This cover was illustrated by the author.
Pink skies, blue earth. Angular ultraviolet mountains which remained distant no matter how close you thought you were. Clouds which bubbled deep purples and blacks with the burden of over saturation, but never rained. The ground had become so thick, and hard, that it fractured into webbing cracks. Clay. Blue clay.
Coral-like shrubs formed jutting patches between pebbles and fissures. The plain stretched in all directions. A vastness not unlike the many vacant lands I had wandered before.
Nothing could contest the perfection of an empty world—raw and untouched—simply birthed into perpetual liberty by the almighty forces of the cosmos.
I strode with eyes above, admiring the way the pinks of the sky and blues of the ground reflected onto purple shining mountain peaks, and melted into the soft haze of the horizon.
Then I fell into a hole.
Not a particularly deep hole. Only two meters deep and similarly in width. The soft spherical sides indicated that someone had likely used a giant ice-cream scooper and taken a perfect orb of material from the world’s crust. Logic told me that no giant ice-cream scooper was involved, but perhaps some sort of animal could be.
The underside of my claws clung with clay as I climbed from the hole. My fur—already tinted a silvery-blue—was now dusted in a pastel coat.
I stumbled about a moment, stunned.
I now saw that this particular region I’d entered was riddled with holes. Most maintained a consistent size. Two meters by two meters. Some were clustered quite near, others spread twenty or thirty meters apart. There was no discernible pattern aside from the spherical size of the holes.
A faint buzz drowned by the distance.
Clouds of blue smoke stacked into the sky, possibly a hundred or more meters away.
I approached, and quickly found myself standing at the edge of a freshly dug hole, and the machine used to create it—a bulldozer-like scooping machine. An arm held a polished steel scooper at the end of a four legged mechanical body, roughly the size of a typical automobile. The cockpit was open on the sides with flimsy acrylic doors.
A green skinned fellow wearing nothing but sand colored pants and bright red goggles stopped his digging, cooled his machine, and opened a small hatch in the acrylic door.
“Hi there,” he said, his long snout reminiscent of something between a reptile and a hound. His snozzle hung down past his neck like he were designed to slurp soup straight from the bowl. The back of his head was an indistinct roll of folds, draping to his shoulder blades from his lengthy, thin neck.
As he spoke, his snout and skull-sack flopped in mirror.
“Hi there,” I said to the saggy headed man. “You uh, dug all these holes?”
“You got this all wrong. I am digging these holes.”
“An ongoing project I see.”
“You bet,” he powered down the machine completely and removed its keys. “Got some weird, spiky skin there. Ears are bigger than the moon.”
“It’s fur, actually. Ever seen it? Interesting, fur is fairly common where I’m from. You have quite a saggy head.”
“That I do. Thats all my special sauce.”
“My drinking slop. How else am I supposed to survive in this desert?”
Water storage is what he referred to. Fascinating stuff. Other peoples’ biologies never ceased to amaze me.
“Giant ears?” He sort of asked, sort of stated.
“I was tiny, a long time ago.”
“Still quite short.”
He was easily two meters tall as he stepped out of the vehicle and stretched his lanky green body. His stomach overhung like a pregnancy bump or a beer belly. He patted his stomach like a point of pride.
“Well, very tiny.”
“Long as your finger.”
“Ah, very tiny indeed.”
“I’d say so.”
“You just have.”
“So why the giant ears if you were so tiny?”
“Well my ears also were tiny.”
“But still giant relatively.”
“Relatively to my head, yes.”
“Hm I see, so why then?”
“For hearing on the forest floor.”
The saggy headed man strode to me with a super-model-esque walk, stood over me for a bit, then whipped off his goggles and shook his saggy head like a full head of wavy hair. “Salanzo is the name.”
“Big ears or saggy head, which is the superior trait?”
“To me, you have small ears.”
“And you a tight head.”
“So how about we agree that we’re equally strange, given any particularly peculiar context.”
“I agree to this agreement.”
I motioned around us, “Why do you dig?”
“It is my greatest purpose, my true calling, my faithful pledge to a long lost deity of my fallen peoples. . .” then he laughed, quite hard, “no. I enjoy it.”
“A good reason to dig, I’d say.”
“The best, surely.” Salanzo pursed his lips, “Do you often wander?”
“I spend most of my time wandering,” I said, “now that I think on it.”
“I’m made to. Cursed to. Forced too. I travel against my will.”
“Is that some artistic hyperbole, or a tangible truth?”
“The great truth of my being, I’m afraid.”
Salanzo shrugged, “I see little difference. I am forced to dig, compelled to dig, cursed to dig. I have no say in the matter! But I do enjoy it, quite deeply, now that digging and I have become so close.”
I smiled, because I too enjoyed my curse, despite its challenges and tumult at times. No matter the pain I’d faced at the hands of my condition or the choices I’d been forced to make. I had been given a chance at something extraordinary. Sometimes I forgot it. Sometimes the solemn nature of my very self distorted circumstance into duty. Duty was not important. Life was important. And my living was to help others, not my duty. It was no responsibility, it was choice.
Other Agglomerates showed me that we all had a choice over our realities. We were wanderers, WorldWalkers, with no wayward winds to blow us off course. We were sent into a great void.
A void which, sometimes, wasn’t so vacant. If only I could crawl out of my own head a moment, and leave the “duty,” and the Curse, and the self behind. . . then suddenly all wasn’t so void anymore, and I could see that the universes were full.
Full of everything—literally.
“Is digging all you do, Salanzo?” I walked around his digging machine, which seemed to run regardless of any fuel.
“It is all others would say I do, but far from all.”
My eyes opened to the colors of this world, as the clouds pushed along and their blackness faded, and the pink sky took over. The delayed promise of rain was never fulfilled, and the gift would be passed to the next land far and away. Perhaps that place was always receiving broken promises. Perhaps that is why the blue land had fractured and fissured, all dry and dusty and beyond repair.
“Well, shall we dig or wander?” Salanzo said. “Company is rare in these parts. I’m not entirely sure what to do.”
“Well, you enjoy digging, and I wandering. I say we play a game.”
“Children play games.”
“Ah, but here is a game of tactics. Strategy, intellect, and understanding.” I dove into my Boundless Bag, and took out my Patchwork quilt. A grid laid of checkered squares. The pieces I’d carved from that tree, along with the pirate piece, Threshold’s salt shaker, and more all rolled onto the blue earthen soil. I sat, legs crossed, and set the board.
“A game of wits, not wagers?” Salanzo sat across from me.
“Then I am in!”
And so I described to Salanzo the proto-rules for Patchwork, and what the pieces roles were, and how they moved across the grid. He nodded, and played examples against himself, catching onto the strategy quite quickly.
He gathered his dark colored pieces against my light, and eyed the leftovers pieces, “What are these?”
“Souvenirs, or friends’ pieces for when I play with them.”
“And I must use this simple set!” He scoffed, “Allow me a minute. Shall the Queen or King be the most important?”
“King is protected, but the Queen protects. Your call.”
“The protector shall always protect, even when nothing remains to save. But the protected would fall without their shield, unable to stand on their own. A Queen, I will form.” And Salanzo squeezed his head sack, allowing water droplets to form on his skin. He collected the dew, went to the bottom of his freshest hole, and used a bit of moist clay to form a figurine similar to himself of the blue clay, but primitive in structure. He took a hard black pebble as a “heart” to the angular, attractive little piece.
“When one digs,” he said, “the earth becomes your media. For exercise, and play, and work, and even art. My hands feel best when soot cloaks their green in blue.”
Then he set his Saggy Queen at its place between the King and Bishop, and I took my Big Eared Queen—carved in a mouse’s likeness as all my pieces—and so the game began.
We played for many hours, and the day was longer than most worlds. As the night eventually came and the dark rolled in, we lit a fire and continued our game of Patchwork on the quilt upon the desert.
“When you dig,” I began, moving my pawn into place to block his Saggy Queen’s assault on my Rook, “do you find treasure?”
“Often, yes,” he said, scowling at my move, “and sometimes I wonder whether it is the treasure, or the digging, which makes me happy.” He eyed me, “And you? Do you ever wander into treasure?”
“I wander into people, Salanzo,” I made my move, ‘murdering’ his king as the game implies. “And for me, there’s no wondering. It’s the people. Always the people.”