Excerpt from “Earthburst”
Below is the first 10,000 words of Earthburst, Dan Megill’s 91,000 word science fiction novel.
By Dan Megill
“Your birther was a squad leader, Airn, soon to take the short road, and she continued to lead her squad, well into her pregnancy. Why, there were whispers among the trainees that she wished to continue hunting, even past the date when Father forbid it, but then trainees waste all their time gossiping, and any trainees from your birth-time took a Road a long time ago.”
Airn smiled up from Ela’s lap. Though his own caremother discouraged such needless digging into the past, there was little for the unculturated youth (unyu for short) to occupy themselves with, before coming into their ru, and since the caremothers were overburdened with charges, she was happy to leave Airn with Ela. And Ela knew the past. She was the oldest caremother in the clan, had been caremother to Airn’s birther before him, and hundreds of others. For over fifty years she had seen unyu to their culturation.
“Tell me about her battles, Ela.”
“Oh, child, I have seen but one battle in my life, and that one I ran from. I am not one to ask of battles, certainly not your birther’s.”
“Ela, you must know. Didn’t they sing, in those days?”
“Oh, of course they sang, but singing is not my gift.”
“Then give me your memory. I don’t need it sung. Please Ela?”
“A clever twist of words, boy. I shall miss that, when you become a fighter. Listen then, to an old tale of heroism, of one who may—or may not—” She smiled at this, and Airn smiled back “—have been your birther.”
Airn leaned back into Ela and closed his eyes, so he could imagine each scene as she described it.
“So, young Airn, what shall we name our great warrior of antiquity?”
“Mwa, like my caremother. Perhaps it would please her to be a great warrior.”
Ela chuckled “Very good. Mwa, then. So, Mwa had been culturated only a few months before, and her physicality left much to be desired. She’d always been a great ru wielder, even from the first days of targeting, she could hit the farthest targets, destroy the strongest ones. Most of us can only fire from our hands, but with a little concentration she could launch a respectable ru blast from any part of her body. She was a shaper, too, a skill even more rare then than it is now. In her later days she would, for demonstration, block a blast from any wielder in the clan. Huya can teach you the basics of shielding, and indeed he’s our best warrior now, but he couldn’t block a caremother’s best shot. Rhee–“
“—You mean Mwa–”
“Of course” Ela blushed at her mistake, but moved on quickly “Mwa. Mwa would select the hottest young trainees, coursing with ru, to test her shield. She would stand in the path of the blast, such was her confidence.”
“But Ela, would they really try to break the shield then? I hope not. I couldn’t shoot at another wielder if I thought it might hit them”
Ela loosed another warm chuckle. “An eleven like yourself couldn’t fire ru at another wielder at all. Wait until targeting begins, lad. It’s only a few months.”
Airn frowned at the childlike treatment, but he knew that to argue would interrupt the story, and even Ela might not be ready to see his counterargument. He looked back up at Ela, and she knew what he wanted.
“Right, the story. I was so busy talking about her later life. What was her name again?”
“Yes, Mwa. So Mwa, practically still rubbing the sleep from her eyes after her culturation coma, is marching down a nearby pathway, munching a biscuit. She’d been training all day, but falling behind the trainees was a new experience for her, so she wanted to find a place away from the camp to work on her physicality. She didn’t take to culturation like most unyu do. Some folks thought she didn’t have it at all, her skin was so unchanged, early on. So she’s walking, scanning the trees for a place to practice, and what do you think she sees? The shifting grey of a puddler, come to spy on the village. We lived in mostly tamed country, back then, so this was pretty unusual. Anyway, she saw it, but it didn’t move. We never could figure out why. Well, Mwa she just gathered up some ru and flung it at the puddler, up in its tree–she had sharp eyes, your birther–and poof, one less deceiver in the world.”
“One paralyzed puddler? I could—“
“If you’d let me tell the story” Ela cut in, smiling and giving the boy the lightest of cuffs, “Well, she was feeling pretty good about herself until the leaves and branches disappeared from that tree and it coiled down around itself.”
“Yep. So Mwa starts backing home, gathering up more ru, because a puddler, miragist, and worm all near camp had to mean more than just a spy mission. Meanwhile, the worm starts coming after her, with the miragist on top. Not full speed-like, but definitely catching up. Well, she doesn’t know what to do. She can’t outrun them, and certainly not with her physical state, and only a fool would take on a worm and a miragist alone, so what does she do? But they’re catching up slow, giving all this time to think about. The worm’s not roaring. The miragist has his hands out, not a shuriken in sight, no doubles of him, all the world as true as you and me. Honestly Airn, sometimes I wonder if that girl was still unculturated enough to lie, when she first told this story, but I even asked her, years later, when you could barely see her skin for culturation, and she looked right at me and said, in that grave way fighters have, ‘It was true.’ Last words she ever said to me, matter of fact. She took the short road a few months later. “
“But what about the worm? It sounds like she was ready to long-road it right then and there!”
“It does, doesn’t it? But the worm got about twenty paces from her and stayed that far off, and the miragist started singing or something. She couldn’t quite tell. Well, at this point, the poor girl’s running as fast as she can, but she still can’t lose the worm, so she launches some ru—a huge blast, it must have been–at an upcoming tree by the road. It starts tipping, and she just misses it, but she catches the worm on its tail. Well it lets up a big shriek, and for a second she thinks she’s beaten it, so she stops, but no, it was only the tip. The worm shook off the tree and kept coming”
“How big was the tree?”
“Y’know, I never asked. Anyway, Mwa’s standing there, and, true as I’m standing here, the miragist tries out some new trick on her. She said it felt like leaves rustling inside her head, and for a second, she couldn’t concentrate, whether it was surprise or the technique or what. That worm came up, but instead of gulping her up it just coiled around her. She said she couldn’t move her arms or hardly breathe. Well, the miragist walks down to her from where he was riding, pulls her hair aside, and looks at her culturation spot.”
“I don’t know, boy. The deceivers’ ways are too crooked for me. Anyway, he sees it, then he reaches down to his belt for a blade. I guess whatever he saw, he didn’t like. Well, Mwa’s been waiting for her chance, but she realizes, right then and there, that she’s done for if she doesn’t do something fast. So the miragist has his blade and is looking down at her, and she manages to fire the killing shot out of her head!”
Airn was suitably impressed. No warrior of his clan who had not yet taken a road had any versatility in their ru wielding. Certainly none could fire a killing blow thus. Airn squirmed delightedly and looked up at her, waiting for her to continue.
“So Mwa’s taken out a puddler and a miragist, but the big one’s still left, and she’s trapped by it. She’s not fuzzy in the head anymore, so she starts firing everything she’s got out of her trapped hands, while the dumb worm’s still sitting there. It doesn’t like those blasts at all, so it lets her drop. Now she’s got her hands free, so she’s throwing all she can, and the worm, he just slithers off, dodging what it can, taking what it can’t.”
“Strange story, Ela.”
“Wasn’t it? I promise you you’ll never hear again of someone fighting off a worm singlehanded, but hey boy, you’ve got her blood. Maybe you have her ru too.”
“I hope so, Ela.”
Ela gave him another wrinkled smile, “I will miss you when you take the culture, boy. I can’t wait to see you in Paradise.”
“Ela, even when I’m the oldest hunter, I’ll still come to you, don’t worry.”
Ela managed what she thought was a convincing smile. “As long as I have your word, boy. You just make sure you survive, stay on the short road. Now go. I’ve got charges to look after and you’re not one of ‘em. What would Father say if Wowo fell off a cliff while I was sitting here gabbing with you of things past?”
“Of course Ela. Thank you. Bye.”
And they parted ways, Ela thinking of the thousand unyu she’d known and lost, and she knew that this would keep happening, even with Airn, promise or no. She knew it was right, but it didn’t make it easy. Part of what made her such a good and long-serving caremother was the simple fact that she loved each unyu. Soon though, she would take her own road to Paradise, where they would all be reunited again, and that, truly, would be a sweet day.
Airn, heart full of the marvelous story, nevertheless breathed only one thought to himself as he ran out of the village to attempt his birther’s skill: “Her name was Rhee.”
“Welcome, elevens, to target practice. You’re the seventh crop I’ve seen. I warn you, the tens were a fine class, the best I’ve had, so I won’t be easily impressed. Well, take your stalls and commence!”
The beginning target range was just a series of clay objects—misshapen balls, mostly—on a hill side. Since this was the first day, they were intentionally fragile, and arranged at random on the hillside. On later days there would be regimentation, tests of a wielder’s ru strength, versatility, and accuracy, but on the first day, the unyu had merely to demonstrate that they wielded at least a spark. Unyu were not supposed to try their ru at all, before the commencement of training, but of course they all had. Indeed, Father would have been distressed if it were not so, but the rule served its intended purposes of preventing ru from being wielded in the squabbles of the unyu. Even at their age, damage could be done.
Airn called up a sphere to his hand, savoring the feel of it, the freedom that was now his to use his power when he wished. The other unyu were firing now. Targets chipped and shattered and dirt exploded in puffs—very small puffs—from the long-ruined hillside. An indigo head poked around the back of his stall.
“Having trouble with your ru, Airn?” Marn giggled, “You’ve got a sphere there. Just throw it!”
Marn went back to her own stall and Airn could see her blue spheres start to fly again. They weren’t strong, but that would come, and she was demonstrating impressive frequency. Airn squared his shoulders, straightened his arm at a distant target, and released his first official ru blast. He missed. But only narrowly, and an impressive cloud of dirt was kicked up, far more than any of his fellow 11s were managing, though it was minimized by distance. Very good. Airn knew, even already, that he had great ru. He had discussed the possibility with Ela, and he was taking her advice now, and not showing off. There was plenty of time to practice strength in the forest. This practice time could be spent on accuracy. He called a smaller blast and, this time, hit that distant target. Airn grinned.
Three months into their training, Airn was still cautious about showing off his ru strength to much, but, in the realm of physical training, he had no need to worry about being mistaken for the best. They’d been on the field all day, climbing and sprinting and wrestling, but now, before meal, they came to the obstacle course. He tripped going over the hill. Through the tree path he ducked one branch only to rise in another which nearly made him to leave his feet entirely. His coverall was too loose, and during the swim it slowed him down. Still, crossing the line at the end, Airn was pleased to see that he wasn’t last, or even close to it. Marn had beaten him of course—she would be insufferable afterwards—and Duk, Hun, Yels, and Gil, but the majority of the group he had bested. Airn sat down, out of breath and rubbing his aching head, and waited while the others finished the circuit.
“Father requests that you run it again.”
This earned him a pointed look from his trainer. “Father requests…”
“Yes of course. Sorry sir.”
And he was off. Up the hill. Why again? He’d behaved well, finished well, but now he’d be taking his biscuits with the day’s trailing five. At least Marn wouldn’t get the chance to crow, he thought as he entered the trees. Perhaps it was a mark of favor. He did say “Father requests.” Could Father have actually, specifically requested him, Airn? That gave Airn a surge of energy, as he bobbed and weaved through the obstacles, catching sight, again, of the water. Ela had told him Father paid close attention to the unyu trainees. Perhaps he was destined for great things. Perhaps Father had noticed his ru strength, though he’d barely begun to show it. Perhaps he was set apart to be a great fighter. Perhaps a second running wasn’t so bad after all.
Airn came to meal late, of course. He’d been asked to run the course a third time, but he thought he’d seen trainer’s hand go to his ear, as he approached. Maybe Father really was asking about him specifically.
“Airn! Glad you made it! The trailers are over there!” Duk pointed over to where the bottom 25% of the day’s obstacle course sat. They hung their heads a bit lower at the unwelcome attention to their low status.
“What happened, Airn?” Hun asked, sincerely curious, “You came in right after me, didn’t you?”
Airn smiled. Hun bore out the wielder’s most-prized quality of truth. “I did. Father requested I run it twice again.”
“Father requested?” Lin seemed skeptical, but scooted over to allow Airn to sit and passed him a plate of biscuits “You sure about that?”
“So the trainer said, and he says little enough.” Airn said
“He’s a culturated one, that’s for sure. That first day, when he mentioned the 10s, I had no idea how much of a speech that was for him.” Hun replied.
“They are a good class. I’ll miss them when they take culturation”
“Why Airn? Are you too good for us in puck push already?” Duk challenged.
Airn was, but he knew better than to say it. Still, his silence while he bit back his retort was opening enough for Duk.
“You do! Why you cocky unyu! Why don’t you challenge the culturated trainees, if we’re all too easy?”
Airn kept his peace. There was nothing good to say. He was undefeated at puck push, and waiting for trainer to notice so he could get more challenging opponents, but Airn knew better than to openly profess such sentiment to his friends, particularly with Duk present. Still, even when you know better…
“Airn, we’ve only played once, you know.” Duk pressed.
“Yes Duk, and it was over so quickly I almost forgot it.” Airn shot back.
That inspired some giggles. Puck push is a game that favors ru, not agility, so Duk never had a chance in their match, and everyone at the table knew it.
“Ok Airn, you’ve got so much ru. Why not take two of us? Yels and I would be happy to try and unseat the master.”
“How many pucks?” Airn replied.
The other unyu were taken aback. He was really considering this? Maybe Airn was a bit cocky.
“Two, let’s keep it simple”.
“Two then. I’ll see you out there.”
The conversation turned, then, to the announced presence of deceivers in the area, the depressingly small roaming area now allocated for them, and, of course, how different things would be when they became warriors, but while the more wistful discussed that dream, the others around the cafeteria began to whisper. A 3-month trainee, taking on two opponents in puck push? That was something worth seeing.
Airn knew he could win, and he’d really just wanted to change the subject anyway, so he didn’t let it worry him much at all.
Perhaps he should have.
It had been easy. He had only needed one ru beam from each hand for a few seconds, and the occasional feeble counter-blast from Yels and Duk had barely slowed him down. The pucks fairly flew across the line. Duk would, for once, have nothing to say, and that thought made Airn grin. The other unyu were very talkative, though, flocking around the base of his ladder as he climbed down. Their questions ranged from incredulity to suspicion.
“How did you do that?”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“That wasn’t ru! Beams like that aren’t possible”
“No wielder can do that!”
Duk had gotten his breath back, finally, and marched over angrily.
“You cheated! That was a deceiver’s lightshow! No way an unyu could win like that! And with beams! You’ve just learned deceiver tricks!”
To Duk, Airn responded, “Would you like to play again? We could switch sides.”
Duk was speechless. Of course. There was no way to rig puck push. They could check the pucks right now. Twenty unyu had watched it. Airn smiled, for a moment, as he saw Duk struggle to come up with something. But Airn only got to smile for a moment.
“We’ll take you on.”
Turning, Airn saw his new challengers. Two unyu, a year older than Airn, only months from culturation. Airn’s smile faded.
“No thanks. I don’t want to—“
“Show off? It’s not a problem. Take your platform.” The big unyu walked away took their spots.
Airn was hesitant still, but the crowd around him insisted. He turned back to the ladder to beat his next opponents.
Airn won three more games before the other unyu became collectively put off by the idea of being beaten by a 3-month trainee. His 5-puck match against three senior unyu had been a bit difficult, since it required him to split his attention so much. One puck had almost crossed his line, but he’d noticed in time and sent it skittering the length of the field with the strongest blast he’d used that day. The unyu he beat didn’t have much to say, but the others—and Airn swore every unyu in the clan had been there at some point during those brief matches—had crowded around him afterwards, speaking all at once, clapping him on the back, asking him how he did it and if he’d teach them. Airn said nothing, but walked proudly in the middle of the crowd. His mind was full of the day’s implications. It seemed he really would be the greatest wielder the clan had ever seen. Why hide it? Why had he hidden it? He couldn’t wait to tell—
“Airn! All the rest of you go off. You’ve got better things to do! Airn, come in here!”
This was a startling change of mood for all involved, but the anger in Ela’s face and voice was real enough that all obeyed.
Airn, too full of his triumph to heed the warning signs of Ela’s anger, exclaimed, “Ela, did you hear? I beat the Duk and seniors and—“
“I know you beat them! Why do you think I’m mad at you! Didn’t you listen to a word I’ve said? I don’t want you showing off your power!”
“Why not Ela? I’m ready! I’m stronger than any three unyu out there!”
“And is that what makes a good warrior? Ru?”
Airn paused, confused. The obvious answer was ‘yes’. It was what they fought with. It made them wielders.
“Ela, if you’re worried about my physical scores, I’m in the top quarter!”
Ela showed her first reprieve by snorting, with amusement. “Barely, boy. But no. I don’t care about your physical scores. I care about you. Tell me, who was that who walked back with you?”
Airn flushed with pride “Some of the others. They just wanted to talk to me about how I did it.”
“Did Marn walk back with you? Or Hun? Or Lin?”
“…I don’t think so, no.”
“Do you know why?”
“I guess they didn’t like the crowd?”
Ela smiled. “The first smart thing you’ve said today, boy. Nothing against those unyu there, but a crowd like that will scare your true friends away. You’ve only got a couple more years before you’re culturated. Don’t spend it surrounded by a crowd.”
“But Ela, how can I push myself? If using my full strength is showing off, then how do I practice? I do want to be a great warrior, Ela.”
“You will be, boy, you will be. I’ll help you find time away. And in the group exercises, well, you can practice things more subtly. Depending on the exercise, maybe you could work on shaping or shielding without the others seeing. I’ll talk to Father about things. And your caremother, of course.”
Airn smiled, and threw his arms around Ela in that childlike way he still had. “You’re my truest caremother, Ela.”
He believed Ela, of course, but he did not expect her words to result in a personal meeting with Father that evening. He’d sheepishly sat down with Marn when one of father’s mechanical discs appeared, hovering at his shoulder, chirping its summons.
“Wow Airn. I guess you really are different” Marn said, her tone strange
Airn had risen to go, but turned back “I’m sorry Marn. I don’t know why he’s calling me”
“I do. It’s ok. Go. We’ll still be friends. If you want to.”
“Of course I do. Save a seat in case I come back.”
Marn chuckled with pleasure. “Interviews with Father are rarely long.”
And Airn was off, following the disc to Father.
Father was, as might be expected, an imposing figure. This had not always been the case. The last Father was diminutive in stature, but he’d been killed in a deceiver raid, and the Father who succeeded him had been a stronger wielder. His skin was deeply blue-green with culturation, and his silver helmet of office gleamed, its spire catching the remaining daylight as Airn approached.
“Airn, I am aware of you. I am aware of your great ru. I was aware before today. I was aware before Ela told me. You are special. Therefore, you are exempt from group ru training exercises, and forbidden from puck push and other ru competitions. This has been announced to the other unyu while you have been here.”
Airn was distressed. “Father! How will I strengthen myself?”
“You will be assigned trainers, and you are encouraged to practice on your own in the way that seems best to you. You are encouraged to practice shielding.”
“You are dismissed”
“Since…err…if I’m strong enough in ru, might I be culturated early then? And join the hunt?”
“That is not possible.”
“Oh.” Airn’s face fell.
“You are dismissed”
“Yes Father. Thank you Father.”
Airn walked back to the cafeteria, unsure which of a thousand thoughts to think. Was this good? Was this bad? He would miss the easy confidence that came with ru competitions. He’d have to beat Duk in the physical competitions, now, if he was to escape the bigger boy’s gibes. He’d miss the chance to spend time with them. He’d be free to practice his skills. He’d be assigned a trainer. What did that mean? Would they have greater ru strength than him? What would the others think? This had been announced in the cafeteria while he was gone. What would the others think? That, at least, he’d soon find out.
Marn remained at table when he returned. Strangely she was still alone.
“Marn? What are you thinking?”
“They announced you’re not training with us, anymore.” Her tone was even, her expression unreadable.
“Not ru training. I’ll still train in physicality.”
“Well of course. You still need the training there.” She said, trying a smile.
“Are you unhappy Marn?”
She sighed, and looked at him.
“No, I guess not. Today made it obvious, if it wasn’t already, that your ru strength is out of our league. I don’t think there’s even a warrior as strong as you in our clan right now. Maybe this will keep you from getting a big head from beating us all day every day. But you’re different, Airn, and now you’re set apart in practice as well as in truth. I never wanted that to be true, but it is. You’re different from the rest of us.”
To which Airn responded with a simple statement that he never thought he’d say, that the boy who dreamed of the hunt had never believed before this moment.
“In ru strength, maybe, but there are more important things.”
So Airn, two weeks later, was walking between two skilled warriors, Kweg and Pill, reflecting on how this was becoming routine. He took hurried meals with his friends, and the day’s physical training, but that was all. He could catch snatches of time to check in with Ela and Mwa, his caremother, and hear about the other unyu’s lives from Marn and Hun, but the pace of his days was quickening. It was already starting to blur. At this point, in no time at all, he’d be in his culturation coma, and then the hunt would begin in earnest. The thought still excited him, to be sure, but, for the first time, his feelings on the subject were more complicated than simple, giddy, boyish excitement. Instead—
“AAAAHHH!!!” Kweg’s scream cut through Airn’s thoughts, and Airn, turning, was surprised to see shurikens in Kweg’s arm and stomach that hadn’t been there before. In another instant, Airn jerked his head to the right, not quite knowing why, and was rewarded by a queer burning that traced his left cheek. Pill, undamaged, spotted the assailants covered the fifty paces between them in two bounds. Not bothering with ru, he punched straight through the chest of a miragist, even as the deceiver drew back his arm to hurl another shuriken. Four other assailants winked out of existence. Kweg, meanwhile, had, with grunts, plucked the shurikens from his tough, cultured, hide. He turned and looked at Airn. “Shield!”
Of course. Airn’s shield. Since his blasting strength was too great for him to productively practice against another wielder, they’d been working on his other skills, including the nearly unheard-of skill of shielding. He might lack a cultured hide to protect himself, but if he could block the blasts of Kweg and Pill (usually), then surely he could keep off a few shurikens A moment later it came into existence, manifesting as a faint green glow.
Kweg was off toward another miragist clump in the trees, so Airn searched for others. Pill had killed the source of one clump, and was searching for others, but when he jumped back down from the tree branch, he seemed to sink a few inches down into the path, which then rose up and pulled him down before morphing into cruel blades. The movements shook off the dust of the path and the metallic grey of puddlers was revealed. Belatedly, Airn realized what they were and blasted them out of existence with a pair of shots, but Pill was already lost, pierced through the eye and throat. A shuriken bounced uselessly off Airn’s shield, and in another moment, he’d located the third miragist. Knowing he was spotted, the miragist ducked behind a tree trunk and emerged from the other side accompanied by five doubles of himself. Airn fired a hasty six blasts, but some of the mirrors managed to dodge it, and all forms remained, afterwards.
“Ok then” Airn snorted, and fired a beam from each of his hands, closing it like scissors on the clump. The rightmost turned out to have been the true miragist, and as the ru beam struck him his doubles disappeared.
Kweg appeared at his side, tugging a shuriken out of his chest. He appeared to have taken a few new hits in his pursuit of his target, but the miragist was gone.
“Well done. We will tell Father. We will see the healers. Is your cut deep?” He pointed to Airn’s cheek
Airn laughed nervously “I think it’s as shallow as a cut could be. It’s not even really bleeding.”
“Good. Let us go.”
Airn fell into step beside Kweg, reflecting on the odd onset of his nerves after the danger had passed. Or at least, he thought it had passed. He hadn’t dropped the shield, yet. He’d been finding a low-level shield easy to maintain. It almost felt natural. Airn envied the culturated their physical strength and agility, but with his shield he had no cause to envy them their skin. Quite the opposite, actually.
“Wait! Pill’s back there!”
“He is dead. He will take the long road. You will see him in Paradise. He should not have fought so physically. Remember, physicality is not our strength, and it is useless against puddlers.”
In another mood Airn would’ve pointed out, amused, that he was unlikely to ever choose physicality over ru, but instead he merely kept silent and turned back towards home and Father. His life had changed, in just a few minutes. He’d become a warrior. It hadn’t been exactly like his youthful dreams, but it gave him much to consider.
He kept his shield up the whole way.
After the two hunters had departed, the puddler emerged from its hole, shaking off dirt. The boy had been a foolish target, it seems, and a greater threat than suspected. The puddler made a gesture of displeasure, and hurried back through the forest with the report of the encounter.
Kweg recounted the tale in the terse way of all warriors. After Kweg had finished, Father nodded sagely, then paused for a full minute, pondering the problem, staring at nothing. Suddenly, he seemed to shift his attention back to Airn.
“Very good. Both of you will report to the healers. Airn will likely not stay with them. Airn will also wear an anklet from now on. Additional perimeter defenses will be activated. You are dismissed.”
“Yes Father. Thank you Father.”
At dinner the raising of the perimeter defenses was announced. No explanation was given, nor was one needed. For the hunters, at least. Most of them paused to acknowledge the announcement, nodded, and continued soberly munching on their biscuits, drinking their juice.
The trainees and the unyu were a different matter, and conversation at those tables rose to an excited buzz. Perimeter defenses—really more warning systems than defense systems—had been raised perhaps six times in Airn’s lifetime. The last time it had been announced was eight months ago. Shortly thereafter, the last Father had been killed. He hadn’t been much of a warrior, to Airn’s surprise. Airn could still see the puddlers closing on Father, through the observation screens of the hiding dome. He’d only shot one—a rather pitiful rate of fire, really–before they were on him, momentarily engulfing his head before leaving him behind, his eye sockets bloody. It was the surest and simplest place to pierce a wielder, after culturation hardened his body. The attack had been repulsed in the end, but with moderate casualties, including many unyu. Sending unyu down the long road early had, evidently, been the goal of the deceivers. A few days later a new vessel for Father had come, and the crown, the helmet that every Father wore acknowledged him as its new master. This Father was a warrior, and he made sure his clan knew it. He could shield, even, as he demonstrated to them that first day, and he called down ru like lightning from heaven to destroy the home of the deceivers who had despicably attacked defenseless unyu and caremothers. Airn wondered about the destruction of that deceiver base, at the time, how he’d found them and how he’d fired that blast from the sky.
His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance, at his table, of Gil and Lin.
“So Airn,” started Gil slyly, “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the raising of the defenses, would you?”
“I heard the announcement, just now” Airn replied, trying to follow Ela’s advice and not draw attention to himself.
“So did we.” Lin said, sliding into the bench space next to him and throwing a conspiratorial arm around his shoulder “But we don’t know why they’re being raised.” She looked at him expectantly for a moment, then added, “Do you?”
Airn shrugged and tried to think of a way out of this while being true. He opened his mouth to speak, but Gil forestalled him.
“Airn, look, I know you don’t want to show off, but people are figuring this out. You were training with Kweg and Pill the last few days, right? I saw Kweg with the healer, and he looked to have been hit by several shurikens. I was going to ask you about it anyway, thought maybe it was some training thing of yours, and now there’s this. Plus you’ve got that cut on your cheek. I guess Pill didn’t get hit?”
Airn was still hesitant, but looking around the cafeteria, he saw that the other unyu were shooting furtive glances his way, nodding and pointing. He was marked as different, and therefore somewhat used to this sort of thing, but he could tell he was being talked about. He looked at Marn, and made what he thought was a wry smile.
“What happened?” Marn asked.
“Pill’s on the long road. We were ambushed by three miragists and some puddlers. We fought them off, and Pill’s physicality was amazing, but he got in too close and the puddlers got him. Throat and eye, like the trainers say they do.”
“Did you fight? How’d you get that cut?” Lin’s eyes were shining.
“I fought. It was an ambush, three shurikens without a word from them, without warning. Two hit Kweg and the third missed my cheek by that much. It was close, but I was protected”
“You fought? And they didn’t hit you again? I thought deceivers targeted unyu, when given the chance.” It was Marn again. There was a note of concern in her voice now.
“I had good protection.” Airn said simply.
“What’s left of it,” Gil chuckled, “with Pill gone. And Kweg looked pretty messed up. You must’ve been dodging well, Airn. I guess you have some physicality after all.”
Airn chuckled back, “Plenty of it. I could send you down the long road without using my ru. Pill would be glad of the company.”
“He’s had worse company, if he’s been spending time with you.”
Airn carried on the banter, glad to be guiding the conversation away from the unsettling little battle he’d just emerged from. He was trying to distract Marn and Gil, true, but also himself, if he was being honest.
The days blurred on. Airn wore one of father’s anklets, now. The anklets were simple things, slender and silvery like Father’s helmet. They were used was for the occasional young unyu with a taste for running off, but otherwise were rarely seen. Ela let out a delighted cackle when Airn entered her hut and she saw it on him.
“It’s true then! An anklet! On a trainee. On my Airn. I couldn’t be prouder.” And she laughed more.
“Ela,” responded Airn, with some combination of offended dignity, love, embarrassment, and puzzlement ,“I thought you wanted me to keep a low profile.”
Ela barked out another short laugh “Boy, that was a lost cause a long time ago. I still want to keep you safe from the outside, and keep you from rushing through your training, but it doesn’t look like you’re going to manage to get by as just one of the trainees, and maybe that’s for the best.”
“Are you saying you might’ve been wrong, Ela? I could never believe that.” Airn smiled.
“Don’t try to turn this around on me, boy. I’m not the one with the toddler jewelry.”
“But really Ela, how does this work? Father just knows where all his anklets are?”
“Yep. His discs are usually sent to deal with the runaways, one to his location and one to those who should retrieve him. Some anklets raise a fuss when you leave the toddler area, others only when you leave the camp. And then Father’s discs have a whole range of possible responses. Did you know they can stun an unyu so that he can’t move?”
“Really? What about a fully cultured hunter? What about deceivers?”
“Father’s discs aren’t for deceivers. That’s your work, your sacred duty, to battle them with ru and Truth until you take your road. The last Father did use them for defense though, before he died.”
“I remember, actually. There were several of them. I’d never seen more than one at once, before. They were just beginning to fly at the deceivers when Mwa pulled me away from the observation screens and sent me to mind the infants.”
“Father’s discs were what saved us, I’m afraid. It’s to our shame, but without them I don’t think our clan would’ve able to repel that attack. So many miragists, puddlers, and even a worm, all brought against our camp. Father’s discs flew into the midst of them and exploded like—like ten of your birther’s greatest blasts. They took down the worm, and many of the miragists who were clustered around him. Turned the tide, really. We’re alive because of them.”
Airn was speechless for a moment. It was strange, certainly, to realize that Father’s simple hovering messengers were also deadly weapons; it was deeply troubling to consider that, theoretically, combat might not be performed between living beings—even deceivers had that much honor—but between machines and people; but also he did not understand Ela’s sudden eagerness to tell him everything, details about clan life—ongoing events in clan life–that he was sure would’ve been barred to him even a few months ago. It would’ve been laughingly barred, lovingly barred, but barred. He would’ve been told that it was beyond his concern, that he was chattering without purpose like the unyu he was, not the warrior he must become. This change, surely, was stranger than any power he was growing into. This was a deep change, to the closest relationship he had.
Ela cut into his thoughts. “Something on your mind boy?” Her searching expression knew there was.
“Ela…why are you telling me this?”
“It’s truth.” She shrugged.
“There are many truths, Ela, that you’ve been unwilling to tell me before today.”
Ela sighed. She looked at Airn, and brushed a hand once over his hair in a loving, wistful caress. “You’re different, Airn.”
“I changed so much in the last day?”
“In the last few months you have. And you haven’t. You’re growing into yourself. It seems like you were always going to be this way.”
“What way am I?”
Airn exhaled. “What does that mean?”
“You’re powerful of course. Ru like I’ve never seen. Not from your birther, not from anyone. I guess you haven’t matched Father’s ru-from-the-sky bit, but I doubt he could wear ru like a skin the way you can–”
“—You’ve seen that?”
“I watch you, Airn. I love you.”
“You love all the unyu, Ela.”
“No, I love each unyu. And you’ve always been special.”
“Different?” Airn couldn’t keep out a hint of bitterness at the word, despite Ela’s love.
“Exactly, yes, different. I’ve even see some of your shaping too. No one can do that, Airn.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“Only a bit. You do most of your practice in the forest?”
“I did, when I could get away, but with all my practice, and now this anklet…I know I’m blessed, but at times I felt my own practice was more productive.”
“Shaping’s pretty, boy, but how is it productive?”
Airn smiled as Ela reverted to her old name for him, her old challenging tone. “Watch.”
Airn called a small globe of ru to his hands. Effortlessly he made it zip around his body a few times, and then, concentrating more, he shot it at the wall. Ela began to gasp at the needless destruction of her hut, but the globe had already stopped, 6 inches short of the wall.
“I could get it closer, probably, but I wanted to be sure I didn’t accidentally destroy your hut”
“…Thank you…” was all Ela could say
“But wait! There’s more!”
Airn was thrilled, now that he had a confidante, someone to show what he could do–what he could really do. Father had asked for a display of power, and of course Airn had obeyed, so eagerly that Father never asked for a second display, and shielding was constantly practiced, but Airn’s other skills were considered uninteresting. Airn knew they could be interesting, if he could develop them into maturity, but with so little time and space to himself it hadn’t happened yet.
As he thought this he shifted the ball of ru in his hand through many shapes, cubes and rectangles and pyramids, and then into images—a flower, a hut, a tree—and then onto moving objects—a bird flying, a man walking, a pool of water, though that one was a bit poorly done, hard to recognize. Airn switched back to the bird, and the green of his ru grew brighter and brighter till Ela had to shield her eyes. Then it got dimmer and dimmer till Ela wasn’t sure if the slight green shimmer in the air that Airn was concentrated on was actually there or just her imagination, wishing to put something where all that light had been, seconds ago. Ela found her voice.
“Don’t you worry about becoming a deceiver, making those pictures like a miragist?” Ela asked. It was far from the best question, but she was reeling from it all. As an unyu she’d pictured herself teetering on the brink of a boundless ru power, only to learn that some, who had ru too weak to be hunters, were called to be caremothers. She’d forgotten that dream, but now it came back to her as she realized that here was a boy, her boy, in whom the dream of boundless ru was realized. But she could not put all this into words, and so her simple, stupid question came out instead.
Airn looked hurt, for a moment, but he recovered quickly. “I’ve considered that. I’d never use this in battle. It’s too impractical anyway. And I can’t change the color, not even a little bit. Only the intensity of the light. But wait, Ela, there’s one more thing…”
The ru sphere seemed to diminish significantly, and then flatten out into a kind of plate, impossibly thin. It hovered slowly—Airn’s face was a mask of intense concentration—slipped under the cup, and, very slowly, lifted it up. Again, Ela gasped.
“I’ve never seen…”
Airn’s eyes flicked to her, and in that moment the empty cup clattered to the floor. Obviously it was hard for him, this skill, and yet…
“I’ve never seen anything like that. I had no idea ru could be used like that.” Ela finished her thought.
“I didn’t either, but now that I know, it makes sense. It’s hard though, maybe impractically so. Both to not put the ru into the table or knocking over the cup, but then also apply the ru’s force in a steady hold, and not a blast. It’s very difficult.”
“Why do you practice it, if it’s so likely to be impractical?”
“Well…I’m getting better. It might be easy someday.”
“And…?” Ela pressed
“And…I want to lift myself” Airn said, smiling sheepishly, “I want to fly.”
Ela laughed long and loud at that one, and Airn, chagrinned for only a moment, joined in. He knew, even so young, that many of his reasons for wanting to fly were childish, but that did not lessen his desire, nor negate the reasons such ability might be useful.
“That,” Ela said, at last, “might be a skill you should keep secret from everyone, unless you want to be giving rides for the next few years.”
Airn grinned back, and the conversation went on for some time, after that, serious and silly by turns, and Airn thought he had never felt closer to Ela. Perhaps there were others who he should show what he could do to, also.
As if reading his thoughts, Ela commented, “You know boy, on the whole I think you shouldn’t show off to your fellow trainees, but maybe you could share it with one or two.”
Airn smiled. Ela knew him too well. “There is one friend I was thinking of…”
“I think she’d be perfect. Until I take my road, I’m here to listen, but a mighty young warrior like yourself can’t spend all his time talking to an old caremother.”
Until she took her road. Airn paused for a moment.
“Ela, when did they give you your last new charge?”
“You noticed, boy? There’s a reason I have so much time to just sit and talk with you. I help out in the nursery still, and wherever I can, and I like to think I’m still useful to the clan, but it’s been eleven years since they gave me anyone for my own, my Wowo.”
“She’s a 12, just a year younger than me”
“Exactly. It doesn’t look like it will happen before your culturation, but I’m being phased out. I’m not sorry for it. My whole body tells me it’s time. I will of course miss my unyu, though. Wowo’s a sweet thing, a kind end to my time as a caremother, and of course there’s you, Airn. You may belong to Mwa by law, but by right you’re mine.”
Airn had no appropriate response. “Thank you, Ela.”
“Tell Marn, don’t forget.”
“Soon Ela. Thank you.”
So two days later, his next chance to get away, he and Marn grabbed some biscuits and a pack of juice and were off to the forest. Airn had checked with Father and it seemed he was free to leave the perimeter. He was as free as any trainee. The anklet was just so that Father could find him in a hurry if need be. It felt odd to him, but Airn had learned by now that he was different, and so long as he knew the rules he had to follow, what else did Airn need to know? All the information Ela was giving him was welcome, but unnecessary. Father remained as terse as ever.
So Marn and Airn had their picnic, and talked as they had not for weeks. Until recently they’d shared almost every meal, but now circumstances pulled them apart. All unyu wondered, of course, how their friendships would fare when they became warriors, and if they too would become stern and taciturn, unconcerned with friendships, as the warriors were. A few years ago they would strive to imitate the hunters, not speaking at meals, but the silence would never last for more than 30 seconds before someone would laugh and break it.
“It feels like we’re warriors before our time.” Airn said, vocalizing his thoughts.
“You are, maybe, but I’m not. I still spend all my time with the unyu.”
“Marn…” Airn began.
“No, no Airn” She replied, lifting her hands in a pacifying gesture, “I know it’s not of your choosing. I don’t blame you for it. I know what you do is right. But you do spend all your time with warriors.”
Airn chuckled ruefully “it takes two to make a conversation…”
“Exactly. I wish I could be silly with you like we used to, but warriors aren’t concerned with such things, and if you’re with them, then you have to match their focus”
“That level of focus isn’t expected of anyone till months after the culturation.”
“Anyone else, Airn, you’re—“
“Different.” They said the word together, Airn with exasperation, but Marn laughed
“You have to make peace with it someday, Airn, unless you just want to choose to be miserable your whole life.”
And suddenly Airn find a smile “I have, Marn. I really have. That’s actually kinda why we’re here”
Marn raised an eyebrow “Oh?”
“I’m going to show you what I can do–”
“Airn, I already know you can beat everyone in our clan at once in puck push.”
“Yes, but have you seen this.”
Airn gave her much the same light show as Ela, except moreso. He lost control of one sphere as he was maneuvering it around trees a dozen paces away, and it dented the bark, but that was one advantage of doing this in the forest: damaging things wasn’t such a concern. Marn was shining-eyed throughout the whole display, gasping and laughing and clapping. She tried to control a sphere of her own, but lost it as soon as it left her hand. She was able to brighten or dim her ru’s light in slight, but noticeable, fashion, a triumph Airn was more thrilled with then she was.
“It makes me a little less different,” He explained.
“I don’t think anyone cares how bright or dim your ru is.” Marn pointed out.
“It could make a difference, at night, or if you wanted your blasts to be less visible.”
Marn nodded, considering, and conceding the point. “But what else do you have to show me? Brightness and shaping and puppeteering your ru are wonderful, but haven’t you been working on combat skills? Can you show me your shielding?”
A moment passed. Airn looked at her expectantly. She returned a quizzical look.
“I’m doing it right now.”
“Is it dim? I can’t see it.”
“You do look a little…green.”
She reached for his hand, and he let her take it. “You don’t feel shielded.”
“It’s in the skin.” Airn smiled back. He really was glad of a peer to share things with. Ela had been right, as always. “I can project a shield too, more visibly, more externally, but after some trial and error I found this way, and it’s easier.”
“Oh yes. Ru, after all, is harder to control the farther it is from you. If I project a shield, it’s a pace or two from me, but this way, it’s in me. Blasting is the same way. Calling up a sphere that you hold in the palm of your hand is harder, if you ask me, then just gathering the ru in your hand, or just in your body, and letting that escape wherever.”
“…Really?” Marn repeated.
Marn extended her hand, palm upwards, as she always did when preparing a blast.
“No no, palm down, don’t gather and shoot. Just shoot. The ru’s a fire in your chest and you’re just letting a bit of it out.”
Marn laughed at the image, then set her mind to the task and furrowed her brow. A blue glow gathered around her hand for a moment, and then a formless spark of the same color shot out of her hand to dent another distant tree.
“Perfect!” congratulated Airn.
“That way is easier, you say?” Marn replied, looking skeptical.
“It is. And faster. You just need a little practice, to break old habits.”
“But if this make us a better warrior, why do they teach us the other way?”
Airn nodded, “I’ve thought about that. I think it’s simpler to teach? It breaks the process down into two steps, encourages measuring out one’s force and aiming…”
“And not everyone has ru strength like yours, Airn. Some of us need to do some gathering before we fire off a blast that’s worth anything.”
“Some of them, but not you. You are the strongest 11, now, in ru”
“You don’t count anymore?”
Airn shrugged in answer.
“Well, sir strong man, I have a mind to test out your shield, before we’re done here.”
“Fire away.” Airn’s face was a gleeful challenge.
Marn called up a bit of ru and looked at him, not a trace of shield visible, smiling blithely.
“Could you…project a shield for me to hit? At least to start with? If I shot right at you I’d worry.”
Airn laughed, but obliged. “I guess, that’s probably a wise policy. I haven’t seen your strength in a while.”
The weeks and months passed, with Airn practicing hard every day, with his trainers, and growing stronger till he was pretty sure he could beat the whole clan in puck push. They trained him to keep his shield—his “ru skin” as Ela called it—up at all times, even in his sleep. That training was very difficult. Maintaining the ru skin at a low level throughout the day turned out to be quite doable, with some practice, but at night it was a different. For weeks everyone from warriors to joyfully mischievous unyu would creep silently into his hut while he slept and attempt to simultaneous jab three needles on the end of a stick in his body. This had the consequence of making him very tired and unhappy for those weeks, and making him a light sleeper, but despite his best efforts he could not maintain the ru skin asleep. He didn’t even really understand how he was supposed to try. When he became so alert in sleep that he would sense the intruder and awake in time to prevent their puncturing him, he was assigned a blindfold and earplugs and, eventually, even a sleeping draught, until finally, after two very unpleasant months, he awoke to what seemed to be a repeated tapping on his rear end. The young unyu who’d they’d sent tonight, a favorite of Father’s for this task because of his penchant for stealth, was whacking the poking apparatus against him to no avail. The needles were bending. The next night, a warrior similarly failed. The night after he was assigned a heavier sleeping draught and he slept through the entire night and an hour past waking time, only to be informed, by Father, when he did awake, that three warriors had tried to pierce him, last night. The last had even used a knife. He was shown a vid of this last, on Father’s screen, and his lips parted and he gasped with delight as he watched it.
“Do not grow proud, Airn.” Father reprimanded. “Your training will continue. You can still become better.”
Airn smiled back, “I’m just smiling at the chance to see a vid, Father. Though I will be glad to sleep through the nights, without painful wake-ups, I admit.”
“This is not the end of your sleep training. We must make sure that you maintain your skill, and that it has strength, against ru as well as metal. It will not be every night though. I am aware that it makes the days more difficult. You will continue drinking the draught. It will help you.”
“Help me how?” Airn asked.
“It will help you. You are dismissed.”
“Yes Father. Thank you Father.”
Eleven months after the unyu first became trainees came the Patron’s festival, when the class that preceded them received their gifts, and became warriors, or healers, or caremothers. Most became warriors, since a clan needed only a few healers, and a single caremother could manage many unyu over many years. The healers and caremothers, if there were any in a class, stayed active in the clan, largely unchanged, and began their apprenticeships, though at first most hid their disappointment poorly. The warriors, meanwhile, were not seen for a month, at least, since they began the process of becoming warriors by entering their culturation comas. Most emerged after little more than a month, but for some as many as six months passed before they left the “cocoon”, the wing of the healer’s hut that housed the culturation beds. Airn had peeked in the room, once, during its dormant months, and saw more metal than there was in the rest of the healer’s hut, but otherwise nothing remarkable. It was mostly just beds. Airn was caught looking, of course, and punished, but he didn’t regret the look. Unyu speculation on what exactly happened in the cocoon ran wild. The unyu knew only that the trainees entered, along with the Patron, who visited only for a week at this time of year. A week after that, the Patron left, and later the new warriors emerged. Each one’s head had apparently been shaved at the beginning of their coma, and each showed the start of the blue-green culturation spread, which began at the back of the neck where it met the skull and spread across the body over the course of several months. It added, when it had fully spread, a rough texture to the skin, making it very tough to pierce, and lending greatly increased strength to its host.
Airn gave little credence to most rumors that unyu traded about the coma—It was said by some that the skin was not changed, but replaced, or that some never woke up from their comas, for they had been fully consumed—but the changes in the new warriors were undeniable, and not merely physical. Healers and caremothers could be talkative as unyu, but warriors became nearly mute, after a time. As the Patron’s festival approached—the exact date was never certain, since it was dependent on the arrival of the patron—the 10s grew more and more antsy, and it piqued Airn’s curiosity enough to ask Ela, during a bit of his rare free time.
“Ela, what is culturation? How does it work?”
“What do you mean, boy? Why are you asking me? Do I look culturated?”
“Well, no, but how much do you think anyone culturated would have much to say about it? Or about anything?”
Ela grunted. “True enough.”
“So you’ve been around this clan longer than anyone. What have you learned?”
Ela, uncharacteristically, hesitated for a moment “It’s not something that’s usually talked about…”
Airn waited, looking at her expectantly. She knew he could be trusted.
“Ok boy. I still don’t know why I think you need to know some of these things, but I do. The culture’s some kind of a plant, I think. I don’t recall that we’ve spent much time near any ocean, long as you’ve been alive, but there are some things that grown on rocks down there that look a lot like it. I know it does something to your head, too. For the first few years, after they told me I was gonna be a caremother, I really was disappointed. I loved the unyu, sure, but I wanted to get to paradise, and everyone knows being a warrior is the shortest road. Well, if I were a warrior I might be there by now, but seeing so many unyu stop talking once they became warriors, over the years, I’ve become kinda glad I’m a caremother. I guess I like talking more than paradise.”
“You get both, this way, as long as you keep speaking the truth.” Airn offered.
“I know it, boy, I know it.” And she lapsed into silence.
“So…do you think…that the culture ever consumes someone entirely?”
Ela laughed. “Where’d you dream that up, boy? ‘Course not. Every unyu I ever knew to go into the cocoon came out, and I’ve known warriors who didn’t take a Road for 20 years after culturation without any changing. It stops when it’s covered you, don’t worry.”
“That’s good to hear.” Airn said, nodding.
“A few times there were unyu who just didn’t take to the culture—I think I told you once that your birther almost was one, or so it seemed. Father always makes sure every soul who goes in comes out and is seen. No one wants you scared of growing up.”
“What happened to those unyu who didn’t take to the culture?” Airn pursued.
“Oh, they were still warriors. They hunted with the rest. ‘Course, without the protection of culturation they all took the long road pretty quick, but they did it as warriors, with truth and honor. Now if they’d had your ru skin…“
“You’re right, Ela. I don’t need the culturation. If I still get to be a warrior, I hope I am one of those unyu who can’t receive the culturation. That way we’ll always talk.”
Ela responded with surprising feeling. “Don’t say that boy! You’ll get me in trouble. I knew I shouldn’t’ve talked to you about this. Culturation is the right path, and your best shot at the short road. You’re just making an old woman feel selfish, lengthening your shot at paradise just so I have someone to talk to. I’m on my way out, remember?”
“Don’t say that Ela. We’ll leave together.”
“Well boy, with your strength, you might be right. Shouldn’t take you long to get on the short road.”
“Ela,” Airn ventured. “Could I ask just one more question?”
“Besides that one, you mean?” Ela smirked at her own joke.
“How do you take the short road? I stop seeing warriors, and I hear they took the long road or the short road. I saw Pill take the long road, but how do you take the short road? Does the body stay behind?”
Again, Ela considered “Well boy, I got curious about that myself, a long time ago. I asked around a bit more than is proper, but of course the only folks to talk to are us caremothers, the healers, and you unyu, and nobody’s been able to tell me much that sounds true, ‘cept that the better ones go sooner, and I know that better than anybody after fifty years. An unyu about five years from culturation once told me he saw a flying metal hut come down and a warrior walked right into it. It sounded like a lie an unyu would make up, but even after I cuffed him a few times and told him to tell the truth, he stuck with it. Even if it didn’t happen, he really thought it did. I felt bad, actually, about that one.”
“So if I see a flying metal hut, I should get in?” Airn half-joked.
“Sure boy. Send me something back from paradise.”
© 2019 Daniel F. Megill
All Rights Reserved
You’ve come to the end of the first 10,000 words of Earthburst. If you’re interested, feel free to contact me at dan@megill and I’ll be happy to send you the rest.