Autumn World, chapter 1

Autumn World

Autumn World paperback cover

by Joan Marie Verba, Tess Meara, Deborah K. Jones, Margaret Howes, and Ruth Berman

 

CRASHLANDING

Woke and felt delicate clawed hands touching her. Mandibles clicked. She recognized the sound.

Voices–high and thin with an odd breathless quality–cried, “Leah! Wake up! Come to! For us! For me!”

Opened her eyes. Saw sunlight, shining through orange and yellow foliage. She tried to move. It hurt. She groaned.

“Are you injured? Is it fatal?”

She tried to think of an answer. Words did not come. A head rose into view. Triangular with compound eyes. Feathery antennae. Mandibles inset with jewels. The mandibles moved. Click! Click! The jewels flashed.

“What?” she asked.

“A crash,” the voices said. “All dead! The Jheehan. The Hultzu. One of me. Maybe two. I hurt. I am in pain. I feel less intelligent.”

Shit!

The voices went on. “The Jheehan looks like a piece of pita bread. The Hultzu has bones sticking out all over. I won’t describe what I look like.”

She got up on one elbow. She was in a clearing. The ground was covered with something that looked like moss. It was burgundy red.

The person–her comrade–the one other survivor–stood around her in a circle. Four dark bodies, each one a meter long. The antennae waved anxiously. The heads were lifted high, as were the short, round torsos. The front pair of legs, which ended in a pair of claws or pincers, moved nervously, picking at moss or reaching out to her, touching lightly. The pincers clicked like the mandibles but far more quietly.

Each body had three segments: head, torso, and rear, which was shaped like a torpedo or a beetle. The rear segment rested on three pairs of legs. Four of the legs were thick and solid. The last pair was long and narrow and tended to drag. The mating legs.

A comforting sight. Familiar. Though it bothered her to see only four bodies. There ought to be five.

Who was gone? She looked at the heads. Mandibles clicked. Gems glittered. Diamond was here. Topaz. Garnet. Peridot. The missing body was Tourmaline.

“Who is in pain?” she asked.

“I am,” said a voice.

Other voices said, “Garnet.”

“I am dying,” Garnet said.

She looked at the body that had spoken last. At first, it seemed like the others. Then she noticed that one of the legs was bent at an odd angle. The antennae barely moved. The mandibles were entirely motionless. And there was something about the stance of the creature that indicated pain, though she couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No,” said Garnet.

The others repeated, “No.”

She pushed herself up into a sitting position. Oh, Peace! Everything ached. Maybe she was dying, too. Her eyes kept going in and out of focus. And she felt heavy. Was that the weight of mortality? Then she remembered the planet was larger than Earth and had a stronger gravitational field.

“Are you all right?” her companion asked. “Do you plan to die?”

“I don’t think so.” She tried to get her eyes in focus. There were trees at the edge of the clearing. They had gray trunks that were scaled like fish. Their foliage was lacy. The sky was brilliant blue. She could not see any clouds. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. We don’t know. The Jheehan was piloting. All at once, ka-boom! I hurt. I cannot think clearly. I am less intelligent than I used to be.”

She got up on her knees. Her head felt peculiar. “Where are we?”

“We–I–don’t know. Down. On the planet. Are you going to be able to stand?”

“There’s one way to find out.”

The bodies moved in around her. She felt hard shells. Pincers. Antennae. They were trying to hold her.

“Okay,” she said and got up on her feet. She swayed. The bodies moved back.

“Radio,” she said.

“Broken,” said a voice.

Another voice said, “We tried.”

“Too far for speaking,” a third voice said.

Speaking meant telepathy. A skill–an ability–which Earthers did not have. The Jheehan could have spoken to another Jheehan or one of the dolphins at the base, but the Jheehan was dead.

“The ship?” she asked.

“This way.” They scurried ahead of her–all except Garnet, who remained motionless.

She looked at it–or him–or her. “Is there anything?”

“No,” said Garnet. “Go on.”

Beyond the trees was a slope leading to a river. Burnt vegetation. Smoke rising. Congealing foam. Twisted metal. The body of the Hultzu. It must have crawled out of the ship to die.

She went down on her knees and vomited. Her companion made a noise like a meadow full of crickets. Chirps of unhappiness.

She finished vomiting. She got up and stumbled to the river. She rinsed her mouth and washed her face. When she was done, she said, “We have to bury them.”

“Let me. Let us. You are injured. You are in distress.”

“I’m all right. I think. You lost Tourmaline.”

Her companion said nothing. She splashed water on her neck. “We need something to dig with.”

“We–I–will get,” her companion said.

She sat by the river and waited. It was wide and smooth. On the far side was a forest, yellow and orange. Animals flew over the water. They fluttered like bats. Catching bugs, most likely.

Her companion came back with a shovel and a pick. Odd. The kinds of things that Admin decided to put on a shuttle plane. The tools must belong to some kind of emergency kit.

“Here,” she said. It was a good place for a grave. The gentle slope was covered with a lacy yellow plant a meter high. Small flying bugs darted above the vegetation. A good place to lie for however long. Would the microbes here be able to feed on alien flesh and bone? Who knew?

She dug. Her companion helped, digging with pincers, chirping. The grave was shallow. She didn’t have the energy for a deep one. After she finished, she went to get the Hultzu. It was covered with blood. The blood was copper-based and green. White pieces of bone came through the skin. This mess had been a lovely, elegant, intelligent being. What Earther could move with the grace of a Hultzu? What Earther had a voice that always sang?

She dragged the Hultzu to the grave and pushed it in. Then she went looking for the Jheehan.

Her companion was right. The Jheehan did look like a piece of pita bread. Or else like a fur rug. She looked at the body, spread on the floor of the control room, then turned and walked out.

“Can you take it to the grave?” she said to her companion.

“Yes. I–we–can.”

“Good. I can’t. I’m going to sit by the river. I think I’ve had a concussion.”

Peridot came with her and crouched next to her, touching her anxiously, chirping.

“How did it happen?” she asked. “I’m fine. I think I’m fine. Bruised a little.” She moved and winced. “Well, maybe–bruised a lot. But I’m alive. I don’t have a cut. I don’t have a broken bone. And they are dead. Why?”

“Not good on philosophy,” said Peridot. “Can’t think clearly.”

They watched the river. The bat-like creatures fluttered back and forth. A dark shape surfaced way out in the water. Only for a moment. She couldn’t make out what it was. But it was large.

“Done,” said a voice.

She looked around. Topaz was back. “Come. Cover with dirt.”

She went back to the grave. There were two bodies in it. “Where is Tourmaline?”

“Take care,” said a voice. “We–I–take care.”

They were a notoriously private species. No one knew what lay under their gleaming shells. No one knew for certain if the shells were natural or artificial. She remembered hearing once–they were like roaches. You never saw a dead one unless you sprayed.

The remark was racist. Why had she remembered it? Thank Justice! They could not read her mind.

She buried the Hultzu and the Jheehan. When she was done, she stuck the shovel upright in the soft dirt. She wiped her hands on her coverall. “I’ve never buried anyone before.”

“No?” asked her companion.

“I grew up in a space station. People got recycled for organ and tissue donation. Every part of our bodies can be transplanted or transformed into stem cells. We didn’t go to the Recycling Area. Instead, we went to one of the Recreational Areas and held a wake.”

“What?” asked her companion.

“A party. To celebrate what the person had done for the station–and what they were going to do. Nothing is ever wasted in a station.”

Her companion said nothing.

“What about Garnet?” she asked.

“Dead,” said her companion. “We take care. Of Garnet. Of Tourmaline. Wait here.”

They scurried off. She sat down. Time passed. Shadows lengthened. The sky developed a late afternoon color.

Peridot came back. “Done. Almost done.”

She wondered how they went about disposing of dead members of their species. She wasn’t going to ask. Her field was sociology and linguistics, but she didn’t feel like a scholar at the moment. She felt tired and confused.

Peridot touched her with a pincer. It was a gesture of comfort–or maybe a gesture that asked for comfort. She laid a hand on the hard slick torso. It felt warm. Peridot chirped.

She dozed a little, leaning against her companion, dreaming of walking in a wood of trees with fish-scale bark. Sweat trickled down her back. Her shoe rubbed against her foot. Damn! Damn! She’d be limping soon.

The wood ended before a slope that led down to a river. The river was called the Angin. The slope was covered by a plant called golden lace.

“Wake!” cried Peridot.

“What?”

She stumbled up and turned, lurching away from Peridot.

Earthers. No. It could not be. Not here. Not in armor that glittered in the sun. They came down the yellow slope. Light flashed off the blades of their drawn weapons, the coils of their whips. They were upright. Bipedal. Their arms were bare of clothing or fur. Their skin was blue. They did not have the grace of a Hultzu. They stumbled and jumped like her own people. She looked into the eyes of the one who led.

A door opened in her mind. But of course! Now I see! I understand! I didn’t know!

She held out her hands, open. The palms were forward Look. No weapons. “We come in peace,” she said. Peridot had not moved.

Disgust. Fear. Longing. The staring purple eyes of the alien seemed to absorb her whole consciousness. Blackness closed in. She felt her body hit the earth. She could not move, but she could still hear.

“Tie her up,” said a voice. “Rig a stretcher. We are taking her to the City.” The language was not Earthan. She could not possibly understand it. But she did.

More of them were coming. The first man shone beyond her closed lids as irresistible as the sun. His presence was the last thread tying her to consciousness. She struggled to rise through darkness.

Her vision cleared. She was standing, but the height was wrong. One of the men was kicking Peridot. No!

Sight deserted her again. She was still lying on the ground. They were hurting Peridot. Must move!

A whip thong lashed Peridot’s head.

She screamed, “No!”

Peridot! Have to get up? Peridot!

“No!”

© 2000 by Joan Marie Verba, Tess Meara, Deborah K. Jones, Margaret Howes, and Ruth Berman