We shared this image on the SciFi Ideas Facebook page several weeks ago and asked our followers to use it as the basis for a short story. Stephen Landry was the first to accept the challenge, and you can read his story here. Now, John H. Reiher has taken up the gauntlet, writing this excellent short that tells a very different story to the first.
Life and Death Around the Spire
by John H. Reiher Jr.
Lief ran full tilt down the hand carved tunnel to the lower galleries of the Spire. It was Harvest Day, the day the great beasts strode past the base of the Spire and were easy targets for the harpooners. And today, this day, Lief was old enough to watch, perchance to help with the harvest.
He was a scant 6 sun years of age and by the calendar of the moons, 14, just starting puberty and adulthood. He had grown tall and gangly, all long legs and arms he stood barely a meter and half. The harpooners all stood two and half meters each, as did the butchers and the flayers. Lief hoped to join the latter, his handmade knife, it’s wide curving blade perfect for cutting through the fat that lay under the great beasts’ skin, was strapped securely to this thigh.
Soon, he was down to the lowest galleries overlooking the mist-shrouded jungle. He was one of many others looking forward to the event. He jostled about until he saw Kien, her nut-brown skin contrasting with her sun yellow hair. Lief smiled and made his way to her side.
“Kien!” he said amid the hubbub of voices, “Do you think we’ll get a chance on the beast?”
She was finishing braiding her long blonde hair into a ponytail. As she wound it into a bun, she said, “I hope so! I didn’t come down here just to get a chum bucket. I want a slab of beast fat and muscle!” Others around echoed that sentiment.
“Lief, let me do your hair as well,” she said, turning him around, so he faced a large sweaty man with scarification patterns across his arm. Lief smiled and the man grunted. “You don’t want it to get caught in ropes or get filthy now do you?”
He smiled, Kien was full moon year older than him, and she had participated in at least one previous Harvest Day. He liked her, and wanted to impress her. Why? That was something he was still working on.
With his hair in a braid, they pushed to the railing and looked down. The massive harpoons were mounted securely to the side of the Spire. On each was a harpooner, checking the charge on his or her harpoon cannon. The harpoon itself was a family heirloom, passed down from one harpooner to his or her descendent. They were as old as the colony on the spire. Each ended in a complicated head, designed to pierce the flesh of the beast and then unfold inside the beast, allowing the harpooners to haul the beast up into the air, away the from the scavengers.
The Harvest Master swung across the line of people waiting to participate in the harvest. “Today, we need twelve young flayers and twenty butchers of any age. You, you,…” he then pointed at Lief and Kien, as well as other young adults lining the rail, “will be our flayers. Snap to your lines and pair up with a journeyman.”
Lief snapped on his line to a well-worn harness and found himself paired with an older woman named Gieli. She was missing her left little finger and two toes.
“It wasn’t quite dead yet when we started in on it,” she explained as she checked his line and harness. She then looked at his flaying blade and nodded approval. “Stick close to me Lief. When they poon the beast and haul it up, it will get crazy. Some ‘prentices find they have no stomach for the work. There’s no shame in that. But I do warn you; you will heave up your guts if this is your first flaying. It’s the smell. Now ready yourself, here they come!”
The sound was faint, but the heavy tread of the massive beasts of this world was unmistakable. Trees cracked as the beasts made their way through the valley that held the Spire. Soon, they spotted the long neck, segmented eyes, and the ropy, mottled flesh of the lead beast. Down the neck rose wide scales the color of the rainbow, they ran along it’s spines and down to its six legs. It bellowed when it saw what was waiting for it, but it had no choice, it had to go past the spire on its migration. So with a huff and puff, it continued on, followed by the rest of the herd.
“We never take the lead,” Gieli said rosining her hands, “it would cause a bottleneck and we’d have to deal with stampede of the beasts. That one, “she nodded towards the rear of the herd, tossing the rosin bag to Lief, “he’s marked for death.”
It was the last in line of the herd. An older beast, if the humans didn’t get him, the Jawjackers and Ripspines would.
Beneath them, the younglings of the herd scampered on by, bracketed on all sides by wary-eyed older adults. The occasional look up by the beasts was chilling. ‘Did they know that we hunted them?’ thought Lief. He’d have to ask a scholar about that.
Soon the word was given and the harpooners unlatched the safeties on their cannon. With practiced aim, they lined up on the old beast. They were aiming for the hindbrains on the spines. Kill the beast instantly and the bones would give purchase for the hooks to haul it up the side of the Spire.
The cannons followed its slow walk beneath the spire until the perfect moment and the crackle of electricity sparked, silently firing the harpoons into the beast. The smell of ozone soon mingled with the smell of blood and ichor, as the beast flailed helplessly, then collapsed.
As soon as it collapsed, the winches groaned into the life. The cables were made of ship metal, precious as the rarest flower, and irreplaceable. But they didn’t corrode and as long as they were properly cared for, invulnerable. Soon the beast was leaving a bloody smear along side of the Spire, its blood mixing with the hundreds of other beasts that made the same journey.
With a whoop, the flayers landed on its back and began slicing through the flesh. A handful of butchers were with them, delivering coup de grace blows with long metal spears to the hindbrains and one brave man, to the head of the beast.
Gieli was right, about halfway through a large chunk of skin and fat, Lief had to throw up. The smell was horrendous. He leaned out over the edge of the body and let loose his breakfast. He then noticed that he wasn’t the only one. Just about everyone did. “It’s both nerves, adrenalin, and the stench,” said Gieli, wiping her mouth. “I keep telling myself, no eatin’ before flayin’, but I always do have a good breakfast. Mind your slicing. You’re leaving about a three centimeters of fat on the meat.”
Chunks of fat and flesh the size of a man were cut, hooked on to and hauled up for rendering. A smaller pile was set aside as payment to the workers. More butchers were on top of the beast, putting more lines around bones and ligaments. Lief was now flaying on the underbelly of the beast, working around a leg, when Gieli called him off. “That’s the bit we give back to the jungle,” she said. “It’s impure to take all of him, so we share our bounty with the scavengers below.
Lief looked down and his blood froze. Jawjackers, Rippspines, Fluters, and Raspteeth were milling about beneath them, fighting over the bits that had fallen, and all the blood. The Fluters especially loved the blood, dipping their long proboscis into the pools that formed below.
“If I were to fall down there…” he started nervously.
“You’d barely last a second,” said Gieli in a soothing voice. “It’s a miracle we haven’t had a dropper today. Don’t be that one Lief. Get up top and claim your wages. I’d be proud to have you on the next Harvest Day when they come back.”
He climbed up what was rapidly becoming a skeletonized beast. The Butchers were cutting whole muscle groups from the bones and carving slabs of meat from the sides of the beast. But only to the two-thirds point on the beast’s sides. The sharing with the scavengers, thought Lief. He signaled and he was pulled up to the lower gallery now crowded with beast flesh and slabs of fat. The rendering pots were quickly turning the fat into needed oil for the lamps and lubrication for the machines. Still covered in beast ichor, he gathered his share of fat and meat, wrapped in large leaves from the Harvest Master.
“Good work young master,” he said to Lief. “Be back on the return!”
Lief carried his package of meat and fat to a side passage and sat down, exhausted. He leaned his head back and the braid got in the way.
While he was trying to undo his braided hair, Kien entered the same passageway and slid down with her pile of meat and fat wrapped tightly in leaves. She looked across at Lief’s stack and raised an eyebrow. “I see you faired well today,” she stated.
He smiled and nodded, “Yes, Gieli wants me back.”
“Really?” Kien sniffed, “Well, I’ll be entering my third harvest, maybe I want you with me.”
“Really?” asked a surprised Lief. “You’d want me?”
Kien opened her mouth to correct him, and stopped. He was still covered in blood and ichor. That meant he worked the lower portions of the beast, the hardest locations to be in. And while he was still all limbs and string, he was filling out nicely.
She slid her package across the floor and she moved beside him. “Turn around,” she ordered and he obeyed. “You’re making a mess of your hair. Let me undo it.” She started detangling his braids and was soon smoothing out his bloody hair.
“You really want me to work with you?” he asked leaning back a bit.
Pushing him away, gently, “I can always use a good man at my side.”
He sat up ramrod straight at that. “Alright… I need more practice with the lines, could you…?”
She stood up and pulled him up and they faced each other, his eyes were almost in line with hers. She licked her upper lip and said, “Midmorning tomorrow. Bring a better harness. We practice in the Atrium. I’m going to work you till you’re sore.”
He smiled, and then gave her an unexpected hug, before breaking off and smiling broadly at her. “Tomorrow then!” He snagged his package and trotted off down the passageway.
“So much a man, still very much a boy,” she wryly commented to herself, shaking her head, and then picked up her package and, more sedately, went home.
Story written by John H. Reiher Jr.