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Champion of the Little People

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Fantasy

Champion of the Little People

“It’s all in your mind, dear. I’ve heard from a very reputable source that no such condition exists.” Much as I view Myers Briggs and other tests which purport to organize people into a few categories with suspicion, sometimes it’s tempting to think that’s true.

Aunt Lina, for instance, is the type which doesn’t believe in illness that can’t be seen. These people have the best intentions in the world, but when it turns out they cannot fix you in the span of a few hours they become frustrated and lay the blame at your feet.

If I were in a wheelchair, those people wouldn’t knock me out of it with the assurance that my legs will start working again if I think positive thoughts. “It was a talk show, wasn’t it? The reputable source you mentioned.” She looked caught off guard, then supremely annoyed.

I don’t know where anybody gets off thinking they can swoop into a stranger’s life, quickly solve all of their problems and then be on their way. Especially not when their solution is to declare the problems imaginary. Everybody seems convinced they know other people better than they know themselves. I’m equally convinced that none of them actually do.

Aunt Lina retreated to the kitchen to complain about me to mom. Nothing she didn’t already know. I sealed myself up in my room, turned out the lights, and peered out the window. We’re nearly closer to the forest than the school. I feel foolish for hoping, but if one of these nights I should see little bonfires at the edge…

Unwanted memories of the old crone, strung up to bleed out, surged to the forefront of my mind. All I could think to do before fleeing was to grab that book. At the time I hoped that without instructions, no new Tyrants could be built.

Couldn’t leave that to chance, though. So I returned to the crone’s yurt some weeks later to scavenge what I could. Somebody had already taken most of it. They missed a box full of iron traps however, perfect for the quarry I had in mind. For bait, I carefully crafted little villages of the appropriate scale, with the trap in the center buried under a layer of leaves.

This worked a few times, but then never again. On top of which, dad found the box of traps in my room and got the wrong idea. As I left my room I overheard him speaking about it with Aunt Lina in hushed tones. Something about how small animal torture is a warning sign for something or other.

They told me to stay out of that forest too, but it’s so close there’s no way to enforce such a rule. I can be there and back in less than ten minutes. I began visiting less and less frequently of my own accord, as I gradually lost hope that any of the little fellows had survived.

It’s a surreal feeling to be let in on a secret of that nature only to eventually return to a more or less normal life. After a time, you begin to wonder if you dreamt it. By my first year of Junior High I’m ashamed to say that I only rarely thought of the crone and her tiny creations. I might’ve let it go entirely had I not read all the way through that book.

Most of it was in a bizarre language I could find no match for. But her notes in the margins were in English, as was one of the last few pages. “Travel North Northeast from my home until you reach edge of forest. You should come upon small lake. At bottom is last hope to keep my dream alive.”

Being in junior high, I didn’t see any realistic way to get my hands on a boat. I’d have to swim out. After consulting a map, I determined she’d meant Everton Lake. How deep? What would I need to reach the bottom? Surmountable problems, at least. If there were some artifact down there which could set things right….

Swim trunks wouldn’t cut it, but I didn’t exactly have a wetsuit handy. I settled for layered shirts. After snooping through the garage, I found something I felt ought to do the trick. Dad’s kind of a packrat and tool nut, which always came in handy whenever I felt driven to build something. In this case, I was after his air compressor.

Not exactly the safest way to dive. In fact it’s probably the most dangerous. But it would raise the fewest questions. I could have it back in the span of a half-hour if all went well. The cumbersome device could be carried like a briefcase, flexible orange air hose coiled up around the handle.

When the weekend came I biked into town and spent my saved up allowance on a fresh charcoal intake filter to keep fumes out of the air I meant to breathe, an airhose adapter, and the cheapest scuba regulator at the local dive shop. I balked at spending sixty dollars on something so small but the shop owner explained that's cheap as it gets.

Once home, I went in through the door in the side of the garage to avoid explaining why I’d bought any of this to Mom or Dad. The regulator, when fitted with the adaptor, screwed neatly onto the threaded end of the air hose. The best I could do for a float was to stick the compressor inside of our camping cooler.

Not exactly professional grade equipment, but you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. She’d never have written what she did if there weren’t something important in that lake. The next day I told Mom I was heading for the lake to catch frogs. “Don’t let me find out you were in that forest again”, she threatened.

For lack of any better means to transport the compressor and hose, with great effort I lifted the cooler with the rest of the gear inside onto my old Radio Flyer wagon. This made the trek out to the lake considerably less strenuous. I almost wished I’d drawn it out further, as once I arrived there was nowhere to go but down. Severe trepidation nearly made me turn around.

No, that’s no good. I couldn’t let her down. Not knowing what I knew. So I topped up the gas, pull-started the compressor, slid my goggles down over my eyes and nose, then popped the regulator into my mouth. Taking a few cautious drags on it I discovered it worked better than hoped. How long the compressor would run on a single tank was a big question mark as I’d never used it before, but I didn’t plan to be down there for long.

I eased the wagon into the water until the cooler began to float. Once free, I withdrew the wagon back onto the shore. Aside from the sentimental value, I knew I’d need it to lug all this stuff back to the garage soon. At least, if all went according to plan.

I cried out in an embarrassing falsetto upon setting foot in the water. I knew it’d be cold, but that’s the difference between theory and practice. Certain parts of me shrunk up inside my body the moment the water reached them. I started to violently shiver. Already? That’s no good. I trudged on until the water was up to my neck.

Then, committing to what I’d come out here to accomplish, I dunked my head underwater. It was a remarkable feeling to be breathing easy below the waterline. My fear soon evaporated and I found myself wishing I’d done this sooner. Step after step, stirring up clouds of lakebed sediment as I trudged along. I estimated I could see perhaps twenty feet ahead before it all faded into a murky green.

As I descended, I popped my ears. Wound up having to do it several times. I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t exceeded some safe depth limit, but was interrupted mid-thought by a bizarre sight. There on the lakebed, amidst gentle waving aquatic plants of some sort, sat an immense glass jug of the type Dad sometimes brews his own beer in.

It was sealed tightly with a cork, and illuminated from within. As I drew closer to investigate the source of the light, I nearly spit out my regulator in shock. The bottom most part of the jug was filled with what looked like lead shot, presumably to weigh it down. Then a layer of some kind of sealant. Then soil. And growing from that soil, a leafy green bush!

Although there was plenty of light coming from the surface, I could also see familiar little green points of light inside the jug. I knelt down and peered in through the glass. Little cottages, arranged in a circle around the base of the plant. And walking to and fro between them, a small population of Homunculi.

I could’ve cried. That crafty old witch. She’d hidden them where no Tyrant would think to search. Where no Tyrant could survive, for that matter. Just beyond it lay several clusters of identical jugs, each one containing a self-supporting ecosystem and some number of little refugees. My heart soared at the sight of it. 

The jug I lifted out of the muck wasn’t terribly heavy in water, but once I got it to shore, it was excruciating to move any real distance. I wound up using the wagon to make multiple trips to and from the house. First to return my impromptu diving gear, then to bring the gigantic burdensome jar. “You’re back so soon?” My Mom called out. “Yeah I was colder than I thought it’d be.” I heard chuckling. I wheeled the jug into my room, then used a set of pliers to carefully work out the cork.

It came free with a satisfying “thoonk”, belching air in my face that’d been recirculated within that jar for who knows how long. A year, at least. Some of the little guys were already at the top of the plant, having climbed it to greet me once the cork was out. I cupped my hands to serve as a platform, then ferried them a few at a time from the lip of the jar to my desk.

As I did so I took note of the water dripping from my body all over the carpet. Adrenaline must’ve distracted me from the cold, but it was now making itself felt. I opted for a quick hot shower, then returned to my room to discover the rest of ‘em had gotten out on their own. Six stood at the base of the jar, in addition to the four I’d moved to the desk.

I scooped up those six and united them with the rest, who it seemed were now busily drawing on some papers I’d left out. Those particular papers weren’t important to me, so I didn’t interfere. To look upon them, alive and healthy after what I’d witnessed in the woods last year was exilhirating. A wound, hanging open since then, only now beginning to heal over.

Leaning over to inspect the drawings, I immediately recognized them for maps of the area. There was the lake, and the forest. The school, and my house. But why? As if to answer, with the little bit of graphite in its miniscule hand, one of them began to mark specific locations in and around the forest. He couldn’t mean….but what if?

Despite the hour, I snuck out in a thick coat with my flashlight in tow. Chosen because, as a consequence of running on four D cells, it also made a serviceable club. One which had already seen some use against Tyrants, as the crusty red stains on the handle attest to.

It occurred to me that I might’ve planned the outing more carefully only once I was already deep in the woods. Moonlight reflected off of various pairs of large, round eyes. Owls, I hoped. The last time I’d ventured in this far, the forest floor was caked in crunchy dead leaves. I encountered ferns this time, and undergrowth so thick as to trip me twice.

How would I find them in this mess? If I’d known it would be so overgrown I’d have brought some shears. It only took me by surprise because trips to the woods had been strictly verboten since the night I met the witch. Nothing could keep me away, but the first couple of whuppings at least impressed upon me the importance of stealth.

A compass also would’ve been nice. When I found the first shelter it was only because they were expecting me. At first I thought I’d imagined it. Then again, in the periphery of my vision, a blinking green light. Same color as the little lanterns in the first village I’d found, so long ago.

Delirious with excitement, I dashed towards it, slowing as I drew near for fear I might step on one of them. I found no village to speak of. Instead, at the base of a tree whose roots had been exposed somewhat by erosion, I spotted a little round hatch. Originally from some container meant to secure valuables, by the looks of it.

Just outside stood a single Homunculus with a shuttered lantern. He waved to me and I knelt to get a better look. The little fellow scampered over to the hatch, beat on it for a bit, then it opened. This proved to be a long, laborious ordeal. I could guess why. It wasn’t so much to keep them inside, as to keep certain unwanted visitors out.

Once the first few saw my face and called back to the rest, they poured out of the opening in a deluge of little pale bodies. All covered in dirt, shielding their eyes from my flashlight. How long had they been underground? I examined the rest of the tree’s roots and found numerous spots where something must've clawed at the soil, furiously trying to get inside.

Those nearest me tugged at the edges of my coat. When I placed my hand at ground level, they piled onto it. Without any proper container to carry them in, I settled for my pockets. It was quite a warm, soft jacket so I felt it suitably safe and comfortable. In spite of the size difference, my pockets nearly weren’t enough. By the time I carefully stood, laden with little passengers, they were piled right up to the brims and peering over the edge.

Once I made absolutely sure I hadn’t left any, I gingerly trekked home, taking great care not to let any of them spill out. The shears went exactly where I remembered finding them before I’d left. Nothing out of place, no evidence I’d been outside. It proved to be in vain.

“You went to the forest, didn’t you.” Dad sat in his recliner, faced away. I mustered the courage to ask if mom was awake too. “No, she doesn’t need to know about this. But I need to know what your problem is. The more we tell you to stay out of those woods, the more attracted to them you become. Does my authority as your father mean nothing to you?”

I assured him it did, and slowly began edging towards my room. He was up in a flash, his hands gripping the edges of my coat. My heart leapt into my throat and instinctively I gripped my coat too. It only encouraged him. He tore it from me, shook it violently and threw it to the floor.

“No cigarettes or booze. That’s really what I thought all this sneaking was about, I guess I should’ve given you more credit. What’s wrong now? Why are you blubbering?” I knelt at his feet, tears rolling down my cheeks, feeling at the pockets for survivors. They were flat as could be. “I don’t understand you. We got on so well when you were younger. I just want-”

I clutched the coat to my chest and ran from the room, up the stairs and into my bedroom. I only didn’t slam the door for fear of waking mom. My eyes red and puffy, salty streams still snaking down my face, I turned the desk lamp on my jacket and began carefully checking the pockets for blood. Instead, they were empty.

I boggled, having steeled myself for the worst. The ones I’d found in the glass jug gathered on the desk before me, no doubt wondering why I’d come back empty handed and tearful. After I heard Dad go to bed, I cracked the door open and snuck downstairs taking care to avoid the creaky step.

From behind every nicknack on the mantle, every shoe by the door and every picture on the shelves, a little green light waved to and fro. I fought back the cry of relief and instead scooped them all up in my hands and, making three trips, transported them upstairs. When I reunited them with their aquatic brethren they seemed floored. As expected. They’d been separated for a year now.

The two groups rushed to embrace one another, formed circles hand in hand to dance merrily and exchanged stories in their inaudibly soft, high pitched dialect. I cradled my head in my hands and simply watched them for a while as nostalgia washed over me.

I recalled the little procession on the table, bringing the marshmallows for my cocoa. The cautious faces peeking out from behind the astonishingly well made miniature tables and chairs on the crone’s shelves. If I weren’t so determined not to harbor foolish fantasies I could almost say that I felt her presence.

I slept soundly that night for the first time in many months. When I awoke, while sitting in bed rubbing my eyes, I began to wonder if it had simply been a wonderful dream. Then their bright little faces poked out from behind various books and toys on my shelves.

I doodled them in my binder on the way to school, performing various dances or tasks. Some sawing twigs for firewood, others playing happily on a set of little drums. At stoplights, out of the corner of my eye I could see dad studying my drawings.

Once or twice he began to say something, but stopped himself. I wondered if he meant to apologize for last night. “It’s okay”, I muttered. “I know it’s hard to have a kid like me.” He furrowed his brow, then returned his gaze to the road.

Morning classes went quickly. There was a test, which seemed to upset the others. I’ve always enjoyed tests. It’s the routine drudgery of homework I can’t stand. The multiple choice ones in particular are quite like puzzles, where the wording of each question carries subtle hints as to the answer the author intends.

I always did very well but never interpreted the results as indicative of anything other than my ability to figure out the mindset of the guy who designed the test. Something I could do very easily with writing, but not at all in person.

When recess came, the ritual began. It’s the same three girls every time. Why do they chase me? Maybe just because I run when they do. I once complained to a teacher about it. He chuckled, and suggested I let them catch me. Not sure what the joke was. Perhaps today was the day to find out.

I abruptly stopped in the middle of a modest grassy field just outside the cafeteria. The girls stopped too, looking on in confusion as I’d never done this before. Their faces turned red. Then confusion became anger. Two held me while the other took off my shoes, then pulled my pants off.

I coped by shutting my eyes tightly and hoping it’d be over soon. They ran off with my pants  laughing uproariously, leaving me in the field, searching for something to cover up with. I’d picked a bad day to wear Star Trek underpants.

“Don’t react, and the bullies will stop. They thrive on your reactions.” More sage grownup advice that works only in the realm of thought experiment. Very few gathered to appreciate the spectacle as I walked to the principal’s office in my tighty whities. After all, something like this happened to me roughly two or three times a week.

The girls hid the pants well enough that further searching was deemed useless. The principal called my mom so she could bring a replacement pair. “You know most boys your age would sell their left kidney to be chased by girls every day”. I don’t know how he got the idea that I was in the mood for jokes.

“You must know something about girls I don’t”, I opined. “So far, they’ve been a reliable source of humiliation and not much else.” He shook his head, told me I didn’t understand because I was too young. Maybe so. My mom’s a girl, after all. So was the crone, although it felt strange to think of either having been my age at some point.

Mom arrived with the pants, and scolded me for “losing” yet another pair. I could see her side of it. Pants aren’t free. She and the principal made friendly chitchat as I got dressed. Mostly about me. Nothing I cared to listen to, as I’d heard it all before. They have their own ideas about how stuff like this happens to me and are never particularly interested in my side of it.

I waved as she drove off, then headed back to class. I knew what to expect going in. Even so, it stung. Mr. Conrad did his best to shout it down but there were a solid three, maybe four minutes of laughter until he did. Then came the leering. Oh, what will he do next to entertain us? What enjoyment can yet be squeezed out of him?

I tuned it out and returned to doodling. History class did not require my participation as it’s a strong subject for me and not one I’d ever had to put any effort into for good grades. This retreat was sorely needed. Even without looking I could sense their eyes on me. Faces locked into that maniacal, predatory grin I’ve become entirely too familiar with.

I don’t know what makes me such a tempting target. That’s always eluded me. My last year of elementary passed nearly without incident simply because word got around that I’d beaten up one of my bullies. The others left me alone after that for some reason. I added it to the list of things I’ll never understand about them.

I dreaded the thought of another fight. Would it work a second time? But then I’d have to pick someone to hit. They’d be just as shocked, hurt and alienated as I always am when it happens to me. Visiting pain and fear upon another person just so I can be spared it seems like some perverse sacrificial offering.

Just then I noticed girls ahead of me whispering, giggling and passing notes. One of them I recognized from the field. On the off chance the note included the location of my pants, I snatched it mid-exchange. The girls looked at me in horror. One began to yell, but was admonished by Mr. Conrad to keep her voice down.

I stole a look at it. “Boys we like” at the top, then a numbered list. My name was number one. I puzzled over it until one of the girls leaned over and grabbed it from me. She then tore it into little pieces. The other two were that same shade of red I’d seen before. “It doesn’t mean anything”, she harshly whispered. “Just a joke we came up with.”

Oh. Well, that makes sense of it. What else could it be but a joke? I’d been foolish to entertain any other interpretation. “So I’m a joke to them”, I thought. What had I been before? Was this a step down, or up?

I resolved not to give it further thought, and buried my face in my binder. I was nearly finished with a busy drawing of the little fellows throwing some sort of festival. Not one I’d ever seen, but it would certainly be in their nature from what I knew of it.

The bell sent waves of relief washing over me. I’d made it through another day. I recalled my dad once telling me that ‘day by day’ is no way to live your life as there’s no thought given to the future. He’s got me there. For me, the future means three more years of days like today. Then highschool. I try to think about that as little as possible.

When I got in the car, I sensed something in the air. Dad was driving as he and mom alternate and I guess they’d agreed that her mid-day visit to deliver my pants counted. As we turned onto the freeway, he broke the ice. “I heard what happened today.”

I didn’t confirm or deny it. I figured he’d say his piece either way. “You got into my tools, didn’t you. The air compressor wasn’t where I remembered.” No point in denying it. I’d only get punished more for lying. I told him I’d rigged it for diving. To my surprise, he laughed.

“That’s pretty clever. I don’t want you doing it again though, you can hurt yourself real bad that way if something goes wrong. You understand?” I nodded. No sense in bringing up the rest of those jugs until I had someplace safe prepared for their occupants anyway.

“Your mother threw a fit that morning. Did you know you tracked muddy water in through the kitchen?” I didn’t, and apologized. That was it from him for the rest of the ride. I felt relieved he hadn’t gone into detail about the whole pants business.

Aunt Lina was there when we got home. I scowled involuntarily. Mom came out to mediate. “Aunt Lina’s brought you something!” In fact, she had. It was a beautifully giftwrapped package nearly as big as myself. “We had a misunderstanding the other day. I thought I’d surprise you with something nice to smooth it over.”

I made a point to sincerely thank her. Perhaps it really was just a misunderstanding. I peeled away the paper, tearing it as little as possible so it could be saved and reused. Inside was a model train set. “I read you guys really have a thing for trains”, she explained. You guys? Me and who else? I shrugged it off, thanked her again and dragged the immense brightly colored box up to my room.

On the way up I heard Lina say to mom, “I’m still on the fence. Supposing he does it for attention? And for gifts! If so, he played me like a fiddle. Oh, don’t look at me that way. Although, I did hear there’s some connection with vaccines. You didn’t vaccinate him, did you?”

They took some coaxing to come out of their hiding places. Mom must’ve been through to clean once or twice while I was at school. I told them all about my day. I doubted they understood, but they seemed able to tell I was upset about something. About a dozen sat in a semicircle before me. One was struck by a falling tear, which absolutely drenched him.

He burst out laughing. So did the rest. It proved infectious and before long I forgot my troubles.  I rejoiced in their company, and began to appreciate how the crone could live in the woods for so many years. She’d not been the least bit alone, had she? I felt as though she were smiling down on me as I played with the little ones. It got me to thinking what more I could do to build a future for them.

I broke out the sketchpad and began to brainstorm ideas for fortifications. They wouldn’t be safe here forever. I also didn’t want my parents becoming a target for unknowingly harboring refugees. Most of the tiny, immaculate drawings they’d done while I was away depicted the forest. Many would gather around and look on, wistfully.

Returning them to the burrow beneath the tree didn’t seem like an acceptable solution. What sort of life would that be? Still, some sort of emergency refuge was a good idea. Most of my concept drawings had several underground shelters spaced evenly so that everyone could get to safety at a moment’s notice should an unwelcome visitor appear.

I then set to prototyping the shelters. My first idea was to simply superglue walls to a cinderblock, with holes just large enough for them to crawl through into one of the two hollow cavities. But while they’d be safe enough from a single Tyrant, several would probably be able to lift and carry the whole thing.

I eventually settled on building the settlement around the tree with the burrow under it. Better they should have someplace to retreat to should all other defenses fail. I also wound up revisiting the cinderblock, but as the basis for a home which could not be crushed underfoot. While it wouldn’t stop a Tyrant, it would at least stop cats, raccoons and other probable threats.

I found the cinderblocks in the garage, just where I remembered. When mom walked in on me assembling the first one, I told her it was a birdhouse. “I’ve never seen somebody make a birdhouse from a cinderblock” she remarked. “Well, now you have” I replied. Seemed to satisfy her.

I had the little fellows inspect the first completed house, then suggest changes via drawings. One obvious one I missed was the necessity of drilling a hole through the floor for waste disposal, as well as another in the ceiling for the stovepipe. A group of them spent the evening figuring out how to furnish the prototype so that result could be quickly replicated for the rest.

If I could find an opportunity to set these up around that tree sometime soon, I could begin relocating some of the little ones. They could then do much of the rest of the work themselves, from resources gathered on-site. The burrow beneath the tree doubles as a mine, and as soon as a defensive perimeter of some kind could be established they might begin to farm.

I still felt they would need supplies for a while before they could become self sufficient. Even the glass jug some of them called home for a year contained buried caches of dried meat and other provisions to live off of until someone came along to release them.

All at once, it struck me. The train! I turned and studied the cover of the colorful box. Aunt Lina was, for the next four seconds, my favorite person in the world. With enough track I could discreetly send loads of building materials, food, and whatever else they needed from the backyard directly to their settlement in the woods.

The discretion part assumed some way of concealing the train. I thought piping might do the trick but could find nothing like that in the garage and had no money to buy it with. What I did find were stacks and stacks of plastic gutter dad meant to install last Summer, putting it off until he simply forgot about it. I knew there’d be questions about what happened to it eventually, but the pressing short term needs of my tiny friends came before such concerns.

By turning the sections of gutter over, a sort of tunnel resulted which I could then pile dirt on top of. The trick would be to dig a shallow trench first so the roof of the tunnel would be flush with the ground. Reasoning that the tunnel would need a rigid floor to glue the train tracks to, I found some corrugated plastic signs from an environmental activism thing mom was involved in for a while and cut those up into strips with the appropriate footprint.

In this manner, one at a time I built and buried sections of tunnel with interlocking lengths of train tracks inside. The set was electrical and a track that long simply wouldn’t supply the necessary power over such a distance, so I opened the engine with one of the fine screwdrivers dad uses to fix his glasses and rigged it to run on a pair of double A batteries.

The car behind it would carry spares that could be added to the circuit just by connecting the appropriate wires. This way if they ran out halfway through the tunnel, they wouldn’t be stranded. After the sun went down I got out my wagon, jacket and flashlight, then lugged a set of four cinderblock houses out to the spot I’d chosen.

I worried whether the little buddies I’d left in those houses would have what they needed to get comfortable, but when Saturday came and both mom and dad left to attend a fundraiser, I headed out to the settlement only to find thin trails of smoke issuing forth from each home’s chimney.

I’d left them with a bottlecap of water which turned out to be unnecessary as they could collect as much dew as they needed each morning, to say nothing of groundwater available in the lower levels of the burrow. So I lugged out the other four cinderblock houses I’d built so far, and spent the next several hours burying sections of track.

If not for the necessity of stealth I might’ve completed the railroad in the span of a few days. Instead it took roughly a month, stealing chances here and there to bury another tunnel section, until finally it reached a spot just outside the gate between the back yard and the field behind it. The gradual construction turned out to be a boon as it allowed time for fresh grass to grow over each newly buried tunnel section, such that it blended in with the field.

At the settlement, the tunnel emptied out into a long loop around the settlement itself, with a switchable Y junction at the mouth so the train could carry supplies around the colony before returning the way it came. There wasn’t room for a loop on my end that wouldn’t be noticed, so each time it arrived I’d have to take the train off the tracks one car at a time, then reassemble it facing in the other direction before sending it back.  

It was a momentous Sunday when everything was finally in place to send the train on its maiden voyage. I used a reel of twine to measure how far it made it down the tunnel each time before snagging on something so I knew where to dig up a tunnel section and make corrections. By the end of the day, exhausted and covered in dirt, I nonetheless danced like a fool when I first saw the train exit the tunnel and circle the settlement for the first time.

This greatly simplified and accelerated development of their colony. I no longer needed to wait for opportunities to visit the woods unnoticed in order to deliver supplies. Each way took an hour and eighteen minutes according to my stopwatch, and if I wasn’t around to receive them on my end, I’d supplied an additional partially buried cinderblock house where the ones who rode the train could safely stay until I had time to meet with them.

The ones who rode the train back to me always came with drawings of what they needed. Crushed cereal proved popular, as did shredded jerky. Dried berries less so, as the ones who’d spent a year underwater in the sealed jug subsisted largely on similar berries from the small bush growing inside.

This set me to thinking about the other jars I’d not yet fished out the of lake. With the beginnings of a town up and running, and the train finally operational, I felt it might make sense to bring more of them to the surface at some point.  

Mom and Dad could tell something was up, but most of it was explicable as a newfound interest in various hobbies. Explaining the disappearance of the train set was more difficult. I don’t like fibbing but I couldn’t very well tell them I’d built a subway for lilliputians. So I claimed to have traded it for the various other materials that now cluttered my room, with which I’d spent many busy weekends building new amenities to ship to the burgeoning town.

I was content to accept whatever punishment Dad deemed appropriate for that, but he confided in me that he regards Aunt Lina more or less the way I do, and only tolerates her for Mom’s sake. There are times when I feel like we understand each other, however fleeting. Later that evening he gifted me an erector set in exchange for recent good grades.

I was indifferent until I saw this particular set included a fully functional scale model steam engine. I nearly leapt out of my seat in delight. Glancing back at Dad he seemed a bit confused that I liked it so much. “I quite like small machines, they’re fascinating to build” I offered, with some degree of hidden strategy. If I could get my hands on more stuff like this, the settlement could generate its own power, industrialize, and who knows what else!

As soon as I could get away without raising suspicion, I headed for the forest, steam engine in hand. My excitement dwindled as I approached the settlement. The houses’ windows were dark and no smoke came from the chimneys. One was upturned and the train track around the settlement was twisted scrap.

Tyrants. I knew they would eventually find this place but had hoped for more time to set up defenses. The little fellows took refuge in the burrow beneath the tree as planned. Excavations amidst the tree’s tangled roots testified to frustrated efforts by Tyrants to dig their way inside. I devised a nasty surprise for the next set.

Crushing a glass bottle beneath my boot, I mixed the glass shards in with loose soil which I then used to fill in the excavated spots. The next time they dug at it, they’d soon wish they hadn’t. When the hatch to the burrow opened, only one of them came out to greet me. He unfurled a drawing of three Tyrants laying waste to their village. I spent the next hour or so drawing various ideas for walls, fences and minefields while my little consultant looked on and nodded thoughtfully.

For the time being, I glued grass fragments to the outside of each cinderblock house to make it harder to lift or tip without injury. Then advised the Homunculi to remain in the shelter while I figured out a solution.

I headed back to the house and dug through the garage. Nothing looked applicable to the problem until I uncovered an old disused bug zapper. Not terribly helpful in its present form, but the circuit inside could electrify any pair of wire loops provided they were close enough.

The next two hours were spent building a crude but functional electric fence. Each pylon two feet high, with wire looped around spaced just right so that anything touching or passing through would cause an electrical arc. The problem was supplying enough power for the whole mess. For the time being I ran an extension cord out to it and buried it alongside the train tunnel.

That wouldn’t cut it long term. Dad would eventually notice. Plan B was to save my allowance until I could buy a pair of car batteries. As I didn’t need to power the bulb which normally attracts insects, the zapper only really pulled current when frying something. It could run for days on one of the batteries while the other charged at home. Then on the weekend, I’d swap ‘em.

This worked so well it was tempting to supply for the rest of their needs this way. But batteries are expensive and eventually need replacement. Ideally I wanted to set them up in such a way that they could provide for themselves indefinitely. So, I got to work building them a powerplant. The first iteration consisted of the model steam engine mated to the dynamo from a hand-cranked emergency radio.

I tried powering the fence with it directly. It didn’t pack much of a punch. After having the little guys load some chopped twigs into it, set them ablaze and get the contraption up and running, I tested the fence with a hot dog on a stick. It fizzled. Eventually I mustered the bravery to try it with my hand. The shock only barely stung. Not remotely sufficient.

What I could do with it, however, was charge the battery. As the fence drew next to no current most of the time, the battery could be trickle charged by the makeshift steam generator until full. I housed the electronics, battery and steam engine in an upturned plastic bin with a hole cut in the roof for the smokestack. Didn’t want rain shorting any of it out.

It was a bit of a chore instructing the Homunculi in its use. They had no familiarity with electricity and regarded it as magical. I pointed out the voltmeter I’d affixed to the circuit which displayed the battery’s state of charge and, through a long series of drawings, explained that the fence would only work while the battery was charged and that keeping the steam engine running was the only way to do that.

The one I was dealing with disseminated this understanding to the rest, then assigned six of the others to keeping the steam engine supplied with firewood and water, carrying away the ash, and monitoring charge level. Another ten were added to kindling detail as their need for twigs had just sharply increased.

As a final precaution, I nicked the flare gun out of a neighbor’s boat and rigged it facing upwards at a break in the forest canopy. Fishing line from the trigger allowed a few Homunculi tugging on it to fire the flare skyward. It took only two drawings to make it clear to them what it was for and when to use it.

The sun now low on the horizon, I trekked across the field and found to my relief that Mom and Dad were not yet home. I suspected Dad knew by now, but had grown tired of punishing me for it. Mom was the one I had to worry about. According to her, I could easily be eaten alive by bears anywhere outside of the suburb. And grownups are supposed to be the rational ones.

Problems quickly arose with both the steam engine and the fence. First, being fenced in limited the area they could forage in. For all sorts of things, but most importantly kindling. I gathered twigs from our yard for a while and sent bundles to them by train until I could fit a small switch between the battery and zapper circuit. This allowed them to turn off the fence briefly, permittng parties of foragers through.

The steam engine, being an educational model, was never intended to run continuously much less for days at a time. The little fellows proved extremely resourceful at jerry rigging repairs to it, but could only do so much without the ability to smelt metals.

So, I drew some pictures of how to build a medieval blacksmith’s forge. It wasn’t clear to me just how smart they are until I studied their repairs to the steam engine, but after that it came as no surprise when they managed to set up their own forge in a matter of days.

All I had to do was show them an explicit drawing of some mechanism and they soon built it. Problem was, I had to truly understand in detail how it worked because they’d build it exactly according to the drawing, so if I got something wrong, so did they.

By this time I was regularly swiping batteries from the TV remote and various appliances to keep the train running. I knew that wasn’t sustainable so I dropped some allowance money on a four pack of rechargeable batteries and a charger.

I wasted no time taking the charger apart, fitting the train engine with the rechargeable cells, and wiring it such that the train could be plugged into the steam engine/car battery assembly in the settlement to juice it back up. I didn’t like drawing on the car battery for this as it was crucial for their safety but saw no other workable solution.

Next was a replacement power supply. Asking around revealed that solar panels of the size needed were priced out of my reach. Anyway, the forest canopy prevented enough sunlight from reaching the settlement for panels to do any good. For lack of a better idea I biked to the library one Saturday and came back with a book about electrical science fair projects.

One was a variant on the familiar lemon battery. It turned out the lemon wasn’t strictly necessary, but that sticking two dissimilar metals into soil would also generate current. Not very much, but pairs of nails, tent stakes or whatever else could be wired up in series to achieve the desired voltage, and in parallel to achieve the desired amperage.

I briefly worried that the whole mess would be outside of the fence and thus vulnerable to the Tyrants before realizing I could bury all of it such that they’d never know it was there. I wound up buying a few boxes of magnesium fire starting rods and thick, three inch long lengths of copper wiring I’d had the guy at the hardware store cut for me from a spool.

Once the work of driving them into the ground in pairs and wiring them up was finished, all told they produced fourteen volts and a little over three amps.  The area of forest floor the whole mess took up was impressive, although after I’d layered some soil on top of it all you couldn’t tell anything was there.

According to the book, this was how morse code relay stations were once powered in areas with no electrical infrastructure. It went on to say that if the draw were continuous, the bacterial action in the soil would not be sufficient to replenish the acidity for longer than four or five months.

I dreaded the prospect of having to find some alternative down the line, but then since the draw would be intermittent and rare I hoped my own setup might last a good deal longer. If nothing else, it would buy me time to figure out a more permanent solution.

School became a blur. The routine torment rolled off my back, as I knew I had my own wonderful, ever-growing world to retreat to provided I could make it through each day. It gave me a strength I’d never known before. Something to live for, morbid as it sounds. Until then I’d simply been surviving.

My grades began to suffer as I spent every school day dreaming up and doodling innovations to improve the settlement. When it became apparent that I wouldn’t be allowed to spend time on my “hobbies” unless my grades improved, I struck a balance between the two which both kept my parents happy and left me with a modest allotment of time in the evenings to work on various projects.

One was stacked farmland. I’d been provided with some small stackable shelves to organize my hobby stuff with but found the shelves were depressed enough that the edges would keep in a layer of soil on each. This multiplied many times the amount of arable land available for cultivating bean sprouts and other suitably small crops within the limited area inside the fence.

Mirrors affixed to the underside of each floor received sunlight redirected at them from an adjacent mirror on the forest floor in the spot where sunlight fell through an opening in the canopy for perhaps two or three hours a day.

The little fellows were delighted with it. By the next day they’d assembled a flight of stairs for reaching the various levels and begun cultivating foxfire. This avoided the need for torches or lamps for lighting, saving considerably on firewood. The steam engine was no longer in use, but kept in good condition as backup, with piles upon piles of kindling bundles heaped up next to it.

They frequently found their own uses for things. One night I peered out my window to see a startling glowing point just above where I knew the woods to be. I rushed out half dressed to see what it was, fearing perhaps they were under attack and had launched the flare. As I drew near to the woods, the light descended amidst the trees. The pieces fell into place once I arrived at the settlement.

They’d used the surplus oil to fuel a hot air balloon. Only sufficient to lift one of them, with fishing line to keep it from being blown away. I was relieved but also irritated they’d done something so risky without consulting me. I summoned the one I’d dealt with recently. As if anticipating my questions he unfolded a set of drawings I soon recognized were aerial views of the forest and surrounding land.

Near as I could figure they’d been sending one of their own up in the balloon’s gondola to sketch maps of the area. I urged them to stop, since the balloon might be spotted. As an alternative I printed out satellite imagery of the forest that I’d scaled down, with the dpi set as high as it’d go. This seemed to satisfy them and their representative agreed to cease sending the balloon up.

I returned one night to find them in the midst of a raucous party. It turned out the Tyrants had returned, but the fence repelled them. Repelled might be too mild a word. Unless their drawings were exaggerated, those vicious little shits had received a seriously rude awakening when they tried to scale those wires.

The flare actually had been fired this time. I’d never seen it, and got to wondering how good an idea it ever was. More likely to attract somebody elses attention than mine, and it hinged on the remote chance that I’d be looking at the forest when they sent it up. I made a note to devise some other type of emergency signal, but didn’t trouble the little fellows with any of my concerns.

They looked to be delirious with happiness, gorging on a feast laid out on long tables while the strongest men wrestled with each other as groups of women looked on with more than athletic interest. As I surveyed the town, I noticed that in addition to the forge, they’d also built a structure I figured for a paper mill and a number of looms. Industrious little guys!

It couldn’t last. That’s what the nagging voice in the back of my head insisted. Too idyllic. The Tyrants were just a scouting party, I felt certain of it. They’d make their move eventually, with the numbers necessary to topple the fence.

I spotted the representative I’d done most of the negotiating with so far. He too looked troubled, sitting on a thimble with his head in his hands. He’d always struck me as one of the brighter ones. “He must know”, I thought, “that war is coming.”

Teaching them conventional military tactics would be worse than useless. All of it assumed the enemy was the same size. Instead I searched for information relevant to hunting large animals like elephants or bears. Small groups of Homunculi equipped with the right weapons and tools should be able to adapt these methods to fighting Tyrants.

The problem being, all of it was in books much too large for them to read. Even having walked across the page and back again and again to read it sentence by sentence, there was the labor of turning the page. As the library also had digital copies and a printer, I simply queued up the PDFs, set the print size as small as it would go, and the dpi to maximum.

That was tough to explain to the short ginger librarian who examined the printouts with a raised eyebrow before I could get there and snatch them from her. “I’m making tiny little books for a diorama. I plan to cut these pages into lots of little ones, then bind them into model books” I rehearsed in my head. That would do the trick, wouldn’t it? But I held my tongue and reconsidered.

I’d become disturbingly good at fibbing lately, but the guilt wouldn’t diminish. A minor trespass, surely? And to save so many lives. But then, rationalizing misbehavior to yourself is the easiest thing in the world. So instead, I told her the truth. She laughed, told me I was a delightfully imaginative boy, and sent me on my way. That worked out much better than expected.

On the way home I parked my bicycle outside the hobby shop and went in looking for anything potentially useful to a small army (in the literal sense) preparing to defend their homeland from invading giants. It struck me as I opened the door, little bell ringing, what an odd position that is to be in and that I’d never have anticipated it a year ago.

From what I’d seen of their village recently, they’d developed metallurgy to the point where they could make their own swords, spears and so on. But nothing as sharp as what I could buy here. I ran my finger down the row of hobby knives until I found a replacement package of X-acto blades.

What I really wanted was something like a tiny rifle. Nothing I could find would serve that purpose. I could find CO2 cartridges but didn’t think I’d have much luck trying to buy a pellet gun. They couldn’t hold something that size anyway, it’d need to be set up like a cannon. At the speed Tyrants move, they’d be difficult targets to hit.

I looked up briefly when I heard my name, but it was a pretty girl roughly my age. Must be someone with my same name she’s looking for. Yet even as I returned my attention to the shelves before me, she persisted in calling out, then finally came up and tugged on my sleeve.

Now that she was closer, I recognized her as one of the girls who’d pantsed me at recess. My pupils dilated and I entertained the idea of booking it. “You come here too? What for?” I continued to stand there, mute and shaking. She just went on as if I’d answered.

“I come here for doll furniture. I never thought I’d see anyone from school here. Hey listen, sorry about what happened the other day. Bianca goes way too far with pranks, I was just along for the ride. I know where your pants are if you still want ‘em.” I began backing away.

She cornered me again at the checkout. I kicked myself for not realizing ahead of time that I’d be a sitting duck here. She talked and talked as my mind raced trying to figure out what she wanted, devising strategies for defense or escape when she inevitably attacked. For some confusing reason, I found myself closely studying the fine, symmetrical details of her face.

“I’m Jenny, by the way. I don’t think we ever spoke before this.” I still hadn’t. Her long blonde hair kept falling over her  rich brown eyes as she spoke, prompting her to brush it away. A strip of freckles ran over the bridge of her nose from one cheek to the other, reminding me of a galaxy seen edge-on.

Under normal circumstances, for someone who rarely speaks to anyone else I nonetheless have a gift for language. Not so much just then. Her hair, eyes and freckles had set fire to it and cackled as it collapsed. Fumbling for words and returning only error messages, I gave up on saying the ‘right thing’ and defaulted to basics. “It is agreeable to meet you Jennifer, but I must now exchange currency for these goods and travel from this building to my home. I’m going to leave now.”

I left her at the register looking baffled. But no more than I was. My heart didn’t stop racing on the way home, even after the fear subsided. It was replaced by some alarming mixture of exilhiration, anticipation (but of what?) and inability to think of anything besides freckles. I shook my head trying to clear away unwanted thoughts, ran my bike up on the curb and tumbled off it.

“My goodness! What happened? Not another fight I hope, I thought your father told you-” I interrupted Mom before her warheads could arm, explaining that I’d fallen off the bike. “Well go wash it and put a bandage on there, we’re having Aunt Lina and Uncle Michael over for dinner.” I grunted to let her know I heard and headed up the stairs.

The little fellows emerged from their hiding spots when they saw me dabbing the road rash on my knee with a damp washcloth. I leaned just in time to dodge a series of them, sliding down a zipline I hadn’t noticed before. They dropped onto the bed, ducking and rolling on impact. Yet more scaled the bedpost using rungs they’d carved into it.

Over my weak protestations they set about scrubbing the wound, treating it with some herbal ointment, then unrolling countless strips of soft white fabric over it. I felt half inclined to applaud when the seemingly choreographed labor completed. I took care not to shift my weight as they clamored over the mountainous folds of my bed covers, then down the rungs in the bedpost.

Not a moment too soon. Mom’s head poked in through the open door. “Dinner’s ready! Your knee looks nicely dressed. See that you are as well, I don’t want you coming down in what you’re wearing now. Put on the suit pants and button down shirt I bought you for your grandma’s funeral.”

She said it so casually. It was an alien thought that I might also grow accustomed to my own parents’ death, in time. Would there come a day when I no longer mourned the witch? No time to dwell on that. I pulled on the shirt and pants, too small for me now but nonetheless my only “fancy clothes”, and cringed at how much of my argyle sock-clad ankles were visible.

If I knew Mom and Dad, they would put off buying a new set of nice clothes until I was busting out of these ones like the Incredible Hulk. I thought about floating that joke with the visitors but decided against. Might go over well but I’d pay for it later. The most incredible smell struck me as I descended the stairs, and I said so.

“High praise coming from him! He’s a picky eater” Mom said. Aunt Lina whispered something back, sitting in the chair nearest me at the dining room table. Uncle Michael rose to greet me. “Heya little bamboo shoot! Look at you! When I last visited, you were only up to here on me!” He gestured to indicate that I’d been much shorter in the past, something which seemed obvious and unremarkable to me.

Aunt Lina had brought another gift. I still suspected it was an effort to ingratiate herself to me but I accepted both the gift, and the underlying gesture. More erector set, this time a crane. “This will come in really handy, thank you!” She blinked. “Handy for what? Is there some tiny city you’re building?” The grownups had a laugh as I sat there, pokerfaced.

Uncle Michael turned out to be a neat guy. Seemed to sense things about me without being told and steered the discussion towards matters that might interest me. To think, Lina’s related to me and Michael isn’t. When I asked him about his job however it started off an hour long exposition on what being a ‘public defender’ entails.

Put Mom and Dad right to sleep, but I can tell when someone who knows things I don’t is speaking and I absorb information like a sponge in case it’s useful at some point. Leads them to remark “How on Earth did you know that?” when I recall some piece of trivia on a topic of no ostensible interest to a kid my age. Uncle Michael ended with “So basically, I look out for the little guys of the world.”

I smiled. “Neat. me too.” He raised an eyebrow but didn’t challenge it. He then produced his own gift for me. Mom gasped. It was one of those little music and movie players with a touch screen. Basically a modern phone without the phone part. “That’s a bit much don’t you think? What if he takes it to school and it’s stolen?” In fact I recognized it as the earliest model, by now over ten years old. It’d be a miracle if the battery would still hold a charge.

But I fell over myself to thank him, as another use for it occurred to me besides what the box suggested. I hugged Uncle Michael, and in a rare display, Aunt Lina as well. Mom and Dad seemed equal parts shocked and delighted. I then cleared my place and headed up to my room, leaving the grownups to discuss tax returns, political reform, and stuff I’m not supposed to know about until I’m older.

I wasted no time plugging the music player into my computer as the little guys climbed onto the erector set box, studying the illustration on the cover of what you’re meant to build with it. They seemed quite excited. Searching “free books” led me to an online repository of public domain texts in various languages.

I selected the most image heavy books on topics relevant to improving a small settlement. The illustrated history of metallurgy, construction through the ages, a modern primer on pre-industrial medicine and so on.

The device had quite a crisp screen and upon introducing it to a small crowd of them which gathered to gawk at it when I placed it at ground level, it turned out the screen would respond to their hands just as readily as it did to my finger.

Presto, no more trips to the library. Which would free up more time to spend at the settlement! I expected the crane would also make possible more ambitious projects than before. Rather than plan anything for them I figured I’d build it out there, leave it and let them surprise me with what they used it for.

I studied the bed for any signs of stragglers, and spotting none, threw myself onto it. My mind turned to Jennifer, and resisted all efforts to turn it to anything else after that. I’d left the music player on the floor to keep the little ones occupied, and soon enough I fell asleep. Came so quickly, I guess socializing at dinner tired me out.

That was a blessing in disguise. For once I felt well rested and ready for the daily slog as I rode to school the next morning. I thought I was ready, anyway. The first sign something was amiss came when I opened my desk and my binder was missing. For a moment I felt overcome with anxiety. The binder had all of my schoolwork in it organized by subject. I’m lost without it.

That anxiety vanished, replaced with a different and altogether more pleasant type when Jennifer entered the room and, for the first time since I’d attended this school, sat at the seat next to mine. We’ve got nothing like assigned seating, but patterns do exist, mostly determined by which clique you’re in. If you have the good fortune to be accepted by any of them.

Trevor was the outcast before I arrived. I’d gravitated towards him out of empathy only to discover he was quite happy to throw me under the bus if it meant no longer occupying the bottom rung of the social ladder. He now sat on the outer periphery of a cluster of seats always taken by kids devoted to playing some card game about battling monsters every recess.

To my knowledge he’d only started buying his own cards after they’d grudgingly integrated him. Like the last kid to be picked for volleyball. Is that what I could look forward to if someone came to replace me at the bottom? I refused the thought.

The substitute teacher we had today wheeled in a TV. We all cheered as the TV always meant one thing: We got to watch an episode of Bill Blaster, Science Master. We all chanted “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!” along with the theme song. This one was about how monkeys live in the wild.

“Primate politics are a mirror of how early man lived. Each troupe led by a dominating Alpha male, occasionally challenged by the lesser males who form the successive social strata under that. Alpha females also command respect, with lesser females grooming them to get on their good side.”

Across the room, one girl braided the hair of another, conventionally prettier than she was. I furrowed my brow and began to draw associations. Bill continued. “The males on the very lowest tiers of the social strata are subject to organized harassment and blood tests reveal levels of a stress hormone in their systems which, over time, causes severe health problems.”

It went on to discuss differences by sex, with brief eruptions of giggling at every mention of that word. I smiled. The reaction was funny even if the word isn’t. That’s when I felt something nudging my hand. I looked over just in time to see Jennifer leave a small folded piece of paper before me, then return to staring at the screen as if nothing happened.

Inside it simply read “Skip recess”. I didn’t know what to make of it. I looked at her for clarification but she continued watching the screen, laughing with the rest when one monkey hurled its leavings at another. I tucked the note into my pocket and watched the rest of the film.

After lunch, remembering the note, I crept to a window and surveyed the playground. Sure enough those three girls, Jennifer among them, stood at the edge between the playground and the field. Not wanting a repeat of the last time, I snuck into the gym and hid in the supply closet amidst netted sacks of basketballs, which in large numbers emit a very distinct rubbery smell.

I tensed up at the sound of their voices. There could be no mistaking it. “Trisha said she saw him come in here. He might have just gone out the other side though.” Bianca, if I recalled correctly. Then I heard Jennifer. “I’ll take the gym. The rest of you search the bushes around the outside.”

They were persistent and thorough about it, had to give ‘em that much. Soon enough I heard the door shut, then the squeak of sneaker soles on linoleum. The door to the supply closet opened, carefully shut, and soon I was joined by another discernible presence sitting next to me. It was so quiet I could hear us both breathing. I no more knew what to say at this juncture than I had at the hobby store. Mercifully, she broke the ice.

“Do you hate me?” It was a surprising question. How had she gotten that impression? “No”, I managed. “I would understand if you did. They make me do it though. There’s no going against Bianca.” I began to tremble, the strange feeling from before returning in full force. Frustrated with how it seemed to shut my brain down as I searched for words, this time I drove it back long enough to string something relevant together.

“I know you’re not like that. Sorry I was weird at the hobby shop. I dunno why I do that.” Silence followed. Then the startling warmth of a hand on mine. Not knowing what else to do with another hand, I carefully closed my fingers around it. “You know why they do all that stuff to you right?” she whispered. I answered frankly that I had no idea, they just seemed like crazy assholes to me.

She laughed. “You’re such a spaz. I think I’m the only one that likes it. The others say you talk like a robot and don’t have emotions. But I saw the drawings in your binder. And there’s….a gentleness about you. I don’t want them to destroy it.” So that’s where my binder went. The rest was news to me but not terribly upsetting. The opinions of ogres don’t concern me.

There was this swirling black hole that lingered after she finished speaking. An insistent, conspicuous gap demanding to be filled. But with what? She’d been candid with me. All I knew how to do was be equally candid.

“I don’t understand any of this or belong here. Every day is misery. I want to be the champion of the little guy. But I’m the little guy! If I can’t be my own champion, how can I protect anybody else? You’re the only person I’ve met since I started here who has been anything but cruel to me. Maybe that’s why I kept picturing your face yesterday. Your face has stars on it, y’know.”

I didn’t hear anything but breathing for a long time after that. Then something warm and wet pressed against my mouth. Alarmed, I tried to break free but she grabbed my head by the hair so I couldn’t get away. Once I resigned myself to what was happening, pretty soon I discovered it was actually quite pleasant. So I started doing it back.

She froze up as Bianca’s voice echoed through the gym just outside. She planted one more on me, then hurried out the way she came. “He’s not in here” I heard Jennifer call out. “I thought for sure if he was gonna hide in the gym he’d be in the closet with all the sports stuff but I dug through all of it. Must be back in class by now.”

My brain was a whirlpool of conflicting thoughts and what I’d learn later on that year to be hormones as I returned to class. I lost some "good behavior points" for being the last to come back from recess but I was beyond caring. I wanted more mouth pressing with Jennifer, poste haste. What I got instead was an hour of geometry.

Not a bad alternative, I absolutely love geometry. Lights up all the right parts of my brain. The lesson on why triangles are used in constructing bridges and domes gave me ideas for the settlement, too. I ached to sketch those ideas but still had no binder. It set me to looking around the room for any sign of it.

This is when I noticed groups of kids in the various clusters passing around pieces of paper, covering their mouths to muffle laughter, then drawing on them. I wondered what was on those pages that could be so funny until I spotted one of them tearing yet more pages out of my open binder.

I motioned as if to object. The teacher admonished me to sit down, so I did. They only snickered more and continued defacing what I suspected were my drawings. These suspicions were confirmed when one of the modified pages was passed to me. Originally it’d been a drawing of myself looming over the developing colony as the little guys built the forge.

They all had pointy ears and funny hats. As did I. They’d also drawn little protruding genitals on all of them, and written “Elf Overlord Dildo Faggins” across the top. I scrunched it into a wad, focusing on showing as little reaction as possible. More sheets were passed to me by snickering ogres, each one more obscene than the last.

When the bell rang, my desk was full of wadded up drawings but still no binder. Only when it looked like I’d complain to the teacher was it dumped at my feet, in passing. Jennifer stayed behind and surveyed the damage with me. “Why did you let them do that to you?” she pleaded. I thought about that one. “You say that as if I’m somebody important.”

On the way out, my path was blocked by Dan. Other kids called him “The Fridge”. How many grades he’d been held back varied depended on who you asked but judging by his muscle mass and the beginnings of facial hair, it was more than a few. To his left and right, Jeremiah and some perpetually weasel faced kid I’d never bothered learning the name of.

“Where you going, Faggins? Do your elf minions need you? Gonna put one up your ass for pleasure?” I tried to get by but was pushed back. I noticed Jennifer just behind me and wondered why she’d not fled. I didn’t particularly want her to see this. Thinking back to the library, I gambled on telling the truth, figuring it might have an unexpectedly good outcome here as well.

They stared, grins growing wider with every sentence until I finished, then exploded into hysterics. “I thought you was just drawing gay shit! I didn’t know you believed it! Holy shit you’re a bigger gaylord than I thought! Why you hanging around this delusional queer Jenny? Anybody but me, is that it? You pig-faced slut.”

I don’t pretend to understand why I put my fist in Dan’s stomach. I didn’t expect it to have any effect, either. Even as I did it I thought it’d bounce off like in a cartoon. There was force behind it I had no idea I could summon and it knocked the life out of him, at least for a moment.

He doubled over, face now low enough I could swing my fist into that too. I heard a crack from his nose, and one of my fingers as my fist smashed into his ugly features as if in slow motion. He fell backwards and the other two with him stepped back in astonishment.

I was overcome with a feeling of surging heat in my chest, face and arms. I felt invincible. But discovered when he got up that I’d simply caught him off guard. Without the aid of surprise, my lack of coordination makes me an easy target. One swing lifted me off my feet, then sent me rolling once I connected with the ground.

Dan laying into me was the cue the other two were waiting for. As he threw one fist, then the other, like twin pistons in an engine, his accomplices got in what kicks to my head and groin they were able to without interrupting the main course. When you’re in this situation often enough, your mind learns tricks for dealing with the pain. Like finding someplace it can go where pain doesn’t reach.

For me that’s the memory of the crone’s hut. The hot chocolate, soup, and warm hugs. I only returned to reality when I heard Jennifer cry out. She’d gotten in the middle of things trying to stop them only to discover Dan had no compunctions about hitting girls. I panicked and struggled to stand. After all these years I thought I’d burned away all of my weak spots, but they’d found a new way to hurt me.

As soon as she fell to the ground next to me, tears streaming down her face, I rolled on top of her and held on tight. Dan struggled to remove me, gave up, and punched me in the sides and head a few more times before wiping his brow and ambling off. The other two got in their final kicks, then scampered after him in a fit of laughter.

I was dimly aware of a circle of other students staring at us, but everything was deathly quiet. I could hear her weakly sobbing. Through the tears, she asked if I was alright. It was agonizing just to sit up. My head throbbed and blood from my nose and a gash in my forehead was caked all over my face. The warm salty flavor in my mouth inclined me to spit, and when I did, a few teeth came out with it.

She was a mess too. Dan must’ve had a ring on or something. A deep cut on her eyebrow was bleeding down the side of her nose and into her mouth as she blubbered. I took off my shirt and used it to wipe the blood away. “I told you”, I muttered. “I can’t protect anyone. Not myself, not you. If I were you, I’d go find someone who can.”

She kissed me. Of all the times to do it. I couldn’t wrap my head around why. It sent ripples of gasps through the crowd of onlookers. Then a teacher arrived to break things up, as close to in the nick of time as they ever are. That’s one of the earliest life lessons I could recall learning. Nobody bigger than you will come to save you. You’ve got to be that person for yourself, and anybody smaller that depends on you.

When my parents arrived it was a hurricane of shouting, mostly at me for getting into another fight, until the principal explained the details. Dan was here instead of a juvenile correction facility as part of an experimental rehabilitation program for minors. He couldn’t be expelled, only suspended. “It takes two to tango”, the principle pointed out, lecturing me for “participating” in the fight instead of “walking away”.

I explained that I couldn’t simply walk away from Dan, but my voice didn’t count for much. I was also suspended for three days. I got an earful on the way home. Even though Mom and Dad sided with me for the most part, Mom suspected that in light of the day’s events, I must’ve been lying the other day when I came home with the scraped knee and told her it wasn’t from fighting.

I think they wanted someone to be mad at, and Dan was inaccessible. He’d picked someplace in a blind spot of the security cameras so it would be my word against his, and of course, he had two ‘witnesses’ willing to corroborate his version of events. I’d cracked but not broken my nose and one finger. I also wound up needing stitches to close the gash in my forehead. Left me looking quite like Frankenstein’s monster.

The days off made me wonder why I couldn’t complete the rest of the year at home. Mom picked up the three days worth of school work for me to complete, and it took me only the first day and the morning of the second to finish it all. The rest was free time without supervision, as Mom and Dad were at work.

I took the opportunity to lug the erector set out to the settlement and build the crane. Also set up the music player in a central building and ran its charging cord back to the upturned plastic tub with the battery and power electronics under it. By now they’d added floorboards, windows, a nicely carved wooden door and the other accoutrements of a proper power plant.

They hadn’t the means to make glass, but instead cut panes of transparent plastic out of the sides of empty soda bottles or other containers I brought them. The X-acto blades were well received. The little one I’d been treating as their representative seemed to understand immediately what I intended them for, and sent them off to what I soon discovered by examination to be an armory.

Outside of it, row after row of the little men wearing armor made from bits of metal cut out of empty coke cans rehearsed movements both offensive and defensive. The armor looked meticulously crafted. Shame it would do nothing to stop a Tyrant’s jaws. They’d fashioned a sack cloth Tyrant dummy to practice on, and at the high pitched command of the trainer, would surround and stab it with pikes.

I’d stopped sending them supplies recently as they were now effectively self reliant. In part because of this, they’d emptied out every train car so it could hold passengers in the event of an evacuation. Still wouldn’t hold them all, but the rest could follow down the tunnel behind the train. I studied the stacked farm, finding each layer dutifully cultivated by little fellows in overalls and straw hats, tilling the fields.

Perhaps the most surprising development was the sparrow they’d confined to a cage fashioned from twigs. It hopped about nervously, pecking at a worm they slipped through the ‘bars’ for it. I worried for their safety. Nearly any wild animal was larger and stronger than one of ‘em, and would be difficult to kill let alone safely handle. I trusted there was a method to their madness, though.

My attention was drawn to a commotion around the central hut. They’d discovered the music player. To them, more like a computer with a massive touch sensitive display, replete with useful information. It was an absolute sensation. There was bickering over who got to use it and how long until the representative, who I now understood to be their leader, organized lines. Not too shabby.

Suddenly they all froze in place, then fled into their homes. I couldn’t grasp why until I heard a voice behind me. “Wow, you built all of this? It’s amazing.” In flash I spun around. Only to see Jennifer standing there, nose bandaged and eyebrow stitched shut, waving sheepishly. “H-how did you find this p-place?” I stammered.

“Easy dummy, I followed you. Came over with some videogames, figured if we’re both suspended we may as well….do you not want me here?” For a moment, she looked unsure. What little sense I have kicked in. “No, I’m glad to see you. That you’re okay. I just didn’t expect you right then.” She seemed reassured, and plunked herself down next to me.

“The detail is insane. How long did it take you to make all this?” First I demanded to know how she knew where I live. Turns out she lives in the next cul-de-sac over, sees me biking home every day. I found that a little weird, which she picked up on. “I mean, it’s not like I make a point to watch you. I just happened to see you a couple times. When nobody answered the door I went around back and saw you crossing the field.”

I found if I didn’t limit how long I looked at her, my ability to form sentences would rapidly diminish. So I stared at my feet as I replied. Not wanting to lie to her and feeling sincerely as though she was someone I could trust with the information, I spilled my guts. About the witch, the Tyrants, and the Homunculi. She sat there enraptured by all of it, remaining silent for a while after I finished to let it all digest.

“You have the wildest imagination of anybody I’ve ever met.” I took exception to that and was about to argue before she started kissing me again. She’d discovered a way to silence me when needed, against which I had no viable defense. So I gave up on convincing her of any of it, and we went for a walk.

I read once that life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but never preserved. It only sort of made sense to me, I always assumed if I were into gardening it would clear the rest up. But the thing about perfect moments rang true. Never more than as I was walking along the shore of the lake with Jennifer.

A light wind tossed her golden hair about, seeming to catch the sunshine as it fell and trap it within each radiant strand. Eventually she noticed me staring and just grinned really wide as if something was funny. She didn’t say what, but her cheeks grew flush. Some sort of physiological response to observation?

“I never knew this was back here. I wish we had a boat or something. Hey, we should go swimming in there this Summer! Although I’m kinda afraid of deep water since you can’t see what’s down there.” I told her I’d already been to the bottom and aside from the submerged glass colonies populated by tiny people it was mostly just small fish and crawdads.

She gaped at me, waiting for a punchline. When none came, she punched me in the arm and told me to be serious. I replied I was quite serious and had in fact recovered the starter population of those little guys from one of the sunken glass jugs. She crossed her arms, narrowed her eyes and smirked. “You’re so full of shit. You’re lucky you’re cute or I’d call you out on it.”

I’m cute? I parsed that one for a while. Was it a joke? I’d never given any thought to my own appearance except that everything’s where it should be. My face works well enough for basic everyday face stuff, like facing different directions, opening up so I can put food in there, and absorbing punches. I guess it’s alright as faces go.

“I….also like the way you look. Your hair contains sunlight.” She raised an eyebrow, but smiled. I’ll take that. “Listen….I’m sorry about the fight. I wish I could have done something.” She stopped and took my hands in hers. “You did do something. You stood up for me, and I stood up for you.” It was sweet, but some part of it felt hollow. “I still couldn’t protect you. I wish I were stronger.”

She pulled me close and rested her head on my chest. I strained to hear as she murmured “Real strength is fighting for what you care about even when you know you can’t win.” For the first time in a year I felt tears coming out. I panicked as I’d gone to such pains to condition myself not to show any sign of weakness. But the panic subsided as my body gradually accepted there was no danger. This was a good weakness.

When I returned to school following my last day of suspension, an unexpected new dynamic awaited me. Upon entering the classroom, the usual chatter died down and all eyes were on me. Trevor was now sitting in the outcast chair, normally mine, and one of the skater kids invited me to come sit with them. What? I don’t skate.

Then the kids with the dyed hair and eyeliner invited me to come sit with them. Then someone from the girls’ group. Some sort of ploy? Once I sat down they’d dump something foul on me, I felt sure of it. Then it struck me like Dan’s fist; Violence impressed them. That was the only interpretation of this change that made sense.

Somehow, picking a fight with the biggest, meanest idiot in school had elevated me somewhat in their view. Above Trevor anyway. Now he was back on the bottom rung and I had an in with my choice of groups. Instead, I sat with Trevor.

They all seemed confused by it, but none more than Trevor. “You know you can sit anywhere now right?” he whispered to me as the teacher began setting up the projector. I whispered back “I guess I’m just a contrarian at heart. I always side with the little guy.” He puzzled over that one, muttering “What the fuck is a contrarian”, then turned his attention to the lesson.

Jennifer took the seat next to mine, a welcome distraction. It was English class, not a subject I struggle with, so I didn’t need all my blood going to my brain anyway. I set about drawing something for her. Little fellows, each making a heart with their arms, but also standing together in the shape of a heart. I slid it over to her. She studied it closely, smiling.

Dan was present. This time with a handler of some kind. Middle aged woman wearing a photo ID badge and a walkie talkie on her belt, standing watch by the door. He locked eyes with me, looking smug. I figured as he’d gotten away with a slap on the wrist I could expect him to keep testing his limits until he encountered real pushback from the principal. Or maybe he simply didn’t care what happened to him. They’d just shuttle him to a different school.

Today’s science class was something out of the ordinary. We were each supplied a cardboard box full of assorted electronics and a thick new textbook on robotics. Our school was participating in some sort of nationwide youth robotics competition sponsored by a computer company.

I was delighted. Having devoted myself to learning how various machines work for the sake of helping the little ones improve their settlement, it seemed as though I’d have a leg up on everyone else right out of the gate. And I did.

Jennifer was right there with me. We’d been told to form groups of three. Trevor was the third but showed neither interest nor aptitude and so sat on his own, carving a skull into his desk as Jenny and I worked on our robot scarab.

It had to be able to complete a series of challenges we’d studied before designing it. All of which it could perform provided legs and grappling pincers on the front. We’d also both vigorously agreed that “Scarab” is a wicked cool name for a robot, easily the most important design consideration.

Each of us was sent home with our respective box of parts, to work on our robot after school. The prize was a college scholarship and a huge pile of robotics kits. I knew just what I’d like to do with those. Plus it gave Jennifer an excuse to come over every day that our parents would be receptive to.

It didn’t take me long to think of handing it all over to the little ones. I kept the Scarab in case this experiment proved to be a bust, but given their rapid progress as of late and the information I’d loaded onto their little computer, I itched to see what they might come up with. A week passed before I returned to check on them.

To my surprise, when I next visited their settlement there stood near the outer edge a confoundingly sophisticated metal figure, shaped identically to a Tyrant but about half again as tall as the largest one I’ve ever seen. It reached nearly up to my hip, and when I followed the trail of smoke rising from it to the source, I found they’d built the steam engine right into the heart of it.

A support structure around it made from lashed together twigs, resembling the tower which steadies and services rockets on the launchpad was bustling with little fellows on every floor, rushing to and fro checking various parts of the mechanical monstrosity they’d built.

I don’t know what I expected, but this blew me away. The support structure swung away. The little representative shouted high pitched squeaks, motioned to the machine’s pilot, and it began to walk. Not the clumsy toddling I expected, given the results I’d achieved with the Scarab. Every part of it was articulated, it adapted effortlessly to uneven terrain with each step. Far and away the swiftest and most natural gait that I’d ever seen in a robot.

As it should be. If this was meant as a fighting machine it’d need to match the speed and agility of the Tyrants or they’d simply topple it, pry open the cockpit and eat the pilot. The metal Tyrant approached, turned around, halted, then the back opened up. Inside were yet more little ones. It was not a one man vehicle after all.

Two more worked frantically to stoke the fire and keep the steam engine supplied with twigs. There was an empty reservoir I guessed was for oil, but no sense in wasting the finite supply of fuel until there is real need for it. A little fan circulated fresh air through the interior, even so the two steam engine tenders looked sweaty and exhausted.

The steam engine was the primary dynamo, but there were a pair of the rechargeable batteries used as a buffer for the output. I worried this meant the train was without backup, but if they saw fit to split their odds between fight and flight, I could see no reason to argue. I also realized it was necessary to ensure the current reaching the motors at each joint didn’t fluctuate. Peering in through the reinforced cupola which served as the ‘face’, I grinned at the little fellow piloting it.

He was strapped in tightly and well cushioned. I imagine otherwise he’d rattle around in there as the machine, much larger than he, moved about. The cockpit was a dense cluster of microswitches, LEDs indicating everything from battery charge to steam engine output, and a rear hatch which understandably locked from the inside.

I threw up my hands and lavished them with praise. Incredible! All of this, simply by giving them information and components? On the spur of the moment I convinced them to take the metal Tyrant out for an extended maiden voyage about the forest.

It was fascinating watching all the little spinning gears, motorized joints and so on moving in concert as the gleaming metallic figure ambled over roots, pebbles and other small obstacles. All the while trailing a wispy black plume from its smokestack. I only figured out where they were heading when we arrived.

The wreckage of one of their old towns. The metal Tyrant stomped through the ruins, the torso occasionally pivoting left or right to pick the roof off a house looking for anything inside it could salvage. Something wasn’t right. I struggled to put my finger on it as the metal Tyrant approached the center of town.

“Stop!” I cried out, diving for the metal Tyrant and pulling it back just as the trap sprang shut. For its size it was surprisingly light. I suppose out of necessity, if they’d designed it for speed and agility. I kicked myself for not recognizing this as a decoy town sooner. Also for grabbing the metal Tyrant so roughly. The two inside who tended to the steam engine were bruised up pretty badly from being thrown about.

I apologized profusely until they seemed satisfied, then followed the metal Tyrant back to the settlement. The electric fence had been modified with a large door for it to pass through, and triangular supports to prevent toppling the pylons based on ideas I’d had during geometry class.

Something was also different about the farming tower. I’d been so dazzled by the metal Tyrant earlier I hadn’t noticed. The top few floors were now cages with birds inside. This was somewhat troubling. Were they eating the eggs?

In answer, a sparrow descended from behind me and alighted on the top floor of the tower. All became clear. It wore an ornate harness, and riding on a saddle affixed between its wings was an armored little one. For the second time that visit, I was blown away. Did I give them materials on how to tame birds? I couldn’t remember.

Aside from air support, surveillance and so on, the birds permitted passage to outposts up among the trees that I hadn’t spotted before. Only when following the flight of one of their harnessed birds did I first see one. It appeared what they’d done was to string fishing line from tree to tree, then halfway between, suspend a modest building made from balsa wood, twigs and plastic.

The lowest floor was set up with perches and a feeding station for the birds. I couldn’t see the floors above that, so it couldn’t be terribly tall, maybe three or four levels in total. I guessed that the logic behind suspending them in the open space between trees rather than affixed to the trees themselves was to protect against Tyrants, who I knew to be skilled climbers.

As I left the woods, keeping my eyes peeled, I spotted many more of them. It did a great deal to comfort me. With eyes in the sky they would be much harder for Tyrants to take by surprise. Day by day, our prospects improved. I knew it wouldn’t stop the storm, but my hopes that we’d weather it intact grew ever stronger.

On the way, I heard a distant yelping. Recognizably a dog in pain. I deliberated, but ultimately chose to investigate as I worried it might be caught in one of my traps. It was trapped alright. By Dan. I did a double take. What was he doing out here? Did he know….?

“I thought that might get your attention.” He held the dog down by its neck, his other hand holding aloft a stick he must’ve been beating it with. The dog wore no collar. It looked filthy, bruised and emaciated. Whether he’d brought it with him or caught it in the woods was an open question.

“What do you want, Dan.” My voice dripped with disdain. I didn’t want another fight. I knew what the outcome would be, even without his buddies present. A wry smile crept across his face. “Rumor has it you come out here a lot. I wanna know why. If you’re fucking Jenny out here, you’re not gonna believe what happens to you even while I’m doing it.”

My face contorted, and my arm twitched. The unhelpful impulse to break his jaw or die trying, just barely suppressed by my self preservation instinct. “Charming as ever. It isn’t like that Dan, there’s nothing for you here. Who Jenny spends her time with is not your concern, if I see you out here again asking about it-”

He let go of the dog, which flopped about in agony. He must’ve broken one or more of its legs. “What, Faggins? What happens then?” Suddenly he lurched towards me. I stiffened up and raised my fists, ready to embrace the inevitable but not without a fight. Instead, a blur whizzed by my head and collided with his.

He stumbled backwards. The little bird on the ground shook its head, recovered, and dutifully waited for its rider to re-mount before taking off. The next one had better aim. Soon the sky was full of sparrows. Dan’s mixture of confusion and terror was a novelty to me. I’d never before seen him fearful of anything.

One by one, then in twos and threes, the little birds divebombed him. Each time flying just close enough for their riders to slash at his face with blades I remembered supplying them with. As sharp as advertised, they went through his skin like piano wire through butter. Soon he was a bloody mess, thrashing about on the ground, hands over his face.

Even his hands were in bad shape. They’d hit more than one vein. Dan wailed, struggled to his feet and fled. I bust out laughing, although in truth somewhat glad he wasn’t more seriously injured. I turned my attention to the dog. Pitiful to look at, whimpering in a heap where Dan left it.

I soon returned with my wagon, lined with blankets for transporting the wounded beast back home. Mom covered her mouth and stared as I brought it in. I didn’t know what to expect from her but I knew dad was a softie for dogs and would at least not instruct me to return it to the woods, not in its present condition.

I guessed right. He even sprang for the vet bill. The leg was sprained, thankfully, rather than broken but the vet still sent the poor dog home with us wearing a leg brace. Also advised us to bathe and feed it as it looked to have gone quite some time without either.

“Don’t you get the idea that you’ve found a free pet” Dad admonished me on the drive home. I told him I had no such plans and simply did what I thought was the right thing when I found a wounded animal. That softened his demeanor somewhat. Mom was the one he should’ve been worried about.  

She doted on that dog all weekend. Setting up a bed for it in a disused drawer, taking its temperature as if that were at all necessary and at one point returning from the grocery store with an immense rawhide bone it was still too weak to lift.

The next order of business according to Dad was to try and find its owner. That seemed an unlikely prospect given that the lack of collar and poor state of the dog suggested the owner abandoned it. When he felt around for a microchip under the skin, the dog weakly recoiled as if expecting to be struck.

It was a lot to explain to Jennifer as well. “You got a dog??” she excitedly shouted upon first spotting the bony critter curled up in the drawer. “Not exactly. I caught Dan beating on it. Managed to drive him off and brought the dog to the vet for treatment. Now we’re trying to find the owner.”

She stared at me skeptically. “You drove Dan off, huh? How’d you do that?” Telling her the truth didn’t work out as hoped last time. I compromised. “You won’t believe me if I tell you. Sufficed to say, we have a dog for the time being. At least until we find somebody to take it off our hands.” She frowned as I spoke. “You keep saying ‘it’. Dogs aren’t things. You oughta think of a name.”

When she said I should name it, what she really meant is the two of us should brainstorm a name together and ultimately agree that her ideas were the best. No objection on my end, by this point I’d have cut off my own eyelids if it would make her happy. Besides, my idea was to name it “Charles Barkley”. She’d narrowed her eyes and said “This is why you don’t get to decide.” Then I suggested James Doglethorpe.

“His name is Winston”. I looked at her like she’d gone crazy. “What? It’s better than James Doglethorpe.” I disputed that as far as I could, but she’d made up her mind. As if to rub it in, she pet the recovering animal while cooing “That’s a good Winston. Your name sure is Winston, isn’t it? Do nothing for yes. See? Winston.”

Every day after school I’d make sure his bowl was full, walk him once he was up to it and help dad put up flyers. And every day he’d tell me not to get attached because we were sure to find somebody to take him soon. We just never did. The new arrangement solidified until there was simply no more talk of finding his owner, giving him away or anything along those lines.

Dad was the last to cave. I knew he had when I came home one day to find Winston sprawled across his lap as he watched baseball and scratched the hapless beast’s tummy. Mom remarked that he’d healed up much faster than she expected.

I had my suspicions about that. More than once I’d seen the little ones nearby. Their skill at treating injury was exemplary even before the rest of their technology had caught up. My concerns that he might reflexively eat one if it got too close were put to rest when I saw them one night after Mom and Dad were in bed, laying across his snout, scratching his nose and singing to him.

They have a mysterious way with animals. The instinct that humans mean danger did not evidently apply to the Homunculi, who exerted the opposite effect. On birds and dogs at least, although I expected it was universal to all manner of critters. Except humans and Tyrants. Perhaps we have something in common which accounts for that.

The day he came home with the half-eaten remainder of a Tyrant both panicked and intrigued me. What if it had been Mom or Dad who found it? But the prospect of reducing their numbers by predation inclined me, despite my concern for Winston’s safety, to reward him. “Good boy! Bring me as many of these as you like!” I rubbed his back and his tail went crazy. He’d lost his fear of being touched and now looked as healthy and happy as every dog ought to.

He accompanied me on my next visit to the settlement. I worried he might shock himself on the fence or trample buildings but all things considered he was quite well behaved. Until some of the birds landed on him. I’d forgotten how dogs are with birds. When the barking died down and he tired himself out from chasing them through the woods as their riders expertly ducked and weaved between trees, he returned and plopped himself down next to me.

Some of the little ones came out to greet us. They displayed no fear of Winston, something which still impressed me given his size and the unpredictability of animals. They must know something I don’t. He lowered his nose to sniff them, each exhale blowing their hair back as they reached out and scratched his big wet nose, as seemed to be their preference.

Others climbed his fur and found perches on his head. I imagined them fashioning a saddle for him and resolved to draw the line there. My dog was not about to become their bus. Instead they all set about removing ticks, braiding strands of his fur and frolicking through it as if it were tall grass.

No sooner than I'd noticed the metal Tyrant was missing, it stomped into view just beyond a small hill. It must’ve come from the lake as it pulled a wheeled cart piled high with minnows or some other small fish. What the devil? Winston got up, the little fellows diving off his back as he did so, and he slowly backed away from the strange walking machine with his tail between his legs.

In fairness that’s a bit much to ask of a dog. As I watched it at work I discovered they were using the metal Tyrant for the kinds of tasks they used to need my help with, owing to my relative size. Lifting whole houses to relocate them, placing bridges, clearing large rocks from a path and so on. Made me hopeful that if ever something happened to me, they would now be able to continue indefinitely on their own.

When I headed off towards the lake, in the direction the metal Tyrant had come from, I discovered they’d built a pier and a shipyard. I had mixed feelings. By comparison with the settlement this was out in the open. Still, if someone happened upon it they’d think it was simply the work of an eccentric hobbyist.

In the distance I could see little sailboats navigating the waves. Even on a calm day like this they struggled somewhat due to their size. I wondered about the possibility of a steamboat before remembering they’d already used that to build the metal Tyrant. One of the sailboats came in to dock with what, to a Homunculi, is no doubt an ample haul of fish. Which is to say, four of them.

As each minnow matched or exceeded the size of a Homunculi I expected that even after they’d salted or smoked the meat, it made for a week’s worth of meals for a family of three to four. Even so I resolved to at some point teach them about sustainable fishing, lest they rely too heavily on fishing and one day find that there are no more fish to be had.

I returned to find the metal Tyrant fighting off a cat, which had been attracted to the settlement by the smell of the fish. This was an application of the versatile little robot I hadn’t considered. It flinched as the cat batted at its head and chest, then the metal Tyrant landed a blow to its shoulder. It hissed and backed away. Winston jumped into the fray before I could stop him.

I have no idea how far he chased that poor cat. Just that it took him two hours to come back. The cat’s probably in Mexico now. I looked at my watch, remembering I was supposed to meet with Jennifer today to work on our robot. On a whim, I negotiated for a bit with the little representative and once I had his okay, I picked up the metal Tyrant and brought it with me.

“What the heck is that?” she demanded as I heaved it up onto my desk. “This,” I explained, “is how we’re going to win the competition.” She whined for a bit about how much work we’d already put into the scarab until she saw what the metal Tyrant could do. After that, it was an easy sell.

“You’re really good at building stuff like this, aren’t you. Look at the detail. If you were this good at robots you should’ve just told me so we didn’t waste time building the old one.” I told her it wasn’t my work, that the little ones built it. She scoffed. “You don’t have to be humble. This is incredible, take credit where it’s due.”

I gave the same explanation when she asked how it knew what to do without the processor module installed. Again, she dismissed it. That was beginning to bug me. But really, the less she knew, the less danger she was in. So I let it slide. Arriving at school with it was electrifying. Nobody elses robot came close.

Trevor, absent for the rest of the project, was all too happy to share the limelight now that it was complete. I spotted Dan scowling at me, face scabbed up where he’d been cut. His partner, who I assumed had done all the work, produced a four legged robot with a single pivoting arm dangling from the underside.

That proved to be a pattern. Each group had one or two people who’d done nothing, leaving the remaining member or members to complete the project alone. Most were little more than wheeled boxes. The metal Tyrant drew not just awe, but suspicion. Mr. Conrad asked me repeatedly if my parents helped with any of it, each time I insisted they hadn’t. Which was true.

Most of the groups failed the first challenge and seemed relieved more than anything. It meant they were finally done and could just spectate the rest of it. That left just three groups in the running. Mine, Dan’s and Bianca’s.

The four legged robot built by Dan’s partner proved surprisingly capable, in particular at climbing the blocks set up like stairs. The impression I got is they’d designed it mainly for that, anticipating it would be the most difficult part.

There was also something like a crab which walked sideways, making it up one side of the stairs then tumbling down the other. It landed upright though, and so qualified to continue. I didn’t figure Bianca for someone who could build a capable robot, but to be fair I’m not an authority on reading people.

The next challenge was to pick up a foam ball from a pedestal, carry it through a simple obstacle course, then place it in a paper cup at the end. The other two groups looked on in consternation as the metal Tyrant completed the challenge as easily as a human that size might’ve. Simply walked up, grabbed the ball, stepped over the obstacles and dumped it in the cup.

I beamed with pride before remembering I wasn’t the one who’d built it and that I was royally pissing off two people with a history of targeting me for humiliation. Right now was my time to shine but undoubtedly at some later date I’d pay for it. For some reason, Jennifer looked more worried than I was.

The rest of the competition continued like that, with Dan and Bianca growing visibly more and more irate. At the end my team was awarded a ribbon and selected to continue to the regional event. For me, aside from rescuing the little folks and setting them up in their colony, this was the high point of my year.

At least that’s what I thought until Mr. Conrad took me aside as class let out. Once everyone else was gone, he explained. “Look, I’m not stupid. There’s no way a kid your age could build something like that. I don’t know where you got it, and I can’t prove anybody helped you, but that’s irrelevant. The main thing is, I was never interested in the competition aspect. I thought participation in this program would be a good self esteem booster. I expected every team to perform pretty close to the same so I could just give you all Bs, pat you on the back and call it a success. You ruined that by pulling so far ahead. Do you see what you’ve done? I’m still going to give everyone the same grade. I don’t want to hear any whining from you or Jennifer about that. You’re lucky I didn’t disqualify you outright. Please don’t pull a stunt like that again.”

It put somewhat of a damper on things. Jennifer didn’t care. She whooped and danced down the hall as we headed for the parking lot to be picked up. “I can’t believe we won! You’re amazing! I still think we could have won with the Scarab, but did you see their faces? Blown away!” Her happiness was infectious and soon enough I’d forgotten Mr. Conrad’s lecture.

Instead my thoughts turned to the settlement. I hoped they were alright without the metal Tyrant. It was just for one day, after all. There was the cat to contend with now, and I doubted the fence would stop it. High as it was I wouldn’t put it past a cat to simply leap over it, wrecking the village once inside the perimeter as it searched for the fish.

I found the village just as I’d left it. Taking great care not to touch the fence, I hoisted the metal Tyrant back into place, and shut the service tower around it. The little fellows immediately set about inspecting it for wear and tear. The cockpit hatch opened and a very nauseous, weary looking pilot stumbled out. There were no steam engine tenders during the trials as I’d used some of the oil to power it.

I didn’t look forward to subjecting him to more of it when Jennifer and I went to the regional competition. But I reasoned having done so much for these little dudes, it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for a favor now and again. This time as I studied the settlement for additions, I found that they’d worked out how to build ballistas.

I thought to save them some trouble and point them to the formula for gunpowder, but wondered if it wasn’t better to let them follow their own path of development from here on out. The arrowheads, when I looked closely, were X-acto blades. They were really getting a lot of mileage out of those. Not surprising, extremely sharp blades are industrially quite difficult to make. The way things were going I expected they’d be manufacturing their own before long, though.

Winston came galloping after me in that signature happy, reckless gait all dogs seem to exhibit when they run. Head bobbing, ears flapping around, tail spinning like an airplane prop. I imagined him bellowing “DURRR HUR HURRR HUR” as he ran, and laughed. Really though, I also sort of envied him. Who enjoys life more than a dog?

Thinking about that made me realize we’d both been through some shit. I remembered how he recoiled from attempts to pet him when I’d first brought him home. Despite the gulf between our different species, I felt he had the same understanding of the world and what sort of people inhabit it that I did.

Although ever since I met Jennifer, that understanding had grown increasingly untenable. She was no ogre. If someone like her existed in the world, it couldn’t be as bleak as I imagined before. Not entirely.

To some degree it was uncomfortable having such an entrenched view of the world shaken like this. But I also felt cautiously hopeful. She’s like the first ray of light breaking through cloud cover as winter ends. Can life really be this way all the time? It felt delusional to seriously hope for such a thing, yet I persisted.

Studying the hustle and bustle of the settlement before me, I spotted a couple curled up together on a park bench. Seemingly oblivious to the frantic preparations for what, by now, they all knew would soon occur. Lost by their own will in a world where only they existed.

To see how they carried on, it was hard to believe anything could disrupt it. The first warning was when Winston set to growling. This was the first aggression I’d seen from him. I expected it was just the cat, but turning around, instead I was confronted with several rows of Tyrants. At first I shielded my eyes by reflex, but they wore armor which covered their faces.

Where had they gotten armor? Come to think of it I didn’t have a solid sense of Tyrant intelligence either. Behind me, the support tower swung away from the metal Tyrant. The door in the fence opened, and it stomped out between my legs, the fence closing behind it. Above me a frenzy of activity could be heard around the aerial outposts.

Sparrows darted between the trees, surveying the battleground. With no other weapon handy, I pulled out my pocketknife and folded out the largest blade. As if waiting for that, the Tyrants charged. Once they spread out I got a better sense of their numbers, no more than twenty. Winston lunged for one, seized it between his jaws and shook it violently until it began to come apart.

Another two rushed in, too late to save their comrade but intent on jabbing Winston. He yelped as their spears sunk into his shoulder. I spun around towards the sound of his cry, ran up and punted one of the Tyrants as hard as I could. His armor flew apart in pieces as his broken body sailed off into the woods.

The other latched onto my leg and climbed up it. I seized him with one hand only to cry out in pain as it sank its teeth into my wrist. I brought the pocketknife blade down directly on its skull. Too thick, it deflected the blade, a long strip of its scalp coming off instead. It let go of my wrist from the agony and as soon as it fell to the forest floor, I stomped on it until it burst.

Turning towards the battle proper, an incredible sight unfolded. Ballistas launching javelins into the fray, one piercing the eye of a Tyrant who fell to its knees clawing desperately at its mask while blood gushed out of the eyehole. The electric fence arcing loudly, flashes of blue light issuing forth as the smoking bodies of Tyrants fell backwards, limbs frozen in whatever position they’d been when the little fools tried to scale the wires.

All around me birds divebombed the battlefield, in some cases taking off entire limbs with their blades. A Tyrant snatched one of the birds out of the air and, in a single bite, took its head off. The rider fell off, scurried back, then was impaled as the Tyrant brought its spear down. In the middle of it all, landing blow after devastating mechanized blow, stood the metal Tyrant.

Blasts of thick black smoke rose from the stack, the steam engine running at full capacity as the clockwork dreadnought taught the invading horde the true power of Homunculi ingenuity. Motors whined as its angular metal fist plowed into the face of an attacking Tyrant, leaving a deep fist impression in the thin metal mask it wore and knocking the vicious creature unconscious.

As another charged from behind, the torso spun 180 degrees and let loose with a blast of aerosol from what I recognized as Aunt Lina’s pepper spray. Devious little dudes must’ve filched it from her purse at some point. The Tyrant tumbled backwards, clawing at its mask and screeching. A shoulder mounted triple-ballista unloaded a volley of javelins into the chest of the next Tyrant, who nonetheless kept coming.

Spinning its torso around like a cartoon character preparing to pitch a baseball, the metal Tyrant thrust its fist into the still bleeding creature’s face. Even from here, I heard the neck snap. It slumped over in a heap, javelins still protruding from its torso. Three Tyrants swarmed me. I shouted in a blind rage, grabbed one, crushed its body before it could bite me and stabbed the other in the throat.

It rolled away gushing blood. I dropped the crushed body as well, ribs jutting through its skin in various places as it breathed its last. To my right, Winston finished twisting the head off another Tyrant with his powerful jaws. My chest rose and fell as I breathed, exhausted by the battle. I scanned the forest surrounding the settlement for any sign of more Tyrants.

The only ones I could see lay dead, in various stages of dismemberment, scattered around the three of us. Myself, Winston, and the metal Tyrant. Which stood frozen in place, claw still gripping the crushed windpipe of a Tyrant which dangled from the end of its outstretched arm. When I approached to see what was wrong, it turned out the damned thing had run out of oil. Had it happened sooner the battle might have gone very differently.

I went about helping the little fellows gather and bury their dead in quietude. Not only because of the tragedy of it, but because I was fairly certain I’d seen a familiar face retreating into the woods after we’d won the battle. It answered the question of where the Tyrants got armor from, but raised many additional questions of a more troubling nature.

All told, we’d lost thirty one out of a little over a hundred. Too steep. Something had to be done before the next battle. The least of which was finding some way to keep the metal Tyrant powered up for longer periods. After double checking that the fence was still working, that the main battery was still mostly full and that the injured were all within the perimeter and being tended to, I biked to the hobby store.

“Damn kid, looks like a raccoon got you.” I’d forgotten to clean up first. Didn’t feel like explaining what just happened to the owner. “I have a project I need lots of power for. It’s a robot. There’s this competition”. He’d heard of it, in fact. I asked about using an RC airplane engine as a generator.

“Oh no, dismal efficiency at that size, never heard of anybody generating electricity with one. There’s a reason camping generators don’t get much smaller than a toolbox. No point beyond that, better off with batteries. The hot new thing right now is Lithium Polymer. Flimsy pouch lookin’ dealies, fantastic endurance but you don’t wanna puncture or overcharge ‘em. If you do that, it’s basically a little bomb.”

I balked at the price, but thought of a way around it. As he knew of the upcoming regional competition and had heard from the father of another student that I’d handily won the first round, he agreed to gift me the batteries provided I put a sticker with his shop’s logo and URL somewhere highly visible on the robot.

The batteries were everything I hoped. I didn’t even have to install ‘em. By this point the little folks knew more about electrical engineering than I did. The day after handing off the batteries to them, I returned to find the metal Tyrant stomping around, carrying loads and performing various other endurance tests. By the stopwatch they were using, it appeared they’d been at this since morning.

The steam engine was kaput. They’d run out of oil, but water even before that, and wrecked the boiler. So much for my idea of a steam ship. Although it turned out that would’ve been a step backwards for them. When I visited the little pier and shipyard, I found what could only be a submarine under construction.

I gradually figured out it was for checking on the jugs still emplaced on the lakebed. Next to it sat a row of odd looking T-valves made from PVC pipe sections. A procession of what I figured for shipbuilders came out and unrolled drawings for me. I had to squint, but it was comprehensible enough.

The idea was that I’d bring up the jars one at a time, replace the cork with this T-valve, then sink it back to the bottom. Then I would daisy chain them together using flexible rubber tubing, from one side of each T-shaped juncture to the other end of the next. I could then flush out the water in the tube using whatever source of compressed air I was diving with before opening each valve one at a time.

The result would be to connect all the jars. And to make possible future expansion. I found tubing of the diameter necessary in the garage. PVC is a fairly widespread standard so there’s no shortage of stuff designed to work with it. The tubing was from when Dad saw a TV program about hydroponic farming. As he often did, he’d bought the supplies, begun to build it, then the project petered out until he abandoned it completely.

The tubing was transparent. A bonus, as they’d have quite the view while traveling between jugs. It was also filthy inside, such that I didn’t realize it was transparent until I flushed all the grime out. The plans called for two foot segments, so I located Dad’s jigsaw. Thinking better of it as I realized he’d hear the motor, I instead used a hacksaw to cut the lengths of tubing needed.

The next problem was that Dad hid the air compressor at some point. When I let Jennifer in on my plans, she excitedly informed me that her Dad had a vintage scuba tank and “mask” out in the shed. When I asked if he’d be angry if she borrowed it, she answered that her parents never paid attention and didn’t care what she did. Which was mildly concerning for its own reasons.

She brought it over in my wagon. Sure enough, a pair of faded yellow scuba cylinders with flaking yellow paint , and a regulator of the brand “Conshelf”. Like nothing I’d seen before, with one tube for delivering air to the mouthpiece and another for carrying away the exhaust so the bubbles wouldn’t get in the way of your vision.

Seemed like a good idea, I wondered why the modern ones don’t have that. As I’d asked her over, I set aside the scuba gear and spent the rest of the Saturday playing videogames with her. I had to unhook the VCR from the television, something I was under strict instructions never to do, but I knew Mom and Dad wouldn’t yell at me in front of a guest.

Sure enough. “What the hell is that shit plugged into the TV? Is that a videogame? Boy if I told you once I told you a trillion times, n-Oh. Hello Jennifer. Didn’t see you there. How’s your mother?” In a sudden reversal, Dad then took an interest in the videogame and even sat down to play a round with us. Some game about go-karts where you can throw turtle shells at each other.

As he left for the kitchen, Dad whispered “I want that thing unhooked from the TV when she leaves and the VCR plugged back in exactly how it was, understand?” I affirmed it, and he left. Once or twice Jennifer asked about the bite marks. Remembering the shop owner’s comments, I told her it was raccoons. Hated lying to her but it was never any use telling her the truth, just made her angry.

“Dan’s been asking about you at school” Jenny said. I lost interest in the game and asked her for details. “Stuff like where your house is, what part of the woods you usually go in, and collecting the rest of the drawings the other kids stole from your binder. Something’s up. I dunno what but I thought you should know.”

It wasn’t that surprising, but certainly cause for concern. I decided not to let it ruin my mood. Jennifer called her folks and got permission to stay over through Sunday. After dinner I took her up to the roof. I hadn’t been up there since last Summer, it’s miserable unless the weather’s warm. She was delighted to find I’d already unrolled a blanket up there.

I couldn’t convince the little guys to part with the music player. They absolutely love that thing. So it would be up to me to make the music. After we’d lain for a time, looking up at the stars, identifying satellites and the space station and holding hands, I started singing. She seemed surprised but didn’t stop me.

I didn’t know any popular recent love songs. I don’t keep up with that sort of thing. I just picked a song my mom used to sing to me because it captured the same feeling I wanted to share with her.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are grey.
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take, my sunshine away.”

So it went, each of the verses burned into my memory. When I finished, she didn’t say anything. For a while I wondered if she was weirded out, if it was corny or something. Then she rolled over, partly on top of me. She rested her head on my heart, and wrapped her arm around me as best she could in that position. “I won’t”, she whispered.

After that we got to pointing out constellations. I didn’t really know any so I just began making up names for them. Some time around “Bimbleton the bear shaver” she realized what I was doing, burst into laughter and twisted my nipple. I cried out in pain but was still laughing too hard to be angry.

The next day was mostly spent diving. Jenny lay on the shore watching anxiously. There proved to be plenty of air in the tanks according to the gauge but the kit had been sitting unused for who knows how long. Yet everything went more or less smoothly. The jugs were as awkward out of water as I remembered so I didn’t lug any of them onto land.

Instead once they were at the surface, pumping my legs to keep it there, I quickly pried out the cork with a remover my mom often uses on wine bottles, then wedged in the new T-valve. It took nearly an hour to complete the procedure, including linking the jugs on the bottom with the rubber tubing. But once I’d done that, the hard part was finished.

I screwed a cap onto one end to seal it, and another on the opposite end, Both with some sort of rubber lined ring around a hatch inset in the center, added by the little ship builders. They were really insistent about that. Not my business though. I was wearing only one of the scuba cylinders, having brought the other down with me, disconnected from the regulator so I could use it to purge the tubes of water.

I couldn’t see very clearly in the murky water so at first it seemed like nothing was happening until all the water was out. Then a thin plume of bubbles rose from the seam where I’d stretched the tube over one arm of the T-valve. Excess air escaping, my cue to move on to the next tube section. It proceeded like this until all the tubing was purged, then I opened the T-valves.

I stayed on the bottom long enough to watch little processions of glowing green lights I knew to be foxfire lanterns winding their way up the branches of their respective bushes, then cautiously exploring the full length of the corridor now linking all of the jugs together.

Groups which hadn’t so much as seen one another except as moving lights in the next jug over for more than a year, finally reunited. Able to freely visit one another as desired. It made sense of the shipbuilders’ scheme, although at that time I’d only begun to understand the extent of it.

As I swam to shore I felt something tug at my leg and wrap around it. Once out of water I discovered it to be some sort of netted enclosure full of minnows. A trap? Or were they farming fish now?

The purpose of the little round hatches in the end caps also became clear when I checked on the pier and shipyard. The little submarine had a new nose with an identically sized hatch and simple mechanism for gripping the rim of the other one and holding the two tightly together.

Jennifer had followed and again marveled at the detail of the facility. “You really go all out with this stuff.” I had nothing to say by this point. “Oh!” she blurted out. “Another one of your submarines. Are these radio controlled or what?” Sure enough a sub identical to the one under construction had surfaced and docked to the pier.

“We should go”, I said. “They’ll want to get out and recharge it, refill the air or whatever. They can’t do that while you’re around. They only show themselves to me.” She looked smug and nodded. “Uh huh. Your little elf buddies. Okay.” Winston came into view galloping along the shore, chasing birds which for all I knew bore itty bitty riders. I didn’t mention it. She only tolerated that sort of thing in small doses.

Winston tackled Jenny, slobbered all over her face, then did the same to me. I checked his shoulder and found the spear wounds were now healed over. He really shouldn’t have been caught up in it, but I wondered whether we might’ve lost had he been absent. For better or worse he’d developed a taste for Tyrants.

Something he reminded me of by horking up one of their arms. Jenny shrieked and hid her face. I laughed. “He probably just ate a frog. His ancestors were wolves yenno, can’t get rid of that hunting instinct.” He flopped over and I rubbed his belly, further strengthening the association. I didn’t know much about how to train dogs, but I knew I liked dead Tyrants.

We were disqualified from participating in the regional robotics competition. I hadn’t anticipated that the entry criteria would be more stringent. A team of volunteers scrutinized each robot for signs of rule violations and when they discovered the processor module on the metal Tyrant wasn’t hooked up to anything, questions arose.

One of them eventually peered into the cockpit. The pilot had the good sense to duck out of view, but the seat and controls were fully visible. “You guys won’t believe this. I think he’s trained a mouse to pilot this thing.” The other laughed and rejected the idea until they too peered into the metal tyrant’s head through the viewport.

“That’s the most creative way to cheat I’ve ever heard of, kid. Gotta hand it to you. But this event is for actual robots. I’ll do you a favor and keep this under wraps so PETA doesn’t hang you, but for obvious reasons you can’t compete. Sorry.” Jenny took it much harder than I did, swearing up a storm until she was asked to leave.

“That’s bullshit!” she shouted. “There’s no mouse in this thing! It’s a real robot!” She looked at me for affirmation as we walked out to the car. I shook my head, and she looked puzzled. Tired of games, I popped the hatch on the back of the metal Tyrant’s head and pulled out the pilot.

“You see? I was telling the truth”. She looked at the little guy in my hand. Then back at me. “I wonder about you”. I didn’t understand until I looked down at the Homunculus. He was holding a pose, such that he resembled an action figure. “No!” I objected, “Look closer!” But she just laughed and got into the car.

I stayed mad at her for all of four minutes. Simply being near her lifted my mood. It was frustrating in a sense as she could get away with anything and I’d not just forgive her but be bashful and doting again before long, even if she were unrepentant.

Her hand felt warm and fragile in mine. I softly felt the contours of each finger, then squeezed. She smiled at me. Of everything which had transpired recently, the biggest shift was in my model of the world. Until recently, there’d been only one person in it. An absolute division between myself and a grey wasteland of senseless brutality.

That model now required reformulation. From singularity, to duality. If it wasn’t just myself and monster world, if there could be one other genuine human being, might there be more? The single ray of sunshine breaking through the cloud cover began to multiply.

I was for the first time entertaining the possibility that I’d fundamentally misunderstood all of this and my place in it. One minute, everything only makes sense if I’m alone. The next, it only makes sense if she’s with me. They can’t both be true. Nor could I pinpoint when the transition occurred.

I felt this was a liminal time, like when an insect molts and is soft for a few minutes until its new shell hardens. It added urgency to the process of figuring out which of the models I would embrace. Whether I truly could abandon the “me against monster world” paradigm for a world with more color and warmth in it, or if I was being coaxed out of hiding just so they’d have a clear shot.

“What’s wrong?” Her expression suggested either concern or sadness. Odds favored concern given the context. “Nothing, just thinking.” She seemed unsatisfied. The next day was the last before Summer. She came home with me to celebrate. As usual we trekked out into the forest, stopping to rest in a sun drenched clearing. There, I finally indulged her curiosity somewhat.

“I was just thinking….Everything I go through at school is possible to endure because I can come here afterwards. I have someplace special, a refuge from the world. I’ve been struggling to put into words how I feel lately. The best I can do is that you’re also a refuge for me. When I’m with you the world doesn’t weigh so heavily on my shoulders. Weariness leaves me, I am rejuvenated and could take on the armies of the world. You’re the air in my lungs when I dive. The warmth of a fireplace in the winter. The only oasis in a human desert. I can survive without you. That’s what I was doing before we met. What I can’t do is live.”

I felt her gaze on me but couldn’t make myself meet it. I could only put my thoughts together the way I wanted them to come out if I didn’t. The air felt painfully empty until she next spoke. “I...I dunno. I mean, I think you’d be okay without me. All good things come to an end, yenno.”

I took a moment to process it, while she continued. “I really like you. But I worry that you have some grandiose image of me when really, I’m not that great.” Not the reaction I’d expected. I didn’t give it further thought right then, instead proceeded further into the woods to check up on the settlement.

“When did you have time to add all this!?” she exclaimed. I was at least as surprised. The settlement was no longer a village, or even town. At some point they’d begun making bricks, metal beams, and multi-story buildings. A number of rudimentary skyscrapers rose from the hustle and bustle below.

Above, fishing line strung between the aerial outposts bore cable cars for those not inclined to travel by bird. The outposts, too, were now larger and more elaborate. Some had what looked to be farming platforms on the levels just above the ‘bird hangar’. It struck me that with not much more work, they could live up there full time with no need of food or other resources from the ground. I resolved to keep an eye on this development as I didn’t want separatism to develop.

The ballistas were gone, replaced by spring loaded lead pellet launchers. I didn’t recognize the springs and worried they were looting nearby houses or something. I made a note to instruct their representative only to take stuff from trash bins. Two clusters of four launchers each were now mounted to the shoulders of the metal Tyrant, with an additional single launcher per arm.

They’d also fashioned it a sword from what, upon closer inspection, looked to have once been an electric turkey carving knife. The handle removed, the electronics miniaturized, and the battery discarded as it now fed via long, thin wire from the same central battery stack as the rest of the robot.

X-acto blades adorned the shoulders, head, waist and various other points to wound attackers that attempted to grapple with it. On top of that, exposed wires ran along the exterior, evenly spaced. I couldn’t be sure without a demonstration what those were for, but I could guess.

One of the two car batteries was now dedicated to supporting the metal Tyrant, the ‘computer’ and other recent power-hungry applications. That included a charging bay for a six wheeled offroad transport they were using to travel between the city and the lake, running on the AAs that used to be the buffer for the metal Tyrant.

On the rear of the vehicle there was a turret consisting of a quad cluster of pellet launchers, insurance against ambush. On the front, an armored cockpit. In the middle, a payload platform. It was segmented so it could take the shape of adverse terrain on the way over it. I began to wonder if, in time, they might exceed the present state of human technology.

At the lakeshore, there was something new being built in the shipyard. A glass pickle jar laying on its side, with the interior of a two story house meticulously built from wood inside of it, and a familiar docking collar inset in the lid. Zip ties affixed some sort of empty container to the underside, the purpose of which was unclear until I spotted another jar out on the lake, in the process of sinking.

A sailboat floated to one side of it, a surfaced submarine to the other. The sailboat had some mechanism I figured for a dredge pump on the deck, sucking up sand from the lakebed and depositing it into the empty container just beneath the jar until it could no longer float. As it slowly disappeared beneath the waves, so did the submarine. Presumably to guide it down, and position it for connection with the rest of the lakebed settlement.

The submarines were now larger, more numerous and fearsomely armed. When I pointed inquisitively to the row of torpedos under construction, one of the shipbuilders drew a picture for me of a crawdad attacking a group of little fellows in diving suits I’d not yet seen. Fair enough. A nuisance and occasional pinched toe for me, but a formidable sea monster if you’re an inch tall.

I found Jennifer still marveling at the intricate details of the skyscrapers. Poor little fellows inside, having to hide for so long. “The tables and chairs are amazing. I don’t own anything close to this quality. Did you buy these or make ‘em?” I told her the little people were expert craftsmen. She sighed.

“That’s wearing a little thin, you know.” I didn’t know what to tell her. “How long have you been doing this anyway?” I told her it all began about a year ago but that I’d only begun building the settlement recently. “Is this like...your thing? Or did you have normal hobbies before this. It’s hard to imagine somebody still playing with toys out in the woods when they’re a grownup.”

Playing with toys. In the woods. I parsed that a couple times, bit my tongue and instead offered her some of the little chairs for her collection. ”These are some mean looking guns, too. Do they work?” I assumed so. The arduous task of resetting the spring was accomplished by a large wheel with handles on the rear which several of them could turn like a crank to pull the piston back into loading position.

“Oh, mind the fence” I said. “It’s electrified.” She looked skeptical and motioned as if to touch it. “I’m serious, don’t touch that.” She studied the fence, noticed the wiring and traced it back to the powerplant. “That’s going a bit far, isn’t it? What if a cat ran into this?” I joked that it probably wouldn’t make that mistake again. Didn’t go over well.

I don’t know how long Dan had been standing there. I only noticed him when I started back towards the house. There he was with a flipped-up welder’s mask on, plus some heavy gloves. Jennifer stifled a shriek when she noticed. “What do you want, Dan” I demanded in a pointed monotone.

“Payback, faggot” he thundered, and produced a baseball bat from behind his back. I told Jennifer to return to the house. He started in her direction as if to prevent it. “Let her go. You came for me. Or does beating up girls excite you?” He sneered, but did nothing to stop her as she ran down the path to the house just behind him. Once she was gone, Dan’s buddies showed up.

It took me a second to make the connection. I’d never seen them obey a human before, except for the witch. A pair of them climbed up his clothing and perched on his shoulders. Perhaps ten more gathered about his legs. I couldn’t begin to fathom how he’d managed this. Then I remembered the drawings.

I’d been so thoughtless. Not once had it occurred to me that anybody would take them seriously. At least two had depicted scenes I remembered from the crone’s book. As well as a transcription of the poem. All of them wore improved armor and bore weapons Dan must’ve helped them fashion. A switchblade, the handle removed and converted into an appropriately sized sword. An axe, made from the blade of a straight razor.

Behind me, the metal Tyrant stirred. The tower swung away, the door in the fence opened and soon it stood before me, guns leveled at the invaders. “I knew you didn’t fuckin’ build that thing yourself, you little fraud” Dan muttered, lowering his faceplate and readying the bat.

That’s when Winston appeared. Sailing through the air, snarling like a beast from Hell, knocking Dan to the ground. “Winston! Heel!” He didn’t listen. There was no regaining control of the situation at this point and battle erupted all around me.

Wind began to pick up, complicating the air support. Bird riders frequently missed their mark and once or twice nicked me by accident. Dan was not so easily dispatched this time, owing to the mask and gloves. Several times his bat connected with a bird, either exploding it in a shower of gore or sending its limp, crushed body careening into a tree.

The metal Tyrant stood atop a rapidly growing pile of Tyrant corpses, unloading its guns into any that approached while a team of little fellows desperately clung to the shoulders, reloading the guns. The transport joined the fray, firing a volley of pellets at Dan. His clothing did nothing to slow them down, and he cried out in pain as the little lead slugs embedded in his side.

Something I’d not seen yet zipped by overhead. When it slowed, hovering over the melee, I recognized it for one of those four-propellered hobby aircraft people use to take video. Only it had a little cockpit on the front, and had just begun releasing bombs. M-80s by the looks of it, rigged to detonate on impact.

Each blast issued a loud report, sending Tyrants flying wherever one went off close by. Meanwhile the armored transport drove Dan back, one pellet at a time until he simply lunged forward and stepped on it. Reinforced though it was, it crumpled under Dan’s considerable weight. I could see blood trickling from the cockpit.

“No!!” I shouted, but he would hardly listen now. A well timed swing of the bat shattered the bomber into fragments of plastic. The rest of the explosives scattered, most detonating wherever they landed. Next, he turned his attention to the metal Tyrant. It was occupied just then, beating its namesake to death in the dirt under it. Dan readied his bat.

I didn’t want to watch but couldn’t close my eyes. He raised it over his head, then brought it down like a club. What came next defied my fears. The metal Tyrant raised its arms and at the last second, caught the business end of the bat in its claws. The arms bent somewhat, I could hear a loud screech of metal on metal. But it dug in its heels, and endured.

“I don’t fuckin’ believe it!” Dan shouted. Then, firing up its external wiring, it electrified the metal bat. Dan cried out and stumbled backwards. This is it, I thought. The turning point. From now on, we’ve got them on the run. Winston stood at my side, licking Tyrant blood from his chops. I saw fear in Dan’s eyes. He turned and fled.

I thought we’d won the day, and turned my attention to tallying losses. Until I first smelled smoke. Every other possibility I hoped for evaporated when I glimpsed flames spreading towards us through the trees. A line it simply hadn’t occurred to me that he might cross.

I did what I could to help pack the train for evacuation, then sent it off down the tunnel. Throngs of little ones, carrying what belongings they were able to bring, followed behind it. I heard a snap, and looked up. The fishing line supporting the aerial outposts was being cut. It didn’t make sense why they’d do that until I saw the first of them begin to levitate.

On my way out of the woods, I turned back to see the outposts rising above the tree cover, each hanging from a hot air balloon they must’ve folded away into the top floor, anticipating this day would come. As I watched, more balloons unfurled, inflated, and began to lift the little wooden buildings out of harm’s way.

The rest of the little ones followed me. The metal Tyrant pulled a cart packed with them behind it, mostly beleagured soldiers. It was not the escape I imagined, for there was Dan at the other end of the field, hundreds of armored Tyrants standing in rows behind him.

“This is insanity!” I yelled. “Why are you doing this?” He began to advance, the platoons of Tyrants marching behind him in lock step. The little ones also formed up, their chosen tactician drawing out a plan for the assault on a hastily unfolded bit of paper. The team riding on the metal Tyrant finished reloading the guns, and climbed back inside.

The wind had brought in storm clouds. The droplets were meager but swift, stinging on impact. Lightning struck, briefly casting long shadows over the battlefield from the nearest trees. Behind me the fire continued to consume my refuge as I stood powerless to stop it. Once the first wave of Tyrants were in range of the guns, they began cutting them down.

The only cover was natural. There’d been no time to dig trenches. The nearest Tyrant fell, clutching his eye as it spurted blood. Another tumbled to the ground leaking blood from an exit wound in its back. There were too few guns, and too many Tyrants to stop them this way. The little ones in front steeled themselves, aligning their pikes against the oncoming stampede.

Then the metal Tyrant stepped right over them, and dove directly into the ravenous horde. It drew its sword, activated it, and the high pitched whine of a reciprocating serrated blade sounded. Fountains of Tyrant blood showered the battlefield as their limbs fell from their bodies, and their heads from their shoulders.

One Tyrant seized it by the arm, realizing too late there was a gun mounted there as well. Which then discharged into its face, bursting its head apart. Behind it, formations of little ones performed their roles flawlessly, surrounding each Tyrant, immobilizing it with thread tied to arrows, then stabbing it through the heart once it fell.

Others were handily skewered with pikes, angled such that their own weight impaled the foolish beasts. All the while Dan shouted orders, muffled by the welding mask, as lightning flashes silhouetted him against the grey sky. The winds grew yet more violent, and I feared the Tyrants would gain the advantage, as their mass made them less vulnerable to it.

A commotion attracted my attention to the metal Tyrant, which had reduced the throng of attackers around it to twitching heaps of gore. It stood motionless, gaze fixed on a Tyrant discernibly different from the rest. It wore more ornate armor and bore one of the only swords, the one I’d recognized earlier.

The metal Tyrant made the first move. Swinging its electric saw in an arc, the opponent deftly rolling out of the way. Then thrusting, only for it to deflect with its own blade, which sparked furiously as the rapidly vibrating saw teeth ground against it.

The metal Tyrant raised one of its arm mounted guns, but before it could fire, the opponent seized its arm and tore it off. More sparks blasted forth from the jagged socket. The upper torso of the robot began to spin, firing pellets wildly in all directions. The armored Tyrant ducked the shots, rushed in when it finished, and drove its blade straight through the metal Tyrant’s chest.

I gasped, remembering the shop keeper’s warning about the battery. Sure enough, it erupted in flames. The metal Tyrant stumbled backwards, twitching and sparking as the fire consumed it. The head launched from the body on a model rocket engine, not making it far due to the weight. When it landed perhaps ten feet away, the armored Tyrant was upon it.

It pried at the hatch on the back, finally peeling it away, plucking the pilot from inside and eating him in one bite. I felt nauseous, and familiar rage took me. Before I could get my hands on the little monster, Winston seized him in his jaws, then thrashed him about until his body split into the upper and lower halves, his intestines dangling from Winston’s mouth.

“TO MY SIDE, DOG!” I shouted. For once, Winston obeyed. The lightning strikes were now accompanied by deafening thunder, and the rain fell nearly sideways. Soaking wet, my hair tossed about, I barreled down the battlefield towards Dan. Ranks of Tyrants closed to protect him. But then, over the wind and thunder, I began to hear it.

Long and low at first. Raspy, reverberating. Then louder, and higher in pitch. Cackling. The stormclouds overhead began to swirl as the crone’s laughter sent the Tyrants into fits of terror. A lightning bolt arced to Earth right in the middle of the Tyrant platoon, shredding most of them to flaming nuggets of gore in an instant. Another bolt vaporized a group of Tyrants closing on the front lines, showering the little fellows in smoldering Tyrant viscera. Then another, finally decimating what was left of the Tyrant army.

The little ones cheered and sang. They knew what it was before I even grasped what was happening. I fell to my knees, rain plastering my face, and whispered thanks to the old crone. Then I heard a yelp. Returning my attention to the battlefield, I spotted Dan, wailing on Winston with the baseball bat.

“WINSTON!” I pumped my legs, bounding over piles of corpses, Tyrant and Homunculus alike. When I reached Dan, he was bringing the bat down on Winston’s head. I heard a sickening crack, and the yelping stopped. My fist impacted his side, where he’d been shot earlier.

He screamed in agony, distorted by the mask. The bat swung at me. I ducked, then kneed him in the groin. He doubled over, dropping the bat and howling in a mixture of pain and anger. Before he could recover, I snatched the bat from his feet. I’d never used a weapon on anybody. Even now I didn’t feel ready.

But one look at Winston, crumpled into a pitiful heap destroyed my last vestiges of restraint. I swung the bat, connecting with his wounded side. I heard a rib crack. Dan howled again, struggling to stand. I swung again, this time for his head. It cracked the welding mask, which then fell apart, revealing his face. Blood trickled from his scalp, diluted by the rain now falling on it.

He began begging. Told me it was the Tyrants, he couldn’t defy them. That he never understood how his life turned into this, he’d just tried to become stronger so the world couldn’t hurt him. A year ago, it might’ve worked. The little ones, having made their way across the battlefield slowly picking off the surviving Tyrants, now formed up behind me.

The one I recognized as their representative looked up at me expectantly. I looked at him, then down at Dan, crippled bloody mess laying in the increasingly muddy field at my feet. I realized at some point I’d raised the bat as if to finish him. Slowing my breath, I lowered it, then carefully chose my next words.

“How did it come to this? You hurt me, I hurt you, so you hurt me worse, then I do the same. The world doesn’t have to work like that. You choose it, every time you impose yourself on someone smaller.” He squinted at me, split lip trembling.

“I could stop it for now if I killed you. I badly want to return all the pain you’ve inflicted on others with interest. But there’s always more. It would accomplish nothing but to inject more suffering into the world, and increase its population of monsters by one.”

I dropped the bat. Dan, who’d been inching backwards as I spoke, now got up and ran. In time the rain subsided, the stormclouds cleared up and sunlight bathed the battleground. Distant sirens signalled the arrival of fire engines, too late the save the forest. As I’d been too late to save Winston. I knelt at his side, feeling his chest rise and fall. I knew if I lifted him onto the wagon he’d only die faster. Blood pooled beneath his head.

Hot, bitter tears streamed down my face, mixing with rainwater on the way. I didn’t know if he could hear me. I just wanted him not to be scared. So I sang to him, stroked his ears and repeated what a good boy he was until his chest stopped moving.

I buried Winston in the forest, on the site where the city once stood. Nothing but charred wreckage remained when I found it. A kettle laid next to the entrance to the underground shelter, the hatch pried open. None of them sought refuge there that I know of, but the Tyrants must’ve poured boiling water in there to be sure.

Dad came along, but stood at some distance, letting me make peace. It took what felt like ages to dig a grave deep enough. I tried to come up with something suitable to say. I only made it to “I didn’t know you for long, but-” before it disintegrated into blubbering and I couldn’t get any more words out. Eventually gave up on it, laid Winston to rest, and began filling in the hole I’d dug.

I didn’t know how to handle pain this bad. I’d spent years isolating myself so I couldn’t be hurt. All undone the moment I started to care for someone else. All I wanted to do was lay on the ground, powerless to stop the sobbing, wishing I’d been faster. In dark moments I still regret, wishing I’d killed Dan.

The storm swept away the outposts. Flying lifeboats in a sense. Each with everything the occupants needed for their voyage. With any luck, no living Tyrants remained and they might colonize wherever they landed without fear. The rest returned to the bottom of the lake, where they were safest to begin with. Perhaps it’d been a mistake to remove them in the first place.

I next saw Jennifer at the hobby shop. I’d come to explain to the owner why I hadn’t competed in the regionals and couldn’t return his batteries. She rounded the corner, eyes widened when she spotted me, and stepped back initially as if to hide until she realized I’d seen her. I discovered why when I saw Trevor join her, taking her hand in his.

It was plain enough what’d happened. Looking back, I realized she’d been trying to soften my landing. Oddly, I felt nothing. On the way home I wondered whether that would last or it if was like the shock after an injury, before the pain sets in. She met me in the field.

I argued with her briefly as I really didn’t want to see her just then. But she insisted on talking about it and even now I found it difficult to deny her anything. We wound up walking along the shore of the lake as she did her best to explain what happened and why.  

“I dunno. It was really fast, and you fell so hard. I got scared because you feel everything so intensely. I didn’t plan for anything longterm from the start and knew you’d get hurt. Just a question of how much. I figured breaking it off sooner would limit the damage.”

“Not as much as if you didn’t break it off at all” I joked, feebly. When I inquired, she admitted she’d been seeing Trevor for about a week already. “I didn’t tell you until now because I wasn’t sure about it. I guess what I liked about you was the novelty. I have a soft spot for the underdog, and you’ve got this whole fascinating complex world inside your head. How could I not get sucked into that? But, I don’t want to live there. Only visit.”

I hoped she’d found me sufficiently novel to get the enjoyment she wanted. The patch of sunlight visible through the stormclouds, which had been growing until today, rapidly closed. I found myself once again standing alone in monster world, complete and sufficient unto myself. The whole business of extending that to another person, risking it all for a fleeting emotional high now seemed like a catastrophically failed experiment.

As if reading my mind, she urged me not to conclude it’d been a mistake to love somebody. “It’s like a rocket launch”, she said. “Every stage has to go off without a hitch or it collapses in a fireball. But no matter how many times it happens, they keep trying because the potential reward is so great. That’ll happen for you, too. Plenty of girls out there that are a much better match for you than I am.”

That narrative didn’t resonate with me, and I said so. Felt more like I’d been trudging through a frigid tundra all my life, enduring the darkness and cold in the remote hope that I might eventually come upon warmth and light. That there might be something to it all. Then one day the clouds part and for the first time, I see the sun.

Then, just as quickly as the clouds parted, they drew closed. Would I ever find another sun? Nonsense question. What other sun? For me, just one source of warmth and light exists in world. With that taken from me I have nothing left but the prospect of trudging along for the remainder of my life through the frozen wasteland I’d endured until now.

A return to normalcy. To a world I understood. There was that. The thinnest of silver linings. But also, the recent victory. I’d spoken with the police the day after the battle, seems Dan told his handler I’d attacked him without provocation. But with Jenny’s testimony, they finally withdrew him from my school and transferred him to another out of state.

I worried for the little ones sailing the sky. Had no idea where they were by now, so I was powerless to protect them. But that day was gonna come, sooner or later. Even the ones in the lake couldn’t depend on me forever, as I’d one day grow old and die. I’d already done as much for them as I could by ridding the world of Tyrants.  

“Life’s really long. You can’t just mope around forever.” Again with her motivational spiel. “You make it sound so much worse than it is. A lot of that’s in your mind, yenno. What are you gonna do with the next sixty odd years?” I considered answering that until today I thought I’d spend it growing old with her. Rubbing our wrinkly old people faces together, yelling at kids to get off our futuristic glowing hover-lawn. I reconsidered.

“Well, there’s three more years before highschool. Then college. I’ll start working as soon as I’m old enough. Gotta begin saving early.” Her interest piqued. “Oh yeah? Saving for what?” I rubbed my chin and looked out over the surface of the lake. “One day I’m gonna buy a sailboat. Head out to the open sea, leave the land behind. That’s the last anybody will see of me.”

She frowned. “I hope you’ll come see me now and again.” I stared at her. “You and Trevor? Why would I do that. I’ll fish for my dinner and catch rainwater to drink while I explore French Polynesia.” Before I could go into detail about my future nautical adventures, Jenny stepped on something which screeched in pain, then fell silent.  

“Oh god I think I killed it, I hope it’s not….Wait, what IS this? Oh gross! What the fuck!?” She recoiled from whatever she’d smooshed. I’d expected a flattened frog but instead found myself looking down at a Tyrant, body crushed by her foot, wheezing erratically as it expired. “Seriously, what the fuck IS that thing?” Jenny repeated, hand over her mouth, the other clutching her stomach.

I was equally astonished. Tyrants were a familiar enough sight by now, but this one was different. On the side of the short, thick neck between the bulbous head and barrel shaped body were a series of long, thin slits I immediately recognized as gills.


If you enjoyed this, continue on to part 3: Pariah of the Little People!

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