The cots were lined about one pace apart, about a hundred and twenty beds in the hospital tent. It reeked of sour blood and excretions, the rotten odors mixed with the sterile smell of rubbing alcohol and fresh medical supplies. Zipporah slipped past the rows of patients, some dazed, others sleeping, a few of them wide awake and frightened. One who’d arrived the previous week from crash landing in the outlands, a male TigerMole, a soldier, beckoned her as she passed by the foot of his cot. Pausing for a moment, she turned and stepped up to the creature’s bedside.
His eyes were watery, elliptical orbs, gray iris’s nearly eclipsed by the pupils, gazing up through her face, through the roof of the tent and into distant space above them. She held the digits of his paw and smiled. Under the sheet lay the form of a right hind leg and the absence of a left one. Zipporah placed her palm on the mole’s forehead and stroked his charcoal fur with her thumb, quietly humming the gospel hymn her mother used to sing to her when she had lain sick as a child. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, come, He’ll show you the way. Sons and daughters, great-grandfathers, come, He’ll show you the way. Follow Jesus, Lord and Savior, take a drink, be still, no greater, peace, He’ll show you the way…
The traveler she’d rescued had settled down since the day he was admitted. He sat propped in the corner intently watching the Egg mounted over the center aisle of the tent. Nodding curtly when he saw her, he kept his eyes on the System news, watching over her shoulder after she pulled up a stool and sat beside him.
“Do you remember me?”
He glared at his visitor, then back at the luminous Egg.
“I hauled you in from the road the other day. I helped you. Helped, remember?”
He shook his head and muttered something in Braekean, likely a profanity.
“I only want to talk,” she continued. “It’s possible you can help me. I need to ask you about Raanved.”
The mention of his home planet got his attention.
“I need to know what happened there. I know this is painful for you, but will you talk to me?” Zipporah tapped her fingertips together and pointed back and forth between them. “Talk?”
The man stared in her eyes for a moment as though he knew exactly what she wanted, then turned and locked his focus on the Egg.
Work was slow that afternoon, she and Hulé sorted boxes of worn out time suits, making three piles for the varying levels of dilapidation. She glanced at her boss. “How does the store look, Hulé? Clean, is it not?”
“You did a fine job, Zeeah.”
“Thank you. It took quite a while.”
Hulé sliced open another box of time suits.
“Hot yesterday, too. And the dust, aye, terrible.”
“What do you want, sister.”
“Talk to him again?” she asked. “Please?”
“The sick traveler? What about?”
Zipporah smiled meekly.
Hulé’s four top-eyes opened wide then narrowed sternly at her friend. “Not in a million solars would I ask that man to discuss his past. His wife and son were murdered, Zeeah. Would you like to relive that?”
“I do relive it,” she answered. “Every morning, every day, every night I wonder what happened to Karrick. I lay awake and watch him getting blasted, exploding in his craft or worse, getting shot down in some terrible outlands where God knows… I do relive it, sister.”
Hulé stood now with head bowed and eyes closed.
“All I want is one conversation,” she said softly. “And I think I know how to appease him.”
* * *
Saiojéte rose up and ran forward, toddling across the floor at an increasingly reckless incline until she caught his arms and swept him up, twirling around under the dome of their tan metal igloo. “You are mad, little théquo,” she laughed, rubbing her nose against his. “Just like your papa. What should we do today, huh? Take a drive in an airsled? Go and hike by the river? If only that stream were water and not indrosludge we could jump in and have a swim, you and me. Cluck-cluck-cluck,” she chirped in his ear.
The land around their dwelling was desert; dark red sand, weathered rock formations, and harsh dusty winds. Woodland also with patches of thick forest, tenacious plant life, gnarled old trees, and the occasional pool of slime welling up from subterranean currents fed by the colonies of Calperon T15-30. The area was far from safe, although as long as one didn’t fall and cut one’s skin, or physically ingest any elements of the environment, it was possible to survive the wilderness for short periods of time.
Zipporah trekked through the trees with Saio bound to her chest in a papoose, the limbs curling above them as they hiked, wandered, seeking something new. “Look at this flower, little one—no,” she slapped his hand away, “just look.” The pedals were white with purple flecks like teardrops running out from the center. “Beautiful, no? Bee-yoo-tee-full.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
They trekked on past the plants and trees and out into a rocky expanse of rolling sand hills that rose into reddish crags and layered rock walls overlooking shallow dusty canyons and dry ravines. The tallest peak spiked half a mile into the sky, a makable trip from where they stood now, not too far from their dwelling.
“Do you feel like an adventure?” she asked the child. “A bit of a climb?”
Saio cooed happily.
“Alright, mum-mum,” she wrapped the head cloth round his nose and mouth and fixed the goggles over his eyes.
* * *
“Eklokeyli gand lávwequor, beczun vaknegáu,” spoke Hulé to the traveler. “Vikhan Raanved.”
“Uliel ke guavgon,” he retorted, not without compassion.
“I know this is difficult,” she continued in Braekean, “I wouldn’t want to look back either. My friend is like you, seeking only peace. Is there anything you can tell me about the invasion, anything at all?”
The man sighed, looked down at his stomach. “If I do this, I do this one time. You mustn’t return with your widow friend to ask me more questions.”
“No, of course not.”
“Alright. I was a clayworker by trade. My store crafted dishes, pots, bottles, mostly kitchen pieces for those in my village and sometimes the neighboring towns. My wife, Duijairo, helped at the store, firing the kiln, repairing broken vessels, manning the register—”
“I too run the register, at my store,” Hulé said cheerfully. “Sorry. Please go on.”
“The Trozek armies had been robbing our land for years. Every two weeks, when it was bad, a new gang would fly through and storm our town, take what little food we had. When it was good, half a solar might pass without a visit from the thieves. Nevertheless we hid portions of our goods away, you know, always keeping enough in the open so as not to anger them or cause suspicion.” The traveler smiled faintly, “One thing about the Trozeks, they never raised a hand against anyone in my village.”
“No. Their war was with the rich, the government, not us farmers. As long as we had enough food for them to eat their fill they remained civil. People feared them, complained. Duijairo, she complained all the time. ‘Trozek this, Trozek that, a Trozek stole the Egg remote.’ Most of us knew it could be worse. Some Raanvedians,” he shook his head, “never knew peace.”
“Your son,” said Hulé, “did he work in your shop too?”
“Ccazi? No. Ccazi was a musician. Altophone, drums, harpong… He played everything. The night… it happened… the night they died, he was playing a drum and singing outside in the market. Duija and I had come to take an order and buy groceries when they arrived, eighteen of them, on a Rettrian Plank.”
“A destroyer ship? Trozek rebels?”
“These were not Trozeks. They were Korratrean soldiers—I know,” the traveler’s face darkened, “I was surprised as well. Until then I had only seen Korratreans on the System news. What are these men doing here? I asked. Then the leader, a commander, you can tell from the eyes, he looked over the whole market, like he was scanning the place for, I don’t know, something. Then he turned around, spoke a word to the captain, and reboarded the Rettrian. That’s when it happened.”
“Genocide. They murdered my village.”
Hulé held his hand between two of her own. “I’m so, so sorry, Ccazolan. How did you survive?”
The traveler scoffed. “Dumb luck, I guess. No reason for the gods to spare my rotten bones, not when my wife could have walked away instead. She saw me, truly. My soul was the last thing she saw.”
They talked for a while longer about pleasant things. She asked easy questions about Duijairo’s favorite foods, favorite trees, favorite seasons on Raanved. When it was time to go he asked, “Don’t you want to know what the commander said, the word by which he murdered my family?”
“You heard him?”
“I saw his lips. My son, Ccazi, was deaf since birth. The word he spoke to his captain, I’ve never heard it before, but there is no doubt in my mind as to what this man said.” A spark of silver flashed in the traveler’s eyes. “Manglokel.”