Barsk takes place in a distant future, where no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. The Fant are one species of humanity’s genius-animals that were uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings.
Anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races, and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk, the Fant develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets. To break the Fant’s control of koph, an offworld shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. This threat leads one of the Fant to unearth a secret that the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Please enjoy this excerpt.
CHAPTER ONE: A DEATH DETOURED
RÜSUL traveled to meet his death. The current had carried him away from his home island as if it understood his purpose. He lost sight of the archipelago before dusk, as much a function of the falling rain as the southerly wind that pushed him onward. In the days since, the sun had risen and set unseen, a slightly brighter spot that eased itself across the overcast sky. Nor had it cleared at night to permit a glimpse of the heavens. The clouds changed color as the rain ebbed and flowed, and the wind drove him across the water of its own accord toward an unvisited destination. Rüsul didn’t care. He had no need to hurry. He could feel the increasing proximity in his bones and that was enough. More than enough. An aged Fant on a raft alone and at sea, the wind filling his makeshift sail and carrying him toward the last bit of land he would ever stand upon. His father and mother had each left in the same manner, and their parents before them. That’s how it had been, going back generation upon generation to the very founding of Barsk.
He’d felt it coming on all season. His every perception called out to him, less clairaudience than common sense. It was part of the way of things. One felt the change in pressure that signaled the nearness of a lull in a storm. One smelled the sweetness of tevketl long before the berries actually ripened so as not to miss their brief span for picking. And one knew when it was time to die. Rüsul could no more fail to recognize his coming death than he could be surprised by a pause in the rain or sour berries.
The certainty came to him one morning. He’d never been the type to awaken easily, always struggling to cross that daily border between slumber and the responsibilities of the wide awake world. But that day he had opened his eyes and known. Death had announced itself, named a time and place, and left him instantly alert. Rüsul had risen and gone about his day with a wistful smile, a bit sad that his time was ending but also relieved to know for sure. That knowledge signaled the start of the final rite of passage for every Fant.
His assistant had seen the change in him at the workshop that day, acknowledging it with a simple question. “You know?”
Rüsul had smiled. “I do. The last lesson I need to learn. No sadness from you, Yeft. It’s long overdue. Besides, I know you’ve wanted my tools since the day you ended your apprenticeship.”
The younger Fant ignored the barb and instead asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? Do you have enough time for everything?”
Rüsul had been thinking it through since breakfast. Time enough to complete the game board and pieces he’d promised to his elder daughter’s husband after drinking too much beer on the night of their Bonding. Time enough to finish the lintel for the great window in his son’s new home. And time also to build a stout raft and gather together the supplies he would need for the voyage. He had no goodbyes to say. Yeft had seen the knowledge on his face as much because they’d worked side by side for thirty years as because it had been so fresh. The rest of his loved ones would realize what had happened after he’d left. None would come seeking him. Until the day they each woke to their own invitations, they wouldn’t even know where to look.
HE’D been on the open water for five days, seated comfortably enough at the front third of a raft, his back against the short mast that held the only sail. A tarpaulin covered a jumbled pile that occupied most of the other two-thirds. Beneath it lay jugs of fresh water and beer to quench his thirst, assorted fresh fruit to enjoy before it spoiled and dried fruit for after if the wind died or the current slowed and delayed his journey. There was grain and salt for making cold porridge, and an assortment of succulent leaves as much for dessert as for late night snacking. Rüsul had also packed a scattering of various soft woods and, despite his promise, held onto his favorite knife. At the last moment he’d been unable to part with it, though of course he wouldn’t need it when he reached his death.
For the last five mornings he’d eased leisurely from sleep as usual. His daily ritual consisted of breaking his fast and then tending to his ablutions over the back end of his raft. He’d raise the sail and often as not tack in the direction that felt right. That done, he would take a chock of wood and his knife from under the tarpaulin and settle in with his back once more against the mast and spend the day carving. His hands and trunk did the work with the familiarity of experience, freeing his mind to wander at will through a lifetime of pleasant memories. When he grew thirsty he’d stop for some midday beer, and when hungry for an early supper. By dusk he’d set aside his knife and furl the raft’s sail. As the last of the day’s light fled, Rüsul would examine the statuette he’d made, the face of some old friend or relative gazing up from the wood as clearly as it had from his memory. His talent at carving had brought him a modicum of fame and security. His work had become quite collectible, but these pieces would never be admired by anyone else. Before laying himself down for sleep, he made a point of saying farewell to the day’s effort and pitching it over the side for the ocean to claim.
This sixth day had gone much like the others. Rüsul’s left hand had all day long guided the knife slowly back and forth across the chock in his right. The constant rain created the illusion that the outer layers of wood were being washed away to reveal the figurine beneath. Later, as the sky began to lose its glow and he sat finishing his porridge and fruit, the rain faded entirely. For the briefest of moments the heavy clouds parted and Rüsul enjoyed the unfamiliar sight of sunset and felt the red light of Ekkja on his skin. Defter than the touch of a loved one’s nubs, warmth flooded through the folds and wrinkles of his naked body, relieving all weariness while reminding him of just how weary he’d been. Then it passed. The clouds closed again and the rain resumed. He took down the sail.
Rüsul finished his dinner and leaned over the edge of his raft to rinse his bowl and spoon before tucking them away under the tarp along with his carving knife. With his trunk he cradled the day’s work, a perfect rendering of Margda, Barsk’s long dead Matriarch. Her face looked back at him with complexity. There was pain and certainty, confidence and confusion, as if she’d just been thrust deep in the throes of one of her prophetic seizures. It was possibly his best work ever.
He had muttered a farewell to the carving and raised his trunk high, preparing to fling the figure into the sea, when the ocean dropped away.
The raft, which had risen and fallen with the sea’s mood, froze stiller than calm water. The sudden stability caused Rüsul to tumble over backwards. The tiny rendering of Margda slipped from his nubs as he landed on his backside. He rolled onto his knees, one hand moving back and behind the bottom of his left ear to rub at a sudden stitch in his side. His other hand braced against the raft until his balance returned and allowed him to crawl to the edge.
Peering over the side he saw an expanse of grayness below the raft. It sloped down in all directions too far to measure in the rain. Beyond that lay water. The ocean had not so much dropped from beneath him as something else had surged up from below it, lifting him and the raft.
“There! At the far end. Take him, now. And quickly!”
Rüsul turned. From beyond the other side of his raft, a gate of some sort had opened in the gray below. A tall, bizarre-looking person stood next to the opening and three more poured from it. All four had been wrapped in fire-bright plastic, more plastic than he’d seen in his entire life. The legs of their slacks thickened to form heavy boots. The sleeves of their shirts flowed into gloves and the collars rose up into hoods that hid their heads. Following their instructions, three of them advanced upon Rüsul. Translucent gray masks covered their faces. Two had hold of his arms in an instant and hauled him upright like a wet sack of leaves.
It all happened so fast, so unexpectedly. He was on his way to die. The sameness of the past days had helped him to distance himself from the world and his past life. None of this should be happening. His brain wanted to deny it, disbelieve and make it go away. The hands gripping him made that impossible. As his feet scrabbled beneath him, the greatest piece of strangeness came clear to Rüsul and he struggled to pull free. No trunks. From even a short distance, their plastic hoods and masks rendered his assailants anonymous. But this close he saw the truth. Tiny pointy ears set well back. Long snouty faces with little black, slick noses. And all younger and stronger than him. His pitiful attempts to break away from the two holding him ended as the third wrapped more red plastic around each of Rüsul’s wrists and pulled them behind his back. The three pulled him from his raft and began marching him over the grayness toward their gate, past the fourth figure.
“You’re Dogs. Cans, aren’t you? I’ve seen pictures. But you can’t be here. You’re not supposed to…” He passed within the grayness and stopped speaking, his eyes trying and failing to make sense of the featureless surface surrounding him on all sides. He knew he moved because his feet stumbled and scraped as his captors dragged him along. His stomach flipped and for a moment the possibility of his evening meal coming back up distracted him. They seemed to move in a broad arc and the grayness gave way to painfully bright light that defined a corridor. The three Cans stopped. Rüsul steadied himself against them, squinting down the walls that somehow existed where nothing belonged but the open sea.
Another person came toward him, taller and leaner than the others and clad in blue plastic that lacked hood or mask. She advanced on him with a liquid gait. A Cheetah with a significantly flatter face, a smallish nose, and even beadier, black eyes than the Dogs regarded him and drew back her lips to reveal gleaming teeth.
“I am Nonyx-Captain Selishta,” said the Cheetah. “Do you have a name?”
Rüsul blinked. The light hurt his eyes but the questions racing through his mind hurt more. Why were there Dogs on Barsk? Why a Cheetah? Why were they speaking to him when he’d left all conversation behind. Why would anyone ask the name of a dead man? Could any adult be so ignorant and stupid?
“I’m on my way to finish dying,” he said.
The Cheetah sneered at him. “Of course you are. You all are. And of course that’s why you’re naked as well? How foolish of me to think otherwise. Well, old man, your demise is going to have to wait a while. My people have many, many questions to ask you, and I need you alive for that.”
The Fant shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that, I…”
A cold plastic hand slapped Rüsul across the face. And then again.
“My name is Selishta. This ship and these men obey my will. I’m the only one who gets to say how things work here.” She pulled her hand back, staring a moment at the glove as if her fingers had touched something disgusting, then stepped back. She directed her attention to the Cans.
“Maybe this one will know something useful about whatever shrubs and leaves the drug comes from. Hold him here a moment while the rest of the crew secures his flotsam, and then put him below in one of the vacant isolation cells.”
“Shrubs?” said Rüsul, more to himself than the others. “I was a wood carver, but that’s past. I’ve died.”
The Cheetah stepped back, waving one gloved hand in front of her stupid-looking nose. “If you had, I’ve no doubt you’d smell better than you do.”
Rüsul’s eyes widened and he studied his surroundings for the first time. As the Dogs had hauled him in he’d acknowledged only the formless gray of the place, but now the clear outlines of plastic wall panels, metal floor tilings, and piercing artificial light removed all doubt that he was inside an artificial structure. He gazed longingly back at the open gate they’d brought him through, where Nonyx-Captain Selishta stood silhouetted against the darkening sky. Rüsul watched as other Dogs in their red plastic suits hurried past the Cheetah, carrying away his supplies in the tarp that had previously covered them. Other Dogs had dragged the mast and sail in and down another corridor. Moments later, more of Selishta’s crew entered with the disassembled pieces of his raft. And then he saw the Cheetah stoop to pick up something else. As she straightened up and regarded the object in her hand, Rüsul saw that Selishta had found his carving of Margda.
The Nonyx waved the carving in a gesture encompassing everything that moments ago had made up Rüsul’s raft. “You won’t need any of that where we’re going.” She paused and regarded the image in his hand. “This is one of your women? Unbelievable. And I thought the males were the ugly ones.” She tossed it away.
The Cheetah dismissed Rüsul with a wave and the pair of Dogs took him away, deeper into the “ship” as the captain had named it. But it wasn’t like any vessel of good wood that he had heard of, open to rain and sky. The world seemed to close in around him, and at first Rüsul imagined that he had actually died. But he knew it wasn’t time yet. Time, in fact, seemed to have stopped. A claustrophobia that he’d never known before squeezed at his heart.
To the chagrin of the Cans leading him, Rüsul’s body went limp. Head and trunk down, he began to wail, as mournful a sound as any living being could manage. The Dogs dropped him. They clutched at their heads and kicked him until pain silenced him.
“Why do they all do that?” said one of the Cans, over the sound of the Fant’s moans. “I think my ears are bleeding.”
“Shut up and grab an end,” said another. “I just want to get him into a cell before he catches his breath and starts in again.”
“Why do I get the smelly end?”
“The whole thing stinks. All the more reason to hurry up and dump his ass where he won’t be polluting our air.”
One took Rüsul’s arms, the other his legs. Neither Dog came anywhere near touching his trunk or ears.
“How can something that’s been sitting out in the rain for days smell this bad?”
“Yeah, every time we grab another one, I worry the ship’s recycler is going to break down and then we’re all screwed.”
They hauled him ever further away from his death.
Copyright © 2015 by Lawrence M. SchoenBarsk comes out December 29. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell's | Walmart