Hail to the Vestal by David Powell

Hail to the Vestal
David Powell

Hail to the Vestal

New slang couldn’t be ignored. Slang had a way of sticking in the public mind. A joke could become a medical diagnosis, or a spiritual doctrine, or a revolutionary slogan.

Birun flipped to record mode with a touch of her wrist, zooming in on the crudely painted letters while the tunneltrans waited for clearance. Up close the letters lost definition on the uneven rock, and she zoomed back for a clear shot.

She studied the image as the mag-motors whined and engaged. The phrase appeared to be standard Hubian, but the irregular surface blurred a few letters into what could be Roamer-speak. Interesting. The rendering was new, in any case, so she saved the image for the OneSpeak group to consider.

OneSpeak. A hilarious misnomer for the committee charged with keeping track of eighty thousand languages and dialects. Discobahl Hub Station proved the point, Birun thought, as she exited the transcar and stepped around the medics working on new arrivals. You couldn’t encompass Discobahl’s immensity of tracks, tunnels, and vehicles in a single look; looking up could knock you to your knees.

“Look down, sir,” the medic told the sweating man. “Try to limit your focus.”

“Is this Kra’lk dimension?” the man said, half-delirious. “Have we crossed over?”

“No sir, this is Discobahl Hub. You haven’t reached the portal yet. Here, these might help.” He held out a pair of tinted goggles with blinders and helped the man settle them on his head.

Some never got over it. They went catatonic, or retreated into total darkness. They were verti-gone. Birun had advocated making the mocking street slang official, and OneSpeak had finally approved. That was Birun’s specialty: vernacular crossovers. “Hail to the Vestal” begged for investigation.

Birun took the lift up six levels to the mezzanine and strolled the perimeter. She could get a quick read on the Hub’s political climate by scanning the protest groups scattered through the concourse.

The usual suspects: Multiverse Jihadists at morning prayers, kneeling in the direction of Discobahl’s gravity spin. After Angels Defense Fund. Free Dimensioners and InterMutuals facing off, debating loudly for the benefit of listeners. A smattering of smaller interest groups with signs only OneSpeak scholars could read. All with forty or fewer peaceful protestors. All with their demonstration permits displayed. All utterly overwhelmed by lively, colorful, and entertaining holo-displays of the one true god–commerce.

OneSpeak could crow about unifying the million worlds with standardized language, but trade was the magic holding Discobahl Interdimensional Hub together.

Birun tapped search and did a quick scan. No Hail to the Vestal anywhere in the concourse.

She stepped into the lift and tapped G for the government level. Two rookie Zblainian ambassadors passed thoughts back and forth, unaware that Discobahl’s magnetic field made their thought waves audible to humans.

What do you mean, collapsed it?

I mean closed it, as in totally.

Bullshit. Do you know how much energy it takes to override the Hub’s magnetic field?

That’s what I’m saying. Who knew the AA’s had that capacity?

All humans in the lift stared straight ahead, giving nothing away. Zblainians were a treasure trove of information. Unless, Birun thought, they knew we could hear and were using us to spread disinformation. Discobahl intrigue was an immense and never-ending tangle. Birun discreetly tapped “AA collapse” into her notes.

Her colleagues were arguing in several languages when she entered the conference room. Birun projected the graffitti into the holodisplay above the table.

“OneSpeak to order,” she said, in their business language. “Saw this painted on the tunneltrans wall this morning. Anyone recognize it?”

The committee turned its eyes and other sensory apparatus to the display.

“It reads as ‘Hail to the Vestal’ in Hubian, but…other ideas?”

They zipped through databases, whispering together. Rasm, whose asexual race budded to reproduce, stared blankly until Birun leaned over and whispered a curt explanation for “vestal” in his third ear.

Grice, the Klaat scholar, spoke first. “But the article is unclear, isn’t it? It could be read as Roamer-speak. That would make it–“

“‘Restore the Vestals,'” Birun said. “Yes, I saw that.”

“The Multi-Jihad is in ferocious debate right now on the question of afterlife reward,” said Lade, the meta-English scholar. “A faction says the promise of 5,000 virgins is based on a mistranslation.”

“Why would they dump their best recruitment tool?” asked Derius, the Creadd scholar and class clown. She rolled the eyes projecting from her solar plexus and contemptuous mirth took the table briefly.

“So,” Birun said, “I don’t think we have to worry about an MJ orthodoxy squabble. What else?”

“But,” Derius said, touching her wrist to alter the letters, “If you add accents here and here, it could read as ‘Free the Rookies.’ Could be Peacekeepers, angry their cadets were punished for wiping out that birthday party.”

“Cops don’t write graffitti!” Rasm, the law enforcement specialist scoffed. “They’d just shoot their way in and break the boys out.”

General agreement at this.

The Jahrtol representive went into convulsive movements and its three attendant translators, as round as overfed nesting dolls, took notes on the gestures. The scholars did nothing to mask their impatience. Why in hell was a being with no verbal language allowed into OneSpeak?

Birun motioned for restraint, watching amused as the Jahrtol waggled and shimmied. Scholars hated the politics that landed this freakshow at their table, but Birun was energized by the unpredictable dips and turns of governance. She constantly reminded her colleagues that Discobahl had been a lawless pirate den before language was standardized, the kind of place where scholars were used for food. But a few visionary merchants had recognized that common language made law and order, and predictable profits, possible.

One of the diminutive translators spoke.

“Senator ______ [the name was a ballet that required all three translators to collide like pinballs] asks us to remember that in Maon, verbs are written upside down and articles sideways, so in that regard…”

The table grew restless while he manipulated the holodisplay, taking several tries to produce anything coherent.

The scholars stared in disbelief, and even Birun lost her diplomatic poise.

“‘Stew the halibut?’ Oh, for fuck’s sake!” She glared at the gesture readers. “Maon originates in a planet with no ocean and no fish!”

“You’ve got characters from three different languages to get ‘halibut!’” Derius said, laughing, and the table joined in. Birun held up her hand for order.

“Please remind the envoy” Birun said, all icy business, “that these sessions are recorded, and that they figure in our cyclical reviews! One more unfavorable review and Senator ______ [she rotated and smacked her fists rapidly] loses his place at the table.”

The interpreters and their envoy shuddered in embarrassment.

No, not embarrassment. The entire room shuddered, lights flickered briefly, and the committee looked around in surprise.

“Was a spin adjustment scheduled for today?” Rasm asked.

“No,” Birun said. “I checked before I got on the trans.”

Spin adjustments to maintain Discobahl’s orbit and gravity were routine, but they could play hell with magnetic transport, so Birun always double-checked. The giant planetoid had been chosen for the hub because its high nickle and iron content produced a magnetosphere powerful enough to open and close interdimensional portals; surface engines firing in precise order kept rotation steady, generating gravity. The constant opening of portals threw off electron clouds that glinted in the magnetosphere. Viewed from a distance of 100,000 km or more, showers of flourescent plasma surrounded the globe. Someone had named the planetoid Discobahl for a reason no one remembered.

“Must be an emergency,” Rasm said. “What else could cause that kind of movement?”

“Axis wobble?” Derius asked.

“Gods forbid!” This from several committee members in unison.

“I overheard something on the lift,” Birun said, glancing at her notes. “Zblainians talking about something overriding the Hub’s magnetic field. Something the AA’s did?”

Not everyone had been thrilled to see the multi-verse open up to travel, and the After Angels had resisted inter-dimensional travel intensely. Their founders had been convinced that science had breached the afterlife and opened blasphemous access to paradise–or its opposite.

Derius gave an ugly laugh. “The Angel’s Assholes couldn’t override a thermostat setting–forget the field.”

Grice snorted. “What can they do? Throw scripture at us?”

The Jahrtol translators wobbled in agitation.

“Perhaps that was formerly true,” said their spokesman, “but discovery of the Bakht dimension changed everything.”

Birun hadn’t paid much attention to the translators. Like the rest of the committee, she’d calculated that Senator ______ would last one review cycle, at best. Now he noticed the intensity of their disc-like eyes as they lifted their coverall sleeves to reveal the After Angels tattoo.

Another shudder, more violent than the last, shook the room. The holodisplay spit static and a water pitcher slid to the end of the table. Committee members broke their stunned silence and began talking at once.

“AA’s in this room?”

“Outrageous!”

“What have they heard?”

“OneSpeak to order!” Birun commanded. She fixed the spokesman with an authoritative stare. “What is your name?”

“Maqruik, but my Angel name is–”

The committee had no signifiers for the sounds that emerged. The water pitcher floated briefly above the table, then dropped to smash on the floor. Gravity fluctuation alarms sounded and blast shutters clanged shut on the windows. A wall panel slid up to reveal racks of magnetic shoes. Gravity continued to stutter.

Birun punched the red button on her wrist display. “Maqruik, you have about one minute before Peacekeepers put your round asses in the dark! Start talking!”

Shouts and footsteps echoed in the hallway, and the rotund little terrorist sat back in his chair, extended four hidden legs, and casually crossed them.

“It’s true, we were a joke to you. Proudly anti-tech, and at your mercy. However, when the accident breached the Bakht dimension, we encountered a plasma that converted all of our ridiculous practices into pure energy. Congregate prayer, meta-singing, and especially sexual abstention–these collective practices are powerful to the faithful. And this plasma was empathetic. It created a dark matter field which aggregated our energy. Made it into a source we can draw on at will. We’ve been learning how to use it, as you’ve just seen demonstrated. And there are so many more of us throughout the multi-verse.”

“Oh my gods,” Grice said. “Demarcation.”

“You should have listened to your liberal critics of the Demarcation Act,” said the interpreter. “Attempting to suppress spiritual beliefs always backfires, regardless of race or dimension. All we wanted was freedom to emigrate to Bakht, but you thought to contain us, to hold our numbers in check.”

“That was a business decision!” Rasm said. “How can an interdimensional hub operate if it’s clogged with weirdos who don’t believe in what we’re doing?”

“What will you do when believers flood into Discobahl from every solar system, every dimension?” the interpreter snapped. “News about Bakht has spread; we’ve been making converts by the thousands!”

Four burly Peacekeepers crowded into the room, daze-sticks drawn. Birun pointed to the AA’s. “Take them to Hub Control immediately and scan their minds. Take the Jahrtol, while you’re at it. For conspiracy to break diplomatic protocol.”

The officers employed their daze-sticks with enjoyment, and one officer threw out the zero-g mesh. It wrapped around the four and they bobbed to the ceiling, trailing like helium balloons behind the guards, down the hall, and into the lift.

The room shuddered twice more, then stabilized. The committee took a breath while janidroids cleaned up the broken pitcher and vacuumed up the water. The blast shutters slid up and the boot panel slid down.

“They tipped their hand too soon,” Birun said. “We can still sever the portal, closed or not.”

“Drive it into a star,” said Lade.

“Better yet, a black hole,” said Rasm.

“I don’t know,” Grice said. “If they’ve got energy enough to shake the hub, they might be able to harness a black hole.”

“Eventually, maybe,” Birun said.

She tapped a message to Hub Control about the prisoners, then sat with her fellow scholars at the table. “Hail to the Vestal” still floated in the holodisplay.

“Huh,” Birun said. “Here’s something we all missed. See this mark?”

She zoomed in on a seemingly stray splash of paint, tapped her wrist, and stacked the words on top of each other. “Eureka” expressions spread around the table.

Welcome the Virgins, the phrase read.

“That’s nice,” Derius smirked. “Maybe they should’ve stayed with that tone. Messing with our gravity isn’t going to make many friends.”

“They’re new to power,” Grice said.

“They’ll learn,” Birun said. “We’d better contact the Office of Demarcation.”

Discobahl spun.

END

Hail to the Vestal by David Powell 1

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