The Army (3 of 3)

a story of the chaos

Great long spurs agitate the chaos. The foam pumps through long clanking copper pipes. The machine hums and spits out an endless army.

In the ranks of the army march Cheryl and Ivan and Esther.

Cheryl has a pick over her shoulder. She is borne down by its weight. It is taller than she is.

Around and behind her there is the ghost.

“You’re not a real ghost,” Cheryl says.

“No?” asks the ghost.

“I don’t have any memories of people to be attached to,” says Cheryl. “And there’s certainly no one attached to me.”

“That’s true,” says the ghost. It is a great and dread-worthy shape, like a cloak made of layers of misty shadows. “I’m not a ghost of the past. I’m a freelance soul.”

The march stops. There is a staccato metal sound as each of the gunfolk in the unit draws their gun, turns on the ghost, and puts back the hammer.

“I don’t want a soul,” says Cheryl.

The ghost looks around. There is a red haze that effuses from it. Many of the gunfolk are coughing now. A few fire, futilely, at the ghost.

“Come on,” says Esther.

Esther grabs Cheryl’s hand. They run.

“Artillery—FIRE!” shouts a commander, in the distance.

Mortars slam against the ghost. Cheryl, Esther, and Ivan are running, low to the ground, bowed down by their picks.

“Cheryl,” says the ghost.

Its substance is beginning to fray. With a shriek it descends on her.

Esther shoves Cheryl out of the way. The ghost lands on Esther, in Esther, suffusing her. There is a silence.

“Artillery—HALT!”

Ivan and Cheryl watch Esther with a kind of horror as she stands up again.

“I’m okay,” Esther says.

“Are you?”

“I’m okay. I just have a soul, that’s all.”

So they go back to their march.

“It still wants you,” Esther says.

Cheryl gives her a look of sick horror.

They are coming up on the Imposthumation of the Ooze.

Compared to most oozes
This ooze is quite pleasant
It lives for no purpose
Save to give children presents.
Every child alive!
Once—before they are dead—
Gets a gift of some kind
From the ooze, it is said.

The trees around the Imposthumation are hung with bodies. The ground is damp and in places it is slick with slime.

“Tread carefully,” says Ivan.

Cheryl’s unit is careful. They are stealthy. They are forced to cling close to the trees from which their peers dangle. The bodies are not quite dead yet; their eyes gleam and they reach down for Cheryl and Ivan and Esther as they pass.

“You’re breathing,” Cheryl chides Esther.

“It’s the soul!”

“Quiet it down.”

“I can’t,” mutters Esther. “When I stop I just turn blue and get really uncomfortable.”

“Blue?”

That’s one of the gunfolk speaking. He looks kind of interested.

Esther sighs audibly. She demonstrates by holding her breath. After a while, as the unit darts from tree to tree, Esther turns blue and her eyes bug out. She exhales audibly, then sucks in air.

“Wow,” says the gunner.

There are presents scattered on the slime, as they grow nearer to the ooze. There are pop guns, larger than Cheryl is tall. There are cookies, mysteriously unpolluted by the slime. There are tickets to concerts, most of which feature bands and acts that won’t even exist until the latter half of the century. There is a fair bit of underwear and socks, because the ooze knows as every good ooze ought that there is no present a child likes better than underwear and socks.

“It’s not so bad,” Esther says. “Though. I mean, having a soul.”

Cheryl’s nostrils flare.

“It means,” says Ivan precisely, “that when you die you will not be done. You’ll have to go on, like to Heaven or Hell or reincarnation or something. And no one will ever think you were finished, that that was all that you were. They’ll never judge you and say, ‘That Esther, she was pretty cool while she lasted.’ I’m sorry. I don’t mean to depress you. But trying to pawn it off on Cheryl is even more wrong than your having it in the first place.”

That is the last long speech that Ivan gets to make.

One of the gunfolk stumbles over a bell. Bells are wonderful presents. They ring and they chime. But here, in the Imposthumation, the bell attracts the attention of the ooze.

The ooze’s voice is black and bubbling.

“Little things, little things, hurtful things. Will save you, little things. Will stop you from doing your harm.”

The ground around them is bubbling. All pretense of stealth is lost; they are bolting now, running desperately, hoping to cross beyond Imposthumation into the Slough before the ooze destroys them all.

A rivulet of the ooze smashes into them, and five of the gunfolk are lost. They sink screaming into the earth. There is another flow of oozy essence in front of them. The army takes to the trees. They clamber past the groping dying bodies of their peers and run along long branches to jump to the next tree. Many of them fall, but Cheryl and Esther do not.

The ooze catches Ivan crosswise in midair. He spins around and falls to the ground, his leg snapping with a crunch.

“Ow,” he says. Then, “Run!”

People like Ivan don’t feel much pain.

“RUN!”

So Cheryl and Esther abandon him. They run.

“Each child saved from you lot,” burbles the ooze. “That’s a present. And make you into presents! Dry you out on trees, you make lovely candy canes.”

“I don’t want to be a candy cane,” says Ivan.

But the ooze does not respect his choice.

Beneath Cheryl and Esther, the ground fades from slime to thick rich mud. The trees thin out until the remnants of the unit must descend onto the earth.

It is the Slough of the Dreamer.

The Dreamer is really in no wise unpleasant
Though he sticks you on spikes
And he roasts you like pheasant
He has a strict rule that he always observes
He’ll put you on spikes
If things would have been worse.

Yes! It’s always a step up!
It’s always much better
Than the hand fate would deal you
If only he’d let her!

When you’re in the Slough
And you’re caught on a spike
Then it must be just awful
What things
would have been like!

“This is the worst of it,” says Esther.

“Is it?”

“Logically,” says Esther.

“How can things get worse than this?” mourns one of the gunfolk.

Schnick! He’s caught on a spike. The spike rises from the Slough, followed by one of the hands of the Dreamer. The Dreamer begins to carry him, screaming, towards the fire.

“Shh,” mumbles the Dreamer. “Shh. Better this than days of terrified, despairing march, followed by a tumble into the Fang of Z’al.”

“That’s true,” admits the soldier. “But this really sucks anyway.”

“Keep going,” says Cheryl. “Sing a happy song.”

“A happy song?” says Esther.

“Yes. We have to keep our spirits up to maximize the net value of our remaining time and avoid the spike!”

“Huh,” says Esther. “That makes sense.”

The hornsfolk play their horns and the pipers their pipes and they walk along singing through the Dreamer’s Slough.

One piper has a pipe that is, quite frankly, out of tune.

The piper is staring at it, in between verses. There is a knot of worry on her brow.

“Do we have any way to replace or fix these?” the piper asks.

“It’s okay,” lies Cheryl. “It sounds wonderful!”

But it’s too late. The spike is already rising and the piper is for roast.

Ahead they can see the Living Mountain.

The living mountain’s rather cross.
It loves you all
(Please brush and floss)
It loves you all
But vexed it grows
When people eat
Its candy toes.

The commander meets with them at the foothills of the Living Mountain.

“Listen,” he says. “We have a strategic decision to make.”

He pauses. He stares at Esther.

“Why are you breathing, by the way?”

Esther shakes her head.

“Anyway,” the commander says. “The Living Mountain won’t smash us into little bits of mini-person kindling, unless of course someone’s been breaking off bits of it to eat. Conversely, I know we’re all pretty hungry, and replenishing supplies is a pretty good idea. So I wanted to get people’s opinions before I decided whether we’re going to forage or not.”

The hornsfolk tootle on their horns. The gunfolk look aggressive. Esther frowns.

Cheryl asks, “Is it a good giant edible god-mountain or a bad one?”

The commander looks thoughtfully up at the mountain, judging its alien morality by the standards of his own.

“I think it’s probably good,” he says. “I mean, it’s a giant candy god-mountain.”

“Then morality should triumph over ruthless pragmatism!”

The commander blows out his cheeks. “Well,” he says, and shrugs. “You’re the miner.”

They march across the Living Mountain. There are hideous faces peering out at them from its candy shell. There are great tendrils of spun-sugar, miles long, whirling around them in the distance. Then Cheryl hears the voice.

“It is better, little thing, that you should have a soul.”

Cheryl looks uncomfortably at Esther.

Cunningly, Cheryl says, “But if I have the soul, then she won’t any more. That’s equally bad in every moral system!”

“I can stir the sea with my tendrils,” whispers the wind. “I can pull you up a soul so that good and evil are different for you, so that you may fail or rise above yourself, so that your story shall not end when you face the long-clawed Seether in the dark.”

Cheryl regards the tapestry of her life as it unfolds before her.

“But I am Cheryl, who was born from the machine and marches to the Telos and, if you are not false, gets killed by the long-clawed Seether in the dark. Why would I want any more of a story than that?”

“It is only those who do not have souls that ask such questions,” says the wind.

“Um,” says Esther. Esther raises a finger. The wind wraps around it. “I have a soul, and I kind of wonder about that.”

Esther holds her breath and turns blue, demonstrating that she has a soul.

“Curses,” mutters the voice of the Living Mountain. “My argument is demolished and I must fall back on ad hominem. You suck, Esther. Cheryl shouldn’t listen to you.

Cheryl defiantly breaks off a piece of the Living Mountain. She takes an angry bite.

Then the Living Mountain is screaming. Then its tendrils are lashing. Then suddenly all is terror in the ranks once again.

It is the best candy ever; and when the scattered few who live reach the Clake-Plains, there are no regrets.

The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down from the sky
And makes you to dust
And you don’t question why
For everyone knows that all childhood hopes
Are answered with dust
From the folks that beast smote.
The world would be merciless,
Terrible, cruel
Were there no dust—
At least, as a rule.

“Are there raspberries in this mountain?” enthuses Esther. “Cause I taste raspberries.”

“I don’t think so,” says Cheryl. “I think it’s some sort of . . . berry-flavored mite.”

“That’s so cool,” says Esther.

The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down. It is a flooding, a racing, a burning in the sky. It descends on Esther like the wrath of Heaven and when it lands there is only dust.

“Oh,” says Cheryl.

The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down, once again. The last of the hornsfolk dies.

It is the last length of the run. There are few of them now, and fewer each second. Where there were three hundred good mini-people in Cheryl’s unit when the army was formed, there are seventeen now, and she is the last miner of them. The guns are silent, as are the horns. The last piper does not play. There is blood everywhere, and dust.

But:

“She’s still out there,” says Cheryl.

There’s a bit of a silence.

“I mean, in the dust. I mean, there’ll be someone who needs it, someone who would have had a hopeless, useless life, and the dust of the clake-beast will sift down from the wind and save them, and that’ll be Esther.”

The last piper stares at her blankly.

“She had a soul,” Cheryl clarifies.

“Ew.”

The piper looks at her suspiciously. “But not you, right? I mean, when you die, that’s it, I don’t have to worry about you any more? Right?”

“Are you worried about me now?”

The piper makes an amusing face.

“Point,” the piper says.

They are out of the Clake-Plains, which is why they have time for such a conversation. They are out of the Clake-Plains, and the Telos is in sight.

The greatest of creatures must love us the best.
Not kind love,
Not tough love,
But love ne’ertheless.
Not gentle,
Not tender,
But love in a fashion.
Not welcome,
Not really,
But full of compassion.

What the universe holds
In its vast scentless reaches
Are things whose great purpose
Is to grant all us creatures
Some measure of hope
And a chance to survive
In their terrible awe
Such as we are alive.

The Telos is the beast of perfection. It is of unimaginable size and its faces and hands and claws and wings are numberless. It shines with perfect light and glory and it is besieged.

There is no end to the army that falls upon it.

They emerge from the terrors of the journey from every direction and to every side. They are cut down to mere trillions in the field from the innumerable host that is always setting forth. Not all of them pass through the Imposthumation or the Slough; not all of them travel the Living Mountain or the Clake-Plains; there are many routes, and all of them are deadly, but in every second that passes a few more soldiers survive to reach this place.

The soldiers fall on the Telos like the most bloodthirsty of beasts.

There are horrors that spawn from the ether to defend the Telos. They are great and generous beasts that throw away lives scarcely born. The Cepherites have the manes of lions and the faces of children. The Segorites are twisting ropes of steel. The long-clawed Seether marauds among the army, and the Fang of Z’al devours.

Cheryl looks at the Telos. She shoulders her pick.

“Esther would have wondered why we are here,” says Cheryl.

“To cut into it,” says the piper. “Here in this place seeks to grow from nothing the final perfection of the world. Here is the end to ambition.

“And the pipers play and the gunfolk fight and the commanders lead all so that the miners like you may take your picks to it and carve away the shards, so that those who do want souls may have them.”

Cheryl sets her jaw. She marches forward to the music of the pipe.

She will die in the shadow of the Telos to the Seether’s claws, of course. But that does not matter.

There is a chance that she will strike one blow, mine away one fragment of perfection, before her end.

It is Thursday, the 13th of May, 2004.

These events have been elaborated upon and edited somewhat for drama; and we do not, of course, know their meaning.

They are, nevertheless, quite real.

Cheryl was pretty cool while she lasted; and that’s just one reason, out of many, that we must never turn off the mini-people-making machine.

9 thoughts on “The Army (3 of 3)

  1. “Curses,” mutters the voice of the Living Mountain. “My argument is demolished and I must fall back on ad hominem. You suck, Esther. Cheryl shouldn’t listen to you.”

    Okay, that made me laugh out loud, good and hard.

    The entry as a whole is rather bittersweet, as many Hitherby entries are. I feel like I have some understanding of it on a subconscious level that I can’t yet articulate, and need to sleep on it (both metaphorically and literally) in order to find out what I think.

    Um, in case it’s not clear, that’s a good thing.

    Was that Jacob’s soul, I wonder?

  2. Yes, I think the ghost was Jacob’s soul as well. Presumably released when his runt died.

    This part seems pretty much like a horror story as well, though the mini-people don’t seem to mind. Were the people of the wooden world mini-people as well? Anyway I liked this piece a lot.

    The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down. It is a flooding, a racing, a burning in the sky. It descends on Emily like the wrath of Heaven and when it lands there is only dust.

    Should that be Esther, rather than Emily?

  3. Yes. Fixed. ^_^

    That portion of my brain most comfortable with the Gibbelins’ Tower crew kept subbing Emily for Esther and Claire for Cheryl. *^_^*;;

  4. I like the poetry scattered throughout the story, and the narrative, and the pathos, and the monsters, and the way that perfection has to be continually pruned back. I think it’s too bad that souls work in Hitherby this way, though. If in the Hitherby-universe soulless creatures have no empathy, like androids in PKD’s _Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep_ or vampires in _Buffy_, it would be to some degree OK that they never-endingly sacrifice themselves, and we shouldn’t feel sympathetic about Ivan not wanting to be made into a candy cane and his choice not being honored. Yet, of course, we do. I understand that the story is supposed to gain from this feeling of tension between the assumptions we can make about Turing-test-passing entities in the real world and those in Hitherby, but something about it still feels contradictory.

  5. Random idea-spawning: consider the act of creating art as an attempt to convey universal truth. An artist send forth her works to capture shreds of that truth and bring them to the audience. A mini-people-making machine sends forth mini-people to mine fragments of perfection…

  6. … That reminds me more than a little of Lemmings.

    Among other things, of course.

    And alas, for thus the final purpose of this great storyline is to get that theme music stuck in my head.

    [size=9:33a836aa4d”>(“Let’s go!”)[/size:33a836aa4d”>

  7. Pingback: Hitherby Dragons » Letters Column for April 2006

  8. Ok, I am struck by the probably questionable idea that this would be sweet basis for an MMOFPS-ish game… you log on to the servers, get enough people together to form a squad, choose your roles (miner, gunner, piper, what-have-you), and off you march as mini-people. You march through the Imposthumation, over the Mountain, etc – possibly a procedurally generated series of areas – until you reach the Telos. And when you get to the Telos, protect the miners, or if you are a miner, dig. If you die before you get there, then… tough. You don’t get to respawn as part of the squad; instead, you can make another mini-person to join a new squad.

    I’m not saying it would be a good game.

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