Cran Palto | Books | Raheem




Chapter 20

Of all the planets near a natural dacadan terminus, Raheem had the most self-stabilizing biome that could support life—it was the least likely to be destroyed by human activity.

—Introduction to Gamma ShipSystems Corporation’s Study on Durable Survivability.

During a conversation a few evenings later, around the campfire, Yigars regaled them with tales from across Raheem. There was the great migration, the Lords of the North, the great mechanoid expansion, the fall of the Empire, the scattering of the people, the psychic night of terror, and at last the dreadful revolt after which no fleet would land on Raheem for fear of not being able to leave again.

“All these stories have been told and retold, and details have been lost, and now they seem to be only legends,” Yigars said.

“But you think them to contain a core of truth?” Agra asked.

“I do! There explain a lot of what we find across the landscape of this planet.”

Trion wondered aloud: “are there ancient buildings still unexplored? Are there perhaps spaceships still hidden in them?”

Yigars shook his head. “No spaceship has ever been found. They only hid tombs of their people surrounded by robots to care for them in the afterlife, and to protect them from grave robbers.”

Agra sat quietly, thinking.

Vaega served tea, something from an herb she had collected nearby. The aroma rose in the air.

“The way this tea smells reminds me of the odors of the flowers when my pod first opened, when we arrived,” Agra said.

Trion turned to Yigars. “Do you remember when you first arrived? What was it like?”

Yigars stayed still for a moment, as if collecting memories. “When we fell from the stars, our ship was badly damaged. Those of us who had survived the crash gathered everything we could. All the adults had died, and we were all kids and teenagers alone in the wilderness.”

Vaega interrupted. “How many of you were there?”

Yigars continued. “I am not sure. Maybe a hundred? We had no shelter or fire, and few of us even knew how to use weapons. When night came, we were attacked by predators. That night and the next six of us disappeared, dragged into the darkness by fur and teeth. The rest of us huddled, terrified.”

Vaega, Agra, and Trion were staring at him. Trion continued. “On the third morning, we ran away. One group of older kids left first, taking the rifles, the helmets. We complained, but they yelled a lot and beat us. Once they were gone, the rest of us left in the opposite direction. We found water on the way, but little food. We tried to eat plants and roots, but we were starving. Then after a week, an enormous black wolf attacked us. The kid he attacked first, Benka, fought it off, and the wolf attacked another kid and dragged them off.”

Agra and Vaega had covered their mouths with their hands.

Yigars continued. “Later that night, Benka died. For a while, he cried and moaned pitifully. Eventually he was quiet, his throat too raw to cry out. We listened to his breathing in the darkness, all of us coming closer and closer, listening to the faint, halting wheezing. Then it stopped, and I felt a great sadness.”

Vaega sat back. She understood at that moment something about her lover she wished she had not known.

“There was sadness, but soon that passed, and hunger returned, fiercer than I thought possible.” Yigars paused. “Then instinct took over, and we threw ourselves on Benka and ate him.”

Agra and Trion covered their faces and looked away. Vaega stared at the darkness beyond the fire, along the uneven horizon below the stars.

During the night, the inside of the cabin was silent, and all were lost in thought, then dreams. When Vaega woke up, Agra and Yigars had already gone. The chill she felt came from her heart. She went to Trion’s bed and hid under his furs, against his skin. She did not sleep further, but let herself be soothed by the slow rhythm of his breathing as he slept.

When Yigars and Agra returned in the mid-afternoon, they were leading a gray donkey at the end of a rope. They both had nicks, dried blood, and bruises. Agra was limping, and Yigars had a haggard look in his eyes.

Trion came as soon as they walked in through the gate, and Vaega came running as well. Trion tied the donkey to a hook in the palisade, then returned to Yigars to help him. Vaega helped Agra, holding her up. They led them to the cabin to lie down, where Vaega washed their injuries and bandaged them up properly.

Trion went back outside to take care of the donkey. He brought a bucket of water and the donkey grazed peacefully on the wild grasses that grew nearby.

Inside, Yigars and Agra immediately fell into a fitful sleep, punctuated by moans and outbursts followed by catatonic somnolence.

Trion went to check on them, and in the darkness of the cabin saw Vaega’s face: drawn, distraught, unfocused. He motioned to her and said, “come outside with me.”

Slowly, painfully, she rose from the little bench and followed him outside.

Trion walked with her. “I don’t know what they went through getting that donkey, but it must have been bad. They’re going to struggle, so we need to be ready.”

Vaega gave Trion a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”

“We might not be safe. They might not be safe from one another.” Trion held his chin and pondered. “Maybe you should not be alone with them….”

Vaega stopped and took a step back, incredulous. “What are you saying? Yigars and Agra would never hurt me!”

Trion dropped his hand and let it hang at his side. He glanced back to the cabin, then back at Vaega. “But what if they are not themselves?”

Vaega stepped forward again and held Trion’s forearms. “Are you saying they went insane?”

“You’re hurting me,” Trion said, pulling away.

Vaega looked at her hands. They had become claws without her noticing, and her nails had dug into Trion’s skin.

“I’m sorry, Trion! I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s not! It’s not! What’s happening to me?”

Vaega turned and sped away, locking herself in the kitchen.

They did not speak during the evening meal, and they slept in their own bed, each full of anxiety and nightmares.

Next chapter: Art for Vaega

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