Pif, Deacon, Alph, and the newcomer all sat huddled around a meal of jerky, cheese, and fruit, filling their bellies after a long day. Off to the side, the Trans-It! energy canister rattled softly as it recharged the five Minitoa’s Double A’s. Almo’s breathing complimented the machine’s rhythm perfectly, a musical reminder of how bad their situation was. Below, Odd & Ends was quiet. The shop was closed for the day, and the owner had retired to his room.
“…and soon it became evident that the other Minitoa had made it back home or been killed or – we don’t know what,” Pif was saying. “After the initial panic of figuring out how to eat and breathe here, things haven’t been so bad. It’s a struggle…and we have no idea how we’re going to leave, but I’m confident in our ability to survive.”
Pif wasn’t going to burden this young woman with her true feelings.
“Now it’s your turn. Let’s start with your name.”
“Perma. Perma Dettingurnt. Well, let’s see. I was part of the scouting party, obviously. You might remember me, actually – I was the one who told Captain Ernad that his drill was dumb. Anyway, he assembled everyone outside this shop to send them through a portal one of the giants opened. I…I didn’t make it in before it closed.”
“Impossible…” Deacon said. “Captain Ernad wouldn’t abandon me. He couldn’t abandon me. We were going to fight the Forever War together. Side by side. We were going to guide our people to eternal corporeal paradise. He couldn’t just forget about me.”
Pif shook her head. “He didn’t. Our Shout Stone is cracked. I’ve been wondering whether it might be broken. Sounds like it is.”
“And her?” Perma asked.
“Almo. I had to put her in cryostasis. Don’t look at me like that – it was that or death.”
“Cryostasis is death. Every hour she’s like that…who knows how many years you’re shaving off her life. We still don’t know the effects – there’s a reason that stuff’s illegal, you know!”
Pif smiled. “You remind me of my daughter. She was an activist. She. She’d hate me now. But Almo’s dying. She has a triphenylmethane deficiency, and they don’t exactly sell TriptoCola here.”
“Me too,” Perma said.
“What? How are you alive?”
“I’ve got a source. Pack up. Bring three-eyes. I’ll show you.”
Roland was a lot of things. He was both creative and good with his hands, as evidenced by the sets he helped create at Luminous. He was both forgetful and an orphan, as evidenced by the single word – “Roland” – written on many of his belongings, a word made solitary by the absence of a family name. And he was a Far One, as evidenced by his featureless skin, black as obsidian, like a statue left unfinished.
(Like all people, Roland was many other things, too, but these are the things relevant for setting the scene.)
Far Ones had no eyes, and no ears, and no mouths, so they experienced the world a bit differently than others (perhaps a lot differently, though these things are subjective and relative). For example, when Roland was sitting out behind Luminous, drinking in the moon’s glow and carving its image for the set of Dusk, he knew via brief psychic bonding that Karessa Plunderton was about to walk out from inside the theater.
And she did.
Hello, Karessa, Roland said. Only he did not “say it,” in a literal sense because Far Ones do not have mouths. Instead he projected a simulacrum of what his voice might sound like, which tingled the back of the recipient’s brain, and hovered there for a moment before vanishing.
“Oh, hey, Roland. You still here?”
“Right. Dumb question.” Karessa laughed at herself. “Nice night.”
I haven’t seen you at school recently.
Karessa’s body temperature rose. Roland thought it rude to ascertain exactly where, but he imagined it was a blush. “Yeah. I haven’t been going. Family stuff.”
I see. Sorry to hear that. I miss seeing you there. Roland knew that Karessa was lying, but he thought it rude to say so. It was an unfair social advantage, and it made others uncomfortable. It also made Roland uncomfortable, but he’d gotten used to it.
“I hope to go back someday,” Karessa said. This was somewhere between a lie and truth.
At least we will be seeing each other here a little more often. Congratulations on your casting.
“Oh, it’s just a little part…”
Untrue. You have eight percent of the lines in the play. Ms. Bottlehelm clearly sees talent within you. It took her too long.
“That’s sweet of you to say. All I’ve ever wanted to be is an actress. Funny enough, as much as I complain about her, it was Gwendolyn that inspired me. When I was a little girl, I saw her in a production of Miss Appointment. She was so funny in it, and pretty and, you know, at the end it gets pretty emotional and inspiring. I thought to myself then, one day I want to be on that stage. One day I want to make people laugh, and make people cry. I know it’s silly, but I feel like I’m finally on that path.”
It made Roland happy to hear Karessa talk like that. She tried hard to appear hard, so it meant a lot for her to open up. You’re already an actress. But I get your meaning, and I don’t find it silly. You’ve worked hard, and it’s paying off. That is how progress works, it’s not imaginary.
Karessa smiled. “Well, thank you. It’s exciting. You’re moving up yourself, mister Senior Assistant Set Designer. When I’m a famous actress on the Sun Stage, you’ll be right there with me.”
That sounds grand.
Their conversation was ended by the arrival of a sandy-haired human. Lawrence Dufton. Karessa grew warmer when she saw him, which in turn made Roland sad.
“Have a good night,” Karessa said to Roland before walking down the hill with Lawrence.
When they were halfway down the hill, Lawrence asked Karessa when she was going to quit working at the theater, because didn’t she hate it there? Karessa agreed that the theater was lame, and that she was only working there until she saved up some more money. It was a lie, and Karessa got sad when she told it, which in turn made Roland sad.
Roland wanted to comfort her, but he did not and could not. He was aware of his status as an outsider. He was aware that Karessa only talked to him because he was there. So Roland just stared off over the edge of Skymoore, and he sculpted. It was a clear night, and the Pale Moon was bright, offering a view of the Remaining Sea. Roland thought about what lay beyond it, and whether he could belong there.
When he grew tired of being sad, Roland packed up his materials and went inside.
In the lounge, Delia Findlesmith sat at a table all alone, singing softly to a plant Roland could not identify. Her song was beautiful, just as Delia herself was beautiful. Roland said hi to her, and she responded in kind, but Roland could never quite tell if Delia liked him. She could be very outgoing, or she could be very aloof. Like most people, Delia was many things.
They were the only two people in the lounge, but Roland thought he felt additional presences now and then. They flickered in and out, which didn’t normally happen, so Roland dismissed it as being tired, even though such a thing had never happened in the past. Even when ghosts were around, Roland could sense them just fine. But Roland was thinking about other things, like Karessa and rent and getting a cat, so he paid it little mind.
“Staying all night, Roland?” Delia asked.
Maybe. I want to be happy with the state of the moon before I leave. What has you here so late?
“This plant,” Delia said. “I bought it from a merchant the other day. It comes all the way from the Cerulean Forest, hence the color, but I’m afraid it won’t thrive so far from home. Singing to it should help, but…well, I fear for it is all.”
That’s kind of you.
“I know this is a lot to ask, but would you have any interest in caring for the poor thing? I’m afraid I haven’t the time or the resources for a project like this at the moment, but with my instruction even one such as yourself could nurse it back to health.”
I’m sorry, I can’t. Finances are proving troubling enough without exotic plants.
“I see. Well, I will have to keep looking.”
Just beyond the lounge was a hall full of lockers belonging to the cast and crew. Roland often forgot to lock his, so he wasn’t at all surprised to find it ajar. Someone had been taking his cupcakes for a few weeks now, which he actually found kind of flattering. Rather than remembering to lock up, Roland just made extra.
What did surprise him, though, were the many presences he felt within the locker. These weren’t minor intelligences, like insects or something, and yet there were five of them, located within his locker. And like before, they flickered in and out.
Standing inside, struggling to hoist open his box of cupcakes, were five small creatures, most of whom resembled small humanoids, and one of whom looked exactly like Abraham Lincoln (not that one).
Oh. Hello, he projected into all of their minds.
The Minitoa were horrified.
Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. Just, I am wondering what you are. And what you’re doing in my locker.
Nobody quite knew how to respond. This eerie looking telepath sounded friendly enough, but he was also invading their minds and he also had every right to be very angry.
“We need your pastry to save our friend,” Alph said, deciding honesty was the best policy. Roland thought his detective outfit was cute. He also knew that Alph was telling the truth. He assumed their friend was the blue haired one, strapped to the back of the largest one, who looked exactly like Abraham Lincoln.
Oh, okay. You can have it then.
“R-really?” Alph asked.
Of course. Why does she need them?
Pif answered. “We’re stranded here, with no access to resources from our home world, and our friend here has a special diet that requires the dye in your frosting in order to survive. Perma here has been eating them for a while.”
Oh. That’s fine. You could have simply asked, though. Is there anything else I can help you with? Need a place to stay?
All of the Minitoa exchanged glances, as if to ask: “is this a trap? This can’t really be that easy, right? Like, that would be crazy.” Alph shrugged his shoulders, as if to say: “hey, he gave us free cupcakes.”
“If you are offering shelter, it would be appreciated,” Pif said. “Is there anything we can offer you in return?”
Well. I am having trouble paying rent.
“Er. As you can probably guess, we have difficulty interacting with your world and earning currency would be quite a challenge.”
Deacon placed a slimy hand on Pif’s shoulder. “This is a test of faith, Pif. I can feel it. And we will overcome.”
“We’ll do it,” Perma said. “We’ll figure something out. You’re like, hella smart, right Pif?”
“I am. While you’re feeling generous, we have another favor to ask you, mister…”
Roland. By all means.
“Our friend here is a botanist. She’s our key to going home. It’s strange, I know, but plants are our means of interplanetary travel. Specifically magical plants. That giant woman in the other room, the singing one, she’s infusing that plant with magic.
“According to my readings, it should be sufficient for travel once properly cultivated, and Almo should have no problem with that.”
Sure. Okay. Um, yeah, I should be able to get it. You sure you can help me pay rent? I’ll help you anyway because it’s the right thing to do, but…
“Positive,” Pif lied.
Roland got the plant anyway, complete with an extensive list of instructions, products, and the stores that sell them.
“So what’s your story?” Perma asked from within Roland’s open backpack as they walked the streets of Skymoore. “No offense, and I’m not one to say something like this, but you kinda stand out around here.”
Roland approximated a laugh. No offense taken, miss. There are only three of my kind in this city. At one time, there were more. And then one day, there wasn’t. Most of all of them, including my parents, just left. We come from some place called The Void Lands. I don’t know what that means or where that is, though.
“Sounds like we’ve got some common ground,” Alph said,
It does seem that way.
Roland brought the quintet to Al’s Chemy, Skymoore’s only alchemy establishment. They were greeted kindly by Al Fonz, the oddly-dressed gnome who owned the place, and Tabitha Darkholm, his half-dryad apprentice.
Roland told them he was thinking of selling some of his baked goods (which actually wasn’t a terrible idea) and that he needed a massive supply of Al’s food dye. Now, Al didn’t believe in currency, and operated his shop on a pure bartering system. Knowing this, Roland was prepared to give up something considerable for the amount of dye he was asking for. Al was having difficulties coming up with a price.
“You know, Al,” Tabitha said, “that plant isn’t from around here. It only grows in the O’grafkala Mountains.”
“Really?” Al said. “Well I suppose that’ll do then.”
Oh. Surely there’s something else I could offer. Even a little dye would do.
“Hm. No,” Al said. “I kind of really want that plant now. I can’t travel the world on account of my extreme agoraphobia, but I’ve always wanted to, so I make an effort of collecting as many rarities as I can get my hands on.”
I see. Excuse me.
“Absolutely not,” Deacon said inside Roland’s bag.
“Absolutely not?” Alph asked. “We have to save Almo.”
“We have to return home,” Deacon said.
“Do we?” Alph asked. “What’s so great about home?”
“Finally someone says it!” Perma exclaimed. “Sure, having to scavange to live sucks, but so does home.”
“I got drafted into this in the first place,” Alph said. “Captain Ernad VI had my private investigation business shut down to force me into his scouting party. I don’t even have anything to go back to. What’s on Ernadam that’s so important?”
“My baby,” Pif said. “She was six months old when I left.”
“Oh,” Alph said.
“Oh,” Perma said. “Still…we can’t let Almo die.”
“Besides, how are we even going to get home without her?” Alph asked.
“How are we going to get home if we give up the plant to save her?” Deacon asked.
“None of it matters if we don’t have a botanist,” Pif admitted. “There might be another way without that plant, but there almost certainly isn’t without Almo.”
“You and I both know a thing or two about the process,” Deacon said.
“Let’s vote,” Alph said.
Pif nodded. “Only fair. We go in a circle, starting with Perma. Keep the plant. Or sell the plant.”
“Keep the plant,” Perma said, wanting nothing to do with Ernadam.
“Keep the plant,” Alph agreed, unsure about returning home, but very sure about Almo.
“Sell the plant,” Deacon said, wanting only corporeal paradise, and to fulfil the destiny of the Thread.
Pif thought about her youngest daughter, Riley, just learning to crawl. Probably walking by now. Probably talking. She thought of her son, also named Riley, who was just starting school when she left. She thought of her eldest daughter, Mida, who fought every day for what she believed in, even if it put her at odds with common sense, or with safety. Pif fought back tears. Pif fought back a smile.
“Keep,” she said.
Deacon’s face fell. “I see.” All was still. “If…if Almo wakes up. When she wakes up. Please don’t tell her how I voted.”
“Of course not,” Pif agreed. “And nobody here blames you.” Perma scoffed. “I don’t blame you.”
“We’re ready, Roland,” Alph shouted.
I know, Roland thought, I possess telepathy.
Roland got the dye, and took the Minitoa home.
His apartment was small, a tiny two-room space squeezed amongst many others, but that didn’t matter to the Minitoa. They were thrilled to have a home, and Roland was thrilled to have company. Right away, the six of them split a cupcake.
“So I’ve been thinking about it,” said Alph, who was sitting on Roland’s plate, “and I think I know how to make you some money.”
Roland picked up his piece of the cupcake, which slowly dissolved into his hand. As usual, he was pretty pleased with his baking. Do tell.
“Well, back home, I was a detective. Maybe you could be a freelance detective, but it’ll actually be me.”
You know. That’s actually not a bad idea. And I could sell my baked goods. I can be a set-designer, baker, and detective. I’ll be unique, to say the least.
“Exactly! Okay, so now we need to figure out branding.”
Meanwhile, beneath the table, Perma and Deacon had a discussion of faith.
“So you believe in the Thread, but you don’t want to go home? To take part in the Forever War?”
Perma shook her head (and, by extension, her whole body). “No, not really. I actually…I chose to stay behind. Captain Ernad was a douche.”
Deacon’s many eyes bulged. “That’s madness.”
“Besides, why are you so certain your destiny is with him? If the Thread is bringing us all toward our ultimate purpose, maybe our purpose is here. Maybe whatever we do to get our people through the Forever War…maybe we do it here.”
Deacon paused to consider this. “All life is connected by the Thread. Even life here. You could be right.”
“Of course I am. So stop worrying about getting back, and start worrying about how to make this home.”
Deacon was not used to being corrected by people half his age. It was embarrassing. But it was also…humbling.
That evening, while everyone else slept, Pif sat beside Almo, atop Roland’s kitchen counter. The scientist fiddled with her perfectly intact Shout Stone, whispering questions into it, hoping against hope that she would receive an answer. Hoping against hope that she would see her home again. Her family again.
Eventually the chronostasis wore off, and Almo’s three eyes fluttered open. She made a strangled sound, and Pif placed a hand on her cheek.
“Shh. Shh. It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Almo looked panicked. Her mouth moved wordlessly. “Where am I?” she didn’t ask.
“Home,” Pif said, tears of loss and relief and she didn’t know what else welling up in her eyes. “You’re safe. And you’re home.”
Maybe they were lies, but they were truer now than they’d been for some time.