MELD, Part 2 of the Doomed? trilogy is going through a structural edit. Here my attempt at conflating Chapters 1 and 2 into one, while keeping all the important information.
- Two Mules and a Misfit
Tardi rock-hopped through the northern ridge-top pass. He grinned at his human toes stinging when he skimmed them over a boulder. I still hurt. I’m still human, you know? The stony going wore down his toe-roots without hurting them.
The monster-in-him made like it was a heavy-water balloon bouncing in his gut. Tardi’s soured breakfast rushed up his gullet and he vomited acid. Choked on its sting.
“You okay?” said Shad, the younger of the Stormies with him. He passed Tardi the water-bag left-handed. The pack of cards in his right hand.
Tardi rinsed his mouth and spat. “Thanks,” he said. He drank. You’re going to starve me, aren’t you? The monster’s silence grew obdurate or was that his imagination? One of your reasons is following behind.
Trinnet pushed by them. Him. You’ve passed the baton to him. “Good. Because-a-promise-made-under-duress-isn’t-binding.” His mantra, the words that shaped his actions.
The big rocks of the gap gave way to a slope of basalt rubble stones. Shad and Trinnet leaped down the slope like a pair of rock-wallabies. Tardi followed more steadily. At the bottom, Shad fished his hat from down his shirt. He punched it out. “Dint want to lose it leaping about,” he said, clapping it on his head.
“Is that that adder’s skin round it?” Tardi remembered the death-adder’s saddle-needle teeth spiking into him.
Shad nodded. “Fright you gave us. Have a piece of possum-jerky? The monstrous critter inside you seeks to starve you?”
Tardi narrowed his mind’s eyes. He knows what I thought? He accepted the jerky. “It’ll set me up for a good run.” Long slow hills. Shrubs. Long grass.
He stopped well past midday. “Flat enough for fire?”
Trinnet and Shad also stopped, which he took as agreement. He pulled the tarp from his pack, partially unrolled it and cross-legged down. “I wouldn’t mind a brew.”
Shad grinned. He put his cards into a pocket and took dry sticks from his gleaner bag. He built a fire. Where Ace was Tardi’s uncle, he was Shad’s father. Making Shad and Tardi cousins. Shad came along of his own free will, apparently.
Trinnet, an older man, took the water-bag Tardi carried. He filled the billy-can he carried and set it by Shad. “Be quicker if we heated water in our mugs. Couple of good walks will get us along the road the Great Flicker is planning.”
Trinnet was sent along by Ace. “Keep my nephew honest,” Tardi heard back at the Stormy village early one morning. Probably they thought him still unconscious. Ace talked while Trinnet listened, Tardi discovered, peering from under his eyelashes. In the here and now, he took example from Shad and didn’t answer Trinnet.
Trinnet hunkered opposite Tardi and Shad.
“I’d like us to parse-out the task a bit more,” Tardi said. “If parsing-out means analysing a problem?” Stormies had a dialect all their own.
“Close enough,” Trinnet said. “Ace covered all that. I was setting there listening.”
“Good,” Tardi said. “You can explain the bits I don’t understand. Could be I was still woozy due to the snake bite?”
“You should’ve been fine with every Stormy’s good blood in you,” Trinnet said. “Watering down the venom-gift to your mulish constitution.”
Tardi rose, shaking his head. Save me from Trinnet-speak to unpack. He spread his tarp out all the way.
Shad shared tea among the three mugs. “Cold anyone?” he said. At a nod from Tardi, he slurped cold water into both theirs.
Trinnet sipped and blew his uncooled brew. “What don’t you understand?” he said finally.
Into the deep end, Tar-boy. “I’m meant to tame the alien so it can be milked of its very advanced technical knowledge—otherwise known as magic—for that technology to advance Stormy culture?”
“Sums it up?” Trinnet said like asked. Like he said what’s the problem.
Tardi laughed. “What I thought hearing Ace spout it all? High falutin’ crap. What I think now, after thinking on it while we traveled? It’s rubbish. Garbage. Send it to the limbo of stupid ideas.”
Shad laughed. “Got a way with words.” He set out an array with his cards. One, three, five, seven. Half a stepped pyramid. One cliff-straight edge.
“The mule laughs,” Trinnet said. “Will you be the Tamer’s yes-man, as well as his cousin, and his …”
“Stop right there,” Shad said. He was up without Tardi seeing him make a move.
Shad held his knife by the tip, ready for throwing.
Trinnet scoffed. “Huh. Touchy.” Like he backed down.
Tardi had no clue what threatened just then.
Shad sat, gathered his cards and spat into the fire. “Hi-falutin’ is the best word yet for the wonky plan. I’m hearing that the Tamer has no flicking idea. An the way he sets it out, neither have I.”
He a-sided to Tardi. “Given you’re still learning the lingo … flicking, flick, flicker and all such terminology refer to the poor saps that were changed. They suffered eons of flickering before they stabilised and became us. The words now be used as swears.”
Tardi nodded. More questions to hold in my heart. “Let me lay out my thoughts for you, Trinnet. I’m apparently meant to steal the alien’s support group—his so-called ladies—from Zoo Hall and deliver them somewhere safe to hold them. Right so far?”
“Why bother with that when in Zoo Hall they are already in a safe facility?” Tardi said. “But say you insist I do steal them. Where is there a safe Stormy-owned facility?” He shrugged. “I don’t believe it my job to organise that?”
Shad grinned. Took a card from the top of his pack. Turned it face up. Glanced. Put it under. And again.
“Next step in the plan,” Tardi said. “Milking the alien of its advanced technical knowledge? Huh? Oh wait, I forgot. It doesn’t mean milking it like a snake is milked of its venom, it means forcing the alien to tell us about its magic. That right?”
Trinnet frowned. “Magic is why you’re the Tamer.”
Tardi forced a chuckle. “I’m the Tamer because I bested a bunch of eels?” Steve’s poor eaten-off face hovered in his mind. He cleared the frog of unending sad from his throat. “No magic in that. I used my feet and fists. And though I’m also said to be good at stopping live-minds, I don’t do that by magic either.”
Catching an edge of Shad’s faster-than-fast frown, he swallowed the rest. According to Tardi’s little brother when he was still alive, Tardi picked up ruinous programming dealing with recalcitrant live-minds. Shad upset at me saying ‘stopping live-minds’? Why?
On we go. “So, I’m meant to harness a thing that isn’t a horse or a bullock, and I’m meant to advance Stormy culture. You sure that’s what is wanted? Advance it to where? See, it all sounds like Uncle Ace—using his nephew—is trying to advance through Stormy politics. Whatever that looks like.” Tardi glanced at his listeners.
Trinnet frowned. Shad rose and pocketed his cards. He threw water on the fire. Tidied away their mugs and wok. “I’m with you for the real thing. Need help to get up?”
Trinnet grunted. “Pit stop,” he said. “All that tea.” He stepped into the trees.
Shad gripped Tardi’s arm and pulled him up from his knees. “My flicking father’s desires are just another thing to not-achieve,” he said.
What other thing does Shad think there is? Thoughtful, Tardi shoved his folded tarp under the flap of his pack.
Trinnet led them north-west, through a vine-edged thicket, and then sloshed through a wide shallow creek.
“How is the alien influencing you right now, Trinnet?” Tardi said. “You being infected with him the same as I am?”
“We call him the Great Flicker,” Trinnet said. He stopped shin-deep. “He’s letting me get on with paddling my Stormy-craft.”
“What about when he doesn’t let you get on with it? What does he do then?” Tardi said. He also stood in the creek. His skin—where human—goose-pimpled sensually from the chill. His right-foot toe-roots grappled the stony creek-bottom.
“What?” Trinnet said. He sounded confused. He sneered watching Tardi free his dripping foot from the creek bed.
“The Great Flicker intends us to go northwest where there’s a signalling station,” Tardi said. “It doesn’t want us at either Zoo Hall or the Reefarium. Which is what I got from his signal in me earlier, when we still headed north.” At the end he said, “My flickering toe-roots trying to grapple the stones underfoot.” Explaining his actions to them both.
Tardi caught Shad glancing all over him. Face, neck, shoulders, chest and down to the way his one leg stood in the water while he lifted the other. Though Shad barely allowed his gaze to touch anywhere, Tardi enjoyed what unaccountably felt like a caressing. He grinned into Shad’s direction, quick and friendly.
“Every time I think of either Zoo Hall or the Reefarium,” he said. “The Great Flicker sends me the makings of a stomach upset. Nausea. Cold sweat. I would’ve puked again if you hadn’t angled northwest.”
“The Great Flicker sends you gut-wobbles if you cross him?” Trinnet was disbelieving.
“How does he normally affect you?” Tardi said.
Long silence. “Probably I don’t let him rule me that close,” Trinnet said. He brightened. “Could be I have a maturity you’re still lacking? Contradictorally to you, mule,” he said at Shad. “Standing there gawping at the tree-hair. Eating him up.”
Shad went red-brown towards his cheek-bones while his mouth, lips pressed together, became pale.
Embarrassment the one and fury the other, Tardi hazarded. Shad was a guy about Tardi’s own age who’d proven already that he didn’t need protection. But still. Tardi turned on Trinnet. “Could it be that you follow the Great Flicker’s instructions without thinking? That you’re compliant, and that’s the reason we’ve angled northwest?” He turned for the creek-bank they’d just left, where Shad still stood.
“What’ve you got against northwest?” Trinnet said.
“If we continue that way,” Tardi said, chin-pointing at the forest-clothed slope opposite, “We’d be aiming at a signalling station. Before the death-adder bit me, the Great Flicker planned for me to cross the ranges south of your village, then travel south to Parkes, where there is another signalling place. I believe he’s hidden his shuttle in the southwest, across the Central Sea.”
“Could be he wants to go home?” Kind, like the man instructed a youngster.
“No home to go to,” Tardi said. “Star blew up. Planet is gone. He thinks Earth is a good place for his people. Data packages in his starship. They’ll reformat Earth, make our home-planet suitable for them. Which is why we’ll angle northeast for now.”
“Make for the cane-fields if you wish still to lead,” Shad said.
“You can have it,” Trinnet said. “I’ve got to think. Talk with the Great Critter somehow.” He waited while first Shad, then Tardi passed him.
Shad led them into a service road between a pair of sugarcane fields. “Good place for a camp. Cane only half-high, big enough to hide us without losing the breeze.”
Trinnet glanced at Tardi sitting on his blue tarp. “An you don’t trust him, you’ll never have peace.”
Tardi rose. “Can’t sit too long. The tree in me is never going to stop its flesh-grab no matter what promises were promised.” He walked a little circle while deciding his next strategy. “Do you trust the monster to know what’s best for humans, Trinnet?”
“Humans when Stormies aren’t? This is what he can do with the sapient lot,” Trinnet said. He gobbed together a wad of saliva and spat.
Tardi’s green hair strained wanting to prickle from unease, but too heavy. The Stormies don’t consider themselves human? Why? Why not?
Shad lay aside his cards and set Tardi’s wok in the flames. Poured water into it. Dropped leaves in it, then a couple of cuts of possum. Sprinkled a spice. Lay bits of sugarcane over for a lid. He nodded at Tardi. “The sooner we get out from under our flicking father-uncle, the better for both of us. The cards tell me that.”
Oh ho. First time Shad said anything about the cards always in his hands.
“The Flicker asks me how we will get north other than on foot,” Trinnet said. “To a place he knows where we can cut west. On foot we are slow. He has space-time and the tides of the planet to consider.”
Tardi wanted to roll around with laughter at the pomposity of the man. “Don’t even dream I won’t be asking about Stormy ancestry,” he said. “Everything else we’re talking about here is social grease and en-flummox-ment.”
“Mules. The pair of you.”
Shad took the sugarcane lid from the wok, piece by piece, and stirred the stew. “That’s the third time you’ve called us that. Explain.”
Trinnet laughed. “That’ll be my pleasure, oh up-jumped youth. Always Ace shut my mouth on the subject but what can he do out here and him still at home? We’ve got that system of marrying in and out. Not enough women, ever. A woman takes two husbands, we still have a man unrequited. Some requite themselves with each other being made that way.”
“What about women made that way?” Tardi said.
“How would I know when I’m a man?”
“He means,” Shad said. “How would he know, being an unmarried man. He does not have the confidence of any woman, no matter how he tries to charm them. The women will have a system.”
Tardi recalled Trinnet in the company of the two little ladies during the storm, when Ace rescued Tardi. And how he’d trusted Ace with his life until the minute that Ace had cut them both and forced a blood-share. What a fuck-up.
Smiling about some private joke, Trinnet continued. “Some men marry out. Like Ace. His woman outside bore him Shad and Bundy. A pair of tainted children. Tch-tch. But happy days for Ace because he fathered a girl, proved himself fit for husbanding. So deemed the women. Hyee took him as her second.”
Tardi feared for Shad sitting like a stone-man beside him. “You’re saying Shad and I are both half-Stormy?”
“Mules. Infertile. Like the young of horses bred with donkeys.” Trinnet smiled broadly. “No issue for either of you.”
No problem for me. “I’ve never heard of a second human species living into modern times,” Tardi said.
“Did I say we are human?” Trinnet said.
“You’re not sapient, you said,” Tardi said.
“The women drove your mother gone,” Trinnet said. “Never happy with what she had. Why she died in the end, I hear. Lucky for me that it weren’t by my elbow.”
“You’re doing it again, the flummoxing,” Shad said. ’Things the Tamer knows already. Letting your poor-me-I’m-hardly-done-by show. Because all the women turned you away. A proper trey we are, a misfit in the company of two mules, and with the Great Flicker a here and there at every discussion.”
“You didn’t know Ace kept you just for this.”
“Ace told you that?” Shad’s eyebrows up. “I was raised for this. Why wouldn’t I have known?”
“Oh ye-es,” Trinnet laboured his irony. “You’ve got that skel-sicht!”
Both Shad and Trinnet bristled.
“Stew is starting to smell challenging,” Tardi said. “Here’s my mug.”
Shad laughed, took Tardi’s mug and scooped out a good amount. He filled Trinnet’s and his own. “Seconds when you’re ready.”
“What’s a trey apart from a three?” Tardi said.
“You never saw us but singly or in threes,” Trinnet said.
“Treys, Pents and Septs is how Stormies organise themselves,” Shad said.
“You never said what you think to do,” Trinnet said.
Tardi blew over is after-dinner brew to cool it. “About what?”
“Controlling. Managing. How you think to tame the Great Flicker,” Trinnet said.
Is this guy for real? “I thought I told you the limbo of bad ideas?” Tardi said.
“Didn’t tell me nothing,” Trinnet said. “Spouted a whole lot of cover. Keeping whatever you were deciding in your purse-net.”
“Interesting turn of phrase,” Tardi said. “I might start collecting them.” He’d have to extemporise, or whatever the terminology was for skating close to the truth. “I was deciding that I don’t know enough. That I need advice. I know of a woman at the Reefarium who can maybe help with that. So that’s where I thought we’d go first.”
Trinnet stared into his mug. Maybe he read the pattern of the brew’s leaves in the bottom. “Well. So. We won’t need to walk the whole way. You probably know the glass merchant, the combo as travels north middle of the week? You—the trucker amongst us—can cadge us a ride with him.”
Tardi lay rolled in his tarp. Trinnet already snored. Glints in Shad’s dark eyes showed him still awake, still upright, by the glowing fire.
“Paddling our Stormy-craft,” Tardi said. “Is that what your-father-my-uncle sent him along for?” He didn’t say ‘Trinnet’ in case that gentleman woke on hearing his name.
“There’s steering with paddles, the Stormy way,” Shad said. “And there is steering with a rudder.”
“Half the effort, and it’s in the back of the boat,” Tardi said softly. “Will you be the rudder in this craft?”
Shad grinning disbelievingly is what Tardi heard. “You? You need steering?” Shad said.
“There’s so much shit to come,” Tardi said. “My attention span for external things gets smaller the more that the monster, the tree and now also your flicking father pile on my back. So, yeah. Someone to steer me sometimes would be good.” He waited for Shad’s response.
“I like it, Cuz,” Shad said. “Sleep. I will keep watch.”
A calculated risk for not having to guard myself from Trinnet day and night.