For one week only, Rain.
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Down, down, down to the World it plummets, space seed, seed pod, capsule spat from the mouth of the dark ship that winks into being above the World, ship that winks at the World’s two suns, winks at the strange stars, and winks to otherwhere with a nod and a wink to the mechanics of quantum flight. Down, down the pod blazes through the burning blue sky, encircling the World with its firetail, searing away speed and weightlessness and sky-longing hopes. Down the space-seed-pod-capsule falls until it ruptures in pod-splitting, seed-shaking, heart-breaking thunder and belches forth a spacesuited man whose drogue pops open and yanks out his orange ‘chute that whooshes to fullness and the man below swings once, then twice, then thuds to the orange-ochre earth as fragments of the space-seed-pod-capsule rain around raising rooster-tail plumes of orange and ochre and yellow dust.
The man grunts when he crashes to earth, forgetting to keep knees flexed, arms relaxed, eyes on the horizon (they only told him these things so he would know he landed wrong). His suit senses the bruising landing and signals the buckles to disconnect from the ‘chute risers. The buckles open in response, collapsing the ‘chute and leaving the man crumpled on the ground.
Wind kicked out of him by the World, the man hugs his ribs, squeezes his knees to his chest, and tucks his chin to his sternum like a fetus cowering from embryonic nightmares of a dilation and cutterage. The spasms in his diaphragm finally cease but still he cannot breathe. Opening an eye, he sees his visor peg his oxygen readout at zero. Panicked, he rips at his helmet, indifferent to whatever hazards may lay beyond the mask and “Ssssss” the seal hisses open and there is air and the man gulps in quick lungfulls.
For some minutes, the man sucks in air, sprawled in his blue spacesuit like a starfish across the orange-ochre ground. He sheds the helmet. As his senses return he feels someone watching him. With a jerk, he turns to spy a berobed black man squatting kneecaps alongside ears, staring at him, and chewing, chewing, chewing on half a sand lizard of jerky. The other half is spiked on the point of a black obsidian knife that is sharper than razor steel and blacker than the blue-black hand that grips the strangely pale leather bound hilt.
The man gulps from fear of his unknown observer but he is nothing if not gregarious (if one overlooks the fact that he is also near asphyxiated, lost, bruised, and banished) and the black man did not kill him while he fought for breath so, with some confidence that his observer is friendly -- well, at least not hostile -- he staggers to his feet under the cool red sun and ambles over to the black man hand outstretched and “Hi, I’m Jack Latham,” smiles Jack Latham. “How do I get off this rock?”
The black man chewing, chewing, chewing the lizard jerky peers up at Jack Latham but keeps one hand on the hilt of his knife and the other in his robe. He stands up and Jack Latham cranes his head back to face his tall companion.
“Some call me Maker,” says the black man in a sepuchral voice.
“You’re a tall one,” says Jack Latham.
“I am Watusi,” says Maker as if that answers all questions of ‘who are you’ and ‘where are you from’ and ‘what’s your problem, mate.’ Says Maker, “Get your ‘chute.”
“Get your ‘chute.” Maker unfolds a long arm from orange robes to point to dust clouds rising on the horizon. “Thieves are coming. They will kill you for your belongings and your water.” He swallows the sand lizard jerky he has been chewing.
“Belongings? I got ten rat bars and three liters of water. You telling me they’ll kill me for that?”
“You have the suit you wear, your ‘chute, and the pieces of the pod that delivered you to the World as well. Thieves will kill you for the smallest fragment of your pod. Get your ‘chute,” and ssshhhp the other half of the sand lizard is sucked into Maker’s mouth.
“Why the ‘chute? Why not a pod fragment?”
“So you have something to wear.”
“I can wear this suit. Let’s . . .,” Maker’s knife flashes quicker than a heartbeat, “. . . go.” Too late Jack Latham jumps back out of reach. His heart races but he feels no pain. He scans himself to find a neat hole sliced in his sleeve and regards Maker with new respect and greater fear. Maker aims the knife point to the swatch he cut from Jack Latham’s suit, the blue bold against the orange earth, then to the spot where Jack Latham’s orange ‘chute nestles against the ground invisible save for the strings of white risers that lead to it like skeletal fingers.
Jack Latham inspects Maker’s robes again to find that they are fashioned of orange ‘chute cloth. The hattah cuts sharp outlines about his dark face and the orange paints a contrast against the blue sky but even at this close approach his silk clad legs blur indistinctly against the ochre earth.
“Oh!” exclaims Jack Latham. “I see.”
Maker nods his chin to the dust clouds rising ever nearer. “So do they.”
Jack Latham picks his way through the creosote, yucca, and cacti to the remains of his ‘chute. He returns to Maker with the orange silk wrapped in the ‘chute risers and not a few cactus spines pricked in his fingers.
Maker conjures a gnarled walking stick from his robes and turns wordlessly to stride over a ridge and out of sight of the approaching thieves. Jack Latham scurries along behind, extricating the painful cactus spines as best he can.
Their shadows race before them as the red sun lowers in the sky. Across the unrelenting orange-ochre earth they walk, and few words pass between them. Jack Latham talks of escape from the World. Maker, when he talks, talks of cacti to avoid and lizards to eat.
When the sky ahead begins to lighten with the coming dawn of the World’s other sun, Maker calls over his shoulder to Jack Latham, “Hurry,” just that, no more, and breaks into a trot.
“What? Why?” Jack Latham asks stumbling ahead, his arms wrapped around the bundle of ‘chute silk. As they race to the shadow of a rock overhang, he chases Maker, losing ground with each stride. Maker wins the race and crosses the shadow finish but Jack Latham stumbles onward and the goal is only fifty meters away when World’s bright sun, brutal sun crests the horizon and Jack Latham is blinded by its brilliance. “Aahh!” he cries, wincing. The harsh rays beat against his face and burn and blister his skin in seconds and Maker’s admonition to hurry commands new urgency and Jack Latham races stumbling faster through creosote, yucca, and cacti to gain the finish line of shadow, cracking his head against the red rock and collapsing unconscious beneath the overhang.
He is awakened when Maker tugs his suit to pull him further into the retreating shadow. “Oooh,” moans Jack Latham rubbing his face. He winces when he touches the knot that has risen from his forehead. He winces again when he feels the blisters the bright sun burned into his skin. He peers out of the shadow place at the desert. Creosote, yucca, and cacti have tucked their shadows under their prickly skirts to guard them from the destruction that the bright sun rains down from overhead.
Master cuts a tendril from an aloe plant, splits it in two, and hands the twin halves to Jack Latham. “Spread this over your burns.”
“Thanks,” says Jack Latham as he takes the aloe and spreads the sticky, soothing goo across his face and ears and neck and hands. Images swim before his eyes and dizziness floods his head. Pointing to his injured head he asks, “Got something for this bump, too?”
“Not here,” Maker replies. “There is a small frog I keep in my cave. Its liver will remove that bump from your worries.”
Jack Latham grimaces. He does not relish the idea of eating frog liver, but he has done many things he did not relish. He leans his back against the rock and the images swim as one and the dizziness passes. He digs into a thigh pocket of his suit to pull out a flask. He pops the seal and sucks in a mouthful of water that he swallows with a sigh. He sucks down another mouthful before he glances at his companion. Maker squats knees alongside ears watching him. Jack Latham offers Maker the flask. Maker takes the flask with both hands, nods his thanks, and wets the tip of a forefinger. With the wetted finger, he traces the outline of his lips, touches the end of his tongue, and flicks the last lingering drop from his finger into the desert. He sips from the flask, once, twice, thrice, each sip larger than the last, and caps the flask to hand it back to Jack Latham.
Jack Latham pockets the flask and asks, “That some kind of religious ritual you just did?”
“It is an acknowledgment,” Maker says. “All water belongs to the World. I promise the World that someday I shall repay the water it has loaned me.”
This is more answer than Jack Latham’s practical mind cares to grasp. Yes or no would have satisfied him but Maker’s philosophy bewilders him.
He finds two full-day-ration bars in a suit pocket and asks, “Have a rat bar, Maker?” searching for a question with an answer he can comprehend.
Maker takes the proffered bar and nods his thanks. Jack Latham tears away the wrapper from his bar and bites off a quarter of it. Maker carefully splits the wrapper along its seams, draws the bar out, and secretes the whole wrapper in his robes. He nibbles at his bar as if it were some rare delicacy.
“You tried to get off this rock?” asks Jack Latham.
Maker shakes his head.
“Well, I won’t be here long, you can bet on that. Done escaped prison twice before. Last time I offed a woman and a cop. That’s why they dropped me here.” Jack Latham bites off more ration bar. “So what are you here for?”
“No, I mean, you know, like me, I killed that cop during my second escape. That’s what I’m here for. You? Did you escape?”
“Never went to prison. Came here straight from trial.”
Jack Latham blinks at the harshness of Maker’s punishment. On his world, only convicts who commit capital crimes warrant banishment to the World. “Must have some tough law on your world,” he says.
“Reminiscing about that law catches no lizards.”
Jack Latham nods as if he understands.
“You some kinda political prisoner?”
As if in answer, Maker draws a slim, black throwing blade from his sleeve. Jack Latham cowers back exclaiming, “I meant no offense! Forget I asked!” and Maker flings the blade a scant hand’s breadth past Jack Latham’s ear to thunk into the hard, red clay. “Why, you!” spits Jack Latham and he turns to grab the blade to arm himself against this madman but finds it buried in the head of a yellow and red and black striped snake, pinning the snake to the wall of their shadow resting place close by his head. Maker stretches with another knife to sever the snake’s body from its head in one clean swipe. He pulls the throwing blade free of the red clay and flings the severed head out of the shadow. All this he does in the space between two breaths.
Jack Latham blinks at the snake head sizzling beneath the rays of the bright sun and gapes at Maker who deftly opens the body from tail to tip and tosses the entrails into the harsh brightness. Armored ants and scorpions scurry to suck the moistness from the head and intestines before the bright sun bakes them dry. Maker drives the point of the black knife into the red earth and the pale leather bound hilt dances a vibrating jig that gives Jack Latham pause. He wonders what animal on this World has such a white belly to make such pale leather. But he is a practical man with a practical mind and so he asks a practical question.
“Was that snake poisonous?”
Maker nods and strips the skin from the snake, smiling when it comes off in one piece.
“I guess you saved my life,” Jack Latham says. “Thanks.”
Maker nods again and the meat vanishes into a pouch that he wizards from his robes. The skin he casts into the bright sun to dry.
Jack Latham is not used to being in debt of his life to anyone and it makes him uncomfortable. He changes the subject.
“You said I should bring the ‘chute for clothes. When we gonna do something about that?”
Jack Latham sees Maker eye the shadows on the desert floor.
“Hand over your ‘chute,” he says. “We have time to make a headpiece.”
Jack Latham passes his ‘chute bundle to Maker. As the shadow creeps along the rock wall and the two men crawl to stay under that shadow, Maker flick flick flick cuts a ‘chute panel and a riser to fashion a hattah for Jack Latham. Clumsy with the new apparel at first, soon Jack Latham learns how to tie the headpiece like a Bedouin. Maker directs him to bundle his ‘chute in its risers and prepare to leave.
“We will leave this place when the red sun rises.”
“We have far to go?” asks Jack Latham.
“Not far. It will be dark soon and the red dawn will come soon after that. If you can keep up we will gain the cave before the next bright dawn.”
Jack Latham nods his comprehension as he ties the last riser around the orange bundle of cloth and starts to work at making arm loops to sling the load on his back. A new shadow falls across his work as the bright sun sinks below a ridge. A movement catches his eye and he turns to see Maker twirl the snakeskin into a roll and slip it into hyperspace somewhere in those orange robes. Darkness falls upon the World like a wake up call and the desert sings with the songs of a thousand adapted animals.
“Wow!” Jack Latham exclaims in awe and fear. “Is it always this noisy at night?”
“When there is night, yes.”
A chittering is followed by an alto feline yowl. A bassoon booms across the sands.
“What’s that?” asks Jack Latham.
“Kangaroo rats, sand cat, lung lizard,” answers Maker’s voice from the darkness. An inhuman series of yelps rises from the desert and without prompting Maker adds, “Desert dogs.”
“Any camels on this planet? Camels would make travel easier.”
“No camels. The jailers chose not to seed the World with camels. There are enough lizards, rats, and desert dogs to eat. And cacti. No large animals survive. If ever there were any.”
“Any women?” Jack Latham asks hopefully.
“I have seen one or two.”
Jack Latham feels more than sees Maker shrug. “It has been many turns of the World,” Maker says, “and I no longer count the turnings.”
“Well, hey, maybe you seen a couple buddies of mine from the old cell block, like Dan Whittier or Raj Srinivasan or Carl Fagin.”
“New bodies come, new bodies go. All are the same to me.”
“You’d remember Dan. Tall black guy, not as tall as you, but stout. Got sent here two, maybe two and a half years ago. Standard years.”
“My share of the World is small. I see but a handful of the thousands who come here each year.”
“How about Raj? Skinny but tough, like me, and about my height. Beard and long hair. Killed three inmates and a guard in a riot a year and a half back.”
Silence answers Jack Latham.
“Carl Fagin? Came here not two months ago. Short but broad. Bullet headed. Had a dragon snake tattooed on his back.”
“A green snake with blue wings?”
“Yeah, and a red head.”
“And a yellow tail.”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Yes, that one I remember.”
“Small world, ain’t it? You and me both knowing Carl. So you hooked up with him, huh? How is old Carl these days?”
“He is dead.”
“Oh?” Jack Latham says, shocked. “Sorry to hear it. How’d it happen?”
“The World took him.”
“Yeah, I see how that could happen,” says Jack Latham, touching his blisters and wondering if the bright sun caught Carl Fagin too long outside. “Guess I’m lucky to have hooked up with you. It’s like I did the first time they threw me in the can. Found out then it’s good to make a buddy inside to see you through. Learned what’s what and who’s who and who the bad asses were and wasn’t long before I was a bad ass myself.” Maker says nothing and Jack Latham shuffles in the darkness. “Didn’t mean to blow my own horn, I just meant to say it’s good to make a buddy like you who knows the ropes and how to stay alive here and all so soon after I got here, you understand, and I really do appreciate you taking me under your wing and all, and I won’t forget you when I leave this rock, no, sir, I won’t, and I’ll be leaving soon, you mark my words,” and his words trail off to whispers in the night.
Maker says nothing.
Jack Latham grows quiet and counts the stars. Only a few dozen populate the World’s night sky save for the globular star cluster that shines like a distant moon. After the day-broil from the bright sun, the night cools quickly and the stars shimmer in the bubbles of heat that boil from the earth.
The World spins quick and the black desert reddens at the edge of Jack Latham’s vision. Too soon the desert glows pink with the pale dawn light of the World’s red sun. Maker levers himself upright with his walking stick and “Come,” he calls and Jack Latham follows.
For Jack Latham, the going is easier with his ‘chute slung on his back. He cheats swallows of water from his flask. He eats half a ration bar and offers the other half to Maker who grunts his thanks and secretes the bar within the folds of his robe.
They walk and rest and walk and rest and walk and rest and walk again. Jack Latham sweats from the exertion and his feet blister from the unaccustomed exercise but Maker does not slow the pace and Jack Latham dares not fall behind.
The horizon before them lightens with the coming dawn of the bright sun and Jack Latham tenses for the race to safety when Maker calls “Hurry” but twisting his head left and right Jack Latham spies no shadow finish. He wraps the tails of the hattah about his face and neck and digs his gloves from a thigh pocket to cover his flesh when a narrow ravine swallows the tall Watusi. Jack Latham scurries down the slope, grateful for some respite, any respite from the bright sun. Maker drives his walking stick into a crevice in the wall of the ravine and “Uuugghhh!” levers the crevice into an opening wide enough for a man to squeeze through. With a nod, he commands Jack Latham through and, as the bright sun, brutal sun strikes the far lip of the ravine with Hell’s fury, Jack Latham obeys, tumbling amazed and grateful into the cool darkness and Jack Latham feels his pores open and suck at the air blessed by water. A shadow passes over him and he glimpses Maker slipping through the crevice. The walking stick is withdrawn and the cave swallows them like the whale swallowed Jonah and a new night descends upon them. Thwack thwack Jack Latham hears and the cave walls coruscate rainbow lights. Maker steps over him calling “Come” and thwack thwacks the walls with his stick as he walks and the walls answer the beatings with more light.
Following as close as he can, Jack Latham stumbles and braces himself against a cave wall. He feels the rock dance beneath his fingers and looks to see the lights crawl across his glove. In fear, he peels off the glove and casts it to the floor. As the lights dim from violet to blue to green to yellow to orange to red, the colors crawl away from his glove back to the cave wall. Ahead, Maker disappears around a turn and Jack Latham hurries to keep pace.
His hurry almost causes him to fall over Maker who squats beside a pool that mirrors a greenish light to illuminate the small chamber. Maker seines the water with his long fingers and, like a child presenting his kindergarten teacher with his subject for show-and-tell, opens his palm to show Jack Latham a small, bright green frog.
“This is the frog,” says Maker.
“For the lump?” Jack Latham points.
Maker nods. He flips the frog onto its back, flips the black obsidian knife into his hand, and slits the frog from throat to tail with a speed that no longer surprises Jack Latham. Such speed does surprise the frog that dies before her tiny brain can react and make her legs kick and her belly squirm. A second pass with the pale-hilted, black-bladed knife and Maker offers up the severed liver to Jack Latham.
“It’s best eaten quickly.”
Jack Latham takes the tiny black mass and asks, “Chew or swallow whole?”
Maker shrugs. “It works faster if you chew.”
Jack Latham shrugs back, pops the liver in his mouth, and chews. Bitterness fills his mouth before he chews enough to choke the liver down. He starts to wash his mouth with water from the pool but recalls the frog came from this pool and reaches instead for a flask of his own water.
Three swallows later he remarks to Maker, “Nasty medicine that. Oughta be good.”
Jack Latham thinks he sees Maker smile in response or perhaps it is only an illusion created by the dim, green light but Maker grabs him by the collar and pulls him along and Jack Latham follows whether he will or no. He stumbles along behind as Maker beats light from the walls and they descend deeper into the bowels of the World. He glimpses the reflections of dozens of water pools beside the walls, more water than he believed the World held. Maker slides his feet along a well-worn path at a slow, deliberate pace. Jack Latham mimics the sliding pace until he trips. He tries to regain his footing, thankful that Maker’s strong hold prevents his falling, and commands his foot to catch his fall but the foot does not obey so he commands the other foot but neither does it obey.
“Hey, buddy,” Jack Latham says as Maker drags him and his useless legs along, “I got a problem here.”
Maker laughs a laugh that chills Jack Latham to the bone, because it tells Jack Latham that Maker is not surprised. He reaches up to break Maker’s lock on his collar but only his right arm responds and the fingers of this right hand refuse to close and the panic seizes him.
“That frog . . .” he begins.
“A curare alkaloid,” Maker finishes.
They enter a new chamber and Jack Latham spies bundles of orange stacked along the walls, very like the bundle on his back. Then bones and skulls, very like his own. Then hides, very like . . . and suddenly the pale leather on the hilt of Maker’s knife does not seem so strange at all.
Maker drops Jack Latham atop a stone and drives his walking stick into a hole with a force that causes the cave walls to scream with light. The rainbow lights merge to white.
Jack Latham fights to twist his head left and right and sees the flayed remains of his predecessors drip drip dripping their water through ‘chute silk sieves into murky pools. One hide stretched across a wall bears a green dragon snake with blue wings, a red head, and a yellow tail. Jack Latham’s boots and socks arc across his vision to join a pile of others’ boots and socks as Maker flays clothing from him. Maker flops him on his belly and strips off the ‘chute bundle and tosses it to a different pile.
“Why?” Jack Latham asks, his tongue the only muscle he still commands.
Maker flops him over to strip his suit away. Jack Latham gazes unwillingly into Maker’s face, his eyes frozen, and the liquid pools reflect the dying light across the smiling black cheeks. “It is what I do,” Maker answers. “It’s funny. They sent me here because I did this,” he gestures around the chamber at the bodies that now pay their water to the World, “back on my planet. Here, I can practice my calling without interference. Takes skill, you know, to get the hide off in one piece.” He begins to whistle.
Soon, too soon, Jack Latham lies undressed on the cold stone. Maker leaves him and Jack Latham hears his footsteps echo as he carries away the suit and the skintight worn beneath it. A distant rustling and Maker returns, his body as naked as his blade.
The light dies, Maker pricks his starting point, and the cave echo echo echoes with Jack Latham’s screams.
Across the World, down, down, down another space seed, seed pod, capsule plummets, spat from the mouth of a different dark ship, as the jailers rain water upon the World one body at a time.