I approach the camp of the Children of Wal for the second time in my life. There are guards as always. Hard folk armed with spears, one with a rifle. Their skins are covered in ink, secret patterns that tell their histories, or… perhaps they’re dangerous spells. I don’t know, and it’s not the kind of question you ask.
Chaser, the rifleman, spots me first. His scowl turns into a bright grin.
“Hey hey! Is that Jack of the Skyrunners come back?” He waves.
I wave back. “Skywalkerites, and it is.” They gather around me, faces eager.
“You chickened out, didn’t you?” Chaser says. “It’s all right. The Mart is a warzone. It wasn’t really fair of us–”
“–No,” I say. Perhaps the Rite of Proving wasn’t fair, and I wouldn’t have done it under any other circumstances. But I need to see their Oracle. My people depend on it.
“You brought something back?” Chaser asks, voice barely a whisper.
I unsling my pack, rummage through it. “The place is overrun, like you said. Slavers, definitely well stocked. I couldn’t get too far. Didn’t want to get caught, you understand. But I–ah, here it is.” I produce an object, present it to them.
“An opener of cans,” I say.
Their eyes widen. “Original packaging!” Chaser whispers, and then he takes the object reverently from me.
“So, can I see her?”
“Yes, Jack. This marks you a Friend of Wal. Let me take you to her.”
We walk through their camp. Inside it looks much like any other settlement, only there’s more. More artifacts, more weapons, more variety. The Children of Wal do not farm. They are scavengers, perhaps the best ones. I marvel at all the fantastic treasures they have recovered from the tombs of the Old Ones. Such wealth! I shake my head. I can’t let this distract me from my holy mission.
Chaser takes me to a tall building, stone. There’s a tower with a bell in it, and the insides are mute and candlelit. We go up several stairs, past silent Children of Wal meditating among the piles of their treasures, always sorting. Finally we come to a door. He opens it for me but does not follow.
The air inside is thick with tobacco smoke. It’s even darker here than below and it takes my eyes a moment to adjust, a moment to spot the woman sitting by the window. She is old, but wiry, powerful, and she beckons me to approach.
“¿Hablas español?” she says. Her voice is gravel.
I shake my head.
“Pity,” she says. “It’s a beautiful language.” She takes a puff from a massive cigar, the embers flaring. “Well, come, sit. Sit! Your name is Jack, yes?”
I sit on a stool before her. She’s not tall and yet I’m looking up at her. “Yes, Ma’am.”
She chuckles, the ancient lines of her face creasing. “Call me Abuela. Today, you have earned the right.” I nod. “Now, tell me, Jack. Why do you come here? Why do you risk life and limb to see me?”
I breathe deep, and the aromas of tobacco and oils and perfumes almost overwhelm me. “I am on a holy mission, Ma–Abuela. The god of my people is dying. Without him, we cannot witness the Holy Saga, the Trilogy of Nine Parts. The elders believe we might repair him, just as Saint Anakin has shown us. But we don’t know how, and I was sent into the world to find the means. Can you help me, Abuela? You’re my only hope.”
She listens silently as I talk, a lazy river of grey smoking from her cigar. Then she ponders. “My condolences, Jack of the Skywalkerites. It is a terrible thing to lose your god. Tell me, what do you call him?”
“Dee Veedee,” I say. “He is a droid – a kind of machine, from the Old World.”
“Dee… Veedee,” she repeats. Then her eyes widen. She takes a great puff of her cigar and spews forth so much smoke that I cough and nearly fall off my stool.
“I can help you, Jack.” My heart flutters. I’ve been on the road for more than a month, and this is the first sign of hope. “But first… can you read?”
“Yes.” Reading is a sacred skill. All of us learn it so that we may read the Holy Scroll that introduces each episode of the Trilogy of Nine Parts.
“Good,” she says. “But I caution you, this will be dangerous. More dangerous than anything you’ve done before.”
“Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
She nods. “I cannot heal your god, but you can. You can learn the skills to do it. I can show you where to look.”
“The skills? How could I learn such a thing?”
“Back in the Old World, back before the Old Ones went to war with each other, back before fire rained from the sky and wiped the old nations out, there lived a wise man. Some say he was the wisest man of them all. He wrote many books on many topics. Practical books. Books that taught skills. All kinds. I believe he was a prophet, and he foresaw the end of the world. And so he wrote his books for us to find in the New World.”
“Amazing!” I say. “Who was this man? How might I learn from him?”
She digs under her chair for a moment and produces a book, then caresses it, momentarily lost in thought. She passes the book over to me.
The cover is faded and damaged, but I can still make out the title, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Spanish.
“His name was Complete Idiot,” she says. “He wrote hundreds of books, perhaps thousands.” She beckons me closer to the window and I scoot my stool over.
Outside, we see night descending on the corpse of an ancient city of the Old World. The skyline is dominated by broken scales of glass and blackened bones of steel, and the rest of it is a festering mire of concrete and ravenous growth. There’s lights in some parts, the flickers of distant fires, but I’ve never heard of an honest man who lived in a city-corpse.
“You must travel to the heart of that beast,” she says. “Within, you must search for an old building called The Library. It is… like a tomb for books. It will be somewhere on the street called Main. But beware. The corpses of the Old World are haunted, and this one is particularly vile. It is filled with ghosts and cannibals and mutants.”
I swallow hard, but my decision was already made long ago. “How will I find… what am I even looking for?”
“I don’t know the exact title, but it will be something similar to that,” she says, indicating the Spanish book. “The title will probably have the words ‘repair’ and ‘electronics’ in it, or something like that. Maybe a picture of your god on the cover. You’ll know it when you see it.”
I take a silent moment to process all of this. A month of disappointment, and now a world of progress in an hour. My head spins. “I thank you for your guidance, Abuela. You are forever a friend of my people.” I set her book down.
“No,” she says. “Take it. It’s yours now. May it guide you to your goal.”
I bow, clutching the book to my chest. “May the Force be with you.” Then I take my leave.
I have been lost for three days. The city-corpse looked big from a distance, but walking its shattered veins I see how enormous it truly is. Everywhere I look are concrete cadavers, soulless and rubble-strewn, and countless artifacts lay buried in the soil, choked by weeds and insects.
Travel is slow. I keep to the areas where grass has taken root, since it hides my footsteps, but there are vast stretches of nothing but parched concrete. At nights, I hide. It gets cold but I don’t dare light a fire. I’ve seen animals lurking around – big ones. But worse, I hear things.
Gun fire, echoing through the desolate streets, and screams of pain, or of joy. The roar of a petrol-horse. I think, anyway. I’ve only heard of petrol-gangs before, but they often raid city-corpses to suck the poison blood out of the pumps. So the stories go.
But on the fourth morning, I see a welcome sign. A narrow metal pole with a plate atop it. And on the plate, on faded green, the words “Main St.” I smile, but my celebration is cut short when I hear a boot scrape on the grit.
I turn and see a group of six people, and they’ve nearly walked into me they’re so close. All of them are wearing black pants, and either a yellow, blue, or red shirt. My heart sinks.
Trekkies. The ancestral enemies of my people. And I’m at their mercy.
“Halt!” one in a blue shirt shouts. They’re all armed, but this one has a handgun. “What kind of a dumbass walks around in a bathrobe?” Then he gasps, his wide eyes filled with malice. “Oh, you’re one of those idiots, aren’t you?”
But I don’t get a chance to reply. A shrill cry fills the air and another group of people spill into the street, across from us. Their hair is long and wild and they’re covered in leather and metal studs. One raises a terrifying weapon into the air, a petrol-saw, and it whines like a banshee. A moment later the newcomers charge at the Trekkies, and it’s a bloodbath.
For a moment I’m paralyzed with fright. My people live on a pastoral farm, far from the horrors of the Old World, and things like this are hard to imagine. But it’s real, it’s happening. I can’t afford to ponder. I realize this is my chance and I prepare to run.
But then I notice one of the Trekkies is similarly frozen in place. A young woman, not much more than a girl. Red shirt.
Run! I scream at her in my mind, but she doesn’t hear me. She’s as paralyzed as I was, watching her companions fighting, getting overwhelmed. Getting slaughtered. And each second I spend watching her, my own window of escape closes. I decide to leave her to her fate.
…but then, I am a Knight. I have a Code.
I reach out and grab her by the arm. Yank hard. Start running. She stumbles but I pull her along and soon enough her body figures it out and she starts running too.
I have no idea where I’m going. I don’t even know if they’re following us, or if our running might attract others. It doesn’t matter. For a moment running is all I think about.
Minutes later – hours? – we turn a corner and stop. My lungs burn and we both double over, gasping. My heart rattles against my eardrums, but that’s all I hear. No leather gang screaming after us. No petrol-saw.
We’re next the ruins of some building and I pull her inside, since we’re easy prey out in the open. Once we sit down on the hard ground her mind seems to catch up to her body, and she starts sobbing. I hear the odd name, probably her companions.
I can’t think of anything to say. Some situations just don’t have words. Instead I dig in my pack and hand her some jerky and stale bread.
She snaps to attention, as though just realizing where she is. Realizing she’s with a stranger. And when she produces her own handgun and points it at me is when I realize that she’s armed, and that maybe my rescue was a mistake.
“Easy,” I say, trying to swallow my fear. I keep one palm open and with the other offer her the food. All of my movements are slow, measured.
“Who the hell are you!?” It’s not quite a shout, more a violent hiss. Even though her eyes are red and swollen she has the wherewithal to keep her voice down.
“Jack Chambers,” I say. “I’m a Knight of the Skywalkerites.”
For the span of three endless breaths she looks at me, really sees me. Finally she holsters her gun and palms one of her eyes.
“God damn,” she says. “I’m sorry. You… you saved my life. They just… they came out of nowhere.” She shakes her head, huffs. “I’m Rhonda Lauren. Ensign. My friends call me Rho.”
Just then she notices my offering and takes it, and we spend the next while talking and sharing a meal. Mostly she talks and I listen, because sometimes that’s the way it goes. She tells me of her – she calls it an “away team” – and of how they were exploring, looking for supplies. She brings up happy memories about her friends, tear-soaked. She wants those memories to live on, both in her and by telling them to me, in my mind as well.
I tell her about my quest for The Library, and she welcomes the distraction. She’s curious about my time with the Children of Wal and awestruck, as I was, by their Oracle.
Soon our meal is done and the sky darkens.
“We need to leave,” she says. “We won’t be safe here come nightfall.”
“Is anywhere in this city safe?”
“Yes,” she says. “Among my crew. They’ll be worried about us anyway. I need to go report… what happened.” She must have seen the hesitation in my face. “Don’t worry, they won’t harm you. I’ll make sure of it.”
We wander the ruins for a while, aimlessly I think, but Rhonda eventually perks up and says she’s spotted a landmark. I follow her and we get to a giant crumbling tower. Near its base is a courtyard that’s shielded from the streets, and it hides a roaring fire. Dozens of Trekkies are scattered around it, some sitting by the flames, others tending equipment. Most of them are well armed and none of them look pleased to see me. Though, they do smile when they see her.
A sentry in a blue shirt stops me at the edge of the camp while Rhonda goes on ahead to an older man in red. She calls him “Captain” and tells him what happened. I’m surprised at how steady her voice is, all things considered, but I guess these Trekkies are a military bunch. Too Imperial, in my opinion.
The captain approaches me. When he nods to the sentries they stand aside.
“Jack Chambers?” he says.
“Yes.” I resist adding “sir.” The man is taller than me and appears surprisingly fit for someone his age.
“I’m Captain Crowley. I want to thank you for your service today, on behalf of all my crew. We’d be honoured if you spent the night here. In the morning, we can resupply you, and point you towards The Library.”
“The Library? You know where it is?”
The captain nods, and I feel all the tension of the day wash away.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed my time with the Trekkies. Underneath the military façade they are decent people. I’ll have to report this to the elders and maybe we can bridge the gap between our folk.
At first light they point me in the direction of The Library, and Rhonda gives me a package of supplies. As she hands them over she leans in and kisses me. “Live long and prosper, Jack the Knight.”
I depart, wondering if I’ll ever see her again.
I walk down Main Street for about an hour, and then, just as they said, I see The Library. One of the few buildings that looks relatively unharmed, that survived whatever orbital bombardment that killed the Old World.
The insides look worse though, diseased. They’re dark, musty, and there’s rubble and broken shelves everywhere. There’s thousands of books here – perhaps thousands of thousands of books – but most of them are torn, tattered, or buried in the wreckage. And I have no idea where to even begin digging.
I feel lost, so I take out Abuela’s gift, the Spanish book by Complete Idiot. I notice the spine of the book has a line of text that reads “Self-help.” As I look up, I see a similar sign at the back of The Library, near a toppled book shelf. A coincidence? Or a powerful galactic force at work? Either way, good luck for me. I approach.
Most of this area is run down, just like the rest of the library, but I do spot a familiar looking spine in a pile of half-buried books. I kneel down and dig it out, carefully extracting the tome. When I dust it off, my heart almost leaps into my throat. The pattern is the same as the book I have – it’s one of Complete Idiot’s writings!
And it has a picture of Dee Veedee on the cover! I almost feel faint and have to sit down.
But, what is this? The title of the book is unexpected. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to: Reparación de reproductores de DVD.” I scan the contents of the book and it’s all like that. Familiar letters, strange words. And then it hits me. It’s Spanish. The Complete Idiot must have written this one in Spanish.
And Abuela must have known. I hold both her gift and this new book close to my chest, and I praise her name. My journey isn’t over yet, but now I can see a path to the end.