2017-09-25 21:14 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Qaateq

The two left arms were broken. His own ankle was probably broken too. Any movement caused extreme pain.

When the ledge collapsed they went down with it. The TokTok had tried to break his fall by grabbing onto him. But now at the bottom, in the ravine, the stars above shone bright on a deep black sky, the light of Ckiqs was in retreat, and their eyes slowly acclimated.

The situation, he thought, wasn't good. Knowing the TokTok felt what he was thinking he didn't bother saying anything. Maybe there were branches down here he could try making splints with. He groped around the ground near himself. There was nothing but damp mossy rocks. He heard water trickling somewhere nearby and his legs were wet. There must've been a spring or a creek down here. The TokTok was about twenty hands away, leaning up against a large boulder, he could just make this out in the darkness. He wasn't sure how far they'd fallen, he looked up, scanning for where the ledge used to be, but he couldn't find the spot. Although he realized it didn't matter, the rest of the jagged cliff, clustered with roots no doubt, was highlighted against the sky and it looked very far away to him.

He and the TokTok arrived not long before in a Skimmer. This was a type of vehicle the TokTok had resurrected from the ruins of the city. The city's technology and devices seemed to be natural to them. No one knew why this happened, but something about the TokTok changed once they'd arrived on the planet. They left and lived in the ruined city. And for a couple generations they did not contact people. But after many years of silence and isolation, TokTok and people began working together again. While people still lived in villages, they were now exposed to the ancient technology by the TokTok. There had been long and bitter debate between the Elders and Council about whether this should be allowed, and what it meant for people over time. The final decision by the Council was that certain people would be allowed, the rest would not. Qaateq was one of these few, and this TokTok, who called himself TskKTakKT, with the customary combination of "Ts" and "KT" in different patterns that all his people used in their names, were work partners.

They'd left the Skimmer half a cliq from the collapsed ledge. They'd landed here surveying for future farmland. As the villages had grown so too had the number of mouths to feed, the small gardens and things they could harvest from the jungle was no longer enough. This too was why the Council and Elders had accepted the renewed partnership with the TokTok — they could help.

This strange situation couldn't have been anticipated by Qaateq's ancestors, the pilgrims, who expected to find a familiar world and who expected to live lives in the manner they'd always known, in fewer numbers, with different resources, without the need to settle and build up walls against a jungle that constantly tried to kill them. They would build farms and cities to keep themselves alive. They would not be the nomadic hunters their ancestors were, they would have to do things differently.

Qaateq and TskKTakKT wandered from the Skimmer looking at the gentle rise and fall of the land and testing the soil. The jungle was lighter here and clearing it for farming seemed feasible. When they'd moved out of sight of the Skimmer and back into denser jungle, they came upon rocky and divided ground, and a deep ravine cutting into the land. It was here, measuring the depth of the gorge, that the area they were standing on collapsed.

This happened a few hours ago, it was night now. He knew the chances of being found even if they did discover the abandoned Skimmer was remote. The jungle swallowed up things, it was voracious, things would go in and never came back. He thought they were becoming part of by the jungle, a little at a time. TskKTakKT tried to reassure him but he became irritated by TskKTakKT's unrealistic confidence.

— Why are your people so optimistic about everything?

— Are we?

— Yes. What is it that makes you selfless and eager to help people?

— Well, I don't know. I guess I've never thought of it like this. We are the way we are, and most of us tend to feel the same way about things. Since we share thoughts.

— Do you think if people shared thoughts in the same way we'd get along better? I'd always suspected that the secret and critical thoughts of people known to other people would be enough to cause murders.

— I haven't known many of you, and not that long. Not like my Fourths who came here with people. But your minds are always active, always speaking inside. You speak to yourself with a voice, and you speak with voices that you believe others have in conversations that don't exist. Because you can't share thoughts. I wonder if you convince yourselves of things that harm yourselves with these voices.

Qaateq sighed. Probably true, but he regretted asking. This wasn't important, they had a problem. TskKTakKT couldn't climb up because of his broken arms on one side, even if it were possible to climb up the tangled muddy cliff. And Qaateq couldn't stand. The temperature continued to drop and they were wet and cold. Morning, they said to one another, we'll assess the situation in the morning. He tried to sleep but it was impossible. His best option was not to move, any motion was a shock of pain. He tried to think of things that could help, but as the time dragged on his thinking became incoherent and he brooded on unconnected events in his life, one after another. He realized TskKTakKT must be asleep, or have passed out, he'd realized recently that TskKTakKT's conscious presence was oddly stabilizing, that whatever TokTok did to share thoughts impacted people in a way that produced clarity. He wondered how their civilization had changed in their absence.

When morning came he tried to stand. This went badly. TskKTakKT stood and moved to him, but shakily. It was clear he was also in pain. As the sun rose they grew hot and remained wet. Nothing ever dried in the jungle. Then bugs found them, they weren't mobile so every biting swarming thing within range decided they were food or an enemy. As the flies collected on them, TskKTakKT said,

— I think I may have to agree with your earlier sentiment.

— Oh? What's that?

— Our situation doesn't seem very good.

— I wish I'd changed my mind, but I continue to think that.

— We might be here some time.

— Yes we might.

— We might die here.

— Yes, we might.

— But my people have ways to search that maybe yours don't. Using technology. So there is still a chance.

— If we can survive that long. We could drink this water but it alone might kill us, if the bugs and the predators don't. And eventually we'll need food. I've been thinking…

— Yes

— If I can make a splint I could try to hobble up the ravine, it must come out somewhere… somewhere better…

— But if we move then the search for us might fail entirely. Also, the ravine might just be a dead end. Or come out somewhere worse. And the exertion would be tremendous.

— You can move, I can't, you could save yourself by going out that way…

— But then you would be alone and immobile, if a predator does find you, you'd be defenseless. And once we were separated the search might find one of us but not the other.

— Better one than none.

— Better both than one.

— Alright, we'll wait then, we'll wait a while.

And the sun grew stronger, the steamy effluvial drainage from above them seeped into the ravine. They stopped trying to get the bugs off because it was too tiring. They were covered with sweat. They could hear the chatters and snarls of animals in the jungle, they thought it was only a matter of time before some hungry face looked down on them and decided they were ripe. As the day started wore on they were exhausted and thirsty.

— You could kill me and sustain yourself with me.

— What?? A single day stranded and you're ready to die? Ridiculous. What happened to 'better both than one'? This is what I was talking about earlier. Why would you do that? Don't you have any sense of self-preservation?

— Not like your people do. There is a sense of individuality, but it's different. We are combinations of one another, and while that combination may seem temporarily unique, it is still a combination of things that have existed and will continue to exist. I will end one way or another.

— I appreciate that, but let's get through this without resorting to that.

— If you wish.

— Look, you can move around more than I can, if you start collecting those grasses, those tall ones there, see them? I might be able to weave them. I admit I'm not a rope maker, but I know how it works and I had to do it a bit as a child, if you get me enough of them I can make rope. If we do this now, we might be able to finish before dark.

— Rope? Yes I will try.

— We certainly seem to have the time. But rest when you must.

TskKTakKT collected the tall grass fairly quickly, moving upward and downward from their location but never leaving sight. He stopped several times to rest, his movements appeared jerky and pained. He dropped the grass in front of Qaateq and Qaateq started to weave it. When he had several smaller ropes he wanted, he had TskKTakKT stand apart with the ends as he twisted them together into something that would hold his weight. TskKTakKT was much lighter. He had to backtrack several times, it was awkward work because he wasn't practiced and he was tired. The extraneous movement caused him pain so he had to stop and start.

— And once we have the rope? asked TskKTakKT.

— We attach a stick and try to snag it on one of those upper roots. Then I pull myself up. Then I pull you up.

— This will hurt. You might lose consciousness. In which case you might fall and hurt yourself badly.

— Yes, I know.

— I might be able to suppress the pain for you.

— Oh? Your people can do that? Not just read thoughts but change them?

— It's not like that exactly. It's more like trying to put a blanket on a fire. Or playing an instrument softer rather than louder. But it won't remove the pain, just make it quieter.

Qaateq tried to work quickly. He knew that the longer they were down here the less strength he'd have. Once he had something long enough they looked for a stick to tie on the end, something solid. TskKTakKT then tried throwing the rope upwards so the stick might catch on the roots that dotted the edge of the cliff. After several attempts Qaateq moved himself, crying out sharply once, to the area they thought they could scale and was able to lodge the rope attached stick very near the top.

TskKTakKT focused on the mind of Qaateq and tried dampening the idea of pain.

— It's going to be dark soon, we don't have many chances to do this, so we've got to try now.

Qaateq pulled himself up, tentatively at first to see if his weight held. It did. He grunted as he strained, pulling himself up while trying to keep his foot stable, and he continued up hand over hand, sweat dripping down him. When he got to the top of the rope there were enough roots and branches to grab to pull himself up the rest of the way. Pain shot through his leg when he got over the edge and had to turn himself around, and he passed out for a moment. As he came to he could hear TskKTakKT in his head Are you alright? Are you there?

— I'm alright, I'm here. Tie the rope around yourself. You might have been able to suppress my pain, but there's no way to do this without causing you a lot more.

TskKTakKT used the good arms on one side to tie the rope around himself, wincing as he did. Qaateq, flat on the ground, reached over the edge and pulled up TskKTakKT. Getting TskKTakKT over the top meant grabbing him by his good arms, but he still made a loud noise that Qaateq hadn't expected, a noise he assumed was overwhelming pain, and then he felt a wave of nausea, like the hurting of TskKTakKT had just leaked out.

They remained motionless on the ground for some time. Only the biting of ants motivated them to get up and move. They were dehydrated and they felt like they were moving through mud.

— We still have to get to the Skimmer. But there are some good pieces of wood here, I can make a splint and use something as a crutch. And we can use some of this rope as a sling for you. Qaateq said.

— Instead of going back to your village, we can go to the city. We have things to quickly fix bones there. Although… I wonder how much we've lost since we've been in the ruined city.

— What do you mean?

— When we came here with your people we knew what you knew, we had the skills you had. When we travel to city in the vehicle created in the city I can use a device to heal the bones… but I do not have the skill or the knowledge, to create something as simple as rope.

— Yes, this is why the Council only allow a handful of us to work with you. The idea of "Atun" is important to us, which roughly means "always use less than you think you need, always use what's at hand". I think the Council is afraid, or has always been afraid that the technology left here, in the city, will change that. But I'm not such a purist. I will go to the city with you.

Slowly they made their way back to the Skimmer. As the terrain became flatter and the jungle thinned the travel became easier until they saw the curved white Skimmer in the distance.

— I think this area will make very good farmland, TskKTakKT said.