Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 666, April 15, 2012

"The Number of the beast
(or not) on a date that
will live in infamy"

Previous Previous Table of Contents Contents Next Next

Chapter Twenty-eight: Council of War
An Excerpt From the forthcoming novel Blade of P'Na
by L. Neil Smith

Bookmark and Share

Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

[Author's Note: the narrator is a dog with electronically enhanced intelligence.]

The boss called ahead.

Instead of parking at the curb when we got there, he pulled around to the north side of the Elder's house—putting the shoreline to our left—into an open door wide enough for ten veeks. We'd been here once before, when we were "taken for a ride". One of the dozens of machines parked inside was immediately familiar. It belonged to Eneri Relda.

The four of us wondered what was going on.

We were led from the garage by one of Aelbraugh Pritsch's people—between the bird folk and a gaggle of plastic-wrapped nine-foot sea scorpions, we'd been greeted by at least a dozen and a half heavily- armed sapients on full alert—on a winding path through the Elder's house.

Despite the state of alert, at least some of the feathered brigade seemed to be on break, sitting in a small room off the hall at a table (perches, not chairs), round cards in their hands, playing contract whist or Go Frog or something, drinking kelp beer, and finger-nibbling at what looked like a big pan of fried cockroaches. Smelled like it, too.

Recorded music played in the background. It sounded like an entire orchestra composed of harps, tuned by an army of deaf harp tuners and played by monkeys, using their feet. I'd been told it was the latest, hottest thing—among dino-avians. Somehow, it was worse than the cockroaches.

Meanwhile, across the hall, their chitin-covered counterparts (the bird people's, not the cockroaches') appeared to be taking it easy, too. They didn't seem the type for card games. They were consuming the same kelp beer, but with cheeseburgers (no, I don't know how the sea scorpionoids got them through their watertight transparent bodysuits), all their attention seemingly focused (although a couple of eyestalks followed us across the open door as we passed by) on some variety of spectator sport on video, an obvious interworld import in which two heavily armored groups of humans employed L-shaped sticks to bash each others' helmeted brains and push a little rubber disk around a frozen pond.

The game was punctuated at intervals by commercial exhortations on behalf of "Yelram's Tentacle Cream, for discriminating cephalopods", "Snarvely's canned phytoplankton guaranteed 100% zooplankton free!" or for "C'wopst Stix"—I never managed to figure out what they are or who they're for. There were also interruptions, a bit more frequent, caused by fighting players, during which Misterthoggosh's guards made extremely loud clicking and whirring noises I'm pretty sure denoted enthusiasm.

At last we were led onto a flagstoned verandah at the rear of the great house, surrounded by a low retaining wall that also served as a planter. The south half of the enclosed space was a lush green lawn. Beyond the waving fronds and shimmering leaves in the planters, lay a hundred yards of salt grass, a broad sandy beach—every grain of it imported; the natural shore is rocky—and finally the Inland Sea itself.

The Elders call it "Our Sea" and think it's some kind of joke.

Overhead, no fewer than a dozen flying machines of various designs patrolled the airspace immediately above Misterthoggosh's domicile. They were accompanied by several slower-moving but sharper-eyed and brilliantly-feathered members of some kind of flying reptile I'd only seen before as fossils. I wondered briefly whether they were trained, remotely controlled somehow, or sapients in their own right. I meant to ask, but forgot in all the excitement that was about to sweep over us.

There were vessels out there on the water, too, long, low, carnivorous-looking splinters that didn't resemble pleasure boats at all. Doubtless they had companions, patrolling under the surface, as well. In some universes, Misterthoggosh might well have been his own country.

The grounds themselves were enormous. Set in the center of the decorative sandstone flagging lay a saltwater swimming pool at least thirty paces on a side. I suspected that its design included handy tunnels to the house and the sea. In the water, Misterthoggosh was present in the flesh—and there was plenty of that, sticking out of the end of his knobbly, multicolored spiral shell. A highly assorted crowd of guests swam in the pool with him, or sat around on the patio surrounding it, or right at the pool's edge, with their various pedal appendages dangling in the water. (I don't know why, but many sapients like to do that.) Beyond the east end of the pool an outsized image field had been activated in which the great mollusc could be seen even better.

Somebody bumped me as he walked past, without excusing himself. I was moderately surprised that the Old Boy had decided to invite the mass media to his little garden party, in the form of the Planetary Implant Network, or PIN—the bottom-feeders who work for it are commonly called "pinheads". One of them had just trampled over me. There were probably a thousand networks like PIN, each one worse than all the others. I wondered why Misterthoggosh had chosen this bunch. They and their enhanced cerebrocortical implants were all over the place, wearing what looked like rearview bicycle mirrors on headbands, so that the audience at home could see their precious faces as they blathered.

Another of them approached, pretty condescendingly, I thought, wanting my feelings (he never mentioned my opinion) about what was happening. I snarled and showed my fangs—rather impressive, if I do say so myself; I practice in the mirror—he left to bother somebody else.

"Nice doggy," my furry white ass.

Off in one corner of the giant-sized yard, a bevy or gaggle or coven of lovely young female specimens, a majority of them quite human, a few of them pleasantly humanoid like Lornis, each and every one of them highly mammalian and agreeably clad in what looked like their underwear, were playing some kind of a game with a head-sized ball tossed back and forth over a net set at chin level. Wonderful scenery. I could easily have watched them doing it for hours. So could the other fifty or sixty males who were casting ocular organs in that direction.

Eichra Oren extracted a big cigar from his tunic pocket and let it light itself. He inhaled and then exhaled with visible satisfaction. You're not supposed to do that with cigars, but he was the boss, and they were his cigars, not to mention his lungs. I was content just to sit on the sun-warmed flags, prepared to enjoy whatever was about to happen.

Although it didn't come without a cost. Regrettably, as I knew it eventually must, I heard a gong and the ball-playing stopped abruptly. Towels and hoodies and windbreakers were passed around to cover all that moist, gleaming flesh, and there followed a rapid migration from that corner of the Proprietor's yard, toward the broad patio where Eichra Oren stood beside Lornis, her monkey-thing in her arms. As the formerly almost naked females approached, the expression on the young Denisovan's face could easily be read as "Back off, girls, he's mine!".

Or possibly, "One more step and you're lunchmeat!"

I'm never entirely certain what females want from Eichra Oren, or what they think they're going to get. This bunch crowded around him, giggling and squealing. He was a moderately famous practitioner of a sometimes dangerous profession. I guess that made him "Adventure Man" to them. Intellectually, at least, I know there are girls who like "life-takers". I was pretty sure at least a couple were scanning his image into their implants from head to toe, planning to use his avatar in their virtual sex software. There's no law against it, but it isn't very polite. Lornis held onto the boss's arm as if her life—or maybe his—depended on it. Whatever he said to them was kindly but reserved.

Mio, the talapoin, fed up with being pushed around and joggled, leaped to the edge of the roof, and perched there like a little fuzzy gargoyle.

Our nautiloid host lay mostly in the water, eyes, a few tentacles, and the top third of his multicolored shell sticking up out of the surface. With one tentacle wrapped around a beer baggie, the great mollusc was in full expostulatory form, starting in what felt like the middle.

"It seems to me," he declared to one and all, "that once we jettison all that is extraneous, we are still left with three problems."

All around the colossal mollusc, the crowd acted as if they didn't have any problem at all, let alone three. They all seemed to be talking and drinking and laughing as if they were at a cocktail party—which was more or less true, I suppose—but the difference was that they could "hear" their ammonite host perfectly by way of their implants and were paying him more attention than appeared to be the case.

"Two of these," he continued undauntedly, "were anticipated from the outset. Indeed one is the reason we committed to this undertaking in the first place. And both of those are in process of being dealt with."

Somebody gave a lone, drunken cheer.

"The final difficulty, I am chagrined to confess, was unforseen, and regrettably, we can go no further with our plans until it has been resolved."

That shut the gathering up. These people all had money invested in Misterthogosh's various undertakings, or jobs as undertakers. Now the old boy was telling them this particular venture had hit some kind of snag.

As to that unforeseen problem Misterthoggosh had mentioned, the boss and I had left our alien prisoner (whatever he or she or it was) in the custody of the flock of dinosaur/bird persons—not Aelbraugh Pritsch—who'd met us in the garage. I sincerely hoped Old Wormface would be properly taken care of. A great many of the guests here this afternoon would be wanting to ask it questions before this day was ended.

I hoped they'd have more success than we had.

"The first problem," continued Misterthoggosh, taking a draw on his drink as he spoke via implant, "is that a medium-sized asteroid in one of the alternative universes we're aware of—the very universe, in fact, to which my friend Eneri Relda and her people were born— appears in no other universe we have seen. The phenomenon is absurdly, ridiculously unheard of. It is the Great Mystery we are determined to solve."

The number of alternative universes is supposed to be infinite. An asteroid like he was describing should have existed in a cluster of them across probability, distributed along a normal curve. There was absolutely nothing normal about this situation. Uniqueness of this kind was highly unprecedented, and relatively silly. Me, I happen to like silly, but most individuals, especially business folk, don't seem to tolerate it particularly well. On the other hand, there had to be a reason for it, and Misterthoggosh believed it might be a profitable one.

Those beings who were capable of vocalizing set up a low murmur, auditory and electronic, that he was compelled to wait out. Luckily, at least compared to anybody else, after half a billion years of sapience, nautiloids are an amazingly patient people—although most other Elders regarded Misterthoggosh as an impetuous risk-taker and adventurer.

"The second problem—please keep in mind that our observations in this regard are from unbeinged, remotely controlled devices—is that the civilization native to that stretch of alternative reality, once again, the species of Eneri Relda and her son, my friend Eichra Oren has begun to make itself a factor. Following a regrettably brief, but enlightened period of increasing international peace, individual freedom, social and technological progress, and, of course, splendid prosperity, it now appears, inexplicably, to have regressed, turned itself backward, toward an unusually pernicious variety of violent oppression, suppression, and repression, referred to locally as 'Marxism'."

"We've seen exactly the same thing happen in a thousand different continua," declared a voice I recognized. It was our new friend from Lanternlight, the tour guide and "taxi", Scutigera, most of his thirty-foot length invisible behind a little copse of mimosas in another corner of the yard. "'From each according to his abilities, to each, according to his needs' nothing more than an awkward attempt to cloak banditry, murder, and rape in the garment of legitimate ideology—and a vile credo best suited to leaches, mosquitoes, vampire bats, lice, bedbugs, and intestinal parasites, certainly not to sapient beings."

Quite a speech for a thirty-foot centipede. Several individuals laughed a dozen different ways, from each according to his species. I deduced from this that none of them were descended, evolutionarily, from leaches, mosquitoes, vampire bats, lice, bedbugs, or intestinal parasites.

Misterthoggosh agreed. "They are, of course, perfectly welcome to do that to themselves. The trouble is—setting aside for a moment the atrocities they customarily inflict on those among them who do not wish to live a collectivized life—such regimes become dangerous to innocent bystanders once their political and economic policies fail to produce a paradise on Earth. Then they blame anybody and everybody for their failures, rather than face the simple fact that their ideas are stupid."

"You're quite right," a being who looked fantastic even to me had spoken up. It was a six-foot insectoid resembling a praying mantis, dressed up in what appeared to be hundreds of strips of colored cloth. "Their leaders typically lash out whenever their cherished theories collapse, slaughtering their own people, sometimes by the tens or hundreds of millions, or waging mindless wars against neighbors who, ironically, almost invariably have identical economic and political philosophies."

"Unfortunately so, Doctor," another person agreed. This one looked a bit like a thick gray blanket in a thin, clear wrapping, a distant relative of Ray, the late, lamented mantoid. My implant told me that she was a female named Remaulthiek. "I have made it my personal task to study this odd species closely. Predictably, they have equipped themselves with powerful fission and fusion explosive devices that are ultimately capable of rendering their entire planet uninhabitable. They've even used them against one another once or twice in recent decades."

There was an odd sort of a collective gasp as everyone among the gathering digested this information. According to the most fundamental precepts of p'Na, weapons of indiscriminate lethality must never be employed, since the only justification for violence is when somebody else—some specific individual—has initiated violence against you. It's generally agreed to be physically impossible to put such weapons to tactical use without injuring or killing totally innocent bystanders.

And doing that is morally unacceptable for any reason whatever. Period. Offering "collateral damage" as an excuse will only get you the Assessor's blade, an ending cleaner than you deserve. Once that principle had been established, the Elders never fought another war. The "Armistice" has lasted, so far, for a couple hundred million years.

We heard another voice, that of a second nautiloid bobbing in the pool, another friend from Lanternlight, Semlohcolresh. "To make things even more complicated and dangerous, they have achieved an elementary form of spaceflight and are said to be interested in this same rogue asteroid as a potential source of wealth or knowledge, possibly enough to make up for the utter imbecility of the claptrap they choose to believe."

"Very common behavior among failed command economies," observed Remaulthiek.

"But the worst", said Eichra Oren's mother, stepping out of the house, a delicate-looking drink in hand, "we haven't even gotten to yet."

L. Neil Smith is the Publisher and Senior Columnist of L. Neil Smith's THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE, as well as the author of 33 freedom-oriented books, the most recent of which is DOWN WITH POWER: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis:
[ dead tree]
[ Kindle]
[ dead tree and Nook]

Was that worth reading?
Then why not:
Pay L. Neil Smith


Big Head Press