Find Mel Lanus.
For two days caches of fat and water within her tawny SymbioTech "living" harness had sustained her. The harness shielded her enlarged cranium, spine, flanks and limbs from the morning sun and radiated desert heat away from her black fur.
Now she needed water. Soon she would need food.
Find Mel Lanus.
She leapt an erosion gully. The ecstatic release of replaying her Master's message through her harness's vocoder awaited her. But to trigger the replay she must...
Find Mel Lanus. Wherever he is.
Her Master's biotechs had grafted matched pairs of fore and hind pseudo-uterine pouches to the harness at her ribs and rear belly. "You'll find out why when the time comes," one tech had said.
Find Mel Lanus.
"Drucilla" certainly sounded nicer than the alphanumeric string identifying her as a genetic and somatically modified she-panther with augmented sapience. Perhaps her Master would bestow the name on her-if she survived the return journey and reported the successful delivery of His message-and if she found Him in good humor. She'd heard of two Masters granting names to faithful animal servants in the past sixty years.
Find Mel Lanus.
She paused in mid-stride to focus her awareness on one of her hundred-odd spinal node bio-computers before it again replayed her Master's voice:
Find Mel Lanus.
Be quite. Be quiet and let me be.
The panther shook her head, hard. The spinal node fell silent, for possibly the next twenty minutes. Her left front paw pushed the harness's skullcap off her left ear and back between both ears. She prowled on.
She neared the mouth of a valley. Ahead a row of sunlit mountains marched north, the farther peaks crowned with the heavy snows of mid-spring. Across the valley, tall basalt palisades guarded brush-covered volcanic cones. A brackish streamlet in the cliffs' shadow trickled toward the desert.
The panther turned toward the middle of a long, narrow pool below the valley's final lava palisades. Green stalks hissed as they rubbed each other in the noon breeze. Her whiskers found a way through the reeds to a sheltered bit of shore that reeked of microscopic mud-dwellers. She crouched at the water's edge, extended her neck and opened her mouth.
The water smelled wrong.
She backed two paces. Something conical and glistening and mottled gray-white slowly surfaced eight feet from the shore. Water slid off it with hardly a splash. What emerged appeared to be a genetically modified Giant Squid enclosed in a clear membrane.
Its conical head, supported on two pillars of bunched tentacles with suction disks like the arms of an octopus, arched into the water behind them. The two massive, foremost tentacles curved into the lake at either side, like a parody of a Master posed with arms akimbo.
Two crystal half-spheres shielded eyes with pulsating pupils. Centered between and partly above they eyes, a circular raised welt in the head's surface surrounded a paler flesh that dimpled as if pressed against an invisible beach ball-a diaphragm lined by metallic filigree-behind which lurked the faint suggestion of some gelatinous mass. It might have been the creature's brain.
The Advisor Emulator nodes bespoke the panther's awareness: The creature's membrane allows it to spend prolonged periods out of water. Its genetic materials apparently derives from a species of giant squid. Nonetheless, it most likely belongs to that class of genetically engineered cephalopods that the Masters chose to label-
Mission security threat level: Unknown, interrupted her threat evaluation software. She shook her head, hard. The flow of data ceased.
The Giant Squid held its head vertical and rotated it clockwise, so the dish-shaped diaphragm almost faced her. The diaphragm vibrated to form words:
"Ho friend isn't it warm today."
It seemed to wait for an answer. Another configuration of spinal nodes noted: The speaker's uninflected monotone resembles the very first attempts at mechanical speech synthesis... Drucilla shook her head again.
"Why not rest in the cool shade and tell me of your journey."
The invitation appealed to the panther. But she had her orders:
So... Don't talk to anyone. Or any being. Drucilla barely twitched her head and held still.
The Giant Squid rotated its head a bit more, so its diaphragm directly faced her. She sensed a faint itch in the nodes between her shoulder blades.
"I said ho friend isn't it-"
More spinal nodes itched, stronger. The itches felt wrong, quite unlike the golden glow she'd enjoyed as her Master programmed her nodes with nested directions to Mel Lanus' last know location.
The panther crouched backwards, fur bristled, mouth opened in a silent growl. Don't talk to me, she subvocalized. She turned, flicked her tail in a dismissive gesture copied from housecats, and ran for the trail.
The diaphragm's voice faded with increasing distance:
"Will you speak of your journey. Wouldn't you like to enjoy a nice long chat together. It would be so pleasant. No, wait, please reconsider. I am an excellent conversationalist. Don't leave me like this..." Faint splashes came with the words, as the creature waded toward the shore.
Find Mel Lanus.
I'm on it. Let me be.
Drucilla ran north, along the path of an ancient highway last used four centuries ago, before the "Godswrath" mid-Pacific asteroid strike, and subsequent Copper Rust plague, pretty much destroyed human civilization. Taller, more distant hills replaced the brush-swathed volcanic cones as the valley widened. The rows of snow-capped mountains ahead grew taller still. She scented various plants of the parched chaparral. She scented tiny animals that dwelt among them. The faint tang of sun-smote dust rose from the path.
Hours later, when mountain shadows covered the valley, the panther rested on a western promontory. Erosion-exposed rocks sheltered her from the southerly winds. Water from a snowmelt rivulet now filled half her harness caches. Her stomach held the remains of two creatures that might have been rabbits, although they showed little resemblance to the rabbits in her node's memory files. In particular, neither of the fur-covered creatures had stood on its hind legs, worn white gloves or faced imminent death with sang-froid and the baffling question, "What's 'updock?'" Their flesh restored some of her depleted energy reserves, but not by much.
For a time she indulged in feline Zen meditation. Then something registered in her harness skullcap's supplemental optics and her mind returned to full awareness.
A grayish-white dot moved in the dry streambed some five miles to the south. Certain of Drucilla's nodes applied image-enlarging software to the dot, to reveal the Giant Squid, head vertical and its spearhead "tail" arcing forward like a scorpion's, advancing on ten fan-shaped blurs. Large luminous goggles surrounded its crystalline eye covers.
She blinked to replay the image at slow speed. The blurred fans became ten tentacles that rolled forward and back in arcs that overlapped without touching. The "goggles" became the front two tentacles, coiled around each eye cover. They emitted a bioluminescent glow to light the creature's path.
She contemplated the image for several seconds. It follows me. It asks me of my journey. Why? ...Could it be an agent of one of my Master's 'nosey' colleagues? I might be leading the creature to Mel Lanus!
...Could it be an agent of one of my Master's 'nosey' colleagues? I might be leading the creature to Mel Lanus!
The Threat Evaluation nodes bespoke her:
Mission security threat level: two point four.
Drucilla waited until the dot went behind a low hill before she started down the northern side of the mountain's shoulder. She asked herself, Did the Giant Squid's perfect eyes see I've left the promontory?
Two hours later Drucilla entered a field with scattered concrete foundations near the valley's center. Humans had dwelt here, four centuries ago.
Fresh instructions flowed from her nodes. She veered left toward the tall mountains, their bases now miles away, their tops gilded by the setting sun. Leaning a bit into the twelve- to fourteen-knot southern winds, she raced up a sloped plain. A lone spinal node cautioned: Bands of tall, eroded granite outcrops lie across the path ahead. Take care in choosing a way among them. Tectonic stress zones created by the "Godswrath" event underwent a Richter 8.9 adjustment two days ago. Some boulders remain out of equilibrium.
Drucilla considered the data as she ran. Perhaps a boulder will fall on the Giant Squid ... Perhaps I could make sure that one does. That would keep it from following me to Mel Lanus.
That would keep it from following me to Mel Lanus.
Find Mel Lanus.
Dark mountains blotted out the western sky. Ahead, faint stars filled a broad gap between two peaks. Near the mid-point of the gap the skyline took the shape of three pyramids: Two narrow ones just left of a broader, higher peak. Lesser peaks marched south and north.
Multiple routes to and around the three peaks blossomed in the panther's awareness. She must climb up there to learn the next stage of her journey to...
Find Mel Lanus.
Stop that, will you?
She shook her head, silencing the node. Temporarily. One mid-stride paw-swipe straightened her harness's skullcap from off of her right forehead.
At the boulders, the panther climbed the first high outcrop. Her harness's speech vocoder sent out ultrasonic beeps, to find unstable monoliths through sonar. She located the most suitable formation for her plan and leapt down.
At the chosen formation, in a pause between wind gusts, Drucilla leaped zigzag up a series of ever-higher boulders. She ended with a nine-foot leap onto the flattened apex of a thirty-foot-tall monolith with a sight northwest tilt.
The monolith tilted a little more. Drucilla froze, then lay down and tucked her paws under her torso. The wind resumed. She stretched out her head until she could peer over the edge of her perch. The oft-used animal trail passed below. For half an hour she recovered from her long run.
Drucilla's auxiliary optics detected a whitish blob emerge out of the eastern darkness. She flattened herself on the rock's apex. Soon a flat, inhuman voice reached her ears.
"I believe we have yet to be properly introduced which may account for your present reluctance to engage in conversation. Allow me to repair this deficiency. Lord Architeuthis Loquacious, Giant Squid conversationalist extraordinary at your service. Hallo. Are you there."
Go away. Stop pestering me, Drucilla thought, but dared not speak aloud. That would betray her position.
The creature's inflectionless voice moved away, then drew closer. "Won't you have a chat with me. Isn't this a fine night for a chat although a bit windy out wouldn't you say."
The panther's ears flattened. Shut up. Leave me alone.
"What would you like to discuss. Among other intellectual resources I possess a complete multimedia edition of the final download broadcast from the Orbital Archives. I obtained this valuable resource from the Augmenter Evelyn Mergels herself, using coercive methods I will explain at a later time... "
Its voice faded into inaudibility somewhere southeast of Drucilla. A minute later it resumed from the southwest.
"...despite its encyclopedic range of topics, I must acknowledge that the Savant Pierpoint Grimpill has questioned the efficacy of this resource calling it quote nothing but frivolous populist twaddle unquote. To be fair Grimpill searched the Archives only for military weapon systems and pornographic vids, to which the Savant Erik Burnfiddle responded with numerous citations showing that such materials seldom appear within databases intended for general public access. But I digress.
"Please allow me to offer you but the slightest example of what may be found within the Orbital Archives. Let us begin with an excerpt from Chapter Twelve of The Strange Island by the early Twentieth century Cee Ee author Kenneth Kohlabee:
"'But it is you who do not yet understand Sir Roderick' replied Doktor Froudakkar. 'My optimalizing transformatoids will not reach their full expression until the second generation. Your children may appear a bit strange to the uninformed, what with the extra heads growing from their armpits and all...'"
Now the Giant Squid's voice came almost ahead of Drucilla. Several linked spinal nodes calculated it would pass under her tilted perch in ten seconds.
"'...But not to worry; your grandchildren will be absolutely precious.' 'Who the devil are you really Herr Doktor' snapped Sir Roderick. 'You've just lapsed into colloquial English and not exactly the English heard among my set either. Could it be that you aspire to a station higher than the one to which you were born...'"
Now I'll silence you. The panther crouched and leaped straight up, to land on four bunched paws at the corner of the monolith's crest above the trail. She leaped again. The tall stone shuddered under her, then tilted over. She turned as it arced out, climbed over the apex and down what would soon be the pillar's upper side.
She leapt once more, toward the monolith's base. Two yards beneath her, the rock column hit some lower boulders. The upper third cracked off and skewed counterclockwise. Rock splinters clacked against various granite surfaces. The Giant Squid cried "Yaaaaaaaa" in a most unemphatic way.
Drucilla landed on the fallen column's nearly level base and leapt to her right. She padded around several lesser boulders and ran into the western night.
Sunrise found the panther napping, sheltered from the wind by a partly fallen stone wall in a meadow that sloped east toward the valley. The glade bore random stands of pine trees. Beyond them a deep ravine channeled a noisy torrent of snowmelt.
For hours Drucilla climbed an eroded roadway up an eastern ridge toward the tri-peaked mountain. When she reached the meadow, a spinal node revealed the purpose of her harness's pseudo-uterine pouches: they gestated four SymbioTech rock-climbing mittens, one for each paw. How wise of her Master to foresee that she might need to climb vertical cliffs to evade pursuit! But the talon-tipped mittens needed to spend at least another day in utero; her Master's most optimistic projection called for her to reach this glade in another twenty-two hours. How, how could He have failed to anticipate her relentless pursuit by a compulsively talkative Giant Squid?
She awoke as two jays flitted overhead from tree to tree, denouncing each other. Pine tree resin reeked in her nostrils; green-tinted sunlight diffused through the branches to shine on a bit of snow at the base of the stone wall. No, not snow, but frozen moisture from her breath.
The jays fell silent. They turned their heads downhill. With difficulty, Drucilla swiveled one ear in that direction. She tried to raise her head, despite her chilled neck muscles. To her ear came an uninflected voice:
"Hail fellow traveler well met. My isn't this a nice blustery day."
The voice paused.
"Do you know I really do wish you would wait up a bit so we can have a proper chat. It's been so long since I've had a chance to have a good long chat with anyone displaying signs of cognition..."
She managed to shift her left forepaw and raise her head a bit more. Go away, she thought, you're ruining my life.
"...Do you know that I waited in that lake for two days with no one around before you came along. Why on earth did I let myself get in such a fix I wonder and immediately after having my technicians modify my vocalizing diaphragm too. I'm sure I had my reasons although I can't seem to bring them to mind at the moment."
Heresy. Red-brown, Masterless heresy. The panther's ears went flat and her stomach clenched; she froze for a full second. She felt an urge to throw up, but needed what few nutrients remained in her stomach. To act on one's own without orders from one's Master...! She could not complete the thought.
She watched the Giant Squid work its way up the trail on eight tentacles. The base of its left front tentacle curled to cover where it had been severed, as did the two behind it. Drucilla also noticed a reddish welt part way down the tentacle behind the curled stumps.
"You know when I first laid eyes on you I said to myself 'now there is a fine partner for an interesting talk.' You obviously have had many fascinating experiences to share now haven't you."
How would you know? How did you earn your name? Drucilla almost asked. But paralysis gripped her.
"Now don't be so coy my dear. I can see the speech vocoder under your throat. I mean I could back at the lake."
With great effort she bared her fangs.
"What's this I see. Could it be the hint of a smile-"
"-Yes yes I knew it. My you are the coy one. You've led me a merry chase my dear but I've sensed all along you were merely seeking the ideal venue for our first chat weren't you ... our first chat. Now doesn't that have a jolly ring to it."
Drucilla arched her back, worked her two right paws under her and half-rolled upright. She shook ice-flecks from her harness, lumbered around until she faced uphill, and trotted along the faint indications of an ancient footpath.
"No wait. Please. Don't be that way I'll do anything you say. Citation: Harold Teen circa Cee Ee Nineteen Twenty-Six. Aren't you at all interested in how Froudakkar responds to Sir Roderick's denunciation. Let us resume: 'You think that you are a clever man' sneered the self styled Doktor. 'Well let us see if your clever words will avail you now.' He turned to his hulking assistant. 'Bruno' he ordered 'Lassen das Englander Leiden.' 'Jawohl mein Meister' came the slow reply. 'Aber wenn...'" The voice faded behind her.
Find Mel Lanus.
I know, already. Let me be, will you.
At noon, Drucilla crouched by a low boulder offering scant shelter from a twenty-knot gale out of the north. The boulder lay at the shore of a mountain lake, in a wide hollow three thousand feet above the glade where she awoke.
She licked an abraded forepaw and contemplated that paw's projected rate of wear if she continued to climb over rocks. She had outsprinted the Giant Squid, but it always caught up with her. One combination of nodes calculated possible outcomes if she took a vertical route, pioneered by pre-Godswrath rock-climbers, up the cliffs of the pinnacle next to the mountain's main peak. The Giant Squid would have few difficulties with the conventional route that slanted along the base of both pinnacles, rounded them, and climbed up to the main peak on its western flank.
She also wondered if voiding her urine in the pool would inconvenience Lord Architeuthis. Not for long. Data from another set of nodes informed her that un-augmented cephalopods spent their entire lives in water tainted by the defecations of countless fish, cetaceans and other mollusks.
No matter what she did next, she needed the gestating climbing mittens. Drucilla signaled her harness to flood the pouches with birth hormone analogs. She lapped her fill of the pool's water. Then she polluted it.
She found a path around the pool's shore, over closely packed boulders then up the scree at the left pinnacle's base. She reached the scree's apex as three of the pseudo-uterine pouches' slits broached. Drucilla thrust her left forepaw into the pouch by her left ribcage, and withdrew it sheathed in a rock-climbing mitten already bonding with her harness's left foreleg vambrace. She did the same with her right fore- and hind paws. The empty pouches flattened as the harness began to absorb their nutrients. The rear left pouch remained unbroached.
Drucilla looked back. A grey-white form appeared on the hollow's rocky rim beyond the pool, where she'd entered the hollow an hour before. No time. Extending a left hind claw, she slashed the slit of the remaining pouch and thrust that paw inside. Something wet inside crawled over the paw. When she withdrew it, the fourth climbing mitten grasped it weakly. Her harness formed only a tenuous link with the mitten.
She began to climb the erosion-scarred pinnacle's southern flank. As the climbing mittens bonded with her harness, their vambraces thickened and toughened. Three of her mittens easily grasped tiny imperfections in the rock face, but the left rear mitten required visible toeholds. She found many.
A new group of nodes announced: The immature mitten cannot fully bond with your SymbioTech harness or process nutrients. Since it is more hindrance than help during the current ascent, we will designate it a hindermitten... Drucilla shook her head, carefully. The nodes fell silent.
She panted in the thin air. Her SymbioTech harness filtered fatigue poisons from her bloodstream and increased the oxygen content of red cells passing through it. As she climbed she repeated to herself, like a mantra:
Evade the Giant Squid. Find Mel Lanus. Recite the Master's message and know ecstasy. Then return and, perhaps, dare to request a name.
Then return and, perhaps, dare to request a name.
Half an hour later, the Giant Squid reached the highest boulders covering the pinnacle's base. The panther's SymbioTech rear optics let her watch the creature raise each of its tentacles to feel about the weathered rockface above it. The tentacles flattened and drew the creature two yards upward. It shifted each tentacle in turn to eight new grips, and pulled itself six feet higher.
Drucilla's threat evaluation software noted, If the Giant Squid still possessed all ten suction tentacles, it might catch up with you by the time you climb another thousand meters. As it happened, she was more than halfway up the pinnacle before her eight-armed pursuer closed in from below.
"Ho fellow traveler well met. My you are the one to get around aren't you ... Well now that we're together at last I thought this might be an excellent time for our first chat-"
It pulled itself closer with a "Herrrk."
"-Although it occurs to me that the burden of our conversation has fallen on myself up to now. One could even say 'Oh, you kin talk to her all you want; just don' expect no reply.' Citation: Jean L'Frommage in The Seine Is Dry Cee Ee Nineteen Sixty-Eight-Herrrk-A little joke you know. Come now my dear be fair about this and tell me of your journey won't you."
The panther glared over her shoulder at the Giant Squid. Shut up, you babbling fool. Before the thought reached her vocoder, her Master's instruction recurred to her mind:
"...don't say anything to anybody..."
She blinked once. The Giant Squid wants to start a dialog. I might let slip something confidential as I talk! And she'd almost spoke to it. Drucilla checked all her paw-holds before she resumed her climb.
"I can't help but notice that you aren't using the easiest-Herrrk-way to get around these mountains, now are you..."
The Giant Squid's diaphragm faced Drucilla. Under the black fur along her lower left her spinal nodes itched unpleasantly-the way the nodes nearest the creature had itched at the narrow lake. She angled to her right; her nodes' itch grew less. The Giant Squid turned its diaphragm toward her and the itch strengthened.
"... So would you mind enlightening me as to why you've chosen such an arduous route. I'm certain you have excellent reasons-Herrrk-Come come let's see you put that vocoder of yours to use for once. Won't you please tell me why you are climbing this spire."
To get away from you. She didn't say it aloud.
Drucilla's threat evaluation software bespoke her: Lord Architeuthis's speaker diaphragm is also a parabolic antenna that beams microwave signals. Our preliminary analysis reveals that these signals contain malware to make bio-computers such as spinal nodes yield up their data. The creature must not access your secret message to Mel Lanus.
MISSION SECURITY THREAT LEVEL: FIVE POINT SIX AND RISING.
Yeah, I know that, she thought at the nodes. Will you let me concentrate on climbing?
Toehold by toehold Drucilla worked her way up and north across the jagged face of the granite pinnacle, away from the Giant Squid and into the full force of the wind. The hindermitten's grip on rock and paw steadily weakened. Then the front left pseudo-uterine pouch sloughed off her harness. A gust of wind sent it tumbling, almost into the Giant Squid's path.
Several node constellations devised a new strategy, given this development. As Drucilla angled back and forth to evade the Giant Squid's microwaves, her harness shunted metabolic wastes and fatigue poisons into the remaining pouches.
When the rear right pouch detached, the panther swatted it with her right hind mitten. Its windborne arc ended with a splat, inches from one of the Giant Squid's extended tentacle-tips. The front right pouch smacked against its injured tentacle.
"That wasn't very nice," it commented, between its pleas for a nice long chat.
The final pouch almost hit the Giant Squid's left eye, but a tentacle rising to its next suction-hold batted it aside.
Drucilla maneuvered upwind of her pursuer as the dying mitten began to slip off her paw. The Giant Squid paused to find new gripping-points. Drucilla raised her left hind paw high and ordered the mitten to furl itself into a talon-tipped dart. She whisked her tail to create a slipstream as the mitten detached, to guide it into the creature's diaphragm. She didn't quite succeed.
The wind's great force drove the panther's hindermitten into the Giant Squid's forebrain. Then things got weird.
Lord Architeuthis paused, stock-still. Drucilla's SymboTech harness picked up radio signals in four different frequencies from its diaphragm:
"Maybe you don't hear so good, stranger. The name is Brane. Mem Brane. We don't take kindly hereabouts to folks who-"
It contracted its tentacles with a monotone "Herrrk." The panther noticed a sudden absence of irritating microwaves.
"-Eat two hundred turkey gizzards a month. Unfortunately these findings cannot be verified, first because we were unable to locate sufficient gallstone sufferers and, second, because no turkeys have been found west of the Rockies for the past four hundred years-"
"-Pig iron production figures issued by the People's Republic of China for Cee Ee Nineteen Sixty Two, as reported by successive regimes, have increased in accuracy in direct proportion to their age-dependant irrelevance..."
At the same time the diaphragm spoke: "Poor traveler you look un hap pea. Sooo un hap pea. What you need are hap pea cakes. With hap pea cakes you will eat and you are hap pea ae gan." The Giant Squid's right front tentacle extended toward the panther, as if offering this confection.
"Hap pea cakes contain refined evaporated beet juice nutritionally neutralized grain starch peafowl embryo colloids and solidified fats extracted from bovine mammary gland secretions. Eat eat you will enjoy-come baaaaack try hap pea cakes." The tentacle retracted. Its tip danced about the hindermitten's cuff, which protruded from a pink welt in the Giant Squid's forehead.
That tentacle slapped against the rock face.
Drucilla pushed herself up the pinnacle the instant she felt a paw-hold was stable. At times she let her rear left paw dangle.
The Giant Squid followed. It broadcast metric tonnage statistics in Chinese by radio, while its robot-like voice listed the virtues of hap pea cakes. Many times. The panther kept her ears flat, although her threat evaluation software urged: Audit the creature's statements for clues to its intentions.
"Hap pea cakes will make you-Herrrk—Here comes Laugh-A-Minute Cogswell and his Jolly Mountain Men. Yes, friends, it's time to... Ahem. Where was I. I'd like an answer to my question. Why did you choose this route. It's a perfectly reasonable question, don't you think."
Leave me alone. You're ruining my life—
"Herrrk. Why don't you answer me. What's the matter, the cat's got your tongue. No you are the cat, the big black pussycat. Here kitty kitty kitty."
Ears flat, Drucilla picked up her pace.
Ten minutes later the Giant Squid again closed the gap.
"Executive fiat thirty one. Unauthorized access or transmission of the following quintrain is forbidden under penalty of instant discombobulation. Quote to seduce the ursinoid Spergils the Augmentrix Evelyn Mergels...
To Drucilla's ear, the diaphragm's uninflected voice transitioned into a human male's suave baritone.
"...Did paint her ears red, And crawlt under his bed, While uttering enticing gurgles, unquote. This is not funny. Signed, E. P. Mergels... Herrrk-" The Giant Squid fell silent for a few seconds, and even halted its climb.
"Oh dear, I should not have said that ... Testing, testing, hummm, bureeeeeee..." Its-no, Drucilla decided, his-diaphragm produced a subsonic rumble that rose in pitch to the high ultrasonic.
"I say, Old Girl, it appears that you've actually done me something of a good turn, although I'm not entirely sure that such was your intention," said the diaphragm's deep-toned voice. "Do you know, in attempting to undo the damage caused by this glove of yours to my outer cerebral layers, I do believe my self-repair processes have reconnected the modulators to my vocalizing apparatus.
"Herrrk. Allow me to demonstrate my restored sonic capabilities. I'll start with something rather difficult."
His diaphragm erupted in a high fidelity-and high volume-cacophony of mistreated symphonic instruments. Bows sawed over violin and cello strings until they snapped. Woodwinds and brasses vibrated to pieces from harmonic resonance. Mallets struck gongs, sheet metal and multiple timpani in syncopated patterns until the overstressed drum skins ruptured. And the noises all combined to make a certain rhythmic sense.
Then silence. For a second.
"You have been listening to Alexander V. Mosolov's 'Iron Foundry,' as rendered by the Elektronick Ensemble Dockstadar in the style of Erich Mielke conducting the Neue Berlin Symphonie circa C. E. Nineteen Fifty Two," intoned the Giant Squid.
"Herrrk." Eight tentacles pulled him five feet closer to Drucilla. Her nodes again itched.
"No actual performers or instruments were harmed during this rendition-
"You wish," he interrupted himself, falsetto.
"-Can it, Space Boy," the baritone resumed. "Ahem. An audio recreation of the complete playback can be yours when you register for a subscription to three stimulating conversations with your host, Lord Architeuthis Loquacious. Herrrk. Act now and you will also qualify for a rendition of Diego Feng's 'Somnambulists' Tango,' and will be entered in our drawing. To insure absolute impartiality, the judge will be awarded as the prize. Herrrk!"
Drucilla flattened her ears as she angled to her right. The Giant Squid followed.
"Your honor, in the documents filed with this Court by plaintiff, he consistently misidentifies the brand name and various colors of day-glo house paint allegedly applied to the aforesaid cactus plants. Nor does he correctly name the species of cacti allegedly so painted or identify their several locations on the grounds of the Rossmoor Arms. Therefore, the defense moves for dismissal of the suit under...
"...Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands. And stands. And stands. And stands. And stands. And stands. And uuk-Reset, reset, I say, I should not have said that, please disregard."
Through her harness's rear optics Drucilla saw the creature halt and twist to aim his diaphragm at the just-risen moon. "Accessing file four two eight four one six eight. Transmission begins." He beamed a radio shriek toward the distant orb.
The Advisor Emulator nodes bespoke Drucilla: The Giant Squid's transmission is in a public binary code used one hundred years Before Godswrath. Our preliminary analysis shows that it is an unfamiliar poem in eight parts, apparently composed by a team of obsessive-compulsive academics from Oxford, England, in the mid-Nineteenth Century C.E. The poem narrates a hunting expedition by a ship's crew of ten, identified only by their professions-
Drucilla shook her head.
-searching an island or continent's coastline for a creature whose name and traits do not appear in any of the surviving fauna lexicons-
She shook her head harder.
-contains numerous paradoxes and self-referential inconsistencies, including an anachronistic augmented beaver, capable of speech yet lacking basic arithmetical skills, and the unexplained appearance, on a desolate coastline, of muffins, ice, mustard, cress, jam, paper, portfolios, pens-
Another headshake, hard as she dared.
-Our threat evaluation computations yield a point zero zero four two percent probability that the poem is a primitive attempt at psychological warfare, intended to disorient its readers through paradoxes and internal inconsistencies. Correction, this probability is point four two percent. Correction, is four point two percent-
WARNING, the threat evaluation nodes shrieked, COGNITIVE DISRUPTION MEMES DETECTED. SHUTTING DOWN INFECTED NODES. DO NOT ATTEMPT FURTHER ANALYSIS OF ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS CONTAINING THE TERM "SNARK" OR THE NUMBER "FORTY-TWO." WARNING, IGNORE PREVIOUS WARNING AS IT CONTAINS THE TERM "SNARK" AND THE NUMBER "FORTY-TWO." WARNING, PREVIOUS WARNINGS CONTAIN SUSPECT DATA. SHUTTING DOWN INFECTED NODES. NAVIGATIONAL DATA COMPROMISED. LOGICAL INFERRENCE SOFTWARE COMPROMISED. COGNITIVE AUGMENTATION SOFTWARE COMPROMISED. WARNING, RECURSIVE LOGICAL ERRORS DETECTED, SYSTEM SHUTDOWN IMMINENT, WARN-
WARNING, IGNORE PREVIOUS WARNING AS IT CONTAINS THE TERM "SNARK" AND THE NUMBER "FORTY-TWO."
WARNING, PREVIOUS WARNINGS CONTAIN SUSPECT DATA. SHUTTING DOWN INFECTED NODES.
NAVIGATIONAL DATA COMPROMISED.
LOGICAL INFERRENCE SOFTWARE COMPROMISED.
COGNITIVE AUGMENTATION SOFTWARE COMPROMISED.
WARNING, RECURSIVE LOGICAL ERRORS DETECTED, SYSTEM SHUTDOWN IMMINENT, WARN-
...The panther found herself clinging to the cliff face. Most of her nodes seemed inactive. She must deliver a message to someone. She must keep it secret. She must flee the Giant Squid. But wasn't there more? She sensed that her thoughts lacked... depth.
Yet she paused, her attention caught by a voice in her head:
COGNITION CAPACITY DOWN SIXTY THREE PERCENT. GO TO THE NEAREST AUGMENTOR AT ONCE.
The panther blinked, and climbed. Lord Architeuthis beamed binary code at the Moon.
The panther gasped for air. All her joints ached from the effort of pushing her weight upward, even though her SymbioTech harness reinforced her limbs. Her un-augmented vision found graspable flaws in the eroded rockface; instinct guided her mittened paws to them.
She was six hundred feet below the broad arete between the granite spire and the higher mountain when the Giant Squid again climbed within shouting distance.
"I must say again, you certainly haven't chosen the easiest route over this mountain, Men. Brought to you by Kreamy Krust Biscuit Mix, our biscuits please every time. Who are yew kidding, Cogswell? Them's the worst biscuits I ever et.
"Ahem. Won't you please tell me what is behind this mountaineering mania of yours?
"Do you know-I think you must know-that this sheer cliff in a howling windstorm is not the best venue for having a nice, long chat. Speak to me, will you?" He sang, "Speak to me only with thine vocoder and I will respond in kind."
The panther climbed into a vertical crevasse or chimney. Inside, the wind diminished. The Giant Squid followed. His conical form, now almost spherical from internal pressure, barely fit. But the chimney gave the panther little space to dodge microwaves.
"Herrrk. Talk to me, won't you? I haven't had a decent conversation in a week. I cannot keep up this pace forever, you know."
You have so far, she thought.
Through her harness's rear optics the panther saw the Giant Squid tap the tip of its remaining large tentacle about the hindermitten cuff. "It burns, it burns," he said.
"Mustn't touch. Internal membrane formation still in process. Danger of depressurization.
"But it burrrrns, it burnzzzzz-"
With an audible blup the diaphragm popped outward, bulging like a bubble on the Giant Squid's forehead. The panther noticed an absence of microwave irritation in her lower spinal nodes.
"Herrrk. Come, now, my dear. We are alone. Let uzz be frank. Don't you find the Masterz to be just a wee bit dictatorial in their attitudez toward their augmented animal zervantz? Don't you?"
More heresy. The panther's ears flattened again. She paused on a slanted ledge as her intestines curled in knots. With effort she kept her claws from slicing the insides of the mittens.
"Herrrk. For example, you appear to be following orderz from your Master that makes no zense. 'Climb a sheer mountain spire,' indeed. Herrrk. Why did He-I assume it iz a He, isn't it-zet you to this task? Herrrk. Come, you can confide in us. Herrrk. We are the soul of reticence. Herrrk."
Heresy, heresy, heresy. The panther froze in place. A tentacle wrapped around her right rear ankle.
Other tentacles thudded on the ledge to bracket the panther. With a painfully loud "Herrrk" the spherical Giant Squid loomed over her. He tilted his head forward so the bulge of his diaphragm almost touched her lower back. His left eye's pupil shifted to regard her face.
"Do you know, most beings don't realize what their reactionz to key wordz reveal when we engage them in a nize long chat. But for you, my dear, the time for such subtleties is past. Now we are in complete control. Toffee Toppers taste so sweet. Serve 'em for a family treat-"
His falsetto interrupted, "That'll never fly, L.D."
"-Oh, be quiet. Try and stop me. Not you, pussycat. Who're you calling a pussycat? We're talking to this panther under us. Panther or pussycat, make up your mind. Which mind? We've got five of them at the moment.
"Ahem. We could not help but notice that you've displayed a strong relucatanz to share a chat until now. Could it be that your Master ordered you to avoid talking about your prezent azzignment...?" Nodes under the diaphragm burned like hot coals. The panther writhed.
Her Master's voice came from her own vocoder:
"So... you don't say anything to anybody. Or any being."
MISSION SECURITY THREAT LEVEL: ULTIMATE.
The huge eye's pupil widened. "Ah, we zhought so. We zee you've had loyalty conditioning too. So predicable, so tedious to undo, yet the effort iz so rewarding in the end, we alwayz zay. Not me, L.D. You be quiet. Not you, panther.
"What, you don't agree? Earl'z right, Cogz. Ah wouldn't feed them bizcuitz to a hawg. Ah might have to eat the hawg. Ahem. You will talk to us, you know. 'Ve haff vays of making you talk,' said the ventriloquist." The tentacle's grip on her ankle tightened. "Why not relax and put your vocoder to the use for which it waz intended, h'mmm?
"Now, what iz your deztination?"
The diaphragm moved up her spine. Red heat filled dozens of spinal nodes. A series of locations flashed through the panther's mind.
"Oh, nezted instructionz, how clever. Dum de dum..."
Eventually the vocodor recited a string of coordinates.
"And the purpoze of your journey? We can deduce that your Master haz zent you on a specific mizzion."
Don't say it. But after a pause, the vocoder did:
"Find Mel Lanus. Find Mel Lanus. Find Mel Lanus. I tell you three times." I've betrayed my trust. No, the Squid's making me betray my trust.
"So. You are to deliver a message? You will tell us what your-"
Alpha null seven three four... As the number sequence hiding the message to Mel Lanus arose in the panther's mind, she half-twisted to stretch her left hind paw up to the vocoder below her throat. She shredded it with a swipe of her claws.
The Giant Squid jerked forward to bring his left eye closer to the ruined vocoder.
"...Quotes the panther nevermore?"
The hindermitten's cuff came within reach of her fangs. She bit, braced one front paw against the head's membrane and ripped the mitten loose. Salty vapors gushed from the wound; she shut her eyes.
She felt the tentacle release her rear leg and swish above her. Multiple smacks of tentacles on the Giant Squid's forehead muted the whoosh of escaping vapor. A massive weight pressed the panther's hips flat as it rolled down. She started to slide in its wake. Talons scrabbled on granite, gained purchase as half her torso slid over the edge.
When she again perched on the ledge and could turn around, she was alone.
Fore-mittens grasped the ledge-lip. The panther extended her head to look down the crevasse. Far below the Giant Squid lay face up, his conic head flattened. A cracked eye covering and the tentacle-stumps leaked pink ichor; a few other tentacles stirred weakly. His diaphragm looked indented once more, but if it emitted words they did not carry over the wind.
The panther glared at her inquisitor. You wanted me to speak, Heretic?
She worked her un-augmented-and long unused-vocal cords. Then she rasped one of the few articulate sounds that her larynx could produce, with contempt:
She turned around on her perch and flicked her tail over the crevasse in dismissal.
Her tail-tip caught fire! Its rudimentary nodes burned in a final blast of microwaves from below.
WARNING. DATA EXTRACTION SOFTWARE IS CASCADING DOWN YOUR TAIL'S UNCULTIVATED SPINAL NODES AT AN ESTIMATED FIVE INCHES PER SECOND. MISSION SECURITY THREAT-
But she was already twisting around. She bit off half her tail. Hot blood sprayed her muzzle. She could hardly stand the pain.
The panther clung to the ledge and licked her tail's stump until the bleeding stopped. Then she began her final ascent.
The panther stood at the far outlet of the defile between the spire and the highest peak. Her hips and tail-stump ached. She recalled wanting some favor her Master might bestow, but what? She scanned her nodes for it in vain. Nor could she find certain sub-routines that kept her SymbioTech harness in optimal condition. Her few active node groups offered comments she found useless. She shook her head often.
Uneven rows of lesser mountains shimmered in the moonlight, save for nearby peaks obscured by the triple-peaked mountain's moon shadow. The panther looked right toward her final destination, in a direction she could no longer name, yet knew without error or flaw lay ...there.
In three days, allowing for certain variables, her route toward-toward that way-would bring her to a wide curving valley with near-vertical walls, dominated by half a granite dome at this end, and by a towering granite outcrop at that end. Somewhere between them she should find the human male smelling thus-and-so. To this being she must recite as-yet-unknown phrases. How she would do that without a vocoder, she did not know. Maybe she would think of something.
The she-panther took her first, very cautious, steps down the mountain's westward slope. With half her tail gone, she needed all her concentration to keep her balance.
Luminator Thelms writes from an undisclosed location in California.
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