Today I'm pleased to present the first three chapters of a Wanderverse contribution by Sam Wilson, the researcher who painstakingly catalogued evidence that There Was An Extinction-Level Event In 2012: And We All Now Live In A Simulation.

Find more of Sam's short and serialized fiction, among other delectable memoranda, at Ordinary Times. And keep an eye out for future installments of the following story, freely released under the CC0 1.0 Universal license 😊

Header image: Old woman and a boy with candles, circa 1650 – 1700, creator unknown.

Chapter 1

The Merry Gardens covering the northern reaches of Gleneldershire sighed awake to the first frost of the season. Wrapped snug in a shawl knitted by her grandmother four and a half centuries ago, a wispy little gnome shivered at her post atop her crooked tower along the northern barrier wall. As the sun crested the horizon, revealing the twinkling hills beyond, lithe Kendra yawned, cracked her knuckles, and stoked the little potbelly stove in the corner to warm up last night's finleaf stew.

"I should write home," she muttered to no one in particular. Kendra sighed, a little puff of vapor curling up around her brilliant red tresses. "How long has it been?" She put the kettle on and rummaged through a tiny, battered cabinet for the tin of blonde arbat leaves she stashed in midsommar for chill mornings such as these. "Fifteen years?" The tin opened with a gentle pop, bathing her gently-smiling face in sweet fragrance. "I wonder how old Gnarlangame is doing."

Her muttering and puttering was disturbed by a familiar yowl from the stairs. Tail aloft, Twitching Whiskers Saunders ascended the final spiral turn to greet Kendra with a head-bonk and a noisy purr. "Ah, hello Saunders. Any mice for me today?" The cat stood taller than her waist, but she fearlessly scratched behind his battered old ears nonetheless. "Here, let me get you some breakfast."

The portly feline hopped onto a red velvet couch too small for his ponderous bulk and reclined to watch the careworn gnome ascend a rough-hewn ladder for access to a larder stocked with magically-preserved fish. The tip of his ragged tail thumped against the worn upholstery as he waited for his two-legged friend to recite the familiar words that would release food from enchanted stasis. At this hour, sunbeams were scarce and his belly felt dangerously empty. However, he knew that no matter the weather, no matter the season, he would find his little old friend at the top of the winding stairs in the crooked tower along the northern wall, minding the blasted hills beyond from her little padded gunner's chair mounted on the flank of the last remaining wraith cannon along the northern frontier.

And though he had no way of knowing it, his diminutive companion was the only resident in all of Gleneldershire capable of operating and maintaining the eldritch components of the cannon, and was therefore singlehandedly responsible for keeping the venerable gardens he called home from being overrun by vicious bands of mutant Krauth nightlings.

Just as Kendra had completed the perseveration incantation (little rhymes still made her giggle well into middle age, which for a gnome was roughly six hundred years old), the morning's peaceful routine was interrupted with the quarrelsome braying of a Low Condenser Flow alarm. "Oh come on, I just fixed that last week," she grumbled as she pushed her trifocals up the narrow bridge of her nose. "Excuse me, Mr. Saunders. It looks like the second stage inlet manifold might be clogged up again." She dropped half a dozen sprats in a tin bowl, ruffled the cat's ears again, cinched her toolbelt, and disappeared into the twisted glowing guts of the rune-crusted artillery.

A well-fed Twitching Whiskers Saunders resumed his perch on the red couch for grooming as soft Gnomish cursing burbled intermittently from the cannon's underbelly beneath the mounting stanchions. Occasionally, metallic squeaks would accompany clanking and profane exclamations, but the good Mr. Saunders had fur that needed cleaning and no amount of heeding the frantic activities of the cannoness of the tower would get him tidy any faster. Indeed, it wasn't until she emerged from under the aft bearing cowl, red-faced and hauling a circular baffle plate bent in ways it looked like it shouldn't be bent did he come to realize that breakfast this chilly morning was well and truly over.

Kendra stumbled out of the machine and dropped the plate to the stone floor with a pronounced clang. She folded her arms and glared at it in silence. She mopped the sweat from her brow. She glanced out over the frost on the hills to see that it was rapidly turning to fog under the light of the rising sun. She cursed again in her native tongue, a long string of ill-fitting consonants knitted together with glottal trills that only a Gnomish throat could properly produce. After a few more minutes of this, she doffed her leather apron, washed her hands, finished her stew, and began the long trek down the spiral staircase and off to old town Biscany to go have an uncomfortable chat with the Gleneldershire council regarding the inevitable bits of corrective maintenance she lacked the facilities and equipment to conduct in this bucolic setting among these parochial humans.

"I need to take a leave of absence. There..." Kendra paused to briefly remind herself that these mutton-thick councilmen would not know a spanner from an air ejector and to adjust her explanations accordingly. "There is a problem with the wraith cannon. A part broke and my workshop is too small to make the parts I need to fix it. I need to use the forge at Beckinnininchimigranningonnochdochdolonnonigolonorinning." It somehow felt reassuring to pronounce the name of her home city in front of these inexplicably ancient-looking sixty-some year old youngsters. "The part I need..."

A hunched man with wire-rimmed spectacles interrupted her. "Why can't you fix it here?" He leaned forward in his seat, looming over the child-sized gnome. "This is absurd. You've never had to leave your post before. This is ridiculous. What is wrong with the forges here in Biscany?"

"Sir Pembloke, I..." she began, intent on answering the man's inquiry with some degree of deference.

"This Gnome city," a white-haired woman demanded, "Beckinn City. It's hundreds of leagues away. Three weeks' travel, even by swift-brougham..."

Another councilman added, "and that's assuming fair weather, no bandits..."

Yet another chimed in, "Do you mean to say that the Northern Wall will be without protection? This is unacceptable. How long will we be vulnerable?"

The man with the spectacles pounded his desk. "We have a duty to the people of the Southlands."

Soon, the chambers were engulfed by the cacophony of foolish humans trying (as it seemed to Kendra) to outdo each other in their efforts to showcase the immense depths of their ignorant vanity. She rubbed her temples, knowing that her delicate voice stood no chance at puncturing the chaos.

At least, not on its own.

She pulled a snail shell the size of an adult hedgehog from her satchel and held it to her lips. The enchantment carried within amplified her voice enough to give the council members tinnitus and to scatter animals within a two-block radius. "I WILL BE TAKING A LEAVE OF ABSENCE TO REPAIR THE CITY'S DEFENSES. I WILL RETURN IN TWO MONTHS' TIME." She glared at the dozen humans once more before returning the shell to its home. "Let me be clear. I am here to inform you of my intentions. I am not here to debate, nor to solicit your permission. I will answer reasonable questions one at a time. You may raise your hands and I will call on you in turn."

The remainder of the meeting was brief by gnomish standards, but it still consumed the majority of the day. By the time the shadows had lengthened over the tubblefruit grove and the nix beetles had rolled the pterogaunt dung balls to close up their burrows for the night, Kendra had answered the council's inane questions to their apparent satisfaction and had obtained the rosicrustius she would need as pass-port within the Gleneldershire demesne and the diplomatic writs for the fenlands beyond.

Kendra's unique position offered her a generous per diem budget. The rosicrustius she bore allowed her to lawfully commandeer any good or service in the shire without recompense or delay, including emergency conscription of commoners. This was useful for a very small gnome traveling a very long distance in a country filled with very large people and very dangerous creatures roaming the very dark night. She took advantage of her sovereign's largesse by hiring the smallest swift-brougham in the county. As far as she was aware, the carriage was chiefly used to entertain children during the midwinter festival, and it was usually drawn by an elderly porkstrider with bad vision. However, Kendra was born a Whitehallow Gnome, and not even two and a half centuries of living among simpleton humans could dull her natural affinity for invention and tinkering, and so it was that she was able to rig a harness that would allow her to hitch a half dozen dire vixen from the gene-stock she had been domesticating since just after the Tragic Happenstance of Fatbottom's Down some eight decades ago. All that was left was to pack her kit and tech manuals, hire a driver, and leave at dawn's first light.

Dawn's first light bade hail to a human boy who had yet to see his sixteenth winter. "Hi! I'm Kendra," she smiled up at the boy. "Your pa tells me you're to drive the swift-brougham?" She had her doubts about allowing a child to have the reins, but she knew that she hadn't the first idea about operating human farm equipment. Give her a rifle or a billub-caster or the belaying cable on a trebuchet and she'd be right at home. Plows and wagons and such were another kettle of magically preserved fish.

The boy nodded, a look half between suspicion and contempt on his face. "A-yuh. We's goin down souf ta the Westmere, Da said. Why's you so short?"

It occurred to Kendra that the boy had never met one of the wee folk and the combination of her short stature and deepening crow's feet could challenge the boy's notions of the world. "I'm a Gnome. I work up in the tower up by the north wall." It suddenly occurred to her that, apart from her, the last Gnome must have left the shire nigh on to two decades ago. She sighed.

"You's that lady what keeps us safe from them muties? I heerd o' yous. Ain't yous s'posed ta be up thar alla time? Why's you's goin off out ter town wif alla yon kit?" He pointed to Kendra's pile of luggage.

Kendra took a deep breath and diverted the boy's attention. "I'm very sorry, but I didn't quite catch your name, young man?" She groaned as she loaded the small trunk with her technical manuals into the kickbox behind the rear axle. The mush team yipped, eager to be off.

The boy mumbled something inaudible to even Kendra's exceptionally keen hearing.

"I'm sorry, did you say 'Bun'?"

"Brent," the boy replied in a slightly louder mumble.

"Well, Brent. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, and I am confident that you and I shall become fast friends on our journey to Gnomevale in Westermere and to Beckinn City, jewel of Incandentia Bay." Kendra nestled into her bucket seat (made from an actual bucket), slipped her tinker's goggles over her emerald eyes, and said, "ready when you are, Brent."

The carriage lurched forward with a start. Kendra gripped the edges of her seat and did her level best to retain the contents of her stomach, which threatened to escape violently with each bump.

Chapter 2

The Nanomancer's apprentice wound a thin strip of onx-leather around his finger, resulting in the tip turning an alarming shade of blue.

"Stop that," the girl beside him hissed as she slapped his hands. "You keep doing that and I'll have to cut your finger off, dimwit." She scowled up at the lanky boy.

"Sorry, Dana," he mumbled. "I'm a little nervous." He unwound the strip and stuffed it into a threadbare pocket of his oft-patched trousers. "I never expected I would have to do anything like this."

Dana rolled her eyes. "It's just a report. You know what to say. Stop being such a big baby."

"Yeah, but..." he began.

"But nothing." She had to stifle a giggle. Butt nothing. Hilarious. "You're apprentice to the Nanomancer. Grow up."

He scowled at the girl. She was right, but that didn't make the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach go away. He rubbed the color back into his cyanotic finger and muttered under his breath.

"Sorry, what was that?" She smiled sweetly, her hand balling up in a fist. "I didn't quite catch that. What did you say?"

"Nothing, Dana. Come on. Give me a break."

She swatted him with her fist, right under his ribcage, making him gasp. "Ow. Hey. Stop it. This is serious. I'll tell..."

Before he had the chance to inform the girl who he would tell, an ursine guard clad in blackened horn armor and bearing a ceremonial (but doubtless quite effective) dillotooth halberd struck the butt of her weapon on the dark flagstone floor. The echo was loud enough to make both teenagers straighten up and mind their manners.

"Yer about on, lad. Wait fer the gong, then go in. Be quick. Grand Lord's got plenty o' busy-ness terday." The guard's voice was considerably more gentle than her bear-like face would have suggested.

"Thanks, Nerida. I think I'm ready," the boy answered, still squirming.

"You'll do fine, Dennis." The guard smiled, "just remember to breathe." She gave the boy a friendly pat on the shoulder and lumbered back to her post.

The gong sounded. To the Nanomancer's apprentice, it seemed like someone had dimmed the lights.

"Breathe," came a voice from behind him, one that sounded a lot like Dana's.

He shuffled into the Lairdhall as fast as his reluctant feet would carry him. "Grand Lord Omnigarros, the Nanomancer has m-made his report and, um..."

"Speak up," bellowed a grand and terrible voice. "I can hardly hear you from over there." It dropped a few decibels, but was still clear enough to be understood by the boy. "Who is that? Is this about the mission to the wall? Gah. Who wrote this audience list? I can barely read it. Tomasz, is this your handwriting? Who taught you penmanship? I've seen neater writing while squatting on my other throne, ha ha ha." The bellow resumed. "Oi! Come on now. If you can't speak up, at least get a little closer. Quickly now."

Dennis felt a gentle but powerful shove from behind as one of the Lord's guard helped him get within sneezing distance of the many tentacles of Grand Lord Omnigarros. "The mission was a success, Grand Lord. Th-th-the N-N-Nanomancer's spell," his voice broke at this point, "puh-puh-penetrated," he blissfully did not hear the tinkling giggle from the hallway, "the b-barrier."

"Well, that's some good news, eh?" Omnigarros wriggled his ambulatory tentacles in squamous delight. "Good, good, good. When can we expect him back?"

Dennis glanced down at his left wrist. Below the tattered cuff of his grimy shirt, a metallic disc abruptly changed from the hue of dull pig iron to that of gleaming, iridescent quicksilver. A shaft of light emerged from the disc to blossom into a floating holographic display inscrutable to anyone in the room apart from the gangly apprentice. He flicked a few toggles inside the display, knit his brow, and muttered under his breath.

After just long enough time had elapsed that the Grand Lord became impatient enough to tap one tentacle against the dais, Dennis said, "His erkundenluftschiff took damage in a glowstorm." The boy's voice became firm and confident as he gazed into the holographic display. "Took refuge at Gomdungrenstat mining outpost. Repairs extensive. Delay is a fortnight, minimum. Needs tungsten." The apprentice blinked a few times and swiped a finger across the metal disc. The display dimmed, then vanished.

The Grand Lord drummed a quick cadence, then announced, "in lieu of the Nanomancer's extended absence, the apprentice will assume the duties of the post. That will be all. Send in the next petitioner."

Over the stuttered objections of the boy, he was ushered out of the audience hall by the smiling bear-woman. "Look at that, eh? Nanomancer not three days gone and already the big hat passes to you, lad. Well done."

To Dennis Harald, it was hardly "well done" at all. He had only been apprenticed for three years. Most of it was spent dusting lab equipment, fetching boilbean tea for his master, or preparing specimens. Not once had he attended a council meeting,  written a grant proposal, reviewed proposed legislation for impact on the sub-terrene bioclade, nor so much as led a class of first form students on a mycological expedition in the Warren. He was eminently unqualified to assume the duties of the Nanomancer, even provisionally. As he slouched away, he could feel his chest getting tight, and his palms start to sweat. He wanted to rebuff Nerida's encouragement, but he lacked the breath or composure to speak.

"You're in for it now, Nanomancer." Dana laughed. "I hope you got your red robes all nice and tailored. How about those implants, huh? You ready for your surgery?" Her laughter was replaced by snorting as she saw his face redden and his shoulders slump even deeper.

"Leave me alone, Dana."

"Oh, lighten up. You've got the whole lab to yourself until he gets back." She paused to put her hands on her hips. "Is the Nanomancer a 'he'? I don't think I ever asked."

"I don't think it makes a difference. He or she is almost all metal by now. Who cares?"

Their chatting was broken by Nerida clearing her throat. "Go on, now. Off you pop. Yer lab's a-waitin'."

Dennis managed a faint smile at his old friend, then headed out of the meeting-hall into the large, damp cavern he called home. Phoryx crystals glimmered overhead, illuminating the crowded, crooked streets his people had been forced to adopt after the war. Pallid vendors hawked cheap wares through clouds of quickly-condensing thermetic steam while biomechanical drones clattered overheard along tangled subtransit monorail. He glanced up the side of the glistening cavern walls to the forbidding titanbone exostructure of the Nanomancer's lab. The organic-steel shutters were closed, but the apprentice knew that dozens of bespoke homunculi, none larger than a cave mouse, were scurrying in the dark to aid with the Nanomancer's countless ongoing experiments.

Dana grabbed Dennis by the elbow and hauled him to a mush-noodle shop. "Sit. Breathe. Relax if you can." She went to the counter to order two bowls of the only thing on the menu. He sat and started to gather his thoughts.

His hand wandered to his pocket, as if it had a mind of its own. He took the leather strip out and wound it tight around his finger. He had a sense of the extent of the daily activities of the Nanomancer, but without the multitudes of cerebral implants, bionic limb supplements, cognition amplifiers, or sundry other mechanical augmentations that the Nanomancer had, there was no way he could get anything other than a small fraction of the work complete. He had even been told directly that the only reason he was there was because certain lab tasks required too much physical strength for the wee constructs. "It's impossible," he muttered to the rough stone slab that served as a table.

"He's not dumb, you know." Dana held a pair of bowls, each filled with thick gray liquid.

"Who? What? Who's not dumb?"

"The Nanomancer, of course. He had to know that there was some chance he would be delayed. He isn't dumb."

"I know..." Dennis began, irritated, "so what? Is that supposed to cheer me up or something? What's your point?"

She set the bowls on the table and pulled a spoon from one of her belt pouches before tying back her springy black hair. "I know you, Dennis. You're worrying about keeping up with all the projects. Ow." She fanned her mouth. "Careful. It's hot."

He blew on his mush-noodles. "Shouldn't I? I'm not ready for anything like that. I don't even know what half those experiments are for." He retrieved his own spoon, deftly hiding the leather cord and the finger that had once again turned blue from her keen gaze. "I'm not even sure I know how many experiments there are."

"There has to be some documentation somewhere. Someone as important as the Nanomancer won't just go to the surface, let alone all the way down to the wall without leaving behind some—what do you call it—contingency plans." She took another careful bite. "We just have to sea..."

The boy's dark eyes lit up. "Hold on there. What do you mean 'we'? You don't think I'm going to let you into the lab, do you?"

She grinned and slurped another mouthful of mush-noodles. "Of course you are. You can't find your own face without both hands and a map."

He groaned and swirled the colorless fungal concoction around in his bowl. He knew this wouldn't end well. Few things for him ever did.

Chapter 3

Kendra's nimble little fingers were usually more than capable of mastering intricate little devices engineered by cunning minds to accomplish all manner of specialized tasks. So when she fumbled to undo the simple clasp holding her securely in her little bucket seat, her cheeks blazed red in embarrassment and frustration, highlighting her already profuse freckles. "Darn stupid..." she sputtered, wresting the buckle to and fro.

"Lemme get it, miss." Brent recoiled as a small, but calloused hand lashed out at him, swatting away his attempts to help.

"Keep your fat paws to yourself, boy," Kendra spat. She loosened the straps enough to wriggle out, then spun round to peer more closely at the mechanism. With a sneer, she popped the latch, and the buckle fell slack around the base of the bucket. "Rinky-dinky human pish-posh," she muttered before grabbing her rucksack and scrambling down behind the buckboard. She swooned and nearly fell over from vertigo before Brent caught her. This time, there was no slap. "Sorry about that," she said. "About that fat paws remark. I can be..." she dropped her pack below the wide boughs of a fragrant meadow-tree, "irritable sometimes."

"S'no problem, little miss." He started setting up a hitch line for the mush team. "First time?"

She sat and waited for the landscape to stop swimming. "Yes," she squeezed her eyes shut to stop the motion. It didn't help. "No. I mean, yes, first time on a swift-brougham. Not my first time taking this trip." Thinking about the child's age and the last time she had been to Beckinn City, it may as well have been her first time. Brent's great-grandparents probably hadn't been born yet. "Ugh. Hey Brent, do you see any willow trees around?"

The boy looked around as he lashed the harnesses to the hitch line. "Yuh. By the forest's edge." When he saw that Kendra tried getting to her feet, he said, "stay put little miss. I can fetch some bark."

"Thank you, young man." She leaned back against the tree and rummaged through her pack for her travel-sized mortar and pestle. "And please stop calling me 'little miss'. It's Kendra or Cannoness if you insist on being formal."

"Yuh, Miss Cannoness Kengra." The boy was out of earshot by the time she could correct him, snickering quietly to himself. People often thought Brent to be a bit thick in the head, but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, folks often let their guard down around perceived imbeciles, which inevitably led to the cunning lad knowing a great deal more than he should. Working part time at the palazzo stables meant that he knew more council gossip than even the powdered courtiers in their billowy pantaloons.

Most shire residents thought that allowing Todd Benchmaker's dimwitted son to work for the city was a bit of charity on the part of the council, but it was in fact a carefully calculated ruse to help the Benchmaker family swell the seams of their purse. Some besotted alderman would every so often burp out details of a bit of legislation under consideration. By the time it came up for a vote, word would have already reached Brent's canny father who would have made the necessary business arrangements to take full advantage. Townsfolk would occasionally remark on the oddity of the wealthy carpenter with such a wide array of business interests, but so far, no one had made the connection of the thickpated son with access to insider information.

This whole business with ferrying the gnome lady around was beyond him, however. His father must have had some reason to volunteer him to ferry a cranky old gnome with frazzled hair and a weak stomach clear down to the far reaches of Westmere, but he couldn't fathom it.

The willow stood on the banks of an overgrown pond. While it was true that they were still officially within the political bounds of Gleneldershire, they were close enough to the Fey Compact that territorial-minded Wildkin could easily inhabit overgrown areas. Brent listened closely for the sounds of frogs. Hearing none, he called out, "ho! Anybody home?" Wildkin do not always respond to direct inquiry, so he slipped his left hand into his pocket for his cast iron knuckle dusters, just in case. "Just need a bit of willowfyne is all." He inched forward. "No more'n a scrap is all." He reached out with his other hand and tore a handful of bark from the tree before backing away, eyes still on the pond. "Much obliged."

The pond, which was just a pond (as many ponds are), said nothing.

"Yer bark, Miss Candy." He held a fist sweaty from running back to camp toward Kendra's face. Bits of ragged willow bark dropped crumbs on her reinforced gingham skirts. "I diddunt see no Wildkin in yonder pond, neither."

Kendra's vertigo had subsided, along with her ire. "Thank you, Brent." She resolved to ignore the boy's butchering of her name. Charity toward the feebleminded was a human habit she had unintentionally picked up during her long stay up north.

He retrieved the mess kit and decided to let his curiosity get the better of him. He knew plenty about the goings-on of the shire gentry, but court gossip about military matters rarely came up. He knew that the northern wall spanning the20-league wide Isthmus of Vinson had been built between the First and Second Heresy Wars. He knew that deep slickrock counterscarps had been cut to slow northern invaders attempting to overrun fortified positions along the wall. He knew that there were permanent naval fortifications at each end of the wall, and he knew that one of the older boys on his lane had volunteered to be a soldier on the wall when he turned sixteen last year. Other than that, the military was as much a mystery to him as it was to most civilians in most places in the world. "Me da' tol' me you run th' last wraif cannon. Wot's that mean, eh? Wot's a wraif cannon?"

Kendra had already ground up a pinch of willow bark and rubbed it on her gums. The rest would have to last until she could make her way to an apothecary to get some proper medicine. "It's quite simple, really. We use a three-stage induction process to condense latent motile aether for storage in — and here's the clever part for this bit — a stratified skew gel matrix to achieve a higher rate of fire since the layered capacitance is improved at each partition node..." she trailed off as she remembered who she was talking to. "Uh, sorry. Let me give you the quick version." She took a deep breath as he lit a fire under the ceramic stove-pot. "You know that sort of swirly glow-light you can sometimes see at night to the north?"

"Yuh, the north lights."

"That's right. That glow comes from both the energy of the sun and an invisible field that surrounds the planet."

He scowled a bit. He knew enough about geophysics and psychomancy to follow the more detailed description she had started with, but he wasn't about to let her know that. "Invisible wot?" He defaulted to playing extra dumb, just to be on the safe side.

"A field. Like air, but not air. It's all around us, all the time, so we don't notice it. Like how fish doesn't notice water. But just like water can freeze, we can condense the," she searched for a simplified term the boy might understand, "soul energy if you will. The breath of the earth. We can condense that the way your breath condenses into fog on a cold winter morning."

He nodded. "Sure fing. Got it." The concept was easy enough. The ionoclade could be syncretized along a guided beam through a suitable medium, like refined warpwood sap or histcrab jelly. From there, a supercooled collection chamber could partition the substrate from the condensate for storage. After that, there was probably some mechanism to convert the stored energy into a projectile and fired.

"We cool the soul energy down even more, and when we need it, we pull off a tiny little piece and shoot it really, really fast at the Trogs and muties and," she made explosion noises and waved her hands in the air, "boom! It blows up when it hits them." She let her hands fall back into her lap. "There used to be six cannons on the wall, each with a full squad of gnome technicians and human soldiers for each one." She scratched the back of her head, making her scarlet tresses bounce. "Now it's just me."

"You get lonesome." Brent's comment sounded more like a declaration than a question.

She arched an eyebrow. The boy wasn't exactly wrong. It was lonely there on the wall, but it was a loneliness she gladly tolerated. "There's death on the other side of the wall. During the war, we tore a hole in the sky. They hate us." She looked wistful. "Can't say I blame them, either. After what we did."

Next installment: "Diversions Abroad."

Young Man and Old Woman by Jacob Matham.