My sons are taken with the world described in "The Collapse of the Levels," and Bram, my oldest, keeps pitching ideas at me. One day he asked if there were freeways in the Levels, and I thought about it. "Maybe during the Republic of Potsdam," I offered.
Do the freeways just run in Middle Earth, or do they go across Heaven and Hell? I allowed as how they might cross the Levels ... and he grinned. "Hell, Next Five Exits," he said. "There's a guy who's getting chased, and he drives to Hell."
Now, this is the essence of plotting: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened ... I've met adults who had problems plotting, but I've never met kids who did.
I had a piece laying around for quite a while, about a guy being chased along the edge of the Grand Canyon, by vampires ... it worked well enough.
During the same walk on the beach where Bram threw "Hell, Next Five Exits" at me, he got off some cynical observations about life, the universe, and everything -- and I quoted at him more or less the text that opens this piece.
This is set about 70,000 years before the events in "The Collapse of the Levels."
Hell, Next Five Exits
All creation is ultimately an act of romanticism. This is true even for the cynics, perhaps especially so. To assert a world barren and brutal, a world of nothing but betrayal and bad faith, is to impose on what is.
Some people can be trusted.
The Freeway Naranda runs across the edge of the Canyon Loss. Where the Loss crosses Middle Earth it is, as most school children can tell you, two hundred miles long, forty miles across at its widest, and nearly four miles deep. The River Definite that cut the Canyon (so teach the stonebenders in those schools) runs down out of the mountains, twining together out of a myriad of small streams into the great River, and thunders down through the Loss on its way to the Desert Infinite. In olden days – before the Sixth Republic, in any event – that water passed through a dozen small towns on its way to becoming nothing, out among the Infinite’s fractal mirages.
But no longer, and not in my lifetime nor that of your grandparents. My Sulhola ancestors killed those small towns, stole the Definite’s water and watched the towns dry up and die: and for three hundred years now the Definite has come to its end at City Arch, where fourteen million souls drink and wash and farm that river into oblivion.
The world is one hundred and eighty thousand years old, so the earth witches and stonebenders say – some few historians agree with them. And they may be right, I don’t know. More historians agree that is has been one hundred and fifty-five thousand years since the Fracture, but there is disagreement there, too.
That the Republic of Potsdam is twenty-four thousand years old is a certainty: my family traces its lineage to the Republic’s founding and like most of good ancestry I can recite mine, root and branch, to the Morning Republic.
In twenty-four thousand years, or one hundred and fifty-five, or one hundred and eighty, what was happening to me had most likely never happened before to anyone else.
The Naranda runs mostly through Middle Earth. But it starts in Heaven, and it ends in Hell.
A crush of vampires had chased me almost two thousand miles down that freeway, from the edge of Heaven to the edge of Hell. I was a hundred miles past Arch when I saw the sign that says, to any soul less desperate than I, turn back:
Hell Next Five Exits.
The crush burst in on us at our lodge in Tajan. The lodge was newish, having been in my family perhaps ten generations, and was nestled half a mile high in the Near Northern Mountains, with a one-lane partially paved road, unmarked and with certain discouragements for the casual traveler, winding its way up from the Naranda. Tajan is a small town on the lower slopes of Saternly Mount; it has some four hundred rope people, perhaps two hundred lorun like myself. The tree people pass through occasionally, and there are some number of dragons at Satlake – they come and go as dragons will, and I could not tell you within a dozen how many there were at a given time, despite my family’s hereditary rights of passage over Tajan. We had never pushed for an accurate count – would you?
There’d been trouble with vampires further north, up near the River Ruby, so we should have given some thought to them – but we didn’t, not I nor our retainers nor Captain Balsam Remane. No crush had been as far south as Tajan in living memory …
Everyone is dead now -- Gurn, Remane, Ahjan, Terrero, even little Uadalure – everyone, as I say, except me, so placing blame elsewhere is both pointless and ungentlemanly. The blame is mine, because I’m alive to bear it.
They came on the night of my youngest sister Ahjan’s anacator. In olden days she’d have actually been married at fourteen, but civilization has advanced somewhat since those darker times; now, among our class, a cator is an assumption of some adult responsibilities and privileges, and an excuse for a party. Father and Mother were due to arrive the morning of her birthday, leaving Ahjan and her friends to have their more traditional unstructured fun the day before. And they did – Ahjan had two dozen of her friends with us, and a few of the boys got a little more drunk than was seemly, and a few of the girls got kissed rather thoroughly – but in all no harm. One boy whose name I did not know conceived a passion for Ahjan’s best friend Olinia, and we had to throw him in the lake to restore his senses; but once he’d dried off and perhaps sobered some he apologized, and in round Ahjan’s anacator was a success.
Gurny and I watched the sun set from the front porch that evening. Ahjan and her friends were inside the lodge putting on a play – decent work, some of her crowd were the children of professional entertainers and knew the business of it. They’d invited the lorun townpeople for audience, and about forty had come; and a dozen of the rope people as well. Gurny was worn and I was restless – I’m only three and a half years older than Ahjan, but Gurny was my grandfather’s man and he’d been principle chaperone to Ahjan and her friends in addition to managing logistics and transportation for some forty people – by the time the younger crowd had gone inside for their show, Gurny was moving slowly and was plainly grateful to settle into the biggest of the wooden chairs on the long redwood porch.
I pulled a chair more suited to my size over and sat beside him, a bit upwind. Gurny made a small gesture with two fingers, and I shrugged – he smokes flatweed, and my parents disapprove. I don’t care as long as I don’t have to breathe it. The cigar shook slightly as he lit it – exhaustion, more than age, though the exhaustion was the result of age….
Getting old is unpleasant, Gurny said sometimes, but all the alternatives are worse.
We sat in a comfortable silence while the blue sky took up streaks of pink and orange. Gurny was easy to be with; he’d taught me to read and ride, to hunt and shoot, to fight with and without weapons; had taught me more about being a soldier and a man than my own father. I didn’t resent it, much; Father was a busy and important man and I liked Gurny. Gurny had even taught me the little bit of military magic he knew – not much: witch sight to see in the dark; how to find true West; how to minimize hunger and fatigue; how to find water.
There was enough of a breeze to be comfortable, to stir the Lake off to my left into choppy small blue waves whose peaks caught the sunlight with orange and then red accents, as the sun sat across the long stretch of the Desert Infinite.
Gurny smoked half his cigar before saying, “Your parents are coming in the morning, first thing.”
Even a couple of years ago he’d have known he didn’t need to belabor the obvious to me. “I’ll see things cleaned and boys and girls bedded down in their own wings, before heading to bed myself.”
“Good boy,” said Gurny absently, which might have cost another man his teeth.
I smiled. “And I’ll see Remane posts a guard or two on the corridors.” Later that comment haunted me – the knowledge my only thought for safety had been to put our troops in between the youngsters, rather than around them.
Gurny nodded and puffed away at his cigar. I heard small footsteps behind us, and found my youngest sister Uadalure in her night clothes, fresh from her bath and her hair still wet, her nanny Terrero trailing behind her. Uadalure was four years old, dark-haired and dark-eyed and Middle Earth’s happiest child.
It was already near her bedtime and she’d had a busy day. She climbed up in my lap and whispered, “Tell me a story, Tari.” She curled up against my chest, rested her wet hair against my shoulder, and closed her eyes. “A story about Fluffy,” Fluffy being her ted who’d been left behind in Arch. I’d never thought there was anything much fluffy about her ted -- or anyone else’s – but she doted on him and it was the name she’d chosen.
Gurny closed his eyes and smiled a bit as I started in on the tale. It was the same story every time, Uadalure had objected strenuously the few times I’d tried to introduce changes. “When Fluffy was a baby,” it began, “he wanted a little girl of his own. And he was luckier than any other ted, because the little girl he got was the smartest and nicest and prettiest girl in all of Arch or Tajan--”
Arch was about twenty thousand times the size of Tajan, but they were the two places Uadalure knew.
“Nicest,” she mumbled, half asleep already. “Me.”
“You,” I agreed, and kissed her on her damp forehead. She snuggled a little closer, and her breathing gentled. “When Festival came, Fluffy made sure he was there, because he knew Uadalure’s mother would take her there to play. And because he was so handsome, so pretty, so fluffy, all the little girls who saw Fluffy wanted him to be theirs. But Fluffy said no!”
“No,” came the whisper of agreement.
“Fluffy knew that Uadalure would come and love him and have him forever, if only he was patient. And teds aren’t very good at being patient”—for my measure they were the dumbest creatures that breathed–“but Fluffy knew how important it was that he be patient for Uadalure, because Uadalure’s mommy didn’t like to go the Festival too early in the day. So one little girl after another came and saw Fluffy and wanted him to be hers, one after another after another, but every time Fluffy said …” I waited a beat. No sound came from her but her rhythmic breathing.
“No,” said Gurny very softly. “He said no every time, because Uadalure loved him more than anyone else, and he loved her just as much.”
I stood and handed Uadalure back to Terrero. “Put her in our parent’s room. She should wake up about the time they arrive.”
“Very good, sir. Good night, sir.”
“Good night, Terrero.” I turned to Gurny and held out my right hand.
The faint smile died. “I need help getting out of my chair now?”
“No, Gurny, I know you can get out of the chair on your own. I also know you won’t and I’ll have to wake you after you’ve stiffened and you’ll be unpleasant about it.” I paused and amended, “More unpleasant than you’re going to be anyway.”
Gurny observed that I was impertinent and that my parents had been unmarried when I was conceived. I nodded. “So my father has indicated on occasion. But I’ve seen the paperwork, and it appears to indicate a decent interval between wedding and birth.”
“You can pay special for those sorts of papers,” growled Gurny, taking my hand. I hauled him out of the chair. It was much easier than it would have been even a year ago – I was stronger, and he was lighter.
“You can pay for anything in Arch,” I agreed, and something in my tone struck him – he peered closely at me for a moment, not letting go of my hand.
“What have you been paying for, young sir?”
“Nothing unseemly,” I said, without changing expression. “Those sorts of things cost more than Father is willing to release from my accounts.”
He barked laughter and released me. “You’re old enough to work.”
“I’m old enough to fight, too,” and Gurny merely nodded at that, and clapped me on the shoulder.
It was nearly dark out, so we lit the porch lanterns and went back inside as the thin line of scarlet on the horizon faded to black.
I'll probably finish this soon. It's a discrete little story arc and my son's waiting on it. It does feel like the opening of a kid's book, though.
Yes, there is more Long Run coming. Probably a couple days.