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Treads

By UrbanTumbleweed All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Blurb

Scientists say the world of Tyre used to be taller; they say it is wearing away. Nobody listens. Arthur Catseye says it used to be covered in Ice. No one believes him either. Tyre rolls eternally on: the citizens of Hub and Underhub scraping an existence on this harsh rubber world. Grease from the Bolt mines keeps them warm, food from the tarmac keeps them fed, and the skins of the domesticated aphids keeps them clothed. Life is hard enough; without the fairy tales cooked up by half-mad scientists. But is life about to get harder? Oren Scuff has a nasty feeling that it might. Evidence suggests Ice is real and may soon come again, and since the treads of Tyre have worn too low, there will be nothing to protect the tiny people from its cruelty. Are the ancient warnings scratched on the Axle right? Will Ice destroy them all?

Chapter 1

They said the world is round and Oren had never questioned that, after all, she’d never walked the whole way around to check.

They said the world is tall and Oren knew that was true because, like everyone else, she’d climbed to the top to see.

Some said it used to be taller.

No one listened.

Maybe up in the valleys, where the farmers lived, people listened more. But Oren had grown up in the basin beneath Hub where no one cared for science much. Solid, practical people: the grease miners, and Hub-scrapers, the priests of Ford who worshipped the maker of Tyre, and the strange, mad, Axle-nerds who ventured further down than anyone should. What did any of them care for the nonsense of valley-folk who got far too much fresh air?

Unsurprising therefore, Oren’s parents were flabbergasted, and a little embarrassed, that she chose to join such deviants. Her father was a grease miner like his father before him, and her mother was a fine baker, no one in the family had ever been a scientist before.

Still, she knew her father was grudgingly proud of her even; if he would never admit it, and he’d got used to her funny way of life and extended vocabulary. This morning as she left the house there was hardly a trace of disappointment in his customary farewell grunt.

“Bye, Da,” she replied; grinning to herself as the door shut. She wished her mother was prone to such silence.

“Oren!”

She walked out from under the door canopy, grin evaporating, and looked up at the top window. Her mother’s sharp face was peering down at her.

“Yes, Mam?” she answered; wishing that the whole walkway was not listening in.

“You hurry home tonight, won’t you, love?” boomed her mother, hanging so far over the sill that she was in danger of her large bosom dragging her into gravity’s embrace.

“I’ll try, Mam,” said Oren; hurrying away.

“Don’t ‘try’, young lady: do! He’s coming to dinner tonight and you’d better be there or-“

“Do what I can,” cut in Oren, blushing, “but it might be tricky, Doctor Lane is setting up another gravel sieve up on the shoulder and-”

“Don’t give me that science nonsense!”

Oren practically ran along the walkway and out of sight, blushing furiously. She knew that everyone was embarrassed by their mothers, but had they tried living with Livian Scuff? The word “embarrassment” didn’t cover it.

Livian Scuff was in fact so embarrassing at times that her daughter wished — oh, she wished so many things! Oren wished her mother didn’t shout so loudly, or wear her hair in a short scarlet bob that stuck almost horizontally out from her head. She wished her mother didn’t always have a silly smile on her pointy face, or come home from work every day covered in the bakery’s flour.

Taking solace in the fact that most people didn’t have their shutters open this early, the young scientist hurried away with her head down.

The Scuff family lived in the Underhub Basin: a dark world beneath the town of Hub. In the very centre of the basin, surrounded by the five Wheel Stud Hills, stood the great Grease Cap Mountain: so massive that it reached aloft towards the bottom of Hub. From its shadow the rest of the basin sloped up and away; too steep and perilous to live on.

Nobody was foolish enough to try and do so, and instead they built their houses in the air.

On such a strange, unique world, the simile of the weaver bird’s nest can’t be sensibly applied, but it is the best way to describe the town of Underhub. Oren Scuff, her family, and their neighbours, lived in homes woven from very thin, strong, lengths of Tyre rubber; their roofs perfect domes save for the thin chimneys protruding from them. These houses hung from strong cables anchored to Hub above, and they dangled securely far above the centre of the basin and the stilted buildings of the grease mine that surrounded it.

Walkways made of wide black panels connected the houses and spiral staircases linked higher levels to lower; with strong woven handrails surrounding everything to keep people from falling. Since the Tyre rubber was naturally strong, and the interconnections anchored everything together, the town was a lot safer than it sounds. No one part of it could move unless the rest did, and therefore no one part of it could move at all.

It was a long way up from this pendant community to the peaks and valleys where Oren’s professor worked, and she told herself that that was why she left so early every day. As she took her seat on the gondola up to Hub, however, the real reason floated guiltily across her mind.

She didn’t fit in there.

Not just in that house with quiet, practical, Da, smelling of grease and pipe smoke, and Mam all covered in flour and gossip; but on that walkway. The whole of Underhub. Kids she’d grown up with hurried past her on their way to work in the mine, staring down at their grease covered clothes, and pretending she didn’t exist. Little ones pointed and whispered “Oren the Odd”, giggling behind their hands, and the old people muttered darkly as old people are wont to do.

Up on Hub she left the smog behind and caught an early greaseboat bound for Tyre shoulder.

Oren spent a sizable amount of her time on greaseboats and wished they were a little more stable. Though there had been very few accidents, the greaseboats were little more than long flat-topped punts, with rickety roofs held by four thin poles; barely high enough for the punter to stand under. It gave basic protection against falling grit but it made Oren uneasy. Surely it wasn’t enough?

The boat was pretty empty, as usual, and she sat in the bow; staring down at the oily canal as the punter punted stoically towards the edge of Hub. Grease miners like her father dug the stuff out of the Bolt mines and dropped it into the shallow scratches on Hub’s surface where the constant turning of Tyre gave it the momentum it needed to trickle all the way to the shoulder; except during an extended Stop when everyone got a break.

In this way grease got delivered for the valley-folk to light their fires and lamps, and a constant boat route was made available between the two lands. The farmers sent back food, messages got delivered, and a few oddballs like Oren had a way to travel.

This morning, besides herself and the punter, there was only one other person: a grease miner foreman with his clothes all smart; doubtlessly on his way to some kind of meeting at Town Hall. He worked with Oren’s father and had known her since she was tiny; but he ignored her, and stared down at his feet glumly. Oddness is not softened by familiarity.

Once she’d taken the gondola over the shoulder and made the gruelling hike across the Tread the other reason that Oren left home so early became apparent. Doctor Harrow Lane had three postgraduate students. Oren was the only one there and as such it took three times as long to set up the equipment.

Miss Scuff loved it up there with the wind on her face; the bright sun shining on her. Others moaned about the filthy grit that always covered the place but Oren had grown up in dark sooty Underhub and barely noticed it. Subject to Night; no permanent structures could be built there, and aside from the grime they were bare. Oren liked that: it was simplistic; calming. She delighted in the height; being able to look down into the valleys below, and even, if she was feeling brave, standing right on the edge of the shoulder and see Hub stretching down at a dizzying 90° angle. The peaks were high, frustrating to get to, but once on top they were flat, allowing one to see forever.

Around the edge of Tyre ran several clusters of peaks known as treads; separated from each other by the various valleys, grooves, and ribs, that tribologists such as Oren studied. Only those nearest to the shoulder were close enough to reach easily, and the young scientist spent much of her time here: helping the doctor with his experiments.

Because all worlds love cruel irony she had just finished setting up the enormous sieve when she heard her fellow postgrads approaching. Considering that they both lived far closer than she did it was incredibly unfair.

They were hard to miss: the air was suddenly filled with shrill laughter that set her teeth on edge and brought to mind the kind of language Da thought she didn’t understand.

The sheepish young man walking beside the laughter Oren didn’t generally mind; in fact, at one time he had been more than just a colleague to her. Lore Miles, as he was called, had a genuine passion for science and a talent for it that Oren envied. He was the tallest person she had ever met, gangly, with very light green hair. Compared to the tough men of Tyre he was pale and rather innocent looking; baby-faced still. She knew many people judged him by it, but she also knew the truth: though he might look weak in body he certainly was not in mind.

Lore was also the neatest person she knew: from his short hair and combed bushy brows, down to his extremely shiny well-made boots, there was not a thing out of place. His white coat was pressed, and he even wore a tie. This compulsion to fold was one of the reasons the two of them had not remained a couple; that and his crippling lack of spine.

This latter weakness was the reason he was late. Not laziness or apathy. Spinelessness. Young Mr Miles had hung back to wait for the giggling menace at his side in the faint, but hopeless, delusion that she might really love him. Especially if he carried her bag.

Oren glared and kicked the Tyre as the subject of his affliction — sorry; affection — came into view, glad no one could see the distain in her yellow eyes through the thick, tinted goggles everyone had to wear outside to keep the sun from blinding them.

Pollen. Even her name was stupid. “Pollen”. Named for those great golden clumps of dust that got stuck in Tyre and sweetened food. “Pollen”. A beautiful, simpering, girl who broke the laws of nature by being intelligent as well as attractive. Who had got into science not because she liked it, but because she thought boys would like her more if she pretended to care about environmental issues. Pollen: who had Lore, and even, on occasion, Dr Lane, wrapped around her finger.

If it hadn’t been for her hair Pollen Bolt would not have been anything special. At least, Oren didn’t think so. Short and petite; she was far too vain. Her white science coat was always too crisp; her clothes far too fashionable for a scientist. Like everyone else her outfit was stitched from mismatched pieces of green and brown aphid skin, tied together, and haphazardly covered by protective panels of black Tyre rubber. Somehow though, Pollen wore it better: as though it were a radical fashion choice rather than a necessity of their world. Always cold; she wore a long green scarf which Oren considered ridiculous, and a short jagged brown skirt over her leggings: a useless affectation of girlishness.

But her hair! If it hadn’t been for that Oren was sure that people wouldn’t fall for her simpering act. As it was, her unbelievably golden locks seemed to hypnotize everybody but Oren. And even Oren, like every other woman, was envious of it. No wonder Pollen always fussed over it: thick and luxurious it may be, but even the slightest wind messed up the perfect curls.

With this in mind Oren didn’t even bother asking why they were late. Lore was late because he had waited for Pollen. Pollen was late because she considered it her right, and because she knew that Oren would set up. And Oren hated herself because she always did. Occasionally she had the horrible feeling she was just as Pollen-controlled as the rest.

Gritting her teeth she pretended to fiddle with the equipment so they couldn’t see her face. Why didn’t other people realise how manipulative and false Pollen was? Why didn’t she make their skin crawl? Her whole personality, her very presence, was oily: like a walking grease stain.

Sadly in life, hate at first sight is far more common than love, and much more enduring.

Long since resigned to the injustice of the girl’s presence, Oren contented herself by playing her favourite game: Alternative Endings to Pollen’s Sentences.

“Thank you so much for carrying my bag, Lore!”

You fool: added Oren silently to herself.

“It’s simply so heavy today; Mother made me such a big lunch!”

Because my stomach is almost as big as my head.

“Of course, I need it, I have one of those things-”

That makes me look like a lump of grit.

“-you know-”

Inbreeding?

“-a fast-”

Libido?

“-metabolism.”

Is that the name of the boy from the next valley?

“Morning, Oren.”

She said with mock friendship — Oren’s brain caught up with reality and she turned.

“Err… morning, Pollen, and Lore.” The young man behind the blonde waved a gangly arm.

As an older voice rang out Oren wished Lore didn’t always see her acting like such a grouch, but Pollen really did bring it out in her.

“Everybody is here! Excellent; thank you for setting up the equipment.”

“Good morning, Doctor Lane,” the three young people replied.

Doctor Lane always made Oren smile which was perhaps why he had always liked her. There is nothing old men like more than pretty smiling young women. Especially when it was doubtful any ever had when they had been young themselves.

That was why Oren always smiled; Dr Lane looked as though he had stepped out of a cliché: “The Tribologist”.

Old, thin on top, giant bushy beard, scrawny frame except for his stomach which resembled the Tyre he studied; the doctor was at once both dazzlingly intellectual, and mind-blowingly dense. Inside his head he was a genius, outside he couldn’t remember to tie his boots.

Oren knew nothing about the doctor’s home life, but it struck her that he was one of those people who needs someone else to sort him out and didn’t have anyone to do it. His white coat was always wrinkled and smudged; a little off-colour compared to the crisp ones of his prideful young students. His tie was always loose and getting stuck in things, and he was the only person on Tyre to wear baggy brown trousers instead of leggings: definitely odd, and definitely dangerous. Admittedly the doctor would have looked very silly in leggings, but Oren suspected the fashion choice had more to do with pockets than with vanity. Doctor Lane loved pockets. He had pockets in his shirt, a vest of pockets on his shirt, pockets in his trousers, pouches tied around the top of each leg, and even little pockets in his boots. Some of his pockets even had pockets in them. The only thing in fact that didn’t have pockets was his wide belt; which was so covered in gauges and clocks and all sorts of other mechanical contrivances that there simply wasn’t room. After years of study Oren had no idea what most of the devices did, or how they worked.

“Hello, Doctor,” said Lore. “The sieve’s all ready.”

At least he had the grace to give Oren an embarrassed look.

“Excellent, excellent; good work, everybody! Now then, Pollen, why have we set up the sieve?”

“To catch grit and other debris,” said the girl with a coy smile; annoying Oren once again by compounding her beauty insult by having a brain. “We can determine seasonal changes by the size and composition of the particles.”

“Indeed. I’m hoping today we might find the first signs of loam!”

“The first indication that the tarmac season is at last coming to a close!” said Lore enthusiastically.

“Wouldn’t that be something? Let’s leave this one to catch tonight’s bounty, and head over to see what the rest have got for us.”

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