An Agemonia story by Mike Pohjola
"I give my head and heart to the Creators and thank them for giving us jobs and meaning. Our most sacred and undeniable truth is that all Korallians have equal rights to pursue prosperity. I solemnly swear hard work and genius shall always be justly rewarded, parasites harshly punished, and property firmly protected. May Bekora bless the Creators and may their success flow down on us all."
Zuva'Sai said the words of the Pledge of Prosperity along with everyone else as he did every morning. He was floating in the great hall of the House of Truth with his colleagues.
"May you work hard," said his neighbor Nessor whose work was to write celebrity news for the Truthgivers to tell the smacks. Important work since the smacks needed distractions to keep them focused on their work.
"Work hard and prosper," replied Zuva'Sai as was the custom. Then he swam to his desk in the big office where he worked. He was one of the many Korallians in charge of examining foreign papers. Difficult work since most foreign documents would be ruined when touching water, which was why half of his department worked on the surface parts of Vann'ti Marshakr. However, there were parchments, petrograms, stone tablets and Agura devices which they could examine in the more natural underwater environment, as well.
For the past few weeks Zuva'Sai had been reading old parchments acquired from the library of the Council of Eight from where the larva peoples lived. First he looked for something useful, something the Creator might use in advancing his projects and in creating even more jobs for the smacks: chemical formulae, machine blueprints, gossip on their foreign trade partners, information on how to acquire more Agura crystals. Those parchments he sent forwards to be evaluated again by people closer to the Creator.
Secondly, he looked for material to be published by other Truthgivers. This might be anything from history to biology, from poetry to religion. Anything that would make the smacks more obedient. After he found something suitable, he would mark down the parts to be removed or changed, and passed it on to Truthgivers in Nessor's department.
Third, he looked for material harmful to the Creators. Parasitic manifestos, political statements, too detailed information on how wealth was divided among the larva peoples, stories of dry Korallians who had found success, parables of animals that were too greedy and met an unhappy end. All of those he would send to be destroyed by the smacks who were specialized in that.
The rest, and this was the most of the documents, would simply be archived somewhere for possible future use.
It was vital work to keep Vann'ti Marshakr running. Or so he kept telling himself. It was a great privilege to be allowed to read the harmful material before it was destroyed. The Creators trusted him. He was a good Truthgiver, he was better than the smacks and certainly much better than the dry Korallians.
Ssepor, his boss, approached his work station, sipping an urchin she kept in her webbed hand.
"I need you to do something for me, Zuva'sai," said Ssepor.
"Sure thing, boss."
"The Tridents have captured a parasite, and I need you to question him."
"Would that not be a job more suitable for the Shiver?" The Shiver were Vann'ti Marshakr's telephatic secret police who were very good at finding out secrets.
Ssepor pressed her tentacles against the urchin, and drew a long, slow sip. "Yeah, so, anyway. I need you to question the parasite. This is a good thing for me, you know. And that means it's a good thing for you, too."
Zuva'sai understood that well enough. He did not want to get on the Shiver's bad side, but these small internal intrigues were quite common in Vann'ti Marshakr, since everyone wanted to impress the Creator. If the parasite yielded information useful enough, Ssepor might be promoted, and Zuva'sai might replace her as department head.
Zuva'sai accepted his new assignment. He would have to meet with a pirate called Melussa who would know the whereabouts of the Staff of Bekora, a powerful artefact which might give The Creator unforeseen powers or knowledge.
The parasite pirate was confined in a small coral cell on the very top floor of the the House of Truth where Zuva'Sai worked. As the tide ebbed a part of the cell would fill with air. Korallians could breath air if they needed to, but for most it was not a pleasant experience. Only the dry Korallians were used to it, and even preferred air to water. The pirate was not one of them.
Zuva'Sai floated outside the cell and looked in. Melussa the pirate looked surprisingly respectable. No tattoos, scars, or eye patches. She had large, yellow eyes, bridled tentacles, brown trousers and a red jacket. And large manacles around her wrists and ankles.
"Poor you", she said to Zuva'Sai.
"Poor me?" he replied. "You're the one in chains."
"My chains are made of iron and iron rusts in the sea. Your chains are inside your mind."
Zuva'Sai had never before spoken to a parasite in private, but this sort of rhetoric was common enough in the leaflets he often sent to be destroyed. He knew he should just let it go.
"I'm here to interrogate you," he said.
"Go ahead then," the parasite replied.
"Right." Zuva'Sai pretended to be stupid and cleared his gills with a nervous bubble. "Tell me where it is."
"What's that then?"
"Come on. I know you know where it is."
"You only think you know you know."
Clearly she fancied herself very clever and loved the sound of her own voice. Perhaps that could be used against her. She wanted to propagandize. Let her.
"What do you mean?" asked Zuva'Sai. "I have read everything you people have written."
"Oh! Then you do already know something. And you know you are in chains."
"At least I'm not a parasite."
"Parasite? You think I'm here to take away the fruits of your labor? Steal your catch? Attach myself on your side and live off your blood?"
"Isn't that what you people do?"
"No. There's only type of person who does that."
"Don't say the Creators!"
"The Creators." She was getting started on a good rant, not playing coy anymore. Now it was just a matter of directing the conversation in the right direction.
"Whatever can you mean?"
"Don't you see it? The Creators use you. All of you. They are the ones who take the fruits of your labor and leave you with nothing but comfortable lies. The sea is rich and there would be plenty for everyone if you divided your possessions more equally. But no! The Creator takes everything."
"But he works so hard that he deserves it!"
"He doesn't work at all! He is the parasite!"
"Is that why you're here? To blaspheme?"
"I'm here to help you, our oppressed brethren."
"Help us how?"
"We want to set you free!"
"But how? The Trident and the Shiver are more powerful than a hundred of your pirate fleets."
The pirate hesitated. This was it, Zuva'Sai realized. She had come to find the Staff of Bekora to destroy Vann'ti Marshakr society with it. And now she was pondering whether she could trust Zuva'Sai or not. The Staff of Bekora, and perhaps its location, were on the top of her mind.
Zuva'Sai relaxed his gills, closed his eyes, and concentrated. Time slowed down, and the gentle movement of particles in the water came almost to a halt. Her scales disappeared, her flesh became but a vessel for her thoughts and dreams. He could move amongst her secret memories and hidden desires like a fish in a reef. The baroque and organic shapes of her thoughts formed a mobile and multicolored labyrinth for him to explore.
Because he had already made her think about the staff, he did not have to explore for very long. Amongst feelings of fear and hope, distrust and curiosity, it was right there. A staff of driftwood and coral, but broken in many parts. Attached to it were a number of other thoughts, one particularly promising. She had come here to find a part of it. But where?
And then Zuva'Sai saw the location with perfect clarity.
Zuva'Sai explained his discoveries to Ssepor, who praised him accordingly.
"Now, Zuva'Sai, I need you to go there yourself, and bring the artefact to me."
"I'm not much of an archaeologist, I'm afraid. But the Creator --"
"No time for that now," snapped Ssepor unexpectedly. "The Creator is far too busy to be troubled with minutiae like this." Ssepor forced a smile on her face. "Now Zuva'Sai, I know you are a hard-working man. Not one to shriek away from your responsibilities. Not a lazy no-good parasite. No! You do what I need you to do, don't you?"
Ssepor was acting very suspiciously. She had a double motive, perhaps she was even planning to overthrow the Creator. But Zuva'Sai did not really have any other choice, other than to talk to the Shiver about his boss. And any plan that involved the Shiver was just as likely to backfire horribly.
So he said yes.
Zuva'Sai swam through Kelp Park to the supermerged part of the city. The buildings here were almost completely over the surface, bathing in air. They were not Korallian, of course. Like most of the city, they were built by the Ancients millennia ago. Most districts of the city were more or less underwater, but this part had been built on solid rock which defied the lure of the sea even still.
The supermerged buildings were overtaken by the Amethyst Order and other foreign traders, or dry Korallians who dealt with them. Zuva'Sai had only been there a couple of times, and never in this building.
The supermerged quarter was surrounded by underwater warehouses and factories with goods being constantly transported up and down by the Mysklo Company. Zuva'Sai swam towards the light following several smacks carrying flotillas of goods.
He broke the surface with his webbed hand, and his head soon followed. He closed his gills and drew breath with his mouth. The water was not deep enough for swimming, so he had to walk like one of the larva peoples. It felt stupid, walking in water. Walking out of the water did not feel any less stupid. But here he was, in the supermerged quarter.
He walked next to the Amethyst Order airdock. Big and small airships flew in the air around him. Further on he could see waterships sailing back and forth. The supermerged buildings were strange because you could live in Vann'ti Marshakr all your life and never see a larva person. But here there were Ignisards, Nighteyes, Quothians and other larva peoples going about their business. Alongside dry Korallians, of course.
Zuva'Sai tried to pay them no heed, and proceeded to find the place in Melussa's mind. The pirate had never been there so she had no image of what it looked like, only the location on an old map. The supermerged quarter had changed a lot since then, but at least Melussa had seemed convinced it would still be there.
Sure enough, cramped between a Quothian silk warehouse and an Amethyst Order bank, there was a small building of white marble. It was in a pit of sorts, half covered in water, half in the air, with a walking bridge over it. Clearly just waiting to be demolished to make way for some new highrise.
He approached the building. Was it an old temple? Hard to tell. As he got closer, the sounds of industry around him joined with the angry cries of leather-winged lessamut. He peered in a window on the first supermerged floor, and the house seemed an abode for a whole community of seabirds and shrieking lessamut, protective of their young.
There were some of them in the puddle of water surrounding the building, too, but not too many as to bother him. Zuva'Sai let himself sink a little until he was underwater. There were two floors visible down here, and if what he remembered of the Ancient's architecture was right, the floor closest to the bottom was the entrance. He found a doorway and swam through it. There were no fish at all, which was not surprising considering how many predators called this water home.
He swam inside. The floor, ceiling, and walls of the lobby were covered in barnacles and corals. Somewhere the white marble was still visible, in other places it had been ground into silvery sand. He did not know exactly what he was looking for, but he had seen an incantation that he would use to get there. Wherever he could not proceed without that would be where he was going.
The lobby had stairways leading up and down. He first swam up until he reached the supermerged parts where the lessamut nested. To protect his ears from the shrieks, he decided to examine that part last, and swam back down. He had found only doorways leading to small rooms with decayed furniture. Somewhere a trace of an Agura machine where the Agura had long since been taken by some previous graverobber.
Zuva'Sai dived deeper into the cellars of the building, and there he came across something interesting. Instead of open doorways, he saw big marble doors, the cracks emanating the same sort of blueish light you might see in midday near the surface. This was probably what he was looking for.
He swam to the first door, placed his webbed hand on the marble, and spoke the incantation. He could feel a weak effect, as if the door was thinking. But soon the sensation passed, and the door stayed closed. He tried the next door, and the next.
Before he was moving to the penultimate door, he heard a sound from above like metal hitting stone. Was there someone else here? He had to be fast. Zuva'Sai tried the door, and this time the incantation worked. The glow grew brighter for a second, and the door was unlocked. He had to paddle hard with the fins on his feet, but he managed to push the heavy door open.
This was a cubic cave mostly untouched by time or the creatures of the sea. A vault with a white chest that had a glowing green Agura crystal on it. This was where the light was coming from. The chest was too big for him to carry so he would have to open it right now. He tried the same incantation, but it did not work. The feeling was different than with the doors. It was as if this lock could not be opened by a spell at all but by something else.
He heard the waves of speech coming from somewhere within the building. Whoever it was, they were obviously also looking for the Staff of Bekora, and would soon find their way here. Zuva'Sai decided to give himself one try before he would have to flee.
There were no buttons, handles or levers, but from the old texts he knew the machinery of the Ancients might be manipulated telepathically.
It was difficult to relax when he knew he was in a hurry, but Zuva'Sai tried his best. His gills would not relax properly, but he managed to concentrate enough that time slowed down, and he could enter the mind of the device, such as it was.
He was inside another mind. There were no desires or dreams, no organic shapes or bubbles of memory. Instead there were sharp corridors and square floating objects, precise memories and exact pieces of knowledge, some secret and some open, even the colors seemed clearer and more contrasted.
"What do you desire?" came a low voice which echoed in the angular labyrinth. He was startled at first, thinking it came from outside. But then he realized the device was speaking to him telepathically.
"I command you to open," Zuva'Sai replied.
"You have no authority here," the device spoke. True enough, but perhaps Zuva'Sai could force his way in.
"Grant me full authority," he said.
"Only the worthy may be given authority."
Some things never change, thought Zuva'Sai. "I have given my head and heart to the Creators and thank them for giving me a job and meaning." That should do it.
"You are not worthy."
It wanted more? "I believe in equal rights to pursue prosperity and that parasites should be harshly punished."
"You are not worthy."
He did not have much time, but he recited the entire Pledge of Prosperity to the device, verbatim. If that did not convince it, nothing would.
There was a pause, as if the device was considering his words. Then it whirred a little, and said again: "You are not worthy."
Bekora! he cursed. Perhaps it could sense his anxiety. He would have to try again later when there was more time.
Zuva'Sai broke the connection and let his mind return to the cubic cave. He could hear the others approaching. He quickly swam out of the vault, pushed the door shut, and hid behind a bend in the corridor.
The water in the basement was mostly still, but he could sense the mild waves caused by a bunch of Korallians swimming. There were maybe half a dozen of them. He heard their voices. Stressed, no-nonsense commands and softer soothing replies. Wait a minute, he recognized the latter voice! It was that of Melussa, the parasite the Truthgivers had captured.
Were the other swimmers Truthgivers or at least sent by Ssepor? Were they here to assist him?
Zuva'Sai was planning to reach out telepathically when he felt someone else's mind probing him. Had the powers of his mind been any less, his thoughts and dreams would have been an open book for whoever it was. As it was, he managed to hide from the probing mind, just as he physically hid behind the bend.
Mental powers such as this were not common amongst the Truthgivers, and they would not be used pre-emptively. This reeked of the Shiver, Vann'ti Marshakr's secret police! They had discovered Ssepor's little ruse, taken custody of Melussa, and were now seeking the Staff of Bekora for themselves.
He heard Melussa look for the right door by speaking the words again and again. The Shivertroops guarding her were getting impatient. Then, just as it had moments before, the vault door opened, and showed them the white chest.
The Shivertroops moved inside with Melussa. At least most of them. It was hard to tell without looking or probing. If they were all in the cubic cave, this might be his best chance of escaping. On the other hand, he might be better off hiding until they left.
He was not stupid enough to probe the Shiver, so he focused on listening, instead. The frustrated grunts indicated they had no more success than he had had. Some of the Shivertroops blamed Melussa but she rightly explained she did not know any more about the device than they did.
After a while the Shiver gave up. Their leader ordered the Shivertroops to carry the chest to their headquarters.
"Someone had tried to access the mind lock earlier," said the leader. "Search this place."
Zuva'Sai was hiding behind a bend at the end of the corridor. There was no door there, only what looked like a rusty cupboard. He pulled it open and discovered a small chute leading up. A service tube of some sort, perhaps?
The hatch was not meant for a Korallian, but he managed to climb in anyway, not minding the scratches and tears he suffered. He was floating in the barnacled stale water, looking up. The water was dirty and the chute was dark so he would have to rely on luck. Zuva'Sai pushed with his feet, put his hands up to protect him and swam.
Behind he could hear the sounds of the Shiver looking around, and perhaps finding the chute door, but they could not see him anymore.
The chute was tall and unchanging. Apparently every floor had a hatch like the one he had entered from. He kept swimming up, up, up, until he reach the surface. The hatch went further up, but now he knew he was above the lobby where he and probably the Shiver had entered.
He had to climb a little in the supermerged tunnel to reach the hatch. He pushed it open and forced himself through it. He entered a colony of angry lessamut protecting their nests.
The flying lizards shrieked and cried, flew near him threateningly, and nearly forced him back into the chute. He tried to cover his head with his clothes, as he ran through the corridor into the stairway leading to the lobby.
He welcomed the sight of water, and quickly jumped in. He swam out of the building only to see the Shiver exit some time after him, too far to capture him. One of the Shivertroop threw a spear which missed him by several arms lengths.
He could easily swim off and hide before they could catch him. He was safe!
He waved goodbye and turned to swim off.
Just then he felt a telephatic probe, way too powerful to ward off. His brain froze, his limbs went dead, and he floated in the water immobile. I should not have messed with the Shiver, he told himself waiting for them to manacle him and drag him to join Melussa. The parasite opened her gills in a friendly if ironic gesture.
Zuva'Sai failed to see the humor in the situation. Being captured by the Shiver meant telepathic questioning and nightmarish torture, no matter if he had only been following orders.
They were dragged out of the supermerged quarter and into the scary Shiver Towers.
To be continued…