Big Head Press


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 612, March 27, 2011

"Once again one more time"


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"Nightcrawlers": An Excerpt From Sword of P'Na
by L. Neil Smith
lneil@netzero.com

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[AUTHOR'S NOTE: what follows is a moment from my new novel, Sword of p'Na, a prequel to Forge of the Elders. I ran the first chapter of this book a while back, under a different title.

To help the reader enjoy this piece a litle better, here are some useful facts. Eichra Oren is a Moral Debt Assessor of the p'Nan school, whom we met in Forge. Sam, the narrator, is a Samoyed with cybernetically enhanced intelligence.

Lornis Adubudu is not quite human. Her species is what Neanderthal Man (and Woman) might have become if they'd had another 100,000 years to evolve. Her companion Mio is a Talapoin, a species of Old World monkeys, also cybernetically enhanced.

And Ray was an old friend of Eichra Oren's, murdered by the Grays.]

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, one of the stranger features of nautiloid civilization, was still like I had been last night, cranky and tired, but within a few minutes he was my old self again.

The boss entered the office yawning, stretching, and strapping his swordbelt around the tunic he'd slept in. Nothing—well, practically nothing—will make you ache the next morning like a long journey sitting down. I was wishing I had a sword, myself—not to mention the hands to swing it—as the noise continued. I told the house to make coffee 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 shorts and a well-filled, filmy, not-quite-transparent top, it was pretty obvious what she had for Eichra Oren, but she was probably referring to something else this morning.

As annoyed as we both were with Lornis, I had to admit that she was a decorative thing to behold, even this early in the morning. 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 childish enthusiasm for whatever had brought her to our doorstep.

It almost made me wish I were human.

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 garden before sunrise this morning to get nightcrawlers, so I could go fishing with my father. This—" She stretched ornamentally, reaching into the back seat of the open-topped machine. "This is what I was using."

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 my toolshed and guess I sort of impulsively stabbed it in the backside with my 'nightcrawler persuader', stunning the thing."

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 with the little visored cap (assuming there was only one), wearing a gray coverall and tied up hand and foot with gray all-purpose tape. 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 gift.

Eichra Oren bent down and stared the creature in what served as its face. It had no visible mouth or nose, no visible ears. Only those terrible eyes. "Do you speak my language?" he asked. "Can you speak at all?"

There was no response. It didn't even blink. I didn't know 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 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.

At my instruction, Mio pulled out the flat transparent package with Ray's brain implants in it. By that time the boss and his would-be girlfriend had the Gray inside and propped up on the sofa. 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.

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, mentally or otherwise, but somehow we knew that the bizarre creature had heard him. I guess it thought it was resisting an interrogation by its captors, and I guess that was the truth.

"This is the last time I'm asking," said Eichra Oren. "Who are you?"

Again there was no answer, but the creature began thrashing around, straining hard at the tape wrapped around its wrists and ankles. Perhaps it had gotten a glimpse of what Eichra Oren had in mind.

I had, and it wasn't pretty.

With a hand on its chest, Eichra Oren pushed the creature back against the sofa. He pulled the weapon out of his pocket and pointed it at the crotch of the creature's gray coveralls. "Now sit still and tell me what I want to know, or I'm going to shoot your dick off. This thing's a little unpredictable and will most likely take your balls, 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.

"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 to tell how serious he was being. Torture—and the threat of torture—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 said, "Right, Sam." He stood up, put his gun away, and went to the kitchen. He came back with a container in his hand. "This is a volatile petroleum fraction," he said. In fact, it was a bottle of Plumfizzle, the boss's favorite soft drink. "I'm going to pour it over you and light it. 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 that," it answered. "What do you mean?"

"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?"

Instead of words, we were treated mentally to a complicated and confusing diagram. "That's genealogy," said Lornis. "That's a 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 be focused on Alfarz Adubudu."

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

Alfarz Adubudu was a businessman who specialized in catering to certain proclivities of which many people would be ashamed were they to become public knowledge. 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 Adubudo?"

As before, we didn't get an answer in words, but in flashes, brief glimpses of Alfarz, of Semlohcolresh in Lanternlight, 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 were 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. It may have thought my dad lives in that tool shed." That was funny for a couple of reasons. Among Lornis's people, Homo gracilis, the houses traditionally belong to the womenfolk, which was probably why he'd wanted his own place.

"So 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.

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 creature's hit list."

"Mio and I will go with you," said Lornis. "If you don't mind, Eichra Oren. I'd feel safer. I'm associated with Misterthoggosh, too, through my father. I'll send my veek home. I'm in contact with my dad right now. He's on the Island Continent and assures me that he's just fine."

"What're we gonna do with our prisoner, here?" I asked.

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."

Eichra Oren drove and Lornis sat beside him in the front passenger seat. I got to sit behind her on the vestigial back seat with the damn monkey.


Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at lneilsmith.org.

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at www.bigheadpress.com/lneilsmith/?page_id=53

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.

See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at www.BigHeadPress.com Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at www.Amazon.com where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil's earlier novels. Links to Neil's books at Amazon.com are on his website


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