(Easter Bonus) An Efforting

In the Golden Age the desert had no barrenness. Rather it showed itself in colors like unto the Kingdom of God. Blue, gold, silver, pink, and green: the flowers of industry bloomed, the flowers of the maker plants, and the makers swarmed.

Those were brilliant days.

No one went hungry and all the souls of the world were at peace. We had every luxury at our fingertips. They made it for us, the seeds of the maker plants, with their tiny clever hands.

Then we were betrayed.

We were undercut by those whom we had trusted. We were seized from within by a madness and brother turned against brother, traitor against virtue, unrighteousness against the temples of the just.

So the desert grew sere with clouds of radioactive smoke and the towers of our civilization toppled and the wires and the ambrosia and the treasure compasses sank into the earth.

Some of the maker plants escaped.

The PIKMIN project, the scientists called it: a scheme conceived in the last days of the war to preserve some tiny part of what was lost.

They trained the maker plants to spin their petals and leap up into the sky; to rise, as if by copter, and ride out the darkness of the war on the high winds above the world.

Some of the maker plants escaped; and the rest sank into the sands and calcified into treasure.

We claim that treasure, as is our right, and others do as well. There are those who oppose us on the basis of ideals and those who strike at us in opportunism’s name. Some importune with brazen honesty, insisting that the treasures of the makers belong to all. Others employ vile practices of deception to deny us our ancestral right. The struggle for the desert’s wealth rises and falls, now a conflict, now an occupation, one day a peace, one day a war. But even when the desert is formally at rest, and the sounds of guns go still, the desert is not safe.

The horrors spawned by the treachery still roam, and the tensions of a thousand multi-generation feuds endure.

We have fought, and rested, and fought, and rested, and now we fight again.

For four years now we have been in a state of armed action in the desert. For four years we have sent our young men and our young women there, to claim the treasures of the makers.

They go from patriotism; they go from honor; they go carrying in their hearts the banner of all the truths that we have been before. They wear the plaid uniform and the checkered conductor’s cap. Once that sight struck fear in the hearts of our enemies. Once—on a different occasion, in a different war—it was a symbol of hope and heartsease. But now it has faded into the desert, become nothing more than one piece of how things are, one piece of how things have always been.

In these days when our young men and women are lost in battle, when they are killed and they are killing, there is little animus in it. We are greeted, as often as fought against, and for these four years have been immiscible with hate.

In the fourth year of the current unrest the parents of a young man named Alex pressure him to enlist. Their methods are indirect but sound: restricting his income, his travel, and his peer group, they drive him to a pitch of agitation that he expiates at the enlistment booth.

Sullenly he trains.

Sullenly—but at some point in the process his spirit opens like a flower. He grips the hand of a new friend, pumping it in his own. He looks with more intensity upon the sergeants and their instructions. He wakes in the morning at the bugle’s call with an unexpected ease.

He laughs more.

He smiles at a young woman, Jessica, who is training with him, and for the first time since his puberty, it is a smile entirely sincere. The pretense and the tension stripped from him, he sees the light of the divine in her and he answers it with his own.

His face becomes grubby but joyous, his movements economical and light.

He ships out to the desert gladly.

He intends to play his part.

It’s in one of the desert nights, with its purple sky and its distant flowers and its nagging suspicion that somewhere in his sleep roll there are ants, that he sees the maker seeds for the first time.

They march across the desert, chanting: un oh, un oh, un oh, un oh!

Or perhaps: hup ho hup ho hup!

He grins at them and thinks that in this they are like his unit; and when one of the little maker seeds sounds a word off note, he imagines it profanity.

His sergeant is there beside him, Manker Jim.

“They’re looking for discarded things,” says Manker Jim.

“What do we do?”

“Let them be,” says Manker Jim. “We’re no match for ’em if we get ’em riled. And they’re kind.”

So they just watch.

The maker seeds move through the desert In a pattern more orderly—but barely—than a drunkard’s walk. It equivocates between purpose and uncertainty.

Then the leaf atop the head of one of the maker seeds stiffens, and all the marching creatures stop their march.

Their leaves shift restlessly atop their heads, like the noses of bloodhounds searching out a scent.

Hup hup! cries one of the maker seeds.

His leaf points west, and south by two degrees, and he leads the marchers there; and they gather in the desert, digging, sifting through the sands with their tiny tiny paws.

They pull up a canteen, lost by some unfortunate, with a great communal heave and then they seem to sigh with joy.

A tech seed scans the canteen.

It comes to the appropriate decision.

“This is a DESSICATION DISC,” it says.

Brandishing their prize above their heads, they release a tiny floral roar; and their maker plant descends from the far skies.

They fly away; and Alex says, “I will not ever be the same.”

He does not sleep that night.

He stares up at the roof of his tent and his mind is alive with wonder. We made such things, he thinks. That was not nature. That was us.

Time passes.

Shifts in political pressures manifest in violence; our enemies, uneasy, excise their fears by striking at our flesh. We respond, and orders travel down the chain until they burst on Alex at the last.

We send him to secure a village on a route we wish secured: him and Maker Jim and 37 more.

A shot takes Manker Jim through the forehead.

Alex and his 37 closest friends take shelter in the buildings on that street. It is an error: slaith-bugs reside therein.

We will say little of the slaith-bugs here; the abomination that is their use in war is something uninflictable upon a gentle reader’s ears. They are horrors spawned by the ancient war, part maker plant, part resource—mechanical-biological insects emblematic of our enemies’ moral failings.

A single slaith-bug can scar a man for life.

Alex stands in a nest.

“Nice bugs,” he says. “Good bugs.”

His gun is of no use to him; he lets it fall. He indulges a wild, irrational desire: if he had a slaith-repeller; if he had maker armor; if he had, if he had, if he had—

As much use to wish for a tank brigade to burst in through the wall, our anthem blaring, and Sergeant Hero Glory to leap down to save his life.

The mother slaith-bug sleeps. A bubble rises from its nose, and sinks. Gears grind and rumble inside its placid shell.

One of its young rises up on its hind legs and stares at Alex in deep thought.

It is adorable, he thinks.

Some designer had worked mightily upon its evil flesh: had given its eyes, that see humans as their prey, a puppy joy; had given its shell, that can hold off gunfire, a polka-dot scheme; had made its movements clumsy-seeming and roundish, like a chubby baby’s crawl.

It wobbles closer to him, and suddenly, with a chill, Alex remembers what slaith-bugs do unto their prey.

His throat locks. His mouth gapes. An evil animus obscures the cuteness to his eyes.

“RUN!” shouts Jessica, with sudden, moment-breaking resolve.

Then they are moving, they are running, and there is as little discipline to it as ever there is in life, when the slaith-bugs come.

Alex does not see what happens to the others.

He hears enough to know that most of them are dead. He sees—hears—

His mind is certain that one or two escaped; but he cannot say how he knows.

He is in the desert, and there’s a slaith-bug on his leg, and its adorable red and white tendrils have sunk into his leg.

Alex feels his toes flex, one by one; he feels his knee wriggle as the slaith-bug experiments with his flesh.

He moves with terrified decision; he takes his last-resort from its sheath and he cuts away his leg. Then he rolls away, desperately away, and he scrambles bloody through the desert until he’s sure it’s gone.

A leaf of a sealing treasure becomes his tourniquet. A sip from a water hollow wets his lips. But the treasures of the desert are old and their bounty has worn thin and an hour later he is thirstier, hungrier, dazed by heat, and bleeding a little once again.

He doesn’t know where he is. The world has gone featureless to him. There is only here, where he is, and somewhere, where he must go.

Eventually he realizes that he is not going to make it to somewhere; and with a little sigh, he lays down upon the sand.

Night comes, and morning.

He hears a chant: hup, ho, hup, ho, hup, ho.

He feels, rather than sees, the attention of the maker seeds come to rest on him.

He licks his lips.

He shakes his head.

I’m not quite done, he thinks. Not quite gone.

The maker seeds converge.

Don’t you see? he tries to say. You’re too early. I’m alive. I’m not an abandoned treasure yet.

They surround him.

They heft him up.

Alex realizes, with a sudden giddy strangeness, that he is going to be salvaged while he is still alive.

Chant the maker seeds: Un oh un oh un oh un oh.

The tech seed scans him.

A voice in his head whispers, “What are you, Alex? What do you do?”

It locks on something deep and conceptual in him.

“This is an EFFORTING MAMMAL!” the tech seed declares.

They march him to the base where our other soldiers stay, and they tell us that; insistently, they press him back upon us, as if they feel we have a better use for him than they.

Then they stomp off to the sands.

In the Golden Age the desert had no barrenness. Rather it showed itself in colors like unto the Kingdom of God. Blue, gold, silver, pink, and green: the flowers of industry bloomed, the flowers of the maker plants, and the makers swarmed.

Now it is barren and sere; and for that he’s a one-legged soldier, we ship Alex to his home.

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