“Courier on a time-restraint, make some room!” hollered Manch, careening around the corner and onto the main road. A short Bogglin peddling an assortment of pouches and satchels threw himself out of the way with a high-pitched yelp, his wares flying a dozen directions onto the cobbled street. “So sorry, in a hurry, I’ll help you out later to make up for it!” His satchel bounced against his back as he jumped to the side to avoid running over the merchandise. Then he was past Peddling Square, approaching the bunched-together taverns and inns that lined the way to the University Landing.
A broad-shouldered Merk – well, more so than usual – burst out of a tavern to the left, slurping up the last dregs of whatever had been in his mug. As he tucked the drinking vessel into a travelsack tied to his back, four more Merks of varying sizes – though of course all appropriately massive – spilled out after him, whooping and shouting good-naturedly. “Let’s go guard some caravans, boys!” the first one shouted, raising a fist in the air.
Manch waved as his feet carried him past the boisterous group. “Morning Hemway, morning Mr. Burk!” The broadest Merk echoed his greeting, waving hands large enough to eat dinner off of – which they did often enough.
I can’t be late, they’re starting soon! Manch thought with a prayer to whichever god did that sort of thing. A quick glance at his watch almost sent him running straight into the spiny elbow of a passing Weever, but also told him that if he caught the lift to the University instead of taking the stairs, he’d have just enough time to make it.
“Darn Fleshies, watch where you’re going!” said the Weever loudly, shaking a green, multi jointed arm at him. “I coulda poked your eye out.”
Please let the early lift still be there! he pleaded silently, dodging a Bogglin’s attempt at getting him to try on a pair of bog-shoes. The items supposedly allowed one to walk on top of a bog rather than through it or, more likely if the one doing the walking was even halfway intelligent, around it. Bogs almost always meant helmites, and once the bloodsucking critters stuck you, it was nigh impossible to get them off. Sometimes the limb had to be amputated.
Vaulting over a pile of construction material, Manch spotted a head of shockingly white hair beneath a Courier’s cap weaving through the crowd in the same direction as him. Then the crowd cleared, and he could see the University landing in the distance. The lift hasn’t left! The boy with the white hair started running, and Manch put on another burst of speed.
“Delivery for the University!” he shouted out to the Bogglin manning the lift, though there was no way he would be able to hear. “Don’t leave without me!”
“More important delivery for University!” shouted the white-haired boy running in front of him, waving a packet over his head and pumping his other arm vigorously. They raced through the open street, entering the empty University landing.
Manch lifted his satchel in front of him and shook it. “This one’s for the Dean, Rimmer!”
“Well this one’s worth its weight in manure!”
“That’s not impressive!”
“It’s more impressive than the Dean!” Rimmer said, throwing his head back and cackling.
The Bogglin stared at them with a blank expression as they slowed to a stop on the lift, faces red and gleaming with sweat. Another passenger, a rotund man in a Society suit and hat, eyed them with open disgust. His scribe avoided even looking at them.
“University, ground floor,” Manch said, wheezing.
Rimmer collapsed against the iron railing, whole face grinning. “Third floor for me.”
Manch slid down next to him as the lift began to move, the sound of grinding chains filling the air. “What’s in that, anyway,” he said, nodding to the packet lying on the floor next to Rimmer.
“Admission requests,” the skinny courier replied, brushing a clump of sweat-soaked hair off his forehead. “For the standard University. Bet they’ll get rejected just like the last hundred applicants.”
“Don’t know why anyone would want to do that anyway,” Manch said. “You get full access to University classes with a Mapper apprenticeship, and you actually get to do something with the things you learn, too.”
Rimmer snorted. “You also have to pay massive amounts of money to the Society. Not to mention the whole ‘risking your life’ part of the job.”
“You don’t have to pay to be a Squire – and you get to use most of the University materials once you make full Protector.”
They paused to hold their breath as the lift brought them through the ceiling of smoke that covered the city. The air tasted noticeably cleaner once they were on the other side.
“Did you know that last week they found not one, not two, not three, not four-” Rimmer held up a finger as Manch opened his mouth to interrupt. “Let me finish. Not four, not five, but six new ways to die!? Six! Is it even worth it to get out of bed in the morning? You might croak on your way to the loo – being a Protector is suicide!”
“But Rim, those aren’t just six new ways to die, they’re six new discoveries!” Manch’s eyes sparked with excitement. “And all but one of those discoveries were made outside of the city walls, so you have nothing to worry about. Besides, look at it this way: we’re still discovering new species every Shift – think about how big the world must be!”
“Big enough to shuffle us around to an even more dangerous area every eleven years?” Rimmer responded with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes! No! I mean, it’s big enough that after all these Shifts, people are still coming across things and places that have never before been recorded! Look at all this -”
Manch spread his arms wide, gesturing to their surroundings. They were at least four hundred feet up by now, and could see just over the heavily fortified wall that surrounded the city – the first thing that had been built after the last Shift. Through the everpresent haze of smoke hanging above the city, he could see a team of fulmuts hitched up to some pulley system, hauling a canvas full of timber up to a higher level of the wall. The supplies were most likely for repairing a breach in the wall from the week before – the result of one of the six new species being discovered.
Maybe some day I’ll discover a new species. My name could be in a book. People would learn about my discovery. I could make a difference! That’s not going to happen by just staying put in the city, though, that’s for sure.
Outside the city walls, deep forests covered the land, their trees the blackest green Manch had ever seen. Though thick as the winter coat of a stomptromp, the forest was far shorter than the wall whose shadow it now grew in. It seemed trees as well as people had a hard time putting in the effort to grow when a Shift would just take it all away before long.
The forest thinned out along its eastern edge, which dropped off suddenly after a half-mile or so. Continuing east, empty air gave way to the most flat, barren land in all the world. When the inhabitants of the city had found out that the Shift had brought them next to the dreaded rock plains – the Expanse of Nothing at All – the wall in that direction had gone up faster than a Merk on his way to a tavern. No one wanted a spectrid wandering into the city.
“Were you going to make a point, or did you just want me to look?” said a mildly annoyed voice.
“What?” Manch turned away from the view to see Rimmer rolling his eyes. “Oh. Yes. The point, though there shouldn’t have to be a point, is that it depends on how you look at it. All you and most other people ever see are the downsides of the outside, but it’s full of excitement as well.”
“By ‘downsides’ you mean mortal peril, right?” the white-haired boy said. “And for the record, no one else counts things like being messily devoured with no one around to mourn your death as ‘exciting’.”
“See – that right there is what I’m talking about!” said Manch decisively, pointing at his fellow courier with a stern finger.
Rimmer looked down at himself, then back at Manch. “My shirt? What’s wrong with my shirt?”
“No – your attitude! You think like a depressed Bogglin – ‘That Shift was terrible, it caused so much trouble.’ Better to think to yourself, ‘The Shift is over and we’ve rebuilt everything that was damaged – now we have another ten years until the next one!’”
The large man in Society garb muttered something about time and money before turning away from them and shuffling over to the far corner, his scribe hurrying to follow.
Rimmer stuck out his tongue at the man’s wide back, then said, “You’ve only been alive for two, Manch, and the one when you were a baby doesn’t count-” He hurried to explain further as Manch’s expression darkened. “I- I don’t mean it doesn’t matter, just that you don’t remember it. Besides,” he continued, anxious to move past the topic, “attitude won’t keep me alive out there, no matter how supposedly interesting everything is.”
Manch jumped on that, saying, “Aha! But training as a Protector will! If you want the best chance of surviving, become a Squire!”
“We are not having that conversation again,” said Rimmer, hands held out in front of him. “I told you no, and that’s not changing.”
“Oh come on, can you honestly tell me you never dreamed of journeying outside the city, accompanying a Mapper on his noble quest, fighting off vicious packs of longlegs, encountering the Scavengers, and defending against all manner of wondrous beasts?”
“‘All manner of wondrous beasts’ ate my father’s foot,” Rimmer responded matter-of-factly. He then folded his arms with an air of finality, saying, “I’m not leaving this city for the rest of my life, if I can manage it. And you used to dream of meeting the Scavengers? They scared the smoke out of me the first time I heard of them.”
“I was a weird kid, I’ll admit,” Manch said with a wry grin.
“You’re still a weird kid,” said Rimmer. “But becoming a Protector takes more than just weirdness – I heard the tests are really specific, and no one outside the Society’s passed them in years, even in other cities.”
“How do you know that about the other cities?” asked Manch, somewhat skeptical.
“This really fat cloth merchant came through about half a year ago, right around when you started on your obsession about becoming a Protector. I asked specifically because of that, but I guess I forgot to tell you. He’d recently been through Salton City with his group of other fat merchants.”
“I remember him,” Manch said, nodding. “He was a Suton – odd race. I’d never realized not having any hair included eyebrows. It looked really strange.”
“What was strange was how he never got off of his bald fulmut,” Rimmer said.
Manch laughed. “It’s not bald, it’s a fulpir; different creature entirely. They’re actually really interesting.”
“You’ve been hanging out at the University too much,” Rimmer groaned. “You’re starting to sound like the Dean. ‘Did you know that the bug on your shoe there mates three times a day? It’s really interesting, actually, because they only produce a single offspring during that time! In fact, the offspring seems to have traits from each of the partners of the three mating sessions.’” He grimaced. “I did not need to know that, Mr. Dean.”
“Seems like you’re the one spending too much time around him,” Manch said. “You’ve practically memorized his entire lecture on the mating habits of female emphites.”
“Smokes, Manch, you talk like you’ve been taking classes there!”
Not too far off, Rim. “The Dean’s the only professor I’ve ever talked to, actually – I don’t even usually see any of the other staff, because classes are always in session when I’m there. Why’ve you been hanging out there so much recently?”
Rimmer tapped the packet next to him and said, “I’ve just been running a lot of errands for the Dean lately – he’s working on some project that needs a lot of parts from the city smithy. Master Orien told me that if I keep showing up with requests from the Dean, he won’t even need any other customers.”
“Well, this time I’m the one visiting the Dean’s office, which means I get to have solid ground beneath my feet two whole floors before you!” said Manch happily. The lift was rattling to a stop, and the Bogglin reached out with gloved hands to pull a lever that switched it onto the horizontal tracks.
“What time is your delivery for?” asked Rimmer, leaning over the back railing as they slid toward the first floor of the University.
“Noon,” Manch said.
“Noon?” echoed Rimmer, turning around to stare at him. “You’re earlier than a Weever to a game of tokens – it’s not even ten!”
Manch grinned sheepishly. “I didn’t want to have to take the stairs. Well, here we are. See you at headquarters!” The lift docked with a resounding clack, but Manch had already lept the closing gap and was sprinting full speed down to the docking room’s exit by the time the safety latches locked.
That lift ride felt like it took an entire Shift cycle! Hopefully they haven’t started, and I can get in without anyone noticing.
He ran out into the hallway, feet pounding on the polished marble floors. The University building was rumored to be over three hundred years old – that was about two hundred and fifty years longer than any building had stood for in the city. It felt different, too. More solid. Dependable. Shiny.
Open doorways passed him on either side, people filing into them. He dodged University students and Worldmapper apprentices, thoughts on the watch ticking away at his wrist. Smoke it, some classes have already started, I’m not going to make it!
Ahead of him, a gangly blond stepped into the hallway, eyes scanning a book in his hands. He looked up as Manch approached. “Hey Manch, do you-”
Manch sped past him. “Can’t talk, Ewin, delivering stuff!”
He could hear the blood rushing in his ears as he slid to a stop at the end of the hallway. The door to the stairwell opened with a strong pull, and he flew down the stairs, turning at the landings every twelfth step. He jumped the last few, shoes hitting the floor with a sharp slap. Then he was off running again, turning a corner, and finally jogging to the double doors ahead. He peered through the windows set halfway up the sturdy wooden doors and groaned.
The lecture hall was completely filled with Squires of all ages, listening with varying degrees of interest to the mustached man at the front of the cavernous room who was banging on a lectern. The lecture hall was completely bare – floor, walls, and even the desks an unbroken white. High above, brightly glowing chandeliers hung from a latticework of metal. Besides the desks and the students themselves, the only things in the room were the professor’s lectern and the large map behind him on the wall. The excess of white along with the sheer size of the room made it look like the class was being held in the middle of nowhere. Not in the middle somewhere that wasn’t close to anywhere in particular; in the middle of nowhere. Of nothingness.
If he got there early enough, before many students had shown up, he could usually pretend to be in the class and find a seat in the back to sit quietly throughout the lesson. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times. Manch turned to head back, wanting to move quickly but barely able to catch his breath. He settled for a shuffling gallop. Back up the stairs and through the long main hall he hurried. As he passed the only open classroom, a blond-covered head poked out.
“Oh, Manch, I-”
“Can’t talk, delivering more stuff!”
He zipped past, then turned into a dimly lit side-hall. Manch thought all structures with more than a few rooms should have dimly lit side-halls – they gave even the most mundane trip a decidedly adventurous feel. And the exciting trips, well, they made those truly special.
Which was why, as he crept (needlessly – no one was around) down the dimly lit side-hall of the ancient University building, he could imagine he was a Society Protector, scouting out potentially dangerous new lands to make sure it was safe for the Worldmapper to follow. He slid his feet along the smooth floor, trying to proceed as silently as possible. Soon he reached the door. ‘MAINTENANCE’, it read, burned into the door. Rather anti-climactic considering his imaginings, but it wasn’t as if he hadn’t known it would be there.
The room was dominated by five large tanks, dials on the sides labeled with things like TEMP and PRSSR. Red-painted knobs that looked like spoked wheels stuck out from pipes running along the ceiling and down into the tanks. Every few moments a burst of steam from somewhere in the back would rise up, white and foggy, before dissipating throughout the room.
Manch sidled past the curved gray side of one of the tanks, heading to the far left corner. The trapdoor there had a heavy iron ring attached, which he used to pull it open. Then he stepped down onto the ladder, and descended into the unlit space below the maintenance room.
I’ve been doing it like this for too long – next time I’m bringing a glow lantern. He paused on the ladder for a second, smiling ever so slightly, then continued down. Though hopefully, if everything goes well, there aren’t going to be very many next times.
His movements became more tentative as he was enveloped completely by the darkness, giving each step onto the metal rungs his full attention. Before long he reached a platform, gratefully stepping off the ladder. He side-stepped slowly to the left until his hand caught the doorknob, twisting it and pulling the door open. Dim light spilled weakly onto the platform, but after absolute darkness it seemed more than bright enough.
Manch stepped through the doorway, closing the door carefully behind him. Beneath his shoes was a metal grate, each square between the lines of metal no bigger than the tip of his thumb. The light came from the chandeliers hanging below. Below the chandeliers was the lecture hall. From his position high above he could only make out dozens of heads of hair; red, white, blond, silver, the pale blue that only that one family had. The room’s architects had been skilled, though – the acoustics were marvelous, and he could hear every word the professor at the far end behind the lectern was saying. As quietly as he could, he made his way to the front of the lecture hall, a hundred feet above the floor.
Manch guessed the space had been built to allow easy refilling of the chandeliers by the caretaker, or whoever it was that did that. Regardless, it also allowed easy listening in on classes – at least the once a week when they were held in the Lower Hall. Manch found his usual spot and arranged the two pillows he kept there for maximum comfort, settling himself onto the floor – which was, of course, the ceiling – and trying not to think about the grate giving way.
The mustached professor was gesturing animatedly to the map behind him, though because of the distance Manch couldn’t make out anything other than the general shape, despite the enormous size of the map. He’d made a copy of his own during a class a few months ago, when he’d made it into the room on time – studying the map on the wall and drawing a simple version onto the back of a piece of paper he’d found in the desk. Over the following months he’d added to it, filling in forests and mountains, the rivers and lakes, and, of course, the many cliffs. Now his map was intricate and polished as any he’d found in the student Library (visited under the guise of picking something up for the city’s resident construction organizer). He’d even added a little key to the bottom corner, specifying the scale and other useful information. He was quite proud of it, though disappointed that he couldn’t show it to anyone as his own work, for they’d no doubt think he’d stolen it.
He pulled out his self-made map as the Professor below explained the urgent need for more detailed maps of the areas surrounding the rock plains. He studied the mentioned landmark. Well, it was too large to be called it a landmark, but it was instantly recognizable, and hard to miss too. The fact that it spanned for dozens and dozens of miles was the contrary part. To the west of the plains was an as-of-yet unnamed forest, home to mostly the vicious splinterpelts, a large variety of rodents, and a few ostigraves – though you could expect to find those buzzards practically anywhere that was dominated by large predators.
To the east of the barren Expanse, however, the map was completely blank. There was an old saying about how nothing was scarier than being on the blank part of a thoroughly detailed map, but most people didn’t think that to be true; which made Manch wonder how it had become an old saying in the first place. Generally, the more you knew about an area, the more scared you’d be, because there was nowhere in the world that did not contain dangerous plants, animals, weather, or hazardous terrain. Sure, there were legends of hidden havens untouched by the dangers that filled the rest of the world, but there were also legends of a creature that literally pooped cheese. You couldn’t go around believing every legend you heard.
“Following the upcoming graduation and induction ceremony,” the professor announced, “we will be asking for Protector volunteers to accompany Worldmappers to these areas – so pay attention. To get to the western side of the Expanse, one must travel around the eastern side and through the forest, unless, that is, you have an immediate death wish, in which case you would take the shortcut through the rock plains themselves.” He smoothed out his mustache and pointed to the thick black line between the forest and the plains, denoting a large chasm.
“Today we will be reviewing tactics and techniques when dealing with the chasms caused by the Shift. The practical application will be next week with Professor Chanston. Those of you who are unable to attend for whatever reason, please let him know before the end of the week.” Then he launched into an intricate description of the first technique that could be used to cross chasms, the chainbridge, and how to build one using materials you could find in the forest.
One of the students, a small Alpin Fay, asked with a smirk in his voice why he couldn’t just leap across the gap. The professor asked him if he could do so with a Worldmapper and all the gear on his back. The lesson continued.
Manch listened closely, taking notes in his head – not having money for paper had forced him to rely solely on his memory, and he could now memorize entire lectures, or at least the facts they imparted.
The professor moved on to another method of crossing the chasms, emphasising that not all methods would be readily available and equally successful at all times, and part of the responsibility of a Protector was to make those decisions.
“What about an avanarian?” asked the blue-haired student Manch had noticed earlier. “Why go through all this trouble when you can just fly across on one of those – they can carry two people and the gear easily.”
“Avanarian are not handed out willy-nilly like Midcycle gifts in a nursery, Mr. Harivard!” said the professor, tone verging slightly offended. “They are a resource we do not have in large numbers. Only Journeyman Worldmappers, who have proven their skill and value beyond a doubt, who have done so much in service to the Society, who have proven that they have what it takes to fulfill their task no matter what – only they are gifted with the majestic steed.” His voice dropped in volume at the end, almost reverent. He smoothed his mustache solemnly.
“Those things are about as majestic as a stomptromp trying to climb a tree,” said a student from the back of the room. A combination of snorts and laughs filled the lecture hall.
“Gintapeds, Yulian, not ‘stomptromps’,” replied the professor irritably. “That colloquialism has no place in this building, and while in my class you will call things by their proper name.”
“Who’s to say what the proper name is, professor? Most people know them as stomptromps.”
“Most people clean themselves once a month, think spectrids are literally the devil incarnate, and have no knowledge of mathematics beyond adding two groups of riverplums,” the professor said harshly. “Most people live in the city, spending their lives foraging in the dirt for scraps, living only to die and contributing nothing to the world! Most people are worthless wastes of space whose only purpose is to be utilized as best they can in service of the Society, for the good of the world! Are you most people, Yulian?” The professor’s stern gaze stilled the entire hall, and Yulian dropped his eyes to his desk.
“No, sir,” he said, defeated.
The lesson continued. The students listened and took notes.
Manch’s forehead was scrunched in confusion. The Dean wouldn’t like this at all. The professor went way out of line – that was practically evil! Good thing I don’t actually have to take a class with him – at least not in person. I guess there is an advantage to being outside of the system for now. He thought for another moment. There usually is, though, when what you’re doing isn’t strictly legal. But it’s the only way I can do this, and I’m helping people in the end – even risking my life to do it!
Hemway would probably have a smoking good time unraveling that conundrum, looking at it from every possible angle, spending hours discussing the possible ramifications, and then at the end deciding that there was no one true answer. It might be good to talk to him about it anyway.
The lecture went on, but Manch was lost in his own musings. When the professor announced the end of class, the students rushed out, and Manch was left the only person still looking at the lecture hall.
Only minutes later did he realize the time, and tilted his watch to see it by the light filtering up from the chandeliers. Smokes! I only have five minutes to get to the Dean’s office! He scrambled to his feet, clanking across the metal ceiling to the door. This time he didn’t hesitate on the ladder, climbing as fast as his legs would allow. When he got to the main hallway of the University if was filled with students once again, and the crowded space slowed him down.
He approached the Dean’s office at a dead run. The door slammed open when he was perhaps five seconds away, and the Dean himself, Professor Erumeid Durimedes, rushed out. He had a large notebook tucked under one arm, its covers overflowing with papers, and was still in the middle of putting on his official Society robe.
“I’m coming, you paradox of a bird, you! Courier boy, follow me if you want to see a live paracal!” The Dean sped past him as Manch tried to cancel his momentum and run in the opposite direction. “Haha! You’re not getting away this time you featherbrain!” He tossed his beard over his shoulder and lifted his long legs even higher, devouring the length of the hallway in no time.
Manch finally caught up as the Dean burst out the back entrance of the building, emerging into a cultivated garden of strange plants, ornate statues dotting the greenery.
“Mr. Dean, what are we running for?” he asked breathlessly as they wove through the labyrinth of spinning flowers and hissing tree stumps.
“A paracal, my boy! The most intriguing creature I’ve encountered in all my studies!” The Dean grinned and laughed like a delighted child, white beard streaming through the air behind him.
“What’s-” Manch paused to dodge around a hole in the ground that was spewing purple smoke. “What’s a paracal?”
“You’ll see, my boy! You’ll see! Vice-Dean Chaugun has informed my that there is one on the roof of the greenhouse at this very moment!” He brandished his notebook excitedly. “Ha! To be able to talk to an intelligent paracal – what an opportunity!”
They passed through a circular patch of grass speckled with brown spheres on bright green stalks, swaying gently in the wind. Ahead of them, an elegant glass tower rose sleekly into the sky, its south wall reflecting the brilliant noonday sun. Upon approaching the entrance to the tower, an armored individual stepped out to stop them.
“Mapmaster Chaugun said I was to let in only one person,” the guard said stiffly.
The Dean was hopping from foot to foot, clearly impatient to be inside. “Yes, yes, that’s me – I am the Dean, you know! I must be through to see the paracal!”
A helmeted head turned to Manch. “The boy. Who is he?”
“He is a courier for the Society, he was bringing me something – now stand aside!”
The guard reluctantly stepped to the side, opening the door for them to continue in. Within the translucent walls of the tower, hundreds of rows of vegetables were carefully labeled, kept in straight lines by short walls separating each row. They stretched on over the entire bottom floor; nothing but dirt and green leaves, and the occasional spot of color. Distribution day had just been earlier that week, so it was likely that one of the higher floors was currently being replanted.
They headed to the iron stairway spiraling up in the middle of the tower, the only structure in the room save for the strange contraption along the sides, that somehow brought water up from the bottom of the hill the University rested on top of.
Manch clanked up the stairs behind the Dean, shocked at actually being allowed inside the very place where most of the food for the entire city was grown. He didn’t understand how they could do it all for free, year after year, even with the riches they were known to hold. Where did they get their resources?
“I had forgotten, how tiring, the climb was,” huffed the Dean, holding his robes at his knees as he struggled to keep up his speed. “It’s been so long, since I last visited the Tower. I spend all my time in my office, and sometimes in various rooms around the University.” He paused and leaned against the railing, wiping his large sleeve across his forehead.
They were on the fourth or fifth floor now – Manch hadn’t been paying attention, focusing on keeping up with the Dean. For an old guy who spends all his time sitting and staring at books, he sure is spry.
“In fact,” said the Dean, picking up his robes again and resuming the climb. “I can barely even remember the last time I went off on research. I don’t think I’ve been outside the city for two or three cycles!”
“Sir, didn’t you used to be the head of the Worldmappers Division?” asked Manch, ignoring the burning in his legs.
The Dean smiled wistfully, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Ah, those were indeed the shining days of my career. Vice-Dean Chaugun’s taken over the job admirably, though, and I hear the current batch of Worldmapper apprentices will be ready for solo assignment by the end of the year! There’s still so much we have yet to map of our current surroundings.”
“Like to the north-east and east of the Expanse?”
“Why yes, that’s exactly what I was referring to!” He turned to him, blue eyes admiring, laugh-lines fully creased. “You know some maplore, then?”
Manch made a gesture with his hand that was open for interpretation. “I hear things when I’m running jobs around the University.”
The Dean’s piercing eyes regarded him silently for a moment, set above the still-stretched smile. “So you do!” The they turned to focus up the stairs. “Such ambition in one so young. Ha! You remind me of me!”
“Ambition, sir?” said Manch, surprised. All I said was that I’ve heard things…
“One of my favorite memories is of my first encounter with a greemwing,” the Dean said happily, ignoring his question.
Manch started. “You went mapping in the Greem!?”
The Dean chuckled, tugging at his beard. “I wouldn’t say there was much mapping being done, no. We’d wandered in by accident, coming out of a connecting forest – it was the White Forest, if memory serves. After losing our bearing in the fog by the Steamlake, we chose a direction and pressed forward, walking for hours through the unnaturally silent forest. I tell you, boy, there’s nothing to get your nerves ajumping like dead silence and the ability to only see half a foot in front of you! With that fog everywhere, each shadow seems like a groanling or a starving pit-tree.
“Unfortunately, we’d chosen the wrong direction, and ended up walking straight into the Greem! My brother was certain we were going to be attacked by the Scavengers at any moment, but the only inhabitant of the marshes we saw was a single greemwing emerging from the surface of the swamp, probably on its way back from laying a new clutch of eggs. My brother’s head was full of thoughts about being ambushed by the Scavengers, and he jumped back a straight four feet! Got himself stuck in a deep patch as a result; took an hour to get him loose. We used to laugh about that day all the time.”
The Dean went silent, and Manch saw his eternal smile dim somewhat, the laugh-lines crossing his face no longer so happy.
“Um, Mr. Dean, sir?”
The old man blinked and turned to him, his joyful expression reigniting like the embers of a campfire suddenly being blown into a full fire by a sudden gust. “Yes, my boy?”
Manch chose his question carefully. “Do you regret your time as a Protector, before you became a Worldmapper?”
The blue eyes smiled at the stairs, lit from behind by a melancholy light. “There is only one thing I regret, young courier, and it is not that. To be a Protector is a noble choice – nobler, I think, than being a Worldmapper.” He turned to Manch with a conspiratorial grin. “Don’t tell Chaugun I said that, though. He’s quite touchy on the subject of the Society hierarchy.”
Manch nodded quickly, smiling. “You can trust me.”
“I don’t doubt it for a second, my boy,” said the Dean with such conviction that Manch felt pride flare in his chest. Then the Dean picked up the pace, leaping up the stairs two at a time with his long legs. “Now let’s hurry, I won’t forgive myself if I miss this chance!”
They soon emerged onto the roof of the glass tower, heaving and gasping, but smiling nevertheless. The view was spectacular, what with the tower itself being on top of the large hill, and them being on top of the tower.
The Dean immediately rushed over to where a tall man in maroon and grey robes was standing resignedly. He had a jet black mustache whose tips drooped slightly downwards. As they approached, he turned and sighed at the Dean.
“Erumeid, was it really quite necessary for me to remain by the creature until you arrived?” He spoke as if it were a major effort, everything he said a constant worn-out complaint tumbling from his lips. “I do have things to take care of, you know, being Mapmaster and all.” He sighed again, and his small eyes blinked a few times. “Well, I take it you can handle it yourself now that you are here?”
“Oh yes, very good, Chaugun, do get back to all your important mumbo-jumbo,” said the Dean, passing him by and examining a particularly odd bird perched on a creeper vine at about eye-level.
Vice-Dean Chaugun – Mapmaster Chaugun? The Dean seemed to use the former, but Chaugun himself apparently preferred Mapmaster – sighed resignedly and set off down the stairwell, muttering to himself.
Manch stepped up next to the Dean and examined the bird with growing curiosity. It was larger than most common birds, though quite a bit smaller of course than the enormous ostigrave. Its plumage was a dull green and orange, the feathers looking as if they’d been rubbed in mud so that the colors barely shown through. The strange part, however, was the head – or rather, the face. The face was that of a person. A person who had been stepped on repeatedly by a stomptromp – Gintaped, Manch corrected himself. The face was squished so far into the head as to be almost completely flat, only the nose protruding the teensiest amount.
The Dean was stepping lightly around the creature, talking to himself excitedly under his breath. ‘My, what a specimen!’ ‘So long-lived! Why, I’ll bet anything this paracal could tell us quite a story about the time of Arch Mapmaster Heuregon!’ ‘The face…remarkable.’
“Which is more than I can say about yours,” the face’s mouth said suddenly.
“Aho!” the Dean exclaimed. “I’d heard, but…you really can speak intelligently!”
The paracal blinked its tiny black eyes in a bored manner, saying, “Which is, again, more than can be said for yourself.”
Manch looked up at the Dean. “But, Mr. Dean, didn’t it just insult you? Twice?”
The ecstatic old man beamed at him, nodding emphatically. “Yes, yes it did!”
“With manners like his, he’s probably used to it by now,” drawled the paracal. “I’m a he, not an it.” Then he stifled what seemed to be a yawn, though it was hard to tell with the squashed features. “If I’m not going to be getting any more stimulating conversation than this, then I’m leaving.”
“No, wait!” said the Dean, hastily pulling out his notebook and flipping it open. He primed his pencil and began scribbling away. “I have so many questions! How long have you lived? Where are you from originally? Is it true that you only mirror thoughts and words of people you’ve heard speak? Or do you simply gain intelligence from witnessing conversations and learn from them? Have you ever had an original thought? How often do you mate?” The Dean looked up expectantly, eyes lit by the fire of potential knowledge to be gained.
The paracal stared at him for a moment, then smacked its flattened lips. “Too long, somewhere you’ll hopefully never find again, isn’t that what everyone does, if that was true I’d still be dumb as a dowerling, I’m thinking one about you right now and it is highly offensive, and that last question is far too intrusive; I’m an aged paracal, not some longlegs you’ve bred into domesticity.” He looked around the roof as the Dean quickly pencilled the answers into his notebook. “Do you happen to have any rinenuts on hand?”
Manch cleared his throat uncertainly. “Umm, Mr. Paracal, do you-” The paracal swung his head around, the bird’s small, pure black eyes staring straight through him. Do you know how creepy you are? “Do you have a name?”
The paracal snorted roughly. “You people and your names. You know why you all need names? Cause there’s too darn many of you, that’s why. You’d breed until you covered the whole planet if you could. Thank the Vertivrak the Shift keeps you down to a manageable number.” He blinked another couple times, ruffling his feathers. “So no, I do not have a name.”
“How do you differentiate yourself from other paracals, then?”
“With my eyes, stupid! You think we can’t tell ourselves apart from others of our kind just cause we don’t have names? You people, all idiots I say, it’s unreal. Listen, boy, if you want to stay alive longer than it takes to just make another few of you and that’s it, you’re going to have to learn to think before you speak.”
Manch was very taken aback, but recovered and replied with his usual politeness. “I’m sorry if I offended you, Mr. Paracal, but I’ve never met any…thinking being without a name before. I didn’t mean to assume anything.”
“Well you did,” huffed the bird, picking up his scrawny feet one at a time, repositioning himself. “And who’s to say I can think? Maybe I only repeat what other people have said to me, like that oldy over there said?”
“But you said to the Dean that that wasn’t the case.” He glanced at the Dean, who was copying down every word that was spoken by the paracal. “And you’re having a conversation with me…”
“What’samatter, I can’t lie once in a while? That’s one thing I learned from listening to you people with names, I can tell you that.”
Manch frowned. “So you do only repeat what you’ve heard?”
“What difference does it make!? I’m talking to you the same either way.”
“Well, I would like to know if I’m having a conversation with you, or with a combination of every single person you’ve ever heard speak.”
“Yes, yes!” said the Dean, looking up from his notebook. “Is your vocabulary merely an aggregate of past conversations, and you use your own intellect to piece it together in such a way as to produce an answer for every situation?”
“As I said before,” the paracal droned, “everyone does that. How can you use a word you’ve never heard before?”
“You can make up a word,” Manch provided. “Dobenskill. Hostingy. Bellelelepoppe-”
“That’s not the same thing!” squawked the paracal in clear aggravation. How does he squawk with a regular mouth? “That’s not using a word that already exists that you’ve never known about. It’s just greemchatter.”
The Dean looked thoughtfully at the paracal, then smiled and replied, “Ah, but people can extrapolate from current knowledge and predict the existence of things unknown to them personally. If you can do this, then you are truly a sentient creature.”
“I don’t need you to tell me whether I’m sentient or not you old coot!” said the paracal, leaning forward to glare at the Dean. “But I can tell just by looking at you that you don’t get outside much, you’re old as a dead limbo tree, and you never know when to mind your own business.”
“Actually,” said Manch, “except for that first one that knowledge was available to you firsthand. And the first one could have been a guess.”
“That counts, my boy!” said the Dean excitedly. “Extrapolation almost always results in guessing – the fact that the guess is based on observation is what is important.”
“Or I could have just known that from witnessing so very many conversations – every time someone looks like you do, the other person told them to get out more. Ergo, you don’t get out much.” The paracal ruffled its feather smugly.
“You’re very good at rational thinking for a bird that only repeats what its heard,” Manch said suddenly.
“What’s that got to do with it?” argued the paracal, turning his black pinpricks of eyes in his direction.
“Well, to, as the Dean said, ‘extrapolate from my current knowledge and predict the existence of things unknown to me personally’, most of the people in the world are fairly stupid.”
“I’ll concede that,” said the paracal with a rough laugh. “Though I’d raise ‘most’ to ‘all’.”
“In that case,” Manch continued with a hint of a grin starting to form, “there’s no way you could have learned to mimic reasoning such as you have displayed thus far, unless you developed it on your own. Which does, I think, constitute extrapolation and original thinking.”
The paracal blinked at him.
The Dean bust out laughing and clapped him on the shoulder. “Very good, my boy, very good indeed! That was quite the refutation! Why, if half our apprentices were as well-read as you, we’d be three times as efficient!”
Manch smiled at the paracal, who in turn scowled in his squashed-face manner. “Well, Mr. Paracal? Anything to say in your defense?”
“You got me,” the paracal deadpanned, staring at him with half-lidded eyes. “I am the single most intelligent being on this planet, and have learned to think as I have without any prior observation of rational reasoning. Now, I think we can all agree this conversation has been a colossal waste of time-” Manch snickered, but the paracal ignored him. “-and that I have spent far too long bickering with you named people.”
“Why did you come here in the first place?” Manch asked.
The paracal looked around the rooftop for a few moments, then turned back to him. “Well, I was supposed to be checking up on you named people, but it doesn’t really seem worth the effort. You can kill yourselves off perfectly fine without any help. And now, if you don’t have any objections, and even if you do, I shall take my leave. A good cycle to you.” He nodded curtly, then launched himself into the air in a split second and was flapping away before Manch could even return the goodbye.
He looked up at the Dean. “Are all paracals that rude?”
“I cannot answer that question as well as I would like, my boy,” said the Dean with a contented smile. “That is the only paracal I have ever met, and that is more than most people. However, I do know that paracals are perhaps the most long-lived creatures in the world, and that may contribute to their gruff disposition.”
He set his bright blue eyes on Manch, squinting slightly. The wind picked up, and his wispy white beard floated up horizontally, offsetting the Dean’s genuine expression. “Are you thinking of entering into the Midcycle Evaluation Exams, by any chance? It would be a pity if one such as you were to pass up this chance.” The blue eyes smiled and looked straight through him.
It’s only what I’ve been thinking about for the past few years, Mr. Dean. It’s only been the entire goal of my life recently. If I don’t get in, my life might as well be over. I’ve been studying my smoking brains out since I found a way to sneak into the classes. I’ve been drawing and labeling maps in my sleep since I copied my first one. This is literally the purpose of my life, now.
The Dean was still waiting for an answer, so he smiled and said, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Good, good. I hope I will see you at the Landing in two weeks time, then. In the meantime, I should probably get back to my office. Lots of things to reference and cross-reference and research and cite, you know. Never enough citing. You had a package for me?”
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot!” Manch unlatched the clasp of his courier’s bag and pulled out something wrapped heavily in wax paper.
“Incredible timing,” said the Dean, taking the wrapped item. “I just realized I haven’t had breakfast yet.” He quickly unwrapped the wax paper to reveal a round pastry, dough glistening with sugar crystals. “Ah, perfection. Nobody makes them like Marlan, no sirree. Of course, nobody makes them except Marlan, but that’s not the point.”
“I’d better get back to headquarters, too, if I don’t want to miss lunch,” Manch said, closing up his courier’s bag.
“Well, thank you for accompanying me on my mad quest to speak with a paracal,” the Dean said brightly.
“Thank you for inviting me along,” Manch said. “I didn’t know there was such thing as a paracal until you told me, but this was definitely worth the time.” He checked his watch. “Anyway, I’d better get going. Thank you again, Mr. Dean!” He waved as he headed back towards the stairwell.
The Dean took a large bite of the pastry in his hand, then waved. “Ready yourself for Evaluation Day, my boy; I’m looking forward to seeing a change in the Society ranks. They’ve gotten too dusty of late.”
“I’ll do my best, sir,” Manch replied with a serious nod. And it will be enough, he promised himself. It had better be.