Ode to the Pioneer

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The sun dips below the waves opposite a rising moon, slipping the world into darkness. Stars stream across the purple sky. Fires flicker on every island, a crude mirror of their celestial cousins. And what are people, but earthbound stars? New constellations form wherever they set foot, their fires and torches telling stories that would put the Greeks to shame.

The Warp was the catalyst for these stories, wrenching people from their normal lives into an unfamiliar land. They all arrived scared, disoriented, and empty-handed. But they would soon find that their shared ancestry of struggling through the wild was not buried as deep as they had imagined.

They made fire from twigs. From pebbles, blades. Reed stalks became ropes, binding still more pieces into tools. Simple leaves were woven into new canopies atop makeshift branch frames. These tents made even the coldest morning air into a gentle kiss. Firewood, soaked in flames, was burnt to embers, unlocking rich fragrances from the fruits and meat that sizzled above.

But humans are natural born explorers, and even this island paradise could not content them. Rafts drifted out to sea, oar to water and sail to sky, like seeds on the wind. Sailors navigated by twisting cloud and arcing star. The sunset burned the heavens a thrilling red as anchors found purchase on a new coast. With every billowing sail were found new worlds to explore.

Foreign lands bore foreign fruits, yielding knowledge and experience unique to every island. Fur-padded clothes protected against frigid tundra while the same attire was ventilated to fight the desert heat. Never before seen plants had their roots ground to medicine, their seeds harvested and sown until their stalks erupted from man-made fields. Chunks of exotic meat were cooked in pots boiling over with aromatic foam, or else were laid alongside pelts from the same beast to dry on racks. Other animals came to know humans as their friends and masters, sharing food at the fireside rather than becoming the main dish.

But not everything on Durango was new. Pioneers brought with them lessons from their old home, memories of plants and animals brought to extinction. They understood that simple survival was one thing. But to thrive in harmony with the world around them? That was another. That was a goal worthy of pursuit, a goal they carried with them as they spread new life from island to island.

Foot prints became roads. Tents became houses and trading posts became markets. The immediate needs of survival met, explorers colored life with art and music at every corner. The brave raised their banners, drawing others to their cause and spreading their flags across Durango. The people took their first step; and though this world may be cruel, though it may be hostile, they will not rest until they find an answer.

This is your story. You are the pioneers of the wild lands of Durango. You dared to explore, to dream, and became true trailblazers in this unfamiliar land. The people that follow you will be forever indebted to your pioneer spirit. However many boats follow, whatever new islands are discovered, this fact will never change.

Thank you for sharing these beautiful moments.

Durango: A Strange Woman for a Strange Place

Life is precious.

The creature’s breath came in ragged gasps, the rhythmic rise and fall of its chest slowing with my approach. Two arrow shafts stuck from its side. I had aimed for the heart, but the shuddering breath told me I had hit the lungs. No matter. I drew the spear from my back, locking eyes with the beast as I pressed the blade into its neck. Its final breath shivered away, the light in its eyes dimming along with it.

Life is precious… when we decide it is.

Although it took Durango to make me understand this simple truth, it applies just as much to Earth. If there’s something to gain, snuffing out a few lives for it is incidental at best.

Don’t believe me? Fair Enough. But I have a simple question to ask: do you like eggs?

Then consider battery chickens back on Earth. These pitiful creatures are stuffed by the dozen into a cage the size of a phonebook, never once knowing the warmth of sunlight felt by their free-range cousins. I don’t think anybody can argue it’s humane… but nobody can argue that it isn’t quick, easy, and  cost-efficient. “You have to crack a few eggs,” after all.

And there you have it. It was, still is, and forever will all be part of an inevitable cycle of life: somebody must suffer for another to gain. Even worse, sometimes another must suffer simply to prevent your own suffering.

I once came across a fat businessman sprawled out in a field. A wrong step into a ditch had left him with a broken leg. He told me he was an accountant, or had been; not that any of that mattered here anyway. He also told me that if I helped him, he’d get me anything I wanted.

I suppose the humane thing to do would have been to bring him to my bonfire, cook him stew, and patch him up. But instead I wondered of how much energy I’d have to spend just dragging his massive bulk across the snow. Then I thought of the food it would take to nurse him back to health, the precious hours lost foraging and hunting in the dead of winter. And what if he made it? I didn’t know this man. Might he turn on me? Would he shatter my leg, leaving me incapacitated in the same field, waiting for some fresh sucker to decide my fate?

So I left him there. It wasn’t worth it.

I could hear him yelling from where I slept, regretting only that I hadn’t given him a merciful death. But his voice grew hoarse as the cold night air came in, fading as the hours passed. I finally dozed off to silence.

I didn’t return to the area until a few days later. I had been following the tiny foot prints of a pack of diminutive dinosaurs, keen on either scavenging their prey or making a meal of them. Imagine my surprise when they brought me to the same field as before, including the same accountant… minus several pounds. The little beasts had just about stripped the man of every inch of flesh. All that remained was a clean skeleton in a suit, more reminiscent of a Halloween prop than the person I saw before. I know I should have felt pity, or perhaps remorse… but I could only think that at least now he was light enough for somebody to bother dragging him into a grave. Not me, of course… but somebody.

Some things just aren’t fair in life.

That one’s also as true in Durango as it was back home. The accountant had a stroke of bad luck– so what? There are plenty of people on Earth who have to worry about getting hit by stray bullets whilst walking home, whereas residents two counties over trouble themselves over whether or not they should get dessert. Could you really expect both places to share the same moral quandaries?

I once belonged to the latter group. My happiness hinged on the contents of my dinner. My favorite shrimp salad? Pure bliss. Some greasy burger at the last joint open after a long day? Somebody was going to pay.

Never mind that the money I spent on either meal could have fed a homeless man for a week. You trudge on through life, vision tunneling as you’re forced to rely on the most mundane items to keep you going. The outside world be damned, so long as I was content. Things were going well. I was due for a promotion, my blood pressure was down for the first time in a decade…

…Then my plane was swallowed by light.

It started with some turbulence. Harmless, I thought. Then the seats began to shake, the tremor rocking us so suddenly that whole rows popped free from the fuselage. Luggage exploded from overhead bins. Bags and passengers tossed around like the hand of God himself was shaking the plane by its tail. I regretted the time I’d wasted. Now I would never be given the chance to grow old… I could taste my tears as the streamed down my aching cheeks and between my clenched teeth.

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My acclimation to Durango came gradually. At first, I just was grateful to have survived the crash. I kissed the ground like some holy man on a pilgrimage, clutching at the dirt, sobbing. I even adjusted alright to the wildlife here. Raw mammoth was a delicacy after not eating for three days. I thought a simple life living in harmony with nature wouldn’t be so bad.

It wasn’t until I was beaten half to death by a group of hunters for scavenging from their kill that I learned the true nature of life on Durango.

The taste of blood was a much-needed reminder of how violent my reality had become. I wailed and cursed in denial, thrashing in an impotent rage. But the truth before me never faltered. Durango was my life now.

So I got with the program. Live and let die.

I can still recall the face of the first thief whose hands I had to chop off. That I ever let it haunt me just embarrasses me now. Every transgression, every death stacks upon the other until you don’t feel anything at all.

Sometimes life is more precious when another has to suffer; that much is true. But when it’s your turn to hurt, you best believe you’ll run as far as you can to avoid paying the price. Life is precious? Please. MY life is precious. I just miss living in a world where I could take it for granted.

But as with every rule, there are exceptions to this selfishness. They exist, however rare, standing in stark contradiction to what every practical fiber of your being tells you is true. They tell you there’s another way when you know that path ends in ruin, forcing you to consider the impossible.

At least, that’s what the woman did.

I’ve come across many different people in my life here, but none like her. Strange doesn’t begin to describe her… in fact, I can find few words that would. Not that she ever struggled for words herself.

“Saying there’s no other way doesn’t make it so.”

How can she make it so simple? Imagine explaining your life philosophy, the mindset that pushed you through the hardest struggles of your existence, only to have it torn down in a single sentence. I wanted to should at her, to lash out, to ask what she could possibly know about my life… But she was holding a gun, and all I could hold was my tongue.

I’ll never forget that night. I was out hunting beneath the stars. Dangerous, maybe; but if you can trick your prey into thinking they’re hunting you, it simplifies things. The night sky of Durango is also something to behold. There are no city lights to dull the stars, no planes to rob them of their splendor. Beyond being easy on the eyes, they’re also vital for navigation. And not in just the “which way is north?” sense—tunnels of light precede each Warp, giving you plenty of time to plan your next move.

When the light opened up above me, my next move was to run.

Plenty of people chase the Warps. Commodities from Earth are scarce and even basic scrap metal can be salvaged into something useful. But you can never tell exactly what’s going to pop out. I knew one Warp-chaser who was always set on being the first one onsite. Lost touch with the guy for a few months before I finally ran into him… or his boots, at least, from where they stuck out from under a bus. Guess some people are just plain out of luck. I did stop to give him a moment of silence. I’m not a complete monster. But I didn’t waste much more than a few seconds before I got to looting. The haul was so good that I’ve been chasing Warps ever since.

This particular tunnel did not disappoint either: it brought in a whole damn plane. The pilot had somehow managed to reduce the plane’s speed and soften the crash, but that didn’t stop an enormous fireball from lighting up half the island when it hit. I became suddenly aware of the faces and bodies of other pioneers lit up by the fire, all of us drawn to the growing plume of smoke. We turned to regard one another in silence. My heart was racing as I unsheathed my sword and sprinted toward the wreckage.

I used my blade to push aside the dangling, limp feet of the unlucky passengers who had been thrown from the plane into the trees. They provided a macabre frame to an equally unnerving scene. The front of the plane had taken the brunt of the impact, leaving most of the body unscathed. One wing burned steadily. With the cargo all but crushed in the “landing,” I turned to my secondary concern: survivors.

The pilot and copilot had certainly died, but their final efforts had somehow spared the lives of most of their crew and passengers. Many were still buckled in, their unconscious forms limp despite the licking flames. Others were awake in their seats and all too aware of the approaching doom. The crew scrambled to help and restore order, but there were just too many people and not enough time. Knowing a lost cause when I saw one, I started to turn away.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

And there she was, standing right behind me.

A supernatural calm surrounded her. She seemed comfortable in the chaos; not that it nourished her, but that it was her element. I’ve never seen somebody stand with such purpose… and yet I couldn’t figure out what role she filled in Durango. Hunter, farmer, explorer…nothing fit. I tried to not show how unsettled I was, moving to push past her.

“I’m leaving. Get out of my way.”

I wasn’t much of a fighter on Earth, but Durango had bloodied my hands. Size, strength… I’d overcome that, and more, in the name of survival. Despite all that, this woman showed no fear of my blade. My stomach twisted in knots.

“You followed the Warp. You see there are lives here that can be saved, and yet you’re planning on leaving?”

Was she serious? I could hear the cabin crew in the background giving firm reassurances to the passengers that a rescue team would be here soon. To me, that was the exactly the kind of innocence that got you killed. None of them had a clue as to the hardships that lay ahead of them, and I wouldn’t be the one to babysit them. Besides, my life was too precious to wait around and see what dinosaurs showed up to pick off the survivors.

“You think these people have a chance? There’s obviously no rescue crew coming, and they need to find that out the hard way. You want to save a life? Save your own. That’s the way of things here.”

“Saying there’s no other way doesn’t make it so.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I raised my sword… as she raised her gun.

“You value your life, right? That’s what makes you endure? Then it’s time to earn your right to keep it. You say there is no help coming… wrong. You are the rescue crew.”

It’s funny how being held at gunpoint can make you see the world in a whole different light. I had fought to the death over scraps of food, been hunted by enormous creatures capable of tearing me apart in a second… and yet the biggest threat I would face was a woman who would put me down in a second for not lending a helping hand. It suddenly seemed she had a valid point.

A single shot in the air. That’s all it took to gain not only the attention of every soul there, but their obedience. Those who came in search of scrap turned into rescue workers, while the plane’s crew took advantage of the confusion and gained control over their hysterical passengers. We managed to save almost everyone still trapped in the plane, using the flame’s once deadly fires to then warm the injured.

The dinosaurs soon came, drawn by the scent of blood just like I thought they would be; but the only thing they ended up eating was bullets from the woman’s gun. Turns out there was a damn good reason she looked so comfortable with that weapon. I’m not sure what was more remarkable: her humanity, or her aim.

The woman approached me once everything settled. She sat close and laid a package of food on my lap. I was hungry, so I ate.

“Thanks for showing me a bit of your compassion. Perhaps you won’t be so slow to show it in the future. Never forget that it’s what makes you human. It’s what makes you precious.”

I wanted to ask if she was being sarcastic, but I already had enough of being held at gunpoint for one day.

The threat of violence can make you forget who you are. If nothing else, it has reminded me how important my life is to me. I suppose my opinion hasn’t really changed… though I also admit I think twice about turning my back on those in need.

Later that morning I was helping survivors pull the bodies of the deceased off the plane when the woman rode over to us on her motorcycle. She removed her helmet, addressing us with a look of satisfaction.

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“I’m K, by the way… Strange name, right? Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be seeing you all later. Take care.”

If you ask me, her name was the least strange thing about her.

Durango: A Tale of the First Generation

 

#1

I thought it was just a storm… how wrong I was.

The flash came without warning and lit up the entire sky. Our boat rocked violently, back and forth, scattering us across the deck and threatening to cast us into the dark waters of the churning ocean. The last thing I remember is desperately threading my arms through the rigging that secured our containers. I only awoke when the tumult was through; not a man among us had stayed conscious the entire time. Our onboard clocks only suggested an hour lost, even if the sun’s position in the sky told an altogether different story. Both wind and current pulled in unfamiliar ways, and our satellite equipment couldn’t pick up any signal. I trusted the sun over our clocks, drawing on old lessons to calculate our location and bearing at high noon.

“Eight hundred nautical miles in an hour… How is this possible?”

I rechecked my measurements, redid the math, conferred with others and implored them to find a mistake… but the results were always the same. My mind flooded with horror stories I’d heard on shore leave at dingy bars, maritime myths traded between grizzled sailors. I’d always written it off as the kind of thing you’d say to scare your kids, or the result of watching too much Twilight Zone… but this was all too real.

Our readings beyond reasoning, we turned to our eyes for navigation. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of land. It was a small island, and we traced the fullness of its coast in no time. Still we saw no signs of civilization. After much time and discussion, we elected to moor the boat. But not without caution.

“Take the gun,” the captain instructed. I tucked the weapon in the waistband of my pants, its weight unfamiliar and cold.

We coasted forward carefully, avoiding a reef and anchoring near the shore. The first lifeboat had barely hit the sand when all men froze in their tracks, our chatter mirroring the dying hum of the engine when we saw them on the beach.

Dinosaurs.

Mere moments ago I had thought the captain was overreacting when he told me to pick up the firearm, but now it felt like even a battleship wouldn’t be enough.

“Whatever you want to call those things, we’re not taking our chances. Back to the ship.”

The following weeks saw us skirting the shores of a dozen more islands, repelled each time by the approach of impossible creatures. While the sun was the core of our rough navigation by day, the evening skies blanketed us in a wholly foreign set of stars by night. We adapted as best as we could to these unfamiliar constellations, replacing old favorites like the Big Dipper with the Triceratops; or, my personal favorite, the T-Rex.

The beasts named in the sky were preferable to the ones that harried our ship.. Every few days, the long neck of a monster rose from the water and towered above us, its tiny head sporting a full set of vicious teeth below two curious, hungry eyes. But even this watchful behemoth was nothing to the pterodactyls. They circled above, waiting for the perfect time to pluck exhausted, unaware passengers to their deaths above the clouds. Only the roar of our guns could send them scattering.

Wandering lost and alone was enough to break many of us. Dwindling food and fuel did the rest. The crew let rage and fear take them, fighting amongst themselves over the smallest scraps and tearing apart our cargo in search of anything edible. Knowing we couldn’t go on this way, I confronted the captain.

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“All this island-hopping is pointless if we never make landfall. When we run out of fuel, we’ll be stuck adrift in the middle of the ocean. We have to go ashore and resupply while we still have the chance.”

“…I’m afraid I can’t allow that. Those creatures may not be real, but something is on these islands. If we dock and they take the opportunity to climb aboard and tear the vessel apart, the insurance agency won’t buy our explanation any more than I do.”

“…Insurance? Are you serious?! We have men who have literally been torn apart by prehistoric creatures, and you’re worried about insurance?!”

He didn’t answer me, but he didn’t need to. The captain and several others firmly believed that the dinosaurs were a hallucination borne of hunger, thirst, and cabin fever. Thankfully, this was an angle I could work: If they were just something we’d imagined, what threat could they pose? Seemingly wwayed by this logic, dire hunger, or both, the captain finally relented, and we set foot on land the very next day.

We took all of our most useful supplies and set up camp on the beach not far from the ship. A dense jungle loomed a stone’s throw from our camp, but none were brave enough to enter. We were just settling in when the moon rose over the horizon. It brought with it a swelling tide, the rushing water easily capsizing our vessel. Much of what we hadn’t taken ashore was swept away into the sea.

I was still in a haze at daybreak, arranging large stones to spell out “SOS” on the beach. I hadn’t seen a single plane, but sometimes you just have to do something… even if that something is as good as nothing.

We discovered the true meaning of hunger once supplies ran out. Any hesitation we had about eating the wildlife on that strange island vanished. Small dinosaurs, bizarre plants, and even insects became our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the past, I used to wonder how humans ever determined which plants were safe to eat. After being desperate enough to eat anything I can tear from the ground, I don’t wonder anymore. An unlucky few perished from eating poisonous plants, but those who lived saw to it that the dead were properly buried for their sacrifice.

Between eating anything we could chew and drinking rainwater, we eked out enough stability to finally argue about something new. It was universally agreed upon that we should begin cultivating what few plants we could manage, but the means of our farming was another story. While some thought we should endeavor to preserve the current ecosystem, the first officer proposed completely burning down a huge section of the island to simultaneously clear land and fertilize the soil. It wasn’t a bad idea. Farming tools had not been among the supplies we scavenged from the ship, and preparing the land by hand would be a long and arduous process. But the jungle was naturally flush with resources, and we risked losing them to the fire. There wasn’t even a guarantee we could produce anything from the scorched earth as none of us had farming experience. Unable to agree, we put it to a vote. The pro-burning side took the majority, leaving the conservationists to wallow in defeat.

Another small faction insisted that the captain should be the one to make these decisions, but there was one small issue: the captain had lost his mind. We had hoped that food would bring him back to normal, but it only restored his strength; not his sanity. While we struggled to plot our course in this strange new world, the captain’s mind had not made the trip through the Warp soundly.

“Everybody stay calm! A rescue unit is on the way, I assure you. And don’t worry about the boat; I’m keeping a mental record of everything that’s happened. For the insurance agency, of course.”

Sometimes I envy his madness.

The fire raged for the better part of a day before fresh rain beat it back to a smolder. We found the charred corpses of countless beasts among the desolation, but that was to be expected. More surprising was a humming, glowing crater in the ground that seemed to be immune to the fire. We were left to speculate on what it could be, but the first officer declared that this discovery alone was worth the effort. I might have agreed with him if we had any idea what it was we’d found…

A thin layer of soot dusted the island for several days after the fire. We picked out stones from the ash and plowed fields with seeds we obtained from opened containers on the boat, but they just weren’t growing. We were forced to rely more heavily on hunting than ever before, a trying task when half our hunting grounds were now burnt ruins. We even turned back to the ocean from which we’d escaped, redoubling our fishing efforts. That is when a great illness swept through our group.

Plague and famine thinned our ranks by half. Even the animals we hunted were malnourished, often succumbing to starvation before our spears could ever find them. I’d complain that there weren’t enough men to dig graves, but graves were a thing of the past. We could no longer afford to waste meat by giving it to the earth.

I’m still not sure how we muddled through those dark days, but our endurance was rewarded when a new season brought back the rain. Our failed farms began to sprout, and we were once again afforded the luxury of planning beyond tomorrow. To better facilitate the work of the future, we divided the remaining survivors into two groups: farmers and collectors. I became a collector. I’d dabbled in horticulture back on Earth, but I never aspired to be more than a hobbyist gardener. Now I find myself as a key figure in the group, creating medicines and exploring the properties of new plants. At least I’ve found some purpose in this new life.

 

#2

We’ve been on the island for three years now. What’s more, our captain is no longer with us. He was executed by the first officer, the first casualty in the “revolution.” The officer had been madethe head farmer, and one day he suddenly stepped forward with claims of discrimination. He insisted the farmers were slowly but surely being given less food, and that this was to weaken and incapacitate them out of fear of insurrection. The officer had no recourse but to kill the man responsible: our captain. Many of us collectors were scattered about the island when it had happened. There was nothing anyone could have done to stop him.

“I had to kill the captain. We need to start addressing the reality of our situation if we don’t want to die on this island… Do you trust me?”

“Trust” may not have been the right word for how I felt with the edge of a knife pressed against my throat, but I had been in no position to say otherwise. I promptly declared my loyalty to the first officer; or rather, our new captain.

We held a feast to celebrate his inauguration, the main course of which was those who refused to pledge their allegiance. It made for a grisly toast when he promised fair treatment and abundant harvests above the bodies of our former crewmates. I cheered along with the rest, but only enough to stay in his good graces.

His promises rang hollow in time, thinning both our numbers and our crops. The new first officer insisted that building a waterway to ease transportation and hydrate crops was the answer, but then new captain would not – and could not – grant him the manpower. I figured another “revolution” was not far off.

Though his talent for leading foundered early on, the second captain’s luck was more than enough to compensate. It was a day like any other when a terrific boom echoed across the island, and there it wassland, y other when a terrififresh victims of the Warp. Just like us when we first arrived, they did not realize the gravity of their situation. They were scared, yes, but more of us than the island, than this world. Sure, we had weapons and they didn’t, but they had no idea how lucky they were to have us to guide them. We set up a “refugee camp” for them, which is just a nice way of saying we quarantined them on the beach. This did little in the way of quieting them.

“Is there a rescue team coming? Why are you all dressed like that? You look like…like some kind of cavemen! What’s happening here? Someone explain to me what the hell is going on!”

The refugees were restless, unruly. The captain stifled the commotion with the merest gesture of his hand, summoning his closest men to beat the newcomers into silence. This was his chance to exert authority, to establish his dominance, and he relished it.

The stages of their adjustment were all too familiar. It began with denial, the unshakable belief that rescue was imminent, that they’d stumbled upon some secret government project to revive dinosaurs. This eventually gave way to fear, panic, desperation… in their defense, their transition took only a few days when ours had taken weeks. I suppose the sharpened tip of a spear accelerates the process.

Later, after finally accepting the reality of their situation, they started to cooperate. On Earth, very little would have separated us from these new arrivals. But time and necessity had worked wonders, and even our primitive weapons were enough to ensure our dominance. Those who were neither useful nor sycophantic enough to enter our ranks were treated no better than slaves.

It was their sweat that served as the foundation of our waterway, their blood that fed our crops. We flourished, our previous hardships rendering us blind to the price of our newfound success. The captain was triumphant on the day the waterway was finished.

“Now do you see? We must sacrifice to ensure our future!”

To protect this future, we were forbidden from speaking of the past.

Our group continued in this way for many years. We’d become capable of creating everything we needed, whether it be simple tools to work our farms or children to bolster our ranks. And we did make children. Many, many children. Perhaps it was our way of replacing the dead. We called these children “Second Generation,” and ourselves “First Generation.”

As our society grew, so, too, did a hierarchy.A class system. But we did not speak of nobles, commoners, or slaves. Instead we used words such as executives, administrators, and practitioners. We may not have been able to keep the values of Earth, but we could at least preserve the veneer. You could tell the difference between an executive and practitioner by attire alone. Still, it took the edge off the bitter reality of our situation and let us keep a tenuous connection with our lost home.

“You there, commoner! Round up some slaves and move that boulder!”

Such a command would be considered coarse. Barbaric, even. We instead veiled our intentions with thin corporate euphemisms:

“Hey, administrator! Enlist some practitioners and relocate that boulder!”

It may sound foolish, but it worked.

Whatever other atrocities I’d committed, I didn’t have it in me to harass the practitioners. Not that this meant many were spared their misery. Plenty of others who relished tormenting those beneath them. Some administrators even became executives after displaying few merits outside of the loyalty their cruelty instilled. If they couldn’t return to Earth, they would at least make the most of this world, no matter the cost.

In this way, I am no better than them. I ignore the suffering of the lower classes, enjoying the privilege and protection my valuable hobby provides. I ease my conscience by thinking of the lives I can save with my medicine, but there is no escaping the fact that my comfort is built on the agony of others.

 

#3

Ten years have passed.

We doubled and redoubled our numbers, pushed our island’s ability to sustain us to the limit. More and more voices advocated for pioneering new lands. The captain offered to promote any executives who dared travel to other islands. It was a chance to govern their own lands, he said. To be their own boss. It was like something out of an infomercial… Me, I couldn’t care less about ruling. But the thought of finding brand new plants and unlocking their medicinal potential excited me beyond words. I was among the first to volunteer, earning accolades from the captain and a cadre of practitioners to aid me.

“Your research will help feed and heal generations of our children. They’ll learn your name in school, the savior of the human race.” I knew it was just talk; propaganda, even. But damned if part of me didn’t believe it.

After a few months of preparation, my fleet was ready to sail. And by “fleet” I mean three rafts and three canoes. It didn’t take long for us to find a new island and claim it as our own, raising a flag displaying the symbol of our people. We had scarcely made landfall before an executive assigned to manage our expedition began whipping a practitioner for working too slowly.

I turned away and ate my lunch.

The beating only stopped when a group of unknown armed men appeared from behind the trees. A fear I hadn’t experienced in a long time filled my stomach as they approached.

“What right do you have to hit this man?” The executive could not muster a response outside of tightening his grip and gritting his teeth. “Is it merely your weapon that separates the two of you? Should we treat you with the same ‘respect?'”

The executive snarled, throwing his leather whip to the ground. He raised his bow, but his fingers hadn’t found the first arrow before a gunshot thundered through the air. He fell to his knees, his words reduced to a pained gurgle. The shooter then addressed me, his face even, impassive.

“Do you know what Durango is?”

“… No. This is the first I’ve heard of such a thing.”

“And yet you appear to have been living there for some time. This is Durango. This island, this sea… Every horizon. It is all Durango. You arrived here through a Warp, as did we. As did that man your compatriot was beating. Though you have sullied this island with your flag, we know it is not your home. But you will take us to whichever island is. This…” he gestured to the practitioner, who could only watch the newcomer with cautious awe. “…cannot stand. We will pluck your inhumane way of living from its roots before it has a chance to spread.”

We surrendered immediately. More members of their clan poured out from the trees, separating and questioning us. The navigator of our fleet was shortly back on the seas with a small contingent of their men. The abused practitioner was given food, rest, and refuge. I was arrested for committing inhumane acts.

I learned on the voyage to their domain that this exploration group was only one of many. They were so numerous, in fact, that the members of their expeditionary forces alone outnumbered our entire clan by a healthy margin. Durango is a much bigger, stranger place than I could have ever imagined.

I was taken to their capital for interrogation, a process thankfully bereft of torture. They even assigned one of their ‘lawyers’ to my defense. Granted, his suit was a hodgepodge of stitched together animal skins, and his glasses appeared to be fabricated out of twigs, but I suppose I couldn’t have hoped for much better even back on Earth.

It was a shock when our captain was brought in a few days after my capture. They had constructed a series of palm-tree prisons to hold us while we awaited judgement, and they locked him in the one next to mine. An unmistakable anger was writ across his twisted features, yet he still refused to speak a single word. Many of the other executives and administrators were captured as well, though only a fraction of what our original numbers had been. Not one of them would talk. At night, residents hurled coconuts at our prison cells, shouting accusations of moral indecency and promising swift justice. I had no trouble sleeping.

My old clan members remained steadfast in their silence, and so I was forced to turn to a guard I’d befriended to learn the fate of the other clan members.

“Our chieftain ordered a liberation, so we sent two units to pay a little visit to your island. I hear your chieftain—er, ‘captain?’ Is that what they call it on your island? Anyway, your captain resisted, but that’s hardly unusual. We suffered about a dozen casualties… about a tenth what your clan lost. That may not sound bad for us, but we’re having an election next year, and our chieftain is worried that might reflect poorly on him. Getting people from his clan killed doesn’t sit well with most people, no matter what happens to the other clan.”

The charges against us were dire were as dire as their punishment: death. I needed to prove to them that I in no way participated in any inhumane acts, but this would be no simple task. During trial, the prosecutor directed his blame at all of us collectively.

“They took advantage of these poor refugees. They abused them and enslaved them, forgetting that they, too, began their life on Durango in much the same way. Many of the refugees died building the waterway, and yet so few of them survived to reap the benefits of their labor. Their rulers would have you believe that this is a misunderstanding, that the refugees were so grateful to their ‘captain’ that they built the waterway as a token of appreciation. Does this sound like the same refugees who thanked us in tears for freeing them from a disturbing cycle of oppression and death?”

The executives and administrators who began as mere train passengers did their best to rationalize their actions. They put the blame on us, the original crew who first arrived on the island, for giving them no other option. Many other practitioners were brought to the stand as witnesses. I recognized many of them, remembering first hand their tales of loss at the hands of the executives. I could only lower my head in shame.

The captain, however, refused to admit his wrongdoings.

“What was I supposed to do? We were in the middle of a life-or-death emergency! You’ve experienced the Warp. You know what it’s like. It would be bad enough to lose everything you’ve ever known in an instant… but to have it replaced with dinosaurs? Sinking islands? We were alone. Hungry. Desperate. Somebody had to raise the torch – AND the lash – and lead these hapless fools to salvation! They claim abuse, but don’t appreciate that they’re alive today to testify thanks to me. It was my leadership and military experience that fed and protected us! How are we any different from you? We have our own law, our own order… This trial is a joke! An infringement of sovereignty!”

The captain made his case again and again, but it did him little good. His unwavering silence forgotten, he shouted all the way to the gallows. As the hood was tightened around his head, he began singing our clan’s anthem, a song about how much everyone loves the captain. He had written it himself.

“O Captain, sweet captain, we owe a debt to thee! And nobody loves, oh nobody loves, yes nobody loves the Captain more than meee-!” A collective sigh of relief swept through the crowd when the noose tightened. It was never a very good song.

I must have pleaded my case well, because the prosecutor reduced my sentence to banishment from the Stable Islands. I was even granted ten minutes to convene with the free people of my clan before being sent out to sea. My group had already assigned a new captain, a practitioner whom I worked with many times in the past. He used to help me cultivate wild plants and always bowed to me with a great smile whenever I slipped him a portion of my daily rations. Now, though… he looked different. His eyes were sharp, his lips tightly pursed in disappointment and authority. He told me not to refer to him as “captain.” They were going to do away with the class system altogether. I would be the last executive.

 

#4

Before I was banished to the Unstable Sea, both of my arms were branded with marks of expulsion. More than a final reminder of my misdeeds or a simple physical punishment, the marks identified me as a criminal. Were I to set foot on the Base Island again, I would not be spared death a second time.

Learning to live on islands in the Unstable Sea isn’t easy. They can disappear for days, sometimes months without warning. But it’s not all bad. I’ve watched the moon rise over snow-covered fields and been awoken by the gentle rays of the sun in tropical paradises. I’ve become a true explorer.

I survive by making medicine from leaves and selling it to merchants visiting from different Base Islands. They pay in T-stones and give no heed to the marks on my arms. Those looking to kill big game sometimes take me on their hunt. One even invited me to join her religion.

02

“We’re all sinners here on Durango, but that doesn’t mean we’re forever lost. The T-rex watches over us, for we are His children.”

The Omega, leader of a Tyrannosaurus-serving sect of hunters, assured me of this. They don’t consider it a curse to travel on the Unstable Sea, but a beautiful, unending pilgrimage. A blessing. I became a part of their journey, making medicine to heal the sick and learning to set up traps. The Omega presented me with a necklace made out of dinosaur teeth when I joined their order. I even eventually married a fellow clan member.

In the years that followed, I have seen the rise and fall of countless islands. Wrinkles now cover my face, deepening with each new destination. I sometimes catch news from the Stable Islands. It seems the captain I met before my banishment has passed away, and now his daughter has risen to power. I wouldn’t know this, of course, if her men hadn’t come to tell me as much and more.

It was a small band of delegates: young, raptor-riding servants born and raised in Durango. Everything about them was just a little foreign to me. Their clothes, their accents… I realized that while I had made Durango my home, those born here knew no other life.

They told me their newest leader was in the process of reestablishing the old class system. Delegates had been sent out in hopes of gaining support from people who once shared that bygone set of values. I suppose they thought we were nostalgic; that years on the Unstable Sea wouldn’t change a man. They even carried a letter of pardon with my name on it, but I knew that didn’t change what I’d been part of. I understood their stories only too well.

“We’ve been battling for years now. Not a day goes by where we’re not forced to fight. People Warp to our Base Islands, our Outpost Islands… There is constant bloodshed. Mass confusion. The world has gone mad. We yearn for the past, when times were simpler.”

The young Durangonian had rehearsed this speech. His patchy beard did nothing to camouflage his inexperience.

“Hrmph. Simpler times? There’s no such thing. There never was. This is all just what it means to be human. Earth was no different. Do you th—”

“We’re not here to listen to you ramble, old man. If I wanted to hear stories of Earth, I would’ve asked my mother. Not crossed these mad seas.”

The delegates’ bodyguard cut me off, features drawn in a scowl. I had almost forgotten the contempt some natural born Durangonians bore for Earth… but how could I blame them? These islands and the sea were the only world that mattered to them.

“Do you want to come home or not? This will be your only chance. The pardon won’t stand forever.”

“I am nothing but an old, nomadic hunter. The Stable Islands forsook me long ago, and I, in turn, have forsaken them. My home belongs not to a single island, but to all islands. I am home.”

The bodyguard grew red and drew his sword. The delegates could only stammer as he pointed the blade at my neck.

“You would spit on such a gracious offer? Choose your next words carefully, old-timer, for they may be your last.”

My two children responded by swiftly raising their bows. Others from my clan quickly converged and drew their weapons as well. A deep, silent tension built until it was tight as the bowstring on my children’s fingertips. Still seething, the bodyguard sheathed his sword.

“Savages, the lot of you! You’ll roam these wretched islands forever, never finding a place to call home! You’ll die a broken vagrant, wishing you had mustered a sliver of reason on this day! What were we thinking, expecting civility from a clan that worships a big lizard…”

The delegates and the bodyguard argued amongst themselves for some time before finally leaving. My fellow hunters tried to comfort me, but I waved them away and returned to a poultice I was working on. My son approached me not long after.

“Dad, what’s an ‘Earth’?”

I thought for a moment, pulling in memories of the past. I recalled sitting on the deck of our boat, measuring latitude every day at noon; playing cards in the cabin every night underneath the soft glow of the moon; transporting cargo, usually hefty armaments; being sucked into Durango for the first time; the practitioners from the train and their days of slavery; the searing pain I felt—both physical and mental—as I was branded for human indecency… Though separated by an insurmountable distance, the two worlds were inextricably part of me. How could I answer?

“Earth is…an extension of Durango, like you are an extension of me. People war with each other there. They commit crimes, abandon children… But people also learn to compromise, work together, and love one another. It will always be what I consider my true home, the place I was born, a place for which I will forever yearn… Earth will always be a story without a beginning for you, something you can never fully understand… But it doesn’t matter. Durango is your home. It’s where you belong, and where your lineage will continue. Durango is your Earth.”

A Durango Christmas

I had just started feeding the Phenacodus when the chieftain walked in. He flashed a friendly smile that had become only too familiar: he had a favor to ask. Clan members who had till then been idly chatting away suddenly became tremendously busy, recalling a fence that wanted mending or a spit that needed turning. Unlike the others, I didn’t have to fabricate an excuse. My hands were already deep – too deep, perhaps – in a noble task: collecting Phenacodus poop. Mix it with a little straw and you have a great fertilizer. But there is always an unavoidable (though not unappreciated) lull between handling food and feces, and it was then that the chieftain spoke up from where he leaned against the barn door.

“I was just checking the calendar. It’s December. And you know what that means: Christmas.”

Christmas? There was an obnoxious, rosy cheer about him. Whatever he was about to sell me he had already drank the eggnog.

“So?”

The chieftain went on…

“It’s been a rough year. Hell, it’s been a rough couple of years. We’ve been so busy just trying to survive that the holidays have passed us by again and again… but not this year. We all deserve a little merriment, a little celebration of all we’ve done to make us forget our hardships, if only for a day. We’ll get a Christmas tree, build snowmen… Just talking about it makes me kind of warm and fuzzy. But all of this is just some fantasy… unless you’d be willing to lend me a hand. What do you say?”

I almost said I’d rather be shoveling crap, but that might’ve been a little too on the nose.

“Sure.”

The chieftain disappeared with a smile before I could reconsider.

I’m not sure why I agreed. A Christmas tree? Snowmen? For Pete’s sake, we’re on a tropical island.

I suppose we do at least have some less-than-festive trees, but I don’t foresee ol’ Frosty springing to life any time soon. I’d hesitate to make even a sandman, as hot as the beach gets during the day. Maybe I’ll just give him a bucket of water and call it a build-your-own-snowman kit. Just add arctic temperatures! But the chieftain is not one to take promises lightly, and I’m not one to idly make them. There was no going back.

Although the chieftain asked for a traditional white Christmas, I thought it might be useful to find out how they celebrated in hotter climates pre-Warp. Mele Kalikimaka, and all that. I did find someone in my clan from Brazil, but it turned out she never really had any friends or family to celebrate with. A sad story, sure, but not the best one for spreading Christmas cheer or answering my questions. I even went old school and tried to find a book on the topic. Turns out the only hallowed tome our meager “library” had was a phone book, and not even one with the last name “Christmas.”

A couple of the Phenacodus got sick while I was doing my research. I spent the next few days in the pens looking after them. The chieftain came in again as I was brushing the smaller Phenacodus’s coat. He had better not make a habit of this.

“I can practically hear those Christmas bells ringing! How are the plans coming along?”

I was trying to take care of these animals, and all he could think about is Christmas? I didn’t have time for Christmas; there was enough on my plate already. But as much as I felt a “bah, humbug,” coming on, I kept it cordial just to get him out of my hair.

“Fine.”

Once the Phenacodus were on the mend, I found myself out of excuses to delay fulfilling the chieftain’s request. I began to make preparations for my trip, including putting the two animals under the care of a trusted friend. After all, two of them were pregnant. I couldn’t afford to leave them unsupervised.

I took a boat as soon as I was ready and set off for an island that supposedly had some snow. I was joined at first by a flock of pterosaurs circling the raft, but they soon lost interest when they realized I wasn’t giving handouts. The island turned out to be just the type I was looking for. Bison roamed its snow-covered fields, their furry coats a warning of the climate I would soon face. I foraged for kindling and started my fire just before nightfall. Hungry wolves serenaded me with a lullaby of howls while I tried – and failed – to sleep. All those songs romanticizing the “winter wonderland” were full of it; this place was terrifying. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a group of hunters woke me up. They had seen my campfire and wanted to share the warmth. I finally understood why Scrooge was so irritated with Bob Cratchit for always wanting to put more coal in the furnace. Still, it was safer than sleeping alone.

“Fine… Just don’t burn up all the wood.”

The hunters took turns sleeping. The ones who stayed on watch gossiped to no end. I was soon longing for the company of the wolves instead.

“You can’t be here to hunt unless you mean to clobber the animals to death with your bare fists… But you sure don’t look the part of explorer, either. So… what are you doing here, all alone?”the head hunter asked me on his shift.

I said that I was looking for a Christmas tree. He laughed loud enough to wake up the others. They all got a good chuckle out of my predicament before they began reminiscing amongst themselves.

“We used to decorate our office tree, back when cubicles were a thing. That was probably about ten years ago now…”

“We never realized how good we had it. More food than you could ever eat a grocery store a few blocks away, and a fridge to bring it even closer… I never imagined I’d be hunting mammoths with spears; I was more concerned about climbing the corporate ladder.”

“Whether you’re fighting with mammoths or fiddling with spreadsheets, it all just becomes busywork after enough time…”

They were swept up in their memories, and none of them went back to sleep.

When morning came, the hunters gave me some salted fish to eat for breakfast. One of them told me about a spot he found deep in mammoth territory.

“I stumbled upon a crater while hunting smilodons the other day. The trees surrounding it were beyond beautiful. I had no idea gorgeous plants like that could exist in this climate. They reminded me of my mother. She used to fish our tree out of storage every December, just to add a bit of holiday flare to our home. It wasn’t real, of course, or as spectacular as the trees around that crater. But we loved it all the same. Thinking back… she worked so damn hard. My father couldn’t walk after the accident, so my mother held two jobs just to keep us afloat…”

He went on for another hour before I finally excused myself to find the crater. I could have written his mom’s biography, but I barely knew anything about my destination. I suppose he did say he was hunting smilodons at the time, which should have told me something. I just never thought I’d find them first.

The trees were as beautiful as he said, and for a moment even I felt a surge of Christmas spirit. This vanished, of course, by the time I broke into hour two of cutting one of them down. It was then that I heard snow crunching behind me. I spun and felt my heart stop: a giant smilodon was crouched no more than twenty paces behind me. I pulled the bow from around my shoulder and drew an arrow. The beast froze, eyes cold and unblinking. Its hide looked thick, thicker than anything my crude arrows would pierce. The next few moments passed in brutal, crawling clarity, stretching into what felt like an hour of regret and fear. The stalemate was only broken when a small bison broke into the clearing, the hapless creature becoming the predator’s new target as both disappeared into the brush. I let a long, trembling breath escape my chest. As fast as the arctic cat pursued its new target, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I was lucky to still have my life.

I finished felling the tree, bound it with rope, and dragged it across the snowfield. A solo trip hadn’t seemed so bad at the outset, but the realities of bringing all this gear back by myself began to settle in. I should not have been sent alone. How could my chieftain be so callous? Careless, even? Why should I even stay in such a misguided clan? It’s not like I didn’t have options. A chieftain from another clan had once complimented my taming skills and asked me raise Compsognathus on his ranch. Maybe I’d contact him after all this was over. If I were still to be alive, anyway.

It took an entire day just to get the tree to my raft. I started a small fire and lay on the beach, doing my best to recover my strength. I had sweat clean through my clothes, and the chill in the air had me shivering despite a pile of blankets. Too cold to move and too sore to sleep, I resigned myself to watching the starry sky above. Even someone like me has to admit the stars gain an odd kind of clarity when the only thing obscuring them is the fog of your breath. I nestled a few potatoes in the glowing embers of my fire and waited for them to start steaming. They tasted sweet.

The next day I rolled up a few snowmen. They weren’t much too look at, but I was proud of them nonetheless. One of them even ended up on the raft as my first mate. I knew the tropics would be the death of him, but I didn’t care. I needed someone to talk to.

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My next stop was a Base Island famous for its junk dealers. These merchants didn’t care at all about my tree or Reginald Snowington, my newly named first mate. I expected as much, though: they’re only interested in collecting Lost Packages and looting sunken ruins. A clear night sky or a friendly dino mount are simple pleasures they’ll never know. Though I suppose, on the other hand, I’ll never be one to understand what it’s like to covet your neighbor’s literal box of junk, so to each their own.

An airstrip had somehow made its way through the Warp, and the junk dealers had wasted no time in flanking it with a makeshift bazaar. They hawked their piled goods to passersby and in daily auctions, offering a cornucopia of items from the old world: real estate papers from Singapore, broken DVD players, the canopy of a fighter plane… rarity was often prioritized over utility, and few things were off limits. In the rare situation that they would not part with an item, they sold information on the location of where they found it instead. Such was the merchant who told me where I might find more of the ornaments he had on display for the price of half my tools, which was just as well. I already had the tree, so why hang on to the axe?
I already knew my destination was an Unstable Island, but there was no way to tell just how close it was to collapse. I passed another raft heading away from the island as I made my way to the shore. The conversation that followed was all too familiar.

“Hey! You’re not planning on posting up on this island, are you?”

My reply:

“Probably!”

Laughter.

“Well, it’s your funeral, buddy! Happy Holidays!”

The island was already beginning to splinter apart, its Warp Holes giving off strange, ominous static. Perhaps they were tuning in to the signal of their next destination? I wondered if the merchant might’ve tricked me before I saw it: massive delivery trucks literally spilling over with gift-wrapped boxes. Many of them were postmarked only a few days before Christmas, likely sent by desperate procrastinators whose priority mail fees had only ensured a hastened delivery to Durango. A little digging found me everything I needed: snow made of cotton, glittery stars, candy canes, stringed lights, and more. I even managed to find a little insulation for my frozen first mate. Maybe he would make it after all…

I took everything I could carry and left just as the island began to collapse. It was a Christmas miracle my raft held as much as it did, though I swore it might sink at any moment. Examining my bounty of yuletide gear, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of sadness come over me. I should have brought someone along with me… Why was I out here alone?

My return was met with more surprise than cheer. The others had not known about my errand but were still eager to help unpack my bounty. We got the tree up and decorated, filled the generator with gasoline, and had the lights shining in a brilliant rainbow. I had arrived a day late – December 26th, by the chieftain’s reckoning – but the clan didn’t seem to mind. Everyone gathered around the fire and we dug into steaks wrapped with leaves. Someone started playing a two-stringed guitar. Others began singing and dancing.

As much as I had disliked my isolation on the waves, I only felt more alone amongst the others. I found a quiet place off to the side, picking over my Christmas feast. Burnt, of course. I should have realized the chieftain would find me, as he had so many times before. He approached with a smile and patted me on the back.

“Good job.”

Seriously? “Good job?” Two words for all of my backbreaking work? I swallowed my anger as best I could.

“Mm-hmm…”

That was it. I knew right then that I had to leave the clan, to find a place that respected my time and talents. I excused myself from the party and went to the pen to get my supplies. I was greeted by the excited cry of a Phenacodus. They were mothers now: the pregnant pair had given birth in my absence, one baby each. The friend to whom I had entrusted their care patted me on the shoulder as he walked out to the party, giving me some alone time with the babies. Their mothers didn’t even budge as I entered, a trust built over months and years. They were warm and as soft as anything. I suddenly found myself getting unreasonably worried that the babies might freeze to death despite the constant hot weather, that fading memory of the cold I endured tingling at the edges of my bones. I put food in their manger and watched them eat, brushing the matted fur of the weary mothers as they fed.

I hardly even noticed when somebody came in and sat next to me. I picked up my beer stein and sipped. Herbal tea. We had managed to preserve the face of Christmas, but some things just couldn’t be helped.

“They trust you, don’t they? Though I suppose it’s for a good reason. Just look at what you brought us: that tree out there is incredible. It’s like something off of a postcard… And that snowman? I mean, wow! In the tropics?! Did you do it all by yourself?”

I finally turned my head, spying for the first time a woman with eyes to rival the arctic night sky. In an instant, I felt lighter, warmer, the chilling aches that had echoed through my body only moments before banished with a glance. I would have recognized eyes like those… she must have joined the clan while I was gone. For the first time in my life, I was more tongue-tied than irritated.

“Uh… yeah.”

“Wow. That’s incredible. It’s nice to know that some people in this place are still willing put others before them.”

“Ah… it’s nothing.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but… Would you like to grab another drink with me? It’s not right that you should be in here by yourself after all you’ve done for us. You deserve a toast, at least.”

“By all means! …Ahem… I mean, sure… sounds good.”

Hmm… Maybe I’ll stay after all. For the Phenacodus, of course.