[Age of Mouldwarp]
The mechanics of the planet Stringfellow are somewhat unique. At once it is the most distinguished destination in the known stars and the obscurest of them. It is a party planet, an intergalactic rave that never goes to sleep; yet the magnitude of its hangover…is difficult to fully comprehend. It brings together people of all worlds and even of all times, yet it has never so much as produced a single handshake off world. Oh sure, its been the catalyst for new relationships, but never directly and almost always by accident. You need a special token to remember that you were even there. It exists to departing guests as a whisper, a thing half-recalled and half-regretted, since it is here that all restraint is let go of. It is a haven of mayhem, a doorway to debauchery, a stage for sin. But other than that, it’s the best place you could ever hope to find yourself.
In order to achieve the temporal anonymity that it has maintained some say for seven millennia -- stretching back to the height of the Nroh’Gamor Consortium, the last great collection of vodrantine (or of the void) residents -- Stringfellow’s architects contrived a planetary harness entrenched deep in the upper crust that has halted its rotation, which was elemental in their design to envelope the planet in an interminable web of quantum fissures. These fissures enabled them to bend the laws of physics, popping the planet out of the conventional rigors of time, thus producing a world that is constantly working on the same timeframe for each of its temporal visitors, who experience it as if it were a regular Omox or Inwrought. Anyone from any era who knows of Stringfellow (it has been traditionally kept off navigation charts, so you need a form of invitation to even begin to know where to look) can show up and expect the same environment and general experience as anyone else. There is a rumor that you could even encounter past or future versions of yourself, but there are safeguards for that, naturally. The problem, they soon found out, was that this continuous irregularity in the experience altered the visitors’ ability to retain anything mentality acquired on the planet, so they had to compromise with the development of the Nods, data cubes that you could download the essence of your experience into. It’s a far better consequence of global manipulation than the one the Omoxians would come upon when they attempted to duplicate the design for their own purposes, but that’s another story altogether.
As it were, none of the Quadian Five had ever been to Stringfellow. The Ardor’s acclimation period into orbit was spent in frenzied speculation. Umecit was most curious of all. "You don’t suppose we’ll have a chance to meet some of the ancient races? I’ve heard great things about the military of the Atzgoti."
Ever the pragmatist, Phan noted, "It’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the Atzgoti apart from any other alien race. There are a thousand different civilizations represented; try to pick one out of them if you will."
"I’m beginning to understand Towar’s own caution concerning Du’Lon Predda," Trey said. Rather than denoting a species, Du’Lon was a title of the Vanadi intelligence network, taken by the Obdurate in its attempt to mirror Vanadi society as a whole. In addition, Predda was what you would consider a first name, as Vanadi were most commonly referred by. Haxed’s full name was Haxed Harridan, and mine…Well, that’s another thing you don’t need to know. Omoxians didn’t have such customs, nor Tikanni or Vitell, who believed in keeping things simple and unique to each individual, if you didn’t count Tikanni hereditary titles, which included ceremonial names as well.
"We’ll have plenty of time to while waiting for this Predda," Umecit replied to Phan.
"Am I the only one uncomfortable with this phase nonsense?" Haxed wondered aloud.
"Certainly not," Rejon said from behind Trey in the polished conference room. "All of this planetary manipulation has me uneasy as well."
"One thing’s for certain, we can’t stick together while there," Umecit said. "It wouldn’t make much sense to not take advantage of our number in searching out Predda."
"I couldn’t agree more," Trey replied, "but we must keep a constant line open. Awareness is our companion today, as needs be, so we must keep that spirit together while we remain apart. Do you have a problem with that, Haxed?"
"Not at all," he stated. "Apprehension serves the nerves well, actually. I had planned to venture on my own already."
"Good," Trey said. From the Concave they each took a transmitter and disruptor, the ship now secure in orbit, and in separate pods made the descent to the surface of Stringfellow. Aside from a bout of nausea that was the usual greeting, they made it in one piece. The center of activity on the planet was the Piebmot continent, and they correctly assumed that the central city of Sniggad was the most likely place to look. Anyone of any influence wouldn’t even think of hiding anywhere else. That’s why the Grenegar family was there, and that’s why Du’Lon Predda would be lurking there. Sniggad, however, was a very large city, and the streaming throngs of visitors didn’t help at all.
Haxed found that Sniggad indeed teemed with faces, as well as shapes, he’d never laid eyes on before. There were arachnoids, insectoids, marsupials, quadrupeds, tripeds, bipeds, even octopeds, and more fur, scale, feather and orthodontic and ocular arrangements than he ever imagined possible. And they all, all of them, walked. There simply wasn’t any other practical method of travel in the streets of the city. His red fur now seeming just another coat of origin (whereas he’d been feeling self-conscious about it onboard the Ardor), Haxed left his pod behind in the landing quarter he’d arrived at and joined the fray, apprehensive but feeling an inner calm such as he’d never thought possible, especially in such a setting as the living bedlam of Stringfellow.
He was at a corner of the city devoted to bartering, as the merchants hawking their wares at closely packed vendors gave in evidence. Vanadi at this time still used money, and he carried a pouch full of glocks he’d need to convert into the standard Stringfellow currency of cords. He quickly spied an exchanger past a pair of flaccid-looking aliens he couldn’t begin to identify, and cautiously made his way there. The exchanger was an auburn-hued, rather featureless alien, whose eyes were so far inset into his face that they were scarcely visible. It was the kind of face that said, "Don’t mess around." Haxed was feeling more reassured by the minute.
"Cords or credits?" the exchanger actually said, agitated that his patron hesitated for even a moment. It was delivered in such a way that Haxed had the feeling that the alien had been at this job longer than he’d ever wished to, that he used this tone with everyone. It was off-putting, really.
"Cords," he replied, slipping his hand through the gap in the translucent aluminum retainer that separated them. Credits were only good for the cheapest products; they were pushed off to those who looked the most suggestible. Haxed hated to think that even by being asked that he gave off that impression.
The pair of deadbeats beside the booth gave him a glazed once-over as he turned to walk away, which sent shivers down his spine. Vanadi hate attention, particularly peculiar attention. They prefer to earn it. With his cords now secure, Haxed proceeded down the esplanade. He felt safe here, with all of these people here, in perpetual daylight (albeit artificial, since Piebmot was situated on the side of the planet forever cast from the sun). It certainly didn’t hurt that he spied dozens of plainclothes security personnel scattered about, whom he identified by their constant roving eyes despite their attempts to be inconspicuous. It had always struck him as absurd to pretend to be inconspicuous when your job was anything but, and to perform it well you would certainly have to be conspicuous. If their eyes roved in the traditional manner, perhaps it might work. And being seen too often with the uniformed guard was a definite giveaway as well.
While he was thus distracted in his martial observations, Haxed had the misfortune of running into one of the streaming masses. It set him back a few feet, and when he looked back up to see who or what he’d run into, he found a alien of the marsupial variety, bipedal, male, though the curious face set him apart as such. His indigo fur and slightly hanging arms fixated Haxed’s attention, until the alien finally addressed him: "Vanadi? I have seen your kind before. Always distracted, are you?"
Taken aback, Haxed let a moment slip before making a reply. "I’m afraid you have me at an advantage. You seem to recognize my species."
"In my line of work, you get to know many a variety of customer. I’m a Thesian, and I work as a trader. My name’s Perringkon Chuntlez, but please, call me Pep."
"Nice to meet you…Pep," Haxed cautiously greeted. "I am indeed a Vanadi."
"And what shall I call you?" Pep chirped back. "’Vanadi’ is awfully impersonal; I’d feel as I were insulting you every time I used it."
"Ah. Welcome to Stringfellow, Haxed," Pep continued. "I can also tell that this is your first visit here. You have that edge in your step."
"Perceptive indeed," Haxed remarked, halfway to himself. "I apologize for running into you. I was startled by those two individuals over there," in indication of the deadbeats.
"Oh, Cadmir. That’s how they like to be seen, as helpless, slightly intimidating people," Pep informed his new acquaintance. "They believe it helps them on the battlefield."
"Tell me, what exactly are you a dealer of?" Haxed inquired.
"Anything I feel my customer needs," Pep replied. "I learned long ago to not specialize. It may be good in the short run, but it tends to burn you in the long. Just last week I was delivering Mankasian Ale to a party of Espans, the first alcohol, they say, that their kind has ever experienced. It was also the first I’d ever dealt in, but I made an exception for the Espans due to their unusual sincerity in all other matters I’ve ever them handle. And what is it that you’re up to? You also have some guilt in your step."
"Guilt? I don’t know if I’d call it that," Haxed stated. "As it happens, my friends and I are looking for a little sincerity in this universe, a sincerity that transcends pettiness and misunderstanding--"
"You’re from the founding of the Coalition!" Pep exclaimed. "How exciting! One does not often come across such…nobility in these parts."
"Coalition?" Haxed mouthed, a puzzled look on his face.
"The Coalition. The fruit of the Quadian Dynasty’s labor. I believe you’re calling yourselves the ‘Quadian Five,’ to be precise," a suddenly more enthused Pep said. "Haxed! I should have realized immediately!"
Haxed was now starting to look embarrassed. "Look, I don’t think we’re prepared to be swallowed in our laurels."
"Oh, don’t be concerned. Half these boobs wouldn’t know a Rowthgar from a Timartain," Pep reassured. In truth, if the ones from sufficient eras did know enough, it would be certain, each of the Five would have a following of claque, the mindless chattel whom are given to follow a thing not because they have any real feeling one way or the other towards it but because it is there and it seems to warrant such a following. They’ve somehow been induced to act as such, and will readily depart when another thing comes along to distract them. Stringfellow would be the ideal setting for this sort of thing, but as I understand it, the mechanics of the planet that result in memory loss on departure also create a haze in the atmosphere that gives the planet a constant mind-numbing agency, though prepared visitors can overcome this as well.
Elsewhere in the labyrinth of Sniggad, Trey came upon the Query House, what you would most likely call a town hall. He told himself that he’d found it through some sort of sixth sense, but in truth he’d spent the last night aboard the Ardor meticulously studying all the scraps of information the Measures Room contained on this odd world. Omoxians can typically go weeks without sleep, which is how he’d been spending the time involving this Obdurate resolution the Five was focused on in this first grand gesture for the Quadian ideal. But Stringfellow wore even him out, before he ever stepped foot on the planet. There was simply too much to learn of it, even from a wholly incomplete catalogue of its features.
At this Query House, Trey found a condensed version of the species variety found in the streets. There was still a wide assortment, but they seemed to be matched together as the intellectuals of space. He noted wryly to himself that there weren’t any Tikanni present, but he distinctly noted a party of fellow Omoxians, who were dressed differently than himself, his robes replaced with less flamboyant jumpsuit numbers, ornate in design, yes, but unsettling…unOmoxian. He managed to shrug this off by telling himself that he was bound to be surprised every now and then. The nine corners of the main chamber he was presently in were festooned with embellishment, another aspect that hurt his eyes to look at. He decided to look for a friendly face.
A cluster of oblong faces is what he fell on, ghastly pale though they were (as compared to his own radiant pearl). The bodies attached to these faces were adorned with a more pleasant hanging burgundy tunic, spindly arms waving hypnotically in the air as the faces conversed with each other. Trey made his way over in an excited shuffle, noticing as he got closer how tall they were.
"Greetings," he said. The faces turned toward him, looking almost as swooping hinges as they did so.
One of them replied in return, "Welcome to the Czolqora colloquium."
Just like that, Trey thought in amazement. "My name is Trey. What is it that you are discussing?"
"We do not have individual titles. We simply direct our thoughts to the person in which we intend to address. The current subject is pan galactic pulsars."
"Interesting," Trey commented. "Is that a theory at this point or a scientific fact?"
Another Czolqora replied, "In our era, it is theory, but we have encountered others who know it as fact. We are debating how thus realization changes our own view on the subject." Obviously, this is the one who had been controlling the discussion before Trey arrived. He narrowly recalled seeing this individual using a more authoritative posture before coming forth into the circle.
Another chimed in, "We’re working on a computation to refine our TransSystem Esotarium with regards to this revelation. Is this a valid entry?"
"I see your problem," Trey noted. "One of the problems in meeting new people is weighing the worth of their new viewpoint. That’s the business that occupies my own time."
His original addressor commented, "It is a noble pursuit, if not at times inadequate to face the problem with." To one of his own kind, the controller of the debate: "To pursue further study of the pulsars is not a question. I disagree with your earlier assertion that it is only a small part of the dilemma. I believe it is very much a part of it. Perhaps the main aspect."
The Czolqora continued their colloquium, and Trey felt increasingly incongruous. He politely directed a bow towards the group in general and moved on. But he wasn’t going to leave the Query House. Du’Lon Predda had as good a chance of appearing here as anywhere else in the city, and here was where he feared he’d feel most comfortable.
Still elsewhere, Umecit smelled blood. He smelled it and it beckoned him tenaciously. Though aquatic, Vitell weren’t related to the sharks on your planet, as this instinct might indicate. In truth, Vitell possessed a universal aqueous that couldn’t exactly be pinned down to one variety, but rather, the characteristics of the kind as a whole. Their appendages had a vaguely fin-like nature, though they were always as dynamic as any other race, though seeing them in action was both a wonder and astonishment. In battle with other species, their opponents often crippled their own abilities by the confusion of interacting with the Vitell’s bizarre mannerisms. In consequence Vitell warriors often operated with a bemused grin on their protruding faces. Umecit at this moment had more than a grin; he was positively beaming with anticipation.
There was blood aplenty scattered about Sniggad, the byproducts of drunken dances that were a regular occurrence. But what Umecit smelled was much more potent, the kind that resulted only from learned combat, the purest of all. The only you’d found on Vitellon. To be fair, Vitell were amphibian, living both in Vitellon’s oceans and on its land, but people somehow preferred to view them in their native land as aquatics. Better to sidestep their military prowess, to picture a clumsy battlefield (though for the Vitell this was naturally untrue). Shouts in the distance. Getting closer.
A palladium arena came into view, the word "Rostrum" in block letters above the gate at the entrance. The shouts were now a concentrated din. Umecit saw a lot of promise here. He smelled blood thick with honor. He suddenly wished he’d brought better weapons with him than a disruptor and a hidden dagger. The gate retracted for him as he stepped forward, a curious development that he though on for a moment before realizing the warrior’s greatest pride was in his exhibition. He pushed the imposing metallic door with ease to the side and stepped in. The roar of the crowd was now all-consuming. He was in heaven.
Pushing past the revelers, he saw a quadruped of massive muscles battling a hovering biped, whose beak was long, sharp. It was stained with blood for a quarter of the way up. The fight was a vicious one, but not barbaric, not one to the death, as Umecit noted, with a pair of what seemed to be referees planted on either side of the combatants. They were serpentine, their bodies one powerful, coiling mass, tails flipping at every possibly fatal move. Umecit wondered how much the aviator was able to use its beak. He found out soon enough.
A survey of the crowd revealed not a single Vanadi. He wouldn’t stay long, he promised himself. But wait. Over in the warming deck, Umecit spotted a familiar face. A Tikanni’s. Lord Phan’s, to be precise. He was taken aback. Oh, but of course, was his next thought. A hand suddenly clasped his shoulder.
"Hey!" Umecit exclaimed before whirling around to see a Cadmir attached the hand. The hand had that dreadfully clammy touch to it, which Umecit despised.
"Your concern is unwarranted," Phan said in approach. "I thought you might find your way here. Marin Dengue here is to be my opponent, but he has a friend he’d like to involve, and I’d very much like it if you were to join me."
"For you? I couldn’t say no," Umecit replied. The Cadmir let go of his shoulder and sauntered to his friend at the warming deck. "Now, mind explaining?"
"The Hesslan attack put me in the mood," Phan said while flexing his gloved hands in front of him. "It is regrettable about the cost of that attack, but I say never let a regretful matter spoil."
"Those are the psiglaive gloves, aren’t they?" Umecit inquired. "It’s about time I see you in action with them. I might be inclined to ask Trey for a pair of them myself."
"Trey doesn’t know they exist," Phan stated. "The Tikanni never revealed the existence of the psiglaive technology to the Omoxians. We felt they had…enough. Let’s leave it at that."
"Don’t you think you ought to at some point? If the Vitell know of it, chances are good that word will spread," Umecit quipped.
On the floor, the aviator was declared victorious over the quadruped after flipping it on its back. The crowd roared its approval. The serpentine referees slinked the defeated off the floor as Phan motioned Umecit to the warming deck. "You don’t want to face Cadmir unprepared, as I’ve heard," he noted. They would have five minutes before fight time. Both hands glistened as he held them out, the amber substance from both molding into a single blade, hooked menacingly at both ends.
"Amazing…" Umecit whispered.
"That stand might interest you," Phan said, indicating a rack of weapons contestants obviously chose from. The Cadmir had each taken razor-lined shafts, but Umecit opted for a simple staff. He also brought with him hope that Vitell reputation was alive here on Stringfellow. The staff, he noticed, was adamantine, or it seemed to be. He’d find out soon enough.
A short sparing session with Phan later, Umecit found the five minutes up and the floor beckoning. Dengue hissed at them as he and his partner reached it first, ignoring the crowd and calling for a prompt start to the match. The serpentines deferred to them, and Umecit prepared for what he considered a hasty fight. Beside him, Phan looked the picture of tranquility.
In the streets of Sniggad, a security officer was making a hasty flight. The officer was an insectoid, a Bith’Mari, beating away on four multi-jointed legs, two more holding a rifle, and with beady eyes unblinking. It had no reason to suspect it might run into anyone, since it was generally practiced on the planet to give security officers a wide berth. But Rejon wasn’t one for general practice. He waved down the officer, who skidded to a startled stop.
"Pardon me…" Rejon began before reading the officer’s nametag, "Officer Alucard. I was wondering if you could help me."
Athan Alucard was baffled, but not so much she couldn’t respond. "This is highly irregular. Make it quick."
"I’m assuming others are on their way to the scene," Rejon said.
"Yes, but it is still common practice for all nearby officers to respond," Alucard stated pointedly.
"I don’t believe that it is that serious," Rejon returned. "Besides, common practice is overrated."
"Common practice is common sense when you’re talking Cadmir," Alucard argued hastily.
"What are the Cadmir up to?"
"I don’t know the specifics," Alucard breathed. "That’s why I’m on my way. But the call said something about a dispute over a Chest of…Shilez! Chest of Trey, I think it was."
"Really," Rejon mouthed. He repeated Alucard’s exclamation of Shilez! to himself. This is far from what he wanted to hear, but he supposed that he should have expected it. "Who else was involved, besides the Cadmir?"
"The report didn’t say. Look, I really have to be getting there. It’s my butt on the line if I don’t," Alucard buzzed. Wouldn’t you like to know how a few of your fellow humans were involved.
"Go ahead," Rejon allowed. He sighed as the Bith’Mari scattered away. Things would be complicated indeed.
In orbit of Stringfellow, a ship arrived, Vanadi in design.
Rejon pulled his transmitter out and contacted Trey. "Where are you? It’s time to quit stalling."
"Agreed, Rejon," came the reply. "I’m at the Query House."
"I’m not far away," Rejon responded. "Expect me there within half an hour." With that he followed, as he noted, in the direction Alucard had gone, through the vendors’ lot at the center of Sniggad. He went at a leisurely pace for an Omoxian, which was slow by any other standard. He enjoyed the view too much to go much faster. If there was one thing Rejon was known for among the Five, it was his almost meditative approach to everything. He hadn’t studied the Stringfellow records as much as Trey had, but he knew enough to spot species the others wouldn’t be able to identify, and he had a good idea of when they were from. He preferred the older ones.
At the half-hour mark, he was at the Query House as he’d anticipated, and Trey greeted him right away from the balcony above. "Good of you to join me." Rejon located the stairway up and was soon at his fellow Omoxian’s side.
"Our method leaves little to be desired," he snidely remarked.
"Oh, I think it has its merits," Trey observed. "I met a group of Czolqora who were more than they seemed. By all accounts, they’re a simple observation panel, but since leaving their circle I’ve been studying them from here." ‘Here’ was relatively lacking in company, save for assorted pockets of those who looked to resign from the hustling below. "I’ve come to some…interesting conclusions."
"Such as?" Rejon prodded.
"Du’Lon Predda," Trey started. "I was thinking. ‘Predda’ isn’t a typical Vanadi name. It’s more widely used as a code name, which makes sense since Predda is supposedly a spy. But then I got to thinking of ‘Du’Lon.’ I took advantage of a data port over there," motioning to his right, where Rejon saw an information console, "and researched Czolqora dialects. ‘Du’Lon’ is a Czolqorian term as well. One of its meanings is, interestingly enough, ‘factor.’ I’m guessing that the Czolqora is our contact. The ‘hidden factor,’ that Towar wanted us to find."
"Only one way to be sure," Rejon commented. He motioned Trey toward the stairway, and the two proceeded back to the main atrium. The Czolqora seemed to have been expecting them.
"You have deciphered our double purpose here," the familiar controller greeted.
"I should have expected such cleverness," the one who’d originally greeted Trey earlier remarked. "We have also settled our pan galactic pulsar quandary."
"We will make a footnote of the new information," another stated.
"A wise choice," Trey said.
"Wisdom is the root of our situation," the controller said. "Where is the rest of your party?"
"I will call them," Rejon offered before ducking off to a side room.
"Is the Grenegar family nearby?" Trey inquired.
"In time," the controller said. "You’ve earned admittance. Isn’t that enough?"
"He is curious," the original greeter remarked. "There is nothing wrong with that."
"I would like to settle this matter with Myrmidon," Trey clarified. "With that out of the way, I can approach Mollwan on far more level footing."
"Level footing is your chief concern, is it not?" the controller asked.
A tentative "yes" came from Trey.
"You have that already," another said. "Four races in cooperation, no matter how completely."
"But the Obdurate is a chief concern," Trey contended. "I see the potential for great strife from it. That I don’t need."
"Needs are the concern of the petty," the controller said.
"Needs lead to great disappointment," another chimed in.
"Needs are a necessary evil," Trey countered.
"Are not obstacles as well?" the controller stated.
"One should do everything possible to alleviate the hardship of obstacles," Trey said. "That’s all I’m trying to do."
"You are a noble individual," the original greeter remarked. "Do not misplace this quality of yours. And please do not distort it."
By this time, Rejon had returned with Haxed, Phan, and Umecit, the latter two looking a bit harried. "Here is the cheerful lot."
"This way, then," the controlling Czolqora said, directing towards a rear exit. Combined, there were seven of them, two of the Czolqora staying behind. Instead of leading outside the Hall, the exit proved a stairway downward, lit in a purplish haze, which Haxed constantly swung at to clear the air in front of him. The stairway swirled along for what seemed ages until the bottom was at last reached, and the Czolqora controller opened the door for them. A chamber of darkness greeted them, and they dissolved into it. A light blinked on, illuminating three figures, imposing, wooly figures instantly identifiable as Vanadi. The Czolqora led the familiar welcoming, and they sat at a rectangular table that became apparent when the figures moved away from the light and to the opposite end of it.
"I am Jaron Grenegar, son of Jar and Kolli," the lead host stated. "I believe that you know one of my associates already."
The light brightened so that the guests could see better. One of Jaron’s associates stood up, an imposingly averaged sized individual, menacing in its utter minimalism in appearance. It looked familiar. Oh yes…no. It was Myrmidon. "You can relax," he started at the unbelieving faces of the Five, "I’m here in a cooperative sense this time." How do you look into the face of relaxed audacity and not blink?
"We’ve heard your reassurances before," Trey said.
"He is being genuine this time," Jaron interjected, "I assure you."
"You’ve won my favor, Trey," Myrmidon said. "Be happy with that. But I warn you. My superiors might not look so highly on this as you’ve been hoping."
"I am not concerned about that," Trey said. "I have faith that we are going to do well at Mollwan. You were an insurance card, so to speak?"
"Lucky that I was not that expensive," Myrmidon laughed.
"Towar wouldn’t say so," Lord Phan stated solemnly.
The room was quiet for a moment. Myrmidon was no longer laughing, or even smirking. Finally, "Some prices are more…regrettable than others."
The Five didn’t stay much longer on Stringfellow. Trey purchased a Nod to retain the essence of his experiences, onto which Rejon encrypted a message of his own, but the others chose not to obtain one for themselves. Truth be told, they were all glad when the Ardor left orbit of the planet. It was a fun place to visit, but nothing to desire permanently for. Mollwan was waiting, and they had a job to finish.
© copyright 2001-2003 by Sean "Waterloo" McKenna