Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Majestrum’
Lord Afre’s lesser space yacht, the Orgillous, approached the world known as Harlemond at moderate speed. I went to the forward lounge and asked the ship to display the world’s image. A tranquil orb appeared, showing a well balanced arrangement of seas, continents and islands, tastefully rendered in pastels. Harlemond was one of the minor foundationals, settled long ago in the second wave of the great effloration of humankind into The Spray, Whatever crudities it may have offered the first settlers who encountered its primal state had long since been smoothed away.
It was the seventh world I had visited since lifting off from The Braid’s vehicle park some weeks before. Word had finally come, as I had expected, from a commercial ship inbound for Old Earth: Hobart Lascalliot’s melody was known to the Sodality on Far Moline, the institution that registered musical creations and, more important, their creators. The tune was a recent composition credited to one Tap Trollane of the city of Branko on Byway, a secondary world not far down The Spray from Old Earth.
I immediately advised Lord Afre of the development in the case. His yacht had been staffed and provisioned for ready departure since we had spoken in the essentarium, and within an hour my integrator and I were outbound aboard theOrgillous. A number of different routes led from Old Earth to Byway; we chose the fastest, which required us to pass through three whimsies. As we approached the first, I thought it prudent to raise with my assistant the question of how he ought to handle the experience.
“I will avail myself of the medications that depress both consciousness and the secondary apperceptions,” I said. That was always my custom, since passing wide-eyed through a whimsy could outrage the senses so drastically as to cause permanent disorientation. Almost every spaceport was haunted by spacers who had gone to their bunks somewhat the worse for strong drink only to awaken in the midst of a whimsy. Mild cases lost merely their sense of balance and tended to move at odd angles. Those visited with more severe effects emerged unable to reliably distinguish between their own persons and other parts of the universe; unless constantly watched, they fell from the first height they encountered or ingested things that did them no good.
“Another unprecedented problem,” said my assistant. We were in the luxuriously appointed main cabin where my integrator had established himself in a corner of a plush divan. For his convenience I had brought several types of fruit from the galley and left them in a bowl beside him. He now chose a purple berry before continuing, “Integrators are not troubled by the effects of whimsies; we simply disregard them as extraneous noise.”
“Your circuits are now not much different from mine,” I said. “You would be wise to use the medications.”
We calculated a dosage based on his relative size and when we had come through the whimsy I was relieved to discover that the drugs worked as well on him as they did on me. I had not wanted to be confined to a space yacht with an unbalanced integrator.
The passages through the normal space between the whimsies were of varying lengths, the longest taking more than three days even at the yacht’s best speed. We came down on Byway a week after departing Old Earth. I immediately had my assistant link to the world’s connectivity and seek a connection with Tap Trollane.
In the air before me appeared a broad and homely face beneath a bowl-shaped coiffure that was apparently the current fashion on Byway. He spoke before I could, in a mellow, well cadenced tone and I realized that I was seeing and hearing a recorded announcement: “I am not at home. The Ramblers and I are playing the Po Festival on Claghorne. If we do well there, we will be invited to join the Glissand Tour for an indefinite time.”
The bushy eyebrows arched and the wide mouth quirked then the image said, “I must address the remote possibility that we have already been to the festival and returned in disgrace, having failed to rise beyond the preliminaries. If so, I am sitting here in my small clothes, drunk and despondent, and not fit for company. Please call again in a few days.”
“Integrator,” I said, “break the connection and find out about the Po Festival and the distance to Claghorne.” Moments later, I learned that the festival had started the day before, and that its venue was two day’s travel away by the nearest whimsy. I had the yacht set course and lift off without our having known so much as a first breath of Byway’s air.
We touched down not far from the Po grounds and arrived there by a three-wheeled dromond. It was early morning and roustabouts were striking the marquees and collapsing the above-ground mineral pools whose bubbling mud was apparently a significant part of the festival-goers’ experience. I spoke with a foreman and learned that all of the event’s officials and organizers had already gone off-world on the Glissand Tour. They had left in a ragtag convoy of spacecraft the night before, their lift-off accompanied by pyrotechnical displays that were the traditional climax of the event. He did not know if the Ramblers had gone with them, although he remembered the quintet making it into the final rounds.
“What of the tour’s schedule?” I said. “Where will they play and for how long? I will catch them up.”
Until now, the Glissand Tour had never attracted my attention. Each of the Ten Thousand Worlds is a repository of culture and the arts, some of them having developed over hundreds of millennia. The Spray is a vast kaleidoscope of activities and diversions, from the inconsequential to the magnificent, and no one’s lifetime is sufficient to allow for more than a tiny sampling of its countless offerings. I learned that the most salient feature of the Glissand Tour, apart from the virtuosity of its performers, was that it appeared unannounced at any venue it played. The musicians and dancers touched down on a world; they went en masse to some park or public square, where they performed to the surprise and delight of whoever happened to be on the scene; they rushed back to the spaceport and disappeared into the illimitable.
“This is irksome,” I told my assistant who sat upon my shoulder, with its tail curled around the back of my neck. “Contact traffic control and find out if the ships filed any flight plan.”
But, of course, no such requirement pertained to spacecraft departing Claghorne; once they were free of the world’s nearspace zone, their goings and coming were of no concern to the Claghorners. The motley collection of vessels had been observed, however, to have been heading in the direction of a whimsy that was only a half-day away at the best speed of the slowest ship in the convoy. “We will try that,” I said, “and see where we come out.”
When I awakened from the medications, I found myself seated in a chair in the main salon, which was decorated in a gaudy, overblown style — all ruffles and gilded fretwork — that must have been Lord Afre’s most recent enthusiasm. Or perhaps it was Chalivire’s; she was more likely to have used the family’s lesser yacht than her father. Before me on a alabaster-topped, gold-rimmed table was spread the troublesome book whose mystery had overthrown my other self’s sense of proportion.
“Still?” I said to him.
“It is important.”
Within our mutual mental space I made a noise that was not quite rude yet could not be construed as unstinting support. But since our eyes were fixed on a page of the unfathomable symbols, I again offered to exert my analytical skills.
“Integrator,” I said, “consider the text by substituting the letters of a known syllabary for these marks.”
“We have already done that for every known language,” it said. “We achieved nothing that was recognizable.”
“Do it again, and show me anything that bears even the slightest resemblance to a recorded tongue.”
It did so and I considered the results, applying consistencies, dissonants and every other tool of intellect that I could summon. My inner companion “stood” beside me and watched; as the text continued to resist my every attempt I could sense his mounting frustration. His emotional state worried me: he was, in a very real sense, only recently born as a full persona, his character as untempered by experience as that of an infant; but he was the co-inhabitant of our psyche. If he went mad, what would become of me?
I offered a conjecture to give him something other than failure to think about. “Could it be that this book defies all our combined abilities because it is, in fact, protected by some magic means?”
I felt him take hold of the question. “Why not? he said. “What would be more appropriate?”
“It at least gives us a new avenue of approach,” I said. “We should review the rest of the books in Baxandall’s library to see if any of them offer a foothold.”
He spoke aloud, “Ship’s integrator, set course for Old Earth.”
“Very well,” said the ship.
“No,” I said, hurriedly seizing control of our vocal apparatus. “I misspoke. Continue on our present course.”
“We must go back,” my other self said to me. “This is important.”
“So is our career,” I said. “And that requires us to complete this discrimination to the satisfaction of our client.” I did not spell out the consequences of disappointing an aristocrat of Lord Afre’s rank and temperament, but I allowed a sense of his range of responses to seep into my other self’s awareness.
“I see,” he said. “Well, we couldn’t do much about the book if we ended up confined to an oubliette or were distracted by the removal of several non-essential but valued parts of our anatomy.”
“Then let us proceed with the case and I promise you that I will make your concern my highest priority as soon as it is resolved.”
Relieved, I directed his attention to where we were and why. We had come through the whimsy from Claghorne to find ourselves in a thinly populated part of The Spray. The ship’s navigational function informed us that only one habitable world within reach. Its name was Honch, and when we examined its specifications we discovered that its climate stretched the definition of “habitable” close to the limit. There were, however, three other whimsies within reasonable distances, and no way to tell whether the Glissand Tour had made for any of them.
My assistant made a suggestion. “From information I acquired about the tour from Claghorne’s connectivity, it seems to be a frequent practice to offer the first performance on some minor world where standards are not too high.”
“A dress rehearsal,” I said, “to shake out any burrs or bristles.”
“In that case: Ship’s Integrator, please set course for Honch.”
The planet, when we researched it, was neither a foundational nor a secondary. Rather it was one of those hole-in-a-crack places that had, throughout the history of human dispersal, attracted groups whose members had difficulty accommodating their beliefs and standards to the more easy-going mores of the great worlds. For some philosophies, tolerance was simply intolerable, and seclusion in an otherwise unvisited corner was the only alternative to suicidal warfare against overwhelming numbers of cheerfully heathen neighbors.
But the seclusion itself often turned out to be suicidal. In the ages since Honch’s discovery, its cliff-side caves had hosted at least a dozen different uncompromising sects and persuasions. Each set of newcomers had swept out the fetishes and fanes of their predecessors — and sometimes the bones and mummified corpses of the last holdouts — before settling down to endure constant grit-storms and groundwater so mineralized that even the most austere fasters gained weight as their bones and teeth grew ever denser.
“It does not seem a place that would gladly welcome a motley of musicians and dancers,” I remarked to my assistant after viewing a summary Honch’s history.
“As you may see, the latest settlers were a colony of Piaculars, a cult whose rituals centered on exhaustive mutual flagellation,” it said. “But two generations on Honch caused a drastic reduction in their numbers. Now a new movement has arisen, advocating a less rigorous spirituality expressed in gentle slapping. The few score inhabitants now welcome any diversion, though visiting ships have to take precautions to avoid stowaways.”
We set down on a wind-scoured plain near some iron cliffs, the dark rock streaked with rusty veins and pocked with caverns and recesses bored by the elements or by human hands desperate for shelter. The sky was a dark blue, cloudless and broken only by a pinpoint white blaze, high overhead, that was the dwarf star that Honch circled. As soon as the ship’s engines were shut off I heard a thin, irritating whine. The Orgillous‘s integrator identified the sound as the abrasion of the vessel’s hull by myriad particles of fine grit constantly being blown past. “If we remain here too long, I will require repainting,” it advised.
Not far off, a disparate collection of spacecraft rested on or hovered above the bedrock. I donned protective clothing and went out, to be immediately beset by the wind. It neither buffeted nor lapsed, but blew steadily from the northwest, conveying its endless cargo of pulverized rock from one bleakness to another. The nearest ship was the Euterpe, only minutes walk away; but when I arrived I discovered that it was empty, as were all the others. The vessel’s integrator informed me that the tour’s entire company were in a large cavern at the base of the cliffs. I gauged the distance and asked if the ship had any sort of vehicle it could lend me. It did not, nor did Lord Afre’s yacht. But I congratulated myself on having the presence of mind, before beginning the trudge, to ask if Tap Trollane was a member of the tour.
“He is,” said the Euterpe’s integrator. “He is in the cavern with the others.”
Fortunately, my route tended to the southeast, so that I had the scouring wind blowing mostly on my back. I reminded myself, as I set one foot in front of its fellow, that a discriminator’s life is not without sacrifice. I then allowed myself to think that, although the Honorable Chalivire was not the most winsome daughter of Old Earth’s aristocracy, she nonetheless did not deserve to be ill-used by a callous adventurer and that it was a noble deed to seek to prevent that abuse. Finally, I comforted myself with the knowledge that the cavern was now not as far away as it had been when I started. I trudged on. My other self, I noted, was missing the experience, having chosen to sleep.
I came to a tall, wide tunnel that zigged and then zagged into the cliff face, then zigged again. After the second turning, I no longer felt the wind. I took my hands from the garment’s side slits and threw back my hood. Ahead was light and music. I walked on and the tunnel opened onto a wide space lit by lumens mounted on the dark rock walls and suspended by wires from a false ceiling of gridwork that spanned the great cavern.
Against the far wall was a broad dais crowded with folk in costumes of several worlds, some colorful, some severe, some simple, some heavily garnished with frills and furbelows. Most of then sat or stood, their instruments in their hands, on their laps or wound about their bodies, tapping their feet and nodding their heads to a mellow tune being played on strings and woodwinds by a handful of the company. Now a stocky man in buckram and leather off to one side lifted a silvery flute and wove a bright stream of notes into the flow of the background melody. By his hairstyle I recognized the flautist as the man I had come to find.
Below the dais was an open area where a quartet of dancers clad in diaphanous flutters of fabric improvised moves and struck postures in response to the music. And between them and me a small crowd of Honchites sat cross-legged on the cavern floor, presenting me with a vista of thin shoulders and bony backs beneath shirts of poor quality fabric. They leaned toward the performers like flowers that hungered for sun.
I made my way around the audience and took up a position against the wall on the far right of the front row. My progress was noted by the musicians but the performance went on. I waited until Tap Trollane had finished his solo then raised a finger to attract his attention. I saw curiosity combine with hesitancy in his features as I moved toward the side of the dais. He made his way through the ensemble to meet me.
The strings and woodwinds had now faded behind the advance of brass and drums, augmented by a basso profundo voice booming out the first stanza of some stirring anthem. I had to raise my voice for Trollane to hear me.
“I am Henghis Hapthorn, a discriminator from Old Earth,” I said. “I am interested in a song you composed.”
I watched his face as he took in the information. The mention of Old Earth meant nothing to him, but my being a discriminator with an interest in his work provoked even more wariness than he had originally shown.
“I don’t know the name. It goes like this,” I said and hummed the opening notes.
The broad face closed and went still. “I cannot discuss it,” he said.
“I signed an undertaking of confidentiality.”
“With whom?” I said.
“That, too, is confidential.”
“Hmm,” I said, “then I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” I began to turn away, then abruptly came back to him. “Just to confirm the details for my report, you are Tap Trollane of Branko on Byway?”
“I am,” he said, the initial relief he had shown at my seeming departure now giving way to the first stage of anxiety.
“And you live at this address?” I quoted the coordinates.
Anxiety rose in his face.
“What report? And to whom will this report be made?”
“No one you would know,” I assured him. “Merely an aristocrat of Old Earth. One of the old, old families.”
Trollane’s eyes were flicking back and forth now.
“One hears stories about Old Earth,” he said. “It remains a somewhat primitive environment, I believe.”
“There are some survivals of early customs,” I said. “Particularly among the aristocracy. Lord Afre, for example, exhibits some behaviors that are not usually encountered in the Foundational Domains, nor even among the secondaries.”
I saw beads of sweat on the man’s upper lip as I continued, “He may want to pursue this matter further. It directly concerns his only daughter. Of course, the resources at his disposal are considerable. He may even come in person, with an appropriate entourage.”
The flautist’s muscular lips had drawn in. “An entourage?” he said.
“It would be quite an interesting experience for you.” I smiled and bid him goodbye, but I had scarcely taken two steps before I felt his hand on my arm.
“I would prefer to resolve this with you,” he said. “Can you act with discretion?”
“Do you mean, can I leave your name out of my report? If you point me toward persons who have a more direct participation in the matter that troubles my client, then yes.”
“Let us go into the tunnel,” he said.
We skirted the crowd of Honchites and stepped into the entryway. Behind us, the anthem had wound down and the strains of a choral work were wafting past us as we took the first bend. I stopped and produced an image of Hobart Lascalliot. “Is this the man for whom you composed the song?” I said.
He studied the image, and I saw genuine puzzlement in his face. “No, it was a man named Osk Rievor, from the Thoon region on Great Gallowan.”
I knew the planet by name and had an inkling of its attributes. It was an old secondary, the kind of world that is comfortable with itself and unlikely to startle most visitors.
“Please describe this man to me,” I said.
“I cannot. I dealt by mail with his intermediary, a man named Toop Zherev.”
“Also a Thoonian?”
“Yes, he farms flambords.”
I had no idea what flambords were, but the notion that Hobart Lascalliot was connected with farming was no more strange than that he was obsessed with hearing Chalivire Afre sing. Still I filed away the names Osk Rievor and Toop Zherev and continued the interrogation. “Did Zherev say what he wanted the song for?”
“No, but he was adamant that none should hear it before its premiere performance.”
“And that will be where and when?”
“That he did not say.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“What is this about?” Trollane said. “I am an honest musician. Have I fallen among ne’er-do-wells?”
“It would be premature to say,” I told him.
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