Check out Tyrannia and Other Renditions, a new collection of stories by Alan DeNiro. Tyrannia is available November 12th from Small Beer Press!
In these 11 stories—, and the weird spaces in between—, people of all kinds struggle to free themselves from conventions and constraints both personal and political. Places ranging from the farthest reaches of outer space to the creepy abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere become battlegrounds for change and growth—sometimes at a massive cost.
Tyranny takes many forms, some more subtle than others, and it is up to the reader to travel along with the characters, who improvise and create their own renditions of freedom. This collection of stories explores our relationship to art, history, and looks at how everyday events, personal and political, never cease to leave us off balance.
“Walking Stick Fires”
On All Hallows’ Eve Eve, Parka sat on his motorcycle in the unending desert. The moon was a low-hanging fruit. The blue fires of Casino were off in the far distance to the north. Parka pulled an apple out of his jacket pocket, cut it in half with his claw, and offered one half to his fellow traveler Jar.
“The apple has a pleasing scent,” Jar said before he ate it, crushing the apple into pulp with his mandibles.
“I would have to agree,” Parka said.
“Where did you procure it?”
“In a house outside of Casino.” He indicated the blazing pyramids and monoliths with his claw. “Two days ago. I forgot I had it. There it was, sitting on a kitchen table. Red and perfect.” When he finished eating the apple, Parka brushed off a posse of stick insects that landed on his shoulders.
“Hey, cool, walking sticks,” Jar said, brushing them off Parka’s jacket.
“Is that what the locals call them? I just don’t know where these bugs come from,” Parka said.
“They are everywhere,” Jar said, cleaning his mandibles with his fingers afterward.
Parka watched the walking sticks rattle on the hard desert ground.
“All right,” Parka said, kicking his motorcycle to life. The reactors shot into clutch for a second and then hummed. Jar followed with his. “Santa Fey then?”
“They are expecting us.”
Parka patted his satchel, the one containing the Amulet of Ruby Webs, which he had extracted from Casino at great cost.
“Yes they are. I do not expect traffic. Nor to encounter those we disposed of.”
Parka was thinking of the Worm-Hares.
“Not under the mountains.”
Parka leaned forward and his bike shot forward. Jar soon followed. After they broke the sound barrier, Parka put on his headphones. He liked Toby Keith.
In the great tunnel underneath the mountains, they stopped at a rest stop. They hydrated and Jar sulfurized his joints. There were a couple of other travelers at the rest stop. Others sped by on their motorcycles and flaming chariots. Every once in a while there would be a rumbling sound that would shake the wire grating of the low roof and send dust to the ground. Once there was a low growl far above, like a brane gun backfiring.
“What’s that?” Jar asked once.
“Taos,” Parka said, not looking up from his hammock and his well-thumbed copy of The Toby Keith Review.
“Ah,” Jar said, going back to his sour acupuncture.
The human child who was indentured to the rest stop looked up from his abacus. He had a name tag that said SHARON. “They’ve been going like that for a fortnight. The Black Rooster Company is finally yielding their fortress against the Azalean Gullet.”
But the two couriers ignored him. Blushing, the child went back to his figures.
“Say,” Parka said, “what are you going to be for All Hallows’ Eve?”
Jar pulled the needle from his spine and blew on the tip. “I was thinking Jack Nicklaus.”
“Really? I love As Good as It Gets! ”
Three of Jar’s eyelids quivered, a sign of confusion and then mild amusement. “No, not the actor. The golfer.”
Parka raised his eyebrows. “Really? Do you golf?”
Jar shrugged. “Who are you going to be?”
“Dwight D. Eisenhower,” Parka said without any hesitation.
“Really? I love World War II!” It took Parka a few seconds to realize Jar was being a sarcastic mimic.
“But seriously,” Jar said, perhaps sensing Parka’s exasperation. “I would have sworn that you’d be one of the indigenous musicians.” Jar pointed at the cover of The Toby Keith Review, in which Toby was performing in his moon-slave cage for various Being seneschals.
“I’m not quite so easily typecast, friend,” Parka said. “Not quite so easily in one box or another. I have a lot of interests.”
“Uh-huh,” Jar said.
“Anyway,” Parka said, wanting to change the subject a bit, “it won’t matter if we can’t make Santa Fey by tomorrow.”
“Ha ha,” Jar said. “Don’t worry. We’re in the slow season. We’re deep underground. The winds of war are incapable of blowing upon our faces.”
“I am not quite so sanguine,” Parka said, closing his magazine and hopping off the hammock. “We should go.”
“So soon?” Jar said. “I still need to sanitize my needles.” He held a glinting needle out. The tip wavered.
Parka was going to say something clever and lewd but the sound of an approaching caravan drowned out any coherent thought. Three motorcycles and a black Camaro. They were slowing down and resting at the rest stop.
“Hey. Jar,” Parka shouted, before the caravan stopped.
Jar looked over. It was a caravan of Casino dwellers, all Worm-Hares.
“Ugh,” Parka said. “Like I said, let’s go.”
“Hey!” the prime Worm-Hare said, slithering out of the Camaro. It was too late. “Hey!”
“What?” Parka called out.
The other Worm-Hares had hopped off their motorcycles and were massing together. The prime pointed at the Amulet of Ruby Webs that was half-hidden in Jar’s satchel. “I believe you have something of ours!” he said.
“It’s not yours anymore,” Jar said. “So you should have said, ‘I believe you have something of yours!’”
Parka had to shake his head at this. Even in danger, he had trouble not to break out laughing. This, at least, gave them a couple of seconds while the Worm-Hares tried to parse this out.
“The Amulet of Ruby Webs is a sacred symbol for our community through many generations and systems,” the prime said.
“Well, it’s your fucking fault you brought it down from orbit then.”
The prime paused. The other Worm-Hares were getting antsy, stroking their floppy ears with their tentacles. They likely surmised that Parka and Jar would be difficult to slay in close-quarters combat. Or perhaps they were worried about damaging the Amulet.
“How about we race for it?” the prime said brightly.
“No, you can’t have a good race in the tunnel and you know that,” Parka said. “Hm, I will kickbox you for it though.”
All of the Worm-Hares laughed as one. “Seriously?” the prime said. “Um, okay. Sure.”
“Great. If I win you’ll have to leave us alone. And…” Parka thought about it. “Give up driving your Camaro for a year. No, wait, you’ll have to give it to him.” He pointed to the human child. “Aw yeah, that’s right. Are you ready?”
The prime nodded and smiled, but then grew grim. “But, listen. Hey. I’m being serious here. Whatever you do, do not—do not—touch the red button on the center of the amulet. Okay?”
“Yeah, don’t worry,” Parka said dismissively. “I’m no amateurish idiot.
“Fair enough,” the prime said. “I am going to enjoy kicking your ass.” The residents of Casino were known for their kickboxing prowess, and the Worm-Hares learned such local arts after they followed the Beings down to the surface.
“You sure?” Jar said to Parka, putting his hand on Parka’s shoulder as he was doing stretches.
“Not really,” Parka said. “But, this is the only way they’ll stay off our ass. So we can make it to Hallows’ Eve.”
Jar nodded. “Right. Hey, look at that kid’s face.”
Parka looked over. It was beginning to fill with walking sticks. Circling the neck, darting down the cheeks. The child was fearful, but was unable to brush the insects off, because of the chains.
“What is with that?” Parka said, as he stepped into the makeshift kickboxing ring, an enclosure of the Worm-Hares’ motorcycles. “Seriously, do any of you know what is going on with those insects?” He pointed to the human. None of the Worm-Hares paid Parka any mind. The prime took off his leather jacket and Parka did the same. Then the Worm-Hares—and Jar too, for that matter—counted down to ten and the kickboxing match began.
Parka then entered a trance-like state, without his consent or volition. When he snapped out of it, the prime Worm-Hare was sprawled on the asphalt, his head twisted backward, tentacles twitching here and there.
“Wow,” Jar said. “What happened?”
“I have no idea,” Parka said. “What did happen?”
“He tried to kick your face, but you spun away. Then you kicked his face.”
“Oh.” Parka felt a few of the walking sticks scurry and drop off his shoulders, which felt sore. He didn’t realize that they had landed on him. The other Worm-Hares were motionless and scared.
As Parka and Jar drove away, they noticed that the human child’s body was entirely covered in the walking sticks. Parka tried to make eye contact, as a way of saying, Hey, the Camaro’s yours, I hope you get to drive it someday, but there were no eyes visible to connect with.
A few hours later in the tunnel, they had to stop again. Flashing lights and a tall human woman wearing a sandwich board.
“Bypass,” the woman said.
“Oh, fuck me,” Parka said.
“Cave-in,” the woman elaborated. She also had a name tag that said SHARON. “You’ll have to go to the surface.”
“You think?” Parka said.
“Hey, she’s just doing her job,” Jar said.
“I know that, Jar,” Parka said. “And don’t lecture me, like I’m some kind of phobe. I mean, I’m the one who gave a Camaro to a human child. I’m a friend of these people, believe me.”
“Whatever you say,” Jar muttered.
“Fuck,” Parka said, trying to focus. “Let’s see, we’re about three hours away from Santa Fey by the tunnel. But who knows now. Is it hot up on the surface?”
The woman was about to say something, but she was drowned out by a quaking roar from above, and then a series of blossoming explosions.
“Well, I guess that answers your question,” Jar said.
“Okay,” Parka said. “I hate this. We’re going to miss Hallows’ Eve.”
“Stop whining,” Jar said. “The Amulet is the important thing, remember? Priorities?”
“I wish I had more apples,” Parka muttered, revving his motorcycle and easing into the detour that the woman directed them to. He meant to ask her about the walking sticks.
Parka’s and Jar’s motorcycles climbed to the surface. The surface was full of bright light, and wispy ash was in the air. The couriers were in the desert foothills. An Old Being was hunkered down, sprawling in the desert. Eagle-falcon drones—it was hard to tell what mercenary company they were attached to—swooped toward, bombed, and soared away from the Being. Parka and Jar stopped and assayed the narrow road ahead, and where the road stopped.
“Ugh,” Parka said. “The Being’s in the way.”
The Being ate mountains. Finishing those, the Being would move to the badlands and mesas. Sparks shot off its slimy, translucent fur as it swept its mammoth pseudopods across sheep farms and little casinos. There were kites on stiff strings protruding from its upper reaches. When the Beings landed on a planet and sucked out the nitrogen, galactic civilizations would follow. After a few years, the Beings would be full, and then calcify, leaving several seedling Beings in its wake, who would then transport themselves to new systems. And then the residue of the Being’s wake could be properly and safely mined. This residue powered the vast interstellar transmutation ships. Until that time, there would be war around the perimeters of the Beings, dozens of mercenary guilds and free companies jostling for position.
“There’s no way we can drive around it?” Jar asked.
“Too many gullies.” Parka put on his telescopic sunglasses and squinted at the Being. “Well, it’s possible to… no.”
“What?” Jar said. “Tell me.”
More ships screamed above them, fast-eagle merlins that carpetbombed a trench right in front of the Being. Prisms trailed in the bombs’ wake. Counterfire from the trench screamed upward.
“We’ll jump over said Being,” Parka said.
Jar started laughing so much that sulfur tears started streaming out of his ducts, splashing upon his upholstery. “Whither the ramp, friend, whither the ramp?”
“What, you can’t do a wheelie?”
“No… I’ve—I’ve never tried.”
“And where did you learn to ride again?”
Jar paused. “On the ship.”
“Fuck, no wonder. You have to learn on the surface. I learned in Tennessee, before its flattening. Everyone wheelied. Well, anyway, it’s easy. You just have to utilize the booster with the correct timing. You want to practice?”
“No, I’ll watch you first.”
“Are you scared?”
Parka leaned forward and put a claw on Jar’s carapace. “Well, don’t be. OK, let me make my approach.”
Parka put his motorcycle in reverse about a half a kilometer and considered his approach, licking his lips. Jar crossed his arms and looked back and forth from the Being to Parka. The Being began humming, with resonances of local accordion noises. Parka leaned forward, kicked his motorcycle on, and then roared forward, shooting past Jar in an instant. Then Jar turned on his motorcycle as well, and revved, and soon enough was a few lengths behind Parka.
“No, Jar!” Parka shouted, looking behind him. But there was no way for Jar to hear him, both traveling at the speed of sound. The Being was before him. Through its diaphanous surface, Parka could see about a thousand humans, and also four hundred birds of various types, five herds of cattle, a parking lot of used cars, several giant tractors, many boulders/reprocessed mountains, broken casinos and a few off-worlders who were too stupid to get out of the way.
Parka hunkered down and wheelied and hit the booster. He soared, gaining clearance by a few meters over the Being. There were white kites protruding from the gelatanious skin of the Being, the kites’ strings puncturing the surface and spooled far below. The eagle-falcons’ bombs had accidentally scarred the Being in many places, but they weren’t able to break through the surface.
When the booster gave out, Parka held out his arms and leaned forward, just clearing the Being. He skidded to a halt and spun the motorcycle around, watching Jar.
Jar had accelerated too late, and he seemed to hang over the Being, suspended like one of the eagle-falcons.
Jar gave a thumbs up sign.
Then one of the kites snapped to life and whipped at one of his legs, and the thread tangled around the limb. Jar careened forward and separated from his cycle, which slammed against the surface of the Being’s skin—the booster still on—and ricocheted upward. With the booster still going at full capacity, the motorcycle slammed into the wings of one of the low-flying fast-eagle merlins that was overhead. The eagle-merlin spiralled out of control and careened into the side of a mesa about ten kilometers away. Parka felt the back blast as he watched Jar try to pull at the kite string, tearing at the ashy paper. But the thread held. He landed, almost gently, on top of the Being. He tried to stand up, but in a few seconds he was beginning to sink into the Being.
“Jar!” Parka shouted. “Hang on!”
“Sorry,” Jar shouted back, his legs already consumed. He looked down. “There’s some serious alternate reality shit going on in there,” he said.
“Keep fighting!” Parka said, but he knew it was hopeless.
Jar held up all of his arms and slid into the Being.
Parka hunched over his motorcycle, his head sinking between the handlebars. About a dozen walking sticks landed in his fur. He ran his claw over the hair, scooping them up and eating them. They tasted like Fritos.
“Nasty,” he said, spitting them out.
“Walking Stick Fires” from Tyrannia and Other Renditions © Alan DeNiro, 2013