An occupation government on a backwater desert world investigates a series of ritual murders at the foot of an ancient monument half-buried in sand. Is it a sacrifice to the aliens who live inside? Or has this been covered up for decades to hide an insurgency that spans species and worlds?
Between red sunlight and the green shimmering clouds of night, now would be a good time to sneak out of town, when day shifted to that murmuring cold of the auroras. No one would know he had passed by their street, their home.
His naked footprints in the blue beige dust were swiftly blurred away, a storm was whispering in from the north. He had little time left.
Nor would they see where he was going. He hoped. It was never dark on Tetrahedra. But when the light was muddled everyone stayed indoors, shutters were drawn. It gave most people headaches and nausea even if you’d been born to it like Ameyallẹ.
He thought he saw a door open and then close, mere footsteps away, but it was probably a trick of adrenalin.
Or a mark on the glass.
Weeks ago, he had found a cracked welding mask in a midden of broken things piled in an empty hangar of the old factory. Because of that junk and its darkened visor he could bear the evening clash of colours and move quickly where and when others dared not.
As he steeple-chased over the fences of the terraced habs along the west wall of Yayauhqui’s garage, the bucket-like mask was the only thing on him. It was not so strange for the rich in the rainforest island peaks on Cuauhtinchan, but here nakedness was only for the poor and the unemployed. Now everyone on Tetrahedra was poor, but he had been born poor.
He had to be careful not to snag his bare thighs on the wire of each jump. But he was lank and a third-generation colonist, and had spring in his stride, here on Tetrahedra there was a tiny fraction of lower gravity than humans had evolved for.
His leaps were aided by a metal staff, he called it his ‘stick’. His stick made him feel like the ancient mountain pilgrims of Cuauhtinchan, the ones he had read about, climbing sheer rock faces like goats to the summit of a golden yaccata.
The stick wasn’t really a weapon, not that a real weapon would be any good if he got caught, but it gave him courage, or pride. His stick was not made of graceful branching wood, there were no trees on Tetrahedra; it was two pipes fused together doubled alongside each other at the centre. The head was a crook of some sort topped with a corroded valve. It looked vaguely magical to him.
He had cleared the last of the back streets now. He sprinted across the open ground into the shadow of Antennae Ridge. From here, breathless, he could walk, too far from the edge of the town to need be careful any longer.
After an hour, the red day was gone and the green night locked the sky, bolted down by the rivets of stars in the moving black fringes. He raised the visor on the welding mask, with his naked eye he could make out the frighteningly bright lights of the newly landed soldiers in the far distance.
They were still making camp, he might be able to get close enough. His heart thumped. But it wasn’t for fear of getting caught by his neighbours nor spotted by the recently arrived armed police. It was knowing -no, not knowing -it was fearing- if his mother would be there.
He knew that this time there had been 13 victims. And she hadn’t been home these three days. And Thagiri told the townsfolk not to talk to him. So, no-one dared look him in the eye at all. All accept Thagiri, he stared at him like a Cuauhtinchan hawk. And Ameyallẹ stared back like a little wide-eyed smiling mongoose. It would take a hundred Thagiris to keep him in his place. Oh, he’d keep silent of course. No one expected he wouldn’t and that’s what kept him alive. They only killed out of necessity, it was said. But he would never bow down. Made little difference if it was his own mother lying there hacked up in the metallic dust.
He ditched the welding mask and pelted out a full sprint, he weaved between the searchlights until he was under their arc of observation. He huddled down, his silvery skin merging with the dust. A pair of Cuauhtinchan soldiers -Miliţ or the police, or whatever they called themselves, were talking about how to assemble the fence, they looked his way but they saw nothing.
Ameyallẹ smiled, holding his breath. He could have been a rainforest huntsman like his ancestors.
It would be dawn soon, he hadn’t long left. He had heard Thagiri say the Miliţ hadn’t moved the bodies yet. But that was hours ago, still, these were the Miliţ, the sleepers. It took a hundred men of them a week to do anything. So they say. He’d never seen so many guns or black armoured shapes in his young life. Nor had he been this close to even one soldier, there was no garrison in Rally. Well, there would be now. Cuauhtinchan couldn’t ignore this kind of death toll.
He hadn’t much time left.
When the pair of black-clad police turned their backs, he dashed parallel to the fence they were still lazily erecting, most of the sections were laid flat in the dust waiting to be raised. Others were already electrified. He bolted around the right angle of the fenced-off crime scene. He was close now. He could see the strange lumps of pale carcass on the ground. Like bits of pig. He couldn’t make out any real recognisable human form, it was just remains of slaughter to him. He stopped at a section of fence that was still face down, he used his pole -the stick- and gave his best leap to vault over its razor net. He landed squarely in the midst of the dead bodies. Was one of these lifeless faces hers? He stretched out two bony shaking hands to what seemed like the back of a woman’s head. A bare neck tattooed and painted, jade and topaz ear-piercings. Was it her?
Two black boots stamped down on his hands before he could lay a finger on the severed head.
A heavy Cuauhtinchan accent told him: “If you run, you will be shot.”
The boy looked up into the man’s face, as defiant as if it were Thagiri himself. Whatever he felt, it didn’t matter anymore- the Miliţ had him now. His foot-prints had already faded away in the wind, a storm was whispering at him from the north. These soldiers had no idea what they had just done. He could have saved them.