Storytime: A Friend in Need.

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.

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