I rushed towards the statue in the centre of town, leaving Te’rnu behind at the shuttle-bike.
The heads of the local Arellians turned to look at me as I sprinted, but there was something different about their reactions this time. In Te’r’ok, my Terran form had been enough to elicit gasps, stares of awe, even mouths left hanging agape. In Nu’r’ka, however, there was no wonder on the faces of the Arellians. They’d seen my type before – not just an off-worlder, apparently, but specifically a Terran. In place of awe, there was only confusion.
Why is this strange Terran rushing up to our statue with such a look on her face?
As I got closer to the monument of my sister, the smaller text on the plaque became more legible. Underneath Leya’s name, it said:
“Saviour of Nu’r’ka”
Not a bad title.
I grabbed at the arm of a passing local, who flinched away and turned to look at me with wide eyes.
‘Why…,’ I started, and then realised I might have offended the Arellian. ‘Sorry for grabbing you, I just wanted to… can I ask you something?’
Te’rnu appeared at my side, having rushed after me. The locals, who had been sporting such stiff and uncomfortable body language since I arrived, seemed to be relieved to see that I was travelling with a fellow Arellian. Their shoulders unclenched, their movements became more fluid.
‘What is it that you would like to know?’ the Arellian I had semi-assaulted asked me.
‘Why… why do you have this statue?’ I replied, still trying to get to grips with the concept of my sister being here – and on top of that, being their “saviour”.
‘Leya is our saviour,’ the Arellian replied, as though that was enough of an answer.
Yeah, I can see that from the plaque.
‘But… how? Why? What did she do?’
The local Arellian looked at me with a furrowed brow, as though I was asking a stupid question.
‘She saved our town.’
Oh my god…
‘Yes, but how did she save your town?’
‘By renegotiating our deal. With the Iyr.’
Suddenly the improved technology and the abundance of food in Nu’r’ka was beginning to make sense.
‘She helped you? Why? I can’t say I’ve ever known my sister to put much effort in-’
The local Arellian’s grew wide.
‘You are the sister of Leya Raynor?!’ the local exclaimed, sheer joy on their face.
Other locals immediately stopped what they were doing and turned to face me, only now adopting the same look of awe that I had received in Te’r’ok.
The village began murmuring excitedly, and there was a very perceivable sense of delight in the air. I could even hear an Arellian using their radio to spread the news to others. It was almost like a queen had come to visit.
I felt like a con artist. I was no queen, I was an underpaid private investigator, who hadn’t ever really helped anyone in any meaningful way. In fact, I was only even here because a number of unfortunate circumstances had conspired to put me here.
The Arellian I had first spoken to approached me with their arms spread wide.
‘Oh, err,’ I started, ‘What’s happening here?’
And then their arms closed gently around me.
‘It is called a “hug”. Your sister, the Saviour, taught it to us.’
Were we talking about the same Leya Raynor?
I hugged the Arellian back. It was only polite.
Once the Arellian let go of me, another approached to do the same. Over and over it went, hug after hug. I received more displays of affection within these five minutes than I had in my entire life to date – although, admittedly, that problem was largely due to my bad choices in romantic partners.
Towards the end of this five minutes, I found myself being hugged by Te’rnu.
‘What you doing there, buddy?’ I asked him.
‘Oh, I, err…,’ he began to reply. ‘I thought we were all doing it.’
I laughed and hugged him back.
One of the older locals, after completing the supposedly traditional display of affection, turned to the rest of the now large crowd, and announced, ‘Tonight, we feast!’
I insisted that Te’rnu and I help prepare this feast, and the locals lauded my family’s generosity. I must come from a kind bloodline, they told me. I denied this, and told them I actually came from a bloodline of unsuccessful artists. This response was a mistake – as it meant that I spent more time describing the galactic art industry and the economics surrounding it, than I did actually helping with the cooking.
Te’rnu, on the other hand, was elsewhere, collecting raw materials for the fire with the stronger locals, as well as helping decant a “special surprise liquid” which the village was eager to share with us. There were not eager, however, to tell us exactly what it is – we would just have to taste it, we were told.
I was conscious that the past day or so had been a real detour from the reason I had originally come to the Arellian Wastelands – to find Melonaitopila. But the discovery that my sister had been here was too much of an opportunity to pass up. If it was a toss up between finding the target (and keeping my job) and finding my sister, well, family just had to come first. I swore to myself that once the feast was over – and I had sufficiently questioned the entire village about my sister’s time here – I would return to the task at hand.
The feast itself began in much the same way as dinner in Te’r’ok had. All the villagers sat in a circle, with a designated few serving the food – this seemed to be the way it was done in the Arellian wastelands. In Nu’r’ka, however, the town was populous enough that there were several circles, with the inside circles on lower ground so that all participants still had an equal view.
The Arellian who announced the feast, who I had correctly determined was one of Nu’r’ka’s Elders, instructed me and Te’rnu to sit in the central circle, right next to the now blazing fire. This must have been the prime placement, reserved for anyone held in high esteem – but, not being used to this warmer climate, I could really have used being further away from the fire. I kept this preference to myself, and hoped nobody would notice – or failing that, hoped nobody would care – about the sweat building up on my back.
The food, here, in Nu’r’ka, was absolutely incredible. It was similar in consistency to the food in Te’r’ok, but the flavour here was so extraordinary you could even taste it on the air floating up from the bowl. I tucked in, hungrily, and was pleased to see my bowl get refilled several times.
I could get used to this whole ‘being treated like a queen’ thing.
When I had eaten all the food that I could stomach, I returned to the matter at hand. It was time to ask about my sister. I turned to the Elder next to me, leaving Te’rnu alone, licking his lips as he ate his meal.
‘I was hoping to ask: what exactly did Leya negotiate for you that she is revered so much?’ I asked.
‘Have you seen other Arellian settlements?’ the Elder asked. ‘I say this not out of malice – we were once like them – but they have little food or resources, or even time for themselves. Their existence is a basic one.’
‘And now we have more food than we know what to do with.’
‘Hence the feast,’ I added.
‘And,’ the Elder continued, ‘We have some of the Iyr’s spare technology, which Leya taught us to fix, to maintain. Some of us are so well-versed in these devices that they are even improving them. As far as I am aware, we are the first Arellian village to have an Elder of Technology.’
They pointed across the circle to an Arellian who seemed to be wearing some sort of device on their head.
‘That is them, over there.’
Yeah. With the thing on their head. Got it.
‘All of this… we would not have if not for your sister. She came here, she saw how we were living. Then she spent time here, understanding our lifestyle. Once she realised that it was the Tradition which was stifling our lives, she went to the Iyr, demanded a negotiation.’
‘And how did she convince them?’ I asked.
‘We know not of this. These negotiations were done in the Stronghold, where we are – still, even now – not allowed to travel.’
‘You don’t have an inkling, even?’
‘What is this? “Inkling”?’
‘You don’t have any idea? Whatsoever?’ I asked, rephrasing.
‘If we did, we would tell you. We would tell anything to the sister of our Saviour.’
Leya being called a saviour was really starting to get annoying.
I could be a saviour too, if I wanted to.
‘So… her negotiation means that you don’t pay tribute any more? You just keep all your food to yourself?’
‘Why?’ the Elder asked. ‘Do you think that is selfish?’
‘No, not at all. As far as I’m concerned, if you guys are farming it, putting all the hard work in, then you should be keeping it.’
The Elder smiled. ‘Good. We don’t keep all of it, however. When the Mutation begins-’
The Arellian cut themselves off.
‘You know of the Mutation?’ they asked.
‘I do,’ I assured them.
‘When the Mutation begins, and the Iyr come for the dying, we pay the Iyr the tribute then. But only then.’ They paused, grinned at me. ‘You are lucky. To have family like this.’
I pursed my lips. ‘I don’t.’
Te’rnu, now finished his food, turned to listen in to the conversation.
‘You do not?’ the Elder asked.
‘I haven’t seen her in many years. Nobody knows where she’s gone. In fact, we assumed she’d been dead, she had been gone so long.’
There was a moment of silence, the two Arellians acknowledging my pain.
‘I am sorry she is missing,’ Te’rnu offered me.
‘Do you…,’ I began. ‘Do you know anything? About where she might have gone?’
‘We know little. We know she was looking for someone, as you are her.’
‘Looking for someone? Was it our Dad?’ I asked.
The Elder shook their head. ‘I am afraid we know not. It could have been, but she did not say.’
‘So that’s why she was here? She was looking for them on Z’h’ar?’ I pressed.
‘On our planet? No. She was here for something else.’
‘Do you know what it was?’ I asked.
The Elder shook their head once again. ‘I wish we could do more to assist you in your search.’
Te’rnu put his hand on my arm in an attempt to console me, copying as I had done to him after the trial.
Suddenly, an Elder approached us. Behind them, four Arellians carried a huge metal container.
‘Is this the liquid?’ Te’rnu asked.
The Elder, in answer, announced, ‘There was one other gift that your sister presented us with: knowledge. Specifically, she taught unto us the secrets of distillation. I present to you… Arellian Gin!’
Yep. It was definitely my Leya who had been here.
I burst out laughing – to the confusion of everyone around me.
‘She always loved her gin, that one,’ I informed them.
They responded with a faint smile, as though still not quite understanding what there was to laugh about, and then began to pour the gin into smaller bowls.
Most, if not all, of the Arellians were served the gin, and drank happily – even the children. Whereas most races might frown on giving alcohol to children, Leya clearly hadn’t parted that wisdom onto the Arellians, and it seemed were yet to learn this lesson for themselves.
I watched as Te’rnu took a hesitant sip. As he tasted it, his eyes widened.
‘I like this!’ he announced, and other Arellians around him cheered in response. A wide smile spread across his face, momentarily replacing that melancholy expression he had been sporting since the trial.
We drank long into the night, and it was my first experience seeing the Arellians actually loosen up a little – Te’rnu in particular. The joy of these villagers was contagious; a night of drinking, dancing, and making stupid jokes had me feeling like I was a teenager again.
‘It’s funny!’ I told a passing Arellian.
‘What is?’ they replied.
‘You give people, of any race, alcohol, and their evenings become this. No matter how proud, or cold, or… whatever a species is – when alcohol is involved, they learn to love a good party.’
The Arellian smiled politely in response; clearly this wasn’t so funny to them. Maybe you needed to have had seen more of the galaxy.
Te’rnu grabbed me by the arm and insisted I joined him and a group of locals in dancing. They taught me their moves, and laughed when I taught them some old Terran classics: the chicken, the robot, flossing. They found the chicken particularly funny – which was kinda weird, because birds didn’t exist on Z’h’ar.
Many of the locals partnered off over the course of the night, leaving a smaller and smaller crowd dwindling behind.
As is always the way, eventually the plentiful supply of alcohol was no longer enough to keep my energy levels up. I soon found myself lying down, on the bare ground, in front of the monument to my sister.
I stared up at the stars. The constellations were so different on Z’h’ar; many clusters of stars were dotted about the night sky, some even bright enough to cast faint shadows.
Te’rnu’s face suddenly blocked my view as he stood over me.
‘Are you OK down there?’ he asked.
I said nothing, just waved frantically at him to join me.
He didn’t take the hint. ‘Why are you lying on the ground? There are beds for us.’
‘Lie down, Te’rnu, for god’s sake!’
‘What is “god’s”?’
I shook my head. ‘Remind me to tell you another time.’
Te’rnu laid down on the floor next to me, and too looked up at the stars.
‘You have pretty stars here,’ I told him.
‘Would you like me to tell you about them?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, go on then.’
Te’rnu pointed up at a particularly bright cluster. ‘Those, there. We use those for navigation. When we used to travel back to Te’r’ok from the farm, late at night, we just followed them. The Returners, we called them – they’ll always bring you home.’
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. Perhaps the memory of Te’r’ok was getting to him.
Te’rnu pointed at another set of stars.
‘And those, do you see a face?’
I grunted in acknowledgement.
‘We say the stars are smiling at us. If we can see the Smiling Stars in the night’s sky on the first day of spring, we know that the crops will grow strong that year.’
‘What are your favourites?’ I asked Te’rnu.
‘I never really had any.’
‘No. For me, I mostly dreamt of adventuring amongst them, like the spacemen do. But I was always told: that is not the life I was given.’
‘That’s just the thing, though, Te’rnu. Nobody gets to tell you what kind of life you have to live. Maybe you’ll be the first Arellian, out there, travelling the cosmos.’
We said nothing for a few more moments, and simply stared up at the sky, appreciating its beauty.
‘Earlier today, Syl, you said something.’
‘Oh, no. Since getting drunk, you mean? What did I say?’ I responded.
‘No, before that. Before we arrived in Nu’r’ka. You told me that one person cannot hope to change the world.’
‘Yeah, I remember.’
Te’rnu gestured at the monument to Nu’r’ka’s saviour – to Leya.
‘Maybe one person cannot change our world, but they can still make things better: village by village, person by person. Your sister is proof of that.’
I said nothing.
‘Maybe,’ Te’rnu continued. ‘You would consider helping me?’
‘How would I help you?’ I asked.
‘I would like to continue our investigation. I would like to know, for certain, whether we Arellians can live on, beyond our Mutation. Would you help me find the truth?’
I stared up at the looming statue.
Saviour of Nu’r’ka.
‘OK, Te’rnu. I’ll help. To hell with changing the world – let’s just try and change your world.’
‘What is “hell”?’ Te’rnu asked.
A Note From The Author
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