Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 654, January 22, 2012

"Violence Solves a Lot"

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Chapter 27: "Nightcrawlers"
An Excerpt from Blade of p'Na
Forthcoming, by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: without giving away too much, this novel is set in the home universe of the "Elders", a species of sapient ammonites, or nautiloids about half a billion years old. The planet is Earth, but a very different Earth than we know, where the Elders have gathered specimens of thousands of other sapient species from different branches of reality.

Eichra Oren is human, a "p'Nan debt-assessor", a calling that combines the functions of detective, rabbi, attorney, judge, jury, and sometimes, executioner. His companion Sam—who is telling the story—is a medium- sized white dog with cybernetically enhanced intelligence.

Together, they've been investigating a series of events that seem to indicate that their world is being invaded by creatures from a previously unknown probability universe.

Oh, yes—and Lornis, who is a member of a humanoid species evolved from Homo denisova, closely resembles Jill St. John. Look her up.]


Early the next morning, Eichra Oren and I were awakened by someone parked in our driveway, insistently and incessantly sounding their veek's klaxon. On a shelf, my sympathetic sponge (not the same as a singing sponge), one of the stranger features offered up by nautiloid civilization, was still the same as I had been last night, road-weary, cranky and tired, but within a few minutes the sponge was my old self again.

The boss entered the office at the same moment I did, yawning and stretching, strapping his swordbelt around the tunic he'd slept in. Nothing—well, practically nothing, anyway—will make you ache the next morning like a long journey sitting down. We'd had two of them. I was wishing I had a sword, myself—not to mention the hands to swing it with—as the noise continued. I told the house to make us coffee, hot and black, as we stepped outside to see what the racket was all about.

It was so bright outside that it hurt my teeth. Out there on the driveway, standing next to her cute little sky-blue Nombismocwen hover sportsveek, was Lornis Adubudu, practically jumping up and down with excitement. Her Talapoin, Mio, by contrast, perched in the back of the passenger seat indolently examining his fingernails and yawning. As we came out the door and she saw us, she told her veek to stop honking, and ran directly to the boss, throwing her arms around him.

"Surprise!" she cried. "Wait'll you see what I have for you!"

Dressed the way she was, in tight little velour shorts and a well- filled, filmy, not-quite-transparent top—just above her sandaled right foot, she wore an anklet of gold chain—it was pretty obvious what she had for Eichra Oren this morning if he'd been inclined to accept it, but at the moment she was probably referring to something else.

As annoyed as we both were with Lornis, I had to admit that she was a highly decorative thing to behold, even this early in the day. Her auburn hair, no more than a couple of inches long and slightly ... well, roughened-looking, framed her lovely face perfectly. Her amber eyes, lit now by the newly-risen sun, spoke of fire and deep passion—and of child-like enthusiasm for whatever had brought her to our doorstep.

She almost made me wish I were a humanoid.

She took one of Eichra Oren's hands, pulling him toward her veek. "Your mother told me you've been hunting for—'aliens'," she said. "Aliens. Well, Sweetie, I think I may have something you'll want to see!"

At the word "aliens" Lornis no longer had to drag him along. He was at the veek before she was, starting to climb in, but she stopped him.

"No, no—let me explain, Eichra Oren! You see, I went out in my flower garden just before sunrise this morning to get nightcrawlers, so I could go fishing later today with my father. This—" The girl stretched ornamentally, reaching into the back seat of the open-topped road machine. "This is what I was using. I got it out of my garden shed."

I'd seen something like it before. What she had hauled out of the veek was a t-handled, wooden-shafted, fork-ended device about four feet long, that used high-voltage electricity to bring the worms up from underground.

"I heard a noise, and then I saw one of these 'aliens' of yours, rummaging through the other end of my toolshed and guess I sort of impulsively kind of stabbed it in the backside with my 'nightcrawler persuader', knocking the thing right out." In any lesser society, we wouldn't have been able to watch the action she was describing. In ours, we got to see everything she'd seen, and it was pretty funny stuff.

With a dramatic flourish, she opened the cargo trunk to show us what lay inside. It was a Gray, one of the flatworm people, the one (assuming there was only one) with the little visored cap, wearing a gray coverall and tied up hand and foot with gray all-purpose tape. Very tastefully coordinated, I thought. Lornis had stuffed the thing into the trunk of her veek, and now presented it to my boss proudly, as a present. I suspected that it might be H. gracilis courting behavior.

Eichra Oren bent down and stared the organism in what served as its face. There was no visible mouth or nose, no visible ears. Only those terrible eyes that looked like holes burned in a blanket with a cigar. "Do you speak my language?" he asked it. "Can you speak at all?"

There was no response. It didn't even blink. I wasn't sure if it could.

To Lornis: "What do you suppose it was looking for in your shed?"

Lornis shrugged. "I've no idea. No idea at all. It's kind of big—the shed, I mean—and it's been practically empty since my dad moved out to a place of his own and took all of the stuff he stored there. What I'm keeping in it now are some garden tools and various related supplies, a stack of old clay pots, and an ancient automowing machine."

"I have a thought," I said, and I did. It was a good one. "Boss, if you and Lornis will bring that thing in the house? I'm going to go find something I think will help us. Mio, come with me, I need your fingers."

Mio looked to his mistress, who nodded, and the two of us went ahead into the house. I indicated a drawer in Eichra Oren's desk I wanted opened, and the Talapoin obliged, letting me see what he saw inside, via implant. It was almost like having a symbiote of my very own.

It was getting to be an attractive thought, although it would probably take the Elders seven or eight milennia to get used to the idea.

At my instruction, Mio pulled out the flat transparent package with Ray's brain implants on the foam inside it. By that time the boss and his would-be girlfriend had the captive Gray inside the house and propped up on the sofa like a particularly icky mummy. When Eichra Oren saw what we'd retrieved from his desk drawer, he nodded his approval.

"Ray's implants!" he said. "You'll want the language package— that's the little purple square one. You're figuring that this creature's neural functions are distributed widely enough that we can just lay the implant practically anywhere on its skin and get results, right?"

"I'd start with the head," I told him, conservative in my own way.

He answered, "So would I, if only out of habit." I had no idea whether this idea of mine would work. I didn't know whether implants could attune themselves to their users or had to be attuned, somehow. It occurred to me then that I knew almost nothing about the technology that had made me what I am—whatever that is. Eichra Oren took the little metallic wafer out of the package and laid it on the creature's forehead. Nothing happened for a longish moment—then it jumped and suddenly each of us could sense another sapient presence in the room.

"I am Eichra Oren," the boss said aloud. His implant broadcast the same information. He'd pulled up an office chair so he could sit and look directly at our guest where they'd sat him on the sofa. "Who are you?"

There came no reply, either mentally or otherwise. The alien sat perfectly still, and if implants had employed carrier waves, that's all we would have been hearing. That and crickets. But somehow we were all aware that the bizarre creature had heard Eichra Oren's question perfectly well. My guess was that it believed it was resisting an interrogation by its captors, and, of course, that's exactly what was happening.

"This is the last time I'm asking," said Eichra Oren, his voice and mental tone extremely grim and menacing. I could tell that he was putting it on, but I doubt the prisoner or even Lornis could. "Who are you?"

Again there was no answer from our alien visitor, but the creature began thrashing around violently, straining hard at the gray utility tape wrapped around its wrists and arms and legs and ankles—or as close as it came to having parts like that. Maybe it thought it was worth tearing itself to bits in order to get away. It wasn't entirely gelatinous, more like cold meatloaf in aspic. Perhaps it had gotten a mental glimpse of what Eichra Oren wanted it to believe he had in mind.

I had, and it wasn't pretty. I probably would have felt a lot more sympathy for the thing if I hadn't watched through Ray's own eyes as it, or one of its buddies, coldbloodedly murdered my friend—after attempting to run the boss and me off the road and firing a missile at us.

With a hand on its chest, Eichra Oren pushed the creature back against the sofa. He pulled the little plasma weapon out of his tunic pocket and pointed it at the crotch of the creature's gray coveralls. "This is what I wrecked your veek and shot your aircraft down with. Now sit still and tell me everything I want to know, or I'm going to shoot your dick off. This is a new gun to me, and it's just a little bit unpredictable, so I'll most likely take your balls off with it, too."

"My reproductive process is not the same as that of you mammals." The voice inside our minds was amused, low, smooth, and sexually ambiguous. "And if it were, even a lowly vertebrate like you should be aware by now that anything you do to me will eventually heal or grow back."

"Okay, then," Eichra Oren offered agreeably. "I guess I'll just plink around a little until I find something that you don't want shot off."

"It won't do any good," I told Eichra Oren, unable now to tell how serious he was being. Torture—and the threat of torture, too—was supposed to be against the rules of p'Na. "This could be the same one that Ray shot. They seem able to absorb a lot of abuse. Every function is distributed throughout their bodies and I'll bet they also heal fast."

The boss nodded. "Right you are, Sam." He stood up, put his gun away, and went to the kitchen. He came back immediately with a small container in his hand. "This is a highly volatile petroleum fraction," he announced. In fact, it was only a bottle of Plumfizzle, the boss's favorite soft drink. "I'm going to take you outside, pour it all over you, and light it. Then we'll see how well-distributed your functions are."

The thing said, "Wait, wait, what is it that you want to know?" So our guest didn't care much for the idea of being set on fire. For that matter, neither did I, not just because I hate the smell of burning fur.

Eichra Oren said, "Who are you?"

"I don't know how to answer this question of yours, vertebrate," it complained. "I don't understand it. I am myself. What else could I be?"

"To begin with, what's your name? My name is Eichra Oren. His name is Oasam Otusam. Her name is Lornis Adubudu. His name is Mio. What's yours?"

"'Name'," it repeated, almost to itself. "You give each cell a unique designation all its own. How mind-consuming that must be, remembering and employing all of those letter combinations. This is better:"

Instead of more words, we vertebrates were treated mentally to a complicated and confusing diagram. There was a long silence, then: "That's genealogy," Lornis said at last. "That's some kind of family tree."

"It's telling us who it is," Mio said, "in terms of its familial relationships."

"Let me try something," said Lornis. She closed her beautiful eyes and concentrated. What we saw was a considerably less complicated diagram showing the last three generations of the Adubudu family. For some reason the creature suddenly began thrashing around violently again.

"Alfarz," I observed. "It seems to focus on Alfarz Adubudu."

Lornis said, "My father. I think this thing wants to kill him."

Alfarz Adubudu was a businessman who specialized in catering to certain proclivities of which many individuals would be ashamed were they to become public knowledge. Pass a thousand laws, I thought, repeal them all; none has even a hundredth of the power of social approval or disapproval. If Alfarz were living in a civilization somewhere that outlawed the proffering of such goods and services, he'd have been considered a criminal kingpin. As it was, he did moderately well by supplying individuals with what they thought they needed.

Eichra Oren leaned in on the creature. "Why would you kill Alfarz Adubudu?"

As before, we didn't get an answer in words, but in flashes, brief glimpses of Alfarz, of Semlohcolresh in Lanternlight, of Lyn Chow, of Hyppod Zart and his fellow tentacle-nosed friends, and oddly enough of Scutigera, and of Eichra Oren's mother, Eneri Relda, each of them associated in its mind somehow with Misterthoggosh. There were also certain characters we recognized, but didn't know: Asavivirsnajunamar ("THE name in Anti-Gravity"), another famous Elder, Semajytrairom, a media commentator, and Nombismocwen, who manufactured hoverveeks like Lornis's. There was a number of others, of several species, we didn't know.

"It doesn't seem to understand how we organize ourselves," Lornis suggested. "My mom died a couple of years ago, climbing a mountain on the Northwest Continent. Maybe it thought my dad lives in that tool shed." That was funny for a couple of reasons. Among Lornis's people, Homo gracilis, houses traditionally belong to the womenfolk, passing from mother to daughter, which was probably why he'd wanted his own place.

"Stop me when I go wrong," said Mio, ticking points off on his tiny Talapoin fingers. "What we have here are some violent criminals, killers of an unfamiliar species—these Grays—who are apparently descended from flatworms, have independently discovered crosstime travel, and are now here with some kind of list of people they want to kill."

"All because they have something to do with Misterthoggosh," I observed, wondering why I hadn't seen Aelbraugh Pritsch, Jakdav Hoj, or Mikado in the alien's mental rogues' gallery. Unimportant, I guessed. "The person in this world who has the most to do with other worlds."

Eichra Oren rose. "Sam, my mother isn't picking up, but she often turns her com off. Let's head over to her place and make sure she's all right. Maybe she can tell us why she's on this strange creature's list. Along the way, we'll call the others and alert them to the danger."

"Mio and I will help with that," said Lornis. "We'll go with you, if you don't mind, Eichra Oren, Sam. I'd feel a whole lot safer. I'm associated with Misterthoggosh, too, after all, through my father. I'll send my veek home. I'm in contact with my dad this very minute. He's doing business on the Island Continent and assures me he's just fine."

She'd asked if I minded. Push that "I wish I were human" up a notch.

"I thought you said you were going fishing with Alfarz today," the boss informed her, rather than asking her, pretending to be a detective. The man seemed desperate to find some reason not to like this beautiful girl who wanted nothing more than to give herself to him.

Lornis replied, "Tonight. He's taking a ballistic flight home." That's the way to travel, I thought. Half a world away in ninety minutes.

I decided that the subject could use changing. "Boss, what're we gonna do with Captain Wormface, here? Gonna introduce it to your mother?"

Eichra Oren laughed, "On the way over, we'll drop it off with Misterthoggosh. He may have an idea or two of what to do with the creature."

The alien flatworm thing freaked when it heard that. Back it went, into the trunk, not peacably, but kicking and wriggling without making a noise. Eichra Oren drove. Lornis sat beside him in the passenger seat.

I sat behind her on the vestigial back seat with the Hammer-damned monkey.

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