Following is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress. A far-future dystopia partaking of aspects of science fiction, fantasy, and cyberpunk, Quibble examines the ever-narrowing gap between human beings and our technology as it depicts a post-Singularity, transhuman civilization in which distinctions between “real” and “virtual” have been deeply effaced. This prologue, a recent addition, sketches a few of the story's stakes and introduces two key characters, though not the protagonist.
I began writing Quibble in summer 2016 and finished the first draft in fall 2017. Presently, I'm seeking literary representation and, if possible, a residency to afford me time to rewrite the novel.
Only the light of a rising moon illumined the gloom among the boulders of the dry riverbed, where a boy clad in rags sat hunched and holding his knees beside a corpse. His fit of wailing had passed, but still the boy sobbed softly. The corpse was a girl, six or seven years his junior – tiny, frail. Though the attempt would have been vain, the boy berated himself for not using the length of rawhide leather that lay curled across his feet like a snake. There was nothing he could have done to save her. Nonetheless she accused him. Or was that the whisper of his familiar?
Scrabbling pebbles roused the boy from his self-pity. He instinctively clutched the leather strap and palmed a smooth stone, then rose. The robed and hooded figure of the Djer, not more than twenty feet away, remained motionless as he fitted the stone in the sling and began to spin it in the air. The sling whirred, gathering speed.
Still the Djer did not move. “Do you mourn the dead or guard them?” he said, speaking to the boy’s surprise in his own tongue.
“I did not kill them,” the boy answered, “but I will gladly kill you.”
“I believe it, boy. I am not your enemy.” To prove this, the Djer spread his arms, splayed his fingers to show he held no stones of his own. The boy relaxed but little; still the sling spun.
The Djer said nothing. Returning his hands to his robes, he stepped toward the dark mass of a nearby boulder, leaned against it, pulled back his hood. The moon, large and full behind him, shone on a shock of brown hair, beneath it a finely lined face that came to a point at a thin mouth betraying a slight sneer. Though he did not look it, somehow the Djer seemed old and careworn. Short as well – the boy, gangling at thirteen, was almost as tall as the man he faced. He let the sling coast in its swing and fall to his side, where he kept it at the ready.
The Djer dropped his eyes to the corpse at the boy’s feet. “Do you know her?” he asked.
“No.” The boy looked at the corpse’s face, draped with braids, and his stomach turned as he noticed the unreal tilt of the head. Broken neck. “I think she was Qahlif.”
“I see.” The Djer frowned. “Is it not strange, child of the Isleh, how little such differences matter, how they become nothing at all when real evil confronts us?”
The boy gave no answer, and the Djer did not seem to expect one. He turned his face to the sky, gazing at the stone bridge which hid a swath of stars.
“She falls from the arc?”
“She was pushed. Djer pushed her. I saw. Your brethren are murderers.”
“Murderers, yes, but not my brethren.”
The boy eyed the Djer warily. “Why did they kill her?”
“I can give you many answers,” the Djer said. “Control. Misguided evangelism. Or, simply, she does not pass their test. All of these answers are worthless to you, I know. In the end, it is only madness.”
“I do not understand.”
“There is no reason you should. Do you know what this is?”
The Djer extended a shining hand and opened it: in the palm lay, tiny and brilliantly glowing, an amber sphere. No sooner did the boy see it than his sling again spun, thrumming the air so near his left ear that he feared he might brain himself and do the Djer’s work for him.
“I see you do.” The Djer closed and withdrew his hand; the amber light disappeared in the folds of his robes. “You might as well stop,” he said. “By the time your stone reaches me, I am gone.”
Knowing the truth of the Djer’s words and seeing his own helplessness, the boy released the sling. The stone arced over his shoulder and fell to clatter somewhere behind him. Then he huffed miserably and sank to his knees, letting out a long, wordless moan.
“Do not despair, boy,” the Djer said, embarrassment in his voice. He waited, saying nothing more, while the boy struggled to control himself. “We call them glasses,” he resumed at length, “and I know it is hard for you, a Far, to believe it, but they hold us in thrall. Others, too. Tell me, do you believe the stories you hear of the Uhn?”
“Uhn?! No. There are no Uhn. That is only a fable for naughty children!”
The Djer chuckled. “No, child of the Isleh, it is no fable.”
Cheeks hot with tears but curiosity getting the better of him, the boy looked at the Djer. He could do no better than a croak: “Then tell me, what are the Uhn?”
“They are not phantoms of the Far who do not find the sea. They are in truth only people, like us. The Uhn live belowground. They do not know the sun. The only light they ever see is the light of glasses – what you call Djer-stones. All their lives, the glasses control them. Rule them. Make dreams for them.”
“What better way to wield power over people?”
Again the Djer fell silent. The boy looked from his foe to the girl’s corpse, trying to grasp what the Djer meant to tell him, what circuitous course the stream of a Djer’s thoughts might run. At last he wiped his face with the neck of his tattered tunic and got to his feet. Enough of this guessing game, he thought.
“You have told me almost nothing, Djer. I will hear no more riddles. Your brethren steal us from among our people – I know well, for it is how I came to wander the Waste. They put us to a test, you say. I think I know what you mean by that, too. But they kill those of us who fail the test, and you have said nothing to explain that. You call it evil and madness, but what I want to know is this: if you really believe that, why have you done nothing to stop it?”
The Djer regarded the boy with a slight but clearly approving smile. “When Far-nah-qesh makes the earth fly,” he asked, “what do you do, boy?”
“I find cover.”
“You do not stand your ground and fight the sky-nah?”
“Of course not! Who can prevail against a sandstorm?”
“Who indeed?” the Djer said.
Loath as he was to accept it, the boy saw the Djer’s logic. At its root, though, lay either cowardice or apathy. “If you need allies,” he ventured, “why not seek them among the Far? We have the most to gain.”
The Djer again held forth his hand and revealed the gleaming glass, eliciting a gasp of alarm from the Far child. After a few fearful seconds, the boy locked eyes with his people’s most dreaded enemy. For all the Djer’s expressiveness, which was unusual in itself, the eyes were dull, gazing at him blankly. They were like the eyes of a dead man.
“Nor could you come to us in the guise of a wanderer,” the boy said, apprehensive of insulting the Djer, “for we would know what you are in an instant.”
The Djer did not seem insulted – but then, the boy reflected, one could not really tell.
“Someday, perhaps,” the Djer went on,“the Far come to know kind Djer. We call ourselves kindnesses, do you know? But as yet we are too few in number.” His eyes flickered, glancing groundward, then met the boy’s again. “And as you well know, time is a luxury none of us have, save the Uhn. In truth, I believe even their time dwindles.”
“Then what will you do?”
“I? Not I – we. There is a way, I think, a way fraught with dangers and chances, not an easy way. You say I need allies. That is true. It is why I come here, to the Unnamed Arc: to seek a survivor of this evil who understands what it is, someone to help me fight it. A willing protege.”
The Djer stood and approached the boy. Still his hand radiated amber light, which grew stronger as he drew near. Nothing separated them now but the dead girl, awash in the effulgence of a small sun.
“Now I find you. So, child of the Isleh, can you find the courage to trust me?”
The boy looked at the corpse, hearing her accusation – “Craven weakling!” – as clearly as if it were spoken, as if the blue lips had moved and released a curse into the world.
He looked again at the Djer, still as a statue, and nodded. He found in the Djer’s eyes no more emotion than before, but then the eyes blinked softly. In that tiny acknowledgment of his fear, the boy discovered a startling faith. The Djer had made a pact with him, as sacred in its way as his own qeht, his faith with his familiar, unbreakable. When the Djer’s eyes opened, they rested on the glass. “Take my hand,” he said.
An excerpt from the novel Quibble, copyright 2019 by Joshua Lavender.