Day 50. 64 pages, 30,172 words.
Happy Gretchen was agitated about something. Any people who knew why were lying low. Any people who didn’t know about it at all soon found out and let the word get around their little networks of friends, coworkers, fellow sufferers in the great cho’gule grinder.
Pod 9 was not really part of any of the networks – it was hard to interact with the community when you were the sole communicative face of a group of unresponsive catatonics – but he was tapped into all of them. He felt the mood of Happyface like a pulse, like a tide, like a whispering breeze through the leaves of a hushed forest. A forest holding its breath before the monster awoke to hunt.
Pod 9 was fascinated, more and more, with forest imagery. It was through the forest that he experienced his closest understandings of the people around him, through the forest that he found the clearest fragments of memories, through the forest that he enjoyed even the most modest successes in the exercises and challenges Jadis had set him.
Happy Gretchen was expecting a guest, and considering the guests she usually hosted without so much as a single rustle of leaves, it said something that the entire cho’gule was now as tense and crouched as a … well, another forest-related thing, he could only imagine. A little human sitting in the hollow of a tree trunk, perhaps. Fat Lulu down on the general hab stack said that humans lived in trees, back in their natural environment on old Earth.
Pod 9 didn’t actually know much about forests, considering how regularly he lulldreamed about them.
The grief, the wind in the leaves seemed to whisper. The grief is coming.
Pod 9 wasn’t sure what it meant. But nobody seemed to think it was good. Fat Lulu was one of the only gen-hab folks who talked with him on a regular basis, and even she went still and silent when he asked her. Her great doughy beaming face closed off, like a cake rising and engulfing the loveberries sprinkled on its surface.
Happyface’s guest would have come, stayed, and gone with nothing to show for it but a spike in background tension, a plateauing, and a steady drop back to normal levels. This would have been all Pod 9 knew … except that he was called upon to greet the visitor in person.
Pod 9’s First Prime was behind him by this stage and he had eased into what some of the other Molranoids called the fade. The comfortable period of gentle decline to between-Prime stability, the forsaking of the wild foolishness of Prime hormones and drives, and a general settling into the long centuries that would come before Second Prime arrived to stir things up again. He was a hundred and eighty-one years old according to Doctor Reco, or a hundred and seventy-one past his awakening from the pod. Still little more than a child in Molranoid terms, and certainly a child in the eyes of Happyface and the great, murderous mother of them all.
Life in Happyface was … Pod 9 had no basis for comparison, aside from the fanciful tales some of the guests told. Even so, he knew it was difficult and unpleasant by any standard. He’d become accustomed to it in his own way, enduring the indignities as a matter of routine. The torments forced upon his p’bruz were harder for him to tolerate, but he didn’t think he’d killed anyone else. A few headaches and one guy’s eyeball popped, but that might have just been a coincidental eyeball popping.
He wasn’t summoned to Happy Gretchen’s private deck, nor was he called to either of the exclusive spar-tip docks. This guest had no fixed Happyface address, and didn’t even have a ship as far as anyone with access to the system knew. He’d been given quarters, somewhere, but they were different depending on who you asked. The whole thing was shrouded in an excessive amount of secrecy.
As for how Happy Gretchen really felt about it, that was difficult to say. Normally, when someone important or dangerous was visiting – anyone with the potential to greatly benefit or critically imperil Happy Gretchen’s empire, the huge armour-implanted Blaran was nervous and angry, bursting with barely-controlled illustrative violence.
Now, despite the trembling turmoil around her, she was … calm. Or as close as she got. Calm, and with a low undercurrent of excitement that, if he didn’t know better, Pod 9 would have described as girlish.
The grief has come, the trees whispered in Pod 9’s mind. The grief has come, at last. At last.
She met Pod 9 at one of the little-used recreational domes. It had been filled with water for Fergunak once, but over the past forty or fifty years Fergunakil patronage had dropped off as far as entertainment went. They still came to conduct business of various dark kinds, but they seldom made use of the facilities. Now the dome was empty, abandoned, the massive water-doors the only external evidence that it had ever been otherwise.
She was alone. She didn’t need a retinue, of course, but it was strange to see her meeting with an important guest without at least the Eunuch. Pod 9 assumed that they’d had their own meeting with the visitor when he arrived – this was just a … well he wasn’t sure what it was. Not worth the Eunuch’s time, clearly. But worth Happy Gretchen’s.
“Pod 9,” she said. “It’s been some time. You are well?”
“I well, masata-Gretchen,” Pod 9 replied. They often alternated between languages, the dominant one being the Blaran code-tongue unique to Happyface. Pod 9 was not very good at it. He wasn’t very good at any languages, really. They were just so much words, crowding and tangling in his brain.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you since Jadis’s last visit,” she said. “That disastrous dinner and attempted telepathic display you put on.”
“The bowl of hot stuff made me sick,” Pod 9 said, remembering quite vividly.
“Yes, it was a pot of enhanced hoco-nut seasoning powder, intended for the whole table and only requiring a light sprinkling on a dish,” Happy Gretchen said. “You snorted the entire pot.”
“Disproportionate Humour Investment told me it was tradition.”
“Yes, well, Disproportionate Humour Investment making a foolish youngster disgrace himself in a formal setting is something of a tradition.”
“Jadis was m’gump – I mean, angry, at him for spoiling the display.”
“Everybody was m’gump with him. If he wasn’t so damnably good at killing people, the people who tried to kill him would have succeeded by now. Instead of ending up dead in, well, objectively hilarious poses.”
“Jadis should be returning for another visit soon. Perhaps you can try harder.”
“Yes,” Pod 9 repeated, then looked at the door. “Are we to going in?” Happy Gretchen did not answer. “Are you wait for the grief to pass so you can going in?”
Happy Gretchen’s great head swung towards him. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Name?” Pod 9 asked.
She studied him a moment longer, then grunted in amusement. “I have a number of amusing charlatan acts at my disposal, all of whom perform better ‘telepath’ than that,” she said. “But no. I am not waiting for it to pass. I’m waiting for its permission.”
They waited outside the heavy metal door for a few minutes, and then it cycled with a muffled mechanical clatter and swung open without fanfare. Happy Gretchen loped inside and Pod 9 followed.
“Grief,” she called, her voice echoing in the vaulted darkness, “I have brought the boy.”