Sacred Host

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Wed Aug 19, 2015 11:59 am

Chapter 35 - Butter and Honey

"Where in the interstellar abyss is that fool of a human caterer?" Iniss demanded as Toloth entered the back room. The regional Sharing head was pacing back and forth with frenetic energy, his borrowed fingers wriggling as though seeking something to twiddle or throw; indeed, apart from the notable differences of surroundings and vesture, it was essentially what Chapman's body had been doing in the waiting room of the county hospital while Melissa was being born, some fifteen years before. "The Council representative must have showed up by now; everything hinges on him seeing this event flow smoothly. A mishap like this could permanently cripple our region's prestige."

"Cripple our region's prestige?" echoed Penjoth Nought-One-Six skeptically. "We're the nerve center of the invasion, Iniss Two-Two-Six. Earth's Sulp Niar pool is directly below us. How much damage can one tardy food delivery do us?"

Iniss shot a dark look at his right-hand officer. "Do you suppose there's a law requiring the invasion to be focused on this part of the planet?" he demanded. "Garrisons and Blade ships can be moved; the Sulp Niar designation can be transferred. And this would hardly be the first public embarrassment our region has suffered in the eyes of the Council – or have you, Penjoth Nought-One-Six, forgotten how you came to be wearing your current body?"

Toloth didn't need to check Teresa's memories for that one; he already knew, better than she did, how much humiliation the Sulp Niar Earth pool had suffered when Tom Berenson's last Controller had been killed by the Andalites, and the human governor he had been meant to seize had slipped through the Empire's fingers. He doubted, however, that it was sufficient to inspire to a fundamental change in the strategy of the invasion – not least because of the Andalites themselves. So long as a group of morph-capable guerrillas was running amok in southern California, destroying Kandronas and killing Imperial spawn members, the Empire wasn't about to weaken its position in the region.

In any case, it wasn't the sort of discussion in which Malcar Seven-Four-Five would have gotten involved, beyond curling Teresa's lip contemptuously at her leader's transparent fear for his opportunity to self-aggrandize. This, accordingly, Toloth did, and then made his way over to the table by which Elskir was standing, drumming her fingers irregularly against the Formica.

"Well," he said dryly, "it's good to see such selfless public spirit in our occupational commanders, don't you think, Elskir Five-Nought-Seven?"

Elskir gave a little strangled yelp, and her host's eyes, as she turned to Toloth, were those of a haunted soul who had missed her morning's coffee. "Please, Malcar," she said hoarsely. "Not today. Just… not today."

Toloth blinked. "What's the matter?" he said.

Elskir shook Kati's head. "Nothing," she said. "Just don't, okay?"

Nothing, my host's gut fungi, thought Toloth. (6) He knew psychic distress when he saw it; if the little human-Controller in front of him wasn't just about at the end of her rope, then he was Visser Three. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought she was suffering from…

He frowned suddenly, remembering what Teresa knew about Kati/Elskir's schedule. "Did you skip your feeding this morning?" he said.

"I didn't skip it," said Elskir. "I never had a chance to go. Kati's cousins are visiting, remember? The filthy beasts clung to me like hopsworms; it was all I could do to get them out of our room long enough for me to get dressed. There's no way they'd have let me duck into the mall and mysteriously vanish for an hour."

"So you skipped it," said Toloth, his tone as sternly disapproving as Malcar's would have been. "You willfully came to a major Sharing event in a state of severe Kandrona depletion. Do you have any idea how irresponsible that…"

"Don't start, Malcar," said Elskir. "Don't give me that lecture about my responsibilities to the invasion. You think I'm going to lose control in the middle of the fête and let Kati shout the real purpose of the Sharing to the world? You think I'm that weak?"

"It's not a question of weakness, Elskir," said Toloth. "We're on an alien world, in conditions fundamentally antithetical to our physical being. The price of carelessness is too high for even the…"

"I'm not being careless," Elskir shot back. "It takes seventy-three hours and fifteen minutes for fugue to set in. If I have Brenda stop at McDonald's after the fête, I can get to the pool with half an hour or more to spare."

"Elskir…" Toloth began.

But, before he could continue, a truck pulled up to the door; Iniss made a sharp gesture, and the assembled extra-terrestrial invaders hastily shifted personae. By the time the caterer entered the building, carrying the Sharing fête's most crucial selling point in half a dozen orange cardboard boxes, the members of the Oceanside Inner Sharing were indistinguishable from any other group of well-adjusted, socially engaged human youths.
"Sorry it took so long, Mr. Chapman," said the caterer, a plump, cheerful woman named Kimberly Hogan. "But you know what it's like, trying to navigate these streets this time of year…"

"Naturally, naturally," said Iniss, his Equatorial-Chasm smile back at its stand. "Think nothing of it, Mrs. Hogan. Now, what do you have for us?"

"Ooh, let's see," said Mrs. Hogan. She set the stack of boxes down at the corner of the table that the Inner Sharing had set out, then lifted all but the bottom box off again and set the new stack down beside it; in this fashion, she had all the boxes laid out on the table in a matter of seconds, and proceeded to flip them successively open as she named their contents. "We have mozzarella cheese balls fried in beer batter; we have Loaded Fruit Cups – made with a mixture of fresh and dried fruit, and garnished with different kinds of nuts; we have roasted turkey wings, complete with a special house dipping sauce; we have buttered shrimp and scallops; we have an assortment of specially shaped Gingerbread Fancies; and," lifting the last lid with an air of particular solemnity, "of course, we have the world-famous Hogan's Kitchen honey shortbread."

"Shortbread?" Penjoth repeated, gazing wide-eyed into the box. "That's not shortbread; that's a box full of butter and honey, with just enough flour to keep it from oozing out onto the sidewalk."

"Naturally," said Mrs. Hogan, her eyes twinkling. "A triumph of culinary minimalism, delighting both mind and palate at once. Hath news of the wonder not reached thy land, Master Berenson?"

<Butter and honey,> said Teresa with a laugh. <How appropriate.>

Toloth gave a weary interior sigh. <Why?> he said, not caring to go to the trouble of checking her memories.

<It's the second half of the Emmanuel prophecy,> said Teresa. <The one no-one ever quotes. "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel; butter and honey shall he eat, that he may learn to do what is good and avoid what is evil.">

<And what is that supposed to mean?> said Toloth peevishly.

<I don't know,> Teresa admitted. <Nobody seems to know what it referred to in Isaiah's time, and I've never heard anyone explain it with reference to Jesus. But there it is, all the same.>


"Well, Mrs. Hogan," said Iniss, "this all looks marvelous, and we're very much in your debt. And, speaking of which… how much was it again?" And he pulled out a pen and a small, blue-plastic billfold, filled, presumably, with the open notes of credit that humans preferred to use in place of money.

Mrs. Hogan named a figure that would have been outrageous in any sensible system of exchange, but Iniss didn't bat an eyelid as he wrote out the appropriate formula, tore out the check, and handed it to her. "There you are," he said.

"Thank you kindly, Mr. Chapman," said Mrs. Hogan. "I hope you all have a lovely time doing… well, whatever it is you do at these things."

"You're sure you don't want to stick around and find out?" said Penjoth. "We'd love to have you."

"Oh, no, I couldn't," said Mrs. Hogan. "I've already stayed too long; I still have three more orders waiting in the truck. You know what this season is like for caterers."

"Of course, of course," said Iniss. "We wouldn't dream of keeping you. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hogan."

"The same to you, Mr. Chapman, and many more," said Mrs. Hogan, and turned and hurried back out the door.
When the sound of her vehicle's engine was heard outside, Iniss turned to the assembled Sharing members solemnly. "All right, my fellow Controllers," he said, "we are now ready to begin. Remember, the prestige of our chapter for the next few months will depend very largely on how you conduct yourselves today; you must, therefore, behave in every way as becomes true Yeerks. You must be courteous, but not servile; single-minded, yet not inflexible; zealous as regards your duties, but without the degrading emotionalism that you observe in your hosts. And, above all, you must remember…"

"Kati, shut up!"

The sudden, sharp cry caught everyone off guard; Iniss broke off in mid-peroration, and all eyes turned to Elskir, who flushed and shook her host's head. "Sorry," she said. "My host was just getting a little… disorderly."

"Elskir," said Toloth, "really, maybe it would be better if you just…"

"I'm fine, Malcar," said Elskir, shooting a steely glare at her supposed comrade.

Iniss coughed, and attempted unsuccessfully to resume his lost train of thought. "Yes, well," he said, "in any event, the important thing is simply that you… well, you just mustn't… that is…"

"Don't embarrass the Empire, folks," Penjoth offered.

"Yes," said Iniss gratefully. "Yes, exactly. And now, let's get things underway, shall we?"
(6) It will be noticed that Toloth, despite inhabiting Teresa, still thought of himself as a Hork-Bajir-Controller. Humans, to be sure, have gut flora, but the specialized microbial fungi by which Hork-Bajir digest tree bark have no parallel in the human body.

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Duckymonkey179 » Fri Aug 28, 2015 11:01 am

Haven't read any of these before. Good reads.

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Mon Mar 12, 2018 4:59 pm

Chapter 36: Multiplied above Number

"…But there's one thing we've always found, each time the season comes back round: that Christmas means that what we have, we share."

«You know,» Teresa commented wistfully, as the last strains of accompaniment to the seasonal Sharing anthem drifted from the Roller-Plaza's speaker system, «as secular Christmas songs go, I used to really like that one.» (This was, in fact, something of an understatement; the first time she had heard it, she had broken down in tears.) «It's too bad, isn't it, that so many things that should be works of love actually exist to… well, to do other things?»

Toloth ignored this. It was just the sort of Teresa-like remark that he felt he ought to ignore, and he was, moreover, preoccupied with the condition of his fellow caroler Elskir Five-Nought-Seven. He had snuck several surreptitious glances at her while they were singing, and what he had seen had scarcely reassured him that her conviction of being able to make it through the fête was well grounded. After all, while it was technically true that Andalite science had placed the maximum allowable period of Kandrona deprivation for a Yeerk at slightly more than the conventional three Earth days, that was based on purely abstract electrodynamical calculations; the Yeerk race's own history suggested that things were different when the rational mind was involved. Imprisonment in a sunless dungeon had long been a popular way of executing notorious criminals (as its equivalent, indeed, still was), and, insofar as the details of such executions had ever been made known, it appeared that the victims tended, if anything, to take rather less than 72 hours to go into fugue. And, indeed, it was folk wisdom that Yeerks under severe stress needed extra sunlight to get through the day; it was logical, then, to suppose that the rate of Kandronal deterioration increased under conditions of emotional strain – such as, for instance, the strain of pretending to be human at a crowded social event while on the verge of fugue.

Well, at least she hasn't been morphing, he thought wryly. (It was widely believed, though confirmation was naturally hard to come by, that host morphing was of its nature particularly deleterious to Kandronal integrity, involving as it did the conversion of the Yeerk body into Zero-matter and back. It was rumored, in fact, that Visser Three kept himself on a special two-day feeding cycle, just to be on the safe side.)

And now Iniss Two-Two-Six had ascended the platform, and was gazing out upon the gathering with as much solemnity as his host's face could possibly hold. It struck Toloth, looking at that face, that this Chapman looked remarkably like that other Chapman, whose appearance on the Taxxon homeworld had ultimately led the Empire to Earth. A relative, perhaps.

"Yes," Iniss intoned. He paused for a beat or two, as though to let the holy beauty of that word sink in, and then continued, "Indeed Christmas is for sharing: sharing gifts, sharing food, sharing stories – and, most importantly, sharing one another. The greatest gift you can give another person is yourself. That's what our organization is about: opening up people's hearts and minds, so that they'll be able and willing to share themselves with others. The more people there are who do that, the sooner we can make this world what we want it to be. Anyone who…"

And thus he continued for some time, never actually saying the words Please give us your bodies to infest, but always keeping his vague and idealistic sentiments easily redolent of that interpretation. It was, Toloth had to admit, a clever technique, and would likely have been quite effective in the hands of a smoother orator; in this case, however – what with the disjointedness of the chapter head's remarks, the stiff unctuousness of his manner, and his unnerving habit of suddenly glancing to the right-hand side of the room every so often – picking up on the would-be knowingness only made sitting through the speech that much more agonizing.

On the fourth or fifth such glance, Toloth found his gaze involuntarily following Iniss's, and alighting on a stocky, dark-skinned male human sitting in the back row of chairs. He was quite nondescript as regarded appearance, nor was there anything obviously remarkable about his expression or bearing – and yet, somehow, he radiated such an aura of self-assured power that the eye, once directed to his vicinity, could hardly help lingering on him.

It struck Toloth immediately that this must be the Council representative – the inspector sent to assess the fête as a measure of Iniss's leadership qualities. He searched the man's face for some hint as to his verdict, but without success; so far as outward betrayals of his thoughts were concerned, the inspector might as well have been a Hawjabran monolith.

Well, it's not my concern, Toloth thought with an interior shrug. With a mild effort, he pulled his gaze away from the inspector's face – only to have it land on Bishop Perlmutter, who was sitting next to Teresa's family at the other end of the room. Though his eyes were politely fixed on the perorating Iniss, he was evidently holding some sort of conversation with Mrs. Sickles; what it was about, Toloth couldn't guess, but he had the impression, from Mrs. Sickles's reactions, that the Bishop had charmed her with some unexpected gift or favor. Perhaps he had accepted an invitation to dinner; it would have been entirely like Catherine Sickles to proffer such a thing.

Toloth caught himself in the act of forming Teresa's face into a scowl. That isn't your concern, either, he told himself firmly. The odds of a Sharing chapter head's promotion, the evening entertainment of a Christian overseer, the whim of a mad Elskir to gamble with her life – none of it can have any effect on you. Your concern is…

And then he had to think for a moment to remember what his concern was. Caught up as he had been in the business of Teresa's life, he had barely thought all morning of his original purpose in infesting her; even while he read the Imitation, the thought of devising an izcot-suitable modification of Christianity had stayed resolutely in the back of his mind.

Nor, having now drawn it to the forefront, did he feel any great inclination to pursue it creatively. He was, quite frankly, tired of beating his head against the Christian wall – tired of bending all his ingenuity and initiative toward the cult of a long-since-executed human whom he had never asked to hear of in the first place. If he was to serve the Empire properly, he needed a respite from schemes and theories – some way of restoring the sane outlook that the stress of recent weeks was beginning to cloud in him – something, in short, to remind him what reality looked like.

Under the circumstances, though, that was easier said than done. Few occasions ever devised by the mortal mind held less opportunity than a Sharing fête for encountering reality – nor, given his peculiar situation, could he seek it by communing with his fellow Controllers, much less with the uninfested humans present. Indeed, there was really only one source of reality available to him at that moment – and that a source that, had things been at all otherwise, he would never have dreamed of tapping for emotional renewal. Still, if it was all he had…

«Teresa,» he said.

Had her body been her own, Teresa would have jumped. «Yes?»

«Tell me,» said Toloth, «about some incident in your life, not connected with your religion, that remains vivid in your memory. Yes,» he went on, seeing Teresa's mind begin to form the objection, «I know that I have complete access to your memories, but that is not the point. I do not want to see the event in your memory; I want you to tell me about it.»

He watched a rapid succession of reactions pass through his host: first bewilderment, then suspicion and trepidation, then a momentary flash of something like cunning, then a rejection of that cunning as unworthy and pointless, and finally simple acquiescence. «Okay,» she said. «How about Great-Uncle Eric's calculator game? Will that do?»

Toloth gave the memory in question the most cursory glance possible, and said, «Fine.»

«Okay,» said Teresa. «Well, it was about four years ago, I think – four and a half, really, since it was in May. Dad's family was having a reunion, and my grandmother's brother had agreed to host it at his big house up near Napa; he owned one of the big wineries up there, you know, and never had a family or any expensive habits, so he just kind of piled up money over the years, and now he pretty much has a miniature castle that he lives in all alone. Why anybody would want to live like that, I don't know, but he's kind of an odd person anyway – nice, but odd.

«So anyway,» she continued, «we went to this reunion at his house, and it was pretty much the way that Sickles family reunions always are. I mean, I love my dad's family, don't get me wrong, but fun isn't really something they're good at. It's not like on my mom's side, where even Babbo's wake ended with Uncle John balancing a wine glass on his head and singing opera while the rest of us threw ice cubes at him.»

Helnith Four-Nineteen-Seven: Barbarian Death Rites of the Italian Human, thought Toloth with amusement. (A helnith was one of the headings into which a hassatiss was divided; Toloth was quite sure that Edriss Five-Six-Two's hassatiss on Earth had not included such frivolous details, but it pleased him to imagine himself amplifying her work in this way.)

«And I'm not exactly Miss Social, either,» Teresa added. «I'm okay at tea parties and things – I mean, I was, back when I…» She caught herself, and made a sort of mental throat-clearing noise. «Well, you know. But this whole business of standing around in a nice dress for five hours and talking to people without really saying anything – I don't get that. I've never gotten it, and I probably never will. So after I'd put in about half an hour of smiling while people told me how grown-up I was looking, Mom said it was okay for me to take a break, and I slipped off with my cousin Jasmine…»

«The one who was arrested yesterday?» said Toloth.

«Right. She'd gotten there earlier than I had – people generally do, when I'm going places with Mom – and she was as tired of being social as I was, so together we snuck off to see if we could find anything interesting in Uncle Eric's library. It took us a little while to find it, and when we did, Uncle Eric himself was there in the big armchair, punching figures into a calculator. I forget whether he told us what he was doing, but probably it wouldn't have made much sense to us, anyway.

«So he got up, made this little bow, and asked to what he owed the pleasure of our company. I blushed and didn't say anything, and Jasmine made some remark about a woman not needing reasons or something, but I'm pretty sure he knew that we were just bored and restless. In fact,» she said with a little laugh, «I think Dad might have warned him about me before we even made the trip; there were a couple big gaps in the shelves, as though some of the books that should have been there had just been taken away, and I suspect those were the books of his that weren't suitable for a young lady to be flipping through.»

Toloth stirred uneasily; that phrase, and the whole set of values it implied, reminded him unpleasantly of his abortive foray into human female physiology the night before. Ridiculous, of course, that these humans set such store by the mere physical facts of age and sex – not that physical facts were unimportant, of course; on the contrary, they were all that really was important in the long run, but that didn't mean there was any need to get grandiose ideas about them – not that ideas were unimportant, either, but… (Here he checked himself: so muddled a thought could never go anywhere useful.)

«So he sat back down, and picked up his calculator again,» said Teresa. «Then something seemed to strike him, and he chuckled and said, "You know, I wonder what the highest number is that you could make on this calculator with the titles on these shelves." We asked what he meant, and he showed us how every letter in the alphabet was represented by one of the buttons on the calculator – so you could use them as variables, you know. Some of them were numbers, some were symbols, and some were menus that you could get out of by pushing other buttons – and so, if you put it on this one setting and pushed the right buttons, you could spell any word or phrase you wanted to. 0 was the space between words,» she added, clarifying a point of which Toloth was, of course, already aware. «And Uncle Eric's point was that, if you didn't put it on that setting, but just turned it on and pushed the buttons, the phrase would turn into a mathematical expression. He demonstrated on our names; mine became "four times the sine of times the sine of the natural logarithm of solve the natural logarithm of squared", and Jasmine's was "comma solve the sine of the cube root of".»

Toloth snorted mentally.

«Yeah, I know,» said Teresa. «Most phrases came out not meaning anything, Uncle Eric said, but every now and then you got one that worked – and he showed us how, if you typed in "Queen Victoria", it ended up being a real expression that came to seventy-nine point something-or-other. And what he was interested in, he said, was finding how high a number you could get that way using just the titles of the works in his library.

«Well, of course we saw what he was doing. It seemed pretty silly to us, but at least it was something to do for a couple hours, so we agreed to give it a try. Uncle Eric gave us the calculator, explained a few things about the higher math functions – how sines and cosines worked, for instance, and why there was no logarithm of 0 – and then left us to our own devices.

«The library was alphabetized by title, so we started by zeroing in on the letters that represented numbers – O-P-Q, T-U-V, and Y. Jasmine argued that you couldn't start an expression with "squared" or the minus sign, and the trigonometric and logarithmic functions always made everything smaller, so the highest-valued title would have to be something that started with a string of digits, like Quo Vadis? And that sounded like a good theory, until we realized a couple other things. First, a lot of the books in Uncle Eric's library were really collections of stories or poems – and Uncle Eric had said "titles of the works", not "of the books", so he'd probably meant us to look at the story and poem titles, too. And then, while I was checking one of the story collections, I accidentally started to check a title that began with D – that was the button for "to the power of -1" – and it turned out that, if you pressed that button first, the calculator treated it as meaning the previous answer to the power of -1. So I checked the minus-sign button, and the squared button, and all the others, and they all worked the same way. And that meant that there were some titles – or there could be, if the rest of the expression worked out – that wasn't tied down to one particular value, but could have any value you wanted if you could find the right title to precede it.»

As Toloth listened idly to Teresa's mental voice, he became aware of a new spoken voice in the background. Evidently Iniss had at some point finally finished his speech, and now a woman – or woman-Controller – with tomato-red hair and an apparently congenital sob in her voice was busily testifying to how wonderfully the Sharing had changed her life. One stage of the fête over, then; only five or six more, and they could leave. Excellent.

«Well, of course that changed our tactics completely,» said Teresa. «We'd been figuring that Quo Vadis? would probably be the winner, because it came to – just a second – 95,706, and we didn't expect anything could beat that. But now just about anything that started with an I or an R might beat it; there was a story called "Robbie", for instance, in Uncle Eric's copy of I, Robot, that worked out to "previous answer times seven", so if you put that after Quo Vadis?, it came to… um… well, whatever 95,706 times 7 is. And then it got even better, because Jasmine realized that a whole bunch of titles just produced a blank screen, and so hitting the Enter button after you punched those in just repeated whatever the last title had done. Acorna, for instance, went straight to the Math menu on the first letter, and then to the Program menu on the second, and from there you…»

«669,942,» said Toloth.


«95,706 times 7 is 669,942.»

«Oh,» said Teresa. «Okay, if you say so. So anyway… where was I?»

«Blank screens.»

«Right. So not only could we use some titles to increase other titles, but we could pick out whatever title increased them the most and just keep repeating it over and over with these blank-screen titles. I mean, keep going with Quo Vadis? and "Robbie": if you followed "previous answer times seven", with Acorna, which is a blank screen, the calculator would just calculate "previous answer times seven" again. Only now the previous answer isn't 95,706, but the number you just said, 669,942 – so it would multiply that by seven, and get…?»

She paused expectantly, and Toloth realized she was waiting for him to provide the answer. Cursing himself for a fool – he should have known, when he quietly disparaged her by coming out with the first product, that she would manage in all innocence to put him on the spot for it – he frantically tried to picture the seven digits in his brain. Fourteen – and twenty-four and one made twenty-five – nine times seven plus four was sixty-seven, and so the next nine and seven would make sixty-nine, and then nine times six was… no, that wasn't right, it was seven times six… but surely there had been another nine in there somewhere…

Calm down, Toloth Two-Nine-Four, he told himself. The girl isn't a Council judge, and it won't poison you if she sees you needing some extra time to think. Do what lieth in thy power, and… well, you should be all right then.

And so, after a few minutes' careful, step-by-step arithmetic, he came out with, «Four million, seven hundred and fifty-nine thousand, five hundred and ninety-four.»

«There you go,» said Teresa. «And the next blank-screen title after that would be that times seven –» Toloth cringed, expecting her to pause again, but she didn't «– and so on and so on, getting bigger and bigger all the time. And that's just times seven; imagine if you could keep squaring it or something.»

«And is that what you did?» said Toloth.

«Well, kind of,» said Teresa. «Basically, we just ransacked the shelves looking for stories and poems that had operation or menu letters in the front.» She giggled. «Poor Uncle Eric; the place looked like a bomb had hit it by the time we were done, and he promised our parents that he would clean it up himself so we didn't have to stay there till midnight. But we did find plenty of titles that worked – only it turned out to be more complicated than we'd expected, because a lot of the titles turned numbers negative or flipped them over into their reciprocals. I figured we didn't want to use those, since they were making the numbers smaller rather than bigger, but Jasmine pointed out that a negative negative made a positive, and the reciprocal of a reciprocal was the same number over again, so, as long as we made sure that they always canceled out that way, we'd be fine – and, even if they didn't, we could always start with a negative number, or a number between 0 and 1, and make it work that way. And of course that meant that we could actually make things smaller in order to make them bigger – like, there was a poem called "My Voice" that worked out to "previous answer divided by 1,067 squared", which on its own would just make the number tiny, but if you used it on a fraction and then used one of the D titles, the next number you got would be huge.» She paused. «Sorry, Toloth, but are you sure you care about all this?»

«Is there some reason I shouldn't?» said Toloth, who could think of some half-dozen but wasn't about to say so.

Teresa shrugged mentally. «Okay, just asking,» she said. «So then we had to stop for dinner, which I don't think either of us tasted, and then we went back to try and work out the order in which we wanted to give the titles. Of course, we didn't have enough time left to find the title that would be best to start with, since that could have been hiding anywhere, but we could work out the various strategies that would produce the highest number depending on whether the first title was higher than 1, between 1 and 0, between 0 and -1, or less than -1. So we started sorting through the titles, trying to end up with the highest possible number so that we could raise it to the power of seven with "Honeysuckle Cottage" – that's a P. G. Wodehouse story, by the way – and then just keep raising it until we ran out of blank-screen titles. Of course, the calculator wouldn't be able to go that high, since it returned an "ERROR: OVERFLOW" message if you tried to calculate anything bigger than a googol, but Uncle Eric had said that didn't matter; just because a machine couldn't do something, he said, was no reason for a person not to try.

«But then, while we were going through the titles, I noticed one book we'd put aside before, thinking it couldn't possibly help. It was somebody or other's retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story, and it was just called Beauty – which, on the calculator, came to "previous answer-th root of 41". And it occurred to me that, if taking something to a negative power made it smaller, maybe taking it to a negative root would make it bigger. So I tried it, but I just got the same small number I would have gotten with a positive root – which didn't make a lot of sense to me, but I figured the calculator ought to know. So I tried it again, this time with a fraction for the root; I took Quo Vadis?'s number, flipped it to its reciprocal, and then punched the keys for Beauty – and it flashed that same "ERROR: OVERFLOW" message at me that meant I had a number with 101 digits or more.»

«Well, naturally,» said Toloth. «A root is merely the reciprocal of an exponent; that's why the square root of a number is the same as that number to the power of one-half. So taking 41 to the root of 1 over 95,706 is the same as taking it to the 95,706th power – which obviously yields more than 10 to the 100th power.»

«Is that how it works?» Teresa seemed surprised. «Miss Robbinette never explained it that way – but, yeah, it makes sense. And that's why the negative root was the same as the positive root, then? The root of negative two would be the power of negative one-half, I guess, which would be – um – the reciprocal of the square root, right? So not actually the same, but still not bigger than the original number.»

«No,» said Toloth. «Not with 41 as the radicand. If it had been a number between 0 and 1, that would have been another matter, of course.»

«Yeah, I guess so, said Teresa. «Anyway, I pointed this out to Jasmine, and she was a little stunned for a moment, but then she got over it, and together we tried to figure out how to work it in. It was obvious that, if you used a blank-screen title next, you'd get an incredibly tiny fraction, but Jasmine pointed out that, by the same rule, if you used a second blank-screen title after that, you should get an even bigger number than before. So what we figured was that we would get the initial number as close to zero, positive, as we could, then use Beauty, and then use an even number of blank-screen titles after it; since we'd found 59 blank-screen titles total, one of them would have to come before Beauty, probably right after "Honeysuckle Cottage".

«But then, when we started looking at the five D titles we had, trying to figure out what order to put them in at the beginning, something suddenly occurred to me, and I got so excited that I nearly knocked the calculator off the table. Suppose, I told Jasmine, that we started with a fraction and only used four of the five D's to get to Beauty; then we could use all 59 of the blank-screen titles after it, and at the end use the fifth D title to turn the tiny fraction we got into its huge reciprocal. That would have to be the biggest number of all, I said – so the highest-numbered title wouldn't be any of the blank-screen titles, but one of the D's. It was just a little thing, I thought, but it just turned the whole atmosphere upside down; at first Jasmine refused to believe me, and then, when I explained her how it would have to work, she suddenly turned nasty and said I was a stupid little kid who hadn't even started algebra yet, and what made me think I could possibly understand anything of what I was talking about?»

Teresa had to pause for a moment then; even after four and a half years, recounting this part of the incident seemed to demand a certain amount of courage from her. «Well, you can imagine how crushed I was,» she said, evidently forgetting that Toloth, who could look, didn't have to imagine. «And so of course I got defensive and called her a stuck-up little know-it-all who thought she was so much better than everyone else just because she had "teen" in her age now – and it just went on like that for a couple minutes, both of us getting more and more hateful about the handful of months between us, until finally Jasmine shouted that she hoped I got hit by a car before my next birthday and stormed out of the library. And I just stood there for a few minutes, taking deep breaths and telling myself that she wasn't worth crying over, until eventually I got myself pulled together enough to go and pick up some of the books we'd taken out; I didn't care anymore about finding the highest number, but I wasn't going to leave the room until Jasmine was out of the house, and in the meantime I thought I might as well make it a little easier for Uncle Eric to clean up.

«Then, as I was picking up a big omnibus from off the table, I saw the list of blank-screen titles that Jasmine had been keeping. She hadn't showed it to me before – I hadn't been quite sure why, but, even when I found a title, she'd insisted on writing it down herself instead of sharing the paper with me – but of course she hadn't taken it with her when she left, and so there it was. And right in the middle of it, circled three times and with a couple stars on each side, was the phrase "Cousin Teresa".»

A little choked, sheepish giggle came from Teresa's higher thought centers. «And then I really did start crying,» she said, «because now, of course, it all made sense. Somewhere in one of the books, Jasmine had found a story or a poem with that title – which of course worked out to a blank screen – and had resolved to give me a little present by making it, and not any of the other blank-screen titles, be the title with the highest value. It was just the sort of odd, sweet thing she would do – and then when I worked out that the highest value possible couldn't come from a blank-screen title at all, of course she would feel like I was deliberately spoiling what she wanted to do for me, and would lash out at me and try to change my mind by force, because that was her, too.

«So I ran out of the library, hoping she hadn't left yet, and found Jasmine just putting her outdoor shoes on. And I apologized for calling her names, and said I did love her and was glad she was my cousin – I think I may have even said "my cousin Jasmine", to give her a hint, but I can't remember – and would she please forgive me. And Jasmine got that soft little look in her eye that she usually had when she looked at me, and she stood up and we hugged and…» She trailed off, and finished shyly, «Well, that's my story.»
Considered as a story, it seemed to Toloth to lack a certain something; an afternoon spent punching arbitrary expressions into a calculator, followed by a spat and reconciliation between two immature human females, was hardly his idea of a pregnant and fruitful literary theme. Still, it had eaten up a goodly amount of time – the rogue tomato's testimony appeared to be almost complete now – and it had, moreover, educed a fact about his temporary host's present state of mind that he had not hitherto attended to.

«You're concerned about her, aren't you?» he said.



He felt a whirlpool of emotions surge about him as Teresa sought for a reply. «I know she has her problems,» she said at length. «I know she's spoiled rotten, and as self-absorbed as the day is long; I know she doesn't have a clue what generosity and self-abnegation are, or why God doesn't just snap His fingers and make everything the way she wants it to be. I know all that – but she has a good heart, Toloth,» she said earnestly. «And I'm not just saying that because she's family; I'm saying it because I know it's there. She's no worse than I could be – heck, than I am, a lot of the time – and, if she ever took the chance, she could be such a blessing in this broken world. And I know she has to be punished for what she did, but so many people get all the love squeezed out of them when the law comes down on them too hard, and I just don't want that to happen to her. She's meant for something better than…»

She stopped abruptly, and let out a sudden, harsh laugh. «But why am I telling you all this?» she said. «Why should you care whether Jasmine's life goes sour, when in a few years you're hoping she won't have a life of her own anyway? Never mind, forget I said anything.»

«Teresa…» Toloth began, sternly.

«What?» Teresa challenged him.

And, when Toloth reflected, he found that he had nothing to say. Teresa was quite right about the Empire's plans for Jasmine; there was no reason for him to care about her future, or to object to the observation that he didn't. Yet it rankled, somehow, to hear it said so bluntly – to be dismissed as unable to care about something as he ought, simply because of what he was.

As he brooded on this, he felt a nudge in his borrowed side; he glanced up, and saw that Penjoth was leaning over him. "Three minutes till testimony wrap-up, Malcar Seven-Four-Five," the senior Controller breathed. "Better start getting in position for the Experience."

Toloth nodded. "Yes, of course," he whispered back. "Though I don't know that my partner's going to be as much help as we'd planned." He nodded to Elskir, who was now squeezing her host's fingers together and whispering the Tranquility Ejaculations from Lasmit One-Three-Seven's Book of Balances.

Penjoth glanced at her, and his expression darkened. "I see," he muttered. "Probably I'd better come and help you out, then; I'm sure Iniss can manage his part without me."

"Thank you, sir," said Toloth. "I'm sure we'd both appreciate that."
Note: The author would like to present his guarantee that the results of Eric Ellis's calculator game, as described by his great-niece in this chapter, are in no way spurious, but can be replicated using the books on his own shelves (excluding such volumes as are unsuitable for young ladies and such works as did not exist in 1995) and a standard, unretouched TI-82 calculator. He would also like to apologize for his outrageously long neglect in posting this new chapter, and to express his hope that its quite extraordinary length somewhat makes up for the wait.