Matthew Sanborn Smith has been writing and podcasting some of the weirdest, zaniest stuff over at Beware the Hairy Mango for years. Now he’s released his first collection, The Dritty Doesen. I’m delighted to host a characteristically weird story from the collection here.
Matt had this to say… “Thanks a bunch, Christie, for posting my story, The Hard Philosophy. The Dritty Doesen is my first collection, and each of its stories is unreasonable in its own way. The collection contains this one and eleven others with behind the scenes looks at how they came into being. All this, and a beautiful Galen Dara cover too! Enjoy!”
* * *
THE HARD PHILOSOPHY
By Matthew Sanborn Smith
“You’re telling us your time-biologists haven’t solved this problem, Hars?” Empress Tocsa asked.
Roger Harris hated discussing business where everyone from rogue ministers to floor-scrubbers could hear what his people considered classified information. But private consultations simply didn’t exist in the Germanic-Etruscan court, at least not for outsiders like himself. There were dozens of people here, seated and moving. Many went about their own business, oblivious to their goddess-queen on her couch or the opulence all around the marble hall. One great obsidian bust of the empress herself dominated the room, twelve feet high, serene and all-powerful. Golden curtains hung inlaid with hundreds of fat, black, identical opals shining indigo in the sunlight. Two-legged cats and exotic animals Harris couldn’t even identify lounged at the feet of their masters. He might as well have been at a circus. His own people lived under constant siege. Even as he stood here, the Galactics might have been overrunning the Vatican.
“We call them physicists, Your Eminence,” Harris said. “It is possible we have cracked the Hard Philosophy but call it by another name. If you could give me some idea of what it is . . .”
The empress stroked the great golden hippopotamus which had been brought to her by servants. She called it her memory and advisor, but it seemed to Harris to be an actual painted hippo. The thing grunted softly into the empress’ ear as intimately as a beloved pet. Other sounds gurgled within it. Gassy sounds.
“The Hard Philosophy is not something we discuss freely with strangers,” Tocsa said. “We wonder where you learned the name if you don’t use it yourselves.”
Harris tried to control his sigh. “The alliance I represent is involved in a war in which we don’t want to involve you or your empire, Your Eminence.”
“If we deal with you, we are involved in your war,” the empress said. “Moreover, you avoid our question. You may claim to be from an alternate Neuer Azteke and you may look like a Nubian, but you reveal yourself as a true Italian at heart.” Although they were in an Italy, the laughter reminded him this was a heavily German court. “Our time is precious, Hars. One would think yours even moreso, given your brief lives. We have no patience for diplomacy.”
No dummy led these people. “Your wisdom exposes me, Your Eminence. I’ll attempt to explain myself and you shall make of it what you will. My people –”
“Your Italian Alliance,” Tocsa stressed.
“Yes, Your Eminence. An alliance of various types of governments from Italies such as this one. We have a potential ally in our cause in another timeline. They seek the key to the Hard Philosophy. Since it seems that you’ve mastered this technology, we ask for trade, or at least an exchange of knowledge.”
“You’re hiding, Hars. The neurontiere which helped you learn our language also expose you.” She pointed to her eyes. “Do you understand?”
“I think I might, Your Eminence.” The whites of her eyes—but they weren’t white, were they?—the sclerae of her eyes were dark green, he guessed from the leakage of whatever bacteria enhanced her brain. They’d injected some of it behind his eyes (after three of their manimals held him down) and taught him the basics of their language his first day here. That little squirt of juice had made him a genius. And the Empress had taken a hell of a lot more than he ever would. He couldn’t even imagine what her brain was capable of.
“Do not try to deceive us, Hars, we will know. Open yourself or you shall be opened.” Whatever that might have meant beyond the vagaries of idiom, he couldn’t imagine it being nice. He was stuck then. He heard the click-clack of the claws of an animal on the marble floor behind him. Their animals, what could they do? A society of brilliant geneticists could pull off a venomous dog in grade school. Or maybe this was how he was to be opened. The breath of the thing was heavy. Harris thought he could feel the wet heat of it on the back of his armored leg. The whole plan was about to go to hell. And so, possibly, was he.
“Our potential ally is Barus of Italian Etruria. Of Rasna.”
“Not Barus Three-Eye?”
“Yes. Barus Three-Eye.”
“Dead these two-hundred years.”
“In this timeline, yes.”
“Ahh.” Tocsa’s face lit up. She held up a finger to stop all conversation for a moment while she lay back on her couch to consider the implications. Even those who weren’t looking at the empress quieted themselves. She beckoned the hippo and it twisted one stalky ear to catch her whisper. Finally Tocsa asked:
“How old a man is your Barus?”
“I couldn’t tell you for certain, Your Eminence. I do recall that he is in the twentieth year of his reign.”
“So in this timeline of Barus Three-Eye’s twentieth year, our father still lives.”
“A Tomsa still lives in that timeline, yes.”
“And you’re asking us to hand the Hard Philosophy to the enemy of our father.”
“Let me assure you, your father, your actual father, his life as he lived it, is unchangeable.”
“You do not need to explain that to us!” Even the creatures in the room fell silent but for the faint hissing and gurgling coming from within the hippopotamus. The beast behind him stopped panting. Harris broke into a sweat.
“You equate us with dullard kings like Barus who won their thrones through blood alone. You ask us to aid and abet the destruction of our father, to make pre-emptive war on ourselves, our sister, our biological double. Why shouldn’t we cut you down with our own hands?”
Harris wanted to apologize, but it seemed the slightest sound from him might mean death. Perhaps he could read her to some tiny degree the way she could read him. Tocsa stared. No one spoke. Harris felt a fear in his shrinking genitals that he hadn’t felt since he was a child hearing his father slip off his belt. The safest policy, both then and now, was to say nothing at all.
Escape into another timeline might have been just a few steps away, but he dared not even look away for possible directions, for fear that any disrespect would throw Her Eminence over the edge.
“If what you say is true,” Tocsa finally said, “If our worlds are merely divergent branches of the same limb, then that man also called Tomsa and the yet unborn Tocsa are, at their most distant, still blood-cousins to us in every sense of the concept.”
Tocsa looked over Harris’ shoulder and jerked her head quickly to the left. Harris leapt away from the direction, imagining the creature’s teeth already in him. The court erupted in laughter. The animal, something like a dark brown piggish dog, he could see now, hadn’t moved. The guards behind the pig-dog waved him to come their way as they chuckled. They parted soft, thick, leafy doors and he let them lead him out of the court. Tocsa was already on to something else. He’d escaped with his life, if not his pride, but the mission was all over now.
Grets, the admin who had handled Harris’ case since they’d discovered him, had been waiting in the outer hall. For an old man, and a glorified secretary at that, he was buff as hell. All of these people were. Strong and beautiful. Well, if you could manage it, why not? But a little part of Harris hated them for it, knowing they didn’t have to work at muscle like he did.
“What in Hel, Hars?” Grets said, his hands in the air. “All my effort for this? Is it the custom of your people to piss on your superiors?”
“It’s the custom of my people to bullshit our superiors. I didn’t know you couldn’t do that here.”
“You can’t do it here. The rest of us have had a lot more practice. But you’ll never have the chance to catch up. Her Eminence is exiling you as of thirty seconds ago.” That tore it. On top of whatever else these people had, they had something that resembled telepathy, or at least non-verbal communication. With those bugs in their heads and maybe because of the bugs in his own, they saw through him to a point.
“My transport won’t be ready until midnight,” Harris said.
Grets shook his head. “Did I not make clear to you that you need a lot more practice?”
“I’m sorry, Grets. I need to . . . It’s my daughter, you know?”
“Yes, your daughter. You’re lucky I find that dark skin of yours so deliciously exotic. Midnight and you’re gone, right? Dumac, you go with him,” Grets said to one of the guards that had brought him here.
“You won’t get in trouble for this, will you?” Harris asked.
“Would it matter if I did? As far as your daughter is concerned?” Harris looked from Grets’ green-tinted eyes to his chest.
“Don’t worry yourself,” Grets said. “I know how to bullshit.”
“Not that goddamned frog again!” Harris said. The thing loomed before them, larger than life. Larger than any life Harris had ever seen anyway. Its tired eyes looked at nothing, the tongue darted into a trough of huge wriggling grubs and watery shit leaked from the other end while human beings ducked beneath a flap of skin on its side.
“We can walk, for all I care,” Dumac said. “But we’ll be lucky if we get outside of Velzna’s limits by midnight.”
“Don’t you people fly? Did you not invent the wheel in this timeline?”
“Her Eminence flies. Perhaps you could ask her for a ride.”
“There’s no other way to get to Ruma?”
“What’s wrong with the frog?”
Harris took a deep breath and tried to quell his stomach in anticipation of the inevitable. “We’ll go,” he said, starting toward it.
Once inside, Harris tried to compose himself. It wasn’t right to look so anxious when children and old women looked about as nervous as if they were on a bus back in his hometown of Philly. You took off your shoes in the frog and stepped across that squishy floor to a seat that was actually sunk into it. The seat was harder than the floor, maybe cartilage. Light shone through transparent strips of skin on either side of them. The whole cabin rocked as the creature twitched its enormous leg. Harris jumped and Dumac chuckled.
“You’re good fun, Hars, you know that? I’m enjoying my day.”
“Well, that’s swell. I’m glad I can entertain.” Dumac was a jolly asshole, but better to talk and keep his mind off of what was to come. “For what it’s worth, I want you to know that I don’t give a damn about what the Hard Philosophy is.”
“Empress Tocsa doesn’t give a damn that you don’t give a damn. She gives a damn if Barus has it.”
“You know about the CoreHeart?”
“What’s a CoreHeart?”
“I don’t know that either. Barus’ advisors told me if they had the Hard Philosophy they could punch a hole through the CoreHeart and cripple the Galactics for good.”
“Your enemies are Galactics?”
“Just a name. Sort of a joke. They control most of Earth, all of Mars, quite a few asteroids. Basically all of humanity but central and southern Italy and Sicily.”
“Oh, Christ!” Harris said as he jerked in his seat. They were suddenly in the sky. He was heavy, so heavy until he was lighter than he had ever been and then he and everything around him fell. And fell. And his stomach was left somewhere far behind. Harris’ legs instinctively kicked. He needed to grab something but there was nothing to grab. Dumac put an arm over him like the bar on a roller coaster car. Harris took hold of it and felt a fool. He pushed it away. Outside, treetops suddenly came into view. Harris saw three large, gummy frog toes wrapped around a cypress tree and their descent halted as if they had fallen onto a trampoline. With a lurch, they were up again.
“Oh, Jesus, Lord and Savior,” Harris said.
“You found a way to defend yourself,” Dumac said.
“Your Italy. From these Galactics.”
“Uh? Yeah. Physicists in the Vatican, they found a way to move across timelines. It was, ah, six years ago?” They were falling again and his voice rose in pitch as they went down, seeking, seeking the inevitable bottom. “No, it’s 1974. Seven years.”
Springy bottom. They were thrust into the sky once more.
“There’s no way I can take another hour of this!”
“You can stop anytime you want,” Dumac said.
“Door’s that way.” He pointed toward the flap.
“Thanks, jerkoff!” There was nothing outside but sky and the tip of a bolt-grabber in the distance, a leafless, branchless tree, taller than anything around it, its sole purpose was to attract a single lightning strike and channel its energy into the massive underground battery growing around its roots. It never occurred to these people to generate electricity when they could pluck it from the sky. He wondered if a frog had ever impaled itself on one of the bolt-grabbers that rose at regular intervals throughout the forest. If not, he prayed for a first. And if the tree went straight through Dumac on the way, well, one shouldn’t ask God for too much.
“You don’t have tranquilizers on this crappy world?” Harris asked.
“We make them ourselves,” Dumac said, tapping his head.
“Great. Kill me now.”
“You don’t want to die. What about your daughter?”
“I don’t want to talk about my daughter.” Harris panted like the pig-dog. Spit filled his mouth. He thanked God his bladder was empty. “She passed away a couple of years back.”
“A tragedy. I’m sorry.”
“Her name was Lila,” he said and then felt stupid. Stop. Just stop. He’d have to explain what a car was and it just wasn’t worth it. Nothing was worth it. “The Alliance kept me going. Lives depend on what I do.”
He watched Dumac for some reaction, but got none. Snot ran back into his throat, his stomach tightened. He was done talking. He concentrated on deep breaths, swallowed hard. Don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t puke. But deep breaths held their own problems in this stench and he could taste the air. Too many organics here. The Empire enjoyed sitting in its own shit.
These people took an amusement park ride and dubbed it mass transit. No one else seemed to notice any problem. They knitted and napped, their bodies shifting unconsciously to the jerk and sway of the transport. For him though, the outcome was as inevitable as the destination. The vomit burbled in his throat and finally sprayed burning from his mouth and nose. He heard Dumac shout, but didn’t care. Times like these were the only ones during which he thought that he should, as a general rule, chew his food more.
“Eight hours until midnight,” Dumac said. “A quick sleep might do a lot for you.”
Harris stumbled into his room, holding the walls. Between botching the primary mission at the palace in Velzna and the return trip by way of Hell, his body tingled with nervous fatigue.
“No. No time. Just a shower.”
“A bath, I mean. We spray ourselves with water back home.” He made his way to the fizzing chemical bath that always seemed to be running in the middle of the room and started to strip.
“Sounds interesting,” Dumac said from behind him.
“You’re not going to watch are you?” Harris laughed.
“Wasn’t planning to.”
Harris turned around and saw Dumac naked with his clothes at his ankles.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Harris asked.
“I thought we were going to take a bath!”
“I’m going to take a bath.”
“Don’t be greedy, there’s plenty of room for both of us.”
“Look, maybe you got the wrong idea from Grets. I like women. Only women.”
“Same here, my friend. I’ve never gotten intimate with any of my wives’ husbands.”
“Well, where I come from, we bathe alone.”
“Fine then. I’ll just wait here, wearing your vomit.”
Harris climbed in and thanked God that these people didn’t use showers. The bath felt better than sex, more so after the day he’d just had. He needed to import these back to the Vatican. If there still was a Vatican. It might all be smoking ruins right now. If not, they needed him back there immediately to try another avenue for the Hard Philosophy. It might be days, or it might be weeks before he stumbled on another world where it existed. He’d failed utterly here. The Alliance was about to fall and millions of lost lives would be on his head.
But there was the secondary mission, the mission to find himself. In other times it was his primary mission. In his heart, it was always his primary mission. The Alliance needed more Roger Harrises, as many as they could find. No one else could do what a Roger Harris could. Unfortunately there was only one so far in all of the sixty-seven Italies. And that one wasn’t very good at finding others. Italy always had a Rome, or in this case, a Ruma, and Harris searched every single one.
He’d asked to go to the states again and again. That’s where another Roger Harris had to be if he wasn’t here. Clement XV wouldn’t allow it. Harris was far too valuable and the U.S. was enemy territory on too many worlds, and too far away for the kind of speed they needed him for.
He submerged himself and opened his mouth to clean out the taste of puke. He’d brought his toothbrush, but this was the way they did it here. When in Ruma. It would be so easy to fall asleep in this bath. So, so easy to drown.
If he just hadn’t hit her . . .
But he’d hit her before. If he hadn’t stepped forward to hit her again. If she hadn’t . . . If, if, if. Maybe later, a second bath before midnight. There were more important things to take care of at the moment.
He stepped out onto the solid wood floor. The entire building seemed to be one single piece of wood. “It’s all yours,” he said to Dumac. “You got anything to pep a guy up?”
“Indeed we do. We have a little something called kahve. We can stop by a market and get a couple of skins of it.”
“No, that’s all right. We have that too. We call it coffee. I’ve built up a resistance.”
“We’ve tinkered with ours. Have you?”
“I bet you’re not talking cream and sugar. Maybe I will try some of that.”
The kahve had had one hell of a kick. Pushing through the crowds on the streets of Ruma, Harris felt almost cheated that he couldn’t ride the frog again. The wooden and clay buildings lining the stone streets sprouted ferns and wildflowers as if they were part of the architecture. Huge belts ran over rooftops, through warehouses and massive trees, transporting cargo and the occasional human who hopped aboard for a ride. This city didn’t resemble his Rome in the least and he had no idea where to begin looking. Since the chances of finding another Roger Harris in this history were remote, they wandered.
“How do you move between worlds, Hars?” Dumac asked.
“How do I do it, or how do other people do it?”
“You do it differently?”
“I don’t need a machine like the others do. I did need it, the first couple of times, but then I could feel it. Once I felt it, that was it.”
“You’re the only one that can do it without a machine?”
“Yeah, I . . . , ah, hell, what does it matter if I share state secrets, huh? Not like I’ll ever be back here, right?”
“You’re not worried I might visit you?”
“Hell, no, Dumie. I’ll buy you a beer when you get there. But you don’t want any part of that mess where I’m from. Why isn’t Her Eminence worried about more like me, though?”
“Why would she be worried?”
“I’m living proof there are wars raging across timelines. An army, certainly not from the Italian Alliance, but from somewhere, maybe another Rasna, an army could come pouring through any time to wipe you out.”
“An army?” Dumac’s laughter cracked like thunder. “Let them come! Look at us, Hars.” He spread his arm to encompass the masses all around them. All of those perfect bodies. All of those green eyes. “Each one of us is an army. We’ve spread around the Mother Sea in less than a generation. It’s only a matter of time before the world is ours.”
In a square up ahead, Harris was taken by a color statue of ancient King Runis depicted as the war god Laran in a helmet plumed with long blades of a red grass. He had seen this same Runis as a mosaic in Barus’ banquet hall. In both that one and this, Runis held high the head of the man to whom the Etruscans referred as “The Greek,” although Phillip II hadn’t been Greek at all. Dumac might not have been boasting.
“But don’t underestimate an enemy you can’t even imagine,” Harris said. “What if someone else has the Hard Philosophy?”
“That would only help us.”
“So, what? Are you saying you know what the Hard Philosophy is?”
“Of course. Everyone knows it.”
“Mind telling me?”
“I don’t mind but Her Eminence minds.”
Harris yelled to anyone who would listen, “What’s the Hard Philosophy?”
“Give it up, Hars. You’re so well known, these people aren’t even staring at you.”
“That’s it! It’s that mental communication you people have. That’s the Hard Philosophy!”
Harris believed him. Thinking back on the few days he’d spent here, he couldn’t recall anyone lying to him.
A girl, maybe twelve, her skin coffee and cream, looked at him and ran away. Conscious thought seemed to cease within him, but his goose-bumped flesh took over.
“Lila?” he said. He ran after her and maybe Dumac was behind him, maybe not. He’d briefly forgotten that Dumac even existed or that he was on another world. He chased her through the crowds, his heart beating, he thought, faster than it had ever beaten before. He was a creature unleashed, single-minded and built for this one thing, and though he might drop dead at the end, he would achieve what he was created for. She screamed, the young girl up ahead, deeper than little Lila’s screech, but that was Lila.
He could see the edge of her white dress disappearing, reappearing through the forest of legs, whipping like a tail. It was gone and a woman stepped in his way. He looked up to dodge her and saw a handgun leveled at his head. A thin woman in a tight, shiny, pastel purple jumpsuit held it rock steady. She was young, maybe mid-twenties with tight curly hair, her skin a light brown. The whites of her eyes hinted at green.
“Lila,” he said.
“Lilac,” she said. She clubbed him across the face with the gun.
Maybe she wanted him to fall or cry out, but even with his cheek pulsing with sudden pain, he didn’t have it in him. His old man had beaten that out of him a long time ago. He looked this adult Lila in the eye. She was beautiful and strong. She moved her pistol slowly back, ready to backhand him at any moment.
“I’m not the Roger Harris you think I am,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I never met a one of you who wasn’t a son of a bitch.”
“You’ve met more?”
“If you don’t walk away right now, I swear I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll go. I will. I just wanted to tell you and Lila that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I did and I’m sorry for everything he did.”
“Why don’t you tell your real daughter that you’re sorry?”
“You beat her to death?” Lilac asked. Harris felt his face get hot, not from anger but from shame.
“No,” he said avoiding her eyes.
“She ran out into the street.”
“Running from you.”
He nodded almost imperceptibly.
“What the hell is it with you?,” she asked. “Is there something about you that has to plague me, life after life, world after world? You ever find a world where you were nice to me? Where you treated me like a human being instead of an animal? Because I haven’t.”
“Let me make that up to you. Both of you. I swear I’ll do anything.”
“I want you to get away from all of us.”
“All of us? How many of you are there?” A third Lila appeared over the shoulder of the woman he faced. This one looked to be about sixteen. Her top was sleeveless, exposing a tattoo, the flag . . .
“You’re with the Galactics?”
The eldest Lila, the gun-toting Lilac, said, “I’ve spent my adult life rescuing them from you and working to undo what was important to you. You’ll be happy to know that you’re still controlling me. I take consolation in destroying all of your precious Alliances from the inside.”
“The Alliance doesn’t matter to me, Lilac. You do. All of you do.”
“Don’t give me that shit!” she said. “That goddamned Alliance was everything to you. You were never home unless it was to make us miserable!”
“The Alliance let me keep you safe. After . . . Afterward, it was my only chance to find you again.”
She pressed the short barrel of her weapon into his forehead. “Well, it was great seeing you again, fucker.”
From over his own shoulder a large hand shot out like a snake, its thumb dug into Lilac’s wrist. Harris heard Dumac say, “This man is under my protection, Miss.”
Harris said, “It’s all right, Dumac. I’ve done all that I care to do.”
“It’s your right, I suppose.” Dumac eased his thumb off of Lilac’s wrist. “Since you’re going to die anyway, would you care to know what the Hard Philosophy is?”
Harris’ eyes were on Lilac’s and hers flicked toward Dumac. She wanted it too. Or rather, she wanted it.
“I don’t care anymore,” Harris said.
“What is it?” Lilac asked.
“You came to this world like Hars?” Dumac asked Lilac. “Without a machine?”
“I did. We all did.”
“There’s a home for you here,” Dumac said. “For all the Harses”
“You can say fricking ‘Harses,’ but you can’t say ‘Harris?'” Harris asked.
“I sent for Grets when you told me you didn’t need a machine to walk the worlds. Your daughters not needing it, that suggests it’s genetic. You would be people of importance to Her Eminence.”
“We’re not his daughters!” Lilac said.
“Nieces, then. Cousins at worst.”
“You admit I’m not that man, your father,” Harris said.
“You’re just like him.”
“I’m not. I’m deeply, deeply sorry, Lilac. I can be different from him and all those others. All I want is a chance, if you want to give it to me. If not . . .” He shrugged.
“Healthy cells mean a healthy body,” Dumac said.
“What?” Lilac asked. Her weapon was still up, but her tensed hand was tiring. Harris’ head held it in place as much as her fingers did.
“That’s the Hard Philosophy. Healthy cells mean a healthy body.”
“That’s the Hard Philosophy?” Harris said.
“That’s something you’d find printed on a calendar,” Lilac said. “Kitchen table wisdom.”
“Yes for the fat people who want to rush to dessert, that’s kitchen table wisdom,” Dumac said. “But imagine a special people who implemented it. Every individual extraordinary in body, mind, education and empathy. What could a nation accomplish with four-hundred million people like that? I’m telling you this because I’m not worried one bit that anything will come of it. You go tell your Alliance and your Galactics and old Barus Three-Eye and see if any of them do a damned thing with it. See if you yourselves do a damned thing with such transformative wisdom. You won’t and you can’t. You’re pathetic people locked into your pathetic lives. You’re family and you’re at each others throats. Your fellow human doesn’t stand a chance.”
“You really should work in TV movies,” Lilac said.
“I love you, Lilac,” Roger Harris said.
Lilac’s finger tightened on the trigger.
“No! No! No!” Lilac was almost knocked aside by the little girl who pushed at her knees. “Don’t hurt my daddy!” It was her, seven years old. His Lila just as he remembered her. His death wish, just heartbeats before, had disappeared now. Harris fell to his knees and hugged her.
“Lila,” he whispered.
“Daddy! I missed you, Daddy.”
“I missed you too, babydoll,” he managed. His eyes felt hot and runny as he kissed her pudgy cheek. One of them at least, one out of four didn’t think he was all bad. He felt the weight of another young girl at his side and her arm across his back. He reached around and held this Lila too, one he hadn’t seen before, maybe ten years old. She buried herself in him, silent and gripping for dear life. A hand rested on his head. Twelve year old Lila.
“I’m sorry,” he told them all. “I’m so sorry, little Lila.”
* * *
Matthew Sanborn Smith is an American science fiction writer whose work has appeared at Tor.com, Chizine, Albedo One, GUD Magazine, and Challenging Destiny. He contributes to StarShipSofa and has his own podcast at Beware The Hairy Mango.