The Automatic Transponder
By the time I climb up onto the new mushroom-shaped platform, about twice the diameter of the previous one, Ant has organized a couple of people to stand by at the top. One of them smiles gently. One of them smiles fiercely. The gentle one is big, older than us. A twin, all the way to his smile, stands behind him. “Lithe and Limber we are, Shaman.”
The fierce one is as young as Ant and Mongoose and me. They help me to my feet, gentle and fierce, and I walk toward the center of the platform. About a dozen and a half—I count quickly—quite a lot more than the four more people that Ant said there would be are camped around a central depression.
The fierce one and the gentle one release my arms and I, feeling hemmed in by being suddenly among so many, make for that space.
Set foot on it. A knife hacks into my arm! “Aa-eeehhh!” My arm screams. Knife blade worries at my bone. Pain! Pain! I scream. Jerk back. Too late. I fall.
Men, women, boys, friends surround me. They reach for me. Hold me. Shout. I see their mouths move. There’s pandemonium in slow motion. I do not hear. Pain only is talking and I didn’t even sing for it.
But it all reminds me. I sob. Yes. There’s a patterning in the pain. I clench my jaw. Be quiet. Use your senses. The stabbing repeats stab, stab, stab.
I gasp. “Signal,” I press out between my teeth.
I see Lithe, his face near mine on the glassy ground. “There’s letters!” I gasp. Sob. Scream into him. “There’s a signal!”
Lithe shouts behind him. His twin pulls someone forward. “A signal. Ready to write?”
I blurt dashes and dots into the dark between Lithe and me, and the other inking her arm writing them there. Each of the elements—is what the Head Shaman called them—draws a blade down a screaming nerve or stabs me to my arm bone. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dash dot, dot dot dot dot, dot dot.
It seems finished. I start to relax.I gasp. “More ….”
Knowing what’s coming I swallow my screams. Just gasp. Sob, maybe. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dash.
Slightly different than the first sequence.
At the end I feel broken inside. Though there’s no blood. No torn skin. No wounds except for my pride again. I’d hoped to be a normal person. My hopes, gone again. A spectacle I will be.
“Ha!” Simmon says. “She’s a sensitive? It’s probably the transponder niggling her.”
“And you know that how?” Uncle says. He sounds dangerous.
I want to crawl away. Hide.
Ant steps in the way of all the interested onlookers. Mongoose lets me cry on him for a minute. They both help me to sit up, crossed legs. Ant stays on his feet. His leg is a tree I lean against. Mongoose sits half in front of me, my knee against his back. I cradle my poor left arm. It throbs, so sore still. Mongoose gives me the corner of a sarong-wrap to blow my nose.
Simmon chuckles. “This platform was made by glassing, meaning a starship fused the sand into a landing pad before touchdown. I believe the girl was hit by the automatic transponder cached in the pad’s center. Lotor, because she will always be hungry for alien machinery, wears away at the foundations. Hence the undercutting.”
“Why?” Uncle says.
Simmon doesn’t hear or he ignores Uncle. “I’m amazed that the transponder still works. It signals the geo co-ordinates out into near-space where any arriving spacecraft can read them, and organize their touch-down accordingly. My mates and I dropped dozens all over the planet just after we arrived. This one will be one of the fixed points along the Great Parallel.”
Uncle snarls. “Give us the scientific detail.”
That gets Simmon’s attention. He stares round the circle.
“Scientific detail,” he repeats as if he doesn’t believe the Earth-born know anything about science. He proceeds to tell us in simplified ship-speak. “Tells us where we are on the planet’s surface. Zero Phi stands for Zero Latitude, another word for the Equator.”
“An equator is an equalizer?” Limber says. Rumble from a couple of other people wanting to know, too.
Simmon smiles like he is vindicated. Like he knew we’d not cope with science.
I feel he belittles us with his attitude. “In Shaman School we had a ball on a stand to look at, with a map of the Continent and the Ocean painted on it.” I tremble with all their stares on me.
Mongoose squeezes my hand. I continue. “Over the top of land and sea were lines that help us navigate, which are imaginary out in the field. The way Simmon tells it, all along the widest part of Lotor runs an imaginary line called an equator. The signal names it Zero Phi. Simmon calls it an abbreviation.” I snort. “With fifteen elements? That’s double the ship’s call sign.”
“You learned your lessons well, Little Shaman,” Simmon says.
Now I’m furious. I rise to my feet.
Straightaway all around me there’s a physical shifting that I ignore. I trust Mongoose and I trust Ant. “Who isn’t little compared to you? A long end of rope to hang yourself with, my father would’ve called you.”
A couple of people snort, possibly recognizing the saying from their own fathers. I bite my lips to stop there. Before I tell my people what he is, he’s got to be made to tell us why he follows us.
“How can she be a shaman with all that screaming and crying?” someone says.
I don’t know his voice.
“She has a hurt we can’t see. Are we fools to continue with her when it is a matter of life and death? Will she even live long enough herself?”
Ant laughs. “Listen to the Jackdaw! If somebody gave me in my childhood that totem to learn from, do you think I wouldn’t have earned another by now? You think it isn’t a matter of life and death to her? Do you even know what she had to do to join us?”
I sit down and tune out.
Ant starts to tell how I escaped before he and Mongoose could rescue me.
I plan what I will say next.
When Ant is finished, I kneel up to get a little height. “Yes. I cried and I screamed. You all heard me,” I say. I stop. I’m telling them what they already know.
Mongoose squeezes my hand again. He gets me out of my nerves.
I plan what else to say. “First the Ark-Ship talks into me. Then, apparently, an Earthborn gadget talks into me. They both have signals with many elements that have got to fit into the little amulet in me.” I massage my arm where the amulet still throbs.
“It feels like I get burnt, stung, stabbed and cut all at the same time. My nerves scream at me. I scream at you. But look, no wounds.” I bare my arm and show them my harpy eagle tattoo. “No blood. I’ll probably get used to it. Maybe even to the point of not screaming, so I don’t frighten people.” I look at Jackdaw. “And maybe—I won’t know till I ask—the Ark-Ship can fix its signal so it doesn’t hurt me.”
The fierce one who greeted me springs forward and slides to me on his knees. “I’ll gladly help with the singing for that, Shaman Jeb. I’m Meerkat, forever honored that you sang my totem to discover the ship.”
Someone in the people-shadows sneered. “Pff. Meerkats. Always the song and dance.”
“Thanks, Meerkat,” I say. I take a deep breath. Might as well get it all out. “I am only half the Shaman you need. But I… I thought I’d come along because I worked out how to talk to the Ark-Ship and …”
Simmon cuts in at that point. “You heard her, she’s only half the Shaman you need. But Lotor … Lotor needs all of her. I followed you to offer you a whole job, Jeb.”
His interruption is so preposterous that I am not the only one with my mouth hanging open. The only sound is the soughing of sand in the wind scouring at the base of the platform. Both Mongoose and Ant also rise, and move nearer. They squeeze me between them.
Small protective moves, but I see people taking notice. There’s a murmuring to and fro. I know so few of these people, I can’t see who thinks what. Are there really people here who think I should take Simmon’s offer?
“Thyal?” Uncle says. “You have some words on this?”
I don’t believe it. Uncle is one of them? But he came to fetch me!
An old man with just one whole arm rises from the group seated to Uncle’s left and seats himself between Uncle and me.
“I am Thyal, Shaman Jeb,” he says, nodding at me. “Forever studying the Thylacine totem. I assign totems in this troop, and teach their recipients the way to carry themselves as Totems.”
He lifts the stump of his arm. “Ihave no amulet. I’m a one-armed Shaman useless for what you’ll be good at. Together we are well-suited to the task.”
Oh. I break out in smiles from the relief. “I’d like that.” Thyal has put my worries to rest on a couple of counts.
“Jeb, these people live in the past.” Simmon says. “How many have they lost due to that fatal flaw? You don’t want to be among them when Lotor starts to take an interest in nomads now that she has finished with the towns. If we leave now, I can have you in the laboratories by daylight. New set of friends. People who’ll appreciate you for being of your mother’s line.”
I want to be scathing. Why would I listen to him? But … how does he know about my mother? What does he know about her? What does he mean, the laboratories? I clench my hands together in my lap. I don’t want eye contact with Simmon and I stare beyond him to the back of the crowd.
Out there where a raised hand waves to and fro. A woman there is trying to get my attention? She’s got it.
She pulls her black hair, plaited in one long braid, forward over her shoulder. A red ribbon is threaded through. She points my gaze to another woman, nearer to Uncle and Thyal, dressed all in black. Then she points out two men standing quite near to Mongoose. All have their hands resting on killing knives worn cross-wise in their sauger-hide belts.
I understand that she heads the guard squad and is showing me them at the ready. I smile a little.
The woman winks.
“Earthborn laboratories tend to be underground,” Thyal says, confirming my suspicions about Simmon’s offer. “The wisdom for that, it is said, are Lotor’s frequent re-arrangements of her landscapes.”
“You’ve got that right, old man,” Simmon says. “The very reason you’ve just lost seventeen shamans. The remaining Shaman School has fallen, I’m told. Have you noticed how often Lotor re-arranges its surface when the shamans are near to solving the problem of reaching the Ark-Ship?” He laughs. “What do you say to the fact that you’re the only one of your kind remaining, Jeb?”
He gets up. He stands swaying from side to side. He could be drunk or he could be trying to hypnotize me. Won’t do him any good. I’m not susceptible.
“A pretty packet of news that lit a fire cracker under me,” he says in a dreamy tone. “Wherefrom will you learn the rest of your tricks now? It’s clearly useless even thinking about it. Better to say goodbye. We won’t have far to go because Lotor will open a door anywhere.” All short statements delivered in that same dreamy tone, timed to coincide with the swaying.
“Don’t even joke about it,” Uncle says.
“I was joking?” Simmon says. He looks at me and takes in my awareness of his strategy. “Oops,” he says. “Of course I was joking. Though I do believe that about the Shaman Schools. And I believe this puma already knew it too. That must be why you and your buddies came to fetch her? You went away without her, what was that about?”
He describes Uncle with the puma-totem. Did he hear us talking? I don’t at that moment recall when Mongoose and Ant and I discussed the chieftainship. Whether Simmon had already caught up with us and we didn’t hear him.
Simmon scratches his forearm. Quite a large flake of skin springs loose and falls to the platform, from where the breeze picks it up. Uncle sees it too. He sees that I watch him track the flake over the side and away.
He remembers what I remember. But he shakes his head. It’s too soon, he mouths.
I hope he means it is too soon to tell anyone about Simmon’s affliction because Simmon hasn’t yet said why Lotor wants me.
Mongoose strokes my arm to stroke my worries gone. “The bastard will get what’s coming to him.”
I’m afraid. Simmon suffers from the Earthborn disease. Whoever touches him will die, the settler-born the quicker. My father died not long after he lay down with my sick mother. How many will Simmon try to take with him?