Friday, July 20, 2012


The village of Frish is a small place, its houses slightly shorter than the sand dunes that surround it. In spite of its small size, though, we saw the village long before we arrived - one part of it, at least.

Frish is built in the shadow of an enormous Hill Builder machine, a complex - though unmoving - engine the size of a large hill. The base is half-buried in the sand. There's a long metal spire sticking at an angle from its top. I do mean long, too - the spire is easily fifty times as tall as any house in the village. It's not just the tallest thing nearby; it's the only tall thing nearby. According to the villagers, every thunderstorm that passes over the village strikes the spire with lightning at least once.

Its size is not the strangest thing about it, though, nor is its affinity for lightning. Even in the most blistering Summers of the Golden Desert, the engine is always cold. The villagers caution their children not to lick it. (Some even listen.) I walked over to it after we arrived in the village. In the hot afternoon air, I could feel the chill coming off of the metal in waves. Faint clouds of mist drifted from the spire above me. The cold was pleasant from a distance; close up, I actually started shivering.

After a year in the Golden Desert, I'd almost forgotten what it feels like to be cold in the daytime. Cold weather here tends to be strictly nocturnal.

I don't know what the engine is, or how it works, and neither does anyone else in the village. This is normal for Hill Builder relics. Whoever the Hill Builders were, wherever they vanished to, they left their tools and toys and other creations scattered about the world in astonishingly large numbers when they left. Many of their old machines are still running today. The Train of the Railway Regions is one of these machines; so are all of the floating cities. The original radios, the elegant and relentless Guardians, the little crystal brains used in clockwork pipe crawlers, the Omnipresent Typewriter, the infamous Answering Machine of Miggle-Meezel… The Hill Builders left a lot of useful things behind.

It's a shame they neglected to leave an instruction manual.

However it works, the engine is cold enough to pull moisture out of even the dry Desert air. Beads of water condense on its surface every morning - and with the entire height of the spire, that's a great deal of surface. The windward side of the machine's base is buried beneath a drift of sand, but the leeward side shelters a depression in the rock, where the water dripping down the spire forms a small pool. This is what allows the village to exist. We're days away from the river Lahra; all of Frish's water comes from this one frigid pool, as clear and cold as snowmelt.

Very little lives in the pool. The Golden Desert does have a few aquatic species - mostly amphibians and the occasional lungfish. Pebble-toads bake themselves golden brown in the sun and disguise themselves as rocks. Raindrop frogs spend months hibernating underground, sealed beneath the cracked surface of dry stream beds, only emerging for a few exuberant hours when the rain comes and frees them from the hard ground. Desert-dwellers who know where to look come out sometimes to find them dancing in the rain.

None of these species live in the engine pool. The water is clean enough, but it's cold - so cold that the children of Frish often dare each other to stand in it until their feet turn blue.* Frost forms on the stones around it at night. Anything that wanted to live in the pool would have to come from a mountaintop somewhere, or perhaps the arctic wastes of the Stone Ocean, and it's a long way from there to the Golden Desert. For now, the pool remains uninhabited.

The caravan will not stay here long, sadly, as the village grows only what it needs and has little to trade. Many places with Hill Builder relics take them apart and use the pieces for other things - Cormilack, for instance, exports hundreds of ancient gears every year from its huge and motionless Earthmover - but Frish is understandably reluctant to do so. They rely too much on their silent engine, their great metal icicle, to interfere with its mysterious workings.

Besides, all of its openings have been frozen shut for centuries.

* Their mothers try to discourage this, but so far, it hasn't worked. A few of the mothers have given up and taken to wading with their children instead. This seems to work better.

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