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The automatic mannequin was not alone. Coming in and out of the shabby store fronts, milling around the tinkers' wares filling the sidewalks, there were more. Some were the size of children, others full grown, still others hunched. They wore the clothes you see in other parts of town, but sometimes other, more colorful, androgynous robes and gowns.
"Wwwwwouldyyyyyyyyyyoucarrrrretocommmmmewwwwwithmeeeeeee?" my automatic mannequin whirred.
He stood there a moment and cocked his head.
"Yes," I answered.
He turned, and I followed him deeper into the alleyways, into doorways and through busy back rooms and hallways, stairs stretching up and over enclosed gardens and lines of laundry. Eventually we emerged in a small cafe, buried deep within a teeming city block. Filled with automatic manneguins.
He gestured towards a table. I took a seat in an ornate ironwork chair.
Steel manacles sprung over my wrists and ankles. An iron bar swept over my chest, and a wire helmet clamped over my head. Something cold and sharp pressed against my neck.
I met an automatic mannequin today. I'd never seen one in person before. If I hadn't had the glasses on I might have not even noticed, but the readouts in the lenses made it clear he was different. I had assumed he worked at the bookstore I first saw him at, but then I started to seem him around town, browsing at other shops, making small purchases, never speaking.
I've been spending a lot of time people watching from the cafes and coffee shops. In between bookstore jaunts. Old Habitsform has its charms.You start to notice the faces you see again and again. The glasses help you keep track, cataloging, making their own AI projections about their patterns and potential next appearances.
"Automatic mannequin" I said, just loud enough for the glasses to hear.
The glasses showed me paths, probabilities, green lines to follow. I found myself in a part of Old Habitsform I'd never been. Apparently it was the clock repair district.
"May I help you?"
The sound was like wind chimes, or delicate bells, formed into words by tiny whirring humming birds.
I turned around, and there stood the automatic mannequin.
Being back in Old Habitsform reminded me of those funky glasses that that dork @Billy Sabab included in my purchase of "The Traits, Features, Characteristics, Peculiarities, Mannerisms, Qualities, and Attributes of the Hymergian Man-Fungus” (which is now a permanent part of my personal onboard collection). They keep you from going crazy when you look at the fold out illustrations (which are remarkably intact), but I think they do other things too. Really wish I had a manual.
So I’ve been wearing them around the book district, looking pretty stylish I must say. People here wear a wide range of enhanced eyewear. Full frame, semi-rimless, rimless, goggles, phosphorescent contact lenses, single vision, double vision, half bison, photochromic, quadfocal, jeweler’s eye pieces, progressive socialist, all bristling with knobs and antennae and ghost pony tales. By which I mean to say I’m blending right in with the crowd as I browse the endless warrens of dangerous and haunted rare book stores. The books, that is, not the stores.
Not yet anyway.
The dangerous and haunted artifacts trade can have its ups and downs, but I've realized I prefer the dangerous and haunted book side of the business. There's a certain civility you find there with book people, as opposed to the dangerous and haunted crystal skull business, or the dangerous and haunted doll family business.
That said, the circle of book dealers I know in the industry have been saying times are getting rough. As the "Age of the Dark Twins" generation grows older, their widows are selling off their collections faster than you can say "country ham," and there's an oversupply in the market. And the up-and-coming "InstaJot" generation just isn't interested in collecting modern firsts of new demonic lore, or the general eldritch classics that used to be perennial sellers.
But there's still a pulse in the higher end dangerous and haunted books market. Which is why I'm headed back to Old Habitsform to see what kind of business I can drum up.
It isn't every day you get to witness the rebirth of a species.
"The Traits, Features, Characteristics, Peculiarities, Mannerisms, Qualities, and Attributes of the Hymergian Man-Fungus" isn't just some curious piece of lost esoterica. It describes the life cycle of a biological entity. The Hymergian Man-Fungus once lived under water, millions of years ago. Through time, it emerged on land, and took on various forms, ultimately something vaguely human, yet sweaty and frog-like, with large bulging eyes and a soggy, lugubrious state. Eventually it coalesced into a single individual, and sought out the fossilized remains of an ancient host. It then merged with that tiny, dehydrated remnant of a once great prehistoric sea creature and returned it to life, whereupon it swam to its ancient temple, returning as prophesied by the merfolk.
That would explain why and how @Billy Sabab suckered me into all this. That damn book was bait. And I took the hook.
It also explained why all the tiny, newly reborn Hymergian Man-Fungus creatures swarmed @Billy Sabab's submersible and, overpowering it, hauled it back to the center of the amphitheater and exalted it, rising it above their tiny swarm to the cheers of the crowd. To them, it was @Billy Sabab who made this all possible. He was the hand of god in their return to the sea.
Seemed like a good time for me to be on my way.
I figured the giant coelacanth wouldn't notice a hitcher. It was obviously a fossilized fish with a mission, and when I harpooned my hook beneath its rainbow scales it didn't feel a thing. Then I was just along for the ride.
Luckily my modern copper top diving suit is pressure proof, not to mention sleek and stylish, which allowed me to fully appreciate the wonder and the glory of our descent into Mermaid Imperium. It looked just as it was depicted in the ancient 4CP limited series by @SLYR, with evidence of the Aeotherum Sateqo dynasty still evident in its architectural style. Soaring coral pinnacles encrusted with diamond barnacles; opulent market streets and plazas, laid out with extravagant crafts and rare spices; temples of freshly carved stone and glittering gems.
And in the center of it all, a massive, open amphitheater, filled with row after row of cheering merfolk.
The prehistoric behemoth I was riding on was headed right for it. And at alarming speed.
Still tracking the dreadnaught coelacanth as it speeds for the deep ocean. Destiny City Bay is shallow for miles, so it's easy to track the creature visually as it skims just below the surface. It's easily four times the length of the Egregore, and its armored scales cast rainbows.
I don't plan on getting the return fee on this one, and won't be surprised if they stop payment on the upfront fee. But holy homunculi if this whole thing doesn't feel like a setup. It seemed like a regular gig, but Cloverton was suspiciously near when I got the job alert.
And what about that douche @Billy Sabab? Has he been following me since Old Habitsform? Or before? The Matte Kudasai continues to follow, but at distance and from the northeast. Definitely trailing me and not the fish.
His crew seems like an alright sort, but when he gets too near I'm afraid I'm going to need to disable his ship.
He's got to have answers. But I feel like this fish has answers too.
I was at the cafe in the Unnatural History Museum when things exploded. Luckily it was on the first floor so we had time to run outside with our lattes as the building collapsed, and were safely across the street in time to see the massively previously-extinct Mesozoic-relative creature floundering to life, chomping and crashing and gasping for air as it destroyed the building.
Somebody must have gotten that fossilized fish skeleton wet. Just glad it wasn't me.
Boulders of concrete and portions of unnatural specimens rained over us, crushing bystanders. I maneuvered myself away from the fray and saw the giant creature pause and orient itself to the beach. It was a good ten klicks to the sea, but the airship docks were a straight shot. I needed to beat this dinosaur-fish to the water, but the public transport was down for sure.
"Rose???" There was a dusty body in the rubble before me. "Uh... we've met. I'm @Billy Sabab. I think I know what's going on here. Could you give me a hand?"
It was that bozo from Old Habitsform. What was he doing here?
I wrested him up from the dust. "If you have a quick route to the airship docks it would be real handy" I said.
"Yeah my crew has been itching for this. Just a sec," and he pulled a com-pad from his pocket.
Destiny City is all a bit too clean and shiny for my tastes. The Shining Spires are just an architectural gimmick to attract tourists. Some of the best food carts in the universe used to be here before they kicked them out to build the fancy new hotels. Sure, there's still the museums, but they lack the academic integrity they used to have. I'd take Old Habitsform any day of the week.
That said, the city does have all the modern efficiencies. I docked the Egregore at the state-of-the-art aerodrome and took the maglev downtown. The Voracious Mouths of Yesterday exhibit at the Unnatural History Museum opens tomorrow, so me and "The Traits, Features, Characteristics, Peculiarities, Mannerisms, Qualities, and Attributes of the Hymergian Man-Fungus," with fold-out illustrations intact, including one Fossilized Fish Skeleton neatly pressed between the pages, will be checking in at the Fritz-Carolsson tonight.
Grade 7 Artifactual Containment and Control is great against sinister and uncanny forces, but not necessarily waterproof. Or even water resistant. So it was really the worst time to be blindsided by a typhoonette while skimming the waters of Skrizoom, trying to shoot the needle. On a clear day at low tide, clearing the arches is child's play. Plush, it shaves hours off the long way around.
But somewhere between the gale-force winds shattering the windscreen, the torrential downpour that came through it, followed by the sea spray kicked up by the waves, my tea was overturned, nearly drenching the thin, transparent envelope with the fossilized fish skeleton in it.
Maybe I should put it between the pages of a book. Like a pressed flower.
A book like "The Traits, Features, Characteristics, Peculiarities, Mannerisms, Qualities, and Attributes of the Hymergian Man-Fungus," with fold-out illustrations intact.