It might seem odd that I was allowed so much time to freshen up and see about my own business, especially for someone like the Claw. This whole place stinks of protocol and etiquette. I mean, let’s remember that Western notions of etiquette evolved from people being so barbaric they had to have a card put in front of them telling them not to eat with their fingers. Putting so much emphasis on it around here just makes me suspect they’re likely to fly off the handle in other ways.
It’s like a helmet in that way. Armored helmets gave rise to two things: increased casualties and decreased fatalities. The decrease in fatalities is nice; it means soldiers were getting wounded instead of dying. The increased casualties, though, had to do with the helmets giving them a sense of being protected, so they took more risks.
Eh, this is all probably just some attempt to defend my own noted contrarian attitude and lack of manners. At least they gave me time to get the stink of my armor off me, and some time to clean up the armor’s interior. I still had some maintenance to see to, but the printer can handle that after a little more work.
They got me a nice, tailored formal outfit. Lu walked in right as the guy first finished up taking my inseam measurements. “How are things for our most honored guest?”
I shrugged. “Not too bad. Hey, is that fellow going to be coming back in here anytime soon to finish me off? I sensed a real connection there.”
Lu’s eyes stayed firmly above my waist despite the joke. “He will have your suit soon. The best fit of anything you have ever worn, for free. No one would turn down the honor of having their clothing worn by one meant to have a special audience with the Emperor.”
My eyebrow rose, if you can smell what the Gex is cookin’. “Cool. So what is this? Dinner? Dancing, maybe? A movie? Is Wonder Woman out yet? I’m a little on the fence about DC’s attempt to copy Marvel, so the movies leading up to Justice League feel like more of an obligation than recreation. Plus, I’m not colorblind, so I don’t think the visuals are for me.”
Lu nodded his head. “You will meet with the Emperor in his throne room, which has three tiers. Do not take your armor or any weapons. I would advise you to take nothing with you. Do not advance to the next tier unless so commanded. Do not insult the Emperor or his country.”
“Wow. Insecure much?”
I saw a twitch. Lu had to put some effort into keeping his face from being hard and frowny. “Your sense of humor precedes you, Lord Gecko.”
Oooh, I’m a lord now. Take that, stupid singer who said I’d never be a royal! I suppose it could have been meant as an insult, too. Lord is a step down from emperor. But if I looked that deep into it, I might also try to parse if the feng shui of my indoor mansion was meant to cultivate negative chi or some shit like that. I just don’t have enough time to worry that much about it.
They sent the outfit over a few hours later. Knock knock; who is it? A box with my clothes in it. It really was a nice outfit. Black and gold. The Claw seems to like gold. I wonder if he lost something in an unfortunate smelting accident. Very much like a suit, but with a longer, thicker coat marked with flowery, swirling patterns that covered the arms and stopped around the shoulders. The undershirt featured a gold Claw on the breast pocket. It came with its own set of segmented sunglasses, too.
I turned to show off to Qiang. She wore red robes and pants. “What do you think?” I asked in the local tongue. No response. I bent down and opened my arm. She ran over and into my arms. I’d been trying various languages every once in awhile. She’s content not to talk much with me, so I’m not forcing the issue. She’s clingy, but she also doesn’t give me lip or even pout about anything I do. She also eats pretty much everything I cook.
They didn’t let me take her to the big audience. Lu was very clear on that. “You must leave your consort behind.”
I flashed the laser eye at its lowest power, just briefly, so that it would briefly glow through the sunglasses. Setting Qiang down, I took them off to look Lu right in his fleshy eyes. “My child is obviously quite traumatized by how she has been treated by your people. If I leave her here, it may set back the trust she has in me. In order to counteract this, see to obtaining information for me. I want to know where she is from and how she ended up in the custody of the Riccan state. Without some light reading to occupy my mind, who knows what mischief I’ll get up to?”
I leaned forward and cupped my hand to my mouth. “Here’s a hint. I will seriously wreck some ass. Like, all the things you think I do with her, to whoever in this palace I get my hands on.”
The demeanor of stone came back to Lu, quite possibly because I dared to make an explicit threat. He opened his mouth to respond, but I just patted him on the cheek. “Good man, glad to hear you’re amenable. You know, you might just move up in this empire if you keep that up. I’ll put in a good word with you, how about that?” I walked right out the door.
He caught up to me eventually. I guess he didn’t want to dump me on a subordinate. We walked in silence, him leading me on a long walk toward the main court in the central building. “I wonder if anyone’s considered putting in one of those moving walkways. If done right, I think it’d really increase productivity around here. Sure, there’s always the possibility of a break down on them, but that just turns it into a floor. No more inconvenient than it is now, in fact.”
The court’s outer tier had a floor of what looked like marble. I pondered the designs on it for a second, trying to figure out what it was supposed to be. I couldn’t see all of it, as the room in front of me was blocked by a curtain. Lu turned to hold his palm out to me, then stepped through the curtain.
From behind that curtain issued a voice I had communicated with before. It was deep, but with a screechy quality, almost like two voices in one. It’s part of the reason I couldn’t ever be sure I was talking with the real Claw. “Thank you, my faithful servant. Welcome, Psychopomp Gecko.”
I stepped to the curtain and gave my little fist-over-palm headbow. “Hello again, Claw. It seems the upper hand is on the other foot this time around.”
Something rumbled, like boulders rolling around. I looked around for any openings, and even stepped to the side in case of a trapdoor. Huh. That spot on the floor looked like a gas planet. A zoom showed moons orbiting it. Before I could go into it further, Claw began speaking once more. “You talent is for destruction. It is well you embrace your true self and aid my rule. I will unleash your fiendish delights on Earth and bring it to order in the aftermath.”
“Quite an idea,” I said. Clearly, he and I differed on how to treat the world. Then again, I differ with myself half the time. I suppose I’m just a mess of contradictions that way, weebling and wobbling between killing people to impose my view and loving the planet for what it is, between running around on fire and killing anything that threatens my life. But then, something tells me consistency is one of those myths people claim to believe in against all evidence, like supply-side economics or the anal g-spot. “I look forward to using the knowledge locked in my special brain to great effect. I anticipate being made whole again now that I am here. Of course, I offer you the same loyalty you showed me.”
“You offer the world for your species returned to you? You are a poor negotiator.”
I shrugged. “I’m a simple man. A modern man. A man of the future, in fact. Though perhaps I may ask for later consideration on some minor favors. I’m sure you understand that, like a dog who catches a car, I haven’t planned everything ahead all the way. And though it may seem an imposition, I deeply hope I may recover my form first. I have already demonstrated the technology to you and the entire world, and I will work faster once restored.”
“This is agreeable, yes. Go with my blessing and bring my will to the world, Danshaku Psychopomp Gecko.” My translator pinged it as a loaned work for something like “Baron”. I have a feeling I was insulted. Then again, I threw in one of my own when I said I’d be as loyal as him. Ah, court politics. Fucking waste of time.
“Thank you, Emperor. I am more than happy to service you.” It would have been so easy. So very easy. I had the eye laser, my banshee scream, my blackened zirconium nails, and even my fangs. I doubt Claw could fit in the building if he was some giant monster, which meant he had to have been at a killable size. At the same time, I couldn’t help but worry about the ease. This guy’s supposed to be smart. I know a lot of people who are smart do stupid things from time to time, and sometimes people aren’t as smart as they think they are. This time, I couldn’t help but feel this was a test as well. Maybe there’s a speaker and a bomb past the curtain, or a deathsquad. Something like that.
More than that, I realized that if I tried anything then, I’d likely never get changed back to my proper species. And sure, I was risking the lives of millions or even billions of people not taking this opportunity… but they can always make more people. There’s just the one me, and I’m me, which I think is far more important than other people who keep hogging my oxygen on this planet.
Lu coughed as he stepped out through the curtain, perhaps realizing I was lost in thought. Past him, I saw another curtain further on before he dropped the one he came through. Lu spoke up. “The Emperor has many duties to attend to as the Supreme Ruler of our people. If you will return to your residence, I will send someone by soon to show you the facilities you shall soon work at after your surgery.”
Eh, so what if I was getting snubbed. At least I could get back to my own business.
On my way back, my sunglasses blinked with a bright light that became a small dot in the upper corner. Focusing it prompted a file to open. Qiang’s file. Born in one of the island colonies closer to China almost five years ago. Father unknown. Mother reported to the Interior Ministry for suspected treason several times by a next door neighbor. They didn’t even redact her fate. Executed by death flight. That had to be fun. If Ricca’s anything like Argentina, they stripped the mother naked, shackled her, drugged her, then tossed her out of a plane into the ocean. It’s the Russian judges you really have to impress in that competition. They prefer to save the high scores for divers who do all that and break through a layer of ice when they hit the water.
The government took in Qiang and sent her to the Imperial Child Welfare Center in the city.
It’s a common joke that the more friendly-sounding a dictatorship tries to be, the worse it is. The Republic of so-and-so is in constant depression. The Democratic Republic of so-and-so is killing its own people. The People’s Democratic Republic is a bunch of people running around killing each other. The Imperial Child Welfare Center sounds more like the second one. If they called it Happy Sunshine Children’s Academy, then I’d be on the lookout for pint-sized drug kingpins shooting up the place, sitting in a drug den on a pile of skulls with a booster seat. If Qiang’s status as my gift is the norm, the Child Welfare Center’s going on the hit list.
It’d be one of the few. That thought prompted me to smile at the Claw’s hospitality. Yeah, I was situated at the palace. I also had no hard currency, no good idea of my surroundings and what they were, no in-roads with the locals, and was undoubtedly under constant surveillance here in a way that’d be easier to give the slip if I lived elsewhere. Sneaky sneaky.
So I worked on my armor and decided to print up some ball drones of similar design to the one I recovered from my former Earth. I had to do the maintenance by hand with it doing the printing, but it also gave me time to chat up Qiang in Riccan and different dialects of Chinese. “Do you remember your mother?” I asked in one. In another, “Do you know why they sent you to me?” In a third, “What did your mother tell you about your father?”
The questions were a bit dickish for a kid in her situation, but emotional reactions are harder to contain. For all I know, she understood me perfectly other times but just didn’t want to talk. Turns out, the secret was firing off an elbow rocket. Her face lit up and she rushed over to me. I cut off the rocket before she could get hurt and held the end away from her. “Do it again!” she exclaimed in one of the forms of Chinese. Not Mandarin or Cantonese, but a Chinese language all the same. They have so damn many. If there’s one thing China has more of than smog, it’s languages.
With her newfound ability to talk, she was soon my new partner in crime, complete with me explaining knifehandling. I was in the middle of showing her the difference between holding a knife to chop an onion and stabbing someone’s liver when we were interrupted by the man sent to show me the lab. He was young, unlike his boss, and nervous. “It is an honor to meet you, Danshaku. I hope I’m not interrupting but I was sent to show you to the laboratory facility,” he said, looking us over.
To be fair, Qiang and I would have made a lot of people nervous. We both stood there, side by side in front of the door, me holding up a knife in my left hand while she held hers up in her right. American Gothic mixed with a gender-swapped Bates Motel.
After a long second of him looking at us, I held out my right hand for a shake, saying, “Knife to meet you.”
Qiang held out her knife at first before remembering to swap hands, but I couldn’t tell if it was really accidental. I think I like this kid.