This story of Stranded World began as a series of connected vignettes on Dreamwidth, all of which are collected here; the story then continues to an actual conclusion of sorts.
There was a man at the festival with an eye-tattoo that winked.
Autumn hadn’t been sure the first time. There were several beautiful pieces of ink wandering around this ‘fest – it was pushing a hundred degrees out, and everyone was wearing just about as little as they could get away with. And there was this man, topless and wearing short khaki shorts and Birkenstocks, and the eye centered on his spine had a perfectly-shaded iris. And then it was closed. And then there was the pupil again.
It had been a long day already and it was only noon, the first time she saw the tattoo. Autumn’d gotten herself some water, stepped into the shade of her tent, and munched on a nectarine.
The second time the man wandered by, she had a small set of strands laid out over the pathway. Dozens of people had stepped over them without knowing, brushing through them, hardly moving them.
The man with the eye on his back paused. Deliberately, he turned his back to her.
The iris was blue, the ice-hue that always tripped her up. It was looking straight at her.
The eye-tattoo blinked again and was back to a black-and-grey drawing. The man turned around, looking straight at Autumn. Deliberately, and with a sardonic grin, he winked at her.
“So, this is…” Bishop was usually the calm one, but today, he was nervous. He wasn’t exactly shifting from foot to foot or anything, but that could be because they were walking rather quickly down Main Street, which didn’t leave him room to fidget. “Well, what exactly is it?”
“Well, exactly…” Summer shot him a cheerful grin. “It’s a bunch of things. It’s a craft festival that the townies and the visiting parents love. It’s a music festival after-hours that the students – and some of the townies – like. And it’s…” She gestured vaguely with both hands.
Mellie picked it up. “It’s a thing for people like your family, right?”
“If you know the right places and the right people, yeah. There are Strand-workers everywhere.” Summer tapped the wooden fence three times in a triangle, and a door swung open. “Like this place.”
“Are you sure…” Bishop hesitated, his hand on the fence.
“Oh, come on,” Summer coaxed. She had her bright smile on, the one that generally made him and Mellie go along with her plans. “They’re friendly folks, these people. Strand workers almost always are.”
“Hey, who do you kids think you are! This is a private party!”
Summer’s smile slid off her face.
“Hey, the insurance convention’s down the street!”
Festivals like this one were not exactly Winter’s cup of tea, nor were they his forte, nor were they a place of pleasure for him. They were loud and raucous, chaotic by nature, and crowded. And as much as he disliked them, other people disliked him being there.
“Look, man, I don’t know what they told you at the academy, but that’s just not undercover. Also, I’m not dealing anything illegal here.”
They were, however, the best place to meet other Strand-weavers, if you knew the proper places to look
“Excuse me.” The woman in the pottery booth looked less likely to dislike him on sight than many. Her strands were calm and her peace was deep and thorough. “Have you seen anyone else who looks grossly out of…”
“Hey, who do you kids think you are! This is a private party!”
“Excuse me.” He nodded politely at the woman. “I think I see who I’m looking for now.”
The fest was wild, and Spring and Lance were in the heart of it. A place like this didn’t need too much tangling – so many people here were already quite twisted up, wound in with other people, braided in with their own stories. But it was still fun to watch the tangles and knots, and it was still just a fun place to be, where nobody would look sideways at the girl with chaos tattooed on her chest or the handsome man in the very-well-fit pants and silky shirt who somehow seemed at home in the sea of tie-dye and batik, ripped denim and torn flannel.
“You look perfect,” Lance told her. “You’re aligned exactly with this place, did you know that?”
Spring stretched up, fingers tickling the air. “I know. This place is my place. It’s my people.” She dropped her arms so she could wiggle her fingers at a man covered in black-ink tattoos. “It’s like home, you know, like family? Can’t stand to spend all your time there, but it’s awesome when you go back for a bit.”
“Excuse me.” The voice cut across the cacophony, although it sounded both quiet and calm. “I believe you are mistaken about some important matters.” There was no speaker visible. The sound was coming from the back fence.
Spring grabbed Lance’s hand. “Speaking of family… we need to be over there. Now.”
The man with the eyeball tattoo was looking at Autumn when his eyebrows went up. His gaze slid off of her; Autumn glanced briefly, but he wasn’t looking at anything obvious in the physical world.
She stepped inside her tent while his attention was elsewhere and shifted her own vision Strandward, looking for the disturbance that had clearly caught his attention. Just as she opened her vision, her own Strands yanked at her.
The tug was tangible and sudden, pulling her from three points like an off-balance marionette. She didn’t need to look to know: the cool blue of Winter’s strand pulled from her right temple, where she’d painted his arrow under her hairline. The green-yellow of Summer’s strand pulled from her breastbone, where she’d painted a mask. The orange-and-blue of Spring’s strand yanked from down lower, where she’d painted the chaos sign just below her navel.
Her family was here, and they were doing… something. Autumn called to the woman in the next booth over to cover her till. Something strange was going on.
The man glared at Summer through the tilted fence panel. He wasn’t a pleasant-looking man; he had stringy hair and a weedy beard, a greasy, pallid complexion and notable body odor. But he was an important man, at least at the moment. “This is a private party!”
Summer’s cheeks were flushed and she was just about ready to die. She’d gone through this fence before — with her mother, when she was very young, then later with Winter and Autumn, and later still, all five of them together. She’d stepped a little sideways, and… what had gone wrong this time?
She coughed. “Sir, I’m sorry. We were just looking for—” Somehow, the right words were escaping her. The code ought to be on the tip of her tongue. “That is…”
“Excuse me.” Summer could just make out the white hair over the man’s shoulder. She didn’t need to see the face, though, to recognize the voice — and the hand that thumped down on the man’s shoulder. “I believe you are mistaken about some important matters.”
Summer shared a glance with Bishop and Mellie, half-apologetic and half-gleed. “That’s, ah,” she whispered. Bishop nodded. They’d met the family before.
Mellie, however, looked as if she’d like to crawl into a hole and pull it in after her. Summer wanted to apologize, but she didn’t even know where to start. This was supposed to be an adventure.
The large man in the fence hole decided to take care of the talking. “I ain’t mistaken about nothing, and who are you, trespassing on a private party in a private campground?”
Winter really did look out of place here: summer-weight suit, his hair long but perfectly slicked back, his hands perfectly manicured. And he looked amused. “I am Winter RoundTree, and I have an invitation. Do you?”
“‘Do you?’” the man mocked. “Of course I do. This is a private party. There’s no such thing as invitations…”
“But you just said you had one,” Winter pointed out.
The man sputtered. “Well, it’s my campground. I don’t think I need an engraved invitation to come here, do you? And what are you doing here, anyway?”
“As I said. I am Winter Roundtree. I have an invitation.”
“So does she.” The voice popped up from somewhere behind Winter. Summer shifted from foot to foot, both happy and embarrassed. Spring. “So do I. I mean, really. If the Roundtrees need invitations to get into here, I don’t know what the world is coming to — but I’ve got my paper. Do you have your paper?”
“What is it with all of you and asking me that? It’s a private party.”
Summer recognized Spring’s delaying tactics when she saw them. She took the opportunity to step inside the fence, tugging Mellie and Bishop with her. Mellie was looking unhappier by the minute, but Bishop looked like he was having a blast. Summer’s siblings had those effects on people.
“This one’s something strange.” Summer didn’t recognize the man next to Spring, but she recognized his posture, and the way his hand crooked, touching the Strands. “That is… he’s not connected.”
Summer stiffened. She could see Winter and Spring do the same.
“We’re talking like that old man,” Spring asked/demanded/asked. “The one who had no future?”
“Well… Hi, sir, miss, sir, miss, I’m Lance. I’m Spring’s plus-one to this little fete, and I’m a star mapper. Well, a mapper.” He ducked his head and gave them all an aw-shucks smile that, Summer thought, probably got him a whole lot of attention. “Not like he has no future. Like he has no…”
“…did he just call me sir?” Bishop cut in.
“…did he just call me ma’am?”
“You’re both very respectable, I’m sure.” Spring grinned at them. “And Lance is in charge of the polite part of our relationship. It works out far better that way.”
Winter coughed. “Clearly. Pleased to meet you, sir, and you were saying…”
“Nobody’s saying nothing. Because this is a private party.” The man seemed like he was stinking even worse now.
“It’s the pre-afterparty,” another voice answered, another familiar voice. “It’s sunset and sunrise, rain and shine and thunderstorms. It’s the paradox fete.”
Summer slumped against Bishop. There was Autumn, making the family reunion complete, and followed by a man covered in interesting artwork.
The greasy man frowned. “It’s a private party.”
“Is he a robot?” Mellie wrinkled her nose. “Only he keeps on saying the same thing over and over again, like we broke his programing.”
Lance coughed. “Like I was saying, he doesn’t have any connections. He doesn’t even have any cut lines, not any lines that trail off because he’s dying, nothing.”
“Lines? Who gives a fig about lines. You kids have to get out of here now. This is a private party. Private.”
“Maybe we should…” Mellie shifted uncomfortably.
“I think we’ve got this,” Bishop reassured her. “Well, they’ve got this.”
Summer felt a surge of guilt. “I’m sorry, guys. I thought this would be fun.”
“It’s a private…” The man trailed off as Winter and Spring flanked him. “You can’t do this! You can’t…”
“Be at peace,” Winter murmured. He patted the air in front of the man. Summer could feel a quiet stillness emanating from him.
“Find your connections,” Spring ordered. She grabbed the air and twisted, pulling power from the earth itself. “Bind to them.”
The sound of a scuffle pulled Summer’s attention away from the ad-hoc ritual. Autumn and Lance were fighting with the man that had followed Autumn, Autumn holding onto one arm while Lance grabbed the other. The man’s tattoos had begun to glow.
Autumn’s skill was in reading the inks and the links, and Lance had said he was a star mapper. Neither were the most aggressive style of power. Summer grabbed for her own strengths and wove.
They called what she did throwing hexes or blessings, curses or charms. What she did, down at the level of the Strands, was twist patterns into the strings of people’s lives.
It could be an artform; it could tell stories. But that took time. She was in a hurry, so she braided clumsy and falling and stage fright into the man’s patterns. There wasn’t much room; his life was patterned all over like his skin was, eyeballs and hawks and strong and cleverand more.
So she added submissive just to give Autumn a boost, and stepped back, adding a hurried blessing of lucky to her oldest sister’s story. It settled in with old braids of the same and older-still braids of wonderful and revered.
“Find your core.” Winter remained, as always, calm, implacable, unshakable. “Show the colors there.”
The man exploded in light. Shards and strings of white, traced over with black ink, filled the air. Summer’s vision was nothing but spots and lines.
“The hell?” Bishop muttered. “Guy’s a water balloon?”
“A golem.” Autumn had the eyeball guy down on the ground and had his arm twisted behind his back, while Lance was tying his ankles together with what looked like mundane rope. She looked grim and annoyed. “It was a trap golem.”
“Those are… they’re real?” Mellie sat slowly down on the ground. “Golems are real?” Summer sat beside her, arm around her shoulders, and tried to be comforting. Mellie didn’t pull away, but she frowned and sat up straighter. “Right. Forget real. Why was there a creepy old man um creepy old trap-golem hollering at us?”
“Thought it would be funny,” the man with the tattoos muttered. He was lying, but in this company, Summer didn’t need to say anything about that.
“Try again.” Autumn sounded angry. Why… Summer squinted at Autumn’s strands, shining bright in the summer air. Oh. Her sister has the worst taste in men. “Why the trap?”
“Kids.” The man couldn’t have been that much older than they were; he might have even been younger than Autumn and Winter. “Sure, lots of people use the door. But every year there’s some kids.”
Summer held Mellie closer and said nothing. They were kids.
“Kids,” Autumn repeated. “Like us?”
“Like them.” He tilted his head at Summer, Mellie, and Bishop. “Look. It scares off the tourists, usually. Keeps the party private, you know? And the ones that it don’t, well, those ones that come in anyway…”
There was something malevolent about his laugh. Summer held Mellie tighter, and didn’t argue when Bishop hugged them both.
“Summer?” Autumn raised her voice. “You have the right here. He was targeting you and your partners. But I have an idea…”
“Wait, what?” The man sounded suddenly far less sinister and far more worried.
Summer leaned into Bishop and Mellie. “We can work together? You do your thing and I’ll weave it in a bit deeper?”
“Sounds lovely. Now… let’s see. All I have on me is a Sharpie…”
“How about a fountain pen?” Winter passed over one from his pocket. Of course.
The man was starting to squirm in Autumn’s grip. Lance did something not quite in Summer’s line of sight, and the man stilled again.
“I’m fascinated by these tattoos,” Autumn admitted. “I was hoping you’d turn out to be the sort of person I could talk to about work.”
“You can talk to me about work!” He twisted to look at her. “You can talk to me about anything, what are you doing? Who are you people?”
Spring sounded amused. “We’ve been telling you that part. We’re the Roundtrees. What else do you need to know?”
“What’s she doing to me?”
“Just amending your ink a little bit.” Autumn leaned down over him, her hair falling in a curtain. Summer couldn’t see the lines she was drawing, but she didn’t need to be able to, either. She could feel the way that Autumn was pushing power and pulling Strands, enforcing some connections. “Now tell me, would your mama want you doing this?”
Summer grinned, and added a blessing of devoted son to the man’s charms as he stuttered out a miserable, guilty “noo…”