early February 2018
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”