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The Seventh Rule
A short story by Cheeseburger Brown
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The Seventh Rule, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

II.

Our hunting grounds are the middleworld. It is dangerous, but we are brave.

To prepare for the hunt we sing traditional songs and cake our faces and bodies with grey mud. We draw yellow stripes on our arms and red stop signs over our hearts. We equip ourselves with sharp spears and heavy hammers, we recite the twenty rules of our nation, and we drink a fortifying lager of blood and sperm.

The middleworld howls and bellows and roars. We hear it even when we still have far to walk, over two hundred lamps distance. The thrum becomes louder as we climb the rusted rungs the good spirits have wrought for us from the face of the living pipe. Once inside a great vein, our hunters must twist themselves in among the black vines between lanes, for if any part of them strays too far it will be struck off by the flow. Many brave hunters die in this way.

The veins throb with the passage of giant worms. The worms move so quickly they appear as a smear. Our sharpest spotters tell us they have glimpsed ghosts imprisoned within the segmented bodies, trapped behind beady eyes of glass.

I believe they journey to the afterlife.

Along the base of the veins skip tinier things -- whales and their kin whose lanes are marked by golden lamps. They speed but cannot fly. In the flashing shadows of the worm-flow they bolt to and fro along the gutter, unearthly voices sliding up and then sharply down as they blast by.

We hunt them.

On the hunt we keep low to avoid touching the flow or the cocoon of winds that surrounds it. We hunker under orange cones woven by our women, orange cones that make us invisible to metal poltergeists and other tunnel monsters. The cones have slits for our eyes, and our feet project from beneath. They must be kept perfectly upright to remain invisible. The sixteenth rule of my clan keeps us mindful of this.

We lay our trap lines and knot them in the traditional manner, then waddle in our orange cones down to the breakdown alley to lie in wait for our quarry. Such as our fathers did, and our grandfathers before them.

On the day of which I speak we were hunting a very busy vein, the middleworld there not having grown apart and away from it all yet the way it had in other corners of the roots. The flow was thick.

We did not have to wait. Our net immediately ensnared a mammoth.

It whinnied and buzzed as it thrashed against our lines, speed ebbing away, corners knocking against the ground with a spume of sparks.

The spirits of the vein drew the wounded beast down into the breakdown alley where it came shuddering to a halt. A wash of dust rushed in after it, thickening the air into a ruddy gloom. In its wake was revealed our prey, hazard lights pulsing.

We sprang into action with a mighty yelp of war.

Our cones were cast off as we leapt. The great dull eyes that lined the thing's sides were easily smashed with our hammers. One after another we pulled the ghosts out, and when they fell upon the ground they became men again, and we clove them. They squealed like rats because they were not brave and they had not prepared themselves adequately for their passage from the world. Many men show themselves to be boys in this way.

Some of us peeled the rubber strips from the beast's sockets and coiled them for carrying while others tore free panels of armour to use for building. We sniffed out some good orange metal nerves and a bunch of black cleaners from the beast's lungs and interior wind system. We cut the skins off the seats for blankets. We took things with little lights on them, because little lights are captivating and women like us when we have them. We pumped out the water from the toilet tank and divided it among our canteens. We sliced the meat into neat quarters and tied it into bundles we could shoulder for the triumphant march home.

What a hunt!


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