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"I refuse to be stuck with anything," says Table-sitter, because he's the only one who feels the need to clarify that this is true of himself. The rest treat it as an unsaid given. "How would you expect the translation 'magic' going on here to work, such that we might investigate it?"

Kwaiets and Pel ogle the foreign coins appreciatively.

"I have four clean notebooks, and six gel pens with full cartridges. I'd sell them at half a gram of silver per notebook, a quarter gram of silver per pen - er, silver is currently worth a sixty-fifth what gold is, by weight, around here."

"I have two clean notebooks I'd sell you at a quarter gram," says Pel.

Kwaiets eyes Pel's notebooks. "A third, then. And mine are bigger and nicer." He shows them off to Toy-Mun.


Despite the previously-established expectation that they would be providing for Toy-Mun's basic material needs as part of their employment of Toy-Mun, it's not really occuring to anyone on a socially-relevant level (except to N-w-d-s as a quiet note of discord) that they should be giving them notebooks. That's just not what you do?


Toy-Mun is somewhat saddened but not really surprised by their haggling over notebook prices instead of sharing. Their eyes flutter over the notebook while they speak, slowly:
- Now, I am not a mage from the Academy, either, but… imagine a spirit - a being of sorts - that knows both languages and hangs around translating between the two to the best of its ability. This isn't literally how it works but it's fairly close by results - including occasional mix-ups. I remember how my fencing teacher occasionally used that to speak in Elvish with me if he struggled to find the words in Common… A-anyway. As generous as your suggestions probably are, - Toy-Mun certainly seems somewhat sarcastic, - a gram is… much less than any coin here, I think, so do you expect me to cut them up somehow?


Table-sitter's eyes bore into Toy-Mun. "You've had the experience of translation 'magic' before? Do you think this is exactly the same thing? How would you know if it was different? And - if you don't know exactly how it works - how can you be sure there isn't a spirit 'inside the box'?"

Kwaiets, for his part, looks puzzled. "I was going on the default assumption that whatever denominations you do have, we can make change for it -"

With one motion, N-w-d-s opens his own backpack, strides across the room, and sets two notebooks and three pens (of varying quality and usedness) in front of Toy-Mun. Everyone stares at him. "Since y'all seem to have forgotten in the last two minutes", says N-w-d-s, "the presumption that y'all are Toy-Mun's custodians, fit to actively advise him, also requires y'all to provide for his full need."

Kwaiets makes a face, seeming to think of responding indignantly on Toy-Mun's behalf. Kwaiets's face shades vaguely into an embarrassed face. "Ohrightsorry. Toy-Mun."


Toy-Mun's eyelashes flutter, and the pale cheeks redden again.
- Thank you… I don't think I've got your name, actually? The others have mostly named themselves but you didn't… or have I just forgotten? - Toy-Mun makes a pause, allowing N-w-d-s to introduce themself. - As for why I don't expect there to be a spirit - beside competent mages saying there isn't, that's… kinda not in the habit for them? I've seen spirits, they're generally not what you'd call… eager to help for nothing in return.


N-d-w-s holds up a hand, locally-courteously. "I'm Henreyyah. Henreyyah Anilon Sareksal, lab sanitation."

Table-sitter says, "Oh, sorry, I don't think I've introduced myself either. I'm Scoryu, packaging." He would follow suit and say his middle and last, but surely Toy-Mun will have picked up by now that they're all Sareksal, and dumping another middle name on him would just add to a probably-already-unmanageable memory load.

Scoryu resumes his intense face. "The reason I'd expect there to have to be a spirit involved in translation magic isn't that I came in with a high prior on spirits doing things in general, it's that - it seems like a spirit-complete task, to really know two languages in the sense that you can make all the subtle little decisions involved in mediating between them."

"You should look into programmatic translation," says Asic in Scoryu's direction. "It's surprisingly possible - to do at all, not at remotely human-passing quality - with giant unwieldy parsers and lookup tables." Asic squints. "I can see a really big program pulling off something as seamless as this, or just a really smart one."

"From what I've seen, that seems right," says Henreyyah (in tones of weak corroboration, not decisiveness).

Scoryu frowns but shrugs the spirit question temporarily aside. To Toy-Mun: "Can you give us a rough run-down of the spread of common or prominent types of plants, animals, et cetera - living things - where you're from?" The Refutation hasn't even started asking the really relevant questions! Scoryu scrambles to ready his own pen and notebook for this.

"Were there any separate populations of humans - or any sapient animals, actually - who couldn't interbreed with each other?" says Kwaiets. It seems unlikely, but it's be stupid to miss the quickly checkable gold vein if it was really there.


Toy-Mun clearly (for someone knowing the hand-shaking custom) reaches to shake Henreyyah's hand before thinking twice of it and removing the hand when understanding their gesture was different.

- I mean, there are many plants and many animals, I don't think I can quickly give a full rundown. Now, sapients… yeah, that's more manageable. There are humans, like myself, then there are elves, angels, tigrans, dragons, demons, nagas, and shapeshifters… I guess sahuagins, vendigoes and trolls are sapient too, although they are too aggressive to talk to or mate. Oh, and goblins. I don't know if you would count undead and spirits as sapient animals, but they're there, too. Shapeshifters can mate with whoever except another shapeshifter, producing their own kin. Tigrans can otherwise only mate with tigrans, angels can't mate with demons, dragons, or their offsprings, and nagas, I think, have reptile-like holes so they can't really mate with anyone. Hell if I know what goblins can mate - they're, like, three times shorter than me, and I am not too tall for a human myself. Other half-bloods are fair play - for instance, a human and a dragon produce a dragan, so does an elf and a dragon. Offsprings of dragan are also dragan, so dragans have their own kingdom.


Literally every member of the Refutation tries talking over everymember else, for several iterations, before the cacophony dies down enough for ordered, clearly comprehensible responses to be heard:

Pel: "- now hold up, shapeshifters, I don't wanna get my hopes falsely up here, they can change the shape of their bodies at will - ? -"

Scoryu (pen practically vibrating with readiness): " - we don't need you to list everything, just, the genera" Scoryu begins sketching something on the notebook in front of him while he speaks, but doesn't show it to Toy-Mun yet "like, we have - plants and -"

Kwaiets interrupts - "Don't bias him -"

Scoryu: "He didn't understand the question, I have to clarify by example - we have plants, which are nonmotile things-that-can-reproduce, and animals, which are visible motile things-that-can-reproduce, and microbes, which are things-that-can-reproduce that are too small to see - within animals, which is the most exciting one that everybody naturally gravitates towards so you always might as well get analyzing animals over with first - we have worms, crawly limbless animals, bugs, animals with segments and lots of limbs and hard outer shells, tetrapods, animals with bones inside and four limbs if you don't count the tail which is just an extension of the backbone - you have a backbone - those are the main ones but if you go deeper into tetrapods -"

Pel (muttering): "But 'snakes aren't four-legged' -"

Scoryu: "Yeah, I just said, worms are limbless - "

Asic (giving Toy-Mun a selection of vivid no-bleed artist's markers): "As you see, Toy-Mun, they're really going to want you to try with the whole 'sketchy first-effort blind categorization of Life' thing -"

Henreyyah (in a note passed to Pel): One yours to my 2gs at least 80% of the 'sapients' he's describing are basically speciated human ethnicities you won't be able to distinguish when he draws portraits of them question mark

Pel (return note): Pass, are you trying to put one over on me? I saw his self-portrait, I'm not sure I could tell them apart if he tried to draw me and you.


Toy-Mun puts their hands to their ears and waits until
- Stop… Stop… Stop! - they beg. - You are all speaking at once. I know what animals and plants are, not sure about those "microbes" thingies but they're probably also there. And I know what worms, bugs and snakes are, and, although I don't think I've heard "tetrapod" before, it seems fitting for the beings with bones like you and me - beasts, birds, fish… I guess our general divisions of animals aren't too different, so let's get back to that shape of bodies thing? - Toy-Mun coughs pointedly and begins to sketch some kind of green-blue lizard with bird wings. - Shapeshifters can change their bodies at will as long as they've sworn service to somebody, yes - although it's limited, they have, like, an appearance per race, they can't, say, copy my face and pretend they're me. Demons and dragons also have human forms, but… these are different actually, now that I think about it. Demons' natural forms are very varied but usually come with some sort of scales or horns or something else weird - they're a very, ah, varied race but usually huge. And they can basically contract themselves to look more human-like - or elf-like. And dragons… oof. Well, a dragon's natural form is something like a huge lizard with wings - except wings can be feathered or bat-like, and they tend to have fire breath, acid breath or some other weird mouth attack - I knew a girl with ice breath. Sorry, a female with ice breath. That's her - she's rather small for a dragon, but still, perhaps, me and a half in length? I am really not that good of a painter. That doesn't look like Lin at all - although, I guess, it does show the general idea, - Toy-Mun moves the picture to the closest person - which would probably be Scoryu. - Then, when they need to, they hide their bodies with magic and extract their human-like bodies - or, again, elf-like. I won't try to draw Lin's human shape, with my skills that would probably not help - although she does have fuller lips than I do, like most gir… females. Elves are quite similar to humans, except for the pointy ears and - oh, yeah, living for freaking hundreds of years, while I'm lucky if I live one hundred. Most other sapients are closer to elves in that regard, except tigrans… sorry, I'm rambling, ain't I? - Toy-Mun sighs exasperatedly and closes their eyes, massaging the eyeballs with fingers.


The room gets a lot quieter as soon as it becomes clear that Toy-Mun is serious.



"I was joking," says Pel weakly. 


His brain seems to be taking a few seconds to boot up again.

"Do you know what happens if a shapeshifter takes a small form, enters a sealed container, and then tries to take a larger form again? Does it not work if certain things aren't inside the container to begin with?" Pel doesn't want to be offensive by asking in this condescending way, but instinct says just asking Toy-Mun what shapeshifters are made of won't get him an answer. Pel has very trustworthy instincts, and he's impatient.


Scoryu is staring at the picture of Lin's dragon form. He begins, absently, to try to copy it in a more pseudo-realistic style, getting everything wrong with respect to how Lin actually looks, of course.


"Shapeshifters have to swear service to somebody - you mean, just to be clear, that they need an apprenticeship's worth of training? Even to hone natural-born ability?" says Henreyyah.


Kwaiets writes.


Toy-Mun sighs exasperatedly, opening their eyes.
- No, Henreyyah, I meant exactly what I said. Their abilities are unlocked by an oath of service. Instantly. But, if they then break their oath, they… well, die, I guess. Never actually seen that happen. People say they can give their oath to an idea rather than another person, but I don't know how that would work, either. And no, Pel, I don't really know what would happen with that container - except you would get a very angry shapeshifter in any case. I think a demon would be limited by the container because they literally visibly contract and decontract - unless it's too brittle, of course - but no idea about dragons or shapeshifters. I am but a human myself, and not exactly a scholar, either.


"Do you have first questions for us?" says Kwaiets. He gets the sense they've taxed Toy-Mun's patience, somehow, which is not a situation Kwaiets wants.


- Oh, a couple of thousands, - Kwaiets's sense seems obviously on point, but Toy-Mun is seemingly relieved by their words. - Let's start with the obvious ones. Judging by some of your questions… you asked about separate populations of humans and only then corrected to "sapient animals". Should I take this as humans being the only kind of sapients in your world, able to interbreed with one another freely - well, gender, health and age permitting? Speaking of, how long do you live? How old are y'all now, for that matter? I am twenty-five myself. Years, not… not something else, in case it needs specifying.


"Three hundred and sixty-five day years? Twenty-four hour days?" says Scoryu. (Asic bets against it. Everyone except Henreyyah buys Asic's odds. The rest of them are starting to get credulous that none of their ordinary intuitions apply.)

"Just humans, yes," says Scoryu before Kwaiets can take point. "I'm fifteen."

"Nineteen," says Kwaiets.

"Sixteen," says Pel.

"Twenty," says Asic.

"Twenty-two," says Henreyyah.

"Humans used to live a hundred or so years max," says Kwaiets, "and the oldest person alive now is only a hundred forty, but lots of people think that senescence repair biotech has reached the point where babies being born now, with all the zygote enhancements, won't have to die of old age at all. Maybe not us either."


- Three hundred and sixty days in a year. Twelve thirty-day months. And yes, a day has twenty-four hours, - Toy-Mun answers slowly, trying to remember everyone else's age. - Why the extra five days? And… did you say "senescence repair"? Like, you repair old people's bodies so that they don't die? Like an old vehicle or something? And what does that… jay-goat thing has to do with anything?


"Oh, right, you don't know what a cell is." 

There's something that feels wrong, about just haphazardly beginning to explain Science to Toy-Mun without any sort of elaborate context, preamble, or contract, but then again, Toy-Mun probably feels that way about his world's lore. It's only fair. And, for that matter, efficient. As pointman on this project, he makes the call that no elaborate preamble will be required for haphazard Science explanations henceforth.

"A zygote is - well, first, cells are - " he turns the page of his notebook, sketches out a honeycomb-looking matrix contained within a lens-like circle, with an arrow to a human arm "- the components of anything living, they do the work to maintain your shape and temperature and memories and all the stuff like that that would by default fall apart. Well, everything about your body does that, to some extent, but anyway that's what cells are for. When your body needs new cells they divide, and each new cell is a perfect copy of the old one. When a new animal - new living-thing of any kind - needs to form, it forms from a cell of each parent, if they're sexually reproducing. A zygote is the cell that forms, then, the first cell of a new person."

Kwaiets further draws an abbreviated sequence of a zygote dividing into a baby, to demonstrate. The labels are of . . . questionable usefulness, but this is a limited fragment of Kwaiets's attention, and hurried.

Kwaiets's notebook page a-Imgur

Toy-Mun looks at the picture. Then at Kwaiets. Then at the picture. A pun briefly visits their head: "His name is Kwaiets because of the ability to make the room go quiet."

After quite a pause, they finally respond:
- So… you want to say that we are all giant honeycombs? Well, not with bees and stuff, but like - we have these small similar parts we're built of, and they are perfect copies of each other? Why aren't we… just blobs then? We have eyes and muscles, and skin, and bones, and hairs, and… mating parts, these all seem rather different from each other. You're telling me they're all honeycombs of the same underneath?


"- Right, sorry, that's on me. It's efficacious for a lot of purposes to round to 'exact copies', but cell production for beings with multiple cells actually involves a lot of speciation."

He points to the circle in the middle of one of the cells. "Coded instructions are in there, and sometimes - not always but often - when the cell divides, at least one of the descendant cells modifies the field of instructions it's allowed to use. This is reversible for any instruction-bubble - nucleus - if you take it out and put it in the jelly of a different cell that's specialized in something else, you can make it act as instructions for that cell type instead, because each nucleus actually has all the instructions - but nigh-irreversible for the cell as a whole."


Toy-Mun draws a line to the small circles on the tables and furiously scribbles something. The writing systems certainly seem not touched by whatever translation magic applies, but Toy-Mun does mumble under their nose, which gets translated as "nuck-lee-jus", suggesting that what's written is "nucleus".
- Wow. That's… certainly an interesting view… - Toy-Mun pauses for a couple of seconds. - How did you learn all this? I presume these… cells are too small for an eye to see, like those "microbes" you spoke about?


"Yeah. You need basically a tube containing a series of magnifying lenses to see them, backlit so enough light gets to your eye."


- Interesting… - Toy-Mun furrows their brow. - OK, I think I got it. That thing you mentioned, seemingly as common knowledge. Something-something powerhouse of the cell. What does it mean? Is it, like, a ruler in the cell or something?




". . . Tyrannical-enforcer?"

Somehow Scoryu is afraid Toy-Mun said that even though he isn't sure whether he heard 'measuring-stick' instead, which'd form part of the far more sensible question.


"I'm not sure what you mean - it's a powerhouse? A place where energy in a non-useful form gets converted into energy that's in a form your power grid is set up to use."


- Well, not every ruler is tyrannical but that's closer to how I had understood, - Toy-Mun nods to Scoryu and looks at Kwaiets with clear surprise. - Power… grid? Why would you put your energy in a grid? I feel like we… might not mean the same by energy?

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