Phenix Part 1: Kali and Shiva
This continues the story from my previous post. Excuse any formatting mistakes generated in the copy and paste.
“Two colonists and a Yóukč girl got lost in the woods. The Yóukč said, ‘Don't worry. All we have to do is shoot into the air three times, stay where we are, and someone will find us.” Matteo paused while Ashabi walked across the moss covered log. The number of streams were increasing and they were making more detours to find ways across.
Matteo held his hand out like a gentleman when she reached the end. “So they shot in the air three times, but no one came. After a while, they tried it again; still no response.” Ashabi adjusted her heavy pack with an audible sigh Matteo ignored. “Finally the Yóukč girl said,’I suppose we can try again, but it better work this time. We're down to our last three crossbow bolts." Ashabi reached out and grabbed a fist full of Matteo’s long hair. She pulled his head back. “Ow, ow, ow, okay, I'll stop telling jokes. Please Ash, I promise!”
“I warned you Matt.” Ashabi gave his hair a last tug and let go. Matteo laughed and let her pass. Joshua had paused to wait for them up the slope. Four days had passed and for two of them they had been climbing a gradual slope through unfamiliar trees toward a rocky ridge.
The vegetation was changing slightly with the rocky soil. They had left the souring Queen Trees behind. The understory had grown dense with young Bowl Trees and more light hit the forest floor. It took more effort to push through the stands of ferns. Joshua kept the lead, sweeping fronds out of his path with the long blade of his Iklwa. Ashabi and Matteo had their short spears out as well. The heavier undergrowth Made them all nervous.
They paused when they came to a fresh game trail to argue. The thread of a path was tempting. The going would be easier and to their left, the trail led on to the tempting ridge of stone the could glimpse sporadically through the dense cover. The height of rock offered a relief from the claustrophobic monotony of the forest. Neither choice led in the direction of Báihč’s beacon. The temptation of the ridge was too great. They turned uphill toward cliffs.
The path made travel much easier. They reached the next stream just as a light shower began to patter on the Bowl Tree canopy. The trail led to a ford where they paused to refill their water bottles and wash down lunch. They continued on content in their own thoughts for another hour. Ashabi checked their progress periodically on the receiver. She called a halt.
“This has been fun boys, but this trail is taking us away from the Báihč. We need to turn off of it.”
Joshua looked up the trail to a break in the trees. The cliffs were less than an hour away. He struggled with the drive to seek higher ground. Joshua sighed, “You’re right Ash.”
“Do you hear water?” Matteo asked. They fell silent again, then agreed. “Let’s see if the trail leads to another ford and then change direction on the other side.” It was a sensible plan, so they proceeded on. The trail began to plunge down toward the water. Matteo had taken the lead and Joshua fell behind to root for a few tubers he recognized near the trail. Baked in a fire, they would make a welcome change from the steady diet of Jůmň bars. When he caught up to the other two, he found them stopped on the trail. Ashabi looked alarmed. Joshua shifted his crossbow warily. “I heard voices.” Matteo breathed softly.
Joshua and Ashabi shared a look. It might be another lifeboat. Ashabi bit her lip and her eyes did not look hopeful. “My mom wouldn’t have camped for five months just a day's walk half way between me and the Báihč. That makes no sense.” Joshua nodded in agreement. Ashabi’s mother knew the way to the crashed colony ship, but their missing fellow castaways did not. She gave him a quizzical look, as if her thoughts mirrored his. “I don’t know why they would stop here. They would have kept on going or returned to our lifeboat wouldn’t they?”
“Maybe they were afraid of explaining themselves to whoever they found at the ship.” Joshua whispered back. Ashabi nodded her head in agreement. If the beacon had been activated by a group of survivors, the four men’s brutal rule would end.
A young child’s voice drifted up from the stream. The three companions were frozen, listening. Matteo stirred first. “What are you guys thinking?” Joshua squatted by the trail and they joined him. He shared their fears that they had stumbled on the men from their lifeboat. Matteo nodded thoughtfully. “Best not to meet them, yes?” He slung his crossbow onto his shoulder and pulled the heavy rifle forward. The child’s voice laughed loudly and a woman scolded something barely audible. The strangers were close. Joshua touched the rifle barrel and shook his head. Matteo nodded his understanding.
They whispered together, and then all three moved cautiously down the trail until they could see the final descent to the broad stream below. They watched the woman digging in the damp earth near the water. A barefoot boy waded in the water. Despite the woman’s warning, he continued to chatter. The pair seemed to be alone. “That’s Baozhai.” Ashabi mouthed to Joshua. She looked puzzled for a moment. “She had a daughter. Isn’t that Ji with her?” Joshua nodded agreement with dead eyes. Ji had tagged along with the three murdered boys. He might be eight now.
Joshua signalled Ashabi and Matteo into the ferns on either side of the trail. Ashabi went reluctantly and her stubborn look infected Matteo. Joshua willed them to stay put with a glare. They anxiously scanned the opposite bank as Joshua stood and continued down the trail to the stream.
The boy bolted from the water like a frightened Red Roaster scenting a Frightful. He ended his flight halfway up the trunk of a convenient Bowl Tree. The woman, alerted by his one sharp squeak, stopped her digging and stood with a short spade searching the undergrowth. Joshua thought her ready to follow the boy up the tree. Her eyes widened when she saw Joshua.
“Joshua Susanti, is that you? My God, it is you!” Baozhai lowered her shovel.
Joshua stopped on the far side of the stream. He studied the forest carefully before turning back to the woman. She was thin, but she looked far healthier than Joshua would have expected. Without the support of the lifeboat’s food supplies, she should have been dead. Joshua looked up at the little boy staring solemnly at him from the tree. Ji on the other hand was skeletal. “That shovel is not going to save you from a pack of Frightfuls, Baozhai. Are you two on your own?”
The woman glanced at the spade in her hand and snorted. There was a hysterical bitterness to the sound. “They wouldn't give me this if I didn't need to dig for food.” Baozhai turned suspicious eyes on Joshua. “So you’re still alive. What did you do to that Yóukč girl, Ashabi?” Her tone suggested she expected to hear the worst.
Joshua considered his reply. He didn't want to deepen the woman’s suspicion of him. “Ash, it's okay.” He called softly up the path. Ashabi stood up. She came down the trail and stopped halfway between Matteo and Joshua. The loaded crossbow aimed toward the trees behind Baozhai said more to reassure the woman than any words Joshua could offer. She smiled at Ashabi.
“I'm glad to see you.” The troubled look returned. “Vance and Karl would be happy to see you too girl, not so much you Joshua. It's not safe for you two to join us. You're better off back at the lifeboat, trust me.” She stared intently at Joshua and then up into the tree where Ji still perched on a branch. “Come down Ji.”
“Why are you here?” Joshua asked in confusion.
“You mean why are we still alive?” There was a sour humour to Baozhai’s reply. “Bill stumbled on a shuttle up against those cliffs. The men decided it suited them to stay.”
“A shuttle!” Ashabi came down the trail. “That’s fantastic. So there are crew with you?” Joshua could hear the hope in her voice.
“It's a wreck girl. It rolled a few kilometres through the trees from the look of it. It looks like a crushed can. Ended right side up luckily. That bird isn't going to lift off this hell hole.” Ashabi slumped beside Joshua. “Life support works, so most of us have food. Fabricators won't make anything though. Karl imagines he’s smart enough to fix things. Judy could do something, but she keeps that to herself.”
“So everyone’s okay?” Joshua asked.
“Chan disappeared into the forest looking for your girl. We've lost a few to the Frightfuls and whatnot. Most of us are surviving.” Baozhai put a protective hand on Ji. “You should go now.”
Joshua glanced at Ashabi and they exchanged a thought. She nodded slightly, then Joshua turned back to Baozhai. “You can come back with us.” Joshua did not tell her they were headed to the wreck of the Báihč.
The woman smiled gently at the pair of teenagers. She shook her head. “I would in a heartbeat, but my daughter is back at the shuttle. They don’t let the young ones out anymore. I can't leave her.” She pushed Ji towards Joshua and Ashabi. “Take Ji with you, please!”
Joshua and Ashabi looked at the frail boy uncertainly. Taking care of themselves was stretching them to their limits. If they were lucky, they might reach the shattered remains of the Báihč in six or seven more days. If there was no shelter there, they would have to retrace their steps to the lifeboat. There was little enough food for the three of them. “I’m not sure that is a good idea. It would be safer if he stayed here with all of you in the shelter of the shuttle. It has to be better than what we can offer him.” Ashabi nodded agreement.
“They will kill him. They are already starving him.” Baozhai argued bitterly. “He gets no share of the supplies as it is. He’s living on what we can find in the woods. His mother is pregnant. When she delivers Vance’s baby, there will be no reason to keep him around. That’s all he is, a hostage. That’s all any of the boys are.” Baozhai had tears in her eyes.
Joshua looked at the silent boy remembering the irrepressible scamp he had been following his older brother as the group of boys trailed after Joshua in the forest. Josh’s Scouts they had called themselves when they did not think he was listening. He thought of the three dead boys, hanging on his words as he shared his woodcraft. “Hey Ji, do you want to come with me?”
Ji looked back at him with inscrutable eyes. At a small prod from Baozhai he started forward. He stopped out of Joshua’s reach. Joshua stepped toward him lifting his free hand to pat Ji on the shoulder. The boy flinched and stepped away from the hand. Ji studied Joshua out of the side of his eyes. He seemed to be measuring the distance to the nearest Bowl Tree. Joshua moved very slowly toward Ji and rested a hand on his bony shoulder. He did not speak as he drew the boy into a light hug.
“Here’s his shoes and shirt. Bless you for taking him.” Baozhai pitched the clothing across the stream. Joshua started back up the trail toward where Matteo still crouched hidden in the ferns. Ashabi had pulled her pack off and she was rummaging around for something. He stopped to see what she was doing. She pulled her spare long knife from the pack.
“Take this.” She tossed the knife over the stream and it landed near the woman’s feet. “Maybe you can use it.” She slung her pack back over her shoulder and turned to join Joshua and Ji. “I will be back with help if I can.” They parted ways. Ashabi touched Ji on the head as she walked past quickly. “Get me the hell away from here Josh.” It was the last thing she said to any of them for the rest of the day.
On the seventh morning they slept in to give Ji a chance to regain his strength. The trek was proving too much for the failing boy. They fed him Jůmň Bars and sweet fruit. When it became apparent on the first day that Ji could not keep up, Joshua carried his wasted. Each night the four travellers retreated to the trees. A Bowl Tree’s multitude of horizontally spreading branches created a handy campsite at the base of the crown. After the inevitable irritable residents had been evicted and a sheet spread over their heads, they had a manageable shelter each night.
Joshua had the third watch. Ji slept in Ashabi’s loose arms. It must have been uncomfortable for her. The little boy seemed content to be passed from one teenager to another through the night. Joshua wondered what the boy thought of being passed over to their care. Ji said little and spoke nothing of his mother. Matteo shot a small prowling predator off a branch in the depths of the night, startling Ashabi and Joshua. Ji did not stir. Joshua hoped rest and better food would revive his new responsibility. The future was still uncertain for all of them.
Ashabi opened her eyes as Joshua watched. She checked the boy on her lap and then smiled at Joshua. When she started to try and shift the little boy, he came over and helped settle Ji against Matteo. They danced around each other trying not to disturb the sleeping pair. Joshua retreated along a broad bough to give Ashabi space.
Ashabi checked the time on her wrist pad. It was mid morning local time. If they did not begin the day’s trek, they would not make much progress. The receiver’s reassuring signal indicated they had about fifty kilometres to travel. The geography ahead was uncertain. Each day seemed full of frustrating detours. She grabbed one of Matteo’s fruity breakfast bars to munch on and followed the branch out to Joshua. She sat snuggled up to him as she nibbled.
“I dream of finding part of the Báihč intact with a backup generator working.” Ashabi sighed. She offered Joshua a bite of her Jůmň bar. “I dream of bacon and eggs for breakfast, maybe some yogurt.”
“I’m not sure a Yóukč girl like you ever tasted real bacon and eggs. I have to admit the stuff the Báihč was indistinguishable to me, probably healthier too.” Joshua wrapped a free arm around Ashabi and hugged her. “We won’t get our hopes up. It’s a long shot Ash. The three of us, and now a little boy to worry about, I don’t know...” Joshua stopped abruptly. He did not finish what he was thinking. How long could they keep going like this? When would the planet finally get them? He should not say it aloud. Matteo and Ashabi relied on his strength and confidence.
Ashabi squeezed the reassuring arm holding her. She knew why he had stopped talking. She felt his chest rising and falling against her back. He had been too shy to talk to her in the first weeks after the lifeboat landed. His offers to help the older adults were hesitant. Joshua seemed content to wander away by himself away from the growing stress in the tight community of the lifeboat. When the curious troop of boys began following him, he was embarrassed. He seemed frightened of the violent men, blind to how they began treating Ashabi. She had not felt his loss.
Ashabi’s nightmare ended when improbably, Joshua walked back out of the forest five days later. He walked up to Ashabi and quietly urged her to join him. Death was growing attractive to her, so she agreed. Besides, beneath the veneer of calm assurance, Ashabi saw Joshua’s adolescent uncertainty. He was just a shy boy in her presence. He never asked anything of her. He was, as Ashabi had told Matteo that first night, the best man she had ever known.
“Hey sleepyhead, I think Josh and Ash are waiting to go.” Matteo gave Ji a little tickle. It actually brought a sleepy smile to the boy’s lips. Matteo grinned at his partners. He waited until he was sure Ji was awake before shifting away from him. Ji sat up and watched his new guardians as they began moving about the tree. A heavy rain began before they were packed and down on the ground. It continued for most of the day.
A broad meadow gave them a briefly unobstructed view of the path ahead. They realized they were heading toward an unbroken escarpment that rose hundreds of meters above the forest. Ashabi assured them that the Báihč lay somewhere beyond the barrier of red and grey stone. “We’re in for a climb guys.” Joshua concluded. They started across the clearing, mindful of predators.
“Hey Ji, What kind of tree can fit into your hand?” Matteo asked the boy. Ji’s arms were wrapped around his neck as Matteo carried him. The boy did not answer, so Matteo continued. “A palm tree.” He walked on between Joshua and Ashabi.
As they approached the line of trees, Ji blurted out, “What did the little tree say to the big tree?”
“I don’t know Ji, what did the little tree say to the big tree?”
“Leaf me alone!” Joshua stopped and looked back at them, startled. Then he smiled and resumed leading them back into the shadows and toward the challenging cliffs. Matteo smiled too. Those were Ji’s first words since leaving Baozhai by the stream.
Ashabi took the first watch beside the shallow pool while the three boys washed under a waterfall. The way up from the base of the escarpment finally looked promising. They had lost four critical days moving East along the cliffs trying different paths only to be disappointed at every turn. None of them had done any serious rock climbing. Roaming the forested plains around the lifeboat for seven months had left them unprepared for the vertical barrier.
There were six precious fire bombs left in her pack. Ashabi had used one to chase away another Horrible the night before. It had never faced human weapons until a Ashabi’s charged bolt hit it squarely between the eyes. Blinded, it had fallen off the branch. They could hear its screeching for hours as it stumbled blindly through the forest. Ashabi was grateful the creatures seemed rare.
Joshua was washing clothing on a rock as Matheo lathered Ji beside the sheet of cool falling water. Ji looked stronger, but the three of them worried about the difficult climb ahead. From her spot beside the pool, Ashabi could see up the steep cleft in the escarpment and out across the endless green ocean of the forest. The canopy was frothing with life. Flocks of multicolored fliers rose and fell across the horizon. Far in the distance, Ashabi could see the blue smudge of the ridge where Ji had joined them. She thought of the wrecked shuttle hidden somewhere near that ridge. Had it dropped off the stricken Báihč, or had someone she knew tried to land it? Ashabi would have liked to know very much.
It was a clear day and a fair view. Ashabi relaxed in the luxury of a view. Her life had been the confined corridors, micro parks and playing fields of the Báihč. The limited horizon of a forest bothered her less than it did Joshua. Even so, Yóukč boys and girls were expected to face the depths of space and when possible, go down to the planets. She liked the view.
Matteo had Ji chattering again. The little boy had mentioned his mother a few times over the last few days, generally he avoided talking about his life before joining their journey. He playfully avoided Matteo. Small legs kicked high as he splashed his way over to Joshua. Matteo caught him by the waist and carried him back under the waterfall. As they rinsed off, Joshua came to join her.
“Your turn Ash. I’ve got it covered.” She waited until he slipped his pants on and tied his shoes before stripping down to join the others. The water felt good. Matteo and Ji helped her soap and then they let her rinse herself off while they sunned themselves beside Joshua. It would have been nice if the lifeboat had come down in a spot like this, Ashabi reflected.
The passage up the escarpment remained manageable for a another hour. Twisted trees along the rocks on either side of the swiftly flowing water gave them a secure purchase as they climbed higher. They struggled on holding branch after branch, the smooth soles of shoes more suitable for the decks of a spaceship slipping in loose earth or glistening rocks. Joshua calculated they were three quarters of the way up the narrow gorge. With luck, they could reach the edge of the plateau before the cliffs but them in an early twilight.
Ji clung to his back like a monkey as he scrabbled along an increasingly steep and treacherous grade. His foot slipped away, he clutched at the wrong branch, it snapped and he started slithering toward the water. Ji’s arms reached up and he clamped onto a heavier bough. His thin legs wrapped around Joshua’s chest. It checked Joshua's descent momentarily, but the small boy did not have the strength to hold an eighteen year old. “Let me go Ji!” Joshua called out.
Joshua dug his toes into a crack and found a root just before Ji’s legs gave out. They ended with Ji hanging from the branch looking down at Joshua clinging to the rocks. Ji looked frightened, so Joshua grinned at him. “Get back on the ground kid. I'll be okay.” Ji nodded. The boy looked back at the thin trunk of the tree and swung back to safety. He watched as Ashabi and Matteo help Joshua up.
“This is the end I think. It's going to just get worse.” Matteo commented.
“There was a spot back a ways where we could probably jump over to the other side.” Joshua pointed up where a crevasse branched away from the thin torrent of water cutting its way into the red and grey rock of the escarpment. “We can fall back to that spot and I can scout ahead.”
They were reluctant to lose ground, but they worked their way back down to a broad rock. A gap of bit over two metres separated the two sides. “You stay here Josh, I’ll cross.” Joshua hesitated, and then agreed. Matteo dropped his weapons and pack. They gave him some room and watched as he leaped across. Josh tossed him an Iklwa and a flashlight when he asked for one. They settled down to rest as Matteo headed off on his own.
Matteo checked the angle of the sun and glanced up the steep grade. The passage along the river would be no better on this side. He used his Iklwa as a short staff to steady himself as he climbed back up to where the tight crevasse branched away at an angle. It was an even more dramatic incline till it reached a point where the rocks seemed to meet in the growing shadows. It looked discouraging to Matteo.
He worked his way up to the constriction and realized it might be still passable. He was studying it with his flashlight when the rain started. It was a short cloudburst, but it began a heavy flow at his feet. Matteo looked anxiously around for a safe place above the flood. There was nothing, so he resorted to walking up the wall on one side and bracing his back against the other. He perched that way as the rain soaked him and the water tore at the loose gravel and mud below his feet. The mud would make it that much harder to climb.
Exhausted, he finally dropped back down to the ground and immediately lost his footing. He slid back down five metres before he could stop himself. Matteo shook off his doubts and climbed back up to the constriction. Little Ji might make it easily through. Matteo turned sideways and began inching through the gap. He liked to think it was widening out.
Ashabi quizzed Ji about his life on Kano. Telling Ashabi about friends and play on the desiccated planet distracted Ji from thinking about the growing darkness there beside the falling water. Joshua strung a sheet over them when the rain started. They did not talk about Matteo out by himself. Finally, Ashabi turned on their light while Ji dozed off in Joshua’s arms. She sat beside Joshua and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I like Matteo.” She whispered sadly.
“I like him too Ash. He’s going to be okay, don't worry. Matt is a tough kid.” He slipped an arm around her while she brushed Ji’s hair out of his face with a light touch. They were all running out of time.
Matteo looked back at the narrow passage and the pipe he had negotiated. Somehow they would all get through it in the morning. He looked up the short distance to the trees. The last of the sunlight was dazzled his eyes as it glittered off the shimmering leaves. Before he turned back, he had to see the top. Weary from the long effort, he pushed onwards.
Matteo saw the glittering eyes before he reached the top. The piercing keening of the Frightfuls began as Matteo lifted his Iklwa and began backing down the grade. Matteo knew he had to keep his feet on the muddy slope. If he fell, he was finished. The Frightfuls followed him down. Matteo wanted to scream, instead he tried to spit at death. His mouth was too dry. Matteo stopped his backward slide and began to brandish the short spear. He grit his teeth and through his gibbering fear finally screamed the ancient battle call of his brother’s street gang, “Desperta Ferro!” Matteo stepped forward with his first two handed thrust down the lead Frightful’s throat.
The Frightfuls grew to respect the flashing blade. Matteo had picked his ground where the length of steel could reach from wall to wall. The beasts seemed everywhere, but only three could reach him. His thrusts were shallow. Matteo could not afford to lose his blade. He slashed at their eyes, the excruciating noise of their pain dizzying him. Animals fell away, others took their place. They pressed him back toward the crack and long fall through the pipe. Matteo’s arms grew tired. Muscles quivered. Matteo took a last step back as the slashing claws and stretching muzzle of a Frightful rose up to challenge him. He was just a lost boy screaming his rage and fear before the final clash.
Ashabi shivered despite the warm night air. Joshua and Ji slept close by. She did not wake Joshua when she heard the screaming. Joshua would want to race off into the dark searching for Matteo. She rocked back and forth gently grieving. Alone in the night, it all seemed so hopeless. She brushed the tears away. What could they do but continue on to the Báihč. Her family had died during the attack, on the fiery descent through the atmosphere and somewhere in this endless forest. Joshua and Matteo were all she had left. Part of her wanted to be back in the lifeboat lying between her men. Facing the Horrible together and feeling the ecstasy of victory in their arms. They had all felt invincible. “Matt, where are you?” Ashabi whispered into the night. The tumbling water swallowed her words.
The looked out over the forest far below. Somewhere among the twinkling lights above, the Yóukč plied their great ships carrying humanity about its business. Somewhere closer, a mysterious enemy might still be hunting for them all. Fresh tears flowed and Ashabi turned her face away from the sky. Matteo was out there somewhere.
She noticed the light playing over the rocks across the river. It grew stronger and became a bright spot, and then suddenly, it was a friendly cone of light casting just enough light to reveal a limping figure. Ashabi sprang to her feet and leaped across the gap without a thought. She ran up to Matteo and pressed her lips to his. He grunted in pain, so she quickly stepped back. “Oh Matt, are you hurt?”
Matteo swayed on his feet. She began running her hands over his body, noting each tear in his durable clothing. More damage to his leg, a light brush across his crotch to reassure her, then to the wet gash on his side. He flinched at that. “Sorry,” Ashabi cupped his face gently and kissed him again. “What happened?”
“Frightfuls.” Matteo said replied simply. “I found the way up Ash.” He sank to his knees and fell onto his side. Ashabi screamed over to Joshua.
Matteo was too weak to cross back over the gap. Ashabi shifted their camp across to the other side of the gorge while Joshua tended to Matteo’s wounds. Ji was a distraction, but Ashabi was drained. It was all too much. Life was fragile. She had memorized every ripple and curve of Joshua’s terrible scars even as she tried to erase the memory of the Horror’s raking claw dragging Joshua back down the tree. She still had visions of Matteo lying under the claws of the Horror in the lifeboat doorway. Now he lay naked as Joshua stapled his wounds with the last of their medical supplies. There would be nothing left for next time. Ji kept asking her plaintively if Matteo would be okay. She hugged him a bit too tight, not knowing if she could speak. She needed it to end, but it seemed it never would.
The forest on the plateau above the escarpment felt cooler. Far above their heads, the peaks of the trees danced in the wind. The companions had reached the remains of Matteo’s battle with the pack only to discover two more steps of weathered rock challenged their way. The familiar Bowl Trees gave way to dark groves of souring broad needled trees, reminiscent of the umbrella shaped stone pines propagated across human space. Joshua and Ji christened them Shǒushů, hand trees, because the curving trunks were suspended above their heads by six or more splayed anchoring roots.
As they hiked, they encountered erratic boulders and smaller debris. One rock, a metre tall, had crashed into a tree near its roots, shearing the trunk cleanly. Matteo wondered about it aloud. Ashabi said nothing. Further on, she paused to examine a rock half buried in the soil. “We won’t need the direction finder soon,” She remarked absently. “All these rocks came from the direction of the crash site.” She moved on and her dread grew.
They moved through a temperate rain forest heavy with dew, fine mists, and periods of steady rain. Visibility was often poor. It seemed to put them all on edge. Matteo limped along with his rifle gripped ready in his hands. When he spoke, it was in loud bursts. Ji was unsettled by Matteo’s nervous mood and began avoiding him. Joshua worried. Ashabi trailed behind, silent and detached. She spoke to them all from some self imposed distance. Joshua did his best to keep them all going.
The trek from lifeboat to crash sight was taking far longer than their most pessimistic calculations. The supply of life sustaining Jůmň Bars was dwindling. Joshua did the math as he walked. Three days left. They had packed enough for an emergency return journey. Joshua glanced at Ji walking with a new spring in his step. The shadow of starvation was fading from his sunken features, thanks to centuries of practical bioengineering in food science, but Ji had cost them their food security. Thirteen days of travelling in a fluctuating path towards the uncertain salvation of the Báihč, let it only be three days more, Joshua touched his heart with two fingers and prayed to the Gaia of the universe. Ji caught his gesture and smiled up at him.
They paused beneath the dry, outstretched palm of a great Shǒushů. A thin drizzle found its way through the tight canopy saturating the the deadfall around the tree. Joshua had to set the campfire with a careful measure of their napalm. The intense heat ignited the resins in the wet deadfall. When he was satisfied with the fire and Ashabi and Ji brought in enough wood, he turned to his companions. “I saw some fresh droppings. I’m going to see if I can find something to cook tonight.” This was met with silence. Matteo was exhausted. Ashabi had an expression he could not read. Joshua decided they both needed a rest. He held his hand out for the quiver and bow Ji had been carrying for him.
“I’ll come with you.”
Joshua quelled the automatic rejection. Ashabi, drying herself close to the fire had shut her eyes. Matteo slumped against a root, gun resting on his shoulder, eyes shifting about. Neither seemed inclined to care for the boy. Joshua buried his anxiety and smiled agreement at Ji.
They backtracked to the game trail Joshua had noticed and after he studied the ground. They followed the tracks of a small herd of Red Roasters. Joshua saw signs of rooting as they went. Ji and he paused to dig a few of the heavy yam-like tubers the animals missed. The plant’s starch, like the meat he hoped to shoot, would help sustain them. He signalled his approval with a few hand gestures when Ji brought him a trophy. After correcting the boy’s reply, Joshua signalled they should continue.
Near a massive deadfall that had ripped a hole in the forest canopy, Ji tugged at Joshua’s shirt and pointed up into the branches off to the left. Joshua followed his pointed finger and saw nothing. He looked back at Ji, who whispered, “Animals.” Joshua searched the underside of the canopy near where Ji had directed his attention. He caught a movement. Three unfamiliar animals moved along an outstretched branch. They leaped across to the next tree in turns before pausing to look back to where Joshua and Ji had stopped. They were unfamiliar and the distance was chancy. Joshua was reluctant to waste a bolt trying to bring one down. The creatures were unfamiliar meat. He signalled Ji to keep an eye on the three creatures in case they were predators.
The creatures in the trees were distracting as Joshua and Ji carefully crept closer to the animals tearing at the riot of fronds capitalizing on the sunlight around the deadfall. Ji pointed out that the three camouflaged tree dwellers were now shadowing their hunt. The largest appeared to be smaller than Ji. The other two were smaller yet and all three seemed harmless, so Joshua concentrated on the Red Roasters he could now hear chirping softly as they rooted for food. After seven months, the game around the lifeboat had grown wary of the humans. Game on the plateau was still oblivious to his approach. When Joshua thought about it later, he realized this was another discouraging sign that the four travellers were alone in the vastness.
Ji tugged his shirt again. Joshua swung his ready crossbow to the left automatically, poised to shoot. Their three shadows sat close at hand watching the small herd of animals below them. As Joshua sighted his bow on the largest creature, it turned its head slowly to look down on him. Joshua searched his memory for an elusive connection. He looks like a four-armed feathered chimpanzee, he realized. There was something about the way the creature stared at Joshua with an almost human face that stopped his finger. He lowered his crossbow slowly and then swung it back on the herd. Before he stepped closer, he glanced back at their observers. The two small ones had moved closer to the prey below, the large third still watched him. It cocked its head as if in thought. Joshua smiled and mirrored the head gesture.
The Red Roasters might not have recognized the danger of human scent, but they understood the scent of blood very well. When Joshua’s bolt smashed into a plump young male, the herd matriarch screamed a command and the remainder of her herd scattered in the general direction she bolted. There were some sharp trills from the tree above.
Ji squatted beside Joshua watching as he efficiently dressed the kill. Joshua noticed the three were still watching when he finished. On an impulse, he took his short handled axe and split the carcass. Half a Roaster and the tubers should be enough to help them on their way. Ji and Joshua left the other half beside the coils of organs and grey entrails. Ji turned for one last look. One of the creatures had dropped to the ground beside their offering, he shared this with Joshua as they followed the trail back to their companions.
Matteo shifted his rifle to his lap and tried to ease the tension in his shoulders. His leg and side throbbed from the strain of walking. He wanted one of Joshua’s mind numbing leaves to chew. Perhaps it would drive the fear away with the pain. He shifted nervously. Joshua and Ji had been gone for a long time. It was his turn. Matteo thought uncharitably. He knew his resentment was unfair. Joshua would have explored the escarpment in his stead, if he had not offered. Matteo shivered, suddenly back in the nightmare battle. There had only been two Frightfuls lying at the opening to the pipe when they finally worked their way back up the next day. Matteo had counted four or five as he slashed desperately. Now he walked in fear that the rest would return to finish the job.
The fire was dying, so he tossed a few large branches into its center before retreating back to the safety of the root. Ashabi opened her eyes and watched him blankly. After her passionate kiss, she had ignored him. They sat across the fire staring at each other until she closed her eyes again. Matteo mourned. How had they all lost the confidence they shared after defeating the Horror? Matteo wanted to close his eyes and rest, but he did not trust Ashabi to watch for the returning Frightful pack. He was certain the Frightfuls would get him the next time. The teenager counted his weapons, imagining how he would draw on each one when the time came. He sat alternately staring at the fire and Ashabi’s face, rehearsing his battle moves endlessly.
Ashabi did not want Matteo’s attention. She felt like she was simply waiting for the end. They were all going to die here in the forest, just like her mother. How far had her mother gotten? Ashabi wondered. Had her mother made it to the Báihč only to find there was nothing left? It was so unfair, she was Yóukč. Yóukč died in the vastness between the stars, not on balls of mud fighting wild animals. You’re Yóukč, Ashabi. We are taught our death comes when it will come, and often when we are alone. Snap out of it girl. But for some reason, she could not. Matteo was watching her again. He was hurting, she could tell, Joshua was worried. The thought of their comforting strength. They’re your partners, the voice of her mother scolded again. She was not ready to listen. She was sorry they stopped to make a fire and search for food. She just needed the agonizing journey to end.
Matteo abruptly slipped onto one knee with his rifle aimed into the forest mist. His tension brought Ashabi out of her lethargy. She cast about for her crossbow and Iklwa. Ashabi was fitting a firebomb to the end of her bolt when Ji ran out of the mist. Joshua’s voice called out softly behind him. “Don't run Ji, always greet them so they know it's safe to let you in.”
Ji stopped abruptly. He turned back. “Sorry Josh, I'll remember next time.” He came toward the fire carrying Joshua’s Iklwa on his shoulder. “Josh shot a Red Roaster and I dug up some potatoes!” He looked from Matteo to Ashabi. Their grim looks deflated him. He wandered near the fire dejectedly until Joshua patted his shoulder. Ji gave Matteo a sad look and turned to help Josh prepare the food.
“We should keep moving. There's still plenty of day left.” Ashabi watched impatiently. She needed to know what happened to the Báihč.
“It just twenty-one kilometres Ash. The going has been easy, but we need a good meal.” Joshua answered patiently. “Bags?” He added to nobody in particular. Ji brought him their reusable foil bags. “You can do it Ji.” The boy proudly pulled out the short knife Joshua had given him. Joshua watched Ji open the clasp knife blade and begin to carefully slice the fleshy tubers. Satisfied, he turned to the Red Roaster.
Joshua added a slice of fat to each bag as Ji filled them with slices. After watching them with a frown, Ashabi huffed and rummaged in a pack for her spices.She ignored Ji’s broad grin when she offered the plastic bag. He tossed the sealed bags into the heart of the fire.
“He had a knife Josh.” Ji was watching Joshua flip bags around in the coals. Ji flipped a near one with his own stick. Joshua disagreed. Ji nodded emphatically. “He had a belt. There was something long stuck in the back of the belt. I’m absolutely sure Josh! What should we name them?”
Joshua paused to think. “Those might be the only ones we ever see. So many animals need names on this world.” He murmured to himself.
“They need a good name.” Ji insisted.
“Why a chip?” Ji was puzzled. Joshua described chimpanzees and explained the interplanetary efforts to resurrect humanity’s closest relative from virtual extinction. Joshua’s home planet had one of the Terra Sanctuary island continents set aside for resurrected species. It was hard to say how genuine the animal populations were. Some scientists argued the chimpanzee population had been genetically modified in the past.
Matteo asked what they were talking about as he took his dinner from Joshua. Like Joshua, he dismissed the boy’s observations. There had been many creatures in the crowns of the forest. Small shapes flinging themselves from branch to branch, all six legs in elegant motion. Matteo almost sounded like his old cheerful self as he teased Ji about his tree people.
They moved on when the food had cooked and packed away. The brief thaw between the companions cooled as they walked single file through the forest. Matteo took the direction finder and led them along a swiftly running stream. Joshua guarded at the back. Ji tried a few jokes with Matteo as he walked. As Ji tired, he fell silent. When the boy stumbled on a root, Joshua offered to carry the crossbow bolts and awkward Iklwa. Ji shook his head stubbornly.
Ashabi was walking mindlessly in Matteo’s footsteps when a trio of urgent trills broke out in the forest behind them. She froze at the unfamiliar and oddly complex music. Matteo turned in front of her and his eyes grew wide. At Ji’s first scream, Ashabi twisted around.
Four Frightfuls stood twenty meters or more along their trail. Joshua stood his ground and tried a long shot that sent a shaft between the first beast’s fighting claws. It turned away but the remaining three began loping toward them. Joshua calmly called for a fresh bolt. He bent to lever the wire back in a blinding motion. Ji was sobbing loudly and shaking like a leaf. He convulsively grabbed a bolt from the bag on his shoulder and stretched it out toward Joshua. “Josh, Josh.” Ji screamed.
Joshua reached a hand back and Ji pressed the bolt into his palm. As the bolt passed from his grip, Ji reached out as if to hold onto the young man. “Spear.” Ji scrambled for the Iklwa he had dropped. The lead Frightful was metres from Joshua when he checked its progress with his second bolt.
“Spear!” Ji screamed back to Joshua and held the shaking Iklwa ready for him with both hands. Joshua dropped the empty crossbow and in a fluid motion caught the spear, brought it up, and drove it into the lunging killer. The dying Frightful’s fighting claws tore into Joshua’s shoulders weakly and its razor teeth sank into his shoulder. “No daddy!” Ji wailed as he watched Joshua go down.
It had all happened in seconds. Ashabi pulled her eyes away from Joshua and focused on the next Frightful. It had checked its charge when Joshua took down the leader. Now it was keening to its remaining partner as it swung wide. Matteo stepped past Ashabi, rifle raised. He fired a burst into the Frightful draped across Joshua’s prone body. It shuddered once as it died. The rifle’s report sent the forest around them into motion and alarmed cries as a multitude of fliers lifted into the air. Ashabi was guiltily pulling her forgotten crossbow free when Matteo shot the animal she was watching. They turned together and fired into the remaining Frightful at the same. It stood stunned by the slug in its side, then crumpled to the ground when Ashabi’s bolt found its belated mark.
The forest fell silent again, except for Ji’s hysterical sobs. Matteo noticed the first animal still limping in crazy circles. He walked back along their trail, rifle ready, no longer afraid. He noticed the terrible wounds on its muzzle where his blade had slashed it. The animal looked up at Matteo and snarled. He dropped it with single shot. The last report echoed through the forest wakening memories in the stunned audience above him. Relief cleansed Matteo. He turned back to where Joshua lay and shame replaced fear.
Ashabi grabbed a handful of the Frightful pressing down on Joshua. She could not shift it by herself. “Matt, come help.” Ji was still sobbing uncontrollably, but Ashabi did not have any words to console him. She reached over and grabbed the front running leg. With a grunt, she managed to twist the Frightful off her companion.
“Oh Josh.” She moaned looking down. Joshua’s shoulder was bleeding. She knelt down beside him and lay a trembling hand on his chest. It rose and fell reassuringly. “Ji,” Ashabi thrust out a hand to the boy. She smiled through a screen of tears. “Come here, see? He's okay.” Ji stepped hesitantly closer, eyes wide. She took a hand and pulled him close. He fell beside her. When Joshua’s eyelids flickered, Ji collapsed across Joshua without a word, clutching at his blood stained shirt, thin shoulders heaving.
“Ash?” Matteo asked fearfully from behind her.
“He looks okay Matt. I think he’s going to be okay.”
Matteo sank down on one knee beside her and looked at Joshua. “Sorry Josh.” Matteo choked out. “I am so sorry I’ve...” Joshua lifted a hand to wave off all apologies. The hand dropped on Ji’s back.
“Gaia, we are still a team, that's all.” Joshua laughed softly. He peered down at Ji. “Hey Ji,” He waited till the boy’s tear stained face lifted. “You did good partner, thanks.”
Bashful and Left Hands went before him chattering excitedly among themselves. Thinker was slower. He had the heavy carcass the maimed female had left for them slung across his back. Before they reached the rookery, Thinker called them to a halt. The youngsters were bursting with their discovery. Thinker felt old beside them. He let them stutter out their ideas for a time. Left Hands asked Thinker if he agreed with him on some meaningless point. It was a chance to finally speak. “They are a new thing in the world. You saw the way the giant yellow breasted female threw the small dart that killed this Mud Eater.” Thinker slapped the carcass on his back. “She felled two of the pack with that thing.”
“What evil spirits did the bigger of the two males call into that noisy spear?” Left Hands interrupted nervously. “He took the spirits from them all with a sound that wasn’t thunder. The lightening was unseen. It... it reminded me of the spirit thunder last year, but there were no flames.” Left Hands and Bashful automatically made the sign of respect at the mention of fire. Thinker kept his peace and Bashful, who admired the older male, waited respectfully for him to continue.
“Listen children, these animals are a magic out of our knowing. Nothing like them has been seen in the forest.” Which Thinker knew was not true, but he kept this to himself. “Say nothing of what we have seen to anyone. You have no Mana young people.” As unattached males, the two youngsters lacked prestige or means to influence the dominant females. “It is for me to approach the Matriarch. The Matriarch will decide what must be done. This is female knowledge, not male. Do you understand?”
The young ones agreed solemnly. They carried on through the treetops and before long the rookeries were all around them. Hatchlings warbled in the branches under the watchful eyes of older males. Left Hands was distracted by a posse of young males courting the attentions of an adolescent female. Bashful and Thinker were left alone.
“You’re not going to tell the Matriarch are you.” Bashful looked up at Thinker.
“Father no! Her entourage would beat me to death if I tried.” There was more to this. Thinker did not want to bring the troops of the colony down on these exciting animals. The yellow breasted female’s eyes had been so like his own. Animal was not the right word to describe them. Thinker picked through his swirling thoughts. They were not Devas, powerful spirits of the forest. Divas would have no need to kill for food. A pack of Swift Runners would not hunt Divas. The new creatures were incomprehensible, but full of possibility, mused Thinker. Mana flows from that yellow female like a river.
“But you are going to tell Defiant aren't you?” The laughter in Bashful’s tone brought Thinker back from his musings. Thinker stroked the soft down on Bashful’s chin. They had bonded years ago when the shy young hatchling had finally gathered his courage, sprang out of the rookery and into Thinker’s waiting arms. Bashful was too big to carry now, but the love between them remained.
“Yes, but not right away.” It did not surprise him when Bashful tagged along. The colony was a bluff of seven rookeries scattered amidst two dozen trees. Narrow wicker paths and an endless web of fibrous cables connected the trees of the different troops together. Thinker followed the main concourse till he reached the path he wanted.
He paused before swinging into Tinker’s bower. Tinker was weaving a basket as he rocked himself absently in a hammock. The three armed male did not look up. “What brings you here Thinker? Are you planning to leave that lovely meat with me?”
“I've come for a story.”
“I'm Tinker, not Poet.” The burly male looked up. Half his face was torn away like his right arm. The single eye winked kindly at him. Thinker jumped from the door to a nearby perch. He fingered a cluster of finely ground bone points, remembering the deadly spear with a blade that glittered like still water in the sunlight.
“Tell me the story about the maimed ones, the two armed Divas with hide like tree slugs.”
Tinker looked at him for a long time. “You are bored and have come to laugh.”
“I won't laugh. I won't call you a liar.” Thinker emphasized his words with the sacred gesture of truth. Tinker looked over at Bashful. The youth’s eyes were bright with excitement and curiosity.
“You have a story to tell yourself, perhaps.” Tinker went back to weaving his basket.
“Perhaps,” conceded Thinker. “The sun came out of a night sky and hammered the forest. We were afraid, I remember. It was only a year ago. Then the sun hammered the forest again.”
“Yes, it was worse because the sun blinded us, the wind knocked the rookeries like a hand sweeping casting bones from the house.” Bashful added. He stumbled to a halt aware that the older males were looking at him. Tinker returned to his basket. After a pause, he took up the story where Thinker and Bashful had left off.
“I was hunting with White and Comes First toward the setting sun. The Maimed Ones were moving along a game trail below us...” The unbelievable tale unfolded quietly as Tinker’s clever fingers worked on. Thinker glanced a warning at Bashful to keep him quiet, then listened to the tale with ever growing excitement.
Defiant swung restlessly back and forth. The colony closed in on her these days. Too many females with greater Mana. She had yet to lay a single egg, so naturally they dismissed her. Her iridescent scarlet breast feathers shimmered and her crest lifted slightly. Her attentive entourage trilled appreciatively. The horny males scattered when she dropped off the branch and charged them.
An unwelcome older male caught her attention. She savaged him with her fists and backhanded him. The stunned male fell off the platform. She glared at the other males and moved back to her perch. Venting left her feeling better. Maker eyed her speculatively and that simply exasperated her further. He understood her almost better than Thinker did. The male she had probably just killed might have successfully challenged Thinker. Maker knew she would not allow that. Thinker came first and Maker came second. The remainder of her small entourage was mostly just for status, not that she was afforded much of that in the colony. She spared a glance at the clutch of adolescent males and sighed. From their behaviour, her display had simply aroused them further.
Hasty had wisely retreated to a high perch. Defiant bristled at her, then dropped the pretense. Hasty was two years younger, just newly fertile. She was a pretty little thing, barely a head taller than the newly adolescent males beginning to sniff around her. Soon enough she would begin accepting her own entourage. Some instinct warned Defiant to groom Hasty as her first ally. In the venomous female world of the people, allies were essential.
Thinker dropped onto the platform with more self assurance than a person his size should exhibit, and a lowly male at that. Even by male standards, Thinker was slight. No doubt the other females laughed at her choice of a paramount male. Behind him, his child Bashful lived up to his name and scurried up a line to join the other hopefuls pining after Hasty. Thinker exposed himself politely to her and then ostentatiously sat examining the sharp nails of his strong arms with the more delicate making arms.
Thinker had not moved to join Maker and the remainder of her entourage, and by the way one head trembled, he needed to talk to her desperately. She waved him over. At full height, Thinker’s head reached only to her strong arms. He offered her the fresh meat. She waved a male over and waited until he took the meat away. Once they were alone she gestured for Thinker to begin.
When Thinker finished recounting the yellow-breasted female’s hunt, Defiant stopped him. She called Hasty down and gestured Maker over. Thinker had to start his story over. “You must see them Defiant.” Thinker advised passionately when he was finished. Defiant fondled him affectionately, arousing him slightly and letting some of her Mana flow into him. This was exactly why she favoured him. He was Thinker. “Left Hands was with us. He couldn't find the Maimed Ones in the forest even if they left a trail of dead pack hunters and a few Sure Deaths for good measure. I'm not sure that hatchling can find his own organ yet. But Left Hands is going to tell some female and this will get to the Matriarch. This is your chance Defiant.”
Defiant and Hasty exchanged a long look. The younger female waved two arms in agreement. There was little preparation necessary. As night came to the forest, both females and their entourages had vanished unnoticed into the forest.
“This is all we need.” Matteo remarked bitterly. He put a hand on the large grazer’s flank. “It's a fresh kill, Josh.” Ashabi said nothing. She simply pulled the bag of firebombs around where it would be handy. Joshua was wandering around looking for signs. He traced the parallel grooves carved into the dead animal’s flesh. They matched the ones on his back.
“What do you have left Matt?”
“Two clips.” Matteo replied bleakly. “They are not going to stop a Horror anyway.” He checked the rifle and then exchanged it for his crossbow. “We all use bombs.” Matteo noticed Ji staring around. “Hey Ji,” he called. “Which side of the tree has the most leaves?”
“The outside.” Ji’s voice quavered in reply. He looked around for Joshua, shifted the weight of the Iklwa on his shoulder, and took his place at Joshua’s side.
Joshua pulled the boy against him as he scanned the forest floor. “It's daytime and it looks like it just fed, Ji. Don't worry, even if it's hungry, it will probably come right back here.” Even so, Joshua took a bomb from Ashabi and fitted it to his bolt. He checked the direction finder to orient himself. “Let's keep moving.”
They moved quickly away from the kill. The way led up a perceptible grade under the ubiquitous Shǒushů. The ground around was increasingly strewn with debris from the great impact somewhere close at hand. Tree tops were sheared away and fallen trees ominously pointed their way forward. It was still dry, but the sunlight filtering down to the ground failed to cheer them as they walked forward into the growing devastation. Joshua picked a tree with good sight lines and they paused for a break. Ashabi took a look at the receiver. “Tomorrow.” She kissed the receiver and carefully tucked it away. “One more day.” She reassured herself. It felt like they had been travelling for months.
Defiant watched the approaching Maimed Ones. They were all giants, except for the small one Thinker thought might be a young adolescent. They moved easily on their feet in a way her kind would not. Despite their superficial resemblance to people, they made no use of the trees. Their tools were incomprehensible. They did not cower like beasts of prey. Their Mana must be vast, she mused.
Maker swung onto her branch bumping into her. His apology was sketchy at best. “A Sure Death is nearby. It will cross their trail before long if we can't turn it.” Defiant made a gesture of frustration. Thinker was not easily impressed, yet she knew he was awed by the Mana of the yellow female and the way these creatures dealt out death. There was so much to learn here, how sad if it should end like the other troop of Maimed Ones Thinker had told her about.
“Bring Tinker to me.” Maker jumped away again. “Where is Hasty?” Defiant asked herself.
Bashful and the other young males tried to keep up with Hasty as she swooped and ran through the crowns. She deftly shifted her spear from hand to hand as she flew along. It was exhilarating running free through the forest with her own entourage chasing after her. The strange creatures were nearby and she wanted to get closer.
Farther back on the trail Thinker hissed his frustration. The Sure Death had caught the Maimed One’s scent. Curious, it had started up the path with an easy lope. The Maimed Ones had heeded his warning the first time. With the Sure Death bearing down on them, his only hope was warning them again.
“There’s danger coming friends!” Thinker screamed out. The Sure Death paused at his cry and searched around for its source, then it moved on. Thinker launched himself after the predator. His fellows took up the call. Their voices filled the forest. “A Sure Death is on your trail. Go to the trees! Danger is coming friends, we cannot help you!”
Bashful understood first. He took up Thinker’s warning as he swung after Hasty. Despite the new danger, his heart was bursting with male pride as he followed his female. He landed on the branch above Hasty, the branch shuddering repeatedly as his fellows quickly joining him. The Maimed Ones were directly below them now, turned back toward the approaching death.
“It will be okay Ji, be ready when we need you.” Joshua’s voice was tranquil, anchoring his companions. “We've done this before guys. Let it get close.” The forest canopy was still filled with musical warbles and trills.
“Wait to see if she turns. It's our best chance. If she turns, we paint the bitch’s side.” Ashabi advised her men. “You got that last bomb ready for me Ji?” She glanced back at the boy. He nodded, showing her the last fire bolt in his fist. “You're awesome kid.” Ji smiled back weakly. Matteo warned her that the Horror was in site. She turned back. It was time to play chicken with the devil.
Defiant watched it all play out from her high perch. There was the tall female, standing between her males,all three holding the mystifying weapons. The little one stood behind holding the shining spear Thinker tried to describe. She could sense the Mana flowing out of the female, steadying her entourage. The Sure Death was as confused by the unfamiliar prey as she was. The shouts of her entourage distracted the killer too. Suddenly, Thinker dropped to the forest floor and yelled a challenge at the Sure Death. He cast his spear at the Sure Death and bound across the forest floor toward safety. The idiot, thought Defiant anxiously.
The Sure Death turned toward the scampering Thinker, and then Defiant almost lost her balance on the tree branch at what happened next. The powerful animal simply burst into flames. Defiant cried in fear and amazement. Her surprise was echoed in the trees by the watching people. As she gazed on, the Sure Death twisted itself into knots. It's agonized cry sent shivers through Defiant. It defied belief that these creatures could throw the sacred fire at their enemies. Their Mana was beyond belief. A small male stepped forward, clearly aiming his magic weapon at the tormented animal. The weapon fired and this time she thought she understood the gourd as it sprang away from the male’s weapon. The gourd shattered across the Sure Death’s face. The gaping mouth shrieked fresh agony. Blinded, the dying animal began a staggered run directly at its tormentors. The four amazing creatures scattered at its approach, the female scooping the little one up as she moved to safety. After the Sure Death had passed, they gathered together again making loud excited noises and slapping palms against each other’s palms.
Defiant was stunned. Maker and Tinker landed on a nearby branch. This helped her regain her composure. She took stock of the situation. The Maimed Ones were grouped together, weapons held high. It came to her that her entourage was chattering anxiously about Hasty. Just beyond the Maimed Ones, Hasty lay on the ground, the young Bashful stood guarding her body, brandishing his spear in one hand, his bone knife in another. He was shouting dire threats at the Maimed Ones as his making arms waved about frantically. Males are such brave fools. Defiant sighed.
Joshua scanned the trees above listening to the fresh chorus of articulate warbling. The diminutive male continued his strident trills as he stretched upward. He seemed no danger to them, merely anxious for the brilliantly coloured female behind him. “For Gaia’s sake, don’t shoot that little bastard.” He warned his companions.
“Christ no,” Matteo assured him. “That’s the second time they warned us of danger.” Nevertheless, Matteo handed his crossbow to Ji and held the rifle ready. They were uncertain how to proceed.
Ji slung the crossbow over his shoulder and ran a few paces toward the angry chimp. He stopped and turned his head. “I told you the chips had knives!” He pointed at the frantic male.
“Ji, be careful. He doesn’t know what to think of you.” Ashabi warned. Ji cocked his head and set his hands on his hips. He stared at the little brown male fascinated by the fluid movement of the creature’s four arms. He stepped back, startled when another female dropped from the tree above. She towered over the little male, though she was shorter than Ji. Feeling uncertain, Ji retreated to his place beside Joshua.
The female paced over to her prone sister, eyes following the human’s movements. Satisfied with what she found, she circled around to where the little male now stood uncertainly glancing between the prone female and the group of humans. They watched her gently caress the male’s head and then proceed to cuff him lightly across the chest with her powerful middle arm. The small male’s weapons went flying and he tumbled head over heals backward into the smaller female he had been trying to protect.
“I think we’re looking at a pair of kids.” Ashabi observed. “Look at her, she is magnificent.” The female faced them, supporting her weight on one of her long arms. Then she dropped the short spear and stretched up to her full height, four arms stretched open, her chest a blaze of crimson feathers. “Aren’t you just the proud one.” Ashabi laughed.
“What did you call them Ji?” Matteo asked.
“Chips.” Joshua corrected him. “Okay, they are Chimps.” Behind the large female, three small males dropped to the ground. Screened by the female, they began fussing over the sister. She had gathered her bold protector into her lap as if he was a child. She was not pleased with the newcomers, so with an imperious gesture, she sent them to collect the male’s weapons. He nuzzled her red chest feathers as she favoured him.
“The hero gets his reward I guess.” Matteo laughed. “Chimp is not good enough for her Josh. She’s the four armed goddess. She is Kali.” The name was perfect.
Joshua looked at Kali. She was straining to stay erect, he could tell. Her legs were not built for this. “Ashabi, she wants to talk to you.”
“Think about it a moment Josh. You’re the obvious female in our group.” He handed his crossbow to Ji and strode toward Kali with his arms outstretched.
“You know Josh, you are probably accepting a challenge for unarmed combat to the death with her.” Matteo laughed.
Josh followed a hunch and sat down a few metres away from the large female. He folded his legs and waited to see what she would do.
Defiant sank down gratefully. The large female had courteously joined her, but how meaning could be conveyed between them eluded her. The Mana flowed between them now. She remembered her ally and called Hasty to join her.
Hasty pried Bashful free, dismissing his obvious bliss with smug satisfaction. Mana had passed from her to him and now Bashful came first in her entourage. She stood before the ugly female and gave the sign of peace, just as Defiant had. The female sketched a reply of her own. Hasty had to be satisfied with that, and sat a polite distance from Defiant. Defiant was senior, but it did not hurt to remind the other two that she was a partner here.
Joshua called back to the others to join them. It was a risk, but they had no real idea how many of these creatures there were. The three teenagers had nothing left in their bag of tricks. Joshua reminded Matteo and Ashabi to leave their weapons at a safe distance. They joined him on the damp ground cover. Kali chirped sharply. Before long males began congregating around their females. “She is going to be pissed when she finds out you're a lowly male Josh.” Joshua smiled at Matteo.
Defiant grabbed Thinker by the throat and pinned him to the ground in front of her. “You fool! What were you thinking? That Sure Death would have taken you easily.” He shrugged apologetically, his eyes dancing with delight at her obvious concern. She let him up and brushed a hand down his chest to show her affection. As a command, Thinker sat slightly behind her, he started considering the strangers.
They were chatting in their way among themselves. The little one was as noisy as the other three, more interesting, they listened to the hatchling. The little one stood up and Thinker realized it was removing the loose layer of skin like a crawler on a sun baked rock. It was not skin, of course. The creatures covered themselves in hide like a fire mage protecting her hands.
The little one was a male. Strange as they were, they shared that in common. To make it clearer, the little male pointed at the various members of both entourage’s. He ended with Hasty and Defiant. The little male pointed at Hasty and moved its head sideways back and forth slowly. Then he pointed at Bashful and slowly tilted his featherless face forward and back.
“Spirit of the forest, he is saying yes and no with his head!” Thinker exclaimed. “It is just as we do. The hatchling bobs its head to accept food, and turns it away to avoid what it does not want.” He was pleased with his discovery. “With your permission Defiant?” She nodded.
Thinker pointed at a male beside the the female, pointed at himself and nodded. The naked male nodded quickly. Thinker tried the other small male, but this brought a firm no. At first, he thought he might be wrong about the head gestures. “The black feathered one is female it seems.” Defiant contributed. Thinker nodded agreement. He looked at the big one in the middle and he suddenly felt uncertain. The yellow one pointed at him, then to the little naked male. It bared its teeth and nodded. “And I've been sitting here paying my respects to a male, wonderful.” Hasty laughed at Defiant’s loss of face.
Joshua imagined Kali’s discomfort. He told everyone to switch places. As the females and their entourage looked on with growing comprehension they kept moving about each other. Ji giggled as he switched laps. Finally Ji scrambled to the centre and sat puffing his thin chest out. Joshua scooped him up playfully and slapped his bum lightly. Joshua told Ashabi to sit in the middle. He sat beside her cuddling Ji.
“The hatchling has the least status, they want us to know they share status equally.” Hasty offered to Defiant. Her instinct to ally with the older adolescent was richly rewarded. The little male was pulling its extra skin on again.
“How can that be?” Bashful wondered aloud.
“It never is. Status may change as we acquire or share Mana. One is always the Matriarch.” Defiant indicated the towering male. “This one leads. It is clear. At a word and wave of his hand the female took the centre. A courteous male it seems.”
“Should we kill them while they are unarmed?” Hasty pondered. The question panicked Thinker.
“Ladies, I beg you not to do that.” It was Tinker. When Defiant gave him permission, he continued. “What would you get?” The old male reached into his sack and pulled two objects free. He threw them on the ground before the females. I found these with the dead Mangled Ones half a year ago. The blade is a treasure beyond compare. How could you calculate the Mana it contains?” Hasty picked up the long knife and examined it. There were cries of loud noise from the strangers.
“But this other thing. The magic is gone out of it, but when I found it in their camp it was a living thing. Look see how agitated they are? They know this thing.” Tinker sat between the groups.
“Kill them and we will lose their Mana.” Thinker said forcefully. Killing the strangers was a disaster that must be averted. “So what if they are not of our forest? We are people and have our way that is in harmony with the eternal forest.” Thinker pointed at the Yellow One. “Their harmony is different from ours, but our voices might mingle together. Associate with them and their Mana will flow into all of us.”
“A knife like this is a useful tool. Knowing how to make it is even more useful.” Tinker added. Maker asked if he might see the knife and after that it went from hand to hand. Males cut themselves to test its edge. It was a reminder to Defiant that association would be a two bladed knife.
Defiant came to a decision. “Maimed Ones is a poor name.” There were too many bizarre features to hang a name on. She looked at Thinker.
“Travellers.” He answered quietly. Thinker pointed to the one in yellow. “This one is Blade.” He could still see the tall male reaching back for the spear and thrusting it fearlessly into his enemy. “The hatchling is Little Blade. He stood beside his father bravely with his spear.”
“What do we call the other male?” Hasty asked.
Thinker paused, “His name is Thunder.” Thinker remembered the dreadful power of the stick. The name Death was in his mind, but that would be unlucky.
The Traveller female had reached out for the box. Tinker handed to her.
“What would you call the female, Thinker?” Hasty could see why Defiant favoured the slender little male.
Thinker answered quickly, “She is female, Hasty. It is not for me to name her.” Defiant stroked his back gently and he tingled at her approval. They were all adolescents, free from the oppression of the elders back at the colony. It was more than a moon’s lark in the forest. They were free.
They watched the Traveller female play with the odd object and then it came to life with light and a burst of noise. She handed it back to Tinker. Water flowed down her face, Blade and Thunder consoled their female.
Matteo and Ashabi pressed ahead through the devastation created by Báihč’s final moments. The soundest Shǒushů trees stood with shredded branches. Everything else had been scoured away by the impact. A year or more later and the ash and charred remains still dominated the landscape. Ashabi had packed the receiver away. Every fallen log seemed a sign pointing to their destination.
Ji walked with the pair part of the time but preferred to fall back to where Joshua lagged with the struggling Kali males. The forest people shadowed them as best they could, preferring to move through the trees rather than walk beside Joshua and Ji. There were only three males accompanying them now. When the trees failed them, they gamely joined Joshua for a hike. Both males burned with frustration. There was so much to exchange and not enough common ground for even the trust and goodwill that had grown between them.
The night before, the humans had camped beneath a Shǒushů early. It was their last night, the four companions were certain. The forest people scattered into two groups in the tree above. They came down when they noticed the flickering light of the fire. Figures mingled together warbling in their complicated tongue watching from the shadows. A male broke free of the group and slowly came toward a gap in the roots. Kali and the other female Mateo called Princess called out to the male. Kali was particularly agitated.
Thinker turned back toward his mistress exasperated. “Yes, fire is female magic Defiant. I will not pollute myself! This is a Traveller fire, the males sit close, protected by the Mana of their female. Her Mana will protect me too.”
“Stop trying to be so clever Thinker, you spin silly arguments like a weaver decorating a basket just to get your way with me.” Defiant scolded. She snapped her mouth shut. Her anxiety was too obvious. She watched the indispensable little male move closer to the Travellers.
Matteo nudged Joshua. “Look, Shiva is here.”
“Shiva?” Joshua quizzed Matteo. He looked around and recognized the sand coloured male with distinctive rusty eye stripes.
Matteo laughed. “He’s Kali’s consort. He’s always nearest to her anyway. So I called him Shiva.” Joshua pointed out that the largest female seemed to have four or five consorts. So did the little female. “Aren’t you jealous Ashabi?” Matteo quipped.
“You wish Matt.” The joking brought her momentarily out of her depression. Her answers were waiting for her out there in the night. Matteo moved to sit beside her and she accepted a comforting arm around her shoulder.
Thinker’s fascination with the fire was interrupted by the image of Thunder putting his mouth against the female’s. They froze that way, arms around each other. Sex or food exchange? How could he possibly know. Blade was waving an arm at him. Thinker copied the gesture with his making hand and Blade came over. Thinker realized it was yet another piece to the language puzzle.
They sat beside each other in silence, absorbed the flames, until Kali warbled something to Shiva. The male replied, and reluctantly returned to his mate. Joshua watched him go, thinking about how less lonely the forest world seemed since the coming of the little people. He called to Ashabi and asked her to join him.
Defiant watched the female approach with her impossibly big male behind. Perhaps she is very young and he full grown. She might grow larger yet. But Defiant did not think so. It was just part of the strangeness that had come into the forest. The female sat before her as Blade touched Thinker’s shoulder to draw him away. Thinker watched Blade stoop to collect wood. Soon all the males were about the forest collecting wet deadfall. They stopped at Defiant’s command, and guessing what was coming, she chased the males away and into the trees. Blade faded back toward the Traveller’s fire.
Hasty and Defiant watched as the Traveller female prepared the magic cone of tinder. She pulled a glittering stick from somewhere and held it in her palm where the two females could see it. Pale fingers pointed to a black burl on the side of the stick. She tapped one side firmly, then held the stick between them. The Traveller female touched them each, they do that so casually! She exaggerated pressing the black burl and fire erupted from its tip. Defiant was impressed. She was more impressed when the Traveller let them each try the magic. The fire would not start. The wood was too wet of course. Defiant and Hasty could have warned her of that. The traveller poured a few drips of sticky dark tree sap on the tinder, then set her magic to it. It flared impressively and the watching males became excited. “Her name is Flame, Hasty. Let’s call her Flame.” Flame offered the Traveller magic to Defiant.
They sat before their very first fire. The older females of the colony would never have let two adolescents sit so close. “Defiant, this is amazing. Where will this take us? Males will flock to you now.” Their entourage came down at their call. Defiant let the males share in the magic of fire with them. The small fire became a towering column of flame as the males fed it. Defiant saw Thinker with Blade. She called for him. When he came to her, she threw the slender male beneath her, pinning his arms. Defiant felt his sap flood her as the waves of heat buffeted her feathers. Her entourage waited in their mindless male frenzy for her attention.
“You started an orgy Ash.” Matt commented ryly.
“Yes, and like typical boys the other males aren’t patient enough to wait for the girl.” She replied acerbically. But like Joshua, the company of the little forest people comforted her.
“Four hands,” Matteo giggled to Joshua. The eighteen year old merely grunted.
The next morning, Defiant reluctantly parted with Thinker. The devastation ahead did not look promising. He would scout for her, along with Tinker and one of Hasty’s males. She sent Maker and Bashful back to the colony. Young unattached males and some hatchlings would be useful now. The two males were to avoid drawing the attention of the Matriarch, her powerful sisters and their dominant males. It was time to be out from under their thumbs. Flame had given her a glittering long knife as a parting gift. Mana was flowing in already, perhaps there would be eggs soon.
Joshua struggled over the last of the rocks to the rim. Shiva and the other males found it easier with their extra hands and toes. The three forest people paused at the top. When Joshua reached the top, he saw why they had stopped. They stood on the rim of a vast crater perhaps three kilometres across. He counted seven breaks in the rim where water from the surrounding forest cascaded down to the floor of the crater. Despite the steady drizzle from the low slung cloud cover above their heads, the lake glittered. Joshua’s heart sank. There in the middle of the spreading lake lay the fractured remains of the Báihč.
Joshua was stunned. Báihč had been immense when Joshua first saw it. It was a city, a small ring world all in itself. He never imagined it could be obliterated. All that remained was unrecognizable fragments slowly vanishing below the lake. With it, went the last of their hopes. Shiva was warbling to his companions. Joshua had no idea how to explain all this to his alien friend. Matteo sat farther on beside Ashabi, with Ji. Joshua went to join them.
“Ash, we will...” Matteo was saying weakly, then he simply stopped. What could they tell to each other? All their hopes, their only chance at life was lost. It was too much to absorb.
“Their all dead.” Ashabi’s voice was dull. “They distracted the bastards from our lifeboats, brought brought her into the atmosphere where she couldn’t go, hoping to help us. So the bastards dropped a rock on them.” She stood up. Suddenly, Ashabi was raging hysterically. Matteo tried to hold her, but she simply started hammering at him with her fists. “What the fuck were they anyway? Where did they come from and how did we hurt them? I don't understand.”
Matteo wrapped her tight in his arms. She started sobbing on his shoulder. “I don't know Ash, it doesn't make sense, I know. The three of us will survive. Maybe something down there can be salvaged.”
“Where’s the signal coming from?” Joshua asked suddenly.
Ashabi broke away from Matteo and flung her arm out at the lake below. “It's there somewhere! We're practically standing on top of it!”
Joshua went to Ashabi’s pack and rummaged for the receiver. The others ignored him. Ji had gone up to sit with Shiva. Matteo was lost in the bleak future. Joshua checked the location.
“Ash, it's not here. The signal is still three kilometres away.”
“Of course it is Josh, what wasn't blown off in space, vaporized in the entry or by the damn KEW, pulverized into the rock here,” Ashabi had to pause for breath. She sobbed and squeezed her arms around her chest. “Báihč is probably scattered for kilometres in every direction.”
“If you were the captain, what would you have done?” Joshua asked. He was studying the lake. It just seemed like there should be more there.
“I'm just a kid Josh. Mom was in systems engineering, not command crew. How am I supposed to know?” Ashabi snapped back.
“You know guys, we didn't see one piece of her along the way. The shuttle by that ridge where we picked up Ji maybe, lots of rocks in the forest, not one scrap of the Báihč.” Matteo scratched his head.
“What would the captain do?” Joshua demanded.
Ashabi sat down and looked into lake. After a moment she answered quietly. “I'd separate from the promenade ring, staterooms, and cargo bays and drop Báihč’s central quarterdeck down quickly to distract them. Hope my enemy would followed the big ring and ignored the quarterdeck core.” She sighed. “They hit the quarterdeck anyway.”
“So maybe Báihč’s ring is three kilometres away at the signal.” Joshua reasoned.
“They probably dropped a rock on it too.” Matteo suggested bitterly.
“Let's go see.” Joshua insisted. When they would not move, he simply picked up his pack and started walking along the rim of the crater. Ji noticed, and ran to catch up with him.
“Thinker, this place is death for us. There are no trees to climb. If a Sure Death catches us out here in the open, we die. What if a pack...” Thinker silenced Hasty’s nervous male with a wave. The youth was right though. Thinker was frightened too.
He turned to Tinker. “Is that what the Travellers were looking for?”
The old male looked at the wasteland about them. It had all been forest once. “The sun came down right here. It was their rookery I think. Flame was very loud just now. She is not happy.”
“This will not make Hasty happy. What are we going to tell them when we return?” The youth complained.
Flame and Thunder had gathered their things and begun to follow Blade. Thinker’s legs ached from all the walking. He winced as he stood up. He leaned heavily on his knuckles. “Blade is not done walking yet. I think he wants to see what is on the other side of where the sun landed.” He turned to his companions. “When Sure Death shows up, greet her for me.” He started off after the Travellers knowing his companions would not be far behind.
Joshua walked on stubbornly. He was supposed to be on Tantric by now, finally roaming the streets of a new planet, finally an adult and beginning his new life. That was what he had wanted since he was twelve. Then he realized life on a ship like the Báihč might be even more exciting. It seemed he could not give up looking for her. He needed something of the Báihč to be there for his friends. He needed there to be something for him too.
Matteo and Ashabi finally caught up with Joshua and Ji. It had been a two hour walk according to her wristband. They were sitting together looking down into the crater lake chatting together while they waited for everyone. Ashabi stopped in front of him. Ji giggled until Joshua elbowed him. “Go look Ash. Tell me what you see.”
Ashabi would not give in to hope. It was better to learn to live loss and disappointment. She climbed up the short slope to the crest of the crater. Ji giggled again and hope slipped in the cracks.
“Thank you God.” Whispered Matteo when he joined her.
“What do you think Ash? Joshua doesn't have a clue.” Ji bounced in front of her.
Báihč’s keel ring lay something over a kilometre away. What could she say from this distance? They were looking down and from this angle it seemed a miracle the hulk had not slid completely into the vast ocean behind it. Ashabi shook her head sadly, “God knows, most of the bays on the southern side probably burned off in the atmosphere. The rest of the southern bays must have scraped off or gotten crushed as she hit the ground. The equator is on the ground on this side of her.” Ashabi’s voice was getting giddy as she talked on. The release was painful and she could not stop the tears. “They blew off half the ship, I knew that before we evacuated.” She added in a rush. “God she is tough. The setting is still on the keel ring. It's facing away toward the water. I can't say.” Ashabi started crying. She tried to stop, but it just got worse.
“Mom, is it bad?” Ji looked so worried, Ashabi fell down and crushed him with her arms. She kissed his smudged face all over.
“Oh no baby, it's good, it's very good.”
“This is their rookery? Is it filled with more Travellers?”
“All good questions child.” Tinker squatted beside Thinker, glad to be off his feet, but dismayed to see the distance yet to walk. “I don't know about you two, but I'm going to cut over to the trees there and head down like a proper person. These Travellers like walking too much.”
“It frightens me. How can such magic be good?” The young male shuffled uneasily. “Are we going there without the protection of our females?”
“Defiant will want to know the answers to your questions. We have to stay with them till we know more.” Thinker replied. Not being able to talk with Blade was driving him crazy. He wanted to know about the hole in the forest. He wanted to know if there were other Travellers nearby. Someone needed to go back. He could not let this frightened hatchling return with his bad magic nonsense.
“I need to try and talk to Blade right now, before they start down to their rookery. Stay here until I do. Then Tinker, swing around all this mess. Find our people and bring them safely here. The forest looks good down there.” Tinker nodded agreement.
“Who could imagine that much water. It isn't natural.” The youth wined.
“It's just a big lake, Frightened. There is an answer for every mystery and so many possibilities here.”
“My name is not Frightened.” He replied indignantly. Tinker suggested kindly that he prove it.
Joshua sat facing Shiva. They had started the hike down to the Báihč, but Shiva had stood in his way. After dancing with each other for a moment, the clever male simply sat down. He punched the soft ground and drew a circle nearby. Shiva pointed to one and then the other. After that, he waived all four arms around in a very human frustration. Joshua sat down across from him and the others gathered around. Where to begin? There were too many unfamiliar ideas to explain. Joshua knew next to nothing about Shiva’s people. They stared at each other.
Tell me the story Blade. The Traveller cast about the bare ground for something, finally he pulled his sack off and searched for something. A carving Maker would admire greatly. It was very much like a wooden bracelet one male might give a special friend to wear on festival occasions as they danced together in the rookery. Blade pointed at the Traveller’s rookery behind Thinker. “Your rookery.” Thinker nodded understanding to Blade.
Blade popped out a flattened ball in the middle of his wood ring. He held it in the palm of his hand. “I don't understand.” Thinker shook his head slowly.
“Your heart Joshua, maybe that will make sense to him.”
Blade caught a making hand and drew it to his chest. Thinker was baffled for a time, but he was a skilled hunter. His sensitive palm felt the steady beat within. “The hearts!” He nodded understanding. He touched the ball in Blade’s palm and touched his chest with two fingers. Blade bared his teeth, which Thinker was beginning to suspect meant something.
Blade asked Little Blade to go fetch something because the hatchling scampered on his long legs all around. Thinker marveled at his speed on the ground. Little Blade returned with two branches. He stabbed each one into the ground. “Rookeries, trees, forests?” Joshua put the two pieces of his rookery charm back together. He gathered the travellers together and after a conference, they huddled close to Blade.
“They are together in their rookery.” Tinker contributed. Frightened and he had joined the audience. Blade stooped to touch the wooded rookery on a tree branch. The huddled Travellers shuffled close together following the small object around in circles. “What are they saying to us now?” Finally, Blade turned toward the other branch. At a sharp word, Little Blade pulled out his knife and made stabbing motions at the wooden charm.
“Little Blade began to harm the rookery?” Frightened asked confused.
“Some other.” Thinker said in disgust. Bashful needed to manipulate Hasty into killing this one. He was insufferable. “Their troop was attacked by other Traveler people.”
Blade had paused to make sure he still had an audience. When he had Thinker’s attention, the pantomime continued. The other travelers stepped away from Blade. He slowly brought the model down to the ground. Little Blade resumed stabbing at it as it fell. The heart popped out and Blade placed it in the center of the hole Thinker had punched. The bracelet landed on his ring. Thinker was focused on the bracelet when Thunder dropped a clod of dirt on the heart. He ground it angrily in with his skin covered foot. Thinker was mesmerized. “The rookery broke in two. Two suns fell, Tinker. The second stopped the heart.” Blade looked at him steadily until Thinker gave a short nod. He looked at the bracelet thinking about the bead. “But an animal has two hearts.” He tapped the bead with a strong arm and placed a finger on each of his hearts with his making hands. When he looked at Blade, his Traveler friend bared his teeth again and nodded. Blade bent and carefully dug up the other part of his charm. He put the pieces together and handed them to Thinker.
Thinker passed the charm on to Tinker. “Go to Defiant, tell her their story. Beg her to come to me with our people.” Thinker gestured at Frightened and on tired legs they limped off after the Travelers.