Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Seventh Rule — Chapter 7

And now the concluding chapter of The Seventh Rule, another free science-fiction serial from the likes of me. The complete story is available in print in my latest anthology, Eleven Electric Lies, which you might buy a copy of and then bring along for signing at the Toronto Comic Con! I hope to see you (or a duly appointed representative) there, March 18-20, 2011.



VII.

I awoke with the woman's scent on my lips. My insides ached.

"Breathe," she commanded. "Just breathe, okay?"

I wanted to ask her how a man could do other than breathe but my voice would not come. Tears ran from my nose. I started to shiver. At last I managed to croak, "What happened?"

"You fell," she said. "I pulled you out."

"Of the afterlife?"

"Of the water."

I raised myself on my elbows. She was hunkered over me in the narrow alley between two giant cisterns. The baby lay in its swaddling, alone and fussing. She turned to it now, mewling to quiet it. I realized that she had put her baby aside in order to rescue me. "How is it possible that water could engulf a man in this way?" I rasped.

"These cisterns are deep."

I shook my head. Depth was not a quality of water, but of holes. While I could accept that the overworlders in their multitudes kept hundreds of trays of water in this vault for some reason, I would not consent to imagine the cisterns' entire volume was filled by water. That would be absurd. "You could have let me pass on," I said next.

She looked away. "I'm not like that."

"You let your whale kill the shouting man," I pointed out.

Her expression darkened briefly. "That's different."

I reflected her old smirk back to her. "So you do have rules."

She allowed herself a small smile, a genuine one. "Yeah," she admitted. "Maybe."

We climbed again. She soothed my unease by explaining to me that the cisterns did not change size -- it was simply that the furthest of them were so distant that they appeared smaller within my vision. Though I could grasp her idea my eyes remained bewildered. I focused only on the rungs before me, slick and green. I concentrated on aligning myself to catch her if she fell.

"It's called perspective," she said.

"Perspective is the apparent bending of rectilinearity," I contributed. "We have this word, too, but I had never mixed it with far."

"Maybe you'll have to make a new rule."

I snorted. "Don't be stupid. Rules are bigger than men."

This time I took the final transition from the vault of lakes to the brightness with my forearm blocking my sight. I allowed my prey to lead me through the portal and into a land of noise and colour. By degrees I widened my fingers to expose my squinting eyes.

We crouched in a sewer, a shallow trough with a ceiling of metal grating. Beyond the grating were gathered unfathomably tall fingers, like roots stood on end, their skins glittering with thousands of tiny eyes; and between the fingers were bridges that swarmed with miniscule human beings the size of bugs; and everywhere streamed lines of flies whose paths were straight instead of meandering; and between it all were squares of coloured lights whose faces swept and crawled with ordered marks and captured ghosts; and an army of overworld people with their false feet tromped over our heads, back and forth, dodging one another, spilling like a liquid, the flow and stutter of their shadows flashing over us, the clanging of their hard heels against the metal in a senseless rhythm.

"This is a mad place," I hissed, but then furrowed my brow when I saw that the baby was at peace, looking around at every line and smear with open curiosity, his fruity cheeks shining. "But your baby -- he likes it."

"It probably looks grand to you," she said, "but it's a slum. It's the sunless bottom of the city. He doesn't know it yet, either. He has no idea what he's been born into."

"Forgetting is natural," I assured her. "Your baby will recover his knowledge in time." I showed her my teeth in a friendly way and then unhitched my spear and checked its keen edge. "You will watch over him from the afterlife, of course."

"I thought we were starting to be friends."

I hefted the spear. "Are you ready?"

She kissed the baby. She looked up at me. Her chin was quivering. "Please," she said. "I'm a human being, just like you. I don't deserve this. You may not believe it seeing what you've seen, but you don't know. You don't know any of it. You don't know what this planet is like. I'm a good person. You've got to believe that. I just want to raise my child. There's no one else to protect him. Please."

I tilted my head at her as I leveled my weapon. "Your customs are weird," I remarked, taking aim.

"Please," she said again.

I frowned, spear drooping. "You keep talking. Are you prepared for your passage or not?"

"No!" she cried, then covered her face and wept.

I did not know where to look. I was ashamed for both of us. I hoped the spirits of her ancestors were busy elsewhere, and not watching her now to see such disgrace. I hoped the spirits of my own ancestors were occupied elsewhere, too. My cheeks burned.

I did not know why she would show such contempt for my hungry kin who only needed to eat as any living thing does. I had honoured my side of the agreement -- why would she renege now? How could she spit in my face in this way?

"You have to understand, overworlder," I said, spreading my arms in appeal; "I cannot return to my clan empty-handed."

"Please don't kill me," she begged. "I don't deserve to die!"

I blinked. I shook my head. "Your notions are silly. How can a human being deserve death or not deserve it? Death comes to each of us. Do not fight fate. Find your peace. Show me your neck." I raised my spear and prepared to thrust.

"I saved your life! You owe me!"

The baby began to cry.

I sighed. I let my spear dip. Though there was no rule to describe it, I felt a compulsion to seek a compromise rather than be subjected to further infantile pleading. This wretched thing, so helpless and wrong, so alone without clan or rules or spirits -- I felt that it was as if she were a baby, too. I felt that I could stretch the seventh rule, to include her within its reach. I believed this is what the ghosts of my ancestors were trying to say when they spoke through the baby's wails. It is said that sometimes wisdom comes to men in this way.

I made my proposition and she accepted it, eyes filling with tears. "I'm scared," she said. "Will it hurt?"

"Yes."

She was brave. She locked her gaze on her baby beside her while I worked, neck flexing as she fought to control her breath. Though her flesh was supple beyond imagining I restrained myself from greed, and took only the legs.

As agreed.

Now I walk with a song in my heart, plying familiar pipes and nearing the nest where the Twentymen and our brides build our tents. I carry fresh meat and have a story for the ventside -- a wondrous quest to the overworld where puddles are bottomless, distance confounds scale, lost souls flounder in solitude, and the spirit of kindness and generosity can alight inside a young hunter. I work out the verses, bouncing as I step.

I salivate to imagine the meal to come. Such plump calves!

The roots are deep. I love my clan. Our lives are rich, and correct. Nature whispers to us with sharp lines and sure corners, and helps us stay on the path. Whales and mammoths are plentiful. Water comes to us beaded on the sweaty pipes, providing each day each man's allowance of wet tongue and sweet life.

Who could ask for anything more?

Fin.

21 comments:

Sheik Yerbouti said...

What the...?

So now she's going to bleed to death and/or be unable to provide/care for her baby -- assuming she can even get out of the sewer? I can't see her taking that offer.

Maybe I need to read this again. You mentioned earlier that certain things should become clear in light of the whole story, but I haven't heard the penny drop just yet. Is it in his strangely adept grasp of the scientific mixed with a childlike understanding of the forces around him? Is he part of an offshoot of the hybrid executive movement?

You were right, though; it was abrupt... and a fascinating glimpse into one of your worlds.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Sheik said,

What the...?

This is a story about the juxtaposition of two differing value systems.

Each character sees his or her worldview completely egocentrically, causing each to consider the other profoundly ignorant and ill-equipped for navigating life.

It isn't just a "City Mouse/Country Mouse" situation, though, because of the contrast between their fundamental moral perspectives. In the end, this woman has had to endure a terrible sacrifice in order to survive a baffling and violent situation; on the other hand, Yield has committed an act based in pity and compassion.

How can the two be the same act?

They can be the same act because they are viewed through entirely different lenses. Yield cannot understand why someone would choose to suffer in this life rather than pass honourably to the next world; the woman cannot understand why successfully forging an emotional bond between them does not automatically mean Yield's empathy will save her from harm. Morally speaking, these two characters are speaking totally different languages.

You mentioned earlier that certain things should become clear in light of the whole story, but I haven't heard the penny drop just yet...

This is a story made for reading between the lines. For example, Yield cannot grok the visual effects of distance because his entire life has been lived in tight tunnels, leading him to misinterpret the scale changes caused by linear perspective. This point is made in the story to help the reader understand that his worldview is similarly warped and handicapped when compared to the overworlder.

Similarly, the woman is smug in her assumption that her life makes more sense than that of the savage, but when explored further it becomes apparent that she takes-as-read her environment to no less degree than Yield does -- her myths (that humans build infrastructure) are no more accurate than his (that infrastructure is a living force). Basically, she and Yield are on equal footing in a way she cannot see because she is so sure her "civilized" point of view is superior.

Yield's life is squalid and difficult but rich with meaning. The overworlder's life is complicated and sophisticated but not necessarily nourishing -- she exists in a society in crisis (a population crisis by the sounds of it) and in the midst of relationships in crises (she's been forced to murder a man she knows). That which is most decisive about comes from acting on the instinct to preserve her child, a basis no more complex than Yield's motivations.

Yield lives according to an explicit code, and this gives him comfort. The overworlder lives according to an implicit code she is murky about the details of, and perhaps too arrogant to recognize her role within.

So now she's going to bleed to death and/or be unable to provide/care for her baby -- assuming she can even get out of the sewer? I can't see her taking that offer.

I think the option seemed preferable to certain death. I think also we can imagine she was able to get the attention of one of the overhead passersby in order to gain rescue, though they might not have cared enough to act -- that's an unknown. All she knew was that some chance was better than none -- and it's really the only one she can make if she doesn't believe in an afterlife. It's Yield's compromise or nothing.

You were right, though; it was abrupt... and a fascinating glimpse into one of your worlds.

It should have been jarring. The reader should have identified with the overworlder, and been lulled into making the same assumptions about common moral ground as she did. That's why the last couple of paragraphs are key -- we must appreciate that to Yield this is a good deed, and that he is lighthearted and happy with the outcome. He is not evil.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Esteemed Cheeseburger,

Thank you for that most detailed of responses :) I get that you were staging Clash of the Assumptions (and you hinted at it in an earlier comments section); it's a solid footing for a story and you developed it well. I guess I read too much into your other comments about reading between the lines and a revelation to come. My own assumptions come back to haunt me, I suppose.

You do like to keep us on our toes.

SaintPeter said...

Yes, jarring. The last bit leaves me quite uncomfortable. Maybe in a good way. Your explanation helps.

On the positive side - she lost some weight, quickly! *shudder*

Mark said...

The crone suffered from sudden loss of leg bone. Alone. Where the sun barely shone.

Anonymous said...

great story and the ending reminds me of "a boy and his dog".

just a though, replace "Though her flesh was supple beyond imagining I restrained myself from greed, and took only the legs."

with "Though the flesh was supple beyond imagining I restrained myself from greed, and took only the legs.

That way it can also be read that the deal was for Yield to maybe take the baby's legs instead.

Just a thought. I am on 3 hours of sleep last night.

Orick of Toronto

Teddy said...

Evil...Fascinating...

A friend posted a video today. It was a turbochristian saying how she prayed that the atheists would be shown god's love or something like that, and how obviously the immense tragedy in Japan was god shaking them into sensibility regarding his existance. Another friend denounced this as evil. It isn't really evil though, it's worse. Evil deeds are selfish, but far worse is harm done under the belief that it's good.

I got what I was supposed to get - I identified with the woman, I was disgusted with Yield. One thing I don't get though - Where are the forces bent on erasing the plague that is Yield's people? He said they often take down cars in the tunnels. Somebody would have noticed that accidents happen and people disappear down there, somebody surely must have noticed a pattern. If they take down a bus, brutally kill the and cannibalize the passengers and then strip the bus for everything it has, that's not something that can really go unnoticed. Did I miss a reference to some feared enemy tribe or something? That would have helped to seal me in, I think.

TRH

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Echo Teddy's question. This was brought up earlier in the story by another commenter (voicing the question for the rest of us), and our esteemed author indicated that it should be more clear by the end of the story. Are we to assume that tunnel maintenance is so completely automated that people don't even spare a thought for the happenings therein? Has society so degenerated and fragmented that nobody's friends or family (Yield would call it one's clan) ever wonders what happened to their loved ones?

Side note: as a Christian, I take offense when people point to a natural disaster and claim some sort of supernatural knowledge that said disaster represents divine punishment. Not only is there is no defensible basis for such callous statements, and not only do they ignore the mandate of mercy toward suffering masses, but the underlying assumption ignores the fact that we all deserve much worse than we get.

End of screed.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Teddy: One thing I don't get though - Where are the forces bent on erasing the plague that is Yield's people?

I used to have a friend who was both a Quaker and a videographer. As a younger man he mortgaged everything he had in order to buy a broadcast-quality shoulder mounted Betacam, and then in order to pay for it he accepted an assignment for a social betterment group in Africa.

En route to the shoot my friend's caravan was forced to slow when it came to a part of the road obstructed by several burning buses. Bandits boarded his vehicle and began systematically robbing everyone aboard.

My friend, hardened and horrified by the idea that all his best laid plans were about to be dashed into dust, refused to hand over his camera. He offered them his wallet and watch, even his shoes, but said that if they wanted his camera they would have to do so by force.

The bandits bought the Quaker's bluff. They didn't want to escalate things out of the more familiar breed of trouble. They took his wallet and watch and shoes and then sent the caravan on its way.

Upon reaching the destination my friend confronted the organizers of the assignment and demanded to know why he and all his expensive equipment had been booked aboard a bus whose route was frequented by bandits.

The organizers shrugged. "How else would you get here? It's the only road."

In other words, a certain amount of losses were considered normal and unavoidable. Africa, eh?

Sheik: Are we to assume that tunnel maintenance is so completely automated that people don't even spare a thought for the happenings therein?

I think we can assume two equally important things: firstly, this is an overpopulated world in crisis. We don't know the nature of the crisis precisely, but we do know that the overworlder considers the lifestyle of the Twentymen to be beneath society's threshold of notice. If it seems difficult to believe that people might be indifferent to horrors happening at their feet, take a moment to life in a crowded and poverty-stricken megalopolis like Calcutta. Arguably, indifference is a necessary self-defense mechanism for denizens who want to stay sane. Certainly, governments in such situations have very, very, very long lists of priorities...and something had to be at the bottom. So perhaps we might imagine that the "worms" are the transport for choice for wealthier people, and then slower and clumsier small vehicles that run along the bottom of the tunnels are used by poorer folk.

Secondly, we must also note the things Yield has told us: the tunnels are haunted by spirits who would take any hunter foolish enough not to make himself invisible by walking inside a traffic cone. These non-anthropomorphic robots are not really comprehensible to Yield, but I think we can understand that they might serve a function in patrolling and clearing the tunnels. It is an arms race, however, and the hunters are wily while the machines are largely left to operate without interference. In the lowest of the low tunnels, the hunters are ahead for now.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Sheik mentioned,

Side note: as a Christian, I take offense when people point to a natural disaster and claim some sort of supernatural knowledge that said disaster represents divine punishment.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the mechanics of plate-tectonics transmit no malice. Anyone who tells you differently is probably fibbing about the source of their insight.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Teddy said...

Interesting story. It does help explain such a society, but at the same time there are two different lines being crossed. Being robbed takes possessions, not to mention the bandits showed that they were unwilling to use too great a force. Everybody on that bus was left more or less intact, just with less of the stuff they had brought. Yield's tribe is CANNIBALIZING COMMUTERS. I think the public response would be different regardless of most circumstances.

If the people above are willing to ignore the cannibalization of their own by spear-bearing primitives, then I hope for their own sake that this world's gate is closed for barbarism...if we have gates yet. If we still have tires on busses, we might not have gates yet.

TRH

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Teddy typed,

If the people above are willing to ignore the cannibalization of their own by spear-bearing primitives, then I hope for their own sake that this world's gate is closed for barbarism...

You make a fair point in terms of the way the plot comes across, but for the purposes of discussion consider this rhetorical turn: how much energy have you personally devoted this week to stopping violence in the lower rungs of your own society?

I'm willing to admit that this week I've devoted none at all.

Like many people, my de facto position seems to be that carjackings in inner city ghettos are effectively none of my business. Unless one happens to me, that is. At that point -- and only at that point -- has crime "crossed a line" or grown "out of control." Prior to that point loss of life is a newspaper statistic.

Everybody who lives in a megalopolis knows there are certain streets you don't walk down alone at night. I'm sure it's no different on this world: the smart advice is to take the train and never find yourself in a position where your only option is a private taxi that keeps fares low by risking the wilds of the tunnel bilges. But some people aren't fortunate enough to be to smart.

To imagine it defies belief that a society would continue to operate with the knowledge that their poorest members are the victims of violence seems to me delusional -- far from incredible, it is the norm.

Never the less, hypothetical chattery aside, your response to the problem presented in the story is valid and important information for me.

Oh, and the gates are definitely closed here.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

SaintPeter said...

Secondly, we must also note the things Yield has told us: the tunnels are haunted by spirits who would take any hunter foolish enough not to make himself invisible by walking inside a traffic cone. These non-anthropomorphic robots are not really comprehensible to Yield, but I think we can understand that they might serve a function in patrolling and clearing the tunnels.

Ahh. I missed this part. I think if you had made it a bit more explicit part of the story - some sort of action, like a "spirit" going by and not noticing them because of the cones - it may have helped to make clear what was happening. Such an event could secondarily serve to heighten tension.

I think the disconnect for me and, it appears, others, is that we assume that any civilization sophisticated enough to have self driving cars, vast underground tunnels, etc, will be similarly advanced enough to care about it's people. Unlike your (interesting) story about your Quaker friend, this is no dirt road in the middle of Africa. This is a throbbing artery of commerce. In my view it is not possible to maintain those arteries without lots of maintenance and feedback loops. Consider what would happen if a car were to crash or stall in the middle of the tunnel - there would be a huge pileup or a slowdown - things would need to be rerouted, etc. There would HAVE to be supervisory mechanisms in place to deal with that.

Obviously, a culture in crisis may have breakdowns . . but there was nothing overt in the story to indicate that a breakdown was occuring . . especially one long enough to allow generations of tunnel dwellers to form tribes, etc.

--

Anyway, I still enjoyed the story and thought you passed your message pretty well. I think the above is just a distraction which could be avoided with some minor tweaks - it just breaks the suspension of disbelief for me.

Mark said...

Wow. My initial comment seems even sillier now. I, too, missed that there are mysterious keepers of the peace that wander the tunnels. Exposition is considered bad writing in excess, but when I reaf your explanation I thought, "Hey, that's pretty cool." Usually I think that while reading your story and do not need clarification. But, we were seeing this through Yield's considerably superstitious eyes, so he might not have known how better to express it. I'm in a bar working on my second Woodchuck granny smith hard cider and my steak just arrived. Yield would not approve.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

SaintPeter suggested,

I missed this part. I think if you had made it a bit more explicit part of the story - some sort of action, like a "spirit" going by and not noticing them because of the cones - it may have helped to make clear what was happening. Such an event could secondarily serve to heighten tension.

I think the weight of the comments suggests that you are precisely right about that. My treatment left too nagging a question in too many readers' minds.

Obviously, a culture in crisis may have breakdowns . . but there was nothing overt in the story to indicate that a breakdown was occuring . . especially one long enough to allow generations of tunnel dwellers to form tribes, etc.

Indeed, I was trying to de-emphasize the world-building because it concerned too many things I didn't think mattered to Yield. The crisis is referenced in just one line of dialogue from the overworlder, and then only glancingly ("bigger problems"). Certainly, she is implying there is a population problem as fifteen billion people would seem a crowd on just about any terrestrial planet.

I don't think we necessarily need a lot of time for the tunnel dwellers to form tribes or become pig-ignorant. I imagine a possible starting place could be a small group of lost children -- starting off without knowledge means that instead of the cliche of the lost people's legends being distorted versions of our shared understanding of the world, they get to make up their own from scratch, based on instinct. If the mortality rate were high enough a generation of this kind could pass in half the time of yours or mine.

...[T]his is no dirt road in the middle of Africa. This is a throbbing artery of commerce.

That's the one thing you've said, SaintPeter, that I disagree with on its face. The dirt road in Africa is also a throbbing artery of commerce -- it just throbs slower and smells like poo. The set of common human behaviours associated with highways doesn't necessarily change when the character of the highway changes.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Mark mentioned,

...We were seeing this through Yield's considerably superstitious eyes, so he might not have known how better to express it.

That's exactly what I was trying to do, yeah. Putting walls around our POV in order to choke the narrative, if you see what I mean -- to force it through an odd-shaped hole.

I have another, shorter, story in the works that experiments with a very similar device (conceptually, not similar in terms of execution or character). I'm interested to see how it goes over. That will go up next week -- this week I'm working on something a little more...overdue.

I'm in a bar working on my second Woodchuck granny smith hard cider and my steak just arrived.

Very nice!

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Oh, and Mark, your initial comment wasn't at all silly. There are pros and cons to posting chapter by chapter: one of the pros is hearing what people think before they've heard the whole case. Such "process" thoughts go forgotten when a reader only has their say at the end.

CBB

SaintPeter said...

The dirt road in Africa is also a throbbing artery of commerce -- it just throbs slower and smells like poo.

LOL - This is true . . up to a point. It is the very slowness and remoteness of a dirt road that makes it possible for banditry to exist. If you only get 50 cars a day, and there are no police around (or you ARE the police), you can set up a road-block and bandit to your hearts content. No one else is going to come along to stop you.

What I was trying to get at is that if I was zipping down Highway 80 at 75 MPH on my way to Sacramento, I wouldn't expect to find bandits. You can't get car-jacked at 75 MPH. (Well, maybe you can, but that's another story . . .) and if bandits set up camp it would darn well get noticed.

Yes, I've heard of bad parts of down. I can even imagine remote bad stretches of highway. Where I fall down on is a bustling, crowded section of superhighway that is bad or dangerous in quite this way.

--

I appreciate the challenge of using a limited viewpoint to express a high-tech civilization in breakdown . . . I just think a couple nods to this question would have helped.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

SaintPeter said,

I appreciate the challenge of using a limited viewpoint to express a high-tech civilization in breakdown . . . I just think a couple nods to this question would have helped.

You're right about that. I don't mean to debate the point. I find the discussion interesting.

What I was trying to get at is that if I was zipping down Highway 80 at 75 MPH on my way to Sacramento, I wouldn't expect to find bandits...

That is also no doubt a sound assessment. But banditry happens in other transport contexts, like shipping. It happens online, which is a highway of a kind if you're into late-nineties inept metaphors. But your point about speed is inarguable -- I'm sure that's why the "worms" remain invulnerable!

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

*littlestar. said...

I was not disgusted by Yield! You guys are all meanies! I felt bad for him. What if you had been raised in the tunnels? What if you didn't know how it felt to EVER have seen anything else. He was doing the right thing for his culture.

The women was stupid, that's for sure, she should have run when she had the chance and let the poor boy die. It is SO human to assume that someone from a different culture will, if you explain it right, eventually somehow "understand" your totally alien and completely "wrong" (to them) way of thinking.

Would you completely alter your world view in an hour based on one person's view? A totally insane and WRONG view, based on information that was incorrect? I would be shocked if anyone reading this would change even one iota in that situation, I wonder why they imagine someone else would.

Also, having travelled I don't find it all strange that there are worlds of different cultures occurring one on top of the other. I have seen this in India, New York, and Toronto amongst other places. For a basic example: in Toronto there is a huge lage, Lake Ontario, there are ghetto kids not 10 km away from it who were disbelieving when told that there was a lake in the city. They didn't even believe it. They had never heard of it or seen it and they were in their teens, and had lived life as far as they were concerned, if it was there, they would have known. Right?

Teddy said...

@Littlestar: If I had been raised in the tunnels I would only not know to be disgusted with myself.

The right thing for his culture may not necessarily be the right thing. The golden rule is wholly backwards - how you want to be treated should have no bearing whatsoever on how you treat others, instead you should treat them as THEY want to be treated. When I'm greeting somebody, I prefer a handshake, or if they are somebody I know quite personally a hug but neither of these is how I would greet a Japanese person because it almost assuredly isn't how THEY want to be greeted.

Essentially, unless the custom of another person in a given situation is offensive, it is better to use their custom than your own. In the illustrated situation: Yield's custom upon meeting the woman was to kill and eat her. The woman's was to peacably go their separate ways. One of these things is less offensive to both members (Yield can get over not eating her, the woman cannot get over having been eaten).

TRH