by Eric Farrell
The monotone howl of an old clacker horn shook Chance straight out from under his silken covers. The distinctive sound when winding the horn had been cranked tight; the howl waxed and waned, waxed and waned. In Frontiertown it meant the sky has granted gifts.
These gifts seared through the atmosphere in a stream of ethereal orange, meteoric parcels of shining metal that caught the horizon’s eye with a light that’ll leave you blind.
With regularly frequency these parcels landed within the same acre of land a quarter mile southwest from Frontiertown.
Chance, like all the rest of Frontiertown, felt the familiar tingling in his stomach upon hearing the horn blare. A breath of fear. Then pure adrenaline. He bolted from his bed, bounding through his front door toward that acre of land. Of course by the time he keeled over beside the crater-pocked acre, there had already been a host of others that had cranked the parcel open. These guys and gals, known as Cherry Pickers within Frontiertown, deified the parcels as gifts from some figure resembling a god. But the parcels were huge, quadruple the size of the whole shack Chance lived in. Made of the hardest material the townspeople had ever seen, it was no wonder the Cherry Pickers felt it otherworldly. Yet the fanatics were selective from what they hocked from the behemoth crates, scavenging goods that seemed random to the rest of the townsfolk. They then looted. They grabbed anything and everything, foreign objects parsed by strange symbols, alien devices, and a smorgasbord of neon refuse that crinkled between their fingers.
With the head of a scythe torn from its long handle, the butt end wrapped in filthy layers of scavenged cloth, Chance readied his blade. He punctured the compacted, oil-slick bag that appeared vacuum-packed around a solid cube of refuse. These black cubes comprised the entirety of a single parcel, stacked from edge to edge to consume the entirety of space within the hulking metallic mass. The Cherry Pickers had already gutted a dozen of these packages, the splayed remains of which stayed scattered around the entrance to the parcel itself. With a two-foot long cut, Chance dug his scythe through one such bag, the trademark sigh of pressure from within the vacuumed bag expelling a putrid stench straight into his nostrils. The stretchy material that ensconced the treasure within furrowed back, like the petals of electric daisies in the light of day. Chance tugged at the flayed fringe, ripping the bag open and causing riches within to tumble out onto the container floor. A cluster of magenta, symbols in acid green, a fistful of wrappers to some product Chance could scarcely imagine. His fingers scientific and ginger, he held the tattered remains of some rubbery garment up, thrust it aside. Where it lay amidst the reeking sinew of splayed packages, a stain, crimson and ugly, could be seen splattered across a whole face of the garment. It looked like a shirt of sorts, but flowing, elegant, and counterpoint to the utilitarian nature of Frontiertown’s people. There was something about that stain that seemed different than the colors typically found in these meteoric treasure boxes. Chance quickly dismissed the notion, focusing back on the hunt for whatever he deemed valuable. He dug like the town dog, fistfuls of muck grasped and thrown behind him, burrowing deeper into the contents of this bag. His fingers grasped something hard, and cold.
Chance held it up, a sleek device, hefty but ergonomic. A startlingly natural fit in his hand. As he peered closer to find his reflection within the shining curvature of the device, a broad swooping hand slapped the thing back down and gripped Chance’s wrist. Mo, just about Chance’s only damn friend in town, released his hand, his incredulous crinkling brow forming a sharp look of what the fuck on his face. Is that a… he mouthed silently. Within this parcel alone there were twenty scavengers, all nosing around, slicing open the cavernous sacks further up the sliding hill of treasures. Is that an Artifact, Mo finished, the last word a breathless whisper. Chance’s eyes widened, for perhaps they had finally struck pay dirt and found their first valuable possession as adolescent Kids. Both he and Mo had only heard stories of these so-called Artifacts being found in parcels. The only examples they had seen were the dusty, weathered iterations embedded in the old capsule houses in the center of town. The strangely smooth, curved capsule houses formed a series of concentric circles in the center of Frontiertown. Further out the houses decayed into a jumbled mess of lean-tos and shacks, most aping the notion of roofs for simplicity’s sake. Chance’s family had weaseled their way into a number of these capsule houses by way of obtuse social affair when he was younger. The word tool almost applied to the array of devices that recessed into cabinets within the slick interior of the house. Yet nobody had really thought of the practical way of utilizing them as tools. Mo recalled a story of how an entire parcel was jammed with identical panels of reflective black Artifacts. Each one had measured a full arm’s width apart and as the Cherry Pickers carried each hefty device out of the parcel they discovered their smiling faces glancing back at them. This sorcery, the deified proclaimed, could only be from a god. That whole parcel had been confiscated and, to town knowledge even to this day, the location to those Artifacts has never been revealed. Smaller Artifacts have been scored in Chance’s lifetime, but they only come as stories recollected by other late arrivers who caught glimpses of the Cherry Pickers staking their claims. Chance’s father had once excitedly detailed visiting a friend’s shanty on the far side of town and seeing a similar Artifact, one of these black night devices that flashed your awestruck reflection upon gazing within the frame. It seemed to be a trend among Artifacts to have some surface coated in this mystical smooth satin black material.
Not all, though. Every kid knew of the Artifact owned by The Man with No Eyes. The name came from an intrepid Kid who discovered that the man who claimed the Artifact couldn’t see a thing in front of him, despite his cloudy eyes always being open. The story was he had wheeled this hulking device back from the acreage of crashed parcels on his own. It almost resembled a table on wheels, but with cabinets on the bottom and a big domed cylinder curving up around the top. The Artifact was said to have emitted a noxious odor that stung the eyes if left alone with it long enough. In short order the town came to figure that’s what had stolen the man’s eyes, and since has stayed clear.
“Never seen a damn thing like it.”
Mo held Chance’s pilfered Artifact in his hands, before quickly wrapping it back in the silk shirt Chance had brought it in. They huddled over the bar counter in Frontiertown’s sole cantina, a repurposed parcel that had taken half the village to drag by rope and tether back to the town center. The Cherry Pickers had long confiscated the torch used to burn narrow, rectangular slits down the length of the container for sunlight. That device that emitted a breath of fire had been in one of the first parcels that crashed outside Frontiertown, a generation ago. It was meteoric in the pantheon of Artifacts. The Kids, those of Mo and Chances’ age, hadn’t even been born. The Elders drew a line in the sand, with the Cherry Pickers deifying the parcels, claiming the torch as an instrument of God, leaving the others to doubt just what the purpose of these huge shining gifts were. The Cherry Pickers called these people the Non Believers. That group turned around and branded themselves the True Believers. This was the inception of the cultural divide amongst Frontiertown. True Believers practiced a level, pragmatic life, unconcerned with a divinity that distilled no function in lifestyle. The consecration of the meteors crashing down dragged a gradient across town, with cherry picking cardinals jockeying for real estate along a bloating Westside.
“Well look here Mo, I got some other cool stuff from today’s loot. Gee, it’s a shame your dad holes you all up in that greenspan.”
The greenspan was a biosphere on the outer edge of Frontiertown, opposite the acreage where the parcels consistently crashed and piled on top of one another. From a decent vantage point in town, one could glance off to the west and witness the cluttered stacks of the hulking shipping containers toppling haphazardly over one another. It was why the first lesson the Elders taught to the Kids was to be careful when running out there, for on several occasions precariously balanced parcels had shifted and crushed them. From the same vantage point, a view to the east rose and culminated rapidly into a dead volcano. Those that lived inside the greenspan zig-zagged up rocky switchbacks to get to and from the inside of the volcano, which, protected against the sweltering sunlight, grew a verdant jungle. Mo, annoyed at Chance’s mention of his poor geographical location relative to looting the parcels, regurgitated his father’s rationale for choosing to live in the volcano.
“The air is better for you, or so he says,” Mo shrugged, “plus its cooler. And doesn’t smell like shit. Are you going to show me what else you got or what? By the time I arrived it was just more of that stinky shiny stuff.”
Reaching down into the bag he’d brought with him, Chance smirked, knowing exactly what “stinky shiny stuff” Mo meant. A town elder had long-ago hypothesized that these packages were from some other civilization, possibly related to the folks of Frontiertown, and the stinky shiny stuff wrapped the food stuff for their population to transport. Those that prescribed to this theory were the True Believers, and largely kept to themselves in the greenspan, with a select few firebrand representatives living on the west edge of town for tactical advantage in claiming goods from incoming parcels. The resulting gradient that formed the majority of Frontiertown’s population lived further east or west based off their disposition toward either side. Timidly Chance pinched a tunic of some odd sort from his bag, careful to avoid the rancid stain that clung stiff to the cream-white threads. Swiveling on the barstool he raised the shirt up, it unraveling partway before clumping in a chaotic fold around the center of the chest. Mo, hardly grossed out by anything, reached over to tug at the bottom fringe and resolve the rusty red stain.
“Boy, howdy,” Mo laughed and waited patiently for Chance to find the same thumb-sized hole near the top of where the stain began. Through that aperture he witnessed Chance’s eye widen with the heart-thumping adrenaline of imminent adventure.
“What do you think it was? They got spears up there, wherever this funny stuff’s coming from? You think that, Mo?”
“Has to be, has to be. You see all this brown here. Same gunk we got going through us, Chance. This is just like that day those Cherry Pickers claimed that God cried. Our clothes stained just like these.”
The Day that God cried, by local historical note, wasn’t distinguished in any sort of time frame. It existed simply as a day in the past, and to Kids like Mo and Chance it was mythical in nature. A parcel had been eagerly forecast by voracious Cherry Pickers standing in the dented earth outside of town. They protected their eyes by rounding their long fingers to their thumbs and pressing them to their face, staring and searching the sky for the telltale yellow gleam of an incoming parcel. Then the cry of God’s tears sounded. They sliced through the howling air, dismembering the citizens, leaving only a cloud of maroon dust seconds later. The post-mortem discovered the shards to be the same material the parcels were built of, albeit badly melted and disfigured. A spectacle of such note, such abhorrent had never been witnessed on this planet before, and no such has since. Since that event the Cherry Pickers, at the time flexing the predominant clout among town counsel, rationalized the violence a clear sign to stay back, rather than camp in the makeshift hovels they had set up in evenings leading up to a celestial arrival.
“Well Kids, what do we have here.”
Chance turned and stifled a groan. Archibald Sunspot grinned, sensing the discomfort in the Kids as he cast Chance’s spare silk tunic aside. His initial fear unwrapping the device was quickly replaced by a devious smirk that the Kids took as sign of him claiming it. Mo almost began speaking, but Chance kicked him in the shin beneath the bar. It was no use. Archibald was an Elder on the desultory Frontiertown council that existed, by Kids’ admission, solely to annoy said junior citizens. He was one of a handful who took a second name, created when a mocking member of the opposite sex noted the bright reflection of sun on his expansive bare scalp. He overcompensated by forming a qualifier out of it. Most of the Kids snickered behind his back. Amongst the rest of the Elders, a lecherous reputation preceded him. But he knew how to brew the spicy stuff that made them all loopy, the foul liquid that burned straight down your gullet, so he was gingerly accepted into the town council.
Later that evening, with his sheets tugged to his eyes, Chance waited for the sign. Just the right drone of silence, the stagnant shack air sighing as his folks forfeited their respective battles of tossing and turning. Mo was already crouched in the pre-arranged meeting point, a cragged mire of single-capacity dwellings adjacent to the bar that slimebag Archibald Sunspot had confiscated their device from. After the incident Mo learned the home of Mr. Baldspot through a series of I-O-Us with the Elders. They began their crooked path headed west. Chance led the way, his pair of shoes tucked in his lower back, protruding like that Mister Rabbit’s ears on all those empties, that “stinky stuff” Mo mentioned. A bright moon cast ephemeral, half-there, half-not shadows under the stars. Tears of light struck the dotted satin canvass overhead. Mo hissed his displeasure at the sand between his toes, how Chance’s insistence on going barefoot for stealth was both ineffective but also short-sided. Chance was midway through violently shushing him when he stubbed his toe on some shrapnel, cursing the affirmation. A gentle whoosh from their toes combed over a quiet evening. Frontiertown, unless in the midst of celebration, went silent after the typical family pageantry. There was seldom wind, so the air hung in static limbo, pensive, unnerving, hanging there in shivers, desperately waiting to be disturbed. Night time on this planet was so quiet your ears automatically filled that awful void with the faintest frequencies. It magnified every human sound. When the path ceased, an irresistible opportunity to clamor up the side of a spliced-together shanty complex won out over turning around. Up above the haphazard puzzle of alleyways and makeshift homes, two things became clear to the Kids: the first was that discretion would be impossible gliding across this rooftop. The second was that perhaps the necessity for stealth was oversold, for a plethora of staccato sounds arose over the crush of humanity with some frequency. They rang out as distinct sounds, fully-realized.
Khaw, some older geezer croaked. Khaw, phlegm rippling the cry. Clank, clang, gong, the heaving clash of dishes echoed.
Kaching, kaching. The Kids grinned at one another as they bounded across the clay walls of the west Frontiertown neighborhood, startling the snoozers counting the stars to sleep. Many citizens compromised against ceilings in bedrooms, trading harsh sunlight during the day for a brilliant eternally clear sky at night. Kaching, kaching. The Kids recognized the sound as the metallic protest of bed springs under amorous affair. Certain Elders partook of this activity damn near every night. Mo winced at the thought, first just in general and then wholly grimacing at those certain Elders being his Elders. The second part was whispered by Chance. In reality it was him overcompensating for the perceived shame of his not having experienced said amorous activity. The kaching, kaching sounds were in fact being subtly overlapped by a slap, slap, slap, the harmony invoking positions of a bestial nature prescribed by the planet’s original Elders eons ago.
Slap, slap, slap.
Chance stopped up suddenly, pivoting on a heel and jabbing a finger to Mo’s lips. He nodded to the edge of the nearest building they had hopped down to. Around the corner, he motioned. Mo nodded, slapping Chance’s finger down from his face. He moved in.
And then a sucking sound, like the whole diaphragm of the planet inhaling. Like whenever Chance’s Elders shake him awake from bad dreams and he takes that first awful gasp in, affirming what world he really existed in. All that, as sudden as a heart’s last whim, And then:
And amidst an ear-piercing howl that obliterated every other sound in the universe, Chance saw Mo repulse away from the corner, hands clasped over his mouth. His eyes flashed something dreadful. Chance pushed past to take a look. Archibald Sunspot, that bald-spotted bleat on society, stood erect to the stars, the device he’d confiscated earlier in the day limply dangling in his right hand. He stared from the device to the man sprawled before him, a silky red stretching across his torso. Back again to the device in his hands. Chance swore he saw some semblance of a man, clad in spectral grey in the evening black, spiral up and out from the tip of the device and whisper away into the night. Just at that exact moment he had shoved his way past Mo to see, and then, poof, gone. The amorphous man guttered away in a silent breath. This left an awestruck Archibald suddenly dropping the device and retreating a step away with an effeminate hop backwards. This measured distance, viewed in a squat, was matched by the group of other so-called “dignitaries” that pushed and shoved their ways about town. In a half circle formation they crouched and stared, eyes so wide Chance saw the whites in their eyes sparkle.
“Blessed,” Archibald began, pensively. His eyes darted from Elder to Elder in earnest hope of their fealty. He glanced at the sky, stretched his arms high and wide.
“The dotted world… has given us its ultimate gift!”
Later that night Chance collapsed on his bed and closed his eyes, his conscience unearthing a memory. It too was evening, and a much younger Chance, barely a boy fit to form sentences, sat on the lap of some person whose face in this burgeoning recollection shifted and jittered in his mind. He heard the voice of that Elder, and distinguished this memory as the time the oldest man in town had sat him down for a perfunctory lesson at the behest of his parents. The ancient man’s voice croaked clear, but his face still shifted vaguely in stop-motion, the individual frames of the image jerking forward. His fairy tale was at least semi-autobiographical, detailing his own earliest memories. Frontiertown was a fraction the size, a small cluster of shiny living capsules interconnected by a sizzling grid work of wires that made an assortment of appliances embedded within each capsule wall come alive. Chance imagined the sizzling geodesic dome of wires above Frontiertown imposing some will on the budding livelihood that stammered along crusted earth. The webbed dome, the Elder described, hissed at a pitch only Kids could register. Then one day the hissing ceased, and the living gadgets attached to the walls of each capsule died. The Elder recalled his father dragging him by the wrist out to the center of town, glancing around at the identical homes, looking for answers among the perplexed faces. Then, amidst an argument that escalated to full-scale pushing and shoving, the Elder had heard it:
“My boy,” the Elder said to a mystified Chance, “I never learned what it was that made the sound. Or how that awful person had acquired it, where they acquired it. It was wholly the loudest, most terrible thing I’ve ever heard. The Elders wouldn’t say a word. Even my own mother. They were sworn, you see, against telling how it all happened.”
Chance remembered the story in all it’s clarity, each word the same, and at last, the man’s face materialized in his mind at this repose just in time to witness the tears racing down his eyes.
“She said it was a weapon, you see,” the Elder’s eyes seared beyond their glassy membranes.
“A word that once existed, and in that brief horrible moment existed again. Then she died, and she told me she was taking the word with her for all eternity.”
Like clockwork the clacker horn began its rally cry. The murmur of shoes wrestled on, the cracking whip of weak-hinged doors crashing open, and excitement that permeated the air and left Frontiertown buzzing. The weeks raced by since the incident left the ideological fracture between Frontiertown splayed open, much like the festering stinky shiny stuff that comprised so much of each parcel. The Cherry Pickers, the notches on their scavenge boards counted to the precise minute, had begun bounding their ways across the desert. Moments later the sentries for the True Believers hauled to their stations, yanking huge wheel cranks in full-bodied heaves to alert their brethren further east and within the greenspan. Regardless where on the parcel gradient each sprinting citizen fell, all grinned in anticipation as they snatched their flaying tools hung beside their doors. The word weapon echoed in a jumbled, urgent cadence, each voice speaking it in wonder, some even speaking it for the first time. The parcel was a pinprick in the sunny sky, still invisible to the naked eye.
Chance crashed into other Kids racing around arthritic Elders and joined a concentrated wave of bodies that glimmered as they fanned out under the sun. The first of the True Believers elbowed and thrashed determinately past the Cherry Pickers, both parties likely to reach the skyward gift at the same time for the first time in decades. Chance saw Mo running concurrently beside him, past a few other gangly Kids, and they exchanged sad glances. Both of their Elders forbade them from seeing one another following the incident. Dissention among the True Believers grew when the purpose of other humans hurtling these hulking meteors at the planet was brought up. Those that starved and ached through emaciated lips took to believe the parcels were aid packages sent by distant towns. The others accosted the notion, figuring the parcels as the mere refuse of a civilization that cared little about Frontiertown. This galvanized a newly militant sect of the True Believers, these believers determined to find clues within the parcels to locate their betrayers and exact revenge. Mo’s gait toward the field of crashed containers thusly surged forward with venomous vigor. Moderate families like Chance’s viewed the spectacle with increased zest, but were passed by Cherry Pickers who had bestowed idyllic virtue upon this coming treasure. The weapon that flashed evil just that once in Archibald’s hand hasn't been seen in weeks. Both ideological parties announced investigations; whether these were ploys or genuine is yet to be known.
Knowing they’d lost the race, most citizens slowed their pace and stood staring at the sky, mouths agape. Even Mo in all his newfound anger stopped and glanced up, shoulder to shoulder with Chance.
They stared at the sky, and there, barreling down, each saw something different catching the light.