What the old owe the young is their wisdom; just as the young owe the old their willingness to listen to it. The formal records of my days will be in the town archive, and when the time comes, I will add my story to the history, as everyone should do. This is different. I give it unasked, as if it were a fruit from my courtyard, but from necessity, because I find I can do no other.
It began, and there is a lesson all of itself, because I was late for the town meeting. This was not my usual habit, of course. Some people seem now to think that these meetings are unimportant, that they can arrive late, leave early, creak and snort through the whole without any harm. I have never believed so, as I have made sure they know. So it was so much more the shame to me when I myself was delayed.
It was the day that Tutko decided he was going to improve the pump. Both Tutko and the pump came to me from my mate, blessings and burdens together as remembrances are. The pump was from when my mate put in an irrigation system into the courtyard. He paid more for it than anyone in town, brought it all the way from the City, but it never worked well. It was made for the City people, for the soft plains around where the water is so near the surface that all you have to do is cut a channel and see! There it is. It was not equal to our great mass of rock. So the sprinklers sit and rust around the colonnade, while we water the fruits by hand as my mate’s people have always done.
Tutko…well, I shall not speak ill of one who was old then even to me and who will certainly be dead by the time you are listening to this. He is some sort of kin to my mate, passed around the kinship for longer than any of us remember. He has lived in my household for many three-years, with his own room off the outer courtyard and his keep in exchange for his work. Indeed, I can find no fault with how hard he works. It is only that he is a tinkerer, always believing that things can be better. Whether it is the house control system, the cleaning or the cooking service, Tutko will have the cables out all over the hearthplace, just to ‘improve’ it for you, whether you want it or no.
That day, already into the eighth hour, I came into the courtyard to find him standing on a table with his old white snout in one of the sprinklers.
“He’s got an idea for how we can get it working properly” Faerrin said.
Faerrin and her sib Fearrin are kin of mine, living in my household while they study. Or supposedly study. Fearrin does, I fear, very little work; Faerrin at least had her workstation on the table beside Tutko’s boots, although the screen was dark. She sniffed in amusement. “We’ll have agars as big as canbelins and dance between the raindrops like the ancients.”
“Will we, indeed?” I answered. “Tutko?”
He looked down at me, with that half-furtive, half-cunning expression he always has when he wanted to try something ill-advised.
“I was thinking, see, that might be just that it don’t get enough power” he said. “If I override the limiter…”
He saw my “but that is there for a reason” in my face. “They’re only there for rationing in any case. But why shouldn’t we take all the power we need, we make enough of it for them City people, don’t we?”
“Well, that’s true enough.” I said. “But what if it blows out, damages the pump?”
“What if it does? It don’t work more than a few times a cycle as it is.”
There was a force in that argument, I could see, though in truth I fear my eyes were clouded with a vision of a shining, dripping garden, just as much as Tutko’s and Faerrin’s were.
“Very well, then” I said, in so much hope over experience it was as if I held an overgrown agar already in my hand.
Tutko stamped off to the control system and initiated the sequence. We heard the familiar whine of the pump motor starting, the pause like a stopped breath where the limiter could no longer limit, then a gurgling whoosh as the water started through the old pipes. Faerrin and I stood with the droplets running over our hide, widening our eyes in triumph, beginning to believe it.
I will have to tell Tutko I am sorry for ever complaining about tinkering, I thought. He will have earned that, and a share of the fruit. I will…
Then every system failure alarm went off at once, there was a great cry from the control cupboard, and all the power went out.
By the time I had seen everything reset, the pump defaults restored, Tutko’s burned hand dressed, Fearrin pacified and prevented from attacking him (he claimed he was in the middle of a presentation, although it was more probably a game), I would hardly have been early for the meeting, and once I had changed my jerkin and put on my scarf I knew I would be late. I have never thought it right when latecomers steal in, as if hoping that their failure will go unnoticed. Then again, it is not right either to break into the attention of those who have been there when they should. I let the door close behind me as quietly as I could, trying not to catch the gaze of any who looked round at the sound. There was no sitting space that I could get to without pushing past someone, so I stayed standing there with my back to the door. Laarren was on the platform speaking.
I did not know at first what he was speaking about. We have always followed the old way with our meetings here in Kur Terko. In some City districts, I know, they send around a list of business in advance, so that people can pick and choose what they come to, as if it were entertainment, laid out for their pleasure. In our town there is none of that. You go to every meeting and you pay attention to every item, whether it is the stuff of life to you or no. So it took me a while to understand what Laarren was setting before us.
At that time, Laarren had been ten times acclaimed Chief. He had a reputation for generosity to his affinity and was good at talking of his connections in the City. He was always going to do great things for us–more land, more water rights, more weapons for the patrols–next season. He did well out of it, at least; his land was the greenest in the town. He was speaking now in the “just leave it to me to sort it out” tone he used for most of his public pronouncements.
“Of course, no one wants to host one from this alien delegation, and quite right too, but it is a responsibility given us by the Council itself. In any case, we can’t let ourselves be outdone by Kur Barlin, can we? So I will take on the responsibility for you. I don’t object.” He snickered, one hand to his sternum, showing teeth, “Fortunately, I have enough space. I am sure I can fit them in somewhere. Unless anyone here would prefer to volunteer?”
His gaze swept the room, all the people of the town who would let him act for them as always, who would leave their honour to him because they were too supine to do otherwise. I saw him scan my face and move on; I, the latecomer, who had hardly shown responsibility, who deserved with the others no better than him.
“I. I would” I said.
“Kerrenna?” He peered at me as if there must surely be a mistake. Gorgo, beside him on the dais, muttered something to him behind his hand. If it were not for that I might still have backed away. “You have heard what is being asked? Are you sure this is what you wish?”
I had, of course, not heard at all what was being asked, but I was not going to say so.
“I am” I answered. “I will host an alien, so that you don’t have to find the room for them.”
I learned over the next few days that what I had agreed to was to give houseroom to a member of a Chi!me group, visiting “for the extension of relations of quietness and the rollout of tunefulness”, apparently. I assume it sounded better in their language. It wasn’t an unfamiliar concept, of course; they’ve been coming to remind us of their superiority ever since the days of our sires’ sires, when the treachery of the hellin lost us the War. They were usually allowed only to the City. This was the first time, that I knew of, that they had been permitted to visit small towns like ours, still less the settlements. I wondered at the wisdom of the Council in agreeing to it. It was true that there was nothing that they could see to shame us, but still, things could be misconstrued, alien visitors could be led astray, particularly where the hellin were concerned. I thought it a mistake.
I decided not to go with Gorgo to the spaceport to meet them. It is always better to choose your ground. I took my stand on the roof walk as the sun went down, spreading shadows across green fields and yellow scrub and the tumbled roofs of the settlement, half out of sight behind the screen of trees. Beyond the fields, transports slid along the main road to Barlinnin, their lights cutting through the dust. As I watched, a plume reached our turning and started along the approach road. Just two transports, I could see as they came nearer. They nosed through the narrow place where the field walls are older than the town, past Laarren’s orchard and the lower well, then out of my view around the side of the hill.
I met them in the gathering place, where the evening patrol were getting ready to go out. They were fixing helmets, checking hydro rifles, jostling each other for precedence as young people will, as they always did, but there was an air about them that was different. Every time a jest went round, their glances slipped off to one side, aware of an audience like actors on a dais. Gorgo was standing in front of the transports. When I caught his eye, he hailed me and bustled over. The patrol members made space to let him through, but at his back one of them, Frellin, who lived two houses along from me, raised his rifle and snapped his jaws. It was an odd thing to do even for a very young one, excited by his first patrol, and indeed Gorgo ignored it.
“Ah, Kerrenna, Kerrenna” he announced, reading from his tablet as if he did not meet me every day of his life. “This is your alien, here.”
He turned to one side; until he did, I had not perceived that there was anything behind him. And there she was, the alien.
It was not of course as if I had never seen a Chi!me before–we have Chi!me enactments just as I am sure you still do, so do not think me ignorant–but as it happened I had never encountered one to talk to. She was not as small as I had thought she would be, only perhaps a head and a half shorter than I, and although she was thin as they all are, it was a thinness of wire, not delicacy. People compare them, with their blue hides, to the flyers that pollinate City gardens, but she didn’t appear like that to me. She seemed rather like the creeper weed in the fields, that can look reedy and dead but survives still, unbeaten, unbeatable, underground.
Gorgo was still working through the tablet entry.
“This is Se’Sedra. Se’Sedra, this is Kerrenna, your host.”
She looked at me out of those opaque eyes of theirs, then she cocked her head to one side and I realised she was listening to a translation. She chirruped something back, (it is true that their speech sounds like flyers singing), and the translated words came out from a point somewhere on her shoulder.
“Thank you Kerrenna, I am very pleased to be here.”
The patrol was formed up now. I moved her out of their path as they jogged to the gate. I could see her watching the helmets disappear down the street, hydro rifles bobbing in time with their steps. I could feel what she would be thinking; what we know they are always thinking.
“We are fighting for our existence.” It sounded abrupt, contextless, but this was what she needed, they all needed, to understand, if nothing else. “We want only peace, but we have to defend ourselves. You Chi!me, you don’t know what the hellin are really like.”
She raised the back of one blue hand to her forehead, nodded her head over it briefly.
“Indeed, this is what we are here to learn” her shoulder said.
Later that evening, when she had gone to sleep, I found a guide to Chi!me mannerisms. The hand to forehead gesture meant “acquiescence without necessarily agreement”, apparently, when it was done with the back of the hand. Palm to sternum was sympathy, and palm to forehead was full agreement, submission. I did not expect that any of our people would see that.
For an alien, she was an undemanding houseguest. Tutko was delighted with her, as she ate all the fruits he brought her and allowed him to show her the wiring for the thermostatic system with every appearance of interest. Fearrin and Faerrin at first seemed to think of her as if she were a dangerous animal, to be approached from a distance and poked at with long sticks, but they came round once she showed them a Chi!me game she had downloaded to local storage for them.
“My son always loved that one” she said.
The programme for the group kept her busy all day with visits, so she was gone from early morning each day until the dinner hour. After dinner, though, when Tutko had gone to his own place on the other side of the outer courtyard and the young people were off with their kind, she and I would sit together.
They have a game played with tiles that is a little, a very little, like our Synbellin, although on Chi!me she told me the tiles are not stone but smooth white, and they play under a blue crystal, not in the normal light as we do. It was quiet there at the hearth, with just the click of the tiles on the table, like a pause, a time out of time. We didn’t talk about the large matters we were supposed to be discussing, peace between our peoples and all that, nor even very much about our planets and the differences between them. She did show me a picture of her home in one of the great cities of Chi!me One, but I couldn’t make out much, just a circular hearth and the strange, sharp light overhead. We talked of the little things we do not admit concern us; my kin and her year group, the annoyances of dependents and her son when he was young. Not so much when he was grown. On her second evening, she told me to drop the “Se” and call her Sedra.
That was the evening before their trip to the settlement. Not, of course, ours. This trip was to a model one, built only a few years before, outside the City, by aristocrats who wanted to show that if we were soft with the hellin, they would be soft with us, or some such thing. Well for them to argue it, when it would not be they who would bear the consequences. Even so, though, understanding how the hellin must live can come only from understanding how they are. If you see it without that understanding, even in a model settlement…I thought all that day of Sedra walking the settlement alleys, pale-hided hellin clutching at her hands, whining for her to listen to their tales of woe. And she, like children do before they know why it has to be as it is, listening to them…
When I was a child, I had as a friend a little hellin girl. Her name was Casso. (Well, really it was some long hellin name, Cassionumberiant or some such thing, but I always called her Casso.) Her sire was my sire’s secretary in the factory, down in Gaugeke where I was born, an educated man for a hellin. Back then, before our people had to come back from the colonies on Iristade, many of us employed hellin in quite responsible positions. He used to carry a row of styli in different thicknesses attached to a lanyard round his neck, which I thought very fine. Casso and I played together in the factory courtyard every day all through one hot season. I can still remember the skipping stone song she taught me. When, next hot season, Casso’s sire said she was too old to come again, I thought I should set up the mourning song and never stop. It was a long time before I really understood why I could not go down to the settlement to find her. How much harder would it be for an alien?
I imagined Sedra full of how wonderful were the hellin and how badly they were treated; those blank, black eyes narrowed in disgust, that speaking shoulder turned away. Just like a Chi!me, just like the Chi!me always do, so secure in their superiority they cannot even consider that sometimes they might be wrong. If she upbraided me, even though she was my guestfriend I would turn her out, I decided. I would not lie down meekly under correction, not I, whose sire’s dam’s sire was at Qiva, in the War, where we slaughtered them all.
I felt myself towering in my righteous anger as I heard the whir of the transport outside. Sedra climbed out and let the door slide behind her, not looking back. The little cloth slippers she wore each day were grimy and torn at the toes, and she carried herself as if her bag were too heavy for her. She saw me in the doorway and stretched her mouth in that Chi!me pleased expression they do. I always find it disconcerting, when on Chi!me enactments, the actors bare their teeth like that. I know it does not mean what it would mean with us, but knowing is not the same as feeling. I realised then that Sedra always kept her lips together; remembering, even in the moment. I caught her bag as it slipped down her arm.
“Did you have a worthy day?”
I had not meant to ask her anything. It was as if suddenly I was scarcely taller than her, as if our eyes were on the level, so that we should see the same things.
“It was interesting” she said, and the translator relayed no edge to her tone. “But tiring. I hope we are eating soon.”
She took her bag back from my hand and passed before me into the hall.
After two three-days, the group went to the City for a spell before their return to Chi!me. Sedra would rather have stayed with us. “All cities are the same”, she said, “it is people who are worth visiting”, but it was part of the trip, and she had no say, then, over the arrangements. We had one remote conversation while she was in the City and then, a long time later, she sent me a comm of thanks all the way from Chi!me One. Courtesy demanded of course that I acknowledge it, and she to reply to acknowledge that, and so it went. She was always interested in the doings of everyone in town, those who she had met and those she hadn’t, and gave helpful advice on what I should say to Fearrin, who was getting into a hot-headed crowd, when he was taken in after he went on one of the demonstrations against the hellin. I wondered if it was something she knew about, from her son, but of course I did not ask.
She was doing more work with the peace group, she told me. The visit had been seen a success, a precursor for many others, and that they themselves would also wish to come back. She was involved in the organising this time, since she knew the ground, and I was proud to be able to help her with it. So it was, that when Laarren took me to one side before a town meeting to tell me importantly that the Chi!me delegation was to return, I was able to tell him that I knew this already, and more details besides.
“I will of course be hosting Se’Sedra again” I added. Since we were now guestfriends he could hardly gainsay this, although I could tell by the set of his snout that he would have liked to. All he could do was set Gorgo to glaring at me from the dais all through the meeting, and that was more satisfying to me than threatening.
I could share with you my many memories from that second visit, but I will not. I am not requiring your attention merely for you to hear an old woman’s reminiscences of her friend from far away, although that might not be as poor listening as you might think. It is the third visit of which I must tell; the third claw that, as is said, cuts the sharpest, whether or not it cuts last.
The first thing to be said about this third visit is that it was only a season after the election. Both of the previous visits had been at the end of Kersay. If you have ever had alien visitors you will know that that is the time they are always advised to come, when the dry cold is shading into dry heat, but it is not yet likely to be too hot for them to bear. This time, though, it was well into Antrano.
“You know no Chi!me will mind wet weather” Sedra wrote to me, and indeed she had told me about the great flood cycles of Chi!me One. She always wrote rather than recording a comm, as I also did to her. It makes good sense to save the expense of extra data use, and we were neither of us the sort of grandiose people who imagine that their every gesture is important enough to send across the stars. There had been political difficulties, Sedra wrote, and so their preparations had been delayed, but they would sooner come in Antrano than not come at all.
“If we break the pattern, it may be broken again for us” she said, and to be sure that is true. So it was arranged and so they came, and before they came, there was the election.
I was our delegate to the regional nirate. It was not an honour I had looked for, despite what Laarren spread around afterwards. I had not campaigned for it, not even the slightest mention that I would be suitable. I had assumed that it would be him, as he did, as it always was. But that election, nothing was as it always was. When the horn sounded at the selection meeting, Laarren’s people, Gorgo and Metunna this time, shouted out his name, as always. He had never been opposed, but even he had to wait for the nine heartbeats before the horn could be sounded again. I was seated towards the back, in the middle of the row where the air was so still it felt like breathing through a scarf. I remember that thick, waiting silence; jerkins creaking, someone snuffling, a door banging away on the other side of the street. At the seventh beat, Laarren reached out to signal for the horn and a voice off at the side said, “Kerrenna”.
His snout jerked up as if something had stung him. “Kerrenna” another voice said, at the front this time. He looked round at his people on the dais, trying to find a way to rule this out of order, but of course there was none. Another voice took it up, and another, the walls of the room radiating it like heat, even some of his affinity joining it. After that, the acclamation was hardly in doubt, although to do him credit, Gorgo did his best for his master, shouting for Laarren so loudly that you might have thought he had an amplifier hidden beneath his jerkin. Portirion, who is old enough to have some leeway in these matters, called out that he should be careful not to give himself a rupture.
I was not the only new delegate to the regional nirate; one of the repeat delegates said as I passed that there were almost half. “From the outer towns, of course” she added. I have heard it argued that everything afterwards arose from poor choices of delegates for the regional nirates. Because we were new and did not sufficiently appreciate our responsibilities. Because we went into it unworthily, seeking change but without properly considering the cost. Because we challenged those who thought that rule was theirs by right. It is not only because I was one of those delegates that I dispute this. Was Laarren, who went to every election only to meet his cronies and acclaim those who promised his fields the greatest water allocation, the best, the only choice?
This is not to say that I had joined JoSo’s affinity, for I had not, nor that I wanted to see him lead the Council, for I did not. But I remember the night of the final acclamation, gathered in the square with the rain flecking the screen and the awning flapping above us. When JoSo was acclaimed, the roar that went round the City gathering was so loud even over the screen that it seemed to echo off the houses. We looked around at one another, I and those who had acclaimed me, suspended in that shout between “we have done this” and “what have we done?”; the achievement and the guilt, together.
You will have seen the famous image, Larrenkomo as the outgoing leader kneeling before him, hand outstretched, and JoSo ignoring it, gazing over his head to the screens of all our people, all across the world. There is always disturbance after an election, but this time it was of a different quality. You may have seen the raid on the settlement outside Kenarin, the flames pouring from the huts into the night sky; the march the hellin called the March for their Rights, and how they responded with missiles when the Council soldiers moved to disperse them. It was after that that JoSo announced the new checks for any hellin leaving the settlements, and more soldiers on the streets. This meant the City of course, not little places like Kur Terko, but we reinforced our patrols, too. So it was into this uneasy world that Sedra came for her third visit.
I went to meet her this time in the City, at the station where the tubes from the spaceport come in. The others in her group were all going well over to Mesuanla on the other continent. Something to do with their own political difficulties, I supposed. I was simply glad she was not going with them. I waited at the bottom of the ramp up to the platforms, just at the point when the solid roof of the station buildings give way to the clear cover of the ramp. There were not many passengers and I soon picked her out, bobbing along with that definite tread of hers – though she is so small, you are never in any doubt that Sedra is coming – and her luggage hovering behind. I moved forward to greet her. She looked up at me and gave me her close-lipped smile.
“Kerrenna” the translator on her shoulder said as she bobbed her head. “I greet you in a good hour.”
This is a Chi!me phrase, but despite my gladness to see her, I was not sure that it was true. I was wondering how improper it would be to say so, when there was a sudden roar from the sky and rain started to teem onto the cover over our heads.
“A Chi!me welcome” Sedra said, and she wrinkled her face so that for a moment it was almost as if she had a snout and not a nose at all.
We had to cross Victory Square to get to the transports to Barlinnin. The only other way would have taken us by Qiva Street. I know well it has never been renamed for just such eventualities, but it did not feel right with Sedra. We had never spoken over it, I do not know if any of her ancestors had been among the defeated, but still. It did not feel right. I took her through the old town, those narrow ways where the shops spill their goods out onto the streets as if it were another age, then up along Street of the Flowers. There was hardly anyone else about, only a hellin woman who locked the door of the one of the shops as we passed and splashed quickly off the way we had come. She glanced once up towards the square as she did so. Hellin often look furtive, in their sneaking way, it is how they are, but I thought for a moment that she looked, also, afraid. Then Sedra’s case veered off again into a shop on the other side of the street (the way the rain confused the sensors showed, she said, that it had been designed by people who had others to manage their luggage for them) and I was distracted.
I could tell by the time we got to the top of the street that there was a demonstration. The grumbling roar of a crowd in the distance was clear over the voice of the rain. When we emerged into the square, I saw it was filled with people. It is supposed to hold a great nirate, so if there were not nine thousand, there were close to it. There were placards with the usual slogans: “Defend our people”; “Hellin in their place”; and so on. I had seen them many times before, but it was strange to see them with Sedra there, with those opaque eyes seeing with me, as if in looking she was changing their nature. I decided that we should go around the outside of them. I chose not to look at her.
They were mostly our young people in the crowd, from the outer towns, places like Kur Terko; not City people. It wasn’t just the way they dressed, or their voices, or the smattering of rifles that some of them must, disgracefully, have failed to hand back after patrol. It was in the air; it was their rage. We had to pass close by a group of lads hardly old enough for patrolling. They could have been Fearrin and his friends, with their jerkins with the built-up shoulders to make them look older than they were, and scarves tied across their snouts. They were shouting, a wordless, rhythmic chant, thrusting their placards into the sky in time. One twirled it round as he waved it. “What do we do with vermin?” it asked. Below there was a picture of a little dustrat, on its back, dead. I could feel Sedra’s gaze like a beam through my back. The image was one that Fearrin sometimes cast onto his wall. Sedra made a noise behind me; not a word, more like a hiss. I stopped, started to turn to her, and at that same moment, one of the boys turned also, and saw us.
“Hey, look” he cried, “it’s a dam-mating alien.”
That got the others’ attention. They all swung round to us, glaring, outraged, armed. The first one took a step closer.
“Dam-mating blueskin” he said and snapped his jaws at us.
I had never had such disrespect, never from any of the young of my people. I wanted to upbraid him for it, but they were many, and large, and angry. I spread my palms.
“She is my guest and we are just trying to go about our business” I said.
He sneered. “Business, what business does that thing have? It’s got no business being here.”
I could hardly believe he had said that.
“As my guestfriend, her business is my concern alone, as you should very well know” I replied, as repressively as I could. “Now, we’re going to go on with it.”
I made as if to move, but he didn’t, and it flashed through my mind that if I did start to move, he might move to stop me, and that I did not know what would happen then. I kept my eyes on his face.
“We’re going” I said again.
I stepped forward. So did he. I knew I couldn’t stop now. He was not going to move, I could see it in his eyes. I put out my hand to ward him off. He raised his placard as if he was going to hit me with it. Then a calm voice came between us: “is there a problem here?” A militiaman, just in time.
“We’re just trying to pass the square, officer. We’re not part of the demonstration” I said.
He looked at me, and then behind me.
“I can see that” he said; oddly, I thought. “I will escort you through.”
The lads sidled back into the crowd, although if he rebuked them, I didn’t hear it. He led us around the square, not speaking. We reached the point where the way led off down to the transport station and he turned as if to walk off without saying anything to us.
“Thank you, officer, for your assistance” I said, loudly, because I know my duty.
He stopped then and glared at me, tipping up his snout as if there were a bad smell underneath.
“You should keep that alien off the streets” he said. Then he walked away.
I finally had to turn to Sedra then. She was breathing quickly, so that her breath hissed between her teeth, and her eyes were even wider than usual, but in a Chi!me I do not think that means fear. She was holding her arms spread out a little from her sides, as if to make herself larger than she was, and she still had her luggage trailing erratically behind her. She chirruped something. If it was higher-pitched than usual, it was only a little.
“I thought we were going to have to fight our way out there for a moment” her shoulder said.
I did not know what to reply to her. My people had put her in danger. I had never felt I had to apologise for my people, never in all my life.
“But then, I was no stranger to fighting in my younger days” she went on. “I am sure we could have defeated them. At the very least, we could have set the suitcase on them.”
All the time I have known her, Sedra has always known how to save an awkward moment. It is a considerable skill, and not one I have ever had. If it is a Chi!me trait, maybe it is part of why they win.
We reached Kur Terko without further incident and settled into a home life as if neither of us would ever leave it again. Even though nothing else had happened, it was hard to put it into the past, a finished event, done, gone. All the way back in the Barlinnin transport, I kept studying the other passengers, wondering. Would you attack me, if you could, for hosting my guestfriend? Would you? Would you? I had thought that, whatever the City people did, we at least were still honourable. When we met the patrol, on the way to the house, I could hardly look at them, for fear of what I would see in their faces. I thought of myself, saying to Sedra, “we only want to live in peace”, and the hellin woman running away down the street.
We played a lot of Synbellin, under the colonnade around the courtyard when the wind was light enough, indoors at the hearth if the rain was too driving. When we tired of that, we would walk around the town. I did worry that this was not much for anyone to have travelled through half the galaxy for, but Sedra did not seem to mind.
“It is the people, not the places, that matter,” she said.
We waited mostly until the patrol would have gone by and then we walked upon the ramparts, looking down the hill to the fields beyond. The new fields, over on the settlement side, were just turning purple as the origot blossomed. In the distance, through the rain, you could make out the multicoloured roofs of the settlement itself. Between, the stumps of the walls where the old fields used to be were green and pink in swathes of creeper. My mate told me once that long ago, long before Kur Terko was founded, there was a town there, there on the good land near the old well. You may not know that there are supposed to be remnants of their irrigation systems there, sometimes when the creeper dies right back in a cold, dry spell, you can almost make out the traces, although of course I have never been down to see. It is too dangerous, too close the enemy, that land between where the hellin do not go either. I had not thought before that they might think it too dangerous for them, too.
Standing there, looking out over the countryside, I knew that I had to try to offer Sedra some recompense for what had happened in Victory Square. I did not want to do it. I knew she would not refer to it again if I did not and I very much wanted to take refuge in her silence. But that would not have been honourable, and it seemed to me that if my people were not going to behave honourably, then it was all the more for me to do so. Even though all I had to offer her was my shame, perhaps that would be recompense enough.
“Se’Sedra” I said.
She looked up quickly, narrowing her eyes. I did not know how to go on.
“I want…I mean, I must…I mean” I was stuttering ridiculously, finding it harder to find the words than I could remember for years. I paused, drew myself a little more upright, as I was always taught to do when in difficulty.
“It is incumbent on me to offer you submission for the insult to you in the square. We put you in danger and that was unconscionable.”
As I finished, I slapped my closed fists to my jerkin and bowed. When I was very young and learning about the War for the first time, I remember how angry the idea of our people submitting to the Chi!me made me, how I swore that I would never have done such a shameful thing. But this was not “a Chi!me”, it was Sedra, my guestfriend, and she had earned it.
She was watching me with her brows a little raised, as if she did not know how to reply. We stared at each other like that for a long time, up there on the rampart with the rain falling around us; as if we were a carving, a memorialisation of a famous defeat. Then she reached out and put her small, blue hand on my fist.
“Thank you, Kerrenna” she said. “It is not necessary, but thank you.”
She took a breath, then added, almost in her normal way, “We do not have demonstrations on Chi!me.” I could tell even before the translation that it was not a Chi!me word she used. “I know other cultures do and I sometimes think that it is the worse for us that we do not. I do not regret having seen it, so do not take any shame to yourself over it. And” she concluded, smiling, “I still think we could have beaten them.”
We walked back slowly, taking the longer, quieter route around the inside of the rampart, so that when we reached the house it was coming on to night. The lights were on in the outer courtyard, where they were triggered by the twilight, but not in the inner, as if no one had been there for a while. When I looked up to the colonnade above, there was a glimmer of yellow, from Faerrin’s room I thought, but she was usually better than Fearrin at remembering the minimum of household duties. Sedra went off to her room to put off her outer clothes. I climbed to the first turn of the courtyard stairs.
“Faerrin? Faerrin, are you there?”
Her door banged open, light streaming onto the opposite wall.
“Dam-sib? Respected Dam-Sib, is that you?”
She came running out onto the walkway, panting. Her jerkin was half unfastened, so that it flopped loose over one shoulder, but she started out correctly enough. “I have to beg you, respected Dam-Sib, for your assistance for your kindred.” She gulped and added, lapsing into the young people’s talk, “You have to stop him before he kills someone!”
It is right that I should host my young kin, but sometimes they are a trial to me. There was no need to ask her who “he” was.
“Come down to the inner room” I said to her, turning to go back down the stairs, “and you can tell me about what Fearrin has done now.”
“It’s not what he’s done, it’s what he’s going to do.” She had pulled her jerkin straight, but she was still breathing through her teeth. “Him and that crowd of his, that new affinity…”
“Affinity?” I had not liked Fearrin’s friends but had not realised it had gone as far as that.
“So he says. He has no judgment; I do not think it will last.” She wrinkled her snout, sounding if she were old enough to be his dam, rather than a three-year younger. “But that’s not the point! He’s with them now, he’s going with them to the protest tomorrow, and we have to stop him. Someone is going to get killed.”
I thought she was overreacting. It was true that the thought of Fearrin on another protest like the one in Victory Square was distasteful, but I could not see it very likely that he would come to harm.
“I am sure he will be safe enough, Faerrin.”
“Yes, of course he will!” she cried. “It’s not him I’m worried about, it’s the hellin he is going to kill!”
My confusion must have shown in my expression.
“It’s the hellin demonstration, Dam-sib. The March for Honour, they’re calling it, like the March for Rights. They’re going to occupy Cambos Field, just to stay there, for as long as they can, peacefully. Or, as peacefully as we will let them.”
I did not know what to think of it. I did not understand.
“What is Cambos Field, Faerrin?” Sedra had come in behind me.
“Oh” Faerrin said, “it’s the site of an old battle, where the last king was killed, cycles and cycles ago. We’re all taught that it’s a symbol of freedom, of liberating ourselves from oppression, but the hellin’s ancestors fought in that battle just as ours did. So, if it is freedom for us, then it should be freedom for them, as well. Because they are people, too.” She caught my gaze then and dipped her snout. “Or something like that, anyway” she mumbled. “So I’ve heard.”
I felt myself staring at her as if I had never seen her before. She sat with her head bowed, scraping one claw over the surface of the table as I had so often told her not to, and it was as if she were some miraculous creature, the prize at the heart of the maze.
“You sound sympathetic to the hellin?” Sedra asked.
Faerrin carried on scoring the tabletop.
“I suppose so.”
“As if you support them in this?”
“I suppose.” Scrape, scrape went her claw on the table. I wanted to reach out and slap it aside. I didn’t think I moved, but she looked up then, taking in me and Sedra behind me, taking courage.
“I do support them” she said. “They’re right. We mistreat them, oppress them, shut them up in settlements and kill them when they complain. Of course they are right. And they should have justice. I just wish that I could do more to help them.”
“You have never said this before.” I tried not to make it sound accusatory. “How long have you felt this way, Faerrin?”
“I don’t know. Forever. Ever since I learnt about the hellin, since I heard things about the settlements.”
“But you said nothing?”
“Well, I knew you didn’t agree. I wasn’t going to argue with you, Dam-sib.”
This was reasonable enough, but I couldn’t help feeling a sliver of hurt that she had not spoken of it to me anyway. All this time she had lived in my household, and she had not thought that I could care for justice too?
“And what about Fearrin?”
“Oh, Fearrin! Fearrin and his friends are going down to the city tomorrow to help the militia disperse the hellin, according to him. Which means they will be attacking them. Which means they will be taking their arms. There will be children there, Dam-sib, hellin children. We can’t let him do that. I don’t agree with him, but he is my sib. I won’t let him bring such shame on our kindred. You have to stop him. You have to convince him to leave it alone.”
I could see that Fearrin would hardly listen to his younger sib, especially not in front of his friends. Not long before, I would have said without question that he would listen to me. I was not as sure now, but he was still living in my household. Surely that would count for something? In any case, I would have a better chance than Faerrin.
“I’ll speak to him when he comes in tonight” I said.
Faerrin goggled at me.
“But he isn’t coming in tonight. They’re staying tonight in Barlinnin, to have an easy journey to the protest tomorrow. You’ll have to go to the city to fetch him.”
She must have seen my expression, for she added “it is such a worthy thing you do, respected Dam-sib, saving Fearrin from shame. I and all our kindred would be so grateful to you.”
So I had to go.
Sedra, certainly, did not have to accompany me, but equally certainly she was not prepared to stay behind. She said her people believe that the oneness of the universe leads you to where you need to be.
“I would bear witness” she said, “and learn.”
She did not elaborate on what it was that she would be learning, and I did not ask. I think I was afraid myself of what would be there to be learnt about our people and the hellin. She would have known that I could not give her any assurances of her safety; she was very far from a fool. I did not need to tell her so, even if the reason I did not was more that I did not want to face the shame.
I decided to bear the extra expense and get us on the first direct shuttle in the morning. Faerrin said that the hellin plan was to start mustering around the fourth hour. I do not know how she knew, but I trusted her information. More importantly, it was unlikely that Fearrin and his friends would have better. The shuttle was quiet enough for us each to have a row of seats to herself; Sedra shared my opinion of chatter at the start of the day. Few people from Kur Terko have early business in the City, although we would fight like gorlinnin if the authorities ever tried to take the service away. I had not taken it since the days when my mate was alive and I used to go with him sometimes, when he went in for a meeting, on some business concern or other. To what other passengers there were, I must have seemed much as I did then. Nothing to do with protests, or the blue alien in the next row. There is Kerrenna, respected citizen of Kur Terko, heading to the City to discuss a new business venture, or the results of an old one, secure and sure as our rock. It was as if I were in disguise as myself.
We reached the City just on the third hour. We came in to the high speed station, so it was only a short walk from there to Cambos Fields. As soon as we got out to the streets, we were part of a crowd; so many people, all headed in the same direction. I had been thinking of Fearrin and his friends as a minority, a deviant group to be brought back into conformity, and our mission as a solitary one. But for so many of our people, it seemed, spectating at the hellin demonstration was a reasonable, a desirable thing to do. I was worried at first that they would turn on Sedra, but no one seemed to be paying her much attention. It was a cheerful crowd we were walking in, looking forward to a day’s entertainment as the hellin fought the militia and the militia put them down.
When we got to the field, there were tiers of seats laid out for us, as if at a performance. Sedra and I sat down in the lowest row, so we could get out quickly if we found Fearrin. According to Faerrin, his latest post to his friends, a little before the third hour, had been “it’s late, but we’re finally off”, against the backdrop of a street in Barlinnin. Fearrin was never good at rousing himself from sleep without prompting. It did not sound as if he would arrive for some time yet. We looked out across the field. The militia had set up a cordon across the expanse of grass about halfway up. Beyond that, just about where the grass gave way to bushes and scrub, were the hellin.
“How would they get here, from the settlements?” Sedra asked. I realised I had never considered it, how they would travel to the city without even the cheapest, slowest transport.
“They must have walked all night.”
I thought of Fearrin, rolling out of bed half a day later than they to challenge their right to be here. The gulf in commitment alone seemed to call for something.
They were too far away for us to be able to make out individuals, just a mass of pale shadows, creeping up the field as it grew until the outliers were about halfway between the militia cordon and the scrub. They stopped there, as if at a boundary of their own, but went on spreading and deepening across the field, until what we were seeing was no longer a crowd, a mob, but a formation, as if the memories of that long-ago battle were lining up with them. A speech started; we could not hear the words, but the tone and the deeper roars in answer. It was speaking, at first, but after a while I could hear the rhythm building, the chant growing, calling and responding along the line, building the maze in the air.
Sedra beside me was half standing, one hand on my elbow as if to keep herself in place. The strands of the chant went on weaving around each other. Beneath them, the lines of the formation seemed to shimmer as they started to advance. There was a tune to it now, a thread of melody that I almost knew, though I couldn’t think what it could be. I was thinking that it would have to be something ancient, then it swelled a little louder and I realised. It was the tune of the stone song that Casso taught me, long ago when we were friends. I got to my feet. I do not know what I was going to do. The hellin went on singing, close enough now to make out the pale faces under hooded jerkins, lined and scarred and set with determination. Sedra scrambled up onto her seat, holding my shoulder. The front rank of the hellin came up the militia cordon and the militia fired.
I saw two hellin go down from that first burst, but the rest kept on coming. They did not break and run, and you could say that that showed their unreasonableness, how they are not like us, because why would anyone not run if that meant they could escape death? Except that, of course, we also know that life without honour is no life at all. Some were dragging the fallen aside and there were others now running through to throw missiles at the militia. I do not know what they were, they surely cannot have been much more than stones, but the militia were ducking under the onslaught, scrambling back, breaking the line, although they were still firing, and the hellin kept on coming.
It sounds absurd to confess it, but I do not think that any of us on the seats had quite realised that we, too, could be in danger. It was as if there was a screen between us and events, as if we were protected by being there only to watch. When something hit one of the metal poles on the side of the stand, it was surprise as much as anything that started the panic, the revelation that we were not immune, after all. As the people on the top levels rushed down, the stand started to rock, so then those on the lower levels started climbing over those below them to get down, which only made it rock harder, then someone fell and someone started to cry out. Sedra and I, of course, had only to get up and move away across the ground, but there were enough people by then running around the stand that even that was difficult. She was behind me as we pushed through them, I kept her behind me so that she would not be trampled. She was there, I am sure she was there, then we cleared the corner and I looked around and she was gone.
I hope that you have never felt the shame of that day when I could not find her. I tried her communicator, of course, but there was no response. The tracking reported only that it was somewhere in the City. You may say that I could have gone to the militia, and indeed, Kerrenna the respected citizen of Kur Terko could have done that. If it was some dependent of mine who had gone astray, I, innocent of all knowledge of aliens, could have been at the militia station, loud in assertion of my rights. But, as it was…I remembered the militiaman in Victory Square, thought of how they would look at me, and could not.
I stayed by the corner of the stand, where at least she would be able to find me if she was able to come back, scanning the crowds for her. I had never realised before how much blue there is in the world, how many snatches of someone’s scarf could look for a moment like a glimpse of Chi!me skin. I stayed there while the hellin advanced against the militia, while the militia wavered then received reinforcements and finally pushed them back. So it was that I was a witness to the second Battle of Campos Field, although little enough attention I paid to it.
When the combatants were gone and there were only the City’s workers clearing up the debris, I had to accept that Sedra was not going to appear and that I would have to go to the militia after all. The thought was as bitter between my teeth as unripe agar, but it had to be tasted. I had opened my communicator to contact them, holding it in my hand, when it started to buzz with an unknown contact. I tapped to allow it and it came through, no image, just a voice.
“Is this Kerrenna?” it said. A female voice, low-pitched, with an odd accent as if speaking through half-closed jaws. A hellin voice.
“Am I speaking to Kerrenna?” it repeated, with assertion, as if it knew itself entitled to an answer.
I agreed that I was Kerrenna.
“What do you want?”
There was a pause, as if, despite having started the call, the voice still had to consider how to phrase it. Finally,
“Your Chi!me guestfriend is here” it said.
My first reaction was fear, at Sedra, in the hands of the hellin, but a breath showed that was foolishness. What did I think, that they would capture her for payment from me? Why would they concoct such an elaborate plot? With that regaining of sense, came shame that I had thought it, so that I did not say anything at all. The voice did not seem surprised.
“Here, speak to her yourself.” There was a fumbling noise, then the familiar sound of Sedra’s chirrup and the translator overlaid.
I was so relieved I almost fell over. I sat on the bottom step of the stand to recover myself.
“I am so, so sorry, Kerrenna” she said. “It was my inattention, completely my fault. I let myself get pushed aside into the field, then when I tried to return there were some like those in the square that time, and I did not have my suitcase to set on them”–I could hear her smile–“but these kind people delivered me.”
“You aren’t hurt?” It seemed such unlikely luck that she would not be.
“No, no, only a little bruise on my shoulder. I am only sorry to have put you to trouble. I should be shunned, truly, I should be shunned.”
That was a Chi!me phrase for the worst thing that could happen to a person, so I knew she meant it. The hellin who had rescued her, she said, were from a settlement just outside the City. They had left the field quite early on, before the militia reinforcements, and had reached there not long before.
“They say I can stay here tonight and welcome” Sedra said.
“Stay there? In the settlement?” I could not quite keep the horror out of my voice. “Oh no, I can come to get you. There will be a transport at least as far as Barlinnin tonight.”
“There is a matter of a curfew, as I understand it. You wouldn’t be able to get here in time, and there will be patrols. I will be quite comfortable here for the night, don’t worry. They are very hospitable.” Was she laughing at me? Her voice, as far as you could tell with the translator, was steady, without inflexion. It was true that I had forgotten that there would be a curfew; or rather, I had never before had to take account of a curfew applied to me. I did not like the thought of her in the settlement, but there did not seem to be any help for it. We agreed that I would collect her as soon as possible in the morning.
I found a room in a cheap place, desperate enough for custom not to ask questions. It was needed so that I could get off the streets, but I did not sleep. In part this was a vigil, like ancient warriors spending the night before battle in the maze of the mind, to be ready, honed like the point of a blade. But it was also because I could not stop thinking about the morning in the settlement. When I was a child I used to dream of going to the settlement with Casso. I used to play it out in my mind, at night when I should have been sleeping. How I would step graciously over the piles of rubbish in the mud streets, how I would bring Casso’s dam food in a basket, and how she would clutch my hands and call me the young mistress. I was never allowed to go, of course, but it was a long time until I stopped imagining it, the squalor and the welcome both.
The curfew lifted at dawn and I arrived at the settlement not long after. The transport driver grumbled when I told him to stay for me; I had to pay him double for his waiting time before he would agree to it.
“Don’t know what you want to go there for” he muttered, not quite out of my hearing.
I left the transport door propped open, so that he would have to get out to shut it before he could skim away. The large central gate was closed tight, but the small foot gate at its side was open with hellin coming out of it. They were walking alone or in small groups, some with children, some all adults, their hooded jerkins pulled up or down, looking almost as a crowd in a City morning would do, going to work. They all looked at me, one glance then away, and although I did not think that any of them would challenge my right, I found I did not want to push in through them. I called the hellin woman on my communicator instead.
They must have been waiting for me. She said, in her close-jawed way, that they would only be a few moments, and indeed I hardly had time to put my communicator away before I heard the fastenings on the main gate pulling back. One metal leaf swung open, scraping a little on the ground where the hinges must have dropped, and there was the main street of the settlement. It was dirt, as I had always envisaged, but I could not see any rubbish. The buildings on each side were low, one-storey, with roofs made of a patchwork of different metal pieces and walls with the same creamy finish you see everywhere in the City. One of their doors was open, and through it I caught a glimpse of a courtyard with hanging fruits and a green watering vessel like I have here, standing on a plinth. In the street, away from the people heading for the foot gate, two workers were starting to fill in a shallow pit in the surface of the road. Then, the other metal leaf opened, and there they were.
Sedra came first. She was limping, leaning a little to one side as if it hurt her to stand straight, but otherwise she looked her usual self. The hellin woman was behind her, carrying her bag. She was tall for a hellin, as tall as me, and I suppose about my age, although she had more age seams in her hide than I do and her snout was whiter. She looked at me straight, with none of that hellin evasion, and it was as if she not I had the power there; that she was on her own ground and I, not she, was the interloper. Sedra turned to her and chirruped something, so rapidly I could not make the translation out. The hellin woman bowed to her, hands slapped to her jerkin as we do. Sedra nodded her head briefly. She looked around her once, that opaque gaze taking in the gates, the muddy road, the transport waiting and the rainy sky. She raised her hand. She held it up for a moment; just a slight pause, as if to make sure that it was not missed. Then she turned back the hellin woman. She put her palm to her forehead and bowed.
The hellin woman met my eyes over Sedra’s head. It made it feel strange, suddenly, that in all this bowing I was the only one left out, isolated from what they were building between them, as if I had climbed up a high rock and got myself stuck there. I took one step towards them. The hellin woman was still looking at me. I wanted to do something, but I could not think what. It seemed as if there were a great pit between us, too wide to cross; so wide that any words would fall into it and sink. There was so much to be said, it was not possible even to start. But our people do not give up because something is impossible. So I have always been taught. I took another step forward. It felt like my boots were made of the heaviest metal, that I was fighting against the whole pull of the world to move them. I took another step forward, and I held out my hand.
The hellin woman looked at me, straight in my face. I could not read her expression. There was no deference there, no fear; but not really hostility either. I stood there, and she stood there, both us fixed in place as if we could never break away from it, would never move again. Then she seemed to shake herself. Something closed in her face and for the first time she had a hellin expression, inscrutable. She leaned towards me and for one moment was as if she was going to take my hand. Perhaps, for a moment, she was. I saw her arm reach out, then I felt on my palm the straps of Sedra’s bag. The hellin woman took her hand from the bag and turned away. We watched her go, straight and brisk, along the dirt road, until the gates juddered shut behind her.
That was the only time that I have ever seen a settlement, the first time and the last. Sedra stayed a three-day more, until the set time for her trip was done, then she joined the others in Mesuanla. She is back on Chi!me, now. I had a comm from her a few three-days past. There is some more trouble with her son, I think. She does not speak of coming again. As I record this, Fearrin is out somewhere with his new affinity, Faerrin is studying in her room, and Tutko is tinkering with the pump. Everything is as it was, nothing has changed; yet that, I now see, is the pity of it. We try to make our lives better, we fight and acclaim leaders like JoSo, but however we try, the pump will never work. Maybe it never should. I think of Sedra with her palm to her forehead, that full agreement she never gave to me. Sedra and Casso, side by side, walking away from me down the settlement street.
I was always taught that our defeat by the Chi!me was our greatest shame, and that our subjugation of the hellin was our greatest, ongoing responsibility. I think now that we defeat ourselves. One three-day, we will face the consequences of that defeat, in a time that you will see even if I do not. So here at the end, this is what I give to you, the young of my people; a gift, welcome as a withered fruit. My fear.
Published in Theakers Quarterly Fiction #67