From Storytime, where it dueled and danced with They're workin' on a six year drought (just so you know)

Ben lives in a small lean-to at the edge of field of tall sawgrass in the shadows of giants. He has lived here for years, watching the grass grow and the trees slowly creep inwards. His lean-to is supported on the closed side by the long shape so familiar from his childhood.

He wandered here as the airliners sighed to rest and the highways emptied of living cars, and people got colder and harder and suspicious of everyone else. He brought with him only a backpack of hand tools, well worn and serviceable, and a secret pouch of memories.

The lean-to belies its name, with well-sealed walls and a floor of fiberglass over well-packed dirt. It keeps the frequent rains and insects out. In these parts, it doesn't need to keep heat in, but it keeps the sun off, and that's just as good.

Every week, he sets off - on foot, and on a flat-bottomed raft, which he poles - to visit the giants he can see from his doorway. They wait quietly across some six miles of swamp and grassland and water. He rarely sees other people, these days. He's not really near anywhere worth scavenging for the new riches of the world - a sharp hand chisel, a rechargeable lantern. This plot he tends has riches infinitely more precious and entirely useless.

When he reaches their feet, he rests for a time; perhaps smokes, if he has found or traded for tobacco with the rare merchant from up North. Then he walks around them, running over their songs in his mind, called up from his aging and fading memories. The songs keep him calm, keep him moving; balanced against the sadness of watching the world slowly settle down into its own shadow, the songs are a brightness worth clinging to, even if they will never again be heard out loud as they were meant.

Every once in a while, he dares to ascend his totems. From several hundred feet above the grasses, he sometimes watches the sun set out over the blue of the Atlantic. There are birds up here, who resent his intrusion - screaming as they flap away, spraying him with excrement in their anger. He doesn't blame them, though - it's indeed an invasion, his being here.

Like most good totems, Ben's were built by men. Like most good totems, they were placed as a shout of defiance. He remembers, from when he was young, the fading light from the television showing him the process - the long, slow process - of the totems moving majestically out into the southern Sky. He knew even then that he would one day join them, never mind that it took him a couple of years of walking to reach them after his parents went Inside.

Sometimes, sitting in front of his lean-to, or perched atop the totems, he wonders if his parents think about him. He thinks about them, but only infrequently, as their paths diverge from his. Fewer and fewer people wander by these days, with fewer and fewer things to trade, but that's to be expected.

He's not sure why he stays here, but he knows why he came: a shout of his own, defiance in person, albeit a smaller one. In that, he and his totems are alike, resting here quietly on the coastline with their backs turned to the shiny sterile cities where people have ceased to move.

Ben looks at the sky a lot. Day, night; blue, black; empty, deep, angry. The sky and he are old acquaintances now.

He knows that what brought him here isn't enough; knows that the sky has won, and that it will forever look down on him as he trudges, sits or labors. That's something he accepts in his head, but not in his heart. One day, he tells himself: One day, one way or another, that'll change.

He does what he can around the feet of his totem. Keeps the plants clear. Cuts back the brush. Not much else he can do, really.

Every now and again, he wonders what happened to the men who built it - the men whose shout it is, slowly echoing into the long canyons of time. They were gone when he got here, and he never got to ask them where they would go, or what they meant by it. But he's pretty sure he knows, because he's sure he would have done the same thing.

The cities hum at night, and screech in the day. Strange lights move over them, and shapes with too many legs or wheels scurry about. Ben and the few others he knew kept well away. There were children, but painfully few. He imagined the bodies turning to dust in their chairs, the optics linked up to their crowns, and wondered if his parents ever looked out of their silicon paradise to see their earthly shells still patiently waiting as they decayed.

He remembers them clasping hands, the bands across their foreheads of cheap plastic and hair-thin wires - disposable, the ultimate in single-use. He remembers the humming when it started, and he remembers when his parents had gone, somewhere into the world behind the walls. Some couldn't; their brains just the wrong shape. Some wouldn't, and Ben was one of those. So the next day, he'd shouldered his pack and started walking southeast.

The cities still hum, though, and Ben knows that there are terrible and wonderful things happening there that don't concern him. He thinks of that as only natural. Month in, month out - he raises a few crops, husbands a bit of livestock, and plies his good steel tools. And slowly he ages.

But he still travels to the totem no less than once a week, and still walks around it, keeping the song alive in his mind.

There comes one spring day when he leaves the lean-to and looks over at the totem and near collapses in shock. Another has joined it, different, but equally towering. He stands, staring, for what seemed like hours before making his slow way across the fields. The raft is waiting, and he poles across the slough, trudges up the grassy shore and across the hard angles of the canyon to stand at its foot.

There are men there; and there aren't. There are the shapes of men, moving about, but they are hazy and indistinct. He blinks, moves towards them, and they approach. Sinking to his knees, he watches as they silently surrounded him and stare for a time before one comes forward, kneels, and extends a hand.

He reaches out to take it, trembling - but there's nothing there but tricks of light. He pulls his hand back and looks into the sad smile on the other's face. It speaks to him then - they all do - and tells him of the Cities, and of their truck with those who have gone Inside. They tell him that they've come to meet the people, but found no people to meet; just voices, talking, talking. And then, finally, one asks him why he is here - not just outside the Cities, but here.

He tells them.

And after he has finished, they look at him, and each other, and they nod. They speak with him for a time, then raise a hand to him, all of them; slowly file back into the shadow of their God, and wink out. "One day," a voice says, left behind. "One day."

And the new shape rises from the Earth, lifts away, and is gone from sight.

Eventually, he stops watching the sky as it darkens, and goes back across the fields to his home. It takes him several days to discover that the pouch he'd brought with him, all the way from his childhood, still hung on its peg but was now empty.

On his return to his giant, days hence, he notes with sorrow that the decay he has spent his life fighting has seemed to declare victory - there are plants and hanging vines growing up around the base now.

Still, he walks the circle; still, he recites the songs. And the next time, he climbs to the top to commune with the birds and the sky, coming to accept the creepers and the mold and moss that are surging around him as the Earth's just due.

As the months and years pass, he thinks of the men he met, and spoke to. He recalls their faces, and tells himself of their understanding as the shell of green and brown covers his dreams. He tells himself of the promise they made as he realizes that he can no longer safely climb his totem, and realizes that he is surrendering it.

The cities still hum and screech in the far-off distance, but now, people begin to arrive. In ones and twos and small groups, they show up at his door, and as the men had asked, he tells them very carefully where to go. They all smile, and thank him, and move off. Sometimes they leave him gifts, until his lean-to is surrounded by the riches of the new, with Ben sitting in the midst of it all, offering the same short guidance to all who come and then make their way off across the fields.

He never sees any of them again; none ever return. He doesn't know what happens, where they're going, but he knows that it's not for him, just as his parents' choice was not for him. Years pass, and thousands file past his small lean-to into the swamps, never to be seen again.

He is awoken one spring morning by a strange warmth on his face. He blinks, rises from his pallet, looks around the lean-to in confusion at the gush of warm gold.

Then with disbelief at war with fear and hope, he turns to look at the back wall, at the long comfortable monolith the lean-to is nestled up against. The brilliance of the glow that flickers beneath its surface, and its impossibility, take his breath away. He stumbles from the hut into a clear blue day, and as every day, his glance sweeps automatically over towards the giants whose feet he sweeps.

The overgrown green and brown mound is gone, however. In its place is a shining tower of white and orange, silver and black. He steps towards it once, twice; then he is running as fast as his aged legs will carry him, down to the slough, and the raft. Behind him, the light flickers on, silently.

When he reaches the far shore, he finds the vines and creepers piled around the base, already somehow light and desiccated. He walks once, around, the song in his head now strong and clear, looking up all the while, and when he reaches his starting point, there they are.

Standing in the circle, around him, they are smiling, and one - the same one - moves forward as Ben kneels. He, too, kneels, and rests his hand on Ben's hand. It is still hazy, indistinct.

Ben looks up, and asks, "Am I the last?"

"Yes, Ben. You are the first, and the last. We've been waiting for you, and working, and now it is your time."

The tears are flowing, but Ben ignores them and struggles to his feet. He looks around him, and asks, "May I go now?"

"Of course."

And with a nod, he walks towards the tower, to climb up to the newly-sharp peaks, this time to enter. Behind him, the clock ticks silently as it keeps time to the song. Beneath his feet, where it was left by its last keepers as a monument to dreams, the Space Shuttle Atlantis trembles slightly from the workings of the nanofactories, pulling hydrogen and oxygen and aluminum and chlorates from the sea and waiting for Ben to take his seat so that they can both fulfill their purpose.

* * *



Note: This is a 'big reveal' story, a.k.a. a 'dirty trick' story. I do understand that these are both prone to fail and sometimes annoying for the reader. But, you know, during storytime prose slam, you go with what you get. :-) -TC

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