Plugs

Carla backed up so she could see the reef better. A tessellation of almost-identical shells, each occupied by something vaguely resembling an octopus, individually as intelligent as a cat, and about half the size of a cryopod. As in a coral, the “animals” were connected, forming one colonial organism. It sounded like the cell right in front of her was the one that had spoken. Last time, the colony had been much smaller, and it had not understood her next question.

“Which one of you spoke?”

I am only one. There is no one else but you.

That was interesting. The first few visits, she had not been sure it recognized her as an independent entity. And the language lessons she’d broadcast from the buoy seemed to have been assimilated. Was it gaining intelligence as it grew? She went through the rest of the questions, recording the answers.

“I’ll be back next year. Your health and prosperity.”

As on her previous visits, it only responded to direct questions.

You have returned. Why?

The reef was huge, extending several meters above sea level and for kilometers along the sand ridge. The base was lost in darkness. She hovered above the waves on the seaward side. As always, it seemed that the polyp directly in front of her was the speaker, though she never could see an organ moving or vibrating. She set up a slow leftward drift of the skimmer, to see if the conversation stayed with the original polyp or moved with her.

“You are my research project,” she said. “I study you, to find out how you grow, how you think, what you do.” The reef was silent for a bit.

Again, why? Small organisms that I eat don’t visit me. Only you visit me, and you are not like anything else I know.

The voice moved with her, transferring seamlessly from one polyp to the next.

“I visit you because my people want to learn about others. Because we are not alone.”

Another pause.

Do you know others like me?

“I don’t,” she said. She and her Thesis Committee had agreed to say nothing about the fossil reefs stranded 100 meters above sea level. The reef spoke again.

I will create a motile form. It will transport my essence as you do for your “people.” There will be more like me. They will speak with you.

Your health and prosperity.

end

Sitting in the shade and relative cool of his yurt, the vulture keeper realized he had company. Someone was walking back and forth in the blaze of light and heat outside. The keeper hadn’t heard a camel, and anyone crossing the waste on foot–well, they’d be crawling by now, if they were still moving at all. Which left only one possibility.
“If you’re here to haunt,” said the keeper, “save yourself the aggravation. I’ve got wards. Ground ’round here’s full of quartz, so they’ll hold.”
“I’m just,” said a voice like a sigh, “here to talk.”
“Don’t particularly want to talk,” said the vulture keeper. He went back to tuning his zither.
“You have something of mine,” said the ghost. “Or you will, when your flock returns.”
The keeper strummed and made his answer into a little tune. “Whatever they bring back, it’s something of mine.”
“It’s a particularly valuable stone,” said the ghost.
The keeper worked a troublesome string. “That’s what I deal in: carbuncles (twang), snake stones (twang) — any brain stone my vultures find (twang) and you wizards will buy.” (twa-ng-ng-ng)
“I need you to deliver it to my heir-apprentice,” said the ghost, “in the hidden city of Ar-Zellekan.”
“I’m semi-retired. Only go as far as the caravanserai. Don’t go to cities, even ones I can find.” The keeper had tuned the last of the strings. “Give up and move on, little wisp. Like the priests say: rise up as rain and come down again in the Afterworld.”
“My enemies will pay the merchants ten times its worth to kill you and take it.”
The keeper stopped his strumming. “That seems…” he said, “unnecessarily harsh.”
“The stone will bond with you by the time you reach the settlements,” said the ghost. “They won’t be able to use it with you alive.”
“My retirement’s getting shorter either way, although…” the keeper reached into his pocket for a zither pick, “this isn’t my first retirement.”
“Oh?”
The keeper strummed a complicated tune.
“You were a wizard, weren’t you?”
“Wizard-king. Nearly wizard-emperor,” said the keeper. “Had the skill; lacked the power.” He stilled the zither’s strings. “Guess that won’t be a problem much longer. Just hope your heir knows some good war-spells.”
“He’s a pacifist,” said the ghost, “like all our people. Perhaps I’ve exaggerated the stone’s power.”
“A hidden city would make a fine capital,” said the keeper.
“The stone’s strong, but not that strong,” said the ghost. “Nothing special. Nevermind.” He blew away with the next breeze.
“Good,” said the keeper, and returned to his zithering.

Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the carpet unless the light catches it or he treads on it.  The mountain, though stunted, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted.  It would not bar him from his lost father.

Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder.  Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes.  One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne:  like God after the sixth day.  The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.

Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests:  Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?

Yul had never put his mind to quests.  He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump.  Days passed like a clock’s pendulum.  Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.

Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Dawns:  “Death slipped by if you gripped the necklace righteously.”  True, it’d fail, but had they held it right?

The Ruby had never ceded Yul the confidence needed to begin his own life.  Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on.  Late in his third decade, he, still questing, paused at a village, where a gangly girl drew well water.  When he asked for a draft, she gave without reservation.

Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines.  Yul stood beside the old man:  his white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on the right, wrinkled hand.

“Hello?”  The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room.  “That you, Spot?  I’ve a doggy biscuit.”

Yul gritted his teeth.

“I shouldn’t have let you go.”  The last word was a sob.

Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.

The old man’s body shook violently.  His ribs rippled beneath robes, coming and going.  “I loved you like a son.”

Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.

(Being an account of the true events culminating in the disappearance of Ms. M—–, of Lawrence, Kansas, May 15, 1987.)
“There’s a giant squid in the pantry.”
“I thought you hated calamari.”
“No! It’s alive. Or, well, I think so. It’s making a creepy noise. Anyway, get rid of it. Please?”
Aron sighed, tossed the newspaper on the floor, and levered himself out of the armchair. He opened the pantry door, but he didn’t see anything unusual, except that awful domestic burgundy Cele’s mother had brought. Certainly not a giant squid.
“I’m sorry, Cele, there’s nothing here.” He wasn’t sorry. He didn’t like squid.

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