(A work in progress)
“No. I will not allow you to go, Cedar. I cannot allow it. Astarte15 isn’t safe.”
Cedar closed her eyes and took a long, slow breath. “This isn’t Astarte15, Mother. That was years ago. This planet is Adalta, and it isn’t the same at all. Galen is down there. And Marta. Glenn is going with me. And Assam. It’s safe.” She squeezed her mother’s shoulder. “I’ve been ordered to go.”
Truth be told, she’d begged and pleaded and coerced whomever she could corner to finally admit the ship had major problems. Not everyone was yet convinced it was failing, but at least they finally admitted the ship was never leaving Adalta’s orbit.
“You understand that. I’ve asked Amalie to come stay with you while I’m gone. She’ll help you start packing.”
“Pack? Why should I need to pack?” Marion’s voice rose higher with each word. Her thin hands, blue veins showing through translucent skin, traced back and forth on the folded coverlet at the end of Cedar’s bed, never stopping. “I don’t understand what I would need to pack for. You’e not going, Cedar. I won’t pack your things.”
“My things are packed, Mother,” said Cedar, her voice calm, her words evenly paced. “See? This is the last of them––” She tucked a jacket in an outside pocket of her soft-sided duffel. “Everyone will leave the ship over the next months, Mother. We discussed that.” She took both her Mother’s frail hands in hers. “The ship is failing. It’s dying.”
“I’m not leaving.” Marion snatched her hands back. “I’m not. Not ever. I will not set one foot on another planet. You know that. I won’t. I lost your father, and you lost…you lost…you lost your foot on that planet.” She turned and walked out of Cedar’s room. “I will not go down there and neither will you.”
Cedar fastened her duffel and walked into the central room of the apartment. Marion sat in her chair, her body curled over over her tablet reader, locking reality away again. Cedar stood at the door to the hallway for a long moment. “Watch over my plants for me, Mother.”
Marion didn’t look up. Cedar opened the door and walked out, closing it quietly behind her. She leaned back against it, her eyes closed, her head aching. A frond from one of the plants that lined the hallways of the ship brushed her leg. What am I to do about her? Will I have to knock her out and wheel her to the shuttle on a gurney? What choice do I have? If she stays here she’ll die alone and afraid. If I stay with her I’ll die––we’ll both die with the ship. How can I make a new life on the planet when every time I look up into the sky I see my mother dying?
Two hours later Cedar braced as the shuttle slowed, and the four rotor arms deployed, slowing them further. She stayed glued to the camera screens, excited, fascinated, and not a little scared. This was the first time she’d been off the ship since she’d lost her foot, her father, and most of her mother’s sanity on the planet Astarte15. She was six.
She tried to wiggle her bionic foot. It didn’t move. She smoothed the unfamiliar feeling wool skirt and looked down at her hands. Her clean hands, not a speck of dirt, not even under her fingernails. That had taken a while.
“Look, Cedar. Over toward the mountains. Karda. Those must be Karda. If we can see them from this far out, they must be. They’re too big to be birds.” The screen was showing more planet and less empty space now. In the distance below them six Karda drifted in and out of the low clouds in wide circles and wandering arcs. Assam’s voice shook with excitement. Imperturbable, unshakeable Assam’s voice shook.
As the shuttle got closer to the ground the Karda disappeared, and the forest surrounding Restal Prime appeared beneath them. And what a forest. The trees, spears of green conifers and leafless black skeletons with a hazy hint of spring green, were enormous.
Cedar trembled with excitement. Of all the diaspora planets, Adalta was the most like Earth because most of it was barren and ripe for terraforming. Like Old Earth, not the devastated ruin Earth was now. So many plants to study that she’d never seen growing before, only in pictures and vids. The barren areas were so extensive, the planting was still far from finished even after almost five hundred years of non-stop efforts.
And the trees. Oh, the trees. There were trees on the ship, of course. They were essential to the life systems. But they grew in pots, or in soil that couldn’t be deep enough for truly large trees. Her palms itched to touch these trees, to feel the bark, to rub their leaves between her fingers, to sink her hands into the humus of the forest floor.
She pushed black curls away from her face, tucked them behind her ears, smoothed the front of the unfamiliar tunic, and fisted her hands on the awkward skirt that almost reached her ankles, covering the tops of her boots. Leather boots. Real leather boots. She grimaced. Real, stiff, uncomfortable leather boots. And a foot that didn’t work.
Assam looked at home in his tunic and tight trousers, a sword on his belt and tall riding boots. Glenn, on the other hand, wore his ship uniform. At least he’d consented to wearing long pants instead of the shorts he usually wore with his skinny hairy legs hanging out. It was cold here. But blending in had never been part of Glenn Voigt’s repertoire. Cedar laid her hand on his arm.
“Scared, missy?” he asked.
“No. Nervous, yes. Scared, no.”
He glanced down at her foot. “I won’t let you fall. Just hang on to me, if you have to. You’ll be alright.”
Then—Thunk. They were on the ground. The rotor whine curled down, and Cedar was on a planet for the first time in eight earth years. She bounced out of her seat––or tried––then bounced back and unfastened her harness. The hatch ramp lowered, and she gasped at the icy air rushing in. Finally fumbling free, she wrapped the thick cloak around her and headed out the hatch, her hand heavy on Glenn’s arm so she could walk, not lurch.
She breathed in a long lung-full of the cold air and sneezed. Oh, the smells. Hundreds of new smells. She’d never smelled anything like the clean, clear smell of the forest. The air on the ship, even in her gro-pods, was nothing like this. She stood, eyes closed, and drew it deep through her nose, again and again. Until Glenn pulled her arm.
Oh, my great galaxy. Five enormous saddled Karda stood in the clearing, horse bodies gleaming, hawk heads high–that sharp spicy smell came from them. One—a soft, luminous gold—stood next to a smaller black Karda. There was a thunderous sound, and Cedar turned to see a sixth Karda, cup its huge wings, glide to land at the far end of the long, narrow field and canter toward them. She recognized Marta on its back. Her back. Cedar remembered Karda were not “its,” and Marta’s partner Sidhari was a female. Thank you galaxy. Marta is here.
Cedar looked at the people standing in a half circle near the end of the ramp, three very large men and one small woman, all armed with swords in well-worn scabbards. Then she was enveloped by a large body, and Galen said, low in her ear, “Welcome to Adalta, Elf. I got you.” He took her arm from Glenn and began the introductions, beginning with the girl with spiky silver hair, a dark coffee-with-cream complexion, a sword on her hip and a bow and quiver strapped to her back. “This is Tessa, Elf, my bonded. Tessa, this is my friend, the ship’s Director of Bio-Systems Cedar Evans.”
Cedar grinned. “He actually looks nervous. Like he thinks we’re going to bite each other. I am so very glad to meet the woman who can make Galen Morel nervous, Tessa.” And she reached to clasp Tessa’s forearm. “Oh, I forgot. He’s now Galen Me’Cowyn. My sincerest best wishes on your bonding. And my thanks for puncturing his ego. That must have been difficult.”
Tessa widened her already wide brown eyes. “Ego? Galen has an ego?”
Glenn growled, “He used to. How deflated you look, Galen. Perhaps you could introduce us to the others in your party.”
But he was interrupted by Marta, who came flying off her Karda and ran to hug Cedar. “I’m so glad you came. I was worried they’d send Glenn without a keeper.”
“Where is he, Marta? Where is your handsome fairy tale prince?” Cedar looked back and forth between two tall, dark-haired young men, one whose face was all hard angles and whose hand looked like it never left his sword grip, and another equally large, with I-hold-the-world-on-my-shoulders hazel eyes, sun streaks in his hair, and a sword on his hip. Both men’s eyes constantly flicked back and forth between the landing party and the surrounding forest. He didn’t look much older than she was. Neither looked at ease.
Marta mouth twisted down. “He’s halfway between Toldar Prime and Restal Prime with his troops, trudging through ice and mud. But let me introduce you to Prime Guardian Hugh Me’Rahl from Rashiba. His presence, and that of the two other quadrant guardians, is why you were asked to land in Restal instead of Rashiba Prime.”
A large, burly older man’s hand grasped Cedar’s forearm, his fingers nearly encircling it. “Welcome to Adalta, Cedar Evans, Glenn Voight, and Assam Kamal. May our table provide you sustenance, may our land provide you work to suit your heart and hands, and may you find safety within our walls for your rest.” He turned and stepped back. “And may I present Guardian Daryl Me’Vere of Restal and Armsmaster Krager?” Daryl was the man with the troubled eyes.
Assam stepped forward and grasped each man’s forearm in the traditional greeting. “We accept your gracious greeting, and may we offer peace, harmony, and service to your planet, Guardians, Armsmaster.” He turned to Galen. Cedar saw the wariness on his face. “Galen, it’s good to see you. I hope we can work together here as well as we did when we worked with Marta and her dad on Baldur4.”
Galen grasped his forearm. “We’re both a lot older and wiser now. Maybe we won’t get in so much trouble.”
Assam’s shoulders relaxed. He’d been the one to arrest Galen’s father for smuggling the technologically advanced akenguns to this low-tech planet.
Daryl looked like he didn’t know how to smile, and Cedar saw tiredness beyond exhaustion in the deep lines on his face. “I extend welcome to Restal to you all. Our early spring must feel like the coldest winter to you, so I suggest we begin our journey to the keep. We have a light wagon for you. Forcing you into your first flying lesson right off the shuttle didn’t seem a good welcome. It’s a short ride back to the Restal Keep. The wagon is covered and heated, though not the most comfortable, so it might not seem short to you.”
Moving as though impatient to get them off this field so he could attend to duties more important, Daryl picked up Cedar’s duffel, took her arm and started to lead them at a brisk walk toward the wagon at the edge of the clearing. She stepped off with her non-working foot and stumbled. He caught her easily, looked down, frowned, and slowed his pace.
Cedar fumed. Had Galen not told them about her foot? Or was this too-tall, too-handsome, too-busy-for-this man just oblivious? His eyes still flicked in unceasing survey of the forest around them. She shook off his hand and walked as fast as she could without lurching like a defective robot, seething. I’m not defective, you…you… She couldn’t think of a word insulting enough to make her feel better. She took a deep breath of the enchanting forest smell and felt better. And sneezed.
Cedar looked around the quarters she, Glenn and Assam would share in Restal Keep. She felt like a character in a novel set in the Middle Ages of old Earth. Tall, mullioned glass windows filled one wall, overlooking extensive, untidy, winter-bare formal gardens. The small glass panes were thick and wavy and looked to be hand made. Vibrant rugs covered the floors in the five rooms––one central space with two bedchambers on either side. The furnishings were heavy, beautifully carved and upholstered. Tapestry hangings on the stone walls and the iron stove on the hearth took the chill from the room with its high, beamed ceiling.
Glenn poked at the glowing stones in the stove with an iron rod. “I’ve been wanting to get a look at these since I heard about them. There’s no ash here at all. They just sit there and glow hot. How can they possibly work?”
Assam dropped his duffel in his room and came back out. “They’re called magma stones, and they work with some kind of magic.”
“I’m gonna have to see that to believe it.” Glenn picked up his duffel. “And I can’t wait.” Then he went into his room and closed the door.
Cedar knew he was tired. Glenn was an old man, and he was failing. No one had mentioned his age when it was decided he would be the ambassador, and she hadn’t either. She hoped this mission wouldn’t be too strenuous for him. How will he take to flying on a Karda? At least Assam has ridden horses, but neither Glenn nor I have. I’m not sure I can do it. Well, I’ll do it, but I don’t have to like it. And I’ll try not to fall off. How embarrassing that would be—except I wouldn’t survive long enough to be embarrassed.
The feeling of absence at the end of her leg wasn’t reassuring at all, but at least it didn’t itch. Or ache with phantom pain. That kind of hurt was a double pain she hadn’t had to deal with since she was a child. It hurt physically, and it hurt emotionally when the pain forced her to remember her foot was gone.
Tall as he was, Daryl had to reach up to brush Abala’s shoulder. ~You are covered in dry grass and mud, and you have a couple of bent flight feathers. Where have you been, and what have you been rolling in?~ he complained telepathically.
~You’ve been in meetings all week, and I was bored and hungry. I found a tasty kurga and what I thought was a nice dry meadow. It wasn’t dry.~
~You must have flown pretty far into the foothills.~
~Ket and I thought we’d do some scouting while you and Galen were otherwise occupied. Kishar went with us.~ He stretched his big hawk head out when Daryl’s brush reached his neck. ~You might want to know he and Ket had an intense conversation they kept private from me. Ket didn’t look happy. Kishar and I hunted, and Ket flew off toward the mountains. He just got back.~
~What did Kishar say?~
~He did not abandon his mysterious and inscrutable air.~
~Any sign of urbat? Please tell me you didn’t see urbat.~
~You’d have know immediately if we had. You missed a spot.~ Abala twisted his huge hawk head to expose the underside of his neck.
Daryl heard the door open from the street side of the mews, and Cedar walked down the aisle toward them. She held to Galen’s arm with one hand and linked arms with Tessa on her other side. Her face was set in a stubborn show-no-pain smile, and her walk was more lurch than walk. He ached to get his hands on her bionic foot–that’s what Galen called it–bionic. It was somehow linked to the nerves and muscles of her leg and ankle, and he said was indistinguishable from a normal foot—when it worked. He wondered, with the kind of technical and medical knowledge that must have been available on the ship, why did she lose her foot in the first place?
But it was the kind of advanced technology that didn’t work on Adalta. It was now nothing more than a foot-shaped immovable block on the end of her leg.
“Don’t tell me you walked all the way from the keep.” Daryl was half-angry.
“Alright. I won’t tell you we walked all the way from the keep.” Tessa laughed and tossed her saddlebags into a stall where a smaller, black Karda waited. Galen’s face was a study in embarrassment. “But it was worth it to hear Cedar’s stories about Galen as a boy.”
Cedar looked up, and her show-no-pain smile changed to a don’t-you-dare-pity-me grimace.
Galen leaned against the opening to the beautiful golden Ket’s stall, dropping two sets of loaded saddle bags at his feet. “Save me, Daryl. Send me on a dangerous journey far far away. Cedar is destroying my glamour. Tessa’s going to think I’m ordinary.”
“Oh, galaxy gods forbid, never ordinary.” Cedar laughed and sat on a hay bale in the aisle next to Ket’s stall. She looked around. “What a beautiful space. What did you call it, Tessa? The mews?”
Large, open stalls lined the flagstone alleyway, separated by rare, polished, wood-paneled walls taller than most men. High in the stone outer walls, a row of clerestory windows let in light. Curious Karda poked their fierce hawk-heads over the stalls to look at the newcomer.
Daryl watched as Cedar took a deep breath in through her nose, and a look of surprise lit her face. Then she frowned, closed her eyes—which he couldn’t help noticing were big, brown, and beautiful under her glistening mop of curly black hair. Mireia sat down beside her, shoulders touching, and Cedar relaxed.
Daryl shook himself. He hadn’t even noticed Mireia come in.
Abala shoved at him with his shoulder. ~You need to check my flight feathers before we take off if you want to go very far today. Pay attention.~ Daryl could feel his laughter.
The alleyway began to fill as two wings of the Karda Patrol arrived for this expedition to show the village of Ardencroft to the emissaries from the space ship. Mi’hiru’s Kendra and Philipa came out of the tack room carrying saddles with coiled straps. Patrollers and Mi’hiru passed back and forth retrieving tack, and the mews came to life. Assam and Glenn arrived with, to Daryl’s surprise, his old tutor and mentor, Malyk.
“You aren’t planning to fly with us, are you, sir?” Daryl asked the tall, grey-haired man. His stoop had grown, and his face was still wan from his imprisonment by Daryl’s traitorous brother Readen in the cells beneath the keep. He’s recovered as much as he ever will. I know he’s old, but he never looked so old before. One more thing Readen had to answer for as if revolt and attempted fratricide weren’t enough.
“No, I just came to see you off. The three of us were having such a good conversation I didn’t want it to end. Their life on the ship was fascinating.”
“You were supposed to be acquainting them with life on Adalta, not indulging your curiosity about the ship.” Daryl laughed. He’d asked Malyk to introduce the three ambassadors to Adalta’s history and customs, but he didn’t doubt Malyk had more questions for them than they had for him. His acquisitive leanings toward knowledge grew stronger as he grew older.
Malyk looked at the organized chaos in the mews. “Good, I see you’re taking two wings of Karda Patrol to Ardencroft with you. I hope sixteen fliers will be enough.” Ardencroft was an empty village. All its inhabitants had been killed the year before by urbat. It was chosen for the first landings of the refugees from the ship in spite of the war going on because all the quadrant guardians were in Restal. What other places to settle them was still undecided.
“Me’Fiere's troops will also be there. All he can spare. The urbat hit another of his villages last Deciday.” Daryl’s mouth was tight with anger and worry. “They were prepared. The holders and villagers are learning. They are not such easy targets anymore. Their losses were not heavy, and they kill more of the monsters every time they attack now. But it’s still cold. The urbat will get faster and stronger as the weather warms.”
“They didn’t spot Readen, did they?”
Daryl looked at Malyk for a long moment, then turned back to Abala’s wing. “The Itza Larrak is responsible for the urbat, not Readen.” He smothered the doubt and dread smoldering inside him with a coat of ice.
Daryl felt Malyk put a hand his shoulder. He didn’t turn, and Malyk stepped away. Daryl finished repairing Abala’s wing feathers and swung the saddle blanket on his back. Daryl heard Malyk talking to Cedar and her two companions.
“I wish you well on your first flights. I’ve only flown a few times. It is an incredible experience.”
Cedar laughed. “I’m not sure incredible experience is the same as good experience. I have to admit, I’m terrified.”
“If you loosen your arms every few minutes, I’ll be able to breathe and maybe still be alive when we get to Ardencroft.” There should have been at least a hint of humor in his words, but there wasn’t.
Cedar unlinked her hands from their white-knuckled grip and grabbed fistfuls of Daryl’s tunic instead. Pompous ass. Those were the first words he’d spoken since she’d managed to clamber in place behind him on his Karda. She’d fallen the first time a patroller gave her a leg up—with her left leg, of course, which failed her, of course. Finally Galen boosted her with his hands on her leg and her bottom instead of her foot. She didn’t think Daryl even looked at her.
Abala adjusted his wings, Cedar’s stomach went somewhere else, and Daryl’s body stiffened when she grabbed onto him again. I don’t know why he needs to breathe, he’s not human. “Just don’t fly too close to the sun.” Oh, my. Did I feel a slight human-like twitch?
A full two minutes later—she ticked the seconds off––Daryl said, “Don’t worry. I don’t use wax to repair Abala’s flight feathers, and I’ve been flying too long to get so excited I fly into the sun.”
Cedar felt heat in her face. “How do you know the ancient story about Icarus and his wax wings?” She was surprised she didn’t stutter.
“Abala likes me to read to him.” He didn’t say another word. Cedar was so embarrassed, that, for the first time, well maybe not precisely the first time, she didn’t have a quip on the tip of her tongue. The only sound for several hours was the rush of Abala’s wings through the air. She watched them, marveling at the way they moved, the way the long feathers on their trailing edge opened and closed as they beat up and down, the efficient way they cupped the air.
Then she had to concentrate on controlling her stomach, looking down at what they flew over—bowl-shaped forest, villages surrounded by fields, and kilometers of desolate, barren land that made her queasy.
Abala’s flight wasn’t smooth. Every small adjustment he made, every tilt of tail or wing, every strong wing beat, stopped her breath, and she clutched harder around Daryl. Finally he put a hand over hers and held it there.
She closed her eyes and took several long, deep breaths of the air redolent with scents even this high and gave herself a talking to. Think about the job you have to do, not about falling off. She forced her mind away from how far she was from the ground and thought about the assumptions she had about this planet and its people. Those thoughts needed to open up. Adalta was primitive, yes, but maybe she needed to redefine primitive.
And she needed to reassess the needs of the people of the ship. She might have been six years old when she was last on a planet, and it might have ended in loss and trauma, but she’d loved every minute before the attack. She’d loved the openness, the freedom, the skies, the non-digitized realness of it. She’d been young, injured, traumatized, and terrified when she and her mother made it back to the ship, but the feelings and images had never left her.
There were people on the ship who spent entire long lives never experiencing anything other than ship life. If the emptiness of the barrens below made her queasy, when she was enjoying every minute of being on this planet, how would it affect those people? Some of them had grown up on one section of the ship and seldom ventured into another.
The sun was midway down in the West when Abala led the Karda down toward a broad green spot in the middle of the bare brown landscape they’d flown over for the last few hours. The ground came up so fast Cedar clenched her eyes shut and grabbed Daryl’s waist tight again, her face mashed into his back, her insides still high in the sky. The approach got rougher when Abala touched down and loped to the end of the long runway outside the green oasis. Cedar’s thighs ached, her bottom was numb, and she didn’t know how she would ever get down.
They loped across the wide green field and stopped at a small stream surrounded by immense trees. She could see their small leaves twisting in the breeze with a soft clattering noise. Then Daryl slid his right leg over the front of the saddle and landed on the ground, and all she could think about was getting down–or not.
“I’m not coming down. I’m fine right here. I’m sure I can sleep sitting up. You can just have someone bring me dinner.” Her hands were clamped so tight on the saddle she didn’t think she could let go. Abala shifted under her, Cedar's breath stopped, and she closed her eyes again. At least I didn’t scream Eek, or something worse.
Daryl’s soft laugh startled her.
“I didn’t know you could laugh. Are you laughing at me? That’s not polite at all.” His whole face changes when he laughs. Maybe he’s human after all.
“Abala is going to get down on his knees—no, no, don’t panic—then I can lift you off.” He almost smiled. “Just close your eyes and hang onto the saddle. Meanwhile I’ll celebrate being able to breathe again.”
Maybe he even has a minuscule sense of humor. She closed her eyes, and Abala lurched under her, throwing her around in the saddle. She clamped her lips tight. She was sure a “Mmmeeek” like sound escaped. Then his hands were around her waist and she was on the ground. He let go, and she was really on the ground. On her bottom.
Daryl dropped down, cross-legged, beside her, leaning back against Abala, watching Karda and riders land and lope toward them. “Galen told me you’d never even been on a horse. Your legs must be aching. We’ll just sit here for a bit while you rub them and the blood starts circulating again.” He looked toward the landing runway and the tall column of Karda circling, waiting to land. “Aren’t they beautiful? I never get tired of watching them.” His hand reached back and scratched under Abala’s mane.
Abala’s head turned and pulled at Daryl’s hair as if he were grooming him with that vicious, curved raptor beak.
“He loves you.” Cedar’s voice was soft and low.
“He’s my best friend.” He turned his face away, but Cedar could still see the faint pink tinge of his embarrassment. Oh, I guess showing emotion is not allowed.
Cedar sneezed. How long will it take to get used to thousands of new smells? Will my nose fall off first?
Three more Karda landed. Then Cedar said, her eyes on the field, “I’m not clumsy, you know. I have a prosthetic foot that quit working.”
“Yes, I know. Sometime I hope you’ll let me examine it.” He didn’t turn his head. “I’m curious.”
Oh, now I’m something faulty to be examined.
“Did he just laugh at you?”
“He finds me very amusing.”