The Melody of Memory

Aya struggles to survive as devastating war and plague and madness tear away all she knows. Amid the tragic cycles on her world, people retained one consistent technology—tying unpleasant memories to a melody in a box. At times a blessing, memory boxes long ago became tools of repression, hobbling humanity’s ability to learn from mistakes. Might Aya’s new generation be the one to break this cycle at last and forge destiny anew?

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For centuries the colonists of Tyra suffered unexplained cycles of collapse and dark ages. Now, just as civilization seems to be clawing its way back, is that curse repeating, yet again?

Aya Voss is perennially unlucky. Caught as a child on the wrong side of the border, she grows up separated from homeland and family, always the outsider, isolated and tormented. Drafted out of school to help manufacture weapons for use against her own people, Aya struggles to survive and to rejoin those she left behind, as devastating war and plague and madness tear away all she knows.

Amid the tragic cycles on this world, people retained one consistent technology—tying unpleasant memories to a melody, then stashing them safely away in a box. At times a blessing, memory boxes long ago became tools of repression, hobbling humanity’s ability to learn from mistakes.

Might Aya’s new generation be the one to break this cycle at last and forge destiny anew?

The Melody of Memory is a coming-of-age story, as Aya manages to join—and then help lead—a revolution. A revolution of courage and purpose, to see past her own pain and Tyra’s. To help heal a wounded world.

I was nine when my words saved a man’s life; it wasn’t until later that my words killed him.

Balloons and bright streamers bobbed above cheering crowds. I imagined the festivities were all for my birthday! Students marched past in starched uniforms, breaking ranks every so often to wave at relatives in the crowd. I jumped up and down and eagerly waved back.

Next came the riders of sleek zeri-cycles, dexterously maneuvering their spinning machines to zigzag down the street, barely avoiding collisions—whether by skill or luck, I couldn’t tell. I stretched on tiptoe to better see a troupe of slender gymnasts somersaulting through hoops, leapfrogging over each other, then piling together to form a pyramid. I winced with envy, having tried and failed to win a place on their team.

A shimmering red and silver flag, waved by the topmost acrobat, broke my illusion—the celebration wasn’t about my birthday but that of our great country, Altira. Still, I smiled, reaching for Aunt Yara’s brown hand. Yara had long coiled hair and dark eyes that seemed to see through anyone. Especially me, whenever I did something wrong.

The next moment, I felt her stiffen as army and militia units approached, led by a band that piped and blared, as drums pounded a martial beat. Nearby, my brother Jeran began marching in place, tapping on his knees to the beat. I frowned and elbowed him.

“Jeran, stop! We don’t like these guys.” I glanced up at Yara, whose lips were pressed tight, glaring at the soldiers.

He shoved me away. “I like ’em.”

“You’re too young to know anything.” I turned away…

…in time to catch a glimpse of Pier Shaozen, our neighbor, pushing past the fringes of the crowd. My heart quickened with emotions I could not then have named—a schoolgirl crush on an older boy who had become a striking young man. Beyond the occasional friendly word, he barely knew I existed. But Pier’s scowling intensity somehow compelled me to follow.

I whispered to Yara, “I’ll be back.”

Her eyes stared straight ahead at the marching soldiers.

As I dodged past cheering townspeople, Pier was easy to track. His black hair bobbed above most. I tripped over a man’s foot, spun about, searching, and finally spotted Pier alone, next to the butcher’s shop, where he greeted another man, heavy-set with an overgrown bristly red beard. I crouched behind a trashcan. Pier whispered a few words, then passed over a small, wrapped package.

“Well, if it isn’t the Shaozen boy!” boomed a voice that chilled me to the bone. Anyone would recognize the sneer of Athos, the only son of Lord Murta, wealthiest landholder in the valley.

Pier’s eyes narrowed as he stepped between Athos and the bearded man, allowing that figure to melt into the crowd. Pier spoke to the smirking young lord, but I couldn’t hear everything, as Pier and Athos exchanged increasingly angry words. But Athos was not alone. A dark figure crept forth from the alley’s shadows, drawing a knife. He stepped toward Pier’s back.

Terror coursed through me, my thoughts a jumble, as a dozen possibilities fought in my head. Should I rush forward? Call for help?

I shrieked Pier’s name. He cast the briefest glance in my direction. I pointed. His eyes widened and he swiveled, chopping down with his arm. The knife clattered down to a grill, into the black water of the gutter below.

Athos stood back, arms crossed. He watched, emotionless, as Pier and the burly man struggled. Falling backward toward me, Pier growled, “Get out of here. I don’t want you…”

But I couldn’t move. My muscles wouldn’t obey. The terrible sight of Pier and his attacker struggling on the ground blurred through my tears. I was of no use to him. He had rejected me. Ordered me away.

Horrified, I backed further as enforcers approached. I wiped tears and pushed through the crowd toward where I thought Aunt Yara stood. The pounding military beat grew louder, but I was lost amid unfamiliar faces, knocked back and forth by the sway of heaving bodies.

I looked desperately around, calling for Yara.

As panic threatened, a strong, friendly grip seized my collar and pulled me close.

“Aya, don’t ever do that again.” The worry in her eyes was nothing compared to that in my heart. What had happened to Pier?

Jeran threw his arms around me. “I missed you.”

Numbly, I gazed toward the parade. Gray-clad soldiers advanced in precise formation, gripping revo-guns, staring rigidly ahead, as their boots made the street tremble. At a sergeant’s shout, they halted, did an about-face and twirled their weapons in perfect unison. The warriors faced each other, balancing rifles on open hands, and then propelled them upward. Bayonets flashed as they spun, then plummeted toward their partners. Each synchronized move provoked thunderous applause from onlookers lining the street or leaning out of windows above.

Jeran cheered, but my head pounded as I tried to push away all I had seen.

Next came horse-drawn artillery and clanking cannons, followed by armored trucks that puffed billows of foul-smelling smoke. I choked, while Jeran grinned, captivated by the mechanical dragons. I shuddered to see these monstrosities, dating back to the war in which our father had fought and never returned.

Some tension went out of Yara’s grip, as the army units moved on. Soon, a flower-decked cart rolled up, bearing a trio of bearded singers, their baritone voices chanting cantos of The Voyage from New Mars. Even then, I scarcely believed the epic, its verses telling of “ten thousand souls, dreaming for centuries aboard an iron moon.” Though my heart wasn’t in it, I clapped with everyone else when the glimmering orb of Tyra inflated above their wagon, offering the settlers hope of a new home, a new destiny.

Gradually, with a child’s resilience, I felt recent worries slip away, and I marveled at the bravery that drove my ancestors to travel across the stars.

Grinning impishly, Jeran poked me. A bronze balloon, nearly the same color as his unruly hair, bobbed by his side. Then without a care, Jeran shrugged and released it into the crystal gray-green sky. Inhaling the crisp autumn air, I watched as the little globe danced in the breeze. I pictured myself soaring so carefree, gazing down upon the milling crowd, a sea of brilliant silken garments.

“Will there be airships?” Jeran pulled at my arm. His azure eyes sparkled with curiosity as he gazed up at the balloon.

“Not here in Tanaq, silly.” Such modern wonders were unlikely to visit a small town such as ours. But his crestfallen face made me hastily add, “Maybe someday… If the Lords allow it.”

All voices hushed when Lord Murta passed in front of us. Immense, nearly as large as any two ordinary men, the towering, bald man strode rapidly, surrounded by liveried servants. Murta periodically tossed handfuls of coins toward the sidewalk. Children dove for the meager treasures. Mura laughed heartily, aiming his next coins with greater force directly at them. A young boy grimaced, rubbing his leg. Yara stiffened, exhaling in disgust.

I vowed never to stoop for a lord’s paltry tokens. The familiar nursery rhyme played in my mind,

Make way for the Lords, of ice, field and fold.

By gun or by sword, you do as you’re told,

And honor their gold, if you want to grow old.

But then Jeran and I cheered high-stepping horses, adorned in the silver regalia of noble families, skillfully ridden by aristocratic girls not much older than myself. In my mind, it was I atop one of those grand beasts, waving proudly as onlookers clapped and whistled.

Jeran jumped, pointing down the road, “Hykloras! Here come the hykloras!”

A chorus of “Ahhs” greeted a quartet of the rarely seen native animals, followed by silence, as a wave of awe passed through the crowd. Towering over the largest horse, the hykloras appeared regal and almost disdainful of the smaller creatures surrounding them. The golden beasts raised their heads in unison, vigorously shaking them to show off magnificent, bulging-iridescent crests, no two alike. Onlookers stepped back.

“Once, I was allowed to touch a hyklora.” Aunt Yara placed her hand on my shoulder, a wistful expression on her face. “I still dream of it.”

One of the magnificent animals paused in front of me and met my gaze, for a fraction of a second. My breath caught as an image came, sparked by that glittering eye. A glimpse of barren, savage lands and hykloras running free, in numbers so vast, the mighty creatures flowed across the plains, merging in nearly geometric formations that slowly melted, like sand castles rejoining the surf. I was instantly struck by a wave of sorrow, for I knew that such wild places no longer existed anywhere on Tyra.

“Down with Donira! Down with Donira! Do away with them all.” A surge of angry voices shattered that momentary connection. The hyklora snorted and moved away. I was left swaying, as a drunken mob pushed through the spectators. On hand-scrawled placards, I read “Death to all Donirans: Enemies of Altira.” Crude caricatures portrayed ugly, demonic figures suffering gruesome dismemberments. Others showed skewered bodies piled in heaps, splashed with bright red paint.

I shuddered and looked away. As if infected by the vile images, Jeran took to spastic coughing. Yara pulled him close, covering his eyes.

“A plague upon Donira… Erase its memory from the land!” Many onlookers joined, jeering, while others frowned, turning away.

“My kin come from Donira,” grumbled a husky man, wearing the garb of a tenant farmer.

“Then your kin are nothin’ but dirt,” a townsman spat in his face. Red-faced, the farmer wiped his cheek, then shoved meaty hands against the other fellow’s chest and shoved. The two men began savagely punching each other. The farmer crashed backward, knocking over two young women. Their screams pierced my ears. The crowd rapidly swayed away from the brawlers. I winced as someone stepped on my foot. Yara yanked us away from the commotion.

My heart beating rapidly, I asked. “Doesn’t Grand-moma live in Donira?”

“Hush, child.”  She hurried us, as another shoving match broke out nearby. Shouts coursed back and forth, rising in crescendo. I glimpsed enforcers waving batons as they pushed through the crowd.

A portly woman in a flowered dress grumbled, “So much for celebrating.”

“At this rate,” said a man who looked to be her husband, “How can we avoid another war?”

We wandered homeward through narrow cobble-stoned lanes, so familiar to me that I could navigate with my eyes shut. I counted off shops, nodding to familiar faces at Peng’s Bakery and Amir’s café. I admired colorful bolts of silk in Mukanda’s store, and imagined how I’d look in such finery. I knew the most vivid colors were reserved for lords. Still, I could dream.

My attention drew upward, where a golden cachun seemed to be following us, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, hooting loudly and making faces as hideous as the gargoyles in Lyang Square. I laughed as Jeran scrunched his face in an impossibly grotesque imitation. Beating his chest with apparent laughter, the tawny, long-limbed animal gazed down, then performed an acrobatic back flip and disappeared from sight.

Outside the enforcer station, two burly officers solemnly surveyed passersby. Even then I knew that anything they overheard would reach the ear of the powerful Lord Murta. I shivered as their eyes followed us down the road.

A silver, iridescent gruet, nearly as tall as Jeran, waddled in front of us, stalking her prey. With a piercing squawk, the three-eyed bird scooped up a viri-mouse, still squirming, into her extended pouch. Jeran pointed as she flew up to her rooftop nest, nudging aside a cardboard flap to feed her young. Shopkeepers considered themselves blessed when a gruet built its ramshackle home atop their roof.

“They’re having a harder time finding food, with winter coming,” Aunt Yara explained, her voice still a bit wavery from the excitement. “Before long they’ll leave Altira to head south, all the way down to Donira.”

Little did I know, that would soon be my fate.

Jeran coughed, rubbing his eyes. “I’m tired,” he moaned softly, lagging behind. Yara placed a hand on his forehead, concern crossing her face.

“Come along, children.” On the other side of the avenue, we entered the chemist’s shop. I inhaled a profusion of spicy-floral odors, familiar but vaguely unpleasant. Jeran sneezed and wiped his runny nose on his sleeve.

“Good day, Mr. Shaozen.” Yara shook hands with the proprietor, a smallish bearded man with gray crinkly hair. Many times my colds had been treated with Mr. Shaozen’s herbal concoctions. His plastered ointments stank, but had soothed many illnesses. But mostly, I had looked forward to coming here for a chance to glimpse their son, Pier.

I immediately ran up to him.

“Mr. Shaozen, I saw Pier in a fight. Athos….”

“Hush, child.” He looked uneasily at the door. “There have been all too many fights with Athos. Pier will soon be going away… to Donira.”

Mr. Shaozen tilted Jeran’s head to examine his throat, then conversed with Yara, while Jeran and I occupied ourselves by sounding out long words printed on the labels of odd-shaped bottles. In particular, I loved gazing through the tinted vials, seeing how they distorted everything into hazy ribbons of color.

I blew gently on one dusty bottle, setting it trembling ever so slightly against its neighbor. I imagined blowing harder, setting off a chain cascade across the shelves, multitudes of jars shattering into splinters. The image was so strong, that I slowly backed away, suddenly afraid to exhale….

…then jumped at the sound of a crash, as fragments exploded nearby. I looked down to see a puddle of dark red liquid oozing across the floor. For an instant, I wondered—did I do that, just by thinking? Then I saw Jeran, his eyes filled with tears. Yara chided him, apologizing to Mr. Shaozen, as his wife, her long black hair streaked with gray, stepped out of the back room with a mop. Clucking with annoyance, she began swabbing the floor.

“Please allow me to help,” Yara offered. But Mr. Shaozen handed her a small package and quickly ushered us out the door.

My face burned with embarrassment. It was just like Jeran to do such a thing, I thought. Impulsive, Moma often called him. That very morning, he had licked the cream from the flakey chirona, nine layers high, which Aunt Yara had prepared for me. I had sulked, refusing to talk to him… till he joined in chanting my birthday blessing, a crooked grin spreading across his face. Shouting the ending, “…may Tyra keep you in her warm embrace,” he’d hugged me tight, unwilling to release me until I forgave him.

I tucked hands in pockets as gusts whipped piles of leaves down Tanaq’s twisty lanes, the sun casting long shadows. When we spotted our home, squeezed in a long row of nearly identical gray units, Jeran and I raced up the steps. I was relieved when the heavy door shut the world’s chill outside. Aunt Yara bustled about, chopping vegetables, while I rubbed Jeran’s hands by the stone hearth and pestered her.

“Moma grew up in Donira. Is it really so terrible?”

“Of course not,” Yara answered. “At one time, we were all one nation.”

“Then why did we separate?”

Yara pushed a coil of her long dark hair off her face and smiled grimly, “Aya, why don’t we share a house with the Voyat family, next door?”

I scoffed, “Why would we do such a thing? Mr. Voyat yells all the time, especially at poor Toni. I wouldn’t ever want to live by his rules.”

“Well there you go, Aya. Donira didn’t want to live by our rules, and we Altirans don’t want to live by theirs. So countries put up borders, like families put up walls. We don’t bother the Voyats, but we’re happy to be good neighbors.”

I knew I shouldn’t go on, but couldn’t stop. “But Altira and Donira fought.”

“Many times,”Aunt Yara replied softly. “That’s how your papa died, and Tomas as well.”

Tomas, her husband, had fought in the same regiment as Papa. She hardly ever mentioned his name, and I knew it brought her great sadness. In fact, I could barely remember Papa. Moma didn’t like me to ask about him. Grownups said more with silence than with words.

Yara was Papa’s sister. Moma, Jeran and I had lived with her for as far back as I could recall.  She was the one to whom I could always turn, possessing warmth and strength that Moma seldom matched. I always wondered why Yara had no children of her own. Though I brought her all kinds of questions, I’d never dared to ask that one.

I felt a cold breeze as Moma arrived. She greeted me, then spoke softly with Yara. They were as close as sisters, though they looked nothing alike. Yara’s dusky skin contrasted with Moma’s paler Doniran complexion. I paced, waiting for my friends—three girls from school—to arrive to celebrate my birthday. My heart leaped when I heard a knock at the door.

While we shared slices of the nine-layer chirona, Jeran sat nearby, contorting his face to get our attention. Then he stood up and began whirling around and around, counting aloud. At one point, he stumbled, nearly knocking over a lamp, as the girls giggled. After he reached eighty, they lost interest.

“Does he ever stop?” Syphia asked.

“Not til he reaches 258. He has to go through all the days Tyra has spun since my last birthday.” I shook my head. “A silly ritual he does every year.”

“Good thing he’s not back on Old Earth, where he’d have to spin 365 times,” Mira commented with a smirk.

Lani argued. “Don’t some sages say it was 360 days? One for every degree on a compass?”

“One hundred and eleven,” Jeran called out, spinning ever closer to us. “One hundred and twelve…”

“It’s a bit… obsessive.” I tried to sound mature.

Mira laughed, rolling her eyes, as we wandered off. Even as I turned away, I could see Jeran’s grin fading and his spin slowing, wobbling a bit. By the time we reached my room, I heard him collapse to the floor.

In all the birthdays since that day; not one has passed that I haven’t looked back on that moment with a smile, longing once again to watch Jeran spin with such carefree abandon, marking Tyra’s relentless passage through space and time.

On a bleak wintry day, blustery winds swept a dusting of snow through the twisty narrow lanes. Jeran and I were halfway home when a stiff breeze whipped my hat away, exposing my ears to the biting cold. Gasping for breath, Jeran laughed as I ran after it. I snatched the hat from the icy pavement of Lyang Square, where we ran smack into a jeering crowd.

“Traitors! Enemies!”

I shivered, looking up at a burly man, his face twisted in an angry snarl.

“Spies! Turncoats!” shouted a plump woman with wiry orange hair, punching the air.

Keeping Jeran close beside me, I pushed through for a better view, ignoring irritated glances. Persistence paid off, and we squeezed out toward the front. There we glimpsed soldiers roughly shoving a middle-aged man and woman. On the ground lay the woman’s cloak, a lone crimson patch upon the grimy snow.

I startled, recognizing Mr. and Mrs. Shaozen from the chemist shop. With a twinge, I recalled the shattered glass and red syrup spreading… Only now, hunched before the mob, they seemed older, feeble, hunched over before uniformed officers.

“You are charged with treason against Altira,” an enforcer screamed, pushing Mr. Shaozen to the ground, and slashing him with a riding crop. His wife shrieked, reaching for him. A husky man barked orders, pushing her down next to her husband. Two enforcers began kicking Mr. Shaozen, as he attempted to roll away. I winced, shuddering at each blow.

“Stop! Why are they doing that?”  I cried. “Make them stop!”

“None of your affair! You children get out of here.” A peasant—I could tell from her brownish teeth, she roughly pushed me back, as the crowd closed ranks, blocking my view. Anyway, I had no desire to see more.

I panicked. Where was Jeran? I spun frantically, then burrowed my way back to the front. There he was, a lone, tiny figure making tracks through the snow, heading toward the soldiers. A few onlookers pointed and laughed. I broke from the crowd and raced toward him.

I nearly froze when I saw Athos, standing impassive, arms crossed, behind the Shaozens. Was he behind this?

Heart pounding, I ran forward and furiously grabbed Jeran’s arm.

“What are you thinking? You can’t go out there!” I hissed. He yanked away.

“It’s dangerous!” I seized his hand. Our eyes locked. With a shrug he went limp and turned to meekly follow me. I tried not to hear the sickening thuds behind us. We fought against the swelling tide of onlookers seemingly unwilling to release us. I struggled to hold on to Jeran, accidentally stepping on a man’s foot. He swatted my arm and rained curses on me. By the time we finally worked our way out, grimy tears stained Jeran’s pale cheeks.

Free of the mob at last, I forced myself to walk slowly for Jeran’s sake. My legs felt wobbly. Jeran worried me. He had all the sense of a golabird, I thought.

We hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps when a thunderous bang rattled the air, shaking windows up and down the lane. I jumped, realizing what had happened. Jeran’s eyes widened.  He screamed. I clamped my hand over his mouth, as a second gunshot went off. Hoarse cries of satisfaction roared from the mob behind us. A chill of darkness crept inside of me, and I knew that I would never again see the Shaozens. Tears streamed as I hurried my little brother down shadow-filled streets.

Were the Shaozens traitors? I recalled Pier’s quarrel with Athos, Lord Murta’s son. Had Athos stirred up the crowd for revenge? And where was Pier? Beautiful Pier, I worried for him.

Shivering, I felt confused and scared. Back on the main street, storefront windows glinted golden-orange, reflecting the setting sun. This had always been my favorite time, the lazy quiet at day’s end. Now, late-afternoon shoppers and businessmen hurried home as dusk descended. Whispers passed back and forth, and eyes seemed to dart suspiciously.

“Jeran!” I pulled him toward a side alley, and we flattened ourselves against the wall, as a squad of enforcers marched grimly past. I heard a shrill whistle blowing, and wondered if they were searching for other traitors. My mind raced with all that had happened. I shivered with fear.

If Pier had truly left, Athos could only hurt him through his parents.

At least in Donira, they had no lords…

No lords… but little food to hoard. The schoolyard rhyme popped into mind.

Turning the corner onto Zarana Lane, we encountered neighbors gathered before the two-story reddish house belonging to the Shaozens. I spotted Mrs. Voyat, ruddy faced, exiting the house, cradling a carved wooden chest.

As the crowd hissed, she called out, “I’m just keeping it safe, in case their son ever comes back.”

Another woman scoffed. “Oh, I bet you’ll keep it.”

Emerging from the house came a man I didn’t recognize. He carried two framed paintings, offering no excuses. A free-for-all ensued, with quilts and blankets thrown from windows, as strangers carted off furniture and silk clothing, books and crates. A girl my age hurled ripe guaranas at the windows, splattering red syrup and seeds across the panes.

I jumped as one of the upper windows shattered from a lobbed rock. Two women fought over a sequined coral-colored gown, pulling until it ripped down the middle, beads scattering into the muddied street.

Why? Why are they taking their things?” Jeran whispered hoarsely.

I had no answer. I bit my lip, imagining them breaking into our house, scavenging through my clothes and books, smashing our furniture and toys.

A shrill whistle blew just behind me. “Cease immediately. The Lords have taken possession of this house. Looters will be shot!” Uniformed enforcers swarmed across the lane. “Last warning!”

Shrieks echoed as shots fired into the air. Boxes and bedding were abandoned in the street, books and clothes trampled as the crowd rapidly dispersed, each person averting eyes, as if to deny they had ever been there.

Jeran and I inched away, flattening ourselves along the house fronts, before darting toward home. Something shiny caught my eye, and I stooped to snatch a golden disk, tucking it in my pocket as we ran.

Slamming the door shut, I leaned against it with a sigh. Aunt Yara pulled us toward the hearth. Warmth from the fire thawed my cheeks. My fingertips ached as the heat gently penetrated.

“The Shaozens… we saw them. It was horrible.” Jeran choked, as Yara tucked a blanket around him. I joined her in the kitchen, as the familiar scent of yarrow-leek stew and freshly baked bread made my stomach grumble with hunger.

“Did you see what they did to their house?” I whispered to her.

She nodded. “Bunch of hypocrites. For years, all those folks depended on the Shaozens, and their remedies. But, when they were down, no one stood by them. Not one of them.”

Yara began furiously stirring the pot. I was taken aback. Her expression, usually gentle and serene, now radiated fury.

“Did any neighbors guard against that greedy pack of thieves? That worthless bunch of…” She shook her head. “Remember this, Aya, true harm comes not from the action of one or two people, but from dozens, turning their backs.”

“Were the Shaozens traitors?” I asked. “Did it have something to do with Pier?”

Yara pursed her lips. “I don’t know, Aya. Their son? Ah, he was a wild one, always stirring up trouble. Lord Murta and Athos had it in for him, that’s for sure.” She turned away, muttering. When Moma entered, they talked quietly among themselves, hushing when I came near.

That night, I tossed and turned. In my dreams, shots rang out again and again. Bullet-strewn, the Shaozens collapsed to the ground amid an oozing crimson. My feet, engulfed in the red slime, could not move. The harder I fought, the further I sank in the red muck. I reached for Jeran, but he sank out of reach. Each person in the crowd looked away, with hollow eyes.

I awoke drenched in sweat, gasping for breath.

Jeran was reluctant to go to school the next day, but Yara insisted. During class, one girl dared to voice my own thoughts. “Will we have another war with Donira?”

The teacher’s eyes opened wide. As she strode angrily between the desks, I was afraid she would strike the girl, but she funneled her fury into words. “If Donira ever again threatens our borders, we’ll flatten their cities. We’ll never truly be safe, until we wipe out every last Doniran.”

I shivered, staring down at my books. Did that include my grandparents?

Walking home from school, my brother and I stepped aside, as did all townsfolk, to make way for Lord Murta.

“Acts as if he owns the town,” grumbled one sour-faced woman, her eyes cast downward.

“And don’t he?” her companion added in a soft voice. “He claims a piece o’ most businesses in exchange for… protection and fatherly advice. But he’s better than some of the Lords, who won’t even step out of their carriages.”

I gasped as Jeran ran into the street, perhaps expecting coins. So obese he could barely see his own feet, Murta nearly tripped over Jeran. As effortlessly as picking up a kitten, Murta lifted Jeran by the collar. Frozen, I couldn’t breathe.

“Boy,” Murta huffed mightily, as Jeran squirmed. Then Murta’s grimace slowly metamorphosed into a crooked smile.

“Boy, how would you like to come visit me?”

Jeran slowly shook his head.

Without a thought, I rushed into the street and yanked Jeran from his reach, as words tumbled out.

“Really we must get home. My mother expects us.”

Murta’s eyes opened wide. At that moment, a servant approached, speaking into his ear. Murta burst with rage, as he raised his staff to strike at the man. Seizing the momentary distraction, I pulled Jeran and ran.

“Don’t ever do that again!” I hissed. Furious, I stormed off, and he stumbled after me, apologizing amid sniffles. I knew the servant had taken Murta’s wrath upon himself to save Jeran. I whispered a soft blessing upon him. “May Tyra keep you.”

We passed more enforcers, strapping youths in crisp uniforms patrolling the streets. Shivering, Jeran clasped my hand tightly. We watched as two officers stopped a man wearing foreign-looking clothes, brusquely searching him before emptying his satchel onto the street. They kicked aside his possessions, scattering papers to the wind. They mocked his southern accent as he feebly protested.

“What are they looking for?” Jeran pulled on my sleeve.

“They’re probably just making sure he has identification. Come on, I’ll race you home,” I tagged him, running ahead just fast enough that he could keep up, then slowing down so he could tag me back before we reached our street.

Delivering Jeran safely, I snuck back outside and strolled down Zarana Lane. I found myself standing once again before the Shaozen’s house. I’d passed it countless times over the last year, hoping to glimpse Pier. Now empty windows, gloomy and reproachful, stared back. The broken ones had been boarded up. Were they really traitors?

In my pocket, my hand closed upon the golden coin I had picked up. It felt warm to my touch. The building seemed to beckon me, draw me closer. Scanning the deserted street, I stole closer and impulsively pulled the knob. Locked, it bore an official-looking notice, which I didn’t bother to read. A voice inside cautioned me to leave, but then I noticed a window slightly ajar. Leaning over, I pushed it upward and crawled over the dusty sill.

Within, the hollow stillness echoed. Strewn across the floor were torn books and pillows, toppled lamps and shattered vases, as well as ripped-open herbal packages. The Shaozens’ remaining possessions seemed as broken as they were. I picked up a trampled painting that I guessed to be the Shaozens as a young couple, holding the hand of a small boy. Should I save it for Pier? Or would that make me a looter?

A thought flashed through my mind. Perhaps it was up to me to find something to prove the charges against the Shaozens false. Of course, I assured myself, I could do that for Pier. I must do it for Pier. Something important is bound to be here. Rummaging through desk drawers and file cabinets, I began looking for something; I knew not what.

Images burst through my fevered imagination, in which I stood triumphantly before a shamed gathering of neighbors, holding evidence of the Shaozens’ innocence. Pier took my hand, weeping, as he thanked me for clearing the family name. People cheered, holding me aloft, as stirring music swelled.

Stepping over scattered glass shards, I approached a smashed cabinet. Within were intricately carved wooden boxes, a picture propped behind each one. I noted a rough family resemblance between the images, and it seemed the collection represented some kind of family shrine. Why had the looters left these untouched? I lifted one of the boxes… then froze, hearing voices from the porch.

A key turned in the lock.

I panicked and scurried to a nearby closet, closing the door softly behind me. Moments later, heavy footsteps clomped across the wooden floor and harsh laughter echoed through the house. I pressed my ear to the door, trying to make out words over the thumping of my heart. An acrid scent of gavara-weed wafted through cracks under the door. I held my breath against the foul aroma till I thought I would faint, while snatches of conversation made their way to my ears.

“Good work, this should serve as a decent cover… a few weeks to set things rolling… Let’s see the motorcade route again… Do you have your marksman selected?”

I struggled against terror as the darkness closed in around me. One, two, three, four… I forced myself to breathe regularly, as Yara had taught me to conquer fear. My fingers nervously caressed the wooden box I had lifted from the cabinet. Voices flared up outside the room, rising in fevered pitch. It grew harder to make out what the men were saying.

“… shooting… a new President…”

A shooting pain coursed through my cramped leg. Shifting position, I accidentally cracked open the wooden box resting in my hand. Unexpectedly, it erupted in a soft melody, sweet and melancholy. I clamped shut the box, too late, as the men’s words ceased. Heavy footsteps approached.

I closed my eyes, relapsing to a childish hope that whatever I couldn’t see surely couldn’t see me. Only then, harsh light penetrated my eyelids, as strong arms roughly squeezed my arms, lifting me up.

“What do we have here? A lost rat?” Dropping me onto a hard chair, two men studied me. One was young and dressed like a junior scholar at the college. The other one was older, tall with a bristly red beard. I recognized him instantly as the man who had spoken to Pier at the parade.

“Are you related to the Shaozens?” the bearded one asked, glaring down at me.

I gulped for air, my chest heaving. When I shook my head, the younger one leaned over me, speaking in measured tones. “This building has been seized by the Altiran Lords. Which means… you are trespassing.”

I have the authority to shoot looters,” the older man finished. “As a matter o’ fact, I like shooting looters,” he guffawed, exhaling into my face. Choking, I turned away from his foul stench, my heart beating so rapidly I thought it would burst.

“No.” I stumbled for words. “I wasn’t… really…”

“Maybe you were spying on us?” the younger man suggested, pointing an accusatory finger at me.

My mouth opened, but all that came out was a squeaked protest, choked by fear.

“Not too bright, is she? Hardly worth a bullet.” Then his eyes fell on the wooden box in my hand. His face scrunched in a grimace. “Who are you to pry into other people’s private memories?” He snatched the box from my hand, casting it aside as if it were distasteful to him. The two men stepped aside, whispering together for a few minutes.

Seeing my chance, I leaped off the chair and dashed for the door. Before I’d gone a dozen steps, the larger man scooped me up in his arms. With all my strength, I kicked at his knee, then reached up to claw his face with my fingernails, drawing drops of blood.

Cursing, he dropped me. I hit the floor hard, rolled over and scrambled to my feet. Then my scalp lit on fire, as he lifted me, shrieking, by my hair.

“She’s a wild one. Luckily, she seems to like that closet of hers.” The older man tossed me back into the small cubby where I had hidden earlier. Instantly encased in total darkness, I heard the click of a key.

“Let me out! Monsters!” I threw myself against the door, banging with my fists, my heart pounding with fury. “I hate you!” Finally, sobs poured forth. Hot tears burned my cheeks.

Eventually, I curled into a ball, afraid that I would remain trapped forever, that this tiny space would become my tomb—without Moma and Yara ever knowing what had happened to me. I imagined that someday they would find my dried body. Newspapers would report that young Aya Voss had been a burglar, a petty thief, breaking into the Shaozens’ house, a stolen gold medallion in her pocket. And my family would weep in shame, mourning my death at such a tender age.

I lay shivering, with no way of marking time, as minutes or hours or days passed. My stomach burned with hunger.

Fear ebbed enough for me to come to a new realization. That man claimed to be some kind of official. But they don’t act like enforcers. I bet they broke in here, too. They have their own business… certainly not anything legal. Whatever they’re up to, they don’t want witnesses. I wondered: What will they decide to do to me?

I heard occasional guffaws coming from the men, but they seemed to have moved to a more distant part of the house. I drifted off, an uneasy sleep punctuated by doors slamming and loud voices.

Finally, light levels brightened perceptibly, creeping under the door. Daylight was pouring into the room beyond. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. My cramped muscles ached, and my throat was parched.

Moma and Aunt Yara will be frantic with worry.

I detected returning footsteps, and my heart raced once again. As the key turned in the lock, it struck me; they may plan to spend a bullet after all. Squinting as the door opened, I shaded my eyes to make out a silhouette looming above me. The murky figure uttered a single word, which he didn’t need to repeat. “Go.”

Mindless panic propelled even my cramped and cold muscles. I was out of the house in a flash, dashing home as the sun peeked above the rooftops.

I felt only joy, not pain, when Moma shook me.

“Where have you been? How could have you stayed out all night?”

My teeth chattered, as shivers coursed through my body. All I could do was shake my head.

“Aya… you are freezing.” Aunt Yara placed a warm hand on my forehead.

She vanished into the kitchen and returned with a mug of warm choya. My breathing slowed when she covered me with blankets, and soothingly rubbed my arms. Yara stayed by my side, and I gradually dozed off. When I woke, the house was dark, and I found Jeran snuggled beside me, his thin arm draped across my chest.

The next morning, over breakfast, Yara repeatedly tried to question me. Faced with sullen silence, she dropped the topic, with a knowing look.

I simply can’t tell them that I broke into the Shaozens’ house.

Yara, looking concerned, spoke to Moma. “Surely Aya needs to recover. Probably best if she stays home another day.”

But I couldn’t really rest. I trembled, remembering those men and the dark closet. Their words prickled at the edges of my mind, as I did my best to shut them out.

The room was bitterly cold when Yara shook me awake. I could see my breath hanging before my face, a tiny cloud that blurred the edges of the still-dark room. Yara sat next to me, humming a few bars of one of my favorite tunes, a melody that reminded me of happier times.

“I’ll miss you, Aya. But it surely won’t be for long.” She furrowed her brow, looking away. She stroked my hand gently. “We’ll be together again soon enough. For now, you really must hurry. Mara’s anxious to get underway.”

Pulling on layers of woolen clothes, I counted the seconds until I would be downstairs, warmed by the welcoming fire. I saw Moma sipping choya by the hearth, and she handed one to me. My fingers tingled with its warmth, as I inhaled the steam.

“How’s Jeran? Is he ready?”

Moma glanced at Yara, as she slowly exhaled. “He’s not going.” She sighed, gazing toward his room, “He has a fever, and it’s better he rest here with Yara. The long train ride could be unhealthy for him. Besides, it’s only for a week, two at the most.”

I nodded, but felt a chill deepening in the room.

“I’ll take good care of him while you’re away,” Yara said, ruffling my hair, as she planted a kiss on the top of my head.

I ran up to Jeran’s room, but he lay fast asleep, his cherubic face squashed against the pillow. I didn’t want to wake him, so I smoothed his reddish-brown hair aside and placed two kisses on his pale forehead. If he had been awake, he would have insisted on returning the exact same number of kisses; it was a ritual he’d had since he was a little boy. Now you’ll owe me two, brother!

Going back downstairs, I heard Moma calling from outside. I looked around, trying to memorize the position of every object in the sitting room: Yara’s knitting by the fireplace, Moma’s fossil collection, the leather-bound books on the shelves, the wooden furniture that Papa had made by hand so many years ago.

Aunt Yara approached and squeezed my shoulder, seemingly reluctant to let go.

“I’ll look after Jeran. You help your Moma. She needs you.” Her eyes teared, as she whispered, “May Tyra keep you in her embrace.” We hugged one last time, before I ran out the front door. When I looked back, she was still standing there, waving.

The streets were nearly empty as we trudged through snowdrifts toward the station. A motorized bicycle splashed icy slush on my leg. I shivered and yelled after the rider, but he was long gone. Dim lights began to flicker on as other early risers stirred. Overhead, a rusty sign creaked, gently swaying.  I spotted a few armored turallas scavenging for scraps along the lane, their elongated pink snouts snuffling noisily along. My fingers tingled, numb with cold, and I realized with irritation that I’d forgotten my gloves.

Around the corner, three shabbily-dressed men warmed their hands by a smoldering fire in a trashcan. One of them approached, holding out his hand, murmuring something I couldn’t make out. Another caught my eye, motioning for me to approach. Moma hurried me away. Up ahead, I caught sight of the train station, a cinder block building, which I’d rarely had reason to enter.

The warmth was welcome, but the interior reeked of a foul mixture of mold and urine. Moma stood in front of a board covered with numbers, then led the way to the ticket counter.

“Where did I put my money?” Moma fumbled with her bags as we waited in line. She was even more distracted than usual, and I wondered whether she was more worried about Grand-moma or Jeran. A slovenly man standing behind us shook spasmodically. I recognized the glazed expression and shuffling gait of a Qana addict.

A bristly turalla brushed against my leg, nosing through scattered waste. Jumping back, I nearly bumped into an elderly man, tapping the floor with a wooden cane. He talked to himself in a language I couldn’t understand. Does he come from afar, some exotic land, like Priam?

After she bought tickets, Moma and I crammed together on a hard bench between a hefty businessman and a pair of bearded scholars, their robes covered with crumbs from a meal of crusty bread and cheese. The crowd’s chatter stilled momentarily as a cadre of enforcers hurried through, their boots clattering across the tiled floor, as a stern-faced officer barked orders.

Against the wall, a gray-haired woman was trying to sleep under a dingy blanket. She must come here to escape the cold, I mused. I wonder if she ever leaves? I imagined returning here, years later, and seeing her as a white-haired old lady, clutching the same tattered cloth.

Just as I began to nod off, we heard the call to board. Moma tightly clutched my arm, leading the way through the bustling station. Weighed down by my shoulder pack, I struggled to keep up with her.

When we reached the platform, we stepped aside, waiting for the first-class passengers to board. A tall elegant woman paused before us; I couldn’t take my eyes off her delicately chiseled features. I had never seen hair so red, a flaming mass that reached halfway down her back. Her hands glittered with golden rings. A Landed Lady, for sure. Servants carried her many embroidered bags. Then an exquisitely attired Lord strode past us, knocking aside a young boy who strayed into his path, and haranguing the stewards who attempted to assist him.

When it was our turn, a uniformed man with a craggy face smiled kindly as he took our luggage and hoisted me onto the car. Finding our cabin, we settled onto a cushioned seat covered with tattered upholstery. The second-class coach had a faded sense of elegance, the stuffing partially torn out of the seats, burgundy wallpaper peeling unevenly off the walls. Two middle-aged businessmen busied themselves reading newspapers, ignoring us altogether. I scrutinized their faces, serious and expressionless, until one grimaced, noticing me looking at him.

As we pulled out of the station, I kept my eyes on the sign, watching the letters “Tanaq” grow smaller and smaller. I whispered “Good-bye” under my breath, as the train accelerated to the south.

“I’ll be back… very soon,” I added.

The rhythmic clackity-clack of the rails was soothing, but every so often the train jolted, rattling Moma’s sleep. She murmured softly, and a few times I thought I heard “Jeran.” I stared out the window, watching the countryside and farmlands pass by.

In the distance, I spotted the Needles, angular spires reaching skyward like massive outstretched fingers. Each spring, young people from nearby towns journeyed there with ropes and tarquins, competing to be first to scale the jagged peaks and bring back a prized jade egg from xriv nests scattered atop the rocky cliffs. The winner would be declared Bird King. Local elders had tried without success to quash the tradition, as every few years a youth was injured or killed in a tragic fall. But the rite stretched back to the ice wars, and the newly crowned Bird King could spend a week sampling freely from local shops. Personally I considered it silly; anyways Moma would never let me go. But every year I’d thrilled to glimpse the horizon gloriously tinted by massive bonfires during the revelries that followed the annual competition.

A journey to a new land; it filled me with both excitement and worry. The world beyond Tanaq was almost completely unknown to me, except what I gathered from books and dark rumors. I recalled a set of nesting boxes from school, and the rhyme that went with them. Beginning with the smallest box, the teacher would lead us in a chant.

“This is me, living in Tanaq.” She nestled the tiniest carton into one slightly larger, then continued, “In the province of Toural,” as she placed both inside a bigger box. “In the country of Altira.” Reaching for progressively larger boxes, the tune went on, “Within the Great Northern Continent, on the planet Tyra, in the swirling solar system.”

All the students joined in as she finished, “… in the spiral galaxy, in the infinite universe, in the palm of the great and glorious Spirit.”

I wondered if, even now, some spirit looked down upon me, tracking my journey… as I might follow the course of an ant upon the ground. I mouthed a hopeful prayer, asking for a safe voyage, but felt my words drifting away into a silent void. I imagined beaming my thoughts out to the vastness of space, aimed toward some faraway planet my ancestors had once called home. And I wondered if there was anyone out there who could answer me.

Wisps of gray smoke rose from crude tents alongside the tracks. Pressing my face against the glass, I saw families eking out a living on the desolate plateau. Someone had hung a hand-painted sign, “Evicted from our land. Where do we go now?

I recalled the shantytowns that rimmed Tanaq, inhabited by displaced peasants, war veterans, or those who had simply fallen on hard times.

One of the businessmen primly crossed his long legs, nodding toward the scene, “I hear that Lord Vusah has recently expanded his holdings, acquiring 1000 hectares around here… many were forced off their land….”

The other man scowled, “I heard some of the peasants staged an uprising… Three generations back, it was the Black Fever that killed off many… and opened up lands for the lords.” He lowered his voice and I couldn’t hear the rest.

The bench grew harder as our journey went on. I squirmed, struggling to find a comfortable position. One of the men glared in my direction. Realizing that he viewed me as nothing but a snot-nosed, illiterate child, I began a sophisticated conversation with him, discoursing about the intricacies of markets and prices, commerce and sales. Or at least I would have tried, had he dared to look up once more.

Moma turned to me. “Do you remember much about your grandfather?” I pursed my lips and shook my head.

“He makes his living repairing broken electronic equipment. It’s an honored profession, finding new life for things that would otherwise end up as trash.” The words from the Landing Charter that we’d memorized in school came back to me as she chanted softly,

“Risk not the mistakes

of our ancient ancestors,

toxins in their blood,

driven from a polluted homeland

upon a despoiled New Mars.”

I nodded. “I’d like to learn to do that.”

“Much of what he works on comes from the cities. Of course, here in the towns, we only get whatever the rich are done with.” Moma sighed.

“And so, the city’s trash becomes our treasures,” I recalled the words from school. Many businesses thrived on repairing and refurbishing dross passed on by the wealthier city-zens, preparing them for resale to the poorer townsfolk. It seemed unfair, but then, didn’t our distant ancestors, the brave colonists, cross the starry desert because they had also been mistreated back on New Mars?

The train stopped briefly several times. When I next woke, I noticed that our car had acquired new faces, a heavy-set woman with reddish cheeks holding a curly-haired toddler. I smiled, remembering Jeran at that age, how he had loved nothing better than sneaking into my room to snuggle against the cold.

A tired-looking woman poked her head into our car, offering food for sale. I looked hopefully at Moma. She nodded, searching in her bag for coins to buy a couple of rolls and guaranas. When I noticed the young boy eyeing my food, I passed him half of my roll. He chewed with his mouth open, a crooked smile that warmed my heart. I motioned for him to sit near me, and taught him hand motions for a game of Quartets. I let him win most of the rounds, same as I did for Jeran. The boy eventually tired, returning to his mother.

I watched my breath condense on the window’s grimy surface. Wiping away the drops, I could see my reflection in the glass. Not entirely pleased with what I saw, I tucked a few limp brownish strands behind my ears. I stared into my own gray eyes, imagining what I would look like if I had Moma’s perfect skin and gleaming golden hair.

Here the tracks paralleled the coastline, and I glimpsed the ocean, an expanse of blue-green stretching endlessly to the horizon. Moma pointed.

“The Sea of Pakhara. Do you remember when we came here? And you played in the sand, trying to catch crabs and corgas?”

I nodded, but I could barely recall such a visit. Digging into the depths of memory, I conjured the scent of salty air, the squawks of vividly colored seabirds squabbling for food, and the gritty feel of sand between my toes, as we caught crabs that scuttled sideways across the beach. There was Moma, and… someone else. I rubbed the scar on my left arm, trying to remember.

“Was Papa here with us?” I blurted out.

Moma shook her head, and turned aside, seemingly far away in a world that didn’t include me. When she was in such a mood, she could go for hours without speaking.

I was amused by the non-stop chattering of the woman sharing our cabin, as she entertained her toddler. She pointed toward the busy port of Arnat, and I realized we had left our province and everything I knew behind. How I longed to see such a modern city! I’d heard of the many marvels city-zens possessed. But the train skirted the center, with its ten-story towers off in the distance.

“Over there, you can just glimpse the merchant ships from Priam. And there—huge steel freighters loading and unloading cargo,” she pointed out. I caught sight of giant bird-like cranes, their long necks pivoting back and forth, with nets suspended from cables. I looked toward the horizon for distant and exotic lands, as I listened to our fellow traveler tell her young son stories of swashbuckling pirates at sea…

I covered my ears against the squealing of brakes as a scratchy voice over the loudspeaker announced, “Border stop ahead. All passengers must show valid identification.” I saw soldiers boarding before the train restarted.

Blue-uniformed guards entered our car, bearing golden insignia I’d never seen before. Doniran soldiers, I realized.

Moma handed over our papers, which they studied carefully, peering at our faces, before finally passing them back.

“A few more refugees, sure, let’s suck in our guts and make room for all of ‘em,” joked one of the soldiers, as they moved on to the next cabin. My face burned with shame.

I tucked my hands in my pockets for warmth and fingered the medallion, cold to the touch. I shouldn’t have taken this from the Shaozens. Perhaps I should have turned it in. Did that make me a criminal? I didn’t want Moma to see what I had kept from the Shaozens.

Turning it over and over in my hand, the coin gradually warmed from my touch. Thoughts of the Shaozens filled my head. I closed my eyes, as that brutal day replayed, the enforcers roughly pushing the couple to the ground, then those terrible gunshots. I shivered, wondering what had happened to Pier. How sad he must be, to hear that his parents had been killed. Murdered.  And once again, I wondered why. So much that I didn’t understand.

Now I got my first glimpses of Donira. On and on stretched farmlands with the stubble of autumn crops sleeping under a light dusting of snow, orchards crisscrossed with bare-branched trees, and occasional domed structures that I took to be houses. I was fascinated by gigantic vehicles with arched arms, mechanical monsters resting in the fields. We passed villages where children ran alongside, waving at the passing train. I wondered what it would be like to work a farm, plowing the fields, gathering fresh guaranas and vujans from the orchards.

The train lurched forward, then stopped abruptly. There seemed to be some commotion by the tracks. A man perched high upon a barn roof stood, pointing. Farmers and children alike sprung into action, raising pikes and gathering torches.

“Balls! Big balls!” The curly-haired tot exclaimed, jumping up onto the seat.

Standing to see better, I glimpsed a horde of huge opalescent spheres rolling ever closer toward the croplands. I gasped, fascinated.

“Pyotlas.” The boy’s mother gritted her teeth. “Those damn parasites’ll clear the fields in no time. My family lost many a harvest to those gruesome pests. And it gets worse every year.”

“But they’re beautiful!” I exclaimed, watching rainbow colors speckle across the iridescent balls. When they reached a tall fence, the globes piled up, forming a ramp with their bodies. The next spheres simply rolled over the others and effortlessly cleared the barrier.

The train jerked forward, and we passed through field after field that had been mown clean by the spherical creatures, leaving nothing but bare stalks.

“Beautiful but deadly,” Moma whispered. “Thank goodness the government is trying to eradicate them.”

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