Screedrift lay exactly halfway between the towns of Pan and Graben. Few people would have stopped there were it not for Bulgar-Witten’s Broilerhall. This roadside diner was attached to Screedrift’s only gas station, and the Bulgar-Witten family – descended from two feuding clans who finally made peace through marriage – owed its wealth to running both. The Bulgar-Wittens managed finances and paid locals to work as cooks and cashiers. They were always casually employed, which gave them slightly higher wages but little job security. The Bulgar-Wittens had high standards, and workers who fell short of them were dismissed immediately.
Gareth believed he was lucky to have found work in the Broilerhall. He rarely spoke to customers; Pilcher Bulgar-Witten hired young women for this role, perhaps because most of the truckers, bikers, prospectors and adventurers who stopped for fuel and food were male. Gareth worked behind the scenes, unloading pallets of chickens from trucks, storing some in a freezer, thawing others, cutting them up, roasting them in an industrial oven and basting them with sauces that ranged from mild to lung-scalding. His section of the Broilerhall, which few outsiders ever saw, seemed less a habitable workspace than a steaming grotto with stained walls and a perpetually greasy floor. When he was not preparing food he was sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, scouring and scraping dead insects from light fittings, but no matter how hard he worked, every object in the roadhouse retained a thin veneer of chicken fat and an equally distinctive smell.
Unlike some of his fellow workers, Gareth remained in good health by cycling to work every day and never eating anything on offer in the Broilerhall. One day, in the quiet spell between late lunches and early dinners, he was scouring a chip fryer in the loading bay behind the hall when a weary traveller arrived. The newcomer was very old, wore very dusty, timeworn clothes, and pushed an almost prehistoric bike weighed down with tools and camping gear. “I don’t mean to trouble you,” he said, “but my bike’s gotten a flat tyre. Would you mind if I fixed it here?”
“I won’t mind, but my boss will.” Gareth stopped his scrubbing and looked around nervously. “He doesn’t offer things for free.”
“I won’t cause any trouble,” the old man humbly replied. “I just need some time and space. I’m hoping to make Pan by nightfall, and I’ll be on my way much sooner if I can work here in the shade.”
Gareth considered his options. The old man was not asking much, and Pilcher Bulgar-Witten had gone to town to do some banking; Gareth could also safely assume he would stay there for a drink or two. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll let you stay. But please be quick for both our sakes.”
The old man got to work at once. Gareth finished degreasing his chip fryer and carried it back to the kitchen, where a string of unexpected orders kept him busy for a while. When he had finally finished with them he went back outside to check on the stranger. The old man had removed his bike’s front tyre and was busily repairing the remnants of an inner tube that had been patched and re-patched countless times. Gareth felt a twinge of shame. How many times had he cursed flat tyres, searing heat and freezing cold, on his much shorter trips between work and home? He felt a sudden admiration for this tough old wanderer who faced setbacks with such stoicism. With it came an urge to help.
“Don't take this the wrong way,” he said, “but that tube’s seen better days, and you’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got a bike with brand new tubes, and I won’t mind exchanging them if it makes things easier.”
The old man’s eyes brimmed with gratitude. “Easier? It certainly would.”
Gareth went back inside where he kept his own bike and removed the tyre tubes. He was not just thinking of himself; patches took a while to cure and he knew his boss would be back soon. He gave his tubes to the old man, but even as the stranger thanked him, Pilcher Bulgar-Witten’s car pulled in to park behind the hall. Gareth paled as his boss climbed out. “Why aren’t you at work?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. I’m helping a customer,” Gareth hurriedly replied.
Pilcher took a long look at the stranger. “That’s no paying customer. I shouldn’t have to tell you it’s the paying kind that keeps you here! And as for you,” Pilcher told the old man, “I’m not running a charity! Don’t let me catch you here again!”
The old man apologised, but Gareth never saw him go; he was already back in the kitchen, wondering about his kindness and the Bulgar-Wittens' lack of it. Would this trivial issue cost him his job? He took his frustration out on some chickens, cutting them up with more force than finesse, but to his relief Pilcher said nothing more. On seeing Gareth hard at work he retired to his office and shut the door.
When Gareth finished his shift he remembered his bike now had no tyre tubes; but when he wheeled it outside he saw the stranger had stashed the old tubes between a dumpster and a wall. Gareth felt a little better; they might save him a walk home. He pulled them out, and to his surprise, he found they had been wrapped around a mobile phone and a handwritten note. This note read:
“Thank you for your help, young man. Kind acts like yours are all too rare. If you want another job, switch on this phone and make a call.”
Gareth was not too surprised; he’d heard stranger things from stranger sorts in his time at the Broilerhall. The job offer was welcome but he felt no urge to make the call. He got his bike in working order using the old tyre tubes; to his relief the patches held. As he rode home he wondered how far the stranger had come and how far he had left to go. He also wondered why the man had left him the note and phone. Had he really come across as that unhappy with his job – and what was the alternative?
These thoughts stayed with Gareth when he got home. At last he chose to make the call; he felt nothing bad could come of it. He switched on the phone and dialled the only number in its contacts list. As it started ringing he felt a tingling in his hand which shot up his arm and into his head. He had the faintest sensation of falling and after that he knew no more.
Gareth woke up on a patch of bare earth, raised his head and looked around. He saw no sign of his home, his town, or anything he recognised; his world had changed entirely, if indeed it was his world. Before him lay a great expanse of weathered rock and shifting sand; dunes marched towards the far horizon beneath a dark oppressive sky. He raised a hand and recoiled in shock. What had once been flesh and bone had been replaced with something stronger yet more elegant. The body he had known was gone, and from what he could gather his new one was bipedal, vaguely feline, and primarily mechanical. From a human point of view, nothing about it would have called for modesty, yet it was partly swathed in cloth – perhaps to keep dust away from the well-made tools sheathed on its hips. He saw a larger artefact – a hook-backed blade affixed to a pole – lying on the ground beside him. He picked it up and gained his feet. His new body seemed a marked improvement on the old one he had worn, which gave him newfound confidence in this otherwise foreboding world.
His ears picked up an ominous rumble beneath the howling of the wind. It grew louder and he saw its source: two titanic constructs rocked and whirled across the earth, raising plumes of swirling sand. Like him, they seemed mostly mechanical, though their bodies were much cruder affairs – all swash plates, pistons, cranks and gears – and they had hooks instead of hands. Their bone-white faces looked more human, but their blank eyes and fixed smiles showed no signs of intelligence.
Gareth watched the Cyclowns pass. They cared nothing for his presence, if they noticed him at all. He gave a minute’s thought to Screedrift, the old life he had left behind, and the new one that awaited him. He sensed it would hold challenges, but would serve a higher purpose than his working in the Broilerhall; and the laws that governed this new world, be they natural or cultural, could be no more grotesque than the ones he had known. As the rumble of the Cyclowns faded, Gareth chose a random path and with it a new destiny.