The Chaos Village 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.

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“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.

***

Sarsa was cooking some kind of coarse flatbread—it appeared to be made of wild roots and ground wild seeds—on a griddle slanted up toward the storage pit. Her hut was mostly empty otherwise, packed up into neat baskets still sitting outside the door. When she flipped a flatbread, it fell slightly sideways, hitting the tilted griddle squarely. The smoke didn’t rise straight up, but at an angle away from the storage pit and out the narrow window. That explained the lack of soot stains on the ceiling.

She didn’t look up as Rob stepped off the ladder. “Are you ready to apologize, young lady?”

“I’m not a young lady.”

Sarsa screeched. She flung a flatbread at him. It made a partial orbit—Rob had to jump back to avoid getting hit in the nose—before splatting onto the only basket still in the storage pit.

“I want to hear about what happened to my notebook.”

Sarsa cursed and began scraping the half-cooked dough from the basket. “Gone. Tossed it into the Chaos. It turned into a rabbit.”

Martu reported it had turned into a rock. Had the young woman not listened closely enough?

Rob swallowed the lump in his throat. He would get a new notebook. With blank pages and a clean, unloved cover. But when he cracked the unused spine to that stark paper, he would have new information for it—he’d have answers to his other questions. “What happens if an object is between the gravity of the last person who touched it and the home it belongs to?”

She stared at him, befuddled. Apparently that wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. She scraped the ruined bread into the coals, then held the basket behind and below the griddle. She flipped the flatbread into it. “I’ve never tried that.”

Never tried? Rob felt like she’d crushed his innards.

Sarsa licked her thumb and wiped a smudge of dirt off the basket, then set it on the floor. It stayed put, the center of the home having no pull on it. Even the steam from the bread drifted straight up.

“How did you do that?” Rob asked. “Specifically, getting the basket to stay put. I’m well aware of how one doesn’t try a thing.”

Sarsa kneaded dough in a deep clay bowl. Whenever she dropped it, the dough thunked against the side of the bowl nearest the storage pit. “Why are you still here? Haven’t I made it clear that I’m not your friend?”

“You’re the only one who can tell me first-hand about my notebook.”

She actually flinched. “I’m not helping you, spy.”

“I’m trying to help your husband, too.” The man ought to be mourned, ought to have his death recorded. Rob wiped his clammy palms on the front of his dust-collecting tunic, which only made his hands filthy. Maybe Sarsa would just get mad, like Martu, but it seemed respectful to try again.

Sarsa didn’t yell at him, though. She went rigid. The dough dropped from her hands and fell sideways, hitting the rim of the bowl. Half the dough remained inside, while the other half hung, slowly stretching in mid-air towards the storage pit.

Sarsa ignored her dough, staring straight at Rob. She dropped her voice. “What do you know?”

“I know a lot of things.” Odd. She hadn’t been interested in discussing his research before. What a vague question to start with, too.

“Don’t…I…he…my Dabru means the world to me.”

Means. Present-tense. He wasn’t dead, then. Rob wrote that down on his palm.

“What are you doing?” Sarsa whispered.

“Thinking.” She’d claimed he died in the Chaos on the way  back from negotiating with High Priest Naramgil. She’d come back alone. After Naramgil warned the village to behave or his spy would report back.

“Has anyone new come into this village in, say, the past month?”

Her mouth tightened. Her hands shook.

“You’re the spy,” Rob said.

“Keep your voice down!” Sarsa snapped. She glanced about, but there was no one else in the pit-hut. “High Priest Naramgil imprisoned Dabru, and he’ll kill him if things go poorly. So I told everyone that Naramgil had a spy, thinking they’d just leave. Now there’s going to be fighting….and I didn’t mean for…never mind. I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

Rob help out a hand. “My notebook?”

She scowled at him and flopped the dough back into the bowl. “Is that all you can think about? I knew when I told High Priest Naramgil about you, he’d want to see your book. I brought it to him. He kept it.”

Rob exhaled slowly, the pain of hope threatening to crush his lungs.

“Are you going to tell the rest of the village?” Sarsa asked. Soot and dough streaked her face and hair.

“No.” He doubted they’d be of much help. At least they hadn’t been so far. Everyone was focused on fleeing or setting up defenses. “I’m going to get my notebook back. If you’re willing to help me, I think we can rescue your husband, too. Where is he being held?”

She blinked, surprised, and her tone softened. “I don’t know. Not the Enzu prison—I looked. But it’s not enough to just rescue him. If we don’t save the village, we’ll have nowhere to live. I doubt the others will be…sympathetic if I show up in Lithopolis with him.”

Rob rubbed the back of his sunburned neck. She was right. Besides, if he helped saved the village, he might finally get test volunteers. “Dabru, my notebook, and the village.” He paused. “We’ll send you to talk to High Priest Naramgil, carrying the millwinders. You can surprise-deliver them on the spot. Then we’ll figure out the rest.”

She shook her head. “Naramgil arrested Dabru without searching him, fearing that he had the millwinders on him—which would constitute delivery. And he’ll only talk to me by note. We’ll have to be cleverer than that.”

“You’re sure you’re not tricking me into helping with inane research?” Sarsa asked.

She must not know the meaning of inane. Perhaps she meant incomparable? Rob hadn’t met anyone creating records like his own. Given how vast and far-spread humanity was, he hoped he simply hadn’t found any counter-examples yet. He couldn’t research everything in the span of his own, singular human lifetime.

Sarsa stood about five meters from the center of her house, or three meters from the wall. She held a spoon out at arm’s length, giving Rob a distrusting glare. She dropped it.

It waivered for a moment, then spun toward the house and clacked against her roof.

“Take another half-step back. Too far. Not enough. Just—”

“Do you want me to throw this spoon at you?” Sarsa demanded.

Rob pondered. “Wouldn’t the storage pit gravity make that rather difficult?”

Sarsa flung the spoon outward. It arched around, slapping Rob across the face.

“Ow!” He rubbed his stinging cheek, delighted and injured at the same time—a not uncommon phenomenon for him. The spoon continued, falling onto the roof. “You’re amazing!”

“You’re some civilization-lubber. I’ve lived here all my life. It’s not hard.”

Rob fetched the spoon for her. “Again? By which I mean the dropping, not the throwing. One quarter-step back, please.”

Sarsa sighed, but did as he asked. The spoon quivered, rotated…and then hung still.

“Perfectly suspended between two gravities.” Rob beamed. Boundaries provided such delightful research opportunities. “Can you walk around your house, keeping your distance from the hearth at the same?”

Sarsa did so, moving slowly. Sure enough, the spoon followed her—occasionally wobbling, but she aptly corrected for it.

If only he had his notebook to diagram this.

“How does this help us get your notebook or my husband back?” Sarsa asked quietly, trying to mask the question from any unwanted listeners.

Rob shrugged. “I don’t know. But it does seem like it could be helpful, doesn’t it?”

Seems won’t rescue Dabru or save the village.”

“I know.” Rob tried to dust the front of his tunic off, but the grime fell back onto him. “Where’s the set of millwinders you’re supposed to deliver? And do you have a copy of the contract?”

“Dabru had the contract with him. He probably still has it—High Priest Naramgil didn’t search him. As for the millwinder set, Naramgil’s barricaded himself, remember?”

“I know,” Rob said. “But we have to deliver them anyway.”

***

The millwinder set was not well-guarded. After all, everything in the village already acted like an orbitstone, and millwinders couldn’t be legally sold into a city without a contract with the village. Civilizations and cities tended to demand official paperwork like that. Rob suspected it came from being ruled by deities, full of Order, who couldn’t break contracts. It was safer to have a written agreement, neatly laid out where one could search for loopholes, than a messy verbal one that could lock a deity into a bad situation.

Matriarch Ishtat simply kept the millwinders in a basket in her house. And Ishtat took a nap every afternoon, during the hottest part of the day.

“Are you sure you should steal it?” Rob asked as Sarsa shoved him down the ladder into her own house. He’d observed that people usually reacted poorly when someone else walked off with their property.

“Shh,” she chided. “Stay here. If we tell anyone else our plan, they’ll know about Dabru.”

Rob sat and rested his back against the cool, earthen wall. Sarsa was eager to help him get his notebook back. He doubted the rest of the village, who did not secretly have a Dabru taken hostage, would be half so zealous. They might also fume at Sarsa for her duplicity and do something rash.

So Rob did what he did best, which was not waiting, but testing things. He gathered a few test subjects from the packed baskets outside. He dropped and threw them in a variety of ways to observe the arc of their fall. Quite unintentionally, he learned that shattered crockery, much like its intact form, also fell into the storage pit. This made cleaning up the sherds incredibly convenient.

Unfortunately, the door opened before he could determine an equally convenient place to discard them. It was not Sarsa on the ladder, however, but Martu.

“That’s my favorite pot!” She rushed at him, snatching a sherd from his hands and examining it to confirm. How admirably thorough. “You really are a monster.”

“I’m sorry,” Rob said. And he meant it.

Martu glared. “It wasn’t enough to insult my father, now you’re sneaking into my house and breaking my stuff? I’m finding Matriarch Ishtat and getting her to order your stinking bones out of the village.”

Given that Sarsa was raiding Ishtat’s house as they spoke, that seemed like an especially poor plan. “Don’t.”

“Your powers of persuasion amaze me,” she said flatly, then turned to go, black hair swishing around her ears.

“It’s about your father.”

She froze, one hand on the ladder. Then she glared, as unforgiving as the noonday sun. “If you’re going to mock him, I swear on the shifting sands of Chaos that I’ll…that I’ll…”

Her hand tightened to a fist on the rung.

“He’s not dead. Your mother lied to you.”

For a moment, she gaped. Then she slid down the ladder. “I knew she was as crooked as a line through the Chaos.”

If that were true, Martu wouldn’t have been so upset about Dabru’s death, but Rob refrained from pointing that out. He dropped the broken pottery, letting it all tumble back into the storage pit. “We’re rescuing him.”

“Ha! And it’s too ‘dangerous’ for me, so you and Mother have been plotting behind my back this whole time. She’s been cold and distant so she wouldn’t let out the secret. And you—you made fun of my father’s death just to drive me away, didn’t you?”

“Um. Yes. That’s exactly how it happened.”

Rob knew he was a poor liar, but Martu smiled smugly anyway. “You’ve not as clever as you thought. I figured it out. And now, I want in. What’s the plan?”

Rob cleared his throat. “I don’t believe I mentioned anything as…definitive as a plan.

“Oh, don’t be coy. I’m helping whether you like it or not.”

That much was apparent.

The door opened again. “Rob, I got the—Martu!” Sarsa scurried down the ladder and lowered her voice. “Martu. You need to leave.”

Martu crossed her arms and jutted her chin up. “I’m helping you rescue Father.”

Sarsa sighed, turning toward Rob. “You had to tell her the plan to keep her from alerting the village, didn’t you?”

“Ah. Of course,” he said. Sarsa likewise didn’t question his poor lying skills. Also, why did everyone think he had a plan? “We’ll need to run some experiments inside the Akkad-Kumat Union itself, to make sure we’re certain how the physics will work in Enzu.”

Martu jerked upright. “I’m coming!”

Sarsa rubbed the back of her neck, but didn’t put up further protests.

Rob thoughtfully twirled nothing in his fingers. “Martu, are you a Grounder or a Chaoswalker?”

“Haven’t taken the tests yet.”

“Tests?” Oh, how he needed his notebook. “Can you tell me more about these—“

“No,” Sarsa cut him off.

Martu was gazing around the hut—nothing but a griddle, a basket of flatbread, and empty space now. Well, and the sherds in the storage pit. When Martu spoke, her voice was husky. “If we don’t rescue the village and Father, we can’t come back, can we?”

“I’m afraid not.”

A moment ago, Martu had been snapping at her mother. Now they were hugging. Hugging, much like changes in the Chaos, often seemed random. Martu gathered up the basket of bread and laid the now-cool griddle on top. Then they all clambered outside.

Sarsa pulled a backpack of tight-woven canvas from the bottom of one of the baskets outside. It had thick, padded shoulder straps and a neat row of buttons closing the flap.

“That doesn’t look locally made,” Rob said, leaning closer. The buttons gleamed a soft white.

“It’s not. Some traders from the Pahara Kingdoms came here once, and Dabru negotiated for it. He wanted me to have something solid to collect my Chaos findings in.” She shoved a few of her belongings into it, then took the basket with the bread and griddle from Martu. “Best to bring some food and important things with us, in case we fail and can’t return before the invasion.”

No one tried to stop them as they left the village. A pair of stern-looking men covered in sawdust from carving sharpened sticks even wished them all good luck with their new lives in Lithopolis.

In the Chaos, the ground turned into a criss-cross of russet ravines. Three suns twirled slowly in the cloudless sky. Martu clung to her mother’s arm. “Everything’s so…different!

“Close your eyes,” Sarsa said gently. “I don’t know if you’re more of a Grounder or a Chaoswalker, but I can lead you through it this first—or last—time. Try not to think too hard about the way things should be. And don’t worry. The Chaos can’t change you or anything you’re touching. People have Order in them.”

“The Chaos doesn’t have to transform you to kill you. It can just as easily slice your chest open with triangles,” Rob added cheerfully.

Sarsa glared at him.

“You weren’t being very thorough in your description,” Rob said. Sarsa added pursed lips to her glare. Rob looked away first.

He wrote on his palm as he walked, thinking about Sarsa’s words. Did belief-filled Order of how the world should and shouldn’t work make the Chaos more or less volatile? Did acceptance of change keep the Chaos calmer?

He’d never considered either variable.

How could he ever name all of the factors in play? How could he devise enough tests to know how the Chaos actually worked?

In those ravines and up in the cloudless sky lay a wealth of ungathered knowledge. Rob felt like he walked through the silence before the music. The stillness before dance. The wool before carding.

One day, he would unlock the Chaos’ secrets and fill his notebook with that beautiful data, with the art, and—

“—Rob!?”

“Hm?” Rob asked. He squinted against the harshness of the light. His tunic clung damply to him.

Sarsa gaped. “I thought you’d gone deaf! I was calling for you to slow down—I can’t believe how easily you walk through the Chaos—but then you didn’t respond.”

“Oh.”

“How can you be that oblivious?” she asked, one arm around Martu, one arm around the bread basket. The young woman kept her head down.

The ground before them turned to silver sand that floated gently toward the golden sky, slowly transforming into stars. Mysteries waiting to be researched. “I was thinking about my notebook.”

***

Rob almost felt disappointed to leave the Chaos—now full of purple canyons and flying snakes. He stepped onto a firm, unchanging hillside dotted with stands of grass and a variety of shrubs. Below spread a broad, verdant plain with a slow, blue-green river and a sprawling city—the colors only made richer by the cool evening light.

“I take it those are barley plants?”

“Well, the trees are date palms. But in the fields, yes.” Sarsa set down her basket and handed him the backpack. “Test whatever you need to with the millwinders.”

The fabric felt slick under his fingers. “Is this waterproof? And what are those buttons made of? They have such a remarkable luster.”

“That’s not important right now.”

All questions are important,” Rob insisted, hurt.

Sarsa snatched the backpack away, fished out the millwinders, and thrust them at him. “Focus.”

Rob frowned, but studied the millwinders in his hands. Apart from the gold sheen, they looked like any two ordinary rocks. “How did you cover these in gold? Were they dipped or—”

Sarsa glared. “If these aren’t delivered tonight, my village will be razed in the morning. Stop dawdling.”

Dawdling? Rob blinked.

“Do the tests. Like you did in the village. Talking to you is like talking to a child.”

Rob pursed his lips. “In what way?”

He was as tall as her, so she couldn’t mean height perspective. And he had an adult palette with adult pronunciations. His syntax was likewise developed. Perhaps she meant that children in her village liked to play with rocks? There had been an abundance of rocks, though he hadn’t actually thought to count them.

“Just start the tests.”

***

As Martu had promised, the centerstone acted like a storage pit and the orbitstone worked like an object from its house. Soon, they had an orbitstone suspended in midair between the centerstone Rob held and Sarsa, who’d released it.

Rob’s stomach fluttered. It was working. “If you would, take a step forward with me. One. Two. Three.”

They moved together. The orbitstone between them bobbed gently and followed, floating over the dirt and hardy shrubs.

“Nifty,” Martu exhaled, eyes wide.

He should have his notebook to record this moment. To capture this possibility, this intertwining of physics from one place manifesting inside the geography or another. Beautiful.

“How does this get us into High Priest Naramgil’s home?” Sarsa asked.

Rob smiled. “Martu. Do you want to fly?”

Martu hesitated.

“Come grab the orbitstone. You’ll hang from it, and our motion will pull you along.”

Martu did. But as soon as she touched the stone, it sunk into her hand—just like it would have in the village.

“Icestorms,” Rob cursed. He should have realized that would happen.

“This doesn’t look like flying,” Martu said.

“I know. I know,” muttered Rob.

And so he devised experiments. Dangling Martu from a rope tied to the orbitstone. Wrapping Martu’s hands in cloth. Wrapping Martu’s hands in the backpack. But regardless, she was still touching it, even if indirectly, and the orbitstone sunk into her gravity.

How to make the stone move her without her affecting it? Head pounding with the heat, Rob plopped onto the ground, grasses scratching his elbows. The world smelled like nature when it should have smelled like fresh graphite and old paper.

“Since we can’t create a buffer, we’ll have to devise some kind of air-blowing device to levitate you above the orbitstone.” Rob’s teeth itched to gnaw the back of a pencil. He didn’t have the first idea of how to accomplish this.

“We do have a buffer,” Martu said.

Rob blinked at her.

“Gold. It insulates the rocks from being changed by the Order of this place. Couldn’t we do something with that?”

Martu was brilliant. Rob beamed at her. “A gold link in the rope. Insulate it from Martu’s Order. Perfect.”

They could search for gold in the Chaos, or peel some off the millwinder, but the rays of the setting sun glinted on a more promising prospect: a ring on Sarsa’s finger. “I know you’re probably attached to your wedding ring, but it will save time to test out Martu’s theory with it.”

“Wedding what?” Sarsa asked.

Rob frowned. Hadn’t he spoken plainly? “The thing on your finger.”

“This is my security ring.”

Rob blinked. “A what?”

“So if I get lost in the Chaos and end up somewhere else, I have money for meals and lodging while I figure out where I am.”

“Oh.” What an interesting tradition. “Do all human-Ordered villages do this?”

She paused and peered at him. “Can’t you just call them Chaos villages like everyone else? No, I have no idea. But be careful with it—I’ve had it for a long time.” Sarsa peeled it off. Her finger was indented underneath and worn smooth.

The ring wasn’t fat enough to tie two ropes through. Thankfully, Sarsa had brought her clay griddle. Rob found a piece of chert and began carving a shallow circle on the bottom of it.

Sarsa stood behind him, peering over his shoulder. “I hope you’re not ruining my griddle for no reason.”

“Even failed experiments are useful research,” Rob said, scraping away. “It won’t go to waste.”

Oddly, she glared at him. Rob worked faster. Soon he had a secure indentation for the ring. He pocketed the chert to sketch later, once he had a notebook to sketch in. He had Martu and Sarsa suspend the orbitstone in midair, then tossed a towel over it for better friction. Carefully, he set the ring on top, then placed the griddle onto its grove. The orbitstone didn’t fall, even when he was touching the griddle.

“Thank you, Martu,” Rob said. “You were right.”

The young woman smiled warmly at him. Smiles in his direction were not a common phenomenon. He returned it.

Sarsa did not look nearly as impressed. “We need to discuss this plan more. I’m not flying my daughter over Naramgil’s wall on that thing, and the guards will recognize me—they won’t send for Naramgil.”

“That’s a correct assessment. We can only get this as high as we can drop an orbitstone. If the wall’s higher than two meters, I don’t see how we can clear it.”

Sarsa glared. “The wall’s at lest four! All of this was useless! We won’t be able to make the delivery.”

“Let’s go see Naramgil’s house,” Rob said.

***

The city itself was lovelier and grander than anything he’d visited in the Confederacy. Some of the square buildings had lintels carved from a fragrant, yellow wood. Others were all-brick. Inhabitants ate and chatted on the rooftops under the setting sun.

Rob spotted an abundance of goats. Men and women wearing fine fringed shawls and wrap-around clothes carried tiny goats, not much bigger than his hand, in expensively-dyed baskets. Pets, perhaps? Long-legged, robust goats pulled carts. There were even penned-in middens where goats helped manage city waste.

Rob only caught a glimpse of the closing market, but what a magnitude of goods! Vegetables and fruits, herbs and powders. Goat cheese and goat leather, and cloth in more colors than the sunset. What did they make cloth out of? He didn’t know the names of so many things in that open bazaar. “Do you think we could stop and ask someone how many deities the Akkad-Kumat union has?”

“Definitely not,” Sarsa grumbled as the turned the corner, leaving the enticing opportunity for research behind.

Enzu’s temple looked like a stack of children’s blocks—a jumble of tiers and plenty of corners. It rested on top of a greenery-covered hill. At the bottom of the hill sat High Priest Naramgil’s broad house. The wall was five meters high and surrounded rather thoroughly by twenty-three guards with goat leather helmets and bronze spears. Bronze! He’d heard of the metal and knew that the Union had a God of Copper and a Goddess of Tin, but he’d never seen it. It was more colorful than he’d imagined.

“Stay put. Do you want them to see us?” Sarsa snapped, dragging him back behind a date palm and some of the landscaped shrubbery that covered the hill.

“Ahem. Right.” Rob cleared his throat. “If we start at the top of this hill, the orbitstone will look higher, and you two can stay hidden in the greenery as we move forward.”

“That doesn’t get us over the wall!” Sarsa kept her voice to a harsh whisper.

“But it would get one of us arrested spectacularly,” Rob said.

Martu pursed her lips. The sun was setting, stretching the shade of the plants thick and long across the grass. The palms completely shadowed her face. “I was almost beginning to think you weren’t insane. But I think I was right the first time.”

“You’re missing the point,” Rob said. “Spectacularly arrested means someone will send for the High Priest, for his judgment in this strange matter. Then I’ll show him the orbitstone. Then you can jump out and show him the centerstone.”

Sarsa crossed her arms. “That doesn’t save my husband.”

“If we make the delivery, won’t Naramgil be obligated to sign your village’s contract? Didn’t you say Dabru probably still has it, since they didn’t search him? Even if he doesn’t bring Dabru out, Martu can watch and see where High Priest Naramgil has the contract fetched from. We’d at least know where he—and hopefully my notebook—is. We can’t rescue him without finding him first.”

“This is the worst plan I’ve ever heard,” Martu said.

“Do you have a better one?” Rob asked.

Her shoulders sank. “No.”

***

Rob scraped his knee, but he managed to climb the date palm and balance himself on the buffered griddle hanging in the air. Sarsa and Martu moved slowly down the hill, floating him along with them. None of the guards noticed, let alone recognized, the two women creeping along behind the palms and bushes. Maybe they weren’t looking very closely, given how intently they stared at Rob. Yes, this was spectacular.

Perhaps too spectacular. One of the guards shouted for someone to get High Priest Naramgil, but he followed it with a command to loose arrows.

Rob flattened himself on the griddle. Bronze flashed by his eyes. Pain flared in his shoulder. His throat dried and his pulse pounded.

Should he run? Or would that just make him a larger target?

He glanced at the wound. What a clean cut. It didn’t look sharper than a cut made by obsidian, though. How would one, ethically, test that? What fruit or vegetable might make a suitable human substitute? The blood welled up, making him woozy.

“Nock another arrow! Ready!”

So much red, smelling sharp and bitter. Rob swayed, nauseated. He tumbled, taking the griddle with him.

“Loose!”

Arrows whispered overhead as he thudded to the ground, shattered crockery under him. The air fled his chest, leaving his lungs feeling as heavy as millstones. The stars fuzzed above him.

Rob tried to push himself onto his knees. Where was the orbitstone? He had to show it to High Priest Naramgil.

“Wrap him in a sheet! Quickly! And if anyone else appears, shoot them on sight!” The voice had impeccable enunciation, polished and bright as a silver horn.

Uncounted rough hands spun Rob. Fabric tightened around his entire body while his insides lurched. Slowly, his lungs started to work again. One breath. Two. Three. Each one made the ribs on his right side burn, so he breathed shallowly. He prodded the fabric around him with his tongue. It didn’t taste like Confederate wool, nor was it as sleek as Sarsa’s backpack. “What kind of fabric is this?”

Admittedly, said fabric muffled his words, and those around him were rather busy, but it was tiring to always have people ignore his questions. At least the pressure felt good against his injured shoulder.

“High Priest, shall we search him?”

“No, idiot! What if he has the millwinder set?” the polished voice said. “This was probably a delivery attempt. You, you. Grab him. Lock him up in the safe place. And then I need you to go hire someone in the marketplace to clean this strange griddle-contraption up. I don’t want anyone under my direct command looking at it, much less touching it.”

Well. At least his approach had been spectacular enough to draw out Naramgil. Too bad the rest of the plan failed.

Unknown persons carried him like a log, uphill, through doors, and downstairs. Rob squeezed his eyes shut against the nausea of swaying in a world that smelled like unwashed laundry.

Shortly, Rob found himself lying still on a hard floor, breathing shallowly against the not-woolen-sheet. A door thudded shut behind him. Perhaps this was the most foolhardy thing he’d done for research after all.

Something scraped against the wall.

“Is there a person there?” Rob called through the cloth. A person was usually preferable to rats.

“Yes. Just a moment.” The voice sounded soft and muffled. This room had to be small.  Hands pulled back the cloth around his face, bringing in air that was dank instead of stale. Unfortunately, it didn’t bring any additional light.

“Are you hurt?” the man asked from somewhere above him.

“Yes,” Rob managed, gingerly prodding his ribs. Pain shot across his chest, a nice match for his burning shoulder.

“How badly?”

How did one quantify injury? He’d contemplated this before, when documenting his personal injury rate in Chaos. Should he record the level of pain? A ratio comparing the mass of unhurt body to injured body? The latter would record a fracture as a small matter, though, and Rob suspected he’d a cracked rib.

Eventually, Rob settled on the most precise answer he could give. “Not fatal.”

“Let me help you sit. Are you bleeding?”

Rob described his shoulder. The man tore strips of cloth from the sheet and tied it up. “What did you do to get thrown in here?”

“I tried to deliver a set of millwinders to High Priest Naramgil.”

“Ah. That would do it. Here.” The man pressed a cup into Rob’s hands.

Rob drank, even though the water tasted like mud from the bottom of a river. “Where are we?”

“Deep inside the Enzu temple. Naramgil didn’t want to put us in the prison, where we’d be easy to find. Who’d search a temple for prisoners? We’re below the inner sanctum, where no one will stumble across us.”

“Ah. You’re Dabru.”

“Y-yes. How do you know that?”

Much explaining followed.

“So your plain failed horribly, and now you’re locked up, too. That doesn’t sound like good news.”

Rob admired Dabru’s skill at summary. “I do have a piece of chert in my pocket. Perhaps we can dig our way out.”

“Given how beat up you are, I’ll start working on that first.”

After an hour, Dabru had created a palmful of dust and decreased the pleasantness of the cell by adding an odor of sweat.

“At this rate, we’ll be lucky to escape this year,” Dabru said.

Rob didn’t know the exact mass of the removed mortar, or the total mortar they needed to remove—but conservatively, he’d estimate a month. In any case, not soon enough to save the village from destruction. He also had no idea what High Priest Naramgil would do with them, once the contract was broken. Let them go? Dispose of them in the river?

The door swung open. Rob blinked rapidly against the light slicing across his cell. Guards? Perhaps High Priest Naramgil wouldn’t wait until the contract’s deadline passed.

But no, Sarsa and Martu stood behind the door, both holding torches. A good deal of hugging and crying followed before Rob could get a question in edgewise. “How did you get here?”

“I’m sorry you’re in here at all. I wanted to rush in when you fell, but Mom motioned for me to hide once Naramgil told the guards to shoot anyone who came near. We waited until they left, grabbed the orbitstone, then followed the guards here,” Martu said. She avoided looking at her parents, who were enthusiastically exchanging saliva. “After your escort left, there were still two soldiers at the temple door and two more in front of the inner sanctum. I think there are usually more, but High Priest Naramgil had most of them at his house—which actually worked in our favor.”

The torchlight flickered across her coy smile. She offered up no more details. But for once, Rob knew exactly what she wanted him to say. “What happened?”

“I thought you’d never ask. I told Mother to hold the centerstone and throw the orbitstone—she’s got great aim.”

Rob knew that firsthand.

“The guards expected the orbitstone to act like a regular stone, so they didn’t dodge correctly. Mother caught the orbitstone with the centerstone and struck again. She knocked them all out before they could figure out what was happening.”

Rob had never considered using millwinders as a weapon. “That was very clever, Martu.”

“Thank-you!” She looked as proud as a bear with a brace of fish. Then her shoulders fell. “It’s too bad we couldn’t save the village, though.”

Right. The village. Rob tapped Dabru’s shoulder. “Do you have the contract?”

Dabru stoically peeled himself away from his wife and pulled out a thick sheet of papyrus from his rough-spun, sleeveless shirt.

Rob read. Most of it was as Sarsa had reported—dull, predictable contract language. But one statement snagged his attention. “…to be delivered to Goddess Naqidu of Enzu, to her representative, High Priest Naramgil.”

“It names the Goddess first,” Rob said.

Dabru shrugged. “Yes. Technically in the Akkad-Kumat Union, High Priests are just agents of their gods. They name the god first to show their own position and deference.”

“Deference or not, it’s exactly what we needed.”

***

They found Naramgil’s office first, a stuffy room with goat-fat candles, clay tablets, and piles of papyrus. Rob looked everything over, twice, but he couldn’t find his notebook. He snatched a reed brush and unstoppered a vial of ink.

“What are you doing?” Martu asked.

“Amending the contract.” He added a line, near the bottom—that Rob’s notebook would be returned by High Priest Naramgil upon delivery of the millwinder, and that all persons involved in the delivery party would be granted safe passage through Enzu. Perfect.

It didn’t take much longer to locate the dank pool-room. Sarsa lit the twelve torches waiting in wall sconces. The flames glittered off blue-glazed bricks painted with stylized, triangular goats.

“Beautiful,” Martu whispered.

Rob studied the floor—or more specifically, the quarter-meter deep pool set into the floor. Just like the pool he’d seen before, the water shone as if someone had added a few drops of soap or oil to the top of it.

“How did you say you talk to a god through one of these again?” Sarsa asked.

“Human blood. It has some small amount of Order in it.” Rob saw no reason for further injury. He used the chert to cut off a piece of his makeshift bandage, then tossed it into the pool. The bloodied cloth rippled and fell to the bottom, laying there like a dead eel.

Dabru held the gold millwinders in his hands. “Are you sure this is going to work?”

“No.” Rob wondered what set of conditions could make him sure of something. He wasn’t even sure that when he released the bandage it would fall down. He’d now visited a place where that wouldn’t happen. He’d seen deities far less often than he’d dropped things.

The water glowed with a strange, hyper-clear light, turning the tiles around it a surreal cerulean.

From the pool rose a woman. Her cream-colored dress was soaked. Still, Rob could make out two layers of cloth: the solid inner one, and the fine, tessellating lace over that. Well, probably tessellating. A two-inch ribbon around her waist covered part of the pattern. No sleeves, and the hemline just covered her knees. A long string of pearls hung from her neck.

“You’re not Naramgil.” She wiped her sopping hair out of her face, blinking wetly.

“I’m here to make a delivery, per our contract.” Dabru held out the millwinders.

She wrinkled her nose. “Set them in the corner. How’d you get in here? How’d you know how to use the pool? And why isn’t Naramgil taking care of this contract?”

Rob didn’t answer. He handed her the contract, along with the reed brush pilfered from Naramgil’s office. “If you’d sign?”

“You changed it.”

“Your priest imprisoned us. It seemed prudent. Are you opposed to amendments in general, or these particular ones? How often do you sign contracts? What kind of writing medium do gods write contracts on in the Godly Realm? What—“

“Ugh. It’s a good thing you mortals all die so quickly, or I’d have to go through the trouble of firing Naramgil for this. You interrupted an amazing game of pinochle; I’d just melded a round robin. I thought this was an emergency.

The ink dried on the contract. Rob grinned. “Thank you. Now, about those questions…”

Goddess Naqidu disappeared as quietly as she’d come.

Rob pursed his lips, staring at the water. “If I bled in the pool again, do you think she’d come back?”

“No.” Martu grabbed him by the elbow. “Let’s go.”

***

High Priest Naramgil threw a fit, but he couldn’t ignore his goddess’ signature. No, he wouldn’t be invading the village in the morning—he lacked justification, now. He did throw Rob’s notebook at his head, but Rob managed to catch it.

He paid them the agreed-upon price—a small handcart of goat-leather. They set Sarsa’s bread basket on top, then headed into the Chaos. Sarsa pulled the cart, Dabru and Martu holding onto her shoulders on either side with their eyes closed. Rob walked next to them, one arm cradling his injured ribcage.

In the Chaos, it was neither night nor day, but an orange-green twilight of circling stars and lavender moons bleeding tears that streaked sideways through the sky.

Today, he had his notebook. Today, he could record this piece of reality and create art. Perhaps the most comforting thing about the Chaos was that it always changed. Always presented something new to explore.

Soon, they stepped onto the hard-packed dirt of the village. The sunrise tinged the sky pink and orange.

Sarsa took off her backpack and handed it to Rob. “For you.”

He blinked, feeling the smoothness of the fabric beneath.

“You should have someplace safe to keep your notebook. And after saving everyone…I feel like I owe it to you.”

“Thank you.”

Sarsa nodded. Then she and Dabru left to deliver the cart to the matriarch and tell everyone there’d be no invasion. They’d need to chase those who’d left to sell themselves into slavery at Lithopolis, too.

Rob watched them haul the cart away. All the villagers acted pleased and surprised—not suspicious—to see Dabru again.

“Looks like no one’s going to be mad at Mother,” Martu said. “Not getting attacked seems to have put everyone in a good mood.”

Rob’s arms were full of his old notebook and new backpack. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever be making a contract with Enzu again.”

“No. Never.” Martu eyed his backpack. “I need something out of there.”

“Oh. Right.” He opened it, and she promptly snatched out a goatskin notebook.

She blushed, hugging the book to her chest. “I stole it from Naramgil’s office. It’s blank. I…I still think you’re half-crazy, but the world is a big place. I thought I’d try writing some of it down.” She paused, worrying the corner of the book with her thumb and forefinger. “Like, when we were searching for you, I wished you had a centerstone and we had an orbitstone. Then we could drop it and know if we were within such-a-distance. If we were that close, the orbitstone would fall toward your location. Maybe I could figure out how to extend the range.”

Brilliant. Perfectly brilliant. “Given your new interest in physics, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping me find volunteer test subjects to examine the rate of injuries in the Chaos as related to one’s thoughts?”

“Oh, Rob.” She patted him on the shoulder. “You helped save everyone, but no one wants to be a test subject.” Martu paused. “Though I can tell you how to make things stay put. You wanted to know that, didn’t you?”

She licked her thumb, pressed it to the underside of her notebook, and set it on the ground. It didn’t budge.

Rob peered at it. Why wasn’t it flying up to Martu?

“Your spit. It’s part of you,” she said. “So whatever-it-is will treat that as down. That’s how we bathe—we spit in the water when we’re done. The spit falls to the earth, and the water goes with it, forming a dome around it. I mean, you could tie one of your hairs to something or bleed on it with the same effect, but that’s a lot more work than licking.”

What an interesting notion—spit as self. Rob opened his notebook—his musty, familiar notebook—to a fresh page and jotted that down.

It was a beautiful morning. Before him stood a clever young woman—one who’d been bright enough to see gold as an Order-buffer, to think of millwinders as a weapon, and to come up with a way to use them as a locator. “Thank you,” Rob said.

“For what?”

“For being a counter-example.”

Rob wasn’t the only researcher in the world anymore.

 

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