Unicorn Jelly Fan Fiction Submitted: September 17th 2002 C.E.
Esre Ashin Enji woke to the soft alarm of the crawlclock as it perambulated the circular groove in the ceiling just above his head. He carefully turned in the straps holding him stationary to the ceiling to gaze down at his wife strapped to the floor and holding their child in her arms. Despite the strong pang of guilt over their unlawful child, he still smiled at the bundle of life that he and Arybet had brought into existence.
As he watched his wife and child with hesitant love, the soft ping-pong driving the chijimutite crystals of the crawlclock on its relentless course to measure time reminded him that there were chores to do before he left on his resource hunt.
Enji carefully undid the straps and tucked them out of the way in their spun crystal sleeves. He pushed off the hemispherical ceiling and his tall slender form gently glided over to the cleaning alcove. He pulled himself into the chamber and sealed the spun crystal curtain behind him. He donned his face mask and pulled out the cleaning sand which he briskly rubbed all over his body, removing dead skin and other dirt. When he was done, he pulled the stopper on the suck vent and the sand was quickly wisked away to collect against the filter in the vent. The sand would be carefully dried, every precious drop of perspiration and body fluids reclaimed for use.
As he stepped out of the cleaning alcove, his wife wrapped her long thin arms around him and gave him a good morning kiss. He relished the feel of her body against his but only for a moment as there were chores to do.
"Mmm! Good day, husband!" Arybet said with a smile as she hugged him.
"Good day, wife." Enji replied, giving her one last squeeze before letting her go.
"Where're you off to this time?" she said, as she climbed into the cleaning alcove and sealed the curtain behind her.
Enji dressed himself quickly in his close-fitting, one piece flight suit and boots but left the gloves and head covering off as they tended to get in the way unless in flight.
"I thought I'd check a ways outfall. There've been reports of some large rocks angling in from stormfront and it's wiser to get to them before they get to us. Then I'll see what I can find in the way of resources. I expect I'll be gone two days or so."
"I worry so when you go outfall, Enji."
"If I don't then we risk running out of the resources we need for little Ober. You know the tribe won't support him and what they'll do to us if they find out."
"If old uncle Evi hadn't pledged his life to Brayan's and Lisbet's child, this wouldn't be a problem."
"Uncle Evi may have been family but clearly his interests lay elsewhere." Enji shook his head, wondering at the events that made their own child unlawful. Evi had been an old man and should've died long ago in which case little Ober would have been welcomed into the tribe. But not only did the old man stubbornly refuse to die when expected but somehow Brayam had managed to convince him he should give his life to the Effers family instead of his own Ashin family. So when Evi did finally die, Brayam and Lisbet immediately conceived a child just before Ober was born. Unlawful but ultimately not unloved.
"You take care out there, husband." Arybet said, changing the topic to something less painful for him. "Bring back some vlax when you return. We're running low again."
"I'm afraid of asking Chief Enovar for more. He might get suspicious and wonder why we're using up more than our fair allotment of vlax."
"Tell him I broke the container and couldn't recover enough of the powder before it was contaminated."
"I told him that last time. He'll wonder why I married such a clumsy woman." His smile took any sting out of his voice since she couldn't see it behind the cleaning curtain.
"I'm sure you will think of something, my clever Enji."
Enji briefly patted Ober on the head and got a giggly squeal in return. Enji smiled absently as his mind turned to the chores ahead. He quickly pulled on his gloves and the head cover over his short-cropped light blonde hair, strapped on his face mask and made sure it was sealed all around. The soft crystal gasket held firm and prevented any dust from getting in to irritate his mouth, nose and eyes. Not that dust was a problem above his home's rock platform which swept the dust away as it descended with stormfall.
He opened the door and glided out onto the surface of their home rock platform, closing the door behind him. He reached into the small alcove by the door and pulled out his flight feathers, strapping them on his arms and legs. The feathers were in eight sections, corresponding to the two parts of each limb. Each section or wing was a collection of hard flat crystal plates called feathers which could be fanned out independently in a quarter circle to increase surface area for greater speed as well as control. When closed, the sections lay flat along his limbs and allowed full freedom of movement.
With his feathers in place, Enji now looked like a thin, graceful if mostly skinless dark brown bird. He quickly flipped the feathers open and skimmed the ten meters over the rock surface to one of the wind meters spinning merrily as it leaned over the edge of the large circular platform. He checked the counter against his heartbeat and found the meter running a trifle slower today. He quickly skimmed over and checked the other two meters, positioned at equidistant points around the circumference of his platform, and found all three registering the same slow down. He sighed and flitted over to the small shed dome where he kept his tools.
Enji removed the hard crystal crank and took it to the main thrust plate. This was essentially a large rectangular slab of crystal rock five meters square anchored on two sides firmly to the rock platform. Currently, the plate was almost vertical. He used the crank to loosen the panel and tilt it another five degrees from vertical then lock it off. This increased the amount of surface area exposed to the vertical linovective forces and thereby increased the pull on the plate and thus on the platform.
"There, that should speed us up a bit and help keep the larger rocks off us." he muttered to himself as he returned the crank to the shed.
Enji then carefully checked the water collection filters of the rock dome he and his family lived in. The dome was basically an upturned hollow hemisphere of crystalline rock, naturally hollow. It had been carefully smoothed inside to allow for collection of moisture on the inner surface. Once every couple of days, they would wipe the walls down of dust and water, collecting it into a simple filter mechanism that slowly separated the components. It was these filters Enji had to make sure were not clogged.
The dome itself was securely attached to the rock platform which acted as armor against the slower moving dust and smaller rocks below them. As the platform fell with the stormfall debris, the smaller elements with less surface area would collide with the underside of the rock platform and build up. Occasionally he would have to go underneath to remove or scavenge debris that would stick to the underside, increasing the relative volume of the platform which in turn increased its downward speed. Fortunately he didn't have to do that today; he hated what the bombardment of small rocks did to his feathers and he just replaced them two days ago.
The last thing he checked was his small fungus dome which he had painstakingly put together over several months before Ober was born. He was hoping he could grow his own fungus if he could only get enough proper soil. It was something he was hoping to find today. His wife would have been terrified if she knew just how far outfall he was going but there was no choice. If he was going to support Ober, he had to have enough resources to compensate so the tribe wouldn't have to suffer for his excesses. And that meant taking chances.
Enji glided over to his light brown kite-sled and removed the restraining straps, carefully tucking them into their sleeves so they wouldn't drift about and tangle in something. He checked the long crystal knife he always carried in the kite-sled then folded his feathers tight against his arms but left his leg feathers open and picked up the kite sled and slid into the harness so he dangled below it much like a hang glider. He placed his hands on the control cables and jumped up and away from the surface. He quickly angled the controls to guide the kite-sled over to the edge of the rock platform then out into the wind stream.
Enji's kite-sled was about five meters long overall with fan-shaped wings which folded out from either side of the sled's stiff crystal frame. When fully extended, the wings had a spread of nearly six meters tip to tip. On the top of the frame were three flexible containers which could hold anything desired and fold up when not in use. Enji used his leg feathers for additional turning control. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the kite-sled was highly maneuverable and could turn on a wing tip.
The power for the kite-sled was derived from the fanfold wings. By increasing the surface area exposed to the linovective striations of the universe, the kite-sled's speed could be dramatically increased relative to the falling debris of stormfall. Closing the wings would reduce the downward speed and, in effect, cause the kite-sled to rise relative to the debris. Additional speed could be had by extending various sections of his body feathers.
Of course, Enji didn't understand the details; no one did anymore. He could, however, maneuver the kite-sled better than anyone in the Esre tribe and was widely regarded for his piloting skills.
Enji ignored the constant hiss of the current duststorm against his flight suit and facemask as he angled himself to move outfall, where the dust wasn't as thick but the falling debris was correspondingly larger and therefore more dangerous if one didn't keep alert at all times. One stray boulder could easily shatter the fragile kite-sled and it was too precious to be lost by being that careless.
He peered through the perpetual twilight caused by the duststorm and lack of any significant light source. His sharp eyes were well-accustomed to such low light, as he looked for any large objects that were not moving downward with the rest of the falling debris. For several hours, Enji cruised back and forth, occasionally rising then falling, systematically searching as he steadily moved outfall.
Twice he encountered boulders moving at an angle infall, towards the tribe. The first one was only twice his size. He moored his kite-sled to the rock and climbed out to position himself against the top of the boulder. With a practiced twitch, he flipped open his arm feathers, increasing the surface area exposed to the linovective force. He suddenly felt himself being gently pushed down against the boulder. He kicked his feet out and his leg feathers popped open, increasing his downward pull while at the same time giving him some maneuvering control against the constant wind. By angling his body, he slowly changed the direction of the errant boulder so it headed more or less straight down and thereby wouldn't cause any problems with the tribe later on.
The second boulder was considerably larger and he had to pull out the small sail and lash it to the boulder. It took him the better part of two hours to rig the flimsy-seeming yet strong spun crystal sail so it would tack the boulder into a more downward course and another two hours for the small sail to have sufficient effect.
When he was satisfied with the large boulder's new course, he packed the sail and sat on top of the boulder so it acted as a barrier, providing him a relatively dust free zone above the rock. He rested for a while, nibbling a ration bar, made of a rather tasteless but necessary compressed nutrient compound mixed with fungus, and sipping some of his precious water from his flask. Finally, he released the mooring line and zipped off in search of useable resources and hopefully some real soil.
Enji was exploring a section of stormfall he had not visited before. He was carefully maneuvering his kite-sled between the massive chunks of shattered worldplates, looking sharp for any useable materials that may have survived the crushing impact of stormfront as it swept outfall through the universe. The tribes had to remain relatively close to stormfront as opposed to further infall where any resources had been reduced to powder and therefore were useless to the tribe. A careful balancing act between the dusty infall course and the dangerous rocky outfall course kept the tribes alive. The Esre tribe chose to live further infall where the danger of large debris was much less but where they had to live with a near constant bombardment of dust, sand, and smaller rocks. Occasionally, however, some, such as Enji, risked life and limb to search further outfall, hoping to find a lost cache of fungus or metal, or prize of prizes, an undamaged vlaxifurm dome. For without regular doses of vlax, humans could not survive in this otherwise hostile universe.
Enji was so intent on searching the crags of a particularly large boulder that he didn't see the other kite-sled until it flashed past him, forcing him to frantically struggle to regain control of his craft caught in the sudden draft. By the time he had regained control, the other kite-sled had turned and was heading for him at top speed.
Enji quickly snapped open his kite-sled's wings and dropped at full speed. He angled the kite-sled to move away from the boulder he had been examining and find some room to maneuver. He looked around and spotted the other kite-sled pursuing him.
"So, it's a duel you want." Enji said to himself grimly. "Very well. I accept the challenge."
Enji closed his wings and stood the kite-sled on its tail, reducing surface area and causing him to quickly slow down relative to his surroundings. The other flyer was apparently caught off-guard by Enji's trick and swooped around behind a boulder but Enji knew that trick. He flipped his wings around and dropped once more, angling his kite-sled around the other side of the boulder to meet the other flyer head-on but much to Enji's surprise and consternation, the other flyer wasn't there. He looked around wildly and didn't see the other kite-sled drop down from straight overhead to collide with Enji, the other flyer gripping the top of Enji's kite-sled in his legs. Then the attacker started to force him into the jagged rocks.
Enji fought the controls to veer away from the rock that would tear his fragile craft apart. He had a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach that this was no ordinary duel but one that would be fought to the death. It was unthinkable! No one killed unless they absolutely had no choice and even then only when there was hope of recovering the body for contribution to the tribe's biomass. If he hit those jagged rocks, not only would his precious kite-sled be destroyed, his body would likely be ripped to pieces and scattered by the winds, never to be recovered.
"He must be a madman!" Enji swore as the rocks came ever closer. "What's he thinking?!"
The opponent kite-sled was bearing down on him from above, its wings wide open to drive him downward and apparently that kite-sled had more mass than his own. The other pilot was using his wings and feathers to balance above Enji while at the same time pushing Enji into the rocks. At any other time, Enji would have admired the skill of his opponent for attempting such a risky maneuver but right now he was frantically trying to get out from underneath this deadly attack but everything he tried was countered by his opponent and Enji had to reluctantly admit he was up against someone more skilled than himself.
Enji felt his left wing tip hit rock and he heard as well as felt the crystal plates shatter before he could retract them. But before he could brace for the final impact, the other flyer suddenly veered off, dragging Enji out of harm's way. Enji looked over in dismay at his damaged left wing, now almost completely useless. The kite-sled was no longer capable of decent flight and he would have to limp home, taking far longer than expected to return to his wife and child. And he didn't have enough food and water for an extended excursion.
Enji grabbed his crystal knife and prepared to open his sled but his opponent had other plans. With a deft maneuver, the other flyer rolled both of them completely over then back upright, momentarily disorienting Enji. Before he knew what was going on, the other kite-sled forced him down hard onto the top of a relatively smooth boulder. Enji managed to roll to the right a little at the last instant, shattering the right wing and cracking the frame but sparing himself the brunt of the collision.
Enji lost his knife in the collision but managed to quickly extricate himself from his kite-sled which was now totally ruined. His anger flared at such flagrant abuse of precious resources and jumped to grapple with his opponent only to find himself at the wrong end of a long crystal knife. He immediately backwinged as the other flyer kicked off his flyer and pushed Enji into the boulder's surface, pressing the knife dangerously against his throat. Enji glared into the pitted facemask of his opponent with a mixture of fear and anger but he didn't move. The next move belonged to his opponent.
His opponent was of relatively thin build, a good bit shorter than himself but stockier in the torso indicating a greater muscle mass. His flight suit was gray and loose-fitting, the feathers ragged and worn as though they hadn't been cared for in some time. Enji couldn't see his opponent's face clearly through the scarred and pitted crystal face mask. His opponent gestured that Enji should turn over and Enji refused until he felt the crystal knife pierce his own flight suit. To spare further waste of resources, Enji reluctantly turned over. His opponent quickly bound his hands and feet and removed his arm and leg feathers.
Enji struggled to turn back over and watched his opponent replace his own feathers with Enji's. Enji scowled in anger at this but couldn't do anything with his hands and feet bound. And without his feathers, he couldn't fly away in any event.
In the relatively dust free air above the large boulder they were on, his opponent removed his facemask and pulled back his headcover. Enji's eyes widened in surprise. It was a woman!
The woman looked at him without emotion, seeing only resources she could use.
Enji spoke loudly through his facemask, issuing the formal duel greeting. "My name is Esre Ashin Enji. What tribe and family are you?"
The woman glared at him before replying. Her voice was harsh from dustburn.
"What!? No tribe?"
"Just Ertwe Anic."
Enji realized with sudden horror he had been in battle with a rogue, an outcast of some other tribe. An outcast with no tribal allegiance and therefore not bound by tribal law and custom to preserve human life. A monster.
Enji's look of disgust must have come through his face mask as Anic smiled grimly, licking her cracked lips. Her somewhat emaciated face made it clear she was barely surviving on her own and not eating well. Her stocky build suggested a tribe that cooked its vlax too long, producing a shorter and heavier build not as well suited to freefall flight as the lithe and more thin-boned Esre tribe. Her black hair was short and ragged as though trimmed with a knife. Her dark brown eyes showed a hint of some inner pain of the heart but mainly glared her contempt at Enji.
Anic reached forward and jerked his facemask off and looked at him closely. His pale blue eyes held anger at being treated like this as well as a certain amount of fear of his situation. Anic leaned back against the kite-sleds and crossed her arms over her small bosom.
"You probably think I'm some sort of monster, don't you, esre." She said calmly, staring at him.
"You're obviously an outcast so what else am I to think?" He said through clenched teeth.
She smiled and chuckled at him. "So bound up with tribal law you can't see any other way of looking at things." Her smiled disappeared as she straightened up. "I'm no outcast. I chose to leave my tribe."
Enji's eyes opened wide in shock. "N-no one wants to leave their tribe! It's death to leave your tribe. W-why would you want to do something so horrible?"
She laughed. "You poor, poor misguided fool. Haven't you ever wondered why the tribes have such strict laws? Laws that keep everyone at the point of starvation when there is plenty of food to be had? Laws that prevent a couple from having a ch-child whenever they want?"
Enji's eyes narrowed at her slip but he responded to her questions. "The tribe must survive. The people must survive. The laws insure our survival. Balance must be maintained between life and death to use the tribe's resources most efficiently." Enji felt that pang of guilt once more as he realized he and his wife were breaking those same laws.
"You don't seem to speak the scripture with much conviction, esre. Is it perhaps you too feel overly constrained by the laws?"
"No!" he replied, a little too heatedly. "No. The laws are to maintain the tribe's survival. That is paramount."
"But haven't you ever asked why the tribe must survive?"
"The tribe must survive so the people will survive."
"Ha! That's the scripture talking again. But it doesn't answer why we must survive. Why must we live like this, constantly falling with the storm that ravages the universe? What's going to happen to us if we do survive?"
"Your questions are the meaningless ramblings of a madwoman."
"The scripture has an answer for everthing doesn't it, esre. When the questions come too close to the truth, they're called meaningless. Deny the question and you deny the truth they seek to uncover."
"Well then, if you think there's truth in your questions, what's the answer you've found?"
"Oh? Not afraid of a different idea? I am impressed, esre. There's hope for you yet." She leaned forward and spoke in a quiet voice. "The reason we survive is to return to the Nakto island."
Enji was so surprised he couldn't contain himself. He threw his head back and laughed, almost hysterically.
Anic pulled back and pointed her knife at him. "What!? You mock the legend of Nakto?"
Enji quickly recovered himself but continued to wear a patronizing smile.
"And here I thought you had some real truth. Instead, all you have is a myth, a tale told by the old folks at the Gathering. The Nakto island is no more real than...than a so-called sea of water. It...doesn't...exist."
"It does exist! It does!" Anic's eyes flashed with the vehemence of her conviction. "It just has to exist!"
Enji looked at her carefully. "You must be terribly lonely being on your own like this."
"You know nothing, esre!" She spat.
"You look like you could use some water. There's a flask in what's left of my kite-sled. Help yourself." Enji hoped the change of tack would calm this obviously deranged woman.
Anic quickly scrambled down and used the knife to rip through the containers on Enji's kite-sled, causing him to wince involuntarily. She raised up the water flask in triumph, undid the top and sucked at it like a baby to its mother's life-giving breast. She smacked her lips and replaced the stopper and stowed the flask in a pocket of her flight suit.
"There's some rations as well." Enji encouraged.
The woman searched and came up with the pouch of ration bars. She immediately popped one in her mouth and started to chew, choking a little on it as it stuffed her mouth. She smiled blissfully as the nourishing fluids released by chewing coursed down her throat.
Enji decided to try yet another approach in hopes of finding some way out of his predicament so he could return safely to his wife and child, unlawful though the boy may be.
"Anic. Tell me what you know of Nakto Island."
She stared at him suspiciously but continued to chew. Finally, she swallowed what was left of the ration bar. "Why're you so interested all of sudden, esre?"
"I'm curious what could bring you so far from your tribe, Anic." He smiled gently at her.
She chewed the inside of her cheek a moment in thought then the denied loneliness in her heart reached out for solace.
"The chiefs of Nakto Island watched Mirm'l be torn asunder. They knew their world would end and made preparations but before the plans were complete, Mirm'l was destroyed by the evil science brought to bear by the warring factions of Alkies and Wicks. The chiefs of Nakto Island, in their infinite wisdom, saw that Nakto Island could not remain where it was so they turned off the great engines that held it aloft in the sky and allowed the great island to fall and merge with the destruction of Mirm'l which became stormfall."
"I know all that. That's the same tale told at Gatherings."
She ignored his interruption. "The chiefs knew their people would not survive unless they adapted quickly to life in stormfall so they created the ten tribes and bade each tribe to scatter across the face of stormfall, to better scavenge the resources left behind as the worldplates shattered under stormfall. Then the chiefs of Nakto guided the great Island into the dust of stormfall never to be seen again."
Anic paused to take a sip of water. Enji licked his drying lips, wishing he could ask for some water as well but was afraid of breaking the fragile bond between them. Instead, he chose to prompt her to continue.
"Again, that story is well-known to all. What makes you believe it's anything more than just a story?"
"Because my grandfather Urmic said he had met a man who had gone too far infall and came back delirious from lack of vlax and water. The man was gravely ill and rambled on and on about seeing a tremendous rock platform where none should be. The man died before he could give the location but grandfather told me he believed the man was describing Nakto Island."
"That's not much to go on..." Enji said doubtfully.
"Grandfather said the man also spoke of a strange glow coming from the island, a glow that circled the platform and pierced the shroud of dust everywhere, a glow no one had ever seen before."
Enji picked up his ears in interest. He had never heard this version of the story. A glow like that could only mean one thing, generated power!
"I see you're suddenly interested, esre." Anic said with a slim smile.
Enji forced himself to look disinterested. "It's just I've never heard that variation on the myth before. Awfully convenient of the man to die before giving the location, don't you think?"
"The man's death was recorded in the Auchs' death book! You can look it up for yourself like I did!" she replied hotly then stopped as she realized she had given away her tribe's name.
"So, Auchs Ertwe Anic, you believe in this fable?"
"I'm not going to say anymore to an unbeliever, esre." She folded her arms across her chest and turned her face away from him.
Enji suddenly realized she couldn't have been more than twenty, barely old enough to have a child. Just how long had she been away from her tribe?
"Listen, Anic, could I trouble you for a sip of water? I won't try anything, I promise."
She looked at him, not sure whether to accede to his request or not. But again, that loneliness reached up and twanged her heart string. She reluctantly pulled the flask out and undid the stopper. She leaned forward and held the flask to his lips. He sucked hard, getting a large mouthful of water before she pulled the flask away, stoppering it and tucking it back in her pocket. He slowly swallowed the water, allowing it to soak into his mouth and throat, relieving the growing dryness.
"Thank you, Anic. How long have you been away from the Auchs?"
She scowled at herself for making such a slip but replied: "Maybe two years. I don't know, since I don't have a crawlclock."
His eyes went wide. "That long?! I'm impressed you've managed to survive as well as you have."
"I've had to, what with little Eri and--" She clamped her mouth shut and glared at him.
Enji simply smiled at her innocently but her second slip confirmed his suspicions. Not only was she rogue but she had a child. He was further impressed at her ability to survive two years with such a burden.
"The people must survive." he said quietly.
"Are you mocking me, esre? Because if you are--"
"I wouldn't mock anyone that can survive two years away from their tribe and with a child no less! Tell me, what do you do about vlax?"
Her glare softened as she could see he held no malice toward her. She chewed the inside of her cheek again for a while.
"I...found a barrel of vlax powder some time ago."
"You are very, very fortunate then. Such a find occurs only once in twenty generations. How much do you have left?"
She hesitated before answering. "About half a barrel."
"Very fortunate indeed! Perhaps there is something I can do for you."
Her eyes narrowed. "In exchange for what, esre."
"In exchange for letting me go and returning to my family, Anic."
"What do you propose?"
"Your resourcefulness is astounding, Anic. I could use that to help my family and at the same time offer you and your son a place to live."
"But tribal law won't allow for an additional two mouths without a corresponding two deaths."
Now it was Enji's turn to hesitate. "I... am working on getting around that requirement."
Now Anic's eyes opened in surprise as she put the pieces together.
"You have an unlawful child!" she breathed.
Enji squirmed uncomfortably beneath her gaze as his face slowly heated up.
"I don't farging believe it!" Anic exclaimed. "Here I was worried you might turn me in for biomass and all this time you're hiding an unlawful child!"
"The old man was supposed to die but didn't--"
"That old excuse? Just face the fact that your wife wanted a child and made sure it happened without you knowing it."
Enji looked down in embarrassment.
"That's it, isn't it? She tricked you. Well, well, well. This does present some interesting possibilities."
Enji looked up sharply to see her eyes gleam. "What are you thinking, Anic?"
"I think that you and I would make very good partners in resource hunting. Your wife could care for our two children and between us, we could survive. We could even start our own tribe."
Enji gasped at the woman's ambition. Start a new tribe? That was unthinkable!
He began to wonder why such a thing couldn't be done then shook his head at the impossibility.
"Why do you shake your head, esre? There's nothing stopping us from starting a new tribe, one that didn't take such harsh views of life. A tribe that celebrated life rather than hoarded it."
"It does sound...tempting..."
"But you want time to think about it, right, esre? Well, time we don't have. What's your answer? Do I kill you and leave your body to waste here in stormfall or do you agree and join me in a new way of life?"
"Since you put it that way, I really have no choice, do I?"
"None whatsoever. We wouldn't want you to waste all that precious biomass of yours on a bunch of rocks, now would we?"
Enji hung his head in defeat. "Very well, Auchs Ertwe Anic. I accept your terms."
"Your word on the scripture, esre, that you will not try to escape or return me to your tribe."
Enji scowled then replied: "I, Esre Ashin Enji, swear on the Esre book of scripture to not evade you or give you to my tribe. There. Satisifed?"
"Perfectly, esre. Now turn over."
She quickly undid his cords and he rubbed his wrists to get the blood circulating in them again. They tingled something fierce and he had to shake them out to limber them up again.
"What about my feathers?"
"What about them? They look pretty good on me, don't you think?"
"They were created for me and my lighter build. They won't work on you nearly as well as yours, worn though they may be. And we can replace yours when we return to my home. My wife is very good with feathers as you can tell."
Anic chewed her cheek, agonizing over the decision then realized Enji did have a point. She reluctantly removed his arm and leg feathers and handed them back to him. He gratefully donned them and twitched them open then closed to make sure they worked. Anic had rather grumpily replaced hers.
"Now, since my kite-sled is destroyed, we will have to use yours. Where's your child, by the way?"
She gestured to her kite-sled.
Enji's jaw dropped. "You...did all this with a child on board? What kind of mother are you?"
"A desperate one which you'd do well to remember, esre." She said with gritted teeth as she gestured meaningfully with her knife.
Enji restrained his surprised anger. He shook his head briefly then looked over the two kite-sleds. There was some of which could be salvaged from his own craft and he quickly set about bundling up the pieces as best he could. He lashed it to the top of her kite-sled then looked inside the three full containers. A baby, maybe a year old was in the first one, being very quiet. Enji could tell immediately that child was undernourished. Not surprising considering his mother's condition.
"I'll fly us to my home. You take care of your child." he ordered.
Anic bristled briefly but acquiesced. She knew it was a lot easier for him to guide them to their destination that it was for him to give directions. Piloting in stormfall was as much by feel as it was by landmarks and she didn't know his area of stormfall well enough yet to fly with simple directions.
Enji wrestled with the controls of Anic's kite-sled. It's design was basically the same as his, dictated as much by tradition as practicality, but this kite-sled was not built for two adults and felt overloaded and ungainly. He realized that everything Anic owned must be on that sled, not to mention Anic clinging to the top, lying on the weight of his own destroyed sled. "No wonder she was able to bear down on me so hard." he thought as he used all his skill to keep them flying and progressively slow their descent relative to stormfall while at the same time working his way infall.
It was still nearly a day before they reached Esre territory. As Enji brought them distantly past the main tribal platform, he was shocked to see a lot of flyers and kite-sleds flitting about, much more than expected. He angled their trajectory to bring them closer and he swore.
"Farg! Anic, my tribe's under attack. We must do something!"
Anic looked out and squinted her eyes then opened them in surprise. "Those are Auchs' flyers!"
Enji immediately swerved away from the battle zone and headed as quickly as he could to his home. If another tribe attacked, no one was safe. His worry for his wife and son crept up his back, leaving sweaty footprints.
Soon he was circling his home. He saw no signs of trouble and landed quickly. He automatically threw a strap over the kite-sled and flitted over to the door, not waiting for Anic. He threw open the door and dashed inside, calling out "Arybet! Arybet! Where are you?"
He knew almost immediately that she and his son were not there. He could feel their absence and clenched his fists in rage against his thighs.
Anic came in carrying her son, looking around. It had been a long time since she had seen the inside of a dome like this and thought she could get used to it easily. She then noticed the tense form of Enji.
"She is gone. My wife and son are gone." He nearly wept at the loss.
Anic's heart went out to him but her survival instinct pulled it back. It meant more resources for her. But Enji had other ideas.
He turned and glided out the door.
"Where are you going, esre?" She demanded.
"I'm going to find out what happened to my wife and son. Stay here or go with me. Your choice." he replied coldly as he readied her kite-sled for flight.
"Hold your position!" A loud voice rang out from above them. Enji looked up startled to see a number of flyers dropping down, their crystal knives drawn. He recognized them from his own tribe and held his hands out in surrender. It would be a waste to throw his life away in a useless struggle against so many.
"Hey Sardim! Look at what we have here!" a flyer was pulling Anic and her child from Enji's house.
"You must be who the Auchs are looking for. Good catch, Nilbin. Bring her in the kite-sled. You others, go with him and make sure she doesn't escape." Sardim looked at Enji with pity in his eyes. "Enji, I'm sorry but I must also escort you to chief Enovar."
"I understand, Sardim. I will not resist."
Sardim nodded then to his men: "All right, take wing!"
"Enji, you put me in a very difficult position." Chief Enovar said as he floated in his dome, his hands clasped behind him. With practiced ease, the chief glided back and forth across the floor. Chief Enovar was an old man, nearly a hundred and thirty years old, his gray hair and lined face now even more strained with concern over the current predicament.
"I understand, Chief Enovar." Enji said from his position where he was sitting, strapped to the wall.
Enovar stopped to look at the young man. "I don't think you do, Enji. You're a smart boy with a lot of skill and life in you. How could you go against tribe law and have an unlawful son?"
Enji squirmed but remained silent. Anything he could say now would be an excuse, and a poor one at that. There simply was no excuse.
"I see. Your silence speaks volumes, Enji. I was young once too, you know. I understand what you're going through."
"Yes, Chief Enovar."
"But that doesn't excuse your farging poor judgement." Enovar said with hard crystal in his voice. He then softened. "However, current circumstances have leaned somewhat in your favor. Which brings up the matter of this woman the Auchs are looking for."
"Auchs Ertwe Anic."
"Yes, that's her name. I've heard of the Ertwe family. Good, strong stock. This woman's actions seem so out of character. Well, no matter. She's the Auchs' concern now."
"What will happen to her?"
"Concerned? I have to say I'm not entirely surprised, Enji. She does have a child after all and from what Chief Secha has told me, she has managed to survive for two years away from her tribe. A most impressive feat by any means. That has been taken into consideration, but what will happen to her is up to Chief Secha."
"Hmph. Which still leaves me your situation, Enji. I have both good news and bad news for you. On the good side, if you can call it that, two members of the Esre tribe were killed in the skirmish with the Auchs tribe. Fortunately the bodies were recovered and none of the Auchs were killed. This leaves room for two new lives in our tribe. It is my judgement that your child will be one of those lives."
Enji breathed a sigh of relief and Enovar held up his hand to forestall any words.
"Don't thank me just yet, Enji. Your situation is still grave and I must address it for the good of the tribe. Arybet tells me she tricked you into having a child and she takes sole responsibility. Although I can't excuse the fact that you didn't come forward about this when you learned of her pregnancy, I do understand you feelings."
Enovar glided away from Enji then turned.
"It is my considered judgement that, for the good of the tribe, your child will be raised by the tribe."
"I'm not through. Your child will be raised by the tribe for the good of the tribe. Also, to prevent any further undesirable influences, Arybet will be sterilized. For the good of the tribe."
"For the good of the tribe." Enji mumbled automatically, his head bowed, sick to his heart.
"It was either that or have Arybet returned to the tribe compost pit. She's young and skilled and could still be useful for many years. Just not as a mother. She's proven to be too unstable for that or so my entry in the Esre book of births will record."
Enovar drifted over and put his hand on Enji's shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Enji. But that is the law. I can only do so much for you."
"Thank you, Chief Enovar." Enji mumbled.
"You can go now. Arybet will undergo the procedure tomorrow morning."
"Yes, Chief Enovar."
Enovar watched the defeated young man slowly make his way out. He shook his head. It was a bad business but the survival of the tribe must come first. Hopefully Enji would recover his senses and once more be a productive member of the tribe.
"Let it be known here and now that this woman, Auchs Ertwe Anic, has freely--"
Anric tried to protest but the bonds and gag were too tight and all she managed was a muffled squeal.
Chief Secha continued a little more loudly.
"--has freely chosen to give up her life so her child may live and the tribe may prosper.
Survival of the tribe is all.
Survival of the people is all."
The assembled echoed: "Survival of the tribe is all. Survival of the people is all."
With those words, the chief held his hand over Anric's nose and clamped down hard. She struggled vainly for nearly two minutes before she lost consciousness. The chief continued to hold his hand the scripture-proscribed five minutes as the people watched the crawlclock tick away Anric's life in silent respect. He then placed his ear against her chest and heard nothing. He stood up and signaled the two attendants to carry the body away to be added to the tribe's compost pit where her biomass would add the necessary nutrients for growing the food that allowed the tribe to survive.
Chief Secha turned to the assembled members of the tribe and held his hand out to the woman's baby, now quiet.
"This child, Auchs Ertwe Eri, is now a member of the tribe of Auchs. It will be cared for as one of our own. So it is spoken. So it is done."
The crowd echoed the final words "So it is spoken. So it is done." and began to disperse.
The baby was carried away by one of the nurse mothers to be cared for with the other baby in her charge. The child would grow up loved and cared for by all the tribe, not alone with only a single desperate parent out among stormfall.
Two years later, Enji was taking his turn caring for the children of the Esre tribe. He had found it a great comfort to be near his son this way even if he couldn't, by tribal law, acknowledge their relationship. Arybet had remained bitter over the sterilization and had turned to scouting ever more recklessly in outfall. In contrast, Enji had become more comfortable at staying with the tribe and caring for the children.
"Tell us a story! Tell us a story!" The children chorused around Enji.
Enji grinned and lifted one child to his knee as the others sat strapped to the floor in close attention.
"A story is it? Well now, what sort of story should I tell you today? I know. Now, let me see... where does it start?"
"In the beginning! In the beginning!" The children sang out.
Enji grinned again. "How right you are! So, in the beginning, the great Nakto Island floated above Mirm'l but all was not well. The Alkies and the Wicks broke out into a terrible fight. The chiefs of Nakto Island looked on this and and feared the worst. And the worst came to pass as Mirm'l was torn asunder by the evil magics of science."
The children all ooohed and continued to hang on the edge of their straps.
"The chiefs of Nakto Island knew what they had to do and made plans. They formed the ten tribes and dispersed them among the stormfall, charging the tribes with the survival of the people. Then the Chiefs of Nakto turned off the great engines that held the island floating in the sky and the island began to fall with the rest of stormfall."
"What happened then? Tell us what happened then!"
"Well, the great island soon became lost to the ten tribes who spread all over the face of stormfall. And over the generations, the Nakto island became legend, then story, then myth. Then, less than two generations ago, a man came stumbling out of the deep dust of infall feverishly describing a vast island with a strange glow coming from it."
"Ooh is right! Because where there's a glow like that, there must be power and there's only one source of such power and that's Nakto Island. So it would be a great boon to all tribes if Nakto Island were found someday."
Enji looked at all the eager children around him before concluding.
"And maybe, just maybe, if you grow up to be tall and graceful and you're very diligent in your learnings, just maybe it could be you who discovers the legendary Nakto Island and so help all the tribes to prosper. Now that would be a life worth celebrating, don't you think?"
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