The Village Square
Vulture and Eider set the stretcher down on a room-sized carpet of blankets and bedrolls and help free me from the stretcher cover. The ground appears to be a hard clay surface, I discover by poking between the blankets.
Mongoose and Wren sweep meat-eating sand to the edges of the clay.
Eider settles herself near the solar-powered cauldron. It sits on four batteries that also serve as little legs and that, for traveling, unscrew from the base of the pan. Whoever carries the cauldron also has the responsibility for the battery pack, in a rack above the cauldron on their back, to make sure it is recharged during the day.
“Bring me your mugs. Bring me your water,” Eider sings. Plenty of takers see the cauldron half-filled from mugs of water, with the emptied mugs surrounding the cauldron waiting to be refilled. “Mongoose, you’ll share with Jeb?”
Mongoose grins up from his work; rolls his eyes.
Vulture, rolling her eyes, says, “Yes all right. Understood it is. You see his drinking mug and water-skin, Jeb?”
I fetch both. It’s good to be on my feet, even if I’m walking on blankets and skirting people trying to sleep. Standing near Vulture, I stretch and bend.
I hear people murmuring and talking; and the soughing wind. The wind carries in it only the inert and lightest of the sand grains. Jackal sings. He and the Death Squad herding Simmon have still a hundred or more meters to come.
Simmon stops often, I see. Red-tail prods him forward gently, using a padded stick.
“What is this place?” I ask.
Vulture settles by Eider. “A Moeran landing pad. Used afterward as a village square with a little town built around it. Their Squares have outlasted their people by hundreds of years.”
Puma joins us. “The Moerans were certainly gone by the time our settlers arrived. Several of their Squares were incorporated in our towns. So what’s happening with the Earth-born?”
I notice how no one now refers to Simmon by his name or by the totem he was assigned. Shortest career in history as a Grey Wolf that will be. Yet I can’t fault Thyal for his choice. Everyone has good in them and Simmon’s good harbors in the Grey Wolf totem.
“Red-tail has taken charge, she said to tell you,” Vulture says.
“It’s not a question of war,” Puma says. “Girl questions! Don’t do that again, Jeb!”
He complains, is derogatory, and threatens me in one breath.
Mongoose lays down his whisk so that the tainted end lies in the sand. He takes a position between Puma and me, his shoulder protectively in front of mine. Vulture grins.
Eider sprinkles dried herbs onto the boiling water. “She knows the Void, Red-tail said. She asks if you do?” Eider’s tone, usually warm when she speaks to or about Puma, is frosty. “The girl had to use something to get action. It mightn’t be war but it certainly is pestilence.”
Vulture interrupts Puma’s attempt to answer. “With the Earth-born loose in the troop, you could’ve lost half of us and I doubt we’ll fill the shuttle as it is. Can’t afford to lose anyone.”
“Girls rule,” Mongoose says.
Even Puma laughs. Eider shakes her head. “You look after that Mongoose, Jeb. He’s the joker none of us can miss.”
Jackal’s howled warning pulls us back to the present.
“A campfire,” Simmon says. “Or what passes for one?” He rubs his hands and holds them as if to a fire. Though particles of skin sparkle and float on the breeze, Jackal and Axel allow him to approach. Am I the only one who knows the significance of those skin sparkles?
“Stop there,” Red-tail says. Simmon sinks down onto a bedroll someone isn’t going to want to use ever again. The squad stands beside and behind, while Crow alone sits down between Puma and Simmon.
Puma refills his mug and passing it across, has Jackal set it in front of Simmon. “Nothing like a cup of tea,” Simmon says. With the attention on Simmon, Mongoose sits down by me.
“A while ago we were talking about totems?” Simmon says.
I narrow my mind’s eye. Simmon is well enough still that he can plot his way to his desired outcome? Maybe I can shift his thinking. I sing, if a bit shakily:
“The Grey Wolf frees himself from time-worn traditions
and stultifying townships. As the pathfinder, he strides
through the land and leads us to new knowledges
and new ways to be.”
“I wanted to say that I don’t need a totem? But thanks anyway. Kindly meant, I’m sure,” Simmon says. “I’m of the scientific times on Earth.”
Kindly meant! I refuse to feel mortified. Reminding him is the important part. Simmon would have had enough input from Thyal to know exactly how he can apply the Grey Wolf totem to his situation.
“When you approached me to join the troop, you and I calculated that you arrived on Lotor maybe a hundred and fifty Earth years after our settler ancestors did?” Uncle Puma says. “Those scientific times?”
“On Earth I’d be at the end of my middle years,” Simmon says. He ignores both Uncle Puma and the blunted prodders left and right. He shuffles forward on his sit-bones.
“Stay where you are,” Uncle Puma says.
“I need to get that young shaman and be on my way. I told you that.”
Uncle Puma lifts his voice a little to let everybody hear. “The Earth-born offered us safe passage through the city in exchange for Jeb?”
Nobody comments, all are spellbound. Simmon has found where I’m sitting among the crowd, probably because I sang his totem, and holds me with his stare boring into me.
I thought his eyes wouldn’t be seeing all that much anymore. I shudder. “Don’t let him touch you, anybody. All the bits coming off him are Lotor taking him.”
“Mongoose,” I whisper. “I’m getting up. I might need to run.”
Mongoose pulls my face close to his. “Don’t you look at him, he’s a snake.” He gets up with me and steps in front of me. “Why have we still got this dead Earth-born thing?” he asks Uncle Puma. “No running, Jeb,” he says. “Round and round the square. Tripping. Lotor’s reach is long.”
“Letting yourself be caught in the Earth-born’s stare gives him the strength for what he intends,” Crow says, adding to Mongoose’s meaning.
“Tell me Jeb is going to live longer than me,” Mongoose says.
“Together you will go to the end of your time,” she says. Crow is the keeper of laws, lore and prophecies.
“Fucking prophecies,” Mongoose says. “Could be right now.”
Simmon rises too, smoothly, and in one fell pace crosses half the distance between us despite the prodders. Despite that Red-tail’s now naked blade threatens him enough that blood trickles down his side. Simmon flaps his hand toward Mongoose. “I don’t need you, Sulky.”
“You don’t get anybody, Earth-born,” Uncle Puma says.
I resent that Uncle Puma stays seated.
Simmon stops. With a lazy arm he sweeps the prodders aside. “I don’t see why you’d want to keep Jeb when she’s as Earth-born as I am?”
Uncle Puma laughs. “You think Jeb’s mother, because she was an Earth-born geneticist, bred a one-hundred-percenter? Sit down when I’m talking to you.”
For a wonder, Simmon subsides back onto the bedroll. “Why wouldn’t she?” he says. “Couple of test tubes and a pipette get you a long way.”
“Jeb’s mother loved Jeb’s father,” Uncle Puma says. “Jeb’s mother choose a totem and she bred herself a one hundred percent settler daughter.”
Simmon bites on the bait. “Not possible.”
“I thought that too when I came to their house to be implanted with the amulet. Jeb will recall my upset, I think.”
Simmon does not look at me for confirmation. He will not be distracted. “How?” he says.
“Suddenly you trust my science?” Uncle Puma says.
Simmon tries to puzzle it out but he probably is too far gone for Uncle Puma’s word games.
“I’ll make it easy for you,” Uncle Puma says getting his fingers ready for counting on.
“Take the nucleus out of a female egg with Jeb’s mother obviously taking one of her own eggs.
“Take two female spermatozoa from the male, Jeb’s father.
“Zip them together, however that’s done.
“Implant Jeb’s settler father’s chromosomal material into the female egg.
“Implant the package into a uterus. Jeb’s mother’s own uterus again. Hey presto, a one-hundred-percent settler baby girl, as required, with all her genes her father’s.”
“She isn’t big enough,” Simmon says. “She should’ve been taller than you.”
“I don’t know,” Uncle Puma says. “Jeb’s mother was a smart lady. Maybe she prevented that somehow.”
“Why not her sons?” Simmon said.
“I don’t know. Jeb, do you?”
I shake my head. I’m still it working out. The explanation I’d missed through being too young at the time, to understand.
Just when I’m looking at him to check his progress, Simmon seems to sag inside his clothing. That will be a slab of flesh that’s loosened itself. It’ll start leaking out in a minute. I see it in my mind’s eye. It’ll resemble the meat-eating sand.
“Uncle, please!” I beg him, swallowing down stinging acid. My stomach can’t cope; it’s pushing up my fears for me to vomit them out. Uncle Puma saw parts of what I witnessed of my mother’s death.
Finally he nods.
“However,” Crow says. “The Earth-born can’t die until he tells us what he knows.”