The Cube - Chapter 3 - From a Clothesline

The mood in Shivaree was tense. The Mothers Hall had taken its vote. War was declared. No one knew for certain what this meant. But in the short term it meant the patrols were being called. Ruggin might be deployed to Bivenal. Mutt would be called to military reserve duty in the interior. The Armada was assembling for an attack on Bivens Mill. Opinions in Shivaree were split on the wisdom of the war declaration. Muglair’s assertion of a natural right to an equal allocation of water per person was compelling to many of the Arlander Hutmen, but few doubted that he was pushing for war unnecessarily by his refusal to compromise. The Mothers Hall passed a resolution along with the war declaration proclaiming that the ratio of water usage would be adjusted over a ten-year period provided each country met certain alternative energy targets. While the resolution would not achieve equal sharing at the conclusion of the ten years it would increase Skava’s per capita allotment while reducing Arland’s, with an overall reduction to allow the Silent Sea to replenish. Muglair rejected the resolution outright as a cynical ploy to maintain Arland’s hegemony and announced that he would proceed to bring the new hydroelectric plant online. The Mothers had little choice but to declare war. Permitting Muglair to dictate international relations would set a dangerous precedent and embolden him to even greater belligerence.

Muglair had been girding for war for years and his moment had arrived. He had stationed over twenty thousand oriented troops in Bivenal, mostly at Bivens Mill. He had commenced construction of his own armada although he had nothing to match the mighty ballast ships of Arland. But what he lacked in raw military might he made up for with nationalist fervor. Skava was ready to fight and was not afraid of defeat. As Muglair often proclaimed, defeat was preferable to ignoble compromise. Arland’s presence in Bivenal was weak, limited only to a few outposts housing not more than a thousand soldiers. Bivenal was on the opposite side of the planet from Arland and held little strategic interest. Its utility to Skava was limited to hydroelectric plants and way stations for travelers to the canneries of Dark Harbor, located just over the edge in Parva. Like Parva and Klokomad, the other dark sides, Bivenal was beyond the reach of the sun and mostly barren. Not since the age of exploration, when Bivens first charted the territory and discovered a small species of luminous frog in the edge moss, had Bivenal received so much attention.

The events of Bivens Mill seemed remote to Mutt. The danger of the situation was driven home only by the circulation of contingency plans for evacuation. Villages close to the Edge, and in particular close to Harmour, were at risk of attack. In the event of hostilities the villagers would be evacuated to camps in the interior. He sat on a bench in the village green near one of the ceremonial arches marking the entrances formed by muscadine trellises covered with hundreds of cow bells often rung by children. In the center of the green stood the pride of Shivaree, the All Waters Fountain, an illuminated glass contraption in which water from all of the planet’s sides each dyed a separate color continually fell through a common center, forming the shape of a multicolored three-dimensional liquid cross with a black center, the result of color mixing, before re-separating, collecting in oriented pools on the inner faces, and recirculating through pumps. Smaller streams of sidewater flowed along the six directions within the fountain outside the main cross displaying properties of color, such as a cyan stream passing through a transverse magenta stream to produce an illuminated blue intersection. A statue of Nehalla rose in front of the fountain from a wading pool in which small children splashed about, her arms outstretched as if to embrace them. Students sprawled on the grass with lunchboxes and sat in circles with instructors under shade trees. In the phlox gardens at the nearby church a funeral was taking place. The body of the departed would soon be launched into space in an upwood coffin, embarking on the eternal journey.

Dox’s shop printed the evacuation notice which Mutt now read on the bench. Villagers would have one hour to evacuate after the siren call and could take only one produce bag’s worth of belongings. Anyone remaining behind was subject to arrest and looters would be shot. He tried to imagine what he would take in his bag and was not sure he could fill it. Perhaps a gas mask would be smart but Arland was directing all masks to the military. No one had thought to produce sufficient masks for civilian use. In the print shop Dox was copying a flyer distributed by the military containing excerpts from Muglair’s latest speech. He had declared the peaceful intentions of Skava and announced a willingness to negotiate a treaty on the fair use of water. In the meantime he would push forward with the new plant but only as a provisional remedy for Skava’s development needs. Official comments both preceding and following the excerpts denounced the speech and questioned Muglair’s virility. Dox’s job was to run the flier through the barrels of the facsimile press and hand the copies to runners to post on various bulletin boards in the region. Mutt had the task of reviewing the numerous letters and notices pouring into the shop. He saw the familiar letter writers offering solutions for world peace or demanding that the Skavian rodent be exterminated. But he also saw an uptick in letters from unknown sources making extravagant claims. One forwarded a secret medical reporting contain-ing proof of Muglair’s hermaphrodism. Another documented Muglair’s well-known habit of impaling kittens on sharpened umbrella tips. One particularly colorful letter claimed that Muglair was known to urinate on oscillating fans so he could spray himself. Mutt could see that the Arland intelligence services were in full swing. No one expected the shop to print such letters but it was a natural target for efforts to spread rumors.

Dox prepared a semi-weekly news sheet for posting on the boards. With the declaration of war he decided to print a special edition laying out the case for action. He needed an opposing view and asked his son to prepare one anonymously. Mutt had not thought seriously about the pros and cons of war but crafted an argument that Arland would be better served by focusing on wind power rather than launching wars over water. If new power sources could be developed there would be no need to fight over the Silent Sea. He was proud of his reasoning but not convinced. Like most in Arland he believed Muglair should be stopped now before he became too powerful. Dox let Mutt typeset the special edition which almost led to disaster when he switched two lines and produced a sentence claiming the Mothers were luminous frogs. Dox scratched his head in befuddlement trying to figure out the meaning of this metaphor before realizing it was an error. The shop was short on runners and Mutt was assigned a route for distributing the new edition. When he returned a letter had already arrived praising the insights of the anonymous opinion writer and dismissing the Mothers as hysterics. Another soon arrived forwarding a classified psychological profile concluding that Marshal Turlin, Arland’s ranking military leader, was manic depressive. A spate of lurid letters then followed suggesting the war declaration was an attempt to deflect attention from the liaisons of various Mothers ignoring the people’s business in Rixjrig. Skavian intelligence was obviously trying to catch up to Arland. Mutt was disgusted by the tone of these letters regardless of source yet found himself thinking of his own mother on the walk home.

The out building Mutt now called home was a converted tractor shed with a crude loft bedroom accessible only by ladder. His bedding was a haysack, a burlap envelope stuffed with hay that tended to poke through the fabric so much he called it a hedgehog. He enjoyed the sweet smell of the stuffing but would occasionally feel lumps of vermin moving around inside. He had recently bought a second plate because he never cleaned the first until it was time to eat again in which case his choices were wet or dirty. He did not have a rag clean enough to dry a plate. Constructor sets littered the shelves depicting transit hubs, farmhouses, and water towers in various stages of completion. If the print shop did not work out he thought he might return to civil patrol for road design and construction. He was fascinated by the new methods for building interchanges and his crew had even erected an overpass during his service. Various books lay scattered about the loft with depictions of space ships and robots on the covers. He particularly enjoyed a series about the struggles of the pioneers of Moon-ra, a fictional planet located somewhere beyond the range of the telescopes of Klokomad. He had also borrowed a romance novel from his older sister set in the salt mines of Oresh and enjoyed it more than he cared to admit. He could see why the overseer’s daughter might fall for a licker. Mutt reclined on his hedgehog, picked up the third book in the Robot Wars series, then tossed it aside in favor of Salty Cellars, which he was now reading for the third time. Did she find true love? The book’s ending was ambiguous, perhaps setting up a sequel, but there was no question she found something resembling love in the tank room.

Ruggin walked through the door then turned around and knocked from the inside. This was his way of making an entry. He looked up at the loft where Mutt was now holding Robot Wars, having quickly switched.

“I have your papers, little brother,” he said.

“What papers?”

Ruggin climbed up the ladder and deposited a document bearing an official seal in his brother’s lap.

“You are going to Poddle.”

Mutt was dismayed. He knew he was going somewhere and Poddle was no worse than any other camp but he loathed the prospect of military training. With the activation of current forces the reserve patrol was being called to fill the gap. Their duties would consist primarily of domestic law enforcement but it was likely the training period would exceed the duration of hostilities in Bivenal so he would never see service. The prospect of returning to barracks life filled him with dread. How could Ruggin find the constant hazing so attractive? There was nothing at all amusing about being stripped naked, stuffed into a barrel with a smoke bomb, and rolled into the middle of a playground full of small children. If that was just the civil patrol, he shuddered to think what the military might do. He did not understand why a young man would want to confine himself to the company of other young men. Their natural obnoxiousness increased exponentially when crammed into small spaces. Women were such far superior creatures by any objective measure that the only value he saw in military service was that it lured away his competition. But now that he was trapped within its maw he would have to put his life on hold again.

Ruggin adopted a solemn pose then lifted a carved stick up into the loft. “This is for you,” he intoned.

Mutt could not understand how a pointy stick would help him in military training or in actual combat for that matter. But he knew that it was a tradition for inductees to arrive with a carved stick and he accepted the offering graciously. When Ruggin left Mutt picked up the romance novel and quickly became engrossed in the love scenes. Not until he got to the tank room incident did he realize what he was imagining. He was Reston, and Moonflower was Lace, and they were acting out their forbidden love right under the overseer’s nose. Mutt lay there for several minutes developing this fantasy in prurient detail then dropped the book from his hands. He had to go back to the Edge. He had two days before the muster and needed only one to prepare. That gave him a day for a trek to the fold which was more than sufficient. He brought only a flask of water and some bread and proceeded on foot since the bounder was too much trouble for such a short journey. He left his mandolin upright in a corner of the shed deciding this time he would just daydream on the breezy grass. He used Ruggin’s gift as a hiking stick. The walk was quick and brooding and he encountered not a single soul even at the boulevard crossing. He did not know why he walked with such haste or why he was so bent on this excursion. The odds of seeing Moonflower again were nil but he pressed onward with increasing urgency as if late for a rendezvous. He stopped on the trail short of the clearing and took a breath. Moonflower must be like the overseer’s daughter, a sheltered girl of privileged parents looking for love in a vast wasteland, and he would be her Reston, her savior come to give meaning to her life. He smiled at the thought and decided he best not get carried away. The girls in Shivaree were paling against his intense fantasies and he did not want to set himself up for disappointment.

He emerged from the trail to the clearing where he had first seen that inquisitive face, struck by the now intense desolation. No breeze stirred the grass and no life animated the swath. The sun beat down like the flash from a still picture freezing the moment in time. He walked to the Edge to relive the memory of Moonflower and was shocked. The girl sat there on her knees, her hands extended outwards covered in blood, sobbing. She appeared to Mutt an utterly forlorn creature. Her dress was soaked in blood and she was in anguish.

“You came. I knew you would come.”

“I could not stay away,” he said. “You must tell me. What is your name?”

In the distance he heard voices on the trail from Harmour. He could hear the rustle of fronds brushed aside as the voices approached.

The girl’s eyes grew wide.

“My name is Ivy,” she said, and leapt.

She fell full force into his arms. He tumbled backwards from the weight of her body, embracing her with all his might. He knew if he let go she would fall to her death. He was overwhelmed by her physical closeness, the tangle of their arms and legs. He quickly composed himself and grabbed her by the wrists, also covered in blood. He stood up and leaned backwards for balance as her body extended laterally toward the tree line. She looked at him panicked, hanging from his arms over the precipice of Arland. The voices from the Edge were nearing.

“You must run,” she whispered intensely. “They will kill us.”

Her fear was unhinged, as if something worse than death was approaching. Mutt could not run. He could only waddle away from the Edge with her body dangling before him. He was reminded of the intense exertion of his shovel work with the patrol. If his arms were weaker she would have slipped from his grasp. Bark exploded at the tree line. Someone was shooting! He lowered the girl onto the nearest trunk then hurled Ruggin’s stick in anger at a figure leaning over the Edge. The figure retreated as the girl managed to drop from trunk to trunk deeper into the forest, traveling sideways. Mutt ran in after her. He scooped her up like a bride and walked backwards, leaning forward to counterbalance her weight and taking cover behind a thicket. Another bullet was fired but they were no longer in sight. He continued plodding backwards until they were beyond the range of bullets. It became eerily silent. He gently placed her on the side of a thick laurel tree. Her bloody dress had been torn in the thicket exposing one of her breasts. She covered herself with her hand.

“We are not safe here,” she said. “You must find the strength to carry me.”

He bent over, catching his breath. He gathered her up and continued walking backward and sideways. He knew a hollow near a trail to the boulevard where they could take shelter. The sides were steep enough that she could rest without fear of falling. It took him half an hour to get there. In the distance he heard voices in the air, possibly Skavian bounder patrols venturing over the Edge. Through a gap in the canopy he saw an Arland patrol flying toward the shouting to intercept the intruders. He lowered Ivy to the soft clay wall of the hollow next to a pool of water. The slope was steep enough that it felt more like Skava to her than Arland. She lay there suffering, wanting to die. He offered her a roll, his only food, but she had no appetite. Her eyes were glassy and she did not speak. He did not know how to care for her. He took her hand, caressing it tenderly.

“Do not worry. I will take care of you. You will have time to heal.”

“Please, will you protect me?” she asked. Her need to be comforted was intense.

He dipped her hands in the water, washing off the blood. She faded out of consciousness. Mutt was afraid she was dying but saw that her breathing remained constant. He lay there quietly letting her sleep. After an hour she woke up. He had torn away the bottom of his shirt and placed it over her exposed breast. She glanced down, embarrassed. She had recovered some of her strength but was still in pain. She saw the pool of water appearing to rise vertically in front of her. She stood up shakily on the slope, oriented at a right angle to Mutt, and leaned forward into the pool, reaching toward the bottom with her hands. He held her under her armpits for balance. She washed herself fervently, splashing water where she could not immerse. She sat back down on the side of the hollow. Her pain was coming in waves.

“Ivy,” he said. “Is that your real name?”

“Yes.” Her breathing was labored.

“What just happened?”

“They are trying to kill me.”

“I figured as much.”

She did not know what to say. “Actually, I think they were trying to kill you. They want me alive.”

“Who are they?”

“Interior, I imagine. Muglair’s goons.”

“You are not well,” he said. “We need to get you to Shivaree.”

“I cannot go to Shivaree.” She was beginning to fade.

“Why not?”

“Because I am black listed. They will barter me back to Skava.”

“Nobody has to know.”

“You cannot walk into Shivaree with a sidelander and not attract notice.”

She was silent, appearing again to sleep. She awoke after a few minutes with a start.

“I can hide you in a box,” he suggested, picking up where he left off. “We need to get you to my parents’ house.”

She was grimacing. “Please, you must not take me there. Your parents cannot hide me. Your mother is a lawmaker.” She realized her mistake as soon as she said it.

“How do you know that?”

“I cannot talk.” She was becoming delirious.

He decided to wait until her condition improved. But her condition did not improve. For hours he sat in the hollow as her breathing became labored and she developed a fever. He thought about carrying her to Shivaree for medical care but was afraid she would not survive the journey. The hours passed into a day, and then a second day, as her fever peaked. She alternated between periods of torpor and restless fits, occasionally mumbling “oh God” over and over. Mutt tried to imagine who this person was and what happened to her. He could not believe that a girl so young and pretty could have done anything wrong. He had only one chunk of bread and resolved to save it for her. But as he became hungry he decided to investigate her satchel. There were several curious pieces of paper rolled up and tied with strings along with sheets full of meaningless numbers. He wanted to read the papers in the hope of learning her secrets but restrained himself. A man did not read a woman’s journal. He did find food though, including several angoos, a pulpy lavender fruit with soft husk common in Skava. He made a meal of one and waited for her to stir. He did not have a watch but knew by the third day he had missed his deployment. He was now a deserter from the military patrol. On that day her fever broke and she began to speak coherently. She refused to say what had happened and instead asked questions about Shivaree, appearing genuinely interested in the details of daily village life. As they were talking he heard loud footsteps approaching from the boulevard. The hollow was off to the side and out of view from the trail. They sat perfectly still as a contingent of soldiers marched past toward the Edge. In the distance he heard the rumble of large equipment and saw a small flotilla above the canopy also moving toward Skava. Arland was mobilizing, and he speculated these forces were intended to protect Shivaree from whatever evils Harmour might unleash.

“Ivy,” Mutt asked, “what are you going to do?”

She did not like that he said “you” and not “we.” She remained silent.

“You must have a plan,” he said.

“My plan is: I leap, you save me.”

He was not amused. “You are in a foreign land with the wrong gravity. You cannot go back and you cannot go forward.”

“Will you leave me here to die?”

“I would never do that.”

“There is a solution,” she said softly. “You can take me to the Notches.”

Mutt was startled. “That’s crazy. The Notches is seventy-five miles away.”

“It is the only safe haven.”

The Notches was an expatriate community built at the exact center of the four-hundred mile Edge between Arland and Skava. Here the Edge was shaved away at a forty-five degree angle to create a new community with no natural gravity. By tradition the Notches was free from interference from the great nations. Political refugees could find peace if they kept quiet and did not make trouble. The community began as a series of slanted plots of land cut into the Edge by hermits centuries ago. They maintained a forty-five degree orientation, thereby standing upright in their plots, by eating a diet of food one-half from Arland and one-half from Skava. It was called a balanced diet. Over the years the plots merged into one and the Notches deepened into the Edge, which was necessary to expand its width. It was still a small patch of slanted land held in place by roots and erosion lattices but it now accommodated several hundred people, mostly refugees and misfits, who established homesteads there. A person walking from Arland onto the Notches would find himself stepping down onto a forty-five degree slope. If he kept walking he would eventually fall off the far edge into Skava. As soon as Ivy mentioned the Notches Mutt knew he was going there. He thought it an awful idea but it was the only way out of her box. He could not abandon the girl and she would refuse to go anywhere else. Still, he felt the need to argue.

“You are asking a lot of me.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“No, but I have obligations in Shivaree.”

“Well then, I’ll just sit here and rot while you take care of them.”

“I don’t even know you.”

She calmed down. “Mutt, I came back to the Edge because you were the first decent person I ever met in my life. I knew you would be there. I have nowhere else to go.”

He was not happy but felt she appreciated his sacrifice enough to justify it. He began thinking through the logistics of such a trip. How exactly does one carry a woman with transverse gravity seventy-five miles through the wilderness to a hermit colony on the Edge of the world? He imagined the Arland patrol somewhere had a guideline for this situation. But he did not have access to their plan books and would have to improvise. He reached down to gather her up as she slung her satchel over a shoulder. He could not find a comfortable position for carrying her. It was easiest to face Skava so that her weight bore directly down upon his chest but they were traveling south and he did not see how he could sidestep seventy-five miles. She was still in pain, frequently gripping her stomach, and he did not believe she could handle a more active position. Eventually he asked her to ride on his side. She straddled his hip as if he were a pony and rode protruding horizontally in agonizing pain while he tried to walk facing south. This was good for a few steps. She tried clinging to his back but gravity pulled her too strongly westward for her grip to last and they were quickly miserable. She looked at him as though he should have prepared better for the journey. He began to question what his mother taught him about protecting women in distress. Eventually he settled into a rhythm cradling her to the Skavian side while walking more or less southward. She braced an arm behind his back but enormous strain was still placed on his right arm which bore the brunt of her weight. No amount of ditch digging could have prepared him for this. Still, over the space of several hours they managed to travel a couple of miles along an inland trail paralleling the Edge.

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