31 - The Job

“Well, this is pettier than I thought.”

“This is true. I was expecting to become some sort of reluctant assassination or some other cliche.”

“I mean, it’s still a heist. I’d put that right smack in cliche territory.”

Archie and Au were sat on a high gable, on one of the more structurally impressive churches, overlooking the thematically sectional boulevard that had become the site of their current undoing. After the Adjournicator’s task was made clear, and Archie having been force-fed some Giant Coffee, they had set out to complete the final task of the so far ill-fated Sodden leg of their long journey.

He had been unable to believe the size of the beans they’d been shaving off to make his drink. He couldn’t even imagine how they would be harvested. The Adjournicator had made sure Archie was sober before releasing them from a private exit of the Grippodrome, located in the storage room of a helpful Giant Coffee stand on the concourse.

They had made their way, first crossing the street to avoid any more temptations, through the gilded doors, and up to the tiled green roof of the Church of the Ascendant Silence to scout. All the door handles had been golden effigies of ears, which was unnerving. The place wasn’t completely devoid of design sensibility; the slight flaring of each roof tile, though invisibile from the ground, was a nice touch stylistically. Excellent for grip too, perhaps a skyward assault on blasphemous neighbours had been in the works for a while.

Sodden political intrigue had seemed ridiculous to Au before, and now was firmly cemented in her mind as Downright Absurd.

To make up for their transgressions, and the loss of the bets by the Adjournicator’s political debtors at the Church of the Transcendent Silence, they were implored to help the church out with another goal.

The pious establishments of Sodden competed constantly for the flow of new believers, and for the allegiance of current followers. Pilgrims were a choosy bunch, and the churches were always trying new things to get them in. Many congregations had rivalries with other religious institutions that had transgressed the holy sanctity of their belief systems, creating a rift impossible to repair. Many hymes, chants, etc. were more like school fight songs than anything amazingly graceful.

It was no different with the Church of Transcendent Silence. They wished to completely discredit their upstart neighbours, the Quieriers of the Everlasting Quiet, whose teachings were unacceptably tangential to their own and who’s building was objectively, vastly, inferior.

Until now, a lack of a verbal offensive capability had made it difficult for either sect to discredit the other. Both establishments had resorted to a silent war of scathing imagery and metaphor. Seeking a definitive end to the squabble, and the complete discreditation of their rivals, the church called in a favour to the Adjournicator. She owed them for a no vote on alcohol regulations, the legislation in question arguing for a pause in alcohol sales between five and six am, to let the city catch its collective breath. Of course, for the Casin group, the invisible collective that was representative of the major casinos, this was one of their busiest hours. For the Casin group that the Adjournicator led, the same Adjournicator of whom Archie and Au were reluctant employees, this needed to die on the floor of congress, preferably violently and spewing blood. No alcohol between five and six am; it was one of their busiest hours! And as such, the Adjournicator was indebted to the collection of seats led by the Church of Transcendent Silence, and embroiled in this feud. And it was in this strange feud, that Archie and Au now found themselves in. Au shook her head again, absurd. At least in Old Jardinian politics, you always knew who had the power. You just needed to look on the Grand Kilo. It was spelled out in an evolving parade of statues.

Austera and Archie's task had been a very specific request. Deserters and double agents from the Queriers of E.Q. had, with complicated hand signals, “spoke” of a time in the service where everyone faced the floor in silent contemplation for exactly two minutes. This was confirmed by spotters on the top of the neighboring church, and had come to the Adjournicator in the form of a proposal that the church couldn’t undertake itself, for fear of swift and bitter retribution should it be caught out. Possibly in the form of repeated assault by singing telegram.

It was during said time of silent contemplation that they had to lower a statue from the roof to replace the Golden Ear of Chastity, that apparently spent its time upon the Queriers’ altar.

Archie had unwrapped the replacement statue. It was a golden effigy of someone mooning, done up to look like the cleric dress of the insultees. Apparently the big idea was to make the point, that the teachings of the Queriers of E. Q. only served to make one make an ass of oneself, or something like that. How profound, thought Au.

Au had to lower Archie from the sky-tickling roof of the Church of Transcendent Silence, through the open roof of the Queriers of E. Q. meeting house far below. The roof of the meeting house was built in an impossible shape, so that all sounds created inside by the sounds of scraping feet and the quiet sobs of those with an impending faith crisis were drawn upwards and outwards. Of course, no sound from the outside came in. It was a marvel, one that libraries everywhere had sent delegates to study, who had always returned baffled.

Archie would have to dangle through an escaping wall of sound, with the statue, replace it on the altar, and tug for Au to haul him up. All of this within a two minute window. What a silly caper Archie thought, helplessly swaying in the breeze, mildly obscene statue in hand.

Sacrilegiously, they were using a winch. Or, more accurately, the sacrilege came from using the crook of the arm of a roof dwelling stone prophet as a pulley. They had used it to lengthen the distance between Archie and the Church. The arm of the prophet was raised to lips in a stone-faced call for silence. The Adjournicator had provided them with a handheld, but apparently very strong motorized winch. It was as much as a tool, as a suggestion of how they might complete the task. All Au had to do was find some surface to use as a pulley to take Archie's weight. The arm of one of the many statues on the roof seemed to to the trick, after a couple throws through the gap above the elbow. Au was keeping an eye on it as Archie descended, making sure it wasn’t looking like to slip off, or wear down the line. She could now see, perhaps too late, that the shh-ing arm from which Archie was now hanging had been re-attached at one time. Worryingly, the seam was becoming a little more pronounced under his weight. She supposed it had been removed and bent to that position at one point. Perhaps this divine example of steepled architecture had been appropriated from a more ancient, louder sect.

Archie dropped down, spinning, aiming for the hole in the lower roof at speed. It was a speed that was not entirely comfortable for someone who’d spent the majority of his life on ground level. He passed through a muddled cloud of sound, itself rapidly exciting the building. A marvel of modern architecture, it was absolutely the worst possible shape for acoustics. All sound felt completely uninvited.

Meanwhile, Austera kept an eye on the straining arm of the statue, feeling a conscious worry that masonry expertise in greater Jard had reached its apex a long time earlier, and all other attempts at repair had been imitation.

Archie dipped through the skylight hole. The walls twisted up to meet him, the strange architecture giving the outside of the squat building the appearance of an onion. His chemically encouraged display read that he had one minute left. Slowly, he dangled and swayed to the altar, which they had spotted from above. As he was replacing the statue, he locked eyes with a child. A staring child who was apparently not observing the meditative silence, but chosing instead to observe Archie's twisting descent.

He prayed that the child wouldn’t speak up, out of fear of this particular sect’s version of hell. Hell in this case was probably a thrash metal concert, or a lawn mower convention or something else equally audibly antagonizing.

It began to speak. Archie froze. The child’s mother, without opening her eyes, clamped a hand down over the child’s mouth in a well-practiced manoeuvre.

Archie made a rude gesture at the child, flared his nostrils and tugged the line, holding the stolen statue with his other arm. The child seethed, but was easily restrained by its practiced mother, she herself hoping to avoid the audible version of fire and brimstone. The statue arm strained, as Austera worked the winch against it to pull him up. She was lighter, without his potato chip and beer induced gut. She was certain now that she should have gone instead. She watched with growing dread as a crack spread slowly across the arm seam of the stone shh-er. She looked over the side, to see how far Archie was away from the top. About halfway now, she looked back to the winch, stuck on pull. At that moment, with a flowering crack, the stone arm was bisected by the winch line. The arm flew upward in a spin, while the line and winch dropped, racing down the roof past Au, and launching off the curved lip. Archie had heard the crack, and expecting the worst, grabbing on to the ornamental top of a large stained glass window on the side of the larger church from which he had been suspended with his free hand. The line attached to him yanked hard when the winch, still winding upward, swung underneath and smashed through a pane of the window below him. He dangled there, one hand straining, the winch slowly winding its way back up to him. Au looked down with concern. Thankfully, the commotion Archie had made was far above the notice of the people far below.

For the continual setting of the scene and some heightened suspense: The church he was currently using as an impromptu climbing wall was three hundred metres high, a mainstay on the Sodden Skyline. The window he was hanging on was located at exactly two hundred and sixty meters up. It was at god’s eye level, for god in the case of the church of transcendent silence was exactly two hundred and eighty-three meters tall. They had been lucky to find a building to fit it. If it had been home at the moment, Archie would have poked it in the ethereal eye with his swinging feet. Fortunately for it’s ocular health, it was at a convention for deities, nervously attempting to network.

As Au looked for a way to rescue Archie from his precarious perch, to avoid the eventual attention when no culprits were found at ground level for the theft in the rival meeting house. Archie watched the scene unfold. Hundreds of meters below, the insulted congregation was in the early stages of noticing the theft, and embarrassing replacement, and then proceeding to filter onto the street, making accusatory gestures at whoever was passing by. Au had found a spare bell pull in the belfry. As of course the Church of Transcendent Silence didn’t make use of this standard church feature at all, it was good as new. With a more careful selection of pulley, Austera recovered Archie from his position. He had to find a foot purchase, before releasing the ornate window decoration. He noticed, with some amusement, he’d been holding on the naughty bits of a very fierce looking, and incredibly anatomically accurate bear, the metal woodland effigy sitting above the crown of the window.

He would have also been amused if he could see the bit of the window the winch had splintered, the fine blue particles filtering inward to the Church of Transcendent Silence, bathed in rays of light. It had removed one of the fingers from a saintly priest or bishop figure, creating a replica of the gesture he’d shown the child who’d given it’s best effort to snitch.

He reached the roof, an apologetic Au helping him over. He collapsed for a moment, exhausted. What an arm workout. “You know,” he ventured reproachfully, “if you’d never ordered those drinks...

Austera cut him off, “We’d still be trying to find our way out of Sodden. I’m sorry about the Big Drop, but all’s well that ends well in my book. Besides, we’re even now, I haven’t forgotten that ride down to the underground mag-line”

“We’re not out of it yet,” said Archie, displaying uncharacteristic wisdom. Though, a near death experience can have an enlightening effect on one, and he’d had his share over the past couple days. “Let's have a peaceful rest of the journey, eh? Whatever information we come upon will be moot should we make an untimely exit from the material realm.”

“Of course Archie,” she said, placating him with a handful of emergency chips. She’d brought some up from his pack for situations such as this.

At a loss for what to do with the hot statue, Archie left it in a birds nest near the apex of the roof. Little did he know, or care to find out, it was the nest of a scavenging buzzard known for spending months in the great expanse. It would have relieved him of minor appendages if it had been nearby, but this particular buzzard hadn’t been seen in the vicinity for some time. This had been so noted by the Noble Birdwatching Circle of Sodden.

After the heat had dissipated somewhat, the pair, now cool as cucumbers, descended from the roof of the Church of Transcendent Silence through the unused bell tower. Exiting from the cleaner’s entrance, each with a handful of linens and musty robes, nobody looked at them the wiser.

“So - what now?” Archie pondered, deferring to Austera for guidance as usual when on ground level, faith only minorly shaken from the incident up top. Au was one of the only people who seemed to resist Archie's natural and accidental leadership ability. They both sat in an open garden between two parishes, simple yet elegant, flowing water heard above the distant sound of revelry. Archie still had his hands full of linens. Au was about to reply, when the Anjournicator appeared, hooded and mysterious as usual.

“Well”, he said, smiling wryly. “Congratulations. Your sentence has gone from almost certain death, with some sort of villainous exposition included, to a simple forcible exit from Sodden. How lucky for you.”

On cue, several SAP guards came into the garden, and motioned, none too politely, for them to follow. “We’ll have to frog march you, for appearances of course.”

Au and Archie were marched through the streets, pilgrims and worshipers assessed with judging eyes, working hard to imagine what sort of grievous sins they might have committed. The many revellers in various states of intoxica, for their part, were trying to look innocent and avoid the eyes of the guards. They needn’t have worried, as long as they were spending money and not ruining anyone else’s fun. (Or enlightened misery)

Ah, thought Au, finally. The departures platform. They were dumped unceremoniously beyond the gates, and left to their own devices. Another guard tossed their gear, landing on Archie's face as he was pushing himself off the ground. Au had left it in the Grippodrome suite.

“So then,” said Au, as Archie disentangled himself from the gear, “Next stop, the Great Expanse.”

There was no shuttle that would take them all the way to what they had assumed was the Observer’s node, the one with the foreboding alarm. That much they could tell from the screens on the departure platform. As a last ditch effort to retain visitors to the city, the Sodden planners had done their best to make the departure station completely intelligible.

Asking around, Au was able to deduce that there was a node staging station, from which there was a supply and mail operation in place to serve all the M&G Congl. monitoring nodes.

What an incredible operation, the continual and extensive observation of the Great Expanse, Au thought. For what? As far as she knew, the expanse was a great boatload of nuffink. Perhaps they were soon to find out, as presumably the warning beacon yet beckoned.

She was able to find a carrier returning from the staging station. Au was able to bribe them for passage on a cargo shuttle headed down the last accessible mag-line towards the supply station.

There, the carrier had told them, they could probably find lev-bikes that they could take to any node they wanted - though it was in a bit of an uproar at the moment, as one of the carriers had gone missing, and search parties were getting organized. He’d told them his name was Gav. “They’d probably let you have one, if you agreed to join the hunt.” Gav had been on the way to request some aid, though he didn’t have high hopes; he had been unable to reach management in the M&G Cong. as of yet. In fact, their employers had been uncharacteristically quiet for about two years he’d noted worredly, the same orders coming through on repeat. Maybe something was going on at home base too. Au didn’t want to start a panic just yet by telling him of the empty M&G Cong. building they had investigated. Nonetheless, she felt guilty as the fellow continued on his hopeless errand.

There was no room up with the pilots for the journey, so Archie and Au sat on the back, bumping around amidst the crates of Acropolis brand chips and other curated luxuries, packed apparently with the aim to keep the observers from terminal boredom.

This shuttle was not exactly built for civilian comfort, and when it arrived at the node supply station, both were nursing bruised knees, bottoms, and elbows. Just what she needed for the uncomfortable lev-bike ride through the scrublands, Au mentally bemoaned.

The node supply station was a modern emplacement, certainly lacking the grandeur and charm of the M&G cong. headquarters. Though it did squat under the roof of what looked like a much older explorer’s lodge, most of it was the speckled, dark grey carboplast synonymous with modern development. The rest of the building was clear, presumably providing a view to those inside, of not much, really. The same astride, grinning goat was present but faded on the side of the several storey structure. The complex poking out of the unremarkable scrublands lended the effect of an ambitious rock, asymmetrical, and bulgy in places, and ignorant of its own futility.

The complex was buzzing with activity. All the crates were unloaded efficiently onto the mag-line platform, and Archie and Au were brushed off to the side, a couple workers muttering something about tourists. After getting several non-committal glances from the unloaders, Archie walked across the yard. He had spotted a group of workers in bright orange, readying lev-bikes for a journey.

“Hey is this where we sign up? You’ve got two recruits for the search” He thumbed back at Au.”

The embattled woman in high visibility wear took stock of Archie, lowering her dust goggles to do so. “You two want to join the search party?” She asked dubiously, taking stock of Archie's designer jumpsuit. “Well, Ok, you might want to throw on one of these expanse suits, it gets pretty hairy out there.” She directed them into the complex to get kitted up.

Inside the complex was simple and open, seeming a staging room for supplies and carriers. Au was now dressed as one, the standard orange jumpsuit thrown over her athletic wear.

The open room had areas with stacks of packaged goods, and some couches for the carriers to apparently relax in front of the huge windows, though most of them were outside readying to join the search party.

There was a large map up on one of the screens, with the projected path of the Carrier marked. It traversed the front of all the nodes, skirting the great expanse. It seemed a much shorter route, than to visit each note individually, up and down their respective mag-lines. Au compared the map to her memory of the table map. The warning had come from what looked like on this map, node number 938, partway through the carrier’s route. It also was their best guess to the Observer, Tyton, the former student’s location based on the student model boxhome. Archie's rough estimation of the location on his chemAR was at a loss for the path, now that it had travelled outside the bounds of the open source location library. It just put a straight line to his marker, serving now, in effect, as a compass.

“We’ll try to finagle our way into searching this quadrant I suppose. Have you ever ridden a lev-bike, Archie? “

“No, but how hard can it be? Grip it, and then rip it, right?” He’d briefly become an enthusiastic lev-bike race fan, after professional Hackit had become prohibitive to him, and before his recent and current infatuation with Obliterball.

Grip it, and rip it indeed, Au thought, confidence in the success of their annoyingly vague mission taking another slight hit.

They went back out to the yard, to find a pair of lev-bikes prepared for them. As the outsiders, they had been given the most rickety of the bunch, and Au tried not to look too closely at the puddle forming beneath hers.

Archie straddled his with confidence, and tested the throttle, as he had seen a hundred times in the races.

It was still in reverse, and unprepared, he went up over the handlebars as it zipped beneath him. It stopped immediately after, breaking nothing but Archie's pride.

The expedition leader sighed as Archie scrambled up, shook it off and mounted the bike as if nothing had happened.

Making sure to switch it from reverse, Archie took a couple experimental laps of the yard, before realizing he didn’t know where the brakes were. His panicked yell was muted out by the sounds of him crumpling the front of the bike into the building. Mechanical pops echoed into the scrublands.

The expedition leader had seen enough. “You,” she pointed to Au, “Are driving. The small guy rides on the back..”

Austera, a great visual learner, had already learned the two most important lessons of lev-bike piloting. Make sure you’re not in reverse, and don’t crash into stuff.

“You know your quadrant?” The leader was eager to get going.

“Could we switch to the area around node 938? I know it well” Fibbed Au.

The orange suited carrier assigned to search around 938 shrugged. The leader doubted that she did, but was eager to get underway, so quickly agreed.

And this is how Archie and Au ended up bumping through the scrublands on the same lev-bike, loaded with both their packs, and all their hopes for an uneventful rest of the journey. Au could feel Archie slamming into her whenever she slowed, and his beer tummy on the back made the bike handle like a construction flier. It was riding dangerously low too; Au eyeed each rock underneath with heightened suspicion.

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