Head of the Herd - Pt 2 of 5
Two days later and the site had been cleared up. The lab and their swarming forensic bots had carefully dismantled the u-fog and removed its grisly contents, all the while recording the information content of any tech found in the crime scene. With one major exception — the Herd mainbrain was silent, resisting any efforts to interrogate it. Muligan was sure that it held some vital data about the killings - in particular it held a full mind-state backup of Chief Mbuto, which had already been reactivated and was, by all accounts, somewhat annoyed. As soon as the labswarms had declared the area safe, the electronic version of the Headbull within the mainbrain issued a statement and a surprise invitation to all ver friends, associates and enemies. After many standard years of preparation, the Headbull was going to attempt an ascension.

Invicta Policecorps was invited as well, with a brief to maintain order among the many rival factions. No easy task.

The third day arrived, the day when the virtual Headbull Mbuto would cast vis consciousness into the ocean of ascendancy. To become a transapient, Mbuto would need to expand the capacity of vis mind many thousandfold, while completely reshaping its very nature into a new form. If the ascension was successful, this new mind-form would be capable of feats of consciousness far beyond anything a mere sapient could imagine. The ability to contemplate a thousand problems simultaneously, and integrate this contemplation into a coherent whole, was just a part of it. Whichever way you cut it, transapience was weird.

Muligan looked around the site, looking for the weakest points in the security. This wasn't difficult — it was all weak. A great open field surrounding the mudlake, dotted with brightly coloured tents, innumerable flagpoles and temporary structures, including ornate drinking fountains — mostly water, but one flowing red with wine. The Mbuto herd were here already, a mixture of provolved bufallo and half-human minotaurs. The regimenti deGarnie was present, and Muligan approached him directly, sliding sideways through the crowd. Muligan addressed the minotaur with both of his voices combined, indicating that he was speaking as a single entity at that moment.

"This is all a bit bigger than I expected — we will have some difficulty keeping order."

"Yes, I appreciate that, Officer Muligan. Your corps numbers are pitiful. Still, the Headbull asked for you personally. My leftenants are at your disposal, and will follow your orders. Please accept this decrypt key, which will unlock our herd comms." A soft blue light illuminated the minotaur's massive hand, indicating that he was about to send data on a secure contact channel. Muligan touched the hand for an instant and it was done.

Behind the lake a curious low buzzing could be heard, approaching downwind from spinward. A flock of tiny flying humans appeared, settling on the ground no more than ten metres away. Some of the flyers landed on the backs of buffalo, which bellowed in protest. Each of these flying figures was no more than thirty centimetres tall, with large mechanical wings that folded to invisibility.

"Phah - Machine Elves," spat deGarnie. "Insolent creatures."

"We owe much to the Elves," Cyber-Muligan said, speaking independently now. "They are responsible for maintaining and regulating much of the hi-tech left in this habitat. Without them we would be far worse off than we are. They are the only clade currently capable of maintaining the engenerators, for example. Without them we could never be re-embodied after a fatality."

"No-one else can be bothered, you mean," said hu-Muligan cynically. "Oh look, there's our little friend Mimsy. Now we're in trouble."

A female Machine Elf strode towards them, her face like tiny thunder. Ayin Mimosa, well-known to the Invicta corps.
"I thought you'd be here. Spuddy Muligan, the man with two cack-hands. Arrested any more innocents lately?"

"As we have explained exhaustively to you in the past, zar Mimosa," cyber-Muligan said smoothly, "these things sometimes happen in law enforcement. You may have temporarily come under suspicion in the unfortunate Mek-Dozer affair, but that is all in the past -"

"Can it, half-brain. I'm here for the show. And you can put any suspicious thoughts out of your bisected mind — the Elves have nothing to do with this. We only produce insignificant quantities of utility fog at present, and it is all safeguarded against injurious behaviour and subversion. Mostly because of the interference of busybodies like you and the Hab Representatives."

"As recent events have demonstrated, unregulated u-fog can kill."

"Aye, well, you'll not peg this one on me this time, officer."

The arrival of a herd of provolved wildebeest broke into their conversation, followed by that of a numerous group of smartly-attired humans, each walking strangely as if on the toes of clown shoes. O'Braian, a short, sturdy Invicta paycop, scuttled up and reported to Muligan. "These Doran cladistas might cause trouble, Lefty. They pack a lot of hidden tech under their suits. A lot of 'em are even more cyborged than you are. They're fast, too, with those stilt-boots they wear."

"Turns out we have some unexpected allies here today, Beni. The Mbuto herd have volunteered to help with security. Here, I'll send you their channel decrypt over by touch." Muligan placed his artificial left hand on O'Braian's shoulder port.

~Whoo-hoo — now I've got a whole army to play with, O'Braian sent back immediately.~ Let's see them try anything now.

A group of Dorans strutted past, their spring-loaded stilt-boots making them nearly as tall as Muligan; despite their smart tailoring they still walked like chickens.

Last to arrive was the Caffer herd, with their recently-deceased Headbull following dejectedly behind. Like the head of the Mbuto herd, the Caffer Headbull had been properly backed up before his death, so the condition was only temporary - but it seemed that the act of dying had somehow diminished him in status with the rest of the herd. Only a vigilant individual could be the leader of these feisty ungulate provolves — and by letting himself get killed, the old Headbull had demonstrated his lack of proper vigilance. Soon he would be succeeded, perhaps by one of the stronger young bulls at the front of the procession.

In due course all the various herds and special interest groups gathered together around the mainbrain; this was gently glowing red, a crescent-shaped structure fifteen metres long and maybe ten high at the middle. The red glow was heat — some hefty computation was occurring deep in the heart of this device. DeGarnie called for silence.

"My dear colleagues and friends; we are gathered to witness the long-prepared ascension of our esteemed leader, the head of our herd, Chief Mbuto the Eleventh. Processing is nearly complete, and soon a new transapient will walk among us. As you should already know, the Chief had not planned to attempt this ascension for several standard years yet — but recent events have forced his hand. Be assured that, once he has ascended to his new condition, he will perform his duties with a fair and just hand — but his retribution upon those who committed this deed will be terrible."

"Hmm," muttered the Machine Elf, Mimosa, perched on the edge of the wine fountain at Muligan's elbow. Without turning round (which, of course, he didn't need to), cyber-Muligan focused his attention on her.

"You have doubts, zar Mimosa," he said.

"Aye, I do have doubts. Everyone talks about an 'ascension', as if this were guaranteed. There's plenty that could go wrong right now. The ascension could fail, leaving poor Mbuto as a broken mental casualty. Or there could be a complete transcension, and whatever is left would bear no resemblance to the old Headbull. This sort of ascension should only be carried out in controlled conditions- with one or more fully competent transapients in attendance to catch the fallout if it goes wrong. This could turn out to be a disaster."

Hu-Muligan was staring at the mainbrain now with his only human eye — even to that organ changes were becoming apparent. Thin wisps of steam or condensation vapour issued out of invisible vents, writhing above the orange-hot structure. Beams of light emitted from the surface played on this vapour, projecting an image of the old headbull in silhouette. Now his face became visible, glowing strangely. The figure grew until it was twenty metres tall, at least, its horns growing and curling incessantly and covered in carvings that cut so deeply that light glared through. The entity muttered strange words in an ancient tongue, words that Muligan recorded and later translated, much to his bemusement;

Dark revolving in silent activity, unseen in tormenting passions; an activity unknown and horrible, a self-contemplating shadow, in enormous labours occupied...
Yes, said the entity, retribution. I believe in that. As will you.

The light expanded to a vast halo, enclosing a cluster of exploding stars that burst out over the horrified onlookers, then folded like dark wings back in upon itself, the mainbrain suddenly dimmer, cooling to dark red and invisibility.

'Just as well I popped in to watch over things,' said a deep, nasal voice in the ensuing silence. Muligan twisted his head slightly to train as many of his sensors as possible on this new apparition. A light blue phantom sailed down from the sky, difficult to see in the evaporating haze, but it looked like an elephant no larger than a shetland pony. It was clothed in a curious, patterned harness that slowly changed colour and form over time. 'Oh dear. This hasn't gone well, has it. I think I'd better take him home with me. Even if we can't complete the transcension we can make him stable enough to become a useful member of our little club.'

"Told you," whispered the elf from her perch; she was crouching, trying to make herself look smaller still. Many of the observers were prostrate on the ground, in veneration or maybe just trying to hide.

A shadowy figure, coal-black and bull-shaped, emerged from the mainbrain and followed the blue elephant obediently into the sky. 'Revenge, you see. Skewed the distribution curve something shocking. Almost makes you think that someone did it on purpose.'

Muligan could have sworn that the elephant looked right at him when it said that. He shuddered — maybe it was up to him to find out who.

'As you were,' the elephant called, as it vanished into the skydome. 'This is just a flying visit, so to speak. We like to look after our own, if we can.'

O'Braian swallowed, and muttered - "Aye, clear off and leave us in the shit again, matie. Typical."

"Looks like we will have to clear this up without divine assistance, as usual," hu-Mulligan replied. "Never mind — that's what we're paid for, I suppose."

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By Steve Bowers (2015)
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