« Back
Generated: Jun 20, 2020 11:41 AM
Post last updated: Jun 20, 2020 11:41 AM
and sam colt made them equal
stevenchainsaw & imrainai in caravaneer
Permalink Mark Unread

Chairman Brass's office is impeccably clean, more than it's flashy or expensive. It can't be expensive, really; nobody in the bunker has used money in generations, and they mostly have no idea which things would be cheap or expensive in a world that still thought in the relevant terms. His chair is leather, though. It's the only leather chair in the bunker. Nobody around here has any idea how to make leather chairs anymore.

"Sit down," says the chairman, motioning to the wooden chair on the other side of his desk.

Permalink Mark Unread

Nick sits. He is still taller than the chairman this way but not by quite as much.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I apologize for calling you in here on such short notice," says the chairman, without sounding like he's actually apologizing at all. "The situation is relatively urgent. Would you happen to know where your mentor Olaf is? Did he say anything to indicate that he might be going somewhere?"

Permalink Mark Unread

He shakes his head, with a slight concerned frown. "I haven't heard anything."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I see," he sighs. "How would you say your training is going? I know you haven't actually visited any of the surrounding settlements, but do you have reason to believe that you can survive in the desert for any length of time?"

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"I at least think I would probably be better at it than someone who hasn't studied it at all..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That may be the best we have, at the moment. Olaf appears to have left the compound last night, against a direct order to stay. We have no idea where he is or what he may be doing, but it's imperative that he be brought back as soon as possible, for obvious reasons."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, of course."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I wish I could give you your first assignment under better circumstances, but at the moment, I must ask you to visit the surrounding settlements and see if you can learn anything. You'd do well to start with Silos, which is due north of here. We have a little money and a pistol, but not not much ammunition for it, so you'll do well not to use it unless necessary. Avoid fights. Return with news as soon as you have it, or, better, with Olaf." He sighs again. "It's possible, though unlikely, that Olaf will refuse to return to the compound, in which case you may be forced to use your weapon against him. It probably won't come to that, but if it does, we'll understand."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods solemnly.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, then. If you have no other questions, you'll do well to load up on supplies and leave as soon as possible. The storeroom is open to you."

The chairman offers him a pistol and twelve bullets.

Permalink Mark Unread

He accepts them with another grave nod.

Next stop: the storeroom, where he carefully assembles a selection of the most durable foods available and packs them along with a supply of water into his travel bag. Is it still a travel bag if it has never in its life been used for travel? Well, that question won't be relevant for much longer.

After considering the rest of the available items, he adds in a roll of duct tape and a few extra packs of matches. Basic survival gear—a compass, a knife, a metal bowl that can be cooked with and then eaten out of—already lives in the bag at all times, but he double-checks that too and exchanges a frayed roll of twine for a neater one from stores.

And then, he supposes, it is time to go look for Olaf.

Permalink Mark Unread

The desert is hot and empty and apparently devoid of other travelers, at least for the moment.

 

Permalink Mark Unread

 

 

It's also very...

...big?

 

He knew that, of course, on an abstract intellectual level. It is not news to him that the world is large and contains many things, most of which at least locally are air and sand. But it's one thing to know that and another to see it. His eyes refuse to believe in the evidence before them, at first, and he has to reach up to confirm that the sky is farther away than he can put an outstretched hand.

There is so much room.

He has never in his life had this much room.

It occurs to him to wonder how Olaf ever managed to come back.

 

But regardless of his opinions, he doesn't at the moment have a better idea for what to do than pursue the mission he was given. He heads north.

Permalink Mark Unread

The town of Silos - if it can be called a town - is about twelve hours away. It is not, in fact, exactly due north, but it's close enough that he should see it from a ways out and be able to adjust his course accordingly.

It... actually seems to be totally devoid of people. There's a cluster of maybe a dozen buildings, all right, and a water well, and some carefully cultivated hives full of insects, but there aren't any people milling about.

Permalink Mark Unread

 

...well.

He examines the exteriors of the buildings, carefully and methodically, trying to determine the purpose of each one. If the people of the town don't live in its visible parts but instead live near or beneath it, perhaps they're all away at the moment. Or maybe they're just hiding. If a town populated entirely by Nick and people relevantly similar to Nick lived in a world where strangers sometimes wandered past, they would definitely have a system set up to alert them in this eventuality so they could all hide until the stranger went away.

Permalink Mark Unread

The buildings are small one-room huts with mud walls and thatched roofs. Most of them are structurally compromised in some way - this one has a caved-in roof, that one is missing a wall.

One of them, the one nearest the insect hives, is making sounds. Very small sounds, the sorts of sounds that occur when someone is moving about their environment and setting things down and picking them up again, without thinking about whether this will attract any sort of attention.

Permalink Mark Unread

Hmm. So perhaps there just aren't very many people.

This also seems reasonable. If Nick had the opportunity to live in a small town in the desert with no other people in it he would definitely absolutely do that.

 

...is there... some way to politely inform a person who is in their house that you are outside their house and want to interact with them? If this was home he would—well, if this was home he would understand that in theory you knock on doors but in practice he would just make sure to never visit a non-public place unexpectedly unless his business was urgent. He supposes his business is in fact moderately urgent. Do surfacers knock on doors? He can't recall if this was covered in his lessons. It seems rude to just try it. Having one's door knocked on is probably pretty alarming if one isn't used to it.

Permalink Mark Unread

After a few minutes of this, the door opens. The man on the other side of it looks startled, but only a little bit, like he sometimes has visitors but today is the wrong day for them. He's old and very frail-looking, and is wearing patched-together wool clothes and carrying a walking stick.

"Heyyo! You shoulda knocked."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, I'm sorry," he says, softly and earnestly. "I didn't want to interrupt."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's all right, that's all right," he mumbles. "I'm never doing anything important. Come in, come in."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thank you," he says, with a small smile. Into the house he goes.

Permalink Mark Unread

The house is very lightly furnished - there's a ceramic cup and a plate on the floor with some seasoned insects on it, and there's a fireplace without a fire, and there's a wooden chest, and there's a pile of blankets in one corner that might be something like a bed.

"Are you Lintu? You don't look Lintu. I know you're not Pullid. I'd say you're Drekar, but they knock."

The man offers Nick another glass of water and another plate of insects. They look like they're probably crickets or locusts or something.

Permalink Mark Unread

He accepts this offering gratefully. His supply of food is finite and it is good to be given more of it.

"I'm not any of those," he says. "I'm looking for news of my friend Olaf, who is late returning from a recent trip. I'm concerned he might have run into trouble."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Olaf," says the old man, mostly to himself. "Olaf, Olaf. Ahhh. Sort of middle-aged guy, pale-ish, red hair?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, that sounds like him. Have you seen him?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, I know him. Haven't seen him recently. He used to come around a lot, but ever since the neighbor died... well. Not much here now, is there."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh. Hmm. I'm sorry to hear that. Thank you anyway."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mhmm. You could ask up at Lintu tribe, though, they might know. If anyone does, anyway. Could be Drekar got him."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods thougtfully, although the best that can be said for his knowledge of Drekar is that he's pretty sure he's heard the word at least once before today, and of Lintu that he may have heard it as many as three times.

"I haven't been there before; do you think you could give me directions?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"To Lintu? They're north of here. Not always in the same place, exactly, but you'll see the tents, don't worry. Takes about a day - maybe less, young guy like you, but you might want to spend the night here anyway. And then maybe you wanna take some insects with you. Gotta pay, if you want more than what you ate there, but Lintu'll buy them off you for more, they like 'em."

Permalink Mark Unread

He takes a moment to work through the logic of this suggestion. Money is a medium of exchange of value under conditions of scarcity. In much the same way that Nick is grateful to be fed because of his finite supply of food, this person wants to receive some value in return for a more substantial amount. But if the Lintu will give Nick more money for the insects than Nick has to give away to get them, where is the extra value coming from? Why don't the Lintu have all the insects and the man have all their money? Oh—it's the travel time. By transporting the insects a day's walk north he's supplementing the concrete value of the food with the invisible value of the trip. That makes sense.

"Thank you, I think I will do that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Good! Good. I'll sell them to you for a good price. Fate knows I've got too many around here for just me. Ah - I dunno that I have much in the way of overnight accommodations here, but you're welcome use the neighbor's old place for the night."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I could do that. I'm sure it'll be fine."

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right! I'll see you in the morning, son."

The neighbor's house is completely empty, but it blocks the wind, which is nice because deserts are actually pretty cold at night.

Permalink Mark Unread

It is, in fact, fine. He came prepared to sleep outdoors, and is therefore equipped to appreciate having walls.

Permalink Mark Unread

In the morning the old man gives him his price for the insects and assures him that Lintu will pay him about twice what he bought them for. 

Lintu is about a day away, as expected. It's a collection of brightly-colored tents and flocks of sheep and goats being watched over by men and women wearing similarly brightly-colored clothes. No one stops to greet him on his way in, but no one blocks him or seems to be avoiding him in particular, either.

Permalink Mark Unread

...hmm.

He's not entirely sure how to find someone to sell insects to, or someone to ask after Olaf with. Maybe it will become obvious as he proceeds.

Permalink Mark Unread

If he wanders around the camp for a while without talking to anyone, then eventually someone will notice that he doesn't seem to know where he's going. This someone is a girl who was previously shearing sheep.

"Hi!"

- oh no how does communication work. She looks around to double-check that there are people to run away to if she somehow totally messes up this interaction and it explodes. There seem to be people.

" - do you, uh, do you need something?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Nick belatedly realizes that he never got the other fellow's name.

"Um—the old man in the empty town south of here said that the Lintu might like some insects, but I don't know who to, um, sell them to. And I'm looking for news of my friend Olaf but I don't know who to ask."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh you know Cricket! Cricket's cool." There's no reason in principle that a Drekar person couldn't know Cricket, and this person is in fact probably Drekar, but they're supposed to be nice to Drekar anyway. That way only predictable bad things will happen, and not really even very many. To them, anyway.

"If you wanna sell things to people the market is over there, only it isn't now because it's the wrong day of the week, but if it were Monday it'd be there. Evan the merchant is over there in that tent - he won't buy insects, that's if you want to buy a knife or a metal canteen or something. Or you could talk to Kukul? He probably knows where people are, Kukul knows - not everyone but most people. Around here, anyway. And some people in other places, even. His tent's over - I can show you, it's a ways."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That would be very helpful, thank you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"OK! Sure thing."

She would make conversation on the way over, except that actually if he wanted there to be conversation then probably he would be the person deciding that it should exist, and if he doesn't then maybe that's because making conversation would be annoying and she should restrain herself.

She does show him where Kukul's tent is, though. You can't knock on a tent, so she calls his name.

Permalink Mark Unread

In a few moments Kukul appears. He's short and heavyset, probably in his forties or fifties. He looks Nick up and down. 

"I don't think I know you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I would be somewhat surprised if you did," he agrees. "I'm Nick. I'm looking for someone to sell some of Cricket's insects to and someone to ask if my friend Olaf passed through the area recently."

Permalink Mark Unread

"No strangers in the past few weeks, sorry."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, thank you anyway. What about the other thing?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The insects? Sure, people here love them. If you're in a rush I can pay you for them now, though you might get better prices selling them to people individually. The camp people all gather on Mondays, but it's very informal, they won't mind if you go up to them individually and make an offer. Could be more time and trouble than it's worth, though, if you want me to take them off your hands now I will."

Permalink Mark Unread

He turns to Karakul first. "Would you like any?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh, is she still a part of this conversation? She sort of figured she was done playing an active role in this conversation and was mostly hoping that everyone would forget about her so they wouldn't remember to tell her to go away.

"Oh! I mean - yes? But I don't have any money. Or anything, really. You could ask my dad, maybe. Or Isur, his sheep aren't doing very well right now - I guess I could probably tell you the people who probably want them and can probably pay..."

She probably shouldn't, she's supposed to be working, but they don't get very many visitors and it's not like she's going to get to go anywhere any time soon.

Permalink Mark Unread

"That would be very helpful! Thank you!"

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, if it would be very helpful.

She tells him which tents belong to which people and takes him to the ones that she thinks will want to buy insects. She is always right. Eventually she decides that it is probably OK to ask questions, while they're doing all of this, in the sense that if it isn't OK he will probably offer some sign that she should stop before something actually terrible happens. He seems nicer than the other Drekar people were.

"So you're from the same place as this Olaf person?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes," he confirms. "Cricket thought the Lintu might be able to help me find him but I guess he was wrong about that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ah. Sorry about that. D'you know anything about where he was going, or why, or where he was before...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not as much as I'd like. All I know is that normally when he leaves home he comes back soon afterward, and this time he did not."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mm. Where's home?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Near where Cricket lives. Well, not very near, but nearer there than anywhere else."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's nothing over by where Cricket lives. Nothing nearer than here, anyway. I think. But I guess if you were there then there must be something."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I might not have the distances right; this is the longest trip I've ever taken by quite a lot."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. I mean, that makes sense and stuff. It's dangerous to travel. I've never been anywhere either, apart from just taking the sheep new places. - you're not Drekar, are you, I don't think they ever travel alone like you are. But I guess nobody ever really travels alone, because, well, Drekar."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I am not Drekar," he agrees. "And I always imagined Olaf traveled alone, but maybe he didn't. Or maybe he did and that's why he didn't come back this time."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe. It's good that he has you looking for him, though. Most people who go missing don't have anybody. If they did they wouldn't've gone missing."

She considers. "If you're closer to Silos than here that's - south, so - if you have no idea where he is he could have gone to Pullid? Pullid's southwest of here. It's further from Silos than this camp is - or it usually is, we move - but it's the other place you'd think of, besides maybe Kivi."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I am... not sure I have any hope of finding it," he admits. "I'm already a little surprised to have made it this far."

Permalink Mark Unread

Karakul totally knows where Pullid camp is.

Karakul is pretty sure she has about zero percent of the authority she needs to volunteer herself for things that involve leaving the camp, and also that if she did she would totally absolutely die before she came home. Probably worse than die.

"We know where it is," she says. "Pullid doesn't like us very much, so I don't know if they'll talk to you if you have one of us, but - you could ask Kukul. And if you had someone then maybe Drekar wouldn't attack you. Other people would, but - that's how it is."

Permalink Mark Unread

"They don't like you? Why not? You seem like nice people."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, well. It's - Pullid doesn't like Drekar. I mean, no one likes Drekar, but - Pullid doesn't like that we dislike Drekar less than they do."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh. That makes sense."

He hesitates. But she's the most approachable person he's met so far, and he needs to find this out at some point and it doesn't look like he's going to pick up much more from context than he already has—

"I don't, actually, know what Drekar... is."

Permalink Mark Unread

" - oh. Gosh."

She thinks for a moment.

"So - decades ago there were three tribes in the region. There's us, and there's Pullid, and there's Kivi down to the south - Kivi would give us trouble but it was trouble we could handle, mostly, and by the time I was born Kivi never left their settlement anyway. And then - six years ago, now, I think, Drekar showed up. They're stronger than us, they have more men and better weapons, and Kukul didn't think we'd win in a fight against them, so we paid them off, like they wanted us to. And the people in Silos, they paid them off. And Pullid didn't pay them off. And - well they lost, because of course they lost, and now Pullid's all elderly people and women - if they even have any women left - because all of their warriors were killed. So now the power in this region is Drekar. And they - I mean they don't bother us too much, as long as we stick close to the camp so they know we're Lintu and we're paying them, because if you kidnap people and sell them into slavery then they can't pay you anymore, you see? But if they run into you and you're not Lintu or they don't know you're Lintu then that doesn't end very well."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I see," he says thoughtfully. "Thank you for explaining."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mhmm. Thank you for asking."

- that's probably a weird thing thing to thank someone for but it made sense to her when she said it. 

"You should talk to Kukul about seeing if someone could go with you to Pullid. Or about - if Olaf did get taken by Drekar, then Kukul's maybe the only person who could get him back, so you should ask about that, too. I should - probably get get back to work at some point, although - this was helpful, right, you could give me some of the insects for showing you around so my parents don't think I was wasting time?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, of course," he agrees immediately.

Permalink Mark Unread

Karakul takes what she thinks is a genuinely totally reasonable number of insects and does not try to cheat this weird person at all. Because he's nice.

It occurs to her that she should probably not be mentally labeling her new friend 'this weird person', even though she's never going to see him again after today. It'll make the story worse when she retells it.

"I'm Karakul, by the way," she says, dropping him back off by Kukul's tent. 

Permalink Mark Unread

Has he already introduced himself? He can't remember. Having to introduce yourself to everyone you interact with is sort of weird. "I'm Nick. Thanks for being so helpful."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mhmm! Bye Nick. Hope you find your friend."

 

Permalink Mark Unread

"I hope so too!"

And now to ask Kukul if someone can go with him to Pullid.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Out of the question," says Kukul, and then he considers.

"You have to understand that even apart from any concerns our people might have about trusting an outsider, the Lintu have a fragile way of life here. Our margins for error are very small. One person leaving their work for - even a day, and more likely a week, in this case - could threaten the survival of our weakest members the next time something goes wrong. But there are ways of providing more stability to the tribe, and there are ways of demonstrating a certain degree of goodwill. So I think - if you're serious about finding your friend, and if you think you need a guide to do it, then you transport twenty-five kilograms of insects to us, and give them to me, free of charge, and I'll send someone with you for - two weeks, say. You know what a kilogram is?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes."

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right, then. Twenty-five kilograms. Can you do that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If Cricket will sell me that much, yes. Otherwise - well, it might take a while."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's good to be willing to do things that take a while. We'll be here. Around here, anyway."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods. "All right. I'll be back with the insects in a few days if I can get them from Cricket and nothing else goes wrong on the way."

Permalink Mark Unread

Kukul nods.

It is probably too much to expect nothing to go wrong. It was sort of remarkable that nothing went wrong on the way here. This time, he'll see a group of three people from a long way off, before they abruptly change their trajectory to intercept him.

They're much too thin, and it's hard to tell whether they're men or women. One of them has what looks like a metal pipe.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, that doesn't look promising, but on the other hand it could've been much worse.

He keeps walking, at the same steady sustainable pace he's been using all this time. It's important to be good at walking when you are an apprentice scout.

Permalink Mark Unread

The group gets gradually closer, and then the one with the pipe charges him.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, don't do that," he says calmly.

Permalink Mark Unread

The person with the metal pipe is not really in a place to be dissuaded by this.

They swing at his head, with all the momentum they can manage.

Permalink Mark Unread

He sidesteps and turns; the pipe thunks harmlessly into his pack, and he catches it and twists, removing it from the stranger's grasp.

Permalink Mark Unread

The person who previously had a pipe appears to have the sudden horrifying realization that this is someone who knows what they're doing.

Their situation must be pretty desperate, though, because instead of running away they pull a knife from their belt and immediately try to stab him in the stomach.

The other two have knives, too, and are charging now. They'll be on him in a few more seconds.

Permalink Mark Unread

 

He could wish he didn't have to do this wearing a heavy backpack, but oh well.

This encounter is not worth spending one-quarter of his finite supply of bullets, but neither is it trivial enough that he can afford to continue being gentle. The person who was trying to hit him in the head with a pipe gets hit in the head with a pipe, with as much force and leverage as his strength and height can muster. This does not go well for the person's head. The closer of the two charging people gets kicked in the stomach before they enter stabbing range, and the last one meets the pipe again, to somewhat less decisive effect because he can't hit as hard or as precisely at the edge of his reach.

Permalink Mark Unread

The guy who got kicked promptly decides that he is not, actually, desperate enough to take on the person who just smashed his traveling companion's head in. He runs. The other person decides that they are definitely not desperate enough to take on the same guy alone and with a head injury, and so they run too, a moment later.

The person who brought the pipe to the fight lies dead at his feet.

Permalink Mark Unread

 

—and now Nick thinks that he would like to sit down.

Except that that is probably a bad idea under current conditions.

...it seems unlikely that the desperate individual who attacked him with a pipe will be carrying any useful items, but it's probably a good idea to check. In a world of scarcity he had better not pass up any resources that cross his path. That knife might come in handy as a spare, if nothing else.

Permalink Mark Unread

The dead person has a half-full plastic canteen and a few dollar bills. They also have clothing, in fairly good condition, including a pair of boots. If he's been paying attention, he'll have noticed that Cricket and a lot of people at the Lintu camp were wearing clothes that had been patched up and re-sewn several times, which suggests that new clothes aren't super easy to come by around here.

Permalink Mark Unread

He has certainly been paying attention to that.

He considers this situation for a few moments, and then he takes the dead person's clothes along with the rest. He can clean them at the next opportunity.

And then, much as he would really like to find somewhere quiet to sit and have feelings for a few hours, he hauls the dead person's body a short distance to a slightly more out-of-the-way location and then continues on his way.

Permalink Mark Unread

(Dead person turns out to be a girl, probably not much older than him. Hard to tell, though - she's pretty malnourished and pretty scarred up, even apart from the broken skull.)

Cricket is where he left him.

Permalink Mark Unread

This time he knows to knock!

Permalink Mark Unread

"Heyyo! You find your friend?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No, but Kukul said that if I bring him twenty-five kilograms of insects he'll send someone with me to help look."

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right! Looks like you got rid of the last ones well enough. Same price as before, as many as you can pay for."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods. "If you don't mind I think I'll stay the night in your neighbour's old place, and head back to Lintu in the morning with the insects."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure. Sure, make yourself comfortable. Comfortable as you can, anyway."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods again. "Thanks."

And into the neighbour's place he goes, and—

 

 

Logically speaking there isn't anything wrong with what he did. He responded reasonably to the situation at hand. If he lets strangers with pipes kill him, or beat him up and take his stuff, or whatever else they planned, then he will not succeed in finding Olaf. And also he will be dead, or beaten up and deprived of his stuff, or whatever else. He used an appropriate amount of force given the constraints he was working under.

But the logical approach has no room in it for the way he felt when the pipe connected with the girl's skull. He is fairly sure that there is something very wrong with that feeling. Normal people do not feel like that about killing someone. If they did, there would be a lot more murder in the world. The sort of person who feels like that about killing someone probably does a lot of murder.

If he did everything right, though, what does it matter if he felt much too good about it?

But if he felt that good about it, how does he know he isn't just making excuses? How does he know he won't kill more people, when it's convenient or he can get away with it, and tell himself it was the reasonable thing to do?

Also, he begins to suspect that along with the twenty-five kilos of insects he is supposed to be acquiring implicit proof that he knows how to deal with desperate strangers wielding pipes, and he doesn't quite know how he feels about that but he is pretty sure he doesn't like it. If Kukul realized he didn't know about the people with pipes, Kukul could have warned him.

It occurs to him, in unexpectedly vivid terms, that he could kill Kukul. He decides that that is not a reasonable response to the situation at hand. And also there would be some serious practical obstacles to getting away with it. And also it would probably upset that Karakul girl, who seemed nice. Oh, and murder is wrong, or something.

 

He takes an unusually long time getting to sleep.

 

In the morning, he cleans the dead person's clothes as best he can and exchanges money for insects and repacks his bag around the new load and makes sure that the gun is accessible but not visible and heads north to Lintu.

Permalink Mark Unread

It'll take him a few trips to bring in all of the insects, mostly because twenty-five kilos is a lot to carry that distance on top of food and water and other gear. He should be able to make his goal inside a week, though.

Karakul isn't always hanging around when he shows up, but she waves when she sees him. Other people occasionally nod in his direction.

Permalink Mark Unread

Since he does want to still have some money after he's done with this, he sells some of the bugs on each trip, and asks Karakul if anyone might want to buy some spare clothes that he found. Asking Karakul things is much easier than asking other people.

Permalink Mark Unread

" - I mean I kind of want them, they look like they'd fit, but I don't think my dad'd buy them for me if I asked. Nita's husband might buy them for her, I guess, they might fit her too. Where'd you get them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Someone attacked me on the way between here and Cricket's place."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...oh. Well, it's good that you walked away from it. It's good that you can take care of yourself. ....maybe try selling them to Nita's husband for her, like I said."

It's maybe sort of petty to not want to wear dead people clothes, but it's sort of petty to want extra clothes in the first place, so maybe the pettiness cancels out.

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods. "I'll do that, thank you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mhmm. Did you get enough insects? I can show you where Kukul's tent is, he moved it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, this is my last trip. Thanks."

Permalink Mark Unread

Kukul's tent is always in the same basic location in relation to the other tents; Nick probably could have found it without help, really. When they reach it, Kukul measures the insects very carefully, then pronounces the cost of a guide paid for.

"I'll need to think about who we can spare," he says. "So many men need to be here for their families right now. Sava's wife is about to give birth, Luakul is sick and his brothers are watching his flocks...."

He frowns thoughtfully at Karakul.

"Karakul, you know where the Pullid camp is, don't you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"In theory," she says, very quietly.

Permalink Mark Unread

...That is... maybe a slightly concerning direction for things to be going? But, well. She is very helpful. And he can probably protect her from the desperate people with pipes.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Our friend here is clearly able to traverse the desert safely on his own, I can't imagine that would change with a guide. You're perfectly capable of getting him where he's going, and you'll return here within one week with a story to tell."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess," she says, very uncertainly. "I'll have to ask my dad."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'll talk to him, don't worry about it. If you think this is a fair trade for the insects, Nick?"

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods.

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right, then, get packed. I'm sure he wants to leave in the morning."

He leaves them, presumably to go talk to Karakul's father.

Permalink Mark Unread

Karakul is staring at her moccasins.

"I do know how to get there," she says, after a while.

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"—If you don't want to go I can ask him to find someone else...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No, no, I'm fine, I'm just - I'm fine," she says, sort of lamely. "I - I should pack. I'm gonna pack as soon as I think Kukul's probably done taking to dad."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Okay."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's fine, though. I want to see the camp, and stuff. Should I just come back here when I'm done packing, or - when do you want to leave, exactly - "

Permalink Mark Unread

"Since you're the one who knows where we're going it makes sense for you to plan the route and the stops," he points out. "I don't have a more precise timeframe in mind than 'today if possible, sooner is better'."

Permalink Mark Unread

" - OK. It'll take two days, maybe three. If I get everything packed up in the next couple hours then we can make non-negligible progress before nightfall. I'll just - come back here in a while."

She stares at the ground for another minute and then leaves. 

Kukul returns to his tent maybe twenty minutes after that. Karakul is back in an hour with a pack.

"So - I guess we just start walking. That way."

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"...Thank you," he says quietly. "For helping."

He goes that way.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mhmm. Of course," she says, rather more brightly than before.

If she's very helpful and likable but simultaneously maintaining proper decorum and not doing anything to indicate that she is at all OK with doing horrible things, then maybe none of the horrible things that are probably going to happen to her will feel like they were her fault!

She can't walk as quickly as Nick probably can, but she keeps up the fastest sustainable pace she can and doesn't complain about it. It'll be sunset before she says anything about stopping for the night. This may be because she's sort of very terrified of what happens when they stop for the night.

"Mayyybe we should stop soon," she says, a good hour or so after she probably should have.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, that seems like a good idea," he agrees. "I apologize in advance for probably not being very good at making camp; I'm still very new to traveling and if there is any procedure more complicated than 'put stuff down, put self down near stuff, go to sleep wrapped in warm things' I'm afraid I don't know it."

Permalink Mark Unread

Probably not a setup probably not a setup probably not a setup -

"Well," she says, in a tone that she hopes expresses that she has about half of an idea what she's doing, "If we were in a group we'd pitch tents and probably start a fire for cooking, but we don't want to attract attention so it's probably best if we just focus on the being wrapped in warm things."

Oh man, that's like an ideal setup for him pointing out that she's a warm thing. Why did she say this. She's an idiot.

She's not gonna put her stuff down first. If she puts her stuff down first then she can't decide how far apart they should be without looking rude.

Permalink Mark Unread

"That is sensible," says Nick, and he puts down his bag and tucks his shoes under one edge of it and detaches his rolled-up sleeping bag from the top and unrolls it and drapes his coat over it and scoots himself in. The end result after maybe a minute and a half is Nick bundled up in a sort of cozy cocoon with only his nose poking out.

Permalink Mark Unread

Cool. Cool cool cool. She will just set up her blankets several yards away, where she can scream if anyone sneaks up on her but also have some level of advance warning if Nick decides to move. 

She doesn't sleep very well. She stares up at the stars some and traces new pictures between them.

Permalink Mark Unread

Nick doesn't sleep very well either. It is weird and unsettling being responsible for another person's safety. What if he doesn't do a good job? Then Karakul will get hurt and it will be his fault, and that would be terrible. He'd better make sure to look after her really really well.

Permalink Mark Unread

She's up and eating insects for breakfast at daybreak, slightly more calmly than before. Just because nothing terrible happened last night doesn't mean that nothing terrible is going to happen, but it's a positive sign.

Permalink Mark Unread

Nick wakes up not long afterward, extracts himself from his sleeping bag, rolls it up and reattaches it to his backpack, and makes himself a small drab breakfast out of his supply of small drab foods.

Permalink Mark Unread

She packs things up and gets them moving towards the Pullid camp as quickly as possible. Now that she's a little less horribly nervous, she notices that she's bored, and eventually attempts to make some kind of conversation.

"So where were you from before?" she asks. "Before you came to this region. By Qubba, like Kukul?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, just somewhere else," he says, with obviously deliberate vagueness. "I don't expect you to have heard of it. We keep to ourselves."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh." So that is not a welcome topic of conversation. It's unfortunately sort of hard to have a conversation with someone when you don't know anything about where they're from or who they are or what they're doing.

 

"Olaf's really important to you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I... I'm not sure. Looking for people is what you do when they go missing, isn't it? I guess most people would have given up a while ago. Possibly around the first time someone tried to kill me. But I don't... know what else I would do, if I wasn't doing this. So I guess I'll keep looking until I find him."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. Well... I'm sure he appreciates that. Or will. Whenever you find him."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I suppose he will," he agrees.

Permalink Mark Unread

Talking is hard and she's bad at it. She tries it a couple more times on the way to camp, but she doesn't feel like she learns very much, possibly because most of the questions that she could theoretically ask strike her as probably super rude. 

They only have to sleep one more time to reach the Pullid camp, given the pace they've set for themselves. She points it out on the horizon when it's nearby.

"You'll wanna speak to Apis. Probably. I've never actually, like, been here before, but Kukul said you'd probably want to speak to Apis about anything you wanted to know."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay," he says agreeably. "Then I'll talk to Apis."

Thoughtful pause.

"Do you know where to... find Apis?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...nnnope, we'll have to ask."

 

It's more difficult than you might expect to find someone to ask. The camp isn't exactly deserted, but it's not lively the way the Lintu camp was. There are no children playing. There don't actually appear to be any young people at all. There is a group of women knitting something outside an animal pen, undoing an old project to get material for the new one. None of them look like they're under forty.

"Excuse me," says Karakul. "We're looking for Apis."

The women whisper among each other. "Kukul can't want anything very badly, if he won't show his face here," observes one of them, eventually.

"We're not here for Kukul. We're here about this man's friend. Someone named Olaf. He's gone missing."

There's more whispering, and then one of them jerks a finger towards a different part of the camp.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well then he supposes they will go that way.

Permalink Mark Unread

The only person who seems to be in this area of the camp is a very old man who doesn't appear to be doing anything at all. He looks up when he sees them. His expression doesn't change at all. He doesn't say anything to them.

Permalink Mark Unread

That's...

...concerning...?

 

"Um. Hello," he says tentatively.

Permalink Mark Unread

The man grunts in acknowledgement.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm looking for my friend Olaf. I'm told you might know where to find him...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No one's been through here."

Permalink Mark Unread

...he sighs. "Well. Thank you anyway."

Permalink Mark Unread

The man grunts.

Permalink Mark Unread

...he really isn't sure what to do with this. He glances at Karakul, in case she has any idea.

Permalink Mark Unread

Karakul does not appear to have any immediately brilliant ideas. She wanders back toward the edge of the camp where they came in.

"Well. There's Kivi. Not that Kivi's probably seen him, but I don't know what else you'd try. Besides maybe going to Drekar, I guess."

 

Permalink Mark Unread

"That sounds like it might be inadvisable."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah! I feel like it might be."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't want to give up, but I don't know what else to do..."

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"It's - you know - it's always possible Drekar has him? And if they have him I don't think anyone around here would know how to get him back. I guess maybe you could buy him back, if you had someone they knew to approach them with, but you'd be competing with what they can get for him in - I don't even know. Qubba, probably. And that's if they even still have him."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't know anyone who'd know how to buy someone from Drekar... and I don't think I have enough money to buy a person... although I guess the second thing is solvable if I spend enough time walking between settlements to buy things in one place and sell them in another..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe. But if they have him now, then by the time you had the money he'd probably still be long gone."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Probably," he agrees.

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"We could ask if Kivi's seen him. If you want."

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right. Let's do that."

Permalink Mark Unread

Nod. "We should stay the night here, probably. See if we can buy some more food and water. Oh, and I was wondering if you could - possibly sell a thing for me. I don't think anyone's gonna give a good price to me, 'cause of the, uh, ancestral feud between our peoples. And mama says the thing to buy here is yarn, if you want to buy something. They make better yarn than we do."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can do that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Cool."

The thing is wool. Lots of wool, relative to the rest of what she's been carrying. She hands it over.

Permalink Mark Unread

He can sell wool! And buy yarn! These, unlike planning expeditions to locate lost mentors, are tasks in which he is beginning to gain some confidence in his own basic competence! He's still not really sure what he's doing but he has at least, like, 10% of a clue.

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh cool! Then they can buy some more supplies and... head to Kivi, she guesses, if that's the only other option available to them. She's never been there but she knows the way. It's three more days of walking, and if they hit the sand whenever they spot anyone else they can avoid running into anyone unpleasant. Karakul is slightly less nervous and jumpy than before, although she was pretty nervous to begin with, so she isn't yet very close to actual calm.

Permalink Mark Unread

Nick continues to be very quiet and serious and kind of shy. If Karakul doesn't start any conversations, this is going to turn out to be a really uneventful trip.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, on the one hand, talking to people is terrifying. On the other hand, if she doesn't talk to anyone the whole way there and the whole way back, she might go slightly insane.

 

 

"So. Do you have, like....... parents....?" she tries, clearly casting around for a subject that won't automatically get a bunch of non-answers.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I did, once. Lately I've mostly had Olaf. Not that he's - really very parentlike. He is not in fact very parentlike at all."

Permalink Mark Unread

"He's just the closest thing you have?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess so."

Permalink Mark Unread

She thinks about how bad her situation would be if she didn't even have parents. She would probably already be married.

 

"Well. We'll try to find him."

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"Thank you for helping," he says quietly. "I really appreciate it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mhmm! I figure you've gotta try to find him, and you won't get it done alone, not knowing where anyone is. So someone has to help you.

"I kinda wanted to see some other places, I think. Dunno why exactly. But this is probably one of the better opportunities to do it."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods thoughtfully. "Yes. That makes sense. I'm glad you're getting to see more places, then."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. I guess. Probably be - good to get it out of my system, or something. Have some idea what's out there before I go home."

Permalink Mark Unread

 

 

"Will you go home?" he wonders quietly.

Permalink Mark Unread

It had not really previously occurred to her that this was a thing that it was possible to question.

 

"Well. I mean. I have to go home at some point, right? There's not really... anywhere else to go."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's a lot of places. There's... more places than I used to think existed. I think, if you wanted to go somewhere else, you probably could."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I dunno if any of the places are good. Or if I'd be able to, like, support myself in them, and stuff. Y'know? Home is - the place where people know you. The place where you know how to do stuff."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Learning how to do stuff in new places has been surprisingly easy so far."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, we've only been to the one place. And we can't stay with the Pullid for any length of time, they're not - there's a reason they don't have any young people here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Your place is a new place to me too," he says. "I think maybe it generalizes, the learning new places. —I'm not saying you should, or you have to, or anything, it's just—it surprises me, how easy it is. I guess I'm wondering... what I'll do with myself, once I find my friend. If I find him. Or if I don't. And maybe... maybe the answer is something other than 'go home'."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh! Well. That would be cool. And I guess it makes sense, if you don't have, like, parents, or a family, or anything. I bet Kukul would let you stay. If you could take care of yourself, and learn to help with the animals, and stuff. Not that you have to stay with us, I'm sure - I'm sure there are other places somewhere."

(She is not going to say this but there are no unmarried men in the tribe right now and if he were there there would at least be one.)

Permalink Mark Unread

"That might be nice," he says, with a hesitant smile.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay! Well. I could talk to Kukul about it. If you wanted."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe." He sounds very uncertain, but also kind of pleased. "I don't know what I'll decide yet. But - maybe."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay! Just let me know. I guess - we should probably talk to Kivi first. If we were going to do that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah," he agrees. "Kivi first. I... still want to find my friend, if I can."