Escape Pod 446: The Way of the Needle
The Way of the Needle
by Derek Künsken
The ancient pulsar’s lighthouse beam of microwaves and radio waves spun twice per second. Within the bloom of its magnetic field orbited the single planet that had survived the long-ago supernova, at the cost of its crust and mantle. An atmosphere of carbon dioxide had congealed around the little metallic world, producing oceans of iron and nickel carbonyl, dotted with thickets of steel needles that fanned to catch the microwaves. On the largest islands, the growth of the needles had been coaxed into towers, pedestals, and martial walls. Prickly metal creatures held together by strong magnetic fields scuttled in these towns and forts, on eight articulated legs of steel spines. Their fine quills caught the flashing microwaves, generating the electricity for their quick, agile movements.
One of them, whose fame would not be made for many years yet, was uncomfortable in a disguise. Mok was a Follower of the Needle, an order of martial priests. Whereas other Followers and fighters-at-arms bore large metal claws high on their forelegs, Mok now scurried with only small, shameful servant claws. No one recognized him and no one complimented him. Nor would he earn any compliments from this mission; he’d been sent by Master Hac not as a warrior to fight under the full shine of the pulsar, but as an assassin.
Mok tried to fan his steel quills wider, but the road was too crowded. Fussing builders swung long rods culled from faraway orchards, patching the palisaded walls that lined the streets. Shabby, short-needled monks stood where the upturned points of the streets were overlaid with rusted garbage and sniped at each other with pinching claws and philosophical recriminations. Mok paused at a stall where a thinly needled elder showed off processed snow paste.
Mok hadn’t stopped for the snow paste. He wasn’t hungry. He’d stopped for the view of the Ban estate. The Ban family had consolidated an immense estate on the south road during the clan wars. Its high noble gate showed sprouting buildings and growing towers within the palisade. Slow mercenaries controlled the gate. To the side, at a narrow opening, flowed the swarmers, servants and merchants, short-needled and small-clawed.
Mok was a noble. Anyone with fighting claws was, but his great claws were now preserved on Master Hac’s estate, while he pretended to be less than he was to reach his target. He needed an excuse to enter. He crossed to a rod merchant. He took a pair of rods and scraped a payment of snow paste from his under-needles. He hefted these and scrambled to the swarmer entrance, like anyone else looking to repair a wall. Ahead of him, each of the entrants tipped the door ward, a clawless swarmer with powdery spines. Mok hesitated. He’d promised to play the swarmer to enter the estate, but had not considered that he’d need to tip one. Tips flowed toward honor. What did it say about him if he tipped a swarmer?
“Hello, friend,” the door ward said. Mok was the finest of the Followers of the Needle. He could not bring himself to reply. “Are you well, friend?” the door ward asked. His magnetic field was flabby, with distortions around the joints. Snow paste hung in clots, trembling as if ready to drop. Mok scraped the thinnest gratuity from one of his under-needles and slapped it onto the swarmer’s outstretched claw. He hurried through the entrance, humiliated.
The houses and towers of dependent nobles filled the estate. Some stood as tall and wide as Master Hac’s tower, while others were narrow spires only large enough for one noble to rest on each level, where they could absorb all but noontime microwaves without obstacles. The Ban manor house and its palisaded drill square dwarfed everything on the estate. Long horizontal needles sprouted from its peak to cast noontime microwave shadows. Through that shadow, Mok would find Master Cis, his target.
Approaching the entrance to the heavily guarded manor house and its grounds, Mok hunched and feigned awkward-footedness, to be unremarkable in a sea of swarmers. Mok heard a noble approaching from behind, his great claws swinging wide arcs, clubbing down swarmers too slow to vacate his path. The noble even stepped upon those he could not bat aside. The crowd groaned. The noble neared, and just before he stepped onto Mok, Mok shifted, so smoothly that it looked like a misstep. The noble stumbled. He leapt to keep from falling, but the backs of swarmers were no solid platform for a jump. He landed unevenly and aimed his eye stalks at Mok.
“Hey shiny!” he yelled. Mok laughed and moved to vanish into the crowd. The noble snapped and struck at the swarmers in anger. “Stay where you are!” the noble yelled. The crowd of swarmers stilled. Mok could have leapt over them or moved between them, but he realized with an icy clarity that he could not without revealing that he was much more than a swarmer. He struggled between duty to Master Hac and honor, and then smothered years of training to feign fearfulness.
The noble’s claw clubbed Mok’s face, snapping thin needles, bending thicker ones, and knocking him sideways. Mok kept his feet, forgetting that any swarmer would have been on his back by now. When the noble lunged again, Mok forced himself to be still. The great claw hammered a bend into Mok’s front arm. The other great claw pinched Mok’s shoulder. “You made the wrong enemy, shiny swarmer,” the noble said.
“Fool!” said an approaching guard. “Can you afford the rust price if you kill him?”
The noble, sparking angry, tightened the claw around Mok’s shoulder. “Don’t cross me again, shiny,” he said. He threw Mok backward. Mok tumbled. His quills wedged in the ground and bent. He cried out.
“Don’t let him in,” the noble said to the fighters-at-arms, skittering back through the entrance. Mok flailed and jerked, trying to free the wedged quills. He was stuck.
Ten days ago, in the streets around the market, Mok had knocked away the assassin’s claw with the Flowering Fist. His opponent rattled back on six legs, the tiny pincers scraping at the uneven rods of the street. Mok executed the Pincer’s Pleasure, catching both of the assassin’s forearms just below the great claws.
“You fight like a Follower of the Needle,” Mok said. “Who is your Master?”
The assassin’s lower quills shivered. Fear. Mok tightened his grip. Metal screeched. One of the assassin’s wrists bent backward. His eye stalks waved. The sliding rods of steel snapped. One of the assassin’s severed claws rang against the metal spines of the street. Mok’s swarm tittered their appreciation and threw compliments. The assassin’s feet scrambled. Mok twisted. The other claw bent. Still no answer. Mok shut his great claw over his assailant’s spiny head. The Claw’s Epiphany. The assassin’s legs folded and his body clanked to the street. The fine, articulated needles, in life held in magnetic balance, flattened in relaxation.
Mok scanned the street with his eye stalks. The gathered crowd refrained from offering tips before he’d boasted. But there was no honor in defeating an anonymous opponent. He could not boast. He batted the nameless assassin in frustration.
His swarm busied themselves in trimming the dead assassin with tiny claws. They hefted the two severed claws under three swarmers each. They snipped his needles and wedged them into the bristle in their own bodies, for use later. Mok set off for home, fanning his needles flat to catch the noontime microwaves. His swarm followed, murmuring a stream of compliments.
Nobles and swarmers made way for the size of Mok’s claws and his reputation. The stockade ringing Master Hac’s school speared high with straight rods. Cadets with smaller, less-skilled claws saluted him as he scuttled in the front gate. His swarm stooped through the service entrance farther away. “Ho,Mok!” one of his peers called from across the courtyard. “Laden with booty, but not boasts?”
“Ho, Kak!” Mok answered. Kak was, like Mok, a skilled Follower of the Way. “You know my greatness well, but . . .” His pause drew more attention than the absence of boasts. “I was set upon by a nameless, swarmless villain.” Conversation stopped. Eye stalks swiveled toward him.
“Who scuttles without a name?” Kak asked incredulously, approaching fast, holding his great claws high. “I hope this does not affect your tips?”
“My greatness is unchanged,” Mok said pointedly, holding out a minor claw. Kak scraped snow paste from a lower needle for Mok. It was a small tip.
Two other Followers abandoned any pretense of sparring and approached, expecting a story. Instead, the shadow of the master appeared on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Every Follower and swarmer prostrated themselves. The most accomplished Followers of the Needle, Mok among them, had the privilege of offering large tips.
Microwaves pulsed hot in the stillness. Flakes of iron carbonyl snow drifted down. “Scuttle with me, Mok,” Master Hac said.
At the entrance to the Ban manor house, someone took Mok gently by his upper spines, and helped him to his feet. Mok found a decrepit swarmer facing him. Mok stood uncertainly. Normally, when a swarmer helped him, they gave him a tip. What did they do amongst themselves?
“He got you with all of that, didn’t he?” the swarmer said with the diction of a rod chopper.
“He bent a few.” Mok tested his shoulders. They were whole. He felt at the bends in his upper spines. Then, reluctantly, he scraped a gratuity off a lower spine. The swarmer looked at him strangely, but took the food.
“Want help straightening out?” Rag asked. Mok snapped a pincer in negation and clawed backward. He retreated until, far from the frenetic crowds, he found an unclaimed perch on a single rod. He mounted it, spreading his needles wide to catch every bit of the pulsar’s rays, feeling like an unproven bud for having been beaten by a crass, hired claw. He straightened his bent needles, and removed fragments of joints that scraped against one another after the manhandling. He stayed there until the pulsar set.
Only reserves of snow paste could power movement when the direct shine of the pulsar’s microwaves was gone, so only the fittest escaped dormancy after dark. Even those capable of activity could not endure it for long.
Mok hugged the shadows, distorting his magnetic field to match the ambient field. No smell. No sound. By midnight, under the glow of blurry radio sources and hard, sharp x-ray stars, he huddled close to the noble entrance. At night, guards shut the swarmer entrances to the manor, and left one fighter-at-arms squatting at the open noble entrance.
Mok climbed, clawhold by clawhold, up the wall, the scrape of his joints so quiet as to be echoes carried on an overimagined wind. He stilled at the apex of the entrance. His magnetic field leaked neither smell nor sound. I am the Needle. He dropped, fanning his spines. The guard jerked.
Mok jammed his front claws into the thin knot of spines between guard’s body and head. Cold Knife.
Mok pulled closer, driving two more claws hard into the same spot, cutting, snapping. Knife’s Follower.
The guard collapsed, dead. Mok puffed. A yelling boast struggled to emerge, to incite nobles and swarmers alike to come compliment and tip, to recognize his honor. He’d gone without admirers for so long. Instead, he pincered the need and carried the guard outside the palisade. Using claws too small for the task to be quick, he clipped rod after rod until the guard’s great claws lay severed.
Be the Needle.
Mok held them high and puffed his spines wide and proud. Then, he scuttled across the courtyard. At night, from a distance, he would appear to be a fighter-atarms making slow rounds. He heard movement, but no one approached. Across the courtyard, an elegant opening led to a bank of poles for nobles to climb to the upper levels of the manor house. Mok eyed it for long moments, but laid the stolen great claws there and made for the low opening where swarmers ascended.
He crept up a well-scratched rod, past levels of poorly smelling kitchens, workshops, and scrap depots before he reached the swarmer barracks. The latch on the door opened for him and he snuck through. Twenty swarmers slept in huddled lumps. A door was closed at the other end of the room, while two barred windows opened onto a slow wind. Perched on the bars were dormant swarmers, catching what microwaves they could at this time of night. Mok hunkered down to a shallow sleep.
Before dawn, an alarm sounded below. Swarmers shifted, but no one rose. He ached to see what was happening, but feigned unsettled sleep. Cries became louder, veined with orders, and soon, two fighters-at-arms burst in. They scuttled everywhere, inspecting each swarmer.
A big, clumsy fighter-at-arms held Mok for a quick, close look. Then he tossed Mok away and moved on to others. They left, closing the door behind them. Mok settled. The swarmers scraped films of old snow from the bent needles of the floor and spread it on their quills.
A swarmer watched him. Mok lowered his eye stalks, pretending to graze like these reprobates. The swarmer approached and hunkered close. “So you made it in, friend?” It was Rag, who’d helped him yesterday.
“Yes.” One of Mok’s front claws had accumulated what could only be called a snow scum. He could not spread the filth on his body. He held it out, a tiny offering. Rag took the tip without shame and said nothing else. Mok feigned sleep.
They were released to their duties by mid-morning, but only in the courtyard. Mok inserted himself into the carrying and cleaning. He was no one. Gossip blew like a tidal wind. A low-ranking guard had been killed at night, and the assassin had escaped.The frustration of the nobles turned to needless blows and harassment of the swarmers. Mok was embarrassed for the nobles; there was no honor in beating swarmers.
In late afternoon, Mok saw Lord Ban strut past, young, long-needled and shiny. Graceful nobles scuttled behind, offering tips. One of Ban’s court stood above the fawning. He was older and well-shaped, moving with the grace that comes from one of the Ways. His claws gripped the yard with a precise awareness of his surroundings. He moved in the court position reserved for the regimental commander. Awe. The highest compliment Mok could offer.
This was Cis, an old Master, long hidden, whom not even Master Hac could defeat. Cis passed, but the awe did not. Something new colored it: fear. At twilight, the swarmers were herded to their barracks and given wages of old snow paste. Mok forced himself to spread this half-powdered gruel on his needles to keep up his strength, but it was thin, bitter food. Rag approached. His pungent smell was invasive.
“I never seen a swarmer as shiny as you,” Rag whispered. “And you move like you never broke a needle.”
Even without great claws, Mok had several movements to kill a swarmer at this range: Night Blossom’s Petal, Fiery Heart, and Claw of the Way. Long Finger would do the job in utter silence.
“You were a noble, weren’t you?” Rag said. Mok sputtered, retracting his eyes. Rag neared. Mok poised a claw beneath Rag, the preliminary stance of Long Finger. Was Rag an informant? Covert security?
Hide in plain sight. “It is secret,” Mok whispered. “My lord took my great claws for crossing him. I fled. If he finds me here, he’ll kill me. I tried to get close to Master Cis today, but I could not.”
“Maybe he can make me a noble again,” Mok said.
Rag’s eyes spread in surprise, then narrowed again. “I work in the upper apartments. I’ve seen him there.”
“Can you get me in, so that I can speak with Master Cis?”
“You would get killed for bothering Master Cis,” Rag said. “I might too.”
“Why? You’re not my friend.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Do you trust people who aren’t your friends?” Rag asked.
Mok wasn’t sure he understood the question. “I trust brothers in arms,” he said simply.
“I trust friends,” Rag said. Mok shuffled his feet.
“Let us be friends?”
“Oh no,” Rag said. “I can’t.”
“You don’t like me.”
Mok snapped his mid-claws in frustration. Swarmers looked toward them. “I am doing you a great honor by even speaking with you. When has a warrior ever spoken with you?”
“You are obliged to return the honor.”
“No, I’m not.”
Mok’s pincers snapped again. “What kind of reprobate are you?”
“You don’t know anything about swarmers, do you?” Rag said pleasantly. “You’re going to have trouble fitting in.”
“I’m not trying to fit in.”
“It shows.” Rag seemed to be regarding him with curiosity now instead of fear or respect. Mok retreated three steps. He rarely had trouble understanding situations. Until now. Swarmers did not value honor. They gave tips because they had to. What mattered to them?
He returned to Rag. “I will do you the honor of being your friend,” Mok whispered. “I would be pleased if you could tell me what I need to know to like you.”
Rag laughed, so much that he fell backward. Mok felt a laugh in him, until he realized Rag was laughing at him. Then, he angered, but even his rage bogged in confusion. If no one knew him here, what did honor mean in this place?
Rag picked himself up. “There is nothing to tell to make you like me,” Rag whispered. “Nobles tolerate swarmers for the tips, the service, and the fawning. We are not fast or graceful in the way you value.”
“We can’t be friends?”
“It is not what you know of me,” Rag said. “It is how you look at me.”
Failure felt like two needles scraping, instead of sliding smoothly, over one another. “I can look at you in any way I wish.”
Rag pincered a rusty needle from the detritus on floor. “Can you value this?” Rag asked. “It is of no use to you. It cannot make you stronger, offer you tips, or weld your alliances to great families.”
Mok’s eye stalks spread. He scraped a gratuity from a lower spine. Rag accepted it. Mok waited for the courteous response. None came.
“Friends don’t fawn,” Rag said. “Friends don’t trade honor and tips. When one is hungry, friends give him not only something, but everything. Friendship is about making a friend happy.”
“Why did you take the tip, then?”
“I’m hungry.” The snow paste on Rag’s lower needles was thin. He powdered almost everywhere.
“You are shabby,” Mok said. “No one helps you.”
“I don’t have friends either,” Rag shivered. Mok did not answer. Rag laughed again, shivering his magnetic field, dislodging more of his shabby, powdering smell.
Mok felt the eyes of the room, judging his association with this lowest status swarmer. But what did it matter what swarmers thought of him if he accomplished his mission? If he’d had his great claws instead of these snippers, the whole room of them would be falling over themselves to fawn and tip him.
“I wish to be friends,” Mok said finally.
“I don’t believe you,” Rag said.
Mok hunkered glumly and they spoke no more. The pulsar outside lowered to the horizon and finally set. The swarmers went dormant. Mok waited until silence covered them all. Then, sharing that silence, he balanced his weight through all eight legs, onto eight different needles in the floor. The Eight Cardinal Points of the Way of the Needle. Balance. Calm.
He lifted a leg. Rebalanced himself. Stance of Dawn.
Raise another leg. Stance of Morning. Unsettling. The balance was different without the pride of great claws. Inferior? He puzzled over the question. No, just different.
Raise the third leg. Stance of the First Oblique Shadow. Reaching for harmony.
Fourth leg. Stance of the Noon Shadow. Equilibrium eluded him. He smoothed the asymmetries in his magnetic field.
Fifth leg. Stance of the Second Oblique Shadow. Three claws held him on three needles. No swaying. Utter silence. Flawless magnetic field. But without great claws, the forces felt odd.
Sixth leg. His six legs speared outward like heavy quills. The two remaining claws each gripped a needle. He sought the Stance of Evening.
The danger of falling increased the longer he braced between the needles. Honor. Friendship. They were competing ethics. Honor was superior, but he could not balance on that needle without the weight of his great claws. Friendship with the lowest of the swarmers was a bitter substitute. Nor would his weight settle on that needle either. He didn’t know how to find the balance on that one leg.
He lowered his claws, one by one, from Evening, to Second Oblique Shadow, Noon Shadow, First Oblique Shadow, Morning, and finally, Dawn. Home. Without having achieved Night.
Five days ago,Mok had climbed to Master Hac’s balcony and offered large clots of paste on both great claws. Master Hac, old, but shiny, accepted the gratuities.
“Tell me of your assailant,” Master Hac said. Mok told the tale of the assassin’s unannounced appearance, of his targeting of Mok as a Follower of the Needle, of his lack of swarmers and of his dishonorable refusal to name himself. He accounted for the entire battle, move by counter-move. Master Hac asked about the assassin’s strikes and parries. Mok described them, though he had never seen their like.
“Show me,” Master Hac said. Mok swiveled his claw, thrusting it upward, like Pulsar’s Tide, but without positioning to execute Emptying Oceans. Master Hac circled him. “Were your assailant’s rear claws tensed to leap?” Mok’s eye stalks separated in surprise.
“How did you know?”
“Hunch your rear legs.” Mok did as the assassin had done. “Yes,” Master Hac said. “The movement is called the Rising Tide. The Gliding Ghost follows it.”
“Why do I not know these movements?”
“There are perhaps four Masters of the Needle who know of these movements,” Master Hac said. “None of us teach them. They belong to the Followers of the Tide, an extinct school. I learned of these as a young Follower. The philosophy of the Tide is incompatible with the Way of the Needle.”
“How could my assailant have used such techniques? The rest of his movements resembled ours.”
“The Followers of the Tide are no more, but one sought to revive their Way,” Master Hac said. “He was called Cis. He followed the Needle beside me. Cis would one day have become a Master, but he was arrogant, becoming enamored of the dead philosophies of the Followers of the Tide. Our master drove him away. Cis swore revenge and wandered, without swarm, without school, hiring his claws to any noble’s fight. If he has returned, it is for revenge. And even in my youth none could best Cis save our master, but I have had many years to ponder his weaknesses.”
“I am the greatest of your students!” Mok said. “I deserve the privilege of leading the strike against Master Cis.”
Master Hac measured him for long moments. “You may lead the strike. Go to the courtyard and spar,” Master Hac said, “without your great claws.”
“What do you mean, Master?” Mok asked, horrified.
“You will fight your brothers, but you will not have your great claws.”
“But Master Hac, without them, I have neither honor nor chance.”
“With them, you have no chance either,” Master Hac said. “Speak to no one of your mission.”
In the morning, in the Ban manor house, Rag went to his normal tasks in the upper chambers. Mok bustled with a cleaning detail in the workshops where the swarmers plied their trades. Busy artisans built furniture. Others fashioned rods of poetry that could be heard by running a sensitive pincer up and down the magnetized lengths. Mok scraped the walls of the workshop and carried the tailings of the artisans to the malodorous chute at the far end of the room. He scraped the wall beside the guards at the entrance to the upper tower, looking for a stealthy way past.
The closest guard snapped a claw at him. Mok retreated while they glowered. He needed help to get to the upper chambers. When the pulsar was low on the horizon, the entrance to the noble chambers was locked.
The swarmers clotted in twos and threes, slicking snow paste on their lower quills, helping one another to smooth awkward spots. A jocular mood infected the room and magnetic laughter tittered. Mok stood alone, strangely restless. Rag crouched at the opposite end of the barracks, near the scrap chute. His needles fanned with more hope than effectiveness to catch waning microwaves. He spread snow paste on his lower quills unevenly. The lumps would cause him problems. Mok clawed across the room to join him. The cloying scent of rust drifted from the scrap chute.
“You’re making lumps,” Mok said. He smoothed the snow on Rag’s lower quills, but then stopped self-consciously. “You need more discipline,” Mok said.
“Easy for you to say.You were probably schooled.”
“Discipline is not easy for anyone. It is a choice,” Mok said.
“You’ve had practice.”
“Practice is just making the correct choice repeatedly.”
“Are you trying to make friends?” Rag asked.
“Your shabby condition frustrates me because you don’t need to be like this. You could be healthy and acceptable to the others. You could be happy.”
“Do you care if I’m happy?” Rag asked.
“I don’t want anyone to be unhappy,” Mok said.
“Are you happy?”
“I’ll be happier when I speak to Master Cis.”
Rag’s magnetic field shuddered with early signs of starvation. With some exasperation, Mok scraped a large gratuity from his lower claws, processed and tasty, and held it to Rag. Rag moved to take it, but Mok pulled back.
“I’ll put it on,” Mok said. “You’ll do it wrong.”
Rag stood tall, giving Mok access to his lower quills. Mok spread the fine paste so evenly that the shape of Rag’s lower magnetic field sharpened.
“Bribes won’t help,” Rag said. “You cannot build a friendship on owing.”
“I’m not trying to make friends anymore,” Mok whispered. “I don’t understand how you think, but I know how I think. You helped me days ago, so I now help you.”
Spreading the paste properly and smoothing older feedings took time. Rag’s magnetic field strengthened. When Mok finally sat, Rag looked healthier, even though the spines around his eye stalks and on his back remained powdery.
“What is it like to be a noble?” Rag whispered. Mok cleaned his own needles.
“I’m not sure anymore.” Mok sat in silence, with Rag and his smell.
“I’ll take you into the upper chambers,” Rag said finally.
Mok stilled. “Are we friends?”
The answer made Mok oddly proud.
Four days ago, on the estate of Master Hac, Mok had been exhausted. Using only servant claws, he had sparred against one Follower of the Needle after another, all skilled and boastful. He could not tell them why he’d removed his great claws, so they suspected some punishment from Master Hac related to his performance against the unnamed assassin.
He’d been the best of them for some time, so they chortled at his expense and were not gentle. Few attacks did not require the weight and cutting leverage of great claws. He tried those that did not. Needle’s Son was blocked. He spun, delivering the Deceptive Foot, and was blocked.The Humble Claw briefly touched his sparring partner, but Mok fell beneath the other’s great claw. The Crossed Savior defense came close to flipping him on his back in the courtyard.
The other Followers boasted at his expense. He tipped each one. He slunk to his roofless cell near the top of the school. Rows of shiny steel rods formed the walls. Tiny, sharp needles grew from the floor reaching for the sky. The placement of his cell was a place of privilege he had earned, high above the palisade walls and courtyard. Copses of walled manors, estates, and towers, their fine needles and thick rods reflecting starlight, sprawled beyond the school’s palisade. Colors dotted the sky. Some were pure colors, like the x-ray green of the star in the left eye of the Constellation Pik. Others shared colors, like the radio orange and thermal blue of Pik’s wingtip. The magnetism of the pulsar braided the colors.
Honor and obedience warred in him. He deserved more than this. He was the finest of Master Hac’s Followers. He should have shone in his purity. Instead, he’d been tied to other colors. The next day, Master Hac had plucked the long needles from Mok’s back, inserting shorter, duller quills, the kind that swarmers had, those that caught fewer microwaves. Then, he instructed Mok in new movements, ones with no need for great claws.
“How can I charge into battle like this, Master? There is no pride in this,” Mok said, after another difficult practice, holding up the claws useful only for laboring.
“Ends and means may shadow one another, depending on the time of day,” Master Hac said. “Assassination is a tool we always have, but one whose price we must count carefully.”
“Where is the honor counted?”
“In your obedience,” Master Hac said. Mok averted his eye stalks.
Rag brought Mok to the guards of the upper chambers of the Ban manor and told them that he needed Mok’s help. Rag had swarmed and tipped the Ban family for a long time and was known to the guards. They let Mok pass. Beyond, Mok found the achingly familiar patterns and precedence of the nobility, while scraping the shiny walls with Rag. No one noted him.
Be the Needle.
At midmorning, Master Cis himself passed. He glided across the floor of needles like a wind, great claws high and motionless. Perfection. Not even Master Hac could summon such grace. Mok feared, as he hadn’t since he was partly grown and short-needled, facing Master Hac for the first time. Only self-doubt could make fear true, but his doubt reeked. Mok was the best of Master Hac’s students. One day, he might master the Needle, but Cis had clearly mastered the Needle and explored the ethical and martial terrain beyond. Master Hac had explained this, but Mok hadn’t understood, viscerally, what he would be facing.With his own long needles, fully charged under the pulsar, and well-fed by gratuities from his swarmers, he might have had the strength to make a respectable showing. But not now.
Near the end of the morning, near where Mok worried at a hardened lump on the wall, two nobles met. One moved with the control and grace of a Follower. The other, larger,with longer needles and brutish manners, spoke like a mercenary officer from another province. The officer asked how Master Cis would like the troops arrayed for drilling. The Follower replied that Master Cis would be in meditation in the afternoon. A Follower would drill the troops. Mok became anxious. Master Cis might be alone today.
He sidled closer to Rag with a sudden idea. “I have need of your needles,” Mok said.
“To borrow them for a time. I will give them back.”
“Why? Are you sick? I’ll die!” Even with all his needles to catch the direct microwaves of day or the stray ones of night, Rag was not healthy. Without, Rag could go into deep dormancy or die.
“I don’t do it for light reasons.” Mok said. “I will owe you a debt for all my days.”
“Will this help you become a noble again?” Rag asked.
“Will I get them back?” Rag asked.
“I hope so,” Mok said.
Rag’s eye stalks drooped. “We just became friends. This is so much to ask and I’m scared of dying.”
“I am too,” Mok said, surprising himself with the truth in his answer. Where was his noble boasting?
Mok led Rag higher into the noble chambers, cleaning as they went. By noon, they reached the roof, where the budlings of Lord Ban would bathe in the hot flashing glow of the pulsar. Part of the roof had been partitioned off, clearly for Master Cis. It was empty.
“We shouldn’t be here,” Rag whispered. “Only Lord Ban’s personal swarmers are allowed to clean here.”
“I know, but this will be my only way to meet Master Cis.”
“We’re going to get in trouble.”
“I understand your fear. I know our friendship is new, but I cannot do this without you. To help you understand my need, I can tell you that a noble does not ask for help. He earns it. I do not have time to earn yours, but I ask it anyway.”
Rag lowered his eye stalks and followed Mok. Mok and Rag scraped the floor, spine by spine. Mok took care to put some of the cleaned snow residue in places he hadn’t yet cleaned so that his cleaned sections contrasted greatly with the parts they hadn’t yet reached.
“Now is the time,” Mok said. “Soak all you can while the pulsar is high. I will take some of your spines now.”
Mok maintained the sounds of cleaning with secondary claws, and removed needles from Rag’s back and sides with his front claws. Rag’s magnetic field quivered with each removal. Mok steadied him, smoothing the paste on those he left, cleaning the magnetic field, spreading and ordering Rag’s needles wider to better catch the microwaves. His other claws busily integrated the stale needles into his own body. As their numbers grew, he felt himself growing stronger. Rag had not yet panicked. If he did, everything was lost. He might need to be removed, but disposing of him would be difficult here. And the thought of treating Rag as an enemy was now unpleasant.
They moved along the platform, soaking in the thick microwaves of noon. It wasn’t enough. Mok had learned the limits of his new shape, powered by shorter needles, armed only with pincers. The blow he envisioned trying, not yet even named, needed more strength than he had.
“Rag,” he whispered. “I need more.”
“But I’m feeling funny. The pulsar is waning.”
“I’m sorry, Rag. If I’m to . . . make myself happy, I need more.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Will you give me the needles I need?”
“I’m feeling shabby,” Rag said.
“I ask as a friend.”
Rag looked away.
“It pains me to ask this of you,” Mok said.
“I haven’t had many friends, Mok,” Rag said. “No one ever asked me for this. I feel like I’m being used.”
“I know,” Mok said, pulling a half dozen more needles from Rag. Rag now looked plucked. The shabbiest spines were of no use to Mok, so Rag was left with those he’d not kept shiny. Mok felt the small jump in energy from the new spines. “Stay calm. When Master Cis arrives, keep cleaning,” Mok said. “I’ll speak.”
“I can’t breathe,” Rag said. “I need to rest.”
“No!” Mok whispered. “You’ll draw the wrong kind of attention to us. We must appear to be two normal swarmers.”
Rag scraped listlessly at a rod in the partition. Mok scrubbed, listening for the approach of Master Cis.
“What is this?” a smooth voice demanded.
Mok turned. Master Cis, long-needled and large-clawed, stood on the roof. His stillness was perfect. Mok hadn’t heard anything. Cis was as silent as the Needle. Mok felt hopelessness in his marrow. He dropped into a servile pose, eye stalks low, two large tips held before him.
“We were sent to scrub the roof, Master,” Mok said.
Master Cis took the gratuities. “While the rooftop is dirty, I guess that you rascals have not been sent by anyone and that you are here to bask.”
“We aspire to the perfection you deserve,” Mok said, “but as you note, we have not the talents. My friend needed outside duty to renew his strength to better serve you.”
“Take your unworthy companion with you. Never let his gracelessness approach the top of this tower again,” Master Cis said.
Rag was utterly silent. Master Cis turned away, but Mok flung himself before him, eye stalks touching the floor, claws bunched beneath him. “Master, I have been incomplete with you,” Mok said. “My friend may die without the noon rays of the pulsar. I beg your forbearance.”
Mok felt the sharpening and hardening of Master Cis’ magnetic field. Its rigidity was remarkable. Mok quailed beneath it. Master Cis was about to speak in anger. Mok drove his two right forward pincers deep into Master Cis’ neck. He twisted his body to drive them far, using his magnetic field to disrupt Master Cis’ control. And he named the movement. Rag’s Sacrifice.
Master Cis sputtered, but his magnetic field did not collapse. Cis closed one great claw on a thicket of needles and tore away a quarter of Mok’s back. The quills tinkled on the roof, quiet and ironically musical. The shock nearly demagnetized Mok. If not for all of Rag’s needles mixed among his own, he would have died immediately. Mok huddled under Master Cis, underside to underside, and stabbed upward with two more mid-claws. Master Cis reached for him, reared up, tore free more needles. Rag’s Sacrifice, deep in two different spots, shook the older warrior. Mok smelled the powdering. His own and Master Cis’. Master Cis severed one of Mok’s legs in his great claws. Mok made no sound. He sought balance. Noble. Swarmer. Honor. Friendship. Boaster. Fawner. He drove his pincers deeper. Be the Needle. Timeless, silent, they strained.
Then, Master Cis tipped and fell. Dead.
Mok trembled, dragging himself from the carcass. He staggered, seven-legged, toward Rag. Rag was dying. He scooped the needles Master Cis had ripped from his back and stabbed them into Rag. Mok could not go back through the tower and the barracks. He could not disguise a missing leg and a dying swarmer. Their battle had been quick, but someone would eventually come. Mok hefted a drooping Rag and wobbled to the edge of the tower. Mok stepped over the edge, clinging with five claws, using the remaining two to hold Rag. His legs strained at their sockets. Pain! Focus.
In his mind, he ran through the Eight Cardinal Points of the Way, stance by stance, as he descended. Pain receded. He descended in graceless fits. He dropped the last few body lengths, unable to hold on. One of his pincers broke off. Pain! No sound! Be the Needle! Balance.
He limped around broad buildings. The world became not the sharp needle, but a pained blur. Near the gate to leave the manor house, a blow knocked him down. “Not so shiny now, are you?” It was the guard who had struck him days before. “I said you made the wrong enemy.”
Mok had no strength, nothing left with which to tip. But he had honor, and could claim more. I am Mok, he thought, Follower of the Needle, and without great claws, I killed Master Cis. A death-boast to leave a legend. Immortality. But it was not the right stance. Rag would die. Be the swarmer.
“A noble ordered me to take this swarmer out of the estate to die,” Mok said, “so that his unworthiness does not pollute your fine lawns. He said that due to my shabbiness I may not return.”
“Get out quick, shiny,” the guard said, “before somebody has to clean you up.”
Mok lumbered out of the manor house, carrying Rag. Curious swarmers gawked, but did not help. Reputation and gratuities bound noble to noble. Friendship bound swarmer to swarmer. In anonymity, he had no reputation. In falsehood, he had only the friend he’d mutilated. Like his failure to achieve balance in the Stance of Evening. Mok stumbled on the south road. Nobles observed with disdain. Swarmers sidestepped. Shabby, but pure of purpose, Mok endured, like a needle washed by the ocean. He fell. He rose. He heard voices, but plodded onward with six legs and his dying friend.
Within sight of the palisades of Master Hac’s estate, Rag’s magnetic field fluttered. They fell to the ground. It was almost evening, and the Stance of Night yet eluded him.
“Rag,” Mok said. “I’m sorry.”
“I saw what you did,” Rag whispered.
“I did what nobles do,” Mok said. He pulled the last of Rag’s needles from his own back and shoved them, one by one, into Rag. “I’m sorry.”
Balance? Rag’s body accepted the needles, but the microwaves were thin and westering. How long had it been? Mok’s eye stalks drooped. “You are brave,” Mok said.
“I’m not brave.”
“You risked yourself for me.”
“That was not bravery,” Rag whispered. “That was friendship.”
“I am not a good friend,” Mok said.
“You don’t know how to be a good friend,” Rag said. “That isn’t your fault.” His magnetic field flickered again.
A long-needled noble passed. Mok signaled him, but the noble continued. Stance of Evening. Unstable. Tipping one way, then the other. Mok’s eyes dropped lower. A swarmer saw them and scuttled close.
“Hello, friend,” Mok said. “I belong to Master Hac. Can you take us to him?”
“I’m not strong enough to carry you both, but I can carry you and come back for your friend.”
“No,” Mok said. “He’ll die if I leave him. Get help from Master Hac. I’ll wait here with my friend.”
The swarmer ran off. Mok’s eyes drooped, watching Rag die, helpless to stop it. In his mind, he ran through the Eight Cardinal Points of the Way to keep pain at bay, but he could not even imagine Stance of Dawn with a missing leg. The balance would not work and he could not pretend he had not lost a limb. Then, he saw how to balance at the Stance of Evening without great claws. He needed to balance not just his limbs, but his core. He stood high, needles straight up, to catch the last microwaves of the day. Then, he pulled his own needles from his back and slid them into Rag’s. Then, a kind of night did come. A thick, metal-laden wind whistled through a thousand needles on the roof of Master Hac’s tower. Mok’s great claws felt heavy, odd. He was strong. Fully charged under the microwaves of the pulsar.
When his master appeared, Mok fluidly lowered his eye stalks, slipped a great claw low and deftly skimmed a generous gratuity. He held it between them, on a gracefully still claw. Astonishingly, Master Hac lowered his own eye stalks and offered Mok an equally sizable tip. Mok touched his eyes to the floor.
“I am not worthy,Master Hac.”
Master Hac replaced the tip, but did not take the one offered.
Mok looked up. Master Hac was bright. “My opponent never knew my name. I struck without challenge. I don’t deserve it.”
“Some victories cannot be boasted of because they will not be understood,” Master Hac said. “What you did with claws is not essential. Everything other than the blow was essential. Many Followers could have learned Rag’s Sacrifice. No one else could have earned it.”
“What does that make me, Master? An errant ready to set aside his honor?”
“You are not yet wise, Mok. You must reflect on this.” Master Hac finally took the waiting tip.
Mok stood straighter, honor satisfied. Then, to his horror, Master Hac reached onto his own back and pulled out one of his quills, long and silvery. He held it to Mok on two great claws.
“I cannot,” Mok said, backing away. “Please replace it. My battle with Master Cis is not worth it.”
Master Hac stepped forward. “This tip is not for what you did to Master Cis. This is for what you did for Rag.”
“I don’t understand, Master.” Master Hac set the needle in Mok’s great claws. Mok held it reverently.
“Someday you will.” Master Hac retreated, leaving Mok alone under the hot pulsar.
Mok set Master Hac’s needle into his back. His awe would not abate and for all his thinking, he did not understand where he would find wisdom. The pulsar tugged at the horizon and the wind died before he descended to his swarm. They complimented, the volume growing when they saw the new needle in his back. His brother Followers approached, waiting for the boast behind this unprecedented honor. Mok neither boasted, nor passed by his swarm. He greeted a few swarmers by name, which silenced them. Then he reached and touched Rag, who stood among them, cleaner, stronger, taller. Rag offered a gratuity on a trembling pincer. Mok accepted the tip, and offered one of his own.
About the Author
Derek Künsken has built genetically-engineered viruses, worked with street kids in Central America, served as a Canadian diplomat, and writes science fiction and fantasy in Ottawa, Canada. His work has previously appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec, Podcastle and several times in Asimov’s Science Fiction. His work has been short-listed for the Aurora Award and has won the Asimov’s Reader’s Award.
About the Narrator
Mat Weller is the servant to a lovely family in eastern Pennsylvania. After his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he sometimes re-watches old episodes of X-Files on Netflix and other times retires to his basement booth where he records noises that get played on the Internet. Rumor has it he also makes delightful chocolate chip cookies.
Oh, and in October 2014, he beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.
Mat had the honor of producing for Escape Pod from 2010 to 2016. He is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, and he narrates a growing catalog of books for ACX.