“Alright,” Spider Merdokk said, once they’d ordered their food and were once again sitting and staring distrustfully at each other, “where to begin…”
“I suspect, despite this theatre, that you have planned all of this out well in advance,” 7 said, “and I am still at a loss as to why we have been brought into the matter.”
“Because we’re a point of High Council contact without arrest or detention authority,” Gartuda Felhbron told her. “And if our grey friend here happens to convince us of his story, we might voluntarily part with valuable inside information – information we most likely don’t have,” he added, for everyone’s benefit, “but he doesn’t know that at this point.”
“And when we fail to part with it voluntarily?” 7 asked.
“I suppose I shall have to start with ancient folklore,” Merdokk said blandly, as if neither of them had spoken. “You are familiar, I am sure, with the story of the Ghååla’s chosen races?”
“Passingly familiar,” Gartuda replied, sensing more than seeing it when Team Member 7 tensed up, as she often did in the presence of mythological claptrap. “It’s not exactly my area.”
“Well, let’s just limit ourselves to the Big Three,” Merdokk said.
“Sounds like a good way to insult seven Infinites,” Gartuda remarked, “but alright.”
“DaRah, so the story goes, chose the Molren,” the master criminal said with a faint smile. “Ith, the humans. And the dread Ghåålus of Hatred, Master of all Adversity and Atrocity … an undeveloped and unnamed species in its primordial infancy,” he glanced kindly at Team Member 7. “None of the Ghååla, to my knowledge, chose the Uternlans. Which is a shame because you’re so very impartial.”
“The Fliei were not chosen either,” Volun spoke up. “Do not be unkind, pecha-Balch.”
“You’re quite right, and I do apologise,” Merdokk inclined his head. “I have not had a good month and it has made me snippy.
“Now, as with most myths, this one tails off into a lot of different threads depending on which story you’re following and which group you ask. The humans, famously, were hunted from the start because of their … problematic … introduction to Corporate membership. It was the dread Ghåålus’ Third Dominion, and Ith was the ostensible head of all His would-be enemies. Her chosen race – or rather the race She had thrust upon Her, again it depends on which version of the myth you listen to – became a trophy to slay, stuff and mount even before it grew apparent how objectively annoying they were.”
“Who would have the poor taste to make a display of a human being?” Gartuda felt he had to ask.
“You’ve obviously never met the Master Races Alliance,” Merdokk said lightly. “They’re not defined by the mandate tone it down. But I suspect you know the bare bones of this story.”
“The human species was divided into ten colonies and sheltered on different worlds by Ith’s followers,” Gartuda grudgingly took up the thread. “Including one group here in the Pinians’ sovereign realms, in fact.”
“On the human-dominated world that is now vanished,” 7 surprised Gartuda by putting in. “Earth.”
“Quite so,” Merdokk smiled. “I’ve met a few humans. They’re … a lot of work.”
“This isn’t about humans, though,” Gartuda said. “Is it?”
“No,” Merdokk sighed. “This is about the Tanturians.”
Gartuda sat for a moment, marching this back and forth through his brain. Their food arrived while he was still processing the statement, and Merdokk and his Fliei friend set to eating with gusto. Team Member 7 eyed Gartuda primly, very pointedly pulled out her personal datapad and scrolled through some regulations, then picked up her own utensils and began matter-of-factly consuming the very plain meal she had ordered.
“You’re not serious,” Gartuda said at last.
“I wish I weren’t,” the Spider replied around a mouthful of colourful leafy vegetables. “If you’ll stop to think about my allies, you might appreciate how unlikely I would be to joke about such a thing. And how my situation is sufficiently dire as to warrant my reaching out to you.”
“I was thinking about your allies, Bortemus,” Gartuda said.
“Please, call me Bort.”
“Are you implying,” Team Member 7 abruptly asked, “that you have been forced into meeting us on a matter of religious ideology?”
Merdokk glanced at Gartuda. For a Uternlan, it might almost have been preferable to learn that Merdokk’s reason for contacting them was because he wanted to purchase Tanturian faeces to bathe in. Gartuda busied himself with his own food, which was an admittedly unadventurous local reimagining of a standard dish he regularly ordered from the Standard 3 Aquatic Environment Diplomatic Team autochef. The gondies were pleasantly nutty and the bed of aatha was fluffy and fragrant. His sole concession to exoticism, something called ‘Bundle milk’, swirled in a tall glass by his left hands like a creamy liquid rainbow. No amount of stirring would mix the colours together, but rather sent them twirling and spiralling hypnotically in discrete stripes. He tasted it, and gagged a little. It was exactly as sweet and tacky as it looked like it should be.
“It … goes a little beyond a matter of faith,” the Spider admitted. “It’s a matter of civic and military policy among a huge number of my most formidable associates. And irrespective of the ultimate source, that’s about as secular as you get.”
“Accepted, for practical purposes,” 7 said, although she still looked like she was placing footnotes and disclaimers in her mental record.
“But please, allow me to explain how we got here,” Merdokk went on. “In doing so I’m going to be revealing some highly controlled information, but that’s unfortunately the least of my concerns at this point. I need to tell you about the high and twisted games the Infinites and the Firstmades play with mortal creatures…” the Spider looked at Gartuda, Team Member 7 and Volun darkly over his laden fork, the bizarre phobe-scaping of his face doing nothing to diminish its criminal charisma, “…and the hallowed silence inside of which they hide their machinations.”
“The story goes that the dread Ghåålus’ chosen species-in-infancy was abandoned and forgotten,” Merdokk went on, “a formality He didn’t really want to observe at the time. But the truth seems a little more complicated than that. After the Third Dominion came to an end, the species was divided and scattered. Just like the humans, and for a rather similar reason.”
“As soon as the dread Ghåålus was imprisoned, certain factions would want to snuff out His chosen flatworms once and for all,” Gartuda said. “Just like His Lapgods wanted to snuff out Ith’s monkeys.”
“Indeed. Fortunately, a certain number of factions knew better,” Merdokk said. “In fact, it was arguably not even a coincidence, but there was an overlap between the ten sanctuaries of the human race and the ten hiding places of the dread Ghåålus’ chosen people.”
“The Tanturians don’t live anywhere near here,” Gartuda objected. “Zerf’s Cosmos is, well, it’s in Zerf’s Dimension, hence the…” he frowned, his extremely rusty Corporate geography throwing up a notation. “Farrendohr?”
Merdokk nodded. “Farrendohr houses a population of humans,” he confirmed. “Ith’s special favourites, some say. And Tantur, although a relatively tiny and forgotten corner of that world’s extended territory, falls inside its jurisdictional boundaries. Just not so much that Corporate contact groups – and long-range reconnaissance vessels like the Charlus Wae, for example – can’t stumble onto wandering Tanturian satellites and initiate contact.”
“Any closure of contact processes and Corporate membership files that may or may not have occurred could purely be a matter of Farrendohr’s territorial sovereignty and importance,” Gartuda pointed out. “Farrendohr is a rigidly-controlled sandbox for three very disparate Ghååla.”
“That’s true,” Merdokk said, “and it’s entirely possible that it took a little time, in the absence of actual Infinite intervention, for the High Council to realise what one of its hands had fumbled its way into. A lot of commerce and development goes on in Zerf’s Dimension, whether it’s dumbler or Corporate or any of the shades in between. The Cosmos is considered a fairly empty region by Corporate averages, and it’s still busy. If you want to believe this sort of High Council attention is due to nothing more than Tantur’s arguable proximity to Farrendohr, that’s entirely up to you.”
“There have been five hundred and eighty-six new Corporate memberships drawn up with civilisations from Zerf’s Near and Outer Cosmos regions since the ratification of the New Dumblermar Prerequisites and Entitlements Accord,” Team Member 7 said. She looked up from her pad. “Three hundred and ninety-eight of them were situated closer to Farrendohr than Tantur’s star system. One of them was actually so close that they attempted to invade Farrendohr, before apparently realising this was an ill-conceived idea.”
“There you go,” the Spider spread his upper hands while continuing to load forkfuls of delicious and highly-expensive food with his lowers. “But like I say, if you want to believe it…”
“Carry on with your account, Bort,” Gartuda invited.
Merdokk smiled widely. “After the Third Dominion, it largely seemed to fall to the Firstmades – or in Farrendohr’s and Tantur’s case, the Ghååla – to look after not only the humans, but the children of the dread Ghåålus as well,” he took up. “That was my driving point here, regarding the history. Or mythology, if you prefer,” he added, inclining his head to Team Member 7.
“I do prefer,” she said. “And you are yet to explain what humans have to do with this, or why we are in the Void.”
“That’s true,” Spider said with a nod. “As to the first part of your query, a lot of the known human populations were destroyed in the Worm Cult invasion and its related anthrophobic hysteria,” he went on, “and that basically seemed to end the obligation of most parties to preserve their Tanturians. So they were wiped out too, except in cases where their stewards were … particularly aware of the risks. And it’s funny you should say the Tanturians don’t live anywhere near here,” he went on, and pointed his fork at Gartuda, “because it just so happens that they do. Which is why-” he swung his fork to point at 7, “-we’re in the Void. If only for illustrative purposes,” he added. “And because it’s relatively close to The Centre, and sufficiently neutral for our purposes.”
“The Pinian Brotherhood is sheltering a colony of Tanturians?” Gartuda asked.
The Spider rocked a pale grey hand back and forth. “Yes and no,” he said. “Here’s where we get into really sketchy territory.
“Technically, there is only one ‘colony of Tanturians’,” Merdokk went on. “They’re the ones you found, and they’re a distinct and discrete species unto themselves according to most of the standardised Corporate markers. They were, at least until all the files closed and vanished, signed onto the Corporate census as ‘Tanturians, prime sentients of Tantur, aquatic’ … with all due respect to the poor Fliei,” he added with a commiserating look in Volun’s direction. “But they are descended – evolved – from a primordial species that was divided up at the end of the last Dominion of the dread Ghåålus.
“What the other Tanturian species-branches look like is really anyone’s guess, and we’re unlikely to find out for certain because of this damnable Corporate data blackout,” Merdokk said, “which on the Master Races side of things is called ‘the hallowed silence’ but means pretty much the same thing. I do, however, have a few sources and can make some educated guesses,” he finished his plate of food and settled back, “if you still want to hear it.”
“Might as well be jailed for majestic larceny as grand high,” Gartuda said by way of inviting Merdokk to carry on.
“Well, that really depends on the comfort level of the prison you want to be sent to,” the Spider said, “but we quibble over figures of speech. The reason I keep talking about humans is that here in the Void, the human population managed to survive the Worm Cult. Mainly because their guardians are the same Firstmade lunatics who helped rid us of that particular Alien headache in the first place.”
“A novel way to describe your allies,” Gartuda couldn’t help commenting.
Merdokk shook his head. “‘Allies’ is a strong word,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter. The point is, while the Pinians are definitely insane, they weren’t quite insane enough to wipe out their own little colony of the dread Ghåålus’ chosen flatworms,” he pointed at the ceiling. “They’re still out there, on a planet in Cursèd’s Playground.”
“Even after Earth vanished?” 7 asked. “And all its humans with it?”
“I couldn’t comment on what that’s all about,” the Spider said. “I think it’s covered by my earlier statements about the Firstmades being crazy. But no, the … let’s call them Void-Tanturians … were not destroyed after the Pinians carelessly lost track of their humans. On the contrary, the Firstmades have gone to great – if extremely discreet – lengths to keep them alive and contained.”
“Why?” 7 demanded.
“Because they remember what the dread Ghåålus is like,” Gartuda said, suppressing a little superstitious chill.
Merdokk nodded. “Quite right.”
“So the Void-humans and the Void-Tanturians weren’t both on Earth?” Gartuda asked, while 7 sat and looked mildly affronted. “The Void-Tanturians are up on some stellar-gulf ballworld in the nearest galaxy?”
“Very like the Farrendese setup,” Merdokk nodded again. “They don’t live side by side with humans. They can’t. I mean, look at the Fliei. The Tanturians can’t live side by side with anything. No, they’re up there.”
“Aquatic?” Gartuda asked. “Did the two branches evolve along similar lines?”
“That’s one of the worrying things about all this,” Merdokk said. “From what I’ve learned – from some very sensitive sources, like I say – for a start they evolved incredibly fast. It’s not entirely clear what level they started out at during the Third Dominion, but it was low,” he raised a hand and wiggled a finger in expressive worminess. “In the couple of million years since, they’ve reached … well, at least the Tanturians of Zerf’s Cosmos, you’ve seen.
“They evolved, and developed, frighteningly fast – and frighteningly uniformly,” he continued. “Even separated by whole universes, it seems the divided families of Tantur have grown into a unified species. Like I was saying, by most standardised markers they’re distinct species … but by a lot of the same measures they’re identical. According to my sources, you could take a Void-Tanturian and drop it into any of the twelve Greater Seas of Tantur in Zerf’s Cosmos, and never tell the difference.”
“That is not possible,” Team Member 7 declared. “A sentient species might rise from a complex multicellular organic instance in a short time, under sufficient environmental pressure and given favourable assistance and competition conditions. It might even manage to do so in an aquatic habitat, even though these are statistically far more sentience-hostile. But for two samples of the same primordial instance to evolve into two functionally indistinguishable sentients on two different worlds … the environments themselves would have to be identical. And that is also impossible.”
“You’re right,” Merdokk sighed. “It defies developmental biology as we know it. I wish I could have gotten some solid data on the Void-Tanturians, since I accept that you’re unlikely to take my word for any of this. But ‘impossible’ is very much what I found myself muttering too.”
“Alright,” Gartuda said, “I think I’m beginning to see the problem here. We were assigned to make contact with a high-level-classified species in protective relocation before anyone could cut away enough red tape to establish that they were in fact high-level classified and in protective relocation.”
“Correct,” the Spider said.
“And you made contact with the native sentients of the same planet,” Gartuda went on, “who had been enslaved and brought to the brink of extermination by the introduced species.”
“And you armed the native sentients,” Gartuda went on, beginning to enjoy himself, “and helped them rebel against the introduced species, and strolled around in pants made out of the leather from the introduced species, and now it turns out they’re the chosen people of the Master Races Alliance’s patron Ghåålus.”
The Spider squinted. “How did you know about my pants?”
Gartuda shrugged, not allowing his amusement to be derailed. “Tantur was a fascinating case,” he said. “If the Drab Underbeasts of Ezim had been Standard 3 aquatics, I probably would have kept tabs on Bazilard of Quam’s new feathered headdress range,” he leaned forward. “You want to swap because you’re currently supplying arms to a species in a war of oppression against an ideologically protected near-dumbler ally of the Master Races Alliance,” he accused. “It was all fun and games when it was you and a group of plucky freedom fighters against a load of big nasty sharks and the Corporate High Council, but now it turns out the sharks are part of a secret MRA conservation effort and you want to dump the Fliei in our laps and pretend you were on the Tanturians’ side all along.”
“I feel obligated to add,” Team Member 7 said, “that the Fliei continue to be absolutely welcome to apply for Corporate membership through the normal channels despite their unfortunate first contact. It is not their fault that Merdokk Industries contacted them first.”
“Yes,” Volun said, “pecha … Balch made this clear to us at the outset of our alliance. He also said that the High Council would be unable to take immediate steps to grant us co-primary sentient status or help us maintain our sovereignty from the Tanturians, and it might be some decades – or even centuries – before our case went before the authorities for consideration. And that we might be exterminated before then. Indeed, we would have been exterminated shortly after our existence was revealed, had we not been given Merdokk Industries military technology. The three of you may mistrust one another as much as you like, but I was on Fliar – the planet you call Tantur – when our city was attacked by Tanturian bombers, and our shields and weapons were provided by Merdokk Industries. These are facts.”
Gartuda nodded, humour draining away. “It’s true,” he said. “The Tanturians were unfortunately highly hostile and xenophobic. They didn’t attack us because – and this is speculation, I want to stress – they were still uncertain of our capabilities. Your people, I’m sorry to say, were a known quantity.”
“Or so they thought,” Volun replied.
“Yes. And I’m glad your people survived,” Gartuda went on, “even though I can’t condone any lives lost in your counter-offensives since.”
“Don’t worry,” the Spider said. “The Tanturians are still around. The Fliei don’t want to wipe them out.”
“We cannot live in the sea,” Volun said, “except as twisted and unhappy slaves. And the Tanturians cannot live on land. It would seem to us that living in harmony is a very simple matter – setting aside certain questions of redress. And yet it seems that this logical solution is unacceptable to them.”
“As Gartuda Felhbron has told you,” 7 said, “our unit is no longer on this case. It was escalated to the general Corporate membership level and we moved on to the next contact mission.”
“We don’t really know what the Tanturians and Fliei have been doing since,” Gartuda said. “And you seem to be aware of this too, since you mentioned the Corporate data blackout.”
“The hallowed silence,” Merdokk said sourly. “Yes.”
“You are obviously also aware that the High Council and the Master Races Alliance are not at odds in this matter,” 7 said. “The High Council by definition encompasses the Master Races and integrates their policies into its own. The High Council even represents Merdokk Industries, while at the same time defining many of its actions as criminal.”
“It’s what makes the High Council so sleek and efficient and quick on its feet,” Gartuda noted dryly.
Merdokk grunted in amusement. “You’re understating my problem,” he said, “which is nice of you but unnecessary. “The High Council is protective of the Tanturians on one level. The MRA on another. The Henchthings of the dread Ghåålus on another still. And even Firstmades like the Pinians, with a long and colourful history of standing up to the so-called forces of darkness, are a part of this.”
“‘So-called’,” Gartuda scoffed. “Hate to say it, Bort, but it looks like you’re on the side of the Angels now.”
“See?” Merdokk said encouragingly. “Now you’re beginning to recognise the problem.”
“The Tanturians are untouchable, it seems, purely due to fear of what the dread Ghåålus will do when He gets free,” the Spider went on. “And that’s frustrating, but I might not worry about it too much if it wasn’t accompanied by the full and very tangible real-time backing of the MRA.”
“Are you saying the Firstmades are protecting the Tanturians out of fear of the dread Ghåålus?” Gartuda frowned. “I’m not a scholar of mythology, but I can recite a dozen stories off the top of my head that refute that idea.”
“And ten of them are likely to have been written since the Third Dominion came to an end,” Merdokk said, but then waved a hand. “No, you’re right enough,” he continued. “The Firstmades might be courageous and valiant for their own sakes, and willing and able to stand up to even Infinite oppression … but they’re responsible for a lot of innocent mortals who would suffer as part of the retaliation.”
“But this whole idea is ridiculous,” Gartuda protested. “The Tanturians are mortal themselves. Countless millions of them have already died under the Firstmades’ watchful eye since the Third Dominion, and countless millions more – we can only hope – will die before the next. Not all of them of natural causes. The protection you propose is unfeasible and would provide no safeguard against the vengeance of the dread Ghåålus.”
Merdokk spread his hands. “I can only tell you what I’ve learned. We’re talking about a mythical figure who’s bad enough when He has no particular reason to concoct elaborate and prolonged torments for His enemies. Anyone who harms His chosen people-”
“Nonsense though it most certainly is, this is still your problem, Bortemus Balch,” Team Member 7 pointed out.
“Sadly true,” Merdokk conceded. “Nevertheless…”
Gartuda shook his head slowly, still trying to come to terms with the size and shape of the tale the Spider was spinning. All he could see for certain was that it was tall. “So are you worried about reprisals from the MRA,” he asked, “or the Dark Pantheon? Or do you think you’ll still be alive the next time the dread Ghåålus walks free?”
“I certainly plan to be,” Merdokk said fervently. “It doesn’t make much difference if I’m dead, though. If an Infinite decides I need punishing, it will be a simple matter to dig me out of Limbo and stick me in a meat puppet and desecrate me for a few thousand years. And since you ask, I’m worried about the MRA, the Pantheon, and the dread Ghåålus.”
“If you really believe all this, then isn’t it too late?” Gartuda asked. “You’ve already struck a blow against the Tanturians, resulting in a number of fatalities. No matter what you do, you’re a marked man. You’re going to pay the price for your crime when the dread Ghåålus walks free – and so for that matter are the great-great-great-something grandchildren of Volun here.”
The Spider sighed again. “That’s where you come in,” he said. “I think there might be a way I can … atone for my mistakes, and lend my support to the Tanturians in such a way as to satisfy at least the MRA and the Henchthings. Whether or not I ultimately get the Tanturians on side and avoid being brutally punished by the dread Ghåålus … I suppose that remains to be seen,” he pointed at Volun. “However,” he went on, “I will not turn on the Fliei or allow them to be wiped out.”
“Very noble,” Gartuda congratulated him.
“Professional pride,” the Spider disagreed. “If the dread Ghåålus decides to target them in a couple of million years’ time, I’m not quite so arrogant as to assume that’s something I can do anything about-”
“Noble and modest-”
“-but at least I can leave them with a chance at making it that far,” Merdokk concluded.
“It is arrogance itself to presume you can shepherd a dumbler species through its ascendant mega,” 7 said, and spared Volun a brief glance. “I say this without derision,” she added.
“What is ascendant mega?” Volun asked.
“A million years as full-sentient Corporate member,” Gartuda explained, “or Corporate-membership-worthy sentient. Depends on a lot of things, but it’s considered something of a marker of maturity by the older species.”
“There is much debate over from what point that age should be measured,” 7 said, a spark of emotion finally entering her tone, “since a lot of dumbler species are sentient, advanced, ancient in their own rights before being contacted and signed onto the Corporate census.”
“And then there’s species like humans,” Merdokk said, “which have been able to solve simple problems, construct tools and operate electronics for at least one and a half million years now, but have yet to reach even one year of age on the counter on account of not being classified as sentient.”
“Conditionally reasoning non-sentient,” 7 recited firmly.
“Right,” Merdokk said. “Even keeping track of the species’ different branches is difficult, and each colony – each population of humans is aided or held back by their hosting sentients. Most of them veer erratically back and forth across the various definitions and categories depending on which sort of war they’re waging on each other at any given time, or the technology they’re experimenting with. Even their Corporate membership status is a subject of debate. If they have achieved the ascendant mega, it’s more to do with concerned parties suppressing their civilisations than humanity actually advancing to a dignified age,” he reached across and picked up a bottle. “Mozo wine?”
“Thanks, I think I’ll stick to the Bundle milk,” Gartuda said, although he regretted it almost as soon as he’d spoken.
“The ascendant mega is generally decided case by case,” Team Member 7 continued stubbornly, “which is … unsatisfying, but the High Council continues to work to find standardised measures.”
“It’s all very exciting,” Merdokk said in a low voice, and poured himself a glass of wine.
“Only one sentient species in a thousand reaches the ascendant mega,” 7 ignored the criminal loftily and addressed the Fliei. “Some, like the humans, fall short and only manage to survive in a merely organic sense – like the persistence of a plant species, albeit not quite so blameless. In fact most sentient species destroy themselves, or are destroyed, within a mere five thousand years of reaching technological capability.”
“True, but not the whole truth,” the Spider said. “One dumbler species in a thousand reaches the marker, yes – if it is a Corporate member.”
“Well, that is one of the prerequisites of meeting the definition,” Gartuda said mildly.
“According to archaeological studies of extinct dumbler civilisations – dumblermar that lived and died never knowing the Corporation or other Dimensions existed – only one in a hundred million makes it to the ascendant mega unaided,” Merdokk said, and raised his glass to Gartuda. “I don’t pretend I can get them there alone,” he said. “Not against this level of adversity.”
Gartuda unwillingly raised his glass of spiralling rainbow milk, and took a small sip. Team Member 7 looked generally disapproving of the ritual, but Volun raised his own canister of whatever-it-was he was drinking, and Gartuda was obliged to take a second sip of the sickly liquid. “I’m told there’s a special award and celebrations for civilisations that make it that far,” he said to hide his grimace, “assuming they haven’t evolved straight through the need for such things and vanished into their own little pockets of transvigorated unspace or what have you.”
Volun tilted his drink canister at Gartuda. “Maybe we should do that,” he suggested to Merdokk.
The Spider smiled thinly. “The Fliei, by all fair and impartial Corporate measures, have been sentient for almost a hundred thousand years,” he said, “and technologically and socioculturally capable – that is, dumblers eligible for full Corporate membership – for about a thousand. And the Tanturians have been on Fliar all that time,” he said to Volun, “even if your primitive precursors were free to swim where they would. The Tanturians only came above the surface and began enslaving you a few centuries ago. The blink of an eye to the Corporation … and, I hope, even more quickly corrected.”
“You want us to sign the Fliei into Corporate membership,” 7 said. “We already told you, that is only possible under the standard contact package, and not through our team.”
“It’s possible,” Merdokk insisted, “using the legal precedents I’ve mentioned. Not only can you reopen the Tantur case, but you can bring a lot more allocation authority to bear based on the Tanturians’ special status, and ensure the Fliei an immediate High Council hearing and technological, even military support,” he made a helpless gesture of frustration. “Assuming the Council doesn’t just shut you out entirely.”
“You obviously have more of a plan than this,” Gartuda said. “So why don’t you stop dancing around it, and tell us?”
“Alright,” the Spider said, and refilled his glass. “But there’s still more you need to understand about the Tanturians. And their different branches.”
“Have you seen the Void-Tanturians?” Gartuda asked.
Merdokk shook his head. “The Pinians have been using Cursèd’s Playground as a dumping site for a billion years or more – basically as soon as it drifted into the Face of the Deep and lodged there,” he said. “There’s a lot more going on up there than a lost colony of Tanturians. There are MRA sources I don’t want to expose – or further annoy – by going into detail, but … suffice it to say that if you think the High Council is the exemplar of politics before ideology, you haven’t stopped to think about the fact that Firstmades have been doing this since the Elder Races were settling their differences with pointy sticks.”
“The Pinians are complicit with the MRA,” Gartuda said dubiously.
“Have you looked at this world? The Pinians have built it on their nemeses’ roof,” the Spider pointed out. “Anyway no, I haven’t been able to get a proper look at the Void-Tanturians. I wanted to, because I knew you’d ask and to be honest I wasn’t sure what to believe about any of this myself.”
“Not welcome in the Void?” Gartuda glanced pointedly at Merdokk’s phobe getup. “A highly reputable-”
“-Sanitary appliance vendor like me, yes,” Merdokk said with another thin smile. “I tried sending emissaries,” he went on seriously. “It … didn’t go well. Some of them returned insane, babbling about space whales. Some didn’t return at all.”
“Space whales,” Gartuda said. “What is a space whale? Is it like an aquatic whale, but…”
“But in space,” Merdokk said wearily. “This was my assumption, yes.”
“Are there species like that up there?”
“Who the Hell knows?” the Spider said. “I certainly didn’t get any remotely dependable intel back from any of my assets. That was when the Damoraks stepped in, anyway.”
“Damoraks in the Void?” 7 said sharply. “Above the Rooftop?”
“I was contacted by a … sect of the Damorak Empire, within the MRA, that call themselves the Purifying Fire,” Merdokk said. “And yes, they are exactly as bug-fuck psychotic as they sound.”
“And what’s their stake in the Void?” Gartuda asked.
“Nothing more or less than preserving the Tanturian species against the fine day the dread Ghåålus steps back out of His prison,” Merdokk replied. “They’re not really active in either Zerf’s Dimension or the Void, since one is lousy with Ghååla and the other is right in the Pinians’ back yard … but in other cases, when there has been too much scrutiny of the Tanturians, the Purifying Fire have sent in specialists to get rid of all the witnesses. Damoraks like you’ve never seen,” he shivered very convincingly. “Artists of genocide.”
“Knowledge of something like that should be brought before the High Council,” 7 said.
Merdokk made an inviting gesture with his right hands. “You go right ahead,” he replied. “It might be fun to see a war between the Damorak Empire and Uternlas. You know, as long as you could watch it slowed-down later…”
“Bort,” Volun chided.
“I’m sorry,” Merdokk said again. “My point is, I don’t know how many other Tanturian colonies are out there. In fact, the only one I do know of is Reknordia’s Puzzle.”
“Never heard of it,” Gartuda said, and glanced at 7. She made no response, but Gartuda could tell from the Uternlan’s very pose that she was also unfamiliar with the name. He hoped, if only for the sake of 7’s cherished impartiality, that Merdokk’s natural ability to read people didn’t match Gartuda’s years of professional acquaintanceship.
“I’d be surprised if you had,” Merdokk replied. “It’s in a near-Boundary Dimension under the dominion of the Sights Brotherhood. The place itself is extraordinary,” he added with sudden animation. “Picture it – a flatworld that rests on the shell of a giant snail, which sits on the head of an even larger frog, which in turn sits on the shell of an even larger tortoise, which is plodding along the Dimension’s central plane – a vast, featureless desert scattered with stringform black hole super-events – with no known aim in mind.”
“Seriously?” Gartuda asked, oddly charmed by the idea.
“I’m afraid so. No amount of exploring the Dimension has revealed any other ultrafauna of the same sort, although some hotly contested traces have been found and only a tiny amount of the desert has been explored,” Merdokk said.
“And the Sights are harbouring Tanturians there?” 7, less impressed with the infinite variance of the urverse than she was in establishing its relevance or lack thereof to the topic at hand, pushed aside her empty plate and leaned forward.
“Allegedly,” Merdokk replied apologetically. “There was a human colony on the flatworld, but it was destroyed by the Worm Cult. The snail, by the way, retracted into its shell at the same time, presumably because of the weaponry used. It hasn’t re-emerged yet, although studies have been able to establish that it’s still alive-”
“The Tanturians?” 7 inquired.
“Still there,” Merdokk confirmed, “allegedly. They may have survived because the Alien attack only targeted the humans, or because they’re aquatic like the Tanturians we know and love, so weren’t affected in the first place. Either way, there’s no real way to confirm. The Firstmades have Reknordia’s Puzzle well and truly locked down, and seem comfortable letting the Purifying Fire take care of trespassers. The information that there’s probably a Tanturian colony there is about all I was able to get away with. It could have gone a lot worse.”
“So that’s three, I suppose,” Gartuda said.
The Spider nodded. “Assuming there were ten to begin with and each was placed in the same region as a human colony up until the Cult … if there are more, the Purifying Fire has kept it very quiet. And if they get a chance to do the same in Zerf’s Cosmos, it’s not just going to be Merdokk Industries in their sights.”
“The Standard 3 Aquatic Environment Diplomatic Team will be too,” Gartuda said.
The Spider nodded sombrely.
“You are suggesting that the Damoraks will send in a … a fixer to conceal the Tanturians’ identity,” Team Member 7 said. “That seems unfeasible, given that they are signed onto the Corporate census and as such have become common public knowledge.”
“Not exactly common,” Gartuda said. “The census is a huge and rapidly-changing data-set and I don’t know how many people actually follow it,” he turned to Merdokk. “Certainly plenty of people do, though,” he added. “And even with this data blackout you keep mentioning-”
“Yes yes, you refuse to confirm the Corporate data blackout,” Merdokk said. “Your diligence and loyalty to the High Council is duly noted. And no, the Purifying Fire isn’t a legitimate cause for concern in Fliar’s case. I don’t mean to alarm you unduly. Fliar – Tantur – is a special case, and it’s not just because of the Infinites on Farrendohr. It’s special because of the unexpected way both the Council and Merdokk Industries took a hand.”
Conversation suspended for a moment as the waiter glided over once again to ask if they wanted dessert. Gartuda, who was frankly having enough trouble believing his meal wasn’t dessert already, politely declined. Team Member 7, with impeccable adherence to protocol, asked for a small glass of unflavoured and unenhanced Skeg’s Courage. 7 had an excellent head for strong narcotics considering the relative frailty of her physiology, but even off-duty would never indulge in excess. Complete abstinence was to err on the other side of neutrality, however, so she did partake. In either case, baseline Skeg’s was harmless.
Merdokk ordered a platter of ambrosia and honey cakes for the table, recommending them to Volun who eagerly agreed.
“The Pinian faithful on other worlds claim that ambrosia grants immortality to those who eat it,” Gartuda said conversationally, “but the truth is it is simply a naturally-occurring organic substance from which the majority of native species draw sustenance.”
“It’s also the name given to a special compound in Molran blood,” Merdokk added, “which folds very neatly into Vampire mythology but unaccountably doesn’t stop hundreds of millions of Molran tourists visiting Heaven each year.”
“It is very sweet,” Volun said, indicating his canister of drink. The waiter strode silently away once more, and Gartuda leaned in to continue their conversation.
“So you’re saying that Tanturian colonies aren’t generally stumbled on like they’re new dumblers,” he said, “and assigned with contact teams from the Corporation.”
“You tell me,” Merdokk replied. “Your team would be the one assigned to make contact with them.”
“Only assuming they all evolved into the same species in similar habitats,” Team Member 7 reminded him. “And even if each fragment of the original primordial were placed in a similar aquatic setting, we have already established that the odds of them all developing at all – let alone developing identically-”
“Staggering,” Merdokk said, “I know. And yet that seems to be what has happened. Maybe because they were all placed in similar oceans, who knows? I’m currently more than half convinced they were divided up into a bunch of aquatic habitats so that either their evolution would be slowed right down by the hostility of the environment, or that they would die out completely.”
“Would that make it Limbo’s fault, or whoever put the primordials into the oceans in the first place?” Gartuda asked.
“One for the philosophers,” the Spider replied. “Either way, it doesn’t seem to have worked. The Tanturians survived, and they evolved fast.”
“Perhaps they would have developed faster still, had they been left on land,” Volun suggested. “Perhaps my people should be grateful they did not have to compete with the Tanturians more directly.”
They paused again as their desserts were delivered. Against his better judgement, Gartuda picked up a cake. It was, he was pleasantly surprised to find, not as sweet as he had been expecting. He chewed slowly.
“Whatever the case,” Merdokk took up again, “the satellites sent out by both of your species led to the contact situation we are all aware of, and that meant there was too much scrutiny for the Purifying Fire to send in an agent even if they were going to. When the mistake was realised, that was when you got shut down and moved on.”
“Alright,” Gartuda said, “so the Tanturians are a protected species. Protected from on high and from down below.”
The Spider shook his head again. “I’m still not done,” he said. “The Tanturians are protected, yes. But that’s not exactly what the MRA and the Firstmades are doing. They’re not protecting the Tanturians from us,” he picked up his glass and drained it in a single swallow. “They’re protecting us from them.”