Santa Cruz, California

Xochi through Timepull

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Xochi

Maya: 300

 

     Xochi twirled her fork in pale syrup. “One night on the trail, one night with Annie Gracious. She might be back by tomorrow noon.”

       Alice rolled her eyes. “Afternoon. Earliest.” Exasperation bubbles floated up and popped with wet smacks.

     “That audio coding is getting better.”

     An angry face rose and exploded. It sounded distant. “Well, mom, your coding is doing a really plausible job of hiding those wrinkles.” Alice speared a small block of waffle cells and chewed noisily.

     Xochi’s fork clattered. “Ok, that was rude.”

     Smug faces made an animated crown. “So was pointing out how much my audio used to glitch.”

     “Maya, Alice! It was a compliment!”

     “Not when you’re comparing me to La’ii the Hacker, it isn’t.” All the smug faces looked pointedly at Xochi at once. The edges of Alice’s blouse and scarf began to flutter upwards, as if she were surrounded by rising warm air.

     Xochi’s imp whispered “blood pressure” and ducked back into her earring. Xochi inhaled and exhaled slowly. Twice. Xochi’s projection cooled her skin tone and re-modulated her voice. “Practice coding and earn the extra equipment.”

     “…or use La’ii’s.”

     “She’ll be back tomorrow, Alice. I’m not giving you her stuff.”

     The blouse and scarf swirled now. “I’d just be borrowing it.”

     “…until you spend all night installing and coding and all day whining it’s too difficult to downgrade.” Even through the voice modulation, her syllables were clipped.

     “Just until she gets back. I can do uninstall codes.” Little puppy-eyed faces waggled around Xochi’s waffle plate and whimpered.

     “Practice coding and earn the extra equipment.”

     Little snarls swirled. “It’s just sitting there.”

     Xochi stopped reasoning. “Practice and earn.”

     More puppies. “Just to see what I want to earn for myself later.”

     “Practice and earn.” Xochi’s arms folded in a way La’ii would recognize.

     Weeping alligators death rolled with mouthfuls of Alice’s hair. She stomped a foot. “You always let her have everything!”

     Xochi started to pick up the dishes. “Practice and earn.” She turned her back on her daughter.

     Little banshees screamed in a glowering cloud. “I hope she never comes back!”

     Dishes slammed into the washer. “She’s coming back!” Xochi hollered, veins pulsing so heavily in her temples that her projection wavered.

Splash

Infinity: Nulltime

 

     Waking up in infinity wasn’t exactly waking up. Certainly, their bodies were entwined back on Earth in a pit sleeping. Leor felt that if he focused on waking up, he probably could. But he certainly wasn’t asleep, either. There was that crystalline, precise fitting of minds that happened in their sleep. That was when their hair started to braid itself into mandalas again. Dreaming became lucid dreaming, became shared lucid dreaming, became greater than the sum of their parts, became this oceanic totality.

     This time, they weren’t pulled anywhere. They could drift and look.

     Each bubble had an Earth. Each Earth had Leor and La’ii practicing. Leor wondered where into the future these lives went. La’ii’s mind began to answer and their tiny selves in the bubbles flickered forward in time.

     There were children.

     La’ii’s mind bounced off, sending them both careening toward a reality cluster in which they looked truly elvish. La’ii turned toward it and dove in. Bubbles scattered and splashed around them. The membranes of each reality were resilient, more so than the one around Gareth. They felt buffeted. They began to turn and kick, diving and slicing through the foam with gleeful abandon.

Tides

Earth: Launch +5

 

     Juan’s hand froze in space handing the old iron skillet to Fredo. Marino’s broad, tough hands paused on the kindling mid-break. The doctor’s gracile hands folded on her lap. They all stared at Gareth.

     Gareth’s lavender eyes rolled toward the darkening indigo sky. ”Timepull,” he whispered.

 

A Visit

Faerth: 14,829-14,975

 

     They were separate and physical again. Their minds remained interlocked. Every detail of cellular and molecular activity in the immediate vicinity thrummed through Leor, while the threads of melody in La’ii’s mind traced truths back and forth through time. Stars and sun breathed night and day. Seasons pulsed rhythmically around them as they listened quite literally to the music of the spheres.

     They stood like statues in the sacred grove. Younger elves changed their clothing for them at the spring equinoxes. After five years, they began to show rootlets and tendrils. After a hundred, their massive roots twined into the soil, their faces only suggestions within their bark. It took a hundred and forty six before La’ii and Leor began to think it was time to get back.

Shuffle

Earth: Launch +5

 

     The barrette in the doctor’s black and silver hair had fallen askew. It was a battered turquoise piece she had worn daily through the bunker, the launch, and the lean times.

     Gareth’s blue eyes twinkled. “May I?”

     Her eyes returned the smile.

     Gareth’s finger traced the loose strands, catching them deftly in steady fingers. He popped open the clasp, slid in the strays, and snapped the clasp closed again.

     Juana and Fredericka smiled from the hearth. They were sweet together, after all they’d been through.

Stack

Infinity: Nulltime

 

     “Ok, being elves was cool.” La’ii’s mind trilled with glee.

     Leor’s mind played a note of caution. “I’m not sure which Earth we came from.”

     A path paved with confidence stretched away from La’ii. “I can find it.” She tugged his consciousness with her.

     There had been some shifting while they were elves. Parts of the paths between realities had rotated, had attenuated. It meant popping through realities to get back instead of sliding between them.

     Leor rode along, fleeting truths and fleeting bodies flicked on and off his consciousness. The areas between physical reality and infinity moved over him like dappled sunlight. His ears grew rounder. His body grew shorter, denser, and softer.

     Disorienting, but La’ii seemed to know just where she was going.

‘Steading

Earth: Launch +5

 

     “That’s not just timepull,” mused Gareth. The vicious scar down his face occluded one blue eye.

     The doctor tugged the ends of her bound hair to tighten her malachite barrette. “I have an odd feeling that scar hasn’t always included your eye, even though I remember the scar from the moment I met you.”

     “I just wanted to clasp your hair for you.” Gareth studied her, as if from an unfamiliar angle.

     Juanita giggled. “As if you two would. I mean if five years of means, motive, and opportunity hasn’t done the trick.”

     A skinny girl flashed past, swiping a leftover burnt tortilla on the way. Juanita managed to cuff her, landing a negligible thump on the head. “Freak!,” Juanita called after the knobby elbows disappearing onto the brush.

     Gareth’s fingertips rubbed his sternum. It was much more than timepull. “What is that?,” he asked the air. His left ankle began to ache.

 

*****

 

     …which it had always done, ever since he broke it rolling that log in the swamp with Daniel. His eye caught the doctor’s lapiz barrette perched tight in her hair. That thing hadn’t budged in in the whole time he’d known her.  She stacked the hearth for morning, leaving the living coals banked under ash at the back. Her hands remained immaculate.

 

*****

 

     “Leor?” La’ii’s voice quavered. “This pit house isn’t exactly right. I mean the chamber pot is different and the blanket is different.” She rubbed her eyes.

     He tried the boulder at the entrance. “Looks like we’re still in quarantine.”

     “I wonder how long we were gone,” she asked, yawning.

     Footsteps approached. A woman’s voice filtered down through the roof. “First coherence check. Are you two ok in there?”

     They looked at each other and shrugged. “Yes!” they piped together.

     “Who is that?” asked Leor. “I’m not sure we’ve met.”

     They could both feel the immediate cloud across her thoughts. They should know her. They just met two hours ago.

     La’ii sidled up to her mind. Aghast, she whispered, “It’s Doctor Hernandez.”

     Leor pointed up helplessly while his jaw worked.

     Parts of La’ii’s face tried to make light of it. Parts tugged down on her mouth. “Try again in the morning?” she suggested.  

     He grunted.

     She touched the tips of his fingers, gentle as spring leaves uncoiling in a breeze, and led him to their rest.

Timepull

Earth: Launch +5

 

     It wasn’t her bed. It wasn’t her room, her house, her family, her planet, her time, or her life. Yet La’ii slept blissfully entwined in Leor’s arms. The mandalas weaving themselves around their heads included elvish runes for fate, volatility, and unintended consequences. La’ii’s fingers traced Leor’s skin: the curve of his belly near his hip, the grooves between his ribs, the sweep under his pecs to his sternum.

     He woke up. He listened to her mind. There was a reverberating awareness of his skin through her fingers, his scent comforting her deep into feelings of unquestionable belonging, and a burgeoning thrum of sexual delight. A hundred and fifty years as a tree had been a lot of waiting while their leaves stirred softly in the breeze, barely touching, keenly aware of every squirrel, every elf, every bark mite, every nightingale’s vivid life cycles around them. His body roared for hers.

     He unveiled his mind. He didn’t offer an image or a plea. He didn’t unleash his emotions within her consciousness. He simply existed sincerely beside her, enjoying the resonance between the physical thrill of her touch and her sleeping contentment tracing his body.

     She murmured and snuggled up to rest her head on his chest.

     He could simultaneously feel his heartbeat press her cheek and hear it through her ears. Maya, the woman could sleep through anything.

     Gingerly, he stroked her jawline with a fingertip. That jaw, if she woke, might clench, might bite back desire, might turn away from him. It had been a hundred and fifty years, but it was still only their second night together. Even back home with constant pressure to Expand, two days was fast.

     Her brow clouded, and he deftly turned his mind toward her jaw, the miniscule moisture between her cheek and his chest, his heartbeat in her ears.

     She relaxed. Her fingers traveled up his neck to his jaw. Her mind crossed into consciousness. With the slightest pressure on his chin, she turned his face toward her. She stretched her neck and kissed him.

     May I? He suffused it with his love for light on her dappled leaves, with the drip of spring rain on her bark, with more than a century of yearning, with her intoxicating scent, and the wailing of every cell in his body to enfold her.

     “Let me touch you,” she moaned.

     “Unequivocal yes.”

     “Here. Quotidian, 3D, in the flesh, no coding, no timesurfing, no borrowed reality. Now.”

     They clasped each other, rolling in the blankets on the dirt floor. Minds enmeshed, each knew the other’s needs: where to put a hand, how hard to bite, how tantalizing was the taste of sweat, when to shift weight to relieve pressure, what pressures racked and gloriously rattled the bones.

     The entwined mandala writhed in seeming agony, the tiny runic stroke that differentiated “death” from “rebirth” fluctuating as their bodies rocked.

     Their joy lifted their consciousness together as the physical distinction between their bodies simply dissolved. Microbes in the soil around them increased activity. They could feel infinitesimal dust mites feasting on the skin cells on the blankets, those minute satisfactions adding to their own. They floated quite naturally into nulltime, pulsing like electrons around a shared nucleus.

     In physical transcendence, La’ii opened her eyes to infinity. In shared motion, they swam like plankton in foaming masses of realities, each with an Earth, with a La’ii and Leor in ecstasy, with-

     She froze.

     Leor froze.

     -with La’ii, Expanded, burdened with child, aching and exhausted.

     She pushed him away. Their bodies parted. Their minds parted. Their safety in infinite nulltime collapsed and La’ii hurtled helpless and alone into an unknown reality.

Oracle, Arizona

Practice, Rip Curl

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Practice

Maya: 300

 

     It was going to be messy. Whe had to think of Gracious as “she”. That’s what she preferred, and that’s what was accurate. To wherfolk, gender identification was deeply intimate conversation. To wherfolk, people were literally zoo animals: physically truncated, primitive, insensitive, incapable of complex reasoning. It was going to be messy.

     “Whe’re lucky I know whe don’t believe that about me.”

     Her braid swung as she hiked beside wher. Her skin flushed deeper. Whe looked closer. It wasn’t only the exercise. Fine hairs between her cheekbones and jawline had changed angles. Probably strong negative emotions. “Whe’m sorry,” whe growled. “Whe forgot you could hear now.”

     I’m an Annie. I talk to Maya. It took effort not to hear wher when wher shields were up. Now? She shrugged.

     Whe sent an image of the three enclosures and a double helix.

     Yup. Zoos. Separated breeding populations. She sent an image of the rest of the planet, richly and densely populated with wherfolk and several other sentient species above ground, below ground, under water, and in the air. She added emphasis to the no-go zone around the human enclosures. She colored it with a sense of understanding it was probably for the best.

     Brrda’s moustache twitched. “Has Maya told you the purpose of the breeding program?”

     “No.” Gracious shook her head, and the braid rocked between her shoulder blades.

     An image of a golden brindle wherfolk’s mane rocking in obvious ecstasy escaped Brrda’s mind. Wher velvety lines stood up on wher neck. Traces of orange flashed in the lines on wher cheeks.

     Gracious blushed. “Do whe know the purpose of the breeding programs?”

     “No.” Whe smoothed the orange lines down.

     She sent a close-up image of the sable neck lines colored with her urge to trace them slowly with her nails. The sable on Brrda’s body delineated from wher nape, past wher slung weapons, and down to the backs of wher thighs. I thought that’s what the sable lines meant. She could feel Brrda’s purr thrumming in her chest. I’m going to ignore that until wher thinking about wherfolk’s opinions of me clears up. What whe’ll face leaves no quarter for doubt.

     You said “whe’ll”. The purring intensified.

     She felt it travel, deliciously, through her breasts and below her belly. That is hardly fair. She plucked the tie from the end of her braid. Her waving mane sprang loose, falling to her waist, clouding around her shoulders, spilling over her pack, trailing across her features. “Now that you can’t concentrate either, how much do we tell Xochi?”

     Brrda blinked. Who? Who?

     La’ii’s mother appeared in the air before wher. Above her, the binary suns glared. Around her enclosure, Custodians poured food paste and minerals into the systems. Gracious herself, as Loonie Annie Gracious, pontificated Expansions and mystic truths. La’ii was in a design on Gracious’ new robe, but nowhere else.

     “Ah, Xochi.” The purring took on a more gentle, pondering tone. “What do you suggest?”

     Gracious, if she’d been constructed for it, would have purred.

Rip Curl

Earth: Launch + 5

 

     Pinch sounded almost apologetic. “These are your quarantine quarters.”

     It was a pit. Peeking lower into the entrance, La’ii saw it was a pit house at least. There was a hearth, some stumps to sit on, a rough ceramic jug of water, and an area walled off with a hanging blanket. She reached out a hand. The hearth was warm.

     Leor also saw how well designed it was. Lined with timber, a central pole held up a dry brushy roof. It would be very, very easy to collapse the whole thing and burn them both to ashes inside.

     La’ii followed his eyes along the rafters and saw the log set as leverage between the central pole and the roof. It was both sturdy and rigged to collapse.

     Together they gaped up at his dark silhouette.

     The older man shrugged. “That’s why they call me pinché. Quarantine is three days. We’ll bring food, water, and fuel regularly. If you can both answer simple questions coherently, we’ll roll open the entrance long enough for you to bring out the empties and the chamber pot. If you’re incoherent, if it looks like you’re climbing the beam, if you work to escape, if I don’t like the smell in there, I incinerate you both.” His face wrenched in sympathy for an instant. “We believe you and you are honored guests.”

     Gareth laid his weight into the boulder by the entrance. “Practice if you can.” Pinch added his weight, and the rock rolled into place.

     “Well, Daniel.” La’ii’s fists jammed into her hips as she looked at the back side of the boulder.

     “Hey, it’s cozy in here!” Leor called from behind the blanket. He turned and faced her, sheepish. “So cozy there’s only one bed.”

     She managed to fold herself, her arms, and her legs up on a stump all at once. Her nostrils flared above an imperious chin. “I’m not Expanding. Not on a blue sky disease infested alien planet Sappho only knows how distant in how many dimensions from home without a Reading while locked in a dirt pit waiting to see if they incinerate me before I accidentally die flitting through time. Sappho crashing spider smashing no.”

     Her thoughts were so turbulent they were turbid. All he could read was a swirling mass of refusal. He knelt on the dirt floor in front of her. “Shall I split up the bedding and sleep out here?” A glimmer of waking up next to him yesterday in Brrda’s cave flashed through her mind. Her chin dropped and her hair slipped down off her shoulders into her lap. He reached his hand near hers without touching. “May I?” Her fingers stretched just enough to make contact. He waited, feeling her mind settle, feeling her enjoy the texture of his fingertips, feeling her mask her enjoyment, feeling her organize her thoughts behind the whirlpool of refusal. He waited. He kept his own mind very, very quiet very, very carefully.

     She whispered. “I want to be near you. I don’t want to Expand.”

     “Deal,” he said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

     They ducked behind the curtain, circled a bit, and fell asleep curled together like kittens.

Need to Know, Digs

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Need to Know

Planet Maya: 300

 

     Brrda knew whe had a hidden agenda. Several, in fact. But the Twin’s folks needed to hear it from a human, and a human needed protection between enclosures. Whe sucked a tender fiber of rabbit meat from behind a fang and nibbled. Whe kept wher mind veiled. Anybody who could talk to Maya could probably read wher like krav tracks.

     Gracious’ braid swung behind her as she scrubbed the bowls and stewpot. Leftovers had gone with the young families. One less meal prep was a blessing for inexperienced parents. Her armpits prickled, just a little. Was Brrda watching her? Closely? She shrugged the idea off. They weren’t even the same species. To Brrda, she was only half there.

     “Gracious?”

     See? That was a problem. The growly thrumming way her name sounded in wher voice made it impossible to keep her thinking properly dressed. She kept her back turned and tried to sound casual. “Ya?”

     “Whe have to visit civilization and talk to the Twins’ parents. Whe can’t just let their cubs disappear without a trace.” Whe tugged at a few tight small curls on wher neck under wher goatee. Whe noticed wher own nervous habit.

     Gracious turned. That was going to be a tough conversation. Most civilized people didn’t know custodians existed. They certainly didn’t know Maya was sentient and running a breeding program in a quarantined zoo. “Are whe going to pretend whe’re a projection?”

     Wher nails ticked on the glossy table in jazzy triples. “If whe have to. Whe’d prefer a real human. Someone they already trust.” The drumming stopped. “Whe’d prefer you.”

     Looney Annie Gracious, matriarch, weaver, and speaker to Maya blushed head to toe. So much for ignoring it.

     Brrda’s nostrils flared.

     Neither could keep veils up after that. It was obvious as air. Whey agreed entirely about many very consequential, very personal, very public, and very impossible things.

     “I’ll pack my travel kit,” she said. Gracious saw those velvety black lines between wher shoulders stand up. May I? She asked. The standing lines traveled up wher neck and down wher back.

     That was a yes.

     Gracious traced the lines, gently as training spiders.

     Brrda purred.

     “Jumping Maya Hernandez Gareth and Daniel,” she murmured.  

     Whe huff-chuckled. “Do you know how hard it is to freak out a pride of wherfolk?” Wher mane fluffed. “Whe might just succeed.”

Digs

Earth: Launch + 5

 

     The food was good again, and that cheered La’ii up. It also kept her mouth full long enough for her to think. It wasn’t Leor’s fault, or Gareth’s or Dr. Hernandez’s. So far away from everyone, every place, every time she ever knew it was probably better to cooperate.

     Leor sat next to her wolfing loaded tortillas and boggling his mind about how impossible it would be to program a kitchen table to print it.

     They sat in a rock ring, the boy hustling food and water to them from the rock and fire kitchen. Merina and Duan hung back, delivering food to people she hadn’t seen yet. Gareth and Dr. Hernandez, lean and grizzled, waited patiently.

     The boy handed her another serving.

     “What’s your name?” she asked.

     “Freddo.” He turned and scooted away.

     “Are they afraid of us?” piped Leor.

     Gareth shrugged. “Afraid? No. Cautious, yes.”

     Dr. Hernandez rubbed the back of his hand with two fingers. “Strangers usually mean attack or disease. They’re quarantining and prepping for defense.”

     “Most don’t really believe I’m from the future,” added Gareth.”It’s just a story to them. They haven’t seen me jump.”

     Leor got didactic. “Dr. Hernandez’s future. Our past.” He hummed as he chewed.

     The doctor smiled. “Call me Pinch. I haven’t been a Pee Aych Dee for twenty years.”

     “Pee Aych Dee?” The Twins spoke simultaneously.

     The elder man turned up his empty palms. “An obsolete educational status marker. What matters now is these people are safe, sheltered, and fed.”

     “How many of you are there?” La’ii wondered.

     The men got vague, fast.

     Gareth volunteered, “Your clothes are high quality spider silk. Better than we could do in my time, but definitely from Planet Maya. I believe you. But these people’s lives are at stake and as far as we know, there aren’t many survivor groups on Earth.”

     Dr. Her… Pinch finished for him. “We treat you like any non-threatening, apparently healthy strangers. We hide everything and keep our distance until we can be sure.”

     “Fair enough.” Leor wiped his face with his hand and wiped his hand on his pant leg. “What if we were threatening or sick?”

     Pinch’s eyes drilled. “You’d be dead already.”

     La’ii’s eyes flickered to Gareth’s. His look confirmed the truth. “How long do you think you can keep them all alive?”

     Gareth’s voice lowered. “Not long enough to rebuild.”

     “The fungus flares up in any crowded environment. Humanity may be limited to small bands from now on. If any of us are immune. If immunity is genetic. If genetic immunity is a dominant trait. If small bands can mate and produce fertile offspring carrying dominant genetic immunity faster than recessive traits gang up in the dwindling genetic resources of the population.”

     She might call him Pinch, but he was definitely still Dr. Hernandez. “Looney Annie Gracious…”

     Leor interrupted in a parenthetical tone of voice. “Something like a priestess. Seems to have access to Sappho’s computer information or Planet Maya as an intelligent entity.”

     “Probably both,” said La’ii. “Annie Gracious sent us to bring you back to Planet Maya. We’re not sure why. We went to ask about the Looney plans to protect their people from the Apocalypse.”

     “…Hoping, if they had a plan, civilized people could be saved as well,” elaborated Leor.

     “…But as soon as she told us she wanted us to gather you two…”

     “…We disappeared…”

     “…And landed here.” La’ii finished.

     Gareth nodded. “I had a bit of a theory that when variables settled into a configuration that made what had to happen for the timeline to function possible, I jumped. Never had control of it, though. Never had a chance to experiment at all.”

     Pinch leaned forward. “This was your first jump?”

     They nodded.

     “Do you have the slightest idea how to get back?”

     Negative head shakes with cascading sunset highlights.

     “Do you have the slightest idea how to take us with you?”

     Negative again.

     Everybody folded their fingers and dropped their faces.

     Gareth broke the silence. “You’re going to have to practice.”

Santa Cruz, california

Surfing, Earth, Gracious

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March 2018

Surfing

 

     Absolute darkness. La’ii waved her hand on front of her face.

     There was no hand. There was no face. There was no body.

     What there was was: Leor at her side sharing her mind, also without his body; darkness thicker than cheese; and the slightest glimmer at astronomical distance of sea foam in the moonlight.

     “We’re moving toward it,” murmured Leor’s mind.

     He was right. They were rushing towards it. The glimmer increased to a glint. The glint increased to a shine. The shine increased to a beacon. The beacon expanded into a break of crashing white-limned waves. The break became a shoreless ocean.

     “We’re going in!” He was trying not to flinch, which was funny since he had no body at this point. Yet their minds both cringed as they plummeted toward the waves, and they sucked non-existent air into lungs that weren’t there.

     They didn’t get wet. They seemed still to plunge toward the foam without reaching it. She began to see individual large bubbles in the surf. She began to see masses of tiny bubbles moving like wet mortar between the large bubbles.

     “Er. Errrr. Earth?” asked Leor. She could feel his absent head tilt quizzically.

     Following the line of his attention, she peered into one of the larger bubbles. She recognized it from history class: Sol, its system of planets, and blue Earth.

     The large bubbles loomed huge as houses. The tiny bubbles grew.

     She whispered, “All of them have Earths.”

     “Which do we choose?”

     “Choose?” she asked. “I don’t think we’re steering.”

     “Good point,” he agreed.

     What had been tiny bubbles were now enormous. Between them sloshed and tumbled masses of smaller bubbles, which also grew huge.

     She felt his brain lose focus.

     He mumbled, “Four dimensional fractal masses of related realities?”

     She increased her presence in his mind, exaggerating the points where it felt most like they were in contact. Something reminded her of Xochi snugging a boyfriend’s arm closer when a passing bit of code turned his head.

     She felt Leor put the astro-temporal theory away and snug back. The mass of bubbles turned a degree, and a bubble that had been quark-sized before consumed them. There was the slightest drag as they passed through its membrane.

     Thump.

     Sitting on the ground. Back in physical bodies. Hand in hand.

     Blue sky. Blue, mind you. And two shadows over them.

 

 

Earth

 

     Gareth didn’t bend back to grinding corn. It was that feeling, that old feeling of a time jump about to toss him willy-nilly into the universe. A keening pang struck him: the feeling always took him to or from Maya; would he see her again? Could he stand to see her again? Could he stand, inevitably, to leave her again?

     Two figures appeared at his feet, crouched and falling backwards as if chairs had been pulled out from under them. Masses of wavy light hair. Holding hands.

     No Maya.

     Stinging tears rose in his lavender eyes.

     The cheeky chap squeaked and ran. “Dr. Hernandez!,” he called.

     The pair looked up, a little dazed.

     “First jump?” asked Gareth.

     Leor recovered first. “Yu. Yyyy. Yes,” he managed.

     La’ii blinked up at the bizarre sky. Blue was a weird color for it. The plants around them had an almost fluorescent green hue. Leor’s auburn highlights flashed only yellow and his irises were pale. It smelled like outdoors, though a little different. It looked like outdoors, though the plants were unfamiliar. The man looking at them holding a rock in his hand looked like a man.

     She blinked. The man was speaking, putting down the rock, stretching is hand toward her.

     “Gareth,” he said.

     A rough, hard-working hand taking hers kindly like Annie Gracious’ did.

     “La’ii,” she answered with matching counter-pressure.

     “Leor,” he offered, reaching his hand toward the older man.

     She asked, “Captain Maya’s Gareth?”

     Again, that pang. “The same,” he intoned.

     The twins’ eyebrows popped up. Leor said, “That was easy.”

     “Don’t suppose you have Dr. Hernandez tucked away nearby?” She thought it was a hopeless joke.

     Gareth smiled. “Here he comes now.”

     The boy who had squeaked and run reappeared, towing a genial-looking man with a rather patronizing look on his face. After all, the boy was telling him twins had magically appeared in the clearing.

     Incredulity replaced patronage for an instant, then burning curiosity flared. Dr. Hernandez pressed hands, repeated names, and sat right on the ground with them. His merry eyes flashed with delight.

     Gareth spoke. “You’re on Earth, six years after the Sappho launched. Where are you from?”

     “Planet Maya,” said Leor.

     “Three hundred years after Sappho landed,” added La’ii.

     “How did you get here?” Dr. Hernandez asked.

     La’ii shrugged. “We went to Annie Gracious to talk about the Apocalypse. She told us we were eugenically-developed time travelers and we had to bring you two back.”

     Leor waved a hand above his head, stirring vagueness. “Fate of humanity, I think.”

     “We don’t really have details,” La’ii apologized.

     “As soon as she told us, we just disappeared into….” Leor fumbled.

     “…A vast oceanic timespace?” offered Gareth.

     “Yes!” They agreed together.

     Leor’s eyes widened. “You’ve been there. You really are Gareth.”

     La’ii gaped.

     Dr. Hernandez smiled. “He really is Gareth.”

     A low whistle from Leor marked his amazement. “Her-nan-dez,” he muttered.

     “Yes?” asked the doctor.

     The twins gaped together.

     La’ii stammered. “He didn’t mean you. I mean, he did mean you, of course, since that’s where the word came from, your name, you, originally. But he didn’t mean you because we just say that, ‘Hernandez’, when it’s good or surprising or awe-inspiring or…” Etymology failed her, and she trailed off.

     Dr. Hernandez smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

     “Eugenics?” Gareth probed.

     Leor shut his mouth and looked at the ground. Better hear what La’ii had to say.

     “Right?” She said. “Pisses me off. I mean, generations of Readings and pressure to Expand, generations of visiting the Annies to check bloodlines. The story was ‘small population, small gene pool, gotta be careful’. But the truth was breeding time travelers! Breeding me! Manipulating me, making me a particular type of person, on purpose, without any choice at all, then raising me to expect to participate, accept a Reading, and Expand just for, for this.” She waved an exasperated hand at the irrational cerulean sky.

     Leor touched her fingertips very, very carefully. “It brought us together.”

     “It brought you here,” added Gareth.

     At her temper, a wistful twist touched Dr. Hernandez’s mouth. “It brought back a glimpse of my girl.”

     La’ii folded her arms. “It pisses me off.”

 

 

 

Gracious

     Brrda stirred. “We’d better contact their parents,” whe mused.

     Annie Gracious blinked at the two empty chairs. “We’d better find a few more folk for dinner. I don’t think you and I can put away three whole rabbits by ourselves.” Her braid thumped the table as she stood; she flipped it back; it swung saucily behind her as she went for the door.

     Brrda ginned in a way that would have made those rabbits, in life,  freeze in their tracks for a solid hour. Wher folk had manes, but never long hair falling to the waist. Then, of course, there was the tantalizing weirdness of immutable truncated gender. Wher claws absently traced downy lines of auburn on wher thigh. Whe had to admit it: Gracious was sexy and whe’d like to see that braid unbound.

     Whe kept wher eyes on the simmering stew as Gracious returned. The auburn streaks stood on end as whe caught a whiff of the fragrance of her hair. Luckily, humans rarely noticed any change in her fur and never knew what it meant. Whe had plenty of love to enjoy back home in wher pride. Whe inhaled over the stew, suffusing wherself with the mouth-watering food scent instead.

     Two more couples came in carrying infants. Whe looked and whiffed, needing to concentrate to identify them accurately. All four had the sweet odor and swollen dugs of nursing parents. It was an old tradition, but Annies tended to offer any extra to those in lactation. The first parent – whe leaned slightly away from the stew to get a clearer whiff – was a male. He beamed beatifically upon the tiny creature latched to his nipple and sucking greedily. The second parent was female. Their smiling mates were both male.

     Of course, in a pride it was damn rude even to try and determine gender without an obvious mutual and immediate consent to privately reveal themselves.

     Here among humans, whe couldn’t even talk without the gender-based “he” and “she” constructions they used. This made wher folk so deeply uncomfortable, most of them wouldn’t take wher job even if they had the chance. At least here, led by the Annies, the males chose to lactate. Brrda knew that among the civilized and those at the coast, males never nursed – usually didn’t even know that they could nurse even though all it would take to find out was to pick up an infant and let it latch on. Whe shook wher head. To have truncated static gender was bad enough, but to choose – as a culture – not even to know the capabilities of one’s own body!   

     Whe heard wher name. “Hm?” Whe purred.

     Annie Gracious grinned. “Worried about the cubs?”

     Brrda blinked. Cubs? Ah, La’ii and Leor. “Out of wher reach.” Whe shrugged. Wher folk didn’t worry. If one could act, one acted. If not, not.

     Wher lips quirked in a way only the closest adults in wher pride might understand. Whe hefted the cauldron to the table. “Soup’s on.”

Fresh Meat, Looney, Merina, Annies

posted in: Glitchy | 0

late February 2018

Fresh Meat

 

     It had started with holding hands, then paying attention to the landscape, then a little practice with the mind-clarity-sharing thing, then showing each other about the plant cells and answered questions.

     Brrda was as curious as they were about what their brains were up to, and whe let it all go on. It was definitely better than yesterday’s drivel.

     But now. Whe hadn’t seen this. They’d gathered firewood and stacked the fire. Whe’d set a few snares. Whe told them to sink in and wait, expecting the usual cub disruptions.

     They had been immobile and silent, eyes in soft focus near the snares, for two hours. The curling ends of their hair had begun to weave again. Their minds combined and locked into the landscape. Reading them, whe read soil chemistry, microbes, nutrient flows, root growth, water cycles, insects, burrows, and paths. Their identities as whe knew them were absent. Whe had a strange sense of shaping, felt an overbearing curiosity, and three rabbits stepped into three snares.

     The Twins blinked and whooped, back to normal and chattering.

     “We were practicing the brain thing-”

     “-Because helpful-”

     “But it was-”

     “Greater than the sum of its parts.” They nodded mutual agreement.

     “I started seeing the plant cell thing.”

     “And I got to letting answers reveal themselves.”

     Simultaneously, they said, “Then we were the landscape.”

     “We got the rabbits curious.” Leor ended.

     “They walked in.” La’ii finished.

     Brrda considered. Wher mane fluffed at the base of wher neck. “Time to head to Annie Gracious.”

     “No barbeque?” Leor almost pouted.

     “Time now.” Incisors flashed. Whe made a beeline to the snares, thanked the rabbits, slung their carcasses over wher shoulder, and set the fastest pace the Twins could maintain.

 

Looney

 

     She sat staring at a mass of tiny bright spiders swarming over a filmy panel of fabric. Her bare feet rested on a dirt floor. Her grey braid hung to her thick waist.

     “Maya?” she asked. “Sappho? Was that you?”

     She was alone in the room, but she nodded and answered nonetheless.

     “I didn’t think so. My, my, my Hernandez.”

     The spiders paused as she reframed the pattern in her mind precisely, then went back to work.

Merina

Earth Launch +5

 

     Merina patted the little boy. “Don’t you get cheeky with Gareth, young man. There are still mouths to feed.”

 

Annies

 

     It was a little village of mushroom houses with tidy gardens in pretty fences. Water trickled here and there; clusters of flowers bloomed. Smoke trickled from neat chimneys. Chickens scurried into their yards as the trio approached.

     La’ii saw a solid woman leaning in her door frame. Piercing sky blue eyes made her feel a little ashamed. La’ii lifted her chin.

     Annie Gracious straightened, swung her braid back over her shoulder, and grinned. She rushed to Brrda, hugged wher tight absolutely heedless of those fangs, and gave wher a decadent scratch along a small set of silky black lines in the brindle between wher shoulders.

     Brrda purred.

     “Welcome,” said she. “And you must be La’ii and Leor. Welcome, welcome. Come inside.” She bustled them in. “This will quench your thirst.” She passed mugs of cool water.

     Brrda took whers toward the stove and held up the rabbits. “Shall whe do the honors? You three have a lot to talk about.”

     Annie Gracious nodded. “Sit, sit!” she commanded, and drew the Twins to a glossy wooden table. “Questions?”

     Leor’s wry grin appeared.

     La’ii said, “It started with the Apocalypse.”

     “And it got weirder from there,” he finished.

     Brrda’s laughter snarled. “Whe can vouch for that. They called these rabbits.”

     “They didn’t.”

     Brrda’s claw slid with deft accuracy between the hide and flesh, peeling them apart. “Oh?”

     “They made them curious to death. The problem, of course, is how you did it.”

     La’ii felt that twinge of shame again.

     “Problem?” Leor asked.

     “On the one hand, you altered reality to get the rabbits in the snares. On the other hand, after a day out of civilization together, you’re already altering reality. On the other hand, you have no idea what you’re doing, what you’re up against, or the consequences of your actions. On the other hand, this is exactly what humanity needs right now.” Her sturdy fingers tapped the table in rhythm as she enumerated.

     “Confused!” piped La’ii.

     “Parse!” added Leor.

     “The Apocalypse is real. The binary suns will conjoin unusually close to the planet, creating extremely uncomfortable living conditions, especially on the surface. It will be survivable to people who follow the Looney path. Civilized people or Coasties who try to ride it out at home will cook, Maya knows. With me so far?”

     Leor clapped. “Well, mission complete.”

     “Ha,” replied La’ii.  “You know we’re in way deeper than that.”

     He shrugged. “Call it a milestone, then.”

     “Point is, this problem repeats at intervals. You know Maya’s time sense is non-linear?”  

     “You mean the planet?” Loonies had some strange ideas. “How can the planet have time sense?” La’ii wondered.

     Annie Gracious peered at her like she had a hole in her head. “Planet Maya is intelligent, self-aware, capable of effective action, and in direct communication with me and the other Annies. Maya’s memories are in astronomical time scale and, to a great extent, include portions of time we’ll experience as ‘future’.”

     Leor’s eyebrows popped up. “Seriously? Then how does this all turn out?”

     La’ii was calculating the boundaries between reality, metaphor, religious fervor. They seemed messy.

     Brrda skewered the rabbits.

     “I have no idea how it turns out. What I do know is that Maya created the Readings and Expansion to intensify time shifting genetics in the civilized population. You two are the result.”

     La’ii never heard the word “Expansion” calmly, and being the result of generations of eugenics really didn’t suit.

Leor cringed as her thoughts glowered scarlet.

     Annie Gracious continued. “Your lifelines are mixed in with the fate of the entire human race.”

     La’ii’s arms crossed in a way her mother would recognize. Leor and Annie Gracious felt her mind bunker down. “What if I don’t want to?”

     Those sturdy hands spread on the ancient table. They left a halo of sweat. “Maya started the time experiments when Gareth was young. He is the only traveler who came back and the only traveler who shifted without the equipment. Maya theorized it was his entanglement with Captain Maya and not the technology that triggered the initial shift. Once set in motion, the shifting continued until Maya’s death and Gareth’s last desperate, dusty jump.”

     La’ii’s jaw squared. “What if I don’t want to?”

     “I’m assuming there were other unexpected psychic events besides making those rabbits curious?” She leaned forward, and her braid thumped on the table.

     Leor squelched a totally childish urge to distract the argument by playing with it.

     Annie Gracious gave him a quick glance and dropped the braid behind her back.

     Brrda muttered, “Kitten” over basting the rabbits.

     Rigid and testy, La’ii spoke. “We were suddenly psychic with each other, we saw a little of the image Brrda projected, we could hear wher when whe thought words at us, we could share mental resources, he started reading cell interactions, I started getting answers from nowhere, we combined our brains and melted into the ecosystem, and then we did the rabbit thing.” She gave no quarter. “What if I don’t want to?”

     Annie Gracious reached for her hands.

     La’ii didn’t budge.

     “La’ii, you two have to rescue Dr. Hernandez and Gareth from Earth. You have to bring them here. Your timelines are deeply entangled. Maya says you could simply vanish at any moment. She hopes, if you stay together and that mind-combining works, that you’ll be able to steer – to control your shifts and bring the others. Maya knows poor Gareth just bounced around for decades.”

     Now she was snarling. “What if I don’t want to?”

     Leor realized, as his ideas of his future self vacillated between a mathematical astrophysical scholar and a time shifter tripping in an astrophysical plane, that Fate and La’ii’s stubborn streak might battle it out for eons.

     Her eyes darted to him. “Daniel glitching right. Stubborn.” Flinty eyes went back to Annie Gracious.

     Brrda basted and hummed.

     “You were born for this. Maya willing, it happens naturally. I’m just trying to prepare you.”

     “Prepare me for getting thrown into timespace with a guy I barely know away from my home and family with zero warning to collect dead men from a diseased, abandoned planet?”

     Leor spoke gently. “Your mind must be part of the process. My mind must. We won’t go if we don’t want to. We don’t even know if we can.” He reached for her hand, which she cracked from the edifice of her folded arms just enough for him to hold a few fingers. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

     La’ii could feel the press of Fate at least as well as the next person, but it was exactly the wrong thing to say because she relaxed, his mind reached for hers, and they disappeared.

 

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Camp, Stew, Morning, Homesteading

posted in: Glitchy | 0

early February 2018

 

Camp

     “Brrda? Assuming I can see at least three krav pacing us…”

     Sizzling, mouth watering, fat dripping, crunchy skin swiping, claw licking meat while grandparents make organ sausage and sprats turn the spit three day roast on the beach MEAT!

     The trail led them into a blind curve of cliff. Trapped, panicked La’ii.

     Dripping knife meat slapped on the grill.

     Her mind accepted Leor’s knock. He flooded in a boost of pristine clarity and presence. Survive now, freak later. She locked in to his state.

     Nicely done, interrupted Brrda with a very sincere single fang hiss purr.  Wher mane and goatee were standing on ends, huge.  Now up.

     A winding staircase in deeply worn footsteps ascended the cliff face. Why hadn’t that been obvious before?

     Fast!

     They scrambled up. Each step was a flaring curved outline of a custodian foot deep in hundreds of tiny layers of rock. Crevices held clusters of blossoming mosses. Was is cultivated?

     Walls rose on either side as the stairs turned into the cliff face high above the ground. La’ii tumbled onto a very nice rug in a bright, warm, furnished room.

     Leor, dumbfounded: “Wwwww, zerp?”

     La’ii felt his, and therefore her, clarity collapse. Krav trying to eat them and she’s thinking about cultivated moss? She sunk to her knees in deep pile carpet.

     Growl chuckling and drawing wher claws decadently through some short auburn stripes on wher ribs, Brrda smiled. “We camp here for the night.”

     Leor hung his head, where it shook sadly. “At what point will I stop being constantly disoriented while my entire reality warps around me?”

     Wher mane flicked as whe cocked wher head. Velvety brows drew together with unexpected sympathy and tenderness. “Never, sprat.” Wher nails scratched him behind the ear delicately as whe patted his head.

     “We were just about to be torn apart by a pack of krav, right?” La’ii’s body, blistered feet, pounding heart, aching lungs, and adrenaline soaked flesh was having trouble reconciling vanished clarity and the surreal change in environment.

    “Ya.” Brrda shrugged, and wher mane settled down. “Pull up a rug. Sit down and watch. More productive than the freak outs you’re both contemplating. Think of it as a meditative practice.”

     Whe flipped a small rug from a large, inviting pile. Whe flopped it on the open side of the cave, folded and sat, then peered down.

     Leor and La’ii picked the next rug in the pile, carried it together, and sat hip to hip upon it.

     They followed Brrda’s look, gasped, and forgot to exhale for a solid twenty seconds.

     First of all, the fading sunlight across the vast and verdant plain broke into tumbling darkness and light among the cliff maze. The cliff maze itself melted their minds: a branching terrain of secretive rock faces much larger than town. And on the ground below them paced snapping krav. When they opened their mouths, the camouflage illusion failed. Tongues scaled in back-facing barbs licked forests of ochre sabres.

     You really couldn’t code it, what with the different viscosities of saliva, the urban density of cliff facets all chock a block with textures, co-

     “All that minutiae, all those scales, all those distances, that texture! You really couldn’t code it,” sighed Leor, which reminded La’ii to breathe.

     Brrda growled. “The view is pretty, attend to the krav. Nearby and deadly is a rare learning opportunity. They’ll leave for an easier meal. They can’t perceive the stairs, much less climb. But like most, they know what you have in mind. Wher walking formation and all that meat told them that whe were pack predators, likely difficult prey, and likely to have other pack members nearby. This prevented their pack from devouring wher. That trick with the intense and shareable clarity was quite useful, Leor. Remember it. Both of you.”

     “That’s the first time you’ve used my name.”

     “You distinguished yourselves in battle.”

     “That was a battle?”

     “And won in the best way,” whe purred. Whe patted them both on the head, tousling them. “Watch the krav until they leave. The pack will begin to see you as predators without wher presence, though don’t bet your lives on it. But practice seeing them, finding their lines as the light changes, seeing how they move in their surroundings. Whe’ll get wher fed and dig out the unguents. You’re going to start to feel how famished and sore you are soon. Whe’d like a fire, too.” Whe bustled to the fireplace.

     Leor leaned into La’ii, and she propped him up. “You next to me, “ he fumbled.

     La’ii leaned into Leor, and he propped her up. “Seems to be,” she mumbled.

     “The one stable point.”

     “In the universe,” they replied, so enamored they ignored the silly rhyme.

     As they peered into the fading light, learning to see the krav bodies and limbs within the shadows and color, that one stable point grew into a true singularity between them, a permanent reference point toward which they were irresistibly drawn, terra firma just for two.

 

Stew

 

     La’ii’s feet pounded, now that the fear had settled. There was definite, pervasive pain in her feet. How could she not notice? She bent a sole up toward the firelight and gasped.

     “Hm?” inquired Leor absently, still studying the play of faded light on the last krav. It must have been a sentry. They were smart.

     “Brrda, I’m wounded!” There were huge blisters on the edges of her feet, puffed full of fluid.  

     Leor glanced, then checked his own feet. The same.

     Pain was an unusual experience and they hadn’t heeded its warning. By the time the krav appeared, survival and mental calisthenics put all thought of pain away for later. And now was the time to feel it. There were open blisters, wet and stinging; there were hot blisters under pressure; there were deep sneaking blisters that would take days to develop. They poked themselves, yelping.

     Whe set a tray of viscous, warm liquid close to the fire. “Whe’ve put herbs to keep the wounds healthy. Dip your feet and let them dry by the fire. Layer on a few coats. It dries tough. It’ll protect your feet on the trail. It stings at first, though.”

     “Stings?” asked La’ii. Leor stuck his foot in and screamed.

     “It passes quickly,” Brrda hummed.

     Leor’s breath slowed in controlled pulls. His shoulders drooped. He pulled up his foot. A golden, flexible, translucent layer covered him up to the ankle. The wounds felt comfortably covered and bound. The herbs soothed the pain and he caught an image of light working in tiny building blocks around the damaged flesh, shoring it up cell by cell to protect healing and deliver nutrients. He blinked.

     “Brrda, was that wher?”

     Wher goatee wagged as whe peered at him.

     “Telling me what the herb is doing?”

     “You can tell what the herb is doing? That’s a surprise.” Whe hummed thoughtfully and went back to stirring the stew.

     Now that he knew what to expect, the second foot wasn’t so bad. His awareness of the plant’s work intensified. His done, he lined up to La’ii. “May I?” he asked, hands near her feet. She smiled with a light in her eye that hadn’t existed that morning and extended her foot toward him.

     Leor continued, “I was feeling what those herbs were doing in my body, almost on a molecular level. I wonder if I’m touching you if I can feel…”

     She flinched and sucked air through her teeth as the liquid flowed into her torn skin, burning the edges. She gripped his arms and left marks. He never felt it; his mind sought the business between plant and flesh in her body. And there it was: more distant, less distinct, certainly needing more concentration to perceive, but real. Nobody coded stuff like this. Getting the input past sensory straight to cognitive alone would be unprecedented.

     La’ii began to relax, and his attention shifted outward. “Other foot?”

     With tender intensity of focus, he propped up one foot to dry and dipped the other. She certainly didn’t need help, but had reached her toe toward him slowly, let him hold a little of her weight as she flexed in pain, let him feel the pain subside.

     She met his gaze. “That wasn’t embarrassing. I don’t want to make fun of you.”

     They turned back to the fire, musing silently through two more layers of shoe.

     Brrda saw the curling tips of their hair intertwine on the rug behind them. Whe shifted the stew where it would keep warm. They needed some processing time. Wher meal could wait.  

 

*****

 

     Soon enough, their bellies growling and tumbling like cubs, their eyes shifted from the fire to the stew kettle. Brrda brought mugs of cool water and warm, heavy bowls.

     La’ii sniffed hers and drooled. Leor wiped his chin. “What’s in this?” He gasped.

     “Food. Herbs, roots, meat, spices. Real food. It should be a treat.” Whe hummed and blew steam off wher bowl.

     La’ii sniffed. Nothing from home smelled like this. There were pangs and tangs and specificities to the fragrances she’d never imagined. No high end hack came close. She sipped a drop of broth from the rim of the bowl. “Hot!” She squeaked.

     “You do your own temperature testing, now.” Brrda’s elaborate snarl chuckled.

     Leor’s eyes rolled to the cavern roof. He moaned. An emulsion of spice infused animal fat and soft sweet root mash trekked across his tongue. Flavor profiles and complexities of texture easily two or three orders of magnitude beyond… He moaned and rolled a tender disintegrating mouthful.

     “Her-nan-dez, that’s good.” La’ii closed her eyes in reverence.

     Brrda purred and drew wher claws through wher goatee. “This is cave stores. Jerked martin, root preserves, dry herbs. If you’re good kitties, whe’ll give you fresh one day.” Quiet happy yowls gurgled through swigs of stew.  

     The Twins wiggled their golden toes and slurped. You could almost feel the nutrients and cells rushing to embrace, to absorb each other.

     “What has that paste been doing to us?” Leor’s face twisted.

     La’ii saw it: a single food product in infinite forms pinioned everyone in constant metabolic struggle. She saw it down to hungry mitochondria.

     “Don’t spill your food.” He caught her bowl.

     “Was that wher?” La’ii murmured. “Answering the question?”

     A thoughtful, sibilant hiss answered, “Wasn’t wher. There may be hope for humanity yet.” Whe winked and flashed a fang.

     La’ii looked into her empty hands for her bowl. Leor passed it to her; she made a question face. “You dropped it when you saw what the paste was doing.” Thankful face. Hernandez, she was sweet to see happy.

     Their cupped palms lifted their bowls; they supped. As their bellies filled, they forgot their bowls and began to sleep. They really were kittens. Brrda took the dishes and dropped on a heavy blanket.  They curled beneath it, entwined but inert with exhaustion.

 

Morning

 

     La’ii floated down from a dream state in which her civilized life was a silly delusion, a lonely toy box of distractions. In her dream, real life burst with hope and true excitement. Any moment, she’d wake in her bed, hear her sister and mother carping down the hall. Little whirring machines would dispense hair ties and vitamins. The table printed blueberry crepes for breakfast.

     A bit closer to awareness, her blankets were heavier and scratchier than usual. A density of fragrant human smell mixed with dew on bare rock and cooling ashes. Warm filaments of sunshine sneaked in sideways between the leaves. She squeezed her eyes and rolled away, smack into Leor.

     Right. They’d fallen asleep. Together. Dream and real life interposed; waking and sleeping destabilized. Real waking life without projections had become this hiking adventure with truth ratios through the roof. True food, true pain, true love. There was the piercing, simple truth.

     She reached to touch his shoulder. Her thumb swept a tender stroke, and he stirred. Probably he’d been faking sleep until she woke up.  Probably inadvisable to disturb a girl in your arms.

     Exactly. He yawned.

     She sat up, but only made it part way. “You rolled on my hair, I think.” La’ii tugged.

     Leor investigated, then handed her a tangle of their hair.

     Only it wasn’t a tangle. It was a fractally gorgeous woven spiral. She’d seen a sunflower blossom projection along the same lines, but this…

     “Was this wher?” they asked.

     “No, but it was interesting to watch,” harrumphed Brrda. “Usually that takes spiders. And practice.” Whe flipped wher wrist toward the skillet and delectable smells burst on them.

     La’ii looked haplessly at their hair. “So would you unweave yourself, then?” Their curls relaxed and slipped, nearly falling apart.  She startled and looked across to Leor. “Did you see that?”

     “Now that’s a cool trick,” he pointed for Brrda to see.

     She held up the ends of her locks. They were inert now.

     “Eat.” Brrda handed them plates of eggs and grilled golden root.

     Their amazement at the food was comical, their conversion to wild over civilized food complete. Eventually they’d learn whe was an average cook with average ingredients. If they lived that long, poor kittens.

     Whe handed them each a pouch. “Magnesium, steel, knife, hook, hunt blanket. Grass, fatwood chips, ironwood chips. Twine. You’ll learn to make a fire before you eat another hot meal. You need moving from kitten to cub.” Whe winked. “Long walk today. Good place to set snares about the middle. Whe’ll stop there and you two can have a fire race.”

     Twin heads tilted, eyes bright.

     “Kit only, immediately available materials, first one ready to grill a rabbit wins. Or one mile radius, accelerant allowed, three hour time limit, 30 minute art burn.”

     Leor’s eyes lit up. “Fire race!” La’ii matched him, with squealing.

     They actually jumped up and down. Absolute kittens.

     “If you have the attention spans for it, you’ll see how to make and set a snare as well. If we’re lucky, Annie Gracious by nightfall.”

     “And if we’re not lucky?”

     Brrda shrugged. “Separated, lost in the cliff maze, and dead of exposure instead of predation. Be mindful and stick close.” Whe yawned wide with those commanding fangs. “You two practice setting bits of dry grass on fire with the mag and steel. Whe have to set the cave for the next guest.”

     “We don’t mind helping,” they offered.

     “Guest caves should remain a custodial secret. You play with fire like good little cubs.” Whe snarled indulgently. “Scratch the mag, stroke the steel, catch the grass.”

     They dug into their pouches. Long use marked the folding knives, but the scratches told what to do. The shorter blade had a cerration on one side with tiny flecks of magnesium on it. The other side had straight deep striations from a harder metal – the steel.

     “So, make flecks of this.” She rolled a rough surface of the magnesium under the blade.

     “And stroke that.” He dragged the knife edge on the steel. A little spark hopped.

     “Spark on the magnesium?” she suggested.

     He angled the next spark strike toward her little pile of metal shavings. One of them lit a fleck, which burned hot enough to leave a dark spot on the rock.

     “So try shavings and bits of grass together with spark?” he asked.

     She grunted, scraped more magnesium, and crumbled in dry grass.

     He scraped out a few small sparks. Tiny fires started and faded before the little dust pile of tinder burned away.

     “Bigger flecks?” She scraped deeper and made a new pile with more crumbled grass.

     He made more sparks, and bigger ones. But they bounced off the bigger flecks of metal.

     “Mixed sizes?” He wondered.

     She made a new pile, carefully changing the depth of her scratches to mix the size of the metal shards. “Little ones light easier, big ones burn better? I’ll mix up the thickness of the grass, too.” She crumbled about half and left the rest whole.

     Leor pulled a heavy drag. Fat sparks jumped; the small mag lit. As the sparks faded, the small mag lit the big mag, which got the grass fragments smouldering, which got all the big mag hot at once, which flashed over and lit the biggest strands of grass.

     It burned out while they laughed and slapped hands.

     They regarded the tiny ash pile. Leor held out the steel. “Want to try the sparks this time?”

     La’ii handed him the mag. “There’s more dry grass near the cave mouth. Be right back.” She gathered two big handfuls of brittle stalks.

     He’d made mag shavings in carefully graduated sizes.

     She handed him the grass.

     He stacked pinches of sizes, layering shavings and fibers.

     Once she’d gotten the hang of dragging against the steel for fat sparks, his construction blazed up so well, they moved the game to the fireplace and started pushing in twigs.

     Brrda reappeared. “Progress, I see. Stacking the other sizes of fuel both alternating and increasing – as you have done with the firestarter and kindling – grows the fire best. Now put it out cold, then stack a new fire the next guest can light with one strike of the steel. That’s no secret, that’s just manners.” Whe turned back toward the recesses of the cave.

     It was La’ii’s turn with the magnesium, so Leor organized tinder, twigs, sticks, and logs in a trapezoid. Smallest material on the bottom, largest on top. The larger pieces would fall into the embers as the smaller pieces collapsed. It should light, stay lit, and ignite the logs.

     La’ii made three mag tinder piles; it might help the fire start, and scraping the magnesium was fun. She really wanted to strike the steel and make it burn.

     Not for you, called Brrda.

     A custodian rushes up the cliff, cold, exhausted, hungry, hunted. Whe strikes the steel, coat bristling, hands shaking. Flame leaps; relief floods.

     “Was that – “ La’ii began.

     “That was wher,” confirmed Brrda, entering the cavern dusting wher palms. Wher beard and mane shook; whe cackled. Whe appraised Leor’s work. “Nice stack. La’ii, whe like the multiple ignition points. That’s extravagant if you don’t know where your next mag is coming from, though. Careful.”

     “Do whe expect that I will not know where my next mag is coming from?” La’ii’s fist jammed into her hip.

     Whe growled. “Whe expect the unknown. Time to walk.”

     Their muscles creaked clambering down the steps.

     Brrda swung wher staff and purred.

Homesteading

Earth (Launch +5)

 

     Gareth rubbed the dry corn kernels off the cobs. Dr. Hernandez rocked the grinding stone, swirling the larger grains back under pressure. Merida swept the fine meal into her ball of masa, patted tortillas together, and flipped them to Duan. He toasted them on the hearth.

     There were twelve of them left. They’d found an arid elevation far from any Enclaves or Paramedics. Airborne spores didn’t survive well in very dry air.

     They’d managed small crops of corn, beans, and squash. Mesquite bean flour and cactus fruits were a seasonal abundance. They caught small game and gathered wild onions.

     This morning one of the little ones brought back a pair of eggs. She proudly added a tiny dab to the warm, full tortilla Duan handed her then passed the meal ceremoniously to Gareth.

     He put down the corn cobs and took it with both hands, bowing a litte. “Gracias. These eggs will be good.

     The girl smiled and bustled the next to Dr. Hernandez. The grinding stone stopped. He winked. “I’m still not clear on how the time travel worked, Gareth.”

     Merida and the little girl rolled their eyes at each other as the food passed. Those two could lay it on thick.

     The green eyes twinkled. “We had a time lab, theories, equipment. We certainly knew how to make people disappear, but very few of us came back. At first my journey began in the lab. I sat in the projector, the tech activated it, I slingshot through time to Maya. But after that, once our stories entwined, there was no equipment at all. There was only timepull. Reality would feel a little stressed, my consciousness would slip, and I’d come to somewhen else either with Maya or back home.” Sadness passed through; he covered with a bite of food. “But it seems my job is done, and I can grow old here with you lovely people.” He flicked a pebble at the little girl, who deftly deflected it.

     “Time travel,” she dead panned. “Talk is cheap unless you’re grinding corn.”

 

Aravaipa Canyon

Acorns, Custodian, Over the River and Through the Woods, “Hang On”

posted in: Glitchy | 1

January 2018

Acorns

Planet Maya: 300

 

     Ambling near the border of civilization, their projections began to fail. He was a little taller than she was. His hair was curlier. Their eartips became rounded. Their shoes crumbled as the force fields that managed kinaesthetic interaction between projection and real objects failed. The physical objects actually on their feet simply weren’t designed to withstand the crush of a human body.

    They laughed together and leaned against a tree to pick off the pieces.

     “Seriously,” she began. “Were you really on the way to Annie Gracious, or did you decide to follow me?”

     Without projection, he could see her blush as she asked.

     At the strange pleasure and surprise in his eyes, she looked down at her feet and concentrated on pulling little bits of adhesive from between her toes.

     What delightful, elegant, strong toes they were! She probably actually walked barefoot, even in civilization. He realized she had asked him something. “What?” he asked stupidly.

     She smiled and flicked a bit of adhesive toward him. “Were you really already on the way to Annie Gracious?” Her eyebrow went wicked. “Maybe you need a Reading for a questionable Expansion already in progress?”

     She wants to know if I’m attached!

     He grinned. “No. I – had a paper – I had a check, had to check.”

     “You’re editing.” Her fists on her hips proclaimed her opinion of people who edited in her presence.

     He wasn’t very good at editing anyway. “I study astrophysics. I think the Apocalypse is real and I need to talk to Annie Gracious about it.”

     “Ah,” she answered. “You must know my brother Greth.”

     “Know him? He’s my room mate. He’s my lab partner. We wrote the paper together.”

     “Interesting he didn’t tell Xochi about you. Though he does tend to edit, especially about other people’s contributions to his accomplishments.”

     He heard a tiny dose of baby sister bitterness in her voice. Knowing Greth, it was totally justified. He let it pass. Now he knew why editing made her mad, too. Good.  “So you’re going for a Reading about a questionable Expansion already in progress, yes?” He knew her answer was no. He just had to poke.

     He wants to know if I’m attached!

     She frowned. “No. Not at all. Not ever.” She realized she’d just answered a lot more than he’d asked. ‘Not ever’ was very unusual at her age. She changed the subject. “Greth told Xochi, Xochi asked me to ask Annie Gracious.”

     “So we’re on the same mission.”

     She pondered. “Yes,” she answered and resumed picking irrelevant bits of glue off her toes.

     Here on the edge of civilization, wild plants grew. Small capped wooden bowls about as big as a fingertip littered the grass around them. La’ii rolled the last dab of glue between her fingers and investigated the tree canopy above her. The little bowls were on the branches, too.

     Leor followed her line of sight. “Mr.Tupper brought us out here once. These are acorns. Seeds of this tree.  He said they’re edible.” Leor had a particularly sticky bit of glue and crushed plastic on his heel. He bent and twisted trying to get at it.

     La’ii was trying and failing to keep a straight face. She studied the acorns. “What do they taste like?”

     “We didn’t try any. We-”

     He fell over in the grass.

     A noisy whoop of laughter burst out, embarrassing La’ii. She wasn’t used to absolutely no projection at all. “We should try some. May I help you with that?” She reached toward his heel, still comically bent up toward his face though he was on his back on the ground. She stopped when she felt the warmth of his skin, just shy of touching him.

     Eyes exactly her color met hers. “Please,” he said.

     She had delicate fingers and precise, carefully groomed nails. They scratched experimentally, finding the best balance between enough pressure to get the glue and gentility.

     Something in him went absolutely dizzy, like tumbling in a wave pool. The rest of him glossed over it, instead wondering what kind of person actually groomed their nails? Except for hygiene, there simply wasn’t a need. It was like their real clothes (except the shoes, obviously), their minimal projections, and their truth ratio coding.

     She’d flicked off the last bit of glue. His mind was clearly wandering. She dropped her hand and picked up an acorn. She turned it, marveling at the smooth lower surface and the intricate layers of tiny chevrons on the rough cap. The tiny stem must have let nutrients flow from the tree to the seed like an umbilical cord, though she could see no tubules or vesicles at its end. Her mind drifted toward coding its textures, maybe animating the tiny chevrons.

     Leor sat up. Her mind was clearly wandering.  She held an acorn in one hand; the fingers of her other hand trailed absently in the grass.

     “Share it with you,” he said.

     “What?”, she asked, blinking out of her reverie.

     His smile lit up again. “Want to share the acorn? I think there’s a soft part inside. I think we have to crack it open.”

     “Have you ever eaten grown food?”

     “No, but the Loonies do all the time. Mr. Tupper was fairly certain it was safe.”

     “Did you see him eat it?”

     “No.”

     The seed rested in her hand, an enigma.

     He leaned toward her and bumped her shoulder with his familiarly. “You really couldn’t code this.”

     “I was just thinking of how to get these lovely little ridges on the cap and the way the shell reflects the light from the tree bark and the light from the grass differently.”

     “I mean all of it,” he offered. “I mean this lavender sky and this soft grass and this breeze in your hair framing your face and all of that reflected in your eyes and your expression.”

     She met his gaze frankly. “No. I really couldn’t code this.” She put the acorn in her teeth and bit. She spit it back in her palm, grimacing. “We’re going to have to hit this with a rock.”

     A soft step fell behind them. They gasped as if they’d been caught in the act of Expansion.

     “Those taste a lot better cooked,” someone said.

Custodian

Planet Maya: Year 300

 

     La’ii had never seen a projection like it. It was close to a Yeti, but regular human sized. It had fur all over in goldens and browns and silvers. Each color seemed to have a different texture and length. The pattern brindled in swirls all over its lithe, muscular body. She had an urge to pet that felt almost shameful.

     The face was fuzzy, but looked mostly human. Its small breasts might indicate it was female, if the human analogy applied. It certainly had patterns of longer and thicker hair where humans in their natural states had longer and thicker hair. It had a mane of sorts from its crown down its neck to below its shoulders. It didn’t seem to have any clothes at all, though there may have been subtle arrays of fiber and glints of stone worked into the fur. Or it might have just been playing in the dirt. The skin of its face showed beneath the finer fur there. A goatee extended its chin. It had fingernails and toenails. It carried a wooden pole on its back slung with an intricate spider-woven chest strap. The chiseled arms hung relaxed at its sides, hands curved carelessly.

     Leor caught up first.  “Nice code! How do you get your projection to work this far out?”

     It showed bright strong teeth with huge canines. It made a noise combined of huffing and growling.

     La’ii and Leor reached for each other’s hands.

     It had spoken, hadn’t it? They stood their ground.

     “The acorns.” It pointed. “They really do taste better cooked. Though compared to that paste you people eat, raw might not be too bad, either.”  It gr-huffed again and held out a furry hand. The tiny lines of palmprint held darker lines of grime. It was either truly immaculate coding or possibly real.

     La’ii realized it was laughing, not growling. She managed to stick out her hand. The furry person shook it.

     “I’d like to get you two to a better campsite before dark. It will take another day to get to Annie Gracious and there are krav out here. Do you need to eat now, or can you wait a bit? There are a few nice things we can collect on the way, and I have stores to share at camp.” 

     “Leor,” he said dubiously, offering his hand. The furry person shook it, too.

     “Brrda. Silverback custodian. At your service.” The mane flicked as it bowed to them.

     Leor returned the bow. La’ii copied him and gave her name.

     “Nice to meet you both. Annie Gracious has told me all about you.”

     “I don’t think Annie Gracious knows us, yet. We hardly know us yet.” La’ii looked at Leor, who agreed with a dumbfounded nod.

     Brrda rolled lavender eyes. “You civilized people are so literal and linear.” It turned; La’ii saw the burnished wooden staff in its spider silk sling. There were obviously long years of handling in it.

     Leor glanced at La’ii now that the creature person had turned away. Wait to eat? La’ii nodded assent.

     “Good,” Brrda said without turning. “We have a long way to go, and acorns take hours.”

     They followed it, literally bewildered.

 

Over the River and Through the Woods

Planet Maya: Year 300

 

     Did you just hear me thinking? They asked each other simultaneously.

     Obviously so. They answered.

     Brrda felt them falling into a maelstrom of mutual amazement and admiration. Whe rolled wher eyes internally. For wher, this communication was a three dimensional thought construct in physical space via sound waves and psychic modeling. In the image, a local bird cocked its head in curiosity at a comical, possibly tasty insect mating dance.

     Leor asked, “Brrda, was that a growl?”

     Brrda didn’t turn. Brrda didn’t speak. Brrda said, Whe heard you both.

     La’ii and Leor turned to each other, then hustled to catch up with Brrda.

     It had a tiny amused quirk to its mouth. “Loud and clear. For humans, you two have active minds. Annie Gracious may be right about you.”

     “What is she right about since she doesn’t know us, doesn’t know the problem, and doesn’t know we’re coming to talk to her?” La’ii was feeling the need to be didactic.

     “Whe?” asked Leor.

     Brrda grinned, incisors gleaming. “She does know you, the problem, and that you are coming. She sent me to collect you.” Looking at Leor, “When you refer to yourself, you say, ‘I’. When whe refer to wherself, whe say, ‘whe’. When others refer to wher, whe prefer the same form. Whe wasn’t growling.”

     Wher smile was less soothing than whe intended it.  Those canines flashed. Leor quailed a bit, suddenly seeing bones crunch between them. He felt wher mind press upon his gently. He saw the image of his fear like a projection that effectively diminished her truth ratio. He dropped it, and sought to see wher clearly.

     He and La’ii rocked back on their heels simultaneously as a shimmering outline of a curious sparrow suddenly hung in the air before them, then dispersed. Both agape, one of them managed, “Brrda?”

     “Whe have a way of communicating images with a combination of sound and disciplined visualization. Most civilized people don’t have the wiring to perceive it. The meaning is in the shape of the waves in space and not the growl itself. What your ears hear is only a tiny part of it. Whe am pleased you recognized it as any kind of communication at all. Well done.”

     “Hang on!” La’ii stopped in the road. “Leor, check me on this. We’re psychic, it is a whe, Annie Gracious expects us, and whe can hear us thinking but we can’t hear….” She struggled.

     “Wher,” offered Brrda.

     “…wher psychic projections very clearly?”

     He smiled. “Completely accurate. Hug?”

     Brrda repressed a snort as he cocked his head like wher bird and held out his arms to La’ii. He was definitely impressionable. Interesting.

     “Hold my hand while I adjust to reality?” La’ii counter-offered, and he felt each ridge in her fingerprints brush his own as their metacarpals entwined.

     Brrda gruffed. “Whe have a long walk. Do what you can to keep your minds clear. Stay alert.”

     Neither asked what they should be alert for. Those metacarpals were seriously distracting.

 

“Hang On.”

Planet Maya: Year 300

     La’ii had had it. They’d been walking past four klicks already, over twice the entire length of town, in silence. La’ii’s thoughts, in that silence, started to get rather disorganized. There was Leor’s hand in hers. But he’d started tensing his arm in the rough spots on the trail, as if to help her up. But she didn’t need help, and frankly, having to balance with him tugging on her made the task harder. Plus of course, the implicit assumption of partnership was so glitching obvious – at least for the mission or whatever it was this was turning into – and she wasn’t going to get dragged in to an early (ok, it wouldn’t be too early in conventional eyes but way too early for her) Expansion over a glitching coincidence, for Sappho’s sake! Her heart panicked at the idea of parenting and giving up her life before she’d begun it for some scrap of future genealogy she hadn’t even met yet, then it strangled her with the idea of not touching the the palm that met hers and the infusion of life it represented, which of course, when she heard herself think it, sounded almost like a dirty joke and sent her swimming back to Point A.

     A brown brindle custodian, life wrapped around a golden tiger striped infant nursing in wher arms.

     Internally, La’ii accepted an invitation to feel the scene. It seemed like some psychic etiquette about consent Brrda was teaching.

     Externally, she stopped in her tracks, which confused Leor, which confused La’ii, since weren’t they suddenly all psychic with each other? Which irked her a bit, like an invasion of privacy.  I mean, who’d want to live completely in somebody else’s head all the time, sweaty palms or not for glitching Daniel’s glitching sake!

     …Nursing in wher arms.. pressed Brrda, just enough to distract La’ii from the mental whirlpool. La’ii followed the thought.

     Leor took a step back on the path as Brrda’s laughing eyes held La’ii’s.  

     …Tiny, sharp teeth and a greedy mouth latched on wher nipple, life bursting from wher body into this shining seedling life.

     La’ii’s explosion of deeply mixed emotions knocked her to her knees, but Leor valiantly caught her on the way down in the silliest fainting violet stereotype ever. Brrda purred reassurance and wher eyes were so kind and attentive to La’ii that Leor simply rested her back on the earth and watched from his haunches a few feet away.

     Internally, La’ii put her awareness inward and discovered she was feeling a custodian body. Yes, primal yin yang of pleasure and pain in nursing. A dim, distant awareness of her personal disgust and its complete irrelevance to her true animal nature. Yes, a stretched body and aching limbs. Yes, those those swirls and bands of textures were sweet to pet. A strange, illuminating sexiness was the literal parent of parental love. A full bladder, which was normal to notice when feeding was almost over. Feeding delayed every other urge, but they rushed back in their turn. Something in the body was different from La’ii’s. Something fundamental. Bladder, conscious effort to hold… There was definitely a difference in plumbing.  La’ii’s custodian body had a full set, both types. This was natural and normal for custodians, as was the seasonal and volitional fluctuation in their relative sizes and shapes, as were double females and double males.

     Externally, La’ii’s eyes popped open. Leor’s relief flooded when her eyes showed comprehension and drained when a strange unfathomable wisdom flashed within. Then she grinned. She pointed like a toddler telling on her brother and commanded, “Show him!”

     Brrda snarled and yelped in an alarming sound Leor later learned was custodian for a piggy-snort guffaw.    

     Then it hit him.

 

*****

 

     Leor opened his eyes, and found himself blinking up at La’ii.

     “You passed out, too,” she smiled.

     He sat up. “Hold on.”

     Brrda made a sound like a cat purring while chomping a squirrel’s head. This was a repressed snicker, but the hairs on the back of Leor’s neck stood up nonetheless.

     Plaintive, he begged. “Why?”

     More of that squirrel-chomping sound.  “I really shouldn’t be poking you two like this. But after hearing you think at each other all day, I couldn’t stand it.”

     Plaintive, she begged. “What?”

     “Both of you broadcasting all your fear and hope and crazy civilized ideas about parenting and gender all over the atmosphere all day long while maintaining rickety blinders between you. Absolutely maddening. Plus, from what Annie Gracious says, you two have a bigger stew to stir than who does the midnight feedings or custodian physiology.”

     Wher mane hackled up the slightest bit, as did a convergence of vertical brindle lines below wher navel. She licked her chops and snapped her jaws.

     “The point was the payoff of parenting, to soothe you. The physiological differences were,” she showed empty palms and shrugged, “incidental.”

     La’ii folded her arms. “I am not soothed.”

     Leor hadn’t got past transitive multiple gender identities yet.

     Brrda growled. “Annie Gracious warned whe. Look, whe don’t know enough about the big picture to explain it. But you two are entangled and spinning on an outward path, starting already. Obviously explaining created another problem. Interacting with civilized people is not my usual custodial task. If whe keep moving, whe can get to camp before nightfall. Talking might help quiet that spiralling mental chatter. Questions?”

     Leor and La’ii got up, dusted off, and gestured for Brrda to lead.

     “You start,” he offered La’ii.

     She put her hands on her hips. “How come there are no custodians when we walk for Readings? How come there are no krav?”

     A lean, strong finger marked a missed point. The brindle here was more ash and silver. “There are both. During those seasons, custodians keep the path clear of krav so civilized people can walk unconcerned. Readings are important, and ignorance of the world beyond the enclos- beyond the towns shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

     “We haven’t seen a creature all day,” observed Leor.

     Another hissing purr. “You haven’t seen a creature all day. Whe have seen many. There is a pack of krav pacing wher now. They’re too patient and cautious as hunters to attack wher in daylight. Alone, you’d be crunchy by now.” She flashed those teeth again.

     They glanced around them, seeking sign of krav.

     An approving snarl rolled over Brrda’s lip. They were finally beginning to look around them. “Krav usually move behind the third line of trees. They watch your line of vision and only shift when your attention is away. Their hides color shift in camouflage. Whe’ll be more surprised if you see them than when you saw wher bird.”

     “What are whe custodian of, exactly?” To La’ii, this expanse of grass and distant trees was empty.

     “My pride, the group you call “Loonies”, and Maya. Though whe don’t work alone.”

     “Personal pride?”

     Huff-grrr. “Family pride. A group living closely with shared hunting and parenting roles.”

     Leor questioned, “The Loonies need custodians?”

     A furry shrug. “All humans do.”

     “Do we?” she asked.

     That snarling peal of laughter again. “Small founding population on a different planet from which your species developed with minimal wilderness experience and fissured cultures? Yes, you do.” Wher eyes flicked to the line of trees and a ripple of raised fur traveled up wher mane to the crown of wher head. “No more talking. Walk in front of wher, chests high, eyes on the trail. Whe will send you images of grilled meat. Concentrate and keep moving. If you break and run, they will attack. Whe have weapons work to do here, and if you lag you might get brained.”

     Wher heavy, polished staff gleamed in wher hands; the intricate woven strap tied at wher waist. Whe wooshed it once with wher wrist, once with wher elbow, and once with wher shoulder. Whe repeated the process on the left, a warm-up so practiced and effortless whe didn’t seem to notice wherself doing it.

     La’ii and Leor’s eyes grew wide together. They did not lag, and they thought of grilled meat. When they each caught a faint outline of motion in their peripheral vision just inside the nearest line of trees, they doubled their hustle and could nearly hear it sizzle.

     Brrda’s staff whistled behind them, but they didn’t pause to look.

First several chapters, first draft

posted in: Glitchy | 1

 

Ouroboros

by Laurel Wilson

For Rozlyn and Rowan

First draft blog edition

This portion October 2017

 

Prologue

Earth: The End

 

     For him, it was their last meeting. For her, their first. Gareth waved goodbye to little Maya, who clutched Dr. Hernandez’s neck. Panicked people rushed around him.  Moist, sticky drips fell from the sky onto his intricately woven clothes.  Dr. Hernandez and his daughter disappeared into their clandestine quarantine bunker.

     Gareth’s heart sunk. He’d held her wrinkled hand hours before; he’d watched the fire in her piercing eyes, blue as this strange sky, flicker and die. Now this glimpse of her at six, then maybe a glimpse of the ship in fourteen years, if he lived that long. His eyes unfocused, seeing the memories behind him and before her.

     The pushing rush shifted into screaming, headlong panic. He heard barked orders. Exoskeletons enameled midnight blue prodded runners, who screeched and bolted.

     “Halt for medical evaluation!” seemed to be a recording. How could they find people to put on those insectoid suits, to harass and terrify these people?

     Perhaps they were robots.

     A woman clutched Gareth, pointing behind her, panting “The Paramedics!” She tried to drag Gareth, who should have been moving faster if he wanted to live. She dropped her armload of clothing and papers, stooped to gather them, and peered up into a Paramedic’s shadow. Gareth could see no face, no hands, no skin. Shouldn’t a paramedic be a healer? The woman bunched her things together and sprinted. The Paramedic watched her go and regarded Gareth. It cocked its head and said, “This is a Voluntary Evacuation Zone.”

     Definitely a recording. Man or machine inside?

     A motion caught the Paramedic’s eye. One runner’s pace wobbled and slowed. He dropped his luggage, staring up at a wheezing old juniper beside the road. He hugged the trunk; his right foot slowly stepped up, seeking a hold.

     The Paramedic’s outstretched arm vomited flame, incinerating the man.

     Shock froze Gareth; the Paramedic’s flamethrower was built into the glinting wasp suit; its hand, if it had one, was invisible on that side. A paramedic really ought to have two warm human hands and no inferno. Gareth saw the climber’s  flesh blacken and split. A waft of grilled meat made Gareth’s mouth water and his stomach turn. He ran.

     He kept to the center of the pack, away from the trees along the road. Between trunks, he saw an enormous dome over the city center. Glittering tall buildings and greenery inside, concrete devastation and wilderness outside.

     It was an Enclave.

     The Paramedics herded runners toward an elevated ribbon of concrete, a raised road almost level with the top of the dome at its highest point. The voluntary evacuation drove them out – out of the delivery zones where sealed trucks moved goods between Enclaves, out of the service zones, out of sight, out of mind.

     Shoved in the lunging crowd, Gareth remembered Earth’s end as Gram Bee told it. She’d be weaving silks by the fire with her pack of spiders, crooning to them as they collaborated at her loom. Enclaves were domed and quarantined luxury residential areas. Residents danced the masque of the green death while most people lived hardscrabble lives at the mercy of Paramedics, disease, and thieves. Pestilence was bad enough, but break people apart and the world ends. For Gram Bee, it was a scary bedtime story with a moral: remember inherent value, prevent the same disaster.

     Gareth first heard it at her knee almost sixty years ago. Gram Bee was born on Sappho during the voyage. She heard the stories from Maya and the crew who were, at his present moment in time, children under quarantine in the hidden installation behind him.

     Gram Bee hadn’t mentioned the elbows in the ribs, forced marches, or flamethrowers. Time and astronomical distance softened the story considerably. He loped in the panting crowd, blending with them, matching their motion. Today was a bad day to test a Paramedic’s flamethrower. What motion had triggered that blast of flame?  

     Inside the Enclave he saw a woman, tiny as an insect in a jar, leaning out a window high above the ground. She craned her neck toward the roof.  Gareth ran in the panting crowd, flicking his eyes toward her, knowing what history said he might see, appalled, enthralled.

     She began to climb outside the building. She scrabbled over the ledge to the roof.

     On the incline, the runners around him struggled. He matched their pace.

     The roof had a spired coppery dome. She clung to the spike, shinnying up. Then her body jerked taut. Her fingers and legs locked around the spike. Her head cocked back, eyes straight at the sun. Her forehead bulged. Out mushroomed a green missile, as long as the woman’s whole body. Her leg disintegrated and blew away. Her empty trunk collapsed. The green extrusion puffed and floated in billions of microscopic particles into the Enclave’s atmosphere.

     An alarm pealed. The Paramedics halted, listening. Tiny people inside the Enclave poured out of the shining city buildings toward the emergency air locks.

     “This is a Mandatory Evacuation Zone,” the Paramedics boomed. They turned to the Enclave, flamethrowers drawn, to seal the exits.

     Uninfected Enclaves were paradises of privilege and comfort. Infected Enclaves were burial grounds.

     Sirens multiplied. Paramedics now disregarded the surging throng. Containment was first priority. The vermin would keep coming back.

     Runners began to trample each other as the weak fell.

     Where the ribbon of road again touched earth, Gareth sighted a cemented creek. A distant green slope beckoned. High chance of water, low population density, no Enclaves, no Paramedics. It was a plan. He left the road.

 

Shopping

Maya: 300

 

     “Mom!” Alice’s voice rose over the clothing racks. “This shirt is only 10 gig!” She stomped. Cartoon frowning faces floated off her head, paused and jerked in space while her perfect complexion wavered and acne appeared. The faces whooshed upward and farted as they popped. Mortified, she screamed, “It’s glitchy!”

     Their mother Xochi rolled her eyes.  “Alice, sweets, you have a budget. I have a budget. I’m not blowing that budget so you can get a terabyte of new clothes.”

     “La’ii has a terabyte.”

     “La’ii took a freelance hacking job after school and paid for it herself.” Xochi’s arms folded and her brow came down. Alice was losing. La’ii walked away. Her fingers dragged against a hundred identical, extremely cheap sleeves on the rack. No use making the clothes actually warm or useful or even crafted. Projection took care of it all.

     Alice whined. “This year is Apocalypse. I can’t show up in old clothes.”

     Xochi frowned. “That Apocalypse talk is bunk. The ecosystem has survived at least one Cycle. We’ll survive the next. We just haven’t been on the planet long enough to see it. Three centuries is nothing in geologic time.”

     “Mr. Rystad says boiling seas and melted gems flowing across the landscape like water.”

     Xochi snapped. “Mr. Rystad is a religious extremist from…” She stopped herself. Could she say “The Coast” without implicitly using the pejorative “Coasties”? She faltered.

     “…from the West,” Alice offered. Coasties throwing their projectors into Maya’s purple ocean and groaning about the Apocalypse flitted through both their minds.

     Xochi smiled. “Let’s look at the budget and the apps you want and see what we can do.”

     La’ii quirked a lip as her mother and sister dove back into the clothing racks. Not quite a sneer, but far too distant for warmth.

     La’ii did have the terabyte, though she didn’t project with it much, mostly just the tapered ear tips and the continually breezy movement in her hair. A little bit of suppressing her secondary sexual characteristics. k’Mils women always had what Loonie Annie Gracious called “breeder’s hips”. Ew.

     At eighteen, La’ii k’Mil wasn’t interested. Though Annie Gracious was probably Reading at the time and La’ii wouldn’t have any choice at all. There were rituals involved, genealogies to study. La’ii wasn’t against doing her part for the Expansion, but there were her feelings to consider. She’d never met anyone she’d allow to touch her, much less… “Expand.”

     She sucked her lower lip. Most of that terabyte went into hacking nearby projections for their truth ratio. And seeing the real people beneath their projections. That was technically illegal. Courts had long since upheld the right of individuals to project a self-image to the exclusion of the physical truths of their bodies.

     Hence the rituals and genealogies when it came time for a girl to Expand. Expansion still had to happen the old fashioned way, and it took more than a terabyte of projection to convince La’ii the centaur with the cobblestone abs wasn’t really an arrogant coward hiding behind the code.

     Alice projected a taller, more busty version of herself based on a fem first person shooter, autoplayed flying emoji clusters from her biometrics, and looped last year’s free clothing animations.

     Xochi projected more muscles, less fanny, and fewer wrinkles. It was a total projection, tastefully designed as both plausibly human and unretouched. She customized an imp app to hide in her earring and whisper to her about her schedules, lists, food intake, exercise, and spiritual growth.

     La’ii’s goal to neutralize her gender was a lost cause from the start. Her hair fell below her waist in heavy waves of honey blonde. Hazel eyes glittered with piercing humor. Her carnelian mouth set as a jeweled lock against words that might encourage some buffoon with a titanic projection.

     Spider silk tunic and pants, luminous and floating, accentuated her graceful frame and slender limbs. These strange, old fashioned clothes and her mysterious smile highlighted her rare natural beauty.

     Friends and family assumed she’d hacked her way into special equipment.

     Alice and Xochi settled on a 100 gig booster pin, a connector repair kit, and a 10 gig scarf.

     La’ii followed them outside, aloof.

     Two suns blazed in a lavender sky. Which, if the Coasti… people from the Coast were right, was exactly the problem.

 

Emergence

Earth: The End +14

 

     Arcing high in the blue sky overhead, Sappho’s booster assembly separated. It would fall in the Pacific as the ship passed escape velocity with Maya and all her kin aboard.

     Gareth nodded. Now he was truly alone. No history of Earth existed past this moment.

 

***

 

     They knew the launch would break quarantine in the bunker. With no communication to the outside and their children shot into space, they could only argue.

     Would they all contract the pestilence? Was it safe? Were there people above? Had every living creature on Earth succumbed to disease? Certainly a zoonotic fungus that could so effectively control complex behavior like climbing towards light could come up with new horrors in fourteen years. What had been the plan once the kids were gone? Could anyone stay? Could anyone leave?

     Dr. Hernandez rubbed the back of his hand in small circles, self-soothing. Fourteen years in a bunker with even the best of friends and brightest of minds got old. A breath of fresh air, even if it killed him. An unfamiliar flavor, an unfamiliar face, even if it killed him. They were already breathing traces of external air. The decision had already been made.

     Dr. Hernandez shot the bolt and opened the door.

 

The Apocalypse

Maya: 300

 

     “La’ii. Join me?”

     Xochi’s projection flickered off as she headed down the hall. La’ii dragged her lip against her teeth. Xochi never took off her projection.

     La’ii followed.

     Xochi sat at the kitchen table. Her imp bounced off her ear and disappeared through the smooth center surface. The imp gave the table Xochi’s printing instructions for dinner.

     Turning her projector off for a serious talk didn’t mean Xochi was going to eat food out of the ground, for Sappho’s sake.

     La’ii tried on the distant smile, but it slipped into something honestly warm when she saw her mother’s gray, receding hairline. That was the kind of honesty no one projected.

     “You know your brother is studying astrophysics?”

     “Yah.” Astrophysics was a relatively new study. History was voyage, crash, survival, division (historians agree things ran much more smoothly without the Loonies and Coas.. people from the Coast around), and re-tech. Plenty to accomplish in three hundred years, even with Earth’s libraries and Sappho’s surviving equipment. They’d just got around to calculating the orbits of the planets and double suns in their system.

     Xochi leaned in. La’ii’s mind wandered a lot. “La’ii. I need you to go talk to Annie Gracious.”

     La’ii’s neck rigidified. “I’m not having a mandatory Expansion, mom.” Weren’t they done with this? No babies, no babies with strangers, no babies without co-parenting agreements, no contributing to Expansion for La’ii. Her jaw already set, her eyes snapped to Xochi’s.

     Xochi reached for her hand. “I’m not talking Expansion. Of course I want you to have children with many fathers. Every girl does. Expansion is a social duty.”

     La’ii’s eyes drilled.

     Xochi’s hands warded. “Do as you please. Don’t Expand. Expand. Raise them, don’t raise them. Give them many families, give them none. Pick a small group. Pick a big group. Group with women. If you think you could be happy, pick one man and stick with him your whole life.” …’As unnatural as that sounds’ stayed behind her teeth, but La’ii heard it anyway.

     “If this conversation isn’t about Expansion, change the subject?”

     “You’re right.” Xochi shook her head at herself. It was so easy to open her mouth and hear thoughtless drivel come out.  “I need you to talk to Annie Gracious about the Apocalypse.”

     Picture of La’ii, completely dumbstruck.

     “Greth has been calculating Maya’s orbital path relative to the suns.”

     “So? Colonial planet, binary stars. What does Annie Gracious have to do with it?”

     “Those suns are coming into conjunction. Global temperatures will rise dramatically, the visible light spectrum will shift, and we will die. Coa… people from the Coast expect to die. Loonies, however, seem to have a plan.”

     “You said the Apocalypse was bunk! You said the ecosystem survived so we would! What does Greth’s math class have to do with it?”

     “He proved it’s real, La’ii. He proved the Apocalypse is here.” Her voice throbbed. Her eyes brightened with tears, real ones. Her projection was off.

     “If Loonie Annie Gracious has a plan, I want it. Dr. Hernandez didn’t shoot Maya into space so we could lose it all to a solar conjunction.” A tear rolled, and La’ii noticed how the edge of the drop interacted with the fine hair on Xochi’s face and minute, drawn threads of surrounding reflections. That’s exactly the kind of detail projections missed.

 

Earth

The End +14

 

     Dr. Hernandez squinted. He hadn’t seen a blue sky in years. He expected to hear motors, to smell asphalt. Instead, he heard birdsong  and clean, unfiltered, unprocessed air rushed his senses. He felt warmth on his skin and leaned his head back, marveling at the touch of sunshine.

     A low, calm voice called, “Dr. Hernandez?”

     “A survivor?” he stammered.

     Gareth’s strong, rough hand reached down and grasped the man’s arm. Dr. Hernandez almost popped out of the bunker onto soft grass. The old tarmac had crumbled to nearly nothing. Nature and the persistence of life never ceased to amaze him.

     “Dr. Hernandez?” Gareth repeated. He needn’t ask. The laughter dancing in the corners of his eyes was exactly like Maya’s. And at this particular point in time, Gareth was a generation older than his father-in-law; Maya was 20, accelerating into space, and hadn’t met him yet. Gareth pumped his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

     Hernandez stammered again. “A survivor?”

     Gareth equivocated. “I have an unusual immune system. A few more of us survived.  I risked returning to the city to collect you after the launch.”

     “How did you know about that?”

     Gareth smiled. “Long story, which I will be happy to tell later. First we have to get back to the safety of the wild.”

     Hernandez balked. “I’m not moving. None of my people are moving. We will plunk right back down into that bunker and close the door. How did you know?”

     Gareth shrugged. “I’m from the future. I’m your son-in-law. Also your great-great grandson.”

     Hernandez’s eyes blazed. Gareth could see Hernandez not only accept the truth instantly, but like Maya, his eyes tracked up and right while his mind worked. The improbable truth thrilled him, his intellect leapt at the possible paths through time that Gareth had taken.

     Gareth grinned. “I’ve read your work. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” His green eyes danced. This man was father to Maya, but also to Sappho and all three colonies back home.

     Hernandez’s eyes turned sad. The expression was identical to Maya’s. Gareth’s heart split open.

     “I’m never going to see her again, am I?” Hernandez asked.

     “I don’t think I am either,“ sighed Gareth. “It’s hard to see her expressions on your face.” His openness and vulnerability, his helpless hapless love for Maya etched in his every lineament instantly won Hernandez.

     Hernandez punched the older, greyer man’s shoulder. “Well, son,” Hernandez laughed, “come and meet the family.”

 

The Twins

Maya: 300

 

     La’ii was really the best choice to go see Loonie Annie Gracious. Loonies didn’t spook her, she didn’t mind walking, she was calm around wild animals, and she had clothes that would shelter her off the grid. She was sensible enough to survive the trip and open enough to Loonies to bring back a reasonable understanding of their plans for surviving the Apocalypse.

     Xochi just wished La’ii didn’t have to go alone.

     It wasn’t illegal to visit the Loonies. Certainly people went on pilgrimages when there was an Expansion question that needed a Reading. Certainly there were whispers of miracle cures and spiders trained like printers and stoned priestesses telling the future and underground houses and wild beasts that ate children and magical farmland that grew what you asked for and, well, all manner of completely looney ideas.

     La’ii would be fine.

     Xochi watched her daughter sway away, and knew as only Loonies should know that her child would never be the same, would never return as a child, would never live under her roof again.

     Because she was not Looney, poor Xochi worked herself around to not believing it, even to expecting La’ii’s return exactly as she was. Xochi visualized them braiding and brushing as they did when La’ii was small. She thought it through thoroughly, even aging La’ii a little older than she was now so the idea felt like future. There was the stink of wish in the vision, not of truth. Because she wasn’t Looney, Xochi ignored it.

 

***

 

     La’ii strolled through the city, crossing roads and open spaces in a direct line toward the Loonies. She enjoyed slicing through the unwritten rules of sidewalks and roads oriented toward the larger, more pervasive pattern of Maya’s surface. The Loonies lived where Sappho crashed landed. All roads began there. Tracing them back was simply a matter of perceiving them. That would be easier the farther she got from the city.

     The streets were crowded. With the push for Expansion, you’d think people would spread out. But they clustered in crowded groups, movement defined by the grid’s reach. No one took off their projections in public.

     A slick young man in a spider silk shirt talked business on a park bench with a floating mermaid. Airmaid? Moved like a person with a fish tail in the water, but floating in the air. Rich projection, that. Making the inconvenient parts of the body disappear was hard code to flow. A good job. High-end custom or genius homemade. Who was she kidding? Home made was almost a criticism. Too Looney.

     The man shot his French cuffs and an archaic business card appeared in his hand. He offered it to the airmaid. A fish swam around from behind her back, and took the card in its mouth.

     In terms of code, he was giving contact, health, and genetic information. The projected old-school card was a stand-in for the data exchange. The fish was Airmaid’s way of examining the card while keeping his code away from hers until she had time to examine it. The fish nibbled at it, spit bits of it out in blooming puffs (good animation there – completely plausible), sucked them back in, and chomped some more. Airmaid seemed pleased. A little seahorse scooted over to Slick and anchored its tail in his hair. He made a pretty good show of petting and cooing at it while checking her code.

     Airmaid’s pleasure showed in a slow, turning roll during which her breasts floated and flashed. La’ii noticed a gesture of dappled light upon them, as if Airmaid were lit by sunlight under water. Definitely a 5 terabyte projection, even with grid support. Impressive.

     Impressive flirt, anyway. The guy was delighted and nearly floated behind her himself.

     La’ii asked herself where the relationship might go. Airmaid held his hand, almost towing him like a floating corpse. The truth under their projections was Airmaid was heavy, pale, and awkward. Her eyes were calculating and hungry without warmth. Slick was unkempt and short. He followed her, shifting his shirt to a seaweed drape and tucking in the seahorse.

     La’ii kept walking.

     A stern female centaur swished her tail as La’ii passed, and La’ii stopped to give her a scratch between the ear and the mane. The woman nickered and cavorted on her way. A family of foxes minced along the sidewalk together. The biggest adult had nine tails, and the smallest cub had one.  They snarled and shied when a wookie passed. They licked their chops when they spied an old couple perched on the rail as pigeons, cooing.

     Unimaginative, grid-dependent projections, every one.

     La’ii felt the stir of her spider silk blouse against her skin. Her skirts swirled near her ankles, her hair fell over her shoulders. She could feel them. They were real; her sensations were real. Projections had to have some tactile output, of course. You had to be able to interact with the environment. But the code an the processing needed to have full body full time tactile both inside and outside the projection was seriously prohibitive.

     As her mind wandered, she began to twiddle the ends of her hair. She loved how it was brush-soft from an angle and almost prickly end-on.

     Her focused shifted outward.

     A seven foot tall meerkat locked eyes with her. His ears had pointy tips. She smiled. He smiled; his tiny feral meerkat teeth squared up into human teeth. His face shifted, the fur receeded; he relaxed into an almost entirely true projection. His hair, exactly her color, zigged down his back in springy ringlets. His body was confident and strong, but not rugged. His ears stayed pointed.

     La’ii tossed her hair over her shoulder without projection.

     He paled, never taking his eyes off her.

     Neither had any awareness of crossing the street or approaching each other.

     In La’ii’s mind, she was merely going about her business only a slightly curved path toward an interesting phenomenon. As she passed, they glitched. La’ii’s hair turned curly, his body become slighter and curvier, which was either inexplicable or an outrageous coincidence of code sheilding strategies. La’ii glanced down at herself and saw a flatter, squarer body than she’d had. Their clothes matched.

     La’ii read truth in code and saw that he was wearing real clothes like hers, but the projections shifted a little here, a little there so they were identical.

     “Wow!” he said. “Twins! Nice code. I didn’t think my projection was so glitchy.”

     La’ii’s face took an imperious angle. “My code doesn’t glitch.”

     He smiled gently. “Except today, yes?”

     Their eyes flicked toward a shop window. They fell into step. At the window, they looked at each other, side by side. They turned toward each other, which was the same as the mirror. They turned back to the window. He reached for her hand, touched her fingertips. Staring into a double reflection of her mysteriously changed self, the touch reassured her.

     In fact, she liked it.

     They turned toward each other again, still holding hands. Ungaurded, staring, amazed they gazed.

     He gaped and drew back his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t ask to touch you. It was just so odd seeing myself double-”

     “-That you needed the contact,” she finished. “Me too.”

     He took a step back and bowed. “Leor.” He stuck out his hand to shake.

     “La’ii,” she replied, and took his hand.

     “Which way are you going?”

     Chagrin twisted up her face. She’d forgotten she was on a mission. Not for long, but a glitch like that was a distraction!

     He saw the play of emotions on her face, yet lost himself in the maze.

     That imperial carriage came upon her features again, this time with fire. “I’m going to talk to Looney Annie Gracious about the Apocalypse.”

     His projection flickered, all his colors lost saturation and he looked like stone. She dropped his hand. “What?”

     He brightened back up, and the eerie mirror of herself returned. “Me too.”

     La’ii paused. She checked in with her heart. She checked in with her spirit. While she was trying to think a bit, her body volunteered. She reached for his hand again, interlocked fingers, and drifted a bit on the comfort and warmth, the kind strength flowing toward her.

     Embarassed, she turned to speak, but his mind had unhinged, too. His slack, dreamy look was a reflection of herself.

     She gave his hand a squeeze.

     Theysmiled. “Shall we?” they asked, and strolled right out of town.