Shadows of the Sun – Sci-Fi Short Story (3/3)

As far as she knew, Pulum was not like the others. She was not an Anthilian, of course. Which could be easily seen from just a glance: she had the sable skin, the black hair, though hers were cut to shoulder-level, the deep blue eyes and the thick lips. But the thin green lines spreading all over her body glowed with a rich verdant light that pulsated like a clockwork heart, displaying the work of the last Hearthwomb.

Anyone with working eyes would know she was not a young woman of flesh and bone, no matter how close she might resemble a pretty scholar, dressed as she was in the blue garb of researchers. She was a living doll, even though she’d never call herself like that in Usil’s presence. Their friend and chief had always been a little jittery about that word.

Pulum did not really mind. In fact, she was quite fond of the fact she had been crafted with the same care it would be given to a doll. She found the lines running all over her body to be decoration, surely not a curse or a sign of her otherness.

That was referred to how she saw the world. Which set her apart from everyone else, even from her two sisters.

But as long as they stuck together, they would be fine.

“Can I have a new pick?” She asked the Examiner behind her. Unlike the ones that had been assigned to Usil and Thiur, this one was a woman. An elderly one, displaying a few white strands in her hair, even though her face looked almost as youthful as hers.

Patches of discolored skin ran all over her hands. They moved to give her the new tool. Her breath was a little hitched in the thin air of the excavation site, untold amounts of rock above them. Her clothing had been repaired fairly recently, but not too much. She had lost social prestige.

The Examiner was nervous. Even if she understood the Hearthwomb and the lost manufacture of their people better than maybe anyone else in the room (even Pulum, but that was just because she did not get as much experience yet!) she looked at her with a sheen of disdain, coming from the tiniest bit of hesitation to look her in the eyes.

She regarded her the same way Usil would have never wanted to be: as an overgrown and overpriced doll who could only parrot back what was fed to her.

“Thanks,” Pulum nodded, making sure to smile.

Now, now, what to do…?

She could patch and knit together information, it just came natural to her – like the position of the people behind her stated their social standing, fanning out from the Examiner, or which one of her companion had eaten too much for lunch (the woman to the right, judging from the way her stomach twitched) – but what to do with it had always been, and would always be, Usil’s job.

She wasn’t their Sun for nothing, after all.

And just like her namesake, Pulum often felt her attention spread over too many points at once – funny how all the people in the room wore white boots except for the Examiner who wore a faint green – and she missed Usil’s warm hand over her shoulder, helping her to put the pieces together in a coherent mosaic, and Thiur’s soft and comforting embrace, telling her she would always be behind her to support her when she couldn’t make sense of something at the very first glance. That when it happened, it did not make her any less sharp.

No, no… she had to stay focused. She had a challenge to overcome, and she had to show the Examiner she was smart, and that she could put things together, while also not being a loose ironbound (like Thiur might be at times – ah, Thiur smelled so good under direct sunlight, some kind of reaction between her cerarmid and-)…

Oh, she was doing it again, wasn’t she?

Pulum set her lips (she had seen Usil do it sometimes) and spread her hands over the wall, sending her perceptors to check for the oldest stone. Years and the effects of the Capsizing had turned stone into a molten mess, mixing together the layers and any attempt at finding anything useful.

But there was something else, just beneath the twisted stone of the wall. They were so deep these strata came back all the way to the years just after the Capsizing. Based on what she found there, one could infer what had happened. From the faint hint of burned plastics, exhausted hydrocarbons, corrupted polymers and dusted silicon, she could get a hint of what the people whose bones had been mixed to earth here had been doing, the world they had been living in.

In fact, this kind of data pointed to a specific event right about that time: the Dwarves rebellion that had seen the fallen creatures banished from the lands of the King, never to return. According to legend, they had been let go in peace and with a mutual agreement, which the Dwarves kingdoms of the south, once they had risen in power as mercantile empires, had gladly broken.

And since then the Dwarves had had an excuse for their grudge against Anthilians.

Pulum leaned back, closing her eyes and setting her hands on the cave wall.

She wan’t as good at this as Usil. But she could try… and if she failed, well the girls would be there for her.

Even if they were not there.

But she could imagine them. Usil’s satisfied smile, Thiur’s winning smirk. Believing in her, even if she did not get it right the first time. She would, eventually.

Would the Examiner find her answer satisfactory, though?

She pushed her peripherals past the thinnest and closest strata of earth – what would she find? – exhausted metal and strained cerarmid, broken shards of derma-layers from dolls like her, and pieces of cloth and…

Pulum stopped.

It must be a mistake.

She pulled her senses back, catching data like slippery fish caught in a silver net. There… she…

It did not make sense.

Why would they let het probe this piece of wall?

These strata, if she could find such…

Was she positive? It might be her senses fooling her.

Behind her, the Examiner leaned forward, her face stern.

Pulum extended her senses and pulled back, and a plethora of sensations, shapes, colors and cries, tall cries to the sky came back.

She froze.

The Examiner’s breath grew a little more labored.

See? That was why she needed her girls with her. Usil would have known what to do with this conclusion, and Thiur would have given her the courage to stand by it.

“I…” she began, but couldn’t find the words.

Her sisters had each one Examiner. They were alone with them.

She had these four more people here. Why?

It did not make sense. She had considered it a meaningless detail.

But here-

But with what she knew now…

These people were all members of Anthilian society. They all sang the same song, danced to the same tune, and knew the same story.

Such as the story of the Dwarves, gently put to the door by a stern, if benevolent Anthilian civilization, which could barely spend resources in the nightmare years after the Capsizing.

She, Thiur and Usil would leave soon for the Farthest Shore. There they were supposed to find all sort of answers to all sort of questions – and her role was to knit together the pieces of info they had insofar missed.

What would Usil do with this piece of information? Which kind of information would unfit their stories, would wrangle their tunes, would triple all over their rites and throw them into a stormy sea?

Which one could she share?

Ah, think Pulum, think!

That was the setup: the Examiner was there to see what she would do, not what she would find!

“I… I have found-“

She turned to look at her. The other four Anthilian regarded her with quiet disinterest. What could she speak to their ears that they had not yet heard? She was just a doll. A pretty one to look at and who could parrot a conversation but nothing more and nothing else.

Who would walk the line.

Usil had said so, over and over: our duty is to the King.

No matter what they found. For what use would it be to find pieces that couldn’t fit?

She looked down at hands, at the wondrous arabesques of tassels that formed her dark skin, and at the lines holding it all together.

“I have found traces of the great exodus of Dwarves people, right after the Capsizing.” A pause.

A smile.

Was it just that easy?

She was not like the others.

Could she fit?

“A beautiful testimonial of how, even in those turbulent times, our Civilization managed to handle this disaster in a most human manner, even to those who are not human.”

She just had to ignore her findings.

The traces of metal.

The screams, etched in the rock.

The bones.

The Examiner relaxed.

“Very well. You pass.”

Pulum lowered her gaze. She nodded.

“Thank you.”

Behind her, the lost voices from the stone kept singing their discordant song, shearing rock and history alike.

Author’s Notes: how do you write a smart character? I don’t have the wits to find a good answer. I am only able, as a writer and human being, to reach a certain level of cleverness: everything that’s beyond that might just be on the other side of the Moon. It’s a kind of event horizon of writing that’s seldom spoken about, but… how do you write someone’s smarter than you?

One of the solutions I have found is a bit of a cowardly one, but I think it works: as in this piece, shifting how smart a character can think to how smart they can act works well enough because I can focus on adding obstacles which function I can understand. In this case, Pulum is probably a thousand times smarter than I am, even after my third cup of coffee. But what if she has to act on a much baser (and human) level of political correctness (literally) and historical revision? Then her smart mind is much more relatable to us.

This was a very hard chapter to write and I put it off for a while. As always, anything good that you might have found here comes from the Muse. But I am grateful when things like this happen, she sits down besides me and helps me pile up my pastel cubes.

Thanks for reading.


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