“Don’t want to fight, don’t want to die, don’t want to be an Old. / Save me from forever, or slave me to a clock.”
-Shear Boot, Clipped Coins, Final Greetings of Iodine
In spite of the precisely measured straight-line distance between him and his apartment complex, Sebastio didn’t know exactly how far he’d been running. For that matter, he wasn’t entirely sure why.
He’d stuck around and given his testimony. After a very short while, though, he began to feel sick… because the hole in his heart was ringed round with poison. And so, even though physical separation played no part in how much or little his stewing self-recrimination fermented, he put more steps between himself and the place he could only think of in terms of pain.
The gleaming streets and celestial buildings of Rhaagm flew by, block by block, district by district, one folding junction to another. Faster than a normal human could run without augmentations, by a considerable margin. He had to be careful of getting too close to other pedestrians, though, because his bioelectric manipulation could make skin contact a recipe for maiming.
The heavy cloak about the man’s shoulders drew attention to a dark face, with the faintest hallucinatory tint of green seeming to surface in the deep brown when the light hit him just so. His eyes matched the blue of an Earth Standard sky, darting everywhere in an instant and then falling still, then performing another survey. His nose was straight and well-defined, as were his mouth and ears, but not a single corner graced his face. Hair braided into competent knots descended from that face. At the end of every line in his features was a rounded curve, and the overall sense a fellow human garnered from the impression was usually one of gentleness. Usually, that was accurate.
He darted across the smaller streets intersecting the city’s greatroads, dodging disks and slickers and cars and even a gemship at one point. The sidewalks could hardly be called thronging at such a blasé hour, but weaving along still consumed his concentration. That was very good. It took his mind off things.
Things like how his once-friend had killed thirty seven people. Things like how often they’d compared their darker sides, and found them amazingly alike. Things like how Sebastio could’ve slain the photophobic Count - Niall, rather (and what kind of clue should he have taken from that nickname?) - with nothing more than extended exposure to concentrated light.
I screwed up. I guess I’m stuck with that for the rest of my life now, aren’t I?
Yes, said the back half of his brain.
No, said the front.
A picture of Kallahassee and his dear Magdod together came out of nowhere; him laughing, her smiling with faint affection toward their strange neighbor. They’d been so kind and glad when he moved in that Sevenday afternoon, a lifetime and a half ago.
Was her interruption Sebastio’s fault? He had defended Count before his accusers. The man had left, most thoroughly upset. The man had returned, in less than a rage and more than a fury. The man had killed. The man had revelled. The man had decided to seek that which should not be sought.
How much responsibility for that lay at Sebastio’s feet? Which onus lay on nature and which on nurture?
Where does the world end, and where do I begin?
He decided he was still doing too much thinking.
The construction of the conjugation clinic near the Tillasg Biologicals franchise had not finished. It was more correct to say it would not finish, since the construction zone borrowed a time slice from three months or so in the future. Crossing the boundary of the site meant all sorts of non-disclosure “agreements” because, like all extratemporal building projects, it technically represented an open avenue for chronological aberration, albeit with numerous over-monitored limits.
He didn’t particularly want to worry about whether he might accidentally see if the adjacent businesses picked up stakes in the next several weeks. The last time, he’d come dangerously close to execution by litigatory beating when a company tried to sue for damages that might eventually prevent their startup in the first place.
Twenty loping steps took him around the shimmering green barrier that succeeded in keeping most non-workers out of the area. It also took him right up to the North-South greatroad dividing the world, and the equally divisive folding boundary line across which the city’s most convenient transit occurred.
Sebastio felt that too-familiar split running down his center as he crossed the public folding boundary. One step trod on the anankite sidewalk in some place called Lesser Jogge, and the next fell several thousand kilometers farther east, at eHanril-Singh Borough. The ceiling of Rhaagm’s next layer up spread far higher above him than he was used to seeing near Gursral, the extrafacetary sun shining through many layers of ostensibly opaque material to light the gloaming street.
The Cambrian human had a couple of close calls, one where he missed a ragathencider osmosing its way along only because he leapt straight over the poor soul. The near collision earned him the chance to learn a little profanity applied in novel fashion. From there he managed better than a sprint, but slower than his normal best pace, on account of gathering congestion as he neared a section of city with higher vagrancy rates than normal.
He almost tripped on a bunch of ftalw, the family of forty or so barely taking notice of his pinwheeling - aside from one thanking him profusely and with perfect forthrightness for his rudeness - when he slid between them and a spiked platinum fence around a restaurant patio. The spiked fence’s indwelling spirit instructed him to please either order a dish or kindly relocate his offensively long beard to a place where it wouldn’t frighten the customers. He didn’t actually tell the spirit to get ripmapped, but he thought it very loudly indeed. Three seconds after that, he and the other pedestrians moved aside to let a mannequin stride purposefully past in the opposite direction.
Only when he turned off the sidewalk and into the hills and valleys of shrubbery in eHanril Park, though, did his destination become clear even to himself.
The park represented most of the South of the district’s ground tier, a rough rectangle a kilometer by half a kilometer. The eponymous creator had an inkling that most biological lifeforms enjoyed the chance to watch certain other biological lifeforms. That inkling originally led to the park’s founding as something far more like a zoo.
Eventually, complaints about the honest but imperfectly grasped attempt at cultivating a natural preserve of some kind - from local residents, people in political office, and even a few of the exhibits - gave rise to a change of management. Thereafter, the park became known as a wonderful patchwork of all kinds of biomes, and a frequent rendezvous location for functions both public and private.
Remembering a certain executioner and a certain New Mongol human from a day in the park - the day that Francis Pickering had FINALLY confessed his feelings as all the world knew he eventually would - made Sebastio smile with happy melancholy.
Plantlike life abounded in all shapes. A stand of superorchids, a rolling cloud of gerbil bread swaying in the stiff artificially-managed breeze, lacrymosis bushes in a myriad of fluorescing colors. Rippling banner-blossoms crossed back and forth ten meters overhead, a low canopy draped between the dwarf sequoias like nature’s bunting, casting parts of the park into discreet evening with their shade. The sequoias themselves tilted slightly, looking down on Sebastio with mild disapproval as he blew past park-goers and briefly interrupted a picnic.
Near the Northwest corner of the park, the ground sloped down into a witchlight-speckled grotto dominated by a huge crystalwillow. The thick tree had been cultivated with psychedelic curlicues. Various kinds and sizes of pews sprawled helter-skelter around its base, and a multimedia hub grew out of the tree’s side a meter off the ground. The pews would have been an exemplary mess of bird and squawk droppings if not for the scarecrow projection walking the perimeter of the grotto. Frankly, Sebastio thought the eidolon in charge of the duty was having just a little too much fun, watching it lunge at an unwary pigeon suddenly enough that the bird released a stream of goo from pure fright.
The Cambrian’s sprint became a run became a walk. He sighed, inhaling the chemistry (organic and otherwise) of things which grew. He listened to the tick-tick of the scarecrow projection’s feet against the grotto’s heavy metal paving bricks. He began to chuckle with a twinge of hysteria, as the images of the bodies back home flowed through his brain again. Bodies. Not his own, but that he maybe could have prevented on his own.
Detouring down over the grotto’s perfectly cultivated grass, moving to a high-backed pew near the crystalwillow, he didn’t notice at first that he had a companion other than the scarecrow.
Sebastio’s eyes lost focus, covered in an icy caustic film. The crystalwillow became a spindly glass head with glass hair, or maybe a bundle of translucent hudenot tentacles. A small and incredibly dense weight fell into his stomach and stayed there, as torment and confused grief began to finally win out over shock. He didn’t alter the chemical balance of his body to try and cure the upset; as with many psychological bandages, that would only serve to help with short-term needs and encourage the immediately satisfactory use of stolen salve, thereby doing himself even greater injury in the grand scheme.
Intolerance for pain was the last thing he wanted.
“Hey,” said the short and disinterested-sounding fellow sitting down the pew from him, who had gone unnoticed until just now.
At the sound, Sebastio’s weighted stomach troubled him a little less. It didn’t disappear or give the impression of lessening; like a certain over-large blue-skinned friend, it stepped out for a time to give him space, and let him do something more important. It could visit later.
The Rhaagmini triangulated the source of the voice, sighed, and foisted his full attention upon…
Oh dear God.
“You,” he said, somehow marginally surprised to find himself next to a human of a very different kind.
The Being of Old who named himself Target had two scarves over his neat striped clothes, one worn like a cravat and one worn like a belt. His skin was not quite as dark as Sebastio’s own. A pair of rings, still as raw and angry-looking as when he’d last seen the man of legend years past, ran around the figure’s right eye, and made his calm expression into something fearsome. He also cradled a gun in his lap, and while the gun could be described, it could never be adequately described, and so Sebastio made no attempt - as he’d made no attempt the first time they’d met.
He came up to Sebastio’s shoulder, and there was no doubt he was the most deadly thing imaginable in perhaps the whole city of Rhaagm at that moment.
“Me,” said Target, a twinge of amusement or something like it peeking around the firmament of his voice. He forehead-thumbed in greeting.
At a loss, the Cambrian stared at the Old for several heartbeats more.
Of those creatures known as the Beings of Old, all Rhaagmini revered (worshiped, in some cases) the person known as the Maker, that had laid their city’s immortal foundations. His face graced one of the most famous portraits, if going by sheer recognizability, to ever exist. Target, unlike his fellow Old, garnered a sizable amount of awe and attention because he occasionally surfaced in person, usually in the Parsed City-State’s boundaries or somewhere inauspicious hither and yon in the gem, rather than remaining a distant and venerable mystery. The man sitting by Sebastio accounted for roughly a third of all known sightings of Olds.
Unlike all except maybe a couple thousand people through history, Sebastio’s first meeting with Target was now evidently not their last encounter. In fact, he’d even received a gift from Target that first time. However, it was the fact that Sebastio’s fermented friend Count had announced an intent to find and steal Caladhbolg, one of the Maker’s apocryphal and lethally proscribed creations, that made the Cambrian truly nervous. He couldn’t think of much other reason to be visited by such a creature as Target otherwise.
“I’m thinking you’re thinking I’m here on big business,” said the Old in an utterly level tone. “If so, you’re thinking rightly.”
That twice-circled eye shut, and somehow the round scars of the face gave the impression Sebastio was just being watched more closely, with a different kind of lens altogether.
“First, I gotta make a demand of sorts.”
Sebastio was about to open his mouth, then stopped.
“Turn your Monolith adapter off. Not throttled, not limited to just your eidetics, off. Totally.”
The Cambrian waited, to see if a punchline followed. It did not.
“I think it was pretty clear. Words. Rhaagmini. You seem fluent enough. I’ll say this much but that’ll be it for now: you, and a great many others, will almost certainly die unless you listen. Do it.”
Sebastio, for the first time in he couldn’t really remember, shut down his primary information highway connection to the wider world.
“Excellent,” said Target with soft encouragement, as though Sebastio were a rare and elusive squawk, impressive in his relative tameness. “Now, another thing, quickly.”
He picked something out of his clothing - though there was not one pocket in evidence - and tossed it at Sebastio.
There wasn’t any need to really examine the metallic dowel as it sprang across their short divide. Sebastio immediately recognized the thing.
“That’s the second time I’ve delivered that lodestaff to you,” said Target, somewhere between tickled, mocking, and stern. “There’s good reason to believe you’ll need it soon.”
Sebastio’s electrically hyperactive arm snapped out and plucked the object from the air. As he did so, he sent extra current through his fingertips. Like clockwork, the enigmatic metal of the so-called lodestaff grew outward into a perfectly smooth cylinder nearly its wielder’s height. He spun it once with a flourish so practiced it was automatic, glaring somewhere between the tool and its thrower. Another impulse of voltaic talent returned the thing to a size he could conceal in one closed fist.
“You broke into my apartment and stole something of mine to give it back to me later anyway?” he demanded with such surprised upset that it really didn’t matter right then to just whom he spoke.
Target’s teeth showed ever so slightly.
“No,” he said. Nothing more.
“Wonderful,” crept through Sebastio’s scowl.
“You need to listen to me very carefully,” said Target, without having changed his voice in the smallest detail.
“I am suffering a lingering and fatal case of anticipation.”
“The schism in my fellow Beings of Old - that’s a war which goes back to before this city’s founding. A salty war. A flavorless war. A war between those who want wine and those who want jerky.”
Sebastio’s eyes became razor slits, and he neglected to exhale. His mind struggled to join dots with no apparent order amongst themselves.
“That war,” continued Target, now looking up above the crystalwillow, “looks a bit like a revolver; a revolver with its cylinder jammed full.”
The Old’s gun was in his hand, had always been in his hand even when it lay out of his grasp, and it broke smoothly open to show recursions of thousands of chambers, more chambers than the physical space taken up by the cylinder could contain. Every one of the somehow overlapping chambers held a different caliber of ammunition. It wasn’t some neat trick of spatial compression, and it wasn’t a glamor or other magical effect. It was something the universe surrounding the Old stepped aside and permitted, like a Rhaagm auditor would step aside and permit a mannequin precedence in going about its business.
“There are some weapons, some tools one can stockpile for future use,” remarked Target idly, spinning the cylinder and sending the kaleidoscope of bullets glittering about the cylinder’s axis. The effect mesmerized, until the gun snapped shut. Sebastio had no more connection to the Monolith, and so could not cross-reference its appearance. Had he been able, he would have quantified and recognized several similarities to both the Earth Standard weapon known as the Webley and the fregnost “shark-gun” handgun class.
“When your cylinder’s full, though, it’s time to fire it and make room for more bullets to come.”
Without a sound, Target pulled the trigger. A lancet of reddish light sprayed across the grotto, reflected off the crystalwillow, slapped a spiderweb of ricochets between a few of the other pews, vanished up the way Sebastio had entered the grotto, and came out of nowhere from behind the atypical’s head. Target’s forefinger and thumb shot out, and the tracer-like glow of a perfectly spherical bullet landed in the gap like a carefully-set garnet.
“So now we need you to be a bullet, and confront your old friend in the name of your own freedom. We need you to act as our agent, and keep Caladhbolg out of Niall Bennosuke’s grasp.”
The cherry-colored projectile became a flat oval between two unyielding digits. It wasn’t a crushing of material as much as spreading it like butter on hot floutfruit cake.
Target held up the oblong disk, and did not smile at Sebastio any longer.
“What is stopping you from fulfilling that goal?” Sebastio asked. He wasn’t impetuous nearly as much as he was curious. Target could probably reduce Count to a dark smear by looking at him.
“For the same reason you have the structure of hoop-hook games. Most of the time, the linebackers are competing with the linebackers on the other team. The same goes with the cranes, the footmen, and so on. You use a suitable role to counter each adversarial resource.”
A peek sideways at that red disk. When the eyes returned, they held something brutal that stole the sweet floral air from the grotto and replaced it with atomized metal.
“We - my ‘family’ and I - will have quite enough to worry about ourselves. You’re a footman we need to interfere with another footman. If that’s too hard, then tell me. I have others I can call upon, if absolutely necessary.”
The Cambrian met the Old’s glare, and responded in the flattest voice he could manage.
“What exactly am I supposed to do?” he asked.
Target looked back and up at the nearest witchlight globe. It cast his features into weird shadow, and made his lips look like a wound re-healed many times.
“I’ll show you a few things you must know, and tell you several more. After that, Mr. Artaxerxes, it’s up to you to do what you do best: protect people.”
Then, they spoke.
Later that night, before he left Rhaagm with his Monolith adapter still turned off, Sebastio shook with concatenated emotion. Fear did not stay him from his course. Rage did not cloud his vision. He only had one thought upon his brain.
Where does the world end, and where do I begin?