Cran Palto | Books | Raheem




Chapter 3

Every child born must be raised and trained to succeed at the tasks and challenges they will encounter. Anything less is our failure.

—Alberto Hunguey, executive director of the Catra Population Program

After a few days, they settled into a routine. Trion built more of the camp, Vaega monitored the dwindling supply of emergency rations and planted fast-growing berries and some rice, and Agra went out to find things they could use, bringing back to camp metal pieces, wood logs, a few dead racoons, and some berries she found growing in bushes.

Vaega cleaned the racoons and grilled the meat over the campfire, kept the furs and cleaned them according to the field manual, and buried the carcasses some distance from the camp. They were thankful for a hot meal that wasn’t emergency rations.

On the fourth day, while she was out, Agra saw two people traveling across the country by the river along an abandoned road. They had sturdy clothing and backpacks, hats to shield their faces from the sun, and two stout, studded clubs. The taller one carried a bow.

While she observed them from behind a bush, thinking herself hidden at some distance, they stopped and turned to face in her direction.

Agra remained still. She could run away, or fire the gun to alert Trion, or even fire at the strangers.

The one slightly shorter than the other, with a pale gray bowler hat, raised his right hand and called out, “Hey there!”

Agra stood, her legs suddenly weak. She did not like this feeling. The strangers remained still and made no noise or motion of any kind.

“Hello,” Agra shouted. Perhaps too loud. They were just a hundred paces away.

“Have you just crashed?” the one in the bowler hat asked.

Agra could hear their words in the still air, but she could not see their faces clearly.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Do you have injured? Do you need food?”

“We need food, yes.”

“Do you have silver to trade?”

So that’s what the silver was for. “Yes, we have silver.”

Agra realized too late she had said we instead of I.

“We would trade our food for your silver, and whatever else you need, at your campfire,” the short one continued. The taller one had a sort of straw hat that hid their features and hadn’t spoken at all.

“I—Can you wait here? I have to ask.”

“We will wait.” They seemed calm.

Agra turned to go. “I’ll be right back!”

The shorter one raised his hand and waved at her. “Okay!”

She ran back to camp, thinking the whole time this could be very good but also awful. When she arrived, Trion dropped the wooden planks he was carrying on his shoulders and walked straight to her.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“There’s two people back there.” She waved in the direction she had just come from.

“People? Here?” Trion was astonished.

Vaega was walking from the strawberry patch. “What did they want?”

Agra looked back at Vaega. “They say they have food and other things to trade for silver.”

“They have food? This is great; we need it!”

Trion held his chin in his left hand. “Did they look dangerous? Did they have weapons?”

“No, they were friendly. They had wooden clubs and a bow.”

“Are they waiting for us?”

“Yes, over there where I saw them. I asked them to wait, and they said they would.”

Trion turned to Vaega. “What should we do? Should we bring them here?”

Vaega paused, thinking. “We need more food. We should try to trade with them.”

Trion spoke after a moment. “Okay, let’s go meet them.” He went into the cabin and came back with the pistol.

Agra closed her eyes, then opened them again. “What if it’s a ruse? What if they are dangerous?”

“We have to trade, buy food, learn about them, this world. We’ll be careful.” Trion reassured her.

Agra returned the way she had come, followed by Trion and Vaega. The path sloped gently through a grassy expanse, then crossed a line of trees, and ended in the clearing where she had seen the strangers.

They were gone.

Agra stepped to where she had seen them. There was a small trail, barely visible, that seemed to follow an old road that meandered through the countryside. She looked down both directions but could not see them.

Vaega stood still. “I have the feeling — the sensation that someone is watching me.” She turned and scanned the grasses carefully. She stared at a particular bush of dark green leaves and thin brown branches sticking up, topped by pale yellow flowers. “They are over there.”

Two hats appeared from behind the bush. The strangers stood all the way up, then stepped around and toward them.

The taller one looked at Vaega with slight wariness as they approached.

“Hello,” the shorter stranger said.

“Hello,” Trion replied.

“Hello,” the taller stranger in the straw hat said.

“Hello,” Vaega said.

Agra looked at the strangers. “Hello again.”

There was a pause. They all looked at each other. The tall stranger took off their straw hat. Long blond hair cascaded down past their shoulders. Their face was narrow and angular, soft and pale, with freckles across the cheeks and the bridge of the nose.

“Mackenzie Yrganstraad, of the research vessel Casparion Volube. I was born on Catra 81. I once was ShipSystems crewmate level 4.” They paused. “Now I am a hunter and trader of the Trudge Clan. You can call me Mackie.”

Mackie’s voice was high and airy; its lows reached into baritone range.

The shorter stranger took off his beige bowler hat. Their hair was dark and curly, clinging to their head and around the ears. Their skin was like sand at sundown and their eyes were like the sea after a storm.

“Ungior Treem, of the transport vessel Herinska-971. I was born on Catra 65. I once was a ShipSystems logistics controller. Now I am a hunter and trader of the Trudge Clan. You can call me Ung.”

Ung’s voice drifted between consonants as though they were being interrupted mid-word, but they pronounced each letter with precision.

They replaced their hats on their heads.

Agra took a step forward. “I am Agrawen Unelo, of the research vessel Tissandische-Unnaü, as they are.” She motioned to her companions, then followed the now-established protocol. “I was born on Catra 99. Anomaly research supervisor. I don’t know yet what I am here. You can call me Agra.”

“Welcome, Agra,” the strangers said together.

Agra instinctively gave the tiny nod of the Imperial Fleet Research Academy. Mackie noticed and nodded, and Agra saw a thin smile of appreciation on their face.

“I am Trionkanuki Shenbol. I was born on Catra 2. On the ship I was Engineer-master. I think I am a builder here. You can call me Trion.”

“Welcome, Trion,” the strangers said.

Trion smiled in acknowledgement.

Their eyes turned to Vaega, who was the shortest of them all.

“I am Vaega Estelle Riconello. I was born on Earth. I was a life-support botanist on the Tissandische-Unnaü. I am also a faculty member of the Imperial Planetary Habitat University at Neugharatta.” She paused. “Now I am a farmer.” She sounded crestfallen at the sense of loss of self-worth. “You can call me Vaega.”

“Welcome, Vaega,” the strangers said, looking at her.

“Thank you.”

There was another awkward silence.

“Agra said you have food to trade. Is that so?” Trion said.

“Some pemmican, yes.” Ung reached into his backpack and pulled out a small brownish ball. “It’s a mix of smoked meat and wild plants. It doesn’t taste very good, but it lasts a long time.”

Vaega stepped forward and took the ball of pemmican from Ung. She broke it apart with her nails and looked inside, smelling it. “What meat is this?”

Mackie replied: “Rabbit, maybe ostrich. I don’t think we have any more deer.”

Vaega took a bite and passed a piece to Trion and to Agra, who took a small bite and noticed how bland it was.

“It’s two pemmican balls for one silver pebble,” Ung said.

“You make these?” Vaega asked.

Mackie answered. “Yes.”

“Can you teach us how to make it?”

Ung looked at Vaega with a wry smile. “It’s easy to figure out. In the meantime, you can buy ours.”

Trion spoke, hand in the little bag of silver. “How many do you have?”

“Sixty. That’s thirty silver.”

Trion counted the silver out in his hand and handed it to Ung. Mackie reached in Ung’s backpack and pulled out six packages and gave them to Trion.

Ung slipped the silver in their pocket and took a step back. “Thank you. We should leave. A storm might be coming.” He lifted his eyes to the sky and sniffed the air. “Better get going.”

Agra had a thousand questions but understood that as there was a ritual about meeting, there was also a ritual about leaving.

“Will you pass this way again?” She called out after them.

Mackie turned their face to speak, but Ung made a hand motion and they kept walking in silence. They disappeared into the bush along the faint trail.

Slowly, as if lost in thought and processing the implications of the encounter, they made their way back to their little camp, where they each ate a pemmican ball while sitting near the fire.

Next chapter: Building Defenses

Subscribe to the mailing list to get alerts when new episodes are added.