The Council’s vote was in. It was a tie. She, being the Chair, has the casting vote and a devastating decision to make. A responsibility she definitely does not want but cannot now avoid. She rereads the summary for the umpteenth time, though she knows it by heart. With all the Council’s eyes, ears, noses, quanta readers and sub-quanta sensors on her, she just wants some breathing space.
Planet Orion-Arm-485-3 has followed the usual Gloop, Moved, Anchored, Extenders, Rovers, Makers, Enlightened, and Transcendent (GMAERMET) process, but is now stalled in the Makers stage. Below is a summary of its history, current situation, and available options. A decision is urgently required.
Our galactic sub-quanta spider-net picked up the normal signal of the Gloop’s chemical reactions to form the microorganisms of the Moved 3,900 million years ago. We followed procedure to set up a sentinel to watch for changes in the fractal dimensions of surface features, which would prove the planet’s surface had evolved from Anchored microorganisms to the plant life of the Extenders. This happened 470 million years ago, later than normal, but still within the expected time tolerance. We re-evaluated our time span probabilities for achieving the next stages accordingly and upgraded the sentinel to watch for the surface movements of the Rovers.
As the echoes of the Storyteller’s call faded, excited laughter filled the air. Children rushed towards Akiowa, long-legged boys whooping as they ran, girls holding hands, toddlers waddling behind. Joy streamed from every child.
No. Not every child.
A lone girl of perhaps ten summers caught Akiowa’s eye. Three times as she ran, she stumbled and fell. Children mocked her, adults expressed irritation, exasperation.
“Welcome, Storyteller!” called the headman. He led Akiowa to his home, gave her honeyed water to drink, and once the villagers had settled, the Storytelling began. And through it all, Akiowa wondered about the girl and the look of hatred on her face.
Eyes closed, head resting on a mossy root, arms wrapped about the spear, Akiowa sighed. The spear had rejected the comfort of the headman’s home with its new-woven sleeping mat, and had brought her into the woods to sleep. But sleep wouldn’t come.
All wasn’t well in the village. She’d sensed that as they’d gathered for the Storytelling – the squabbles, the sidelong looks – and the silence at the end confirmed it. Silence always followed a tale, as the spear’s magic still held everyone for a moment before the clamour of applause and calls for more. But the silence after her final story had been uneasy, brooding, lasting too long.
Now they’ve gone, I’m bored. I sit alone in a darkened room, drumming my fingers on my knees.
Although, I’m not entirely on my own. It’s there, staring at me but not seeing anything. It will see, if I want it to. But I can’t … I can’t let it see me. It will judge me, just like they all did.
The smack came so hard to the back of my head that my nose hit the desk. I didn’t make a sound, but everyone laughed. I looked down at my notebook. There was blood on it now.
“Loser,” I heard.
I ignored the voice and dipped a pen into my own blood, trailing it across the page. I heard more sniggering and then a clatter of chairs as everybody rushed to take their seats when the teacher entered the room.
The spear again pushed her forward, but Akiowa held her ground behind a large pine. “No,” she said. “I don’t want to meet them.”
For some time, torn between curiosity and dismay, she’d been covertly watching the people bustling around on the far side of the frozen river.
Curiosity, for they were surely the nomads her father had once talked of – wanderers who followed their deer herds over the bleak, snow-buried land to which the spear had brought her. Everything about them was fascinating – their furs and colourful clothes, the tents they were dismantling, the pole devices for hauling baggage they’d strapped onto their large, strange-looking deer.
Dismay, because the people were obviously unhappy. Everyone’s expression was grim, children wailed, and by a lone juniper two old women sat apart, stone-faced, as if resigned to a terrible but unavoidable fate.
Dismay had won. Akiowa felt sad enough already – troubled by the unhappiness she’d met elsewhere, distressed at being unable to help, at not understanding how to help. She couldn’t bear the weight of more misery, more failure.
“Can’t you show me happiness?” she pleaded. The spear’s reply was to send its thrill into her mouth; the Storyteller’s call burst from her.
* Winner of the 2019 Story of the Year Award *
Long, long ago, at the time of the grievous slaughter when great oaks were hewn to build King Philip’s ships, we fell.
We were ripe and ready, our silky skins darkening to chestnut brown as we nestled in our prickly cocoon. Barely had we settled on Mother Earth when strong fingers took us up and cracked open the green wrapping that held us together. Calluses scarred the palm of a human hand as hard as father’s bark, with wrinkles and deep chasms cutting across the thickened skin.
Fingers plucked me from the soft white of my casing, tossed me in the air, and caught me. I would be his lucky chestnut, the man said to his companions, keeping him safe on his long voyage, and bringing him riches beyond imagination. Then he stuffed me inside a pouch and all was darkness, smelling of tar and tobacco and sweat.
Hidden from the life-giving sun and the kiss of the warm Spanish breeze, I could see little but the quilted lining of my sailor’s pocket, so I can only tell of my own adventures.
“… and so despite all the hardships and the tricks of the envious, the Starlight Weaver and the White Moon Hunter joined hands at the first sunset of the beginning time. And ever after they have lit the night sky, for they wish us to remember their love and happiness, and to love and be happy ourselves. So ends this story.”
Elation filled Akiowa. The conclusion of each of the ten very different stories she’d told the villagers had brought a glorious sense of fulfillment, though the telling of them was the spear’s work, not her own. But the tales of the Starlight Weaver had always been her favourite, told and retold by her mother and aunts, however imperfectly without the spear. And this particular story spoke to her now as never before.
Love was the answer to her searching. To find love was to find happiness.
But hard on the heels of elation came fatigue, for never had the spear crammed her mind and mouth with so many stories, one after the other. Yet the villagers were already calling out with more tales they wanted telling. She would have to continue.
The spear clearly disagreed, for it moved in her hand, pulling itself from the ground. “So ends this Storytelling,” it said through her. “For now,” she added, since the children sitting close by huffed and moaned with disappointment.
Bree lay on the ground, head aching, as they talked over her. She hated those pious cows. Why had they brought her outside? She wanted another bottle of vodka, not rescuing.
“I’m still not sure why you’re doing it,” said Denna Kinjiun, the resident elderly busy-body, talking to someone Bree couldn’t see.
“I know,” that someone replied. Ann Teranu, cast in much in the same mould as her friend Denna. “But what else have we got but work and hoping the sun still rises?”
Their voices were like thunder in Bree’s head. “Don’t want the sun to rise,” she mumbled. If the sun didn’t rise so much, they wouldn’t be living under a dome in one of the new deserts, for God’s sake.
Ann bent down and glared at her. “We made you coffee. It might improve your mood.” She placed a mug on the ground, just out of Bree’s reach.
Screw fake instant coffee. She didn’t want anything.
“It’s a good start, I suppose,” Denna said.
Akiowa stopped well short of the village, expecting the spear to give her the Storyteller’s call, but it urged her further forward. She stopped again at the well-tended fields of beans and maize, then at the nearest dwelling. Still the spear pushed her on.
The village seemed deserted save for sleeping dogs— no one weaving or making new bows, no children playing, no old folk gossiping in the evening shadows.
Then she found the villagers—fewer than she’d expected—standing before a staff of painted wood. Their totem, she guessed. But if this was a festival, where were the drums, the dancers? Arms outstretched, the villagers didn’t speak, didn’t move. Yet whatever else was missing, joy was clearly present—it shone on their rapt faces.
A strong, warm voice sounded: “Thank you, Earthmaker.”
As the villagers let their arms drop, the spear sent its thrill into Akiowa. She gave the Storyteller’s call.
People started in surprise, but save for a few excited children, who were rapidly called back, no one moved until a tall, handsome man stepped out. Not the headman, for that was surely the old man dressed in lionskins standing behind him. The shaman? But he wore no spirit necklace, and would even a shaman dare take the headman’s place in welcoming her?
“Greetings, Storyteller,” said the man. “I am Pawau, priest to the Believers. We are close to completing our worship. Join us, then we shall eat together and end the day with your stories.”
We’re halfway through dinner when the implant malfunctions.
The dining room smells like roast chicken, garlic mash, and mushroom gravy as our father, drunk off one beer thanks to the cocktail of medications he’s on, tells us about the time he stabbed his brother with a fork over a potato.
“God, I miss Frank.” He wipes his eyes, and it doesn’t matter that we’ve heard the same sentimental tale a thousand times. “Your grandmother worked so hard, and there was never enough food in the early years after the oil crash. But we stuck together.”
That’s when my sister, Marie, takes a swallow from her third glass of wine and the colour drains from her face. “Mom?”
We all look. Mom’s expression is frozen, her breathing quick, her pupils dilated.
“Look at her hands,” Marie says. “How can this be happening? It’s been years!”
“Mom,” I say tentatively, “are you okay?” But we all recognize the typing motions of her left hand, the way her right curls around a non-existent control stick. We’ve all heard the story.
Akiowa gave a sigh, part relief, part longing.
The spear had kept her in the mountains since leaving the miners, and she’d yearned to see – and walk on – something more pleasurable than deep snow and bare rock. Now at last she was overlooking a lush valley full of chokecherry, black plum and mulberry trees, much like the lands of her own tribe.
There, also, a village like her own: a scattering of earth lodges and rows of squash and beans. Some women worked – tending cooking pots, grinding grain – but most villagers sat in groups, talking. Laughter reached her.
Wistfulness enveloped Akiowa. How contented they looked. How happy. But then, the miners had seemed happy.
“Have they found happiness?” she whispered.
The spear gave no answer, but guided her down towards the village. Her heart lifted as she walked through woods glowing with autumn tints, though dismay grew at the lack of fruit on the trees – even the bitter chokecherries were stripped bare. Fruits were valuable food, but were far more valuable to the birds and beasts who shared the land. Only at a time of great need would her mother have allowed all to be picked.