“First time in Heaven?”
Bortemus Balch turned and glanced at the Vorontessi. Glanced up; he had to angle his head a little, which was still something of a novelty despite the company he’d been keeping lately. Vorontessæ were tall.
“Yes,” he said, and smiled. “Is it that obvious?”
“You have that pilgrim’s gaze,” the Vorontessi, a gaunt and towering semi-humanoid with large luminous eyes and a skull crowned with a gnarled circlet of spiny growths, favoured Bortemus with a wide grin and inclined its head politely. “Do you mind if I ask … Capital Mind?”
“Lucky guess,” Bortemus was by no means a small Molran, but the Heaven-folk was a head taller than him. And not a broad, flat-topped Molranoid head, but the round high-domed Vorontessi variety. Bortemus lowered his gaze to his own four grey-skinned hands and the numerous glossy little filtering devices about his person. “I suppose the suit must have given me away.”
The Vorontessi smiled. “I’m not much for fashion,” it said, and gestured at its garments which were mostly composed of leather straps and pouches. Then it turned its face outwards once more. “This isn’t a very well-known area for tourists,” it went on, “but in my opinion offers the best views of the citadel and the mountains,” it inclined its head again. “You made a wise choice in coming this far from the spaceport,” it congratulated him.
“I can’t take all the credit,” Bortemus said. “It was recommended to me, and I have a meeting with some associates in the Nirvan Baths in a few hours’ time.”
The Vorontessi whistled appreciatively. “Exclusive meeting place,” it said. “Your associates must be high fliers.”
“Sanitary field tech and cleansing agent formulation and distribution,” Bortemus chuckled self-deprecatingly. “We serve the specialised needs of the populations of three Buildings in The Centre, and are hoping to expand into the Brotherhood’s territories. You can help us pay for our enormously expensive booking at the Baths by spreading the word,” the Vorontessi laughed, and Bortemus raised his personal datapad. “Bortemus Balch,” he said, “AktaTech Acquisitions and Marketing.”
The Vorontessi beamed, and pulled an esoterically curled black device from a pouch. It was presumably a datapad equivalent, because it exchanged nods with Bortemus’s device. “Dedimar-Cantorio Bazeen,” it said. “Natural Sciences Academy. Call me Canto.”
“Bort,” Bortemus returned the courtesy. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance. Is the Natural Sciences Academy responsible for this scenery?”
“We do what we can,” Canto replied. “Are there many of your … ah … demographic in the Four Realms?”
The Four Realms, Bortemus thought in amusement. The locals insisted on calling Heaven by this name, even though the three worlds underneath it had been missing – vanished without a trace and with nothing but a series of increasingly ludicrous and desperately strident explanations as to why – for as long as Bortemus had been alive.
“You mean phobes?” he asked casually. Canto slumped a little in visible relief, and Bortemus grinned. “Yes, you can say it.”
“I wasn’t sure if it was a slur.”
“You want to know a secret, Canto?” Bortemus leaned in, looked up, and lowered his voice. “Nobody is,” he flashed his eye teeth – longer and thicker than average, a feature which might have looked undignified or unattractive in a less imposing figure of slightly above-spec Molranhood – in another grin. “Best anyone can do is exactly what you did: assume it’s going to upset someone, and wait for them to use it first. Where I come from, it’s fine,” he went on, honestly enough. None of the phobes he knew – the other phobes he knew, he reminded himself – had any issue with the descriptor. On another hand, of course, it was always possible that they just tolerated it from him. “As for our population in the Four Realms, we’re estimating less than a million. Almost exclusively Molran, but a few thousand examples from various other species. A reasonable market, even if it’s barely ten percent of our current Capital Mind customer base. But as they say…”
“The Four Realms is the gateway to the Pinian dominion,” Canto said.
“Precisely. We’re hoping that the gamble of coming at the Brotherhood’s territory this way, rather than struggling in the mire of Capital Mind for another hundred years, will pay off.”
“I’m not sure what a Gróbi phobe would look like,” Canto remarked, “but if only one in a billion of them is one…”
“And we sell a set of cleansers to one in a hundred of them…” Bortemus agreed wryly.
Canto laughed. “Quite so. I wish you success.”
“Forgive the assumption, but I would have thought the communal waters and airborne microbial environment of the Baths would be something of a nightmare for a phobe,” the Vorontessi went on. “That may be an insulting misconception, of course.”
“It’s neither, I assure you,” Bortemus said. “While we’re not quite as squeamish as our reputation might lead you to believe, the Baths are notoriously … shall we say, immuno-bracing.”
Canto flicked its long, tough fingers with a dry snap. “A perfect place to demonstrate the quality of your products,” it said. “If they allow a phobe to enter the Baths…”
“Precisely,” Bortemus said again.
“Fascinating. Truly fascinating,” Canto enthused. Then it glanced at another electronic device, this one built into its forearm-strap. “I wish you success on your venture, Bort,” it repeated. “I myself have to continue my circuit and head home.”
“Pleasant travels, Canto.”
Molran and Heaven-folk exchanged nods, and Bortemus was once again left alone. He wandered to the end of the gentle pale-purple headland and stopped, looking up.
He couldn’t see the vault of space from where he stood. Heaven’s atmoplane was thick and the sun that hung in the sky was fiercely bright. He couldn’t see the stars, since they were generally only visible during the seasonal observance of … something-or-other celestis, he didn’t remember offhand. The local authorities decommissioned the sun for upkeep, and only then were the stars visible. Most of the Heaven-folk would be too busy drinking, dancing and fornicating to pay much attention to them, but they’d be visible.
He couldn’t see the bright wheel of the closest galaxy, a standard gigastellar mass that had for the past few hundred million years been drifting above the Four Realms almost as close as cosmic matter could come to the Face of the Deep. Drifting from Heaven’s perspective, and dragging its feet a little from the stellar-gulf norm due to the adjacent plane of physics and other various factors, but in fact spinning through the vacuum at thunderous speeds. Just not moving along anywhere near fast enough, as far as Bortemus was concerned.
The galaxy was known as Cursèd’s Playground. And what an appropriate name it was.
Still, he looked. And pretended he could see it up there, glowing bright and mysterious beneath the twinkling blanket of its even-more-distant siblings. He indulged in a brief fantasy that he’d never heard of the place, had never heard of the Four Realms, had somehow managed to vanish into thin Castle space air the way 75% of the sovereign Pinian Brotherhood seat had done, all those years ago.
He pretended it might be possible to simply go on being Bortemus Balch, to go down to the Baths and have his meeting, make his agreements, become a successful purveyor of sanitary field tech and cleansing agents for the near-Centre territories and retire to spend his Second Prime in a modest home in the Upper ‘Urbs.
He pretended he’d never heard of the damned hallowed silence.
You’re fucked, Bortemus heard Gent Strojen in his cold and panic-adjacent mind. His old friend’s voice was filled with dread and gleeful horror. You’re irredeemably, utterly, irretrievably fucked. You know that, don’t you?
Bortemus sighed. It was true. He was fucked. It wasn’t like the other times, the other challenges he had faced. There was no way out of this that he could see. This was the end of the line, the end of his career just as surely as if it had been orchestrated by one of his many, many enemies. No – even more surely than that. His enemies would have made a mistake, left some gap he could exploit. This was … fate. This was the cold hand of Limbo, the dark sense of humour of the turning urverse.
And it was going to be the end of him.