“The best perspective on newly-born thoughts-and-feelings comes not from enemies, nor friends, but acquaintances who see you as neither villain nor savior.”
-Ast aaned proverb
As any plebeian knows: all Yrdkish are crazy.
That was one reason a man with a sword for a hand told himself he was going to Bequast.
Despite the plethora of ways in which the place more closely resembled Yrdky, Bequast had a much closer kinship to Rhaagm in its character and its social structure. To be sure, the rolling hills and biological shapes of naturally-planned towns and cities deviated from the perfect kilometer-square divisions of Rhaagm. The same could be said for the idyllic rivers and forests and gardens which unevenly dotted the regions between, and were jointly upkept by, Bequastish settlements.
Strolling up the crown of the knoll overlooking Marred-the-Rose, Sebastio half expected to see the blurry distant shape of an Yrdkish estate, or at least an estate’s blinking guidelights in the sky overhead. Nothing of the sort, of course; the town’s twelve-kilometer tall college complex, and not much else, fractured the skin of the cloudless horizon.
His deep sniff drew in the scent of pears and weedless flower beds, sweet and smooth as a witchlight glow. He exhaled, adjusted the hoop-hook glove, and picked up his pace once more.
Oh, he so dearly hoped that the beautiful day might end with equally beautiful reassurance, and not a worrying away of his terribly shaky confidence.
Solid ultramarine ceramic steps flowed down the hill in various adjacent scales of treads and risers. Completely to one side lay a green-stained thulite ramp, perfect for wheeled contrivances or people. Compared to the traffic he remembered from Gursral, the steady trickle of pilgrims felt lacking. Not in number, but diversity.
He’d gotten used to the demographic madness of Rhaagm over the years, where a district subsection with a population of a couple trillion had an average of roughly a thousand members per distinct race in the area. That sort of thing became more complicated when accounting for which people had undergone conjugation or other species-abstraction procedures. In his apartments, there had lived eleven hundred people, and (of the roughly nine hundred capable of biological reproduction) perhaps fifty could have eventually produced children with any of its other members, assuming each others’ genders cooperated.
Down the small path leading from the top of the knoll to Marred-the-Rose, Sebastio passed a mere double-handful of different peoples. Each had several hundred claimants, carrying on with their business at different paces, some making for structures off the beaten path, some standing aside and talking or doing things on the Monolith. Sebastio himself abstained from using the Monolith overmuch, though more due to habit carried over from his recent time abroad.
He felt his breath sink a fishhook into his trachea as he saw a little fregnost girl with what could only be her mother. Off to the side of the path, she ran to nowhere in particular with great speed, long webbed toes tramping through the stringy ferns. That rapturously joyous look she wore was that seen rarely except on the faces of little children, pictures of saints, and fregnosts. Two of her arms carried a strangely cute plush alligator or grenwall, one stuck straight out for balance, and another scratched behind one of her twitching ears.
Trima, the little fregnost boy on the next floor down at Gursral, had looked just like that whenever he was out running laps of the complex and saying “hi” to people in the halls.
That plugged-up feeling made Sebastio close his eyes for a second, then he looked away from the girl as she tried to draw her mother’s attention to a strange-looking person coming out of town.
Death was a terribly strange thing, he thought. One might assume that a society with the ability to back up personalities and physiological states, and integrate them into new shells, would feel unmoved, or even risk-compulsive, about courting the truncation of a twig of consciousness. Oh, some definitely fell into that category in Sebastio’s day, but it had been trillions of years since the last wave of true cultural abandon; a wave, for that matter, which was like the blink of an eye. Instead, the gift of life held an even more precious place in its way.
Yes, Uncle Rond had wandered over a folding junction just as it switched, and got mashed by a disk as a result. Yes, there was a man coming through the door that evening with Uncle Rond’s face and voice and clothing. Yes, he had Uncle Rond’s memories and tastes and loves. But was it Uncle Rond? Not even Uncle Rond truly knew, most of the time. Physical symbol systems only really told when it wasn’t that dearly-departed figure; otherwise, the products of revivification included a uniquely traumatizing dissociative disorder for many species.
In an aggregate of uncountable people, no one needed more reason to look in a reflection and see a replica of someone else’s Uncle Rond.
That’s one of the things I hope to fight, however tangentially.
<No,> corrected Caladhbolg. <That is one of the adversaries you shall conquer.>
A glance at the sword, and his back suddenly stiffened, then relaxed. Something warm began running through him, like he’d decided to go to an infusion lifestyle and was now getting all his biological needs met on a direct per-cell delivery basis.
He felt strangely light, moving down toward the apartment complex on his left, not more than four blocks into the warren of the town’s geography. It was almost like he was reliving the first time he’d managed to use magic as a child, or the first time he’d succeeded at whistling… like some great milestone now lay behind him. Its identity proved fluid at first, and he couldn’t pick out what it signified.
Then, just as he turned down the walkway to the apartments, it hit him. Not his acquisition of a relic from the Olds themselves. Not the expansion of his family.
He had a grand ambition, and one he could pursue without moral qualm.
Sebastio had long held the world at an arm’s length. He’d had vested interests, and occasional bouts of enthusiasm. He’d picked up one or two goals here and there over his life with some meaning: his desire to become a shoulder to lean on for the disenfranchised, his hope to make good organizations better through improved security and widened awareness. But he’d never had a single vanishing point on the horizon toward which he could comfortably devote all his motivation without qualm.
It was… good.
His steps practically took themselves as he greeted a young dagacha couple leaving the premises. The small garden in front of the apartment complex’s ground level seemed more vibrant than it ought. The squawks and birds darting between each other sounded less like bickering and more like conversation. He didn’t remember the trip to the fifth floor of the building.
When he stood outside the floor’s three hundred and fifteenth door, he paused. The cleaning-font placed in the hall just beside the door was more suggestion than demand, and more subliminal desire than suggestion. The Ast tradition of symbolically cleaning off one’s emotional dirt didn’t feel necessary for Sebastio in his sudden unexpected nirvana. Even so, he dipped his left hand’s fingers into the alcohol in the steel bowl, and played his thumb over his other digits. The gesture meant, at the least, complying with the wishes of those he’d come to see unannounced, and surely that had to be the barest minimum of obligation.
Stepping back from the cleaning-font, he dried his hand. Slowly he moved in front of the visual pickup of the apartment, and pinged the door. He didn’t bother with an identifier packet; the occupants wouldn’t exactly hang in suspense of who he was for long. Immediately, a witchlight fluttered on, went solid, fluttered again, and turned off. Be right with you, then.
The notification that the tenants intended to see him became obsolete in ten seconds, probably nine seconds after they’d begun scoping him out through the door’s directional transparency. The portal slipped open, and the most obese naufer he’d ever seen stood in the frame. Obese for a naufer, though on a human it would merely be “fat.”
“Hello,” said the naufer in the perfect textbook enunciation his kind so often adopted, his manner neither insulting nor inviting. He simply stood there unmoving, a fleshy barrier between his living room and the interloper. “Can I help you?” Eye to eye with Sebastio, he lay a bit on the short side.
“Hi,” responded Sebastio in slightly nasal Bequastish, forehead-thumbing in greeting. “My name’s Sebastio Artaxerxes. I’ve had…”
He broke off, muscled down on his composure, and restarted at a more even pace, with proper recognition of the seriousness of the moment.
“I am Sebastio Artaxerxes. I am looking for Otris mot Ganauche mot Elesph mottin Ienn the Grand. She…”
He quickly gauged the man, deciding that he was probably family - thus, possibly knew more about the whole incident with Count than most people, but probably not the whole story. The human decided to keep it simple.
“She and I had some recent dealings on an extrafacetary excursion, and I owe her a certain debt. Would you know where she can be found?”
The man stared at him.
“Yes,” he eventually said. “Her clutch missed her sorely when she went afield.”
“You are part of her family, then?”
“Yes, both bound and circled.”
That both simplified things and made them moderately more awkward. The man before him was the equivalent of Otris’s husband, then. Naufer matrimonial “binding and circling” practices seemed a bit off to many people used to Earth Standard human culture: four people, effectively two couples, living together as roommates in something more than friendship but less than an open marriage. If humans had four distinct sexes divided into male-female categories, it still probably wouldn’t have produced the same chemistry as a naufer clutch.
He spied the slender figure of a different naufer, then, walking out from a side room into the region directly behind his questioner/questionee. After putting something indiscernible down on a couch, the figure straightened and revealed a familiar shoulder marking.
Otris turned, started back the way she’d come, and halted when she caught sight of the Cambrian. He smiled at her past her not-exactly-husband.
After several silent breaths she said, with something almost like frustrated relief, “Artaxerxes.”
“Otris.” He put both his hands behind his back, after forehead-thumbing at her.
The taller naufer gestured at the doorway.
“Dolgier, this is one of the people I met during my contract work. He is…”
She fought her vocabulary to isolate and beat the correct term into submission.
“... a decent person.”
Sebastio didn’t frown, but his smile slunk off into a hidey-hole somewhere.
“You met him on your lookout for that terrorist?”
Dolgier managed to sound suspicious slightly more than respectful.
Otris treated her circled to a barbed look that reminded Sebastio all too much of the look he got from Nessro when he was younger. She returned her attention to the human and made an expansive sweep with one palm.
“Come in, Artaxerxes. If you have gone through the trouble of tracking me down in person, you probably want to talk about something important.”
The obese naufer cocked his head, and eventually forehead-thumbed.
“Dolgier bin Reginald bin Wolsit binnin Nooram the Grand. Naufer of Bequast.” He gestured. “My circled knows you, so I will welcome you as she does.”
A clatter rolled around from farther into the apartment, followed by a thud, a louder thud, and the sound of something being very efficiently dropped onto a tiled floor.
Otris drew all eight digits of a longsuffering hand across her muzzle and stepped out of view.
“Joshua, turn it off. Turn it off.”
The stout naufer gave the human a look which declared him subject to trial acceptance, then stepped inside and beckoned the guest to follow. Sebastio obliged.
The inside of the apartment had a dark dry texture to its walls, a bit coarse, like emery. It was an almost poetic fit for the austere, stoic personality of the naufer race. The apartment bore little enough decoration, aside from some glass trinkets of unknown sentimental value, and an ornamental maypoler’s ornithopter which took up most of the wall opposite the presumed kitchen. The presumed kitchen became the confirmed kitchen as he passed without staring, catching a glimpse of two naufers evidently collaborating to clean up a mountain of foodcubes right next to a culinary unit. One pulled them off the floor by hand, while the other’s dæmon cluster quickly ate the remainder like ice cubes in hot honey.
Dolgier indicated a space on one of the three couches in the central area of the apartment, circled around a Toothskin refractor. Sebastio thanked him, and Dolgier sprawled in a consummately uncomfortable-looking spread-eagle over half of the other two.
“You were chasing after that Count fellow as well when you and Otris met?” asked the naufer, one ear pushed down by a couch arm to cover his eye.
Before he could be answered, the visible eye clearly took in Sebastio’s face with great attention to detail, almost certainly comparing it to a digital image side-by-side. It tracked back and forth, stumbling when it got to the human’s eyes. To be fair, Sebastio still found them a bit unnerving, and would have altered them if his body’s new tenant hadn’t informed him that they were stuck as they were until his mutative infestation “progressed.” He wasn’t terribly thrilled by the prospect, whatever that actually entailed.
“Ohhh,” the naufer mused, propping himself more upright by leveraging his bulk as a pendulum. “You and he already - I see. I think, at least. You…” The voice remained sour, but lost a great deal of its acidity. “... have my condolences,” he finished lamely. Marbled green orbs twitched, the black binary stars at their centers finding new periapsides.
“Your concern is touching. Truly.”
Sebastio felt the words grate past his throat, unwelcome.
Dolgier turned away. When his nose twitched, it clearly had nothing to do with humor.
They made an effort to ignore each other until Otris returned from the kitchen, bringing in tow a naufer whose visible coat was solid unbroken chocolate. Gray and black formed a basically universal natural color scheme of his kind, so the other man’s fur either came from part of a lineage out of favor with untampered genetics or a relatively tame cosmetic operation.
“Joshua bet Adorus bet Tacitus bettin Isaiah, naufer born in Feathers-of-Gaul,” said the brown naufer. He slowed down in his walking to make the introduction, then quickly accelerated past to an open bedroom door, carrying a dish with enough foodcubes to feed an udod aodod.
He paused just outside the portal, watching Sebastio for a moment.
“I hope you avoid getting eaten by Beasts,” he offered, then disappeared.
Otris twitched an ear after Joshua as she sat.
“Very busy lately. He works in the local Purple Studies department.”
Sebastio peered after the naufer, and found himself surprised that the man seemed so well-adjusted for working in a field whose primary focus literally foisted chronic nightmares on a huge percentage of scientists - biological or otherwise - that chose to engage in such pursuits.
“What do you want, human?” asked Otris, without any particular emotion. “I have seen headlines speculating about the recovery of Caladhbolg in the last several days. Since that seems to indicate the topic is more open than when we first met, and you did not bother contacting me digitally, this must concern something else.”
Sebastio didn’t deliberate over what he ought to say. He opened his trap and began letting syllables out.
“If you remember the ambition I had for a young man of France - that started me on a journey of sorts. Recently, that journey… mutated. Broadened.”
Otris pointedly looked at the padded composite wrapping him from right shoulder to fingertip, and he smiled. The hyper-durable material slid down to the elbow, and he stopped.
“Just so you know,” he said to Dolgier, whose ears had reoriented toward the human like miniature commercial holojectors tracking a pointedly uninterested pedestrian, “this is exactly what it looks like.”
He wondered what else needed to be said, as he pulled free the chimeric thing he’d finally begun to consider a part of his biological status quo. Then, he added, “You are in no danger,” for all the infinite good it would do.
At first, the masculine naufer took the appendage to be an artistic and exceptionally uninspired augment. When he really examined the object, he surprised the Cambrian by clambering up and across to Otris’s couch.
“May I… ?” he asked, indicating the befanged basket hilt.
“If time permits afterward, sir, I have no moral objection.”
<Nor do I,> added the sword, using his mouth.
Stop that, he ordered. The sword either complied or chose not to answer.
He shook himself, ignoring the distant flat expressions his hosts adopted.
“Now, the reason for my visitation has to do with a need for input.”
The woman made a small sound deep in her throat.
“A need for objective input,” he added. “If I wanted hysterical opinions I could get those from here to Zeroday. No friendly advice, no conflict-resolution consultation, and absolutely no eidolon services.”
“Ah,” said Otris, which sounded like the scrape of a woodglass board over a sidewalk.
“I intend to challenge Tuoamas Pennat for ownership of the estate of Pennat Gate by combat.”
“A-aaahhhh…” came out of her mouth, while her slitted nostrils flared, her eyes seemed to move closer together, and her ears suddenly grew floppily limp.
Dolgier, meanwhile, suddenly hunched over his pronounced belly, his head tilted in the way shared by naufers, Earth Standard canines, and fregnosts.
“Is he given to making extremely off-color jokes?” pushed the man, turning to his circled.
“He is not joking,” said Otris. “I think he barely possesses a sense of humor.”
Sebastio might have protested defensively, had she not spoken the absolute truth. Instead, he waited in silence while the woman metabolized the prospect, and the man eyed him warily. Thanks to neural overclocking, the wait only took a handful of seconds, but the quale of patiently watching that dark angular face stretched on and on. It terminated with a long uneven nasal exhalation.
“I am of two minds,” said Otris, leaning forward. “On the one hand, the very idea cannot be construed as anything but disruptive, potentially catastrophically so. On the other, this sounds like it will eventually entail the exercise of a massively destructive weapon.”
She looked up at the maypoling ornithopter, somehow bittersweet in her contemplation.
“Given the nature of with what you must work,” she said, a bit shakily, “no substantially better outcome presents itself, except perhaps if Caladhbolg were surrendered and never used again. That eventuality, one might say is self-evident, will not happen.”
“Is it, though?” asked Dolgier. When he found himself looking down the barrel of two quizzical gazes, he threw up his hands defensively. “What happens if that thing - which I assume is the artifact in question - were placed in the authorities’ custody?” he questioned, pointing at Sebastio’s right side.
Sebastio gave him a sad grin.
“A lot of things; for starters, I would get interrupted the instant the sword left my body.” He laughed aloud at the expressions of mingled sympathy and disbelieving horror the naufers both adopted. “I have no intention at all of letting that happen, and in good faith I understand that separating me and this blade would not succeed unless it were something on the echelon of Crippled False or maybe the Pursuant doing the separating.”
Sebastio glanced at the protruding edge of the blade. A correctly-placed chop of the wrist, he’d found, shaved plastic or concrete or rigid thulite or even redmetal.
“I… need to go, soon, before I lose my nerve.”
Sebastio stood abruptly, the couple on the couch saying nothing as he re-covered his esoteric anatomy. He felt the air in his chest as he drew in a bellows-full, and let out a diamond-solid decision.
“I enjoyed meeting you, Dolgier,” he admitted to the stocky naufer. When he turned his full attention to Otris, it fell on the woman like a palanquin slicker. She let her eyes grow ever so slightly thinner, her ears pulling back defensively.
“If I begin to grow too aggressive or bloody-handed soon, tell everyone - everyone - about what I said here. Tell them that all you need to do is rip off my arm and I die, and Caladhbolg goes up for grabs. Make sure you spread the word.”
“You just said that drawing forth that weapon would fail in virtually any instance.”
The human sighed, ragged-edged and sorrowful.
“Yes. If the idea of so many people trying that sort of fool’s errand does not knock me out of my hubris and save me from my own foolishness - if I do not even sway my course to keep yet greater fools from breaking themselves against this sword’s bulwark - then I am already a lost cause, and deserve to wither away under my flag.”
The woman continued staring at him.
“At least think on whether you want to do me this favor,” he said in something near a reedy hum. “That is all I have the right to ask.”
Eventually, a “gale around the world later” as the naufer saying went, Otris up-signed consent.
“Thank you,” said Sebastio.
The door farthest into the apartment flew open again, and out of it poured Joshua and a stream of pejorative. He rushed by, slowing enough to rub his nose against the base of Otris’s ear, then departed with a run-on-sentence explaining that the world was, in fact, not ending. The apartment occupant cardinality decremented, and with the leaving of Joshua a measure of stress also departed the home.
A small packet exchange later, he provided Otris and her family with a public key for contacting him securely. He wasn’t quite sure whether to feel insulted or relieved when he proffered three million dats to the woman, hoping to salve his conscience and pay her for the semi-clandestine assistance she’d rendered in expediting Louis’s great expectations, and she accepted wordlessly.
Dolgier eventually declined the offer to inspect Sebastio’s addition.
When the Rhaagmini left in Joshua’s footsteps, chin-thumbing at the naufers with camaraderie faintly but genuinely returned, he saw the world pass in a smearing jumpy haze until he returned to the florid lanes of Marred-the-Rose. As he returned to the station where he’d set foot on Bequastish soil earlier that day, a magnetism stronger than anything he could induce in a metallic medium drew his gaze back up to Otris’s apartment. He swallowed, reliving every word of the encounter through his eidetics.
In his shameful heart of hearts he prepared himself. The truth was that he loved the pain he might inflict if he convinced others to take up the quixotic challenge of separating himself and his new integrated weapon. The truth was that he felt dirty contemplating a plan of attack where he shucked off the identity of protector, of a spiny rampart which caused suffering in the service of preservation.
The truth was that he had needed to come to terms with his own ugliness for a long, long time. His utterly mad pursuit of a utopian pearl of society forced that resolution. If Otris could help to keep him in check, even in a role as a mere talisman whose disappointment he feared far more than her ire, maybe that would be enough. At the least, he held out hope.
<As philosophers have said in every tongue: know thyself,> Caladhbolg dictated to his mind.
From your mouth to my ears, replied Sebastio.