‘World Bottom’ Stratagem
Before Bombi’s mind caught up she was already in the air. Her feet passed straight through the grassy patch while it was simply a patch. It didn’t feel like water, dirt, or even a light breeze. The ground simply didn’t exist beyond what her eyes saw. Nothingness opened up under her, an endless expanse of white space, causing her to yelp and flail for purchase.
It wasn’t ground that caught her, but something like it. She smacked into it, bruises instantly spreading across her knees and one side of her face. In a flash she was back on her feet, judging the stability of the non-ground by stomping about. She looked up. There was the floor of the Anytaur Forest. She could see the network of roots from all the plants and, between them, the undersides of Morphib’s feet. The anytaur was crouched close to the patch, gently pressing his hand against it like he was forcing a lily pad a hair beneath the surface of its pond.
“Bombi? Are you down there?” the anytaur croaked. “I saw it. I saw everything.”
“Yes Morphib, I’m fine!” she shouted in response, but he did not seem to hear. She tried again. “I’m fine! Can you hear me?” I’m outside the world. My words cannot make it back even though they are so close.
“I will assume the best,” the anytaur said. “I cannot hear you, so you made it out. This is where we must part ways, tadpole runner. I need to find another decision, one more suited to me, to test out what you have shown me. Thank you for this. Thank you for everything.” Morphib pressed his slimy fingers against the patch once more, giving her a perfect view of his hand. She tried to jump and touch hers to his, but the distance was too great. Instead she simply held her palm up directly beneath his. At least there’s one other being that has no idea what it’s doing.
Morphib hop-slithered away, back into the canopy of his home forest, and was soon gone from sight. Bombi was completely alone in the bottom of the world, with everything above her and nothing beneath her. The nothingness directly under the world was far from perfect, she soon realized. There was the solidity left to whatever she walked on. It held a few other things that had fallen through during the creaks and groans of the world. Thin streams of dirt poured through in places.
Messages had been written in that dirt, upon the flat clear nothing that held her. There was no telling how long they had been there, for there was no rain, wind, or creatures to disturb them. They didn’t tell much of a story; they were mostly names and handprints. Sometimes there were things written in a tongue far older than the palatial city.
Bombi kept her eyes skyward after examining them, tracking her progress under the tinkertree orchard by following the most orderly plants. The orchard looked organized from above, but she had no idea how perfect it was until she saw the roots from below. These trees did not have roots that curled or spun; they grew outward at four perfect angles, splitting only to run parallel to the roots of the tree next to them. It was like looking at beautiful tilework.
Thoughts of her survival were distant but anxious, like the howl of a feral dog heard in the dead of night. She had no food, but the strangeness of the bottom of the world dominated her mind and body. She had no shelter, but there didn’t appear to be anything to take shelter from down there. There were patches that allowed her to hear what happened above, one more thin barrier breached, but they were infrequent.
She very much wanted to hear the activity of the tinkertrees when she came across them. They were strange little creatures. Bombi had long heard tales of the half-man monsters that lived in the lands of Cain, but the other half was always beast, as with the anytaurs. The tinkertrees were half plant. No, they’re more like… three-quarters plant. Four-fifths even.
Most of them were under four feet tall, though judging their height from under their footsteps was difficult. Their bodies were covered in bark and branches, with the thickest branches roughly lining up as legs and arms, though some had more limbs than any human would be allotted. In place of hair they had bushy bunches of leaves that varied in shape, thickness, and color.
Their eyes were small and bright, only visible as warm pupils between asymmetrical slits in their bark. Once she was in one of their villages proper she found it very easy to get distracted. Night had fallen in the lands of Shook and Cain, but the tinkertrees made their own lights. They turned out to be extremely industrious, many of their trees grown into specific shapes to act as parts of large steam-spewing machines. They had lamps of flowing glass connected to wires that seemed to hold miniature versions of the sun.
Only the most adventurous scholars knew of the tinkertree production and harvesting of electricity, and even then they didn’t understand the logic of the walking shrubs. Machinery was unnatural, originally an invention of man, and how could a tree ever want to be unnatural? Miserable was the maple growing in the heart of a city, burrowing in cobblestones and drinking sewer stench.
Tinkertree industry was its own animal. They used the strengths of both nature and science to create a harmony, leaving behind little more than heat and steam. Their main purpose was to fill their nights with artifices of light. The sun gave to them during the day, but night was a frightening time for the trees and plants of the world. There was always an instinctual uncertainty that the sun would return. There was always hunger at night, but not in the tinkertree orchard. They kept it bright; they kept the air buzzing with tiny hot filaments. This allowed them to celebrate, to drink their own accomplishments, and to be festive all night and all day long, even while they worked.
Bombi wanted to celebrate with them. They would never know she was there, so what was the harm? She would be as a ghost, dancing along with her descendants as they celebrated a birthday or a wedding unaware of how deep the traditions actually went. She found ten of them dancing in a circle, vine fingers entwined, heads shaking and dropping leaves that had gone purple, orange, red, or yellow. She put herself under the circle’s center and spun around, the near-frictionless surface of the bottom of the world letting the spin go on for an age.
Eventually she stumbled out, dizzy and giddy, and found her way beneath a feast. The tinkertrees did not eat in a traditional manner, their only sustenance was water and light, but it didn’t stop Bombi from suddenly feeling the hunger and thirst her body had suppressed in its mad dash across her life.
There were three big lamp-bulbs, their wires wrapped around high branches a hundred times in tight coils, hanging low enough for their makers to grab. Vine fingers crawled across the surface of the glass like the arms of sea stars, quivering whenever the flavor of the light became too intense. They dipped their feet in glass buckets of water, each clearly marked with a patterned metal rim to inform them of its source. They drank deeply of Shook rainwater, ice-melt from Polabu tundra, and the shadowy flow of cave rivers. Bombi watched the ripples from below and reached her hand out once more.
She had successfully made a decision, or convinced something to make it, but now she felt it was the wrong one. All that joy, all that stability, all that warmth, was so close, yet she couldn’t lay a hand on it. She couldn’t even feel the light on her cheeks. Do they know anything of speed runners? I imagine not. They have everything they need up there. It all looks so efficient as well. There probably isn’t a crack or weak spot anywhere for us to exploit. They’ve built something as close to perfection as they could out of what they were given.
It is now my lot in life to be unsatisfied with wat I have been given. I must find my way out of here. I must find… Bombi’s face ran straight into something. She nearly fell over, but ended up stumbling backward and wiping the stuff of the collision from her eyes. There was nothing blocking her vision, but she could feel the grit regardless. Her eyes produced tears to help expel it.
Once her eyes were clear she followed the crumbling sound back to the point of impact. There was nothing there, but she could hear it dropping grains in front of her. Her hand confirmed its existence: soil. There was a block of invisible soil hovering in front of her. The smell of it was in her nose. The Source. This had to be part of the Source that was meant to eventually become dirt. It was down there, in the bottom of the world, just waiting for its chance to rise and become an official participant.
She noticed something in the distance, just past the borders of the Tinkertree festivities above. There were more objects hovering about, but this time they were visible and arranged into neat rows. The young runner approached them cautiously, hands out so she could find any invisible soil with them rather than her eyes and lips.
Bombi reached the objects and walked between two rows of them. They were carrots and onions of various colors and shape: orange, yellow, blue, purple, green, white… Some of them even had lovely swirls of color. One touch confirmed they were rooted sideways in walls of more invisible soil. Their roots moved outward in trickling webs, their entire support structure visible to her. In places a thin skin of actual soil, likely having dripped out of the world at some point, was spread near their leafy heads to make the wall visible.
This was a farm, nearly as organized as anything the tinkertrees had above. Somebody lived down there. If there was a way out of the bottom, they would likely know it. Bombi kept going, working her way deeper into the maze of vegetables and invisible walls. The produce grew larger. There were pumpkins now, growing in a curved trench that mostly wasn’t there. I have to be getting close to their home. They plant all the big stuff closer so they don’t have to roll it as far.
Her idea proved correct. She rounded the most opaque corner, the one most obscured by spread dirt and the big fanning leaves of monster-garlic, and found a cozy little house. At first she thought it had a chimney, but a moment later she realized it was just a knobby column of wood that rose all the way up, eventually connecting as a root to one of the trees just outside the tinkertree village.
There were no seams. The root-chimney connected to the roof, which was a series of woody bumps rather than tiles or boards. The roof connected to the flowing walls. Pieces of the house grew beneath it as roots of its own. The only thing separate was the door, which was on traditional metal hinges. Bombi stopped in front of it. She couldn’t hear anything inside. There were no clothes hung out to dry, no tools left in the yard. Was it recently abandoned? There was but one way to find out.
She tensed up after the knock. Whoever they were they had to be a runner. Nobody else knew about the bottom of the world. At first there was no response, so she knocked again. Someone moved inside. A cautious footstep. Then another. They stood right on the other side of the door. The knob turned. It creaked open, with Bombi taking one step back and holding her hands in front of her to avoid startling them.
Really, they were both quite shocked. The young man behind the door almost never had visitors. When he did they were merely runners or world-abandoners. They never cared about the details of his life, only whether or not his charity and food stores extended to them. He was fair-skinned, with thin eyebrows, green eyes, and slightly crooked teeth that were barely noticeable thanks to the angle at which he kept his head cocked.
Bombi didn’t immediately realize why she was so surprised. There was a house, so of course someone had built it. Then it struck her. This person looked alive. Not in the sense of heartbeats and high body temperatures. He was alive in the way of most denizens of the Lands of Shook and Cain. He thought about his daily routine, he fantasized about the future, and he had a full suite of emotions visible across his face. He wasn’t a pared down tactical creature like a veteran speed runner. He was just a young man with a cozy home.
“Hello,” he offered eventually. Bombi took a step back… and then a step forward. Indecision rarely took her words from her, but at the moment it ravaged her nerves. “How did you get down here? Are you lost?”
“Lost…” she repeated. “Lost implies I have a path to get back to. The world is a sea to me now, and I am simply adrift.”
“Some sort of speed runner then,” he muttered with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t give away food if that’s what you’re after. If you’re hungry you can go and die up there, then ask your mother for her breast when your track is freshened up.” He moved to close the door.
“Bombi!” she yipped. His head peeked back out. “My name is Bombi. I was taken as a speed runner’s apprentice not long ago. He abandoned me for ending a cruel exploit. I am in need of help, but I just need to know how to get back to… up there.” She pointed. A squirrel buried an acorn directly above them.
“Alright Bombi. Would you like to come inside?” He stepped back and made a welcoming gesture. Bombi bowed, because she didn’t know what else to do, and shuffled inside. There was a carpet of moss across the entire floor. Miniature trees grew out of the shelves as if they were ordinary houseplants.
The cabin was just one room with a bed, a few shelves and cabinets, and a storage chest. She deduced there had to be a fire pit for cooking and a washbasin somewhere outside. She glanced at him and confirmed that he certainly looked like he’d bathed in the last few weeks. When he stared back she averted her eyes swiftly.
“This is a lovely home,” she offered. There were no chairs. If she was going to sit, there was just the bed. “How did you wind up in the bottom of the world? Did you used to be a runner?”
“No,” he said. There was a moment where he looked at the ceiling, with his hands on his hips. “My name is Thinnis. My mother was a speed runner. My father was an NPC.”
“You’re… a speed babe,” Bombi said, recalling Chagrinn’s story about the woman Marline and her litter of duplicated children.
“Yes. I was never supposed to be, according to the world above. If I so much as step foot up there… nasty things start looking my way. Bears. Arrows loosed, seemingly from nowhere. Lightning strikes. The world tries to burn or freeze me away like a wart.”
“So you stay down here where it can’t get to you? Are you alone? Your parents?”
“My mother slept with my father to gain access to part of his route in life. I was merely the resulting dead weight. My father once told me that she used to curse me while I was still in the womb.”
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry. I too had parental… concerns.”
“Did yours drop you into a hole when you were five and leave you there forever?” he asked.
“No. They welcomed me into the world, but it was a world of slavery. I never understood how they had any smiles in them, how they could pretend what they did to me by birthing me wasn’t cruel. I was a walking ghost, just solid enough in the hands to carry clothes and wash dishes.”
“I see why you jumped at the chance to be a speed runner then.” He looked at her and then at the bed. Does he want me to sit down? “You said you were abandoned. I take it you’ve realized the runners are just as callous, in their own way.”
“Yes. I had a sense of it from the beginning; he didn’t lie to me about his selfishness. All he promised was an escape from the world and a chance to become something more than just another bag of breaths attached to various pieces of paper with very small typeset. I don’t regret leaving.”
Thinnis thought about her answer for a moment. He walked forward, gently nudged her away from the bed, and then crawled under it. Out came a bucket, two shovels, and two pairs of thick gloves. He handed her a pair and a shovel, then started putting on his own. He put on a pair of boots as well.
“Come on,” he said, beckoning out the door. Bombi followed, shovel and bucket in hand. He took her behind the house, into the midst of four circular discs of invisible dirt, each one teeming with its own crop. He began to harvest some golden potatoes. “You need a hard day’s work. This isn’t chores and this isn’t skipping chores. It’s just work. It’s the real world. You deserve a taste of it.”
Bombi smiled and took one of the discs for herself. Halfway through pulling her first onion she remembered her duplication ring. She could give him a bounty in seconds. They could sleep on beds of potatoes and onions if they wanted, but she immediately understood he would not care for it. The ring was for running. He promised something slow, arduous, and, at the end of the day, all the more delicious for it. Bombi worked alongside him. The light from the tinkertrees above never died, but they felt it once a day of work was done.
When they got back inside they had to collapse from their efforts, and there was but one bed to collapse onto. They held each other, wordless, sweating, and fully aware of what they’d just done. In one day they’d melded their lives. Bombi kissed Thinnis, knocking a bucket of onions onto the floor and sending them rolling. It would be a lovely place to live away from the world, and they would live there for decades.