Aloveda trudged along the narrow path, hungry and hopeless. Even the delicate yellow flowers on the yen shrub failed to console her. The blooms would fall off with the next freeze and leave the shrub barren of fruit again this season. Since the shrinking of the small moon, the season of abundance had gradually become shorter and the season of famine had become colder and longer. With the depletion of food, their weakened bodies were susceptible to pestilence. Their tribe was down to a mere 122 men, women and children. Even so, they had apparently fared better than other tribes.
She had led the Velez tribe further south, expecting to join the Carinia tribe, but they had found an empty village and a vast cemetery of fresh graves. They had continued south but saw no evidence that anyone had passed that way. It was possible that the survivors had gone north to join them. If so, they too, would find an empty village and a vast cemetery of fresh graves. If they followed the trail left by Aloveda’s tribe when they abandoned their village, they would find more graves.
Aloveda was too young to remember, but the two remaining Velez elders spoke of a time when their ancestors had suffered through a long season of cold and starvation. She valued their experience. Sometimes the responsibility of leadership overwhelmed her. It had been hers since her father died. Her mother had died shortly afterward and her only sibling had succumbed to illness before the cold season finally relinquished its relentless hold.
The incessant cold alone had not driven them to abandon their village and seek refuge in a cave. Something much more disturbing had happened.
On a particularly frigid day, their village had been visited by strange beings. They wore masks on their faces, so the only thing visible was their eyes which, unlike the Velez, were different colors and shapes. A flexible appendage, like that of the javis beast, extended from their masks to a hump on their backs. They were swaddled in thick layers of a strange puffy hide. It was difficult to determine what they looked like under all that. Their appearance was strange enough, but the sounds that came from their masks were nothing less than bizarre. The elders had never seen any tribe that made noises or dressed the way those beings did.
The strange beings went away, only to return later. Again they tried to communicate. They were probably looking for food, but the Velez had nothing to spare. After several of these disturbing visits, the Velez abandoned their village. They never saw the strange beings after that. They may have starved or died of disease like the Velez.
Since the shrinking of the second moon, smoke often drifted over them. Apparently there was a large fire somewhere. Sometimes the ground shook under their feet. On days that the smoke was thicker, flakes of ash would rain down on them, covering the ground. They suspected the fading moon had something to do with the situation, but they had no idea how to cope with their current hardship.
The trail Aloveda followed ended at the lip of a canyon. From the center of the canyon, far to the south, a tall thin piece of rock reached for the clouds. The top of the rock was pierced by a large hole. It looked like the bone tools they used to join their hide clothing.
South of there was the land of her ancestors. The tall spire of rock was still used in the symbol for their tribe. Before she was born, their tribe had moved north, where game and water were more plentiful.
Like much of the terrain they had crossed in their trek south, the canyon had sparse vegetation. That resulted in less game. They might have to leave their cave and move farther south. No one in her tribe had knowledge of the land to the south. If anyone had explored deep into the desert, they had long ago taken that information with them to the grave. Maybe the beings lived in the desert.
She turned back toward the cave, dejected. What good were her hunting skills when there was no game? As she turned, a flash of white caught her eye. She stopped, lifting the bow from her shoulder, and pulled an arrow from the quiver hanging on her back. She waited, almost afraid to breathe.
After a long silence, she heard a twig snap. Something was moving out there! She notched the arrow and pulled it back in preparation to fire. When the antelope stepped out of the brush, it lifted its head. She had learned to overcome compassion by focusing on a clean kill. She released the arrow and it flew through the air in a slight wobble. It struck the antelope as it snorted and started to run. The animal only ran a few steps before its legs buckled. She approached it cautiously until she was certain it was dead. Then she wrestled the animal to her shoulders and staggered back down the trail to the cave. The future might be bleak, but they would not sleep hungry tonight.
This was his first real mission and Renaldo Valdez hadn’t impressed anyone – least of all, himself. As a linguistics specialist, he had been expected to find a pattern to the language spoken by the natives on planet Quay. Maybe he could, if he could hear it. The natives refused to talk to him. His last visit had revealed the startling fact that the natives had abandoned their village. His persistence had deprived them of their comfortable homes and sent them out into the wilderness in winter weather. Their disappearance had brought a halt to his part in the Fontalo mission.
The Fontalo spaceship, Fomax, had been docked near Quay for months, exploring the effects as one of its two moons left the gravitational pull of the planet and drifted away. On one of their trips to the planet, they had been shocked to discover it inhabited by what they believed to be humans.
When they were unsuccessful in communicating with the Quay natives, Fontalo had searched for a linguistic specialist. Renaldo had been fortunate enough to be serving on the nearest spaceship, so they had borrowed him. Now they were searching for someone with more experience and a better track record. He couldn’t blame them, but he could hardly be blamed for not communicating with uncooperative people.
As a child, Renaldo’s mother had once sent him to find the stick she would whip him with for his bad behavior. This felt much the same. Fontalo had sent him to planet Opus, where a spaceship had been requested to take him to planet Arcane. There he was supposed to enlist the assistance of a man named Donte.
Renaldo was familiar with the name. Who wasn’t? According to Fontalo, Donte was some kind of linguistic genius. He’d better be more than that if he intended to communicate with the Quay natives.
While he waited on Opus for the departure of spaceship Pictor, Renaldo had sought the advice of a person who had actually worked with Donte - General Richards. Donte was a Mascot, a creature created by Fontalo using the natives of Arcane. Hundreds of years ago, Fontalo had illegally contaminated some natives of Arcane with animal genes to create a superior human. The purpose for the Mascots had been to guide and protect the new colonists of Purlieu. Renaldo had never seen a Mascot, much less worked with one. He had seen pictures and read about them. He was looking forward to meeting them, but he wanted to have some idea of what he could expect. He had talked to Marlin, a congresswoman on Opus who had been trapped in an underground chamber with Donte during the exploration of Opus. She had insisted that Mascots were no different than anyone else - and then she had proceeded to describe things they were able to do that indicated they were decidedly different. The fact that Mascots lived hundreds of years indicated that they were vastly different than people from planet Oriel. Marlin even admitted that Donte said Mascots were not human. Donte had skills beyond most Mascots. Renaldo needed more relevant information – like, how to work with him.
Renaldo was impressed when the busy general rescheduled a trip so he could talk to him. He met the general in the government building at Delaney, the main colony on Opus.
When General Richards entered the room, Renaldo stood. The general was a big man with graying red-orange hair that clashed with a crisp red uniform. As the general extended a beefy hand, cool gray eyes assessed him.
“I cannot stay long, but I wanted to give you a little advice when you negotiate with Donte.”
“I appreciate that. I understand you worked with him for a while.”
General Richards gave him a curt nod. “He assisted us willingly enough, but be careful. He will take over your mission if you let him. You have to set him straight from the start, and give him as little information as possible. It will not be easy, but deal with him alone. He has an excellent crew – especially the Premier Infantry – but no one will challenge him.”
Renaldo nodded. “I’ve heard he has a history of not following orders.”
“Yes, he creates his own rules as he works and he has the power to back them up. Purlieu is afraid of him and he has Fontalo in his pocket.”
“Hmmm. I heard he was kind and generous.”
The general snorted. “He can be – when he wants something. He knows what to say and how to say it, but don’t let it fool you. He is a strict disciplinarian.”
“I’ve heard that the Premier Infantry is efficient.”
“Yes, they are the most effective infantry I have ever seen. They are well trained, but they are loyal to Donte. They will do anything he asks.”
“Do you think they are afraid of him?”
The general looked thoughtful, as if that possibility had never crossed his mind. Finally he shrugged. “No. Perhaps they are under the influence of his pheromones.”
Renaldo had heard about the pheromones Mascots produced. The intent was to make the colonists feel comfortable about letting them rule. Apparently that worked well enough, although it produced a side-effect, keeping the Mascots from growing facial hair. Maybe the pheromones worked on the colonists of Purlieu, but most of the Lyra crew were Mascots. Why would Donte’s pheromones affect his men if theirs didn’t affect him?
He hadn’t come here to argue with General Richards. What he wanted was information on how to approach Donte.
They talked for a little longer and when General Richards left, Renaldo sat in the room alone for a long time, thinking about the situation. He didn’t like the idea of approaching Donte the way General Richards indicated was necessary – especially when he wanted his assistance. His gut told him what General Richards suggested was wrong, but dealing with a Mascot might be different. General Richards seemed to think so. The general certainly had some strong feelings about it, and he had made a special trip to warn him. Since Renaldo had never worked with a Mascot, he should follow the general’s advice.
Donte had been a central figure in the colonizing of Opus. Currently, he was supreme commander of the research and rescue ship, Lyra. He was in his 70’s, but that was young for a Mascot. Many of the Mascots born on Purlieu were now living at the base on Arcane. That suggested a reluctance to mingle with the people from Oriel. According to the general, Donte had displayed more compassion for the apes of Opus than the humans colonizing it.
Donte had been the ruler of Bergen, a colony on Purlieu, for over 30 years. Since then, he had been involved in missions on Opus and Arcane. Renaldo could appreciate Donte’s experience in working with different cultures and languages. As supreme commander of the Lyra, it was said that he had never turned down a mission.
Renaldo sighed as he stood. He needed to follow the advice of the only person he knew who had actually worked with Donte - General Richards. His personal instinct on how to handle the situation didn’t involve any experience with Mascots.