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Fiction – “Dangerous Terrain” by Kelly Jennings

None of us were taking the work seriously, due to the push – I mean the gravity. We kept knocking into each other to see what falling felt like, and laughing at how hard moving was. Cajó finally clapped his hands together. “Va!”

We all went to balance, automatically. He’s our dagan, but we’d been doing indaiyi since the nest. We would have gone to balance no matter who said it.

“Are we on a station?” Cajó asked, looking stern. “Do you think we have safety nets on this planet? What is outside that hatch? Dajin?”

Everyone always picks on me. It’s because my mami is Midwatch Captain. Also because I’m scholar on my first leg. I made sure my stance was perfect, drew a breath, and said, “A raw planet, Cajó. Scary monsters.”

Next to me, Kiyoshi choked on a laugh. Hava, our hive-mate since she was taken in two thousand watch ago, drove a knuckle into my spine. Cajó just fixed his gaze on me, waiting.

I made my expression serious. “Dangerous terrain,” I said. “Maybe.”

“And what’s the rule?”

“Give your full attention.”

He swept his dark gaze over us. I stood balanced, as did all the unrated around me. We were all between seven and nine thousand watch old, which meant the planet couldn’t be too dangerous, or they wouldn’t be giving the job to us. Also, we already knew this planet had no organics. No scary monsters. Also, we were all third level indaiyi. Also, we weren’t going more than a thousand meters from the shuttle. How dangerous could it be?

Cajó finally let us finish suiting up and led us outside, all except Orly, who would monitor from inside. Around the hatch, a wide canyon filled with bronze rocks. Cajó did suit check, and ran the rules a last time. “If we do hit danger,” he said, before he let us go, “what’s the first line of defense?”

“Get out of the way,” we all chorused back. We learn defense in indaiyi, and we’ve all been saying that rule twice a watch since we learned to talk. All right, maybe not that often. Maybe it just seems so. Even now, when we’ve been doing indaiyi forever, Cajó loves to smash one of us to the mat, and when we’re curled up choking and bruised, he shakes his head: “Daji, why didn’t you get out of the way?”

Once he let us go, I headed out, taking point in my work crew. Kiyoshi called after me, but I didn’t wait. They’d catch up.

Every twenty steps, we were supposed to plant the seeds that held the nanotropes. Somewhere around twenty – or maybe thirty – steps, I remembered, fished a seed from my satchel, settled it in the head of my pike, and drove it down. The sharp tip of the pike slid into the crust of the planet with a crunch I felt through the insulating mesh of my gloves. I squeezed the headgears, engaging the program. That’s all it takes. Pikes are idiot-proof, as we get told in training sessions. Not that ratings really believe we’re idiots. Not really. It’s a joke, sort of.

I watched until the idiot lights came up, and extracted the pike. Below the soil, the seed husk would be softening; within minutes, lattices of root would weave through the crust. Nanotropes, feeding on stored energy in the seed, and later on solar energy from leaves the seed would send up, would wind out from these roots. The roots gather data from rock, soil, frost, anything they encountered. They’d go as deep as available energy allowed, assuming nothing went wrong, which nothing should. Like us, they were idiot-proof.

Hava and Kiyoshi caught up, Kiyo shooting me a reproachful look, and we moved on, hunting a place to plant to the next seed. Work-crews always travel in threes. One idiot to get injured, one to panic, and one to run for help. That’s sort of a joke, too.

The valley ahead was filled with outcrop rocks, dunes of gritty dust rolling between them. Bronze, mostly, though I saw pinkish tones. All these colors might have been an artifact of my hood; its radiation screen was cranked high. I had lost count of how many steps we had come, but I loaded a new seed. We were far from of the shelter of the canyon now; faint wind rushed past me. When I looked down, I saw the tiny stones – no, it’s called sand – the sand around my boots shift and slide. Grit, crunch. Outside is so fascinating.

I took fifteen steps, twenty. I drove down the pike. The stones – the sand – my head exploded.

I screamed. I think. I don’t remember, exactly. It was a slap of light or pain or horror. Then I was on the ground, the insides of my eyes, the inside of my lungs burning white hot and shivery. I could not breathe out, only in. I could hear myself choking.

“Dajin!” This was Hava. “Daji!” Her fists grabbed my shoulders.

Far off, Kiyoshi on the general link, yelling for Orly: “Emergency! Dajin’s hurt! She’s hurt! Orly!”

Distantly, in the back of my brain, I wondered which was the idiot who was panicking and which was the one running for help.

Hava put her helmet against my helmet and yelled, “Breathe out!”

Oh. I was the idiot panicking.

I shut my eyes and forced my chest to contract. Air shoved out of my lungs. After an agonizing moment, air came in again, blisteringly slow, amazingly sweet. I lay back on the crunchy ground. Oh bliss. Oh bliss. I was still lying flat, breathing, when Cajó came bounding to the rescue.

***

Not surprisingly, our hives wanted us uphill. Equally unsurprisingly, our scholars refused. “We have no idea what she ran into,” Zaboxa said. “Better choose caution.”

Zaboxa is First Scholar Mainwatch. You don’t argue with him unless you’re very smart, or unless you’re my mami.

“Caution being leaving twelve unrated out with whatever this is?” she demanded. “Because we can always make more, you’re thinking?”

He was, of course. She just wanted to make him say it. The entire ship, except me, and I got the full report later, was following the squabble – er – discussion via the general channel.

Zaboxa, no fool, said, “We will provide protection. But this is the balanced course.”

The Balaigo dropped another shuttle, packed with volunteers hot to protect us helpless unrated. That made two shuttles downhill, both capable of sustaining life indefinitely, or as long as the food lasted (forever, since the Balaigo would drop supplies). Worse came to worse, we could huddle up and wait out the quarantine.

Meanwhile, I was pinned to the bench in surgery, undergoing every test Orly (Second Medic Midwatch) could come up with. Her contention was nothing was wrong with me. No damage. “Nothing registered on the suit, either,” she claimed. “You’re certain this was an actual event?”

I sat up on the bench, annoyed and dizzy. Whatever had happened had left me – well, it wasn’t exactly pain. It was the feeling you get just before pain starts. If you’ve ever cut or burned yourself badly, you know what I mean. It doesn’t hurt yet, but you know it will hurt? That moment just before the pain hits? That’s how I felt, only everywhere.

It made me cranky. “Ask Hava,” I said. “Ask Kiyoshi. They were there.”

“I’m not saying you inventing it,” she soothed. “But – it’s a strange environment. None of you are used to gravity, or planetary surfaces. Maybe you slipped? Overreacted? It can happen to anyone, Daji. Now would be the time to say so, before this goes further.”

I felt my skin heat. “I’ll be eight in another six hundred watch, Orly. I’m not some kit inventing trouble for the attention.”

She started to snap back, stopped, and reached to stroke my hair, fresh-cut, short against my skull. “That’s not what I mean, Little Bee. Only that it’s easy to see what you expect, rather than what exists, in a scary situation.”

This was a reference to my well-known obsession with animates. I scowled. I had not made it up. At least – I didn’t think I had. On the other hand, I couldn’t exactly remember anything except pain, and Hava and Kiyoshi’s panic.

Orly’s pocket came to life: Cajó, who had been keeping on with the mission. “Orly? I could use your best guess here.”

***

I went along, since if I wasn’t ill, why not?

We had kept everyone from the expedition in this shuttle, under the cheery theory that if it was communicable and fatal, better just us die. It was crowded, is what I’m saying. Cajó had set up his research station in what would have been the cargo bay if this had been a cargo run. Nearly all the unrated were crowded around his bench. What else was there to do? Stand around and wait for fatal symptoms to appear? We’d pegged together bulkheads to create workspace, and he’d slapped up wallboards. These were filled with data streams starting to come in from the seeds the crews had managed to get planted before the quarantine. He and Filo, up on the Balaigo, were having fun arguing theories ahead of their data as usual.

This, obviously was not why he had called Orly. She wasn’t a geologist, she was a biologist on her third leg and physician on her first.

“Here.” Cajó tapped one of the boards.

She frowned, leaning in close. “I thought this planet didn’t have organics.”

“That’s not the most interesting bit.”

“Seems interesting to me.”

It did to me, too. See, unlike Republic ships, our ships aren’t owned; and unlike Free Merchants ships, we understand the social contract. It’s why daiya is central to us. Well, daiya is central to everything. But Pirians understand daiya as the Republic and the Free Merchants won’t: we understand that no one survives long in space without it. (Or anywhere, really, in the long term. And, as we’re taught in indaiyi, everything is long term.)

So every thousand watch or so our fleet holds assembly where, among other things, we choose coordinators. Between assemblies, coordinators send out assignments, so everyone in the fleet can give back in balance. Some ships do rescue, some provide pickups, some fund colonies. This survey work the Balaigo was doing, surveying this planet as a possible mining settlement, was our work for this assembly.

However, a planet that might be made viable would be more valuable than a mining planet. While our ships always need minerals, both for our own use and for trade goods, we need viable planets on this side of the Drift far more.

Cajó was tapping the bottom data slot on the screen. Orly grunted; I bit my lip, catching what he meant. The organic that the seed was reading was in motion.

“Guess which seed that is,” Cajó asked me.

***

Unrated are meant to gain experience. That’s why we don’t just study; we also work. It’s supposed to be the work we’ll do once we’re rated, and often it even is. For instance, my first leg is scholar, so I spend watches with Zaboxa and the other scholars, accessing banks, listening to them argue. And my third leg is biology, so I pull watches in exchange, mainly scrubbing fish tanks. My second leg, my art, is animates. Tavio tried to talk me out of this. What’s wrong with cooking? Or poetry? Something useful?

Creating animates is so Republican.

I didn’t see that it had to be, was my argument, and Tavio, who despite her quirks is actually a decent daiyan, finally gave way. She did point out that, since no Pirian in the fleet does animates, I would have no one to learn with, and would be constantly out of balance.

Which, sadly, that’s turning out to be true.

My point here: the rated claim work crews teach us what we need to learn. When you’re fresh from the nest, maybe you believe it. It doesn’t take long to notice that “what you need to learn” and “the kludge that needs trudging through” are nearly always the same set. Here was an excellent example. Planting seeds, a task as dull as scrubbing tanks? A learning experience for the unrated! Tracking an anomaly sent back by one of those seeds – oh, that needs the delicate touch of a rated crew.

Heroism is the desire to keep all the fun for your ownself, as the saying goes.

Cajó and Orly suited up and went outside, with Kiyoshi, who is communications in his first leg, feeding them data from the shuttle. I hovered at his shoulder until he slammed his elbow into me. “Don’t breathe on my neck.”

“I’m not.” I had been, but I would have argued with anything. It was all I could do not to hit back. I felt – tight. I tried to get my breath, and felt an ache down my spine. Not real pain. When I breathed deeply, I could feel nothing really hurt.

Hava was watching from Kiyoshi’s other side, her eyes narrowed. “Dajin. Are you ill?”
“I’m not,” I snapped. “Orly said there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“I would love to hear two words of what Cajó is saying,” Kiyoshi said, “if you both could shut up for one second.”

On the general channel, Cajó was giving a running update: they were passing this ridge, these rocks to their right. All standard for outside work. What wasn’t standard was how I was feeling: worse each moment. Why would listening to Cajó’s genial banter as he closed in on the target be filling me with such anxiety? The pain was a blade in my chest.

“Daj?” Hava whispered. I shook my head.

“You’re right on top of it,” Kiyoshi said.

“Huh,” Cajó said. “There’s nothing here.” The capture from his suit swung, giving us a view of lumpy bronze rocks. “Hey,” Cajó said.

At the same moment, Kiyoshi said, “Hey, it just moved again.”

“What was that?” Orly said.

I’d felt, just as they spoke, a driving pain in my spine. Not real pain: ghost-pain, accompanied by a throb of anxiety. “Get away,” I whispered.

“Daji?” Hava asked.

I shook my head. On Orly’s feed, Cajó crouched, shifting his feed to increase its range

“No,” I said.

Hava caught Kiyoshi’s wrist. “Kiyo, tell them to back off. Tell them now!”

Darkness exploded behind my eyes.

***

Orly didn’t want me to get up. “You should have stayed in surgery to begin with. Until we know what’s wrong, I want you under surveillance.”

Well, I didn’t need to be on the bench for that – remote monitors work fine. Also, I wasn’t sick, she had said so herself. “You said nothing is wrong.”

“I said I couldn’t find anything wrong. That’s not the same thing.”

I got unsteadily to my feet. What I had been feeling, that feeling like agony was about to descend, that was worse. Also, the ache that wasn’t an ache, just aft of my liver, that was bigger too. I felt awful.

I didn’t say so, because I knew if I did they’d cage me up and never let me out. “I want to see it,” I said, instead. “Where is it?”

“Daji– ”

I pushed past her. “Where?”

It was down in the cargo, only I couldn’t see it exactly. No one could.

Cajó and Orly had rigged a containment area to hold the organic I had accidentally implanted with the data seed. They’d built it a biotat somewhat like those we give the fish in the exchange, only much tighter. Within the quarter-hold they’d sealed, I saw – nothing. Scattered rocks they had scooped up with the organic, bare deck plates. I frowned, glanced over my shoulder. Cajó was watching the boards, not the biotat. Orly watched me.

“Why can’t we see it?” I knew it was in there. I could have pointed right at it.

Cajó looked up. Orly’s brows had drawn together. She looked as though she would speak, only Cajó spoke first. “Natural chameleon,” he said. “It’s cloaking heat and light across the spectrum. We’ve still got it via the seed. It’s right there.”

He was pointing at the very place I knew the organic was. I could tell you its very shape. I could tell you what it was saying, too.

Get out get out get out now.

Not saying. Screaming. The ache behind my liver was mean as hot glass. Sweat dampened my skin. “We have to– ”

“Daji?” Orly stepped forward. I moved away, going closer to the biotat. Inside the container, the organic dropped from the wall, where its dozens of feet had been bleeding the metal, soaring to slap into the clear bulkhead next to my face. I jerked. “Dajin!”

I could hear Orly, but she was far off. Fire radiated through me. I breathed deeply, moved closer. Get out.

“I hear you,” I said softly.

***

They didn’t believe me, which made sense. It had been fifteen hundred years since we had left the Core Worlds. We had colonized – or the Republic had – over three hundred star systems. Nowhere had we found organic life more advanced than lunged reptiles. Even these were rare. Generally it was lichens, bacteria. Molds.

Intelligent life? Intelligent, space-traveling life? Maybe it existed, somewhere – but space is wide, our corner of it tiny.

“I am not making this up,” I said through my teeth. “And whether you believe me is not the issue. You have to let it out.”

The pain in my back was getting worse.

Surgery again, on my side on the bench, knotted around the pain; but I didn’t need to be in the hold to hear the chameleon. Though I was trying to speak to her, with words and images, the hot pain hurt my ability to focus. “She’s a miner,” I told Orly. Cajó, still in the hold, was linked with us through ship’s channel. “A bit like our seeds. Except alive.”

“Little Bee,” Orly said, “your fever is up. You’re hallucinating.”

“Hava!” I batted away the patch Orly tried to put on my neck.

Hava, her round eyes even rounder, came closer, wary, determined. “You should listen,” she told Orly. “You know Dajin isn’t a liar. And what if she’s right?”

Orly stepped back, looking from one of us to the other. Then she sighed, giving way. I had known she would. Hava was younger, true, and taken in, and an unrated; but she was my hive. When your hive speaks up, the ship pays attention. “Cajó?”

Over the channel, he said, “I’m on my way.”

Kiyoshi came along, as did several other unrated, since, for them at least, there wasn’t much to see in the biotat. I decided not to mention how much there might be to see soon.

“Well?” Cajó said, his brows arching.

I tried to organize what I knew. I had raided the chameleon as surely as she had raided me. I knew everything about her. But trying to say what I knew – Where to start?

“She’s a miner,” I said slowly. “The kerata sent them out.” I stopped, hot light pulsing in my skull. Having two kinds of thoughts in my head at once hurt. “They mine up… useful… valuable… elements. When they’ve got a full… belly, they carry them home. The kerata are pleased. This is her…their purpose.”

“Kerata?” Cajó asked.

Images, scents, shuttled fast. I swallowed, trying to put her memories into Pirian.

“They’re…wonderful.” I shut my eyes, trying to see past what she believed to what was. My head burned. “Giant,” I said, though I wasn’t sure this was so. The chameleon was half my size – maybe they just looked big to her. “Shiny. With – beaks? They…rebuild…I don’t know the word she’s using.” She wasn’t a she, she was… Chameleon family structure was not our family structure. She was of the gender that went out to mine while the other three genders kept guard at the hive, only it wasn’t a hive. But she was how she felt, and no Pirian word fit anyway.

Orly stroked my forehead. “The Kerata rebuild the…the Mixota,” I said, finding the word. “They rebuild them genetically, I think she means. To make the Mixota want…to make them happy to work for the Kerata. They rebuild other Mixota to do other things. Not all Mixota are miners. Some defend. Some build, some – ” My throat shut.

“Dajin?” Orly asked.

Images flashed behind my eyes. I pressed my fingers against my closed lids, trying to erase memory. “When she returns,” I said, watching it happen, “when the miners return, the Kerata slaughter them.” The memory was the miner’s, from when she was young. She was not upset by it. Among her cousins, she watched a flock of miners return, uncloaked. She watched a Kerata wade among them, seize a miner, who lay relaxed and joyful in the taloned grip. The Kerata inverted her and, deftly, with a foretalon, slit her belly and extracted her craw, distended, heavy with ore. He dropped it in his pouch, yanked out some interior part of her, dark and warm, so that she died instantly. He tossed her body off toward a huge…vat? – he moved on. “The Kerata slaughter the miners on their return,” I said slowly. I felt helpless to explain the horror of the scene. “That’s how they extract the ore.”

Orly was frowning.

“It doesn’t upset her. She’s a miner. She doesn’t understand why I’m angry. What else should a miner do?”

“Where are these Kerata?” Cajó asked.

I could see the system. I knew the jump point, the stars. I shook my head.

“Near here?”

I wiped sweat from my face. “You have to let her go.”

When I lifted my head they were staring past me at each other. “Cajó,” I said, because I understood what they weren’t saying.

He started to speak, and didn’t.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “You have to let her go. Otherwise, she’ll mine right through the hull of the shuttle.”

***

The Balaigo dropped a third shuttle, and we evacuated the unrated into that, all except me. As you can imagine, my mami wanted me evacuated along with the rest. I wouldn’t go, and Zaboxa wouldn’t consider it anyway. Mami argued, sensibly, that, since I had been able to communicate with the Mixota from a quarter k off, obviously I would be able to communicate with her from one shuttle over. Zaboxa counter-argued that I would be safe enough suited up.

I didn’t want the suit. They’re bad enough when you’re outside. Inside they’re awful. Everyone else suited up, though, so I did too. We were leaving the hoods off at least. I wondered what it would be like to live on a planet, as the colonists did, where the environment is so toxic you have to have items like these – trousers, jerseys, boots – all over you all the time.

Uphill, Zaboxa linked to us via the wallboard. Safe in his hive, he studied his desk screen, surrounded by scholars from midwatch, topwatch, even Tiago from afterwatch, yawning and trying to wake up. I didn’t have time to luxuriate in how much fuss I had raised, though, since Zaboxa and the rest were firing questions my way as fast as they could load them.

Translating their questions so that the Mixota could understand, that was the hardest part; and then understanding and translating her replies. One of the early questions, for instance: Zaboxa wanted to know how long it would be before the Kerata returned to this planet. Well, that’s a simple question, and the Mixota and I shared referents for most of the terms. She had shown me Kerata, we both knew “this planet,” return wasn’t so hard to agree on.

It was the “how long” and “before” that gave me trouble. I’m sure the Mixota had these terms, but we were communicating through emotions and images, not words. What’s the image for “how long”? How does “before” feel? Images I tried – like a bowl broken and then unbroken, and a watch ‘board with its numbers moving backwards, those did not work. She sent an earthquake back for the first, with screaming Kerata; for the second, she sent something that might have been a chemistry experiment or a cooking class or Keratin art, for all I could tell.

Finally, I put three Kerata in a big animate ship and had it boost away from this planet. I showed an animate me; not me in my suit, but me in the short knit leggings and tee we wear inside, purple and orange in my case, bright against my skin, which I made a darker brown than it actually is, for a better contrast. I made my hair the loose curls I often wear, and I made myself cute, which I’m not, sadly. I showed myself standing on the planet, waving goodbye. I knew Mixota didn’t wave, but the gesture, I thought, might raise the appropriate emotion. Then I made my animate self wander in circles. Lie down and sleep. Wander in more circles. Then the Keratin ship returned, a tiny dot growing bigger and bigger. I jumped up and down, cheering and waving my arms. I froze the image in my mind and made a querying feeling toward the Mixota, which – I hoped – felt like when?

Well, that was easy. Some of the questions (such as, If you leave the Kerata, what happens to your hive?) were much harder.

“She doesn’t want to leave,” I said. “Boxa, I told you.”

“Just ask,” Zaboxa said.

I chewed at my lip. I could feel the miner’s family inside me. The love she felt for them was as warm as that I felt for my hive: Mami, Tia Leiko, Tio Dez, Hava, Kiyoshi, Grigi, all the others. “It’s not what will get done,” I tried to explain. “It’s that she’ll leave them.”

Tiago, her long fingers wrapped around her bulb of tea, interrupted: “You said that she would be killed on her return in any case.”

I rubbed at the pain in my head. For the miner, dying on return was right action. “It’s like khaverde,” I muttered. Both Cajó and Orly flinched. None of the scholars did. No bad words, just bad ideas, that’s our rule. “Like deserting your shipmates,” I said, continuing to speak plainly. “That’s how this would feel to her.”

Zaboxa and the scholars watched me. The shuttle was silent too. We throw about other insults – pimp, slacker, holder; but khaverde, that’s serious.

Well, so was this serious. “She needs out,” I said.

“Explain,” Zaboxa said. “Tell her we can’t release her until we’re sure.”

Tiago made a noise of protest, as did several other scholars. I had been among them long enough to understand why. It was like with the contract labor held by the Republic – like Hava had been, before we took her in.

Probably Hava is a bad example. She was taken from Hayek, one of the worst planets. Most contract labor on Hayek are worked to death. When Pirian ships appear on that planet to rescue our shipmates stolen into contract labor and ask, as we always do, whether anyone else in the mine or the field wants to escape, well, contract labor always want to leave Hayek. On Hayek, the problem is deciding who to leave behind.

But there are better planets in the Republic. On these, sometimes contract laborers won’t leave. They believe what they have been taught, that Pirians are pirates, that our life is evil. I have seen Republic animates, and besides Hava has told me stories of her days on Hayek, so I know what they get told. I admit I can’t believe anyone really gives credit to stories that bizarre – that we have constant sex all over the ship? That we space our broken shipmates, or those who argue against our way of life? I mean, first of all, what way of life? We have about as many ways of living as we have ships; and second, all Pirians do is argue. It’s how you know you have Pirians around, just listen for the sound of arguing.

Still, what of these contract labor? If they will not board our shuttles, what are we to do? Leave them behind to be slaves?

As I have learned over the past few thousand watch, the answer to that might well be yes. Or – if not yes, what? Dragging someone into freedom, enslaving a slave to make him free, that’s no solution.

My Mixota, though, was no abstract for me to shrug off. She had cousins back at her hive, dozens there, dozens more out across the valleys here, filling their bellies with ore, mining themselves fat for the harvest to come. And she wanted – she needed – to be out mining among her cousins, because if she did not, she was a (bad, wicked) failed miner: so we had to let her free, now.

I whined against the pain in my skull. When Orly put a hand on my shoulder, I jerked away, slid from the bench, and made my (staggering) way toward the biotat. The Mixota was on the outer hull, all her feet hooked in, mining away. I had told her this was a bad idea, that she might damage us if she breached the hull; but she said in that case we should let her go.

I knew why Zaboxa was opposed to freeing her. If the miner could put data into my head, why could she not do the same for the Kerata? And now she knew everything that I knew; specifically, everything I knew about the Pirian fleet.

I might not, myself, be telepathic. But I knew enough to know what Zaboxa was thinking: prisoner of war.

I called to the Mixota. She swooped over to land on the bulkhead. I realized that even though I could not see her, I could see her clearly, in my mind’s eye: her thin wide-winged body, hard muscle sheathed in flat shimmering scales, quick to change as a thought; multiple eye-scales along the leading edge of this body. On the underside, all those feet that seized and held; on the back of the wing, the slender prehensile spikes, her weapons that had burned me.

I put my hand against the bulkhead, trying my best to transmit the problem to her: to ask her what she thought we should do.

Let me go, she cried back. Not in words. She sent, as she had been sending, endlessly, an image of Cajó releasing her in the valley: Let me go, let me go!

I sent back an animate image of me: showed me waving goodbye to her, getting in a ship, going away. Then I showed the Kerata picking her up, showed me being sucked from her head into a Keratin head. I froze that image. Then I showed the Keratin ship charging toward a bright animate me. I transmitted dark feelings of alarm and terror in accompaniment.

I froze the image again. The Mixota hung motionless. I could feel nothing clear inside her. I finally decided she was confused. And probably tired. I knew I was. It had been over three watch since all this had started. I dragged my forearm over my eyes, which hurt as much as my head, and then showed myself eating and sleeping. The feeling, her confusion, didn’t change.

I went up the ramp to the main cabin and heated a shipmeal, fish and mixed, and ate it leaning against the hull, deciding as I ate that I hated planets. Even breathing was hard with this much push. Gravity. Whatever. Lifting food to my mouth was hard. Chewing was hard. How did people live like this?

I saw, in my mind’s eye, a group of Mixota on a planet not this planet: it had water, and tall – reeds? It had rocks under a shallow sea. The Mixota mined sand and rocks from the sea, brought them to shore, used them to build high, elaborate homes. No: Castles. Airy, lacey castles, towers against a bright sky. In interconnecting rooms, cousins raised immense families. At dusk along the surf, the pink sky was dark with the shadows of their flight.

I found myself on my feet.

No, the Mixota was sending to me: No, we don’t think about that.

***

“If we find that world,” I said, talking so fast my words stumbled, “if we collect as many of them here as we can – ” I was almost sure the star could be found, though the Mixota refused to think it. “We locate miners, fill the hold – Zaboxa! They’re slaves, as bad as anything the Republic has done. Worse!”

“We don’t free contract labor out of the Republic because slavery is wrong,” he said. This was a thing we had all had to learn. Putting yourself in harm’s way for a noble cause may lead to a noble death, but a noble death is no solution.

We don’t rescue contract labor from the mines and the fields because slavery is wrong. There are too many slaves, too many mines and fields. We would exhaust our resources, risk our lives, we would die trying, and not save even a fraction of the slaves. No, we do it because we are there anyway, rescuing our own.

I slammed my palm against the wallboard where his image showed. “We’re here anyway!” I shouted. “We didn’t come on this mission to free them, but we’re here!”

“Daji,” Zaboxa said. “Va.”

I stepped from the wallboard, centering myself. On the ‘board, I saw he was doing the same, as were the other scholars.

“This is the first intelligent life besides us anyone has found anywhere,” Zaboxa reminded me. “Do we act against its expressed wishes?”

I breathed in, breathed out. Tried out words I might say. It was a slave. It had been lied to. What it wanted was the wrong thing. The Kerata were evil, we had to fight evil – I breathed out.

“What do you think we should do?” I said.

“We have to let her go,” he said.

I breathed in, breathed out. Then I said, “She’ll tell the Kerata where we are. They’ll come after us.”

“That’s possible.”

I narrowed my eyes, trying to think what he was thinking. In my mind, a swift bright animate took shape: Kerata shooting through the stars, diving into human space. Pirians doing what Pirians do best: getting out of the way. The Republic doing what the Republic does best: fighting back. In the dark velvet of space, a giant smash of those two powers. A starburst of violence.

I blinked. “Zaboxa.”

“It’s what she wants.”

“She doesn’t know what she wants,” I said, breathless, my eyes hot.

“Talk to her,” he said. “If you can talk her out of it – talk her out of it if you can.”

***

Five hundred watch ago.

I did try, as I suppose all the fleet knows – my animate, Chameleon’s Flight, has been in everyone’s queue this assembly.

We haven’t heard anything yet of the Kerata. The assembly is sending a dozen ships in that direction, stealth-mode. A huge investment of resources, but our scholars think an alliance with the free Mixota, if they exist, would be worth that investment. If they don’t, if that world was only memory, well, we’re likely to gain from the exploration and reconnaissance.

My animates, not just of my meeting with the Mixota, but the ones I have made of the miner’s memories, are all hot links. Last time I was in to discuss my career track, Tavio admitted maybe there was something to the idea of a Pirian animator.

I just smiled, since I had long since decided not to tell her she was right, that unbalance is the perfect word for what my work will do. A bit of unbalancing is just what we need, I have decided: a thing I know better than to say to a daiyan of the Pirian fleet.


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About the Author

Kelly Jennings teaches writing in northwest Arkansas. Her first novel, Broken Slate, is being published by Crossed Genres; her stories have appeared in Crossed Genres, The Future Fire, and Louisiana Literature. Currently she is hard at work on the sequel to Broken Slate, which is part of a five-book series about Martin Eduardo and the contract labor Revolution on Julian.

Kelly can be found online at http://delagar.blogspot.com.

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