The girl at the end of the world
Sheena fluttered down between the cliff faces. The emerald river rushed up towards her. Little imperfections turned into bursts of stone, the undulating green into waving grass that pushed either side as she pulled up from her dive, and alighted off her wind scooter.
She stepped onto the green she’d peered at from 15 lengths up. She was at the bottom of the canyon she’d stumbled on while out looking for crickets for Nanu’s stew. The tiny canyon mouth let in a strip of light wide enough for the scooter to soak the sun. It meant she could get back up, so she followed the canyon’s trail.
Chasing crickets she unsettled from the grass, she followed the canyon deeper, starting to lose the light. As the last of the sun was left behind, her vision shifted, the walls and ground took on rich hues and opalescent outlines, the crickets picked out in stark white.
She pulled up after stumbling through a dull bush and saw a boxy object that seemed to reach into the earth. It was still and solid like an object of power but glowed like a beast at night.
Attracted by its unusual aura, she dug deeper into the foliage and reached out to run her fingers through the waving tendrils and find the shape buried within them. Her hand grew warm and tingly as she saw the tendrils dull, passing through her own glowing skin. Her fingers wrapped around the hard shape within. It was marked with parallel lines and ringed with an even outer lip. It had one extrusion that Sheena fingered thoughtfully as she stood up.
It had a little bit of give to it, which felt so different from the hard construction of every other detail. It felt like an object of power, but heavier, duller.
Her probing depressed the extrusion past a threshold where it locked itself down. She felt the thunk in the palm of her hand, and suddenly the aura crystalised, shooting down into the earth, and up into the sky, forming two continuous beams.
The object started emitting the crackling noise of an angry fire fed green wood. Through the noise a voice started to emerge.
“Operator 621, call 21k — activation detected. If this message is received please confirm.”
Sheena looked at her palm in shock. The voice was speaking Arkane, but it sounded young, like her. Only the old ones spoke Arkane, though she’d picked it up from listening to her father communicate through the ether to the spires.
“Hello,” she uttered, her Arkane coming out shrill and disjointed. “Are you talking little Bug?” The chitinous shell that pulled the heat out of her hand looked a lot like the gnut beetle, so Bug was as good a name as any.
“Hello, message received, language match acceptable, what time and place is connection — ” “Ask her who she is, Red, she sounds like a damn little girl,” a voice cut in over the other one, ruddy, and red where the other was sparkly and blue. “Thank you, sir, yes sir. Please confirm identity, as well as location in time and space.”
“Hmmm you’re a buzzy little bug aren’t you,” Sheena mused. “My identity might be my identikat? My mother keeps ours at home. As for time and space, I can give you the long answer or the short one, but here and now is all I know how to say in Arkane.”
“Mother! Yes, Mamuer! Can you bring us to your Mamuer and we can find out what we need to know,” the same gruff voice cut in. “You have done a great service to humanity youngling.”
Youngling? She didn’t feel like a youngling, old enough to fly alone and bring back important ingredients for Nanu at least.
“Ok Bug, but no more talk of younglings or you’ll end up in the river.” She tied Bug into a sling, threw it over her shoulder, and hoisted herself up the cliff face cutting directly up to her flyer.
Once she reached the ledge, she saw the sun had moved, and Scoot looked wan and hungry. She eyed them, then looked cannilly at the river of light that had meandered away. She looked up into the wandering blue sky above, its twin. She gripped Scoot and tilted them onto the edge.
“Sheena!” Scoot exclaimed. I don’t have enough light to get us up the canyon! I’ll barely be able to keep us off the ground!”
“Shush Scoot” Sheen cooed, “I have an idea.”
With that she tipped over the edge of the ledge. Scoot whirred and strained and kept them from the rock face, groaning with effort as they brought them level with the ground. Whipping through the long grass at ground level, Sheena set her face determinedly towards the river of light.
Scoot bobbed and heaved to keep them moving forward and off the ground. Water sprayed around them as they crossed over the blue water. Dark blue at first, then light as they entered the thin line of sun that poured through.
Scoot’s groans became a fine whine, and then a whisper-quiet purr that tickled her boots, and they slowly began their ascent. “This is good light, Sheena!” Scoot sang back. Sheena smiled, Scoot just loved the sun.
“What’s happening over there?” little Bug buzzed from her back, “who’s with you?”
“Oh that’s Scoot, my flying companion!”.
“Hey there Little Bug!” Scoot called, “I’ve never seen one like you before.”
“Bug? Flying companion? What’s going on?” little Bug sounded frazzled and confused.
Sheena shushed Bug as she navigated the river of light up through the cliffs. The rock faces cut a stark line against the sky, then burst into the bright open blue as she passed out of the canyon.
Blue and green unfolded around her, the glass towers of the Wise rose to the right, and Shinku’s teeth to the left. With the generous sun and playful wind, they couldn’t help but dance. They flipped and twirled, turning the green and blue disks into a twisting kaleidoscopic sphere. Sheena, Scoot, and Bug at the center, teeth, and towers carving figure eights as they spun.
She came to rest teetered at the top of a craggy tooth of rock that gave her a view of the plains. The oaks and the gentle glow of her home and many others emerged as the sun dipped.
“Have we got enough sun to get home, Scoot?”
“If we fly straight and no funny business? Then yes,” Scoot declared.
“Oh, but where’s the fun in that?” Sheena threw back impishly. “Let’s stop at the Warmings.”
“Oh the Warmings,” Bug buzzed dazedly. Maybe he was still dizzy.
“Settle in Bug, we’ve got a long flight,” Scoot sang, needing little convincing.
Jed held the receiver, the one he’d stared at for years, the grains and whorls of the metal, his constant companion, his map of an unchanging world. Now it was bursting with the babbling of a little girl, battered by rushing wind. He looked up at the Comdats, who’d gathered around him since contact. They loomed, prompting him to ask questions as if he could get sense out of a child.
“Well done Red-Tenant,” ComDat Josepher barked. “You may stand down for rest and food”. Jed nodded hungrily, “Thank you sir.”
“This is a historical day Red”, Comdat proclaimed into the air
“ — we’ve made history gentlemen,” Comdat Pulcifer interjected
“ — we will truly be remembered for this,” Comdat Archifer finished, reaching through to shake hands and hand out cigars. Jed looked on hungrily until the focus of Josepher’s pontificating landed back on him.
“For years we’ve manned this station, waiting to get a response.” Josepher straightened his uniform and started a slow march Jed knew would form a tight circuit around their stations.
“Who knows how the time flux works, or what links this time to then? But it has, and of all the chairs in Dirigible 8, it came to you.” He stabbed Jed with the beam of one eye peering out from under a brow like a bird inspecting an insect. “You understand what you’re a part of here, son?”
“I …” Jed trailed. He’d learned it was better to be direct than try to appear intelligent.
“Not really sir. Some kind of phone operation?” It almost sounded like another country. The way the little girl spoke, quick and chirpy — familiar words stretched over strange shapes.
He’d sat with her for nearly half the night. She’d moved quickly by the sounds of things. She had shouted conversations with her companion over the wind, half nursery rhyme, half lesson. Perhaps this other person was a teach or compan.
At one point the fluttering had stopped, and they’d been crowded by voices, all crying out “Sheena! Please come and eat!” Jed’s stomach had started rumbling as he heard the unmistakable sounds of soup ladling, glasses clinking, friendly babble dissolving into happy slurping. It sounded like they’d all eaten together, and he’d imagined them all lit by a warm fire, eating companionably in silence, overtaken by the meal.
Jed snapped out of his hunger-filled reverie, ComDat still eyeing him like a worm in the dirt. “You’ll see soon boy, you’ll see the worth of the work we’re doing here. But for today, good job, now go get some food.”
Jed walked to the hanging booths on cradle seven. They were a quick way to get food on the boardwalk home. He knew visitors would come just for the novelty, but for him, it was just another day. He stepped through the walkway, ignoring the depths in the gaps between the chain links, into a bell-shaped cylinder, with a small table and stool.
His weight on the stool activated the gears, and the cylinder jolted, then followed its rail and chain up into the heights of the cavern their quadrant filled. He looked impassively out of the tiny rectangle cut into the metal, at the cacophony of shapes rising up and tumbling over each other. Industrial boxes jutted into the open air, fighting each other for access to the main rails and walkways. Improvised ladders, pulleys, and fan plates connected the hangers-on.
The view was wiped away as the cylinder joined the other booths, hanging in a loose grid, each slowly spinning to its own rhythm. A flyer buzzed to the window, claw holding a white folded box, steaming. Jed reached out and took hold of its base, and the flyer unlocked and buzzed away, darting through the chains to pick up its next order.
He unboxed it, revealing a tangle of white, oily noodles, with streaks of colour and dark he had been assured represented the nutrient requirements for a half day. He imagined himself, hanging in a drafty tube, eating food he knew came from the city’s leavings. Up here he was cut off from any other person, except the odd time when the cylinder windows would line up. Then he’d be left staring at a stranger, slurping the same noodle, as if they might be connected. He always looked away.
He thought back to the warm embrace of noise and delight Sheena had received. The appreciative grunts he’d heard from them as they’d all noisily eaten together. One person would call out to another, “this will warm you up,” or “have another bowl and be full”. He closed his eyes and slurped his noodles, and imagined he was there with her. A simple village baked in the warm light of a fire. Companionable glances to either side as they shared some sort of primitive but hearty stew. For a second he thought he heard Sheena’s laugh, and looked to his left. But it was the flyer buzzing angrily at a cylinder, the inhabitant fumbling their food as it was released.
Jed arrived back at his bunk, he’d had to climb up past the ‘chains, through the shopping runnels, till he was teetering along the ladder to his slice. Upon the platform grill, he looked back, down the piles of metal boxes, twisting off into tunnels like the inverse of the old tree root that was supposedly his mother’s. You were supposed to hook yourself to the rail when you got up to the stacks, but no one did. For a second Jed leaned over and felt the rush, where balance became a question mark, and he started losing the answer.
But the door irised open, and he sighed and tilted back into his little cube. He kicked his boots off and flopped onto his cot, not turning the light on. There was nothing much to see, just a grill letting in oily air, a small desk where he tried to continue his education.
He had a poster of the ocean that cut a window of blue through their world of greys and shadow. He closed his eyes and imagined the ocean from the stories. Salty air crusted your skin so your lips tasted like a second dinner. Warmth glowing from the sky like a radiator that needed no oil. Ground that folded and shifted around your feet, glowing and glittering as you moved your head. A huge plane of water that would chase you around then bow into itself with a crash.
Jed held himself out on the cool blue plane, floating away. The rocking of the cubes he slept in felt like the waves he’d heard about. His eyelids didn’t mind which, and got heavier and heavier, till he drifted away, salt on his lips and wind on his face.
The next day he was at his station, bright and early. This was the most important assignment he could work on, and he couldn’t be late.
“You need to understand Red, this isn’t just some cockamamie radio desk,” Comdat threw over his shoulder, as he paced back and forth. The small space, filled with radio receiver desks, gave him a tight turning circle.
“Yes si –”
“This is the historic pinnacle of decades of work, moving all around the world, seeding receivers, our top scientists carving holes through time –”
Jack’s receiver, Sheena, buzzed and sparked to life.
“Little bug, are you there?” Her tiny little voice seemed to whorl and bloom around the room, little vines and flowers left as ghostly trails where it touched. Jed blinked and looked at Comdat.
“Go on, little bug,” Comdat chuckled.
“Yes go on boy –”
“Hurry boy, she’s waiting,” the other Comdats punctuated, interrupting each other as usual.
Jack turned from the looming red faces to the receiver.
“Sheena?” He smacked his head, who else would it be?
“Yes Jed it’s me, we’re nearly home!”
Her voice had that far away sound like it was a flag flapping in a gale. She called it flying, but it was known that flying was for animals that had gone extinct a long time ago. Apparently, they had long flat arms. Maybe she was riding the rail or some sort of primitive carriage with an open top.
“Tell her to describe her home, boy.” One of the Comdats blurted out.
“Sheena, can you tell me what your home looks like, what your land looks like?”
“Jed of course! We’re coming down now so I can see the top, it’s got a little red roof, suncatchers, and then rings of green, those are mummas veges.”
“Watch your landing Sheena!” the other voice, Scoot, called out.
There was a tinkle of a laugh, then a thud, and the susurration of a tumble.
“Oh be quiet, you know that was an accident.”
Jed cleared his throat to interrupt their banter, looking uneasily at the Comdats.
“Ok now we’re on the ground, I can see the water well, Papa’s goats. The ground is soft and playful, I think it’s been raining — PAPA!”
She interrupted herself, and there was another flurry of cloth, receiver muffled with a faint murmur, a lower frequency suggesting an older person.
“Come on little one, let’s get you inside and bring these crickets to Nanu, before she puts Percy in the stew instead.” A goat who may have been Percy bleated in agreement.
“Ok Papa, but first I need to show you something.”
“We can look inside out of the kiss of the sun.”
There was more cooing and hollering, the sounds of things being poured on the table. Then a clatter and a yelp led to a chittering that seemed to swirl around the room. It sounded like Sheena was running around, bumping into things, or jumping off them, till finally the chittering was contained.
“Well Sheena, they say a lightning bug caught twice is double the luck, so you’ve blessed me especially today.”
“Oh Nanu you are most welcome”, Sheena said with mock courtesy, Jed could almost imagine a curtsey.
“Now Sheena why have you come back so early? Weren’t you visiting the Jacksons for palaver?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to SAY, Mumma!” There was a rustle and a pause, and the room’s sound came into focus.
“Go on Bug, say something!”
Jed started and looked at the Comdats, who urged him on with their rippling brows.
Jed cleared his throat, this is what he’d trained for.
“I am Jed, rank Red-Tenant, representing the People’s Alliance of Francistania, engaged in the great war of air and ground. I speak to you from your world, but not from your time, and I come to you, representatives of your time, to ask you this. How was this war won? What were the victor’s methods, how were they achieved, and when was it all resolved.”
Jed gulped and stared at the receiver, his script, and his Comdats, who leaned over as if to get closer to the coming answer.
“Why hello Jed, now that does sound like a neat trick, but I’m not clear on one thing.” The mother’s voice flowed smoothly out of the receiver, as if she spoke to disembodied voices from the past every day.
“What is war?”
Sheena lay on her sleeping palette, looking up the beams of her roof, its whorls and knot ones she’d known her whole life. The cool air drifted in. The bugs shied away this time of year, letting the breath of the farm and the river wash over her.
Jed had tried his best to explain his war. His people, not just his farm, were whole stacks of farms piled on top of each other. And each person did one thing. And most didn’t touch dirt at all! They had some sort of dispute with other people just like theirs. These others, Jed had explained, were different though. Cruel and callous and greedy.
Sheena thought of the magpie, who seemed that way, chasing off other birds, and even Sheena too. But she knew that they just worried about their babies, and could be kind, and bring gifts when the season was right.
She’d suggested that if they were behaving this way, maybe it was just the seasons, and a few gifts of warm milk and honey bread might put them in a sharing mood. But one of the older voices had barked, “Quiet girl, we’re talking to your parents.” The voices weren’t Bug, but shared the object with him, asking strange questions about armamonts and tacticle advantij.
Her parents had seemed as baffled as Sheena, and eventually, her mother cut through the babble, even as her father tried to herd their questions into sense, like goats on nethersday.
“It seems you describe a time and a place we know very little about.” Her words floated through the noise, somehow slicing it to silence.
“I think it would be best if you raised these questions with our Wise-Ones.”
“Yes, yes, at last, the wise ones!” the gruff angry voice cut through, “Maybe they can talk some bloody sense”.
Sheena stood as straight as she could while Nanu, Mama and Papa circled their work. She had her best Mariuspu on, her backpack was filled with provisions and gifts for the Wise, and she had ribbons around her boots for good steps.
“What’s happening?” Bug whispered.
“They’re making me presentable for the Wise.” Sheena whispered, “I look like a ChristenDoll.”
“There!” Mama declared. “Fit and fast! Are you excited Shee?”
“Yes Mama, it has been a long time since I’ve seen the Wise, and I’m wiser since then, so who knows how wise they will be.”
“Oh Shee,” Nanu said, “If wisdom worked like that your father’s goats would dance for Caros, and he’d know all their names.” Her eyes twinkled as Sheena’s widened.
“Now don’t let the Wise Ones fool you, just because they live in their towers and have all their powers, doesn’t mean that they know better than a beating heart and a pair of ears ok?”
“Yes Nanu,” Sheena said, wondering how Nanu always managed to suddenly create big spaces in her mind, but give her the wings to cross them all in one go.
“That’s enough Nanu,” Papa huffed, but the mothers both chortled and he settled back into his creme.
“Ok Sheena let’s get you on the way, ahead of the storm, go grab Scoot,” Mama said brightly, though to Sheena there seemed a cloud behind her smile. But a sunny sky with Scoot and supplies for days was enough to curtail any questions. So she scurried outside crying “Scoot, Scoot, we’re going to the Wise!”.
Sheena stood with Scoot, ready to kick off. Goodbyes had been said but were never finished until they were out of sight.
“So what happens now?” Bug asked softly.
“We ‘scoot to the spires! It’s beautiful there, you’re going to love it!” Sheena called to Bug over her shoulder.
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Bug said, a trace of melancholy, “I’ll never get to see it.”
“Well actually Bug, I’ve been thinking about that,” Scoot chimed in. “Do you have a visual display device?”
“Uhh — I think so, let me check.”
There was a pause, then Bug was back.
“Ok yes, we’ve requisitioned one, but what could we use it for?”
“Well I’ve been reading your data field before it tunnels, and I think I should be able to pass data back with the audio.”
“You must be a very learned one Scoot,” Bug said with admiration.
‘Yes, yes you learn a thing or two in the air.”
Scoot paused, as if taking his conversation inside, then continued, “Sheena, get Bug nestled right here, in between my bars.”
Sheena got Bug out of her sling, so heavy and dull against Scoot’s light, bright handles. As it got near the middle, it’s blue field seemed to mingle with Scoot’s white, and they pulled together into place with a thunk. The blue tendrils that pulsed away from Bug were now wrapped in white wisps.
“Ok Sheena, let’s get going! Bug, you’ll have eyes before you know it!”
With that, Sheena kicked off the ground, and felt the rush as Scoot pulled in the air around them, gave it the light they had stored, and they shot into the air.
“Goodbye!” Sheena exclaimed, one arm waving back to her family, her little red cottage, her goats.
“Two hands Sheena,” Scoot huffed, just as they caught a gust of wind they could ride while they drank more of the sun’s light.
“OK RedTenant — while we’re getting one of our Tele-Visions, let’s review what we know”, said Corporal Gargent.
“Yes, what do we know?” his longer, thinner attendant parotted.
“Go on son, tell us your read of the situation,” from the Comdat.
“Umm ok sir … sirs.” Jed corrected.
“It seems like their culture is agrarian, they referenced a herd of what sounded like gerts.”
“Yes, just our luck to be picked up by mud pokers,” the long one spat.
“But Sheena seemed to be on the move, and spoke to people in different areas, so they’re spread out.”
“Yes, disorganised, very disreputable,” declared Gargent.
“So you think they’re primitive Son?” asked Comdat.
“Well they don’t have any whirlies for food manufacture, their people don’t even live in arcologies, it seems like they’re just on the ground, in the dirt so…”
“So what, cut and dried!”
“Filthy land rats.”
“Go on Son, finish your thought.”
“So you’d think they were primitives. But Sheena was so young, and seemed so bright, and their conversations seemed … deep? Even if they were simple?”
While they’d been talking, an attendant had wheeled in a tall green cabinet, with a glass bubble face. Glass was very expensive, so Jed had rarely seen it. He was distracted by his own reflection as the Comdat and his men nattered away about information density and skull sizes.
“Ok that’s ready to go, Sirs,” the attendant boot clicked and saluted. The Comdats all saluted back, which triggered another round of boot clicking and saluting before the attendant scurried off.
“Ok Scoot we’re ready,” Jed said, finger to the receiver.
“Ok, we-” The response from the smooth voice was cut off, and became a jumpy, static filled track. Lines filled the screen that seemed to dance with the noise. They resolved into more lines running the opposite direction. “-re sending through signal now.” The voice sped up as if racing to make up for lost time.
“Thanks Scoot,” Jed passed back, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, even as the image resolved.
“This is Lake Waho,” Sheena’s voice came through again as if flapping in the wind like a flag. “We come here when the moon is leaning, for the pollan.”
Suddenly the line down the middle resolved itself to a serpentine river running below and in front of them. The other lines were banks of trees, and maybe some natural paths. Clumps of colour resolved themselves as possible structures, though everything had an organic look to it, as if placed there by the river itself.
Most importantly, it was all very far away, below them. Jed looked up at the Comdats, who all stood there, mouths agape.
“Sheena are we in the air?” Jed quivered. He’d always been afraid of heights, even after years staring down the vertical tunnels of the Arcology.
“Of course! How else would we get to the Wise? Under the ground?” Sheena shouted over the wind.
“But how are … you flying?”
“I’m taking care of that young man,” Scoot came through, their voice seemed unnaturally quiet compared to Sheena’s, now that Jed could almost feel the wind whipping past from the screen. “I’m equipped with solar hydrogen converters, enough to get us to gliding height 10 times on one charge, though once you’re above the clouds it’s really a free lunch.”
“Solar!” Comdat cried, “we haven’t been able to capture Solar since the last ash war, ask them how they fixed the skies.”
Jed passed the question on and Scoot paused for a moment. “I think you’d better speak to the Wise, we’re not far away now, those are their spires up ahead.”
What Jed had taken as imperfections in the feed started to resolve over the horizon. Long, shimmering shapes that seemed to twist into each other and out again. Their bases grew and revealed as the horizon rolled back, and their skirts spread out around them, tendrils and tangles looping from the main trunks. Jed thought of a tree he’d seen in his child’s book, it’s canopy, the sky they flew in.
“The Crystal City!” Sheena crowed. “I haven’t been here since i was a babe being invested”
“What does th — “
“Mum says I wouldn’t remember, but I do, the tall doors, the light playing and changing colour through walls, the Wise, like ribbons floating through the halls.”
After an exhausting day at the terminal, Jed clambered up the chains and ladders that made up the back way to his slice, mind still half in the grainy image he and half the command had been glued to. The viddy had feed showed them spearing into one of the portholes on the side of the towers, the entrance turning from a distant speck to a cavernous, glittering maw. Sheena had tumbled off and sprung up, to be helped by arms reaching out of the walls. Long and slender, they didn’t seem human.
“Robos?” One of the comdats said to the other, who scoffed. “Merely a trick of their primitive priesthood.”
The consensus seemed to be they were entering some sort of temple, possibly built in a greater time, but Jed wasn’t so sure. Though grainy, the feed showed structures held up impossibly by glass spires. He swore he’d seen things whizzing through tunnels interconnecting the vertical structures.
As Jed stepped into his empty cube, he thought of the warm welcome Sheena had received. Running into the halls, taking refreshment at fountains, loading up an armful of what looked like warm rolls. Eating under a beautiful green plant lit by a single beam of light let through by the glass, then refracted around the rest of the room.
The room had been as bright and airy as any Cathedral, so the whole command was stunned when Sheena rolled out her bed. It folded out with a life of its own, then scurried to a far wall. Sheena had chased it and landed on it.
“Why are you sleeping in this grand hall?” Jed had asked, stunned. “Oh silly Bug,” Sheena giggled, not unkindly, “these are my quarters, there are many like it. All are welcome to take of the people’s fruits when visiting the Wise.”
Jed, lying in his cot, thought back to his own journey home, clambering and teetering through grimey walkways, just to make it to a box big enough to fit himself and his physikal trainer. He knew they were at war, and that war takes great sacrifice. If it meant they were fighting for the future he saw on that screen, then perhaps it was worth it.
Jed looked at his uniform, carefully folded. It was patched and repaired a hundred times over, less than half of that done while he’d owned it. His repairs were mostly the elbow patches, worn down from two years sitting at that same desk, reading the broadcast codes into a disinterested microphone.
He considered Sheena’s attire, he’d imagined her in a peasant smock, maybe bundled with furs. Her silhouette was as he’d pictured, but as she was preparing for bed, the outer shell seemed to balloon, then open at the front, like a cupboard. Once she stepped out, it held her shape. Underneath a single colour body suit fit her snuggly, and she looked like some of the jump bombers he’d seen in the feelys.
Her bright face had peered into the camera, and here his expectations were met. Clear eyes and an open smile, someone who saw good and magnified it.
“Good night Bug,” Sheena had said, “I’m going to turn you off now so I can swim and sleep, but in the morning we’ll take you to the Wise.”
Jed lay in his bed, imagining himself lying in those luxurious quarters, where even a Presidentia would be awed. He imagined Sheena telling him the things she’d seen on the flight, the fountain trickling, the fronds waving in the clean air.
Sheena sprung up from her cot, slapping the side for disassembly. She used some of the mag fields she saw running through the room, like ghost rivers, to keep her elevation for a beat. Her skinsuit stretched and flattened to catch the currents, and she sprung off the reverse polarity she’d created into her Jacket.
Generally in the city a Jacket wasn’t needed. In a way the City was like a Jacket. It kept the temperature right, it gave you access to mag currents and a million other handy things the Jacket did. But Sheena loved the feeling of being engulfed in it. Like a big bulky hug that lifted you up and kept you safe.
She floated mid air as the Jacket assembled around her, taking a smaller form so she could navigate inside with ease, then it eased the mag line flux and she lowered to the ground. She tapped on the lens affixed to Scoot’s stem. “Bug, Bug, are you there? We’re up, it’s time to see the Wise Ones.”
“Yes Sheena, we’re here” Bug crackled. “I’m up also Sheena,” Scoot added, though he didn’t sleep.
Scoot’s main stem telescoped up and his wings followed, giving him the tall triangular frame of a pear tree. He bobbed and floated at Sheena’s height, using magcurrents to elevate without sun. Sheena laughed and did a slow motion summersault, like the ones she’d do under Lake Selar.
“Sheena, how are you doing that? Are you in low gravity?” asked Bug
“Oh that’s just the city, the currents are different here, easier to ride.” She looked straight at the camera, “Ok which way Scoot?”
“If you’ll kindly follow the yellow line,” Scoot said cheerfully, a yellow trail appeared, running from their door down the corridors.
Sheena dashed and darted through the corridors, Scoot holding a steady pace behind her. Bug squawked in surprise at every turn. The floating platforms where you were lifted a hundred feet through 10 levels. Glass everywhere, of differing shades and visibilities. The tangles of Gai Rope. Huge lumbering tentacles of interlocking plant life that slowly moved around the Terraria. The Sun Room, where people lay on reclined silver chairs, looking up at the sun, seemingly unfiltered, unblinking.
To Sheena these were just part of the city, she’d never thought them strange. As they were reaching the final door Sheena asked, “You said your people had great technologies. Surely this would look familiar?”
“I guess we don’t have anything like this,” Bug said, before one of the other voices cut in. “We are a people of great power and might, we have steel and steam, and coal that moves us across the planet.”
“Steel sounds nice, coal not so much,” Sheena quipped.
“And our great arcologies hold thousands of people above the earth, free from the dangers of the surface.”
“But the surface is so lovely.”
“Not in our time”, Bug replied. There was a pause, then hurriedly, “but we do have wheelys, and feelys, and food production is at its highest ever level.”
“And our war machines of course!” His voice was replaced with the gruff one, “they can send devastation from a hundred thousand feet”.
“Well I don’t know what you mean by devustion, but it all sounds very complicated, so you must be very advanced. The Wise will be very impressed I’m sure,” Sheena said primly. A faint click as the connection opened and closed, as if Bug went to add something more, but didn’t.
Something must have triggered the door, and it started to split open and they stepped in. Sheena hadn’t seen the Wise since her first invitigation. They liked to connect with every child before they joined the network.
Huge towering figures surrounded the room, as tall as the Boana tree across the valley where the goats gathered. Each one loomed from an alcove, drawing the eye from one to the other, into their unknowable hoods. She could only imagine what Bug thought of this, perhaps they looked like his ‘wor machinae’.
“Sheena dear,” a voice broke her reverie. She looked down and saw the elders, just bundles of cloth at the feet of the statues. She ran over and dived into them and was swept up and passed around. “Oh my look how much you’ve grown”, “Here have a honey cake”, “You must meet the Vellen girl, you and her would have so much fun.”
After Sheena was passed around the circle, fed snacks from various sleeves and ladened with a steaming hot mug, Bug gave a click and a cough.
“Oh and this must be the visitor,’’ one of the brown robes said, “don’t be shy, come closer now.” Scoot made his way forward, to bring the little camera within range. One of the elders peered out, so their nose poked out of their brown robe.
“This will never do, I can’t talk to another time and place like I’m talking to a feedy, you on the other end, what year is it?”
“For us ma’am?” Bug paused, the kind Sheena knew meant his voices were conferring. “SP 14, year of Saint Christos,” Bug stuttered.
“Ah yes, the dirt wars, of course, are you all up in those floating bee hives? Damn fools, ok, so I’ll need you to get the particle scanner you use for your wounded, and the light field generators you use for your air maps, then we can have a proper conversation.”
One of the gruff old voices barked out, “Excuse me! We have come at great expense to ask you questions of great import about the war.”
“Oh yes, the war! The war! Always with the war, just get the gizmos and we’ll be able to have a proper conversation.”
Sheena listened with interest. Whatever this war was, it must be exciting to have so many people asking about it.
Jed was still reeling from what he’d seen, the images that had come through the camera were like sketches from the feelys. Sheena, who he’d imagined as a poor little poisant, seemed to be able to float and fly at will, with an intelligent coat and a disembodied manservant who never appeared on camera.
But what had staggered him the most was the reactions of the Comandats — they had dismissed the city as ancient ruins, the people as squatters. But as they’d passed through the city, thriving and full of wonder, they’d gone from bluster to gasps, then silence. When they were treated like a group of foolish schoolboys they’re faces had all boiled up red.
Jed watched them now, after finally translating what was needed to the scientists. The best scientists in the world, with the best technology graced by St Paulcifer, the scientists rushed off in a mad scramble to dismantle a bomber and a surgery to find what was needed.
They were standing gathered around the war map, the best on earth. Their own position was marked high, floating above the continent. Jed knew the orange blobs were ‘us’, and the blue, a misty miasma that seemed to cover the ground was ‘them’.
The Comdats issued death with their fingers, as they pointed to different areas of blue on the map. Pinpricks, darts and blobs issued from areas of orange, and screens flickered to life, showing the view of the missiles, jets and dirigibles. Some cameras were from war archologies like this one, that simply showed a descending speck, then a rising mushroom cloud. While their orange was few, it represented many such overwhelming forces, whereas the blues spread out between them could be anything from another war machine, to a little farm like Sheena’s.
“It is their tactic of war boy,” Comdat Josepher brought his hand to Jed’s shoulder, “They spread their archologies over the planet, making them harder to target, harder to defend, but harder to attack for us.” Jed gulped and nodded, as he watched a small village like the one he’d imagined Sheena spent their first night together get turned to dust.
Either he seemed unconvinced, or the Comdat was convincing himself, so he continued, “When they attack us, they do the same. Our women, our children, our food production all lie in the skies with us.”
Jed didn’t answer, he had nothing else to say. He knew their war was righteous, and only protracted by the groundies, who refused to submit to the airlords order.
He looked around the room, the command hub, cluttered with workstations. People like him worked microphones, runners came back and forth. The scientists brought the salvaged parts and set them up. Jed wondered that this would be the command center of the earth one day. It had always seemed glorious here, but after seeing the home of the ‘Wise’ it didn’t seem so impressive. He tried to imagine any of them tapping the blue zone and decimating a village. He tried to imagine Comdat feeding him honey cake.
None of these ideas were adding up, so he sat in a daze, staring into the tangle of electrical and material conduits hanging from the ceiling, really just a stack of machinery and boxes fading into the darkness.
A blue line seemed to pass over the tangle, picking out its contours, and again, and again, starting to flicker. This startled Jed out of his reverie and he looked around, to see the Warmap spinning up, but seemingly stretching to the far walls.
The scientist closest to the projector, under increasingly intense strobe, cleared his voice and said, “they sent through some instructions to increase output a thousand fold, and resolution ten thousand, this could simulate an entire warzone.”
The flickering light started to lose its edge, and resolve into shapes, the table that had been at the center of their feed resolved into view, and so did the figures around it, still fuzzy, draped in brown, noses and hands poking out.
Then Sheena’s shape emerged, her strange bulky coat, hood sitting up above her head like a fighter jet’s canopy. She turned just as her fuzzy shape resolved to lines and contours, and he watched her face sharpen, seemingly looking right at him.
“Bug?” she mouthed, and he somehow heard. He stepped back reflexively. Where he’d imagined her as a toddling, she was his height, her face young, but not a child. “Can they hear us sir? I thought that she was a little one.”
“Yes we can hear you”, said one of the enshrouded noses, “and you should hear us.” It walked over and ensconced Sheena, and Jed realised how tall these Wise must be, even hunched, as seemed to be their way. “She is a youngling, but so are you, what has happened in your time to have one so young wear the rags of war.”
Sheena stepped and placed a hand on his lapel, but fell through and rolled forward in her tumbly way. “I think it looks quite neat!” she laughed, dusting herself off. Jed laughed too, and went beet red. It had been a long time since he’d played with someone his own age.
“That’s enough silliness and obfuscation” Comdat barked, “I refuse to be run around, befuddled and dismissed, I represent the people of the Franca-Victoria Nation!” He’d stepped up to the ‘Wise one’ craning his neck for the privilege of looking up their nose.
“Ah of course, the Warlords,” the wise one seemed to sigh and deflate, “Ok then everyone lets get it over with.”
As one they started to move and shuffle, at first a tangled mess of arms and elbows, robes brushing, grasping and releasing. Then they seemed to find their pace, and begin circling, seeming to sway as if unfolding themselves, stretching their arms, a song emerging from the susurrus.
Finally they stood, arms outstretched around them, their hunch stretched out till they seemed to reach up into the darkness of the machinery. The three Comdats stood at the center, spinning and stretching in the whirlpool the Wise ones created.
As everything drew to stillness, the Comdats looked up, the crones and cranks had become the towering sentinels surrounding the room.
“Welcome warlords, what do you seek?”
Comdat Josepher stepped out of the huddling triumvirate. “We wish to know how we can win this war”.
“This is the cause that brings many to our doors from earth’s bloody history, we ask you — what does winning look like?”
The comdats paused and thought on it, then expelled in a rush.
“An end to the violence, the needless bloodshed of our young ones.”
“Our ships touching land again safely, so we can feed our people.”
“The subjugation of our enemies and an end to their wicked ways.”
“These are often the questions brought to our door by the people of the past, some wicked, some noble. But what if the only way to achieve this victory was to lose?”
“We will never lose, the Franco-Victorian blood is the fiercest, we own the skies, and we rain fire!” Comdat Pulcifer barked up into the blue shimmering figures.
“Yes of course, you are the strongest, fiercest, most noble. We know you, we were you, as the wheel turns we will become you again.” One of the figures leaned down, a hint of the warm old voice behind this great display.
“Tell me, what if to land safely, you had to be subjugated, what if to end the violence, you had to suffer it?”
“We will suffer nothing, our people will endure till the world is ours again.” Even Comdat Josepher was becoming riled.
“And once it is yours, what will you do?”
“Our people will live free in land and air. Discipline and righteousness will be delivered to the ground people.”
“And when they land, and your ships are victorious, who will rule?”
“Well I — ”
“I’d always assumed I — ”
“My credentials … ”
The Comdats looked at each other uncomfortably.
“What of your higher power, your kings, or presidents or whatever the like?”
“Our command ship was struck down, with much of our Democrates — the military command structure has marshalled the forces”
“Our leader will be chosen when the time is right, now we lead together.”
“Ahh so a headless snake, still thrashing the dirt and frightening the hens.” One of the elders observed.
“So you land, and you lead, what then?”
“Our peoples prosper, food is plentiful, and the righteous will know peace.”
“So once again we ask, wouldn’t it be easier to lose? To land, surrender, and join your people on the earth, and invite them back into the sky?” The crone asked kindly, seeming intent to cut that knot.
“This is enough!” Comdat Josepher shouted. “We have spent great resources, great toil to bring this connection to you oh wise ones of the future. You must know of this time, you must know of our great struggles, so you must know how the war ends”.
“Oh we do Josepher, we know more than you could imagine. We sit at the end of history, where the corridors of time merge once more.” The robe paused and straightened. “You must understand that we tread lightly when faced with temporal chains like this one. Our timeline is firm, but a quake can shake the strongest tree.”
“Yes, yes but you know”, the Comdat nodded eagerly.
“Yes we know, we know what ends the war, we know what you ask of us, and we have prepared a path to help you. But first you must help us.”
“Ah, of course, a deal. Your wisdom is tempered by sense I see,” said Comdat Archifer
“Yes, our wisdom is tempered by a lot of things”, said one of the robes, indistinguishable from the rest. It started swaying, the others joining in. In one voice, in one pace they began, “Take thee the child of war, tie thee to the child of peace, twine them through time to rewind the spoils that will not keep.”
“Ok you’re going to have to be a bit more explicit.” Comdat Pulcifer blurted.
“Guide peace through the ruins, use war to show warrings doing, oh voices of the past, unlock your cage, be free at last.”
“That wasn’t much clearer,” said Josepher skeptically.
The robes, having delivered their message, seemed to lose their rigid towering forms and shrink to human size, without changing shape or height. One beak like nose stepped out of the circle and up to the Comdats.
“We can’t be too explicit, we have seen many pathways where what was said was different.”
“But Wise one” Sheena butted in, “Surely we can help them win this ‘war’ that they care so much for.” “Win the war?” the wise one scoffed, tilting its head back. “Sheena my dear, you are so sweet, for your people to have lost even the memory of war.” She turned, eyes piercing through the room to Jed, “What of you boy, child of war, father of war, do you wish to win?”
“I uh …” Jed looked uncomfortably at the Comdats. “I wish for victory for the Anglo-Fransicians”. “Of course you do my dear, and what is victory for you? The white wash of the tele-viewer as another settlement turns to dust?”
“No mademoiselle” Jed bowed with the honorific to show his supplication. “For me, victory would be all comrades together, to build a future where land and sky are open to all.”
“Of course that is what you want my boy,” Josepher said, putting an arm around Jed’s shoulder. “But to arrive on the ground, we must first clear the way, like a farmer clearing the weeds before laying a field.”
“Enough with your homespun platitudes while you sit in the clouds!” One of the other robes broke ranks and stepped into the circle, the others drifted back to what Jed assumed were their seats, thus reclining on shadows in mid air.
“You fill this boy’s head full of tales of farms and duty, but sit in the sky and rain poison on innocents.” Sheena looked at Comdat, then Jed in horror, and Jed felt red creeping up his collar and onto his face.
“We are at WAR oh wise ones!” Pulcifer shouted into the ethereal shapes confronting them.
“Oh we know you are, and we will give you the ways to end it, with victory for you and your people,” the crone spat, her motherly tones pulled back to reveal a steely core.
“Meet us here after one cycle of your ships, and we will be prepared to give you the guidance you need. What you seek lies in our time as well, and your child of war will go with our child of peace, and together they will break the cycle that binds us in your bloody bonds.”
Jed looked at the Comdats, still pulsing, seething and fuming, and then at Sheena, looking back at him, wary, hopeful. He reached out, as did she. He saw her about to speak, as was he, so he cut himself short. It seemed she saw the same thing as her mouth shut quickly too. Her face broke into a smile at the same time as his, realising what had happened. Jed gestured with mock grace, and she went to speak again. Before she could, the colour and light drained out of her shape, leaving only her shadow floating in his vision, melting into the tangled cables and cabinets that made the space.
“I really don’t know about this miss,” Scoot had folded up to his smallest form, and was floating about the room, nervously changing direction and bobbing up and down. Sheena watched him lazily, floating in her Jacket. It was half disassembled, while tendrils came from the walls, working on parts of it.
“Know about what Scoot? A mission from the Wise Ones? An adventure with Bug?” Scoot stopped and swivelled, sensors facing her. “I’ve never seen the wise ones act like that before, and Bug isn’t all that he seems.”
“He’s a little boy and four old men for one thing,” Sheena quipped. “But an adventure for the Wise Ones sounds nice.” The Jacket reassembled as the tendrils pulled back, and chimed a light green. At this Sheena floated to the floor and the Wise Ones flowed in.
“Ok my dear, this is a very long mission but we can assure you you’ll be safe.”
“We need you to guide the children of war, only you can reach them, only you can teach them.”
“You’ll go to the ancient space with him, you will be his guide through space, and he will be your guide through time.”
“Together you will find the truth, together you will be safe, apart is where the danger lies, the past is where the danger lies.”
The wise ones continued in their mystic babble, tightening straps on her jacket, inserting loaves of bread, tucking a bundle under her arm, tightening her boots. Sheena smiled and listened peacefully. She knew the Wise Ones would never put her in danger, and while ancient space was unknown to her, she’d heard many exciting stories.
“Ok Scoot come here,” a wise one beckoned, palm out. Scoot hesitantly bobbed over, and was snatched out of the air, and flipped like a muckrab by a gully. The Wise One’s fingers prodded and poked at Scoot’s innards so quickly, it reminded Sheena of the room’s fingers working her Jacket. Before she got a closer look or a word out Scoot flipped up and gave themselves a little shake.
“Pastlings, are you there? It is the allotted time for the journey to commence.”
“We’re here oh Wise Ones.” The young boy’s voice came through.
“We’re turning on visuals now, you’ll be in our lidosphere if your equipment is receiving.”
With that the shimmering shapes of Bug and the men Sheena thought of as his angry fathers all appeared. Bug, who’d been sitting hunched, looked around and found Sheena, and stood up.
“Hi Sheena!” Bug said, a smile breaking out on his face. Sheena could see sadness there though, bruised eyes, gaunt cheeks. He reminded her of the billy goat that had gone missing, found under a lee a week later. So happy for rescue, but so weak. All the men looked … worn. Whatever time they were in must be hard.
“Hi Bug!” Sheena cooed, “we’re going on an adventure.” “I’m not really sure what that means.” Bug replied.
“Well little bug and companions, let me explain.” The Wise One seemed to draw the locus of focus towards themselves. “We know of your exploits, pastlings, all corridors of time lead to us.”
Another leaned forward, the other leaned back. “The child of peace will lead the child of war, the child of war will open the door. Together the lock will become the key, the future and past will be set free.”
Sheena, Bug and the Comdats stood blinking, as if waiting for a second opinion.
“Ah Jerold I’m not sure this prophecy will do the trick,” one of the Wise Ones cut in, “I better go too.”
The wise ones all reacted as one to reach out, grab, or step to the rogue Wise One, as she hopped into the middle with Sheena and put her robed arm around her shoulders. The others were thrown back as the floor and roof lifted together, with Sheena and Bug, and their menagerie along for the ride. The central spire seemed to stay in place, but the roof and walls gave way to open air, an explosion of green horizon in an instant. It all fell away faster than Sheena could take it in.
“Scoot,” Sheena quavered, “what’s happening?”
“We seem to be leaving the planet at an incredible velocity miss.” Sheena peered over the edge, a force field stopping her head from getting very far. She looked up and saw the spire at their center pierced the clouds, a thin grey thread into nothing.
“Oh so that’s what the sky threads do!” Sheena cried. She looked at Bug and the old men, who were looking around in confusion.
“Where did the wise ones go?” Bug asked.
“It’s a question of where we’ve gone young man,” the Wisest said. “It’s all relative you see, but to them, we’ve flown away.”
Bug walked up to Sheena and tried to look where she was looking. “What do you see? For us everything but this platform disappeared.” Sheena looked at him then back. “The earth is falling away from us, it seems like it’s almost curling back in on itself.” She looked up, “the clouds are getting thicker, more detailed. What seemed like blank pages are becoming swirling lines.” She squinted and peered, teetering against the field, Scoot buzzing around her nervously.
“Ok we’re in the clouds now, it’s foggy, like we’re inside a cup of healer’s vapour.” At this the room started to buck and vibrate a little bit, and the clouds whipped round them in a frenzy, showing just how much force and speed their little bubble had. Then ‘pop’ — they were clear of the blanket of clouds. Sheena had always imagined them flat, like leaves on a river, but they were actually thick roiling blankets inside.
She gasped as the dome of perfect blue opened up, stepping back into Bug, who looked down in shock as she passed through his chest. She hopped another step back through him as quickly as she could to avoid embarrassment.
He turned around quizzically. “It’s all so … blue,’’ she gasped. “Yes miss, we’re past the clouds, we must be in a contained chamber. Up this high it is very cold and low on air.” Scoot floated into their vision, meaning the camera that carried them was travelling independently.
Sheena turned to Bug, “it’s like the brightest blue water, unwrinkled by a wave.” She looked back at Scoot, “but it seems like it is getting darker, like we dove through the spray, and into deeper waters.”
She stopped as the dark blue transitioned to the bruised purples of the life-plum, and wavered to the almost black of a full night sky. A whole day cycle passed in a matter of minutes. “It’s like we flew through a day and into a night Bug, and the stars are so bright and — “ she looked over the edge and gulped, “and even the clouds are far away.”
“Oh my,” said Scoot, bobbing around the platform, peering off the edges, “now that is a sight.”
“What in all the skies is that?” Sheena asked, looking up, Jed seeming frustrated at their limited vision.
“Well judging by the rate of increasing size, it is something massive. The alignment would suggest the sky thread terminates there, and the patterning and colours I see emerging suggests ancient technology — early lucian.”
Comdat interrupted the speculation. “Enough blabbering little creature, what is the damn thing?”
“Well by your terminology, what we are approaching would be called a ‘space arcology’, it should come into range soon.”
Sure enough, at the fringe of Jed and the Comdat’s vision, a dull metal wall seemed to protrude from the cavernous roof, sizzling at the edges where it intersected their own internal structures of cables, wires and screens.
As it was still resolving into view, Sheena gasped, “the mark of sickness!” she cried. The first sign of real worry he’d heard.
“It’s ok Sheena, the mark tells us we need caution, yes, but most of the danger is passed up here.” Said the Wisest calmly.
Jed squinted up at the resolving image that had caused her so much consternation. As it blurred into focus he stepped back. The mark was a hawk, perched on a skull, holding a snake that wrapped the scene. It was his people’s sigil. He was looking at something made in his time, by the Anglo-Francisians.
“And besides,” said the wisest, “we have a secret weapon,” she looked at Jed and the ComDats. “We’ve got the key.”
The moving image surrounding the platform settled into place in front of an iris-like seal, made of inert dull material that seemed to pull energy out of the air. It was like nothing Sheena had seen before, except maybe the receiver where she’d found Bug. The Wisest One stood at the portal with the ghostly image of the Comdats, in a heated discussion.
“Why would we give our security codes to you damned woman,” one of the Comdats cried, “this would put our whole nation in jeopardy.”
‘“How could I put your nation in jeopardy, you damn fool?” the Wisest stepped into his ghostly visage, almost bursting it, “I’m your future, don’t you know anything about temporal mechanics?”
“Well …” the Comdat trailed off awkwardly, “not really.” He paused and looked up. “Ah but what if our enemies came to this time as well! You could pass our secrets back to them!”
“Firstly, why on earth would I do that? Secondly, everything that will happen has happened, so regardless of what we do, we’ll still end up here, wasting our time dithering, while your damned door stays closed.”
The Comdats looked at each other uncomfortably, till the biggest one gave a small nod, “Ok, ok, the code is …”
“Hang on, Sheena! Get over here, you too soldier boy, I’m not getting down on my hands and knees to punch these numbers in, you’ll have to do it.”
“Yes, Wisest!” Sheena ran over, her ghostly companion floating with her, and Scoot trailing behind. There was a pad with characters that had numbers she recognised. The Comdat droned off a sequence of numbers that seemed to match up and she typed them in as fast as she could.
“Wow, you can read those?” Bug asked, having crouched down with her. “Yes, silly! Can’t you? They’re your numbers!” replied Sheena, looking up from the symbols but still typing.
“Only the officer class gets to learn numerals and romerals, I’m a RedTenant. I’m indentured to help pay for my family’s accommodation, as well as our designated war contribution.”
“My oh my that does sound complicated, do you like that arrangement?”
“Well it is fair, there are only so many learned places. Only so many beds. We’d have more if the groundies would do their share.”
“I guess by your rules I’d be a groundie,” Sheena said looking back down at the pad.
“Oh that’s ok, you’re probably one of our descendants after we won the war,” said Bug, oblivious to Sheena’s turning mood.
Sheena looked up at the bulk of the ship, battered and torn in places, huge scars of slag metal tearing through others. She still wasn’t clear what a war was, or how you win it, but this certainly didn’t look like somewhere a winner lived. She considered how to raise this with him, when the door buzzed, clicked, whirred, and irised open, revealing a line of lights turning on into the darkness.
The glow and the gloom was cut by a looming figure, getting bigger.
Jed looked around at the ghostly figures overlaid on their command center. They were staring into what looked like nothing. A figure suddenly emerged into their space, seeming to step through their ship’s walls, into their reality.
It was …
Servys were the attendants that took care of Jed and the other little Tenants. They were a mix between parent and jailer, keeping them safe, but also out of everyone’s hair.
“OHHH!” the servy exclaimed, stumbling as if throwing its arms into the air threw its balance off, “IT’S A CHIDDER.” Jed went to step in the way, but it passed right through him, and grasped Sheena.
“WE’VE FOUND THE CHIDDERS, WE ARE FOR USE AGAIN.”
Jed didn’t have time to consider its strange way of speaking, or its almost human-like display of affection as it spun Sheena around. Sheena looked on in amusement, which turned to shock as the servy pivoted into the darkness, its legs spun into tractor position and it shot out of sight.
“Buggg, Wisseest!” Sheena cried, trailing off into the distance.
“What the damn hell was that?” Wisest went up to the Comdats, poking her finger at them, bending them all backwards with her steely gaze.
“It was a Servy,” Pulcifer popped.
“They look after the children,” Archifer quivered.
“Just where the damn hell are we?” Josepher stepped through the finger, to come face to face to the Wisest.
“A place you should know well. Now lead us to where these servys would take their kids.”
“How would we know that woman?” Josepher demanded.
“How? Why because it is your ship Comdat Jospeher,” Wisest delivered with a scowl.
Jed trailed behind them, watching in wonder as the corridors of their own ship passed around them, fading in and out of their command center’s walls. While the Wisest walked, and Scoot… scooted, he and the Comdats stood stock still, and the projection from the future moved around them.
Every so often they would reach a corner or junction, and the Comdats would confer, sometimes bringing in maps from attendants. They would then direct the Wisest, who would nod, lift up her robe and set a relentless pace, as if dragging them all in her digital wake.
“You there boy,” Scoot came up to him and set his pace to match Bug. “What are these servys like?
“Well they seem to be a bit like you honorable Scoot, they look after the childlings — though usually one servy will take care of something like 30 or 40 childlings.”
“30 or 40?” Scoot seemed shocked by this number. “I have enough trouble looking after Sheena, and she is only one childling, though a very …” He paused to consider his words. “A very precocious one.”
“Well I think we were maybe easier to manage as we stayed in the nursery.” Jed paused to consider, “and they helped us stay relaxed with dopium.”
“Dopium!” Scoot exclaimed, “for children? That is outrageous.”
Jed looked guiltily at the Comdats, he didn’t want them to hear him speaking ill of the Electorate, or reduce his dopium supply.
At last they stopped at a big door, a bulky frame jutting out of the wall work like all the other industrial zones. But the frame had been painted the bright red, yellow and green of the nursery. Those colours triggered a visceral response in Jed, as if his own childhood had started to seep into the hall.
He remembered the school desk, a not-quite restraint, each child settled into each day, to receive the electromagnetic stimulation and UV they needed. They’d hear the learning songs, and receive their Dopium laced nutritia-mulch.
Jed shuddered, it’d only been two years since he’d ‘graduated’, with honours awarded for stillness and low appetite. That was what had secured him the position as radio-boy for the Comdats.
“What has happened to the damn door?” Archifer barked, offended that someone had painted their lovely grey bulkheads, even thousands of years into the future.
“Who gives a damn!” the Wisest barked back. “Scoot, get this open.” Jed’s ears pricked up, he could hear what sounded like screaming, muffled, coming from that direction. Though it was hard to tell from the projection.
Scoot, hearing the same thing, dove into action. First elongating, raising up parts of his body to a point, then piercing the gap between the door. Then his frame seemed to spread apart, like a vice in reverse. At first the doors remained inert, but they suddenly gave, and started to grind open, paint flaking off. What looked like small children’s toys spilled out.
Jed gasped, he’d seen one, maybe two of these precious objects during his whole vegucation. They were placed on the desks of only the most placid boys and girls, and were never to be touched. Seeing them spill out reminded him of a Flatty he’d watched, of a young boy flying over a mountain of gold and jewels.
Wisest dashed in, and they were dragged in behind her, to reveal a tangle of spider-like bodies, all focused on one central point, their limbs articulating, revolving, piercing in and out. The shrill scream could only be Sheena. The Wisest dove in to pull them off, but was futile to stop the strange mechanical display.
“No, stop,” the screaming sounded strangely breathless, and composed, “I mean it!” Was she … laughing?
“Tickle tickle little pickle,” one of the servos buzzed.
“Sweety sweety gets a treaty,” another cut through what Jed increasingly thought might be giggling.
“I mean it uncles, that is enough, stop now that’s an order no nonsense no tickles my friends are here!” Sheena managed to bark between fits, starts, farts and giggles.
The servies all stilled, and retracted into themselves, and turned to face the others.
“Presenting,” one cried, and then titled its arm and head back and made a trumpeting motion, “Miss Sheena, princess silly bottom of the millionth moon!”
Sheena sat in between them, face red from laughter, jam and cream on her fingers and face, sitting on a pile of toys, with what looked like a table set for tea out of an old supply box.
“Hey everyone! Have you met the servies! They’re so fun!” Sheena smiled and swept her arm around at her menagerie.
“Now you tell me what sort of two-bit operation you’re running here!” The Wisest had been haranguing the Comdats for long enough for them to sit down, and one to retrieve a handkerchief from somewhere.
“Robots running off with children, a damn circus show when we arrive.” Wisest had been alternating between telling off the Comdats and holding Sheena tightly to her side, wiping off the face paint she’d acquired, untangling the knots of hair they’d tangled up.
“We are sorry mistress”, one of the robots rolled forwards, then backwards, creating a curtsy like bow, “it has been so long since we have had a chidder to care for.”
“Chidder, what’s a chidder?” snapped back the Wisest.
“Well I’m not too sure,” Bug stepped forward, a ghostly glow Sheena still found fascinating. “But these are the servo bots that care for the children. If we’re in the future, or you are … then maybe they mean children?” Jed paused and inspected the Servo more closely, “surely you haven’t been switched on all this time?”
The servo looked down at Jed, inspecting it with its tube-like eyes, lenses dialing in and out of focus. It seemed to start, and buzz, like an electrical current, then scuttled backwards.
“False Chidder false chidder, no smell!” it seemed to infect the group and they started rolling around the room, flailing.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” Sheena stepped into the maelstrom. She knew they were friendly, just lonely. “Shh, shh,” she reached out and placed her hand on its sensorial unit, which seemed to calm it, as it relaxed at her touch.
“Ok, that’s fine,” one of the Comdats stood up, “but this means we’re in the nursery, so unless you planned to have a nap and watch the ‘burbles, then what do you want from this ship?”
“Well for starters, I want you to be quiet,” the Wisest said, throwing her pointed finger, like Zealus poised with her lightning strikes on the cloudy mountain.
The energy from the finger, either psychic or implied, seemed to put him back on his seat.
“You’re about as useful as a wet fish up here. You, boy, Bug.” Wisest turned her gaze to him. “Can you lead us from here to the control rooms where this ship operates?”
Sheena saw the room focus on Bug, who seemed to prefer to hover around the edges. She stepped up, and put a calming hand near where his arm would be. She saw him warm to this like the Servo did. She knew everyone felt a little bit lonely sometimes, and a little bit of friendship made everyone feel whole.
“Well, once we’re in the commons, I think I could get us there, and the Servos know this area pretty well,” He looked over at the servo who’d zipped behind Sheena when he’d started talking. He seemed to shudder a bit, but then asked, “what do you reckon big guy?”
The Servo seemed to tremble and buzz, but Sheena put her hand up to its sensors, then waved Jed over. She reached her hand out to his, and then looked between them. “Look servie, they’re our friends! They’re helping us make this place better.”
The servo seemed to relax, then stand up straighter. “Ok, I will lead you to the commons, and stay to guard the precious chidder.” It made a protective barrier around her with its arms.
“Oh no you don’t,” Wisest yanked her back, the Servo almost looking startled by her strength, “she’s already got a guardian, though we’ll gladly accept your help.”
The servo looked at the wisest, rolling up and inspecting more closely. It came to some sort of realisation and rolled backwards hurriedly, bowing even deeper than before.
“If your aim is true, to protect the Chidder through, then we will gladly serve under you”.
As they prepared to head out, the Servos gathered around their champion, the Comdats were also in a huddle, and the Wisest stepped up to Sheena and Jed.
“There are many people here to support you both, but in the end it will come down to you two. To win the war, and to save the peace, you must decide together.”
“But what do you mean decide, Wisest? And what danger is there to our peace?” Sheena stepped forward and tugged on her robe, uncertainty finally coming through.
“And how can winning a war even save peace?” Jed asked, perhaps walking through the ruins of his civilisation triggering his philosophical side.
“Ah at last,” Wisest smiled, “you’re asking the right questions, we may have a chance yet.”
“A chance at what?”
“In your time, little Bug,” she looked down sadly at the ghostly boy, “the people were at war.” She pulled her hands apart and a tableaux that seemed to capture the air and the land appeared between them.
“Your people built castles, a layer of life in the air.” Ships like this one moved into the sky between her hands. They had bright, white buttresses, hanging gardens, and glass pavilions.
“But the people on the land became tired of the people of the air, lowering down, taking their goods and treating them like second class citizens.” Jed watched entranced, as on her palm what looked like the docking stations they used were torn down, and the airships circled restlessly.
“What was to be a utopia, became a prison and a warship.” The ships started to lose their finery, the greenery withered, and the glass was replaced with steel plates.
“And soon the air people rained fire on those that had shunned them.” He watched in horror as waves and waves of heat and energy filled the space between the ships and the land. Watched as green pastures, small towns, open forest and beautiful spires all turned to ash.
“But Wisest, the people of the ground attack us, the people of the ground starve us, we are … ” Jed paused, and looked around bewildered “ … fighting for justice.”
“Yes, the ground people attack, they return fire. But what hope do they have against these angry demons from their past that pass through the air, and destroy their homes while they sleep.”
In her hand a paltry flock of missiles launched from the ground, few even making it to the air. She opened up her palms and the land opened up, to bring to detail the return fire from the sky. Jed could just make out the soldiers, but also the villagers, women, children, all looking up in horror, and scurrying for shelter. The whole area became a wash of light, roiling heat, then cleared to a desolate plane, only the footprints of some buildings and trees remaining.
“You’re people wrought great destruction on this land,” Wisest leaned over the vision, as it pulled back, showing more land devastated in this way. “Sat atop the atmosphere, pushing buttons that destroyed lives for hundreds of years.”
She held in her hand a sweeping vista, pools of smoke, streaks of black rent through the land. Their ships floated above it, like fat gulls over a spent feast. Jed had a moment of vertigo, imagining himself in the control room, at the dense center of metal and steel. But also floating over the world which had been a green jewel, now a wasted, desolate ruin. Wasted by them.
“But like the lychee plant, devastated by whitebug, the land recovers when the parasite is removed.” Jed saw the ships slowly clear, the smoke fade away, the darkness turn to green.
“And like the lychee plant, it will bear fruit, again and again, if cared for and respected.” Jed saw the people return, this time less mechanical, less grey and white. They seemed to hug the land, their structures an extension of it, their pathways meandering with it. At last they ended, focussing on a house just like Sheenas, a family gathering in the courtyard, placing baskets of gathered fruits and nuts, hanging animal carcasses from a rack.
Jed licked his lips hungrily, he’d never had fresh meat, but he’d imagined what it looked like.
“Are you hungry boy?’ Wisest asked, looking sadly down at him, her sadness a strange after-taste to her story.
“So what are we doing up here wisest?” Sheena carefully broke the Wisests’ reverie. “Why have we all come together — what must we choose?”
“Ah dear, always so direct, it makes my heart sing.”
Wisest’s gaze turned to warmth, and she looked at Sheena. “The choice is for you to discover, as well as make. But what we are here to do is simple.” A shadow passed over the hut, the village, and then the glade it sat in. The view in her hands pulled back, revealing it as a black mar on the land, that corresponded with a final, lonely ship, floating like detritus at the top of a stagnant pond.
“The people of the past left time bombs for us, a cruel and angry stab into the heart of the future.” Sheena gasped in horror and reached out, as the ship dropped a simple mote that turned the area around the village into a wasted blight again.
“The mother cannot take it much longer, we have done our best to nurture and heal around these wounds. We have tried to tend to the children as best we can, but we must find a way to stop these echoes from the past.”
“So this is the vessel …” Sheena looked around in horror, though the room was filled with paint and toys, “… this is the place from those stories? And it still hurts the earth?”
‘Yes my dear, and we are here to stop it.’
Sheena considered the Wise One’s words as they made their way through twisting corridors. The looming, blunt arches and panels seemed to radiate the hate the Wise One spoke of. The Comdats, who’d seemed bumbling and comical, now seemed to stalk like jackals. Even little Bug now seemed like a mourning song, not the morning light.
They passed through doors, lifts, and walkways. Everything here seemed connected via pipe, chain or wire. They saw bots like servo, all were stuck to a surface, some traversing meaninglessly back and forth. Scoot would look at them, she imagined nervously, thinking of himself limited to one plane, trapped on a wall or floor.
How strange that a place so bound by gravity could be elevated so high. Even the ship was now chained to the ground. But what pulley or rope brought it up here? Surely they must have defied gravity’s bonds at some point, before strapping themselves so tightly to everything. She gave her JACKET a little fluff, it didn’t like to operate out of magfields, but she knew she could spring, leap or float if she needed to. Though it would need sun before too long if she did.
They were stopped by various bots, alternating between commanding, hysterical, or suspicious of new humans on the ship. But at each stage the Comdats issued commands that stood them down. The bots seemed relieved. Maybe after such a long time they didn’t want to return to the service of these people.
She was broken from her reverie as they emerged, not into another hallway, but a huge, cavernous room. It was filled to the edge of perception with metal structures and walkways, all held together with chains and pulleys. She looked confusedly at Jed, who looked back and shrugged as if embarrassed. “This is the commons, all different parts of the ship meet here, from the Comdats below to the crew above.”
His eyes squinted, and he pointed up, “if this was our ship, my pod would be up there.” He pointed up into the roof. He seemed embarrassed to show his home, perhaps after seeing the crystal structures of her people, or the warm little house she spent most of her time in.
“It surely is an impressive sight Bug,” Sheena said, meaning it. While the people and structures that made this place had done so much damage, she could see the effort, and ingenuity that went into its construction.
Under the tangles of collapsed metal rails and imploded box-like structures, Sheena could see the shapes of life, where people would sleep, play, work. Their glow was gone, but their mark wasn’t.
“Now which one of you can take us to the control desk? Before you go on about security clearances, know that I’m tempted to send a virus back in time and scuttle your ship.”
Jed looked up, shrugging — “I’m not sure, Wise one, I haven’t been down here since I was a Chidder — only the officers and wives stay down this low.”
“Great, an inverted hierarchy, just what we need.” The Wisest seemed to elongate, cracking her back as she stood up straighter and peered over the Comdats. “Ok you blabbering buffoons, take me to your command center.”
“Ah … ahh …” Pulcifer hawed.
“Umm, uhh …” Archifer yawed.
“Urrmmm…” Josepher looked back and forth at them both, “ok, follow me!”
He turned smartly and started walking, then seemed to remember that he was carried by Scoot’s mobile illusion, and stopped. “This way,” he said, pointing to a door elegantly set in frosted glass.
The halls they walked through were in a different style to what they’d seen. Though worn by the ages, the floors were soft of foot. The hulking frames were replaced by gilded and filigree dividers. Short glances into rooms showed furniture made of what looked like wood, ornamented with a glowing yellow steel.
“More tea, my dear.” “Why of course Comdat, you big strong hu-MAN.” Sheena pulled her head out of that room quickly, after seeing two bots dressed in tattered old uniforms like Bug’s, pouring tea back and forth into each other’s pots.
Sheena looked at Bug, who was staring around stunned. He looked at her, “look how they lived!” He looked accusingly at them then back, “we live in metal boxes hung in rows, they live down here in finery like princes from the feelies”.
Sheena looked over at the Comdats, they definitely wore a better cut of cloth, and had a healthier look about them than Bug. But she saw the hunger in their cheeks, the sickly look to their skin. No one up here lived easily. Bug was still smarting, looking around, then looking up at the Comdats in a huff.
Josepher led them to a golden arch, with unerring accuracy. The comdats had been conferring in whispers between each other, and looking around in shock as well. Sheena would have assumed they’d be used to the way a Comdat lived in their time.
“Well, come on, out with it!” Wisest snapped, after the Comdats had huddled up to the door.
“Well the door…” Archifer pointed.
“It is unique per ship…” Pulcifer added.
“And if we get it incorrect, the system is designed to clear the passage, in case of breach.” Josepher gulped and looked around.
“But I know what you’re thinking in that beady little head of yours don’t I Jospher.” The Wisest stalked over and separated him from the pack.
“You’re thinking, I know these halls, I know that fine wooden dresser, I have had tea and crumpets off that fine silverware.”
“Well, yes, it all does seem strangely familiar.’
“So out with it, what’s the issue?”
“Well what if we’re wrong? Isn’t it too much to risk?”
“But what if you’re right? Isn’t there too much at stake not to try?” Wisest lifted her arms, her robes curtaining Comdat Josepher in, “think of the war Josepher, of victory, of setting foot back on land.”
“Ok,” he gulped, “you there,” he pointed at Sheena, “slide that panel and put the code in that makes a shape just like this.” He made a geometric pattern in the air that Sheena memorised, and stood at the panel.
She looked at the Wisest, who’d acted strange, brash, harsher than she’d ever seen since they’d stepped on the ship. “You must choose youngling,” the Wisest whispered. “It will always be your choice.” Sheena gulped, and thought of the fire, and the green turning to black. She pulled the panel back, and made the shape on its face.
It felt like the ship itself froze for a moment, undecided. Then a decision was made, a hissing noise, a tugging, then a whipping at JACKET. Sheena looked at Josepher, and Wisest. “Have I done something wrong?” She asked, panicking as she saw both her and the Wisest’s robe starting to pull further down the corridor.
The room seemed to settle with a thunk, and white vapour poured out from under the gilded door, which folded up into itself, seeming to pack itself away, revealing a mirrored box, edged in the yellow metal, with a robot draped in tattered red velvet working levers.
“Welcome aboard guests of the Comdats!” it bellowed, “welcome to the Central Lift!”
For all the fanfare, they made creeping progress. The attendo-bot had asked, “where too boss?” before pulling the single lever, and started them lurching upwards. Jed looked at the Comdats, in the flesh, who’d used the time to step out of the visual field, get reports, monitor other goings on.
Jed looked around at the ornate wall decorations, and then back to the Comdats, looking more closely at their uniforms. Where his had cardboard epaulettes, their gold trim seemed lustrous, fabric rich and real in comparison.
“Are you ok Bug?” Sheena had sidled over and whispered. “It’s not fair,” Jed sniffed. “My parents had to be reassigned to single living quarters when I enlisted. I never had a pair of shoes that fit. And the whole time the Comdats were living like princles and presidets with their families.”
“I learnt about times like yours — when some had more than others.” Sheena paused, “It’s funny — it still seemed like those with the most to lose,” she paused and watched the Comdats come in “caused the most to be lost.”
“Oh they did not think they had the most young mistress,” the attendant butted in, “those who live here thought they were the most wronged men in the world.” He looked knowingly, conspiratorially, and continued with a stage whisper. “From the way they talked, you’d think they were being wronged, taken advantage of, manipulated every day, in every way.”
“‘Even from the skies they could only look up and see their oppressor, their enemy, because when they looked down what they saw was barely human at all.”
Jed was fuming, thinking of being ordered around, whipped into shape, half-starved, sleep-deprived, to man this hulking metal ship.
“Well boy,” the Comdat came and put his hand on his shoulder, blocking the projections of the elevator, Sheena, the Wisest, the future. “This ride can go for quite some time, come with me.” Jed gave Sheena a goodbye glance, and walked over to a desk on the periphery.
“You’ve done what you can here, we need you manning station 315. After your success with the time receiver, we know you’re the right man for the job.” Jed straightened a little taller and prouder. Being called a man after being treated like a little boy all day felt good.
“We know that the enemy has been working on new weapons. While they haven’t been able to breach the perimeter in many years, they’ve come up with a new technique that can eradicate our entire population with a single pulse.”
Jed gulped and looked around nervously. “Oh don’t worry, they would never use it, and this button is the reason why.”
Jed looked at this button, a dull red, set in the rough iron panel.
“This is a deadman’s switch Jed, once you put your finger on it, you do not take it off unless I give a direct order.”
“What happens if I do?” Jed asked, “not that I would!” He hurriedly added. He didn’t want his frustration to turn into insubordination until he had figured out what to do with it.
“Well that’s exactly the point — when your finger comes off this button, this ship will start automatically releasing a neutron blast at the targeted location. We were the closest, and drew the short sword, but it will be a great honor. We will fully neutralise the enemy’s new weapon, and broker a new peace through the social technology of mutually assured destruction.”
Jed looked uncertainly at the button, then back at the Comdat. “That doesn’t sound very peaceful to me sir.”
“RedTenant Jedward, do you believe in the cause of the Anglo-Francisian Sky Faction?”
“Do you believe we have been wronged, robbed of the birthright of the ground beneath our feet?”
“Yes sir!” Jedward stood a little straighter.
“Do you recognise my rank as lead of this cause, the one best equipped to shape its pathway, through the scientific method of deductionism?”
“Yes sir!” Jedward shouted, boots clicking, salute beating.
“THEN GET YOUR HAND ON THAT BUTTON BOY!”
Jed’s finger pierced the air, and collided with the button, sending it crashing through time and space, into its casing. It clicked into place.
It had been a while since Jed’s projection had been led away, through the elevator wall. Sheena had gotten so used to his presence, that she forgot he was just a sparkle of light coming from Scoot’s little machine.
The Wisest appeared beside her, interrupting her reverie as she stared at the wall Jed had passed through.
“He is a strange one to you, I’m sure little one.”
“Yes, his eyes look so old and far, but under it all he’s a little boy.”
“At that time they dressed them up for war, beat them round the ears, told them the enemy was at the gate, and the source of their woes. And there were woes. Starvation, death. But most woeful of all; robbed of life. Their joy, their purpose, their play, all to feed a machine, one that couldn’t ever love them. Not then. The wisest’s nose shook back and forth, peering out of her robe.”
“But they were still children, kind, caring, full of joy and life. Just like you. No dopium or sleeping pod or epaulettes could beat that out of them.” The last line almost came out like a snarl.
“But it’s so sad, Wise one, it’s all so long ago. I feel like he is real, and that after that we could take him to Nanus and feed him cricket loaf and berri-berry and he’d warm up and fill up and …”
“He is real little one, he can’t be touched or fed or held, but his mind can be touched, choices can be made. But each choice he makes, is one we don’t get too.”
“What do you mean wise one?”
“He is our past, but we aren’t necessarily his future — and the choices made here, now and then, will decide those paths.”
The wisest put her arm around Sheena’s shoulder, as the elevator slowly settled into its now elevated position. “And together you will make that choice, for it is the children the choice is made.”
The elevator door opened to a dark room, filled with shadows looming in from the edges. As they stepped in and found its center the outlines and faint shapes the projector caught from the past overlaid the lines and shapes in the darkness. Scoot fiddled with a panel and the room started to illuminate. First a faint low light that showed stacks of monitors, tangles of cables that seemed to drift into the darkness. Mostly these matched the projection from the past perfectly, though at some points a screen was missing or a cable was cut.
The floor was covered in detritus that wasn’t in the projection, and while it was hard to see the details, serious damage had been done here. Some cataclysm. As the projection expanded into the room, it revealed the Comdat, a figure from the past, barking into the emptiness. What had been a large shattered monitor shown faintly to have battle lines, camera feeds and counters ticking up.
At last Sheena spied Jed and rushed over. He was sitting as she imagined him, radio receiver on, hand interfacing with some sort of primitive computer, looking lock jawed into the darkness. “Little Bug! We found you!” she exclaimed, startling him out of his reverie. He looked over, shocked maybe, that she’d made her way into the control space.
“Oh Sheena, oh no,” Jed seemed hysterical, but was sitting rigidly still. “What’s wrong, Bug?” Sheena wanted so bad to put an arm around him. He was so small and frail under all that military paraphernalia. “I’ve spoken to the Wisest, we can’t feed you or warm you but we can help you!”
“Oh there’s no helping me, either way I’m cursed,” Jed looked down at his hand, his finger on a dull red button. “Either I kill everyone down there, or everyone up here dies because of me.” Sheena froze, horrified. “Yes, now you see,” Bug nodded enthusiastically, “I’m doomed, a murderer either way.”
Sheena stepped back, still stunned. She saw the horror in his plight, but what had stopped her was much more pressing. At the button, faintly visible through Jeds projection, she’d noticed a skeletal digit. She’d followed its faint trace along its arm, stepping back to reveal a skeleton slumped to the side. A small skeleton, the size of an underfed boy. The same radio receiver, the same tattered epaulets. Bug, transported through time, to arrive here, with her, to be held and warmed no more.
“Oh Bug,” she looked up at his projection and felt tears fill her eyes. “Oh Sheena,” he looked back, tearing up too. Blind to this fate, but resigned to something like it. With that, a flash of light flicked through the projection, and started strobing. The Comdat, and Jed, as well as the other ghostly bodies filling the room all seemed to shake, tilting to one side, then the next.
“Brace everyone, they’ve started firing.” “Sir they’re not taking out critical systems!” “Comdat the central control unit has been hit, but life systems are intact.” “Damage report!” “All systems are whole except comms security and arrays.”
“What the damn hell, why would they…”
All the screens flickered to life with the same image. Sheena looked around as the people of the past gathered to the screens. A faint trace of a face, much like the Comdats, hard and steely, peered out.
“Finally, you damn skyhawks, with a knife to your throat and a mouth to your ear, maybe now you’ll take a moment to bloody well listen to us.”
Jed looked away from Sheenas shimmering projection at last, pulled not by the noise but by the silence. The words of the groundsman filled it quickly, their quick, flighty language, understandable, but lacking the strength and percussion of the sky dialect. The Comdat was shouting at the support staff to shut it off, shouting at the weapons team to blow it up, shouting at everyone but the groundsman on the screen.
“Shut up, shut your giant mouth and listen to them,’’ someone started shouting, cutting through the noise, till the staff, Comdat, and even the groundsman quieted. As the sound abated, Jed realised it had been him shouting as they all turned and looked.
“I have my finger on this button, that means either all of you die, or all of us die. I was told we were righteous, so if there’s a chance that this button doesn’t get used, listen to the damn screen.” Jed felt his voice become shrill, and his cheeks filled with hot as he felt all eyes on him. Sheena gave him a little smile and hand signal that seemed to say, “you’re ok,” which turned the flush into a balm. He looked unflinchingly at the Comdat.
“Ok Jed, since you’re pressing the button, I guess we can humour you, though I’m not happy about this.” The ComDat turned to the screen. “Alright groundoid, what do you want?”
“What do I want?” The groundling asked, then repeated himself with even more incredulity. “The question is, what don’t you want?” The Comdat stepped back as the Groundling continued. “You harry our settlements, raid our villages, leave our children orphans and our mothers widows.”
“What about you!” The Comdat cut in, “you left us to starve up here, you fire on our ships, uncaring that they are our homes, our farms, our schools.”
They sat staring, seething, breathing heavily, mirror images of each other. Jed thought they looked just like two little boys in the childatarium fighting over the dopium dispenser.
“Why have you fought so hard to talk to us, to argue and shout?” Jed cut in, the finger on the button giving him a newfound authority. “Yeah! You sound like wrestling sprats who got stuck between the rocks!” Sheena cut in, feeding off Jed’s newfound confidence.
The groundsman on the screen snapped out of his glaring match with the Comdat. “Yes, thank you, sorry about that. You skyhawks certainly have a way of getting me fuming.” The Comdats also seemed to calm down, pulling together and conferring quietly while looking at the screen.
“We’re hoping we’re speaking to the right people up there, but we have reached out to Parlay, if you — Gaia willing — will come down, perhaps we can end this bloody war.”
The Comdat looked at the sergeants, at the holograms of the Wise one and Sheena, and finally locked eyes with Jed. Jed tried to keep his gaze strong, to continue to wield the authority of the button. But he felt his eyes glaze, and his lip tremble, and what was meant to come out as a command came out as a plaintiff plea — “please sir, let’s end this.”
The Comdat considered for a second. Not the warhawk staring at a screen, but the kind man who’d shown Jed how to button his formal jacket. The man who sat down with him after he’d started blushing around the girls who’d come in to repair the systems. That kind man looked back at Jed, and nodded.
“Ok!” Josepher said, “shut down the switch, release the skyhooks, we’re going to land!”
The room burst into a flurry of activity, the other ComDats both seemed to be competing for Josepher’s ear, but he was looking away, smiling at Jed and Sheena. Jed wasn’t sure, but it felt like an energy went out of the desk, maybe an imperceptible humming. He looked at the systems engineer, she looked back and nodded precisely. “Deadman’s switch deactivated, disengage trigger.”
Jed slowly pulled his finger off the button, and winced as he felt the click of it returning to its normal position. He looked around, the whole room seemed to float in time. Nothing changed, and it felt like everyone let out a sigh of relief.
“Ok Comdat,” the engineer said, “skyhooks away.”
There was a jolt, and a faint vibration ran through the ship. EyeBirds bought back footage from outside showing a line of cable running from the ship, arching towards the ground.
Sheena watched the holograms dissolve around her, taking life from the screens, the walls, dissolving Bug away. They said they’d needed to upgrade their receiver so they could take it with them. Sheena and Jed had been speaking quietly together when they shut down whatever they’d used to to broadcast themselves to the future. Sheena had watched Jed dissolve in front of her, leaving behind his little skeleton, finger still on the button, the room still in ruin.
“Wise one, if we saved the day, and kept them from destroying themselves, why is this room still a wreck, why is little Bug still here, his finger on the button?”
“We saved a day little one.” The Wisest said, picking her way through the fallen cables and broken bones, “but we couldn’t change this one. When they connected via quantum tunneling, they changed their history and deviated a little bit. When Jed, or your little Bug, met you, it changed his fate.”
Sheena looked sadly at little Bug’s skeleton, and decided on impulse to straighten it up, trying to get him sitting comfortably. Some parts fell off, but at least he wasn’t slumped in despair any longer.
“He was so sweet, but seemed so scared of everything.”
“Yes, it is a tragedy. The children of his time were processed, parcelled and put to work for the war. They became men like the Comdat, their fear turned to rage.”
“He seemed nice at the end when all his rage ran out.”
“They’re all nice underneath Sheena, they all become ensnared by the hate of the past, and become hate’s trap in the future.”
Wisest looked down at Jed, and let her hand flow around his shape, bringing a layer of light that resolved to look like him, towards the end, looking flushed and excited, no sunken eyes looking out for danger.
“But Bug met you, a child of peace, and you played, and laughed, and you believed in his goodness. And that love, that hope, that joy, that is the starting point for courage, for the power to stand up and say no.”
Jed’s illusion turned to them one last time, bright and smiling, then faded like sun rays fading through the smoke.
“He was always sweet and kind, from the moment we met,” Sheena asserted, feeling the need to stand up for her little Bug.
“Yes of course, all people are, they just need to see the world can be sweet and kind too.”
Sheena looked around the room, at the devastation, now averted, at the memories hidden in the shadows. “What happens to all of this? Why is this still here?”
“We are at the end of a timeline where Jed didn’t find his hope — though he did find his courage — when it came time to retaliate against the ground people he kept his finger on the button, tight enough to avert their ‘mutually assured destruction, that’s where I come in.”
The wisest bent down, and her hand telescoped out of her robe, her fingers even further. They began interfacing with the cabinet below Bug. There was a click, and an imperceptible hum Sheena hadn’t noticed seemed to fade away.
“That’s been hanging over our head for god knows how long, held at bay by the courage of one little boy.”
“So we gave them a new chance at peace, and we were able to undo the damage of their war?” Sheena looked at the wisest in wonder. “How did you know? How did we get here without a misstep?”
“Oh we didn’t know child, we just did our work. Think of time and space like a garden, we tend to it, we listen to it, sometimes we prune, sometimes we plant. But we listen to the rules of life, and follow our hands.”
Wisest put her still articulated hands-on Sheena’s shoulder, “who knows, maybe there was a Wisest at the end of our history that led us here.”
Sheena looked up at the wise one, feeling warm and safe, despite the cavernous robe that hid the face, and the hard, many jointed hand, so much larger than her own. She nodded knowingly, though each nod seemed to get heavier and heavier, her vision shrinking.
“But that’s enough adventure for today little one, let’s get you home.” Sheena felt her vision dim, as the Wisest lifted her up, arms forming a cradle, finally lulling her to sleep.