I can’t make a mistake on this. Simmon’s forearm skin is a mosaic of skin flaps, which when shed, become the infectious flakes fluttering from the doomed person every move they make, if they are not fully contained by their clothes.
The settler-kind die within days, and though Simmon’s DNA pattern is straight from Earth and the Earthborn believed themselves to be immune to the skin-sloughing disease, they just take longer to die.
Simmon seems to be following us. Why? And he carries a rolled up, darker-than-night life-suit in his bag, with its insides likely littered with skin-flakes and so as infectious as he is. Though it needn’t be that he intends to hide the life-suit from us.
“Yon Earthborn is in a hurry to catch up with Uncle,” Ant says while he and Mongoose reorganize my seating.
“Alliances … change,” Mongoose says between paces, when we get going again. “How come … he doesn’t know …. that?”
“Ha!” Ant explodes a little. “Haven’t they just? Good … that tonight … we are … with eight.”
Does he mean four more people waiting? The group doubles.
“Let’s walk a bit, Ant,” Mongoose says.
“Suits me, brother.”
When his breathing is back to normal, Mongoose jiggles his end of the front of my seat. “A lot to think about, Jeb.”
“Yes,” I say. More than anything I want to be me for a minute. Simmon has joined Uncle. They are way ahead. “If you could’ve heard the times at the school someone told me to mind my tongue, you would be laughing now to hear me so silent. What I mean to say …” I collect my thoughts. “It’s hard being around friendly people while trying to be someone else.” I hurry on. “When I haven’t had any kind of practice being a shaman.”
“When I heard you trying out the different voices up in the white cell,” Ant says. “I thought, there’s a girl my age still learning her place in the Great Project, the same as I am still learning my place. That’s when I decided to stick around in the group around you, Shaman Jeb, to help you. Like, be part of your support group. If you’ll have me?”
I don’t know what to say. Again. “Umm. Thanks. That’ll be good. Because I …”
Mongoose interrupts. He’s blushing again. “When the damned Lotor-born threw you out and you lay there crying and laughing, I would’ve jumped through the fence and picked you up if Lithe hadn’t held me back.”
I blush because he blushes.
Ant laughs. “Look at the pair of you. Tsk. Tsk. Good thing Lithe was right there, Mongoose, my friend. You would’ve been slaughtered and where would Jeb be then?”
I shudder. I care about them so much already. How can that be good?
“That danger is past,” Mongoose says. “Let’s sing. We’ll need teach you some words too, Jeb. You probably having had a fairly sheltered upbringing.”
We all laugh, probably about different things.
“This song is a rhythm for running, Shaman Jeb,” Ant said. “Pick up your left foot, right foot … is always the first part of a line. Here we go, running.”
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step high through the sands of Lotor’s hell,
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step low over stone and mountain,
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step wide through gelid waters,
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step narrow along the Great Meridian.”
“What’s the Great Meridian?” I say, jouncing in time to their beat.
Mongoose passes the question. “Ant?”
“Mm-mm. I just sing it,” Ant says. “I’m nearly always carrying a load. Pardon me, Shaman.”
“Only if you’ll pardon me for being what I am.”
“Has you there, brother,” Mongoose says. “I hereby decree … no more pardoning among us three. Jeb, your uncle is a Puma.”
A Puma? My feelings speed faster than light into an idea. I tremble. “He is a Puma-in-waiting?”
“I think you nailed it,” Mongoose says.
“A Puma will be a better chief than a shaman who is also the Ark-Ship’s Mouth,” I hear myself say.
“I see that,” Ant says.
“What?” Mongoose’s voice is scor with saw-edged emotions. He clears his throat. “I mean, why?”
“Much less confusion,” Ant says. “What the Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what a chief would recommend?”
Mongoose doesn’t comment.
I don’t comment because I don’t trust my feelings not to overflow. What I know about a certain shaman, who also was a chief, was that he had a lot of advisers. What I know about these advisors is that they thought they were right about everything to do with the man’s life. The advisers had no kind of patience for the chief to have any kind of private life. And which meant that he hadn’t.
Mongoose grins with the corner of his mouth because I stroke his side with the back of my knuckles where I’m holding onto his shirt. I do not want to live the way that old shaman lived.
Ant continues. “Better to have any compromises made by way of discussion and a chief’s final vote than by Jeb alone, and her worrying.”
“I see what you see,” Mongoose says with unsteady breathing.
Ant chuckles. “Thought you would.”
Ahead of us, the new platform is now near enough that we can see a rag-and-rope ladder hurtling down the sloped cap of the mushroom-shaped formation.
“They lower the ladder to inspire us to speed,” Mongoose says.
“Such a way with words your Mongoose has, oh Shaman,” Ant says, laughing. “The mongoose goes chittering … oops … goes glittering to his … to his …”
Mongoose thumps Ant before he has a chance to finish. Probably good if I ignore all that. Don’t know what to do with it. Hints of … innuendo? If I go there, I’ll blush again.
Instantly business-like, Mongoose says, “Ant, you go first. I’d love it if you could break the mirror of expectation and old habits. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve picked up after the damned uncle still in his noble patrician mode.”
Ant glances over the pack and swag at the base of the ladder. “Yeah, we’ve got to train everybody out of that. I’ll talk with a couple more of the pack animals.”
I don’t see the Earth-born’s swag. He considers the life-suit is too precious to be left lying about?
Ant and Mongoose set my feet on the first rag-plaited rung of the ladder. My hands on the twisted rope sides. “Only one at the time climbing, Jeb.” Mongoose puts his hand over mine to hold me back.
Mm. Nice. Can’t call it accidental. But, realistically, who am I to hope? I saw five beautiful girls in the Yellow City dream.