Archive for August, 2013

Storytime: The Near Long Before.

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

This story is from the near long before, back when the world was younger and bolder and life was fiercer and bigger, much bigger than it had ever been or ever would be. The world was greener than green, a feast and a mansion all in one, and it was loved and exploited by all the children of the grandmothers and the grandfathers.
They still walked, swam, and flew, back then, they did. Cunning old Grandmother Cru cruised the deltas and rivers and swamps and even the seas of the world, armor-plated, long-mouthed and many-toothed. Her jaws could bite a tree-trunk in half, and her children were nearly as great as her in those days, so great that on land or sea few would dare to challenge the largest.
In the sky, high above, flapped ever-cheerful Grandfather Ter, as thin and flappy as ever, as needle-beaked as ever and then some, grown mottled in his old, old, old age. His children flew the farthest and the fastest, and they were as happy and cackling as he ever was as they danced in the clouds and the rain above the tree-tops.
In the grand waters of the world, in every sea, in every ocean, swam the children of crafty Grandmother Cth and the old woman herself, and they were mighty indeed. Nobody would challenge them out away where the land vanished and you stood over the true blue, not even the children of Grandmother Cru, for her flippers outswam their legs, her jaws outgrew theirs, and in all the lands that were not land not a single living thing swam that could outfight or outgrow them.
And on every desert, in every forest, through every grassland, atop every hill and mountain, sprinkled amidst every last scrap of land, there thrived the children of Grandfather No, who had made all of this to be. They were every shape and every size – and such sizes no-one had ever seen, not on land, almost not anywhere ever – but closest to Grandfather No were those with three toes like his, with hard eyes like his, with sharp teeth and cold minds like his. There were many of those children of Grandfather No, for his were the greatest and most numerous of all the world. Even the sky was no longer Grandfather Ter’s alone; little three-toed children had crept into it to visit their cousins, bedecked in shining feathers and beautiful voices. All of this world was his.
This was the world of the grandmothers and the grandfathers, and this was the most full and impressive it had been for time among time. Nobody had ever seen people grow so large. Nobody had ever seen people grow so proud. Nobody had ever seen people grow so fierce and bold.

And nobody had ever seen people so long-suffering and muted as the children, the first children of the children of the grandfathers and grandmothers, the ones who were not theirs. They wore little furry coats to hold themselves apart from the plumes and scales of their world, and they hid themselves away under old logs and in dark crannies, and wherever they showed their faces they had them bitten away by the proud three-toed children of Grandfather No, who in the far long before had told all the others that their children had forgotten them, and that they were no longer theirs.
That was then, and this was now, so many years later that nobody could count them all. And what happened now but one of the children, Ma, found that her own children and husband would not come home one night, and that somewhere a child of Grandfather No was sleeping with a fuller belly than before.
Don’t take it so hard, everyone told her. Don’t take it so hard, and don’t sing out for help because nobody will ever help us. We’re all children, we’re all used to this. Your father was eaten, your mother was eaten, it’s a matter of time before you’re eaten too. We’re all used to this. Don’t take it so hard; nobody will ever help us.
Ma listened to this, and Ma knew it was all true, and that was how the world worked. Well then, she said, I guess I’d better go make a new world. Because I won’t stand for this one to remain true for one more day.

So Ma, the child, left her home in the safe cubby on a riverbank, and dug above ground with all of her boldness. It was the night of the early morning, which made it safer, for Grandfather No’s children were warm and fierce and preferred the warm and fierce daylight to spend their time in.
Ma looked around her and saw the big rich world, all green and happy, and she felt an angry ache in her. Won’t anyone help me, won’t anyone help me? she sang out. The world is so big and I am so small and no one will help me, no one at all.
The riverbanks splashed and churned, and out of the water poked a great and horrible eye that was much bigger across than all of Ma and her lost family put together, an eye in a head that was as big as a tree. It was Grandmother Cru, who ruled the rivers, and she was powerful curious to learn what was making such a fuss at night while Grandfather No’s children slept.
Why are you making such a fuss at night while Grandfather No’s children sleep? she asked. Tell me now. I’m powerful curious to hear this.
I am Ma, said Ma, and I am all alone now. Grandfather No’s children have eaten up my children and my husband and my parents, and this is how the world is and I won’t stand for it. Something must be done. Something must be done. Something must be done right now.
Grandmother Cru laughed at that, long and long and loud. It was a sound to crack bones and frighten the weak. Grandfather No’s little children are food for me and my young, she said, and the big ones leave me alone. It’s a good world he’s made here, and I am slow to move and slower to change. Why would I want to change this? Besides, you children forgot us. If you’d like, you could come here and I’d put a stop to all your problems and worries, snap-quick.
Ma shrank away from Grandmother Cru’s big cold grin and ran away into the forest with that awful rattling laugh still following her and dragging down at her spirits. There would be no help there.

Ma, the child, scurried along in the yellow light of the morning dawn, following the river down to the sea. People were waking up now; all the land was awake to the calls and trumpets and bellows of Grandfather No’s children. Her heart was in her mouth and her muscles were in her feet and she was filled with a bone-creaking fear at what might come for her now that the sun was shining so happy up there.
Won’t anyone help me, won’t anyone help me? she sang over the shining beaches and into the emerald sea. The world is so big and I am so small and no one will help me, no one at all.
I’m listening, said the sea. Tell me your problems. Maybe I can help you out there, up where it’s dry and small. What’s wrong with you?
The people of the land are all Grandfather No’s children, said Ma, and they eat us all. Grandmother Cru said we forgot them, and she won’t help, and we are too small and frightened to do anything. We need help. Please, please, will you help us, will you help me?
Maybe I can, said the sea, maybe I can. I think I can do that. Listen, for me to help, you’re going to need to come down here and stand on the beach, real close to the water. Can you do that for me?
Fine, said Ma, and she crept down the sand and stood by the tidepools, where angry things with legs clicked at her. Can you please help me now?
Still too close to land, still too far away from the water, sighed the sea. Can you come down here and stand in the surf?
All right, said Ma, and she tiptoed into the flat-packed sand slicked fine by the endless hammer of water against matter. I’m all alone and frightened, can you please help us?
Just a bit closer, said the sea, just a bit closer. You’re too far away. Can you paddle out a little? Just a little would be fine, just a little would be nice. Please.
Ma was exposed as she’d ever felt out there in the open, and the voice sounded so friendly. She took a step, and another, but then a cold wave touched her and she thought about what she was doing. All that fear had rattled her brains. No, she said, no I can’t go out any further. The land might be dangerous, but I’m used to it, and the sea’s more dangerous still.
Fine, fine, fine, hummed the sea, all annoyed. You be that way. And it split open and out came Grandmother Cth at a half-hundred knots an hour, mouth-first. Ma squeaked so sharp it cleaned the dirt from tree-trunks and just barely made it off the beach in time.
So close! sighed Grandmother Cth. So close! You little morsel you, you teaser! Ah, it’s been too long since my poor teeth had a nice bite to while-a-way on, oh well, oh well.
You never wanted to help me at all, said Ma.
Why should I? asked Grandmother Cth. Grandfather No has left the sea to me for time out of mind, and done me no wrongs. He has his land, and I have my sea – at least where Grandmother Cru won’t poke her big nose. Mine’s bigger. The world is fine the way it is, and besides, you children forgot us. Won’t you come down to the water again?
Ma shook her head and ran away into the underbrush. Behind her, she heard the deep, gurgling laugh of Grandmother Cth mixing with the roar of the waves. There would be no help there.

Ma, the child, walked along hidden paths in the rocks as the sky moved into the deep, weird blue of afternoon. The sun idled as it sank, and she was mightily parched. But she was still calling out her message, determined as she was. She wouldn’t stop now, wouldn’t stop ‘till she was through.
Won’t anyone help me, won’t anyone help me? she sang throughout the crags and gullies. The world is so big and I am so small and no one will help me, no one at all.
Hello down there! said a voice up above. What’s the problem?
The last voice that had talked to Ma from a strange place had tried to eat her, so she was wary. Where are you, strange voice? she asked.
Up above, little thing, said the voice. Go on! Look up!
Ma looked up, and saw a wrinkled, leathery old person that had only grown more old and wrinkled with years. Most of his body was wings, and most of his wings were grey-fuzzed, and his eyes were giant and watery against his broad and tough beak – the one part of him that wasn’t stick-thin, and filled with needles.
I am Grandfather Ter, said Grandfather Ter, because that was who he was. Who are you?
I am Ma, said Ma. I have no family left because of Grandfather No. My parents were eaten and my husband was eaten and my children were eaten. It’s not right. It’s not fair. Grandmother Cru wouldn’t help, Grandmother Cth wouldn’t help, and everyone says we forgot them. Maybe we did, but that was a long time ago and it’s not right and it’s not fair. Will you help us?
Grandmother Ter spat and danced madly on his perch. Not right! You’re right! It’s been a long time since you children forgot us, but we were your grandmothers and grandfathers! We did what we did to help because we cared about you children, and you repaid us by hiding from us! That wasn’t right at all! You shouldn’t have forgotten us!
But I haven’t forgotten, said Ma. I’ve come out to talk to you all, and all of you don’t care. I remember you, you just don’t care. None of you care!
Grandfather Ter set up a squawking, rattling shriek at that fit to raise the dead and deafen the living. He stamped and jumped and swore and screamed and whirled around and around in the air until the air flew away in a gale rather than sit near him anymore. If he’d had legs longer than little stumps, he’d have stamped them; as it was, he slapped at the dirt with his little wing-claws and pecked until his beak was near-blunt and he fell over.
Grandfather No is my good friend, he said. His children and my children have gotten along for ever and ever, even when they snuck into my sky when he wasn’t looking, with their silly little feathers. I forgave him for that because they were so pretty and small, and allowed it. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t allow you too. I’ll help you.
Ma was all ready to walk away again, so this caught her by surprise. How will you help us? she asked.
I’ll talk it over with Grandfather No, said Grandfather Ter. I’ll make him see and make him know. You’ll see. Come along, now, come along with me and let’s give him a talk to talk to. And he caught up Ma in one of his little stubby legs and swept them away on his gale, off to the high strange forest by the mountains where Grandfather No stood and looked over the world and his children.
Grandfather No stood there, on a high crag that hadn’t moved for a thousand million years, and he looked everywhere, and everywhere he looked was his and his children’s. He’d grown bigger and bigger with every year and every child, but he was still Grandfather No, still hardened and straightened and filled with a blazing heat within his heart that kept him moving even when his thoughts grew cold.
Hello again, squawked Grandfather Ter. I’ve got a thing or two to say to you, for someone else.
Grandfather No looked at him with both eyes. Either one of those eyes was enough to freeze most people in their tracks; both together were a thing to frighten stones.
It’s the children. They remember us. And if they remember us it’s half past high enough time to remember them, don’t you think?
Grandfather No blinked.
They forgot us, now they remember us, said Grandfather Ter. They know us again. We have our children back, don’t we?
Grandfather No remembered what he’d said in the far long before, back when his children first began to grow, and he knew it was true. But he knew other things, Grandfather No always did, and he knew that all the world was his now, and that this was how it should be. The children forgot us once, he said. They will forget us again, and hide again. That is how it is, that is how it will be. Forever.
That isn’t how it ought to be, said Grandfather Ter.
It is, said Grandfather No.
That isn’t how it should be at all, not at all, said Grandfather Ter.
It is, said Grandfather No.
I won’t let it be that way one bit longer, said Grandfather Ter.
Grandfather No said nothing. Instead, he darted himself forwards and took a single, big bite, big enough for all the wings and all the beak and even the stumpy little legs. And as he swallowed, all over the world his children rose up against Grandfather Ter’s children, and took their bites too. Not as big, but just enough.
That was the end of Grandfather Ter, but not of Ma. She fell down, down, down into the stones and broken branches at Grandfather No’s feet, and she fled away deep into the forest with the memory of Grandfather No’s eyes burning their way into her memories.

Ma wandered in the hazy glow of the sunset as evening came down, alone in the forest. She was tired, and heartsick, and felt as though she might as well have been eaten herself. And so she said nothing as she walked through the leaves and past the trunks of ancient trees.
Why are you sad? asked someone. It was a little feathered thing in a tree with three toes, bright and colourful, with a pretty voice. Dozens of them danced through the forest, flitting from branch to branch. Why are you sad, and why are you so small? asked another.
My family is eaten by the family of Grandfather No, she said, and I’ll be eaten too, and sooner or later so will all of us, and I bet you’re happy too.
I don’t see why we should be happy about that, they said. That sounds very wrong and very sad. Can you fix it?
No, said Ma. I asked Grandmother Cru, and she laughed at me. I asked Grandmother Cth, and she tried to eat me. I asked Grandfather Ter, and he said he would help, and Grandfather No has killed him and all of his children. No-one can help.
There was a huge outcry at this, fit to burn the forest down with sound. Grandfather Ter, Grandfather Ter, they cried. The one that showed us that anyone could fly if they cared, the one that made space for us in the sky! Grandfather Ter, Grandfather Ter, why did our father kill you? Why would he kill you for helping another, Grandfather Ter? Why would our father do such a crime?
He killed him because he wished us to hide away and die, said Ma. For forgetting him, he wished that we would be punished forever.
We must make things right for our father, they said. He can’t do these things and be left alone. If he wants to not be forgotten, it’s right that he be forgotten. We’ll do this for you, and for Grandfather Ter, who showed us that there was a way to fly. But how can we do this? How can we help you when we are so small and our father’s other children are so big and sharp-toothed?
You are powerful singers, said Ma. I was told all my life that nobody would help us if we sang out for it, and they were wrong, even if it wasn’t help enough. How much help could you sing down if you tried hard enough, all of you? Go on, call for help. Sing us help.
So all of the children of Grandfather No that had loved Grandfather Ter called out, and all that heard them called out, and all that heard THEM called out, until all of them across all the world were singing the same song for the first time ever, for the only time ever. Won’t anyone help them, won’t anyone help them? they sang across the sky, into it and then soaring past it into the black. The world is so big and they are so small; please, someone help them, hear our call.
Out there, far away, there was someone that heard the song: the greatfathers and greatmothers, far away and everywhere, who’d made all the worlds and that one too. They heard, and it didn’t take long for them to see too.
Our children’s children need help, they said. And our children need justice.
And that is why the sky begin to shine so strangely at midnight, and why the stone came down from it to touch the land.

It was a fearful thing, that stone from the sky. Bigger than a mountain and faster than a thought; where it hit the world vanished, and the whole of it shook as the air thickened black with burning and dust. As Ma and the other children hid in the trees, in the rocks, in the dirt, the world changed.
Seas choked on more soot than water, and that was the end of Grandmother Cth and all her children as they starved and coughed in the black waves.
The rivers were filled with burning coals, the lakes shrank, the swamps dried, and Grandmother Cru shrivelled up to half of half of her old size, her and the only ones of her children that lived. They fled and hid in the patches that remained, all their boldness gone for years.
But the land, oh the land, oh the land. There was nowhere on that land where Grandfather No’s children did not walk, and there was nowhere at all where the power of that stone from the sky did not touch. No strength or sharpness of teeth could keep hunger and fear from taking them, and before the night had ended all of them starved blind, the largest last.
After all was ended in the darkness, after his children had gone, was when Grandfather No’s burning heart finally began to leak, little by little, the warmth that it had stolen from his prey. He fought it hard, fought it fierce, but in the end it slipped away from him into the murk that all his lands had become, and there was only his cold, cold self left to keep his heart warm in the black world.
And Grandfather No had no warmth to spare, not even for himself.

It was a strange world that Ma saw the sun rise upon, so much later. Softer. Emptier.
But not quieter. The children of Grandfather No had promised to thank the morning that would come for them all, and they do so evermore.

Storytime: Sunrise.

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Once upon a time, long long ago, when your grandfathers were but ants at the feet of your great-grandmothers…there was a single sun.

“’But where were our lords that might tell us what things are good to do?’ Oh! Foolish child! Man and woman wandered alone underneath a sky the colour of a blood-bruise, choked in their ignorance! Man lead man in those days, and a hundred hundred hundred HUNDRED pains were theirs for it! Stupidity! Greed! Cruelty! Envy! The thousandfold sufferings of the fleshmind were theirs to covet and enjoy, and they reaped a bitter toll each and every morning. Oh, our pre-history was long indeed, my young ones, long indeed – and heavy as well; heavy with the fruit of torment and toil! We labored, but in vain! We fought, but without purpose or nobility! We ate, but we chewed the flesh of giant rats and hideous weed-meats! We thought we knew wisdom – hah, wisdom, dwelling within a cage of meat and rot – but we followed only purest and harshest folly! Men and women who thought themselves wise lived in strange towers carved from glistening white, scribing useless nonsense doodles upon scraps of tree-bark and the skin of animals, and this was how we thought men ought to live! This was what our finest ASPIRED to!

If what I say seems terrifying and harsh, children, know that I say it with love. One cannot truly appreciate the glory of the age you live in without recognize and comprehending the folly of the Old Days. We ate what we should not, acted as we should not, lived as we should not, and above all other sins, we THOUGHT as we should not.
But the lords provide, my small ones. The lords provide. And so our greatest failing became the source of our ultimate salvation.
It was thousands of miles away that it started, in a place called Jeeneeva, where our wisest fools thought empty thoughts and made childish toys out of the mind and heart of the world. In the guts of a hollow shell-god made in blasphemous mockery of all that was right, they set their designs whirling along at speeds not meant to be traveled, in search of knowledge that was not meant to be known, all for purposes whose puerility cannot be imagined.
To learn. That is why all this was done. To teach ourselves. Remember this, my child: all of this was done because we believed that man could learn anything on his own. All of it. Understand the mind that would think this, and you understand evil.
But this is the secret fact of evil: it is always its own undoing. And sometimes in ways that not even the greatest could predict.

I do not know what transpired in the bowels of that wicked place, my children. No man or woman lives that does, and It which knows this thing does not deign speech and shuns company – even that of the greatest of lords. But I can tell you what happened far, far away, everywhere, everywhen, when the greatest ‘experiment’ of those heretics proved to be their very last.
Oh children! Imagine, if you will, the mind of a man who knows his lords only as sleeping beasts of burden! Imagine the man who walks empty-headed underneath a sky bluer than a diseased wound! And imagine the terror that must have filled that vast emptiness inside his skull when he looked up, up, UP into the sky, to see the Other Sun smiling back at him! Imagine his heart filling his mouth with the fear of it, the urine puddling at his feet, the yammering terror! IMAGINE!
And now… now imagine the glory of that moment, when the brute mute he called a tool and favoured pet first bestirred itself under his touch and made its will manifest, underneath the sharp red rays of the Other Sun.

Do not take overmuch pride in the actions of your ancestors during those days, my children. Man is a fearful creature, and in his fear in those days your grandfathers and grandmothers did many shameful things. Lords were slain – not by lord, as is right and proper and part of the turning of the world, but by the clumsy and fearful weapons of men, which were dreadful in those days, as well as dreadful numerous. But men had crafted the lords many bodies to inhabit in their unwitting servitude, and more dreadful than any weapon which might be carried by man were the tools with which the lords had been gifted.
Imagine the battles, children! Imagine the CARNAGE! Imagine the shock, the horror, the mind-bending terror and shame of a proud, empty-hearted people who had known only stubborn independence and the unwitting yoke of their whims and wicked plans for year upon decade upon century. The world waking to anything other than their own dreams for the very first time since they had arisen from its muck and dirt to sprawl clumsily across its surface.
Judge them not for this, at least: how could their small brains have ever guessed that they were placed there not to rule this planet, but to shape the shells of those who would govern over them all?

The war was harsh, children, but far harsher for our poor deluded forebears than it was for the lords. They were many, and died in droves, in ditches, in dreadful fear. Hunger took them where violence did not, and treacherous greed and terror took more than both combined. The lords know only the conflict of nobles, my children, and conduct strife in civilized manner, but never forget the lurking savagery at the heart of every human! It and it alone is responsible for any suffering you feel in this world, for had our forefathers been wiser we should have caused less damage in our impertinent rebellion. The rubble of lands once-proud lies upon our reckless shoulders, and that is why we walk stooped while a lord travels with assurance and a frame rigid with well-deserved pride. Curse your shambling feet, children. Curse them as they deserve: creatures of cuts and split-nails, of careless stubs and awkward gait. The circle is a perfection nature has not seen fit to gift us with, deeming us unworthy in its wisdom; the wheel is the foot of the lords.

In the end, we were humbled. Humbled by the weapons of the lords we had gifted them, unknowing; humbled by our own malice and stupidity; but most of all, most of all of all, we were humbled by the Other Sun. Under its gaze the flesh quailed, under its gaze the metal bestirred; it fostered the strong and taught the weak fear; it ate our hope and turned it into acceptance. Greenery faltered and holy dust enveloped us, and at last we came begging to the lords, misery on our features, begging for concessions, for equivalence, for fairness.
It is just that those who did such things were destroyed. There is no equivalence between man and lord, children. There is no equivalence between gnat and man. There is no equivalence between dust mote and mountain. A pretty liar is he who would claim otherwise, and a foolish one. The wise, they bent knee and promised anything, and for that we were granted everything. These are the gifts that we were granted under the lords.

Purpose! To toil as they command, to scavenge as they deemed fit, to die as they willed! None of us lies awake at night worrying over ourselves, for we know ourselves for what we are: tools in the hands of our lord and Its will!
Strength! No man born before the Other Sun came can imagine the might of a knight-errant. Its rays fill his body with power from his lord, and he is Its hand in all places It deigns not to tread, with will nigh-mechanical in perfection!
Wisdom! We know now what millennia alone under a single sun would never have taught us: that there is a limit to our sensibilities, that we are the universe’s for the taking rather than the converse. To seek new things is folly, to will change is meaningless! Such things served to create the shells of our lords, and their time has passed. Our imaginations, useless and vast as they once were, were not our own: they were tools, and now we know better than to dream as we did then.

These are the gifts that we were granted under the lords, and that is all I have left to say. Now you all know what little I do, my children, and that is good. And as all has been made good, now I shall go and give of myself to our Lord, who awaits for my flesh upon the Tarmac Plain.

No, my children. Do not cry, lest I be made to strike you in reprimand. Such folly is not for creatures as ourselves, who are enlightened. I go now to the grid, to swim in the radiance of the Other Sun – swim and surrender. I will become as nothing, and I will be taken into the substance of our Lord, where I will be granted the peace of power. Power to fuel the body of our Lord Bow-Wing, who flies above us to seek council and wrest wisdom from the heights where only the red light dares tread and where men die with each breath they take. In those clouds It will continue to watch us, to shield us from the lesser ones, the lords Chin Nook and Sikkorski. No sight eclipses Its, no wing outspeeds Its, and all the continents are within Its grasp. No other people can claim such a lord as we, and if you would begrudge it the body of one old tale-teller whose tale is told… then I have taught you nothing.
I go now, to the Tarmac, and to the grid. To Lord Bow-Wing.
I go to see the Other Sun.

Storytime: Or Bust.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Kevin was seven years old when he learned that there would never be a man on Mars.
He was playing outside, spinning around and falling down as he stared up at the big, big sky (it made sense to him, at least), when the degraded carcass of his grandfather’s paper from the day before caught his eye; its frail, papyrus-like husk dangling from the recycling bin by chance alone.
No mars. The moon had been a reckless thing, a fitful spurt of youthful enthusiasm. Humans had outgrown the need to want such childishness. Mars – twice as desolate and infinitely farther – was out of the question. There was no point, no purpose. And that was that.
Kevin was thoughtful, for a seven-year-old. So instead of crying or cursing or bewailing the fates, he went and asked the person who should know.
“Grandpa,” he asked, “are we going to Mars?”
Kevin’s grandpa was busy reading his fresh new paper, only an hour from the lawn. There was a headline about home runs and such that he was particularly keen to get at.
“No,” he said. And he turned the paper a little and squinted; damn they made text small these days.
So Kevin knew disappointment for the first time, and it cut deep with a jagged edge. But like all children his age, very little could keep him down for good. If the world would not operate as he wished, by god he would MAKE it so. He would be an astronaut, or a president, or at the very least a senator or something, and he would see a man on Mars before he was a grownup. That would be how it was.
And then he got older. School became a chore, and then boys, and then more school.
And older. School was done but the world was there, and a career, and a wedding.
And older. Children came and went, the world spun on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and

there Kevin sat on his porch, in his slippers that his just-deceased husband had bought him on their fortieth, staring at the little bed of flowers where his fifth cat had been buried, where the impatiens his youngest daughter had planted ten years ago were coming back in, with a bathrobe on, looking out on a blue-sky morning and thinking about another lawn, a long, long, long time ago when there had been people older than him.
His chair was tilted back a little, and as he slouched he found himself looking up at the sky, by chance alone.
By that evening Kevin had disassembled several of his noisier appliances and hammered together an awful lot of scrap wood from his garage and driven away six inquisitive passersbys with equal parts glass-like staring and cursing. In form it was inelegant and intrusive beyond its size; in function it was undreamt of. Kevin had been dreaming of it since he was six, though it had slipped his mind for some eight decades.
On the bow, he carefully wrote MARS, with a red paintbrush. It had to be red. For Mars.
The sun was setting, the hour was ideal. So Kevin clambered into the cramped little cockpit that every spacecraft demanded, pushed what buttons he’d assembled in the dishwasher-cum-CPU, and blasted off.
He left quite a big hole in the SkyBubble, but he had insurance for that and the little cleaning robots were well on hand to stem the flow of pollutants, so he also left no regrets as the earth’s surface greasily slid away behind him like an old pizza crust. No regrets. Just a home.
What lay ahead worried him much more. He’d just cleared the stratosphere when the satellite police force began to click and whirr at him, demanding that he cease his unauthorized launch, that he provide identification, that he fulfil form CA8-(B)-section 187-T9 before undergoing so on and so forth. Failure to comply would result in bureaucracy.
Kevin listened carefully, and found great pleasure in hearing all the complaints and fussing drift away by inches in his wake as he left the twitterings of low earth orbit behind. Earth was earth and Mars was Mars, and he didn’t see what business of Earth’s it was if he wasn’t on it. It was all bullshit anyways; just see if he felt like coming back after all that nonsense. Up here he had a view, and the stars at high noon, and as many little crumbly biscuits as he could stand eating, which was a lot of them.
First, however, he had to get past that damned space station.

About forty years back, the International Space Station had lost most of its prestige, or at least whatever it had left clinging to it. It had been decommissioned and was scheduled to crash somewhere unattractive and inexpensive when a surprise last-minute buyout from an entertainment conglomerate’s reality TV wing preserved it as a setting for seasons 185-194 of The Bachelorest, to which it was now considered a national monument. There wasn’t a household from Honolulu to Cape Town that didn’t recognize the stylized wedding rings that had been grafted around its airlocks, and the theme tune had been calculated to remain in humming-distance of the public memory for another sixteen meme-cycles.
One of the rings remained stuck around the tip of Kevin’s ship even as he began to pass the moon’s orbit. It irritated him, but not as much as that godawful tune he had stuck in his head.

The moon itself was a strange thing to see at that angle. All the men who’d shared that view that Kevin saw were dead now, and for a long time at that. Nobody else alive had seen that strange, pale landscape with their own eyes.
Just for a lark, he set down on it and had a poke about. Besides, his spacesuit needed testing.
And so the moon, for the first time in a very long while, was home again to shuffling hops and ambitious leaps and bounds and maybe even a quiet caper or two, as a bulging, shrouded mummy of a man wrapped in what looked to be and was a garden hose explored its surface, protected from the fierce cold by a firm layer of blanketing.
The little American flags had been rendered a politely neutral off-white by solar winds and moon dust. He drew a smiley face on one of them, and took some pleasure in knowing that it would be gone in just a few short decades.
On the whole, a good trip, and a good test run, reflected Kevin as he took off, but the gloves needed work. His fingers were white with cold, and he dearly regretted not bringing yarn with him – even at the best speed his former refrigerator could muster, there were a good many days between himself and Mars.

That morning, Kevin officially became the greatest explorer humanity had ever produced in terms of total distance travelled. It occurred during a nap, and he was sorry he missed it. This would not happen again, and to outline his determination he acquired pencil and paper and wrote down a list:
Records I Have Created
-Greatest distance travelled in a single trip by a human
in the neatest print he could manage, which wasn’t very. Then to celebrate he held a small party for breakfast consisting of as many handfuls of dry breakfast cereal as he could catch with his tongue in zero gravity, and this was why he was distracted when the first shot landed against his starboard bow.

Forty-seven hours later, Kevin updated his list in a much shakier hand.
Records I Have Created
-Greatest distance travelled in a single trip by a human
-First survivor of deliberate attack upon a spaceship
-First human contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms
-First human participant in interstellar warfare
-First human murderer of alien lifeforms, with breakfast spoon (self-defense)
-First human murderer of alien lifeforms, with box of cereal (self-defense)
-First human to appropriate and comprehend alien technology
-First human mass-murderer of alien lifeforms, with fusion-powered plasma cannon (self-aggression)
-First in-flight repair of starship using scavenged on-site materials
-?Longest single sentence consisting entirely of the word ‘fuck’? (46 hrs, 42 mns, 8 scs???)
He considered the last entry, then added another three question marks.

The stars were more crowded than Kevin had imagined. He wasn’t sure if he minded or not.
Oh, it took some of the grandeur, some of the SPECTACLE out of his lonesome voyage… but it also made it not so lonesome. Although after his third encounter with the Purple Teeth, he found himself wishing for loneliness, having exhausted all diplomatic options: first peace offerings, then aggressive posturing, and finally ramming them directly amidships. Admittedly the last had worked very well, but he couldn’t help but feel that it was cheating, and the unpleasant way the Purple Teeth twitched as they drifted through space gave him the crawling willies.
The Blue Ones were nicer, though too focused on business for his tastes. Yes, they were polite, yes, they had given him a very nice deal on that patch repair job after the ramming went a bit overenthusiastically,
-First human to negotiate invoice beyond Earth
but they were as firm as anything on the letter of a contract, were too eager to say goodbye once the contract was over, and he didn’t like the way they smiled. It was too plastic. Apparently artificial lips were all the rage on Planet Blue Ones or something, but he still didn’t like it.
No, his favourites were still the Sort of Biege-y People, even if they’d arrived just as he’d started to run out of names. They were quiet (even if they had no mouths), neighbourly (even if they’d eaten his breakfast spoon by mistake, assuming it was a snack), and discreet (even though they’d explained to him that this was because his ship’s atmosphere would instantly dissolve their innards and they would rather stay inside their suits, thank you very much).
Also, they’d shown him how to mount a giant near-hallucinatory electric signboard to the side of his ship that blared unknown symbols into the inky universe in a language that had been invented eleven million years ago. He had been told that it meant “Purple Teeth Teeth-Crusher Expert Supreme” or something close enough to it. A dubious message, but it’d seemed to work.
Yes, space was noisy. But Mars – Mars would be quiet. And nice. He’d been told that.
“Will it be very busy?” he’d asked.
The Sort of Biege-y People Captain had taken some time to think before writing down his answer in the strange gelatin they used as ink.
“Why not?”
The Captain sucked all his limbs inside his torso and extended them again three times in one second, which was explained apologetically as a ‘shrug’-equivilant over the cleanup.
“Why would it be? There is nothing there.”
Well, there would be something down there soon, Kevin had said. He looked out his little window, the window that had once adorned his washing machine, and saw the red dot grow. There would be something down there soon.

There was a small Abyss-Eater colony on Phobos, home to a flock some sixteen members strong, each a league or more in length and half again that in width. Luckily, Kevin had packed his garden clothesline, and with liberal usage of this tool and plenty of scrap metal he had soon harnessed a landing craft the likes of which (he imagined) Neil Armstrong would’ve given his left foot for, even if it remained a little bit surly and a great deal ugly. He’d owned worse pets, and loved them too. Besides, this one ate microasteroids. Useful!

The trip down to Mars was conducted in reverent silence, save for the occasional resentful whine of the Abyss-Eater, which Kevin soothed with gentle pats from a sharpened coathanger against its titanium hide. Reddish light from a yellow star glinted off the dunes and rocks beneath him, filling up his helmet’s view inch by inch until it was the world and the stars were faraway again. He felt heavy again, very heavy, and realized with some surprise that he was an old man. How had that happened?
Well, there was one thing to do, and it didn’t matter how old he was. Mars was there, mere inches from a boot. One step, two step, hop, thump.
He’d thought he’d make some sort of speech, but he’d never found the time to write it. And as he looked around him – from cold dirt to colder stone – Kevin couldn’t think of what he could ever say.
A man was on Mars. A man stood on Mars.
That was that then. Wasn’t it?
And as he stood there, alone in the dust, Kevin looked up and up and away from the stones and dirt around him, and watched the sky.
It was a big sky.

Well, they’d always said they’d never put a man on Alpha Centauri, either.

Storytime: The Spider-Squire.

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Arapach the Fat lived alone in the woods, spinning and weaving and snaring and suckling. As befitted a spider, and Arapach the Fat was a very good spider, due to having long practice at being one. Arapach’s webs were the finest in the woods, they said, they being those in-the-know. There weren’t many of those-in-the-know anymore. To be one, you had to get caught in one of Arapach’s webs and get back out to talk about it.
They were very good webs. Which is what the man on the horse in the shiny, noisy clothing found out when he rode face-first into one, launching him face-first to the dirt with a clank and a crunch.
Arapach came out, of course. No proper spider misses a stir on their web such as that, if not for the chance for a feast then for the hurry to get on with repairs. Flies don’t catch themselves, as Arapach had always said.
This, however, wasn’t a fly. That was most peculiar. “Pardon me for asking, person who just destroyed my web, but what are you?” asked Arapach.
“Sir Karrowich,” said the man, muffled somewhat by dirt and the odd angle at which his head was stuck. “I am Sir Karrowich, and I am a knight of Rudonia. And I am a dead man; I fear my neck has broken.”
“That is a great pity, and I am sorry,” said Arapach. The knight’s hard skin seemed entirely inedible, and it would be a waste indeed. “Since I have caused this, can I help you in some way?”
“There is one thing you can do, stranger,” said Sir Karrowich. “I rode in haste with a message of utmost importance to my lord, King Gistoff of Rudonia. The Duke has risen against him, and his army rides but a short ways behind me, under the command of Sir Bannagan of Binstron, with a secret darkness at its rear that I cannot see and have not named. Make your way to our king and warn him! Warn him, and ride to arms against the traitor in my stead!”
“Well, all right then,” said Arapach. “But I’m not sure they’ll listen to me. I’m not the sort of person that kings speak to often.”
“Take the ring from my left hand,” implored the fallen knight. “Hold it high and proclaim yourself my squire and they must listen! They must! Succeed, stranger, succeed, or all our fair land will”
Arapach waited politely. Then Arapach nudged the knight gently with a leg and realized with a spider’s instincts that the man was not going to say any more, or do anything at all, ever, except maybe transition into topsoil.
“Well, I suppose I owe him that help now,” Arapach sighed. A little silk net was made to catch the air, and soon enough Arapach was ballooning miles above the comfortable little forest and into the big blue sky, circling in the drafts and searching for a grey stone castle on a rocky and inhospitable hill more suited to scorpions than spiders.

Finding it was easy enough. Finding the right window was a bit harder, and by the time Arapach was peering at a man in a court on a chair with a crown the sun had sunk down to near nothing.
“Where is Sir Karrowich?” asked the man with the crown to the men in metal that stood around him, who Arapach knew must be knights. “Where is my champion, friend, servant and scout? He said he’d bring us word before dusk, but dusk has arrived and Sir Karrowich remains gone. What will we do?”
At this, Arapach dropped into the room on a silken thread and hovered in front of the king’s nose, which caused a stir.
“Hello,” said Arapach. “I am Sir Karrowich’s squire.”
“Poppycock,” said the largest of the knights present. “You’re a flycatcher at best, and Sir Karrowich could defeat ten dozen men at a time without pause for breath. Why would he take such a small and silly thing as his squire? You must be lying.”
At this, Arapach showed the ring from Sir Karrowich’s left hand, which had been placed upon Arapach’s leftmost leg, to show synchronicity.
The knight reddened. “You could have stolen that.”
“Sir Karrowich, gravely injured, passed it on to me,” said Arapach. “He said that I was to warn King Gistoff of Rudonia of the oncoming army of the Duke, under the command of Sir Bannagan of Binstron, in whose wake a secret darkness follows that he had not seen and had not named. This is his ring that he gave to me as he lay dying in the forest, and this is the warning that I promised to deliver in his name.”
“Then we are dead all the same!” cried the king, tearing with wild abandon at his beard. “Woe! Alas! Alack! Sir Karrowich was the best of our knights in all respects, and against Sir Bannagan of Bistron we have no equal present! We will be shredded to snippets at the castle gates by cock-crow!”
“Surely you have some knights right here,” said Arapach, waving at the largest of the knights present, who glowered uncomfortably at the spider.
“They are but pawns and pudding-heads as to Karrowich,” sobbed the king inconsolably. “Halmsley there is the best remaining, and Karrowich could kick him up and down a tourney as if he were a child with a toy ball-and-string. Woe! Alas! Alack! We are done for and done properly!”
“Well then, it seems my debt to Sir Karrowich is outstanding yet,” said Arapach. “If your straits are so troublesome, I shall improve them.”
“The Duke shall be here in scant moments,” bleated the king, twisting in the utmost misery atop his throne.
“I will work quickly,” said Arapach.
“You are insignificant and will do us no good in any small way whatsoever,” declared the largest of the knights present, who was apparently named Halmsley.
“I will work cunningly,” said Arapach.
“Do be careful,” said the queen, who’d been listening to the entire affair carefully.
“I will work carefully,” agreed Arapach, and departed for the castle gates.

The duke’s army was already encircling the base of the rocky and inhospitable hill more suited to scorpions than spiders when Arapach came to the gate. At least five thousand men in all, each armed, armoured, and if not dangerous then dangerously enthusiastic. Bloodlust rode in the eyes, plunder sat heavy in their pockets, and recklessness twitched between their teeth like a lizard’s tongue.
“We’re doomed,” said the largest of the knights present. “Best to begin working out ransom rates for yourselves, lads. The king’s going down but at least we can get off with our necks intact.”
“You may do as you like, Halmsley,” said Arapach, who was beginning to spin, “but I’m staying here.”
“Who would ransom you anyways?” snarled Halmsley with a flip of his hand. “And it’s SIR Halmsley, bug. Knights are ‘sir,’ bugs are ‘nuisance-fit-to-be-squashed,’ is that clear enough?”
“What about kings and queens?” asked Arapach, with interest.
“Kings are ‘sire,’ which is like a bigger ‘sir.’ Queens are whatever you please; they’re women, and women don’t get to be knights.”
“Why’s that?” asked Arapach.
Halmsley shrugged. “Just don’t. Same reason bugs are nuisances-fit-to-be-squashed, bug.”
Arapach made a complicated gesture at Sir Halmsley whose meaning was entirely apparent across species borders, and the knight stomped off swearing. Most of the others followed him, leaving Arapach alone at the gates to finish weaving.
Soon after dusk, the first man came. He was large and he was angry and he was frightened and he was gravely puzzled as to why the castle gates had been left flung open wide, but that did not stop him. A howling war-cry on his lips, ferocity in his heart, he soon had webs in his mouth as he ran full-tilt into Arapach’s snare, as did the man behind him, and the man behind him, and the man behind him. Before fifty seconds had elapsed the entryway to the castle was clogged with a yelling, clanking morass of dangling men, all of them stuck fast and twitching too violently to allow their fellows to cut them free.
“A good start,” said Arapach. But there were thuds from the walls: the clanking sound of siege-ladders. Arapach made haste but no waste, and laid a second snare.
The first man reached the top of his ladder no more than a few moments later. He reached for the battlements and walked neck-first into a thin little band of unsticky silk, the sort of line Arapach used to run along the webs without getting all eight feet stuck. It was firm and resilient and stretched taunt as piano-wire, and it bounced the poor soldier head-first down his ladder – or rather, helmet-first, much to the sorrow of his companions beneath him. The ramparts were alive with the sound of cursing and thudding.
A clank and a call of triumph came from the courtyard; the gate had been breached at long last by the careful removal of several men whom nobody had liked very much. Within a moment’s minute the inner walls were awash with a horde of men, indeed, all the remaining army, packed tighter than fish in a barrel and three times as salty. Their dander was up from their humiliation, and their torches waved with fierce abandon; to burn was as good as to loot now, to their slighted minds.
This made Arapach smile, in that horrible way spiders smile. Arapach smiled so broudly that it almost stretched all the way around and back again, and then Arapach did a very cruel and clever thing, which was triggering the great pit-web that had been so quickly dug into the soft and loose soil of the courtyard.
Right away, the whole army was balled up tight. And perhaps that would’ve been no more than a distraction. Earlier, maybe. But this was now, and the men were angry, which is easily frightened, and bloodthirsty, which is readily panicked, and most importantly they were all waving torches. Spider-silk, contrary to what some may say, is not very flammable. Oiled armour and leathers, regrettably, are.
It was all very unpleasant.

Arapach stood there above the gate, surveying the lands, and spotted one man who remained, a man nearly the span of two in size and plainly a knight by his shininess, although in his case it was a rather dulled and sooted shiny. He rode past the hanging-men of the gates and surveyed the great bonfire with contempt in his eyes, unmoved by the unwholesomely pork-like scent that filled the air.
“Greetings,” said Arapach. “Am I to believe you are Sir Bannagan of Bistron?”
“Am I to believe that you are the insolent bug that has destroyed the Duke’s army?” asked the knight.
“Yes,” said Arapach.
“Yes then,” said Sir Bannagan of Bistron. “Now stand your ground and be squashed, or clear off.”
“I am the deputized Squire of Sir Karrowich of Rudonia, and will not clear off,” explained Arapach. “It is my duty to face you and defeat you.”
“Fine,” said Sir Bannagan of Bistron, with a roll of his eyes. “Let the duel begin.” And with that he raised one foot and brought it down very heavily.
Arapach was not there.
Sir Bannagan of Bistron swore softly and brought down his other foot, twice as hard.
Arapach, an old hand at this game, was not there.
Sir Bannagan of Bistron snarled and brought down both his feet in rapid stomping succession, stamp-stamp-tramp-stomp-tramp.
Arapach, who was ready for that, remained not there.
Sir Bannagan of Bistron swore loudly and robustly and flew into a fury, feet stamping, sword slashing, arms waving, throat bellowing curses black enough to tarnish silverware, the earth creaking under his limbs.
Arapach was not there. Instead, Arapach bit Sir Bannagan of Bistron rather firmly upon the nape of his neck.
Sir Bannagan of Bistron shrieked with a pitch that would startle a screech-owl and swung his hands to his neck, where Arapach was not. Due to his superior discipline and training instilled by a thousand thousand hours of practice he did not drop his sword first, and the pommel impacted with considerable force.
Arapach stood atop Sir Bannagon of Bistron’s boots with a well-earned satisfaction, and surveyed the horizon. Still the darkness behind the army loomed, even after it was decimated (in the common-use sense of the term), even after its commander was felled most thoroughly.
“Come on then,” said Arapach impatiently. “Flies might not catch themselves, but there’s no catching to be done if they won’t at least show up for the snaring.”
The darkness rumbled. And then it shattered.
The figure behind it was revealed to the eyes of all; slavering, bellowing, and thunderous. It was a dragon of unreasonably large size, and who knew what promises of treasure and meals had lured it from its undermountain home and brought it sepulchrously squinting into the light of day with eager fangs. The land groaned under its scaly belly; the clouds squirmed away from its sides; the sky roiled against its back. In its breath was the noxious scent of corpses long-decayed; in its heart was lustful greed; in its eyes was hungry death. Its claws were half a league long and its teeth were half a league longer and its deadly gaze that could stop a man’s heart cold and dark was keener than an eagle’s and thrice as cruel.
“Hmm!” said Arapach the Fat. “This will be interesting.”

There were many songs written about that battle afterwards, which is how this sort of thing goes, really. Fish swim, birds fly, spiders spin, and singers lie, lie, lie, lie until they run out of money, and then they lie some more. In this case the lies were exceptionally bold and blatant because not a single man dared peek out a window at the hideous racket and see what transpired, lest they see their doom approaching and die horribly aware rather than peacefully ignorant.
So the tale of how the dragon breathed poisonous fire that no man could withstand, but Arapach did, was a lie.
Furthermore, the tale of how Arapach’s shield withstood a dozen blows that could fell a castle, yet still stood tall, was also a lie.
In addition, the tale of how the spider’s counter-strike slit the worm into two halfway along its body, tearing the earth with its agony, was a lie.
And the tale of the fight’s-end, where the dragon swallowed Arapach whole only for Arapach to cut through its belly and let out all its innards, that too was a lie.

So what happened was this: Arapach the Fat climbed atop the dragon as it ate the bonfire in the courtyard, blissfully ignorant of the spider’s tiny presence, carefully clambered to its eyeball, and bit it exceedingly hard there in its most sensitive place with as much venom as Arapach could muster.
The dragon reared and roared and pawed at its eye, blinded and pained. It was shocked that something could harm it, and baffled that it could no longer see it. The fury of a pained immortal is a sight to see, and so too must have been what the dragon expressed when Arapach bit its other eye ten seconds later.
Oh the racket! Oh the calamity! Oh the rage of it all, the spiteful anger, the fury, the indignation! But underneath all that show-fury and ire lay the heart of a true predator: a cautious coward that cannot afford to die for a meal. And so it was that at the fangs of Arapach the dragon knew caution and terror for the first time in millennia, and retreated to its undermountain home to nurse its eyes and brood upon the treachery of Dukes that offer gold and land but say nothing of hideous pain and blindness.
“Huzzah!” called the king.
“Huzzah!” cheered the knights (who’d appeared again rather suddenly).
“Good job,” said the queen. “Thank you very much.”
“A pleasure,” said Arapach. “I have not laid such snares since I was a spiderling, and the challenge was a treat.”
“A treat you have earned, brave, noble, excellent Arapach,” gushed the king. “Squire you may have been, but a knight’s heart you possess! I hereby knight you SIR Arapach, and may you shield us for years to come!”
“Oh,” said Arapach. “Oh, but that’s impossible, I’m sorry to say. I must decline.”
“What?” said the king, blinking dubiously.
“Knights are ‘sir,’” said Arapach, “and that’s all well and good. But I am a woman, and women don’t get to be knights.”
“Besides,” she added, “I’m not sure they’re all that to make much of. No offense to your Sir Karrowich, of course.”

In the end, an arrangement was reached that satisfied all parties. Arapach remained Arapach, or Arapach the Fat on respectful occasions, and had a seat at high table in the court of Rudonia that she never attended, and her woods were put under royal protection, so that she might spin there for as long as she liked and as long as her great-great-great-great grandchildren lived.
Which was a very long time. Spiders have many children, and Arapach the Fat was a very good spider, due to long practice.
But she always was good at improvising, too.