What do you do when the bullies are bigger than you? What do you do when there are more of them than there are of you? You have to find out where you are stronger, that’s what you do. When last we left our friends Olof had found his way. He befriended an older vagabond named Aitken who showed him how to enhance a monoscope. He also taught him a valuable skill: how to combine particular minerals into a stronger compound, in this case milk and glass to create steel. With his new knowledge Olof learned what the bullies fear most and was able to ward them off. There were consequences though. His mother, Algy, found Lingnan’s monoscope which Olof had enhanced and before he could stop her she threw it up to the surface where the Light Echo swallowed it whole. Now Olof has lost the respect of his mother and if he doesn’t find a way to replace Lingnan’s monoscope, the respect of his good friend as well.
The booths and stools of Greely’s had most often been filled by gruff, unkempt, often unwelcome Flutes. Lingnan and Thalia and Olof and Horace were not exactly that. The three boys barely had chest hair let alone the chin whiskers needed to be considered gruff. Thalia had the hair. Her locks were dark and knotted and it didn’t take more than a few minutes after she climbed out of bed before she looked unkempt. But she was still a she, and in this part of the world that was enough to disqualify you from most degrees of gruffness. Yet in school and at home and especially among the more custom-following Flutes, they had begun to be seen as dissidents of a sort. Chin whiskers or no, dissidents were always welcome at Greely’s.
Olof entered the place for the first time since he had been grounded three shifts earlier. He and his mother had been getting visitors multiple times a day. Each and every time a knock came his mother ushered him to bed and told him to be quiet. She answered and told whomever it was–most likely one of the only four people he cared to know–that Olof was unavailable. On the second day she had taken his backpack with her to work and he never saw it again. If she looked inside and found his books–Lingnan’s books to be more exact–he’d probably never be allowed out of his burrow again. She never mentioned it though and his punishment did not exceed the length she had chosen. He heard more knocks while his mom was at work but he didn’t dare answer. She had become a paranoid woman, renewing his knowledge of each and every custom he had broken recently and hounding him with wretched, horrible stories of the last visit the Hadars had made. She put down many rules for when his punishment was over but her biggest, which she mentioned as she climbed out the hatch for work that day, was to never again go to Greely’s.
He waited maybe ten minutes before he made his way over there.
Thalia and Lingnan were sitting in the corner booth alone. Lingnan had his face pressed down into a book of maps, a pencil in hand. Horace was sitting at a table where he was playing a card game with some Flutes Olof had never seen. The Flutes were odd looking, with hairless faces and heads and pale skin that seemed to resonate with diffuse light, not entirely unlike the Airglow. He had never seen a Flute like them and he did his best not to stare.
“Aitken not around?” Olof asked as he sat down.
“Look who returns to us,” Lingnan said.
“Are you alright, Olof?” Thalia asked. “What happened to you?”
“He’s fine,” Lingnan said. “Look at him.”
“What happened to you?” Thalia asked.
“Olof, you have to come check what I found with these maps.”
“He just got here, Lingnan. You can’t give him five minutes?”
“Where did you get those?” Olof asked. He was pointing to the book of maps and the other texts he had out. “How’d you get my books?”
“My books, remember?” Lingnan said. “Your mom gave me your bag. It didn’t take much convincing. No offense but your mom seems sort of cooky.”
“She wants to keep me safe.”
“Do you have my monoscope?” he asked. “That’s really what I was looking for. The books are just a bonus.”
“No,” Olof said. “I mean, not here with me.”
“Five minutes, Lingnan, that’s all I ask,” Thalia said. “Give him five minutes.”
“Aitken won’t let me up with him if I don’t have a scope. Says I won’t be of any use if I can’t see anything.”
“Aitken is still here?”
Thalia pushed her spiced milk over to Olof. “He said he would meet us here. He’s up on the spire right now looking for signs of that meson we saw.”
Olof perked up and without thinking downed the rest of Thalia’s glass.
“My mom found out I’d been going to the surface. She grounded me.”
That was not entirely true. The monoscope was what had got him in trouble in the first place. She had never seen him looking through his books and might have given him a pass for them, but the monoscope was too much for her to handle and she ended up tossing it up to the surface just before the Light Echo came.
“She did not seem happy,” Lingnan said.
“She just wants me to be safe. What did you find in the maps?”
Thalia shut the book. “Show him when we’re not in public.”
“I’ll show him now.”
Horace skipped over and spilled a handful of coins onto the table. “Drinks are on me!” he said.
“How did you get that?” Thalia asked.
“That Flute over there. The funny looking one with the glowing skin.”
“You know he probably thinks you’re funny looking too, Horace,” she said.
“At least my skin doesn’t look like the Airglow on a dusty night. He plays cards. He was pretty good. It was tough.”
“You’re not good at cards at all,” Olof said. “I beat you all the time.”
“That’s because you’re good with numbers. That’s how you cheat. And I’m getting better!”
“How did you beat him?” Olof asked.
“I’m good with my hands.” He smiled and flicked out a card he had hidden underneath his shirt cuff.
“At least you’re good at something,” Lingnan said.
“You should give the money back,” Olof said.
“And have him beat me up for cheating?”
“It wasn’t fair.”
“You count cards when you play with me. Using numbers to cheat at a game, I’m sure that breaks a custom or two.”
“We weren’t playing for money.”
“Ya’ll might want to lower your voices. Bartender might think there’s about to be a scuffle.”
Aitken towered tall above them, a fair reminder of how much younger they were than the rest of the barflys. He had his pack on and was carrying a tray of milk glasses. His face was bruised and he had a few cuts on his face. Olof couldn’t help but duck underneath the tray and hug him.
“Ya’ll mind if I sit?”
He pulled up a chair to the end of the table. The bar was crowded and though none of the young Flutes had noticed, their minor scuffle had indeed drawn some attention.
“Need to put the books away and keep your voices down.”
“Greely’s is a good place,” Lingnan said. “We don’t have to worry here. I was just going to show Olof here what I found in the book of maps.”
Aitken was picking at the wound on his face and eyeballing half the bar.
“You got the Amaltheans over there. Ions at the end of the bar. Those glowing, jerky looking ones, Antennas. You got that Shaman up there on the stage getting ready to speak plus a bunch more scattered around that I ain’t never seen. Thalia here tells me she ain’t seen ‘em either. You got more people coming in from all over. Your country ain’t set up for strangers like this. The townies don’t like it. Been here a few cycles and I can tell you that already. Bar like this…locals let you have it cause they know the Hadars ain’t gonna bother coming down here cause of a few spooks talking science and numbers, or young kids like you hiking up on the surface. Look at this place right now though? Look around. Trouble’s comin’. You can show him your maps later.”
The Shaman on the stage had gathered his supplies. He coughed twice to let the crowd know he was ready to speak. It wasn’t the same Shaman as before. This one was taller and broader. He wasn’t quite fat but he sure wasn’t thin either. He had dark skin and hair as knotted up and kinky as Thalia’s, though he knew how to handle it better than she did. He was goofy looking, like a grownup version of Horace. His coughing didn’t do much to quiet the crowd of Greely’s either. It wasn’t until he smiled that Olof and the others shut up and faced him. Olof had seen a lot of smiling lately. Nettles and Biddel were smiling each and every time they beat him up. But this Shaman was different.
“Alright,” he said, with a big deep, booming voice. “I know you’ve heard a lot about the Rift, or Rift 736 as I understand it is. I’m not here to talk about it. No, really, I’m not. I don’t study Rifts, I could not care less about Rifts. But I know everyone here lives next to a rather large one, one that has been getting demonstrably bigger, not just in our lifetimes, but in nearly every lifetime that we know about. And we know about a fair many, I promise you that. But I’m not here to talk about that either. I am here to tell you a little about what we do, we being Shamans, a term I never liked as a child but one I seem to have grown into now that I am older.”
“Who is this guy?” Thalia asked. “He’s as cooky as the last one.”
“What we seem to do seems rather fantastical and crazy but it really is rather simple. We make observations. Observations about the weather, observations about variations of milk, observations about the how often the Light Echo comes. Notice how sometimes it lasts 72 hours and others just a single hour? How often does this happen? Why does this happen? We make these observations and we record them and we make conclusions about what those observations might mean and then we meet up in little groups, sometimes over a pint or two of milk, and we try to tell the other Shaman why his conclusion is bogus and how mine is better. You might even call us artists. I mean, think about it. What we do isn’t really that much different. I know every so often someone comes up here and tells you all a story. He doesn’t tell you a factual story, nothing that has been written down–I know that’s not really allowed in these parts–so he tells you a story based off of his observations of the world. That’s what we do. But we break a few more customs because we do honestly write some things down and read books and do things the Hadars would rather we not.”
“I don’t like it,” Aitken said.
“Sounds great,” Olof said.
“I don’t like it at all.”
“He seems pretty harmless,” Lingnan said.
Aitken finished off his first glass of milk and put it down. “I was in a town a season back. It was up north on the other side of the world but people not much different from ya’ll. They had a Shaman too. One up there said he’d looked through a scope so powerful he could see other worlds, worlds with Flutes on them too.”
“But you said–”
“It don’t matter what I said before, Olof. Whatever I said I said to you in private. I didn’t spout off in a bar with twenty others around listening close.”
“So what happened?”
“Didn’t take long. Maybe ten shifts. A Flute appeared. I’d seen his type before. Just as nice as can be. Gets half the bar on his side. Gets half the town on his side. Half the damage he does is with his voice. I knew you couldn’t trust him just the way he walked in. I know you ain’t supposed to judge like that, but you got your head on straight you’ll see this guy once and turn the other way. Only man to ever scare me.” He took another drink.
“What happened to the Shaman?” Olof asked.
“Only man to ever scare me,” Aitken said again.
The Shaman had continued to speak until one of the slightly glowing Flutes raised his hand as politely as could be and waited until he was called on. Everyone snickered at him.
“I have heard the Shamans speak before, my friends, so do not be fooled. He speaks of what he can see with his eyes, what he can study with his eyes, and he limits the world to simply that. His eyes. And yet we all know that the Light Echo does not let us look upon it with our mere eyes. We are not up to the task. We are not worthy of its gaze.”
This was a bit much for the folks at Greely’s. The glowing friends of the Flute seemed to understand this too. They tugged at his chaps and pulled him back into his chair.
“Alright, alright,” the Shaman said. “The Light Echo. Sure. He’s right. I can’t tell you what it is. Nobody can tell you what it is. But we don’t need eyes to understand it…do we? We know that most things we put onto the surface…well…they disappear. You go up to the surface and drop your shoe, the next shift you return, it’s gone. That’s how we understand the Light Echo to work. It sweeps things away. But your hatch remains, right? When you return to the surface everything up there that has always been up there remains, right? The Spires don’t go anywhere, the hills don’t go anywhere. The Light Echo doesn’t suddenly sweep away all remnants of the Rift. So what makes all of them so different from your shoe?”
He gave the crowd an honest moment to respond. Nobody did.
“The truth is we don’t know. Not yet at least. Imagine one day if we could make a suit, made from the same material as our hatches, which could allow us to walk on the surface during the Light Echo?”
Everybody laughed at this, even the Shaman himself. He was rather excited and nothing seemed to temper his smile, even the occasional scrap of food thrown at him from the crowd. An image flashed through Olof’s brain: a steel suit, as thick as any hatch, with a glass dome covering the head. The image was enough to make even Olof laugh.
“What happened to your face?” Thalia asked Aitken. You could see the bruise on his eye from twenty meters away.
“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The glowing Antennas nearby were pointing and snickering at Aitken.
“A little scrap?” Thalia asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said again.
Horace stood up and shouted across the bar at them, “Can I buy you a drink? I seem to have a lot more money than I used to. How did that happen?” He scooped up the winnings he’d earned from the card game and spilled the coins across his his table.
“Thanks,” Aitken said.
“What’s their deal?” Lingnan asked. “Why do they glow like that?”
They looked as though the Airglow itself had been sourced from their flesh.
“Antennas,” Aitken said.
“They might be asking why your skin doesn’t glow,” Thalia said. “Don’t stare.”
“They don’t care,” Aitken said. “Don’t be so sensitive. Those three are jerks. The whole lot of them come from the North. Some place the Airglow is so strong it pushes through the surface sometimes. It’s bright.”
“And that’s why their skin glows?” Lingnan asked.
“I don’t know why their skin glows. But the Flutes from up there, that’s what it does.”
“What are they doing?”
“Jerks pushed me off the spire.”
“Pushed you off?”
“Drove me off.”
“That’s not cool.”
“No, Lingnan, it ain’t cool.”
The three antennas finished their drinks, waved once more to Aitken, and shuffled out of the bar.
“What were they doing?” Lingnan asked.
“Hatched up a burrow on the spire I was checking out. I was going to do the same but they jumped me and beat me to it.”
“Did they finish?”
“Probably what they’re off to do right now.”
“You up for another climb?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’ll let you know on the way,” Lingnan said. “Might not be able to get the burrow back, but we could at least have a little fun.”
“I think you should leave them alone,” Thalia said.
“I think you should loosen up,” Lingnan said. “There’s more fun things to do besides playing songs on your guitar.”
“They’re important songs.”
“So is standing up for your friends.”
“You two coming?” Lingnan asked Horace and Olof.
“I was going to try my hand at a few more games,” Horace said. “But I’d like to get those Antennas for hurting old Aitken here.”
“Good,” Lingnan said. “Olof, I’m gonna need my monoscope for this. Can you get it and meet us?”
“Sure,” Olof said.
“Here’s your bag.” He slung Olof’s bag across the table to him. “You’re welcome for convincing your mom not to throw it up to the Light Echo.”
The three of them were off just like that. Olof, of course, did not have the monoscope and had no way of knowing how to get a monoscope and was deathly afraid, from his head to his toes, of telling Lingnan he had lost his prize possession, the last relic he and Thalia had from their friendship with the Flute Dactyl.
The curly haired Shaman on the stage stepped aside to allow the long haired, heavy bearded Shaman the rest of them were used to seeing, step onto the stage. When he opened his book and presented it to the crowd everyone groaned. They knew and prepared themselves for another lecture.
“You can see it in the skies if you pay attention. The shifting colors of the Airglow. You can see it in the spires. Books tell of a time long ago when the spires were not white but red. On the crest we laid waste to them all so now the land is as sparse as our desert country here. You can see it in the sudden arrival of mysterious visitors. Ions who don’t speak our language. Antennas who radiate. You can hear it in the stories we’ve been passing around these last few cycles. Stories of a monster in the sky. Eight legs, black, patrolling our lands for who or what? We don’t know. We’re so far south that the Hadars never come. It’s been a generation since I’ve heard of anyone being offered to the Light Echo. All this is not happenstance, my friends. The end is coming. But it need not be so soon.”
Olof followed the curly haired Shaman out of the bar and through the halls. He did his best to keep a safe distance but stealthiness was not exactly his greatest asset. Thirty minutes into his pursuit he rounded a corner and the old Shaman was gone.
“Well shucks,” Olof said. He wasn’t far off from where he’d been confronted by Nettles and Biddel.
The Shaman was peeking his head from a hatch above Olof.
“You didn’t look like you had it in you to follow me the whole way. Next time just ask if you want to have a chat.”
Olof didn’t say anything.
“You did want to have a chat, right? I’m guessing you weren’t following me for the exercise. Maybe you should come up. Come on, now. You’ve seen me. I’m no stranger and I should worry more about you hurting me instead of the other way around.”
The Shaman dropped down the rope ladder and Olof climbed up.
“You been here before?” the Shaman asked. Olof nodded. “Tyson, the Shaman I left speaking at Greely’s, this is his place. I just got here. He said not to be surprised if three young Flutes popped in on me by accident.”
“He knew we were here?” It was indeed the very same place Olof had seen before, with the instruments and books and that odd clay wall with the holds fixed throughout.
“Mmhm. He’s smarter than he looks though I don’t know where all these climbing walls came from. He certainly is no climber at his age. You probably have a couple of his books in his bag there.”
“I don’t know,” Olof said. “Lingnan got them from a burrow way up on a spire.”
“Let’s see them.”
Lingnan hadn’t taken any of his books back. The Shaman fiddled through them, but stopped at the three books Olof had dog eared the most.
“You figured out how to read the maps yet?”
“I don’t know if they’re real maps. If that’s what the world looks like.”
“As best as we can tell. What about this other book of yours?” the Shaman asked. “You’ve dog eared this one a bit. What have you learned?”
“I can’t really read it,” Olof said. “Not yet. But the pictures–I can follow the pictures. This is the one I like the most.” He took the book and flipped a few pages. “There are scopes, yes, all sorts of monoscopes, but I like this one the most. It looks bigger than the rest. Like it might be ten times stronger, ya know?.”
“You have a scope of your own?”
Olof stuffed his hands into his pockets and plopped down on the floor of the burrow. “My friend, Lingnan, loaned me his. He had gotten it from a Flute who got taken out by the Light Echo not long ago. Dactyl was his name. I was with him when it happened. It was my first trip to the surface.”
“What happened to the scope?”
“A Flute showed me how to enhance it. Then my mom found it and she sacrificed it to the Light Echo. That was three shifts ago. I’d been grounded until today.”
“You know how to enhance a scope?”
“Well, I knew how to enhance mine. Or my friend’s I mean.”
“Try this one.” The Shaman took a scope he had tucked to his belt beneath his cloak and handed it to Olof.
“It’s just a scope. A tool you could say. What you see through the scope, that matters more.”
Olof hadn’t forgotten a thing in his life. It was a skill that had gotten him beat up on more than one occasion by Nettles and Biddel. It was a skill also that had impressed Aitken enough to show him how to build a hatch. He had practiced enhancing Lingnan’s scope until he could do it with his eyes closed. He didn’t do that now. He knew better than to show off. It was an effortless maneuver nonetheless. Two sharp twists to unlock the scope, several careful adjustments to the lenses and two more twists to lock the scope back into place. He glassed the room to see that he had enhanced it properly and was satisfied.
When he handed it back the Shaman said, “My name is Edwin. Edwin the Shoemaker.”
“My name is Olof. Olof Gosta. Why do they call you the Shoemaker.”
“Because I build things, Olof Gosta. Instruments. What happened with your friend? The one whose scope your mom sacrificed.”
“I haven’t told him yet.”
“It’s just a monoscope.”
“Not to him. It’s a tool, right, but he thinks it’s a tool to take him someplace. Someplace other than where we’re at now. He wants to get out of here.”
“What is it to you, Olof?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. What is it to you?”
“I’d never been to the surface. I’d never climbed anything. I’d never missed a day of school. I’d never said no to my mom. I’d never did something my mom disliked. I’d never made her mad before.”
“That upsets you?”
He felt guilty for saying it. “No,” he said. “Lingnan looks through the scope and he sees some place he wants to go. A destination. He saw the burrow and he went to it. I guess I don’t really care about going anywhere.”
“What did you see?”
The Shaman wasn’t smiling now. Somehow in their talk he had materialized two glasses of water without Olof noticing.
“It sounds crazy,” Olof said.
“Crazy is what we do.”
“I looked through and saw the same things. Something was far away and now it was close. So I looked up at the spires and saw the hatch Lingnan had talked about. I don’t care about hatches though. So I pointed it at my hand to see what my hand would look like but I couldn’t get the thing to not be blurry.”
“You couldn’t get the lens to focus. It doesn’t matter.”
“Okay. So I tried getting a closer look at the spire but I had the same problem. Later Aitken showed me how to play with the lenses. He’s the Flute who showed me. When I was alone I tried fixing the lens to do something different. I fixed it so I could look better at things that were close up.”
“I guess. So I looked at my hand and I saw the cracks on my knuckles and I wondered if I could see any Flutes climbing the hairs on my arm. Is that how it works?”
“I wish I knew.”
“I fixed the lenses again and I found one of those dark fissures that break off from the halls and I took a chunk of glowing milk from the wall and I tossed it down the fissure and I followed it with the scope. I didn’t see anything. Just darkness. The same thing down there that I see when I look up into the sky. I feel different. That’s what I mean to say. And since the first time I looked through the scope I’ve had these questions in my head. Numbers, really.”
“What’s the question?” Edwin asked.
“One and two and three and five and seven and eleven and thirteen.”
“Those aren’t questions, Olof.”
“I can’t get them out of my head. They seem to mean something. At least more than the other numbers I know.”
“Has anyone explained numbers to you, Olof? Besides how to count them?”
“Just how to count them I guess.”
“You’ve dog eared this book of numbers pretty good I’d say.”
“I don’t know what they mean though. Means as much as the words do in the other books.”
“Here, check this out.”
He threw a handful of beads down onto the floor
“One bead, two beads, three beads…” He divided them up all the way to thirteen sets of beads. “Alright, so you see the set of four beads, Olof? How many sets of the two beads would you need to make four beads? Put them next to each other if you need to”
It took Olof a few moments to figure out what he meant before he answered. “Well I suppose two sets…right? Two beads and two beads together would be four beads.”
“Right. Now let’s try the set of six beads. How many sets of two beads would you need to make a set of six?”
Olof got this one quickly. “Three.”
“You got it,” Edwin said. “So let’s try a different one.” He pointed to the set of five beads. “How many sets of two beads would you need to make a complete set of five? A complete set, mind you. Not more and not less and you can’t break apart the set of two beads. It’s not allowed. At least not yet. They’re a team. Like a mom and a pop.”
“Um…well two is not enough and three would make six which is too many. So it doesn’t really work.”
“What about a set of three beads? Can that cleanly make a set of five? Or maybe even seven?”
“No. I suppose not. They have the same problem the set of two beads has. Too many beads or not enough. None of them are just right.”
Olof was sort of irritated by this. He liked the first set of numbers. They were clean and somehow felt right. These numbers left him with a small pinch in his stomach. He was unsatisfied.
“All those numbers you told me,” Edwin said. “They’re all the same. No set goes into them cleanly. Unless you use just one or the same number.”
“They’re weird,” Olof said.
“They are weird. Mathematicians–the Shamans who deal with the language of numbers and who wrote that dog eared book you’ve been carrying around with you–they call them prime numbers. You could use the set of two beads to make a clean set of five, but you would have to break apart the two beads at some point. Divide them up.”
“Separate the mom and pop.” He sighed at the thought and couldn’t help but think of his mom and the dad he had no memory of. “One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. I don’t suppose the Hadars would like prime numbers very much would they?”
“No, I don’t suppose they would. I can make you a deal, Olof.”
“I’ll help you make another monoscope. But we’re not going to settle for the silly small one your friend used to have. Okay?”
“What are we going to make then?”
“That depends on you. How far do you want to see?”
He was fiddling with the sets of beads when Edwin asked him this. He thought it over and when he came to his answer he shook up the beads until they were one messy pile.
“I want to see what’s beyond the Airglow.”
Edwin smiled. Olof could see now that he had two big green eyes, very much like his own. He pointed to open book of monoscope sketches and pressed his finger to the biggest scope they had seen.
“I could make you a scope now,” Edwin said. “There’s enough scraps in this room your friend would be satisfied enough. But this…” he tapped his finger against the large, full page sketch, “…this is going to require more than just scraps. And we’re going to need glass.”
“For the lens. To make a lens this strong and this big we’re going to need a lot of glass.”
“Would a mirror work?”
“A mirror? Of course, a mirror would be glorious. But that’s a tough thing to find in a place like this.”
“I think I know where we could get one,” Olof said.