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The Gods of Sagittarius: Chapter Four
Last updated: Monday, February 20, 2017 15:00 EST
The devastation was extraordinary. Everywhere she looked, Occo saw nothing but a churned landscape. The only color below the pale blue sky was a sickly gray-brown. The ground had neither the consistency of soil nor of rock, but was a sort of agglutinated composite — as if gravel of various sizes had been melted together. She’d already kicked the ground with a hindleg boot, and knew that it was much more unyielding than it looked.
Other than the sky, the planet Flaak’s two moons still looked normal. Everything else within her line of sight was a surrealistic horror.
When she’d first gotten the news, Occo had assumed it was the work of castigants from one of the large orthodox creeds. Judging from the preliminary reports, probably a Ga Dzu force clowder. A sedge from one of the three Hanna Vye Wrangle moieties was a possibility also.
But now that she saw the ruin at first hand, she realized that she’d been far off the mark. Whoever — or whatever — had destroyed the root cloister of her own creed had used none of the weapons normally wielded by Nac Zhe Anglan castigants.
Normally wielded, she cautioned herself. The possibility that a clowder or sedge had for some reason chosen to use heterodox methods couldn’t be ruled out entirely, in the absence of further evidence. There were some peculiar creeds out there on the edges of the Nac Zhe Anglan commonwealth.
But she would be very surprised if that turned out to be the case. In the nature of things, the fringe creeds tended to be small and weak. They were far more inclined to avoid confrontations than to seek them out. And where would they have gotten weapons capable of this sort of destruction, anyway? To the characteristics of small and weak could usually be added that of indigence. Arms that could wreak this sort of havoc had to be either very expensive or —
It was that “or” that particularly disturbed her.
Or they were of immaculate origin, either deific or demonic. The difference was unimportant. Her creed believed the distinction between the two was nothing more than a mortal prejudice. As it contemplated the foot of a behemoth descending on itself, a bug might label it the wrath of a god or of a devil. But from the behemoth’s perspective, the bug was transient — if it existed at all. Ontologically speaking, a virtual particle.
Her familiar drifted over and anchored itself on the hard points which had been attached to her thorax for that purpose. As if did so, a swarm of tiny probes returning from their investigations disappeared into its mantle.
“You do realize by now, I hope, that you and yours are for all intents and purposes extinct. The devastation extends for at least twelve leagues in every direction.” Bresk used its flotation sack to issue a flatulent discharge. “The creed formally known as the Naccor Jute is now one with the . . . what’s the name of that extinct little shelled scavenger? Yerro, or yevo, something like that.”
“Jevo,” Occo corrected it. Other than that, she ignored the sarcastic witticism. If a Nac Zhe Anglan shaman chose to fashion a familiar for herself — and most shamans did — then she had to be willing to accept the inevitable if unfortunate adjuncts. Good familiars required the admixture of genetic strains from one of the clever animal orders, usually either a primate or rodent analog. For reasons still unclear to cyberneticists, the interaction between those strains and the underlying robot substrate produced an intelligence that was acerbic at best, usually downwind of that — and always disrespectful.
Familiars were annoying. That was just a given. You might as well take umbrage at the tides.
“Do you have anything to report?”
Bresk spread its cooling fins. That was partly for the benefit of the probes sheltered within its mantle but mostly for its own. Flaak had a hot climate in the only latitudes where habitable land could be found. Even before the recent catastrophe, it had been an unpleasant planet to live on. The only reason the Naccor Jute had chosen it as the location for its home cloister had been its obscurity and isolation. Here, they’d thought they would go undetected by any of their enemy creeds or the inimical supernatural powers at large in the universe.
All that sweltering, for nothing.
“Your demise was predictable the moment you chose this wretched planet for your root cloister,” said Bresk. “Your brains got baked within the first decade.”
“Report,” she said impatiently.
“There are no survivors. For that matter, so far as my drones can determine, there are no surviving pieces of non-survivors above the molecular level — and simple molecules, at that. Whatever did this seems to have used some sort of disintegrating beam. Well, no, that’s twaddle, scientifically speaking. It was probably the long-sought-for and mythical angelic disruptor. Oh, wait, I forgot. Your creed doesn’t — didn’t — believe in angels. Demonic disrupter?”
Occo didn’t bother to respond. Bresk was perfectly familiar with Naccor Jute doctrine. The irrelevance of all distinctions between the High and the Low was one of the four basic tenets. It was inherent in a universe that was flat, homogenous and isotropic.
Granted, other creeds refused to accept Naccor Jute theological mathematics and Bresk would be familiar with their arguments. But it had no opinion of its own on the matter, for the good and simple reason that when she fashioned it Occo had made sure to eliminate any and all metaphysical predispositions. She’d once known a shaman who’d failed to do that with her own familiar. She’d never gotten a moment’s peace from the time she decanted the captious creature to the time she finally had it annulled.
Occo scanned the area again, this time using just her eyes. Her purpose now was not to determine what had happened and who had done it. That had already been done as well as possible, until the analyses of the data were completed. She was simply contemplating the ruin as the quickest and simplest means of initiating the gadrax emergence. No longer could she remain a simple shaman and castigant.
There was nothing else she could do. Whatever survivors there might be of the Naccor Jute would be in hiding by now, and she had no way of making contact with them. Castigants were never given the secret codes of their creed’s evacuation protocols and sanctuaries. That would run the risk of undermining their function.
She took her time at it. Bresk’s enhanced compound eyes — even more, the sensors of its drones — would have made a better record of the scene than anything her two simple eyes could register, or her brain remember. Still, she dwelt on every mound of churned matter and every stretch of barren soil.
There was nothing living there any longer. Nothing of what had been — at least, by Flaak standards — a rather pleasant valley. Somewhere in that molecular stew that had once been a landscape were her three mates. Quietly, she recited their names for the last time, in full and complete cadence.
Kaab Nzha Reddat moct Bax hurrej Occo. Vacuum of Reason, disciple of Bax, husband of Occo.
Izzique Nzha Uffreged moct Bax hurrej Occo. Piddler of Petty Truths, disciple of Bax, husband of Occo.
Chawla Nzha Yao moct Bax hurrej Occo. Torturer of Patience, disciple of Bax, husband of Occo.
Then, she recited the name of their mentor, destroyed with them.
Bax Nkley Kreaquab octou Naccor Jute. Resident within Coherence, adept of the Naccor Jute.
Her mates, as she herself, had been named by their mentor. Their names now vanished forever also.
As Bax Nkley Kreaquab had named her, so now by ancient right and custom did she rename him, as his sole surviving disciple.
She considered the matter for a time before deciding on Trac Lei Taquin dnat Varro. Vexation beyond Measure, failure now in Chaos.
She would miss her mates, especially Izzique. Her mentor, not in the least. He had been worse than most of the wretched lot.
Finally, she renamed herself. The name Occo Nzha Rubattan had also been bestowed by their mentor. Slaughterer of Shadows. The change here took longer than it had taken to choose her former mentor’s new name. All the possibilities she’d quietly considered in the past — and discussed with absolutely no one, of course — were inappropriate in light of the new situation.
Eventually, she settled on Occo Nasht Jopri, Seeker of Shadows.
Occo Nasht Jopri Kruy, to be formal about it. Widow Seeker of Shadows.
For a wonder, while she was at it, Bresk made no more than two caustic remarks on the subject of wasted time and both of those were terse. You couldn’t say that her familiar maintained silence, though. He farted almost continuously.
“My vengeance will be epic,” she predicted. Then, turned and headed toward her flyer.
On the way, Bresk waxed eloquent on the necessary distinctions between epic, mythic, legendary and delusions of grandeur.
It took only a short time to travel from the site of destruction to the temporary camp that had been erected by the Envacht Lu. As usual, the association that served the Nac Zhe Anglan commonwealth as a combined investigatory agency and repository of creed status and records had arrived on the scene quickly. They’d already been setting up their camp when Occo arrived.
Once she established her credentials, they’d allowed her a full planetary cycle for grieving and renaming before they would begin their examination of the site. That was standard practice. The Envacht Lu were never to be trifled with, but in their own unyielding and rigid manner they were not unreasonable.
As soon as Occo began bringing the flyer down next to the Envacht Lu encampment, Bresk began complaining.
“Why are you landing here? Only a cretin or a masochist would set up next to the Envacht Lu. Hot is bad enough without adding nosy to the mix — and you watch! They’ll have spies crawling all over us.”
“Shut up. We’re not camping here. I just need to have the names recorded.”
“By established custom and practice, you can do that any time within the next four years — and that’s using Mellan’s solar cycle as the standard.”
The home planet of the Nac Zhe Anglan, Mellan, orbited an F0 star. The only reason it had a habitable biosphere was because of its considerable distance from its sun. Mellan’s year was twice as long as that of most inhabited worlds in the Nac Zhe Anglan commonwealth.
“Shut up,” she repeated “I can’t wait. Not with the name I still need to add.”
Bresk rolled its eyes outward until the facets had all but disappeared. “Oh, don’t tell me.”
“Occo Nasht Jopri Kruy Gadrax,” she repeated.
As was normally true, the Envacht Lu’s scribe was an Ebbo. Occo didn’t know the markings used by the species well enough to determine its scholastic affiliation from the scars and tattoos on its carapace. Under the circumstances, it hardly mattered. All Ebbo colleges were devoted to formal procedures, exactitude, meticulousness, and precision. They were really a quite tiresome species. Occo had never understood why the Envacht Lu insisted on maintaining the relationship with them. Presumably, it had something to do with the history of the order, most of which had never been made public.
The scribe still had its mandible poised above the tablet. The electronic tip blinked yellow-green-violet, repeating the sequence every second. If Occo recalled Ebbo protocols correctly, that signified necessity-to-crosscheck-and-doublecheck.
“You are certain about this?” the Ebbo asked. Its — his? — voice box had an unpleasant twang to it. Most Ebbo were neuter but Occo thought this one might be male, as that species reckoned genders.
She was tempted to curse the wretched creature, but that would be pointless. Ebbo reacted to invective the same way they reacted to everything. Find the registered protocol and behave accordingly. She might as well scream insults at the moons.
“As I have now said twice, yes. I am quite certain. Record my name as Occo Nasht Jopri Kruy Gadrax.”
The Ebbo’s vestigial wings opened slightly and snapped shut, making a little clicking sound. That was the equivalent of a Nac Zhe Anglan rubbing her thorax. Every intelligent species had some equivalent gesture. Humans called it a “shrug” and used a particularly subtle body movement for the purpose. So Occo had been told, anyway. She’d never met a member of that species in person.
“As you wish,” said the Ebbo. The electronic mandible tip clittered briefly on the tablet screen. “It is done.”
Occo turned and left the Records hut. She had to pause briefly at the aperture to let the security program cycle through its protocols before it opened. Programmed by Ebbo, clearly enough. They couldn’t even produce an opening in a simple hut without piling on embellishments.
“Say better, ‘we’re done’,” jibed Bresk, as Occo headed toward their flyer. “Just what I always dreamed of, since the day I was decanted. A suicide mission.”
She ignored it. No point in doing otherwise. In their own way, familiars were as devoted to rituals and rigmarole as Ebbo. Short of having it annulled, there was no way to avoid the coming sarcasm.
“Widow Occo Nasht Jopri, outlaw. We could add ‘fanatic’ and ‘monomaniac’ as well. Off on her formally registered mission to massacre whatever parties she deems guilty and if she’s like most outlaws of record she won’t be any too particular about the ‘deeming’ part.”
The familiar issued a particularly loud and long fart. “Humans have a term for this, you know. They call it ‘going Grendel.'”
Despite herself, the weird term caught her attention. “Going what?”
“Grendel. One of the monsters — one of the many, many, many monsters — in their many, many, many legends. They must really have trouble sleeping at night. Anyway, there’s a whole ancient song cycle devoted to the creature. Well, technically, it’s devoted to the hero. Somebody by the name of Beowulf. Is there a species in the galaxy with sillier names than Humans? But the monster’s much more interesting.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Of course you are. I’ll start from the beginning. Brace yourself, this will take a while.
“Hwæt we Gar-Denain gear-dagum
hu ða æþelingasellen fremedon.”
Not for the first time, Occo considered annulment. By the time she clambered back aboard the flyer, however, she’d decided against it. There was no reason to think another familiar wouldn’t be just as obstreperous. She could try doing without one entirely, of course. But . . .
The things were undeniably useful. She kept reminding herself of that as the flyer lifted into the air. It was . . . not easy.
“ond gefrætwadefoldan sceatas
Leomum ond leafum . . .”
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