They didn’t know he understood their language. They thought he was just another speechless creature—a large cat in the semantic categories that shaped their thinking. He could have spoken to them in their own language when they captured him. He had known he could save himself if he let them see he could speak. He had been afraid they would kill him on the spot. But he had been brave. He had swallowed the words swelling in his mouth. He had pressed his tail flat against his leg, so it wouldn’t betray his feelings.
The two humans eyeing him through the metal gate in front of his stall looked like they might be a male and a female. The probably-male was taller, with bigger shoulders. The probably-female looked slighter and seemed to have broader hips. Golva had only seen two humans in his life but they had displayed the same differences.
“He raises questions,” the slighter one said.
“He’s got claws like a carnivore. But he doesn’t look particularly strong. And I gather he wasn’t very fast.”
“He didn’t put up much of a fight. They were going to shoot him on the spot but he just stood there. Backed up against the barn. Watching them.”
“He let them throw the net over him?”
“Will decided to get a net. He says the thing didn’t do a thing when he moved in on it.”
“Like it knew what the rifles were?”
“It can’t be the thing that builds the towers.”
“But it could be something that recognizes weapons. The creatures that build the towers could have something that looks like a rifle.”
“Like crossbows. . . .”
Golva knew he wasn’t thinking clearly. His head had felt strange ever since he had come near the top of the plateau. There was something wrong with his breathing, too. He had to think very carefully before he did anything.
The tall one was named Detterman. Golva had heard his three captors say they were going to call Detterman when they dragged him into the barn. Detterman seemed to be called Amel, too. One of them had called him Amel when he had hurried through the barn door. They called the woman Leza and Doctor Sanvil. Doctor sounded like it might be a title, the way they said it. The language they were speaking was called English. The humans had hundreds of languages, according to the things he had been taught, but the humans on the plateau spoke English.
“Have you tried feeding it?” Doctor Leza Sanvil said.
“You think it needs meat?”
“That seems like the best place to start. It would have to be something native, of course. I’ll see what I can trap.”
“We could just kill it, Leza.”
“I recommend we give it a little observation time first. It’s obviously wandered up from down below. We may as well see what we can learn.”
Golva was lying on the dirt with his head resting on his forepaws. He was doing his best not to look at them like he was listening and understanding.
They weren’t going to kill him right away. He wouldn’t have to reveal he was a talker just so he could tell them he couldn’t eat their food.
But what would they do when they did learn he was a talker? Would they torture him? Would he have to tell them things that would endanger everyone he had left behind in the forest? He had felt adventurous and daring when he had slipped away from his friends and kin. He had launched a hunting song at the sun when he had looked down on the forest from the edge of the great plateau. No itiji had ever stood where he was standing.
Now he just felt lonely.
And very young.
He had looked down on the forest from a perch that was so high you could have put eighty of the tallest trees between the edge of the cliff and the green treetops below. He could look across a span that covered all the ground he had traveled in the last three days.
No itiji had ever climbed so high. They knew this strange uplift existed but the cliffs and the unshaded sun had daunted any adventurers who might have wondered if any gods actually lived on its broad top. The tree people might have climbed it, but they were too busy building their cities and fighting their wars.
The sun had beat on him as if it was aiming all its light at his head. He had started the song as a paean of defiance and triumph—No one had ever been this high! No one had ever seen this sight!—but it had sounded lonely before he finished.
His mother had made him promise he would tell her when he went off by himself, but she had gone off with a huntband that was foraging for a wedding feast. It might be days before anyone realized he was gone. Everybody knew he came and went.
You live inside yourself, his mother had told him. Sometimes you make the rest of us feel you hardly know we’re here. But you can’t live inside your own skin. We need each other.
Harold the Human said there were other humans on the plateau. He said they came from another world—another planet. He said they had machines that moved by themselves and weapons that could reach ranges that were ten multiples of the ranges you could reach with dartblowers and bows.
And Harold had told the truth. Golva had seen the machines moving in the flat open spaces the humans had covered with strange plants, closed shelters, and structures that were so puzzling they looked senseless. He hadn’t seen them use their weapons, but the things they had pointed at him had looked like the guns Harold had described.
The female was carrying a bag when she came back. He was certain she was female now. He could see all the differences he had noted when he had looked at Joanne, Harold the Human’s wife.
“So what are you?” Leza said. “Why did you come wandering up out of the forest? Why would you keep climbing?”
Golva had risen to a sitting position, with his weight resting on his rear haunches. He was certain she was talking to herself—thinking out loud in front of a speechless animal. He was watching her, but a speechless animal would have watched her too, wouldn’t it?
“Let’s see how smart you are, kitty. Let’s see if that oversize round head means anything.”
She placed the bag in front of the bars. She picked up a tool with a long handle and pushed the bag between two bars.
Golva had smelled the bag as soon as she had stopped in front of the stall. What would a speechless creature do?
He stared at the bag and offered the woman three exaggerated sniffs. He edged toward the bag on stiff legs, the way he had seen prey animals approach lures, and sniffed again.
His stomach clenched. He could pick up a whiff of fresh blood through the odd odors surrounding the bag.
“Let’s see what you do with the bag, kitty. Can you figure that out?”
The bag was made out of something smooth and glossy. The tree people made bags out of animal skins and vines they wove together, but this was something else.
What would an animal do? Would it claw at the material? Would it tug at the drawstring that held it shut?
His stomach gave him another reminder he hadn’t eaten since he had swatted two fish out of the river that bordered the area the humans had occupied.
What difference would it make if she did realize he was a thinker? She still wouldn’t know he could understand her language. It might even give them a reason to keep him alive.
He rested his right paw on one loop of the drawstring. He bent over the bag and the top opened as he tugged at the string with his teeth.
“Very good. Very good indeed. Now let’s see what else you can do. . . .”
They hung his next meal from a rope draped over a hook on the ceiling and attached one end of the rope to the bottom of the gate. The woman hit her hands together and told him he was a very smart kitty when he chewed through the rope and leaped on the meat when it dropped to the floor. They closed the big door at the front of the building and set up mazes created from boxes they arranged in the center aisle. They placed a box in the stall and watched him push it toward the wall so he could reach the food they had placed on a high shelf.
The bag had contained a small animal that resembled a tunnel digger Golva’s family ate when they needed a quick snack. The woman called it a field rat, which indicated this version might scurry around above ground. It was almost as bland as the tunnel digger, and left him just as hungry, but it was the only thing they fed him.
“It’s a skimpy diet,” Doctor Leza said. “Given his size. But we have to keep him hungry. To maintain a constant motivation.”
He had studied the length of soft metal that held the gate shut. They ran it through the bars and twisted the ends together—a simple matter for creatures with hands. He had braced his front paws against the gate and pulled on the metal with his teeth but he couldn’t make it untwist.
And what good would it do if he did open the gate? He would still have to break through the main door. And evade the guards who would come after him as soon as the invisible alarms roused them.
On the third day she brought him a pair of live field rats. She pushed a small cage into the back of the stall and watched while he herded the rats into a corner. The cage snapped open all by itself and he jerked his head around and eyed her while he held the rats in position.
She raised her hand and showed him the thing she was holding. “That’s right, kitty. I can make things happen from a distance. I press the little button and zappo! Up goes the cage door.”
He studied her as if he was trying to understand the situation. He should have looked at the cage, not her. Wouldn’t an animal have looked at the cage?
She shoved the thing into her pocket and turned away. The animals in the next stall grunted at her as she passed and she gave them some words.
Golva’s paws flashed. His claws raked the field rats with the swift, merciful strokes his parents had made him practice until they felt he could join a huntband without raining disgrace on his forebears.
Doctor Leza had returned with Amel/Detterman and another male. “The cage was right where it is now,” Doctor Leza said. “He had the field rats over in the corner—where he could see the cage out of the side of his eye. He had to know the cage opened. But he turned toward me.”
“It looks like he’s given himself a nice little snack.”
“It wouldn’t mean that much by itself. But when you add it to the other things . . .”
“You’ve been the person who’s been setting everything up. He knows you’re the chief instigator.”
“He didn’t even glance at the cage. I didn’t know what he’d do. I set it up so he’d be focused on something else. So he wouldn’t have his guard up.”
Amel/Detterman was holding a gun in one hand. Golva couldn’t read their body talk yet, but the male always looked relaxed—as if he knew he could live with anything that happened.
“So you think he’s smart,” Amel/Detterman said. “But we don’t know how smart.”
He raised the gun. Doctor Leza sucked in a breath. The other male stepped behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. He was bigger than Amel/Detterman but he tended to stay a step back—as if he was somebody who was there to give Amel/Detterman support.
“I’m not going to kill him,” Amel/Detterman said. “I just want to see how he reacts. It’s loaded with shot. I’ll hit him in one of his paws if he doesn’t do something informative.”
Golva stared at the gun. He didn’t know what shot was, but he knew what a pain in his paws felt like. Would he be able to walk? Would he be permanently crippled?
He was alone. He wouldn’t have friends and kin who could help him hunt. He would have to hobble on three legs if he tried to escape. . . .
The front end of the gun was pointing at his chest, a little to his left. He had always been good with numbers. He wasn’t as good as the very best number thinkers, but the rules made him feel good—like certain kinds of singing. He didn’t know how fast the shot would fly but at this distance he could assume zero travel time. He could see the path it would follow. He could see the man’s finger on the trigger, like the trigger of a crossbow.
The noise shocked him. He would have been paralyzed if he hadn’t already started rolling to one side. Angry somethings rattled around the stall.
He hopped to his feet, back stiff, eyes fixed on the man. His head was still ringing but his instincts had taken over. The end of the gun was swinging toward him. He couldn’t stand there and hope he could clear his head before the gun roared again.
“You watched my finger. You’re watching it now. You’re a very smart little creature, aren’t you?”
“Don’t kill him.”
“Why not? Wouldn’t you like a look at his brain? You already know he’s smart. What else can you learn?”
“We don’t know what’s down there in the forest. We don’t have any idea what he is.”
The gun thundered. Golva held his position, knowing it was aimed to one side, and the man’s finger twitched again. The noise hit him while he was still reacting to the first blast and he backed up before he could stop himself.
Doctor Leza had stepped away from the stall. “What are you trying to do?”
“You’ve got your tricks, I’ve got mine.”
“He knows you aren’t aiming at him. Can’t you see that?”
“And he knows what it can do. I can see that, too.”
Amel/Detterman handed the gun to the other man. He jerked something that looked like a small stick off a fastener on his belt.
“Watch him. Don’t shoot him unless it looks like I can’t handle him.”
Fingers untwisted the metal catch. The gate swung open. Amel/Detterman stepped inside.
“This doesn’t make any sense, Amel.”
Amel/Detterman’s mouth curved upward—the expression humans called a smile.
The little stick leaped into a rod twice as long as the human’s arm. Fire shot through Golva’s body. His front legs collapsed. The stick touched him again. Another burst of flame racked through him. Words sprang out of his mouth.
“Stop. Don’t. Don’t.”
“He likes to hurt,” Doctor Leza said. “He’ll come back if I don’t give him what he wants. I got him to go away but he’ll come back.”
Golva stared at her. He had arranged himself in a sitting position but his legs were still quivering. Amel/Detterman had given him two more bursts of fire before he left.
“We now know you can talk,” Doctor Leza said. “You apparently know our language, incredible as it sounds. And we know somebody on this planet built the wooden towers that poke above the trees. We spotted those towers as soon as we took up orbit—if you know what that means. So we seem to have two obvious hypotheses. You learned our language from the only humans you could have met. And there may be two intelligent species native to this planet. One like you. And one that can build things.”
Golva lowered his head. The tree people didn’t like it when you looked them in the eye without a break. Were the humans like that, too?
“I don’t know how well you understand our language,” Doctor Leza said. “Three words don’t tell me very much. But I think you can understand the questions I just raised. Did you learn our language from the two people who left our little settlement? Are there two intelligent species on this planet?”
She was talking very softly, evenly. She wasn’t shouting the way Amel/Detterman had. He could guess the meaning of hypotheses. Intelligence meant the ability to think. That seemed to be an important divide to humans. Most itiji split the world into talkers and creatures who couldn’t talk.
“Why won’t you talk to us? I can understand why you didn’t tell us right away. But why won’t you talk to us now? We just want to know more about the world below us. Did Harold and Jo tell you we come from another world—another planet? Do you understand that?”
She dropped to one knee and pushed a bowl under the gate. “Why don’t you take a drink? I’d want some water if I’d been through what you’ve been through.”
Golva eyed the bowl. The water shimmered in the light that glowed in the spheres hanging from the ceiling.
“Do you have a name? Can you at least tell me your name? You can call me Leza. The man who flamed you is called Amel—Amel Detterman.”
He raised his head and tried to look determined. He could hold his legs steady if he stiffened the muscles.
She pulled the bowl back. “I’m going to leave you. We just want to know more about your world. You can talk to me or you can talk to Amel. I just want to know more. He has other interests.”
Have no fear, tiny child. Have no fear. Sleep in peace. Have no fear.
He had still been a cuddler, lying beside his mother, with legs that hadn’t learned to walk, when he had first heard the child’s song from the Song of Oro Lar Orona. His mother had crooned it to him while he pressed against her side. His father had joined her in duets when he was lying near.
Oro Lar Orona had been captured by the tree people when his own first child had been a cuddler. Oro and two of his huntfriends had just made a good kill, according to the song. And high above them, in the trees, a party of tree people slave takers had trailed them as they hunted. Dartblowers had pricked them with darts tipped with paralyzing poisons. Oro had been hauled into the trees in a net. His huntfriends had been yoked to sleds and driven away by the whippers riding on each sled.
The tree people had crouched on branches beside the net. “You will tell us where your wives and children lie,” the leader of the slave takers said.
Oro knew they had marked him for this trial because he was smaller than his huntfriends, and not as clever. Their dinner had almost slipped past him when it had charged in his direction. He had slowed it with a clumsy slash at its hindquarters and the fastest runner in their trio had headed it off before it could limp away. When people talked about Oro they always said he tried hard. Most of the food at his wedding feast had carried the claw marks of his huntfriends.
In the song of Oro the words of the slave takers were always sung in the high modes, in imitation of the shrieking voices of the tree people. The descriptions of Oro’s responses were sung in Middle Resonant. There were no speeches in Oro’s sections. The slave takers hung the remnants of his body from a branch and his wife sang the children’s song at the end, when the slavers had given up and gone away.
Why hadn’t the slavers merely hunted for the wife and child? They must have known they couldn’t be far away. Why hadn’t they waited until Oro and his huntfriends had pulled their kill to the hiding place?
The itiji had a thousand songs with stories like Oro’s. Oro was a hero of gliad—one of the oldest words in the itiji languages. Philosophers had defined it almost as many times as itiji had shouted it at their friends and inserted it in prayers to the gods, but the stories carried all the definition you needed. Look after your kin and your friends. Die for your kin and your friends. Live for your kin and your friends.
And Golva always asked the same kind of questions. All the stories had flaws, in his opinion. They had all been arranged—or rearranged—so they told you the same idea.
Why weren’t there more stories about itiji who discovered new things? Or thought new thoughts? Why didn’t someone make a song about a thinker like Laga Ven Duvo? Shouldn’t there be a song about the woman who had first worked out the rules of multiplication?
The tree people hunted the itiji and turned them into slaves because they had hands. They could make dartblowers and nets. And sleds that could haul things if you could make someone pull them.
Every itiji knew the story Harold the Human had told. Some of the details had probably changed as it passed around, but the central path could be trusted. The humans had come here from another world—from the places beyond the sky some of the philosophers had argued for. They had seen the towers of the tree people while they were still circling the sky and realized someone already lived on this world. They had landed on the plateau, above the steep cliffs, and made a camp. Harold and some of the other humans had quarreled. There had been fights. Harold and Joanne had left the plateau and ventured into the world below.
Humans had died in the fights on the plateau. Humans could kill. They had powers and weapons stronger than anything the tree people had dreamed of. And they were willing to use them. Amel Detterman had proved that.
“He can understand us,” Amel Detterman said. “He can understand every word we’re saying.”
“I’ll try it again,” Leza said. “The two people who left here were named Harold Lizert and Joanne Hamilton. Have you heard those names? Do you know those people?”
Amel Detterman was holding the little stick. Two men with guns had taken up positions that gave them a full view of the stall.
“No one is going to harm you,” Leza said. “Or them. We’re a small group on a strange world. We want to understand the—people who live here.”
“You’ve got nothing to lose,” Amel Detterman said. “Just give us some information. What are you trying to hide?”
“Did you come here by yourself? Were you supposed to report to someone when you left here?”
The gate swung open. Amel Detterman stepped into the stall with the stick hanging by his side. The two men moved things on their guns.
Leza had covered her mouth with the closed hand humans called a fist. Golva couldn’t decipher the emotions on her face but he could see the tension in her body.
What difference did it make when he talked? No one could endure that fire forever.
A huge wail filled the stall—his own voice responding before he even knew the wail was welling up through all the feelings that wracked his mind. He launched himself at Amel Detterman’s face with his mouth wide and his front claws poised to strike.
Fire tore through him. A gun roared. Amel Detterman stumbled backward with his arm sheltering his head.
“We have things we can put on that wound. I don’t know if you understand the concept of germs. But you should know what happens when wounds get dirty. We can keep that from happening.”
He was lying on his side against the back of the stall. They had flamed him until he lost consciousness and tied him to a hook in the wall with a metal leash. The shot had opened a flat ugly hole in his right rear leg. He could still move the leg but he knew she was right. Things would happen to the meat of his leg. They could happen even when you washed a wound.
They had left him alone with Leza again. He could see the pattern. Leza said friendly things and talked like she was trying to protect him. And Amel came and hurt him.
“Can you tell me your name? Can you at least tell me that? You know my name.”
Was she only playing a part? Did she have feelings he could speak to? Harold the Human was a fighter but he and Joanne had helped the itiji fight the tree people. He likes to hurt, Leza had said. Did that mean she thought that was something that made Amel different from other humans?
“. . . Golva.”
“Golva? Just Golva?”
“Hello, Golva. My name is Leza. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He stared at her. He had been playing debate games and riddle games since the noises coming from the people around him had first started to make sense. He had always been good at the games that required facts and fast thoughts. And bad at the games that depended on your guesses about the feelings of the other people.
But she couldn’t decipher his feelings either, could she? He was just as strange to her as she was to him.
“We call ourselves humans. As a group. Do you have a name for your group?”
“So you’re Golva the itiji?”
“The language we’re speaking is called English. We have other languages. Do you have other languages?”
“We have hundreds. Some people say thousands. Do you have that many?”
“I don’t know.”
“We call our language English because the group of people who started it were called English. The French speak a language called French. The Chinese, a language called Chinese. Do you have groups like that? With their own languages?”
“We have many languages . . . from different places.”
Her face changed. The fur over her eyes formed big arches.
“Can you tell me the names of any of those languages? Do they have names?”
The change in her face obviously meant something. He had done something that provoked a reaction. Had he said too much? Had he told her something important?
“What’s the name of the language you usually speak?”
He tried to think up an imaginary name and discovered he was staring at a fog. How long had it been since they had let him sleep?
He actually spoke five languages regularly, depending on what he was doing. Telitil was the least important—the language people used for jokes. The most important, for him, was Vakadu—the language of logical thought and strict analysis of number problems.
“Golva the itiji speaks Telitil.”
“And you learned English from the two people who left here, right? From Harold and Joanne? Is that right?”
She lowered her head. Her hands gripped the gate.
He was letting her take the offensive. She spoke, he responded. Was that the best way to play the game?
She had all the advantages. He was tired. His body ached. He knew Amel could return with the flame stick.
Clamp your jaws, his mother would have said. Clamp your jaws. And die like Oro.
“They’re still alive,” he said.
She raised her head. “Thank you.”
“Are they your friends?”
“Jo and I . . . yes.”
“They are both healthy.”
He had to search for the word. He had learned the words and the structure of the language, but he hadn’t learned all the things the words could mean, and he had never used them in a conversation with a human. There was probably a word for the way her face had changed and he had probably memorized the word. But he didn’t know which word went with that look.
“I have a theory about you,” Leza said. “You are obviously a carnivore—a creature who lives by killing and eating other creatures. We have a theory about how life developed on our world. And your world doesn’t seem that different. According to our theory, we started out as hunters. We started using simple weapons and the people who were good at making and using weapons—people with big brains—survived better than the people who weren’t so good. But it doesn’t have to happen that way. Suppose there were hunters who hunted in packs. And called to each other so they could work together. Their calls could develop into real languages. Would that describe what you are? Hunters who’ve developed language so you can hunt in groups?”
Golva’s tail thrashed. The words had poured over him like sheets of blinding rain.
She had worked all that out. From the first three words he had let himself speak. What else could she see?
“Am I right, Golva? Is that what you are?”
“You’re hunters. And you obviously have languages.”
“But you’re here alone.”
His teeth ground together. He stared at her and she waited for him to answer.
“Did someone come with you, Golva?”
Should he let her think he had friends lurking near them? Would they treat him better if they thought he had friends?
“I can’t tell you.”
“Did someone send you?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Those cliffs are very steep. Has any member of your species ever climbed them before?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think they have?”
“Some of them might have.”
“You have explorers? People who go to new places to see what they’re like?”
“How did your head feel? Did it feel strange when you got up here?”
“Did you feel like you were tired? Like you weren’t thinking clearly?”
“. . . at first. Some.”
“How long have you been up here?”
Games ended. You could walk away if you got tired. This just went on. One question after another.
It took him a while to realize he couldn’t protect himself by saying he didn’t know or couldn’t tell her. Everything he did told her something. His mother had been right. You started something you couldn’t control the first time you let your jaws move.
He could smell his wound but he couldn’t see anything crawling on it or flying around it. The building was very clean. The only creatures in it were creatures the humans had brought with them. Harold and Joanne claimed the creatures from their world and the creatures who lived on this world couldn’t eat each other. Harold and Joanne ate animals they had brought with them and plants they grew in their own garden. And a thing they called cheese fungus that absorbed leaves and fruits and turned them into food humans could eat.
How would she know his head would feel strange? Did it still feel strange? Was he just hungry and tired?
He knew he was taking a risk when he started lying. He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly. But what else could he do? She wouldn’t leave him alone. What would he do if she gave up and called Amel back?
“We know your people couldn’t have built the towers. You couldn’t develop the technology. Is there another intelligent species on this planet, Golva?”
“Do they have hands like us? Do they make tools and weapons?”
“They have hands. They make things.”
“Do they go around on two legs like us? So their hands are free?”
That was the first lie. The tree people couldn’t walk like the humans. In the trees, they had to use their hands when they scurried along branches or leaped from branch to branch. On the ground, they had to support themselves on their hands and move in a crouch. They could only wield two-handed tools and weapons when they were standing still. They could hold themselves steady with one hand and swing a war hammer with the other but they couldn’t fight with a two-handed weapon like the bow Harold carried.
“And what kind of tools and weapons do they use? Are they made out of metal? Or stone?”
“They use iron.”
“And what do they call themselves?”
That was the second lie. In all the languages of the itiji, they were called the tree people. Or the tree demons. The Imeten were the tree people who lived in the city of Imeten. Had she noticed when he hesitated?
“It must be interesting having two intelligent species living in the same area, Golva. You must have interesting conversations.”
“We do things for them. They do things for us.”
“You trade with them?”
“They help us with their tools. And we know things about the forest—about the things that live there.”
“You understand the animals and their ways? And the plants?”
“And they help you hunt? With their weapons?”
It was an idea he had thought about. Harold had led the itiji into a partnership with the Imetens but it was a war union. The itiji were helping the Imetens fight the tree people from the city of Drovil. The Drovils had already conquered three of the tree people cities on the Great River, and wanted the Imeten iron mine.
But why did they have to limit themselves to war? The itiji didn’t have weapons and tools, but they knew more. They understood the intricate, endlessly fascinating ways in which the living things in the forest affected each other. They had been studying the world around them for as long as their mouths had been shaping words. And passing their discoveries from generation to generation.
And they had number. The tree people had number, too, but they had just begun to understand it. They might have axes that could lop off branches and heads, but they had never worked out the relationship between the sides of a three-sided figure. They had never devised the beautiful, cunning procedures that described the way things changed as time pushed forward.
What could you do if you joined the hands of the tree people with the minds of the itiji? Cut this, an itiji would say. Dig there. And the hands of the tree people and the thoughts of the itiji would create a world that would be just as wonderful as the world the humans came from.
He had tried to describe his vision to his friends and kin and stumbled into the same tangles he usually fell into when he explained his best ideas. His words would come out in a flood, torrents of words tumbling all over each other while his tail thrashed like he was trying to make it blur, and the people he had approached would start drifting away. Or act like they were listening and pester him with responses that proved they hadn’t heard half his arguments.
His two oldest uncles had asked him for a full account of his plan and smothered him with objections when he finished. Did he really think the tree people would pay attention to the thoughts of the itiji? The tree people only understood war and weapons and the things they could make with their hands. To the tree people, the itiji were bodies that could understand their orders—bodies they could put to work hauling iron on sleds and pulling on the ropes that hauled water into the trees. The Imetens had only formed an alliance with the itiji because Harold the Human had fought a duel to the death, according to the customs of their city, and convinced the Imetens their goddess wanted them to accept the itiji as equals.
Leza listened while he let the words flow, describing the world he had dreamed as if it really existed. Sometimes her head moved up and down. Sometimes the fur over her eyes—her eyebrows according to the lexicon stored in his memory—formed arches that were so big the skin on her forehead wrinkled.
“So you and these tree people cooperate? You have a single society?”
“We work together. And we both benefit.”
“What do Harold and Joanne do? How have they fitted in?”
“They’re our guests . . . they can do things we and the tree people can’t do.”
“Did they tell you about us? Did they tell you we’re here?”
“Did they tell you why they left here?”
He hesitated. He had felt like he was singing when he had told her his dream. He had almost believed it was true. Now the energy had slipped away. His head felt as heavy as a rock.
“Harold said he wanted to explore the forest.”
Her eye fur moved again. She rested against the gate and stared at the floor.
She pulled a flat thing out of her clothes and moved her finger across it. “Can you see this?”
He had paid special attention to the words associated with number and logic when he had learned her language. The three-sided figure she had drawn on the flat thing was called a triangle. The figures projecting from each side were called squares.
“I can see it.”
“Do you know what it means?”
“The square on the slanted side—on the diagonal—is the same size as the other two squares added together.”
“So you aren’t lying about that. You really have developed the kind of intellectual tools the kind of society you’re talking about should have developed.”
“We don’t have hands like you do. We can’t make things. But we can think just as well as you. And the tree people.”
“And you can probably remember things better than we can. I suspect you could store whole libraries in your head if you lived long enough.”
“Can you tell me what it means when you move your head up and down like you just did?”
She stared at him. His skin cringed. Had he made a mistake? Would she call Amel Detterman back?
“Can you tell me why your tail moved so much when you were telling me about your relations with the Imeten?”
“My tail moves a lot when I talk . . . some of us are like that.”
“But it moved a lot more then. You talked faster, too. You gave me the feeling you were more excited.”
And why should he become excited if he was describing something that had become a normal aspect of life? Was that what she was suggesting?
“We don’t have different intelligent species,” Leza said. “But we have humans with different attitudes—different cultures and languages. Don’t you and the Imetens sometimes have disagreements? Conflicts?”
She had made a mistake. She might be playing against an opponent who was hungry and frightened, but she could still make mistakes—and he could still spot them when they scurried out of the mist.
She hadn’t waited for him to say something. She had told him what she was thinking—what she expected to hear.
“We have disagreements. But we manage to settle them.”
“When I nod—when I move my head like this—sometimes it means I agree with you. And sometimes it just means I’m listening.”
She opened her mouth, with the ends turned upward. “And this is called a smile. Sometimes it means I’m being friendly. And sometimes it means I think something is funny. Like I may think it’s funny that I didn’t really help you that much when I told you what a nod means.”
Leza was standing in front of the gate with Amel Detterman behind her. They had fed him once since she had left him alone but his stomach still felt tense. They had fed the Earth creatures in the other stalls at least twice but he knew he had drifted into a haze. The spheres in the ceiling never stopped glowing. There was no way he could judge the push of time by the trek from day to night.
Amel pushed the gate open. He stopped a long leap from Golva’s claws—further than the reach of the metal leash.
“You and these Imetens have a nice arrangement. You get along just like you were all one big happy family. Is that right?”
“Yes. We have disagreements but—”
“But you work them out. And you all work together for the common good.”
Amel had pulled the flame stick out of his clothes. Leza had stepped through the open gate. Her hands had curled into tight little balls.
“You knew our rifles were weapons. You’d seen something like them. And I don’t think you were too surprised when this hit you. You might have been surprised by the thing itself. But were you surprised somebody would do that to you? Was that a surprise, Mr. Golva? What are you running away from?”
“I came here to see what you had up here. I wanted to see if the stories were true.”
“All by yourself? Nobody else on your whole world wanted to take a look? The wonderful brotherhood of itiji and Imetens couldn’t organize a delegation and welcome a third intelligent species to your great peaceful union?”
“It’s a long climb. I wanted to be first.”
“You wanted an adventure,” Leza said.
Amel waved the stick at Leza. “Be quiet, Leza.”
“I wanted to see,” Golva said. “I wanted to climb up here and see it myself.”
“You already know what this thing feels like. How do you think it will feel if I apply a jolt to that wound?”
Amel swung around. His balled up left hand stabbed at Leza’s mouth.
Leza’s arm moved. The edge of her right hand struck at Amel’s wrist. The bottom of her right foot slammed into his body.
Amel staggered back. Leza had moved so fast Golva wasn’t sure he had seen everything she had done. It seemed to him she had somehow raised her knee up to her chest and pushed her foot straight at Amel’s stomach.
The fire stick leaped out. Leza gasped and Amel pressed the button again and put her on the floor. He rested the tip on her neck and she curled into a ball and screamed.
He stood over her with the flame stick poised for another attack. “You should have thought that through, Leza. I still control the guns. You may know a lot of fancy moves but I still control the guns.”
Amel backed through the gate. “I’ll let you and your pet think for awhile. Make sure you’re still here when I get back.”
“Are you his slave?” Golva said.
Leza had struggled across the floor and rested her back against the wall. Her body should have regained its strength if she reacted to the stick the way he did. It was the memory that stayed with you.
“You understand that word?” Leza said.
Her response caught him by surprise. He had added the word to his English vocabulary without thinking about its significance. All the words for slave in the itiji languages came from tree people languages. The itiji had never had a word for it. You couldn’t control other people like that if you couldn’t make swords and dartblowers.
The humans had a word for it. So the humans must have the thing itself.
“Would you like to leave here, Doctor Leza?”
“And go to that wonderful place you described?”
“Your friends are there. You could live with them.”
“And take you with me, right? I can just drag you along. Or do you think you can walk on three legs?”
“It hurts. But I think I can walk. I haven’t broken any bones.”
“And how do we get down the cliff?”
“You have hands. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“And what will I do when I get there? Live in a hut? Die of some strange disease? Become a slave?”
Golva stared at the floor. Was this a trap? Had they shammed a quarrel so he would trust her and tell her the truth?
Amel had deliberately touched her on her bare skin the third time he had flamed her. Her face had changed color when she writhed on the floor. The blow she had delivered with her foot had looked like it could have killed most of the small animals he had eaten.
“It isn’t like I said. Not yet. But you wouldn’t be a slave. You’d be someone important. Like your friends.”
“Why did you come here, Golva? Who sent you?”
“I came by myself. To see. I was telling the truth when I said that.”
“How long did it take you to learn our language?”
Numbers floated through his mind. He had learned their number system but he still had to think before he made the conversion.
“Two hundred and twenty-three days.”
“You learned it from Jo and Harold?”
“From people who’ve learned it. We have languages like it—thing acts on thing.”
“And other languages that are different?”
“He’s going to ask me what you’ve said when he comes back, Golva.”
“And you’ll have to tell him.”
“If you’re still here.”
“And what happens if I go running around in the woods with Jo and Harold and damage one of my more important body parts?”
“Would you rather stay here and let him do that again?”
Someday he would know what all her gestures and facial changes meant. He was compiling a catalog, just as he had compiled a catalog for his own people, when he had realized he had to decipher their feelings. But now he just had the catalog. He still didn’t know what it meant when she moved her shoulders and made two little humps beside her neck.
“I’ll tell you the truth. We have two talking species, just like I said. But the other species is called the tree people. The Imetens are just one city of the tree people—the tree people who live in the city of Imeten. The tree people have hands like you. But they can’t walk like you on the ground. They have tools and weapons and they capture itiji and make them slaves. Harold made weapons for us—weapons we can use. He helped us fight the Imetens. He made the Imetens believe their goddess wants us to be their equals. Now we’re helping the Imetens fight another city that’s trying to conquer them—a city that’s already conquered three other cities.”
She stared at him. Her eyebrows acquired a compressed look. As if she was forcing them down.
“You claim Harold and Jo did all that?”
“I’m telling you the truth. You can join us. I can call for help as soon as we reach the bottom of the cliff.”
Her head moved up and down. “Harold put up a terrible fight when Amel and his gang took over. I can’t see him running around in the woods fighting wars, but I never thought he’d fight the way he did then either.”
“Amel is coming back. He’ll flame me again. He could flame you.”
“Can’t you tell him the truth? What difference will it make?”
“I don’t know what it will do. I don’t know what he’ll do if he knows the truth.”
She covered her face with her hands. As if she was trying to hide from what she could see.
“Are you trying to hide?” Golva said.
“I’m trying to think. Do your people always ask questions like that?”
“I’m trying to understand what you feel.”
“It’s something we do when we’re trying to think. Sometimes. I guess I am blocking out the world. You’d do it too if somebody threw this much at you all at once.”
“I don’t have hands.”
She lowered her hands. “Are all your people so logical?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Are you typical? Are you unusual? I need to understand you, too.”
“People act like I’m unusual. I think other people are more emotional.”
“And you came here by yourself. But now you’re hiding the truth from Amel because you’re afraid he’ll use it to harm your people?”
She pulled her knees closer to her chest. He watched her push herself up the wall until she was standing erect.
“I don’t know what he’ll do,” Leza said. “But you’re probably right. The less he knows, the better.”
She had him stand up before she did anything. He showed her he could hobble. She crouched beside him and looked at the wound.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with that,” Leza said. “Some of the shot should probably be removed. I can put a clean cover over it when we get a chance. But I can’t tell you much more.”
Her hands freed him from the collar in seconds. “If I don’t come back—what you do will be up to you. But try to wait. Give me time. Have you got some way of measuring time?”
“I can count my heartbeats.”
“You’re willing to lie there and do that?”
She held the flat thing in front of her eyes and rested her hand on the side of his neck. “Hold still . . . we’ll call it forty beats per minute. Not bad. Count to two thousand. Give me at least that much.”
He counted out the first two hundred beats by ones. Then he switched to threes for the second two hundred. Squares helped him get through the third. One. Four. Nine. Sixteen. Twenty-five.
For the last two hundred he counted backward to zero by the number system Taja Av Ralo had invented when he tried to develop a set of rules that would describe the exact shape of a laroo bush in full flower. His heartbeat speeded up as he approached the end so he counted upward for an extra two hundred. With his eyes squeezed closed.
She had untwisted the metal that held the gate closed. He could pull the gate open with his teeth anytime he wanted to. But what would he do then? She had left the main door unlocked but he would have to struggle to get it open. And limp, exhausted, into a landscape crowded with dangers.
Footsteps thumped down the floor. He opened his eyes and saw Amel and one of his gun shooters standing in front of the gate.
The shooter jerked his head around. He turned toward the main door and raised his gun. The big noise battered on the walls.
The shooter stumbled backward as he jerked a movable part on his gun. Something strange shot past the gate—a slab, like a gray sled, with a seat near the front where Leza was crouching over a set of colored lights.
Golva rose to his feet. Amel had pushed open the gate and backed into the stall. He glanced at Golva and stepped out of the stall with his flame stick pointed at the slab.
Golva lurched across the stall on three legs. The slab had looked like a sled but it didn’t seem to be sliding across the floor; it seemed to him he hadn’t seen anything except air between the slab and the floor. . . .
He couldn’t get his teeth around Amel’s leg but he could grip the muscle in the back of the lower leg, just like he would grip the muscle of a velagar, and bear down through the thick clothes that covered it. He couldn’t taste the blood and the skin but he could shake his head back and forth and make the two legged hurter fight for his balance. And feel some of the pain the human’s ugly mind liked to create.
Fire raged through Golva’s body—as he had known it probably would. His legs folded at the first surge. He held on, fighting to keep Amel distracted as long as possible, until the pain made his jaws spasm open.
Figures moved in the haze above him. He raised his head and saw Leza kicking and pummeling. Amel had doubled over and fallen back but this time she didn’t stop hammering him. The flame stick fell out of Amel’s hand and she kicked him until he was huddling on the floor with his hands clutching his stomach.
She picked up the flame stick. “Can you get on the sled, Golva? Can you pull yourself up?”
Golva stared at the slab. The sleds the tree people used dragged along the ground. The carts Harold and Joanne had given the Imetens rolled along on wooden wheels. The vehicles he had seen when he had watched the settlement had moved by themselves, with humans sitting on them the way Leza had sat on this thing, but they had rested on wheels, too.
He forced himself up. Leza was aiming the flame stick at Amel. The gun shooter was sprawled across the floor in front of the sled. His gun was lying on the sled, in the long flat space behind the seat.
“I can get most of me on it. If you could give me a push.”
Copyright © 2012 by Tom Purdom