Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 646, November 27, 2011

"The seemingly eternal conflict in human societies
is between slavers and individuals who simply
want to be left alone to enjoy their lives."

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"APHIDSSS..." An Excerpt From Blade of p'Na
by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In an alternate universe, on an alternate Earth run by and for giant molluscs, p'Nan moral debt assessor Eichra Oren, a human, and his symbiote, a Samoyed with humanlike cognitive abilities named Sam, continue to investigate the disappearance of their client's fiance (they're both large, intelligent spiders), by visiting his business partner, a sapient plant.

Despite the mirrors and fancy colored birds, it was the room's occupants, including the weasel's esteemed employer, that caught the eye.

In any other first class eatery, the place might be decorated with trees in buckets and other kinds of plants. Frankly, I never got it—unless it was a speciesist joke on sapient dogs like me. Here, it was the customers themselves who were the decoration. They all seemed to stand, each of them, alone or in little bunches, beside small-topped tables four or five feet high, on which their personal effects were placed. They clearly weren't meant for food or drink; that was coming, in effect, down through the transparent ceiling and up through the floor.

Every one of the restaurant's customers was green, for the most part, although some appeared to be entertaining non-chlorphyll-bearing guests. What served their planty species as legs, torsos, and arms—what you or I might otherwise refer to as their trunks, stems, and branches—were thoroughly green, slightly fuzzy like a hollyhock, and jarringly asymmetrical in their arrangement. The restaurant patrons' multiple-toed "feet" tended to be brown and a trifle scaly, what you could see of them, that is. The solatarian diners' heads—one to a customer—appeared to consist of gigantic blossoms, big yellow petals and all, and looked exactkly like outsized rubbery sunflowers.

To be precise, these were the world-famous (this world, anyway) Helianthus sapiens russellii—I'd keyed my implant the instant we'd entered the enormous room—not the only folk from the veggie kingdom in the Elders' vast collection of thinking beings, just the most spectacular, with blossom centers varying from greenish to dark brown, like black-eyed susans, and no visible optical organs, which was somehow even more disturbing than their lack of bilateral symmetry.

There was no way to avoid the fact that they were plants, each about nine feet tall. There weren't any kiddies visible, because their offspring are sessile, deeply rooted in the ground, until they reach maturity, which is marked by a ceremonial rite of passage in which they uproot themselves, to the delight of their adoring friends and families.

The flower beings here were soaking up concentrated sunlight while their toes—their roots—were thrust deeply into hydroponic gravel, punctuated here and there by stepping stones for those among us who didn't wish to soak our toes. Some of the planty patrons had trays on the floor at their feet, containing special nutrients. I had been informed that they enjoyed absorbing molasses into their systems for much the same reason that most mammals enjoy consuming alcoholic beverages.

Every sapient species that the Elders have discovered employs some form of intoxicant; it's one of a very few rules of alternity that you can totally rely on. Most individuals get tired of running their big brains after a while. Running them at all seems to be too much work for many, which explains a great deal about the politics of other universes.

I wondered where the petalled crowd kept their brains.

As I'd observed, there was music playing. All plants seem to like music, supposedly preferring the classics to anything else. So all of those children's science projects I'd read about were true, after all. But once a species achieves sapience, tastes and opinions begin to vary. I'd heard about private clubs—"underground" or "seedy" might not be the best choice of words in this particular context—where social deviants called "sports" stood around listening to jazz or bluegrass.

You wouldn't think it possible, to look at these flowering folk at the moment, but by the time the Elders appropriated a sample of them, they had pulled themselves up by their rootstraps and become mobile beings. They had also invented science and technology, gone through several cycles of empire-building and collapse, enjoyed a couple of serious industrial revolutions, constructed spaceships better than the Elders' ever had, to visit most of the planets and planetoids in their version of our Solar System, and had even sent an expedition to the stars.

It hadn't come back yet, but they remained hopeful.

Stepping from stone to stone—they had not been laid out to suit quadrupeds—the boss and I had found our way to Llossure Knarrvite, the manager of the place. On a little private table toward the back, near the artificial waterfall, he (or she) had set a small, smoldering bowl of something—incense of some kind, maybe—over which, from time to time, she (or he) would hold a broad, leafy "arm", or even lower his (or her) flowery head, taking in the smoke with obvious satisfaction.

Eichra Oren stepped up. "I greet you, Llossure Knarrvite. I am Eichra Oren, certified P'Nan debt assessor. My associate Sam called you?"

"Ahh, yesss," a rather strange voice answered him. It seemed to emanate from the table rather than from the flower-being who stood beside it. "You're the famouss fellow with the sssword. Your mother isss Eneri Relda. I have often been to her home and heard all about you."

"That's gratifying," Eichra Oren answered dubiously, no doubt with sentimental likenesses of himself as an infant, lying on a caterpillar rug, going through his mind. "I hope. You told my associate that you'd speak with us concerning your employer, Meerltchirt of the Fronzeln Zirnaath?"

"Partner," Lossure Knarrvite corrected him. "Each of usss owns a third of the busssinesss, a remaining third held by a consssortium of reptiloidsss who function, for the mossst part, asss our sssilent partnersss."

Eichra Oren nodded. "My apologies." Of course the boss had done his homework and knew perfectly well what the arrangement was, but taking correction from an interviewee was a debt assessor's standard method of engaging a subject. "Your partner's missing and his family worries."

The plant being jiggled all over, and at first I interpreted it as flowery laughter, but I've been wrong before and doubtless will be again.

"You mean he'sss hiding, and that fianssse of his worries—that ssshe might misss a meal. I worry, too, sir. The water quality isssn't what it hasss been. I sssussspect that our mineral and molasssesss sssuppliersss are ssshorting us. The ssstaff is threatening to go on ssstrike for ssshorter hoursss—as if two a day were burdensssome. There are billsss to be paid at the end of the ten-day and payroll to meet. I find myssself ssshort-tendriled, without Meerltchirt to help me."

Eichra Oren nodded in apparent sympathy, while I actually felt for him.

Or her.

Or it.

The plain, unvarnished truth—which no customer I ever heard of truly appreciates—is that, no matter where you go, no matter who or what you serve, the restaurant business is the hardest in the entire multiverse. Whoever can make a success of it is to be respected and perhaps even admired. Whoever said that cooking is the kindliest of the arts was absolutely right. And in many ways, it's also the most heatbreaking.

But by previous agreement, I let Eichra Oren do all the talking, here, maybe on account of the longstanding antipathy, at least in folklore, between tall plants and dogs. There: I said it myself; my implants are speciesists. On the other tendril, the incense or whatever it was that the manager was burning, was about to make me sneeze.

It seemed to be giving Lossure Knarrvite a bit of a buzz.

"How very sentimental of you," said the boss. "So you have no idea where your partner is?" I watched him scrutinizing the big daisy. He's usually good at sensing whether a subject is telling him the truth or not, but whatever signs he was looking for now, they were completely beyond me. I wondered what life must be like for a species whose faces were also their reproductive organs; would they be good at poker or terrible? Sometimes my nose can help detect fear and stress hormones, but the creature smelled like a freshly-cut lawn. Maybe it was just aftershave.

It might help to know what sex it was. I keyed my implant, to consult a reference system I use frequently. It compared what I was seeing with the records it maintained and informed me that Lossure Knarrvite was a he. It also confirmed that molasses was an intoxicnt to his people. He was enjoying the equivalent of a three martini lunch.

Suddenly: "Aphidsss!" our host screamed at the top of his vocal synthesizer. Vibrating all over, he flailed his stems and leaves in all directons. "Aphidsss! Get them off me! Get them off me! Pleassse help!"

Somebody at a nearby table shouted, "What are you animals doing to him?" Every flower-person in the restaurant turned to look our way—as weird a sight as you can imagine. "Aphidsss", I gathered, were the equivalent of rats or cockroaches to these folk. Although there wasn't an insect anywhere in sight—except for a few of the help, of course—several dozen patrons uprooted themselves and began to leave.

That wasn't the bad part. A few dozen more—mostly non-veggie folk of six or seven different species—began converging on us with circulatory fluid in their eyes, or whatever they used see with. I didn't have time to wonder why so many of the non-photosynthetic persuasion were taking in the sun here today. All that was apparent at the moment were a lot of clenched fists, extended claws, and low growls.

Suddenly the whole pack was on us, arthropods of two or three species, arachnids, a preying mantis thing, a bird that was like a dinosauroid, only yellow, nine feet tall, with a long beak, and a small being who looked like a round, rubbery dog toy, purple, with little points sticking out. There were even a couple of reptiles and mammals.

One of those, like a bear in silk pajamas, reached for the pommel of Eichra Oren's sword, and the fight was on, our assailants squirting out all kinds of battle stenches, fighting pheromones, bristles, thorns, and nasty, poisonous spit. The purple thing was the worst, spraying sticky thread around everywhere. Before the mammalian could touch his sword, the boss took that paw in one hand, lifted its elbow with the other, bent it back toward the being's head, and slapped him on the ear with it. The bear emitted an excruciating howl and backed off.

Which, unfortunately, opened the way for something like a desert scorpion, six feet tall. As it snapped a deadly saw-toothed pincer, missing my boss by a hair, I jumped up onto the little table, then over its mouthparts to its back, and got my jaws locked around an eyestalk.

It tasted like lobster, insufficiently cooked.

As other things were battling Eichra Oren and each other to get near us, the scorpion made noises like the world's whole supply of corn popping, and forgot him, struggling now to reach me where I hung with all the strength in my jaws onto its eyestalk. It jabbed at me repeatedly with the great sting in its tail, enough poison in its fist-sized gland to kill a thousand dogs. But it had to be careful, because it wasn't immune to its own venom. I flopped around like a windsock in a hurricane. But the desperately flailing crustacean's arms were short and it didn't have enough elbows. It couldn't reach me.

Eichra Oren touched a section of its underbelly with a pair of gentle fingers. It collapsed like a toy and I rode it down to the floor. At the same time, a reptiloid tried to wrap its four-foot tongue, edged with tiny, sharp teeth, around the boss's neck, but another light touch discouraged it. It scuttled from the big room screaming.

As it sometimes will in an adrenalyn-soaked moment, time seemed to stand still. Drinks, upset, sprayed crystalline droplets into the air, where they appeared to hang motionless for minutes, the glasses themselves turning over and over slowly. I snarled and barked but couldn't seem to hear myself, although our adversaries got wide-eyed at my threat-display. Eichra Oren's usually blinding speed became slow motion.

The boss was fully into his combat trance now, tunnel-visioned and seeing in monochrome, shades of red, oblivious to anything or anyone but the fight about him. I'd seen him this way before. I almost envied him, although I knew that he would pay later for what he was expending now.

It was an ancient Antarctican martial discipline, analogous to acupuncture and other meridian-related medicines, but intended to create the opposite effect, to inflict pain rather than relieve it, produce injuries rather than heal them, and, if need be, to end life rather than extend it. It had been rediscovered many times in fifteen thousand years, but in most civilizations it was still suppressed and forbidden.

We found ourselves surrounded now by members of a species I had never seen before, hairless, short, dull-colored, vaguely humanoid, with big, wide hands, fat, stubby thumbs, and two very large, dark eyes.

Eichra Oren shut one of those eyes with a pair of knuckles, then he whirled, reached out for another's hands—both of them—and when he let go, the fingers were somehow braided together. Making weird gurgling noises, the thing struggled frantically to untangle them. The third humanoid walked into a heel and instep under the chin from the boss's sidekick, and when the one he'd half-blinded groped for Eichra Oren, I seized the calf of its leg in my teeth and bore down.

But what kind of a humanoid mammal bleeds green and tastes like a can of long-dead fishing worms? I remembered to look them up later. They call themselves Makapps, and they're not humanoids. They're not mammals. In fact, they aren't even vertebrates, but a bit more like something from somewhere closer to the cream cheese bagel end of the spectrum.

As quickly as it had started, the fight was over. The opposition sublimated like dry ice on a summer day. Members of the restaurant staff arrived, along with the weaseloid greeter, from wherever they'd been hiding. They all gave us an amazing range of multi-species dirty looks, as if what happened had somehow been our fault, picked up the still-convulsing manager—they'd shut the guy up, somehow, but I was highly disinclined to ask any questions—and hustled him away somewhere.

I wondered if this kind of thing happened very often.

In all the excitement, nobody but yours truly appeared to notice Eichra Oren as he stooped down quickly, dipped a tiny transparent evidence vial into the plant-creature's tray of happy-hour molasses, screwed the little top on, and, standing, slipped it into a tunic pocket.

He also took a sample of the unburned incense.

"I think we're done here," he told me, and we found our own way out.

"What the Hammer was all about?" I demanded.

I'd loosened a tooth on that scorpion thing.

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