6.0 Prologue

Blood in the Duff

Refka had been tracking Shegrräo through the coastal woods of Region Uz for several days since the latest local Monster Moot. Rrem couldn’t forget what Shegrräo had said.

It ate at rrems mind, and rrem wanted some kind of resolution to it. An answer. So rrem had tried to leave at the same time as xem, to confront xem as soon as the two of them could find some privacy. However, Yengkerk had stepped in the way with meaningless babble and delayed Refka’s pursuit for long enough that Shegrräo had made xyr escape. And Shegrräo was fast. By the time Refka had managed to leave the moot, rrem was fated to fall further behind until Shegrräo decided to stop and rest.

At first, Refka couldn’t be convinced that Shegrräo knew rrem was following xem. But as each day passed, it certainly seemed that Shegrräo was deliberately avoiding rrem. However, for some reason, xe headed due aft, destined to reach the shore and nowhere to hide or run after that, if xe kept that bearing.

And, sure enough, that’s where Refka found xem, within a hundred meters of a park just outside of Kwera.

Shegrräo had used xyr tablet to command the local nanites to clear a safe fire pit in order to cook xyr evening meal. So the aroma of spicy roasted mushrooms and amberfruit filled Refka’s nose along with the stench of burning wood before rrem saw the glow of the fire. They were close enough to the sea that, before that, the fetid duff of the forest floor combined with the briny rot of the cuttlecrabs’ domain to fill the air with heady visions of life and death.

It was dusk.

The glow of the dying sun was reflecting off the forward Endcap and turning all glimpses of the sea and Garden shades of orange and red.

Of course, the canopy of the forest itself made the surroundings as dark as night. And as Refka approached the shore, gaps between the gargantuan tree trunks began to show more and more of the ruddy maroon cast by the aft Endcap and sea, light twice reflected.

Still, Refka didn’t need much light to see. Rrem had been born with excellent night vision. Everything was cast in staticky grays in the shadows, with pink and red highlights where things reflected more direct light. So when rrem came into eyesight of the fire’s glow, the small clearing that Shegrräo sat in was an oasis of color, with the greens and violets of the moss, fern, and aphlebia, and the yellows and duns of the tree trunks. And the blue and gold of Shegrräo’s poncho, with xyr gray and brown furry face bowed before the small blaze, carefully watching xyr food.

Refka paused in the dark, long before reaching earshot, to think.

Shegrräo’s parabolic ears twitched and swiveled, but they appeared to be tracking sounds from the beach, which was not so far away now. Refka could hear the faint roar of the waves, and the occasional chirps and warbles of the chattering cuttlecrabs.

Was Shegrräo close enough to them that the Collective might witness their confrontation? It shouldn’t really matter. It wasn’t the Collective’s business, and they tended to try to respect the privacy of Children, Crew, and Monsters alike, as per request. But they were a naturally curious species and known to repeat things they’d heard. And what Refka had to say shouldn’t be anybody else’s business, either, but rrem could imagine that others might take interest. It might influence the decisions of others.

Maybe that was the goal, though. Rrem didn’t trust the notions and motives of the other Monsters of the Moot, not in the moment when emotions were heated. But maybe the rest of the ship should consider these things from a more removed perspective.

The big question of the Moot had been to address the problem of how Monsters could represent themselves as equal members of the Crew Council, soon to be called the Ship Council. The Council had finally deemed it necessary to include everyone as equals, Children, Tutors, Monsters, and maybe even the Collective, along with the Crew. And, of course, the first ship wide vote was about whether or not to accept that invitation.

There was the sense that the vote was a formality. A ceremony, even. The decision was already made, but the populace should be truly included so that no one could say there was coercion. So that everyone could feel confident in the will of the entire ship. Or to, at least, know where everyone seemed to stand.

Many of Refka’s peers had expressed the opinion that the Special Dispensation of the Monsters afforded them all the rights the Monsters needed to participate in the obviously broken system of the Crew, and that they should resist assimilation into the Sunspot’s highest level of governance.

The current paradigm had petitions from the Monsters lodged in an official channel with the Auditor and put in front of the Crew Council during a section of the session where the Crew were supposed to focus on Monster’s needs exclusively. For those who valued that, the fear was that becoming official members of the Council would be an actual demotion of importance and focus, and they’d find it hard to get what they needed.

And for the rest of the detractors, the argument was that the whole point of being a Monster was to reject the regime of the Crew entirely anyway.

Then there were those who were for inclusion. Some with caveats, some with wholehearted trust in the system (which was confusing even to Refka), and a whole variety of other takes. Many inclusionists were still obviously worried about the development, but harbored hopes of improvement anyway.

And Refka wasn’t sure where rrem fell on that whole spectrum rremself.

The Moot was an attempt to come to final conclusions for each individual before votes were cast. Not to unify everyone, but to inform everyone of all the possible angles so that they could each vote in confidence.

Of course, many had tried to sway the whole congregation, or large portions of it. And Shegrräo, the great skeptic, had been one of them.

This is where it had gotten personal.

Filled with growing anxiety during the Moot, Refka had felt the need to loudly declare rrems continuing indecision and suggest that rrem and anyone like rrem could message Phage, in the time-honored tradition of Monsters seeking guidance, to ask it of its wisdom. A simple and obvious statement, sort of a self reassurance, that was probably taken for granted by everyone else, really.

Except that Shegrräo had immediately stood up and shouted in response, “Refka! You’d try to ask a flatbear if it’s OK to be eaten before it ambushes you!”

Refka watched Shegrräo cook xyr food in the dark while rrem puzzled about that exchange.

Rrem had been confused by the outburst. It had seemed like most of the rest of the Moot had been confused at first, too. Phage was chief of the Monsters, even if it hadn’t ever been a physical person. The Crew historically had feared it for millennia, and had locked it away in the Engine Room. It wasn’t considered a stooge of the Crew’s system by any means. At least, not traditionally. But Shegrräo’s invective had seemed to imply it was.

However, some people had been staring at Refka with dark scowls and furrowed brows, and soon after more of the Moot had joined in. As if they all had expected Refka to explain to them all what Shegrräo’s problem was.

And now, here was Shegrräo seemingly oblivious to Refka’s scrutiny, about to enjoy a scrumptious smelling meal.

Refka felt rrems expression taking on that pinched accusatory tension rrem’d felt from the others at the Moot. Rrems frill was pressed firmly down against rrems neck in a cold, growing fury.

Back when they were at the Moot, as Shegrräo had sat back down and the deliberations slowly continued with an awkward stiffness, people trying to ignore what had just happened, Refka’s confusion began to be replaced with growing realization that Shegrräo not only had some sort of personal grudge against Refka, but that xe’d been socially sabotaging rrem at every chance for the past several years.

Perhaps it had been the egregious departure from reason this time, or the fact that Shegrräo had shouted the words, but it had only become obvious to Refka then. Previously, rrem had felt a low growing frustration with Shegrräo’s presence, accompanied by an overall feeling of being increasingly socially inept. Like rrem had been losing some sort of skill or talent for winning over people rrem had enjoyed in the past. It was weird. Whenever they’d both been present at a Moot, large or small, Refka had walked away feeling like rrem had been ignored or dismissed by everyone there in a way that rrem hadn’t experienced before. And rrem had been at a loss as to why.

But, during that last Moot, it all became clear, and rrems memories flashed through a myriad of little reactions and comments by Shegrräo that had clearly soured Refka’s reputation in the eyes of others. In fact, in the last year, Shegrräo didn’t even have to be present for the social degradation to have an effect. It had been a very successful campaign of subtle defamation.

At first, Refka had wanted to know why. Rrem had simply wanted to ask Shegrräo directly, in a moment where neither could be embarrassed in front of the others, what rrem had done wrong and what rrem could do to get in Shegrräo’s good graces. But, thanks to Yengkerk, rrem had lost that opportunity, and in the ensuing days of pursuit, the rest had started to come together.

And now, Refka was sure rrem knew what had happened. It was intractable. A confrontation wasn’t likely to lead to a clean resolution, but letting Shegrräo continue xyr campaign of manipulation and sabotage would only lead to increasing misery for Refka.

Maybe a heated argument in the darkness of the woods within shouting distance of the Collective was in order. Maybe giving Shegrräo the satisfaction of knowing xyr barbs had hit their marks would get xem to let up. And if not, maybe a good shouting would at least release the tension.

But the question was how to approach this. Shegrräo was somewhat bigger and stronger than Refka, and this might devolve into a physical fight. Shegrräo also had the extra set of limbs.

Refka’s only apparent advantage in this case was rrems whip-like tail that was fully half of rrems length, as long as the rest of Refka from tip of nose to the base of that tail. But that little gap in the underbrush and trees didn’t look nearly big enough to maneuver, let alone swing rrems tail. Especially with the fire in the middle of it.

It might be better to position rremself for a swift retreat, and run at the slightest hint of a lunge on Shegrräo’s part. But, as proven by the past few days of pursuit, Shegrräo was faster than Refka, and had more stamina.

Maybe some kind of implement or tool was in order.

Something big, heavy, long, and pointed, like a stick, to deter any aggression on Shegrräo’s part. But the damn thing about the woods was that when you really needed just the right kind of stick, you couldn’t find it without really looking hard. Everything rotted fairly quick, and you never really knew what would have fallen from the canopy in the past few days. You’d think a handy hunk of wood would be quite common here, but it was so random and scarce. Shegrräo had probably grabbed all the good pieces of wood for the fire, anyway.

Maybe the beach would have a good sized piece of driftwood, polished and hardened by the waves, preserved by the salt. But going out there would mean being spotted well before rrem approached Shegrräo.

A rock might do, but Refka couldn’t see one of a decent or manageable size amongst all the aphlebia and moss, and rrem really didn’t want to spend time searching. Again, the beach would be a great source, but a terrible plan.

That left the nanites. And with them, Refka had a couple of bad options.

The nanites were programmed to cease functioning the instant they might be used to harm another person. And even though Refka only wanted something to use as a threat, a deterrent, the knowledge that they’d fail would undermine that. So, using a clump of nanites to form a club or knife wouldn’t really work. Shegrräo would see through what xe would assume was a ruse.

But Refka could use the nanites to quickly and quietly craft a pointed stick from a nearby tree trunk. Which was not something most anybody could do. The rights of the fauna and flora of the Garden were more protected than those of people, and harming a tree would normally deactivate the nanites just the same. But Refka happened to have a line of code to override that. Words of Fenekere, with the requisite permissions, that were normally only available to Founding Crew.

But also, Refka could use that same command to instruct a nanite knife or club, or other tool, to fuse itself with heat, destroying the nanites in order to become a solid piece of metal infused graphene. Brittle, but heavy, and possibly very sharp. And Refka could explain or demonstrate to Shegräo what rrem had made, if that were necessary.

It might feel awfully good to do that. To catch Shegrräo from behind and press the knife against xyr throat close enough to draw blood.

Not a civil thing to do, by any means, but matters had gone well beyond civility at this point.

If this confrontation ever came to trial, Refka wondered if rrems connection with Keplenede, the Founding Crew who’d agreed to sponsor Refka’s dalliances and escapades with those vital Fenekere command codes, might balance out the social damage and biases Shegrräo had already leveraged against Refka. That connection was supposed to be kept secret, but Keplenede seemed to genuinely care about Refka. Maybe keh would intervene in a subtle, covert way.

It would be better if things didn’t come to that, of course. Rrem would try to avoid it, but something had to be done. And by this point, rrems mind couldn’t grasp at any other alternatives. There was no one else Refka could turn to for assistance, advocacy, or advice. And rrem didn’t want to bother Keplenede again, not after making such a risky request as rrem had to get those commands.

Clenching jaw in grim determination, Refka pulled out rrems tablet and began coding the instructions and specifications for the tool rrem needed. Then rrem activated the script and held rrems palm against the nearest tree trunk.

Trees were so huge, and a decimeter thick hunk of wood a meter in length removed from a trunk would hardly be felt by the mammoth plant. Especially when surgically removed by the nanites of the Sunspot’s Garden, which could ensure the wound was sterile and covered with a protective film afterward. And the perfectly straight and rounded stake that was slowly pressed into Refka’s hand was still warm with life and heavy with moisture.

It would do very well.

Carefully mincing heavily clawed feet through the duff of the forest floor, Refka stalked Shegrräo then, approaching with head lower than the fronds of surrounding aphlebia. Rrems newly crafted stake held closely to rrems torso to avoid knocking on tree trunk or bush branch. Tail semi-rigid for balance but fluid enough to avoid touching anything.

Keeping an eye on Shegrräo’s ears for any sign that rrem had been heard, Refka crept right up to the end of the clearing, and then rose to full standing height without Shegrräo looking up or around once. The other Monster was so focused on xyr food and the rambling chatter of the cuttlecrabs over the song of the waves, that xe seemed to have no clue about Refka’s presence.

Retinas reflecting the glow of the fire, carefully adjusting the stake to brandish it in a threatening way, Refka drew the deepest, quietest breath rrem could, then hissed, “Shegrräo, you suppurating anus! My rejection of your sibling’s advances is none of your fucking business!”

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