1/31/2006

The Stars are Wonder


This is a new science-fiction short story, peripherally related to concepts introduced in Simon of Space.

Yo Ho Ho

The sea heaves and so do I.

It is much clearer to me now than it was three weeks ago why the life of the ocean-going man is shrouded in such a thick funk of romance. It is also clearer to me now how this reward is meant to punish me, and how I really lost what battles I had believed I won.

I'm a fool.

Let me tell you how I dreamed: proud tallships with billowing sails cared after by sturdy men adventure-bent, overseen by a shrewd and fearless captain-king surrounded by curvaceous mathematicians with flaxen hair and heaving bosoms.

(Back to the heaving...excuse me while I yell something horrible into the wind, punctuated with bile.)

I dreamed that being sent to sea on a mission of noble exploration was an expression of the prince's forgiveness for the entire nasty business between his cousin and me. The prince had assured me that it was all water under the bridge when he saw me to the wharf. I was so excited. He too seemed keen.

I spotted Captain Stay as I strode up the gangway and he was every bit the picture of a noble commander until I came close enough to appreciate the smell. It would be the first in a series of sobering discoveries about the true nature of life at sea.

It can be summarized thus: hard black bread in the company of the worst kinds of people who are all in an ill-temper and soaked and miserable from the rain or the spray or the dew, the tedium broken for me only by thirst and cramps and the urge to vomit or die.

The mathematicians are not curvaceous. They are half-starved waifs on chains. They steal furtive glances at the menfolk as they comfort each other and rock or hum over their figures, plotting our place within the world.

At night they give each other maidenlove, and I admit that overhearing this gives me wood.


Onion War

Travelling at sea is very boring. The most interesting person on the ship is crazy, and I can't understand what the rest of them are saying most of the time. What I can decipher disgusts me, so I talk to the crazy one. His name is Onion War and he has a bad foot.

(His bad foot might seem an insignificant detail, but Onion War would be the first to tell you, at considerable length, about how being bedridden for much of his childhood was a remarkable gift from the magic which first turned him on to the path of learning, so that while other little boys were skipping in the grass he read the folios of women and indulged himself in fantasies of calendars and catalogues. He has never been studded and claims he doesn't mind one bit. Think of that!)

I have no idea how old he is but he smells worse than Captain Stay. His purple-black skin is lined like a raisin, his dreadlocks thick with life. His narrow frame is weighed down by all the trappings of his office, right down to the standard gargoyle codpiece that advertises a brand of masculinity I doubt he possesses. Like a woman he wears beads around his ankles and wrists, each inscribed with a rune. He shuffles them as the days pass.

The crew is leery of Onion War. They avoid his eyes, and after he has passed them by they kiss their totems and frown.

I fell into his association like this: only days out of port Captain Stay began making unusual requests of me, like assigning me to assist in pulling on sails or fetching things. I thought he was confused but when I reiterated who I was he just laughed and replied that he knew exactly my station. He beat me with a length of rope and asked me rhetorical questions about people who illicitly stud themselves with the cousins of princes. I tried to answer his questions at first but later on fell to examining the floorboards near my face and considering the whorls in the grain. Soon enough it was over.

I have quickly learned that assisting Onion War is far preferable to any other shipboard duty, especially working in the galley where Mr. Spice's knives fly freely in concert with his temper. In contrast Onion War is tedious and full of malarkey but not at all murderous.

He pays special attention to the sky so I often find myself on deck with him at night, Onion War casting his eyes into the spangled heavens and me casting mine into the twisted mirror thereof in the water. "Do you ever wonder about the stars?" he asks me.

I shrug. "I'm not religious."

"What do you imagine they are?"

"Who cares? Sparks in the turning veil. Why are mountains craggy?"

Onion War takes this as a serious point, which makes me groan. He closes his eyes and nods, puffing thoughtfully on his long pipe. "In my youth I often trained my wonder on the mountains. Indeed, indeed." Puff-puff-puff.

"That I can understand," I tell him. "Mountains matter. If a man were to know a mountain perfectly he could move his armies quickly through its passes. The stars are counted only by women or magic simpletons."

"They grant us the calendar."

"We would have our calendar by counting something else if not stars. Why question the world?"

Onion War puffs his pipe and peers briefly through one of his instruments, adjusting a knob three turns. "By questioning soil we learn to farm, by questioning water we learn to mill. Consider the greatness of the Empire! Would you have us live like the savages, all history forgotten?"

I take a moment to reflect on the savages we have seen in our brief forays along the shore of the Second Continent: pale, gibbering, bestial primitives draped in unworked skins, living in the rudest circumstances, eking a living directly from the land without the benefit of real economies, without metallurgy, and without any appreciable understanding of the magic. We saw people throwing stones at one another and hooting -- people worshipping cacti or owl turds or waterfalls. Idiots.

"Very well," I concede, "but should we not therefore question things which are to our profit? The stars are part of the deep magic, inscrutable. Why waste time trying to know the unknowable?"

"We do not know what is knowable and what is not until we try to know it. If you awoke one day imprisoned in a cell and fed by automated means, would you not try to learn all you could about your captors and your wider circumstances? Without the benefit of a larger view, could you risk discounting any clue as unimportant?"

"Perhaps, in order to escape. But who longs to escape from the world?"

It is Onion War's turn to shrug. He looks up at the glittering sky and puffs thoughtfully on his pipe. "There are, perhaps, borders beyond our conception."

I sniff. Like I said, he's crazy.


The Magician

We have a magician, of course. He's fat and deaf and very, very worried.

He has a long face whose dour foundation is melded with his lost neck's cleavage. Starved on ship's rations his cheeks have lost any rosy pomp they may once have held and taken on the shape and the colour of melted wax. His eyes are small, the whites around them yellow.

His sucks his teeth loudly when he is not fulfilling his vows with liturgical songs, and when he is attempting to fulfill this duty we are united in our wish that he would shut up and suck his teeth.

He must once have sung beautifully. There is an echo of it in his toneless caterwauling, a memory of something inspired beneath the bed of ambiguous moans and shrill howls. "Kiss the magic," he grunts, and we all echo the sentiment with earnest relief: it means the song is done.

From his makeshift pulpit he mumbles loosely and largely unintelligibly about his missions past as a highly respected and especially magical man of great influence. He seldom speaks of moral principles except to recount an occasion upon which he thwarted a sinner with particular pomp or glory, usually in front of adoring multitudes.

(Personally I had never heard of him before this voyage, but I didn't tend to run in very magical circles, much to my mother's dismay.)

It is dangerous to talk to the magician. He is theologically defensive. Coupled with his impaired hearing he manages to project an atmosphere of persecution wherever he goes. Once when I asked him to pass me a jug of water he accused me of spouting Reformist hypocrisy. On another occasion I asked him to cover my watch and he told me that if I ever threatened him again he would put a curse on me so black my children would be born as goats. I pretty much stopped talking to the magician after that.

The men mock him, but he pretends he can't read their lips.

He is a very light shade of brown, which makes me doubt the office he held was as lofty as he claims. No singing voice could be golden enough to earn a man so colourless the respect of a crowd. Not in the city, at any rate.

(Perhaps he, like I, is being punished for something by being attached to this historic voyage. But who could a eunuch have bedded?)

The magician sucks his teeth and tells us we can eat. The men lay in to the meal with animal relish, a dozen hands reaching into the bowl at once: fluffy rice, strings of conserved game, soil grapes and the broad, softened leaves of church frond. It is our reward for enduring the magician's murmurs about his greatness. Out of the corner of my eye I watch him pad out of the galley.

He's gone back to stand vigil on the deck, waiting for our ship to fall off the edge of the world.


Ascending Valley

My clothes are very filthy but the laundryman died after all his teeth fell out, and we were obliged to put his carcass overboard. This rather informal ceremony was presided over by the second mate, Mr. Valley, who hails from the east. His accent is swinging and hypnotic. Mr. Valley kindly loaned me some fresh laundry from his own supply and I took off my rags for burning.

Mr. Valley has shown a generous interest in me lately, though only when the other officers aren't around. He has discouraged the other crewmen from beating me or stealing my rations, and now he says I can use the dead laundryman's hammock instead of sleeping in the bilgewater between the bunks.

I am very grateful to Mr. Valley.

He is a lean man with ropey arms and a long neck. He has scars across his back from somebody's whip, translucent pink stripes of healed meat interrupting the cocoa flesh. He has logos of the magic tattooed upon his chest. He has no fingernails on his left hand and he blinks more often than most people do. He speaks quietly, and he smiles only with his voice and never his face.

The other day he had an argument with the first officer, Mr. Bailiff, which ended only when he tore Mr. Bailiff's mantle and thereby exposed the bottles of wine he had been denying stealing to augment the captain's horde. Mr. Valley declared that the first officer should be thoroughly searched, which the crew did with a kind of reckless abandon.

Afterwards Mr. Bailiff was no longer fit for duty, and the sight of his injuries returned me to the queasiness that characterized my first weeks at sea.

Mr. Valley has declared himself the new first officer, and Captain Stay has not emerged from his quarters to disagree. Onion War seems tense. The magician marked the occasion of Mr. Valley's promotion with magical fireworks and dazzling feats of holy prestidigitation. The men applauded and laughed, kissed the magic and sang. Despite the air of gaiety I am nervous.

I try to have a word with Captain Stay but he is busy drinking wine, and pauses only to throw up on my sandals. He reaches for his beating rope so I back out of his cabin, stumbling at the threshold. Mr. Valley catches my elbow and helps me to my feet. He closes the door and shackles it.

He wants to know if I'm okay. I tell him I'm fine.

He catches me looking at the barred companionway and says, "We are going to have to make some hard decisions around here soon."

"Yessir," I agree, and Mr. Valley walks away.

What a strange kind of courage it takes to carry civilization across the savage wastes of the open ocean.


Captain Stay, Captain Go

The ship lurches and I awake. The sunlit spot from the crew-berth's only port is crawling across the empty hammocks, bedbugs glinting like dust-motes. We are turning. As I stumble out of bed and dress myself I hear shouting from up on deck.

The sky is red. Mr. Valley stands at the helm behind a line of crewmen holding blades, before them the captain on his knees. "We are too far to turn back," Captain Stay laments, his words slurred and whiny. He spindles the front of his shirt pointlessly as he blubbers, "We will die before we reach home!"

"We are dying now," says Mr. Valley softly, eyes locked on Captain Stay.

"Tell them!" yells the captain raggedly, gesturing imploringly at Onion War who is crouching beside the two terrified mathematicians. One has wrapped her own chains around her forearms as if to use the links as a shield. They quiver and hide behind his dreadlocks, their bleary eyes wide.

Onion War turns to Mr. Valley wearily. "It is true, sir. The Empire is too far. Even the Second Continent is beyond the reach of our stores now."

"It is an unholy quest we are on," replies Mr. Valley with calm precision, enunciating each word with characteristic eastern lilt. "It will end today, at my word or blade or the will of the magic, so help me saints."

The deaf magician squints at Mr. Valley's lips and nods, sucking his teeth loudly.

"It is natural to be afraid," says Onion War. "But still we must press on. Exploration requires faith."

Mr. Valley blinks. "Do not presume to instruct me on faith," he replies. "I breathe with the magic, and the magic breathes through me."

"Do you believe we will come to the world's end?" challenges Onion War. (I hold my breath, startled. Can he not see their blades? Can he not smell the seething vitriol?)

Mr. Valley considers this for a moment, his eyes still fixed on the pool of captain on the steps up to the helm. "The world may not have a literal edge," he concedes, licking his thin lips. "The world may go on forever, for all I know. But I do know that the pursuit of this mythical Third Continent will kill every last one of us, and so damned is the commander who would see it through."

"Damned is the commander!" chants the crew, as if rehearsed. The magician sucks his teeth.

Captain Stay groans and sinks lower into his own capes. In the fine, rosy light of dawn I am able to actually see his sweat-glistening skin pimple in gooseflesh -- I witness the moment of defeat finding him. He does not resist when escorted back to his cabin, and speaks only to beg for a bottle of wine as the companionway is shackled shut.

I notice a seabird. And then another.

Onion War points to the horizon: the tops of grey-bellied cumulus clouds reach up like giant thumbs from a point off the port-bow. "Land," he reports tonelessly.

Mr. Valley whispers to the magic and then barks orders at the crew. When they obey they call him "captain." I am commanded to help bring about the foresail and I hop to my duty. I call him "captain" too.

The crew is cheerful. My hands are burned hauling on the ropes, but it fells great to be a part of the team. The men sing and the seabirds do too, almost loud enough to drown out the magician's awful hymning. For the first time ever, Mr. Valley is really smiling. His teeth are startlingly white and even.

Onion War stands alone by the pilot, his lined face drawn tight.


An Encounter with Savages

After ten days of searching this magic-forsaken archipelego of lifeless islets and fetid lagoons we came upon an island whose trees yield a thin butter which is nine parts fresh water to one part tart mud. In less than an hour we had razed the glen and ferried every stalk to our ship by canoe. Even now Mr. Spice is pressing their precious juice into jugs so that we might also drink tomorrow.

One of the light-brown shipmen managed to catch a small tortoise with his bare hands, which he then proceeded to consume raw after levering open the shell. Before we left the island the magician presided in a brief ceremony over the hungry crewman's corpse.

Onion War has been giving me little pinches of powder to put beneath my tongue, as he himself does each morning and evening. "What is it?" I asked him, and he claimed they were the distilled essences of substances required for the healthy operation of a body. "Like what?" I asked, sceptical. His answer was nonsense -- rock dust and berry acid, traces of metal and beads of gummed oil.

(Still, it cannot be denied that while we are wasting with the others we do not sicken as they do.)

I dare not speculate how many more days we would have lasted had we not come upon the crescent-shaped island of savage people this morning. An enterprising tribe, they had little houses made of thatched grasses and primitive canoes made from trees. They shaved their colourless heads clear of hair and painted designs there in blue squid ink. They were ugly, of course. They hooted like apes when we first came upon them, brandishing wooden spears tipped with sharpened spikes of bone.

I believe they were a fishing people, and this I judge not only by the bone hooks and barbs we can see scattered in their nests but also by the distinctly aquatic aftertaste of their meat.

The mathematicians refused to partake. Captain Valley is worried they may starve, so he has sent some crew back to the ship to force feed them. In the meantime he's sitting on a boulder in the shade, watching us all with his blinking eyes and thinking whatever it is Captain Valley thinks. His mouth is a line. His limbs are motionless, like a lizard.

When I ask Mr. Spice for a second helping he is light-hearted and relatively unprofane. He asks me which cut I would prefer, and I admit that I would be delighted to have more child. "Very tender!" agrees Mr. Spice, and I hold out my bowl.

It can disconcerting sometimes to eat the flesh of an animal that looks very much like a man, but the rawness of my appetite proved a sufficient incentive. It is only after being sated and then continuing to chew that I find it necessary to remind myself that white people don't have soul.

As with monkeys and eels, the magic is indifferent to the incarnations of savages.


Womanless Calculations

The mathematicians have died. They looked dead long before they expired, bones and sinews under a thin glaze of yellowing skin. During the funeral the magician broke down and cried. The crew looked nervously about, fondling their talismans and kissing their tokens. Onion War would not speak to anyone, his eyes bloodshot and his mouth loose.

They made very small splashes, I thought, for adult women.

That was last night. Today Captain Valley has ordered me to enter Onion War's cabin and pry from him the feminine secrets of navigation so that we might find a way home. I imagine I have been chosen since I have assisted the old man with his toys, but I told everyone I hold no sway as an advisor. I still fail to see how I will persuade him. Captain Valley suggested I wear no shirt.

When I go to Onion War he is lying motionless in his hammock, staring at the ceiling.

For childish reasons I am afraid. "Are you dead?" I ask, stupidly.

"I am not dead," concedes Onion War. "I am dispirited."

When I try to steer the conversation around to navigation he interprets this as an attempt to inspire him, and responds by climbing out of bed and embracing me. "You're right -- I cannot give up!" he tells me, as if this is something I was trying to say.

Onion War hobbles over to his trunk and opens the creaking top. He digs through his belongings -- jars, badges, codpieces, orreries, folios -- and tosses them aside until he uncovers and unlatches the trunk's false bottom. From this last compartment he withdraws an item I had always assumed existed only in legend.

It is an artificial woman.

Once unfolded she is only about three hand-spans tall, her tiny bronze face impassive, her canvas breasts proud, her wooden hips wide, utterly undecorated with the guild colours that would be covering any non-illicit mechanism. Onion War unravels a ribbon of pounded gold and gently feeds one end into the back of the little artificial woman's head.

I start to say, "What are you --" but he says, "Hush now! Ah-ha, ah-ha..." so I close my mouth.

"This is something I have been working on for years," he explains in a voice of special dignity; "a project that caused much damage to my dignity and my options, indeed. But, at last, I will have my chance to prove the value of my research."

I tell him that sounds good. He asks me to read him a set of numbers from an open folio, and as I do he inserts a finger into a hole between the little artificial woman's legs and taps around in there. When I am done he pumps the artificial woman's arms up and down three times. The goldleaf ribbon is drawn inside the head and emerges from her mouth covered in arrays of tiny punctures.

Onion War takes the ribbon and moves his fingers across its surface with his eyes closed, and then nods with satisfaction. "Today the sun will set a quarter hour before the ship's sunclock," he declares. Then he opens his eyes, raises one eyebrow and lets himself smile. "That is right, my friend -- you have just witnessed a womanless calculation."

"It boggles the mind," I tell him.

He shakes my hand and then hugs me and then kisses me on the side of my neck, which is weird. I squirm away and try to change the subject. I ask him whether his revolutionary instrument can guide us safely to the Third Continent. Onion War chuckles and shakes his dreadlocked head. "You appreciate, of course, that the world is a ball."

"I have heard that philosophy."

"Heard it? Witness it! As we approach an island why do we see its peaks before its shores when the water we look across is flat? Why does it seem to rise out of the ocean?"

"Well, that is a quandary..." I admit, rubbing my chin and furrowing my brow.

"There are other proofs," says Onion War with a dismissive wave. "You may take my word for it, my friend. It is a fact. And it is also a fact that we have already covered nine tenths of the journey around the world's face."

"You mean --"

"I mean to say the next land we will see will be the far eastern shores of our own Glorious Imperial Continent. And, according to my womanless calculations, we shall be arriving there very soon indeed."

"Kiss the magic!" I cry out of sheer joy. "We're saved!"


The Water Walker

We are not saved. We have passed again into the open sea and despite Onion War's confidence of landfall we have been abandoned by bird and cloud alike. The sky is a heartless blue card, the ocean an unthinking mirror bladed by sunglints. Again our stores are diminished. Again our water is bracken and smelly, and we drink our urine in the mornings with animal relish.

We are all tanned like kings, even the inferior ones.

Mr. Stay and Mr. Bailiff have both expired in their cabins, one by bottle and one by traditional suicide. Neither loss was felt as keenly as that of our spiritual leader, the deaf magician. He went to sleep one night and did not awake, an empty phial at his bedside. Criminal suicide is likely, but Captain Valley enters nothing in the log anymore. The remaining hands help to huck the three bodies overboard and no words are spoken. All magical pomp is ignored, for the men feel ignored by the magic.

Captain Valley is grim. "He was no real man of magic," he swears quietly.

Our rationality is eroding. I see it in myself. I can still hear the magician's amelodic sacred weapon between the slap of the surf against our hull and the seashell sussuruss of hot air. Twice under the weird purple sky of twilight I have seen a figure following the bubbles of our wake, stepping between the waves as if hiking in a meadow, faintly glowing, careless, impossible.

I bring dismal rations to Onion War: green cake and bugs. I feel he may be our only hope. "Stick your finger in the little woman," I implore him. "Question the world! Find our way! Count the stars!"

He is weary and his skin is ashen. His breathing is noisy. "I have run the figures through my vulvic triangulator a thousand times."

"Then when will we get to the Empire?"

"We should be there already...we should already be home." He trails off and stares with unfocused eyes out the port in his cabin -- nothing but unfathomable blue.

I snap my fingers and jostle his shoulder. "Hey! Master War! We've awakened in a prison cell and are not being fed at all: what can we do to know the mind of our captors? What can we do, man?"

He shakes his head sadly. "There are no captors, boy."

We sit in silence a moment, and then a strange little smile plays briefly over the old man's lips. "She's so beautiful," he comments.

"Who?" I ask.

I trace his gaze out the portal and then stand up for a better view. I stand up too quickly, and falter in dizziness. I imagine I see the one who walks between the waves but my vision throbs with the spectral bruising of afterimages. I am weak. My tongue is thick and my throat very dry. I blink with effort. I cannot even see the sea -- only a wall of blue as if our ship were flying. My tortured brain will no longer render the image of the damned water.

"I see nothing."

Onion War chuckles mirthlessly. "And nothing sees you."


A Spot of Inclement Weather

I miss Onion War. I miss Captain Valley. These are the days of decision by committee -- the days of blood on the deck and unmagical desperation. These are the days the burnt pork aroma of the third officer has oozed into our rags and refuses to vent, reminding us with our own pall of stink the abscess of our nobility.

We are depraved. Mr. Spice has broiled the calves of the dead into a soup, but if anyone tries to take any he cuts off their fingers. Then he puts the fingers in the soup. I have eaten my shirt, and like many I find it hard not to snack on stringy clods of the tar that keeps our hull fast against water.

Some songs are sung but I dare not repeat the lyric.

I do my best to steer. Come nightfall I awkwardly position Onion War's instruments on his floating tripod so that I can squeeze the stars between the tines of the register and thereby take numbers from the sky to flex into the vulvic triangulator with my sundried fingertip.

For the first time in my life I find myself staring into the heavens and really asking myself what it all is -- why are the stars concentrated in a winding river from north-east to south-west, and why do some appear orange while others seem to be blue? I think of the blue gas fires in the swamps of my father's province, and wonder whether there could be any connection...

Is it a mystery the magic wants me to penetrate? Is the world, in fact, a riddle?

(Then again, were I to awake in a prison cell why would I assume the designers of my circumstances to be anything other than men? Captured by happenstance, would I not imagine authors rather than rail against mindless chance?)

It is only by remembering the glory of the Empire that I manage to push on. I am so certain it lies just over the horizon that when I first see the black line of devil's weather cresting the sea ahead I am able to convince myself I see a bank of dark conifers. "We have somehow drifted north," I reason.

The apparent conifers are backlit by spasms of silent lightning. They rise on spires of inky cloud, ascend upon a mountain of blue-grey shadow that begins to merge with the water at the horizon. I discern a curtain of rain lazily blurring the way between the storm and our ship a split second before we are punched by a fist of wind.

I yell orders but no one will help me. Captain Valley stands at the prow of the ship like a statue, hands clutched behind his back and thighs quivering with exertion as he fights to keep his feet against the pitching deck. A skeletal crewman tries to reef in a flapping sail but discovers he is too weak, and settles down to tie himself to a canoe.

"Captain Valley!" I scream, but he cannot hear me. When the wind rages in the right direction I catch snippets of his hymn. His range is good, and it occurs to me suddenly why he is so very private: Valley is an exiled magician, a castrato on the lam.

As I consider this a wave smashes across the foredeck and washes Captain Valley away. His song stops abruptly.

The ship is picked up by the next surge and balanced high. As I cling to a boom lightning flashes and illuminates my world: I see the heaving sea below, the cliff of frothing water on which we teeter, and the wall of jagged rocks upon which we are about to drop. I experience some horror.

The lightning passes, thunder rolls. I am grateful to be unaware of my circumstances again. Everything is black and wet and then, briefly, very painful.

I elect to take a nap.


Angel by the Wing

I awake on a narrow tongue of beach nestled in the shadow of bluffs overlooking the sea. The splintered wreckage of our galleon is visible jutting from an irregular pile of rocks upon which it has been dashed, apparently unleashing of landslide of lichen-slick stones from the face of the cliff above.

A flotilla of objects bob sedately in the vicinity: an empty bottle of wine, a codpiece, the upper deck of Mr. Spice's false teeth, the right arm of the artificial woman, a cabin boy, a seat cushion, a spoon...

The sun has come out. The head of a pretty girl sits upon a pile of rocks next to me.

I am not horrified, and I examine the head from where I lie with a kind of detached curiosity. The neck terminates in a smooth, bloodless line. Her eyes are closed as if in communion, her lips pursed as if at study. It seems to me to have been a very peaceful death, for a decapitation.

I wonder where she came from. Despite the lightness of her skin it seems unweathered, like the supple faces of the Empire's most comely noble mathematicians. Her hair is black and short, feathery.

Steered by a morbid compassion I reach out to her touch her apple-ripe cheek, and I scream like a child when her eyes snap open before my fingertips find her. I throw myself backward and land in the surf with a splash, gasping.

The head shifts and the rocks beneath the stump ripple. I blink, my eyes irritated by the strange motion. The girl's eyes are fixed on me, lively and focused. A hand sweeps out of the rocks and extends on a pole of grey sand toward me, a tiny metallic device pinioned between dirty fingers.

"Do not touch me," she commands, a bewilderingly toneless speech that comes a second after her lips move.

"What are you?" I demand hoarsely, scrambling to my knees and crawling away from the menacing apparition. Even in my fear I note the crisp shadows the decapitated girl's arm of sand casts, as tangible and real as the wet locks of my own hair dripping before my eyes.

She pinches her mouth tight, says nothing.

I stand. Breathing hard I make a wide circle around the head on the pile of rocks that waver and discolour as my perspective changes. I settle down on my haunches and against the ocean and the sky it becomes clear: the girl's body is there, invisible, copying the light of the world behind it. Now her arm is a blue horizon, and if I raise my head it takes on the hue of the bluffs.

I shuffle closer. She trains the device on me ominously. I hold up my empty hands and lean in closer again: I can perceive her camouflaged left leg pinned between two clots of the landslide's slurry. This girl -- whatever she is -- is pinned like a butterfly to a collector's felt.

The device in her hand flashes and I reel back like a ragdoll, pushed by an invisible agency. I land hard on the sand and lose my breath. Croaking for air I kick out blindly and manage to strike the girl's hand. Her weapon flies free, skips twice on the water and then submerges with a fart of bubbles.

"Faeces!" she cries.

"That hurt," I accuse, rubbing my ass. In my abused state the whole affair leaves me a bit tired so I remain splayed out on the beach for some time, regaining my breath and watching the trapped girl watch me.

I theorize that she is the being I have seen walking in our wake. Is she herself of the magic?

After a while she sits up, her unadorned head seeming to float above the beach as she squeezes her hands beneath a large lip of rock weighing on her shin and attempts to prise it loose. She grunts, her face distorted not just by her effort but also by pain. Her leg, I imagine, has been broken.

She leans back against the rocks again, exhausted, sweat glistening on her young brow.

"You're stuck," I point out.

She stares at me, and then whispers something. After the briefest pause the toneless voice sounds again: "I am not permitted to speak with you."

"Oh."

I crawl over to her and ignore the next battery of warnings. There is an edge in her voice that tells me she doesn't have another magic pushing device. I explore the distorted camouflage of her leg, moving downward until I find the crevasse in which she has become lodged. Her strange clothes, grey and shimmeringly visible at this proximity, are ripped there below the knee, exposing a length of soft calf abraded and bloody.

(I decide that she is a mortal thing.)

She chops her hand at my neck and kicks at me viciously with her free leg, and I am toppled over into the mud again. The surf comes in a moment later and washes over me, leaving streamers of dank seaweed. I sit up and rub my throbbing neck.

"Get away from me," the girl commands. "Contact is forbidden."

"I can help you," I say.

"My colleagues are en route," she replies quickly. "Your surviving shipmates have walked north along the beach to a nearby village. I suggest you join them before my colleagues arrive."

I can tell this is supposed to be a threat but the childish quaver in her voice robs it of much strength. "How do you know where my shipmates have gone?"

"I can see them," she says, looking north and squinting.

I look north at the solid face of rock beneath the turf-topped bluffs. I look back at the girl, whose brown irises are dialled out for far focus. She blinks, her pupils flitting rapidly. "Less than an hour away by foot," she tells me, still looking at whatever ghosts she consults for such bewildering mathematics.

"You are a woman and I do not doubt your calculations," I say slowly, "but you are also possessed of powers such as I've never imagined and thus I have no basis to guess your motives. Tell me: are you from the Third Continent?"

No reply. I look out at the small cove in which we have landed, noting the lines of dried brine on the faces of the cliffs. I also note how the depression of sand where I had awakened has become a puddle. I turn back to the girl. "How long until your friends arrive?"

"Any moment," she lies.

I sniff. "The tide is coming in."

She raises her head to look for herself and I can see her elbows poking through other rips in her camouflaging skin. Her brow furrows. She bites her lip. She leans back again and avoids my eye. "Please help me."

"My help is conditional. You will answer my questions."

She assents. Her head drops. The rock camouflage of her bosom rises and falls with heavy breaths. "One question," she negotiates.

"Two," I correct.

(Onion War had spent decades squeezing answers -- unreliable answers -- drop by precious drop from the world. He never had my opportunity: I have an angel by the wing who begs my favour. Think of that!)

With a frustrated grunt the girl sits up again and pulls frantically at her leg while stealing glances at the rising tide. Then she gives up once more and pleads, "I am forbidden from sharing information with you." Her eyes jitter, then moisten. "I will fail my class," she adds.

"Two questions," I remind her.

She bites her lip again and nods. "Two questions. Quickly! Please."

When she has satisfied me we work together to topple away the debris pinning her leg. At the moment when she is freed I am close enough to discern the grey folds along her shin and calf inflate to become turgid sacs, correcting the position of the girl's mislaid bones with an audible crackle. She lets out a little yelp and squeezes my shoulder.

When I look up there are five figures standing on the rising waters. Hobbling, she goes to them. For a long time I watch after them, long after they have walked away over the glittering horizon.

The stars have come to horrify me, so when evening comes I cower.


My Wives Cannot Count

I cannot pronounce of the name of our people yet, but I'm trying.

Our lives are simple, and good. We have houses on little legs to keep them safe during the monsoons. Our boats are painted to resemble different fish, an idea whose origin is lost but whose tradition is artfully embraced. When people around here laugh they make clicking sounds with their tongues, a refrain more refined and subtle than one might suspect. I practise laughing every day, in order to fit in.

I remember standing in the surf to see off my surviving shipmates as they set out upon their makeshift craft, determined to find civilization and greatness and all the glory that is the Empire. My wives, neither of whom can count, stood by my side.

We waved and smiled as their vessel diminished in perspective and then sank below the edge of the world. I was in a great mood. I had no regrets.

Whether or not my shipmates ever found the passage home is unknown to me. I don't really care. I eat nuts and berries and I wear a loincloth. When it's rainy I get a little bit wet, but most of the time it's sunny here.

I cultivate edible roots, which is demanding but satisfying labour.

I'm still quite handsome when unstarved. To the eyes of the colourless savages I am ugly, however, and thus have to work hard at my marriages. Likewise I cannot get by on charm, because to these villagers my ways are uncouth.

They find my songs hilarious. They rib me about my civilized habits.

However they also view me as a man possessed of special knowledge, though I discourage it. The wonders of the Empire don't seem so wonderful to me anymore. I have no ambition to introduce them in any kind of detail to the magical precepts or the arts of masonry or feminine cartography. I would sooner tell them the truth, and that I will never do.

Who would want to know?

Who would want to know that the sky is full of suns? (When I learned that from my trapped angel a chill ran down my spine and in a certain way I have never felt warm there again.) Who would want to know that what was held as great is in fact paltry? (When I realized that the godlet cried for me.)

We call the world "the world" but its name is Eden, a globe where our founding blood travelled to live apart from knowledge.

I learned that she, like me, was an animal called a human being, bred by circumstance in a far away time at a far away place called Sol.

She told me she had come from the University of Callicrates where her professor was leading an audit of the cultural anomaly known as the Empire of Light and Conquest, a malignancy of complexity whose rapid influence over the face of this kindergarten had surprised so many.

I mourned, "My world is a joke. It is studied in school, by children. Our glories are insectile."

She replied, "All works are insectile. You cannot guess the true immensity and baffling complexity of the Everything. Your brain would bleed to imagine, and so would mine."

(It really puts things in perspective, when deities lament.)

My integration into the tribe continues. I have been assigned a totem and a spiritual animal buddy. I am learning all the moves for the big dance. I will be circumcised at the next solstice, which I admit I have mixed feelings about.

Around the fire I sometimes tell stories about my old life.

Like I said, I am viewed as a font but I do not flow freely. There are some things it is easier not to know. When I am lying on my back at night with the soft grass behind my head, surrounded by the murmurs of the jungle and the rustle of the sea, with a wife snuggled in on either side tightly, one or the other or both will ask, "Tell us, husband, what are the stars?"

I sigh. I squeeze them against against me. I breathe in the breeze. "They are wonder, my loves," I always reply. "Nothing but wonder."


10 comments:

mandrill said...

Bravo once again Mr. Brown.

Simon said...

Great story, CBB. I shouldn't have read it while at work but... keeping with the precedent started by SoS. Standalone, or the prelude to something more comprehensive? The intro said short story, so perhaps I'll have to be content with the offering as-is.

I want a vulvic triangulator.

The BS said...

I think this is actually your best writing yet, and hopefully a good indicator of things to come.

I know you're a fan of Cordwainer Smith and I see his beautiful surreality in this.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Mandrill, Simon, The BS: Thanks kindly.

It's a different sort of short story for me, so I decided to experiment a bit. I'm not sure how I feel about it. It meanders and its long, but it has a few parts I like.

More fiction to come. More experiments. I need to fart around to offset the labour of squirting out the next novel, which is proceeding steadily if not smoothly.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Anonymous said...

you've obviously penned this with TLC yourself
and I cu wear a stetson-are you in B/B mountain <:)?
You seem to be siting on the fence though about the whole story: you've not committed one way or another or another.
You could really push the boat out: where's the story lead-ing?
I thought the jug was a nice touch along with the illuminnation detector from the mast, but you really do just seem to drift about the ship not doing anything, which is out of keeping with the char.
Did you ever offer to help with the washing up for example Ill bet *knot* hahaha?

Teddy said...

very strange. Odd story, very very VERY peripherally related to SoS. "University of Callicrates"...to my memory, the "Empire of Light and Conquest" rings a bell in my mind, was that the name of the power at Kamari Star?

Also, is there someplace I can download Karma-Cola? Reading the screenplay, it seems interesting enough. And anyways, artistic modesty means that you make it out to be worse than it is, so it can't be too deadly.

TRH

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Teddy,

The wretched short film that that screenplay became can be downloaded here:

http://mfdh.ca/movies/karmacola

Is there not a link somewhere in the screenplay document? If not there should be.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

It's a beautifull written story and I hope you carry on with it. Sincerely.
x

Sith Snoopy said...

That was TOTALLY cool. :)

Thank you. Gave me a nice breath of fresh air after so many long months w/o Simon of Space. :)

Erica said...

I just now read this story, and loved it. A very sobering perspective, when deities lament. Thank you, as ever, for sharing your words. (Hope Littlestar is hanging in there - or better yet, happily free of her gestational obligations.)