The Huntress and the Conveyor Worlds

Daniel Ausema

Story image for The Huntress and the Conveyor Worlds by Daniel Ausema

“…animal hides for leather, scrap metal, batteries if they still exist in any world, I’m overstocked on plastics but cured wood is…”

T he voice from the speaker faded as the conveyor moved away, but Sihala had memorized the current list before she jumped on. Her feet jerked on the belt, but she cradled her throwing spears carefully and kept her balance. The run-down shack disappearing behind her, what she called her home, told perfectly how little she could afford to waste her time on things the Quartermaster didn’t want.

She checked the rope twined around her between waist and shoulders, pulled broad leaves and fronds from the underbrush that encroached on the line, and used them to camouflage herself. The decaying rubber beneath her feet ran on inexorably, the eternal movement of this, the greatest legacy of a long lost age. Far ahead, the conveyor appeared to reach the horizon of her own world, but it never stayed in that reality long enough to reach there. She tensed herself for the next, unpredictable jump.

Beneath the rubber, blue light zipped among hazy parts no one alive understood, not even the Quartermaster. Lowering into a crouch, she waited, eyes constantly moving between the land that zipped by and the conveyer itself.

These last few days, Sihala had come back with hands empty, spears unused. Even before that, she’d begun earning a name for bad luck among the loose confederation of hunters and scavengers. Not today, she told herself. She would prove them wrong.

A whining noise rose from the belt beneath her. It seemed that it was getting louder these days. She prayed to the gods of ruined monuments that this reminder of the lost ones would survive a little longer…and that it would bring her to suitable game. Luck or no luck and regardless of what the others thought of her, she couldn’t survive much longer on the things she scrounged together around her shack.

With a rumbling noise that stopped abruptly, the conveyer shifted into another place, and instantly her camouflage became useless. She looked quickly to either side for any game in this new reality. The lights that ran alongside the conveyor track revealed gray mud that bubbled and spat onto the belt. She’d heard the Quartermaster say that the conveyors were built with a meter of clearance. She wasn’t sure exactly how big a meter was, but this distance looked a lot smaller than typical. She feared the mud might get into the gears and other parts hidden beneath her feet.

Yellow flowers more animal than plant danced in the boiling mud. A salamander of some sort climbed from the mud onto the lily-pad-like leaves. Fronds wrapped around the animal and pulled it into the yellow petals where it disappeared.

Sihala brought a spear up to protect her, but the flowers didn’t look worth trying to take as prey. The Quartermaster wouldn’t pay for them, and they didn’t look edible.

Other things moved farther out in the mud, at the edge of the conveyer’s vision field. She couldn’t quite make them out before the world’s dark mists gobbled up the light of the conveyer.

Without taking her eyes from the view, she scratched at the ley-metal tattoo on her arm. It wasn’t a good sign that it itched. She turned slowly to see what energy might be setting it off. Originally they’d been aligned to powers within the earth, but any strong power source could draw a reaction now.

Flames broke the mist in the distance. She waited as the conveyer drew her closer. A single flame, high above the ground. A smokestack held it there, a relic from the lost days. Such things had burned and converted power long ago, but she didn’t think it would set off her ley lines. She stared at the smokestack, tempted to jump off. It could certainly have treasures inside that the Quartermaster would pay well for, ancient machinery and other salvage, but she didn’t dare leave the conveyor, or it might leave this world and strand her.

The whine of the belt subsided into a steady drone that threatened to put Sihala asleep. She rubbed the tattoo counter-clockwise, and energy rushed to her brain. This was not a world to fall asleep in.

A flipper of some creature rose briefly from the sea of mud. A small earth-whale? If it got close enough, it might be worth trying to catch. The Quartermaster would give her good money for so much meat and oil. She knelt at the near edge of the belt and waited with her spear poised… but the flipper did not reappear.

The conveyor shifted to a new place. Sihala frowned. Her tattoo no longer itched, which was a relief, but the conveyer didn’t usually shift realities that often.

Now she was in a moss-shrouded forest, the conveyor cutting a straight line through the vegetation. The screams of prey sounded often, muffled by the hoary trees. Sihala stretched up for a clump of hanging moss and covered herself. If the conveyor came through here often, it was likely the native animals wouldn’t be afraid of it, as long as it seemed empty. A rich smell of both life and rot enveloped her, a heavy smell that forced her lower and lower as she waited.

Engine sounds coughed and revved occasionally in the distance. Other relics moved in this world too.

When a different noise reached her ears from the direction she’d come, Sihala focused on her tattoo for a moment and felt a tell-tale spark, not pain exactly and not an itch, but a jolt of unpleasant energy. She looked back along the conveyer, and soon something appeared, little more than a dot but moving quickly, as if impatient with the eternal speed of the belt.

The hum of its motor reached her, and then the construct was directly behind her.

This was the trickiest thing about hunting from the conveyers—dealing with the relics and enigmas that raced along the moving path—but where else might she find a way to survive? It was a wide thing that approached. Vehicle or creature, she couldn’t decide how to think of these constructs.

She looked at the ground alongside the belt. No great place to jump off, but there was a bit of a break in the trees ahead. It would have to do. The construct was coming too quickly, though. She stood and ran before it, her tattoo sparking madly. Just as she felt the shifting air of its front grille, she leapt, falling into the thick moss between two trees.

Pain boiled from Sihala’s thigh where it had hit a tree trunk, too intense to focus through. She ran through the calming techniques in her mind, but they didn’t work. Her body shuddered until, finally, by closing her eyes and breathing in a broken, uneven pattern, she could take her thoughts away so the tattoo could do its work.

Drawing energy from the ground, the air, even the conveyer and other relics nearby, the ley tattoo healed tissue until the pain was only a dull background.

As soon as the pain faded to a distant ache, Sihala rolled to the balls of her feet, holding a spear out toward the forest. Nothing approached, at least not that she could see. With her back still to the conveyer, she stood and took a step backwards.

Still no attack. No sounds but the birds far above and insects beneath the bark of the trees. Then she turned around and realized what the lack of sounds meant.

The conveyer had shifted again. Without her.

She spun back, as if the conveyor was an animal that might sneak up behind a person. But of course it wasn’t there. Only an empty scar where the track had been. The vegetation grew thick, but instead of imparting on the scene a sense of rich life, it hinted at rot and hidden places ideal for ambush. Sihala rubbed her ley lines nervously, then trusting her spears more, she held them out, poised to defend.

She’d been off the conveyor when it shifted many times in her own shack, but that was beside a frequent run. Seldom did a day go by and the conveyor not return to one of those. She bent down to examine this run. Fresh sap flowed from a branch that had been severed from its tree by the conveyor’s arrival. The mangled remains of a tremendous variety of plants told her that the conveyor had appeared here for the first time just now. Or at least the first time in years. It might return later today, or it might come back in twenty days, or it might come back in never.

She longed for the Quartermaster’s voice, even if it was just the empty litany of goods. “Electronics,” she imagined him saying, a word she heard him use often but didn’t understand. “Aluminum cans, glass jars, the fatted calf.”

What were her options? Follow the scar of the conveyor and hope it returned while she still lived, or strike out toward the north where the forest appeared to thin. The conveyors usually ran near the factories and cities of the ancient builders of the lines. Ruins, most often, but even ruins could have some life left. And some way to contact the Quartermaster.

But here she might get lucky and have the conveyor return. Might. Perhaps. Who knew, when so many maybes were involved?

Before she could decide a definite course, the plants opposite the conveyor’s scar shook. She crouched to pounce or flee, and it seemed as if her body moved through water, slowly and with clumsy grace, if that was possible. The branches parted slowly as well, but the creature moving into the clearing was by no means slow.

It reminded her of the conveyor construct, a melding of flesh and metal but born of reptile fathers and automotive mothers, as if its ancestors had evolved since the lost days. A foreleg rose from the ground, brushed the tangles of leaves from a grill-covered face. Its mechanical hum was even, with none of the stutters and uncertainties of the worn-out motors of the conveyor. More a purr than a roar.

As more of its body came through the vegetation, Sihala ran. It was far too big to fight. The monster moved quickly, while Sihala struggled through green-come-to-life. Heavy moss weighed down the branches overhead, caressing her face as she passed beneath. The creature’s breathing sounded over its engine noise, over the cracking limbs under its feet.

Sihala turned, turned again, rapidly, without thinking about it ahead of time, twisting her path to confuse her pursuer. She let her footprints become a map of someplace impossible. She imagined new ley lines swirling beneath her feet to feed her power.

The beast still pursued, but now as if confused, and its bulk didn’t let it turn as well as she could. Sihala reached an open stretch and sprinted, turning from the path just as the creature reached it. The trees embraced her, swirling their arms behind her as if in a wind she couldn’t feel. After more turning and with no hint of pursuit, she finally rested, leaning against one of the trees to let her lungs recover.

Unfamiliar birds whispered high in the trees, reminding Sihala of the strangeness of this place. She couldn’t let herself relax too much. The feel of the spears in her palms kept her awake. And her mind turned back to the glimpse she’d had of the creature. So much metal. The Quartermaster would give her good trade for whatever she could bring in. And the meat too, perhaps, if it proved edible.

These would be riches beyond any game she’d yet taken down, beyond any relics she’d plundered. She’d never be able to carry the whole thing in at once… but she could stash it somewhere and bring in a leg, or whatever promised the best reward. Even as little as she might carry, it would turn her luck around, let her fix her shack into a house, if not fancy then at least comfortable.

The more she thought of it, the more she wanted to hunt the hybrid animal. Sihala stood and crept through the trees in what she hoped was the direction she’d come. Vines reached down to entangle her spears. Masses of hanging moss ran their fingers through her hair.

She soon found the tracks of the creature, drifting off from where she’d entered the thicker woods. In her stalking run, she followed them. The beast had fed on some of the lush vegetation and at least one small animal, whose unidentifiable remains lay beside the trail.

The sound of breaking branches told her she neared her prey before she heard its engine noise. She left the trail to circle around in front. When a steeply angled tree appeared near where she thought the creature might go, she scampered up to hide in its welcoming branches.

Her wait was short before the beast lumbered directly beside her tree. She studied it, trying to decide where to stab. A bit of flesh showed directly above where its heart should be. Blocking out anything beside her target, she whipped her upper body forward and released the spear at just the right time. It struck the fur, quivered for a moment, then fell to the ground. The creature turned toward her, rising up.

Sihala pushed herself backward against the trunk, her feet slipping on the scaly bark. Metal-coated teeth flashed green in the light coming down through the leaves. She had one more spear, but where to use it? The animal wasn’t giving her time to debate. It brushed the lower branches aside as if twigs, though they broke loudly, ricocheting away from Sihala’s perch.

Its mouth? It didn’t look promising, as much full of gears and metal plates as teeth and tongue. Even its eyes appeared too risky. She leaned to one side as the head snapped toward her—there, at the side, where pistons and tendons intertwined!

She didn’t throw this time, but she didn’t hesitate either. Using all her body, she thrust the spear into the space that opened at the top of the neck.

Something snapped. The creature slid back down, but didn’t collapse wholly. It simply stood, its motor still humming but its head slumped forward. Sihala waited for any change, but nothing happened. Finally she slid down and stood beside the animal. She touched it, and the flesh quivered, but no limbs moved. She poked all around, finally daring to approach its head. The eyes were closed. The mouth hung slightly open.

Sihala pushed the head to the left—and the beast took a step.

She jumped behind the nearest tree. The creature made no further move, though, and she came back out. When she pulled the head toward herself, the creature took a single step again, and an idea formed in her mind.

A part of it was dead, but she didn’t think it was that the animal part had died while the mechanical lived, nor the opposite. It was so many generations since the two parts had been fused that the distinction no longer meant anything. It was more that the brain—or whatever biological and engineered hybrid fulfilled that role—had died but left most of the body on automatic. Like the conveyors, really, she thought. Like society itself, or what remained of it. Running along with no higher thinking, no memory of why or plans for how.

Shilaha pulled herself onto the creature’s back. A push on the head sent it shambling forward, and after a little experimentation she had the feel for guiding the half-dead thing. She directed it toward where she thought the trees might open up and let her get a wider view of this conveyor world.

As she rode the richest prize she’d ever won, images passed through her mind as if on a conveyor themselves, circling back over and over to repeat themselves. Of herself at rest with purchased food always available, of herself in a restored home of the ancient ones, of hunting only when she needed to, of a conveyor that worked to her will instead of the whim of unpredictability. Let the others think her luck bad now! Comfortable? That could be forgotten. Now she could dream of finery.

 

T he conveyor flickered across her path and disappeared, leaving a line of broken vegetation. Her ley tattoo responded with a jolt of energy. Too late, Sihala spurred her mount forward, as if the conveyor might return. As if she’d dare ride it now with it shifting so frequently. But the cut in the undergrowth made for a good path that went roughly the direction she wanted, so she steered the creature onto it and urged it faster.

The mount moved gracefully as it accelerated, a rolling motion from front to back that kept it moving easily but ready to change directions whenever it needed to. For Sihala, though, it didn’t feel graceful, though she knew the fault was her own. The way the shoulders rose and rolled forward with each lope roiled her stomach. After crossing a good stretch of land she had to slow the creature to a walk.

Smoke rose somewhere ahead, its scent falling among the trees, but by the time she could see it over the vegetation, it had dissipated enough she could never be sure exactly where it came from. Sometimes it seemed smoke was the most constant thing across all the realities touched by the conveyor. Sihala supposed it was fitting—smoke often lingered long after a fire was out, and what were they—the other hunters like herself, and even the Quartermaster with his lists of scavenged goods—but the lingering stench of a civilization long since burned out?

No matter. With the money from her mount, she could at least enjoy what there was to enjoy in this twilight time, and maybe even travel more widely, find a place where the metaphoric fire still burned. She kept going, hoping for a clearer view of the land.

After hours of riding, she passed a high smokestack, its top lost in gathering clouds. It looked cold, though, no smoke rising from its chimney. She smelled nothing burning nearby, and the lines in her arm gave no response to the building.

They wandered more, angling eastward when the track from the conveyor abruptly ended. Sihala felt weak with hunger. The hum of her mount’s motor never changed, but its muscles grew weary. It stumbled, not often but regularly, as if every hundredth step was ordained for failure. Sihala watched the passing land for food both for herself and for it.

When they reached an oil-covered pool of water, she led the animal to its edge, and it drank blindly, automatically. As the rainbows danced in her vision, she wondered if the pool served as nourishment for both the biological and mechanical parts of the creature. The surrounding vegetation held no food for her, but when it finished drinking her mount grazed among the branches. Sihala removed her only packet of emergency food and ate, wondering where to head next.

After grazing, the creature lay down to sleep, and Sihala decided to allow a brief break. No danger registered on her tattoo. She climbed the tallest tree beside the pool, and at first all she could clearly see were the tops of other trees on nearby hills, but far off there was a hint of smoke, a weak promise of some kind of city that was more than mere ruins. She descended again and leaned against a fur-covered part of her mount, but she didn’t dare sleep.

Later as daylight faded, she woke the creature and climbed on its back, setting it moving, as much as she could guess toward that distant smoke. Then she tied herself to some of the stable metal parts of its back and let herself doze. She slept surprisingly deeply.

When she woke, her mount had slowed, and an odd tickle lingered in her tattoo. The hybrid creature still walked, but no faster than she’d be able to on her own legs. She squeezed her eyes shut then opened them again, trying to understand what had happened. Before she could figure anything out, a shape darted from the underbrush, crashed into her mount, and then dashed off again.

She looked down. Blood and oil dripped down where the shadow had struck. The marks of other teeth scored her mount all along that side. Scavengers. Her mount had been half eaten away in the night.

Sihala held out her last spear as if the threat could return the flesh to the creature. The spear point was no longer sharp after she’d stabbed her mount, and she feared the shaft was no longer true either. No other shapes appeared, but that did nothing to lift the weight that settled over her. What would the Quartermaster give her for this? Scrap metal and nothing more. Even if its mechanical parts survived long enough to carry her to the Quartermaster, he wouldn’t dare assume it could last much longer.

Her visions of riches faded slowly into the overwhelming green of the dawn.

They plodded all day. Her mount slowed no more than it already had, but neither did it pick up its pace. Sihala thought she ought to get down and walk beside the animal or range around for clues to where to head, but she couldn’t find the energy. Instead she spent her time thinking about all the things she’d imagined, all the riches and luxuries she’d promised herself. Each item, each pile of technological wonder and mineral riches, she held up in her mind and forced herself to let go. Told herself that she’d deceived herself long enough. But as each one floated away into the humid air, she reached out and snatched it, unwilling to release the dreams.

Late in the day, they arrived at an ancient road, its pavement torn apart by plants. Sihala turned her mount, randomly choosing a direction to follow. The broken road proved no easier to follow than any haphazard path through the undergrowth, but Sihala thought—no, thought was too strong a word—hoped it might lead her to the remnant city.

As the sun finally set, turning the bright greens of the plants into impenetrable blacks, the forest thinned, and she finally saw lights and heard the mingled sounds of machinery and voices.

The mount was going even slower, but perhaps it was merely her anticipation of being able to rest. After everything, she had to get the metal at least to the Quartermaster.

The road became a street, lined with buildings that hadn’t fully fallen in. People passing gave her surprised looks, but otherwise ignored her. She rode until she saw the sign she’d been looking for: crossed spears surrounded by nuts and bolts and loose gears, all backed by the antlers of some creature she’d never seen in all her hunting.

Sihala slipped off and the creature stood still. As she pulled on the door, her mount collapsed onto its side, the motor coughing and sputtering. Even her most modest dreams would have to go. She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and entered the shop.

No matter where the conveyors took her, the Quartermaster was the same. Chubby and wearing an open, black cloak. Bespectacled, with a brimmed hat that fit snugly over his head. His habitual cane now leaned against the nearby wall.

“Welcome, scavenger,” he said. “What have you come to trade in?”

“A construct, Quartermaster. Flesh and oil, metal and blood.”

He looked out his window and said, “I see little flesh to it. Scrap metal, maybe.”

Sihala reached over to rub her ley tattoo. Little energy flowed in this town, but what there was comforted her. “As you say. But surely the components will be valuable.”

The Quartermaster shrugged, a motion that looked more mechanical than natural. “Maybe. Some of these creatures have evolved parts that aren’t useful for our machines.”

They went outside so he could examine the creature. Sihala haggled briefly, but soon gave in to his offer. Unlucky once again. Then she asked, “Where can I find the conveyor now?”

The Quartermaster led her back inside and checked what resembled a book, though symbols and numbers scrolled across it constantly, swirling into patterns as he touched them, as if magnetically drawn to his fingertips.

Somehow the orbits of those symbols gave him the information he needed. “It will pass through here tomorrow. I’ve arranged for it to cut down along the old train lines for most of the morning.”

“Will it stay that long?” Sihala thought again of its rapid shifting of the day before. “It’s been acting funny, like the thing is getting old with no one left to fix it.”

The Quartermaster gave her a look she’d never seen before, a flash of fear that merged into arrogance, shutting her up. She wondered just how old the Quartermaster was and what his connection to the conveyors was.

“It will stay.” Dismissive. Haughty. And yet fearful and weary as well, as if someday such certainty would no longer exist. If the Quartermaster was what remained of the ancient society, and if that culture’s brain had become disconnected, leaving it to stagger on by instinct, what scavengers might threaten him, to tear away the last remaining value of these days? Sihala was afraid to wonder. She stood there, not sure what words of comfort she could offer, or even if the Quartermaster would want that.

He pointed through a dark doorway to a tiny room filled with metal and tools. “You may sleep in the room through there.” She gratefully accepted. As she closed the door, she saw dozens of tiny constructs scurrying out toward her former mount to dismantle it and take its parts inside.

She fell asleep thinking of her little shack along one of the conveyor’s more common paths, of hard ground that only pungent, leafy plants could conquer, plants that reclaimed the conveyor’s path each time it shifted away, giving back grudgingly when it returned.

She wondered what creatures she would hunt tomorrow, and what luck she would have to scavenge for.

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Daniel Ausema

Author image of Daniel Ausema Daniel Ausema huddles with his family where viruses can’t reach them (so far, knock on wood) but mountain airs can. His work has appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Diabolical Plots. He is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series as well as the Arcist Chronicles, which is published by Guardbridge Books. You can find him at his website and on twitter.

© Daniel Ausema 2020 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: Pexels, bere69, and TobiasRehbein.

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