Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 641, October 23, 2011

"Mercantilism and capitalism, that's what the
fight is really all about—and always has been"

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An Excerpt from Blade of p'Na
A New Novel by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: at the behest of the victim's fiancé, Shaalara of the Alteen Zirnaath, p'Nan Moral Debt Assessor Eichra Oren is investigating the disappearance of Meerltchirt of the Fronzeln Zirnaath, a sapient spider about the size of a dog, one of the "Appropriated Persons" whose ancestors were abducted from their own branches of probability by the nautiloid "Elders".

The story is told by Oasam Otusam, better known as Sam, a cybernetically enhanced Samoyed who is Eichra Oren's symbiotic companion and friend.]



After breakfast, we returned to the case of the spider bridegroom.

Half of the people I know are covered with chitin. In one form, it's what a spider's carapace is made of, in another, a sea-scorpion's body armor. A polysaccharide—basically a sugar related to cellulose—it first shows up in the fossil record pretty early on, in the Cambrian.

Practically everything first shows up in the Cambrian.

Every species that survives to develop sapience goes through various evolutionary "revolutions". For Eichra Oren's folk it was being forced out of the trees by bigger, stronger monkeys as the continent to the south of us began drying up. For mine, it was our early partnership with humans. For the Elders, it was the remarkable achievement of privacy and individuality. For those wearing chitin, it was the incorporation, somewhere along the way, of a handful of stray atoms of silicon, which turned their outer coverings into a kind of fiberglass. Without it, no exoskeleton can be more than a few inches long.

Which is why there are no giant ants.

Or fleas, thank the Forge.

We had an appointment this morning with the parents of the missing groom, Meerltchirt of the Fronzeln Zirnaath. After lots of persuasion, they had agreed to an interview in their home, which I was looking forward to seeing, but I had doubts about Eichra Oren. The biggest of their species only came up to his hip-height. He was twice as tall as they were. What seemed cozy to me would likely seem claustrophobic to him.

If I understood it correctly, "Zirnaath" meant "People". It was what this particular species of sapient spiders—like many other members of many another species—called themselves. What it all came down to is that we were visiting the Fronzeln tribe or gang or family or whatever, looking for their missing darling baby son. My full name is Oasam Otusam, so to put it their way, I am Oasam of the Otusam Doggies.

But call me Sam.

It was a pretty exclusive neighborhood we drove through, homes worth more than I would ever earn in a lifetime, at least an ordinary lifetime. We parked the boss's veek in a half-circle drive set in an expensively manicured front garden, in front of an extremely large door with fancy mullioned windows and sidelights, and a pair of classical columns standing on either side that held up absolutely nothing. Eichra Oren of the Antarctican Humans had just reached to push the doorbell when the door swung aside, all by itself, before us. A disembodied voice intoned, "Eichra Oren and Oasam Otusam, please enter."

"Said the spider to the fly", I thought through my implant. Eichra Oren glanced backward at me, grinned, and stepped through the opened door

Architecturewise, that big fancy door was about all there was to the place. Jumping spiders aren't natural burrowers, but they pick up ideas from trapdoor spiders, prairie dogs, and, yes, star-nosed moles. Human beings occasionally build "earth-sheltered" homes, as well. We had entered a high-ceilinged tunnel—a very well-lit and nicely upholstered tunnel—that led straight back into the hill behind the door.

Other tunnels branched off to the right and left, and a few went up into the ceiling or down into the floor. Spiders appear to be a bit less hampered by gravity than many of the rest of us. In between the doorways there were crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and elaborate sconces sprouting from the walls, which seemed to be covered with patterned silk. It made me wonder. Far away at the other end of the main tunnel I could see another fancy glass door, as if the Fronzeln estate went straight through the hill, and out the other side.

We were eventually directed by the same disembodied voice that had invited us in, to stop about halfway through the tunnel, then asked to turn to the left. A pair of big hall doors opened by themselves onto a "great room"—plenty of overhead for Eichra Oren—filled with antique furnishings clearly intended to be used by several different species.

Mom and Pop stood at the other side of the chamber in front of a surprisingly human-looking sofa, of decoratively scrolled hardwood, with yellow silk upholstery. Above it hung an heroic oil painting of a spider equipped with broadsword and shield, fighting some kind of big lizard. Somewhere, in one corner of the room, a little lizard trilled musically.

Another couple—somehow I could tell they were younger—stood at a pair of matching chairs with an old stained-glass reading lamp standing between them, the kind I like best, with dragonflies worked into the design. Another chair stood in the middle of the room, on an expensive-looking carpet (not silk) with a large tuffet placed beside it. A well-appointed wet bar threatened to make this visit less than professional.

"I am Shwaseem of the Fronzeln Zirnaath," said the older female. "And this is my life-husband, Vreelaath. And these are my daughter, Meerltchirt's sister, Surusu of the Fronzeln Z., and her life-husband Zizzicot."

The older male spoke. "Won't you join us? Please come and sit down."

We advanced into the room. "Thank you," my boss replied. "We would introduce ourselves, but you seem to know who we are already." He sat in the chair. I hopped up on the tuffet. "I gather you know why we're here."

They all sat down, too.

Vreelaath, who had a tall drink in one palp and a cigar burning in the other, made a grunting noise because he couldn't nod. "Indeed, sir, we do know, as does every member of our species from pole to pole. Shaalara of the Alteen Zirnaath, our son's betrothed, has just engaged you to find him. Would either of you care for something to drink?"

"No, thank you," the boss answered, speaking only for himself. I could have used a drink. I like spiders just fine, but being peered at by twenty-four black, shiny, and disapproving eyes (the remaining pair they wore somewhere at the back of their head) can be more than a little unnerving. "You don't seem very concerned about your son's disappearance."

"Web-tangles!" exclaimed the older male. "I'd disappear too, if I were about to marry into the Alteens! I don't know what in the Web got into the boy. Pupae love or some-such silliness, I suppose." His eyes—most of them anyway—pivoted to gaze upon his lifemate adoringly. To my knowledge there isn't a single nonsapient spider that can do that.

"Actually," the younger male volunteered, "I kind of liked her."

"Shut up, Zizzicot!" Surusu snapped at her mate.

"Yes, dear."

"I can tell you," offered the mother, "since you're obliged to ask, that he isn't hiding here, among his family. Poor darling can't even ... "

She broke down. I don't think spiders can shed tears, but she was doing pretty well despite that. Vreelaath set down his glass and cigar and rushed to her side. "There, there, Mother. He's a good boy, our Meerltchirt. Smart young hatchling, too. He'll make his way across the Forge." The sister and her spouse sat to one side, looking oddly unmoved.

"You understand, sir," Vreelaath said. "You are human. I've read of humans. Each sapient species has vices, ancient habits that return again and again, no matter what you do to prevent it. The vice your species suffers from is slavery. Confront it, defeat it, abolish it as you may, it is back within a generation, stronger, and more evil than before."

"Sir—" Eichra Oren began lamely. I had nothing to say. I'd noticed exactly the same thing about human beings and their various histories.

"If it isn't outright chattel slavery," the old spider pressed on, "then it's military slavery, or tax slavery, or convict slavery, or compulsory indoctrination, or prohibitions of a thousand kinds, all against the will of the participant, which is the very definition of slavery."

Eichra Oren nodded. "I can't dispute it. Living with the Elders helps."

"As it has helped our people," the spider agreed. "My son only wishes to avoid our vice. It is an ancient evil, deep inside us, that rises again and again to pull us back into barbarism and darkness. Although it is probably in our genes, we of the Frozeln swear to resist it. The Alteen, it is said, are about to give themselves to it again."

"I understand," said Eichra Oren. "And your point is?"

"Suppose, sir, that you were a descendent of a long line of slaves who finally won free after many generations of struggle. Suppose, as well, that others of your species were still advocating and practicing slavery. How then would you feel if your child were to marry one of them?"

Eichra Oren nodded, but had no answer. There wasn't any answer.

Mostly, I was irritated. This had nothing to do with us or our investigation.

Meerltchirt's sister, Surusu—a very pretty name, I thought—stood up. "I think you two warmbloods had better go away. You smell too much like food. This is private family business." A very pretty name wasted on the nasty, spoiled offspring of a fine old family of arachnids. I was tempted to tell her that where I came from, we dipped big spiders in batter and deep-fried them, but it would have been a lie. I'd seen it on one of those interworld broadcasts, from a human world. Humans will eat absolutely anything. It's one of their great strengths.

Eichra Oren stood up, too, looking down at Surusu. Her husband backed her up—literally—by hiding behind her. Me, I just stayed put.

He told her, "I have other questions, young female. I need them answered if you expect to get your brother back. I don't intend to turn him over to the Alteens, not until I'm satisfied Shaalara won't kill him. If I can't be, then I'll return the fee and help him hide himself again. Do you care, or is it that you prefer your inheritance undivided?"

The noise that came from the grownup part of the room would have been a gasp, if spiders could gasp. But Mummy and Duddy stayed out of it, probably because they knew their daughter could take good care of herself.

"Inheritance?" Surusu made a derisive noise. "You must be joking. I have four hundred fifty-three siblings with whom I will share my inheritance—if and whenever—and parents living with me in a surreal universe where nobody ever dies. Where I'm forced to work for a living in my father's business as if I were merely a common garden webweaver!"

"How sad for you," said my boss. I meant to say something else. He felt it coming and gave me a mental nudge, like a kick under the table.

"I love my brother, snooper, he's closest to my age and we grew up and molted together. So ask your Forged questions, and get the Hammer out!"

Eichra Oren nodded. "I can do that. Let's start—"

"Gentlebeings," said the same disembodied voice that had invited us in—the house AI, I guessed. "There is a visitor at the front porti—Warning, warning! An intruder has broken the door and is—gurkk!"

At the sound of breaking glass and tearing wood, we turned, and suddenly Shaalara stood in the parlor doorway, not looking very pretty or friendly, at all, but a good deal more like what she was at the moment, two hundred pounds of pissed-off female spider. Apparently she'd followed Eichra Oren and me here, to the Frozeln's house. Now, without hesitation, emitting hideous noises of inarticulate rage, she rushed into the parlor, only to meet my boss, who was standing in her way.

"Stop where you are!" He didn't yell it, but she stopped as if he had.

"Young woman," Shwaseem, the mother, began, "just what do you mean by—"

"Quiet!" Eichra Oren told her, in the same commanding voice. If anybody else had thought of anything to say, they chose that moment not to say it. His word was scarier than Shaalara could ever hope to be.

Six of her black, shining eyes met the only two the human had. The hysterical bride-to-be raised both of her powerful front legs in an impressive threat-display, high and wide above Eichra Oren's head, spread her palps, and opened her mouthparts. Her sideways-acting fangs dripped with venom. The ultimate bad breath, I could smell the toxins ten feet away. She was getting ready, out of maddened reflex, to kill Eichra Oren, who was closest to her, or anybody else within easy reach. I wondered if we were seeing the same passion—frustrated—that drove a spider bride to devour her bridegroom once she'd been fertilized.

Standing his ground, keeping his eyes on Shaalara's, Eichra Oren's right hand crossed his torso and drew his legendary assessor's sword just a bit, exposing a couple of inches of gleaming metal, its edges but a single molecule thick, sharper than any razor ever conceived or forged.

Popular folklore has it that an assessor's sword can't be drawn and put back without tasting blood, but that isn't true. Eichra Oren often draws it to practice, and to clean and polish it afterward. I've even caught him chopping brush with it, once or twice, outside the house. Nonetheless, it requires a scabbard lined with a magnetic field, and it's an awesome sight that has made many an adversary reconsider.

If it had been me, and I'd had thumbs, I'd have chosen the little gun.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, sister Surusu picked up the floor lamp, bronze foot and iron shank, antique stained glass shade, and all, ready to throw it in an extremely expensive act of self-defense. All over the world—all over several worlds—antique collectors would be shuddering if they had known what was about to happen.

But Shaalara was suddenly set back on her figurative heels, not by the sword of an assessor, or even a well-wielded designer lamp, but by a barking, snarling, bristling ball of white fur that threw itself insanely between the St. Bernard-sized arachnid and the human. I was rather surprised to notice it was me. I hadn't known I had it in me. Our client seemed to come back to herself, and to reality. She closed her mouthparts, relaxed her palps, and set her front feet back on the floor.

Surusu didn't put her trusty lamp down, not yet. I could see it beginning to bother her mother, who had probably bought or inherited it.

"Almighty Web, what have I done?" Shaalara seemed to ask nobody in particular. She pivoted to Eichra Oren. "All I wanted was to find my Meerltchirt!. Then to her fiance's parents, "Please forgive me, I'm out of my mind with anxiety. Please believe me that I never intended to—"

If the two older spiders had been human, they would have been bloodlessly pale. As it was, they were at least wordlessly indignant. It was the missing groom's sister, though, who stepped forward, the antique lamp still clutched in her palps. "You realize that it's going to take forever to get all the poison she's dripping out of that carpet."

As old as it may have been, the Fronzeln house had all the modern conveniences. As soon as Shaalara's dripping venom hit the floor, a dozen tiny robot mice emerged from the woodwork to deal with it. Unfortunately, it dealt with them. The first mechanicritter to reach the stuff died a horrible death; the rest headed straight back to the walls.

"You've been asked to leave, mammals. And take your barbarous client!".

"Bloody cannibals ... " the old man muttered past his cigar.

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