Mackie Howitzerson was a dwarf proud to be descended from a long line of miners. Sadly the only long line for Mackie, for the last decade, led to his social welfare payments. Many of the mining jobs in his hometown, GhrUnd, had been usurped by automation. Ironically – though he had trouble with the definition of that word so perhaps it was just co-incidentally, or incidentally, or just also – the very stuff they mined in GhrUnd was the very stuff that powered the machines. Magnen, the powerful substance that seemed to think for itself even as it was scraped out of the ground, was nowadays doing most of its own scraping. Not that it was really automation that had pushed Mackie out of the mine and into the dreaded light, and the Surface City.
Because you could also imbibe magnen, in various ways. Mackie was a long time smoker of “tangerine”, as they called the amber-coloured powdered form of magnen. Whether digging it out of the earth or huffing its particles intentionally, Mackie could have held a lot of resentment towards magnen. But it was such a ubiquitous force in this world that this would be like resenting the wind for storm damage, or gravity for a plane crash. He was quite happy that the stuff existed. He smoked tangerine all the time and lived in the world of its creation. It happened to be that the predominant effect of this drug was to convince the user that they are a fictitious character; that there is a story of vital importance playing out before their eyes, and that they are the protagonist. Every interaction becomes mythological; every chance occurrence symbolic. Some people called it “narrative flow”, which is the idea that life becomes a lot more bearable when the Universe wraps a paternal arm around your shoulder and, with an implied “once upon a time”, tells you exactly what you’re about to do, just as you’re already doing it, all with a heroic sense of dignity.
And so Mackie sat in the comfortable chair, having just tanged thanks to the gatekeeper character sitting across from him. Her name was Gregaria and she was an older goblin, though probably younger than Mackie, and there was a certain bohemian quality – drooping earrings and too many patterns – to her otherwise sad and impoverished existence. One day, Mackie knew, he was going to buy this house that her landlord was charging such ridiculous rent for her to occupy, and he was going to give it to Gregaria. It was all part of the story. But for now he was quite happy to prop up her income by purchasing the occasional bag of tangerine. With a wordless smile after an unmeasured silence, she stood up and put on the kettle. He didn’t remind her that she had no milk, partly because she was embarrassed at her increasingly unreliable short-term memory, and partly because Mackie couldn’t remember if there had been a bit where he solved the milk problem – something about a trip to the shop; it hadn’t been crucial to the story so it had been somewhat edited around.
There was a knock at the door. Gregaria bustled across the room, muttering something Mackie didn’t quite catch, and out of his view strangers were invited into the house. The high-pitched music of female voices confused his train of thought. He found himself the only seated sentient, and his eyes met those of a little goblin girl.
‘Did you want some cocoa, Flol?’ Gregaria was asking, squatting next to the girl in a gesture less naturally maternal than she wished it to be. The little girl nodded, still staring at Mackie. The other figure in the room must have been the child’s mother; a curvaceous goblin with intense makeup and two small horns peaking out of her forehead. She was hovering awkwardly, her hand patting the little girl’s shoulder.
‘Oh we’ve no milk,’ came Gregaria’s voice.
‘Do you want it with no milk?’ the mother asked.
‘Eww,’ said the child.
‘Tea? With no milk?’ Gregaria called, her head still inside the fridge.
‘Ewww.’ The child spoke with more intensity, and stuck out her tongue.
‘Water is fine,’ the mother called, adding ‘go on, sit down.’ to the child. She noticed Mackie at this point. Frowning down at him she said, ‘Y’alright?’ with a tone that seemed to suggest the dwarf should take care of his own “alright”, as she had enough to think about.
‘Hello,’ said Mackie, first to the mother and then again to the child with a meek wave. She was kneeling by the little bookshelf and scanning its contents, now completely oblivious to everyone else. Gregaria came back into the room, holding a glass of water, and sidled up to the mother.
‘Just a half a bag, is it?’ she asked.
The mother rolled her eyes and snarked, ‘Uh, can we go in the other room?’
‘Oh.’ Gregaria flushed, ‘of course. Sorry.’ She patted the child’s head.
‘You’ll be alright won’t you, Flol-Cora?’ the mother addressed the child but cast her gaze over Mackie. ‘Mammy will be back in a sec.’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ the child replied, not meanly but distractedly.
‘You’ll keep an eye on her, Mackie?’ Gregaria said, leaving the room, ‘She’s no trouble.’
They didn’t wait for his answer.
Mackie spaced out. At first he wondered if this was a significant part of the story or if would be edited out later. He wondered if the child was here to test or to teach, or to lead him to some new challenge. He supposed she couldn’t be an antagonist, not a sweet little goblin girl like this. Then again, he reminded himself, there are always enemies who come in the form of allies.
‘Have you ever been to Swa?’ she asked him, suddenly. He came back to reality and realised she was sitting on the floor in front of the bookshelf, discarded books around her and a hardback atlas open across her lap. She was tracing a finger across a two-page map of North Swa, following the River Ubdi.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘Have you?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘but Malany has.’
‘Is that your friend?’
‘No, she’s my character.’ The child looked at him, very seriously, ‘I’m writing a book.’
Mackie chuckled. ‘About a girl from Swa?’
‘No, she’s from Lundaria.’ The girl looked at him as if he was stupid. ‘She travels all over the Orbis, on lots of different adventures.’
‘That sounds like a very good book.’
She shrugged. ‘It is.’
‘Have you finished it?’
‘It’s in my head,’ Flol-Cora turned to the next page of the atlas, ‘Mam is going to buy me an augmenter so I can write it down. My birthday’s in Monuary.’ The last part was emphasised, as if Mackie should take note.
‘That’s very soon. You must be very excited.’
The goblin girl shrugged again before turning another page, revealing Pasbataria and the Wet Divide. ‘Have you been to Pasbataria?’
‘You haven’t been anywhere, have you? How old are you?’
‘That’s not a very polite question.’
‘Why not? I’m eight. See, it’s easy? But I’m going to be nine soon.’
‘In Monuary,’ Mackie sniggered.
She looked at him askance, measuring if he was making fun of her. As she turned back to the atlas Mackie felt warmth blooming in his chest. Of course this was her role in his story. He had barely travelled anywhere – once to Gjardland, and once to Soleaux. Otherwise he’d hardly even seen what Lundaria had to offer; barely been beyond the lower two cities of the triple-capital. If he was to become the hero he was destined to be, there was somewhere he needed to travel. There was some far-flung destination it was his destiny to discover.
‘Where–’ he began, ‘How does your story end, Flol?’
‘Oh,’ Mackie coughed the word and then continued coughing until his vision blurred. ‘Um. How?’
‘Because the book is the story of her whole life.’ Flol-Cora looked up from her map, slightly annoyed at the inconvenience, ‘How do you think stories actually end?’
‘I – I suppose you have a point,’ Mackie said, ‘but why not end the book at a happy point, after she gets back from her travels or – or when she –’
She blinked at him, mercilessly replying, ‘Because that would be lying, Mackie.’
He felt himself shudder, panic and sweat. Thoughts appeared in his mind of their own accord:
How did she know my name? She’s testing me. This is the test.
No – no, Gregaria said my name. The girl’s just clever – too clever.
She’s the devil.
This is how I die.
What are you thinking Mackie? She’s just a little goblin.
He leaned forward, trying to calm himself. ‘So you want to travel the world, don’t you?’
She shrugged. ‘I probably won’t get to.’
‘But you’d like to,’ Mackie panted, ‘that – that’s why you’re writing the story.’ He struggled to articulate himself, ‘that’s what little girls do – they, they – make up stories because they want to live in that world.’ He lost track of what he was trying to say. ‘Right?’ he concluded, unsurely.
She thought about it and eventually replied, ‘I don’t think about it that much. I’m just writing my story. ‘
He nodded, leaning back in his chair, trying to slow his heart.
‘Mam says goblins are the only other species apart from elves who can use wings,’ Flol-Cora was saying, ‘so in my book Malany discovers a pair of wings and uses them to fly to Soleaux, and then Gjardland and then every country on the Orbis. And everywhere she goes she helps people.’
‘And – and that’s what you want to do, is it?’ Mackie gestured towards the ceiling, ‘fly around like an angel, going on adventures.’
‘I like the helping people part.’ Flol-Cora said, ‘I can actually do that. I think Mam’s wrong. If goblins could fly they’d fly.’
‘So why write the book?’ Mackie raised his hands with frustration.
Flol-Cora raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t you know anything?’ she asked, and left it at that. She turned the page on her atlas, revealing Xiaing, and started humming to herself.
Who is this trickster character? Mackie thought, what am I supposed to learn from this??
He heard feet thumping on the stairs. Gregaria and the girl’s mother re-entered the room. Flol-Cora glanced over her shoulder, swamped her water – which had, until now, remained untouched – and began stacking the books on the shelf. The last book to be put in place was the atlas, which she closed with some reluctance.
‘She was okay for you?’ the mother asked Mackie. He noticed her voice was a little softer now, and there was a telltale edging of yellow in her eyes.
He could only nod. Flol-Cora was standing and taking her mother’s hand.
‘I told him about my book,’ she said, innocently. She gave him a little glance that could have meant anything. He had to consciously close his mouth. He shuffled in his seat to hide the fear.
‘It’s great, isn’t it?’ her mother said, to the room in general, ‘when they have all these stories in their heads.’ She frowned, chasing an elusive thought, ‘When they can make stuff up, and they’re not… stuck. They’re not stuck with the random shite the Universe throws at them.’ She laughed. ‘Dunno what I’m on about. C’mon, we have to go Flol-Cora.’
Mackie watched them leave.
It would be nice to say he never smoked tangerine again.
But how do you think stories actually end?