Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 5

Compass of the sort Sard might be using: Image from Orienteering by Gscore.com.au

5. Youk’s Hideout


Sard tiptoed into Youk’s domain. He couldn’t ever take anything for granted ever again. He had to eat. He’d never been so ravenous. He broke open a new food pack from somewhere in the bottom of Youk’s pile. Protein biscuit and dried berries, he washed them down with the water he brought. Though the light in here glared steady and bright, he took a torch to keep by him, also from the bottom of that pile. He arranged the remainder to look untouched.

He circled Youk’s standalone. He was glad now that he’d ignored the teasing he copped for having a go on a similar model in the hard copy museum. Cords snaked over the floor from the back of this one into a geriatric power supply. Solar, perhaps. He didn’t have time tonight to check that out as well. He dared press a few switches. The LEDs flickered. The monitor lit up.

The desktop screen divided in two and both spaces filled with file icons. On the right-hand side was everyone he knew. Even him. This he’d have to see. Hah. A diary of his activities, comings and goings. The last entry was about the ionized clothes. He couldn’t help grinning as he read. Phin would be seeing to him when next Sard turned up for work?

Next he opened Srese’s file. A diary of Srese’s days, mostly negative scores for the way she didn’t give Youk his dues. And Youk had icons for Ghulia, Sard’s care-mum, and Zoya, Srese’s care-mother. Caro, Relda, and Tye were in there too. Even Ferd had a file? All their interactions with Youk scored out of ten. No explanations unfortunately. Seriously weird.

The names on the left side of the monitor screen were arranged in pairs. He saw no names that were used these days. He clicked down into a “Jin” and read Jin’s words.

“Gamester is a very rich bloke who set this community up for his personal entertainment. He told me that it wasn’t enough for him to have just to play computer simulation games. No, he wanted to do it with flesh and blood people. Mere empire building got boring he said. Humans have curiosity, variety, creativity. He thought he’d never be bored with real people to entertain him.”

Sard recalled Ghulia telling him that story. And he’d told Srese, because as Srese said, Zoya wasn’t Ghulia. He skim-read the rest of Jin’s file.

“My father says Gamester never grew up. My mother says there was too much money in Gamester’s family, we should never have come. My father throws up his hands and says, “As safe a haven as I could find … the war … the babies … remember what it was like?” My mother goes misty-eyed remembering her babies and I miss my Jan so much.

“Slave, slavery, enslavement: I think keeping people against their will to make them work is slavery … Gamester says he deserves my good will, he used his whole fortune to set up the game that saved us all from extinction.”

Sard sat up. Jin and Jan had a care mother and a care father. That was new. The habitat as a haven from war was another thing he’d never heard of. He flicked back to the desktop. Picked another pair of names. Jen and Jarrah.

“Gamester says we are STALE”, Jen said. “Stale means when things are not humming along at top notch quality. When people do things like pay all their credits to grow plants we have no use for. Or drool over old recipes with impossible ingredients. Or choose silly names for their children like Cloud and Mary and do their work any-old-how to spend their real lives with their daydreams in the CAVES.

“The game can die when STALE happens so Gamester must call on his kids for help. The one that passes the test, wins the quest. Jarrah should’ve won. I never was the best at pretending. Gamester says I don’t need Jarrah because he is made of Gamester’s genes the same as Jen is, so he is the same, he is Jen.”

Sard squirmed. He didn’t like where the logic was taking him. Both Jin and Jen were versions of Srese, who had won. He wanted to read about Jarrah. He saw no file written by Jarrah. He tried another pair, further down the column. Clicked on Sully.

“Gamester made my bots sharp. A campfire warmed the overhang with glowing light and strangers slept there, like golden slugs. Gamester wanted to know them and I am the avatar. He forced me out there. Fenna, the previous winner whom Gamester kept to teach me my job, planned my meeting with the strangers. She explained how I should move, what to say.

“I trembled as I picked my way toward them. Stones underfoot, how would I run if they turned fierce? The man pushed the women behind him when he saw me still coming. He pointed a knife to warn me off.

“Fenna told me I should smile sweetly, in particular at the younger woman. If we could get her inside, Gamester would chase the others off. When I put the food on the ground, the man pushed the girl toward me.

“When Fenna and I later got close to the girl, bile burned my throat. Her skin is leprous and torn, with shreds hanging from her. Unclean. Her rags cover sun-rot. Her eyes are unseeing and white. Gamester I cannot.”

Sard gagged. Here’s hoping the mermen weren’t similarly sun-struck, Srese my sweet sister. Maybe he hadn’t got the worst half of the deal. And Sully wasn’t finished yet.

“Gamester hurt me. His bots cut my flesh. My blood leaks from my veins. Neither she nor I will be wasted.”

Sard went to spit his bile into the pile of sand inside the hatch door. This hatch was welded shut, he saw with the help of his torch. No way anyone could escape here. Shuddering, he scuffed sand over his vomit. Read what I have to and get out. Then he saw a name he knew. Ferd.

Ferd’s sister was the Federica who had had to leave. Sard clicked her name and for once there was a file backing it. “Ferd won the quest and in a minute I am gone …”

This one is for me, the loser. Sard stilled his fear before continuing. Ghulia wouldn’t have taken all that trouble if she’d meant for me to be lost. He continued reading Federica’s story. “… Though not before I have my say. All you after me, there is no contest. It all depends on the kind of outsider who is tricked to come. Male or female. Whatever they are, the chosen one will be the other.

“After the big head’s brain was spliced into the mainframe, there was plenty of flesh left for cloning. Trouble for me, and all you future clone-kids, he was a coward. Meaning his cells were old before he dared the procedure. The cheap biotech he bought before he inclosed our people from the rest of the world meant his labbies couldn’t grow young cells from old ones. Meaning, we clones are old straight after we are young. Never in between.

“So, biotech must make sure to always have a pair of young clones on hand. One of each, yin and yang, so that when human people take shelter at the edges of the game, appropriate bait for the trap already exists. Boys are his clones. Girls his chimeras and are made with two copies of his one X chromosome. We’d be messy creatures if it weren’t for the techies who fix up our weirdings.

“This push to lift DNA from all the world’s wanderers isn’t the bighead’s idea at all. Think baby makers and our infertility, because what would the techies play with if the players all died, say some disease got in? Our people think Gamester invents outsiders so that we clones can earn our keep. I’m telling you this because to be forewarned is to be fore-armed. I’m out of here.”

Sard reeled away from the standalone. Fear and rage burned in him like a hot sword twisting in his gut. He wished it was all Youk’s fantasy and that he could go and take Youk out over it. Tempt him into the unused complex and lose him in there. Hit him over the head in the dark.

But, there were too many supporting realities for it to be a fantasy. Ferd, for one. The twin avatars, himself and Srese. Ghulia’s actions and reactions. Mab talking of Plan B. Even Rider’s existence behind the scenes. Ghulia said Federica left with a herder woman. Better than by herself, because who could live out there on their own? Because look at the sand hilled up even in an airlock with the door welded shut? The wind, yes, he could hear the wind out there picking up. Screaming.

Ferd was the geriatric avatar kept on to teach the next winner, Srese. The way Fenna had directed Sully. What future for me? Ghulia means me to live. She’d known that a month of Sundays wouldn’t have been enough time to explain it all. He hadn’t been in the frame of mind to listen. She’d taken him along secret byways to a man she trusted, in a place invisible to Gamester and his minions. A place not part of the game, yet not in the world.

Which he had rejected with high-handed ignorance. Then she took a risk with him that he’d almost wasted. He was awake to it now and he most definitely wanted to live. He kicked the standalone, gently. He ought to thank Youk, for supplying him with the facts, however unknowingly. He’d warn Srese if he could. He shut down the standalone and made sure the hide-out was as he’d found it.

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.

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.