Part One ToDash
Tian was blessed (though few farmers would have used such a word) with three patches: River Field, where his family had grown rice since time out of mind; Roadside Field, where ka-Jaffords had grown sharproot, pumpkin, and corn for those same long years and generations; and Son of a Bitch, a thankless tract which mostly grew rocks, blisters, and busted hopes. Tian wasn't the first Jaffords determined to make something of the twenty acres behind the home place; his Gran-pere, perfectly sane in most other respects, had been convinced there was gold there. Tian's Ma had been equally positive it would grow porin, a spice of great worth. Tian's particular insanity was madrigal. Of course madrigal would grow in Son of a Bitch. Must grow there. He'd gotten hold of a thousand seeds (and a dear penny they had cost him) that were now hidden beneath the floorboards of his bedroom. All that remained before planting next year was to break ground in Son of a Bitch. This chore was easier spoken of than accomplished.
Clan Jaffords was blessed with livestock, including three mules, but a man would be mad to try using a mule out in Son of a Bitch; the beast unlucky enough to draw such duty would likely be lying legbroke or stung to death by noon of the first day. One of Tian's uncles had almost met this latter fate some years before. He had come running back to the home place, screaming at the top of his lungs and pursued by huge mutie wasps with stingers the size of nails.
They had found the nest (well, Andy had found it; Andy wasn't bothered by wasps no matter how big they were) and burned it with kerosene, but there might be others. And there were holes. Yer-bugger, plenty o' them , and you couldn't burn holes, could you? No. Son of a Bitch sat on what the old folks called "loose ground." It was consequently possessed of almost as many holes as rocks, not to mention at least one cave that puffed out draughts of nasty, decay-smelling air. Who knew what boggarts and speakies might lurk down its dark throat?
And the worst holes weren't out where a man (or a mule) could see them. Not at all, sir, never think so. The leg-breakers were always concealed in innocent-seeming nestles of weeds and high grass. Your mule would step in, there would come a bitter crack like a snapping branch, and then the damned thing would be lying there on the ground, teeth bared, eyes rolling, braying its agony at the sky. Until you put it out of its misery, that was, and stock was valuable in Calla Bryn Sturgis, even stock that wasn't precisely threaded.
Tian therefore plowed with his sister in the traces. No reason not to. Tia was roont, hence good for little else. She was a big girl - the roont ones often grew to prodigious size - and she was willing, Man Jesus love her. The Old Fella had made her a Jesus-tree, what he called a crusie-fix , and she wore it everywhere. It swung back and forth now, thumping against her sweating skin as she pulled.
The plow was attached to her shoulders by a rawhide harness. Behind her, alternately guiding the plow by its old iron-wood handles and his sister by the hame-traces, Tian grunted and yanked and pushed when the blade of the plow dropped down and verged on becoming stuck. It was the end of Full Earth but as hot as midsummer here in Son of a Bitch; Tia's overalls were dark and damp and stuck to her long and meaty thighs. Each time Tian tossed his head to get his hair out of his eyes, sweat flew out of the mop in a spray.
"Gee, ye bitch!" he cried. 'Yon rock's a plow-breaker, are ye blind?"
Not blind; not deaf, either; just roont. She heaved to the left, and hard. Behind her, Tian stumbled forward with a neck-snapping jerk and barked his shin on another rock, one he hadn't seen and the plow had, for a wonder, missed. As he felt the first warm trickles of blood running down to his ankle, he wondered (and not for the first time) what madness it was that always got the Jaffordses out here. In his deepest heart he had an idea that madrigal would sow no more than the porin had before it, although you could grow devil-grass; yar, he could've bloomed all twenty acres with that shit, had he wanted. The trick was to keep it out , and it was always New Earth's first chore. It -
The plow rocked to the right and then jerked forward, almost pulling his arms out of their sockets. "Arr! " he cried. "Go easy, girl! I can't grow em back if you pull em out, can I?"
Tia turned her broad, sweaty, empty face up to a sky full of low-hanging clouds and honked laughter. Man Jesus, but she even sounded like a donkey. Yet it was laughter, human laughter. Tian wondered, as he sometimes couldn't help doing, if that laughter meant anything. Did she understand some of what he was saying, or did she only respond to his tone of voice? Did any of the roont ones -
"Good day, sai," said a loud and almost completely toneless voice from behind him. The owner of the voice ignored Tian's scream of surprise. "Pleasant days, and may they be long upon the earth. I am here from a goodish wander and at your service."
Tian whirled around, saw Andy standing there - all seven feet of him - and was then almost jerked flat as his sister took another of her large lurching steps forward. The plow's hame-traces were pulled from his hands and flew around his throat with an audible snap. Tia, unaware of this potential disaster, took another sturdy step forward. When she did, Tian's wind was cut off. He gave a whooping, gagging gasp and clawed at the straps. All of this Andy watched with his usual large and meaningless smile.
Tia jerked forward again and Tian was pulled off his feet. He landed on a rock that dug savagely into the cleft of his buttocks, but at least he could breathe again. For the moment, anyway. Damned unlucky field! Always had been! Always would be!
Tian snatched hold of the leather strap before it could pull tight around his throat again and yelled, "Hold, ye bitch! Whoa up if you don't want me to twist yer great and useless tits right off the front of yer!"
Tia halted agreeably enough and looked back to see what was what. Her smile broadened. She lifted one heavily muscled arm - it glowed with sweat - and pointed. "Andy!" she said. "Andy's come!"
"I ain't blind," Tian said and got to his feet, rubbing his bottom. Was that part of him also bleeding? Good Man Jesus, he had an idea it was.
"Good day, sai," Andy said to her, and tapped his metal throat three times with his three metal fingers. "Long days and pleasant nights."
Although Tia had surely heard the standard response to this - And may you have twice the number - a thousand times or more, all she could do was once more raise her broad idiot's face to the sky and honk her donkey laugh. Tian felt a surprising moment of pain, not in his arms or throat or outraged ass but in his heart. He vaguely remembered her as a little girl: as pretty and quick as a dragonfly, as smart as ever you could wish. Then -
But before he could finish the thought, a premonition came. He felt a sinking in his heart. The news would come while I'm out here , he thought. Out in this godforsaken patch where nothing is well and all luck is bad . It was time, wasn't it? Overtime .
"Andy," he said.
"Yes!" Andy said, smiling. "Andy, your friend! Back from a goodish wander and at your service. Would you like your horoscope, sai Tian? It is Full Earth. The moon is red, what is called the Huntress Moon in Mid-World that was. A friend will call! Business affairs prosper! You will have two ideas, one good and one bad - "
"The bad one was coming out here to turn this field," Tian said. "Never mind my goddam horoscope, Andy. Why are you here?"
Andy's smile probably could not become troubled - he was a robot, after all, the last one in Calla Bryn Sturgis or for miles and wheels around - but to Tian it seemed to grow troubled, just the same. The robot looked like a young child's stick-figure of an adult, impossibly tall and impossibly thin. His legs and arms were silvery. His head was a stainless-steel barrel with electric eyes. His body, no more than a cylinder, was gold. Stamped in the middle - what would have been a man's chest - was this legend:
NORTH CENTRAL POSITRONICS, LTD.
IN ASSOCIATION WITH
Design: MESSENGER (Many Other Functions)
Serial # DNF-44821-V-63
Why or how this silly thing had survived when all the rest of the robots were gone - gone for generations - Tian neither knew nor cared. You were apt to see him anywhere in the Calla (he would not venture beyond its borders) striding on his impossibly thin silver legs, looking everywhere, occasionally clicking to himself as he stored (or perhaps purged - who knew?) information. He sang songs, passed on gossip and rumor from one end of town to the other - a tireless walker was Andy the Messenger Robot - and seemed to enjoy the giving of horoscopes above all things, although there was general agreement in the village that they meant little.
He had one other function, however, and that meant much.
"Why are ye here, ye bag of bolts and beams? Answer me! Is it the Wolves? Are they coming from Thunderclap?"
Tian stood there looking up into Andy's stupid smiling metal face, the sweat growing cold on his skin, praying with all his might that the foolish thing would say no, then offer to tell his horoscope again, or perhaps to sing "The Green Corn A-Dayo," all twenty or thirty verses.
But all Andy said, still smiling, was: "Yes, sai."
"Christ and the Man Jesus," Tian said (he'd gotten an idea from the Old Fella that those were two names for the same thing, but had never bothered pursuing the question). "How long?"
"One moon of days before they arrive," Andy replied, still smiling.
"From full to full?"
"Close enough, sai."
Thirty days, then, give or take one. Thirty days to the Wolves. And there was no sense hoping Andy was wrong. No one kenned how the robot could know they were coming out of Thunderclap so far in advance of their arrival, but he did know . And he was never wrong.
"Fuck you for your bad news!" Tian cried, and was furious at the waver he heard in his own voice. "What use are you?"
"I'm sorry that the news is bad," Andy said. His guts clicked audibly, his eyes flashed a brighter blue, and he took a step backward. "Would you not like me to tell your horoscope? This is the end of Full Earth, a time particularly propitious for finishing old business and meeting new people - "
"And f*ck your false prophecy, too!" Tian bent, picked up a clod of earth, and threw it at the robot A pebble buried in the clod clanged off Andy's metal hide. Tia gasped, then began to cry. Andy backed off another step, his shadow trailing out long in Son of a Bitch field. But his hateful, stupid smile remained.
"What about a song? I have learned an amusing one from the Manni far north of town; it is called 'In Time of Loss, Make God Your Boss.' " From somewhere deep in Andy's guts came the wavering honk of a pitch-pipe, followed by a ripple of piano keys. "It goes - "
Sweat rolling down his cheeks and sticking his itchy balls to his thighs. The stink-smell of his own foolish obsession. Tia blating her stupid face at the sky. And this idiotic, bad-news-bearing robot getting ready to sing him some sort of Manni hymn.
"Be quiet, Andy." He spoke reasonably enough, but through clamped teeth.
"Sai," the robot agreed, then fell mercifully silent.
Tian went to his bawling sister, put his arm around her, smelled the large (but not entirely unpleasant) smell of her. No obsession there, just the smell of work and obedience. He sighed, then began to stroke her trembling arm.
"Quit it, ye great bawling cunt," he said. The words might have been ugly but the tone was kind in the extreme, and it was tone she responded to. She began to quiet. Her brother stood with the flare of her hip pushing into him just below his ribcage (she was a full foot taller), and any passing stranger would likely have stopped to look at them, amazed by the similarity of face and the great dissimilarity of size. The resemblance, at least, was honestly come by: they were twins.
He soothed his sister with a mixture of endearments and profanities - in the years since she had come back roont from the east, the two modes of expression were much the same to Tian Jaffords - and at last she ceased her weeping. And when a rustic flew across the sky, doing loops and giving out the usual series of ugly blats, she pointed and laughed.
A feeling was rising in Tian, one so foreign to his nature that he didn't even recognize it. "Isn't right," he said. "Nossir. By the Man Jesus and all the gods that be, it isn't." He looked to the east, where the hills rolled away into a rising membranous darkness that might have been clouds but wasn't. It was the edge of Thunderclap.
"Isn't right what they do to us."
"Sure you wouldn't like to hear your horoscope, sai? I see bright coins and a beautiful dark lady."
"The dark ladies will have to do without me," Tian said, and began pulling the harness off his sister's broad shoulders. "I'm married, as I'm sure ye very well know."
"Many a married man has had his jilly," Andy observed. To Tian he sounded almost smug.
"Not those who love their wives." Tian shouldered the harness (he'd made it himself, there being a marked shortage of tack for human beings in most livery barns) and turned toward the home place. "And not farmers, in any case. Show me a farmer who can afford a jilly and I'll kiss your shiny ass. Garn, Tia. Lift em up and put em down."
"Home place?" she asked.
"Lunch at home place?" She looked at him in a muddled, hopeful way. "Taters?" A pause. "Gravy? "
"Shore," Tian said. "Why the hell not?"
Tia let out a whoop and began running toward the house. There was something almost awe-inspiring about her when she ran. As their father had once observed, not long before the fall that carried him off, "Bright or dim, that's a lot of meat in motion."
Tian walked slowly after her, head down, watching for the holes which his sister seemed to avoid without even looking, as if some deep part of her had mapped the location of each one. That strange new feeling kept growing and growing. He knew about anger - any farmer who'd ever lost cows to the milk-sick or watched a summer hailstorm beat his corn flat knew plenty about that - but this was deeper. This was rage, and it was a new thing. He walked slowly, head down, fists clenched. He wasn't aware of Andy following along behind him until the robot said, "There's other news, sai. Northwest of town, along the Path of the Beam, strangers from Out-World - "
"Bugger the Beam, bugger the strangers, and bugger your good self," Tian said. "Let me be, Andy."
Andy stood where he was for a moment, surrounded by the rocks and weeds and useless knobs of Son of a Bitch, that thankless tract of Jaffords land. Relays inside him clicked. His eyes flashed. And he decided to go and talk to the Old Fella. The Old Fella never told him to bugger his good self. The Old Fella was always willing to hear his horoscope.