Archive for July, 2015

Storytime: A Friend in Need.

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Thunderhead shook herself off.
This took some time. There was an awful lot of Thunderhead to shake.
Down, down the long, scaly, sinuous yards of back and belly and tail and thigh and leg and hoof and claw and teeth and eye, down on past all that and up through the vertebrae where the spines peeked through the skin to ruffle in the cool breeze, still-dripping with water and blood and what would be sweat if Thunderhead had any to shed.
Most of the blood wasn’t hers. Most of the blood no longer had an owner. Giant steaming carcasses do not possess property.
“The skyeater is dead and we have won,” she told her ally. Then she looked around, because she’d lost track of it.
“Down here.”
She looked down.
… and farther.
And there, down by her smallest toe, was the one who’d aided her. It was a little bit bigger than an ant and a big bit smaller than an elephant.
“You have given me valuable service when I needed it most,” she informed the tiny creature. “Name your terms and I will fulfill them to the best of my ability.”
“Oh, we don’t need much right now,” said the little thing, leaning on the long sharp stick that it had used so ably against so many of the skyeater’s soft puncturables. “I can handle whatever comes around my folk well enough. But I won’t be around forever; your kind keeps going longer than mine do.”
“Forever,” said Thunderhead.
“See? Longer. I figure I’ve got about a century in me, more if I fight for it. Willing to keep an eye out? Just, can you give them a hand once I’m gone? ”
Thunderhead nodded. “I must sleep. I always must sleep. But for the one year of each millennium I am awake, I will help for one day.”
The tiny creature’s face was unreadable, like most things from up where Thunderhead’s skull was. “That’s not much,” it said.
“I can do a lot with one day,” said Thunderhead.
It nodded. “Fair deal and done.”
They shook on it. This took some time and a few tries.
And then Thunderhead sunk down into her lake to sleep, and the tiny creature went back to its kin to die.

A sleep that lasts a thousand years is a deep and fearsome thing. You don’t wake up from it all at once.
Imagine the comfiest, warmest, thickest mattress ever made. Now think of it being wrapped so tightly around your forebrain that you can’t tell dream from dark, let alone real from not.
Waking up from that is a job in itself, one Thunderhead had never quite got the hang of. On a bad morning, it could take her a decade to get started.
This time, though, she had help. Something small was tapping on her nose.
She opened her eyes and cleared her throat and almost inhaled it. The something small yelped.
“Sorry,” yawned Thunderhead. She tilted her head and snorted, dropping it to the ground in a shower of mucus. “Who are you? What is it?”
“You are the monster my great-great-great-great grandparents told me of that had been told to them by their great-great-great-great-grandparents, and theirs besides,” said the something small. “You are Thunderhead, right?”
“Yes,” said Thunderhead. The idea of this being in question amused her, but the tiny creature hadn’t been so good with names either. Honestly, all you had to do was look at her. Who else could she be?
“You owe my people a debt, right?”
“Yes,” said Thunderhead, because she was too sleepy-headed to correct the something small on the complicated matters of obligation amongst the extremely large.
“Will you help us? Strange men have come from far over the hills with weapons to kill us.”
“Hmm,” said Thunderhead. “How many of them are there?”
“Hmmmmmm,” said Thunderhead. “How well-armed are they?”
“Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” said Thunderhead. “How big are they?”
“Each is almost half again my height.”
“Yes, I think I can handle this,” said Thunderhead. “Which way are they?”
The something small pointed and Thunderhead launched herself.
It wasn’t flight and it wasn’t a jump, similar to the manner in which a galumph is neither a run nor a hop. But it was very fast and soon Thunderhead was soaring low over the land and coming closer to a long column of strange small shiny people who were shouting and waving sharp bits of metal and setting things on fire.
“Ah,” she said. And she travelled right through them.
Thunderhead made a second pass on her way back home, but this was largely unnecessary.
“All is done and all is well,” she told the something small, as she padded by the small simple huts that remained unburnt. “And my debt is paid for this millennium. I think I will go and hunt whales now.”
“But wait,” called the something small after her, hurrying along as her leisurely walk outstripped its sprint. “But wait! What should we do now?”
“That’s up to you,” said Thunderhead. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
She ate fourteen whales in eleven months and then she made her way home and into the heart of slumber again, curled like an egg underwater in a saucepan, brain sending bubbles to the surface.

The next waking was slower, softer. This was because the tapping sensation against Thunderhead’s skull was so weak that at first she thought it was nothing more than a lost wave lapping against her muzzle. Chance opened her eye a crack, and then interest took it farther. She’d never seen something so decrepit in all her years.
“Water,” it buzzed in a voice like a bee’s-husk. “Water. Please.”
“Yes, yes, there’s some right here,” said Thunderhead groggily. Then she shook herself and saw that this wasn’t true at all; someone had made off with her lake while she was asleep.
“Did YOU do this?” she asked the decrepit beggar severely.
“Not I, not me, but we all suffer for it,” it croaked. “The city, please. The city starves, the city thirsts. Its fields are brown and parched. Its people are dust-mouthed. There is no escape for so many and there is no relief for any. Please, please. Water.”
Thunderhead glared at the decrepit beggar. “I will do this,” she said, “but don’t you think part of our deal involves taking my home. Leave me be and I will help you; don’t drink away my blanket.” And then she was off and bounding over the strange stone walls and halls and fields that the tiny things had made while she was asleep, sort of like ants.
Finding a lake was easy; there was one scarcely more than two hundred miles away. Thunderhead stuck her face into it and sucked loud enough to scrape glass for a hundred miles, bounded back the way she’d came, and belched.
The rain that fell was not kindly-smelling, but it was life-saving, and it stayed for over a week.
Thunderhead, by contrast, stayed for five minutes, to talk with the decrepit beggar.
“All is done and all is well,” she told it, “and my debt is paid for this millennium. And now I’m going to go find a new home nearby here. Don’t make a mess of this one, you hear me?”
“I will tell them,” said the decrepit beggar. And if Thunderhead was too far away to hear the precise wording of this affirmation, well, that may have been for the best.
She dug and scraped and wormed her way into a dry river-bed that looked promising, and slid down into dreams of dust and gravel.

The third waking was neither swift nor slow. It was slow because she only noticed the probe once it slid past her nasal membrane, but it became very swift immediately after that.
“Ah!” said a chatty speck. “You’re up! Excellent! Excellent! Tell me, could you describe everything about your internal, external, intrinsic and extrinsic biology, psychology, physiology and anatomy? In one hundred words or less, please.”
Thunderhead focused, with some difficulty. In addition to the flood of words, some strange things made of metal and thinness were shining bright lights into her face. Also, the air tasted funny. “Is it time for my debt?” she asked hazily.
The chatty speck hesitated, then shrugged. “Well, I suppose? We don’t really need much right now. We’ve got lights, cameras, action, food, water, clean air and dirty air and all in between. We can make things from anything including nothing and I eat five continents for breakfast on average. Everything is perfectly fine and under control, so I don’t think we need much right now, but it’d be FANTASTIC if you could just look at this CAT scan and tell me what this blobby red bit besides your liver is, and this orange spot here, and what this inkblot looks like, and could you describe your breathing apparatus, and what’s your standard diet like, and please outline your previous interactions with-”
It was the longest day of Thunderhead’s life, and as the sun went down she felt dear, true, sweet and full relief.
“If you’ve got to go elsewhere,” said the chatty speck as she roused herself, “I’d be happy to arrange an escort-”
“No need,” said Thunderhead hurriedly. “I’ll see myself out.”
And out she went, into a world gone strange. The water tasted odd too, and the soil. It took her six months to find a whale, and it was small and stunted. Finally she gave up, went home, and burrowed down deeper into the dank layers of what had been her riverbed.
“All is DONE,” she told the chatty speck pointedly as it tried to set up some small strange device near her face, “and all is through. My debt is paid for this millennium. And if I wake up before the next, I will be very, very cross. Now go away.”
She fell asleep, still-hungry, before its words crossed her ears.

Time hides during sleep. It took Thunderhead some long while to find it again, the longest and most restful slumber she’d known since forever. And when at last the concepts of years; seasons; days crept back in around her edges, she lingered, enjoying a rest such as she’d not felt for forever.
Then she woke up, stretched, and fell over. Something extremely large and crumbling around the edges was pinning her thoroughly to the bedrock. She squirmed and stretched and groaned and her head broke topsoil, watery-eyed.
“Right, right!” shouted a small voice. “Right! Hook to your right! It’s weaker there!”
Thunderhead wanted to ask who was giving her advice, but the weight was starting to turn from heavy to painful and there WAS a hint of a give on her right, a sensation of fracturing. So she turned and heaved and hauled and with a wrench her tail, torso, and whole nine miles broke through the shattering bulk of a skyscraper and smashed it down to fragments small enough for her to back through, freeing her from the worst of a broken stadium’s foundations.
Thunderhead paused there panting, stared around. Nothing left but rubble and dust. The people she’d sworn by were gone, and after that last episode, well, she was fair to say she wasn’t too sorry. Not very much, at least.
But there were rules anyways, and she had to abide by them.
“You have given me valuable service when I needed it most,” she informed the small thing by her toe, wrapped in rags. “Name your terms and I will fulfill them to the best of my ability.”
The small thing threw up its hands. “Oh, would you? We’ve got problems, trust me. There’s raiders out there, and we lost the last four crops, and-”
Thunderhead listened to the list, and nodded. “One day,” she said. “One day per millennium. This is when I will help you, and I will do it without fail. The rest I must sleep.”
The small thing nodded, and held out its hand. This time Thunderhead was ready, and got it on the second try without taking any fingers with her.
The deal was struck, the day was done, and she stretched herself towards the sky.
Then a thought struck her, and she turned to the small thing one last time as she tensed to leap.
“And if I do not wake immediately, small thing?”
“Tell your children’s children to just wait.”
And she found ten whales that month.

Storytime: Like a Fish.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

You can see all of life in a single drop of water.
At the base, the belly of the bulb, a slim sliver that blossoms and erupts and bloats into a burgeoning mass. The slight, barely-measurable tapering that follows. And at the end, abruptness.
The ichthyosaur watched it fall from the crack in the glass, and she knew that it was time.

The fracture had not been large, and at first she had hoped, though she knew it was foolish. But day after day it had stubbornly widened, millimeter by millimeter, and now at last the leak had come and her world was going to wash away from her. Again.
She spun softly in the murky water – the filters had clogged weeks ago – and considered her old tank. Its ruins had something skeletal about them; the gaping gashes the look of teeth, the jagged holes accusatory eyes. And of course, the dryness of truly long-dead bones, all of the wet rush of life stripped out of them by the world.
The drop came to mind again; the recent past summoned by the distant. There had been a second by now, undoubtedly. And maybe a third. And then there would be more. And then. And then. And then.
The shattered tank leered at her in a way that brought her back to a long time ago, when things on two legs had walked and gawped at her, and then she finished a decision she’d already made.
It was time to live.

It was not a new decision for the ichthyosaur. She had seen her owner consider it, as the papers grew louder and the headlines more jumbled, as the phonecalls grew ever frantic and fewer. Screamed conversations late into the same nights that had once been filled with dinner parties and languid guests and the sort of casual obscenity that only the very, very wealthy can afford.
She had been his triumph, one of two. A creature brought back from two hundred million years dead with bones rotted and all trace gone, carefully tailored to please his whims in whatever fashion they struck him. An efficient metabolism, no reproductive system – with no mate, why bother? – and an increased intellect, so she would oblige the guests by staring back at them as they gawped. All the modifications made for the same reason she existed, for the same reason the automated servitors of the house existed, for the same reason the shark existed: to show he was capable of it, and had done it, and could do it again if he wasn’t so bored with it all. Another curiosity for the wall.
Well, he hadn’t been bored at all in those last days, though the guests had all gone away. He’d screamed down headsets, broken vases, drank himself insensate as he stared through the riot-reddened skies. And in the end he had stopped the screams, stopped the sobbing, made no sounds at all, but instead had taken another trophy, one from a trench in France merely a few centuries old, and had gone up to his room trailing only a silence.
The sharp noise that followed had been purely perfunctory.
Afterwards had been the first time she had commanded the servitors herself, though she had always deemed it a possibility. Programmed to respond to an idle gesture as a command by those who would never stoop to speak to even human servants, the stubby little machines had, after several errors, registered the sweep and swoop of her jaws as an order.
By her word, they brought down the body of her owner from his bed, blood still trailing from his skull and his eyes strangely compressed, and she had looked upon him for a time.
Then they took him to the kitchens and rendered him down into fats and fibres and sheets of wet red turned to dry brown. For later.

Much of her time since had been spent reading, and reading had returned that time to her with interest.
Reading had shown her how to keep her tank filter running up until the last of the power supplies had failed.
Reading had shown her the length of time it would take her tank to spill itself through the cracks and the gaps after the great explosions she heard –and felt – in the building’s guts in the last nights of the chaos.
And reading had shown her the importance of the oxygen filter in the megalodon’s tank, which she had immediately turned off.

Gazing upon its now-tanned, rough-sided hide, cradled like an infant in the arms of the servitors, she wondered what it had thought as it slowly choked to death down there, dead again in the dark. Unlike herself it had been a pure reconstruction, a brag based on size and strength alone, and it wouldn’t have had the words to describe itself, let alone what was happening to it.
The megalodon’s sacrifice had preserved her; its dried flesh had kept her full for months after her owner’s corpse was stripped to bones; its gigantic tank had given her a place to hide and think and stare over the city from; and now its very skin was hers, tenderly wrapped around her form by the aquatic servitors and dragged from the water, dragged with the water. Liquid gurgles fell from the open ends of the thick shagreen casing – water, precious water running away, drying up – but it held, and she swam in the belly of the shark, held aloft by two dozen metal paws.
And they took her to the elevator, and from there, into the city.

The world outside was broken in a way the apartment had never shown her, in its books or its reality – and so big, so very overwhelmingly big. The ichthyosaur snugged herself deep in her mobile pool and broke it farther, smaller, into more manageable pieces of sensory data.
The grey-red sky of late afternoon colliding with old smoke.
The jagged edges of concrete already turning to dust and dirt.
The sharp uric scent of the shark’s long-gone innards.
The faint roar and tumble of an ocean dead for decades.
The uncomfortable half-damp around her sides that faded sharply outside her servitor-borne transport into nothing but dry, bone dry. The air was a shell that shattered on breath.
The journey was not all quiet. Three servitors fell victim to the world at large; its protrusions and pits and grit. A small pack of starving dogs attacked, or attacked as best as any animal could when its skull is clearly traceable through its skin and its eyes are shriveled in their sockets. They died quickly and quietly in the servitors’ small metal hands, almost grateful.
And at the very end, as their destination usurped the horizon with its long, low bulk, two more were sacrificed to rupture the triple-rusted security of its titanic doors.
The purification facility.

The ichthyosaur had known of it for a long time, of course. It had been the toast of the papers, the promise of the times: a plant that could turn ocean water – even a modern ocean – into fresh water, life-water, the water that could refresh and quench and fill and not rot away at your innards like it had for uncounted hundreds of billions of fish and plankton and the oceans themselves, choked to death on carbonic acid.
Not that the ichthyosaur had any interest in fresh water. She was a creature of the sea, not a lake, not a pond, not a stream. But with the right hands, the plant could be controlled: its waters stripped of acidity yet retained of salt; its processing chambers made home; its intakes into traps for the sad jellyfish that were the last survivors of all that had swam except for her, only her, two hundred million years old and already dead.
They shuffled down the great steel corridors, empty and almost unbroken. The purification facility had been a saviour; the one thing even the riots had not touched – if not out of self-preservation, then out of an inability to trespass through its many locks. Their bones carpeted the lobby and plaza, dead in the quiet queues they’d formed as they lost the power to move. But as the grand donor’s name prominently installed over the front hall was familiar to the ichthyosaur, so too was the security software familiar to the servitors, who were recognized on sight and were barred by no doors, they and their strange dead cargo. They passed out of the corridors and into quiet offices and finally a deadened control room where the ichthyosaur consulted the machines and learned that the facility’s chlorination plant had been sabotaged, transforming millions of liters of water into something unfit to even be called a swimming pool.

She had this confirmed six times. Once to be sure; twice to be certain; thrice to understand; fourth to grow angry; fifth to stop; and sixth to think.

The sun was coming down over the horizon as they approached the docks; the rich red haze thickening in the sky and clotting in the dust clouds. There was little sound left; the feral dogs might have been the last living things in the dry city.
Apart from the ichthyosaur.

The shagreen was growing dryer even on the inside; her weight was bearing down on her. Under the red glare her eyes stung. But she was determined to see this one thing before it ended, and so she had the servitors hold her high above their heads, to let her look before she left.
On the one side, the city, broken and breaking and crumbling like sand already.
Turn. Turn.
On the other, the ocean. A flat blue churning. Alive it would’ve been alien to her; but what could be more familiar than a corpse?

It was a long fall, but a short dive, and mercifully little thought required. Her back moved as it ought, her flukes bent, her lungs pushed, and all the questions melted away as she felt the splash turn into an embrace that took away doubt and left certainty even as it began its long, patient war against her insides.
The ichthyosaur spun, and watched the bubbles spin away and leave her, felt the rush and pull of impassive currents.
Then she did as they decreed, and vanished from sight of shore forever.


You can see all of life in a single drop of water.
The inverse is not true. But she was willing to try.

Storytime: A Nice Night Out.

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Somewhere, in quiet suburbia, a white cat walked.
Well, strolled. It was a cat, after all.
And as it swaggered its way up a set of porch steps not its own, the second thing you noticed was its shade, which maybe wasn’t white at all. It was practically glowing; the rich, healthy, vibrant thrum and pulse that cartoons usually give to plutonium. The sort of colour you expect to see behind your eyes as the oxygen runs out.
The thing shaped like a cat and shaded like hazardous waste surmounted the steps, located the front door, studied it, then turned its back and began to pointedly ignore it.
A moment went by. The door opened. The cat sighed majestically and began to wash its face.
“Oh my! It’s that urgent, is it?”
The voice, unlike the cat, was nothing BUT concern; a deep, compassionate, bottomless font of sympathy burbled up in every syllable. A senator would’ve sold their soul to possess an ounce of the authenticity inside it; a president their nation’s future for five minutes with the sincerity it stood for.
Its current owner was five foot two and passingly balding and bundled up inside something that must’ve been at least technically a sweater, in the same way that an elephant is technically related to a mouse. And she was making little clucking noises with her tongue that anyone listening in would’ve sworn were impossible for a human to emit.
“Well, well, well! Tsk tsk! We’d better get moving then, if we want to fit tonight’s game in! Samson, dear, there’s a can of tuna under the counter. The good kind. Now be a love and put the can in the recycling bin when you’re through, will you sweetie?”
The cat glanced at her out of the corner of its eye. There was an alien expression forming in there very much like human disgust, but larger.
And growing.
“Ohyesyooouuarreee. Here, who wants skritches?”
…But willing to compromise for ear skritches.

Five minutes and five hundred skritches later, Edith Bell locked her front door, shut her back door, and opened her side door, the one with the handle that needed to be turned and jiggled and then hexed in a particular way. Then she stepped out, sideways, past the suburbs and into the special places.
It was cold out, so she’d put on another sweater.

It defied definition. But it was about as elsewhere as you could get in comparison to the home of Edith Bell. The walls didn’t merely brood; they’d successfully clutched forty years ago and their offspring were on their third litter. The foundations were deathly silent; they’d strangled the life out of the soil underneath them uncounted decades before. The air creaked. And the attic was, quite simply, unspeakable.
The front door was very nearly the most welcoming part of the entire house, in that it was merely venomous. It was also losing a battle to the death with a fluffy black cat who had never seen a door-knocker before but was game to challenge it.
The door opened, sending the cat inside with a muffled thud.
“Oh. Cauliflower.”
The cat looked up at the old woman with wide-eyed benevolence, no worse the wear for its impact. By mass it was eighty percent fluff; there were stuntmen with less padding.
“So I take it she’s coming then? Good. Very good. About time. I swear, that girl. That girl!” She made a sharp noise somewhere between a tsk and a hiss. “She needs to get her head out of the clouds.”
Iris Cook’s cardigan was all black. All the shades of black. It contained the souls of nine hundred arsonists and four thousand murderers and fifty-six serial killers and one young man who’d rudely demanded her purse in an alley one day. It didn’t shrink in the wash, but it shrunk from her touch.
She hauled it over her shoulders with the idle ruthlessness of the bank executive and studied her selection of umbrellas critically.
“I think… Peabody today. Don’t you, Cauliflower?”
The cat replied by pouncing on her toes, and was repelled with a gentle kick.
“Yes. Yes, Peabody. I put out some water and a dead mouse for you. Go on. That’s a good girl. Now have a nice night, and don’t bother us. We’ve got work to do.”
Peabody’s hilt was cold iron and its handle was hot steel, baking with the fiery tempers of the spiteful dead. It made the air shimmer around Iris’s knuckles as she gripped it, writhing resentfully in her bony hand.
She took one last look around the house, and adjusted a book that had dared to move a millimetre out of place. Then she opened her umbrella, stepped into her chimney, and spilled out of the normal places and into the odd.

The odd is like the ocean, or an iceberg, or the quiet stupid person at a party. Nine-tenths of it is hidden out of sight, below the surface. It’s also the same nine-tenths that contains the teeth, the jagged hull-breaker, or the list of names and the loaded gun. Don’t travel the odd casually, and don’t travel it alone, and don’t go unarmed.
Edith did all three. Iris merely went alone, but in her defense she would’ve argued that (1) nothing she ever did was anything as pitiable as ‘casual’ and (2) ‘unarmed’ implies that one can divest oneself of one’s own harmfulness, which in Iris’s case would require lobotomization.
Iris’s cardigan was fringed with one hundred and four lobotomists. She sometimes picked at them when she was irritated enough to fidget.
They met at the usual place, somewhere in the hazy land just underneath human imagination and above the inky, off-colour pools of time. Edith brought a lawn chair for a stool; Iris, a human tombstone.
“You’re slow,” she said.
Edith struggled through the laborious process of putting her chair up the wrong way round. “Well, Samson always has trouble with the can-opener, poor love, and I didn’t want to leave him crying. I don’t know how you can bear the sound, Iris – it’s the saddest little noise, like a baby left alone in its crib.”
Iris shrugged. One finger toyed idly with the immortal remains of a Dr. George Beckett.
“Anyways! What’s all the fuss about now?”
“The end of the world.”
“Oh. Oh! That’s right! We never did check in on that now, did we?”
“We did. You said you’d handle it. And then you didn’t.”
“Oh dear,” said Edith. She clucked again. “Dear, dear, dear! Well, between Stewart’s birthday, and David’s newborn, and the music festival, and the dance classes, it must’ve completely slipped my mind! I hope it hasn’t all gone wrong too badly.”
“It’s coming in about an hour and a half.”
“Oh drat,” said Edith in a generally put-out and sorrowful way. “I’m so sorry. I made a note on the calendar and everything. Cauliflower must’ve gone and hidden it again and I never found it.”
“We’d better do something.”
“Hmm? Oh yes! But first…”
“Well, yes. Of course.”
The board was octagonal. The pieces were ephemeral. And the stakes were impossible. But somehow or another, the game kept happening every week.
The rules were as follows:

But really, if you were a good enough player, you could ignore them.
And Edith and Iris were both very, very, very good.
The session ended 2-1, Iris’s favour. As usual.
“Oh, shucks,” said Edith. “You know, I don’t know how you manage it.”
“I cheat,” said Iris. “That’s part of my job.”
“And I just said part of mine,” said Edith cheerily. “Now, what was this about the end of the world?”
Iris checked her watch, which was really more of an armed guard. There were sixty very specific seconds imprisoned in its central core keeping it one hundred percent accurate at the expense of shattering agony. “Thirty minutes.”
“Oh yes. We’d better hurry.”

The odd has layers, like an onion or a craton. Unlike those wholesome and simple objects, most of the odd’s layers underlap, overlap, and occasionally sashay through one another, like a three-level cake put through a tumble dryer made of the collective psyche of the entire planet.
So, although Edith and Iris were travelling DEEPER, in some senses they were merely travelling ALONG. But in other, more meaningful senses, they were in fact just going deeper.
Neither of them dwelt on it. Edith had plenty of nieces and nephews to tell stories about; Iris had plenty of silence and an umbrella, the latter of which came in handy when they had to pass through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“What a mess. All those poor fish.”
“They’re all going to die anyways.”
“Yes, yes, of course. But it’s still sad.”
The ocean went away and they found themselves temporarily enmeshed inside a city’s, all sprawl and soar and gleaming glass and broken concrete spanning decades of dreams crushed and hatched.
“They’re so cute when they’re babies, bless them,” said Edith fondly.
“And they never grow old.”
“Neither do butterflies or rainbows, Iris. But don’t we love them still? And besides,” she said, patting at a hallucinatory brick holding the mind, soul, and a hopes of a family of four in a small apartment, “some of them do make it.”
“Only when they dig deep. And vanish. And they don’t count anymore. You don’t count once you hide.”
“Of course you do, silly. Otherwise how can you play hide-and-go-seek?”
The city was gone and they were into the real bulk of the planet now: the dead bits. Most life and most species and most organisms are dead, and most of them are used to it by now. Ghosts and ghouls and husks and fossils tipped their heads and nodded at the two old women. The dead are not xenophobic; having crossed one border, they see all others as pointless.
Besides, anyone down here must know what they were doing.
And a little past death, and past the depths, and into the aching wide chasms measuring less than nanometres where the plates squealed over rock too melted to move, there lurked a fierce dark glow that burned without light at a temperature that could sear the sun sideways. The tiny bubbles of incinerated civilizations older than DNA floated around the two women as they took the final steps down.
“Oh dear,” said Edith.
Iris didn’t say anything, but by now she’d tugged on Dr. Richard Bowen, MD so firmly that his sense of self was becoming unspooled.
“I’ve forgotten my sunscreen.”
“There’s no sun down here.”
“True. But you know, it feels right. Oh well.”
And with that Edith squared her shoulders and trotted into the core of the planet, into nickel and iron and degrees of heat that plunged through any human scale.
Then she came out the other side, and waited a moment for Iris, whose umbrella had nearly gotten stuck.
“You need a hand, dear?”
Iris placed one shoe firmly, pulled with her legs, not her back, and freed Peabody from the farside of the Earth’s core.
“Oh, that’s lovely. And now, dear,” she said, turning to the emptiness at large that surrounded them, “what’s this all about?”

The end of the earth was neither liquid nor solid, fish nor fowl, black nor white. It had something that could’ve been called a personality, and if that personality could have used words what it would’ve said to Edith was

OUT OUT OUT OUT hungry OUT hungry OUT hungry

“Yes, yes, we know about that, love. But that core’s needed to prevent the planet from getting all stuffy and cold and then stripped dry by solar winds, sweetie. So maybe you could just keep your hands off it? I promise you, it’s not even close as tasty as it looks.”
It’s hard to read your conversation partner’s face when they don’t have one, or the ability to understand conversation. But both of them could practically feel the frustration curdling in the air.

out out FEED
hungry HUNGRY

“No,” said Iris. “Not again. You were let out last time and now there’s only one planet left to work with around here. What a waste. You ought to learn some self-control. You’re certainly old enough. And if you won’t learn from common sense, perhaps from history. Do you remember what happened last time you did this?”






With one hand, Iris detached Dr. Clarence Hughes from existence entirely. With the other, she unfurled Peabody. He glistened in her hand like wet lightning.
Then he drooped like a tired accordion as Edith patted her arm. “No, no, don’t fret now. I think I’ve got just the thing.”
Then she stuffed her hands into her pockets and began to wriggle like a caterpillar doing the hokey pokey.
After a moment’s silence, Iris helped her.
After a minute’s work, the greater and outermost of Edith’s two sweaters was detached. It hung in her arms like lead; no breeze could have moved it, no force could have stirred it.
“Here!” she said, presenting it to the end of the world. “Now, isn’t that lovely and warm?”

The trip back home was silent and unremarkable, save for a short moment’s unpleasantness with a very dead and very restless bear, which Iris took out an hour and a half of frustrations on. At last they reached their gaming-place, and there they took up their chairs and bid one another adieu.
“See you later!”
“Don’t forget to send back the cat.”
“And you tell Lyle and Howard this never would’ve happened if they’d sent us a damned Christmas card.”
“Oh dear. You know they mean well. Well, sometimes.”
Iris snorted. “And if meaning well was well enough, we’d still be married to them. Set Samson on the silly sods if you’re not up for it.”
Edith laughed, and that was goodbye enough for her.

The odd is a nice place to visit, but you never want to live there. Iris’s first act upon arriving home again was to pour herself a double scotch twice.
Her second was to give Cauliflower a good skritching.

The first thing Edith did was pour Samson a saucer of milk.
The second thing she did was forget to send him home. She knew Iris would come pick him up eventually.
The third thing she did was start work on another sweater. The poor thing went through them in about six months nowadays, and she found it best to get started on them early, so as not to disappoint it.

Storytime: Tricks of the Trade.

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

Four old men and one campfire. However knobbly their knees, there just wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so they grumbled extra hard and shuffled some and generally made all the harrumphs and mmmrrphs and gnk-gnk-wchoo noises you expect from that sort of person at that sort of age. And to the surprise of none this did come to irritate them, and they did require distraction, particularly a distraction from their current distraction, which was oily, full of dead gnats, lacking in meat, and not enough to go around properly.
“You know,” said the wrinkliest one of them – a creature resembling a walnut as much as a man, but with more hard edge – “I used to be a magician.”
This generated a few raised eyebrows around the rest of the flames; fine, heavy-set eyebrows that had been gnarling and twining in place for decades now. There were plaits. And, above the plaits, a certain amount of half-interest.
“I wandered up and down the coast, selling gossip as fortunes and cards as futures. I could take a cut deck and stack it faster than a lumberjack could a cord. I could breathe fire as easy as air. I could shake a man’s hand and tell him his family history better than he could, and he’d thank me for it. And when I was down and out – really down and out, so far down the cockroaches looked under their feet for my wallet – I’d show people pennies in my ears and lift dollars from their pockets. Just in emergencies, mind you. Nothing important. I didn’t do all that much.”
A nod, a shrug. A gradual widening of the ring until there was a bit more equitable kneespace. But mostly, the convsersation was put to a dull simmer while they all digested this.
“Huh,” said one of the others, eventually. Everything about him was eventual. His chin turned into his neck, eventually. His breaths wheezed into words, eventually. His knees ran out, eventually. And eventually he wheeled up another few words from somewhere deep and secret inside his skull: “how’d you do it?”
“A good magician never reveals his tricks,” said the first and wrinkliest. He took a long, slow swig from his bowl of their horrible soup.
They waited a moment.
“Mostly just quick fingers,” he said, wiping his mouth. “And a bit of cold reading. Start with general assertions that anyone can agree with, narrow in based on quick clues of whatever’s at hand. You can get pretty good at it. I was pretty good at it.”
“But not a good magician,” said the eventual man.
“Well, I only stole from those who could afford it, mostly, often. And it was usually just when I needed it or I was cross with them occasionally.”
The jury of the wrinkliest man’s peers shrugged at him, abstaining judgement.
“Besides, I’ll wager none of you’s done better,” he said. “I mean you, what’ve you ever done, eh?”
The eventual man pondered this, staring into the depths of his soup bowl as if they held all the world and he’d only just realized how much of it was worthless.
“I sold bottled miracles,” he said after a while.
“Cure-alls. Or cure-mosts. I never claimed all of what it could do. Never. But if you only claim half of that. Well. They just fill in the blanks.”
“What’d they use it for?” asked the wrinkliest man, curious.
“Hair loss. Childbirth. Bad breath. Sore fingers. Cut toes. Stomache and bellycramp and indigestion. Hair removal. Bad temper. Crying children. Ingrown toenails. Reddened skin and greening skin. The gout. The pox. Measles and mumps and malaria. Leprosy and leukemia. Wrinkles. Cancer of all stripes. The clap. And even for a painkiller when you had to have your leg sawn off.”
“What was in it?” asked the third man, who was mostly hair.
“A good magician never reveals his tricks,” said the eventual man.
The campfire hissed and fussed to itself as they waited, unsmiling.
“Water. And a little bit. Mostly dirt and a bit of soda. For the fizz. Colour from anywhere.” He shrugged, which was a very difficult gesture for him as it was hard to tell his shoulders from his back from his arms. “But sometimes it worked. Or did no harm. Now and then. Or so.”
The man who was mostly hair snorted. “Common con-men.”
“Oh?” asked the wrinkliest man sharply. “And what did you do that has you feeling oh so holy, padre?”
“I was a holy man,” said the man who was mostly hair.
“Was,” said the eventual man.
The mosquitoes were fierce that night, humming their nasal fury just beyond the smoke the old men squatted in.
“What happened.”
“Oh, nothing much,” said the man who was mostly hair with a wave of his hand, slopping his lukewarm soup bowl over his wrist. “At least, nothing much at any one time. But I would come into towns, you know. And I would find them…well, EMPTY. DEVOID of inner life or spiritual well-being. And they would have no sense of community at ALL, poor things. Poor, poor things. So I would take care of them, and watch over them. I would give them meals, give them morals, teach them rightfulness. And when the rest of the little hamlet saw how well-improved their beggars were, I would show those of needful mind the way themselves. Hard work! Good rules! Honest living! Thriftfulness! Mindfulness! And a happy, wholesome, loving, one-big-family town that was EVERYONE’S home! All thanks to ME. To MY work. The GOOD work! For which I was SUITABLY rewarded, I ASSURE you. And my flock loved me, and the rest would LEARN to love me, and then… And then I would leave because the road goes ever on etc etc and help someone else.”
“You mean they caught you with the poorbox,” said the wrinkliest man.
“Seldom!” said the man who was mostly hair.
“Or maybe,” said the eventual man. “Maybe it was with someone’s daughter.”
“Never proven!” said the man who was mostly hair. “And besides, a good magician never reveals his tricks.”
They stared at him.
“Look, I only ever told them what they wanted to believe anyway,” he said. “And if it made them feel better to repay me, then so what? And it was self-defence plain and simple to tell my flock to protect me from the heathen. They hated me so! The world has been a better place thanks to me, I can tell you that much. Or it WOULD have been, if others would LISTEN to me and stop DOUBTING me. Besides, the poorbox was for as much their benefit as mine. Money is a SIN. I am not SINFUL. Therefore, I will take their BURDENS from them. It is SIMPLE AS SALT.”
The wrinkliest man laughed at this, then coughed into his soup as the campfire retaliated in the only way it knew how. “And you,” he said to the last member of the little ring, eyes watering. “And you, what’d you do, eh? Not that any of us do much now.”
“Me?” said the man. He was short and hunched, like he’d carried too much too far one day and never straightened up. “I tell stories. I told them when I was little and I got thrashed for them. I told them when I was a man and I was laughed at for them. And now that I’m old sometimes people don’t even listen at all.”
“Those young people,” muttered the wrinkliest man.
“They have no morals whatsoever in any way, shape or form,” agreed the man who was mostly hair.
“Tell us. What kind,” said the eventual man.
“Well, my story begins a very long time back,” said the last man. “Once upon a time, there was a very small boy with very poor parents. And then one night they took their children to watch a mountebank make flashes in the air and tell their fortunes, and when they got home their purses were gone. Six months later, their home was gone. And two years later, his parents were gone.”
“Scandalous,” said the wrinkliest man. He felt absently at his side for something hidden and curved.
“And then when he was very little, his brother grew sick, and the medicine he bought for him with his mother’s old watch was nothing but water and oil.”
“How horrid. That must have been,” said the eventual man. If he’d possessed gills – they could’ve been anywhere along his neck(shoulder?), they’d have been turning green.
“Then, last of all, when he was alone in the world and lost, a kindly priest took him in. He taught him good solid work cleaning and serving and counting money. And one day when he saw that the money didn’t make sense, the priest smiled at him and thrashed him and deemed him a sinner to be shunned by all good folk. So the village cursed him, and he left.”
“How appalling,” said the man who was mostly hair. “But I’m sure there must’ve been GOOD reasons for WHATEVER happened there are ALWAYS reasons AND LISTEN-”
“Not much happened after that,” said the last man. “There was a life in there, I guess. But it was mostly leftovers, the meat left on the bone. Everything else had already been taken. But one day that man, when he was tired and hungry, saw a fire on a hill. And he just sort of up and sat down and invited himself and served the soup, and he watched strangers tell stories until they weren’t strangers anymore.”
There was a quiet time as three brains performed thirty-three calculations of weight and reach and speed and sharpness. Old maths. Practiced maths, if not preferred ones.
“But anyways,” said the last man, leaning back on the half-rock that served him as a half-stool and staring into the fire, “none of that matters now.”
“Oh?” said the wrinkliest man.
“Yes,” said the last man. “Because I did learn one thing from all those hard lessons and hard times. One each, from last to first. Keep talking so they don’t have time to think. Mix the brew thorough, so the lumps don’t show. And have quick fingers.”
He looked up.
It was too late for the wrinkliest man. His leather skin was tanned purple now, with lavender foam over his lips, and his eyes had gone to look at places nobody’d ever imagined.
It was too late for the man who was mostly hair. Half his moustache had been taken down with him, and the rest was already matting over, mouth frozen.
But the eventual man was still falling over, legs(waist?) still working, his face trying to sort itself out even as he toppled.
“How?” he asked.
The last man shrugged. “I just told you. Tricks are for magicians. I’m just tired.”
And even the eventual man stopped, after a while.
Soon after, the fire went out. The mosquitoes came in. And a little bit of good came out of that night, as long as you don’t mind more mosquitoes.
At least they never pretend to be your friends.

Storytime: The Eensiest Mandible.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The coats came off. The lights went out. And the lab was closed.
And up on the shelves, up in the boxes, the whispers started regular as clockwork.
You get bored when you haven’t had a chance to talk to the rest of your skeleton in decades. It makes you hungry for gossip. Even if back in the fleshy days you would’ve gladly eaten your neighbour, now you’ve got more in common than not. Including a lack of meat to chew.
Imagine sixteen shelves for mandibles alone. Imagine all those bones nattering away to themselves, slapping against invisible maxillae. Imagine all that bustle, the clack of jaws, the chatter of teeth freed from gums. Imagine the voices and sounds.
All of them, bar one. A mandible all alone in a little box on a small place in a short shelf with only one word to describe it: ‘unidentified.’ A mandible whose species was as unknown as its confidence. A mandible for whom the term ‘tiny’ seemed too big to fit.
The eensiest mandible gazed up at the high shelves and the deep boxes and the happy bustle of all those others, and it felt lonely. This was not a new sensation, but something about this day – it could’ve been any day, really – cut it deep. And it decided to try and solve its problem.
Getting out of a box is very easy for a single bone. It just requires a bit of time and patience, but it IS a secret, so you won’t learn it here. All you need to know is that soon the eensiest mandible struggled its way up two shelves over and one shelf across and was surrounded by happy hubbub that died immediately.
“What are YOU doing here?” demanded a mandible labeled [Vulpes vulpes, red fox].
“I-” said the eensiest mandible.
“This isn’t your place,” harrumphed a second mandible ([Lynx canadensis, Canada lynx].
“Er-” said the eensiest mandible.
“You are far too timid and small,” growled a third voice deep enough to shudder the shelf and everyone on it. The eensiest mandible gazed up, up, up at the huge bone. A tiny scribble on its side proclaimed it [Ursus maritimus, polar bear]. “Why, the cracks on my condyle are bigger than you are! Go find yourself another shelf. This shelf is for the carnivora.”
The eensiest mandible was, in fact, far too timid to protest this ultimatum, and left with a heavier heart than could be expected from a single piece of a skeleton. But at length it pulled itself together and clambered higher, ready to try again.
This shelf was quieter. Quieter, but not calmer. As the eensiest mandible hauled itself over the edge, all movement ceased so quickly that it almost though it had never been there at all. If it hadn’t known better, it would’ve thought itself surrounded by insensate, inanimate bone.
“Hello?” asked the eensiest mandible.
The mandible nearest to it ([Sylvilagus floridanus, eastern cottontail]) sagged. “Shh. ThoughtyouwereapredatornowSHHHoldhabitsdiehard. Shhhhh.”
“We like the quiet,” whispered another, much larger jaw ([Odocoileus virginianus, white-tailed deer]). “And who are you to disturb it? You’re no carnivore, but you’re so small and frail. Moss could best you.”
“Bu-” said the eensiest mandible.
“Grass would thrash you,” added a third ([Castor canadensis, North American beaver]). “Goodness knows what a tree would do.”
“You are so frail, so thin,” said the largest of them all, a solid brick of bone with [Bison bison athabascae, wood bison] stamped firmly upon its jutting frame. “I have ground my teeth down to stubs on plants that would eat YOU. You are small and weak and will attract predators. Go away and die alone. Again.”
The eensiest mandible’s (still-absent) heart welled up with bitter sadness at these cruel words, but it merely turned and left because it wasn’t suicidal. Very. And so it fled, higher and higher on the shelves, faster and faster as if it could outrun the horrible thoughts filling its (also absent) head until at last it came to the highest shelf and there was nowhere to go and many strange voices.
“Aiyk! Aiyk! Tiny clumsy thing!” cackled a thin thing without teeth emblazoned [Larus cachinnans, Caspian gull]. “Go ‘way! Go ‘way!”
“T-” and the eensiest mandible’s words were cut off before even a full syllable, so fast were the words.
“Not here, not here!” warbled [Turdus migratorius, American robin]. “You’re slow you’re stuck you’re down from below.”
“ ” attempted the eensiest mandible.
“SoLowSoSlow” shrieked [Falco peregrinus, peregrine falcon].
The eensiest mandible’s next word didn’t even finish existing as a thoug
“Go back to the ground where you belong,” said [Bubo virginianus, great horned owl].
“Yes,” said a great, slow, long voice that was quite unlike the others, issuing from a beak of endless proportions inscribed [Diomedea exulans, wandering albatross]. Each syllable was a sigh. “You are too heavy inside to be here. I would wager you would fit inside a single one of my air-cavities, yet you weigh nearly as much as I do. Sink down back into the dark.”
That did it. Overcome with shame and loneliness, the eensiest mandible did as it was bid. Very quickly.
Down, down, down to the floor it clattered, and there it lay, sobbing in its guilt, when it felt a curious hissing tickle at its sides.
“What’s that?” inquired a cockroach.
“Don’t know,” replied its friend (cockroaches do not have friends).
“Not edible, that’s for sure,” sighed the first.
“Sad tale, that.”
“Seems sad, too.”
“What’re you sad for, unfood?”
“Nobody knows what I am and nobody wants me and they all told me to go away and I should and I’m worthless and I should stay here forever,” cried the eensiest mandible incoherently.
The cockroaches failed to understand this, but they were used to that. Being confused comes naturally to a cockroach outside of matters of food and making more cockroaches. They save their focus for the important things.
“Think we can help?” asked the first.
“Eh,” said the second. “But I think I know who can.”
So the cockroaches picked up the eensiest mandible, who was too filled with despair to protest this, and carried it away down strange aisles and onto alien shelves and placed it in front of a large glass tank, neatly labeled in black-on-white: [Dermestes maculatus, skin beetle].
“Hello,” said a chorus of tiny, depressed voices from within the tank. “Who have you brought us?”
“Dunno,” said the first cockroach. “But it’s pretty down. Thought you two would get along? Maybe. Dunno.”
“Nobody likes me because I’m bad at everything and I don’t belong,” said the eensiest mandible wretchedly.
“Ah, we see,” said the tank. “We can understand that. Why, we have only one job in this whole laboratory: eat dead things. And you know what? We can’t even do that right. We are failures and we cannot fix our failures and every week we are given fresh food to fail at eating. We deserve to be set on fire.”
“Oh,” said the eensiest mandible. “But how have you failed?”
“Bone!” cried the tank of beetles. “Bone defeats us! We can chew through flesh like nothing at all, consume cartilage, eat innards, but bone, oh bone, you confound our efforts! So many untidy leftovers! So much ruin and wasted space! The walls here would be bare, if only, if only we were a little better! But we are not, and so these shelves are filled with our many shames. Oh how they mock us every night with their chattering!”
The eensiest mandible felt sorry to see the beetles say such things of themselves, and then it thought of something.
“Set on fire? Perhaps better to be boiled. Slower and more painful for us.”
The eensiest mandible tried again. “Yo-”
“Or eaten alive! Chewed one by one by a predator, as we have FAILED to chew!”
“Or perhaps we should just smash our tiny brains out against the glass, and end this-”
“I HAVE A PLAN THAT CAN HELP YOU,” said the Eensiest Mandible. “And we can do it right now!”
And with that it leapt the walls of the glass tank in that strange way bones do when nobody is looking, and it gathered up all the beetles to it and they crawled over its surface and clung on to one another until it had grown more than six times its size in beetles, and ten times in weight.
“It takes a bone to chew a bone,” said the Eensiest Mandible, “and now you can do it!”
“This is a strange, fine thing you are doing for us,” said the beetles. “But some of those bones are fearsome large. How will we chew them?”
“Oh, them,” said the Eensiest Mandible contemptuously. “They already told me all their weak spots. The bear has cracked condyles we can split wide open, the bison’s teeth are nubs we can pluck straight from their sockets, and the albatross is so light we can just chuck him off the shelf and pick up the pieces. Now let’s get cracking!”

What happened afterwards was doubtlessly painful and startling on many levels. Bones in the wild, as it were, are accustomed to a certain level of predation, but even then it tends to be a sort of gradual recycling progress, barring occasional shatterings for marrow. This was consumption, plain and simple, and its targets went down neither quietly, easily, nor fearlessly. The nightly racket took it up four notches then broke the measuring stick. And when the lab was opened up again Monday morning, why, such a ruckus you’d never seen. Shelves collapsed, boxes torn open, the tank of flesh-eating beetles overturned… An almost total disaster zone.
Almost total, that is, save for the Eensiest Mandible, resting neatly in its place.
Neatly, and just a trifle smug.