Sand Giants

Two elder statesmen, both of them Minmatar government officials, were walking down by the sea. The negotiations had been hard, what with all the secrecy, and they had begged leave for a breather. Matar was nice and warm this time of year, and the men enjoyed being outside whenever possible. Besides, it did the government good to connect with the people, or at least keep some tabs on them.

They were especially interested in investigating the work of a man named Elbrand Toduin. Elbrand supposedly worked on the beach and created the most marvellous of sand castles, intricate structures that held both expression and functionality. At least, this was what the statesmen had heard, listening in as they did on the talk of their interns. As a result, the two men, Sadrede Svarg and Aduner Hulmkelat, decided to take a long lunch break and pay this Elbrand a visit.

This particular government office on Matar was located quite close to the sea, so it was a short walk. One of the town's shopping districts was located there, so a long road ran parallel to the coastline, dotted on one end with stores of all kinds. On the other lay a wide, well-maintained sidewalk, with a snack vendor here and there. Beyond the sidewalk was the beach, and the ocean.

The sidewalk was kept at a higher level than the beach. At regular intervals there would be an offshoot, a concrete pier shaped like a T that bisected the beach and led straight into the ocean. This pier included stairs down to the beach, and hooks and other equipment for boats that wanted to moor there.

There weren't many people about - it was a workday, after all - but the sun was out and the sea breeze kept things nicely cooled, so a few souls were idly wandering down the walkways. These included some youngsters dressed in the increasingly popular tribal gear, some of them even sporting what Aduner hoped were fake tribal tattoos.

The two statesmen noticed a small crowd clustered by one of the branches that lead into the sea, and headed over there.

The crowd stood on the part of the walkway where the beach turned to shoal. They all looked over the edge, leaning on the handrails. Sadrede couldn't get close enough, but Aduner, being a bit more lithe, insinuated his way into the crowd and looked over the handrails.

Far below stood Elbrand, a small figure among the vast constructs of sand, and once Aduner's eyes drifted up to them, his heart sank. It seemed impossible that such a tiny figure could create such gargantuan monstrosities, but there they were.

The first was a giant of near-infinite complexity, his body a composite of famous Minmatar people, symbols and even slogans. Legs were Khuumaks, with the knee joints fashioned into the heads of the two people who had stood at Drupar's side as he struck his fateful blow, while Drupar's own face was visible in the midst of the figure's torso. Other faces could be made out at various parts, as if surfacing from the ocean. The figure's arms were decorated with tribal tattoos, some of which, Aduner noted with alarm, spelled out slogans of hatred and war, and many of which were combined into one cryptic figure. And yet there was no overarching theme, no central message in the complexity as far as Aduner could see. All he could make out was a hopelessly disunited hodgepodge of anger, a torrent of misdirected frustration that would leave nothing of value in the minds of admirers. He shook his head. Temperance was the way, not excess. It was small comfort that the monstrous construct would be washed away at high tide, for there was nothing stopping its creator from remaking it again and again; a cycle of birth for something better left cooling in the grave.

The second was a far sleeker item, though it unnerved Aduner. It was a sea serpent, its massive head defying gravity as it rose from the sand, its lithe body trailing in diminishing half-moons that implied the thing didn't so much swim as undulate. Aduner hated snakes, and he immediately disliked this creature. It glistened with some sort of bonding agent - nothing this big could be left untouched - that only served to add another reptilian aspect to its being.

There were slight pockmarks in the creature's cheek, from where Elbrand's ladder had presumably touched it before he applied the bonding agent. The serpent's head was moulded in explicit detail, not only in the rows of worn teeth visible through its open mouth, or in the veins of its eyes under slanted, angry-looking brows, but in the way it managed to indicate both stillness and action simultaneously. It looked poised to attack, and yet it also looked as if it were only travelling the seas, minding it own business. It reeked of power and potential.

And then there was the fire. Elbrand had placed inflammatory agents in the serpent's nostrils and set them alight, resulting in a steady outpour of flame and greyish smoke. Bizarrely, Aduner felt that they simultaneously made the serpent both more and less threatening. They underlined its nature, and its danger, and in so doing presented a sharper likeness of the real thing, but the more this sand construct looked like a sea serpent, the more Aduner was reminded that it was only a sand construct. And yet, it made him uneasy. It felt as if a thing so real, particularly a thing that in its realness was so patently fake, couldn't possibly be anything but real.

Aduner disliked it so much that he was about to turn away without even looking at the third sand sculpture, but at that point Sadrede finally emerged from the throng and took a place at the handrails by Aduner's side. Aduner saw his co-worker's expression harden as Sadrede took in the sculptures.

"This is ... unfortunate," Sadrede said.

Aduner nodded. He was struck with the feeling that this was something they would need to discuss very seriously at some later point, and thus willed himself to turn and look at the third sculpture.

At first glance it was practically serene compared to the others; a large construct almost monolithic in shape, resembling a stone-age palace. The building blocks were, fittingly, rock-like in shape and surface. Each one of them had a distinct surface, as if a team of sawyers had been at work, and even the mortar around them had lines and ridges in it. One half expected to see a bunch of trowels lying nearby.

Aduner found it surprisingly pleasant, and it wasn't until his eyes drifted to the building's roots that he spotted the anomaly. A sand figure of a Minmatar boy stood in front of the building, leaning up against it. The boy's pants were around his ankles. His face, even from this distance, clearly registered extreme glee, and no wonder: In front of him stood the sand head of an Amarrian, looking as if he'd been buried up to his neck, and a constant stream of water fountained from the boy's midsection, curved up in the air, and hit the Amarrian directly on the top of his bald, granular head. Aduner noticed that several large buckets of water stood around the sand construct, and he suspected that if he were to see the building from the back, there'd be visible some clever aqueductal design involving leaky buckets and plastic pipes. He found it immensely disappointing, not threatening in the least but merely sad: A creation that showed such promise at first glance, only to show itself to be a facade, good for little more than short-lived amusement.

The people, of course, loved it all, and tossed coins on a blanket laid down on the sand.

As one, Aduner and Sadrede turned and made their way out of the crowd, back to the centre of the pier. Aduner wanted to say something to someone, but couldn't find it in him. Sadrede was still deathly quiet, and Aduner knew from experience that he needed only a catalyst to explode into someone's face.

Before Aduner could do anything, Sadrede made a beeline for a nearby dancer. The Minmatar had a tradition of physical expression ranging all the way from the delicate, symbolic flights of trained dancers to the coarse, even violent, dances of tribal warriors. This one, plying his trade on a frictionless mat, was doing the exhibition form of Ruhste, an old and extremely physical dance art that more often than not had the exhibitor spinning in the air. It had been banned during the Amarr occupation due to fears that it might be used as a tool to train fighters, but was now permitted as a cultural sport, although the government had adamantly refused to give it any grants or official backing.

The dancer slowed when Sadrede approached him, but didn't stop. Sweat poured off him and onto the mat, and it was a wonder he could even keep his balance, let alone perform his feats. From a distance, Aduner noticed that the mat was decorated with the same tribal symbols as the first sand statue had been, in particular the composite one showing all the symbols as one figure.

The beginning of the exchange was said in low tones, so Aduner didn't catch it. By the time he'd caught up with Sadrede, though, his co-worker was shouting.

"All these public displays mean nothing and only serve to aggravate the wrong people," Sadrede yelled at the dancer. "You don't do anything to further our cause, and you certainly don't ensure the safety of our people."

The dancer, still now and entirely calm, laughed in his face. "And you do?"

Sadrede was speechless. The dancer returned to his art, his supple body revolving in tune to some inner rhythm, picking up the pace until he was leaping up from the ground, stabbing at the air with his hands and feet like a dragon taking flight.

It occurred to Aduner that were they to meet the man in a place with no witnesses, the exchange might go quite a bit differently. There were layers to the dancer's actions. The Ruhste was art, but it was one that presented violence in terms of aesthetics. The onlooker would see a performance that resembled combat, and if he looked closely, he would see that the underlying foundation was, in fact, still aesthetic: Art presenting violence that presented itself as art. But Aduner suspected there was yet another layer to the performance. If a man had conditioned himself to such a degree that his actions, presented as mock violence, appeared as art, then such a man might well possess the aptitude for real violence, along with the ability to present it in such a way that the casual onlooker would see only the surface layers and nothing more. What better way to hide your lethality than present it to the world, and in so doing, make the world think you were merely pretending?

His thoughts got no further. Sadrede, still too angry for words, stomped off, and Aduner followed.

And that would have been that, if they hadn't seen the kid with the ChromIts.

The ChromIts were a popular Minmatar children's toy. They came in packs of twenty little magnetic silver orbs, with accessories that included a tiny docking station shaped like a twofold pencil sharpener, and a small self-standing projector that cast ultraviolet light. When a pair of orbs were placed in the dock for a minute, they would warm up slightly. Afterwards, if you touched two of them together, then gently drew them apart, they would trail between them a gossamer filament that extruded from tiny holes on their surface. The filament would remain taut at all times, could be stretched out almost indefinitely, and would harden into a firm stem when passed under the cure of ultraviolet light, resulting in a tiny baton-shaped unit.

There were two kinds of structures one could create from ChromIts, hot or cold. The hot one involved building the wireframe sequentially, adding one more orb to the structure each time. The cold one was far more difficult, where one created several two-orb batons, then used the orbs' magnetic properties to stick them together. The magnetism meant that a wireframe of even moderate size had to have equalized pressure from all sides, since it took very little force for the magnetized orbs to slide off one another and collapse the entire structure onto itself.

It was not uncommon for children to possess thousands of little ChromIts, particularly in engineer families, and the creation of new structures and items from them was a popular hobby. Cold joins were far more structured and difficult, and revered as such, whereas hot joins, being freed from the normal rules of physics and structural engineering, tended more towards artistry and originality.

And in a corner of the pier, the two men saw the antithesis of the Dionysian dancer they'd left behind: A child that couldn't be more than six or seven, sitting with a pile of ChromIts, and doing a cold join of something that looked remarkably like a Typhoon.

Sadrede, of course, got there first.

"That's amazing!" he said. "What's your name?"

"Bryld," the child said.

"And you did this all by yourself?" Sadrede asked.

"Yeah."

"May I see it?"

The child wordlessly handed him the frame.

Sadrede inspected it with due reverence. "It's very nice," he said. "Your parents must be proud. Do you often make spaceships?"

"It's not a spaceship," Bryld said.

"Really?" Aduner interjected. "Fooled me. What is it?"

The child looked him over, then apparently decided he was trustworthy. "It's a wireframe hulk."

Their blank stares propelled the kid to continue, "My dad's an engineer. And he's always saying that the biggest problems with the broken big ships is that they're so hard to manure."

"Manoeuvre," Sadrede said, but Aduner hushed him.

"So he says that sometimes they need to be towed in zero-g. But if they're too broken then there's no way to do that, 'cause they'd fall apart. So he's trying to design these hulks, like skeletons on the outside of a ship, dad says, that can be put on it so that it doesn't fall to bits when it's moved. And I'm trying to help him. And dad says it's gonna have to be made with something like ChromIts, because dad says the trick is to use as little material as you can, and just place it at the right spots on the ship so that it'll click together."

"You've cold joined a model for a new type of zero-g repair frame," Aduner said in astonishment. "How long have you been doing this? How old are you?"

"Two weeks. Seven. My dad says I'm smart."

"I'll say. I don't know any seven-year-olds who can do anything for two weeks straight, let alone structural engineering."

The kid grinned, and held out his hands for the model.

Sadrede returned it with a smile. He said to Aduner, "See, this is what it should be about. No war, no threats, just thoughtful, peaceable work. This is what we should be doing. There's hope yet."

Aduner nodded. Something was bothering him, but he couldn't quite put a finger on it. "And the sand builder?" he said.

Sadrede waved an arm expansively towards the oceans. "He'll be washed away with the floods, as all these worries are eventually. All we need do is wait."

"Bryld, may I see the hulk again, please?" Aduner said. The child obliged.

Aduner minutely inspected the model. "I won't ruin it, I promise," he said. "But ... look, these joints here. And here, and here. How did you get them to hold? I didn't know cold joining could work like that."

The kid's smile faded a little. He didn't say anything.

Aduner gently pulled apart one of the joins, and saw that there was something holding them together, sticky gossamer that trailed in the breeze.

"This is hot joining," Aduner said. "And you've mixed it with glue."

"Oh, that doesn't matter," Sadrede said with high cheer. "It's still a grand piece."

"Hm. Yes, I suppose it is," Aduner said.

Sadrede clapped him on the shoulder, a little too hard for his liking. "Come on. The child is seven. Even if it's not perfect, he's allowed to take a few shortcuts."

"Are we?" Aduner said, but he knew it was unfair. "Never mind. Here, Bryld. You've done a wonderful job." He handed the wireframe back to the kid, who sat down and started tinkering with it again. It was only a child's toy, but Aduner nevertheless felt immensely disappointed, and in turn frustrated at that disappointment. He was growing tired of illusions, and the things they hid.

"Let's head back," he said. Sadrede nodded, and in step they began the walk back to the government offices. It was time to resume the negotiations, and neither Karin Midular nor the envoys who'd secretly flown in to see her would have much patience for tardiness.

From his mat, the dancer quietly watched them go.