Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Hours later, Hilosh stood at the mouth of a recently unsealed tunnel while the elevator platform shrieked metallically as it hauled the bore machine and its load up to the surface. They said that it may have been in this very tunnel that the cursed black pearl had been found, or perhaps one of the adjacent ones. Either way, it seemed like today was not the day they would find anther one, but soon perhaps. As he watched the cargo shuttle take off in the direction of the orbital transfer facility, Hilosh permitted himself, for the first time since arriving at the mine, to believe that there was hope buried somewhere within these rocks.
“Hilosh?” His mask radio crackled to life with the sound of Viri’s voice.
“I hear you.”
“You, uh, better come up to comms.” What fresh hell could the meteorologist have cooked up to torment him with now?
“Are you serious, Viri? I’ve got an extraction operation I need to supervise.”
“Yarmar is already on her way.” Naturally, one of them had to have been contacted first; he just wished it would be him for once.
“Alright, I’ll be right up.”
He was hoping to at least catch up with Yarmar before reaching Viri, but she likely had a head start and he could only move so fast without attracting the attention a supervisor hastily leaving a worksite would garner. By the time he had taken off his gear, the whole time thinking ahead to when had to put it back on again and cursing Viri for his shortsightedness, and walked up several flights of stairs from the airlock to the comms room, he found Yarmar and Viri already huddled over a sector map display.
“What happened?” Hilosh asked.
“The Raire missed their check-in ping today,” Yarmar announced, turning away from the screen.
“That doesn’t seem too bad.” It was customary for supply ships to check in with their destinations on a daily basis to confirm schedules, though this was an Anthar Kai vessel and Thorians were no strangers to following rules and customs only when it suited them. “Is that them?” Hilosh gestured with his hand toward a slightly brighter blurry blip on the map.
“As far as I can tell, still moving and on schedule,” Viri confirmed.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well I didn’t think there was one,” Viri replied. “At first. And then I got curious and reached out to them, twice.”
“Not exactly.” Something about the shimmer in Viri’s eyes put a cold hard chill through the mass of flesh at the back of Hilosh’s head. “I think you guys need to hear this.”
At first, Hilosh appreciated the courtesy that the two of them at least waited for him to join up before diving into this next part, but when the message they received from the Raire actually played, Hilosh wished that they had instead neglected to include him, purged it from the system and let him blissfully go on about his day.
The recording opened with growling noises – five distinct voices, not quite animal, that prowled in the background. Then there was a clash of metal followed by yips and a whimper that rose above the other growls until a new voice spoke directly into the microphone. “Akir.” It sounded like it was on the verge of breaking, pulled up from such a deep bout of despair that it threatened to drag Hilosh down into it. “Akir?” It said again and Hilosh thought it sounded more like a question this time. “Akir? Akir. Akir!” The voice grew in urgency until cutting out and dropping the room into silence. Hilosh thought he could hear not only his own heartbeat but that of Viri and Yarmar as well.
Hilosh glanced at Yarmar and found her wide unreadable eyes affixed to the comms terminal.
“What was that?” Viri asked, searching the faces of his supervisors for answers.
“What is ‘akir’?” Hilosh asked and was surprised to find his voice come out as a hoarse whisper.
“Not ‘akir’,” Yarmar answered, “‘Akhir’. It’s Thorian.”
“Thorian?” Hilosh asked.
“Not Trade Thorian. Native Thorian. Means roughly ‘why am I?’”
“You know Native Thorian?” Suddenly the transmission they received had competition for being the oddest thing Hilosh heard that day.
“Enough to get by,” Yarmar answered without looking at him, then leaned in to replay the message from the moment the voice rose to be heard above the inexplicable growling in the background.
“Akhir? Akhir. Akhir!” The Thorian reached his agonizing crescendo to be rewound again and again by Yarmar. Hilosh heard Viri make a few laboured swallows and when Hilosh looked down he saw that Viri’s fingers had dug into the desk so hard he expected at any moment to hear Viri’s knuckles snap.
Yarmar played the recording back too far.
“What are those noises anyway? Some kind of animal?” Viri asked.
Animal, yes, in the strictest sense of the word, Hilosh suspected. “Let’s just turn it off,” he asked and Yarmar obliged. Her gaze softened and she took a full step back from the infernal comms terminal.
“Keep trying to contact them,” Yarmar instructed. “Every two hours. And if you get anything back, call us up before you even listen to it.”
Viri sagged noticeably and let out a small feeble breath. “Thank you.” He continued to sit, while his co-supervisors stood; all in silence.
Yet the Thorian’s final question and proclamation seemed to seep into the walls of the communications room and continued to play faintly into Hilosh’s eardrums.
“So what do we do now?” Viri broke the quiet, perhaps to escape the same ghostly echo.
Hilosh looked at Yarmar. “We work,” he said and she nodded in reply. “The ship is still on its way, and we have ore to move. When it gets here, that’s a problem we can deal with at the time.”
“I’m not going to lie to you.” Hilosh addressed his crew with no prior preamble, but had the whole room turn in his direction by the end of the sentence. “The next time we all see each other, we’re probably going to wish we were dead, but, you know, we won’t be, which is the important part.” Too many young faces here to laugh. “The Raire is about a day and a half out and I believe if we work at full burn from now until then, we should have a decent shipment ready. So we’re going to have all boots on the ground for this one, including Yarmar and myself. Oh, and except Viri. We need someone to keep an eye on things here and I don’t want him accidentally falling into a gorge when no one’s looking.”
This elicited a few chuckles from across the room and a nervous groan from the part-time meteorologist.
“So get your fill, suit up, and I’ll see you all out there in a bit.”
This could have gone worse, he thought. Oh well, the real test would be to see if by the time the Raire arrived, whether it would not be him that they would be tossing into the depths below.
For the first time in weeks, Hilosh suited up into his outdoor gear, which was limited to heavy duty boots, gloves, a thin insulating outer layer, and a respirator that required a change of filters every few hours rather than a dedicated air supply. Light gear made for lighter work, and Hilosh admitted that all things considered, a Dead Space world could have been far more grueling than this. Thankfully, he hadn’t needed to head out of the barracks too frequently, an advantage of his position and what some would consider his advanced age, which was a good thing, because Aler would not have approved of those rickety guardrails. Hilosh’s wife warned him that if he wasn’t coming back in one piece, he shouldn’t bother coming back at all.
When the doors of the airlock hissed open, Hilosh was hit with a cold he could immediately feel even through his insulating outer layer. The forceful wind made him glad even for the shabby guardrails. The ground under his feet vibrated with the workings of the bore machines that were emerging from their hiding holes. He switched his respirator’s comm channel to the one that received everyone’s chatter simultaneously at low volume, the kind of din that could drive someone mad but that he found oddly comforting. It allowed him to pretend that they were working in the open air with everyone freely hearing each other, to keep an eye on the general mood of the site, and to immediately be alerted to any emergencies. When he first told Yarmar about it, she laughed and said that only the chronically bored mind of an old man would be able to withstand such noise, but ended up adopting it anyway shortly afterward.
It was a short walk to the bridge slung across the width of the gorge, and his boots left fresh footprints in the fine white powder that covered the brown, almost raw-meat-coloured stone. It wasn’t snow, and looked very much like salt, but no one here had been brave enough to confirm if it was. Hilosh had worked at sites where there’d be plenty of volunteers. The staff turnover at those was incredibly inconvenient for a co-supervisor, with much unnecessary paperwork. Though even here, where a general undercurrent of common sense prevailed, accidents were not unheard of, and the only medical help around for lightyears was someone who cut their teeth on a ranch and likely fell into this side business when asked if there was anyone in the room who knew how to do their best to reattach a leg and didn’t botch it up too badly after volunteering.
His first task that day was to oversee the removal of their lowest rig, making sure none of the less experienced workers were crushed between the slowly moving machine and the walls of the bored tunnel. Glorified babysitting though it was – they only seemed to ever be crushed when no one was looking.
Hilosh walked lower down into the canyon along the metal steps that doubled back on each other in a zig-zag pattern and could swear they were creaking harder after the storm. Perhaps a detail he ought to omit from his next letter to Aler. Truth was, the stairs had been there for decades before him, possibly through worse weather, and they would be there for decades after he was gone.
Above him, and seeming that much further away when squeezed between the two edges of the cliff, was a murky sky that never revealed its true colours or shown them any glimpses of the sun. To his Vaparozh eyes, evolved on one of the brightest habitable worlds in the Known Reaches, it was an altogether murky affair. From what he knew, it was much like the sky had been over the Vaparozh homeworld – a planet that had been dying until a centuries-long exodus freed it from ninety percent of its inhabitants and allowed it to thrive again. Many Vaparozh, including Hilosh’s own ancestors settled on worlds on the fringes of Thorian space not fully claimed by the Empire and loosely managed by the Anthar Kai, only to find themselves seven hundred years later satisfying the last greedy gulp of the Empire during the War of the Last Gasp. And then hardly a generation would pass until the children – no, Hilosh stopped himself. The only children that mattered now, his only real responsibility, were the young workers he was coming to assist; the rest, anyone outside of this cold rock, were not relevant.
For a few moments after he’d woken up, Hilosh gave serious consideration to the possibility that he was dead. What else could have explained the doughy blanket of tranquility that he found himself wrapped in? Hilosh vaulted out of bed, nearly slamming his head into the shelves that overhung his cot and went straight to the window, where he found mostly darkness. It was nighttime on this inhospitable rock, but more importantly, the bolts of lightning were reduced to a few sparks glowing along the horizon. Any vestiges of remaining sleep left Hilosh and he marched out of his office, trailing behind plumes of fog from his warm breath in the frigid corridors and stairways of the barracks.
Stepping into the kitchen, he found Charosar already at work, with Yarmar offering herself as support.
“You knew about this and didn’t tell me?” Hilosh asked Yarmar who was checking on a steaming pot of something nutritious for a change.
“I figured you needed your sleep,” she answered unapologetically.
“Maybe you’re right. But don’t go spreading word, alright?”
“We’ll see,” she answered, closing the lid and moving to another pot.
“Should be ready in about a half hour,” Charosar declared as she leaned into a knife with the satisfaction of a professional who had been kept from her true passion by so many days of rehydrated ration packs. “Twenty if you want to lend a hand.”
Hilosh pulled off his fur-lined gloves and joined Yarmar at her side.
“I’ll give the call to wake up the crew in a few minutes,” Yarmar said. “Then after they had their fill, we’ll head straight out there.”
Hilosh nodded, slicing into a vegetable that had been frozen for far too long; nothing Vaparozh, so he never bothered to learn the name of it. As he toiled with Yarmar and Charosar over the hot pots and pans, for the first time in days he peeled off the outer layers of his clothing, revealing a frame the other two appeared to him to eye with some concern. It was what he always looked like, though, even in his youth when he’d have to finely adjust with his bare hands mining drills that weighed three times as much as he did. It was nice, for a change, not only to shed the fake skin of a shimchek, but some whole other person’s body type as well.
Once they were done, and the food was delivered, Hilosh and Yarmar split up to attend to their duties.
The crew hadn’t gotten a full night’s rest but with the food filling their bellies and the prospect of getting the job done, no one was complaining and the mood in the male mess hall was generally upbeat. Yarmar was across the door in the female mess hall – their crew was split about even, though she had all the Mraboran, and he figured the mood in there was a few degrees more cheerful than where he was. He never had the same way with words as she did, but in any case, it didn’t seem like they needed him much, as most of the crew was chatting away contently, with the notable exception of the Human, who sat in his own corner of the long table, trying to keep down the alien cuisine.
Hilosh knew his own prejudices weren’t helping Ayra Santosi none either, that he wasn’t being fair, drawing this kind of inexorable association between two completely random Humans, who likely never met and hadn’t even been aware of the other’s existence. It was hard, though – Humans hadn’t exactly become ubiquitous around these parts and Hilosh encountered so few it was easy to imagine them as part of a small cohesive group rather than a species that numbered in the billions, much like the Vaparozh themselves. Still, every time Hilosh looked at Santosi, he imagined the one that had come years before Santosi, brought to this forgotten corner of space as if intentionally to set off the chain of events that brought Hilosh there.
The turnover at this mining operation made it that there was no one on this rock left who had met her. Even the ownership of the facility had changed twice since she spent time here, guiding the bore machines, praying away the lightning storms, and freezing in her bunk between supply shipments, just like the rest of them, except for one small difference – somewhere in the dead lava tunnels that crisscrossed this once volcanically active world, she’d discovered a Drop. In the stories that were passed down about the glossy black sphere, its size varied greatly – anywhere from being barely large enough to power a surface-to-orbit shuttle to being suitable for a capital navy ship or a small lunar colony. The only things that were certain was that it did exist and that it was promptly pilfered, most likely by the same Human who found it, leaving nothing here but the promises of finding more. These were the promises sold to the next owner of the mine, and the next, and then to the corporation that Hilosh was working for, who then asked him, for the good of all Vaparozh, to volunteer for this post, not because he had some magic touch, but because everyone else was either too old and important or too young and full of promise. At least Yarmar was someone who could relate. She had a far more positive outlook, though, something he envied her for.
Just don’t look at Ayra Santosi, Hilosh told himself, focus on the others, and do what Yarmar would do, which, he acknowledged, was useless advice, as he was no Yarmar.
Hilosh sighed and let his eyes wander past the window and up the wall to the ceiling. Everything here was constructed from the same dull grey lightweight metal. No matter how many rugs, tapestries or blankets, shipped in by successive crews who tried to make the barracks more livable, were hung on the walls and covered the floor, it still felt like the inside of a can of salted fish. Between the rationing of water that made showers a scarce commodity and filled the living quarters with a briny aroma and the darkness of his office, he half-expected that when he turned his head he would find not Yarmar, but a bug-eyed scaly fish staring dumbly straight ahead.
Instead, it was just Yarmar; a whole generation younger than him, although, who wasn’t these days? She gazed out the window with such determination that he could almost believe that she could resolve this storm just by looking at it. Her wide violet eyes, not uncommon in their species, looked deep purple in this light, while his own pale blue ones appeared dim, as if someone had turned off the light behind an empty pane of glass. The light of the storm in general was not kind to their complexion, erasing the darker ringlets that mottled their earthen green skin leaving them looking like monotonous blots of ink, particularly where the mass of flesh that formed at the back of their skull and neck drooped over their shoulders, spilling down slightly over their chests. Despite all that, he was perfectly content to hole up in his metal cave. Yarmar was of course right though, he had to do for the men what she’d done for the women. It wasn’t their fault that they were stuck with him.
“If I go down and join the men to eat, how else would they know I’m working extra hard on their behalf by watching this blasted storm for hours on end? Probably know more about it than Viri at this point.”
“Well that’s good, we might need a replacement meteorologist soon,” Yarmar said.
“Because if the crew has to ration any harder, he’s first on the list to get eaten.”
Hilosh chuckled, dislodging something in his throat that made him cough. “You’re as dark as a Mraboran,” he said.
“Well I did work among them for years.”
“Right, that must be why they love you.” Rocks; rocks made a lot of sense to Hilosh. People, not so much. He liked to think he knew more about rocks than Yarmar, but if he did, it wasn’t nearly as much as she knew more about people than him.
“Oh, come now.” She paused, and he wished she hadn’t softened her voice. “They love you too.”
“Yeah, maybe how I’d taste.”
“See, easy habit to make, harder one to break.”
Hilosh let out a laugh that faded as his thoughts returned to the weather outside. His mind raced to find patterns and hypothesis. No lightning strikes for three seconds? That was a good sign up until the skies would unleash another volley that would jump from guardrail to guardrail down into the open pit. A patch of sky that grew lighter towards the horizon? That meant the storm was running out of steam. And then, a few minutes later, it would grow so dark Hilosh suspected the sun itself might have gone out while no one was watching. Everything in his head was the storm, and so he didn’t even hear when Yarmar took her exit from the office, leaving him with the only company he’d kept in days. A particularly bright flash struck the ground beneath his window.
Everything was good omens and bad omens and new omens he hadn’t yet ascribed any meaning to. None of them however slowed the approach of the Raire, or hurried up the storm, or transported all their mined ore to the transfer station in orbit. He remembered the words of his son, spoken with such disgust and embarrassment years earlier: “This is why we lost. This is why we’d been losing for centuries.” It wasn’t his words, of course, it was theirs, the Thorian educators in that fancy school of his. Hilosh thought it would give Rachek an advantage in the world. He was right, Rachek was doing well in the world, better than his father could have ever imagined himself doing, but it was still somehow the biggest mistake Hilosh had ever made. The second biggest had been agreeing to accept this position. Not having seen either of his kids in years, he figured he’d spend some if his later years in service to his people. And yet somehow it still felt like losing.
Yarmar once again was right, it was sleep that he needed instead of insisting on this window-side vigil. He’d need the right presence of mind to tell their crew that they needed to section off more parts of the barracks, that they’d be bunking in even closer quarters, and that despite all that, they’d still need to lower the temperature a couple of degrees.
In the corner of the office, there stood a cot, recessed underneath some shelves. It was one of the reasons that him and Yarmar had separate offices, since they slept in them too. He crawled underneath the thick rough blanket and, sticking his head inside until his breath sufficiently warmed him, fell asleep in minutes.
The fur coat kept the warmth in, but without the steaming tea, there would have been no warmth for it to contain. The fur, of course, was fake, they hadn’t harvested shimchek for their fur in centuries, but the coat did its job nonetheless. Vaiya tea was still around, except this was also not the real thing, and it was not doing its job. Yarmar had put together her own special recipe from the supplies they had available, and Hilosh supposed that if you heated it enough to scald your tongue, you could almost pretend it was distilled memories of the actual drink.
The view outside the darkened co-supervisor’s office was even more sorrowful, and made Hilosh feel cozy by comparison. The storm had entered its second week, lashing the canyon that was the base of their mining operation with piercing violet lightning while winds made everything in the workers’ barracks shiver and groan. The engineers assured him the structures could withstand a far worse beating. Then again, the geologist promised far more ore than what they’d been pulling up, and the meteorologist swore at the beginning that this storm would clear within three days. So Hilosh was in ample supply of assurances but with a dwindling amount of trust in them.
There was a hollow metallic knock on the door.
“Come in.” He didn’t need to ask who it was, knowing that it would be Yarmar, his co-supervisor, no doubt with some news he didn’t want to hear; otherwise, she wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing to leave him to his own somewhat unproductive way of coping with this adversity.
“It’s not going to go away just because you keep staring at it,” she said.
“It used to work with my kids.”
“Have you been sleeping?”
“Not recently,” and then after the pause that was filled by Yarmar’s sigh he added, “Besides, your vaiya tea has been keeping me up.”
“That tea is glorified bathwater and you know it.” She joined him by the window, looking down into the deep scar in the ground, the sheer rock faces punctured by mining caverns, some of which were plugged by drilling machines that had been tucked away from the worst of the weather. The War of the Last Gasp may have been celebrated across the Know Reaches for its blow to the Thorian Empire, the apparent signal that their time of dominance would soon be coming to an end, but forty years later, not only had that day not come, but forgotten in the allies’ victory were the Vaparozh. Hilosh and Yarmar’s people lost substantial territory at the end of the war, an unspoken compromise to have the Thorians admit defeat, which resulted in the resource crunch that chased their people to the inhospitable worlds of Dead Space, just like the rock Hilosh had now found himself on.
“Any end in sight?” Yarmar asked.
“None that I can see. Though Viri swears up and down that it’ll be another two days at most.”
“We might not have two days.” There it was, the reason she had come. “The Raire just radioed in and said they’re a couple of days out.”
“Great,” Hilosh said with what felt like the last bit of strength leaving his body.
“If this thing isn’t over by then …” She stopped herself, took the mug from his gloved hands, and took a sip of his vaiya tea. “Well, I don’t need to tell you.”
She hadn’t. Just like her, he’d been crunching the numbers the last couple of days. No one was crazy enough to fly shuttles in this weather, and even if the storm resolved itself, it would take time to collect the extracted ore for transport, and the crew of the Raire wasn’t exactly known for their patience. This far out into Dead Space, about a two-month freighter haul to the nearest breathable atmosphere, supply ships were life and they knew it. The Raire in particular was an Anthar Kai vessel, so would have little concern for the plight of lesser species. They’d stick around an extra half day, at most, and then they’d be gone, and not only would this complete an abysmal year of missed quotas, the crew would also have to ration until the next scheduled ship arrived. He wondered how much more he could lower the temperature before they chucked him down the chasm.
The crew were mostly Vaparozh, with a few Mraboran and Nabak, as well as one lonely Human, the first one to have stepped foot here since the Human that had started this whole mess for Hilosh in the first place.
“How’s the crew?” Hilosh asked. He hadn’t been out of his office in a few days, and in any case, Yarmar was always better with the whole lot of them than he was.
“You know how they are, they just want to work. Charosar has been talking about how she did four years on Rosha Chot’hagh without any work stoppages and this storm is nothing compared to what they have there.”
“Ha, I also spent time on Rosha Chot’hagh. Those storms are a gentle breeze compared to what’s out there right now. This place? Should have been shut down years ago if they asked me.”
“I take it no one asked you.”
“Nope. Just thought I’d have better luck finding another Drop down there.” A lightning bolt struck the top of a crane standing at the edge of the chasm. “I don’t know, I think my luck may have run out.”
“There’s always my luck, maybe it’ll rub off on you.” Yarmar jostled him shoulder-to-shoulder, yet Hilosh didn’t take his eyes off the storm or even crack a smile.
“You should at least join the men for dinner tonight,” Yarmar suggested.
When the Human that had hit her noticed she’d seen him, he straightened up and spread his arms, “Wassat, abom? Want sommore?” Despite it being a heavily accented version of StEC, she understood enough – “abom”, short for “abomination”, a catchall epithet for anyone not Human.
She scanned him for a weapon, and finding none figured she may have underestimated the power of a Human fist. Still, she wondered what a full-force open strike from a Mraboran would do to a Human face. Either from boldness or stupidity, he showed no fear as she approached him, arms hanging limply at her side, a pose that may have looked entirely harmless, even comical, to someone unfamiliar, but to any Mraboran who saw would have been an obvious sign that blood was about to be spilled. A Mraboran did see, though, and risked putting himself in the line of fire to pull Angzal away from the street.
“Don’t be daft,” Rzena hissed at her in Mraboran, though his speech was somewhat slurred, prompting the Humans to make crude meowling noises in mock imitation as the two of them retreated, shoving past the law enforcement officers and out of the suffocating strangle of the march. Here, the pedestrians thinned out quickly, and only two blocks later they felt safe enough to slow down.
“I can’t believe you were actually about to fight them,” Rzena said, annoyed, as if it was him who’d had to drag her half-conscious bug-eyed self over that bridge.
“Me!?” She whirled on him, considering for a moment that it hardly mattered which individual served as an outlet for her rage and wondered where the same fire had been when she had to drag him out of there all on her own. “They’re the ones that attacked us first.”
“A few glancing blows. You think that would have been enough to justify a Mraboran diplomat disemboweling a few non-consequential Humans? I can almost imagine the headlines back home. Or is it that you seriously don’t want to keep this job, do you?”
“Forget the job, I’d rather live.”
Looking into his eyes, the right squinting from the swelling on his brow, she took his impatient exasperated tone for what it was – gratitude that he could never express in so many words.
So she dropped it, and they continued to put distance between themselves and the protesters until their presence no longer caused that ripple in the air that Angzal picked up on when they had left the restaurant. Rzena walked with a slight limp that he looked to be trying to hide but couldn’t avoid, so Angzal made no mention of it. As for her own injury, she touched the back of her skull and realized quickly that unless she enjoyed the sensation of a hot needle stabbing through her head temple to temple, then she should probably not do that anymore. Angzal knew the prudent thing to do would be to get it checked out by a doctor, but she had no appetite for dealing with Human xenobiologists, and the one Mraboran clinic in town would not be open at this hour. She wondered if Rzena had walked himself through the same equations yet.
“How’s your head?” she asked.
Rzena put a hand to his brow and then studied his fingers. “Bleeding’s stopped.”
He chortled at that. “Yeah, I guess it is.” He touched it again, seemingly harder this time since he winced and like Angzal thought better of poking around again.
They were passing in front of the consulate offices. The only evidence that this was the starting point of tonight’s conflagration were an abundance of litter, a sign with a snapped handle tossed to the curb and several abandoned low metal fences, for posterity, to show that some effort to control the crowds had obviously been made.
“You think you’re going to get that checked out tonight?” Angzal motioned with her head to Rzena’s swollen brow that continued its advance over his eye.
“I’ll live,” he answered, and then with a shrug added, “probably.”
“Yeah, I’ve also seen enough Humans for one evening.” A rowdy group of locals stepped out of a nearby restaurant and onto the street. By all accounts, and Angzal knew this, they had nothing to do with the others, and were simply having a good time, not even paying any mind to the two Mraboran. Still, they both made the silent decision to cross the street and out of their path, walking at a pace that was uncomfortable for Rzena until their paths diverged a few minutes later and Angzal offered to see him to his door.
“Don’t bother,” he said, and there was a pang of something akin to sorrow in Angzal to hear him sound his age. It looked as if something else was dancing on the tip of his tongue, perhaps some kind of joke or comment he wanted to use to brush the whole series of events under the rug, clear the slate. Instead, all he said was “Good night” and turned to head home.
She waited for him to disappear behind a corner before going on her way.
For Angzal at least, any notion of home was still lightyears away. Nothing about her apartment suggested any sort of sanctuary and, given the throbbing that now ballooned where the Humans had struck her, even the possibility of lying on her back in her strange bed on this strange planet and staring up into a painfully boring white ceiling to put this whole day away was taken from her.
The sun had already set and an autumn chill settled over the street when they left the restaurant, not entirely having satisfied their ravenous evening appetites. Something new hung in the air. Angzal could sense it, unsure of what it could be, while Rzena seemed entirely oblivious. As they made their way back towards the consulate building, since both of them lived relatively close by, Rzena caught onto it too. The mood of the streets had shifted, and thumped with a different heartbeat. Even before they heard it – that rising tide of the noise of the crowd – they had already been walking on guard, ears perked up. Though neither of them spoke, both had the innate feeling that the other was tugged along by the same opposing forces – the threatening hum of a powerful confluence of voices and the desire to know what was happening, a flash of excitement on an otherwise dull planet.
Here and there they spied it through the breaks in the buildings, the press of people that sometimes flowed like a patient river, and sometimes churned in place with its tones at times hopeful, or frustrated, or even downright enraged. Keeping to its periphery, Angzal and Rzena found that between the crowd and the geography of the city, the way home had been effectively barred. And worse yet, keeping a few blocks away they found straggling pockets of individuals that have peeled off from the main group, and eyed the two of them in less than flattering ways. A choice was made to follow the crowd at a distance as far as they could and then cut through quickly while hopefully not attracting much attention.
They ran out of room when they reached one of the stumpy bridges across the river that separated the historic core from the new part of downtown. Here at least the road was wide enough to let the crowd thin out a bit, though it left the two of them with no options other than hurrying right through it.
Now that Angzal and Rzena were in it, they could see the crowd attracted every manner of Human, from pale beige to dark brown, as well as some Wintis, standing tall on those elongated toes like some kind of prey animal on the grasslands, and also some members of the Fusir – all Outer Rim Confederacy species, while Thorians and their fellow Mraboran were notably absent. Not everything that was shouted or chanted by the crowd was in Earth Standard Commercial, but the things that were, as well as the posters and placards carried down the streets of Malbur, explained this absence easily.
“Never really amounts to more than anything, huh?” Angzal asked, mostly in jest, and then seeing Rzena’s terrified face realized he was well out of reach of any attempts to lighten the mood, so she grabbed him by one of the leather straps that looped over his shoulder and dragged him at a conspicuous pace over the bridge.
She had figured that two fur-covered beings could only remain largely unseen for so long in a mess of mostly hairless beasts. They’d made it about halfway across the bridge before some of the shouting had definitely come to be directed at them, though the only phrase Angzal could identify was jeers of “Go home!” Before she even realized how it happened, she lost the grip on Rzena and he became separated from her by a wall of Human backs.
Later she would tell herself that there was no moment of hesitation, that her looking behind her shoulder towards the other side of the bridge and wondering how quickly she could make it there was her merely checking her surroundings. It didn’t matter, she would insist, because in the end, the result was the same – she stopped and grabbed at the shoulders of the Humans that stood between her and Rzena to get through the living barricade. She had a hard time of it on her own, but a rough shove to her back propelled her forward and she made the best of it, using the momentum to break through two bystanders. She found Rzena on his knees in the middle of an enclosed circle, shielding his head from one Human that stood over him.
Without wasting any more time, she grabbed Rzena under the arms and yanked him up, leading him out of a knot of people that seemed to be in somewhat of a disarray after suddenly finding another Mraboran in their midst. There were a few shouts of “hey!” behind them, as well as the sound of shattering glass on pavement which may or may not have had anything to do with them, though Angzal took no chances glancing back. As they were heading down the bridge, Rzena stumbled, and Angzal noticed the fur on his brow was matted with blood and his eyes were drifting every which way except the direction they were supposed to be going. For her part, Angzal thought of herself as a keel aimed in the straightest path down the road towards the other side of the river. Several Humans, some of whom looked more like curious passersby than active agitators, made the wrong choice to not get out of her way, and were elbowed sharply aside.
Once the bridge ended, all she had to do was pierce through the clot of people at each side of the road, hopefully not losing Rzena in the process. She picked a spot were several law enforcement officers were lined next to each other, assuming this would make for a safe exit as any.
Again the attack came from behind. This time, the pain was sharp, delivered to the base of her skull, and filled her ears with a dull ringing. Rzena had been ripped from her by the impact, and she herself went sprawling forward, coming to a sudden stop against one of the officers. He was a tall Human, arms crossed over a barrel chest that bulged from the armour, face constructed entirely of straight lines and right angles. Not even a hand had moved to help steady her, and his eyes had no interest in her assailant. Instead, they looked down at her in a cold hard way, drawing a line between them that couldn’t have been clearer. Under that gaze, the hotness in the back of her head swelled, blotting out any initial touch of fear that she may have experienced, and she pushed away from the officer, staring defiantly into the crowd, where the culprit wasn’t hard to spot, still doubled-over in laughter while his two friends egged him on.
Angzal stared off into a darkening window. “I couldn’t quite believe it when I got the call that I was appointed to this post. I’m the runt of my litter you know? One of my brothers works with my mother in the capital, another is an arbitrator on Kai Thori and my other brother and sister are also off-world. That just left me, sort of unaccounted for.”
“Still, an interstellar posting. Not bad for a runt.”
“Yes, as our esteemed Congressmember has already reminded me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to push it.”
Seeing the genuine concern in Rzena’s eyes and hearing an apology rather than his usual snark was far more disturbing than any moment of introspection could bring so she quickly waved him off.
“No, you both have a point. I knew the opportunities might be there if I pushed for them. So I threw myself into languages. Hatvan first, then near fluency in Standard Thorian, even though I knew Trade Thorian already.”
“You’ve certainly picked up their modesty.”
That’s more like it.
“Hey, I know what I’m good at and I’m not going to hide it.”
“And did it get you what you wanted?”
“In a way. Landed a position in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Living in the capital, off the estate, you know, thinking I’ve got independence. Mostly I was just carted in front of Thorian delegates who were amused by my fluency. A parlor trick without much substance. I thought maybe I’d have better luck with something more obscure. I’ve always found Nabak absolutely stunning so I learned their language in the hopes of being sent there but then the Insurrection hit and all hopes of that were pretty much dashed.”
“How very inconsiderate of them.”
“You know what I mean. So I decided to go really off the board, reach into some forgotten corner of civilization for my next challenge, and decided to study Standard Earth Commercial.” Angzal growled at that and Rzena gave a small snort. “Don’t know why I even bothered with StEC, given that anyone who’s anyone here knows Trade Thorian as well as anyone in the Known Reaches. Still, got me on some kind of consideration list somewhere because it wasn’t long before I was boarding a liner coming through from Vaparozh to take me almost as far away from home as possible within the Known Reaches.”
Their Human waiter, with skin a tan shade of brown so common to their species, Congressmember Reyes included, arrived to place their dessert orders and after-meal drinks before them. When it came to sugary snacks, Humans seemed to go all out, and she found the first few experiences unpalatably sweet for her Mraboran taste buds, though she continued to search for something she could more or less enjoy. Her experiment with coffee, on the other hand, was far more short-lived. After not sleeping for an entire night, she acquired a newfound fascination with the Human central nervous system, and vowed never to have another sip again. Either as a result of bravado, an aggressive commitment to assimilation, or the desire for an early grave, Rzena did not share the same predisposition and sat with his hands wrapped round a mug of the hot bitter drink.
“Do you know how excited I was when I thought I might get this position?” Angzal looked into her own steaming mug of chamomile tea.
“There are so many reasons why I can’t imagine.”
“I vowed to learn everything I could about their culture. I found a Human neighbourhood on Mrabr – oh yes, they have one now, though it’s teensy, barely two intersecting streets. I’d visit there daily, eat at every restaurant, try every dish they could cobble together from the available ingredients. I fell in love with chamomile tea, insisted they start growing chamomile at the estate. I think my mother suspected I was nuts, probably pulled some strings to make sure she could get me off-world for good. Somehow, at that point, there was no doubt in my mind this was going to be perfect for me.”
Rzena’s bemused look over his mug as he sipped his coffee prompted her to make a resigned sigh.
“The best part is? No one told me anything that could have set me straight. All I heard was ‘What a great career opportunity’ or ‘Such a nice opportunity to see the wider world’ and ‘An excellent stepping stone to advance your career’. I guess in hindsight that last one was a bit of a warning. But it wasn’t until I was on the ship taking me here that I had my first doubts. I was popped out of stasis about a week out from Earth, and went to the galley for some hot water for my chamomile tea, which, yes, I packed, let’s just move on from that, and found a lone Thorian sitting at a table.” Rzena made a little sound into his coffee and looked up at her as if to see if she was joking. “Oh yes, it was a very ‘god of the underworld disguises himself as a sly Thorian’ kind of vibe.”
“Tell me about it. He even said he was a poet, if you can believe it.”
“Since when do they have poets?” Rzena asked with a glassy glimmer coming over his eyes from the coffee, or perhaps she was imagining it based on her own experience with the foul drink.
“No idea, but whatever the reason he was on that ship, it wasn’t for leisure, that much was easy to tell. So this ‘Thorian’, you know, supposedly –”
“He tells me he’s got the actual inside scoop on these Humans.”
“Well, if there’s anyone who knows everything more than everyone, it’s Thorians.”
“Right? So he takes my newborn position and all the hopes that come with it and basically strangles it before it’s got a chance to take its first steps. He explains that Humans are difficult to work with – they’re unpredictable upstarts who hardly even know what they want and that they’re twitchy and panicky and whatever other colourful yet annoyingly accurate words he used. And it’s been like, a month now that I’ve spent among them and you know what I’ve realized?” Angzal took a small sip of her tea and set the cup down, rubbing with her fingers behind her ears. “This is just warm flower juice.”
She looked up at Rzena, who was regarding her with that air of misplaced superiority. “Seems to me at least you’re coming to your senses,” he said and then, lifting his own mug, “Soon you’ll realize that bean juice is clearly superior.” He held his cold expression for a few moments and then burst out laughing, dragging Angzal along with him.
When they left the building where the consulate was located, sunset was still over an hour away, but most of the heat had already drained out of the day. Beachgoers were largely replaced by leisurely strollers around the promenade, though the cluster of people gathered outside their front entrance seemed starkly less relaxed.
“Any idea what’s going on there?” Angzal asked Rzena, who seemed determined not to look in their direction.
“Oh, just Humans being Humans.”
“What do you mean?”
He crossed the street to put some distance between them and the small crowd.
“Every couple of months Humans find something to get really excited over. So some of them show up with their posters and slogans, and sometimes the local police have to keep them at bay, but after a couple of days they’re gone and everyone’s moved on. Bottom line is, ignore them. Eye contact is like gasoline to these people.”
When they were at what she considered a safe distance, Angzal threw a glance back at the protestors, trying to see if Reyes was among them. Or was this something she would be involved in behind the scenes, rather than on the frontlines?
Instead of familiar streets, Rzena led them to the historic district of downtown Malbur, where some of the ancient glass monolith towers that survived the Great Fire still stood. The rest of the denser city core was marked by large multi-terraced buildings with inner courtyards, green roofs and hanging gardens. Though Humans still built the occasional glossy spire to rise above these sprawling complexes, there was an austere sternness to the old giants which withstood millennia since Humanity’s first Space Age, as if they were vertical pools holding up a mirror to a darker time. Rzena explained that on other continents, historic city centres were often a thousand or even multiple thousands of years older than what could be found in Malbur, an age which would put them in much closer competition to the cities of Mrabr.
To Angzal’s surprise, the plazas nestled among the roots of the giants were full of quaint boutiques and eateries. Rzena found them a restaurant, all wooden tables and wooden partitions dividing the space for a more intimate meal, with a large aquarium in the foyer and part of the dining room, and a menu that naturally leaned towards offerings from the sea.
Initially, she was going to go for the more familiar Earth staple of a carnivore diet – a lightly roasted pâté made from crushed arthropods with small meat cubes for dipping. Rzena convinced her to make a more exotic selection, even if the dish involved some kind of grain, which was essentially grass, which was not really food, but food’s food.
When their dishes arrived, Angzal had to admit they looked appetizing, and Rzena explained to her that it was somewhat fortuitous that they even had the opportunity to order them, as many of Earth’s aquatic species were on the brink of extinction before the Great Fire, and when Humans rebuilt their civilization from the ashes of the old one, they approached the task in a far more respectful way to the planet than their ancestors had. Rzena was brimming with historical information about the local species and the hapless planet that had the misfortune to be their home, a curious accumulation of knowledge that Angzal remarked on.
Rzena made a noncommittal sound as he chewed his food. “Someone like me has a lot of time on their hands to travel and visit museums and read every single plaque I can get my eyes on. If I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, whatever that’s worth, I might as well get to know the place. I know some expats who’ve hardly spoken to anyone outside their own species. A huge waste, if you ask me.”
“Have you ever been back home?”
“You mean since I moved here? No. Considered a trip after the first couple of years but that idea died out so slowly I barely noticed. Between the cost, the length of travel and how much time it’s been and how much must’ve changed, feels like setting myself up for disappointment. None of my litter is back there anyway – my daughters are on other colonies and my son’s on the Vaparozh homeworld. Go figure.”
“Do any of your litter come to visit?”
“They used to, here and there. Earth isn’t exactly the kind of place you crave to visit more than once. My little one was here last, but that must have been … about six years ago now.” The look on Angzal’s face made him wave off her concern and continue. “They’re all grown now, two of them have litters of their own and one of them decided to keep going and find another mate. They’re busy, I get it. Doesn’t mean I like it. So ‘home’ for me is basically just this job – a series of tasks to be completed without much connection to any sort of real place.”
“And what happens when the job’s gone?”
“Ha! That’ll be the day they find some other idiot to fill my shoes. But I suppose I could retire to Guawana. They have a proper Mraboran community there. You can even score an agmari steak if you’re lucky.”
“True story. Even raimzau, too. If you’re ever over on that island, I’ll let you know where the good places are. Here, they’ve got two Hatvan nightclubs and a Thorian food court and they think they got themselves an interstellar city. There was an Iastret cabaret for a while, but that closed down. At least in those other cities, if you squint hard enough, you can pretend you’re almost near civilization.”
“Well it’s good to know not everywhere on Earth is as bleak as this.”
“Ah don’t let me get your hopes up, it’s a far cry from what you’re used to. Still, I’ve spent almost twenty years in this city, but I’d sooner retire to be closer to our kind than be neck deep in Humans all day.”
A low growl escaped the back of Angzal’s throat and prompted Rzena to laugh. “They are a trying bunch, aren’t they?” he asked.
Twice over the course of that conversation the Ambassador referred to Angzal by the formal address “Angzal gan Mreniyaur”. The feelings that the first such instance had stirred were buried by the discussion that followed, but the Ambassador’s inclusion of Angzal’s full name as she bid what could generously be described as her “farewell” dredged them up again. A Mraboran’s full name came from their litter, which was in turn derived from the names of the parents. Litters usually comprised three to six individuals, and were restricted to one per parent pairing, leaving Mraboran to choose between unlimited procreation and monogamy. The majority picked the latter, Angzal’s parents among them. This left Angzal with only four siblings, scattered across the Known Reaches, and none closer than a month’s journey away. So on her way back to the office, instead of dreading the meeting upon which her entire career now apparently hinged, she was composing letters to her brothers and sister; letters she knew she was long overdue in sending.
To Rzena’s credit, he did seem to make a serious attempt at hiding the look of glee when Angzal asked him to schedule another meeting with Reyes.
“Could you just, let me know when you’re about to call her to set up the appointment, so I can be out of the room?” Angzal requested. “I want to see neither your face nor hear her voice over the line.”
“That’s a shame, I was planning on putting it on speakerphone.”
“Have I ever told you you’re funny when you’re toying with death?”
At that, Rzena made a sound that was half laugh, half old-man-grunt and returned to the absorbed silence of his work.
To say that Angzal’s first conversation with the Ambassador did not go the way she had envisioned it was to put a mild spin to the fact that Angzal replayed it over and over in her head until she started to feel claustrophobic. The worst part was she couldn’t decide whether she was relieved she hadn’t said all she wanted to, or angry that she chose to hold back. This was further amplified by the fact that she imagined multiple scenarios where she did choose to speak up.
“Is that it? The Thorians are at their weakest and we’re still going to cower in our own corner?”
“I hadn’t realized that the whole reason for our species’ existence had been reduced to being thorns in the Hatvan’s side.”
“So it’s true what they say, the only ones the Protectorate is willing to protect are the ones at its top.”
Although each new invented retort scratched an itch inside her, even in her own fantasies none of these scenarios resulted in the Ambassador being rendered speechless, or sputtering or somehow being put in her place. Rather the long-term outcome was invariably Angzal never getting off this rock again. This was, she admitted darkly, a future that may have already been sealed for her. What she really needed, instead of masticating on the events of the day by herself, was someone she could vent to. Her sister shared some of her frustrations, but had the better sense to keep them to herself when it best suited her. Unfortunately, she was also the furthest of her littermates, and even if Angzal sent her something today she wouldn’t hear back for almost a month. Her brothers, though closer, were decidedly more useless in this respect and would provide no comfort and only the empty platitudes about believing in the infinite wisdom of government. The only thing less helpful than them in this situation was the clock that insisted on dragging this day out past her breaking point.
There was a number of emails sitting in her inbox about a reception with an Imsogon trade delegation, most of which pertained to the menu – frivolous questions that did not mesh well with her current lack of appetite yet were somehow the most palatable of her unattended work.
Despite its gargantuan efforts to the contrary, the work day did indeed succumb to the laws of time and space and concluded. Rzena took his stubborn few minutes before he started packing up, as if this was simply a natural break in his work and he wasn’t counting down the minutes before he could leave. This, in turn, delayed Angzal’s own exit as a result of her own equally tenacious insistence that she never leave before him.
How many thousands of times had he packed up this desk, and how many of them have been any kind of distinguishable from the others? He did it with a distant look, as if he was already gone or had never really showed up, the fur around his eyes already starting to take on a lighter colour, unlike the darkness of the Ambassador’s face. After the day she had, Angzal thought she could see a glimmer of her own future in his expression – spending your days in a far-flung corner of the Known Reaches to provide a voice to your people when they’ve long stopped listening to yours.
“Hey Rzena,” she called out and he looked up mostly with disinterest. “You want to catch dinner or something?”
If it elicited any surprise in him, he hid it well. Instead, he paused, as if rifling in his mind through a normally busy social calendar. “Sure, got anywhere in mind?” he asked.
“Anywhere but here.”
“I might know a place.”
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.