Chapter 11 Lost souls
Sanity, Anira began to suspect, was a concept born out of the minds of people who were never confronted with the hard truths of reality.
"Tell me again why we could not simply take an air-liner?" she asked Ailu for about the hundredth time since they had left Khirlon behind them.
"Because there is no air-liner that goes directly from Khirlon to Nkiska." she answered with a patience that had been hardened by years of work with Anira. "The detour would have taken us weeks."
"So instead we spend weeks walking, riding and crawling our way to the coast Nkiska. Brilliant. Especially as you neglected to tell me that you have no idea of how we are going to pass the Nkiskan Sierra which except the Eastern Ranges of the east pole happens to be the highest mountain range in this octant of the world." Anira's agitation got worse with ever further step she took. "The mountains that so casually provide us with the reason why the air-liners can't go there directly from Khirlon." she vented her frustration on a small stone that happened to sit in her path. She kicked it hard and set the little stone stumbling a shallow slope.
"There are bound to be passes. We just have to find the next trading out-post and join a trade caravan." Ailu said still perfectly calm.
"Imagining how horrible it would have been to take a first class cabin back to Kalishan and go to Nkiska from there in another first class cabin."
"That would have taken six weeks."
"Ailu, even if we somehow manage to find a trade caravan it will take us at the very least another week just to cross the mountains and then, who knows how long to reach Quskaranam so that we can talk to your new pet's friend." Anira waved around the the little sack in which she transported the Brick they had broke of the Lee the Seed of the Living city back in Khirlon.
"Who are you calling your pet, human female... thing." Lee protested its voice ringing in their ears. "Your small mind cannot grasp the extent of my structural over-mind. You should be thankful that you brought me with you. I can tell you things no other human has ever heard I will open doors which would otherwise remain forever closed to you, the insights I. . ."
"May the final death have mercy on my soul and erase all memories I have from your priceless information Lee." Anira said. "If I ever hear another detail about house reproduction I will. . ."
"Will the both of you shut up!" Ailu was reaching the limits of her ample reserves of patience. "I have been listening to your crap long enough." Anira was about to say something but Ailu silenced her with a quick warning gesture "No, really do shut up both of you and please stop behaving like idiots. You know perfectly well that we are also not taking the an air-liner so that Kelsheron back in the agency does not know about every step we take. We've been taking the piss for quite a while now and if we do not back up our little holiday with some solid data soon it won't be Kelsheron who'll look like an ass, it will be us." Ailu paused for a moment and glowered at Anira who did not say anything else.
It took them five days to cross the mountains and four more to reach the coastal city of Quskaranam where according to Lee one of its sibling seeds had taken root. All they had to do now was to talk to it and find out where along the sky-shell the Living City was crawling. Quskaranam was small wealthy city home to powerful merchant dynasties who had built their polished marble palaces to take full advantage of the many trade routes crossing through Nkiska. A country that was just a thin strip uncomfortably wedged between the sharp mile high crags of the Nkisr mountains to its east and the rocky shore's of the Turning Sea to its west which reached right to the hills.
Millennia ago Nkiska had been a nice if inconsequential agrarian state, until it developed advanced agriculture which lead to an equally impressive salination of their native soil which was then washed into the Turning Sea leaving its inhabitants with an infertile rock strewn beach on which to subsist. What saved Nkiska was that it was located along a few important trade routes. As their soil slowly turned into a barren land they turned from farmers to merchants transforming their once verdant but insignificant nation into the first great merchant empire on the continent.
Quskaranam was had been the unofficial capital of Nkiska for nearly thousand years now it had been specifically built by the rising merchant dynasties to become a neutral ground on which to conduct business. Built in the middle of the first desert that had appeared almost a century ago and since then had started slowly devouring all of the surrounding country the new settlement was put there on one hand for political reasons as no one claimed this territory as their own any more as well as a sign of defiance. The people proud people of Nkiska would not go out without a fight.
Anira followed Ailu who was having an animated conversation with Lee about the peculiarities of Quskaranam into the city which they entered walking along the Diamond Flow boulevard which was one of the two intersecting main streets of the great city. A few centuries after the rise of the Nkiskan traders the merchant kings had lobbied hard for the establishment of an intercontinental channel system which was supposed to establish water ways which would always flow with enough water to guarantee easy transport for even the greatest amounts of merchandise. The Diamond Flow was the first channel which was completely built with Nkiskan money and connected the Turning Sea at its western shore to the Ocean of Tempests far to the east.
At first the Diamond Flow did not open as many possibilities as expected, while everyone was very interested in the trade network hardly any nation was willing to actually pay the enormous sums necessary to build the channels. Only the desert nations to the south showed any kind of enthusiasm which was mainly because they were interested in getting fresh water into their territories, so only the Golden Path that connected the Turning Sea to the far south was established quickly while all other channels took their sweet time in being built. Only after the Inner World was re-discovered one and a half thousand years ago and that one of the easiest ways into that wild untamed and most importantly unexploited world was found in the centre of the turning sea was the great channel network actually built. Once the great work was no longer driven by reason but instead by greed it only took a little under two hundred years until all the important nations were interconnected by the water way.
Now in the present as air-liners were turning ever more common place with each passing year only did the importance of the artificial stream decline but only slowly, while the merchant dynasties of Nkiska were already heavily investing in advancing air-ship technology.
When asked what their secret was the merchant lords always replied that while most other people of the world were still fundamentally stuck following their traditions very much like the common beasts heedless whether its behaviour did it good or ill, they were singularly interested in effectiveness and nothing else. There traditions ancient traditions had turned their home into a desert and nearly destroyed them and their nation. Only through a radical change did they save themselves.
Of all the cultures Anira had seen during her early years as an agent in training she found the Nkiskan's to be one of the most interesting cultures. Certainly the one that had influenced her in her growth as a person the most. While it would never have occurred to Anira even in her dreams to become a citizen, she did admire their almost ruthless pragmatism. All of the merchant houses were beholden to the state who took most of the profits re investing it into the Great Projects, like the intercontinental channels or the large shipyards. To this end the state appointed freshly recruited talent into competing houses who fought for the honour of being the best, the most efficient. Rebirth was only ever granted to the successful and the higher up one climbed the career ladder the more responsibility was loaded unto the shoulders of the executives. At the end of their natural lives or when ever an economic disaster struck all of the people from the bottom up went through audit. The simple worker was usually sent to training and then reassigned, those higher up were also set to a different merchant house, while the top directors went through forced rebirth and had to start at the bottom of the food chain again to realign their perspective.
That system was far to stressful for Anira who preferred not to be responsible to an entire nations. The way she saw it she was working for herself who owed loyalty only to the Free Agency and her mission. What mattered the most after all was said and done was the result and no one had such a fierce devotion to the outcome of a task than Nkiskan people. Anira had assimilated much of their way to view the world always asking herself if there were no other better ways to solve a problem.
During the passing weeks she had become increasingly irritable annoying herself and her companions with increasingly regular attacks of passive aggression for reasons that had so far eluded her. A fact which made her even more angry. But now that she was passing through the immaculate streets of Quskaranam she suddenly knew what was wrong. She was wasting her time. While it had been fun to travel first class in the world's most exclusive air-liners, this was a kind of amusement that had quickly grown stale. Anira, as much as she disliked her ridiculous 'fact finding' mission, could not relax knowing that she had a task at hand that she was not really taking seriously. She had wasted enough time to make Kelsheron look like an idiot back home, but now she was reaching a point where she was starting to feel like an idiot herself. In the end she had found data suggesting the existence of a secret society that had so far avoided the Free Agency's ever present gaze which was a feat impressive enough to be taken seriously by both the Free Agency and Anira.
Anira looked at her empty left hand, balled it into a fist and quickened her step catching up to Ailu who was looking slightly deranged having a lively debate with a brick in a sack. Lee and her were still showing off their vast knowledge of the local culture, with Ailu mostly mentioning the social aspects of the nation while Lee was pointing out the elaborate ways the houses were decorated to display at a glance which function they fulfilled.
"When was the last time we had contact with HQ?" Anira asked.
"It's been a few weeks, last time was before we got into the air-liner to Khirlon." Said Ailu.
"Time to get back into contact then. Tell them that we have found hot lead that we are following. . ."
". . .which will probably lead to some international type A Information."
"While you are at it get our data guys to look carefully at the Nomad Empire. I want them to report all kinds of strange patterns that have been emerging in the past two three years which apparently are leading no where."
Ailu was tempted for a moment to call Anira crazy, but she saw the intensity in her friends eyes which was only ever present when a case had caught her full attention. While Ailu had not the least idea what it was that had so suddenly changed Anira's mind, she had worked with her long enough to trust her friends intuition which had been honed to such an extent by centuries of experience that it sometimes bordered on the supernatural.
"And" Anira continued "please find out where we can find captain Kyara Shevin, we well need a faster transport soon."
"Sure thing. Want me to set up a control room here too?" Ailu asked.
"I don't think this will be necessary, something tells me that we are not going to be staying long in any place in the foreseeable future."
"Aye. That'll take me a few hours. Are you going to talk with the other seed while I am calling home?"
"Yes. I'll take Lee to its cousin and have a chat with it. We'll meet later in the. . . know any good hotels here?"
"The Serpent and the Crane in the Merchant's Square will do fine. It is small and not as luxurious as the others we have been to but it is very comfortable and most importantly we can have a nice chat there without having to wonder how many merchant houses are eaves dropping and we should not trigger any alarms when conjuring a privacy bubble." Ailu's knowledge about virtually every city kept surprising Anira. No matter where they went she always knew where to find a good secure hotel and how much the local powers might be taking an interest in wandering agents. Anira always wondered how she did it.
"Sounds perfect. See you guys later." Ailu said, handing Lee to Anira.
"So Lee? Where is that friend of yours?" Anira asked holding the brick inside the sack at her eye level.
"Sea View 32, is a distant relative. No one ever said anything about friends." Lee said.
"Not friends? Lee if you start a shouting match with that 'relative' of yours I swear that I will throw you out of a window. A closed one."
"By the foundations in the Sky-Shell what kind of ivy is crawling up your walls honey? Do I look like the kind of structure that would start a fight? I was merely informing you that Sea View 32 and me are not close. We hardly knew each other up home. That's all there is to it. So don't go expecting that you walk right through his doors and it will all be a warm family reunion and that you will get any special treatment." Lee replied "Shouting match. Really."
"Just making sure. You were rather vocal about the people of Khirlon."
"You were quite vocal your self back there and you did not have to live with them for decades. You think they are horrible creatures. Me? I know!"
"Sorry Lee. I did not mean to offend you. It is only quite important that we find out where your 'mother' is sooner rather than later."
"Even if Sea View 32 does not tell us. Not that he won't but just in case. You know you can plant me in the ground anywhere and I'll grow back into a proper building. It won't take long and I will be able to tell you myself."
Anira sighed. When they had taken Lee with them it had promised that it would prove of enormous value to them alone for its ability to grow a house out of every soil imaginable. It had sounded like a brilliant idea until they needed a shelter and Lee had told them that a simple one room shack would take about two weeks to grow and that mansions would take a bit longer.
Still Anira indulged herself. "And how long, pray tell, would that take?"
"Not long. I would have to take root and grow into a decent sized well established structure. Depending on the soil and the neighbourhood that will take about three but nor more than six months. This is prime city material so I'd say three months it is.'
"Three months? That's all."
"You try growing into a house in that time."
* * * * * *
While Anira and Lee were looking for the local seed of the Living City Ailu had gone looking for a local access point into the Litho-Cortex, the mineral network which ran through all of the planets mantle, it's crystalline veins breaking out of the soil of both the outer and the inner world in irregular intervals. When ever the veins of this vast crystalline mycelium came close to the surface the grew into fangs breaking out of the soil. In some very rare cases these points even grew out of the waters of the oceans. While these structures had been know since before the dawn of written history the Litho-Cortex itself had only been discovered a thousand years ago. That the net work could also be used to transmit information with only a short delay from any surface point to any other was a discovery of the past century that had led to a slow but inexorable evolution of how data could be transmitted. The biggest advantage over traditional methods were the speed of transmission and the security it provided.
Quskaranam had been built on a site that had a large number of natural Litho-Cortex spikes to which the Merchant houses had added further artificial interface points the moment the technology for doing so had become available. Always following their maxim to make everything ever more efficient they had thrown themselves onto the new discovery which resulted in massive profits and the first Trade War.
Ailu was looking for a place where could interface with a natural spike in privacy. While it was highly illegal and officially impossible, Ailu was pretty sure that the artificial spikes would lead her messages not only to the Free Agency head quarters but also to some merchant prince's data vault. The natural spikes were, so far, pretty much impossible to break into without anyone noticing it. The only way to intercept a private message over a natural line with no one noticing was to actually dig deep into the earth and fiddle with the one and only crystal vein that was carrying the information. And while there was new type of thief emerging on the world who specialised in mining data it was impossible to do it close to the natural spikes without alerting the users and not even the most brilliant data miner knew what kind of information his painstakingly exposed crystal vein would yield. So far they went into their hide outs in the depths of the planets mantel hacking the crystal channels hoping for the big catch. A catch that thus far had never contained any Free Agency secrets as they only ever sent encrypted information. The day that someone stole a secret from the Agencies crystal transmissions had yet to come.