Rakkel had never heard such a deafening chorus of oinkings. Nor had xe smelled such a concentrated smell of... well, it involved manure, whatever else was in it.
Lemurs do not emit the same scents that humans do. Rakkel, no exception to this rule xirself, had grown up among a palette of smells most stock humans would find unusual, if not necessarily objectionable; xe was used to, speaking broadly, animal smells. But xe was not used to this.
The pigs filled the lot between the market tubes, a churning and grunting sea of pigflesh. Metal fences marked out paths through the morass so that pedestrians could cross the area, but most took one look at the seething horde and chose another route.
In the very middle of it all, Rakkel sat at a booth with a fancy e-paper tablet containing data on all the pigs and a registry of customers. Mme. Flore had shown xir how to select a pig from the database and use xir AR device to display a floating indicator over it so xe could pick it out from the others. Xe wore the device now. Its blocky visor covered xir whole vision, but showed a clear image of the world around xir, captured from the long, narrow lens in its front. Selecting different filters from the tablet would highlight different sets of pigs. Xe played around with this while waiting to make sales.
Rakkel had a little bit of experience handling livestock: Back on the Trolley, there were a few people who kept goats. Xe had no experience whatsoever with livestock on this scale, however. Mme. Flore had contributed a couple of hired hands to help with the physical part of the job, for which xe was very thankful.
Xe had to admire the respect Mme. Flore commanded. Neither of the hired hands had given xir so much as a startled look for being what xe was, much less the cracks and insults xe'd started to become used to from the non-modded. Though Mme. Flore being modded herself no doubt helped with that. More impressive still was the way she'd swept in and taken over the lot - she'd officially registered it, sure, but Rakkel had still anticipated a series of tedious arguments with the handful of hopeful merchants who'd set up shop in the lot early that morning. Instead, Mme. Flore had barely said a word to them, and they'd cleared right out.
The greatest shock of all had come when the pigs arrived in the lot - from above. Rakkel hadn't realized any helicopters remained in good repair from the old days, much less that anyone could obtain enough fuel to use them. The helicopters had that same electric-blue shark image from the curtain in front of Mme. Flore's tunnel emblazoned on their tails. And suddenly, her willingness to pay out five thousand credits a day for Rakkel to do nothing in particular made more sense. Clearly, she had so much money that five thousand credits a day didn't matter to her.
Rakkel wondered if this was xir own goal: To become that rich. Xe thought it would be exciting to own helicopters. But something about it seemed mildly obscene to xir, too, though xe couldn't put xir finger on exactly what. Maybe just that the helicopters burned dirty fuel. Maybe it went deeper than that - not just the helicopters themselves, but something to do with Mme. Flore herself.
Selling pigs, at least, seemed to be going well. It wasn't hard. Xe'd been all ready to practice xir marketplace skills, but the only skill xe'd needed to use so far was xir experience with making xirself comfortable in chairs that hadn't been built to accommodate tail-havers.
All of the pigs were listed with prices in the database. Customers would arrive, look at the pigs, ask xir some questions which xe could only answer by looking things up on the tablet, and register themselves for one or another that they'd chosen based on some criteria entirely invisible to Rakkel. Xe'd haggled vaguely with them at first, found that most of them knew the value of their selected stock far better than xe did, and eventually gave up. Then the hired hands came and sorted the pig out from the others using snares and big plastic boards, driving it either to the gate, where it was handed over to the new owner on a lead, or to a stall erected at the far end of the lot for those who'd make arrangements to pick it up later.
Rakkel barely felt involved. Xe wondered if xe was even needed here at all. But xe had an agreement with Mme. Flore, so xe stayed.
Xe'd brought the book from the bookshop along. When xe wasn't fiddling with xir AR device and the tablet, xe read it. Xe'd almost sorted out the main threads of the tangled history it told, xe thought. Although the author didn't seem to wholly understand it either. At least, xe got the impression that a lot of what they'd written was filler, intended to hide the holes in their own knowledge and pad out the book. Sometimes it seemed even more confused than that. They'd written multiple, contradictory versions of the same events in some cases, or devolved into such incoherence as to resemble glossolalia. Or so it seemed to xir. Sometimes, xe thought it was xir own lack of knowledge in the face of the author's excessively erudite vocabulary that made things confusing; when xe got back to the bookstore, xe intended to pick up a dictionary.
But at the very least, xe was beginning to understand what the island in the center of the rivers had been. Once upon a time, an AI had lived there. Its servers - if xe understood correctly - were housed in the skyscraper. Then, things had gone wrong - Rakkel was still vague on absolutely all of the details here, and "things had gone wrong" was the best summary xe could manage - and the people of Forash had destroyed the tower and walled off the area around it.
And then, and this was the part most shocking to xir, they'd redirected the course of the Sedgeriver so that it and the Aeltspring formed a moat around the walled-off area.
Xe'd known that the courses of the two rivers had been altered in the past. Xe'd never known exactly why, though. Xe'd had some romantic notion of merchant cities fighting ruthlessly and cleverly over the path of commerce, forcing river traffic through one city or another depending on whose geoengineers had been most successful most recently. Maybe there had been some of that, too, in the city's more distant past. Though xe'd always known deep down that it was a fanciful idea, not a realistic one.
Buried in the book as xe was, xe didn't see Welton approach until he was right next to xir.
"So," said Welton, "what exactly is going on here?" He stood in front of the booth, leaning on one elbow that rested aggressively on the surface in front of xir and tapping his thick-nailed fingers with the other hand.
Rakkel yelped and almost flung the tablet in the air.
"I thought I was imagining things when I heard oinking from down the tunnel," he continued. "I should have realized I'd never mistake anything else for the call of my people. But I would never have guessed that the chief perpetrator of this grotesquery would be none other than the lemur of Forash herself."
"You startled me," said Rakkel, belatedly.
"Did I? A guilty conscience, perhaps?"
Rakkel looked from Welton's eyes glaring through his spectacles, to his ears, to the smirk on his snout. Xe couldn't tell how serious he was being.
"I'm not a 'herself,'" xe said.
"Don't change the subject. I want to know where you got these pigs, who they're being sold to, and why."
"Madame Flore, assorted customers whose privacy I have no right to violate, and I have no idea," xe said. "Is that a problem?"
"Are they being mistreated?"
"No worse than I am."
"Hmm," said Welton.
"Actually," said Rakkel, "they've been given water, and I haven't."
"Who's Madame Flore?"
"Did I not mention her to you earlier? She's..." And then xe hesitated, realizing xe wasn't sure how to describe her. "She's a local businesswoman," xe finished.
"What's that even supposed to mean?"
"Look, I don't know." Rakkel pulled Welton closer, shooting a glare at the hired help, who were now pointing at Welton from some distance away and snickering in exactly the way they hadn't when Mme. Flore had introduced xir to them. "I think she's into some heavy stuff," said Rakkel, quietly. "I've been reading this book, and I think the skyscraper she's-"
"Like what, black market organ-growing?"
Welton pulled back. "What do you think people are using these pigs for after they buy them? Pets?"
"No, obviously not. I mean, I hadn't really thought about it. They're livestock."
"'Livestock' doesn't mean anything. Why are people buying them? Think about it."
"I know some people back home who keep goats," said Rakkel. "For the milk. And they shave their fur to make-"
"Who drinks pig milk?"
"Who," said Welton, "drinks pig milk?"
"I don't know. I've never heard of anyone drinking pig milk."
"Exactly. We're difficult creatures to milk, and humans don't like the taste anyway."
"A lot of these pigs are male, anyway," admitted Rakkel. "Hey, how about you, then? Do you like the taste of pig milk?"
"I'm an adult. I don't drink milk," said Welton.
"Anyway, no, I don't. It's gross. But this is all beside the point. These aren't pet pigs. They aren't dairy pigs, because that's not a thing. Certainly, nobody's going to shear them for their fur. So what's left?"
"They aren't being used for meat, either," said Rakkel. "People eat vat meat around here, right?"
"Don't they?" Rakkel looked troubled. "Doesn't Doople-"
"-complain sometimes about how people still insist that 'real' meat is tastier than the stuff he grows, even when his is chemically and structurally identical? Or that vat meat is 'unnatural' and therefore bad? Yes. Anyway," said Welton, "I'd rather not talk about Doople right now."
"Oh," said Rakkel. "Yeah. I take it you still haven't reconciled with him, or passed his test, or whatever. How are you holding up?"
"Don't change the subject," said Welton again. "I'm fine."
"But, look," said Rakkel, "Doople complaining is one thing, and people saying dumb stuff about the food they're buying from him hardly means much. It's quite another to say that people are buying these innocent pigs - in broad daylight in the middle of the market, no less - to kill them all for their meat. I don't think I can believe that."
"Maybe not," agreed Welton, "although it sounds to me like you're used to this stuff being more taboo than it actually is around here. People in Forash eat slaughter meat. My parents ate meat from dead animals all the time. And there are plenty of places around the market where you can buy live animals, no questions asked, for whatever purpose you'd like. Though not usually on the scale of whatever this is." He waved a hand around at the pigs. "But let's say you're right, and most of these pigs aren't being sold as meat. What then?"
"I guess I don't know," said Rakkel.
"Black market organ transport," said Welton.
"Oh, come on! That's ridiculous. Nobody's done that sort of thing since-"
"Bio modding is expensive," said Welton, "and some of the parts for the equipment are scarce, being made of non-renewables. On the other hand, the technology for growing custom organs inside a pig's body is well-established. Or if you're doing some ethically questionable bio-experimenting and you want to keep it alive and secret, it's easy to implant in a pig."
"Ridiculous," insisted Rakkel. "Ridiculous and totally baseless. Do you see any weird bio-experiments, or extra kidneys?" Xe waved a paw at the pigs. "No. You just see pigs. Because that's all there is to see. Anything else is jumping to conclusions."
"Then what are the pigs for?" asked Welton. "What are people buying them for?"
"It's none of my business," said Rakkel. "I'm here to sell goods, not interrogate people. But I'm sure it's fine. Most people wouldn't do anything nasty to innocent animals like these."
"You just don't want to admit it to yourself. But you know I'm right. Would you sell me to one of these precious customers of yours, if they wanted to buy me and had the money? Since you're so sure these pigs aren't being mistreated."
"Of course not! But that's different. You're not really- oh, hello."
Welton stepped to one side and turned to see what was casting the shadow over him.
"Hello," said the newcomer. "I'm here for numbers 43, 44 and 45."
Rakkel said nothing.
Welton looked over at xir. As soon as the person had spoken, xe'd become frozen with shock, xir eyes bulging and xir mouth agape.