We finally reached the surface after our long stay in the dark underground, the view on the surface was stunningly spectacular. The giant red sun was warm on our faces. It sat on the horizon like a sunset back home. The difference here was that The Artifact’s equator does not face the two suns, its poles do. This means that the stars bathe the surface in perpetual light. They do not rise and set as on earth, they hang motionless above the north and south poles.
Great auroras streaked all around the sun as its radiation struck the magnetosphere in a brilliant display. Above that the sky turned black and slowly stars shone through until up above they filled the sky with points of light. In the opposite direction, the faint glow of a blue sky with great thunderheads and lightning flashing far in the distance.
We had pushed further than normal with tighter rations than we were accustomed to get this far and needed to rest. The men were unhappy with Crowley’s decision to camp underground but the unsetting suns made it difficult to sleep on the surface.
As we re-entered the dark underground Ub approached me. “It is time for us to go.” He said in Scimrahn.
I sputtered, “N. . . Now? Why?”
“Neah said that once the Earthers went back underground it was time to leave.”
Hadolko overheard the conversation. “Leave? No! Father Ub you must come with us to the Kwi! There will be a gathering!”
A gathering is a Scimrahn custom where two tribes meet and there is a festival and many of the young are married. Hadolko had obviously been anticipating that there would be one.
Ub looked down on Hadolko with a smile. “I understand, but we must go. It is too dangerous on the surface for us.”
I could tell that there was something more to what Ub was saying. He looked toward me with concern that he was trying to keep from Hadolko. I would not have the chance to learn more since he and Hadolko went on to say long goodbyes. Something was obviously troubling Ub. I wondered if he would have told me if Hadolko were not there.
In the morning The Hidden Light tribe was gone and we realized how much they had supported us if just emotionally. Having them along the way aided our confidence greatly since they were familiar with their surroundings and we knew that we could turn to them. We could learn by simply observing how they camped. Their presence stabilized us. Was this the reason Neah was sent, or was there more?
We set out across the surface. In this environment, we were more at home than Hadolko. The landscape on the surface is flat and has an appearance like limestone covered in a millimeter of fine grey dust. Tiny green plants grew out of any crack in the surface a seed could blow into. The air is thin like being at a high altitude and very dry. The wind could blow with astonishing force that caused the dust to get into everything and static to build up. The static was so strong that it would discharge in lightning that followed the ground. One strike struck nearby us and damaged my communications equipment. It would now be much harder to communicate back to headquarters.
Finally after our long trek, we came into site of the Kwi tribe. A large tent stood out in the center of the camp with a little less than a hundred smaller tents scattered about. From the distance we could occasionally make out a large number of vehicles strewn about the camp. A young boy ran out to meet us shouting something unintelligible in Scimrahn
“Resh-ke, pel resh-ke! Ahzeken keboah pel resh-ke. Tordo!” Hadolko yelled back with a wave of his hand. Which translates to “Fine, we’re fine! Tell the Matriarch we’re fine. Now Go!”
The boy spun on his heal and ran full speed back to the camp.
“He will get the Matriarch and Enforcer of the Kwi and they will greet us.” Hadolko explained to Crowley and me.
To our surprise the entire camp began to pack up as we were approaching. I asked Hadolko “What are they doing? Why do they look like they’re leaving?”
“The surface is a dangerous place. There are eyes always looking for us and some are in the sky. They have probably been on the surface a long time because they wait for us.” Hadolko replied.
Several Scimrahn were walking towards us as the camp packed up and slipped down a hole into the underground all in less than ten minutes as if someone had opened the drain underneath them and they poured down the hole. It took much longer than we thought it would to actually reach our greeting party. We were in an extraordinarily flat area that made it difficult to judge distance.
There were six of them, four wore body armor that was ornamented with animal horns and teeth and painted with spectacular designs. The other two were the Matriarch and the Enforcer, the leaders of the Kwi tribe.
Tsina was tall for a Scimrahn probably 170 cm and had a noble look to her face. Despite being the head of her tribe, she looked quite young. She was thin and had a pampered air to her. Felloc on the other hand looked quite the opposite. He was short and squat and his face was scared many times. He had the look of a man in his thirties that had seen a great deal of hardship.
Hadolko stepped in front of me “I will give them a proper greeting.”
He ran out ahead of us to meet them. It was difficult to hear what was being said in the thin air but we could see that Hadolko exchanged a “gift” with Tsina, and embraced them all. After a few minutes of conversation, he ran back to us.
“I have explained why we are so late, Tsina understands, but says that they lost a great deal of blood in the time it took to get here and the Chezbah are still looking for them.” Hadolko paused, “Tonight you must stay outside the camp because of your customs.”
“What do you mean, our customs?” I asked.
“There will be a party tonight, it is our way of welcoming guests.” He replied
By “party” he meant a twelve hour bender featuring drugs and alcohol. While most of the men wouldn’t mind a bit to attend, the ASO had drafted regulations explicitly forbidding these events. While off duty, many men have encountered a number of addictive substances that the Scimrahn don’t think twice about ingesting.
Hadolko helped us find a campsite just a few meters underground in a tunnel, protected from observation and then quickly ran off to join the Kwi in their celebration. I found this society increasingly frustrating, how such an apparently reckless society can function under threat.
In the morning we broke camp and had to send out our own scouts to see if they could locate the tribe. Hadolko didn’t show up and Crowley couldn’t stomach the idea of waiting for him.
We traveled in the direction of the last place we saw the Kwi. It took several hours to find the tribe in a transit tube station a hex away from where we saw them go down. They were just coming around from the festivities and didn’t know we were coming until we were on top of them. Their reaction was nothing short of panic at first. Pilots scrambled up their environmental suits or E-Suits as they are commonly abbreviated. Half the tents were pulled down in the time that it took them to realize that we were the ones coming to defend them from attack. Felloc shouted at his men to shut their vehicles down. Once he had calmed his men down, he turned his attention to us.
He bellowed at Crowley in Scimrahn. “Are you Earthers stupid? Never sneak up on a Scimrahn! I should have let my men open fire on you! The only reason I didn’t is I wouldn’t get a chance to tell you how stupid you are!” Felloc stomped off not realizing that Crowley only understood that this stubby man was angry since he couldn’t understand a word of Scimrahn.
At the moment the feeling was mutual. Crowley was near his breaking point and I feared that Felloc’s outburst was the last straw. For several moments his hand moved to his sidearm holster then he would move it to make it look like he was hanging his thumb on his belt, then back again. His face was barely discernible in the dim light but I could tell that he was beet red.
Thankfully we were rescued from mutual annihilation by Tsina. She and several young women emerged from the camp. “Our friends from Earth! come and dine with us!” she said in Scimrahn. Her tone however was entirely inviting. To add to the effect the girls hurried up to Crowley and took him by the hands.
At this point Crowley was unable to respond, his anger at Felloc would not allow him to so easily adjust to Tsina’s calm invitation.
I clarified their intentions to Crowley. “Sir, the Matriarch is inviting us to dinner, what should I tell her?”
“Tell her we would be delighted to attend.” His sense of professionalism was the only thing that allowed him to break from the anger he was feeling.
“Ahzeken resh-zi cheeg itchahz keboah” I smiled.
At this point Tsina motioned and two girls hurried up to me and took my hands also.
Tsina announced “Good, we will prepare you for the meal. You two will eat in my tent.”
It was becoming difficult to want to help these people. It then occurred to me that maybe being thankful is not a part of their culture. That might explain why they at one moment appear to acknowledge that we are there to help and at other times slap us in the face.
I ventured this idea to Crowley. “Sir, it’s just occurred to me that these people have no idea of how to show appreciation.”
Crowley leered at me. “What are you talking about Onix?”
“Well, think about it, the Scimrahn are mostly young people going into their teens. Think about who teaches a child to say ‘thank you’? Their parents, of course, but if that concept was never introduced then who would teach the children?”
“You’re thinking too much Onix. I’m not interested in what these people teach their children, I’m here to do a job and then leave.”
But if you understand why people are like they are, you can better deal with them I protested mentally but I knew that Crowley wasn’t in the mood to discuss the matter any more. Hopefully he would think about it later.
Crowley excused himself with my help and went into one of the transports. Faster than I though possible, he emerged in a white dress uniform. ASO policy was for the commander of a force to wear their dress uniform when formally meeting with Matriarchs and Enforcers.
We were lead through a cluster of rigid framed tents just over a meter high that connected to each other like a small house. For a moment I wondered why even bother with a tent if you were underground? Quick observation revealed to me one reason and helped explain the small size of them. Inside many of the tent rooms was some kind of light. Although I know it is considered rude to look into the “house” of a Scimrahn, my curiosity got the best of me. I looked into one of the entrances of the tents and saw a small stove in the middle of the floor. Several Scimrahn were sitting around the stove and conversing in low tones. I then realized the cold air all around us. I had become accustomed to it like a fall day. Although not painfully cold, keeping the heat in the tent would help to conserve fuel used to stay warm. In addition the tents were also designed to prevent most light from getting out. This helped to prevent the tent from being a beacon in the darkness for their enemies.
In the center of the diminutive tents was a massive tent. I knew the function of this tent. This was the collecting point for all the Scimrahn. On one side of the tent is a public gathering area called the “Poord”. This is essentially the only place where the Scimrahn have a public life. All business and merrymaking is done here. Something like a bar and market rolled into one. With roughly only four hundred plus of a population, there are usually only a few people present at any one time. The other side of the tent was the home of the Matriarch and Enforcer. It also served as the place to plan raids and discuss legal matters.
As we approached the Poord side of the tent a diminutive man approached.
<Translated from the Scimrahn language>
“Sir, this is a formal occasion. You cannot wear your work cloths.”
“My uniform? No, I don’t have anything else.”
“I’m sorry it won’t do.”
One of the girls escorting me chimed in “Feltomb! You old chig, he is a guest of the Matriarch. If you must stick to custom, then you get him something.”
The strange little man smiled “You’re absolutely right Bental. This will be interesting.” He said looking from my head to my feet. “Come with me sir.”
The girls let go of my hands and I reluctantly followed Feltomb. I was surprised that he led me to the other side of the tent. Inside I could see the heart of the tent was some kind of insect like vehicle that stretched the Tent out on long slender fingers like the wings of a bat or in view of the size, the wings of a pterodactyl. Most of the vehicles mechanical parts were covered by ornately woven tapestries to make the space more comfortable and deaden the sound of the Poord on the other side.
Feltomb took me into a side chamber made by hanging a tapestry from one of the vehicle’s fingers. Here he went directly to several crates, threw the top off and started rummaging around through cloths.
“I only hope he kept those Kelrath robes for your sake” Feltomb muttered.
“Is this your home? I thought the Matriarch lived here.
Feltomb turned around and smiled his irksome smile, “No this is not my home.” He stopped but continued to stand there. I had been warned about this. Scimrahn only answer the question you ask, not volunteer information that you might have been really looking for.
“So why are you bringing me in here?” I knew the answer would be “To get cloths,” so I started again. “Wait, I mean why can you come in here and go through the Matriarch’s things? I thought it was rude to just walk into another’s home.”
The smile never left Feltomb’s face. “I am allowed, I am Felloc’s assistant. I take care of his things.”
This was an aspect of Scimrahn society that I didn’t expect, although I probably should have. Still something made me suspicious of Feltomb, he seemed far to calculating to be a simple assistant.
“I was looking for some nice Kelrath robes that we had taken in a raid a few cycles (roughly months) ago, but it appears that Felloc traded them. The best I can do is this.” He held out what looked like a long ornately woven t-shirt shaped thing and a long piece of fabric that looked like an enormous scarf. “It might fit you. You are much taller than Felloc. This tunic goes past his knees. Do you want me to help you dress?”
“Can you show me how to put it on and I will try to dress myself?”
“Earthers are shy? Interesting.” Fetomb went on to explain the length of fabric, as I suspected from seeing other Scimrahn was worn around the waist and acted as a girdle and belt. The Tunic was self explanatory.
The first problem I had was that the Tunic only came to my middle thigh. I was significantly taller than any Scimrahn that I had seen and it fit with Feltomb’s description of how it fit Felloc as he was a short man. I felt uneasy about wearing it.
“I don’t think this fits me Feltomb.”
“It should fit you, but as I said it will be close.”
I put on the girdle as best I could and came out to show Feltomb.
“This feels too short to me.”
Again with a smile Feltomb said “Nonsense, it is exactly the way the men of Gretin-ba-hin wear their tunics. The Kwi are just more reserved so you will see them wear it lower. The women like it this way. On the other hand, your girdle is wrong. You wrapped it to the left, that’s how a woman wraps it. You must wrap it to the right.”
It took five tries to get the girdle right, each time Feltomb would laugh and tell me that I was like a small boy trying to dress. In a way I suppose that I was.
Next we went around to the Poord side of the tent where large ox like animal called a Berem was being roasted whole in a large oven just outside the tent. A thickly built man was monitoring it and shouting at others to stay away from the oven. Feltomb stopped and stood there watching.
He looked up and smiled at me. “We should go in, your leader will no doubt need you to speak for him.”
I had almost forgotten that Crowley was by himself and unable to communicate. I began to worry what condition I would find him in.
As we entered the Poord it appeared that the entire tribe was present. I saw Crowley sitting on a short stool surrounded by five young girls, possibly in their early teens. They were speaking to him and he seemed to be talking back!
I approached, “Sorry it took so long sir.”
Crowley gave me a look and then put his face in his hand and sighed. “Onix, what are you wearing?”
“This is all the dress cloths they had sir, I guess I’m a bit taller than they’re used to accommodating.”
“Are you wearing anything under that?”
“Yes I am sir, I don’t think the Scimrahn do, but I’m not about to follow all their customs.”
“Well, while you were gone I’ve been asked if I wanted to marry no less than eight times by mothers. All of their children definitely under eighteen. All very casually of course.”
“And you could understand them?”
“Enik here,” he gestured to one of the girls “speaks a little English. She’s one of the Matriarchs assistants.”
“I’ve been talking to the Enforcer’s assistant Feltomb. He’s the one that dressed me like this.”
The girls around Crowley were looking at me and giggling to each other. I could feel myself blush, and that only made it worse.
Tsina appeared from behind a curtain with Felloc and raised her arms in the air. Everyone quieted immediately. I translated for Crowley.
“Let us not forget the words of the Seer (translated from the word Kelec) at Podo-ashtor-shboah (which means Place of Quiet) ‘There is nothing better for the Scimrahn than to provide for their little ones’”
She gestured to the entrance of the tent and the curtain was pulled back. Then the Berem was carried in on a long rod four men in the front and four in back. They stood in the center of the room for several moments. The smell of roasted meat filled the air. Two stands were brought in and placed under the rod and is was lowered onto them. The eight attendants now brought in a box overlaid with what I later found out was probably nickel that acted as a table and they began to carve.
“That looks good.” Crowley said to no one.
“It’ll be good to have something other than Seeter” I added. “They taste like duck.”
Behind Felloc was his Warriors, these were the most accomplished fighters in the tribe. Most had many scars and had wild spiked hair and facial tattoos. All of them except one, one stood out because he was thin and pale with no tattoos and his hair was slicked back. There was something altogether odd about this person, he seemed sinister without even a word.
Tsina had an entourage of young women around her. Most of them stayed behind her as if they were afraid the rest of the tribe.
Again Tsina spoke and I translated “Let the little ones come and have their bellies filled.”
With that, children rushed up to the table. The men that were attending up until now had serious looks on their faces, now glowed with smiles watching the children grab at the meat as they cut it off. Hundreds of them kept coming. Younger ones looking back at their mothers to make sure they were doing it right. The older ones must have done this before and quickly got their portion.
Then a procession of women came up, many of them carrying infants and many of them pregnant came in a slower and more orderly manner.
There were more than I had thought in this tribe. After some time I tried to get a count of how many were coming up, I lost track at one hundred and eighty.
When the line had dwindled Tsina stood again. “Let the eyes of the tribe approach, those most honored among us and the workers of the tribe must come to get their due, for the Warrior has already had his portion on the day of his taking spoil”
At first eight young men and women came in and stood in front of Tsina and Felloc who bowed to them. They then turned and were handed large portions of meat. They each had their face painted with brilliant colors and swirling designs. I guessed that these were the tribes scouts.
Crowley looked appreciative of this process as I translated. Maybe it was the orderliness that he understood. He seemed to enjoy watching the children come up and run back to their mothers. He seemed more at ease than I had seen him in weeks.
Then both of us started to notice the Berem was not holding up so well. It seemed that several hundred portions later the attendants were reaching bone.
“I really hope they have another one of those” Crowley said from the corner of his mouth. I nodded.
The line of workers was much shorter than the mothers and most were still women. As I looked around at the thirty or so people in the tent that were stationed around the Berem, three quarters were young women. Most of the men were fighters, It seemed that only those men that were unable to fight were among the workers. Some missing arms or legs, one fellow was obviously very nearsighted.
I turned to Aheinchk “There are not very many workers?”
“Many of the mothers are workers. Only those with no child are here now.”
By this time, the Berem had ceased to be. The attendants took the long bones and cracked them open with mallets to remove the marrow. One of them cracked open the skull and took it away. This portion seemed reserved for them and their families though.
Crowley looked at me disappointed and I returned the sentiment.
Now the young women that were behind Tsina came out with what looked like baked sweet potatoes and handed one to those that were stationed in the tent. Tsina spoke again.
“We that are privileged to oversee the tribe and those who have taken spoil, now eat the bitter while the tribe rejoices. This is the balance that we give to you for giving us the honor of overseeing you.”
One of the young girls knelt down and handed me one of the ‘sweet potatoes’. She was a little older than the rest and very beautiful. For a moment I was dumbstruck by her and forgot to take it from her hands.
She smiled at me and I remembered to take the hot tuber.
Aheinchk chimed in “I think Osulo is pleased by you. You like her it looks like?”
I didn’t say anything and this made Aheinchk laugh. “Yes I think you do.”
I tried to move on to something else by trying to figure out how I was supposed to eat this thing. I watched one of the Warriors peal the skin off and eat it like it was an apple. I did the same but found that while it looked like a sweet potato it definitely wasn’t sweet. It was bitter.
I turned to Aheinchk with a frown “What is this?” Crowley was just biting into his and made a face.
“This is Sheik-mo” she turned the tuber in her hand as if examining it for the first time. “It is sour, but it fills your belly.”
A deep voice called out “O-nix!” I looked around and finally settled on Felloc as the source of the voice. He was grinning. “Lo-sh-beck-lee gychk pel lah-sh-beck-lee gomb?” His warriors all laughed.
Tsina then said “Onix sh gieth-zi lo-keth meahe ziem ke kelpodo Felloc dof gieth-leke”.
I smiled and said nothing.
“What’s going on Onix?” Crowley asked.
“I think it was a set up to wear this outfit, but Tsina defended me.”
“Hmm. I really don’t like that man.” Crowley muttered.
Again Tsina spoke to the tribe and I translated. “How many meals like this have we shared together? Tonight Felloc and I leave you. We are old and cannot any longer properly care for the tribe. You have chosen your new matriarch. I have heard from the house mothers and they have chosen Osluo my attendant! A wise choice it is too, as Osulo knows many of the things that you will need her to do. House Mother Gettrin and House Mother Teelawf thank you for your guidance in this decision. Father Felloc will appoint his best warrior to be Enforcer.”
Felloc stood. “Bahninie, you have served with me for many years and your ability to fight is unquestioned. No doubt the entire tribe would joyfully see you be Enforcer. However, the tribe needs an Enforcer who can make plans for the raids and a man to execute the raid. I feel the tribe is best served by you continuing with us as warrior.” The entire tribe gasped at this, especially Tsina. Felloc smirked at her. “Because of this I appoint my Son Gaern as Enforcer”.
The Pale one stepped out from behind Felloc and raised his arms like he had just won a boxing match.
Osulo ran out of the tent her face red and tears streaming down her face.
Tsina cried out to her “I’m sorry I didn’t know!” and quickly went back into her side of the tent.
At some point the confusion in the tribe was overwhelming and I stopped translating for Crowley. “Onix! What the hell is going on?” He demanded.
“I’m not entirely sure sir, I’ll find out though!” I ran out of the tent.
I ran after Osulo, not really sure what I was getting myself into. With all the prohibitions around social contact with a Scimrahn I could only imagine the number of rules I was breaking. It wasn’t terribly hard to catch up with her I was nearly twice her height but my short tunic made me hold back a little. I decided that since it was so dark in the tunnel, it didn’t matter. I rushed up to Osulo. As I touched her shoulder she seemed to collapse under my touch. I nearly tripped over her as my inertia carried me forward.
“What happened? Why do you run?” I asked in Scimrahn.
“He is a monster! I will kill him before I am Matriarch!”
“I don’t understand. Why?”
“I am to be Matriarch he will be Enforcer.”
“Why is that so bad? Won’t you tell him what to do?”
She looked up at me angrily. In the dim light, her face was silhouetted and I was struck with her beauty. All at once she transformed herself from an object of pity to a fearsome creature.
“I will have to marry him! All other women choose their husband, but I will have to endure HIM! His Father refused to enforce the laws that Tsina put in place unless he wanted them. He would not carry out justice! Gaern is worse than that. I have seen him torture innocents on raids. He does all the things his father does.”
“That will be enough Osulo, you will come with me now.” Came a voice from the darkness.
Gaern moved through the shadows like they welcomed him and flowed through him. He was taller than most Scimrahn, but his complexion was pale white, unlike any Scimrahn I had seen so far.
“You will not tell me what to do Gaern. Ever!”
“Then you will know pain until you do!”
Gaern drew a sickle shaped knife from his hip belt and lunged at Osulo. I could not allow this to unfold in front of me so I rolled to the side and intercepted Gaern with the heal of my foot. Gaern did not seem to have not anticipated me getting involved because I hit him hard, so hard that he doubled over and started coughing. Osulo ran out into the darkness of the tunnel we were camped in.
“You. . . you should not have gotten involved Earther” Gaern wheezed and left in the other direction, back toward the Poord.
I returned to Crowley unable to tell him what I had just gotten myself and possibly all of us into. I wasn’t sure what that was but I thought it wouldn’t be good. I stayed up all night waiting for something to happen. I should have slept because Gaern would soon prove to be the very least of my worries.