Chapter 8: Breakages and Breakthrough
While Daphne makes another check on our patients, Salimar calls to
inform us that she will be spending more time than expected at the
KaiSen embassy. The pixie reports that the Blenari are doing well. We
decide that we can afford to get on with our main mission, and so return
to the Terran quarter.
Eric and Fnafar are already in the TXT office when we arrive. Somewhat tentatively, Eric asks us if something untoward happened during the night. We explain obliquely about Daracru's people, but that only leads to the explanation about Licconeten and Betalto. Eric does not look happy, even after we meekly assure him that we are doing better than Friar Laurence.
Robbie starts asking them questions about the proteins of the Tlappina Aelth. Eric reiterates that, since they are made up of components, rather than being single bio-entities, their proteins will vary from part to part. This is not what we're familiar with. We ask if there is a local expert on Tlappina Aelth culture. They recommend Vorzenvazz. They then inform us that they found traces of a plant-based packing material in the amulets, and that the plant grows on the northern steppes, which are Tlappina Aelth territory.
Robbie contacts Vorzenvazz, a Tlappina Aelth of the Plick in a traditional Plick paint job, and asks him if he can identify a Tlappina Aelth protein. He asks for our analysis, and we send it to him. As he is examining his files, he asks why we want to know. Robbie decides to be vague, and explains that the protein seems to increase luck...
"Ah, that would be for religious or ceremonial uses." This is not how we would designate it, so we are not surprised when he cannot find it there. He suggests contacting Hruffhrass of the Veem, or Ummni of the Grob.
Robbie concedes that those people might be useful, then explains that the "luck" protein has an obvious military use, and that that is how it is being used by a race other than the Tlappina Aelth.
"Oh! You mean psionics!" Yes, we did. "You want to contact Kritnikren of the Quass. He lives in Tlinek. Oh, and Hruffhrass does too."
"Thank you, sentient."
So the Tlappina Aelth connection is growing firmer. This opens the question of whether they are connected voluntarily or otherwise. We ask Eric about their code of ethics. He explains that they are fond of violence in the sense of being highly boisterous, but they are not of a lethal inclination. Unlike us Terrans.
We huddle for a few seconds to make the decision to visit Tlinek on the northern steppes. We call Salimar to keep her up to date, warn Eric not to enter our rooms (without mentioning that we left a dragon there), and head for the rental place at the spaceport. This time the clerk is a Drine, but it could be the very same flying saucer again. Dafnord does not check the gum under the console this time.
It's a three-hour drive north. The land is notably empty, a wasteland stretching from horizon to horizon. Eventually there are roads, and more roads, with a large building here and there. Clearly, Tlinek is very spread out, and clearly this is the Tlappina norm. As we come to the central coordinate of Tlinek, we see more coliseum-like buildings and apparent parking garages. We land in what is either a large parking lot or a public square. The people (all Tlappina Aelth) stare at us. Uneasily, we ask a passing Quass if it is reasonable for us to park where we have.
"Sure. Where else would I get such a good look at your car?"
Robbie asks him if he would know how to find Kritnikren.
"I'll ask around," he replies, and rolls off to talk with another Tlappina Aelth.
Dubious of this as the sole available technique, Robbie asks another Quass how to find people. The answer is the simple, direct -- "You ask around."
So Robbie does, asking the Quass about Kritnikren. "Oh, it's at the arena," it says, and gestures at a building rather like the Coliseum. "You do mean Kritnikren the Mechanic?"
Would our expert be describable as a mechanic? Robbie isn't certain. "Uh, maybe, yeah."
"Well, he's in the pit crew for the (crunching sound) contest, so that's where he'll be for the next several hours."
"Thank you, sentient."
Daphne, always pleased to meet new people, takes to this search technique with enthusiasm. She asks a Veem about Hruffhrass, and gets a positive response. "I've heard of it, but I don't know it well. You should ask Eemrizz of the Veem."
Her next contact is a Hrev, who -- being a flier itself, something like a small, animated helicopter -- is fascinated by her wings. It is sure they cannot work. The pixie gives a demonstration, lifting high on her gossamer wings, and saying "See? They work just fine." She asks directions and the Hrev points her towards Eemrizz.
"Greetings, Eemrizz. I am looking for Hruffhrass. Do you know where it is?"
"Hruffhrass should be at the (crunch) contest. Tell it that Eemrizz sent you." The adjective is not being translated well, but it does sound like an onomatopoeia for a crunching sound.
We get back in our vehicle, and drive to the arena, park, and enter. People are standing around, talking excitedly, and certainly no one objects to our presence. We make our way into the stands and look down on the "playing" field. What we see looks initially like a small war but, as we focus on what is actually happening, it looks more like a demolition derby, with teams. At least, that's what we conclude once we notice that the... participants are all wearing tabards of either red or blue.
As is the custom, we ask around to locate Kritnikren the Mechanic. We are promptly pointed to a Quass on the sidelines, wearing a blue tabard with a yellow bar. We work our way down and over to it, but it's too busy watching the game to notice us. From time to time, it darts into the melee and pulls out a more than usually battered contestant. It then "repairs" it, and shoves it back into the fray. We do manage to learn that there will be a lull in the action in about an hour and a half, so we wait for that, and soak up the local color and fizzy drinks.
The lull arrives. "Greetings, sentient Kritnikren," offers Robbie, at the first possible instant.
"Greetings, Terry," is the polite response.
"I have come from Requembel to ask you about some Tlappina Aelth protein with a military application."
The Quass pauses, as if it were surprised or confused by this statement. We certainly can't read its expression. "I'll talk to you about that after the (crash) game. There's no time now." Indeed there isn't; the clash resumes.
And continues. The big suns go down. We watch Kritnikren and decide that he must be using psi as well as hammer and blowtorch. The small sun rises. Robbie coils Kritnikren, and decides that he is best classified as an Unknown Machine. Kritnikren seems to notice the examination. "Stay out of the way, please," it grumbles. The planetary rings brighten. The contest ends, and one side is declared the winner.
Kritnikren turns to us. "Now, what can I do for you folks, again? A protein analysis, right?" We nod. "Come back to my shop."
It heads out of the coliseum, and starts to develop a good turn of speed. Fallataal keeps up without appearing to exert himself. The rest of us start to fall back as his speed increases, or take to the air if we can. Gannar calls our rental car and picks us up as we tire, or give up, or become bored. After more than ten minutes, we pull up to Kritnikren's shop. It's a huge thing, understandably, since it's built on a Tlappina scale rather than a human one.
Robbie hands Kritnikren one of our samples, and explains that it was used to maintain the shape of a soldier in combat.
"Ah, psionics." Kritnikren examines the disk, and twiddles it around, and gets very excited. "How is this being used? In combat, you said? Whose combat?"
"That of the Blenari. Between the Korando and the Algis." Robbie then shows him the unnerving photograph of the dead Blenari with the "melted" legs.
"Ah, not us then." He examines the picture. "This shouldn't be... they're working on this at the Vilcoort shop across town."
We are finally starting to get somewhere. Robbie shows the mechanic the holo of the first Hood Ornament. "Do you recognize this at all?"
"Yes! Wait." He leaves the room briefly, and returns with a picture of a slender, curved bean pod with two streamers, either roots or tendrils, attached at one end. "This is from the Areekrok shop. It's being developed as a force field projector."
Robbie explains about the teleporter with the Hood Ornament. Kritnikren indicates agreement; these uses are compatible.
Really excited now, Kritnikren starts asking us the questions, and indicating its unhappiness with the situation our answers reveal. It gets a dicing talisman from Fallataal and the working, and a healing one from Markel. We explain how our friend, Salimar, felt about growing a tail while she was holding it. Kritnekren examines them by eye, then runs them through a series of devices, repeatedly examining the output. It is soon done.
"This," it holds up Markel's disc, "tries to restore the Tlappina Aelth shape. Like putting wheels on this guy." He gestures to the picture of the Blenari. "He's dead, right?"
"A tail on your friend? Was it a Blenari tail or a Tlappina tail?"
We don't know, so Robbie uses his calling card. Salimar thinks, and decides it was a Blenari tail. Robbie reports this, then turns away from us to update Salimar on what we've learned.
The rest of us talk over the situation with Kritnikren. The material in these amulets is, by Tlappina Aelth standards, still experimental, and is being developed by the Vilcoort shop. The Hood Ornament is also of experimental origins, and is from the Areekrok shop. We decide that we should all visit both shops, and that we should visit Vilcoort first. We cross town.
This shop is even larger than Kritnikren's. We are met by a Hroon, and Kritnikren asks to speak to Oreezanik. This Hroon goes away and returns with another Hroon. Kritnikren introduces it as Oreezanik to us, and introduces us all to the Hroon. It then asks, "May we come in? It's a matter of your psionics experiments." Oreezanik gives a flick of its antennae, and leads us into a huge bay with multiple displays glowing on the walls.
Kritnikren hands it the first amulet. It examines this, and makes a clicking sound that we have decided is a "tut-tut" indicator. It takes the other one, and investigates that one too. Finally, it looks up. "These contain ganglia from my experimental segments. They have been extracted, preserved, and then modified. Or rather, mucked with. This healing one," he gestures, "has been massively repatterned."
He is sincerely indignant, and very upset to think of how his misused ganglia could go wrong. We agree, and show him the photo of the melted Blenari. This confirms him in his unhappiness. He explains that his shop has been making these ganglia for about a year now, and they are still in beta-test. By now there are a few thousand out in the field, with increasing levels of modifications. Many, however, are still in trauma.
He leads us to them, a room full of puffy horseshoe shapes, resting on padding. The horseshoes have short feeble arms, and all are connected to tanks of nutrients via tubing. It is not our sort of factory. Oreezanik explains that each module contains several of the ganglia, and that the modules are in every stage from larvae to near-maturity.
Oreezanik and Kritnikren talk together very rapidly about technical matters. Oreezanik explains that it would like to use the ganglia from the damaged amulet to trace it to its batch, and from there to the people misusing it.
Fallataal warns, "Be careful. The culprits will try to keep their secrets, and they will not be gentle."
The Hroon nods, then announces that those ganglia came from a four-month old batch of 256 modules. He then takes the working amulet, and traces it. It comes from not just a different batch of 256, but from a different project. He checks his records, and tells us that those ganglia were provided to families that have suffered exceptional amount of damage in the past year.
Thoughtfully, he observes that he had noticed that there had been "too much" rioting in the streets in recent months.
We reflect on this. The Tlappina Aelth are certainly a boisterous people, with their contests, and riots. The excessive rioting could indeed point to amulet use. Even so, it does not seem to us that subtlety is a marked trait of the Tlappina Aelth. We are probably looking at an outside agent.
©2002,2005 Ann Broomhead and Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.