This is a first draft of a new novella set in the Demihuman World, expanding on one of the free-writing stories I wrote in 2019. It’s a very rough draft, but most of the changes will be trimming, punching-up, and rewording for tone, rather than structural. I intended for it to be brighter and more lighthearted, but my default always returns to melancholy.
Statements in brackets are my internal notes. AFM stands for “After the Fall of Machinism,” as a time reference in-universe.
© Keenan Cross, 2022
[present: 26 years, 10afm]
The soil is loose and thick here, and smells richly of lively earth. It slides under Dandec’s walking stick when he does not plant it with all his weight. Which he often fails to do, because he cannot help but look up at the towering trees, and be lost in them.
The trees are as remarkable as the stories promised. They are ancient conifers, two hundred standard paces tall and perhaps two dozen wide at the base. At their distant heights they rock gently in the constant breeze, but at ground level they seem the most immovable objects imaginable.
Their bark is spongy and soft, and grows in wide strips, wide as Dandec is tall, that snake their way up the trunks like old, worn roadways. Those part here and there to make way for breathing structures, which shudder fleshily in the wind and produce the only sound in the forest other than the groaning of the trunks. Dandec knows well the legend that the trees speak, that the whispering, buzzing, oscillating noises of the breathing structures are the ancient tongue of the wise giants. He does not expect to find anything other than modified lenticels, perhaps protected by thin sheets of cork that flap open to receive the wind.
Though he has come several miles already today—just this morning he was still in the delta to the south, watching the high canopy emerge in the hazy distance—Dandec continues to walk. He wants to be deep in the forest before he settles for the night. He does not want to be tempted to turn back in the morning.
Still, he is tired. He uses his walking stick for support, rather than stability. But physical exhaustion does not overpower the pleasure he feels being here, seeing the trees and walking their earth.
Their earth, because it is composed almost entirely of the same trees’ sheddings over millennia. The high trees are the sky, the air, the entire world here.
He twists his head to watch a great bird soaring between the trunks above, one that may never come down to the surface. His left eye has caught sight of the bird, and focuses on it for a few moments before turning away of its own accord. He turns expertly to continue tracking the bird, though his eye tries to look away, sees it alight on a tree and become indistinguishable from the bark. His other eye watches the ground, which is totally tranquil except where he disturbs it. Until that eye turns up to the the gently rustling shrubs in his path.
Dandec comes to a hollow, where the uneven ground dives to form a ridge on one side and an easy slope on the others. He chooses this as his camping site, sheltered by the ridge and by a cluster of
three-pace-tall knees in the direction of the coast. The reputation of this place is that it is safe: the wildlife is no danger, and the local sapients have no interest in the lives or belongings of outsiders. Both are hard to believe, but Dandec is still more lax in his precautions than he has been in most of his travels. He builds a careful fire: though the forest is directly in the path of the sun’s southwest-to-northeast passage in this season, he knows it will be cool at night. He heats a few handfuls of oats over it, with water from his canteen.
By the evening light through the canopy he writes in his journal, recording the early observations he has made, sketching impressions of the trees and their breathing apparatus. He writes little other than the bearing of his journey and the distance he has walked today, and a few notes on the strangeness of the trees. Why should they have knees like those he sheltered near? Those are organs of swamp trees whose roots were submerged in water and airless soil, as in the Sable Fens. How much air do the trees need, with their huge lenticels and canopies?
He will learn these things in time. And much more. He does not know if he has the power anymore to have his findings published, but that is of little concern, never really has been. It is the living here, and the studying, that he has come for. He will begin in the morning.
[childhood, 8-9 years, 7bfm]
The catch was just barely within Dandec’s reach, if he pressed forward with all his strength and stretched his arm as far as it would go. After what seemed an interminable time straining for it, he was able to flick it with one fingertip, reopening the valve that had fallen shut by some caprice of the enormous machine. Once his eyes turned forward and showed him that it was done, he squirmed as best he could back out of the tight space between gears and rotor assemblies, to emerge back in the open air of the propeller’s base station.
Smeared with grease and soot, Dandec scrabbled down the mountain of machinery surrounding the propeller’s shaft, passed other workstations and offices, to find the subforeman whom he answered to today. The roaring of turbines, the screeching of old machines, the clanging and scraping of tools, created an echoing din within which the demihuman child was silent. He found the subforeman standing, arms folded, on the facility floor, keeping watch on the several children he oversaw from a distance.
“It’s done,” the boy announced loudly over the hum of turbines.
“All the way?” the subforeman did not look down at him.
Dandec nodded and shifted on his feet, awaiting some crumb of thanks or congratulations. The burly full-human was kindly outside the factory but distressingly stolid within it.
“I will check that the exhaust levels are normalized,” he said. “Join the others cleaning the backup transmission.”
Dandec nodded, but did not leave right away. He fidgeted for a moment, hoping the full-human would see.
“My head hurts,” Dandec ventured.
“My head always hurts.”
There was warning in that, as much as dismissal. Dandec knew that was all the response there would be, so he ducked his head and moved on. The ache was not so bad, but he’d hoped that he would have some sympathy, because the staff acted swiftly and passionately when a child was injured. Not out of care for the child, but because they stood to be blamed for the loss of work. Had all of the child workers Dandec had seen injured been fullkind? He could not recall.
Every few days, the main transmission was removed from the great propeller and a replaced with a spare. The mechanism was built cheaply, despite all of Alu Hechak’s propellers and masts being backed by the nobility. It became dirty, its edges and gears dulled. Cleaning it was the main duty of the base station’s children, especially those who were not as scrawny as Dandec and could not fit into tight spaces for hard-to-reach repairs.
He reported with the others, where the spare transmission was laid out at the foot of the main shaft. The machine was a huge assembly of gears and pipes, mostly immobile on its own, but built with great precision. Dandec liked working with it, even if only to scrub the accumulated gunk and hardening grease in its tight corners. He would have liked to know the names of its parts, the roles they played in converting the turning of the sea-driven turbines and the core magicomechanical pulse into the rotating of the titanic propeller far above. That was not the kind of question a demihuman child worker could expect an answer to, though.
Nor were the children expected to speak with one another. They climbed over the assembly, its circumference the height of a tall adult, digging at its workings with rags and brushes. Its scent was of metal, grease, and murky brine.
Dandec’s headache reached a peak while he was helping with the transmission. He squeezed his eyes shut and rested his forehead against the metal, his eyes squirming involuntarily and making it worse. The headaches had been becoming more frequent, affecting him once every few days and leaving behind a mild nausea that sometimes did not fully subside before the next one. They were never severe, but too much more frequent and they would be constant. And if his subforeman would not offer him any help, no one would.
When the transmission was clean—fairly clean, not spotless—another child, a full-human a few years older than Dandec, went to summon one of the metallomorphs. The tired corvid mage returned, a sheaf of papers in hand, to tend to the wear on the machine’s edges. They looked over the specifications of one helical gear and ran their gravelly fingers over its teeth, teasing the blunted cast iron back to its original sharp edge. Dandec liked to watch this process, but also knew that he would either be put to another task or waved angrily away if he lingered too long. There was always more work to be done, after all; be it in the machine shop or the records facility or the propeller itself.
“You,” the mage addressed him suddenly, before he could leave.
He thought, for a joyous moment, that they might call him forth to explain their magic, or even ask for help. But they only pointed to his middle and said:
“Cover your belly, child. That will give us trouble.”
Dandec looked down in shock, to see (before his eyes looked away) a huge bruise visible where his shirt had fallen open, blooming deep blue and sickly purple against his green-brown skin. The skin there was very thin and soft; that must have happened up within the propeller, when he was pressed into the narrow gap and reaching for the catch. He obediently tied his shirt back closed and turned away, mortified.
Every other evening, the children were permitted to leave the base station for a few hours before reporting to their bunks. The others used this time to play, or to beg passersby for better food than they were given within the station. Sometimes Dandec did too, but usually he preferred to climb up to the roof. From there, there was something to look at, no matter where his eyes chose to turn. He liked to look up at his propeller, spinning at the top of the great spire that housed it, and out at the many others like it standing proud throughout the city of Alu Hechak. Those, and the far older masts between them, forever full with the trade wind that enlivened and protected the city.
The great merchant city had thrived at its bay in the northwest of the continent for thousands of years, sending ships across the ocean even before the southern waters turned to acid. It had been built on solid ground, but in some century past, the sea had torn the earth out from under it. Dandec knew there must have been a time before the spires had been hung with great sails, and more recently the propellers, but he could not imagine the city without them. He liked to watch the spires from afar, imagine the eastward wind as it was often illustrated, a squadron of benevolent spirits helping to hold the city against the shore so that it would never collapse into the sea.
Mostly, he liked to look at the buildings clustered at the spires’ feet. Blocky things he would never visit, set beside and stop one another, streets and causeways all around them. In the evening light they were smooth cream and gold, punctuated with green gardens and the red floor tiles of marketplaces. They hid most of the base stations below the propellers, which were unsightly industrial bricks of concrete and metal. But the machinery was still there. It ran through under the streets and down into the ground below the water. The spires were braced against the ground with huge and firm perpendicular supports that spread out and intertwined. When Dandec stood on the street he could feel their movement.
He was young, he was told young people did not think about such things. But how could he not? When he looked out over the city, at its sails and propellers above and its streets below, the interconnection was unmissable. And he, though a waifish child below the interest of even the poor fullkind, was akind with hundreds of others who toiled in the base stations. Someday he would grow to be an engineer, he would be the caretaker of one of the propellers, he would know it thoroughly and he would help foster the oneness of the city that was his.