In 2006, my friend and fellow science fiction author Jeff Duntemann invited a few of his friends to write stories in what he called the Drumland world. This is a big deal. He was inviting these people to jump into his world and write stories that would become part of his canon, for future work in that world. I was one of those friends.
But his world was so different from the worlds I'd been building. The colony of Valinor had reverted to 1850s technology, and indeed one of the published stories in this world is about building steam locomotives. More than that, scattered all over Valinor are thingmakers. These machines can make any Earth artifact that will fit in a 2.2 meter bowl if you know the right rhythm to tap out on the two pillars of the machine. It had, it seemed to me, the makings of a utopia. And my first two novels are cyberpunk. Let's just say coming up with an idea for a story took a long time.
June, 2010. I had the idea. I also had some goals. I wanted to write something in third person. I wanted to write a main character who didn't have long internal dialogues. And I wanted to write a tragedy.
. Jeff is busy writing the companion novella in the same world, and we're hoping to see a release date through Copperwood Press sometime next year.
(Jeff's short stories in this world thus far are:
Drumlin Boiler: A competition to build and race steam locomotives is quickly polarized into a drumlin tech vs Earth tech race with strong repercussions down the road.
Drumlin Wheel: An ordinary guy discovers a most extraordinary drumlin – a wheel that turns itself. He quickly runs afoul of the simmering conflict between the pro-drumlin tech folks and the Bitstream Institute, that insists Valinor develop its technology for itself (so they can keep the thingmakers to themselves).
Roddie: A short short story about one man's encounters with an enigmatic drummer who is trying to drum up some deeper understanding of everything. And there's a disturbing sense that he has it.
These stories can be found in Jeff's anthology: Cold Hands and Other Stories, at Copperwood Press's site on lulu.)
On Gossamer Wings
The waters of the Steinbeck river come down a long way, from the snowmelt creeks high in the White Plume mountains, through the Veneris canyon, all the way across the western half of the continent named Arcadia by the spacewrecked settlers of Valinor. The river wends its way south and west to christen the arid land of the Great Bowl, and leaves a broad stretch of fertile green land in its wake.
Toward the southwestern edge of the Bowl, irrigation ditches have drained the Steinbeck to little more than a creek. The land is dry underfoot and trees are mighty few and far between. Clusters of windblown farms cling to the banks of the Steinbeck; wood and concrete buildings covered in the reddish brown dust blown up off the soil of the ancient lakebed of the Bowl. They live and die at the ebb and rare flood of the waters. Where the farms survive, the farmers carry on the war against the dust and the turf with the waters of the Steinbeck, prodigious quantities of manure, and backbreaking, spirit-crushing, endless labor for man and beast. They coax and cajole the green shoots of rye up out of the ground into the alien sunlight until the Earthborn grass is strong enough to keep them and the town of Joiners out of the dust for another winter.
It's hot. The sun has barely started its decline toward the horizon, and the heat and humidity press down on the small line of people waiting to use the thingmaker at the edge of Joiners. Such wind as there is brings more heat, and the taste of dust and cowshit to the people standing in line. A horse and buggy pass, and the driver watches the line at the thingmaker keenly for a moment, before heading on into the town of Joiners just up the road. A man works in the field with a small group of other men.
Natalie Bishop flies over it all. Arms outstretched, she turns and banks, a faint Mona-Lisa smile on her lips as the ground curves down and away in her mind, and she feels and hears the air rushing past her ears, and her hair dances behind her. Natalie flies. The people she's standing with sweat.
She doesn't fly alone. Two small girls in the line fly with her, following in their own dream of leaving the ground behind. For Natalie, though, there's more. In her mind's eye, she can see her flier, delicate wings shining in the sun, long, slender, graceful body trailing behind her, shiny thingmaker-diamond windows in front of her. She takes it apart again, and notes well the shape of each part. She lines up all the parts just so, and each one whispers mathematics to her – the lift it must generate, the drag it will create, the thrust and direction each part will force the air. The numbers swirl in her mind, and sort themselves back into the single, complex formula that is flight, and their sweetness makes her smile yet again.
The flyer reassembles in her mind, and banks lazily in the sky, low enough that she can see the astonished faces below. She smiles back, lost in her vision while she waits. The little girls run around the line, flapping their arms like wings and giggling.
Ms. Carmichael teaches. Has always taught. It shows. Straight posture, proud, with her hair tied into a neat, efficient bun at the back of her head. Of everyone in the line, she seems the least affected by the heat, and other than Natalie, she is the only woman wearing pants rather than a skirt, and a modestly cut blouse dyed in bright, primary colors. She watches Nat fly, squinting into the sun slightly, then leans to whisper to the woman standing next to her. Bea McHelvy, a younger, heavyset woman, listens to Ms. Carmichael, and then calls her children in.
"Nat's building a flying machine, mama." the older girl says. "I seen it."
"You have seen it." Mrs. McHelvy says.
"Yes mama. I have seen it."
"She's too old to be pretending that anymore. She's nearly full grown."
"Nat can do it, mama. She can drum up anything."
Ms Carmichael shakes her head at the child. "It takes science to build flying machines, Elizabeth. Science we had once, and we lost. Make-believe, drumlins, and funny noises won't get us there."
Natalie turns toward the little girl when she hears that group of sounds. The nasal one that sounds so funny when someone's nose is plugged up. 'NNNN.' The open one whose flat tone shapes the whole progression of sounds, 'AAAA,' and the sharp tongue-against-roof-of-the-mouth cutoff that most people truncate the sequence of sounds with. 'T'. The sounds, in and of themselves, take no shape in her mind, carry no meaning. But she knows from long experience that when she hears those sounds, all jammed together in a quick flutter of lips, tongue, and mouth like that, they refer to her. She turns toward the little girl who said it, and smiles at all that enthusiasm in the little girl's body language.
Ms. Carmichael whispers to Mrs. McHelvy again. The latter looks Nat in the eye only a moment. Natalie can see the tiny flicker of expression cross the other woman's face. Fear. Mrs. McHelvy glances toward her daughters, then back at Natalie, expressions only bare moments, like the flicker of hummingbird wings, but Natalie can see them. She looks away. Mouth sounds can make people happy or unhappy, and much worse. She knows that. They can also bring great joy, happiness, all these things Natalie can see when people make sounds at each other. She can see that they get some meaning out of them, the way she can out of hand signs and body language. She knows that it's practically effortless, that even little babies learn it. But for all her efforts, it's just barnyard noise to her. Like the clucking of so many chickens. She looks away, and reaches down for the shaft of the wheelbarrow. Clenches her fist around it hard.
Natalie's turn at the thingmaker. She closes her eyes again. Lets her mind clear to focus on this one thing. A low humming and whistling comes from her, not quite disconnected from her thoughts as she pictures what she needs, imagining every single detail of the part she wants to make, until she can imagine the individual grains of it, vibrating and humming with their own motion, with the sound and the energy and the feel of thought. She hums to herself, then changes to a whistle. A cylinder about ten tocks in diameter – nearly up to her waist – and roughly the same length. It's hollow. With two parts that turns inside, counterrotating. Angled blades on them to catch the air and force it out the back. This, she imagines as she takes two sets of what look like round shutters off the top of her wheelbarrow and lays them on the ground, then empties her wheelbarrow of all the other thingies and cricket legs and bits of drumlins back into the silver dust of the thingmaker's bowl. She waits while her offering is absorbed, imagining each thing, and how the pattern of it leads inexorably to the pattern of the thing in her mind now.
Tommy McQueen and his brother walk by. The ground seems to snatch at his boots sometimes. He wobbles a bit, trying to make his feet do what he wants, paying too much attention to their rhythm and getting lost in it before he stops, closes his eyes and just wills himself to walk. A knee twinges. Tommy ignores it. 'Growin' too fast.' his father told him. 'Ain' nothin' wrong with you. Get back t'work.'
He glances over to Billy, his brother. Shorter now, sure. But he's strong, and compact, and he has that man-smell of sweat and alcohol that reminds Tommy of their father. Tommy watches Natalie a moment, and he takes a breath to call out her name, the automatic habit ingrained for more than half his life. But he stops, closes his eyes, and doesn't let the sound out.
His older brother doesn't miss the expression."Oh hey Tommy, look. It's your girlfriend. The amazing good-for-nothin' moron."
Tommy rolls his eyes."She is not my girlfriend, Billy. We were friends when I was a kid, that's all. I keep tellin' you that." He looks her way again, though, glancing at the wild hair blowing in the wind, and at the curve of her profile.Then he looks away. "She's not useless, an' she's not a moron either. She c'n drum anything. Anything at all."
"You still are a kid," he says. "An' so what if she can drum anything. Can't talk. Can't read. Can't write. Damn near burned the house down last time she tried to cook, I hear." He gives Nat a quick glance of his own, watching her body move. His lips curl into a slight baring of teeth that doesn't quite become a smile. "'Now … there is one thing she might be good for."
"Don't you look at her like that, Billy."
Billy laughs and elbows his brother. "I'll look where I damn well please. You get married, an' from then on you're just lookin'. Maybe wishin'. Maybe not, but you're lookin'. "
Tommy glares at his brother. "Cut it out. You got Becka. You don' need to be lookin'."
Billy goes uncharacteristically quiet. It only lasts a moment. "Becka's a good woman. You need to find one like her, when you're done foolin' around with your moron."
"Damn it, Billy, I told you, she's not my girlfriend."
"Oh yeah?" Billy's lips curl into a smirk. "You two were foolin' around by VanHutchen's Pond back in May. Dad told me. I heard you were both naked. She look good naked, Tommy? She got nice tits?"
"We were not foolin' around!" Tommy says, hitting his brother harder. "Knock it off. She's gonna hear you."
"So what?" Billy says. "She don't understand. She's a moron, Tommy. Her parents should send her away before she drums up somethin' bad, like that death drumlin that fried that guy in that display over in Wakeen. That's what Dad says. She's useless trouble, that's all."
Tommy punches his brother as hard as he can in the stomach.
Billy's stomach tightens and he grunts at the blow. He bends over, choking. Tommy steps back, not expecting that. "Billy, are you…" and Billy flicks out a hard jab deep into Tommy's own stomach. Tommy folds up, the wind knocked out of him.
Billy grabs Tommy by the wrists and shoves him down, straddles him, leans close until his nose is an inch from Tommy's. "Sucker. That always works on you. Bein' around her makes you soft. You thought you really hurt me? Aww. Did the liddle brudder hurt his old, old big brudder?" Billy laughs. "Is that what you think? You think maybe you're too big for me to whoop you any more? Or maybe that I ain't your big brother no more?" Billy's smirk wars with a snarl, as though the wildness within him has seen an opening in the cage it's spending more and more time in.
Tommy struggles to breathe, writhes against his brother's iron grip like a pig being dragged to the slaughterhouse. Tommy's eyes tear up. When the air finally does come, it arrives in a ragged gasp. He squeezes his eyes shut and grits his teeth. "No."
Billy sighs, takes a long, slow breath. The smirk fades. He takes another breath and lets it out slowly, and nods. "Good." he says, as he lets go of his brother's wrists, and rocks back onto his heels. He stands slowly. Steps back. His hands stay up, as though they're not quite sure what to do. "Good." he says again, and lowers his hands when his brother doesn't swing on him. "'Cause I'm always gonna be your big brother. Don't matter if you're taller than me. Don't matter that I'm married now. Maybe I settled down. But I ain't completely tame. Don' forget it."
Tommy clutches his stomach and breathes. "You'll always be my asshole brother. Can't wait until you move out. Might be a day I don' get beat on then."
Billy spits on the ground, still breathing a little heavily, as though there was more to the fight than there was. He reaches out one hand to his brother. "I never beat on you that much. You're my brother. I'd never beat on you that much. You know it was all in fun."
Tommy's jaw squeezes shut, and flinches as he takes the hand that's offered and slowly pulls himself off the ground. "Yeah." he says. "Sure."
Natalie scarcely notices the trouble behind her, glancing over her shoulder only a moment while Tommy's not looking. She looks away quickly, and faces the thingmaker. The people behind her in line watch curiously. They've always watched since she drummed up the Big Ball of Iron, since her father started making things with the iron and things got good for a while. They always watch, and she used to see the hope in them that she'll drum up something else miraculous, something they can see the point of, like the iron.
Nat whistles and hums, setting up the beat frequency between her voice and her whistle, and then, as the wind begins to blow her hair and her skirts back, her hands begin to tap the pillars, quickly, an alien rhythm, seemingly random, but she drums it out fast as the hoofbeats of a galloping horse, as though this pattern is an old friend, as though the rhythm of it has been part of her all along, as though the drumlin is something she's drummed up a thousand times, weaving the pattern around her sounds, around her thoughts, around the thing she has imagined.
The dust in the thingmaker fountains upward, blowing into her face like warm rain as the wind backs through the bowl. Her soft mouth curves into a dazzling smile as she waits, listening, still humming tunelessly, and very high, to the thingmaker, as though she understands its secret language, its enigmatic truth, and as though it, like herself, has a mind of its own but doesn't know the words.
When the dust settles again, Nat jumps into the thingmaker's bowl to catch her new prize, like it's a living thing that will try to escape. Which is not far from the truth. It seems to dust itself as the parts inside begin to turn. Thingmaker dust blows out the lower end as the rotating parts inside pick up speed, and a faint whoosh comes from it as the air begins to move. But she's wise to it. She gets close right away, and the whole process stops as abruptly as it started. In her mind's eye, it's all to easy to picture what would happen if this drumlin built up to its full thrust. It's easy to picture it launching itself into the sky, uncontrolled, in some random direction, like an arrow shot without fletchings. But drumlins are funny. They try not to hurt people, at least the complex ones like this. As close as she is, it would have to hurt her to get away. And it won't. She clamps down on the upper end quickly with one set of the shutters, and ties them in place with silver drumlin three-tick rope, then steps back, the way her father does after roping a calf to brand and castrate him.
The drumlin's blades spin up again, but they quickly exhaust the air behind the closed shutters, and the thrust dies away again before it really gets started.
Nat watches and smiles. She moves close again, and tips her prize over. Rolls it to the wheelbarrow. Picks it up, loads it in, and ties it down. Then she gets picks up the other set of shutters, places it on top of the wheelbarrow, and moves to the back of the line to drum up another. A few people chuckle. Most just look down and away. Natalie doesn't watch them as she leaves. The disappointment in them hurts too much.
Monday, November 8, 2010
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