Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 766, April 13, 2014

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise


The nearest city of any size on this world lies 500 miles north of the northwest coast of the Inland Sea where Eichra Oren and I live. It was named by humans, who for fifteen thousand years have called it Lanternlight.

It's said there's a city there, in the S-bend of a great river, in a hundred thousand alternate worlds. Easy, rapid transportation and near-perfect communication have made such collections of individuals and buildings pretty much obsolete in this one. Add to that the fact that the landwelling population of the Elders' Earth is sparse, no more than a couple hundred million sapients on the whole planet, all of them Appropriated Persons or their descendants, and well spread out.

There are some very big cities in the Great Deep, I'm told, where it makes a bit more sense, long distance communication being somewhat more difficult, owing to the way water muffles radio signals at useful wavelengths. Down there, they utilize a worldwide network of light cables.

Lanternlight can lay claim perhaps to a million inhabitants, representing all Appropriated species, but above all it's a human city, a beautiful place, deliberately kept quaint, with its broad, high-crowned streets that have never borne the weight of wheels, and perhaps as many as a hundred faerie bridges arching over the cold, dark river. Streetlights, made to appear old-fashioned, in imitation of the gaslights of ancient Antarctica, bestow their enchanted glow on the cobbles, while high above the city, on a gracefully tapered tower of filagreed titanium—another gift to the Appropriated Persons courtesy of the Elders' guilty conscience—one great, soft light casts enough gentle illumination to compete with that of the full Moon.

I've often wondered why we don't keep our office here.

One thing that folks will always get together for is dining at a big, fancy restaurant with a first class chef. Several first class chefs, in this case, as there are hundreds of cultures and cuisines to cover. For human beings, torn by their peculiar evolution between the life of gregarious tree-monkeys and that of small-pack hunters on the open prairie, dining out, among strangers, represents an agreeable compromise.

As for the canine component of this partnership, it took me quite a long time, as a puppy, learning not to snarl and snap at anyone who came too close to my plate. Now I can accept a little freshly-ground pepper or parmesan cheese with the very best of social graces, and without even the faintest urge to take the waiter's arm off at the shoulder.

We left the veek at our hotel—as artificially quaint as the rest of the municipality, although fully up to date in its amenities—and accepted a ride on the back of a giant centipede, tastefully striped brown and beige, with middle legs much longer than those fore and aft. The creature had a sort of howdah on his back and kept up a running monologue about the endless wonders of an ancient city that he obviously adored, as lesser beings and levitated traffic whizzed around under his many feet. We discovered the fabulous eatery Stomos had recommended to us on a principal thoroughfare, overlooking the river.

Eichra Oren dismounted using a ladder, having left payment in a box in the passenger compartment. I jumped down to the sidewalk making a perfect four-point landing. The outsized centipede told us that his name was Scutigera and that we should call him again when we wanted to return to the hotel or go anywhere in the city with a knowledgable guide.

We assured him that we would.

A sign, when you looked that direction, popped into your visual cortex:


There were two long, narrow islands in the great river here, and, across one of the pretty bridges, the restaurant was on the larger of the two. Inside, the place was a bit more crowded and a little noisier than I had expected, filled from wall to wall with beautiful females and their handsome escorts, all of them arrayed in their very finest finery.

Hanging from high ceilings embossed with decorative patterns, old-fashioned four-bladed fans turned overhead, their motion reflected in crystal chandeliers, stirring the air without cooling the food too badly. Irresistable aromas floated through the atmosphere on a gentle current while great windows at both ends of the room not only allowed a view of streets on either side that artists never seemed to tire of painting, but—and more importantly—permitted passersby a chance to be lured into warmly lit hospitality, potential camaraderie, and a cornucopia of delicious temptations that the place was famous for affording.

The only table available was next to one already occupied by a kind of being that neither of us recognized. The fellow was obviously a landdwelling arthropod of some sort—no plastic suit—and an extraordinarily large one, at least nine feet tall, three feet wide, two feet thick through the thorax. His color was a dull pinkish orange. My implant immediately gave me the name of his species and a number and letter combination for the universe he came from, but it didn't mean that much. Another Earth, owned and operated by great big bugs.

It did say they had managed to reach the nearest stars. Good for them.

He sat in a complicated chair—the restaurant was full of them—that was adaptable to his species, with his tail tucked under the table. As I had observed, he was an arthropod, with pairs of limbs spaced along the ventral side of his segmented body. The foremost pair ended in enormous pincers with intimidatingly serrated edges, although he manipulated his food and drink—a bowl of salad and a glass of red wine—delicately, with complex, specialized mouthparts, like a spider.

Two of the fellow's four eyes were mounted at the ends of finely segmented stalks a foot long, waving around constantly, occasionally peering over his back like twin periscopes. His other two eyes were larger, and set firmly into the sides of his basically triangular head.

Seated in a nice, uncomplicated, comfortable booth. we placed our order—a genuine, living creature, dinosauroid, actually arrived at our table to take it—and we were left with an aperitif and some appetizers. Eichra Oren poured the wine. The dodo pate was quite good. First imported from west of the warmer Island Continent, the birds are now bred by the millions all over the planet for their livers alone. The rest of the strange animal tastes terrible to all but a few species.

This lacking hands thing was a pain. I wished that I had a couple squid of my own or, since squid don't do very well on land, a monkey. Trouble is, I've never heard of a symbiote having a symbiote. And I'm not sure there's enough room in my head for the circuitry it would require.

Also, I don't like monkeys.

Just then the waiter reappeared, bringing a big, steaming platter, which he set down in front of the nearby giant arthropod. The birdman fussed over the plate, going through all the other waiter rituals, and departed.

The arthropod picked up a knife and fork in his strange elongated mouthparts, then turned in his chair to look directly at Eichra Oren with three of his eyes. "I hope," the fellow said, his synthetic voice dripping with sarcasm, "that what I'm eating doesn't offend you, Mr. Humanoid."

He made wheezing noises I guessed were laughter. I took a look and cringed. To all appearances, what lay on the platter, surrounded in vegetables, was a roasted human baby. Our waiter set our plates before us.

"Monkey?" Eichra Oren answered in a light, even tone. "Not by any means."

He nodded at his own plate and at mine. "We're having lobster."


Despite the delightful dinner now set before me—some thoughtful individual in the kitchen had prepared my plate so that I didn't have to ask for help with it; it had that perfect sweet-scorched aroma that is a major reason I love broiled lobster—I was anxious to discuss with Eichra Oren what we'd learned from our new client, the villainous Misterthoggosh.

I remembered it just as if it were yesterday, probably because it was ...

As Eichra Oren slowly settled to the sandy bottom of the outsized fishtank that was the massive mollusc's office on land—afterward, the boss hadn't been inclined to talk about his first horrible breath of fluorocarbon, and I hadn't asked—the pair of longer tentacles emerging at the other side of the room was followed by eight shorter ones, and then by a pair of the largest eyes I've ever seen. They were roughly the same diameter as the balls used in children's kicky-ball games, and they were slitted exactly like those of a gigantic feline or maybe somebody's demented pet goat. Finally, the great, coiled shell made its appearance; it was almost the size of Eichra Oren's sportsveek.

The shell was worth mentioning all by itself. Approximately the same height as my boss, it was divided into segments, each one with brightly-colored stripes that I was pretty sure were natural, minerals absorbed selectively from the waters in which they were formed. Each of them—a new one added every year, it says here, but given the old mollusc's rumored age, I seriouly doubted that—was noticably larger than the one that had preceded it along the spiral, indicating that the impressive and powerful sapient parked before us had once been an itty-bitty snail, albeit an itty-bitty snail with squiggly little arms.

It was fun to imagine. The Elders have never been particularly forthcoming about their reproductive biology or their subsequent development. Much of what we think we know is inferred from species that aren't really that similar to the Elders, especially nautili, who can't generate ink, and whose eyes, without corneas, are open to the sea.

What's generally understood seems so ridiculous that I don't really blame them for being secretive about it. It is presumed, by those inclined to guess about such things, that they begin as eggs, deposited in some protected nursery somewhere in the Great Deep. It made sense: for millions of years, and despite their spiralled armor, small nautiloids have been the real "chicken of the sea" to predators like mososaurs; crunchy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside. It has also been speculated that the females of the Elders' species aren't really sapient beings at all and are only useful for sex and reproduction.

I've known some human females like that.

The monster shell had been hovering—nautiloids can control their bouyancy minutely—a couple of inches above the sand-covered floor, amidst bizarre sculptures and decorative plantings of kelp and other underwater vegetables. At the moment, the old boy was pulling himself along effortlessly with his two main tentacles. But when nautiloids are in a hurry, the big molluscs can propel themselves— backwards—with a powerful jet of water from their breathing siphons, and leave an assailant behind in a blinding cloud of darkness.

They have also been known to sell it to write documents and dye garments. Better than being down and out and selling your own blood, I guess.

At last, Misterthoggosh settled himself down behind a broad, flat rectangle of some greenish, smoothly-polished decorative stone set in the floor (his "desk", I was assuming—I think it was jade) and spoke.

"Eichra Oren, ethical debt assessor of the ancient and honorable School of p'Na. I must say that I am delighted finally to meet you. I have known your estimable mother very well for many years. And in that time—some of it, anyway—she has told me a great deal about you, all of it quite complimentary, I assure you, as is to be expected from a mother, I suppose. Nonetheless, I am Misterthoggosh, known as the Proprietor."

The boss nodded, noncommitally. Misterthoggosh lifted one of his longer tentacles—palps, it turns out they're called, serving about the same purpose as a spider's mouth manipulators of the same name— toward the human, who seized an edge of the thing enthusiastically, and shook it. Eichra Oren is a much braver individual than I'll ever be.

The great cephalopod pivoted his shell slightly toward me, making a scraping noise that set my teeth on edge. The great slitted eyes regarded me through the thick glass. "And I should also like to extend my greetings and felicitations to you, Oasam Otusam, of whom I also know a considerable amount. Yes, indeed, I can see and hear you, sir. You're the hero who singlehandedly saved the poriferan Quindli from extinction."

That again.

Please understand that the Quindli are sponges. And they really have no business being sapient, except for the strange and accidental fact that three hundred million years ago or so, on their own version of this planet, they acquired a parasite—nothing more than a tiny little soft-bodied worm, but with an unusually complicated nervous system.

That tiny little worm then evolved into a tiny little symbiont (not quite the same kind of thing that I am, whatever that is, more like the "friendly" bacteria in your digestive tract), and then into a sort of semi-independent organ, like a chloroplast or a mitochondrion, and then ... well, the light came on. The Quindli are very smart, but they still don't do much except sit at the bottom of shallow seas, humming eerie music of their own composition, mostly millions of years old.

Note that I say "mostly". Call it bad luck, call it good luck, the Quindli next found themselves Appropriated by accident, hauled by main strength and awkwardness into the Elders' alternity along with some species of sapient but relatively primitive octopi. Nobody on this side of reality realized what they'd done until some recreational divers off the westernmost edge of the northern Island Continent happened to be playing popular music through loudspeakers into the water.

And the Quindli started to sing along.

That area had been scheduled for construction of a resort where dry land and wet water folks could congregate. It has long been a popular stop for human and cetacean tourists, who seem to enjoy each other's company for some reason. Construction crews and machinery were about to begin digging and seeding an underwater foundation which would probably have destroyed the Quindli, when, oblivious to their imminent extinction, but inspired by what they'd heard the divers playing, the sapient sponges began composing their first new music in millennia.

I first heard about the strange singing, and even listened to it, online. Then I nagged Eichra Oren into investigating, despite serious misgivings on his part, and all of a sudden we had flown to the Island Continent, done a little digging—swimming, actually—officially declared discovery of a sapient species, and acquired thousands of new friends.

And paying clients. The Quindli absorb precious metals—gold, silver, platinum, palladium, iridium, rhodium—from sea water, which contains a few atoms of each element per cubic meter, washed down from the land over billions and billions of years. It was mildly poisonous to their inner worms, and they were accustomed to isolating it in cysts or nuggets within their bodies. They were more than happy to part with it, in exchange for this and that. Debt assessor's fees, for instance.

Once the first recordings of their music began to sell, the sponge people became doubly wealthy. They bought the development company out, moved the planned resort up the coast a few thousand yards, and it eventually became a third source of poriferan income. "Come, see the silly simians swimming with cetaceans! Come hear the fabulous singing sponges!"

I believe that someone called it "Box Office Boffo".

They always remember me on my birthday, by singing to me via implant.

It was no big thing, believe me.

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