Deep down in the Atlantic, in a part of the Sea bed that no human had seen for more than 70 lightchanges, Emperor Thurl -- surrounded by his large, stony guards -- scuttles through his living palace to greet the first Overlanders to visit in a long, long time.
He's known this day was coming for many darks, now, thanks to their many eyes on the Overland. Those Highest jelly farmers, who often listened carefully at the Overlanders' ships while plying their trade, had spoken of the massive disruption that had taken place on their 3/15. And they said many things about the curious beings who were now clearly in charge of the world above the Barrier.
Even if those beings had not been telling truly, there was other evidence to consider. On the day they spoke of, the Mother had been attacked in several spots by bright, boiling columns of light. Any who were in them were destroyed as surely as a Highest dragged down to the Kingdom, and any near them were blinded. And in each case, it transpired that, when the beam was gone, and the heat dissipated by the rising cold from the dark below, pieces of Overthings began falling down to the Wet Below.
Their "ships" and "submarines," one and all, had been destroyed by these columns of light.
As a final, more important, consideration, Thurl had not received any fresh demands from the Overlanderkiller -- who called himself SPYGOD -- since this began. That could only mean that he was hiding from these "Imago" like a small mollusk from the foraging octopus. Or it could mean that he had already had his shell cracked open, his meat and innards sucked out, and his empty shell consigned to whatever Wet Below the Overlanders provided for their dead.
To Speak Truly, that would be fine with Thurl. Not because he did not respect the Overlanderkiller, nor because he did not, in some ways, actually like the fellow. But because it would mean that the last, ragged thread of the Great Error would finally be torn, and the Kingdom would at long last be free of The Overobligation.
(Oh please, Mother Dark, let it be so, he prays as he scrabbles down hallways of heaving, bioluminescent drapes hung between the stonebones of the Last Lost, and comes to the mouth of his private chambers.)
"I truly submit," his highest adviser says as Thurl eases himself between his guards, and enters the richly-colored chamber beyond, saluting by extending each claw and leg out and surrendering his neck. The Emperor acknowledges this obeisance by touching the adviser between his eyestalks.
"I truly accept," Thurl replies: "Now tell me truly, what do you make of these new Overlanders?"
"I truly say they are hard to read, my Emperor," the adviser replies, gesturing to the smaller, simpler creatures in the room to swim and scuttle from their niches on the stonebone walls, and adorn their sovereign lord with themselves.
"What mean you, my most esteemed amongst most esteemed?" the Emperor asks, holding his claws out as his living crown jewels float to the top of his carapace, and nestle between his eyestalks.
"I truly declare that they bare their faces, but not their souls. Their minds as as slippery as the Wet Below, yet as hard as the oldest stonebones of the oldest of the Last Lost. Their words are spoken in truth, but I have little faith in that truth. Truly little."
The Emperor looks to the Adviser, and gestures that he understands: "Then tell me truly, wisest of the wise. Do you think this is the beginning of a new understanding with the Overland?"
"I..." the adviser falters: "I regret to be unable to speak truly, except to say that I truly feel we have only exchanged one threat for another."
Thurl takes that under consideration, and then -- suitably attired for such an extraordinary audience -- walks towards the mouth of the throne room, itself. Seven giant pairs of jaws, one nestled inside the other, open in turn, and he and his adviser enter the cavernous room beyond, there to encounter the pair of ambassadors the Overland has sent.
Saying he is impressed by them is severe understatement, but he attempts to remain aloof, leaving the awe and wonder for his most favored of subjects, gathered here to hear their words. An orange and green-armored man floats three clawspans above the floor, next to a yellow and blue woman. Both of them are bare-faced and smiling, apparently not requiring Overgasbubbles to survive.
"O Thurl, Emperor of Atlantis," the woman in blue and yellow says, extending her hands in an attempt to mimic their salute (but not, he notes, bearing her neck): "I truly greet you in the name of the Imago. Long have we anticipated this audience, and we hope that it will bear many happy results for both of our people."
"In the name of the Kingdom, you are truly greeted in return," he says, saluting back, and scuttling over to a rising nest of seatmollusks. And as he sits, so sit all his subjects, save for the guards and his adviser.
"You must have many questions, O Thurl," the orange and green man says: "We are here to answer them, truly."
"Then do me the favor of a true answer," the Emperor says, gesturing with his claws: "Over 70 lightchanges ago, we were visited by a delegation from the Overland. These persons told us many untrue things about the Overland, and what they were doing in it, and for it. I say this truly, and it is known by all."
"He speaks truly, yes," all assembled there said, in unison.
"At the time, the seatribes were not unified. The Highest made war upon the Middle, and the Middle avoided the Lower. So we, the Kingdom, the Keepers of the Wet Below, and harvesters of the stonebones of the Long Lost, knew nothing, save that these beings had traveled far, and needed our aid for their fight for survival. I say this truly, and it is known by all."
"He speaks truly, yes," came the reply.
"So we allied with these Overlanders. We ordered the Warspawn, and sent them after the machines of their enemies when they came into the Middle, and the Lower. We subjugated the Middle to enslave the Highest, and ordered these Highest to attack the Overlanders who would make war on these poor, peace-loving humans. I say this truly, and it is known by all."
"He speaks truly, yes," one more time.
"It would not be until 1945, as you reckon the passage of lightchanges, that we, ourselves, were attacked, here in the Low, in the Kingdom. And on that day, as we were easily and shamefully defeated, we were made to see that we had not been spoken to truly. These Overlanders who came and sought our help, the school known as Germans, had lied to us, and led us astray. And our shame was great at having aided in their belligerence. Sadly, I say this truly, and it is known by all."
"He speaks truly, yes," they repeat, solemnly.
"And so it was that we began the period of The Overobligation, in which we agreed to serve the needs of the Overlanders without question. We pledged to make no Warspawn, to treat the Highest and Middle as though they were the Lowest, and to interfere not with the Overland. We also agreed that, when our services were needed, we would comply, and were given a way to speak and be heard by the Overlanders. I say this truly, and it is known by all."
"He speaks truly, yes."
"It has been many lightchanges since this took place. I have taken three new forms, since that time. And each time, as I come to see my last darks before me, and prepare for the best of my spawn to take my form, I hope that the Overobligation will end in that formlife. I hope that we will be recognized by the Overlanders as a sovereign nation, and have a voice at the table of the world. I hope that we can, at last, have meaningful conversations about the toxins the Overland poisons Mother with, and the waste dumped into her. And while I have never shared this with anyone, save my Advisers, I share it with all, now, and I speak truly."
The assembled are silent, and the two Imago seem to change their expression, just a little. What it has changed to, Thurl cannot say, but he continues on.
"So I ask you to tell me truly, Emissaries of Imago: now that you are in control of the Overland, and now that you have the destiny of these humans in your grasp, will we be allowed, at last, to be free of our shame of so many lightchanges ago? Can the Overobligation be over, at last? Can we join you as an equal partner in this planet's destiny? I ask you to tell us all truly."
And with that, Emperor Thurl rests, and waits for their reply. His adviser seems to be chittering in what is either worry or anticipation.
"O Emperor Thurl, O people of the Kingdom of Atlantis," Orange and Green said, extending his hands out: "We tell you truly that the Overobligation is finished. You are no longer bound to the mistakes of your past. You are truly free."
"And," says Blue and Yellow: "We truly tell you that, now that the Overland is being aided and guided, it will not be long before you are welcome to join it as an equal partner. Much work remains to be done, up above, but when we are ready, you will be welcome at the table."
"But in the meantime," Orange and Green adds: "We truly pledge to you now that the days of Mother being treated as a place to dump poison and refuse is over. You will no longer be bothered by explorers or drills or other such things. Mother will be left alone by the Overland, we truly say to you."
"Then we rejoice on this day," Emperor Thurl says, rising to his claws and raising all extremities in joy: "Truly, a new era has begun for the Kingdom!"
And all his subjects rise up as one and cheer.
Soon, there will be rejoicing, and swimming, and spawning. Songs will be sung, poems scrawled on the stonebones, new structures grown and old ones eaten. Older denizens will at long last give up their formlifes to their best spawn, to signify the new age that had arrived, and the first word they will speak upon waking up from the deathlifedreamsleep is "freedom."
As for Thurl, he and his guards will venture far from the Kingdom out into the great mountains nearby. Once there, they will throw the infernal device that allowed the Overlanderkiller to call down and order him about into the yawning, hungry abyss of the Black. There, it will eventually fall into the Red, and be melted or covered up when Father feels like stirring, yet again.
It will be a new era, filled with promise and long-denied opportunity. Thurl is sure of it.
But when he sits down in his private chambers to rest, and allows himself the luxury of dreamsleep, he can't help but wonder about the words of his most trusted of advisers. And he wonders if maybe he's just exchanged one form of servitude for another.
(SPYGOD is listening to Deep Ocean, Vast Sea (Peter Murphy) and having an Anchor Steam)