Chapter 5: Mother Of Monsters
When I once again regained consciousness, I was draped over my kidnapper's shoulder, and I seemed to be totally paralyzed except for my eyes. We were on the deck of some kind of large oceangoing yacht, and I still couldn't move. “I'm really sorry about this. Usually when someone wants an abduction the token allows me to reject it. Hopefully that means you'll be getting out of this okay.”
I heard someone approach, and a gruff voice said, “Are you going to need to see Echidna about payment?”
“No. That happens automatically.”
I was handed off a man who looked more like a stereotypical biker than a deckhand, except the left side of him was covered in an insect-like exoskeleton. The girl in gray disappeared in a cloud of dust, and I was brought into a huge elegant stateroom. The woman sitting on the massive slab of a desk across from the entrance did not match her surroundings. Her hot pink steel-studded leather jacket was the immediate contrast, but her pale skin, porcupine quill hair, and completely jet black eyes caught up quickly. Those eyes were looking at me with avarice, and she actually kicked her feet and squee'd in delight.
“My prize is finally here! You have no idea how long I've waited to find someone exactly like you, kid.” She propped me up in a chair next to the desk-hemoth. “Now I know exactly what you're thinking, 'I've been taken away by those who surely mean to harm me!' Trust me, you're better off here with me than on Doctor Fraud's Flying Circus. At least I'll be honest with you about what I want. Just one little snippet of your genome is the most tantalizing thing I've ever seen, and I want more. I want to know what makes you tick. And I'm far better equipped to find out than Doc Tinhead. Sure, he's a devisor, he can break the laws of physics, but that's exactly what makes his science bad. His power doesn't even specialize in biology, he's a glorified mechanic. But me, even though I'm a 'mere' gadgeteer, I can read DNA like a book. Dear misguided Elias, he could study you for years and never even guess the things I will know about you.”
She picked up a glass tube, then reached behind her ear and plucked a quill from her head. “And all I need is access to your DNA.” She leaned in, nudged my jaw open, jabbed the inner surface, and held the tube under it to fill it with rich grape-colored liquid. Then she used what looked to be a cigar cutter to snip a chunk off one of my wing tips, which leaked a bit of clear fluid before the exposed surface reflexively pulled itself closed. “If you were most other people, all I'd need is one little sample and have more than enough to work with, after all, it's over ninety percent stuff I already know, but I can tell that you are going to be the kind of page-turner worth reading again and again.”
She sealed her samples, pocketed them, and turned to half-bug-man. “Stow our guest. It'll be obvious to Doc O that magic was used to subvert his security, I want to get this tub moving before he brings in somebody who might be able to trace whatever the Errand Girl did.”
* * *
As Half Bug carried me deeper into the ship, I noticed the faint hum of life signs scurrying somewhere below us. I was fairly certain that the hull would be insulating me from anything in the water, so there was something living in this ship. A lot of somethings. Eventually we reached a small guest room and I was dropped onto a bare mattress. A firm thunk told me I was locked in.
I have no way of knowing how long I was immobilized, maybe an hour, maybe less, maybe more. As soon as it started wearing off, I dragged myself off of the bed and started exploring the tiny room I was in. Barely enough room for the narrow bed, adjoining bath with just enough room for a toilet with a sink above it. The door between them had been removed. There were cabinets under the bed, also with doors removed. Above the bed was a porthole-style window. I unscrewed the wingnut and opened it, the gap was about a foot across but it was blocked by bars of some kind of clear acrylic. Even with my full strength I couldn't move them. The spray coming in from the wake was freshwater, couldn't see land in the distance, odds were probably better than even we were on one of the Great Lakes. I sealed the porthole and curled up on the mattress. I wasn't uncomfortable, my body seemed to be able to adjust to a wide variety of temperatures. With nothing better to do, I decided to go back to doing what I was doing before being kidnapped and go to sleep.
* * *
The next day I was awake for about an hour when the door opened. Half-bug was standing there. There was a pack of a dozen medium-dog-sized bipedal creatures at his feet and behind him. They looked to be part insect, part fish, and part dinosaur, each with a pair of large faceted eyes and a face full of dangling tentacles. He held out a metal collar with a length of cable attached to it.
“You got a choice. You can wear this, or you can cooperate. You can try to run, but all the exits are secured and there's more of these little bastards all over the ship.”
“Dot gudda rud.”
“I'm gonna assume that means you're coming quietly. C'mon, Echidna wants to talk to ya.”
He escorted me back to the stateroom, where “Echidna” (sans her pink leather jacket, revealing a black tank top) was lying on the intimidesk, holding a smaller version of one of the creatures at arms length above her. A baby? “Hooooooz a widdle sweetie! Hooz momma's widdle guy!” The pack of monsters ran over and jumped up excitedly on the desk, and she sat up and hugged the ones closest to her, the little one on her lap. She looked at me and gestured to a folding chair near her. “Have a seat, Roadie'll get you some breakfast.”
The chair thankfully had an open space in the back that my tail could fit through. Still, I found that it was most comfortable to bring my feet up under me and perch on the seat. She opened another chair and sat down facing me.
“Okay, you have to spill. As far as I know there's nobody even close to doing work like this. I know Ubergeek couldn't possibly have done it. I have to know who designed your DNA.”
“Who. Wrote. Your. Genes?”
She was close enough now that I could see the subtle difference between her black sclera, black iris, and black pupil. I started mumbling an answer too quickly, before giving up, holding a forearm in front of me, and just changing the color to print words across it. 'Nobody. I woke up like this. I know you read my file. I was changed by magic.'
She sagged visibly. “Ugh, I was afraid you'd say that. I figured you were covering for somebody with that story. You are definitely an extensive custom job, alterations to DNA are always pretty obvious but this is on another level. It's organized like computer code. Your genome isn't just modified, it's bespoke. if whoever did the designing did it with magic, that brings up the depressing possibility that this whole thing was a waste of everybody's time. I can't reverse-engineer magic or devisor work! I may have blown my one chance, even if I had another one of those stupid coins, Elias is going to tighten security after this. He'll get somebody to patch up whatever hole in the wards the elf chick used, my mole's gone and I won't even be getting samples out anymore. I've been watching his clinic for friggin' years waiting for a goldmine like you to show up, and now that I have you, I may not even be able to get anything from it.”
'Does that mean you'll let me go?'
“Course not. There's still a chance you have something I can use.”
'Is that the only thing I am to you? Some DNA to study?'
“Oh, no, you're also revenge, a lucky side effect. Your bitch of a mother stole James Million from me, so thinking what a state he must be in now is some comfort. It's just the most beautiful coincidence that my prize target ended up being you.”
It was at that point that “Roadie” came in with a serving cart loaded with enough breakfast foods and dishes for all of us. I did notice that there was no coffee, and wondered if these people just weren't coffee drinkers or if it was omitted because of what Echidna read in my file. But that thought did give me an idea.
* * *
After I was brought back to my room I put my plan, such as it was, into action. I opened the porthole, tossed out the marble, and closed it back up. When I tripped out on caffeine and warped out of my room in the clinic, I ended up where the marble was. If I could do it again I'd be out of here and by the time I managed it the ship would be far away from this spot . The only question was, could I swim from the bottom of whatever body of water we were on to the surface? I had a strong feeling that I could, but it'd be wiser to test a few things beforehand.
I decided to try holding my breath. I couldn't time it, but I could get an idea of how feasible this plan was going to be. The sun was pretty high in the sky, it was somewhere in the vicinity of noon, give or take a half hour or more, I wasn't very good at this. While I was doing that, I considered all the other things that were going to have to come together for this to work. Most significantly, one way or another I'd probably have to find a a way to reach an altered state of consciousness.
The most straightforward option would be to find something with caffeine to drink and hope for a repeat performance. Unfortunately my captors were likely aware of that, and would probably not just hand it over to me. But there was another possibility suggested by what happened on the treadmill. I hadn't been chemically affected, but I was momentarily... out of my head? It wasn't an out-of-control rager event. There was anger, but it was situational, controlled. I wasn't myself, but maybe that other me was the one that knew what that diagram was for. Some part of me obviously did, and there was an unknown and unexplored version of me, logically it was a sound plan to try and find that me, right? As I tried to remember how it felt in that moment, I noted that I was still holding my breath and felt just fine. By the time I actually started to feel like I might want to take a breath, I was pretty sure I would have had more than enough time to get to the surface, so I stopped holding my breath. It was about the same amount of time after that before Roadie brought me a steak on a tray, and when I was done with that the sun was at about mid to late afternoon. I didn't see either of my captors for the rest of the day.
* * *
At some point during my dreams that night, I ended up on a familiar old wooden ship, a far cry from Echidna's yacht. I looked out over the bow of the ship, the island was in sight and the sails were full, a strong wind carrying the ship toward it.
“Good to see you've found your way here again,” grated a familiar brown voice from behind me. “But you came in from the wrong direction. You're going to need to bring your flesh with you in the future if you want to use the exit you're looking for.”
I whirled on him and asked, [Just who in the worlds are you anyway? And why do you keep coming to assault me with your riddles?] I did not ask him in mouth sounds. I asked him in shifting hue and pattern of skin, and nuance of projected emotion. Apparently he understood well enough to form a response.
“I was beginning to think you might actually never ask. I am Gulik. Saint Gulik, if you please, or if you don't. I would say I am at your service, but I am not. Perhaps someday you'll earn it.”
[At whose service are you?]
“For the most part, your mother's”
[That's right, you know] “her.” [Where is] “she?” [Where has] “she” [been all this time?] That was weird, I guess the chromatic language didn't have certain words or concepts and I ended up speaking them.
“Would you like some pseudo-Zen bullshit about how she was nowhere and everywhere? Perhaps I could reply with a question and ask where a song is when it's not being sung. Before you read her note and claimed her gift to you, she was not anywhere that could be called a place. After that, she was.”
[And where is she now?]
“She's aware of you. She has an older name. When you know it, she will be close to you. But you will not be able to see her until you understand what it means.”
[I'm guessing you aren't just going to tell me what it is and explain it to me now.]
“Of course not. It would be actively counterproductive. If you tell someone a punchline before the joke, they will find it meaningless, and explaining it completely destroys it.”
[So is this mother's gift to me?] I gestured to my transformed body.
“That in particular, as far as anything can be said to be so, was a genuine accident of circumstance. You'd torn open a layer of yourself into an upper dimension and were bleeding... information, you might call it, into the void. You needed a new form transplanted onto you with enough structural definition in that dimension to seal the leak. No organism on this planet was suitable, but fortunately I am acquainted with someone of a race that fit the necessary requirements, and could find a suitable donor among the spirits of an ancient extraterrestrial people. I very coincidentally was playing poker with that esteemed one and a few other interesting individuals at the time I was called upon to bring you aid.”
[In other words, you grafted part of an alien ghost onto me.]
“Accurate, and concise.”
[Then what's the gift?]
“What did the note say?”
[The chest... and everything in it.]
He knocked on the railing of the ship. “Marvelous, isn't it? Though it looks much different now than when it was hers.”
[You're telling me that all this is inside the chest?]
“From a certain topological point of view, yes. The structure which you have made into a ship is the chest, as seen from the inside. The island which was her private realm is now yours.” He gestured to the land we were steadily approaching.
[And down there, where I first came up from?]
“It's literally nothing. Pure meaningless noise. Don't go there. You wouldn't survive a second time, you are not now what you were then. You would be obliterated beyond simple death. You might also want to avoid venturing beyond sight of the island when here in body. That way lies the realm of dreams, and going there in the flesh is almost always a one way trip.”
[While I've got you in a forthcoming mood, how does the marble fit in?]
“A random side effect. Physically, it is the matter that was in the instruments you used in that spell.”
[The phone, the note, the photo...]
“And your drop of blood. Precisely. It's all been compressed and transmuted into your clever bauble. As for what exactly it is now, I frankly don't know. Based entirely on its behavior so far, I think we can safely say that it is both a material part of this place, and also of you. Is there any further exposition I can deliver for you?”
[Um, not that I can think of, no.]
“In that case, it looks to me like you're waking up.”
And then at that moment, as the vessel ran violently aground and embedded itself into the beach, I did exactly that.
* * *
The next day pretty much followed the precedent set by the first. I sat around for a while until I was brought to breakfast. Echidna was happier today.
“It looks like I was panicking for nothing. What I've got out of you so far looks to be all within the bounds of regular physics. Even that weird skin, it doesn't seem to be cheating at all. Almost everything you can do seems to be strictly physiological. That is what makes you so unbelievably valuable. Reverse-engineering mutant powers from genetics is a crapshoot. It's almost never simple, some of it you can get from the genes and some of it happens in weird ways that nobody understands. Like, I sampled a guy who had laser beam eyes, tried to replicate it, but all of my test creatures ended up exploding. Much easier to work with mundane sources. Mother Nature has the absolute coolest stuff to work with.”
After breakfast it was back to the cell again. With nothing else to do, I kept more or less meditating on altering my point of view until Roadie showed up with dinner, then again until I went to sleep.
* * *
I was on the beach. Beside me, the ship was irrevocably beached deep into the sand. Ahead of me, the orchard with its trees bearing peculiarly straight and uniformly angled branches with icosahedral fruit. I went among the trees, marveling at how different the fruit felt. Before, the blacker-than-black skin of the fruit felt uncomfortable to look at, like human eyes weren't quite designed to take in such a sight. But now, they felt familiar. Comforting, even. Further ahead, there was someone else among the trees looking at the fruit. Someone who looked a lot like me, except they seemed older by some features I wasn't sure I could define, and there was something strange about their forearms. The strangely familiar figure lacked the bones for flight that would show beyond the elbow. I approached, and had the feeling that it would be appropriate to put my hands and forearms together in front of me and bow, so I did.
“No need for those ancient formalities, now. The last world that knew them has been an unlivable oven for longer than your former species has existed. Also no need to introduce yourself, I know the collection of names you've gathered so far. River Chance Million, Nonsense, Wounded Hand. I had quite a few myself once, but there's only one that matters now. You can call me Walker.”
We strolled between the rows. [Why are you] “speaking English” [and not using chromatic?]
Walker plucked a fruit and sniffed it. “Same reason, kid. Who would I have spoken it with in all this time? Just another dead language. This world alone has forgotten enough of them, what's one more?”
“What happened to them?”
“Old, old story. We were made. We were weapons. An apex predator. Seed a few of us on a planet and throw ecosystems into ruin after only a few generations, program us to attack specific individuals, or bloodlines, or even make entire species extinct. But they made us a little too adaptable. Some of us got smart, decided we didn't particularly care for the role we'd been cast in and started making plans to escape to a nice quiet part of the galaxy. At about the same time, our creators' neighbors had all finally gotten tired of them and tired of us. Our existence was made illegal, and the homeworlds of our makers were all simultaneously reduced to asteroid fields. We... thought the world we'd evacuated to would hide us from pursuit. The next planet over shone brightly with inherent power, enough to hide the gates we'd learned from our masters to travel with. The inhabitants of the third planet weren't interested in the second, because it didn't have nearly as much of that magical power they needed, but we didn't care. We'd been created incapable of accumulating that kind of power, our masters were afraid of us learning to do something they couldn't and turning against them. But even though we shut down every gate after that, it didn't last forever. Eventually, we were tracked down and the atmosphere was ignited. Still, I don't blame any of them for it. They'd been fighting unquestioningly destructive monsters for so long, you know.”
“And you survived?”
“I'm... well I hate to call it 'ascended' or 'on a higher plane', that just makes me sound full of myself. I haven't been mortal in a long time. There were a few of us, we stuck around for a while but there's only so many millennia you can wander in mourning through an inferno before getting bored. They all moved on, one by one, but I decided to check out what was happening over here. And the one thing I can say is it hasn't been boring. There are even quite a few immortals in this world.” The self-proclaimed immortal peeled away the skin of the fruit revealing a gently glowing pithy interior, pulled a tetrahedral wedge out, and sampled it.
[If the race-of-hunters is dead, what does that make me? What am I now?]
“That depends.” [What is it that you want to be?]
“I want to be whatever me it is that can walk out of the cell I'm in. I've done it before.”
“Then do it again.”
We had reached an end to the orchard. In the distance up a hilly rise, there was a cylindrical building covered in leaves. I thought it was odd that there was only one building there, and then thought it odd that I thought that specifically odd and not the building itself before I started waking up. Within moments, I was instead looking at my cell.
* * *
While I was waiting for my captor's assistant to arrive, I tried to vocalize speech like I did in my dream, but there was still something about my word-hole that I wasn't getting. It was pretty clear that making certain sounds the human way wasn't going to work. I was not human, after all. But it didn't matter much. If yesterday was any indication, my jailers would pay no heed to a lack of communication, and this proved true not much later when I was brought out for a meal. Today's new development was the spine-headed one taking more samples. The ones already taken had “worn out”.
Back in the cell with time to think, I considered the ancient Walker's words. Two things in that meeting stood out as very important to me. First was the mention of traveling with gates. That sounded like it could have something to do with my own traveling event. The second was a kind of empathic connection. I could feel it with that enlightened one when in that one's presence. Perhaps if I tried I could also reach out and find the strange spherical part of me I'd left in the water, hopefully a significant distance back.
I could feel the sensations from the object as if it were a limb of my body. I could feel the cool wet pressure, the slime and sand. But I needed more than that. I needed to know it in the way you know where your hand is when your eyes are closed. Could a connection to a part of yourself feel like a connection to someone else? I didn't have much else to go on. I wasn't sure how much progress I'd made by the time my captor's assistant arrived with food, so I didn't begrudge the interruption.
After eating, I renewed my focus on my situation. My task was to do something I had already done. I had done it. It was in my reach. I was the ancient hunter, the Venusian colonist. As I was in body, I must also be in mind. I knew the smell and taste of the life of other worlds. I stepped between them through gates... and I knew what a gate was. I couldn't build a proper world-spanning bridge without a team, but I could slip through a minor twist with a pull from just one other. Another of the race-of-hunters. Or, in my unique situation, a remote part of my own self. The equations and geometry sprang readily to mind as I worked out the dimensional structure on the back of the cell door. It was a longer arc than the last one, but with the right vector, I could push myself outward and be pulled back in by the linked target. After triple checking my math, I tilted myself just a little into the proper dimensional angle and pushed off, while also pulling myself from afar.
* * *
As my body settled into what felt like mostly three dimensions, I collapsed onto a firm soil. I sat up and looked around me, I was in the center of a huge crater. How did I get here? I was so disoriented, I must have gated, I never really was the best at managing a smooth trajectory. It was odd that whoever assisted me wasn't here. The crater wasn't volcanic or impact, parts of the rim were too steep. The higher rim actually went beyond sheer and curved back a bit. It looked like a huge spherical scoop had been precisely cut out of the ground.
I galloped to speed and took off, flew up to land on the rim, and turned back to look down into the crater. I reached out over the edge, for some weird reason expecting something to stop my hand, but just ended up sticking my hand out in the air and feeling rather foolish.
This place was strange. Along the rim to my right was a familiar kind of orchard, but beyond that was a beach. Not a pair of things one usually saw in close proximity. Down on the beach there was some kind of alien sailing vessel made of wood. Behind me, in the distance up the incline, was a single residential tree. No other buildings around it. Well, it was the only sign of civilization around, so I flew to it.
When I arrived there was, surprise surprise, no one there. The lichen-walled tunnels inside were empty. But the layout was familiar. On a hunch, I followed a certain route until I came to one suite in particular. I swept aside the vine curtain and entered... my home. This was a perfect copy of a building I once lived in. I went to the room that had been mine, there was my sleeping nest filled with soft cloth, the first desk I'd grown myself, I went to the round window and ran my finger along the underside of the large leaf covering it which opened and revealed... not the same view I used to see from here. The vista of this strange world seemed to be made of familiar things juxtaposed in weird ways, and peppered with things I'd never seen before. I sat at my desk, lifted the top, there was the mirrored surface underneath and compartments filled with various trinkets. I took out a web of silver chain and draped it over one shoulder, the skin there holding it in place. But my reflection suddenly frowned, darkly disapproving, and flashed [you forget yourself...] before I fell. Upward? No. Diagonally, or more precisely, inward from all directions.