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Igms issue 3, p.3

IGMS Issue 3, page 3


IGMS Issue 3

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  The Regent looked up. "You didn't kill the fat man?"

  "My investigation is ongoing. I need to see the new snatch-engine, the one that steals dreams, and I may have some questions regarding its operation."

  The Regent set his ledger aside and stared at Howlaa for a long moment. "Well," he said. "You are not famed for your powers of deduction, Howlaa Moor, but for your powers of destruction. I had not expected you to make inquiries, and I did not ask you to. You are dismissed from this case. I will assign someone else to deal with the fat man."

  "Respectfully, sir, you may not interfere with any legitimate inquiries I care to make in an ongoing investigation. My contract prohibits such interference. Again, please have me escorted to the new snatch-engine, and provide someone knowledgeable to answer any questions I might have. Or do you believe this line of inquiry is without cause? If so, I would be happy to bring my evidence before the magisters." Howlaa smiled.

  I was in awe at zir audacity. To confront the Regent this way! And zie had no evidence, just intuition and inference. If the Regent called the bluff... But no. He didn't want any evidence Howlaa might possess brought before the magisters and, indirectly, the citizens of the Ax.

  "I am the Regent, Moor. You take orders from me."

  "Indeed. But my contract states that I serve the city, and not the ruler. You may not lawfully inhibit me. Break my contract, if you like, and I'll not trouble you again. Otherwise, you are obliged to cooperate."

  "I could have you executed for treason."

  Howlaa bowed. "You are welcome to try, sir." Skinshifters could be executed, but it was difficult, since a long-lived member of the species would have forms resistant to most obvious methods of execution. "But if you choose not to execute me or break my contract, then I must ask, for the third time, that you take me to the dream engine and provide --"

  "Yes," the Regent snapped. "Fine."

  I was astonished. Howlaa's bluff had succeeded. Zie was too valuable for the Regent to dismiss from duty or kill, and his own laws prevented any other action.

  The Regent couldn't simply disregard these laws, for they were the source of his power. Without his laws, there would be no city of Nexington-on-Axis, just a giant junkheap full of things snatched at random by the orphans, indiscriminate slaves to their magpie impulses. "But I am about to show you a state secret."

  "That's fine," Howlaa said. "My contract gives me any necessary clearances to fulfill my duties --"

  "I know what your contract says, Moor. I wrote it myself, so you would be forced to serve the city in perpetuity, even in the event of my death. Now shut up about it. I'm taking you where you want to go. If you speak a word about this device to anyone, you will be executed for treason. We have methods designed for your kind. There's a special chamber in one of the basements for disposing of skinshifters."

  "I serve the state," Howlaa said. "I will not betray it."

  I wondered what kind of execution chamber the Regent had that could hold a questing beast, since the safeguards on his private chambers had been insufficient to keep the beast out. I didn't think the Regent realized what kind of power he was giving Howlaa by letting zim drink the questing beast's blood.

  We set off down the shifting opalescent corridors of the palace, and the walls groaned around us as they moved.

  "You think the killer is a dream-being, snatched here by the experimental engine," the Regent said as we walked.

  "I'll submit my report when my investigation is complete," Howlaa said. "Along with my recommendations for how to rectify the problem."

  The Regent scowled, but kept walking. Finally we reached a door of black iron. The stone around it was discolored and cracked -- the substance of the palace apparently had an allergy to iron, but the heavy metal had certain shielding properties that made its use necessary on occasion. The Regent knocked, a complex rhythm, his unbreakable adamant signet ring clanging against the metal with each rap.

  The door swung open silently, and the Regent ushered us into the dimly-lit place beyond.

  "This is the dream engine," the Regent said. "Not what you expected, I wager."

  "No," Howlaa murmured. "It's not."

  Unlike the snatch-engines, there were no gears here, no oiled pistons, no sparking ladders of electricity, no bell-shaped domes of glass, no miles of copper pipes for coolant. There was only a throbbing organic mass in a web of wires, a red-and-green slick thing with no visible eyes or limbs, though it did have vestigial wings, prismatic like a dragonfly's, which drooped to the floor. A royal orphan, pinned in a web of wires.

  Howlaa crossed zir arms. "So it's psychic, then."

  The Regent smiled. "In a way. It sees dreams. More importantly, it covets dreams. And what the royal orphans covet, they get. Much of the process of governing Nexington-on-Axis is making sure the orphans want things the city needs. They don't care what happens to the things they snatch. They simply live for the process of snatching. This one is no different, except for the sorts of thing it snatches."

  "You haven't been successful making this one want things the city needs, since it pulled a madman's murderous dream to this world."

  "You're certain of that?" the Regent said.

  Howlaa just nodded, and the Regent sighed. "I'll have to spend some time tuning the process. It's still experimental. I trust you found and killed the dreamer, to prevent another incident?"

  "I did not," Howlaa said. "If I had known for certain about the existence of this dream engine, I would have tried, but I only had suspicions. When I grabbed the fat man, I was carried to another world, surrounded by houses filled with sleeping humans, with no sign of the fat man anywhere. That's when I began to suspect that I'd grabbed a dream-figment -- I remembered your studies with various experts on dreaming, Platonic ideals, the collective unconscious, things of that nature."

  "You have quite a memory," the Regent said.

  "I drank the blood of an elephant once," Howlaa said, and I almost laughed. "Since I wasn't sure the killer was a dream-thing, I came back here to inquire further."

  "We should talk in the hall," the Regent said abruptly. "Vibrations disturb the engine." Indeed, the vestigial wings were flickering, weakly, and we left the room. Once in the hall, the Regent said "How do you intend to proceed?"

  "When the killer appears again, I'll grab him, and when he sweeps me back to the human world with him again... well, I think it's safe to assume that the dangerous dreamer will be somewhere in the general vicinity of the place where I land. I'll simply kill everyone within a mile or so. It will take time, but I have some forms that are suited to the task."

  I was stunned. I knew Howlaa was lying. We knew very well who the dreamer was, and Howlaa had shown no inclination to kill him. So what was zie planning?

  "Very good," the Regent said. " But if you mention a word about the contents of that room, I'll have you flayed into your component atoms. Understood?"

  "The authorities appreciate your cooperation," Howlaa said. The Regent sniffed and walked away.

  "Come, Wisp. Back to our eternal vigilance."

  "Back to the bar, you mean."

  "Just so." Howlaa grimaced, touching zir stomach. "Shit. I've got a pain in my gut."

  "Are you all right?"

  "Probably something I ate in another form, that doesn't agree with this one. I'll be all right." Howlaa shivered, stretched, and became the questing beast. We traveled.

  I tried to get some sense out of Howlaa at the bar, before zie drank too many red bulldozers, primal screams, and gravity wells to maintain a coherent conversation. I slipped a tendril into zir mind and said "What is your plan?"

  "Assume what I told the Regent is true," Howlaa said, smiling at the human bartender, who looked appreciatively at Howlaa's human breasts as she mixed drinks. "If things work out, it won't matter, but if things go badly, you'll need all the plausible deniability you can get. No reason for you to go down with me if I fail. This way you can honestly claim ignorance of my plans."

>   "You want to protect me from getting in trouble with the Regent?" I said, almost touched.

  Zie laughed aloud and gulped a fizzing reddish concoction. "No, Wisp. But on the off chance that they imprison me instead of putting me to death, I don't want to be stuck in a cell with you forever."

  After that, zie wouldn't talk to me at all, but had fun as only Howlaa on the eve of potential death can.

  Zie vomited more often than usual, though.

  A day passed, and Howlaa was sober and bored at home, playing five-deck solitaire while I made desultory suggestions, before the fat man reappeared. The singing gem keened at mid-day. Howlaa cocked zir head, taking information from the gem.

  Zie became the questing beast, and we were away.

  This time we landed in the city center. The fat man sat on the obsidian steps of the Courthouse of Lesser Infractions, face turned up to the sun, smiling up at the light. He held a golden scythe across his knees, and blood and bodies lay strewn all over the steps around him, many wearing the star-patterned robes of magisters.

  Howlaa did not hesitate, but traveled again, this time appearing directly in front of the fat man and lashing out with barely-visible hooked appendages to grasp the killer. Then Howlaa traveled again. We reappeared in the racing precinct, startling the spectators and scattering the thoroughbred chimeras. The fat man struggled in the hoof-churned mud, his weapon gone.

  I had barely overcome my disorientation before Howlaa traveled again. I knew it was Howlaa controlling the movement, for the sensation was quite different from the swirling transcendence that came when the fat man dragged us to that other world. This time we appeared in another populated area, the vaulted gray halls of the Chapel of Blessed Increase in the monastic quarter. We flickered again, Howlaa and the fat man still locked in struggle, and flashed briefly through another dozen places around the city, all filled with startled citizens -- in the adder's pit, the ladder to the stars, the moss forest, the monster farm, the glass park, the burning island. We even passed through the Regent's inner chamber, briefly, though he was not there, and through other rooms in the palace, courtrooms, dungeons, and chambers of government. There was a fair amount of incidental damage in many of these instances, as the fat man rolled around, kicked, and thrashed.

  Then we appeared in the dream engine's chamber, and everything in my full-circle visual field wobbled and ran, either as an aftereffect of all that spatial violation, or because bringing a dream into such proximity with the dream engine set up unstable resonances.

  Howlaa and the fat man thrashed right into the pulsing royal orphan in its tangle of wires. The orphan's wings fluttered as it broke free from the mountings, and the ovoid body fell to the floor with a sick, liquid sound, like a piece of rotten fruit dropping onto pavement. The fat man broke free of Howlaa -- though that wasn't possible, so Howlaa must have let him go. He attacked Howlaa, who flickered and reappeared on the far side of the weakly pulsing royal orphan. The fat man roared and strode forward, a new weapon suddenly in his hand, a six-foot polearm covered in barbs and hooks. He tread on the royal orphan, which popped and deflated, a wet, ripe odor filling the room. The fat man swung at the unmoving Howlaa, but the weapon disappeared in mid-arc. The fat man stumbled, falling to one knee, then moaned and came apart. It was like seeing a shadow-sculpture dissolve at the wave of an artist's hand, his substance darkening, becoming transparent, and finally melting away.

  Howlaa became human, fell to zir knees, and shivered. "Feel sick," zie said, grimacing.

  I was terrified. The Regent might kill us for this. We'd stopped the fat man, yes, but at the cost of a royal orphan's life. "We have to go, Howlaa," I said. "Become the questing beast. I won't try to stop you -- let's flee across the worlds. We have to get away."

  But Howlaa did not hear, for zie was vomiting now, violently, zir whole body heaving, red and milky white and translucent syrupy stuff coming from zir mouth, mingling with the ichor from the dead orphan on the floor.

  The door opened. The Regent and two Nagalinda guards entered. "No!" the Regent cried. "No, no, no!" The guards seized Howlaa, who was still vomiting, and dragged zim away. I floated along inexorably behind. The Regent stayed, kneeling by the dead orphan, gently touching its unmoving rainbow wings.

  "Feeling better, traitor?," the Regent said. Howlaa sat, pale and still unwell, on a hard wooden bench before the Regent's desk.

  "A bit," Howlaa said.

  The Regent smiled. "You didn't think I'd let you be the questing beast forever, did you? I couldn't risk your escape. Wisp is one line of defense against that, but I felt another was needed, so I laced the blood with poison and bound their substances together. When the poison activated, your body expelled it, along with all the questing beast's genetic material. You've lost the power to take that form."

  "I've never vomited up an entire shape before," Howlaa said. "It was an unpleasant experience."

  "The first of many, for a traitor like you."

  "Regent," I said. "As Howlaa's witness, I must inform you that you are incorrect. Howlaa did not mean to harm the orphan. The fat man appeared and disappeared, and Howlaa and I were simply carried along with him. Surely there are others who can attest to that, testify that we appeared all over the city, fighting? Howlaa held on, hoping the fat man would fade and we would be taken to the world of the dreamer, but before that could happen... well. The dream engine was damaged."

  "The orphan was killed," the Regent said. "You expect me to believe that, by coincidence, the last place Howlaa and the killer appeared was in that room?"

  "We could hardly appear anywhere after that, Regent, since the dream engine was destroyed, dissolving the fat man in the process." I spoke respectfully. "Had that not happened, I cannot tell you where the fat man might have traveled next."

  "He was a lucid dreamer," Howlaa said. "He'd learned to move around at will. He was trying to shake me off, bouncing all over the city."

  The Regent stared at Howlaa. "That orphan was the result of decades of research, cloning, cross-breeding -- the pinnacle of the bloodline. With a bit of practice, it would have been the most powerful of the orphans, and this city would have flourished as never before. We would have entered an age of dreams."

  "It is a great loss, Regent," Howlaa said. "And we certainly deserve no honor or glory for our work -- I failed to kill the dreamer. He killed himself. But I did not kill the orphan, either. The fat man tread upon it."

  "Wisp," the Regent said. "You affirm, on your honor as a witness, that this is true?"

  My honor as a witness. My honor demanded that I respect Howlaa's elegant solution, which had saved the city further murder and also destroyed the Regent's wicked dream engine. I think the Regent misunderstood the oath he requested. "Yes," I said.

  "Get out of here, both of you," he said. "There will be no bonus pay for this farce. No pay at all, in fact, until I decide to reinstate you to active duty."

  "As you say, Regent," Howlaa and I said together, and took our leave.

  "You lied for me, Wisp," Howlaa said that night, reclining on a heap of soft furs and coarse fabrics.

  "I provided an interpretation that fit the objectively available facts," I said.

  "You knew I was the one dragging the killer around the city, not vice-versa."

  "So it seemed to me subjectively," I said. "But if the Regent chose to access my memory and see things as I had seen them, there would be no such subjectivity, so it hardly seemed relevant to the discussion."

  "I owe you one, Wisp," Howlaa said.

  "I did what I thought best. We are partners."

  "No, you misunderstand. I owe you one, and I want you to take it, right now." Howlaa held out zir hand.

  After a moment, I understood. I drifted down to Howlaa's body, and into it, taking over zir body. Howlaa did not resist, and the sensation was utterly different from the other times I had taken possession, when most of my attention went to fighting for control. I sank back in the furs and fabrics, shivering in ec
stasy at the sensations on zir -- on my -- skin.

  "The body is yours for the night," Howlaa said in my -- our -- mind. "Do with it what you will."

  "Thank you."

  "You had the right of it," Howlaa said. "We are partners. Finally, and for the first time, partners."

  I buried myself in furs, and reveled in the tactile experience until the exquisite, never-before-experienced sensation of drowsiness overtook me. I fell asleep in that body, and in sleep I dreamed my own dreams, the first dreams of my life. They were beautiful, and lush, and could not be stolen.

  The Adjoa Gambit

  by Rick Novy

  Artwork by Kevin Wasden

  * * *

  Shannon pressed the door firmly closed before embarking on the long walk to the rationing station. Today marked the sixth anniversary of her arrival at ARIP, the Antarctic Reservation for Indigenous Population, but she still couldn't get used to the bitter cold. Shannon's mind drifted to the memories of a warm Phoenix evening from somewhere in her childhood, then shook it off to concentrate on the task at hand -- collecting the family's food ration for the week.

  As she approached the rationing station, Shannon saw the line snaking around the corner of the two-story corrugated aluminum building. The wait would be at least an hour today. She adjusted the empty bag slung over her shoulder and hastened to the end of the line, settling in behind a woman with three children. The woman was struggling to keep her children from complaining about the cold.

  "Most of us leave the children back in the domes," Shannon said.

  When the woman turned around, Shannon could see that her face was very dark. She said something in a language Shannon never heard before, maybe an African language. Life at ARIP was rougher on some people than others. English was the default common-tongue, and the newcomers who didn't speak English really struggled until they could learn.

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