When I awoke, an Arellian was fanning me with a dry, browned leaf. I was in a small hut, lying on a bed, with a good number of other Arellians standing around me, staring in fascination with their wide, blue eyes.
‘Give them space,’ one of the wastelanders told the others, and all but the one cooling me stepped backwards.
The Arellian who seemed to be in charge looked around at them with exasperated eyes.
‘I mean for you to leave,’ they reiterated. The group dissipated, leaving me with just the two of these strange folk. As I blinked my vision back into focus, I recognised the Arellian with the leaf as the one who had been escorted out the stronghold earlier in the day.
‘I…,’ I started to speak, but found my throat dry, little noise escaping from it.
One of the remaining Arellians put a small bowl to my mouth, filled with a red-brown liquid.
‘Drink,’ they instructed. I sipped at the medicine, taking only a small mouthful at first.
‘You were poisoned,’ the Arellian told me. They were looking at me with kind eyes, concerned eyes – not the sort of eyes I would have expected to see on a so-called barbarian.
‘Was it the Iyr?’ the other wastelander asked, wide eyes looking up at me.
‘Poisoned?’ I asked, voice hoarse. ‘No… I wasn’t poisoned… I was just… drinking…’
‘You know… like, alcohol,’ I explained.
The two Arellians looked at each other with blank faces. I waved dismissively.
‘For fun? Tastes good, takes the edge off?’ I added.
They still both looked lost. ‘What is “the edge”?’
I shook my head. ‘It doesn’t matter. It was just the heat getting to me, anyway, I think.’
‘You come from a cold place?’ asked the one in charge.
‘Yeah, I…,’ and then I trailed off, instead asking, ‘Do you have water?’
The leader nodded, turned to the other Arellian, and said, ‘Te’rnu, get this one water. Much of it.’
Was that a name or a title?
Te’rnu rushed out, and it was just the two of us now.
‘That one saved you, you know. They had been away – who knows where they had gone this time – and found you as they returned to us. Carried you here.’
‘Yeah? I’ll make sure to say thanks.’
‘Do. They need to feel valued, that one.’
Te’rnu came rushed back into the hut, clasping a bowl of water in their hands. I drank at it hungrily, finishing the whole thing before I even stopped for a breath.
They continued to stare, eyes wide.
‘What is it? Do I have something on my face, or…?’ I asked.
‘No,’ the Elder replied, ‘It is just that we have never seen a creature like you before. Like you… but different. You are… a spaceman?’
I smiled. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.’
I’d never been the first Terran someone had seen before.
‘What do we call you?’ Te’rnu asked.
‘You mean… my name, or my species?’
‘Both! Everything! Tell us all that is out there!’ they answered.
‘Hush, Te’rnu,’ the other Arellian interrupted. ‘Don’t bother them. They need rest. There will be time for this later.’
They put a hand on my shoulder, gently instructing me to lean back to the bed again.
‘Relax,’ the Elder whispered. ‘There is no rush.’
I soon fell asleep once again.
It wasn’t until the sun was low in the sky once again that I awoke. Between staying up all night drinking and suffering from heat stroke, maybe my broken sleep schedule shouldn’t really have been a surprise.
I sat up, slowly, testing how painful moving was going to be. Short of a headache and some achy muscles, I didn’t feel too bad – whatever medicine the Arellians had given me had worked.
In the corner of the room, wide blue eyes stared at me.
‘Hello. How do you feel? Can I ask you questions? Have y-,’ they started, only to be interrupted by the Elder returning to the room.
‘I see you are awake. Has Te’rnu been bothering you?’ the Elder asked.
‘No, not at all, he-,’ I caught myself. Was Te’rnu a he? I decided to bite the bullet. ‘I’m sorry, is it “he”?’
Te’rnu looked confused, so the Elder stepped in to help him out. ‘We have no concept of gender. We all act as one.’
‘Oh! Erm, so… in terms of pronouns…,’ I began to ask, trying to feel out whether this question would be deemed as offensive.
This time, it was Te’rnu who helped me out. ‘“He” is fine. For me, at least.’
He flashed me a smile.
The Elder continued, ‘The others typically use “they”, but I would doubt they would care, if I am to be honest with you.’
‘What… what pronoun would I use if I were to describe you, then?’ Te’rnu asked.
‘“She”,’ I told him.
Te’rnu smiled again, the concept amusing to him, and began to try the word out. ‘She. I like that! She is here. She is good.’
‘She is!’ I confirmed.
The Elder flashed me a look, and I remembered what she had told me during the brief time that I was conscious earlier in the day – that Te’rnu had been the one to save me.
‘Hey, erm, Te’rnu…,’ I started, and the Elder slid outside. ‘Thanks for saving me earlier. I think there’s a lot of people on this planet who wouldn’t bother.’
Te’rnu smiled again, brilliantly white teeth catching the glare of the sun. ‘That is OK, we all need to look out for each other in this world. You think the Iyr would not have helped you?’
‘I suspect not,’ I replied.
Te’rnu nodded. ‘I think not too. But do not tell the Elders I said this.’
‘Elders? There’s more than one?’
‘Yes! The Elder you have met, Elder Ra’ntu, is a gifted doctor, but there are others too. All the older Arellians in this village are Elders. That is… all except me.’
Te’rnu’s furrowed brow gave away how irritated this fact made him – a strangely Terran trait.
‘Why’s that?’ I asked.
‘They do not trust me.’
He shook his head, as if ridding himself of these thoughts.
‘Can I ask you questions now? I’ve always wanted to meet a spaceman.’
‘Go for it,’ I replied, ‘Seems like a fair trade for saving my life, after all.’
‘How many? How many questions would be a fair trade?’
I smiled; there was an endearing level of innocence about the Arellian sitting in front of me. ‘Loads.’
‘But how many? I shall have to prioritise.’
‘I’ll tell you when you’re running out.’
This seemed to satisfy Te’rnu as an answer, and he jumped straight into the questions.
‘How many planets are there?’
‘Oh, err, countless. Hundreds of thousands. Millions, maybe, even.’
Te’rnu’s eyes widened like a child seeing a magic trick for the first time.
‘Only a small handful actually support life, though.’
‘What is your planet called?’
‘Terra? That’s a pretty name. And, erm…,’ Te’rnu paused, a sudden shyness overcoming him. ‘And what is… what is your name?’
Woops. I’d forgotten that bit.
‘It’s Syl. Syl Raynor. Sorry. I should have told you that already, really. I’m still a bit out of it, I guess.’
‘Sylraynor is a pretty name too,’ Te’rnu added, no longer making eye contact.
‘Just “Syl” is fine.’
He went quiet for a moment, processing everything that I had been telling him, and then question after question began to escape his lips.
He asked about Terra, about what life had been like there. He asked how we travelled amongst the stars. He asked why I looked different to him, and whether other aliens looked different too. He asked and asked and asked until I was seriously considering telling him there actually was a limit to how many questions he was allowed.
Finally, a ringing noise came from outside. Te’rnu’s eyes lit up again.
‘Dinner! Do you have dinner on Terra?’
‘We have dinner, yeah. My favourite part of the day,’ I answered.
‘Mine too,’ Te’rnu replied, grinning. He stepped over to where I was laying, grabbed my hands, and pulled me to my feet.
As he led me towards the door, I glanced back at my bag, which was being left alone, at the side of the bed.
‘Oh, Te’rnu, will my bag be OK in there?’
He looked confused. Again. This was becoming a real regular occurrence.
‘Yes. Why would it not be?’
‘Nobody would steal it?’
Te’rnu didn’t reply, only maintaining his perplexed expression. I took this as an answer.
Out in the centre of the village, the inhabiting Arellians were sat in a large circle. All held food bowls in front of them, some full, some about to be filled. Te’rnu handed me an empty bowl, and we sat down at a gap in the circle.
To the side of the circle, I noticed, was a tall antennae – next to some kind of screen. It stuck out like a sore thumb in this Arellian village; they were centuries off this kind of technology. It had to have been placed here by the Iyr.
On the side of the antenna, I noticed, was a big red button. Every fibre of my being immediately wanted to push it – how could someone resist a temptation like that?
I turned my attention away from the Iyr technology and back to my hosts. The Arellian who was serving the food poured it into my bowl with a kind smile on his face.
‘This is Elder Or’ane,’ Te’rnu told me. ‘They are in charge of meals.’
I thanked Or’ane, and then, when they were further away, Te’rnu leaned in close, and whispered, ‘That is the role I wanted.’
I poked timidly at the food. It was curry-like in texture, viscosity, colour, like the dhal that an old boyfriend of mine used to make. I sipped a mouthful. It didn’t taste like dhal, but that didn’t mean it was bad. There was a sweetness to it, that Terrans wouldn’t normally have in their savoury dishes.
‘You like it?’ Te’rnu asked, eyes wide with hope.
‘I do. It’s very sweet. If this is how sweet your main course is, then I can’t imagine what your second course will be like.’
‘What did you say? Second course?’ Te’rnu asked.
I shook my head. ‘Nothing. Ignore me.’
He happily did, and instead continued to sip away at his bowl. I finished mine, too, and resisted the urge to burp. There was no knowing what was offensive to different cultures, so I tended to play it safe when it came to this sorta thing. Maybe they didn’t even know what burping was! I kinda liked the idea of the whole circle seeing me do it and wondering what on Z’h’ar that was all about.
No, Syl. Resist. Resist!
‘Te’rnu, I… I have to ask.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’m curious, I’ve never met a species without gender before.’
‘You want to know how it works? Biologically?’
‘Yeah, like… can you get pregnant?’
‘And you can also impregnate people?’ I asked, and then, in order to diffuse the awkwardness that maybe only existed in my mind, teased, ‘Not that I have anything planned.’
‘I can impregnate people too, yes.’
‘So is that all in one organ? Or do you have, like two different things, each with their own purpose? And you just choose which one you’re going to use? Sorry if this is weird to ask. I’m just interested.’
‘Maybe we don’t talk about this at dinner,’ Te’rnu suggested, and suddenly it seemed like he was the more mature out of the two of us.
I looked around the circle. Most, if not all, of the local Arellians were stealing glances in my direction. When I made eye contact with them, most would look away, embarrassed.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw Elder Ra’ntu. ‘Please, excuse them,’ she told me. ‘It is only because they have never seen an off-worlder before.’
I smiled an answer back at her, and she patted me on the shoulder three times, before moving around the circle to find an empty space herself.
I turned to Te’rnu.
‘Can I ask, how do you survive out here?’
‘What do you mean?’ he replied.
‘In these plains. There can’t be much to live on.’
‘There are plenty plants around, if you know where to look. We farm some, in the shade of a hill, not too far away. We keep what we can, which is usually enough, but of course the Iyr take their share.’
‘What-’ I began, but suddenly the screen shot into life, illuminating the circle with a blue hue.
That same blue symbol appeared again – the one I’d seen before the broadcasts in the city. And, just like last time, everyone around me was transfixed by the message to follow. The only difference in the broadcast out here was that it was in a language that my universal translator could understand.
It spoke of crop harvests declining, of where and how the Arellians might farm more food. The locals nodded along, grateful for this information, some even bowing their heads in respect. Only Te’rnu watched the broadcast with a snarl.
As the announcement ended, I saw the symbol yet another time. This time, however, it clicked where I’d seen it before.
I shot up from my feet, alarming Te’rnu and some of the other Arellians around me. I rushed back into the building where I’d been resting and pulled Leya’s journal from my bag. I skimmed through it, until I stopped at the section I was looking for.
Sure enough, there it was: that same symbol.
Leya had been here. On Z’h’ar.
Suddenly I had hope that I would see my sister again.
A Note From The Author
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