Turtles All the Way Down
So back to the vampires.
Thorne is soaking his feet in a foul-smelling concoction of cabbage water, cheap vodka, and orange fizzies.
“What do you want to know about vampires?” he asks.
You left that story open-ended. Did you ever write anymore?
“Maybe. What does it matter to you?”
Look, I’m still trying to help you out here. I need more material if I’m going to have success getting your remaining works published. You haven’t been exactly drowning me with your written word here.
“Maybe I have a damned good reason not to,” he barks. “Writers get bit and they get shy. Some grease-slick bastard with an MBA turns up his nose to your masterpiece and you pull back into your shell like a snail who has run too close to salt before.”
He’s agitated and the tub spits water over its rim as his feet twitch.
“You’ve not proven your character to me yet. You come in here and waste my time, trying to pull profit out of my work, promising me that I’ll get the recognition I deserve, and what have I to show for it?”
The satisfaction of intelligent conversation?
“Screw your conversation. If I want conversation, I’ll roll my happy ass down to the cafeteria and talk torture and freemasonry with a Korean War vet.”
You can’t expect to just suddenly be a successful author. You’ve got to work at it. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice required. You have to walk the gauntlet just like everyone else.
“That’s bullshit! You know it!” he accuses. A slowly expanding pool of fizzy stench encroaches upon my Skechers. “That secret club mentality is a bunch of crap. Why do you think nothing good gets published anymore? There are no original voices out there. And worse yet, there are no original readers. People these days read what they’re told to read. They pull hardbacks off of ‘recommended reading’ shelves and ‘Best Seller’ tables, and how do you get there? You run the gauntlet – the right of passage that is deemed necessary by those that have run it. It’s just like with anything else, college degrees, the film industry, art, music – if you didn’t follow the same initiation process of bending over to have your creativity raped out of you by a cadre of greedy, self-important despots who skated by just by following the formula, then you live your life in a pool of your own rejected filth. It’s turtles all the way down.”
Whoa. You’re getting all riled up. I just wanted to know if the story continued or not.
“Of course it does, I’m a god damned writer, you dumb shit. I don’t write chapters, I create universes. Ad infinitum.”
There are still some readers out there that crave continuity. They want the serial epic. You can keep a reader attached as long as you keep the string going.
“Turtles all the way down!”
Thorne dumps another handful of Fizzies in the cloudy water.
Does that really help?
Thorne shrugs. “I don’t know. I thought I’d give you something to write about.”
Trust me, you’ve given me plenty to write about.
He nods knowingly. “Right, the vomit and feces and urine pooled in my bed. The prostitutes and abuse of nurses and my theft of other residents medication. You think that’s all just my sick and twisted mind, caught in some tragic loop of obliviousness, where I’m so far gone I don’t realize that I’m running counter-clockwise to the rest of my environment.”
I’d like to post the rest of your Wynter piece, if you’ll share it with me.
“You are being written by me,” he says, pointing a bony finger at me. “You play around with your little blog and your magazine submissions, but what you don’t realize is that I brought you here. You’ve been guided to me from the beginning. Two minutes out of the vagina and you were already headed right here.”
Thorne flicks a wrinkled foot at me, showering me with cabbage-smelling foulness.
“A real writer is not just putting his story to paper – he’s weaving the tapestry of the universe outside the printed word. A writer is a catalyst and a chaotic attractor. He doesn’t just write. He creates gravity at the end of bars. He is the blackhole in the corner of a coffee shop. His clever scarf siphons off the will to resist him from those that surround him on the train.”
Wiping the liquid from my face, I realize something. I don’t remember exactly how I met this man.
“I wrote you,” he says.
Did you take your meds this morning?
“Turtles all the way down.”
–Episode Two: Daddy Issues–
The markets were beginning to hum with the mid-morning rush. Between the barking of stall vendors, one would occasionally hear the bleats of livestock or the sounds of the kitchen from the many food tents littering the Grand Market. Huge beasts of burden cried out from the strain of their heavy loads as they entered the gates in long caravans. Among these caravans, a dusty-robed man pulled a younger boy behind him impatiently.
The man had a heavy growth of beard that set him apart from the other patrons and vendors of the Grand Market. In the Galselka province, which was home to the vast walled structure housing the markets, it was the fashion for men to be clean shaven, but occasionally members of the northern tribes would venture southward to buy or sell goods. Most of the people in the Grand Market that paid the bearded man and his companion any mind at all marked them as travelers from the north.
Two persons that had been monitoring the gates knew better.
As the bearded man tugged on the younger male and broke away from the line of carts rolling in through the gates, the two persons that had been waiting for their arrival left their positions and began to follow them.
The larger of the two men was named Telonn. His dark brown skin and heavy sand-colored robes allowed him to appear as one of the Jelihean mercenaries often hired as guards by the Galselkan merchant princes who ran the Grand Market. He took a position even with the bearded man but along a parallel row of stalls. His eyes never left his target as they passed through crowds of bickering vendors and potential buyers. Telonn pressed the middle finger of his right hand against one of the two sensors embedded in his palm and spoke in a calm voice, “Positive match in Galselka. The boy is with him.”
Through the implant in his ear, he was given further instructions from his superiors and continued to shadow the bearded man.
Telonn’s associate was named Gast. While Telonn tailed his target through the market center, Gast quickly navigated around the perimeter of the Grand Market, hugging the enclosing walls and sometimes cutting through stalls of angry vendors. Both Telonn and Gast knew where the bearded man was headed, but it was Gast’s intention to reach the destination first and get himself in position.
Gast was much younger and less experienced than Telonn in these situations. Where the large, dark-skinned Telonn was calm and collected, the wiry, blond youth known as Gast was bordering on over-stimulation. His muscles twitched faster than he needed them to even in his haste and clumsiness began to affect his progress. He heard Telonn’s report to their superiors and after the response to it, Gast accelerated his progress, pushing people aside to get into position faster.
The bearded man continuously had to drag the youth along though the crowds and intermittently scanned his surroundings with nervous jerks of his head. He did not notice Telonn shadowing him. The youth that accompanied the man was a teenager, only fourteen years old by the standard measurements of his home planet. He appeared lethargic and unaware of his surroundings, letting the older man push and pull him through the crowd without protest.
All four persons were closing in on the center of the Grand Market where the largest tent was located. The center of the Grand Market was once a temple to the Galselkan god of wealth before invading warlords destroyed the city surrounding it and brought with them their own pagan gods. The temple was allowed to remain, but was converted into a temple for the worship of Hasmina, the goddess of creation. Hasmina’s disciples were prostitutes, but the priestesses were biological mutations. They acted as vessels of immortality to those wealthy enough to pay for it.
One of the peculiarities of the planet Kulyo, on which the Galselkan province and the Grand Market were located, was the presence of certain females whose reproductive systems did not combine the genetic material of the the mother with the father to create a new original lifeform, but rather copied only the father’s material and created an exact clone of the impregnating male. All that male’s memories transferred over to the clone, therefore making the clone an exact copy of the father – only in egg form. Over thousands of years, the Galselkan merchant princes, descendants of the warlords who originally brought the worship of Hasmina to the region, perfected the process of harvesting the fertilized eggs from the females and incubating them until the time they wished the clone to be awakened. These clones, once hatched, were immortal – or at least aged at a rate somewhere near a thousand times slower than normal. Thus, those who had the means could effectively make themselves immortal. Beyond the inability of a clone to perish of natural causes, they were also equipped with advanced healing properties that rendered them nearly invincible, with some exception. Females, due to the obvious biological impossibilities, could never be cloned.
Due to the ramifications of such a mutation and its effects, strict laws were put in place and the process was closely monitored by the merchant princes and the heads of all the tribes of Kulyo. Any female exhibiting these biological anomalies was immediately transported to Galselka to become priestesses of Hasmina, or was executed – usually at the discretion of the authority first informed.
Rogue females with this quality were not uncommon, and with their existence came organizations that used the females to clone armies and otherwise wreak havoc on the population balance. However, the technology to harvest the eggs and leave the priestess alive was extremely expensive and unattainable by just anyone. Therefore, it was the case that most often only the merchant princes themselves could afford the price to sleep with a priestess and then have the extraction procedure performed. Again, there were some exceptions.
The giant tent built over the remains of the original temple of Hasmina was two miles in diameter and dark red like blood. Giant chains held the tent’s supports taut – their individual links the size of elephants. The supports towered high into the air and were embedded deep in the ground twice as deep as the height of the supports. The tent itself was made of thick Ulfwer hide, nearly indestructible but flexible to bend against the onslaught of the highest winds. Travelers could see the tent for miles in the desert surrounding the Grand Market. It was estimated that over five million Ulfwers were slaughtered to provide the hides for the tent. The huge beasts that once roamed the desert of Galselka were now rare and sporadically hunted when the need to expand the tent exceeded the merchant princes sense of conservation of the species.
Though the priestesses of Hasmina were the main attraction for the wealthy, the tent also housed the largest collection of prostitutes on the entire planet. Travelers came from all over the vast planet for the services of these men and women. As such, this particular tent represented the largest amount of cash flow in the entire market.
The bearded man and his companion approached the giant tent that towered over them and entered among a throng of people. Telonn quickly cut through a stall and as he entered after them, he nodded to Gast who had caught up and was entering a separate side entrance.
After half an hour of searching, Telonn and Gast met up near the remains of the temple where the priestesses were held.
“I think he went inside,” Gast said. “I didn’t see him or the kid anywhere.”
“Then we’d best be ready,” Telonn responded and pulled his blaster from under his heavy robes. “You will wait until my signal, Gast. If you can get the boy away, I’ll take the shot.”
“If not,” Gast asked, pulling his own blaster out.
“Both expendable,” came Telonn’s grim reply.
Gast took a step towards the entrance, but Telonn put a hand on his shoulder. “Do not signal for the jump unless you are absolutely sure you have the boy within your jump perimeter.”
Gast nodded his understanding and both men entered the temple with their weapons ready.
The temple was arranged in concentric circles. Splitting up, Gast and Telonn proceeded towards the innermost chamber from different angles. The halls of the temple were silent and both men took that as a bad sign. The sound of words spoken in anger echoed through the vented ceiling and grew louder as they approached the center.
Telonn reached one of the doors to the inner chamber and crept up to it, his blaster leveled. The door was ajar and he listened a moment before pressing himself against the wall beside it. He could hear a number of women whimpering and the voice of a man ordering them to stay quiet.
Carefully, Telonn peered around the doorway. The bearded man had a large plasma rifle leveled at a man wearing the silken robes and vestments of a high-ranking merchant prince. Several priestesses were cowering in a corner watching the two men. The boy stood to the side of the bearded man and looked around lazily.
Telonn cursed to himself. He tapped his palm twice to change the frequency of his communicator to match Gast’s. “He’s got a plasma gun.”
Telonn heard Gast curse through the implant in his ear. The situation was going to become more difficult than their superiors had been lead to believe.
“You’ll do as I say, or I’ll kill all of them!” the bearded man shouted at the merchant prince.
“And how, pray tell, will you manage to join impregnate a priestess without dropping that weapon?” the merchant prince asked him confidently.
“It’s not for me, it’s for my …” the bearded man hesitated for a moment, “for my son.”
“Neither of you will make it out of here alive with the egg,” the merchant prince retorted. “Even if you manage to hole up here long enough for the process to take place.”
“I have a way to leave, don’t worry,” the bearded man explained. “That blonde one there,” he said pointing to the closest priestess to him. “Move!”
The priestess began to weep and with impatience, the bearded man crossed over to her, rifle still leveled at the merchant prince, and grabbed her roughly by the arm. Dragging her behind him, he set her in front of his young son.
“Do it, now,” the bearded man barked at them.
“Here?” the priestess asked.
With a burst of bright light the rifle incinerated the priestess and was quickly aimed back at the merchant prince, who was now visibly shaking.
“You!” the bearded man barked at the next priestess, this one auburn-haired and athletic. “You do it! Now!”
As the priestess slowly walked over to the boy, she removed her top and began slipping out of the rest of her clothes. The boy was staring calmly at the pile of ashes that once was the blonde priestess.
Telonn pulled his gaze away from the priestess long enough to see Gast foolishly opening a door across the chamber. Before he could warn Gast, the bearded man saw the movement. The door exploded outward into the hallway where Gast had been laying in wait. The force of the blast from the bearded man’s rifle threw Gast against the opposite wall and dislocated his shoulder.
Telonn moved in.
“Put your weapon down!” he yelled, firing two shots just shy of the bearded man’s head. One shot was close enough to singe a few beard hairs and the man hesitated before grabbing the merchant prince and making him a human shield, pressing the barrel of the rifle against the back of his skull.
“You put the weapon down!” the bearded man challenged. “Or I’ll murder one of your merchant princes!”
Had Telonn actually been from that planet, the threat might have worked. Telonn, however, was not even from that universe.
“Temporal Defense Initiative!” Telonn shouted, following regulations. “You have been witnessed breaking the multiversal regulations regarding the travel of individuals through universal portals. You will hand over any jump devices, weapons, or any other technology not from this universe immediately and submit yourself into our custody.”
The bearded man was visibly shaken, but the plasma rifle did not move.
Telonn noticed that beyond the man’s sight, Gast was moving in through the blasted door. He had a clear path to the boy and the bearded man would probably give up if Gast could just get there. Assuming the bearded man’s intentions, Telonn surmised he would not risk any injury to the young one.
“I’ll tell you again,” Telonn said, in a calmer tone this time. “I am an agent of the Temporal Defense Initiative. We know you have traveled here without the proper sanctioning from any of the recognized universes currently authorized to use multiversal travel. You are in violation of multiversal regulations regarding the travel of individuals between universes. Place your weapon on the ground and surrender any technology you may have in your possession not from this universe.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong!” the bearded man yelled. “I had the means! I deserved this!”
Gast was inching closer to the the boy’s position. The priestess had stopped disrobing and stood stupidly in between the approaching agent and the boy.
“Last chance!” Telonn shouted. Gast recognized the signal and sprinted for the boy. Without missing a step, he hit the priestess in the back and sent her flying. As soon as Gast had his hands on the boy, Telonn fired at the bearded man’s shoulder. The impact spun the man around and the plasma rifle flew away from him. Quickly, Telonn closed the distance and tackled the bearded man. In seconds he had him secure and began binding him.
“You got the boy?” Telonn asked without looking up from his work.
“I got him,” Gast replied.
“Check identification then jump out,” Telonn ordered.
Gast pulled a small black rectangular device from his robes and held it in front of the boy’s eyes. There was a rectangle of light across the boy’s face and Gast read the data on the small screen. Telonn did likewise with his captive.
“Arthur Durin,” Gast reported.
“Arthur Durin,” Telonn said to the bearded man, after confirming his device read the same. “Let me guess, you decided you would cross over to a parallel universe, pick up a younger version of yourself without all the undoubtedly boring experiences you’ve accrued over your miserable existence, and thought you’d bring him here to impregnate a Hasmina priestess so you could, in a way, live forever. Believe me this isn’t the first -” Telonn’s eyes went wide as he noticed the boy pulling away from Gast just as the telltale sparks began to burst around them.
After a flash of energy, all that was left was the boy’s right arm, severed just below the elbow.
The bearded man screamed in agony and Telonn watched as the man’s own right arm mutated slowly and grotesquely into a metal prosthetic arm from the inside out.
Gast blinked his eyes blearily and tried to focus on the room. To his left, printed in red on the wall, was the insignia of his starship, the Galactic Cruiser Yazoshea.
“You’re lucky,” said the nurse to his right taking his vitals. Gast winced as she prodded his shoulder, which he noticed had been reset in its socket. There were a thousand other nurses just like her, on a thousand other ships operated by the Temporal Defense Initiative, checking vitals on other Versejumpers across the multiverse.
“Why is that?” Gast managed to ask from his position on the cot in the ship’s recovery room.
“You jumped back with a boy missing an arm and gushing blood all over the place. They’re still cleaning up the mess. That would be the brig for you any other day.”
“Shit …” Gast exclaimed. “What’s different about today?”
The nurse packed up her monitors and prepared to leave, satisfied with his condition.
“We just got a distress call from the Jiang Shi,” she explained. “And you are on Search and Rescue now, big shot.”
With a smirk she left him there. Gast looked over on another cot and saw Telonn still unconscious but apparently unharmed. Gast smiled to himself. He liked his partner and was glad they’d be able to work together again. So many of his other partners and team members had been lost in botched missions. Telonn was a good companion and mentor. Gast only hoped now that his bungle with the boy wouldn’t cost that friendship he had been building for the past three months.
Sirens began to wail and red lights flashed from the ceiling. With a lurch the ship jumped to another universe to investigate the distress call and assess the Jiang Shi‘s situation.