Archive for August, 2012

Storytime: The Riders.

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

An old man sits at a dusty, fly-speckled table made of some sort of blatantly prehistoric wood, bottle in hand, mind in the bottle. His hair is a wavy-washy mane of white shrubbery turned grey by lack of showering. The clutter of the antique shop surrounding him camouflages his body nicely, turning it into another of the obscure, half-cracked shapes that infest his surroundings. Every single item in the entire building is broken, including the small pocket-watch he is examining.
The little hand is stuck on half-past ‘almost-time,’ and is thusly stuck on a very small and high-pitched whining chime. It has been stuck there for over one hundred thousand years.
“Fuck it all,” says the old man, much too loudly, and gets up. A coat that looks like it was formerly a mangy bear is donned, and approximately sixty-three different small and oddly shaped items that were crammed into its pockets spill out all over the place and fly underneath the various tables in the building, never to be seen again.
The old man sighs in a way that cuts like a curse and leaves on his beaten bicycle. He stops three times in the first mile to patch holes in his tires.

This is a different table, a streamlined table, a modern table. An ergonomic table. A table that has been designed five times over to optimize educational throughput and dynamically engage the learning capabilities of its students. The chair hurts your back, and the young woman sitting at the table has solved this problem by dissolving her backbone and turning her entire body into one big, perfect, utterly graceless slouch. It’s breathtaking.
Class has been over for five hours, but the air still reeks of desperately infinite dullness. If you took a good long breath and held it – forever – you might glimpse the platonic ideal of tedium.
The clock ticks once every second-and-one-five-hundredth. The last one was noteworthy, and a signal. So the young woman draws herself to her feet in a sort of sustained shrug, drags herself outside of the deadened space, and trudges down the street, battered sneakers leading the way, eyes leaden.

Sneezes. So many sneezes. One two threefourfixevenightine blurring over and under each other into a number beyond numbers. It’s a wonder the old woman can keep her brains in her head the way she’s rattled by them, though the hiccups seem to be stabilizing her. A shake of her head and a last, titanic eruption and she’s free from the grasp of the hay fever and back to scratching the bumpy red skin on her forearms and cursing.
“Pollen,” she mumbles. “Damned pollen. Always the pollen. Must be dandelions or something or other.” A cough, a snort, and she’s nearly blinded by the rheumy gunk in her eyes: scrubbing and more swearing is her answer.
The alarm clock goes off and a migraine thunders down upon her forebrain from the top of her spine, a herd of angry and spiky thoughts that almost blot out the timepiece’s message: better get going.
“Shit,” she says. And sneezes. And after putting a few dozen boxes of tissues into her purse she and her motorcycle are off and away down the highway, both of them hacking fit to burst.

The site of meeting is a run-down old stretch of road somewhere on earth, dusty and dirty and an insult to pavement.
“We’re here?” asks the old man
“We’re here,” agrees the old woman.
The young woman musters the bare minimum of a shrug.
“We can’t be here,” says the old man. “It’s missing. Lost again? AGAIN?”
“It’s always lost,” says the old woman. “That’s how it WORKS.” She winced. “Don’t start this again, you know how it makes my hemorrhoids-”
“I don’t need to know that.”
“Then hush up and get going. We’re wasting daylight. You ready, Borry?”
The young woman looks up. “It’s Boredom,” she says. “You know that.”
“Good. Let’s get trit-trotting then.”
And so the three set out, arm in arm, side by side, one trudging, one peddling, one motoring: all at the same pace, all in the same place, across the world. Roads and roads pass by underneath them, mountains turn into footholds, clouds swim across their eyes. Larger than mountains and less substantial than a puff of breath.
“This is stupid,” says the old man.
Boredom rolls her eyes extremely slowly at this, and down in the world underfoot a five-year-old spends three hours watching a spider spin a web on his bedroom wall.
“What’s stupid about it?” challenges the old woman. “It’s good, clean work, and it’s all going just fine. We’ve got an important job to do, and once it’s done it’s done.”
“We could be bigger. We should be in the book.”
“Oh pshaw, you always want to be in the book. What’s so great about being in the book, eh? Three of the ones in the book don’t even get names, and one of them people never even remember!”
“More’n we’ve got,” says the old man. He frowns down below, and an English professor grading a paper smacks his face into his palm so hard he nearly breaks his nose. “The pale horse, death. You remember that ‘cause it’s in the book. Who remembers ‘irritation, on a bicycle?”
“There’s more to life than being memorable,” says the old woman. “We’re every bit as important.” She scratches a mosquito bite, and far away a farmer stubs his toe and lets fly with some of the worst profanity ever voiced.
“Oh speak for your own damned self,” snarls Irritation. “I never signed up for this. Look at us! We can’t even all get together on time! It’s our big showing, our big chance, our big show-off, and we’ve got three riders. Three! And one of them’s walking! What kind of amateur-hour crap is that?”
“I’m here,” says a fourth voice.
It’s hard on the ears, but then again its owner is hard on the eyes in the most true sense of the words. Difficult to even put a sex to that face, because it looks like everybody. It stands astride a unicycle, poorly balanced.
“Hey,” says Boredom.
“Hi,” says the fourth voice. “Are we doing something still? I got lost.”
Irritation rubs his forehead. He feels old, older than usual. “You are everywhere any human has ever been. Ever. You were already with us from the start. And you got lost.”
“Well, maybe I sort of forgot,” says Stupidity, a bit defensively. “It’s not like I wrote it down or anything. ‘Meet Discomfort, Irritation, and Boredom at four o’clock for a big hoedown-“
“The RIDE,” hisses Irritation, through clenched and creaking teeth. In a city, a tuba player in a cramped apartment complex practices until 5 AM.
“-yeah, a ridedown. Anyways, it’s not like I had it written down or anything. I knew I’d remember.”
“You forgot.”
“Oh. Well, yeah. I got lost, that’s all.”
Somewhere in between the words, a man driving an old truck tries to drink hot coffee with two fingers and steer with the other three, and fails.
“I want out,” says Irritation. “Seriously.”
“Well leave,” snaps Discomfort. “Nobody’s stopping you.” Somewhere, a traffic jam stretches out a five mile journey to six hours.
“Out of this job, not out of you lot. We could be big if we just changed careers. We could do a band or something. Anything but this!”
“Music,” says Boredom.
“Yeah!”
“Music,” she repeats, roiling the word around in her mouth to see how it feels.
“You up for it?”
“Nah,” she sighs. A long and dreary rain sets over a camping trip for the entire weekend, cooping fifteen people in their tents.
“You’re outvoted, Irritation” says Discomfort smugly. “Two to one.”
“Boredom won’t agree with anything you say and Stupidity’ll side with both of us at once,” snaps Irritation. “Two-to-two.”
“Tutu?” asks Stupidity. “We could dance!”
“Shut up,” its friends encourage it.
“Well, I liked it,” it mumbles. And somewhere, somehow, a ‘quality excellence in motivation and employee strategizing team’ is formed.
“Look, it doesn’t have to be music. We could….I don’t know, form a moving company. Write a bestselling screenplay. Do anything other than this.”
“You’re planning to retrain Stupidity? Poor dear can barely handle what it’s doing now.”
“I’m doing what now?” asks Stupidity, picking its nose. It flicks it away, and somewhere, somehow, a child decides to throw a rock at a bee’s nest, just to see what’ll happen.
“Besides, we only have to do it once. I say we should stay along and stick with this; we’re already nearly done for good.”
“Once is too much. I say we should drop it,” says Irritation. Mothers scold their children.
“No, we should stay,” says Discomfort. Feet step on nettles.
“Drop!” Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep.
“Stay!” Thousands awaken with dried-out mouths and splitting headaches.
“Uhh..” says Boredom.
“What?”
“Yes, what!?”
“Where are we?”
The four riders-sort-of look around. They’re on a dirty, run-down road. Who knows where.
“Lost,” says Irritation. “Again.”
“Your own darn fault,” says Discomfort. “You always start that argument.”
“No, no, no – shut up. We can do this. Where have we been? Africa? Europe? We did Eastern Europe at least, didn’t we? How about Indonesia?”
“The one with the lemurs?” asks Stupidity.
“No. Fuck off. Christ, did we hit North America?”
“I’m certain we skipped Canada,” says Discomfort. “I’d remember the trees.”
“We saw loads of trees.”
“Yes, but that was Kamchatka. I’m certain of it.”
Boredom yawns.
“Christ’s nuts on a fruitcake,” says Irritation, and slumps in defeat. “Damnit. Damnit damnit damnit.”
“Chin up now,” says Discomfort. “We’ll get it done tomorrow. You’ll see.”
Irritation’s already pedalling away, but is polite enough to give a single-digit response over his shoulder.
“Fiddlesticks,” says Discomfort. “Well then, no shame in another go.  Again.  Same time tomorrow, you two?”
Boredom has already sat down on a rock, and is busy examining a bug. “Sure. Whatever.”
“I’ll come,” says Stupidity. “If I don’t get lost.”
“Then it’s settled. If at ninety-five millionth you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Storytime: How to Bake a Space Whale.

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

How to Bake a Space Whale.

Ingredients: 1 singular, tiny pinpoint seed of all possible existence (metric)

Pre-prep
-First off, you want to set the cooking time of your universe. This recipe could take around ten to fifteen billion years depending on how you handle it, and you’ll want a good bit of time left after that to enjoy your Space Whales before the universe becomes uninhabitable by crunch or endless expansion into a cold, starry void devoid of all matter, light, and hope.
-Be sure to check your singularity before you get started! Nothing worse than getting five billion years into a universe and finding out you forgot to create the conditions for anything bigger than elementary particles to arise, or forgot to include gravity. Many of these problems can be brushed off by purchasing your singularities from reputable sources, but it’s good practice to give them a once-over before you start just to be safe. Better safe than sorry!
(If you are preparing your own singularity at home, consult the accompanying one-googol-page manual on ensuring the proper conditions required for a universe to support Space Whales)

Preparation
-Detonate your prepared singularity and wait a few billion years for it to come down a little from the boiling point and the matter to spread out a little.
-Now the tricky part: we need a planet that can sustain carbon-based macroscopic life. How macro? VERY. At a minimum a good Space Whale should be over five metres, and an expert can tease them out to more than 25 metres. Precision in planet selection is key here – especially since we need very large oceans of liquid water, the bigger the better! And be sure to remember the need for land animals at some point so our whale has something to evolve from; don’t think we can just find a world with no visible land mass and leave it at that.
-Other important factors include a nice, stable sun that’ll keep tickin’ along at the same, reliable temperature for a few billion years longer than you think you’ll need, and a solar system that’s relatively clear of floating debris – the last thing you need is for your Space Whale to take flight and then be whacked by a falling boloid.
-All right, once you’ve got your future water world all picked out and the math done to your satisfaction, here comes the hardest part of this whole recipe: wait. Wait until the oceans settle into place, wait while tectonic plates jerk and jostle around, wait wait wait WAIT. Do NOT attempt to rush things. You’ll feel the urge to tweak here and there, but stifle it: the most beautiful creations arise from a mixture of luck and planning, and anything that’s all planning has no soul to it. WAIT.
-If you’ve waited for a few billion years and no ‘primordial soup’ has arisen and you’re sick and tired of it, just go ahead and smash it with an asteroid loaded up with some pre-prepped nucleotides or amino acids or something. Nobody’ll notice the difference unless you’re on the cooking network, and by then you can just pay them to shut up.
- Time to do our favourite thing again: wait. Interference should be minimal at this point, although if you see an opportunity to poke anything towards getting larger, go for it. Macroscopic life should turn up anyways if you’ve picked your planet right, but there’s nothing wrong with giving it a slight boost – this recipe already takes billions of years, no sense in making it take millions more.
-Once you’ve got something with a good skeletal structure or a carapace or anything solid in it, time to prod that little sprout out of the water and onto the land. Go go go! Remember, the faster you kick your babies out, the quicker they’ll come back, raring to drop themselves into the big blue and get all nice and large. This is where you’ll find your whales. Bear in mind that this could take a while, and usually more than one try.
NOTE: the first things on land could very well be skittering little horrors with exoskeletons and too many legs. Those are bugs, and sadly, you’ll probably need them for ecosystem fodder for the entirety of your planet’s existence. Just grit your teeth and ignore them.
-Now this is the troublesome bit: once you’ve got your whales, you need some sapience. But not just any ol’ kind of sapience! Comb your way through your planet’s ecosystems, and find all the species that possess all of the following: (1) outsized genitals, (2) aggressive social dynamics, (3) at least basic capacity for tool use.
-Once you’ve got a list of candidates, take whichever of them seems to have the most capacity for mental development and see to it that they get as smart as they can as fast as they can. We need their brains to outpace any other portion of their anatomy: smart now, working posture or functional internal organs later. Any inconvenient physical difficulties can be propped up once they’ve got the proper technology for it.
-Next up is dispersal. Take your developing sentients and spread them as far and wide as you can – don’t worry about spreading them too thin, intelligent life is very persistent, unusually so for anything macroscopic! What you want now is a very diverse population with many different cultures and world systems, preferably all conflicting.
IMPORTANT: Check right now on the state of your developing societies. If many of them are in open conflict, that’s great and you clearly judged the socially aggressive nature of your species perfectly! If not, better start again. Slamming an asteroid or a comet or something into the whole lot should work for a clean-ish slate, provided they aren’t running on fossil fuels yet.
-Patience time again, but not for long. Technology spreads quickly, and it only gets faster and faster exponentially as it all builds up to a head. For the final stretches of this recipe we’ll need three or four branches of advanced science to all build to fruition at around the same time, but don’t worry; the odds of it are much higher than you’d think! Trust in the ingenuity of your sapients, and you’ll know it’s all about to pay off when you hit the following milestones: (1) advanced genetic modification, (2) fully integrated cybernetics, (3) a well-developed space program, (4) massively potent nuclear weapons stockpiled in vast quantities (relative massiveness of weapons and vastness of quantity is dependant on the outsizedness of the species’ genitals: the more everybody’s got, the more they need to flaunt!), (5) overwhelming nationalism and hatred between at least two highly-advanced societies.
-Here’s the last big job you’ll have to do: just try to make sure that the politics on both sides ramp up more and more and in the unlikely event that everybody looks to be calming down, maybe slap a pinpoint aneurysm on the troublemaker. In no time at all the magic of paranoia will have fuelled all sorts of whacky projects that promise some vague hint of dealing with the enemy. If you start to feel bad about what you’re doing, remind yourself that it’s all about the big picture, and really, what’s a few eons of suffering when compared to the eternal beauty of your Space Whale?
-IMPORTANT: at this point somebody will have the idea of putting whales in space. This will always happen, as long as all the societal and technological requirements for your sapients have been met and whales exist. It’s just one of those things that happens. Initial developments will involve putting cybernetics in the whales, tweaking their genetics for null-gravity environments, and putting them in very large spacesuits.
-Your final, and possibly smallest action necessary in this whole thing: find somebody with access to nuclear launch codes and sic ‘em (this should not be difficult).
-If all goes well, the very first ‘test pilot’ whale will be in the process of liftoff as the world is consumed in nuclear fire, bathing its altered form in radiation and sparking its glorious ascension into the heavens above all, where it will sing the songs of its world’s end until the end of the universe!

Congratulations! You have successfully baked one Space Whale, and can spend billions of years enjoying its sorrowful and haunting melodies! Now, if you still feel the hunger for creation and want a real challenge, try making a Space Squid for it to be eternal foes with! (pgs. 136-148)

Storytime: The Other Sun.

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

The last mile was always the longest.
Drag, step, drag, step, breathe in, step step drag. One foot in front of the other, body sinking to the earth under the pain and the aches and the slow soft searing heat of the Other Sun.
My left leg felt like broken stones, my lungs ached, my body sweltered inside its armour, but my head had never been clearer, my grip never firmer on the cattle prod that was serving time as a walking stick – bent and burnt out after an encounter with a metal vest. This, with the mind burning bright as the body dropped away, was how it always was after a holy quest. The journey had been harsh, the foes fierce, but the Terminal was in sight now, the big black hole in the ground that was home. It was going to be fine.
I collapsed within sight of the entrance, I was told later. The light reflecting from the one piece of my armour that still shone caught the eye of a labourer as he futilely scavenged for leftover metal scraps across the street in a building that had been picked clean when his mother was young. By little things we are saved, and of course, by the grace of the Lord Longsteel. At Its word I was tended to, splinted, cleaned, and repaired, and before three days were over I knelt before It in audience, in Its tunnels at the heart of the Terminal, between the two rails that were Its path.
I took care to hold my face in profile for one of the glittering eyes of the security cameras. Lord Longsteel was many things, and one of them was deaf – no, not deaf; numb to sound. “Your knight-errant has returned, my Lord. I have travelled to the rubble of the far west and spoken with the people of the railyards. Their lords respect our treaty and send their regards to you as kin.”
The rails under my feet vibrated slow-fast-slow. Lord Longsteel was pleased.
“I have travelled to the waters of the far south. The people of the waters are still missing, and they show no sign of having returned. Where their lords have taken them, I cannot say.
Slow-slow. Lord Longsteel accepted this.
“I have travelled to the heights of the far east. The lords of the air still hold those places firm, and their subjects have destroyed almost all passage to the ground. They still descend to hunt intruders, and it was there that my leg was shattered as I escaped.”
A single rumble. Lord Longsteel was not pleased.
“I was pursued by air as I retreated here. Lord Vtol, I believe. It hunted me for some days, but I lost it in the crumbled ways, by the debris of the banking skyscrapers.” I lowered my eyes. “I regret to say this, Lord, but I was unsuccessful in my search in all places it took me. Your thief is still missing.”
Silence. And then a long, low rumble of rage creaking its way across the ancient steel rails, growing and rattling across the cracks in the concrete walls, turning into a roar of anger.
I felt no fear. If the Lord wished me dead, it was just and I would be pleased to make amends in such a way. Even if my duty were to falter, unlike as it could be, my end would be utterly unpreventable and therefore worthy of no real thought or consideration.
“I have not searched the north, Lord,” I said.
Silence again.
“It is deadly, that I know. But I am prepared to risk it. And there is still time if the thief has fled by that path – he will be slow, cautious. I will not.”
I fell silent now, for the Lord was speaking – not mere emotive expressions now, but plans, instructions. A complex rhythm of reverberations and echoes, spilling over one another and roiling across the narrow depths of Its tunnels. Orders. Precise directions, carved out of Its memories and ancient schematics and prehistoric graffiti.
Synopsized:
Go here.
Kill him.
Bring that.
I rose in obedience, and nearly stumbled. “A final boon, Lord… might I be healed? I cannot travel any distance on this leg.”
Acquiescence. Power would be gifted.
I knelt again – carefully – between the two rails that made the path of Lord Longsteel, and I grasped the Third Rail in my hands.
There was no sensation, of course. I could tell my teeth had nearly fused together, that my hair was crackling and jerking away from my body, that my muscles were twisting and tangling. But there was no feedback, no feeling. Only current that mends, that tears broken bone into place and fuses it solid. Power from the grid, invoked down through the body of Lord Longsteel, through Its heart, and from that, the Other Sun.
Go here.
Kill him.
Bring that.
I nodded. And I left.

My armour was still battered. Plates were damaged, cushioning torn, the helmet still had a single massive dent in it just above the right eye where a lucky shot from lord Vtol had nearly done for me as I cowered behind a shoddy old wall in the crumbled ways. I left it behind, along with the shredded mess that had held my left leg together. What was left was mostly functional, and at least it was clean. My cattle prod was recharged from the Third Rail itself, its grip duct-taped and the whole returned to me.
Five days of supplies were in my backpack, taken from the hands of a cringing labourer. They would be sufficient for a week if I was careful.
The first day was quiet. Peaceful. All morning I walked the dark tunnels that led outwards from the Terminal, a wandering, wavering grid long since broken to smithereens by the chaos that had come after the Other Sun arrived. Come high noon I emerged from beneath the dirt in a cloud of broken rubble, and from then on I walked and ran and crawled through the gutters of the levelled blocks that marked the wide flat around the Terminal, each emptied of useful objects for decades and more, scavenged dry by two generations of scavengers that laboured for Lord Longsteel.
The second day took me farther, into the fringes of the northern boxtowns. Shells of thin, dirty metal stacked high to form uneven warehouses, bulky shipping centres, hollow factories. All would’ve been ugly even in their prime; nowadays, they were barely standing. Many sported holes in their sides, great gashes carved by the lumbering forms of rogue trucks and SUVs. What inhabited those creatures were no lords. Animals. Dangerous, vicious, unpredictable, but stupid. I gave the streets a wide berth and kept quiet, took care to leave no footsteps to mar the countless tread-marks that spilled over the street.
Two more days.
The sky drifted by, sometimes dark, sometimes light, always with the thin red light of the Other Sun there just above the horizon, circling clockwise, never dipping, never rising. Those that live on it, they don’t sleep, don’t wake. Just are. It kept me on edge, and I breathed a good sigh of relief on the fifth day, when I walked out of the maze of streets-turned-side-streets and into the searing sun of a field of debris large enough to swallow the Terminal and everything else in it, broken concrete and steel as far as the eye could reach. And far away out there, small but still managing to loom, was a dark silhouette.
Now I just had to make it there. And find some food along the way. That would be nice.
There was a sound. My prod was in my hands and my eyes were moving before I even recognized it: a whimper. Muffled, adult, female. “Come out,” I said.
Silence.
“I heard you there. You can come out, or I can find you. And if I have to find you, I will be displeased.”
Silence. Then: “here. Over here. In the hole.”
I tracked the voice over a small hill of debris and found it to be speaking truth: a pit bored into the ground, an exposed basement minus the structure above it. At its bottom sat an old woman, older than any I’d ever seen – her hair had gone all grey, her faces was a mass of wrinkles so deep they looked like knife cuts. Foggy grey eyes peered out at me in dull-witted terror.
“You’re one of them knights.”
I could feel the fear, and recognized it along with her clothes: a labourer. Must’ve gone rogue, or had her lord die. There’d been no deaths among their ranks that Lord Longsteel knew of since the turn of the decade, when lord Landeater had come a-conquering from some military base out there who knew where, it and five hundred other tanks. An actual truce had been called across the city to deal with it, a one-of-a-kind occurrence. “Knight-errant,” I told her.
She slid lower in her seat, arms grasping for a grip. “You going to kill me? Please don’t kill me. I been down here three days, please don’t kill me now, please help.”
Looking down, I saw a satchel at the old labourer’s side. “Throw up that first. Slowly. And don’t reach inside it.”
Her eyes darted from me to the cattle prod to the bag.
“You will only have time for one shot. It will not hit.”
She sagged again, and I knew I’d won even before she reached for the satchel’s handle. Up it went, tossing and turning. I riffled through the contents: some old canned food, some dried vegetables and meats, the usual things. Enough to sustain my return trip.
“You going to leave me here?”
I looked back down into the pit. “Is there a reason for me to take you?”
The face went blank, then opened up again. “I knows the path.”
I looked out across the blasted ruin surrounding me. “The path.”
“Just look at me sitting here and try to tell yourself it’s all sun and roses out there. Believe it or not, this pit weren’t there when I stepped on it.”
“You offer your services as a guide.”
“First time I’ve fallen, and I been heading back and forth ‘cross this place for years. You heading to the sparkbox? I can get you there, even, and that’ll take some getting into. Please. Please take me.”
I looked out there. There was only one place my thief could be hiding. And the food could be stretched. Also, if I refused to aid her, she might begin to shriek, and I wasn’t looking forwards to what that might drag out of the boxtowns. “Deal.”
She was surprisingly light, the old labourer. It took almost no effort at all for one arm to drag her bony, fleshless body up into the light again, those cloudy eyes blinking themselves silly at the world around them.
“Go,” I said, holding up her satchel in one hand, the prod in the other. “And don’t think of running.”
She nodded aimlessly, and I saw that familiar hunched cringe. I’d seen it a thousand times in the Terminal. It was good. It was right. It felt like home.

The ‘sparkbox’ did indeed take some getting into. It couldn’t have been more than three miles away, but it took almost ten to walk to it, a weaving, dodging, winding ramble of a trek that took us scraping over the edges and rims of a thousand jagged rustpits, any of which would’ve been a nearly-certain death sentence. I ceased to question my decision to bring the labourer with me after the close of the first day. Particularly since I held our food supplies at all times, and slept with my eyes open.
Getting into the building was surprisingly simple – but I suppose the natural minefield of pitfalls surrounding it had preserved it regardless of its security. My quarry certainly hadn’t passed through the door we found, its body a fused, stubborn mass that would yield to no key ever made, a handle that was eroded to a nubbed screw and a pinnacle of rust. One, two, three kicks and its hinges gave themselves up to their rust with children’s-screams of protest and outrage. Dust blizzarded the air inside, swarming the sunlight like infuriated insects.
“In,” I said.
The labourer gawped at me. “What?”
I gestured with the prod. “In.”
She went in. I followed and kept an eye on her, watched her tip-toe across the floors, wince at each groan and rattle, jump like a jackrabbit at my switching on a flashlight.
“Follow the beam,” I said, and traced a path. We walked that way, held by the light, and we walked down twisted stairs, following old signs in languages no longer spoken.
Generators. If this place had power, that’s where the thief would’ve gone.
“What’s your aim?” asked the labourer.
I considered intimidation, and decided against it. “Justice. We hunt a thief.”
“Sounds dangerous.”
“No more than living. He stole a valuable of my Lord and fled. A coward is only dangerous when cornered, and still less so than any other man.”
“Oh.” And at first I believed she was responding to my words, until my flashlight crept the extra foot forwards and alit on what lay in front of her.
The generator was a massive thing, stretching from floor to ceiling and surpassing both, passing through them and into other places, strange ones. Its triplets sat beside it, still half-shrouded in the darkness.
“Fusebox,” I said. “Hold still.” The light wandered the walls as we stood there in the dark, hovering fitfully until it exposed the grey, dusty contours on a nearby wall.
“Go.”
The labourer moved quickly this time, eagerness to be done with the whole business infusing her every step. I watched her, pinned her there with the light as always, then took my first step, then four more, then felt the world move.
Less than a second later I lay on my side, half-buried under something cold and heavy. My legs were numb and my head was a fiery swollen blot that was trying to crush my own brain, moisture leaking from its back and wetting my hair where it had impacted against ancient steel. Darkness was all around me; the flashlight had been crushed under rubble. I screwed my eyes shut and concentrated, focused, narrowed reality down enough to reach my ears.
A chuckle. Footsteps – light footsteps, barely-fleshed bone, how could I forget the labourer’s weight, how could I forget my own! The sounds of clanking, clacking, clicking, tampering. And then there was light, light above me, light around me. I lay on my back in the ruins of a tunnel, a tunnel like the Terminal, like home, but lost and powerless. A sharp, searing blankness was spreading across my back: my cattle prod had snapped apart and was electrifying the rail I lay upon, spread in the middle of the tracks.
Footsteps. And from above, a grinning face. Those old foggy grey eyes…they were still clouded over. But the face they were set in was sharper than a drillbit, and full of dark amusement.
“Really? You didn’t see it coming? Not even a little? What HAS happened there in the city, for those monsters to be willing to name the likes of YOU knight-errant?”
“L-l….ord…said-“ I wheezed and clutched at my side; all my air seemed to have escaped, and more wouldn’t come in. “Said….man.”
“Oh? Hah! They’re not very good with pronouns, haven’t you noticed? Humans are all one to them, and it’s up to you to assume the sex when they speak. Clumsy idiot.” She burst into giggles for an instant, and bit her lip to cut it short. “You know, I was considering turning on the rail and putting you out of your misery. But after that display of wilful denseness and sexism combined? I think you’ve earned a slow exit from existence.” She held up something in the light, doubled vision saw a blurred shine. “Here, you can have your keys back.” A falling star, a clatter-clack on my chest. “The fusebox’s open now. I would’ve just bashed it, but running the risk of breaking anything in there? No thank you. No thank you at all. A miracle the damned place is still running, a bigger one that it hasn’t been co-opted by one of your vultures-in-vehicles-clothing out there.”
“Blassspphem…” I sighed, involuntarily. Keeping breath inside me was getting harder every second, and it wasn’t easy to begin with. I could feel that numb spark of electricity trickling down my back, like water, like a current. A current across the rail my back was spread upon, like a current in a river. Current flowing down a grid.
“Blasphemer?” She chuckled again, and this time it was forced, grim. “No. Blasphemy is bowing down to those damned things. A blasphemer is the one that turns on his family, her friends, for the chance to be a monster’s servant. All for a chance to play at being a damn-fool knight of the round table, only you’re working for the damsel-eating dragons.”
“I ssserrve….the rightful rul. Ers.” Blood in my mouth, had to swallow it, not sure if it was going down the wrong pipe. Going down any pipe. “Of all. By their might. Myy…..willll.” Current, flowing. Flowing back home. Only a trickle, but enough to sustained a flow.
“And a fat fucking lot of good it’s done you there, hasn’t it? Your people are slaves, miserable and tormented. Mine are hidden, and they’ve got hope. You’re dead. I’m alive. And this power’s going to go to people that need it, not to fill the gut of whichever over-grown poltergeist your superstitious little brain has cooked up into a god.” She pursed her lips. “So many of the damned beasties, so hard to keep track of. Especially with those ridiculous names you blind little zealots keep giving them. So tell me, less-than-man” – that mocking grin was back on her face, snapped into position –“which was your overseer?”
My face was a rigid mask, so I couldn’t smile. But I still managed a snarl of triumph, baring my teeth in the face of defeat, in the eyes of the enemy.
“Longsteel.”
And just with that name, I felt a tug against the power that leaked from my back, from the cattle prod that had been charged from the Third Rail.
She burst into laughter at that – real laughter, a loud, happy guffaw the likes I’d never heard but somehow recognized. “Hah! Sounds like an off-brand dildo. And about as impressive – never heard of him at all, the small fry.”
“My Lord’s reach is limited,” I whispered. The rail was rumbling, the earth was shaking. “But none can surpass the strength of Its fist.”
I don’t know if she heard me. By then she’d put the pieces together, turned her smiles to terror. Her feet made to move towards the staircase, but her body was slow, too slow, that bony, fleshless thing. Small. Frail. Especially when Lord Longsteel came screaming up the tunnel, twelve cars long, nine hundred feet long, Its eyes burning yellow blazes that made the sun seem cold and dead in the sky. Its roar filled the air and replaced it, turned ears into empty things, and it was the sweetest melody I had ever been unable to hear, covering even the surely unholy scream of metal created as Lord Longsteel launched Its lead car forwards and off the tracks, seizing the thief of Its wealth with iron fangs.
I watched my Lord’s wheels grinding towards me on the rails, and I knew that those final instants were perfect. My legs were vanished from my knowing, my lungs were a morass of fluids unknown, my body was a twitching, juddering ruin that was already smoking in places, but my mind had never been lighter, my soul less burdened by turmoil. The journey had been long, the foes had been cunning, but that great darkness was finally there, and at the behest of Lord Longsteel, who would have this place, this power. My duty was done.
It was going to be fine.

Storytime: Bearries.

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

There was a home all alone in the woods. Not so common these days, but this was those days, back when distances were longer and the world was more lonely.
There was a boy, and he wasn’t very old, and he was off through the woods and into its deepest thickets to fetch in as many berries as he could carry – and maybe a little more than that, and maybe a little more than that too, and perhaps he could have a few mouthfuls or fistfuls for his stomach while he was there. Just a little. This was perhaps not so greedy as it sounds; you must remember that he was a very little boy after all, and could only eat and carry so much. Still, he persevered, and was nearly bent double under the strain of his load before he brushed aside a tangle of picked-clean branches and came face-to-snout with a small bear that had just finished trimming off a bush of its own.
The small bear twitched her nose at the boy, and the boy’s eyes got big, and they stood there for a moment.
“Go away,” said the bear. “Mine.”
“YOU go away,” said the boy. “They’re mine.”
“I’m bigger than you and I say they’re mine,” said the bear, and she stood up on her back legs and roared at the boy so loud that his ears crinkled up. He ran home and by the time he was there he’d lost his shoes and he’d lost his berries and he’d almost thrown up three times.
“No berries?” asked the boy’s sister. “What have you been doing out there so long?”
“Hrurp,” said the boy, and tried to explain. Then he threw up.
“Well, I see you stopped to eat some,” said sister. “And you didn’t bring any back? Lazy shiftless little boy, I should give you a whack.”
“Bllear,” managed the little boy, and coughed. “Bear.”
Sister frowned and tapped her chin. “A bear? What kind of bear?”
“A huge big bear,” said the little boy, holding out his arms to demonstrate. “She was twice my height and four times my weight and it roared at me until I ran away.”
“That’s a pretty small bear,” said sister. “Not so big at all. I bet she isn’t even grown-up yet, same as me and you. Well, mostly you. Get me a good stout stick and I’ll see about that.”
So the boy went and got his sister a good stout stick, fresh from the limb of a surly old oak by way of a lightning storm a few other days ago, and off she went into the deep woods and the thickets, thump thump thump, with her little brother scurrying along behind her like a mouse.
“I don’t see a bear,” said sister. “Better get to picking berries. I’ll just have a bit of a nap while I wait.” And she sat right down under the largest and most impressive berry bush and started snoring, quietly by firmly. The boy was annoyed by this greatly, and played a small game of catching stinkbugs as he picked berries and carefully dropping them one-by-one on his sister’s legs. This kept him occupied until he picked the last berry from a particularly large bush and met eyes with the small bear on the other side of it.
“Go away!” said the bear. “Told you already!”
“YOU go away,” said the boy. “They’re mine and my sister’s.”
“I’m bigger than you and I say they’re mine,” said the bear. She stood up and roared again, and she roared so loud that it woke up sister, who shot up to her feet in a flash, mashing all the stinkbugs under her feet in her hurry – squish squish squash.
“Back off from my brother!” she yelled, and she whacked the small bear three times: once in the stomach, once in the nose, and once on top of the small bear’s head.
“Augh!” said the small bear, trying to hold her nose and duck another bruise, and she ran away deeper and farther into the woods, leaving sister and the boy alone to gather up as many berries as they wanted. She didn’t stop running until she reached her family den.
“Stop making such a ruckus,” scolded her brother. “Mother’s sleeping, and if we make too much racket she’ll wake up and give us all such a cuffing that we’ll never stop being sore.”
“The berries are lost,” cried the small bear. “It doesn’t matter if mother beats me black and blue, my stomach will be sore enough that I won’t even notice. And yours too!”
“What now?” said brother.
“People have taken up our berry bushes,” she said. “Two people – a little tiny one I chased off, and a big scary shouty one. She’s harder than an oak tree and she roars louder than I do and she smelt worse than a skunk dipped in old pond scum.”
“Well now,” said brother, raising his hackles. “Well now! We’ll see about that. I claw my marks on oak trees as I see fit, and I roar louder than the thunder, and as for smells, you’ve seen what I’ll eat. I’ll shiver them down to nubbins, both of them, see if I don’t!” And he stomped off with a lot of angry muttering, stamp stamp stomp, with his little sister scurrying ahead of him.
“Don’t you learn?” asked sister when small bear came into sight again. “Go away! These are our berries to pick! Be sensible and be scared of me.”
“You should be scared!” small bear told her. “Now clear off and let us eat in peace.”
“No,” said sister, and she might’ve said more but just then brother came into sight and opened his mouth and what came out was the rankest, loudest racket that had been heard in that place since the world was put together. It nearly peeled the bark off the trees, and the nearest berry-bushes shed their crops and almost withered on the spot.
“Aah!” yelled sister and the little boy, and they both dropped their berries and ran away home on the spot, stopping once halfway to throw up. Brother’s breath smelled like the inside of a dead fish five times over and old berry juice.
“Well, this is a problem,” said sister.
“You could’ve beat him,” said the little boy, “if you weren’t so scared.”
Sister whacked the little boy on the head. “Hush up. He was a bit of a lot too big for that. No, I think I can’t beat him. We’re going to have to get some more help now.”
So sister and the little boy packed up some lunch – no berries, sadly – and made a walk all the way up a hill of stone and moss to its top, where there was nothing but some old juniper bushes in the sunlight and a broken old tent, which was where big sister was staying.
“Open up and help out!” called sister, smacking the tent with her good stout stick.
Big sister opened it out and came out, and gave sister a bit of a look while she was at it. It was a pretty nasty bit of a look, and it made sister get quiet fast.
“I was trying,” said big sister, “to sleep. Late nights hunting take their toll.” She stretched and shook and scratched herself, some of the big teeth in her hair going click-clack softly as her fingers ruffled them. “Now, what needs doing in such a loud, rude hurry, eh?”
“A bear is stopping us from getting berries,” said the little boy, “and it’s too big for sister.”
“It’s a huge big bear,” jumped in sister. “He was over twice my height and four times my weight and its breath was the worst thing ever. Ever.”
“That’s a bit of a bear,” said big sister, “but I’ve heard of worse. And the blowhards always fall down the fastest. Get me my club and my horn and I’ll see about what needs doing.”
So sister and the little boy grabbed up big sister’s horn and club – it took both of them to lift the club – and gave them to her while she had a quick breakfast of old jerky. And then they packed up and followed her down the hill and through the deep woods and into the thicket at big sister’s quick jog, trit trot trit, two of sister’s footsteps for every one of her’s, four of the little boy’s.
Small bear was browsing from the largest and most impressive berry bush when she saw big sister come into the thicket, and her eyes got as big as saucers. “Broffer!” she called, and nearly choked on her berries.
“Eh, hum, what?” said brother. He raised himself up out of the shade from his snooze and saw big sister face to face, already right there in front of him.
He stared at her, and she stared back.
He snarled, and she snarled back.
He roared, and she roared back.
And then he swiped at her, and she dodged and hit him in the head with her club so hard that he thought he saw every single star in the sky before sunset.
“OW!” said brother, and then big sister punched him in the jaw. “OW, OW!” he yelled, and she stomped on his foot. “OW OW OW!” He roared again and tried to bite big sister, and she screamed at him and jammed her club in his teeth.
“OW!” said brother, and took another heaving swipe that tossed big sister head over heels into a berry bush. She came barrelling back out teeth-first and tackled him into a wrestling, thrashing ball of angry fur and fists. Hair and blood and trampled bits of greenery and berry mush flew everywhere.
“Oh no oh dear oh no,” mumbled small bear, who was hiding underneath the largest and most impressive berry bush.
“What’s wrong?” asked the little boy, who was also hiding there.
“They’re being too noisy, too noisy,” said small bear. “They’ll wake up mother. She’s trying to sleep now and she’ll be very angry if she has to come sort all this out. Oh dear oh no, they’re smushing all the berries, too! Mother will be VERY angry if she sees all this.”
“How angry?” asked sister, who was a bit squished, being half-underneath small bear’s behind.
“She’ll knock us all black and blue right through the fur until we won’t be able to sleep all winter,” said small bear. “And she’ll maybe eat all the berries left over just to teach us a lesson.”
Just then, there was a noise that rumbled on through the ground – like a rockfall, but throatier and meatier.
“Oh no, she’s woken up,” moaned small bear. The earth began to tremble and shudder. “Now we’re in trouble.”
“What can we do?” asked the little boy.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
“Make them stop!” said sister, and she jumped out from underneath the largest and most impressive berry bush, pulling the little boy along with her, and they each grabbed one of big sister’s arms.
“Let go!” shouted big sister. “I’ve almost got him.”
Brother bared his teeth and shook himself and small bear landed on his head, knocking him straight on his nose. “Get off!” he said. “I can turn this around still!”
Mother shuffled into the clearing and everybody stopped paying attention.
Mother wasn’t very big, but she took up a lot of space standing there, patchy fur ruffling in the breeze, grey old face bobbing as she looked around with bleary eyes. The world sucked in on mother, draining away all the details at the edges.
She didn’t look very happy.
“Wurt-“ and it sounded like that because mother’s jaw was all stiff and could barely move“-iss going on hur?”
Big sister looked at mother and didn’t say anything, but she adjusted her hands on her club three times in a row.
Brother looked at mother and opened his mouth then shut it then opened it again and seemed to forget what he was doing.
Sister very carefully shoved little brother and small bear. They blinked.
“We…” said little brother. “Were…. Picking.”
“Berries,” said small bear. “Berries. We were all picking berries.”
“Together.”
“Yes, together!” said small bear. “We were helping each other.”
“Pick berries,” added little brother. “It’s easier that way.”
Mother looked at big sister and brother with her beady little eyes. They glistened. “Wurt arr dey doing? Dey’re rooining de bushesh.”
“He had a stinkbug on his nose,” said sister.
“And big sister was helping him with it,” said small bear.
Mother took a sniff. “Grar! Be murr crrful wif de bugsh! Only gt so many burriesh errey yeer, cant wist dem.” She snorted and scuffed at her snout. “Desere mih burriesh nyways, shuld ask prmissin.”
Brother coughed and hacked and spat out his tooth, which had been stuck in his throat. “We, ah, err,, ack, wanted to surprise you,” he rasped.
“Yes,” said big sister. “With a gift, a present of food for you in exchange for your berries.”
Mother smiled. “Brahh, childen plyin nishe fer treetsh, always de shame. De burriesh arr fer fmly.” She thought a moment, rubbing her head with a claw. “Bruuuutt….nothingses people cant be fmly.”
They all looked at each other.
“I would like to have a mother again,” said the little boy. “Even a very hairy one.”
“It would be nice to have a sister,” said small bear. “Or two.”
“I wouldn’t mind another, littler sister,” said sister. “I can only boss around one little brother so long.”
“It would be good to have more small hands to find the good foods,” said brother. “I don’t mind eating the foul stuff, but it gets tiresome. I miss softer foods.”
“A mother,” agreed big sister, “would be nice. And a brother that I can hit properly.”
“Gud!” said mother, and she bobbed her head happily. “Nuw gitta pcking, ‘m hungry.”
They got picking. It took a lot of work, but they did it.

There were two homes after that, all alone in the woods. Two homes and a tent. A home, a den, and a tent. And a path that wound around them, rough, untravelled by many feet, but marked by blazes and clawmarks and the thud-thud of feet large and small. A quiet sort of trail, meant only for a few people that would nod and move aside to make room for one another. Certainly no worn road.
But this was those days, back when distances were longer and the world was more lonely.
Well, a little less lonely.

Storytime: Dunes.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

It’s so beautiful up here.
Look left, look right, look ahead, look behind: all the same, all perfectly smoothed and ghost-silent dunes, every size but each one just the right shape, the shape of a life-of-gold. Look up above, and the sky’s an empty blot with no clouds to hug your eyeballs and reassure them that the world is a small place, manageable and tame.
“My knees are killing me. How are your knees not killing you? You have two on each leg.”
I sighed – the quiet kind, the kind that gets muffled and strangled by your mouthguard before it can reach anyone’s ears – and repeated myself for the fifth time in ten minutes: “we’re almost there, Mr. Tallbeck. Just a little farther.”
Tallbeck was lacking in my discretion and swore openly and foully to himself as he wrestled himself upwards through the sand: old swearwords, no doubt, curses passed down through the dusty generations of his family from eldest uncle to youngest nephew, as was proper, and devout, and civilized. That was how the world worked and anything else was simply unnatural, as I’d been rigorously informed at least once per hour since the beginning of my employment. I’d never regretted a necessary evil so much. Hast Tallbeck, he’d introduced himself as: traveller, explorer, tourist, and hundred-and-sixty-pound-load. And the humans say me and my kind remind them of insects; I’d seen sand fleas with more flesh on them than Tallbeck.
“Your triple-damned dunes are getting into my socks now, Aro! How is that even possible, hey? I’m wearing three layers of clothing tied down with more rope than a narrow-quashed Matagant frigate!”
Because you didn’t tie the knots properly after I showed you and you were too stone-stubborn to ask for a repeat lesson or so help from an ignorant savage, I didn’t say, because I needed the money. Well, sort of. “Nearly there,” I repeated, calmly, steadily, just as I’d say to little brother Bacca. “Almost there.”
“How you blithering beetlebodies manage to wander around here all day without baking to death underneath those shells of yours is beyond me. Is it all the iron you eat? It’s all the iron you eat, isn’t it. Fifty-fingered-fountain of showoffs, you are.”
I made a null-comment of a murmur, and to my relief my client subsided into muttering fumes again, cloaked by the rushing ssshhh-shhhh-shhh of falling sandgrains and the occasional near-bellow of a grunt.
Think of the money, I repeated to myself carefully, clicking my mandibles together in a quiet little marching chant. Think of a half-hundred Matagant coins tucked into your chinbag from a spendthrift, loudmouthed tourist of the world, and what you can get with that. Yes, father will be angry, yes, mother will put on that disappointed face of hers she inherited from grandmother, yes, Bacca will be told all sorts of things about you – mostly by what isn’t said about you – but it’ll all be worth it in the end. Even after you’ve had to lug this dismal clod’s belongings a hundred miles from town for him because he packed what feels like his own weight again in rocks. I could’ve carried enough metal to keep me fed for a thousand-mile journey and not suffered as much under the load.
And there it was, as easy as that: the crest of the dune, the tip of the wave, hundreds of feet above the sea – that little blue line on the horizon we’d departed days ago. On a whim, I held out a single finger and erased all of it from existence. Add one digit, minus however many thousands of miles of water and fish and whatever else was out there.
“Burn it to Bashera, that’s a hike and a half and no mistake,” panted Tallbeck. He sat down and almost sunk up to his spidery waist, triggering another spate of sputtering and curses. “So, this is your auntie or whatever it was then?” he asked, with one of his charming eye-rolls.
I hummed a little bit of one of mother’s old sleep-songs to myself to resist the urge to hit him, covering it up with a small cough. “No,” I replied eventually. “This is Grandmother Uy. There is only one aunt of mine in this desert – Cha – and she’s miles and miles down the coast, near the Nagezzy Delta. There aren’t many that aren’t old enough to have had at least a few children that go down into the sand. There’s thousands of mothers, fathers, and grandfathers out there. Not so many aunts, uncles. No sons or daughters. Too young to have earned it, too young to bear it. It takes a strong, full mind to bear the burden of the life-of-gold.” Even as the breath left my mouth I wondered why I was wasting my words on this man.
“Right, of course,” he said. I could practically hear those green eyeballs turning this time. It made me sick to watch – how you could see without compound lenses was beyond me, but how you stopped yourself from throwing up when that happened couldn’t even begin to be imagined.
“Right right right. Very poetical and all that.” He wriggled uncomfortably in the sand, sinking a little deeper despite his efforts. “Tell me, where is the well?”
The well. Of course he’d wanted to know about the wells, it was the first thing everybody asked. I’d been looking forward to this. “You’re sitting on it.”
Holding in my laughter as the moron surged to his feet took a pretty nasty bite to my lip, but it was doable. “Jeremiah ripping apart jackrabbits!” he spat, nearly falling over again. “You just leave them open like that!?”
“Not much choice. Whatever we raise, they’ll cover up. And if we made them big enough to stand strong – well then, they’d get left behind. Grandmother Uy isn’t about to be pinned to the spot by any of her grandchildren’s tricks; the moment she wants to move, she’ll slip it off and glide away.”
“Crotchety old saltsniffer,” said Tallbeck. “Reminds me of my mother-in-law, hey?”
I was very good by now at not altering my expression, but I drew the line at faking laughter. Thankfully, Tallbeck wasn’t about to wait for my input. “Well, regardless… how do you know the well’s down there?”
“They tell us.”
“Right, right, right.” Eyeroll. Again. “So, do you leave markers then?”
I shrugged.
“Mmm. But how can you check if the damned thing’s all coated over with sand? Wouldn’t you want to make sure your, ah, offerings haven’t gone missing? There’s a lot of valuable stuff down there, from what I’ve heard… life-after-gold necessitates gold, does it not?”
I grinned a bit through my mouthguard. This was the fun bit. I’d talked to others who’d sunk to my current job; they said it was most satisfying when your client had brought a shovel. “It doesn’t go missing. There’s a half-hundred feet of sand between us and the well’s bottom at Grandmother Uy’s heart. We don’t need to check after we send her body down the well with her presents.”
“You bury it all… forever?”
I shrugged again. “They take care of it themselves.”
“The damned winds out here – and I expect that once this cherry-burned thing gets moving, not much of the well will stay put anyways, am I close, hey?”
Shrug. I was pleased to see that it was irritating him immensely: possibly the one thing he and my mother had in common.
“Well, well, well. A little bit of a joke at my expense?”
Self-awareness? No, never heard of it – did you mean ‘put-upon’? I can do put-upon, yes sir, if my name isn’t Mr. Hast Tallbeck. “No. We don’t really talk about the wells much. It’s a common mistake.” I need that money, damnit. Don’t go reneging now.
“Pfaugh.” He glared at the small sinkhole forming where his ass had rested. “Well, it’ll do anyways. I’ll just have to use more of the stuff. Pass me my pack, will you?”
Now, if I’d been just a little more tired at that moment, things might have gone differently. As it was, I had enough spare energy left to stop with the pack in my hands and ask: “what?”
“The pack, of course.”
“No. What do you need? What stuff?”
Tallbeck’s big green eyes sucked themselves in a little, the face they were trapped inside too fleshless to bring them down to slits. “Stop dawdling and give me the pack.”
This was probably my money on the line now, but every single action performed by Tallbeck in the last thirty seconds had shifted that a little lower on my priorities. “Tell me.”
Tallbeck had a thing in his hand. It was small and grey and plain and looked exactly like one of those Terramac machines you can only find in the biggest markets that deal in goods from far-away-and-farther, the kind that can heat up little shards of iron and send them spitting at you faster than an arrow shot by a diving eagle. This was probably because it was.
“Do I have to repeat myself to you?”
“No need for threats now, Mr. Tallbeck,” I replied evenly. I wondered if anywhere on my carapace was thick enough to deflect the shot. Probably not, and even if so, probably not before it punctured somewhere a lot thinner.
“No need for this sort of digging-around either, yet here we are. Now, kindly hand over my pack to me – carefully.”
The man’s voice had that horrible sneering smugness in it again that showed he was smiling, but I was too focused on the machine from the Terramac. It seemed to be open-mouthed, ready to scream. “You aren’t going to shoot me, Tallbeck. You’d have to carry your pack back yourself, and there’s no way you’re going to lift this thing and make it more than five feet.”
“On the contrary,” he said. How had he gotten that machine into his hand so fast? One moment it wasn’t there, then all of a sudden it was. Had it been there all along and I’d just never noticed? No, no, don’t let the mind wander! “Once all the Matagant explosives have been emptied out of it and used, I suspect it’ll be a light load. Minus, of course, the twenty or so pounds of gold you so kindly informed me you little sand-fleas leave down at the bottom of these things?”
“It won’t work.”
“Give me a reason why. Now give me my pack.”
Time was starting to slow down in my head. But if there was a fight, best to start it on the right foot. “This pack is full of explosive devices.”
“Yes! Congratulations, hey? You do have a brain somewhere inside there!”
“I am holding it directly in front of me and you are threatening me with a weapon. That shoots red-hot metal.”
It took him a minute to think over that, and while he was thinking instead of firing, I threw the pack at him.
A good throw, but an awkward missile – the pack clipped his arm and spoiled his aim as I threw myself at him: a shot for my head went through my right arm, sending it white hot in my brain. Time to wrestle, time to use all the tricks father taught me when I was little – take his feet out, down he goes, grab his arms. Ah, can’t grab his arms, not with one arm, not with a weapon in the other that’s already wobbling my way, inching my way. I can’t hold both his hands.
Headbutt. Oh, that’s put him off his aim, now I can AH!
I recoiled backwards for a moment, nose pouring out blood by the cupful where the hard, cold surface of the machine from the Terramac had smashed it sideways, and that was all that Tallbeck needed. A foot found a grip, his hand grasped at my jacket, and I went down spinning in the sand, sending it flying into the air and into my eyes – ah, it hurt!
The sky was there again, big and empty and lonely, and then Tallbeck filled it, made me wish for loneliness again. His hand was full of death and his eyes were full of anger, and I’d never felt so small.
“GRANDMOTHER!” I called as his fingers slid on the machine’s lever.
He stopped for a moment, just a moment. Long enough for a laugh (a chuckle really), a shake of the head, and a quick roll of those green eyes.
They had just started to widen when the sand squealed under his feet.
And he vanished there, too fast to see him drop, but down into the sand, into the life-of-gold he’d gone; Hast Tallbeck, traveller, explorer, tourist, and thief. And not more than a half-second too soon, because that was when I passed out.

When I awoke, the sky was black and huge, scattered with a million lights, and my arm had stopped its throbbing, changed to a dull ache. A quick inspection showed that the machine from the Terramac had bored a hole all the way through, searing it shut as it went, trapping the blood inside. I thought about what could’ve happened if Tallbeck had simply brought a knife with him, and winced.
Still, there was an errand to do before I left. One hand on the heart, one hand on the surface of the well.
“Sorry for the trouble, Grandmother,” I whispered in the back of my throat. Little mumbles, tiny tremors, barely audible but a faint buzz through my body, down through my palms and into the sand.
You only had to ask, great-great-great-great-great-grandson, she sighed, a trickle of force on my fingers, a stirring travelling up through my arms and into my chest. Her whispers came from a body twice the size of her dune, the body of the life-of-gold.
I tell each and all of you this, every time I speak to you and I see the troubles on your faces: you only had to ask.
“I know. Wanted to handle it myself.”
And you all always say that. Just like your father?
I winced, thought of all that money on Tallbeck, all that money down under two hundred feet of Grandmother Uy. “Yes. Yes. Damnit. I’m sorry, Grandmother. He needs the surgery, but he can’t pay and he won’t let me try to help.”
More fool the both of you. Here.
The grains at my fingertips stirred, gleamed. Take them.
I scooped up a handful, let the tiny golden fragments drain into my palm as the sand fell away. “Grandmother?”
Take them.
“These are you, Grandmother. These are for you, from us. These are your mind-food, your fuel for your memories and your body, to let you grow under the sand until you reach the sky. These are what keep you from haring off into the Ever-After, keep you standing and singing here under the sun.”
And as long as you and all my other children are alive, I am doing that already. Take them.
Besides, I have more.
I sighed – out loud and clear this time, no need to hide this from relatives – and took the grains of gold. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Far too few to engage the treasure-lust of a tourist, but enough to pay one miserable old man to operate on a stubborn old man.
“Good-bye, Grandmother,” I said. “I will travel here again and visit before I’m married.”
A little sooner, if you don’t mind, she whispered under my feet as I walked away, slipping down her sides. And bring your family. Don’t want your father to think he’s getting out of this mess clean and shining.
“I won’t.”
And Aro…?
“Yes, Grandmother?”
The dune rippled underfoot, sending me to the base of Grandmother Uy in a dusty, confusing instant. I ducked just before Tallbeck’s pack could smash into me.
Take this thing with you. It chafes against me.

It chafed against my right side, too. Still, the walk back to the coast? Much more pleasant. And quiet.