|"Wheels within Wheels within Wheels.."|
I again slapped on a Gezirahan disguise, presumably a female one, since Aahz had never gotten around to telling me the difference. I oriented myself and walked quickly across town. The lumber hiring hall was exactly as I had last seen it. I walked in. The information Deveel hadn't changed either. He still sat at the black desk, reading from apparently the same book. He looked up as I approached.
"Ah. 'The Kid'. I'm afraid that your friends never did come by, or I missed them if they did."
"About Penbrius. About everything. You knew exactly what was happening."
He gave me an expressionless look. I seemed to be getting a lot of those this day, which I supposed was the point.
"Why didn't you tell someone? Chirosovo won't be habitable for centuries! You could have prevented that!" I slammed a fist on the desk. A couple of nearby Gezirahans looked up disinterestedly than ignored us. I imagine it was a common reaction to this particular Deveel.
The Deveel actually put the book down on the desk before answering me. He meticulously folded his hands before him.
"Assuming, for the sake of argument, that I had known something about someone named 'Penbrius', what good would it have done for me to tell anyone? Why should they, whoever 'they' might be, have listened to a dried up old relic like myself?"
"You had to try!"
"So you say." A pause. "A further supposition. Suppose I, in my menial position, realized that something was wrong, and decided to tell someone. Who would I tell? The Deveel Executive Branch? A group of money-grubbing merchants who wouldn't notice a entire city of victorious post-game Jahks marching through the room, as long as the profits keep rolling in? The Devan Labor Council? Their only areas of expertise are the stifling of genuine labor unions and the production of those cretinous posters." He nodded his head towards the nearest paper-festooned wall.
"Well... you could have..." I looked at him squarely. "You could have come and told me. I'm the official Magician In Residence of the Bazaar on Deva! It's my job to deal with these problems!"
"Ah." He said again, this time raising a long gnarled finger in accompaniment. "An interesting idea, and one that is not entirely without merit." He refolded his hands. "One last supposition for you to consider, 'Kid.' Suppose an individual knew that something... unpleasant... was about to happen and also knew offhand of only one person who might be in a position to stop it. Or, on the other hand, be in a position to make things infinitely worse if he wasn't up to the challenge. What does the first individual do?"
"Wasn't up to the challenge...?"
"In the course of a long lifetime, one sees many times how... lethally... easy it is for someone to acquire an undeserved reputation. For good or for evil. And, as you are no doubt aware, the current Magician In Residence on Deva has... acquired himself quite a reputation. Word of his mighty deeds have even reached humble colonial backwaters such as this."
My head somehow remained unturned.
"So. This first hypothetical person would..."
"Would... how should I put this... point the potential Klahd of the hour in the generally proper direction and send him on his way. If he succeeds, so much the better. If he fails to uncover the truth and work towards fixing the problem, then he was never up to the task to begin with. And something else will have to be tried."
"None of this changes the fact that Chirosovo has been obliterated."
"True. And if there is such a person, that is something that he will have to live with. For the rest of his life." It was only there for a split second, but I saw something I'd never seen a Deveel's face before- pain. Unselfish pain. Or perhaps the most selfish pain of all.
I stood silently for a moment, then quietly asked:
"So you consider making a vague hint about 'something being wrong' a good example of 'pointing me in the right direction'?"
The Deveel matched my silence, and even extended it a bit. Finally:
"Yes, if it is part of a larger... tapestry. I said my previous supposition was the last, but there is always one more. Always. Something else one learns. Suppose that our, as you put it, first hypothetical friend noticed something was wrong because... he was familiar with the signs. It was something that he had lived through once before."
I looked at him askance.
"Something that.. in the end... turned an entire dimension into a... desolate, barren wasteland?"
"Something of that nature, yes."
"You... you were there? When Deva... but that was... centuries ago! Longer than even a Deveel's lifespan! There's no way..."
"Deveels can live a long time. A very long time. And with a little magikal assistance.." He shrugged, a gesture in its way as complex as Bertie's had been. "In any event, a person sees that the great tragedy is coming again. And knows that, like before, no one will listen to a doomsayer, no one will help. Directly. Until it is too late. Unless, of course, they are confronted with a threat in which they will believe. He also sees that the natives are worried, and meeting with each other in secret. So, taking advantage of certain recent events, he starts..." a vague waving gesture "...rumors... that an illegal labor union is organizing. And so... someone who might be able to solve the problem is brought into the picture. And thus the problem is solved." He rose to his cloven feet, surprising me; despite the suspicions that had brought me back to this room, at some subconscious level I had assumed he was permanently attached to the desk. "This problem, at least. There will be others, of course. There always are." He left the desk, and me, and started walking silently towards the door leading out onto the street.
Walking silently. I studied him, his gait, for a moment. Add a little padding, give him a fake beard... and...
Yes. Now, except for that gaze, you could swim right past him in the stream, so to speak. But before...
I cleared my throat and he stopped, looking back at me.
"Your 'menial' position? Sir?"
His reply was prompt.
"Tell me, what do you know of bureaucracies?"
I hesitated, then replied cautiously: "Someone once told me that they exist to drive people mad."
"Ah. The man was a realist. The higher one rises in a bureaucracy, my young friend, the less true power one has. Particularly one constructed and manned by Deveels. The more one is bound up by a million tiny threads of incompetence, jealousy and corruption, holding him firmly in place. The more one has to go under the table, and behind the backs of his underlings, just to get true information, to get the important things done." He paused. "Perhaps this is true of all of those who rise to positions of power. I gather this Penbrius individual did similar things. And you, too, perhaps? I notice your excitable green friend is not here. Be seeing you, Kid." Without waiting for a reply, he stepped through the door, and was gone.
I looked back at the desk. A somewhat younger Deveel had appeared seemingly from nowhere and was sliding into place behind it. He picked up the book and started reading. I studied him for a moment, then spoke:
"What are orenberries made of?"
"Take a number." He didn't even look up from the book.
I nodded, and pulled the D-Hopper out of my pocket. I flipped the dials into the familiar 'Deva' setting and punched the button. The Bazaar swirled up around me, and settled into stability. I dropped my disguise, and set off to join Aahz and the others, and to try and get a strawberry milkshake, if any were left.
But as I approached the door of the Yellow Crescent Inn, the portal suddenly burst open, and a familiar face appeared. It was Aahz, and he looked... there isn't a word for what Aahz looked like. If you added up the words 'anticipatory', 'furious', 'hopeful' and threw in a smidgen of 'greedy', you'd be in the ball-park.
"Kid! There you are. I was beginning to wonder if you hadn't made a break for it." He smiled. It was his unpleasant smile. Well, all of Aahz's smiles are unpleasant, but this one ranked well up towards the top of the 'yeek!' scale.
"Uh... why would I want to do that?" I asked, preparing to do just what he'd suggested if it should prove necessary. I suddenly realized I was still carrying the D-Hopper in my pocket... Maybe I could...
"Well..." Aahz tapped his fingers together in an ominous fashion. "We were just starting to pass out the milkshakes, when two people showed up, looking for you. One was someone dressed like Popeye the Sailor Deveel who says you owe him a favor, and the other was that Daglarite you were so chummy with, saying something about paying you your fee per your and his contract." With the last word, Aahz's smile grew even broader.
"Ah." It was truly a word for all occasions.
"Yes." Before I could run for it or even reach into my pocket, Aahz was beside me, draping a friendly arm over my shoulders. Well... maybe not friendly, exactly, but at least no bones were broken... "They also said something about wanting to hire you again, and help them get rid of somebody... a bunch of yahoos they called... um... what was the word they used?"
"The Traders?" I hazarded.
"That's right!" The grasp grew a little tighter. "Is there... oh... anything you feel like telling me, partner?"
I placed my arm around Aahz's shoulder, mimicking his gesture. I grinned.
"Nah. It would just upset you, Aahz. But from what I already know about these 'Traders', it just might be an assignment worthy of the Great Skeeve. Let's go get a round of milkshakes and talk to them, shall we?"
May 25, 2000 A.D.
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