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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Word Above

Kaya screamed. She frantically pulled herself out of bed, panting. She fought with the sheets, trying to find her rifle. Her dark eyes were wide open and wild, her dark brown skin covered in sweat. It took her a few moments to realize that she was in her bedroom on the coast, and not back in the jungles during the war.

“Home,” she said, as if to reassure herself. It was feeling less and less like home. She took several deep breaths, bringing herself under control and then walked to the window. She stood straight, in a military rest position, and looked out at the sea. As much as the thought terrified her, she missed those jungles from her dreams. And the dreams were getting worse. She needed to do something soon, or she would go mad.

She looked over to her table. The note was still there, from her good friend Thabo. It had invited her to his estates to the south, for a vacation. He worried about her health, and felt that a trip to the south, maybe for a hunt in the plains, would do her some good. She smiled. She hadn’t seen Thabo in years. Maybe a holiday would do her some good.

****

“Colonel!” Thabo shouted, waving as Kaya’s carriage pulled up to his mansion. Though he was only a mile from the city of Tenshibo, his estates were on a grassy hill that made it appear as if it were the only place for miles.

Tenshibo and it’s surrounding territories were currently in the shadow of M’Tibo, the World Above. She looked up at it, and through the clouds could just see the outline of continents and oceans. The other world in the sky had always been there, and her people had always wondered about it. In ancient times, it was believed to be the home of the gods, which is where it got its name. But, about a hundred years ago, a man developed the telescope, and it enabled people to study M’Tibo closely. They saw forests and deserts and lakes and rivers, much like their own world. But they never found signs of habitation, mortal or godly. So it was believed that it was an empty world by modern people. Oh, sure, some still believed it to be the home of the gods, who could remain hidden from the people because they were not ready to see. But, they were rare.

Despite the shade provided by M’Tibo, it was still hot. As a result, Thabo was wearing a simple white vest, embroidered in rich golds and reds, and simple long shorts that tied just below his knees. The white contrasted well against his charcoal, nearly pitch black, skin. He ran down to her and gave her a friendly hug. She kissed him on the cheek, and they smiled at each other.

“I’m so glad you could make it, Colonel,” Thabo said. “I have something very exciting to share with you.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that, Thabo,” she replied. I haven’t been in the army for nearly four years now.”

“Three years and ten full moons tomorrow,” he said. “But who’s keeping track?”

They both laughed. She felt better all ready. A trip to visit Thabo was just what she needed.

“So,” she said as her friend lead her up the drive to the path that lead to the back yard. “What adventure are we going on while I am here? I brought my hunting gear, I was hoping to get a good shot at a Three-Horn while I was here.”

“Oh, I have something more exciting and exotic planned,” Thabo said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. Those words always lead to trouble. When they were kids, it was fun, but as she got older, especially after having served in the army, it was less and less fun and more and more like work to pull his fat out of the fire. Still, Thabo had known her longer than anyone, and as a result knew her heart and mind better than anyone. Even her late husband didn’t know her as well as her best friend. So, she followed, not trusting that this would be fun, but at the same time trusting that Thabo had exactly what she needed.

***

“Okay, Thebo,” Kaya said. “What am I looking at?”

“It’s a hot air balloon!” Thabo said, as if that alone explained everything.

“It looks like a giant, empty water bladder tied to a cage,” Kaya said.

“Funny,” Thabo said, looking at the balloon and stroking his chin. “It does, now that I look at it.”

“Thabo,” Kaya said, bringing her friend back to focus. “Care to explain to me what, exactly, this thing is and what it does?”

“Oh, right,” he said. “Well, when you were in the army, did you ever use those little sky lanterns?”

“Of course,” she said. The small paper lanterns had candles placed in them that allowed them to float in the air, at least as long as the candle burned.

“Well, this was built using the same principle,” he said. “The air in the lantern was heated by the candle, which causes the paper to expand and the air to push it upwards. This does the same thing, only on a bigger scale, and with a fire rather than a candle.”

She raised an eyebrow incredulously.

“No, really,” he said. “Here, look.”

He took her to a table nearby, where several smaller versions of the bladder and cage sat. He picked one up and pointed at the cage.

“People will get inside the protected cage. This one I built to hold my monkey, Kallah,” he pointed to the monkey who was sitting at the end of the table eating a banana. “Now, watch.”

He used a fire starter, aiming at a small oil lantern looking device at the point where the ropes holding the bladder to the cage met. The lantern ignited, sending juts of flame up. It filled the bladder with hot air, which slowly started to rise. Eventually, Thabo let go, and the whole apparatus flew up into the air, held down only be a tether tied to the table.

“Kallah flew for forty five minutes in this,” Thabo said. “And would have stayed longer if the lantern hadn’t run out of fuel.”

“Interesting,” she said, looking up at the thing. “I can see some uses for this as a scouting tool, though it looks horribly vulnerable. Even a poorly aimed shot at that large bladder would destroy the thing, possibly killing your scouts.”

“Ah, true,” Thabo said, looking even more excited. “But that assumes a military application. I plan on using this for exploration.”

“Exploring what?” she asked, and then realized she fell into his trap as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

“Why, M’Tibo, of course,” he said, pointing up.

She looked back up at the World Above. Then, when she looked back at Thabo, her face broke into a broad smile.

***

A few hours later, they were rising into the air. Kaya had her arms gripped to the hand holds inside, but she was looking out the window with a huge grin on her face. This was truly amazing. They were flying! And to top it off, they were going to fly all the way up to M’Tibo. It was exciting, exactly the kind of thing she needed. She felt alive again. A sense of freedom rushed through her as she watched one world recede below them and another come at them from above.

“So,” she said after a few moments, “What’s the plan.”

“Uh... plan?” Thabo replied. He was feeding peanuts to Kallah, and looked confused by her question. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what is it you plan on us doing once we get to M’Tibo?” she said.

“Well, I don’t know that I have a specific plan,” he said. “I mean, I just wanted to be the first person to ever touch foot on M’Tibo. Beyond that, I don’t know... gather some samples of rocks and plant life, maybe bring back an animal for study.”

“Well, I guess it’s a good thing I brought my hunting gear along then,” she said, pointing to her rifle and other gear by the packs on the side of the cabin. It was small, but comfortable, with padded walls, comfortable chairs and windows everywhere. She looked up out one of those windows and could see the World Above around the balloon. It had never looked this big before.

“How long until we get there?” she asked.

“Oh, my guess is several hours,” Thabo replied. “It’s much further off than most people think.”

“So, how do we land?” she asked. “Being that we’ll be upside down when we get there.”

“Oh, that,” he said. “Well, obviously at some point will cross a line where what we now consider up become down. M’Tibo’s down. I assume that at this point, the balloon will flip over and we can then descend towards the surface and land normally.”

“How do you know that?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s been pretty common knowledge for a while now that M’Tibo must have it’s own down,” he said. “I mean, if that weren't the case, why are we not constantly being barraged by falling rocks or trees or animals.”

She blinked. That had never occurred to her.

At five hours, they reached the dividing point, and the balloon tilted. Kaya panicked, trying to push herself out of her chair, but Thabo only told her to stay put and re-check her straps. She did, tightening them, and then sat. The feeling was odd. They were tilting sideways, slowly. Eventually, the entire cabin was sideways. Then, there was a strange feeling of vertigo, and suddenly, sideways was the other way around. They were tilting again, obviously in the same direction they had been going, but now they were tilting back down. A few moments later, and the bottom of the cabin was once again pointed down. She looked out her window, and saw that the World Above was now below them.

“Ha!” Thabo said, looking out his own window. “I knew it!”

“I guess so,” she said. “Will it be the same amount of time to get to the surface?”

“I don’t think so,” Thabo said. “M’Tibo’s a smaller world that ours, so I imagine it’s atmosphere is too. Probably take us only a couple of hours.”

“Well, since we still have time either way, let’s eat.” she said.

They unpacked some of the food they had brought and ate a hearty lunch. Kaya would have preferred some hot tea to go with it, but Thabo hadn’t prepared for that many comforts in the balloon. A few hours later, Thabo went to his special viewing station and played with the controls to find them a suitable landing place. It wasn’t difficult, given that the area they were coming down in was a series of rolling hills and grass. Very few trees were to be seen.

“This is it, Kaya,” he said, the excitement evident in the way his eyes danced. “We’re about to be the first people to touch the ground of M’Tibo.”

He sounded almost reverent. And why not? Even though no one believed the Gods actually lived on the World Above, it had been such a central part of most of the worlds religions that it was hard to not think of it in those terms. Thabo slowly lowered the balloon, and Kaya started to wonder if he didn’t want to land the balloon, for how long it was taking. Finally, the balloon landed, and Thabo hit the lever that dropped the heavy anchor that would keep the whole contraption tied to M’Tibo’s surface.

Thabo opened the door and looked outside at the new world. Kaya came up behind them. There was a long moment of silence as the two took in the scene with reverence. Then, they gathered up their gear and went back to the door. Thabo paused once again.

“What is it?” Kaya asked. She was excited to get going.

“I feel like I should say something here, something historical and important,” he replied.

Kaya giggled.

“What?” Thabo said. “I’m serious.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s what makes it so funny.”

He glared at her. She sighed and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Look, my friend,” she said. “I’ve been at a few historical events in my time. Believe me, no one really says anything important in the moment. Let’s just get going.”

Thabo sighed. “Oh, you’re right. Still first step on the new world, made by me. That’s pretty exciting.”

She giggled again, and Thabo stepped out of the cage. The plains they were in looked much like the savanna Kaya used to hunt in back in Nuturo, except it was greener and had more trees around it. She checked her rifle to make sure it was loaded just to be sure. Places like this back at home were home to some of the deadliest predators, and she figured that this world wouldn't be any different.

Thabo picked a random direction to try exploring in and they marched off. They were heading for a group of trees, a large one that could actually be a forest. It was about an hours walk away, and by the time they got there, Thabo was tired and ready for a rest. Kaya rolled her eyes at him.

“How can someone in as good a shape as you are be so tired after such a short march?” she teased.

“Hey,” he said. “I lift heavy things a lot to build my inventions, I don’t spend a lot of time walking. That’s for you army types.”

Kaya laughed at him. There were a lot of reasons why men weren’t allowed into the army. The biggest reason, of course, was that while they were aggressive, they tended to be overly so, where as women were more defensive minded. But from Kaya’s point of view, the fact that men were so whiny at the slightest wound or effort of physical labor was the key reason that no one ever spoke of.

A sharp sound brought her attention to the present. She quickly raised her rifle and scanned around at the trees they had just reached. Thabo startled at her sudden movements.

“What is it?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Could be nothing. Stay there.”

She took a few steps in the direction the sound might have come from. She heard the sound again, and this time she knew it was real. And that it was closer. A few more cautious steps had her right by a few bushes. She poked the bushes with rifle. A second later, a small, fury creature with long ears and powerful hind legs came bounding out of the bushes and started running away. She had never seen anything like it before, but it was obviously just trying to get away. I prey animal, she guessed. Too small to hunt anything.

She lowered her rifle in relief. Of course, that’s when hell broke loose. A large lizard, about half the size of a horse, came charging out of the bushes, chasing the long eared animal. This thing had six legs, a long body that seemed to flow almost like water, and a mouth full of sharp teeth. It pushed her over in its haste to get the target of its affections. It stopped, however, as soon as it realized what it had just leaped by.

The beast stared at her, and she stared back. This was familiar to her, and she found herself smiling. The creature roared and bared all it’s teeth. Let it bellow and charge, she thought. She gripped her rifle. She had teeth as well. Just then, Thabo let out a little cry, and tried to run away, stumbling over the log he had been sitting on. The creature turned to look at him, and roared again.

“No!” Kaya cried as the beast leaped at Thabo, who was still struggling to stand up. She yanked her rifle up and fired without thinking, and the rapport sounded very loud in her ears. The beast was hit and flung to the side, but it was getting back up. It gave Thabo time to get up and run, however. Kaya eye the six legged monster. It was wounded, one of its legs useless, but not out of the fight yet. She raised the gun again. Her cartridge would have three more bullets in it. This time, she didn’t wait for the monster to attack, she pumped and fired. The creature had started charging her, and so ducked as she fired. However, the rapport from the gun startled it, causing it to stumble over the wounded leg. She fired again, and this time the shot rang true, hitting the beast in the head and felling it for good.

“By the Twelve Gods,” Thabo said. “What was that thing?”

Kaya came up and poked the beast with her rifle a few times just to make sure it was really dead. She shook her head at Thabo’s question, and then bent down and turned the monster over. It was heavy, and very muscular.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m glad I brought my gun.”

“I cannot wait to show this thing to my colleagues back home,” Thabo said, stepping up to get a closer look. “Reptiles of this size just don’t exist!”

“They apparently do on M’Tibo,” Kaya said.

She heard another snap, and stood up, swinging her rifle around, prepared to shoot at another of the lizard beasts. Instead, she found herself facing a large group of men, mostly naked except for loincloths, with pale, nearly white skin and armed with spears, all of which were pointed at her. She counted twenty as she made a circle, and realized that they were surrounded. She only had one bullet in her chamber. And what was worse, they had snuck up on here so completely. She was a better hunter than that. A better soldier.

“Thabo,” she said through gritted teeth. “I thought you said this place was uninhabited.”

“What?” he said, looking up at last. “Oh, my.”

One of the men said something that Kaya didn’t understand, and that surprised her somewhat, as she was fluent in four languages back home. She looked at Thabo, but he shrugged his shoulders. The man who spoke seemed to understand that they didn’t understand, so he pointed with his spears at Kaya’s gun. Then he pointed across the circle. Kaya understood immediately. She was reluctantly to throw away her biggest weapon, but she still had a knife on her belt. Plus, there were way more of them. Sighing, she threw the rifle across the circle, and another of the men picked it up. She raised her arms and motioned that Thabo do the same. The men with the spears prodded them slightly to get them to move, then marched then away from the trees.

“Fascinating,” Thabo said. “All this time, we were convinced that there were no people on M’Tibo. We never could see any signs of intelligent life. Although, we really couldn't see more than the largest trees and the silhouettes of birds anyway.”

“Why are they so pale?” she asked. “They look almost like ghosts.”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe the temperature here is on average colder than at home. I mean, those who live in the north, where it’s hotter all year round, are darker than those in the south where it gets pretty cold.”

“Could be,” she replied.

The man that had spoken, which Kaya had begun to think of as the Lieutenant, pushed them with the tip of his spear, speaking again.

“I think he wants us to be quiet,” she said to Thabo, who nodded in reply. They spent the rest of the march in silence.

They traveled for several hours, during which the terrain never changed much. Green rolling hills broken by small forests. Eventually, they came to a river, and the marched changed direction. They followed the river, and Kaya recognized that they were heading into a river valley. This would be a place that would be easily defensible, because the hills here got steeper. The river created a natural boundary. If it were up to here, she would build a fortress or a settlement in just such an area. And she was proven right.

They crested a hill and saw the village. It was primitive, at best, with the housing made of mud and wood. There was no outer wall at all, but it was also clear that these people had made a practice of protecting themselves from raids, as several other men with spears, bows and arrows and strange looking knives made from what looked like stone, could be seen. Kaya still had trouble accepting that these men were the primary military force to these people, though that was clearly the case. As they neared the village, she saw women and girls doing more domestic tasks, like sewing, cooking and taking care of children.

They were lead through the village, where more of these white skinned people stared at them. The temperature here was distinctly colder than their landing point, and the dress of these people led her to believe that this was their summer months. Perhaps Thabo was right about their skin tone. If this was the most sun they saw, they would be pale like this. They were lead to a large, round structure. Inside sat a semi-circle of six men, all aged. She guessed this must be their leadership, though again she found it odd that there were no women present.

The Lieutenant spoke to the elders, apparently telling them the story of how he discovered Kaya and Thabo. He made gestures that had her believing that he saw the balloon descending, and followed it until he captured the two of them. He also told about the lizard creature, and how Kaya shot it. From the looks on their faces, the old men had trouble believing the part about the gun. If the primitive technology she had seen so far was typical of them, she wasn’t surprised. A gun would be beyond their understanding. It must have seemed like magic.

One of the elders tried speaking to her and Thabo, probably to verify the story. They only shook their heads. The elder seemed to understand. He said something to the Lieutenant, who nodded and led them back outside. There, he took them to a small hut, and placed them inside. They were no alone, though a they could see through the cracks in the that a guard had been placed over them.

They spent the next few weeks in the village. At first, they were kept to the hut, or brought before the elders, but eventually Kaya started picking up their language. Enough, at least, to understand and answer the questions being asked of them by the elders. Things like, did you really come from the World Above (strange that they would call her home the World Above when that was what her people called this world), did you really kill a quickstrike (their name for that lizard beast) and what were their plans for this world. After convincing the elders that they were simple explorers who didn’t even know that people lived here, they were allowed to wander the village freely.

Thabo was having the time of his life, learning their culture and ways. He had a harder time with their language than Kaya, but he picked it up out of necessity. They learned that these people moved to this area from an even colder climate where it snowed most of the year. Kaya had only seen snow once, back in the army while crossing the mountains. She couldn’t imagine actually living in the stuff. Apparently, the men were the warriors here, but they were not defenders like the women back home. They were aggressive, and this village was here mostly so the men could raid from another tribe that lived not far from here.

However, they were likable folk. They were aggressive, but they also came from a hostile environment, and really just wanted a better life for their people. Thabo learned that they raised their children as a community, and that they had the basics of forging down, though they had yet to develop past bronze. He figured that it wouldn’t be long before they learned iron, however. They were smart people. The two of them talked about these people, who called themselves the Viknavians, after their homeland, and the world of M’Tibo itself.

“I was hoping that M’Tibo could be a place of resources for our world,” Thabo said one day, “And now it can also be a place of cultural trade as well. It’s so exciting! What we can teach these people, and what they can teach us!”

Kaya wasn’t so sure. In her experience, those with the better guns rarely did any trading, even in her world. She had also learned her own things from the Viknavians. She learned that they were at war, and that this village had bee raided several times during that war. The Lieutenant, named Valk, was a war leader, and had been leading a raiding party of his own when they saw Thabo’s balloon. At first, they though they were gods, but when they saw Thabo scream and try to hide from the quickstrike, they knew otherwise. She laughed at that, but never could bring herself to tell Thabo. She told Valk about how her rifle worked, but never let him fire it. It was too precious in this land of spear and arrows.

After about a month, the village elders said that they were allowed to leave the village, if they so choose. The balloon had been brought to the village weeks ago, and Thabo had looked it over thoroughly. He declared it was still in perfect order, and that he could get them home, no trouble. Of course, that’s when the trouble came to them.

The morning they planned on departing, the village was attacked. The raid came in the form of horsemen, armed with axes and spears. It came suddenly and with little preamble. Kaya watched in shocked horror as the men on the horses indiscriminately killed, women, children, men actually trying to fight them. It didn’t seem to matter to matter to them. She quickly ran to the hut she shared with Thabo, and retrieved her gun and ammo. She found a good spot and start shooting. In a matter of mere minutes, she had taken down five of the horsemen, and was reloading.

They didn’t know where the shots were coming from, or indeed what was causing them. Kaya used this to her advantage, and moved to a new firing point before unloading another clip. She took down four more horsemen, and the raiders were now thoroughly confused, allowing the men of the village to rally and start to push them back. Then Thabo came up to her, yelling something.

“They’ve taken them,” he shouted. “They have the women!”

Kaya looked and saw that a group of horsemen had, indeed, grabbed several village women and were using them as shields as they attempted to retreat. She froze. She was back in the army, fighting against a superior force, but her troops were holding their own. The village would be defended. That was when she saw the woman leading the enemy troops ordering the capture of children. With them as shields, she would get away. Kaya made the hard choice, and fired on the women. They won the battle, but several innocent kids died, at Kaya’s orders. The nightmares plagued her to this day. And now it was happening all over again.

“You’ve got to do something, Kaya,” Thabo said. “Stop them!”

Still frozen by fear of hitting the women, Kaya watched the horsemen. Then something hit her. Horsemen. She didn’t need to fire at the riders. The horses made larger targets, and they were often not being protected by the women. She set her jaw. This time, she was going to save as many from the village as she could, and none would die by her hand. She took aim and fired.

The horse fell. Then another. As they fell, the women were able to escape and the men were set upon by village warriors. Her resolve set, Kaya fought on, freeing all the women captured. The battle was over not longer afterwards, the villagers victorious. Kaya was grateful, too, because she was running low on bullets. The village elders were thankful for Kaya and Thabo’s efforts during the raid. They rewarded them with full status as members of the tribe.

The next day was departure day. It was sad for all of them, and the village made a gift to Thabo of two of those strange fluffy, floppy eared creatures they first saw those weeks ago. The locals called them rabbits.

“Well, I don’t know about you,” Thabo said once they were on their way, “But I cannot wait to tell everyone at home about this.”

“We can’t,” Kaya said.

“What?” Thabo said.

“Think about it, Thabo,” she said. “What would be the first thing our people would do if they knew we could finally reach the World Above?”

“They would go there, to get its resources,” he replied immediately.

“And would they stop because of a tribe of primitives?” she asked. He gave no answer.

“Look at how effective those horsemen were, and all they had were horses,” she said. “Imagine what would happen if a troop of soldiers with rifles were to fight those white skinned folk down there.”

“It would be a slaughter,” he whispered.

“it would,” she said, nodding her head. “It’s in M’Tibo’s best interest that we never talk about this. We need to destroy the balloons, too. We must protect those people. They deserve the dignity to at least live their own lives, according to their traditions, and no have ours forced upon them.”

“You are right, of course,” Thabo agreed at last.

After a few seconds of silence, he asked “What about my rabbits?”

“It’s a couple of small animals,” she replied. “Keep them. How hard can it be to hide a few animals?”

The End

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