"Politics and politicians," Elbarto Rensler spat. Standing on the edge of the massive butte that supported Government House, he looked down into the river valley of the original settlement of the colony world of Rensler.
Edrian could almost feel the protective power of his grandfather's gaze as it swept over the descendants of the people his multi-great-grandfather had led here seven generations ago to find safety, freedom and prosperity. At the age of twelve, he already felt the great weight of responsibility that rested on his family, and was grateful he was the younger son. He would devote himself just as fiercely to protecting this world and its people as all the Rensler men, but he would be spared the pressure, the guilt, the fear of failure that already rested on his older brother Eryk's shoulders.
Then Elbarto looked upward, to the dome of sky just slightly tinged with the first crimson streaks of sunset. Two hours ago, they had accompanied Eryk and his parents, Erion and Galen, to the spaceport and watched them climb into a shuttle with the markings of the Council of the Central Allied Worlds. All the governors of the outlying colony worlds had been summoned to a meeting, but only at the last minute had the Renslers learned that the meeting would not take place on Vidan, the capital world. The journey to Vidan took just a few days longer than a lunar, but there was no knowing how much longer their family would be traveling. Or where.
To make things even more uncertain, rumors were circulating that Wrinkleship pilots were vanishing from their routes--either rebelling and fleeing for parts unknown, or falling victim to genetic elitists and terrorists, who claimed the right to decide who qualified as Human, and took on themselves the "duty" of destroying anyone who did not meet their standards. Fewer Wrinkleship pilots meant longer waits at rendezvous points, to transfer from one routing system to another for interstellar travel.
Once Governor Erion Rensler and his party reached whatever planet had been chosen for the meeting...who knew how long they would be there, prisoners of politics and unrest?
"They'll come home, lad," Elbarto murmured, resting a big, gnarled, still-strong hand on the boy's shoulder. "Trust in Fi'in." For a moment, their expressions matching in somberness, they were mirror images at opposite ends of life--blue-black hair, ebony eyes, wide cheekbones, pointed chins, olive skin.
Edrian nodded and fought down the shudder that fought to work its way up from deep inside him. Why had he thought that one awful word, "prisoners"? He had jinxed himself, consciously glad he was the younger son. His father, Erion, had been the youngest son of three. When Elbarto had been governor, upheaval in the Central Allied Worlds had brought on a wave of paranoia that led to purges across the colonies of the inner rings of worlds, and military action that clamped down hard on the outlying colonies. Even Rensler, as far on the edge of settled space as a Human could go without falling off into nothingness, hadn't been spared.
Erion's oldest brother had been taken prisoner. The politicians and military puppets had claimed it was protective custody, that he would be a guest of the government, protected from radicals that wanted to destroy any holdovers from less enlightened times. The Rensler family had lived as kings for three generations on the world that still bore their name, after leading four ships full of refugees here. Supposedly that made their family a target for wide-eyed fanatics who claimed only true egalitarianism would bring peace and prosperity throughout the universe. The Rensler family believed it was simply another conveniently spun fable to excuse using fear and manipulation to control the entire star-spanning civilization.
The desolate moon where the children of the governors and administrators were being held in protective custody had been destroyed at the hands of a faction that rose up in protest against the current government's heavy-handed tactics. They chose to ignore the fact that nearly seven hundred bright, highly educated young people, the future leaders of the government, had been there under duress. The rebels excused those deaths as exigencies of war, and then later, when they overthrew the government, proclaimed them justifiably executed because they had been cooperating with tyrants.
Then the supposed liberators of all civilized people turned around and employed the same heavy-handed tactics they had decried, coming back for more hostages of peace to put them in supposedly protective custody. Elbarto sent his remaining two sons into hiding. The middle son, Eryk, whom Edrian's brother had been named for, ran to the plains, leading a band of scientists and technicians. The plan was to lead the military invaders into battle and secure a year or two of peace for Rensler.
Erion went to the networks of caves that honeycombed the caves under Government House, leading another group of refugees further underground, far away from the core of the colony, to safety. His time in the darkness and quiet led to a friendship with the sentient flying canine beasts called Nightskimmers. Eryk's team of defenders was wiped out with a barrage of weapons that evaporated the plant life, animals, and even the soil down to the bedrock for several hundred kilometers in all directions from the blast point.
Erion, the youngest son, had survived to become governor in his father's place, after the new tyrants were overthrown and the previous government re-established. Edrian knew better than to be glad he was the younger son, because that didn't mean any safety. He should have known better than to even think it.
Please, Fi'in, bring them back safely, he prayed now, and met Elbarto's gaze with all the calmness he could muster
"Now," Elbarto said, turning to look across the wide expanse of flat ground, where Government House perched, a massive, sprawling building that had been the first habitation on the colony world. It had grown beyond that, exponentially, so it was the government offices, the center of learning, the center of healing and science and military activity. And in times of fear, it provided shelter for refugees, both in the multiple layers of building dug down deep into the butte, and even in the caves. "Let's see what we can do to frustrate the too-obvious minders the Council has set over us, shall we?"
"Booby-traps and bombs and sleeping drugs in their food?" Edrian whispered, leaning closer and glancing toward Government House, as if he feared someone would come running from over six hundred meters away and slap them in restraints.
"Hardly. And not half as much fun. Although some nasty potions in their food to make them sick might be a good idea." The elderly man chuckled. "Or at least a good start. No, our duty is to defend our colony and our people and most especially our home. It's a given the Council has called your father and Eryk away to try to...hmm, shall we say...re-educate them? Try to plumb the recesses of their minds and determine their loyalty, if nothing else. And while they're away, these babysitters set over us, to ostensibly help me act as governor --"
"You don't need help, Grandfather. None of us need help."
"Hmm, yes. We've done just fine without the Central Allied Worlds for generations, but anyone who tries to convince them of that gets re-educated. We'll just let them think they're helping us, and we don't suspect anything. When they've relaxed and become even more oblivious and obvious than they already are, that's when we strike."
"And do what?"
"We'll figure that out when the time comes. For now, though...you're in charge of protecting the Nightskimmers."
"What are you going to do?" Edrian asked, while his pulse tripled and he could barely restrain a howl of delight. He had known since infancy that restraint was a matter of survival when it came to the spies the Central Allied Worlds inflicted on them on a regular basis.
"I'm going to exchange useless books for incriminating records, one book and archive file at a time. Those idiots pretending to be historians and bureaucrats are here to destroy anything that they think stands in opposition to the Central Allied Worlds controlling our thoughts and souls. While they scan our archives and interview our people for their memories and record everything for digital storage and retrieval, they're going to destroy the originals, to take them out of our hands. If they can erase our history and change our memories, they change us, as a people. My task will be to keep our history from getting into their hands in the first place."
"Not that I doubt you, Grandfather, but --"
"How do I know what they're going to do? Or am I just as paranoid and delusional as those CAW fools?" Elbarto chuckled and gave his grandson a slight shove toward the path leading back to their home, now full of strangers. Officials and scientists and academics in glossy uniforms, who came in making demands and proclaiming themselves more knowledgeable than the natives in the ways of a world they had never set foot on until five days ago.
"They certainly wouldn't have told you. They think we're primitive idiots who don't know what's poisonous, or how to read the weather."
"No, they didn't tell me. I eavesdropped." He chuckled again and the two shared grins. "Although, technically, it's not eavesdropping when you're minding your own business, moving through your own house. Those rude invaders who moved in without asking a by-your-leave think we have to grant them privacy, when they deny us any in return." He snorted and narrowed his eyes as he studied the gated archway that marked the boundaries of the flat, dusty, rocky from the garden proper surrounding Government House. "No, I wasn't eavesdropping, although a dozen CAW courts would say that's what I was doing."
"Where were you, when you were...listening?" Edrian lowered his voice and tipped his head back slightly, watching the braided metal of the archway as they walked under it.
"That's your first lesson--tonight, my lad. You can't use the usual passageway down to the caverns to tend to the Nightskimmers. Those passages won't lead where you need to go. We learned long ago to present a very different face and story for the CAW, because we can never know who will be our friend and who will stay in power. Nothing is normal or ordinary anymore. Yes, your first lesson is tonight. Be ready. Go to bed as usual--be ready for someone unfriendly to check on you--and then be ready for me to come for you." He winked and then they said nothing more to each other as they walked down the white-sanded pathways through the sprawling gardens, and into their home.
Edrian lay awake for more than an hour after he went to bed that night. He had more to think about than he suspected his grandfather had intended. After their talk, it was as if an oversized flight helmet with blaster shielding over his eyes had been lifted off his head. Everything looked different, even if the only visible difference in his surroundings were the quiet, respectful strangers who kept to the shadows everywhere he went in Government House, except for the private residence floor assigned to the governor's family. After what his grandfather had said, Edrian wondered how soon the CAW intruders would override the privacy and security programs and come into his family's home. If they didn't move in, pretending they were there to guard the Rensler men, they would search their possessions and plant spy-bots to listen and watch everything Elbarto and Edrian did in the deceptive privacy of their home. Several of the household staff had already reported that the officers, academics and scientists were asking questions that had nothing to do with their supposed duties. They wanted to know how much time the family spent in the Archives, what other places in Government House they occupied most often, what path of studies the governor's sons followed, and if they expressed support for the CAW or the rebels on other planets. Why, Edrian wondered, did they think that the people of Rensler cared what was happening on other worlds, when they had more than enough to do exploring their jungle world, expanding the colony, and developing native plants into medicines to sell to the rest of civilization? And perhaps more important: staying out of the bad graces of the CAW. If one colony world or two decided to rebel, that was no reason for Rensler to rebel.
Representatives from all three divisions among the CAW invaders had come asking questions about the Rensler family, to the point of being rude and inexcusably intrusive. They hadn't been happy to learn Edrian had no personal servants, had never had a nursemaid or assigned bodyguards, took his lessons with the other upperclass children in the Archives and thereby had no need for private tutors, and had no favorites among his peer group. No special friends.
No one to use as hostages against us, he decided, as he lay in bed that night, waiting for his grandfather to come for him. He was fully dressed, ready to move, including his oldest, most comfortable, soft-soled boots--even though he could almost feel the dirt on them soiling his sheets.
Edrian hated this proof that the CAW was using this opportunity to dig their claws in a little deeper, find leverage to use against the leaders of Rensler the next time unrest swept through the far-flung colonies. They wanted and needed people they could threaten to make the leaders cooperate. That goal was easy to obtain--just use their families against them. Obviously using children and relatives as hostages wasn't enough. Now the invaders wanted friends and other close ties as weapons to ensure the cooperation and good behavior of the leaders. Why did they look for people who were close to Edrian? He gnawed on that question, finally deciding that they might just want to find out who they could use to spy on him, maybe far in the future when he was grown up and supporting Eryk when he was governor.
But why did they duplicate their efforts? Why did someone from each division ask the same questions? Weren't they working together? If they weren't, maybe they were working against each other? Maybe the CAW leadership didn't trust each other any more than they trusted the leaders of the colonies? Edrian decided he would tell his grandfather what he theorized. Maybe he could use it against them.
I've been reading too many intrigue novels, he decided, and grinned into the darkness.
What would the heroes of the intrigue novels do, in this situation?
They would try to anticipate what the enemy would do next, to defend themselves. Defend their families. Their worlds. Their friends.
How could he defend so many?
If I didn't have any friends...Edrian thought about the boys who taunted him for enjoying his studies more than most of his peers. They thought he was weak--or rather they did until they tried bullying him or playing nasty tricks when the students who learned in the Archives went on exploration trips. Then Edrian held his own. It helped that Eryk let him come along when he went exploring, and taught him everything he learned in his advanced self-defense classes, or how to pilot the various small landcraft or aircraft available for use.
Eryk spent more time with their father, learning to be governor, and he shared his lessons with Edrian. The gap in their ages meant nothing. Both boys had known from a very early age that they had to be a team, that the welfare of their planet rested on their shoulders. Even though he would be relegated to the shadows, Edrian had just as important a part to play in protecting Rensler as Eryk did.
There's so much to learn. Why have I wasted so much time? Then he laughed at that thought. He was only twelve years old. When was he supposed to have had the time? On second thought, maybe I feel a lot older than I really am. He wondered if his grandfather felt ancient or overburdened...no, this afternoon when they had their last real moment of privacy, Elbarto certainly seemed energized and youthful. That's because Grandfather sees this as an adventure. Edrian sighed and rolled over, grunting softly when his knife hilt caught under his hip for two seconds too long, threatening a nasty bruise.
Real heroes don't get bruised by their own weapons. Well, he would have to learn how to roll over in bed, fully clothed for adventure, and do it like a hero. Please, Fi'in, let my family come home safely before I learn how to be a hero.
A breath of chill, stone-scented air drifted across his face, and Edrian opened one eye to see a thin, flickering beam of light come out of the wall, right where his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves should have been. Oddly, in the soft moonlight spilling through the sheer screens, the bookshelves were almost a meter to the right of where they belonged, and the light came from an opening between bookshelves and stone wall.
"Grandfather?" he whispered, understanding, and sat up quickly. Edrian grimaced as his mattress creaked. He preferred the old-fashioned bedstead, with ropes and natural cloth and fluff-bush filling in the mattress. That would have to change if he wanted to get up without alerting half the building.
"First lesson, my lad." His grandfather held up the cylinder that produced the soft, flickering glow. It wasn't a candle or a lantern or lamp, and the source of the light shimmered from gold to green to soft amber-orange and back again, pulsating just enough to be visible.
"The passage or the light?" Edrian asked, once he had followed Elbarto through the opening and the bookshelf slid softly back into place.
"Many things to make up one lesson. And here's something it takes people their whole lives to realize--the older you get, the more you realize you spend your whole life learning." Elbarto handed him the cylinder. "Light without heat. How can that be?"
In the soft glow, a passageway extended in both directions behind the wall of Edrian's room. His grandfather gestured to the right, where another opening revealed a narrow passageway filled with steps going up and down. They started downward. Edrian studied the light, which was soft enough that he could look directly at it and still see well enough to make his way down the steps without having to wait for his eyes to adjust. That pulsation...was it breathing? He hefted the cylinder. That was liquid surrounding the thing...a living thing?
"It's a fish--breathing water--it's a deep sea creature."
"The glow-slug protects itself against unfriendly things by producing light, to use as a lure."
"How can a lure keep it safe? Wouldn't that attract bigger fish that want to eat it?"
"Usually, these little creatures live in symbiosis with much larger fish that eat the predators and let the little ones cling to their scales." Elbarto nodded and gestured at an opening in the stairway, where they paused. "The level below ours. What is on this floor?"
Edrian had to think for a moment before replying, "Father's offices, the offices of the Governor's Councilmen, the Archives and our study rooms."
Elbarto repeated the process as they kept walking downward in a spiral, pausing at each landing, and pointing out the marking by each opening in the stairwell. Every marking was different, combining a number and a pictoglyph Edrian didn't recognize. He supposed the pictoglyph indicated what was on that particular floor, to help with navigation through the underground. By the time they passed the lowest levels of Government House, ten levels including barracks for soldiers and emergency housing for the entire colony, stores of food, weaponry, medical supplies, and laboratories for scientific studies, Edrian's head ached a little. There was so much to learn and remember. He envisioned passageways through the solid rock, encircling all the rooms and offices and meeting halls and storage rooms dug out of the inside of the cliffs where his home sat. The effort to create all this amazed him, and made him feel very small.
Finally they reached the bottom of the spiral of stairs. Elbarto gestured for Edrian to go ahead of him, through the opening into damp, stone-scented cavernous darkness.
"Another convenient thing the glow-slug does is sense negative thoughts and intentions--sort of an enemy detector."
"How can it do that when it thinks we're the enemy?"
"We're the ones keeping it alive in the tube and giving it fresh sea water. We're its friends. Don't over-think things, lad. Take the gifts Fi'in gives us, even when they don't make sense. The wisdom of Fi'in is madness to the rebels and corrupt, and the strength of Fi'in is weakness to them. We'll prove them wrong, won't we?"
"Prove them wrong." Edrian raised the tube over his head and swallowed hard when the pulsing light didn't reach up to the roof of the cavern. Just how deep into the chains of caverns and caves below Government House had they gone? His grandfather had said they were going into an area beyond the known tunnels and caves where people had once taken refuge. "What's next?"
"Follow your nose." Elbarto tapped the side of his nose and gestured for Edrian to lead the way into the darkness.
He inhaled slowly, to give his nose time to catch as much scent as possible. Edrian suspected everything his grandfather would tell him tonight would have two meanings. Rhetorical and literal. So what was he supposed to smell?
The slightly acid, musky, spicy tang of Nightskimmers drifted to him on the damp air. Edrian turned to let the scent lead him. After several steps, he grinned as he realized that scent could only come to him if there was air movement, which meant he was also finding a way out of the caverns. The ceiling soon lowered enough to reflect the sea creature light back at him, and then the wall appeared out of the darkness, with an arched opening. Edrian led the way, reasoning that if he were going the wrong way, his grandfather would stop him. They went through the arch and into another cavern, this one with piles of boulders and gravel and a rough scaffolding of logs covered with moss and vines. Movement from overhead transformed into dull black hides and faintly glowing silver and black eyes.
"Your new duties," Elbarto said.
"What exactly do I do? Nightskimmers don't really need us."
"They're sentient. Your father proved that. He befriended the Nightskimmers and stopped fools from hunting them for their hides and poison talons. In return, they protected him and those he took to safety. It's about time the friendship passed to another generation. Some of those dratted scientists camping in our house have been asking questions about Nightskimmers, among other critters."
"Not to study them." Edrian looked up into the darkness, catching hints of movement, feeling the growing pressure of awareness focusing on him. "To hurt them."
"The more power someone has, the less he cares about the damage he causes. When the quest for knowledge becomes all-consuming, men forget that wisdom is more important, and data becomes a deity more important to them than Fi'in." Elbarto spat, shocking Edrian. For all his simplicity of manners and speech, disdaining the convoluted phrasing of politics, he had a refinement of manners and language that would have seemed sissified in another man. For him to spit was worse than the foulest cursing and vulgarity in other men.
"The fools are so full of their knowledge, their data and facts, they say Fi'in is just a wish-tale, a creation of our imaginations to try to control each other with guilt and outmoded morality. Men like that spawn unfeeling, arrogant offspring like the Set'ri, and declare themselves wise enough to decide what is human and what isn't. They justify destroying anything that doesn't please them or fit into their narrow definitions of what deserves to live, what is worthwhile. And they believe that killing creatures like Nightskimmers is a better way to learn how they live, rather than befriending them and acknowledging they have minds and perhaps even souls."
"That's my job," Edrian said, stepping forward and tipping his head back further, to see the topmost tier of the scaffolding. He remembered the stories now, of how his father and a few others had built them for the Nightskimmers in those long-ago days of hiding and rebelling and protecting their world. "To become friends with the Nightskimmers and protect them and..." He took a deep breath, listening to that inner whisper of excitement and daring and imagination. "To learn to communicate with them even better than Father did?" He turned back to his grandfather.
"Exactly." The old man grinned, eyes sparkling in the soft glow of the light tube. "It is my firm belief that Fi'in put a sentient creature on each new world where humans weren't seeded at the beginning of time and life, to stand as guardians. If we are wise, we search them out and befriend them, and learn how to work in harmony with each new world we discover as humanity spreads through the universe. If we are fools...well, we have been fools on too many worlds. Too many minds and souls have been lost at the hands of those who live by the motto that 'different is dangerous'. Fi'in help us, that we never run into another universe where other humans, other sentient minds, live by the same motto and judge us too monstrous to be allowed to live."
"Isn't that happening already?"
"Quite right, lad." Elbarto clapped him on the shoulder, then gestured up at the scaffolding. "Your first skirmish in the battle for our world. This planet wears our name, so that makes it our responsibility to protect every life, no matter what shape it takes."
Edrian nodded, took a deep breath, then stepped out from under the comforting grip. The Nightskimmers were friends--if not of the colonists, then at least of his family. He wished he had paid better attention when his father told stories of the last great battle to hold onto the world their multi-great-grandfather had settled. Specifically, the codes he had worked out to communicate with the Nightskimmers, the chirps and whistles and clicks that let him speak with the sentient, night-flying creatures.
His lips--his whole mouth--felt dry and stiff as he tried to purse them and find the right pitch to whistle the sequence that would tell the Nightskimmers he was a friend. His father's stories maintained that sounds and pitches and frequencies meant as much as the patterns. What human ears could hear and human vocal chords could produce was only a fraction of the range of Nightskimmer communication.
"They're crippling themselves to speak with us and listen to us," Erion had said, his voice and face an odd mixture of humor, irony, and wistfulness.
Edrian licked his lips, closed his eyes, and reached through his memories for the sounds, the pitches his father had demonstrated for them. Then he whistled, ending with three clicks of his tongue.
Silence. He felt it, heard it, spreading through the aviary--or should he call it a stable? The Nightskimmers were flying creatures, but they weren't birds--they were part-canine and part-equine, warm-blooded and furred, with fangs and poisoned talons, able to see and hear in the infrared/ultraviolet and sonic ranges. They ate meat, preferably freshly killed.
Movement. A sense of air shifting, of warmth. Edrian closed his eyes, reaching out with his other senses, abandoning sight. His ears seemed to strengthen. He could have sworn he heard someone whispering. Oddly, it seemed to come from far away, so he couldn't make out any actual words, just the sense of whispering.
Warmth grew stronger, closer. Then...something chirped, echoing the same sequence he had made, same pitch, growing closer with each chirp, until he felt warm breath against his ear. He jumped, and the side of his face brushed against stiff bristles.