Planet Maya: 300
Ambling near the border of civilization, their projections began to fail. He was a little taller than she was. His hair was curlier. Their eartips became rounded. Their shoes crumbled as the force fields that managed kinaesthetic interaction between projection and real objects failed. The physical objects actually on their feet simply weren’t designed to withstand the crush of a human body.
They laughed together and leaned against a tree to pick off the pieces.
“Seriously,” she began. “Were you really on the way to Annie Gracious, or did you decide to follow me?”
Without projection, he could see her blush as she asked.
At the strange pleasure and surprise in his eyes, she looked down at her feet and concentrated on pulling little bits of adhesive from between her toes.
What delightful, elegant, strong toes they were! She probably actually walked barefoot, even in civilization. He realized she had asked him something. “What?” he asked stupidly.
She smiled and flicked a bit of adhesive toward him. “Were you really already on the way to Annie Gracious?” Her eyebrow went wicked. “Maybe you need a Reading for a questionable Expansion already in progress?”
She wants to know if I’m attached!
He grinned. “No. I – had a paper – I had a check, had to check.”
“You’re editing.” Her fists on her hips proclaimed her opinion of people who edited in her presence.
He wasn’t very good at editing anyway. “I study astrophysics. I think the Apocalypse is real and I need to talk to Annie Gracious about it.”
“Ah,” she answered. “You must know my brother Greth.”
“Know him? He’s my room mate. He’s my lab partner. We wrote the paper together.”
“Interesting he didn’t tell Xochi about you. Though he does tend to edit, especially about other people’s contributions to his accomplishments.”
He heard a tiny dose of baby sister bitterness in her voice. Knowing Greth, it was totally justified. He let it pass. Now he knew why editing made her mad, too. Good. “So you’re going for a Reading about a questionable Expansion already in progress, yes?” He knew her answer was no. He just had to poke.
He wants to know if I’m attached!
She frowned. “No. Not at all. Not ever.” She realized she’d just answered a lot more than he’d asked. ‘Not ever’ was very unusual at her age. She changed the subject. “Greth told Xochi, Xochi asked me to ask Annie Gracious.”
“So we’re on the same mission.”
She pondered. “Yes,” she answered and resumed picking irrelevant bits of glue off her toes.
Here on the edge of civilization, wild plants grew. Small capped wooden bowls about as big as a fingertip littered the grass around them. La’ii rolled the last dab of glue between her fingers and investigated the tree canopy above her. The little bowls were on the branches, too.
Leor followed her line of sight. “Mr.Tupper brought us out here once. These are acorns. Seeds of this tree. He said they’re edible.” Leor had a particularly sticky bit of glue and crushed plastic on his heel. He bent and twisted trying to get at it.
La’ii was trying and failing to keep a straight face. She studied the acorns. “What do they taste like?”
“We didn’t try any. We-”
He fell over in the grass.
A noisy whoop of laughter burst out, embarrassing La’ii. She wasn’t used to absolutely no projection at all. “We should try some. May I help you with that?” She reached toward his heel, still comically bent up toward his face though he was on his back on the ground. She stopped when she felt the warmth of his skin, just shy of touching him.
Eyes exactly her color met hers. “Please,” he said.
She had delicate fingers and precise, carefully groomed nails. They scratched experimentally, finding the best balance between enough pressure to get the glue and gentility.
Something in him went absolutely dizzy, like tumbling in a wave pool. The rest of him glossed over it, instead wondering what kind of person actually groomed their nails? Except for hygiene, there simply wasn’t a need. It was like their real clothes (except the shoes, obviously), their minimal projections, and their truth ratio coding.
She’d flicked off the last bit of glue. His mind was clearly wandering. She dropped her hand and picked up an acorn. She turned it, marveling at the smooth lower surface and the intricate layers of tiny chevrons on the rough cap. The tiny stem must have let nutrients flow from the tree to the seed like an umbilical cord, though she could see no tubules or vesicles at its end. Her mind drifted toward coding its textures, maybe animating the tiny chevrons.
Leor sat up. Her mind was clearly wandering. She held an acorn in one hand; the fingers of her other hand trailed absently in the grass.
“Share it with you,” he said.
“What?”, she asked, blinking out of her reverie.
His smile lit up again. “Want to share the acorn? I think there’s a soft part inside. I think we have to crack it open.”
“Have you ever eaten grown food?”
“No, but the Loonies do all the time. Mr. Tupper was fairly certain it was safe.”
“Did you see him eat it?”
The seed rested in her hand, an enigma.
He leaned toward her and bumped her shoulder with his familiarly. “You really couldn’t code this.”
“I was just thinking of how to get these lovely little ridges on the cap and the way the shell reflects the light from the tree bark and the light from the grass differently.”
“I mean all of it,” he offered. “I mean this lavender sky and this soft grass and this breeze in your hair framing your face and all of that reflected in your eyes and your expression.”
She met his gaze frankly. “No. I really couldn’t code this.” She put the acorn in her teeth and bit. She spit it back in her palm, grimacing. “We’re going to have to hit this with a rock.”
A soft step fell behind them. They gasped as if they’d been caught in the act of Expansion.
“Those taste a lot better cooked,” someone said.
Planet Maya: Year 300
La’ii had never seen a projection like it. It was close to a Yeti, but regular human sized. It had fur all over in goldens and browns and silvers. Each color seemed to have a different texture and length. The pattern brindled in swirls all over its lithe, muscular body. She had an urge to pet that felt almost shameful.
The face was fuzzy, but looked mostly human. Its small breasts might indicate it was female, if the human analogy applied. It certainly had patterns of longer and thicker hair where humans in their natural states had longer and thicker hair. It had a mane of sorts from its crown down its neck to below its shoulders. It didn’t seem to have any clothes at all, though there may have been subtle arrays of fiber and glints of stone worked into the fur. Or it might have just been playing in the dirt. The skin of its face showed beneath the finer fur there. A goatee extended its chin. It had fingernails and toenails. It carried a wooden pole on its back slung with an intricate spider-woven chest strap. The chiseled arms hung relaxed at its sides, hands curved carelessly.
Leor caught up first. “Nice code! How do you get your projection to work this far out?”
It showed bright strong teeth with huge canines. It made a noise combined of huffing and growling.
La’ii and Leor reached for each other’s hands.
It had spoken, hadn’t it? They stood their ground.
“The acorns.” It pointed. “They really do taste better cooked. Though compared to that paste you people eat, raw might not be too bad, either.” It gr-huffed again and held out a furry hand. The tiny lines of palmprint held darker lines of grime. It was either truly immaculate coding or possibly real.
La’ii realized it was laughing, not growling. She managed to stick out her hand. The furry person shook it.
“I’d like to get you two to a better campsite before dark. It will take another day to get to Annie Gracious and there are krav out here. Do you need to eat now, or can you wait a bit? There are a few nice things we can collect on the way, and I have stores to share at camp.”
“Leor,” he said dubiously, offering his hand. The furry person shook it, too.
“Brrda. Silverback custodian. At your service.” The mane flicked as it bowed to them.
Leor returned the bow. La’ii copied him and gave her name.
“Nice to meet you both. Annie Gracious has told me all about you.”
“I don’t think Annie Gracious knows us, yet. We hardly know us yet.” La’ii looked at Leor, who agreed with a dumbfounded nod.
Brrda rolled lavender eyes. “You civilized people are so literal and linear.” It turned; La’ii saw the burnished wooden staff in its spider silk sling. There were obviously long years of handling in it.
Leor glanced at La’ii now that the creature person had turned away. Wait to eat? La’ii nodded assent.
“Good,” Brrda said without turning. “We have a long way to go, and acorns take hours.”
They followed it, literally bewildered.
Over the River and Through the Woods
Planet Maya: Year 300
Did you just hear me thinking? They asked each other simultaneously.
Obviously so. They answered.
Brrda felt them falling into a maelstrom of mutual amazement and admiration. Whe rolled wher eyes internally. For wher, this communication was a three dimensional thought construct in physical space via sound waves and psychic modeling. In the image, a local bird cocked its head in curiosity at a comical, possibly tasty insect mating dance.
Leor asked, “Brrda, was that a growl?”
Brrda didn’t turn. Brrda didn’t speak. Brrda said, Whe heard you both.
La’ii and Leor turned to each other, then hustled to catch up with Brrda.
It had a tiny amused quirk to its mouth. “Loud and clear. For humans, you two have active minds. Annie Gracious may be right about you.”
“What is she right about since she doesn’t know us, doesn’t know the problem, and doesn’t know we’re coming to talk to her?” La’ii was feeling the need to be didactic.
“Whe?” asked Leor.
Brrda grinned, incisors gleaming. “She does know you, the problem, and that you are coming. She sent me to collect you.” Looking at Leor, “When you refer to yourself, you say, ‘I’. When whe refer to wherself, whe say, ‘whe’. When others refer to wher, whe prefer the same form. Whe wasn’t growling.”
Wher smile was less soothing than whe intended it. Those canines flashed. Leor quailed a bit, suddenly seeing bones crunch between them. He felt wher mind press upon his gently. He saw the image of his fear like a projection that effectively diminished her truth ratio. He dropped it, and sought to see wher clearly.
He and La’ii rocked back on their heels simultaneously as a shimmering outline of a curious sparrow suddenly hung in the air before them, then dispersed. Both agape, one of them managed, “Brrda?”
“Whe have a way of communicating images with a combination of sound and disciplined visualization. Most civilized people don’t have the wiring to perceive it. The meaning is in the shape of the waves in space and not the growl itself. What your ears hear is only a tiny part of it. Whe am pleased you recognized it as any kind of communication at all. Well done.”
“Hang on!” La’ii stopped in the road. “Leor, check me on this. We’re psychic, it is a whe, Annie Gracious expects us, and whe can hear us thinking but we can’t hear….” She struggled.
“Wher,” offered Brrda.
“…wher psychic projections very clearly?”
He smiled. “Completely accurate. Hug?”
Brrda repressed a snort as he cocked his head like wher bird and held out his arms to La’ii. He was definitely impressionable. Interesting.
“Hold my hand while I adjust to reality?” La’ii counter-offered, and he felt each ridge in her fingerprints brush his own as their metacarpals entwined.
Brrda gruffed. “Whe have a long walk. Do what you can to keep your minds clear. Stay alert.”
Neither asked what they should be alert for. Those metacarpals were seriously distracting.
Planet Maya: Year 300
La’ii had had it. They’d been walking past four klicks already, over twice the entire length of town, in silence. La’ii’s thoughts, in that silence, started to get rather disorganized. There was Leor’s hand in hers. But he’d started tensing his arm in the rough spots on the trail, as if to help her up. But she didn’t need help, and frankly, having to balance with him tugging on her made the task harder. Plus of course, the implicit assumption of partnership was so glitching obvious – at least for the mission or whatever it was this was turning into – and she wasn’t going to get dragged in to an early (ok, it wouldn’t be too early in conventional eyes but way too early for her) Expansion over a glitching coincidence, for Sappho’s sake! Her heart panicked at the idea of parenting and giving up her life before she’d begun it for some scrap of future genealogy she hadn’t even met yet, then it strangled her with the idea of not touching the the palm that met hers and the infusion of life it represented, which of course, when she heard herself think it, sounded almost like a dirty joke and sent her swimming back to Point A.
A brown brindle custodian, life wrapped around a golden tiger striped infant nursing in wher arms.
Internally, La’ii accepted an invitation to feel the scene. It seemed like some psychic etiquette about consent Brrda was teaching.
Externally, she stopped in her tracks, which confused Leor, which confused La’ii, since weren’t they suddenly all psychic with each other? Which irked her a bit, like an invasion of privacy. I mean, who’d want to live completely in somebody else’s head all the time, sweaty palms or not for glitching Daniel’s glitching sake!
…Nursing in wher arms.. pressed Brrda, just enough to distract La’ii from the mental whirlpool. La’ii followed the thought.
Leor took a step back on the path as Brrda’s laughing eyes held La’ii’s.
…Tiny, sharp teeth and a greedy mouth latched on wher nipple, life bursting from wher body into this shining seedling life.
La’ii’s explosion of deeply mixed emotions knocked her to her knees, but Leor valiantly caught her on the way down in the silliest fainting violet stereotype ever. Brrda purred reassurance and wher eyes were so kind and attentive to La’ii that Leor simply rested her back on the earth and watched from his haunches a few feet away.
Internally, La’ii put her awareness inward and discovered she was feeling a custodian body. Yes, primal yin yang of pleasure and pain in nursing. A dim, distant awareness of her personal disgust and its complete irrelevance to her true animal nature. Yes, a stretched body and aching limbs. Yes, those those swirls and bands of textures were sweet to pet. A strange, illuminating sexiness was the literal parent of parental love. A full bladder, which was normal to notice when feeding was almost over. Feeding delayed every other urge, but they rushed back in their turn. Something in the body was different from La’ii’s. Something fundamental. Bladder, conscious effort to hold… There was definitely a difference in plumbing. La’ii’s custodian body had a full set, both types. This was natural and normal for custodians, as was the seasonal and volitional fluctuation in their relative sizes and shapes, as were double females and double males.
Externally, La’ii’s eyes popped open. Leor’s relief flooded when her eyes showed comprehension and drained when a strange unfathomable wisdom flashed within. Then she grinned. She pointed like a toddler telling on her brother and commanded, “Show him!”
Brrda snarled and yelped in an alarming sound Leor later learned was custodian for a piggy-snort guffaw.
Then it hit him.
Leor opened his eyes, and found himself blinking up at La’ii.
“You passed out, too,” she smiled.
He sat up. “Hold on.”
Brrda made a sound like a cat purring while chomping a squirrel’s head. This was a repressed snicker, but the hairs on the back of Leor’s neck stood up nonetheless.
Plaintive, he begged. “Why?”
More of that squirrel-chomping sound. “I really shouldn’t be poking you two like this. But after hearing you think at each other all day, I couldn’t stand it.”
Plaintive, she begged. “What?”
“Both of you broadcasting all your fear and hope and crazy civilized ideas about parenting and gender all over the atmosphere all day long while maintaining rickety blinders between you. Absolutely maddening. Plus, from what Annie Gracious says, you two have a bigger stew to stir than who does the midnight feedings or custodian physiology.”
Wher mane hackled up the slightest bit, as did a convergence of vertical brindle lines below wher navel. She licked her chops and snapped her jaws.
“The point was the payoff of parenting, to soothe you. The physiological differences were,” she showed empty palms and shrugged, “incidental.”
La’ii folded her arms. “I am not soothed.”
Leor hadn’t got past transitive multiple gender identities yet.
Brrda growled. “Annie Gracious warned whe. Look, whe don’t know enough about the big picture to explain it. But you two are entangled and spinning on an outward path, starting already. Obviously explaining created another problem. Interacting with civilized people is not my usual custodial task. If whe keep moving, whe can get to camp before nightfall. Talking might help quiet that spiralling mental chatter. Questions?”
Leor and La’ii got up, dusted off, and gestured for Brrda to lead.
“You start,” he offered La’ii.
She put her hands on her hips. “How come there are no custodians when we walk for Readings? How come there are no krav?”
A lean, strong finger marked a missed point. The brindle here was more ash and silver. “There are both. During those seasons, custodians keep the path clear of krav so civilized people can walk unconcerned. Readings are important, and ignorance of the world beyond the enclos- beyond the towns shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
“We haven’t seen a creature all day,” observed Leor.
Another hissing purr. “You haven’t seen a creature all day. Whe have seen many. There is a pack of krav pacing wher now. They’re too patient and cautious as hunters to attack wher in daylight. Alone, you’d be crunchy by now.” She flashed those teeth again.
They glanced around them, seeking sign of krav.
An approving snarl rolled over Brrda’s lip. They were finally beginning to look around them. “Krav usually move behind the third line of trees. They watch your line of vision and only shift when your attention is away. Their hides color shift in camouflage. Whe’ll be more surprised if you see them than when you saw wher bird.”
“What are whe custodian of, exactly?” To La’ii, this expanse of grass and distant trees was empty.
“My pride, the group you call “Loonies”, and Maya. Though whe don’t work alone.”
Huff-grrr. “Family pride. A group living closely with shared hunting and parenting roles.”
Leor questioned, “The Loonies need custodians?”
A furry shrug. “All humans do.”
“Do we?” she asked.
That snarling peal of laughter again. “Small founding population on a different planet from which your species developed with minimal wilderness experience and fissured cultures? Yes, you do.” Wher eyes flicked to the line of trees and a ripple of raised fur traveled up wher mane to the crown of wher head. “No more talking. Walk in front of wher, chests high, eyes on the trail. Whe will send you images of grilled meat. Concentrate and keep moving. If you break and run, they will attack. Whe have weapons work to do here, and if you lag you might get brained.”
Wher heavy, polished staff gleamed in wher hands; the intricate woven strap tied at wher waist. Whe wooshed it once with wher wrist, once with wher elbow, and once with wher shoulder. Whe repeated the process on the left, a warm-up so practiced and effortless whe didn’t seem to notice wherself doing it.
La’ii and Leor’s eyes grew wide together. They did not lag, and they thought of grilled meat. When they each caught a faint outline of motion in their peripheral vision just inside the nearest line of trees, they doubled their hustle and could nearly hear it sizzle.
Brrda’s staff whistled behind them, but they didn’t pause to look.