By Judith Schiess Avila
“Remember, you are Alira Tenfoot, the last of a brave and noble family.”
Her papo’s grim words dove deep into Alira’s heart and froze there like a hunk of ice. Papo pulled her against his broad chest, crushing her breath into gasps. After he released her, Mamu wrapped slender arms around her, pressed her head against Alira’s, kissed her forehead. Her breath smelled sweet when she whispered, “Take care of yourself, my angel.”
Alira swallowed, but words stuck, a lump in her dry throat. Finally she managed to say, in a wobbly voice, “I love you both. So much.” How could she bear to leave her parents?
A rock the size of a house crashed down, stopping not ten feet from Mamu’s slender form. Mamu’s steady gaze barely wavered from Alira’s face. Screeching drove spikes into Alira’s brain as houses, people, and vehicles slid into the crevasse that had split Nedrathane. No one had believed the predictions, despite the fact that their home compound was built on a fault line.
She grabbed Papo’s hand as he fastened her into the passenger notch of the red skid sled. “No, Papo. Let me stay with you!”
Papo turned his eyes away and wiped at his cheek. Then he squeezed her hand. “You must go, my daughter. The landmass collapse is growing every second. Your mother and I will join you. Soon. I promise.”
The red skid-sled, already programmed by Mamu, tore away from Alira’s well-loved home, Nedrathane Compound, with Alira strapped securely into its passenger notch. Her throat constricted and her eyes squeezed closed as tears coursed down her cheeks. She gritted her teeth, repeating silently, “Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.” But her heart told her that she was not brave.
“We love you!” Mamu’s words followed her, thrumming in her cranium like frenzied music. She heard her mamu’s sobs, and then the terrifying sound of more homes tearing apart and falling into the giant crevasse that split Nedrathane.
“Anumis, please, please, please let Mamu and Papo survive this. Bring me safely back to them.” The last words Alira heard, as the skid-sled barreled over the snow and ice toward Etia, were her own prayer.
Alira hugged the icy metal support pillar, hidden deep under the hostile compound of Etia. You are brave. You are a Tenfoot. Do not cry. She gulped once and swallowed.
Footsteps echoed like hammer blows directly above her head. The sound became a pattern, clanging back and forth across the metal platform, pounding fear deep into her brain. Wind whipped the sharp, brittle strands of her copper hair, rasping a harsh whisper against her helmet. A clenched jaw did not keep her teeth from chattering.
Two short days ago she had felt so grown up. At term’s end, her teachers had pronounced her ready for full citizenship, and she had passed the Nedrathane Wisdom exam with the hightest grades. But now? Never in her sixteen years had she felt so alone. Her spirit cried out for Papo and Mamu. Desperately. No answer came.
Her arms ached, but she didn’t dare to relax her grip. Not yet. Not until dark. Mamu and Papo had told her that people would stop moving around after dark. The citizens of Etia barricaded themselves in their homes, burning household waste in special recycling ovens to ward off the chill. They used lights and other electro-based devices for no more than the allotted three hours.
Another sound – something dragging? – grated above Alira’s head. She stopped breathing. Her muscles screamed, and her grip slipped, shifting her weight against the cold pillar. Her breathing helmet rang softly when it hit the metal support. Oh plog!
“Who goes there?” a voice from above shouted.
Alira froze, not moving even to blink.
Again the voice called. “Is someone there?”
The metal plate above her head squealed as it was raised just a crack. A light played over the pole, just below the spot where Alira clung. The beam nearly hit her magnetic boot.
After a full minute, the light retreated, the plate dropped back into place and footsteps receded. The voice mumbled something unintelligible.
Alira dared to blink again. If only Mamu and Papo had not chosen this forbidding place as her destination. But their old friend, Elvis Toldar, lived here. And it was closer to Nedrathane than the other compounds. Only eight hundred miles of frozen, oxygen-poor tundra separated Nedrathane from Etia. Ideologically, however, the two homelands were light-years apart.
The inhabitants of Nedrathane were mild, fun-loving and generous. They loved music and dance, their own history, the science of human behavior, three-dimensional art, and challenging books. Their counterparts on Etia were known for their suspicious natures, mistrusting both their own neighbors and the inhabitants of the other four compounds that made up the planet Vigon. They appreciated only what they owned. The pursuit of music and art, or of any in-depth knowledge, was viewed as vaguely suspicious.
Both Etia and Nedrathane, like their three sister compounds, enjoyed modified climates, kept liveable by plexi-domes that allowed sunlight in and helped to mitigate the extreme cold of the winter season. In summer, forced-air vents in the domes allowed warm air to escape. In the heat, cool areas were created by the deployment of light-impermeable shades, creating temperature differentials that encouraged mild breezes. Nearly all “plant life” was synthetic.
Alira ached for home. She adjusted her grip on the support pillar and listened with every cell in her body for more sounds from above, trying to push thoughts of Mamu and Papo out of her head. But soon the uncertain fate of her parents tore her mind from her own danger.
A sharp intake of breath pushed an ache deep into her chest. Had Mamu and Papo escaped the landmass collapse? Surely the great god Anumis would protect them? She said a silent Prayer for Survivors, each word echoing in her head with a hollow sound.
More footsteps, heavy and slow, pulled her back into her current peril. Alira squeezed her eyes closed. Her first time alone in an unfamiliar compound. She shuddered. Would she be shunned as an Outsider, an unacceptable person in this horrid place? Even in Nedrathane she had been considered different, marked by her shy, quiet ways and her copper-wire hair, something Papo said she inherited from her paternal grandmamu.
She tried to wiggle her toes. One foot – numbed despite the thick pulley-hair stockings Mamu had made for her – slipped on the icy green metal of the pillar. Were her magnetic boots losing their charge? Staccato footsteps on the platform above her stopped for a moment, then continued.
She tightened the hold of one glove and reached with the other hand into her pocket. Her feed-pouch was small, almost empty. She gave it a squeeze, and sweet liquid filled the tube to her mouth. Thanks to the Merciful God of Lost Children! Her nutrition tube was not frozen.
Darkness would come soon.
She bent her head to squint through the eye port on her helmet. There! The red skid-sled. Only two days ago, her mother had programmed the sled with shaking fingers, as the screeches of Nedrathane’s collapse drilled through the frigid air.
She had left her home compound, arriving in this dank, cold place. No one would find the sled till summer. By then she would be safe – or dead.
A chill brushed over Alira’s cheeks. She mustn’t cry. The tears would cause frost bumps, even under her breathing helmet. Darkness swooped down around her. She could no longer see the skid-sled. Just as Papo had told her. No twilight. It was the first day of Moondark.
From high on the pillar Alira touched the underside of the compound. It was only a foot above her head. Thank the Gods, she had found the underground entry port – one of several, according to her parents – before dark. They had chosen this port because it was the closest to Elvis Toldar’s home, well away from the busiest districts of Etia. She listened. Long moments passed. Quiet.
Sliding one magnetic boot up the pillar, she tested its charge. Good. She tested the other. Good again. She planted both feet firmly on a rivet, then, remembering where the port had opened and the light beam had appeared, pushed against the spot with her head and shoulders. The heavy metal creaked, opening a few inches. A warm-blooded ice snake hissed at her from an adjacent column. She shuddered and heaved, mustering every ounce of strength, forcing the hinges open just wide enough to pop through. She held the metal port-cover with one foot, turned and dropped it gently into a closed position.
Alira rolled to her stomach and lay still. She closed her eyes, willing them to adjust to the dark. After a few seconds, she opened them. A garden of heat flowers surrounded her. A faint glow – pink and purple and aqua – floated above the blossoms. Her home compound, Nedrathane, had similar flowers. Manmade, with broad overlapping petals, they “bloomed” all through the icy grip of winter. Beyond the glow, something shimmered like ice in the dark. The leaves of a platinum tree?
She closed her eyes again, concentrating on her darksight for nearly a full minute. When her eyes opened, the faint outline of a white building glistened, maybe seventy feet from where she lay. A tall platinum tree grew to her right.
Voices reached her. Men.
Slithering izaquots! No one was supposed to be out at night. She quieted her breathing.
“I can’t believe they only delivered half the shipment,” said a raspy voice.
A deep, smooth voice replied, “Don’t worry. We’ll get the rest next week.”
“Well, it’s damn heavy anyway,” complained the first voice.
Alira’s heart pounded. She flattened herself to the ground as much as she could. A heat flower tickled her nose. Oh no! Not a sneeze! She dug her knee into the ground, hoping to distract herself. But the sneeze would not be stopped. “Ka choooo!”
“What was that?” The raspy voice held a high note of alarm.
Silence. Then a whisper. “Over there. A dark patch. In the heat flowers.”
Alira jumped up and ran as fast as she could. She reached the platinum tree and ducked behind it, then thought better of this obvious hiding place and tiptoed into another patch of heat flowers, lying flat among the blossoms. The footsteps following her sounded hesitant in the dark.
“Where?” asked the deep voice.
“Can’t tell,” said Raspy. “It’s too ploggin’ dark.”
Deep Voice cleared his throat. “Look behind the platinum tree.”
A moment later Raspy reported, “Nothing here.”
“Forget it. Only a girl,” said Deep Voice.
“How do you know?”
“The sneeze. Sounded girly. She won’t cause any trouble. None of them do anymore.”
“But what if she’s older than fifteen?” asked Raspy.
“You mean twenty. They started with the girls five years before the boys.”
“Okay. Twenty, then.”
“If she was going to cause trouble, she wouldn’t have run away.” Deep Voice’s words were clipped.
The footsteps sounded like they were retreating, but Alira didn’t move. Each breath hurt her chest. Her heart beat like an elephump trapped in a barrel. What were those men talking about? What did they start doing to girls twenty years ago in this horrible compound?
This place, Etia Compound, had long been known for its distrust of strangers. The government hated outside interference like ice hates fire. Mamu and Papo had told her that Etian politicos made all decisions for their citizens. Did they believe they could force their world into some sort of predictable order? According to Mamu, they had succeeded only in creating a faceless, inflexible society.
She unfolded a small scrap of paper and bent to hold it near the heat flowers’ faint glow. Papo’s familiar handwriting. She clamped a hand over her mouth port, but a sob escaped her. Her eyes slid left and right. No one. The map he had drawn was small, but detailed. Squinting, she bent closer to the paper. Her fingers, even in quilted gloves, ached from the cold she’d endured beneath the compound.
On the back of the paper Papo had written:
Obstacles. One slipstream and one ion field.
Alira located each on the map. Once through those, far from the scientifically engineered heat flowers and platinum-leafed trees, she would find the home of Elvis Toldar.
Mamu had told her that, years ago, Elvis was notorious planet-wide as a rebel. A retired rebel, now, for he was over one hundred forty years old. He and his teenaged grandson, Latham, were not really welcome in mainstream society. So they lived alone – as far from the other inhabitants of Etia Compound as they could manage. Their small cottage was said to be surrounded by True Trees, the kind that had covered the entire planet of Vigon hundreds of years ago. The last True Tree in Nedrathane Compound had died ten years before her birth, in spite of the efforts of master gardeners, so Alira could only imagine what they might have been like from pictos she had seen. As a child she’d longed to lean her cheek against rough bark, to press a cool green leaf against her lips.
Would Elvis and Latham take her in? Alira’s heart raced like a high-strung flickerbing. She remembered the picto of Elvis that Papo had shown her. He was dark-skinned, his complexion polished like a black jewel. Bright orange, curly hair sprang from his head and chin, thick as a mocabee bush.
The grandson, Latham, looked nothing like his granpapo. His mother, now dead, had been a moonstone woman, with skin so pale her veins were like delicate purple tracings in her long neck. In her wedding picto, on Mamu’s and Papo’s friendship wall, her hair shone like spun gossamer. Her husband, now dead as well, stood tall, his dark face kind. The picto of their son, Latham, had been taken when the boy was only four. Straight black hair reached nearly to his waist. His skin glowed reddish-brown, like polished cinnameg. Dark, still eyes held a sadness older than his years. Papo said that Latham, like Elvis, had the Gift of the Ancients. “It is both a blessing and a curse,” he said. “A weak person could not survive the gift – the burden of memory it brings. But Elvis says that Latham is strong.”
There was something else different about Latham. He had been born with a disease that made his legs useless. Neither Papo nor Mamu knew whether he had ever been cured.
As Alira approached the slipstream, stopping frequently to listen for pursuers, her breathing became ragged. She reminded herself to stay calm. Everything would be okay. Mamu had told her about slipstreams. “Just make swimming motions, like you’re in the water,” she had told her daughter. “It’s easy.”
When the current of rushing air first caught Alira’s shoulder, it spun her around and lifted her feet off the ground, as though someone had grabbed her. She made swimming motions and managed to turn herself back. She had always been a strong swimmer, splashing with the other children of Nedrathane in the canals during the warm season. Within seconds she mastered the invisible slippery current. Like flying! In less than five minutes she stood on the other side.
She walked on for at least another three miles, imagining eyes watching from the dark, remembering the voices of the two men. What was the shipment those men had been carrying? Something dangerous? Something illegal?
Her breath condensed inside her helmet, fogging the eye port. Knowing that the air was safe inside the compound, she raised the clear plexi-shield and squinted around her. Cool air rushed in, and the blue-tinged bulk of the ion field took shape just ahead. Alira was familiar with ion fields. In Nedrathane, they were mostly shades of red and gold. Positive colors. None were blue. Here in Etia, Papo had told her, the fields were always blue – and blue ions evoked a hopeless feeling. She squared her shoulders. She took a deep breath before stepping into the blue haze, then ran as fast as her heavy boots allowed.
Halfway through the ion field she felt something tug at her jacket. The two men? She whipped her head around, and no one was there. As she pushed forward again, her steps dragged, her heart weighing far too much for her body. She struggled to keep going.
The tugging grew heavier, like a sack of mygdarite stones pulling her down. Voices mumbled at her from all sides. She fell to her knees, sure she was being followed. But when she turned in a circle on all fours she saw no one. Wrenching herself to her feet, she plodded on.
When she finally stumbled from the ion field, the voices stopped and the tugging sensation released her. She bent double, feeling her laboring heartbeat from her temples down into her boots. Deep, gasping breaths shook her. Finally, she stood upright.
She checked the map. It was now very dark, a place with no heat flowers, so she used the small green laser light hanging from the top button of her cryo-jacket. Not far to go.
Star trails of bright white, gold, and silver streaked above her, casting a faint glow on distant mountains. Aligning her direction with the highest peak, as Papo’s map instructed, she continued.
To save power, external lights were forbidden in Etia Compound – just as in Nedrathane – except around the government buildings. But the stars were wonderful. They were most clearly visible – clusters of bright diamonds – straight up through the bio-dome. At the horizon, the stars appeared slightly dimmer. Alira squinted. Papo and Mamu believed that many of those stars housed solar systems that supported life. Life like that on Earth, the dying planet abandoned by her people when they populated Vigon several hundred years ago.
The transparent bio-dome, spanning the entire compound, retained some of the day’s heat. Still, when she wrinkled her nose it momentarily stuck, all crinkled, finally relaxing back to where it belonged after prolonged seconds. Thank goodness the air was not as frigid as it had been underneath the compound.
Something fluttered at her elbow. Alira clamped her mouth closed to stifle a scream and swatted at whatever it was.
The creature hovered above her head, then landed on her shoulder, gripping it firmly. Alira pointed her laser light at it. Slithering izaquots! A pygmy dragon! The golden-scaled animal, its body about the size of Alira’s gloved fist, chittered and cooed into the earport of her helmet. Then it rubbed its head against her shoulder, chittered again, and flew away.
Before Alira recovered from her surprise, she heard another noise. Clomp! Clomp! Something approached her, walking heavily and slowly.
“Who is out there?” The voice started out deep, but rose with an almost musical lilt.
Alira crouched and said nothing, hoping the owner of the voice would leave. But within seconds two large, padded boots confronted her. When her eyes and her laser light scanned upwards, boots became long legs, a torso bundled in pulley fur, a muffled neck, and a sculpted male head. Black, straight hair hung down to his elbows. She looked into a face dominated by dark eyes. They lit up with a turquoise light, like the display on a communicator.
“W-who are you?” Alira asked.
“I think the more proper question would be, ‘Who are you?’” the boy-creature said. “You are trespassing on my land.”
“Latham?” Alira asked, pronouncing the name carefully as Papo had taught her, the emphasis on the first syllable – Lay-thum. Her voice felt shaky. She had not expected the grandson of her parents’ friend to be so … large, so intimidating.
“How is it you know my name?” the boy asked. His voice resonated with music, his speech formal. Maybe that was how they spoke in Etia.
She stood and took a deep breath, looking up at him. “Latham.” Did he detect the wobble in her voice? “Thank the gods I found you.” The pygmy dragon again fluttered at Alira’s ear.
“Come here, Dygbold.” The dragon flew to the boy’s shoulder and sat, his small body illuminated by the light from Latham’s flashing eyes. A smooth soothing voice told the little creature. “Good boy.” Then, to Alira, Latham said, “I ask again, how is it that you know my name?” He bent low, eyes going dark.
Alira had never seen eyes so heavy with – what? Sadness? Suspicion?
“My parents are friends with your granpapo.” Alira’s voice wavered. “They sent me here. From Nedrathane.”
“Ah, yes.” Latham’s entire face grew grim, his cheekbones standing in high relief. “The landmass collapse.” The boy held out an arm and gripped Alira’s elbow. She felt a strange warmth and a small jolt, almost like electricity. The little dragon fluttered from the boy’s shoulder, flying tight circles above them. “Please come closer so I can see you properly.” Latham pulled her near. “What is your name?”
Latham chuckled. “Tenfoot, you say? But you are no taller than four feet.”
Alira straightened, almost lifting onto her toes. “I am sixteen years old, and I’m four feet eleven.”
“Oh. Pardon me.” Latham chuckled again. “You are quite a pale little thing.”
“I am not pale. Just nervous.” But her light copper skin did look pale next to Latham’s vibrant cinnameg.
The boy whistled, and Dygbold landed on his broad shoulder. Latham gestured with one hand. “Well, come along.”
“Into the dwelling unit. It is colder than a bantee’s, uh, ear out here. You are very lucky Dygbold sensed you.”
Alira grabbed Latham’s extended hand, her quilted glove held snugly in his long, bare fingers. “Your legs,” she said, remembering her father’s description of Latham’s disability. “They got better?”
His mouth pressed into a hard line. “Your parents told you about my legs. No, they are not better. I built myself some electro-fiber braces. I wear them under my clothes.”
“You built them?”
A smile flickered quickly over his full lips. “Certainly. I like that sort of thing.”
“But you’re a kid.” Alira stared into her companion’s face. “Aren’t you?”
“Older than you are,” he said. “Come along. It is freezing.” Latham picked up the pace, his shoulders hunched against the cold, his bulky boots clomping with each step. Within minutes they stood at a door that appeared to open into the hillside. He quickly pressed his thumb to a glass pad on the front of the door, blowing on his bare hand as hinges creaked and the door opened.
“Granpapo! We have a stowaway.”