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I will speak to you in the language of solutions.
Name: Paraban Senk.
Birthplace: the city of Dalar ken Halvar on the continent of Parengarenga on the planet designated by the Nexus as Olo Malan.
Actual ge: six months.
Apparent age: twenty-four.
Subjective age: over 20,000 years.
Status: a servant of Tralshonkan, otherwise known as the Survival Council of Odrum.
Description: a man of medium build, eyes dark, hair black, complexion olive.
Residence: Ultima Conorg, the Inner Sanctuary of Skolival Charma (the Monastic Repository of Closed Books and Forbidden Techologies), Odrum.
"I can help you escape," said King.
"I don't want to escape, thank you very much," said Paraban. "I want to do my duty. Make the jumpback. Kill my man."
"Be eaten by the dragon, you mean," said King.
"There is no dragon," said Paraban. "It's dead."
"You really believe that?" said King.
"Yes," said Paraban.
And what happened after that? The memory was flavorless, and very old. The meeting with King was the last thing that Paraban could remember, yet it seemed to have happened a thousand years ago. He stood in the center of the map room, flexing his fingers, trying to remember how he had gotten to where he was. There was a map on the table. He supposed he might have been studying it.
"All ready for your dragon quest?" said the fat man jovially, as he came bustling into the room.
The fat man was King. Wasn't he? For a moment, Paraban was positive that the answer was "yes." Then he experienced another of those odd lapses during which meanings became detached from the things they designated.
This was his secret: that at times his mind stopped functioning properly. He had resolved to tell nobody. There was always the danger, after all, that they might decide he was defective. Might eliminate him, quietly. They had time to grow yet another clone and download yet another Paraban Senk from the AI original.
"I'm not the first," said Paraban, voicing his darkest suspicion. "I'm not the first, am I? What happened to the others?"
The electric power chose that moment to die on them, leaving the room in darkness but for the single window, a rectangle of blue sky, blue sea and intolerably bright sunlight. That was the problem with Odrum. Despite all the technological help the island had received from Dalar ken Halvar, it still lacked many of the rudiments of civilization. Including a reliable supply of electricity.
"If the power fails just at the start of jumpback," said the fat man, with undiminished cheerfulness, "you're dead. You do realize that, don't you?"
"There are many outcomes which leave me dead," said Paraban calmly, folding up the map he might (perhaps) have been studying. "One bad earthquake and the roof could fall in on us. Here. Now."
The lights flickered, came on, shuddered, died.
"So you don't object to dying," said the fat man. "What about killing?"
"He has to be stopped somehow," said Paraban. "That's my duty. I don't have any problems with that."
Actually, Paraban had a lot of problems with the idea of going forth to murder a man whom he had never met, who had done him no harm, and who, despite his evident fascination for weapons of mass destruction, had so far not placed the world in obvious peril.
"Let there be light!" said the fat man.
And the lights, on cue, came on. Paraban frowned. Who was the fat man? Was his inability to remember really proof of a conceptual defect? Maybe he was just overloaded. He had been introduced to so many people since arriving at Ultima Conorg. It was hard to keep all the names straight.
"You would be the dragon expert," said Paraban, probing.
He was reasonably sure of that much, though he could not remember what name the dragon expert was supposed to possess.
"That's right," said the fat man. "My job is to tell the dragon's story. You don't remember me, do you?"
"King," said Paraban, the memory coming back to him. "You're King, after all. You're King, just as I thought. The guy from Harp Gate Temple."
"Not quite," said King. "The name's right, yes, I'm King, you've got that much, but don't go confusing me with Yawp King Delson. He's the one from Harp Gate Temple. He's the weapons man."
They were messing with his mind. Paraban was sure of it by now. Because here he was, again, back with the Yawp King Delson, the health nut, the liquid seaweed enthusiast from Harp Gate Temple. Continuity had been breached. Paraban had been flipped from one context to the next, without warning. Here. In the Lower Armory. With the weapons expert.
Weapons expert? Weapons nut, more like it. Paraban already had enough weapons to fight a small war. He was supposed to be an assassin, not a one-man army.
"You'll like this," said the weapons expert, putting something lethal on the table in front of them. "A glade gun."
If they were debriefing Paraban with the aid of mind-bending drugs, which was what he feared, then why was the weapons expert so ignorant of what he really thought?
"Awake?" said King, the dragon man.
Paraban felt panicky. The scenes were flipping faster. And, each time the scene shifted, he felt more strung out, as if long hours of sleepless interrogation were interleaved between his brief moments of consciousness.
What had he told them? What had he said?
"I'm loyal and I intend to do my duty," said Paraban, trying to stave off failure, execution, the shot in the back of the neck.
"You're worried, aren't you?" said King, ignoring the remark.
"Naturally," said Paraban. "Speaking of worry, what happened about the phoenix pills?"
Where did that question come from? He had no idea. It just escaped, like a fragment of a script from a former life.
"Thought you'd forgotten about that," said King. "Well. The, uh ... the phoenix pills. They decided you're not going to get them. Didn't anyone tell you that? Well, of course not. You're the one who's actually going to fight the dragon. Nobody's going to tell you zip."
Then darkness, but Paraban was ready for it this time. When he found himself standing in the map room again, waiting for the power cut - would they repeat the power outage? - he remembered most of what had happened since his incarnation.
"So," said Paraban, as King entered the room. "Why don't I get my phoenix pills?"
"Ah," said King, picking up on Paraban's oriented state. "So they've eased right back on the inhibitors. Well! You want your phoenix pills, do you? You want to go drugged? So would I, so would I. You wouldn't con me into this kind of lark. Not when I was sober. Send me down the multimedia hallucination route, oh yes!"
"Phoenix doesn't cause hallucinations," said Paraban.
"No," said King. "But it does cause paranoia. They'd rather have you sane. Not that a sane man would do this."
"Do you get a bonus if I fail?" asked Paraban.
"A bonus if you fail?" said King. "There you are! This is the Paraban we worry about. The paranoia kicks into action all too easily. Your latent tendencies, you see. That's why they don't want you to have the drug. And will you fail? Well ... let me look into my crystal ball ... ah ... in my crystal ball I see you reduced to a little heap of smouldering dragon ash."
"Grammatically," said Paraban, "I think it's the dragon which gets reduced to dragon ash. Anyway. You haven't answered the question. Are you deliberately trying to make me fail?"
King smiled, and, as if deciding that their conversation had somehow reached a happy conclusion, abruptly turned and left the chamber without speaking another word. Paraban wondered whether he should denounce him.
Denounce him. Maybe he was supposed to. Maybe King was provoking him with this disloyal talk to see if Paraban would go to the authorities.
"Go to the authorities," muttered Paraban. "Denounce him."
That was Golden Gulag ideation. King was right - to a degree, paranoia was a part of Paraban's makeup.
"I will go to Estar," said Paraban, speaking for the benefit of any hidden microphones, "and I will intercept Morgan Gestrel Hearst, and I will kill him."
But not the dragon, no. Killing dragons was not part of his brief. The dragon Zenphos was supposed to be already dead when he got there.
In the dragon's air there is no information
He regained consciousness to find himself standing in a whirling darkness flecked with purple. His head was meshed with electrodes, uncomfortably. A new language was garbling through his head, all its gigabytes speaking at once. The Galish Trading Tongue. The lingua franca of the Salt Road.
Paraban ripped away the wires. A needle tore loose from his arm with a sharp pang of silver-bright pain. The ground shuddered. An earthquake? Perhaps.
At the door, a guard. Startled to see Paraban emerging from the chamber. Reacting too slowly. Paraban's hand slammed upwards. The guard went reeling, jaw broken by the fierce blow which Paraban had delivered with the heel of his hand.
"Now," said Paraban. "Where am I?"
The answer came at once. He knew where he was. And how to get where he wanted to go. He needed to get where he had almost succeeded in getting before. He needed to find Antasy. To find out what they had done to him. He needed to find the truth about jumpback.
"Hey!" yelled someone.
Turning, Paraban saw another guard. This one armed with a gun. A gun which was pointed right at him.
This story, "The Dragon Zenphos", made its first appearance when posted online by Hugh Cook on 2003 September 15 Monday. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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