by Liz Westbrook-Trenholm
Therid perched high in a lookout tree where he could spy on the new ground creatures’ warren. The branches overhung the escarpment marking the divide between jungle and desert. Far below, mounds clustered at the edge of the big sand that stretched empty to blue hills on the horizon. The mounds were the same brown as the desert and pierced by openings like the burrow entrances and air holes of some oversized ground sloth. But these burrow mounds were rectilinear and lay in a grid formation, as if the wind had impossibly driven the sand into miniature mesas of perfect symmetry. The piercings were evenly spaced and shaped into rectangles and arches. Patterns of interlocking squares and triangles framed the openings, their shapes like gems chosen specially from a rare geode. Not shiny, yet intriguing.
A herd of the creatures crawled out of an arch, short, stocky and clustered like their burrow mounds. They surrounded a moving carapace, earthbound like them and dragging itself along the trail. It grumbled, like a beast on the hunt. They passed eventually out of Therid’s sight under the lip of the escarpment and after a time he heard the beast’s growl and the rattle of grit under their feet as they climbed the trail they had carved into the face of the cliff. Heavy, clomping feet, these beings had, unnerving.
Therid lifted sharply above the jungle canopy and then drifted down again, deeper into its camouflaging embrace. He should have fled altogether but curiosity held him, watching through the flicker of leaves. In the clawful of visits he’d made since finding the place during Spring-search, he’d never seen the beings up close.
They trudged into view, squat, with snubby snouts and broad skulls clasped tight with some sort of head cap. So heavy those heads must be to need such thick necks and massive bodies to carry them. Foreshortened and graceless, they seemed laden with the weight of their own being as if contact with the ground had compacted their bones.
As they progressed along their trail, Therid followed parallel to them, keeping well into the trees. They stopped when the trail ended, abruptly, at the jungle wall. The grumbling beast moved forward and began consuming the trees, mashing and tearing at them with jaws that had suddenly opened in its face. Was it feeding? Therid had thought it a carrier of some sort, but perhaps it lived. Perhaps it needed to eat the jungle. But he saw that the beast spat out the shreds of what it took in, spewing the digested material to each side of the gouge it made. The beings tending it spread grit the beast had hauled in its belly on the ground. The beast backed and trampled the grit flat, and then began chewing again.
Not a beast, Therid suddenly realized. A tool. A huge, complicated tool. The ground creatures were using the tool to extend their trail. But why? There was nothing beyond its end but more jungle. And Therid saw no sign of their using the jungle, not for camouflage, not for food. Was it a kind of Spring-search of their own, establishing a territory line? Not possible. They were ground animals, not people.
The beast-machine gave a sudden rising moan and ceased to chew. The creatures rushed around it, prodding it with sticks of various shapes, making barking, chattering noises, like the songless ground things they were. One thrust its forelimb into the machine’s maw. The moan suddenly reverted to its former rumble but the creature screamed high and fell back, its forelimb truncated and spouting.
To Therid’s surprise, it did not leak dust or gravel, but wet red blood, spouting from firm raw flesh. He fluttered closer, trying to smell as well as see, forgetting, almost, to keep his fringes fluttering in synchrony with the leaves of the canopy, to keep his camouflage. He clung to a sapling, staring, waiting. As the other creatures crowded and bent over their companion, he waited. And as the creature stilled and ceased its struggle, he waited. Soon, or eventually, they would lose interest in their companion, and wander off. That’s how it was with ground beings.
There are five of us left. Out of the five hundred real that had set out, all but we are gone. Some, faded from grief at the many failed attempts to find a new Eden and some flung themselves into stars to end their eternal boredom.
Joneman lost many golems on the last world we tried. They drowned in their own blood during eruptions of sulphuric gases that roiled up from its lush and friendly surface. It saddened Joneman, who is very fond of his golems. We fled that deceptive world, latest of a string of failures, plunging into the deep sleep, barely caring if we wakened again, letting our Cradle seek another chance for us.
And it found us this. So lovely, the gorgeous umbers, golds, and pinks of the desert, the lush mauves and purples of the jungle, fluttering and sighing like a berobed lady in layered mantillas. The others are ecstatic, convinced. They cultivate golems and, with the optimism of forgetfulness, set them to build as once we had long ago, on that sweet blue and green world where we’d dwelt so many millennia, before our golems fouled it beyond bearing. This will be a new Earth.
So the others think, except for Joneman. Joneman sleeps, his troubled dreams surfacing just enough to let us know he has not faded, yet. He remains too discouraged to join us, despite the visions of this handsome place that we send to his dreams. I fear he too will soon let himself dwindle. Then there will be four, and I, I…
I think this world is seeking a way to kill us, forever and at last. I feel it waiting, watching.
And so I gather golems, mine and Joneman’s, and go out to engage it. And it’s wasted no time in the attempt, however misdirected. I am sorry to have squandered one of Joneman’s golems so early. But, Joneman, if you’d been awake, you’d have stopped me. Or joined me.
The other golems keen and croon at the loss, as is their wont. They look to me hopefully, as to Joneman, who might once have resubstantiated this individual, so great was his force. Not now. And little good has ever come of that. Somehow, their plaintiveness tries me and I am tempted to deactivate them all out of pique at their presumptuousness. But I don’t. Such is my ambivalence. Meanwhile, this one has died, and so now I must take it back for recycling. It’s the least I can do, for Joneman.
Weeping, the golems load the corpse onto the road builder and the jungle seems to answer in protest. It shifts and shimmers ceaselessly, troubling to my eye and mind.
Therid vibrated his fringes in anticipation. The creatures were milling around the dead one. They would soon return to huddle mindlessly in their burrows. They had no camouflage, no knowledge of blending into their surroundings. Go, he urged them. Leave the prize to me. Already he imagined the interest of the females when he arrived at the flocking tree with his craw stuffed with fresh red meat.
With growing disbelief, however, Therid watched them lift the corpse and load it onto the beast machine. When they raised their arms like mourning wings, he screamed in shock.
One being turned sharply and scanned the canopy. Therid froze, but for the ripple of his fringe with the breeze. The being’s gaze swept by him, unseeing. He’d begun to relax when it seemed to collect itself. Slowly, but with unhesitating confidence, it retraced the arc of its search until it found him. Its eyes had dizzying lines of shiny blue radiating away from a fathomless darkness in a round centre. They entered him like a stranger intruding into a rookery, dropping him into mindless chick terror, easy picking for any predator with eyes to see him.
Joneman is here! Jungle tricking and puzzling me and then Joneman, seeing it differently than I. Frail that he is, he yet fills me with an immediate and vivid presence laced with excitement. He launches boisterously into a proposal, the offer of a bargain. His excitement and mine transmit to the other three in city and desert, turning them toward our negotiation.
First Baelwit, distracted from his tunnelling under the city; then jeFO, rising from drifting inner contemplation in the desert into a dance that raises an orange storm; and, finally, grudgingly, Enelra turning her attention from the mortarless mosaics she makes her golems build and rebuild. When she sees Joneman’s plan, her disapproval seeps into the crevices of our self-doubt like the poisonous ground clouds of our last planet. Enelra calls herself a loving mother and is, in fact, an arbitrary bully, seeking always to govern, restrict, force conformity to her limited ways. She is the one who would confine us to the city, limit the golems to mindless automatons of briefest existence, offering them her protective love but truly giving them only death, early to all, earlier to those who show a spark of will or simply do not appeal to her. Not just her own golems, but all of ours, as well. She would gladly suffocate us in her empty officiousness.
Her displeasure adds savour to my satisfaction at accepting Joneman’s offer. I lay my hand on the still golem and my essence flows, silver into its wounds. I restore its hand and, for good measure, mend the nicks and scars its brief life has inflicted on it, despite the extra cost to me. For Joneman, only perfection will do. The other golems fall on their knees making gratingly grateful cries. I do this for Joneman, not for them.
But then a fierce pulse of joy demolishes all lesser moods in a mighty radius. jeFO dances up a storm, Baelwit stamps his feet till the city shakes and even Enelra smears a patina of pleasure over her sulk. For Joneman keeps his bargain.
The mended golem rises, smiling. Joneman glows within, feeding, growing, with us again. The other golems weep and gesticulate, and, for once, I’m at one with them. As they swarm about us, I fall on his neck, and kiss his cheek, and celebrate the return of Joneman, my friend, my love, my reason for being. They lift us up and carry us triumphant toward the city, and I am not angry. I love them, and I pull off the helmets of those who carry us and kiss their shaggy heads, one by one until they glow silver with my Essence and I am nearly spent. But Joneman has returned, and I am whole again.
Therid lifted out of the canopy, and fled fast, back to the flocking place, his heart and mind chaotic with confusion. He plummeted gracelessly onto the speaking limb of the flocking tree, gaping with the effort of his rapid flight. He had just breath to call once, but his urgency spread, call by call until the furthest members of the flock assembled from their daily tasks. By then, his breath recovered, he told them of the new creatures, of the one that lost its paw to its beast. Creatures that were made of meat, and that bled red. Several royal warriors chattered skeptically.
“The red meat, show us, your craw, full,” chortled Mottrack, a huge and handsome hunter who always won the best nest and the finest mate. He roosted at the top of the tree in the first and last rays of the Sun. A magnificent half geode, sparkling with gems, hung in fibre-vine netting among the feathers of his thorax, a weight only a mighty flyer like he could bear. He could afford to be kind in his mockery.
“Shines, the Sun, on your royal plumage,” Therid acknowledged Mottrack’s greatness, then continued his tale. “The ground beings, with the corpse,” he paused for effect, “stayed.”
Beaks chattered with disquiet and a lesser person, barely two levels up the tree from Therid, pecked him. He pecked back, hard, and the person ducked under the force of his certainty. That person would sleep three levels lower this night, Therid thought, with satisfaction. He fluttered his fringes and went on.
“The beings, the body, lifted.” Now cries of protest rang out but he pressed on. “Limbs, raised.” Other persons pecked him, and Therid fluttered out of reach of their beaks, but without submission. “Eyes, saw me!” he cried.
“Shame!” “Liar!” Pecks and accusations rained on him, but he would not, could not stop. It was so hard to explain and what came next would be even more difficult but Therid knew he had to let them know what he had seen. “Eyes, shiny!” The noise reduced a little. “Shine, rose. Shine, shone, in me! Eyes shone, saw, in me!” Complete silence fell. “Shine set. Me, dark. Sad.” Therid rocked from foot to foot, struggling to show the flock. “Creature, its paw, on the corpse.” Therid curled his wing, and spread the fringes over his breast, to show them. Then he ducked his head, as if in sleep, tucking the fringes of one wing up to hide them. He lifted his head then, showing them his eyes. “Corpse woke.” He unfurled his fringes. “Paw, came back. Shine, rose.” He flittered, trying to tell how it had been, to describe the moment when joy bloomed. “Sun after winter dark. Wind, warm for mating.” Before him, Mottrack loomed, like a purple mountain, his aggression ruff spread wide and thick.
But Therid could not. “In the corpse. In the eyes.”
“Rose, Sun. Shone, Sun.”
Mottrack reared with a flare of fringes the colour of angry thunderheads, sunlight lancing off the gems on his thorax and claws splayed to tear.
Therid hid in a thorny grove few knew of, exhausted from flying, sore and leaking from the blows and pecks with which the flock had pummelled him. Ground creatures did not feel for their dead. That would denote mind. Animals had no mind. No sun shone in their eyes. To say otherwise was a travesty.
He had escaped Mottrack’s talons, or Mottrack had let him go, unthinkable as that was. Perhaps he’d not wanted to sully his claws, leaving it to the lesser of the flock. These had fallen on Therid, screaming, beating at him with their wings, tearing at him with their claws, striking at him with their beaks. Yet somehow, he’d escaped it all. Perhaps the Sun in the waking corpse had saved him. He dreamed on that for a while, calling to the shine that had come into his mind so briefly, but no answer came.
He heard something wriggling through the narrow entrance to his hiding place. A predator to finish him, swallow him whole, perhaps. So be it. He was flockless, morn and night.
It was his nest-kin, the smaller, who had survived because Therid had been generous, or weak. And his nest-kin’s mate. Followed by the mate’s dam. And then—more of them, until at least seven crowded into the place.
“Come to finish me, you?” Therid asked. His nest-kin chickered and gently preened Therid’s tattered fringe away from the worst of his hurts. His kin’s mate coughed mother-heal into the wounds which stung even as he felt it begin to weave them closed. He was confused, but let himself sink into recovery shock, panting to speed his healing.
When he’d closed his beak at last, hurts mended and the mother-heal expelled before chick madness could take him; his nest-kin could wait no more.
“The beast-tool, was it meat?” Before Therid could answer, the kin-mater asked, “The eyes, the ones that the creature put on and in you, were they good, like Sun, or were they bad, like predator?”
“The limb, truly the beast ate it? And they stayed, unafraid?”
“Of course, unafraid, when they can make dead live and limb grow.”
All had opinions, and more questions. And calls for detail. And chatter and sharing and then the highest of that low group calling, “Let him tell it again. Therid, tell it, the story, all of it, again.” And he did.
They decided. “For ourselves, we must see.”
Before the sun set, they had begun the journey back to where Therid had seen what he had seen, flocking close, like chicks to their dam. They rested in a thick tree that night, nervous with the strangeness, and the danger. They set out again at first light, pausing only to harvest food from among sleepy night creatures that never saw them coming. They flew until they reached the shocking gash in the jungle. They saw for themselves the dark patch in the dust where the ground creature had died, and risen.
The celebration lasts for all time and for one night, all at once, in that clever happy way we haven’t enjoyed for millennia, even before we abandoned Earth. Joneman keeps to his risen golem, making it his home, reinforcing its being and structure to withstand his full Essence, which glows from its eyes and shimmers around its form. We revel in his presence. He has not been so alive since first we settled on Earth, that richest home of so many before.
At last, I, always the spoiler with the question, ask, “Why do you wake again, Joneman? My love, I’d feared we’d lost you.”
“We have a new home,” he replies. We all focus on him, warily.
“Yes, a new home; we told you that,” Baelwit says for us all.
“But you didn’t care to hear,” Enelra adds snidely. “Hiding in the cradle and leaving all the work to us.”
Our obtuseness amuses Joneman. “A home,” he repeats, “with inhabitants.”
I feel a shiver of apprehension but jeFO cheers, “WE inhabit it!” and dances so contagiously that Baelwit stamps in unison until the ground shakes. Enelra’s walls are rattling and she snaps at them to stop the silly dancing. None of them feel what Joneman is saying.
“All right, Joneman, sweetheart,” I say. “Tell us.”
“I will show you,” he says. And, as I’d feared, leads us to the top of the escarpment where he had returned to us. Mauve and plum fronds flutter over our road, always fluttering.
“Plants!” huffs Enelra in disgust. “You brought us here for plants.”
“I’m fond of plants,” I say, even though this shimmying forest makes me uneasy.
As if to chide my pretence a chittering sound startles out of the ever-moving mass and then a frond detaches from a sinewy trunk and drifts above the road. This is like no creature we have seen in all our millennia: bird, snake, fronds that ripple like the jungle as it drifts with slow pulses of fringed wings. It has opaque violet ovals wrapping a third of its head, which it turns from side to side on its long, sinewy neck, scanning us. Eyes, ears, or both, they flicker and sparkle with life and, oh Joneman, I see the cause for your joy now.
I see intelligence. Not golem-gifted cunning, but true, alien, other-ish intelligence.
A beaklike thing low on its head splits into serrated blades that click and add nuance to trilling cries. The sounds are quite lovely.
“What are these golems?” Enelra demands. “Who made them?” Even she can see what they are.
Baelwit expressed her real fear. “Another lives here? Like Us? That we must expel?”
Joneman beams on him. “Fear not,” he says. “They are godless.”
“Abandoned?” Enelra asks.
“Godless,” Joneman repeats.
“Then how did golems come about?” Enelra demands, forever and always the least nimble of intellect.
“They arose spontaneously,” I conclude, and I shiver again. We are the only other unraised. Until now.
Joneman walks forward in his golem body to meet the being and his golems cry out in pleading and fear, like the sheep they are. The creature rises, drops and rises again on tentacles that stiffen and straighten, coil and straighten again in a fluttering dance that makes JeFO spin, singing happily and raising plumes of dust that rise among its fluttering fronds like smoke or incense.
Another seeming tangle of foliage detaches from the forest edge and resolves itself into a companion of the first being. As it begins to dance as well, it is joined by another, and another and two more, all similar, yet subtly different in shade and size. Joneman’s golems rush to his defence but he calms them with a gesture and they too become caught in the moment, dancing in their stolid, soil bound way. The dance is like a giant, animated flower blossoming and closing, with Joneman and the golems the stem in its midst and jeFO twining about them. The dance speaks of meeting and speaking and, most of all, an essence utterly beyond what I have so far comprehended. Alliance, perhaps, like that of our own kind. Equal to equal? I am entranced.
Enelra quivers. “They worship.”
I wait for Joneman to correct her.
“The sun, for lack of an Other,” Joneman says.
I disagree. That is not what their dance says! Joneman soothes my disquiet with the balm of his presence in my mind.
“I shall have them,” Enelra stakes her claim with her usual presumption. “They require love and order.”
“They will build great monuments,” Baelwit thunders and, after an ominous instant of standoff, the two form their agreement, seeing how perfectly their wants mesh.
JeFO batters their solidity with her inarticulate disagreement. She wants spontaneity, joy, and some kind of spirit only she has and can breathe into a few mad golems who survive their creation by her.
I look to Joneman, who seems not merely content, but percolating with pleasure.
“They are independent,” he says.
“Rebellious?” Enelra bridles. “Eliminate those.”
“They are no one’s!” I exclaim.
Joneman’s mind glows with agreement.
JeFO, in solid form part golem and part inhabitant, leaps and soars like a geyser, understanding. It takes Enelra and Baelwit longer to grasp what Joneman is telling us. That these beings are uncreated, in no one’s image, mental or otherwise. They are free, unimprinted. And intelligent. They will have to be won, and it will not be easy.
JeFO claps and laughs. “Spirit! Being! Inspiration! Dancing!” At least, those are roughly the concepts embedded in her outpourings.
Enelra and Baelwit talk about potential to be moulded, order to be constructed, and monuments. Always monuments. It’s how they contain and constrain jeFO’s exuberance.
“Joneman.” I call him.
“What is the complaint now!” Enelra snaps.
“We will multiply, Joneman?” I ask.
More explosive joy. We are so bored with each other, we five. They still don’t understand.
“We shall have war,” I say.
That sobers them a moment.
But jeFO, always jeFO, breaks the moment.
She cheers and claps. “Above and beyond! Others above self! Courage under!” Fleetingly I wonder if Joneman puts her up to it.
Enelra and Baelwit chant responsively about strategy, destructive capability, orderly planning, and fortification. They plan their customary alliance which over the eons has always collapsed into mutual pummelling until they and their golems are spent.
“Oh, Joneman,” I plead.
Joneman’s face is turned from me.
The lovely flower of the Inhabitants’ dance opens and closes in a loop of innocence that I wish could last forever.
“Remember Neanderthal,” I say.
“Brainless. Disobedient,” Enelra snapped.
“Poor builders.” Baelwit, of course.
“Innocent,” I said. “Until us.”
“Until you,” Joneman murmured in gentle admonishment, for, yes, when Neanderthal’s mind could not seem to grow to encompass our magic, it had been I who raised Cro-Magnon, who grew and flourished into descendants whose comfortable solution to their innocent neighbours was genocide. Havoc and destruction lay always in the wake of what I had made.
“A good game, a good game!” jeFO cries. And it had been, so compelling a battle, we multiplied in our exuberance, and, in our exuberance distorted what we’d found. So rose the golems instead, facsimiles of the simple originals, so much cleverer, yet as little like them as a Chihuahua to a wolf.
“Joneman,” I say. “These are innocents. Let us leave them, before we poison their world as we poisoned Earth.”
Joneman turns his gaze on me, but, before I know what he would tell me, a purple storm plunges onto the dancers. Through a tumult of deep purple I see the dancer’s slender neck crushed in a massive indigo beak. The limp body is tossed up, caught, and given a sharp shake. An orb of stone and amethyst sparkles on the monster’s chest as it dangles its victim by the neck and smashes it into the dust of the road. With claws extended from its stiffened lower tentacles, it rakes deep slices into the dancer’s body. Its blood is red. My rage is redder.
Even as Joneman and I surge forward, JeFO, spinning blindly in her contemplation of the chaos of war, blunders into them. The great thing flaps up and gashes her feathered shoulders. It turns on Joneman then, slashing and screaming a harsh, clacking sound. Joneman’s golems rush to his defence and I urge mine with them just as another monstrous thing drops as if from nowhere, and then another, all purple fronds, beaks, and clawed tentacles lashing.
Our golems are soft and vulnerable with no weapons to hand, yet heavy and lethal with loyal rage. They are soon sliced and bleeding, staggering under the onslaught of slashing beaks, clubbing wings, and tearing razor feet. Arms over my head, I rush into one such hellish fury and kick out while punching and tearing at anything I can seize. Acidic slashes split my body’s forearms and shoulders, sucking hard on my essence to close them again, tiring me. A dancer leaps, clinging, pecking, and clawing on the neck of the monster I am fighting. In a flurry of mauve fronds, another materializes aboard one of the tentacles my adversary has planted in the chest of the one it’s killed. They are defending me.
The battle the dancers bring to the powerful dark killers is feeble but distracts them. As my adversary twists its beak around to snap at the annoyance, I kick up into the momentary clear space beneath its thorax. For all its fearsomeness, a blow to its keel bone collapses it into a panting tangle of fronds and writhing tentacles.
It is done a few moments later. Our golems stagger or lie on the ground, surrounded by collapsed creatures, some large and deep purple, some small and mauve, all panting with gaping beaks, the dancers and the attackers alike. Red blood meets red blood in the road.
Enelra rises high, wrapped in glowing purple magnificence, a glowing sun-disc radiating around her head, massive feathered wings spread wide to frame her pouting breast. She looks part Renaissance seraphim, part Aztec god, part pigeon, and entirely ridiculous. She’s not quite able to give up the human visage with its Kore smile she’d adopted so many millennia ago and used to such devastating purpose.
Still, to a dazed Inhabitant, she no doubt looks impressive and, I suspect, terrifyingly ugly. Graciously, she bends to a shattered purple monster and, with a silver touch, heals it. She’s made her choice.
“So the war begins, Joneman,” I say.
The frail, mauve beings in the road bleed and pant and look helplessly to Joneman. And to me. I am sorry, so very, very sorry.
Therid lay, seeing all and knowing nothing. How could this be? His nest-kin, limp, broken, dead in the dirt of this road. Mottrack, mighty Mottrack, crushed beyond flying, his gorgeous plumage and thorax jewel dulled by yellow dust. No more fine hunts. No more best mates. Finished.
And then a monster forms, misshapen wings and hideous visage glowing with dark light. It touches not Mottrack, but Smoatin, one of the most thuggish warriors, lowest of his caste. Smoatin shakes himself, rises, and offers homage to the monster.
How could a being of mind make such a choice? This must be the true being’s enemy. It’s not too late. Therid looks to the one with Sun rising in its eyes. This one can fix broken paws. Can it fix broken wings? Crushed bodies? But the Sun one will not meet Therid’s eye, will not enter him as before. Dark, then.
Therid flutters, dragging toward the forest. Camouflage first, then thought. A touch stops him, cool as winter rains on his wounds. Hypnotic eyes meet his, calling to him to give his mind. They are not Sun, but predator eyes. He has been a fool to think otherwise.
He struggles toward the forest’s protection, fighting the call. The struggle becomes easier, and he realizes his hurts are healed. Then, wonder of wonders, his dead nest-kin joins him, chittering. And the others, those dead or hurt, now alive and whole, flee with him into the forest.
Falling behind, Therid pauses just within a cluster of protective fronds, unable to resist a last look. Bright eyes captured him, but did not hold him. They spoke to him, invited his worship, or his complicity. They stretched and pulled at his thoughts. He saw himself, Therid, roosting at the top of the tree, the very top, in the first and last sunlight of the day. Power vibrated at his frond tips, like warmth at dawn’s edge. It would be power as great as Mottrack’s, greater. He need only serve and worship.
“How?” Therid had to ask. “What meat can I bring? What strength offer to mothers of chicks? What protection from predators?”
From me, all comes from me, the voice in his head told him. Serve, worship, believe.
A thought came then, so faint it nearly evaporated under the warm power of the urge to bask in belief, belief without painful questioning.
Mottrack had not been his enemy, but his superior, proven by size and accomplishment, by the rule of the flock. But not his enemy until the shiny eyes with their silver touch came.
The silver touch.
So. Not Sun. A being, as much greater than Mottrack as Mottrack was compared to weak Therid. But not Sun.
And so it begins. Joneman whom I loved, plays an old game anew, weaving promises of power to the meek to win these small ones to his side in exchange for worship of his supposed godhood. An old trick of mine, that, winning me many rounds in the game. Now he’s made it his.
The mauve beings stare at him, their huge oval eyes inscrutable, their alien thought processes elusive. Joneman glows with profligate power, pouring it into the seeds he’s planted in them, willing them to multiply, to increase his presence. Even so, one argues—argues!—back at Joneman. I feel Joneman’s surprised amusement, even as he seeks to win through argument and invasion. As usual, Enelra and Baelwit play god with the large, dominant ones, overwhelming them with force, brooking no resistance. Joneman and I know that, in the game to come. The clever ones will win the most and small must ever be more clever. Belief is a far greater motivator than fear. And jeFO, she whirls and has no thoughts but joy at a new game. And I—I am most reluctant to play at all.
Joneman’s little creature convulses. Its beak is wide, and it is wracked with hacking, wrenching coughs. Joneman, have we killed it? Vomit spills from its gullet, forming a pool silver with our little seeds that Joneman has so recklessly poured into it. Its thoughts are fading, silencing. Now its fellows are similarly hacking, coughing.
Therid finished expelling the foreign mother-heal. He had almost succumbed to its seductive poison, almost lost himself, like a dam-bonded chick.
Mottrack and his hunters milled and flapped in the dust, still dancing homage, still in danger.
Therid called to them, “Expel! Expel the monster mother-heal!” They ignored him. They were the flock’s best hunters, mightiest protectors, strongest mates, and they were dancing their doom, and the destruction of them all. And it was his doing.
Therid rose as tall as he could. He stepped out of the jungle’s safe embrace. Making his voice high and strident, he squalled, “Who, now, top of tree?”
Mottrack whirled to face him, ruff raised against the challenge, fringes huge with threat, his caste-mates ruffling at his back.
Therid forced himself to move into the open space before them, resisting legs that begged to coil tight and low, fringes that cried to lift in homage or carry him away. Still he held tall. Mottrack’s neck coiled to strike.
Therid fluttered homage. And so that Mottrack would be sure, he chickered, “Homage. To Mottrack. No homage to Monster Creature.”
Mottrack hesitated. “Expel!” Therid cried again. “Not Great Knowing. Great Predator. Expel!”
“Healed my hurt,” Mottrack cried.
“Hurt you, before healing!” Therid cried back.
“There is no other God but she,” Mottrack shouted.
Therid blurted in his astonishment, “Chick-madness takes you?”
Mottrack struck, but clumsily. As he ducked Mottrack’s beak, Therid heard a hunter cough, then another. Even as Mottrack stalked him, they all vomited, cleansing themselves. All past chickhood understood to their cores the dangers of mother-heal madness, of selfhood shredded to fragments by the intrusion of a dam’s mind.
Still Mottrack came on. Therid spun and dodged until he found himself trapped between the monster’s misshapen feet. A dark, violet light engulfed him, the ugly visage bent to consume him.
Therid shot sideways and up, slashing at the monster’s head in passing. He twisted in midair and dove back down, claws tearing red creases across its shaggy purple shoulders. He screamed to his nest-kin’s mate to come, come now! The monster flailed at Therid but he slipped beyond her reach, up, up. The monster’s fringes lengthened, spread, and, cumbersomely, took the air, even as its wounds closed. Joining him, his nest-kin’s mate dove to slash but Therid cried to her, “Slash, then heal, give your mother-heal, nest-mother.” She flew up beside him, her head twitching side to side with doubt.
“Took us, the predators, with mother-heal. Your mother-heal, strike. Chick madness, give.”
She dropped into the dark glow of the monster, her fringes fluttering for balance, slashed, coughed into its wounds. It flapped heavily, its ground creatures wailing below. Mottrack flew up to its aid, but Therid dropped below him, diving onto the glowing head of the monster who had tried to take him, shame and hatred driving his beak hard. He was careful not to taste its blood. His nest-kin’s mate followed, coughing in each wound he made.
As one, the flock understood. The caste-mates dove at ground creature and monster alike, darting, slashing, retreating. None repeated the mistakes they’d made in trying to fight on the ground. Two other mothers who had come on the night’s journey joined the first and all three coughed, coughed, and coughed more. With each pass, Therid saw wounds reacting to the mother-heal, some closing, only to burst wide again, bubbling red and silver.
The nest-mothers flagged, their flying ragged, their coughs near dry. A ground creature batted hard and grazed one who was too slow.
“Away!” cried Therid and the flock plunged into the jungle, leaving only Mottrack. Therid watched, waited.
The monster shrank and lost its violet light and its fringes. Its ground-creature face twisted, its maw opening wide in a roar that chilled Therid to the core. A nest-mother called, sharp and chiding. The monster gathered into a crouch, staring at the jungle as the last of the glow died in its tiny eyes.
Mottrack coughed, great, wracking heaves that emptied him, bowed him to the ground. The vomit shimmered and squirmed as if alive, but grew still at last in the dry dust. Mottrack thrust high with all his mighty strength. He disappeared into the sky, flying toward the centre of the jungle.
The remaining flock rose as one to follow him. Therid stayed a moment longer, making sure. He could not find one creature without a wound. Most lay in the dust, twitching. Others flailed and emitted gurgling cries as mother-heal madness took them, cut off from the dams that had imprinted them yet with no minds of their own. They would die also.
One badly wounded creature crouched, panting as it stared at the jungle. Its shining eyes, once so dizzyingly captivating, roved back and forth. Therid let it find him. For a moment it stared, chick-madness dulling its eyes. Then a touch of intelligence returned. It raised its paw, the stubby claws extended. Its face split, showing white stones between its jaws. Then its light went out, and it fell.
No one remains. And I—I am done. And glad of it. Let the Cradle die and fall. Expunge our presence from the universe. Live on, little wise one, and do better than we.
Late that night, as only the top of the flocking tree remained in sun, Mottrack called to Therid as he flapped heavily into the clearing. Therid humbly bowed before the mighty leader, awaiting his sentence. Therid shifted to one side of his perch, making room.
“Here, Therid,” he said.
Confusion struck Therid speechless at first. Then he fluttered, in deepest submission. “For me, too dangerous,” he refused.
Mottrack, clacked his beak in surprise. “For Therid, monster-killer, flock-leader, too dangerous? Saw you truths, not saw I. Strong were you when weak was I.”
“Night predator likes tree top,” Therid replied. “Hunters keep flock safe. Get no sleep.”
Mottrack chuckered loudly with laughter, the flock joining him.
“Lower then at night, be you,” said Mottrack. “But top of tree, when council needed, is wise, wise Therid.”
Again, Therid demurred. “Saved us, the Dams.”
Mottrack’s ruff shifted and rose, but then smoothed down.
“Great must be the tree with top so great for such numerous council,” he said. And the flock laughed again. But Mottrack opened and shut his beak in silent respect. He would think on it, Therid saw. His nest-kin’s mate chickered and preened him.
On his accustomed perch that night, Therid slept dreamlessly as the hunters shared the watch. And so he did not see the streak of fire that slashed the sky into the desert.
Liz Westbrook-Trenholm has published or aired mainstream and speculative short fiction in Neo-Opsis, Prix Aurora-winning (2015) Bundoran Press anthology Second Contacts, Prix Aurora-winning (2016) Laksa Media’s The Sum of Us, and Bundoran’s upcoming 49th Parallels. She also writes comedic murder mysteries for Calgary entertainment company Pegasus Performances, with over eighty scripts produced. A retired public servant, Liz lives in Ottawa with her husband, writer and publisher Hayden Trenholm.