Day 11. 63 pages, 29,915 words.
The Questioner at the Holy Forest Rift office was one of the most short-tempered little women Çrom believed he had ever encountered. Even Lotus appeared taken aback.
“Species,” the Questioner said before the two travellers were even in through the door of the interview room.
Çrom recognised that this was a time to not be a charming smart-aleck. It wasn’t impossible to descend to the Rooftop without using the Eden Road, but it was much more difficult. And it would be impossible to do it in The Happy Bumfuck. “Human,” he replied.
“I know there’s two, that’s why there’s two chairs. Close the door and sit in them.”
“Then why did you-” Lotus began.
“Official record,” Çrom said quietly, pointing to the little surveillance disc on the adjacent wall. He sat obediently and urged Lotus with his eyes to do the same.
She made a frustrated gesture with her hands instead. “Then why did she-”
Çrom shook his head urgently and waved her into the chair. “These people deal with a lot of idiots,” he explained, “and if any of those idiots wind up causing trouble in Hell, the Questioners are held responsible. And the branch of the Pinian Church that administrates Hell is not to be f- trifled with.”
It was also entirely possible, he reflected but didn’t quite dare say out loud, that the obnoxiously officious and short-tempered approach was at least partially intended to provoke a response from travellers not temperamentally suited to visiting the lower flatworlds. Of course, it was also possible this Questioner was just an irascible jerk.
“Names,” the Questioner said as Lotus grudgingly sat down. The three of them were sitting in a triangle, the Questioner’s chair a little more comfortable than theirs and possessed of wide, padded arms fitted with interface and data panels.
Çrom cleared his throat. “Çrom Skelliglyph.”
The Questioner looked up with flat dislike in her small, very dark eyes. She had, he saw with a slight queasy feeling, barely-noticeable red markings across her forehead and down one side of her dark-brown face. The Xidh text was heavily stylised and interspersed with lines and unrecognisable symbols, the whole thing further obscured by the closeness in shades between her skin and the tattoo, but it was nevertheless distinctive. She was Olmec-kin, either born or trained. They didn’t usually operate this far south, but if one had felt it was her calling to become a Questioner, then she was absolutely not to be … trifled with.
It also made it that much less likely that her attitude was an intentional ploy to unveil outburst-prone travellers, although he still couldn’t rule it out as an acccidental benefit.
“Care to spell that for me, mister Skelliglyph?” she asked levelly.
“I really wish you wouldn’t ask me to,” he still couldn’t resist twinkling, then raised his hands. “Sorry, joke,” he hastily spelled his name out.
“Çrom Skelliglyph. Jokes,” the woman said sourly, then sat for a moment. Before Çrom could do more than shift in his seat, she sharply added, “I’m just deciding which of those to grant a transit permit to.”
Lotus stifled a laugh, and when the Questioner turned her piercing black-eyed stare on her, she straightened sombrely. “Black Lotus,” she said, “the.”
“Oh, the,” the Questioner said with sarcastic mildness, and tapped at her interface. “Do you happen to have a Four Realms Census designator for that artic-” she stopped, her broad face seeming to clench like a fist.
“Yes, I do,” Lotus replied sweetly.
Çrom groaned to himself.
The Questioner, however, didn’t seem inclined to make things difficult for them as a result of this unforgivable adherence to bureaucracy. “Ascent or descent.”
“Descent,” Çrom replied, although the Questioner would already have seen this, too, from their flight plan.
“Throughpass to Cursèd. Material Depot #3.”
“One-way,” she looked up at him again, and Çrom added, “return trip to be arranged at Material Depot #1 on ascent.”
“Resident contacts?” finally a hint of actual inquiry entered the Questioner’s tone.
“Placeholder tokens, Skelliglyph 3-3,” Çrom said. “Depot Tier 18 (Below), Gian-To Haven,” he half-leaned towards Lotus and lowered his voice. “It’s just a name,” he said. “It’s actually not a very nice…” he became aware that the Questioner was looking steadily at him again, and straightened in his seat.
“Markers of intent,” the Questioner said, opening a more intricate set of data on her interface and casting it onto the wall opposite the surveillance disc. Çrom settled back slightly in his chair and prepared for a lengthy interview.
To his surprise, the Questioner kept them for little over an hour – barely half of what he’d expected, for a private and unregistered craft – and let them go with only minor provisions and amendments to their transit plan. And a short list of repairs that needed to be made to The Happy Bumfuck before it was cleared to fly back up through the Holy Forest Rift, but those repairs had been on Çrom’s to-do list for a while and there was a good chance they’d be allowed through with another list of suggested repairs on their return, just with a slightly more insistent set of markers attached. Frankly, if they returned at all Çrom would call it a win and would be happy to make all the repairs the Eden Road authorities demanded of him.
After enjoying a slightly more flavoursome meal than the fare available on the hopper, they boarded and returned to the helm.
“That was relatively painless,” Lotus sat back on the couch while they waited for their clearance to propagate. She looked up, and frowned. “What is that?”
Çrom glanced up at the long-neglected and vaguely pornographic-looking apparatus attached to the helm chamber ceiling above his sling. “Exercise rack,” he said. “You have no idea, the back problems Centaur get.”
Their transit approval went through, Çrom brought the engine vub-vub-vub-vub-vubing back to full power, and they lofted easily out of the Holy Forest Rift Question Station. The rich, shimmering blanket of the jungle tilted underneath them, then curled like a massive frozen waterfall into the first of the great Eden Road stairs. Directly adjacent, and angling away into the purple distance, the corresponding cliff of the upward stair swung into view … but not for long.
The Happy Bumfuck dropped into the yawning gulf of the Eden Road’s central well, and descended into red-tinged darkness.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while on the bus.