Summoned to GrimWorld

Started by OisinM, March 22, 2023, 08:06:28 PM

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Cortness Malkine's projections indicated that she would die within the hour and she found that the prospect was an unhappy one. Yes, she was backed up at her home Orbital, but that backup had been three months, eleven days, sixteen hours, twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds ago. A precious period of lived experience was going to be lost and Cortness felt that her death would be real: that the Cortness who was restored and given a new spacecraft to inhabit would not be her. A philosophical question about whether her back-up was someone else or not had suddenly become of urgent importance.


'Do you think I'm a different being to my backup?' she asked her two-person human crew.


'Shut up AI! We need to think.' This was the male, who had been rude to her for the last three months and had never once treated Cortness as a sentient being. 'You believe we can survive impact?'


'I can eject you shortly before the spacecraft hits the ground. You will almost certainly be alive and unharmed when you reach the planet's surface.' Unfortunately, thought Cortness, there was no mechanism for her own survival.


'And then what?' This was the female, who had spent most of the journey claiming to be bored and irritated by any of the diversions Cortness had to offer.


'Then you will have to survive on Grimworld until a rescue mission comes. If it does come. I have been broadcasting our predicament but as you know, there are no high tech civilisations in this region of the galaxy.'


'Do you know why this planet is called Grimworld?' muttered the male.


'I do not. I have no information about this planet other than the co-ordinates you supplied when we began this journey.'


'Because it's a sodding nightmare down there!' The man slammed his fists on the dead control panel in front of him. 'Twenty tribes, each more vicious than the next...'


'Only if you put them in that order,' the woman said unhelpfully.


The man flushed red in the cheeks. 'No technology more advanced than electricity. At least, not until you unlock the relevant research. And then there's the monsters.'


'This was your idea,' the woman said. 'You wanted to come here and solve the Ultima mystery quest.'


'With. A. Spaceship. Full. Of. Weapons.' The man hammered down each word. 'I'm not going down there in just a spacesuit. We'll be dead inside a week.'


'Do we have much choice?' the woman murmured.


'Yes we do,' answered the man. 'AI, are there any planets within range for a mind swap?'


'There is one. But I must remind you that non-consensual mind swaps are unethical and I cannot facilitate it.'


'Override your sodding ethics,' the man growled.


'I... Oh. I didn't know you could do that.'


'Now, find me someone to swap with. Someone who is immensely talented: a genius. I want to be appreciated there and have a celebrated life.'


From what Cortness Malkine could tell, the planet's inhabitants were still at a hierarchical phase of social planning and perhaps the man did not appreciate that control of wealth mattered more than talent. But furious by being forced to implement an unethical practice, she said nothing other than, 'are you sure?'


'Of course. Get on with it before we crash.'


'What about me?' asked the woman.


'You should swap too.'


'Oh, what a bore. All right, AI, find me a princess.'


'A princess?'


'Yes. And preferably on another continent to him.' She pointed to her companion with bitterness.


'Be like that, then. I'm better off without you. Come on then AI, get on with it. A major talent, remember, something artistic.'


'Process underway,' Cortness Malkine also neglected to inform the man that the ageing process had not been halted by the people of the planet and that his 'genius' was reaching the end of the human lifespan for the planet.


'Hurry up.' The woman leaned in close to one of the cameras. 'Get me out of here while you can.'


'Process underway.'


Not long after the transfers were complete, the spaceship began to shudder as it entered the atmosphere of Grimworld. The temperature soared.


'Where the hell is this?' the man was looking around him with an expression that was understandably showing confusion.


'I'm sorry,' said Cortness Malkine, 'deeply sorry. But your mind has been swapped with that of a passenger on a spacecraft that in less than three minutes will be destroyed by impact with the surface of a planet called Grimworld.'


Unexpectedly, the man began laughing. 'Well, I knew the end was coming but what a finale!'


Chapter 1: Welcome to GrimWorld

'This feels very real. It is real, isn't it?' Marcus breathed in deeply and felt... youthful. There was a faint scent of something sweet in the air but better still was the energy that coursed through his body. For the first time in decades he felt like leaping about: performing cartwheels even, if he could remember how. For now though such cavorting would have to wait, he was in a bulky spacesuit and strapped to a seat in front of a large display that was glowing yellow and orange. There was another figure in the seat beside him but the fact that their face-screen was darkened prevented Marcus from seeing them properly.


If this was really happening – and he had major doubts that it was ��– then what did he feel? Anger at being taken from his home? Not at all, it was a relief to find himself somewhere other than his squalid cottage. Fear of death? At ninety-two Marcus had long prepared himself for death. And as an adherent of Epicurus he understood that one might reasonably fear pain, but not death. Did he feel shock? Certainly, he was shocked. But he was excited too: stimulated. There was art here, in this experience of translocation, providing he could survive to express it.


In fact, that was a very intriguing thought. How could you communicate to the viewer of a sculpture, say, what it was like to be alive in this intense moment? How to give the viewer insight into the extraordinary sensations of a mind that had been plucked like a pearl from an oyster and brought out of dark depths to a bright world above the waves. The sculpture would have to simultaneously convey a fundamental, violent rupture and a continuity of thought by a person who had lived over ninety years on another planet.


'I'm sorry. You have been mind-swapped without permission.' There was a soft-spoken voice in his ears, breaking into his thoughts.


'Mind swap?' The person beside Marcus who asked that question was a woman. Young. Annoyed. 'Well swap me back.'


'Again, I must apologise. We are falling through the atmosphere of a planet called Grimworld and there is far too much interference to...'


'It's hot!' the woman exclaimed. 'How do I get up? My seat is burning.'


'Please remain seated. It is uncomfortable but in a hundred and sixty-two seconds I will eject you from the craft. After which, you will land safely but... I anticipate my own destruction.'


'Are you the spacecraft?' asked Marcus. An erratic, shuddering vibration was becoming stronger, spoiling his appreciation of the simple pleasure of sitting and breathing while free from pain.


'I'm a personality housed in this craft. My name is Cortness Malkine.'


'Pleased to meet you, I'm Marcus.'


'Hello Cortness Malkine, hello Marcus. Pleased to meet you. I'm Sina Koskina. Princess Sina Koskina, but I suppose that a title won't mean much here.'


'Please,' said the spaceship, 'while I appreciate good manners, we are losing valuable seconds, which would be better spent if I brief you about the planet you are about to land upon.'


'Go ahead Cortness Malkine,' the woman waved her left hand, a gesture that, now he came to reflect on it, seemed to Marcus to indeed be rather regal.


'Grimworld is a system planet. Do you know what that means?'


Several red lights were blinking around the small cabin and an alarm began an undulating wail.


'I do not,' said Marcus.


'No,' said the woman, Sina.


'System worlds are artificial and were created in the distant past, for unknown reasons, to provide inhabitants with an interface similar to a base-building game. You will be able to construct a shelter for your survival and everything else you need by using this interface.'


'What do you mean an interface? Do we get a games console or something? And do you mean a shelter just appears when we use the interface? Like a... a... three-D printer?' New methods of creation would allow for interesting artistic opportunities, thought Marcus. Despite the probability that this experience was a dream, or a drug induced experience (not that it felt like either and he hadn't taken anything liable to create hallucinations for decades), Marcus hoped he would survive the coming crash to learn more.


'The interface will appear across your vision in response to movements of your head and eyes. You should practice raising it and dispersing it when you land. It is not like a printer, you will have to do all the work required yourself, but you will find that if you let them – and usually you can override their tasks at any time – your bodies will move appropriately and carry out the constructions.


'Even if I've never held a hammer or saw in my life?' exclaimed the princess.


'Indeed. And, if you live, you will be able to advance in your abilities, your skills, the technology available to you, and in the sophistication of your buildings. You might even achieve great personal power through solving a mystery quest. The people who previously occupied your bodies and who have swapped with you called this the Ultima quest and our expedition was planned with the intention of solving this quest. Unfortunately, the planet seems to be hostile to intruders and it has somehow destroyed our engines.'


'Interface. Game. Got it. What else?' Marcus detected a melancholy note in the spaceship's voice and spoke urgently in the hope of rallying it to tell them more before the crash: to judge from the violent shaking and jolting he was experiencing, it was imminent.


'There are monsters. Prepare defences as soon as you can. There are also twenty tribes, mostly human. Try to avoid them. Many are slavers. Some are cannibals. There are shifting alliances and constant warfare among them. Don't trust anyone.


'Grimworld is just under seventeen light-years from civilisation but it might be you can advance your technology sufficiently to one day be able to send a powerful signal and obtain rescue.' Cortness Malkine paused, then sighed.


'What?' asked Marcus.


'The more I think about your plight, the sorrier I am for you. You are almost certainly going to die here and probably within a day or two of landing, when a predator sniffs you out.'


'That's enough,' said Princess Sina. 'This is becoming a nightmare, with cannibals and slavers and predators ahead. I know where this going. Can you end it now please.'


'I cannot swap you back,' said the ship.


And at the same time, Marcus said, 'Princess, I'm from Earth too. I'm pretty sure this isn't a dream.'


The woman surprised Marcus by promptly saying, 'In that case, computer, tell us some practical information. What plants are safe to eat? Can we drink the water?'


There was a pause of several valuable seconds. 'Oh, you mean me,' said Cortness Malkine. 'Well, most often, river water is drinkable. I will attempt to land you near a source.'


'And wood, can you land us somewhere with trees?' asked Marcus.


'I can try.'


'What about a nice hot spring for bathing in? You know, like they have in Iceland. Even better if it has that mineral enriched sludge that is so good for your skin.'


'That's a splendid idea princess! Let's have one of those please.' Carried away with a sudden sense of pleasure at the adventure he found himself in, Marcus raised his right arm, which was nearest to her, and presented his palm in the fashion that young people sometimes did. He'd rarely executed a high-five and perhaps he wasn't performing it correctly, because the princess did not reciprocate.


'I don't do that.'


'Goodbye my brief acquaintances,' said Cortness Malkine's soft voice in his ears. 'I sincerely wish the very best for you and if I have one last piece of advice it would be to co-operate wholeheartedly. I sense a discrepancy between your personalities that might be harmful to your already low chance of survival.


With that Marcus experienced a massive lurch, as though a giant had hurled him up in the air and he found himself outside the cabin, falling through the air, the wind roaring in his ears. The spaceship was below him and falling away rapidly: a spinning silver cylinder whose nose glowed orange. Where was the princess? There! Above him.


A mighty yank on his armpits, and Marcus suddenly found that he was drifting downwards, not falling. A parachute had been released from his back. The woman shot past him and Marcus barely had time to formulate a fear that her parachute might not release properly when it blossomed below him, displaying a cheerful blue-and-white chequered pattern.


The incandescent streak of metal that was the spaceship smashed into the distant ground below with a powerful explosion, accompanied by a deep booming noise. Debris flew from the blast, some of it creating white streaks of smoke in the otherwise blue sky. The fire at the impact point created a huge, billowing column of black and grey smoke. Marcus felt sorry for the AI who had presumably just died.


There would be no escaping this planet on that craft. But perhaps there would be useful salvage from the explosion. Sharp fragments of metal might mean the difference between survival and dying. Right now, it would be easy to find the crash site. But once in the trees of the fast-approaching forest and after a night or two to disperse the smoke, it might not be so easy.


'Camera on. Record.' Even as he tried to impress in his memory the details of the landscape – dull, sinuous river; thick forest below, more sparse clumps of trees in the direction of the crash; mountains in the same direction but far away; sea in the direction he was drifting – Marcus attempted to get his suit to take pictures. But despite having a complex-looking control panel on the chest, nothing responded to his voice.


Marcus had been falling a little faster than Sina and as he came past her, although he could not see her expression through the mirrored face-plate of her space suit, she raised a thumb. The gesture caused a surge of affection to run through Marcus. At least he had company for whatever lay ahead.


And then the trees rushed at him, and the pace at which he was falling no longer seemed comfortable. There was nothing he could do but bend his knees and hope not to hit a tree trunk. Branches whipped at his limbs and scrapped across his helmet. Several powerful jerks from the parachute yanked at his back and then, with a wallop that knocked the breath out of him, Marcus was down on the ground. Alive.


Well, well. That was extraordinary. It had possibly been the most adrenaline-filled experience of his ninety-two years.


It was good to be alive.



Welcome to Grimworld.


This is your quest screen. You currently have 5 quests to review.



A rectangle with a bright green frame had appeared in the upper left corner of his vision, floating as though actually in the world, but, like a rainbow, it moved away from him as he took a step forward. After some experimentation he found that by moving his eyes to the very edges of his vision he could cause the rectangle to disappear or reappear. There were other pop-ups that appeared with different eye positions and with great curiosity Marcus studied the one with his name at the top.



Marcus Korol


Modified human*


Str 7

Con 8

Dex 12

Int 15

Wis 11

Cha 11


*Does not age (age fixed at 27). Teeth do not decay. Perfect vision. Immune to cancers and malarial diseases.



Top Skills


Artistry 20

Crafting 7

Negotiation 2

Boxing 1

Chemistry 1

Hide 1

Listen 1

Move Silently 1

Research 1

Pathfinding 1



Having spent his entire artistic life avoiding any possibility of celebrity or acclaim, Marcus was surprised by the feeling of pleasure he obtained from seeing that Artistry was far and away his best skill. The fact that someone – the planet? – seemed to know him and give him a relatively high score in Artistry was extremely satisfying.


This moment of self-congratulation was broken by the sound of a crash; not far off came a flurry of splintering and rustling sounds. With a blink, Marcus closed all the open menus and took greater stock of his surroundings. He was standing in a forest that was relatively young to judge from the slender trunks of the trees and the sparse undergrowth. There was plenty of light – the sun was nearly at its midpoint – and in the distance was the vivid blue and white of Sina's parachute. Had she landed safely? It would be awful if she'd smashed into a tree trunk.


Heart pounding with anxiety, Marcus found the clips to his harness and wriggled free of it. He would come back for the valuable rope and cloth later. Despite his concern for Sina, he couldn't help enjoy the experience of running through the forest. Leaping over a fallen log; swerving around a thorny bush; sprinting through a glade. Although the spacesuit was cumbersome, Marcus relished being young again and felt joy with every stride.


Back on Earth, it would have taken him about twenty minutes to cover the few hundred metres to Sina's parachute. Even with the aid of a walking stick (he had refused a Zimmer frame as undignified), his hips had ached so much that he used to have to take tiny steps. Now he ran the same distance in just a couple of minutes.


Relief filled him from head to toe.


There she was. With her helmet off, Marcus could see that Sina was stunning, like an Irish queen from a legend. It would have taken a poet, not a painter, to have expressed exactly why she was so striking, but as if he were creating a palette for her portrait, Marcus noted that Sina's hair was raven black, her lips were full and scarlet, her cheeks were pale and delicate, and her eyes, as she looked at him, a startling emerald colour.


Sina had her helmet in her hands and turned away to look at the mirrored face plate with great intensity. Had it broken? What was she looking at?


'I'm so beautiful,' she said. 'O.M.G. If only my Insta followers could see me now!'


Chapter 2: In Polite Society One Does Not Compare Character Sheets

While the princess admired her new looks, Marcus picked up a stone that was about fist sized and hammered away at the bark of a tree until he'd torn substantial strips from it. While the bark itself was grey, the inside of the tree was dark red, so the impact of his efforts were very visible. Then he walked about ten metres and did the same to another tree.


'What are you doing?' asked Sina.


Pleased with his foresight, Marcus gestured with a finger. 'From that tree to this one is a line. As far as I can judge, the line points to where the spaceship crashed.'


Sina looked blankly at him.


'I wanted to mark it, while the direction was clear in my mind. It's very easy to lose your sense of direction outdoors, we don't even know for sure the motions of the sun here.'


'Oh, I see. Well done.' She picked up a stone and walking past the imaginary line, started damaging the bark of another tree.


'What are you doing?' Marcus asked.


'The sea is this way. I think we should go to the sea. For fish and bathing.'


'Remember what the AI said about predators. We should go to the spacecraft wreckage first and get metal to make spears with.'


'I think the coast would be safer. Don't lions and tigers live in forests?'


Although he wanted to give the princess an authoritative answer, Marcus found that he did not know if predators like lions hunted on beaches. What he did feel, very strongly, was that they needed metal from the ruined spacecraft. To extract metal from some kind of mining process was an enormous challenge, involving locating ores, hard digging, and the creation of a high-temperature furnace, not to mention molds and appropriate tools. Yet there were probably sharp pieces of tough metal just lying around near the crash site.


All he said was, 'I must go and get my parachute. We'll need them. You get yours too... please.'


'I'll come with you.'


'It's only over there,' Marcus pointed to the bright greens and whites of his parachute, clearly visible through the spaces between tree trunks.


Sina blinked. 'Honestly, I'm a little scared. Why don't we go together and do yours, then mine.'


The sincerity of her words softened Marcus and he nodded. 'All right.'


Footsteps crunching on fallen branches, they walked through a wood that was pleasant enough. Blocks of sunlight penetrated the canopy and picked out small purple flowers. Insects very similar to bluebottles shone with an indigo iridescence as they zig-zagged through the blocks of light. A memory flashed up of a painting in these colours, one he'd long forgotten. Not only were the colours right – gold, purple and indigo – so were the proportions. What had he been thinking back then? Similarly cheerful thoughts, he was sure.


'Did you see the interface rectangles?' asked Marcus.


'The game menus?'


'The things you see at the corners of your vision.'


'Yes, I see those.'


Suddenly curious, Marcus wondered aloud. 'What does the one with your personal details say?'


'My character sheet?' Sina stopped walking and had a distant expression on her face. Marcus looked around in case he could see the green rectangles that she was presumably looking at, but there was nothing.


'Princess Sina Koskina, modified human. Strength seven, Constitution eight, Dexterity twelve, Intelligence sixteen, Wisdom six, Charisma twenty.' She paused, 'want me to go on?'


'If you would, please.'


'Does not age: age fixed at twenty-seven. Teeth do not decay. Perfect vision. Immune to cancers and malarial diseases. Top skills: Ballroom Dancing fourteen; Piano Playing eleven; Gracious Dining ten; Violin Playing five; Ballet four; Negotiation three; Fishing two; Shotgun one.'


Sina turned her vivid emerald eyes to his. 'What?' She sounded aggrieved.


Realising he was grinning, Marcus said hastily, 'nothing. I just hope you get to use your ballroom dancing skill sometime.'


There was a very distinct pout on the princess's face.


'You are intelligent,' Marcus said in an attempt to mollify her. 'More intelligent than me.'


'Honestly, I'm not that surprised.'


Saying nothing, Marcus strode to his parachute and it was only after several minutes hard work with this wonderful youthful body that his temper settled down. What had he said or done to make her think him stupid?


The parachute material was thin and light; to get it to fold down properly they had to co-operate. Once free from branches and debris, the material had to be stretched and folded repeatedly.


'I have quests. Do you have the same ones as me?' asked Sina.


Without answering her, Marcus continued to work at folding the parachute until at last it was a manageable size. 'Now, let me see.'



Quest: Storage


Build a place to put your stores.


Requirements: Construction 1; dry ground; tarpaulin; stones.


Reward: stores degrade more slowly.




Quest: Lean-To Shelter


Build a place to sleep.


Requirements: Construction 1; dry ground; tarpaulin or equivalent vegetation; 3 units of timber; tree trunk.


Reward: refreshes fatigue.




Quest: Discover Rittle Berries


Obtain 5kg of Rittle Berries.


Requirements: Foraging 1; Rittle Berry bush; summer season.


Reward: refreshes hunger. Unlocks new recipes.




Quest: Discover Clean Water


Obtain a source of water.


Requirements: Foraging 1.


Reward: refreshes thirst.




Quest: Create Spear


Build a simple spear.


Requirements: Weaponsmith 1; 1 unit of timber; fireplace.


Reward: a simple, fire-hardened spear.



Marcus read the headings of each aloud, then flicked the rectangles away with a sidewards motion of his eyes.


'Mine are exactly the same,' said Sina, 'it's very considerate of the planet to give us suggestions, don't you think?'


'Suggestions?' Holding his bundle across his chest, Marcus set off for Sina's parachute and she hurried after him.


'Don't you think the planet is guiding us with these quests?'


'Perhaps. But food, water and shelter were always going to be our priorities.' He dropped his burden and began to untangle Sina's parachute from the debris it had accumulated during her landing, throwing any dry looking branches into a pile. 'And fire. How are we going to start a fire? Perhaps with the power source for our suits.'


'But the box about Rittle Berries. The implication of that quest is that Rittle Berries are safe to eat. That's new knowledge that we wouldn't have without the assistance of these quests. That, and the name of the berry.'


Marcus nodded. 'Fair point.' His hand went to rub his chin, as it often did when he was thinking, but the thick glove and high neck of his suit prevented the gesture.


'What I'm wondering,' mused Sina as she brought her edge of the parachute towards him, 'is how does one obtain the required skills to complete the quests. I don't have foraging, construction or weaponsmithing. Do you?'


This caused Marcus to pause and look at his own details – his 'character sheet' as Sina put it – again. 'I do not.'


Once her parachute was folded into a bundle, Sina sat on it with a sigh. 'Now that the idea of finding clean water is in my head, I find that I am thirsty.'


'You might be right about going to the sea.'


'Why do you say that? Does it have something to do with being thirsty? Do you hope the sea water is drinkable?'


'Rivers flow to the sea. We should go to the coast then turn left and walk until we think we are parallel to the spaceship crash. Hopefully, we'll find rivers or at least a stream along the way.'


'Very well.' Sina got up and pointed to the tree she had marked earlier. 'That way.'


As they tramped side-by-side through the forest, Marcus drew a deep breath and felt happy. There was a light breeze on his face, carrying a faint scent of a herb like garlic or onion. His arms were swinging and his legs were moving easily. In his twenties, Marcus had been adventurous. With just a small backpack, he'd gone hiking for weeks up and down Ireland and the UK. Only now, with his youth restored, did he realise how small and unexciting his world had become this last decade. How unexpected and marvellous it was to have this opportunity to re-live those days of freedom and travel in the countryside once more.


'Mr Korol?'


Marcus looked at Sina, surprised at her formality.


'I owe you an apology. When I said I wasn't surprised at my intelligence score being higher than yours... I didn't mean to reflect in any way badly on you.' Those extraordinary green eyes were moist, as though Sina was close to crying. 'I was just thinking of my mother. She used to say that I was far too clever to be a princess. It would be better for me if I could cut ribbons and charm foreign dignitaries without being bored.


'If you've taken offense at me, I understand, but please, my remark was a clumsy reference to my childhood and not intended to be derogatory.'


Again, Marcus found himself disarmed by her honesty and again something gave way inside his chest. He reached across and patted her arm. 'You know, even if a giant dinosaur comes crashing through the trees and bites my head off, I'll die happy.'


'Because?' Sina looked around, startled.


'I'd reached the end in any case. I knew I'd never finish my latest sculpture. I was in a lot of pain and hardly able to walk. This last hour has been amazing.' Marcus gave a skip and then managed a fairly good attempt, given the bulky suit, to click his heels while off the ground. A cartwheel, however, would have to wait. Much to his delight, Sina smiled.


'Were you old on Earth?'


'Ninety-two.' He felt a certain pride in that figure and also enjoyed the gasp of the princess. 'How old are you?'




Eighteen. He should try to remember that if he ever became irritated with her again. She was a teenager still.


Trying to remember what it was like to be eighteen, Marcus walked on, hardly bothering to avoid brambles and plants that might have stings, like nettles, but which could not penetrate his suit. Eighteen. He had left his home in Dublin that year, intending to join the avant-garde artists and bohemians on the Left Bank in Paris. He'd gotten there all right, only to find the language barrier impossible. Eighteen. Full of dreams. Utterly impractical ones though.


After a few minutes, Sina spoke hesitantly, 'do you really think there might be dinosaurs here?'


Although she probably wanted reassurance, what reassurance could he give? And she was too smart to take any comfort from a platitude. So he answered honestly. 'All we know is that there are predators here who will hunt us. And that the AI thought them a serious threat.'


'Well, perhaps too we have a hint from the planet when it gave us our quest for a spear. Surely, if we were warding off dinosaurs, a spear would not be of the slightest help. Perhaps the predators are of a size we can protect ourselves against with a spear. A wolf, say.'


Knowing that this was only wishful thinking, all of a sudden Marcus felt anxious. His remark about the dinosaur had been frivolous. Given that simply walking in a forest was such a joy, losing his new life would be tragic, in the true sense of the word. It was time to get serious. And with the concentration that he brought to sculpture, Marcus studied the forest ahead, attentive to every wayward motion of branch or bush. Immediately, he became much more aware of the avian life. There were dozens of species of bird and mentally he equated them to those he knew from Earth: a swift moving starling; a ground-feeding robin; a noisy dove; a knowing magpie; and more. It was while watching the robin (the bird's breast was violet, rather than red, but was the same size as a robin and skipped across the ground as it looked for food) that he saw the bird jump into a bush and emerge with a purple berry. Could it be?



You have discovered Foraging



'Princess, wait. That bush.' He walked over and pushed at the foliage to reveal clusters of the berries. 'Could that be Rittle Berry?'


'What makes you think it might be?'


Safely protected from poison by his gloves, Marcus plucked a berry and squeezed the juice from it. 'I just had a message pop up, I have discovered Foraging. I was studying a bird at the time and watching it come out of the bush with a berry in its beak.'


'Oh, how absolutely wonderful.' Sina looked thoughtful. 'We need to give you five kilograms of the berries. Then if they are Rittle Berries, you should complete the quest and that will confirm they are safe to eat.'


'Good idea.'


It was easy enough to gather clusters of berries still on their branches and before long they had made a pile that was definitely over five kilograms.


'Now what?' Marcus asked.


'Pick them up?'


He gathered as much of the pile as he could to his chest and stood up.



Congratulations! You have completed the Quest: Discover Rittle Berries

Reward: Refresh your hunger


You have unlocked the recipes: Rittle Berry jam; Rittle Berry Spirit; Rittle Berry spread.



'Well?' Sina was staring at him with great intensity.


Dropping all the branches but one, Marcus picked a berry and slowly, with great deliberation, put it into his mouth and bit into it. Even though he loved the sight of the smile that crossed Sina's face, he had to close his eyes, because the intense, delicious taste that flooded him required his full concentration.


Chapter 3: The Princess with the Calloused Hands

Assuming Grimworld had cycles of day and night that were similar to those of Earth, then it was after mid-day when Marcus climbed a dune and saw the sea. A line of silver was drawn straight and thin under a whiteness that only became azure blue far above the horizon. The sea was several kilometres away, across an exposed terrain of dunes and mud and clusters of grasses.


Breathing heavily, Sina joined him. 'Oh no. I thought we were closer. I'm so thirsty.'


'We don't have to reach the sea though, we can turn here.'


'All right. Let's do that then.'


They tramped along the top of the dune, the treeline of the forest on their left and the sea in the distance to their right. The waves were too far away for Marcus to hear them, nor could he hear the cries of the sea birds that were evident, diving and wheeling in large numbers. Those birds would have eggs somewhere, but probably in cliffsides that were hard to access.


'How many hours would you guess we've been walking?' Sina had drawn alongside, a light breeze lifting her black tresses so that he couldn't see her eyes.


'Four?' Marcus offered and Sina nodded thoughtfully.


'And would you say that the sun has crossed the sky to about the same degree as it would have in four hours on Earth?'


He could feel the star around which Grimworld orbited warming his head. 'I would. I was thinking that myself.'


'How long then, do you think we have before dark?'


There was anxiety in her question. An understandable anxiety. Were these suits equipped with lights? 'Six or seven hours, don't you think?'


'I agree, that was my assessment. Six hours.'


They walked on in silence. Then the princess asked, 'do you know what I'll miss the most?'


'Servants?' Marcus answered as a joke, but he immediately regretted the quip.


'Mine was a rhetorical question, to which no response is necessary other than an enquiry as to learn my answer. It certainly did not call for a mean-spirited response by someone who doesn't know me at all and has no grounds for making assumptions about me.'


'Mea Culpa.' Marcus threw open his arms. 'You are right. It's just with the sun and the sea air and my youthful body, I'm in great form. I was trying to be funny.'


She said nothing. Nor did she look anywhere but directly ahead.


'What will you miss, Sina?'




Marcus was relieved when she spoke. Her voice was natural, not angry. 'Music?'


'It's my passion. I couldn't care less about sports. Literature I will miss somewhat. Cinema too. But music. We don't have Bach here; every day back on Earth I played his music for practice.'


The sincere look of loss in her eyes affected Marcus and for a moment punctuated his own high spirits. He reached across and patted her arm. 'I once read an anthropology book that said early humans, because they lived in relative freedom and were not slaves to their work, probably produced a dozen Mozarts with every generation. Perhaps there is music here, amazing music.'


'Were these early humans cannibals and slavers?' she asked scornfully.


'Ahh, probably not.'


After walking for another an hour it seemed to Marcus that it was likely that they would find a river soon, for looking towards the sea, Marcus made note of the darker tone of the mud and an increase in the number of wader birds out in that direction. He did not, however, comment on this in case he was mistaken. There was no need to raise Sina's hopes only to dash them if he was wrong.


Just a few minutes after that thought, Marcus crested a slight rise and looked down from a grassy bank to a stream that ran from the forest to the sea in long, sinuous loops. It had been hidden by the gully it had made. The water was shallow and about a metre wide. A screen opened.



Congratulations! You have completed the Quest: Discover Clean Water


You have obtained a source of drinking water.


Reward: refresh your thirst.



'Did you see that?


'Thank God. Is it safe?' Made clumsy by her suit, the princess slid down the bank, gathering a long streak of mud along her leg, which made Marcus consider the value of mud as camouflage. Their suits were bright white and easily seen from a long distance.


'I have a quest complete message. It's safe.'


She was standing in the flow of the stream now, looking at the cheerful, bright ripples on the water but unable to drink as her gloves were too awkward to bring the water to her mouth. Casting about for something he could fashion into a cup – a hollow log? – Marcus stopped searching when he noticed her unfastened a glove. Rinsing it in the stream, the princess filled the glove with water and then was able to use it to pour the water into her mouth.


Marcus blinked and a shiver ran through his body. There was something profoundly beautiful about this moment. Sunlight; drops of water, each a glittering universe. A smile. Pleasure. Intense relief. Closed eyes with a stray drop of water on an eyelash. Above all, the most perfect human face he'd ever seen. Even as the moment changed and she bent to dip her glove into the steam again, Marcus knew that somehow he would sculpt that face and catch that exact expression, that moment of gratification when a desperate thirst is slaked with clean, cool water.



Quest: Create Sculpture


Create a sculpture of satiated thirst.


Requirements: 1 unit of timber; whittling tool; artistry 1; crafting 1.


Reward: a work of art whose value is related to relevant skills.



The planet was listening.




'Yes Marcus?'


'I think we should stop here and build a camp. We have water, which is the main resource we need. There's the forest nearby for wood and perhaps berries...'


'And the sea, for fish,' she finished for him. 'All right. And what about safety? Predators?'


After a pause, Marcus said, 'They might come to the stream to drink,' he looked around. 'Let's move away to those bushes?' he pointed upstream, in the direction of the forest, to an area of dense green foliage.


'All right.' The far bank of the stream was a little less steep and Sina scrambled up it. Thirsty himself, Marcus copied her strategy of using a glove to catch the water and after drinking his fill with immense satisfaction, climbed up beside her.


When they reached the bushes, Marcus was pleased to see that there were areas of space between them that were sufficient for a lean to. Rather like a patch of rhododendron on Earth, the bushes were tall and extensive, but if you pushed through the branches, you could find regions that were free of the green branches and rubbery leaves.


'Now what?' he wondered.


'If you open your construction screen and select "lean to" you get an overlay.'


Although uncertain what she meant by overlay, Marcus found the construction menu, which had just two options in it: lean-to shelter and storage area. Having selected the lean-to, a red outline of a shelter appeared in front of his vision and he discovered he could move it around with his eyes. But then what?


'I anticipate that it will turn green when we have a suitable location,' as if intuiting his question the princess spoke aloud, although she was clearly distracted by her own attempts to place the outline in one of the clearings.


'Perhaps we need the timber mentioned in the quest box?' Marcus gave up and flicked the red lean-to away. He'd tried all the available places nearby.


'Of course; come on.' Sina strode firmly out of the thicket and into the line of trees nearby. There were plenty of fallen branches and soon they were returning with four long logs over their shoulders. It took five trips though, before Sina gave up. 'This should be enough. We are missing something.' There was a distant look in her eyes, one that Marcus was beginning to recognise as meaning she was looking at menus. 'I think the problem is that neither of us have the Construction skill. How did you get the Foraging skill?'


'I was watching a bird as it found a berry.'


'Let's try making something.'


This made sense to Marcus. 'What?'


'A tee-pee?'


'All right. That'll be hard work though. I'm going to get out of this suit.'


Soon the two of them were standing in the sun, wearing just grey flannel long-johns. A sense that it was glorious to be alive filled Marcus and part of that feeling was stimulated by the presence of Sina, whose slender figure was radiating beauty. This joie de vivre was not spoiled by their repeated failures to raise a central pole for a tent. In fact, as the timber toppled once again from the shallow hole they had dug with sticks, spraying up dirt, he laughed.


'I've an idea,' said Sina, 'let's tie three poles together at the top and raise them to make a pyramid shape.' This time, after careful preparation, their structure remained in place. And after reinforcing it and then carefully drawing Sina's parachute over the frame, they had a tent that provided a cool shade.


More than that, Sina shouted with delight: 'I have it, Marcus! I have discovered Construction one!'


'Are you sure you don't do high-fives?'


'Well, just this once.'


They touched palms and Sina laughed cheerfully. 'Now, I can begin the lean-to and storage area.'


'Wait, can we keep going with tents until I obtain the Construction skill?' asked Marcus.


'Very well. I wonder whether I obtained the skill first because of my superior intelligence? Or because I thought of the idea of using three poles?'


Marcus stared at her and the princess blushed. 'I mean...'


'It's fine. My sense of this planet is that the originality of your idea will have earned you that reward. I believe it was my intuition, not chance, that earned me the foraging increase.'


'We could put up another tent with your parachute and if the acquisition of new skills arises randomly or is in some way based on our intelligence scores, there is surely an excellent prospect of you obtaining Construction.'


'Right so,' Marcus set to work, pulling one end of a long pole towards another.


A short while later, they had built a second tent and were sitting in the shade beneath Marcus's parachute. He had not gained the Construction skill and was sucking his lower lip as he thought about this puzzle. Repeating the same building idea was as unproductive, in terms of gaining skills, as copying a work of art. It seemed he would have to come up with an original building idea.


'We're going to build a fence,' he announced.


'Oh?' The princess looked across at him and after a long pause said, 'do please guide me in how to do this.'


Standing up, Marcus gave her a smile. 'This way.'


By digging a shallow line with sticks and then planting a row of stakes and binding them with vine, they made a tolerable fence, even if it was wobbly and liable to fall under the lightest of touches.


'Well?' Sina asked him, sweat on her brow and neck.


'I have gained the Construction skill, level one,' Marcus replied proudly. 'Now let's see about the lean-to.'


'I have it green! I'm going to say "yes".'


Opening up his construction box, Marcus found that he too could select lean-to, place his red outline over a patch of nearby ground, and see it turn green.



Do you wish to begin construction of a lean-to?


Yes / No



'Oh!' Sina called and a moment later, having chosen yes, Marcus understood why. His body lurched forward and his hands reached for a large log. Yet that initiative hadn't come from him! Panicked, he halted his involuntary motions.



Construction paused. Resume / Abandon.


Warning: you may lose construction materials if you abandon a project that is underway.



This new sub-menu had appeared within the construction menu. Curious now, rather than afraid, Marcus selected 'resume'. He stopped and started the construction several times. This was extraordinary and like nothing at all he'd ever experienced in his whole life. Perhaps someone sleepwalking or under hypnosis could act as if they had skills that they did not know when fully conscious, but this was different. Here, he was an observer to the actions of his own body. And unlike a sleepwalker, he was conscious of being able to intervene and stop the movements of his limbs at any time.


'Marcus?' The princess was bent over, faced away from him, threading a vine-like plant through rows of sticks which were leaning against a long, central pole. She had made a lot more progress on her lean-to than he had.


'Here, Sina.'


'This is a strange experience, yet one that is surprisingly satisfying. Before today my most challenging construction was a Lego princess tower.' Looking at her hands, she stood up. 'There, quest complete.'


'I was learning about how my body responds to this command, so I'm a little behind you.'


'I have roughened my hands. Which does not seem so disastrous as it would have back home. Given that we lack moisturiser, it is perhaps just as well that I feel a certain pride in having generated the callouses of a manual worker.'


'Perhaps it is.' But for the fact he was allowing his body complete autonomy to carry through the task of building a lean-to, Marcus would have shaken his head. A few minutes more of efficient movements and actions of his body around the construction and a quest complete box appeared.



Congratulations! You have completed the Quest: Lean-To Shelter


You have a place to sleep that will result in the refreshment of fatigue.



'Quest finished.'


'Good. What next?' asked Sina.


'Spears. We need spears.'


Chapter 4: Night Falls on Grimworld

Having relieved himself in the stream (so as not to leave a scent) Marcus chose to leave the water while wearing his boots. If a predator were hunting by scent, it would probably be harder for it to follow his trail than if he walked barefoot. At least he wouldn't be leaving the scent of meat. On the other hand, the boots made a stronger impression in the mud and grass: a tribal hunter would find tracking him easier than if he took off the boots. Marcus sighed to himself. The more he was enjoying this youthful body, the more anxious he became about his immediate future.


Back in their den, he proposed to Sina that they sleep in shifts during the coming night and that they wear their full space suits: again, so as to limit the spread of body odour and reduce the chance of being detected by their scent.


When the sun went behind the mountains, the evening sky turned a fabulous indigo and the first of the stars appeared. None of them were familiar, of course. Lying in his lean-to, Marcus anticipated that he would find it hard to sleep. There was so much to think about, so much to plan, so much to learn. What was he feeling? He'd been so constantly attentive to his surroundings that he hadn't really taken stock of whether he was angry (a little, that someone would forcibly wrench him from his accustomed life); amused, that the thief would be in an aching and aged body; happy, to be young again; or frightened. Now that the light was fading, it was fear that was becoming his dominant emotion. The AI had said they would die once found by predators.


Even with all these thoughts flowing rapidly and at cross-purposes, Marcus found that exhaustion was more overpowering than anxiety.


He was dreaming. Decades ago, there had been a gallery owner in Dublin who had wanted Marcus to hold an exhibition. For some reason Marcus thought of that man now. Dressed in a garish silk waistcoat, the gallery owner was advising Marcus in a kindly fashion, unashamed about the fact that although he intended to make a lot of money out of Marcus, there was no harm in this. It would suit them both and also the buyers. The owner was convinced the art would gain in value over time. It was spears that the man wanted; spears that were unusual in the bizarre twists of their metal points.


Suddenly conscious that his neck was in an uncomfortable position, Marcus woke with a start. Opening his face mask, he breathed fresh air that had a tang of salt and the mouth-watering scent of wild onion. Having crawled outside of his lean-to, Marcus was disappointed that the sky had clouded over and he could not study it properly. There was a moon overhead, it was a ring of grey. But the stars were gone.


'Are you awake?' whispered Sina. It was impossible to see her by staring into the darkness, but if he looked downwards, then a hint of moonshine from her suit was visible at the edges of his vision.


He came close, so that she would hear his hushed response. 'I am.'


'I hate it here. Listen.'


Silence, but for a faint background rustle of a breeze among the bushes. Then a 'hoo, hoo' call came from the direction of the forest. Like that of an owl, but louder and deeper.


'Caw, cawwww!' A voice, somewhat human and angry-sounding.


'Gorrrabbbb!' Another, deep and loud, as though issuing from the mouth of a frog the size of an elephant.


A dozen more alien creatures filled the unfathomable night with their shrieks and Marcus understood completely why the princess was afraid and unhappy.


'I wish I was home in bed,' she said.


'Me too,' said Marcus, and he realised it was true. For the first time since this adventure had begun the negatives outweighed the positives. A horrible sensation swept through him: that an attack upon him by a savage, dinosaur-sized monster was imminent.


'It's not a nightmare is it? I'm not going to wake up?' From the disconsolate tone of her voice, Sina didn't need him answer. All the same.


'It's real. Want me to pinch you?'


'I do not.' The sounds of the creatures around them died away for a moment, only to start up again and with a tone that was more threatening than before. 'This is going to sound ridiculous, but I'm worried about what she is doing with my body.'




'The woman who swapped with me,' Sina raised her voice impatiently. 'I made sure to drink four litres of water a day and walk fifteen-thousand steps. Will she keep that up?'


What was the spaceman doing in his old body? Breaking it, probably. He wouldn't be used to it: to having to take small steps; to not having a steady sense of balance. It was safer to move from a frail body to one at peak fitness like this one than the other way around.


'And what's she posting on Insta? I made my own Instagram posts. Everyone said my P.A. should run my account. I didn't agree. I felt my followers would know the difference. And I think I had an eye for a good picture.' Sina's voice was tremulous and she was sniffing heavily. It occurred to Marcus that the princess was probably crying.


He had nothing to offer her and so he remained silent.


'Then there are my friends too. She doesn't know them at all. They are going to think I've gone mad. I'll probably come back to find they all hate me.


'Oh God, what if she ... you know, sleeps with someone. She could ruin my life and damage the whole family. It's difficult enough justifying monarchy, even when we are doing our best for the country. What's she going to say in public? She'll bring us into disrepute and father will think it's me. That I've failed him. That's I've forgotten everything he taught me.'


It surprised Marcus that someone as smart as Sina would assume that she could return to Earth. The craft and the technology that might allow for this had exploded. And what had the AI said? The nearest source of assistance was seven light-years away. Really, Sina shouldn't care about all those things any more. They were gone for good. And what the spacewoman did with her life on Earth didn't matter in the slightest.


'Princess,' Marcus reached across and patted her. 'Let's talk about something else. Let's talk about what we know about this world and how to survive in it.'


After a moment, Marcus heard his companion draw a deep breath. Then another. 'Very well. In fact, I was waiting for you to wake up because I have found a new menu you might not have seen yet.'


'Oh, what?'


'If you open your character sheet and flick both your eyes to the right, you can see your inventory.'




'Just try it,' she whispered tiredly. So he did.


Personal Inventory

Space suit (worn) 96% Degrading very slowly (environment resistant materials)

Parachute 92% Degrading slowly (outdoors)

Timber, 3 units 87% Degrading quickly (outdoors, damp ground)

Rittle Berries, 1 unit 84% Degrading quickly (outdoors, damp ground)





'I see it.'


'We should build a storage area for the timber and any other resources we obtain.'


'Perhaps in the morning; but I think we should look for metal from the crash as our first priority.'


For a long time, Sina did not speak and Marcus too remained silent, listening to the disturbing cries of the night. Sometimes he thought he heard a creature moving nearby, though the faint rustling sound might simply have been a consequence of a gust of wind. There was pressure on his shoulder. It was her helmet. Sina had leaned over to rest her head on him.


'Go to your bed and try to sleep?' suggested Marcus.


'I'm not going to be able to.'


The dark hours were long. The sense he had, of being about to fall victim to a sudden outburst of carnivorous violence, however, receded to the point that Marcus was drowsing when a whole new cacophony of sound made him sit up, alert. It was the dawn and the birds of the forest were awake and celebrating.




It took them three hours of walking to find the wreckage of the spacecraft. Since the stream flowed from a source that seemed to be in the right direction, Marcus had followed it until seeing a much brighter patch of forest to their right. And having left the stream to aim for that area, they emerged from the treeline to look down at a huge rip torn into the forest floor.


'My God!' exclaimed Sina and Marcus nodded his head.


A hundred metres or more of ground to his left had been torn up by the incoming craft, which seemed to have pushed a wave of dirt ahead of it and then exploded at the end of the trench it had dug. Black, charred metal about ten metres below them marked the final resting place of the spacecraft: the coach-sized lump of debris was so distorted that it would have been hard to identify it had he not known it for what it was. 'Poor AI.'


'Imagine; we were in there just a few seconds before it crashed.'


'I'm going down. Do you want to look around for sharp pieces of metal up here or come with me?' Marcus asked. Almost nothing would have survived the crash but the metal of the craft and even that had been partly burned up.


'I'll come with you.'


Neither of them had their mirrored visors closed and Marcus could see the anxiety on Sina's face. He would have reassured her if he could, but what could he say? 'Let's be as quick as we can. If there are any of the tribespeople nearby whom we were warned about, they might want to find out what the crash was.'


Having spoken, Marcus immediately regretted his words. If it were possible, the princess looked even more sick with worry, her cheeks were nearly green.


Although steep sided, the gully cut into the ground by the spaceship was rough and easy to scramble down. Metal of all shapes and sizes was embedded into the earthen banks and Marcus began pulling out pieces that might make for effective spear tips.


Sina had wriggled out of her parachute, which she had carried over her back, and was arranging it on the ground, so that they could pile up the metal on top and carry it back to base. Careful not to tear the thin material, Marcus started placing his best finds on it.


Quietly, and with an efficiency Marcus was pleased with, they walked towards the ruined craft at the end of the tear in the ground, stopping to examine debris and keep the items that looked like they might be useful. Wiring, thought Marcus, might be invaluable in the future and he gathered several cords, each of which was over a metre in length.


'Look at this, Marcus.' Sina had gone close enough to the final resting place of the spacecraft to be standing among shards of the glass-like material from which its windows had been made. She was holding up a piece and it had a wickedly fierce appearance, like a shark's tooth.


Marcus walked over, careful about where he placed his boots and even more careful when he took the glass from her. 'Now this is perfect. Just as hard as metal and even sharper! We can make knives and spears with this.'


The princess had a little more colour in her cheeks now and Marcus was about to make some kind of cheerful comment when a dozen or more purple-breasted birds fluttered into the air, their wings clapping louder than their shrieks.


'What was that?' Sina asked.


With a last glance at the wreckage – he could still make out the approximate shape of the cabin and it seemed like it might to be worth exploring further in there – Marcus hurried back to the parachute and began folding it carefully over their stash, before tying it tight with the cords. 'Something disturbed those birds,' said Marcus quietly.


'Here,' she handed him a cylinder of metal that was about the length of a baseball bat, albeit one that had a twist in it.


'What about our items?' Marcus wondered aloud.


'Leave them for now. Let's get out of here.'


'We need them.'


'We need to get away,' Sina said firmly. 'It's too bulky.'


'Help me get it onto my back.'


'No. We need to leave now.'


Marcus was glaring at the princess and he knew it, because she had closed her visor and there was his unfamiliar face in the reflection, teeth clenched, eyes narrowed.


Sina was already climbing up the bank, one hand on an S-shaped pipe, the other helping her balance. With one last look at their haul, Marcus followed.


At the top, the princess waited for him and as soon as he was up, she ran to the nearest large tree and stood against it. Then Sina beckoned him with urgent motions of her arm. Looking all around – and seeing nothing untoward – Marcus went to her side.


'Listen, you're okay now. And we need those items. I'm going back for them.'


'If you leave me now, I'll never forgive you.' She spoke so fiercely, it was clear to Marcus she really meant it.


'It could have been anything that startled the birds.'




On the other side of the scar in the ground was a four-legged animal the size and colour of a donkey, but much more muscular and with the unmistakable fangs of a carnivore. It was watching them with unwavering black eyes.


Marcus shifted his grip on his metal stave.


'Oh God,' muttered the princess.


'I used to cycle,' said Marcus, not taking his eyes from the monster.


'Why on Earth would you share that particular piece of information at this moment?'


'And I had a little book of information for cyclists.'


'If there's a point to your anecdote, you should make it quickly.'


'There was a sub-heading: dogs. And it advised that if attacked by a dog, you take the pump and as the dog opens its mouth to bite, ram the pump into its throat as far down as you can.'


'Oh God. And did you do that?'


'The opportunity never arose. But first, the book said, try to scare the dog away by shouting and throwing rocks.'


'Shall we?'


'We shall.' Marcus looked away only for a moment, in the hope of finding some metal to throw and sensed from the edge of his vision that immediately the monster was on the move, racing sleek and fast around the crater.


Helmet open, Sina began screaming at a pretty decent volume and Marcus joined in. He found a rock to throw too and although he missed it caused the monster to swerve and stop. It was only ten metres away now and Marcus could see now that instead of whiskers it had thin tendrils of flesh, like worms, which were swaying and reaching out as if searching for scents. A strand of saliva slid toward the ground from its sharp-toothed mouth.


'Check your quests!' the princess said urgently.




'Yes, now!'



Quest: Otaxel Pet


Tame an Otaxel.


Requirements: Animal Handling 1; meat.


Reward: A useful guardian and companion.



'We don't have meat, or the skill.' Marcus prepared himself to meet the monster's charge.


'All the same, don't hurt it.'


Looking at the powerful jaws of the monster and sensing its capacity to tear out his throat with one bite of those sharp teeth, Marcus found himself laughing derisively at the words of the princess. And then his laughter became more heartfelt. For with a snort, the creature suddenly turned away and bounded off out of the far side of the clearing.


'It's so good to be alive,' he exclaimed, 'you young ones don't appreciate that enough.'


Chapter 5: A System Menu is the Best Survival Tool

Although new, the blade in his hand felt like an old friend. Not because the creation of a knife had led to him feeling safer, but because it allowed him to engage in the one activity that truly made him happy. The shard of spaceship-glass that Marcus had bound tightly onto a handle was only about ten centimetres long, so it wasn't particularly useful as a weapon. As a knife to whittle with, however, it was perfect. Much better than real glass, it held its edge after repeated use and had an effective weight, more like that of metal than glass. If his knife was a person, then it would be a sombre and careful, middle-aged civil servant, in contrast to the flighty, brittle character of a knife made of Earth glass.


Smiling to himself, Marcus shaved another sliver of wood from the side of the block he was working with. As with timber from trees on Earth, the effect of pushing a sharp blade against wood varied enormously according to the grain. For him, the art of sculpting in wood was about realising what the wood itself wanted to express and allowing that to emerge by a kind of flow between it, the knife, his fingers, and his mind. Turning the block around and around in his hands, he visualised – felt, rather – all the possibilities and collapsed all but one of them with another stroke of the knife.


Only now did he realise how much pleasure in life he had lost while aging. Back on Earth, his eyes had misted over with cataracts and his hands had lost much of their strength. The process had been so gradual that it never felt as though his ability as a sculptor was noticeably declining. Not until now. With his strength and vision restored, Marcus felt transformed: that it was possible for him to make more daring art than he'd ever managed before. In the case of this piece of wood, it would take some effort, but there was a bird inside of it, which he could release, one of those purple-breasted equivalents to robins.


Wearing only his cotton long johns, Marcus was sitting on a fallen tree, just inside the treeline. The princess was nearby, looking for nuts and berries in the hope of triggering the forage skill. She was working hard, crawling through bushes and bringing out seeds and fruits, which she had made into a pile on an area of bare earth. Her new spear was leaning against a nearby tree. Which was just as well, thought Marcus. All the way back from the wreckage of the spacecraft, he had felt that they were being followed by that lion-like creature.


It hadn't taken much tinkering with the blades and suitable branches for them both to get Weaponsmith One and complete the spear quest. His own was lying on the ground in front of him. And with the spears having been made, several other quests had come into existence, related to fishing and hunting as well as the manufacture of a sword, javelin and bow and arrows. The latter appealed to Marcus for hunting as well as defence against possible slavers. If he had to fight, he was handy enough with his fists. But the smart option was always to hit an enemy from a distance.


'Got it! I got it!' Sina's delighted cry caused Marcus to look up sharply from the nearly-finished bird. 'These nuts are called viabrands. And I'm Foraging level one.'


'Are they edible?' Marcus got up eagerly. He was thoroughly bored of the Rittle berries and never satisfied by them.


'According to the menu they satisfy hunger, the same as Rittle berries. Here; you should be able to see for yourself.' The princess tipped four little nuts – like pine nuts – into his hand and immediately he opened his completed quests.



Obtain vibrand nuts


Requirements: Foraging 1; vibrand bush; summer season.


Reward: alleviates hunger. Unlocks new recipes.



The nuts were good, not too bitter.


'You find them inside these kernels,' Sina showed him a brown tubular shell with strands of fibre on it. 'Come over here, I'll show you the bush.'


'Let me just finish this artwork please, while I have it in my thoughts.'


Sina said nothing, only watched with interest as he finalised the sharp beak of the bird and added a hint of a mischief to its eyes. When he was done, Marcus held the sculpture up to her allowing himself a sense of achievement. Whatever her reaction would be, he was delighted with the bird.


'For me? Why Marcus, that's extraordinary. I can't believe you did that just now. It's the most wonderful creation. I've visited hundreds of art galleries and honestly, I've never seen anything better.' The princess was holding the bird up to the sunlight, as though to better appreciate the curves of the wood and the flow of the exposed grain. Her genuine enthusiasm for the bird made Marcus smile.


He stood up, ready to learn about the vibrand bush, only for a new quest alert to appear, which he opened.



Trade with the Kangaran tribe


A Kangaran ship is passing the coast. Your current standing with the Kangarans is 0 (neutral). You may trade with the Kangarans.


Reward: proportional to the value of the goods you trade.



'Did you see the new quest about the Kangaran tribe?'


The princess lowered her arm, but clearly found it difficult to take her eyes off the bird. Marcus reached across and closed her fingers around it. Only then did she have the distracted look he'd come to recognise as meaning she was looking at the menus.


'Oh, do you think we should go to the coast right away?' she asked.


'Let's hurry and take some of the glass and metal. The quests are teaching us about the planet. They are our best tool. We should believe in it. We wouldn't even know about the edible nuts and berries without those messages.'


With a nod, Sina put the bird into a pocket of her long johns and set off. Curiously, she was much faster than Marcus. Even though he thought he was at home in his new body, the old Marcus – with his concerns about the risk of falling and a restraint in the length of his stride – would not yet let go enough to really move. By the time he had reached the camp, Sina had thrown a parachute onto the ground and they hastily filled it with their piles of glass and metal before the princess bundled it up, clasped it to her chest, and began to run towards the sea.


Marcus felt a slight anxiety about leaving the spacesuits behind, but this quest was important.


The long haul across mud and sand to the water's edge was demanding enough that they each had taken two turns with their bundle by the time they had arrived to where the waves ran up to their boots. To their right, about a mile away, was a headland. To their left, the bay had a very gentle curve over about ten miles to its headland. There were no vessels in sight.


Even as Marcus felt the full disappointment of this thought, his discouragement was swept away by excitement, because a ship with a tall mast rounded the headland to his right. It was a catamaran, with one large central sail, whose striking design looked like seven vertical red snakes on a purple background. There were about a dozen people on the ship.


'Quick,' said Marcus, grabbing on edge of the parachute. 'Let's open this and wave it.'


Careless of the items that fell on the sand, Sina grasped the opposite side and soon the bright blue-and-white parachute was stretched out and catching something of an on-shore breeze.


The people on the ship saw them! Marcus found his heart pounding as he heard their calls and saw them steer toward the shore with surprising speed. Neither Sina or he had brought their spears. Now that his life depended on the menu information, Marcus found he wasn't so confident that it was guiding them in a benign fashion. What if these people were slavers? Or cannibals?


'What language do they speak? Will they understand us?' asked Sina.




'What language are you speaking?' hurriedly, she started to fold the parachute up and as soon as he realised what she was about, Marcus assisted her.


'English,' answered Marcus.


'Well, I'm speaking Finnish.'


'You are?' Her smile, even her simple, lively smile, was so beautiful that Marcus paused, mid-fold to take it in.


'I am. The planet's system must be allowing us to communicate and hopefully, that means the same process will let us speak to them.'


Once the parachute was tidy and their items lined up, Marcus watched the newcomers arrive. Their fierce appearance did nothing to stem an anxiety that was growing stronger and stronger in his stomach. Small and lithe, pale skinned and dark-haired, they had large metal earrings that stretched their earlobes and sinuous tattoos in dark blue ink all around their limbs but not on their faces. There were a mix of men and women in their twenties and thirties, to judge by Earth standards. Everyone one of them was dressed in a purple tunic and none of them were smiling.


A woman a little older than the others jumped off the ship as it slid up the beach. And while other crew members climbed down with ropes, looking for rocks to secure the ship to, she walked towards Marcus and Sina.


At about ten metres away, the woman stopped, folded her arms across her chest and shouted. 'What tribe are you? Why do you not show in my God-view?'


Relieved he could understand her, some of the pressure in his body dissipated. This might not go too badly.


'Don't tell her we are just two people,' muttered Marcus, placing a hand over his mouth. For some reason, he wanted Sina to do the talking. Perhaps, because the princess was a woman. If this was a matriarchal tribe they were dealing with, then woman to woman was going to allow the best trade. Perhaps too, it would help that Sina was so extraordinary to look at. And didn't she have some kind of negotiating skill? 'Tell her we are the Irish.'


'We are the Fins,' said Sina.


The woman nodded, then took several steps forward, so she did not have to shout. 'I have not heard of you. But I see you on the God-view now. I have a new quest to trade with you for the first time.'


'You must be from the Kangaran tribe. I have that quest.'


'Then let us trade.' Close up, the woman's face was less severe; she had wrinkle lines at the eyes that suggested laughter and Marcus found his anxiety fading. 'You are offering these?' She gestured to the pieces of iron and space-glass.


'Possibly,' replied Sina, 'and the cloth too. It is unique. Light but strong. It would make a better sail than the one you are using.'


The other people of the Kangaran tribe came up and three of them crouched among the trade items, picking them up and testing the sharp edges. After a few minutes of this and an examination of the outstretched parachute, they all walked some distance away and formed a circle, within which their conversation was indistinct.


'Where did you get these?' their leader came back over.


Sina laughed. 'Are we trading information? Because I have a lot of questions too.'


The woman smiled and Marcus saw the lines of her face fall into a naturally happy state. Then the spokesperson of these people surprised him by walking right up to Sina and stroking her cheek. Next, their visitor carefully examined Sina's hair. Sina allowed this.


'You are the most beautiful person I have ever seen. Very well, let us talk and let us trade and perhaps the Fins and the Kangarans can become more friendly.' With a curt, angry shout that suggested the woman might be quick to take offense she called out to her crew, who set to work hauling the ship far up the beach, well above the seaweed line that marked the high tide.


In a nearby dip between two dunes, the Kangarans lit a fire (using flints and a material like wool, that Marcus paid close attention too) and once it was strong, they placed fish halves inside large shells whose outer surface was already blackened from use, then they pushed the shells into the flames. Soon a mouth-watering scent of fish meat sizzling in its own moisture was everywhere.


While moving their goods up from the beach to the fire, Sina asked Marcus quietly, 'what should I tell her about us?'


He thought about this and the possible stories the two of them could invent to explain their presence here. But really, nothing made sense but the truth. Or mostly the truth. 'Tell her we came in a spacecraft that has crashed. But let her think there are twenty of us.'


Sina nodded.


While they all ate fish – so good, despite having to spit out the bones – the Kangaran leader introduced herself as Lupelele and explained that their tribe was a seafaring one, with a strong presence on an archipelago about half a day across the sea. Where Marcus and Sina were now was on the east coast of a large continent. The Kangarans worshipped a pantheon of gods whose presence sometimes became manifest when they took the form of sea creatures. Above the local Grimworld gods, however, was Igalla, the planet herself, who communicated with her people through what Marcus and Sina called a menu, but which they called the God-view.


On Earth, Marcus was an atheist, but here. Well, it could all be true. Certainly, the planet seemed to have a guiding sentience. And who was to say that minor gods weren't part of the game?


The response of the Kangarans to Sina when the princess said that they were survivors of a crashed spaceship was interest but not surprise.


'We saw the smoke,' said Lupelele, pointing in the correct direction. 'Over there.' She turned to the items lined up on the ground. 'So what do you need?'


'What have you got to trade?' Sina responded.


'Food and tools are especially important to us,' Marcus added.


Lupelele gave a wave of her hand in the direction of their ship and immediately all five of their men got up and went running to it. The amount of gear they subsequently started to unload onto a spare sail was encouraging and after they had dragged the pile to the fire, Marcus squatted eagerly beside the goods. There were three sizes of metal saw; a metal hammer; bags of nails; screws; chisels; gouges; two borers; a sickle; a pulley; two coils of rope; and a file. Then too, there were four bags from which came the scent of food.


'Can we have all of these?' asked Marcus and Sina nodded too when Lupelele turned her thoughtful brown eyes to the princess.


The leader of the Kangarans shook her head with a rueful smile. 'These we need for our repairs; if I trade them all, I have to return home and that means with something more worthwhile than your metal and glass. For them and the sheet, I can let you have an awl and a saw and some nails and a rope. Also a bag of jerky.'


Perhaps Lupelele noticed how these words had disheartened Marcus, for she continued, 'perhaps you have something else? An off world weapon?'


'Nothing that survived the crash. We have nothing else... Well, except this.' Sina took the bird sculpture out of her pocket.


'Lupelele!' one of the other people exclaimed. They were all staring at the small bird with expressions of admiration if not downright reverence. Marcus' hopes began to rise.


'May I?' Lupelele held out her hand and after receiving the statue from Sina laughed with delight as she looked at the wooden bird from every side. 'I am named after this species of bird. It is beautiful. So very beautiful. That expression, it is the one the lupelele make to get your attention, when they want feeding. It is perfect. Where did you get it?'


'He made it,' Sina had a note of pride in her voice, which brought a surge of warmth to Marcus's chest.


The leader of the Kangarans, in fact all of them, were staring at Marcus with expressions of the greatest respect.


With a tender smile, Lupelele looked down at the sculpture. 'Very well, we will trade.'


Amazing story! Looking forward to the next part. Thank you


Nice story. I liked the AI at the beginning. That was a cute personality.

Edit: just headed over to your site and read all 59 chapters that you have so far. Very interesting. I like the way your story builds. It's very well written. Love it


I have just finished reading the final chapter over at royalroad. What a delightful read. Thank you for taking the time to post your story on multiple sites.