World Builders by Edward Lee

Zumman and Sappa's fortunes change when no more Mammon grows in Jesteria, threatening famine; by Edward Lee.

He called the World Builder on a comm link and relayed the problem. Zumman's home had been displaced. Zumman stood with his wife, Sappa, and their daughter, Sasa, who was shading her eyes, looking at the horizon. Sasa could see the World Builder coming down a hill on his utility vehicle still some distance away.

Sasa saw the World Builder step off his vehicle and walk in the direction of the family. He wore fatigues with devices strapped around his waist, thigh, and arm. On his head was a large helmet with vision goggles that had lines running over them, his pupils the center point. "I've already found your home. Get in," the World Builder said.

The family climbed aboard and sat at the rear of the vehicle, where there was a balloon-like bumper that was firm against their backs. The World Builder pressed on the accelerator, and they were off to find where Jester had now placed Sasa's home. In that sense, World Builders were like the prophets knowing the will of Jester the God, but they regarded themselves as scientists or technicians. The utility vehicle flew over rocky dry land, gliding just above it.

The World Builder that had come was different from the usual one that came to help them, that World Builder was much older. This World Builder was young. Not bad looking for a World Builder, Sasa thought, though flabby around the midsection, but with a handsome face, when he took off his helmet, which he did presently as he stood outside his vehicle and pointed to Sasa's home five miles from where it was last. Sasa and Sappa went inside, while Zumman discussed terms of payment with the World Builder.

Sasa looked around her home, but as before on such displacements, everything in the house was exactly where it had been. Sasa went to the storage box, poured Jester juice into a tall cup, and waited for her father.

Zumman came in grumbling about ten measurements of Mammon. He opened the storage box and took out melons, then went to the storeroom and came out with more Mammon, which he all wrapped with a blanket the World Builder gave him. He looked at Sasa and then went out.

Sasa looked out the window at the World Builder and her father. The World Builder received his pay and talked to Zumman for a while longer than seemed necessary to Sasa. The World Builder nodded. He shook Zumman's hand, and headed off in his vehicle. Zumman came in, ignoring the Jester Juice Sasa had laid out for him, and he talked with Sappa alone in a separate room. After speaking animatedly to each other, Sasa's parents came out with a reserved demeanor. Their conversation had been muffled by the thick walls of their room.

"Sasa," Zumman said. "That World Builder who found our home, he noticed you. He wants to meet you on a celebration day to spend some time with you."

"Celebration day, Pa? But I want to meet my new neighbors and spend time with them."

"That'll have to wait. You're not a girl anymore, Sasa. You must start meeting World Builders."

"Why, because of the old saying, two Jesterians lead to ruin?"

"It is a true saying. You're young, so you scoff at wisdom," Zumman said, and he took up his Jester Juice. As he drank lasciviously, the drink dripped down the sides of his mouth. Zumman and Sappa drank 'til sleep came upon them. Sasa wasn't tired, and she stayed up much of the night, thinking about her cumbersome situation. She finally fell asleep after drinking a cup of her father's Jester Juice.



On celebration day, Sasa was made to wear an embroidered crop top with a long flowing dress. Her mother wanted her to wear a petticoat underneath, but Sasa refused the suggestion, already feeling foolish at dressing up to the extent she did. The meeting was set for the early afternoon. Sasa sat by the mirror and waited, adjusting her long hair this way and that. She asked for a cup of Jester Juice. Her mother gave her one. Sasa's father looked out the window and said, "He's coming." He took the cup away from Sasa and hurried her to the door. Sasa's parents stood outside smiling. Sasa looked in the other direction, as Niso got off his vehicle and walked towards Zumman, handing him a gift of Jester Juice. Niso greeted Sappa and turned to Sasa. "You look very becoming," he said.

"Thanks," she said, taking a wrapped gift from him and handing it to her mother.

For his part, Niso was wearing a short caftan that came down to his thighs and sandals with straps around his lower knees. He held his helmet to his side to complete the look. Niso walked to his vehicle. He opened the door. Sasa hesitated and asked if they could walk instead. Niso closed the door of his vehicle, and said, 'Sure."

It was a warm day, and there were puddles at their feet from yesterday's rain. Sasa looked at the ground. Niso walked holding his hands in front of him. They walked saying little, when a rock face raised itself up from the ground, continued to grow, until it stood towering above them. Sasa said, "Jester is great. Let's climb it." She gripped the round wedges in the rock and climbed up like a spider, Niso thought. He looked up at her. Looking down she gestured for him to follow.

Sasa reached the top and waited. She looked down and tapped her sandaled foot. Niso was struggling only two thirds of the way up. Niso snail-like and sluggish, finally made his way, and sat panting. Sasa wanted to go down the rock face as soon as Niso had reached the crest, but Niso suggested they sit and admire the view. Sasa sat down next to him, and they looked out at the landscape, at the plateaus and the snow-capped mountains beyond it. "Wonderful," Sasa said, as if just noticing, for the first time, these parts of Jesteria that opened out before her.

"You've never noticed these parts of Jesteria before?"

"I've never lived this close to the mountains."

"It is wonderful when you do notice it from here."

"Yes, that's why I mentioned it."

After a short silence, Niso talked about how he spent most of his time studying, helping his father with the family business when he was off from school. He mentioned wanting to be a professor at the academy one day, his test scores were good enough for consideration. Then he asked about Sasa.

Sasa related how her parents were well off, her father a council member and an overseer of the field hands, her mother a wonderful weaver of fabric. But her parents worked so hard, her dream was to make enough money so that one day they wouldn't have to work. They could just live well and with stability in Jesteria, as much as that was possible.

Sasa continued, talking of her friends. There were many of them because of all her home displacements. She gossiped about people Niso would in all likelihood never meet, but made their intrigues pleasant enough.

They passed the time this way, as the sun set slowly beyond the horizon. There was still some light from the afterglow, and they decided to make their way down. As they got up, the elevation gradually, silently, and with little disturbance descended, stopping two feet shy of the ground. Sasa took this Jesterian occurrence as a sign of grace from the gods, as Niso helped her down by her hands. They walked to Sasa's home.

At her door, Sasa said goodbye to Niso and entered her house. Her father asked, "How did it go with the young man?"

"Well enough," Sasa said casually, and went to the mirror to look at herself.

From the glow on Sasa's face, Sappa could tell that it went better than well, and she nodded at her husband.

Outside, a young man Mage stood lurking in the shadows behind a curve of a wall, looking at Niso drive away. He came out of the shadows and went to the door of his house and opened it, hearing his parents yell harshly and break things. He went to his room and took a drawing from the edge of a mirror. It was a drawing he had made of Sasa a long time ago.



Early in the morning, eager to work after a celebration day, Zumman went to the fields on a public transport ship and got off to see all the field hands standing around with their sickles held low against their thighs. The fields were without Mammon, the staple diet of all Jesteria and of the World Builders. Every morning, new Mammon would appear for reaping and gathering, but today for the first time since Zumman had overseen the fields there was no Mammon to take away and distribute. The workers were sent home without food, and Zumman wondered what would happen tomorrow.

What happened the next day and continued for weeks confounded Zumman and the rest of Jesteria. There was no Mammon, none. Jester the God was the God of chaos, but he was reliable for one all-important thing, up 'til now, he had provided Mammon every single day. With the unpredictability of the land, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that this would happen, but there was no precedent for it, no folkloric or historical reference point. In the face of this uncertainty, some Jesterians, former World Builders like Zumman, helped water the fields, buried rinds and stems to fertilize the soil. Others prayed to their idol, drank Jester Juice in His name, and caroused around large fires. But the burrowing pests took away whatever the Jesterians hoped would give the soil any richness, and the moist earth only produced the smallest of shoots that yielded nothing.

Zumman, a field overseer, and also a council elder, had to negotiate between World Builders that wanted to help, and Jesterians, who felt the land was sacred and not open to interference by those who did not believe in the gods, the otherworldly, the miracle of growth marveled at by Jesterians, even when it was a daily thing, until now.

The storehouses in Jesteria and the silos in the land of the World Builders were growing short of Mammon. Town meetings were held across Jesteria. At one such meeting a tall gaunt woman said:

"What is being done to address this? My two children and I lack food."

"Pray to the gods, and Jester. The storehouses have Mammon, but it must be rationed wisely," Zumman said. He pointed to the next person.

"What of the World Builders? Is it not time to ask for their help?"

There was a murmuring, a negative buzz.

"We are considering our options with the World Builders."

"This from a born World Builder," a voice in the back said. "Can this man be trusted with our affairs with them?" The speaker appeared through a parting in the crowd. It was the young man Mage.

Another council elder replied, "From a boy who is born of two Jesterians, this is a silly prejudice of a council member."

"But you all are born World Builders. Prejudice is that we are led by you," Mage pursued. The room went silent, then:

"He's right. Let a born Jesterian guide us. Maybe this is the time. Let it be the boy. He is a true Jesterian," the mother of two said.

There was a swell of noise, a growing momentum of assent.

"A Jesterian born of two Jesterians, would you have a boy like that to lead?" Zumman asked.

Another surge of voices, now dissenting, fierce, arguing, and then fisticuffs, until Zumman shouted over the din, "I will step down, and give my seat to the boy, if we can agree to it by majority. All in favor of my leadership, say aye."

The affirmative was significant, but not overwhelming.

"All against."

The naysayers were more by a noticeable margin to all there. Mage in silence walked down the aisle. Zumman got up and gave his seat to the boy.



With Mage taking over his duties, Zumman took to drinking more Jester Juice from storage, and Sasa hated it. Her father looked so stupid when he was drunk, and he was drunk all the time with this feud between World Builders and Jesterians raging. It was silly to Sasa. The World Builders were so smart, they were sure to be of some help. But Mage with a faction he had built in this divisive time cut off all ties with the World Builders. Jesterians searched for their homes for hours and even days. Comm links that were associated with the World Builders were shot out of the sky with rocks from slings. Sasa had her home comm link and those were allowed. So, she could still communicate with Niso, secretly, in her room. Their conversations were those of lovers, but often turned on politics.

"World Builders would be able to find a solution within weeks. Why are Jesterians so stubborn?" Niso said over his link.

"It's our land. It's sacred to us. You wouldn't understand that of course. You, World Builders, have no affinity to the world around you."

"We, World Builders, built our own world and environs. We have affinity enough."

"But you have no affinity to God. The soil is of God and His ways."

"You sound like a child, Sasa."

"And you sound like a prejudiced cynic."

"Come on, Sasa. Jester isn't real. Only facts and science are real and can be proven."

"How can you say that? All that can not be explained and can only come from the gods -"

"The displacements, the shifts in land, can all be predicted with the technology that used to hover over Jesteria."

"Yes, and Mage thought there was more to your technology than that. He thought you were spying on us."

"World Builders care only for science."

"And control. Control over Jesteria."

"You sound like Mage and his faction."

"Maybe so, but it's because he sounds right about you, World Builders."

"Look, Sasa -"

"No, you look because you need to, because you're blind. The Jesterians will find a way."

"It's nice to dream."

At that, Sasa clicked her comm link shut.

Niso called persistently every day after that. But Sasa wouldn't take the call of an arrogant jerk. Only at the threat of Niso's message to actually come to Jesteria to see her in this dangerous, forbidden time, did Sasa finally take Niso's call. He apologized profusely and their conversation didn't touch on politics or the shortage of food, but was polite and conciliatory, while outside, nearly everywhere, people were running out of food with the storehouses giving away less Mammon.

Mage, ignoring the practical matters of preservation and rationing, called on the rich and powerful to revel, and drink their fill of Jester Juice, and take man and woman on altars, and there were even rumors that he privately sacrificed children. But Zumman no longer a council member and a party to power only heard these things, as he too, still a wealthy man, wasted his storage of Mammon on drink. Late at night, drunk, he would wander over Jesteria.

One night, while even the revelers were asleep, he walked by the barren fields with his large jar that had a faucet to pour drink. Zumman crossed into the fields. He removed the lid on the jar, and scooped soil up and let it fall inside the jar, until it was full. He closed the lid and walked the long trek from the Jesterian colonies to the border of the World Builders. The Jesterian border guards thought nothing of him, just another drunk rich Jesterian. At the plateaus inside of which the World Builders carved out and built their world, Zumman met a World Builder ambassador he knew well. He gave Harae the fifty pound jar, which the World Builder took with effort.

After Harae got his bearings with the jar, he said "When we have studied the soil and solved its defect, we will let you know on your comm link."

"The gods bless us."

Harae turned and headed for the plateaus. Zumman walked home tired with his feet aching as he reached his doorstep. He slept well in his bed for what remained of the night.



Zumman had an appetite in the morning and was in a cheerful mood despite the modest meal Sappa had prepared. Sappa was about to remark on this, when there was a knock at the door. Zumman at Sappa's side got up from the table.

"Mage," Sappa heard her husband say in the other room. "What brings you?"

"Well, Zumman, I was wondering if Sasa was free this fine day for a stroll, an amble, on guarded grounds of course, all this senseless hysteria and hostility towards the council, completely unwarranted, as you know."

Zumman paused before saying, "Wait here. Let me ask."

Zumman came into the kitchen, and Sasa immediately shook her head, made an X with her two index fingers. Zumman went back to the door and said, "She's waiting for a call on her comm link this morning, a private call. I hope you understand."

"Of course, tomorrow, then."

Sappa heard Zumman close the door. When he came back, she noticed how pale her husband looked, grasping his comm link in his hand.

With no further way to avoid him without being uncivil to a fellow Jesterian and childhood friend, Sasa, a few days later, left her home with Mage, his entourage of guards forming a circle around them. They left on a large transporter.

Driven to a stone-built fort in a guarded area, Sasa and Mage walked down a collapsible set of stairs, as the transporter hovered a few feet. Once Mage and Sasa had set foot and were walking away, the stairs retracted, and the transporter's thrusters flared down.

Inside the fort, Mage was beset by council members who pleaded, asked for, demanded answers. He gave none, and took Sasa into a large room with a throne, where the others were not allowed to follow.

Mage sat and looked down from the throne at Sasa standing there. "Most bow here," he said.

Sasa, a little annoyed, did a curtsey and looked down.

"Well now, pleasant formalities aside, how is my childhood mate? I did most of the talking on the way here."

"I'm fine, Mage."

"Anything else, besides fine? Such a diminutive answer from the once feisty Sasa."

"What do you want, Mage?"

"There's the Sasa I know. What do I want? Let's see, an end to the famine, a solution to come to me, female companionship, and a little respect."

Sasa alone with this tyrant showed him his respect and nothing more. When Mage was satisfied with her decorum, and the petitioners along with the council members at a froth could not be avoided any longer, Mage released her to be taken home. Sasa had held her comm link under her cloak the whole time she was with him.



Zumman was by the window seated in a soft-backed chair. He looked up from his book to notice his daughter come in. She didn't greet or acknowledge him in any way. He was about to ask if something had gone amiss, when his comm link alerted him to a call. It was Harae. He immediately picked up.

"Zumman, we have solved the problem. Send twenty-five men, as a small start, at a quarter after sunset, to the exact place where we met last. There you'll find twenty-five jars of a fertilizer the science craftsman have termed biochar."

"Biochar?"

"Yes, it is anaerobically heated waste material, sealed off from oxygen," he explained. "This process removes organic contaminants or renders them inert, making waste material far more effective as fertilizer for marginalized soil. Also, carbon is sequestered in biochar and is released through the soil."

"I see," Zumman said. He ended the call and made a number of other calls, absentmindedly forgetting his daughter like a man who jumbles his priorities.



The moon directly ahead of them lighted the way for Zumman and his twenty-five men walking hunched with their heads down low trying not to attract attention from people near the border, where the guards had a tendency to leave their stations and wander about. Fortunately, no one noticed or was concerned with Zumman and his men, as they made their way to the appointed spot where the jars lay spread about randomly to suggest happenstance. The men hefted the barrels over their shoulders, and Zumman led them back, as a man of authority might. This to resemble the order of such a task, bidden by wealthy men.

The only obstacle they faced that night was when the ground gaped open beneath three of the field hands, dropping the unfortunate carriers to their rear ends and shattering their jars that oozed out a pungent smelling, tar-like sludge. The men were helped up with rope that was carried by Jesterians for just such occasions. The smeared men went home, while the others continued to trek along to the fields, anxious to see if this ooze could restore their fields to what they once were.

By the light of the moon and stars, the field hands poured and spread about the biochar to as wide a range as possible without leaving too little for each patch of soil. When they had finished their work, they knelt and prayed; and then, they went home.



In the early morning, while he dreamed, Zumman was stirred from sleep by Sappa who couldn't contain within herself the news that there was newly grown Mammon in some parts of the fields.

At hearing the news, home or elsewhere, the knowing field hands clear-eyed saw the miracle of science and wondered. Mage seized full ownership of the promising development by publicly touring the fields, surrounding himself with children and handing them the blessed Mammon. While Zumman told Sappa the real reason for the newly grown Mammon, and she responded by giving him his comm link, and telling him to call Harae.

While discussing things with Zumman, Harae seized on the fact that Mage was interested in Zumman's daughter and nearly commanded Zumman to use his daughter as a means of access to Mage. Zumman, while knowing Sasa despised Mage and refused to see him, used all of his years of diplomacy to persuade his daughter to compromise and be compliant with a plan that had been set by a World Builder.

"You want to what?" Sasa shouted. "You want me to go with you to see Mage? Do you want to get to know him better to see if he is a fit match?"

"No, darling, as I've said, I absolutely need to see Mage about diplomatic concerns. And I don't think he'll see me now, alone. It is very important, dear. It will end the famine for good."

"But, are you sure, Pa?"

"If I wasn't, I wouldn't ask you to do this."

Sasa got up, called for her comm link, which flew into her hand and beeped. She wrapped herself in a cloak, taking it from the rack next to the door; she hooded herself, opened the door, and reached for her father's hand.

The transport ships were running in limited service, now that everyone thought things were back to normal. At the end of the ride, Sasa understood that they weren't. The Mammon was a condition of biochar.

Mage's stone-built fort stood on a hill and was easy to spot from even a long distance. Sasa and Zumman got off the transport ship and walked the rest of the way. The guards at the fence stopped them, asking who they were. Sasa took off her hood, and the sun glowed on her hair and skin washing her with a delicate beauty. "I'm Sasa, here to see Mage."

The guards chuckled and let her in, but stopped Zumman.

"He must come with me," Sasa said.

"Who is he?"

"A former council member."

The guards looked at Zumman, recognized him, checked him for weapons, shrugged, and let him in. Sasa and Zumman walked towards the fort's stairs, up along it, as it curved around the fort, and walked inside a gaping entrance that emitted a smell of Jester Juice and human sweat.

Within the fort, people were reveling in drink, frenzied dancing, music, and blatant nudity grotesque to the young Sasa.

"I haven't seen you before. Who are you, my dear?" a reveler asked Sasa.

Zumman pushed him aside and charged his way through the bacchanal, into the halls, and with Sasa pointing to it, the throne room.

Zumman pushed open the door. The guards were asleep at their post, jars of Jester Juice at their feet. Mage looked up and covered himself, and the women around him indifferent to modesty continued to lay down looking at the new girl and the old man with her.

"Sasa, what are you doing here, right now?"

"Mage," Zumman answered. "We must speak." Sasa saw Mage step away from a white fur rug, the women sitting up and curling their legs under their arms, while Zumman waited, and then took Mage aside to a corner to speak hushed, then animatedly, and finally with reproaches. Mage pointed his finger directly in Zumman's face and called him a traitor. Mage called for the guards, and they took Zumman away. Sasa started to follow, when she felt a tight grip on her arm, and turned to see it was the half naked Mage. He tried to force himself on her, but she kneed him in the groin and then slapped him fiercely. She rushed out to where the guards were taking her father. Zumman looked at her and mouthed the word, "Leave," and Sasa, aware of what was around her, the men and the slaves, threw him her comm link, which the guards didn't see enter his open hand. Zumman nodded, and Sasa instinctively knew her father would be fine, and she quickly made way.

Sasa came home early in the evening. Sappa asked where was Zumman. Sasa said to come outside, and pointed in the air. A fleet of World Builder ships flew over and passed them into the distance where the fields were. The ships had orbs with red eyes at the front of their stem-like ship hulls. Behind the ships' cargo freights were thrusters surrounded by tail fins diagonally across from one another. The ships, hovering over the fields, dropped a tar-like sludge from their underbellies. A boulder was catapulted at one of the fleet ships, but it held steady and continued to pour. All manner of projectiles were thrown at the ships from boulders down to arrows lit by flames. The fleet's ships unsteadied at the barrage, but then as if Jester had willed it, the catapults were displaced out of range to the far side of Jesteria.

The entire delivery of biochar was dumped. The fleet headed back, while on the ground, in the fields, the soil had already absorbed the upgraded biochar and immediately started producing results. The soil had made enough Mammon to supply all the colonies for days.

The council body released Zumman the following day, and Mage was removed as chief council member with emergency powers by a unanimous council vote.

With nothing now to obstruct them, Zumman gave his daughter away to Niso in a clearing in the Northern Forests among a small gathering of well-wishers. It was decided beforehand that Sasa would become a World Builder following the allegiance of her husband. Zumman would not get to see his daughter often, maybe only on celebration days. Sasa had told him how she was disillusioned with Jesteria after Mage's rise. She could not trust Jesteria for her future and the future of her new family. Zumman accepted his daughter's decision, and they wept in each other's arms.



At the plateaus fortified by steel forts, by one of the wide hexagonal entrances to the World Builder's compounds, Sasa and Niso sat in their vehicle, waiting to take the next step forward. Niso squeezed Sasa's hand. He pressed down on the accelerator, and Sasa could only hold in her breath at her new home.

2 comments:

  1. Fitting title for all the world building done within the story. The world was described and explained while holding exposition to a minimum. Well done.

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  2. I had to pare this story down a bit because the exposition was cluttering the story. Glad you noticed that. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete