Recall my mentioning Mr. Godden’s Cusp stories and my posting one up for your delectation? Well, here it is, my favourite of the two wonderful Cusp stories I’ve been lucky enough to read. I’m very privileged not only to have this, but to be able to share it with you guys.
Remember you can find Stephen on Writerlot and Twitter – hopefully he’ll get around to sorting out a website soon (*cough*) to start plugging his own awesomeness. Until then, I’ll plug away on his behalf.
Read and enjoy!
A FORTY-FIVE FLY CURSE
By Stephen Godden
Nah, I’m just taking a look at infinity for the craic.
What do I do?
I own a bar up on the Cusp. Nothing fancy, but it’s clean and tidy and I cater to all types. Have to really, no percentage in turning away custom. I’m on the left-hand side as you go down towards the realms of magic, but not so close that you can’t trust what you’re eating or drinking.
Come on up sometime, Joe’s bar, I’ll see you treated right. Just give us this token so I know it’s the right you.
Most of the doorways on my side lead to human-dominated worlds. Next door down are the post-Nazi-apocalyptic-survivors. Beyond them it’s third-world-war-apocalyptic-survivors. Going up from the bar are the post-global-warming-apocalyptic-survivors then the Gaean-conspiracy-survivors. We humans always survive. Always good in a crisis — especially the ones we create ourselves.
Across the way is a doorway to one of the Saurian worlds, right next to a six-leg-good-two-leg-bad insect world. I get a few of the Saurians in the bar. The ones from that particular world can metabolise ethanol.
What do they like?
Beer and fart jokes mostly.
Nah, I don’t get many of the insect types in. Too much of a hive mentality about them and the Saurians are inclined to treat them like a tasty snack.
Aye, all sorts and all kinds, I don’t pay it no nevermind. I feed’em, I water ‘em, they pay me in this’n’that, and I trade’n’barter for whatever I can sell on. Good enough for me. Mind you, I mainly feed humans. Have you ever seen a Saurian eat?
Oh aye, seen some strange things, heard some strange stories.
There was this one guy —
Another round? Sure, I don’t see why not.
Where was I? Oh right. Well, he was strange looking. Not quite human, know what I mean? Like those Neanderthals that kicked the Homo-Sapiens into touch on their spun-off worlds. Not that he was Neanderthal mind you. I’d guess he was five-six or thereabouts, but he just didn’t look quite right.
Oh, you like your measurements to make sense?
Okay, so he was 170 odd centimetres or thereabouts and built like a fighter. Not robust and bulky like our hair-browed cousins, but all smooth muscle and grace. His hair was wrong though, looked like close-cropped fur rather than hair, and he held himself like no human I’ve ever seen. He didn’t walk: he prowled.
No, no, no, not like that, like those velociraptor guys from down the Cusp, you know?
Nah, I don’t get them in the bar. Alcohol is a poison to them, thank all the gods, and they like their food alive and fighting back.
Where was I? Oh aye, this guy prowled like a carnivore.
What are humans? Omnivores.
So, this guy prowls into my bar. “What’ll you have?” I asked as I put down the glass I was cleaning. I always do the slack shifts, saves me wages and I get to talk more. I like stories; they’re currency in some places out there beyond the Slime.
“Whisky, scotch, single malt if you’ve got it.” So he had taste anyway.
“Sure thing.” I poured him a glass. He gestured for me to stop at about three-fingers’ worth and studied himself in the mirror. Not liking his reflection by the look on his face. One swallow, 20 year old scotch gone, and he gestured for another. Taste married to a raging thirst.
Did I say I like to talk to my customers? What I meant was, I like a conversation.
He went back to staring at himself in the mirror. “I used to be The Cat,” he said. “You can call me Tom.”
The Cat, not a Cat, not a Feline from the Feline worlds; no, The Cat — he even pronounced the capitals.
“Oh,” I said. The best way to start a conversation is to feign interested disinterest, like you might get interested if he kept up his end of the bargain.
“I was the only one of my people on this poxy mixer world,” he said.
“Magic or Tech?” I asked.
Oh aye, Tech worlds can manage it too, though it generally takes them more effort. They have to build up to it, see, and they generally blow themselves up long before they achieve it.
“Magic,” he said. “Some wizard created a rift which ended up merging twenty-five worlds into one.”
“Oh that world.” I nodded.
“You’ve heard of it?”
“Oh aye, a lot of people got sucked in when that happened.”
“I was a spacer,” he said, “trying out the new irrelevancy drive and then I go and crash-land on a flaming magic world. My world had not even considered the infinite worlds theory. Our scientists thought we existed in a single solitary universe. They dismissed quantum mechanics as experimental error, but they still went and built a sodding irrelevancy drive. Flaming scientists.”
No, we don’t all speak the same language. That’s a gift of the Slime. Where are you from again? Oh, that Earth. You were lucky to get off alive.
So, I asked him the obvious question. “What did you do?”
He laughed — not a nice sound. “I became a thief. I was built for it after all. That’s why they called me The Cat.” He flexed his hand and claws clicked out from the tips of his fingers. The thumb claw was particularly impressive. I took a step back from the bar.
“You don’t look Feline,” I said.
“No? Well, I’m not now am I?” He retracted his claws. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ve seen worse.”
But he had stopped listening to me. “I was so hacked off. I was in perfect physical shape. A spacer test pilot educated to beyond my native intelligence, which is exceptional. The prides listened to me. I had mates whenever I wanted them.”
“Alpha male,” I said.
“Tom Cat.” He corrected me with a sly grin and proved that he was listening after all. “And here I was on a world of magic. Tech doesn’t work in those places. All my education was useless. Poxy wizards with their stupid flaming spells.”
He drank more scotch and snarled at his own reflection — very impressive teeth.
“What’s the mix again on Quarter-world?” I asked.
“Human, all major types; Avian, the usual raptors; Cetacean, big, small, and in-between; Saurian, dangerous buggers; Hive, above and below ground; Dragons, giants, and all the other usual magical types.” He shook his head. “A great mix, they all hated each other and there I was, a Feline, stuck in the middle. Could’ve been worse I suppose, no Canines there anyway.”
“You don’t look like a Feline,” I repeated.
“Try not to let your natural curiosity get the better of you, monkey-boy.”
“Hey, just making an observation,” I said, pouring him another glass. “On the house.” Can’t trade stories if they don’t have an ending and this sounded like a keeper.
“Yeah, I suppose you were. Thanks.” He drained the whisky. “Ah, what the hell. This human wizard, name of Beuforte, hired me. Avians are both naturally magical and longer-lived than Humans, so they’d sewn up all the wizards’ seats on the council.”
“Only way the world survives without tearing itself apart. Anyway, Beuforte wanted a seat on the council, so he challenged this Avian Thinbeer…sorry Windsear to a wizard’s duel for the right to his seat.”
“A bit stupid.”
“Nah, Beuforte had a plan.”
“Must have been some plan.”
“It was.” Tom stared into the mirror. “Almost worked too.”
“Yeah, Avians live in flaming great Stonewood Trees. They’re three hundred meters high with wood that’ll dent an axe and foliage that’ll slice your arm off. Avians build their nest-houses at the top and Beuforte wanted to burgle Windsear’s.”
“He needed professional help — yeah I’ve heard that joke — and I was the professional help he needed. On Quarter-World magic is an intellectual activity. Wizards don’t get out much and he needed help to climb up there. So up we climbed, me helping him every flaming step of the way. I was still The Cat then.”
I avoided asking him the obvious. It’s always better to let someone tell their own story their own way.
He seemed irritated that I didn’t ask.
Aye well, you win some you lose some, what you gonna do? Where was I?
“Beuforte was a pain,” Tom said. “Stopped every ten metres to check for security spells or so he said. To catch his flaming breath more like. Anyway, I finally got him to the top. Longest climb of my life.”
“Where was Windsear?” I asked.
Now he looked irritated at the question. You really can’t win with some people.
“Beuforte had arranged an all-night meeting of the council,” he said. ”Lots of folks hated Avians — hell, they all hated each other — so they were happy to help by keeping Windsear out of the way.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
“Oh what’s the point?” There was no anger in his voice, just the resignation that comes from being the butt of way too many jokes.
“Not making fun of you, Tom,” I said. “Just my way. Here, have another on the house.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He drank it down and stared at the empty glass for a moment. “Anyway,” he shook himself, a shuddering wave of tension running down his entire body, “the nest was empty. So I headed for the treasury and Beuforte headed for the pentagram.”
I opened my mouth.
He didn’t wait for my question before he answered it. “Yeah yeah, demon lore. The Avians are masters of it. You didn’t know?”
“No,” I admitted. “I steer clear of magic and Avians don’t like to come this far up the Cusp. Can’t fly up here, see, not enough magic.”
“Oh yeah of course, so anyway I got the gold all packed up and ready in two bags. It was my pay, but Beuforte was flaming well carrying some down too.”
“He didn’t want the gold then?”
“Nah, like I said he had a plan. We climbed down. I took my pay. Off he went. Poxy wizards.”
“Windsear cast a general curse, a forty-five fly curse, on whoever had burgled him. Beuforte expected it and took precautions: wards and what-not. I was still a newbie and the sod didn’t even warn me.”
You don’t know about curses? Lucky you met me then. There are a lot of curses out there in the infinite realms and a forty-five fly curse is a doozy. On some worlds curses are measured in flies because the curse itself starts in the infrared and then cycles up to the ultraviolet before it’s released. The longer it’s held in the ultraviolet collecting power, the more flies it traps in the vortex.
Oh aye, it’s bad all right.
On demon-molested worlds the souls of the flies are a nice little snack for the demons. Demons always pay up on soul-bought requests.
“What was the curse?” I asked.
“Just getting to that,” he said. “The curse was that the robbers’ worst nightmare would be visited upon them.”
“Is that how you —”
“Yeah, it did this to me. I passed out in The Mat, a local tavern.”
The cat sat in the mat. I didn’t say it, but I smiled.
“Look, if there is something you find amusing about all this…don’t mind if I do. Anyway, I passed out and I was well on the way to becoming my worst nightmare before I awoke.”
“Beuforte’s plan worked, well nearly. When you’re dealing with demons you have to keep your eyes averted, right? You can’t look at ‘em or they’ll take your soul in an instant.”
“Even in the pentagram?”
“Especially in the pentagram. You want one yourself.”
I poured two scrupulously honest glasses and took a sip.
“So wizards use a focus, something to keep their gaze on, so that they don’t look directly at the demon. Beuforte had replaced Windsear’s focus with an illusion.”
“Yeah, I’d stolen all Windsear’s gold. He needed to transmute more to buy spell ingredients for the duel and he had to call up a demon to transmute it. Mortals can’t do that sort of stuff.”
“And when he did?”
“The focus disappeared.”
“End of Windsear.”
“No!” He lunged across the bar.
I only just avoided his grasp.
Oh, he was fast all right. Don’t ever try to take a Feline on head-to-head.
“The son of a neutered pigeon was stronger than we knew.” His voice was a harsh growl. “He managed to best the demon in a battle of wills…never been heard of…the demon did leave him with a little gift though.”
I waited, out of reach of his claws. A story is only good if I’m still alive to tell it.
“Sorry about just now.” He smiled without baring his teeth. “Got a little carried away. The memory still…if that poxy human Beuforte had warned me…look, no hard feeling, have another on me.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said. “So what was the gift?”
“Demons of transmutation are tricksy beggars at the best of times. So what this demon does is…look, Avians are naturally magical creatures, right? Can’t fly without magic and even then, they’ve got almost no body fat. The demon transmuted Windsear’s molecular structure, so that good old pigeon-brain couldn’t eliminate fat anymore. He actually had to eat fat to live — more and more fat. He got bigger and bigger, fatter and fatter.” Tom smiled at the memory.
Aye, Felines are a little erratic even at the best of times.
“So Windsear couldn’t fly any more?” I asked.
“Oh no, he could fly all right. This demon was a true artist. Avians used levitational force to fly, right?”
I nodded and sipped at my whisky.
“The demon made Windsear’s cells produce levitational force in direct proportion to how fat he got. The fatter he was, the more levitational force produced by his cells to counteract his greater weight. We called him the Flying Pig.”
“So what happened to Beuforte?”
“He made a mistake.”
”He didn’t tell me about Windsear’s likely reaction to the theft.”
“Oh,” I licked my lips. “And Windsear?”
“He wouldn’t lift the curse.” Tom shrugged. His shoulders were far more flexible than a human’s. “So I helped him lose some weight. About three kilos worth.”
I didn’t ask, but he answered anyway.
“There was a lot of fat around his heart. He’d have died soon in any case. You should’ve seen the state of his arteries.”
“Ah.” I finished my whisky and poured two more. Oh, aye, I needed another drink. “So…um…how did you get here?”
“I still had all that gold and went looking for a way to get changed back. Found a dragon that managed to stop the progression of the curse but couldn’t reverse it. She pointed me at a doorway and said there’d be help out here somewhere.”
“What did you think of the Slime?” I thought I could help. Give him a bit of hope.
“What? That mucus stuff you have to swim through?”
“What’s that all about? It got everywhere, up my nose, in my fur, in my eyes. When I stepped out, it felt like I’d been through a sonic shower.”
“Nobody told you?” I asked.
“Told me what?”
“The Slime is the reason all this exists.” I waved to the Cusp outside the door of my bar.
“You know about the infinite worlds theory, right? That in an infinite universe anything that can happen, will happen; not just the possible but the massively improbable as well.”
“You know about evolution too?”
“Descended from sabre-tooths.”
I let that slide. “The Slime remained the primordial soup that we all evolved from, but it evolved into a world-wide single organism that can access all the worlds of the multiverse. Nobody is quite sure how it does this, I’m not even sure the Slime knows, but it can and it does.”
“So the Cusp is…?”
“To make it easier on the Slime. The doorways were created to send you where you want to go, to let the Slime know where you want to go. They take any microorganisms you carry as payment, anything to increase their genetic diversity. That’s why you feel so clean.”
“So that gloop can send you anywhere?”
“Aye, if you can visualise it the Slime can send you there. It could send you home.”
He laughed for one brief moment, then looked at himself in the mirror. “No,” his voice broke, “I can never go home.” He tossed a bag of gold coins onto the bar to pay his bill — of course I checked — and staggered toward the door.
“Hey, Tom,” I called. “What was your worst nightmare?”
“Being human.” He had tears in his eyes. Felines don’t cry from sorrow.
Haven’t seen him since.
Aye, poor sod. So what’s your story anyway?
If you enjoyed that as much as I have the many times I’ve read it, please leave a comment to let Steve know. Such things are a writer’s elixir! Thanks for reading!