Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 1

DNA strand … Sard’s will be weirder than that
Sard was born an avatar in the community where he lives, and has honed his skills in the production of cave-wide games for most of his sixteen years. With his twin sister Srese, who is a superlative actor and usually stars in his productions, they top this competitive profession. To his consternation his sister is chosen over him as the one to star in Gamester's newest production, while he is remaindered!

Remaindered? What does that even mean, he wonders as the electronics of the underground community begin to shut him out. His care-mother; one of the previous, now hidden, remaindered avatars; and Greg, the community's chef all help him to stay alive as he comes to grips with his new status. But how will he now live, doing what?

In this, Part One, Sard learns a couple of the facts about his new way to be and a whole lot of unpleasant suppositions, and he's hardly in the position to be able to tell one from the other.


Sard strode through the pastel yellow arch out of the Nest. He needed the roiling colours of his envy and disappointment and anger. Because how come Srese won the contest when he was always the better producer? He wanted reds and blues and greens storming along the corridor walls alongside him. Where were they?

He stopped. The Nest doors soughed shut behind him.

The walls, what he could see of them, were grey. And all the holos, one on every block-end, were extinguished.

Some kind of power cut? I don’t think so. He stepped back seeking with his fingertips the comforting painted story on the Nest’s doors. A fill layered into the dark green paint made the bas relief trees. A rectangular brown roughened area signified a door into a tree trunk. Zoya, the kiddy-carer, regularly pasted the profile of a different infant over the door as if they were then pushing it open. She’d painted a tremble of golden light as if it came through the aperture.

The doors slid open behind him because he still stood on the sensory-mat. He breathed relief. Phew. At least a couple of doors still worked for him.

A chatter of voices neared from the Wingham direction, the group still out of sight around the bulging-out curve of the Nest. Dorms and family apartments fronted First Circle on that side. This late in the morning it was probably Tye and his girls. Sard almost bolted back into his hole. What good, though? He had to eat.

“Bad luck, mate,” Tye said as he passed Sard. “Not winning, I mean.”

Sard was slightly comforted. If that was all Tye knew, he could probably brazen it out and go to breakfast at least.

Tye hugged Relda to him. Both had dressed gypsy-style. She swirled a shin-length red and yellow skirt. Tye’s pants were about the same length, with the cuffs artfully folded up and he wore a neckerchief the colour of Relda’s headscarf. Gold coins sewn over both. Caro arm-in-armed Viva, twirling so each could add her play to the hotspots in the holos.

So far they’d conjured a carved gypsy caravan pulled by a horse plodding along a sandy track in a high summer scene of green and gold. The ceilings round about were now blue and they seemed to walk on the same gold sand track.

“What do you think?” Caro said.

“I like it.” Sard touched the opposite wall, near where he walked, where flowers burgeoned in a field of green. His touch killed off a swatch of flowers. He jerked back. Hope no one saw that.

“You want to input your alterity?” Viva said. “Since you’re not costumed?”

“No. Go ahead. You two are doing a great job.” They were all represented in the mural. The couple strolled in the meadow and Viva drove the horse. The Caro-alterity did cartwheels alongside.

The gypsy caravan followed them across Second Circle and pulled into a meadow forming on the Dining Hall’s long wall between Second and Third Circles. The horse began to graze and the alterities followed their people around the corner toward the Dining Hall entry where they pixilated into the scenery.

Sard walked into the Dining hall among them. His heart hammered when for the five or six seconds that he was the only one on the sensory-mat, the doors started to slide shut. He pressed back the near one. Should he suspect that the door utility suddenly didn’t know him anymore?

Youk and Phin were already in there, shoveling scrambled eggs down their respective gullets. How he hated them. Obviously he was late, along with every other trouble this morning.

“Don’t let them get to you,” Tye said.

“Thanks.” How, was the question. He fetched his porridge, the white pap, his eggs, the yellow pap, on the baked and toasted pap. If he was slow about it maybe his tormentors would leave. But they were still at the table and so because he dormed with Phin and Youk he had to go sit with them.

As usual Youk across the table from him watched everything he did. Didn’t the guy ever have anything better for his yellow eyes to do than make sure the avatars didn’t get ahead of him? Youk said, “Shoveling it in rather, aren’t we?”

“What?” Sard could’ve kicked himself. When would he learn not to react?

“Shoveling the food in like the farmers didn’t grow it to your taste.”

“Ha ha,” Sard said around the egg. “Since I’m one of the farmers.”

Phin, diagonally across from Sard, smiled benignly. He kicked Sard’s feet out of his way under the table and hooked his own under Sard’s chair.

“Finished?” Youk said. “Good. You and I have business.” Loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, “Fare thee well, oh golden avatar! Do you wend to your Herculean labours?”

Of course everyone remaining at the other tables looked up and laughed and commented.

“Do you join him, Youk, to be dusted by his benison?” Tye said. He winked. At Sard when of course both Youk and Phin could not miss seeing.

Thanks Tye, for nothing. Sard thrust back his chair, hopefully doing damage to Phin’s hooked-up toes. Sard stood in a hurry to catch the chair before it fell. All he needed was a whip, to tame his lions. He put the chair down and shoved it hard against Phin’s outstretched legs. He didn’t say sorry because he would pay whatever he did.

Youk followed him near enough that he looked like he hustled Sard from the Dining Hall.

“Master and slave. Youk in his favourite role,” Tye shouted after them.

The doors closed when Sard and Youk stepped from the sensory matting, shutting them off from any further ribaldry. Because he had Youk breathing down his neck, Sard made for the dorm he supposedly shared with him and Phin. He dived into the lane beside the Dining Hall, and took a left into the corridor between Second and Third Circles. Walls, where available, were grey.

The dorms fronted onto the lane with doors and windows, and backed windowless onto the Circles allowing a lot of wall to be given over to holos. “Surely the walls should’ve been flaming red on black?” Youk said. “Gammy-the-damned-AI loves strong emotions all said and done.”

Youk was of course commenting on Sard’s lack of nanobots. Yesterday Sard hadn’t had any nanobots either, but he’d been a whizz at programming holos. The same as Caro. Today, because he didn’t win the programming competition he suddenly was nobody? It still didn’t make sense. He stood back for Youk to unlock.

Youk stood back, too.

It looked like it would be a stand-off.

“Well?” Youk said. “You’re the golden-bloody-avatar!”

But how much of an avatar could Sard ever have been to be so instantly excised? “No nanobots, remember?” he said. “You’ll be missing lunch along with me if we stand here all morning.” As if Youk will miss lunch, he thought. “Funny how the corridor walls don’t reflect your mood. Shouldn’t they be a dirty green? The colour of envy?” Youk had envied Sard and Srese all their lives.

“The stupid AI wouldn’t dare try,” Youk said. He stepped forward. “He knows I’d hack into him with no respect.”

“Yeah right. Full of gas as usual.” Sard pushed past Youk’s fist.

The main room was a disaster. Any clothes that Sard hadn’t taken to the Nest were trodden into the rest of the mess. He started picking them up. “That’s what we’re here for? For you to tell me that the walls aren’t reacting to me?”

“And the rest. But why would I help you? You’re so stupid.”

“Oh, you mean you’re now not going to tell me the walls aren’t reacting to me today?” He sprang aside to escape Youk’s kick.

“The Pit would’ve been the better place.”

“Why would I have gone in there with you, with every man of your friends joking and laughing at my expense.”

Youk slung his arm over Sard’s shoulders and sidestepped him into the bathroom. Dirty clothes underfoot wherever they stood. Phin refused them the use of a laundry basket.

“See what I just did?”

“What you just did?” Being thickheaded was often his best defense against Youk.

Youk shook him. “Stop that. I was demonstrating how friendly I can be.”

Sard laughed. “You hate me. I’m the golden bloody avatar, remember?”

“You’re an insufferable know-it-all clone. Just like my father. Just like Gammy. You and your sister both are just a pair of damned Gammy-clones.”

“Srese would remind you that we are twins, same DNA, womb tanks side by side.”

“Trust me, Srese is half Yon Kerr doubled, and you’re Yon Kerr.”

“What would you know?” Sard said. “Though why would you know is probably more to the point.”

“Ferd is my father. He’s the Yon Kerr clone of his generation. I’m his natural-born son.” Youk stood up straighter. Even puffed his chest out.

“They say that about you,” Sard said. “So what?”

“I wasn’t made in a test tube or decanted out of a womb tank. My mother was the desert woman Yon Kerr got in for my father to romance. He won a contest to star in a cave-wide entertainment.”

Like Srese just did. Sard swallowed.

“Ring a bell does it, that phrasing?” Youk said. “I was going to show you what happens to remaindered avatars. It’s why we should’ve gone to the Pit. Walked through a holo there into the next disused complex.” Youk punched Sard’s disbelief back into him. “You didn’t know that there are more habitats than this one, did you?”

Punch. “Too bad, I could’ve shown you my hide. I have a standalone there with all the info you would’ve been likely to want.” Youk shook his head. “There’s history there you wouldn’t believe. You’re so superior that you don’t even want to know? When Srese has so obviously won and you’re suddenly remaindered?”
Youk let Sard go as if he was suddenly poisonous. He flung himself onto the couch.

Sard bent and picked up a pair of pants. “I’m not worried,” he said. “Srese and I have an agreement.” Whichever of them was picked for the role would hoist the other twin up with them. He’d been so green with envy himself, he’d forgotten. People said they were the best CAVE actor-and-producer team ever. Not that he’d swirl that cape in front of Youk.

And anyway, Srese and he knew the habitat inside out. Spent years finding all the nooks and crannies. No unused complexes that he knew. As for the other thing, he’d have to believe she’d remember their pact.

“So what will you be doing about it?” Youk said, almost friendly.

How stupid did Youk think he was? Sard shrugged. He wished Youk would go. He went round the room picking up his clothes. “My laundry.”

“You could do some of mine.”

“You wish.”

“You know what Phin will say.”

“What will Phin say?” said Phin, coming in.

“About Sard doing just his own laundry,” Youk said.

“Phin will say that that isn’t right,” Phin said. He gripped Sard by his arm. “Wait right here. Youk!”

Youk piled the rest of the clothes from the floor, overalls, towels, the lot, on Sard’s armful. “Go at it, young fellow.” He opened the door into the corridor.

Phin put his foot on Sard’s butt and shoved him out.

The corridor walls should’ve been incandescent but stayed obdurately grey. The corridor’s laundry was centrally situated. That no one else was in there to witness his fury, was one good thing, and very convenient for his plan was the other. But would he even be able to program the damned ionizers?

He seethed as he sorted clothes and stuffed them in three separate machines. Right, yes. Probably the laundry was on a slave circuit, not yet changed. He grinned wolfishly changing the settings for Youk’s and Phin’s clothes.

His own clothes tumbled about for the regular two minutes. He took them out clean and creaseless. Folded them and packed them flat in his washing bag. The twelve-minute cycles finished. Folding those clothes would be pretty well impossible, storing them like having a set of minions falling out of the cupboard every time you opened it. He walked away.

Not back to the dorm. The Nest was where he seemed to spend every second night these days. Thank Gammy his care-mother had kept his room in her apartment. Make that, thank Gammy his care-mother had been allowed to keep her apartment in the Nest after Sard had been assigned his dorm. Yeah, ha ha.

He let himself in through the apartment’s street door. Another slave circuit. Not everyone need know Sard was sleeping at Ghulia’s again this week and he’d rather not meet Zoya, the kiddy-carer who also was Srese’s ditzy care-mother. Or even Srese and her tears and dramatics.

He dumped his clothes in his drawers and switched on the mini-monitor above the bed. Might as well watch a movie. He wouldn’t go to work at all.

The same words still on the screen. <<Srese Kerr awarded the main role in the new cave-wide games>>

Sard closed his eyes, dozed. Words still there when he opened his eyes the second time. His gut churned. There had to be worse things in life than not being picked to be the primary avatar. There had to be worse things in life … It was no good. He didn’t know anything worse right now.

He wanted to shout and scream. Not fair! Not fair! Not fair! Srese was so young still! He ground his teeth. He’d never believed they were identical, or twins. He wished now he’d let Youk be victorious. What did being remaindered mean?

“Oy,” Ghulia tweaked his toe.

He hadn’t even heard his care-mother come in? Sard sat up, feet over the side of the bed.

1. New/Old Life

My fungi library … couple missing I see …

This is the (1) before the previous (1). I thought I wouldn’t need reading in my new life?

The idea that I could slough off my old life and take up a completely new one isn’t happening and was probably doomed from the start. It’s true that while I was in treatment, I put everything normally ‘me’ out of my mind to keep my attention on the main event, to learn the disease, what was required every day, learn the people involved, how the meds affected me, keep my oxygen line straight. [I was on oxygen for ten days]

But after a while it became necessary to take up reading again. In between engaging with staff, which was mostly in the mornings, hung swags of time. Watching TV while in hospital is difficult. Volume is restricted. You can’t turn the TV off, attend the x, y, z person/procedure needing your attention, and turn it back on expect to hit the same place where you left off. The remote is fiddly, usually on the same gadget as the nurse’s call button.

While I was on the Oncology Ward at John Flynn Hospital, out in the corridors practicing my walking, I discovered nooks with bookshelves filled with books. Life-savers, in effect. Not that I read every book. But every walk I took, I’d change a book, like at at a library. I’ve read both fiction and non-fiction voraciously for most of my life.

I’m now officially in remission with a totally clear PET scan. My last chemo session was at the end of January, followed by two Rituximab (monoclonal antibodies) chasers taking me into the beginning of March. A ‘stupendous recovery’ my hematologist calls it, given where I began. My hair started growing again the week of the first chaser. My toenails apparently need more time.

Since I moved into the unit where I’m living now, I’ve been sorting through books … nineteen boxes of them. Some books don’t need a decision. Anything to do with fungi make it onto the shelves beside my work station. Fiction using fungi as plot devices, bad or good, also onto the shelves.

Most other books get the will-I-want-to-read-this-again question. If not, straight into the remaindered pile. If maybe, I open the book anywhere and read a few pages. If boredom sets in after only a few paragraphs, into a remaindered pile it goes. The books that will be sent on their way so far number about eight boxes.

Other things I’m reading at the moment are an article titled Proposal for a subdivision of the family Psathyrellaceae, which I keep for breakfast reading since it is a .pdf and must be read on the laptop. ‘Sideshow’ by Sheri S Tepper. This follows on from ‘Raising the Stones’ which is one of fungi-related novels in my collection. Tin Tin in Adventures on the Moon by Herge for light relief. And I’m thinking of soon reading ‘Meld’ the second part of my trilogy Doomed

We’ll see.

Fiction: Cortinarius alin aff sapient

Cortinarius sp

Cort had three places to sit in his apartment and today he intended sitting in all of them. He began in the kitchen. Sitting on his wooden kitchen chair at his wooden kitchen table. He had the two vintage crystal wineglasses part-filled with water in front of him and the silver teaspoon ready for action.

Mrs Soup would be along soon. He’d earlier checked her progess by standing this side of his front door and listening. She lived-in in the block—in fact had an apartment not too far from Cort’s—and was employed by the Department of Human Services to provide nine of the block’s residents with their meals.

“Yoo-hoo?”

Cort ting-tinged with his fork against the right-hand glass.

“In the kitchen as usual,” Mrs Soup said. “Waiting for me, I suppose.”

He would’ve smiled if he could. Not safe now. Ting. This was the high note with which he put positive comments into the conversation. Mrs Soup wasn’t backward in supplying the words.

She set the dinner bag on the counter and unloaded the covered bowls. Cort’s teeth had given up the struggle and he’d graduated onto soups and stews that didn’t require chewing. “Both into the fridge?” she said.

Ting. He didn’t know yet when he’d have time to suck up the mid-day meal.

“Oh?” Mrs Soups said. “Expecting another caller?”

Ting. Cort pointed the teaspoon at a red square on the placemat.

“Ah, you’re expecting Red. A good man.” She took yesterday’s disinfected and sealed-up dishes in their plastic bags from the vegetable crisper.

He agreed. Ting. Red was the house medic. Employed under the same arrangement as Mrs Soup, he was overworked and underpaid. In Cort’s opinion. A lot more sick people in the scene than were fed by the house.

“Thank you for this disinfecting. You are such a dear,” Mrs Soup said. “Different to the old codger two floors down.”

Cort tapped the other, almost full glass. Tang.

“Red is with Mr Irascible right now, I’d say. He sidled in as I sailed out.”

Which gave him Red’s approximate arrival time. Ting.

————

For Red’s visit, Cort made himself comfortable in his old armchair. The arm rests were perfect for him to lay his arm on a pillow for Red to serve him up with an injection or a cannula for a dose of IV meds.

“Hey, old-timer,” Red said at the door. “How’s it going?”

Cort slipped his mask up over mouth and nose.

“That’s a new thing between us,” Red said at the mask, fetching the upright chair from the kitchen. “And I have been thinking I’d like to have a look at the problem?” He finished with his head on-side, asking.

Cort gestured futility with his fingers spread, hands upturned.

“There’s a thing growing in your mouth and what? You don’t want me to have a look-see, to see if it is cureable?”

Cort shook his head. Indicated down with his thumb.

“Is it bacterial?” Red said. “I’ve still got some antibiotics you haven’t had yet. Could hit it with them.”

Cort shook his head.

“Is it cancerous?”

Cort shook his head.

“Not cancerous.” Red wrapped the blood pressure guage around Cort’s upper arm. “Only one thing left. Show me and I’ll be able to prescribe something.”

Cort pointed at Red. Gestured Red’s probably fate with a finger across his throat.

Red frowned. “As bad as that? I can go to the ambo station, get some hospital-grade personal protection gear, see you again this afternoon.”

Cort grabbed one of his signs from beside his chair. THERE IS ONLY REVENGE.

Red’s eyes above his mask narrowed. He hissed. “I told them at the station there’s a killer in our scene. What’s he doing?”

Cort mimed diseases passing from one to the next. Infecting people. He got his second sign out. His mobile. A photo, a selfie from hell. His pursed mouth with the deep grooves of his aging face radiating from his thin lips pressed tight. Both the depths of the grooves and the lips painted a deathly white. The disease escaping its confines.

Red studied it with quick glances back and forth to Cort’s eyes, the rest of his face. He frowned thunder. “What can I do?”

Gesturing, Cort asked for help to get out of the chair and be settled on the couch. Cort with a towel over his head for extra protection for Red. His third sign. BURN THAT IN A MEDICAL FURNACE. 1100 DEGREES. He mimed. Make me look like a half-warm corpse.

Red grinned wolfishly. Got out his second mobile, set it to Record. “I’ll be at Mrs Soup’s, watching this. I insist,” he said to Cort’s head shakes. He laid it between Cort’s knees. “I’ll see that your revenge goes nowhere else.”

“He’s dead anyway,” Cort signed.

“Not soon enough. Don’t worry, I have a good plan. No one else is going to be farmed by this dude.” Last thing, Red fetched the red half-blanket from his kit. Spread it over Cort’s lap. He nodded. “Eleven hundred degrees.”

————

Next, the grower. What he called himself. Just a humble farmer popping in from time to time to see how the crop was growing he said. Cort savagely echoed him in his mind.

The man getting sicker, Cort saw the fucker think, his legs up on the couch like that and covered with an ambo’s little red blanket. Cort chuckled behind his mask, whatever that might sound like.

Grower checked that that ambo was not on the premises while fetching the upright chair from the kitchen. Three rooms and a bathroom. No ambo. He set the chair on the rug alongside the couch. Its outer limits but opposite Cort. “Can’t be too careful,” he said.

Cort grunted.

“I traded some of my stock this week and scored me some magnifying specs,” Grower said. He pulled them from his shirt pocket and Cort saw that they were an eye doctor’s magnifiers. Grower slid a couple of lenses into the left frame, three on the right.

Cort grinned close-mouthed behind his mask. Made an inquiring sound.

“You’re right,” Gtower said. “I do owe you an explanation or three.” He laughed. “Your name was the beginning of it.”

Cort raised his eyebrows. This was where he might’ve asked the damned farmer-in-the-dell to explain. Mouth too far gone. But don’t worry he consoled himself, this fucker will tell you because this fucker likes the sound of his own voice.

“In the bar they all called you Cort,” Grower began. “I knew rightaway the crop I’d want to try you out for. Then I learned that you were Allin Cort. Even better. It fits the genus and species naming system. In my literature—pamphlets, brochures and pricelists—I’ve started to call the crop I’ll be harvesting from you Cortinarius allin aff sapient.”

How would he get the delusional sapient to come closer? Cort grunted as disparagingly as he still could.

“It does sounds kind of weird,” Grower said. “But hey, you don’t seem to be doing that well?” He hitched the chair nearer. “The minute I went into job-lots of specifics for the laboratories, my life improved. I got rid of all the species that were too ornery. Too meh. The ones that had no poison and or no flavour if they were edible. I was thinking to get a sample today? Get it tested and so be able to offer my clients a specific rather than a general.”

Cort let his eyelids droop to half-mast, like he was a very sick man. Chuckle chuckle. Sicker than some, not sick enough to not want his revenge before he died.

The fellow hitched the chair even nearer, reached over the remaining distance and gently unhooked Cort’s mask. “Just want to see how we’re progressing, old boy.”

The sick man aka Cort relaxed back onto the couch armrest. He’d laugh if he still could. He gathered himself for his last lunge. Had to be good.

“Medic was here?” Grower said. “He give you some salve and that’s why your mouth and all those grooves are so white?”

Cort shook his head. He coughed through a narrow slot with a tearing paper sound. Pressed together his lips again.

“Right. Right. A little cough is the go. Let me get ready for the next one with a swab.” Grower scrabbled in his bag. Got out a swab. A glass container. A this. A that and a whatever.

Cort watched the madman’s face. Here he comes. Those crazed blue eyes.

“Ready when you are,” Grower said. Sitting on the edge of the chair, both his hands filled with the equipment to catch Cort’s … spores?

Cort grabbed the dead man’s upper arms with an iron grip and opened his mouth wide.

His lips crackled. Cracked. Flaked away.

The white felty interior stretched, the fibres sprang apart.

The spotted brown gills hanging from the roof of his mouth released a cloud of dark brown spores. Cort pursed his lips and blew more of them faster and further into the fellow’s face, his hair, his clothes. He blinded him with Cortinarius spores.

Grower would’ve reared back but Cort hugged him. Breathed spores into him. Kissed him to give him the taste. Cuddled the deluded dead thing to his chest.

Whispered lovingly. “Red will be here in a minute. He’ll tidy us up.”

Novel is Selling?

This week I was amazed to find that in spite of very little promotion by me, still not one customer review on Amazon, and almost no attention while I’ve been sick, my novel Mongrel is selling.

While it’s not flying out the door, I’ve been getting enough monthly sales notices from both Amazon and Kobo that I’ve finally added my photo to my Amazon sales page, a link to this blog, and I’m thinking of translating my bio into my mother tongue. Or maybe having it translated. Though not by Google.

Getting a novel to a publishable state takes far more than just writing it. There isn’t just one aspect I could point the finger at and say this is what is selling Doomed? Mongrel. The good feeling is that the amalgamation of processes worked.

I found Kat Betts, a most excellent editor, after two goes with other people. Though she marked-up about 600+/- things to think about and/or change, Mongrel spangles with life.

I spent many many hours studying book covers and at first only learned what worked and what didn’t. I have no regrets that I went professional. The cover Dan van Oss designed exceeded all my expectations. I love it.

An eye-catching title that also might be beloved of one or two or three browsers was one of my responsibilities. It took me as long as I was writing Book 1 to hit on a series name, to decide that a question mark in a title was all right, and finally to jiggle the three book names so they might make the most sense.

The guy who wrote about keywords for Amazon? I followed his every instruction.

In between everything I’m writing again.

Reading …

One of my quarterly goals (Third Quarter) for Discord.com’s The Writing Cartel is to read at least one book a week. Going all right with that goal. I’ve probably read two books a week up to now but that progress may slow when I try to continue my writing progress in the new WIP and finish the old WIP.

Getting distancing happening in MELD to be able to re-think the last couple of chapters is my second goal. The idea is to enable the supporting MC into a stronger role ready for part 3 of the trilogy.

I’ve just finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Its fantasy and the world building is out of this world. I loved the main character … he’s a great thief but absolutely the worst skilled murderer in the Gentlemen Bastards, needs other people to save him quite often; lots of twists and unexpected turns in the plot.

The thing that surprised me most, considering I was reading fantasy, was the late introduction of magic … probably about a third way in before it was used. By then I’d almost forgotten there was such a thing as magic. The culture in this world is so well thought out. Commerce is there, being used for scams by the Bastards. Twelve acceptable religions and one unacceptable all have their place. there are plenty of poor people, middle income, and rich all trying to live their own lives. Festivals are fabulous, including the shark combats.

There is a lot of killing murdering dueling sword play and other more intricately inventive ways of getting rid of enemies. lots of swearing. Most memorable line? Memorable lines, I should say. More than I can say. A great read … it will be one of my favorites this quarter.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 20

The Last Thylacine, Thyal’s Totem

AZ, Ship to Shaman

I’m at the end of my tether. “What is the fucking thing you want to know?” I snap.

Simmon half-rises. The warriors rise with him. Their blades now wink and shine.

Mongoose backs right up close to me. “Hold onto me somewhere,” he mutters. I grasp his belt where it snugs his lower back.

“What’s the thing you most want to know?” I say again. I hear myself being strident.

Crow answers me. “Something big happened on Earth, maybe to Earth in the years before our people left. The Ark-Ship’s journey was meant to last seventy thousand years. It was made a generation-ship. The Earth-born are right about that.”

Simmon calms. Perhaps in response to hearing that he is believed to be right about something. He settles. “Start me off?” he says.

Crow again. “The Ark-Ship arrived in its orbit around Lotor a very short time after leaving Earth. The settlers’ stories agree that an emergency in the Ark-Ship began almost immediately, a struggle within the Ark-Ship’s communication system. The only supposition that makes any sense, some say, is a struggle between the ship’s computer and an entity that had secreted itself onboard.

 “Ten percent of prospective settlers were bundled into ten shuttles and sent down to Lotor’s surface. Individuals were picked randomly, torn from their families, and arrived very confused. They had to begin to save themselves from Lotor right away. You can imagine why the stories from that time lack detail,” Crow says to the rest of us.

She takes a breath and tells the rest. “The Ark-Ship carried thousands of living, breathing, aware people but there has never been any news other than toward the end of Soowei’s life, when the ship promised her that it would return to fetch its people off-loaded onto Lotor. Then it left the Procyon System to go regenerate somewhere without disturbance.” 

Simmon laughs, albeit shakily. “Let me let me let me try some math now,” he says. “Have I have I have I still got my math in me?”

No one interrupts. Half of what Crow just told is new to me. I look around. Loads of people look distracted, suggesting that we are all trying to piece the new information into the story we have all known since childhood. We will need Crow to tell us what is known of Soowei’s last days.

“The Ship of Fools gets waved,” Simmon says. “We’ll say that’s Earth Year Twenty. There’s quite a number that have gone before us, because the EMBers are not stupid, they don’t get involved except in a proven technology.”

He wears such a crafty expression that I set Soowei’s story aside and concentrate on Simmon’s. I catch Earth Year Twenty. The rest makes no sense.

He continues. “But when we arrive on Lotor, it is as if we are the first. Except that the ship we wake up in is a rusted piece of junk that obviously has not moved for a hundred years. We EMBers do our dashing around and get data-waved back to Earth. I learn the hard way that a data-waved brain returns to its original state. Meaning, no information from here went back to Earth that way. I was still a fool and signed up for a second experiment.”

“Where were you in Earth Year Minus Fifty?” I say, ignoring everything else. We don’t have the time.

“Ha ha ha,” Simmon says. “It’s the fucking Little Shaman. Well-studied in math. What else did they teach her? Fucking shamans. I was a fool to trust them.”

“You owe me for all the worrying I’m doing,” I say. A preposterous piece of reasoning, I see from the raised eyebrows around me. I have to control myself not to laugh at Mongoose’s crestfallen expression. He does try to save me from having to worry. I squeeze his hand. “Well?” I demand of Simmon.

“I wasn’t born yet,” he says.

“You would’ve studied about those times at school,” I say.

He laughs again, a rickety rackety chuckle. “You’re asking me about the data-waving monster himself.”

He appears to try to explain data-waving by waving his arms around. I’m nearly sick imagining how, with every move, with every rattling sound, he’s not just coming apart but spreading his illness around.

“A few changes on Earth after his arrival, I can tell you,” he says. “Bad for me is that Lotor bled the info right out of my brain as well as every other Earth-born brain wandering into her clutches.”

“I’ll tell you how it works, Jeb. Just you.” He leans forward. “A thousand thousand Earth Years ago Lotor lost her engineer. I like to imagine that he escaped the bitch. Leaving her in orbit around Procyon B, he took her bio-engine capability and waltzed around the galaxy for a good while before settling. Somewhere out of sight but never out of Lotor’s mind.”

He stops. Sways forward. I suspect him to be gathering the last of his mad strength to lunge forward. I pull at Mongoose to move us backward. Puma tenses.

Simmon giggles. “You have two hundred Earth Years missing from your precious lore, Crow. Earth Year One, the idiots at Procyon Products do a deal with the government of the day. They data-wave a shipload of Life Lottery winners to Lotor. And Lotor, when she smells the bio-silver on them, takes them all within. From that point she knows her engineer is on Earth.”

Uncle Puma says nothing. Red-tail is silent. Can I trust them to see what’s coming?

“When Lotor gets round to me, I promise her the fucking Ark-Ship so she can fetch her engineer. But I promise her before I know that the ship is away regenerating. So I’m in a fix. Then I discover that Lotor intends me to drive the ship. I am not a shaman or engineer. So I am in a worse fix. None of the shamans I bring to Lotor are who she wants. The Ship returns from its regeneration jaunt and I discover the hereditary crewing system. Things get worse and worse for me and Lotor starts searching for the hereditary captain herself. Before too long the settlers have only the one remaining shaman.”

He looks up, glares into me.

Well-water, we call the color of his eyes.

“Do you trust me?” he asks.

A blue glow pierces me. Simmon falls away or I fall back. A guillotine cleaves me front from rear, side from side. I expect pain. There’s no pain. I expect to see blood, a lot of it. There’s no blood.

Then there is pain. My arm burns. It’s on fire. My arm, my red-hot arm falls off. No, it only flops about because my nerves scream, twist, twangle. The amulet burns.

I choke. “The ship, it signals!” I manage not to shout.

Mongoose helps me to fall down gently. He shoves the edge of his hand between my teeth. “For the pain,” he says, kneeling beside me. Pain cringes and curdles and claws invisible pieces out of me. Mongoose doesn’t have to look for Thyal, he’s already with us, crooning. “There now, my pretty. There, there.”

With them sheltering me, I concentrate on not gnashing down on Mongoose’s hand. The Ship sends me fifteen elements. AZ. I gasp as more elements claw through me. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dash.

“Eider.” I splutter through spit, past Mongoose’s hand.

Eider, I recognize her smell, folds my fingers around her pencil. I make the marks. I don’t feel where. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dash. Representing the Great Meridian, I have time to remember. The ship knows we journey along it?

A hot needle-tip punches a dot on the inside of my eyelid.

I scream. “My eyes!” Three dots. Red-hot cools to bright blue. A tattoo? I want to rub my eyes, rub the pain away.

Thyal catches both my hands in his one. “There, now. There, now.” Mongoose’s tears splatter on my face. I want to laugh. My strong brave Mongoose cries when I hurt. The blue line pulses and lengthens. Someone near me groans.

I hear a mug of tea slopped. Feel a wet cloth being laid over my eyes. Blessed coolth. I sigh. “That’s good, very good.” I don’t know if they hear. Three sets of veins angle up from a main artery. My mouth shapes words. “It’s a leaf.” Dark spots form on a lower edge, like drops of dew. Or beads. The ship floods me with fear. “Bad beads. Keep away,” I mumble. “The ship says.”

It shows me good places in the city, with good people. There is a couple with two children who are working a food garden. Five girls care for a vine-covered patio. Eleven men, all shapes and ages and sizes live in a set of higgledy-piggledy block-like rooms, ladders connecting them with every roof a garden. The ship tells me to fetch all these people. 

A rose-tinted tower sits in the armpit of the main thoroughfare and the vein nearest the Field of Dreams. The food is there, in the walls. Squiggles, that are the mountains that are our destination, blossom at the end of the bisecting straight-as-an-arrow thoroughfare.

With round Greek script punched out pointillist style into my eyes, my poor eyes, the ship orders three signals to be sung. It sets the days. I must not miss them. Gravitational forces rule it.

The blue fades from me. I am so tired that I fall through rock and earth straight into a den. An animal with a long, tawny, striped back jumps in after me. Thyal, I think fuzzily. His heavy soft paws heal my eyes. I rest.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 19

Totem Image for Grey wolf, Canis lupus, single mammal on snow, by Emi

The Village Square

Vulture and Eider set the stretcher down on a room-sized carpet of blankets and bedrolls and help free me from the stretcher cover. The ground appears to be a hard clay surface, I discover by poking between the blankets. 

Mongoose and Wren sweep meat-eating sand to the edges of the clay. 

Eider settles herself near the solar-powered cauldron. It sits on four batteries that also serve as little legs and that, for traveling, unscrew from the base of the pan. Whoever carries the cauldron also has the responsibility for the battery pack, in a rack above the cauldron on their back, to make sure it is recharged during the day. 

“Bring me your mugs. Bring me your water,” Eider sings. Plenty of takers see the cauldron half-filled from mugs of water, with the emptied mugs surrounding the cauldron waiting to be refilled. “Mongoose, you’ll share with Jeb?”

Mongoose grins up from his work; rolls his eyes. 

Vulture, rolling her eyes, says, “Yes all right. Understood it is. You see his drinking mug and water-skin, Jeb?” 

I fetch both. It’s good to be on my feet, even if I’m walking on blankets and skirting people trying to sleep. Standing near Vulture, I stretch and bend. 

I hear people murmuring and talking; and the soughing wind. The wind carries in it only the inert and lightest of the sand grains. Jackal sings. He and the Death Squad herding Simmon have still a hundred or more meters to come.

Simmon stops often, I see. Red-tail prods him forward gently, using a padded stick.

“What is this place?” I ask.

Vulture settles by Eider. “A Moeran landing pad. Used afterward as a village square with a little town built around it. Their Squares have outlasted their people by hundreds of years.”

Puma joins us. “The Moerans were certainly gone by the time our settlers arrived. Several of their Squares were incorporated in our towns. So what’s happening with the Earth-born?”

I notice how no one now refers to Simmon by his name or by the totem he was assigned. Shortest career in history as a Grey Wolf that will be. Yet I can’t fault Thyal for his choice. Everyone has good in them and Simmon’s good harbors in the Grey Wolf totem. 

“Red-tail has taken charge, she said to tell you,” Vulture says.

“It’s not a question of war,” Puma says. “Girl questions! Don’t do that again, Jeb!” 

He complains, is derogatory, and threatens me in one breath.

Mongoose lays down his whisk so that the tainted end lies in the sand. He takes a position between Puma and me, his shoulder protectively in front of mine. Vulture grins. 

Eider sprinkles dried herbs onto the boiling water. “She knows the Void, Red-tail said. She asks if you do?” Eider’s tone, usually warm when she speaks to or about Puma, is frosty. “The girl had to use something to get action. It mightn’t be war but it certainly is pestilence.”

Vulture interrupts Puma’s attempt to answer. “With the Earth-born loose in the troop, you could’ve lost half of us and I doubt we’ll fill the shuttle as it is. Can’t afford to lose anyone.”

 “Girls rule,” Mongoose says.

Even Puma laughs. Eider shakes her head. “You look after that Mongoose, Jeb. He’s the joker none of us can miss.”

Jackal’s howled warning pulls us back to the present. 

“A campfire,” Simmon says. “Or what passes for one?” He rubs his hands and holds them as if to a fire. Though particles of skin sparkle and float on the breeze, Jackal and Axel allow him to approach. Am I the only one who knows the significance of those skin sparkles?

“Stop there,” Red-tail says. Simmon sinks down onto a bedroll someone isn’t going to want to use ever again. The squad stands beside and behind, while Crow alone sits down between Puma and Simmon.

Puma refills his mug and passing it across, has Jackal set it in front of Simmon. “Nothing like a cup of tea,” Simmon says. With the attention on Simmon, Mongoose sits down by me.

“A while ago we were talking about totems?” Simmon says.

 I narrow my mind’s eye. Simmon is well enough still that he can plot his way to his desired outcome? Maybe I can shift his thinking. I sing, if a bit shakily: 

“The Grey Wolf frees himself from time-worn traditions 

and stultifying townships. As the pathfinder, he strides 

through the land and leads us to new knowledges 

and new ways to be.” 

“I wanted to say that I don’t need a totem? But thanks anyway. Kindly meant, I’m sure,” Simmon says. “I’m of the scientific times on Earth.”

Kindly meant! I refuse to feel mortified. Reminding him is the important part. Simmon would have had enough input from Thyal to know exactly how he can apply the Grey Wolf totem to his situation.   

 “When you approached me to join the troop, you and I calculated that you arrived on Lotor maybe a hundred and fifty Earth years after our settler ancestors did?” Uncle Puma says. “Those scientific times?”

“On Earth I’d be at the end of my middle years,” Simmon says. He ignores both Uncle Puma and the blunted prodders left and right. He shuffles forward on his sit-bones. 

“Stay where you are,” Uncle Puma says. 

“I need to get that young shaman and be on my way. I told you that.” 

Uncle Puma lifts his voice a little to let everybody hear. “The Earth-born offered us safe passage through the city in exchange for Jeb?” 

Nobody comments, all are spellbound. Simmon has found where I’m sitting among the crowd, probably because I sang his totem, and holds me with his stare boring into me. 

I thought his eyes wouldn’t be seeing all that much anymore. I shudder. “Don’t let him touch you, anybody. All the bits coming off him are Lotor taking him.”

“Mongoose,” I whisper. “I’m getting up. I might need to run.” 

Mongoose pulls my face close to his. “Don’t you look at him, he’s a snake.” He gets up with me and steps in front of me. “Why have we still got this dead Earth-born thing?” he asks Uncle Puma. “No running, Jeb,” he says. “Round and round the square. Tripping. Lotor’s reach is long.”

“Letting yourself be caught in the Earth-born’s stare gives him the strength for what he intends,” Crow says, adding to Mongoose’s meaning. 

“Tell me Jeb is going to live longer than me,” Mongoose says. 

“Together you will go to the end of your time,” she says. Crow is the keeper of laws, lore and prophecies.

“Fucking prophecies,” Mongoose says. “Could be right now.” 

Simmon rises too, smoothly, and in one fell pace crosses half the distance between us despite the prodders. Despite that Red-tail’s now naked blade threatens him enough that blood trickles down his side. Simmon flaps his hand toward Mongoose. “I don’t need you, Sulky.”

“You don’t get anybody, Earth-born,” Uncle Puma says. 

I resent that Uncle Puma stays seated. 

Simmon stops. With a lazy arm he sweeps the prodders aside. “I don’t see why you’d want to keep Jeb when she’s as Earth-born as I am?”

Uncle Puma laughs. “You think Jeb’s mother, because she was an Earth-born geneticist, bred a one-hundred-percenter? Sit down when I’m talking to you.”

For a wonder, Simmon subsides back onto the bedroll. “Why wouldn’t she?” he says. “Couple of test tubes and a pipette get you a long way.” 

“Jeb’s mother loved Jeb’s father,” Uncle Puma says. “Jeb’s mother choose a totem and she bred herself a one hundred percent settler daughter.”

Simmon bites on the bait. “Not possible.” 

“I thought that too when I came to their house to be implanted with the amulet. Jeb will recall my upset, I think.”

Simmon does not look at me for confirmation. He will not be distracted. “How?” he says. 

“Suddenly you trust my science?” Uncle Puma says. 

Simmon tries to puzzle it out but he probably is too far gone for Uncle Puma’s word games. 

“I’ll make it easy for you,” Uncle Puma says getting his fingers ready for counting on.

“Take the nucleus out of a female egg with Jeb’s mother obviously taking one of her own eggs.

“Take two female spermatozoa from the male, Jeb’s father.

“Zip them together, however that’s done.

“Implant Jeb’s settler father’s chromosomal material into the female egg.

“Implant the package into a uterus. Jeb’s mother’s own uterus again. Hey presto, a one-hundred-percent settler baby girl, as required, with all her genes her father’s.”

“She isn’t big enough,” Simmon says.  “She should’ve been taller than you.” 

“I don’t know,” Uncle Puma says. “Jeb’s mother was a smart lady. Maybe she prevented that somehow.”

“Why not her sons?” Simmon said. 

“I don’t know. Jeb, do you?”

I shake my head. I’m still it working out. The explanation I’d missed through being too young at the time, to understand. 

Just when I’m looking at him to check his progress, Simmon seems to sag inside his clothing. That will be a slab of flesh that’s loosened itself. It’ll start leaking out in a minute. I see it in my mind’s eye. It’ll resemble the meat-eating sand. 

“Uncle, please!” I beg him, swallowing down stinging acid. My stomach can’t cope; it’s pushing up my fears for me to vomit them out. Uncle Puma saw parts of what I witnessed of my mother’s death. 

Finally he nods.

“However,” Crow says. “The Earth-born can’t die until he tells us what he knows.” 

Fiction: Half Shaman, 18

Harpy Eagle, Jeb’s Totem, image by San Diego Zoo

Girl Questions

Thyal woke me from the waking-dream I was in but, though I don’t look at Simmon, I can feel him still beseeching me with soulful staring.

I’m walking looking at where to put my feet, with my hood pulled right down over my head. I glance up to keep track of what’s going on.

The meat-eating sand does not even nibble at Simmon, and from that I know that Lotor truly knows him. Way back when, he could’ve chosen a totem and married a settler girl.

My settler father loved my Earth-born mother. I remember that he called her his loon-lover. That’s almost the same as Mongoose and me. Does it count if it is the other way around?

The direction that my thoughts are wandering in gives me an idea. “Could I ask you some girl questions, Vulture?” I say though Lithe and Puma walk between us.

Vulture splits her sides laughing, but that’s all right. The men try for straight faces, apart from Simmon who frowns. Does he suspect me?

“Signal Eider?” Lithe says.

“That’d be good,” Vulture says.

Vulture carries the stretcher by balancing it in its middle.

*****

Thyal too follows the rest of the men. Reluctantly, it seems to me.

Eider, arriving, notices that too. She calls after him. “Limber told me girl questions, Thyal.” She laughs. “There go a couple of noses out of joint, Shaman Jeb.”

Now I’m nervous. Though girl questions were a ploy, I do start with one. “I was going to try to be a girl among the other girls again.”

“Sounds like you’ve always had trouble with that, Shaman Jeb,” Eider says.

“What Eider means is that you can often foresee by looking back,” Vulture says.

“That’s right,” Eider says. “The way I knew I was always going to be some troop’s tattooist because looking back I discovered that as a child I scribbled designs and totem portraits on every surface available to me.”

“Though probably you only had that insight when someone pointed that out to you,” Vulture says.

“Not wrong. I am therefore respectfully pointing out to you, Shaman Jeb, that you may never achieve being a girl among the girls of your own age group. For one thing, I think you’re so good at being a girl among the boys of your age group that that could be the problem in this troop. Has that been so all along? For other girls, I mean?”

I thought back on Wren’s claims. “I don’t know.” I ask another stupid question that I already know the answer for. “What’s it mean, being a loon? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the totem?”

I’m nervous. Puma should’ve made the move I am contemplating. How will he take my interference in his leadership?

“What do they teach them in Shaman Schools?” Vulture asks the world.

“Not about love,” Eider says. “It’s way of saying how a person falls in love, Shaman Jeb, not the long and slow way.”

“Like you’re struck by lightning,” Vulture agrees. “No rhyme to it.”

“Mongoose saying he’s my loon seems kind of weird to me, given what I look like.” I hate what I’m doing to these women. In reality I bask in Mongoose’s love.

“He told you. Good for him,” Eider says.

I wish Mongoose were here with me right now. “Girl talk was an excuse,” I confess. “Puma seems to be refusing to accept the danger. I couldn’t speak with Simmon here.”

Eider raises her eyebrows. “I’m listening.”

“Better be good after two false starts,” Vulture says from in front of me.

I tell them about the Earth-born disease. About my mother and my father. How quickly my father, a settler, died. He was gone in a few hours. What the early symptoms in an afflicted Earth-born look like.

“Which Simmon had in the prison already, and Puma learned about when we all met on the second platform. Why is he holding back? Because of things he still wants to learn? With whose lives will he pay?”

It feels to me that I’m challenging Vulture and Eider. Needs must. “If Simmon gets too frustrated, he’ll lash out. I’ve seen bits falling off him. No one near him is safe. There should be someone sweeping the detritus from the path behind him.”

“Let’s hurry. Catch up with the front,” Vulture says.

“You should be carrying him,” I say. “We should tie him to the stretcher if we must keep him. Bandage my feet, I’d rather walk.”

“Village Square is coming up,” Vulture says. “The halfway point. We’ll have a rest break. I’ll talk with Red-Tail.”

She raises her arm and waves. They bundle me back onto the stretcher. Jog. Red-tail and Crow join us, and Eider spells out the emergency.

“We’ll end it at the Village Square,” Red-tail says. “Carry the weight, ladies.”

She vaults up onto the stretcher with me. She stands astride on the sticks to survey the troop rear and forward. “Crow, call Mongoose from the back.”

Red-tail whistles the wild Black Cockatoo calls of her Totem toward the head of the column. Jackal howls a reply. A cold shiver runs up my back. I’ve set something into motion.

Mongoose clears his throat, letting us all know he’s there, jogging behind Crow.

“Like he was waiting for the call,” Crow says.

Mongoose laughs. “What if Simmon had been a woman?” 

I blush.

“I’m only saying I enjoy your style,” he says.

Even Red-tail is exasperated. “A loon still with the love talk.”

Mongoose grins.

Red-tail vaults over Vulture’s head.

“I guess Shaman Jeb has the oldest crappiest cloak?” she says. “Tear off a good length, Jeb. We’re making a sloppy broom. I see lover-boy is carrying the sticks for the screens? You and your Jeb shred this cloth to the hem,” she tells Mongoose.

“Roll it round a stick. Tie it. When we’ve done the hardest thing we’re going to do, I’ll need two more like it.”

“The hardest thing? I don’t like the sound of that,” Vulture says.

“Crow, I need Ant and Wren here,” Red-tail says.

When they arrive, she continues. “The loon and Wren will be gatekeepers at the Square. Dust off everybody and sweep the bits into the sand. Don’t allow any sand onto the pavement.”

She holds up her hand to silence Vulture about the hardest thing again. “The hardest thing will be getting Shaman Jeb past the Earth-born without him noticing, with the path still as narrow as. Safer for everyone with him at the rear where my crew can prod him along gently, enabling the rest of you to organize some kind of temporary camp at the Square.”

“Touching Simmon for a second won’t hurt us if we’re covered all over,” I say though I’m petrified at the thought.

Mongoose, Eider and Vulture make noises of disbelief about getting me past Simmon without Simmon noticing.

“Step one,” Red-tail says. “Eider, Vulture and Shaman Jeb wrap up like Egyptian mummies. Use the screen-cloths. Rip and tear as required. Every bit of you must be covered.”

While we’re busy with that, she tells us the rest of her plan. It sounds do-able. Red-tail’s final instructions place Ant with her group, he being the person most able to efface himself. He’ll be sweeping scraps from among their feet. The rest of us are ahead getting Puma into the picture. Here she laughs. “If he complains, tell him Red-tail knows the Void. Ask him, does he?”

I’ll happily let Vulture do that telling and asking. We approach the back of the group fore-and-afting Simmon. I can’t see, being wrapped like a mummy as well as spread-eagled facedown—because my right hand and foot are the stronger—between two layers of blanket.

Eider is carrying at the front. I hear her murmuring. Then I feel a couple of hurried bumps to my stomach and legs. Maybe it is Limber pulling Thyal back with him and them duck-walking under the stretcher still in its horizontal shoulder-high state.

Uh oh, here we go. My carriers drop the left side of the stretcher from their left shoulders. I strain to support my weight from my right hand holding on to the right-side stick and from my right foot wedged crookedly between stick and cloth. I’m so busy concentrating that I hardly notice the little side steps Vulture and Eider do into the meat-eating sand to get past Simmon and his keepers.

Back on the straight and narrow with the stretcher horizontal again, there’s a bit more jostling while a couple more people, Jackal and Ax probably, get past us to the rear. I visualize them dancing the side-skip, the dip under the stretcher, and the next side-skip.

After I’ve counted two hundred paces, I ask my carriers to turn me face-up, so I can start undoing the wrappings, to breathe a bit better.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 17

The Meridian

Mongoose Totem

When we set off this morning the red star was at its apogee and the sky was wine-red. The sky now is cobalt blue with the yellow sun overhead.

A woman called Vulture carries the front of the stretcher and Puma carries the rear; they are the eighth pair today. Thyal, the old shaman, and Simmon, the Earth-born and learner Grey Wolf, walk behind us.

“You’ve said nothing about the north-south Meridian yet, Grey Wolf,” Puma says.

I understand now why my uncle is taking a turn at carrying. He intends to question the learner Grey Wolf as if off-handedly, whilst carrying, and keeping his attention on the troop for any trouble that might be brewing. Probably he hopes that Grey Wolf has forgotten Lithe and Limber also available for the troop.  

“Never in all my journeying had I a reading for it and now I walk along its path?” Simmon says. “I’m wondering what else you haven’t told me.”

Chief Puma laughs. “We’ve traveled it for years, pushing further north every visit.”

“Have you been to the Yellow City, Grey Wolf?” Vulture says.

I understand that the Yellow City is a topic introduced to distract the Earth-born. That Vulture is part of the group managing him.

“The mythical Yellow City?” he says.

“Mythical? Did you hear anyone wondering where we’re going?” Vulture says. 

Simmon tries to placate her at the same time as he tries to increase his knowledge. “Are there any other fixed points along this Meridian?”

Does anyone else hear the hunger in his voice, I wonder.

“We’ve seen as far as the mountains,” Puma says.

Simmon snorts. I understand his frustration. Puma nearly always answers Simmon without giving any concrete information. If that’s what Simmon is here for, he’s getting a wafty picture.

Vulture laughs. “Mountains are hard to shift around, even by Lotor.”

Ahead of us all, a thing skims across the desert, right to left. I don’t have a hope seeing what it was, it went so fast. I start to exclaim but no one else even remarks.

No one else saw it. There was no sound.

I grab hard onto the stretcher. I’m blind and deaf when a vision takes me. My mouth suddenly dry, I stare into the direction I last saw the thing, for the after-image. Do not wonder how.

Its opposite-color shape, when it builds to its most detailed, reminds me of pictures of the ship-to-surface shuttles the settlers arrived on. A conviction grows in me that we are meant to travel to the Ark-Ship using that very vehicle.

Another image blooms in my moist pink mind, and overwrites the fleeing wrong-color vehicle. A shuttle’s titanium carapace lies in the path of one of the lava-like flows that are the planet’s waste extrusions. The lugubrious voice of the Shaman School’s geologist echoes in my mind. “Such wastes harden by contact with the air.”

There’s no difference between the two shuttles except that the second one, according to the vision, is a carapace. A shell. I’m nearly gibbering with fear and no one notices? Mongoose, I need you.

How will we escape without an engine? Without controls?

I must have asked. The shuttle rises from an explosion of rainbow-colored stars. Maybe it is the Universe that knows all the answers.

Sound resumes. Breathy conversations and jokes sound up and down the column while all their hard-walking feet shirr along the clay path. The stretcher creaks in the rhythm of the carriers.

When I open my eyes I see the desert and the sky. The people walking in front. Vulture’s dark hair, plaited in a queue that falls down her back. My hands. I release my hold on the stretcher.

I can’t stop the tremble in my voice. “The shuttle is over-rimed with stone.”

The least number of words with which to tell people about the shuttle, and about me having that vision right then.

“What did she say?” Simmon says.

“Don’t you worry, young Shaman,” Vulture says. “We carry our stone-working tools wherever we go.” She skips a little step, shaking me on the stretcher on her shoulders. The tools in her pack clink together. She understands me fine.

“I don’t believe how you indulge her!” the would-be Grey Wolf says. “Why am I still with this damned group? Walking with you to your end?” He makes it a frustrated question but I wonder right away whether that’s what he is doing.

Is he trying to steer us toward a hidden Field of Dreams, or a maw over the next slope?

When nobody says anything, he tries again. “I came along to help you. Point you in the right direction.”

There’s a silence again that’s finally broken by Thyal changing the subject. “It’s a solid rim we walk on, young Shaman. Once a division between two countries: Forest and Field.”

“Wasn’t that in the time that Lotor romanced the flying horses?” Vulture says lightly. “I have always wondered where in the Universe those poor creatures came from.”

“Don’t be taken in by these romantics, Jeb,” Simmon says. “Lotor’s captive Moerans bred the flying horses.”

Winged horses with impossible skin patterning, some with black spots on bands of white and rainbow lozenges, some with white spots on bands of black cut with a harlequin’s red-and-green diamonds prance through my mind. They fly from one domed peak to another in a jumble of stone domes and rounded heights.

“They live in the Bone Mountains now,” I say, mindful that if Lotor sent me this flash, it might be that Simmon, Earth-born, is helping the planet locate me.

“It is said that the Moerans never achieved the wings,” Puma says. “The Moerans came from a planet orbiting the red star, Shaman Jeb, and had to flee when their world became uninhabitable. Is that not so, Grey Wolf?”

“I am floored by your unexpected knowledge,” Grey Wolf says. He grinds his teeth.

Vulture chuckles. “That has always been an Earth-born resentment. That we of Old-Earth know as much as they. And why not in this case? Telescopes were invented hundreds of years before the Ark-Ship left Earth, early enough for any astronomer to see the star’s transformation.” 

What is Vulture trying to elicit with her story about telescopes? Then I realize. Vulture is using the before the Ark-Ship left Earth phrase to find out something. What? Keep your ears flapping, girl.

Vulture adds my seeing into her story. “When Lotor set one of her diminishments into motion, the pegasee resisted and retreated, living now only in a few mountain fastnesses.”

“And scattered their genes to avenge their tribulations,” Simmon says. “Genes such as formed the feet of the fauns we met, Jeb. It’s a terrible thing to do to your descendants. Why the sympathy for the flying horses?”

Vulture hardens her voice. “The horse genes are remnants from a time when Lotor’s landscapes held many incompletely formed creatures. How well did you say you know Lotor?”

I want to know that too, how well Simmon knows Lotor. At the Shaman School, the teachers said that where Earth’s Nature evolved toward diversity, Lotor’s Nature went the opposite way. Lotor developed all her inventions toward similarity before forcing them to meld again with her. After a time she would start over elsewhere on her crust.

Lithe and Limber arrive for their turn at bearing the stretcher. The changeover is made with some muttering. Instructions? News? Questions to ask? Lithe puts his load onto the back end of the stretcher and changes with Puma, who takes up Lithe’s pack. Limber and Vulture do the same.

Instead of dropping back, or speeding up to join the front, Puma and Vulture keep their positions. Puma walks behind Lithe. Vulture walks in front of Limber behind the old Shaman, who walks behind the Wolf.

I understand from all that, that Uncle Puma intends pushing Simmon for any useful knowledge.

“The Earth-born idea that the settlers are against them has always bothered me,” Puma says.

“I’d rather be sitting down with a skin of wine making the rounds,” Simmon says. “You people are so stubborn about that. I call that prejudice on your part.”

“Prejudice?” I say, surprised.

Puma laughs. “Every single one of you Earth-born are Lotor’s children. Earth worked out a new way, we don’t know how or what, to send people to another planet. You arrived as patterns and Lotor reconstituted you.”

Long silence.

Simmon turns and walks backward looking at us all. “I still call it prejudice. The Ark-Ship may have sustained you through your journey, on recycled matter from Earth, but since your arrival two hundred years ago, you’ve been growing crops in the Lotor ground. Eating Lotor. How are we different?”

He looks at me, at the meat-eating sand alongside, at me again.

I see him calculating distances. He stops. Not realizing his strategy, Thyal steps around him. “Jeb, your mother was Earth-born, a scientist,” Simmon says.  

Now there are only Vulture and Limber between him and me.

“I just don’t believe that you prefer to stay with these primitives,” he says. He eyes Vulture.

I see him deciding how he’ll set her out of his way. She will die if he touches her.

I swing down from the stretcher and gripping onto their clothes, I step by both Lithe and Puma.

Four between us.

Simmon hesitates.

He’s not able to force his leading foot to the ground. His expression of craft becomes consternation. He only now realizes the nature of his discomfort? I’m so so sorry for him for what is to come. 

The rear half of the line stops higgledy-piggledy.

Limber drops the front of the stretcher, pulls Vulture back and steps by her.

“Jeb,” Simmon says. “I beg you. You’re my last hope. Save me from Lotor. Let me come home with you.”

I feel sick. Icy and hot in short order. I sway.

But if I give in to the nausea roiling at the bottom of my gullet, the meat-eating sand will jump up my vomitus and I too will be lost.

“You want that we all die too?” Thyal says, sharply for him.

I see he is talking to me. I’m shocked out of my fugue. If I fall, who will drive the shuttle, is what he means.

Writing: With What Rules …

Whales by Rita de Heer, embroidered with Colourstreams Silks
on silk scrap background

After I was involved in a discussion on what constituted clangers, and disagreed, I decided to write a story in the mode that was held to be okay. See what it felt like more than anything. See if any sense could result …

Aile cast her eyes across the inn room. Hoping to catch the thief at his work, she aimed them for his face. Twould be good if at least one forced a couple of his teeth to spring for the relative safety of the steak sandwich he’d stolen.

Gusting with laughter, the rest of the patrons sent their hands a-clattering on the tabletops. The applause was that strong, that long, that numbers of armless hands rolled from the table entirely disenchanted.

They had to be rescued, sorted, relieved from dustballs picked up from under the furniture, and restored to their rightful owners. The work of fae. Lordy lordy, do expect a few misses. They’re not paid near enough.

The thief laughed unbridled and so lost his gains … a sandwich that was still only crammed into his gob, not swallowed, not masticated, not yet bitten off or even partitioned. Fearing his pretty teeth might lose their battle with Aile’s eyes, he sent her a thought by way of his ear-jacked aerial. Would she hear his by talk? The way his eyes talked of love with his eye lashes batting shyly and his head cocked just so?

He got his eyes at the smithy, cheap rubbish his mother said. How will you ever get a girl’s unbridled interest? I need you off my hands. His eyes took offense and went back to where they came from.

His second set he worked for all the night hours of six days at the dove house. The girls, as always, were utterly enamoured with his technique. But their hearts were not what he wanted, he told them. Go on. Out with the rubbish, said the madam, throwing her eyes after him for she enjoyed a strongly-built back.

He tried his best to make her eyes work for him. But his lashes would’t have her lashes, and those eyes ended up being glanced back into the dove house, through an open window, for old time’s sake.

His third set must be made to last, he knew. Everybody in the town had lost their patience, lots of broken bits, patents, patterns, cowpats and patty cakes to fall over if he wasn’t careful. Being eyeless as well, don’t you know? He applied to the cloisters with his desperation in tow, having had to dig deep within to find it.

With him wounded in mind as well as body, the monks laid him in a cell to be assessed by the head himself. Calm yourself, oh sightless sinecure, they said. The head has worked here many a year without its body incorporated. It’s a choice you too can make though we will find it difficult to perform our miracles from a blind. Still, we are a charitable institution and will always work with a given.

Meanwhile, back at the hostelry, Aile reeled in her eyes by hand. Their thin-stranded wires coiled by her feet. She fished their control unit from a nearby soup. So much for their reputed flight. Of steel and ebony her eyes were made in a cave where the dwarves weren’t all that fussy about their justified desserts. They cared more about how they were paid.

That ‘how’ became Aile’s target. She grabbed an ill-conceived idea, with wings barely longer than a falconet’s and sent it to the breakfast table to sort her thief’s unregarded losses. Fleeting back to her in numbered send-packets, she swept them into her snood and slipped out the door. The monastery stood downhill, a slide not too hair-raising.

Her beloved thief heard her coming, glorious, victorious. I’m on my way-ay-ay!!!

Would he welcome her with a hair-flick tossed randomly into the crowded cloister for every mad monk to scrabble up from the floor or would his cowlick long enough to torque around her finger do her justly?

I don’t know, he cried. I suffer from malaise, inept-time-management and lassitude. I wish she would just carry me off. The sunset beckons for it captured that clause. Different to when the red coat lived in the Arctic and it still had ice and he still had his elves and missus. He gave out presents when you needed it and I’ve run out of mine. First I lose my eyes, then my nous, then my presence. What will I do?

Yoo-hoo, my love. Let’s be about it, thief of my heart. Aile waltzed into the cell and sweeping the thief from the bed—she plucked a round-eyed gaze from the attendant—she set her lover on his feet. Come with me my torquing clown my glaze-eyed gorget glass-eyed geegaw. The world is oysterishly beautiful.

The monkish eyes fit the thief remarkably well. He stared owlishly into the future she described so eloquently. Oysterishly? I think not, my aileron. My work is here, with my ineptitudes taken care of by management. I understand that they will whip me if I so much as drop a bundle. Apparently, I’m better at cards than every-other sharp in residence.

My new home’s clangers will control my torpors, lassitude, laze and make them episodic. Permutated with episode, epistle and episo they will finally give me an epilogue. Look for me in the cemetery, my love, on the day when you too come a-burying.

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