The fashion for life masks endured for a time, then faded. The essences were sent back into the grayness of nonbeing. More centuries passed, and then there came a revival of interest in the old ghosts. It began with a craze among the avant-garde of young aristos: they had taken to wearing antique costumes and affecting the mannerisms of bygone ages, mixing periods and customs to sometimes comic effect. While plundering old storerooms, a coterie of young Barzants and Thincherins had found a cupboard stocked with life masks. They had worn them to an evening rout at Lord Boul’s house-in-town, causing a sensation.

Within days, the fashion had spread through the second and third tiers, and even some of the first-tier families had adopted the new mode. From the shoulders up, any gathering of the high and haughty became a collection of pearlescent globules, bobbing and nodding as the long-dead communed with their descendants and each other. Those members of the inferior classes who liked to imitate their social superiors’ fashions could not do so in this instance, their ancestors having neglected to preserve each other. Instead, the term “bubble head” experienced a revival, though those who used it were careful not to do so within the hearing of an aristocrat wearing a life mask, as the elite were ever ready to defend their honor and their burly servants were quick to the task.

But then, as in all things, the vogue passed. A new mode broke out, and the fashion elite were now seen with their hands and faces tinted by metallic skin-dyes, accented by glittering precious gems embedded in the corners of the lips and eyes. The ancient half-dead were returned to storage and forgotten.

Though not by Luff Imbry.

Carrying the life mask in its container, the fat man made his way, by roundabout routes that would allow him to discover if anyone was idling along in his wake, to the nondescript dwelling in an unfashionable suburb that served as his operations centre. He entered its grounds through a sagging rear gate that opened on an overgrown garden whose dense weeds and creepers concealed an array of insightful percepts and lethal defensive systems that would have alarmed his neighbors. At the seemingly unremarkable rear door, he paused before entering to consult the house’s integrator and learned that the place had been subject to no surveillance and no attempted entries beyond the ordinary sort of housebreaking to be expected in such a district. Imbry brushed off the flakes of charred skin that still adhered to the door’s fastener, left by the latest would-be burglar, then he bid the who’s-there to admit him.

He went to a back bedroom and, placing the fringed case on what appeared to be a battered dresser, he lifted the mask free of its confinement and set it on the scarred wooden top. He regarded it a moment, then said, “Integrator, deploy yourself and connect to this object.”

Silently, the piece of furniture altered its appearance. A set of indicators came into view as well as several prehensile leads whose tips explored the grey globe before affixing themselves to particular points on its surface and within the filigree-lined cavity. The integrator’s voice then spoke from the air. “Done.”

“Activate the mask and let us begin.”

A pale glow illuminated the globe from within, then a three-dimensional representation of a head appeared. The face was that of a woman who had known more than a few years and many more than a few dinners, the cheeks jowly and the lips pendulous, the eyes small and sunk deep in their sockets. The arrangement of her hair and the disposition of cosmetics bespoke an antique time.

“What means this?” said the head, the voice sounding from the air as the integrator’s had done, but the tone reflecting a habit of taking umbrage at the slightest bait–or even in the complete absence of provocation.

“I have a proposition to put to you,” said Imbry.

The head’s eyes cast about. “Where are the servants?”

“I have a proposition to put to you,” Imbry said again.

The eyes came back to him, infinitely dismissive. “I am Waltraut Voillute. I do not receive propositions. Summon a footman.”

“Integrator,” Imbry said, “disconnect.”

The light faded and the head disappeared. Imbry waited, then said. “Reconnect.”

A moment later, the eyes had him once more in view, though now they had become angry slits. The voice was harsh, peremptory: “A footman! To me, this instant!”

Imbry told the integrator, “Disconnect, then try the inducements.” The globe remained opaque, but the thief knew that the remnant sensorium of Waltraut Voillute was now being bombarded by unpleasant sights, sounds, odors and tastes, at great intensity and in nauseating combinations. He waited again, then said, “Discontinue.”

“Done.”

“Now let her hear my voice and me hers. Your Dominance, I invite you to hear my proposition. It is–”

A stream of vituperation spilled from the air. Imbry signalled the integrator to cut it off. “The inducements again,” he said. This time he let the process continue at some length. When he instructed the device to cease the repellent stimuli and reestablish an audio connection, the sound that came from the air was a hoarse scream. He waited for it to end, then said, “Are you ready to hear the proposition?”

The answer was silence. “Integrator,” Imbry began.

“Wait,” said the woman’s voice. “I will hear it.”

The Iphigenza were an extinct race, an intelligent insectoid species that had once inhabited a world named Boache, after its original descrier. Boache was down near the far end of The Spray, in a region that contained vast, dense clouds of interstellar gas, where the Beyond gave way to the sparsely starred Back of Beyond. The Iphigenza had risen to consciousness late in their planet’s existence, when its climate had grown uniformly mild and all the grand questions of where continents and mountain ranges might place themselves had long since been settled. It was a paradaisical world that afforded the Iphigenza an easeful existence, crowded happily together in their hive-cities of towering red rock, well watered by gently curving canals crossed by high-arching spans, and set about with feathery-foliaged shade trees and velvety lawns.

Their civilization lasted thirty thousand generations, affording the gracile and delicately limbed Iphigenza time to develop a religion that assured them that the daily comforts they enjoyed had been earned during a previous, more strenuous, existence. The concept may have represented an ur-memory of their insentient ancestors’s struggles to survive in aeons long since passed, when Boache had been a more challenging venue. In those far-gone, primeval times, the environment had supported huge beasts with heavy claws and insatiable appetites which would dig into the primitive hive-heaps and probe with long, sticky tongues for the soft-fleshed young in their creche chambers.

Once the Iphigenza had risen to sapience, the brutish predators were fed poisons–the insectoids had a natural flair for chemistry–the wildernesses were pushed back, and their world was shaped into a garden. The Iphigenza pruned and weeded to perfection, then reposed themselves to enjoy an unending tranquility.

Their long afternoon of ease ended, however, on the day that the descrier Jimp Boache came down from the sky, his ship’s drive thrumming and glowing, and the man stepped briskly out of its hatch to see what kind of world he would be able to add to the literature. The descrier meant no harm. Indeed, he was delighted to find a sapient species in residence; worlds, after all, were commonplace, but someone new to talk with was a welcome rarity. Jimp Boache followed all the recommended protocols, was able to assure the startled Iphigenza that he wished them no ill. He made them a few presents, left behind the standard explanatory materials, then lifted off to report his discovery and receive the accolade.

But when, after an interval, a formal contact expedition arrived from the Foundational Domain of New Hoggmancher, beyond the gas cloud, its members found the red rock towers full of corpses, the canals polluted by the bloated, floating dead, the grasses of the rubiant lawns already sending up wild stalks through the rotting carapaces and gaping mandibles. The Iphigenza had taken poison, making their paradise a charnel house.

They had left no explanation. It was eventually decided that a clue to what had happened lay in their world’s having been set among the great hydrogen clouds that obscured the rest of the universe from view. The Iphigenza must have assumed that they were the only intelligent species in a comfortably confined universe. Perhaps they saw themselves as the darlings of a mellow deity. The standard descrier’s materials Jimp Boache had left with them–images of other world, star charts, encapsulated histories of space travel–had been a shock too devastating for the insectoids to assimilate. Perhaps his size–the Iphigenza stood no more than ankle-high–had reawakened unconscious memories of hive-cracking, grub-eating predators. Whatever the trigger, the outcome was clear: the Iphigenza had found the new reality troublesome and had opted not to accept it.

When advised of the mass suicide, Jimp Boache suffered a nervous collapse. He returned to the world with some inchoate idea of burying the dead, but soon saw that the task was far beyond him. Still, he wished to make a memorial gesture: he chose one of their exquisitely carved buildings set in a wide plaza at the heart of the hive-city near where he had landed; in it he would install a device that would display the sights and sounds that he had recorded on his initial visit. Thus anyone who came to Boache would have at least a fleeting encounter with so much that had been lost.

It was while he was in the process of sweeping away the deliquescing corpses of the Iphigenza who had chosen to die in that spot that the mournful descrier discovered the first eidolon. Whether it was a representation of an insectoid deity, a funerary image or a monument to some notable achiever, an abstract ideal form, or merely a decorative form, was a question to set savants to squabbling. To Boache, and to everyone who laid eyes on the little statue, it was an object of gentle beauty, wreathed in an aura of forlorn sadness.

By the time he had cleared the building, the penitent descrier had found eight of the images, each unique, each flawless. Further exploration by curators from the Academy on New Hoggmancher discovered other clutches of the objects, each group housed in a similarly decorated building near the centre of an Iphigenza hive-city. Jimp Boache persuaded New Hoggmancher’s ruling syndics to order that the objects be left unmolested, out of respect for the dead, but enforcement of the dictat proved impractical: collectors and aficionados of non-human artefacts up and down The Spray would pay whatever was necessary to own one or more of the eidolons, to be able to run their fingers over the lightly roughened metal surfaces, to see light shimmer off the cool, nacreous inlay that highlighted the figures’ eyes and the row of spiracles along the sides of the segmented abdomens.

In all, a total of four hundred and six of the figures were known to exist. Trade in them was infrequent, and usually occurred only when a collector died and left the statues in the hands of heirs who had other interests and wished to acquire the funds to pursue them. Then there would be a flurry of buying and selling, often at a grand auction, before things settled down to their normal state, in which demand far exceeded supply.

Of course, there were other, less savoury circumstances under which Iphigenza eidolons might change hands. Luff Imbry knew several collectors who, if offered one of the objects, would suppress the urge to ask troublesome questions as to how it had come unstuck from some competitor’s shelves. They would pay the thief whatever he asked, then, chortling, carry the prize down to their securest rooms, there to delight in its perfection while gloating over the private joy of ownership.

Forgery, at which Imbry was adept in several media, was not an option. The off-world alloys from which the Iphigenza had fashioned their works could, with care and effort, be duplicated. But the shimmering inlays around the eyes, mouth parts and spiracles were a naturally occurring substance secreted by the Iphigenza themselves. In its rainbow-hued opalescence, it was similar to the nacre that coated the inner surfaces of Old Earth shellfish, but the similarity was not close enough to fool an expert eye. And the universe’s only suppliers of the unique real thing had long since died and rotted away.

There would be no fake eidolons, and so rare were the incidences where the true goods ever came to market that the bidding inevitably reached astronomical levels. Some would-be collectors who lusted after one of the figurines but whose purses could never carry the weight eventually could no longer bear the pangs of unfulfilled appetite. They would think to themselves that the only recourse was to turn to a person like Luff Imbry. Those who went beyond the thinking and got down to the doing soon found, after making discreet inquiries, that there was only one person who was truly “like Luff Imbry,” and that was the fat man himself.

Imbry had standing offers from two aficionados to whom he had delivered other artworks of indefensible provenance. The offers were such as to have caused him to investigate the possibilities of undertaking an “operation”–such was his term for his professional undertakings–to separate an Iphigenza eidolon from an existing owner. But though he would never join the Computance, the thief could judge to an exacting degree how rewards of success stacked up against the risks of failure. His researches had been comprehensive and intensive; none of the four hundred and six figurines were indifferently guarded. The odds against Imbry putting his plump fingers on one were long; the odds that the attempt would instead lead to angry hands laying hold of the thief were short. That there would then follow a lengthy period of intense discomfort that might end with the universe being deprived of its sole supply of Luff Imbry was a certainty.

Still, the thief had kept a watching brief on the issue for several years, occasionally recalculating risk versus reward as new information on this or that eidolon’s owner came his way. The outcomes had never been promising. But then one day, eavesdropping on three aristocratic idlers gossiping over their glasses of chilled golden Phalum at a select outdoor refectory on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking Drusibal Square, he heard something that caused him to fold up the copy of the¬†Olkney Implicator¬†behind which he had been concealing his interest in the lordlings’ chatter, rise and saunter away.

He visited his operations centre, there to confer with the information-retrieval and processing matrix that was disguised as a battered dresser. Into the old calculations, he posited a new factor. The device weighed and sifted, consulted and ciphered, and in a few seconds produced a hazard-to-harvest ratio that, while still not optimum, was not tantamount to suicide. Imbry reached out for Holker Ghyll.


The Meaning of Luff and Other Stories is available in print from Amazon. It is also available as an eBook from the Archonate Bookstore, Amazon (for the Kindle) and Kobo.