concentrating on that little miracle took enough of his focus that he didn’t have to worry about reflexively attempting to invoke a curse on Heggad and his progeny to the hundred and twenty first generation.

“Louis!” the naufer almost gasped, skidding to a halt early enough to avoid triggering defense instincts in the hudenot. “Are you alright?”

“You!” came a deep serpentine hiss that surely didn’t belong to the French-born resident, a beweaponed thumb extended.

“I-”

“YOU!”

“Listen,” Heggad said, eyes massive against his milky coloration, “I had nothing to do with this! Nobody I… with whom I am associated had any role in this dishonor!”

“If you come any closer I promise you that dishonor will take a very distant second place in your immediately pressing worries!”

“I-”

“TRY ME, JACKAL!” shrieked the young man, half-mad in the throes of his sudden Monolith deafness and brandishing the extension of his digit. The epithet sent Heggad’s ears as far back as they would go, and some tiny part of Louis curled up inside and died. A much larger part struggled to keep his ensuing monologue monotone, and also keep him from shivving the naufer.

“Should we meet again, you will have a chance to prove your goodness of heart. Until then, only one thing matters: stay out of the way of our people and our mission.”

Without another word, he picked up the tattered garments of his esteem - for himself, for the world - and spun about, rolling an ankle and not caring for more than a third of a second. With some difficulty, the thumb blade’s protrusion became manually convinced to return to his bone structure until next required.

Somehow, he managed to not cry.

He nearly settled his gaze on Leanshe’s flickering pastel apprehension aura as he turned past the sight of her silently watching him in her turn, but somehow turned it into an appreciative up-sign to the hudenot Sledgecrafter which wasn’t reciprocated, and crossed the distance to Penowa. Sunlight and verdant lawn and the longsuffering laughter of riverbends almost comprised an affront to his survival of the whole ordeal. At the mmnmomnæ’s genuine and unmistakable worry, despite (or maybe because of) his breaking-point tension, he couldn’t help but give a heaving wheeze that would normally have been a gut jiggling laugh.

“You’re so good at-”

He stopped before he said “listening to stupid orders,” realizing he was speaking Rhaagmini. He put the temporary mesh against his skin, and it began talking with his nervous system on a part-per-hundred efficiency. Eventually, it got around to telling his brain’s major speech centers and those portions which told linguistics-necessary muscles how to cooperate and make his stupid tongue make stupid words.

“It’s a good thing someone decided these were worth the blueprints,” the wobbly-legged human stated, fastening the collar around his throat, “because I frankly suck at…”

He waved a hand, and took half a step farther to the side than he’d intended.

“Well, a great number of things right now, but mmnmomnæ-ish among them.”

A tiny kindling of his anger once more, but it drowned under the depth of his fatigue.

“Are you going to be okay?” came out in a tiny voice. “Can I do anything?”

“Not right now, no,” said the young man, his head twitching to glance at the gradually expanding scene of controlled madness behind them. Assistants fretting, appraiser getting up in Heggad’s face, a very confused Beast off by the sidelines, bystanders checking out the growing spectacle and not a few trying to catch a good sensory of himself, the Sledgecrafter obviously in communion with the guild. Leanshe Etruphana wore a dull face not terribly different from that day when his brother had torn off her skin and put her penance on public display.

Yeah, “okay” would be stepping out for a while.

“You know what?” he said to Penowa, as he and the short fluffy guy trudged along back up the hill toward a Celnn in the process of slithering descent and an Al skip-hopping behind him. “You’re staying at my place tonight. At this rate, if I tried to take you back home, one or both of us would get plugged with a ripmapper before we got halfway.”

He wouldn’t see the sensory capturing the whole confrontation produced by Celnn P’mulkes that billions of others saw within literal minutes of the incident, left completely unedited save censoring his use of racial slur and all the more dramatic for it, until early the following day. When he did, the youngest Artaxerxes came to realize he had a very profitable career as an agency-less pedestal ahead of him.

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