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, 4

Section of uninhabited cave wall by Rita de Heer

4: The Will to Live


Sard dragged himself into the airlock, trailing the sheet and the map. He was sand-caked, the sweating he did, and rolling around trying to escape the blare of the sun. And still got sunburned. Unbelievable.
No shower. No bathroom. No facilities of any kind. He hated starting the day unwashed. Sandy in this case. With his eyelids puffy and sore. The only good thing, and that was due the time of the day, was that the sun didn’t intrude. He grumped about, looking at things. Shelves, three high, plasti-kreet to the left and right of the hatchway. Packed with stuff. What he’d stupidly put off asking about until this morning. And his supposed care-mother abandoned him?

Watching the line of sun-bright expand in over the hatch-sill, he thought a while. The sun’s light falling from the overhead position – didn’t that mean it was past mid-day? The day half gone? He almost heard Ghulia say her piece. Chop chop Sard, be back in time for early breakfast tomorrow morning.

The food here, he grabbed down a belt of rations and opened a couple of the canisters in turn, looked unappetizing in the extreme. A sheet of mashed together curried field fungi on rice, dried and rolled up. The rice grains a la bas-relief in the texture. No thank you! Hell, he intended getting back in time for dinner. Tonight.

So let’s see, what can I use? A torch? His one from yesterday had gone dim. This little thing? It resembled an antique clock dial. Only this thing had N W S E in place of the numerals and only one pointer. Which wriggled back to the same place every time regardless of how he positioned the dial. The pointer had an N on the tip. So did it always point Neilson-wise? The proper name was North, Ghulia said. He couldn’t remember if she told him the others. Too confusing. He put it back among the rest of its sort.

Then there were these tight packs of fabric. Of a size he’d seen before. He grinned, pulling a cord that hung from the center of one of the larger-sized packs. The bundle unfolded gracefully and made itself into a tent of the sort that couples used when camping in the Pit. For privacy, they’d tell you before you even asked. He moved along. What about these smaller teardrop-shaped parcels? He pulled the cord exiting from the lowest point and it folded out into a heart shape. A floppy fabric bundle, all sleeves and pant legs, opened loosely.

He picked up the … leotards-part? He tried to think back to when they’d used a couple of these – life suits, that’s what they were – in a performance. The heart-shape was the breastplate because of the contours, and plus it had contacts and sensor ends on the inside where presumably it would sit/hang centrally over one’s ribcage. The edges on the wearer’s chest would join to the U-shaped gathering of the elastic leotards. He couldn’t remember who brought them.

His stomach growled from hunger. He’d take the suit and its thingummy and try it out later, for a bit of fun. He’d be stupid to carry a full bladder of water. Home was only a dogleg, a couple of caves, and another dogleg distant. He wouldn’t need all that water. He squeezed half the water out, onto the ground outside, and pressed the air from the bladder to make it easier to carry. He was lucky that Ghulia forgot to take the map …

Suddenly he was laughing at his delusions. She left you the map, idiot. Rider thinks you are as stupid as anyone. She set this up to prove him wrong. I’m remaindered. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.

Indecision stole over him. He sat down against the shelves to think the better. I could live here, sleep on a shelf. Food and water at hand. I’ll learn the life suit and steal back into the habitat. Go where I want. Eat what I like. Not be anyone to anybody. Just be myself. He gave himself to the planning.

He woke when the sun again touched his already burnt ankle. He pulled up his knees, the back of them burnt earlier too. The magic of plan C was gone. He should instead surprise everybody and front up at the dome. Find out more about Plan B. Once he was on his own with it, and it did seem that would be a requirement, he could adapt it to his own ideas.

Right. He was on track. He packed the suit things in the map and knotted the four corners. Looped his belt through the resulting parcel and through the loop of the water bladder. Settled them on opposite hips. Took up his torch.

He strode around the outside of the empty dark holes that once were the Computer Augmented Virtual Environments, CAVEs – a stupid name now without the computers – into Wingham. He took Second Circle because it would be quicker than the dogleg through the Nest.

He counted lane entrances: One Twenty, One Fifty, the next opening as wide as a street. Had to be Simmonds. Oops. Force of habit took him down Simmonds. Well, never mind. His famous sense of direction would see him right.

Huh, plantations at the end? Not that there were trees. The dust of ages and the bare loamy earth that damped all sound, even the fall of his feet. It was darker too. He shook the torch.

The beam flickered, rallied, and died. He stretched his eyes as wide as they would go, making himself super-ready to see. Not a skerrick shred or pinprick. Why oh why hadn’t he thought to take a spare torch? A whole shelf and he’d ignored them? Now what? Back for another torch, or forward and home in ten minutes? He closed his eyes to help him not worry about the impenetrable dark. Breathe, one and two. Better.

He’d be just as good by feel. Better maybe, given his avatar augmentations. They had to be good for something. He stood for a minute or so visualizing the same place in the home habitat, to get the feel for the way. Slog slog. This lane should be Two Ten. Up that and back into Second Circle, he trailed his fingers along the curve. The next opening would be Two Forty. Ignore the ends of the old labs. He quested for the next lane. There, the cave entrance.

“Yes.” His voice bounced around in a big space, he was in the cave.

He followed the wall, not risking over-confidence and crossing diametrically, his left hand brushed along it soundlessly. There. The holo? Yes, he could touch both sides easily. Though he had no way to feel the pixels pixelating him as he stepped through. Now to negotiate Crystal Cave. A snack, since he knew it by heart.

Only problem was, he’d expected to be able to see. Ambient light from the home hole. Where was it? He’d proceed on the premise that this was Crystal Cave and that the home hole had technical troubles. A power problem. Let’s see, if he left the path here, he should hit the curtain of drinking straws pretty well straightaway. Srese’s name for that speleotherm.

Missed it. Easy enough in the dark. But never mind, the stalagmite dome was next. Missed that one too. He stood still. Waved his arms around. Maybe he’d feel an air current flowing between the frozen waterfall of flowstone and the banded shawls?

Nothing. He dropped to the ground. The dust he remembered. He felt for the platforms, the mesas as he so cleverly had likened them to. He crawled on and on. No cave features. Maybe he was in the home habitat’s Pit, after dark? There’d be path lights. Or was he in a wild hole? Didn’t Ghulia sort of say there were more than one other habitat? Was he fated to wander a maze of undiscovered caves forever?

He stopped. Took a drink. His forever wouldn’t be too long since he’d so stupidly poured away half his water and hadn’t taken any food. Would Ghulia send a search party? Go on, he goaded himself, have a fit of hysterics. No. Get it together. Close your eyes. The dark in your head can’t be as bad as the dark around you. He dropped to his hands and knees. Kept his toes glued to the wall and felt all along the ground. Here, a ridge in the sand. Beyond it was bare rock, like it was swept. A stroll path. The holes Ghulia showed him. Back at the wall, here and here. Big ones for sensors. The small ones for fasteners.

Phew. Not lost. Still the Pit Ghulia and he came through yesterday. He must have got turned around. He should just follow the wall until he came to a way out. If it was Two Forty, he’d fetch a torch and if it was a holo with light behind it, he’d be home. Walk walk walk. An opening. Even his sense of time passing had got turned about. It felt too soon for an opening.

Only stale air here, no through-flow of recycled air or the unmoderated stuff. But anyway, if there was no wind outside, why would the air in a habitat move? He spread his arms out to measure the width of the thoroughfare and touched both sides. A Radial. He was going back for a torch and some food. He was so confused though, he knew that he should stay in the rind of the habitat, the dead plantations and the gardens. He’d surely hit on the performance complex sooner than if he went to the Nest and had to count off radials and streets by heart.

He kept the open places to his left. Passed one street and three lanes mouths. Good, he was on track.
A wall, a wall, we have the T-junction. Though its arms curved away from the center making it a wide hug-shape. He pressed himself into the wall, giving thanks that he’d found it again.

The corner of his eyesight tripped over a streak of light.

He turned his head. Blinked.

Rays of white light, as steady as … well … light beams, glowed between the two walls of the lane. Funny he hadn’t noticed them before. Probably Ghulia distracted him just then? One of her ploys?

He stared and stared. They didn’t move. Motes of dust twirled into their cool silver-blue light and out again.

It came to him, finally, that one of the walls was pierced like a peeping wall and that light from the CAVE behind it beamed through the holes onto the outer wall of the corridor.

Sound emanated from the holes as well.

Had to be human, because who else was there? Gammy’s minions had no voices.

Would the occupant of the CAVE know if and when Sard peered at them?

He started. Because incredibly, it was Youk in there talking to himself! Playing, typing, whatever, on a standalone. His back to the open door. Meaning, Sard realized, his stupid self had certainly got turned around, and properly.

He’d better drop all his fantasies about himself instantly. He was obviously in a third habitat complex. The airlock and stores were beyond his reach. But never mind, he peered into the overflowing piles of stuff in the corners of Youk’s hide, Youk had got in all the goodies from the shelves. Torches, tents and suits in one corner. Bladders of water and food containers stacked in another.

“It’ll have to be that silly little Srese!” Youk said.

Sard almost swore. Out loud. Youk was in one of his rages and what did he want with Srese? Had Youk heard him?

Youk was showing no inclination of getting up to flush Sard out. Sard wanted to rack his brain for instances of Srese-Youk interaction.

Keep it, Sard-man. Concentrate on the now. Two ways out of these CAVES that both went through the T-junction and he didn’t know Youk’s habits. Lost through his own stupidity, he especially did not want to be discovered by Youk.

He wanted to find out Youk’s moan against Srese. He’d have to forget about dinner at home but hope Youk wouldn’t. Five AM was still all the hours of the night away. Where to hide in the meantime? Uh oh, Youk’s chair scraped back and Youk was on the move.

Sard stealthed up the road a bit to keep out of the light of Youk’s torch and where its beam might swing. Youk being left-handed and so with his torch in that hand, meant Sard hid on Youk’s right-hand. Youk strode past him up the street not bothering about all the noise he made. Sard followed a long, safe, way behind.

Straight through the Nest – both sets of foyer doors were chocked open – and into the street directly opposite. Which forked at its end. This was nowhere Sard had ever been. Youk took the left entrance. When Sard arrived, he saw Youk halfway along a well-worn path looping among a bunch of empty pedestals. A holo glowed at the path’s end. Once Youk was through and Sard’s eyes had adjusted to the lack of torchlight, the holo glowed with dusk time. Yes! The home Pit was on the other side.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 2

Wall in the secret corridor

Sard is still in shock but is beginning to get his act together. He feels cheated that his care-mother never took him to the secret places they now visit. The old man they meet, Rider, has to be a such a fake that Sard plans to out him the minute he’s free ..

Getting the art for posting the novella in chapters is a process in action, as is sourcing a good book cover, without which it can not be published. Enjoy!

Part 2: Plan B


Ghulia sat beside him. “You look like you’ve got a week of work to do in three minutes.”

“Srese is it.” Sard indicated the mini-monitor above the bed. “What does that mean for me?” How could he trust someone as scatty as Srese to look after his interests?

His care-mother leapt up onto the bed, he was amazed to see, and switched off the mini-monitor.

“People think because there is no sensory-felt in the Nest, there are no receptors. Never dreaming that the communication gear itself might carry signal,” she said shakily.

He stared, his mouth agape.

When she noticed she hugged him hard. “Sard-baby, this is it. The first day of your new life.” Cheerful when obviously that wasn’t how she felt. “How much time do you think until Phin and Youk notice you missing?” she said.

“Probably around lunchtime when Phin will want to make sure I don’t eat. They’ll find their clothes ruined in the ionizers and suddenly they’ll care a lot. Why?”

“You have no more time at their disposal. In fact, you have no more time at all for ordinary things. Get into some nondescript clothes and smoothe down your hair. I’ll call in sick, which everyone will consider perfectly understandable.”

If it hadn’t been for her fear—utter and stark—Sard wouldn’t have gone along with her chivvying. He didn’t understand half of what she was on about but changed into ordinary jeans and shirt. Moccasins on his feet. His hair combed as flat as it would go. He could but coast in her wake until the facts came out.

“We need to go to the Dining Hall,” Ghulia said.

“I wasn’t there that long ago.”

“Nevertheless.”

The corridor walls, though still mainly grey, fluttered with blue stalks and leaves. Sard started every time a bird shadow exploded from the undergrowth. “That’s how you feel?” he said.

She talked from behind the bit of her scarf that she covered her mouth with. “Ignore it. It’s Gammy guessing.” She led him into the Dining Hall, empty of breakfasters, and into the kitchen-office cubby and introduced him to that fool, Gregorius the Dining Hall Manager, as though Greg and Sard had never met.

“You know my care-son?”

“Sard,” Greg said. “Will I put you on the roster for early breakfast?”

“There is a roster?” Sard’s amazement wasn’t a put-on.

“Only for the early session, mate,” Greg said while he made them a coffee each.

Ghulia was like, go on this is an emergency, and it was an easy thing to commit to when Sard had no idea of what was blowing in the wind. “Yeah sure, put me down for a couple of weeks.”

Ghulia took the coffees and led him to a table. No one else around helped make it too weird to enjoy. His care-mother waved him down opposite her. She stared pointedly, dragging his gaze along with hers, at every sensor within their range – alongside every light fitting and behind every air-filter screen.

Because of them, she explained without a word, she wouldn’t be saying anything about the emergency in here. She allowed him about two minutes to gulp down what was a hot drink. She drank hers as if it had no flavor and no heat. Like it was water straight from the moldeckery. He followed her out into the corridors. “Where are we going?”

She shrugged and brushed her ear.

Oh yeah. Gamester all ears. They’d exited in the Lane alongside the Dining Hall, walked Neilson-wards. Left into First Circle, crossed Neilson Street and into the lane alongside the silk weaving workshop. They went to its back entry in the corridor parallel to First and Second Circles. As they entered, Ghulia grabbed the doorbell with a practiced move. Obviously to prevent the bell jangling.

She pulled him down onto his hands and knees with her to crawl under the silk stretched from the wall to the loom. The woman already under there apparently had the task of tying off the beginnings and ends of the silk cocoons after their filaments were woven into the new fabric. Ghulia mouthed, “Mab, this is my care-son.”

“One of the avatars, Ghulia.” Mab likewise spoke voicelessly. Sard was like he attended a ball game, his eyes following the action.

“Not chosen for the game,” Ghulia said.

“Plan B?” Mab raised her eyebrows.

Ghulia nodded.

Mab tossed her head to indicate that the person they wanted, whose name Sard was not able to read from her lips, was still up there. Wherever that was. She waved Ghulia and Sard out from under the loom and Ghulia pushed him through a curtained doorway into what was at first glance a kitchenette.

Or maybe the place where they cooked up dyes, he decided seeing the various cooking vessels with coloured slops. The whole rear wall was draped with silks.

“The drying racks,” Ghulia said. “Vents in the floor and ceiling.” She bent and felt for something under a swag of silk scraps in a basket. “Go on through.”

“Huh?” he said pointedly when he could’ve said a ton of other stuff.

She pressed a headband into his hands that had a torch on the front, and pushed past him through the curtaining. A passage? How was it that when he and Srese had investigated every corner of the habitat in their single digit years, Ghulia and he now stumbled along a passage Sard hadn’t even known existed?

He nodded his head to swing the torch up, across and down. The sandstone walls were darkened with age. So, not a newly carved passage. The floor was ordinary polished-with-use stone-kreet. He felt betrayed by the way Ghulia, who might have shown him the tunnel as a treat but didn’t–ever–showed no hesitancy in her walking having obviously been through here many times.

“Mind the ceiling.” She led him up a set of steps. He had go bent for a couple of paces before they went down again, and that for only a couple of steps before they had to do it all again. Why not a straight tunnel for pity’s sake? His temper started to build. “Where are we going?”

“The sooner we get there, the sooner you will know,” Ghulia said.

He ignored the tartness in her tone in favour of a bit of his own. “How is that an answer?”

No answer.

Fine. The way the passage slung about twisting and turning, they could be going anywhere. About all he was sure of anymore was that they’d entered the passage in the silk workshop in the Neilson-and-Everard Quarter.

“Ouch.” He forgot to duck and did his mother stop to commiserate?

She had entered a foyer. The two sets-of-doors-setup made it like the foyer into the Nest, that he and Srese called the airlock. Where they used to play their spaceship games. He wasn’t attending when he should have been, he thought dismally, when he just about fell into the room beyond. It was so large and light and round, he was totally overwhelmed.

By the time he’d collected himself, Ghulia had abandoned him and was stepping out a pattern in the middle of the room with an old joker already there. The person they’d probably come to see. The man’s features were certainly something to see. Grey hair and wrinkles that Sard only ever saw in video-mentaries and then only because he’d searched beyond the common tripe. Most people he knew would prefer to be moldecked than grow old.

The grey head continued to step and turn and gesture, completely unselfconsciously. Sard’s hands grew clammy from embarrassment about the weirdness of someone ignoring bystanders. Personally, during a public performance, he had to have everyone involved in the action of the moment. He’d sent people out if they refused to be in the moment.

Finally the oldster made a namaste-type ending to his routine. After a minute on hold he turned and came. Ghulia would be no help as she continued on hold, Sard saw. She wore her unapproachable meditational expression.

The oldster arrived in Sard’s face while he was still thinking daggers at Ghulia. At the same time—like the old man timed it—a vast bright light sprang into being at the top of the rock rim above the perglass dome ceiling that Sard had had no spare time to see yet. A sun event. He’d bet on it.

“It’s the sun,” the old man said. “Too hot in here when that gets going. I’m known as Rider.”

Sard didn’t nod to say he understood, because he understood nothing. He shook Rider’s proffered hand to express a minute vestige of politeness.

“Have a seat,” Rider said.

There was only the floor. Polished stone. No rugs or cushions. Sard remained standing. Damned if he was going still further out of his comfort zone without knowing why. His skin crawled as he felt the man studying him.

Sard pointedly studied the scene. The perglass dome perched on rickety columns of stacked stones. Nowhere did the dome meet the walls. In the gaps between the stone pylons, the room’s air must mix freely with the outdoors. Or what it looked like.

Seeing where Sard looked, the old man said, “Originally the dome sat on that rim of rocks.” He pointed at an edge far above the dome, that was just now limned with sunlight. “Lucky for us the glass didn’t break when it slid down, though naturally it needed stabilizing.”

“Naturally,” Sard said. The floor was of the usual polished stone-kreet. Including the one they’d come through, three dark entrances broke the encircling wall.

“When it rains, it’s all hands on deck for bailing,” the old man said.

One point to Sard for having moved his attention on while the old man was still on about the gaps between the dome and the wall.

Above the dome hung a circular piece of what would have to be sky, brown-tinged by the aging UV barrier in the per-glass. “The dome dislodging from its original mounting caused this hall to be abandoned by the community,” Rider said. “One of Gamester’s engineers’ mistakes. Serendipitous for us.”

Ghulia finally came to grace the meeting with her presence. “Rider, this is my care-son, Sard. Superfluous to Gamester’s needs.”

“Mmm,” Rider said.

Ghulia nodded. Something she was doing a lot around these people. Sard interrupted the flow of meditational discourse, whatever they thought they were doing. “I don’t need plan B. Srese will get me into Plan A with her. What we planned when the competition was first posted.”

Rider stared at Ghulia. “He doesn’t know?”

“I brought him as soon as I was sure.”

“Yet it is his life,” Rider said. “He needs the knowledge. I think Plan B, Scene 2, Ghulia. You know what to do?”

She bit her bottom lip then seemed to come to some conclusion. “Yes.”

“I thought you just agreed to no more decisions without my input?” Sard said. What did he care about the whine even he heard in his voice?

Amazingly, Ghulia laughed. “Rider, you know him better than I do.”

“I was him once,” Rider said. “Still am sometimes, though I try to keep those moments private. We should get out of here. The heat,” the oldster explained to Sard. He hustled them towards their entry.

Sard let Ghulia take the lead back down the secret passage. He felt like his ears had burned off. He decided he’d go to the hardcopy museum next, and read the Name Book. Bet there was no Rider in it, the man was such a fake. That grey hair had to be a wig.

Ghulia stopped well before they reaching the curtaining of drying silks. “I want to show you a couple of things before you’re too old to enjoy them. You take Two Forty and Second Circle. Don’t let anybody see you. Hide in the overhang of Crystal Cave. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Sard frowned.

“Indulge me, son. You owe me for that tantrum back there. I thought I did a better job than that, socializing you.” She had him by the ears then, and not gently either. She shook him. “Wake up to yourself, Sard-baby.”

Tears in her eyes and her voice. What could he do but indulge her?

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.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 16

Walking …

There’s jogging and there’s jogging, I think. The second kind is when a pair of people jog with a stretcher on their shoulders. The person on the stretcher jounces mercilessly and indeed must jounce to help the joggers keep their pace. Which is what I discover when I try for a change to sit with my back straight.

Wren and Meerkat, my bearers for that stretch, slow to a walk. As we’re approximately in the middle of the line everyone behind us also slows. What’s worse, the line breaks. The fast front continues jogging. The rear slows to a walk.

Limber drops back from the front to discover the wherefores. “You two tired already?” he asks my bearers.

“Only been at it a couple of hundred paces,” Meerkat says. He sounds offended.

“It’s the way she’s sitting, straight as a maul-handle,” Wren says. She indicates up with her thumb, steadfastly refusing to name me. “Without give in her, she bounces, comes down hard. The sticks bend deeper. They want to spring off from our shoulders.”

“Show me,” Limber says.

We advance the few paces needed to illustrate Wren’s explanation. “She wants to ride, she’s got to move to the rhythm of the ponies,” Wren says.

“Wren has a point, Shaman Jeb,” Limber says. “It’s important we don’t split the group. Easier for Lotor to take out a small group than a larger one.”

“I apologize, Wren. Meerkat. Limber.” I try to catch their eyes to show that I mean it. I force myself to relax into the cross-legged jouncing posture and my bearers resume their labor.

Limber springs ahead to warn the fast front about the gap and the need to allow the rest of us to catch up.

I wonder whether the rules Puma has set for this stage are really necessary. Keep the line unbroken. The pace is a slow jog. Follow in the footsteps of the person in front.

As in, keep exactly to the single-file trail. “Who leads?” I ask. I’m guessing Meerkat will answer.

“Every thousand paces, the leader of that stage falls back,” Meerkat says.

“Funny how she hasn’t noticed them checking their way to the rear?” Wren says. “What Limber just did, didn’t he?”

Oh. I continue the conversation silently. This is my first time traveling by stretcher. I sneer at myself. That’s just an excuse. There’s a lot to see. Another excuse. But none of my conversational gambits will solve the reason for Wren’s dislike if I don’t open my mouth. “This is my first time traveling the desert. Lame excuse, I know.”

“Limber was at the end of the front,” Meerkat says. “I never heard about anyone being born on a platform. Everyone else will have had a first time in the desert too.”

“All you boys are smitten with her, and for what?” Wren says.

“Oh!” I can’t stop myself bursting out. “I suddenly see why you persist in speaking about me. It allows you to do exactly what you just did.”

I’m not totally sure what I am accusing Wren of, just that it suddenly made sense for a moment. The effect of my outburst is total silence in our little group. I have time to notice that the wind from the south is picking up. Its searing soughing hits the cavalcade side-on. Everyone’s clothes flap northward.

I see Limber skipping back down the line from the front. The person he needs to pass sways to one side, Limber sways to the other. Both manage to keep their feet on the single file path.

Very clever I’m sure, I think grumpily. Why couldn’t I have noticed that before?

Limber reaches us.

“Wren is done here,” Meerkat says. “But I will need a hundred thousand paces to work off my rage.”

Limber looks to me. I shrug helplessly. I feel as hopeless as ever about my chances to fit into the society of my age group. I used to pretend high and mightiness and that their resultant dislike was because of my totem. “I’m sorry.” For being what I am.

“I am so fucking angry,” Meerkat says conversationally. “I’ll probably strangle someone if I get loose. Get Ant.”

“I am so fucking angry I could burst,” Wren says. “That ugly bitch up on the sticks takes both my boyfriends and I’ve got to carry her like she is an Earth-born princess?”

Limber signals to the rear.

I pull my hood over my eyes and close them for good measure. I try not to take any notice of the changeover. I hear Wren and Meerkat take the loads given them. I hear Meerkat sent to the front. I hear Limber order Wren to the rear. Was Mongoose one of Wren’s recent boyfriends?

“There now, my pretty,” I hear from a way to the front.

The old shaman strokes my soul and my eyes almost overflow. I imagine the Totem Reality. It has slopes of lush grasses, stony outcrops and a blue sky. Sunlight beams down.

I spread my wings and hunt down a rabbit. Just when I’m about to crush its life, I notice it has Wren’s face. Out of shock I release her and she escapes down a hole. I press my hood against my eyes to soak up my tears. 

Fiction: Half Shaman, 14

The Automatic Transponder

By the time I climb up onto the new mushroom-shaped platform, about twice the diameter of the previous one, Ant has organized a couple of people to stand by at the top. One of them smiles gently. One of them smiles fiercely. The gentle one is big, older than us. A twin, all the way to his smile, stands behind him. “Lithe and Limber we are, Shaman.”

The fierce one is as young as Ant and Mongoose and me. They help me to my feet, gentle and fierce, and I walk toward the center of the platform. About a dozen and a half—I count quickly—quite a lot more than the four more people that Ant said there would be are camped around a central depression.

The fierce one and the gentle one release my arms and I, feeling hemmed in by being suddenly among so many, make for that space.

Set foot on it. A knife hacks into my arm! “Aa-eeehhh!” My arm screams. Knife blade worries at my bone. Pain! Pain! I scream. Jerk back. Too late. I fall.

Men, women, boys, friends surround me. They reach for me. Hold me. Shout. I see their mouths move. There’s pandemonium in slow motion. I do not hear. Pain only is talking and I didn’t even sing for it.

But it all reminds me. I sob. Yes. There’s a patterning in the pain. I clench my jaw. Be quiet. Use your senses. The stabbing repeats stab, stab, stab.

I gasp. “Signal,” I press out between my teeth.

I see Lithe, his face near mine on the glassy ground. “There’s letters! I gasp. Sob. Scream into him. “There’s a signal!”

Lithe shouts behind him. His twin pulls someone forward. “A signal. Ready to write?”

I blurt dashes and dots into the dark between Lithe and me, and the other inking her arm writing them there. Each of the elements—is what the Head Shaman called them—draws a blade down a screaming nerve or stabs me to my arm bone. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dash dot, dot dot dot dot, dot dot.

It seems finished. I start to relax.I gasp.More ….”

Knowing what’s coming I swallow my screams. Just gasp. Sob, maybe. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dash.

Slightly different than the first sequence.

At the end I feel broken inside. Though there’s no blood. No torn skin. No wounds except for my pride again. I’d hoped to be a normal person. My hopes, gone again. A spectacle I will be.

“Ha!” Simmon says. “She’s a sensitive? It’s probably the transponder niggling her.”

“And you know that how?” Uncle says. He sounds dangerous.

I want to crawl away. Hide.

Ant steps in the way of all the interested onlookers. Mongoose lets me cry on him for a minute. They both help me to sit up, crossed legs. Ant stays on his feet. His leg is a tree I lean against. Mongoose sits half in front of me, my knee against his back. I cradle my poor left arm. It throbs, so sore still. Mongoose gives me the corner of a sarong-wrap to blow my nose. 

Simmon chuckles. “This platform was made by glassing, meaning a starship fused the sand into a landing pad before touchdown. I believe the girl was hit by the automatic transponder cached in the pad’s center. Lotor, because she will always be hungry for alien machinery, wears away at the foundations. Hence the undercutting.”

“Why?” Uncle says. 

Simmon doesn’t hear or he ignores Uncle. “I’m amazed that the transponder still works. It signals the geo co-ordinates out into near-space where any arriving spacecraft can read them, and organize their touch-down accordingly. My mates and I dropped dozens all over the planet just after we arrived. This one will be one of the fixed points along the Great Parallel.”

Uncle snarls. “Give us the scientific detail.”

That gets Simmon’s attention. He stares round the circle.

“Scientific detail,” he repeats as if he doesn’t believe the Earth-born know anything about science. He proceeds to tell us in simplified ship-speak. “Tells us where we are on the planet’s surface. Zero Phi stands for Zero Latitude, another word for the Equator.”

“An equator is an equalizer?” Limber says. Rumble from a couple of other people wanting to know, too.

Simmon smiles like he is vindicated. Like he knew we’d not cope with science.

I feel he belittles us with his attitude. “In Shaman School we had a ball on a stand to look at, with a map of the Continent and the Ocean painted on it.” I tremble with all their stares on me.

Mongoose squeezes my hand. I continue. “Over the top of land and sea were lines that help us navigate, which are imaginary out in the field. The way Simmon tells it, all along the widest part of Lotor runs an imaginary line called an equator. The signal names it Zero Phi. Simmon calls it an abbreviation.” I snort. “With fifteen elements? That’s double the ship’s call sign.”

“You learned your lessons well, Little Shaman,” Simmon says.

Now I’m furious. I rise to my feet.

Straightaway all around me there’s a physical shifting that I ignore. I trust Mongoose and I trust Ant. “Who isn’t little compared to you? A long end of rope to hang yourself with, my father would’ve called you.”

A couple of people snort, possibly recognizing the saying from their own fathers. I bite my lips to stop there. Before I tell my people what he is, he’s got to be made to tell us why he follows us.

“How can she be a shaman with all that screaming and crying?” someone says.

I don’t know his voice.

“She has a hurt we can’t see. Are we fools to continue with her when it is a matter of life and death? Will she even live long enough herself?”

Ant laughs. “Listen to the Jackdaw! If somebody gave me in my childhood that totem to learn from, do you think I wouldn’t have earned another by now? You think it isn’t a matter of life and death to her? Do you even know what she had to do to join us?”

I sit down and tune out.

Ant starts to tell how I escaped before he and Mongoose could rescue me.

I plan what I will say next.

When Ant is finished, I kneel up to get a little height. “Yes. I cried and I screamed. You all heard me,” I say. I stop. I’m telling them what they already know.

Mongoose squeezes my hand again. He gets me out of my nerves.

I plan what else to say. “First the Ark-Ship talks into me. Then, apparently, an Earthborn gadget talks into me. They both have signals with many elements that have got to fit into the little amulet in me.” I massage my arm where the amulet still throbs.

“It feels like I get burnt, stung, stabbed and cut all at the same time. My nerves scream at me. I scream at you. But look, no wounds.” I bare my arm and show them my harpy eagle tattoo. “No blood. I’ll probably get used to it. Maybe even to the point of not screaming, so I don’t frighten people.” I look at Jackdaw. “And maybe—I won’t know till I ask—the Ark-Ship can fix its signal so it doesn’t hurt me.”

The fierce one who greeted me springs forward and slides to me on his knees. “I’ll gladly help with the singing for that, Shaman Jeb. I’m Meerkat, forever honored that you sang my totem to discover the ship.”

Someone in the people-shadows sneered. “Pff. Meerkats. Always the song and dance.”

“Thanks, Meerkat,” I say. I take a deep breath. Might as well get it all out. “I am only half the Shaman you need. But I… I thought I’d come along because I worked out how to talk to the Ark-Ship and …”

Simmon cuts in at that point. “You heard her, she’s only half the Shaman you need. But Lotor … Lotor needs all of her. I followed you to offer you a whole job, Jeb.”

His interruption is so preposterous that I am not the only one with my mouth hanging open. The only sound is the soughing of sand in the wind scouring at the base of the platform. Both Mongoose and Ant also rise, and move nearer. They squeeze me between them.

Small protective moves, but I see people taking notice. There’s a murmuring to and fro. I know so few of these people, I can’t see who thinks what. Are there really people here who think I should take Simmon’s offer?

“Thyal?” Uncle says. “You have some words on this?”

I don’t believe it. Uncle is one of them? But he came to fetch me!

An old man with just one whole arm rises from the group seated to Uncle’s left and seats himself between Uncle and me.

“I am Thyal, Shaman Jeb,” he says, nodding at me. “Forever studying the Thylacine totem. I assign totems in this troop, and teach their recipients the way to carry themselves as Totems.”

He lifts the stump of his arm. “Ihave no amulet. I’m a one-armed Shaman useless for what you’ll be good at. Together we are well-suited to the task.” 

Oh. I break out in smiles from the relief. “I’d like that.” Thyal has put my worries to rest on a couple of counts.

“Jeb, these people live in the past.” Simmon says. “How many have they lost due to that fatal flaw? You don’t want to be among them when Lotor starts to take an interest in nomads now that she has finished with the towns. If we leave now, I can have you in the laboratories by daylight. New set of friends. People who’ll appreciate you for being of your mother’s line.”

I want to be scathing. Why would I listen to him? But … how does he know about my mother? What does he know about her? What does he mean, the laboratories? I clench my hands together in my lap. I don’t want eye contact with Simmon and I stare beyond him to the back of the crowd.

Out there where a raised hand waves to and fro. A woman there is trying to get my attention? She’s got it.

She pulls her black hair, plaited in one long braid, forward over her shoulder. A red ribbon is threaded through. She points my gaze to another woman, nearer to Uncle and Thyal, dressed all in black. Then she points out two men standing quite near to Mongoose. All have their hands resting on killing knives worn cross-wise in their sauger-hide belts.

I understand that she heads the guard squad and is showing me them at the ready. I smile a little.

The woman winks.

“Earthborn laboratories tend to be underground,” Thyal says, confirming my suspicions about Simmon’s offer. “The wisdom for that, it is said, are Lotor’s frequent re-arrangements of her landscapes.”

“You’ve got that right, old man,” Simmon says. “The very reason you’ve just lost seventeen shamans. The remaining Shaman School has fallen, I’m told. Have you noticed how often Lotor re-arranges its surface when the shamans are near to solving the problem of reaching the Ark-Ship?” He laughs. “What do you say to the fact that you’re the only one of your kind remaining, Jeb?”

He gets up. He stands swaying from side to side. He could be drunk or he could be trying to hypnotize me. Won’t do him any good. I’m not susceptible.

“A pretty packet of news that lit a fire cracker under me,” he says in a dreamy tone. “Wherefrom will you learn the rest of your tricks now? It’s clearly useless even thinking about it. Better to say goodbye. We won’t have far to go because Lotor will open a door anywhere.” All short statements delivered in that same dreamy tone, timed to coincide with the swaying.

“Don’t even joke about it,” Uncle says.

“I was joking?” Simmon says. He looks at me and takes in my awareness of his strategy. “Oops,” he says. “Of course I was joking. Though I do believe that about the Shaman Schools. And I believe this puma already knew it too. That must be why you and your buddies came to fetch her? You went away without her, what was that about?”

He describes Uncle with the puma-totem. Did he hear us talking? I don’t at that moment recall when Mongoose and Ant and I discussed the chieftainship. Whether Simmon had already caught up with us and we didn’t hear him.

Simmon scratches his forearm. Quite a large flake of skin springs loose and falls to the platform, from where the breeze picks it up. Uncle sees it too. He sees that I watch him track the flake over the side and away.

He remembers what I remember. But he shakes his head. It’s too soon, he mouths.

I hope he means it is too soon to tell anyone about Simmon’s affliction because Simmon hasn’t yet said why Lotor wants me.

Mongoose strokes my arm to stroke my worries gone. “The bastard will get what’s coming to him.”

I’m afraid. Simmon suffers from the Earthborn disease. Whoever touches him will die, the settler-born the quicker. My father died not long after he lay down with my sick mother. How many will Simmon try to take with him?

Fiction: Half Shaman, 13

Ant’s Idea

I can’t make a mistake on this. Simmon’s forearm skin is a mosaic of skin flaps, which when shed, become the infectious flakes fluttering from the doomed person every move they make, if they are not fully contained by their clothes.

The settler-kind die within days, and though Simmon’s DNA pattern is straight from Earth and the Earthborn believed themselves to be immune to the skin-sloughing disease, they just take longer to die.

Simmon seems to be following us. Why? And he carries a rolled up, darker-than-night life-suit in his bag, with its insides likely littered with skin-flakes and so as infectious as he is. Though it needn’t be that he intends to hide the life-suit from us.

“Yon Earthborn is in a hurry to catch up with Uncle,” Ant says while he and Mongoose reorganize my seating.

“Alliances … change,” Mongoose says between paces, when we get going again. “How come … he doesn’t know …. that?”

“Ha!” Ant explodes a little. “Haven’t they just? Good … that tonight … we are … with eight.”

Does he mean four more people waiting? The group doubles.

“Let’s walk a bit, Ant,” Mongoose says.

“Suits me, brother.”

When his breathing is back to normal, Mongoose jiggles his end of the front of my seat. “A lot to think about, Jeb.”

“Yes,” I say. More than anything I want to be me for a minute. Simmon has joined Uncle. They are way ahead. “If you could’ve heard the times at the school someone told me to mind my tongue, you would be laughing now to hear me so silent. What I mean to say …” I collect my thoughts. “It’s hard being around friendly people while trying to be someone else.” I hurry on. “When I haven’t had any kind of practice being a shaman.”

“When I heard you trying out the different voices up in the white cell,” Ant says. “I thought, there’s a girl my age still learning her place in the Great Project, the same as I am still learning my place. That’s when I decided to stick around in the group around you, Shaman Jeb, to help you. Like, be part of your support group. If you’ll have me?”

I don’t know what to say. Again. “Umm. Thanks. That’ll be good. Because I …”

Mongoose interrupts. He’s blushing again. “When the damned Lotor-born threw you out and you lay there crying and laughing, I would’ve jumped through the fence and picked you up if Lithe hadn’t held me back.”

I blush because he blushes. 

Ant laughs. “Look at the pair of you. Tsk. Tsk. Good thing Lithe was right there, Mongoose, my friend. You would’ve been slaughtered and where would Jeb be then?”

I shudder. I care about them so much already. How can that be good? 

“That danger is past,” Mongoose says. “Let’s sing. We’ll need teach you some words too, Jeb. You probably having had a fairly sheltered upbringing.”

We all laugh, probably about different things.

“This song is a rhythm for running, Shaman Jeb,” Ant said. “Pick up your left foot, right foot … is always the first part of a line. Here we go, running.”

Pick up your left foot, right foot, step high through the sands of Lotor’s hell,

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step low over stone and mountain,  

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step wide through gelid waters,

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step narrow along the Great Meridian.”

“What’s the Great Meridian?” I say, jouncing in time to their beat.

Mongoose passes the question. “Ant?”

“Mm-mm. I just sing it,” Ant says. “I’m nearly always carrying a load. Pardon me, Shaman.”

“Only if you’ll pardon me for being what I am.”

“Has you there, brother,” Mongoose says. “I hereby decree … no more pardoning among us three. Jeb, your uncle is a Puma.”

A Puma? My feelings speed faster than light into an idea. I tremble. “He is a Puma-in-waiting?”

“I think you nailed it,” Mongoose says.

“A Puma will be a better chief than a shaman who is also the Ark-Ship’s Mouth,” I hear myself say.

“I see that,” Ant says.

“What?” Mongoose’s voice is scor with saw-edged emotions. He clears his throat. “I mean, why?”

“Much less confusion,” Ant says. “What the Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what a chief would recommend?”

Mongoose doesn’t comment.

I don’t comment because I don’t trust my feelings not to overflow. What I know about a certain shaman, who also was a chief, was that he had a lot of advisers. What I know about these advisors is that they thought they were right about everything to do with the man’s life. The advisers had no kind of patience for the chief to have any kind of private life. And which meant that he hadn’t.

Mongoose grins with the corner of his mouth because I stroke his side with the back of my knuckles where I’m holding onto his shirt. I do not want to live the way that old shaman lived.

Ant continues. “Better to have any compromises made by way of discussion and a chief’s final vote than by Jeb alone, and her worrying.”

“I see what you see,” Mongoose says with unsteady breathing.

Ant chuckles. “Thought you would.”

Ahead of us, the new platform is now near enough that we can see a rag-and-rope ladder hurtling down the sloped cap of the mushroom-shaped formation.

“They lower the ladder to inspire us to speed,” Mongoose says.

“Such a way with words your Mongoose has, oh Shaman,” Ant says, laughing. “The mongoose goes chittering … oops … goes glittering to his … to his …”

Mongoose thumps Ant before he has a chance to finish. Probably good if I ignore all that. Don’t know what to do with it. Hints of … innuendo? If I go there, I’ll blush again.

Instantly business-like, Mongoose says, “Ant, you go first. I’d love it if you could break the mirror of expectation and old habits. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve picked up after the damned uncle still in his noble patrician mode.”

Ant glances over the pack and swag at the base of the ladder. “Yeah, we’ve got to train everybody out of that. I’ll talk with a couple more of the pack animals.”

I don’t see the Earth-born’s swag. He considers the life-suit is too precious to be left lying about?

Ant and Mongoose set my feet on the first rag-plaited rung of the ladder. My hands on the twisted rope sides. “Only one at the time climbing, Jeb.” Mongoose puts his hand over mine to hold me back.

Mm. Nice. Can’t call it accidental. But, realistically, who am I to hope? I saw five beautiful girls in the Yellow City dream.