The Cube - Chapter 13 - Continued

Several miles east of Porlock he turned south on the road to Gulet and looked for the gravel lane to Bortle’s Cork described in the assignment file. At a crossroads a sprawling willow overflowed like a girl’s stalk, its drooping branches shimmering kinetically in the breeze. There was no road sign but he knew from the description in the file – turn left at the willow – this was the eastward lane to the farmstead. He wondered if he would find Hope at the farm, having no idea how accurate or up to date the assignment files were. Perhaps Interior had learned the identity of his daughter and taken custody to exert leverage over him. Perhaps she had been culled from the program for behavioral problems or incompatibility and sent to an orphanage or worse. With the bounder tethered to the willow pointing south toward Gulet, he stole in the shadows along the lane with no clear plan. Where the forest gave way to a rail fence he crouched behind a post and studied a split-level farmhouse constructed of rough-hewn oak coursed with mud and aggregate. Through a window he saw figures bustling about in a den, children running with quilts throwing them on one another. He was about to break up a family, one that probably had no idea of Hope’s kidnapping by Interior, one that probably believed it was doing God’s work taking in an orphan and raising her as their own just as the Oggas had raised Mutt, one that had bonded with Hope and would fend off any threat to their new daughter with violence. Was a father there to fight him? Was a mother there with arms? He placed the folding knife in his pocket for easy access and walked to the front door finding it unlatched. He propped his foot across the sill and knocked, hearing a loud shushing inside as the children quieted down followed by a female voice on the other side of the door asking the stranger’s business.

“My name is Mutt Ogga. I am here for my daughter Hope.”

The door crushed onto his foot and he pushed it back forcefully throwing the woman on the other side to the floor. She stood up clutching a knife defensively and he instinctively grabbed her arm so tightly the weapon dropped as she tried to slash him. He scooped it off the floor and tossed it into the yard as she cowered in fear and children scattered to hiding places. The woman dashed wildly for a rear door and exited into a vegetable garden where she loudly clanged a panic bell. Mutt meandered through the rooms calling Hope’s name and eventually the little girl crawled timidly from under a drying rack in an upstairs bedroom, vaguely remembering her father’s voice. He took her in his arms and carried the frightened child downstairs where he was confronted by the woman holding a shotgun.

“Ma’am, I have no doubt of the goodness of your intentions, but this child is my daughter.”

“I do not know you.”

“She does.”

He looked at Hope who returned his gaze confused. She plainly recognized the man and was comfortable in his arms but had no appreciation of the struggle taking place between these parents or its consequences for her future. She had adjusted to her new family, especially her sibling playmates, and stretched her arms outward for her new mommy and the security she felt in her embrace. Mutt was distraught from the tender gesture – had his daughter already been uprooted? – and approached the mother daring her to shoot. She fired a warning shot, not willing to aim too closely for fear of hitting the child, and within a second of discharge he grabbed the muzzle. Hope fled into the back yard as he wrestled the woman to the ground, pinned her with a knee on her throat as her limbs flailed, and bound her hands and feet. She was babbling and praying for mercy and cursing him and begging him not to hurt her daughter, all the while Mutt calmly saying he was only doing what any father would for his child, but she would not listen and screamed that if his daughter was taken from him it was for good reason because he was a criminal and a kidnapper and Luradeen – Hope’s new name – wanted to stay with her new family and he was an evil man for attacking them.

A burly man in coveralls and rolled sleeves rushed through the rear door summoned by the panic bell carrying a hatchet and nearly ran into the figure crouched on the floor over his bound and screaming wife. The situation was out of control and Mutt clocked the man with an upper cut so fierce he felt a jawbone crack along with his knuckle. He pummeled the man’s face with his left fist before he could react and struck again with his broken knuckle sending a wave of riveting pain up his arm. The man collapsed into a semiconscious heap having been caught off guard by the assault and Mutt ran into the back yard calling for Hope who had crawled under the house and was afraid to come out. He wiggled into the space after her and lured her toward him with soft entreaties, eventually clutching an ankle and pulling her into sunlight clawing dirt with her fingernails. He lifted her into his arms and kissed her, saying he was sorry to grab her and did not mean to hurt anyone while running as fast as his exhausted frame would carry him to the willow. He seated her on the bounder secure between his legs and raced away just as the father came lumbering down the lane brandishing the hatchet. He opened the throttle and sped south toward Gulet, a tiny hamlet he had been planning to visit as a gesture of compassion but not expecting to need as refuge. He had never before attacked a woman and felt sick to his stomach recalling the violence with which he had subdued her, her wiry struggle and cries as he kidnapped the child she had come to regard as her own. Hope herself was trembling on the bounder frightened of the man who had so violently assaulted her mother, afraid he would harm her too.

Gulet was a center of grain production fifty miles from the edge with Klokomad. Prudence’s file in the dossier room contained a newspaper clipping mentioning her parents’ fruitless search for their lost grandchild, the daughter of Yarly and Prudence, a missing child of the martyrs and a subject of an intense search by Muglair’s regime. Mutt could not bring them their lost grandchild, who was waiting for him now in Irla, but he could bring them the child of their grandchild, living proof of the survival of their loved one. The article made no mention of the granddaughter’s first name and indeed Mutt had never learned Ivy’s birth name. His knuckle throbbed from a dull fractured pain making navigation of the bounder a challenge. He rolled into Gulet after a half hour fearful of pursuit by posse, kidnapping being an especially heinous crime under Skavian common law. On the center green he asked an elderly woman for directions to the home of Prudence’s parents and was directed suspiciously to a trellised arch clad with wisteria spanning a narrow lane leading to a residential neighborhood behind a row of storefronts. Set well off the main street was a low cobblestone cottage surrounded on all sides by a flagstone patio broken up with vegetable plots and potted herbs and gardenias. Mutt parked and calmed his daughter down who was crying for her mommy, ad libbing a song about pumpkins and berel gourds, reminding her of Kippers and her tricycle and the merry-go-round in the playground and the sloplady’s son, all images still percolating in her young mind from the vanished days in the Notches.

The door to the cottage was propped open with a butcher block. He stepped inside with Hope in tow, ducking to avoid an electric lamp suspended from the den’s unusually low ceiling. The walls were painted pastel paisley with flax hung from old fishing poles serving as curtains. On a mantle above a stone alcove sat family photographs including sepia tones of a small girl bearing a striking resemblance to Hope. He cradled a photograph in his hand realizing he was holding his wife’s lost childhood and showed it to his daughter, explaining that this was her real mommy when she was a little girl. The photo Ivy had shown him at their first meeting at the Edge was a ruse but this one was real. Ivy looked at him through three-year-old eyes, not laughing like the girl on the seesaw she had picked out as an idealized version of her childhood, but posing sternly ahead in a lacy dress as if challenging the viewer to a staring contest. He wondered if somehow that child in the photograph knew the horror that lay ahead of her, and he tried to imagine how against all odds the sepia girl had blossomed into Ivy, the thriving woman he married in the Notches. He held Hope in his arms as she calmly sucked a thumb and imagined the woman she might one day become.

“Who are you?”

An elderly lady with her hair in fishnet stood in the doorway to the kitchen. She was struck by the little girl. A pang ran through her heart. How familiar she looked! How much she wanted to hold her!

“I bring you tidings. Is your husband still alive?”

“Yes, he is in the garden.”

“Go fetch him, please.”

She returned with an elderly man hobbled by a foot ailment balanced on a walker. They sat at a kitchen table covered with spice jars while Hope fidgeted in Mutt’s lap.

“Young man,” the elderly man inquired, “what brings you to our humble home?”

“I bring news of your granddaughter.”

The lady’s face sank, distorted by a painful memory that had defined her twilight years. She could not speak. They had rebuilt their lives but she had not had an honest sleep in nineteen years. Yarly and Prudence were arrested in this very house, from this very room, sitting at this very table. They had returned to the home of Prudence’s parents to await their fate. Their cell had been penetrated, their comrades betrayed, their fate ordained. They had hoped their daughter would be permitted to remain with her grandparents – it was their only wish now that all else was lost – but the goons had taken everyone, the parents, the grandparents, and the child. The grandparents knew what happened to the young couple. It was shown to all the world in lurid photographs. Maple had never seen the photos herself but imagined in sleep terrors what they portrayed, her daughter’s body spiked to heaven in the blinding sun, her dying grimace lamenting her lost child. The Inta quickly realized their mistake and cancelled the harboring charges against Maple and Harnum, for there could be no more savagery given the intensity of Arland’s reaction. They returned to Gulet awaiting the reunion with their grandchild. And they waited, and waited, and waited, never hearing a word. They made inquiries, fearful at first and then more forceful; they worked the levers of the growing village green movement; but their beautiful granddaughter, the only child of their only child, their last remaining hope for a future, was never heard from again. They wanted to believe she was dead so they could have peace in their sorrow, but they did not know and lived in misery every day at their inability to protect their little angel. They rebuilt their lives, became minor folk heroes for their role in the cause, even received a letter from the Great Man himself thanking them for their sacrifice. They tended their garden and attended socials in Gulet conversing freely above the emptiness in their hearts. But they could never recover what was ripped away from them. They could never live with the loss and uncertainty. In a bowl on an end table peppermint candies had slowly fused together over the years, last touched by a little girl with a taste for sweets wearing a bright sundress and a stalk of hair tied lovingly by her mother. Maple could not bring herself to throw the candies away, clinging to the forlorn hope that one day God would smile upon her and bring that child home, and the mints would be waiting for her. She had not had an honest sleep in nineteen years. It was a number that passed through her mind incrementing each year with the passage of time, the pain growing no less raw. She had lost her child, she had lost her grandchild, she had lost her future. She had Harnum, and he had her, but they had nothing.

Mutt sensed the tragedy that defined this household, the feeling of utter loss, and could not contain his tears.

“I bring news of your granddaughter,” he repeated. “She lives. She is my wife. She is the most wonderful woman ever to walk this earth. And this is our daughter.”

Maple had hoped it was true from the moment she saw them. She had fantasized that some day her granddaughter would walk through the door, but it had never occurred to her that the child of her granddaughter might one day brighten this room. Oh what a precious gift! She looked upon Hope with adoration, the poor child not knowing what to make of the lavish attention. Mutt picked her up and deposited her in Maple’s lap.

“This is your mommy’s grandmother. This is your family.”

Hope took to her immediately, Maple’s frail hands caressing the girl’s hair, the void in her heart filling in. She had not believed she was capable of any feeling other than loss. But the rush of emotion she experienced for this child, this connection to her daughter’s horrifically cut short life, reawakened her humanity. There was good remaining in the world and if she died today it would be in peace. Harnum had suffered the blackness afflicting his wife but felt that as the man he had to be her rock, he had to move beyond it. His joy in beholding Hope was matched only by his joy in his wife’s expression. He knew how she had suffered and had dreamed that one day she would be made whole, but he could never dangle such hopes before her, for that would be wanton. It had been his job to make her accept the finality of their loss, to silence the voices asking what if, to find purpose in their union and community, to forget about what was. But oh how he had suffered, and oh how he had shared her dreams, only with no one to ground him in the harsh reality.

Harnum retrieved the toys of Ivy’s childhood from a box in a wardrobe that had lain untouched as long as the peppermints. They could not discard the toys, they could not admit the finality of the loss, for fear they might be unprepared for the little girl’s return. Hope dug through the box fascinated, finding a wooden track for rolling marbles, jute rag dolls with yarn hair, a wooden beaver on wheels with a pull string, even a tiny individuating robe and matching hat. Most fascinating to the little girl was a brightly painted wooden junebug that wobbled on its thorax shaking spindly legs. In the bottom of the box Mutt found an old card Ivy had made for her mother’s birthday with the help of Maple. In bright colors a children’s rhyme was printed out with Maple’s guiding hand: “Lips are pink, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and so are you.” The facing side displayed a small child’s paint-dipped palm print beneath which a familiar name was scrawled. Mutt suddenly understood something incredibly profound. He watched Hope wave a dry bubble wand through the air as if it were a bounder, oblivious to its actual function. He was overcome by a feeling of sorrow, and of sweetness, and of horror at a world that had snatched Ivy from this room and delivered her to monsters, and managed to bring her daughter back into this room nineteen years later to play with her toys. It was a world of irretrievable loss, of a shattered family finding partial closure, of the “what ifs” of Maple’s tortured conscience. This little girl should have been Ivy, and she should have grown up with her mother, and barring that with her grandparents. What was lost could never be recovered. It was a loving future never meant to be, only imagined in sleeplessness and mourned.

Mutt stayed in their household two days while Maple tended to his shattered knuckle, a fugitive harbored again in the home of Maple and Harnum. He saw no reason to hold anything back. He told them everything he knew, all the details about their granddaughter he could share, how they met, their marriage, their life in the Notches, the birth of their child, their separation in war. He gave them his only photograph of Ivy, insisting they take it. But he could not tell them how certain Ivy was that the world was ending. How to explain Ivy’s strange beliefs and powers? No, it was better to keep a veneer of normalcy over the relationship and leave the mysteries of the end times untold. He learned from Ivy’s grandparents the story of Yarly and Prudence, how Yarly had been an absent father so complete was his devotion to the cause, how Prudence found refuge in the love of her daughter and began to doubt her commitment to revolution, how on the day of her arrest she told her mother she wanted only to be a mother to her own child and could not bear the loss this innocent would suffer. But her choices had been made and she knew the fate that awaited her. Maple could not sleep because she could not erase from her mind the image of her daughter dying slowly in the Skavian sun for a cause she no longer believed in. Ivy’s grandparents never met Outin and Paxa and knew nothing of the fate of their family beyond published reports and underground rumors. They had heard, as did everyone, that the entire extended family was exterminated in the first wave of the repression and their village razed and the green salted. Mutt knew Interior might track him down and history could repeat in this house, and his duty now was to reunite his family in Irla. But if ever he had done a good deed in his life, made something right, it was this visit to Gulet. He had not appreciated the pain that comes from violence inflicted on families, the sadness that lingers on in empty houses. What Maple and Harnum suffered, so did thousands of others in the repression, and millions over the course of history. Why could there not be a lasting peace that would end such butchery? He thought with bitterness of Ivy’s certainty that they were going to die from yet another of history’s madmen. The past crawled with these vermin but Muglair was vying for lead position with his insane Flume. Maple and Harnum may have lived to see Hope but Hope would not live to see her own children if Muglair got his way. It disgusted him and he wished he could throw the animal over the Edge.

Before he left Maple approached him.

“I have something for you.” She placed a crusted envelope in his hand. “This was something she wrote on her last day with the cell, before she came home. It is for your wife. Oh how I longed to give it to her myself, to feel the press of her hand. It is for you now to fulfill her mother’s final wish.”

Harnum prepared the bounder for travel while Mutt sat at the kitchen table writing a letter to Hope’s adoptive mother apologizing for the assault, thanking her for taking such good care of his daughter, promising that the child would be loved and nurtured by her natural parents, and asking the woman to put herself in his shoes. What would she do if her child were stolen by goons and given to another family? He did not think the letter would soften the woman’s pain but he wrote it to ease his conscience. Attacking her had so violated his sense of masculinity – a man’s strength should only protect a woman – that he feared he would be forever tainted.

Harnum filled the sidewater tanks on the bounder so Mutt could travel airborne. The Leland edge was hundreds of miles away with an additional jog west to get to Irla, and he could no longer pass the numerous checkpoints on the ground even with Bogin’s letter. Harnum had seen the young man’s face identified as a kidnapper on a Gulet bulletin board, and his only chance of escaping across the breadth of the country would be a straight shot through air space. He used a carabiner to hook harness loops with Hope and situated her securely over the front tank of the bounder. Harnum’s advice was to ride east on a farm road for a mile and then fly straight north to the edge. It was the path least likely to encounter air patrols.

Their escape to Leland immediately ran into trouble. The farm road was blocked by a harvester and while seeking a detour a local patrol tried to stop him. He ditched downwater and flew airborne to escape the pursuer, using the fin assembly to navigate eastward to the optimal northward path suggested by Harnum. A bulletin was issued on the ground of a fleeing suspect and he watched in alarm as a bounder patrol ascended to intercept him on his northern flight path. He dropped additional downwater, his heart pumping, and aimed for clouds over two miles above near hypoxia altitude to conceal his route. The patrols were supplemented by motorized blowers and he could not compete with them on speed or maneuverability. Before he reached the clouds, a patrol positioned itself directly in his path. He could not stop with his northwater propulsion and veered the assembly hard right to avoid a collision while the agent took a shot at him, puncturing a tailfin. The patrol turned to follow and quickly closed the gap with its supplemental thrust. In a desperate move Mutt dumped all of his southwater into the face of the pursuer, radically increasing his speed to near terminal velocity as he disappeared into the clouds. Ice was forming on Hope’s cheeks and Mutt reached into a compartment for blankets as her lips blued and teeth chattered. He had no choice but to stay in the clouds as long as possible and pray his pursuers could not keep track. The cloud cover was inconsistent and as he passed through a clearing he saw three pursuers at a much lower altitude keeping pace. They knew he could not easily alter airspeed and resolved to follow beneath the cloud cover until it lifted at which time he would be an easy mark. His immediate concern was fingers stiffening from the cold as he tried navigating with alternating hands, one on a handle and one warming in a pocket. He pulled hard left with the tailfin to confuse his pursuers as to lateral position even if he could not significantly vary forward velocity. At the same time he slowed down as much as the fins would permit calculating the patrol would overshoot. He kept track of time in his head because he also faced the risk of carrying past the Leland edge into outer space, in which case he could not turn back for lack of southwater.

Hope was so cold taking the brunt of the wind he feared she might die so he threw the bounder into a rapid descent to try blending into the treetops in the warmer air. The pursuers did not see him drop from the clouds, his projected position having changed significantly by the maneuvers, and he skirted the canopy for over an hour without detection as their body warmth recovered and the Leland edge came into view. Just when he thought he had evaded detection he looked back to see a patrol bearing down on him. He removed an uprock from his harness, slowed while the patrol maneuvered on top of him, then threw the rock at his pursuer’s head, missing and drawing gunfire in return. He flattened the fins to regain full speed while the patrol pulled back in fear of Arland interceptors which patrolled the Leland edge. The fold was rapidly nearing and he had no southwater to slow his approach. He could no longer worry about capture by Skavian patrols because the greater danger was skipping over the edge or crashing catastrophically. He veered east and west until spotting a north-south lane suitable for landing, then dropped all northwater and used the fins to slow down and guide the bounder roughly onto the surface with a terrific thud. To his horror he saw the lane terminate in a shrubby hillock which he managed to clear with a timed bounce pulling harshly on the fins before landing in a spectacular collision with a wall of brush on the far side. He rolled clear of the vehicle with Hope still connected, tumbling multiple times before coming to rest scratched and bruised but with no broken bones, the upmatter harnesses having softened the impact.

He disconnected his daughter who was too shocked to cry and ran to the bounder. He had hoped to fly westward to Irla after stopping northward progress on the ground but the machine’s handlebars were detached and propulsion tanks leaking. The patrols would apprehend them in no time and he knew that Bogin would show no mercy. He grabbed brush to cover the wreckage of the bounder, hoping to obscure it from aerial view, and took various items from the luggage compartments including the knife and horns. He removed his unwieldy harness and released it into space, then rushed toward a copse along the Leland edge a quarter mile away carrying Hope in her upmatter harness and holding brush over their heads for disguise. No patrols flew over during their dash and they were soon covered from view by the leaves of the copse. The camouflage for the bounder worked as patrols glided over repeatedly without spotting it. Hope was bleeding from scratches all over her arms and legs, as was he, but there was nothing he could do to ease the child’s pain. He knew she was missing the comfort of her new home in Bortle’s Cork and regretted that he had brought her such misery. Their only chance for salvation now was to sneak along the edge to the first crossing station into Leland which could be as far as forty miles according to the map.

While studying the map Hope shrieked in mortal fear and climbed up her father’s back aided by the uplift of her harness. Standing between two trees with forked tongue hissing was an enormous suckleworm seeking out the radiant heat of warm flesh. Mutt had never seen a live suckleworm but the nature museum in Shivaree proudly featured an eight-foot specimen as a prime attraction and novels set on the Skavian frontier, including Salty Cellars, invariably featured vicious suckleworm attacks. It was not a worm but a lizard that could maneuver rapidly on stubby legs with a serpentine waddle. What distinguished this contemptible creature was its cross mouth, a horizontal set of teeth sliced by a vertical set, two transverse jaws designed to work in tandem with one grabbing hold of fresh meat while the other chomps relentlessly, injecting the prey with toxic saliva as its blood funnel sucks the victim dry. Suckleworms left no trace of their victims – even the bones were fully ground and ingested – except what could be picked from their scat, but their primary source of nourishment was blood and flesh liquefied by the saliva, and the seniority of their packs let the alphas drink first from victims’ wounds while the young and frail picked over the drained carcasses. Mutt had never seen so ugly a creature, the devil’s wife as it was called in folklore, its crosswise mouth dominating a protruding snout with receded eye slits barely visible as nostrils sniffed out the direction of prey. The worm, as large as the speci-men on display in Shivaree, charged Mutt and he tossed Hope to the side planning to challenge the creature himself but it lunged after the easier target. He grabbed its tail and swung it around as the creature flailed violently back to bite him, quickly letting go as the double jaws snapped within inches of his shoulder. As it twirled on the ground to face him he grabbed a branch from the ground with one hand and a thaban horn from the satchel with the other, convinced he would now have the upper hand over this stupid beast. Hope howled again as a smaller worm chased her up a tree. He could not wait for the larger worm to charge so he kicked its snout in a burst of adrenaline, forced the stick into its mouth as its neck sprung back from the kick, and stabbed the creature in an eye with the horn.

Hope was climbing the tree when Mutt saw a gigantic worm approach, this one over twelve feet long, larger than any he had seen even in pictures although he had read of suckleworms big enough to immobilize a man with forelegs and bite off his head to suckle the neck stub. Certainly this monster approaching was immense enough to accomplish such a feat. The creature began pawing at Hope’s tree trying to shake her out for a quick meal while the girl screamed in terror. Mutt felt a piercing pain on his left hand and saw a small worm chomping on his finger having leapt from a stump at this dangling meal. He ripped the creature from his hand, its teeth tearing his flesh and injecting a last dose of toxic saliva in spite, and stomped it to death with his boot. He grabbed another thaban horn and rushed the humongous worm as it tried to dislodge Hope. The creature was not used to attacks being the largest creature in its food chain and quickly pivoted from the tree to knock the man down with its tail. Mutt saw the tail coming and braced to take the blow on the point of the outstretched horn, with the creature whipping its tail back in pain taking the horn with it. Hope fell from the tree and the worm pounced toward her as Mutt stabbed its back with his last horn which he could not withdraw from the scaly wound. The beast turned violently to snap off his head but he had already run around the other side and grabbed the child, the enraged creature now chasing them toward the fold. Mutt stood his ground on the edge as the suckleworm acquired too much momentum to stop its progress. He sidestepped at the last moment barely escaping the lunging double jaws as the monster tumbled over the edge to its death on the cliff of Leland.

He surveyed the brush field and saw that it was crawling with at least a dozen suckleworms slowly advancing on the copse hunting in a pack for a double meal. He was so panicked he feared he would have to jump with his daughter to their doom over the edge to avoid a worse fate in Skava. The creatures surrounded the trees cautiously, smelling the death glands of their packmates, planning a coordinated charge that no prey could resist. Mutt was not waiting for their next move and rapidly looped a coil of emergency rope around the nearest tree trunk with Hope perched on his shoulders pointing wildly at the worms yelling “there’s one” and “there’s another one,” her father wishing she would shut up. The creatures approached methodically in a constricting semicircle as he wrapped the rope around his forearm as a backstop and began lowering himself over the edge with Hope clinging to his shoulders, both hands in crippling pain from the toxic bite and shattered knuckle. The creatures charged, one a monster nearly as large as the beast that fell into Leland, once they realized their prey was escaping, and Mutt dropped over the edge with the speed of gravity until the rope tightened around his forearm in an agonizing snap, his other arm clutching Hope’s ankle as she fell pendulously from his back. They were swinging into the rim forest of Leland and he suppressed all pain in this moment of life and death to kick their bodies along the surface over to a tree trunk for lateral support in the vertical world. As he did so an adventurous worm clambered down the rope expecting a meal on the bound forearm but by now he had balanced himself on the trunk with sufficient slack in the rope to pop the creature loose into free fall. Hope was in total shock, shivering and unable to cry, limbs flailing randomly at imagined assaults, while Mutt surveyed the damage to his finger and forearm, wondering what lesser injuries his body had suffered that he could not yet feel through the greater pain. He cut a section of rope with the knife and secured his daughter by the waist to his belt loop, then sought out an expanse of branches in which they could rest more securely. He searched the satchel for a water flask but was dismayed to find it had fallen out, leaving them to cope with thirst in addition to hunger and injury. As he dug into the satchel for food he almost stuck his finger into the mouth of yet another small worm. But he saw it in time and impaled it on his knife, using a branch to flick it outward into the forest.

As he calmed down he began to doubt the wisdom of his heroics. Yes he had rescued his wife and daughter from Skava but somehow being stranded on the side of a tree with a sniveling child in a desolate land with no food or water and no means of travel did not feel like success. He gazed into the sun hovering just over the Leland horizon and saw in it an unfeeling and promiscuous source of energy that gave life to the suckleworm with the same abandon as to humans. There was no higher meaning to the world than the crackling of grains in a fire, mindless reactions to ceaseless stimuli, the animate no more privileged than the inanimate in nature’s design, all just matter swirling in a void with no inherent purpose. Through searing pain from all quarters of his body, but especially his bitten hand, he lowered himself deeper into the rim forest, his child tied to his side, to avoid detection by edge patrols and took up roost on a lonely trunk covered in serrated shadows. If only he could rest, perhaps he would awake with a plan.

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