Useful Things #13
The bi-pad flyer seated two. Rasvim sat uneasily beside Majak, unsure whether he should be watching the undulating, sparsely wooded ground toward which they were sinking or Majak’s expert manipulation of the controls. He somehow managed to do both.
He and the Aeth had spoken little after a single question had confirmed Rasvim didn’t know what his planet looked like from the sky. The maps he’d seen as a child didn’t perfectly match what he saw from the air. He only ventured that he thought the big river they crossed might be called “Mississippi,” a word Majak found interesting enough to repeat.
A word like Kansas. A word for a river that now bore another name.
The bi-pad braked and drifted down onto a stretch of flat land, raising tiny swirls of dust and debris as its landing gear found solid footing. The flyer’s jointed legs bent like those of a grasshopper. Three larger aircraft landed behind them as the canopy raised. Rasvim followed Majak’s example in climbing out of their craft.
The land was not flat, as he had thought the west would be. Neither was it mountainous. Hills rolled gently nearby, but there were few trees.
“I want to show you something,” Majak said.
Aethi from the other vehicles, Urhal and his soldiers, followed as Majak led the way and Rasvim followed. Urhal grumbled something about an unplanned stop. When they climbed a steep rise, Rasvim stumbled because the shoes Alaksu had given him were adapted from Aeth footwear and fit poorly. Majak’s three long fingers grasped him by the arm and helped him stay upright. When Rasvim glanced up with surprise and gratitude, he saw only concern looking back. The way the Aeth—not just Majak but all of them—moved with such ease in natural surroundings alarmed him. He remembered being hunted.
“What did I tell you?” Urhal grunted. “They are dull and clumsy.”
Rasvim flushed. He wasn’t clumsy, just badly shod. That and being among so many of the aliens spooked him. He was glad when the Aethi running up from the rear spread out in defensive formations and left only Majak at his side. When they topped the rise, the land fell away again toward a place where two rivers met, rivers much smaller than the Mississippi—smaller even than the Ohio, the big river Rasvim had sometimes watched as a child on the lookout for poachers. But there were no boats or poachers to be seen here.
There was a burn. A burn that stretched as far as he could see.
Reaching into his jacket, Majak pulled out a map—a human map, yellowed and fragile, printed on paper.
“This is Kansas,” Majak said, indicating where the map, indeed, said exactly that. Kansas City. He pointed to the rivers and the burn. “The criminals who found your planet first targeted your cities. They harvested what they wanted quickly. First they used sonic displacers to drive humans out, those who would leave. Those were enough. The rest died when a particle net was cast over the city and detonated by plasma cannon.”
The city had been vaporized, along with all the humans left in it. Rasvim tried to imagine the event. When he was seven, his father had brought home a visitor, an old woman who had seen Pittsburgh dissolve before her very eyes. The sky, she said, had screamed for three days until the Aeth had finally turned the city to foundations and ash.
“And there,” said Majak, his voice softening as he pointed to the bottom of the hill, “was their killing ground.”
Skulls lay everywhere like pebbles. Aeth had no use for brains or viscera. They craved meat and blood. The usual process for preparing a human carcass was to remove the head and discard it. How long had a processing unit sat on that ground, rendering meat and spitting out heads?
Something fluttered in one of the low-growing trees and Rasvim moved toward it. He had to edge down the hill partway, but when he reached the tree and looked back, he saw Majak doing nothing more than watching him. No orders for him to return or for some other of the aliens to get him. Just watching and maybe thinking, his large eyes filled with what might be empathy.
For humans? Or for him? Rasvim tore his attention away and reached for the faded cloth he had seen from the rise. The fabric was tattered and burned. There might have been a fire here once. Even nature lit fires where there were things to burn. He lifted the cloth and turned it over in his hands. Demin. Maybe the back pocket of a pair of jeans. He opened the button flap and pulled out slim metal card case holding what was left of a deck that had burned mostly to ash. He took one and shook loose black flakes as he climbed back up the hill to where Majak stood waiting.
“Did you find something?”
Rasvim showed him. “A card. An ace of spades.” Realizing he had spoken human words, he stopped.
“A card,” Majak said. He lifted an eyebrow at the word Rasvim had chosen. The Aeth played card games, though their cards looked very different.
Rasvim took a breath, then continued. “We… humans, we play games too.”
Majak’s sigh blended with the land’s quiet desolation. “When I look at this”—he gazed again upon the burned place where a city had stood—“I am reminded that opportunity is fragile and easily ruined. I will never countenance what was done here. And I will strive never to do what those criminals did.”
“You haven’t destroyed humans.” From what Enir had said and he had seen himself, Rasvim believed this.
The alien’s nostrils flared. “I haven’t,” he said. Then he glanced down at Rasvim. “And I don’t want to start with you.”
(Continue to next chapter...)
(Continue to next chapter...)
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