33 - The Enclave

Their conversation ground to a halt after Impecca realized the Observer knew relatively nothing about her people. He knew less than even she, an incidental exile, apparently of both time and distance. She yearned for more about her nebulous ancestors, but she was resigned to wait, to see if they could manage to contact the rest of her Alovians. Neither of them minded the pause in conversation really, it was nice to just be around somebody else after years of isolation, or in Impecca’s case, the entirety of life so far. Silence was actually probably for the best, in this case, because it allowed them to hear the whine of the lev-bikes and the grating, guttural techno music one hot second before they actually stumbled and rolled down the steep salty recess into the outskirts of a poacher’s enclave.

Impecca ended up face-to-face with a Boam’s Miniature Camel. Caged as he was, the little guy looked less than impressed. With the empathy of someone who’s never tasted the fatty humps of a Boam’s Miniature Camel, she wasted no time unlocking the cage, and giving him a friendly swat on the rear in a “get out of here” gesture.

She then took stock of what was really, a dreary and temporary affair. Around a canvas tent, she heard general poking sounds, and exclamations of discontent. Worryingly, they sounded like her new (and technically only) friend, the observer, Tyton as he was known to himself.

She dusted herself off, and crept around the corner, not oblivious to the possible danger. She found herself wondering, who keeps a cute lil’ guy caged up like that, but individuals of monstrous intent; though she was cognizant of the fact that she didn’t know enough of these Jards to correctly understand their motivations.

True to her deductions, some dusty and disheveled figures were poking Tyton with prods, and flicking the electrical bits on and off threateningly.

The observer had his hands over his face to block the probing attacks. These were the poachers, he thought now, that he saw on his journey before reaching the conelith. He could recognize the distinctive mask, a bastardization of a Hackit helmet, likely to ward off the concussive blows of the more defensive beasts, like the Bardfullo.

The Bardfullo, a native creature to the great expanse was a beast of great beauty and mystery. It could deal blows with its hollow, rigid horns such that would snap bones, but could also play beautiful, haunting melodies when the wind hit the horns just right. Sadly, it did not have ears, and could never hear it’s own music. It’s instinctive composings just served to halt predators, stricken by monumental musical beauty for a moment, while it made the great escape.

Hackit, of course, was a favourite sport of Greater Jard, and the Observer remembered it fondly. Played on any smooth outdoor surface, the players used sticks to get whatever object the home team preferred into the goal. Recent meteorological developments allowed for the playing of the game on ice in Old Jardinian, and the manipulation of weather for the more affluent home sides. This had become as much a part of the game as anything else. The Acropolis Agitators had started the trend, to devastating efficiency. The regulating bodies were desperately trying to catch up with these developments. The defensive four players wore carboplast helmets with clear visors, and tried to clear the object from their defending half while the five attackers would try to score.

The sticks the observer was being poked with were electrified Hackit sticks. These unsavoury characters, when they weren’t after savoury creatures, were probably Hackit ultra-fans.

Probably the Agitators, the Observer thought bitterly, receiving several pokes. Just like those cheaters to have fans like this. Becoming a corporate sponsored team hadn’t improved their bilking behavior one bit.

The poking poachers were discussing in voices muffled by masks and wraps, exactly what to do with this camp intruder.

The leader, piercing eyes scanning the observer’s face under his Hackit mask, bent down and propped up the Observer’s chin with his stick.

“What are you doing here? There are many better places you could be,”he rasped, managing to sound bewildered, through surprisingly perfect teeth.

Dentists, eh. That poaching money had to go somewhere the Observer supposed, but for many poachers, he knew it didn’t go much farther than Sodden. This one was then a particularly intelligent adversary, or perhaps a vain one.

Before he could answer, a shout rang across the encampment, something about a missing [intelligible] camel.

The leader, and most of the rest ran off towards the shout. They left one stern looking guard with a loose face covering made of cloth, and round googles over where presumably the eyeholes might be.

The guard rebuffed the Observer’s questioning remarks with an unnerving, continual glare. Or he imagined it as such, the goggles were mirrored.

Impecca wasn’t yet sure if people, particularly Jards, were inherently good or bad, her frame of reference slight. Somewhere along the way though, these ones had become bad, as evidenced by the poking and implied savagery. Her training had some self defence lessons, in case some undesirables started messing with the tourists. She supposed she was really the tourist in this case, but so was the Observer, and these were certainly undesirables.

She slunk around the other side of a canvas tent, keeping tight to it’s moldy folds. She’d never had a chance to practice her attacks on anything more dangerous than a virtual target. The guard was staring so intently at the Observer that they didn’t know anything was amiss until they received a strike of mediocre power but impressive precision on the base of their neck. Their last thought was one of begrudging respect for another student of the combat arts.

Impecca was quite pleased with herself. For a first foray into reals of (preemptive) self defence had been remarkably efficient. She helped up the Observer, still a little winded from the abuse by the sticks of the poachers.

The Observer started in alarm. “The computer!” he whispered in a panicked tone. He was a touch surprised to feel worried about the collection of sentient circuits, he was beginning to come around to the halting facade of Alden that the computer seemed to have taken on as its visual personality.

Impecca motioned back around the perimeter; she’d seen a tent with a torn hole in it on her way to the rescue. It fit the model for a rip by an incursion of computer and hover sled.

They snuck back toward Impecca’s approximated landing zone, the first egress of the miniature camel, leaving the guard snoozing painfully in the swirling dusts.

The poachers' enclave was a labyrinth of tents, equipment, and cages. Exotic cries of forlorn alarm were often muted after suspicious sounding thuds and zaps. It was a sad place, and even the computer wasn’t keen to record things for its growing audio library.

Impecca spied the tent with the hole across a small open space in the camp, about thirty feet away. There were no telltale tracks by whatever caused it, though that was likely to be the case if here lay hover sled and circuitous friend.

Still weezing a little, the Observer led the silent charge across the gap to the gap in the flap. Raising a finger to his mouth in the universal signal for general quiet, he raised open the torn canvas.

The sled had rammed into some sort of communication gear. From black boxes of antiquated style protruded dials, knobs and an earpiece. The sled had knocked the arrangement off its mount, and onto the salty, dusty ground. The computer and gear had tumbled off into the mess of the equipment. The computer was beeping optimistically, hoping someone would flip it over so it could see.

The Observer grabbed the hover sled, and pulled it out of the mess of equipment, careful not to make a noise that would reverberate around the bowl of the camp.

Impecca rescued the computer from its precarious position in the mess of equipment. Gathering up the rest of their thankfully undamaged equipment, the observer looked back at the poacher gang’s archaic array of communications gear. The standby light was still on.

How could something so ancient work out here amongst the swirling dusts and eddying strangeness?

Maybe if the wandering vagrants had figured out something the relatively passive and complacent M&G Cong. hadn’t, he could perhaps get word back to Old Jardninian about his theory.

He grabbed the headphones, flicked the power and searched around the frequency dial. He knew only one frequency by heart, the university’s. It would be manned by the static transmissions club at all hours of the day, endeavoring to hear anything, anything at all. He hoped to eventually reach Gus Edgewise, the only prof whom he still thought fondly of.

Grabbed, muffled but teligible voices came through. Impecca was looking at him in alarm. We’ll go in a minute, he mouthed. She shook her head and pointed to the earphones. The observer looked down, they were unplugged. The sound had erupted from the equipment’s external speakers. A classic. He cursed his haste. The tent canvas was yanked from the side. They were surrounded again, the leader, and collection of subordinates, one begoggled specimen in particular looking sore and reproachful.

This time there were no chances taken, and the pair were taken to the recently vacated camel’s cage, and unceremoniously dumped in.

The computer had been left where it was, to be dealt with in the morning. There was suspiciously dusty moonshine to drink. The night came cold, hard and fast, like a glacier down a mountain, helped along of course, by a gaggle of vengeful gods toward a blasphemous village.

Shivering and huddling for warmth, the pair plotted their next move.

Discouragingly, all the scenarios they conceived ended with more mistreatment by way of poacher.

One could forgive Impecca for forgetting about the camel she’d freed hours before, but it hadn’t forgotten about her.

Impecca’s ears, unspoiled by rubbish pop songs and nascent construction noises, picked up some movement. She silenced the observer, holding the shush finger sideways. She’ll learn, the Observer thought. A proximate shuffling, snuffling noise presented itself, above the general hubbub of the camp.

The miniature camel bobbed into view. It looked around stealthily, then, showing a remarkable grasp of physics, knocked a heavy piece of equipment, a weather vane perhaps, off balance. The bolt shedded,and the screeching mass of rusty metal crashed into the cage bars. Impecca and the Observer dived for cover as the front of the cage collapsed.

The pair scrambled to their feet, hoping they’d have a moment to escape before the twice-crossed poachers came back to bestow serious damage upon them.

Their hairy little angel had no intention of letting his new friends down though, and galloped into the middle of the camp hooting with vigour.

Impecca crept out, followed by the observer, eager to make an escape. Cries and running feet punched through the night. Our intrepid pair collected the computer, and hastily prepared the sled for departure, and bolted up the side of the enclave, looking from above like a large campsite in a crater. There was even some faintly glowing material in the centre, that the poachers had been sitting around, cooking sausages. The whole hole was well utilized as a shelter from the nightly wind, as it turned out. They were buffeted once they reached the zenith of the ridge about the camp. They escaped the enclave at high velocity.

They could no longer hear the ongoing pursuit of the camel as it distanced far past the central glow that was the limit of their perception, but hoped the brave little creature had again flown the coop.

Retreating a safe distance, the pair then curved along the camp to continue again towards the great black smudge on the horizon (and made a clean getaway, third time around.)

Basked in the day-glow that filtered through the dusts, the Great Expanse was a mysterious, diaphanous beast. Come nightfall, it was something else entirely.

They needed to keep moving though; the Observer had seen enough garbled “last reports” to know what would happen if they stayed stationary in the night. The tendrils of the expanse would envelop, both comforting and warming the lost traveller until the faceless predators set in. Allegedly. So they kept on, buffeted by winds harbouring wisps of vague memories and forgotten melodies.

The smudge on the horizon was darker the surrounding night. A concern, perhaps. It was closer now, curling in the distance around them. It was a great maw closing in.

They began to hear whistling noises. Some small crashes. Explosions erupted, glowing through the omnipresent swirling and darkening dusts around and of the smudge. It was like watching an underwater borealis, the unnatural colors blooming and collapsing. Energy was released from the explosions, rippling through the bordering dusts as if fork lightning. They trudged onward, mesmerized by the show.

Suddenly, a caroming commotion overhead. A chunk of something, a meteor? The observer stood, unbelieving. Impecca dived for cover, yanking him down. A crash behind them. An explosion bloomed out, pink then blue with a little purple for those moments in-between. They crawled forward, stumbled upright, and kept moving. The Observer was half there, covered in the dust. Thankfully, half here being used in a metaphorical sense; a quick inventory assured him he still had all limbs attached. The missing half of him was inside his own mind, pulling strings, calculating. He was calling out questions, getting the computer to run through probabilities above the increasing din of impacts.

An ear-splitting crack now. Suddenly, there was no ground in front of them. Impecca teetered on the brink. The observer grabbed at her dusty attire. A section of the expanse had just fallen away, leaving a rift in the surface the width of the great grand Old Jardinian thouroghfare. A behemoth, awoken from an ancient slumber raised its head above the surface slowly like a shark in the shallows.

It blinked at them with a judging eye. A reptilian hunger radiated from its muzzle. It snorted, and twin clouds of noxious vapour rose from its great nostrils. Unfortunately for its ancient ambitions, it was immediately squashed, and had said ancient ambitions quashed, by another meteor. Fortunately for the dusty, unbelieving trio, the squishiness of the ancient behemoth cushioned the great impact, showering them with naught but cretaceous goop.

The computer was announcing greater and greater odds, excited by the incredible amount of anomalous events to be witnessed. The Observer, jolted out of his personal calculations, knew now that his worst fears had come true. The gift he’d been given upon graduation, the plans for a temporal farming system, well they had been vague about the workings of the core components, but he’d known enough to worry about the risk of local time dilation. Disasters would be attracted to these localized areas unblemished by catastrophe, as areas that had avoided calamity should have been impacted time and time again in the tens of thousands of passing years. Everyone loves to make up for lost time.

He knew now, as he had feared, that the temporal farming units had been deployed enthusiastically. Many of these little machines had created an effect very confusing for the slow-thinking probability matrix that governed anomalous events. The universe was just noticing, in its unthinking, instinctive way, that nothing bad had happened in these little areas for far too long. It was doing its best to create equilibrium, as nature does.

Unfortunately for the people of Greater Jard, the dark cloud, created by meteor impacts, dust storms, earthquakes and fires and other unthinkable catastrophes was slowly advancing on wherever the technology had been deployed. The Observer had the feeling the ambivalent spirit of nature was sighting its range, just now.

It then hit the Observer (not a meteor thankfully), that something similar had happened around Chronus Extent some time ago. The Great Expanse! The ruins and desolation, those daft idiots were probably trying it again. He reversed direction and began to run. Impecca and computer scrambled and were pulled onward respectively, impressed and inspired by his urgency.

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