Archive for September, 2013

Storytime: Fair Trade.

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

“Leonard! Leonard!”
The voice was ancient, and reedy in that way that made the mind think of ancient kazoos. It was suited to one of two environs: a crypt or a boardroom.
“Leonard! Leonard! Come here at once, at once at once!”
As called, so I did come, up the stairs, through the archway, up the mirrored halls with their thousand-thousand reflections and into the cathedral. I came and stood for the hundredth thousandth time in the private office of my employer, Mr. Morton.
I have experienced much in fifty-seven years in Mr. Morton’s service. I have seen numbers dance in ways that made mere falsification seem a child’s game. I have heard the screams of Wall Street executives as they are tossed into pits of magma. I have had no less than seven entirely new organs placed within my torso, two of which are unknown to science. But never, ever, never ever had I heard naked fear in my employer’s voice, or seen it vibrate through the fleshy skip-flaps of his jowls and spotty forearms. Mr. Morton was very old and kept his fear cloaked decently under a thick strata of drugs, as he considered to be both proper and socially acceptable. To hear it writhe blindly, exposed pale to the world like this was… very disturbing. I had not thought that was a feeling I could still experience.
“Leonard, pay attention!” Watery brown eyes were fixed on me with a raptor’s fierceness, telling me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t pull it together now I’d be sleeping in the tiger tank tonight.
“I apologize, sir,” I said contritely as I cut myself in offering with the ornamental stingray spine that lay atop Mr. Morton’s desk for that purpose. “How may I be of assistance?”
“Assistance…” breathed Mr. Morton. His face twitched; not the usual tic of a nerve decades out of touch with the brainstem, but an uncontrolled flicker of dread. “Assistance…yes. Yes. That’s what I need. I told you so, didn’t I, Leonard?”
“You did, sir.”
“Well then, assist me!”
“As you wish sir. In what manner?”
Mr. Morton pulled himself together. This took some time, even with the little control panel in his wrist that controlled the tightness of his suit. I waited.
“Right. Right. Leonard!”
“Yes, sir?”
“Go down to the vaults, Leonard. Empty them.”
I frowned. To reduce a single of the twenty-seven safehouses embedded beneath the manor to its waterline would mandate purchasing Disneyworld. To remove multiples would be… “How many exactly, sir?”
“ALL OF THEM!” shrieked Mr. Morton, spasmodically flailing his arms. “Each and every one! To the penny! To the cent! Scrape out the wallets and shatter the piggybanks and dig into the cushions of the chesterfields! Hollow me out! Pay it to this address! And don’t bother with a receipt.”
If I had still possessed red blood cells I dare say I would have blanched. As it was, I saluted without discomfort, then bit my nails all the way down the hall. Had the boss finally lost it? No, no, wrong term…had he finally lost it for good? Mr. Morton had his moments, true, and his days, and his years on occasion, but was this the big one, the final straw?
No, it couldn’t be. He’d outlived four generations of Wall Street. He’d outlive me. Although admittedly my death would not be from natural causes, as few if any of those could harm me now.
So I walked down the ninety-nine-hundred steps to the twenty-seven vaults. They were arranged in descending scale; the largest and grandest (solid artifacts) being the size of a football field, the smallest and plainest (micro-jewelry and a single nanochip of black-grey-and-white-mail) the size of my littlest fingernail.
I pressed the emergency excavation button and stood back as each impenetrable safe began to burrow its way into the upper mantle before tunneling to the address Mr. Morgan had given me, there to disgorge its contents to the provided biometric ID. Somewhere out there a man (it was almost always a man) had just become very much richer, in return for… something. But what?

“Leonard! Leonard! Come here right now, this instant, five minutes ago! Leonard!”
I lurched up the stairs in the dead of night. The sunglasses didn’t help, but they kept my eyes in place and so I was reluctant to remove them even as I clambered up the two-foot teak Everest that was the approach to Mr. Morgan’s evening office, one hand at the obsidian railing.
“Yes, sir?”
“Leonard?” Leonard, it’s important. It’s very important. Leonard, I want you to go to the Narrow Room. Bring the fifth candle and the ninth lamb and the red book. And hurry, damn you! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
I stared. I’d held the red book twice. It was why I now possessed seven fingers and one thumb. “Sir?”
“What is it?”
“What shall I trade?”
He waved his hands. Loose skin flapped like sails in a hurricane. “ALL of it, damn you!” he shrieked. “Everything! Offer them everything, anything, all of it down to the last drop, if only they fulfil this contract.”
“Absolutely, sir. Which contract, sir?”
A small grey envelope bounced off my forehead with stupendous force for one so aged. “Leonard! I haven’t got time for your muckabouts! IT MUST BE MINE AGAIN. HURRY!”
So I hurried to the far western tower, with its groaning stones and moaning hinges, and I walked to the very top. And there, wedged between three uncut stone crenellations and under an arched roof cut from the liver of a tree older than H. sapiens, I read the red book, the fierce book, with a simple iron knife in my hand and an annoyed lamb pinned underneath my knee, doped to the gills on extinct herbs. I fought the urge to roll my eyes, uttered the last line of mangled Latin, and struck home with a damp and quickly-quashed bleat.
The air is always the first to respond. It bubbles, but does not boil. After that comes the smell; acrid sharp smoke overlaying the simmering rot of high summer.
Then the noise, of course, but I had earplugs for that. I am skilled at lip-reading, and with what I was speaking to that was well and proper, for it had no less than nine mouths and sixteen-and-a-half lips.
The bargain, of course, was forgettable. I handed over the envelope, we exchanged agreements, and then in the process of my follower mediator’s leave-taking he devoured the last six minutes of my life. I stood alone in the Narrow Room, an annoyed and quite lively lamb beneath my knee, the red book in hand. A hand now missing another finger and also the little grey envelope.
Alone in one of the few parts of the building utterly lacking surveillance devices, I indulged myself in a little whistle. Handing over a blank contract to them that listen to the red book’s words is no laughing matter. Whatever Mr. Morgan was after, it would have to be quite the prize at this price.
I took the ninth lamb back to its pen. Waste not want not.

“Yes si-“
“To the pit, damn you! To the pit! Offer them all of it, offer them everything! EVERYTHING!”
I paused. “Sir, we’ve already offered everything to-“
“He turned them down, damn you, he turned them down! Wouldn’t listen to a word they said! Well, I’ve got other things to offer, even if I bite my thumb at it – it’s mine, damnit, how dare he tax me so for what’s mine! To the pit!” The cane crashed down on the dodo-bone desk with impotent force. “Hop to it!”
So I travelled to the deepest stair that led to the lowest floor with the lowest room, where a hole dug down where magma feared to tread, and I took my congress with the deepfolk in trial by combat to the death, as is accepted among their type. I shared blood with their chieftain, swore to destroy our enemies, and presented them the deal offered by Mr. Morgan, the same he’d given to them that listen to the red book.
Surely this would be enough.

“It wasn’t enough! Take this to the Pool, damn you, to the Pool! Give them all of it, and all that will come! All of it! Go, go, go!”
The Pool lies sixteen miles to the northeast. Accessible through a complex web of little twisty tunnels bored out centuries ago beneath Mr. Morgan’s Olympic swimming pool, the route to its depths is far too small and tight to fit even the smallest set of SCUBA gear through. Luckily I do not require oxygen.
Down at the edge of the Pool, where the floor of the cavern dropped away – to the sea somewhere, beyond the continental shelf, Mr. Morgan had muttered – I sang the song. It was tuneless, melodyless, breathless, and mostly too low-pitched to be heard by humans above the level of a vague discomforting humming at your molars.
What heard me, came. I made my offer, and it tried to consume me.
I believe I made it back alive. It is very difficult to recall events that occur in the presence of such things. But I was done, and a greater power now held the terms of Mr. Morgan’s most terrible of bargains.

“Leonard, Leonard, Leonard! It hasn’t worked, hasn’t worked! Get yourself to the Astronomica this second, you slug! Get me my deal, get me my bargain, gain for me what is mine! GO!”
The Astronomica is hidden beneath retractable ceilings and false vegetation. Mr. Morgan never looks to the stars for trivial things, not in the slightest. He looks with purpose, and it was with purpose that I set to the computers of this place. Not a single one of them was inferior to any other computer outside the room, and linked together they arguably were a greater force than that of all others in man’s past and present combined.
They were just barely sophisticated enough to catch the lowest of the lowest forms of communication I was attempting to tap into. I had an offer to put onto a market whose currencies were worlds and solar systems; where property was measured in light-years; where suns were extinguished as penalties for a minor contract infraction; where legalese itself was a separate language with no shared descendants that had evolved over billions of years.
I sat there at the galactic version of a crude telegram, barely a step above semaphore, and I placed my offer.
A middle power from Galactic Central Core was interested, more out of novelty than anything else. In its world, blank-cheque offers were a charming myth told to the young and stupid, and whatever warranted such desires was worth at least a casual look. I debated with it for ninety-five hours and escaped with my psyche still attached to my body, and I counted the deal a grand one: both for myself and for Mr. Morgan.

I had my hand on the doorknob when the second scream came. “Go! And try EVERYTHING!”

So I did.

I crawled down dark miles in abandoned Yukon mines and spoke to the crawling things that underlay our continents and live our lives upside-down yet fully awake as we can only dream.
I walked through the painting that wasn’t there and spoke to the thing that whispers in every artist’s brain and takes what it wants when it pleases.
I played The Game That Kills and gained a high-score and thus earned an audience with its creator: Zeus, the mad thing birthed from the stolen notes of Alan Turing.
I soared the skies on a biplane’s wings and dealt with the thin things that live sideways in the deepest clouds, watching everything and learning nothing, who dislike jet engines.
I ate plants that ate back and made promises to whatever flashed in front of my eyeballs about whatever was crossing my mind.
I unfossilized myself in Wyoming for a hundred and fifty million years and spoke to Largest One amidst the fern prairies using a two-hundred-decibel loudspeaker, and it may have noticed me.
I burned half a national park (which nation? I can’t recall) and swore upon the ashes that I would speak to whatever had noticed me.

And I tried everything.
None of it worked.

“Leonard,” whispered Mr. Morgan. “Leonard. Leonard.”
“Yes sir. I’m here sir.”
Mr. Morgan coughed unpleasantly for sixteen minutes as I wiped the phlegm from his desk and pants.
“Leonard,” he resumed. “I’m through. I have no more options, Leonard. Fetch me my coat.”
“Certainly, sir,” I replied. “Which one?”
“The thickest,” he said.
I froze. There was only one possible reason for this, and I knew what I was going to hear before it was even said.
“I’m going out.”

I offered an umbrella to keep the sun away from Mr. Morgan’s more delicate tumors, but he merely spat at the suggestion. “Speed,” he admonished. “Speed is the thing. Speed. We must move faster, Leonard! SPEED!”
I drove faster, as much as I could. Mr. Morgan insisted upon taking his most recently-purchased automotive, trusting only those cars he had handpicked, and the Model T was no longer what it had once been, despite the vacuum in which it had been sealed since the day it was produced by Mr. Ford himself.
“Newfangled,” muttered Mr. Morgan, “but it’ll have to do. Are all the horses still dead?”
“The cloning didn’t take, sir.”
“Balderdash,” he grumped. And spat. I’d brought his travel spittoon, but he was still too nervous to keep his mind on small matters such as aim, and the floor of the car was already awash in purple-yellow slime.

Eventually, in between spits, enough directions were given for me to reach the home of our mysterious adversary, the “he” who had “turned them down,” ‘them’ now not only encompassing them who listened to the red book but all of our most lucrative and potent of contacts.
I braced myself and rang the doorbell. It went ding-dong.
Thirty seconds later I rang it again, pushing the button just as approaching footsteps appeared, which made me feel a little foolish and stupid.
The door opened and I was confronted with a woman. Astoundingly enough she had no weapons that I was capable of detecting, or even more astoundingly, she had no weapons whatsoever. “Hello?”
I cleared my throat. “I am Leonard. Mr. Morgan would like to speak to the occupant of this home.”
She glanced behind me. Mr. Morgan was securely fastened to her walk by my firm left hand, and was busy coughing on her (rather inferior) tulips. “I’m sorry?”
“NED!” shouted Mr. Morgan, then bent double with wheezing at the effort for nearly a minute. “Ned,” he whispered as I thumped his back gently. “Need to speak to Ned.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Has he done something wrong?”
“Hah!” said Mr. Morgan. “Hah! Oh, he has, but I’ll deal him fair for it. I’ll pay his price. Don’t you worry, I’m fair. Even if it’s mine to begin with.”
For some reason, the woman chose to look at me at this point. Against all discretion. I reciprocated the disrespect to Mr. Morgan’s person with a tiny nod, and she visibly relaxed.
“Well, all right then. But only for a few minutes. It’s his bedtime soon.”

It was a journey of a thousand miles in two dozen feet. The linoleum front hall. The five-step woolly-carpet staircase. The tiny bathroom smelling strongly of cheap shampoo. And halfway down the hall, the most disrespectful part of the hall, the little room with blue paint that was just slightly too bright to be comfortable to the eyes.
In this room, on an obnoxiously-coloured bed, lay Ned. He was ignoring us in favour of a video game.
I cleared my throat. “’Ned’?”
He looked up. “Mr. Morgan would like to-“
“GIVE IT BACK YOU LITTLE BASTARD!” said Mr. Morgan, and he jumped at his throat.
I was surprised, but Mr. Morgan in full flight had little in the way of momentum, and I was able to intercept him yards from the boy. “I’m sorry, sir. Ned, Mr. Morgan would like to speak to you –” and here my speech became indistinct as Mr. Morgan’s elbow implanted itself in my mouth “-with regards to a proposed offer of his.”
Ned glared back at us, un-intimidated. Perhaps this confidence was at least half-warranted; Mr. Morgan’s last fight had been before the lad’s grandparents had been born, and it had taken place against a recalcitrant piece of rib-eye. “I told him so online, it’s mine fair and square.”
“Maybe so,” I replied, “but Mr. Morgan very much wishes it back.”
“You’re DAMNED RIGHT!” he shouted.
Ned drummed his heels on his bed in that instinctively annoying way that children have of existing. “Well? Isn’t he going to say it then?”
I blinked – it was difficult for me nowadays, but the reflex is still buried there, and sufficient surprise can re-activate it. “Say what?”
Ned crossed his arms. “He knows what he has to say.”
“NEVER, you RAT-EATING son of a FLEA!” screeched Mr. Morgan. “Never! You heard me? Never, ever, never ever! You heard me? You hear me again! NO!”
I winced as the spittle struck my stubble. “Sir? May I offer an opinion?” I took the liberty of interpreting Mr. Morgan’s huffing, wheezing silence as ‘yes’ and plunged ahead heedlessly. “You have already been willing to offer anything and everything at once to Ned, sir. Is it so much to say what he asks?”
“… It’s the principle of the thing,” he muttered at length. And then he coughed. “The principle.”
“Yes, sir. But since when have you ever done anything but scoff at those?”
There was a long moment as the universe ground its way through the head of Mr. Morgan, and reality slowly had it out with him. It was a close fight, but the winner was certain.
“Fine,” he muttered. “Please.”
Ned cupped a hand to his ear. “Caaaaan’t heeeeeaaar yooooouuuuuu…..” he sing-sang in that awful prepubescent whine.
“PLEASE!” shouted Mr. Morgan. “Please plase plose, pretty please with please on top, PLEASE give it back! PLEASE GIVE IT BACK.”
Ned sighed and bounced off his bed. Standing bolt upright in bare feet, he was exactly the same height as Mr. Morgan. “Fiiiiine,” he said. He stepped foreward, one, two, three steps. A yard away from Mr. Morgan.
“Honk,” he said, holding his hand in front of his face. “Gotcher nose.” A thumb was clutched between forefinger and middle. “Want it back?”
Mr. Morgan was a beaten man. “Please,” he whispered.
Ned grinned – a big, happy, cheerful grin of pure glee, the likes of which I’d forgotten after who-knew-how-many-years. “Boop,” he said. And he flicked his hand and snip-snapped his fingers.
Mr. Morgan sagged, and then straightened. Ten thousand pounds seemed to have dropped off his back. “Is our business concluded?” he asked.
“What do you say?” said Ned.
Mr. Morgan looked at the wall above the child’s head.
“What do you saaaaay?” warbled Ned.
“Thank. You.” said Mr. Morgan, each word slamming down like a tombstone.
“Yoooou’re welcome,” said Ned, with a flourish. “See ya.”
Mr. Morgan nearly tripped over the woolly carpet in his rush to be gone for home.

Mr. Morgan was quiet on the drive home, and quieter still as I carried him up the cathedral aisle to his office chair.
“Leonard?” he said as I placed him gently into its black soul-velvet embrace.
“Yes, sir?”
His palsied fingers stroked gently over tanned Velociraptor-skin armrests, the finest – and only – in the world. “Do you think… that was a fair deal?”
I shrugged. “It is not for me to say such things, sir. I am but a simple assistant and accountant. High finance is too rare and fine a thing for me to understand.”
“Right,” said Mr. Morgan. He stared up at the murals above his head. “Right.” He banged his fist on his hip, bruising both. “Right! Now get out of my sight! It’s been a very difficult day for me just now!”
“Yes, sir.”
The mirrored halls are vast, and as I mentioned before, my eyelids do not close readily. I can thus say with utmost certainty that no deliberate snooping occurred as I left my employer’s office, which those same mirrors showed behind me in the second before the door closed.
He was, with great delicacy, feeling his nose with both hands.

Storytime: Himmel und Erde.

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

A long time ago, just a little longer than the greatest of your great-great-great grandparents, the world was different and just a little strange. Oh, there was a sky, there was a sea. That was no trouble. The trouble was that they didn’t quite touch, not because they couldn’t, but because they wouldn’t.
“You are lowly and dirty,” sniffed the sky up high. “Earthworms crawl in your belly and slime-moulds breed in your topsoil. Sickly lout!”
“And YOU are as cold and dry as a wasp’s-heart,” sneered the earth down low. “Nothing in you but puff and fluff. Even the birds don’t care to visit you for more than a moment. Flighty twit!”
And then the conversation ended as such conversations always did: the sky spat at the earth and the earth swore at the sky and they both scooted just a little bit farther apart from each other so they could hate from a distance. Until next time.
This was a real problem. Not only was it very hard to get from the earth to the sky, but it was very hard for most people to breath. Everybody had to hold their breath until the sky scooted close enough for another exchange of insults, then stand on the tips of their toes and breath real hard. It wasn’t very convenient at all, especially to the short folks.
One person in particular who felt hard-done by was an old human. She’d never been very tall to begin with, and age had stooped her quite thoroughly, to the point where she could only get a decent breath in if she climbed a tall tree on a steep hill and stretched herself. It vexed her sore, especially when the sky and the earth were too busy sulking to think of good insults and they wouldn’t come together again for a few days.
“I’m gonna fix this, see if I don’t,” she groused. “Everyone else isn’t uncomfortable enough to do it, so it’s down to me again. Always making me fix things. If it wasn’t so hard to breathe I’d complain more about it.” But it was so hard to breath, so she didn’t complain more about it. Instead, she scratched herself a tad and thought, and thought some more, and thought just a little bit extra just in case, and when her thinking was through she had a plan.

First things first, the old human went down to the rocky lowlands, where the sky was a thousand miles away. She couldn’t breathe down there, and that made her annoyed. She walked around in circles and got lost, and that made her angry. She stubbed her toe on six rocks, each bumpier than the last, and that made her burning mad. And then, just as she was getting tired and needed a rest, she sat on a cactus.
That made her furious. That made her so red-hot, boiling, bubbling, hiss-spitting furious that she coughed and she choked and she swore and she spat a little red-hot bubble of a ball out into her palm, where it scorched her mighty hard.
“Done!” she said with satisfaction. “Ow. Ow. Ow.” She wrapped it up in a little wad of cactus flesh so it wouldn’t hurt, had a drink, and then left.

Second things second, the old human went up to the high valleys, where the earth mumbled itself to pieces and the trees hid themselves on the edges of cliffs by their root-tips. She looked up at the lonely moon and it made her mopey. She looked down and far away towards where she’d been born so many years before, and it made her sad. She heard the calls of a lost wolf trying to find its pack across the valley, and it made her sorrowful. And then as she walked down an old path she found a baby raccoon nuzzling its mother’s body and making shrill little calls for a parent.
That made her downright weepy, and she sat down where she was and had a long, long cry until she’d squeezed out every drop of salt and moisture that her human body could contain and then some. She cried until all she had left were a bad case of the hiccups, and then she carefully took the little scrap of leather she’d been crying into – soaked-through – and tucked it into one pocket, and the raccoon into the other.
“You and me, little guy,” she said, “we’re going to go fix some problems.” But the raccoon was too busy with some old jerky it’d found to pay her any attention.

So the old human took a long walk on a long road and found herself a good spot to stand, on a cliff overlooking a big old desert. “Hey!” she called. “Hey sky! Hey you up there! You listening?”
The sky was confused by this. “Nobody calls to me except the earth,” it said, “and that’s just to call me names, the insect-ridden turf. What’s your business with me? Shouldn’t you be crawling around down there on your belly or something?”
“Nah, I’ve got a gift for you,” she said. “It’s from the earth itself, it says everything’s fine now and it doesn’t blame you for anything. It begs humble forgiveness for its trespassesseses, and sends you this little token of its esteem in return. You want it?”
The sky had swollen itself up with more and more satisfied self-importance as she spoke, and now it was more puffed-up than a cumulus cloud. “You may bring this gift into my august presence,” it decreed, with all of the considerable pomp it could muster. “Give it here!”
“Sure thing,” said the old human. “Catch.” And she lobbed the little wad of cactus-flesh up to the sky and scarpered.
The sky was puzzled mightily, but not so puzzled as it was when a little red-hot ball spilled out into its palm. “Ah!” it shouted. “Ah! Oh! Let go! Let go!” It shook its palm. “Get off! Get away! Get out!” But the ball wouldn’t let go.
“Shoo!” screamed the sky, and it pursed its lips and blew, blew, blew on the ball until it was red in the face all over, but the ball wouldn’t shoo. Instead, it grew – it grew and grew and grew until it was hanging there in the middle of the sky, red-hot and then-some, and scorching all the air around itself pink.

By this time the old human had made a pretty good turn of miles, and she was standing down by the edge of that big old desert. “Hey,” she whispered. “Hey earth. You hear me down there, speaking low? You listening to me?”
“I’m listening, but I don’t know why,” said the earth. “You lot go whining off to the sky the moment you want a breath, you selfish babies. Why did I ever spawn you if you were just going to go play friends with such a giddy-headed little wisp of vapor?”
“Ease off, big friend,” she said. “I’ve got you a present from that vapor itself! It weeps for forgiveness, says it was always wrong all along and only stubborn selfishness kept it from saying so. But now it’s done for, and it sends this package so you’ll know it’s true.”
The earth chuckled muddily and clotted itself in excitement. “Well, I suppose I will accept this measly offer,” it said with forced casualness. “Now give me that!”
“You got it,” said the old human. “Heads up!” And she held out her bit of soaked leather and wrung it, then ran for the hills.
The earth was confused as it felt the pit-a-pat of water on its surface – it was no stranger to rain from sky-spittle, but this felt different. Mineral-y. And then the pit-a-pat became a chug-a-lug, and it started to panic. “Buzz off!” it roared. “I’ll swallow you down!” And it opened crevasses and ravines and basins and sank the desert down, down, down. But the chug-a-lug became a flood, and there was no stopping it.
“Go AWAY!” shouted the earth, and now it was getting worried. It sank whole continents, emptied out valleys that would’ve fit mountains inside without letting their heads crest above the dirt, carved out two-thirds of the world, and only then – only then – did the saltwater flood rest easy.

“You!” shouted the sky.
“You!” hollered the earth.
“Dew clog your eyes, you pestilent humus!”
“Zephyrs whisk your brains from north to south and back again!”
“You gave me this nasty gift, and now it’s stuck to me, red-hot!” screamed the sky.
“You gave ME this tricksome present, and now it’s covered most of me up!” roared the earth.
“A likely story!” said the sky.
“Utter nonsense!” said the earth.
“I’LL SHOW YOU NONSENSE!” yelled them both, and with that the sky and the earth dove into one another face-first, punching and kicking and grabbing and scuffling and grappling and grinding and wrestling until they were stick fast together, not able to do much more than bite and spit. And swear, of course.
“Not bad at all,” said the old human, watching from a nice quiet cave where she wouldn’t have been in the way. “Not bad at-allll.” She took a nice long breath and enjoyed the warmth of the fire in the sky. “Not bad work for me, not for a day’s-effort. Come on little guy, let’s go get lunch.
The big new salty water was already full of fish, all growing like mad, and they had three of them for lunch. But what happened to the bones of those fish is a different story, and we’ll hear all about that one later, all right?

Storytime: Moving Day.

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

The world was ending.
It was no surprise to anyone. There’d been signs, and portents, and maybe even a little bit of light prophecy. Doomspeaking too – not doomsaying, which any old fool can yell on a street corner, but proper, full-bore doomspeaking the likes of which nobody can say words against without giving it more weight. There was dread in the air and nervousness in the streets, there was not enough energy for a riot and not enough surety for suicide pacts.
The world was ending. Moving day had come.

The animals were boxed up first, of course. Nobody wanted them to panic at all the fuss, or run around underfoot. So all the aardvarks and the camels and the humans and the plankton and the whales and the zebras were put in crates and barrels and boxes and tanks and tucked away, safe and sound, for when the move was complete. They were supplied with little dishes of food and water, and placed next to one another so that they shouldn’t get lonely.

After that came the packaging of knick-knacks, trifles, and keepsakes. The tidying of the heirlooms. Each and every bit of plant matter was individually wrapped in gauze and tucked away in an intricate jigsaw, and the microbes were removed, hand-washed, dried off, and put in an airtight jar where they wouldn’t get musty.
The lower mantle and upper crust was riffled through gently until the oldest extremophiles were located, reproducing at the rate of one-per-multi-milennia, and placed in a tiny silver box, which was put in the glove compartment. A little yellow sticky note was attached to its outside, so that it would not be forgotten when the vehicle was returned.

Then it was on to the larger possessions. A lot of them needed cleaning first.
Cabins, garbage dumps, huts, metropolises, factories, highways, radio towers, and oil platforms were gingerly scraped off with a brush. The bare earth was rinsed in a simple solution of mild soap and water, then patted dry with a clean and absorbent cloth.
Some of the bigger mine shafts and fracking projects wouldn’t come loose easily. A brush on a length of wire was used to clean them out enough to be prised loose.

The furniture came last. From lightest to heaviest, in accordance with proper time usage.
The atmosphere was carefully coiled off and tidied into a clear plastic bag (so it wouldn’t be mistaken for garbage), the seas were frozen into a neat cube and packed in a padded bin.
The crust was peeled off, cratons and all, before being folded over and over into a tight roll, which was slipped into the very bottom of the vehicle. Next to it were stacked the bits and pieces of the mantle, upper above lower.

Packing took careful thought and could not be rushed. Each container had to be placed with the precision of a chess grandmaster, each possible combination of items considered, and ideally without too much delay, lest the move be held up.
Mistakes were a necessary part of the experience, but thankfully on this occasion they were harmless. At one point the kakapos were nearly stowed underneath the blue whales, and someone almost scraped off the Himalayas with their elbow while trying to wrestle open a spot to put the krill, but these errors were noticed and tragedy was forestalled.

The final vacuuming followed. The molten core was groomed meticulously, until not a speck remained upon it. The Van Allen Belt was polished to a mirror sheen. The lights were turned out.
And at last…there was nothing left to do but drive. And to try not to look back, to not think about not looking back, in the rear-view mirror as the move took it all away.

They hoped that the new owners would treat it well. It had been a good place to live, for a while.

Storytime: The Terramac.

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Matagan Harbor is one of the sites of the world, I knew. I’d heard it before, but now I really understood what that meant. It meant that strange regret that you would never be able to see it for the first time again, mixed with a slow-burning hope fuelled by the realization that every time you turned to see it, it had changed again to become something new.
The roar of a tug’s overstrained engine breaking down to cinders and shards as it struggled against the weight of an overbuilt ice-tower from the far south.
The whisper and shush of low waves lapping on shores buried under docks beyond counting.
The play of the morning light on a docking claw sixteen stories high.
The outbursts of arguing street children as they fought over the discarded bycatch of Kanavi crabs, each hard-won shell a little too thick, a little too green, a little too crushed by the weight of its fellows.
Every moment was made of a thousand thousand little things like that, and even at the younger and more dynamic age I was then, that was enough to impress, or at least impress the part of me that wasn’t focused on getting my pipe lit. I’d picked up the bad habit only a few weeks back and my hand wasn’t in practice yet, which was probably what distracted me from oncoming footsteps.
Looking back at it, I’m not sure I would’ve heard them even if I were paying attention.
I finally got the pipe lit – the damned thing seemed to practically eat matches on misty mornings – took a puff and looked up, and up, and up, and up all the way to the face of the person that had appeared in front of me.
It wasn’t a very nice face. There were too many teeth, and the mouth wrapped all the way around the sides of the skull. A mouth meant to take big bites out of something else, below a triplet of eyes that were all staring at me from two feet up. And this was before my back went crooked. Small satchels and purses dangled from it, tied on wherever they didn’t interrupt the movement of limbs.
“Captain?” asked the thing. Its voice was all wrong; too deep for the thinness of its frame. The pipestem buzzed against my teeth at its sound.
“Nah,” I said. “Able-seaman. Captain’ll be back soon.”
It stood there and blinked, and I felt my skin itch. It only ever closed one eye at a time. “Where is the Captain?” it asked.
“Ashore,” I said. “Just arguing with the wharfmaster. Stupid old sod said we came in too heavy, we said the pier looked like that when we got here, he disagreed, so on and so on. Bureaucrats. You know.”
The thing looked at the pier. “It is damaged,” it said. “The moorings are discoupling.”
“Yeah. Wasn’t us. Idiot’s probably been letting the thing slip away into garbage for months, we’re just the lucky ones to get pinned with it.”
It turned its back on me and walked over to the half-cracked chains and pulleys, started to tinker and prod. I couldn’t see the tools in its hands, but I saw sparks fleck and air shimmer with heat. Would’ve liked to get a closer look, but then down the way came the BANG of the wharfmaster’s office door slamming open and out came Captain Fenter, stomping fit to crack cobbles.
“Any luck?” I asked.
He spat. I think there was red in it. “No. No. Not even a little. We can stay docked or pay up for the fix, as far as he’s concerned. I’d like to ask how he thinks a little ten-man fisher could’ve yanked that thing loose, but I know I won’t get an answer any straighter than a corkscrew from the pissant.” He shrugged. “We’re stuck in. Hell of a way to have your first time in Matagan, eh boy? See the sights, breathe the air, choke on the whinging bastards.” He spat again, and then he squinted. “What’s happening over there?”
I followed his gaze. “No idea. Showed up asking for you a minute ago, then got distracted by the breakages. Any idea what he is?”
The thing straightened itself and spun on its heel, making its way to us in four long strides. Its eyes flicked between us. “Captain?”
Fenter didn’t answer right away. I was surprised; surely he’d seen stranger-looking folks than this in Matagan. Hell, I’d been here a couple days and I’D seen stranger-looking folks in Matagan. “Yes,” he said. “I am.”
“Ask for passage.”
“Agreed,” he said. No hesitation. “There are dry quarters belowdecks.”
The thing nodded and stepped aboard. The exchange can’t have been more than six seconds. I wasn’t going to say anything – I was young, but not THAT young – but the captain must’ve seen my face. “I know we aren’t a passenger ship. Wipe that stare off your face, Denkel. Haven’t you ever seen a person from the Terramac before?”
I shrugged. “Sorry, captain. Can’t say I have. Name rings a bell, though.” Something about machines. Strange devices. “Handy with tools, are they?” I guessed.
“You could say that,” said the captain. “You could say that.” He knelt down on the pier and examined the moorings. “Only things that leave the Terramac are its people and its machines, Denkel. And the people only leave to learn more about machines. I’d guess this one came to look at the harbour mechanisms. Might be he wants to look at something smaller for a change” He shrugged. “No sense asking.”
“We’re taking a stranger onboard and we aren’t even asking what he wants?”
The captain tossed the mooring-chain back to the dock. “Yes we damned well are. For one thing, he just got us out of here. Go get the others from whatever hole they’re hiding in and be quick about it; we’re pushing off by noon.”
The chain was whole again. And without a single seam.

I didn’t know much about the Terramac. By the time we were a week out from shore, I didn’t know much more, but at least I was knowledgably ignorant. Not that the passenger had been any help on that account. I’d been friendly as anything, first day out. Helped him settle in his corner – a little nook on the lower deck that had played host to last voyage’s mouldiest sack of potatoes before we cleared them out. Not that he needed much settling. No possessions besides what he carried in those little bags and the big rucksack on his back, and he refused to remove either of them.
“Sure you don’t need anything else?” I asked. “A light, at least? It’s dim down here.”
“Can see.” And it was hard to argue that, with those three eyes shining in the dark like a cat’s.
“Suit yourself.” I hesitated for a moment as he settled himself down, then gave in to curiosity. “What was it like, the Terramac?”
He looked up at me. “Do not understand.” Already one hand was reaching into a pocket, pulling out some small bit of something fibrous.
“Where you’re from. What’s it like?”
He clicked his teeth – a quick, skittering sound that would’ve been at home coming from a rat. “Am here.”
“No, the Terramac. What is the Terramac like?”
A somewhat larger thing had been taken from the rucksack; it looked like a screwdriver descended from sixteen generations of inbreeding. “The Terramac is here.”
I looked around the deck. Everything looked as it ever was, except for the eight-foot spindleshanks in the corner. “I don’t understand.”
Clickclickclick. “Yes.”
From then on I saved my friendliness for those it wasn’t wasted on. Don’t get me wrong, as far as the ship went he was worth a year-long spell in a drydock on his lonesome, but he wasn’t quite personable.

“They all like that?” I asked the captain one night as we hauled out the deep-lines.
“Pretty much,” he said. A hook nicked at his jacket, and he swore furiously before turning back to the spools. “It’s a matter of time. You want to talk to one of them, Denkel, you keep your words in the here-and-now. They don’t handle tomorrows and yesterdays very well. It’s all about now, now, now.”
“Sounds like a child ready to walk.”
“A child with teeth that could gut bull cattle in a bite, and a brain that’s retrofitted half the ship as an exercise. Mind your mouth, Denkel. Because I’m not doing it for you, and I don’t want to have to scrape you off my ship.”
I grumbled, I’ll admit, but I couldn’t deny that. The spools might have been brand-new if I hadn’t seen them being patched up myself. The thing from the Terramac had even fabricated a depth sensor out of apparent thin air, instantly obsoleting the carefully-measured series of knots I’d left along the length of the deep-lines some weeks earlier. Two thousand, it read in spiralling metal wheels, like a misplaced combination lock. One thousand nine hundred. One thousand seven hundred fifty.
Time spun away under the wire. One thousand six hundred. I pulled, and men hauled fat and writhing ‘Gan glow-eels off the hooks one at a time, armed with barbed mitts to grip slimy flesh and mail-covered forearms to ward away grasping needle-teeth. One thousand five hundred twenty. The deck was covered with pulsing, dim-lit fluids leaking from ruptured glands, drizzling eerie light into the sea. One thousand four hundred.
It was my life, and it was a good one.
One thousand three hundred.
I almost fell over before the captain’s hand seized my elbow. “A snag?”
Wincing, I prised my hand loose from the cable. “At one-three.”
He gave it a tug and swore. “A good one, too. Spit on a shitheap. Well, it’s the saw for this one.” Seeing my stifled protest – the line was near-new, and not cheap – he grinned humorlessly. “Unless you want to make the trip down there yourself? It’s a pretty paddle, in the dark to say no more or less. Maybe you’ll make friends with some of the ‘Gans that slipped the lines – the big ones with fight in them. Or maybe you’ll get lucky and run across a Redbrow. I’ve seen them out here before, y’know, and the blood and guts sure get their attention as good as a flag-and-salute. Ah, they’re lovely. From a distance, of course. Which you wouldn’t be at, wearing that little tin soldier suit we’ve got. Which is rated for four hundred foot at most.”
He stared down at the line, and the smile slid away. “So, are you doing this?”
“Yes,” said the thing from the Terramac, and we both jumped. Its footsteps were still feather-soft, even on the hollow rip-rap surface of the deck.
“Yes what?” I asked.
It blinked at me. I hated when it did that. Nothing should be able to stare at you that hard with one eye shut. “Descending,” it said, and with that it shrugged off its rucksack. It was the first time I’d seen it without the ungainly bundle, and it seemed half-shrunken without it.
Captain Fenter looked as if he would’ve liked to argue the point, then he shrugged. “It’s your life,” he said.
“Yes,” said the thing from the Terramac. The suit had been procured from its cabinet ahead of time, it seemed, and it was being carefully wrapped around limbs nearly twice the size of those it had been designed for.
“You know how deep it is?”
“Yes. The suit is modified.” And it was being modified further as I watched, as the thing from the Terramac dragged bits and pieces out of its discarded pack and clipped them to the diving suit, stretched here, pulled there, pinched that.
“You’re armed?”
“Yes,” he said. A small pole was unscrewed at one end, and telescoped itself into a spear only a little shorter than I was. He popped open a small capsule with its teeth and spat out the lid, then drank.
“What’s that?” I asked.
The thing from the Terramac coughed, choked, gasped, and spat. Thick purple leaked from his lips and puddled on his toes. Through the wheezes I could barely make out the hint of that damned clicking. Then it rushed to the rail, slipped over, and was gone.
The water bubbled.
“How much did that suit cost?”
His face wrinkled in calculation. “Good kala-husk in the helmet, came all the way from the Sill. Maybe…. Quarter of the boat.”
I stared down at the green glow on the black water. “Y’reckon the repair work’ll make up for it?”
Captain Fenter’s fist was almost friendly against the back of my head.


-The black is total there is no light. There is a great pressure to left that is a possible predator (Redbrow).
-There is a light in left pocket that is being used.
-There is a Redbrow to left it is surprised. There is a spear in left hand.
-A spear is used a Redbrow retreats. There is receding pressure to left.
-The lungs are full of fluid not air. This is good it prevents internal disruption via gas pressures. Air at depth is a hazard.
-There is a line that is going deeper there is tension there is something snared in its far end. It is very far away so there is faster movement now. Descending.
The Terramac is empty.
-There is pale light in the dark from two eyes. They are round and large. They are within a body without a skull.
-There is communication. Low-pitched soundwaves, regular. Hum/murmur rather than a whisper; they carry within the water. Language is relatively straightforward albeit dependant upon bodily movements for clarity that are unusable without species-specific morphology.
-There is a being that is trapped within a cable. There is a cutting implement in left right pocket on right arm.
-There is a being that is free from a cable. Being expresses gratitude, fascination with object. Being respects implement in left hand and skills to fashion implement.
-There is a being that expresses interest in an implement’s manufacture. Information is transmitted.
-Biological distress is occurring. Too deep. There is movement upwards.
The Terramac is empty.
-There is a metal shell at a surface.
-There is a light.
-There are two beings peering over a metal shell’s rim they are bipedal land-movers metal shell is their conveyance.
-There are bipeds they are being helpful.


It was a long, long time before the thing from the Terramac surfaced again. We’d have moved on an hour beforehand if the deep-line hadn’t come up loose – cut clean with a single stroke.
He weighed surprisingly little as we swung him aboard. Weighed less still as it heaved up purple froth from its mouth, choked and gargled its way back into air.
“There is air,” it managed, and clicked between gasps. “There is air.”
It felt alright then, it did. Watching Captain Fenter slap him on the back as he shook and shivered. Call it perverse, call it spiteful, but it was good to know that the thing could feel aches and twinges like all of us could, no matter how hard it was to read. Good to know there’s flesh and blood behind those three eyes.
Flesh and blood maybe, but it might as well have been steel. The next night the cable jammed at one-six. The same cable, even. And before it was even finished echoing, there he was, crawling into the diving suit again, tweaking it a little more again. Like it’d never happened at all.
Of course, for him, I guess it might as well not have.


-The black is total there is no light.
-The lungs are full of fluid not air. This is good it prevents internal disruption via gas pressures. Air at depth is a hazard.
-There is a line that is going deeper there is tension there is something snared in its far end. It is very far away so there is faster movement now. Descending.
The Terramac is empty.
-There are many lights from many eyes in many bodies without skulls without skeletons. There is communication at a low pitch, to let the water carry it far. Language is relatively straightforward. They are clutching the line.
-There is communication from many beings: they clutch the line so that movement may occur and communication continue. They admire implements. There are implements in all pockets, all pockets are shown.
-There is beckoning from many beings.
The Terramac is empty.


It was deeper down. I guess. It made sense that it’d take him longer to get it clear. I guess.
But six hours longer? That’s a bit much. I guess.
Well, he did come back up. Coughing, sputtering. A bit less than last time, and a different colour: green. I wonder how he manages to find the time to work on these things if he can’t remember that he might need them; inspiration from the ocean maybe?
“They just tinker,” said the captain. “Put them near birds and they’ll tinker with models until they’ve got fake flying machines. Put them near cranes and they’ll tinker you things that can practically hook the damned sky. Put them near boats, and well, they’ll make diving suits that can take them down a thousand-and-a-half feet without a hitch.” He scratched his nose as he watched the cables run. “Sort of like that little lizard….the one that hides itself…what’s the name…”
I watched the depth gauge scroll, wondering what it was like to have half a mile of water between you and life. “Gecko?”
“No….no….starts with a, uh….C.”
“Nah. Chameleon! That’s it. See, you put ‘em near a thing, and they change colour to blend with it. They take their surroundings and make it a part of them. Same thing. Sort of.” He waved a hand. “You get what I mean.”
I didn’t, but a choking, coughing noise distracted me, followed by the line running rigid.
Captain Fenter sighed as he locked in his own spool. “What’s it at?”
I checked. “Two-thirty.”
“Well,” he mused as the thing from the Terramac began to slip on the (much altered) suit, “at least one of us can’t get sick of this.”


-The black is total there is no light. There is a village, a center of activity. There is a forge around a vent in the ocean floor that smokes black heat. Temperature goes from near-freezing to blast-furnace within a span of inches.
-There is ingenuity in devices, in pumps and levers and pistons. Rough nature of underwater worksmanship is partially solvable via creating vacuum chambers and crafting within them for maximum control and precision.
-There are improvements given to beings, disseminate. Improvements are obtained by eating improved one, all feeders are improved.
-There are thanks from beings. Token is given.
-Biological distress is occurring: breath-in-water is scant. Ascending.
The Terramac is empty.


“Are you sure there’s nothing going on here?” I asked as the winch ground down at three-zero.
“What d’you mean?” asked the captain.
“Once a night. Once a NIGHT. That’s not coincidence anymore. What the bottomless blue bitch is doing this?”
His moustache bristled as he watched the thing from the Terramac dive – a perfect straight-arrow into the water, as usual. “Well, it isn’t him. To have some sort of dastardly scheme, you need to be able to scheme. Plan. That’s sort of fucking essential there, isn’t it, you whiny bastard?”
I spread my hands. “Hey, just saying. But this isn’t right. No problems around here ever before, right?”
“Right,” he muttered. “Nothing down there. Just deep and empty.”
“So there’s nothing down there.”
“I just said that.”
“So something’s going on here.”


-It is bright in the black. Light shines from captive cages; phosphorescent liquids from deepsea life within seal containers, vacuum-tight.
-A city roils at the black smokers; chambers upon chambers, halls that smith, halls that smelt, halls that build. Substances bubble from pits in the floor of the world into waiting calderas. There are halls of manufacture. There is industry.
-Requests for plans are being asked for by many beings with large eyes in bodies without skulls. They are given. Requests for thoughts are asked. They are given. Those given are eaten. All feeders are given.
-There are limits. Fatigue poisons fill limbs, cloud the head. Breath becomes laborious. Ascending.
The Terramac is empty.


The spools creaked in their holsters in the light of dawn as Captain Fenter prodded at them listlessly. “Right. What’s it say again?”
I looked at the little gauge I was holding. “Four thousand three hundred.”
He sighed.
“When’d it happen?”
“Hard to say. I woke up when I heard the noise.”
“We reeled those up real tight last night.”
The captain said nothing.
“Tied them off and everything.”
Possibly the most evil curse I have ever heard to this day escaped his lips, softly, like a lover’s name.
“Something’s going on here, isn’t it.”
He didn’t say a word as he looked to the deck. The diving suit’s cage was wide open.


-The blackness glows. Civilization rumbles against the seamounts and crags, long low halls, deep burrows, towering spires. Carved hollowed chiseled built.
-There is a center. There is movement to the center. There are thousands of beings. There are thousands of large eyes in thousands of bodies without skulls.
-There is proclamation from beings. There is admiration. There is congratulation.
-There is explanation from beings. There are ten thousand young. There are two living. There are plans, thoughts, implements. There are ten thousand living. There are ten thousand learning. There are ten thousand ten thousand young living feeding learning.
-There is gratitude beyond measure from beings. There is the promise of
-The feeders hold the knowing of plans thoughts implements. They hold
-Of this and gratitude for it for as
As there is feeders and learners.
-Remembered for
-There is hope. There is explanation of hope. Hope is for what the future may
-‘Future’ ‘may’ Future may
-The Terramac is empty.
The Terramac is empty.
-The Terramac is
-Hope for

-There is a weapon in right left pocket that uses air at depth. It is used.
-There is a spear in right hand. It is used.
-There is a weapon in left right left leg pocket that uses heat to sear. It is used.
-There is a weapon in mouth. It is used.
The Terramac is


The lines went slack around noon. We waited until sundown.
Still don’t know what happened there. I pulled myself together and signed on for a dull old cargo freighter, on a long voyage with good pay and no excitement.
But Captain Fenter, he never did go to sea again his whole life. Sold his boat, sold his equipment, bought a little place in Matagan, died not ten years later. Without saltwater they can wither like that, the old ones.
He never did get the price of that suit back.


That is the oldest-eaten tale of our city, the tale of how it came to be, the tale of how our few became many.
We have many older, but this one is special.
It would not be if not for those not like us, those who came from far above to show us light and unwater and thought.
It was a stranger to us in life, but it taught us well. It was a stranger to us in death, and gave up nothing to the feeders. Our sorrows were many as our minds were empty.
We have older tales, of regret. Our stranger taught us these new tales, of hope.
It did not know what hope was.
It killed to not find what hope was.
This is not how we are. But it is how the stranger was, and that is how it must be.
And one day, we will come above, and we will feed our thanks to its kin.