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No Place Like Home

by Varya Kartishai

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

I brushed my hand over my eyes and stood up, leaving my vest draped over a child that had curled up next to me. I filled a bowl and took bread from a basket on the mantel.

Mino said proudly, “We got enough to make soup till next market day.”

“When is that”?

“Market is every sixday.”

After eating, I walked through the square, deserted now, to the gate. The guard glowered at me, “Do you think I have time to waste looking for the father of every brat that gets dumped here? If you come near this gate again you’ll be sorry!”

There was nothing else to do, so I returned to the house. A few children were sitting on the stone step in the sun, playing a game with pebbles, but Nilla wasn’t there. At home I would have been working since dawn, weeding in the fields with my father and brothers.

I looked around for some way to repay Nilla for food and shelter, and saw sunlight shining into the room through holes where stones had fallen from the walls. I had seen my mother plaster bricks back into the walls at home, so I took one of the soup bowls and filled it with water from the pail Nilla had used for the vegetables, then carried it to the small walled court outside the back door. Pouring it onto the earth, I stirred it with a stick, mixed in some lime from old waste, then put some of the mixture on a broken board, and used it to set the stones in place.

Nilla returned at high sun, before I had finished. Seeing what I was doing, she hugged me. “I knew I was right to bring you!”

It was a warm afternoon, but I felt a sudden chill. “You don’t bring everyone.”

“How could I?”

“Those you can’t bring, how do they live?”

Her voice was harsh, “They sleep where they can, some steal, some die of hunger, some are taken by people who do bad things to them.” She turned away.

The days passed. If I didn’t think about it, it wasn’t much different from home. Every sixday, I watched the market carts creak through the gate, but hope that my father’s cart would be among them faded. It hurt to think I would never know the name of the new baby.

From the alleys I watched with the others till the vendors packed up to go, some would leave a few vegetables that weren’t really spoiled. I would join the crowd snatching the leavings, and add my handfuls to the basket with the rest.

After a few weeks, I began to think about the earth in the walled yard out back. It was small, but there was plenty of sun, and it seemed a shame to use it only for waste. Next sixday, after I brought back eatable food, I returned to the empty square. The heaps of trash were gone, but as I had noticed, between the stones were potato sprouts, pepper seeds, rotted berries with seeds intact, and more.

I brought back a double handful and dropped them in the far corner of the yard. In the morning I marked off part of the yard with stones, and when it was time to empty the wash bucket, I took it from Nilla. Instead of throwing it out into the street, I used it to clean the seeds, dug furrows with a stick and dropped them in, keeping those of one kind together, then dug larger holes for the sprouts. Finally, I gently sifted earth over them, and poured the wash water carefully over my tiny farm.

Mino and Oran, who was about my own age, watched me. Afterwards, while I pottered about, repairing what I could in the house, I saw Oran whittling a broken piece of wood with a little knife he kept in his sleeve. Later, he handed me a small wooden shovel with a pointed end, and spoke to me for the first time since I came. “This will be easier to use than a stick. Show me how to take care of the seeds. It would be good to grow our own food.”

After a while, I couldn’t remember how long I had been here, this had begun to seem like my own family. Then one sixday, when we came in with our vegetables, Nilla looked us over, and asked in a worried voice, “Has anyone seen Mino?” There was a chorus of “No.”

“He left the house early this morning, and wasn’t there to help gather after the market. He must be in some trouble. Everyone look for him, but be careful yourselves.”

It was growing dark — we scattered in all directions, looking down every alley. Finally, near the end of the houses, I heard crying, and saw him lying on the ground a little distance away. Heart pounding, I ran to him as fast as I could; his foot was caught under a stone; I freed it, but almost at the same moment, I heard the humming sound nearby.

Frantically, I dragged him toward cover, but light surrounded us, and something began to pull at me, sucking the air from my chest. There was red before my eyes, then blackness. I awoke in bright light, sprawled on a floor of metal wires netted like an onion sack.

Mino was huddled near me, very pale; his neck oddly bent. I took a deep breath that made my chest and throat burn, and struggled to my knees. The wires cut into my skin; I managed to stand, my whole body aching. All around was a gray cloud full of tiny sparks, with only a little open space in the middle where we were.

Frightened, I staggered toward Mino, who had not moved. On the way, I brushed against the cloud. It burned my outstretched hands and a choking smell rose from it. Then, inside my head, a voice spoke, it hurt. “Sit, larva, until your use is determined.” A picture formed in my mind of an ugly worm.

I tried again to go to Mino, but sparks jumped out of the cloud, knocking me back to the floor. Anger began to drive back a little of the fear. Then there was movement near Mino, and something that looked like an arm reached out of the cloud. It was longer than my father’s, gray with shiny skin that looked hard, like a beetle’s. I tried to call out, to stop it, but couldn’t move or speak.

The arm picked him up, dangling limply, as though he had no weight and vanished back into the cloud with Mino in its claws. I struggled with all my strength to get up before it came back, but found myself helpless, only two fingers would answer me.

The voice was back in my head, “Walk, larva, by my will, not yours.” My legs twitched, bent at the knee, then I knelt, stood, walked a few steps. I had wanted to move, but this wasn’t right — it was as though my legs weren’t mine.

“Your legs and the rest of you, belong to me, larva.” The voice seemed to have heard my thoughts. I marched stiffly forward, back, finally the motion stopped and I collapsed on the metal floor. My legs ached, but the pain in my head was worse, as though the ugly voice had drilled holes through my skull.

I rubbed my aching head and thought of the hat the guard at the gate wore, with the metal studs. If only I had one like that, maybe it would keep out the voice. The desire for the guard’s hat filled my mind — I could think of nothing else. An image of the shiny brass studs flickered before my eyes.

I was vaguely aware that the voice had begun again, but I couldn’t hear what it was saying. Then it was as though the silent voice rose to a shout inside my head. “Obey, filthy larva from a poisonous planet!”

My anger rose over the pain. This thing had killed little Mino, It would probably kill me too, whether I did what it wanted or not. I pictured the shiny arm I had seen, and followed it into the cloud in my mind, to see a gray shiny face with eyes like gleaming domes and a vertical slit of a mouth. I thought of butting my head hard into it with my guard’s hat, and was shocked to receive a mental image of the thing falling to the floor as I heard a crash — the first real sound I had heard in this place.

“Larva, what have you done?” This time the voice in my head sounded puzzled and hesitant.

Could my thoughts reach the thing, then? I tried to think directly at it, “Let me go out of here! Leave our town, you don’t belong here!”

The response came back immediately, “I don’t belong in your world, stupid larva, but I cannot leave it. The fuel I need to take my ship away is on the planet’s surface, and I cannot breathe your air.”

“Why did you come here, then?”

“Not by choice! A meteor damaged the ship and drove us off course.”

“Are there more of you?”

The harsh voice softened, “No longer, my egg brothers were killed when the ship was damaged.”

An image formed in my mind of a thing like two bowls together, floating in the air, with a jagged hole in one side. This softer voice didn’t hurt my head as it had before.

Again it picked up my thought, “I am no longer using the command tone. I had not expected mental ability in a soft-bodied species.”

“Why did you try to order me around like that”?

“Would you expect to reason with those creatures you use to move your vehicles across the surface?”

I got a picture of a mule turning its head to have a talk with its driver, and a strong sense that the creature was amused. But I was still angry, “Why are you carrying children away and murdering them?”

“That was never my intent. The protective suits that would enable me to walk on the surface are in the damaged sector; I have been trying to bring a native on board so that I could train him to get what I need. My transport ray has been running on emergency power and, until now, could only handle the smallest ones. Today I managed to enhance the power, and got both of you, but you are the first to survive.”

“What have you done with Mino?”

“The other larva had a designation? It was lifeless, so it has been recycled.”

Tears rose to my eyes. The thing seemed to sense my sadness, “I understand; it was your egg brother. I regret nothing could be done for it.”

It seemed genuinely sorry, could a thing like a giant klak beetle have feelings? If only I could send it away. “What is it you need? The only fuel we use is wood, and there isn’t much of that.”

The voice sounded amused again. “The combustion of wood does not produce enough energy for our needs. If you will assist me, I will show you a sample of the mineral I require — you must not touch it with unprotected limbs.”

A claw reached through the cloud, holding a mesh basket. Inside was a small transparent cube containing a piece of dark rock with red lines that seemed to move when I looked at them.

“I have never seen any rock like that.”

“I have located a small deposit near here, that would be sufficient for my needs.”

“What do I have to do?”

“We will travel to the location where it lies, and I will set you down on the surface, with tools with which to extract it and a container to put it in.”

“If I get it for you, do you promise to leave and not return?”

“As soon as the fuel is processed, I assure you that nothing could make me return here.”

I nodded, but he had already sensed my agreement. After a short pause, the arm reached in again with a large transparent cube, open at the top, containing a tool that looked like a pick, and another that looked like tongs. The handles were oddly shaped, but I managed to grip them.

After a few minutes the voice spoke in my head again, “Prepare to descend.”

The surface under the mesh slid away, and I saw the tops of trees below, then the floor under my feet tilted down, but instead of falling, I floated slowly to the ground holding the tools and cube. This time I stayed conscious; I was in a wooded place I had never seen, and in front of me was a small opening in a rocky hill.

“Enter, I will give you what light I can.”

One of the circular lights was around my feet — it followed me as I pushed through the bushes that half blocked the opening. In the dim light, I could just make out a narrow vein of the dark rock running through the paler stone of the cave wall. How had the thing known it was here?

“We have tools we use for locating minerals, but I cannot explain that to you without an understanding of our technology. Chip away as much of the rock as you can with what you call the ‘pick’, and place it in the basket using the ‘tongs’.”

As I raised the pick, the handle hummed under my fingers. My first tentative blow gouged out a large hole in the wall. As the rock fell, I jumped back, remembering the thing’s warning not to touch it. I picked up the fragments carefully with the tongs, then struck again with the strange pick. Only a few blows were sufficient to clear the vein from the wall, and the cube quickly filled. “There is no more rock.” I spoke aloud without thinking, but it understood.

“It will be sufficient. My thanks. I am Zskrth. What is your designation?”

It wanted my name. “I am Kano.”

“Set the basket outside, I will pull it up, then you, and return you to the place from which I removed you.”

“How far have we come?”

“By ship, the journey will be brief; in one of your vehicles, it would be sunrise before you returned.”

“If you will point the way, I would rather go back on my own feet. Your ship is not comfortable for my kind.”

The basket and tools suddenly rose from the spot where I had placed them and vanished into a dark shadow hovering above my head.

“Then accept my thanks again, Kano. Move forward the same way you are now facing, and you will shortly come to one of those ways marked out for your vehicles. Turn toward the direction where you can see stars shaped like this” — a picture formed in my head of the star cluster my mother had called the “peacock” — “keep moving that way, and you will return to where I found you.”

A hum came from the darkness and voice and shadow were gone. I walked forward through the wood, and soon felt the ruts of a road under my feet. As I walked, I pictured Nilla opening the door, her brown curls tangled about her anxious, caring face. Oran and Bado would be behind her, with the smaller children peeping around them. I was sure of my welcome.

If only I could have brought back poor Mino, but at least I could tell them that he did not suffer long and that the nightly menace was gone. It is good to be able to care for one’s family.

Copyright © 2012 by Varya Kartishai

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