Standing in the clearing with the newlyweds, Chu felt hollow and distracted. He couldn’t stop thinking about Bixie.
This morning in the ocean he’d reached out to touch her sweet face, and then he’d leaned forward to graze her downy cheek. She’d frowned and shoved him away. Why didn’t Bixie like him? He’d been working so hard to heal his brain and change his demeanor. He was learning about empathy. He was more sociable than before. It was wrong to treat him like an unfeeling zombie. He heaved a wistful sigh.
Three nasty-smelling man-sized birds stalked into the woodsy clearing, moving with an urgent, stealthy gait, now and then hopping a few feet into the air and flapping their stubby wings.
They resembled grubby ostriches or rheas: long-necked dirty brown mops on scaly stilts, anything but cute. The downward curve of their blunt beaks lent them a sour demeanor. They pecked bugs from the ground, squawking to each other as they came.
“Stop right there,” Thuy called to the unsavory birds. “Where are you from?”
The biggest one cawed his harsh response, sending along a telepathic signal that made the sounds into words.
“We are Peng from planet Pengö. I am Suller, with my ill-tempered wife Gretta and our no-good son Kakar.”
“Why do you insult us in front of the new slaves?” squawked Gretta, aiming a sharp peck at her husband’s feathered body.
“We’re invading your planet,” volunteered Kakar. “I think that’s cool. I want to watch you mate.” Chu almost smiled at this. He liked rude kids.
“Are we supposed to shoot them?” he asked Thuy, teeping her on a private channel.
“Me first,” said Thuy, who’d just made a snap decision not to negotiate. “You hang back, Chu. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
Holding her crystal-and-wire klusper in both hands, Thuy hit the alien fowl with brilliant yellow femtorays: first Suller, then Kakar, then Gretta.
Their striped brown feathers puffed into flame like oily rags; their legs collapsed, their flesh hissed and crackled, giving off the stench of burnt hair. As the inferno consumed the Peng, they threw back their heads in ecstasies of pain, shattering the air with spasmodic shrieks. Poor Kakar.
Chu noticed that the fire had set some of the low-hanging redwood limbs alight as well. The low-gnarl flames were shaped like symmetrical triangles.
Other than the slow crackling in the branches, all was still. The Peng smoke drifted away. But then—with a brief staticky
flicker, the aliens were back in the clearing, as solid and stinky as before. Kakar pecked up a banana slug; Gretta fluffed out her mangy mop.
“Not nice,” said Suller, strutting toward Thuy. “You need to learn some manners, my furry female friend. How about if I—”
Jayjay powered on the gobble gun. With a throaty whoosh, the tube punched a narrow round hole through the forest, a cylinder of devastation half a meter across and several hundred meters long. The pulped debris was being vacuumed into the gobble gun’s tube, and a thick black coil of condensed matter oozed like excrement from the striped barrel’s rear.
Already four or five redwoods across the stream had begun hugely to fall, the weakened trunks giving way with fusillades of sharp pops. Chu noted that the redwood silps were intrigued rather than upset. In their view, being a fungus-coated log was as interesting as being a leafy tree.
Jayjay twitched the big tube with precise motions, his face clenched in concentration, working to eliminate every particle of the aliens without doing excessive damage to the woods. Chu was impressed by his poise. Once the gawky birds were wholly gone, Jayjay aimed the gobble gun upward to prune away the branches that Thuy had set alight. And then he switched it off.
Grew was saved, but in the distance other trees continued falling for a minute or two. Each splintering collapse seemed to set off another. Chu put himself into a hyperalert state, poised to teleport out of there in case the Peng retaliated.
As the crashing subsided, the air twinkled again and—the aliens recongealed yet again, firm and solid as ever. Their mood was calmly triumphant.
Deeply intrigued, Chu teeped into Thuy and Jayjay’s minds, fishing for info about tulpas. Back on Ond’s patio, he’d been preoccupied by his monitoring of Bixie’s mood.
In short, the Peng were like holograms, but made of matter instead of light. The local atoms were skimping on the complexity of their physical interactions, and channeling their quantum computations into generating the Peng. The atoms were producing matter waves whose mutual interference patterns were solid Peng tulpas.
Teeping down into the atoms around him, Chu visualized the process in mathematical terms. He’d soaked up a ton of math in the last few years—he loved the stuff. He was seeing a Peng tulpa as being the sum of a Fourier series, like a chorus of sine waves piling up to form a spiky squiggle. As long as the local atoms kept pumping out the matter waves, the Fourier sum kept coming back. The computations generating these three grotty birds were distributed across the whole forest. It was going to be very hard indeed to rub them out.
Quietly, Chu stashed his stonker in his pants pocket. The gun was begging him to fire it, but there was no use. Meanwhile, Suller darted forward and whacked Jayjay’s gobble gun with his beak, knocking the tube to the ground. Gretta did the same thing to Thuy’s klusper. But, whew, that was the extent of the Peng payback.
As casually as ducks eating gingerbread, the two fowl pecked the guns apart and swallowed the pieces, raising their beaks high to work down the larger chunks. Meanwhile Kakar devoured the entire coiled worm of crushed matter that had emerged from the gobble gun’s rear. The Peng tulpas were truly omnivorous, capable of eating anything at all. And their matter-hologram beaks were forceful as wrecking bars.
A pair of bluejays peered down from the upper branches of Grew. Kwaawk and his mate. The jays scolded and cawed, teeping their distrust of the alien birds. The tree was unhappy, too, complaining about how stiff and stereotyped her motions had become. The local silps resented the mangy alien birds for siphoning off the richness of their inner lives.
“How did your world’s furry beasts end up bigger than the feathered ones?” wondered Gretta, twitchily looking from the bluejays to the humans and back. Her teep voice came across as shrill and penetrating. “Your natural order is cockeyed. I suppose that humans evolved from rodents? Nasty, scuttling things. In primitive times, rats ate our eggs.”
“We’re descended from apes,” said Thuy sullenly. “Not rats.”
“Apes, rats—it’s all the same,” said Gretta airily. She had a fey mannerism of abruptly darting her head. “On Pengö, there’s nothing but birds, fish, worms, and insects. Our ancestors eliminated the pesky furries many millennia ago. I suppose we’ll do the same thing here.”
“Have you always had telepathy?” asked Thuy, forcing a semblance of a smile.
Closely watching her, and managing to grasp that she was worried inside, Chu felt a sudden desire to bring a true smile to Thuy’s lips. Thus was born his new crush, the second of his life. Jayjay didn’t notice, he was turned inward, trying to figure out how to undo the atomic changes he’d helped bring about.
“At the dawn of history, a squealing bag visited us,” said Gretta in answer to Thuy’s question. “A noise-sack from a different reality. The flying bag’s sacred squawks unfurled our eighth dimension. All of our objects awoke, and we came to know Pekka, the mind of our planet. Pekka is a bit like your piggish Gaia, I suppose.” Gretta arched her neck, looking around the grove. “It’s interesting to be on a primitive planet where lazy eight is new.”
“Your planetary mind—Pekka,” probed Thuy. “She’s the one who sent you? I heard she has a local agent here—hidden in the subdimensions? She looks like you, but bigger and with no eyes?”
“That would be the Pekklet, yes.” Gretta clacked her beak, snapped up a beetle, and returned to the topic of her home world’s glorious history. “The flying noise-bag was our first miracle, and the second great miracle was when Waheer and Pekka learned to project Peng souls as runes. Thanks to Waheer’s daring and to Pekka’s divine wisdom, the adventurous among us can travel to teeker worlds and wear the bodies that you call tulpas.” Gretta clucked and flapped her stubby wings. “Tulpa, tulpa, tulpa.”
“I can see that we have a lot to learn from you!” said Thuy in her sweetest tone. “I’m terribly sorry about the misunderstanding with the guns.”
Chu admired Thuy’s effrontery, physically expressed in the insolent curve of her neck. The only misunderstanding about the guns was that Thuy had thought they might work.
Of course, Thuy was a twenty-seven-year-old married woman—and Chu was only fourteen. But she was surprisingly attractive to him, not that he could imagine actually trying anything with a woman that age. But... maybe? He loved her high pigtails. And she didn’t get all upset if you happened to stare, not even if you looked under her clothes. Not like Bixie.
Suller had begun berating Jayjay. “At first I was going to thank you for casting the pioneer runes that brought us here,” rasped the big bird. Overlaid by telepathy, Suller’s harsh caws reminded Chu of Mr. Big, the head gangster in a video game, Gross Polluter, that he’d played as a kid. “I’m prepared to cut you in on a very sweet cash deal,” continued Suller. “But— instead of saying hello, you and your wife try to murder us? What kind of garbage is that? It’s lucky that you’re our runecaster. Otherwise—” Suller darted his head forward like a woodpecker, bringing the tip of his diamond-hard beak to within a millimeter of Jayjay’s forehead.
Reading others’ emotions had never been Chu’s strong point, but Suller was particularly opaque, what with his alien mind and his glassy bird eyes. It was hard to tell if he was angry right now, or if he was just practicing for being angry later.
As for Jayjay, he barely even flinched, so intent was he upon the problem of how to undo the runes that he’d cast into the atoms of the Yolla Bolly woods.
Thuy laid a gentle hand on Suller’s subtly banded brown feathers, soothing him with her calm, reasonable tone. “How is it that Jayjay became your runecaster? What makes him so special?”
“He’s a zedhead. He can carry out ten tridecillion atomic tweaks in a couple of seconds. And, best of all, he got snared by Pekka’s agent.”
Gretta got in on the conversation, her teep signal shrill and gloating. “Jayjay saw Pekka’s agent and he yelled, ‘Yoo-hoo!’ ” She jiggled her head and let out a trill of mocking laughter. “The Pekklet hooked Jayjay—zack. Whenever Pekka needs him, he’s there. Our pet runecaster. We’re here to civilize another ratty teeker world.”
Suller studied Jayjay. “You’ve made a good start, I’ll grant you that. You cast the rune for my family here in Yolla Bolly, and you cast the rune for Blotz’s family in, uh, San Francisco. Wish you’d checked with me on that one, Jayjay. I didn’t want Blotz and his family to end up so far away.”
“Blotz!” exclaimed Gretta. “You didn’t tell me they were coming, Suller!”
Chu teeped back to his father in San Francisco to check that Ond was hearing all this. Ond was sitting by the window in a darkened room of their house. “Keep your distance from
Suller,” advised Ond. “And guess what—those San Francisco aliens Suller is talking about? They’re in our backyard.”
Ond directed Chu’s attention to the patio of their Dolores Heights mansion. A trio of gawky birds were out there talking to Jil and Kittie. The birds were pecking up some bread and oranges that Jil had set out for them, now and then pausing to admire the view. “Their names are Blotz, Noora, and Pookie,” continued Ond. “A father, mother, daughter trio. They came to our house because they’re looking for Jayjay. He’s supposed to help them do something.”
“The guns don’t work against them,” Chu told his father.
“Yeah, I saw,” said Ond. “We’ll have to try something else. But with San Francisco’s gnarl being siphoned off, I can’t think straight. As soon as these nosy Peng leave our yard, I’m moving down to Santa Cruz with Jil and Nektar and the kids. According to my calculations, when you leave a Peng zone, the effects wear off. I’ll get back to you when I can. Be very careful, son.”
“Hey!” teeped Gretta, interrupting Chu and Ond’s conversation. “I see what you’re seeing: Blotz and his tacky wife Noora and their silly little daughter Pookie. It’s so disgusting the way Noora holds her tail feathers pooched out to the sides. Does she really think that everyone wants to see her filthy cloaca?”
“Blotz and Noora are a high-class pair of Peng,” Suller heavily told his wife. “Just like us. Eventually we’ll establish a solid chain of Peng ranches between here and San Francisco, sweetie. Then we’ll be able to visit with the Blotzes; strutting from ranch to ranch, merging the matter music. I’m thinking Kakar might even get Pookie to lay him an egg. They’d be a fine match, so shut your beak, okay? Warm Worlds Realty is bringing the cream of Peng society, no doubt!”
“What a crock,” quacked Kakar. “Floofy’s the one I want, not Pookie. But, nooo, you had to bring me here. Blotz and Noora are broke losers—just like you guys. That’s why you four took these stupid jobs as land developers. The cream of Peng society are the ones who are gonna actually pay Warm Worlds to have a ranch on Earth—if this place turns out to be livable, which I doubt. I swear I saw a rat just now.”
“Rat!” squawked Gretta, hopping several meters off the ground and staying there, curiously suspended in midair.
With abrupt fury, Suller pecked Kakar hard enough to draw blood. Screeching piteously, the younger Peng bird flexed his legs and leapt for the roof of Thuy and Jayjay’s house, extending his rudimentary wings for balance. He hadn’t jumped hard enough to cover the distance, but, like Gretta, he came to rest in midair. Apparently the Peng could make themselves weightless. Kakar fluttered his wings till he’d reached the roof. Safely perched, he railed at his parents.
“I hate you! I wish I’d never been hatched!”
“Ungrateful fledgling!” croaked Gretta, settling back to the forest floor. “We only came to this terrible place because you’re such a wild dreamer! Going to the cliffs to be an artist with Floofy—what a mess. Ever since then, Floofy’s parents have been threatening us!” Next she turned on her mate. “And now I learn you’ve brought Noora? I know all about your affair with her, Suller. No wonder you’re disappointed that their ranch isn’t next door.” Her voice cracked; despondently she lowered her beak.
Suller cooed softly and smoothed Gretta’s feathers with his bill. Up on the roof, Kakar was examining the wound in his side. Chu almost offered to help, but he could teep that the gouge was healing fast; restored by the massed computations of the Yolla Bolly Peng ranch.
“My family . . .” teeped Suller, turning back to the humans with a sigh. “Never satisfied. Listen up, Jayjay. I can make you an attractive proposition. I want for you to do a series of teleportation hops, a hundred kilometers at a time. At each spot you land, the Pekklet will feed you a rune for a fresh family of Peng pioneers, and you’ll cast the rune into the atoms of the new ranch. The way Warm Worlds figures it, there’s room for fifteen thousand ranches on Earth’s land surface—what an opportunity!”
“No,” said Jayjay. “I won’t do it.”
“I’ll see that you’re very handsomely paid for your runecasting,” continued Suller smoothly. “Presently we’re in start-up mode, with only seven pioneer families committed to come here, but I’m sure we’ll have a land rush down the road. If all goes well, you’ll be the richest man on Earth.”
“I’d rather die.”
“You will help us,” said Suller coldly. “One way or another.”
“You’re worried about losing the—gnarl?” Gretta asked Jay-jay. She’d recovered her aplomb. Cocking her head, she turned her attention to Chu. “This boy doesn’t mind the missing gnarl.”
“I do, too,” insisted Chu, wanting to seem like the others. But there was something to what she said. He liked things to be predictable and orderly.
“You furries will be better off without so much emotion and self-will,” Gretta told Jayjay. “Leave the drama to us. We’ll be your legends, your mythic queens and kings.”
Teeping Jayjay for his reaction, Chu was shocked to see the intensity of the man’s unhappiness. Jayjay hated himself for having opened the gateway to the Peng, hated himself for being an addicted pighead, hated himself for making his wife sad.
Chu found it painful to know these feelings. In the old days, before he’d started healing his autism, he’d been unable to visualize other people’s inner lives at all. Sure, it was good to understand other people better now—but sometimes empathy was a drag.
“Why do you need a runecaster at all?” Thuy asked the aliens, twining her arm around her husband’s waist.
“I’ll answer that one,” teeped Kakar from the roof. “Tulpa programming happens to be one of my interests.” He hopped down into the clearing and cawed his explanation. “Each pioneer rune codes a small Peng family—bodies, brains, memories, the works. The runecaster has to be a teeker so he can program the rune into atoms, and he has to be able to think very fast so that he can do the full ten tridecillion atoms that you—”
“Spare me the geekin’ details,” interrupted Thuy, which was annoying for Chu. Thuy continued, “What I’m asking is why the Peng don’t frikkin’ teleport here if they want to invade? Why make it so complicated?”
“Listen to her, Suller and Kakar,” cackled Gretta. “They don’t even know.”
“Not many races can teleport and teek,” said Kakar. He raised his wings and bowed in an ironic salute. “Humans are special.”
“I’ve heard that all the teeker races are descended from rats,” said Gretta, twitching her head to snap a moth from the air. Jayjay shuddered and let out a faint hum.
“Apes, Mom,” said Kakar shortly. “Like Thuy said earlier. Apes are the furry things with four hands that climb in trees. Do you act so dopey on purpose? Would Dad be scared of a hen who’s not as dumb as him? I don’t understand how you two hatched a genius like me.”
Gretta tightened her beak, not deigning to respond to her son’s insolence. Another moth appeared in the air beside her, and she caught that one, too. “Yum.”
“You’re saying that only humanoids can teleport themselves?” asked Thuy, looking back and forth between her husband and the aliens. “Only humanoids can reach into atoms and reprogram them with their minds?”
“Apes, humanoids, whatever,” said Suller. “I wouldn’t want to be one. Teek and teleportation come out of this neurotic-type syndrome. Those three teeker emotions—what do they call them again, Kakar? I always forget.”
“Remorse, doubt, and fear,” said Kakar, scratching a steady stream of banana slugs from the dirt. “You can teep the pattern in Jayjay’s head, he’s already thought about it. Remorse about the past, doubt about the present, fear of the future. What if, what if, what if. The pusher crew on a Hrull mothership at the Pengö spaceport told me about it, too. Pushers have it rough.”
“Yeah they do,” said Suller darkly. “You Earthlings are lucky we got here before the Hrullwelt ships found you.”
Chu was thrilled by the mention of a mothership. It would be great to be in a starship crew, visiting rough spaceports on alien worlds like Pengö and the Hrullwelt—whatever that was.
“Tell us about your home planet,” he urged Suller.
“My voice is tired,” said the tall alien bird. “I’ve been squawking too hard. All this hassle and stress. I’ll show you a— a kind of movie.”
A flow of images began in the humans’ heads, richly enhanced by data links. It was an ad for Warm Worlds Realty, with headquarters at planet Pengö’s south pole.
The first scene shows the Virgo Supercluster, which stretches two hundred million light-years, encompassing the M51 Group as well as the Milky Way’s Local Group.
The M51 galaxies sparkle like diamonds on black velvet, and now one of them begins to grow; it’s the beautifully symmetric Whirlpool Galaxy.
“We are not alone,” croons a bird’s voice in deep, textured tones.
The viewpoint zooms in on a particular planet whose temperate zones are a filigree of green and blue. There are no open seas or level plains on this world, only a global maze of water channels and verdant rock ridges. A heavy frosting of ice coats the polar caps.
“Our planet Pengö is ancient,” says the voice-over. “Our once molten core has all but crystallized; our continents have shattered. And thus our world’s surface is a labyrinth of sea and stone.”
The view swoops into winding, interlinked fjords with twisted trees growing in every crack. Flocks of birds scythe through insect swarms and wheel above the crystal waters, diving for fish.
“Our planet’s beauty reflects the perfection of Pekka, our planetary mind,” says the narrator. “And one species above all enjoys the radiance of Pekka’s full favor. The Peng.”
The shores are lined with dwellings: domed structures of nested stones, each hut with a door, two windows, and a ventilation hole in the roof. Peng birds strut in and out of the homes, knees bending backward, fluffy brown bodies bobbing up and down. They stroll along the shoreline, chatting with each other, snapping bugs from the air, wading into the shallows for frogs and minnows.
The Peng can fly, but not in the usual kind of way. Thanks to pale blue, ticklike symbiotes known as flight lice, they can make themselves weightless. Hovering like feathered blimps, the Peng use their tiny wings to maneuver. Now and then a Peng floats up a tree or cliff to peck apart a parrot’s nest or a swallow’s mud-daubed home, devouring the eggs and the fledglings.
“We Peng have been the dominant species for hundreds of thousands of years,” resumes the bass bird voice. “Our ecology has converged to a lasting equilibrium.”
A sequence of display cases flashes by, exhibiting the surprisingly few species of life on Pengö: trees and flowering plants, frogs and fish, earthworms and beetles, some smaller birds, the Peng—and no mammals.
“We revel in the simple perfection of Pengö’s biome,” quacks the narrator. “In the intellectual sphere, a similar process of refinement has taken place, raising our arts and practical crafts to a level that might seem to rule out further improvement. But great originals still emerge: wild talents like Waheer, who flourished one thousand years ago.”
The viewpoint flies back in time to a chalky cliff. The cliff is like a public art gallery; its surface is decorated with chicken scratches. Peng artists are at work, using their beaks to scar the white stone, floating and fluttering along the face of the cliff.
The artworks fall into four types: jittery ovals that shape the outlines of eggs, chevron patterns that model Peng feathers, arches that represent Peng homes, and images of a shaded ring with a pucker in the middle.
Responding to Chu’s puzzlement, the built-in glossary explains that the puckered rings represent Peng cloacas, which are the multipurpose body vents that birds of both genders use for excretion and sex. Chu bares his teeth in a reflexive gesture of disgust.
Back in the mental movie, a single grungy Peng jitters about on the higher reaches of the cliff, frantically pecking fresh images into the stone. This is Waheer. He wears his feathers tinted an unnatural shade of orange, with a defiant red Mohawk streak down the middle. Kakar, who is watching the show with the humans, caws approvingly.
Waheer’s artworks are unique. Rat-tatting like a woodpecker, he engraves skeins of stars, spiral galaxies, flaming suns, distant planets. He’s a science fiction visionary.
“Waheer’s drive for transcendence inspired Pekka to a wondrous discovery,” intones the narrator: “Peng can travel to ape worlds via Pengö’s cloaca!”
The orange-feathered Waheer cocks his head, as if harkening to a call. He glides away from his space murals and—in fast-forward—makes his way across miles of ridges, disheveled and dogged, sometimes walking, sometimes buzzing through the air like a blimp, heading ever farther south, beyond the temperate zones and into the polar wastes.
The pocked, shiny snowfields are lit by shimmering auroras, by crimson and yellow streamers that emanate from a luminous hole located precisely at planet Pengö’s south pole. Haunting alien music thrills the air. Pekka, the planetary mind, is calling Waheer to the special place.
The fuming polar vent, known as Pengö’s cloaca, is the senescent planet’s last sign of active volcanism. The hole bores into the depths like a mine shaft. At the deeper levels, an orange glow tints its mist-shrouded walls, for liquid lava lies below.
Waheer stands at the tip of an ice-glazed promontory that projects almost to the center of the smoking vent. Above him, celestial lances of auroral energy flicker across the sky
There is much to be explained about this uncanny scene. A quick montage of diagrams shows three salient facts. Firstly, Waheer, as transcendent artist, has visualized an intricate representation of his mind and body, a runic pattern containing all of his behaviors and personality quirks. Secondly, Pekka has reached through the lazy eight link to locate a suitable colony world, a planet named Pepple, populated by teekers resembling skinny green humans with three eyes. Thirdly, Pekka has forged a tight link with a gifted Pepple queen, bedazzling her with a mental image of an idealized Pepplese king.
The music swells. With a hopeful flap of his little wings, Waheer springs forward and lets himself drop like a stone.
“Our first pioneer,” says the narrator.
Chu sees a stylized image of Waheer landing in a glowing lagoon of lava, accompanied by an X-ray skeleton flash, a sharp sizzle and an olfactory whiff of sulfur and fried chicken. Waheer’s ashes form a fractal pattern of greasy swirls. The lava heaves, Waheer’s stains fold back on themselves—and a sheaf of beautiful abstract forms rises from Pengö’s cloaca, modulating the auroral streamers with the subtle song of—Waheer’s rune.
The rune signal rises heavenward and then, just beyond Pengö’s atmosphere, it veers into the eighth dimension like a river going underground only to emerge within Queen Ulla’s mind on Pepple, there to be runecast into the queen’s royal estate. The viewers catch a final glimpse of Waheer’s tulpa, working hard as a flying steed for the three-eyed nobles, carrying a fat duke along in pursuit of something like a fox.
“And he’d hoped to be a court artist,” says the voice-over with a chuckle. “Pepple has not become the most popular of our colony worlds.”
The narration resumes. “In the tradition of Waheer, Warm Worlds Realty continues spicing teeker worlds with the glorious savor of our finest citizens. We’ve made the process simple, painless, and fail-safe.”
Purposeful cheeping fills the background. Stone fences appear around the crater at the south pole, along with domed Peng houses and a double-sized meeting hall.
“Warm Worlds Realty maintains fine facilities adjacent to Pengö’s cloaca. We carefully screen the candidates for interplanetary travel. The rigorous Warm Worlds selection process ensures that, should you make the grade, you’ll be among an elite cadre of partner pioneers. Warm Worlds requires that our partner pioneers place their full economic resources in trust, and you’ll be invited to bring as many as four family members along on your unparalleled journey. To schedule a preliminary assessment of your qualifications, contact Hulda Pekkandottir at Warm Worlds Realty today!”
“Invaded by real-estate developers,” messaged Thuy privately. “I can’t frikkin’ believe this. Fix it, Jayjay.”
“I did cast that pioneer rune onto all the atoms around here,” messaged Jayjay. “I can remember the exact list of atoms. But I’m not quite sure how to put the atoms back the way they were. We better pretend to cooperate until I figure it out.”
“I hate being polite to the Peng,” teeped Thuy. “It’s worse than when I worked at Golden Lucky Restaurant Supply and my rancid boss was in love with me.”
It still intrigued Chu that people could make their outsides look different than their insides. How many personality layers did Thuy have?
“Struck dumb?” squawked Gretta, abruptly craning over to peer into Chu’s face. “Didn’t you like the movie? Oh, I see. You three are sneaking secret messages to each other. Watch your manners, rat-people. Secrets are rude. And we tulpas have superpowers.”
“You’re parasites,” said Jayjay, forgetting what he’d said about being cooperative.
Gretta cocked her head, staring at him provokingly. She snapped another moth from the air, then ate another, and another. A steady drone was drifting from Jayjay’s mouth. He had goose bumps on his skin. The dusty-winged insects were appearing from thin air. “How do you feel, Jayjay?”
Jayjay held his hands to the sides of his head. “You—I—” he gasped, stretching out his arms toward Gretta. “Stop it.”
“You’re our runecaster,” said Gretta, quite oblivious to his discomfort. “And that’s that. When I want a moth, I teep Pekka a request to start you up—and if she’s ready, she has the Pekklet set you to work making a moth tulpa. Sometimes I have to wait a few minutes before Pekka notices me. It’s not like Pekka is watching us every second, you know. She’s working with a lot of teeker worlds at once. And sometimes the Pekklet has to take a nap. Don’t imagine you’re all that anyone thinks about.”
Chu was tracking the motions of Jayjay’s psyche, trying to memorize the mental moves. Each time Jayjay made a moth, he was sending atom by atom signals into the hundred kilometer by hundred kilometer by hundred kilometer volume of the Peng ranch—the cube of Earth underfoot. He was using partial Zeno speed-ups to get it done so fast.
“Oh, by the way, Pekka,” added Gretta. “Can you have Jay-jay put our family’s rune onto the bodies of himself and Thuy again? They seem to have worn off. And put us onto Chu’s atoms, as well.”
Against his will, Jayjay opened his mouth and chirped. Right away, Chu felt slow and dull again, like he’d felt in San Francisco.
“Oh that feels horrible,” exclaimed Thuy. “Stop making Jayjay do things for you. You’ll wear him out.”
“Wait till he goes on the road for us!” said Kakar.
“Let’s get Jayjay to make us a house now,” proposed Suller.
“But not a gray rock dome!” cried Gretta. “I want something splendid and strange—an opulent fever dream that you’d only find on a savage ape planet.”
“I assume you don’t mean a shabby wooden box like theirs,” said Suller, casting a snobby glance at Thuy and Jayjay’s cottage. “We’re the top development reps here. We need a landmark home.”
“Outlandish, ostentatious, over the top,” agreed Gretta.
“So—how about a dome made of this fancy local stuff they call pink marble,” suggested Suller after a minute’s mental research. He teeped some instructions to Pekka, and shortly thereafter Jayjay moaned. A tulpa block of fine-grained stone thudded to the ground beside Chu, its rosy polished surface patterned with streaks and crystals, as full of incident as fatty Italian lunchmeat.
“Hmm,” said Gretta, running her beak along the marble. “Wonderfully smooth. But, please, for once not a dome. Thuy— you’re an egg-layer, you must have some aesthetic sense. What shape house might we adopt?”
“Go to hell.”
“Evisceration,” said Suller, sweeping his coarse, two-toed foot through the air, the claws very close to Thuy’s belly. “You know that word? Come on, woman. Give my wife an idea for a house.”
“All right, fine,” said Thuy, her voice tense and annoyed.
Chu peeped to see the image Thuy teeped the Peng. It was lifted from one of the old paintings that Kittie had been studying on Ond’s patio: The Garden of Earthly Delights by that guy Hieronymus Bosch. The top part of that picture showed a pond with four rivers branching out, each river adorned by a strange structure.
The wacky Thuy had selected one of these for the Peng house design, a pink monstrosity resembling a sandcastle, a hollow stump, and a thistle plant, adorned with a pair of questionable towers, and crowned by an arched, tapering pod that poked through a hairy ball.
“I love it!” exclaimed Gretta. “So authentic. So grotesque. Demand it for me, Suller. Be masterful.” Her husband responded with an affirmative caw.
“How do you teep the instructions to Pekka?” asked Thuy, fishing for information. “She’s so far away.”
“You wouldn’t understand, ” said Suller loftily. “You’re not a bird.”
“I think they’re using the same lazy eight connection that we use locally,” said Chu, who was observing Suller’s moves. “I guess all the lazy eight worlds are connected via the point at infinity.”
“That’s right,” said Kakar. “Pekka could actually teep Jay-jay directly if she wanted to. But to have full control of him she needs a local agent. A Pekklet. Oh look, he’s about to make our house now.”
Focusing on Jayjay’s mind, now, Chu saw an image of a bare-breasted, blankfaced woman in a spangled showgirl outfit. She held a feather in one hand, and a stun-stick in the other. The Pekklet? She made as if to tickle Jayjay’s privates with the feather; doggedly he waved her off.
“Lay off the sex thing,” Jayjay teeped angrily. “If you want me to cast runes for you, just ask. You don’t have to reach down into my crotch.”
“Thank you,” said Thuy.
The Pekklet’s image switched to that of a giant, eyeless Peng bird—but with the stun-stick still in readiness. All business now, she chirped Jayjay the rune for the new mansion.
Not that the rune resembled the design Thuy had selected. The rune looked like a branching tree, with a quadrillion forks along each branch, and with shiny glass balls hanging on tips. Maybe there was a ball for each molecule in the projected design? It was an effort for Chu to contemplate the rune’s full intricacy.
But it was catnip for Jayjay, he scarfed down the rune and set to casting it onto each and every atom within the Peng ranch’s hundred-kilometer cube, merging it with the Peng rune that was already in place within the atoms.
Chu tagged along for a bit, but then Jayjay picked up speed and left him in the dust. Meanwhile the air above the stream began to shimmer. The Bosch palace was taking form: twenty meters tall, molded from pink marble, a shape like a rotten, hollow stump with platforms and spires.
The structure rested astride the stream, damming it. The water flowed into a gap in the upstream side, pooling within the stump and spilling from an arched window on the downstream side. The pink palace’s ground floor thus contained a private lagoon, which was lit by horizontal glass cylinders that penetrated the stump’s walls, and the tubes were alive with— rats? Whoops! Goaded by the Suller-Pekka-Pekklet command loop, Jayjay edited the construct, changing the rats to beetles. And then the Bosch birdhouse was done.
Jutting from the stony stump’s near edge was a knobby shelf fungus, deeply concave and stuffed with straw. The nest. A slanting marble slab formed a patio beside the nest.
Two pink towers rose from the patio’s far side; they resembled penises—one squat and flaccid, one proud and tall with a mushroom cap. A transparent emerald tube rose vertically between them, with a final slab of marble balanced atop, forming a lookout.
A translucent, tapering pod angled up from the nest to graze the lookout, with the pod’s tip curling into a spiral decorated with a diamond-encrusted letter P for Peng.
Kakar floated into the air and flapped a few times to reach the nest. He crowed with pleasure from his new perch; Gretta and Suller quickly joined him.
The birds fluffed up their straw, paced out the dimensions of their patio, checked the view from their lookout, then floated down to their enclosed lagoon, making it echo with cheerful caws.
Meanwhile Chu went over the data he’d gleaned, hoping to be of use, analyzing the mathematical physics. He had observed that although the runes faded from any matter that left the self-catalyzing computation of a Peng ranch, when fresh matter drifted into a ranch, it kept its integrity. But neither he nor Jayjay could see precisely how to restore the corrupted on-ranch atoms to their original pre-Peng states.
Jayjay lay on the ground, weary and drained. Chu watched as Thuy leaned over him, giving him a drink of water, with her pigtails sticking cutely into the air. Catching Chu’s eye, she winked at him, letting him teep into her private thoughts.
Although Thuy was worried about Jayjay, she was inwardly laughing at the Peng for using this particular Bosch shape for their home. Not that, being birds, the Peng would readily perceive the symbolism of the two giant penises. Chu felt a tingle as he and Thuy shared the naughty joke.
Thuy wandered over to the stream to ask the resident silp, Gloob, how he felt about the dam, perhaps hoping to enlist the irascible being in the war against the Peng. Gloob was still sunk in low-gnarl torpor. But by the end of the day, some living, unprogrammed water should be flowing in—after all the Peng ranch only extended fifty kilometers upstream. And maybe then Gloob could help.
“Wouldn’t you like a wonderful rookery like ours, Thuy?” called Gretta. “Send me another image by the same designer and Suller will make it up for you.”
“Our cottage is fine the way she is,” said Thuy, her smile disappearing. “We don’t want to live in a Bosch house.”
“Oh let’s give our house a new wing,” said Jayjay, playing a deeper game. “Help guide me again, Suller. Your runecaster at your service.” Chu could sense that Jayjay’s plan was to learn still more about runecasting—the better to destroy the Peng.
“I’ll have to approve the new design,” chirped Gretta, pleased. “And, yes, Suller can petition Pekka to craft a rune for it.”
“How about a comfy villa like this?” said Jayjay, teeping the birds an image of Ond’s new house in San Francisco.
“I don’t want a fat McMansion hulking over our poor cabin!” wailed Thuy. She wasn’t getting it about Jayjay’s gambit. “We haven’t yet spent one single night in bed together here!”
“The big addition will be noble,” said Gretta, ignoring Thuy. “But the walls should be pink marble to match our palace. As for the roofing—I want something terrifically extravagant.”
“Gold!” exclaimed Jayjay.
“Jerk!” screamed Thuy, stuck in a loop of low-gnarl reactivity. “You’ll turn our whole world into dull tacky crap!” She stormed past the Peng’s palace and headed down the stream.
“Come back here, you!” squawked Gretta.
Chu tasted of Jayjay’s emotions: his remorse, his yearning for reconciliation with Thuy, his determination to play along with the Peng in hopes of figuring out how to kill them.
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” Chu told Jayjay, and ran after Thuy himself. Yes, he definitely had a crush on this woman. Jayjay could teep this, but he didn’t take Chu as a serious romantic threat.
“Calm her down,” Jayjay teeped privately. “And watch how I build the house. Maybe when you get back we’ll kick some Peng tailfeather.”