The suave homo sapiens shipowner, wearing the chip-sluggish Kirtt within his sensorium, and an ancient half-awake battle Mind in his Teardrop, became visible to the world and to the watchers from orbit at the exit interface where the docking pods grappled Tile Dance into the embrace of Trencher. He was groomed and tithed and did not smell very strong for a human. The planet pressed against the back of his neck.
He stood inside a port-authority bubble affixed to Tile Dance's flank, in a cloud of toons. He sprayed them. They squeaked indignantly but vamoosed.
--Mowgli instructs you not to spray free-enterprise toons, murmured Kirtt.
Freer sighed; he was in the middle of a world all right.
Spam shat by the toons tickled his toes.
He selected a rental floater from a tongue which extruded from the nearest braid and stuck itself to the bubble, which had opened to receive it. He put up a privacy sticker, paid the statutory guidance fee by plugging his scanner ring into the onboard Insort Geront sigil, which was non-bilateral: three lopsided worms twining ouroboros incised around a winged caduceus wand. At the heart of the sigil, glowing letters with an audio function whispered the Insort Geront motto: "Enkyklios Paedia," boasted the glowing motto in a Human Earth tongue earlier than Freer would ever know.
--Stinky? spoke the ship Mind in a rusty voice.
--Have I ever known what that means?
--Probably. It means "Circle of Meaning," Stinky.
--News to me.
--Meat brain, murmured the ship Mind.
--Captain, said the burning face within the spider within Teardrop.
--Can you take over this vehicle?
There was a pause.
--It is done, Captain.
The floater's tiny local mind was now locked into the Uncle Sam guidance schematic.
--Stick to pink, said Freer.
--Avoid any braid with clog warnings, said Kirtt in comm mode.
Braid clogs could trap passengers for hours, which Freer knew.
--Who are you talking to? he said.
--I have already given Uncle Sam the latest congestion download. The Uncle knows to avoid crowds. I was speaking to you. There are bad congestion figurations throughout Trencher. I predict plaque. Perhaps fairly soon.
--Welcome to now, said Freer. Uncle, he added, stay clear of dorms.
Much of the homo sapiens population in Trencher spent most of its time asleep or on dumbfoundingly monotonous site, waiting for clearance to join a generation Ark and put their minds to work at chip sorting.
--Watch out for pheromone junkies.
--I have been updated by your ship Mind, Captain. I am aware of the hazard component built into high-congestion multi-species interface events.
--Good, said Freer. Let's go.
The floater swished into a pink braid and spun into the world, which could be seen through the translucent braid walls as a fluttering like speckled wings, some iridescent, some dark as night, as they went.
--Remember. Stick to pink.
--Aye aye, Captain, murmured the flaming spider face in the palm of the fist appaumy, defensive, savvy, grizzled.
The floater dodged slower vehicles and walkers; stalkers, on the other hand, were required to dodge the floater: whenever humans congregated in shared space, engaging at times in behaviour not seemingly connected to mating, there was always it seemed at least one tourist non-bilateral stalker in the vicinity, gazing on from the wings, its nose (whatever passed for its nose) safely sealed, as it delectated the easily decipherable, unending, dogged antics of Freer's famous species. Normal intraplanetary decorum did not require homo sapiens to dodge stalkers in the flesh. Humans did not much like them.
Most stalkers were in any case sigilla.
Those non-bilaterals who could be defined as pheromone junkies were present in the flesh: they stalked human braids for the pong, lurking with care to avoid being struck by floaters. Some were harmless; some killed for the smell of dying.
The braid did a loop the loop, gathering stray capillaries in like knitting, and exited docking country, passing through walls of rock and into a central intersection, seemingly roofed with glass, where bilateral and non-bilateral networks linked briefly, where Trencher opened downwards and up like the veined inner atrium of a dream of cities; vast artificial suns and moons and disks flickered through luminescent cupolas miles above Freer's head downwards through vertical arcades lined with mirrors. The floater skidded through terrifyingly open air, freefell down a spidery frond curling for hundreds of yards over an abyss that dove downwards to magma. They hurtled into darkness shot by fireflies which turned out to be argosies ferrying homo sapiens upwards, perhaps heading towards an ark and the deepest of senior-citizen sleeps. There were a dozen of them; more. The inside of the world was churning.
--Is this normal?
--Aye aye, said the Uncle Sam.
They continued down, through a great shaft of light, dazzled, sigillated by photonic data flows cascading downwards from far above, perhaps ultimately from orbit, where the great Care Consortia arks shot perpetually their perfume and their honeytrap slogans into the apertures of the planet, like mother birds feeding a billion young, or perhaps sucking food. Most of the data streams displayed the Insort Geront logo, the fiery three-snake caduceus almost too bright to read, the marque of the vastest of the godzillas--an ancient Human Earth term for any corporation, whether snail or trad dotcom or seeded nous cube, which having gone rogue was no longer subject to the rule of law of any individual state or planet or system--prating "Enkyklios Paedia" incessantly, boring its mantra deep into the bone of the planet. The brand of Insort Geront made his eyes burn.
--Almost there, said the Uncle Sam as the floater whipped past a stalled argosy (human faces could be seen pressed against the frosted glass like masks, mouths open), shot down a darker side tunnel, and wove through a tripartite nexus where all three species braids joined in recomplicated consort. The Insort Geront sigil began to fade from his retina, after whispering a softsell for Rest Homes in Space.
"Are you hungry are you tired, Sirrah Freer?" it murmured in a tone whose geriatric unction belied the formal obeisance of its formal address; but left his face in peace at last.
It occurred to Freer that, having put up a privacy sticker, he should not have been addressed by name. He was formally anonymous. It was, at the very least, bad manners.
The icon in his eye grew and glowed.
--Nothing unusual, Captain, said the brusque spider whose face wore an admonishing stare. I can detect no traces on you, beyond acceptable limits. The Mowgli dock-engine is maintaining a tracer, which being in clear gave the Insort Geront beam a name to huckster.
--Thank you, Uncle Sam.
--Take me down.
The floater dropped like a plummet through an ancillary braid, rocketed through an iris that seemed large enough to give an Ark lebensraum, tumbled deftly through a writhing kaleidoscope which seen lengthwise became a spinal cord aimed at the heart of the planet; but just in time, at an intersection where ten kaleidoscopes bearing flesh sapients by the thousand bound themselves into one great planet-plunger knife-shaped columnar braid, the floater slid sideways, through an airlock into atmosphere, onto a rickety debouch platform overlooking the lower depths.
--Retain the floater, he murmured.
The bubble carapace of the floater opened.
--Aye aye, Captain.
He stood in dark open air, only a spindly balustrade protecting him from the whistling abyss. Half a klick across the vertical chasm, the column of braids descended into warm blackness, down towards the inner world. He was alone, except for a few strolling homo sapiens, male and female, mostly naked. Most were wearing traditional Tiazinha masks with huge come-hither lips, though others wore even more ancient aspects of the harlequinade. Inside their masks, the eloquent countenances of the strolling humans could be perceived only by intimates, through comm net face screens whose sensors conveyed mood, gesture, arousal levels. Outside in the world, the bare bodies of the homo sapiens maintained a normal dance of display--arms flinging, breasts high, balls (the scrotums mostly pierced and hung with aspect rings of precious stone) swaying. There were eloquent pauses while the masks gazed into space, utterly alone except for comm links. Occasionally, one body touched another. There happened to be no copulation.
It was just humanfolk out for a stroll.
Nothing to alarm him.
He moved away from the landing deck, past primitive hypno booths and bowers down a slow spiral walkway that into an amphitheatre cut into the rock of the world, but roofed by frizzy glass which gave an ornate glow from far above. There were no sigils incising ads into unwary retinas. Trees blossomed, lifelike Human Earth style roses, on a long trellis, guided him deeper in. A toon sign implored him, though in blessed silence, to enjoy the show within. A structure loomed above the trees. He turned into a narrow glade, which was lined by a primitive tile frieze bedecked with commedia dell'arte masks whose faces spelled out the name of the theatre:
At the end of the aisle of roses could be seen an entrance, a proscenium arch from the time when humans swarmed like honey bees across the planet which gave them birth, carved with figures of humans and beasts once deemed obscene, incised with an inscription--"Philoneikos gar ho theos"--in yet another language Freer could not decipher.
--"For the god loves conflict," Kirtt said, after the tiniest of pauses. A hologram translation scrolled through a proscenium arch in Teardrop.
--It is a homily from Human Earth. It means "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods," Stinky, sort of thing.
"William Shakespeare, King Lear" scrolled across the stage. Clearly Kirtt had consulted the Universal Book that reposed in Glass Island. Text scrolled through Teardrop faster than Freer could read. Players strolled, mouthing deft imprecations. A storm loomed on a heath.
--Cruel world, murmured Freer. Enough thank you, Book.
Between him and the emblazoned entrance a clutch of traditional representations of male and female homo sapiens genitalia blocked his way, the vulvas mouthing ads and odours the Sniffer blocked automatically, though a sudden flash of Ferocity Monthly-Niece filled Teardrop.
Teardrop cleared again.
--Kirtt, you're giving into chip, he said. Keep me clean, please.
He dodged the vulvas, which pouted, walked through the proscenium arch, which debited Tile Dance, and stepped inside, where an ornate chair found him, conveyed him along a curved aisle and into the auditorium, where he asked for privacy. Instantly, he was canopied. There was a smell of blown stamens, horse sweat, garlic, pheromone aftershave, sex: a swirling mix of stinks other species assumed humans hankered after. He asked the chair to turn it down, though not off. Through irises he could view other canopies--some of which were opaque, some transparent--where humans and other flesh sapients presumably sat, smelling their various homes. The harlequin masks of the humans shone in the dark. The humans gazed upon each others' masks. It crossed Freer's mind that he might copulate later, and his cache-sex cackled softly, but a jutting stage drew his attention.
The actors below him were clearly not flesh sapients, though they were wearing a parody of homo sapiens configuration: they were "dressed" as motor cortex homunculi, with huge mobile lips and hands and feet and enormous genitals, their thin wispish torsos labouring under the extraordinary exaggeration of the extremities.
It was going to be obscene, for sure: the actors were not masked.
The motor cortex homunculi began a risqué cabaret routine, featuring face to face conversations and even jokes. The frisson generated by this savage invasion of privacy was considerable. Several non homo sapiens bilaterals left their boxes in haste.
Obscenely, the actors then looked at audience, their homunculi faces stark naked.
Freer carefully avoided eye contact at this point, even though they were only actors, not human beings. They soon began to pace through a less-interesting parody of homo sapiens fucking, male to male, female to female, female to male indifferently, often switching, after the normal fashion of homo sapiens, penises lifting and distending painfully and penetrating vast smiling catacomb-sized assholes and vulvas, to the sound of a honky-tonk piano. At the corner of the stage, a lanky ragged-bearded man wearing an archaic interface helmet, which rather resembled a tin pot with landing lights, was pounding away at what seemed to be an archaic upright from before the dawn of digital. From the satchel on his back protruded several archaic rolls of sheet music. This was all stimulating, in a small way, but not--certainly not after the face-to-face jokes, which had been genuinely threatening--much of a show.
Onstage, it was beginning to end in tears. Orifices suddenly grew teeth and began to rip phalluses apart, while other phalluses grew greatly long and jousted, clumsily. Gross smacking lips closed over the bits that fell off, and the feast or agape began. It was a satire. Human sex was nothing but cannibalism. A grim lesson indeed! There was not much variety after this, though blood flowed very copiously, and there was much screaming. It was hard to work out whether the show had been designed for humans, or was rumourmongering.
A pleasant breeze ruffled Freer's dark thick hair, cooled his lean wiry form, roused his suppressant. There was an odour of roses, and something saline beneath the roses: like salt musk within a bower. The Sniffer snuggled against his cheek, twitching slightly in its preprogrammed slumber. Without its input, the scene seemed almost real.
For an instant, he seemed to fall asleep.
In orbit, the commander of the ark of the Harpe Kith continued with all the vigour that remained to them to prepare for death uneaten, unanealed, heads bowed in shame and grief, tails gummed into a humiliated starvation kowtow.
He was still in no condition to think straight, for his head mix had shorted. His heads dithered, freeing his eyes, his eyes looked the same way thrice. They had minds of their own! They banded together in dread unison, fixated without sideways obeisance to the Meal, without blinking--fatal! fatal!--fixated on the homo sapiens at the heart of the crisis that was to prove fatal to the Harpe, for he was about to bear a Lens.
For long minutes the eyes of the commander did not blink into another thought. And then--again fatal!--he fixed on the Lens, the rogue battle mind, the Route-Only, Eolhxir itself.
So concentrated was his stare on this and then on that over an hour had passed--four thousand Heartbeats as the homo sapiens counted time--before the commander realized with a spasm of starts the fatal error his eyes had committed.
He chewed themself back into control over his parts.
By then of course it was much too late.
Opsophagos was lightyears distant.
The commander had insufficient stature to cancel the goons; he could not look far enough down into tail-death and find a knife to cut the skein of orders.
Too late too late too late!
Perhaps he could command a local spasm, kill the homo sapiens while he was immobile.
Nothing venture ...
Too late too late too late! murmured, all the same, the shit-drenched tremor of his tales.
It is the end of the Harpe!
The Uncle Sam icon pulsed suddenly, and Kirtt began to rustle like hornets in his head.
--Stinky, said the shipmind. Stinky.
--I don't know, Stinky. We're chip here, it's a gobbledegook world. The Uncle Sam lost you just now. Only a second or so, but you were gone, you were blocked. We had no geography on you.
Freer signaled Kirtt for a single channel; the Uncle Sam spider body disappeared.
--The Uncle Sam? he asked.
--Has no explanation. The Uncle Sam recommends instant return to Tile Dance.
--Fiddlesticks. There's no point. I'm twenty minutes from docking country.
--The problem remains. You were lost for a second.
--So maybe let us find out why? What's your evaluation of the Uncle Sam in action?
--As before. Loyal unto death. Slicker than greased ice. Very experienced, savvy even in chip. Seasoned. Vast repertory. Bit of a prankster.
--But not about to go Loki.
--Of course not. Kirtt sounded almost miffed on behalf of his fellow Made Mind of ancient lineage. We're inside Trencher Law Well.
A sudden itching smallness clawed at the inside of Freer; he brought the Uncle Sam back into Teardrop.The arachnoid fistface seemed to be suffering a learning curve; its legs spasmed violently at the edge of Freer's vision, menus fluttering; then it stilled.
But then the spider whitened, blinked out.
--Kirtt? The Uncle Sam is gone again.
But inside Freer's head there was dead silence.
Kirtt was gone too.
The interference soup that moiled the inside of planets did sometimes scramble even Mind links, but Freer's skin prickled all the same at the sensation of absence, even for a fraction of a second.
He was thinking as fast as thought could think.
His skin continued to prickle at the thought that the vast attentive gaze of Mind that was the very heart of Kirtt--where a totality aspect-model of Freer nestled like a secret twin--could even for a nanosecond or so abandon him, leave him in the rotting darkness of the flesh alone.
It felt as though he had entered an air pocket, and was falling. His ears hurt. He swallowed. There was a cawing in his lungs, eggs of air swelling up the bronchial passages.
Their subvocalized interchanges constituted a precis of that almost infinitely more comprehensive conversation. It sometimes seemed to Freer that Kirtt knew him before he knew himself.
Something was happening for the first time.
Freer shouted for his Sniffer, was it dead?
But it awoke whuffling, registering as usual at the edges of his sensorium as a very clever, very faithful dog, bright as a button though woofish; instantly it snuffled a complex array of virtual reality warnings into his brain, while simultaneously unveiling his eyes, clearing his sensorium of all artifacts and shared-reality compacts.
Freer saw nothing now but what was there.
He calmed himself.
The ensconcing chair he sat in, and the iridescent canopy that had given him his requested privacy, lost their lustre, became standard kit. The jutting stage proved essentially real, though sensurround. But the smell of roses faded right out, and the motor cortex homunculi wavered and dissipated, leaving visible several primitive robots, without a brain among them, which continued to dismantle each other.
On the stage, only the pianist seemed unaltered, though his honky-tonk piano had for some time--seconds?--been a concert grand, and the music he was playing was no longer what had seemed to Freer to be twentieth-century Common Era ragtime dredged out of the well of the past, from somewhere deep in the soil of human life before the long winter locked in on homo sapiens, before the planet-specific conditions immemorially necessary for human creative work--as they were for all other flesh sentients yet encountered--began to congest into plaque. The pianist was now--had he changed his tune, or had the Sniffer uncovered what he'd been playing from the first?--deep into something even more archaic, even more profoundly planetary, from a time when music flowed like water through the minds of homo sapiens. It was something Freer recognized--a sonata or toccata, he could not remember, he couldn't ask Kirtt (his gut fluttered)--but it was music clearly native to a single instrument, music of the sort Kirtt had a habit of breathing through Tile Dance in quiet times.
The pianist glanced around jauntily at his audience.
Freer craned as well, now that he could see in clear, though without any augment, no gloss. As usual inside Trencher, where one was almost never out of sight of another body, numerous presences filled most of the available space, almost all of them homo sapiens, as this was a pink region, many of them in the flesh.
A number of sigilla were also visible, of various sigillum ilk, continuing to transmit the show back to their flesh owners: normal Pinks with their goofy wooden smiles, fronting homo sapiens; a meccano Blue fronting a cluster of viewers from some stick species; a taller smoother Blue with four visible breasts and voluble mouth parts; another succulent endomorph Blue fronting a bipedal frond; a few Oranges with odd-numbered limbs and insect eyes; but also a cubical Orange with Blue and Pink highlights, marking the presence on Trencher of one of the rare genome packs.
An eidolon or two, glowing darkly, monitored the scene on behalf of some primitive planetbound Made Mind. There were no toon presences powerful enough to wade upstream against the Sniffer.
The air was close, dense with familiar smells; the breeze had been virtual. The real world of homo sapiens coated Freer like grease. He felt something like instant fatigue pain in the small of his back.
There was a flicker of eye contact; he blinked, startled.
The pianist seemed to be staring at him. His peculiar archaic helmet was flickering.
"Mayday!" shouted the pianist. "Mayday!"
A ghostly white spider waved its legs within Teardrop, quickly filled in, gained colour, but tremblingly.
Freer's eyes watered with relief.
--What's happening? he said, very urgently.
--I was overridden, Sirrah, said the Uncle Sam through its loyal fist of service unto death. Sorry, nix Sirrah. Oh shit.
--Kirtt is piggyback on me, I have calibre, said the Uncle Sam, but the line is thin, impossible, assaulted all sides, bad noise--
Freer's heart pounded.
Silence again, black snow.
He looked for a real-space exit. The walls were blank, rusty from old water.
The other members of the audience sat, waved cilia, pulsed, hummed, gaped as though nothing was about to happen. Clearly none of them were up to reality.
A knightly spider took shape in the snow.
The Uncle Sam sounded even more shaken.
--Massive pressure chin-chin kettle shut. Sorry.
--Re-sort yourself. Don't panic. Remember you are chip.
--Are you functioning now?
--Get us out of here.
--There is no way out.
--I came in a way in.
--Nevertheless, murmured the Uncle Sam, menus sagging.
Freer looked around him. There was no way out. Where there had been an entrance was blank plastic.
--I am not linked to augment.
--Burn me out!
--Wait. My line is thickening.
Deep in stage left, a shimmy caught at Freer's eye, an iris, a gust of wind. He thought for an instant he could see a tin pot flickering.
--It's Morse code, came suddenly the inside voice of Kirtt. The device is signalling us.
--God damn fuck where were you, said Freer.
--You were up shit creek, said Kirtt. And all the sphincters were shut. Thank the Uncle Sam, he punched a line through. It took a while to find you.
--The device is sending a message in Morse. I translate it as: This way to the egress. I suggest we follow its advice.
--After you, signed Freer.
--Update me, Stinky. What's that kettle thing?
--No idea, Kirtt.
Time to find out later, maybe.
He could see at the corner of Teardrop the arachnoid Uncle Sam doing some kind of orientation dance.
--This way, signalled the Uncle Sam, unfolding a map on Freer's retina. It would have been better had we initiated the other Mind. It is a Sense of Direction.
Freer clambered onto the stage, brushed past a claptrap newish limbless robot with a funnel vulva, paused at the iris, which cast an electric glow and buzzed.
--Hurry, said Kirtt and the Uncle Sam in unison.
He stepped through.
There was a whump behind him, and the wall sealed shut. The amphitheatre was opaquing. But he was out; he was standing no more than a hop skip and jump from his waiting floater.
--Safe? he asked.
--I feel dizzy, signalled the Uncle Sam.
--Stay away from the floater, said Kirtt.
Freer ducked behind a waterfall and the floater blew up.
--Neat, said one of his voices.
--Okey dokey, said the other.
There was a woofing sound, almost subliminal. The Sniffer--an extremely expensive early model--was overheating. Freer glanced quickly sideways, and at the edge of his vision field could almost catch a glimpse of the Sniffer's brown, intensely loyal, ghost eyes.
He could smell its doggy breath.
He stood at the edge of the amphitheatre bulge, a vast ornate fluted hairy tulip-shaped extrusion attached by a hundred yards of stem to the ornate arcade he'd debouched into half an hour earlier. There seemed something wrong with the lighting, and the air, which thickened and thinned, faster than seemed possible: as though the mast cells within the lungs of Trencher itself were seizing up.
--Get me out of here, Freer sang, almost audibly, a vocalise some eidolons were capable of reading from his throat as it pulsed: but fuck security, he thought. I'm fucking underground.
And the sky is falling.
--You're making waves, signalled Kirtt. Try to calm down. The Sniffer is getting seasick.
--Just move me on out, sang Freer.
--Shank's mare, Stinky. Get walking. We think you're untargeted. At the moment.
--Life sucks, signalled Kirtt. And other grave sententiae, Stinky. Haul ass.
Freer grimaced but obeyed.
He was in fact happier than he could have believed to hear his Mind again. As he left the immediate vicinity of the amphitheatre, an implosion caved in walls everywhere, and the walls bled.
© John Clute 2001
is published in the UK by Orbit.
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