< Shrinelands

The bright, clear notes of a violin, accompanied by a compliment of timpani and the frenzied high-pitched plucking of a zarousa reverberated from the stamped-regolith ceiling of the cavernous Greathall.

The music rushed from near the narrow entrance of the long office, flowing over the pews and chairs as it went. It expanded as it travelled, resonating and reverberating in the pie-slice geometry of the large hall. The excited orchestration wrapped around the governor, encircling his broad frame, before passing by and bouncing from the wide, curved wall of diamond-glass at which he stood overlooking the Antani desert.

Advisor Illiat, a tall, rotund man in a maroon robe, shifted his weight uncomfortably as he came to a stop. The tasseled rope tied about his waist magnified every slight movement with its swing,

"Illiat, I know of the attack on the mine already. Prepare the vessel," The governor ordered.

"At once, governor. I of course would be remiss in my duty to not inform you of the danger of visiting an active terrori-" he fell silent as he caught the governor's reflected stare. "Prepare the vessel, I want to inspect the scene myself."

Akmetr Fatzl nursed his pod of mulch-beer slowly, trying to stay unnoticed in his corner booth at the Edge of Forever. It wasn't easy to avoid eye contact with the three rugged miners sitting at the bar but by god, he was going to try. He wasn't ready to begin.

They sported the customary insignia of the govenorate on their dirty jumpsuits, their close-cropped scalps each displaying the scars of innumerable industrial mishaps. They glowered in his direction as if the slender twenty-something in a clean peacoat didn't belong in a frontier bar.

Akmetr studied the label of his mulch-beer.

PROUDLY BREWED at Demet, using pristine water melted from the southern ice cap. It flows northwards, picking up the dry bitterness of the spirelands, before being aerated and softened over the falls of Akbinn. It is there we ferment it with the sweetest Forest Moss sucro-fungi to develop a rich, full-bodied aroma and mouthfeel. Produced under official license. Drink deep, fala, for the Governorate provides plenty.

There was a little map of the journey the water had taken to get to the brewery. Conspicuously missing was the Gypsum Crater Exclusion Zone, where one of the wildly radioactive Second Era meteorites had come to rest. Akmetr knew that it just about touched the river. He wondered if the water leeched radiation from the crater. He wondered if gypsum had a taste.

Ah, the Second Era, thought Akmetr, the resetting of fortunes, the halving of the world, the decapitation of the First Era when the asteroid-swarm flattened the northen hemisphere into a thousand horizons of salty craters.

Something large and wet landed on the table with a loud thumpsh. The blooded, furry head of an Oajrn rolled to a stop on his table, staring up at him with three dead eyes. Akmetr jumped as the miners laughed raucously at the bar.

"Get out of here, govvy man," the largest of the three shouted. "Go back to Ardentil and give our regards to the Governor."

Akmetr briefly considered pulling rank and flashing his medal of office while reading them the riot act, but he was a long way from backup. Besides, he was partially here to try and make connections with the locals.

Before he could respond, the bartender tried diplomacy. "Knock it off, Jank. Stick this in your gullets and chill." The miners happily took the packets of snacks and made celebratory gestures as they ripped open the bags.

Akmetr stood up slowly and walked to the end of the bar, a few seats from the men. He leaned on it as he watched them greedily inhale the crisps. "You got me good, Jank. Where's the rest of the Oajrn? I'm gonna guess you guys didn't eat it, you still look hungry."

"Hit it on the way in from the mountains." Jank said. "Thought it might make a good hood ornament but you looked so sad. I wanted you to have it, govver."

Akmetr's face turned curious. "You drive all the way down from the mines, past Perdít, past Antani city, down the Shear switchbacks, and all the way northwards again to the Edge of Forever just for happy hour?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the bartender wince as he said it. "Seems like a long way for some mulch-beer."

The smaller of the three miners - Aroe, judging by the tag on his jumpsuit - piped up. "Not for us, we know a shortcut. Ow!" He yelped as the third miner, Modd, elbowed him hard. "What's it to you, govver?" Modd growled, visibly agitated.

"Nothin', just caught me offguard is all. A shortcut down the Shear? Must come with wings, fala. You guys are crazy. So what they have you minin' up there? MINE 7XG," he pointed at their uniforms, "That's a tellurium mine, right? I always loved the look of tellurium."

Akmetr wisely deflected away from the revelation about the shortcut. Playing dumb seemed like the safer path here.

Jank puffed out his chest. "Tellurium's gold, we mine palladium. Think they use it to make engines or somethin'," he said proudly. "You know those huge cargo trucks they use 'cause the sky is broken and the seas is acid? We're the reason they can move at all."

"No shit, Jank? Well, I guess I owe you guys a drink then. I bet it even came here on one of your trucks." Akmetr winked at the bartender as he popped open a fresh Demet Amber. "Get these guys your best. We're gonna party!"

It was fully midnight by the time Akmetr left the Edge of Forever bar. Jank and the boys drank on his dime, the Governorate's dime, until Jank and Aroe had fallen asleep in the corner booth. Modd had slipped out for a walk and disappeared an hour ago.

The moonslight shone from two different directions, causing everything to have two shadows. Combined with the white salt flats, it was quite easy for Akmetr to see.

He ambled into the salt-gravel parking area, turning to look south over the salt-block tavern. In the far distance, and yet still above the bar, loomed the impossibly high stone cliffs of the Shear. He could make out the lights of the switchback gates at Antani Canyon to the southeast, and the icy tops of the Erg Ranges peaking over the rim to the southwest. No easy way up or down there.

In every other direction an infinite expanse of white salt disappeared over the curve of the horizon.

"You thin' it rully go on ferever?" came a meek voice behind Akmetr.

He turned to find a young woman, haggard and strung out. She must be one of the bordello girls, he figured. "As far as anyone knows." he said. "Maybe it stretches up and over the north pole and back down until you reach the southern ice cap again. We know the southern hemisphere is uncontested. We've just never been able to successfully explore north."

"I know someone who come from out there." she was unsteady on her feet, and her speech was slow and slurred enough she could be sleepwalking.

"You know someone who lives in the forever?" Akmetr's eyebrows grew wings.

"Op', here he come." She reached down to pick up a poofy powla that had begun whining at her feet. It seemed like just a furry face with dark, round eyes in the moonlight. "Ain't you the cutest thin' in forever? Who's momma's little..." she trailed off and began shuffling through the salt-gravel towards the bar.

Akmetr chuffed and shook his head as he turned back around - just in time for Modd's fist to connect with his jaw.