Jun 03, 2023 8:37 PM
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"Plausibly, he could be right," says Table-sitter, but everybody else is already backing as far away as the room will allow. It's about a 20'x20' room.

N-w-d-s sighs. "Should I just call a security squad and some physicists or something? Or actually just call the physicists and let them hire their own security squad."

"No!" Kwaiets blurts. Everyone looks at him, except N-w-d-s, who is watching Toy-Mun.

"Are you proposing that we hoard this asset?" says Pel.

("He doesn't mean it in a dehumanizing way," grumbles Table-sitter to Toy-Mun. Then he double-takes, cringes. "Or, I mean, a depersonalizing way . . . ?")

Kwaiets's bearing flickers for a fraction of a second, then becomes impassable as steel. "Yes", he hisses. He meets the eyes of every co-cultist in slow turn. Gravely: "We fancy ourselves we know what to do with data points on natural selection." His eyebrows raise challengingly, daring contradiction.

When none comes: "Do any of you want to look back, twenty, thirty years from now, at the explosion of revelations that comes from this, and be thinking to yourself, over and over, 'I had the chance for that to be me, and I sold it'?"

Table-sitter looks like someone trying to look unimpressed. "Does anyone here want to be looking back at the mess he made of this twenty or thirty years from now, and thinking to himself, 'I could have just done the sane thing and sold off that alien and forever been followed around by my reputation as a responsible contributor to society who knows how not to fight bigger tigers than he can take, instead of the reputation of a child who muddles in things and just makes them worse'?"

"Yes", mutters Pel, at the same time as Kwaiets proudly cries "Fuck yeah I do!"

Everyone by this point is side-eyeing N-w-d-s, who is unreadable.

N-w-d-s says, "All of this is moot if Toy-Mun does not wish to remain in our custody. Especially if he has teleportation powers."


Toy-Mun clicks their tongue, half-smiling. "I don't… I don't know how this teleportation thing happened. I know that teleportation magic generally exists but I am not a practitioner myself, someone else must've teleported me. So that part is moot: I can't promise you I won't be teleported out because I don't know how I got teleported in in the first place. And yeah… I am, personally, of human race. As for the rest… What would such 'custody' entail?"


Kwaiets speaks without waiting. "Employment, essentially. You'd work for me" another challenging glance around "as research subject - temporarily, of course, terms of contract to be negotiated. I would pay you and provide you with newcomer's-guides to Byway, in exchange for you answering interview questions about where you're from, and agreeing to communicate stuff relating to your homeworld with us exclusively until the deal is up."


For a couple of seconds, Toy-Mun is silent, weighing something in their head. Then: "This sounds fun! I'm in. Does this mean I'll need some kind of legend for those… not present here?"


Kwaiets mercilessly suppresses his smile. "No, this is all of us."

Asic pipes up. "Don't you need to get his digital-signature? Or his self-portrait at least?"

"I was going to get his self-portrait," Kwaiets says, extracting a pen and paper from his backpack for the contract. "I'm guessing he doesn't have a digital-signature? What with his ancient-type weaponry, et cetera . . . ?"


Toy-Mun coughed, listening to them somewhat surprised.
- Sure, I can draw myself if you want. Just face? And I meant… if I somehow meet someone not from the… cult, it would probably benefit you if I try to pretend I'm, well, from here?


"Oh, a legend of behavior," says Kwaiets. "Yeah, just face - do they do signature differently where you're from? Hmm . . . a guide will be such an interesting project."

Everyone else in the room (except for N-w-d-s, who remains undisturbed) locks down a very straight face about the prospect of writing a miniCode for the visitor, so that Kwaiets will not get the satisfaction of having interested them.

Kwaiets drafts out the contract, signs it with a self-portrait drawn using a little pocket mirror, and begins passing it around for confirmation by the rest of the cult.

"To start with," says Kwaiets, "we should give you a gun, so you don't have to carry the sword around anymore. And probably a whole makeover in terms of clothes, that'll be the first thing."

(There are still several cult members aiming at Toy-Mun, the vibes not having yet aligned with actually deciding that Toy-Mun is practically safe.)


- Yeah, we sign with our names. I mean, there are magical certifications for, like, really important things, but otherwise just with a name, - Toy-Mun responded. - As for a gun… does everyone carry a weapon here, or is it a thing with your… cult specifically?
When the contract got to them, Toy-Mun bit their lip.
- I think I actually do have a mirror in my bag, although yours seem of higher quality... may I borrow one of yours, actually?


"Generally, people carry weapons, yes," says N-w-d-s, looking mildly surprised. "Are you unusual, in that, for where you came from?"

"It's in the Code because otherwise a psychopathic weapon-haver could tear through the unarmed with no impediment," says Asic. "I don't see what the alternative is."

". . . You hope people aren't born psychopathic, but." mutters Table-sitter, handing Toy-Mun a mirror with an apologetic look.

"Names?" says Kwaiets. "How'd that be protection against fraud at all?"

A "Yeah - what?" from Asic.

"I register that if our intention is to hire Toy-Mun as an informant", interjects N-w-d-s, "we should be recording all our initial discrepancies of - custom, or intuition, or whatever. Not to mention the guide we're putatively writing for him."

Everyone looks at each other guiltily. 

"I'm not doing it", scoffs Table-sitter.

"Fine," says Kwaiets, sitting down at the table and extracting note-taking equipment from his backpack.

(Digital records are much easier to leak without Aliss noticing, and easier for Eav to interpret high-bandwidthly if a full leak occurs. The Refutation of the Protein Delta might take some digital records after establishing additional security, but.)

Everyone has at this point lowered their weapons, and everyone except Pel has re-concealed them.


Toy-Mun takes the mirror and is clearly impressed by how good its reflection qualities are, trying to make a decent self-portrait with their right hand while holding the mirror with their left.
- I am… somewhat unusual, yes. I travel a lot. People who live in a city for a long time usually rely on guards to protect them, - they mutter, tracing their rather thin, "aristocratic" features. - As for a name… I mean, a name is a thing you offer to everyone. If you try using different names in different places or impersonate someone else - why, normally it's going to catch up to you rather fast, even without magic. While a portrait… many people look similar. Or, at least, similar enough so that a small portrait by a hand more accustomed to doing something… else than drawing won't distinguish them. Speaking of appearances, I have to mention that I am somewhat unusual in another regard, too. My body shape is rather… I don't really know the word for it but, basically, it's so thin that it doesn't give away whether I'm a boy or a girl unless you literally strip me down. And you are similar in that regard. Most people back home are… more visibly men or women. I... wait, you do have men and women, right? - Toy-Mun puts the pen down, still looking in the mirror. - People who put seed in others and people who bear children from that seed?


Pel makes a strangled snort, apparently from the effort of violently trying to contain his own laughter. 

"No?" warbles Kwaiets, sounding faintly like he's desperately trying to contain an outburst of laughter himself by thinking of anything else besides the funny thing. "People look very different, it's how we tell each other apart! A portrait of someone that actually distinguishes them is hard to draw if they won't sit still for you, but names are easy to copy."

"We have males and females," deadpans Table-sitter completely emotionlessly, with audible effort, "but 'woman', and more commonly - 'girl' - are approximately the most vulgar things you can say in this dialect. 'Man' and 'boy' are also vulgar but less so."

Pel, incredulous and on the verge of breaking back down into giggles, bursts out, "Do you come from a world where people are just like, 'the women of so-and-so are such and such' in, like, serious podcasts and blog posts and stuff?"

Table-sitter focuses very hard on frowning critically at Toy-Mun's unpracticed self-portrait. N-w-d-s is the only cult member not putting visible effort into not laughing.


Toy-Mun is about as surprised as they are, albeit in a less… laugh-prone way: the topic seems to sadden them somwhat instead.

- Where I come from, 'male' and 'female' are adjectives, like 'green'. 'Man' and 'woman' are nouns, like 'knife', - they repeat carefully. - There is no such… difference in vulgarness, - Toy-Mun does say "vulgarness" not "vulgarity", and with visible uncertainty in the word, too, - as you describe. But I'll try to remember and use 'male' and 'female' as nouns. I... don't really know what a 'podcast' or a 'blog' is, but yeah, if you need a noun, you use a noun. Like, do your laws say something like "all males are to serve in the army" rather than "all men"?


Kwaiets and Pel look at Table-sitter.

"'Army'," says Table-sitter, "is a mostly-antiquated term of art for mercenary pools set to defend the perimeters of whole cities. And no, I've got no idea about 'law'."

Asic (who Toy-Mun may freely swivel around to see, as it's perhaps evident to them that the cult is no longer trying to control their field of view or freedom of movement) says, "It's a technical term for a tenet of a deviant Code which tenet is meant to be enforced by adherents to the deviant Code, despite the tenet itself possibly having nothing to do with NAP violations."

Pel whistles. Asic glares at him.

"Uh, so no, they don't," says Kwaiets, furiously scribbling. He seems like he's starting to enjoy it.


Toy-Mun coughs and does half-turn to Asic. Their pale cheeks redden a tiny bit.
- Er… "deviant"? What exactly makes a Code deviant or non-deviant? That's… normally considered a bad word where I'm from.


"Oh, yeah, 'deviant' is pretty offensive," says Table-sitter. "If you want to be nice about a deviant Code that's currently active you say 'speculative Code', but being polite isn't necessary for the ones that are already buried in history. Also: A podcast is when people publish audio recordings of their dialogues because they think they're worthy of that. A blog post is when someone publishes essays of their opinions on the Internet because they think they're worthy of that."

"What'dyou have instead?" asks Pel, curious.

Kwaiets looks on the verge of overheating from sheer notetaking speed, but doesn't seem to mind, or notice, for that matter.


Toy-Mun makes a pause, trying to understand what was said - and giving Kwaiets a chance to write more down.
- I guess I should be asking what Internet is, but somehow, I am more surprised by your notions of Codes. What is NAP and how is it related to Codes?


Asic literally audibly inhales before speaking.

"Non-Agression Principles are ways that codes specify at which point of violation by others code adherents may perceive themselves as licensed to act in reciprocal violation against their violators, in self-defense. If your code didn't legitimize any violence ever, you'd incentivize a culture of parasitical thievery upon your adherents, no matter how rare thieves were to start with. Just like having people go unarmed."

"The mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell," says Pel.

Asic glares mutiny. He wheels on Toy-Mun. "Do you know that the mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell?" he asks, voice brimming with barely-contained outrage.


Toy-Mun doesn't answer. Not because of some malicious intent or secrecy, but because they doubled down in uncontrollable laughter.
- "Non-Aggression Principles"? - they finally managed to squeak. Then, after calming down just a little bit: - Your first instinct was to point weaponry at me, and you speak about non-aggression? And no, I don't know what's a mitochondrion, is that a... tree, like rhododendron?


Asic grins manically at Pel, who fumes.

"I'm sure it was obvious to you, the whole time, that you represented and intended no threat to us," says N-w-d-s to Toy-Mun, "but -" N-w-d-s seems to be struggling for words, for once "- but if weird shit happens, and you get caught off guard because you didn't immediately presume it was a threat and ready yourself in kind, well, that's one of the cringiest ways to die."

"I second that," says Asic emphatically. There's a murmer of assent from Pel. Kwaiets continues to be a steam-powered notetaking engine.

Table-sitter says "Sorry, Toy-Mun, by the way, on behalf of everyone," voice laced with acid. "Sorry," echoes everyone else, at varying volume levels. Everyone sounds sincerely apologetic, but especially N-w-d-s and Pel.


"A mitochondrion is - hard to explain," says Kwaiets absently. "I'll sell nine grams silver, anyone's one to my nine, that Toy-Mun has no idea what a biological cell is."

N-w-d-s and Pel both buy in, and scribble with Kwaiets on little bet-contract slips.

"Do you know what a biological cell is?" Kwaiets asks of Toy-Mun, pen once again ready.


- Apologies accepted, - Toy-Mun chuckles, still smiling. - Sorry for startling you. Anyway… yeah, while self-defence laws are usually included in codes, they are but a small part of what they regulate. I am… not much of a law expert, of course, but this much I know: some regulate keeping a city clean, some regulate what's considered punishable fraud for merchants and stuff. I guess… I guess I don't quite understand how you live without that. And as for biological cell… I don't really know what "biological" means, but a cell is something you put a pet in. Or, I guess, a person in prisons.


"I can settle up now," says N-w-d-s. "Me too," says Pel. They collect around the table again to pay out 1g silver each to Kwaiets.

"I've never heard of a word 'cell' with that meaning, that'd be 'pen'." says Table-sitter. "Did you - just happen to speak basically the dialect we're speaking, already?" Absently: "I wonder if that's related to how he just - showed up here."

"Nobody aim at Toy-Mun again if it turns out there's creepy translation reality-warping going on," says N-w-d-s. "There's insufficient reason to suspect we have power to make him stop, at this point, even if it is somehow his doing, which seems improbable."


Toy-Mun simply nods:
- Judging by the misunderstandings, I'd suspect some good but not too good translation magic at work. But I am certainly not doing this myself. I guess this simplified the matters greatly though, it would be weird to try and speak Common, which you don't speak, to try to ascertain I mean no harm. Anyway… I feel like there is a lot I need to learn here.


(N-w-d-s, who is in the middle of betting Asic at 7-to-3 odds that there won't be creepy translation reality-warping, shows no regret when Toy-Mun says "he" suspects translation 'magic', but feels some.)

"Oh! Do you want your own notetaking paraphernalia, if you don't have any on you?" says Kwaiets, already reaching into his bag again. "Er - I should really ask first, did you luck into having money on you?"

"Can you say something in 'Common' and have it come out so we can't parse it?" says Table-sitter. "Test - I'm trying to say this in our dialect so you can't understand it but it doesn't - feel any different -"


- Your test failed, - Toy-Mun nods. - I guess you're stuck with it now, unless it's different in different directions… - they try to add, speaking each sound of Common as slowly as they can, but it still comes out perfectly understandable, and they click their tongue. - As for money… let me see, I think I might have a few coins back.
Toy-Mun opens their bag and begins to put the contents on the table: a strong rope, a couple of pieces of low-quality paper strung together by a thinner rope, a big bird's feather, and then, finally (although the bag doesn't seem to have been fully emptied), a small sack, which they open to procure a couple of different gold and silver coins.
- These are from Brute - that would be the free city of Brute, a huge trading place but also a known place for crime… These are elven… this must be Terran, I can never track all those lords and their customs in making coins… - Toy-Mun comments lazily, splitting them into different piles.

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