Title: Tearing Down the Statues
Author: Brian Bennudriti
Publisher: Grailrunner Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction
Author: Brian Bennudriti
Publisher: Grailrunner Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction
Misling is a Recorder, having perfect memory and expected to help build a seamless record of history. That’s what the Salt Mystic taught us two thousand years ago when she came stumbling from the flats with her visions. Unfortunately he’s probably the worst Recorder ever. So when he meets a joker with an incredible secret, the two of them are soon on the run from swarming lunatics and towering assault troops in the heart of a city under siege.
As it has for three generations, the horrible Talgo family is the spark of this swelling world war; and their wily generals and scheming counselors clash their fleets in battles of shrieking steel-entrained tornados, cannonballs of lightning, and tanks the size of cities. But it’s the joker’s secret that is the most powerful weapon of all…a trigger set by the Salt Mystic herself in myth, to save the world from itself.
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THERE IS NO SELF, ONLY THE RECORD
Although thinner than in previous years, crowds of onlookers still formed to watch the zeppelin shuttles glide softly to dock with the airpark tower, framed beautifully against the jutting mountains. Many of these were sightseers in to see the blooming algae gardens terraced on the gneiss cliffs and which speckled the majestic mountain city. A mildly hallucinogenic algae wine, sana drove the local economy on many levels, but particularly drew speculation investment in the hustling days before a holiday such as this.
A young Recorder stood waiting near the cargo bins, his forehead carrying the lava red and ash black tattoo of his calling. Stepping into place beside him was an awkward and gangly fellow who’d come perhaps not to obtain packages or to greet a traveler, but rather just to see the dirigible up close. His voice was squeaky; and his stomach pouched tightly in a sharp pear shape peeking out from beneath his shirt. A girl who was perhaps his sister, younger than him but attractive and clearly not sharing the young man’s interests, was tagging along reluctantly.
“Daelin, do we really have to do this again? You’re driving me crazy.”
“Won’t take long.”
“You absolutely said that yesterday. I am not spending the rest of the morning staring at balloons again.” She smiled at the Recorder when he glanced at her tan face. He liked that but wasn’t supposed to.
“That’s one of the Corsair class coming in. You can tell by the shape of the nose. This one has some really nice enginework.” He hesitated and hadn’t yet looked at the Recorder’s face, though his tone and volume were certainly intended to solicit agreement or reciprocated enthusiasm. Instead, his eyes lingered on the mooring lines being thrown over black capstans ringing the heights of the docking tower like he was looking at ice cream.
“They used them for evacuations during the war…”
“Big toys, Daelin. Like you’ve got scattered all over your room. Let’s gooooooo.”
The Recorder glanced again at Daelin’s sister, to which she responded by smiling again and rolling her eyes, shaking her head to signal how unfashionable she felt was this conversation.
“You wouldn’t believe the lift capacity this thing has. Look at that on the tail there…” Daelin at that point glanced over as he pointed to ensure the Recorder’s eyes were following him, but at last noticed the Recorder’s forehead, recognizing him for his nature and charge.
The Recorder still hadn’t as yet said anything and remained as quiet while Daelin began to fumble a bit, “I didn’t know you were…”
Daelin still pointed upwards toward the dirigible, but loosely and awkwardly, “It’s got a uhh..it’s got a hook to connect to others like it. They can make a train. Look, we need to go.”
“That’s it?” The young man’s sister raised her eyebrows at her brother’s discomfort. It wasn’t uncommon, the fear of the Record.
“Yeah, we need to go do some things. Come on. Sorry, okay?” In a fit of escape, Daelin just turned and started lightly jogging away, glancing around himself trying to appear as if he’d intended to exercise all along and was hard at it now. He called again for his sister when she didn’t leave straight away; and she lingered an apologetic grin and waved as she at last followed her brother. The Recorder watched her leave and then watched the place in the crowd where she had left. He squinted against the morning sun and scratched the back of his head before stepping around the tower to idly watch the stevedores slough packages.
A short line of awaiting passengers stood at the base of another tower, shuffling in position or scanning the top of the stairs for a signal they could board. Colorfully, there was a tiny twig of a boy in a uniform that was yet too big for him with a stuffed duffel bag at his feet and an anxious stare on his face. He was looking into the eyes of someone who might have been his father, leather faced and tattooed on his arms, skinny and traveled, who was giving him guidance on how to behave wherever the boy was going. The Recorder hesitated to absorb the moment.
Sometime later and of greater significance, as often happens in crowds an interesting face had caught his precise attention. With wide eyes and a mad open grin, a spiked shock of chestnut hair, a fellow bending down to leave the shuttle leaned against the black rails atop the airpark tower. It isn’t important to describe all the details of sunlight and time, noises and colors, words said in the buzzing crowds and all, of which the Recorder made note because that is what they do and it goes without saying. What was new was that the strange grinning fellow was looking pointedly at the Recorder’s face. He waved and started down the coal-black graphite stairway in a rush.
It is difficult to explain without describing the aggressive hypnotic and chemical training of a Recorder in their youth, their traditional role in the highest imperial and Warmaster courts, and the deepest integrity and dedication as was core to their collective identity why it was one didn’t simply saunter up to a Recorder and say hi.
“Hi, Jo Jo. I can help you carry something if you like. Say, who is that sculpted up there on the mountain?” The stranger was still grinning as he pointed his thumb to a majestic carved figure of a man on a mountain face overlooking the wide Yagrada valley, sculpted from the rock with an outstretched hand through the rock fingers of which a natural waterfall flowed.
The Recorder tapped his forehead tattoo, “Perhaps you did not notice…”
“Jo Jo, Skipdance, Habilu…whatever. What do you want to be called? My name is Ring. I certainly can’t just call you, ‘Recorder’ – what if another one walks by and I’m trying to talk to you? The carving, man, who is it?”
Stunned and moving his eyes from the cascade then back to this odd stranger, the Recorder started again.
“This Recorder is waiting on his package, then he is going to leave. It is not appropriate for you to directly address a Recorder in public nor is it seemly to suggest he bear a proper name.”
“Right. Right. So I’ll call you Misling, yes?” At this, the Recorder’s eyes locked for that was a word he knew well and it had been nuanced correctly. It was a Mast word, a meta-language charged with intricate layers of meaning and one which Recorders used to transfer highly detailed information among themselves such as when they preserved their pool of lives before dying. Ring looked casually down the broad avenue leading toward the awakening marketplace as if he wasn’t aware what he’d just said.
“Listen, I’m not exactly sure where I am; and you probably know lots of interesting things, so I’ll just go with you.” Ring nodded at the Recorder like he was doling advice on how to remove a stain. The Recorder examined this stranger again at full attention as he had been indoctrinated to do when something potentially of some significance occurred.
“You certainly will not.”
Ring creased his forehead, “You know, you’re a bit of a pain. I mean, you won’t tell me about the mountain face, you’re stuffy; and now you give me grief when I even offer to help you carry your thingie – is this it?”
He leaned into the package chute and lifted a small wooden box the color of barley, sealed with hemp twine, which the stevedores had slid from topside out of the dirigible’s cargo hold. With a final glance to the cascading mountain face, Ring started down the few stairs to the dusty market street leading to Alson’s oldest marketplace, mumbling along the way.
“…so you come across as really pretentious. I mean, I obviously don’t know anybody, you could at least be neighborly and say a few insightful things – maybe comment on my trip or ask where I’m from. Something. It’s obvious you’re getting all feathered up-“
The Recorder, following within earshot, interrupted passionately, “This Recorder is NOT feathered up-“
“Sure you are – and you’re stuffy too. Where are we going?”
The Recorder trotted quickly alongside Ring and seized the thin box for himself.
“This Recorder is not stuffy nor is he feathered up. You however are impudent and a troublesome busybody. Do you even understand what this means?” He tapped the tattoo on his forehead once again to make a point, the ancient wheels within wheels symbol of the Salt Mystic.
“I know it isn’t an advanced apology for being rude and stuffy.”
The Recorder huffed before pacing quickly toward the still silent market stalls. Resin automatons the color of thin milk twisted and bent fluidly, mutely arranging fresh vegetables, meats, breads and sana in terraces for display. There were vendors sweeping and talking to neighbors about the day’s prices as the orange sunrise stretched long shadows across the cobblestone courtyard’s masonry and ruined monuments.
The plaza traditionally exploded with noisy commerce once the market opened; but for the moment it was serene and pleasant with only the sounds of sweeping and murmuring and the bubbling of a ledgestone courtyard fountain. Two small boys and a girl sported around a morbidly obese sculpture commonly called, ‘the market god’, beside which were lanterns and an oak coin box. One of them was whispering into the statue’s ear and giggling, ready to run clasping his own ears and await the first thing he heard said beyond the market’s walls for a fortune or answer.
At the stalls, there was an official of some kind wearing a golden insignia on his linen collar, who was slowly making his way around to each vendor and taking notes as he went. As Ring watched standing alongside the Recorder, he caught that none of the vendors to whom the official had spoken seemed pleased with whatever they’d been told. Two or three actually shouted at the official as he passed.
“Misling, what’s that guy saying?”
The Recorder cast an impatient look, then answered as was his obligation, “He is a market official and a representative of Judge Talgo charged with establishing Alson’s commission rates and the pricing range for the day. Once he has gauged the market, he will update the glass board there and communicate today’s rates and pricing, authorizing the vendors and customers to begin the traditional bidwars.”
“What would happen if I updated his board once he’s gone?” Ring stroked his chin.
“You are not authorized to update the board.” The Recorder paused, no doubt pondering why Ring would even consider such a thing. No doubt, there were an obvious host of overly idealistic reasons that came to mind.
“It would be unhelpful to attempt to cheat the Judge of his commission…” Another pause.
“…or to artificially raise prices to benefit the vendors.” After waiting a moment, watching the official, the Recorder glanced again to Ring to gauge his intentions.
“Or to artificially lower the prices to benefit the people. What is it you are intending?” Ring only nodded absently then changed the subject.
“Are you running an errand? Aren’t you supposed to be consulting for generals and judges and whatnot? What’s that about?”
“This Recorder is property; and the gentleman to whom he has been entrusted requires…upkeep. Please continue along your way.”
The market official perched on a stepladder, erased the frosted glass with a worn cloth, and wrote a series of prices and rates in the boxes using a charcoal pencil hanging from a leather string. He stepped down commandingly and briefly appraised the condition of the marketplace now that he had established the market’s parameters. The sun-worn faces watching him looked bitter and angry at the figures he had set. Murmuring continued even as he raised both arms to signal the market’s opening. This triggered an almost reluctant hurricane of bustle and motion as burly vendors and grocers, restaurateurs and tourists haggled heatedly over produce and meat, long sticks of fresh bread, and lime green bottles of shimmering algae wine.
The Recorder loosened the twine from his box and cracked it open for a cursory inspection of the contents before advancing into the noisy bidyard. There were tourists along the courtyard’s perimeter, leaned against wrought iron fencing and crumbling stone arches to watch. Ring started laughing, and doing so almost losing his breath. The Recorder’s face showed only indignation.
“There is no self, only the Record”, Ring barely said as he tried to catch his breath from laughing, quoting a Recorder creed and looking at this one as if for the first time again. The Recorder’s voracious attention locked again with surprise.
“That’s bakas jerky, Misling…Salt Flat contraband. You can’t sell that stuff in the mountains.”
The Recorder shushed Ring and readied himself for a task he very clearly did not relish, targeting a set of opposing tables where two earthy rustics were haggling over crates shrouded in thick canvas fabrics. Ring caught his breath, likely with admiration for such disregard of propriety from someone charged with its maintenance. Although a young Recorder might have held as many as five lives in his Pool even at this age, the memories often had not yet unwound or become fully real. It was once an adage of such Recorders to ‘trust them with diplomats, but not with your daughter’.
Ring touched his brow in a loose salute, wishing the Recorder luck, and started into the busy courtyard, disappearing in the market swarm seeming to ask for alms. The Recorder’s eyes lingered for a moment on the place where Ring had been before inhaling sharply to enter the market.
In only a short while, as the Recorder was stuffing the price he’d garnered for the jerky inside a russet leather satchel, he was one of the first to notice a subtle change in the mood of the crowd, a mean spirit betrayed by angry stares and dying murmurs. Following the stares to the frosted glass board about which Ring had asked, he saw Ring himself wrapped in a linen overshirt with a golden coin attached to the collar and looking from the distance much like a market official with the proper insignia busily updating the prices and rates.
“That’s ridiculous”, someone shouted, for the commissions Ring had falsified for the Judge were exorbitant, more than quintuple what was set before. His price ranges were less than a fourth of the figures he was erasing as he made his way down the board. Not quite to the bottom row, he turned to hold his hands out to the sides and looks at the throng as if asking, ‘what?’. He wasn’t smiling, but rather was feigning formality as he turned to whistle and scribe more night-black figures. When a thrown yellow root smashed against his back, Ring turned to the crowd again and pointed in the direction from which the missile had likely come, looking fierce.
“Idiot”, someone from the crowd screamed. “We can’t make money at those prices. What’s the Judge doing?”
Ring waved his hand dismissively, scratching the erasing cloth against the figures he’d just written and made a dramatic show that the new lower prices he was writing just then were as a result of the crowd’s questioning him.
“You can’t do that!”
Once he had raised the Judge’s commission for aged sana sales twice over in retaliation for the market’s rising furor, two miscreants banded together and rushed the frosted glass board to get him. Ring’s eyes widened quickly; and he disappeared again such that the Recorder lost sight of him. As can happen in tense triggered crowds, those looking for a fight started one; and the marketplace bubbled over in chaos with tourists scattering from overturned stalls and madly rolling produce.
“Hi”, Ring surprised the Recorder as he stepped alongside to survey the mess, out of breath and having discarded the linen overshirt and collar. The Recorder’s eyes were somewhat wide; and his deliberate and methodical glances betrayed the highest level of awareness of which a Recorder made use, noting every scent and word, spatial relationships, and faces. As always in such a heightened state, he did so to the extent that even fifty years hence he could recount every detail of this single moment. He was still a young man though; and mischief can be exhilarating.
“Did anyone in there ever see anything like that?” Ring tapped the Recorder’s left temple in reference to the lives in his Pool.
“You are an activist, likely a runaway from the Recorder academy.”
“Not a runaway, no. I’ve never even seen the academy. Is it pretty?”
“Your show here was a hope to force a challenge to the prevailing system which you view as unjust or corrupt, yes?”
Ring creased his forehead in evaluation, “Wow, you’re bad at this. That would have been iconic, though.”
“Did you harm the real market official? Why did he not intervene?”
“I just asked some guys to keep him busy.”
“And they did this just because you asked?”
Ring nodded as if that sort of thing happened to him often. The Recorder pressed further.
“Where did you learn the Mast word you used earlier, its proper nuance, and the Recorder’s creed?”
“Misling, you ask an awful lot of questions for a Recorder. I think that’s great; and we should chat it up; but shouldn’t we kind of…poof?” Ring looked again to the mad courtyard.
“This Recorder is expected at the tent city by midday. He would not object to your joining the walk over while you explain yourself. He has cheese.”
The two young men made their way beyond the market courtyard, passing the green copper domes of old observatories and theaters and the misty fountains of Vangeline park where white furred wanoa still pastured looking like cloud-white shaggy silverbacks. Ring scratched a female wanoa’s head as he looked ponderingly into its violet eyes following the Recorder’s comment that the serene beasts at one time long ago could speak.
“Misling, why do you suppose the people in the market so easily believed I was an official?” Ring stopped in place as he asked the question, planting his feet firmly on the broad avenue so as not to fall backward while running his eyes up the tall tower called Balcister. Although it officed those engaged in commerce and shadowed artists and street actors in the plaza at its base, the tower’s skyblue masonry hummed softly with information and code. It was the best known building in a cityscape of minarets, slate roofs and walkways, with the exception of Judge Talgo’s cliffside palace, and was the only remaining computronium structure in Alson.
“The confidence with which you approached the task, perhaps...”
“Umm hmm. Guys in this town keep staring me down like I’m supposed to be doing something they’re stuck doing. What am I missing?”
Misling didn’t answer as he watched and listened. Ring waited only a moment.
“You know, you’re miserly with your local color knowledge. You should have been telling me about that waterfall thing this morning; and you could be chatting me up right now about Judge Talgo’s beef with Cassian in the Flats….but I get nothing that I don’t drag from you.”
Misling’s brow creased, “This Recorder is not in your service nor in public service and is required to lecture on nothing. In fact, you did not ask about Marshal Cassian nor the Judge.”
Ring nodded in agreement, “That’s right. That’s right. You could offer though, sort of in the general friendly spirit of our conversation. You knew where I was going with that. Is Alson at war?”
“Alson and the Salt Flat nation are in a cold war, marked by skirmishes and harassment. The mountain military forces are deployed for most of the year, either in forward tank battlegroups in the Salt Flats or in mog or submersible patrols locally and act to defend mountain interests against aggressors.” Misling had answered in dictionary style in an automatic fashion, a prepared statement for Recorders. If asked again, he would repeat himself verbatim.
“Mm hmmm….” Ring had been idly watching four teenagers chatting in the sidestreet wearing military railgun thigh holsters. Misling stepped towards him impatiently.
“From where have you come?”
“How do you mean?” Ring stepped towards Balcister’s deep blue masonry walls, touching his cheek against the computronium blocks and tapping to discharge the tingling static electricity.
“Do you know what Misling means? Do you know the Mast language?”
“Sure, sure. Not hard. Mostly a lot of fables.”
“How did you come to study the language? Where were you born?”
Ring looked back to Misling with a mischievous smile, still tapping against the tower. “You know, that’s not strictly true.”
Misling’s left eyebrow lifted questioningly.
“Whether in public service or not, you’re still expected to respond to questions. ‘The day is kept whole for it is laden with treasures.’ You’ve got to share; and all you do is ask me stuff. Who do you have in your Pool?”
Misling thinly hid his irritation at this question, one he was indeed required to answer, “This Recorder maintains the Record of four lives.”
“Interesting; and who are they?” Ring scratched his cheek thoughtfully as if very intrigued by the pending answer. A chalk artist speaking with a businesswoman walked by, casting odd glances at Ring in wonderment at his ongoing conversation with a Recorder. Misling averted his eyes as they passed.
“Duke Exeter of Sarling in the days of the Brewing, Court Poet Phianna in the early days of Naraia, and Under Governors Faring of the Southern Red Witch Annex and Delton of the Fountain City.”
“I have no idea who those people are. Faring sounds familiar. What color were Phianna’s eyes?”
“Gray, and quite bloodshot later in life.”
“Her only son was rebellious.”
“What was the last thing she said?”
“I’d hoped they would stop by today.” His tone was soft and tired, utterly different from how he normally spoke.
“Who was with her when she died?”
“Only a nurse named Tazia, a large woman apparently in a hurry to clean the room afterwards. It was winter; and frosty mud had been tracked about the tile floors.”
“And what did the room smell like? What color were the sheets?”
“The room was cold and smelled of ammonia and iodine. The sheets were thin green linen; and the wool blanket was thin as well. An attendant had brought a bar of compressed lavender which was propped against Phianna’s elbow because she enjoyed the smell. She coughed three times, looked out the window at the snow, then quietly shut her eyes.”
Ring watched Misling’s face for a moment, fascinated. “You didn’t mention the Recorder standing right there in the corner who couldn’t be bothered to put another blanket on the poor woman.”
“There was no meaningful purpose to your questions apart from diversion from that which this Recorder asked you.”
“That’s not exactly true; but I’ll let it go. Misling, I want you to do me a favor.”
“That would only encourage you.”
“I want you to introduce me to your employer. You freak me out a little, running illegal errands and getting all feathered up like you do.”
“This Recorder was not ‘feathered up’. You will not be continuing with him because you are irrational and nosey. It simply is not the way things are done; and you are neither invited nor welcome to attend.”
Ring chuckled, sidestepping along the wall to the cross-street where he’d earlier seen the idle guards, sliding his fingers over Balcister’s masonry as if he could feel the data of transactions, correspondence, and images.
“So you’re getting picked up at the tent city, that’s actually perfect. I’ll meet you down there.”
“You will not.” Misling clarified in case there had been some unfortunate confusion.
Ring stood at last at brown, yellow and red graffiti scrawled roughly on Balcister’s very wall, a stylized cartoon of an angry character in a jacket with flaming shoulderboards, a ball lightning carbine strapped to his extended right arm gripped with densely colored hands, and firing madly. It was evidently a boogeyman of some sort and had been the topic of the guards’ chatter.
“Now we’re getting to it…” Ring spoke to himself casually with a grin on his young face, leaning closely in and edging towards the youths whose curious notice he’d drawn.
Birds scattered from the cobbles as Misling stepped away. Years hence to desperate scholars and journalists, Misling would manufacture the backdrop of this moment to disguise the misfortune that he’d simply stopped paying attention as he glanced dismissively and walked past the fog-gray monuments surrounding Balcister.