Day 25. 64 pages, 30,229 words.
“I have another question,” Lotus the next – for lack of a better term – morning. They’d carried out their ablutions and used the awkward Vorontessi-suited toilet while paying as little attention as possible to the likelihood of Gabiscus the Knurled watching them with an admiration that was actually creepier for the fact that it was more religious than carnal in nature.
“If you want to know why she’s known as the Knurled, I actually have no idea,” Çrom replied. “I think it was a nickname that the Cursèd locals gave her, and it wound up on the #3 census-”
“Not about that.”
“What, then?” Çrom asked.
“I was actually wondering how you’ve paid your smugglers’ passage on previous occasions,” Lotus said, “without a willing partner to entertain Gabiscus with your shenanigans.”
“Maybe we can leave some mysteries between us,” Çrom said primly, “and not ever say the words ‘smugglers’ passage’ consecutively again.”
They enjoyed a breakfast of trakk, which was a local dish that Gabiscus couldn’t digest but which was plentifully available and very nutritious for humans and similar species. Gabiscus had, it seemed, gone out to fetch some while her guests slept. Trakk looked a lot like crumbled-up slate and tasted quite a bit like it too, and actually required a generous splash of ambrosia to make it palatable. Then Gabiscus unfolded from her place in the corner of the living chamber, and declared that it was time for them to go.
“The window, it is only open for a short time,” she said in her usual hushed tone. “We must take your hopper to the drop site and ensure that it is concealed from the maintenance and waste management drones.”
“Are we going to conceal The Happy Bumfuck in a load of waste and get dropped over the edge?” Lotus asked. “Isn’t that a little … obvious?”
“Not as obvious as flying down the final stretch of the Eden Road,” Çrom replied, “or dropping off anywhere else around the edge or through the underside. And it’s not exactly waste, it’s … a sort of informal exchange. Without specifically aiding the enemies of the Pinian Brotherhood, certain groups will occasionally make special waste dumps that include materials that might still have repurposing potential.”
“When the window opens, we make a drop that can be denied as accidental,” Gabiscus whispered. They started down the corridors and stairs towards the vehicle bay. “The materials are collected by Darking teams. In return, they close the eyes that watch for intruding vessels like your hopper, and send data streams up to receiving stations run by our allies on the underbelly of the world.”
“It’s all actually known and approved by what passes for authorities down here,” Çrom said, “and intentionally overlooked by the powers above, as long as there’s not too much cooperation and nothing too explosive changes hands – literally or figuratively. Nobody pays too much attention. We’ll drop with the waste, then peel off and park on the Rooftop in a designated blind spot. From there, we walk. And I hand you the reins of this mission,” he added, glancing back at Lotus.
“How will you return?” Gabiscus asked, as they entered the bay and Çrom opened The Happy Bumfuck’s door. The Vorontessi’s pallid, leathery face wrinkled at, presumably, the smell of Centaur wafting from the hopper, and they all blinked and squinted in the unpleasantly bright interior lights.
“We’re not – Gabby’s not the one retrieving us?” Lotus asked in surprise.
“Gabby does the ‘down’ bit,” Çrom said. “‘Up’ is a … different department altogether.”
“Very dangerous,” Gabiscus whispered. “Very difficult.”
Çrom started up the engines and stepped away from the helm to allow the Vorontessi to angle herself into the sling. She immediately began tapping in commands and authorisation codes. “Anyway,” he went on, joining Lotus on the couch, “aren’t we going to be taking God-space home?”
“Not home,” Lotus said. “That was never my plan.”
“Humanitry is a sin,” Gabiscus said vaguely, her eerie hands still flickering over the controls. The Happy Bumfuck rose and swivelled towards the access tunnel through which they’d arrived. “Humans are not Gods. If you enter the God-space your beautiful flesh will perish.”
“My beautiful flesh won’t perish for long,” Çrom said cheerfully.
Gabiscus turned and looked at Çrom sadly. “No,” she returned her attention to the helm. “We do not understand the God-space,” she went on. “It is not for us to understand. It is a deep mystery around which even the Centaur stepped lightly, lightly. I think you do not understand it, beautiful Black Lotus.”
“I’ve read that God-space is actually an aspect of the Power Plant’s distribution network,” Lotus said, “a grey area between reality and Limbo.”
“Grey area,” Çrom hooted with laughter that sounded forced even to his own ears. “Sorry.”
“They say that however the Plant feeds its energy to all the universes of the Corporation, there’s a network that runs just under the surface of reality,” Lotus went on, unaffected by Çrom’s attempt at humour or Gabiscus’s resumed and solemn stare. “Or on reality’s underside. That’s why God-space is sometimes known as the underdark,” she nodded at him.
Çrom remembered their earlier discussion with a creeping tendril of discomfort. “I still don’t relish the idea of being dropped into it and left to dissolve just in case it manages to finally kill me,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Lotus said. “I already promised we wouldn’t do that. A certain death, or nothing – that was our arrangement.”
“How do Alien Gods get around, if that’s what the basis of God-space is?” Çrom asked “The Power Plant’s network doesn’t extend past the Boundary.”
“They use more difficult methods,” Lotus said with a languid shrug. “Or by dependence on other networks, like the one that supposedly powers the empire of the Seven Hells of Nnal’s Imp.”
“If you ever feel like shopping around for a better energy plan,” Çrom said uneasily, and looked over at the helm. Gabiscus was watching them. The Vorontessi had fallen absolutely still in that way she often did. It was a little unsettling at the best of times, but it was a particularly distressing trait in a pilot. “Everything alright, Gabby?”
“The Black Lotus, renowned merchant in the terminal arts,” Gabiscus said eventually. The hopper whisked into a horizontal passage that may have been part of the flatworld-spanning transit web, and accelerated – presumably – towards the nearest edge of the world. “You have been commissioned to end … so vast a life?”
“Yes,” Lotus replied.
Gabiscus the Knurled sat in the sling for almost a minute, still and silent, watching the dark tunnel roll by around them. Then she turned to stare at Çrom and Lotus once again.
“Would you consider doing this in my home?” she asked.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.