977 was special. It was indivisible, which was important to his people. Not as special as if he had been a mother as well, of course. But the people expected great things from him.
The Creator thought this was nonsense, but was willing to let them think what they liked. It made no difference to him.
He was woken up one morning by the jostling of 936. "Important mission," he said. "It could be dangerous."
He roused himself, got his feet under him, and made his way to the Creator's room.
It was still a fairly ramshackle affair. The other servants of the Creator were still building up their new base of operations.
"Ah, there you are, 977" the Creator said, smiling down at him. He arched his legs with pride that the Creator recognized him. Of course, they said the Creator knew all of his children by sight. "You're here for the special mission?"
"Here for the special mission," he agreed.
"It will be dangerous," the Creator warned him. "There is a particular individual who has been sighted not far from our encampment. A former subject of the dearly departed Foundation. Like so many others, he's escaped and could do considerable damage. But he could be quite valuable as well."
"Not far?" he asked.
"A few days walk or so for you. If you'll look at the wall, I've prepared a map. Study it. Also look at the drawing. It's not perfect, but it should give you an impression of what you're looking for."
He looked at the materials hanging on the wall. The map was simple enough, just a point north and west of their camp. The drawing looked something like the Creator, but cruder. Larger mouth and teeth.
"Now, you must be careful," the creator admonished. "You are only to find information and return. Do not fight unless you are in danger. This is important. Do you understand?"
977 repeated it back verbatim. He would not fail the creator.
"Splendid. I only need to know where he is. Be careful. My control over this territory is tenuous as yet. We cannot afford the sort of losses he could inflict."
977 gave a salute in acknowledgement and hurried away.
Before he headed out, he stopped in the Mother Hall. The walls and ceiling were still rough. They hadn't had much time to prepare their new home. It looked primitive, but he knew in time it would be a work worthy of his people.
971 saw him enter. She was beautiful. To his eyes, she was everything a mother should be. He hurried over to her.
"My mission is important!" he told her. "You are to know."
"You are important," she said.
"I only need to find information," he said. "I understand my important mission."
"You are important," she repeated. "I need my important."
He touched her gently. "I will be careful," he said.
She made a small buzzing sound and tapped him gently on the head, a gesture of affection. He felt a small rush of elation, and knew he would do anything to protect her.
"I will return," he promised, and left.
He was soon outside of their encampment with its crude tunnels and shelters. The beginnings of something, he hoped, greater than it was. The Creator would see them through. He just needed to do his part.
When he reached the water, he waded in and was soon making his way slowly from one place of concealment to the next.
Several times, he was accosted by wildlife. Each time, he was able to dissuade or, in one case, disable and kill it. He did lose one leg to a small crocodile, but he suffered no serious injuries.
It was three days before he came across signs of something intelligent. A circle of stones filled with ashes. Stakes for setting a tent. The crushed and broken skull of a deer. He considered going back, but decided to wait until he had sighted the monster. The closer he was able to pinpoint the monster, the easier it would be for the Creator to find and deal with it.
He rested nearby in a still pool before venturing on.
Soon he saw the smoke of a fire. He was excited, but still kept his pace slow, deliberate. The monster mustn't see him. He kept to the shallows and slowly crept forward.
He was getting near where he'd seen the smoke when bamboo walls closed around him. He tried to escape, but they boxed him in, and the frame he hadn't seen was lifted from the water. A colossal form, like the Creator but much bigger, stared down at him. The picture on the wall hadn't captured the size of the thing or the power. Its fleshy body bulged with muscle.
"Oh, this is a bit much. I have not seen a crayfish this big since New Orleans was still a place. Tell me, little one, do you go well with butter?" Its accent was strange. Nothing like the clear, crisp diction of the Creator. It didn't help that it kept its teeth shut.
977 thought quickly. He had to find a way to break free, warn the Creator, warn the people. "You still have not seen a crayfish," he said, trying to buy time.
"Merde! You're a talkative little one, aren't you?" The monster laughed. "Tell me, what is your home?"
"From New Orleans," he said. His eyes darted back and forth, trying to find some escape, some hole he could slip down, if he could only escape the cage.
"Is that so? Then we must have a Mardi Gras. Come, let us dine, little one! My food is all well done." The monster moved in large, loping steps, its posture hunched. It set the frame on log where the butchered remains of a crocodile were set out. Organs and viscera were torn and strewn about.
"Let me go?" he asked.
"And lose my guest? Non. We must be friends. Do you not know to whom you speak? I am the great artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. You should be honored." The monster laughed even harder at that. More seriously, it added, "I am also King of France. But I am sure that you knew."
"Henri-" 977 began.
"King Henri," the monster corrected.
"King Henri, what is your home?" he asked. He needed to stall a bit longer.
"I am from the moon," the monster said. "I rode down on a chariot of gold. It was pulled, of course, by the sun."
"Of course," he said.
"I landed in a sea of champagne. It was so good! I lie. It was cheap. Probably made in California. But the fish were still pretty merry, no?" It winked at him, one giant bloodshot eye staring down.
"Still pretty merry," he agreed. He considered trying to cut his way out of the cage, but the bamboo was thick, and he felt it would do nothing but dull his blades. Better to save those for the monster, if all else failed.
"But tell me, which way did you go to come here?" the monster asked.
"I rode down on a fish. From the sun," he said.
"Oh, I think you are telling lies to Fernand. That is not good." The monster flicked a finger against his body. It hurt, and there was a small cracking sound. Then he felt himself hefted up and set on the log. "Now, I have been so terribly patient. But there is nothing I would like more than to find others like you to dine with. You wouldn't make poor Fernand unhappy, would you?"
"There are no others," he said. He wondered if he could make it to the water. He was sure he was quicker than the monster, but it had those great long legs, and it could probably move much faster once it got going.
"You lie!" the monster roared, and slammed a fist on the log. Splinters flew up, and he almost fell off. He scrabbled against the bark to keep his footing. "Now, you will tell me where they are! Fernand grows hungry, little shrimp!"
977 felt a great burning anger grow inside. This monster, this lump of malformed flesh was planning to eat the people. He thought of them, of beautiful 971, of the Creator, and he knew this could not happen. He spat into the monster's eyes. It blinked, and they were sealed shut.
A fist lashed out at the log, but 977 had already moved out of the way. He scuttled forward and off the log, until he was behind the monster. He reached out, and made a small cut. A leg collapsed. Another cut, and the leg was dead. He danced around a kick, and he cut another tendon, and another, and the monster fell, clutching the log in a vain effort to remain upright.
"Arrête ça! Sortez!" the monster bellowed. It twisted and a massive fist landed inches from 977's carapace. He cut another tendon, and the fingers spasmed, useless. He moved in and cut again, and the arm fell limp.
But the other arm came down, and this time a fist as large as he struck him. He heard himself crack, could feel fluid leaking out. But he wasn't finished just yet.
"I'll rip you apart and suck out your flesh. I will find you!" the monster screamed, thrashing with its only working limb.
977 reached out and made a few final cuts, and the arm fell limp. Now the monster could do little more than bellow and arch his back. 977 crawled away as best he could, finally lying in a heap nearby, out of the monster's reach. Fluids were still seeping slowly from his shell, so he spat again, and sealed himself, and rested.
"Well, what do we have here?" a voice said sometime later. 977 looked up, and saw the face of the Creator, looking concerned.
"Here I am," he said. His voice seemed odd. Far away, almost.
"Oh dear. You did get rather badly dinged up." The Creator reached down and touched him gingerly.
"Well done?" he asked.
"What? Oh, yes. Yes. Very well done indeed, 977. You have done better than I could have hoped. But I'm afraid you may be beyond helping."
"It is well," he said. "Home. Home is well."
"Yes. Thanks to you." The Creator stood. "And here we have Fernand. Splendid."
"Who is this? Show yourself, coward! Fernand will have your head in his belly!" The monster thrashed as best it was able, but it could no more reach the Creator than it could the moon.
"Dr. Mann, at your service. Or rather, you'll soon be at mine. I have so wanted to work with you." The Creator placed his hands together gleefully as the shapes of New Men emerged from the swamp.
"No! No! I will not have it! I will not—" He was cut off as another of the people spat and sealed his mouth. Others crawled forward and finished 977's work as the New Men went to work with ropes and chains.
The Creator reached down and picked 977 up. "Come on, then, chap. You might not be done yet. And if you are, it'll be a hero's funeral."
A hero. 977 could live with that. Or not, as the case might be. He settled down in his creator's arms and began to dream of 971.