“Take it apart,” Bombi nearly whispered as she stared deep into the device. She didn’t have the slightest clue what she looked at, but she did feel a deep twinge, an animal urge to curl up inside it and keep warm by its ceaseless electrical knowledge. “As far as I’ve seen, speed running is the process of taking apart the world. Why should we treat this thing any differently?”
“That’s the soundest logic we’re likely to get at the moment,” Chagrinn admitted. “You may want to sit. This could take me a while, especially if I want to avoid blowing off our limbs.” Bombi looked back at the chain-wrapped chairs and said she would rather stand. What she actually meant was pace, because that’s what she did for three hours as Chagrinn carefully pried all the remaining tiles off the surface of the tool.
Tlick! The last one popped off. Bombi rushed over from the corner of the room, where she’d been examining a suspicious spot on the wall, and wrapped her hands around the edge of the bench. Chagrinn dropped the implements he’d used, as if a royal guard had walked in and found him holding lock picking tools.
The light wrapped around the tool’s core unfurled. It grew upward and spread out, taking the shape of a tree about three feet high. Its branches grew wider and wider until Bombi and Chagrinn were under them like an umbrella. Despite the structure’s size it looked like the mightiest tree they had ever seen. Its roots had failed to spread; they stayed wrapped around the tool’s core, but the trunk had the presence of iron. It was made of light, but the unwillingness of the air to pass through it made it seem heavy enough to crush them.
“It’s the traveling tree,” Chagrinn whispered under its brightness. Tiny lights like fireflies spiraled around its branches and flew between them. A few descended to their level and examined the darkest folds in their clothes.
“A creation story Bombi. A traveling seed came to this world when it was just stone. Its roots spread with such power that they cleaved the stone into soil. This isn’t that tree exactly… it’s too small, but it’s a representation of that tree. Perhaps the core has an actual piece of it inside.”
“How does a tree know everything about the lands of Shook and Cain?”
“It makes a certain sort of sense. Its roots touched every bit of material the world has ever had. It broke them down so they could be built back up by the future races. The tree has touched every weakness; it knows which grains of sand can’t hold a connection with the others. The tree itself might have been the ultimate speed runner, if it didn’t need a solid place to take root.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Wait. No it isn’t. We’re back to the point where that thought is ridiculous. I’ve got an actual inkling this time.” He gently tapped the edges of the tool, to see if it elicited a response. The tree did not jiggle. It did not drop a single leaf. Chagrinn snapped his fingers and pointed to the side of the bench opposite him. Bombi moved over to it and leaned back in. Her mentor’s face was half-obscured by the vibrant green trunk of the tree.
“Well, what’s the idea? This waiting is intolerable, and it doesn’t feel very speed runnerish…”
“The tree’s knowledge is rooted around the tool’s core,” he said, ignoring her criticism. “We want it rooted in us. We have to take it out and give it no other choice. Do as I do.” Chagrinn, with only the slightest hesitation, so slight that those who knew nothing of speed running never would’ve seen it, wrapped his right hand around the tree’s trunk. He shuddered and his irises turned a glowing green. He’d left just enough space below his hand for her to grab, so she did, trying to hesitate even less than the more experienced runner.
She saw the entirety of the lands of Shook and Cain, interpreted as a field of stacked books. She saw all its people as punctuation marks, all their staked claims the beginnings and ends of mere sentences. She saw the weakness of the glue in certain places: pages that would fall out with just a kiss of wind. She barely had time to breathe before Chagrinn overwhelmed them both.
He placed his other hand on the base of the tool and pulled up with his right. At first the tree didn’t budge, but its roots stretched and snapped a moment later, spraying light like water. Aside from the roots its body of knowledge was utterly still, even as he hoisted it over his head and took Bombi’s arm up with it. The roots flailed wildly like the arms of an octopus until they found purchase around the wrists of the speed runners.
The light dug into their skin, tapping into their veins and filling them up with things mankind had almost never known. The last few roots snaked into their ears and the corners of their eyes as their weakening arms lowered the tree. Their legs gave out under them and they crashed to the floor, but the tree stayed upright, stayed steady.
The surge of information and energy knocked Bombi unconscious. It was not restful. In her mind she was atop a strange metal object as it hurtled across the borders of the world. Every landmark passed by as a blur, like a smear on a painting that would’ve been famous had the artist not destroyed it in a sudden fit of rage. She tried to stand, but the rushing wind was too much. The object hurtled past all the world… and then through its final boundary.
“Ah!” She woke with a start, rising on her palms. She was amazed to find they were still in Quicky’s workshop. Chagrinn was already on his feet. She looked around for the tree, examining her wrists as well, but saw no trace of it. It wasn’t until she stood that she triggered it. Standing tall was a tree’s version of waking, of spreading its thirsty leaves under the sun, so her full height batted away the last of the fear and confusion from the dream state.
Her face froze, mouth slightly open. Her eyes turned green before all the other colors appeared and swirled together in a pool of endless churning. Her pupil sank into the colors and vanished. She wasn’t looking at the wall or Chagrinn. She wasn’t looking at anything. She simply knew where all of it was, by flawless memory. The bench was next to them. A ladybug was two hundred and seventeen yards to the southwest, feasting on its prey on a fiddlehead. An extraordinarily powerful creature with a crown of antlers battled a team of speed runners deep in the thickest forest of Cain. A lampworm laid its eggs in her uncle’s sunken chest.
Chagrinn knew all of this too. Their plan had worked. There was no way their minds could handle all of the tree, but it handled more than enough for their purposes. What was left behind was useless anyway: the thoughts of the rest of the world’s men and women. Those secrets were petty, wet, explosive pieces of information. Drivel about parentage and rank. Sludge regarding fluttering hearts and blushing cheeks. Crusty rigid mountains of regret. They were glad to avoid such things.
She was only vaguely aware that the two of them were levitating now. The power of the knowledge nudged them upwards, encouraged them to transcend the lands of Shook and Cain. Their bodies rose and rose, eliciting no response from either of them. They passed through the roof of the burrow like it was less than air. Higher and higher they went, puncturing the clouds. They reached the end of the sky, the thin black pool where the constellations lived, and kept going.
Life returned to them once they were past the sky. They said nothing to each other, as they both knew exactly what the other was doing. The runners drifted back and forth, curiously observing the things the tree did not know of. The place they were in, the Out-of-Bounds, had more substance than the bottom of the world. They knew the Source was nearby, was all around, but they also saw an incredible mountain range surrounding them.
The peaks were gray and soft, shrouded in mist. These were mountains never intended to be seen. They did not have beauty in the traditional sense; they were not weathered by the carefully measured forces of nature. They were smooth and perfect, textured like silk, and their tips were rounded like fingers. The pooling mist around their bases poured into the sky. They immediately understood it was the source of their clouds, under the roof they used to think was the sky.
The runners looked at each other. They realized, without fear, that they could not speak to each other even if they wanted. Their pupils remained drowned in color. A conversation happened between them as nothing more than instant predictions of the other’s state of mind.
We can finish our run.
We can finish it in seconds.
There will be no other chance to see this.
Is this better than finishing?
I don’t know.
There’s something nearby. It is not mountains. It moves.
We should investigate.
We can finish after.
They flew past the mountains to a dot in the distance. It grew to its true size: longer and taller than a row of mansions. The structure was flat, rectangular, and composed of alternating panels of flashing colors. Each panel was a solid color, swapping rapidly between green, pink, red, another green, blue, orange, another red…
They stared into the lights for hours, not even caring about the delay to their run. They were still years ahead of the second best. The tree did not know what the world record would bring them, but it could help them figure out the strange colors before them. Here was a sampler, a device holding all the colors for the lands of Shook and Cain. It flashed them, every shade, constantly, to give the Source something to reference as it built pieces of the world.
They felt the Source behind the panel as it tasted the colors, like some tired pastry chef’s assistant forced to lick the spoon free of batter day in and day out. Days passed. Bombi and Chagrinn were outside the world, minds beyond the bothers of hunger and thirst, so they noticed not. Their fascination with the colors grew, even as they committed its countless patterns to memory.
The focus pushed everything human about them further down. Bombi’s thoughts weren’t quite a jumble, no, they were too slow to be called that. The old parts of her, the emotional parts, felt like a confused slug crawling through the crisscrossing trails of ancestral slugs that were nowhere to be seen. She felt like everything she’d ever known was just a footprint. She was a tiny bug living inside that footprint, unable to climb its walls until now, screaming for help that was too big to possibly hear her.
They never did tire of the colors, but they were distracted enough that their bodies drifted away. A few days later they, amidst their thoughts of the colors, realized they could no longer see them. They supposed, in some distant far-off way, that it was a slight problem. They set themselves on a new course, a new wind current too soft to even move feathers. It carried them around the edge of Shook and Cain, showing them other unfinished parts of the world. All the while a thought grew in Bombi’s mind.
(17:4:6:12:11:58.2) Our current time. We could’ve been done. We used to care.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.1) We didn’t just care. It was our reason for living.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.2) Living to stop living. To find new terms.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.3) To tear off the small print of birth, family, and law.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.4) I still hate the world and its makers. I still want to peel them off.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.5) Yet I drift. The tree took us out, but we are still glued.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.6) Still rooted. That’s why we haven’t finished.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.7) Fascinated by the world. Scared of what’s beyond.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.8) Fascinated in order to survive. I am not the tree.
(17:4:6:12:11:59.9) I’m still Bombi. I’m still a speed runner.
(17:4:6:12:12:00.0) A new minute. Fresh start. WR!
Bombi stopped drifting. It took a few tenths of a second for Chagrinn to notice; it was an awfully long time to them now. He stopped as well, but did not turn to her. Their minds ran through their calculations of what the other was thinking.
There’s so much left to see and think.
No there isn’t. It’s all the same. All the Shook and all the Cain.
It’s outside of that.
Yet still part. Flaking carapace of a crab. Useless.
You should not call it useless.
You’re a speed runner Chagrinn. I thought more devoted than any.
I am the ultimate speed runner. I can go in and out as I please.
You wanted to be out permanently.
Do not contradict me.
Are you afraid? You have all the knowledge and now you worry it is nothing beyond?
It is nothing beyond. At best it’s another world. Another panel of colors.
I’d be happy to have the nothing. Substance is pretense.
I don’t care if I’m alone.
Life is an opportunity to suffer.
We don’t suffer anymore.
Perhaps you don’t.
Silently, they parted ways. Bombi found the nearest entrance to the sky and left the gray mists behind. Thanks to the tree she knew exactly where she needed to go to achieve the world record. Speed runners had to finish in the location where they were fated to die by the world. Apparently, Bombi was supposed to die in a barn, at the age of sixty-four, tending to a young woman about to give birth. The barn was supposed to be full of people because of a war that had struck the palatial city. All the servants were being hidden in there like livestock. Bombi was supposed to see a new life, cradle it in her arms, lean up against a stall with the smell of hay in her nose, and die.
Instead she touched down in that barn decades ahead of schedule. Suicide would act as the trigger. She contemplated, among the curious horses and their swishing tails, how she should do it. A hundredth of a second later, she sensed something that interrupted her plans.
It was not something that could be seen by human or horse eyes. Bombi caught a glimpse of the Source behind the world at that moment. She saw one of her opportunities to claim the record. She saw that it wouldn’t work. The reason was simple. The knowledge of the assistant’s tool had come from the traveling tree. The tree knew all of this world, but could not know anything truly beyond it. It forged the world’s ground and so became inseparable. Bombi, fully fused to its mind, could not transcend the lands of Shook and Cain either.
She stood silently, but what was left of her emotions raged inside her. The smells of the barn brought back memories of Timorrow. She saw him rotting at the bottom of Lampworm Bay and it seemed to her that the image was the entire world. As long as her uncle was dead and decaying, then everything was. The elements could not be separated. The traveling tree proved that. Bombi would have to use something wholly immaterial to escape. It would have to be nothing but wits and will.
There was only one way to remove her mind from the knowledge she was steeped in. She had to go back to before they imbibed the knowledge. She could do it there in the barn. If she simply ended her life without taking care to hit certain speed run triggers, she would be reborn as an infant and live her life all over again. If she hit all the triggers the speed run would simply fail. The consequences of that were unclear.
Her mind sorted through every scenario, the tree’s knowledge passively presenting itself even though she sought to tear its roots away from her spirit. If she did, much of it would be lost. Whether or not the assistant’s tool would be restored in the past, she did not know. It didn’t matter though, for it could not be used to finish a speed run. Something about it, something inhuman, blocked it.
Bombi decided she would hit a few of the triggers before ending her own life. That would send her back, but not all the way. She could go back to a time when her face was adorned in sharp silver decorations, but a time where she had not met Chagrinn. She would be her old self fully, and she could sneak away from her employers and family to find her own routes. She could go back to the Gone Basin and strike out on her own.
She touched all the right pieces of straw and took all the right footsteps. She pet the right horse and then two wrong ones, even smirking at their obvious appreciation of the affection. She stood in the right spot in slightly the wrong way. There was no need of a weapon. She could end herself with the right string of world-breaking thoughts thanks to the assistant’s tool. She thought her heart still.
The next run would all her own. All Bombi. No employers, no Chagrinn, and no tree. Simply Bombi and her purpose.