The Century Worm
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[BEGIN ARCHIVED TRANSMISSION]

Teltanigan Rimegold, sitting in his bed of red and saffron, looks down at his hands.

To him, they are the hands of a near-ghost. Nails gray-white. The flesh thin like cellophane, easily torn. Bones visible and brittle. Cheesecloth wrapped around rods of glass.

He looks at them too long, and begins to feel his hunter draw in around him. A contraction about his body and soul. One of the hands reaches for a dial by the nightstand and turns it. Four hundred and sixty four different lights in the room increase their luminosity very slightly. He feels better. More visible.

The shadow is pushed back again.

Teltanigan Rimegold is one hundred and nine years old. He is unable to walk without assistance. He no longer undergoes what could accurately be called bowel movements. The teeth in his skull are artificial and more expensive than some personal vehicles, but he has never used them for anything. His body, weighing only just more than a bag of sand, is sustained by intravenously-supplied nutrient fluids and the same hatred that has squeezed his heart for more than a century. He ingests so many pills every day that his urine bubbles and glows bright orange-pink when exposed to cleaning fluid.

Teltanigan Rimegold is the wealthiest man in the world. He has not spoken to anything other than non-sentient medical machinery for two months. This is by design. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have, across the last seventy-two years, attempted to have him killed in no less than forty-four distinct ways. He has anticipated and foiled each. Every one of them is written down in a little book.

He is not so naive or self-comforted that these tries upon his life seem unwarranted. Teltanigan knows more than nearly anyone alive the realities of the things he has done to survive this long. He is one hundred and nine years old because many other people are not.

At the age of eleven, young Teltanigan killed for the first time. At age fourteen, he did it again, but by choice. By age twenty he had learned not to love it, but to appreciate it, as a carpenter appreciates a good table. By twenty-five he had begun offering loans in a building with clean walls and complimentary coffee, instead of on the opposite end of a knife in a dark alley. By fifty he owned the largest banking corporation in the world, and was, as an individual man, a larger economic body than some nations.

Teltanigan Rimegold has had seven wives. By the time the most recent one died at the age of eighty-two, he had not seen or spoken to her in fourteen years. He never learned her maiden name, and was informed of her passing by an automatically-generated message, which he deleted that morning along with seventy-eight others.

Most of his children are dead, some through natural causes. A handful of the younger ones have held on without succumbing to this or that, and, he imagines, are merely waiting to feast upon his unprecedented corpse when he is done breathing. As with many things, he is correct, though he is unsure that he will leave one behind at all.

He has summoned one of these prospective heirs today. The eldest living, his fourth or fifth. A pinch-faced old shrew in her late sixties who inherited nothing of his intelligence but everything of her mother’s parasitism. She is, in many ways, every bit her father’s daughter - hateful, conniving, vicious, greedy. These are not the reasons Teltanigan detests her. He is avatar of all of them on this earth.

What he hates about Sargissa is that she is unaware of her own putrescence. She is drunk from her own cup alone, poisoned by the idea that she is pure, and good. Teltanigan is unsure how this happened. Teltanigan has been baffled for more than one hundred years how any Rimegold could ever look in the mirror and see anything other than more of the rot that has poured from him all his life. Teltanigan does not hate sin, nor the sinner - he hates the one who sprays perfume on decay.

The parlor four floors above informs Teltanigan that his daughter has arrived. He orders the drones to confiscate all her belongings and usher her to the lift. She balks, then snaps at the machines, snarling as they seize her lavender velour purse. Gripping its strap and refusing to let go, teeth bared. Like a wolf tugging on the last skein of meat. One of the drones thuds forward, steel and rubber foot unable to mark the impervious black tile floor. It lights a power blade and threatens to bring it down, somewhere, be it on the purse’s straps or Sargissa’s arm. It is a machine and does not have an opinion. Sargissa releases the accessory, nearly toppling over with the suddenness. On her face is a look of rage, humiliation, and fear.

Teltanigan watches as she smooths her pantsuit and preens her hair as the lift descends, flanked by drones on either side. The rage and humiliation drain from her waxen face. The fear does not, though she tries to hide it with a smile that, for all its practice, fails to rest easy on her face, and gives the impression of a plastic mask.

The only person this woman is capable of deceiving is herself.

When the lift touches down, Rimegold opens the vault door at the far end of the windowless chamber. Sargissa, having been here before, is already wearing a large pair of blackout glasses to protect her from the room’s hundreds of lights. She throws her arms wide and strides forward with that plastic smile.

Daddy!

One of the war drones on Teltanigan’s left stomps forward and extends an electrified impaler and an assault cannon. Its collar lights flash red and it emits a rumbling electronic warning tone. She stops dead before she can become so, standing half the room away from his bed.

Her smile cracks, but does not shatter. She knows better.

“Oh, Daddy. Is this really necessary?”

Teltanigan drags a breath into his lungs.

“Your second bastard, one moon previous, dispatched to me a letter. Its scriptural contents were diffuse sewage. Four pages of logorrheal tripe concocted to winnow my sympathies. Engineered with talent commensurate to its author - a heavily concussed root vegetable, by the texture of it. This is not what offended me. Stupidity is benign in itself, and to grow incensed at the platitudinousness of men is to declare war upon the rain.

“It did not offend me, Sargissa, that each letter of your son’s missive to me contained so many autolysing microcnidarian neurotoxin discharge cells diffused throughout its ink that I could have killed an elephant by waving the page in its general direction. Your malice is no mystery to me - I am the one who gave it to you.

“No, Sargissa. What offended me was that, of all things, of the hilarity of the writing and the blatant evil in the act of poisoning, of the audacity and self-assumed grandiosity that must have gone into such a plot, you signed your son’s name on the final line. I know Bartulio. He is a large, humble boy with a head full of oatmeal and a heart as broad as the plains that ripened it. Of my grandsons, he is perhaps the least infested. If I were as stupid as he is, I would have had him killed for the letter that bore his signature. And you know I would have.”

Sargissa is motionless, like a photograph in a mirror.

“It is thus, Sargissa, that I sit here. Offended. By you, of all the things that scuttle across this wretched earth.”

Teltanigan silently orders his defense automatons to charge all available weapons. The chamber, already blinding with light, fills with a bowel-shuddering thrum of electricity and steel.

“So, yes. My security measures are necessary. I am unbearably old, but I am as immature as a lamb, and I cling to life still. If you wish to break my grasp of it, then I have brought you closer than you have been in years. You are ill-suited to scheming, my daughter - perhaps brute force will avail you better. All you must do is defeat my machines. Proceed.”

Sargissa laughs, in the way a poor engine sputters rather than starts. “Oh, Daddy… You must be confused. Bartulio wrote that letter. And yes, I am quite cross with him, and I will have words the moment he returns from his expedition. Please, tell your robots to settle down, there’s no need for all this.”

The machines’ weapons do not power down. “Perhaps you’re right, Sargissa. Perhaps I am confused. My mind is not what it once was, after all. Perhaps you should leave, before my befuddlement leads to a slipped trigger.”

She cannot leave. Leaving now would mean she was swept out at gunpoint, which even someone like Sargissa would realize meant jeopardy for her inheritance.

Sargissa puts a hand to her face, which is draining of color. “Oh… I don’t feel…”

And she crumples to the floor, as though deactivated.

Teltanigan sighs.

Sargissa’s decades-long addiction to medical-grade stimulants has battered her circulatory system to the point that her veins could be used as bridge cabling. Prone to syncope if stressed. Sargissa is very aware of this, and will often work herself into a lather and faint to inflict guilt on an offending party. Unfortunately for her, this trick is no longer new to anyone. All it does is cause her to wonder why she doesn’t get invited to as many parties anymore.

Rimegold orders the foremost drone forward and directs its electric impaler to touch her wrist. The jolt is enough to shock her back to consciousness with a yelp, and she scuttles back from the huge machine.

“It is far too late for either of us, Sargissa. Do it again, if you wish. I will shock you awake until your heart explodes.”

Disoriented and sweating, Sargissa stands unsteadily. “You called me here, Daddy. You called me here, for what? To push me around? I’m not as young as I used to be, I shouldn’t be subjected to this sort of treatment. I know you don’t care for me much, but this is too far.”

There is a tear in her eye. If fainting doesn’t work, surely crying will.

Teltanigan’s voice, though century-old, is hard and heavy like iron bars.

“I will hear you admit it.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t understand, Daddy.”

“Do not test my patience, Sargissa. I have little time left in this world and I will not spend what remains wading waist-deep in your buffoonery. You will admit your plot to me, here and now. You have never once in your blessedly long life taken accountability for anything. You have never earned anything. Your hands have never been stained and you have never once been hungry. You feel your name is carved upon this world, though you have never left the dark safety of your cave to write it. So we will shine a light now. Be you blinded by it or no, you will be seen. So I will hear you admit it. Now.”

Sargissa knows that admitting her plot would mean incontrovertible proof that she had attempted to kill her father. The inheritance would be destroyed. But refusing his demands would mean the same.

“No. I mean - I don’t… I don’t know what you mean, Daddy. What did I do to upset you? The letter? We’ve been over that already, that was Bartulio. He was probably drunk, the horrible boy. Like his father.”

The four hundred and sixty-four lights in the room grow brighter. Agonizing and inescapable. Teltanigan moves his vision from his machines to his own eyes, milky and ruined, and he feels he can almost see it again. The glare burns his skin and he feels cleaner than he has in years. Sargissa raises an arm in front of her face.

“Daddy stop, it’s too bright-”

The hum of electricity swells like the sea.

Unable to see, Sargissa cannot resist when one of the war drones in a corner lurches forward and grips the back of her skull. It lifts and holds her up as a screen descends from the ceiling before her face. The drone pries her arm away and removes her blackglasses. She screams.

“You will stare into the glare of you, Sargissa.”

On the screen is footage of her at her desk, printing the poisoned letter. Her eyelids are pulled open by the steel hooks of an unfeeling hand as the past version of her directs the printer needle. The hidden camera zooms to see it write Bartulio on the final line.

She continues to scream. Her eyes redden in the unbearable light.

The machine releases her. She falls to the ground, landing on her knees. The plastic blackglasses clatter somewhere. The lights dim, but only somewhat. Just enough that the elder Rimegold can barely see them.

From the sarcophagus of his bed, he gives his edict.

“Confess. Or be blinded.”

Clutching her burned eyes, Sargissa sobs from the floor before blearily taking her feet once more. She opens them then, tears streaming down, to look directly at him in hate.

“Fine. It was me. I made that letter. I tried to kill you, you horrible old bastard. Is that it? I’d ask you if you’re happy now, but I know you aren’t. You never have been, and you made sure none of us were either. It’s unbelievable that this is some kind of revelation for you. You’re pathetic.”

Teltanigan nods once.

“In many ways, I am pathetic. I afforded you all things that other families could only dream of, not realizing it was something they had that I could never give you. Something I was never given, and so could not give in turn. Not with all the money in the world could I make it for myself, and for that… yes. Pathetic suits me.”

Sargissa spits on the spotless floor. “Spare me, you dried up piece of shit. Your funeral won’t have an audience and that’s not anyone’s fault but yours.”

Teltanigan knows as well as anyone else that, if his funeral were to happen at all, it would be attended by thousands. And that is the true tragedy.

Sargissa shows nothing but contempt and defiance. “So? What now? Going to have me disappeared like Lunio and Mulgrim? You got what you wanted. That’s what happens next, I guess. You get to be a big man and kill your daughter.”

She already knows how this will end.

Teltanigan smiles. “Lunio was shot to death when he tried to short the White Hands out of their cut of the biggest shipment in the gang’s history. Mulgrim simply drank himself to death. Many of my children and some of my grandchildren are dead, yes, and while I make no attempt to conceal my own murders, I have never slain my own kin. I have never needed to, Sargissa.”

She blinks, confused.

“Therein lies the best irony of my life, perhaps. No, Sargissa, I will not kill you. I will die, sooner than later, and all your wants and needs will be attended to. The rest of your days will be truly yours, to do with whatever you wish.”

Sargissa raises an eyebrow. The gold instinct of her bloodline comes to the surface of her cheeks. “The shares?”

“Dissolved. Distributed evenly.”

Her brow collapses. “You’re not picking an heir?”

“No. The Board will retain its powers, and the rest of the assets will be transferred to automated legal entities with a contract lifespan of fifty years. Perhaps you can inherit your slice of the cake from one of them, if you are accursed to a life as long as mine. Though I’m afraid your crocodile tears may simply run off of them.”

You’re willing your company to a bunch of computers?!

“To a bunch of holding companies staffed entirely by lawyers, technically, but yes. Millions of lives figuratively and literally depend on the company’s solvency and I will not hand the keys to someone who is unable or does not wish to use them responsibly. You, namely.”

Teltanigan’s daughter is red in the face. “This is… this is completely unacceptable.”

“What a shame then, that you must accept it anyway. You are weak and untrained, Sargissa, but more importantly you are disinterested. The burden of operating a machine as massive as Rimegold Incorporated would destroy you, were it not true that you would simply shuffle the responsibility off on someone else the moment it was uncomfortable. You lack strength, but worse, you are unable to see past your own eyelids. If you wish to cause death and destruction, I am afraid you will have to do it on your own. Your allowance is ample - purchase some men with guns, perhaps.”

“Maybe I will, Daddy. Maybe I’ll do just that. One person with the right resources can do amazing things. You taught me that. Strength can be purchased, and I think that is very interesting. Perhaps I should be written out of your will entirely, hm?”

Teltanigan smiles again. “No, Sargissa. Despite myself, and despite your best efforts, you are still my daughter. I love you, and though I have never been capable of proving it, I hope that you will one day rise above the mire of our blood. Before it is too late.”

Sargissa sputters, confused and unable to formulate a suitable response to this, and in that time a robotic servant lurches forward and carries her bodily into the elevator. It ascends with her in it. Some time later, she would express genuine surprise at the realization that this was the last time she saw her father alive. She consciously knew his time must be up soon, but, like a child, could not properly apprehend the notion that there would be a time in which her father did not exist.

With the last conversation had, all is complete. The programs are laid in. Resources allocated. Men have their orders, and the foundations still hold.

There is nothing for Teltanigan to do. His retirement comes in the form of self-induced obsolescence. In the end, only by making himself redundant could he truly see his folly. He sits in the oubliette of his own design, comfortable and alone.

The chamber is programmed to seal permanently and destroy its own locational data in the event of his death. The city is so large and so ancient that its discovery would be essentially impossible. It could happen tomorrow. It could happen next week.

Teltanigan does not touch anything, but the room grows very slightly darker.

It could happen right now.

And though he is unbearably old, Teltanigan is as frightened as a lamb. He brightens the room’s lights until he can see them again, until his skin begins to burn, but it is not enough. He is the wealthiest man in the world, but he is blind and pale, lodged in the bark of the world like a grub. Teltanigan Rimegold is fiercely, ruthlessly intelligent, but he has never been brilliant. He knows he never will be, but decides, for the first and last time in his life, to indulge in a little art.

He summons his engineers.

He orders that they build him a great throne clad in gold.

The throne will contain and carry him, swaddle him in fine robes and drapery. The throne will shine. It will gleam horribly, its surfaces laid in with thousands of lights. It will walk on many legs, as Teltanigan’s cannot. It will attend to his medical needs with hoses and reservoirs of fluid. It will sustain, convey, and illuminate Teltanigan, and it will do these things as perfectly and completely as everything else in his life has.

The engineers tell him this machine will be inordinately difficult to build. They question it - this is vanity, something their patron has never shown. Rimegold says that it is not necessary to be underwater in order to drown. He insists, and decrees that once the machine is proper and complete, none of these men and women will work a day in their lives further, if they so wish.

They continue through their concern, defeated by the money of it.

To attend the throne, to surround and adore it, he commissions a phalanx of drones. Teltanigan takes direct control of their designs. He will bring them form - the engineers will provide only the function.

The engineers, haunted by what they have been made to make, at being the disarticulated hands of a once-proud man gone mad, return to their husbands and wives and children and pets. They try to explain what has gone on, but most are unable to find the correct words. Some time later, they watch the news footage in their homes, and wonder at what they have done.

Teltanigan Rimegold, one hundred and nine years old, is installed within his machine, the beast of gold, both tomb and womb at once. And through the lamplit night streets of the city, he makes a procession of himself.

The great golden throne stomps through the streets, its footfalls ringing like church bells. It walks with the weight of humiliation and death. Before it, traffic is extinguished. The people look on in bewilderment, amazement, fright, when they can look on at all - the construct is nearly too bright to behold.

He is attended by a legion of automatic worshipers.

They are each unique and terrible. Each one is like a person, but exquisitely malformed. When they have them, their faces are expressionless death masks of gold, silver, or brass. They are beautiful and serene. Some are colossal, looming over the canopy of the throne, backs bent in sorrow and bearing long flagpoles, on which the Rimegold family standard billows in the evening breeze above the rooftops. Some are man-sized, armed with swords and shields, blowing trumpets to announce their lord. And some are small, with the faces of babes, many-armed and centipedal, scuttling on the earth and crying wordlessly, unable to express their pain. All of them are mutant, their many arms bearing shining electric torches and spotlights. They are programmed to mourn Teltanigan as he lives, to herald and follow at his palanquin’s feet and to shine their lights on him, to ensure that all will look and see the ancient child, the wizened idiot, the century worm. See it in its armored crib, its glorious gilded cocoon.

They weep for him because they are not sentient. They sing for him, perfectly, because they cannot make mistakes, and the choral dirge washes in the streets like rain.

The gleaming golden nightmare, hundreds strong, goes through the city. No one dares try to stop it. No one knows how. Some flee, and some are spellbound, but all are aware. All can see.

Teltanigan is finally blinded by his own brilliance. He sees nothing, and never has. He only feels a beautiful burning.

There is a malfunction. A stumble - one of the throne’s elephantine feet catches on some geometry of the thoroughfare, and cannot compensate. It groans forward, a cathedral of light leaning, and crashes to one knee. Earthquake detectors throughout the city swear to its truth. Made in so short a time, the machine was not designed to withstand shock. Its power plant, from which cables reel to all its servants, stutters.

For a moment, the parade is silent, still, and dark. In its wake, the midnight street seems as devoid as the sky behind the stars. People murmur. Their confusion is quiet, unable to break the spell.

The throne’s computer complex reboots successfully, and brings power back online. The onlookers are blasted with radiance once more. The leashed drones, alive again, resume their duty. They swing their lights around, to continue illuminating their king, so that all may see him for what he is.

But he is gone.

The seat of the throne is empty. No one is wrapped in the lush crimson blankets. The intravenous tubes connect to nothing, their needles wetting the vacant velvet. The gigantic machine kneels there, motionless and defeated, for there is no one to command it.

In the days following, an investigation is performed. Teltanigan Rimegold, one hundred and nine, is declared missing, not dead. Officials twist their mustaches. Clever men are provided no puzzle pieces. They have no choice but to close the file with a question mark.

The brilliant Golden Baron, finally found by shadow, is never seen again.



[END TRANSMISSION]



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