(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)
Originally published on April 14, 2020.
Installment #16: “What I Did On My Cross-Country Trek Across The Cursed Earth”
So…about all those plans for 2020. Funny, huh?
If there’s anything approximating a silver lining to the last month, it’s that we’re all discovering which of us have the ultraviolet senses of humor. I mean, no zombies, no Daleks, no triffids, no rampaging bands of mutants attacking the walls of Mega City One, no Australian motorcycle punks in bondage pants tearing down the highways with stolen guzzoline, no teenage crack shots with telepathic dog companions, and not even a sardonic name for COVID-19. I mean, “Captain Trumps” is close, but it’s probably not going to catch on, more’s the pity. If humor is the psyche’s way to deal with an interrupted defense mechanism, then the smartalecks will be the ones to inherit the Earth…if they can keep it away from singing roaches, re-emerged dinosaur men, and the constant need to roll for beneficial mutations.
After the snark comes the urge to help. The Triffid Ranch is going to be fine (check out below for details), but it’s hard not to worry about friends, cohorts, and interesting bystanders. For those without means or motivation to keep up with Dallas news, the whole of Dallas County is still on shelter-in-place orders until the end of April, and it’s becoming likely that the existing order may be extended. Most school districts have given up on classes returning to finish out the school year, more and more businesses are letting everyone work from home (although plenty are already itching to require their employees to come back; we’re rapidly recognizing the sheer number of managers who want to oversee large groups of organ donors solely because they aren’t allowed to stick their family members with hatpins), and any kind of social interaction is increasingly virtual. Yeah, it’s rough, and it might be rough for a while.
Again, the urge to help. Given a few minutes, we could all think of several people and venues to which we could point and say “Don’t worry about me: go help THEM” and mean it. Let me start the ball rolling. Friends who have never been to Dallas, and whose total knowledge of this city comes from that godawful TV show from 40 years ago, wonder why I stay and why I keep fighting to make this place better. Here are some of the reasons why.
Firstly, it’s time to give a shoutout to a friend and a cohort, one of the biggest smartalecks in Dallas journalism, and someone who also believes that We Can Be Better. I’m talking about Pete Freedman of the Dallas news site Central Track. All of the local news venues are hurting: I’m also giving a shoutout to the Dallas Observer, and I’m even willing to let slide 40 years of bad blood with the Dallas Morning News now that the James Lipton of Fandom moved on. However, Central Track is exactly the sort of gonzo news source that Dallas has needed for decades: it’s smart, it’s concise, and its staff is more interested in punching up than in catering to fevered egos, both outside and inside the newsroom. The reason I bring up Pete and Central Track is because its emphasis was on culture and local events, and when the events all shut down, so did all of Central Track’s advertising. If nothing else, go digging through the archives (the breakdowns on the State Fair of Texas are priceless), subscribe to its newsletter, and let the staff know that they’re appreciated. Me, I’m sending doughnuts.
Secondly, Dallas also suffers from a reputation for corporate dining that’s also 40 years old, even if it’s hard not to take licks for being responsible for the Brinker restaurant empire. We also have a reputation kept inside for some really incredible options from a huge array of ethnic cuisines, especially in the Richardson and Garland areas. With the lockdown, all sit-in dining is banned, so a lot of great places are having to squeak by with pickup and delivery sales. Recommending all of the places worthy of inclusion would take all week, so I give two recommendations for restaurants right next to the gallery that are especially near and dear to our hearts: Sababa for Mediterranean cuisine and Tasty Tails for New Orleans-style seafood. Sababa is literally across the street from the gallery, and Tasty Tails is about a block north (dangerously close to the Richardson Half Price Books), so when things get closer to normal, it may be time to invite everyone over for one big gathering and see why we stay.
And then there’s the stuff to do while sheltering in place. I personally owe Keith Colvin of Keith’s Comics a whole series of debts for kindnesses and considerations over the years, and that has nothing to do with recommending his shop for takeout orders of the best in comics and graphic novels. Likewise, although the flagship Half Price Books location is closed to visitors along with all of the others, they’re also filling pickup orders from requests made online and by phone. And when this is over, I have a very big Nepenthes attenboroughii enclosure waiting for the flagship store, so the sooner it’s all over, the better, eh? Okay, that’s the help list from over here. Let’s see yours.
Well, since all of the previous drama has made things awfully entertaining around here, should I mention that it’s bluebonnet season in Texas? Seriously: if you live in the North Texas area, take advantage of the opportunity for exercise outside to go stare at wildflowers for a few hours. If you don’t, then there’s always photos, right?
It’s up for the Hugo Award. It’s been all over NPR. Just trust me: go out and snag a copy of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As always, I’m biased: Amal and I have been friends for years, even though she worries about how and why I know about the prevalence of carnivorous habits among nominally herbivorous animals in the Scottish Highlands, but don’t let that stop you. As always, I feel an enclosure coming on, and it’s a matter of making it do justice to their book.
A benefit of shelter-in-place? It’s getting caught up on music I’d meant to check out but hadn’t the opportunity. In this month’s case, it meant falling down the Calling All Astronauts rabbit hole, and it’s a deep hole. As it turns out, that works really, really well as gallery background music while working on new enclosures. Uncle Zonker says check it out.
Let’s try this again. Both due to confusion with the date of the official State of Texas executive order allowing pickup and delivery for non-essential businesses, and confusion between the executive order and the current Dallas County shelter-in-place order, last weekend’s flash sale was a bit, erm, quiet. Well, that and only having about 24 hours’ notice as to the state’s change on shelter-in-place policy. This just means that in solidarity with Texas Frightmare Weekend’s HQ virtual convention, the Texas Triffid Ranch will be hosting another pickup-only Flash Sale on Saturday, May 2.
To reiterate from last week, starting at noon, patrons can come out to buy a particular set of plants, with those plants being placed in their cars after selection. The sale will continue until 6:00 pm Central Time or until everything is sold out, whichever comes first. All of the specials are beginner plants, already potted into appropriate containers, including the basic care guide instructions on the container as expected from Triffid Ranch shows. If this works well, this will continue every weekend until the shelter-in-place order is lifted and regular shows can continue. In the meantime, if you’ve been craving a touch of green and want something different, you live in the general Dallas area, and you enjoy the novelty of curbside service, this is the best option when standard appointments aren’t possible.
(NOTE: the larger enclosures as highlighted in the Enclosures Past & Presentsection may always be purchased and picked up by appointment. Unfortunately, we cannot allow patrons to enter the premises to view them, and they have to be brought out for inspection and purchase. If you have any questions, please contact us.)
For the Frightmare Flash Sale, we offer four species: three types of Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes x ventrata, Nepenthes ventricosa, and Nepenthes sanguinea), and Cape sundews (Drosera capensis). As shown below, the pitcher plants include a one-gallon glass container, substrate, and decorations for $35.00US plus sales tax. The Cape sundews include an Erlenmeyer flask and substrate, and sell for $25.00US plus sales tax. In addition, not only do the Shirt Price discounts apply ($30 for the Nepenthes, $20 for the cape sundews) for those wearing Triffid Ranch shirts, but it also applies for those wearing Texas Frightmare Weekend shirts, from ANY year. If we’re going to get out, we’re going to do this right.
For pickup, calling or emailing in advance isn’t necessary: just pull up to the building and let the handy but a little dim attendant take your order. (For larger enclosures, please call or email in advance.) Masks and gloves will be mandatory, for your safety and mine. Payment can be made in cash or credit card, and ask about PayPal information to reserve larger enclosures. For directions, follow the map. If things work well, expect this to be the first of many flash sales, at least until the current situation ends. Selah.
Okay, so the limitations on non-essential retail businesses opening in Dallas County just expired, on the proviso that those non-essential businesses only conduct sales via curbside pickup. As it turns out, the Triffid Ranch has a whole slew of plants already potted and ready for several March and April shows that have been cancelled, and since the Dallas County orders require that any purchases HAVE to be made via curbside pickup, with no entrance into the premises by the customer, it’s time to skip the usual open house and try something different. It’s time for a flash sale.
Here’s the situation for the foreseeable future. Every Sunday starting at noon, patrons can come out to buy a particular set of plants, with those plants being placed in their cars after selection. Each Sunday, a different set of plants will be offered for sale, and the sale will continue until 6:00 pm Central Time or until everything is sold out, whichever comes first. All of the specials are beginner plants, already potted into appropriate containers, including the basic care guide instructions on the container as expected from Triffid Ranch shows. If this works well, this will continue every weekend until the shelter-in-place order is lifted and regular shows can continue. In the meantime, if you’ve been craving a touch of green and want something different, you live in the general Dallas area, and you enjoy the novelty of curbside service, this is the best option when standard appointments aren’t possible.
(NOTE: the larger enclosures as highlighted in the Enclosures Past & Present section may always be purchased and picked up by appointment. Unfortunately, we cannot allow patrons to enter the premises to view them, and they have to be brought out for inspection and purchase. If you have any questions, please contact us.)
For the first Flash Sale, we offer four species: three types of Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes x ventrata, Nepenthes ventricosa, and Nepenthes sanguinea), and Cape sundews (Drosera capensis). As shown below, the pitcher plants include a one-gallon glass container, substrate, and decorations for $35.00US plus sales tax. The Cape sundews include an Erlenmeyer flask and substrate, and sell for $25.00US plus sales tax.
For pickup, calling or emailing in advance isn’t necessary: just pull up to the building and let the handy but a little dim attendant take your order. (For larger enclosures, please call or email in advance.) Masks and gloves will be mandatory, for your safety and mine. Payment can be made in cash or credit card. For directions, follow the map. If things work well, expect this to be the first of many flash sales, at least until the current situation is over, and I’ll see everyone starting at 12:00 on Sunday.
Posted onApril 24, 2020|Comments Off on State of the Gallery: April 2020
A solid month after the COVID-19 lockdown started, and everyone understands my hometown’s unofficial motto: “So…aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” For those having issues with shelter-in-place orders, I sincerely sympathize and empathize with your plight, and here’s hoping that the Triffid Ranch can help take the edge off. For those suddenly finding ourselves with the opportunity to live our preferred hours, “If I’m not back in my coffin by sunrise, I turn back into a pumpkin,” there’s a lot to do. Hang on.
To start off, the virtual Manchester United Flower Show on April 18 was an experiment in terror, but it also worked. Yeah, the video froze at the beginning (a glitch in its iPad app means that everything freezes if texts or other notices come through, requiring a hard restart to get everything going again), but it was a grand start. This, of course, was the beginning: the archives are up on Twitch, and expect new installments every Sunday evening. (During the duration of the lockdown, don’t expect any Saturday evening virtual open houses for one very important reason. I refuse to make anyone choose between Triffid Ranch streams and those of Panoptikon Dallas, myself included. Dallas’s best goth club is having issues with the lockdown as well, the DJs and crew are friends, and the Friday and Saturday night playlists are a great comfort in the gallery late at night.)
And on the subject of virtual events, it only gets better next week. Until March, the biggest Triffid Ranch show of the year was the planned Texas Frightmare Weekend horror convention that traditionally runs the first weekend of May. Frightmare has been moved to September, and we’re all awaiting word as to whether it’ll be safe for the show to run then (and whether we’ll all be wearing masks and not just for costuming), but Grand Poobah Loyd Cryer decided that if we couldn’t have the show in May, we at least needed something. That’s why, starting on April 25, the new Frightmare HQ streaming show promises to give everyone a taste of what makes TFW such an event. The first broadcast runs on April 25 and runs through the weekend of May 2, and those who missed out on the last virtual open house get a good look at the inside of the gallery starting at 2:00 pm Central Time. And yes, if you can’t watch live, the archives will be available on YouTube and Twitch.
In other developments, it’s official as of today: the governor of Texas signed an executive order today that allows non-essential business to conduct pick-up and delivery business, which means that the Triffid Ranch is back to limited operation. Because (a) customers cannot enter the premises, (b) only curbside delivery is allowed, and (c) the gallery is currently full of plants that had been potted in anticipation of the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo show scheduled for March, we’re going to try something different. All enclosures listed in the Enclosures Past & Present section are available for purchase at any time (just schedule an appointment for pickup or delivery), but most of the sales at shows such as Oddities & Curiosities and Texas Frightmare Weekend were for smaller, individual plants and containers. Because setting up tables and letting customers go through a complete inventory isn’t an option, it’s time for a Sunday Flash Sale. For the foreseeable future, from 12 noon until we’re out of plants, the Triffid Ranch front porch will have one specific species or group available, all generally identical, and all for the same price. Check back each Saturday to find out what the Flash Sale special is going to be, and call or write to reserve a plant once the special is announced. For those who want to drive by first, we accept drive-up visitors, but everyone will HAVE to stay in the car while doing so. (On my side, it’s masks and gloves all the way around, with containers cleaned before the sale starts.) For obvious reasons, the sale starts with tropical carnivores, but expect to see Sarracenia and other outdoor carnivores in the next few weeks once growing season gets going.
Well, it’s not the same as normal operations for an April, but things could be a lot worse. After all, three years ago, the gallery was a packed-up mess after its relocation, and it took six months of work to get it ready for its official reopening. If we survived that, we can survive anything.
Things continue to get interesting: this Saturday at 2:00 pm Central Time, catch the latest Texas Frightmare HQ stream featuring a Triffid Ranch interview and tour, and expect a new newsletter by the time the weekend ends. Depending upon announcements from both Dallas County and Austin, this may come with even more news about gallery activities, so here’s hoping. In the meantime, we now have a theme song for the Age of COVID-19.
Posted onApril 23, 2020|Comments Off on Projects: Fern Excluders On Grad Student Budgets
Let’s talk about ferns for a bit. Anyone working with terraria or miniature gardens eventually has to deal with ferns, both accidental and deliberate. In cases where they’re deliberately introduced, it’s because their foliage or other habits. Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum spp.), for instance, are an excellent addition to prehistoric-themed miniature gardens because of their ginkgo-like appearance and their extreme hardiness: so long as you don’t let them dry out, they’re nearly impossible to kill for long. Because they reproduce from spores that may remain dormant for years until the right conditions ensue, or the spores blow in on a breeze, accidental intrusions happen on a regular basis. Orchid enthusiasts using long-fiber sphagnum moss, particularly the light-blond LFS from New Zealand, discover all sorts of additions popping up after their sphagnum gets a bit of light, and some of these can be more visually stunning than the plants that grow alongside them. After all, the invention of the original Wardian case was instigated by a serendipitous fern sprouting in an unexpected situation.
So what’s the problem, you may ask? It’s that ferns in a miniature garden, terrarium, or vivarium environment tend to be a bit, erm, aggressive in their growth. Left uncontrolled, one seemingly inoffensive fern sprout can take over large enclosures and choke out smaller plants. Many species have long, tough roots that wrap around features, sink into ceramic pots, and make enclosure maintenance nearly impossible. At the bare minimum, that one fern can spread past its intended area, requiring constant maintenance to keep it under control. If an enclosure has a particular look that needs to be maintained to emphasize a particular plant, ferns have a tendency to crash the party and laugh at attempts at eviction. In extreme cases, the only viable option is to tear out everything and start from scratch…and then go through the same routine again and again.
Now, ferns can be controlled in the miniature garden the way bamboo can in standard gardens: by putting them in containers so their roots don’t sprawl and new shoots don’t spread. On a basic level, any material reasonably impermeable to plant roots could work, such as metal, glass, or stone. In miniature gardens, especially those with acid-loving plants such as orchids or carnivores, metal tends to corrode and contaminate the whole container, while glass and stone have their own problems with weight and porosity. The idea is to have something with an impermeable side but a permeable bottom, so moisture can wick up into the container from its surroundings while preventing fern roots from punching through. Equally importantly, it should be something reasonably attractive or possible to make attractive, if only so viewers don’t focus on the container instead of the fern inside.
The good news for anyone looking for good fern excluders is that they’re sometimes a bit too common. One quick trip to the grocery store, and your house is full of convertible fern containers. Food, drink, hair care, skin care: if it’s plastic and can be cleaned, it has potential. Even better, because of the demands by marketing to produce packages that are as uniquely identifiable as their labels, many of those are exotic enough that with a bit of modification, most would never recognize a final container as such. A bit of poking through the recycling bin, a good washing, and you have the beginnings of a fern excluder.
Before starting, consider the container that you’re converting and what kind of fern it is intended to hold. Tall containers have a problem with prematurely drying that requires additional top-watering, and with becoming top-heavy as big ferns get established. Overly small containers will restrict bigger ferns to the point where the plants will send roots over the side in search of water and nutrients. The container’s place in the terrarium or miniature garden has to be considered as well, because unless the fern is the only thing intended to be displayed, its excluder could overwhelm everything else. If possible, test the placement of the final excluder by putting the container in its intended location. If it doesn’t work for what you’re intending, there’s nothing wrong with going with another container and saving that one for a future project.
Converting a spare plastic container into a viable and usable fern excluder is done in three stages, two of which need tools or other accessories. In the first stage, some sort of knife is essential, with a drill and various bits, pliers, and medium-grit sandpaper being extremely handy. Since you’re cutting plastic, make sure that the knife is as sharp as possible, so using a razor knife or box cutter with replaceable blades is highly advised.
WARNING: Cutting plastic containers can be dangerous, both due to blades binding in the plastic and blades breaking during use. When cutting, cut very slowly to keep control of the blade, and ALWAYS cut away from your body. Cutting on a protective surface is highly recommended, and the use of scalpels, break-away hobby knives, and other thin blades is NOT recommended. If necessary, wear gloves when cutting plastic containers.: both the blades and the resultant cut edge are very sharp.
To start, remove any paper or shrinkwrapped plastic labels from your container. Paper labels can be removed by soaking the container in soapy water for an hour and then scrubbing, and commercial sticker-removal products such as Goo-Gone will work on any remaining adhesive. With plastic-wrap labels, just cut these with a knife and peel them free.
Some containers need additional work for cleanup. For instance, my bicycle route to the gallery is often strewn with empty BuzzBallz, which make excellent fern barriers due to the container’s size and thickness. The only problem with them is the aluminum top, which needs to be peeled off with pliers before further work can be done. (WARNING: metal edges can be sharp. Don’t do what I did: wear protective gloves and eye protection when peeling off metal attachments and save some bandages for later.)
Now, if your container already has the general look you want, then great. If not, you may have to remove the neck to remove screwcap threads and the like. With most containers, a razor knife works very well: start with an initial hole (a drill or nail hole works well) and then SLOWLY cut around until the neck is detached. With thicker-walled containers, saws designed for plastic and rotary tool cutting discs may be necessary: follow all safety instructions for these tools when using them, and work slowly to keep control and to keep friction heat from re-fusing the plastic while cutting.
For various reasons all involving weight distribution and structural integrity, the bottoms of most plastic containers are considerably thicker than areas near the tops. (The next time you accidentally drop a bottle of vegetable oil or salad dressing and it bounces instead of rupturing, say a silent prayer to the packaging engineer who successfully convinced Management that an additional gram or two of plastic resin per bottle was a necessary cost.) This means that razor knives won’t (pun intended) cut it. You have many options for electrical augmentation, but a cordless drill and the appropriate bit usually gets the job done in my case. A few warnings:
Numero Uno: Anyone who took a shop class in high school, who took any remedial home repair class in adulthood, and any fan of the Canadian version of Doctor Who will tell you the same thing, over and over: never, ever, EVER hold anything intended to be drilled with your hand. (Everyone will say this, of course, but the ones that paid attention don’t have those distinct scars that say “I figured that I was smarter than the drill press.”) Since most plastic containers are too flimsy to be locked into a vise for drilling, it’s time for alternatives. In my case, I use an old towel, usually with a silicone sheet inside for extra grip, to hold the container in place without actual flesh connecting with the plastic if that plastic starts spinning out of control.
Numero two-o: because of the way most of the world’s plastic containers are made (check out some Baby Soda Bottles one of these days), the absolute center of a plastic bottle is often convex instead of concave. This means that if you’re starting with a large bit, keyhole saw, or other drill-based cutting tool, that spinning tool is going to spin off true, possibly biting into the plastic in a place other than where it was intended or even into a nearby hand. To get more control, start out with a much smaller drill bit, or even a sharp nail or punch, to make a starter hole for the larger bit. If you need to do multiple borings until you get the correct-sized hole, so be it: this work isn’t going to be graded on expediency.
Numero three-o: if at all possible with drills or other cutting tools, try to go with maximum torque and minimum speed. The reason is that as it’s spinning, the drill bit will generate enough heat from friction to soften the plastic it’s cutting. The plastic can jam up the drill bit, re-fuse as soon as the bit stops, and even give a good burn to unprotected human skin. Even with going slow, some melted plastic will collect along the edges of the hole, and the final hole may not be completely cleared. In that case, use a stout blade, slowly and carefully, to cut out any rough plastic from the edges of the hole.
Finally, when this is all done, you’ll want to smooth out the holes at either end of your container with medium-grade sandpaper. In particular, decide which end is going to be the bottom of your fern excluder and use the sandpaper to even out that end as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect: it just has to be even enough for the next stage. While you’re at it, rub that sandpaper over the whole of the container: this gives a rough surface, referred to by artists as “tooth,” to give adhesion for what you plan to do next.
For the second stage, you’ll need a different set of tools and supplies. The essentials include:
Silicone sealer, preferably aquarium grade
Landscape weed barrier cloth
Scissors suitable for cutting cloth
To start, cut a square of weed barrier cloth slightly wider on each side than your container. Set it on a flat surface, preferably covered with baking parchment or wax paper.
Next, after determining which end of your container is the bottom, put a good thick coat of silicone sealer all over the edge. Don’t worry about it being a bit sloppy: this part will be underground when you’re done.
Take that freshly gummed-up container and press it bottom-down atop the weed barrier cloth. If you want to smooth the bead of fresh silicone, use tongue depressors, caulking tools, or a gloved finger to clean things up (don’t use a bare finger unless you like cleaning silicone from your skin for the next few days), but make sure that the bead runs over the entire outside of the joint between the container and the cloth. After this is done. set it aside for about 24 hours to allow the silicone to cure.
Next, the container needs a coat of paint for three reasons. Firstly, unless you specifically want a clear fern excluder so you can see roots and plantlets growing inside, you’ll want to hide the excluder’s humble origins with a bit of color. Secondly, if the bottle had its label printed directly on its surface instead of on a label, giving free advertising to the original manufacturer may not be desirable. Thirdly, a good coat of primer for plastic makes an excellent base for subsequent embellishment. For the last ten years, I have had excellent results with Rust-Oleum Universal spray paint: it’s an excellent primer that doesn’t attack most plastics, it tends to cover a surface in one pass, and it comes in a wide range of colors and finishes, including hammered and metallic effects. For most miniature garden and enclosure applications, I very highly recommend the Carbon Mist because it gives the impression of shadows without slipping into “complete endless void” in smaller scales.
After letting your primer dry for at least 24 hours, it’s time for further embellishment. If you want to highlight features on the original container with further paint, go for it. If you want to add features by attaching greebles, add texture by gluing on sand or aquarium gravel, or slathering it with silicone sealer and then pressing in long-fiber sphagnum to encourage sphagnum moss growth on the outside, knock yourself out. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, add a layer of plumbing-grade epoxy putty to the outside and sculpting bark to make it look more tree-like. (I personally swear by Smooth-On’s Habitat epoxy putty because it’s safe for fish, amphibians, and reptiles.) If covering it with so many styrene parts and embellishments that it could double as a Warhammer: 40,000 game obstacle is what moves you, do what thou wilt. Just take into account three things: stability, weight, whether the item might rust/corrode/otherwise contaminate the surrounding soil, and whether the additions you plan to add will handle longterm exposure to sunlight. Other than that, whatever works is what works. When you’re finished, trim back the weed barrier cloth to make it easier to plant in an established miniature garden, or leave it as an anchor in a new one: it’s completely up to you.
After everything else is done. it’s time for Stage Three: The Planting. At this point, start adding your choice of planting medium into the fern excluder through the hole in the top. Pack it in gently so you don’t damage the weed barrier cloth at the bottom, and watering it regularly during the packing process helps settle the medium. In this example, this excluder is full of milled sphagnum moss for inclusion in a carnivorous plant enclosure. Just take into account that since the weed barrier cloth is porous, don’t add anything to the planting medium that might affect plants nearby, such as salt-based fertilizers for a fern in a carnivore enclosure.
When filling the fern excluder, don’t fill it completely. Leave just enough of a space at the top to add your fern, its roots, and any growing medium around those roots. It’s going to be stressed enough with its new conditions, so keeping the fern’s roots from being mashed or bruised will increase its chances of survival.
Finally, get your fern. Take a good look at its root system, and scoop out soil from the fern excluder to give enough room for those roots. Press it in gently, and scoop some soil alongside the roots to cover them. Give it a good watering, and it’s ready to be added.
At this point, add your new fern excluder where you need it, and check to make sure both that it’s close to the water level in the miniature garden or enclosure and that it’s stable. Placed correctly, water will seep through the weed barrier cloth from outside, encouraging the roots to go deep for moisture and discouraging growth through the rest of the area. This will discourage growth but won’t stop it, as many species will run roots down the sides and into surrounding soil. Trimming roots as they form is an option, and another is setting another fern excluder, wider and flatter, underneath the first excluder to facilitate those hanging roots. The fern excluder also won’t do a thing for new plants growing from spores, either from that fern or ones that blew in from elsewhere, so always check for new growth before it gets out of control. If you like that new growth, well, you’ve made one fern excluder, and there’s no reason why you can’t make more, right?
Comments Off on Projects: Fern Excluders On Grad Student Budgets
Well, that was an interesting weekend. Technical issues, getting people over to the channel, and the realization that a virtual open house doesn’t have to run for hours the way a meatspace one does…it was harrowing and more than a little goofy, but the Manchester United Flower Show 2020 went remarkably well, all things considered. Because of previous confusion and for the convenience of those who couldn’t watch the stream while it was running, you may notice the new Video page. Among other things, this is the place for schedules for impending streams, crossovers with others (just wait until I can tell you what Texas Frightmare Weekend has planned for the next couple of weekends), and a direct link to the video channel. As soon as I can embed the Twitch stream directly on the page, I’ll let everyone know.
Posted onApril 12, 2020|Comments Off on Welcome To Your Career In The Arts
For the last several years, I freely admit that I blatantly stole a beautiful concept from the artist and musician Steven Archer, famed for his involvement with Ego Likeness, Hopeful Machines, and Stoneburner. In addition to his other endeavors, any of which make us mere mortals want to eat his brain so we can steal his powers, Steven also shares particularly disturbing failure videos and gifs, usually involving faceplants and setting idiots’ knees afire, all of which beg for one specific soundtrack, for his followers and interested passersby. The punchline is the same with each video or animated gif: “Welcome to your career in the arts.”
Part of the reason why so many of these are so funny isn’t just in being glad that we aren’t as unlucky, unskilled, or foolish as the individuals in said videos. It’s that for anybody with an actual career in the arts, we watch the videos, wipe our brows, and sigh “So it’s not just me.” So often, no matter how hard we prepare and what we try, it’s Faceplant City, and most of us just brush the concrete dust off our noses, spit out the broken teeth, and get up to do it again. Compulsion is a wonderful thing.
And so it goes. Since before the beginning of this foul Year of Our Lord 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was to jump up the number of Triffid Ranch shows, lectures, and open houses, including an expansion outside of the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Well, you can call COVID-19 “The Rona” or “Captain Trumps,” but every artist, musician, and writer in town saw the implosion of venues and events and called it “The Devil Vomits In My Face Once More.” You wipe off your eyes, reach for a towel and an eyewash station, and start again.
And to follow the old adage “when God closes a door, He also opens a window,” it’s time to see if if the next few weeks constitute defenestration or flying. The original plan was to hold a major open house, the Manchester United Flower Show, on April 18, if the current shelter-in-place order for Dallas County would allow it. Since that order runs until at least the beginning of May, this wouldn’t happen anyway, and a lot of folks understandably don’t want to risk crowds even after the order is lifted. We can’t have a traditional open house, and a lot of people outside of Dallas regularly mope (but mope in a cute way) about not being able to get to an open house anyway, so it’s time to make things virtual.
With the recommendation and inspiration of Christopher Doll of Breaking Fitt’s Law and Pete Freedman of Central Track, both essential reading, the Triffid Ranch is going to Twitch. The Eventbrite invitations will go out soon, but we’re going to try a video open house starting at 6:00 pm Central Standard Time on Saturday, April 18. Just as with the in-person open houses, this will run until about 11:00, thus allowing folks in varying time zones a chance to jump in. If this works out well and it doesn’t lead to a terminal curbstomping, we may have more in our current time of crisis, and probably way beyond. Not only will this give friends and interested bystanders a chance to see the inner workings of carnivorous plant blooms, but it gives a chance to confirm that the sole proprietor has far too much in common with the late Rik Mayall’s most famous character. See you then.
Posted onApril 6, 2020|Comments Off on The Return of the Manchester United Flower Show 2020
Sometime back in the mists of the Late Cretaceous, the plan was to host a special gallery open house in April that took advantage of blooming season. With one known exception, carnivorous plants bloom like any other angiosperm, with the height of the spectacle hitting in Dallas in the latter half of April. Sometimes the blooms last into May, and some species just never stop blooming through the growing season (yes, Stylidium debile, I’m looking at you). The last few years have been particularly rough on this idea, with last year’s flower show cancelled due to illness, but this year it was going to happen. Absolutely. Sure of it.
Well, as you may have noticed, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and the gallery is just a little too small to allow easy social distancing: at least, allowing social distancing and access to the restroom. With the current lockdown and shelter-in-place order for the entirety of Dallas County, currently extended to April 30, large gatherings are not just discouraged but open to fines and arrest, so the original open house was regretfully cancelled. Heck, when the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is cancelled for 2020 because of COVID-19, there’s no reason to risk life and health even if the shelter-in-place order wasn’t an issue. We can still have one in 2021, but a live show isn’t an option right now, and probably not until well after all of the blooms are gone for the year.
Into this comes a possible solution. Between the crew at Glasstire calling for short videos of Texas art exhibitions in lieu of personal appearances and Pete Freedman of the Dallas news site Central Track hosting regular video conferences on Twitter with readers, it may be time to take the Manchester United Flower Show online. Among other things, so many friends and cohorts regret not being able to get to Dallas to view an open house, so this is an opportunity to include them with no obligation and no plane tickets. For everyone else sick to death of online conferences for work and otherwise, it’s an opportunity to sit back and let someone else drive. We’re still working out the details, but we’re going back to the original date and time of Saturday, April 18 at 6:00 pm Central Time, with a repeat later in the evening for those on the other side of the International Date Line. Keep an eye on the site for more details, but the idea is to have an opportunity for as many people as possible to watch, so it probably won’t be attached to a particular platform. We’ll burn those bridges as we come to them.
To reiterate, the Manchester United Flower Show is back in place on April 18, barring life imitating art, and without issues with parking. See you then.
Comments Off on The Return of the Manchester United Flower Show 2020
Posted onApril 6, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosures: “Raven Well” (2020)
The locals refer to the days before the Well as “The Belonging,” when the veil between worlds was weak and people were better than they were afterwards. Not that they knew much other than that: those who asked too many questions were either asked to leave or disappeared suddenly in the night. The foothills and valleys around the mountains were perpetually shadowed by clouds that never broke, with the only motion being a constant swirl around the tallest mountain in the region. Occasionally travelers spotted flashes of lightning from the vortex, getting stronger the closer they approached the peak. At least, this was what was reported by travelers who related what they saw to others: other travelers trying to get closer tended not to return at all, and others returned but became extremely enthusiastic about shutting down further questions.
Every once in a while, particularly brave travelers specifically went to view the lightning’s source, and a very few were willing to whisper about what they saw. They described a tremendous stone block on the side of the mountain, flanked by tremendous metal chains affixed to the mountainside and struck repeatedly by the lightning and backed by a cyclopean multicolored bas relief that could have been stone or glass or metal or a combination of all three. In the center of the block was a well bored into the mountain’s roots. Nobody asked about the well’s depths, because those bravest of the brave rapidly left after hearing what sounded almost like voices, soft and sibilant, coming from the depths. Some described the well as being half-full of water, and others said it was only full of darkness. One, though, visited right at the spring equinox, when a sudden break in the clouds shone sunlight directly down into the well and onto a garden of brilliant yellow flowers unlike any seen elsewhere. The explorer claimed she had climbed down to gather a flower but lost it in the forest, along with most of an arm, and refused to explain the circumstances under which both were left behind.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 24″ x 36″ x 18″ (60.96 cm x 91.44 cm x 45.72 cm) Plants: Nepenthes ampullaria and Utricularia subulata Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, resin, found items. Price: $400 Shirt Price: $350
Posted onApril 3, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 3
Even in better times, Texans and tourists rushed out every spring to view the return of the Texas bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, bringing family, loved ones, and pets into the mix. This didn’t always end well for the bluebonnets: the plants themselves are reasonably tolerant of abuse, but the flowers are very easily crushed. This was really a problem for actively trafficked areas: for the most part, bluebonnets are common enough and widespread enough that the species can handle the occasional trampled cluster. In these days of social distancing, that dose of blue, purple, and green is even more important than ever, as is the need to give everyone a chance to see them who wants to do so. Please, please be careful when taking family photos in bluebonnet patches, if only by sticking to the edges and not flattening the whole thing. Most importantly, clean up after your pets, unless you want that kind of karma in an age of security cameras everywhere. Everyone else will thank you for this in the future.
For everyone who has followed this little trek so far, thank you very much, and keep an eye open for future posts. Bluebonnet season is just getting started, and there’s no telling what we could find among the undergrowth in a week or so. No telling at all.
Posted onApril 2, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 2
One of the things that amazes so many initiates to Texas bluebonnets is exactly how much animal life can reside inside one bluebonnet clump. No, not bluebonnet rattlesnakes: a thriving field of bluebonnets captures dead leaves and other debris to feed detritivores, and the leaves provide sustenance for a whole legion of foragers and grazers, while the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators that themselves depend upon the flowers’ pollen and nectar. With those herbivores come predators to take advantage of the largesse, and bodies of predator and prey themselves feed the detritivores. It’s a short-lived cycle that ends when the plants die off and burn back in May, but it’s absolutely essential for a wide variety of fauna, mycota, and other flora to continue their own life cycles. Give the land a chance to cool and rest over the winter, and the cycle starts all over in spring.
Posted onApril 2, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 1
For those outside of Texas, and for everyone sheltering in place, the Texas wildflower season started about the time we all started self-quarantining, and it now gets going with the beginning of bluebonnet season. Lupinus texensis is a denizen of poor soils throughout the state, growing thickly on roadsides, fields, industrial parks, and anywhere where nitrogen is at a premium. Part of their appeal is the tremendous clumps of blooms at the height of the season, but also their transitory nature: by the end of April, they generally burn off and deposit seeds for next year’s crop. By July, most people who hadn’t witnessed the waves of blooms in April would never have known they existed: the stems and flowers turn to powder and are overgrown by grasses and other summer flora.
Because of this temporary display, many bluebonnet habitats throughout Texas will not mow until the bluebonnets and other wildflower species go to seed. With the bluebonnets come legions of wildflower tourists to get photos of family and/or loved ones among the bluebonnets, in addition to utter idiots fussing about bluebonnet rattlesnakes. This is all fine and good, but these photos generally avoid one important fact: L. texensis is a fascinating plant when seen from the ground, to the point of seeming unbearably exotic.
It’s easy to be flippant about plant blindness, the cognitive bias that prevents people from seeing the plants in their everyday environments. It’s an understandable heritage of being taught over and over to look for the animals in various environments: look back on the number of pictorials of exotic environments and then consider how many focused solely on the plants and ignored the animals. You might be considering for a while: everything from National Geographic foldouts to dinosaur books focus on the animals big and small, with the accompanying flora a sidenote at best. The phenomenon of plant blindness is even worse with documentary films and videos: show a field of Sarracenia pitcher plants, and interest only perks up when the viewer sees tree frogs in the pitchers. On a personal level, I deal with this at Triffid Ranch shows on a constant basis: not only do people look at an enclosure in a quest for the animal they’re sure is inside, but after being told that the enclosure holds nothing but plants, they check again just to make sure. Plant blindness isn’t innate and it isn’t genetic: it’s a learned behavior, and it’s one that can be broken with enough practice.
This is why, in the tradition of Sir David Attenborough, it’s time to go among the bluebonnets. Expect more pictures in the very near future: after all, bluebonnet season is only just starting up, and they’re going to get thick in the next few weeks. Most importantly, though, try to remember that plant blindness. Don’t focus on anything else: focus on the plants. Note the foliage as well as the blooms. Only this way can you break the curse of plant blindness.
Posted onApril 1, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosure: “Conjunction of the Million Spheres” (2020)
In which an artist, in an attempt to create backstory for a recent artwork, dives headfirst into obscure fanfic.
On that particular morning, Lietyran awoke with a sense of responsibility. She awoke every morning with a sense of responsibility, considering her position and her heritage, but this was different. From the moment the tower servants awoke her, her responsibility to those she and her family ruled was the same: she was the ruler and they were the ruled, deferring only to traditions of the royal court and the specific orders of her parents. That day, though, had an extra veneer of obligation. Her father, Taurik XXIII, the emperor and total ruler of the Bright Empire of Melnibone, was attaining his 55th birthday the next day, and Taurik always expected his subjects to at least try to surprise him on what was, after all, a national day of obligation. The fact that Taurik’s birthday coincided with the five thousandth anniversary of the founding of the island nation of Melnibone just made Lietyran’s concerns more focused. A day before such a pair of momentous holidays, and she had yet to find her father a suitable present.
Climbing out of her bed and staring out the tower window, she beheld the main and sole city on the whole of Melnibone: Imrryr, the Dreaming City. tens of thousands of citizens rushed below her, attended to by hundreds of thousands of slaves and servants, between the city center and the fantastic sea-maze built in the harbor. In the surrounding towers, all of which appeared more grown than built, the greatest sorcerers the world had ever seen conducted countless rituals and sacrifices, traveling to alternate planes of existence or trading with demons and elementals alike. Squinting a bit with her witch sight, she could see the seemingly endless progressions of elementals of the air repairing towers, transporting messages, or simply gathering the smoke from hundreds of fires both mundane and magic and shuttling it outside the city. To her window rose the sounds of Imrryr life: horses and mastodons, fervent conversations, droning incantations, and the occasional scream of terror. So did the smells: sweet wine, sour sweat, bitter regret, acrid fear, and occasionally the clean crisp scent of exultation. From time to time, dragons would swoop near the tower, their riders returning from the furthest edge of the empire with news or tribute. The Melniboneans were a cruel and capricious race, solely interested in maintaining their power and fending off their boredom, and the best the humans hauled in every day by the hundreds could hope for was relative indifference. To Lietyran, the sounds and sights she beheld had been a part of Imrryr life since the days of the first emperors, and would be a part centuries after she and everyone else she knew was dead. Not knowing anything else, she accepted it and moved on.
That moving on involved subterfuge that day. Her father was a late sleeper, attending to affairs of state by midday after others had made sure that anything that passed under his gaze was worthy of his attention. Even she dared not wake him early unless he had specifically requested it, as his nights were devoted both to his own esoteric research and to his wife, Empress Salaee. The emperor indulged his only daughter and doted on her as best as Melnibonean traditions allowed, but he had his limits. Because of that, she quickly donned travel clothes and hat and her most quiet slippers and cleared the floor reserved for the royal chambers, only switching to riding boots after she was on the ground level. She quickly picked ten of the most loyal of the royal guard, ordered a meal basket with wine from the kitchen slaves, and walked to the tower stables, where her favorite horse awaited her intentions. She was a princess, they were her subjects, and nobody questioned why or where she was going that early in the morning.
There were others who would, which was why the real reason Lietyran was up early. The Melnibonean royal court was affectionately referred to by her father as “a pit of vipers,” to which she strenuously objected. She had been raising vipers and other venomous snakes for most of her 17 years, both for their venoms and for pure curiosity, and she never saw even the most aggressive viper bite itself. Some of the noble families of Imrryr were boorish enough to hint as to their intentions of taking the fabled Ruby Throne for themselves, although none were ambitious or stupid enough to state their intentions openly and risk the Emperor hearing of them. Taurik also had his traditions and obligations as ruler, but this never prevented his enjoying the Royal Inquisitor’s very precise and very slow interrogation as to the extent of any treason that usually doubled as a public demonstration of the subtleties of agony. Most settled for watching for any opportunity for favor with the Emperor, particularly involving any intrigues surrounding his daughter, and she learned practically in the womb to feint and double-feint as to her true intentions, even among those she legitimately considered friends. Sometimes the feints were physical: her mother discouraged her from learning warcraft, recommending and preferring undetectable poisons and minuscule alterations of grimoires so that summoned demons were able to escape and wreak revenge before they could be returned to the Lower Hells. Lietyran learned much from her mother, and also sword and dagger play from the Lords of the Dragon Caves alongside lessons in riding horse and dragon. The royal guard was expected and required, but she knew she would not be completely helpless.
Upon leaving the stables and trotting up the main street, Lietyran looked from under her wide-brimmed riding hat, adorned with the royal dragon sigil, to about halfway up a nearby tower. One of her surrogate vipers, Inarris, stared down blearily, still recovering from her nightly celebrations. Inarris was a novelty in Imrryr, proudly flaunting blonde curls in a court where brown or black hair was the standard, and her huge blue eyes caught Lietyran’s equally blue gaze and slitted: in no way would she have the time to dress and ride out to see what Lietyran was doing that day. The princess subtly saluted, knocking some of her black hair back over an ear so narrowed as to appear to come to a point, and slowed so Inarris could see exactly where she was headed. The eastern gate, leading out into the forests and wilds of Melnibone. By the time she could get there, though, Lietyran would be long gone.
Lietyran’s destination would have been a surprise to anyone who had asked, and nobody had. Another one of the grand traditions of Melnibone involved subtlety when presenting gifts to the Emperor. Taurik appreciated novelty leavened with subtlety and wit, and appreciated the adage that the best joke was a slight distortion of the truth. On previous birthdays, many came to him with intricate puzzles and viewers, both created specifically for his amusement and gathered from nearby planes, but he also enjoyed storytellers and explorers. With the whole of the world under his boot, most had little in the way of unique perspectives, and the same went for sorcerous effects and fireworks. This was why Lietyran was heading toward a secret location she had recently discovered in a chronicle in the royal library: six months of feverish translation of the magician’s cipher gave her the location of the presumed-lost laboratories of Terhali the First, the most famous of Melnibone’s guiding empresses.
Most of of the island of Melnibone outside of the city walls was wild, interspersed with small orchards and farms dedicated to growing the rare plants used for spells and incantations throughout Imrryr. Other herbs and trees were impossible to cultivate and grew where they chose, so the island was covered with flora from across the Bright Empire, brought back on battle-barge and dragon alike. Over the centuries, emperors claimed magical laboratories built by their predecessors or built their own, both to keep secret new avenues of learning and to prevent accidents from damaging life and property. Of the ones never found and exploited, the most sought-after was the laboratory of Terhali the Demon Empress, rumored to have been mothered by a demon as an explanation for her deep green skin. As with the others, it was almost definitely built on a nearby plane of existence for security and discretion, but could be reached via demon-constructed doorways and gates in hidden locations, but only with the correct password. If Lietyran’s translations of the cipher were correct, she had both a password and a map.
Lietyran and her royal guard rode for about two hours, occasionally backtracking based on referral to the cipher and her notes. Eventually, they reached the cliffs at Melnibone’s northern shore, and she ordered her guard to spread out and watch for any interlopers. With the guard preoccupied, she carefully walked along the edge of the cliff, stepped down onto a nearly invisible pathway running just below the edge, and even more carefully inched to one of dozens of cave entrances on the cliff face. Most of these were dark and shallow, only going in about ten feet or so. The one she selected had light coming from the back, about 200 feet back, and she tiptoed over branches and bones that had collected at the mouth. The light turned out to be filtered sunlight coming through the collapsed roof, and the tunnel eventually opened out into a natural caldera. The caldera was surrounded with thick forest, thus explaining why it had evaded discovery for the 500 years since Terhali last lived, and the only thing in it was a tremendous rock slab, weathered and pitted. This had been carved with a large circular window in the center, and runes both around the window and on the rest of the slab seemed to make the slab appear even older than what Lietyran expected.
Looking back to make sure that nobody had followed her into the caldera, Lietyran pulled her handwritten notes from a riding bag at her side, followed by a small metal pick and a clear blue crystal. One set of runes suggested the incantation necessary to awaken the monolith, but she knew far too well about the traps set by Melnibone’s sorcerers to prevent unauthorized pillaging of their secrets. She took off her riding hat, brushed hair out of her eyes, and put the crystal to her right eye. There, she thought: through the crystal, another series of runes were made visible, and those suggested a different cantrip. Lietyran put the crystal back in her bag and walked up to the monolith, spitting on her palm while doing so. She used to pick to pull away dirt and detritus from a space directly underneath the window, revealing a small triangle carved into the stone. She pressed her spat-upon hand onto the triangle and whispered “Gol mek ta ke,” and jumped in spite of herself as two gigantic crystals, each much taller than she was, erupted on either side of the window.
Now she knew she was on the right track, as no crystal of this type existed anywhere on Earth. Their extraplanar origin was obvious, and although she wasn’t foolish enough to touch them, she knew that they were rapidly chilling in the morning sun. Right at noon, with the sun directly overhead, the cipher hinted, and the gate could be opened.
Lietyran had time to kill, and she regretted not taking the food basket with her when she came down this way. No matter: she would have plenty of time to eat if everything worked. Instead of going back for food or wine, she settled for studying the remaining runes as the sun rose and the crystals froze. Finally, with a course of action, the sun at its height, and a thick fog forming around the base of the crystals, she stood between the two, gathered her notes, and began to read aloud.
When starting, Lietyran had no expectations of a spectacle. Indeed, she was too busy concentrating, focusing on magical concepts whose perception was as essential as the spell itself. However, she knew it should have been straightforward: a slight glow to the monolith, and the gate inside the window would open into whatever fantastic plane to which the stone had been anchored. She was so focused on the spell that at first she didn’t notice the sparks flying off the stone face, the twin vortexes of fog and dead leaves forming over the crystals, or the sudden wind blasting through the caldera. She noticed when one of the sparks broke free and passed over her head, though, and stared in surprise when the whole of the circle opened and a blue-topaz light shone through. She definitely noticed as a silvery metal barrel about the size of her horse launched through the circle and bounced to the wall of the caldera. The sparks and dust-devils stopped, the light stopped, and the wind stopped. The only sound coming from the area came from the barrel, which was slowly pinging like cooling iron.
As a princess of the greatest empire the world had ever known, Lietyran had no time to cower, or stare, or run off. This thing could have been a threat to the Bright Empire, or a serendipitous opportunity, and as such must be investigated. She also looked at the barrel as the perfect birthday gift for her father: even empty, she knew that the circumstances of its arrival would make an interesting tale, with the appropriate omissions as to the exact location and the circumstances leading up to its discovery. She may have been a princess, but she was also a Melnibonean, and traditions on what and where to share ran through her veins along with her blood. She walked forward as the barrel stopped pinging, noting what appeared to be a door on the side of the barrel. That door swung open, discharging a large cloud of sour greenish smoke, and two figures crawled out, coughing and waving the air to dissipate the smoke.
“Are you all right, Garanik?”, the first figure asked, as he, unmistakably he, removed a strange round black hat off his head and waved that in the air at the smoke. The figure’s clothing was odd by any standard: a white shirt of unknown material under a dark blue vest covered with pockets and straps and loops. Breeks of a coarse faded blue cloth, and blue shoes with odd lacing with magenta stripes on the sides. The most surprising was the hair. As mentioned before, Melnibonean hair ranged brown to black, with the occasional blonde for variety. The stranger’s hair was a deep auburn, like that of the winged men of Myrrhn, and his sideburns suggested that his beard would be the same color. As if taking that into account, the stranger ruffled that hair for a second as if trying to dislodge sand, put the round hat back on, and took a quick look around, completely missing Lietyran.
“Well, THAT was different! Terrestrial world, average gravity…I’m just glad it has a breathable atmosphere. We may be here for a while if we need to make repairs.”
Another voice came from the other side of the barrel, deep and sonorous, with a different accent than that of the stranger. In all of her studies and all of her experiences, Lietyran had never heard accents like these in her life. “Do you know what happened?”
“Not a clue. Bell’s Theorem spits in my face again.” The stranger turned, noted Lietyran for the first time, and took off his hat slightly, “Hello.”
Lietyran was in unfamiliar territory, but she was neither stupid or cowardly. Regretting that she had neither sword nor dagger, that her guard had no precise idea where she was, and that her little pick made a terrible weapon, she made a show of relaxing in order to free her arms for a possible fight, looked up at the stranger through her eyebrows, and asked “I presume you know who you are and where you are?”
The stranger smiled, turned to the side and yelled over the barrel “And the Machine’s translator carrier is working this time!” He then turned to her, took off the hat entirely and put it over his heart, and bowed slightly. “Apologies. My name is Benetalistantrumaine, but everyone calls me ‘Bennett.’ As to where I am, I was hoping you could help. We’re a little off course.”
“We?” Just as she asked, she turned toward the near end of the barrel. Standing over her was a giant. The first stranger at least appeared human, if not Melnibonean. The giant could never pass for human. It stood a full eight feet high, with greyish skin and longish dark hair, the latter held in place with an elaborate circlet of golden metal with a white jewel in the center. From what she could see, the giant wore similar unfamiliar attire, with a brown billowing blouse and dark brown breeks tucked into black boots. The giant’s had two deep brown eyes that stared down with obvious amusement, and its short muzzle split open for a gesture that might have been a smile. Big stout teeth like a horse’s were visible, suggesting that if it planned to eat her, it would have to work at it. In spite of herself, Lietyran stepped back slightly, tripping on a rock, and fell backwards. The giant reached out a hand that gave her a larger shock: instead of the five fingers she and the first stranger had, the giant had six: four fingers and what appeared to be a thumb on either side. She warily offered her hand in return, and the giant lifted her easily. She started to brush herself off, and then stopped, speechless.
“And you’ve met Garanik. He’s an engineering student from Iscaris III, which is…er, that’s a long story. Say hello to the lady, Garanik.
“‘Hello, Garanik.’ Are you all right?” She suddenly realized that they both spoke Low Melnibonean, the tongue used for everyday activities.
“I’m all right,” Lietyran said in High Melnibonean, the tongue used exclusively for magic and communication with elementals and beings of the Higher Planes. They both understood her, which meant either they were from the Higher Planes themselves or someone had made a potentially fatal error in teaching the language to his servants. They didn’t look like anybody’s servants, which confused her further.
“Pardon my bad manners,” Bennett said, indicating the barrel, “but I have to take a look inside. Just a minute.” He opened the door further and climbed inside, and Lietyran and Garanik listened to shouts, whistles, curses, and grumbles from within. Lietyran looked at Garanik curiously: the barrel was large, but there was no way he and Bennett would fit comfortably inside. The door swung out and Bennett stepped out, sneezing for a second at the last of the smoke.
“The good news? The good news is that we’re not stuck. Any repairs we need to make can be made after we leave. The bad news is that this place ranges closer to Chaos, so we’re going to need more time to recharge before we can leave. Want to see the sights?”
“Of course,” Garanik rumbled, “That’s why I came along in the first place.” Garanik looked at Lietyran expectantly. “Could you tell us where we are?”
Lietyran was back in familiar territory. “You are on the island of Melnibone,” with the two silently practicing the pronunciation: “Mulnehbooney.” “We’re just outside of the city of Imrryr.” The both of them looked unfamiliar and just a little unimpressed.
“And you are…?”
Lietyran’s voice gathered up in its full royal majesty, as befitting her station. “I am the Princess Lietyran, daughter of Emperor Taurik and Empress Salaee, heir to the Bright Empire of Melnibone. The real question is where are you from and what are you doing here?”
Bennett removed his hat again and scratched his scalp for a moment. “As to what we’re doing here, that’s a good question. We can’t say we were ‘pulled off course,” but that’s pretty much what happened. When the Machine dematerializes, it simultaneously exists in all alternate realities at once, and then maps onto a specific one before we can disembark. The difference is that this is drastically different from the reality we were expecting. Does that help?”
“I know the words you used, but not in that order. So who ARE you?”
Bennet chuckled. “Well, I’ve already introduced myself, but I’m from…well, that’s a confusing situation. Let’s just say that my people solved the secrets of travel through the time-space continuum, but thanks to an accident, I’m able to travel sideways as well as back and forth”
Lietyran suddenly grinned, rushing up expectantly. “This can travel in TIME?”
“Could you let me see?”, Lietyran said, trying to push Bennett aside so she could reach the door.
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy. The Machine’s power source is back in my reality. That’s all I’m trying to do: get home. Little bits of that power seep between dimensions, so it can gather that up for another jump, but that takes time.”
“Our faithful steed, the Silver Machine.” Bennett patted the side affectionately. “Back, forth, and sideways through time and space, with little complaint and no clue as to where we’re going half the time.” He sing-songed; “Don’t you know what I mean?”
“So how long do you need?”
“Normally, a day is more than enough time. However, in realities with more of an inherent level of chaos, it can take longer. Give us about two days, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Let me understand you. You two are from a different…reality? And you can travel to other realities, and not just to other planes?”
“That pretty much sums it up. Garanik here is from a different reality and a different world, and he asked to come along to see the multiverse.”
“‘Multiverse’. Now that’s a word I understand. But I thought travel through the multiverse was only possible during the Conjunction of the Million Spheres, when the barriers between planes was at its most fluid.”
They looked at each other. “News to us,” Bennett said.
Lietyran thought for a moment. Her thoughts roiled. If she got them back to Imrryr, not only would their tales make a perfect gift for her father, but Inarris would chew glass in envy. And then there was the thought of traveling beyond anywhere any Melnibonean had ever been. All of this happening on the anniversary of the Empire’s founding…if the gods intended this as a joke, they were evidently in the mood for slapstick.
“In my power as Princess, I welcome you as honored guests of the Ruby Throne, and invite you to a special audience before the Emperor. We can bring back your…Machine as well. I just have one last question.”