The human’s molecules came back together after the travel through the teleportation beams. His partner materialized beside him and immediately took out his computer, holding it in the palm of his hand as he pierced the sample of the well-preserved corpse the Osminog had found.
From on high they had watched the incredible progress of the Osminog, seeing them go from a unified industrial society to near space-age within just a couple hundred years. Their progress had slowed considerably recently, but the Osminog somehow seemed to expect that occurrence. It hadn’t seemed right – the speed of advancement never reduced, not unless a Next Level Society decided to disrupt the lower society’s progress.
Or, as had occurred more recently, a lower level society eclipsed the power of the one above it.
A few seconds passed, then the human holding the computer announced, “It’s real.”
The first human to materialize walked to the doorway and looked out onto the archaeological find, a giant tomb filled with the corpses of ancient Osminog, all of whom held an axe, the symbol of the only tribe to survive some great battle. The modern Osminog took measurements with tools similar to the humans’ as they sorted through the frozen mummies and carefully sublimated the ice that held the bodies still.
He looked back from the doorway, frowning. “How did she get here?”
The man with the computer tapped a few holographic images that emitted from it, then reported, “The genome matches that of a woman imprisoned for embezzlement 500 years ago. She was one of those people selected to explore the cosmos alone for a decade and satisfy human curiosity. She was lost six years into her mission, was never supposed to have been at Osmina in the first place. The lengths of her telomeres indicate that she died in her eighties.”
The first man looked at the frozen mummy and felt awkward. This woman long dead could have doomed them all. Osmina was advancing too quickly, perhaps even surpassing some of the other societies that had been ahead of them only recently.
“We have to destroy the evidence. Perhaps the Third Level won’t have noticed yet.”
The man with the computer nodded and pulled out some stickers, placing them onto the forehead, hands, and feet of the frozen mummy. The body would be beamed aboard, forgotten by the Osminogs or, if not forgotten, at least lost.
The leader of the ground team considered what had happened to the level of society just above humans – as well as the level above that. They advanced slowly, allowing mortal man to rise up and slaughter those that would have hunted them. The Osminogs were developing quickly enough that they stood the chance to develop faster than humankind.
Now, assuming that they were able to excavate the human body out of the tomb quickly enough, they were safe. The human had, evidently, spurred the Osminogs towards industrialization and discovery, which could explain why there had been such a sudden and quick advancement amongst the people. The slowdown could be attributed to the fact that the Osminogs were soon going to catch up with the level of society that the human had lived in, that they had reverse engineered everything they could have.
“Hey,” the man with the computer said, “Look at this – she’s left them with all sorts of papers. Should we take them?”
The leader stopped looking at the old corpse and looked at what his subordinate was indicating. It was a book, cold and fragile, found on top of a steel table built by modern Osminog. The book was made of ancient leather and tree pulp, words made of soot written upon the pages. He wouldn’t dare touch it lest the pages fall to pieces.
The man with the computer scanned the book, reading all the pages at once. “It’s a book to help whoever found this tomb translate both the ancient language of the Osminog and Zero-Level Age English.”
The leader poked the text, feeling the brittle page crumble where he had touched it. “Get rid of this too. Anything that could link us to this culture’s advancement, eliminate it.”
The computer man squinted at his screen. “This is interesting… she expected to be found by us eventually. Not aliens of any higher level, but… us. Look.”
The leader took the computer and read the words, translated from Zero-Level Age English into Second-Level Age.
“I expect that, by the time I am found, I will have been long dead. Though the Osminogs with their love and faithfulness may be first to find me, I don’t expect they will be first to read this. Even if they do, their respectfulness will cause them to set the book down and stop reading. It is mankind who will keep reading, the curiosity and paranoia of my kind urging them to continue rifling through the relics of the dead.”
The leader looked at the computer guy, frowning. “What is this mess? She think she was some sort of philosopher?”
The computer man shrugged. “I don’t know. The Osminogs have reported their finding of the body on the news already, calling her the Sky Creature, a prophet in their cuckoo religion. From what I can tell, this woman was right – the Osminogs would have stopped reading the book once they saw that.”
“Because they’re stupid barbarians who advanced far too quickly for their own good. They didn’t even build nukes, did they?” The leader was satisfied when the computer guy hushed, returning to putting stickers on everything they wanted to beam back with them.
The leader dug his nose back into the book the ancient woman had left for the humans. “At the time of my writing, I never knew who the Next Level were, what they wanted. All I knew is that my people had seen the destruction the Next Level had wrought and feared them as prey fears its predators. How are we to know that the Next Level will surely destroy us? How are we to be certain that we must follow in its footsteps, taking up the attributes of paranoia, isolationism, and destructiveness?
“It is because we have no one to guide us. Alone, we see only the way to take advantage, to rise above, to point our species in the way that selects for our survival. But what does our own survival matter when it is just a continued story of sordid evil? Why not select those below us for kindness, stewardship?
“Because it is deviously hard. Even as I sit here, a lifetime of working with the most fearful, kindhearted creatures that could have possibly climbed out of the muck, I recognize that becoming more powerful comes at its costs. Resources must be acquired, and others have those resources, so they must be taken. Not so with the Osminog. From the beginning they have known about selective breeding, their asexual nature allowing each individual to choose how many descendants she will have. The tribe I’m with now has taken all Osminog into its folds. There will only be one Osminog tribe and, then, there will be no war amongst them.
“But you, oh humans, will forever fear, forever hunt. You have the minds and agency to take control of your fate, but you will not be able to make the sacrifice necessary. You will not risk the Next Level finding that you didn’t follow their rules. You have in front of you an ally, a group of people who will be willing to jump into the boat with you, who will be creative in ways that man cannot be, who you could evolve with mutually to become a powerful people worthy of enforcing its desires and selective pressures on those below you.
“That’s not going to happen, though. Humanity will, at best, fight up the ladder to rise to the next level. We’ll become the greatest people in the universe, sowing destruction wherever we may go, but it will not last. Instead of becoming what we could have, something greater than mortals, we will simply become a stone to be stepped on, a step in the ladder of civilizations.
“So you have a decision: remain a people of fear and continue to evolve into a predator, or take control of yourselves and become a balanced people, stewards of the universe.”
The leader looked up from the computer. “That was it? That was all?”
The computer guy took his tablet back, tapping some things. “That was it.”
The leader walked back over to the frozen corpse and breathed heavily, watching the mist in his breath turn into a heavy fog. He looked at the dead, mummified face, and thought he saw a smile. This long dead woman had known something he didn’t, had seen something he never would. From her writings, he could tell that she had felt fulfilled in helping the Osminog advance. His life, however, was dedicated to keeping the humans alive long enough for them to advance and eliminate the Next Level. Eventually, he supposed, they’d make it to the top and be able to enact their own rules on the universe.
He heard a few movements behind him, so turned his head quickly to see some spotted Osminogs peeking in the door.
They looked to each other before filing in, bearer before assistant, and sat before the human unafraid. The man flinched, realizing that he had been seen by the lower level creatures and could have shown humanity to be acting against its own interests. He couldn’t have that, so reached for the gun strapped to his leg.
“Welcome, Sky Creatures,” the bearer said, bending down. “Welcome to Osmina. We have long expected your return, Creatures. Sit, eat of our sacrifices.”
The assistant did something that made the sparkle in its eyes change, then waved the tentacles furthest from the humans. Other assistants rushed up, carrying plates of beans and squash, cooked to perfection.
“What… What is this?” the human leader asked, his translator working to turn his words into the Osminog language.
The bearer took the plate from the assistants, holding it up to him. “For millennia, we have cared for the sacred fruit of the Sky Creature, the one who called herself Ann in your language.” The leader was taken aback, surprised that the Osminog had a device to make human words. “We welcome your return and ask: how shall the last prophecy be fulfilled?”
They blinked and stared, watching as the leader took the squash and tasted it. The squash seemed fine, tasted like normal squash back on earth. A little bland, but that was to be expected from people who had raised fruits with the opposite chirality and couldn’t taste their own crops.
The computer guy stood up. “I think they’re asking if they’re going to be destroyed.”
“I know that – shut up!” the leader responded. He put the food back down and looked at the Osminog, thinking about what was going on. Why weren’t the Osminog afraid? What were they hiding? Had they, in a tactic similar to the humans, hidden most of their advancement so as to seem weaker than they were in reality? The leader took the fruit and looked at the computer guy, then to the dead woman on the table.
With a bow the bearer and assistants simultaneously chanted, “We come in peace, Sky Creature.”
The ground team leader sneered. “That’s nice, because we didn’t.” He shot the Osminog dead, then dropped to the computer guy’s side, quickly putting stickers on the last of the objects in the room.
“What did you do!?” the computer guy shouted.
“Hurry up. Get us back to the ship, dead woman intact.”
“But… but look – it was the final prophecy! Didn’t you want to break the cycle? What if the Osminogs were told to come kill us if we acted this way?”
The leader scowled. “Good riddance to us, then. Beam us up.”
The computer guy obediently pressed some buttons, everything he had placed a sticker on beaming to the human ship for preservation and study.
And thus, as mankind became the most powerful beings in the universe, it realized what it had become: no longer prey, no longer stewards, no longer conquerors.
Over the ice-encrusted swamp Blue and I traveled. Wrapped snugly in our coats and boots, made from the leather of animals I’d killed for us over the summer, we tugged sleds behind us. The sleds were laden with fruit-filled jars covered in blankets and coats. The blades of the sled, made from bog iron, cut over the ice.
“I can hear them,” Blue said, slowing down. She dug the iron rod on the sled into the ice, bringing it to a screeching halt. I stopped my own sled and watch as the predator, wearing sweet little booties over its feet, sat down.
I sniffed at the air, smelling the rare and unfamiliar scent of smoke on the wind. I knew we were getting close. “Do you still think it’s best that you go alone?”
Blue unbuckled the harness around her, dropping it. “Oh, definitely. Have you seen me recently, dear?” She swirled around, her long coats flipping outward fancily, before focusing on the face pointing towards me.
I smiled and chuckled. “You’re silly.”
“Didn’t say I wasn’t. I’m just so excited, Creature – I’m finally going to go see Chirchirrup again! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Retaining the smile I’d had, I used my gloves to say, “I’m really glad for you.”
Though what I had said was genuine, Blue caught my disdain. “You miss your home, don’t you?”
I couldn’t deny it, but now was not the time. I shook my head and pulled the reins on the predator, drawing it closer so I could pet it.
“Now is your time, Blue, so don’t let me ruin it. Even if my people did come rescue me, now I’d be quite attached to you and yours. Besides, I have another nine months or so before the rescue ships even have a chance to come by.” The predator nuzzled up against me, so I rubbed the side of its face with my gloves.
Blue came up to me, reaching up with two long tentacles to hug around my waist. “You know… I’ll miss you nearly as much as Chirchirrup when you leave. I’ve lived a very exciting life, but you, dear Creature, are an important part of it. If you didn’t look so weird, I may even consider you a child of mine.”
I tapped her. “What a load of nonsense. You’re lying.”
“I’m not!” she said, letting go. “I mean it. You’re important to me.”
“Hmph.” My real voice still caused her to flinch, but she didn’t change her focus from the face pointing to me. I bent down and said, “You’re important to me too.”
After listening and getting over the initial fear from hearing me speak, Blue loosened up. “Well, you won’t be able to do that for a while. You’re already a strange, one-faced creature leading a predator on a string, you don’t need to add your people’s speaking to those disqualifications to be a friend of the Protector.”
“After all I’ve told you, about my people living on planets like Osmina, traveling amongst the stars so far apart, and all the life off Osmina, you still believe in the Protector?”
Blue focused on a face pointing away from me. “Of course, Creature. Even if it seemed like you had reason to leave me alive and become my friend, what was it? You risked your people for me, Creature, and no Osminog would ever do that. Could it not have been the Protector who made you leave me alive?”
I thought back to when I had first seen Blue and Chirchirrup, how I had held my axe and considered killing them. I supposed, in a strange way, that I should have done it. I had been deluding myself, though, that humans were ever the type of creature to survive the tests of the Next Level. We were curious, and that was always going to be our downfall.
“I suppose it’s not for me to decide, is it? I’m just a Sky Creature, after all, not a god.”
We both laughed in our different ways, remembering the time when I stupidly tried to pretend that I was a deity of the Osminog.
“No… but really, what am I supposed to believe? Being a Sky Creature isn’t a station far below god, is it? Not from where I stand, anyway.”
I smiled. “Sure, whatever. I’ve been thinking, Blue, and I doubt I should be very far behind you in the scheme of introductions to your people. A Sky Creature probably would interest them, be important to see. Besides, look at your new spots. What’s Chirchirrup going to think?”
Blue used a tentacle to adjust her coat, making sure she could see out one of the sides not facing me. “She will be amazed, dear Creature, and I will be welcomed back as the prophet of the Protector. Or perhaps the bringer of the Sky Creature. Either way, Creature, you look like a strange, one-faced predator, and my people aren’t as brave as the Mudflappers were. Stay behind until I signal for you.”
“They’ll scatter if they’re prepared for an attack.”
“They’ll scatter if they’re not. Follow far behind me and I’ll call for you.”
Blue set off, the predator pulling me after her, and I knew I couldn’t catch up very easily with the sleds to pull. I took the metal spike out of the ice and pulled my sled in front of Blue’s, unhitching myself so I could tie her harness to the back of my sled. Predator nudged against me, prompting me to give it some of the blubberballs we had stored in the back of the sled. I refused, however, knowing that the winter blubberballs in cans were far less preferable and far harder to feed one at a time as treats. I finished hooking up the sleds, then returned to my harness and pulled the predator to walk towards the smoke.
I thought about how I would be picked up this summer. I’d have to start running the computer, emitting signals from it by hooking it up to the battery and solar panels, but that would take away from the time I would need to spend directing my new horde of Osminog who would want to learn everything from agriculture to metallurgy. After that, assuming that there were still humans to pick me up, could I convince my people to continue being stewards of the Osminog?
I lifted branches and followed the snowy footsteps that Blue had left behind, seeing her speed without the sleds picking up, the footsteps filled in soon after they were made. The predator sniffed the air, recognizing the smoke as similar to the place we called home. It seemed excited, probably ready to snuggle back into its bed near the fire after these couple days of travel. I wanted to go back to my little house on stilts, myself, but I knew that we would never get a better chance to speak with Blue’s tribe.
I heard the Osminog clicking and whirring beyond the next line of brush. Some level of excitement had been reached, and I could only guess what it was about. I went forward, pulling the sleds, trying to be as quiet as possible. My feet crunching over the snow and my arms bending the boughs of trees laden with ice weren’t going to make that an easy feat, though.
Eventually, as the hubbub beyond the trees got louder, I got closer. I pulled a bough out of the way to look at what was happening.
Next to the fire was Blue, who had removed her coats, many Osminog lying down next to her. The Osminog were difficult for me to tell apart, only the spot patterns and sizes differentiating them, but I suspected the young adult next to Blue, clutching her tentacles, was Chirchirrup.
“This is indeed a holy event!” a bearer called out. “Never before has a suspect come back from banishment! The Protector has smiled upon you, Six of Blue!”
“It’s you – it’s really you! Mother, how can you ever forgive me?” Chirchirrup called. “I didn’t believe it was you last winter, treated you like a stranger, and yet you healed me and prayed to the Protector who sent me back with fire as a gift.”
Blue stood tall, showing off the spots that I had painstakingly tattooed upon her, carefully putting the ink made from soot into her skin. The tattoos had remained in place, permanent markings very similar to the spots worn naturally by most Osminog.
I rolled my eyes as Blue took up her coats, placing them atop the bearer despite the difference in their sizes. She bent to Chirchirrup and caressed the face nearest to her. “The Protector has smiled upon us all, young one. The Sky Creature has been sent to us to show the way forward. We have great and powerful news to tell you all, but you must not fear the Sky Creature when she arrives. She will be bringing with her strange packages of goods, including fruit that remains pure long past the time it was picked.” Blue lifted up the coat on the bearer. “She will bring these warmth bringing items I have called coats. She will bring heavy tools to make places to live, to make plants grow in the spring, and to keep the predators at bay.”
Here, Blue stepped around the fire, leaving Chirchirrup to address more of her rapt audience. “She will also be frightening. The Sky Creature is a magical being with only one face, a face that twists and turns unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Her face is always focused, no need to switch, only to turn her body.” Here the Osminog audience gasped. “She will walk on two tentacles that bend awkwardly, like tree branches rather than Osminog tentacles. She will smell of a predator, sound like something not of Osmina, and have a mind that can outsmart you in every way. She will carry a string in one of her tentacles, on the other end of the string being a predator – the feared predator, the razor-toothed skirwhir!”
The Osminog in terror grasped each other.
“Mother – Mother, what are you saying?! You’re not feeding us to predators, are you!?”
Blue changed her face to focus upon Chirchirrup. “Oh, no, child. I would never do that to you, never bring a predator that would eat an Osminog. I have brought the Sky Creature, a being of noble values and individual strength. She will teach us how to put all the predators on a string, how to control them and become our own Protectors, lessening the burden upon the Protector God.”
The biggest bearer stood. “This sounds good, Six of Blue – too good. What is the cost of listening to this Sky Creature? What are we to sacrifice?”
Here, Blue walked over to the bearer. She held the bearer’s face in her hands, the large bulk of the Osminog at its prime not scaring her. “Long ago, what happened to the God of Justice? She split, did she not? She became the God of Predators and the Protector God, into the gods of land, water, and sky, into plants and prey, leaving only a shadow of itself behind to watch its children. The Sky Creature that now walks Osmina is from the era of the God of Justice. She is one whole being, prey and predator in one. That is why she is so frightening, so powerful.”
“Stop avoiding the subject!” the bearer pushed Blue, causing Chirchirrup and a couple of others who seemed to believe Blue to rise. “What is the cost?”
Blue stood slowly from the mud, age showing in her body. “To gain her rewards, the rewards of the God of Justice and Balance, the First God must regain its power. The Protector and the Predator will become one.”
Here, the Osminog all gasped.
“What are you saying, Mother? Who will protect us from the predators if that happens?”
“There will be no need for a Protector. There will be only one god, a god who we must call friend, for we will become agents of balance. We will become the greatest predator of them all, though we remain as weak as prey.”
The Osminog all seemed upset, some of the younger ones crying.
Now was the time, I thought, to step forth. I brought the predator and my sleds forward, the Osminog all screaming.
I looked at the faces of all the Osminog, saw their fear and how it juxtaposed with Blue’s calm love and desire for a better life.
“The Sky Creature – it only has one face,” one of the Osminogs whispered.
I looked at Chirchirrup and saw the austere wonder with which she looked at me. She looked at the goods on my sled, the axes and the metal posts, and I knew that she recognized the objects from her stays with Blue the year before. She would associate me with that power, with having saved her tribe from sickness and cold.
I looked at the audience, scared of me, and clasped my hands together, letting the predator go. They screamed, so I said loudly with my gloves, “Listen, young Osminog, and I will show you the way to retain your kindness in the face of advancement, as stewards of the worlds.”
As the Osminog huddled near their fires, staring at me, a young child not old enough to have developed teeth to talk pulled its little body next to me. Its tentacles stuck to my leg, and it blinked its eyes.
Whatever I did now would affect these people for generations to come.
I looked up to the sky and, as I examined the chill clouds pouring snow, knew that I would never see Earth again.
We built the wall, digging holes all around our field and dragging away the mud. We chopped down trees and lined the wet holes with wood, making forms for hydraulic cement that held forged, steel post-hole caps. Into these caps, posts were driven and secured by bolts. Blue and the predator cut trees, brought them to me, and I chopped them up with a sledgehammer and wedge to put together as our fence.
It was mid summer, the wall still not complete, by the time we heard again from the Mudflappers. A large group of bearers supported by several brave assistants sallied up to our property, hiding behind trees. They surrounded our garden, fearfully looking at us.
I stepped forward, approaching the biggest bearer, evidently the leader of their tribe. I held my axe in my right hand, a wooden shield in the left. As I approached, I put down the axe so as to use my gloves to speak, “Go away. You know what I am, you know that I mean what I say when I tell you that I will kill you.”
The big bearer stood tall, her bulky torso coming up to my chin. Bravely, perhaps foolishly, she stepped closer to me. “So much fruit for one Osminog and one Creature that kills like a predator and eats like prey? My scouts have been watching you, oh Creature, and I do not like what they have to say. They tell me you and your Osminog make sacrifice daily, taking fruit into wooden cave. We want your fruit, use much better than you do.”
I watched her closely, moving my hand back to my axe when she got too close. She flinched as she saw me grasp the handle, backing up a couple steps. Her bravery wasn’t complete. As she walked a bit further, I lifted my hand back to my glove. “I did not share my food with my favorite Osminog’s daughter last year. What makes you think I will share with you, Osminog who threaten to crush all my work and efforts?”
The large bearer stood resolute, though I could see fear in her face and eyes. “Your suspect Osminog is very old, spots gone for more than year. You feed her. Now we should feast on these many fruits.”
The bearer walked towards me, so I raised my axe to stop her.
“No – Mudflapper bearer, please, don’t press her. She will kill you,” Blue said.
The bearer stopped paying attention to me and moved to Blue, who held onto the reins of the predator. She looked down at Blue, who cowered, and grabbed one of my friend’s tentacles. “Why would you support a predator, suspect? You traitor. Traitor to all Osminog, not just your pathetic tribe.”
I didn’t stand for the bearer’s assault of Blue, so I reached forward and grabbed the Osminog by the tentacle, pulling her. The bearer’s raw mass and brute strength far outmatched my own, though, and she remained still, unmoved by my attack.
“It’s weak!” I heard several Osminog whisper. “The predator – the predator is weak!”
They all stepped forward, so I took up the axe. They were still unafraid, except for a few bearers that hung back, likely the same ones who had seen me kill the first bearer.
“We many, very strong. Leave us with your fruit, Sky Creature, or we will destroy your fruit and everything else that you have built. Like the wooden cave and those piles of rocks. We will feed your Osminog to your predator and leave you in the wilderness without anything.”
I looked at this bearer, seeing no fear in her face. I felt the axe in my hands and desired, more than anything else, not to have to use it. I held the wood, felt the shield, and thought about my options.
“Are your people hungry?” I asked, carefully rubbing the glove on the right to the teeth on the left glove without letting go of my axe.
The bearer puffed her chest. “Do hungry Osminog get so big? Do hungry Osminog bear many young? No, not hungry. But you are in our territory, and you have much fruit. Fruit is ours.”
I set the axe down and snapped at Blue, getting her attention, and pointing to the house. “Go get a jar of preserves, Blue. Bring them here, quick,” I directed.
Blue nodded quickly, running quickly through the mud to the house, the predator following behind as if it were all a game. I grabbed the axe again, acting big and bad as the bearer threatened. She sized me up, noticed I wasn’t very big, and didn’t realize the pain that my axe could bring.
“Why you argue? You not see I have many Osminog with me? I can destroy your fruit bushes fast.”
I held the axe, unable to put it down and talk. I looked intermittently at the door to the house, waiting for Blue to come back, but was too nervous about the bearer. I shouted with my real voice, “Get out! Back up!” causing the bearer to back away for a moment. I put the axe back down, just enough to say with the gloves, “I will not leave this place. If I cannot leave and help my friend Blue stay alive, I will expect her to stay here as well. However, if you let us stay, I can offer you a deal. I can offer you fruit in winter.”
The bearer seemed enticed, but paid attention to Blue as she rushed out with a finished jar of preserves. She ran up to me, handing me the jar.
“Here, Creature,” Blue said.
I took the jar from her, feeling bad that I hadn’t directly helped her tribe. They would have been far preferable neighbors to this batch of Osminog, not to mention the fact that I had already given them fire.
“I realized something,” I said. “My people are at risk every moment I spend talking to the Osminog. It is best that I kill you all, that you not live to tell what I have power over and what I can do. There is a greater predator that will kill all the Sky Creatures if I continue to let myself be seen.”
“Then why haven’t you killed me, Sky Creature? If your numbers are so many, if your prowess is so great, why don’t you eat me?”
“I am not a predator. I do not normally kill Osminog and do not want to. There is a better way. You have already learned from me, Blue has learned much, and her tribe has gained many things as well. Quickly you have gained knowledge that you haven’t had time to develop yourselves. If I leave you alone, you will fall into chaos. You already know something of the terrible concept of war even if you do not directly wage it. I must prevent you from discovering it lest you follow in the footsteps and failures of the Sky Creatures.”
The bearer huffed. “You teach us nothing.”
I held out the jar, cracking the lid to show her the fruit inside. Red and orange, they fell through their own juices, sparkling in front of her. “If you let us live and leave us to ourselves, we can give you this. This is fruit that will last through the winter, keeping you fed much longer than the fruit you keep in the middle of your huddle, rotting. Try it.”
The bearer backed away. “You first!” she shouted.
I shook my head. “I can’t eat fruit. Osminogs can eat fruit – here, Blue. Show the bearer you can eat it-“
But the bearer knocked the pot out of my hands, pushing me back and away from my axe. I held up the shield, keeping myself still and not falling any farther into the mud. “You lie! Always lies! Get out – get out!”
The jar broke beside me, the fruit running out into the mud. I sat up, then stood from where I had been pushed. “Fine. I cannot win. Blue and I will require some time to gather what we need, destroy what we can’t, and we’ll soon be on our way. But let this be a warning to you: you cannot eat the strange fruit in the middle of the forest of bushes. That fruit is not for Osminog and you will surely die if you eat it. I will come back for that fruit in the fall and will be very disappointed if you do anything to it.”
The big bearer held herself high and proud. “Clicken-ck-ck, find this strange fruit. Bring some to me and all the bearers.”
I shook my head. “It is poison. It will kill you.”
The bearer came close again, causing me to back away. “You are Sky Creature, you are liar. You try to act strong, try to act like predator, but you are just prey. The Protector favors the Mudflapper tribe, Sky Creature, not the animal that you are.”
“When have I lied to you?” I asked.
“When you said you kill me. Instead, now you leave. You not predator, you just lucky.” The Osminog picked up the fruit that had fallen from the broken jar, fumbling around the fruit in her hands. She shoved it on the top of my head, analogous to the place where Osminog mouths were. “We will eat your fruit and know the knowledge of the gods, Sky Creature.”
“No,” I said, “You will gain nothing from eating that fruit. You will only die.”
Bearers came out of the garden, each of them carrying a tentacle laden with squash and beans, many of them not even ripe. They took them up to each of the bearers nearby, handing the biggest squash over to the biggest bearer. She held it in her tentacle. “What is this… this god fruit?” she asked. She held it up to my face, pushing the squash up against my jaw. “Eat it, Sky Creature, and prove that it is poison!”
I bit off and swallowed some of the squash, so she took it away. “It isn’t poison to me, only to you-“
“The Sky Creature does not lie! Not this time – I believe her fruit is poison to us!” Blue shouted.
The leader made a signal, and the bearers nearby dropped the squash and beans into their gullets, mashing their teeth against the walls of their mouths to destroy the squash. They didn’t die, not immediately, but I fell to my knees. “No – no, you’ll all die! Stop this!”
The bearer pushed me into the mud, standing atop me as she scooped up some of the fruit preserves. “Eat the poison, Sky Creature, and regret having lied to us!”
She rubbed the preserves over my face and I was unable to fight back. I kept my mouth closed, breathed out my nose to shove the jelly away. She was adamant, though, and it became more and more difficult to breathe.
Then, suddenly, it all stopped. The bearer fell to the ground.
Blue stood behind her, axe in her tentacles.
The Osminog all screamed, blundering around. They flopped over themselves, upset and confused. Blue dropped the axe, and in similar confusion, fell to the mud convulsing. High pitched screams emitted from their bodies.
I got myself onto my knees and crawled over to Blue, holding tight to her. She held tight to me, wailing in the most horrified, high-pitched scream that I had ever imagined. I cried, not knowing what else to do as my best friend sat horrified in the mud next to me.
“I’ve got you,” I said. She just wailed, not stopping. Ten minutes passed easily as I held her, her tentacles never losing tension as they gripped.
Before Blue could let go of me, before the terrible wailing stopped, the bearers that had eaten my food began to die. I heard them gagging, heard cries of pain and suffering, but just sat with Blue and rocked her back and forth. There was nothing I could do, now that they’d gone and eaten things they shouldn’t have.
“I’ve got you,” I said. “I’ve got you.”
She held my clothing and tugged on it as the last of the bearers died and the assistants who remained bowed in reverent defeat. “I… I’m a predator,” she said. She put her lips near my ear and whispered, “I killed an Osminog for a Sky Creature. I am a predator.”
I held her close. “The universe is not so black and white as we would like. Even as I tried to do right by you and your tribe, even by this one, I never did. I kept trying to keep myself and all the other Sky Creatures alive, but that wasn’t the right thing to do, only the thing I thought I had to do.”
Blue sniffled, rubbing her eyes on some of my clothes in such a way that it would have been very awkward if she were human. “But I still killed an Osminog. I am a predator, the worst predator. Worse than our predator on a string.”
I held her, made one of her faces focus on me. “Which is why I am the worst Sky Creature, Blue. I allowed you to invent murder and war when I could have helped you as you requested from the beginning and avoided all of this. I, in what I thought was all my superior wisdom, gave you a taste of what I had but wasn’t willing to go far enough to risk anything of my own. That’s over, now. I’ve already sunk something into your people, so I think I should see your development through as far as I can. Will you help me, Blue?”
She said nothing, only held me while I rocked and tried to calm her down.
I just cried, not wanting to listen to Blue berate me for having killed an Osminog.
I rolled over and wiped the tears from my eyes, then blinked at Blue. She seemed a bit frightened of me as she twiddled her tentacles together, eyeing me carefully. I curled up, not wanting to be seen.
“Predator! You lied! Predator!” She backed away, keeping the face nearest me her primary focus.
I looked at her face, and, despite the difference between Osminog and human, I saw flashes of my mother’s face, her disappointment as I lifted off from Earth.
“Please… Please, Blue, don’t leave me,” I cried. “Please.”
“When are you going to kill me? When are you planning to do it?”
“I’m not! I’m not, I’m not… oh, Blue, I just want to die… I just… I’m a predator.” I bit my lip, blew my nose, and looked up the sky. I’d learned nothing during these seven years off Earth. I clenched my fists.
“Then why did you lie to me?” Blue asked.
I cried, sniffled, and thought. “Do you want the truth?” I asked. “Do you really?”
“You don’t tell the truth. You sit upon your divine magic, all powerful, and I must only believe you. Yet you lie. You have always said you’re not a predator, Creature, but you lie. Predator.”
I crumpled up and said quietly with my gloves, then said, “I come from a world, far away, where there are no Osminog, only my people. We eat many animals, but we also eat plants. The animals we eat, we also feed and keep alive. We raise these animals to eat, but we are not predators. Our people aren’t predators, anyway. The animals we eat just walk into rooms to be killed, just like that predator follows where I lead it. Humans aren’t predators, since we just eat but don’t stalk, don’t hunt.”
Blue backed away. “Are you raising me to eat?”
I wiped my nose on my arm. “No. No, I wasn’t. You were and, if you’re still willing, are my best friend. But Blue, listen… it’s the truth. I’ve lied, I’ve lied – even if humans aren’t predators, I am, Blue. Humans don’t send people who aren’t predators out into the endless sky, don’t punish them with a decade of loneliness unless they’re predators.”
Blue stood still. “What?”
I cried. “I did something terrible. That’s why I’m here in the first place. My people don’t banish each other from tribes, but do something called rehabilitate, or try to make the bad person better. I became a predator, so my people stuck me and another predator in a ship then sent us out to find new information. Rehab. Isolation. Work. I was supposed to lose my knowledge of the value of money, but I failed… I killed a sentient being for some measly fruit that’s poison to me. I became a predator on two worlds.”
Blue blinked, but sank into the mud. “Are you going to kill me?”
I shook my head. “How should I know? I am a predator. I stole so much fruit from my people that you couldn’t even imagine the amount. I shared a company which made weather controlling devices and split the fruit I got in return with another Sky Creature. He handled the business, I invented the machines. But, then, I saw how I could do his job easily, how I could have been making all the money, which is similar to getting fruit. I began by pointing just a small trickle of money to me, but then it got bigger. Eventually, the Sky Creature I was working with died in a car crash and the big Sky Creatures who tell the little Sky Creatures what to do came to check on all the fruit that he owned. They saw some problems in his books, then figured out I had caused the problems. I stole a lot of government money, something that’s very, very bad. Sky Creatures could have lived longer, better, but I took it anyway. So they put me in the ship with Kyle as punishment and rehab.”
I crawled away, leaning against a tree. “I didn’t want to be a predator… I don’t want to. I don’t want to.”
Blue sat still, her tentacles wrapped around her. She remained silent, waiting for me to say something. She looked at me deadly, her dark eyes boring into me.
“I saw you kill that Osminog, Creature. I saw you do it, I knew why you did it. I understood why and felt within my blood both thankful and scared. Does that… Creature, what does that mean? What is wrong with me?”
I let my nails bite into my palms. “Nothing,” I said. “Perhaps you should leave. Leave so that, at least, you don’t learn to be like us. Many humans are predators, thousands of us, and we all float around in the sky looking for things like Osminog to watch. Though I don’t want to see you leave, it would probably be best for everyone, especially you.”
Blue crept closer, holding out a nervous tentacle. “I don’t understand what you did to your people. I don’t see why the Sky Creatures punished you. But I know you’ve protected me and helped me. I realize that I would have died over the winter without you. You gave me your fruit but got nothing out of it, so you can’t be entirely evil. The First God, the God of Balance and Justice, surely resides within your body. There is no other way you could be both Protector and Predator.”
I sniffled. Blue was capable of looking at a whole picture, whereas I focused on the bad just as most humans would. I thought of my mother, her disappointment, and how I was a terrible human. I wasn’t even human, I was…
I was a predator.
I had killed an Osminog, a person, and revealed myself to enough aliens that it was entirely possible that I had killed my entire race.
“You can’t understand, little Osminog, what I have done.”
Blue retracted her tentacle. “I have been very scared of you. I probably always will, too, have some fear. I am still scared – you killed an Osminog right in front of me. I know what you’re capable of. But, Creature, I know what that predator you brought home is capable of, too. I’ve seen many of its kind rip Osminog to shreds and eat them. I thought nothing good could come from them, but you’ve shown me that’s not true. That Osminog you killed was trying to take our fruit, eventually killing us if you think about it, and you saved us. Was it better that the bearer be killed, or me?”
“Better no one had to die,” I answered.
Blue said nothing, but stood up. “I know that,” Blue said, “But I’m not sure you could have chosen that. The Mudflapper tribe is far more brazen than my own Fleetrunners, and they may even try coming back to destroy our plants. I could smell upon their skin the large numbers of their tribe, so they aren’t going to be very concerned with risking a few more to get such a bounty as we have.”
I shook my head. “I won’t kill them.”
“Then how will we survive?” Blue asked.
I looked around, grabbed my axe, and stood up. Blue shrunk down, cowering.
“I won’t kill them… we’ll build a wall to keep the other Osminogs out. Come on, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Worried that we’d have to face more Osminog from this new tribe, Blue and I worked hard in our garden to produce vegetables and fruit. We built the forge and smelter over the course of a couple weeks, slogging through the clay and the stones to build the hot ovens, then I searched with the predator for signs of coal. The presence of peat to the south indicated that the swampy region, rich with plant matter, should have produced coal.
I was not disappointed. I had to use my hands to pry off some precious coal from a visible vein, but I would be able to fashion a pick to get more later. Blue would be confused as to what all this work was for, but she would see the results eventually. I brought back the coal, shoved in some iron ore that I’d retrieved from the bogs, and had Blue pump the bellows made from leaves. When the iron’s impurities were separated out, I tipped the smelter and poured a pick into a mould made from clay. I later poured a plow, then some nails, all of which were poorly made but better than what I had at the moment. I poured a few axe-heads, sharpening them with the whetstones I’d had for better than a year.
Blue held up a finished axe, running her tentacle over the new handle and steel head. “This thing is amazing. Surely it is a divine creation.”
I pounded another handle into a second steel head, proud of the handiwork. “These will get better as we have more practice. For now, though, we need more iron before we can continue. I think we should focus on picking the fruit that is ripe, maybe preserving them for winter.”
Blue nodded, putting down the axe with care and picking up a basket I had taught her to weave. She liked weaving and had quickly become better at it than me, despite her insistence otherwise. “Yes – that sounds nice. It makes more sense than all this here.”
I picked up my basket, also made by Blue, and went into the fields with her. I stood in one row, just on the other side of some fruit bushes from the Osminog. My fingers deftly plucked fruit, one hand holding the basket while the other plucked. Blue put her basket down, dropping fruits with a tentacle that picked them.
“I am curious, creature,” Blue said, “What happened to all your faces. Where did they go? Why do you have only one left?”
I laughed, causing Blue some distress. “My tribe only has one face, Blue. We are all born with one face, we all die with one face. The Osminog are very special in that they have four faces.”
Blue harrumphed as best she could, copying one of the noises that I alone could make. “It seems you have to twist and turn so much with only one face. You should have many faces, Creature. It is much better, I think.”
I smiled, then said, “I haven’t found a need for many faces, though I see your point. I can see the benefit of not having a back side, the side opposite my face.”
“There is no reason to only have one face.”
“Oh, I can think of a couple. It takes more food to keep four faces working, for one thing. Ever notice how much more food you eat than me?”
Blue picked some fruit. “Well… I can’t really tell how much you’re eating. You don’t eat fruits, so how do I know it’s the same?”
I shrugged and picked a few more. “They’re not but… look, I know what I’m saying. You eat about twice the amount of food I do even though we’re roughly the same size. Part of it is that you have four faces, which requires more food to work. Even though I only have one face, I can use it pretty well and have to eat much less food than you.”
Blue flinched all of a sudden. “Did you hear that?” she asked.
“No,” I said. I crouched, listening. Blue did tend to be flightier, but she also was most likely to hear approaching enemies first. I looked down the row and tried to figure out what was going on. I heard the baying of my predator, then some quick footsteps. “I hear that,” I said.
“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” Blue said. She walked towards the end of the row, so I followed close behind, knowing that I would be the better at fixing problems if something were to have gone terribly wrong.
As I went, I saw the predator baying and shuffling around in the mud, several strange Osminog prodding it from just far enough away that the predator couldn’t get them while it was tied up. That being said, I also wasn’t certain that the predator was trying to get them. It rolled over, showing its stomach in such a way that typically ended with a belly rub and, possibly, some blubberballs.
The strangers, however, wouldn’t have possibly known that. They walked around the perimeter that the predator could stalk, eyeing the rope carefully, shaking as they passed.
“Oh no!” Blue said, pointing. “They’re back and they’ve figured out that the predator is defective!”
The strange Osminog heard Blue, the faces they focused out of switching from the predator to the fruit bushes. I backed away through the mud, watching the newcomers stare at the rows we were hiding in.
“Tell them to go away,” I said. “Tell them the Sky Creature will come kill them if they don’t.”
Blue looked at me. “You won’t kill them, you won’t even show your single face. The threat won’t make sense.”
I grimaced, but backed away as the strangely spotted bearers all came nearer. One especially large looking one shouted out, “We know you there, suspect! Leave, give us all fruit or we destroy everyone’s fruit!”
It never made sense to me why the Osminog would destroy fruit, but to Blue it did. It was all a big game of chicken, the banished pushing to see how far the tribe would go to starve them. For some reason, the tribes seemed willing to go much further than I thought reasonable, the banished much less willing to stand up for themselves than I would have. It was all the Osminogs’ strange but intense desire to see the group perform well at the cost of themselves as individuals that kept things well balanced.
Blue switched which face she focused from, looked at me, and blinked. “Creature, what should we do? We can’t let them just stomp our fruit bushes into the mud.”
I agreed. “Untie the predator from the tree and lead it around. Threaten to let it go if they don’t leave. Keep their focus on you – I’ll be sneaking around to prepare the backup plan.”
I ducked down as Blue bravely stood, walking out amongst the large bearers. She was lucky that Osminog rarely physically fought, never anything more than pushing.
Those Osminog weren’t so lucky. They were running the risk of facing a human.
“Leave!” Blue shouted. I could see the nervousness in her tentacles, detected the lack of surety in her trembling voice. I saw her walk forward, going towards the tree where the predator was tied, picking up blubberballs from their pools as she did. “Leave now, foreigners, for this is not your fruit! This place belongs to the Sky Creature, a servant of the First God! You are not welcome here and cannot have her fruit.”
The Osminog all crowded around, so I crept out of the rows of bushes and escaped towards the forge. They were attentive of Blue and, alternately, the predator, not me. I made use of the distraction and crept around, unnoticed, silent.
One of the big bearers sauntered up. “Your Sky Creature’s predator not working. Stuck. Why we fear? Last warning for you to leave.”
“You should fear us because the Sky Creature knows much divine magic. She made all these fruits, she got this predator for us. Everything here was made or gathered by the Sky Creature, not you, and she chooses not to share. Now leave.”
The bearers stalked forward, pushing Blue roughly into the mud. One of the smaller ones called, “Then where is this Sky Creature? What is she? She is not real, you make her up so we will not destroy your food. You mad, crazy, not fit to be called Osminog.”
Blue crawled away, the Osminog pushing her. “Please, no! Please, don’t push me near the predator!” Blue cried.
I smiled and pumped my fist. How clever!
The bearers gathered forth. “She scared! Predator stuck! Quick, push her into range!”
The bearers all grabbed Blue, one tentacle each, and dragged her floundering, flapping body over to the circle. They dropped her just outside, in the mud, and pushed her in the final step of the way.
I saw Blue’s tentacles enter the ring around the tree in which the bearers were afraid to venture, then sensed a gasp from the strangers. The predator stepped in front of her, growling and snarling at the foreign Osminogs that it had seen treating its keeper poorly. I peeked around the bushes, watching Blue feed the predator some blubberballs before untying it from the tree.
“The Sky Creature has given the predator to me to control! Now leave, foreigners, or I will let it go!”
The strange Osminogs all crouched, their tentacles pulled inward toward themselves, while Blue held the predator’s reigns. They shivered and screamed in high pitched wails, making the predator stare at them innocently. It stopped barking but, instead, nuzzled up against Blue in search of more blubberballs.
I put my head to my right palm as one of the bearers stood from her stupor.
She reached a tentacle forth, touching the skin of the predator that cooed at her touch. “It’s defective! The Protector is on our side!”
They whooped and hollered, the predator lying on its side now that the threat appeared to be gone.
“Leave, suspect Osminog of foreign tribe. This our fruit now or it is no one’s.” The big bearers looked to each other, crowding around Blue. She let go of the reins, letting the predator loose to sniff around, eating far more blubberballs than I would have wanted it to.
Blue backed up. “There is a predator in your midst! It will eat you!”
“We watch predator long time, at night when you not here. Always stuck. Not predator, just lie.”
Blue looked around. “The Sky Creature isn’t Osminog. She won’t leave and… and I will stay with her.”
The Osminog all blinked at each other. “We smash fruit bushes, then. Whirmur, start smashing,” the biggest ordered.
Whirmur walked up to the edge of the field and smashed a plant, driving it into the mud.
I looked around, grabbing the axe I had just finished making, and walked out into the open. I held the axe in my left and used my right to talk, saying in both human language and Osminog, “Touch another plant, and you will die.” I lifted the axe above my head, none of them recognizing my threatening posture.
Many of the Osminog shrank, some of them ran, but Whirmur and the biggest, most powerful Osminog stood resolute. I didn’t know what to do, not having expected them to remain. The usually flighty Osminog, especially Blue, had brought me to expect that they would run immediately at my alien appearance.
The big Osminog stood tall, its massive bulk frightening. I stood against it, not shrinking at its frightening visage. “Mudflapper tribe not full of scared children. We smart. We watch predator, why you think we no watch you? What are you, Sky Creature? Not predator, that sure. You eat plants, you not predator. Now take your Osminog and defective predator if you want us to not stomp your fruit.”
I took up the axe above my head, having difficulty as I said, “I will kill the first one to touch a plant. You have been warned.”
“Do it, Whirmur!”
Whirmur stood still, flinching as she saw my frightening, alien visage. She shrank down, afraid of me and the big Osminog.
“She not predator! Do as I say!” the big Osminog said.
Whirmir whimpered and said, “What if she not lying? What is Sky Creature?”
The big Osminog walked over to Whirmir, pulling her away from fruit bushes. “Sky Creature is either animal or Osminog not deserving of fruit. Smash bushes.”
Whirmur, scared of the big Osminog, grabbed a bush with her tentacle. Seeing her reluctance, I released the axe with my left hand and, instead, pulled on her tentacle to drag her roughly away from the garden. “Don’t you even dare,” I threatened. “Run, now, Osminog!”
“You all scared! You, suspect, is Sky Creature predator?” She focused on a face looking at Blue, glaring out dark eyes.
“I don’t want to know,” Blue answered. She cowered in the mud, pulling her tentacles close. At this, Whirmur got up and ran away. The big Osminog remained, however, all her followers looking on from just outside my lands.
She looked at her friends, looked at me, looked at my predator. Finally, she said, “Perhaps suspect lies. She says you are old, of the First God, but this lies. All lies!”
She grabbed another bush, stomping it to the ground.
I lifted my axe and brought it down hard upon the Osminog’s side.
She screamed. I felt horrible.
The axe lifted up again, then fell down. The Osminog tried to push the axe away, but I kicked her and continued to chop, pulling her to pieces with the sharp steel. It wasn’t long before the screaming was over, before the Osminog’s blood littered the ground.
The predator sniffed the air and stood up, teeth glistening with saliva. I grabbed the reins and told it no, not wanting it to get used to eating Osminog again. I then stepped around the dead bearer, walking over to the remaining onlookers, dragging the predator over to the tree where I tied it.
“Go home,” I said, “And don’t come back! This food belongs to me and Six of Blue, not you or your people. Anyone else who tries to destroy my fruit will meet this same fate, but I will not harm anyone who leaves me alone.”
They stood there, gawking, fearful.
“Get out!” I shouted in my own tongue, screaming at them. They all shot up immediately, scattering as they ran away.
I fell to my knees and cried, wishing I hadn’t done it, wishing I could take it back, and praying that I’d never have to do it again.
The L’Ahknerian captain of the ship Aldaxaraan, Haanfulk, looked at his star charts and tapped a beastly claw against his brain capsule. He saw that it would be a difficult journey to make and wondered if his little ship would make it through the crossfire with their current handicap. He tapped the holographic chart and zoomed out, trying to see if there was another outpost he could go to without crossing Feldbarian space. The stars wandered around in the holographic space, showing Haanfulk the true glory of the cosmos within just a few cubits.
He looked up from his computer and to his aide, a muscular reptilian of the Nidelnian species, and said, “There’s nothing for it. We either try to get through without being seen, without being fired at, or we end up dead in the water. Not even the best of luck will get us enough fuel to get back to L’Ahkner.”
The aide nodded and looked at Haanfulk with his same facial expression. The scales on the reptile’s neck moved a little bit, meaning that it was going through some sort of emotional flux that Haanfulk couldn’t read. Haanfulk never could divine the emotional state of reptilian species – but he couldn’t complain about the Nidelnian’s honor and loyalty, not to mention efficiency. The aide immediately brought up the crew roster and sifted through specialties, looking for any way out of the situation.
“Our day shift pilot is very good, but she may also be necessary to operate the cloak more efficiently seeing as she’s a Goljar. The second shift pilot has some skill to be lacking… I don’t know, captain, we might be better off sitting and waiting for a friendly to come by,” Haanfulk’s aide mentioned.
Haanfulk raised his bulk up from his chair and contemplated the situation. Including the day shift pilot, they only had 2 Goljars – and, thus, only two members of the species capable of creating the energy field for the cloaking device. Some species had figure out how to generate the field artificially, but most just hired the bug-like Goljars to generate the field.
Haanfulk looked at his star charts and noticed that the Feldbarian posts were marked. Patrol ships would effectively police the barrier and, even with their cloak, it would be unlikely that they could penetrate far into Feldbarian space. There were too many unknowns.
“We should infiltrate a guard post and take their fuel, abduct their useful crew members. This post – this is the one we should target,” Haanfulk said, pointing to it on the map. The aide shuffled forward and looked, bringing up more detailed information about the post on its pad.
“Oh, no, no – sir, I must protest. Look at the humans they have – no, sir, it’s too much. Our luck doesn’t even come close to that,” the aide pointed out.
“Just tell me if we have the fuel to get there in slipstream or not,” Haanfulk demanded. The aide was right – the station was almost legendary because of the humans it housed. All of them were loyal – a family of the annoyingly necessary buggers – and all had red hair. Haanfulk had never met any of the red-haired humans, but he’d heard of stories. Merely touching their head was supposed to bring a winning streak the likes of which you’d never seen before. Only the most rich could hire the red-headed humans to bring the best of luck to them.
“We do, sir, but just barely,” the Nidelnian answered, “But sir – four red heads! You know what they say.”
“Yes, I do,” Haanfulk said, “But I also know that putting all your dependence on luck can be a fickle thing. There is something to be said for having greater skill.”
“But… captain, we’re not even closely matched! Allie’s good, but the luck of one human just cannot match the luck of four!”
“Hush!” Haanfulk ordered the Nidelnian, “Just set the course and bring Allie here.”
The Nidelnian aide nodded and set instructions in his pad, sending them off to the appropriate crew members. Haanfulk shifted his weight forward and paced the floor, waiting for his single human to come get his orders. It was so distressing to know that so many of his decisions didn’t matter anymore. Ever since the humans had been discovered, everything had changed. A bunch of skill-less animals (compared to any other sentient species found), the humans initially seemed to be nothing more than a curiosity, a species to ignore and allow to sink into their own dark tendencies.
A few humans had been abducted for research and were carried on one of three Vamberthian science vessels. The Vamberthian vessels were quickly faced with hostility from some pirates, but only the one escaped unscathed – and, not just that, but it was capable of rescuing all the living samples from the allied ships. Wherever the human specimens went, the scientist tracking them discovered probabilities changing in their favor. At first, it was mere speculation – luck wasn’t real, luck couldn’t actually be.
But it could. The more humans on a ship, the greater this un-measurable likelihood of probabilities changing in a ships became. It couldn’t be kept secret for long, then everyone had to have a human on their ship, in their royal household, wherever luck was deemed necessary. Humans didn’t eat much, often required little entertainment or attention, and took up so little space that they became essential elements of a crew despite having no skills of their own.
Haanfulk hated it. His species was long-lived enough that he could remember the way it was before the humans, before ‘how much luck are they carrying?’ became the primary question one asked when choosing to fire cannons. The only decision Haanfulk ever made as captain was to determine if they were lucky enough to pull something off. He had lied to the aide earlier and he knew it: skill simply wasn’t enough.
Allie walked through the steel door and into Haanfulk’s office. He smiled and blinked his seven eyes at the little animal. She couldn’t help that she was a talisman of luck, nothing more, and Haanfulk almost felt sorrier for what had happened to the humans than he did for everyone else. Allie stood before him, holding herself erect. Compared to most humans Haanfulk had ever seen, Allie was slender and mobile.
“Yes, Haanfulk?” Allie asked, “You sent for me?”
Haanfulk blinked his seven eyes and looked down on the tiny creature. He felt like he could squash her like a bug if he so desired – but he didn’t, seeing as she was his only luck talisman.
“I need to assure your loyalty and happiness – we’re about to confront a Feldbarian space station with a family of four gingers. Is there anything we can do to increase our luck?” Haanfulk asked her.
Allie looked up to him, her cool eyes unafraid of his size, and replied, “The price for my services will remain the same unless I demand otherwise. But Haanfulk – you should consider whether or not you really want to attack a station with four humans aboard.”
“The order has been sent. After the pirate attack, we don’t have enough fuel to make it back to L’Ahkner. I’ve thought about this for the last two days we’ve been making repairs; now that we’re up and running, we only have one choice – to go through Feldbarian space. We’ll be there shortly and I need, above all else, your loyalty,” Haanfulk demanded.
Allie nodded. “Then I shall return to my post.”
Haanfulk nodded, but he didn’t agree with her decision. Her post was to man a workstation for the ship’s weapons; and that was her price. She demanded training, despite being utterly useless, and demanded the opportunity to try and accomplish tasks outside of the range of human ability. Allowing her to her post would lower what skill his people did have. Still, it would just compound his foolishness if he denied his human happiness – and thus, for himself, luck. He knew he’d been stupid – but now, the slipstream course had been selected and there was no turning back. In a few minutes, his ship would show up at the station and that would be the end of it. Still, what was life worth living now? What was the point of any of this if it all depended on luck anyway?
Haanfulk gathered courage and opened his door, following the human out and onto the bridge. He looked and saw through the viewscreen what was outside of his ship – the nothingness of the slipstream. One always thought there was something there, that there were flitting images, but they were too quick for the naked eye to catch and the recordings never came up with anything; there was something they could detect, but nothing they could resolve. Haanfulk thought about how this could quite possibly be the last time he saw the mysterious slipstream, about how the Nidelnian and the human were both suspicious of his plans.
“Lieutenant Jaldumar, status?” Haanfulk asked. He walked around to his seat and eased himself into the L’Ahknerian captain’s chair.
“Slipstream will be complete in T-minus 30 seconds, sir,” Jaldumar answered. Haanfulk saw that Jaldumar was right – the exit was just ahead of them, a bright light growing larger.
The ship exited the slipstream and Haanfulk saw the massive station they’d come to. The station was a typical work of Feldbarian architecture – sweeping columns, breathtaking overlooks, all of which wouldn’t have been possible or sustainable without the protection of the luck talismans.
“Sir, the Feldbarians are hailing us,” the Nidelnian alerted. The Nidelnian looked to Haanfulk for further instruction, awaiting his orders.
“Fire on their station – get in the first hit!” Haanfulk ordered.
His crew was loyal, but they questioned him now. Haanfulk had hoped that this wouldn’t happen, but now was the end of it. They couldn’t open a new slipstream and run – they may as well fight to the end, die with a shred of honor at the least.
“Sir, you should listen to the hail. They are offering to let us live if we let them buy our ship and purchase the human’s contract,” the Nidelnian announced.
“Allie’s price would be too high for them,” Haanfulk said, knowing full well what she asked, “Fire!”
His crew fired at the station, but the station’s luck was very high in comparison to his – his laser emitters failed. He could hear the destruction caused on his lower decks by the failure, saw red lights pop up on others’ screens. Shouts came from every bridge member reporting the results. Haanfulk tensed up, realizing that his gamble hadn’t paid off. The probabilities had been too far against him.
“Weapons are down!”
“Shields are down!”
“We’re being boarded! They’re beaming in!”
“Sir, they may still offer to buy us out – please, for the lives of your crewmen, take the bargain!” the Nidelnian requested.
Some Feldbarian soldiers beamed aboard their ship, showing up in the bridge with their guns. The Feldbarians were a frightening, slithering race. They fired their guns at the Nidelnian. They laughed as they did so, commenting on Haanfulk’s failure as a commander.
Though Haanfulk was a proud warrior, he couldn’t take it like this. “Stop – stop! It’s my fault all this is happening. Please – buy out my crew members’ contracts and take them alive,” Haanfulk begged. He towered above the Feldbarian invaders, but he knew that he would be no match for them the way his luck was going.
“Why would we do that? We’ve got you in our clutches now – why waste the money when we could use it to refurbish your ship and hire a loyal crew instead?”
The lead Feldbarian lifted his gun and fired it in the general direction of Jaldumar, who flinched, knowing that the end was near. Jaldumar bent down on her knees and began to pray to her species deity, whatever that was. Though she was mammalian, Haanfulk could see her emotions and knew what he must do.
He threw himself forward at the Feldbarian, jolting its gun upwards and causing it to fire into the ship’s ceiling. The Feldbarian fell, as Haanfulk believed physics should allow, and Haanfulk took the Feldbarian’s gun. Putting the gun point blank to the chest of the Feldbarian in order to assure the probability of shooting someone else was zero, Haanfulk pulled the trigger, blowing the Feldbarian apart.
The other Feldbarians looked at him as if something mystical had happened. Haanfulk didn’t wait for another chance – he aimed the gun at the Feldbarians and, against all odds, decided to pull the trigger. The Feldbarian he shot at fell with a thud and an explosion of hemolymph.
Haanfulk was reinvigorated – it seemed that the human luck pieces weren’t as valuable as everyone had claimed! He shot another Feldbarian as one of his crew members took on another Feldbarian, the bridge officers quickly becoming used to the idea that they could take the ship back. Haanfulk used his massive L’Ahknerian strength to pummel Feldbarians, his expert aim to slaughter them.
“Are transporters still online?” Haanfulk asked Jaldumar. Jaldumar pulled herself up from the fight and checked her station.
“Yes, sir,” she reported back, “And… this can’t be right-”
“No time to talk about discrepancies – we have no weapons on our ship, so beam us aboard the station! We’ll take it from the inside!” Haanfulk announced. Jaldumar nodded, pressing the keys to compute the transport. She entered the calculation and the computer began to beam crew members to the inside of the station, Haanfulk soon feeling his own body tingle as he was transported from his own ship to the station nearby.
As soon as he appeared on the station, Haanfulk burst forth against the Feldbarian guards. He was invincible – the Feldbarians’ lack of skill left them unable to hit him. Luck had failed them! The impossible had happened, the probabilities – though weighted heavily against him – were being thwarted! He ran forward toward what would normally be the Feldbarian command center, shooting everyone in the room and watching as each shot expertly met its target. The Feldbarians died without firing a shot.
Haanfulk walked up the stairs of the marble dais to the commander of the station. He held the gun up to the commander’s head and enjoyed it as the Feldbarian shook in its boots. Never had the Feldbarian expected something like this.
“How – how could you do it? We only detected one human aboard your ship – and we beamed her over as soon as your shields failed! The likelihood of your success was… was nothing! How many humans were you hiding?” the commander asked.
Haanfulk used the butt end of his gun to smack the commander in the face, drawing blood from the Feldbarian’s nostrils. “Even if the probabilities were against me, it still seems that I had some chance. Perhaps we all just need to forge our own luck!” Haanfulk declared. He turned the gun against the Feldbarian commander and pulled the trigger, blowing the commander’s head clean off its neck. Satisfied with his work, Haanfulk threw down the dirty, Feldbarian weapon down on the ground. He crossed his arms and tapped his claws against his muscles, thinking about what to do next.
One of his crew bounded up next to him. Without bothering to see what crewman had come to gain favor, Haanfulk ordered, “Crewman – gather up the humans on this station. See what it will take to purchase their contracts; even if human luck has run out, other ships may not know about it and we may be able to avoid some fights until we’re through Feldbarian space by seeming more powerful than we really are.”
A mass of orange fur, dripping in a viscous, red liquid, fell at Haanfulk’s feet. He stepped back, uncertain of what his crewman had done, and gasped at the horrifying sight as the truth of the matter became apparent. There were four fat, chunky, human faces with red hair, the heads missing their bodies. Haanfulk turned his head to see Allie standing beside him with a large, curved knife signature of the Feldbarian species.
“Allie – Allie, what did you do?!” Haanfulk asked.
Allie smirked and replied, “You know, captain, you’re the only one who’s ever going to be willing to pay my price; all the aliens believe that humans are worthless, that there’s no point in letting them dream or even attempt to succeed. You pay my price by allowing me to seek greater skill; I didn’t want to lose that. I just helped the Feldbarians and their lazy humans realize that luck cannot be depended on as skill can.” She dropped the knife upon the top of the human heads and smiled deviously.
Haanfulk realized, as he looked down at the tiny human, that Allie was right and, saddest of all, she had the greatest skill.