Ascending, And, Descending

 

“This blows,” said Aleya, kicking at some pebbles on the street.[1]

She and Haizea had been walking their beat for hours, and while breaking up street violence – or, sometimes, causing it – had been great fun for a while, Aleya had gotten bored.

“When I get bored, I like to go someplace high up, to be alone with my thoughts,” said Haizea.

“That sounds boring as kippernuts,” said Aleya, “but okay.”

The two women looked around the cavern. With all the undercity’s buildings around, it had gotten surprisingly easy to forget that they were effectively in a gigantic cave, and they had to force their eyes to focus on the distant rocky walls beyond.

“Look up there,” said Haizea, pointing up at what was relatively speaking the nearest cavern wall. “That climbing path’s so clear, it could almost be an actual path.”

They started moving in its general direction, watching idly as it disappeared behind the tops of the nearby buildings as they walked.

“So, what’s with Tambourine Clunk?” asked Aleya. “Was he always a creepy cowboy lizard frog?”

“He used to be a hired gun for a woman named Hurricane Sal,” said Haizea. “So they say. But then he shot her in a game of cards.”

“Violent,” said Aleya, relatively nonplussed.

“Well, it was Seven Card Shoot,” said Haizea.[2] “He took her ship, and her crew. Got more and more to join up, and now he’s the terror of the surface.”

She and Aleya left the end of the paved street of the oni undercity, which simply became more and more broken and patchy until it disappeared into the untamed dirt.

“At least down here he’s not bothering anybody,” she said.

“I’ve been wondering about that,” said Aleya. “If the oni never go up to the surface, are they making invisible copies of themselves to go up there instead? How come they’re not doing that down here? I dunno, it seems like turning invisible would be pretty useful to me.”

“Maybe it only happens on the surface,” said Haizea. “You wouldn’t believe some of the strange things that happen in the deserts.”

Aleya smirked.

“You wanna make this a contest? Cos I’ve seen some gacked up jicama,” she said.

They were well and truly out of the city now. Haizea privately thought that they were probably outside of their official Police News Fire jurisdiction; Aleya privately didn’t give a gac.

“It’s so nice, getting to talk to another woman for a change,” said Haizea. “I mean, one I’m not…although I’m not, uh…Mars and I were a thing.”

“Incredible,” said Aleya, scratching under her eyepatch.

“I mean, for example, I wear this cloak all the time,” said Haizea, pulling at the scarf part of the broad, brown garment. “I’d much rather have something nice, but it’s just a desert survival thing. Everyone outside the townships wears them. I mean, at least you have your gloves and shorts, y’know?”

“Uh, sure,” said Aleya, raising an eyebrow to signify that she y’didn’t.

“Where did you buy them?” asked Haizea. “They’re nice.”

“I don’t know!” said Aleya. “They’re just clothes! I put them on my body so I don’t get arrested before I have any real fun! And I guess this one’s for this.”

She briefly flipped up her eyepatch, and Haizea tensed with the feeling that it would be impolite to look, but also impolite to look away.

Aleya scowled.

“I miss my guns,” she said. “I sure hope Trucker Daddy is enjoying himself.”

“…what?” said Haizea.

They reached the edge of the cavern wall, which curved up and away in front of them and, miles above, back over their heads. The narrow ledges and gaps between various boulders did indeed form a somewhat walkable path leading up the side – but more significantly, it appeared to be littered with some very out-of-place familiar objects.

“Whiskey!” Haizea said, happy that the awkward conversation could be derailed. “Look! Over here!”

Rushing over, Haizea knelt and carefully lifted a broken bottle.

“Quick, hand me one of your fire papers,” she said.

“They’re explosion patches,” said Aleya, “and don’t waste them, I’m running out!”

She slapped one into Haizea’s hand. Haizea stuck the patch to a nearby stick, and rubbed it against the cavern’s rocks until it burst into flame.

Holding the flickering sticky patch stick to the bottle, Haizea’s eyes widened.

“What?” asked Aleya.

“This whiskey bottle came from Pequod’s Albatross,” said Haizea. “Look! Purple Waters, my father’s favourite brand!”

She pointed to the label, which featured a man in a dusty straw hat clutching a dead stallion in a Pieta pose, against a fiery backdrop.

“Smooth,” said Aleya, holding out a cigar and lighting it on the burning patch.

“Oh, you’ve had it yourself?” asked Haizea.

Aleya didn’t dignify this with an answer.

“This explains so much,” said Haizea. “A few months ago, there was a huge earthquake on the surface. Pequod’s Albatross lost its clock tower, because it collapsed, and there was also a shipment of goods from out of town that fell in with it.[3] We might be able to save the clock tower, or at least find out what happened to it.”

“Something tells me these tigernuts don’t care about clocks,” said Aleya. “They probably made spears out of the hands.”

Haizea quickly scrambled up the path, grabbing a handhold between two boulders and pulling herself up. Aleya shook her head, but followed after.

“Early Old Hill!” Haizea called, pointing to a bottle of whiskey that was quite literally on the rocks. “Whale Fencer!”

She leapt upwards, pulling herself over ledges, pointing out bottles as she climbed higher and higher.

“White Schoolhouse! Razor Mine! Jack Jackson’s Smooth and Sour!”

“How come you have so many whiskey distilleries?” asked Aleya as she dragged herself up the steep incline, puffing cigar smoke around her.

“They used to be illegal,” said Haizea. “So everyone had to keep starting new brands over and over. Then they were made legal again, but everybody was so in the habit that they’re still doing it.”

At last, they came to a flat cliff, and Haizea and Aleya stood up on it. Haizea held the fire stick aloft, and Aleya blew smoke rings out into the vast cavern. The oni undercity stretched out in haphazard squares in front of them, smoke rising and lights twinkling, their vantage point higher than even the tallest buildings. The streets hummed with a distant energy, too far away for them to see any individuals, and the result was – as Haizea had predicted – strangely beautiful and calming.

“More whiskey,” said Haizea, turning around to look at the ground around them. “And last year’s batch of Elixir of Tonic.”

She poked at the bottles of Elixir of Tonic, which all hissed vigorously and restored colourblindness to the ground around them.

“What’s that?” asked Aleya, looking up a short crevice ahead of them.

“That’s the wall,” said Haizea.

“No it isn’t,” said Aleya, holding her cigar in front of her to light the way. “It’s too flat to be a natural wall. And there’s…”

Both women jumped as Haizea brought the stick’s light forward, for there was a great cube in front of them, as tall as two men and equally wide across, jammed into the crevice. Its dull gold face had a great circle, adorned with many pictograms and concentric patterns, from the centre of which curved a pair of obsidian arrows. Ornately bordered squares were set back into the cube around the disc, and in the top of the cube above everything else was a large glass-covered inset. Behind the glass was a set of dark, plain, stone chips, engraved with similar symbols as the edge of the disc, that were ticking over like a split-flap display on a flip clock.

“I’ve seen this before,” said Aleya.

“That’s the top of Pequod’s Albatross’ clock tower,” said Haizea.

“No, no,” explained Aleya, “I’ve seen this design before.”

“Where?” asked Haizea.

Aleya furrowed her brows in bewilderment.

“On the Amulet.”

 

· · ·

 

“Mister Dan, Mister Hibiya,” said the tall oni, as they reached the glass door, “please wait here a moment. I’m afraid my employer is still having a discussion.”

The glass door promptly shattered as a short, rotund red oni was bodily thrown through it from the inside, landing at the shocked feet of Space Dan.

The oni stood up, brushed himself off, and held out a hand.

“Good evening!” said the oni, who wore purple pinstriped pants.

He was narrowly saved from looking like a background dancer from a 90s rap video with an Arabian Nights theme by the fact that he had dense maroon fur sticking out of his waistband. His horns were small rounded nubs, and he had dark bags under his gleaming eyes.

“I’m Gotanda,” he said in a rich, rolling voice. “Come inside, I was just practicing fighting.”

The tall oni with the scars began to halfheartedly kick the glass into a pile with his leathery feet. As he and Hibiya followed Gotanda into the room, Space Dan quietly shook his head.

If only the people of Mars had B.R.O.O.M. technology! he thought. But I’m not allowed to interfere directly with other planet’s cultures, because that would be projecting my own cultural norms and values onto them.[4]

“What’s the matter, Danno?” asked Hibiya as quietly as he was capable, noticing Space Dan’s reticence.

“Hm?” said Space Dan, looking up from his thoughts.

“This’s pretty nice,” said Hibiya, glancing around the room. “Ya don’t normally get asked into the special areas like this! I could get used to this police newspaper journalism gig.”

Gotanda, meanwhile, had waddled into the room and set about shaking the hand of a lean and muscular green oni standing on a wide training mat.

“What a throw! I’m sure my landing has improved,” he said to the lean oni. “Same time tomorrow, huh?”

The green oni nodded, and quickly exited the room. He went over and started helping the scarred blue oni kick the glass.

“Good fellow,” said Gotanda, settling into a plush leather chair behind a desk. “Sit down? Would you care for a glass of ink?”

“…what?” asked Space Dan. “I mean, what please?”

“Ink!” said Gotanda.

“Ya drink it to make yourself all dizzy and fun-lovin’,” Hibiya whispered out of the side of his mouth.

Space Dan looked fearfully at the easily stained fabrics of his ceremonial space suit.

“I’m, um…I’m trying to give it up,” said Space Dan. “To show my love of Golly, and disdain for Gosh!”

“Heh!” barked Hibiya, “It puts stains on ya teeth!”

Space Dan clearly understood that this was intended as a selling point.

“More for us then!” shrugged Hibiya.

He cheerily accepted the glass of dark liquid that Gotanda offered him, and swallowed the entire thing.

“Now, to business,” said Gotanda. “Mr Dan – may I call you Space?”

“Yes, certainly,” said Space Dan, who was both nervous and distracted by the sound of Gotanda chewing up his own glass.

“We have something rather special in our possession,” said Gotanda, tapping the side of his squashy nose.

“Yes?” said Space Dan.

“Very hush-hush,” said Gotanda. “Space, we need to know if we can trust you.”

“He’s a brick,” said Hibiya.

Gotanda gave Hibiya a rather severe look, and Hibiya quickly looked down and away.

“Would you mind telling me…where did you and your friends come from?” Gotanda asked Space Dan.

Space Dan swallowed. Recent experiences had cautioned him against both lying and also against telling the truth, so in a surge of unintentionally Juan Druskardian thought, he attempted to simultaneously do both and neither.

“…somewhere else,” he said.

“Really?” said Gotanda.

“…yes,” said Space Dan.

“Excellent!” said Gotanda. “My grandfather came over here from somewhere else! I’m glad to see that the Police Fire News Service is keeping on the old country’s proud traditions!”

He offered Space Dan his open hand, palm facing down. Space Dan stared at it, uncertain of what to do.

He slowly raised his own hand, and started to move it towards Gotanda’s to high-five him, but stopped when he realised that might be the wrong thing to do.

Caught in indecision, he smoothly moved his hand back into his pocket, nodded sharply, and cleared his throat.

“Ah!” cried Gotanda, grabbing his stubby horns and pulling his head to-and-fro with them. “You remember the hand dance of somewhere else as well! Oh, I thought only my mother knew it anymore!”

“Yes,” said Space Dan. “It’s…it’s a wondrous cultural heritage that all of under Mars should enjoy, and allow to thrive.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, happy that his three classes of Interplanetary Sensitivity Training hadn’t been wasted, although the other nine that he was supposed to go to probably would have equipped him even better.

The tall blue oni with the facial scarring came into the room and stood next to Gotanda, occasionally reaching down to pick a piece of glass from one of his own feet and pop it between his teeth. He was wearing a very thin white tie, with sparse patches of wiry yellow fur hanging from his waist and arms.

“You’ve met my friend Armonk here already,” said Gotanda, patting him on the shoulder.

“Your bodyguard,” said Armonk.

“Don’t let him fool you, he’s a big softie,” Gotanda chortled richly.

Armonk eyed Space Dan and Hibiya in a distinctly hard fashion.

“So,” said Gotanda, rubbing his hands together, “as I was saying…”

He reached under his desk, and pulled out a wooden box. Opening it, a great glowing light spilled out.

“Woah!” said Space Dan.

The light receded slightly, and Space Dan realised that the box was just a container for glowing button mushrooms. Gotanda took a few and handed them out to everyone, then got up from his seat.

“We keep our valuables in the dark,” said Armonk, by way of explanation.

Gotanda walked over to a painting hanging on the wall, depicting a group of oni sitting in a diner in the dead of night. There was no door, so they had entered by smashing in the window.

“It’s good to know we can count on the police department in times like these,” he said, pushing his thumb against the painted plate of breakfast foods that one of the oni in the fictional bar was sitting down to.

“You can always count on the police,” said Space Dan proudly.

A compartment in the wall next to the painting popped open, revealing a set of steps descending into the darkness.

“Down here,” said Gotanda, holding his mushroom out in front of him, and he began stepping slowly and carefully down the stairs.

Space Dan looked at Hibiya, who chewed his arm nervously with his big round teeth.

The way Armonk was waiting seemed like insistence enough, and so Space Dan and Hibiya joined Gotanda on the steps. Armonk walked in after them, and the door closed behind him. The stairs seemed to go on longer than Space Dan had thought they would, though this may have been because they were only wide enough for single file and Gotanda was a slow walker.

They reached the bottom, and Gotanda stepped off onto a cobbled stone floor. Space Dan’s eyes had started to adjust, and he held his mushroom aloft, looking around in the dull glow it gave off. This bioluminescence, at least, reminded him a little of home.

They were standing in a large, stone pantry, with rough shelves lined up in rows, all covered in heavy wooden boxes.

“Woweewow!” called out Hibiya. “What a cellar! There’s so many wooden boxes! No wonder you wanted us to see this!”

Armonk rolled his eyes behind them.

“It’s just down this way,” said Gotanda, walking stoutly down a row of shelves.

“All the boxes are nailed shut,” observed Space Dan as they walked. “Is there food inside? What do you do if it needs to get out?”

Gotanda laughed.

“We keep them nailed down, just to make sure none of our stock goes… walking away,” he said pleasantly.

Space Dan shuddered, wondering if – given the large insects they’d seen on the surface – the boxes might contain butterflies.

“Where’s the…” grumbled Gotanda, looking around the shelves at the end of the row.

“Down there,” said Armonk, pointing around the corner of the shelf.

“Where!?” asked Space Dan shrilly, jumping up into Hibiya’s surprised arms, having frightened himself with the thought of a surprise butterfly attack.

Armonk lifted a large and armoured box up onto a free area of shelf space. The box was nothing remarkable, but it was still a cut of quality above most of the others surrounding it, with iron cladding reinforcing the sides, and a heavy lock in the centre. Gotanda unlocked it.

“This is what we need to transport,” he said to Space Dan, “to some people we know, who might be able to help us out with it.”

He undid the catches on either side. Space Dan peered over his shoulder, and Hibiya craned his neck to see over Space Dan – for while Space Dan was indeed short, he was still sitting in Hibiya’s large arms.

“You may have heard some whisperings about this thing,” intoned Gotanda, his voice glowing with pride, and he flipped open the lid.

Resting on a bed of straw was the golden hilt of a sword. The grip was curved elegantly, the pommel a rounded point. The narrow golden guard curved gently upward like birds’ wings at either side.

There was no blade.

Gotanda lifted it out, and brushed a stray strand of hay from it. As he held it in the light, Space Dan could make out lines and runes inscribed all down the grip and pommel.

“Hey, it’s not on fire,” said Hibiya.

Gotanda and Armonk stared at him.

“Uh…we gotta move fires someplace else,” said Hibiya, “so, ya know…just in case.”

“Gentlemen,” said Gotanda, a proud smile stretching across his round face. “The Firesabre.”

 

 

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[1] This intersection at the edge of town used to be the Crosswalk Crushers’ territory, until they were moved to a larger pedestrian area by the undercity’s zoning board in recognition for good citizenship and One Thousand Rocks Thrown.

[2] If you had more than seven cards, the other players were allowed to shoot you. The game eventually fell out of favour when particularly canny metagamers realised you could just shoot the dealer before play properly started.

[3] Like so many unfortunate carrots into Long Island’s farm-hole.

[4] He didn’t count what had happened on Venus, because he avoided thinking about it.