I turned to see Te’rnu standing in the doorway, a curious look upon his face.
‘Is everything OK?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it’s just…,’ I started, then walked outside again, Te’rnu following. ‘What was that? On that screen?’
‘Oh, it was the daily broadcast. Updates on-’
‘Yeah, but the symbol – what was the symbol?’ I asked.
‘It is… the Iyr’s Central Command. Their…,’ he trailed off, trying to find the word. ‘What do they call it? Their… government.’
That didn’t make any sense – what would such a symbol be doing in Leya’s journal?
‘They’re the ones we have to pay tribute to,’ Te’rnu continued. ‘The ones we have to farm food for, metals, everything.’
‘Why? What’s in it for you guys?’
Te’rnu shook his head. ‘I can’t talk about it. It is a private matter. Only an Arellian would understand. And, besides, I am not even sure that I can answer that question and be sure I am telling you the truth…’
There was a certain solemnity to Te’rnu’s expression which stopped me from pressing the subject any further. Instead, I glanced back down at the encrypted journal in front of me.
‘What’s it mean? That symbol,’ I asked. ‘Like, I know what it signifies, if its the logo of the Central Command… but what does the symbol mean?’
Te’rnu shrugged. ‘I don’t know. None of us here will know. That is the language of the Iyr. Only they will know.’
I pulled out the journal and showed Te’rnu the relevant section. ‘All these symbols, on these pages, are they all from that language?’
‘How would I go about translating this?’ I asked.
Te’rnu looked at me warily. ‘Theoretically, any Iyr would be able to do that for you, if it is a simple translation. If it is using their code… you would need to log on to a console that’s connected to the Central Command’s mainframe.’
‘Interesting,’ I replied, and then came to the obvious question. ‘How do you know all this, Te’rnu?’
He shrugged. ‘I have been investigating for a few years now. Most of my life, really.’
‘And how old… are you?’
‘Twenty. I know; I am old.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘If you’re old at twenty, then I’m absolutely ancient. People from Terra are normally not even finished with their studies at this age.’
‘Their studies?’ Te’rnu asked, brow furrowed.
I took a moment to work out how to explain this one. ‘Yeah… like… learning all the things they need to know for their jobs.’
Te’rnu laughed, eyes wide. ‘It takes them twenty cycles for this? Farmers: you put seeds in the soil, you add water. Cooks: you put food on a fire. What more is there that they need to know?’
‘I…,’ I began to reply, then shrugged. ‘I guess we’ve over-complicated it where I am from.’
My Arellian friend looked at me again. Not that he hadn’t been looking at me already, but this time… he was really looking, almost as though his eyes were piercing into my soul.
‘What did you study?’ he asked.
I sighed. ‘You’ll laugh.’
‘Why would I laugh?’
‘Because it’ll seem ridiculous to you.’ I wasn’t sure I could name a single concept that would be more alien to Te’rnu than the answer to his question.
‘I will not laugh.’
‘Is that a promise?’
‘It is a promise, Syl Raynor,’ he replied. The addition of my name to this reply added a level of sincerity that was maybe unwarranted for such a topic of conversation.
‘Marketing,’ I answered.
‘What is that?’
Hmm. Well… at least he wasn’t laughing.
‘Like… making people buy things.’
‘Buy? Like the Iyr do? Getting things in exchange for money?’
‘Yeah, exactly. So-’
‘The Iyr,’ Te’rnu interrupted, ‘They are always after money in exchange for information. But I do not have money, where do they think this would be coming from?’
He shook his head to himself.
‘So how do you make people buy things? At phaserpoint?’
‘What? No! Just, like, with adverts,’ I answered, and then, when Te’rnu’s confused face made me realise my mistake, I explained, ‘Adverts are images that tell you about products. Or services.’
I breathed deeply, buying myself a short period of time in which to collect my thoughts.
‘And I used to work out where the best places to display these adverts were. That whole thing used to be a lot harder, and then we left the GMU – which was significant because it meant our laws changed. Suddenly we could start using data collected by console to target our ads.’
I noticed that Te’rnu’s eyes had glazed over.
‘So… if I was on Terra and was talking with someone about how I didn’t like how I had got this new mole on my trip to Turknan, ‘cos the sun there is so strong, then I might start seeing ads for UV protection injections, or replacement skin grafts. You see?’
Te’rnu paused for a moment. ‘And why did you cease doing this?’
I shrugged. ‘When Leya disappeared it stopped seeming important. I guess maybe I knew it wasn’t important all along, but while it was paying the bills… I didn’t mind the harm it was doing. But then, when I lost someone… I dunno, I guess it seemed like the galaxy had enough people making people buy things they don’t need and not enough people helping people find the things they do need.’
There was another moment of silence. It felt as though Te’rnu considered himself out of his depth. Soon his mouth opened once again.
‘If you stopped studying a few years ago, then how old does that make you?’
‘I mean… it’s rude to ask a woman her age, and all, but… I’m twenty-four.’
‘Twenty-four?!’ he repeated, absolutely astounded by this concept. ‘You Terrans can live that long?’
‘We live up to around, like, a hundred and ten, Te’rnu.’
‘A hundred and-,’ he started replying, mouth agape. ‘Maybe Ur’tna was on to something…’
Before I could get a chance to ask him what on Terra that meant, there was a scream from one of the buildings.
Te’rnu’s head spun to face the source of the noise, and his face turned glum.
He looked at me, pain in his eyes, and said, ‘You wanted to know why we pay tribute to the Iyr? It looks like you are about to find out.’
A crowd was quickly amassing about the entrance to one of the huts, everyone in it wearing a frown upon their faces. From inside, the groans and screaming continued. It sounded as though someone was being tortured in there.
Elder Ra’ntu arrived in the doorway, having presumably been checking on the screaming Arellian, and gave a nod. Upon receiving this signal, a member of the crowd rushed to the Iyr antenna, and pushed the red button.
The system produced a few beeps, and soon, a countdown appeared on the screen.
‘What’s that mean?’ I whispered to Te’rnu.
‘That is how long until they get here,’ he replied.
‘Who?’ I asked.
‘I think you know the answer to that question,’ replied Te’rnu. He was right; I most certainly did.
Sure enough, the Iyr soon arrived. A small ship floated down from the sky, landing just outside of town. The exhaust from the ship scattered the remaining bowls and food from dinner, but none of the Arellians seemed to care about that in this moment.
Two Iyr jumped off the back of the ship as it landed and strode towards the group of Arellians. One of them noticed me, a Terran, standing among them, and turned their head to stare at me as they walked – but said nothing.
The crowd parted for these two Iyr, allowing them access to the house, and even Elder Ra’ntu stood aside.
The Arellians clustered back together, blocking my view, so I stepped onto a rock for a better look at what was going on. Inside, the two Iyr crouched down beside the screaming Arellian. They looked at one another, nodded, and then picked the local up by the arms, dragging them back outside and towards the ship.
The other locals, as the screaming Arellian was dragged through them, came together in a hum. It was an almost religious response to the situation, as thought it was a ceremony.
‘What’s happened to them?’ I asked Te’rnu.
‘They are twenty-one,’ he replied. ‘They are dying.’
Suddenly I understood why the Arellians were almost childlike in innocence. Even at their oldest, they were barely out of their teens. They didn’t even have the chance to develop cynicism, or bitterness, or anything of the like. They were a pure species, and their limited lifespan was the very reason why.
The Iyr loaded the dying Arellian onto the ship – and the engines whirred into life once again. As it took off, the remaining villagers watched him go.
‘So… that’s it? You never see them again?’ I asked. ‘No… no more ceremony than that?’
Elder Ra’ntu appeared at our side, and spoke. ‘Once it begins, there is no time for any formalities. They must go.’
‘Once what begins?’ I asked.
‘The Mutation,’ Te’rnu replied.
That doesn’t sound particularly promising.
Elder Ra’ntu explained, ‘As an Arellian grows older, their chances of beginning the Mutation get greater. It happens to all of us.’
‘And what exactly is this Mutation?’
‘The Arellian’s loins begin to change. They swell, and clench. It causes them huge pain.’
‘Hence the screaming,’ I added.
‘Yes. They say that only the Iyr ever experience that amount of pain. Only they can understand what we Arellians go through. That’s why we send our mutated to them; they relieve the pain for the dying Arellian as best they can. As soon as the process begins, we summon them, and pray that they do not take long to arrive – for the dying’s sake.’
‘That is why we send tribute,’ Te’rnu added. ‘Supposedly.’
Elder Ra’ntu ignored this last word uttered by Te’rnu. ‘They are our saviours. Some would do well to remember that.’
Te’rnu, incensed, continued, ‘How do we know this? How do we know they are doing anything at all to help our dead? We have no evidence!’
‘No, Te’rnu,’ Elder Ra’ntu replied, raising their voice for the first time in my presence. ‘We have faith!’
‘Faith?’ Te’rnu replied, outraged by the idea. ‘Having faith only means that we know nothing for sure! They are exploiting us, do you not see?’
‘I-,’ I began, only to get cut off by Elder Ra’ntu.
‘Generations upon generations of Arellians have paid tribute in this way. It is not for you to decide to break with tradition! This is exactly why you were never made Elder, Te’rnu. And at this rate, you never-’
‘What about Ur’tna?!’ Te’rnu suddenly interjected.
Elder Ra’ntu looked exasperated. ‘Do not fill the spaceman’s mind with stories of Ur’tna’s nonsense. We have already had that Trial, we have already ruled that these stories were little more than the ramblings of a lunatic.’
‘Forget the trial! We didn’t know-’
‘Te’rnu!’ Ra’ntu insisted. ‘Enough! The off-worlder does not need to hear this!’
‘I’m happy to hear what he has to say,’ I butted in, shooting Te’rnu a smile. ‘He saved my life, after all. Who was Ur’tna?’ Part of me was just happy to finally get a word in.
Te’rnu shot me a brief smile in thanks. Ra’ntu, on the other hand, looked less than impressed.
‘They were an Arellian. Lived here, in Te’r’ok. Ur’tna was absolutely convinced that there was more going on with the tributes than met the eye.’
‘And was also… mad,’ Ra’ntu added.
‘That does not necessarily mean Ur’tna was wrong,’ Te’rnu replied.
‘That’s true! I’ve known plenty of completely mad people who were almost always right,’ I added, trying my darndest to support the person who’d saved my life. I was, however, complete ignored by the both of them. Old quarrels die hard – on Z’h’ar as it is in Terra.
‘Nobody else ever believed Ur’tnu,’ Te’rnu continued, ‘But Ur’tnu was convinced that the Iyr were doing something with the people they had taken.’
‘Like what?’ I asked.
‘Experimenting on them? Enslaving them? Selling them? Ur’tnu never quite got to the bottom of it.’
‘All little more than conspiracy theories!’ Ra’ntu interjected. ‘Please don’t pay attention to this one, spaceman. Te’rnu’s mind was warped by Ur’tnu’s babbling, and it never quite recovered, it seemed.’
I was already fascinated by the idea of there being a conspiracy, though. Who more likely than the irritable, foul-tempered Iyr to be behind some sort of scheme like this?
‘Did Ur’tnu ever get any proof?’ I asked.
‘Not really,’ Te’rnu answered. ‘But there was this one thing. Towards the end, they kept repeating this one idea: that the Mutation doesn’t have to be the end for us. That we can live through it, but the Iyr don’t want us to. Maybe we get too powerful, or smart, or some other trait which might give us more of an advantage than the Iyr want us to have. It wasn’t until Ur’tnu said this that they disappeared.’
‘Ignore this one, spaceman. Te’rnu is at the end of their life. They fear their own mortality, and so they speak these conspiracy theories as a way of avoiding facing that fear.’
‘I fear nothing!’ Te’rnu argued. ‘Well, I fear some things, yes. But not this!’
‘And yet you have no proof. Once again, you simply exist to cast doubt upon the Tradition. Tradition which has served this community well, I might add!’
‘I have proof!’ he shouted. ‘That is where I have been! I have found someone inside the Stronghold who was willing to talk with me.’
‘You have been where?’ Ra’ntu asked.
‘They told me, Syl, they told me: Ur’tnu didn’t just disappear, they were taken.’
‘As is the Tradition!’ Ra’ntu insisted.‘No! You don’t understand! Ur’tnu was taken before the Mutation started. The Iyr, they weren’t trying to save them, they were trying to silence them!’
A Note From The Author
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