3LBE #17
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Fighting Fate

by Isaac Fellows

 

He watched them bleaching bones. How they upended each heavy jute sack above the cauldrons. How at times a contraband scrap of clothing fell too: a leg of long underwear, a white shirt arm, one brassiere cup.

He’d been told to report to Construction and slowly he made his way there, to the surface. The stink of the mountain’s bowels came only as an afterthought, only after he’d stepped out of the shadows and breathed the clean desert air. He coughed to remember that reek, and he shuddered to be free from it.

“Underman Joi,” barked the Head. “I’d begun to think you might have deserted.” Joi shook his head. The Head continued, “You wouldn’t have been the first. Over there,” he gestured toward a ten foot wall of bone, “is the first. At least,” the Head laughed, “I think his ribs are.”

Joi followed with his eyes the extent of the Construction: hard up against the mountain’s iron face it jutted into domed towers and turrets; into the undulant desert it marched a maze of tall white walls. The Head drew Joi over to the supply bins where they were met by a short black-haired man with greasy eyes. The Head raised three fingers. The short man nodded and tying together three jute sacks with a snarl of waxed twine he handed the bundle to Joi.

Joi recognized the sacks. Slinging them over one shoulder he schooled his face to stillness and let the Head lead him out into the desert.

A raven followed them partway. Four crows. Higher a vulture. An eagle. The day was brilliant. They walked between two bone walls set close enough together to form a corridor running in a straight line away from the mountain. “You’ll be stationed for eleven days at the First Terminus,” the Head began, “where Underhead Aloi has assumed full command. I expect you to show the Underhead all the respect you would show me. Any insubordination will be treated in the usual way.” He paused and ran his fingers along the white wall. In the sun the bone shone very bright. “Judging from the maps I have produced maps that I expect you to copy in triplicate as your first order under Underhead Aloi there is in a direct line from the present location of the First Terminus a site of human habitation. I have written a history and I expect you to have it read posthaste the history concludes that the inhabitants are as expected much given to savagery and that despite their gross and general underdevelopment no fewer than three out of every five shall prove tractable. I trust,” the Head spoke sharply turning to face Joi, “that you understand your orders and will report forthwith to Underhead Aloi? Under whom you shall first copy in triplicate the First Terminus area maps and then read in its entirety the history of the human habitation with which you shall shortly come into contact?”

Joi shifted the sacks against him. He tightened his grip upon the twine. Behind the Head he saw atop the wall a reddish wren. The small bird hopped from perch to jagged perch, scapular to skull to tibia, its small claws scraping against the bones. When the wren trilled Joi grinned and the Head widened his eyes. Joi stammered, “About the contact how—”

The Head cut the air with his hand. “Underhead Aloi, I have invested in that matter with all the authority I myself hold conception and command of Operation Poor Healer as he calls it shall progress under his supervision, and it is from him that you shall learn whichever particulars he deems you should.” The Head nodded, said crisply, “Underman Joi,” and began to turn back.

Looking from the walls to the open sky to the two horizons shivering equally ephemeral ahead up the corridor and back the way he’d come Joi felt all at once impossibly confined entombed and as if he were adrift in a sun bright nothingness a nothingness of sand of heat of bones of solid light. Narrowly he contained his panic, tried feebly to squash it. “Wait,” he called. The Head whipped around, expression blank. “If I can ask,” Joi stammered, “if the Terminus is— if the First Terminus has a—” He didn’t have the words for it. He gestured vaguely with his free hand.

“The First Terminus,” said the Head, “is a peripatetic station. Underman Joi, you shall, I trust, find it pleasurable to sleep under the stars. The desert night can be severe, but there are among your provisions appropriately thick blankets.” And with that the Head turned back toward the mountain. Within minutes heat shimmers enfolded him and he winked out as if he’d never been.

It took the remainder of the day to reach the Terminus. Underhead Aloi met him at the gate. For the gate only skulls had been used, the surface of rounded crowns like bubbled linoleum. Aloi as he watched his man come absently rubbed the topmost skull it was larger than the others, perhaps a buffalo’s or a cow’s. “Yes?” he said, and he fingered his collar.

Joi asked, “Underhead Aloi?”

Aloi nodded. He had a hard gaze. Unwavering. There were around his eyes concentric rings of what appeared to be ash. He scratched at the beginnings of a beard, thick and red. “You are Underman Joi, then,” he said. “I should not have to tell you that the First Terminus has as its supervisory council one man, and that I am that man. Likewise I should not have to tell you that the First Terminus is irrefutably under the jurisdiction of its supervisory council and only its supervisory council. Let me make myself plain to you, Underman Joi: if you open the gate, if you enter the First Terminus, you are my man. If you are my man, you have the obligation to ignore whatever orders you carried with you to the First Terminus, howsoever highly they originated in the chain of command. Here the chain of command is very simple, Underman: as of this moment, there is but a single link; if and when you cross into the First Terminus, then from that moment forward there will be two.”

Underman Joi blinked. He made no other move. Behind Underhead Aloi he could see the open desert, the sun clotted against the horizon.

Underhead Aloi nodded to himself and took a half step backward. He fished out of his jacket pocket a thin-stemmed pipe, with which he traced in the air very small very precise shapes as he spoke. “I will be honest with you, Underman: I cannot say that I relish the prospect of you joining me. A chain of a single link cannot be broken. It. Can. Not. A chain of many links however can with sufficient application of force be snapped. For there are always points of vulnerability, and one can with sufficient diligence determine vulnerabilities. And exploit them. You’ve seen this I’m sure with Construction. It is Construction that sent you here, is it not? I must inform you that I have no respect for their Head he believes in establishing and extending chains of command as if he were a spider spinning a web. A web is, I admit, a stable structure in theory, but practically speaking any increase in the number of links is an increase in the number of points of potential vulnerability. One such vulnerability being insubordination. He sits there, you see, in the center of his web, and he believes that he controls such a great lot. And yet he becomes in truth himself the weak link. He becomes little better than a bureaucrat. He spreads his power too thin. To put it plainly: he barely exists.” He paused to light his pipe.

Behind Joi the desert night stretched its legs. The bones all the bones appeared covered by a thin blue film.

“The Construction has how many Termini, twelve?” Aloi continued. “How far between each, do you think? Ten miles? Twenty? How is your aptitude with numbers, Underman? Inadequate? According to my estimations the Construction’s present circumference is somewhere between one hundred twenty and two hundred forty miles. Assuming that each of the Termini remains peripatetic, and that each advances an average of five miles a day, then every single day the Construction swells by between thirty and sixty miles, circumferentially speaking. Does it not seem an overlarge area to be controlled by one man?” He paused, awaiting an answer. Underman Joi only shrugged and let his sacks fall to the ground. Underhead Aloi puffed on his pipe and continued. “I control the First Terminus, Underman. I am in the Construction, as is obvious—” he pointed at the long walls rapidly merging with the night “—but not of it. I trust I have made myself clear in this matter. You are welcome, of course, to turn back, to report me a rebel. The Head of Construction, I imagine, would be both appropriately flustered by such news and entirely impotent to act upon it with any efficacy. With startling suddenness he laughed, belching smoke.” He sounded like a wild dog in anguish.

Joi considered turning, running back. He looked at Underhead Aloi’s face. He tried to read the tall man’s expression. Was there some weapon leaning against the other side of the gate? Would Aloi truly allow him to go? It was the fate of all people to merge with the Construction, but Joi was not yet ready to give up his bones. “I’m your man,” he said briskly, and he re-shouldered his sacks.

Aloi opened the gate. There was no weapon there. Aloi pressed his pipe stem against Joi’s chest. “There is a problem with a two-link chain of command,” he said, “and that problem put succinctly is reversal. Dyadic relations are ever prey to such confusions. Our empathic proclivities deceive us as to the actual nature of things. We are a one-way street, you and I. So know beyond the shadow of a doubt which direction our street runs.” He pursed his lips as if considering his own words. He brought his pipe back to his mouth. The bowl flared.

Joi stepped into the First Terminus. Aloi closed the gate. There was too little light for Joi to make out much. “I understand,” he ventured, “that you have in your possession a map?”
“Build a fire,” replied Aloi.

Joi counted five paces. He breathed deeply. Five paces into the open desert. He lined up his three sacks on the ground. Feeling around in the first he felt instruments of measurement, writing implements and paper, spare boots and blankets. In the second were small bags of grain, dried beans, tea, dried fruits and vegetables, a bottle of salt. The third held the firewood, the matches. Around a small clump of sawdust-like tinder he meticulously arranged logs of varying thicknesses, envisioning as he went how the fire would burn, where and how it would collapse, where it needed to be hottest and where it would require a steady application of lesser heat. During his term at Materials he attended very carefully to the manufacture of firewood. He understood acutely the densities of each type of log, their burning temperatures and durational averages. He had earned the respect of the Head of Materials, who recommended that Joi when he was to be stationed at Prima Materia Preparation be responsible solely for the building of the cauldron fires. He would complete that task early in the day, and the bulk of his time at Prima Materia was spent at ease, monitoring his fires and trying not to look at the contents of the jute sacks as they were upended into the grey filmed water.

Aloi noticed Joi’s aptitude. “It is essential,” he said, “here in the open, to build such a fire as that.” He nodded toward the pyramidal structure, the base of which was just flickering alight, alive with its own red heart. “We do not sleep long, here. And for our day’s labors to be most efficient, we must sleep well, expending as little energy as possible maintaining body temperature. There is a sack six paces to your right. The sack is filled with Prima Materia. Use the Prima Materia to build a fire shield two paces away from wherever you deem is the furthest point outward the logs could collapse.”

“The fire will only collapse inward,” interjected Joi.

Aloi continued as if the other hadn’t spoken. “And between the fire and the shield, make up a bed. Three blankets beneath, five atop. Wide enough for the both of us, mind. I will take tea as soon as you can boil water for it. There is a pot along with the other cookware in a sack beside the sack of P.M.” Aloi nodded as if pleased with his words or pleased with Joi’s quiet acquiescence, and he squatted beside the fire and puffed on his pipe.

Joi went about his tasks automatically, numbly. By the vastness of the sky the vastness of the open desert was his mind pinioned. Such a sense of naked expanse. It was beyond his ability to conceive. The bones he held felt very weak, as if they would snap if he stacked them badly. “How old is this P.M.?” he asked.

Aloi responded with, “Bring me tea.”

Joi left the half built fire shield to pour the not yet boiling water into an enameled metal pot. He measured a generous amount of tea leaves and sprinkled them in. He gave the pot and a dented tin cup to Aloi. Aloi said, “I’m weary.” By the light of the fire the circles of ash around his eyes appeared to be furrows.

While Joi worked, Aloi sipped tea and smoked. “I expect the Construction is proceeding without obstacle? Back in the middle, I mean? They are ever inventive, there. Have they engulfed the mountain yet? I don t expect it will be long. My. One could call them with all justification extravagant. The towers alone How long a wall could they have built with the P.M. used for one of their towers? With the femurs alone I could suture the First and the Second Termini. With every bone from but a single superfluous tower at my disposal, I could form along the arc of the First through the Fifth a wall to secure nearly half the Construction. Half.” He sighed into his tea.

Joi placed the last bit of Prima Materia a jaw into the fire shield. Already a pleasant warmth was gathering there in the small space between flame and bone.

“How long, do you think?” murmured Aloi. “How long until they attend to sealing the Termini?” He sipped, sighed. “I fear it won’t happen before I too join the Construction. And that’s just it, isn t it? Prima Materia. There is never enough of it. Every man woman child and beast is a skin bag of P.M. But we can’t get at it. Not until we’re gone. He stared past Joi. That bed looks good, he said. Slowly Aloi rose. Set the leaves to dry and what’s left of the tea into a closed vessel for the morning. Wake at dawn.

• • •

Joi did wake at dawn, to the pressure of Aloi’s boot sole against his abdomen. “Rise,” said Aloi. “Put into a sack sufficient food for one day. Lash to the sack four one gallon drums. We will fill the drums at the spring. Lash also to the sack one twenty pound barrel of chalk.” He crouched over the remains of the fire, gathered the re-dried tea leaves, sniffed them. He tamped a pinch of tobacco into his pipe and lit it. In the dawn light the smoke rose red around his face.

Joi blinked and tossed aside his blankets. He shivered. Stood. He did as he was told.

Aloi watched, impassive. Around them the desert, the desert, the desert. Far back along the line of the Terminus the Construction’s white bulk gleamed. The domes, the towers, the piled billions of bones like a distant mountain range. Sharp peaked. Dazzling.

In a straight line out from the Terminus they marched. Joi gasped under the weight of his load. His shoulder burned and he switched shoulders and soon enough that shoulder burned and when he switched back it felt as if he was chafing with the rough twine an open inflamed wound.

Aloi staring resolutely forward led the way. He followed a thick white line of chalk twisting very faint atop the sand.

At the spring Joi collapsed. His fists dug into the sand. His chest heaved. Aloi said, “Rest.” Pumping the spring handle with fluidity, with precision, he filled the four drums. He did not let a single drop spill. He re-lashed them to Joi’s sack and gripping the exhausted man’s shoulder said, “Look.” Joi did not look. Aloi gripped his chin between his fingers and forcibly raised Joi’s head. “Look,” he repeated. There was wonder in his voice.

“People,” Joi rasped. Aloi let go of his chin. Joi’s head fell, hung.

“Yes, Underman. People. How many did he say? Two of five? Three?”

“How far?” asked Joi.

“I asked you how many. How many did he say?”

“The Head said three out of five.”

Aloi exhaled loudly. “He’s a bigger idiot than I’d reckoned. We’ll be lucky to pull five from the entire settlement.”

Joi struggled to a sitting position. He squinted trying to steady the jag edged iron red shape of the mountain range materializing out of the heat shimmers ahead of them. “Not today,” he muttered.

“What I’m sure you’ve not been told is that I have my own history. Whether or not it predates that written by the Head of Construction, I am uncertain. But this history contends that the inhabitants of the settlement are as expected much given to supernaturalism and that they will in all probability regard the fact of the Construction as evidence of their own imminent demise. The first signs of a coming End-of-Days so to speak. A great and terrible Harvest. Naturally they will revolt, half in a vain attempt to delay their apocalypse, half as a point of pride fighting fate, you understand. Meeting the Maker with a brave face. I…” He paused. Stood. He shielded his eyes staring toward those mountains. Was that a white glaze atop those highest? Those furthest away?

“I have the history,” Aloi patted his jacket. “You will rest here for so long as it takes you to read it. I will proceed along the Terminal Line. When you finish, follow.” He produced the folded and re-folded sheaf and he dropped it onto Joi’s lap.

The History of the First Terminal Prima Materia Source Site Site #105, ran the heading. Joi scanned page after page, picking out what he hoped were the most significant facts. He paid especially close attention to the sections Recommended Course of Engagement, Customs and Operation Poor Healer: Method and Justification. His eyes began to ache. He realized he had never before read by sunlight. Slowly he stood. He turned around and he could not see the Construction. Not even the gated radial of the First Terminus. Wincing before the twine touched him, he shouldered his sack and approached the spring. Aloi had taken all the water drums. Joi would have to drink his fill there at the tall thick pipe. He bent his head under the spigot and pumped the spring handle. The water shocked him. He gulped and gasped and gulped. Water slicked over his chin, down the front of his shirt. Against his chest it felt like a snake.

By sunset Joi had not yet caught up with Aloi. The mountains into the folds of which of the sun had been embraced appeared no closer. He felt very parched. For a moment he fancied he hadn’t moved, or had moved so little as to not matter. He half turned around, half expecting to see the dull pipe of the spring there. Half hoping for it.

There the red blanket of the light upon the desert. There his hump backed shadow. There a speck gleaming red white the First Terminal gate perhaps, catching the last of the sun. Sending a signal he couldn’t interpret.

On. His feet hurt. Night deepened. Joi felt his mind come apart from his body, from his blood. He looked up at the night sky clouded by stars and he fancied he beheld his consciousness adrift there among those ghostly points.

A hand on his throat brought him back. He blinked. It was too bright.

“Underman,” spat Aloi. “Wake.” He slapped the heap of a man. “Again. Wake,” he repeated. “Rise.” Joi shuddered and did not wake, did not rise. Aloi continued, “We are a two-link chain of command, Underman Joi. In a two-link chain of command there can be little misunderstanding of orders. There can be no distortion unless it is distortion willfully imposed.” He struck. Shook. Struck. Shook. “Wake, Underman. Rise.”

Groaning Joi forced his eyes wide, forced his body upright. Aloi nodded and stepped away from him. “Come. We’re nearly there.”

Shakily Joi stood. He could not feel either shoulder. He could not feel his feet. Half his face was slack. He felt as if there were a large rock implanted in the small of his back, fused to his spine. He blinked. Aloi turned, waved him onward. There were the knees of the mountains. Right there. The morning sun hurled their shadows onto the copper slope. His head twisted and stretched over a fissure in the stone. How far he had come! Joi stood with his mouth bent, open. Aloi called over his shoulder, “Use the chalk to mark a trail. Follow me exactly. Make it thick, but be certain the barrel lasts for four-and-a-half of the approximately five miles to the settlement.” He stepped from sand onto stone. He ascended. Mid-stride he lit his pipe. The smoke made a flag over his head. A wind curdled higher up the mountain, roared.

Joi followed. He had trouble with the chalk. The wind tore it from him, ruined the integrity of his line. He chuckled to himself, wheezing. From the height he’d attained he could see in the distance the Construction and it appeared indescribably ugly. He tried to conceive words he could pin to that ugliness but he could find none. His own hand, futilely clutching chalk, appeared as ugly. He threw the chalk up. It flagged and billowed and broke. Supporting his sack with one arm twisted behind him, he ran until he caught up to Aloi. “There’s been a problem,” he said. Aloi turned around, pipe hard between his teeth. “A problem with the chalk,” he continued. “The wind, it…” Joi thumbed his lip. He stared past Aloi at a fissure in the mountain’s face ahead. At a whiteness glaring within that fissure. He recognized that whiteness. He did not speak more.

Aloi shook his head, waved Joi onward. They climbed together the final stretch of slope to the fissure. Aloi reached first that inward opening. A raven sat atop the fissure’s cliff. Its head swiveled. Joi could not make out its eyes except as points of light, reflected suns.

Aloi’s sob stunned him. There was the clatter of collapsing bone. The rattle. The raven replied, a smaller softer rattle. Wood on wood instead of bone on rock. Joi dropped his sack and ran to him.

Aloi had dropped the water drums. Overturned, split-sided, they spilled hissing rivulets that pooled and snaked downward. He knelt just inside the fissure. Before him a collapsed wall. In his hands a section of spinal column, a skull. Bone filled the fissure. Bone in turreted towers. Bone in pillars, peaked roofs, doorframes. And filling it all only a stillness of such crushing density both men could not but be bowed.
“We are preceded,” Aloi muttered. Joi stepped through the ruined wall. He chose at random an intricate section of Construction and hurled himself against it. “We are usurped,” Aloi continued. Expressionless he rose. He followed Joi inside.

 

 

 

Isaac Fellows lives in Portland, Oregon near an old stone stairway he sometimes ascends with his wife Iris. His stories, which of late he has likened to the newts that live for much of the time within the muck at the bottoms of ponds and woodland pools, have surfaced in the Cafe Irreal, Chimeraworld & Spout Press among other places. His novels, perhaps due to their weight or some deficiency in their musculature, have not yet risen. When he is not attending to his interior world, Isaac spends time in a community of small children, wandering in the woods or preparing food. He loves and fears owls. Find some things that Isaac has made at whitemulberrybooks.googlepages.com.


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ISSUE #17

April 2008

FICTION