From: "nikolai kingsley" <>
Newsgroups: talk.bizarre
Subject: the old woman of the mountains
Date: Thu, 2 Dec 1999 03:08:25 +1100
Organization: that one, over there.
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i can't remember if i've already posted this, either.

tense change.

Sthelanar's silvery morning sun was a mere ten minues above the horizon when
the caravan gave an uncharacteristic lurch and began rotating in the other
direction. It did this regularly - reversed rotation, that is - but the
lurch was a problem. Ever since the Sthelane who lived on the caravan had
started working on their latest obsession (something to do with ordering of
fractional sub-atomic spin-states), they'd pretty much ignored the mundane
aspects of life. Maintaining the caravan was just one of these duties that
had gone by the wayside. As we would soon if we couldn't fix the engine.

Your typical Sthelanic caravan was a disc made of interleaved wooden planks
with a tent set up on it. Underneath, an array of spherical wheels set
around the edge was connected by gears to a single engine in the centre. The
larger caravans were the size of small cities; ours was a respectable eight
hundred metres across.

I wandered around the outside of the main tent, looking for anyone who might
be able to help me with the engines. i didn't mind getting my hands dirty
but i wasn't entirely comfortable with trying to fix Sthelanic engines, of
which no two were alike. I'd seen steam-driven variants, impeller-driven
windmills, four-cylinder internal combustion engines,  treadmills powered by
almost-domesticated animals. This particular caravan was powered by some
wierd-ass array of superconductors and permanent magnets attached to a train
of gears that made almost no sense whatsoever. I was sure that I'd seen at
least four large cogs that weren't connected to anything, and yet each
turned with a typical Sthelanic indifference to conventionally understood
laws of physics.

I found Akuji sitting on what had been the leading edge of the caravan five
minutes ago. It was now pointing off to the right at about pi-on-four
radians, but I got the impression it would soon be facing forward again. He
had an inexplicable sense of where the front of the caravan would be; we'd
all come up with schemes and formulae to explain its seemingly random
rotation, but only Akuji with his red crystal artificial eyes and his
unusual Maracite cardiac system could predict with any accuracy where the
front of the caravan would be. He'd said he didn't know how he did it.

I kneeled, sat down next to him and carefully swung my legs over the edge.
He was peering off into the distance in the general direction of the road we
were on, a perfectly smooth array of flagstones wide enough to accommodate a
caravan three times the size of the one we were on. The flagstones were each
about the size of a cushion, each a different shape and a slightly different
hue to the ones around it. I'd examined them at close range a number of
times (most notably when I'd been intoxicated from trying Akuji's snuff and
had fallen off the caravan). They were perfectly smooth with an oddly
variable kind of friction. You could rub your hand against a Sthelanic
flagstone in one direction and it would feel like rough, ridged wood; if you
tried rubbing in another direction it would be as slick as wet glass. The
flagstones were living things; I'd seen them growing back after instances of

The road dwindled off into the distance and disappeared into a valley
between two craggy mountains. They were covered with blue-green plants in
patchy patterns remeniscent of the flagstones. Aside from their positions,
the mountains were exactly the same. In the part of the valley that ran down
the other side of those mountains was our destination. At least, that was
where we were getting off; the caravan would continue onwards forever.

I sat with Akuji for a few minutes, gazing off into the distance, enjoying
the quiet. He reached up to the left side of his chest and opened the door,
revealing a cavity where a human's heart would be. He kept his snuff in
there. If I was going to solicit any help from him with the engines, I would
have to ask before he got too wasted. "Have you been down to see the engines

He flipped open the cap of the chrome-plated container he'd taken out. The
contents glowed pale blue. "Yeah. They started acting up late last night, so
I went down to check the differentials. As a whole, the engines are still
working, but there's fragments of some kind of elemental gearbolt all around
the bottom of the casing."

"That twisted metal?"

"The twisted metal, too."

"Can we fix it?"

Akuji closed his eyes, tilted his head back and took a deep breath. "Don't
think so. We'd need to be able to cast metal gear solid, and you know how
tricky those xenogears get." he coughed. "Ordinarily, they're held in place
by impellers so they can rotate along three axes. We'll just have to wait
until we meet another caravan with some spares."

I looked down at the road. It was passing under the front edge of the
caravan at slightly under walking pace. Akuji saw my expression, smiled and
took a long snort from the container. A faint blue haze hovered around his
nostrils for a moment. "Don't worry. They'll hold out until we get outside
the Warzone, and besides, no-one's going to take a shot at a Sthelanic

"Easy for you to say. You're probably immortal. How long were you a Maracite

He gave me a pained expression. "I was never a Maracite. I just hung out
with them." He took another snort of snuff. "Relax. Take it easy. We'll get
there eventually. This isn't some kind of Porsche challenge."

"Fine. I'll leave you to your azure dreams while I go back inside and try to
deal with my courier crisis."

I got up and went back into the tent. I'd staked out one corner of the free
space for my things; the Sthelane understood human ideas about
territoriality and didn't mess with my stuff. Inside an antique antistatic
bag was the single sheet of parchment that I was to deliver to Gran Turismo,
the Old Woman of the Mountains.

A Ronin Parkry scuttled over to me and peered at the parchment. There were
four of these officious insectoids on the caravan, and unfortunately they
didn't care much for human ideas about personal space. I'd had to threaten
them singly with physical violence before they stopped going through my
belongings. The possibility of mortal combat kept them in line, particularly
after they found out what I'd once done for a living.

The Parkry twiddled the controller of its terminal, which signed luminous

I shook my head. "Buzz off, short stuff. This is private."

It backed off and squatted down on its legs a little. This probably meant
something like anger or the Parkry equivalent; still, who cared about
reading alien insectoid kinesics? It continued signing: I RECOGNISE YOUR

"Don't call me that, you jumped-up beetle. And besides, I know that you have
been, in your time, a tomb raider too," I pointed at one of its companions
and added "and you. A Tomb Raider, three." This comment confused them
sufficiently to make them go away. Hopefully, they'd spend the rest of the
day conferring with the others, trying to work out exactly what I'd meant.
I'd learned from the Sthelane that deft non-sequiturs were the best way of
dealing with Parkry.

i rubbed the slick edge of the bag. it was a diversion, actually. everyone
thought i had the parchment, when all the bag contained was an old envelope
that Neil Gaiman had doodled on once. the parchment was being delivered by
another route. it wasn't even on Sthelanar yet.

my body took that moment to remind me that i'd been away from the human
embassy for so long that the sex inhibitor drugs were beginning to wear off.
i wondered if the Jherani ambassador was still on the caravan; she'd asked
me to teach her some human mating rituals, after all...

(angrily) "why don't they just put Marmaduke to sleep?"
 - Jake Morgendorffer