Art Pact 261 - Winnowing

When there were just three of them left, Rama's composure began to slip. It stared to its left, at the ragged hole in the earth where Cospid had been, and its outer tendrils writhed with a nervous energy that caused them to brush against Laxi.

"Stop that!"

Rama said nothing.

"Stop that!" Laxi repeated. "Stop it this instant!"

"Sorry," said Rama, its voice shaky. "It's - look, maybe I was wrong. Maybe this is something bad."

"We told you that," called Polis.

"I know, it's just-"

"Cospid told you that," said Laxi.

"I know, I know. Where's Cospid gone? One moment it was there, the next moment: nothing! I didn't expect that. I thought there'd be some warning. I thought I'd see something."

"I thought you said there was nothing to worry about."

Rama twisted back to look a Laxi, bowing down with an expression of shame.

"I thought it was lying, like it always did."

"I can't believe you," said Laxi. "Always thinking the worst of the world, but you have to let your petty short-sightedness get the better of you on this one. You heard Cospid? We heard it too, it didn't sound like it was lying."

"Oh, you don't know it like I do. You're fine, you've got Polis over there buoying you up all the time. I've got you on one side of me with your relentless logic and Cospid on the other side of-" Rama fell silent for a second. "I had Cospid on the other side of me," it said slowly, "feeding me improbable bullshit all the time. It told me it could move, can you believe that? It said it could pull itself out of the earth and walk around and about. Bloody hell!"

"What? What?"

"Oh, that is... That's just wrong. We're going to die," said Rama.

"What is it? What can you see?"

The ragged hole where Cospid had been had suddenly vanished, filled-in in an instant with the loose soil that had surrounded it. A few seconds later a straight pole had appeared in it - a dry white thing with a sheen of green which Rama recognised for what it was: bone. It was bone, carved and shaped into an unnatural line, a thin cylinder of material which rose straight out of the ground and flared out only a touch at the top to support a pair of almost invisible lines, like ultra-fine tendrils, that stretched off to either side further than Rama could see. It was obvious to Rama where the bones had come from: They were Cospids, torn out and fused into this mockery, this ghost of Rama's quondam neighbour. Whatever horror Cospid had been talking about, it had if anything understated the situation.

"What can you see? What's going on?" Polis called.

"Uh... nothing," said Rama. "Nothing at all. It's just I was overcome with grief."

Cospid had been an itch in Rama's skin ever since they were children. They had been further apart then, of course, but Cospid had always had a loud and screechy voice, and it had been particularly vocal all its life.

"I wish I'd been where Polis is," Rama said quietly, so that Polis couldn't hear.

"Well of course you do," said Laxi. "Polis is going to be the last one to go. It's going to outlive the two of us. Not by much, of course, and it's going to be a bloody boring few hours it has left with no-one to talk to, but..." it fell silent for a moment. "We're really going to die, aren't we?"

"Yes," said Rama.

"Fuck. I thought we'd live long enough to spore, at least. I'm not greedy, you know? I just wanted there to be a point to life. You land as a seed, you grow, you spore, and that's the cycle done. You've kept the tendrils growing. Your life wasn't, you know, in vain. That's not too much to ask, is it?"

"Not too much, no," Rama agreed. It looked nervously over at the dead artifact. "I suppose you could say that if a bit of you lived on, that would be something, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, nothing. Ignore me."

"I don't want to ignore you," Laxi said. "You might be gone when I stopped."

Rama couldn't stop its tendrils from shaking now. It didn't want to think about what had happened to Cospid, but that seemed to be all there was in the world. Just Cospid's ghost and the two horrid tendrils snaking off further than the eye could see. Were they reaching out from the afterlife? Or to it, desperately trying to pull back and reunite the pale white ghost thing that was all that was left of Rama's neighbour? Rama shuddered violently. One of its major tendrils whipped out and collided with the outer halo of Laxi's tendrils, but to Rama's surprise Laxi did not withdraw, but caught it and held onto it.

"I wanted to be where Polis was because I thought it would be the best of both worlds," said Rama quietly. "Not because I would be the last one alive. I never knew that would even be a thing. I thought we'd all die together, perhaps after sporing, you know?"

"Yeah."

"I wanted some quiet, but not to be out in the middle of nowhere like a solitary. I thought that if I was where Polis was I could have quiet when I wanted it and I could talk to you when I didn't want it. Polis always seemed so calm, I thought it wouldn't have mattered if it had swapped places with me. It would have been able to put up with Cospid's nonsense." Rama laughed, bitterly. "You know, I think that's what so annoyed me about Cospid saying it could move around. I wished that was a real thing. I wished we could pull ourselves out of the dirt and I could have just swapped places with Cospid, easy as anything. It was like Cospid was mocking me."

"You know.. perhaps Polis wouldn't have been quite so relaxed if it had been in your place. If what you say is true, I mean."

"It's true."

"What's this about me?" Polis called.

"I was just saying you might have been different if you'd grown where Rama is. You know, there but for fate go I, and all that? There's a thing."

"Oh, yes!" said Polis. "No doubt!"

Its cry echoed across the landscape. In the far distance they could hear the sound of perchers flapping away from the tendrils of the hidden villages. Rama wondered if those villages too were suffering from sudden disappearances. They'd never seen the people who lived there, of course, but Rama had always imagined that those people must be arranged in a line just as they were. How could one live any other way? A group of people could be all bundled together like primitives, but how would one not go mad with the constant voices?

It looked back at the dead remains of Cospid.

"I want you to promise me something," it said to Laxi.

"Of course."

"When I- when I vanish, don't look at me. I mean, after you see that I'm gone. Turn away. Look at Polis until your time comes. Or maybe your time won't come. Look at Polis until you spore and die, in that case. Just don't look back my way."

"Why?"

"Um, I just want you to remember me the way I am now, that's all. Just promise me."

"I promise," said Laxi.

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