Matte Kudasaiearliest post first | most recent post first
The City of Palms Cafe was yet another broad cave opening in the Verts. The whole humungous natural stone monolith was riddled with them, like holes in a sponge. The City of Palms Cafe was the most popular (and only) cafe in the Lavender Federation, and served not only as a restaurant, but a meeting place for local corporations, military organizations, and the Lavender Federation Central Government itself. We'd seen the signs posted on the rock surface on the way up not long before--the Lavender Federation occupies one of the thinnest niches in the giant soufflé of different socio-political cultures that inhabit the Verts.
We docked on a moor near the cafe, and the crew and I shuffled off via a rickety catwalk, looking down over a 15,000 ft straight drop. The view looked more like a miniature topographical map than anything an airshipman usually sees.
We stepped out onto the scaffolding.
"So!" I clapped my hands together and looked at the crew. "Where's everybody headed?"
"Captain, the only place in the Lavender Federation open to non-party members is The City of Palms Cafe," Shipman Eva said.
Hmmm. I didn't want the crew to see me making whatever contact the Bookseller had arranged.
"But, uh..." I didn't have a plan. "There's a whole city! The City of Palms! Get out there and find some palm trees. They must be... growing in a tunnel somewhere? Near the opening? Where there's light?"
"Aw, gee captain." It was Tom Connex, Engineman. "I was really looking forward to a nice beer, legs kicked up on the rails, leaning back in a cafe! Not to mention that it's a radically progressive enclave's cafe and center of their movement. Also, I heard they serve peanuts and you can toss the shells over the side."
"A progressive enclave? Uh... is that some music thing?"
"No! It's THE home of autonomous radicalism and a living experiment in anarcho-communism. The City of Palms Cafe is as close as you can get to seeing it short of taking their Oath."
Tom Connex was a connoisseur of obscure political micro-cultures? Who would have guessed?
"Ah, well, in that case.... Which way is it?"
"This way, captain," said Shipman Eva.
".... composed largely of non-dissolubable quartizinibubble. These mighty karsts were thrust up though the surface via a still not-fully understood process, and have been continually inhabited since the dawn of recorded history, with a wide range of cultures being born, growing, dying, and being reborn once again as the living cultural fabric of these immense stone structures, extending farther than the eye can see, up, up, up into the atmosphere..."
"Who said that?" I whipped my head around so fast the googles almost fell off.
"Me, of course. In the googles. Who else could it be? Have you been picking up OTHER transmissions?"
Ah, of course. The bookseller. Speaking to me through the googles. Which I was wearing to see what kind of special details I could see in the Verts and we slowly made our ascent.
"And what brings you to this amazing natural wonder, hmmmm?" asked the bookseller.
"Well I, uh..." Had I looked at the barnacle encrusted box with the googles on? Had the bookseller seen it? I scrambled my brains trying to remember.
"Hey!" I remembered in the knick of time. "Don't you owe me some money? I took Le Bullfrog to his destination, and it was him who decided to hydrate that vicious fish skeleton of yesteryear by putting it in his mouth and EXPLODING and then being reborn as a million tiny tadpoles out of a monster's mouth, thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy and making the Fishpeople very grateful?"
"They did reward you generously, did they not?"
"Well, see, about that, it was really heavy, and we were running low on oxygen and power in the submersible..."
"The Lavender Federation."
"Make a stop at the Lavender Federation. It's one of those new governments, near the 15,000 foot mark. Small enough you'll miss it if you blink. But it's the right distance for a natural pitstop. Let the crew take a break, and be at the City of Palms Cafe at dusk. I'll be in touch. Click."
I watched the green rock walls pass by, a continuously falling motion, as the Matte Kudasai continued going up, up, up.... Vegetation changing slowly with the altitude, as well as the people living in the tunnels of rock, inhabiting bands sometimes a mile in width, sometimes just a few hundred feet. A thousand different cultures and governments, eeeeking out their histories as stripes on the largest stone spire in the galaxy.
Jeesh. Why can't anything ever be simple?
@Rose Nomenclature's ship, the Egregore, was long gone by the time we resurfaced. Damage from the grapples wasn't so bad.
Shipman Eva likes to keep things moving. Trouble was, I didn't have a plan.
"No, uh, bottles with messages near by?"
"Hyper-intelligent Man Seals barking riddles at us?"
Any payment from our last job may have... complications. Our passenger biologically merged with a fossilized fish skeleton and destroyed Destiny City in the process. The person we were supposed to be following, @Rose Nomenclature, gave us the slip. And the bookseller isn't picking up on the communications link in the goggles he gave me. We were already beginning to get low on liquidity before this whole mess...
"The box, sir."
"I'm sorry, what was that, shipman?"
"The little barnacle encrusted box the King of the Fishmen gave you. Have you opened it?"
Oh my god, the little box. I got so interested in the chests full of treasure I had forgotten it. And then having to dump the treasure that was too heavy for the submersible, I forgot about it then too. Oh no was it in my hand when I started flushing it all? I feel my self go pale patting down all my pockets looking for it.
"Breast pocket, sir."
Ah... there it is. The little barnacle encrusted box. I lift the lid.
"Uh... yes. Shipman..."
"Take us to the Verts."
"So, what's in the little barnacle encrusted box?"
Shipman Eva is driving the submersible back to the surface.
"I don't know why we couldn't have taken just ONE of those big treasure chests."
"Too heavy. We've got just enough air to reach the surface with the fuel we've got."
"Or at least fill our pockets with those doubloons."
"Too risky. You pay me to do the math, and I save our lives. It's our arrangement."
Yeah, but not if I don't have anything to pay her with.
"You're sure that even, I dunno, all my pockets full of doubloons would be too much?"
Shipman Eva gives me that look.
I keep looking out though the window.
"Uh," I say, "I've got to hit the head. Gotta lay some serious cable. Back in a bit."
The King of the Fishmen can't stop kissing us.
"It's great to be heroes, isn't it Shipman Eva?"
"I'm just glad I'm wearing a helmet."
The crowd of fishpeople has been partying for hours, with the school of Bullfrog babies darting and swarming around them. The underwater version of fireworks (chemically reactive planktons) have been going off all around us, and the dancing, and the good-natured revelry-ing.
"He can't stop thanking us for 'bringing the new era' and 'fulfilling the prophecy," says Shipman Eva.
"When did you have time to learn fishman talk?"
"It's a setting on the suit. You just have to read the welcome menu."
"Oh, yeah. Instructions aren't my thing."
All this way, and @Rose Nomenclature nowhere to be seen. Where did she end up?
"The headsup display also says we've got just enough oxygen left in the submersible to get to the surface."
"Well then I guess that's our cue!"
"He says to take this barnacle encrusted box as a symbol of their everlasting gratitude."
"Uh, Thank you! Oh mighty king!"
"You don't have to shout," says Eva. "The translator works better at a normal speaking voice."
"Oh, thank you."
"Why does the window keep fogging up?"
"Because you have your face pressed against it," Shipman Eva said. "Back up."
Our tiny submersible was floating just outside an ancient, barnacled coliseum, filled with fish people. We were just peeking over the top, and down below we could see the massive, no-longer-fossilized fish resting in the middle of the grand arena.
"Hububbblehububble! Hububblehubbublehubbublehubble! Hububble!"
And old fishman--perhaps their king of chief?--stood next to the dinosaur fish announcing something the crowd.
The crowd flapped their flippers wildly.
"Hubbuble. Hububblehubblehububblehububble. Hububblehubble!"
The giant armored prehistoric fish openened its mouth, and a hundred tiny fish babies swam out.
But, on second glance, they weren't fish babies.
They were frog babies. Bullfrog babies.
It was a hundred little versions of Le Bullfrog, the lurking, clammy passenger on our ship who gobbled up the fossilized fish skeleton that started all this mess.
And it looks like they spotted us.
"Bring us right along side, Shipman Eva."
"Begging the captain's pardon, I really don't think that's a great idea. Sir."
"Aw, we'll be fine. We just saw Rose, er, I mean, the Egregore's captain, leap out of the ship in full diving gear and plunge into the ocean below. We know she's the only crew, so we're perfectly safe."
"@Rose Nomenclature doesn't seem like the kind of captain to just leave her barn door open. Sir."
"If you'll excuse the expression. Sir."
"Well, I just want to get close."
"To her SHIP. Bring us alongside, Shipman Ev------"
"Six spring loaded grappling arms, sir. Proximity trigger. They're holding us tight. No telling how deep they're dug in. We'll need to take a look before we try to pull away."
"If this is what we got for just getting close, captain, I wouldn't suggesting trying to get any closer. To her ship. Sir."
"... Aye aye, Shipman Eva."
"Keep your distance, Shipman Eva."
"But not too far. We need to beat it to the docks."
"But make sure it doesn't swing out and hit us with a fin or something."
"AYE AYE captain!"
The Fossilized Fish Skeleton wasn't fossilized any more. Or a skeleton. It was a gigantic prehistoric armor-plated fish-shaped killing machine, bigger than the buildings in downtown Destiny City. It was using its huge rigged flippers like feet, flopping and hurling itself towards the bay, smashing the office parks and museums on its way, knocking over the occasional Shining Spire with its great spiky tail, scooping up rooftop bars and penthouse apartments in its massive jaws.
The denizens of Destiny City screamed and ran for cover.
"Somebody must have gotten it wet. Do you know anything about that?" @Rose Nomenclature asked.
I imagined there must be bits of Le Bullfrog still remaining on the body of the giant creature. Being as the tiny fossil was inside him when it exploded into life.
"Uh... oh hey look, isn't that your ship?"
The Egregore was just ahead, anchored to a mooring mast in the blimpyards below.
"How do you know what my ship looks like?"
"Uh... time to drop the visiting captain off at her ship, Shipman Eva. We'll need to make it a quick stop."
Fossilized Fish Skeleton, the placard read.
"Not just any fossilized fish skeleton," said the bookseller's tinny voice in my ear. "Perhaps the most voracious of all the fossilized mouths of yesterday on display here at the Voracious Mouths of Yesterday exhibit!"
I pushed up the googles so I could see better. The fossil sat on a little white display table, maybe 4 inches long. Small.
"It's small," I said.
Le Bullfrog leaned in next to me for a better look. His clammy brow stuck out between his scarf and hat. Sweaty. Big googley eyes.
"Ah, but look closely!" said the bookseller, still coming in loud and clear through the goggles. "Look at it through the goggles."
I slipped the goggles back down over my eyes and began to twiddle with the tiny knobs and levers. I was starting to get the feel for its various settings. Suddenly the head of the fossilized fish skeleton zoomed into close-up like it was about to devour me with its gigantic rows of razor sharp teeth, row after row after row...
"Argh!!!!!!" I cried, pulling the glasses off.
"Put the glasses back on," whispered the bookseller.
"You see," continued the bookseller, "the incredible detail, fractal-like. Almost too much even for the goggles. This voracious mouth was once far, far, bigger. Time and desiccation have forced it smaller and smaller through the years, compacting all that antediluvian ferocity into a smaller and smaller package. Still quite dangerous through. And priceless."
"It's not even under glass. How do they keep it safe?"
"Turn small dial number 2 counter-clockwise for two clicks, then move the spiral knob in and out."
Suddenly I could see a maze of pink laser beams around the table, and a shimmering translucent shell over the fossil. A forcefield.
"Now," continued the bookseller, "continue moving the spiral knob, but with your left hand, toggle top lever number four."
I followed his instructions. The lasers and forcefield suddenly winked off.
"And that's how you disarm the system," said the bookseller.
Still wearing the goggles, I turned to Le Bullfrog. Everything happened in slow motion. He pulled down his scarf and exposed a huge, gaping, unhinged mouth. A thick slimy tongue, as thick as your arm, shot out, landed on the fossilized fish skeleton, and hurled itself back into Le Bullfrog's mouth, which clamped shut, and displayed the revolting, horrible undulation of a giant adam's apple as he swallowed.
Then, he opened his mouth again.
"B U R R R R R P."
Le Bullfrog was making the crew uneasy.
"Sir. The passenger is making the crew uneasy."
"What's the problem, Shipman Eva? I mean, I know he's kinda sweaty..."
"He lurks. Sir."
Shipman Eva had me there.
"But hey! Destiny City! You always wanted to go, right? They've got great museums...."
"Sir, could we request that the passenger remain confined to his quarters?"
Shipman Eva was putting me in a kind of bind. Le Bullfrog agreed to a fare. Well, that's what the bookseller said. Er, implied. But there was no up front payment, so we'll need to collect it on arrival. Which was much more successful with a happy client, and not one who'd been confined to quarters.
I had to think fast.
"Shipman Eva..." I took a look up and down the promenade to make sure no one else was listening. "I can only tell you that our passenger is VERY important, and paying us a VERY tidy sum for this trip, so I'm afraid we're just going to have to live with it."
Shipman Eva took her leave.
I wish I knew who Le Bullfrog was. And why he was making us all so uneasy. And IF we're going to get paid.
And what happened to @Rose Nomenclature?
Nobody tells me anything these days.