The Chaos Village — Part 1
By M.K. Hutchins
The ground under Rob’s feet shifted from sand to jagged shale and back again. The mountains folded into valleys, then spiked into cliffs. The green clouds turned into triangles and tried to stab him in the back, but crumpled and fell off.
Rob turned another page in his notebook, skimming his research notes. Thanks to the natural Order present in all humans, his own body and the things he held didn’t randomly transform in the Chaos. But despite pages and pages of lovely charts and neatly-labeled columns, he couldn’t say much more about Chaos than that.
Plenty of people died in the Chaos, but he’d already logged two years—approximately four hundred and thirteen hours—of wandering through it with only paper cuts to show for it.Did Chaos cause harm based on your thoughts? Your fears? Only your thoughts and fears specific to being, presently, in the Chaos?
Given the subjective nature of thoughts and fears, he’d need a large data set to draw any accurate conclusions. Perhaps larger than he could collect in his lifetime. But it was up to him to unravel these mysteries—he’d never met anyone else interested in collecting data on the Chaos.
The ground changed again, this time to hard-packed dirt sprinkled with tough grasses. Rob’s pace quickened over the easy terrain, until a quavering voice shouted out, “M-Mother! Some young man just walked into the village!”
Rob stopped and looked up from his notebook. The Chaos didn’t imitate humans. In fact, on page forty-four in his notebook he had a list of seventy-two things he’d never seen in the Chaos, which included oceans, rivers, geography stable for more than two hours, and angry octagons. Though, of course, the absence of evidence in his data didn’t prove anything; it was possible he simply hadn’t experienced the counter-example yet.
He pursed his lips. In addition to the shocked young woman still gaping at him and a middle-aged woman yelling for help, thirty-two mud-dome houses stood before him. A small, central spring ran into what he guessed was a cistern opening. Rob turned to a blank page and took notes. The midday sun glared off his silvery, graphite words.
The daughter—eighteen or nineteen, around his age—and her mother both had short, black hair and wore dresses woven from coarse fibers. Probably from some local, wild plant. Tiny streaks of glistening black ran through the otherwise tawny fabric. Was that human hair? What a clever use of a local resource. In any case, the fabric lacked the neatness one would expect from domesticated, deity-Ordered fibers. This couldn’t be the Confederate Ithena, then—they had a Goddess of Sheep, which allowed for carding, spinning, and weaving wool.
Oddly, he saw no evidence of any deity. No neatly cultivated fields. No metals. No advanced wood-working. Just wild plants and mud buildings. Perhaps their deity held sovereignty over something more subtle. Rob, after all, came from a village where the only deity was Ogynan, God of Freezing. It made for excellent cellars and painful winters. This place looked even poorer than home, though. The young woman, her mother, and the four scowling men heading toward him all went barefoot. Perhaps they had no trade established with the nearby civilizations?
Rough hands clenched Rob’s upper arms. He suddenly found himself on tiptoe.
“Are you with Enzu?” one of the men demanded, his voice low and his breath hot and smelling rather like molding rye bread.
Rob looked down at his page and frowned. “You’ve mussed my pencilmanship.” People often told him the word was penmanship, but he didn’t use a pen. “It’s important to make your notes legible. If you don’t, you can’t read them later. If you could remember everything in the first place, there’s no reason to take notes. Bad handwriting is a paradox.”
A long pause followed. Long enough, Rob was certain, for him to fix the smudge on his page. But he couldn’t reach with both his arms pinned.
The same man spoke again, his tone a good deal more confused and less accusatory. “Are you with Enzu?”
“I don’t know,” Rob replied. He didn’t know what Enzu was. “Could you put me down? I’m about to drop my notebook, and it’s something of an heirloom.”
It was a lovely book—all blue leather on the outside and yellow-tinged pages inside. Even better, it had been given to him blank.
“Who escorted him here, Sarsa?” one of the other men demanded.
The mother answered. “No one. He came through the Chaos alone.”
“He doesn’t look like a villager, not in those clothes, and any weak-livered civilization-lubber would be screaming and half-mad after coming through the Chaos,” the first man said. Like everyone else, he had short-cropped black hair. Unlike everyone else, a scar stretched across the side of his head where, presumably, there’d once been an ear. “You sure you’re not…upset still, Sarsa? Maybe you weren’t seeing straight?”
Sarsa glared, calloused fingers turning into fists. “I am not upset!”
“I don’t think that’s the kind of statement you can credibly yell,” Rob said. “Also, my notebook is about to fall.”
No one seemed to care what he’d said; all six of them began bickering. Rob pinched the cover, but his thumb and forefinger provided insufficient compressive strength. The notebook slipped.
And, oddly, instead of falling to the dusty ground, it flew upward and attached itself to the middle of his chest.
Convenient. And, better yet, interesting. Gravity pointed down in deity-Ordered civilizations. Either his notebook was a proof by contradiction—gravity didn’t always point down—or this village somehow existed in the Chaos.
“Excuse me,” Rob said, interrupting some argument between Sarsa and her daughter. “What deity reigns here?”
Sarsa wrinkled her nose. “We don’t have any gods, and we don’t want them.”
“You’re a village. In the Chaos?” He’d heard rumors of such things in his travels, but thought them mere folk tales. Why didn’t the land shift regularly and destroy their houses?
Sarsa peered suspiciously at him. “What do you want?”
Rob brightened. If anyone could help him unravel the way Chaos worked, it would be these people. He reached for his pencil, forgetting that both his arms were still restrained. But that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. “Would you like to be a test subject?”
Apparently no one cared to volunteer, because Sarsa snatched away his notebook and pencil, then the men tossed him down a ladder and into one of those dome-roofed homes. Half dug into the earth, the inside was cool. The temperature change made him acutely aware that his long trek through the Chaos had earned him a sunburned neck and a sweaty tunic. Thankfully, he did have an interesting new place to research. But without his notebook, how could he take notes?
The hearth held nothing but ashes, and the one-eared man cleared out the belongings: some dry-grass bedrolls, a clay griddle, and a basket full of uncatalogued items from the half-meter deep storage pit in the center of the room. Sarsa and her daughter stood guard outside the door of lashed sticks, where they were easy to hear, but not see. A narrow, smoke-stained window opposite the door allowed for light, but it wasn’t in the right spot to ventilate the fire. How odd. The ceiling above the fire was clean.
“Might I have my pencil and notebook back?” Rob asked politely.
“No.” Sarsa’s silhouette behind the stick-door shifted to a sitting position.
“That’s circular,” Rob muttered. He pried a clay-crusted pebble from the wall and dropped it.
But it didn’t fly to him. It fell sideways and down, into the now-empty storage pit in the center of the floor. Curious. Why had the notebook fallen toward him? He plucked another pebble off and dropped it, to verify the result. Straight into the pit.
For lack of anything else to drop, Rob took off one boot. Like his notebook, it treated his chest as down.
“What are you doing?” Sarsa’s daughter asked.
“Testing gravity. Why does it work differently here?” The how could be tested; the why was more elusive. “I assume it has something to do with this being a Chaos village?”
Assumptions were dangerous, but he generally found one of the best ways to get information was giving people an opportunity to correct him.
Sarsa, sadly, was not usual. “Stop talking to him, Martu. He’s interrogating you. He’s the spy.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re all about not talking,” grumped Martu. “If he’s the spy, he’s not a very good one.”
“An excellent point.” Rob plucked the boot from his chest, held it at arm’s length, and dropped it again. It showed no inclination for the storage pit and fell to his chest. “I’ve traveled in the Chaos around the Confederate Ithena for two years now, but I’ve never seen a village like this one before. Why is that?”
“Confederates don’t like Chaos villages,” Martu said. “If you don’t take a deity and join up, the Confeds slaughter you. We moved our village toward the Akkad-Kumat Union two generations ago.”
“Martu! He’s the spy.”
“Just because you’re all stoic doesn’t mean I’m going to be silent for the rest of my life. And you’re overacting. What kind of civilization-lubber could walk through Chaos like that? He’s probably from another village.”
“Except for the part where he’s never heard of a Chaos village before.”
“All the more reason to think he’s not the spy!” Martu replied. Rob could practically hear the eye-roll in her voice. “Anyone from Enzu would know exactly who we were.”
“He could be playing dumb.”
Martu sighed. “I think he is dumb.”
Rob cleared his throat. “I’d like to voice my agreement with Martu. I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Stop telling him things! Respect your mother!” Sarsa shouted, her voice as grating as ice against ice.
“Calm down,” Martu leaned back against the stick-door, making it creak. “I haven’t said anything.”
Martu was wrong on that point. Rob now knew that this village was worried about spies from a deity-Ordered civilization either named Enzu, or with a city in it named Enzu. Probably the latter, and probably in the Akkad-Kumat Union specifically.
“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen in your travels?” Martu asked, conversational.
Rob frowned. How did she want him to quantify interesting? “Umm. I did once talk to a Goddess at her temple, through a pool, after her High Priestess summoned her by bleeding into the water. The Goddess claimed this was the normal mode of communication between a deity and the High Priest of a city.”
“What was she like?”
Strange. People rarely asked him to read from his notebook. He reached into his tunic for it, but of course, Sarsa still had it. “Martu, might you give me my things?”
“No,” Sarsa intervened.
“Ignore her,” Martu shifted her sitting position. “Tell me about the goddess.”
Rob sighed, envisioning his neat pencilmanship filling out an equally neat chart on page fifty-seven of his notebook. He’d recorded her height (in centimeters), her age (in centuries), and the duration of her visit (in minutes). But he wasn’t sure of the exact numbers now. It was probably one-hundred sixty-seven, thirteen, and twenty-eight, but it might have been one-hundred seventy-six, fourteen, and twenty-eight and a half. “I’m afraid all I can describe is a paradox.”
Martu paused. “You’re strange.”
“Finally,” Sarsa mumbled, “something we agree on.”
Two long days passed. Longer still because Sarsa and Martu didn’t stand guard duty again. No one else brought an insolent offspring, either, so Rob had no one to glean information from. It did give him a chance to confirm, two-hundred and seventy-three times, that anything native to his prison fell to the center of the hut. Anything he’d brought treated him as the center of gravity—except the little flecks of skin from the sunburn peeling on the back of his neck. Oddly, those drifted to the ground like normal.
At last, up top, someone flipped the door open. A pair of men grabbed Rob and yanked him up the ladder into the sweltering heat outside.
“Do you have my notebook?” Rob asked, tired of repeating his inquiry. The toes of his boots dragged in the dust as the men carried him, leaving twin trails behind. At least he had a better view of the village. From the number of homes, he estimated roughly a hundred people lived here. Though he wasn’t sure what to make of the roofless hut. A large branch with a sandbag tied to the end jutted out over its wall. The sandbag rotated smoothly around the house, apparently of its own accord, pulling the stick with it. “I’d like to write this down.”
“Shh!” one of the men hissed.
Rob sighed. “You do realize that this is a fascinating place and I have no way to record it?”
Both men tightened their grip on him. Soon his hands tingled numbly. Interesting. His pulse wasn’t altered by the strange gravity.
When they dropped him, Rob crumpled to the ground. That was normal. But when he stood and dusted himself off, the dust all flew back to cling to the middle of his tunic. How did anyone here bathe? They had to have some way to clean themselves, or the dirt build-up would eventually bury them.
“You have been accused of espionage.”
Rob looked up. Before him, an old woman with white hair and shriveled hands sat on a stump under the shade of a lean-to. Fifteen others flanked her, including Sarsa and Martu.
“Well?” the old woman asked.
Rob blinked at her. “Yes.”
“Yes, you’re the spy?”
“Yes, I’ve been accused,” Rob said, exasperated. “Do you have my notebook?”
The woman frowned, her wrinkles as lined and myriad as frost spreading over ice. “You’re not concerned about the charge?”
“I’m concerned about my notebook. And pencil,” he added, to be thorough, though the pencil would be easier to replace. He’d had to do so nine times already. The heirloom notebook had two years of his notes in it.
Even Martu remained silent while the old woman peered at Rob. The village’s spring gurgled quietly somewhere behind the lean-to.
“And I’d be interested to know how a village can exist in Chaos. And how your gravity works. And I’d like volunteers for some experiments regarding how the Chaos—”
“Oh, shush,” the old woman snapped. “I’m asking the questions, not you. You’re the one on trial.”
Rob glanced around. Serious-looking people in front of him. Guards behind. Yes, this could be a trial. He’d had a few of those, wandering around the Confederate Ithena’s border. They made him unsure why people feared the Chaos; judiciary officials seemed less predictable and, unlike the Chaos, they didn’t take kindly to being ignored, tested, or compiled into data.
“We’ve observed you for two days. Despite some opinions to the contrary,” she glanced at Sarsa, “I, Ishtat, oldest resident of this village, declare you not guilty of espionage.”
“Matriarch Ishtat,” Sarsa protested, but the old woman held up a hand.
“Really, Sarsa. He’s burnt red and his hair’s the color of a goats’ leavings. He’s not from Enzu. Not unless they imported him from the Confeds, but I don’t know why they’d do that.”
“To trick us!”
Rob blinked. He’d never been so happy to be compared to fecal matter before.
Ishtat shook her head. “He says he’s a traveler, and after we’ve watched him do nothing but drop pebbles for two days, I believe it.”
Rob beamed. “Thank you!”
Sarsa whipped around and stomped off, the little dust clouds from her bare feet collecting on her coarse-woven dress.
“The rest of you should be about your business,” Ishtat ordered. “Especially the Grounders. Given that we locked him up unjustly, I’m going to answer a few of this young man’s questions now.”
The others drifted away with considerably less stomping. Rob scurried forward, into the shade of the lean-to.
Ishtat held up a hand. “Three questions. I’m old, I like afternoon naps, and I think you could keep me out in the heat all day.”
Probably all week, Rob thought. He considered his question carefully, then asked, “What’s a Grounder?”
He hoped she’d have to explain quite a few things more to actually answer that one.
Ishtat rubbed the side of her sagging face. “Ah. So. You know that all humans have a bit of Order in them—the same stuff deities have lots of?”
“Yes.” That bit of Order kept himself and whatever he was touching from transforming in the Chaos.
“When you get a bunch of people together, their Order can stabilize a swath of land. So our village isn’t exactly the Chaos anymore. But humans don’t always think like gods.”
Excitement over the implications of her statement bubbled through him, bursting out as a second question: “Are you saying that humans, not gods, determined the physics of this place?”
His fingers twitched, eager to flip to page forty-five and add this new tidbit to his list of possibilities in the Chaos, before he realized he wasn’t holding a pencil or a notebook. Icestorms, that was inconvenient.
“Well, yes. But Order’s not very malleable. It does what you really believe in. Deep down, without anyone telling you.”
She kicked him in the shins.
“Ow!” Rob jumped back. “I’m nearly certain I didn’t provoke that.”
“You were rude earlier. But mostly I needed to illustrate my point. When did you know that would hurt?”
When he felt the pain. No—that wasn’t true. “When I saw your foot moving, and knew I wasn’t fast enough to step out of the way.”
“And you knew what kind of pain it would be. Dull. Not slicing or stabbing or burning. That’s belief. Real belief. I’m fairly sure that before Gods showed up to mess with us, all humans lived in villages like this. On our own. With our own way of Ordering things.”
Interesting. “And here, people fall to the ground, but things don’t.”
“Right. People can’t belong to a person or a house. We belong to the earth.”
Rob wanted to ask about that, too, but he needed to be careful with his questions and stay focused. “Going back to Grounders…”
She nodded, the loose skin between her jaw and neck bobbing. “We have to use resources from the Chaos. Our strongest men hunt near the border of our village. And our women who can easily focus on many things at once—like weaving while cooking and telling stories to children—venture out to find gold and plants. A mind that can split itself is safer in the Chaos.”
Hmm. Rob hadn’t considered that variable before. He could picture the bit of paper where that theory should go in his notebook—near the edge of the page forty-five where creamy white ripened into buttery yellow.
“But, man or woman, our Chaoswalkers’ belief is shaken when they return. They know the rules of physics could be different than they are here. They have to center themselves. To make sure the village never dissolves into Chaos, we have Grounders—men and women who never leave the village, but keep it stable with their strong belief.”
Curious. But now he had only one question left. Rob bit his lip, pondering. “How does gravity work? Elaborating on that singular question—what happens if two individuals, or two homes, believe they have equal ownership? How are animals affected by gravity? How do you manage to bathe? Wouldn’t the water treat you as down? Wouldn’t you drown?” Rob paused. They might have some other method of personal hygiene. “I’m getting ahead of myself. Do you bathe?”
“Didn’t I just lecture you on rudeness? I might not be a fancy civilization-lubber, but that doesn’t mean I smell funny.” Matriarch Ishtat glared, canyons of wrinkles streaking towards her eyes. “I’m done answering questions. You’re free to walk the village, so long as you don’t cause more trouble. I advise not speaking to anyone.”
Rob’s stomach twisted and soured in an all-too familiar way. It seemed like fascinating conversations always ended with the other person inexplicably angry at him. “Why shouldn’t I talk to anyone?”
“Because we’re all testy enough as it is right now without your insults.”
His shoulders sagged. “I wasn’t trying to insult anyone.”
Matriarch Ishtat ignored him and started to stand. Rob stepped closer and gave her a hand up. “You promised three questions.”
“I’m not answering that last one,” she muttered, her words perfectly clear despite a number of missing teeth.
“Then here’s a different one—where’s my notebook and pencil?”
Matriarch Ishtat tsked. “Sarsa still has them. Refused to give them up. She really believes you’re the spy.”
Rob asked a number of different people where Sarsa’s home was, but they shooed him away. Some villagers seemed to be packing up everything they owned, while others dug trenches and lined them with fire-hardened, sharpened sticks. How did those stay put, instead of falling towards the person who released them? Rob asked, but no one would stop their work to explain. He passed several homes with clouds of deadly obsidian shards circling them.
Rob avoided both the airborne obsidian and the trenches. Eventually, a child tugged on his tunic and pointed him toward Sarsa’s. Thankfully, her home only had baskets outside.
Inside, he could hear Sarsa yelling at her daughter. “You’re coming with me to Lithopolis.”
“Are you going to drag me? Because I don’t want to be a refugee in a civilization-locked city. And refugee puts it a little kindly. The contract they offered is practically slavery.”
Rob had seen slaves mining at Lithopolis. It had not been pleasant.
“Indentured servitude, you ungrateful daughter. You should be happy there’s a city in the Confederate Ithena willing to have us. When the Enzus invade—”
“This is my home,” Martu said firmly. “I’ll defend it if you won’t.”
Rob capitalized on the opportunity to carefully comb through the baskets by the door. If he could find his notebook, he needn’t talk to Sarsa about it, and she couldn’t get mad at him for asking.
Sarsa’s voice reached a new pitch. “You’re doing this to spite me!”
“Yes! You finally caught on. Guess who I learned stubborn from?”
Rob frowned, still searching. A clay pot. Some rope. Dried berries. He hadn’t been out under the sun long, but his burnt neck prickled with pain and he itched under his hot tunic. Where was it?
Feet on the ladder. The door thwacked open, swinging against the mud dome of the house, toward the storage pit.
Sarsa glared at him, wisps of her short, black hair streaking across her face like angry tears. “Are you going through my things?”
“I’m looking for my things. Where’s my notebook? Also, if you don’t mind, how do you get things to stay put on the ground?”
“I’m not helping the Enzu spy,” Sarsa snapped.
“I will!” Martu called brightly, following her mother up the ladder.
Sarsa tried to shove her back inside. “You’ll do nothing of the sort.”
“Why? Are you going to sew my mouth shut? Just because you’re all tight-lipped doesn’t mean I’m going to be.” Martu squeezed past her mother and looped her arm with Rob’s. “Come on. Let’s go talk somewhere else where that old owl won’t screech at us.”
Sarsa’s retort had considerably more glare and teeth than an owl could manage, but Rob didn’t comment on that as he ran away with Martu.
Thankfully, Sarsa gave up chasing them after ending up on the wrong side of one of those spiked trenches, though she did fill the air with a string of profanities and something about disobedient daughters. There weren’t a lot of trees, so Rob and Martu sat under the shade of the lean-to.
Martu hugged her knees to her chest. “See, it all started last year. I mean, we’ve always been able to toss things into orbit around ourselves, or our homes if we like. But we just figured out how to apply that to a mill.” She nodded at the strange, roofless hut with the rotating sandbag.
“There’s a millstone inside there?” Powering a mill by natural orbit. Brilliant.
Martu nodded. “If you coat something in gold, it keeps its current properties, even if you take it into a city. A few weeks ago, we made our first contract to sell a set of what we call millwinders. There’s a stone from the center of a house—a centerstone—and a regular stone from the wall—an orbitstone that will treat the centerstone as down. Place the centerstone in the middle of your mill, attach the orbitstone and get it orbiting, and you no longer need goats in harnesses to grind barley. Millwinders are cleaner and cheaper in the long run. This sale was supposed to bring others, and then our village would be rich.”
She tucked her calloused, bare feet under her.
Rob’s fingers twitched, a ghost reflex, forgetting that his pencil was, in fact, absent. “Please continue.”
“We made the mistake of signing a trade contract with High Priest Naramgil of Enzu, the city ruled by Naqidu, Goddess of Goats. Enzu’s our closest neighbor. They heard about our millwinders first. But now he’s locked himself in his house and surrounded it with the guards, so we can’t deliver.”
“Why?” Rob asked.
“The Akkad-Kumat Union doesn’t allow their cities to attack Chaos villages unless that village has broken a contract with a Union official. High Priest Naramgil wants us to fail. Then he can destroy us and everyone will still use goats to power their mills.”
It wasn’t really a Chaos village; it was a human-Ordered village, but Martu talked faster than Rob could interrupt.
“We didn’t realize Enzu thought of us as competition; we thought they were excited to free up more goats for pulling carts or milking or sheering…but apparently not.”
Rob frowned. “But how can they attack? I’m under the impression they can’t navigate the Chaos.”
“They’ve hired another village to escort their army.”
“Oh.” How unfortunate that Enzu had such competent plans. “May I see the contract?” The exact wording of these things was important.
Martu shook her head. “Gone. Lost with my father in the Chaos.”
Rob pursed his lips. That was regrettable. “Can you draw a goat, then?”
He didn’t know if he should be picturing something like a dog, or a snake, or a wooden contraption.
Martu sighed and traced a four-legged figure in the dirt. “I guess you’re really not from the Union. You’ve never seen one?”
“No.” But he wanted to. As soon as he had his notebook to record the experience.
The wind picked up, but thankfully it gusted against the back of the lean-to, so he didn’t end up with more dirt on the center of his tunic.
“My parents went to talk to High Priest Naramgil about letting us fulfill the contract. But he wouldn’t leave his well-guarded home to see them—sent a messenger to say his spy in the village would warn him if we tried anything. That’s why Mother’s so paranoid about you, but I think Naramgil invented a spy to scare us.”
“What happened after that?” Rob asked.
Martu stared down at the dusty ground. “So, Mother’s a Chaoswalker and Father was a Grounder. Matriarch Ishtat sent him to Naramgil’s anyway because he’s our best negotiator. But Mother couldn’t keep him safe from the Chaos. She lost him on the way home.”
Martu began leaking tears. Rob stiffened uncomfortably. Why weren’t there any clear rules about what to do in a situation like this?
“And now she won’t talk about him. Doesn’t want to mention his death. Doesn’t want to hear his name. And she’s going to flee with the rest of the cowards. She’s happy Lithopolis will take her as a slave.”
Martu sniffled loudly. Since she didn’t have any sleeves, was he supposed to offer his? But, given that no one here had sleeves, that couldn’t be the customary way to deal with another’s running nose. Rob held very still, like a mouse playing dead, hoping the situation would solve itself. He wished his brother—who was very good at this kind of thing—could be here to comfort poor Martu.
“I know she’s upset about how Father died, but does that mean she has to stop talking to me? Sometimes I feel like she died, too.”
“Oh.” He knew he wasn’t good at commiserating, but he tried anyway. “Do you know the details of how he died? How far were they from the village? What injuries did he sustain? Was it instantaneous, or slow? And what kind of thought process—hypothetically—did he go through in the Chaos? Was he afraid? Present-minded?”
Martu gaped at him. Rob ran his tongue over his teeth, but didn’t find any stray bits of food. “Is there something on my face?”
“How…how can you talk about him like that? I thought you cared. Are you trying to research his death?”
“Yes,” Rob said, honestly.
Martu stood. “You might not be a spy, but you are a monster!”
She stormed off, puffs of dust clinging to her.
Rob hugged his knees to his chest. His brother always said getting along with others was easy—you just treated them how you’d like to be treated. The longer he traveled and researched, the less he found that to be true.
When he died, he certainly hoped someone would record every detail in neat pencilmanship on a well-laid-out chart.
No one would sell Rob food or lodging, so he slept on the dirt, outside, without even his notebook to keep him warm. Thankfully the night wasn’t particularly chilly and he had sturdy, woolen clothes bought in the Confederacy. He ate tuber peelings from the village midden for breakfast, then began experimenting with gravity.
After utterly failing to get objects to stay on the ground, Rob decided to measure the radius of the central storage pits’ influence. But that endeavor also proved problematic. Rob had just gotten chased away from a hut—the young man there claimed the constant plink of pebbles against his roof was driving him mad, though he seemed completely lucid, given his ability to invent creative threats—when he bumped into Martu again. She glared at him with puffy eyes. Her uncombed hair looked like something the Chaos invented.
“I’m sorry for your inflammation,” Rob offered, hoping that was the right thing to say.
She crossed her arms over her rough-woven dress. “I didn’t come here to forgive you. I hate you.”
Rob took a precautionary step backward, in case she’d come here to kick his shins.
“Mother was so happy I came home, I told her I was just searching for your notebook to make her mad again. She said it had looked like a spy cipher. So when she was out in the Chaos gathering plants yesterday, she threw it away.”
Rob paused. “You’re going to help me get it back, to spite your mother?”
“No. I wanted to tell you that your precious notebook turned into a rock. It’s gone forever. It probably had nothing but lies in it, anyway. You made up that story about talking to a goddess through a blood-laced pool in her temple, didn’t you?”
“Of course not!” He’d documented it, carefully. He documented everything carefully. How could she accuse him of recording falsehoods?
“All rubbish. All lies. And now it’s all gone.”
That book held two years of precious notes. Two years of observing the world, observing Chaos and civilization, two years of falling asleep with the smell of soft blue leather next to him. He didn’t actually know if blue leather objectively smelled different than any other color of leather, but he knew it was blue, so it smelled different to him. Rob would be frantically twirling a pencil in his fingers to calm himself, but barring a writing implement, his hands just shook.
“What’s wrong with you?” Martu snapped. “It’s a book. It’s not like it was someone’s father. Why do you care so much about writing stuff down?”
“It’s not just stuff.” People didn’t call paintings stuff or sculptures stuff or music, or stories, or embroidery. But wasn’t art, in whatever form, just one way to describe the world?
His notebook was like distilled art. A more precise description of the world. And it was beautiful, even if it was only beautiful to him. He wanted—he needed—to know how things worked.
And for the past two years, he’d been able to do that. To explore. To describe. The gold he found in Chaos had always been enough to pay for food and lodging. Some villagers or city-dwellers even paid him for news or descriptions of distant places. Paid him to join in his art.
But he didn’t know how to explain that to the angry young woman in front of him. “It’s my notebook.”
Even if his data collection on the functioning of Chaos had been pathetically small, it had been a start. A color study, a key signature, a needlework sampler.
“How can you grieve paper, but not a person?” Martu asked, the hatred in her voice replaced with cold pity. Somehow the latter was worse.
Rob gave up on clarifying his intentions. He turned around, walking out of the village and into the Chaos.
Rob sat. Instead of trying to eat him, the ground turned into a squishy-soft pink something, which was nice. Rob traced his fingers across his palm, writing ephemeral words to describe the fleeting landscape of the Chaos around him. Would human eyes ever see this exact same setting again?
His throat remained knotted, but the familiar motion did help calm him.
While the trees broke apart and joined together into brilliant, sunset-colored arches beneath crying red stars, Rob ghost-wrote what he’d learned the past two days. He made a list of questions as well.
How could things stay put when set on the ground only sometimes?
How did anyone bathe?
Who is the spy (or rather, is there a spy)?
Where did my notebook go?
Perhaps he should have written why is my notebook gone forever. That he couldn’t record the Chaos’ activities in his charts while he mourned and clung to denial seemed absurdly cruel.
He traced his thoughts on his hands. Was it still research if no one—himself included—could read it?
Maybe Martu had made up that bit about his notebook being tossed into the Chaos. He hadn’t talked to the source, yet—to Sarsa.
Just because he didn’t have his notebook didn’t mean he wasn’t a researcher anymore. And what kind of researcher didn’t grasp for primary data, whenever possible?
Rob stood. He steeled himself to hear the fate of his notebook a second time. The arches melted into cool green puddles and the stars burned white-hot. Rob returned to the village.
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About the Author
M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.
About the Narrator
Heath is an actor from far away, who currently finds himself living on an island off the coast of Maine with two cats (one human, one feline), an improbably fluffy dog and six chickens. You can find his narration at audible.com, the Uncanny Magazine podcast, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. For photos of the aforementioned animals & other day-to-day minutiae follow him on Twitter at @veryheathmiller.